Nola Dutrey is as dedicated to her jazz singing career as she is to her kids' community band in New Orleans. When she meets her best friend’s brother, her heart beats with a newfound passion. But falling in love with someone whose life is in New York has no future.
Restaurateur and music enthusiast Rex Arceneau is in town to settle his father’s estate. He must get the financials into the black before handing over the family restaurant to his sister. To reduce expenses—the weekend singer must go. However, he meets Nola, and their connection sizzles. When he hears her sing, he’s hooked.
Nola’s torn between powerful attraction and life in New Orleans. Rex is determined to use music as a secret weapon to entice Nola north. Will she ever be a bride at Fleur de Lis or will life’s dissonant notes ruin their harmony and once-in-a-lifetime love?
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Irritated, Nola Dutrey grabbed a pillow and flopped on the padded bench in front of the floor-to-ceiling window in her bedroom to catch a breeze. Sitting, she scanned the sheet music for "The Look of Love" and kept a one-eyed lookout for Momma who insisted they visit all the vendors at the Bridal Extravaganza taking place on the grounds of Fleur de Lis. Momma had said, "You're twenty-eight, and at that age, the first female in the family with no marriage prospects." That wasn't exactly true — there had been a couple, but she just hadn't found "the one."
Reading the song lyrics on the page, she paused. "Will the right man ever look at me just like that?"
Sighing, she reached for a freshly fried beignet dusted with powdered sugar on the plate beside the bench. "Well, until then, I have you." As she licked her lips, the lecherous grin of Emile Broussard popped into her mind. She shuddered, refocused on the sweetness of her treat, and then sang a few lines of the lyrics.
A cool March breeze rippled the sheer curtains in the bedroom, reminding her of stories about swishing petticoats from antebellum times. Musical notes floated on the air from the string quartet playing in the gazebo on the side of the house. Dappled light through the trees and the blooming spring flowers added the perfect touch of romance to day one of the event. Her sister and Cousin Branna had selected the best time to host the event — after Mardi Gras and before Easter.
Below on the lawn and extending down the long driveway, white tents dotted the landscape like white-capped mountains — a foreign landscape in southwest Mississippi. Florists, photographers, musicians, and wedding planners showed off their wares and services to prospective brides. One area had been reserved for food vendors, and they drew in the crowds. Aromas of garlic, sausage, and fried shrimp tickled her nose. She took a second bite of the beignet, savoring the melt-in-your-mouth flavor.
Nola sighed. She was home to do her family duty, but wishing she were in the lounge at Arceneau's rehearsing for her upcoming tour — a summer of festival hopping and singing with different bands — rather than hiding in her room with the stink of Momma's words wafting around her. A pang of envy hit her. "Just look at them. Brides-to-be, their mommas, their entourage. Giggling like drunk cackling hens." They mingled and sipped champagne in their pastel Sunday finest. The bridal show could pass for an Easter-hat parade, given the extravagance of many.
But most of them came because they had a groom on a string attached to their engagement ring and a wedding loomed in their future.
She sighed. Maybe her family was right. Maybe she was the problem. All around her the connection of true love beat as palpable as any living heart. She wanted that. Forever love that could weather anything.
But no man had entered her life and evoked within her the same deep emotion as when she sang a love song — like the one she had to finish rehearsing to sing in just a bit.
"Damna —" She stopped when Great-Grandmother Grace's tsk! floated on the air. Though the older woman had passed about ten years ago, G.G. Grace reached down from heaven to keep her in line whenever she visited Fleur de Lis. "I apologize. No cussing. Got it." She never dared back talk to the ethereal spirit.
Stuffing another throw pillow behind her back, she squirmed to get comfortable. "But G.G. Grace, why spend buku bucks on a fancy shindig to hitch yourself to a man when there's barely a fifty-fifty chance of marriage success?" Never would she stand a chance of winning that debate with anyone in her family. There hadn't been a divorce in the family yet. That put a boatload of pressure on her to choose well. So what if all the other women in the family had married by twenty-eight?
Until her time came, she chose music. Romantic love and the ballads written about it were songs she thoroughly enjoyed singing. She hugged the sheet music to her chest. Love songs had triggered a deep yearning that had stayed with her since she was sixteen. Over the years, she'd tripped into "like"— G.G. Grace had called it "puppy love." Twice she'd landed in "infatuation land." But never had she met a man that enflamed a smoldering burn deep inside her. She wanted to fall in love. Deeply. Madly. The kind of love that churned up her life the way a hurricane churned up the sea. Southern breezes hadn't blown that man in her direction yet.
If and when she ever fell truly in love, it would be forever. Like a swan, she would mate for life — but her family didn't know that about her. They called her a butterfly, flitting around, never landing anywhere for long, but she didn't see the need for wasting time developing a relationship with a man when intuition told her it wouldn't last. And she didn't do one-night stands.
Nola closed her eyes. It would take a game of truth or dare before she admitted she was jealous of the brides visiting Fleur de Lis today. To avoid Momma and the swath of envy pricking her conscience, she had snuck upstairs to hide. Momma's invitation was a command, not a request. Deidra Dutrey, always a force to be reckoned with, usually got her way. Why hadn't Momma set her sights on Linc to settle down? He was older. He would carry on the family name.
If only life were a musical ...
Downstairs, the screen door slammed and drew Nola's attention.
"Nola. Bridgette. Dutrey. You can't hide from me!"
Wrapping her long hair in front of her, Nola melted onto the floor between the bench and her bed. Angels willing, she had a chance of avoiding her sister, even if it was only one in a million.
Biloxi stomped up the stairs. "I know you're in here." She opened the door, and the hinges squeaked. "I came to remind you to be at the café before three to sing."
Nola held her breath as she watched her sister's Louboutin shoe-clad feet step in her direction.
"Ohhhh," Nola groaned, looking up from the floor. "Okay. You found me."
Biloxi pointed to her watch. "It's two now. You have less than an hour. This is your contribution to Fleur de Lis. When people hear you sing, they'll see the added value of hosting their party here — we have the famous Nola Belle singing to melt hearts."
"But I'm hiding from Momma." She pushed to standing.
Biloxi raised an eyebrow.
"I didn't mean to lie. I wanted her to leave me alone, stop groom-shopping for me. I only said I had an interest in someone, and she got it into her head that this unnamed someone is about to give me a ring. Now she wants to promenade me through the bridal show."
"No, sister, you blurted out that you were interested in getting engaged."
Nola shrugged. She'd made the audacious announcement under pressure. It was a dim-witted idea that popped into her head, and then the words came flooding out of her mouth. "She thinks finding my soul mate is like any other kind of shopping."
"I'll try to keep Momma occupied, but you have to show up to sing. She'll know where to find you at three."
"What do I do? Momma doesn't care who I marry, just as long as I get a ring on my finger, set a date, and walk down the aisle that ends with an 'I do.' I'll tell her the man has met another woman and says I'm not" — she lifted her fingers, making imaginary quotation marks — "the one."
Biloxi shook her head. "Don't involve me in your lies. I won't be a party to your deceptions. Now get —" She walked to the window and stood to the side, out of view. She pointed to the black limo pulling in front of the house by the fountain. "Wonder who that could be. The limo companies participating in the show are already here." After puffing out a soft whistle, she said, "Look at that."
Amused by her sister's gawking, Nola sank down on the bench, flipping her waist-length hair over her shoulder. Framed by the bedroom window, a man in a well-fitted, dark peacock-blue suit exited the limo after the driver — she recognized her neighbor — opened the door. He stood inches above the driver, making him taller than six feet. Several women mingling near the fountain cast long appreciative looks in his direction — they practically drooled. Nodding slightly, he smiled and then adjusted his pink striped tie, taking a moment to flirt with the women. The fact that he wore a pocket square caught Nola's interest, a man who paid attention to small details. Nice.
Or had someone dressed him that morning? Like a girlfriend or wife.
Sauntering in the direction of the house, he radiated relaxed ease. His smooth stride reminded her of the majesty of a fine stallion. Male grace and full of strength. Light shone on his blue-black hair. "Fine looking," she murmured as a warmth ignited in her chest. Maybe he'd be interested in helping her out of her mess. After one look at him, anyone in her family would believe love had — at first sight — caught her in a cast net. For a second, she considered shouting for her father to grab his gun for a shotgun wedding. Yes, the man was that hot. Could give a girl the vapors.
She stretched and leaned out the window to catch the last glimpse of him as he began climbing the front steps of Fleur de Lis.
He paused and looked up.
Their gazes locked.
His mesmerizing blue-gray eyes drew her farther through the open window. A sensual smile slowly rose on his lips. He winked.
A bluesy 12/8 beat thumped in Nola's chest. The entire world melted away. A daydream took over. Just the two of them promenading down the long drive, like it was in antebellum days. He, in cutaway tails, and she, twirling a parasol and coyly giggling at something clever he said.
The illusion was abruptly shattered. Her sister grabbed the back of her shirt and yanked her inside the room. "What!" Her daydream had popped like a string on an overplayed guitar.
"Get in here."
"Why?" Her perfectly wonderful dream had been cut short.
"You were about to fall on your head. I gotta go." Biloxi headed for the door. "I want to meet this guest."
"You're a married woman. A mother of three," Nola hollered at her. "Hussy! Strumpet! What will I tell my nephews and niece?"
"Darlin', a woman can look. Come with me? You're single. You can touch," she teased.
Touch him? No. He was too ... vivid, too real. Virile. Oozed with sensuality. Just too male.
The man made her hear the blues. In the best possible way.
* * *
Stepping in front of the screen door of Fleur de Lis, Rex Arceneau observed a woman coming down the stairs. She appeared to float more than walk in a flowing flowered dress and high heels. Elegant. Classy.
But a pang of disappointment hit him. She wasn't the same woman who'd stared at him from the window upstairs. Too bad. That woman he wanted to meet. An air of sensuality swirled around her even from a distance. His breath had hitched, just for a second. Her sultry expressive eyes whispered to him the way melodic music tells a story. He wanted to hear the full score of her melody. An image of her lips barely caressing his flashed in his mind. Hot emotion surged through him. The urge to close his eyes and follow the sensual scene to conclusion pushed hard. She'd planted a seed of strong desire, something he hadn't experienced in a long time.
"May I help you?" The woman in the flowered dress opened the door.
Rex straightened and pulled a business card from the inside pocket of his suit coat. "Arceneau." He cleared his throat. "Rex. I believe my sister has a booth here. Could you point it out to me? I need to speak with her."
"I'm Biloxi." She took the card and scrutinized it. "X. Rex Arceneau. I'm one of the organizers of this event. What's the X for, Rex?"
"Xavier." She raised an eyebrow, and he smiled. He was used to people's reactions to the rather old-fashioned name. "But no one calls me that." His mother had, but no one else.
"Ahhh," she said in a way that he couldn't decipher whether or not she considered it good or bad. "I'll be right back. I'll ask my sister to escort you to find your sister. Arceneau's. Great French Quarter restaurant."
She left him standing outside on the porch. He hoped the sultry-eyed beauty upstairs was her sister. Turning to face the fountain and the circular drive in front of the house, he tried to distract his mind away from the daydream of her almost-kiss. He scanned the tents. No way to tell one from the other. In the future, if his sister participated in this kind of event, he'd insist on some sort of flag to identify her tent from all the others. Attention to detail set Arceneau's apart from the competition.
Clasping his hands behind his back, he rocked back on his heels. He'd been clear with Kayla earlier in the week. In their conversation, she'd agreed to abstain from this event — all events — until he finished going through the account books of the restaurant and until her full month as head chef ended. But Kayla had lied and participated anyway. The lying part was something new for her.
The businessman in him squelched his anger because the big brother in him understood she would say anything to placate, smooth the way, and try to please him. Her pattern of behavior since she was a child. Since their mother had died.
He turned when the screen door opened behind him.
"I'm sorry. I can't find my sister. She must have taken the elevator down and scooted out the back door." Biloxi looked at a tablet in her hands. "I have the layout here, and I'll be able to direct you to your sister." Her finger rubbed against the touch screen. "It's the fourth tent" — she pointed to the right side of the driveway — "from the far end."
"Thank you for the directions." He started down the stairs to the driveway.
"She's attracted a lot of guests today. Your sister didn't just bring food for sampling, she's hosting cake decorating demonstrations, too."
Rex turned back at the bottom of the stairs. Raising an eyebrow, he asked, "And what, pray tell, is she cooking?"
Biloxi sniffed. "Do you smell that? Oysters roasting. Served on the half shell. With three different toppings. Also oyster artichoke soup."
Lifting his chin to sniff as Biloxi directed, he caught sight of the woman with the sultry eyes inching along on the upstairs gallery, her back against the house. Obviously, she hoped to remain unnoticed. Carrying her shoes and a hat, she made a three-step dash and disappeared around the corner. Curious behavior.
"Kayla is a fine chef." He redirected his gaze to Biloxi.
"We were honored she decided to join this event. And I'm remiss. My condolences on the passing of your father. It's great to know your sister will carry on the family tradition at Arceneau's."
"She is talented."
But she, like Papa, hasn't a clue about the bottom line. Red isn't good. Red means STOP.
Biloxi tilted her head. "Is there anything else I might do for you?"
"Yes." He paused and cast a glance up to the spot where he'd last seen the captivating woman. Disappointment pricked him. She wasn't peeking around the corner at him. "Does your sister have long, dark wavy hair, bedroom eyes with a fiery flash in them?" He didn't mention her feminine curves in the navy blue, body-hugging dress.
"Ah ..." Biloxi stammered.
"What's her name?"
"Nola Bridgette Dutrey."
"Thank you. I'll find my sister now."
Ohh ... the famous Nola. Now I have a face to go with a name.
A moment later, he heard the tap of Biloxi's heels on the wooden gallery above him.
He turned and looked up at her.
"You might know her as Nola Belle."
He lifted a finger in salute.
I know all too well about her.CHAPTER 2
"No." Nola gripped her cell phone tighter and stepped into the shade of a large oak tree on the front lawn at Fleur de Lis. The late afternoon delivered the full taste of fresh spring to southern Mississippi, but the conversation triggered a rage washing over her as bold as hot sauce made on Avery Island. "Non-negotiable."
"Nola, your tone suggests you think I'm asking for something beyond the boundaries of decorum." The voice belonged to a man who flirted with one foot in purgatory and the other in hell.
"It's Ms. Dutrey to you." She had a mind to give him a good shove, sending him to Hades. He was making her life miserable.
After forcing a smile and nodding politely to a passing guest, Nola moved farther away from the crowds at the bridal show. The fair-like atmosphere at her family's antebellum home was surreal compared to her sordid conversation. The businessman and New Orleans councilwoman's staff member for Constituent Relations made her itch like poison oak.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bayou Brides"
Copyright © 2017 Linda Joyce Clements.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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