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Authors: Jean Brashear

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BOOK: Love Is Lovelier
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She was right; he couldn’t deny it. Once he would have been leading the charge.

But it was Anne’s hotel they were talking about.

Anne’s heart.

All his daughter’s questions were on target, her points apt. She was his child, his only child…and she opposed the woman he wanted in his life.

William was not a man accustomed to feeling powerless, yet at this moment he was caught between the daughter he loved and the woman who, each day, occupied more of his attention.

“I’m going to have to ask you to trust me in this matter, Judith. To give me time to consider if there is any compromise that could work.” He didn’t want to have to remind her that he had the final authority. He’d been trying very hard to help her build a future and regain her self-confidence.

But the balance was too delicate. He didn’t like what he was seeing going on at the Hotel Marchand, and he couldn’t shake the sense that Anne was in danger. He couldn’t risk having her informed that he was behind
any offers and seeing her back away from him. He’d never be able to protect her then.

“And I’m also going to ask for your word that you will not be a party to Anne learning of any of this. There are forces at work that you don’t understand.”

When she looked wounded that he would need to ask for her promise, he didn’t explain because he didn’t want her mixed up in whatever was going on. “How about you and Anne and I have dinner sometime in the next week or so? That way you can determine for yourself what she’s like.”

“No, thank you.” Judith rose, graceful as always, and stood tall as a young queen, her mask once again complete. “As you said, it’s none of my business.”

Just as he was about to respond, his assistant buzzed him. “Mr. Armstrong? London on line one.”

“Ask them to hold for a minute, please, Margo.” He turned back to talk to his daughter.

But she’d already made her way from the room.

William swore softly and vowed to seek her out and somehow make this right.

But for now, he had business to attend.

 

F
OR THE SECOND TIME
that day, Anne was nervous.

And once again, William Armstrong was the cause.

Ridiculous. She was no green girl. This wasn’t a date. It was only—

She pressed one hand to her stomach.

—dinner. Simply a meal between two old friends.

But she sure didn’t feel old in that instant; more like
a giddy girl, actually. And were they friends? She supposed they might have been, once, long ago, had she not been a lowly freshman in a girls’ school while he was the dashing football captain, class president and champion debater in his own, and a senior, to boot.

By the time she’d returned from college, he was already ensconced at The Regency, following in his father’s footsteps, a man of business making his mark in a city she longed to escape. Their mothers were best friends, conspiring so obviously to link their families that he and she were constantly being forced into proximity. He’d been charming and attractive in an intense way that could make her stomach flutter, but clearly not ready to settle down any more than she was.

And then she’d met Remy, and all bets were off.

Forty years later, her stomach was fluttering again, despite her best intentions.

A knock on her door kicked the sensation into giant flapping wings.

She emerged from the cool mint-and-peach oasis of her bedroom into the living room of the family quarters, smaller than they had been when she and Remy were raising the children. Once the girls were all grown, they’d kept only their bedroom and living room with its small kitchen, returning the two rooms shared by their girls to paying guest suites.

Nonsense,
she lectured herself as she crossed the room to the door.

She turned the knob. As the opening widened, William perused her from head to toe.

And whistled.

“Stop that.” But she couldn’t help responding to his wicked grin with one of her own. “
Mon dieu
—I’m a grandmother.”

He arched one dark eyebrow. “Do you feel like one?”

“After a day at the zoo, frankly, yes,” she responded tartly.

He leaned in and captured a quick, heated kiss, but backed off before she could protest. “You smell wonderful,” he murmured.

His nearness was going to her head. Scrambling her brains in a manner she no longer knew how to handle. “I’m starving.”

In a glance, he communicated his comprehension of her dodge—and his amusement that she felt the need for it. “Then, by all means,” he said, “Let’s restore your strength.” He paused. “Unless, of course, you’d prefer to order in.” Challenge danced in his tone.

He’d been a bachelor out on the town for several years. She’d had only one lover. The playing field was uneven.

But she refused to concede the advantage. She’d always been a quick learner. “I don’t think you want any more tongues wagging around here than are already.”

“I’m not the one who is uncomfortable about being seen together.”

She couldn’t find a proper response.

He rescued her, tucking her hand into his elbow and turning them both toward the door. “So tell me how the delightful Daisy Rose is doing, G-mama.” His grin was quick and sinful and made it perfectly clear that her
attempts to hide behind her status as grandmother were transparent…and doomed.

“She asked after Bo. She wondered if she might play with him and ‘Mr. Will’ again soon.” Sometimes when Anne and Celeste were babysitting, Daisy Rose had joined Anne and William on their walks.

A quick slash of white teeth. “Mr. Will and Bo would be honored,” he answered. “Perhaps I’ll call her myself and invite her to visit—” a waggle of dark eyebrows “—with the suggestion that she ask her G-mama to drive her.”

A dangerous man, William Armstrong. Anne experienced the headiness of being pursued and, despite all the worries that surrounded her, couldn’t help but think that she hadn’t felt so…female…in a very long time.

“You are ruthless,” she said, but couldn’t suppress her smile or the little lift inside her. “Now stop flirting with me and buy me dinner.”

“Dinner you may have.” He captured her free hand and brought it to his lips. “The other…not a chance.”

Anne held her breath in anticipation as his mouth hovered over her skin.

Warm breath whispered against her flesh, and she shivered.

He came no closer.

But his smile said he’d noticed.

He’d been around for months with increasing frequency, but suddenly, everything seemed to be moving too fast. If she weren’t careful, she could be swept off her feet by this handsome, charismatic man only too easily.

But she couldn’t falter now, not when her children’s legacy seemed to be more precarious by the day.

 

O
UT ON THE STREET
, a man withdrew into the shadows, observing the couple who approached the gleaming black Jaguar. After the woman was seated, her escort shut the door and rounded the hood, a smile playing over his features. He settled into the driver’s seat, and the car started with a predator’s throaty roar.

The observer flipped open his phone and punched two keys. “He’s with her again,” he said to the party listening. “Want me to follow?”

“Not tonight,” was the answer. “Stay where you are for now. Let me know when he brings her home.”

“If he does. They looked pretty cozy to me.” He chuckled at his own joke.

“Hmmph.” A long drag on a cigarette. “I don’t like this. I don’t have anyone to relieve you tonight.”

“They’re old. Chances are, they’ll only have dinner, then call it a night. Though she’s pretty great-looking for an old lady.”

Another pause. “I’m calling the boss. I don’t like this,” he repeated and hung up with a click.

The observer closed his phone and settled in to watch for girls lifting their shirts, practicing for the Mardi Gras parades just around the corner.

 

“W
HERE DID YOU
find this place?” Anne asked as she shucked the spicy shrimp. “The food is amazing.”

“It’s not exactly your kind of environment.”

Her eyebrows rose. “Which would be—?”

“White linens, candlelight. Fresh flowers.”

She glanced around at the modest shotgun cottage,
located on a street in a part of town she’d never visited. Its walls were simply decorated with old Mardi Gras posters, and the metal tables were covered with plastic. “We have a candle.”

“In a dime-store pot.”

“Yet you brought me here.”

“I thought you needed messing up.”

She was certain her brows neared her hairline now. “Funny, I only thought I needed more napkins.” An errant impulse prompted her next remark before she could censor it. “Of course, I could just lick my fingers.”

His eyes darkened. His nostrils flared. “Then we wouldn’t have to flip a coin, after all. We’ll be headed straight to my house.”

“Oh?” She didn’t look away, though she felt a little like she was baiting a wild animal.

He opened his mouth to respond, but she didn’t give him the opening. “What about that corn on the cob you promised me?”
Coward,
she said silently.

With a small sound of impatience, William signaled the lanky teenager who’d served them.

“Anything I can do for you, Mr. Armstrong?”

“Tell Miss Celia she’s outdone herself,” William said with a wink. “The lady would like the corn on the cob. And leave us with a pile of napkins, please.”

“Yes, sir.” The young man wheeled to comply.

“Oh, and—”

The boy turned back. “Don’t tell me. More hush puppies.”

“You take good care of me, Jerome.”

“Granny would still be cooking for that nursing home without you—”

Anne realized that William was shaking his head in an effort to forestall him.

The boy frowned. Cut a glance at her.

“Why don’t you sit down, Jerome. Tell me more.”

His gaze shifted to William. “Well, ma’am, see, I’d better be gettin’ back now. Granny might skin me.”

His obvious discomfort at being caught between his hero and her forced a laugh from her. “I understand. I’ll just work on Mr. Armstrong here, instead.”

Relief blossomed on his features. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll just be gettin’ those napkins for you. And that corn.” He made a quick escape.

She wiped her fingers on the remaining napkin. “So you’re Granny’s angel, William?”

To her surprise, he seemed uncomfortable, something she’d never witnessed in this very urbane man. “There’s nothing to tell, really.”

“Oh, I suspect there is.” She studied him as he focused on something of great interest on the tabletop.

She couldn’t help laughing. “You’re a fraud, William Armstrong. The big, bad empire builder is a softie underneath all that swashbuckling.”

Now he was blushing. And she was delighted with him.

He caught her gaze, and the warmth in his sent an answering ripple through her. “Anne.” Layers of meaning, worlds of possibility threaded his tone.

Mon Dieu
. She wanted to fan herself. Had a strong urge to run from all that he frothed up inside her when
she’d thought what was left to her were years of, at best, peace. Acceptance that she was now only a mother…a grandmother…

Never again a woman in that ripe, delicious, best sense of the word.

Why, oh why, did the man who stirred up her juices have to be Remy’s old rival?

She leaped to her feet. “I’m going to get my own corn.”

He did a double-take. “What? Jerome will be right back.”

Of course he would. But she needed to escape. Order her thoughts, away from William’s overwhelming presence.

“I want to meet Miss Celia.” Without another second’s pause, she made her way toward the kitchen.

 

W
ILLIAM WATCHED HER GO
, too bemused to sort out what in blazes had just happened. One second, she was teasing him, the next, her hazel eyes had gone dark with what he’d stake his fortune was a passion that was a match for his own…then she’d jumped up and—

A smile she’d very likely term a swashbuckler’s slowly curved his lips.

Go meet Miss Celia, indeed.

Anne was running scared.

Which meant he was making progress.

Just then, Jerome emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of corn on the cob, a fistful of napkins and a very flustered expression.

William rose to his feet and waved him closer.

“Mr. Armstrong, I— That lady—” The boy brandished his burden. “The corn will be cold, and—”

William scanned the small dining room. Spotted a mother with two strapping sons. “Leave some of the napkins here, take the corn to them with my compliments and put it on my tab.” He stepped around Jerome.

“But what will you do, sir?”

William nodded in the direction Jerome had just left. “Why, I’m going to the kitchen, son.” With a clap on the boy’s back, he left the befuddled young man behind.

Before he entered, though, he paused in front of the small window in the swinging door. Celia was a good woman, but a tyrant in her kitchen. She had endless patience with her food and her grandson, but little for anyone else. William thought it prudent to scout the territory first and determine if Anne required rescuing from a woman he’d seen freeze a burly deliveryman in place with only a scowl. She most emphatically did not like being interrupted while she was cooking.

He should have known, he thought as he peered inside. Anne had once again wielded her magic. Where he’d expected thunder, she’d apparently not only soothed but delighted. Celia was still assembling dishes and stirring pots in the way only veteran cooks could do, juggling ten things at once—but she was smiling and talking to Anne at the same time.

He pushed open the wood a bit, so he could hear.

“Miz Marchand, no one ever compared me to a French Quarter chef before,” Celia was saying.

“Anne, please. I’m telling you that Remy was the best
I ever knew, but you’ve managed something with your spices on that shrimp that he would be gnashing his teeth over. He’d be begging you to come work with him, I can promise you that.”

“Well, ain’t that just somethin’?” Celia shook her head. “You want the recipe, that it?”

BOOK: Love Is Lovelier
8.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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