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Under the Lights: A thrilling, second-chance romance duet. (Bright Lights Duet #1)
Author:Tia Louise

Under the Lights: A thrilling, second-chance romance duet. (Bright Lights Duet #1)

Tia Louise





For the heroes.





1





“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald





Mark


The first thing I see is the gun on the floor.

Fear tightens my neck, and I’m frozen in the doorway. My backpack slides from my shoulder down my arm as ice trickles into my veins. The room smells like the fourth of July, firecrackers mixed with the musty odor of smoke and damp.

It’s hot.


The air barely moves in New Orleans at this time of year.

The dog days.

“Uncle Rick?” My voice is low and even.

My closest living relative, a man I barely know, is hunched in the fetal position on the couch. Eyes closed, both his hands are between his knees, and his lips have disappeared in his teeth.

He could be sleeping, napping while watching a television show. Only the screen is black, and he’s not responding.

Fuck. The ice in my veins melts into panic. My eyes dart around the room assessing the scene. Drawers open. Papers spread across the hardwood floor. The corner of the rug is curled under… Signs of a struggle?

I should slowly leave the room, go downstairs, and call 911 to report a crime.

I don’t.

I swallow the fear and pick my way forward, across the small apartment to where my few possessions are stashed. I’ve been here less than a week, long enough to grow suspicious of his late-night errands, the jerk of surprise when the phone rings after hours, the presence of a .44 Magnum at the dinner table.

Uncle Rick was annoyed when I showed up on his doorstep last week, looking for a place to crash. My plan was to come here, study hard, and get into the police academy.

“You can crash until you’ve found a place to live,” he growled. “By the end of the week.”

He was my father’s only sibling, and I’d taken a gamble coming here. Then, when he found out my plans, he was even more pissed.

“Why the fuck you wanna be a pig?”

He said I was “part of the problem.”

Naturally, I disagreed.

“I want to fight crime, find men like the ones who ruined my dad and bring them to justice,” I’d say.

The ones who run the off-track betting rings. The ones who own the prostitutes. The ones who take everything men have and ruin them.

I wanted to be a hero.

He said I was a fool.

Now who’s the fool…

My eyes fix on the handgun on the floor. Don’t touch anything.

Covering my hand with my sleeve, I open the closet door and scoop my few hanging clothes off the rack. A fatigue-green army-surplus bag is in the corner. I shove my extra pair of boots, shirts, underwear… everything I brought with me in it, then I do my best to retrace my steps to the door.

Out on the street, I don’t pause before heading up the damp sidewalk. Light mist fills the heavy air, and it’s after nine on a Wednesday. Nobody’s walking the dark streets. Nobody sees me walking away from a crime scene.

My gut twists, and I feel sick thinking about him dead on the couch. Even if I didn’t really know him, he’s kin. I have to let the cops know… Leave an anonymous tip or something.

For now, I’ve got to find a place to go. It helps that I’ve been searching for my own place since I arrived. Crossing the street, I head toward the river. I remember reading about a few hostels and rooms for rent closer to the shipyards. At worst, I could get a room at the YMCA.

Six more blocks, and I start to encounter the stragglers coming off Bourbon Street. It’s the street that never sleeps in the city of excess.

A block away, I stand and watch the bodies slowly passing like a drunk parade in the middle of the night, always moving. Making my way around the perimeter, I read the street signs, looking for the place from memory.

The Marigny is a single door squeezed between a daiquiri shop and a wig and souvenir store. If you’re not looking for it, you’ll walk right past and never even see it. A skinny guy who looks about ten years older than me sits on the front stoop smoking a cigarette, watching the herd of tourists slowly pass.

“Any rooms available?” I pull my cap lower on my brow. I’m tall, and if I play my cards right, I can look older.

As the guy glances at me, a tendril of smoke curls into his eye and makes him squint. He’s dark, Italian or Acadian, and when he pushes off his knees to stand, his head only reaches the top of my shoulder. I dwarf him with my pack on my back.

Black eyes assess my frame. “Where that accent from?”

I’ve only just gotten used to people swapping d for th in the Quarter. Where dat accent from?

“Evergreen.”

“Where that?”

“Avoyelles Parish.”

He takes another long drag before he nods. “Are you strong?”

“Who wants to know?” My response is sharp. The shock of the night is wearing off, and unless this guy is the manager, I don’t feel like small talk.

“Terrence Price.” Cigarette in mouth, he sticks out a hand.

I pause before giving it a shake. “Mark Fitzhugh.” His eyebrows rise and my brow lowers. “Family name. You got a problem?”

“No. Fitz. I like it.” Cigarette out. “Got a burlesque show at the corner of Royal and Orleans looking for a crew. Go with me tomorrow, and you can have a job.”

“What makes you think I need a job?”

“Why you here?”

“I don’t know.” I don’t know if I want to stay in this city. The bad luck of my family feels like it’s already found me. At the same time, I have nowhere else to go.

“Come on, you kidding? Pretty ladies showing their tits.” He leans closer. “Play your cards right, and you get a private show.”

He grins and drives an elbow into my arm. The memory of Rick dead on the couch creeps at the corners of my thoughts, and I shake my head, shake them away.

“Not into girls?” Terrence draws back. “I could see if they need anybody at Oz—”

“No.” Clearing my throat, I wave my hand. “I like girls. I’m just… Rough day.”

“In that case.” He opens the front door. “Get some rest. Take Room 12. I leave in the morning at nine. Meet me here, and you can see what you think.”

I leave him on the stoop and enter the narrow building. Two yellow lamps spaced evenly down the length of the passage light the dim hall, and a staircase leading up is at the very back. The hall is lined with doors, and each has a small brass plaque engraved with a number. Number 12 is the first on the left.

Inside, it can’t be more than ninety square feet, shallow and wide with no windows. A bed is against the back wall, and a small table and lamp are centered to the left. On the opposite wall is a narrow armoire. I catch the faint whiff of hospital grade ammonia under the stale smell of dust. At least it’s clean.