RITA Finalist & Reviewer's Choice Award Finalist
The last thing Celia Moon needed in her life was a mysterious drifter as dark, moody and unpredictable as a Texas tempest. Soaked to the bone, Eric Putman had appeared on her doorstep on a black, stormy night, seeking shelter from the weather – and a reprieve from Jezebel’s blues…
Though Gideon, Texas, was nothing but a two-bit town, even the mighty, overflowing Jezebel River couldn’t was it away. And as much as Eric thought he’d hate coming home, here he was, waiting out the storm in a farmhouse with a warm, sunshiny woman, wondering if the Jezebel had washed away his bad memories – or if it had been Celia…
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
It wasn’t a big river. Mainly it ran sleepily and quietly through a sparsely populated stretch of farmland in east Texas. Fishermen angled for the catfish skimming its depths; young boys stripped and skinny-dipped in its pools; lovers picnicked on its banks.
Only a handful of old-timers remembered the old name for the sleepy river—a name murmured in hushed voices as stories were told of her power.
Not the Jezebel River. Just Jezebel, a name reserved for women of lusty beauty and uncertain virtue. Jezebel.
There had only been one occasion in recent memory when Jezebel had awakened, like an aging courtesan, to remind those around her of the power she could wield. Only one life was lost that night, and as if placated by the sacrifice, Jezebel settled back into her sleep.
But the old-timers knew it was only a matter of time until she awakened once again to flash her eyes and spread her skirts.
Only a matter of time.
Not even hell could be so dark. His car headlights poked white fingers into the heavy rain, barely penetrating. The wiper blades sluiced the water away at a furious pace. It wasn’t enough. Only square inches of the windshield were clear at any instant—as soon as the blades slogged away the rain, more fell to blur his vision once again.
He’d slowed to twenty on the back country road and was no longer intimately familiar with the twists of blacktop and the tiny bridges that spanned dozens of creeks. His fingers ached from gripping the steering wheel. He hunched as far forward in his seat as he could go, trying vainly to see.
Storm warnings had been broadcast on the radio, of course. But he’d grown up in these thick woods, amid the floods and endless early-summer rains. He knew the television and radio people were prone to exaggeration. It sold papers and commercial time.
The car slid on the road, its tires unable to keep a grip on the pavement. Eric swore as he fought for control. It made sense to ignore the news people, but he probably ought to have listened to the boy in grease-stained overalls at the gas station twenty miles back.
But there was his pride to consider. Nothing scared him like driving in the rain, in the dark. A night like this had once shattered his life, and he knew instinctively that he would be truly lost if he let the fear overtake him tonight.
Doggedly, he kept driving. A green sign with reflective white letters flashed in front of his lights. The words blurred before Eric could read them, but he knew what the sign said: Gideon, 5 miles. Almost there. With the back of his wrist, he wiped the sweat from his brow. For once in his life, he wished he’d paid attention—he’d have been a whole lot better off staying overnight in a motel in the last town. He sure as hell couldn’t do much for his sister if he drowned out here.
His headlights picked out a wash of water pouring over a bridge just ahead. A new row of sweat beads broke out on his upper lip and he eased his foot from the accelerator. Sucking in his breath, he touched the brake. Easy, he told himself. His weakened fingers, slick with sweat, slid on the hard, plastic steering wheel.
In spite of his care, the car hit the water with a hollow sounding thunk. Easy now. It wasn’t the first creek he’d forded on this nightmarish trip. Every little trickle in the county was brimming over tonight.
But this one had more than bubbled over. Eric saw the nearby pond with which the stream had mated, and the offspring of their union looked like an inland sea. Through the side window of the car, he saw an unbroken span of water reflecting the oddly misplaced light of a farmer’s barn.
The engine spluttered and coughed. Died. He slammed his good hand against the dash. When the car swayed under the force of the water that rose over its fenders, fear squeezed his belly hard. No time to brood.
He reached over the back of the seat, grabbing the heavy canvas backpack that held most of his earthly goods. Next to it was a guitar in a black case. He hesitated, fingers curled around the slim, plastic handle. A shiver of water shook the car.
He let go. It was no good to him anymore, anyway. It took a mighty heave to get the door open and then the water nearly knocked him down. Another flash of adrenaline sizzled over his nerves. Falling rain soaked his head and body in seconds. Shifting the backpack on his shoulders, he sloshed forward, head down. A big, broken tree branch swirled by him on the current.
Damned right, he answered himself, putting one foot determinedly in front of the other. As he gained the other side of the bridge, the water gradually receded until it just covered the bottoms of his feet.
The little triumph pleased him. Only five miles to Gideon, to his sister, the only person in the world who mattered to him. And she needed him. It was bound to be easier to get to her on foot than in the car. So he ignored the beckoning lights of the farmhouse set back in the heavy trees and pushed onward into the thick, rainy darkness.
He trudged a mile. Two. He lost track. He crossed one stream, sloshing through water up to his knees, and when he got to the other side, he found the stream came with him, up to his ankles.
He thought about going back to the farmhouse, shook his head, and pushed on.
One foot in front of the other. Water obscured the road, making it hard to keep his bearings. He paused once to peer into the darkness, trying to mark familiar spots. There were none.
He reached into his backpack for a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and slugged back a considerable mouthful. It warmed his chilled insides, calmed his racing heart. Thus fortified, he replaced the bottle, wiped water from his eyes and started out again. Not far now.
* * *
Celia Moon was making popcorn when the lights suddenly failed. For several hours she’d been trying to resist food—since the rains had set in several days ago, her main activity had been eating. But the pervasive thought of butter and salt and fluffy white corn had proved impossible to resist.
The sudden failure of the lights seemed like a scolding from on high—but not even heaven could make her quit now. There was enough heat left in the electric burner to finish the popping. The butter was already melted and the bowl was ready. If she had to sit alone in the gloomy darkness of the old farmhouse, reading by candlelight, at least she’d have some buttered popcorn to comfort herself with.
Working easily in the dark, she pulled the bowl over as the bubbling sound of exploding kernels slowed, then lifted the heavy pan from the stove and aimed as well as she could. There would doubtless be popcorn strewn all over the table in the morning, but since she lived alone, what did it really matter?
She did need a light to pour the butter. There were candles in a drawer by the sink and Celia lit one. A piney scent rose from the plump green candle and mixed with the smell of hot popcorn.
The whole elaborate ritual was designed to be a distraction from the endless pattering of the rain on the roof and windows. Endless. “A hurricane caught in a holding pattern over the Gulf,” they had said on the news. Rain was forecast for tomorrow as well.
It was depressing. She’d been stuck inside the house for days, cleaning like a madwoman out of boredom when she should have been planting her first garden. A salad garden to start with, scallions and radishes and lettuce. Collards, maybe. Definitely popcorn. Her grandmother had always grown popcorn, sending big bags of it every fall to Celia in Brussels or Paris or Berlin, wherever her parents’ travels had taken them.
A sudden, urgent pounding on the front door crashed into the rain-framed silence. Celia started, sending butter spilling over the whole table. She scowled at the mess. The knock sounded again, louder this time.
Who in the world would be out on such a night? She headed for the door, shaking her head, then realized she couldn’t see anything without her candle and went back for it. The pounding rattled through the room again.
“I’m coming,” she muttered under her breath. She grabbed a handful of popcorn as she picked up the candle, then ran lightly toward the door, her candle flame bobbing with her steps.
She flung open the door—and nearly flung it just as quickly closed.
The man on the porch was soaking wet. No, not just soaking. Dripping. Awash. Streams flowed from the pack on his shoulders and from his hair. A cut on his lip was bleeding profusely, and he was panting. “I—got—stranded,” he managed to say, and stumbled forward, catching himself on the doorjamb.
Celia jumped back, alarmed. It was impossible to see much about him by the light of her single candle, but he was big. A stranger. He also smelled distinctly of whiskey.
He straightened and licked his lips. “I was trying to get to town, but that last creek nearly took me with it.”
Celia hesitated a moment more—measuring the weight of the storm against the big man who obviously wanted shelter. His voice, ragged and hoarse, was definitely local, with a certain, unmistakable cadence that marked him as a native. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him, but that didn’t mean much. She’d only been in town a few months, and small as it was, Gideon played county seat to a lot of farms.
She stepped back. “My grandmother would never forgive me for turning away a stranger in trouble. Come on in.”
The relief on his face, even in the dark, was unmistakable. “Much obliged. I won’t be any trouble.”
“Wet as you are, I’ll be lucky if you don’t die of pneumonia before morning.” She sized him up, thinking quickly. “Stay right there. I’ll get you something dry to put on.”
“You don’t have to do that,” he protested.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She headed for the back room, leaving the candle for him. He hovered near the door.
There wasn’t much to choose from, but Celia found an old pair of overalls of her grandfather’s and a shirt she was sure would be too small. Might not fit well, but it would be better than freezing to death.
The stranger still stood right by the door when she returned. A puddle had formed under his feet. His outer garment, a long vinyl poncho, had been shed, and the big pack rested against the wall.
The lights flashed on again, so suddenly they startled Celia. In the blazing, unexpected illumination, she stared at the man by the door. It was only by sheer force of will that she kept her mouth from dropping open. Men like this never walked into her quiet life. They crossed movie screens and album covers; they rode bucking horses in rodeos and raced cars in the Indy.
They didn’t appear on her porch in rural Texas in the middle of a rainstorm.
His hair was black as sin and already curling around his neck and ears. The face was broad and dark, with high cheekbones and heavy brows over thick-lashed eyes. Amid all the masculine angles and jutting corners, his mouth was uncommon and compelling, even with a bloody cut obscuring it. The lower lip was full, sensual; the upper cut into an exquisite firm line.
There was only an instant for her to absorb the lines of his body, for the lights flashed off as quickly as they’d come on.
She laughed a little breathlessly, not quite sure whether the sound stemmed from excitement or fear. “Well, that was fast. I wonder if we’re going to be treated to a light show.”
“Somebody at the plant better get smart quick and turn everything off,” he said, “or there’s likely to be fires all over the county.”
The man shivered and Celia hurriedly gave him the clothes. “I’ll wait in the kitchen.”
Standing there in the dark, nibbling popcorn from the bowl on the table, she wondered if she was completely insane. The world was not the same place her grandmother had lived in, although Celia supposed there had always been serial killers and rapists roaming the countryside. Computers had just made it simpler to track them down. The thought made her smile briefly.
The stranger’s voice, with its odd edge of roughness, sounded directly behind her. “Jezebel’s acting up tonight,” he said.
“Jezebel?” Celia echoed, turning.
He’d brought the candle with him, and the light cast eerie shadows over the hollows of his face. She saw a grizzling of dark beard on his chin and top lip. It added an even more rakish appearance to his rugged face. Celia frowned at the blood on his mouth. “You’re bleeding,” she said, and reached into a drawer for a dishcloth.
Distractedly, he pressed the cloth to the cut, then lifted it and licked the spot experimentally. “I didn’t even feel this,” he commented.
Celia lifted the candle closer to his face, and understanding her intention, he lowered the dishrag. “You probably need a stitch or two,” she said. “But it looks like you’ll have to live without them until morning.”
“I’ve lived through worse.”
There was no boast in the words, just a simple statement of fact. Celia realized she was still standing next to him, the candle held aloft, peering at his face for clues to his nature like the heroine in a Gothic novel. She put the candle on the table. “Who’s Jezebel?” she asked.
“The river. That’s what the old-timers call her.”
“Because,” the man said, cocking his head a bit ironically, “she’s as dangerous as a faithless and beautiful woman.” He spied the popcorn and pointed. “You mind?”
“Help yourself.” Celia ladled up a handful for herself. “Pretty sexist. Why isn’t she like a faithless man?”
A slow grin spread over his face. “Because no man alive can outsmart a wise and evil woman—and the old-timers knew it.”
His voice, low and husky, acted like moonshine on her spine, easing the muscles all the way down. She straightened. “What makes you think she’s acting up?”
“I’ve seen her do it.” He glanced toward the window, as though the river was a banshee about to scream through the night. “Unless it stops raining right now, she’s coming.”
Celia frowned and crossed to the window. It was dark—inky dark. The pond in the hollow had crept up another four or five inches, and she thought she could see a fine film of water all over the saturated ground. “It’s been flooding for weeks,” she said. “Everyone says that happens every year.”
“They like to forget about old Jezebel.” He shifted. “Legends aside, this is a flood plain, and the river runs in cycles. She’s gonna flood and you’d best be on high ground when she does.”
“There’s an attic here if I need it.”
He scooped up another big handful of popcorn. “Is it stocked?”
She shrugged. “Sort of.” She pursed her lips. “Do you think the river’s going to overflow tonight?”
He wandered to the window, and as he stood next to her, looking out at the rain, Celia realized he was much, much larger than she. What if all this talk of a flood was just a way to get her up into the attic to ravish her or something? She crossed her arms over her chest, smelling whiskey and something deeper, a scent of hot nights that she tried to ignore. There was no law that said serial killers were ugly and hard to get along with. In fact, how did any of them get close to their victims unless they possessed a certain—well, animal magnetism that promised erotic rewards in return for trust?
But his voice was so very grim when he spoke again that Celia had no doubt that he was telling the truth. “She’s coming,” he said, the dread in his voice unmistakable.
Suddenly, from the depths of childhood came a memory. Celia had awakened thirsty and padded into the bathroom for a drink of water. On her way back to her room, she heard her father in his office, shouting into the phone. Curious and alarmed, she had paused by the door.
Her father had been a big man, as big as a grizzly, he liked to tell her. That night he hunched in the swivel chair by his desk, with his hair wild and his face buried in his hands. “What’s wrong, Daddy?” Celia asked.
He turned in his chair and gestured for her to come sit in his lap. Then, because it had been his policy to tell Celia the truth, he said, “There’s a flood back in Texas and I can’t get through to make sure Grandma’s all right.”
Celia didn’t really understand anything else about the incident, but obviously, Grandma had been fine. She’d only died last year—in her sleep.
Thinking of it now, though, she realized the river had probably flooded then. “Okay,” she said, taking a breath. “Jezebel’s going to flood. Since you’re here, you can help me lug things up to the attic.” She crossed the room, taking the candle with her, and opened the oak cupboard by the sink.
“What happened to the old woman, Mrs. Moon, who used to live here?” the stranger asked as Celia took cans and boxes from the shelf.
“She died last year.” Celia flashed him a grin out of proportion to his statement. Relief made her sigh. If he had known her grandmother, he wasn’t likely to be a serial killer.
“Are you kin?”
“I’m her granddaughter. She left me the house.”
He nodded, chewing popcorn. “What’s your name, granddaughter?”
“Celia.” She glanced at the nearly empty bowl. “You made short work of that popcorn. Are you hungry?”
“Celia Moon.” His drawl and the ragged edge of his voice made her name sound beautiful. “I’m Eric Putman and I’m starving.”
She tossed him a box of crackers and found the peanut butter. “That’ll have to do for a little while.” His name sounded vaguely familiar, but when she couldn’t place it, she let it go. There weren’t many names she hadn’t heard on her grandmother’s lips at one time or another. For a nice old woman, she’d been the world’s champion gossip—not mean, for there was always an undercurrent of understanding in the way she told her stories, even when the preacher of the Methodist church fell in love with the choir director, who was then only seventeen, and ran off to Louisiana with her. “You must be from around here,” Celia commented.
“Born and raised.”
A harsh undernote told her he’d been glad to escape. A common attitude. She was the only one who’d run to Gideon instead of away. And the funny thing was, they were running to the very places she had left behind, places whose very names promised glamour. “You’ve been gone awhile,” she said.
“Yep.” He dropped the peanut butter and crackers into the box with the other food. “You have any other candles? I can get some blankets and stuff if you’ll tell me where to look.”
She dug in a drawer, and just as she was about to light the candle, a massive flash of lightning shimmered over the sky, a pale electric blue that seemed to hang for minutes in the darkness. On its heels came a crack of thunder so loud, it rattled the dishes.
As if a hole had been cut in the sky by the violent thunder, the noise of the rain suddenly doubled, then tripled. Celia gasped. “I didn’t think it could rain any harder!” She went to the window and looked out, laughing lightly. “It looks like there’s a thousand garden hoses going at once.”
Eric grabbed the candle. “Where are those blankets?” His voice was gruff.
“Under the stairs.” She pointed vaguely. Her attention was focused on the deluge. It excited her. A part of her wanted to run outside into that beating, pounding rain, just to feel it and taste it. Nature run amok, she thought. Humans were helpless in the face of it. A savage kind of joy raced through her at the thought.
“Come on, woman,” Eric growled. “Won’t take Jezebel long to flash her eyes now.”
Of course, she probably wanted to live through whatever was coming. Time enough to observe the drama when everything was safely prepared.
Celia tried to ignore the ripple of excitement that passed through her at the thought of observing the drama with Eric Putman nearby.