Secret Desires Pt. 07bymadam_noe©
In the morning they were all grumpy. Aiden had tried to wake her to join in his morning jog, but Shannon buried herself deeper in the bed wanting to avoid reality. Breakfast had been in the room and tense on her end. For the amount of glaring between Nick and Aiden when they'd returned the night before they certainly seemed chummy.
It was all supposed to be fun and games, so why did she feel it was a competition and yet somehow they were a team? She tried to keep her mind on the case but it wandered. Aiden hadn't found anything useful except a hit on a gas card of Mingham's that had him in New Orleans two days earlier, but more charges had him back in Natchitoches. The date in New Orleans coincided with his weekly meet up with Parker, but that didn't mean they had a handle on where he was beyond his mistress.
After all the waiting, the total amount of clues the FBI had on the Belladonna killer were zilch. They couldn't even figure out where he got the Belladonna.
Even as they dressed, packed, and headed out to find Mingham's mistress her mind wouldn't focus. Suzie was all right, she had to believe that, and the night before weighed most heavily on her mind. Aiden, the old lover, and Nick the forbidden fruit. Messing around with them was madness but her body completely disagreed. She needed a leg up on them, she just had to figure it out.
By their third stop everyone was frustrated. No one was home at Mingham's or the mistress' apartment, so they'd tracked down a neighbor at the gym.
"Well cher?" Nick asked Shannon as she emerged from the strip mall anchor into the hot afternoon sun.
"Neighbor says she left early this morning, bags packed. Looked like enough for a week and she asked her to water her plants."
"Shit. Mingham's mistress is gone, no one's at his home, and now his secretary is gone. This doesn't bode well," Aiden said.
Nick nodded. "Best get the word out on dem."
"Mingham might be in New Orleans too. He might be after Suzie and Parker, or he might be with them. We need to go there."
Nick nodded even as Aiden was on his cell phone, calling the info in. "Dis is disturbing. Not many cases raise more questions than answers as you go along."
"That's because everyone involved is missing and so are the records. All right, Nick, why don't you go talk to the police here in town. I want to make use of Shannon's talents."
The Cajun raised a dark brow, and Aiden grinned back at them both, turning the car towards the police station. "I want more information on this mistress Georgia Pinchot and I'm not quite right for gossip."
Shannon sighed. "The mistress is probably a dead lead, but I'll see what I can do."
They pulled up to the station and parked, Nick alighting first. "All right. Meet back here in an hour, homme?"
Aiden nodded and grabbed Shannon's hand as they stepped out. "Sounds good. So where do we start?"
They looked at her expectantly as she racked her brain. "A mistress would have to keep herself groomed. We should start with the nicest salon in town."
He looked down at his Tulane shirt and jeans and her slightly more tailored maroon t-shirt and trouser style jeans. "We dressed right?"
"It's the south, c'mon."
They started at a donut shop and got the name of a salon a short walk away on the east end of town by where the houses were larger, the yards wider, and Mingham's monstrosity sat. Aiden volunteered to play the doting boyfriend and pay for her to get something done, and Shannon went in choosing a manicure, the easiest salon procedure to talk over.
"That's one fine man y'got there," the technician said by way of greeting.
Sighing, Shannon forced a smile. "He's a handful."
"So what are we doing today?" The redhead asked, leading her back to one of the two stations in the bright little salon.
"Manicure, just clear polish. Color chips too easily."
"Work with y'hands, do you sweetie? Well how about a nice French manicure, I guarantee no chipping."
"Let me think about it for a moment."
"All right have a seat. We'll soak, do a paraffin wax treatment, and I'll clean those cuticles and trim. When we're done tell me your decision."
"Thanks. I'm glad I came here. My cousin's friend Georgia recommended it."
"Georgia Pinchot? Really?" The technician whose nametag read NIKKI snorted as she pulled out a pan for soaking. "That woman is a princess and we're her servants. It's all airs, but I'm sure you know that."
"Well actually I don't know much about her. I lied, actually my cousin from Opelousas met her at a party and now Miss Pinchot wants to hire me to redo her apartment."
Nikki snorted. "The money might be good, but run like hell. That Pinchot girl is a heap a trouble. Here, the wax is heated up." She dried off Shannon's left hand and dipped it into the warm wax.
"You keep saying trouble. How much trouble can one spoiled bitch be?"
Looking left and right Nikki leaned in to stage whisper. "Do you remember the Piementes?" Shannon shook her head at that, feigning ignorance. With a sigh, Nikki pulled her hand up to let the wax dry and continued. "They came from up north, tried to move into New Orleans. Not much room there, so they hit on an old idea. Drugs, flown in small planes, dropped right into the bayou. Men with skiffs and boats would collect it, get it to the highway. Only the bayou 'round here is pretty carved up, patches been in families for generations.
"So they tried buyin' up land, but folks wouldn't sell. Then they started disappearin'. Went on until the FBI caught up with them a couple years back. Gio Piemente was a made man, a real higher-up. Georgia's his daughter."
It took all Shannon had to sit through the rest of the manicure though she kept it to clear polish to save time. They had their connection between Mingham and the Piementes, and she could only hope Aiden or Nick could figure out just what it meant. From Nikki she got a description and the suggestion that Georgia was in New Orleans, at her favorite hotel, the Maison Dupuy. Jonathon Parker's favorite hotel to stay with his wife at. Bells were ringing left and right and she fidgeted through the rest of the manicure, demanding clear polish only.
When Aiden returned to pay Nick came with him, and nearly every tongue in the salon rolled out. Nick was in supreme bad boy mode, his navy t-shirt tight on his skin and his shoulder holster over it, hooked into his belt, his inky black hair loose to his shoulders. It didn't escape Shannon's notice that the combination of the All-American male and the perennial bad boy was irresistible to every woman with a pulse.
"Both? Lucky you, sweetie," Nikki whispered with a wink as they turned to leave, Shannon blushing as they stepped out into the early afternoon sun.
"Nick, you drive, Aiden, get your phone out and call your friend in New Orleans." They climbed in the waiting SUV as directed and Shannon took the front passenger seat, sharing what she'd learned.
Mingham dating the daughter of a high ranking member of the Piemente organization was a good connection, but none of them could guess at the meaning. So they filed it away as they headed out of town.
It was agreed they would drive to New Orleans, a long, boring prospect, but it was the next step. Nick had some insight on Mingham, a man who'd come to town twenty years before with no relatives, no past, and no clue as to how he got his money. His land deals were always shady, corners were cut, officials bribed, and he rotated working crews and investors like clockwork. He had the earmarks of being a disposal man for the family, except there had never been a connection between them, and most bodies left by the family became gator bait.
His usual hotel in New Orleans was by the convention center, no old Garden District charm for him, and they agreed to drive there even after Aiden had his friend stake out the lobby.
The files he'd pulled added a few background details, but nothing to help them. He concentrated on explaining the history of the Piementes, a family into drugs, and never land deals. Every last one was in jail except for the head, protected by all the others, and the Belladonna Killer, their bag man also never been caught. Since the trials there had been no such killings until Finnegan the lawyer.
Nick called in for an order in to get the ME to dig up and analyze the one nursing home resident who'd died and he also put a protection detail on Adele, keeping his deputies busy.
They opted to stop for gas at a station with a deli attached, and had a late lunch picnic style off the road. It was then when they had no road to look at and no new revelations on the case to discuss that Shannon began to feel uncertain again. In twenty four hours she had enjoyed both men. They seemed to know, but no one said anything. She'd never done anything so wild in her life, and she had no clue how to act. Stranger yet, the terseness that had settled over the men the night before seemed gone, replaced with playful camaraderie.
They talked of funny stories that had come in the years that she had been gone. Shannon laughed at many as she ate her sandwich and chips, but several made her sad. They spoke of old lovers and she felt a flash of jealousy that made no sense. She knew she had no claim on them, just as she wanted no claim on her, but the thought of any other woman experiencing Aiden's forceful tenderness and Nick's raw passion set her teeth on edge.
When the meal was done they packed the garbage into a bag, and Nick lit a cigarillo, not allowed to smoke in the car. Aiden and Shannon settled onto their backs, watching clouds roll past in the blazing heat, joking about shapes. Their troubles disappeared as even Nick joined in, naming clouds for teachers they'd disliked or celebrities that made them snicker.
Nick finished his smoke and laid down on her other side, both men's feet in the opposite direction of hers. They fit well and she found herself comfortable, something that surprised her.
"Dat one looks like a tree," Nick drawled, trailing a finger along her arm. Blushing, Shannon murmured agreement.
Aiden was quiet for a moment until a fluffy cloud pressed flat rolled by. "And that looks like a bed."
He turned and she was shocked to feel his lips press softly to her shoulder. Shannon gasped as she felt Nick do the same. Heart pounding her body demanded she stay and enjoy, but her mind reached a fever pitch of confusion.
Their hands moved, fingers innocent, but even a graze on her hip or caress on her shoulder felt decadent and wicked. She moaned and heard them both respond and her eyes jerked open.
Shooting t her feet she smoothed her clothes, stalling to quiet her heartbeat. "It's, ah, getting...late, we should get moving."
They both sat twisting to look at her, squinting into the sun. "If that's how you feel," Aiden drawled. Nick just gave her a predatory look that made Shannon shiver in the hot sun.
She jerked a nod, grabbed their bag and stalked off to the car, waiting there impatiently.
They took their time, Aiden carrying the blanket, laughing together like old friends. If she gave in, if she followed through on what almost happened, would that change? Was it fair for her to indulge in an old fantasy, then skip town and leave them to sort it out? And how could they be so damn cavalier about this when it was tearing her up inside?
"I'm driving," she growled by way of greeting.
Aiden gave her an assessing glance, his blue eyes giving nothing away as he tossed her the keys. She caught them deftly and unlocked the car, climbing in. She was tall but they were blasted giants and it took her a few minutes to get the steering wheel, seat, and mirrors into place.
"Cher," Nick grumbled from the backseat when she adjusted the rearview for the third time. "Time's a wastin'."
She floored and gravel spit as the car fishtailed back onto the highway. It jerked them all back, and she turned on the radio, Garth Brooks drowning anything else they might have said out as he sang about thunder rolling.
Shannon drove them all the way to New Orleans without saying a word.
"Here are the logs," the clerk behind the desk at the Marriot said with a smile. She was slickly professional in her suit but her eyes told a tale of exhaustion that was filled in by all the high schoolers whooping and hollering around the lobby, there for some convention.
"Mr. Mingham checked out early this morning but did make plenty of calls. Most of those are local."
Aiden rolled his neck. "Has the room been cleaned?"
The clerk clacked on the keyboard for a moment. "Yes Special Agent, nothing added to the lost and found. I can call the maid, she went off shift an hour ago."
"Yes, thank you. We're going to need a room."
"Shannon, I have to check into the field office. Nick can look over the calls, but it's getting late, it's already dinnertime. We'll be staying here, may as well wait and see if Mingham resurfaces."
"Cher, he's right. We need a base of operations, so to speak."
"I have just one room available, but it's a double, two queen beds. Sorry, the convention center is pretty booked up this week, three conventions are in town."
"We'll take it." Aiden slapped his credit card down even as Shannon's nerves swam to the surface. Another night, another room, the three of them...she fought down brief panic.
Nick pulled her aside, his dark looks clashing with the explosion of energetic youth all around them. He read her body language, the scan wasn't lascivious at all. "Cher, we're going to be busy. Why don't you take a walk, relax, enjoy the sights. Give us an hour or two to catch up."
Sighing in relief she nodded. "No need for the process server, hunh? All right. Miss, what's around here?"
The clerk rattled off a list of attractions, but ended with adding there was a pool on the roof, and the high school students were only allowed to use it in daylight. She programmed their keys and at the gleam in Shannon's eyes she mentioned a good shop for swimsuits just around the corner.
They each took a key and Nick offered to take up the bags, leaving Aiden and Shannon free. He was out the door glued to his cell phone and she was left standing there.
"Miss, if you don't mind my saying, is this really work?"
Shannon blinked and turned back to the clerk. "What?"
She smiled. "I notice they're cops and you never said if you were. I can tell you're not."
"We're looking for my cousin. She disappeared."
"I'm sorry to hear that. As I said, Mingham was alone. What does your cousin look like?"
"Five-six, blond, curvaceous, but thin. As much as I hate to say it, three miles of bad road."
"I'll keep my eyes out. If you're not involved with either of those boys I am real sorry about the room, but we're real booked up. The room I gave you was reserved but the family that reserved it hasn't checked in. If y'all weren't law enforcement I wouldn't have given it away."
"Um, thanks." The clerk wanted to say something, but seemed hesitant. Sighing again, Shannon stepped back to the desk. "What is it?"
"They were eyeing you real heavy. If you want to keep it business, keep your mind on the game, lead them by the nose."
"Show them who's boss. Working this desk I see all kinds, and I like to think I know human nature. Show them who's boss."
"Everybody's a critic," Shannon grumbled and walked out. One thing she hadn't missed about the south was that friendliness that spilled over into nobody minding their own business.
It was good to be home.
One hour later she hit the water and the world melted away. In Chicago she had Lake Michigan, if during the ninety or so days it was warm enough and the bacteria level was low, but she hadn't swum much. As a child in the bayou the water had been her second home, sticking to the few spots free of gators.
Pools were much better and it was second nature. She dove into the small deep end and glided through. It was dinner time and the pool was nearly empty, only her and a young harried looking mother trying to teach her toddler how to swim in the shallow end haunted the water.
"Dat's a nice suit," she heard drawled behind her as she surfaced for a turn.
Nick crouched by the water, bad boy grin on full display. The mother caught sight him, gun naked in the holster, and scurried out with child wailing.
Treading water Shannon resisted the urge to look down. Something had possessed her to by a bikini, though she had gone for one designed for swimming and not sunbathing. Still, it bared a lot of skin and even through the water his eyes roved over her body.
The heat she saw there warmed her and she found herself gliding to the edge, grasping it, and leveraging herself up. He caught her in a kiss, hand on her cheek, and it was hot, hard, and deep. Again she tasted smoke, beer, and that deeper spice that was pure Nick.
He let her go and she laid back into the water, still clutching the edge. The blazing heat in those green eyes was unmistakable. "We got only a little time, come on back to da room, cher. Aiden will be along soon."
His voice was deep but even and his face gave nothing away. Heart pounding she swam to the ladder and climbed out, looking for her towel. "I am going to dinner. I'm going to do what I do best, and I'm going to do it alone."
He stood then, towering over her in his boots as he folded his arms. "And what's dat, cher?"
"I'm going to ask questions."
Feeling like a coward, she ran back to the room, the bag with her clothes in one hand, his key in her other.
Dinner had been great. Evelyn's Place was a dive bar with good food, and she knew if Suzie had been anywhere near that neighborhood she would have gone there. The owner sitting on Chartres and the staff hadn't seen her. Still she enjoyed her muffalata and red beans & rice, polishing down two cheap beers. She'd tried talking to other patrons but too often it had been read as flirting and by her third time rebuffing advances she'd given up.
Full, she polished off her beer, paid her tab, and stretched back out on the street. She checked both directions and her heart stuttered when she saw a very familiar blond head forty feet away.
"Suzie? Suzie!" She started to run but the blond didn't react.
Pushing people aside Shannon mumbled apologies, but even as she yelled the name, the blond never turned. Her steps did quicken, but they approached Royal Street and the crowd was thickening, and she couldn't catch up.
Thinking on her feet Shannon pulled out her cell phone, pressing the button for the camera, but it didn't work, showing six missed calls. Swearing, she cleared them and started the camera up, running into people. She stumbled once, a strange man helping her to her feet. Thanking him, she stumbled back and held the phone high as the blond turned the corner.
The shutter sound rang out and she ran ahead, turning onto Royal, but the blond had disappeared. Stopping to catch her breath she looked at the picture. It was blurry and the blonde was too far in the distance, but the woman was the right height, the hair the right shade and style.
People she'd shoved passed her, making comments, but she ignored them. All the missing calls were from Aiden, so she called him back, ignoring the voicemails.
"Shannon, where are you!?!"
"I think I saw Suzie, but I lost her!"
"Royal Street and Saint Ferdinand."
"I'll call it into the local police. Look, come back to the hotel. There's something I want you to see."
"What is it?"
"Just hurry back."
"Fine, I'll be there in ten. Bye."
She hung up and looked around. If that had been Suzie than she was okay, and she was still close. Just what the hell was going on?
Back in the lobby of the hotel the clerk that had helped them before flagged her over.