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Leaving Blue Bayou
By JoAnn Ross
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 JoAnn Ross
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIf anyone had told him, back in his hormone-driven teenage days, that a guy could get paid sinfully big bucks for making love to the world's sexiest women, Gabriel Broussard would've hightailed it out of South Louisiana's bayou country a helluva lot sooner.
The morning after what would permanently be etched in stone as the worst night of his life, he'd loaded up his truck, just like the Clampetts had done in that old sixties sitcom, (though in his case it'd been a black Trans Am), and moved to Beverly.
Hills, that is.
Okay, so technically this house wasn't actually in the Hills, but on the beach at Malibu, which in Gabe's mind was a lot cooler and still included its share of swimming pools and movie stars. Of which, though it still blew his own mind to think so, he just happened to be one.
Which explained the panties. Sort of.
"Six pairs," Angela Moreno announced as she dropped the lacy undies in front of him.
Gabe morosely eyed the pile of silk and satin lace. They were all just like all the others this week—either red or black. Whatever happened to girly pastels? A soft, feminine pink? Or even a sweet virginal white? Though it'd been years since he'd had any interest in virgins, with the right woman, it could make a nice fantasy.
These were flat out forward.
Big fucking surprise. Like throwing underwear with pinned-on telephone numbers over his gate wasn't?
He plucked a black triangle with two strings the width of dental floss from the pile and held it up to the scant bit of sunlight that was managing to slip through the storm shutters he'd closed to keep out of the range of the vultures—tabloid photographers—who'd been circling ever sinceTamaraTempleton had tearfully announced on Inside Edition that she was breaking their engagement because she could no longer deal with Gabe's "addiction to kinky sex."
That's when the panty attacks had begun. This particular pair was as transparent as Tamara's ploy. When the sight of his hand showing through the sheer black fabric didn't strum a single sexual chord, Gabe wondered if he might be getting old.
Christ, wasn't that a fun thought?
"Six pair are less than yesterday," he said.
"The day's still young." His assistant had to raise her voice to be heard over the whump whump whump of the rotors from the helicopter circling overhead. It was as if he was under siege. She dropped a blizzard of pink messages atop the underwear.
"Diane Sawyer's already called three times this morning, Katie Couric twice, and Barbara Walters didn't exactly come right out and say so, but I got the distinct impression that if you'd throw your interview her way, you'd be a shoo-in for one of her celebrity shows. If I were you, I'd hold out for the Oscar special."
"If you were me, you wouldn't be in this mess," Gabe muttered.
"Good point. And one I was too polite to mention." She ignored his snort. "Oh, and Leno's producer called and suggested that coming clean on The Tonight Show could really help your damage control campaign."
"I don't have a damage control campaign," Gabe ground out. Not being nearly as wild as his bad boy reputation made him out to be, he'd never needed one.
"Maybe you ought to get one. I vote for calling Barbara. Hardly anyone makes it through her interviews without crying."
"And how would me crying like a girl on national television help my image?"
"It'd make you look sensitive. Women love that. Besides, you might pick up some sympathy."
"I fail to see how accusing America's sweetheart of lying would gain the sympathy vote."
Tamara Templeton had literally grown up in viewers' living rooms. She'd made her first appearance as a plucky orphan sent from New York to live with her aunt and uncle and numerous cousins on the family farm somewhere in the nameless Midwest when she was nine years old.
Amazingly, in a competitive business where the average television show had a shelf life between milk and yogurt, bolstered by its saccharine "family value" stories set in "simpler" times, Heartland—which, in Hollywood high concept terms, had initially been dismissed by critics as Little House on the Prairie meets The Waltons—was still running strong twelve years after its debut.
And Tamara was a multimillionaire several times over.
She had her own clothing line, a perfume label, a series of best-selling books about her fictional character's adventures, and a doll whose period prairie dresses probably cost more than the average parents spent on their own kids' clothes.
Her movies, which to Gabe's mind were even more likely to give their young audience cavities than the damn TV show, were guaranteed blockbusters, and Gabe had heard tales of studios refusing to set a release date for their summer movies until her opening weekend was set in stone.
She was young, beautiful, rich, and appeared, to her legion of fans worldwide, to have everything any young woman could wish for. But there was one thing she was lacking. The respect of her acting peers.
Which is where Gabe had come in.
"Your mistake was letting her announce your engagement in the first place," Angela pointed out what Gabe had been telling himself over and over again since this mess had started.
"Like I knew she was going to pull a stunt like that." Gabe clenched his jaw. "Hell, we'd only been out twice." Both "duty dates" set up by the agent they shared.
Angela shrugged. "Sometimes it happens that way. People meet, heartstrings zing, and the next thing you know, you're in some Vegas chapel, pledging to love and honor until death do you part, while an Elvis impersonator belts out 'Burning Love.'"
Knowing that Angela had actually done the Elvis impersonator wedding bit, Gabe refrained from pointing out that he'd rather go skinny dipping with gators.
"Read my lips. Nothing went zing. Nothing fucking happened. Period."
Not that Tamara hadn't tried. And she was a fine one to talk about kinky, leaning over and telling him, just as they'd left the limo to do the red carpet walk into the Golden Globes, that she wasn't wearing any underwear.
There'd been a time when an announcement like that would've given him a boner the size of Alaska, but ever since his first movie, where he'd been cast in the starring role of the rogue pirate Jean Lafitte, a virtual Aladdin's cave of gorgeous, available women had opened up to him. In the beginning, he'd done what any healthy male would do when gifted with such a scrumptious smorgasbord of female dessert—he'd feasted.
Unfortunately, it hadn't taken him long to discover that even the sweetest desserts could become boring. And it was hard to value anything that came too easily.
"Hell." He dragged his hand through the shaggy hair he'd been growing for an upcoming role as a borderline crooked, New Orleans cop. "I've got to get out of town."
"Like there's any place on the planet the paparazzi won't find you."
He'd spent a sleepless night thinking about that.
"There's one place."
Gabe had never planned to return to his hometown of Blue Bayou. Then again, he sure as hell hadn't planned to end up in a mess like this, either.
Besides, it wasn't as if he had anywhere else to go.
Chapter TwoIt was funny how life turned out. Who'd have thought that a girl who'd been forced to buy her clothes in the Chubbettes department of the Tots to Teens Emporium, the very same girl who'd been a wallflower at her senior prom, would grow up to have men pay to get naked with her?
It just went to show, Emma Quinlan considered, as she ran her hands down her third bare male back of the day, that the American dream was alive and well and living in Blue Bayou, Louisiana.
Not that she'd dreamed that much of naked men back when she'd been growing up.
She'd been too sheltered, too shy, and far too inhibited. Then there'd been the weight issue. Photographs showed that she'd been a cherubic infant, the very same type celebrated on greeting cards and baby food commercials.
Then she'd gone through a "baby fat" stage. Which, when she was in the fourth grade, resulted in her being sent off to a fat camp where calorie cops monitored every bite that went into her mouth and did surprise inspections of the cabins, searching out contraband. One poor calorie criminal had been caught with packages of Gummi Bears hidden beneath a loose floorboard beneath his bunk. Years later, the memory of his frightened eyes as he struggled to plod his way through a punishment lap of the track was vividly etched in her mind.
The camps became a yearly ritual, as predictable as the return of swallows to the Louisiana Gulf coast every August on their fall migration.
For six weeks during July and August, every bite Emma put in her mouth was monitored. Her days were spent doing calisthenics and running around the oval track and soccer field; her nights were spent dreaming of crawfish jambalaya, chicken gumbo, and bread pudding.
There were rumors of girls who'd trade sex for food, but Emma had never met a camper who'd actually admitted to sinking that low, and since she wasn't the kind of girl any of the counselors would've hit on, she'd never had to face such a moral dilemma.
By the time she was fourteen, Emma realized that she was destined to go through life as a "large girl." That was also the year that her mother—a petite blonde, whose crowning achievement in life seemed to be that she could still fit into her size zero wedding dress fifteen years after the ceremony—informed Emma that she was now old enough to shop for back-to-school clothes by herself.
"You are so lucky!" Emma's best friend, Roxi Dupree, had declared that memorable Saturday afternoon. "My mother is soo old-fashioned. If she had her way, I'd be wearing calico like Half-Pint in Little House on the Prairie!"
Roxi might have envied what she viewed as Emma's shopping freedom, but she hadn't seen the disappointment in Angela Quinlan's judicious gaze when Emma had gotten off the bus from the fat gulag, a mere two pounds thinner than when she'd been sent away.
It hadn't taken a mind reader to grasp the truth—that Emma's former beauty queen mother was ashamed to go clothes shopping with her fat teenage daughter.
The deep male voice shattered the unhappy memory. Bygones, Emma told herself firmly.
"I don't want to be tellin' you how to do your business, but maybe you're rubbing just a touch hard?"
Damn. She glanced down at the deeply tanned skin. She had such a death grip on his shoulders. "I'm so sorry, Nate."
"No harm done," he said, the south Louisiana drawl blending appealingly with his Cajun French accent. "Though maybe you could use a bit of your own medicine. You seem a tad tense."
"It's just been a busy week, what with the Jean Lafitte weekend coming up."
Liar. The reason she was tense was not due to her days, but her recent sleepless nights.
She danced her fingers down his bare spine. And felt the muscles of his back clench.
"I'm sorry," she repeated, spreading her palms outward.
"No need to apologize. That felt real good. I was going to ask you a favor, but since you're already having a tough few days—"
"Don't be silly. We're friends, Nate. Ask away."
She could feel his chuckle beneath her hands. "That's what I love about you, chère. You agree without even hearing what the favor is."
He turned his head and looked up at her, affection warming his Paul Newman blue eyes. "I was supposed to pick someone up at the airport this afternoon, but I got a call that these old windows I've been trying to find for a remodel job are goin' on auction in Houma this afternoon, and—"
"I'll be glad to go to the airport. Besides, I owe you for getting your brother to help me out."
If it hadn't been for Finn Callahan's detective skills, Emma's louse of an ex-husband would've gotten away with absconding with all their joint funds. Including the money she'd socked away in order to open her Every Body's Beautiful day spa. Not only had Finn—a former FBI agent—not charged her his going rate, Nate insisted on paying for the weekly massage the doctor had prescribed after he'd broken his shoulder falling off a scaffolding.
"You don't owe me a thing. Your ex is pond scum. I was glad to help put him away."
Having never been one to hold grudges, Emma had tried not to feel gleeful when the news bulletin about her former husband's arrest for embezzlement and tax fraud had come over her car radio.
"So, what time is the flight, and who's coming in?"
"It gets in at five thirty-five at Concourse D. It's a Delta flight from L.A."
"Oh?" Her heart hitched. Oh, please. She cast a quick, desperate look into the adjoining room at the voodoo altar, draped in Barbie-pink tulle, that Roxi had set up as packaging for her "Hex Appeal" love spell business. Don't let it be—
Damn. Where the hell was voodoo power when you needed it?
"Well." She blew out a breath. "That's certainly a surprise."
That was an understatement. Gabriel Broussard had been so eager to escape Blue Bayou, he'd hightailed it out of town without so much as a good-bye.
Not that he'd owed Emma one.
The hell he didn't. Okay. Maybe she did hold a grudge. But only against men who'd kissed her silly, felt her up until she'd melted into a puddle of hot, desperate need, then disappeared from her life.
Unfortunately, Gabriel hadn't disappeared from the planet. In fact, it was impossible to go into a grocery store without seeing his midnight blue eyes smoldering from the cover of some sleazy tabloid. There was usually some barely clad female plastered to him.
Just last month, an enterprising photographer with a telescopic lens had captured him supposedly making love to his co-star on the deck of some Greek shipping tycoon's yacht. The day after that photo hit the newsstands, splashed all over the front of the Enquirer, the actress's producer husband had filed for divorce.
Then there'd been this latest scandal with Tamara the prairie princess ...
"Guess you've heard what happened," Nate said.
Emma shrugged. "I may have caught something about it on Entertainment Tonight." And had lost sleep for the past three nights imagining what, exactly, constituted kinky sex.
"Gabe says it'll blow over."
"Most things do, I suppose." It's what people said about Hurricane Ivan. Which had left a trail of destruction in its wake.
"Meanwhile, he figured Blue Bayou would be a good place to lie low."
"How lucky for all of us," she said through gritted teeth.
"You sure nothing's wrong, chère?"
"Positive." She forced a smile. It wasn't his fault that his best friend had the sexual morals of an alley cat. "All done."
"And feeling like a new man." He rolled his head onto his shoulders. Then he retrieved his wallet from his back pocket and handed her his Amex card. "You definitely have magic hands, Emma, darlin'."
"Thank you." Those hands were not as steady as they should have been as she ran the card. "I guess Gabe's staying at your house, then?"
"I offered. But he said he'd rather stay out at the camp."
Terrific. Not only would she be stuck in a car with the man during rush hour traffic, she was also going to have to return to the scene of the crime.
"You sure it's no problem? He can always rent a car, but bein' a star and all, as soon as he shows up at the Hertz counter, his cover'll probably be blown."
She forced a smile she was a very long way from feeling. "Of course it's no problem."
"Then why are you frowning?"
"I've got a headache coming on." A two-hundred-and-ten pound Cajun one. "I'll take a couple aspirin and I'll be fine."
"You're always a damn sight better than fine, chère." His grin was quick and sexy, without the seductive overtones that had always made his friend's smile so dangerous.
She could handle this, Emma assured herself as she locked up the spa for the day. An uncharacteristic forty-five minutes early, which had Cal Marchand, proprietor of Cal's Cajun Café across the street checking his watch in surprise.
The thing to do was to just pull on her big girl underpants, drive into New Orleans and get it over with. Gabriel Broussard might be People magazine's sexiest man alive. He might have seduced scores of women all over the world, but the man Cosmo readers had voted the pirate they'd most like to be held prisoner on a desert island with was, after all, just a man. Not that different from any other.
Besides, she wasn't the same shy, tongue-tied, small-town bayou girl she'd been ten years ago. She'd lived in the city; she'd gotten married, only to end up publicly humiliated by a man who turned out to be slimier than swamp scum.
It hadn't been easy, but she'd picked herself up, dusted herself off, divorced the dickhead, as Roxi loyally referred to him, started her own business and was a dues paying member of Blue Bayou's Chamber of Commerce.
Excerpted from Leaving Blue Bayou by JoAnn Ross Copyright © 2012 by JoAnn Ross. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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