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Somewhere in the Quarter, a lonely saxophone wailed a bluesy tune.
Esther Carlisle listened to the sweet notes hitting the late-afternoon wind, then glanced at the pendulum clock ticking away the seconds behind the counter. Soon all of the clocks would start chiming the top of the hour.
Time to close up shop and go home. Or maybe, go upstairs to the apartment she'd inherited along with this shop after her father had died last year. She'd managed to avoid the apartment for months. But Carlisle Collectibles had become her life lately. Royal Street had always been her street anyway since she'd grown up hanging out here in this big, rambling shop. She knew the shopkeepers, and even the homeless people, by name. And she could set her own antique pendant watch by that saxophone player's daily schedule. Harold was a war veteran. He slept until the sun started settling behind the buildings then got up to fill the night with notes. His soulful melody merged with the sound of voices carrying out on the street and the honking of horns up on Canal.
He'd probably never understand why Esther prayed for him on a daily basis. But he did seem to understand that she was aware of him, since she often placed dollar bills in his open saxophone case. Her devout father had taught her the golden rule, after all. In return, because Esther tried to be kind to all she met, the rough, quirky crowd in the Quarter watched over her.
"Another quiet summer day in the French Quarter," she said, the echo of her statement hitting the high rafters and the tall windows to reflect back on her while the clocks kept on tick, tick, ticking all around her.
The pendulums would always swing back. Tomorrow, she'd have some time off to work in her big studio in the Garden District, to create art out of broken pieces of life. One of her sculptures was on display in the front window of the shop. The whimsical piece she called Wasted Time was made from old watches, ancient keys and intricate antique glass doorknobs of various shapes and sizes. It represented missed opportunities and time passing without change.
It also represented her mood these days.
The phone rang, jarring her back to the here and now.
"Esther, how was your day?"
Mr. Reynolds, from next door. He always called to check on her. Especially when he knew her assistant, Ted, wasn't in.
"I'm good. A slow day here. How about you?"
"A few takers," the distinguished history buff replied. "Sold a few soldiers. Had a few lookersone in particular. Bought a nice 1858 Remington revolver."
"Wow, that's a true gun buff, Mr. Reynolds."
They had a friendly competition going since they both carried antique weaponry.
"Yes. He was a very interesting man. Surprised he didn't come down your way."
"Nope. I'm about to close."
Esther hung up, then finished tallying the receipts of the day, worried because she'd had so few visitors. But things would pick up later in the season. Right now, she only wanted to lock up and head home for some dinner and a cup of tea. Maybe she'd read that book she'd found at the bookstore down the way. Or maybe go into the tiny courtyard studio she'd set up out back and work on one of her less complicated pieces. She could go to the potluck supper held in the tiny chapel near her home in the Garden District. Or she could tackle all the papers and unopened mail that had been piling up on her father's rolltop desk.
Humming "Unforgettable" along with the saxophone, Esther walked up the planked aisle, her footsteps marking time along with the clocks, and pushed at the rickety old glass paneled door.
A hand shoved at the outside knob.
She glanced up to see the silhouette of a tall man wearing a snazzy fedora. A chunky cover of dark bangs hid his eyes, but she didn't miss the flash of a smile and the gleam of white teeth. "Wait, may I come in?"
Esther stopped, stared, shook her head. "Sorry, I'm closing for the day." She glanced at her watch. "It's five o'clock."
The man stood back to read the sign on the door. "You close at five. It's five till."
Letting out a long-suffering sigh, Esther stepped back. "Give me a break, will you? I'm tired. I'll be back tomorrow at nine, I promise."
He put his arms across his chest, his biceps bulging with authority against his black T-shirt. "Give me a break. I've traveled a long way to get here."
Okay, he had an intriguing accent. Irish maybe? And he did have that whole Indiana Jones thing down pretty good. The fedora was classic and classy and old and worn enough to be endearing. The black T-shirt looked to be made of silk. And the slightly worn khaki cargo pants could have stepped right out of a J. Peterman catalogue. As well as the buttery leather travel satchel swung over his shoulder. His broad, nice-looking shoulder. Which was underneath his interesting, scarred face and ink-washed black hair and those oh-so-gray-blue eyes that seemed to zoom in on Esther. And how could she miss the self-assured grin he wore with all the finesse of a pirate.
An adventurer? A pirate? Or someone pretending to be something he could never be? Like her dear, departed father.
"We're closed," she said again. But she didn't try to shut the door in his face. His bronzed, sun-crinkled, mighty fine-looking face. Was she so pathetic that she'd fall for that face and let him in so he could spend an hour of her precious time walking the aisles in search of something old that he wouldn't buy anyway?
"I need to ask you a few questions, Miss Carlisle."
Shocked, she stood her ground. "You know my name. Why don't I know yours?"
He shot her a swagger of a grin. "Probably because I haven't properly introduced myself. Cullen Murphy." He glanced up and down the busy street, intensity misting around him like humidity. "May I please come in? I'll only be a minute or two."
"Uh-huh." She'd heard that before. Collectors, by nature, could never spend a minute or two in an antiques shop. Carlisle Collectibles had a good reputation for carrying the finest antiques, estate jewelry and trinkets, so anyone coming here would want to explore until their heart's content.
But she wasn't sure yet about this one. Did he have a heart underneath all that manly ruggedness? Or had she read one too many romance novels?
He didn't move to leave.
She didn't move to let him in.
"This is really important," he finally said, edginess cutting through his voice. "I can't come back tomorrow."
"What exactly are you looking for?"
"Who said I was looking for anything?"
"You surely didn't come here to chat with me, right?"
"Uh, no. Not that that wouldn't be pleasant. I'd like to talk to you, but I'm kind of in a rush."
"Okay, I need to see your vintage diamond collection." That surprised her. "Which one? We have several."
"Persia. Circa 1500 B.C."
Something akin to a warning tickled her spine. Esther stepped back a pace and the door creaked open before she could stop it. "That is way vintage. You must be joking." She hoped so. She didn't like where her thoughts were taking her.
He was inside before she even blinked. "I can assure you, I'm not." He immediately started looking over her, around her and through her. "I'll only take a moment."
"Yeah, I got that." With a sigh and a bit of curiosity, she allowed him to stay. But she locked the door and put out the Closed sign anyway.