Authors: Nancy Warren
Steamy Southern Nights Copyright © 2013 by Nancy Weatherley Warren.
This book was produced using
Note: This novella first appeared in Bayou Bad Boys. It was written right before Katrina. I love to remember New Orleans as it was, and to celebrate the courage and resourcefulness of the wonderful people who live there and are rebuilding this glorious city. This story is dedicated to you.
“What we need is a decent skeleton in our family closet,” Lucy Charles said to her mother. “It would make writing the family newsletter a lot more interesting.”
“Don’t go looking for trouble, sweetie. I’m sure the family likes recipes more than scandal,” Patrice Charles said absently, flicking over the pages of a loose-leaf binder that was her personal cookbook.
They were in the big old kitchen of the family home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Lucy lived in Toronto now, but home would always be here, where she could watch the sea from her bedroom window and fresh lobster was a back yard barbecue, or a church dinner rather than a fancy meal in a restaurant.
“Okay, what have you got?”
“What about the Tortiere? Your aunt Florence sent it from Quebec.”
“I used that recipe year before last.” She stretched her neck which was sore from too many hours spent working on her laptop. “Maybe I’ll pick up a good recipe for Jambalaya when I’m in Louisiana.”
Lucy was a history lecturer at the University of Toronto. Currently, she was researching her own family’s background, which included the splitting up of her ancestors when the French Acadians had been expelled from Canada in the mid 1700s. She’d recently discovered, through damn fine research if she did say so herself, living relatives in Louisiana.
“I’m not sure you should go down there all alone, Lucy,” her mom said for the hundredth time. “You don’t even know these people. They could be a bunch of crazies living in the swamps.”
Her mother didn’t quite approve of Cajuns. According to Patrice, the way they’d dropped vowels and slurred a perfectly nice word like Acadian into Cajun – well, she suspected there’d been drinking involved. “And you, a professor.”
“I’m not a prof, mom. I’m a lecturer. Big difference.” The biggest being a permanent job and tenure. “That’s why I’m spending my summer break writing this book. Publish or perish. Besides, Beatrice LeBlanc, one of your long-lost cousins, sounds friendly and gracious on email.”
“Hmm. Internet friends. We all know where that can lead,” her mother said darkly.
Lucy went back to the notes she was making on her laptop. “But first I need to fit in family recipes and the fascinating exploits of Roland Charles Junior on the high school baseball team,” Lucy sighed. “Oh, well. I can write a nice article on the Louisiana branch of the family for the next issue.” She’d tried to interest her family in blogs and Facebook sites to make it easier for everyone to connect, but a surprising number of her older relatives didn’t own a computer, never mind a Facebook account. There were nearly twenty relatives who still had the newsletter mailed to them.
“You be careful, honey. And for goodness’ sake, book yourself a decent hotel. Don’t be putting up with strangers.”
“You’ve been watching too much True Blood. They’re family, not vampires. I can’t turn down their hospitality, it would feel rude. Don’t worry. If I don’t like staying with Beatrice, I’ll move to a hotel.”
“A mother always worries.” Patrice flipped to desserts. “What about dumplings boiled in Maple Syrup?”
Lucy blinked. “Why not?”
Her mother could not have been more mistaken Lucy thought a week later as the cab pulled up in front of a gracious old mansion in New Orleans’s garden district.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” she asked the cab driver.
“This the address you gave me.”
She felt disoriented, and from more than a few hours on a plane and a change from breezy Atlantic Canada to this hot, humid paradise.
“Thank you,” she said at last and got out of the cab, still staring at the home of her new found relatives.
Wrought iron, that wonderful curlicued twirling iron lace, fronted the mansion. Inside the gates was a walkway that ought to have been artistically crumbling but looked brand new winding through lush gardens. The house itself was the perfect combination between grand and charming, with balconies, rich cream stucco walls and the kind of verandah where you simply had to sit and sip a mint julep.
She hadn’t been bothered by the thought that her hosts might live modestly, but she’d never thought for a second that she’d be vacationing at Tara. Wow.
She swung her bag over her shoulder and dragged her suitcase on wheels behind her so it bumped noisily over the sidewalk. The gate was open, so she walked through and rattled her way up the path.
When she was half way to that inviting verandah, she had to stop and unbutton. The jacket she’d needed on the air-conditioned flight was suffocating her suddenly. Her oatmeal linen trousers might as well have been made of asbestos and her sleeveless silk top felt like a ski parka.
Once she’d stopped to slip off her jacket and lay it over her arm, she took another second to drink in the beauty around her. There was so much of it. An embarrassment of garden riches. From gardenia in full, perfumed splendor to massive Magnolia trees sporting white blossoms the size of dinner plates. Walls spilling over with purple bougainvillea, green slinky vines and palm trees. Peeking from among the greenery were tiny garden gnomes. Somewhere water played which only made her feel hotter.
A prickle ran over her skin and she realized in that sudden jolt that she wasn’t alone in the garden.
A quick, searching glance and she discovered a sweaty guy with black, shaggy hair leaned silently on a shovel, watching her. The sweaty guy was shirtless.
He stood to the side of the house and he’d obviously stopped in the middle of digging to watch her. There was a patch of fresh, frothy black dirt around his feet but he wasn’t digging now. He was staring. Hadn’t offered her a hand with her luggage, either.
He continued to stare at her and the heat of the afternoon intensified. He was exactly the kind of man who appealed to the part of her she didn’t want to encourage. His eyes appeared heavy-lidded and predatory, his hair so long past the cut-by date that it curled over where his collar would be – if he’d been wearing a shirt.
What he was wearing was a tan. The kind of tan a man gets by working outside a lot without his shirt on. Even as she willed her feet to move up the path and toward the house, that part of her that was yelling,
Yes, Yes YESSS!!
held her rooted to the spot.
She’d never entirely believed Lady Chatterley would go quite so goopy over a gardener until now. This gardener had the slightly scruffy look of a man who hasn’t shaved in a day or two, blue-gray eyes staring at her as though it were perfectly all right to stare unabashedly at a stranger.
Naturally, he had broad shoulders and a muscular torso, with a nice amount of chest hair, now damp from exertion. As she stood there entranced, a drop of sweat rolled, as slow as syrup, over his collarbone, tracking a wet streak over his upper chest and finally disappearing into the damp hair. Her gaze continued to follow its path as though that drop of sweat had rolled unimpeded, over the nicely defined pecs, dipping to rib cage and finally hitting the smooth plane of tawny belly. His jeans were low enough that she saw the jut of his hip bones. The jeans were grubby and shapeless, but she saw that his thighs were powerfully muscled and his feet in disreputable old sneakers were long.
While her eyes had been drinking him in more thirstily than anything long and cool she’d ever consume on that porch, the gardener had been doing the same to her. She felt scratchy and overdressed, and was aware of a wild longing to stand before him as he was, in a pair of low-riding jeans, bare torso — she even wanted her feet bare so she could curl her toes into the rich black earth he’d churned up.
Her common sense finally asserted itself. “Will I find Ms. LeBlanc in the house?” she asked in the tone she used at school when she felt she needed to exert her authority over students who were no more than five years younger than she.
Those gray-blue eyes considered her for another interminable moment and then he showed surprisingly white teeth in a quick grin. “I believe she is.” Very attractive voice. Slow talking and deep with a slight hint of a French accent.
“Thank you.” If her tone was cool, it was the only part of her that was.
She turned and made her way to the verandah. Based on the fact that she heard no sounds of digging behind her and that her spine prickled, she’d be willing to bet a month’s salary that the gardener was checking out her back view.
Suitcases and all.
When she got to the verandah and started up the wide steps she heard a wolf whistle, so soft she could pretend she hadn’t heard it if she chose.
She did not choose.
She turned to glare at the culprit only to find his head bent watching the progress as his shovel plunged deep into the fertile ground. There was something aggressively sexual about the gesture, which she told herself was her own fault for studying too much literary symbolism. Suddenly the gardener lifted his head and she caught the carnal gleam in those eyes. Very deliberately, while holding her gaze with his, he raised the shovel and plunged it back into the yielding earth.
Her breath caught and a quiver of arousal struck, so strong it shocked her. Resolutely, she turned away from the sexiest man who’d ever planted a tulip bulb.
After taking a moment to compose herself, she knocked on the wide oak door. She wouldn’t have been surprised to be met by liveried servants when the door opened but in fact the older woman in a stylish white blouse and a flowered skirt took one look at Lucy standing there with her cases and beamed. “Why you must be our cousin Lucy. Welcome, honey. I’m your cousin Beatrice.” Beatrice had dark hair streaked with silver that she wore up, smiling gray-blue eyes and a fat rope of pearls around her neck. Pearl and diamond drops hung from her ears.
Lucy held out her hand politely but the older woman laughed and pulled her into a huge hug, lightly scented with a perfume she couldn’t identify but smelled like Lily of the Valley. “You’re in the south now, honey. Everybody kisses everybody.” For a split second she thought about that man in the garden and then forced him from her mind.
“Come in. It’s wonderful to have family in the house. I swear this old place gets lonely when there aren’t enough people to fill it.”
Lucy smiled and pulled her cases into the wide foyer. “I really don’t want to put you to any trouble. I’d be happy to stay at a hotel.”
“We already had this argument on email,” Cousin Beatrice reminded her. “You’re family. You stay with family.”
“This is such a wonderful house,” Lucy said, following her new found cousin inside. “Has it been in the family long?”
“Not by New Orleans standards. It was built by a Yankee trader back in the late 1800s. We bought it in the sixties. Claude can tell you more. He’s the one who knows about history.”
“Your son, Claude?”
“Your Cousin Claude. Didn’t you see him? He’s out in the garden.”
The half dressed hottie was her cousin? “Yes. I did see him, but he didn’t introduce himself.”
“Probably didn’t even notice you. He’s very focused when he’s busy with something.”
He’d certainly been focused when he’d undressed her with his eyes, but she didn’t feel like sharing that fact with the man’s mother.
“You two will have a lot in common. You teach history and my son owns a couple of antique shops.”
“Really?” It wasn’t what she would have expected of the man outside. “I thought he was the gardener.”
Beatrice chuckled. “He’s that as well. He helps me keep up this place. I couldn’t stay here if he didn’t.”
As she was led through into the main living areas of the house her surprise grew. “What beautiful things.” She was no expert on furniture, but she could see the rich patina of age on some of the pieces. The Aubusson rug in the living room was almost too gorgeous to walk on. The whole house reeked of old money. Claude traced his distant relationship to her through his father, so the money must be on his mother’s side.
“Are you hungry?”
“No. Thank you. I had lunch on the plane.”
“Some iced tea, then. I’ve got a fresh pitcher all ready in the refrigerator.”
“That would be wonderful,” Lucy said.
“Go on out to the porch and sit. Tell Claude to wash up and join us.”
“All right. I’m going to change into something cooler first.”
“Of course. Your room is up one flight of stairs. Shall I get Claude to carry your suitcase for you?”
“No, thanks. I can manage.”
She hiked the case up a flight of wide stairs and down a corridor of polished dark wood with a faded carpet running down the middle.
Beatrice opened a door on the left. “This is your room. I hope you’ll be comfortable.”
“Oh,” she sighed, feeling as though she’d slipped back in time. As pretty as anything in New Orleans, she figured. The wrought iron bed frame and the antique furniture were feminine and dainty. A dormer window with a padded window seat looked out over the back garden, which was as pretty as the front.
“Come down whenever you’re ready.”
She washed up and brushed her teeth in the adjoining bathroom that contained one of her favorite things in the world – a claw foot bathtub.
Just knowing that Claude was out there in the garden somewhere had her bringing a pale yellow cotton sundress into the bathroom to change. She freshened her lip gloss, ran a brush through her hair and pushed her feet into sandals. She ran down the stairs, stopped and huffed a quick breath in and out before officially meeting Claude LeBlanc.
All right then. She’d made a small miscalculation about the identity of sweaty but gorgeous out front. He wasn’t a totally hot gardener, but her distant cousin. Well, if she’d mistaken her man, Cousin Claude was about to find out that he had also mistaken his woman.