Read an Excerpt
Who in the world is that?"
Alice Bryson put down her iced tea and stood against the balustrade of the old front porch so she could stare across Bayou Rosette at the man walking underneath the oaks along the opposite shore.
Her older sister, Lorene Hobert, glanced up from her cross-stitching, squinting in the late-afternoon sun to get a better glimpse of the stranger about forty yards away on the other side of the marshy bank. "Well, he's certainly a tall drink of water, isn't he?"
"I'll say," Alice replied, her hand going up to shade her eyes as she watched the attractive brown-haired man meticulously measuring off the property with his booted feet. "He has some sort of gadget in his hand. Looks like a pocket watch or a cell phone. He seems to be talking to it."
"Maybe it's a compass," Lorene said, chuckling.
"Maybe he's lost and disoriented. Of course, I talk to myself a lot, too."
Alice grinned at that. "If he's a city boy, he just might be lost." And the way he was dressed in a lightweight gray suit and crisp blue shirt indicated he sure wasn't from around these parts.
"Why don't you walk across the footbridge and help the poor fellow," Lorene suggested, her ever-present matchmaking skills shining through. As the older, married Bryson sister, Lorene, who was expecting her first child in a few weeks, deemed it necessary to introduce Alice to every available man in sight. Even perfect strangers.
"Why would he be measuring off land with his feet if he's lost?" Alice asked while she admired the man's muscular, athletic frame and his shiny, light brown hair.
Lorene stopped stitching again, then lowered her needlepoint frame onto her growing belly. "He might be asurveyor. Remember all those rumors in town that some big company's coming in to build a whole new communityto replace the houses lost from the hurricane? Maybe he's scouting for land or something."
Alice shot a look at her sister to see if she was being sarcastic. Lorene glowed with good health. Pregnancy sure agreed with her. Lorene's blue eyes sparkled and her freckled, fair skin shimmered, partly from that glow and partly from the late-fall heat of southern Louisiana. But Lorene looked pretty and in love. But not sarcastic. Good, Alice thought with relief. She didn't need any teasing remarks today.
She huffed a breath and hid the tinge of envy she felt toward her sister. Then she quickly replaced the envy with thankful thoughts as she asked God to continue blessing Lorene. And her. While their old homeplace had survived the hurricane, not everyone had been so lucky. Most of the homes around here had suffered some sort of damage. And many across the bayou, where the wind and water had been worse, had been torn down.
"I've heard those same rumors, of course," she said as she sank back against one of the wide porch-posts. "But they were never substantiated, so I couldn't write anything based on rumors. Even tried to get the mayor to talk to me about this. But I never believed anything would actually happen, in spite of the buzz. We've been forgotten here on Bayou Rosette."
"Not entirely," Lorene replied, taking up her work again. "Jay says the word in church this morning was that some big corporation is going to rebuild the whole town but with a more environmentally sound and economical planseems Bayou Rosette is going green."
"Are you sure? I think I would have heard something down at the magazine if anything definite had been decided."
"It's hush-hush, according to Jay." Lorene stretched, then rubbed her stomach. "But he heard it straight from a town council member. Strictly confidential, so don't go telling anyone at the magazine about this."
Alice let out a groan. "You know I can't do that without stirring the pot. So why didn't you say something sooner, anyway?"
Lorene looked apologetic. "I forgot about it after we got home from church. I had one thing on my mind eating lunch. And I'm getting hungry again. I'll heat up the pot roast when Jay gets back from his meeting."
Alice turned back toward the man across the way. "You might be right about our mysterious visitor. It has been quiet around here lately. Too quiet. Nobody's talking at all, but I've got a feeling that a lot of behind-the-scenes action has been brewing. But we have to be careful about this."
Lorene's look went from apologetic to sympathetic. "You can't judge every stranger by one bad example, Alice."
"I'm not judging anyone," Alice retorted, hating the pity in her sister's eyes. "I'm withholding judgment. But I want proof this time." Which was probably why she hadn't pushed the officials around here to verify the rumors. Maybe she didn't want to know or be involved after what had happened with the last pipe dream around here.
Lorene shrugged. "I'm telling you, things could be about to change, and for the better. We're going green."
Wondering how her sister always heard the interesting gossip before she didsince she was the reporter Alice said, "Sister, we can't get much greener." She swept a hand across the view of slow-moving black water and bald cypress trees covered with Spanish moss, then inhaled deeply. "Smell that?" The scent of nature's decay mixed with the tart smell of the last of the bright red summer geraniums lining the long porch. "This place is the very essence of green."
"I'm talking about green housesit's the new thing, don't you know? And when you think about it, the Bible does tell us to harm neither the earth nor the seas. It's all about conserving energy, making the most of the sun and the water. Making sure houses are a bit safer next time a big one comes through."
Alice knew what a "big one" meant. They lived on a bayou that fed into the Mississippi River fifty miles north of New Orleans. The risk of another major storm brewing in the Gulf, even this late in the year, was never far from their minds. Fall in Louisiana was prime hurricane season.
"You really think that's why he's over there muttering to himself?" She twisted to stare at the man across the way. He had yet to look up. "Do you think he's a contractor?"
"I sure hope not," Lorene said. "You did run that last one out of town on a rail."
"That's because he was a cheater and a crook," Alice replied. And he'd sure had her fooled, right up till their wedding day. He was also a liar who'd left her at the altar after she'd questioned his motives. "I won't tolerate any more con artists sniffing around here." She directed her gaze back across the water. "I can't take that again."
"Go find out who he is," Lorene said, shaking her head. "Or better yet, do an article on him for the Bayou Buzz. I'm sure Dotty would approve."
"Not if I don't have my facts straight, she won't. She's still a tad bitter about my canceled wedding, too."
"Well, then, this time just make sure you get all the facts right up front," Lorene replied. "We all get fooled sometimes, you know."
"And like I said, I don't intend to let it happen again," Alice replied.
"Then go over there and ask the man what he's doing."
Alice stood straight up, then pushed a hand through her curly, sandy-blond bob. Her savvy editor and publisher, Dotty Tillman, would love to get a scoop on any kind of new industry coming to town. And since Alice was senior reporter for the monthly magazinewell, she was the only reporter for the small-budget local publicationshe'd certainly want to write the article. But she had to be sure. And what better way to be certain than to get the news straight from the horse's mouth? But this time she'd handle things much differently. This time she'd stay professional and aloof. And she'd make sure this one was honest.
Deciding that, she turned to her sister. "That's not a bad ideame going over there to have a talk with him. I've been trying to find something interesting for next month's cover story. At least I can find out why he's here. You know, just to separate fact from fiction. Off the record, since it's Sunday."
"That is your job," Lorene countered, grinning prettily. "Even if it is Sunday. And I'll finish up here and head in to get supper going before Jay comes home."
"That is your job," Alice shot over her shoulder with a mimic as she headed down the steps and out into the tree-shaded yard. "Even if it is Sunday."
Her sister's laughter echoed after her. They both kept the tradition of quiet Sundays at home by going to church then taking this one afternoon to spend time with each other. That had been important when their parents were alive. And it still was, now that their parents were buried in the old cemetery at the Rosette Church down the road and they were both grown up and living separate lives in this big, old, rambling Creole-style house.
Separate, but together, with each sister having her own space now that Lorene was married. Since there were plenty of rooms to choose from in the twelve-room house, Alice had taken one end of the upstairs and redone it into an efficiency apartment, using the old outside stairs as a private entrance. Lorene and Jay had redone the bottom floor and the rest of the upstairs across the wide hallway. It worked for both sisters, and Jay didn't mind as long as he had Lorene to come home to every night.
A perfect setup.
Even if she's married and happy and I'm still single and searching, Alice thought, memories of her almost-wedding hitting her as she glanced out across the dark bayou water.
And that's when the stranger across the way finally looked up and right into Alice's eyes.
Jonah had read and reread the story about the old plantation house across the bayou. Had heard the amazing tale of how the stubborn Bryson sisters had refused to leave the house when a major storm had hit a couple of years ago. The water had risen to the upstairs front porch and stopped, or so the story went. Two of the ancient live oaks had toppled over. But not onto the beautiful two-hundred-year-old house. No, the big oaks had fallen away from the house. The bottom floor ruined, a few shingles ripped away, some leakage in the old upstairs kitchen, bramble and branches everywhere and a couple of snakes and baby alligators on the loose, but Rosette House had survived and the Bryson legend had endured.
He knew the story of Rosette Houseconstructed on a sugarcane plantation in the early eighteen hundreds, almost destroyed by the Civil War, but rebuilt by a family member who came back to Louisiana to mend his war wounds and to start again. That created a turn-of-the-century success story about the feisty female ancestor of the two women who lived here now. Rosette Benoit Bryson had arrived a bride from New Orleans, come to live on the once-nameless bayou her new groom had formally named after her, in the rebuilt house he'd also named after her. The man sure had been smitten.
And while Rosette Bryson's story had captivated Jonah since he'd first recognized the familiar house in the picture in the paper, he wasn't sure what to expect as he watched the pretty blonde in the jeans and old Tulane sweatshirt sauntering across the weathered wooden footbridge. He was pretty sure this was the woman who'd written that historic account in the local Bayou Buzz magazinean account that had been picked up by the Times-Picayune, where he'd read it with a growing interest a few months ago. But he wasn't about to tell her that he'd seen the house long before he'd ever read her account of it. His heart boomed against his ribs as he watched her. Her story had started him on this impulsive quest to find out about his own past while he tried to build a whole new community. Did he dare ask her if she knew the Mayeaux?
No, not yet. He had plenty of time to research his family tree. To waylay the dread in that, he thought back over the story he'd read. Poor Sam Bryson had only lived five years after he'd brought his bride here. Rosette had gone on to farm the land, build a church in memory of her late husband, start a town in order to run her sugarcane mill and raise his sons to be fine, upstanding citizensand she'd lived to be ninety-six. Very impressive.
As was the woman walking toward him now with a hesitant smile on her heart-shaped face. Obviously one of the famous Bryson girls.
The single one, from what he'd heard in town.
"Hey there," Alice said, suddenly shy. He was even better looking up close. His gray eyes reminded her of the Spanish moss at night, full of mystery, shimmering with possibility.
"Hi," he said, stepping forward to greet her. "I guess you're wondering what I'm doing."
"Thought did cross my mind." She shrugged, pushed at her worn college sweatshirt. "I mean, we don't often get people all suited up and running around the swamp talking to themselves. Who are you?"
"Direct. I like that." He extended his hand. "I'm Jonah Sheridan."
She took his hand. "Like Jonah and the whale?"
He actually chuckled, but he shook her hand and then released it, leaving a warm impression. "Something like that, yes. Or at least I'm feeling that way right now."
She liked that he seemed nervous. It gave her the upper hand. "Relax. We don't see many whales on the bayou."
"That's good. I stay in enough trouble as it is."
She pushed at her curly hair. "And why is that?"
He held up the electronic gadget in his hand. "Oh, people think I'm strange. I take copious notes. I wasn't exactly talking to myself. This is a tape recorder. Helps me to stay out of trouble."
"I use a tape recorder myself sometimes," she replied. "I'm a reporter for the Bayou Buzz magazine."
His eyes widened. "So it is you. You're"
Surprised, she nodded. "Alice Bryson. The one and only. And how do you know me?"
He grinned and lowered his head. "I saw your article about the history of Rosette House a few months ago it was reprinted in the New Orleans newspaper. I actually have a copy back in my room at the bed-and-breakfast in town." He pointed to the house. "Since I'm a history buff, I decided to read up on this area. I was interested in how you rebuilt the bottom floor of the house after the storm."
Alice scrutinized him for sincerity but couldn't tell for sure. Did she sense hesitancy in him? Or was he holding back something important, maybe trying to pull the wool over her eyes? "Well, that's good to know. My editor wasn't sure we should run with that cover story, but I convinced her.