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Amanda Stevens

The Dollmaker

For Leanne, Lucas and Steven

I am deeply grateful to my editor, Denise Zaza, and everyone at MIRA Books for their encouragement and support and for helping me turn a dream into reality. Many thanks to my agent, Helen Breitwieser, for her advice and enthusiasm, and most of all, for not allowing this story to fade away. Thanks also to Carla Luan and Heather MacAllister for their tireless brainstorming and critiquing and to Leanne Amann for her innovative PR strategies.

Prologue

The doll was getting to him. Even though Travis McSwain wasn’t a man easily spooked. She was so lifelike that anyone glancing through the shop window might mistake her for a pretty, little, blond-haired girl.

But up close, the eyes gave her away. They looked like pieces of turquoise. Travis had never seen real eyes that color.

He didn’t like staring at her for too long because his mind kept playing tricks on him. Earlier, when he’d packed her up to bring her into the city, he could have sworn those glass eyes followed his every move. They gave him the chills so bad he’d had half a mind to chuck her in the swamp. But he needed the money and so here he was.

The shopkeeper glanced up from her inspection. “She’s stunning. Absolutely breathtaking. If you’ll just give me a few more minutes we can discuss your payment terms.”

“Take your time,” Travis muttered, but he wished to hell the woman would hurry up. The sooner he got rid of the doll the sooner he’d breathe a lot easier.

Something about that porcelain face creeped him out. It was almost as if Travis had seen her before, in a dream maybe, but he didn’t know how that could be possible. She was one of a kind.

He’d gone up to the old Sweete place looking for work, and when he spotted the doll through the front window, he’d decided to snatch her, because that’s what he did. He took things that didn’t belong to him. It was some kind of sickness, he reckoned.

Before his Pentecostal mother went off the deep end, she used to weep and pray for his immortal soul, but his daddy had favored another approach. Whenever Travis got caught using the five-finger discount, the old man would take a belt to his hide, work him over good until his back and butt cheeks resembled raw steak.

But after the first time Travis got sent off to juvenile detention in St. James Parish, Cletus McSwain’s attitude had changed. He’d pretty much washed his hands of his son. “One of these days you’ll pinch from the wrong person, boy, and end up with a bullet right between the eyeballs. And when that happens, I’ll be damned if I shed a tear over your sorry ass.”

Well, that was fair. Because Travis sure as hell hadn’t done much crying when the pious old bastard got swept off a shrimp boat and drowned in the Gulf. And now here Travis stood, right as rain, while his daddy swam with the fishes down in Terrebonne Bay.

Sometimes you just had to laugh at how things worked out.

Travis leaned an elbow on the counter and tried to assume a casual air as the shopkeeper continued to study the doll. But every once in a while, when the woman wasn’t looking, his gaze would dart to the front window. He didn’t like to put much stock in his old man’s predictions, but ever since he’d taken the doll, Travis had a real bad feeling that maybe, just maybe, he’d gotten in over his head this time. Boosting cars was one thing, but jacking that doll was starting to feel a little like kidnapping.

A shiver snaked up his spine. It was like the damn thing was hexed or something.

He fingered the mojo bag he carried around in his pocket. It’s just a toy.

But the doll was more than a toy. Everyone in Terrebonne Parish knew that Savannah Sweete’s dolls were one of a kind and worth a lot of money. And someone was going to want it back.

He cast another glance at the window. Rain was coming and the gloomy twilight deepened his unease. He was letting his nerves get the better of him, but he couldn’t seem to help it. New Orleans did that to him. He hadn’t been back since Katrina, and the landscape had changed so much he’d hardly recognized the place, driving in. But the soul of the city—the Vieux Carré—remained the same. Travis didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.

Earlier, he’d walked around for a little while before his appointment with the shop owner, and he’d been struck by how normal everything seemed. Normal for the Quarter, anyway. It was still early, but the strip joints on Bourbon Street were already open, giving passersby free peep shows from the doorways. Travis’s attention had been captivated by a tall, leggy blonde undulating to a country and western song. Her back was to the door, but when she glanced over her shoulder, her dark eyes fastened like laser beams on Travis.

She was incredibly limber, and her ass and thighs were as tight as the skin on a snare drum. She smiled and curled a finger in his direction, inviting him in for a closer inspection, and Travis had been sorely tempted. But then she turned slowly to face him, and anger washed over him when he realized he’d been standing there gawking at a transvestite.

A throaty voice had said from the doorway, “Come on in, sugar, she don’t bite. Her name is Cherry Rose. You like what Cherry Rose got down there, no?”

“No,” Travis muttered, and turned away.

“Hey, don’t be like that!” the voice called after him. “Come on back here, baby. Cherry Rose make a real man out of you.”

Some of the tourists on the street overheard and started laughing, and Travis’s fist itched to connect with the he-bitch’s red mouth. But Bourbon Street drag queens were notorious for strapping switchblades to their thighs, and when they got all hopped up on speed, they’d as soon cut a man’s balls off as look at him.

So Travis had hurried away. But as he crossed the street he’d glanced back and noticed someone standing on the sidewalk, staring after him. Not the dancer or the hawker in the doorway, but a strange-looking woman wearing silver earrings and a flowing green skirt.

Something about the way she gazed at him startled Travis, and he’d paused for a moment to stare back at her. Then he lost her in the noisy crowd on the street and moved on.

He thought about the woman now and wondered where she’d gone off to, wondered if he might be able to find her once his business with the shopkeeper was settled.

Then again, maybe he ought to leave well enough alone and get his ass on home, where he could tell what was what. But after taking that doll, Terrebonne Parish might not be the safest place for him right now.

Suppressing a shudder, he said impatiently, “Don’t mean to rush you, ma’am, but I ain’t got all night.”

The woman looked up with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry for making you wait, dear, but I rarely come across workmanship of this quality. The freckles across the nose…the tiny birthmark on her left arm…that kind of attention to detail is a Savannah Sweete trademark. I just can’t get over how meticulous she is.”

“Uh-huh.”

“However…” The woman’s tone sharpened, as if she was readying herself to get down to business. She was an old broad with steely blue eyes and cottony hair. Her glasses were the shape of cat’s eyes, and as she spoke, she kept slipping them off and chewing on one of the stems.

Travis frowned. “What’s wrong? You don’t like her so much all of a sudden?”

“No, it isn’t that. As I said, the doll is beautiful. But there are some fairly convincing imitations making the rounds these days. A few of Savannah’s former students have mastered her technique, and I know of one or two who have actually tried to pass off their work as hers.” The woman paused, her gaze dropping to the doll. “Do you have the certificate of authenticity?”

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