Whimpering, Audrey regained consciousness face up in a regal mahogany four-poster bed, wrists cuffed at the small of her back and ankles tied spread-eagle to two bedposts. She was naked, head twisting from side to side in a wet spot. She moaned, opened her eyes, then shut them. This couldn’t be happening. She could tell, much to her relief, that she hadn’t been raped, although the crisp white sheet was damp all around her.
The creep was perched on a damask armchair across from the bed, pawing through her purse. The crooked smile had faded from his mouth, and his jumpy eyes were concentrating on the contents of her kidskin wallet.
“What’s the matter, babe, never been kissed before?” he said, not looking up. “You pissed yourself, so I had to throw you in the shower. Chris is picky about his bed. Come tomorrow, he’ll never know you been here.”
“Take the purse,” she moaned, “but untie me this second.”
“Oh no, sweetheart, I ain’t done with you yet.”
“I’ll do whatever you want, but please don’t give me AIDS.”
He leapt up, stuffing the wallet into the back pocket of his tight black jeans. “You all screwed up. I ain’t the fairy, Chris is. Soon as I buy what I need, you gonna find out how much a man I am. I can keep at it for hours,” he said, pumping his hips.
Audrey glared up at the lace canopy over the bed, all of her initial suspicions rushing through her mind. How could she have been such a fool? “This is Chris Chauvin’s house, isn’t it? Where is he?”
“New York. Flying back here to New Orleans tomorrow. Leaves plenty of time for you and me.”
“My two boys …” She choked back a sob. Nobody knew where she was, not the other conventioneers at the hotel or her family in Wisconsin. Not even she did. Cracks of darkness gaped between the drawn velvet drapes. It was already night, and she was sure she’d never see the end of it.
“A lousy thirty bucks.” The creep fanned the bills in her face. “Chris owes me five hundred for this last load of hot junk I snatched from the bone yard—asshole knows I need to score bad—and all I can lay my hands on is some la-di-da dingbat with thirty bucks. Hey, what’s the pin number for this plastic?” He stuffed the cash into the elastic of his sock and held up her debit card.
She shook her head.
He flicked open a switchblade under her nose. The blade glistened in the shaded amber light from the bronze bedside lamp.
Then he brought it down to her breast. “You like that nipple?”
“I don’t remember—”
“Said you want to keep that pretty pink nipple?”
“4352.” The steel was cold against her pale skin.
“That ain’t right, you can kiss your ass goodbye.”
She couldn’t think straight. Maybe it was the opposite. “Or try 5243. It’s one or the other.” The most he could take out was two hundred dollars. But what did she care? This was her last night on earth.
“Don’t go nowhere till I get back, hear?” he snarled, slamming the bedroom door behind him.
From somewhere deep inside the bowels of the French Quarter carriage house, the central air growled on, sending a draft of cool air over her face. She sat up in bed, straining with all of her might to pull her raw ankles free from the rope restraints, first one then the other. Impossible. Then she screamed, swiveling her reddening face to the four corners of the room in a series of wall-piercing cries like her hungry infants had once let loose in the middle of the night. And she had rushed down the hall to hold the helpless creatures to her, hadn’t she?
Hadn’t she always?
Earlier that afternoon, Audrey Fairchild had set out on a mission. She was determined not to be just another tourist conventioneer in New Orleans but an explorer— a connector—broadening her horizons.
“You don’t know me, but this is Audrey, a friend of Darrel Burst from the Wisconsin Arts Council.” This is how she’d replied to the robot-voiced greeting on Chris Chauvin’s home phone. “I’m in town until Wednesday for an optician convention, staying in the French Quarter. Darrel has spoken so much about you, and I know you live nearby, so I’m wondering if we could meet for a drink or coffee during the next couple of days.”
After leaving her number, she gushed something flirty she now regretted: “I’m dying to meet you in the flesh.”
Maybe that was where the creep got the wrong idea.