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The sun wasn't up yet, but Luc Carter had been out of bed for an hour. His bed-and-breakfast guests, a bird-watching couple from Washington, D.C., were planning an early-morning trip up the Bayou Teche to try to spot an ivory-billed woodpecker, and Luc had promised them a full-course breakfast at 7:00 a.m.
He didn't mind getting up early. He liked the quiet hours before his guests were awakebefore anyone in the whole town of Indigo, Louisiana, was awake, except maybe for Loretta.
Loretta. He had to stop thinking about her. But how could he stop thinking about her when he saw her almost every morning? Loretta Castille baked the most delicious breads and muffins in all of Louisiana, and she brought them fresh each day to La Petite Maison B and B. Some guests claimed the breads were what brought them back to Indigo again and again.
He checked the frittata in the oven, then returned to squeezing oranges for fresh juice. Coffee with chicory perked on the stove, sending a delectable scent throughout the two-hundred-year-old Creole cottage he'd spent the last year restoring with his own hands.
As he mixed fresh strawberries and walnuts into a bowl of yogurt, he kept his eye on the front window.
Loretta would be arriving any minute with her bountiful basket. How sad that the high point of his day usually occurred before breakfast.
As the sky began to glow pink, then orange, the familiar chug-chug of Loretta's old Volvo station wagon carried through the screen door.
On time, as usual. She was never late for a delivery. Loretta worked day and night to make a go of her baking business. It was hard to maintain any business in a small town like Indigo, but people managed.
Luc passed through the screen door and went out to the porch to greet Loretta. She was always in a hurry, with a long list of customers from St. Martinville to New Iberia awaiting her breads, and she appreciated not having to hunt him down.
The station wagon pulled to a stop, and before Loretta could even cut the engine, the passenger door opened and a red-headed, four-foot bundle of energy burst out of the car and straight for him. The child Loretta's nine-year-old daughter, Zaralooked as if she were going to run straight into him. But she skidded to a stop a few feet shy of Luc, as if she'd suddenly remembered that she wasn't the type of child to go around hugging people.
And she wasn't. "Hi."
"Hi, yourself, gorgeous." She was beautiful, with a mischievous, pixie face, thick, wavy red hair and warm hazel eyes that would break a lot of hearts one day. She looked heart-stoppingly like her mother. "you're up awful early for a Saturday morning."
"I wanted to see the bird-watchers. Mama says you have bird-watchers all the way from Washington staying with you."
Zara was the most curious child Luc had ever encountered. Not that he'd known many children, other than his little cousin, Rosie, in New Orleans.
"The bird-watchers aren't up yet," Luc told Zara.
"But you're not missing much. They look just like ordinary people, I promise." Luc watched Loretta emerge from her car with a cheery wave. She looked fantastic, as always, in a pair of tight, faded jeans and a gauzy blue shirt, her spiky red hair sticking out every which way, as if she hadn't combed it since rolling out of bed.
He liked that look, though he didn't care to speculate on why. Dangerous territory, thinking about Loretta and bed.
"Is anyone else staying with you?, Zara asked, peeking past him to the doorway, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of some exotic guest.
"Uh-huh. Two more couples, one from Shreveport and one from Houston."
"Are they interesting?"
"The couple from Shreveport are pretty fun. Newlyweds." Luc lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "But the ones from Houstonsnooty. Nothing's good enough for them. I had to get them a different kind of soap, and a different kind of toilet paper."
Zara giggled, which was the result Luc had intended.
She was a smart little girl, sometimes scarily so. But she was way too serious for a nine-year-old. Anything she took an interest in, she pursued with the dogged determination of someone much older. She'd taken up Cajun fiddle-playing at age six, and in only three years had become proficient enough that she was going to perform at the upcoming music festival.
Loretta joined them, her arms filled with a giant basket. Luc took it from her, leaning close enough to get a whiff of her shampoo. She smelled like lavender and honey and fresh-baked bread. The combination of scents made Luc's skin tingle.
"My dad sent you some new honey samples," Loretta said, clearly oblivious to her effect on him. "Red currant- and cranberry-flavored. Those are his newest inspirations."
"I'll let you know how the guests like them."
She flashed him a shy smile. "I gave you some extra orange muffins, too, since I know you like them."
"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were flirting with me, Ms. Castille."
Loretta picked up the empty basket Luc had brought out, suddenly all business. "Same order for tomorrow?"
It was always like that. Loretta was warm and friendly until Luc tried to flirt with her. Then she shut down. Obviously she had her reasons, and Luc knew he should respect them, whatever they were. But pouring on the charm came naturally to him. It was hard to turn it off.
"Maybe some extra croissants. I've got one more guest arriving today." He always ordered a bit more than he needed. But the B and B was doing better than expected, and he liked the idea of spreading the wealth around, helping the local economy.
Loretta made a quick note on a small pad she always carried in her back pocket. "Croissants."
"You want to come in for some breakfast? There's always room for one more."
"Two more," Zara pointed out. She was a stickler for accuracy. "Can we, Mama?"
Loretta wavered. "I guess I have time for a quick cup of coffee, though we've already had breakfast. And there is something I'd like to talk to you about."
Luc's interest was piqued. he'd been wondering for a while now if there was any way to further his acquaintance with Loretta. When he'd made casual inquiries about her, he'd been told by more than one person that Loretta didn't date. Her husband had died in prison when Zara was just a baby. Granted, a tragic relationship like that was enough to put any woman off men for a while. But nine years?
Maybe if she got to know him better Having a beautiful woman like Loretta for company would sure make his enforced stay in Indigo a lot more pleasurable.
Loretta and Zara seated themselves at the kitchen's tiny bistro table with coffee and orange juice, respectively.
"It's true what they say, you do make the best coffee in town," Loretta said after one long, appreciative sip.
"It's certainly better than what they serve at the general store. That sludge is undrinkable after ten o'clock."
"What about the Blue Moon Diner? And Marjo Savoy makes a good cup of coffee."
"The Blue Moon runs a close second to this," Loretta insisted. "And Marjo's coffee is good, I'll admit that. But."
"But you have to wait until someone dies to get a taste of it." Marjo owned the local funeral home.
Zara apparently thought Luc's observation was hilarious, because she burst into a fit of giggles until orange juice came out her nose.
"Wow, something must have tickled your funny bone," Loretta said as she wiped Zara's face with a napkin.
"I like Luc. He's funny."
"He is funny," Loretta agreed. "But his name is Mr. Carter. You know the rules."
"Sorry," Zara said, unrepentant.
"Can she call me Luc if I give her permission?, Luc asked Loretta.
"It's not really proper."
Luc, who'd been raised in Las Vegas, would never get used to the old-world manners of the South. "How about Mr. Luc?"
Loretta frowned. "Sir Luc?"
The frown wavered. "Lord Luc? Saint Luc?"
Finally she laughed. "Somehow I doubt "Saint Luc is appropriate. All right, fine, she can call you Luc." She looked at Zara. "But not in front of anyone else."
Luc took the frittata out of the oven, then checked his watch. Hell.
"I have to set the table."
"Can I help?, Zara asked. "I know where the silverware goesLuc." As she hopped off her chair, she flashed her mother a smart-aleck smile. Loretta narrowed her eyes slightly, silently warning Zara to behave, then followed them into the dining room. Figuring she wanted to be put to work, he handed Loretta a stack of plates.
"Six settings." He got out napkins, bowls, water and juice glasses. Zara followed her mother around the table, precisely placing the heavy silver flatware beside each plate.
"These dishes are beautiful," Loretta said. "Did they come with the house?"
"Unfortunately, no. A few things were stored in the attic, but most everything of value was moved out when my grandmother's family closed down the house. Grand-mÃ¨re provided a few family heirlooms for authenticity like the chandelier in the parlorbut I had to start new."
"You did a great job. I only vaguely recall what this place was like when I was a little girl, but the wicker and cypress furniture seems just right."
"Thanks." he'd enjoyed furnishing La Petite Maison more than he would have thought. In fact, he'd enjoyed the whole B and B experience far more than would have seemed possible a year ago. He hadn't been looking forward to two years" banishment in Indigo, away from the big-city lights he'd thrived on his whole life. But he'd have done anything to get back into the good graces of his aunt, cousins and grandmother, and to make up in some small measure for the chaos he'd deliberately created in their lives.
Fortunately, the grim, solitary life he'd anticipated had never come to pass. The townspeople had embraced him on the strength of his blood ties to the Robichaux family. he'd quickly become a part of the community, and everyone had pitched in to help with the renovation of the cabin, built by the founders of Indigo, the Valois family. They'd offered him the names of reliable workers and suppliers. They'd been eager for him to open La Petite Maison, welcoming anything that would bring tourists to town.
He wondered if they would feel the same about him if they knew the truth about his past.
"So, here's what I wanted to ask you," Loretta said, her voice shaking slightly as she placed juice glasses in front of each plate. "You know I've volunteered to coordinate the food for the music festival, right?"
Zara, her silverware duties completed, applied herself to folding the linen napkins into perfect rectangles.
"The music festival is all anyone talks about these days," Luc said. "I know what everybody's doing."
"WellI need help. I had a committee, but Carolee went and had her baby two weeks early, and Justine Clemente sprained her ankle, which doesn't make a difference anyway because she couldn't accomplish the simplest task. Rufus's expertise is in eating, not cooking"