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New Orleans, 2013
"Hot guy at two o'clock," Pansy McAdams said, craning her head around the form mannequin and peering out the window.
Eleanor Theriot rolled her eyes and swiped her dust cloth over the spindles of the rocker she knelt beside. "You think half of New Orleans is hot."
"No, I'm just optimistic."
"Or need a good optometrist."
Pansy didn't turn her head from whoever had drawn her attention. "I have perfect vision, thank you very much, and this one is worth the drool I'll have to wipe off the glass."
Eleanor pushed past Pansy, who'd plastered her nose to the window of the Queen's Box. Eleanor could only imagine the picture her friend and employee presented to passersby. Pig nose.
But no actual drool.
"Let me be the judge," Eleanor said, playing along. Pansy had spent the past month reminding Eleanor of her resolution to get back into the dating game. When Eleanor had examined her life, as everyone is wont to do on New Year's Day, she'd discovered her home felt empty, and most of her lingerie had been purchased from a wholesale club. Time to start dating again, to start claiming a new life for herself outside widowhood and motherhood. Up until now, Eleanor had been good at ignoring the male sex—hot or otherwise—but today, Eleanor felt game. Maybe it was the phone call earlier from her mom, who had cut out an article about healthy living for the premenopausal woman.
Not that Eleanor was going through menopause.
So an innocent ogle sounded harmless.
Across the street, in front of the place where tradesmen had been streaming in and out like worker bees, was a pickup truck. Leaning against the side of that truck was someone who made her swallow. Hard.
Pansy soooo didn't need glasses.
The man resembled an Aztec prince. Like his honeyed skin should be twined in gold and turquoise, bedecked in a feathered headdress. And a loincloth. He'd be breathtaking in a loincloth.
"Told ya," Pansy said, shouldering Eleanor out of the way. "He could eat crackers, chips and freakin' beignets in my bed any day of the week."
"Not sure your husband would appreciate an extra bed-mate."
"Eddie lets the dog sleep with us. What's one more hairy beast?" Pansy straightened the ceremonial Mayan mask that sat next to the silver candelabra in the window display before sliding off the edge of the window stage, her long body loose and loping. Pansy was over six feet tall, flat-footed and thin to the point of painful, but she had a sharp sense of humor and a heart that was big, fat and full of good cheer. Like Santa Claus in Olive Oyl's body.
Eleanor glanced again at the man standing beside the pickup, peering at his phone. He wore well-worn jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. His face had a sort of sexy Brad Pitt thing going on with sensuous lips, but his jaw was hard, nose straight, brows dark and drawn to a V as he tapped on the phone. His skin was a creamy cafe au lait and his hair jetblack, clipped close to his head. Broad shoulders and narrow hips finished off the visual treat. A damn chocolate cupcake from Butterfield's Bakery wasn't as tempting as this man. "Hey," Pansy whispered over Eleanor's shoulder, making her jump. "You should go get him and see how you like sleeping on cracker crumbs."
"I already know I don't like sleeping on cracker crumbs."
"With the right guy, you'll never feel 'em. Trust me."
Running a hand over a well-crafted Federal chest of drawers, Eleanor turned to Pansy and wiggled her fingers. "Dust."
Eleanor wasn't going outside to talk to a guy leaning against a work truck. She wasn't that kind of girl. Never had been even if she was determined to get out there wherever "there" was. "No way."
"Calling me names won't work. Get the lemon oil and let's make sure our pieces up front look pretty. Tourists will be pouring in with Mardi Gras weekend coming up. I could use some sales."
Pansy propped her fists on angular hips and narrowed her piercing blue eyes. "Come on, El. What will it hurt to do a little flirting? You'll probably never see him again and you need to get your feet wet. Beyond time, sugar."
Yeah, it was way beyond time. That's what her daughter, Blakely, had yelled at her over a month ago—to get her own life. But Eleanor wasn't going outside and getting her feet wet with some random house painter. Even if she'd never see him again. Even if it was harmless, silly and somewhat daring. "I'm moving on, Pansy. I am. I even checked out that eHarmony site last night, but I'm not the kind of girl who goes up to a random guy and says, uh, I wouldn't even know what to say."
"Pretend you're locked out and need a screwdriver or something to jimmy the lock. I'll hide in the back."
"Jimmy the lock? Who are you? Nancy Drew?"
Pansy faked an elaborate laugh. "You're so funny. Share it with the sex god across the street. Unless you're chicken?"
Eleanor looked around the antiques store that had been her salvation, first after the hurricane and then after the sex scandal, and felt the security she always did when she really thought about who she was. Did she want to be another relic of the past like the beautiful pieces in her store? Hmm. Pansy was right. Blakely was right. She needed to step out and get a life. "Okay. Fine."
Pansy froze. "Really?"
"Yeah, what'll it hurt? Not like I'll see him again."
Pansy pulled Eleanor to her, snatching the ponytail holder from Eleanor's hair. "Ow!"
"Hold still," Pansy said, tugging strands of Eleanor's hair around her face and studying it critically.
Eleanor batted her hands away. "Jeez, Pans."
"Let me grab the coral-rose lip gloss I bought at Sephora. It will look nice with those new red highlights you just put in."
"Shh," Pansy said, pressing a finger against Eleanor's lips. "He's a little out of your league so we need to prepare you for—"
"Please." Eleanor pushed past her friend and tucked her shirt into her new gold Lilly Pulitzer belt. "He'll be gone before you could perform all that magic. Besides, he's not out of my league. Forget the lip gloss."
"Whoa, that's my sassy girl," Pansy called, scurrying to the back of the store, thin arms and knobby knees moving so fast she resembled a clumsy puppy. She sank behind the counter, leaving only her eyes visible. "I'll hide back here so he buys the story."
"This is nuts," Eleanor proclaimed.
Pansy's hand emerged over the register, shooing her toward the door. "Just go."
Taking a deep breath, Eleanor pushed the glass door, ignoring the dinging of the sleigh bells affixed to the knob, and stepped onto Magazine Street, which had started waking up for the day. She shut the door behind her, slapped a hand to her forehead and patted her pockets.
Damn, she was a good actress.
She started toward hunky painter dude, looking both ways before crossing the street 'cause she'd learned that rule when she was seven years old. The closer she got, the hotter—and younger—the guy looked.
God, this was stupid. Pansy was right. The man was out of her league.
Too hot for her.
Too young for her.
She needed to go back to her store and abandon the whole ruse, but as she began to turn, he lifted his head and caught her gaze.
Oh, dear Lord. Eyes the color of smoke swept over her and something shivery flew right up her spine. It wasn't casual or dismissive. Oddly enough, the gaze felt profound.
Or maybe she needed to drink less coffee. She must be imagining the connection between them. It had been almost twenty years since she'd tried to pick up a man, so she was out of practice. That was it. She imagined his interest.
He lifted his eyebrows questioningly, and she tried to remember what she was supposed to ask him. A horn honked and she turned her head.
Yeah. She stood in the middle of the street like a moron.
The Aztec sex god turned his head and nodded toward the car. "You gonna move?"
"Yeah," she said, stepping onto the sidewalk. She licked her lips, wishing she'd put on the stupid lip gloss. Not only did she look stupid, but her lips were bare. Eleanor the Daring was appalled by Eleanor the Unprepared, who had shown up in her stead. "Can I help you?"
You can if you toss me over your shoulder, take me to your temple and play sacrifice the not-exactly-a-virgin on your stone pillar of lust.
But she didn't say that, of course.
"I'm looking for a screw," she said.
Dez Batiste lowered his phone and stared at the woman. "I beg your pardon?"
"You asked for a screw?" he repeated.
She turned the color of the red tiles that framed the doorway behind her. "No. I didn't ask you—uh, I meant a screwdriver."
He almost laughed because he could see where her thoughts had jumped to which was kind of cute.
He'd parked in front of the club five minutes ago, pissed he couldn't get his damn contractor to show up. He'd dialed Chris Salmon three times, but hung up each time he heard the voice mail. He wasn't in a good mood, didn't need some woman bothering him, but when he'd really looked at this one, he had put his bad mood on pause.
She nodded and a chunk of hair fell from behind her ear. She pushed it back.
"At first I thought you were propositioning me." He smiled to let her know he wouldn't bite. At least not hard.
Her face turned even redder. "Heavens, no. I just got distracted, uh, by that car." She glanced at the antiques store across the street and rolled her shoulders.
"Why do you need a screwdriver?" he asked, liking what his questions were doing to her. Why? He hadn't the foggiest. There was simply something about her that made him want to peel away layers.
"The stupid lock to the store is messed up, and I'm locked out. No one else is here yet, and I don't have an extra key."
He glanced inside the truck. "Don't have one out here, but I can check to see if anyone left something you can use inside."
She caught her lower lip between her teeth, drawing his attention to the perfect pinkness of her mouth. Soft. As if she'd been painted upon canvas and intentionally smudged. Her fire-streaked hair with a stubborn flip fell to her collarbone, which was visible beneath a shirt the color of ripe watermelon. "I suppose I could ask Mr. Hibbett at Butterfield's. He might have one."
Not wanting to miss an opportunity to make friends in the area, he held out a hand. "I'm Dez Batiste. Let me unlock the door, and we'll see if there's something you can use. Wouldn't want to bother Mr. Hibbett, would we?"
Her gaze lifted to his. "Batiste? As in the guy who wants to open the nightclub?"
His fascination with the woman immediately nose-dived. Five months ago, he'd chosen to roll the dice on an Uptown location for his nightclub rather than a place on Frenchmen Street. Treme might be the hottest jazz scene in New Orleans, but Dez was pretty sure his old neighborhood near the Garden District would welcome the upscale club opening in less than a month. However, there had been opposition to Blue Rondo from some of the merchants. He'd recently received a letter from the Magazine Street Merchants Association questioning the judiciousness of opening a business that could potentially harm the family-friendly atmosphere. It hadn't been "welcoming" at all. More like holding a veiled threat of ill will. "I'm Dez Batiste, the guy who will open a nightclub."
He started to lower his hand, but she took it. "I'm Eleanor Theriot, owner of the Queen's Box." She hiked a thumb over her shoulder toward the large glass-front store directly across the street from where they stood.
"Oh," he said, noting the warmth of her grasp, the sharpness in her gaze and the scent of her perfume, which reminded him of summer nights. He knew who she was, had seen that name before. On the bottom of a complaint to the city council. One of his friends had scored a copy and given him a heads-up.
She dropped her hand. "I assumed you were a worker or something."
"Why, because I'm ethnic?"
Her eyes widened. "No. That's insulting."
He lifted his eyebrows but said nothing.
"You're dressed like you were coming to work or something." She gestured to his old jeans and faded T-shirt, her face no longer as yielding.
Okay, he was dressed in paint-streaked clothes, and the truck had Emilio's Painting plastered to the door, so maybe Eleanor wasn't drawing incorrect conclusions. Because though his grandfather was black, his grandmother Creole and his mother Cuban, Dez didn't look any distinctive race.
For a moment they stood, each regarding the other. Dez regretted the shift in mood. He'd wanted to flirt with her, maybe score her digits, but now there was nothing but a bad taste.
"I'd wondered about you, a renowned New Orleans musician returning to open a club in the old Federal Bank," Eleanor said, glancing up at the crumbling brick before returning her gaze to him. Those green eyes looked more guarded than before. "So why here in this part of New Orleans? Aren't there better places for a nightclub?"
"Uptown is where I'm from," Dez said, folding his arms across his chest and eyeing the antiques dealer with her expensive clothes and obvious intolerance for anyone not wearing seersucker and named something like Winston. "What? I don't meet your expectations 'cause I'm not drunk? Or strung out on crack?"
Her eyes searched his, and in them, he saw a shift, as if a decision had been made that instant. "And you don't have horns. I'd thought you'd have horns unless they're retractable?"
She didn't smile as she delivered the line. It was given smoothly, as if she knew they were headed toward rocky shores and needed to steer clear. So he picked up a paddle and allowed them to drift back into murky waters. "Retractable horns are a closely guarded musician's secret. Who ratted me out?"
Eleanor locked her mouth with an imaginary key.
"Guess a screwdriver wouldn't help?"
She shook her head.
It was an intensely odd moment with a woman he'd resented without knowing much about her, with a woman who opposed his very dream, with a woman who made him want to trace the curve of her jaw. He'd never been in such a situation.
"Just two things before I go back over there and walk through that very much unlocked door," she said with a resolute crossing of her arms.
"Really? The door's not even locked?" He arched an eyebrow.
"A ploy to come check you out dreamed up by my not-so-savvy salesclerk. Totally tanked on the whole thing from beginning to end. It's pretty embarrassing."
"I'm flattered. Thank your salesclerk for me."
Her direct stare didn't waver. "Oh, come on, don't even pretend you're not the object of a lot of 'Can I borrow your pen?' or 'Do you know what time it is?'"
"Wait, those are pickup lines?" he asked with a deadpan expression. There was something he liked in her straightforwardness along with the soft-glowy thing she had going. Not quite wholesome. More delicate and flowery. This woman wasn't lacquered up with lip gloss and a shirt so low her nipples nearly showed. Instead she begged to be unwrapped like a rare work of art.
He shook himself, remembering she was a high-class broad and not his type.