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End of May 1889
New Orleans, Louisiana
Camille du Carte glared at her aunt's back. The debutante stuck out her lower lip as she tried to figure a way to get the ruby earrings. They were perfect for the dress she planned on wearing to Maggie Lafitte's coming out party. She had to have them.
"Aunt Marie, please," Camille whispered, tears springing readily to her eyes.
The elder woman's spine stiffened as she heard her niece's pitiful tone. Shaking her head, Marie Leonhardt turned around. "Your father gave you a certain amount of money, ma chï¿½ri, and you have already reached it."
"Camille," Aunt Marie warned, her brown eyes narrowing dangerously.
Camille huffed and stamped her foot. "Fine, then I am going home."
She whirled around and hurried out of the jewelry store. Her aunt's words forbidding her to leave un-chaperoned fell on stone ears. She was too put off with her aunt to stay in her presence one more second.
Blinded by irrational anger, Camille raced down Bienville Street. When she reached the corner of Bourbon Street, she stopped, realizing she had made a mistake. In order to get to her home in the Garden District, she should have stayed on Royal Street. Only then did it occur to her how long a walk she would have. As Camille turned to retrace her steps, a group of drunken sailors tumbled out of a nearby bar, directly in her path. She stopped abruptly, startled by the threat before her.
All four men quit laughing as they took in the young woman before them. Her dark black hair had fallen free of the hairpins and hung in wild array down her back. Hercheeks were rosy red, and her gray eyes flashed like lightening. She was obviously in a temper but that did nothing to stop the advance of the men.
Before the head of the little group had a chance to speak, Camille gathered up her skirts and turned to hightail it in the opposite direction. She ran right into the arms of another sailor. Stunned, she looked up into his eyes with her mouth wide open.
The man smiled, revealing even, white teeth. "Whoa, girl," he said, grabbing her shoulders.
As he watched, the color of her eyes swirled from light gray to dark, reminding him of storm clouds on the verge of turning violent.
"Unhand me, sir," she growled through clenched teeth.
He quickly let go, holding his hands high in the air. "My apologies," he whispered, dipping his head slightly. He looked past her at the lingering sailors. Then, after glancing at the sun's position, he asked of them, "Do you not have someplace else to be?"
Suddenly, the whole lot became embarrassed, and after several "aye, aye, sirs," they took their leave.
Her heart beating rapidly, Camille stood rooted to the spot, intrigued by the color of the stranger's eyes. At first, she would have sworn they were blue, but on closer inspection, she noted that streaks of violet intermingled with the blue. The next second, she realized his attention was back on her, and her cheeks burned with the thought that he had caught her staring.
"You should not be wandering these streets alone. Where is your MaMa?" he asked softly.
Like the small, fast storms that follow the Mississippi River, Camille fought to keep her anger. She threw her chin up as her hands found their way to her hips. "I am not a child."
Before he could stop himself, his heated gaze dropped to the gentle curve of her bosom, covered as it was with cloth. He swallowed as desire gripped him.
"No, my storm-cloud, no you are not," he replied. "However, there are others who would do you harm, especially because you are not a child."
Nervously, Camille looked about, seeing danger for the first time. Every passerby held some sort of threat, and she clutched worriedly at her cross necklace. She then looked back at the gentleman before her and narrowed her eyes.
"Aye, sir, I do believe you. I'd best be on my--"
"Reece, my boy, so good to see you."
A gentleman's voice boomed from behind her, causing her to jump. Camille whirled around and came face to face with Maggie Lafitte's father. His familiar face instantly eased her nerves.
"Why, Camille. I did not recognize you," the elderly man stammered. Maggie was the sixth of seven children, which put him into his late fifties.
"Mr. Lafitte." Camille smiled prettily. "What a sight for my poor eyes."
"Why, my dear, whatever is the matter?" His brows furrowed with instant worry.
Flipping open her fan, Camille began to wave it in her face as she had seen her MaMa do on several occasions. "I fear I have become separated from Aunt Marie."
"I see. Well, as a gentleman, it is my duty to see you safely to your door, mademoiselle."
At that point, Reece interceded. He cleared his throat, and two pairs of eyes turned to him. "Might I be allowed to help you, sir, escort this lovely lady to safety?"
Mr. Lafitte smiled, instantly recognizing the young man's interest in the girl. He secretly thought they would make an excellent match. "By all means, son, that would be most satisfactory."