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New Orleans, Louisiana: Mardi Gras
"Laissez les bons temps rouler!" Let the good times roll!
The cheer bounced around inside Hank Renshaw, Jr.'s, head as he pushed through the crowd lining the road to watch the Mardi Gras parade. His mood was anything but party-worthy.
He needed to deliver a message on behalf of his friend who'd been killed in action ten months ago. Tracking down his best bud's girlfriend added twenty-ton weights to Hank's already heavy soul.
Determination powered him forward, one step at a time, through the throng of partiers decked out in jester hats, masks and beads. Lampposts blazed through the dark. The parade inched past, a jazz band blasting a Louis Armstrong number while necklaces, doubloons and even lacy panties rained over the mini-mob.
Not surprising to see underwear fly. In years past, he'd driven down from Bossier City to New Orleans for Mardi Gras festivities. This town partied through the weekend leading all the way into Fat Tuesday. If former experiences were anything to judge by, the night would only get rowdier as the alcohol flowed. Before long, folks would start asking for beads the traditional way.
By hiking up their shirts.
A grandma waved her hands in the air, keeping her blouse in place for now as she shouted at a float with a krewe king riding a mechanical alligator, "Throw me something, mister!"
"Laissez les bons temps rouler!" the king shouted back in thickly accented Cajun French.
Hank sidestepped around a glowing lamppost. He spoke French and Spanish fluently, passable German and a hint of Chamorro from the time his dad had been stationed in Guam. He'd always sworn he wouldn't follow in the old man's aviator footsteps. While his dad was a pilot, Hank was a navigator. But in the end, he'd even chosen the same aircraft his dad hadthe B-52. He couldn't dodge the family legacy any more than his two sisters had. Renshaws joined the air force. Period. They'd served for generations, even though their cumulative investment portfolio now popped into the billions.
And he would give away every damn cent if he could bring back his friend.
Chest tight with grief, Hank looked up at the wrought-iron street number on the restaurant in front of him. Less than a block to go until he reached Gabrielle Ballard's garret apartment, which was located above an antiques shop. He plunged back into the kaleidoscope of Mardi Gras purple, gold and green.
And then, in the smallest shift of the crowd, he saw her in the hazy glow of a store's porch lights. Or rather, he saw her back as she made her way to her apartment. She didn't appear to be here for the parade. Just on her way home, walking ahead of him with a floral sling full of groceries and a canvas sack.
Hurrying to catch her, he didn't question how he'd identified her. He knew Gabrielle without even seeing her face. What a freaking sappy reality, but hell, the truth hurt. He recognized the elegant curve of her neck, the swish of her blond hair along her shoulders.
Even with a loose sweater hiding her body, there was no mistaking the glide of her long legs. The woman made denim look highend. She had a Euro-chic style that hinted at her dual citizenship. Her U.S. Army father had married a German woman, then finished out his career at American bases overseas. Gabrielle had come to New Orleans for her graduate studies.
Yeah, he knew everything about Gabrielle Ballard, from her history to the curve of her hips. He'd wanted her every day for a torturous year before he and Kevin had shipped out. The only relief? Since she lived in South Louisiana, while he and his friend were stationed in Northern Louisiana, Gabrielle had only crossed his path a couple of times a month.
Regardless, the brotherhood code put a wall between him and Gabrielle that Hank couldn't scale. She was his best friend's fiancée, Kevin's girl. At least, she had been. Until Kevin died ten months ago. Two gunshots from a sniper at a checkpoint, and his friend was gone. That didn't make Gabrielle available, but it did make her Hank's obligation.
Gabrielle angled sideways, adjusting the sling holding her groceries and the canvas sack, to wedge through a cluster of college-aged students in front of the iron gate closing off the outdoor stairs to her apartment. A plastic cup in one guy's hand sloshed foamy beer down her arm. She jumped back sharply, slamming into another drunken reveler. Gabrielle stepped forward, only to have the guy with the cup block her path again. She held her floral sack closer, fear stamped on her face.
Instincts still honed from battle shifted into high gear, telling Hank things were escalating in a damn dangerous way. He scowled, shoving forward faster without taking his eyes off her for even a second. The street lamp spotlighted her, her golden hair a shining beacon in the chaos. She pressed herself into a garden nook, but the sidewalk was packed; the noise of the floats so intense that calls for help wouldn't be heard.
Hank closed the last two steps between him and the mess unfolding in front of him. He clamped his hand down firmly on the beer-swilling bastard's shoulder.
"Let the lady pass."
"What the hell?" The drunken jerk stumbled backward, bloodshot eyes unfocused.
Gabrielle's gaze zipped to Hank. She gasped. Her emerald-green eyes went wide with recognition as she stared at him. And yeah, he felt an all too familiar snap of awareness inside him every time she crossed his path, the same draw that had tugged him the first time he saw her at a squadron formal.
One look at her then, in the ice-blue dress, and every cell in his body had shouted, "Mine!" Seconds later, Kevin had joined them, introducing her as the love of his life. Still, those cells in Hank kept on staking their claim on her.
The guy shrugged off Hank's hand, alcohol all but oozing from his pores into the night air. "Mind your own business, pal."
"Afraid I can't do that." Hank slid his arm around Ga-brielle's waist, steeling himself for the soft feel of her against his side. "She's with me, and it's time for you to find another spot to watch the parade."
The guy's eyes focused long enough to skim over Hank's leather flight jacket and apparently decide taking on a trained military guy might not be a wise move. He raised his hands, a glowing neon necklace peeking from the collar of his long-sleeved college tee. "Didn't know you had prior claim, Major. Sorry."
Major? God, it seemed as if yesterday he was a lieutenant, just joining a crew. Okay. He sure felt ancient these days even though he was only thirty-three. "No harm, no foul, as long as you walk away now."
"Can do." The guy nodded, turning back to his pals. "Let's bounce, dudes."
Hank watched until the crowd swallowed the drunken trio, his guard still high as he scanned the hyped-up masses.
"Hank?" Gabrielle called to him. "How did you find me?"
The sound of her voice speaking his name wrapped around him like a silken bond. Nothing had changed. He was still totally hooked on her. Bad enough before when she and Kevin had been engaged. But now, one glance at her made memories of his dying friend roil in his gut again.
He needed to check on Gabrielle as he'd promised Kevin he would, pass along his friend's final words, then punch out of her life for good.
"You still live at the same address. Finding you wasn't detective work," he said, guiding her toward the iron gateway blocking her outside stairway. His eyes roved over the familiar little garden and wrought-iron table he'd seen for the first time when he'd driven down with Kevin two years ago. Determined to gain control of his feelings, he'd accompanied his bud on a weekend trip to the Big Easy. Pure torture from start to finish. "Let's go to your place so we can talk."
"What are you doing here? I didn't know you'd returned to the States." Her light German accent gave her an exotic appeal.
As if she needed anything else to knock him off balance. Good God, he was a thirty-three-year-old combat veteran, and she had him feeling like a high schooler who'd just seen the new hot chick in class.
He took in her glinting green eyes, her high cheekbones and delicate chin that gave her face a heartlike appearance. A green canvas purse hung from one shoulder, her floral shopping sack slung over her head, resting on her other hip. The strap stretched across her chest, between her breasts.
Breasts that were fuller than he remembered.
Better haul his eyes back upward, pronto. "I'm here for you."
The rest could wait until they got inside. He pulled her closer, her grocery sling shifting between them heavily. What the hell did she have in there?
He slipped a finger under the strap. "Let me carry that for you."
"No, thank you." She covered the sack protectively with both hands, curving around the smooth bulge. Smooth? Maybe not groceries, after all. But what? Her sack wriggled.
He looked at the bag again, realization blasting through him. Holy crap. Not a satchel at all. He'd seen his sister Darcy wear one almost exactly like it when her son and daughter were newborns. No question, Gabrielle wore an infant sling.
And given the little foot kicking free, she had a baby on board.
As far back as she could remember, Gabrielle had dreamed of being a mom. Her baby dolls had always been the best dressed, well fed and healthiest in her neighborhood.
Little had she known then how very different her first real stint at motherhood would play out. No daddy for her child. A sick baby.
And now an unsettling blast from the past had arrived in the form of Hank Renshaw. Standing in front of her, tall and broad-shouldered, he blocked out the rest of the world. He wore his leather flight jacket in the unseasonably cool night, looking as tall, dark and studly as any movie poster hero.
She still couldn't believe he was here.
No kidding, Major Hank Renshaw, Jr., stood on her street in the middle of Mardi Gras. Only her baby's doctor's appointment could have drawn her out into this chaos with her child. If he'd been a few minutes later, would she have missed him?
She hadn't seen him since Her heart stumbled as surely as her feet moments earlier. She hadn't seen Hank since she'd said goodbye to Kevin the day they'd both deployed from their Louisiana base to the Middle East.
For some reason, he'd come to visit her now. And no matter how painful it was to think of how she should have been celebrating Kevin's homecoming, it wasn't Hank's fault. She was just tired and emotional. God, she hated feeling needy.
But oh, my, how the shower-fresh scent of him chased away the nauseating air of beer, sweat and memories. How easy it would be to lean into that strength and protection. How easyand how very wrong. She had to hold strong. She'd fought long and hard to break free of her family's smothering protectiveness two years ago, following her dream to study in the States.
She was a twenty-six-year-old single mom who could and would take care of herself and her son. She didn't need the distraction or heartbreak of a man, especially not now.
Although from the horror on his face as he stared at her baby's foot sticking out of her sling, she shouldn't have any trouble sending Hank on his way quickly.
She plastered a smile on her weary face. "Oh, my God, Hank, I can't believe it's really you. Let's step inside out of this craziness so we can hear each other better. When did you get back from overseas? How long have you been here?"
"I got back to base yesterday," he answered carefully, his eyes shouting a question of his own, directed right at her son.
She ignored the obvious, best to discuss it away from hereand after she gathered her shaky composure. "Just yesterday? And you're already here? You must be more tired than I am."
Bracing her elbow, his hand warm and strong, he guided her through the throng. "Seeing you topped my list of priorities. Why else would I be here?"
Her son kicked her in the stomach, right over a churning well of nerves. "Well, it's Mardi Gras." She tucked her hand into the canvas diaper bag, fishing for her keys. "I thought maybe you came for the celebration, some R & R after your deployment."
"No rest or relaxation. My being here? All about you."
"About Kevin, you mean." Saying his name, even ten months after his death, hurt.
She saw an answering pain in Hank's eyes. What a strange bond they shared, connected by a dead man.
Turning away to hide the sheen of tears, she fit the key into the wrought-iron gate closing off the outside steps up to her attic apartment. The hinges creaked open. Hank blocked anyone else from entering and stepped into the narrow walkway with her. He closed the gate and turned fast, clasping her by the arms.
His steely blue eyes weren't going to be denied.
He tugged her son's booty-covered foot. "And since I'm here about Kevin, that begs the question, who's this? Are you babysitting for a neighbor?"
So much for buying time to pull herself together. "This is Max. He's mine." And he was sick, so very sick. She shivered in fear, her head pounding in time with the beat of the jazz band. "Any other questions will have to wait until we're upstairs away from the noise. I've had a long day, and I'm really tired."
In a flash, Hank tugged her diaper bag from her overburdened shoulder. He shrugged out of his leather jacket and draped it around her before she could form the words no, thanks. She'd worn Kevin's leather jacket dozens of times. One coat should feel much like the other. But it didn't. Hank's darn near swallowed her whole, wrapping her in warmth and the scent of him.
Kevin and Hank may have crewed together on a B-52, but their temperaments were total opposites. Kevin had been all about laughter and fun, enticing her to step away from her studies and experience life. Hank was more intense.
His steady steps echoed behind her as she climbed the steps all the way to the third-floor apartment. After a long day at the hospital facing her fears and making mammoth decisions alone, the support felt good, too good. She fumbled with her keys again. Hank's jacket slid off and cool night air breezed over her. He snagged the leather coat before it hit the ground.