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She was a vision in the mist.
Lucas Dorsette quietly eased his pirogue through the dark, brackish swamp waters, maneuvering the long paddle pole around blue-blossomed water hyacinths and gnarled gray cypress stumps until he reached the boathouse nestled between the back garden and the bayou. But he stopped before anchoring the small canoelike boat against the weathered dock.
He looked again through the low mist, just to make sure he wasn't imagining the woman who stood under the ancient weeping willow tree on the shore, her head turned so he could see her profile as she looked over the dark, chocolate waters of the bayou.
No, he wasn't seeing things. This vision was real.
And she was exactly his type.
She was tall and slender, with a classic face that spoke of strong bone structure. She held her arms wrapped against her midsection, as if to ward off the humid chill the rising dawn had left. Long blond hair that changed from white-gold to rich yellow in the growing light hung down her back almost to her waist. She was wearing whitea long, flowing cotton dress that made Lucas think of other, more simple times. The woman looked as if she'd just stepped out of another century.
Curious, Lucas kept his eyes on her while he roped the pirogue to the dock. Then he hopped on the planked boards, his actions quick and quiet, so as not to startle the woman who stood only a few feet away, her eyes centered on the water, her body turned away from the summer gardens of Bayou le Jardin.
Lucas stood there in amazement, his gaze taking in the woman with the old southern mansion behind her. He had to swallow, blink his eyes. It was the way the rays of first light shot down from the sky to touch the woman's face there in the soft mist, as if the very hand of God was reaching out to this fascinating stranger.
Which certainly made for a breathtaking picture. One Lucas would surely never forget.
In her long white dress with the early morning breeze lifting her thick, lush hair from her shoulders, she looked as if she belonged right there in that spot under the willow tree. Especially with the backdrop of his beloved home behind her.
The stark, classic beauty of the mansion always left Lucas a bit awestruck, even though he'd lived here since he was nine years old. He respected the quiet dignity of the old house, though he rarely stayed in his bedroom on the third floor.
Lucas preferred the swamp to the house, preferred the gardens to the parlor, preferred to be left to his own devices whenever time and duty permitted. He had a nice, cozy cabin deep in the swamp, a cabin he'd salvaged and renovated with his own hands, along with the help of some good, hardworking people. He had ample food from the gardens, the fields and the bayou; he had good books to read at night and good tunes to play on his saxophone when the mood struck him. He had his plane to fly when he wanted to be up above it all, his horse to ride when he wanted to feel the wind on his face, and he had several lucrative ventures going, enough to bring in plenty of cash for a man of simple means. And he had friends to find on a lonely Saturday night and church to attend on any given Sunday. Aunt Hilda would remind him that he had the blessed assurance of Jesus Christ, too, of course. If he ever stood still long enough to listen for it.
Lucas was content to travel through the bayou, content to watch over his aunt Hilda and his sisters, Lorna and Lacey. Content to flirt shamelessly with all the local belles while never seriously getting involved with any of them. He'd never wanted for anything else.
Now, Lucas saw the home he loved, the home he respected and had vowed to watch over, in a different light.
Now he saw her there in the picturethis mysterious, lovely creature who'd somehow appeared, like a vibrant flower sprung to life, in the dew-kissed gardens.
Lucas didn't know who the woman was.
But he certainly intended to find out.
His sisters accused him of falling in love too easily and too often, and he supposed that was right.
'Cause it was about to happen again. In a very big way.
Lucas grinned, then started walking toward the woman, instinct telling him this time things might be different. Because this time, he knew in his heart he'd just stumbled across something beautiful.
And then the cameras started flashing.
Lucas blinked twice, watched as the tranquil woman whirled and with a loud groan took off in a mad dash toward the house, her long hair and long dress flying around her as if she were a runaway bride.
The cameras followed her. Two of them with big zoom lenses, carried by two rather burly-looking men who'd popped out from behind a cluster of camellia bushes.
"Willa?" one of the men shouted. "Just one picture, Willa. C'mon, people want to know why you backed out of that runway show in New York!"
"Go away," the woman shouted in a voice that was as cultured and gleaming as the single strand of pearls she wore around her neck. "I don't have anything to say to you."
But the two determined photographers kept right on coming. Like a set of hound dogs chasing a rabbit into the swamp, they practically fell over each other in their haste to get to the elusive woman.
Lucas watched, angered and amazed, as one of the overstuffed men stomped right through Aunt Hilda's prized miniature rose garden then almost tripped over his own feet as he sprinted to get a close-up of the woman he'd called Willa.
"Get away from me," the woman said, her hands on her hips, her stare full of anger and defiance.
The cameras took it all in, clicking with a constant whine. One of the men laughed. "Good shot. That'll make the cover."
"I'll get a better one for my cover," the other one snarled.
Lucas took two long strides and stepped between the beauty and the beasts.
"You heard the woman," he said on a low growl, one hand shoving at the first man while he held his other hand in warning toward the second photographer. "Get away from her now."
"And who are you?" Burly Number One asked, his double chin jutting over his cheap navy and red striped tie.
Lucas grinned, then shifted his gaze from one man to the other. Slapping a hand across the rough denim of his jeans, he turned and winked at the beauty who'd automatically taken up a position behind his protective back. "Who am I? Moi?" He chuckled low, then shook his head. "I'll tell you who I am. I'm Lucas Dorsette. I live here. And you two seem to be pestering this lovely lady, not to mention trespassing on private property."
Burly Number Two looked at Number One, rolled his eyes, then adjusted his heavy camera. "Let's go, man."
"We weren't talking to him," Number One replied, frowning at Lucas. "And I just wanted a minute with you, Willa. Just a couple of pictures for this week's issue."
"Me, too," Number Two added, glaring at the other photographer. "We have a much bigger circulation than that rag he works for."
Lucas turned to smile at the woman and felt the up-close essence of her beauty in a gut punch right to his stomach. It was hard to speak, but he managed to keep his cool so he could continue defending that beauty and look good in her eyes. "Willa, do you have anything to say to these two gentlemen?"
"Not a word," she replied, gratitude sparkling like rainwater in her breathtaking crystal-blue gaze. "I'd really like them to just go away," she added through a perfect row of clenched gleaming white teeth.
Lucas shrugged, then dropped his hands to his sides. "Then I guess that settles it, hein?" Taking a step toward the two photographers, he said, "Get off my property right now or I will call the sheriff."
"Let's go," Number Two told Number One, backing away. "We got enough pictures, anyway."
"Speak for yourself," Number One retorted, posing his camera toward Willa. Until he saw the look in Lucas's eyes. Then he shrugged and brushed past the apparent competition. "Okay, guess I do need to get back to my hotel room and get these developedso I can beat you to the scoop."
The race was on as the two jostled each other. "Hey, hold on there, fellows," Lucas said, surprising the entire group. Then he turned to the woman. "Do you want these two to have pictures of you?"
"No," she said, her incredible eyes burning holes through the two motley, perspiring men.
Lucas held his hand up, motioning to the two. "Let's have it, please."
"Have what?" It was a whining chorus.
"The film," Lucas replied, a smile forming on his lips. "Now."
"You can't take our film," Burly Number One protested, sweat popping on his pale forehead.
"Watch me, mon ami." Lucas grabbed the man's camera, opened it and took the film out, inch by inch.
"Hey, you just ruined that!"
"Yes, I did." Then he turned to the other man, his hand outstretched. "Hand it over, unless you want me to report you to the authorities."
Reluctantly, and with great disgust, the man handed over the roll of film from his camera. "That belongs to me, you know. To Famous Faces magazine."
"Yeah, well, now it belongs to me," Lucas stated as he dropped the ruined film on the ground and rubbed his suede hiking boot across it, disdain evident in his actions. "Now, leave the way you came inwhich was probably over the side fence." He'd have to remember to have Tobbie check that broken fence again.
"Can't you let us out the gate?" Number One whined.
Lucas turned his head in a gesture of disbelief. "Since I didn't invite you in, why should I be gracious in letting you out?" Then he motioned toward the driveway that wound around the gardens. "Dig a trench, for all I care, but get out of here, and don't let me catch you back again. Ever. Or mine will be the only famous face you remember."
"You'll be hearing from my publisher," one of the men called as they trudged away, both huffing and puffing.
"I'll look forward to it," Lucas replied, chuckling. He pulled a walkie-talkie off his leather belt.
"Tobbie, you there?" At Tobbie's crisp answer, Lucas said, "Two men are approaching the side fence, that place near the tulip gardens where the fence needs repairing. Would you kindly escort them off the property?"
"With pleasure, for true," Tobbie said, his hoot of laughter echoing over the static.
Satisfied that the oversize Tobbie Babineaux would scare the living daylights out of the two and send them packing, Lucas grinned.
And then her turned to her. "Fans of yours?" Willa O'Connor looked at the man who'd come to her rescue and wished she knew how to answer his question. "Not exactly," she replied, still in shock after being ambushed in what she'd taken to be an isolated, secluded spot. "They work for some of those supermarket tabloids. Celebrity Exposé and, as you heard, Famous Faces. They like to travel in packs so they can attack from several different angles, then fight each other for the best shots."
"So you're a celebrity, then?"
"Somewhat," she replied, not wanting to reveal too much.
She waited as the man took his time letting that little tidbit settle in. While he did that, he looked her over, his dark eyes full of doubt and mirth, his olive skin alive with a fine sheen of sweat in spite of the early morning breezes. He was certainly a handsome thing, with his long, curling brown-black hair and those chocolate-colored eyes that seemed to take in everything around him with a careless, lazy observation.
"Lucas," she said, recognition making her gasp as she remembered the name he'd given the two reporters. "You're Lorna's brother, right?"
"Oui, and her favorite brother, at that," he said, his grin full of promise and trouble as he reached a hand toward hers. "And from what I gathered from those two camera-toting clowns, your name is Willa?"
Willa tentatively took his hand, shaking it as she nodded then tried to pull away. But he held her. His hand was warm and work-callused, with long, artistic fingers that seemed to cling to her palm a bit too much for comfort. Lucas Dorsette didn't just shake her hand; he held it as if it were a treasure. And then he did something even more unexpected. He bent his head and kissed her hand.
"Hello, Willa," he said as he lifted his head, those dark, mischievous eyes sparkling with way too much charm. "Where on earth did you come from?"
"She came from New York," Lorna said from behind him. "And she'd probably like her hand back, big brother."
Willa watched as Lucas shrugged, then turned his head toward his sister and her husband, Mick, as they strolled down the garden path from the house. But he didn't let go of her hand. Instead, he kept it tucked in his then brought it down, holding it as if they'd been lifelong friends. "I'll give it back in a little bit."
Willa didn't wait for him to decide when. She gave him a slight smile, then pulled her hand away so she could wave to Lorna, glad for the distraction and glad to have her tingling hand away from his overly warm fingers. "Hello there. I was just about to explain to your brother what I'm doing here."
"Let me," Lorna said, giving Willa a light hug. Then she turned to Lucas. "Lucas, this is my friend Willa O'Connor. She arrived late last night. I met Willa in Paris a few years ago, and we've kept in touch since then. She needed a few days to herself, so I invited her to come down here to Bayou le Jardin. And I expect you to give her some much-needed space." Then she yanked playfully on a silky strand of her brother's unkempt hair. "And I expect you to behave yourself."
"Don't I always now?" Lucas said, his gaze zooming in on Willa with all the bright-eyed intent of someone who never, ever behaved himself.
Oh, she loved his accentpart southern gentleman, part backwoods Cajun, slow and easy and downright irresistible. Lucas Dorsette was everything his sister had described and more. A true contradictionfierce and gentle, mysterious and gallant. Handsome and fun-loving.
A lethal combination of charm and rebellion. Lorna had warned her.