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Authors: Jean Brashear

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Renee grimaced. “You’re a sore loser, Mom.”

“Actually—” Anne paused before the parlor doors and patted her daughter’s cheek. “I’m feeling pretty lucky this morning.”

“Mom!” Her daughter’s eyes popped wide, and it was all Anne could do not to laugh. “Why, you hussy.” Renee rubbed her hands together. “Okay, I’ll be your decoy, but you have to dish details as soon as we escape.”

“Oh,
chère
.” Anne hugged her again and held on. “I am so happy to have you here with us. I know you and Pete will have to return to L.A. soon, but—”

Renee tightened her grip. “No, Mama, we don’t.”

“What are you saying?”

“As a top-notch director, Pete’s in demand, yes, and he has to travel a lot, but he understands the importance of family. He knows we all have to pull together right now to make the hotel’s future sound, and he says he can just as easily have New Orleans as his home base.”

Anne’s eyes stung suddenly. “Oh,
bébé
. I wouldn’t have asked—”

Renee kissed her cheek. “I know. You don’t have to, Mom. We love you, all of us. We admire how you kept going after Papa died. We want to be here for you.”

“Then I’m more than lucky today. I’m truly blessed.”

“Is that you, Anne?” Celeste’s voice came from behind the door.

Anne sighed. Rolled her shoulders like a boxer. “
Oui, Mère
.”

“I’ve got your back,” Renee whispered and squeezed her hand. “And anyway, we can run faster than she can.”

They were both trying to stifle their giggles as Anne opened the door.

 

W
ILLIAM WAS
on his way downtown immediately after Anne left. He’d sent an e-mail last night to Jud Lawson, the attorney who was serving as trustee for his offer on the Hotel Marchand, requesting that the lawyer he’d hired for this one purpose clear time for him as soon as possible today. First thing this morning, there’d been an answer that Jud had pushed all his appointments back and would be available as early as William cared to arrive.

There were benefits to being a powerful man. William was not averse to trading upon them when needed, and now was such a time. The desperation in Anne’s voice last night when she’d spoken of the demand Charlotte had received worried him. Anne didn’t want to sell; he knew that. But rather than jeopardize the financial welfare of her daughters, she very well might force herself to accept the loss of Remy’s dream. Her dream. At base, he was certain that what she and Remy had wanted, as all good parents did, was to give their children as secure a future as possible. Anne had proven willing to take risks for herself, but he doubted that extended to her girls. If the hotel’s future seemed doomed, she would cast aside those dreams in favor of cashing out for whatever she could recoup.

She deserved better. If she had another offer in hand, a decent one, with no urgency attached, perhaps she
would feel the freedom to hang on for a while, and matters might improve. She and her girls were working hard to steady the hotel’s footing, and he would never bet against Anne Marchand.

Especially not when it gave him more time to lend his own influence toward that end. If she wouldn’t accept money from him, he could be there to encourage her, yes, and he would. But he also had the ear of suppliers they held in common, and giving them a nudge to offer her more favorable terms or ride with her longer would be easy enough for him to do.

A delicate balance would be required not to trigger a lot of questions that would make the rounds of the hospitality community in New Orleans. He would never want to embarrass Anne in front of her contemporaries, nor did he have any desire for word of his tinkering with fate to get back to her.

Damn it, if she’d just accept a simple, businesslike loan, he wouldn’t have to tread such a precarious path.

Of course, none of what was between them had anything to do with business. And it wasn’t the least bit simple.

Judith had seen through to the heart of him. If this were any other hotel, he’d be snapping it up with merciless speed. He’d built a thriving chain by having an instinct for timing, efficiency and economy, leveraging himself into putting out the least investment for the greatest return.

He would never have believed the day would come when he’d be guilty of anything as senseless as making this offer.

Much less enjoying the prospect so much. Despite the potential for disaster, it had been a long time since he had danced this close to the razor’s edge.

The woman was making him crazy.

And he was having a ball.

CHAPTER EIGHT

“C
ORBIN
,”
THE VOICE RASPED
.
“Clock is ticking. Your note comes due in ten days.”

“You’ll get your hotel,” Dan Corbin said. “And our debt will be erased.”

“Maybe.”

Maybe?
If he were his reckless brother Richard, he’d be blustering threats, scattering shotgun bursts of defiance.

Thank the fates that crime boss Mike Blount only had Dan’s cell number. This situation called for a clear head. “Our arrangement was clear. In exchange for the funds to pay off the note coming due on our Lafayette property, we deed the Hotel Marchand to you as soon as we close on it. You get your foothold in the Quarter, a respectable front to expand your gambling operation plus some high-class whores operating out of a few of the rooms. Everybody wins.”

“Your boy inside isn’t getting the job done.”

Dan had his own reservations about Luc Carter, but he wasn’t sharing them with this man. “He’s had a few setbacks.”

“He ain’t got jack accomplished.”

“The hotel’s bookings are not where they should be.
This is their biggest season, and they’re losing ground. They know they’re not gonna make it. I just upped the ante. The mother will cave.”

“Not if Regency Corp. steps in.”

Regency Corp.? Oh, hell. “They won’t,” he bluffed. “Not their kind of property.”

“Anne Marchand has been spending a lot of time with William Armstrong.” A pause. “You didn’t know that, did you?”

Dan silently muttered vile curses. “Of course I did. It’s not what you think. Armstrong and her husband hated each other.” Why hadn’t Carter told him about this?

“Then what was she doing having dinner with him last night? Or in a lip-lock with him this morning?”

The bastard had someone watching Anne Marchand. Looking over Dan’s shoulders.

Bluster wouldn’t get past this. Only action would. “I’m stepping up the pace. I’m thinking a good fire will be the killing blow.” He’d already placed a call to Carter, who, damn him, wasn’t answering.

“I don’t want my property damaged.”

“Done properly, serious damage will be minimal, but the revenues the Marchand women are counting on to save them will be history.”

“Who you got planning the logistics?”

“A couple of guys who know their stuff.” Or he would have.

“My guys are better. I’ll have Ricky and Hank call you.”

Everywhere Dan looked, the walls were closing in.
Damn Richard for playing fast and loose with the money they’d socked away. Once this was over, he was going solo.

For now, though, he had to keep his head and get himself out of this problem. He’d cut his brother loose gladly, except that it was better to keep him close, so he could limit further damage. “That would be great. Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me,” Blount said. “Get me my hotel or get me the money…and the interest just went up ten per cent.”

Dan squeezed the bridge of his nose. “You won’t need the interest. The Hotel Marchand will be mine by Mardi Gras, and yours soon after.”

“Unless you get extradited before then, you dumbshit. You and your brother committed the one unforgivable sin that will take down a con every time.”

Dan clenched his jaw. “And what was that?”
You sanctimonious prick
.

“Not knowing when to get out. You got greedy.”

“No one knows where we are.” Though he was damned tired of being on the lam.

“I do.” Blount laughed. “Easiest thing in the world to drop a dime on you.”

“But you won’t. You need me.”

“For now.”

The call ended with a decisive click.

 

L
UC’S PHONE VIBRATED
in his pocket. He ignored it as he soothed a distraught woman whose luggage had been lost by the airlines and who needed a dress for a special
occasion tonight. “Monique will take superb care of you, Mrs. Davis. Her boutique caters to the cream of New Orleans.” He punched in the numbers of A Private Affair.

“But my clothes always need alteration, and the dinner is three hours from now.” The woman’s eyes were red. “Frank told me not to pack so much that I had to check a bag, but I was just so afraid I wouldn’t have the right clothes. This promotion is so important to him.”

“I promise you—” The smoky voice answered. “Monique? It’s Luc Carter at the Marchand.”

His cell vibrated again, and Luc tried to tune it out, along with the sniffles from their guest as he related what he needed to Monique.

The days were insane, and they were only going to get worse as Carnival heated up. This job was a killer, even without the additional pressures exerted by the Corbins.

He frowned at the thought, and Mrs. Davis began to weep again. “Oh, no. I knew it.”

“No, no. Everything is fine.” Into the phone he said, “Twenty minutes would be wonderful, Monique.”

He hung up and focused on their guest, though his cell was vibrating again. “If you’ll return to your room, Mrs. Davis, Monique will be here in about twenty minutes with a selection of gowns from which you can choose.”

The woman looked as if she’d just seen Santa Claus. “She will?” Then her brow wrinkled. “But what if they don’t fit?”

“Monique is an accomplished seamstress herself, and she has another one on her staff. She promises you will be dressed to kill this evening. If your husband
doesn’t get promoted, it won’t be because his wife wasn’t suitably attired.”

The woman launched herself at him and caught him in a death grip. “Oh, Mr. Carter—” She gave him a big, smacking kiss on the cheek. “You’re just— I don’t know what I’d have done.” She was weeping again.

Luc patted her on the back and gently removed her. He took one hand and pressed it between his. “The Hotel Marchand takes pride in the tender care of its guests. It was my privilege to help you.” He removed the snowy handkerchief that he’d learned to carry in this job, one of a stack always waiting in his office. “Please.” He held it out to her. “And perhaps you would allow me to send our masseuse to your suite, once Monique has finished?” Anne Marchand had been very smart to allow a massage therapist space to set up shop here, for situations just like this.

“Oh, my word, you are just the loveliest man,” she said, blowing her nose. Her head lifted. “Are you married? My daughter is so sweet, and she—”

“Of course she is. And it’s easy to see why, with a beautiful mother like you.” Gently he turned her and escorted her toward the elevator. When the doors opened, he ushered her inside. “Have a lovely evening, Mrs. Davis.”

The woman’s eyes sparkled with hope for the first time. “Oh, I can’t thank you enough, Mr. Carter. Why, I—” She was still talking as the doors closed.

“I was so concerned that we’d never find a suitable replacement for Alphonse,” said a low, beautifully-
modulated voice from behind him. “But he couldn’t possibly have handled that better.”

Luc turned to face Anne Marchand. Felt again the wash of shame at what had been done to her and her daughters. Her hotel. “Thank you.”

“If you decide to marry Mrs. Davis’s daughter, please promise me you’ll make her come live in New Orleans.” Anne smiled, but Luc saw a glimmer of her worry. “We need you, Luc. It’s going to require all of us to get this hotel on safe ground.”

Just then, Luc’s phone vibrated again, and it was all he could do not to hurl it to the floor. “I’m happy to be part of the team,” he said, and meant it. Somehow he would make this up to her.

“Part of the family,” she insisted.

He’d never really experienced that. It had been only him and his mother for so long.

Anne didn’t know what she was saying or how her words were water on dry, thirsty ground.

Though he had no right, he smiled back at her. “Family.” He wanted to offer her something now, some sign of hope. “We’ll make it, Mrs. Marchand. What you’ve built will still be here for your grandchildren and their children.”

If he’d felt bad before, he felt worse now as her beautiful eyes swam with tears. She pressed one hand to his forearm. “My girls need you, Luc. Thank you so much for being here.” She paused, studied him, her gaze warmer than ever, but sad, too.

“What is it?”

She shook her head. “Nothing, just…” She laughed
faintly. “For a second there, you reminded me of someone I haven’t seen in a long time. I love him very much.”

He frowned. “Who is it?”

She bit her lip. “My brother.”

Luc’s heart started pounding in double time. “I didn’t know you have a brother,” he all but stammered.

“I don’t know if I still do or not. He’s been gone for many, many years, but I still miss him.” She pinched her nose. “Don’t mind me. Just an old woman’s folly.”

“You’re not old.”

“You’re sweet,” she said. “He was a troubled boy, but he was sweet, too, with me. I loved him desperately and tried to protect him, but—” She waved a hand. “I apologize. You’re busy, and I must be on my way, too. Thank you again for all your hard work, Luc. Remy would have been so pleased with you.”

Desperately, Luc wanted to prolong the conversation, but this was not the place or the time.

And she would hate him when she knew.

As he was beginning to hate himself.

So he watched her go, sobered by the knowledge of just how wrong he’d been about everyone but his termagant of a grandmother.

Anne had loved her brother. Missed him still.

I’m so sorry,
he wanted to say to the woman walking away from him.
I’ll make it up to you, I swear.

His phone vibrated again.

Jaw clenched, he yanked it from his pocket and answered. “Carter.”

“Where the hell have you been?” Dan Corbin shouted. “Why aren’t you answering?”

Luc bit back the retort jostling to be said. “I have a job.”

“To hell with that. You work for me.”

Screw this. “I’m doing my best,” he managed.

“It’s not good enough.”

Corbin sounded frantic. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? He asks me what’s wrong?” Corbin’s voice rose. “We have ten days until Mardi Gras, and that bitch isn’t budging. It’s time to up the ante.”

“How?”

“I want you to find the best place to start a fire.”

Luc’s blood chilled. “You can’t mean that.”

“I do.”

“A fire could kill someone. And in the Quarter, everything is too close together. It could be a nightmare. Why would you want to damage the hotel? That hurts you, too.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion. Anyway, I’ve got experts coming in. We don’t want major damage, just some added pressure. Some smoke, enough stuff burned to send guests home, shut down the hotel during the busiest season.”

“Then you’d have to restore their confidence when you take over. Why would you want to do that?”

“You don’t question my orders, Carter. You just take them, or—”

“Or what?”

“You’re not doing the job, you’re no use to us.” The menace was unmistakable.

Luc had never encountered anything like this. For a
second, he was tempted to run. He could get a job anywhere.

But there was his aunt. His cousins. Family.

He had no choice but to stay here and be alert. He’d have to be everywhere. All the time. Christ, it was impossible—

“You hear me, Carter? I’ll give you one day to figure out where to set the fire, then I’m sending in a team. They have a lot of skills besides arson.” The threat was clear. He played along or he was gone…maybe permanently.

If only he had someone he could talk to. Bounce ideas off.
Dear God, Papa. What have I done?

He had to buy time to think, but time was in short supply. Very short.

“I hear you.”

“Good.”

Then Corbin was gone.

 

W
ILLIAM LEFT
Jud Lawson’s office, satisfied with the offer they’d structured. Jud had assured him that his staff would have the documents in proper form by noon, and Jud would deliver the offer to Charlotte Marchand himself.

In his heart, William wanted to hand them to Anne, not Charlotte, and in person. To tender the offer as proof that he would do anything, whatever it took, to secure her future. To be sure she understood his motivation.

But he already knew that she would, at best, tear up the documents with a pitying smile.

At worst, she’d snap the fragile link between them
and refuse to see him ever again. Then he’d be powerless to protect her.

This approach, while risky, was the best compromise he could structure. He could always recant on the offer, should she and Charlotte accept it, once the hotel was back on its feet. Or deed the hotel back to her, if the future he was beginning to hope for panned out but she didn’t want to be business partners.

In the meantime, the offer would be there and, best he could ascertain from his sources, significantly higher than the one Anne was wrestling with now—but not so high that it would be immediately suspect. It would serve as a placeholder, a fallback position to give Anne heart.

But because it was made through Jud as trustee, it bore no connection to William. He could continue as her confidant. Stay close and be privy to what she was thinking. Free to intervene, if needed.

He pulled into the parking garage at his office, feeling easier than he had in weeks. Months, actually. He was not a man well-suited to inaction. Maybe this wasn’t the ideal solution, but given Anne’s stubborn pride, it was the best he could manage. He was incapable of simply standing back and watching her struggle any longer while doing nothing himself. She’d already wound up in the hospital from the combined weight of worry and work.

She was too important to him, and he was not going to take a chance on losing her.

For a second, his thoughts lingered on the woman who’d greeted him at his door this morning, eyes dark with concern, off-balance yet determinedly offering an apology.

And the woman who’d all but kissed his socks off. Laughed with him. Teased him.

Taunted him with possibilities….

There was no maybe to it, he saw now. He was captivated by Anne Marchand.

Crazy in love with her.

He was grinning as the elevator doors opened. Still grinning as his receptionist, then his assistant smiled back.

BOOK: Love Is Lovelier
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