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Samantha Hardcastle was wound tighter than her late husband's Cartier watch. The festive happy-hour crowd on Bourbon Street jostled and bumped her. Her new red Christian Louboutin sandals were supposed to lift her spirits. Instead they threatened to bring her down on her butt.
She pushed through the throng toward a less crowded side street, gasping for oxygen in the beer-scented darkness. Streetlights and neon bar signs blurred and jumped in her peripheral vision. Columns holding up the balconies above clustered around her like menacing trees in an enchanted forest.
She was dizzy and light-headed. Probably because she'd forgotten to eat since had she even had breakfast before her flight?
Her ankle wobbled and she caught herself on a brick wall. She'd somehow lost her way between the shoe store and the hotel. The sun had set, transforming the unfamiliar city into a place of shadows, and now she couldn't find her way back.
Since her husband's death, she couldn't seem to do anything right anymore. Every day took just a little bit more energy than she had.
"Are you okay?" a deep voice asked in her ear.
"Yes, fine, thanks," she responded. She didn't take her hand off the wall. The dark street was spinning.
"No, you're not. Come inside."
"No, really, I " Visions of being taken captive fired her imagination as a thick arm slid around her waist. She struggled against hard muscle.
"It's just a bar. You can sit down and rest a minute."
He guided her to a doorway. A light-filled archway in the hot darkness. A soothing string instrument filled the air, which strangely enoughdidn't smell of beer like the air outside.
"There's a comfortable chair over here." His tone was authoritative, yet soothing. The large room had the atmosphere of a turn-of-the-century saloon. Ornate gilding, polished plank floors and high tin ceilings. The colors were muted and mellow. Restful.
She let herself be helped to a leather armchair in a dark corner of the bar. "Thanks," she murmured, as he lowered her gently into the chair. "I don't know what came over me."
"Just rest. I'll bring you something to eat."
"But I don't"
"Yes, you do."
She thought she detected a hint of humor in his firm rebuttal. Maybe she did need food. She kept forgetting to eat lately. She'd totally lost her appetite foreverything.
She glanced around. There were quite a few people sitting at tables and in booths along one wall. Unlike the jovial mob outside, they spoke in hushed tones, and their laughter tinkled in the air.
Two waiters set down a table in front of her armchair, crisp white cloth and gleaming flatware already on it. A strong hand brought a steaming white plate.
"Here, crawfish étouffée with dirty rice. Just what the doctor ordered."
"Thank you." She glanced up at the owner of the hand and the reassuring voice. "You're too kind."
"Oh, I'm not kind at all." Honey-brown eyes glittered with humor. "I don't like people passing out cold in front of my door. Bad for business."
"I guess dragging dizzy women in is one way to drum up customers." She risked a shy smile.
He smiled back with warmth that surprised her. He had chiseled features and tousled dark hair and was far too good-looking to be trustworthy.
Apprehension trickled up her spine. "Why are you staring at me like that?"
"I'm waiting for you to pick up your fork and eat."
"Oh." She grabbed the fork and scooped up a small mouthful of étouffée. Self-conscious under his penetrating gaze, she put it between her lips and attempted to chew. Flavor cascaded over her tongue as she bit into the tender crustacean, marinated in its spicy sauce.
"Oh, my. That's good."
A smile spread over his stern features. He gestured for her to continue. "Now, what can I get you to drink?"
He asked the question with a hint of seduction. Not like a waiter, more like someone trying to pick her up in a bar.
A hackle slid up inside her. She'd dreaded being single again. Dreaded it with every cell in her body.
"Just a glass of water will be fine, thank you." She spoke in a clipped and officious manner. Like the wealthy Park Avenue matron she supposedly was.
He vanished out of her line of sight. With a sigh of relief, she fell on her crawfish étouffée, ravenous. She'd been walking around all day, trying to locate the man she hoped was her husband's estranged son.
She'd finally found Louis DuLac's house on Royal Street, with its tall windows and scrolled iron balconies. But he wasn't home. She'd tried twice.
The second time his housekeeper had shut the door rather firmly in her face.
Some festival was in full swing and the city was packed with tourists. She'd overlooked that when she arranged her trip. Her husband's private jet didn't require reservations, and the ten-thousand-dollar-a-night rooms were still available. It wasn't Mardi Gras, though. She knew that was in February or March, and right now it was October.
A loud pop made her look up. Champagne streamed over the side of a Krug bottle. Apparently Mr. Smooth had pegged her as the kind of person who could afford seven hundred dollars a bottle.
Probably her own fault. The red Louboutin shoes didn't help.
"Oh, I really don't"
"On the house," he murmured, as he filled a tall, fluted glass.
She blinked. Even Tarrant's favorite sommeliers didn't hand over Krug champagne for free. "Why?"
"Because you're too pretty to look so sad."
"Does it occur to you I might have good reason to look sad?"
"It does." He handed her the glass and pulled up a chair. "Are you dying?"
There wasn't a hint of humor in his gaze.
"No," she blurted. "At least not that I know of."
Relief smoothed his brow. "Well, that's good news. Let's drink to it." He'd filled himself a glass and he raised it to hers.
She clinked it and took a sip. The expensive bubbles tickled her tongue. "What would you have said if I'd told you I was dying?"
"I'd have suggested you live each day as if it's your last." His eyes sparkled. They were an appealing caramel color, with flecks of gold, like polished tigereye. "Which I think is good advice in any event."
"You're so right." She sighed. Her husband, Tarrant, had such a lust for life that he'd far outlived his doctor's expectations. She'd vowed to follow his example, but wasn't doing very well so far.
Drinking champagne was a start. "Here's to the first day of the rest of our lives." She raised her glass with a smile.
"May each day be a celebration." His eyes rested on hers as he raised his glass. She felt a strange flicker of something inside her. A pleasurable feeling.
Must be the champagne.
"Do you see the guitarist?" He gestured to a corner of the room. "He's one-hundred-and-one years old."
Samantha's eyes widened. The musician's white hair contrasted starkly with his ebony skin. It was astonishing he even had hair at that age. And his spirit shone in his energetic finger movements that vibrated out into the air as music.
"He's lived through two world wars, the depression, the digitization of almost everything and Hurricane Katrina. Every day he plays the guitar. Says it reignites the fire in him every single time."
"I envy him his passion."
"You don't have one?" He cocked his head slightly. His gaze was warm, not accusatory.
"Not really." She certainly wasn't going to tell this stranger about her quest to find her husband's missing children. Even her closest friends thought she was nuts. "Shopping for shoes sometimes lifts my spirits." She flashed a smile and her new red Louboutins.
In a way, she hoped he'd sneer. That would squash the funny warm sensation in the pit of her belly.
Instead, he smiled. "Christian is an artist and art always lifts the spirits. He'd thoroughly approve."
"You know him?"
He nodded. "I lived in Paris for years. I still spend a lot of time there."
"I'm impressed that you could tell who designed a pair of shoes. Most men wouldn't have a clue."
"I've always had an appreciation for fine things." His gaze rested lightly on her face. Not sexual or suggestive, but she couldn't help but hear the words like you hover in the air.
Instead of feeling harassed she felt desirable. Something she hadn't felt in a long time.
She brushed the feeling away. "Is New Orleans always this crazy?"
"Absolutely." He grinned. "Some people who come here have such a good time they even forget to eat." He glanced at her almost-empty plate of crawfish and rice.
She smiled. Let him think she was here for a fun vacation. In another life, maybe she would have been. Tarrant had loved jazz and they'd talked about coming for the spring Jazz Festival.
"Don't go looking sad again." He shot her an accusatory glance. "I think you need to dance."
She glanced over his shoulder where a cluster of elegant couples swayed on the dance floor. Adrenaline trickled through her.
"Oh, no. I couldn't." She took a quick sip of champagne. She was a widow. In mourning, though she'd promised Tarrant she wouldn't wear black even to the funeral. She flashed her shoes as an excuse.
He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. "Christian would be horrified if he heard a woman had used his shoes as a reason not to dance."
"Then don't tell him."
"I most certainly shall tell himunless you dance with me. I think it's the least you can do after I rescued you from the streets and fed you." A smile played around his mouth.
She chuckled. "You make me sound like a stray waif."
"A stray waif in Christian Louboutin shoes." He stood and extended his arm. Apparently he expected her to rise, too.
She took his hand and stood. She was nothing if not polite, the society-wife training ensured that. Besides, what was wrong with one little dance? Tarrant would rather see her moving than moping around.
He made a signal to the guitarist, who winked and struck up a new tune. Bluesy, but with a Latin flavor. Sam felt a shimmer of excitement as they stepped out onto the smooth wood floor. She hadn't danced in a long time.
The music hovered around them like smoke, filling the space between them. Through the sensual mist it created, she couldn't help but notice her partner was tall and broad shouldered. Her eyes were about level with his shirt collar, which had a fine pattern of irregular stripes. His jaw was solid, authoritative, like the rest of him.
He took her hand and clasped it softly, wrapping long, strong fingers around hers. The warmth of his blood seemed to pulse through his skin and heat hers as the music beat around them.
"What kind of dance are we going to do?" She didn't dare look up at his face. Already she was too close to him. So near she could feel the heat of him through her clothes.
"Any kind you like. It sounds like a mambo to me."
Her feet slipped into the mambo rhythm, following the patterns she'd learned years ago at Ms. Valentine's dancing school. She tried to focus on the steps, on moving gracefully, and keeping enough distance between her and her partner. He smelled of spices, like the rich food she'd eaten, and of starched cotton.
"I like your shirt." She risked a glance at his face.
Those rich, honey-colored eyes gazed at her, twinkling with amusement. "You don't have to make polite conversation with me. I know you're nice."
"How on earth would you know that?"
"I can read people. It's a gift I got from my grandmother. She used to read tea leaves, but she told me her secret was always to read the people as they stared at the leaves."
"What do you look for?" She tried to ignore the steady warmth of his big hand on her back.
"Facial expression tells you what matters to someone, not just while you look at them, but every day. All the little dimples and wrinkles reveal something."
"Uh, oh. I'm getting self-conscious." Two plastic surgery consultations had reassured her that it wasn't yet time to get drastic, but at thirty-one, Samantha knew she was no longer at the peak of her once-prize-winning beauty.
"That dimple in your chin tells me you smile a lot. And the tilt of your eyes tells me that you like to make people happy."
"That's true." She let out a nervous laugh. "I've been told I try too hard to please. I'm a 'yes' woman."
"But you have strength of character. I can see that by the way you carry yourself. You care very much about everything you do."
She frowned, taking in his words. Was it true? Maybe she just had good posture from training for beauty pageants.
She'd tried hard to mature. To learn from her failed marriages and all the mistakes she'd made.
She'd given everything she had to make Tarrant's last years the best they could be.
"And you're very, very sad." His low voice tickled her ear. While they moved, he'd come closer.
"I'm okay," she stammered, trying to reassure herself as much as him.
"You are okay." His hand shifted on her back, stroking her. "You're more than okay. But my grandmother would tell you to breathe."
"I am breathing," she protested.
"Little shallow breaths." He leaned into her. She could feel his hot breath on her neck. "Just enough to keep you afloat, to get you through the day."
He squeezed her hand inside his. His penetrating gaze almost stole the last of her breath. "You need to inhale and draw oxygen way down deep into your body. To let it flow all the way through you, out to your fingers and toes."
Her toes tingled. "Right now?"
She swallowed. Glanced around his broad arm to where other couples danced, lost in their own world.
"No time like the present." He smiled.
He had a nice smile, warm and friendly. She might not be a tea-leaf expert, but she was no slouch at reading people, either. A survival mechanism she'd learned early on in her volatile household.
Of course, he was still far too good-looking. No man grew to adulthood with looks like that without an outsized and highly chiseled ego to match.
"Go on, breathe."
Their feet had been keeping time to the music, but suddenly he stopped. Holding her with one arm around her back, and one hand on hers, he waited for her to follow his command.
Aware that their nonmovement must be attracting attention, she sucked in a breath. Her breasts lifted several inches inside the thin, white dress before she blew it out, blushing.
"Nice try, but you need to draw it down into your chest." He tapped her back with his fingertips. "All the way down to my fingers."
She glanced over her shoulder.
"Breathing's not a crime in this state." He grinned. "Come on, let's do it together. One, two, three " Eyes fixed on hers, he drew a breath deep into his chest, which swelled under his shirt.
Sam tried her best to match the length and duration of his breath. When she finally blew it out, she was gasping. "How embarrassing."
"Not at all. That was great. You'd be surprised how many people go through life every day holding their breath without realizing. You don't want to do that." He flashed a grin and swept her into the mambo rhythm again. Twirled her fast and tight until she had to suck in a breath just to keep her balance.
"You want to breathe it all in, everything, the good and the bad."