Midnight Bayou Page 36


"I feel obligated to uphold the Sullivan-Fitzgerald tradition. I really like your kitchen art. Not the usual spot for nudes.”

"Why?" She got out a black iron skillet. "Cooking's an art, and it's sexy if you do it right.”

She got out a blue bowl. He watched her crack an egg on its side, slide white and yolk in, one-handed.

"I see what you mean. Do it again." She chuckled and cracked a second egg. "Why don't you go on out and put some music on? This won't take long.”

They ate at a little gateleg table she had tucked under one of the living room windows.

"Where'd you learn to cook?" he asked her.

"My grandmama. She tried to teach me to sew, too, but that didn't stick so well.”

"I'm surprised you didn't open a restaurant instead of a bar.”

"I like to cook when I like to cook. Do it for a living, do it all the time.”

"There's that. How did you end up running a bar?”

"I wanted my own business. You work for somebody else, they say do this, don't do that, come here, go there. That doesn't set with me. So I went to business school, and I think, what business do I want to have? I don't want to sell souvenirs, don't want a gift shop, don't want to sell dresses. I think, all those things sell in New Orleans, but what sells even more? Pleasure sells. A little harmless sin and a good time, that's what people come to the Big Easy for. So … Et Trois.”

"How long have you had it?”

"Let's see now." She'd already eaten her single slice, so speared a forkful of one of the four she'd piled on his plate. "Going on six years now.”

"You opened a bar when you were twenty-three?”

"Hey, how do you know how old I am?”


She looked up at the ceiling. "Et la! Gonna have to take a strip off his ass for that. Man oughta know better than flapping about a woman's age. What else he flap about?”

Declan gave his breakfast his undivided attention. "This is really great. What do you put in this stuff?”

She said nothing for a full ten seconds. "I see. Men just can't stop themselves from crowing about their sexual exploits.”

Uneasy, for himself and his friend, Declan replied, "It wasn't like that. It was nostalgic. And it was sweet. You meant something to him. You still do.”

"It's a good thing for him I know that. And that I feel the same. Do you remember the first girl you got into the backseat, Declan? Do you remember her fondly?”

"Sherry Bingham. A pretty little blond. I loved her desperately through most of my junior year in high school.”

She liked him for coming out with a name, instantly. Even if he'd made it up. "What happened?”

"She dumped me for a football player. Left tackle. Jesus, a football player with no neck and the IQ of a pencil. I'm still pissed off at her. But to get back to you-and by the way, you're really good at deflecting personal questions, but I was a lawyer. Anyway, how did you manage to pull it off? Twenty-three's pretty young to establish a business, one that's proven itself out when most go under within three years.”

She leaned back. "What difference does it make? Counselor.”

"Okay." He shrugged and kept eating. "I'll just assume you robbed a bank, paid off the Mob, seduced then murdered the previous owner– after he left you the building in his will. And continue to run illegal gambling and prostitutes out of the back room.”

"Why I've been so busy. But I like your version better. Mine's very dull in comparison. I worked after school and summers, saved my pennies. I'm very good at saving pennies if I need to. Then I worked, tending bar, serving drinks, and went to business school part-time. Just before I turned twenty-two, my grandpapa died. Fell off a ladder, broke his damn fool neck.”

Her eyes filled as she said it. "Guess I'm still pissed off at him.”

"I'm sorry." He covered her hand with his. "You were close.”

"I loved him more than any man in the world. Pete Simone, with his big laugh and his big hands. He played the fiddle and always carried a red bandanna. Always. Well …" She blinked away the tears. "He had an insurance policy, bigger than it ought to have been considering. Half for me, half for Grandmama. In the end she made me take all of it. Nothing you can do to change her mind when she digs her heels in. So I invested the money, and a year later I opened my place.”

"There's nothing dull about that. You run a good bar, Lena.”

"Yes, I do." She rose, picked up the plates. "You'd best get yourself dressed, cher, if you want a ride home.”

He couldn't talk her into coming inside. He had to settle for a mind-numbing kiss before she pushed him out of her car and drove away.

Arriving home at nine in the morning in a wrinkled suit gained him a grin and a wink from Big Frank as the man carted dead tree limbs to a burn pile.

"You fell into some luck last night, Mister Dec.”

Into something, Declan thought and, rubbing his heart, went into the house to get to work.

She wouldn't see him that night, or the next. He had to content himself with phone calls that made him feel like a teenager as he wandered the house with his portable phone and rattled his brains for any conversational ploy that would keep her on the line.

Mardi Gras celebrations, and business, were under way, she told him. While they were, she didn't have time to come out and play.

He knew when he was being tested and stalled and tangled. And decided he'd let her string out his line. Until he reeled her in.

Remy dropped by one afternoon wearing Hugo Boss and gold beads. He took the beads off, tossed them over Declan's head. "When you coming into town?”

"I thought I might join the insanity over the weekend.”

"Cher, it's Mardi Gras. Every night's the weekend.”

"Not out here. Come take a look." He led the way into the parlor, where Tibald was high on a ladder patiently detailing the ceiling plasterwork.

"Hey, Tibald." Remy hooked his thumbs into his pockets and craned his neck back. "That's some job.”

"It surely is. How's Effie doing these days?”

"Driving me to drink with wedding plans. Picked out the cake yesterday, and you'd think it was a matter of life and death whether it has yellow rosebuds or full-blown roses around the edges.”

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