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HOLLY CARLYLE GAVE HER accompanist a grin and
leaned across the gleaming black surface of the piano top. Swinging her long, auburn hair back away from her face, she tapped out an echo of the song that had just ended with the tips of her red-polished fingernails. "Tommy, that was fabulous," she said. "If we can keep it together that tightly tonight, we're so gonna rock this place."
Tommy Hayes winced as his long, mocha-colored fingers slid along the piano keys, sending a chirrruupp of sound into the still air. "Jazz the place, Holly," he said, shaking his head. "We don't rock, we jazz...."
She laughed, straightened and stacked the sheets of music together neatly. "Yeah, but when our jazz is smoking, we really rock."
Tommy sighed and stroked the keys gently, as he would a lover's body. The overhead lights shone down on his dark hair, liberally laced with gray. He wore two silver rings on each hand and his black suit hung on his lean body. Tommy swore he'd been playing jazz piano in New Orleans since God was a boy. And nobody played it better.
Holly had been working with him for nearly fourteen years and she'd never been happier. The older man had become almost a father to her--something Holly relished since she'd been on her own most of her life. Tommy's wife Shana and their children were the only family Holly had ever known. And she was more grateful for them than she could say.
"Looks like you've got a fan club," Tommy muttered quietly, his deep voice hidden beneath the sweet chords his fingers continued to create.
He jerked a nod in the direction of the bar.
A lone man was sitting in the far corner, a bottle ofbeer in front of him on the table. Even in the dim light Holly could see the stamp of frustration on his features. "Who is he?"
"Can't see from here," Tommy admitted. "Shana says I need new glasses."
Holly chuckled. The room was full of shadows, even with the late-afternoon sunlight spilling through the windows overlooking the street. A gleaming, mahogany bar ran the length of the room, with bottles of every size and shape on the counter behind it, directly in front of a mirror that glittered with reflected sunshine. A second counter ran along the window wall, with plenty of seating for people who wanted to watch the world stroll by as they enjoyed a quiet drink. But mostly, the patrons at the Hotel Marchand bar preferred the small, round, glass-topped tables that crowded the dark wooden floor.
"Doesn't seem like a fan to me," Holly whispered, turning from the man in the corner back to Tommy.
"Looks more like Mr. Misery in need of company."
The older man's mouth quirked in a half smile and he winked at her. "You didn't see him when you were singing."
She leaned back against the piano, both forearms braced on its cool, sleek surface. "Liked it, did he?"
"Looked at you like you was the last cool spot on a hot day."
Holly gave him a brief smile. "Flatterer."
"So why'nt you go say hello to the man?"
"Trying to get rid of me?" she teased. "Yes," Tommy said. "Need a little time to myself, girl. Between you and all the women I've got at home..."
She'd heard Tommy's "I'm the only poor male in a household full of women" speech way too many times. To listen to him, a person would never know how much he adored his wife and three daughters.
"I don't know," she said, hiding a smile, "maybe I should just stay here and help you go over the arrangement for the opening song again."
His mouth quirked. "I believe I can manage without your help."
"Possible," she allowed, then narrowed her eyes on the man she thought of as a father. "What I'm wondering is, why all of a sudden you're so willing to see me talking to a man."
Usually, Tommy was more protective than a mother hen fussing over her last chick when it came to any of his "girls."
His long fingers caressed the piano keys, teasing out a soft melody. "I didn't say you should slip off with him. I only said you could go on over and talk to him for a bit. Wouldn't hurt you to meet people."
"People?" she asked, one eyebrow lifting, "or men people?"
He frowned and hit a quick riff of bass notes. "Not like I want to see you cozying up to a man. But Shana's worried about you."
Holly sighed. So she'd been a little on the celibate side for the past three years. That wasn't anything to worry about. But telling Shana Hayes not to worry was absolutely pointless.
"I know," Holly said. "She's even been threatening to set me up on a blind date."
He shuddered. "Seems like talking to this fella would be a lot easier. On all of us."
"Seems like," she said. Focusing on the solitary man at the back of the room, Holly inhaled sharply and told herself that walking across the floor would be a lot easier than living through one of Shana's setups.
She stepped off the raised platform that served as a stage and slowly wound her way through the empty tables. Catching the bartender's eye as she went, she asked, "Could I have some sweet tea when you get a minute, Leo?"
"Sure thing," the burly older man called. "Be there in a sec, Holly."
As she approached the man in the shadows, Holly felt the slam of recognition jolt her. He leaned forward in his chair and she noted his pale blue eyes fixed on her. His wavy jet-black hair fell across his forehead in a tumble and his tanned, muscular forearms were braced on the tabletop.
Holly's stomach jittered a little and she half wished she'd stayed on the stage to bother Tommy. Heck, even thinking about a blind date was a lot better than talking to this particular man. Parker James was New Orleans royalty. His family had been here since...well, forever.
Parker himself spent a lot of time in the local papers, but that wasn't the only reason Holly knew him. She'd sung at Parker's wedding ten years before. It had been one of her first paid gigs, and she'd been way more nervous than the bride.
Of course, she remembered, the bride hadn't been nervous at all....
HOLLY HAD GONE to the reception venue, a restored
plantation house on the river, the night before the wedding. She hadn't had to attend the rehearsal at the church, since she'd only be singing at the reception, and she'd wanted to get a good look at the sound system and to leave a copy of her music with the wedding planner.
As late as it was, she'd had the place pretty much to herself. After meeting with the planner, Holly decided to take a stroll outside to get a feel for the place before the big day and, honestly, to enjoy the surroundings in solitude.
Lush and beautiful, the grounds were quiet on that hot summer night. Birds called softly, crickets chirped and river water lapped at the bank. As she walked, she heard muttered whispers and headed toward the sound, curious. Maybe maintenance staff making sure everything was in order for the next day?
She rounded a large planting of magnolia bushes that bordered a flagstone patio where tables and chairs were already set up for the next day. A woman's soft sigh of pleasure, followed by a muffled groan, swept through the air.
Holly stopped dead, but it was way too late. There in front of her was the bride, Frannie LeBourdais, skirt hiked up, panties off, stretched across a table. But the person making Frannie groan wasn't her groom to be--it was her maid of honor.
Stunned into embarrassed silence, Holly only stood there for a moment or two while Justine DuBois caressed Frannie's abdomen then dipped lower. Holly took a step backward, trying to disappear quickly and quietly. But her foot hit the rung of a chair, which scraped against the flagstones.
Frannie's eyes flew open.
She spotted Holly instantly.
In a blink, passion died, replaced by fury. Shoving Justine to one side, Frannie practically leaped off the table, straightened her skirt and stalked over to where Holly stood, still speechless.
It wasn't that Holly was naive. At twenty, she'd been on her own for four years. She'd seen everything there was to see in New Orleans--but still, she was surprised. Parker James seemed to be everything a woman could want in a man. Clearly, though, Frannie didn't want a man. So if she was a lesbian, why the heck was she marrying Parker?
"What the hell are you doing here?" Frannie demanded, then quickly spoke again without waiting for an answer. "Doesn't matter. What matters is this. If you so much as breathe a word of what you've seen here tonight to Parker...I will make your life a living hell. Do you understand me?"