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All paul clermont wanted to do was to conduct his business, rid himself of one unwanted family inheritance and then get out of the heat and humidity of Indigo, Louisiana.
He'd been doing exactly thatuntil a woman he'd never met screeched into the driveway in a spray of gravel. She'd jumped out of her car and planted herself between him and the real estate agent who held a For Sale sign. "You can't sell this building," the other woman said.
"I'm the owner," he explained. "I can sell it if I want to."
The tall, lean brunette parked her fists on her hips. She was an attractive woman, with a long, neat French braid running down her back. A few stray tendrils wisped around her face, tickling at the soft pink of her cheeks.
She was beautifulif he ignored the look of annoyance on her face. "All these months, we've been trying to contact you. Now you show up to sell the place?"
He quirked a grin at her to show her he wasn't evil incarnate. His ex-wife, however, might disagree. "I'm making a business decision, nothing more. And I think Sandra here" he thumbed in the direction of the agent who stood mute and frozen in place, holding the sign "has no issue with me selling this place. Why do you?"
The temper in the brunette's vibrant blue eyes simmered steadily. "Because I care about this building, unlike you."
The blasted Louisiana heat had soaked Paul clear through, even though it was October. If there was a god of humidity, this place would be his headquarters. Paul had been in Louisiana for a few days, doing a follow-up story on hurricane recovery efforts, and had decided to stop by to finally see the property his family hadbragged about for years. Clearly, none of them had paid a visit here recently, at least not in this century.
"If you like this place so much," he said, "buy it yourself. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to get this this thing" he waved at the dilapidated building beside them "listed."
"It is not a thing," she said. "It's a legacy."
Paul took in a deep breath to calm himself. At the same time, a small chunk of siding fell from the wallmore proof the place wasn't worth the land it sat onand tumbled to the ground, landing in a jumble of vines and weeds.
The rest of the plantings were, he had to admit, well-tended, as if someone had been working on the grounds but hadn't yet tackled that particular section. Window boxes beneath the tall, elaborate front windows were filled with blooming flowers, and small, carefully trimmed shrubs bordered two sides of the building's exterior.
The opera house had been beautiful once, that was clear. The two-story building had been designed in an imposing Greek Revival style, with tall, arched windows that framed carved double doors large enough for Goliath.
A wrought-iron balcony formed an impressive presence. Paul glanced up, following the lines of a magnificent cupola, which looked freshly restored, along with the roof.
He considered taking out his camera again. His gaze drifted over the opera house, seeing it with his photographer's eyerather than that of a jaded ownerand for a brief moment the place inspired a feeling of magic, and a direct link to the past.
But then, as he looked closer, he saw the flaws. The peeling white paint, a split window frame, the torn curtains inside.
It was a gorgeous buildingthat was falling apart at the seams.
He'd taken a few shots of it when he'd first arrived, intrigued by the intricacies of the design, the elegant air amid such a rustic setting. But that was all he wanted, a picture or two that he might be able to sell to his editor down the road, or to some architectural magazine.
As he looked at this "family legacy," Paul figured his uncle Neil, who'd died two months ago, had either a mean sense of humor or a vision problem. The opera house had been passed down through a long line of Valois generations, going eventually to Uncle Neil and now Paul.
After all these years, however, the building defined decrepit, reminding him of Miss Haversham's crazy house in Dickens's Great Expectations.
"Why sell it?" the woman asked him. "All you have to do is own it. Amelie Valois's will appointed Indigo as its caretaker. We'll go on doing what we do, and you go on back to whatever it is you do." She paused. "Unless you want to sell it to the town?"
"Is Indigo willing to pay enough to recoup my investment? I just paid off a very much overdue tax bill on this property."
"Considering the town's limited tax base, we could offer," she hesitated, "a dollar."
Paul snorted. "A dollar? That doesn't even pay for the gas it took me to get here." He turned back to Sandra. "Where do I sign?"
"Sandra, talk him out of this," the woman said.
"You know what the opera house means to the town."
The agent's face went as pale as the white sign she held. She couldn't be a day over twenty, and he suspected she wasn't used to being caught in the crossfire of a verbal brawl over an MLS listing. "Perhaps you want to come back later?" she squeaked. "Do you even know what this building is?" the woman asked.
Her again. With the agent about as useful as a stone, Paul had no choice but to deal with the spitfire. He sighed. "The Indigo Opera House. And also a mess."
She let out a gust of frustration that Paul would swear was tinged with smoke. "It's a cultural icon. You can not put it up for sale."
"Are you deaf as a haddock?" he demanded.
"Because I've already told you that I can, and I am."
Sandra was quaking in her black flats. "Mr. Clermont, you really should hear Marjo out. She's got a point. And, uh, in all honesty, I think Marjo would kill me if I put this For Sale sign up."
So her name was Marjo. It had a nice ring to it, but it came attached to a woman who did, as Sandra had pointed out, look ready to commit a homicide right here on the wide stepswith him outlined in chalk. "All right, Miss"
"Savoy. Marjolaine Savoy."
"Miss Savoy," he corrected, "I'll hear you out." He flung out his wrist and glanced at the beaten watch that had survived several near-death experiences in his travels. "You've got three minutes."
Although she looked as if she'd rather let out one hell of a high-pitched scream, Marjo bit her tongue, sucked in a breath and eyed him squarely. "The Indigo Opera House was built by Alexandre Valois for his wife just before the Civil War and has been an integral part of this town for centuries. You can't sell it. Indigo is counting on reopening it for the music festival at the end of the month. If you had read any of the letters we have been sending you, you'd know all this."
He didn't bother telling her that he was so rarely home in Nova Scotia that sending him mail was a waste of time. Or that his uncle Neil had been bedridden in the last few months of his life, and probably not up to corresponding with this woman or her committee. He'd heard stories about the opera house over the years, but given the way his Cape Breton family tended to exaggerate at family get-togethers, he'd figured it was more myth than fact. If there was one thing Capers were good at, it was concocting a tale tall enough to rival Paul Bunyan.
When Paul had learned of his inheritance, he'd initially ignored it, intending to deal with it when he had time. That time had never come. One assignment after another had kept him out of Canada more than he was in it.
Then a past-due tax bill had arrived, and after a brief investigation, Paul learned that Uncle Neil had squandered the Valois inheritance on bad stocks and left the property as a negative investment for Paul. The unexpected blow to his wallet had been enough to send him down here between assignments to get rid of the property before he put another dime into it.
Paul wiped his palms together. "I just want to let it become someone else's problem."
Her gaze narrowed. "Aren't you a descendant of Amelie Valois?"
"Then this" she swept her palm in the direction of the fixer-upper "is your legacy, too."
"Lady, I don't do legacies. I don't put down roots. I don't get to know the neighbors. And I don't renovate opera houses just because some uncle I've seen maybe five times in my life saw fit to dump this thing in my lap." He gave her another grin, then tipped an invisible hat in Sandra's direction.
"And since you seem so damned determined to get in my way, I'll have to finish this real estate business later."
"You will not"
He took a step toward her. If they hadn't been so filled with frustration, her deep blue eyes would stop a man in his tracks. They were the kind that would have intrigued him, had him wondering what thoughts were hidden behind themon any other day but this one. "Maybe this building is important to you, but it's not worth a damn thing to me. I will sell it and you won't stop me."
Then he turned on his heel and walked back to his rental car. He heard her muttering unflattering comparisons between him and several species of fourlegged animals.
If Marjolaine Savoy was on Indigo's welcome committee, it was no wonder the town's human population was lower than its alligator one.
HER MOTHER'S Pfaltzgraff had never taken such a beating. Marjo had come home from the confrontation in front of the opera house and started cleaning. She took out her frustrations on the dishes, seeing Paul Clermont's face in every soap bubble. She tried to scrub his image off the dinner plates, but he stubbornly refused to go.
"Are you okay, Marjo?" A soft hand on her shoulder, and instantly her temper subsided.
She turned to look into the sweet, trusting eyes of her younger brother. "Yes, Gabriel, I am. Just a little frustrated today, that's all."
He looked at the dishes and the sloshed water all over the countertop. "Did you have hard-toclean plates?"
It took her a second to make the connection. "Oh, no, no. Just a bad day overall."
"Poor Marjo." Gabriel reached out and pulled her into a hug, a tight, nearly smothering embrace that pressed her face into the crook of his shoulder. When had her brother gotten so tall? He'd always seemed little to her, as if he'd never passed the age where he needed her to walk him to the bus, to be sure he had his lunch money, his math book.
Despite the years that had passed, one thing hadn't changed: the protective love of the brother who had relied on her ever since their parents had died. To others, his embraces might seem needy, but she understood them.
When Gabriel loved someone, he loved fiercely, with no judgments, no boundaries. Marjo thanked God once again for his calming, accepting presence.
When he finally let go, she looked up at him and smiled. "You're the best, Gabriel. You always know exactly what I need."
"You feel better?" His sea-green eyes were still shadowed by concern.
She nodded. "I do." "Good." A bright smile broke across his face. "Can I have some peanut butter?"
Marjo laughed and made him a sandwich, which he happily took out to the front porch to eat, sitting in the rocker and pushing off from time to time, rocking in the easy breeze. Gabriel was like that, so concerned, so ready to help, and then just as quickly content with a couple pieces of bread, some peanut butter and a cushy seat on the old wooden porch.
After the death of their parents in a car accident, she had been left to care for then five-year-old Gabriel, whose IQ was now around seventy. Because he was at the high end of the mental disability scale, the doctors had said Gabriel would be able to live on his own someday, needing only minimal assistance from Marjo in doing things like filling out loan and job applications, making big decisions.
But Gabriel was sweet and trusting, often too much so. Over the years there had been cruel children who had taken advantage of his mild nature. He'd also been the kind of kid who would run after a butterfly in the middle of his own birthday party, or who would forget his shoes and be halfway to school before he noticed.
Stepping into the role of Gabriel's caretaker had been a no-brainer, really, even though Marjo had been nineteen, in her second year of college and on the cusp of starting her own life.
Gabriel had needed her, needed someone who loved him, understood him and could make sure he avoided the potholes and speed bumps in life.
So she was there.
She watched him munch away, without a care in the world, and again felt the heaviness of the day descend upon her shoulders. Damn that Paul Clermont. There was no way he was going to sell the opera house, not when the restoration committee was on the verge of restoring it to its former glory.
The CajunFest was a mere two weeks away. Local businesses were counting on the festival to draw in people from all over the area, particularly the ones who often overlooked Indigo in favor of the more touristy St. Martinville and New Iberia. The bean counters on the festival committee were talking thousands of visitors during the course of the day, and the money spent would mean a financial windfall for Indigo.