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Feeding timeGracie Broussard's favorite part of the day at the Aquarium of the Americas. It was worth the chaos, watching a dozen or more awe-stricken young faces press against the display glass in glee. Sometimes she didn't know who bounced the mostthe excited children, or the penguins.
She stroked the top of Ernie's slick head, then leaned over to check the thermometer in the pond. Still sixty degrees. She wiped her wet fingers on her khakis. Ernie let out a high-pitched squawk.
"I know, little man. I feel the same." She grinned and adjusted the microphone clipped to the collar of her tan polo. Time to perform. Several families were already gathered in the dim walkway. One child mashed his lips against the glass and made a fish face.
Gracie smiled. She used to be nervous speaking in front of the visitors each day, but the more she did it, the more she realized the facts and statistics she rattled off during the short presentation were all but ignored in light of the spunky black-and-white birds at her feet.
"Hello, there, and welcome to Aquarium of the Americas. I'm Gracie, and these are my favorite guys in the world." She gestured to the penguins, some perched on the rock display, others diving into the murky waters.
Her assistant Jillian entered the exhibit through the side door, a five-gallon bucket of fish in her hand. The penguins waddled toward her on cue. Huey and Gumbo fought for position on the slippery rocks, and a little girl in the hallway laughed.
Gracie brushed some feathers from a boulder near the pond and perched on the edge as Jillian settled beside her, notebook balanced on her knees. "These are African penguins, and as you can tell, they're just a little hungry."
The adults smiled and the children pressed their hands against the window as if hoping to reach right through and touch the birds.
"As I tell you about my friends here, Jillian will record the data of each penguin's feeding habits. These records help us determine which penguins are sick, and which species of fish each bird prefers."
Gracie plucked a slimy squid from the bucket at her feet and offered it to Ernie. He mashed it in his beak once, then tossed up his head in approval. The fish slid down his throat, with a little help from his tight neck muscles. Jillian jotted the note in her record book.
"Most of you probably know penguins can't fly." Gracie tossed a fish to Gumbo and glanced at the group gathered around the glass as she reached for another. As she continued to expand on the many wonders of her feathered friends, she let her gaze wander over the gathered crowd. She stopped mid-sentence when she saw a familiar mop of curly brown hair and a pair of broad shoulders.
Her heartbeat quickened. That hair, that stance
No, it couldn't be, not here in New Orleans. She'd left himno, actually, he'd left herseven years ago on his parents' private dock on Cypress Black Bayou Lake. Walked away with that guitar pick he was always fiddling with, a curt nod of his head
and her heart. But regardless how much time had passed, there was no mistaking the dimple in his chin or that square jaw.
Gracie's heart pounded in her chest, and she was sure the crowd could hear it on the other side of the glass. No, no, it can't be him. But the truth refused to be denied.
The sleeves of his rust-colored sweater were pushed up to his elbows, revealing the muscular lines of his forearms. She couldn't help staring through a foggy lens of memory. Those strong, tanned arms that once hoisted her from the murky waters of the Black Bayou onto the pier, that wrapped around her shoulders in comforting side-hugs, that arm-wrestled her for a week's worth of chewing gum, now were crossed firmly over his chesta much wider, broader chest. Laugh lines softened the once hard planes of his face, and a layer of dark stubble clung to his lower jaw. Time had been awfully fair to Carterwhich was a lot more than he deserved.
Anger choked in Gracie's throat and a headache sprang to life behind her eyes. She stumbled over the rest of her speech. "Penguins can't fly because their bones are solid, n-not hollow like other birds."
Did he recognize her? It had been so long
and in some ways, not nearly long enough. Her traitorous gaze darted in his direction again, and their eyes met. His thick eyebrows rose in slight acknowledgment, and her stomach gave a telltale leap.
Her emotions might not remember Carter's betrayal, but her heart did. It remembered every labored, bruised beat.
After seven years, Carter Morgan Alexander was back.
Carter Alexander stared into the penguin exhibit, reeling from shock. He had no idea when he dropped his suitcases at his friend Andy's apartment and headed to the aquarium for an afternoon of sightseeing that he'd run into her. When had Gracie left Benton, LA, and moved South? It'd been, what about seven years now?
Mouth dry, he struggled to keep a poker face as Gracie's piercing blue-green gaze settled on his. It was full of questions, accusationsand more than a little anger.
Something unfamiliar and tight stirred in his stomach, and he leaned against the wall, arms crossed. Good thing, since his knees were starting to feel less than sturdy.
Gracie finally lowered those arresting eyes, and a slight blush crept up her neck and into her cheeks as she reached forward with a fish. She looked the samethe elegance that always clung to her persona like a robe of righteousness still seemed to fit. And that long red hair
she hadn't cut it. It cascaded over her shoulders like a flaming liquid waterfall.
Much like it had the night he broke both their hearts.
Carter briefly squeezed his eyes shut against the memory and tried to focus on the penguins darting about the tank. Gracie might not have changed much since that starry summer night on the lake, but he sure had experienced a transformation. The problem was, judging by the stiffness in those slim shoulders, she wasn't planning on giving him a chance to prove it. He should have tried years agothen again, fresh anger wasn't any easier to handle than stale.
Carter shifted his weight against the wall. He deserved her ire. Let Gracie remember him the way he wasthe arrogant jerk with a guitar and a dozen girlfriends, the lead singer of the band Cajun Friday who was too big for his britches, his faith
and his best friend.
Gracie's musical voice sounded over the speakers, just as soft and clear as the regret that haunted his mind these last several years. "It's a common misconception that all penguins require an arctic atmosphere. Many people are shocked that we have such a large exhibit here in this sultry part of the Southand it might surprise you that we keep the air in this tank regulated to seventy degrees."
She stroked the back of one of the birds, who seemed determined to creep closer to the bucket of fish. Jillian nudged the barrel out of reach with her foot.
Gracie's eyes found Carter's and then flitted away. "I've learned that everything isn't always what you might expect."
She finished her presentation, but it was nothing more than a blur of statistics and red hair gleaming under the aquarium lights. Carter's throat tightened and he applauded with the rest of the crowd. The penguins preened, as if they knew they were the real stars of the show.
"Are there any questions Jillian or I can answer?" Gracie tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and smiled, though her eyebrow quivered in the way it always used to when she had a headache.
"What's that penguin's name?" One blond kid raised his hand and then pointed to the bird standing alone at the edge of the water.
"This is Garth." Gracie moved toward the penguin and he brayed up at her. "Sorry, Garth, the fish are all gone."
The kids giggled. An elderly man in suspenders hooked his thumbs through the straps and called out, "Any baby penguins around right now?"
Gracie shook her head. "No, but we're hopefully bringing in a new colony soon, and we have high hopes for eggs then."
Carter felt his hand rise of its own accord. Gracie's eyes landed on him and she sucked in a sharp breath, audible through the speaker system. "Yes, you in the back?"
Demoted to a curt you. He lowered his hand. "How long have you worked here?"
Gracie smoothed the front of her polo shirt over her pants. "A little over two years. Anyone else?"
A kid started to shout a question but Carter interrupted, louder. "Where did you get your education to work with the penguins?" Might as well find as many answers as he could, while she was forced to talk with him. Because afterward
"A marine biology degree from Nicholls State University. In Thibodaux." Gracie's brows met in a pained arch. "Next?"
"Do penguins respond to music?" Carter's muscles relaxed as Gracie's seemed to tighten. That was the girl he knew, the one who bunched under pressure but held her own with a grace that still knocked his breath away. He fought the grin on his lips.
"Sometimes we play the radio for them. They seem to enjoy it but prefer speaking to each other instead." Gracie licked her lips and turned toward the other side of the crowd, effectively dismissing him. "I'm afraid that's all the questions we have time for today. Thanks for coming, and enjoy the rest of your visit."
He'd pushed too far.
The families slowly began to disperse, but Carter remained fixed against the wall, his legs unable to move and his heart unwilling to let them. He had to see her, talk to her again. But what would he say? Sorry for the last seven years of silence? Sorry for that night on the pier that ruined a lifetime of friendship? Nothing seemed sufficient, nothing seemed capable of quelling that distrust in her eyes or the rigid body language that all but screamed get away from me.
She'd never believe the truth even if he told her.
And why would she? Disloyalty was all she knew from him, all he'd ever bothered to show. Regret coated his stomach and Carter blinked against the emotion rising in his throat. Seeing Gracie after all this time rendered him somewhat senseless. He was a changed man nowthough it was maybe a little too late to do any good.
Gracie strode out of the aquarium, shoving her hair back with both hands and closing her eyes briefly before disappearing from sight. Yep, she had a headache. He knew it as surely as he knew her favorite color was blue and her favorite song was "Over the Rainbow." She hurt because of himand not for the first time.
Hindsight offered startling new clarity. If he hadn't been such a fool, things could have been so different. Carter rubbed his forehead with his fingers, trying to hold back the torrent of memories demanding release. Not now, not here. He'd wait until he was back with his old college buddy Andy, maybe sprawled in front of the TV with a Dr. Pepper and some popcorn before he'd vent. Maybe Andy would have more words of wisdom to share, some advice to remind him he wasn't the bad guy anymore.
Then maybe that look in Gracie's eyes would stop tormenting his heart.
Gracie braced her elbows on the glass display case at the front of the gift shop and buried her face in her hands, drawing in a slow, deep breath. The aquarium was closed, yet Carter's presence continued to throb like a sore wound. How dare he show up after so long and invade her workplace? His father had contributed large donations to the aquarium for nearly a decade, yet Carter picked today to pop in? He could have found out where she was years ago if he hadn't turned his back on his family, as well as her. The last few years of his silence had been punishment enoughshe didn't need this jolt of surprise now.
She raised her head and looked across the counter at Lori Perkins, her best friend and manager of the gift shop. "I need more coffee."
"Here." Lori shoved a foam cup across the counter. "I just got a cappuccino before I locked up. You need it more than me."
"Thanks." Gracie propped on one elbow and took a sip of the warm liquid. Much betterthough her head still ached behind her right eye.
"I can't believe I missed seeing him." Lori swung her long brown hair over her shoulder and hunched down to mimic Gracie's pose on the counter. "Is he as cute as he was on his last CD cover?" She winked.
"That's not the point." Gracie grabbed a pencil from the display beside the cash register and twirled it through her fingers. Anything to avoid eye contact and Lori's I-dare-you-to-try-and-keep-a-secret-from-me gaze. They'd shared coffee and more than their share of confidences over the past year as roommates, but this was different.
This was a broken fragment of her heart.
Lori plucked the pencil from Gracie's grasp and stuck it back in the case. "Okay, so we know he's probably still a looker. The awful ones usually are."
"There was something different about him." She squinted, trying to recall the specifics of the memory. "Something in his eyes."
"Maybe he's sorry for the past and came to apologize." Lori grabbed a dust cloth from under the counter. "Sometimes regret changes a man, rare as it might be." She grinned and went to work cleaning the inside of the glass.
Gracie stepped away from the counter to give her room. "But he couldn't have known I was here. We haven't talked in seven years."
"He couldn't have contacted your mother? I thought you said your families were close once upon a time." Lori sprayed cleaner over the top of the case and rubbed. "I'm sure there were ways if he was determined."
"What if he's here for something else, something that has nothing to do with me at all?"
"Isn't that what you want?" Lori set the bottle on the counter and tilted her head to one side. "To be left alone?"
No. Yes. Gracie shrugged. "I guess so."
"Girl, you've got it bad, even after all this time." Lori shook her head and resumed her cleaning.
A familiar ache started in the base of Gracie's stomach until it filled her insides with a heavy layer of regret. "Even if I do, it doesn't matter." She looked away, the ache doubling in intensity. "It never did before."
"What do you mean?" Lori paused, holding the rag inches above the countertop.
"Carter was my fairy tale, never my reality." Gracie picked up a stuffed penguin dressed in a tuxedo and squeezed. "He was just this dream I had until I grew up." She snorted. Dream, misunderstanding, mistakesame difference.
"So what happened?"
Gracie set the penguin down and sadly adjusted its little black bow tie. "I realized some toads never turn into princes."