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Naval Station, Rota, Spain
The paper actually shook in Darby Dufrene's handthat's how shocked he was by the document he'd discovered in a box of old papers. He'd been looking for the grief book he'd made as a small child and instead had found something that made his gut lurch against his ribs.
"Dude, come on. The driver needs to go." Hal Severson's voice echoed in the halffull moving truck parked below the flat Darby had shared with the rotund navy chaplain for the past several years. His roommate had waited semi-good-naturedly while Darby climbed inside to grab the book before it was shipped to Seattle, but good humor had limits.
"Just a sec," Darby called, his eyes refusing to leave the elaborate font of the certificate he'd pulled from a clasped envelope trapped in the back of his Bayou Bridge Reveille yearbook. How in the hell had this escaped his attention? Albeit it had been buried in with some old school papers he'd tossed aside over ten years ago and vowed never to look at again, surely the state of Louisiana seal would have permeated his brain and screamed, Open me!
Yet, back then he'd been in a funka childish, rebellious huff of craptastic proportions. He probably hadn't thought about much else except the pity party he'd been throwing himself.
The moving truck's engine fired and a loud roar rumbled through the trailer, vibrating the wood floor. The driver was eager to pick up the rest of his load, presumably a navy family heading back to the States, and his patience with Darby climbing up and digging through boxes already packed was also at an end. Darby slid the certificate back into its manila envelope, tucked it into his jacket and emerged from the back end of the truck.
Hal's red hair glinted in the sunlight spilling over the tiled roof, and his expression had evoled to exasperation. The man was hungry. Had been hungry for hours while the movers slowly packed up Darby's personal effects and scant pieces of furniture, and no one stood between Hal and his last chance to dine in El Puerto de Santa Maria, the city near the Rota Naval Base, with his best comrade. "Let's go already. Saucy Terese and her crustacean friends await us."
"Not Il Caffe di Roma, Hal. I don't want to look into that woman's eyes and wonder if she might greet me with a filet knife."
"You ain't that good, brother," Hal said in a slow Oklahoma drawl. "She'll find someone else on which to ply her wiles when the new guy arrives."
"You mean the new guy whose name is Angela Dillard?"
"The new JAG officer's a girl?"
Darby smiled. "Actually she's a woman."
Hal jingled his keys. "Entendido."
"Your Spanish sucks."
"Whatever. Now get your butt in gear. There are some crabs and sherry with my name on them."
Darby tried to ignore the heat of the document pressing against his chest. Of course, it wasn't actually hot. Just burning a hole in his stomach with horrible dread. He was an attorney and the document he carried wasn't a prank, but he couldn't figure out how the license had been filed. His father had virtually screamed the im-plausibility at him nearly eleven years agothe day he'd shipped Darby off to Virginiaso this didn't make sense. "Fine, but if Terese comes toward me with a blade, you must sacrifice yourself. If not, Picou will ply the sacrificial purifications of the Chickamauga on you. She's been waiting for five years to get me back home to Beau Soleil."
Hal rubbed his belly. "Did they perform human sacrifices?"
"Who? The Native Americans or Picou?"
Darby grinned. "I don't know about the Chickamauga, but my mom will go psycho if I don't climb off that plane."
"Consider it done. No way I'm left to deal with your mother. She makes mine look like that woman from Leave It to Beaver!'
"Your mom is June Cleaver all the way down to the apron and heels." Darby knew firsthand. Her weekly chocolate chips cookies had caused him to pack on a few pounds.
"I know. All women pale in comparison." Hal opened the door of his white convertible BMW, his one prideful sin, and slid in. He perched a pair of Ray-Bans on his nose and fired the engine.
"Except our housekeeper, Lucille. Can't wait to get my hands on her pecan pie." Darby took one last look at his beachfront flat before sliding onto the hot leather seats of Hal's car. He'd already shipped his motorcycle to the States weeks ago. He wanted it available when he got to Seattle and went in search of apartments, though he knew he'd likely have to sell it in favor of a respectable sedan. With all that Northwest rain, he'd have little chance to take as many mind-clearing drives as he had along the coast of Spain. Plus, Shelby hated it.
"Well, say goodbye, dude," Hal said, sweeping one arm over the sunbaked villa where Darby had spent the past two years, before pulling away and heading toward the motorway that would take them into the city.
"Goodbye, dude," Darby said, parroting his friend. He smiled as the wind hit his cheeks, but as soon as he remembered the document, his smile slipped away. Trouble brewed and this homecoming would be no cakewalk despite the pecan pie that waited.
"Are you sad? Thought you'd been ready to leave Rota since you got here, Louisiana boy."
How could Darby tell him his mood wasn't about leaving the base and his small adventure in Spain but about the marriage license he'd found in his high school trunk? He could, but there was no sense in ruining his last night with the man who'd become like a brother to him over the course of his deployment. With Hal being the base chaplain, most would think him an odd choice of roommate for a formerly degenerate bayou boy, but something about Hal clicked as soon as Darby met the man who'd been looking for a flatmate. Having Hal as a friend, guide and trusted mentor had made the move overseas tolerable. In fact, after a few months, Darby had downright enjoyed himself.
And he'd found Shelby through Hal.
And when he met the blonde teacher who taught at the American school on base, he knew he'd finally grown up, finally left his confusion and his past behind. Here was what he'd been looking fora beautiful woman, a promising career, if the interview went well, and a clean slate in a new placeso he'd flung the dice and shipped his things to Seattle rather than home to Bayou Bridge.
He patted the inside pocket of his jacket.
But maybe he wouldn't be moving forward as soon as he'd planned.
Because he was fairly certain he was legally married to Renny Latioles.
Renny Latioles adjusted her reading glasses and stared at the computer screen. How did L9-10 get so far away from the Black Lake Reservoir? And even more disturbing, why was the damn crane on Beau Soleil property?
"She still there?" fellow biologist Carrie Dupuy asked, mindlessly sipping the bitter coffee that had been sitting in the urn all day long. Coffee stayed brewing at the Black Lake station where they worked side by side on the reintroduction of the whooping crane into South Louisiana.
"Yeah, and I don't get it. It's over sixty miles from the habitat you'd think she would prefer. No other crane has gone that far to the north. There isn't a lot of marsh in that parish even with the wetlands receding."
"It's been well over a week, Ren. Maybe you better head up and get a visual. Make sure she's not tangled up in something."
"But the bird is moving around in a fairly large perimeter. If you look at this satellite map, you can see the field it's inhabiting." Renny dragged a finger across the screen. "Look. Woodlands, bayou and one abandoned rice field."
Carrie frowned at the computer. "I agree. It doesn't make sense, but obviously L9-10 has found a little slice of heaven in St. Martin Parish. Maybe this is a good thing, this adapting and surviving in an atypical area, but we need to check this out in person, and since you live up that way "
Renny pushed back from the screen, rolling toward the filing cabinet sitting a few yards away. She grabbed a fresh logbook.
"Why not just take your computer?"
Pushing tendrils of hair out of her eyes, Renny shook her head. "Nope. Going old-school. Especially since Stevo lost the tablet in the basin. I'll take handwritten notes and then add them to our files when I return. If L9-10 decides to stay in her new digs, I'll have to spend a bit more time close to Bayou Bridge."
"Easy for you because you live there."
Renny shook her head. "It actually worries me since you're heading to Virginia in a few weeks."
"I'll call Stevo in Baton Rouge and see if he can send Ruby back to work on field notes and mind the fledglings. The captive cranes seemed to like her. She even got L-3 to take walks with her."
Renny nodded. "She's a good grad assistant. Glad we got her instead of that smarmy ex-fraternity president."
As the project manager carrying out the reintroduction of the whooping crane into the wintering grounds of Southwest Louisiana, Renny had tremendous pressure to succeed on her shoulders. The federal and state grants only stretched so far, and after losing one of the released cranes to natural predators earlier that summer, she felt even more driven to prove all was going as planned. Private donors liked to see resultssuccessful resultsor they didn't open their wallets. And at the rate their funds were dwindling, they needed to tread carefully.
Renny felt something sink in her stomach. Ironically, L9-10 was on Beau Soleil property, which, come to think of it, wasn't so odd considering the Dufrenes owned lots of land in St. Martin Parish. No problem except there were far too many painful memories attached to anything named Dufreneeven an abandoned rice field.
His image flashed in her mind. Long legged, brown from the sun, alligator smile. He'd been pure pleasure in a pair of worn jeans. God, she'd loved him so much. Loved the way he touched her, loved the way he made her feel. Wild, alive, made for him. Of course that had all been a lie.
A young girl's dream of what love should be. And she wasn't a young girl anymore.
The real Darby hadn't looked back. He'd left Louisiana and the girl he supposedly loved behind. Left her behind broken both physically and spiritually. But his dismissal had made her stronger. Had made her who she now was, and she was damn proud of what she'd become.
She shook herself.
"Rat run over your grave?" Carrie asked.
"Yeah, something like that." Renny pulled off her reading glasses and tried not to think about the rat. Darby was behind her and she'd made peace with herself and what had happened or rather what had not happened. They'd been eighteen, high school seniors and majorly naive. She'd long ago forgiven both herself and the wild Dufrene boy who'd talked her into loving him.
Besides, she was too old to worry about those feelings again, even if she would soon have to deal with his mother. And Picou was never easy to deal with. On the surface, Picou Dufrene seemed docile and enlightened in her yoga gear and caftans, but underneath the feathers and fluff was a woman of pure steel. A woman who always got her way.
Just like her youngest son.
"You heading out now?" Carrie wrinkled her nose at her coffee cup. "How long has this been sitting in the pot?"
"Long enough to grow hair on your chest," Renny said, sliding the journal into the beat-up leather tote she'd bought the day she got her master's in biology. "And, yeah, I'm going to head up and see what's going on with L9-10. She was always such a skittish bird. Should have known she'd settle down in some weird location. Damn storm."
Carrie set her mug down. "But a good opportunity for us to see how far they'll stretch the habitat. Go. Call me later and let me know what you find, and then go have yourself a good weekend. As in, go do something fun for a change."
"I have fun." Why was everyone pushing her to go out and lasso a man? Even her mother, who'd formerly harped on the evilness of the opposite sex, had started "suggesting" Renny go somewhere other than church for her social life. Renny was Bev's only shot at grandchildren. Forget biological clocks. Grandmother's clocks were wound tighter.
"If you call sitting in a pirogue watching herons mate fun, then I guess you do. Come on, it's Friday, Renny. Don't let your leg keep you from shaking it."
"Your booty, girlfriend."
Renny pushed through the door leading to the lobby of the office. "Sure. I'll think about it."
But she wouldn't. Carrie had poked a soft spot in her psycheone she tried to ignore. Renny didn't want to squirrel herself away like some disfigured misanthrope. No, she wanted to be that game gal who didn't mind the stares, whose zest for living and glowing smile chased away any thoughts of pity. A small part of her wanted to be the girl she used to be but it was only a small part. The rest of her liked her life as it was. Simple. Driven.
She dashed that last thought because what was wrong with living safe anyway? Having control was a good thing, considering she'd spent a good deal of time having no control over anythingeven her body. Most of her doctors were convinced she'd never walk again. And here she was walking out of her office door.
Okay, the pitch in her step still bothered her. Vain, stupid and weak, sure, but walking into a bar, aka meat market, wasn't fun when a girl unintentionally lurched herself at men. So she didn't go to bars. Or singles mixers. Or on blind dates.
Renny angled across the gravel parking lot nestled into the grasslands of the Black Lake Conservation Area and slid into her crossover hatchback. The early fall sun shone overhead, spotlighting the small field office invading the natural landscape. The actual lake lay only fifty yards away and she could hear the low hum of a boat on the water as she cranked the engine.
Going to Beau Soleil would be hard. She hadn't been back in over ten years, and that had been only to meet Darby in the cloak of the night with a backpack holding her nightgown, a spare T-shirt and a toothbrush. So long ago. So utterly stupid.
So, no, it wasn't going to be much fun for her tripping down memory laneall because L9-10 had an adventurer's soul.
The only consolation was Darby wouldn't be there.