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Authors: Jean Brashear

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“I haven’t won nearly all I intend to, Anne.” He kept his gaze locked on hers.

“I’ll commit to breakfast,” she challenged. “Then we’ll see where things go.”

He thought of the way she’d looked in the water, the feel of her in his arms. One of the chief tenets of successful negotiations was patience. He’d had to demonstrate it by bucket loads thus far.

He could do more, even if it killed him.

Anne Marchand was a lot of trouble.

But the challenge energized him. “I’ll call your breakfast and raise you dinner this evening.” He paused. “With coffee after. At my house.”

Her generous mouth curved and her eyes twinkled. “I’ll see your dinner. We’ll flip for coffee after.”

“Done.” He laughed and saluted her with his cup.

He kept a lucky coin in his pocket for just such an occasion, one he’d carried since college.

Lucky because both sides were heads.

CHAPTER THREE

“G
OOD SAVE
, L
UC
,”
Charlotte Marchand said to the hotel’s concierge as he grabbed for the handle of the conference room door. The phone in his pocket had been vibrating with more frequency as the staff meeting wore on.

Luc Carter had a feeling who it was and didn’t want to answer.

A dangerous proposition. The two men who had put him in place here were turning up the level of violence as the clock ticked down to their Mardi Gras deadline.

Charlotte was staring at him, and he realized he’d allowed too long a time lag. “Just doing my job,” he answered the woman he increasingly admired, to his chagrin.

His cousin. His late father and her mother were siblings who’d been estranged since before Luc’s birth. Luc’s own mother, a cocktail waitress, one of Pierre Robichaux’s many fleeting fancies. He’d even married her under a false name, Poiret.

Pierre had vanished for good when Luc was six, only reappearing when he was dying. All he’d left Luc was a legacy of bitterness and a taste for revenge.

One that was waning as he grew to know the Marchand women.

But it was too late for that to matter. He was in deep water and swimming hard to keep from drowning.

“Of course it’s your job, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you pour yourself into the hotel at a time when we really need you.” Charlotte skirted the table and approached him. He wasn’t tall at five-ten, but the top of her head barely reached his jaw. Those who looked at her and saw only a dainty brunette made the mistake at their peril. Charlotte was as Type A as they came, a restless woman whose life was dedicated to saving her family’s legacy.

The one he’d already done much to endanger.

Including stunts like erasing all evidence of the room block for last week’s wedding of two very important and politically-connected New Orleans families.

“I’ll get to the bottom of this snafu if it’s the last thing I do,” she told him. “The hurricane badly strained our financial resources. We can’t afford this negative publicity. Theft and vandalism during the power outage, lost bookings, the presence of high-profile guests being leaked to the media—it’s beginning to feel like a campaign, not just a run of bad luck. If only I could find the common thread….”

The Corbin brothers had promised Luc an ownership position in exchange for assuring that the Hotel Marchand would fall into their hands like ripe fruit before Mardi Gras. Given that his father’s relatives had turned their backs on him years ago, that Luc and his
mother had struggled to get by when they were owed a portion of the Robichaux wealth—

Once the plan had seemed tailor-made for him to exact a pound of flesh from those who’d been so callous. Who’d let his father die in disgrace and penury. Who wouldn’t have cared, even if they’d known Luc existed.

There was only one problem. His grandmother, Celeste Robichaux, was exactly the woman his father had described to him—unyielding and unforgiving. Heartless. A woman who valued family reputation more than the ties of blood.

But his aunt Anne and her daughters were polar opposites of his grandmother. He liked them more all the time. Longed to reveal his identity and join the fold.

The Corbin brothers, however, had a different agenda.

And held the noose of his past behavior, slowly tightening it around his neck.

Just then, the phone vibrated again.

“Everything will work out,” he promised Charlotte as he took a hasty departure.

If only he could figure out how to make that happy ending happen with two predators on the hunt.

 

“W
HAT A LOVELY
little girl,” Anne said to the guest proudly displaying the next in a seemingly never-ending packet of photos of her grandchildren. “You must be so proud.”

“Oh, absolutely. If only they weren’t so far—” The woman’s eyes swam. “Do you have grandchildren?”

“A three-year-old girl.” Anne smiled at the thought
of her darling Daisy Rose. “But I suspect she’ll have a cousin this time next year.”

“She lives here?”


Oui.
I’m so sorry yours live so far from you. I can’t imagine not being able to see her on a whim.” She patted the woman’s hand. “Perhaps you and your husband could use the Hotel Marchand for a family reunion. My husband and I raised our children here.” She pointed across the courtyard toward the family quarters. “We understand how important family is and do our best to make every guest, however young or old, feel that this is their second home. Have you seen our stock of riding toys?” She gestured around her. “Many a child has played in this courtyard. And for those times when the adults have other plans, we have a superb roster of highly-trained nannies. I’ve selected each one with an eye to whether I would trust her with my beloved Daisy Rose.”

The woman’s eyes grew round. “Oh my. What a wonderful idea! Next year is our fiftieth anniversary. What a splendid celebration that would make!”

Anne ignored the stab of pain at the thought that she and Remy had only been granted thirty-seven years together, and those had flown past as if they’d been ten. She found her smile again. “Perhaps you’d like to chat with Denise Sinclair. She manages all our events bookings and can tell you about next year’s calendar.”

“I believe I would. Where would I find her?”

Anne spotted Luc at the courtyard doors leading into the reception area. “Luc, may I ask your help?”

The guest’s eyes widened at Luc’s blond good looks. “He’s a heartbreaker, isn’t he?”

“The ladies do seem to take to him.” Anne smiled. “Mrs. Branson, this is Luc Carter, our concierge. Luc, would you please arrange for Mrs. Branson to meet Denise as soon as possible? She and her family might be interested in having a fiftieth-anniversary celebration at the hotel.”


Enchanté,
Mrs. Branson.” Luc bowed over the woman’s hand, and Anne bit her cheek as the guest’s eyes seemed poised to roll back in her head. “I would be delighted to take you to Denise. On the way, would you perhaps like to see our honeymoon suite? It seems to me a location well-suited for a couple celebrating fifty years of love.”

“Oh, well, my goodness—”

Luc tucked the woman’s hand into his elbow. “Please. I would be honored.”

Well done,
Anne thought. She nodded to Luc.

He winked back at her over the woman’s head, then led her away.


Mère
.” Charlotte called from behind her. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,
doucette.
” Anne accepted her daughter’s embrace. “How are you today?”

“Behind already.” She indicated Luc and the guest. “Problem?”

“Not a bit. After a conversation about her grandchildren, who live too far away from her, I merely suggested that the Hotel Marchand might be an excellent venue for
a family reunion. Turns out that Mr. and Mrs. Branson will have their fiftieth anniversary next year, so Luc is taking her to Denise by way of the honeymoon suite.”

“He’s really good. I thought we’d never find a decent replacement for Alphonse, but Luc couldn’t be more suited if he were a member of the family.”

“Sometimes it almost feels as if he is.”

“You’re sad today. Because of the talk of a fiftieth anniversary?”

Anne shook off her
tristesse
. “I’m just fine.”

“You and Papa should have had seventy years. A hundred.”

Anne swallowed the lump in her throat. “I would have cherished every second.”

“I wish I thought I—” Charlotte broke off in mid-sentence.

Her expression completed it, however. At least for a mother who adored her. “You’ll find your one and only,
chère
.”

Sorrow chased over her daughter’s lovely features. “I don’t think so, Mama.” Anne had come to associate the use of the Cajun
mama,
rather than the Creole
mère
with the presence of strong emotion in her eldest. “You have three daughters who’ve each found the love of their life. That beats the odds these days.”

Charlotte straightened, squared her shoulders. “And anyway, the next love affair in the Marchand family appears to be taking place in some strange venues, like the pool at dawn or the restaurant for breakfast.”

“Robert has a big mouth.” Anne was not pleased to
feel the need to squirm. “William and I were merely having a friendly breakfast.”

“He knows you’re back in your quarters here?” She shook her head slightly. “Of course he would. The queen probably dispatched him to return you to the castle where she can keep an eye on you.”

Anne knew she shouldn’t encourage her children’s private nickname for her mother, Celeste, but they were all adults.

And the name was apt.

“She’s not the only one who watches me a little too closely for my taste,” Anne said with an arched eyebrow, glad to turn the topic from William.

“If we didn’t, you’d be back at work full-time—don’t try to deny it.”

“I am simply lending a hand. It’s not meant to take away from the superb job you’re doing as general manager.”

The temper that Charlotte seldom let free was simmering now. “Mama, you had a heart attack only four months ago, and it’s been a struggle from day one to get you to take it easy.”

Anne drew herself up to accentuate the inch in height she had on her eldest. “My doctor has given me a clean bill of health. I’m probably in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life, and I’ll thank you—”

Charlotte burst out laughing.

Anne frowned. “I don’t find the subject amusing.”

Charlotte grinned wider. “The queen herself couldn’t have given me a more elegant go-to-hell look.
You have that down-your-nose, off-with-her-head expression down pat.”

Anne’s stiff shoulders relaxed a fraction. She placed one hand on her daughter’s arm. “Honey, I appreciate that you care—”

“But back off, right?”

Anne smiled. “I wouldn’t have said it that way.”

“Of course not. You’re the most elegant woman in New Orleans. The
Times-Picayune
got that right.” The merriment vanished from Charlotte’s face. “Mama, I couldn’t bear to lose you, too. Please.” Her forehead furrowed. “Let William take you somewhere for a few days.”

Anne blinked. “You don’t approve of William. You must really be worried about me to suggest such a thing.”

“It’s not that I don’t approve, only that—”

Anne stroked Charlotte’s arm. “I know. You adored your papa. Sweetheart, William isn’t…” She didn’t finish the thought. She didn’t know what William was to her.

Charlotte took her hand and squeezed. “It’s not my business if he’s special to you. Unless—” Her voice dropped. “If he hurts you, he’ll answer to me.”

Anne embraced her daughter. “There’s nothing serious between us, so I won’t be hurt. And you have plenty else on your mind, anyway.”

Charlotte’s frame was tight with the tension that seldom left her.

“Has something new happened since the booking mix-up?”

Charlotte rolled her eyes. “How did you find out about that?”

“I have my ways. Answer me.”

“Not exactly.”

“What does that mean?”

“I received another call from Richard Corbin.”

“Did he raise his offer again?”

“No. Instead, he issued an ultimatum. He says that their offer will only be good for another week.”

“What?
Cochon
. He has some nerve—”

Charlotte smiled at Anne’s muttered oath. “I agree.

I repeated that we aren’t looking to sell, but—”

“But what?”

“Maybe we can’t recover. We might be foolish to keep putting him off. I don’t know how much harder any of us can work, and I’m waiting for the next disaster. It’s beginning to feel like a campaign against us.”

Precisely Anne’s thoughts, though she hadn’t wanted to voice them. “We’ll do fine.” She knew she was whistling her way past the graveyard, but she refused to give up. She’d fought too hard, and now her daughters were fighting for her. “We’re Marchands. The Hotel Marchand is us, honey. Part of our blood and bone. We won’t let what your father built be taken from us.”

“Your contribution was just as critical. If only we had that money that Papa…”

Anne refused to think about the inexplicable disappearance of funds right before Remy died. “But we don’t,” she said firmly. “Remy and I built this place with far fewer resources. Working together, his girls and I will keep his dream alive.”

Her valiant daughter nodded and straightened into almost military posture. “Damn right we will.”

“Je t’aime,”
she told her daughter.

“I love you, too, Mama,” Charlotte said. “Now I’d better get going before Julie hunts me down.” Her assistant had a nose a bird dog would envy.

Anne watched as her daughter walked away, pleased that, for once, Charlotte had voiced a concern to her.

And wondered how much longer the two of them could keep deceiving one another with pep talks when all around them, darkness was encroaching.

 

“G-
MAMA
!” a small voice cried out an hour later.

“Thank you, Leo.” Anne patted the arm of the hotel’s longtime bartender, though the gossip he’d passed along was disturbing. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Sure thing, Miss Anne.” He turned with her, his face wreathed in grins. “So there’s my girl.”

“Hi, Mr. Leo.” Daisy Rose bounced from one foot to the other. “G-mama’s taking me to the zoo!” She looked up at Anne. “Right?”

“Absolutely.” Anne bent to pick her up, not as easy a proposition with a nearly-four-year-old as with a toddler, but Daisy Rose was petite, thank heavens—and Anne wasn’t ready to give up the pleasure.

“Mama, she’s too heavy,” Anne’s third daughter Sylvie protested. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

“I will not.” Mentally sighing at yet another overprotective child, Anne closed her eyes and indulged in a cuddle.

“I love you, G-mama.” As free with her emotions as her mother, Daisy Rose snuggled into Anne’s embrace.

“I love you, too, precious.” In a rhythm as instinctive as it was familiar, Anne stood there, rocking from side to side as she had done so often with her own babies.

BOOK: Love Is Lovelier
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