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By GIGI GUNN
Copyright © 2008 Gigi Gunn
All right reserved.
Nudging out the setting sun, a Cajun moon rose high in the sky and cast an eerie golden orange glow over the French Quarter and the sign, RARE FINDS-COLLECTIBLE TREASURES AND ANTIQUITIES. Sassy stepped out onto Royal Street into the thick, humid air. She closed and locked the door of the shop before glancing up at the moon. The lunar ball hung so huge and luminous it looked like a fiery planet about to crash into the skinny streets. She dismissed that old folks' saying, that the Cajun moon was a bad moon rising, as she headed north to Bienville Street. She had others things on her mind as her heels clicked on the pavement and her bouncy, chestnut hair punctuated every step by tapping her waist. She felt an insouciant jaunt to her gait as she made her way to the only man in her life for more than eighteen years. Roulon "Roux" Robespierre, she thought, and smiled to herself with naughty anticipation. Mentally, she thanked her boss for entertaining out-of-town guests so she could close up early and surprise Roux.
A glint of moonlight bounced from her third finger, left hand where a three-carat diamond solitaire had lived for over five years. That was her doing; she didn't think Roux was ready for marriage. A man that successful and easy on the eye had to get the play out of him before he settled down for life. And that's how she wanted him-for life. She planned to marry only once. Divorce was out of the question, so she had to be sure about him because she sure couldn't trust other women worth a damn. Of course, she smiled wickedly, she couldn't blame them either. He was a bona fide "pretty boy" with his bronzy copper skin, the color of his nickname ... roux, the basis for all the rich sauces around New Orleans. His mother had been the beauty of all Louisiana and he was a male equivalent of her so much that they called him an immaculate conception. Very little of his father showed in him; his mother was fair, but his father's brown, colored his complexion in that tantalizing copper. His mother's hair fell like a curtain and you couldn't pay a wave to live there, but his father interjected his kinky hair so that Roux ended up with curls so big and silky that even the nuns liked to grab a handful. His mother's blue eyes mixed with the father's black ones gave Roux his unparalleled hazel eyes with copper flecks, topped by a mass of eyelashes, all offered on an altar of high cheekbones. He was "cute" as a boy, but with that body he grew into "handsome" by adolescence. His mother had stayed a beauty until the day she died. The day that Sebastien's Funeral Home refused to bury her. The day Roux swore to hate the Sebastiens as long as he drew breath.
As she turned on to Bourbon Street, Sassy wondered what made her think of all that. She looked ahead and saw the sign in the distance, SASSY'S, in bright, hot-pink neon letters; the color clashed with the golden orange of the Cajun moon. But after five years, she still got a jolt when she saw her name emblazoned atop the Bourbon Street club. SASSY'S, the "in" hot spot, and Preservation Hall, the little club where old timers cut their jazz teeth, were antithetical, but "must-do" bookends for the perfect New Orleans' French Quarter experience. Sassy threaded through tourists whose open plastic cups brimmed with diluted beer. They shuffled along the streets of her hometown, gawking at the nude shows while mounted policemen tried to keep them orderly in this modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Nature's mugginess commingled with the crowds' liquor-breath, overworked deodorant, and funky perfume all rode the sultry wave of a typical autumn night in N'awlins-the native pronunciation. While most of the country enjoyed Indian summer, New Orleans felt like it had been dipped in a vat of boiling water, then wrung out to dry-hot and steamy with humidity thick enough to chew.
As Sassy walked, a jumpin' trumpet from one club gave way to a smoky sax of another, and the cacophony of music and revelers poured into the street, creating a loud, carnival raucousness. If the French Quarter was party central of the western hemisphere, then Bourbon Street was its pulsating core.
Sassy couldn't wait to reach the club with its quiet, understated elegance. The Cajun moon sank lower, dusting its gold-orange patina over all the pedestrians and buildings that lit Sassy's way.
In the back of a black limo, an exquisitely dressed man put aside his laptop and folded a copy of the Wall Street Journal. He eased back the monogrammed cuffs of his tuxedo shirt and read the face of his twenty-five-thousand-dollar diamond-studded watch. Twenty of, he thought. He pressed the privacy button and, as the glass disappeared into its well, directed his chauffeur, "Take Royal."
"Yes, sir," the driver answered. "This music too loud for you, boss?"
The man listened to Wil Downing sing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," smiled, and answered, "No," but thought, How ironic.
How long had it been since he'd stopped by Rare Finds just to get a glimpse of her as she closed up-as she walked to Roux's? The man may not have seen her in weeks, but she was always there-in the back of his mind, in the front of his mind, as he worked, as he played. Her image was always close to his heart. He was on his way to pick up his date for the opera this evening, but he could spare a few minutes to glimpse the woman he wished he were escorting tonight ... any night-anywhere. Sassy Crillon. How many years had he been in love with her? Too long, he thought, as Wil vocally expressed his sentiments.
He remembered the first time he'd seen her. Even though he was years older, he was struck by her long ropebraids, looped and caught by two ribbons, and her intelligent, defiant eyes hooded by Bayou-thick eyelashes. But it was her skin, a buttery, golden copper, like maple syrup poured in a stream of sunshine, that captivated him and let him know that she was going to be a real heartbreaker when she grew up. The braids evolved into a ponytail, which revealed an exquisite freckle on the back of her neck. He remembered how that ponytail sat high on her head but still touched her waist when she walked-to her mother's beauty shop, to ballet class, to Mardi Gras parades-and he was always amazed at how she could jump double Dutch without getting her hair caught in the ropes whenever he "happened" to see her. When she was in junior high, he found himself at her track meets, one face among many who'd watch that ponytail flip from side to side, pacing her gait, as she crossed the finish line to break records and claim her medals. In high school, she was a cheerleader whose crazy-phat legs, developed in dance and secured by athletics, were now guaranteed to please anyone who had the good fortune to gaze upon them; as they performed complicated steps in syncopated rhythms at basketball games when she cheered for the All-American point guard, Roux Robespierre. She was the epitome of class, style, and grace. Despite her dynamite body, she never displayed it in low-cut tops or by wearing fabrics that clung to her curves or rode up into tight wrinkles. "Mocha ya-ya," guys would call to her from the bleachers. He'd even heard a grown man in the stadium reverently remark of her, "Every rich man's dream and poor man's fantasy."
The man watched as Sassy chased her dreams and Roux chased her-got her early and has kept her ever since. He would have thought her too young to date, but Roux and her parents apparently didn't. Game over, and the man hadn't even known it was being played. The trophy was being "Roux's girl." The man planned to bide his time until she and Roux broke up ... but they never did. He wasn't in New Orleans consistently enough to make a play for, get, and then hold Sassy.
Between boarding schools, summer vacations abroad and in the Caribbean, college, the business world and beyond, he'd seen, done, and had everything he'd wanted. The world and all its treasures were his for the taking, but no matter where in the world he was, whenever his heart and mind turned to New Orleans-to home-Sassy was a big part of it. When he was younger, he'd get home, grab his cars keys and then search for her. Just to see if she was still the same. That she was, all right. That she hadn't magically become available. Until he glimpsed her, he wasn't really back in N'awlins. While away, Sassy became "home" to him. With her obvious goodness, strong values, and loyalty, she represented everything he wanted and, despite all his wealth and position, would never have. He didn't care about other guys-but Roux-no guy could go up against Roux for Sassy and win. And this man was used to winning. It didn't look like he was going to get his chance-not in this lifetime.
The man chuckled wryly, and thought, he wasn't the first or the only man to ever love a woman who didn't know he existed.
Sassy hurried towards Roux's bar, SASSY'S, smiling at how she'd surprise him. She'd never known another man, never desired one. He was every man to her.
She pushed open the door with the elegant "S" in gold script and entered the crowded, smoke-filled club. She greeted the bartender who slid her a glass of her usual white wine. She thanked him and began to look for Roux. She sauntered through groups of patrons, who were transfixed by the vocalist at center stage, before glancing over at the pool table area. The smoke began to wreak havoc with her nose and eyes.
She decided that Roux must be either in his office or at home. She gulped down her wine and set the glass on a nearby table. On this night, she was pleased that Roux's world was so self-contained. His club and office were in this building, and his apartment was just across the adjacent parking lot in the other building he'd bought; the bottom floor used for storage, his apartment on the top two floors. As she turned to go to his office, she spotted his profile off the dark hallway which led to the bathrooms. "Ah, there he is," she said to herself. She treaded through the standing-room-only crowd, and when she finally reached him said, "Hey, handsome."
"Sassy!" Roux choked. Startled and flushed, he held his stomach.
"What's the matter? Don't you feel well?" she asked, stepping toward him.
Roux's mouth was open, but nothing came out.
Just then, Maxine Dupree rose from a kneeling position and, wiping the sides of her mouth, greeted slyly, "Hey, Sassy."
In a split second which seemed like a slow-motion forever, Sassy realized that it wasn't his stomach Roux was holding at all. The look of triumphant pleasure on Maxine's face and the guilty horror scrambling across Roux's confirmed it all. Sassy backed away, freezing this betrayal in her mind.
"I'll be got-damned," Sassy said sotto voce.
"Sassy, baby. Wait. I can explain. It's not what you think. Really-" Roux said, walking toward her, zipping his pants.
Sassy's icy glare stopped Roux's advance. A sharp chill ran up her spine and yanked the breath from her body. She gasped for air and shivered in the cloying heat. The taste of bile rose in her throat yet her mouth was parched; she couldn't garner enough spit to curse him. Her stomach churned, her head split and she felt her world crash off its axis and rotate into a surreal, hellish nightmare. Her mind could not comprehend any of it, but her body took over, spun itself around, and began to run. She felt faint, like she was going to throw up, but her body ran. People everywhere were in her way.
"Sassy! SASSY!" Roux yelled.
She could hear him call her over the noise. She glanced back and saw him running behind her. She didn't want to hear it. Not again. The bar became a conspiring labyrinth-the more she ran toward the exit, the farther away it seemed, like she was on a treadmill going nowhere. Her heart felt as if it were going to burst, and she'd explode into a million smithereens and never be found. She finally made it to the door and slammed open the plate-glass door with the gold "S" into the brick wall. Shards flew into a zillion pieces as she ran into the street.
The melee and confusion caught Roux at the door. Perfunctorily, he checked to see if any of his patrons were hurt by the flying glass, as he kept his eyes on Sassy. A lady was cut on the knee, another bleeding from her arm. Roux went to curb and yelled, "Sassy!"
Cars screeched to a halt as she dodged them and ran down the middle of Bourbon Street, cutting through an alley onto Toulouse Street. The Cajun moon laughed at her, mocked her, chased her. She couldn't get away from it! It began to rain, and Sassy ran. She ran onto Royal for four blocks, then cut over onto Dumaine Street, running like a crazy woman; trying to outrun the truth, the betrayal. The heinous vision of Roux and another woman. She was crying, or was that the rain? The wine gurgled in her empty stomach, jostling around and making her dizzy, but she wouldn't stop running. She was running out of breath, but she couldn't stop.
As the limo stopped in traffic, the man glanced over to the right. Caught in the red-orange glow of the Cajun moon was a woman silhouetted in its center. She was running full-speed, mowing down everyone in her way. Even before he could see her face, he knew that gait. He knew the hair flinging from side to side. As she got closer to the street he could see she wasn't slowing down. She was heading for oncoming traffic. He jumped from the car and ran towards her.
As Sassy reached Chartres Street, she turned around to see if Roux was still in pursuit. Not watching where she was going, she ran swack! into a wall and collapsed.
The impact almost knocked the man off balance, but he had caught her in his arms.
"You want me to call 911?" the driver asked.
The man unraveled the hair concealing her face and examined her.
"No. She seems all right. Just got the wind knocked out of her. Help me get her into the car," he ordered. "She just lives a few blocks over on Clemenceau Street. We'll take her home."
The man held her in the backseat, not believing his good fortune. Had he ever believed that he would ever touch what his heart only dreamed of? That he'd ever hold her? His unobtainable dream. Her hair cascaded over his legs, and the brittle streetlights spotlighted intermittent glimpses of her. She was wet and breathing hard, but she was as beautiful up close as she'd been from afar. She wore little makeup-lipstick and eyeliner that had begun to run down those exquisite cheekbones. He reached for his handkerchief and dabbed at the black streaks under her eyes. He was emotionally torn between wanting to hold her forever and wanting to hurry up and get her home before she woke up. He didn't want to meet her this way. He knew she wouldn't like the pretentiousness of the limo, the driver, and the tux.
He couldn't remove his eyes from her. Her flawless skin set in all the cinnamon-coppery tones in which he'd decorated his bedroom. If he couldn't have her in the flesh, he'd wanted to be surrounded by all the colors of her rainbow. Now, he just wanted to savor every moment as the gift it was just in case he would never hold her again. He didn't want to waste this precious time wondering what had distressed her and sent her running down the street. But he knew. Only one person could affect her this way. Only one person was ever that close to her. Roux Robespierre was her one Achilles heel in life. With him, all her good sense went out the window, and Roux'd had years to cultivate and brainwash her, and make her dependent on him. When it came to Roux, Sassy turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to anything negative.
"We're here, boss," the driver announced as he lit from the car and went around to open the door.
The first floor of the house was lit with the revelry of a party. The second floor, her apartment, was dark. The driveway led to a gate anchored on either side by a formidable rod-iron fence. The rain now poured in steady torrents, concealing the moon as the man twisted the gate's bell. An enormous black Great Dane with a white diamond marking barked ferociously.
Inside, Cyril complimented Dante on his fuchsia scarf and heard the bell followed by Killer's bark. It was a minor irritation until he saw Sassy draped in this stranger's arms. His eyes filled with alarm, and he rushed to the gate with the key and said, "Omigod! What happened to her?"
"Just open the gate, please, so I can take her upstairs," the tuxedoed man commanded and thankfully noted that this was not her employer/landlord. "Stay with the car," he ordered his driver, then he whipped around the first floor and began to climb the gallery stairs to the second floor.
Cyril was in hot pursuit, asking inane questions that the man ignored until he reached the top of the flight and hesitated, not sure where to go.
Excerpted from Cajun Moon by GIGI GUNN Copyright © 2008 by Gigi Gunn. Excerpted by permission.
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