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Vivienne LaBlanc waited impatiently, trying not to bump her wings against anything or move too quickly in a way that would cause her halo to slide off, as Max Hale gave his introductory speech on the other side of the curtain.
"There are many krewes, but none like the Bon Argent. Five years ago, we decided to do somethingin our own hometown styleto raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We were far more successful than we dreamed. Through the Saints and Sinners Festivalwhich grows bigger every yearwe've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for dozens of local charities, and I thank all of you for your continued support."
After a short round of polite applause, Max continued to laud their accomplishments, but Vivi listened with only half an ear. She was well aware of the great work of Bon Argent; she'd been involved with the krewe since its inception. Candy Hale was one of her oldest friends, and Max was like a second father.
Her mother used to serve on the board, for goodness' sake, so she didn't need to be sold on the success. She did, however, need a primer on these wings.
How am I supposed to sit in these things? The feathered and bejeweled wings were beautiful, arching up to head height and hanging to her calves. Vivi frowned as she tried to adjust the buckle on her gold sandals and felt the whole getup shift dangerously. Honestly, she looked less like a saint and more like a Vegas showgirl who'd crashed the neighborhood nativity play.
The Saints and Sinners balland the whole Bon Argent krewebordered on silly at times, but the costumes and the parody of pomp and pageantry was what had made the Saints and Sinners fundraiser so fun, popular and immensely successful in such a short time.
And there were three hundred people out there eagerly awaiting the announcement of this year's Saint and Sinner. Following the traditions of the traditional Mardi Gras krewes, those identities were top secret info. As far as Vivi knew, only three people were in the know this year. Max, the head of the Bon Argent charity, Paula, the head of PR, and Ms. Rene, the seamstress who'd made the costumes for the Sinner and the Saint. Even she didn't know who would be her other half between now and Fat Tuesday.
She had a few guesses in mind.
Unlike the traditional krewes, however, who would crown a king and a queen, Bon Argent had no gender requirements to fulfill. The Saint and the Sinner were chosen for their local celebrity and reputations and could be of the same gender. Vivi had her bets on nightclub owner Marianne Foster, who'd been in the news a lot recently and would provide excellent competition before Vivi crushed her. While Marianne would be popular in the voting and bring in large amounts of money, it wasn't an overstatement or egoism to say that she, herself, was more popular and could raise huge amounts of money in comparison.
She stomped down the unkind thought. Thoughts were the precursors to words and actions, and she'd learned to keep her head in the right place in order to avoid saying or doing anything she might regret later. It's about the money we can raise, not about winning.
But it was also about winning. The Sinner had taken the crown the last two years, but this year top honors were going to the Saint, because she simply refused to lose. She'd only lost one crown in her life, and she still remembered the bitter taste of watching Miss Indiana walk away with it. It didn't matter how much she liked Janelle personally, or what a great Miss America she'd turned out to be, it still sucked to lose.
So she was competitive. It was hardly a personality flaw. No one liked to lose. And in this case, her competitive nature would be beneficial because it was all for a good cause.
Max was now introducing her Cherubim Court: ten local high school kids chosen by the charity's board to be her team in the fundraising.
And now it was her turn. She took a deep breath, checked her dress, and waited.
" my pleasure to introduce Saint Vivienne LaBlanc!"
The curtain opened to a strobe of flashes from the photographers gathered in front of the stage and a very heartening roar of approval and applause from the guests. Vivi heard her sister's distinctive whistle and looked over at the table where her family sat. When she'd left the table twenty minutes ago, claiming she had an emergency phone call from the gallery, Lorelei had given her a knowing look. She waved as she watched people from the surrounding tables congratulate her parents.
Being chosen as the Saint was quite an honor, and Vivi was beyond touched by the applause that showed so many people thought her deserving of it. She'd won a lot of contests in her life, brought home quite a few crowns, but this was different. It wasn't about being pretty or popular. The downside to her pageant career was the assumption by all that she was just a pretty little face with no real substance. She'd spent years fighting that stereotype, trying to prove that there was more to her. It had been her biggest challenge to date, and the halo on her head was proof she'd succeeded. It might be cheesy and rather silly-looking, but it suddenly meant more to her than any crown she'd ever worn.
Beating the Sinnerwhoever that turned out to bewould be icing on the cake at this point, and now she wanted that trophy more than anything.
Vivi removed her halo with the proper pomp, placing it on the blue satin pillow that would hold both the Saint's halo and the Sinner's horns until the competition ended and the winner claimed both trophies. She then took her seat with her court and applauded politely as the Sinner's court, the Imps, was introduced.
Max took a deep breath and looked so excited he might burst with it. "Our Sinner this year is an obvious choice, and we're so pleased he's made time in his schedule to reign over this important event."
The pronoun usage told Vivi that she'd lost her bet. Damn, she'd been so sure it would be Marianne. It doesn't really matter, she thought with a mental shrug. She was ready to take on anyone.
" Connor Mansfield!"
Vivi's smile froze as the crowd broke into wild applause. You're freakin kidding me.
Connor caught a glimpse of Vivi's face as he stepped onto the stage and nearly laughed at the perfect mix of horror and fury against a feathery backdrop of angel wings. Not that he blamed her; his response had been very similar when he'd heard her name called, but he'd still been safely behind the curtain.
He had to hand it to the board of Bon Argent; they certainly knew how to guarantee maximum attention from the local pressattention that could be otherwise difficult to draw amid everything else happening during the Mardi Gras season. They'd probably break every fundraising record in history.
Vivi just looked like she'd like to wring his neck, but then she always looked at him like that. Some things just never changed, no matter how long you were gone from your hometown.
But the show must go on, and everyone was waiting for them to take their seats so dinner could be served. He removed his horns and solemnly placed them next to the Saint's halo. Then he walked over to Vivi, nodded politely and waited for her to return the gesture. Slowly, they made their way to the high table. When they reached their seats a cheer went up from the crowd, and the competition of the Saints and Sinners Festival officially began. Servers appeared from the woodwork and the crowd turned its attention to the salad course.
He leaned a few inches in her direction. "You're going to ruin three years of orthodontic work if you don't stop grinding your teeth, Vivi."
Her eyes narrowed, but she released her jaw the tiniest bit. She reached for her wineglass, noticed it was empty and reached for a water glass instead. He saw her look at it carefully, then shrug before she drank. Knowing Vivi, she'd debated dumping it in his lap.
"I'd say Welcome Home, but"
"But you wouldn't mean it." He grinned at her to annoy her.
"But," she corrected, "it would be rather redundant, considering the reception you just got."
"Jealous I got more applause?"
"No." She shifted in her chair. "I'm not an attention whore."
"Big talk from the pageant queen."
Vivi inhaled sharply and her smile became tight. "Some of us have outgrown our adolescence."
He pretended to think about that for a second, then shook his head sadly. "No, you're still sanctimonious."
"And you're still a"
She stopped herself so suddenly Connor wondered if she'd bitten her tongue.
She inhaled sharply through her nose and swallowed. "You must be very pleased to finally be recognized for your achievements."
"I hate to burst your bubble, Saint Vivienne, but these titles aren't character references."
"Oh, really?" Vivi's face was the picture of confused innocence. "You seem to be perfectly suited for the title."
And there was the first dig. He should have known that Vivi wouldn't let that pass. Although he'd been vindicated, rumor and gossip had done their damage. Everyone believed there had to be a grain of truth in there somewherewhich grain it might be was the engine that drove the gossip that wouldn't die.
Vivi might have hit a sore spot with her first salvo, but damned if he'd admit that. "Sanctimonious and judgmental. You need to increase your repertoire."
"Maybe you should add some to yours, as well. A little decorum from you would be nice, considering the honor you've been given."
"According to you, it's not really an honor, now, is it?"
"Yet you still seem very pleased with yourself." She snorted. "You look ridiculous, you know. Black leather pants, Connor? Really? What is this? 1988?"
He'd had a similar thought when they'd been presented to him. "I agree on the pants. Very eighties glam metal. But then I guess it fits the costume."
Vivi smileda genuine one this timeat the server who filled her wineglass, but the smile disappeared as soon as the server did. "I don't know what Max was thinking," she grumbled at her salad. "The Saint and the Sinner are supposed to be local celebrities."
"I'm literally the boy next door, Vivi. I'm as local as you are."
"You were local," she corrected him. "Now you're international. You're off touring far more than you're in town."
He tried to get comfortable in his chair, but the enormous black wings attached to his back made that feat nearly impossible. He didn't quite understand the mixed-metaphor approach to Saints and Sinners, but Ms. Rene had gone for a Lucifer vibe. He felt more like a giant crow. "So it's the fact that my job requirements keep me out of town a lot that you object to?"
Vivi tried to brush her hair back over her shoulder, but it only got tangled in her wings, creating modern art-inspired shapes in the white feathers. She tugged at the strands as she spoke. "I object to the creation of an unlevel playing field."
Except for that jet-black hair, Vivi had the right looks to pass as an angelwide blue eyes, fair skin, elegant features. The fire in her eyes was far from angelic, though. Irritation made her movements jerky, tangling her hair even worse.
"How is this unlevel in any way?"
With one final tug that probably pulled some of it out by the roots, Vivi finally got the last of her hair loose. A rhinestone from her wings, loosened in the tussle, fell into her cleavage. Vivi looked down briefly, and Connor's eyes followed hers to the valley of creamy skin before he snapped them back to her face. She had a beautiful mouth, lush and full and sinfuluntil she opened it and killed the illusion.
"Your groupies and your fan club and all your famous friends will make sure to fill your coffers so that you win."
"But that's what this is about, right? Raising money?"
"Of course that's what's important," she conceded through a jaw clenched so tight it had to be painful, "but you have an unfair advantage when it comes to the actual contest. No one could compete with you."
He grinned at her. "I'm glad to finally hear you admit it."
"I meant," she gritted out, "that I'm a hometown girl and you're a freakin' rock star. You have a bigger fan base by default and that's an unfair advantage."
"Your title is 'Saint', Vivi, not 'martyr'."
Vivi's knuckles turned white, and Connor expected the stem of her wineglass to snap at any moment.
"Just eat your dinner."
He shot her a smile instead. "You could just concede now, you know."
She choked on her wine. "Hell has not frozen over."
"So it's on?" he challenged.
"You're damn right it's on." Grabbing her fork, she speared her lettuce with far more force than necessary.
Vivi could never turn down a challenge. It didn't matter what it was, Vivi went after everything in her full-out, take-no-prisoners style. He actually respected that about her. It was one of the few things they had in common. Everything else about her, though, drove him insane. Always had.
He really shouldn't let Vivi get to him. He was an adult, for God's sake. Vivi might not like him, but plenty of other women did, so her holier-than-Connor attitude shouldn't bother him. There was something about her, though, that just crawled under his skin and itched.
Would he have agreed to do this if he'd known up front that Vivi would be a part of it? Or would he have just sent another check and let it go?
No, he'd been thinking about home for a while now; this was just the nudge he'd needed to get him here. It gave him an excuse to do some damage control, make some new headlines that didn't involve paternity suits or sexual activities. He could take a step back and maybe take a deep breath for the first time in years.
He hadn't realized how truly tired he was. Getting everything he'd ever wanted in life was great in theory, but he hadn't known he'd be left feeling like a well-dressed hobo. He had accepted that at first: he couldn't have gotten this far if he'd been tied down to any one place or thing. There was a great freedom to it. But it came at a cost, nonetheless.
Being homereally home, not just the place he slept between showsmade him feel like the earth was solid under his feet again. The ideas that had been swimming unformed in the back of his mind seemed to be taking shape now that he was here. New Orleans was good for his mind and soul, and he could use the next few weeks to really refocus and figure out what was next. Or what he wanted to be next.
He heard Vivi's deep sigh of irritation and it brought him back to the present. Right now he had a contest to win. It felt good to come home; even better to come home to a warm welcome and the opportunity to do something good for his hometown.
Annoying Vivi while he did it was just a bonus.