Midnight Bayou Page 42

Declan took it and gazed down on the woman who haunted his dreams. It might have been Lena, he thought, but there was too much softness, too much yet unformed in this face. Her cheeks were rounder, her long-lidded eyes too gullible, and far too shy.

So young, he mused. And innocent despite the grown-up walking dress with its high, fur– trimmed collar, despite the jaunty angle of the velvet toque with its saucy feathers.

This was a girl, he reflected, where Lena was a woman.

"She was lovely," Declan said. "Lovely and young. It breaks your heart.”

"My grandmama thought she was 'round about eighteen when this was taken. Couldn't've been more, as she never saw her nineteenth birthday.”

As she spoke, a door slammed upstairs, as if in temper. Odette merely glanced toward the ceiling. "Sounds like your ghost's got mad on, too.”

"That just started happening today. Plumber's kid shot out of here like a bullet a couple hours ago.”

"You don't look like you're going anywhere.”

"No." He sat across from her as another door slammed, and looked back down at Abigail Rouse Manet's shy, hopeful smile. "I'm not going anywhere.”

There was a madness about Mardi Gras. The music, the masks, the mayhem all crashing together into a desperate sort of celebration managed to create a tone that was both gleefully innocent and rawly sexual. He doubted the majority of the tourists who flocked here for the event understood or cared about the purpose of it. That rush to gorge on pleasures before the forty days of fasting.

Wanting a taste of it himself, Declan opted to wander through the crowds, even snagged some beads when they were tossed in a glitter of cheap gold from one of the galleries. His ears rang with the blare of brass, the wild laughter.

He decided the sight of naked br**sts, which a couple of coeds flashed as they followed tradition and jerked up their shirts, would be less alarming after a couple of drinks.

As would being grabbed by a total stranger and being treated to a tonsil-diving kiss. The tongue currently invading his mouth transferred the silly sweetness of many hurricanes and happily drunken lust onto his.

"Thanks," he managed when he freed himself.

"Come on back here," the masked female shouted. "Laizzez les bon temps rouler!”

He didn't want to let the good times roll when it involved strange tongues plunged into his mouth, and escaped into the teeming crowds.

Maybe he was getting old, he thought-or maybe it was just the Boston bedrock– but he wanted to get someplace where he could sit back and observe the party rather than being mobbed by it.

The doors to Et Trois were flung open, so the noise from within poured out and tangled with the noise of the streets. He had to weave his way through the revelers on the sidewalk, those packed inside, and squeeze his way to a standing spot at the bar.

The place was full of smoke, music and the slap of feet on wood as dancers shoehorned together on the dance floor. Onstage, a fiddler streamed out such hot licks, Declan wouldn't have been surprised to see the bow burst into flame.

Lena was pulling a draft with one hand, pouring a shot of bourbon with the other. The two other bartenders were equally busy, and from what he could see, she had four waitresses working the tables.

He spotted his crawfish grinning from their spot on the shelf behind the bar and was ridiculously pleased.

"Beer and a bump," she said and slid the glasses into waiting hands. When she spotted Declan, she held up a finger, then served three more customers as she worked her way down to him.

"What's your pleasure, handsome?”

"You are. You're packed," he added. "In here and out on the sidewalk.”

"Banquette," she corrected. "We call them banquettes 'round here." She'd pulled her hair back, wound purple and gold beads through it. The little silver key dangled against skin dewed with perspiration. "I can give you a drink, cher, but I don't have time to talk right now.”

"Can I give you a hand?”

She pushed at her hair. "With what?”

"Whatever.”

Someone elbowed in, shouted out a request for a tequila sunrise and a Dixie draft.

Lena reached back for the bottle, shifted to pull the draft. "You know how to bus tables, college boy?”

"I can figure it out.”

"Redheaded waitress? She's Marcella." She nodded in the general direction of mayhem. "Tell her you're hired. She'll show you what to do.”

By midnight, he figured he'd carted about a half a ton of empties into the kitchen, and dumped the equivalent of Mount Rainier in cigarette butts.

He'd had his ass pinched, rubbed, ogled. What was it with women and the male behind? Someone ought to do a study on it.

He'd lost track of the propositions, and didn't care to think about the enormous woman who'd hauled him into her lap.

It had been like being smothered by a three-hundred– pound pillow soaked in whiskey.

By two, he was beyond amazement at the human body's capacity for vice, and had revised any previous perception of the skill and endurance required in food– service occupations.

He made sixty-three dollars and eighty-five cents in tips, and vowed to burn his clothes at the first opportunity.

The place was still rolling at three, and he decided Lena hadn't been avoiding him. Or if she had, she'd had a reasonable excuse for it.

"What time do you close?" he asked when he carted another load toward the kitchen.

"When people go away." She poured bottled beer into the plastic to-go cups, handed them off.

"Do they ever?"

She smiled, but it was quick and distracted as she scanned the crowd. "Not so much during Mardi Gras. Why don't you go on home, cher? We're going to be another hour or more in here.”

"I stick.”

He carried the empties into the kitchen and came back in time to see a trio of very drunk men– boys really, he noted-hitting on Lena and hitting hard.

She was handling them, but they weren't taking the hint.

"If y'all want to last till Fat Tuesday, you gotta pace yourself a bit." She set to-go cups under the taps. "Y'all aren't driving now, are you?”

"Hell no." One, wearing a University of Michigan T-shirt under an avalanche of beads, leaned in. Way in. "We've got a place right over on Royal. Why don't you come back there with me, baby? Get naked, take a spin in the Jacuzzi.”

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