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By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2012 MRK Productions
All rights reserved.
Eighteen years later
Jake St. Cloud woke up with the queen mother of all hangovers. He cracked an eyelid and looked to his left. He saw that the space on the bed next to him was empty, but it was clear someone had slept there. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the night before. Then he decided, why bother. Playboy St. Cloud was back in the game. I need to give this crap up, he thought. I'm getting too old to keep burning the candle at both ends.
He needed to get up, to start the day. He groaned, the mere sound hurting his already throbbing head. He needed tomato juice and some aspirin, or some hair of the dog that bit him the night before. Shit, I wish I could remember. He had been back in town only three days, and he was right back to square one. "That's it!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs, then wished he'd remained quiet.
Jake forced his legs over the side of the bed and, with every ounce of strength in his body, forced himself to his feet and headed for the shower. What the hell am I doing back here, anyway? Back here, in this case, meant Slidell, Louisiana. Oh yeah, his old man was in trouble, and he'd come home to gloat. Yeah, well, that made sense. Sort of. Kind of.
The truth was it was only part of the reason he had returned home. It was his thirty-fifth birthday, and his mother's lawyers had set up a meeting with him. A command performance, so to speak, at eleven o'clock that morning. That meant suit, tie, white shirt, polished shoes, and clear eyes. And he had to smell good.
Jake stepped into the shower and turned the water to ice cold. He almost passed out from the shock of twenty-seven different jets pounding bone-chilling water over his entire body. When he couldn't stand it a moment longer, he switched to hot, and again almost passed out from the shock. He finally adjusted the water to a normal temperature and soaped up. For one wild moment, he wished he could stay under the warm spray forever, or at least long enough to put his past behind him and start anew.
Maybe after the meeting that morning, he could do that. Since it was his birthday, didn't that mean a new beginning of sorts? In the scheme of things, he supposed it meant whatever a person wanted it to mean.
Out of the shower, Jake dried off, shaved, and got dressed. Down in the small kitchen of the house he'd bought when he finished college fourteen years ago, he made coffee. He looked around. He'd put in a new kitchen, fit for a bachelor, and a new bathroom on the second floor. Other than paint and new furniture, that was all he'd done. He'd wanted a home base to return to from time to time. Time to time translated into once a year, if that. Kindly, elderly neighbors looked after the property to supplement their retirement. The couple were the only people on the planet who had his private cell-phone number. Because old people took responsibility seriously, unlike the whippersnappers of today, the elderly couple felt duty-bound to leave him messages at least once a week regarding his father and St. Cloud Oil, the oil company he owned. Jake was put off at first but gradually accepted that the Tibou-douxs meant well, and suffered through the long, wordy messages, then immediately forgot them.
Jake poured a large glass of tomato juice, then added some Tabasco and the juice of half a lime. He gulped at it as he washed down four aspirin. The Cajun coffee was thick, black, and strong. He hoped it would help his hangover and if not, oh well, tomorrow was another day. Like that was going to work. Today was what was important. It was the day he had to make some decisions, atone for... God, so many things. He'd not kept a single one of the promises he'd made to his mother. Not a one. Guilt rode his shoulders like a jockey riding a racehorse across the finish line. He had to make it all right, and he had to start immediately.
What was that old saying? Today is the first day of the rest of my life. Yeah, right.
He hadn't actually crashed and burned, but on occasion, he'd come too damn close for comfort. He'd done some productive things during the last eighteen years. He'd more than contributed. He'd finished college summa cum laude but only because he had book smarts. It all came easy, but he didn't have a lick of common sense, or at least that's what one of his professors had told him. The man had gone on to say that Jake had no life experiences to draw from. Jake had had too much respect for the professor to argue the point because he knew he was right.
So, he'd gone out to find those life experiences. He'd traveled the world, earned money working on oil rigs because he knew the oil business backward and forward. He'd gone from one end of the world to the other and, at least in terms of common sense, didn't have squat to show for it. Life experience, my ass!
Jake told himself not to be so hard on himself, because he'd done one good and serious thing. He'd become a consultant to his father's competitors and been very successful. He'd also made the newspapers big-time. So much so that his father, to no avail, had tried to muzzle him. Everyone wanted a piece of Jake St. Cloud, even the Saudis. And the absolute best part of his consulting business, which to his mind was really a payback business, was that he'd made so much money he couldn't count it all. He had only one rule, and that was never to work for St. Cloud Oil.
Now, though, Jake knew he had to get his life back on track. And the thirty-fifth anniversary of his birth was the first day down that road. He poured a second cup of coffee and drank it standing up by the counter. He realized then that he felt halfway decent.
When he finished the coffee, he put the cup in the dishwasher. For a full minute he debated whether he should turn on the dishwasher for just one cup. His mother's words about cleanliness being next to godliness rang in his ears. He shrugged, dropped a soap pellet in the machine, and turned it on. He totally forgot his mother's words about never leaving the house with an appliance running.
He left the house and climbed into his sleek black Porsche and headed to his meeting with his mother's lawyers. As he tooled along, Jake made a mental note to get rid of the fancy wheels and get himself a Dodge Ram pickup truck. And a dog to ride shotgun.
The law firm of Symon and Symon was run by two brothers who had to be as old as Methuselah. They creaked when they walked, but they were razor-sharp when it came to the ins and outs of the law and safeguarding their clients' businesses and assets. Somehow, some way — Jake couldn't remember — he thought they were distant cousins of his mother. Elroy Symon and his brother, Estes Symon. Pillars of the community.
Both greeted Jake in their three-piece suits. Pants, jacket, and vest, complete with watch fobs. They smiled and welcomed him like an old friend. Never mind that they hadn't seen him in over ten years. They offered coffee and beignets, which Jake knew came from the Café Du Monde in New Orleans. He knew this because he remembered his mother's telling him that the lawyers prided themselves on serving them fresh every day. He declined.
"Then I guess it's time to get down to business," Estes said. Or maybe it was Elroy. Jake could never keep them straight. He wondered if they were twins. Funny how he didn't know that.
"You turn thirty-five today, Jacob. A milestone. How do you feel about it?" one of them asked.
"I'm okay with it. Not much I can do about it, either way."
"So, you're all grown up. We've followed your ... ah ... career to a certain extent, young man."
Crap, here it comes, Jake thought. He waited. "Have you gotten all your lollygagging out of the way, son?"
Lollygagging? "Is that another way of asking me if I have sowed all my wild oats?"
"I guess you could say that," Elroy said. Or maybe it was Estes. "The reason we ask is because your mother said we weren't to turn over your inheritance until we were sure you could handle it. So, the question confronting us right now, this very minute, is whether you are ready to man up." This last was said so smartly, Jake blinked and realized the two old lawyers were dead serious.
"Yes," he said just as smartly. He almost saluted but thought better of it.
"We thought so," Estes said. Or maybe it was Elroy. "The minute you walked through our door, I could tell that you had had your come-to-Jesus meeting. It's the way it should be on your thirty-fifth birthday."
"Yes, sir," Jake said respectfully. "Tell me what I have to do, and I'll do it."
"Nothing, son. Per your mother's instructions, we did everything for you. All the accounts have been set up. Everything balances out to the penny. The brokerage accounts are extremely robust. Extremely. We took the liberty of compiling a balance sheet for you, just to make it easier for you to understand. I do have a question for you, Jacob. Other than your college tuition, you never took a penny from the personal trust. Why is that?"
Why indeed? "I had done nothing to earn it. I frankly thought that I didn't deserve it. It didn't feel right. So I made my own way."
"What about your mother's ancestral home, the plantation outside of town?"
"I haven't been there in years. What do you mean? It's a working cotton plantation. Do I need to do something?"
"Only if you want to. There's over a thousand acres that are not being utilized. You might want to give some thought to that. Think in terms of a thousand acres you are paying taxes on with no revenue coming in from it."
Jake nodded. "Did my mother ever indicate what she'd like done with the plantation?"
Elroy nodded, or maybe it was Estes. "She said you'd know what to do with it when the time came. Do you?"
Oh, Mom, where did that blind faith you had in me come from? "Right this moment, I have to say I don't have a clue."
"Well, I'm sure something will come to you. Just remember all those taxes."
"I do have a question for you," Jake said. "Did my father ever repay my mother for all that money she doled out to him to start him up in the oil business?"
"He did, Jacob, but it took him quite a few years. We had to hound him, and we did. We charged him interest, too. He had some fancy lawyers try to come after us, but Judge Broussard settled them down in a hurry. Henry Broussard was your mama's sixth or seventh cousin twice removed, if I remember correctly. He's gone now, God rest his soul, at the age of ninety-four," Elroy said, or maybe it was Estes.
"If everything is in order, sign all those papers, and you can leave. We'll leave you alone for a few minutes so you can ... adjust to all of this," one of the brothers said, motioning to the stacks of papers on the old table. The lawyers left the room.
Jake longed for a cigarette but remembered he'd quit smoking years ago. He looked down at the lone sheet of paper that summed up his net worth. He was glad he was sitting down, because he would have fallen over at seeing the bottom line. And he'd thought the oil business was profitable. The words money to burn ricocheted around and around inside his head. He was starting to get dizzy at what he was seeing and the responsibility that was suddenly on his shoulders.
Soon after Jake had finished signing the papers, the door opened, and the two brothers walked in and sat down again. "My brother, Estes, and I were talking outside. Years ago, we never could decide between the two of us if we should tell you this or not. At the time, we felt you were too young, and you were grieving for your mother, so we thought it best if we just left things alone."
"And now you think I'm old enough to know, is that it?" Jake asked.
"Well, today is your birthday. Thirty-five years of age almost guarantees some sort of wisdom on your part. During the last months of your mother's life, your father tried his best to get your mother to give him power of attorney. We simply could not allow that to happen. Your mother agreed. Your father threatened all manner of dire things, but he had no wish to go up against Henry Broussard again. Henry was still alive and sitting on the bench at that point. We just thought you should know."
"Did my father need money?"
"We checked, and the answer is no. Some people don't know when enough is enough. It's no secret, young man, that my brother and I do not hold your father in high regard. I'm sorry to tell you that."
Jake laughed. "Well, gentlemen, join the club. Thanks for all the hard work on my behalf and thank you for taking care of my mother's business so well."
"We were paid to do it. When you're paid for something, you do the best you can for monies received. We thank you for your business, son, and if there's anything you need us to do, we're here six days a week. You can call us on our mobile on Sundays but not till after church. Your mother was a fine lady, a wonderful mother, and a good friend."
"Yes, she was," Jake said with a lump in his throat. He stood, offered his hand, and was surprised at the firm, solid handshakes of the two brothers.
Outside, in the hot, humid air, Jake yanked at his tie, pulled it off, and stuffed it into the pocket of his jacket. At his car, he removed his jacket and threw it across to the passenger seat before driving back to his little house on the tree-shaded street.
When he got home, he headed to the second floor, stripped down, and pulled on cargo shorts and an old LSU T-shirt from his college days, which was so soft and worn that it felt like a second skin. His feet went into Birkenstocks and off he went. His next stop was Leona Sue's flower shop, and then on to St. Patrick's Cemetery.
Sweat was dripping down Jake's face when he entered Leona Sue's flower shop. He looked around at the profusion of flowers. His mother had always loved flowers, white roses being her favorite. She'd had a wonderful, beautiful flower garden when he was a boy. Mika, the gardener, had helped her with the compost and the peat moss and taught her all he knew, which was a lot. Mika always told her she had the prettiest roses in all of Louisiana. He made a mental note to check on Mika in his retirement.
A young girl, probably the owner's daughter, smiled and asked how she could help him.
"Do you have any white roses?"
"Believe it or not, we actually do. Not much call for them, but some came in yesterday. They're in the cooler. How many would you like? Oh, are they for delivery or are you taking them with you? We charge for delivery."
"I'll be taking them with me. How many do you have?"
"Let me look. Mom might have sold some of them after I left yesterday. I'll be right back."
Jake walked around, savoring the smell of the potted plants and the bright colors. He liked the smell. He turned when he heard the young girl shout from the back room where the cooler was. "I have three and a half dozen, sir!"
"Good! I'll take them all," Jake shouted in return.
"Would you like some greenery and baby's breath in the mix?"
Jake smiled. The young girl probably thought he didn't know what baby's breath or greenery meant, but he did. "Absolutely. Make it pretty."
When the young girl returned from the back room, her arms full of roses, Jake grinned. She'd wrapped them in green tissue, and they really were an armful. Jake thanked her and paid with his credit card.
The flowers took up the entire passenger seat. Now, if he had a dog, the dog would have had to sit on his lap. Damn, where are these thoughts coming from?
Jake drove with the window down because he hated air-conditioning in a car. For some reason, he always got a sinus infection when he turned it on. Recycled air, someone had once told him. The air outside was thick with humidity, but he didn't care.
Twenty minutes later, Jake drove down the road to the cemetery. He parked and walked to where his mother's final resting place waited for him. It was a quiet place. But then, all cemeteries were quiet places. He had helped Mika plant a young tree the day after his mother had been laid to rest. In eighteen years, the sapling had grown into a tall, sturdy young tree, with branches that resembled a giant umbrella. It created a canopy of shade over the bench Mika had helped him build out of mahogany, and he was stunned to see how the stout bench had survived the elements. The plot of grass was so green it shone like a giant emerald. Mika must still come out here to water and to clip the grass. To Jake's eye, it was the tidiest grave site in the whole cemetery. He marveled at how each blade of grass seemed to be the exact same length. Mika was a perfectionist. The stone was simple black marble, and he'd had the stonecutter carve an angel in the middle of it. The lettering was simple: his mother's name, the date of her birth, and the date of her death; and underneath, the inscription, MOTHER OF JACOB. He wondered, and not for the first time, if there had ever been any gossip or feedback when the name St. Cloud had been omitted. If there had been, no one told him, and he didn't really care one way or the other.
Excerpted from Fancy Dancer by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2012 MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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