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"Six, please," Nikki DuMonde said. "Six." She was smiling, but firm as she emphasized the number, indicating the tray where there were only five cups of cafe au lait. She and Andrea Ciello were in line at Madame D'Orso's, as they so often were. Madame herself was wonderful, but apparently she was busy, and the young woman behind the counter seemed overwhelmed. It seemed quiet enough right now. Though many of the little terrace tables were taken, there was only one other person inside the cafe at the moment, and he was slumped against the far wall. She glanced toward him. He had looked up once and had an attractive face, eyes that were intelligent, cheekbones hard and sculpted. But his clothes were ragged, with a slept-in look; he was unshaven, and his hair was shaggy and unkempt.
"Six coffees, six orders of beignets," Andy added, flashing a smile as the girl added a cup to the tray along with plates filled with the delicious pastries so famous in New Orleansand better, in the minds of the locals at Madame's than any other place in the world. "S'il vous plait," she added.
As the girl turned to ring up their order, Andy assessed Nikki with her exotic dark eyes. "My treat today," she said.
"Don't be silly."
"No, ever since I came aboard, you've been wonderful." She had only been a tour guide for Myths and Legends of New Orleans for about four weeks. For Nikki, it was old hat.
"Hey, we all rely on each other, since we always work in pairs. And you're doing just fine."
"Oh, I don't know," Andy said, tossing a length of her sleek dark hair over one shoulder. "I know all the stories, and sometimes I get chills, like there's someone looking over my shoulder. But you
Nikki, it's like you see ghosts."
Nikki shrugged, glancing around the cafe. "Maybe it's just ingrained," she said. "I went to school with half the palm readers and voodoo queens working the Quarter these days. I guess it's like
well, walking into any place that's really historical
Nikki frowned and floundered, looking for the right word.
"Creepy?" Andy suggested.
Nikki shook her head. "Where deep feelings existed, where trauma occurredlike Westminster Abbey in London. When you walk in there"
"The place is like one giant cemetery," Andy said dryly.
Nikki laughed. "Yeah, it is. But you can get the same feeling at a Civil War battle siteeven with all the bodies removed. I guess it's a way of feeling the past, of history, people, the emotions. Remnants of the lives that were lived there, lost there."
"You see ghosts," Andy said, nodding sagely.
"I do not see ghosts."
"You have an affinity for them."
Nikki was growing uncomfortable. "No. I told you. It's just a feeling of
history and the human condition, that's all," she said firmly. "Everyone gets it at some point, at some place."
Andy reflected a moment. "Well, I do feel something in several of the cemeteries. And now and then in the cathedral, there's a kind of.vibe."
"Exactly," Nikki agreed. She reached for the tray, but Andy was getting it, so she turned to head back to their table and nearly screamed.
The derelict had risen. He was in front of her, his mouth working, as he reached for her.
She couldn't help but recoil, but even so his hands touched her shoulders. She thought he was going to collapse against her, but he straightened, his mouth still working as if he was trying to say something.
He needed money, she thought.
"Here," she said quickly, reaching into her purse. She pulled out a bill and, pity replacing her feelings of revulsion, said, "Get yourself a real meal, please. No alcohol or drugs, please. Get food."
She felt his touch again as she went quickly past him, Andy in her wake, hurrying with the tray.
The others were outside, but before they could reach the table, Andy said softly, "Nikki, that was really kind of you."
"He'll probably just drink it or shoot it up his arm," Nikki said.
"No, maybe not. Actually, he didn't look like a junkie."
"Just a bum."
"There but for the grace of God go I," Andy murmured beneath her breath. Nikki turned to look at her, but Andy shook her head. She had been in trouble with drugs; she'd been dead honest with Nikki when the two had first met. She'd been clean for years, however. She seldom even drank now, unless it was a special night out, a celebration.
At the moment, however, she clearly didn't want to say any more, not in front of the friends waiting for them: Nathan, Julian, Mitch and Patricia.
They all worked for the same tour company, and they were making a success of it, despite the competition in New Orleans. Maximilian Dupuis, the founder of the business, had taken Nikki on board first. Max had found her through the articles she'd been writing for one of the local tourist papers.
Max himself was really something. Tall, dark and bony, he resembled a vampire and could have haunted New Orleans just fine himself, though the cigars he loved to chomp on kind of ruined the impression. Nor was he really interested in ghostly occurrences himself.
Max was out to make a buck.
His brilliance was in putting together what the public wanted and in the art of delegating, he had told Nikki. He'd had the cash to start up the business, she'd had the ability and the knowledge. When he'd hired her, she'd suggested bringing in Julian, who'd been her best friend forever. As they'd prospered, they'd added the rest.
Nikki was Max's number two. She was responsible for hiring new guides, then for training them. It worked out well, since Max didn't particularly like to stick around and run the business. Max liked his money and having other people work for him, so he could travel the globe. At the moment he was hiking in Colorado.
"That took long enough," Patricia said as they approached the table.
"Nikki was flirting," Andy teased.
"Oh?" Patricia Broussard had been born and bred in Cajun country, and, like Andy, she had long dark hair. Her eyes were equally dark, and her grin was entirely impish. "Nikki's got a guy?"
"Very mysterious," Andy said.
"I gave a bum a dollar," Nikki said, shaking her head.
"She gave him a twenty," Andy corrected.
"He looked like he needed it," Nikki said quickly as Julian stared at her in surprise.
"Actually, he looked like he might be pretty handsome if you cleaned him up a bit," Andy said.
"You gave a bum a twenty?" Mitch, their out-of-towner, a blonde from Pittsburgh, demanded. "Wow
you're making a lot more in tips than I am."
"She's cuter," Patricia told him.
"He just seemed really needy," Nikki explained. "So let's get past this moment, shall we?"
"No, I like this conversation. All work and no play, Nikki
" Nathan, who was living with Patricia, teased.
"Actually," Patricia said, eyeing Julian and then Nikki, "most people think you two are a couple."
"Ugh," Julian said. "Thanks," Nikki told him.
"No, no, that wasn't about you," Julian protested quickly.
"I know," Nikki assured him. She stared at Patricia. "It's just that we've known each other forever. It's like a brother/sister thing. Now can we get down to business?"
But Nathan grinned, leaning forward. "Nikki, forget business. We've got to get you set up with someone."
She sighed deeply. "I do not want to be set up with anyone."
"Her last excursion into amore didn't go so well," Julian said with a dramatic sigh. "But, then, I did tell her not to date the creep."
"I've never seen you date," Patricia told her.
"That's because she hasn't in nearly a year," Julian informed them.
"What? Why, that's
un-American," Mitch protested.
Nikki groaned, clenching her teeth. "He wasn't a creep. He just wanted to go off to Hollywood and get rich and famous."
"And he wanted Nikki to come along and support him while he did," Julian said dryly.
"We had different agendas," Nikki said firmly. "I love this business and I love New Orleans. I like California, but I want to live here. He really wasn't a jerk."
"Not a total jerk," Patricia interjected. "He was really good looking, and he could be really sweet."
"Sweet?" Mitch queried politely.
"Flowers, opening doors
the little things. But in the big things, he wanted his own way."
"See, I just don't think that she felt that thing for him, you know? Good-looking guy, charming
but when it's just not there, it's just not there," Nathan said.
"Yeah, but if you always had to wait for it to be there," Mitch laughed, "I'd spend a lot more nights alone than I already do. No wonder you're so tense, Nikki."
"I'm not tense," Nikki said.
"Yeah, and if you don't get off it, she'll talk to Max and see that your ass is fired," Patricia warned sweetly. "Ouch!" Mitch said.
"Guys, please," Nikki said. "I'm busy, and I'm discerning, and I take my time, okay? And right now we need to worry about work, okay?"
Julian turned to Andy. "Just how decent would this bum of hers be if we cleaned him up?"
"Pretty decent," Andy said thoughtfully. "He just looked.down on his luck."
"Okay, guys, playtime over," Nikki said firmly. "Julian, Greg wasn't that much of a creep, just a little self-centered. I had no intention of going anywhere with him, so it was fun, but it's over. And thanks, but I don't want to date the bum. I'm fine. I love my apartment, love my work and enjoy my friendship with all you guys. I'm normal, not tense, and when I want to date, I will."
"Maybe she's working the strip clubs at night under an alias," Mitch teased. She shot him a glare from blue-green eyes. He lifted his hands. "I'm going to behave now. Really."
"Okay, guys, I've got notes from Max. Mitch, you're welcome to introduce any new story, as long as you validate it first. Julian, if anyone makes you feel uncomfortable on the walks, tell them you're married."
"What?" Julian said, startled.
Nikki shrugged. "That's what Max said to tell you. He said it works for him all the time."
"Oh, really? Who would be trying to pick up old Max?" Julian demanded.
"Oh, come on," Patricia protested. "Max is cutein a creepy kind of way."
"Great. I say I'm married, then when the right person comes along
they think that I'm married or a liar," Julian said. "There goes my social life." He groaned. "I'll end up like Nikki."
"Oh, come on, will you guys please, please leave me alone?" Nikki demanded.
"That bum is looking better and better," Julian said to Nathan.
"You didn't even see him," Nikki protested, irritated.
"We're just trying to help," Nathan said.
"I don't want to be helped," Nikki snapped. "Heywork on Andy for a while, huh?"
On cue, they all turned to stare at Andy. She laughed. "Nikki, they don't know me as well. I won't be nearly as much fun to torture."
"Besides, Andy is a flirt," Nathan said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"Really?" Andy said.
"Yeah, really," Mitch assured her.
Andy giggled. "Okay.I am a flirt. I admit it."
"You can flirt with me anytime," Julian teased.
"And if he's not around, and you're looking for a good solid Yankee boy." Mitch suggested.
"Never play where you work, that's what Mom always said," Andy told them with a sad shake of her head.
"Well, you could just sleep with me," Mitch said. "We wouldn't have to play at all."
"Hey! Go back to torturing Nikki, will you?" Andy de manded.
"If you all don't quit, tomorrow night's off," Nikki said.
"The tour is off?" Julian asked, puzzled.
"Of course not," Nikki said patiently. "If you'd all just behave like adults and listen
We had a record month. Max is going to pay for a celebration at Pat O'Brien's. Dinner and drinks on him, tomorrow, after the night tour."
"All right!" Mitch cried happily.
At that moment Madame D'Orso made one of her sweeping appearances, bearing her elegant coffeepot, chatting with her guests.
And they were special guests. Their tours met in front of her place, bringing her lots of business.
"It's calmed down out here some, huh?" Nikki asked her.
"Yes. Not that I complain about business, but we had a busy late lunch crowd today," she told them, pouring them more coffee. At her place, it was premixed. Cafe au lait meant cafe au lait.
"Hey," Mitch said to her, setting a friendly hand on her back, just above her waist. The gesture wasn't flirtatious, just affectionate. Mitch was in his late twenties. Madame was in her late
well, hard to tell, but she was a few decades older. "Should Nikki date the bum who was in your place?"
"You didn't see him?" Andy asked.
"Honey, I wouldn't have noticed if Robert E. Lee stopped in. It was busy in there today. As if this parish isn't nutty enough, it's election time. Campaigners, do-gooders and politicians every where, thick as flies. There's those trying to clean up the place, make New Orleans a 'family' destination. And then there's those trying to keep her wild, wicked and free." She removed Mitch's hand, grinned and moved on.
"Damn. Wish I'd seen the bum. Then I'd know if we could clean him up enough or not," Mitch said with a wink.
"Drop it. Or there will be no free meal for you tomorrow night," Nikki warned him.
"It's dropped," he assured her.
Nikki rose. She could see a tour group gathering out front. "Julian, it's showtime. Andy, you're following along. Patricia, Nathan, don't forget you're on tonight."