Thursday, July 18, 2013

Excerpt-a-ganza: His Uptown Girl by Liz Talley

Today we continue the Excerpt Extravaganza with a contemporary romance by Louisiana native Liz Talley.  (I am in love with her accent.)  Here's a sneak peek at her latest, set in her home state, Uptown Girl:

After enduring the destruction of her antique store and a sex scandal involving her late husband, Eleanor Theriot has spent years licking her wounds and raising her daughter, ignoring the woman beneath the cashmere sweater set in favor of playing it safe. Knowing she must reclaim herself and step out of her comfort zone, Eleanor doesn’t expect the first guy she flirts with in twenty years to make her knees weak.
But he so does…
Jazz pianist Dez Batiste is back in New Orleans ready to face his past and reclaim the future he’d left behind in the flood waters of Katrina. Opening an Uptown jazz club soothes the loss of his former dream, and when Eleanor steps into his path, igniting a different passion within him, he knows coming home was the best thing he’s done in years. Too bad Eleanor and her merchants’ association is intent on keeping his new club out of the historic building on Magazine Street.

But when desire sizzles and Dez proves himself to be a good neighbor in times of trouble, Eleanor must rethink everything about her benign life and dare to claim passion with a younger man. And when Eleanor’s daughter comes home from college and casts her eye on Dez and her prejudiced mother-in-law plays hardball with the family, Eleanor has to put on her big girl panties and fight for her happiness. Add in a nineteen year old street kid with a secret and a viral music video and you have the makings of tumultuous journey to love.


Uptown New Orleans, September 1, 2005

Looking over his shoulder, Tre Jackson ducked between the buildings and then slid behind an abandoned car. For several seconds, he focused on gulping down the soggy air pressing in around him. Okay. Just breathe, Tre. In. Out.
His heart galloped, slamming hard against his ribs. Shadows enveloped him, but he worried his grubby white T-shirt stood out too much. He crouched to make himself smaller, peeking out from behind the grill of the Honda. The street before him looked empty, but Tre knew eyes were everywhere—eyes belonging to desperate people who could grab him, shake him down and leave him for dead.
Crazy white folks with guns.
Eff’d up brothers with guns.
Police with guns.
Made an eleven-year-old kid holding shit he stole feel like he couldn’t breathe too good. After all, what was one more dead black kid?
Fear washed over Tre, hard and fast, but he beat it back with the baseball bat he kept in his head. No time for thinking too much. Had to act. His mama and brother Devontay counted on him to be cool.
He clutched the junk he’d taken tighter to his chest, wishing he’d been brave enough to break the window of the grocery store—the place had looked empty, but Tre knew some store owners sat inside with shotguns. So he’d passed it and rooted around in a store with windows already busted. Not much anyone would want left—bunch of junk—but he’d found a weird box filled with coins wrapped inside an old shirt. It had been hidden on a high shelf. He’d grabbed it, and climbed back out into darkness. Tre had no clue if any of the stuff would score food and water in a trade, but he’d find out.
Stepping softly, he crept around the side of the old Honda, its gaping windows reminding him of the man he’d seen several blocks back. Vacant. Abandoned. Dead.
A rat ran across his grave, but Tre ignored the shiver creeping up his back. He didn’t have time for no rats or dead men lying like trash in the gutter where black ribbons of sludge trailed into the clogged sewers. The water had gone down in some places, but that made it even more dangerous. Like a war zone he’d seen on TV once.
Yeah. Tre was livin’ in a war zone. But he always had. Magnolia Projects ain’t no cakewalk. He’d seen dudes shot. Seen bitches beat down. Kids ignored. Ain’t easy living in ’Nolia. But outside the projects, there had been order.
Until four days ago.
Tre searched around for something he could use to hit somebody…if they got the idea they could mess with him. He was afraid to look in the car. He’d seen other dead people. Old folks who thought they’d be all right, but found out quick the storm wasn’t like all the others.
He didn’t see anything he could use, but he had the kitchen knife in the back of his pants. He’d made his mama keep the gun. G-Slim hated his mama, and G-Slim was one mean brother, quick to anger. With no soul. Better Mama and Shorty D keep the gun.
Tre stuffed the stolen bundle down the front of his shirt, hiking up his pants and cinching tight his one school belt. Made him look kinda like a pregnant lady or one of those starving African kids, but it kept his hands free. He slid the knife from where it fit against the curve of his back and removed the cheap sheath, shoving it in the pocket of his jeans.
Time to go.
He listened hard before he moved, but the city was silent. Not like it normally sounded. No music. No laughter. No horns honking on the overpass. Like a whole ’nother place, a whole ’nother place that smelled of death…and fear.
Certain no one was about to grab him, Tre slipped out from behind the car, wishing for the third or fourth time he’d pulled on a dark T-shirt. He stepped over an old oil can and waded through muck and trash piled up on the sides of the street. Water still sat in some low areas, but he’d avoid them. He knew the way back to ’Nolia. He’d walked there from every direction.
Twenty minutes later, after ducking out of the beams of a few National Guard trucks, and seeing a couple of boats with spotlights in some of the flooded streets, Tre waded through nasty water to reach the steps of his building in the Magnolia Housing Projects. He’d seen only one lone soul on his journey back to his place—some crazy dude sitting on his porch staring past Tre into the inky, still night.
Tre gripped the knife tighter as he crept toward the safest stairwell. He inched open the rusted-out door, wincing at the sound. Once he got inside, he’d be safe. The world would forget about him, his mama and Shorty D holed up like rats, sitting inside with rotten milk, the whole place smelling like shit. Even G-Slim would forget about them. About how much he hated Tre’s mama. About how she’d ratted him out to that detective a month back. About getting even with her.
The air left his lungs as he got jerked backwards.
“What you doin’, lil’ Tre?”
He stumbled, losing his balance, and the knife flew from his hand, clattering onto the cement stoop.
A bowling ball sank in his stomach. Daylight protected him in the projects. Usually, the Dooney Boys left the little kids alone, but this wasn’t “usual” and night covered up stuff. Tre should have left earlier. He should have—
“Damn, son. Got you a knife. What you gonna do with that, cuz?” G-Slim asked, lifting Tre up by the back of his T-shirt.
Tre couldn’t breathe. He coughed and swiped at G-Slim’s arms.
The man let him go, laughing when Tre sprawled on his ass, hitting a stone planter Miss Janie had left on the stoop. She’d let Shorty D plant some seeds a couple of months ago. Now those planters held weeds and dirt. “What you got in your shirt?”
Tre almost pissed his pants. G-Slim had killed some Chinese guy a couple streets over when he wouldn’t pay for some smack. Tre’s friend had seen the dude’s brains and stuff. “Nothin you want.”
“How you know?” Another smile. And it wasn’t no good smile. Nasty and mean. Tre scooted back, teetering on the edge of the stoop, his heart tripping on itself with fear. He tried to think about how to get away, but his mind wouldn’t work. Tears filled his eyes and he forgot how to be hard. How to pretend he was brave.
G-Slim peered down at Tre. “Where’s your mama, boy?”
“She ’vacuated.”
“Why you still here?”
Tre tried to swallow but his mouth felt full of sand. “I—I didn’t wanna go. Mama took Shorty D on the bus, but I ran away ’cause I ain’t leavin’ Big Mama.”
G-Slim stared at him, and Tre prayed the man bought the lie. His grandmother had already left before the storm, but G-Slim didn’t know that. And he didn’t know Shorty D and Mama were still on the third floor.
In the moonlight, Tre could see only the whites of the man’s eyes. But he knew what lay in their coal black depths. Revenge. “That so?”
“Yeah. I’s going back to get Miss Janie’s horn and then I’m going to Big Mama’s.”
G-Slim moved toward him. Tre shrank against the rough brick, feeling around for the knife, hoping somehow he could save himself. Maybe G-Slim wouldn’t kill him, but maybe he would.
A gun fired, the shot hitting far above Tre’s head. He squeezed his eyes shut as dust fell on him.
“Get your janky ass away from my boy,” Tre’s mom said from the doorway. Tre opened his eyes, shocked to find his mother standing on the stoop in a stained T-shirt. Talia’s braids were ragged, but both her gaze and the gun were steady.
G-Slim held up both his hands like Tre’s mama was the police. “Whoa, now. I ain’t hurtin’ your boy.”
“I’m going blow a hole in you a truck can drive through if you don’t back the hell up off my boy,” she said, eyeing G-Slim like he was a cockroach sitting on their table. “Get upstairs, Tre.”
Tre moved quick as a snake, bolting through the space between his mama and the doorway.
“Oh, that’s how it is, bitch?” G-Slim said, his voice not sounding the least bit scared. G-Slim was hard. He’d been in prison a couple times, always out because no witnesses would testify against him…because they knew they’d bleed their life out on the street.
“That’s how it is, Gerald,” Talia said, her voice firm but sad. Tre felt the tears on his cheeks. He hadn’t even realized he’d started crying. And his pants felt wet. Maybe he’d peed them. He couldn’t remember.
“Go on then,” G-Slim said. Tre couldn’t see him, but he imagined he’d dropped his hands and turned toward Talia. G-Slim wasn’t afraid of a bullet. He wasn’t afraid of Talia. He’d beat the shit out of her many times before declaring her a waste of space. G-Slim didn’t even give Talia anything for Devontay, and G-Slim was Shorty D’s daddy.
“Oh, I am, and you better stay the hell away from me and my kids. I got plenty of bullets,” Talia said, inching back through the door. She didn’t take her eyes off the banger in front of her. “Tre, get your ass upstairs like I told you. Bout that time, baby.”
Tre turned and ran up the stairs two at a time, the bundle of stolen goods thumping against his belly. He and Mama had planned for every scenario in regards to the storm and G-Slim. He knew what he had to do even though it made him feel sick. His job was to get Shorty D out of ’Nolia. Mama had gotten bad sick over the past days, and she’d told Tre he had to be the man. It was up to him.
He ran into the apartment, ignoring the smell of vomit and spoiled food. Shorty D stood in his baby bed in the corner wailing, a lone sound in the still of the building. Most folks had left. Gone with the National Guard. Like they should have done. But Talia wouldn’t leave because she said the old people had to go first. And she hadn’t found Aunt Cici.
Tre pulled out the bundle from his shirt and ran to the closet. They had a place they hid stuff. G-Slim had used it to hide drugs, but now Talia used it to hide the gun, bullets and other stuff they didn’t want anyone to find. Tre lifted the wood subfloor and jabbed the bundle into the space between the aged joists, tucking it in good, slamming the board back into place and tugging the tired green shag carpet over it. He’d just backed out of the closet when Talia came through the front door, sliding the dead bolt into place and doubling over in pain.
“Get Devontay and go. G-Slim ain’t waitin. He mad and we ain’t got time.”
“You do what I say, Trevon.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, grabbing Shorty D who still cried. Tre jabbed a pacifier in the toddler’s mouth and Shorty stopped whining. “Come on, Shorty. We gonna play a game. Gonna be fun.”
Tre dragged his brother over the bed’s rail and sat him on his hip. He grabbed the dirty cloth diaper bag sitting on the table, shouldering it as he moved to the bedroom, sparing a parting look at his mother, and at the room where his only worthwhile possession sat on his bed—his saxophone. Couldn’t carry it with him. Shorty D was too big as is.
“I’m scared, Mama.”
“No time for scared. You’s a man now.”
“Come with us,” Tre said, shifting his brother to his other arm. He didn’t care that the tears fell on his cheeks. G-Slim would kill his mama if he got hold of her. Talia wasn’t strong enough. He couldn’t believe she’d fired a gun and stood up to G-Slim earlier.
“I’ll come when you safe. Go. Now.”
Tre moved quickly because it was all he could do. He flung open the closet, stepping over his few pairs of shoes, pulled the air-conditioning vent from where it sat under a makeshift shelf. It was a false front, put in by whoever had the apartment before them. The hole led to a small space in the wall, which led to a similar vent in the apartment next door—Miss Janie’s apartment. No one had ever questioned the vents, though the projects didn’t have no air conditioning.
Shorty D fussed as Tre scraped his head on the crumbling drywall. “Shh, Shorty, shh.”
The toddler quieted and laid his head on Tre’s shoulder. Tre patted his brother’s back and pulled the grate into place. For a moment, he paused, trying to hear his mother. Trying to decide if he really had to take Shorty D and go find a policeman.
Then he heard the door break open and his mama scream.
Gunfire made him clap his hand over Shorty D’s mouth.
More gunfire before his mama yelled, “Run!”
Tre choked back a sob as he punched in the grate in Miss Janie’s apartment, pushed past a small cabinet hiding the secret entrance and headed for the window and the ancient fire escape.
Shorty clung to Tre as if he knew what was going down, as if he knew his life depended on holding on.
As if he didn’t know his father was next door killing their mother.
Tre set Shorty D down so he could open the crumbling window. G-Slim would figure things out soon enough…unless he was dead. Tre couldn’t count on that so he snatched up Shorty D, climbed out onto the iron scaffolding, and shut down his mind, focusing on simply breathing.
Just breathe, Tre. In. Out. Breathe.
New Orleans, 2013
“Hot guy at two o’clock,” Pansy McAdams said, craning her head around the form mannequin and peering out the window.
Eleanor Theriot rolled her eyes and swiped her dust cloth over the spindles of the rocker she knelt beside. “You think half of New Orleans is hot.”
“No, I’m just optimistic.”
“Or need a good optometrist.”
Pansy didn’t turn her head from whoever had drawn her attention. “I have perfect vision, thank you very much, and this one is worth the drool I’ll have to wipe off the glass.”
Eleanor pushed past Pansy who’d plastered her nose to the window of the Queen’s Box. Eleanor could only imagine the picture her friend and employee presented to passersby. Pig nose.
But no actual drool.
“Let me be the judge,” Eleanor said, playing along. Pansy had spent the past month reminding Eleanor of her resolution to get back into the dating game. When Eleanor had examined her life, as everyone is wont to do on New Year’s Day, she’d discovered her home felt empty, and most of her lingerie had been purchased from a wholesale club. Time to start dating again, to start claiming a new life for herself outside widowhood and motherhood. Up until now, Eleanor had been good at ignoring the male sex—hot or otherwise—but today, Eleanor felt game. Maybe it was the phone call earlier from her mom who had cut out an article about healthy living for the premenopausal woman.
Not that Eleanor was going through menopause.
So an innocent ogle sounded…harmless.
Across the street, in front of the place where tradesmen had been streaming in and out like worker bees, was a pickup truck. Leaning against the side of that truck was someone who made her swallow. Hard.
Pansy soooo didn’t need glasses.
The man resembled an Aztec prince. Like his honeyed skin should be twined in gold and turquoise, bedecked in a feathered headdress. And a loincloth. He’d be breathtaking in a loincloth.
“Told ya,” Pansy said, shouldering Eleanor out of the way. “He could eat crackers, chips and freakin’ beignets in my bed any day of the week.”
“Not sure your husband would appreciate an extra bedmate.”
“Eddie lets the dog sleep with us. What’s one more hairy beast?” Pansy straightened the ceremonial Mayan mask that sat next to the silver candelabra in the window display before sliding off the edge of the window stage, her long body loose and loping. Pansy was over six feet tall, flat-footed and thin to the point of painful, but she had a sharp sense of humor and a heart that was big, fat and full of good cheer. Like Santa Claus in Olive Oyl’s body.
Eleanor glanced again at the man standing beside the pickup, peering at his phone. He wore well-worn jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. His face had a sort of sexy Brad Pitt thing going on with sensuous lips, but his jaw was hard, nose straight, brows dark and drawn to a V as he tapped on the phone. His skin was a creamy café au lait and his hair jet-black, clipped close to his head. Broad shoulders and narrow hips finished off the visual treat. A damn chocolate cupcake from Butterfield’s Bakery wasn’t as tempting as this man. “Hey,” Pansy whispered over Eleanor’s shoulder, making her jump. “You should go get him and see how you like sleeping on cracker crumbs.”
“I already know I don’t like sleeping on cracker crumbs.”
“With the right guy, you’ll never feel ’em. Trust me.”
Running a hand over a well-crafted Federal chest of drawers, Eleanor turned to Pansy and wiggled her fingers. “Dust.”
Eleanor wasn’t going outside to talk to a guy leaning against a work truck. She wasn’t that kind of girl. Never had been…even if she was determined to get out there…wherever “there” was. “No way.”
“Candy ass.”
“Calling me names won’t work. Get the lemon oil and let’s make sure our pieces up front look pretty. Tourists will be pouring in with Mardi Gras weekend coming up. I could use some sales.”
Pansy propped her fists on angular hips and narrowed her piercing blue eyes. “Come on, El. What will it hurt to do a little flirting? You’ll probably never see him again and you need to get your feet wet. Beyond time, sugar.”
Yeah, it was way beyond time. That’s what her daughter Blakely had yelled at her over a month ago—to get her own life. But Eleanor wasn’t going outside and getting her feet wet with some random house painter. Even if she’d never see him again. Even if it was harmless, silly and somewhat daring. “I’m moving on, Pansy. I am. I even checked out that eHarmony site last night, but I’m not the kind of girl who goes up to a random guy and says, uh, I wouldn’t even know what to say.”
“Pretend you’re locked out and need a screwdriver or something to jimmy the lock. I’ll hide in the back.”
“Jimmy the lock? Who are you? Nancy Drew?”
Pansy faked an elaborate laugh. “You’re so funny. Share it with the sex god across the street. Unless you’re…chicken?”
Eleanor looked around the antiques store that had been her salvation, first after the hurricane and then after the sex scandal, and felt the security she always did when she really thought about who she was. Did she want to be another relic of the past like the beautiful pieces in her store? Hmm. Pansy was right. Blakely was right. She needed to step out and get a life. “Okay. Fine.”
Pansy froze. “Really?”
“Yeah, what’ll it hurt? Not like I’ll see him again.”
Pansy pulled Eleanor to her, snatching the ponytail holder from Eleanor’s hair. “Ow!”
“Hold still,” Pansy said, tugging strands of Eleanor’s hair around her face and studying it critically.
Eleanor batted her hands away. “Jeez, Pans.”
“Let me grab the coral rose lip gloss I bought at Sephora. It will look nice with those new red highlights you just put in.”
“Shh,” Pansy said, pressing a finger against Eleanor’s lips. “He’s a little out of your league so we need to prepare you for—”
“Please.” Eleanor pushed past her friend and tucked her shirt into her new gold Lilly Pulitzer belt. “He’ll be gone before you could perform all that magic. Besides, he’s not out of my league. Forget the lip gloss.”
“Whoa, that’s my sassy girl,” Pansy called, scurrying to the back of the store, thin arms and knobby knees moving so fast she resembled a clumsy puppy. She sank behind the counter leaving only her eyes visible. “I’ll hide back here so he buys the story.”
“This is nuts,” Eleanor proclaimed.
Pansy’s hand emerged over the register, shooing her toward the door. “Just go.”
Taking a deep breath, Eleanor pushed the glass door, ignoring the dinging of the sleigh bells affixed to the knob, and stepped onto Magazine Street, which had started waking up for the day. She shut the door behind her, slapped a hand to her forehead and patted her pockets.
Damn, she was a good actress.
She started toward hunky painter dude, looking both ways before crossing the street ’cause she’d learned that rule when she was seven years old. The closer she got, the hotter—and younger—the guy looked.
God, this was stupid. Pansy was right. The man was out of her league.
Too hot for her.
Too young for her.
She needed to go back to her store and abandon the whole ruse, but as she began to turn, he lifted his head and caught her gaze.
Oh, dear Lord. Eyes the color of smoke swept over her and something shivery flew right up her spine. It wasn’t casual or dismissive. Oddly enough, the gaze felt…profound.
Or maybe she needed to drink less coffee. She must be imagining the connection between them. It had been almost twenty years since she’d tried to pick up a man, so she was out of practice. That was it. She imagined his interest.
He lifted his eyebrows questioningly, and she tried to remember what she was supposed to ask him. A horn honked and she turned her head.
Yeah. She stood in the middle of the street like a moron.
The Aztec sex god turned his head and nodded toward the car. “You gonna move?”
“Yeah,” she said, stepping onto the sidewalk. She licked her lips, wishing she’d put on the stupid lip gloss. Not only did she look stupid, but her lips were bare. Eleanor the Daring was appalled by Eleanor the Unprepared who had shown up in her stead.
“Can I help you?”
You can if you toss me over your shoulder, take me to your temple and play sacrifice the not-exactly-a-virgin on your stone pillar of lust.
But she didn’t say that, of course.
“I’m looking for a screw,” she said.
 Dez Batiste lowered his phone and stared at the woman. “I beg your pardon?”
“You asked for a screw?” he repeated.
She turned the color of the red tiles that framed the doorway behind her. “No. I didn’t ask you—uh, I meant a screwdriver.”
He almost laughed because he could see where her thoughts had jumped to…which was kind of cute.
He’d parked in front of the club five minutes ago, pissed he couldn’t get his damn contractor to show up. He’d dialed Chris Salmon three times, but hung up each time he heard the voice mail. He wasn’t in a good mood, didn’t need some woman bothering him, but when he’d really looked at this one, he had put his bad mood on pause.
“A screwdriver?”
She nodded and a chunk of hair fell from behind her ear. She pushed it back.
“At first I thought you were propositioning me.” He smiled to let her know he wouldn’t bite. At least not hard.
Her face turned even redder. “Heavens, no. I just got distracted, uh, by that car.” She glanced at the antiques store across the street and rolled her shoulders.
“Why do you need a screwdriver?” he asked, liking what his questions were doing to her. Why? He hadn’t the foggiest. There was simply something about her that made him want to peel away layers.
“The stupid lock to the store is messed up, and I’m locked out. No one else is here yet, and I don’t have an extra key.”
He glanced inside the truck. “Don’t have one out here, but I can check to see if anyone left something you can use inside.”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth, drawing his attention to the perfect pinkness of her mouth. Soft. As if she’d been painted upon canvas and intentionally smudged. Her fire-streaked hair with a stubborn flip fell to her collarbone, which was visible beneath a shirt the color of ripe watermelon. “I suppose I could ask Mr. Hibbett at Butterfield’s. He might have one.”
Not wanting to miss an opportunity to make friends in the area, he held out a hand. “I’m Dez Batiste. Let me unlock the door, and we’ll see if there’s something you can use. Wouldn’t want to bother Mr. Hibbett, would we?”
Her gaze lifted to his. “Batiste? As in the guy who wants to open the nightclub?”
His fascination with the woman immediately nosedived. Five months ago, he’d chosen to roll the dice on an Uptown location for his nightclub rather than a place on Frenchmen Street. Tremé might be the hottest jazz scene in New Orleans, but Dez was pretty sure his old neighborhood near the Garden District would welcome the upscale club opening in less than a month. However, there had been opposition to Blue Rondo from some of the merchants. He’d recently received a letter from the Magazine Merchants Association questioning the judiciousness of opening a business that could potentially harm the family-friendly atmosphere. It hadn’t been “welcoming” at all. More like holding a veiled threat of ill-will. “I’m Dez Batiste the guy who will open a nightclub.”
He started to lower his hand, but she took it. “I’m Eleanor Theriot, owner of the Queen’s Box.” She hiked a thumb over her shoulder toward the large glass-front store directly across the street from where they stood.
“Oh,” he said, noting the warmth of her grasp, the sharpness in her gaze and the scent of her perfume, which reminded him of summer nights. He knew who she was, had seen that name before. On the bottom of a complaint to the city council. One of his friends had scored a copy and given him a heads-up.
She dropped her hand. “I assumed you were a worker or something.”
“Why, because I’m ethnic?”
Her eyes widened. “No. That’s insulting.”
He lifted his eyebrows but said nothing.
“You’re dressed like you were coming to work or something.” She gestured to his old jeans and faded button-down, her face no longer as yielding.
Okay, he was dressed in paint-streaked clothes and the truck had Emilio’s Painting plastered to the door, so maybe Eleanor wasn’t drawing incorrect conclusions. Because though his grandfather was black, his grandmother Creole and his mother Cuban, Dez didn’t look any distinctive race. “Yeah. Okay.”
For a moment they stood, each regarding the other. Dez regretted the shift in mood. He’d wanted to flirt with her, maybe score her digits, but now there was nothing but a bad taste.
“I’d wondered about you, a renowned New Orleans musician returning to open a club in the old Federal Bank,” Eleanor said, glancing up at the crumbling brick before returning her gaze to him. Those green eyes looked more guarded than before. “So why here in this part of New Orleans? Aren’t there better places for a nightclub?”
“Uptown is where I’m from,” Dez said, folding his arms across his chest and eyeing the antiques dealer with her expensive clothes and obvious intolerance for anyone not wearing seersucker and named something like Winston. “What? I don’t meet your expectations ’cause I’m not drunk? Or strung out on crack?”
Her eyes searched his, and in them, he saw a shift, as if a decision had been made that instant. “And you don’t have horns. I’d thought you’d have horns…unless they’re retractable?”
She didn’t smile as she delivered the line. It was given smoothly, as if she knew they were headed toward rocky shores and needed to steer clear. So he picked up a paddle and allowed them to drift back into murky waters. “Retractable horns are a closely guarded musician’s secret. Who ratted me out?”
Eleanor locked her mouth with an imaginary key.
“Guess a screwdriver wouldn’t help?”
She shook her head.
Again, silence.
It was an intensely odd moment with a woman he’d resented without knowing much about her, with a woman who opposed his very dream, with a woman who made him want to trace the curve of her jaw. He’d never been in such a situation.
“Just two things before I go back over there and walk through that very much unlocked door,” she said with a resolute crossing of her arms.
“Really? The door’s not even locked?” He arched an eyebrow.
“A ploy to come check you out dreamed up by my not-so-savvy salesclerk. Totally tanked on the whole thing from beginning to end. It’s pretty embarrassing.”
“I’m flattered. Thank your salesclerk for me.”
Her direct stare didn’t waver. “Oh, come on, don’t even pretend you’re not the object of a lot of ‘Can I borrow your pen?’ or ‘Do you know what time it is?’”
“Wait, those are pickup lines?” he asked with a deadpan expression. There was something he liked in her straightforwardness along with the soft-glowy thing she had going. Not quite wholesome. More delicate and flowery. This woman wasn’t lacquered up with lip gloss and a shirt so low her nipples nearly showed. Instead she begged to be unwrapped like a rare work of art.
He shook himself, remembering she was a high-classed broad and not his type.
“Maybe not pickups per say, but definitely designed to get your attention,” she said, sounding more college professor than woman on the prowl. Or maybe she wasn’t really interested in him. Perhaps she knew who he was in the first place and wanted to goad him, size him up before he made trouble.
Dez leaned against the truck he’d borrowed from his neighbor since his Mustang was in the shop. “So what did you want to tell me?”
“One.” She held up an elegant finger. He’d never called a finger elegant before, but hers fit the billing. “I oppose the idea of a nightclub in this particular area. All the business owners here have worked hard since the storm to build a certain atmosphere that does not include beer bottles and half-dressed hookers.”
He opened his mouth to dispute, but she held up a second finger.
“And, two, this little,” she wagged her other hand between them, “thing didn’t happen. Erase it from you memory. Chalk it up to midlife crisis, to a dare, or bad tuna fish I ate last night.”
“What are you talking about?”
She frowned. “Me trying to check you out.”
Something warmed inside him. Pleasure. “I don’t even remember why you walked over.”
A little smile accompanied the silent thank you in her eyes.
Dez answered the smile with one of his own, and for a few seconds they stood in the midst of Magazine Street smiling at each other like a couple of loons, which was crazy considering the tenseness only seconds ago.
“Okay, then,” she said, inching back toward her store.
“Yeah,” he said, not moving. Mostly because he wanted to watch her walk back to her store and check out the view.
“So hopefully I won’t see you around,” she said lightly, turning away, giving him what he wanted without even realizing it.
“Don’t count on it,” he said, playing along.
She didn’t say anything. Just kept walking.
“Hey,” he called as she stepped onto the opposite curb. She turned around and shaded her eyes against the morning sunlight. “I’m going to change your mind, you know.”
“My club and the reason why you came over here.”
He straightened and gave her a nod of his head and one of his sexy trademark smiles, one he hadn’t used since he’d left Houston.
And from across the street, he could see Ms. Eleanor Theriot looked worried.
Good. She should be…because he meant it. His club wouldn’t draw hookers or anyone who would smash a beer bottle on the pavement. Nor would it draw the sort of club-goers who would break windows or vomit in the street. No rowdy college crowd or blue-collar drunks.
Blue Rondo was different—the kernel of a dream that had bloomed in his heart when everything else around him had fallen apart. The idea of an upscale New Orleans jazz club had sustained him through heartbreak and heartache. Had given him sanctuary when the waters erased all he’d been, and the woman he thought would be his wife had turned into someone he didn’t know. Seven damn years wasted and all he’d held onto was the dream of Blue Rondo, the club named after the first song “Blue Rondo a la Turk” his father had played for him when he’d been a boy.
And no one was going to take that away from him.
Not when he’d risked so much to get here.
Not when he’d finally faced his past and embraced New Orleans as his future.
So, yeah, she could strike number one off her list.
And as Eleanor stood staring at him on the opposite side of the street, he knew she could strike number two off, too. She may not want him to remember her “attention-getter,” but his interest was piqued.
Straightforward eyes the color of moss.
Lush pink lips.
Ivory satin skin.
Color him interested.
Dez tucked away that idea, turned and contemplated the faded building behind him—the old Federal Bank that would house his dream. He sighed.
Another wasted morning.
He could have slept in after a late night in the Quarter playing with Frankie B’s trio. They’d stretched it out until the wee hours, playing sanitized versions of tourist favorites, and he’d made plenty of dime. The city had started seeping back into him.
Dez checked his messages once again. Still no Chris. So he pulled up his schedule. He could spare a few hours cutting tile for the bathroom floors before he needed to head back to the place he’d leased a few blocks over and grab a shower. He had another gig at seven o’clock that night, but wanted to stop in and talk to a couple friends who’d opened some places in the Warehouse District about glassware and distributors.
Dreams could come true, but only with lots of work.
He pulled his keys from his pocket and headed toward his soon-to-be jazz club.

Get your copy here.

1 comment:

Vivant said...

Gotta love a guy who names his club for one of my favorite Dave Brubeck songs! Prime hero material. :)