So he kept his anger locked in and refused to say anything to hurt her feelings.

Unfortunately, his mother gave him no reprieve. "Don't you get sullen on me, boy. I'm sick of that look on your face. Tell me why you attacked that kid. Now."

Nick clenched his teeth tight.

"Answer me, Nick, or so help me, I'll spank you, even at your age."

He had to stop himself from rolling his eyes at her ludicrous threat. Even at fourteen, he was more than a head taller than his tiny mother and he had a good forty pounds on her. "He made fun of me."

"And for that you'd jeopardize your entire future? What were you thinking? He laughed at you. So what? Believe me, that's not the worst thing that will ever happen to you. You have to grow up, Nicky, and stop acting like a baby. Just because someone mocks you is no reason to fight. Now is it?"

No. He swallowed attacks against him all the time. What he wouldn't suffer were attacks against his mom. And he shouldn't have to. "I'm sorry."

She held her hand up. "Don't even go there. You're not sorry. I can see it in your eyes. I am so disappointed in you. I thought I'd taught you better, but apparently you're determined to grow up into a no-account criminal just like your daddy, in spite of everything I do to keep you straight. Now go to your room until I calm down. You can stay there for the rest of the day."

"I'm supposed to work this afternoon. Ms. Liza needs me to help move her stock around in the storeroom."

She growled. "Fine. You can go, but then it's straight home. You hear me? I don't want you wasting time with any of those hoodlums you call friends."

"Yes, ma'am." Nick headed to his "room" and pulled the blankets closed. Sick and tired of it all, he sat down on the old, lumpy mattress and leaned his head back against the wall where he saw the pieces of the ceiling that were discolored and peeling up.

And then he heard it. .

The sound of his mother's tears coming through the wall of her bedroom. God, how he hated that sound.

"I'm sorry, Mom," he whispered, wishing he'd strangled Stone where the creep stood.

One day ... one day he was going to get out of this hellhole. Even if he had to kill someone to do it.

It was nine o'clock when Nick left Liza's store. He'd already picked up his assignments from Brynna at her huge mansion of a house on his way into work. Then he'd put in five hours so that he could save money for his "college fund." 'Course at the rate it was accumulating, he'd be fifty before he could go. But something was better than nothing.

Liza locked the door to her shop while he stood behind her to shield her from anyone who might be watching them. "Good night, Nicky. Thanks for all your help."

"Night, Liza." He waited until she was safely in her car and on her way home before he headed down Royal Street toward the Square. The closest streetcar stop was over behind Jackson Brewery. But as he neared the Square, he wanted to see his mom and apologize for getting suspended.

She told you to go straight home____

Yeah, but he'd made her cry and he hated whenever he did that. Besides, the condo was really lonely when he was there alone at night. They didn't have TV or anything else to do.

And he'd already read Hammer's Slammers until he could quote it.

Maybe if he apologized, she'd let him hang out at the club for the night.

So instead of turning right, he made a left and headed for her club on Bourbon Street. The faint sounds of jazz and zydeco music coming out of stores and restaurants soothed him. Closing his eyes as he walked, he inhaled the sweet smell of cinnamon and gumbo as he passed the Cafe Pontalba. His stomach rumbled. Since he hadn't been at school, his lunch had consisted of more powdered eggs and bacon, and he had yet to eat dinner . which would be those nasty eggs again.

Not wanting to think about that, he walked down the narrow alley to the back door of the club and knocked.

John Chartier, one of the huge burly bouncers who watched out for the dancers, opened it with a fierce frown—until he saw Nick. A wide smile spread over his face. "Hey, buddy. You here to see your mom?"

"Yeah. Is she on stage yet?"

"Nah, she's still got a few minutes." He stood back so that Nick could walk down the dark back hallway to the green room.

He paused at the door to the room where the dancers dressed and rested between performances, and knocked.

Tiffany answered. Absolutely stunning, she was tall and blond ... and barely dressed in a G-string and lacy top.

Even though he'd been raised around women dressed like that and was used to it, his face flamed bright red as he kept his gaze on the floor. It was like seeing his sister naked.

Tiffany laughed, cupping his chin in her hand. "Cherise? It's your Nicky." She squeezed his chin affectionately. "You're so sweet the way you won't look at us. I knew it was you when you knocked. No one else is so nice. All I can say is your mama is raising you right."

Nick mumbled a thank-you as he stepped past her and made his way to his mom's dressing station. He kept his gaze down until he was sure his mom was covered by her pink bathrobe.

But when he caught her furious glare in the chipped mirror where she was putting on her makeup, his stomach hit the floor. There was no forgiveness in that face tonight.

"I thought I told you to go straight home."

"I wanted to say I was sorry again."

She put down her mascara wand. "No, you didn't. You wanted to try and make me tell you that you didn't have to stay on restriction. I won't have it, Nicholas Ambrosius Gautier. And your paltry apology doesn't change the fact that you knew better. You have to learn to think before you act. That temper of yours is going to get you into serious trouble one day. Just like it did your father. Now go home and contemplate what you did and how wrong it was."

"But Mom—"

"Don't 'but Mom' me. Go!"

"Cherise!" her handler shouted, letting her know it was time to go on stage.

She stood up. "I mean it, Nick. Go home."

Nick turned around and left the club, feeling even worse than he had when he'd left Liza's. Why wouldn't his mom believe in him?

Why couldn't she see that he wasn't trying to play her?

Whatever ... He was tired of trying to convince the world, and especially his mom, that he wasn't worthless.

On the street, he headed down Bourbon toward Canal, where he could pick up a closer streetcar. He hated when his mom treated him like a criminal. He was not his father. He would never be like that man.

Fine, Ill never protect your honor again. Let them insult and mock you. See if I care. Why should he bother when doing the right thing made her so mad at him?

Angry, hurt, and disgusted, he heard someone call his name.

Pausing, he saw Tyree, Alan, and Mike across the street, hanging outside a tourist bead and mask store. They waved him over.

Nick crossed the street to tap his fist against theirs. "What's up?"

Tyree leaned his head back in silent salute to him. "Hanging. What you doing?" "Heading home."

Tyree slapped at the collar of Nick's orange shirt. "Boy, what you got on? That shit's hideous."

Nick slapped his hand away. "Clothes. What's that crap you got on and what truck did it fall off of?"

Tyree snorted and preened. "These my Romeo threads. They make all the ladies call me tasty."

Nick scoffed. "Tasty-crazy. Them ain't no Romeo duds. Those fashions by Geek Street."

They all laughed.

Mike sobered. "Look, we got a thing tonight and we could use a fourth. You want in? It should be worth a couple hundred dollars to you."

Nick's eyes widened at the sum. That was a lot of money. Tyree, Mike, and Alan were hustlers. Though his mom would have a stroke if she ever found out, he'd been known to help them a time or two when they'd scammed locals and tourists. "Pool, poker, or craps?"

Alan and Tyree exchanged an amused look. "This is more a job of watchdog. At least for you. We got the big boss from Storyville who's paying us to shake down some deadbeats. It'll only take a couple of minutes."

Nick screwed his face up. "I don't know about that."

Tyree tsked. "C'mon, Nick. We don't have much time before we have to be there and we really need someone to watch the street. Five minutes and you'll make more money than working a month for that old lady."

Nick looked back toward his mom's club. Normally, he'd have told them to forget it, but right now ...

If everyone's going to call me a worthless delinquent, I might as well be one.

'Cause living right sure wasn't paying off for him. "You sure it's five minutes?"

Tyree nodded. "Absolutely. In and out and we're done."

Then he could be home and his mom wouldn't be the wiser. For once, he enjoyed the thought of sticking it to her, even though she would never know about it. "All right. I'm in."

"Good man."

Nick looked at Alan, who was nineteen. "Can you guys give me a ride home after?" "For you, boy? Anything."

Nodding, Nick followed them over to a seedy part of North Rampart. Tyree put him on the street, blocking an alley.

"You stay right here and watch for the Five-O. Let us know if you see anyone."

Nick inclined his head to him.

They vanished into the shadows while he stood there, waiting. After a few minutes, an old couple walked past him on the sidewalk. By their dress and manners, he could tell they were tourists just taking a late stroll off the beaten path.

"Hi there," the woman said to him, smiling.

"Hi." Nick returned the expression. But his smile died an instant later when Alan leapt out of the shadows to grab the woman while Tyree knocked the man into a wall.

Nick was stunned. "What are you doing?"

"Shut up!" Alan snarled, pulling out a gun. "All right, grandpa. Give us your money or the old ho gets it right between her eyes."

Nick felt the color drain from his face. This couldn't be happening. They were mugging two tourists? And I'm helping____

For a full minute he couldn't breathe as he watched the woman cry and the man beg them not to hurt her.

Before he even realized what he was doing, he grabbed Alan's hand that held the gun and knocked it away. "Run!" he shouted at the couple.

They did.

Tyree started after them, but Nick tackled him to the ground.

Alan caught him by the collar of his shirt and jerked him back. "Man, what are you doing?"

Nick shoved him. "I can't let you mug someone. That wasn't the deal."

"You stupid ." Alan hit him in the face with the gun.

Pain exploded in Nick's skull as he tasted blood.

"You're going to pay for that, Gautier."

The three of them descended on him so fast and furious that he couldn't even see to fight back. One minute he was standing and the next he was on the ground with his arms wrapped around his head to protect it from the gun Alan was beating him with. They stomped and beat on him until he lost all feeling in his legs and one arm.

Alan stepped back and angled the gun on him. "Say your prayers, Gautier. You're about to become a statistic."

CHAPTER 2

Nick wanted to lash out so badly he could taste it. I won't die like this. Not beaten in a gutter by people whore supposed to be my friends. Guys IVe known and played with my whole life. I won't.

Yet here he lay.

Helpless. Weak.

Defeated.

Not only were his taste buds drenched with blood, he felt like he was suffocating on it. His mind ached to fight until they were begging him for mercy—it wanted him to get up and make them eat their teeth, but his body refused to cooperate. Nothing was listening to him. Heck, he couldn't even keep them from hitting him.

Unable to do anything at all, he glared his hatred at Alan and hoped that the look alone would haunt the rat for the rest of eternity.

Alan laughed as he squeezed the trigger. Holding his breath, Nick waited for the sound that would end his life.

Out of the darkness, a blur rushed in at the same instant Alan fired the gun. One moment, Tyree, Alan, and Mike were laughing at his pain while they insulted him. In the next, they were flying through the air and hitting the ground near him hard enough to break bones.

Nick froze as he tried to figure out where he'd been shot, but his body hurt so much that he couldn't tell. Maybe it

missed me. . . .

Lying on the street, he caught a flash of blond hair and black clothes as someone attacked his ex-friends.

Alan cried out and the gun landed on the ground beside him.

The blond man tsked. "Shame you're too young to kill. But in two years, I catch you doing this crap again, you won't live long enough to rethink it." With one hand, he threw Alan into the street like a rag doll.



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