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Authors: Lauren Faulkenberry

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I’d
spent the night somewhere in east Mississippi, in a motel that served moon pies
and instant coffee as continental breakfast. It was a blessing I was exhausted
when I checked in—I didn’t notice much about the place and was able to sleep
the peaceful slumber of a person ignorant of potential health hazards.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t stay in a place like the Teddy Bear Motel, but around
midnight, I’d finally gotten too tired to keep driving. It was the only place
around. So I’d stripped the comforter off the bed, skipped the shower and
brushed my teeth quickly, not staring too hard at the sink or counter. Too much
scrutiny of that place and I’d itch all the way to Bayou Sabine.

A
little after noon, it was already scorching. I cursed myself for not getting
the Jeep’s air conditioning fixed back in the spring. With the windows down, I
tried to convince myself the heat wasn’t so bad, but my clothes were sticking
to me. The land around me had shifted from rolling hills to marshland, and at
last I felt like I was out of my father’s orbit. I was thinking less of him and
more about those summers I’d spent at the big blue house on the bayou, Vergie
teaching me to play poker while we sat on the porch. Starting in grade school,
I’d visit her for nearly three months every June when school let out. It was my
favorite time of the year. I could run around barefoot and go swimming in the
creek at night, and I didn’t have to be ladylike—ever. With Vergie, life seemed
more magical. Anything was possible when I was with her.

As
I opened the last moon pie I’d smuggled from the motel, I was hit with a flash
from years before.

Vergie
and I were sitting on a quilt in one of the old cemeteries, back in a corner
under an oak tree with limbs that undulated along the ground like tentacles.
She was telling me ghost stories while we had tea and beignets, the powdered
sugar clinging to our noses. We sat still as tombstones while a funeral
procession passed, the people dancing as music filled the whole sky.

“Why
are those people having such a good time?” I asked. “Isn’t that a funeral?”

“That’s
the grandest way you can say goodbye to someone,” Vergie said.

Vergie’s
own funeral had been tame compared to the scene that day, and now I felt bad
that we hadn’t given her a send-off like that one. She would have appreciated
that, and I would have remembered if I hadn’t stayed away so long.

Why
had it taken me fifteen years to come back?

I
turned my thoughts back to the house as I crossed the state line. Six weeks
wasn’t much time.

I
pulled off the interstate onto a smaller highway. From there on, the roads
would get narrower until they carried me into the little community of Bayou
Sabine. I vaguely remembered the way, but with all the canals out here, the
roads start to look the same. It’s beautiful—don’t get me wrong—but if you were
to turn me around three times and plop me down in the middle of this marshland,
I’d likely never see North Carolina again.

I
checked the GPS on my phone, but the road wasn’t showing up.

“Oh,
come on,” I said, swiping my thumb across the screen. The red dot that was
supposed to be me was now off the nearest named road. According to the GPS, I
was in a bayou. I glanced up at the road, trying to get my bearings and not
swerve into the water for real.

Signal
lost
,
it said. I groaned, restarting the app. When I looked up, an alligator was
lumbering across the road—all six feet of him stretched across my lane.

“Oh,
hell!” I slammed the brake to the floor, flinching as the tires squealed and
the Jeep fish-tailed. I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood, and I called that
gator everything but a child of God. I expected to hear a terrible thud at any
second. Swerving, I missed him by just a few inches, but I was close enough to
see his catlike eye as I shot across the opposite lane and onto the shoulder.
Off to my left, there was nothing but swamp and black mud. I gripped the wheel,
fighting to stay on the hard ground.

The
Jeep stopped on what felt like solid earth, the weeds as high as the door
handle. My heart hammered in my chest. Vergie used to tell me old voodoo
legends about alligators, how they were tricksters, always causing trouble.

Please
don’t be stuck. Not out here.

My
foot eased the gas pedal down, and the Jeep inched forward. The tires spun as I
pushed harder. “This is not happening.”

A
rusty pickup rumbled toward me. The driver gave me a long look, but he hardly
slowed down. I nudged the Jeep into four wheel drive and turned the tires as I
hit the gas. It rocked a few times, then lurched forward and caught hold of the
grass before crossing onto the pavement. I glanced back to where the alligator
had crossed, but it was gone.

“Welcome
back,” I muttered to myself.

 

~~~~

 

The
old two-lane highway cut the land in half, with swamps on one side and pastures
on the other. With the black water so close, I felt like the earth might open
up and devour me at will. The trees were full of moss, the water creeping up
their trunks like it was swallowing them.

I
passed Vergie’s driveway the first time, not recognizing it until I caught a
glimpse of the pale blue goose she’d left by the mailbox like a sentinel. The
paint was peeling, but the goose stood firmly in a patch of daylilies, just as
it had since I was a girl. I turned around and eased onto the dirt drive. I
felt the hollow in my chest expand, the void Vergie had left.

Cypress
trees lined the road to the house, their limbs curling toward the ground. The
breeze tickled the drooping leaves of the trees, and in the distance I heard
the faint clink of glass, like a wind chime. Just beyond the house stood a
spirit tree, bottles hanging from its branches like Christmas ornaments. It had
been there long before Vergie, but she had added a few herself after drinking
pints of bourbon and gin. She used to tell me those bottles captured evil
spirits, kept them from roaming through the bayou and attaching themselves to
good folks that lived nearby. I’d never really believed they held ghosts, but I
liked the sound of the wind whistling over the lips of the bottles. Now, as the
light glinted blue and green in the leaves of the tree, the sound felt more
melancholy than soothing.

This
place had a wildness that was hard not to like. It smelled sweet like magnolia,
bitter like the swamp. Egrets dotted the trees like blooms of cotton, preening
themselves in the slivers of sunlight. The driveway wound back into the woods,
hidden from the main road. Patches of gravel mixed with the soil, packed hard
from the heat and drought. When at last I pulled into the yard, I was surprised
at how small the house seemed compared to my memory of it. It was still plenty
big at two stories high, but it was a paler shade of blue than I remembered,
and the roof was missing some shingles. The porch was cluttered with potted
flowers, strings of lights hanging from the eaves, and a hammock strung between
two corner posts. I could almost see Vergie’s silhouette in the rocker, and I
knew then that I was going to prove my father wrong.

I
had to. I owed it to Vergie. This place was a part of her, and it was a part of
me now too. I had to do this right.

It
wasn’t until I saw a pair of feet dangling from the hammock that I noticed the
truck parked under a tree at the edge of the yard. A small dark pickup with
patches of rust like spots on a horse. I squinted at the feet, thinking surely
I was seeing something that wasn’t there. But there was no mistaking the shape
in the hammock, the lazy swinging motion.

I
leapt from the car and slammed the door so hard that a head rose above the
banister. My father had dealt with squatters once or twice, but I hadn’t thought
they’d move in so fast. Striding toward the steps, I cursed myself for not
coming by when I was in town for the funeral.

I
tried to cool my temper and concentrated on the sound of my boot heels pounding
the dirt. There was no turning back now, because the man had definitely seen
me.

He
sat up in the hammock, and I swallowed hard as I reached the steps.

 

 

Chapter
2

The
man’s hair was rumpled, as if he’d slept in that hammock all night. His shirt,
rolled at the wrists, was pushed up just enough from his pants that I could see
a thin band of tan skin above his belt. He appeared to be only a few years
older than me, but had tiny wrinkles around his eyes and lips that suggested
he’d spent more time in the sun. And he looked familiar. My mind raced, trying
to figure out where I’d seen him before.

“Hi
there,” he said, sitting up straight. “Are you lost?”

“No,”
I said, planting my hands on my hips.
Be calm
, I thought.
This
doesn’t have to get ugly.

“I
don’t get too many visitors. I figured you took a wrong turn off the main road.
You’d have to be lost to end up out here.” His drawl made my ears tingle in a
nice way, but the way he lounged in the hammock like he owned the place made me
want to push him out of it head first.

“How
about you tell me who you are,” I said. “And what you’re doing here.”

He
sat up straighter, running his hands through his dark hair. It was short, but
stood out in tufts, as if the wind had pulled it through the holes in the
hammock. “I believe it’s customary for the interloper to identify herself to
the current inhabitant,” he said, half-smiling. “Not the other way around.”

“This
is my house,” I said, trying to hold my temper down. “So that makes you the
interloper.”

He
chuckled. “Darlin’, I think you’ve got me confused with somebody else that
lives in the middle of nowhere. Who are you looking for?” His tone was even, as
if this kind of encounter happened every week.

“I’m
not looking for a who,” I said. “I’m looking for a house. This house. And last
I checked, I didn’t have any long-lost cousins living in it.”

He
glanced around him. “Well, one of us is in the wrong place. And it ain’t me.”
His dark blue eyes held me in a warm gaze that in any other situation would
make me want to lean in closer.

“This
is my grandmother’s house,” I said, no longer caring when or where I might have
seen him before. The priority was my property.

He
cocked his head. “You mean Vergie?” His eyes lit up. “Well, why didn’t you say
so, darlin’?” He eased out of the hammock as slow as a river. Even his voice
swaggered, and I imagined what it would sound like against my ear.

I
shook my head to erase the thought.

When
he stood, he smoothed his shirt down against his body. Tall and muscular, he
towered over me, and I’m no small woman. His shirt was snug against his broad
shoulders, pulled taut across his biceps. He held out his hand, smiling like I
was some long lost friend, and in spite of myself, I shook it.

“I’m
Jack Mayronne,” he said. His big hand squeezed mine, and I swallowed hard as
something that felt like static electricity rippled down my arm.

“Enza
Parker,” I said, struggling to keep my voice firm. “You knew my grandmother?”
The nagging feeling returned. Where had I seen him? At this house when I was a
teenager? Recently, when I was back for the funeral? I’d blocked so many of
those images from my mind, and right now was not the time to try to recover
them.

His
thumb slid along my palm, and I saw a tattoo peeking out from under the sleeve
of his shirt, a black curve like a snake. I wondered how far up it went.

“Sure,”
he said, holding my hand a little too long. “She was a fine lady. And if you
come from that stock, I guess you’re all right.”

“That
still doesn’t explain what you’re doing in her house.”

He
grinned, shoving his hands into his pockets. He looked like he could have come
from a rodeo, in his faded jeans and plaid pearl-snap shirt. “You’re just as
feisty as she was, aren’t you? I always liked that about her.”

I
felt my cheeks redden, and I hoped he didn’t notice. Maybe he’d think it was
the heat. After all, summer in Louisiana feels like being inside an oven.

“I’ve
been renting this place for several months now,” he said. A dog crossed the
yard and trotted over. It lifted one ear toward the sound of Jack’s voice and
then sat by his feet. “Hey, jolie,” he said, bending down to pat her on the
head. She was stocky, and speckled brown and gray like granite, with expressive
ears and a docked tail. Her eyes narrowed in my direction, and she let out a
half-hearted bark.

“A
Catahoula,” I said, holding my hand out for her to sniff.

“Yeah,”
Jack said, and she snorted.

“The
lawyer never mentioned anyone renting this house,” I said.

“Probably
didn’t know. Vergie had only been living in the city for about six months. She
let me stay here for practically nothing, just so it wouldn’t sit empty.”

“In
the city?”

“She
was staying in New Orleans with a friend,” he said, still stroking the dog’s
fur. “Didn’t you know?”

“We
were out of touch for a long time.”

“I
was awful sad to hear about her,” he said. “They broke the mold when they made
Vergie.”

It
bothered me that he knew more about my own grandmother than I did. And it hurt
when I thought about how I’d avoided this place for so long, how I’d gone so
many years without seeing the woman who had been like a second mother to me. I
pushed the regrets away to stop my voice from cracking. “I spent every summer
here when I was a kid,” I said, sitting down next to him on the porch steps.

Ordinarily,
I wouldn’t let my guard down with a stranger, but the drive and the humidity
had left me weak. With no breeze, the air was stifling, and I was grateful for
any patch of shade.

“Me,
too,” he said. “I mean, I used to work for her. Started when I was about
seventeen.”

“Really?”

“Yard
work and odd jobs. She was trying to keep me out of trouble, I think.”

I
smiled, wondering if that was true.

“Strange,”
he said. “We could have met years ago. Wouldn’t that be something?” He stared
at me for a while, like he might recognize me.

Maybe
that was it… I glanced away.

The
dog pressed her nose against my thigh. She squinted at me and then dropped her
head on my knee as I scratched her ears.

“You
all right?” he asked. “You look a little pale.” He set those eyes on me again,
and I felt like I’d burn up right there on the porch. He seemed to genuinely
care, despite the fact that I’d accused him of trespassing.

“It’s
the heat,” I said. “I’m not used to it any more.”

He
smiled, revealing dimples that were made for disarming people like me. “Where
are you coming from?”

“Raleigh.”
My eyes drifted to the inside of his forearm, to his tattoo. I had a soft spot
for tattoos—especially the kind only partially revealed by clothing. I didn’t
want him to catch me staring, though, so I looked back to the dog, who had
started to drool on my knee. Apparently she’d decided I was no longer a threat.

“How
about a glass of water?” he asked, touching my arm.

“Sure,
thanks.”

He
stared at me like he thought I might faint. “It’s a hot one today. I’d bring
you inside, but the A/C units have been acting up, blowing fuses every chance
they get. I’m trying to give them a rest.”

I
leaned against the stair railing, feeling light-headed.

“At
least out here there’s a breeze,” he said. He disappeared into the house,
leaving me on the porch. I pictured myself sitting in a rocker with Vergie,
sipping tea and eating macaroons. It didn’t seem possible that someone else
could live here now.

“Here
you go, cher,” Jack said, sitting next to me again.

Cher.
I
fought back a smile, thinking that was likely his way of getting anything he
wanted from a woman. There probably weren’t many that could turn down the likes
of him.

Jack’s
knee brushed mine, and I instinctively moved my leg away. “You know you have to
leave,” I said. I tried to be as nice as possible while standing my ground.
Being a landlord was not anywhere on my to-do list.

“Usually
it takes longer for women to tell me that.”

“Sorry,”
I told him. “I’m no good at evicting people.”

“Then
don’t,” he said, his voice light. He smiled again.

“I’m
not in the business of renting. I’m here to fix this house and sell it. I’m
afraid that means you have to leave.”

“But
I live here,” he said. “You know how hard it is to find nice places out this
way?”

“Didn’t
you think that when the landlady died, you should start looking for a new
house?” I leaned against the banister, fanning myself. “I’m sorry that this
comes as a surprise to you, but I’ve got no other option.”

He
shrugged. “I’d paid Miss Vergie up through the next few months. I figured I had
a couple more weeks to worry about moving.”

I
tried to wrap my head around the logic of that. It was hard to give him a firm
glare when he gazed at me with those woeful eyes.

Like
a calf in a hailstorm
,
Vergie would have said.

“How
about if I refund your rent?”

He
ran his hands through his hair. “How about you keep renting to me,” he
suggested.

I
laughed but then saw he was serious. “I’m no landlord, Mr. Mayronne. I don’t
have time for that kind of responsibility.”

“How
hard can it be, cher? You just collect a check now and then.”

“I
don’t live around here. I can’t keep this place up.”

“I’ve
been keeping it up just fine.” He sounded insulted. “You think I called Miss
Vergie every time a pipe burst? I’ve been fixing things up all the while. You
wouldn’t need to be nearby.”

The
place did look OK, but he’d done some half-assed repairs. A couple of boards on
the porch were unfinished, recently replaced. The paint on the door and window
sills was fresher than the rest, making the older paint look dirty. The inside
was probably peppered with spots that needed a matching coat of paint or a few
finishing nails. People were constantly doing do-it-yourself repairs only
halfway, which always meant more work for me.

“You’ll
have to find another place,” I said.

The
dog sat up, ears flat.

“But
Enza, you can’t just kick me out.” His eyes were bright blue, but they flashed
darker as he became flushed. When the light hit them, I saw little flecks of
green, and I wanted to lean in for a better look. I was helpless around
good-looking, charming guys like him, and I knew if he caught on to that, he’d
try anything to stay.

I
set the glass of water on the ground and stood so I could glare down at him.
“I’m the owner, Mr. Mayronne. I can do whatever I want.” He might have been a
friend of Vergie’s, but that didn’t mean he’d have her roof over his head for
the rest of his life.

The
dog growled, deep in her throat, and wiggled her haunches. Jack pointed a
finger at her, and she stopped. “Come on, cher,” he said. “I don’t want any
trouble. But I don’t want to be out of a home, either.”

“Look,
this isn’t personal. This is running a business.”

He
stood then, rising a head higher than me. “This is not what your grandmother
would want,” he said calmly.

I
climbed to the top step to look him in the eye again. “How would you know what
she’d want?” I leaned closer. “How dare you.”

“Because
she was thoughtful and considerate,” he said, standing so close I could see
those stupid green flecks in his eyes, “and she wouldn’t kick a man out into
the cold.”

“I
don’t think you have to worry about the cold around here.”

He
leaned against the banister. “I signed a lease, you know. I’m supposed to have
a few months left.”

“There’s
a loophole for death of the landlord. Those are standard.” I glared at him
until he finally looked away.

He
paced across the porch. His broad shoulders drooped as he shoved his hands in
his pockets. I felt bad for the guy, but there wasn’t an easy way out of this.
As Jack Mayronne scratched his stubbly chin, he reminded me of the last man I
fell in love with. He used to scratch his chin like that when he was deep in
thought. I could still feel the roughness of his cheek against my skin. The
thought made me shiver.

I
shoved the thought away. Right now I needed to focus on fixing this house and
proving my father was wrong about me.
You’ve got no follow-through, Enza,
he
liked to say all too often. I told myself that was just boredom—if I could
finish projects fast enough, then I wouldn’t push details aside. Even though
Dad was a big-picture man, he loved zooming in on the details and using them to
point out my weaknesses.

I
hated him for that, but I feared he might be right. Fixing this house, though,
would prove I wasn’t as weak-willed as he liked to think. That would be one
delicious moment.

But
first I had to get rid of this man who seemed as rooted here as the cypress in
the backyard.

BOOK: Bayou My Love: A Novel
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