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KERRY JOHNSTON STUDIED the brochures on New Orleans that she'd picked up that morning. Here she was, having lunch in the famous French Quarter, and she was feeling down. This trip was supposed to cheer her up after the difficult year she'd just had, not leave her feeling more lonely than ever.
The restaurant she'd chosen, up the street from the Hotel Marchand where she was staying, had a charming Old World atmosphere and seemed bustling after the slump caused by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Fortunately this area of the city was higher than districts west of the river and hadn't suffered as much flood damage. She surveyed the historic buildings with their lovely fretwork of iron lace. They reminded Kerry of elderly ladies dressed in their finest outfits, waiting for gentlemen callers.
She winced. Maybe that would be a description of her one day.
Well, she didn't feel old and she wasn't waiting for anyone, but she sure wished she didn't feel so blue. "Here you are."
The waitress, dressed simply in black slacks and a crisp white shirt, expertly placed a huge salad, complete with crayfish and a secret house dressing, in front of Kerry.
The woman's name tag read Patti, and she was truly beautiful, with blue eyes and the blackest lashes Kerry had ever seen. Her smile was infectious, and her complexion, a blend of tan and rose, was flawless.
By contrast, Kerry felt rather plain with her short spiky light brown hair and hazel eyes, her face pale from the Midwest winter.
The waitress was at least ten years younger than Kerry, maybe twenty-five. She looked vivacious and happy with her life, and on her finger was a gold ring with an intricate ropedesign.
From a lover? Kerry wondered. She sighed inwardly as her gaze drifted to her bare ring finger. Last summer an engagement diamond had sparkled there.
"Are you here for Mardi Gras?" the waitress asked in a friendly manner, placing a glass of iced tea and a basket of hot rolls on the table.
"Well, not the whole season," Kerry replied, returning the smile. "I have a week. The trip was a birthday present from my friends back home."
"How nice of them. Where do these friends live? Perhaps I can meet them?"
Her soft laughter was enchanting. This woman was exotic and beautiful enough to be a movie star.
Kerry felt as stale as day-old bread. "White Bear Lake, Minnesota -- a tiny place that no one's ever heard of. It's near the St. Paul-Minneapolis area."
"It sounds charming," Patti said.
"Are you a native of New Orleans?" Kerry asked, thinking her accent and manner of speaking suggested that.
"Creole?" Kerry asked, smiling at the obvious pride in the lilting voice. From a TV documentary, she knew those of Creole descent often prided themselves on speaking fluent French without the patois of the Cajun population.
"Yes. My people have been here a long time. We are descended from the same line as Empress Josephine, who was born, as my own ancestors were, on Martinique. My family moved to Louisiana. She married Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, son of the French governor of the island, and lived in Paris."
"Where she met and later wed Napoleon Bonaparte after her estranged husband was executed," Kerry concluded, recalling her history lessons.
Patti's eyes sparked with delight. "It's a romantic story, is it not?"
"Except possibly from the Vicomte's view," Kerry said drolly, causing Patti to laugh.
A couple came and sat down at the next table. "Enjoy your lunch," Patti said, then turned to attend the new guests.
Kerry wasn't sure whether the waitress's story about her ancestors was true or a put-on for the tourists, but she found it interesting. Just as she had been cast aside for another woman, Josephine Bonaparte had been replaced by a younger woman who could give the emperor an heir.
At least Ben had married someone her own age, Kerry thought, a divorced classmate who'd returned to town for their high school reunion. Kerry's fiancé of four years had fallen for Marla like a "ton of bricks," as he'd so eloquently -- and rather shamefacedly -- explained.
It turned out he'd had a crush on her their entire senior year and the flame had rekindled the minute he'd seen her again. Kerry had said she understood and returned his ring, freeing him to find happiness with his new love.
Since then, she'd often wondered if a four-year engagement should have told her something. Neither of them had been in a hurry to make that final commitment.
With a philosophical shrug, she determinedly put the past behind her. That had been in July. This was January.
In fact, it was Twelfth Night, the very beginning of the Mardi Gras celebration. Actually, her friends had wanted to get her a reservation on her birthday, Valentine's Day, but the hotels were booked solid then.
She glanced heavenward, thankful for small favors. Being alone in New Orleans -- the most haunted city in the U.S., according to the brochures, and certainly one of the most romantic -- on Valentine's Day, her birthday, would have been too much.
Blinking away sudden tears, she sipped the iced tea until she was over the attack of self-pity. When she finished the meal, which was delicious, she reviewed the brochures once more, annoyed by her inability to make a decision about what to do.
"Have you been to the voodoo museum?" Patti asked, pausing at Kerry's table after serving salads and drinks to the couple. "Most visitors seem to enjoy it." She glanced at her watch. "You should go there this afternoon if you're free. From two until three is usually a good time. The museum is quieter then."
"Thanks. That sounds like the perfect place to begin sightseeing on my first day in New Orleans."
"Have fun," the waitress said brightly before sailing off once more to attend to her customers.
After leaving a generous tip, Kerry left the restaurant and wandered around Jackson Square and the streets of the French Quarter. Going into a tourist shop, she checked out various voodoo-related souvenirs with her nephew and two nieces in mind.
Poor kids. They all had chicken pox. Her sister Sharon was supposed to be on this trip with her, but when the kids got sick, she'd had to stay at home. Shane, Kerry's eleven-year-old nephew, was into mystery and magic these days, and had requested a shrunken head, but his parents had vetoed that idea.
Thinking a voodoo doll might be a good substitute, Kerry checked the bottom for the price and was annoyed to see that the doll was made in another country. She put it back.
One of the brochures had mentioned a place that stocked "authentic" voodoo items made by local practitioners. She studied the map the concierge at the hotel had given her that morning. The shop was a block from the museum, which was located on a nearby street in the Quarter.
It wasn't two o'clock yet, so Kerry decided to stroll the sunny streets of the Big Easy, before delving into the darker side of America's most haunted city.
SHORTLY AFTER TWO, Kerry arrived at the voodoo museum. The jawbone of an alligator was mounted over the front door. From her reading, she knew this was a good Ju-Ju, meant to ward off evil spirits.
If the thing didn't fall on her head, she would count that as lucky, she decided as she went inside.
Kerry understood at once why the waitress had suggested she come during a quiet hour. The museum was tiny, the bottom floor of an old row house. If she'd met someone in the hall, they would have had to turn sideways to pass.
The pungent aroma of incense tickled her nose. The place was so silent the hair stood up on the back of her neck. A sign indicated a modest fee to see the artifacts, so she began to count out the exact amount. "Please come in," a low feminine voice said. "I am Queen Patrice, your guide into the other-world."
Kerry nearly dropped the money as every nerve in her body tightened spontaneously.
A woman in a type of gypsy outfit stood in a doorway off the hall. She wore a purple scarf over her head. Sooty black hair spilled from under it and lay in waves down to her waist.
Her eyes were outlined in black with a long line that slanted up to her temples. Bands of purple and gold were brushed over her eyelids, and her full lips were a brilliant carmine.
The blouse she wore matched the scarf and coordinated with a swirling skirt of purple, green and gold, the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. Dangling earrings, sparkling bangles and several necklaces of gold coins completed the outfit. There was nothing threatening about the woman, but Kerry felt slightly uneasy.
"You have arrived at a propitious moment," the woman told her. "Come. I will show you the other rooms."
"Who do I pay?" Kerry asked, indicating the cash clutched in her hand. She made herself relax.
"I'll take it."
In the flick of an eyelash, the money disappeared into a fold in the woman's skirt. With a swishing sound and a rippling wave of purple, green and gold, the voodoo queen led the way into another room. "Ah, Jolie is awake. Would you like a picture taken with her?"
Kerry's heart did a double back flip when she spied a huge python -- no, two of them. "A picture?" she echoed.
The woman's eyes narrowed. "It is a great honor." Kerry knew her nephew would be awed and overjoyed to show off the photo to friends. "Uh, sure. How much does it cost?"
"Nothing. I'll use your camera."
"Oh." Kerry handed over the digital camera, a gift from Ben two Christmases ago. A tiny pang went through her, but she ignored it.
"I'll see if she's willing." The woman opened the cage. "Madame Jolie? I have someone here for you."
Kerry briefly worried that the rest of that statement might be "to eat." The snake looked more than large enough to swallow a person who was five-two and wore a size four petite dress.
"Ah, she's agreed."