Title: A Haunting Desire
Author: Julie Mulhern
Length: 289 pages
Publisher: Entangled Historical Select
Rating: 3 Stars
Murder in the streets. And passion in the shadows...
New Orleans, 1902
A killer walks the streets of New Orleans, eviscerating men and leaving them in the streets, and for madam Trula Boudreaux, it's bad for business. Trula needs help but she's not prepared for Zeke Barnes, the charming would-be savior who darkens her doorway-or the yearning he awakens. For while Trula knows well the delights of lust, she avoids love at all costs...
Investigating the killer was one thing, but Zeke can't help but be enchanted by the gorgeous mystery woman who runs an exclusive brothel. Caught between his duty to protect the city and his clear-as-day desire for Trula, Zeke sets about capturing Trula's heart-or at least a place in her bed. But with every moment Trula resists, Zeke falls into greater danger.
For his investigation into the haunted city and madam doesn't just risk his heart but both their lives. -Goodreads
A Haunting Desire
by Julie Mulhern
Copyright © 2015 by Julie Mulhern. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Chapter OneSaint Louis Cemetery No. 1
New Orleans, Louisiana
Monday, October 6, 1902
Go to Marie Leveau’s tomb. Find the woman who can tell you about voodoo. She has what you need.
It didn’t matter if Zeke Barnes had better things to do than melt in the heat of a New Orleans’ afternoon. The instructions were clear. So he waited.
The tombs crowded near, some as bleached and crumbling as old bones, others spruced up with a fresh coat of paint in honor of the newly dead. Winged angels, fat-cheeked cherubs, praying children, a woman bearing a striking resemblance to a Roman goddess, and a group of shepherds watched him from the roofs with unseeing eyes. Zeke ignored them and searched for bits of shade. It was October; morning frosts should powder pumpkins, ruby or gold maple leaves should dance in an afternoon wind so brisk it brought color to his cheeks. He should need a heavier coat and the possibility of an early snow should be the topic on everyone’s lips. Instead, humidity puddled in his lungs. He was drowning in a sea of hot, wet air.
A trickle of sweat meandered down his temple. He scowled at the ghost of a pretty young woman. Her cloudy eyes rounded and she scurried away like a frightened rabbit, whispering to the other phantoms, “He sees me.”
Hers was the only voice in the deserted cemetery. A wisp of a wraith didn’t have the answers he needed. William had promised a woman, one who’d help him find the murderer stalking the district. One who’d meet him next to Marie Leveau’s solitary tomb.
He was here. Sweating. Thirsty. With the grit of a near sleepless night scratching his eyes.
The woman was nowhere in sight.
With a silent apology to those who rested within, Zeke leaned his shoulder against the whitewashed side of an oven vault. He needed answers. Soon. Someone with political power had pulled enough strings to bring him to New Orleans to track a vicious killer. Until he caught the murderer, he couldn’t leave, couldn’t escape this ghost-infested, mosquito-ridden swamp masquerading as a city.
The late afternoon light faded to lavender, the very air tinted with dusk. Zeke exhaled. He’d give this fool’s errand one more minute and then he’d leave. He had better things to do than watch ghosts promenade.
Where the hell was she?
As far as directions from William went, they were incredibly straightforward. Tomb. Voodoo woman. Answers. Too bad there was no mambo in sight. Thirty seconds more and Zeke would be gone. He pulled out his watch to count each one.
A sound carried in the silence. Someone trod the gravel and crushed oyster shell path. Zeke stepped out of the meager shadow cast by the large crypt and into the last of the afternoon sun.
The woman didn’t notice him. Instead, she glanced over her shoulder as if she saw the host of gossamer men who trailed after her. Not that he blamed the ghosts. He suspected a line of living men regularly trailed after the woman who came to halt in front of Marie Leveau’s tomb. A simple dress failed to hide a slender figure and generous curves. She wore a hat covered in ostrich feathers. Through the feathers, Zeke caught sight of her face. Overblown pink lips. A perfect nose. Straight brows. Honey blond hair gathered into a softly curling pompadour. The ideal Gibson Girl.
She bent from the waist and poured a generous tot of something onto the ground in front of the tomb. The lithe, supple movement offered Zeke an admirable view of a sublimely rounded bottom. She deposited a bottle in the middle of the pile of junk heaped in front of Marie Leveau’s final resting place. Colorful feathers, strings of glass beads, bits of burned candles, small coins, and wilted flowers made room for her gift of Mount Gay rum.
A ghostly soldier, his gray uniform hanging loosely on his cadaverous frame, ventured forth. He bent, touched one of her bright curls, and gently rubbed it between opaque fingers. She flinched. Did she sense the misty wraith hovering at her back? With infinite sadness apparent on the remnants of his features, the phantom released the lock of hair and stumbled away.
Zeke cleared his throat, the sound as loud as a gunshot in the quiet cemetery. She jerked upright and turned toward him. Her mouth formed a tiny, surprised O. This was a voodoo mambo? Had William lost his mind? She took a small step away from him.
Inexplicably, her retreat annoyed him. “You’re late.”
“Pardon me?” Her voice was slow honey, rich and sweet, and sultry as a starry southern night.
“You’re late,” he repeated.
She tilted her chin. “Have you mistaken me for someone else?”
“No. I was supposed to meet a woman at Marie Leveau’s tomb and here you are. Now, what do you have to tell me?”
Her lips quirked. “You’re rude.”
Yes, he was rude. He had a murderer to catch. “What do you have to tell me about the murders?”
Her lashes fluttered. “What murders?”
Either she was completely ignorant of the recent deaths or she was a fine actress. “The murders in the district.” He waved his arm toward Storyville.
Her forehead puckered and an elegant hand rose to her throat. “What makes you think I know anything about a murder?”
“Murders. Plural.” He thought she knew something because William had told him—she has what you need. Zeke needed answers, but William had made a rare mistake. This woman couldn’t help him, not if her soft voice or the delicate dance of her lashes or the way her skin blanched when he mentioned murder were any indication. She was a lady, from the tips of the ostrich feathers on her hat to the pointy toe of the boot peeking from beneath her modest skirt. She probably didn’t even know New Orleans had a red light district.
“I don’t know anything.” She didn’t have what he needed, probably thought him a lunatic escaped from an asylum, one who haunted graveyards and questioned ladies about gruesome deaths. Still…what was she doing here?
“You’re leaving the rum?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” She inched farther away from him.
“I didn’t know ladies left voodoo offerings.” He held out his hands, spread his fingers, and smiled at her. His smile was his secret weapon. All women, from toothless grannies to young misses, smiled back. She didn’t. Her eyes raked over him, cold as January in Boston.
He blinked back his surprise and searched for another question. “Does Madame Leveau enjoy rum?”
She raised her chin and took another small step away from him. “You’ve heard of Marie Leveau?”
He nodded. “The voodoo queen? She’s famous. Do you often leave her rum?”
Her eyes narrowed. In the falling light, Zeke couldn’t quite make out their color. He bet they were deep blue. He advanced a step.
“If you know about Marie, I can only assume you’ve come to leave your own gift. If you’ll excuse me…” She put a delicately shod foot on the walkway. She meant to leave.
He blocked her path. “You didn’t answer my question.”
The air around them stirred, carrying ghostly whispers, the cicadas’ distant song, and her scent—jasmine and magnolias—as delicate and beautiful as the lady herself. He only just stopped himself from leaning forward to inhale more of the delicious fragrance.
She lifted her chin another notch. “Your question?”
“Do you often leave rum?”
She answered with a curt nod. “If you’re planning on taking it, I’d counsel against it. It’s a gift and Marie doesn’t take kindly to those who steal from her. She might send Le Grand Zombi after you.” Her soft pink lips curled as if she relished the thought.
She stepped to the right and he matched it, again blocking her path. “Le Grand Zombi?”
The woman raised her nose a good inch in the air. “Marie’s familiar, a snake. Finding an enormous black python in your bed might wipe that smirk clean off your face.”
She shouldn’t have mentioned his bed. It was far too easy to imagine her in it. He shook his head, erasing the vision. He had no business thinking about ladies in his bed, especially not this lady, who had somehow—effortlessly—bested him in a conversation.
She took another small step and tripped on a piece of loose gravel. He reached out, caught her hand, steadied her. She stiffened beneath his touch and snatched her hand away as if scalded.
He felt it, too. A frisson. Magic. What other word was there for the feeling of soaring when his feet remained firmly on the ground?
She was too damn tempting. She shouldn’t be in a graveyard by herself. Hell, she shouldn’t go anywhere without a chaperone. What if she stumbled across a man unable to resist temptation? Would the voodoo queen help her then? “It’s dangerous for you to be here.”
The stone angels decorating the tombs looked softer than her face. “Is that a threat?” She reached into her beaded purse. For what? Smelling salts?
“No.” He raised his hands, pretended a retreat. He was behaving like a cretin. He wanted to charm her, not frighten her near to death. Although…she didn’t look frightened. Her shoulders were straight, her chin was high, and the corner of her luscious upper lip lifted in a tiny, delectable sneer. No. Whatever she clutched in her purse, it wasn’t smelling salts. More likely, she held a gun. The lady in front of him resembled Boadicea, not a shrinking violet.
“Good thing, too,” she muttered. “You’re the one in danger here.”
“Is that a threat?” He suspected the laughter bubbling in his voice might annoy her.
He was right. Boadicea scowled, squared her shoulders, and drew her brows together. “You have no call to laugh at me. You’re a Yankee. You’re not under Marie’s protection. And the duppies will be out soon.” Her small hand waved a graceful arc at the darkening sky.
“Duppies?” he asked.
She tossed her head and a stray lock of hair brushed her cheek. It looked like spun silk against her skin. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from touching the golden strands and offending her further.
“Duppies,” she said. “Malevolent ghosts. Evil spirits. If you want a lesson in voodoo, I suggest you head on over to Tremé and ask for one.”
“A neighborhood, Back of Town.” The set of her chin spoke volumes. It told him she’d measured his mental acuity and found its level similar to the river rocks beneath their feet.
He grinned. He couldn’t help it. Her cheeks were pink. Her curls bounced. Her eyes snapped in the twilight. She was beyond tantalizing. If he needed a lesson, in anything, he’d just as soon she taught him. “I’d rather ask you.”
She retreated another step, glanced around the ghost-filled cemetery, shuddered. “Voodoo isn’t a game made up to titillate Yankees.” Around them shadows gave way to darkness. “It’s real. And it’s not safe here at night. For anyone. I have to go.”
“I’ve frightened you.”
That perfect chin rose to a disparaging tilt. “You overestimate your powers, sir. Good-bye.” She spun on her heel and hurried toward the exit. The stiff cotton of her skirts crackled with each deliberate step. She paused at the end of the row of tombs. Would she look back at him? She didn’t. Instead, she straightened her shoulders and marched away, apparently immune to his charms.
Zeke watched her go. The lady who’d just left him was worthy of a dogged pursuit. He was tempted to do just that. He’d chase her down the sidewalk that locals called a banquette. Her cheeks would pinken with anger at his presumption, but he’d charm her with a smile then take her to dinner at Antoine’s or Commander’s Palace. He’d discover what lay behind the magic of her touch. He moved along the path in the direction she had taken, but abruptly stopped. There was no time to chase after a lady.
Zeke scowled. To hell with waiting in a sultry cemetery. To hell with William for sending him here. And, most of all, to hell with the lovely, mysterious lady he couldn’t have.
A Haunting Desire is a hard story not to like. As time goes on however, it becomes more evident that there are more than a few "faux pas" in play here, which are working against an otherwise very well crafted tale.
On The Plus Side
Storyville and its nuances are very well depicted here. One can envision the the opulence of the great 'bawdy houses," see the smiles of the coquettish girls, and smell the Parisian perfume of the stately madams. This is a book that has managed to capture not only a place, but a moment in time with a stunningly vivid accuracy.
The entire cast of characters in this drama are people within their own right. No matter how small the role, each player adds his or her own brushstroke to the richness of the tableau being presented.
This is particularly true of leading lady, Trula Boudreaux. Whether she is watching over "her girls" or reading Zeke the riot act for bleeding on her rug. She is a joy to watch.
Zeke Barns is a detective an the trail of a murderer. At least that's what he keeps telling everybody. For most of the book however, the only person that he seems to really be interested in keeping track of is Trula. So much so, in fact, that he often proves quite the nuisance.
The pacing of this story is very slow as it applies to the mystery and murder side of things. Choosing to focus more on the back and forth of Trula and Zeke's hot/cold romance than any real sleuthing. This would not be such an issue if the mystery was not a main component of this book. If it were simply a Historical Romance; the expectation of an engaging investigation and faster overall plot pace, would not be an issue.
This is a book for people who like vibrant characters, romance, and the quirk, charm, and crazy of old New Orleans. This is a book that can be easily read in one sitting, and it is also a standalone.