|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.46(d)|
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Her Sworn Enemy
Men of the Zodiac
By Theresa Meyers, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Theresa Meyers
All rights reserved.
"Change is coming, cher. You'd know this if you read your horoscope."
Belladonna Dupré mumbled something unintelligible to her aunt in response and stared harder at the numbers in front of her, willing them to change, anything to make their situation better.
She loved her aunt, adored her really, but woo-woo wasn't going to fix the problems they had. Bella glanced up. "No, because some half-baked journalist predicting events by astrological signs isn't going to make any difference in solving our debt problem."
"You know, if you keep spreading such negativity in here, I'm going to have to use a smudge stick around the shop to clear it. Not to mention you're going to have serious frown lines in the middle of your forehead by the time you're my age."
Bella forced her features to relax and modulated her tone. Getting angry at her aunt wasn't a solution. "Well, if the universe would stop being such a serious nudge, maybe I'd be more positive. Despite what my horoscope, the cards, or any other divination might say, the facts say we're screwed."
Her aunt finished stocking the tourist mugs emblazoned with little voodoo dolls and fleurs-de-lis on the shelf then folded down the flaps on the cardboard box and glanced at her. "Just how bad is it?"
The fan overhead beat in slow, lazy circles, doing little more than stirring a current in the stifling humid air that smelled of muddy river off the Mississippi, wet paving bricks from the French Quarter, and the too pungent odor of antiseptic wipes in the tattoo portion of the shop. They'd economized to the point where they barely ran the air conditioning at Inkspell, and never at home.
Bella's job as an antiquities appraiser, preservationist, and restoration expert at Fontanel & Company, combined with her aunt's gift shop slash tattoo parlor, barely kept them afloat. Once upon a time the Dupré family had been one of the wealthiest Cajun families in New Orleans. How far they'd fallen. A string of unfortunate incidents, a few bad investments, and the kick of a national financial crisis and they'd been reduced down to basics. But, if Bella had anything to say about it, that was about to change.
"What do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news?" she snapped as she wadded up the bill in disgust and threw it on the long black countertop. It hit the cash register, then dropped to the scarred plank floor. Crumpled dreams and crushing debt.
Her aunt sighed. "Well, considering the last time you had bad news it was that my mother passed away, I think I'd rather hear the good news first." Minunette, who was only fifteen years older than her niece, set the box down next to the scrunched up ball of paper.
"The good news is we get to keep the shop doors open." For a few more months at least. But that bad news could wait.
Min smiled. It was a warm smile, the kind that went to her pale green eyes, that comforted Bella and reminded her so much of the mother and grandmother that had raised her. But Min was anything but a typical Dupré woman who lived and died in the heart of New Orleans. Her riot of dark curls was piled up high on her head in a messy bun held in place with a pen, and her bare shoulder in her black heavy metal band tank top had a tattoo of a wheel of the zodiac. She was the family rebel who'd used her artistic skills with tattoos to travel the world. "That is good news. I wasn't sure we would, considering how upset you seemed by Mr. Ruesard's letter about the loan."
"That's only because you haven't heard the bad news."
Min's smile faded, and worry clouded her eyes. "What?"
"Along with agreeing to the extension, he's increasing the interest rate — again." Their gazes locked. They were barely squeaking by as it was. "Mon dieu, why doesn't he just take the skin off our backs, since he's already taken the shirts!"
Aunt Min's eyes turned hard, and she pointed a stern index finger in Bella's direction. "That's no way to talk about Mr. Ruesard. He's been very patient in allowing us to pay back the loan in installments for far longer than he should have."
"Yes, but if Harry would just let me pull up the cargo of the Rapid, we would've paid this off by now."
Min shook her head, grabbed a dust cloth, and began wiping down the counter. "Don't blame your boss because we can't escape fate."
"Fate? Is that what you call that bastard investment company that wiped out what little we had left in our accounts after the recession with their bad decisions?" Paying for her two degrees in an effort to learn all she could to find the wreck, and repaying the bank loan were the biggest chunks of their debt. If things didn't improve soon, she would find a third job beyond Fontanel & Company and Inkspell to fix this mess. One way or another, she refused to let down what little family she had left.
"That's not the point. Between that unfortunate situation, and what you've spent on your education searching for that wreck on the bottom of the ocean that you seem to believe could save us, there's nothing left. It's not Ruesard's fault."
Her aunt was absolutely right. That didn't make the situation any more palatable. It only made Bella feel guilty as hell that she'd sucked up their resources to get the education she needed. Between that expense, and being screwed by the first man she'd trusted enough to hand over what little money they had for investment, and the crooked investment company he'd recommended, they were now screwed.
Bella was angry. With herself for falling for Phillip McCormack, who'd turned out to be a smooth-talking con man, and for entrusting the wrong people to manage their money. No, it wasn't the bank's fault. It was her fault.
She had to make this right. Had. To.
Salvaging the Rapid had always been a romantic fantasy. She'd grown up hearing the story of her ancestor captain on board who'd acted as a privateer, amassing a fortune — a large portion of it aboard the Rapid when it went down. There was even the thrilling possibility that they'd been transporting a crystal ball of "great value." A great value in 1812 could mean a mega fortune today. Everything she'd done, everything she'd studied, everywhere Bella had worked, was because she hoped one day to salvage the Rapid. It was a dream, an exciting, fun thing to look forward to.
But the romantic "one day" fantasy had now turned into a grim reality, with a loudly ticking clock. If she had a hope in hell of saving their house, and Min's business, Bella had to have a quick infusion of cash. Real money to pay off their crushing debt.
"True," she said, her chest aching with the pressure building up. Hope. "But, Min, that's our birthright. You know how wealthy we'd be if I could only get to it?"
Min held up her hand. "Stop. That's enough. We've made it through worse. Dream all you like, but you need to live in the here and now. There may not be anything left to salvage. For all we know, in the past two hundred years someone else got to the Rapid, and it was looted long ago. It's a family story. We owe Mr. Ruesard the money, and getting angry with him isn't going to solve anything." Her tone had an undercurrent of finality Bella knew better than to challenge.
Yeah, well, it may not solve anything, but being angry at Ruesard instead of herself made Bella feel better. Sometimes it felt as if the entire universe were conspiring against her. The treasure onboard the Rapid was out there. She knew it. Not in her heart of hearts like some touchy-feely thing, but actually knew where it was with scientific facts. She'd managed to pinpoint the location after years of painstaking research, and it was just sitting out there, calling to her, waiting for her to claim it. It would take money to get at it. Money they didn't have. The catch-22 was it took money to make money.
Bella clenched her hands on the edges of the counter. Too bad she couldn't glare at the bill on the floor and make it burst into flame. The annoying weasel of a bank manager was closer to a loan shark in her opinion. He was charging them usury interest rates and had already laid claim to the shop's tattoo equipment as collateral on the loan. What the hell else did they have? Everything, even their family home for seven generations, was mortgaged to the hilt.
There were three things Bella knew for sure: one, money might not make the world go round, but it sure as hell never hurt; two, the Dupré women had a thing for bad boys that never worked out to their advantage; and three, if there was such a thing as fate, which she didn't believe, she was a total, nasty bitch.
It was the only explanation for why time and again every opportunity for the Dupré family to regain the position and respect they'd once enjoyed had been wrecked in the shoals of misfortune. Either that, or just like her grand-mère had said, they were cursed, and Bella didn't believe in that, either. For once, she'd like the stars to align and the universe to bring some unexpected good into her life.
Snatching up her purse, she threw the thin leather strap over her shoulder and swung around the counter. "I'm going to be late for work if I don't get moving."
"Invite positive things into your life, and try to have a good day," Aunt Min said and waved as she picked up the boxes and carried them to the back room. The brightly colored bead curtain covering the doorway clicked as she passed through then swayed back into place.
Positive. Fine, she would be more positive. Perhaps Aunt Min was right, and change, hopefully for the better, was coming. The front door, propped open to let in some more air, seemed like an escape hatch. Bella marched toward it, staring at the phone in her hand, and slammed straight into a hard wall of muscle.
For a moment the impact took her breath away, knocking her off her feet. She landed on her butt with a painful jolt. Her phone skittered across the wooden floor worn smooth by thousands of footsteps over the years. Her already foul mood and the knowledge that she'd been at fault, even though she was certain she'd taken the worst of the incident, sent a wave of hot embarrassment flooding into her system.
"Are you all right?" The male voice was smooth and deep.
She glanced up at the human wall that had blocked the door and found her breathing compromised again, this time because she realized the man she'd collided with was drop-dead gorgeous.
"I didn't see you." The second the words left her mouth she realized how utterly stupid they sounded. How could you not see him? Well over six feet tall and big enough to fill the doorway, he wasn't someone you could easily miss. Tack on a pair of stunning blue eyes, like the gulf on a hot summer's day, paired with thick, dark brows, rugged features, and surfer blond hair and he was sex on the beach wrapped in a tight, dark blue T-shirt and low-slung khaki shorts.
He offered her a hand, easily two sizes bigger than her own, to help her up from the floor. Even though she didn't want to take it, ignoring the help would be stupid, and she'd already done enough to make herself look like a fool for one morning.
The moment she slid her hand into his, an arc of awareness zipped along her nerve endings. Every cell took notice. With effortless ease he pulled her up.
"Have we met before?" Again her mouth betrayed her. Should have kept that to herself.
An easy, cocky half grin lifted the edge of an all-too-kissable mouth as he picked up her phone and offered it to her. "No, but I wouldn't mind an introduction."
Bella's gaze caught the time on the display of her phone. Even upside down, she could tell she was late. She yanked her hand out of his grasp, grabbed her phone, and flashed him an apologetic smile. "Sorry. Got to go. I'm late."
For a moment William Tucker McCormack considered standing where he was so she couldn't get out. He really did want an introduction. She had killer curves, stunning pale green eyes, long dark hair, and a deceptively sweet, almost pixie-like face that obviously hid a spicy side that intrigued him. But she was flustered enough, so he let her past him, then kicked himself for not even getting her name, let alone her number. In her wake, he caught hints of lemonade and sugar cookies in the air.
If he was going to make the most of this trip to New Orleans, he ought to be taking up the opportunities when he came across them, especially since he'd have no time for fun once he and his recovery team got down to business in a week or two. He'd only come to Inkspell because his buddy Russ recommended Min Dupré as a one-of-a-kind tattoo artist. Tuck had always wanted a tattoo. Until now, he'd refrained for various reasons. Mostly because a tattoo seemed, well, permanent, and he didn't do permanent. But since he was on potentially the biggest gig of his independent career, it seemed like the perfect way to both celebrate the moment and at the same time give his stuffy, obscenely wealthy, autocratic family a big middle finger in style. A tat would make his father roll over in his grave. Body art was for lowlifes according to the old man. It simply wasn't done, especially not by a McCormack.
The thought made Tuck smile as he walked inside. It was several degrees cooler in the shade of the shop, and the fan overhead help stir up a breeze that smelled of lavender and dried herbs. He scanned the various pictures on the wall. Damn. They were all spectacular. True to his buddy's word, the lady was an outstanding artist. Just the shading and lines alone made each tattoo come alive.
The colorful bead curtain covering the doorway to the back of the shop shifted, the beads clicking together as a woman with a curtain of dark wavy hair and familiar pale green eyes moved toward the counter. She was pretty, and Tuck bet in her younger years she'd been a bit on the wild side. While her mouth wasn't as lush and her hair was darker, she looked similar to the mystery woman who'd run into him. Her sleeveless tank top revealed a curvy body and a tattoo of the wheel of the zodiac on her right shoulder.
She smiled. "Can I help you?"
"Hi, I'm looking for Min Dupré."
"Well, cher, you found me." She slid an assessing gaze over him, as if to see if he measured up, and he noticed the female appreciation in her eyes. "How'd you hear of me?"
"A friend said your tattoos are lucky. And" — he gestured to the wall displaying her skill — "looking at these, I'd say they're beautiful as well."
"What kind of design were you thinking of?"
He shrugged. "Does it matter?"
The woman's gaze locked with his. The glint in the sea-green depth of her eyes told him it did, very much.
"A tattoo is a personal mark. It can define you."
He glanced back again at the images on the wall behind her, looking at the designs and discarding them just as quickly, now that it came to picking something personal to him. Only one image captured his attention. It was close, but not right.
"What about that, only different?" He pointed to the S like swirl of black and white in a circle with opposing dots of color forming a yin yang symbol.
"The taijitu? Certainly. How would you like it to be different?" To him, her tone sounded as if she were testing him, waiting to see if he came up with a satisfactory answer that would somehow give her insight into him.
Tuck stared at the image until it started to swim in his vision. "Fish. I want two koi fish, one black, one white, on my shoulder."
"You're a Pisces." It wasn't a question. When he nodded, she said briskly, "A good choice, hopefully one that brings you balance and harmony."
Tuck needed neither balance nor harmony, but he could do with a bit of luck. If the salvage op was anything like it was suggested to be, he'd finally break free from the shadow of his family and prove to his moocher half siblings and cousins that just because you came from money didn't mean you couldn't get off your freeloading ass, go out, and earn it yourself.
There was only one other thing he wanted to achieve after making a name for himself — revenge. He wanted to stick it to his older half brother, Phillip, who'd stripped both him and his mother of everything when James McCormack had passed away, leaving them destitute and forced to take only what they could carry when they moved into a shelter.
When he was done with Phillip, he would know what loss felt like. Tucker would buy out the McCormack Company in a hostile takeover from under his half brother, then dismantle it. He'd prove, bastard son or not, he was more than just a McCormack. He was his own man, and he'd leave his own mark on the world.
Excerpted from Her Sworn Enemy by Theresa Meyers, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2015 Theresa Meyers. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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