Read All I Want Is Forever Online

Authors: Lynn Emery

All I Want Is Forever (3 page)

“I divide my time between chasing a dollar and helping a few folks who don't have big money muscle.” Talia lifted a shoulder. “Makes me feel less guilty about helping low people in high places.”

“Bull, you care about people. You always have,” Derrick said with quiet force. “I thought you'd be a nurse or a social worker.”

“And take a vow of poverty? Not hardly. I had my fill of being poor and downtrodden, thank you very much,” she said bitterly.

Derrick closed a large hand over one of hers. “You made it out, baby,” he said softly. “It's okay.”

Talia stared into his clear, dark eyes and almost got lost. She pulled back with great effort. “I've got a good life,” she said too quickly.

“You've got a lot of friends to stand by you. That Jarrod guy for one.” Derrick let go of her hand and picked up his glass.

“Jarrod was one of the first people who helped me in this town. He's a real nice person,” Talia said. She shot a sideways glance at him.

Derrick nodded. “I like the way he jumped to protect you. He's alright. But you don't need to be protected from me, Talia.”

“I never told him anything, just that I'm from Louisiana and a little about Mama Rose.” Talia swirled the straw around in her glass.

He sighed and put down his glass. “I'm not talking about him. I've been in town three days. I debated looking you up.”

“Derrick, it wasn't you.” Talia's voice trailed off.

“I know. You needed a clean break.” Derrick stared at his strong hands clasped together. “Things were rough.”

“But we both made it through,” she murmured. “All that is behind us now.”

“Is it?” He looked at her.

“Yes,” Talia said vehemently. “Over and done with years ago.”

“Lately I've been thinking about those days.”

“Don't,” she said. “You're not responsible.”

“Monette wrote to me four months ago, Talia. She's got a new lawyer.”

“She's always getting a new lawyer. Another scam, a new scheme. Same old Monette.”

“I thought you two didn't keep in touch.” Derrick looked at Talia steadily.

“I get a letter now and then from my half sister.” Talia frowned. “I tried to tell her about Monette. She's too young to remember. Her adoptive parents are great people. But Alyssa had this need to find her biological parents.”

“And you. She wanted to find her sister and brother,” Derrick said.

“Yeah, finding Karl was easy since he was always in jail,” Talia retorted.

“He had it bad, too,” Derrick said.

“So have other people. They didn't hold up convenience stores because of it.” Talia wore a hard expression.

“Okay, you've got a good point. But, Talia—”

“I really don't want to talk about him, or anything connected to that part of my life.” She glanced around as she cut him off.

“I only wanted to spend time with you before…Let's have dinner tonight. There's something you need to know before it hits the newspapers.”

“Here we are!”

The waiter stood at the table with two large dinner plates on a tray. He set them down in front of Talia first, then Derrick. Talia had completely lost her interest in lunch. A sick queasy feeling of dread lay in her stomach like a rock.

“Enjoy. Need anything else? Are we good?” Tony smiled at them.

“We're fine, thanks,” Derrick said. He watched the waiter leave, then turned back to Talia.

The grave expression on his handsome face gave Talia chills. “Why the big mystery?”

“I've been talking to Monette for the past six months. I think you need to know what's going on. And no, she didn't ask me to tell you.”

Talia gave a small, cynical laugh. The rock in her stomach crumbled. She was on familiar ground. “Like I said, one of Monette's schemes. Okay, dinner it is then.”

“Good.” Derrick nodded and lowered his voice as he leaned even closer. “But it's not what you think. I'll tell you this much, there's a good chance Monette will get
out of prison. It may take another five months, but it'll happen.”

“I've heard that before, but whatever,” Talia replied. She picked up her fork. “I refuse to let her ruin a great lunch.”

Despite her words, Talia did not eat much of her spinach salad. She glanced at her watch. Before she spoke, Derrick got the waiter's attention. Within minutes he'd paid for the meal, left Tony a generous tip, and escorted her out of the restaurant.

“There's a great Chinese restaurant called City Lights of China. I'll meet you there at about—”

“You don't want me to know where you live.” Derrick gazed at her with sadness in his dark eyes.

“I just thought it would be easier with both of us having a long day and…” Talia's voice faded, and she sighed.

“It's okay. We can meet there,” he said quietly.

Talia fumbled in her purse for a business card and pen. She wrote on the back of it. “Here's the address.”

Derrick didn't take it. “I said it's okay.”

“I didn't mean—” Talia stepped closer and placed the card in his hand.

“I'll meet you at seven-thirty tonight.” Still Derrick closed his large hand around hers and took the card.

Talia swallowed hard. The years rolled away, and she could see them together, two teenagers seeking comfort from a harsh world. The scent and sound of the bayou rushed back to her. She could almost hear the musical blending of crickets and cicadas in the sultry Louisiana summer twilight. A strong memory of the smell of gardenias in bloom hit her. They had sat on Miss Rose's gallery many a night staring at the stars for hours in silence. Then suddenly he would wrap an arm around her. He would always be there to protect her. No one and nothing could change what was be
tween them. Yet the fear and embarrassment her mother caused had only grown. At seventeen Talia had gotten her way out. She won a scholarship to a high school in Natchitoches, Louisiana, for academically gifted teens. Derrick had known the day she got on the Greyhound bus to leave Rougon that she was running away from him as well. He never said a word, but he knew. She'd seen it in his eyes as he stood watching the bus pull away. The next year Derrick had left town to attend a community college.

Derrick got into a cab and waved once. He gazed at her as it drove away. Talia tried to push down the rise of an old fear. She should have known this day would come.

 

Three hours later she sat in the conference room with six other staffers of Gallagher and Associates. Even on a Friday afternoon they were hard at it. Peter Gallagher liked to start out every week with a strategy session and pep talk. He ended the week with a postmortem. Both were prime reasons his firm got results on the Hill. Eileen Vargas rattled off figures she'd discussed with congressional aides. The petite brunette slapped her leather portfolio closed.

“I think it's dead in the water. Hell, you've seen the news stories. Television stories that show little old ladies taking long bus rides to Mexico for cheap medicine.” She shrugged. “I'm good, but I'm not
that
good.” Her remark brought laughter.

“I hear ya. Our clients already look like a bunch of callous money-grubbers,” Bill Elliot chimed in. His Texas drawl, though softened after years in Washington, was still evident.

“Big insurance companies
are
callous money-grubbers,” Jasmine Hellinger spoke up. She was the firm's liberal conscience. She tossed her long, intri
cately braided auburn hair. Her cocoa brown face was pretty despite her deep frown of distaste.

“Yeah, but it's our job to convince people they're not,” Eileen replied with a wink.

“Real nice,” Jasmine muttered.

“Let's be fair. The Association of Insurers donates a lot of green to charities. And their employees are number one in volunteerism,” Bill said.

“Sure. After they help people become homeless, they serve them warm gruel at soup kitchens around the country. How giving of them!” Jasmine retorted.

“We all need insurance, Jas,” Eileen put in, and took a sip of kava juice from a bottle.

“Right, right.” Jasmine waved a hand.

They went on to another subject. Talia moved the swivel chair in half circles and paid token attention. She did manage to jump in with her own report of the week when it was her turn. Peter listened intently as she spoke. The others asked a few questions. Talia finished up with a summary of her meeting with Senator Collins. The others went on discussing strategy and the latest political rumors that might affect their lobbying efforts. Talia tried to take an interest. Instead she stared out the window, her thoughts hundreds of miles and a life away.

“What's got that faraway look in your eye, Talia?” Pete rocked back in his chair. His green eyes gazed at her over long fingers that formed a steeple. “You should be on top of the world.”

Talia snapped out of her trance and blinked at him. “It's been one heck of a long week. Guess the fallout is catching up with me. Too little sleep and too much bad coffee.”

“Maybe you want to take time off. If you need to go home again, let me know.” Pete studied her with a concerned expression.

“I'm fine.” Talia shook her head. “Thanks anyway.”

“Glad to hear it. But you might still get a trip home. You'll be interested in our new clients.” Pete wore a wide grin. “The Louisiana Association of District Attorneys, the Louisiana State Police, and the Louisiana Association of Trial Lawyers.”

“So that's why he's in town,” Talia said in an undertone.

“What?” Pete blinked at her curiously.

“Nothing, nothing,” Talia said quickly.

Derrick worked as an investigator for the Pointe Coupee Parish District Attorney. He'd been with that office for at least six years. Pete described how they'd contacted him. Talia didn't listen. All she could think of was Derrick's collusion in Monette's latest plot. The last thing Talia needed was Monette messing with her life again. Derrick had a misplaced need to rescue women in distress. In this case the woman in question had a long rap sheet, a drug problem, and enjoyed using people until their lives were ruined. Talia clenched both hands into fists.

“Damn him!” Talia whispered.

The words “new clients” had gotten the attention of her colleagues. All were young, ambitious, and loved jumping into new assignments. Jasmine's hazelnut eyes sparkled with interest. Eileen stopped in the middle of teasing Bill and leaned both elbows on the table.

“Defense attorneys usually fight whatever the other two want,” Jasmine put in. “Strange bedfellows as the old saying goes.”

“Yeah, what's up with that?” Eileen looked at Pete.

“They're interested in changing mandatory drug-sentencing laws, but for very different reasons,” Pete said. “District attorneys want to ease prison crowding and clogged court dockets. The defense attorneys feel the law targets minorities and is therefore discriminatory.”

“Touchy issue. President Bush certainly doesn't want to be accused of being soft on drug dealers.” Bill rubbed his jaw.

“Neither does Congress,” Eileen added.

“Long shot,” Jasmine said tersely.

While Pete continued talking, Talia's mind spun with the new information. Derrick knew more about
her mother's push to get out of prison than he'd let on.

Monette had been arrested with over a kilo of high-grade cocaine six months after that awful night. Talia had been in the courtroom as they read the sentence. While her maternal aunts wailed at the forty-year sentence, Talia showed no emotion. In truth she'd been numb for six months. Still she restrained herself from showing how she really felt, that Monette was finally getting what she deserved.

Jasmine leaned over to her. “Girlfriend, you look like someone just put a big fat bug on your salad plate and asked you to taste it. Tell me what's going on,” she said quietly.

Talia massaged her temples. “I've got a headache. Nothing a couple of Advil won't cure.”

She'd grown as close to Jasmine as she had to anyone in her life. Yet there was a part of Talia no one could share. Not in this new and improved life of hers. Derrick had ridden into town like a Creole cowboy dragging trouble with him.

“So that's about it. Okay, Marchand. This is right up your alley.” Pete swung his chair to face her. “And I'm sure Jasmine is eager to lend you a hand.”

“You know it,” Jasmine said promptly.

“What?” Talia said sharply. “I've got my hands full, Pete. Besides, I don't care if scumbag drug dealers rot in prison.” She could not keep the bitterness from her tone.

Her stomach twisted as she fought the darkness that threatened to swallow her up. Sometimes at two in the morning she still had nightmares from her childhood. Except these dreams were based in reality. Suddenly she would be five years old again and shivering in the cold on a filthy mattress. Talia's hand shook as she massaged her temples again.

“Hey, babe. It's okay.” Eileen poured her a glass of cold grapefruit juice. “Drink up.”

Talia glanced around to find them gazing at her in surprise. “Sorry,” she said in a strangled voice, and took a long drink.

“If you feel so strongly about the issue, then I'll hand it off to someone else.”

Pete stared at her hard. Despite what most people thought they knew about Gallagher and Associates, their boss was moderate in his political views. He liked to think of himself as a commonsense conservative, not slavish to the party line. In fact he infuriated many conservatives by landing too far left for their tastes on certain issues. Which explained their eclectic client list. Talia knew what he was thinking.

“I should keep an open mind until I hear all the facts. Well, I know them already.”

“Really? Read this first. I made copies for everyone.” Pete liked his top staff to know about every assignment. He believed it made them a better team. “Look at those examples and tell me if you feel the same.”

Jasmine flipped open the first page of the blue folder. She tapped a forefinger on the photocopy of a newspaper article. “I read about this kid. She gets hooked up with the wrong boyfriend in college. When he gets caught with drugs, he rolls on her. Result?”

“Here we go,” Bill muttered as he rolled his eyes. “She gets to rant about men and conservatives.”

“Even better, conservative men,” Eileen said with a grin.

“He gets off with a slap on the wrist and she gets a life sentence for drug and gun smuggling.” Jasmine slapped the table hard. “Low-down dog!”

“Excuse me, but little Miss Debutante knew he was dealing on the side.” Talia held up a hand to stop Jasmine's protest. “I'll save my tears this time, okay?”

“She shouldn't serve a life sentence for being young
and stupid.” Jasmine leaned forward. “Most of these cases involve poor, minority kids.”

Talia glanced away from the intense young woman's gaze. Mama Rose had said the same thing about Monette time after time. “Go to it then. Save all those little idiots from themselves.”

Pete sat straight and looked Talia in the eye. “Certainly Jasmine will help on this one. But it's
you
they want, Talia. The DA from your hometown specifically mentioned your reputation.”

A nasty suspicion took root as Talia drummed her fingers on the leather chair's arm. “I don't know the man,” she said in a curt tone.

“He knows you or at least your work,” Pete replied. He flipped through the report. “And he wants help dealing with the state legislature as well.”

“Louisiana isn't known for being liberal on law and order issues. The legislature defeated a bill just this year to reduce sentences for several nonviolent crimes.” Talia frowned.

“Is that right?” Pete propped both elbows on the table.

Talia nodded. “In fact, this is a reversal of their position. But then it might make sense.”

“How's that?” Eileen asked.

“A number of legislators, even some hard cases, have said building more jails isn't the answer.” Talia lifted a shoulder. “I have to say they surprised me with that one.”

“Lock 'em up, and let 'em rot? Is that really how you feel?” Jasmine asked.

“No, but—” Talia cleared her throat. “Look, maybe this young woman needs a break.”

“She's one of many,” Jasmine said.

“I'm really busy. Besides, Jas here is damn good. She can handle it.” Talia smiled at her.

“Hell yeah I can.” Jasmine nodded. “But you know Louisiana politics and all the nuances.”

“I haven't lived there in over ten years.” Talia tapped a forefinger on the smooth surface of the conference table.

“But you've obviously kept up on what's happening in the state,” Pete said. “Jasmine is right on target. That kind of insight is invaluable.”

Talia pressed her lips together too late.
Nice going, big mouth!
She was backed into a corner. Her colleagues would wonder if she continued to fight on this one.

“Fine,” Talia said with a tight smile.

The others went on talking about the weekend. Talia spun her favorite Cross pen in a circle. She couldn't wait to see Derrick. He would get a piece of her mind for the neat little setup he had engineered.

 

Derrick stood in the foyer of the Chinese restaurant. He glanced several times at his watch.
Relax. You're early
. Still, a knot of tension in his neck muscles wouldn't listen to logic. She'd run from him before. Maybe she wouldn't show.

They'd grown up and not seen each other in more than five years. The last time was in the hospital when Miss Rose suffered a mild heart attack. He hadn't expected to see her. Derrick shook his head. Not true. He'd known eventually they would meet if he kept going to visit Miss Rose. Talia would never have stayed away knowing her foster mother was ill. She hadn't been happy to see him then either. Or was she? Maybe the warm spark in her beautiful brown eyes when she first saw him was all in his mind. In any event she kept her distance then just as she wanted to now. Not that he intended to rekindle a teenage flame.

“I'm here,” Talia said over his shoulder.

Derrick started at the soft, sensuous voice and turned quickly. Talia gazed up at him. Fire started at
the base of his spine when he looked into her eyes. The lovely girl was now a heart-stopping gorgeous woman of thirty. At five-foot-six, the top of her head just reached his chin. She wore dark red lipstick that made her mouth look succulent and delicious.

Talia wore a lipstick red silk shirt tucked into a matching short skirt. The soft fabric draped her lush curves to perfection. A large printed scarf was draped over her right shoulder. Her thick dark bronze hair was swept up into a French twist. Derrick had a flash of slowly taking it loose until it draped her naked shoulders. Pure, simple lust seized him. He took a step close to her and brushed his mouth against hers. Talia gave a tiny gasp, but didn't move away. She stared into his eyes as though looking for the answer to some critical question.

Derrick blinked hard, unable to take his eyes from her. “You look fantastic.” He swept both hands out.

“I-I'm a little late, sorry,” she murmured.

“I hadn't noticed.” Derrick lifted a hand to touch her hair. He stopped when Talia tilted her head away slightly.

The headwaiter, ready and efficient, moved up with a smile. “Table for two?”

She cleared her throat. “By the way, that's not your shade. Let's go to our table.”

Derrick took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped lipstick from his mouth. “Right.”

“Nonsmoking,” Talia said to the headwaiter.

Derrick watched her stroll with her head up, hips swaying. Men turned to look despite being with dates. Though obviously surprised by his kiss, she had quickly regained her poise. He burned in a way that told him he'd have trouble sleeping later. He was a fool stuck in an adolescent dream, he told himself.

“Is this okay?” The thin man looked at Derrick expectantly. He gestured to a table set against the wall.

“Sure,” he managed to get out.

They sat down and ordered drinks when their waitress arrived. Talia asked for merlot while he ordered a glass of Chinese beer. Once the woman was gone, they avoided looking at each other for several moments.

“It's been a long time,” Talia said finally.

“Over five years,” he replied.

“Yes.” Talia gave a slight nod.

“And here we are.” Derrick glanced at her.

She gazed at him steadily, both eyebrows raised. They were the same dark, communicative frames above her eyes. He recognized the expression from their childhood days. She was about to pounce.

“Not by accident either.”

“Your boss told you.” Derrick sat back as though to dodge her first jab.

“Didn't think I'd go back to the office I suppose.”

“No I—”

“When were you planning to tell me? And I'm sure this has something to do with that bit of news you shared about Monette.” Talia stabbed a forefinger at him.

“Only indirectly.” Derrick broke off when the waitress arrived with their drinks.

“Ready to order?” The young woman smiled at them.

Talia ordered chicken with broccoli and Derrick ordered Szechuan beef. The waitress darted off. Seconds later Talia scowled at him.

“You might try telling me the truth,” Talia snapped.

“I've always been real with you, Talia.” Derrick squinted at her. “Name one time I lied.”

She lowered her hand. “You're right. It's just…” Her voice trailed off and she took a sip of wine.

“You think I'm trying to mess up your well-ordered world.” Derrick shook his head slowly. “I only want the
best for you. I tried to protect you back then and—”

“You don't have to say it.” Talia drew in a shaky breath.

At that moment the confident, bold woman dissolved. Talia closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and took another sip of wine. Her smooth skin seemed pale with dread as though a ghost had sat down next to her. In a way that was exactly what he represented, a haunting reminder of something she'd buried long ago. Talia put down the wineglass and clasped her hands together. She seemed to pull inward to protect herself. He ached to take her in his arms, to caress away the fear.

“No one will hurt you if I can help it. That includes me, Talia. I wouldn't have come under other circumstances.” Derrick clenched one hand to dull the pain. “I know how you feel.”

Talia didn't speak for several seconds. Her expression softened when she looked at him again. “Sorry. Guess I haven't dealt with my issues very well.”

Derrick smiled. “Hey, we go back a long way. Don't worry about speaking your mind to me. You never did.”

“My mouth used to get me in all kinds of trouble.” Her full lips lifted, a tantalizing hint of a smile.

His heart turned over at the sight. Derrick leaned close to her. “Got you out of a lot of trouble, too. Remember that time I almost got caught stealing Mr. Boudreaux's figs? He came out with that old gun loaded with buckshot.”

“Oh yeah,” Talia said. She tilted her head to one side. “You and that undesirable element you hung around with almost got shot that day.”

Derrick grinned at her. “Poor old guy went crazy trying to keep us out of his fig trees. You popped out from the bushes with that wide-eyed innocent expres
sion and charmed his socks off. Amazing the way he just swallowed that tale you told.”

“You mean about the swarm of squirrels? Mr. Boudreaux's lightbulb was short a few watts, you know.”

Derrick threw back his head and laughed hard. Talia laughed with him after a second. They were wiping their eyes by the time the waitress appeared with their food. The tension between them vanished. As they ate, they shared other funny stories of childhood exploits.

“Man, I never realized how bad we were until now,” Derrick said. “We were always into something.”

“Forget that ‘we' stuff.
You
were always into something, Derrick Guillory.” Talia poked his arm.

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