Not many people know their way through the bayous well enough to find Will Novak’s crumbling mansion outside New Orleans. Not that Novak wants to talk to anyone. He keeps his guns close and his guard always up.
Mariah Murray is one selfish, reckless, manipulative woman, the kind Novak would never want to get tangled up with. But he can’t say no to his dead’s wife sister.
When Mariah tells him she wants to rescue a childhood friend, another Aussie girl gone conveniently missing in north Georgia, Novak can’t turn her down. She’s hiding something. But the pretty little town she’s targeted screams trouble, too. Novak knows there’s a trap waiting. But until he springs it, there’s no telling who to trust…
Will Novak swung a leg over the starboard gunwale of his sailboat, got a good firm grip on the railing, and then stretched down far enough to reach the layer of salt and brine crusted at the waterline. Novak was a big guy with big fists and big shoulders and an intimidating look to him. People usually gave him a wide berth if they didn’t know him well, and that’s the way he liked it. It was a beautiful afternoon, late September in South Louisiana, and still hot as hell.
Unseasonably so. He was shirtless, muscles straining with effort, sweat shining on his torso. His body was in peak physical condition, banded with thick, powerful muscles that he knew how to use and that he wasn’t slow to put to good use if anybody messed with him. He followed the rigid daily workout he had mastered a long time ago while in the military, and still adhered to it almost every day. He wasn’t quite as fit as when he ran special ops missions with the SEALs, but he wasn’t too far off. He liked that kind of order and rigidity and purpose in his life, especially now when little else he had meant a damn thing to him.
The Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 379 on which he labored was a sleek and powerful craft, practically new and spotless after an entire day spent scrubbing her after over a week spent at sea. She was a forty-footer that he’d had for almost three months, new out of the factory and built to his own specifications. He’d made sure that the boat was perfectly suited to him. Everything was somewhat oversized, enough to comfortably accommodate his six-feet-six-inch frame. He’d sailed her from South Carolina on the Intracoastal Waterway to his home deep in the bayous of Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes. He’d worked hard all day making her look like new again. Everything was spotless, inside and out, his gear clean and orderly and stowed in the proper places. That kind of thing was important to him.
On the eve of September 11, he had steered his gleaming boat down the wide Bayou Bonne that edged the back side of his property and eventually sailed her out into the deep royal blue waters of the vast Gulf of Mexico. He’d spent ten full days out there, completely alone, as was his habit every year on the anniversary of that day of infamy for all Americans. He had stayed out on the rolling waves, working through the most catastrophic event in his life, a trauma that he had fought to accept daily for so many years that he no longer kept count. It didn’t matter how long it had been. Not if he lived to be a hundred. He wasn’t going to get over it. He had accepted that now. He just forced himself to live with it. Endless day after endless day.
Out there, though, completely by himself in the dark, quiet, everswaying, ever-restless sea, under untold billions of glittering stars spangled across ink-black skies, he had suffered alone and wept fresh tears for his dead family while he fished for bonito and sea bass and flounder and mourned to the depths of his soul and studiously drank himself into oblivion every single night. But that’s the way he liked it during his own personal, self-inflicted hell week, far away from every other living being on earth, alone and buffeted by ocean winds and rocking waves and the merciless sun, and most of all, the silent solitude where he could work through the grief that never left him, not for one hour, one minute, one second of conscious thought.
But now, on this sunny day, Novak was back at home, ready to live his miserable existence once more, an empty, futile objective that he never really accomplished. But that’s the way it was. Swiping his sponge a few more times down the wide blue stripe painted along the length of the white hull, he took a few extra minutes to scrub the giant silver letters naming his boat. He had called her Sweet Sarah, in memory of his dead wife. Another way to keep Sarah close when she wasn’t close and never would be again.
Once Novak was satisfied with his efforts, he hoisted himself back up and straddled the rail. He raised his face, shut his eyes, and felt the fire of the sun burn hot into his bare skin. He was already sunburned from his time out on the drink, his skin burnished a deep, warm bronze. After a few minutes, he shifted his gaze down onto the slow, rippling bayou current. It was good to be back home, good to be sober, good to be able to think clearly. He had wrestled his demons back under control, at least for the moment. He left his perch, stooped down, and pulled a cold bottle of Dixie beer from the cooler.
He twisted off the cap and took a deep draft, thirsty and tired from a full day of hard physical labor. That’s when he first heard the sound of a vehicle, coming closer, turning off the old bayou road and heading down through the swampy woods to his place.
Grimacing, annoyed as hell, not pleased about uninvited guests showing up, he lowered the beer bottle, shielded his eyes with his forearm, and peered up the long grassy field that stretched between the bayou and the ancient plantation house he’d inherited from his mother on the day he was born. He had not been expecting company today. Or any other day. He did not like company. He did not like people coming around his place, and that was putting it mildly. He was a serious loner. He liked to be invisible. Anonymous. He liked his privacy. And he was willing to protect it.
The sun broiled down, the temperature probably close to ninety, humidity hugging the bayou like a wool blanket, thick and wet and heavy. Drops of perspiration rolled down his forehead and burned into his eyes. Novak grabbed a towel and mopped the sweat off his face and chest. Then he took another long drink of the icy beer. But he kept his attention focused on the spot where his road emerged from the dense grove of giant live oaks and cypress trees and magnolias.
The sugar plantation was ancient and now defunct, but it was a huge property, none of which had ever been sold out of his family. It took a lot of his effort to keep the place even in modest repair. The mansion on the knoll above him had stood in the same spot for over two hundred years. And it looked like it, too, with most of the white paint peeled off and weathered to gray years ago.
Once upon a time, his wealthy Creole ancestors, the St. Pierre family, had sold their sugar at top price and flourished for a century and a half on the bayou plantation they’d named Bonne Terre. They had been quite the elite in Napoleonic New Orleans, he had been told. They still were quite the elite, but mostly in France now. The magnificence with which they’d endowed the place was long gone and the house in need of serious renovation. Someday, maybe. Right now, he preferred to live on his boat where it was cooler and more to his liking.
Minutes passed, and then the car appeared and proceeded slowly around the circular driveway leading to his front gallery. It was a late model Taurus, apple-red and shiny clean and glinting like a fine ruby under the blinding sunlight. Probably a New Orleans rental. He’d never seen the car before. That meant a stranger, which in Novak’s experience usually meant trouble. Few visitors found their way this far down into the bayou. Ever. That’s why he lived there.
Claire Morgan was the exception and one of the few people who knew where he lived, but he trusted her. She was a former homicide detective who’d hired him on as a partner in her new private investigation agency. But it wasn’t Claire who’d come to call today. She was still on her honeymoon with Nicholas Black, out in the Hawaiian Islands, living it up on some big estate on the island of Kauai. They’d been gone around eight weeks now, and that had given Novak plenty of time to do his own thing. Especially after what had happened on their wedding day. The three of them and a couple of other guys had gotten into a particularly hellish mess and had been lucky to make it out alive. Novak’s shoulder wound had healed up well enough, but all of them deserved some R & R. Other than Claire, though, only a handful of people knew where to find him. He didn’t give out his address, and that had served him well.
Novak wiped his sweaty palms on his faded khaki shorts and kept his gaze focused on the Taurus. Behind him, the bayou drifted along in its slow, swirling currents, rippling and splashing south toward the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as the car left his field of vision, he headed down the hatch steps into the dim, cool quarters belowdecks. At the bottom, he stretched up and reached back into the highest shelf. He pulled out his .45 caliber service weapon. A nice little Kimber 1911. Fully loaded and ready to go. The heft of it felt damn good. Back where it belonged. He checked the mag, racked a round into the chamber, and then wedged the gun down inside his back waistband. He grabbed a clean white T-shirt and pulled it over his head as he climbed back up to the stern deck. Picking up a pair of high-powered binoculars, he scanned the back gallery of his house and the wide grassy yard surrounding it.
Nothing moved. He walked down the gangplank and stepped off into the shade thrown by the covered dock. He moved past the boatlift berths but he kept his attention riveted up on the house. The long fields he’d mowed the day before stretched about a hundred yards up from the bayou. The big mansion sat at the far edge, shaded by a dozen ancient live oaks, all draped almost to the ground with long and wispy tendrils of the gray Spanish moss so prevalent in the bayou. The wide gallery encircled the first floor, on all four sides, twelve feet wide, with a twelve-feet-high ceiling. No wind now, all vestiges of the breeze gone, everything still, everything quiet. He could see the east side of the house. It was deserted. The guy in the car could be anywhere by now. He could be anybody. He could be good. He could be bad. He could be there to kill Novak. That was the most likely scenario. Novak sure as hell had plenty of enemies who wanted him dead, all over the world. Right up the highway in New Orleans, in fact. Whoever was in that Taurus, whatever they wanted, Novak wanted them inside his gun sights first before they spotted him.
Taking off toward the house, he jogged down the bank and up onto a narrow dirt path hidden by a long fencerow. Then he headed up the gradual rise, staying well behind the fence covered with climbing ivy and flowering azalea bushes. He kept his weapon out in front using both hands, finger alongside the trigger. Guys who were after him usually just wanted to put a bullet in Novak’s skull. Some had even tried their luck, but nobody had tried it on his home turf. He didn’t like that. Wasn’t too savvy on their part, either.
When he reached the backyard, he pulled up under the branches of a huge mimosa tree. He crouched down there and waited, listening. No thud of running feet. No whispered orders to spread out and find him. No nothing, except some stupid bird chirping its head off somewhere high above him. He searched the trees and found a mockingbird sitting on the carved balustrade on the second-floor gallery. Novak waited a couple more minutes. Then he ran lightly across the grass and took the wide back steps three at a time. He crossed the gallery quickly and pressed his back against the wall. He listened again and heard nothing, so he inched his way around the corner onto the west gallery and then up the side of the house to the front corner. That’s when he heard the loud clang of his century-old iron door knocker. He froze in his tracks.
Directly in front of him, a long white wicker swing swayed in a sudden gust of wind. He darted a quick look around the corner of the house. Three yards down the gallery from him, a woman stood at his front door, her right side turned to him. She was alone. She was unarmed, considering how skin-tight her skimpy outfit molded to her slim body. While he watched, she lifted the heavy door knocker and let it clang down again. Hard. Impatient. Annoyed. She was tall, maybe five feet eight or nine inches. Long black hair curled down around her shoulders. She was slender and her body was fit, all shown to advantage in her tight white Daisy Dukes and a black-and- white chevron crop top. She turned slightly, and Novak glimpsed her impressively toned and suntanned midriff and the lower curve of her breasts. She was not wearing a bra, and her legs were naked, too, shapely and also darkly tanned. White sandals with silver buckles. She looked sexy as hell but harmless.
On the other hand, Novak had known a woman or two who’d also looked sexy and harmless, but who had assassinated more men than Novak had ever thought about gunning down. Keeping his weapon down alongside his right thigh but ready, he stepped out where she could see him but also where he’d have a good shot at her, if all was not as it seemed. The woman apparently had a highly cultivated sense of awareness because she immediately spun toward him. That’s when Novak’s knees almost buckled. He went weak all over, his muscles just going slack. His heart faltered mid-beat. He stared at her, so completely stunned he could not move or speak.
Then his dead wife, the only woman he had ever loved, his beautiful Sarah, smiled at him and said in her familiar Australian accent, “How ya goin’, Will. Long time no see.”
Linda Ladd is the bestselling author of over a dozen novels. Head to Head marked her exciting return to publishing with a debut thriller after almost a decade’s hiatus. Linda makes her home in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where she is at work on her next novel. Bad Road to Nowhere is the first in a new series featuring Will Novak.