Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nine Nights In New Orleans - Ash Wednesday

Maggie Beaulieu got out of the cab at Magazine and Canal. For the fifth time, she checked to make sure she had the tote bag. Last night, she dreamed she left it at a Seven Eleven near the airport by accident.

Wish fulfillment, Maggie?

No. Definitely not. This might not be the most pleasant task she’d ever undertaken, but she’d do it and she’d do it right. Uncle Claude was depending on her to take care of things. He’d chosen her over all the other cousins. She’d show him he’d made the right decision.

Not that any of the other cousins had been all that eager to do it. On the other hand, they hadn’t been all that enthusiastic about Maggie doing it either.

You sure about this, honey? It’s a lot of responsibility. Don’t you think maybe we should do something a little more normal?

Maggie sighed. She’d have loved normal herself, but that wasn’t what she’d been asked to do. No, if Uncle Claude wanted normal, he would have said he wanted normal. Instead, he’d said he wanted Maggie. She took a deep breath and blew it out, probably the first of many deep breaths she’d be taking over the course of the evening. With any luck, after tonight, everyone else would agree that Claude had made the right decision after all. Or if not exactly the right decision, at least not the wrong one.

She started a brisk stroll down Decatur Street, doing her best to look like someone just out for a evening’s walk along the riverside. If nothing else, maybe after she’d done what she’d set out to do she could go to the French Market for a couple of beignets and coffee.

Oh yeah, Maggie. Let’s pretend this is just like any other delivery. Maybe you could go over to Royal and have a Hurricane.

She hugged the tote bag closer to her side. Okay, so maybe this evening’s adventure wasn’t typical. But she’d try to behave as if it were. Couples walked past her arm-in-arm, most of them smiling blissfully. Music echoed from some of the clubs, saxophones and guitars. A humid breeze slid over her cheek, smelling faintly of decay and the river.

The river. Time to move toward the riverside.

A group of women careened up the street, tottering on stiletto heels, their pastel sun dresses slightly wilted from the heat. Three of them had stacks of multi-colored metallic beads around their necks. The fourth wore a plastic crown with the number thirty at the peak. All of them carried paper cups.

Maggie detoured around them a little wistfully. She’d love to have a birthday party in New Orleans herself, tottering through the French Market with a glass of Voodoo Juice. Actually, she’d love to be doing just about anything other than what she was actually doing.

You could have said no. Nobody would have blamed you.

They wouldn’t have blamed her, but they wouldn’t have done it themselves either. And somebody had to do it. They owed it to Uncle Claude.

She did the deep breath thing again. Time to move on. It wasn’t like she had all night.

She headed up St. Louis toward Woldenberg Park. She sort of remembered walking along the sidewalk above the river there with her mother. Not that they’d ever gotten close to the water, even when they went to the park. She’d have to try to figure out her strategy once she got down there.

She sighed again. “Listen Uncle Claude,” she murmured. “I really do appreciate your having faith in me and all, but are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t like to just go back to Houston?”

#### 

Derek Bartel stuffed the collection of coins and folding money into his pocket before sliding his fiddle back into the velvet-lined case. The money wasn’t as much as he’d hoped, but it wasn’t bad for a weeknight.

Around him, tourists still strolled across Jackson Square, pausing to take pictures in front of St. Louis Cathedral. The metal-painted man who imitated statues stood frozen in place as a pair of children giggled in front of him.

Dolan had found a prime spot for their trio tonight on Chartres. People walking by could pause to listen for a few minutes before moving on, hopefully after dropping a couple of bucks into Derek’s fiddle case.

Dolan, the keyboard man, was breaking down his equipment. He’d already split the take from Derek’s case, probably raking off a little extra for himself when he did it. But since Dolan was the one who organized the group and found the spot for them to set up, Derek figured he deserved a little more for his trouble.

The bass guitarist, Peebo, didn’t feel the same way. “C’mon man, hand it over. I got rent to pay, same as you.”

Dolan grimaced, then handed him another couple of bills. “Take was thin tonight.”

Peebo shrugged. “Better than nothing.” He hoisted his case to his shoulder and turned up Chartres. “Later, dudes.”

Derek picked up his own case, watching Dolan fold up the tablecloth he’d spread in front of them to catch any overflow from the donations. “We doing this again tomorrow?”

Dolan shrugged. “Could be. Come on down anyway. If Peebo don’t show up, you and me can try doing some stuff on our own.”

Which meant he probably wouldn’t pass the news on to Peebo. Looked like they were about to become a duet. Oh well. Derek didn’t like confrontations. He wasn’t somebody who sought out trouble. He thought of himself mostly as a live and let live type. Mostly. “Good enough.”

He tucked his case under his arm and headed down St. Peter toward the river. It was a fair hike to his apartment, but the evening was clear and fairly cool, and walking saved bus fare. He only used his car for trips outside the city these days, whenever he could pick up a gig. Good for the environment. Also good for his own chronically thin wallet.

The street lights cast glowing pools along the sidewalk, leaving shadows in the doorways of the closed shops and caf├ęs. He could still hear music from the clubs along Decatur, soft echoes of saxophones and guitars.

A block away, the cast iron lamps of the Moonwalk and Woldenberg Park glowed enticingly. Great place to go strolling with somebody, as several couples seemed to have discovered that evening. On an impulse, he crossed the street and climbed the steps to the raised walkway along the riverside. Might as well enjoy the cool evening air as long as he could.

Ahead of him, he saw another solo walker, female, carrying a canvas tote at her side. She wandered slowly along the river, gazing out across the water, her dark hair catching reflected gleams as she passed the light posts. Something about her made him pause.

So slow. So sad. Just like Juliette.

He closed his eyes for a moment. He hadn’t thought about Juliette in years—it wasn’t like she was always on his mind. Still, now that he had thought of her, he started watching the woman with the tote bag a little more carefully. He slowed his own steps to stay behind her, hoping she wouldn’t decide he was a particularly inept mugger. She seemed to be looking down at the dark river water beyond the high bank, her steps slowing even more, her shoulders rounding with fatigue.

Don’t bother her. Not every sad person is looking to hurt herself. Live and let live, remember?

But even saying that to himself started a train of thought he couldn’t seem to stop. What if she’s looking for a good place to jump, a place where no one will see her? The thought drifted through his mind as she paused for a moment, gazing toward the far bank. Maybe a place like the very spot where she was currently standing. And if she decides to do something like jump, I’m the only one here. I’m the only one who can talk her out of it.

Well, crap.
CLICK BELOW TO CONTINUE

#### 

Maggie gazed across the river toward the far shore. Somehow her childhood memory of the place was very different. She’d remembered a high wall with the water directly below, absolutely perfect for her purposes. Instead, a grassy bank sloped down to a heap of stones stretching along the water’s edge. Anything dropped from the walk would land on grass or stones rather than in the river.

She grimaced in frustration. Dammit, this was supposed to be so simple. Walk along the river and just get it done, easy peasy. Instead she was going to have to find something like a bridge that could take her out over the water. Only all the bridges she could see were strictly for cars. If she walked out on one of them, she’d probably end up squashed flat under somebody’s SUV.

Lake Pontchartrain might be easier, but it wouldn’t satisfy Uncle Claude. He’d said the Mississippi, and he meant the Mississippi. Now that she’d come all the way here from Texas she wasn’t about to take the easy way out—if she’d wanted to do that, she could have stayed home in the first place.

She stepped back from the edge of the walk and felt a quick stab of uneasiness. A man was watching her a little way down the sidewalk. He carried something, and she strained to see what it was in the dim illumination from the street lights along the walk.

Looked like an instrument case of some kind, maybe a violin. Her shoulders relaxed. Nobody who played a violin could be threatening, could he? Unless he was actually hiding weapons in the case, like some Philharmonic Jack the Ripper or something.

Letting your imagination go a little crazy, right Maggie?

The man took a cautious step closer. “Good evening,” he said. “Nice night.”

Maggie nodded carefully. “Yes, it is.”

“Are you looking for someplace in particular? I live around here—I might be able to help.”

He looked a little like a poet, although Maggie wasn’t sure she’d have thought that if he hadn’t been carrying the violin case. His hair curled over the top of his collar, brushing his eyebrows in front. She couldn’t be sure of the color in the dim light, but it looked reddish brown. Brown eyes too, as far as she could tell. Tall. Slender. Long tapering fingers that were probably really good for playing the violin.

And other things.

Stop that. It wasn’t like she was here for a relationship. She had Uncle Claude to think about.

“I’m just taking a walk,” she explained. “I’m not going anywhere special.”

“Oh.” He looked a little worried all of a sudden. “Do you mind if I walk with you, then? I live in this direction.”

She shrugged, narrowing her eyes. That seemed like an innocent enough request. “Well, sure, I guess that would be all right.”

He stuck out the hand that wasn’t holding the violin case. “I’m Derek Bartel.”

“Maggie Beaulieu.” She gave his hand a quick shake, shifting the tote bag a little to do it. “You’re from New Orleans?”

He shrugged. “I live here now. I’m from Memphis originally.”

Maggie began walking again, keeping an eye on the river bank. Maybe the stones didn’t go all the way along the shore. Maybe she’d get lucky and find a bare spot where she could walk down to the edge.

“Where are you from?” Derek Bartel stepped between her and the river bank, neatly blocking her view.

“Houston,” she snapped, and then regretted it. He was just being nice after all. “Could I move on the other side of you? I like to see the river in the moonlight.”

“Oh.” He paused. “Well…sure. If you want to, I guess.”

Maggie frowned. She didn’t see why wanting to have a view of the river should be such a big deal. “Thanks.”

He gave her a quick smile. “So you’re visiting?”

“In a way. My family used to live here—a while ago.” It seemed a lot longer now that she thought about it. Everything looked different from the way she remembered.

She bit her lip. She’d promised, damn it. And now it looked like it wasn’t going to work. At least not here. She’d have to find another way to get out on the water. Maybe in daylight. Maybe…

She closed her eyes for a moment. She was going to mess it up. Just like everybody thought she would. Everybody except Uncle Claude.

Do not cry. Do not cry in front of a stranger.

“I guess that can be sort of…melancholy.” Derek Bartel’s voice was soft. “Coming back to where you used to live when you don’t live here anymore. Some of the memories can be sort of sad.”

Maggie blinked. She hadn’t really thought of it that way. Was she just feeling so down because things had changed? “I guess it can.”

She began walking again, slowly, looking out at the river below. If she stood on the top of the bank, it looked like the water came closer to the edge here. Maybe she could get near enough to deal with Uncle Claude.

“And the other thing is, night can make things seem worse sometimes.” Derek was talking a little more quickly now. “Problems can seem more serious at night for some reason.”

“I guess.” Maggie wasn’t really listening to him. She was trying to figure out how she could get down to the river from here without breaking her neck—she should have brought a flashlight. And possibly better shoes.

“Look, Maggie.” Derek stepped in front of her. “The thing is, I mean what I’m trying to say is you shouldn’t do anything rash right now. Whatever it is that’s troubling you, you can work on it tomorrow. It’s not like you have to do something right this minute. Think about it first. Just think.”

Maggie narrowed her eyes. Did he know about Uncle Claude, was he some kind of river cop? Okay, reality check Maggie. Of course he didn’t. And river cops wouldn’t go around carrying violins. But in that case, what the hell was he talking about?

“Please. Just think.” His eyes were definitely brown. Sort of like chocolate. “Don’t do anything you can’t undo.”

“Okay,” she said slowly. “What was it I was supposed to think about?”

“Just don’t do anything rash.” He took a deep breath. “Don’t hurt yourself, okay. Whatever it was that happened. It’s not worth hurting yourself. I’ll stay here with you and talk if that will help.”

Maggie narrowed her eyes. What the hell? “You’ll stay here with me?”

He nodded. “Sure. All night if you want. I’ve got nothing I have to do right now.”

Don’t hurt yourself. It took her another long moment, but the penny finally dropped. “You think I’m trying to commit suicide?”

For the first time he looked a little uncertain. “Well…yeah. Or just, you know, that you were upset. I know what it feels like to be desperate. I’ve been there.”

She stared out at the water for a long moment. “If I told you I was perfectly okay, would you go on about your business and leave me alone here?”

#### 

Should have stayed out of it, Bartel. Should have just gone on home.

Except, of course, he couldn’t do that. His memories of Juliette wouldn’t let him.

He glanced at the oversized tote bag she held tightly against her side. “I might. How about if we make a deal here. You show me what’s in your tote bag, and I go off and leave you to whatever the hell it is you want to do.”

“My tote bag?” Her eyes widened and she hugged the bag closer to her chest. “Why would I show you what’s inside my tote bag? Why the hell should I?”

He sighed. “Look, I had this friend once who got really depressed after she broke up with her boyfriend. We were close, or I thought we were, anyway. She tried to kill herself. I felt guilty afterward because I didn’t realize how upset she was, and I didn’t try to help her.”

Maggie frowned. “What did she do?”

He grimaced. They were getting off track here. “She jumped into the school fish pond. She didn’t drown, but she got really wet and she killed a bunch of fish.”

Her frown stayed in place. “Oh. Well. That’s good, isn’t it?”

Derek sighed. Really off track. “It was good that she didn’t drown, but she ended up barfing all over the landscaping. It caused a big stink. Literally. Her parents had to take her out of school—I never saw her again after that.”

Maggie’s lips were trembling, but he guessed she was trying not to laugh. Why didn’t anybody ever take this as seriously as he had? Too bad Juliette had tried to kill herself so dramatically—and failed so spectacularly. “Hey it may have been stupid, but I still felt bad about it. I mean I missed what she was feeling. Completely. And she was my friend. I saw you up here tonight and you looked so sad. I just couldn’t…” He took a deep breath. “Look, just show me what’s in the bag, so I know it’s not a Glock or something, okay? I promise I’ll leave you alone after that.”

She watched him for a moment longer, then shrugged. “Okay, you asked for it.” She set the tote bag on the ground and reached inside, pulling out a bright pink quilted bag and a leather clutch. “My purse and my toothbrush and stuff in case I needed to stay over, which it looks like I will.” She reached in again and pulled out another handful of miscellaneous stuff. “Change of clothes, paperback, cell phone.” She reached in one more time, and pulled out a metal box around six inches by six inches. “And Uncle Claude.”

Derek narrowed his eyes. Okay, this is new. “Uncle Claude?”

She shrugged again. “He was actually my great uncle, but everybody called him Uncle Claude because it was easier. He moved to Houston when the rest of my family did, but he lived here in New Orleans for most of his life.”

Derek stared hard at the box. “And now?”

“He died about a month ago. These are his ashes.”

Derek blew out a long breath. “And you carry them around with you now so you can remember him?”

She shook her head. “Good lord, no! That would be sort of demented, right?”

“Yeah, I’d say so.” He rubbed a hand across his chin. “But then why do you have them with you?”

She sighed, dropping the metal box back in the bag as she leaned down to pick up her possessions. “I have them because Uncle Claude believed in me.”

#### 

Derek Bartel was really a very nice man, Maggie decided. Having pressured her into revealing the contents of her tote bag, he now helped her pile everything back in.

He picked up her paperback from the pavement and then handed it to her. “This Uncle Claude thing sounds like a long story.”

She shook her head. “Nope. It’s actually pretty straightforward. I’m sort of the family screw-up. You give me something to do and like as not I’ll get it wrong.” She grimaced, remembering that time when she’d taken Aunt Tootie’s Pekingese in for grooming, or that time she was supposed to pick up Cousin Rhonda’s Cadillac from the mechanic, or the infamous incident when she’d tried to clean her mother’s antique cast-iron skillet. None of them had been her fault exactly. On the other hand, they were sort of typical of what seemed to happen to her more often than not. “I always give it my best shot, but I don’t always hit the target exactly right.”

“But your Uncle Claude thought you could do better?”

She nodded. “He did. He always told me I had it in me. He thought I just had a run of bad luck. Of course that run has lasted for ten or twelve years, but bless him for thinking so.”

Derek sat down on a nearby park bench, patting the seat beside him in invitation. “So what are you supposed to be doing with his ashes?”

She sank down beside him. “Well, I told you Uncle Claude came from here, right?”

He nodded. “Right.”

“He moved to Houston when my mom and dad did so he could be close to family. He lived in a retirement home there.”

He nodded again, smiling in a sort of keep going way.

She turned and looked back across the river again. Maybe the lights were Algiers. She remembered her mom talking about Algiers. “So Uncle Claude always wanted to come back here. He really missed it. He used to tell me stories about New Orleans, about what it was like to live here since I didn’t remember it all that well.”

Derek tipped his head back. “Okay. I think I see where this is going.”

“Right, well when he died, he had it in his will that his ashes should be scattered in the Mississippi in New Orleans. And that I should do the scattering.”

“Why did he want you to do it?”

She sighed. “Like I said, he believed in me. I think he felt like if I came to New Orleans and scattered his ashes myself, I’d have accomplished something. And I’d see New Orleans to boot. Besides, none of the other cousins wanted to do it. Might as well be me.”

“Okay.” He blew out a breath. “So you’re looking for a place to do the scattering?”

“I am.” She looked around the park again, managing not to sigh this time. “Only I didn’t remember that there were all those rocks along the river side. I mean, I thought I could just come to the park and dump the ashes from up here.”

He frowned. “No, you’ll definitely have to get down closer to the water. And there’s a fence between here and there.”

“I noticed.” This time she did sigh. “If I could just get down to the bottom of the slope, I think I could do it. Maybe climb out on the rocks and then dump the ashes in the water. Looks like the current would carry them away. Maybe I could climb over that fence.”

Derek turned and looked again at the railing that ran along the sidewalk, which was probably meant to keep visitors from doing just what she was planning to do. After a moment, he shrugged. “It’s not that high.”

She nodded. “It’s not.”

“I could give you a boost.”

She glanced at him, trying to see if he was serious. He was. “Okay.”

“We’ll need to hide our stuff before we try it, though. I don’t want my fiddle to end up in the water.” He tucked his violin case under the bench where it was more or less hidden in the shadows.

Maggie pulled the metal box out of her tote bag, then stowed the bag next to his violin case. “What now?”

“Now we figure out exactly where would be the best spot to do this.”

“I’ve sort of figured that out already,” she said quickly. “There’s a break in the rocks a little way down from here.”

She walked to the railing, balancing Uncle Claude against her hip.

“Ready?” He raised an eyebrow.

She nodded.

He placed his hands on her waist and lifted her to the top of the railing.

Maggie caught her breath. She’d been expecting him to just give her foot a boost so that she could step up. But she managed to hover for a moment on the top of the railing and then jump to the other side.

In another moment, Derek leapt over the railing to join her. “Where’s this break in the stones?”

She pointed toward the river’s edge, trying to get her breath. She could still feel the warmth of his hands at her waist.

“Okay. Looks like we’ll need to sort of slide down the bank and then climb out on the rocks. Are you ready?”

She nodded, pulling off her sandals and tucking them beneath the railing. They’d been great for walking in the park, but she had a feeling trying to wear them while climbing on the rocks would earn her a quick dip in the Mississippi, probably with a broken neck.

Derek took her hand, then led her in a sort of half-walk half-slide down the grassy bank to the edge of the rock pile.

#### 

What the hell are you doing? You said you’d leave her alone if she unpacked the tote. Yes, he had said that. But he was here anyway. There was just something about Maggie Beaulieu—those soulful eyes, that slightly tousled look about the hair—that made his protective sense go into overdrive. Not that she acted like she needed protection. Right now she was studying the river bank with slightly narrowed eyes.

“Maybe there?”

“Maybe.” He took her hand again, heading toward the edge of the rocks. He thought he could see a narrow channel between a couple of small boulders leading out to a large, flat rock at the end. He started forward carefully, trying to avoid sharp pebbles and bits of glass. Why she’d decided to go barefoot he wasn’t sure, but he’d just as soon she didn’t end up in the emergency room getting stitches. The moon shone dimly overhead. He could barely see the surface of the rocks they were clambering across. The possibility of Maggie tottering out to the edge with her metal box seemed less and less realistic.

“I could go out there for you,” he said quietly. “I’ve got boots on.”

She glanced down at his motorcycle boots, doubtfully.

“If you give me your Uncle Claude, I could dump him out there at the end.” Always assuming he didn’t go into the river with the ashes.

She seemed to consider the idea for a long moment. But then she sighed. “No. It has to be me. He wanted me to do it.”

He took a moment to mentally damn Uncle Claude, then shrugged. “Okay. Let’s try it.”

The next twenty minutes were definitely not a time he wanted to remember later. He managed to move in front of her, feeling his way tentatively between the boulders. She slipped along after him, sometimes grabbing hold of his hip for balance.

Of course, having her hand on his hip didn’t do much for his own balance.

Finally, they reached a large flat rock near the edge of the water. “This is as far as we can go. It’s too dark to see the rest of the rocks in the water well enough to climb over them. I’m afraid we’ll both end up in the river if we try it.”

She stepped beside him, trying to see the water in the darkness. “How close are we?”

“About a yard or so that way.” He pointed toward the dark river, lapping gently at the edge of the rocks.

She shook her head. “I don’t know if I can get the ashes into the water if I’m standing here. There’s too much rock in the way.”

He managed not to grit his teeth. You chose to be here, Bartel. “I can hold your hand while you lean out—that’s about the best I can do.”

She licked her lips. The dark water sloshed against the rocks a few feet away. “Okay, let’s try it.”

He helped her climb onto a rock with a sort of round surface where she could balance, carefully wedging his own feet so that he could hold her steady.

She picked up Uncle Claude, wiggling the lid in her hand as she worked it loose. Then she set it on the rocks next to her feet. “Okay. I’m ready.”

He stepped forward, bracing one foot again, then took hold of her hand. “Grab my wrist, and I’ll grab hold of yours. We’ll be stronger that way.”

She took hold of his wrist, then leaned out as far as she could, holding one end of the box. “This is it,” she muttered, and gave the box a shake.

It would have worked. Derek was almost certain of that. If only a puff of breeze hadn’t come up at just that moment. Most of the ashes poured into the water, but a small cloud of Uncle Claude’s remains blew back toward Maggie.

For a moment, he thought she’d be okay, but then she squeaked, jumping backward and dropping the box at the same time. He heard it strike the rocks and then slide clattering into the water, just as her feet began to slip out from under her.

She squeaked again, much louder this time, swinging her free hand desperately to try to regain her balance, and suddenly let go of his hand. Her arms windmilled as she began to topple toward the river with agonizing slowness.

He lunged forward, wrapping his arms around her waist then lifting her up and back as they both collapsed onto the rocks.

Or rather, Derek was on the rocks. With one more very loud squeak, Maggie collapsed onto Derek, managing to lodge her elbow somewhere around his diaphragm as she did.

“Are you okay?” she stammered.

“Mmmph.” Her hair was in his mouth, making it that much more difficult to get back the breath he’d just lost.

She moved her head so that he was no longer inhaling her hair. “Derek?”

“I’m okay,” he wheezed. “Mostly. I think.”

“Hey, you, down there. What the hell is going on?”

The light that shone on them was so bright he was dazzled for a moment. Maggie scrambled to the side. Derek managed to push himself semi-upright, one arm anchored around her waist to keep her from sliding off into the water.

“I said, what the hell is going on down there?”

The light moved slightly, and he got a look at the man in uniform holding the spotlight. He thought the guy was a cop, but he wasn’t entirely sure—he might be private security. Still, he looked sort of official. “Just taking in some evening air, officer.” He tried for a friendly smile, but the wheezing kind of undercut it.

The light moved to the side, landing on Maggie. “You okay, miss?” the cop called. “You need any assistance?”

She stared back at him wide-eyed. “Why, I’m perfectly fine,” she trilled. “It’s such a nice night.”

The cop didn’t look convinced. Derek wasn’t surprised. “You’re sure?”

“I’m absolutely positive,” she said. She turned to Derek, cupping his face in her hands, and pressing her lips to his.

He wasn’t exactly ready for her, but that didn’t prove to be a problem. His arms went around her waist almost automatically and he angled his head to deepen the kiss. Her mouth opened beneath his and he slid his tongue across hers, feeling a sudden charge of heat that sent the pain rocketing from his diaphragm to his groin. He moved his hand up her spine, feeling warm smooth skin and silken hair beneath his palm.

He slid his fingers into her hair, moving his mouth against hers, as heat raced through his body. He heard her soft sigh somewhere in the back of his brain. He leaned further, bending her body against his arm.

After a moment, she pulled back, blinking at him. Then she brought her fingers to her lips. He didn’t blame her—his own lips felt like they were on fire.

What was that? What the hell was that?

“Okay then,” the cop called. “Y’all need to come up out of there now. Nobody’s supposed to be down on those rocks at night. Not safe.”

“Yes sir,” Derek croaked, his gaze locked on hers. “We’ll do that right now.” As soon as I feel like I can start breathing again.

“Sorry,” Maggie whispered. “I’m sorry. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

He tried to come up with something witty and nonchalant, but his mind immediately went blank. All he could do was nod.

“I guess we’d better climb back up.” She chewed on her full lower lip, much fuller than the upper one. Bee-stung lips. He wasn’t sure where that came from. He hadn’t even remembered those words up to now.

Steady. “I guess we’d better.” He extended a hand to her, helping her to her feet as he once again tried for nonchalance and once again failed completely. “Up we go.”

“Yeah.” She sighed. “Let’s do that.”

#### 

The climb back up was a little harder than the one down had been. The grass was slick, and Maggie managed to step on a couple of sharp pebbles before she got all the way to the top. Derek climbed silently beside her, keeping his attention carefully on the railing above them.

She felt a little like kicking herself, which was the way she felt a lot of the time. Why did you kiss him, idiot? You could just as easily have grabbed his hand or something. The cop just needed to see you weren’t being held against your will.

On the other hand, that had been quite some kiss. She couldn’t regret it all that much.

Once they reached the railing, he hopped over, then turned and extended his hand to help her back to the sidewalk. For just a moment, they stood side by side. Then he moved to the park bench, bending down to retrieve his fiddle case.

Maggie dropped onto the bench, holding her sandals in one hand. Now she’d have to find herself a hotel room somewhere. It was way too late to try to get a flight home.

She closed her eyes. She hadn’t exactly done Uncle Claude proud. Yes, she’d scattered the ashes in the Mississippi, along with the box they’d come in. But she’d always pictured the process as being a little more dignified than that, particularly since she’d ended up flattening the person who’d tried to help her. Par for the course, Maggie. Par for the course.

But still, she’d done it. Uncle Claude was well and truly launched.

She leaned her head back against the bench again, feeling the evening breeze brush across her face. So long, Uncle Claude. Love you.

All of a sudden, she heard the sound of a violin, slow and pure, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…”

She opened her eyes. Derek stood next to the bench, his open case at his feet. He stared out at the river, coaxing the hymn from his fiddle. Her heart seemed to contract, as her eyes filled. Just the kind of send-off Uncle Claude would have wanted. Her lips moved silently, mouthing the words to the lovely, tremulous notes.

She waited until the last sound floated across the night air, then rubbed the tears away from her cheeks. Stupid and half-assed as her efforts might have been, they’d worked in the end. She’d come to New Orleans and done what she’d set out to do.

Derek loosened his bow and slid it into the top of his case, then put the violin reverently into its place.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

He nodded. “You’re welcome.”

She reached beneath the bench for her tote bag, then stood, trying to remember the way back to Canal.

“Hey?” he said

She looked back. “Yes?”

“Would you like to get a cup of coffee with me? Maybe some pastry?”

She took a deep breath, then blew it out. The last of the evening. “Yes sir, I would. I’d like that fine.”

His lips curved up slowly. “And for the record, the kiss was a good idea. At the time. At any time.”

Her heart gave a quick flutter as she slung the tote bag over her shoulder. “I don’t suppose you could recommend a good hotel around here. Looks like I’ll be spending the night.”

His grin broadened. “We can discuss it. Over coffee.”

She gave him a grin of her own. “Oh my, I do love New Orleans.”

He draped his arm around her shoulders, guiding her toward the stairs. “And New Orleans loves you right back, darlin’. Believe me, right back.”

3 comments:

Slick said...

Nice....thanks Meg!!

Meg Benjamin said...

You're welcome!

Kelly Jamieson said...

Awesome! Love it, Meg!!