What lies beneath the black water of the bayou? Hunter Galen, a New Orleans securities broker, suspects his business partner, James Nowak, of embezzling their clients’ money, but he’s reluctant to jeopardize their friendship. After James turns up dead, Hunter realizes his unwillingness to confront a problem may have cost James his life.
Nicki Price, a newly minted PI, intends to solve the stockbroker’s murder as she establishes herself in the career she adores. As she ferrets out fraud and deception at Galen-Nowak Investments, Hunter’s fiancée, Ashley Menard, rubs her the wrong way. Nicki doesn’t trust the ostentatious woman who seems to be hiding something, but is the PI’s growing attraction to Hunter—the police’s only suspect—her true reason for disliking Ashley?
As Hunter and Nicki encounter sophisticated shell games, blackmail, and death threats both subtle and overt, danger swirls around them like the mysterious dark water of the bayou. Only their reliance on faith and fearless determination give them hope they will live to see another day.
4 ½ stars from Romantic Times Bookreviews: “This kicks off a new series with quirky but lovable characters who are determined to make the world a better place, one complex crime case at a time. The storyline has many interesting layers for readers to discover, with twists and unexpected turns throughout. Ellis is a multi-talented author who has proven she can write an outstanding suspenseful book while keeping true to her faith and values.”
Yacht Queen Antoinette
Somewhere on Lake Pontchartrain
“What? I still can’t hear you, James!” Hunter Galen shouted into the mouthpiece. “Call me back in a few minutes. I’m going on deck. Maybe the signal will be stronger.” Ending the call, he headed for the doorway of the grand dining salon. Around him, the birthday party was in full swing. He glanced across a room filled with smiling faces, assured that the party had been a great idea. His mother, still stunning at sixty years old, was dancing with the senior partner of the law firm that had represented Galen business interests for years. Was something going on between them—more than just a slow waltz between old friends? Maybe, but he wouldn’t worry about it tonight. His mother and everyone else were enjoying themselves. In addition to delicious catering and plentiful libations, two bands—zydeco and swing—provided entertainment, with even a DJ between sets to keep the younger generation happy.
From the corner of his eye, Hunter spotted his girlfriend, soon-to-be fiancée, clinking champagne glasses with his sister, Chloe, and his sister-in-law, Cora. Together the three looked like a blonde, brunette, and flaming redhead hair color advertisement. While he watched, Ashley Menard glanced his way, her face lighting up with a Miss Louisiana smile. That’s what she once had been—or, at least, first runner-up. Tall and reed slim, Ashley’s cool composure stemmed from the belief that everything she touched would turn to gold. And it usually did. She lifted two fingers in a wave before refocusing on her future sisters-in-law.
“Don’t even think of getting down on one knee until you ask Daddy,” Ashley had warned him. Daddy. Twenty-six years old and owner of a chain of hair salons, yet she still referred to her father with a juvenile moniker. Well, this still was the old South, after all.
When the vibration of his phone jarred his attention from the party, he saw on the screen that it was James again. Sighing, he headed up the stairs for better reception. On the promenade deck above, Hunter sucked in a lungful of humid air and leaned over the polished teak railing. “Hello, James,” he spoke into the mouthpiece.
“Hunter, we have to talk. This is important. I know you’re tied up right now, but I had drinks tonight with old man Morrison at the bank. He wants to talk to us about the credit advance I requested. He refuses to extend the corporate credit line until we both come to his office. That tight-fisted—”
His colorful description of their banker became garbled as James’s voice rose with agitation.
Shaking his head, Hunter gazed out at the dark water of Lake Pontchartrain. A nearly full moon reflected off of the glassy surface. Although the breeze on his skin felt cool, his anxiety level kicked up a notch. “Don’t blame Mr. Morrison, James. Having us both present was my idea. You’re getting us in pretty deep. Let’s sit down tomorrow and crunch the numbers, but I think—”
Apparently James Nowak wasn’t interested in either crunching numbers or the financial solvency of the firm. Hunter could hear him shouting but fortunately couldn’t discern much of what he said. The cell phone signal waxed and waned more than the SV Queen Antoinette in choppy waters.
“Hunter, this is no time for you—Get back here now and—You’ve no idea who just walked in—”
“James! You keep breaking up. Let’s talk tomorrow. You know I’m on a boat in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain at my mother’s birthday party—”
The line went dead. Hunter probably would have tossed the phone into the waves if his older brother hadn’t crept up behind him.
“Something wrong, little brother?” Ethan Galen spoke with his smooth-as-cream accent. Funny how three siblings could be raised together, yet only one, Ethan, could speak fluent French that even a Parisian wouldn’t find fault with. Hunter and Chloe must have spent too much time in front of the TV instead of talking to Grandpère.
“No,” said Hunter. “Just business as usual in Galen-Nowak Investments. If James keeps this up, we’ll have to sail the Queen Antoinette to Costa Rica to hide from our creditors.” He laughed with little humor.
Ethan offered a halfhearted grin. “If there’s any way I can help, call my office in the morning. Right now Mother is about to address her adoring fans. I didn’t think you’d want to miss that.” He opened the vapor lock door leading back to the party.
While Hunter had been arguing with his partner for the one-millionth time, his family and friends—everyone in the world he cared about—were waiting for him. “Go on down. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Right. I’ll keep the party moving along.” Ethan studied his brother for a moment and then ducked his head under the bulwark.
Staring at the fishing boats bobbing on the surface, Hunter took stock of what a fortunate man he was. For the moment, all family members were speaking to one another, he had a gorgeous girlfriend, and he worked in a profession that thrilled and challenged him every day. He was no ordinary stockbroker. On behalf of his clients, he wheeled and dealed in initial public offerings, emerging markets, real estate investment trusts, aggressive sector funds, and volatile stocks that would cause the average investor to faint dead away. Fortunes were made and lost similar to a Vegas game of Texas hold ’em. His clients weren’t senior citizens who lived off income generated by their portfolios. Volatility, even wild gyrations, came as no surprise to those who trusted him and invested with his firm. Hunter loved the game and always would. The buying and selling of securities made his heart pound and his blood race through his veins.
With little alternative, he shook off his argument with James and hurried back downstairs. There wasn’t a business in the world that didn’t run into snags every now and then. The two of them would hammer this out in the morning. Didn’t they always?
In the main salon, Ethan had just finished his speech and was introducing the birthday girl. Accepting the microphone from him, Clotilde Galen looked beautiful in a peach-colored suit and high heels. She would still be a dynamo at one hundred, let alone a mere sixty. Hunter slipped into a seat at Chloe and Aaron’s table.
His sister passed him a bottle of champagne and an empty glass. “You missed the toast. Try to catch up.” She barely glanced in his direction, her attention directed to the center stage.
Hunter filled his flute but left it alone. The heavy fragrance of magnolia from the table arrangements was making it hard to breathe.
“I can’t tell you what a lovely surprise this party is tonight.” His mother’s lilting voice drifted over the guests like a sentimental refrain. She spoke more musically than he could sing. “Having my friends here, along with my beloved family, my mother…” Clotilde’s voice cracked as everyone’s attention shifted to Grandmère. Surrounded by Ethan, Cora, their young son, and her best friend, Jeanette Peteriere, the grand dame of the family smiled, the creases deepening on her gentle face. When Grandmère’s trembling fingers lifted her champagne glass in salute, the crowd erupted with hoots and uproarious applause.
After a brief interval, Clotilde tapped the microphone with one long fingernail. “I know not everyone could see from where they sat, so I wanted to mention the thoughtful, age-appropriate gifts I received from my darling children.” More hoots, more applause. “From my little girl, Chloe, who recently received her bachelor of arts degree at Tulane…” Clotilde paused, knowing her audience wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to make noise. She wasn’t disappointed.
Chloe stood, nodding and waving at her well-wishers while her FBI agent fiancé, Aaron, grinned with pride.
Clotilde waited before continuing. “Chloe has given me a year’s worth of classes entitled ‘Yoga for Senior Citizens’ at the community center downtown.” She waved the embossed certificate in the air. “A full year.”
The crowd offered thunderous applause.
“And my son Ethan and his lovely Cora paid for my lifetime membership in AARP.” She held aloft a second embossed document. “My entire lifetime—can you imagine?”
Apparently, the guests could imagine because many began pounding on the tabletops.
Suave and diplomatic, Ethan half stood and waved like a visiting royal monarch, while his wife beamed with pleasure. The corners of Clotilde’s lips turned up into a smile as she waited again for everyone to settle down again. “As much as I love my gifts, the best of all is having my children here tonight. Thank you, Ethan, Hunter, and Chloe, for inviting everyone to this lovely boat for my celebration. This was the best birthday surprise I ever received.” Clotilde’s voice cracked slightly on the last word, even as her luminous green eyes filled with tears.
Kenneth Douglas, the family’s attorney and friend, offered her a steadying arm as she stepped from the podium.
“Wait, Mom. Stay up there,” called Hunter. He scrambled to his feet. “I haven’t given you my gift yet.”
Clotilde looked eager for the spotlight to shine elsewhere, but she nevertheless moved back to the dais.
“Happy birthday.” He held out a brightly wrapped box.
Accepting the gift from her son, she quickly stripped off the paper. “Fixodent adhesive,” she murmured. “Looks like the large, family-sized box. Thank you, dear.” Clotilde lifted it high so all could see. “I’ll keep this in a safe place until it’s necessary. Fortunately, my teeth are all still mine.” Again she tried to leave, but her younger son wouldn’t allow it.
“Look inside the box, Mama,” he said, relishing the moment.
Clotilde hated the endearment “Mama” and flashed him the look that said, You’re in big trouble, young man. But like a good sport she ripped open the box. The crowd leaned forward in their chairs, with several in the last row standing so they could see.
Instead of the plastic tube everyone expected, Clotilde extracted a sheet of thick vellum festooned with fancy calligraphy, stamps, seals, and assorted vestiges of officialdom. She unrolled and scanned the document, reading aloud a word here and there.
The party guests waited. Her family waited. Even Mr. Douglas peered curiously over her shoulder.
Then her face blanched as her hand fluttered to her throat. Finally, she stopped reading and stared at her son. “What is this, Hunter? What is this paper talking about?” As the fingers holding the document started to shake, the audience grew silent.
“The yacht Queen Antoinette, what you referred to as a ‘boat’ a few moments ago, is your new sailing ship. Don’t call her a boat anymore or you’ll make her mad.” Hunter waved a hand around the elegantly appointed main cabin, where forty guests had just finished dining. “She’s yours, Mama. Happy birthday. The captain and crew will be a phone call away whenever you wish to sail. They can charter her out to help defray operating expenses while you’re abroad.” Hunter glanced at his siblings and grinned. “Oh, by the way, Ethan and Chloe went in with me on the gift. And the missing tube of Fixodent is in my jacket pocket for whenever you need it.”
The crowd erupted into bedlam and rushed toward the podium, surrounding Clotilde with noisy congratulations and best wishes. Hunter overhead several aunts already asking to use the vessel for upcoming showers and parties. Despite her heels, his mother was soon lost in a sea of people. Hunter exchanged glances with Ethan, who lifted a snifter of bourbon in salute. Cora was trying to fight her way up toward the birthday girl. Snuggled against Aaron’s shoulder, Chloe grinned as the two of them whispered secrets the way engaged couples often did.
Hunter scanned the guests for Ashley but couldn’t find her. Usually her height in heels made it impossible for her to hide, but she definitely was not in the room. He was about to search for her in the galley when his cell phone vibrated. In exasperation, he sprinted up the stairs to the upper deck for better reception.
Once he had answered, his business partner again pleaded, cajoled, shouted, and cursed in a staccato of fractured phrases. But no matter where Hunter went on the ship, the signal was too weak to decipher anything coherent. “Wait until tomorrow, buddy. We’ll sort this out,” shouted Hunter into the phone. “Take it easy. Nothing can’t wait until morning.”
In response he heard only the irritating sound of static. But one thing came through loud and clear, unlike their earlier attempt at conversation. James was begging. If not begging, then desperate—for what, Hunter had no clue. He stomped toward the ship’s stern, where a row of fiberglass tenders waited to ferry late arrivals or early departures. Fortunately, a few crew members lounged nearby.
“Take me back to the marina as fast as you can.” He stepped down into the nearest boat and handed the crewman a hundred-dollar bill. With a roar of a powerful outboard motor, they took off without another word.
About The Author
Mary Ellis has written twelve award-winning novels set in the Amish community and several historical romances set during the Civil War. Her latest, Midnight on the Mississippi, first of a new mystery series, Secrets of the South, is set in New Orleans. Before "retiring" to write full-time, Mary taught school and worked as a sales rep for Hershey Chocolate, a job with amazingly sweet fringe benefits. Mary enjoys traveling, gardening, bicycling and swimming, and lives in Ohio with her husband, dog and cat.
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