Bourbon Street Blues
Drinking a hurricane on Bourbon Street her first night in New Orleans made absolutely no sense, which was exactly why Alexa Huston was doing it. It was a Wednesday night, but enough tourists and local college kids lined the street to give her an idea of just how overwhelming—and scandalous—her new neighborhood would probably be on the weekends. Though her new apartment was a few streets away, she was still in the French Quarter, or, as her mother had taken to calling it, “Sin by the Mississippi.”
Looking at the Hustler store and the myriad strip joints, she hated to admit that her mother wasn’t all too wrong. Still, whether it was the long day flying from Wyoming to Louis Armstrong Airport or the half-serving of alcohol she’d already imbibed, Bourbon Street actually seemed kind of charming. It was certainly not a sensible place for her to be, which only increased its appeal.
While she scanned the street, taking in the tourists throwing beads from second-story balconies and the young men high-fiving each other as they exited strip clubs, her stomach rumbled in a not-so-subtle reminder that she hadn’t eaten in a while.
On the corner, the words Bourbon House glowed from a sign, beckoning her in to eat. It seemed as good a place as any, if a little upscale, but Alexa figured after her hellish day, she deserved a little luxury for dinner. After all, who knew when her suitcases would miraculously show up at the airport? She could be stuck in these clothes for days until the moving van arrived. She needed to enjoy herself while she was still presentable. The last sips of her hurricane bubbled through the straw and she chucked the empty souvenir cup into her tote before heading for the corner.
She entered the nearly empty restaurant and claimed a seat at the bar. A quick scan of the menu revealed all the delicious native dishes she’d discovered in her thorough research of the town. The bartender sauntered over, an open smile on her young face. “What can I get you?”
Alexa rubbed her hands together in glee. “I’ll start with the alligator boudin, then have a bowl of the seafood gumbo, and a half dozen oysters Bienville.”
The bartender arched her eyebrow. “Hungry?”
A huge grin broke across her face. “Starving. And it’s my first night in New Orleans, so I feel a distinct urge to try everything.”
The woman leaned on the bar. “Then you must have a Sazerac with your meal. It’s a local drink with bourbon, absinthe, and bitters. I definitely think you can handle it.”
“Done!” Alexa could feel her hurricane buzz lapping at the tension in her shoulders. A drink with dinner sounded like a perfectly good idea.
While she waited for her meal, she whipped out her smartphone and delved back into her favorite gothic romance. She couldn’t get enough of Wuthering Heights, and she imagined such a turbulent romance would be right at home in her new city. New Orleans had that tragic, romantic vibe down perfectly.
Time slipped away as she read, only snapping back into place when the waitress placed a glass of water and platter of boudin in front of her. While she wasn’t usually an experimental eater, Alexa had done enough research before moving here to know that she needed to try alligator at least once. It was one of a long list of things to do that she’d written before flying across the country.
She’d already crossed off her #1 item: get out of the state, despite the disapproval of her parents. Twenty-seven years in the same town was quite long enough, thank you very much. And after her spectacular break up with her ex, her small hometown had become even more stifling.
Besides, she couldn’t very well pass up the only tenure-track teaching position she’d been offered. Openings for English professors were few and far between, and the local University of Wyoming campus could only keep her on part time. Secretly, she knew her parents had appreciated that she couldn’t really leave home, but she’d been in remission for so long that the foundation of their fears had crumbled.
Geronimo, she thought before biting into a ball of alligator, rice, and aromatic spices. The flavor burst across her tongue, so far from the traditional American fare she’d grown up on that she knew it would quickly become an addiction. She moaned and closed her eyes, taking another fearless bite.
“I’ve never seen someone enjoy boudin so much.” The deep, syrupy voice trickled deliciously down her spine.
She swallowed and opened her eyes to find the bar stool next to her occupied by a gorgeous man. His dark brown skin matched his decadent voice, and the leather jacket encasing his broad shoulders did unspeakable things for his body. The overhead lighting glinted off his shaved head while his laughing golden eyes captured and held her attention.
Back home, she’d eschewed bars, hating the whole scene and feeling sleazy every time a guy talked to her. Not that she’d been in years, but she remembered the skin-crawling effect of a drunk man trying to chat her up. And though this man had invaded her personal bubble about five inches back, she didn’t want him to leave.
“My first taste of New Orleans,” she finally answered. He slapped his hand against his chest. “Non! Oh, cher, what a delight you are.”
Without thinking, she nudged her plate towards him. “Join me?” She’d never been so forward, but something about this man lowered all her defenses. His wide grin warmed her chest like the Sazerac she sipped, but with a headier kick at the end.
He popped a boudin ball into his mouth, giving her a lusty wink. “Delicious. I’m Baron.”
“Alexa.” She held out her hand and instead of shaking it, he lifted it to his lips, pressing a kiss to her palm. Southern hospitality indeed.
The liberty didn’t faze her, though it should have. But he must have had one of those faces, honest and familiar, because she didn’t take back her hand until he let her go.
Her gumbo arrived, breaking the tension—thankfully. Without skipping a beat, Baron poked into her day, laughing as she regaled him with her disastrous travel story which, in hindsight, was too ridiculous not to be hilarious.
Somehow, through her soup and their shared oysters, she spilled her moving-cross-country story in spite of her normal reticence. Whether the alcohol or the man loosened her tongue, she’d never know, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself opening up to this man.
“Let me buy you dessert, cher, then I’ll show you around the French Quarter.”
She should have turned him down, but how long had it been since she’d had a relaxing night out? Since a gorgeous man had flirted with her, but been a perfect gentleman? Her unfailing instincts screamed his trustworthiness. She swept her hands across her jeans, feeling the reassuring press of her pocket knife, then threw caution to the wind. “Only if the dessert is chocolate.”
He threw back his head and laughed. “You drive a hard bargain, Miss Alexa, but I know the Bourbon House has just what you need.” He beckoned for the bartender and whispered into her ear. “Merci.”
“Have you lived here your whole life?” She wanted to know more about this man.
“Indeed. New Orleans is in my blood. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”
“That must be nice.” She sighed. “Though if my day so far is any indication, this city is going to set its hooks in me and my poor mother will never get me to come home.”
“She will have to visit you here, and see what a wonderful life you’re building for yourself.”
Alexa blushed at the compliment, premature though it was. “Oh hush.”
By the time dessert arrived, she would have sworn she’d known Baron her whole life. The only time she’d forged such an immediate connection was with her childhood friend Sara. Long-ago pain stabbed at Alexa. Sara had never made it out of the children’s cancer ward of their local St. Jude’s hospital.
“Eat, Alexa.” Baron offered her a forkful of something that looked delicious and smelled divine. “It’s not magic, but it’s so soothing you’d swear the pastry chef was a voodoo priestess.”
Her lips quirked in a smile and she took the fork. True to his word, the cake melted in her mouth in a sweet, salty, chocolaty explosion. “What is this?”
Baron took a bite and washed it down with a sip of his bourbon. “Chocolate pecan crunch cake. My very favorite.”
They didn’t talk until the plate was clean—yes, it was that good. After, when the bartender had cleared their plate, she reached for her wallet, willing to pay whatever exorbitant amount they wanted for that incredible meal.
Baron set his hand on hers. “I don’t think so, cher. Dinner is on me.” Before she could protest, he handed a stack of bills to the bartender with a wink, then turned Alexa on her stool so she faced him. “You can pay me back by letting me see the wonder on your face as you see New Orleans for the first time. Come along!”
He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, then led her from the restaurant like a perfect gentleman. Yes, he opened the door for her, and stood sentinel over her as the wandered down the middle of Bourbon Street, but not once did Baron make her feel like a fragile invalid. She’d escaped more than just the cold winter by leaving Wyoming.
A block down the street, jazz music filtered through a wrought-iron archway. Alexa tugged Baron in that direction, seeing a quartet of musicians through a crowd of people. They entered the courtyard and Baron guided her around the edges of the throng until they broke into the makeshift dance floor. A handful of couples swayed under the moonlight, the heady scent of magnolias perfuming the air.
With a graceful flourish, Baron swept her into his arms, one strong hand settling on her lower back. He twined their fingers together and brought her tight against his chest. Her breath stuttered at his closeness, the heat radiating off his body. The intimacy of the moment, perfectly innocent yet seductive, raced through her blood. It was Catherine and Heathcliff on the moors, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in the ballroom, Alice and her Mad Hatter down the rabbit hole.
One song stretched into two, then four, until Alexa was convinced they could dance there until sunlight streamed across the sky. With each tune she pressed herself closer against her mystery man. He smelled like New Orleans, sweet and peppery and biting. His cheek rested against her head and Alexa closed her eyes, imagining a whirlwind southern romance.
“I am not the one for you, pretty girl.” His voice rumbled up through his chest, imprinting every word onto her body. “But my city is nothing if not a true romantic.” She tilted up to see the truth in his eyes, disappointing and eminently reassuring. He leaned down to lay a chaste, searing kiss on her lips. “That is not to say that I would not enjoy you for a night.” Baron waggled his eyebrows, and she couldn’t help but laugh, as if she’d done the same thing a million times with him. Why did he seem so familiar?
His scent clung to her as he danced them to the edges of the crowd. He kept her close as they wended back to the street. Drunk on the dancing, on him, Alexa melted against his side when he slung an arm around her shoulder. Baron talked about Bourbon Street, pointing out Pat O’Brien’s bar, the Royal Sonesta Hotel, the Old Absinthe House, and the Marie Laveau House of Voodoo.
“Maybe I should get myself a love charm.”
Baron snugged her tighter against his side. “No need, cher, when you’ve got me.” He laughed, but if it was a joke, she didn’t get it. “I bet you’ve never had a beignet, hmm? Probably endless boring doughnuts in that hospital ward, but no beignets.”
She nodded. When had she told him about her cancer treatments? A flash of memory hit her, then vanished, only leaving her with the odd, ancient impression of Baron’s face floating above her in the ICU, giving her that cheeky smile.
Alexa shook it off. “Maybe that Sazerac wasn’t a great idea. Beignets, however, sound like an excellent cure.”
Baron turned right down St. Ann, taking them through darkened streets and past alleys that would have been haunting, had she been with anyone else. But with Baron, she felt safe. Her uncanny instincts at work again.
His stream of conversation never ceased as he told her about Hurricane Katrina and watching his city pull itself up and rebuild. Conversation turned back to her, and once again she found herself babbling on about her itch to move away from home and how fortunate she was to have been chosen as Tulane’s newest English professor.
“They are lucky to have you.” Baron slipped a few dollars into the hat of a man singing Amazing Grace on the corner, tipping an imaginary hat in his direction. The man did a double-take, crossed himself, and continued his song. Alexa could feel the man’s eyes boring into their backs.
Odd. But she could just make out the sign for the Café du Monde, another item on her New Orleans to-do list. This was turning out to be quite the productive night, all thanks to Baron. With the promise of beignets and café au lait, she didn’t give the minstrel another thought.
The café was packed, but somehow Baron found them a table in the corner where she could watch the crowds. He ordered for them, then tucked a few folded bills under the napkin holder on the table.
Within minutes their food arrived. “Be careful of all that powdered sugar, cher. You give a man ideas when it be sweetening your skin.” Beignet halfway to her mouth, Alexa blushed. She carefully nibbled at the edge, watching the soft powder drift down to the wire café table. Baron sipped his coffee and eyed her over the rim. “Maybe that’s just what you need, girl.”
She snorted, the mound of sugar that topped her beignet puffing out like a sweet cloud of smoke. “Yeah, because my last relationship was such a joyride.”
With a tut tut, Baron shook his head and stuffed a whole beignet into his mouth. His tongue flicked out to sensually lick at the sugar on his lips. “He was not meant for you. Besides,” he looked her up and down, “you held yourself back.”
Indignant, she slammed her coffee down on the table. It sloshed over the edges and spilled onto her hand. “I did not! He is the one who cheated on me, after promising to move here with me.” All the fight seeped from her body. “He’d been cheating on me a long time, though.”
She looked up at his knowing eyes through the wisps of her newly cut bangs. “How?”
“I been watching you, cher.”
Like a rubber band snapping into place, she knew her earlier memory had been right. “When I was a child? In the hospital? But how?”
Baron shook his head, a rueful smile curling around the edges of another beignet. “Secrets, secrets. But New Orleans is full of all kinds of magic, old and new. This place be good for you, if you let it.”
Before she could even start to unravel the madness Baron unleashed—and she knew he wasn’t lying, she could feel it in the pit of her stomach, as true as anything she’d ever known—he snagged his money and tipped her a nod.
She watched him walk to the counter pay, then she flicked her attention away. A few tables away, a young couple kissed powdered sugar off each other’s lips; another small group of women laughed riotously; the man next to her scribbled in a worn journal, his long fingers curled around his fountain pen. He had a poet’s hair, tumbling off his scalp to brush against his broad shoulders. While his hair might be all sweet words and romance, the sinful quirk to his wide mouth told a different story. His lips curled into a full-blown grin that hit her like a whack to the stomach. That one.
When she looked back, Baron was gone. She darted her head around, but found no sign of him.
A busboy darted over, clearing his empty coffee cup and the beignet tray now filled only with powdered sugar.
“Ma’am, is this yours?” He held up a leather bracelet with an etched metal shield on it.
She opened her mouth to say no, until she heard a deep whisper. Take it, cher. Looking over her shoulder, she saw nothing. No Baron, no one.
Curious, she held out her hand for it, and the busboy dropped it into her palm as if it had burned him. She studied the symbol imprinted on the silver, a cross on what looked like a three-tiered pyramid.
The symbol was familiar. She couldn’t place it at first, but then her research came back in a rush. Papa Ghede, one of the loa. The Voodoo gods.
Clever girl. This time when she looked around for the voice, she caught the eye of the man next to her. Her heart galloped like the New Orleans carriage horses at full speed.
His green eyes seared into her, as if they could see to the depths of her soul. Where Baron’s gaze had been warm and comforting, this man was all fire and passion.
She didn’t breathe until his attention flickered to the bracelet, then back to her. “Baron Samedi, huh? Lucky girl. He’s pretty stingy with his attentions.”
“Excuse me?” The world was still tilting under her feet, and his mellow, whiskey voice wasn’t helping any. How was a woman expected to focus when she was melting into a pool of desire?
He rose from his chair, his athletic form towering over her, before he knelt by her side and ran his thumb along the bracelet. One lock of black hair dipped across his face in stark contrast to those bright eyes. When his hand bumped against hers, she gasped at the bite of electricity.
He grinned again. Hot damn. She was staring, which she knew had to be rude, but nothing could tear her away until she drank her fill of his face. He swallowed twice, and she wanted to trace the column of his throat with her tongue.
“What were you saying about Baron?” she squeaked out.
Shaking his head, he gathered himself then answered. “He’s one of the loa. That’s his symbol.”
“One and the same.”
Chills zipped down her spine, the pieces falling into place in her mind. Impossible.
She smiled. Certainly not sensible.
When the man grinned back at her, she couldn’t help reaching out to rest her hand atop his on the table. “I’m Alexa. Want to join me?”
He lifted her hand to his lips, kissing her exactly where Baron had. This time, though, that warm tingling turned into something altogether alive and fluttering in her stomach. “I’m Stephan, and it would be my pleasure.”
He grabbed his pen and journal, threw them into a leather laptop bag, then scooted Baron’s unoccupied seat closer to her. She flagged down the waiter and ordered another coffee, hoping this would be one long night.
As Stephan’s body heat warmed her side, she took in the café once more, wanting to imprint this moment on her brain. The crowds hadn’t changed. The Mississippi still flowed behind them. The French Quarter still bustled with evening revelers.
But her world had tipped upside down, and it was down the Loa hole for her, just like a Cajun Alice. Four black horses trotted down the street, their driver peeking around the side of his carriage to give her a lusty wink and a wave.
Baron. Papa Ghede. She didn’t know when she’d see him again, but he’d been right about one thing—New Orleans was a true romantic.