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HER FINGERS CURLED around the post supporting the balcony overhead. Green flecks sparkled in her hazel eyes as she surveyed the narrow, bricked street. This was it—Vieux Carré, the French Quarter of New Orleans with its brick buildings decorated with ornate Spanish grillwork making balconies of iron lace.
After almost two full days of sight-seeing, Selena Merrick still hadn't become accustomed to the wonder of it. She had planned this vacation for years, it seemed. Not that everything had gone according to her plan. Her best friend, Robin Michels, was to have come along but had to cancel her reservations at the last minute owing to a family crisis.
It had never crossed Selena's mind to cancel the trip or postpone it because of Robin. As she looked down the picturesque streets, a faint smile curved her lips. Selfishly she was glad she had come alone. She could tour the Quarter at her own pace, see as much or as little as she wanted without consulting the wishes of anyone else. And there were times when Robin, good friend or not, could be a soppingly wet blanket.
On the opposite side of the street, a white lace balcony caught the rays of the setting sun, the white ironwork reflecting the gold tint. This silent reminder of passing time prodded Selena into movement. Threading her way through the stream of fellow tourists, she crossed the street and directed her footsteps toward her hotel.
The sunlight warmed her shoulders, bared by the halter sundress in a springlike apricot print. The closeness of the air, heavy with humidity, made Selena think of summer instead of the last week of April. It tightened the natural wave of her light auburn hair and made her skin feel sticky with moisture. She would definitely need to shower before changing for dinner.
A sidewalk café bar added to the congestion of pedestrian traffic on the narrow sidewalk. A passerby accidentally jostled Selena, knocking her sideways into one of the wrought-iron chairs and its occupant.
"Sorry," Selena said, offering a quick, smiling apology to the man she had bumped.
A glancing look caught the movement of crisp black hair as the man nodded his head in acceptance of her apology. The incident forced Selena to change her path, skirting the edge of the tables that intruded out onto the sidewalk.
Selena paid no attention to the men grouped around the next table. Their loud talk and raucous laughter blended in with the street sounds. But she had not escaped their notice, with her gleaming bare shoulders and copper hair.
As she drew level with their table, one of the men rose and staggered into her path, checking her steps. Selena smiled briefly in apology, unaware that he had deliberately blocked her way, and paused to wait for a break in the steady stream of tourists to walk around the man.
"Why don't you join us for a drink, Red?" The man's voice was slurred, indicating the he had already indulged in more than he could hold.
Startled only momentarily, Selena cast a sweeping look over the group of men, noting the conventioneers' badges on the pockets of their jackets. Amusement flickered in her eyes. They were undoubtedly respectable businessmen who, in their own home towns, would not be caught dead inviting a strange girl to drink with them in a place as public as this café bar.
"Thanks, but no," she refused, unable to take offense at their invitation.
An empty chair was being offered to her. "Come on, honey, sit down with us," another voice spoke up.
"Thank you, boys. It's really nice of you to offer, but—" Selena refused again with an eloquent shrug, the sparkle of laughter remaining in her eyes.
"Aw, come on, Red," the first man cajoled. "Have a drink with us and later I'll buy you dinner," he promised with an expansive sweep of his hand.
Still smiling, Selena shook her head. She found no threat in the situation. It was broad daylight and the streets and sidewalks were crowded with people. She had opened her mouth to refuse again when the first man bent his head toward her in an attitude that suggested secrecy. But he didn't lower the volume of his voice.
"You can call a couple of your friends for the guys and we'll really do up the town."
At first, Selena was astonished. "My friends?" she echoed, before suddenly realizing that they thought she was a native of New Orleans instead of a tourist like themselves.
"You know," a third voice chimed in to prompt her, his sotto voice ringing loudly for all to hear. "Your cohorts, other ladies of the evening like yourself. I like blondes," he proclaimed.
Selena nearly choked on a bubble of laughter. Try as she would, she found the situation much too funny to feel insulted or degraded. Simultaneously she also realized that they wouldn't believe her if she denied her alleged profession. To assert her valid claim that she was a minister's daughter would only add to their romantic image of what a fallen woman should be.
Assessing the group of men eagerly awaiting her reply, she couldn't help thinking that they were overgrown little boys. They were all dressed in the best suits and ties, good material and well tailored, but none of the suits was expensive—a fact she could attest to, thanks to her eye for clothes and four years of experience as inventory clerk and part-time buyer for an exclusive department store in Des Moines. She had often railed at the job since the only reason she had ever been promoted was because other employees had left, but now she was glad of her experience.
"Sorry, boys." Laughter riddled her voice despite her attempts to restrain it. There seemed to be one safe way out, and Selena intended to take it, seeing only harmless fun in choosing pretense. "No offense intended, but I don't think you could afford me."
Her response set them back in their chairs, except for the one who was standing beside her. His expression was wreathed in curious awe.
"How much?" he whispered, holding his breath.
Selena named the first sum that came to her mind in an answering whisper. The man's mouth opened and closed several times, and Selena's lips twitched in an effort to control her laughter at the whole ludicrous situation.
"Goodbye, boys," she beamed.
As she half turned to slip into the throng of tourists, her attention was caught by a pair of dark eyes assessing her with sweeping coolness. They belonged to the man seated alone at the next table, the one she had accidentally bumped into. Selena recognized the ebony black hair growing so crisply, and there was something speculative in the arch of his eyebrow. It seemed to be mocking and interested, in an amused sort of way.
Unfortunately, as far as Selena was concerned, her dumbstruck friend chose that moment to recover his voice and answering the whispered question of, "How much?" from his friends, he breathed, "Five hundred!"
And the dark eyebrow lifted a fraction of an inch higher. Selena's stomach muscles constricted. A slowly spreading warmth started to fire her skin as she escaped into the concealing stream of pedestrians. It had seemed harmless fun to pretend to be the shady lady of the evening the elderly gentlemen had been seeking, but Selena discovered that she didn't care to have the dark-haired man see her in that light.
Within a couple of blocks, she arrived at her hotel. In the interim, she had managed to shake the disturbing sensation as she stored up the incident in her memory, a tale to tell her friends when she returned from the vacation. It smacked of naughty adventure while being amusing at the same time.
But it also caused her to pause in front of the vanity mirror in her hotel room as she tried to discover what there was about her that would have led those respectable and elderly gentlemen to believe that she was a member of that old profession.
Was it the shimmering copper color of her hair, she wondered curiously. Red, the color for a scarlet woman? Between the humidity—which increased her hair's tendency to wave—and the occasional breeze that had sneaked down the narrow streets, her shoulder-length style was in charming disarray.
Sighing, Selena dismissed the color of her hair as the cause. Perhaps it was the bold gleam in her green-flecked eyes, but it had always been there, shining through long, sun-kissed lashes.
Her father, the Reverend Andrew James Merrick, had often accused her of embracing life too passionately. Of course, he never meant it in the lustful sense of the word. He was referring to her lack of fear; Selena's inclination to rush in where angels would fear to tread.
Strangely enough, this inclination had never been true when it came to relationships with the opposite sex. With projects and friends, yes—Selena would tackle anything and anyone if it was for the benefit of someone else—but when it came to her own emotions and feelings, she was very cautious.
There was nothing outstanding about the rest of her features, just the usual forehead, nose, cheeks, jaw and chin that are required to make a face complete. Maybe it was her lips, she considered. A friend had once described them as full and sensuous, but she hadn't paid too much attention to the remark. Looking at them now, shining with gloss, Selena admitted without conceit that her mouth was nicely shaped and possibly inviting.
But she was no nearer to discovering what it had been that had prompted the gentlemen to make such a mistake. Shaking her head in bewilderment, she took a step away from the mirror. That was when she saw it—the composite picture of herself.
Wholesome beauty met with the boldness of her eyes, the sensuous lines of her lips and the attracting brightness of her hair. It was nothing blatant, Selena realized. Probably it could be discovered in any attractive woman if that was what a man was looking for. It was a case of seeing what a person wanted to see.
It was almost a relief to discover there was nothing abandoned or wanton about her looks. Striking, yes—attractive, yes—and a well-rounded figure, too, but nothing licentious.
Laughing at herself, Selena turned away from the mirror and began untying the halter straps of her sundress. Robin would have been appalled at the reason Selena had so minutely dissected her appearance. As far as that went, Selena smiled to herself, her girl friend would have been appalled at the incident.
No, she corrected, Robin would have been indignantly outraged by the mistake and would never have dreamed of perpetuating the impression, even in good fun. Selena decided maybe it was just as well that Robin hadn't been able to come along on the trip. She was probably going to have more fun without her.
Later, as she finished dressing for dinner, she retracted the last thought. It would have been more fun if Robin was along. No matter how liberated the times were supposed to be, it still raised eyebrows when a woman went to a bar or a nightclub alone. As it was, Selena knew she would draw a lot of curious glances sitting alone in the restaurant.
New Orleans was a city renowned for its nighttime entertainment. Judging by some of the posters and advertisements Selena had seen on the famed Bourbon Street, there were some clubs that she wasn't interested in but there were other, reputable night spots that she would have liked to experience.
With her hair secured in a sophisticated pleat, Selena smoothed the sides absently with her fingertips and reached for the tricorner shawl that matched the flame-orange dress she wore. It was an unusual shade and one that oddly accented and complemented the fiery lights in her hair. She draped the shawl around her shoulders and tied the ends in a loose knot.
Stepping out her door into the carpeted hotel hallway, she paused to make certain the room key was in her evening purse, then closed the door. She had barely taken two steps from her door when a door farther down the hallway opened and a man stepped out.
It took Selena about as long to recognize where she had seen him before as it took him to remember her. It was the man she had bumped into before encountering the older group of men.
Her first sinking thought was—why had she chosen such a brilliantly colored dress to wear? Why hadn't she picked something from her wardrobe that was more demure and unobtrusive? Fighting the urge to scurry back into her room, Selena continued down the hallway. Her steps had slowed as she crossed her fingers, hoping he would ignore her and continue on his way.
Of course, he didn't. He stood waiting expectantly for her, those glinting dark eyes sweeping her from head to toe. The look branded her with the iron Selena herself had put in the fire.
"Hello, Red." His voice was huskily pitched, carrying that note of amused interest.
It seemed pointless to ignore him or pretend that she didn't recognize him. Selena was positive that she had already made him aware of her recognition. What a fine mess I've got myself into this time, she thought.
"Hello," she returned the greeting accompanied by what she hoped was a detached and disinterested smile.
Slipping his room key in his suit pocket, he stepped forward to meet her. Selena couldn't make up her mind whether she should walk past him or stop.
Her fleeting glimpse of him at the café had not prepared her for his bulk. Several inches taller than her five-foot-six frame, the man was huskily built. He was wearing a light tan suit, the jacket unbuttoned to reveal a matching vest. Selena didn't need to see the lining to know it had been hand-tailored to fit his muscular frame. The richly textured fabric cried "money," as did the assurance in his craggy male features.
"Are you coming or going?" he inquired, meeting her boldly inspecting stare and returning it with a mirthless quirk to his mouth.
In the glinting blackness of his eyes, Selena saw what he had left unsaid in his question. The very fact that they had met a second time in the hallway of the hotel indicated that she must have come from one of the rooms. And in that silently suggestive look of his, he was considering what had gone on in that room.
Her anger boiled near the surface, but Selena determinedly cooled it. She had no one to blame but herself for what he was thinking.
At some point in his approach, she had stopped. It was a mistake, she realized, and one not so easily rectified, since the breadth of his shoulders blocked her way.
"Going," she answered his question and made an attempt to pass him, hoping he would move out of her path.
He didn't budge an inch. "Where?"
Her father had often told her that the truth could never hurt. Selena hoped he was right as she answered frankly, "To dinner."
Unknowingly she was clutching her purse, knuckles white with the tenseness of her grip. His gaze slid to her hand, drawing her attention to her death hold on her evening bag. She guessed what construction he placed on that—that she was protecting her monetary payment for services rendered. She seethed with frustration.
"Did you work up an appetite?" The question was almost a taunt.
This time Selena didn't attempt to contain her anger, letting it blaze in her eyes. "I find that remark crude, sir. Excuse me." And started to push her way past him, all stiff and proud.
His large hand rested on the bareness of her arm to stop her. "That was crude," he acknowledged smoothly. "I had no business saying it to a lady of your caliber. I'm sorry."
"Of your caliber." The words taunted her. If he had just left it with the word "lady," Selena might have been more willing to accept his apology.
Instead all she could manage was a freezing, "That's quite all right," that made a lie of her acceptance,
His dark gaze scanned her features, his own expression inscrutable. "Will you be dining alone?"
He was making no attempt to hold her, but Selena found she couldn't move or pull her arm from the light touch of his sun-browned hand. Yet her muscles were rigidly resisting his nearness.
"Perhaps," she answered noncommittally.
He interpreted her reply to mean she was dining alone. "As luck would have it, I'm without a dinner companion myself tonight." His right hand was thrust in his trouser pocket, holding his jacket open with studied casualness. "Would you join me?"
Moments before leaving her room Selena had wished for a table companion to share her meal, but she knew instinctively that the company this man would supply would be dangerously stimulating. It was there in his shuttered dark eyes that glinted with mockery yet never revealed what he was thinking.
Excerpted from The Bride of the Delta Queen by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1978 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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