Read an Excerpt
Alma willed her heart to slow down, wondering why after ten years Julien still had this kind of effect on her. It wasn't as if she still cared about him. Any feelings she'd had for Julien were long dead. But still memories of high school and Julien hit her with the same intensity he used to tap against the door.
"You're killing me, Alma," he called, his nose pressed to the glass panes. "Please, pretty please."
"Hold on," she called out, twisting the big lock, her hands suddenly clammy, her joyfulness vanished as she stood back to let him in. Grabbing her coffee as a shield, she said, "I'm not awake yet."
Julien muscled his way inside the second the big oak door gave way, the scent of spicy soap and early morning fresh air surrounding him. He stood, hands on his hips, his impish gaze sliding over her like warm, glistening water. Tilting his head low so he could lock his gaze on her, he said, "You look awake to me, darlin'. And as pretty as those morning glories blooming out on the front porch."
Then he took her coffee cup from her and drank deeply. "Ahh, you make the best coffee in south Louisiana."
"Stop it with the charm," Alma said, her tone turned sassy even while her stomach turned sour. They did this, played out this flirting dance, each time they were around each other. She both enjoyed and dreaded it. But it was their shield against the truth. "Just get in here and let me get to work. What do you want, Julien? Besides coffee, that is."
He gave her a look that told her exactly what he wanted. The resigned longing in his eyes reminded her of sweet poetry whispered by the light of a crescent moon.
Then the look was gone. "Me, I'm starving. Eggs over hard, bacon, grits and biscuits. Double on all."
"How do you stay in shape?" Alma asked, turning to hurry behind the safety of the long wooden counter.
And why did she ask such stupid questions? The man worked day and night out on his boat, didn't he? And when he wasn't out in the Gulf waters trolling for shrimp or in the bayous working his traps, he was busy building boats. Beautiful one-of-a kind boats. A hard worker, her Julien. No, not her Julien, no matter how hard he tried to flirt with her. No matter the memories of distant times lodged in her brain like a log jam.
He'd never be hers again.
And she'd best remember that.
Besides, she didn't have time to dwell on the past and Julien LeBlanc. Time to open the cafe to all the other regular customers and the early-bird tourists.
Alma put his order through then disappeared into the kitchen, a fresh new cup of dark roast coffee steaming in her hand, while she looked out the big kitchen window in the back of the cafe and watched a tall white egret spread its wings and lift gracefully out over the dark water. The egret settled like a ballerina near a stand of bald cypress trees covered with Spanish moss then strolled through the shallows, dipping its long beak as it searched for breakfast.
Alma sighed, took a sip of the strong brew and wondered why she felt so out of sorts this morning. Such a beautiful, peaceful beginning to her day. Such a joyful morning. She should have reveled in God's handiwork. All around her, the early crew chatted and fussed, working to get the day started, some singing, some whining. But right here, right now, with the spring day beginning in all its glory and the promise of unexpected gifts in the air, Alma felt alone. Thinking about Julien and what they'd once had didn't help. So she said a little prayer that she would be at peace in God's world. Just for a minute, Lord.
Mama would have loved this morning, Alma thought, memories of her mother Lila moving with the same grace as the elegant egret. Maybe that was why Alma was so off-kilter. She missed her mother each and every day, but nothing could be done for that. Mama had been dead for almost eight years now. And Alma was still in the same spot, always staring out into the world and wondering if there was something more out there for her.
But Alma had promised her mother she'd keep the cafe going, so she had bread to bake and meals to cook and supervise. The shrimpers and fishermen and tourists would want a good breakfast this fine spring morning.
And so would Julien.
She grabbed his order and took it out to him. "Here you go. Eat it while it's hot."
"Sit with me a spell," he said, his dark eyes lifting up to her face, his hand touching her arm with a lightness that didn't match the expression on his face.
"You know I have to work." Trying to hide her surprise, she motioned to two regulars sitting nearby. "In case you haven't noticed, you're not the only customer here."
"You work too hard."
"It takes one to know one." She hurried away, her heart beating right along with her sneakers as they hit the old wooden floor. Why did it have to hurt this way each time she was around him?
"Order up," she called, her back to the man who'd broken her heart so long ago. She intended to keep doing what she'd done for the past ten years. She'd be civil to Julien because, in spite of their breakup long ago, they were still friends and besides, he was a loyal customer. A very loyal customer. Nothing new there. Nothing new in her life, either.
Except today he'd touched her and asked her to sit with him. Today, Julien seemed different, more intense, more aware.
That left Alma rattled and disoriented.
Don't give in to that, she told herself. He's just being charming Julien.
But she could feel his dark eyes burning through her with the same glaring warmth and intensity as that orb of sunshine lifting out over the cypress trees.
Why did this woman still get to him so much?
Julien swigged his coffee and stabbed at another piece of crisp, crunchy bacon, nodding his head as he pretended to listen to one of his friend Tebow's outrageous tales. He could recite most of Tebow's nonsense chapter and verse. Right now, he'd rather watch Alma at work.
He loved watching Alma, and that was a fact.
Her long curly hair was piled up high on her head, except for a few rebellious chocolate-colored strands that danced around her face and eyes. Today, she wore faded jeans and an old T-shirt underneath a worn white apron that proclaimed in big, bold, red print "Fleur Bakery and Cafe. So good make you want to slap your mama." The sturdy walking shoes on her feet were white and blue with tiny rhinestones winking across the vamps each time she sashayed by. And each time she did sashay by, Julien caught the scent of a garden, exotic and floral.
Nice. But Julien could still see her back in high school at their senior prom, all dressed up in light-blue silk, looking like a princess who'd gotten lost in the swamp.
She'd been his back then and he'd loved her with all the angst and need of an eighteen-year-old teenager.
He was no longer eighteen but he still had that angst. He tried to hide it with flirtations and jokes, but it was like those bayou waters out there, still and calm on the surface but churning with a thousand undercurrents deep in the dark murky places.
Idiot flirt that he was, he'd messed things up by getting into a fight with Alma at the prom and then getting caught later that night with one of her best friends. Too much spiked punch and too many raging hormones had done him in. That and the fear of loving her too muchand losing her to that big-time life away from Fleur she wanted so badly. But his fears had cost him, thanks to his own fatal need to sabotage any chance of happiness. He'd lost the love of his life on the night he'd planned to ask her to marry him.
She'd never forgiven him.
And she never would.
Didn't matter much, since he could never forgive himself either. Didn't matter much that he'd stopped drinking for good last year, but he was too ashamed to tell her that and beg her to take him back. His Alma hadn't gone off to find fame and fortune in some big, lonely city. She'd stayed here to help her family. But she still managed to mostly ignore him. While he came in here every day and smiled at her and tried to forget what they'd once had. Maybe that was his penance.
For that reason, Julien had to pretend he didn't care. Had to pretend he was so over Alma Blanchard. These past few months had been hard on his family. He was tired of pretending. But a man could hope, oui? A man could learn from his mistakes and try to piece his life back together, one day at a time. Only now, his little brother seemed to be heading down that same slippery slope. The very thing that had brought Julien's drinking to a skidding halt has caused his brother to take it up right where Julien left off. Their papa had died. Were the LeBlanc men cursed to be self-destructive? Maybe that was why Julien had needed to see Alma's face this morning. He needed a bit of hope. "Did you hear me?"
Julien glanced over at Tebow. His friend had that look on his face again. That smug look that told Julien he couldn't fool a man who'd known him since they'd both been in diapers.
"Your heart is showing, mon ami," Tebow said on a low breath. "'Cause you're wearing it on your sleeve again."
"Shut up," Julien growled, his appetite sated. "Let's get out of here."
"Testy this morning," Tebow said before lopping his worn LSU baseball cap back onto his head. "What, she put you in your place again?"
Julien ignored his friend's ribbing, choosing instead to focus on paying his check. And leaving a big tip. Alma worked hard, cooked the best food in the world and tried to hold her family together. He knew what she'd sacrificed to stay here in Fleur, knew all about her dreams to go to cooking school and become a chef in New Orleans. Or maybe Atlanta. Or had it been New York? Didn't matter now.
He knew what she'd given up all those years ago when, right after he'd broken her heart, her mama had come down with breast cancer and fought it for two years. But she'd never recovered. Healed, but not in this life.
And he ached for Alma each and every day. Which was why he always started his day right here in the cafe. Just to be near her.
He knew. But if he didn't do something and do it soon, she'd never know that he still loved her.