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It was 3:30 A.M., at the tail end of a sultry New Orleans July, but I got cold chills when I looked over the banister and saw what was lying on the floor below. Once before I had caught Dan with another woman. That's why he was my ex-husband. But the first lady had been very much alive, while this one definitely was not. And that night, he hadn't been wearing a bloodstained suit, like now. In fact, he hadn't been wearing anything at all. In one moment of time, the past fourteen months seemed to flash by like a film rerun at warp speed, a steamy melodrama starring yours truly and the man now crouched by a dead woman's body. Rated R.
When I was twenty-eight and still unmarried, Tante Jeanette Jennerette warned me, "Listen, chér. Won't be much left after you bury me, and your oncle done promised this here house to your cousin Eugene, him being the oldest. Got to find yourself a mari with three fat pockets, eh, petite?" Here, she would wink slyly and pat her right hip, then her left, then her crotch. "Two for the money and one for the love, chér!"
I could certainly agree with her point about the money. At the time, though I was enjoying some success as a hairstylist in a big salon, I also found it necessary to supplement my income by moonlighting, selling cosmetics in a ritzy department store.
However, when it came to the love part, my encounters had been few and unrewarding, and frankly, I had never yet experienced any sensation that I was willing to maybe end up dying for, given the state of the world these days.
It was purely coincidental that the only man on earth who ever rang my bell should turn out to be a fortyish frat daddy named Dan Louis Claiborne, who was most assuredly - and quite remarkably - endowed with those "three fat pockets'" so dear to Tante J's heart!
Dan was from old New Orleans money, a senior partner in Blanchard, Smithson, Callant and Claiborne, one of the city's biggest, most important law firms.
Dan Claiborne had spent his entire life uptown. He didn't even have to move out of the family's State Street mansion to graduate from Tulane Law School, and St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, scene of his first marriage to debutante and Newcomb grad Melissa Bonnie Bellamy (now remarried to the ex-husband of her maid of honor), was less than five minutes from home in the opposite direction.
I, Evangeline Claire Jennerette, on the other hand, had been brought up in the Bayou St. John area (The Big Easy territory), the orphaned child of a Danish au pair and a Cajun fisherman. My mother had loved to go out shrimping with my father, and they were killed when their boat went down during a storm somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oncle Hebert had been much older than his little brother, so his and Tante Jeanette's children were mostly grown when they took me in as a baby. He died when I was about seven, and it had practically always been just Tante J and me, except during the holidays when all the cousins and their kids converged onto the big, white wooden house on the water.
That's not to say I sling on an accordion and break into Cajun songs at the drop of a chapeau. I loved my family and heritage, and they returned the affection, but had always regarded me as something of a changeling.
Though I was proficient in the patois, my English lacked the spicy accent and bouncy cadence of the others. In looks, I had taken after my slender, golden-haired, creamy-skinned mother, and my taste in clothing ran more to tailored elegance than to the somewhat flamboyant outfits selected by my female relatives to show off their dramatic brunette coloring.
Conversely, to the Garden District crowd, I was merely a rather upscale swamprat, without even a university education to enhance my social status. Beauty college, apparently, didn't count, except against, even if it was the famous Marcel's Institute de Beaute.
Marcel Barrineau, the creative force behind a faculty composed of temperamental Europeans who consider themselves to be on the cutting edge, so to speak, of beauty technology, was descended from one of the original French families who had settled New Orleans and helped build Napoleon House, in preparation to receive their exiled emperor, who never arrived.
Marcel, with his aristocratic blood, and wealth, both inherited and acquired, was firmly entrenched in New Orleans society. Twice divorced and in his early fifties, he looked much younger, with a tall athletic frame, exquisitely groomed silver hair, and olive complexion. We also had this oddly pedantic speech pattern, which gave the entirely erroneous impression that English had not been his first language. It was, in fact, quite a charming little trick.
Every student who stayed on to work in one of the four Salons de Marcel, located throughout greater New Orleans, received a personal makeover.
"You are to be the cool blonde with a heart of fire," he'd decreed during our session, squinting at me in a visionary way. "And for this, we must snip a bit here and there from that picturesque but unmanageable name of yours. With your permission, J shall call you by the more sophisticated Claire Jenner."
As usual, Marcel was right. His version of my name fit me perfectly. So did his description.
When I graduated, Marcel handpicked me as his personal assistant, and, once I made him understand that my assistance did not extend into the boudoir, we got along fine.
Gradually, I built up my own following, and since I also worked in a department store, my life was certainly full, but definitely unfulfilled, when I met Dan.
That night in late March, I was demonstrating a men's fragrance when a couple of guys in three-piece pinstripe suits sauntered up.
For some reason, certain clients expect all beauty service people to pinch hit for bartenders as confidants and confessors when necessary, so I was on the receiving end in both my day job and my night job. Consequently, I knew far more about one of the men, dumpy little Eustis Keller, than I wanted to, since he often used the store as a shortcut to his office building's parking garage on Baronne Street after hoisting a few in the French Quarter. By then, he would be generally loaded enough to feel in a buying mood, which quickly degenerated into verbose self- pity.
That's how I learned he was a junior partner in Blanchard, Smithson, Callant and Claiborne, working in the area of patent law and trademark/ copyright infringement. He was frustrated that he only got to handle routine domestic cases, because the head of his department reserved all the glamorous international plums for himself, flying first class to Europe, taking meetings with the Surete, Scotland Yard, and Interpol. He, Eustis, hardly ever got to go to exciting places, except for a few recent trips to France when the other guy was too busy.
According to Eustis, Blanchard, Smithson was damn lucky to have him. After all, he'd started out studying to be a research chemist or something before reversals in the family fortune forced him into Tulane Law School. Blanchard, Smithson had no right to pass him over for senior partner three times in a row, especially since he had graduated in the same class as the man who was now his boss. Well, someday he'd show them.
On and on Eustis would go, and while I rang up his extravagant purchases (Gucci Nobile for him, Molinard de Molinard for his wife, Obsession for the latest girlfriend) I felt both repulsed by and sorry for him.
Since my clients at Marcel's also talked a lot, I knew the other half of this story as well. Eustis's family tragedy occurred when his stockbroker father, having been alerted that his accounts were about to be federally audited, shot himself in the head, and that branch of Kellers was left nearly penniless. Eustis had to drop out of Johns Hopkins, to be sure, but, thanks to influential connections, he was able to attend Tulane Law School, all expenses paid, including frills like a car and a good fraternity.
Later he'd married Wilding Groves, an eerily beautiful heiress, who was heavily into riding and various blood sports, and Eustis seemed to have done pretty well for himself, all things considered. Frankly, I had a hard time working up much sympathy for his tales of woe, especially because Wilding was a client of Marcel's and, strange as she was, I liked her a whole lot better than I liked Eustis.
When Eustis spotted me, he introduced the man with him as Dan Claiborne, and I realized this was the guy he resented so much. Well, I could certainly see why. Poor Eustis was playing way out of his league. Dan Claiborne had not only a natural air of authority, but the physical presence to back it up: broad shoulders, burly chest, and dark, slicked- back hair. The face, with a full, sensual mouth and deep blue eyes under thick, dark brows, retained a mischievous boyishness, along with an unmistakable shrewdness.
"Danbo," Eustis chuckled, wafting Jack Daniels fumes into the cologne- laden air, "this is Claire Jenner. Cute lil' thing to be part coonass, isn't she!"
Dan pointedly ignored him. "Are you indeed of the Cajun persuasion, Miss Jenner?" His voice, rich and husky, went straight to someplace deep inside me where nobody had ever been before, and those blue eyes caught and held mine tightly.
Instantly, my attention was completely absorbed by the man towering above me, and the effect was dizzying. I suddenly found it difficult to breathe, and my heart started beating an erotic rhumba on my eardrums.
A needles-and-pins sensation had me tingling from head to toe, but I retorted, as coolly as I could, "More accurately, half crawfish pie and half Danish pastry, Mr. Claiborne."
His eyes wandered down to my lips. "Now that," he drawled, "sounds like a most tantalizing combination. And while we're on the subject, may I have the pleasure of your company for dinner tomorrow night?"
Later Dan told me it was all he could do to restrain himself from grabbing me and applying his tongue to my tonsils, right then and there. I myself was seized with the overwhelming desire to unbutton his shirt, just to see if that chest was as big and hairy as it looked. (It was.) Although I did manage (then) to control the impulse, what did happen was that my hand gave an involuntary, but wildly suggestive, squeeze to the bulb of the atomizer I was holding, spritzing him liberally with Hugo Boss cologne. Naturally, he bought some. What man wouldn't?
We got married in a burning fever less than a month after our first date, and it was me-oh, my-oh, morning noon and night-oh! Of course, we realized that the mercury was bound to drop eventually; the human body can stand just so much of anything.
But we could never have guessed how quickly our marriage would crumble, or that murder had already been set in motion.
Excerpted from Behind Eclaire's Doors by Sophie Dunbar. Copyright © 1993 by Sophie Dunbar. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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I'd seen this book mentioned on a mail list I belong to and being a fan of Diane Mott Davidson and G.A. McKevett, I thought this book might appeal to me. It did and in a big way. Ms. Dunbar's characters are believable and totally entertaining. Her dialogue is smart and sassy without being demeaning or crude. In one part, Claire delivers a scathing retort that had me mentally applauding her ability to reduce her victim to the size of an anthill all with the use of brilliant profanity-less dialogue. I thought I had the mystery figured out up until the end when the author threw a curve, and the spicy, steamy on-again/off-again romance between Claire and erstwhile hubby, Dan, is humorous and quite sexy. Although this is the first book I've read by this author, I enjoyed it so much I am now reading the next in the series, Redneck Riviera, and plan to work my way through to her latest release, Shiveree. I heartily recommend this book.