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Author: Gwen Hunter
Original Title from Bella Rosa Books
Hardcover w/dustjacket

ISBN 1-933523-02-6
LCCN 2006909402


She didn't want Lake Ponchartrain, shining in the sun, to be the last sight she saw in this life, but unless the pilot was good—very good—it would be. Looking out the window of the 727, water sparkled, appearing pristine beneath her. Beautiful to look at from this vantage, where the remembered chemical stink of the dead water couldn't be smelled, where the rainbow effect of decades of spilled gasoline and oil and the scum growing on the surface couldn't be seen.
    News reports said the lake had been cleaned up but she never believed it. She hated it. Hated this lake, the buildings huddled like beetles on its rim, the ships plowing their way out toward the gulf, hated everything the view below represented. She was a fool to have come here. But then, she'd been a fool quite often lately. There'd been ample proof of that.
    The flight attendant, a slim young man with Humphry Bogart eyes, checked the passengers to see that their seats were upright and locked, seatbelts cinched tightly, and made certain they all had a pillow or blanket to burrow their faces in. He was terrified, but trying not to show it. Too bad the airlines hadn't thought to provide parachutes. He was awfully young to die today.
    She wasn't usually this morbid. She wasn't ever this morbid. A sudden flush of anger shot through her, and she forced a smile onto her frozen features. If she died, she would not be pulled from the dank water, face etched with fear. Instead she gestured to the flight attendant on his way back to the galley. "Do we get complimentary drinks when we land? I think I may need one then. A double. What do you recommend?"
    He stopped, surprised, and an answering smile fought the fear in his famous-looking eyes. "Mrs. Stone, if the airline doesn't offer you one, I'll buy you one myself."
    "It's a date." He nodded firmly, as if making a pact, and hurried away.
    Moments later, she bent forward against the seatbelt and pulled the sandals off her feet, tucked them into the neckline of her silk shell. With deft motions, she pulled her raincoat closed, buttoning it over the carry-on tote and camera bag slung over her shoulders, the bags and spike heels hidden beneath it.
    The 727 was descending. If the old bird survived this landing without landing gear, these shoes would not be left behind. Resting her face in the rough fabric of the U.S.Air pillow, she smelled the stale scent of cigarettes and the last patron's hair spray. White Rain? Alberto? And the fragrance of her own sweat.
   "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," she whispered, mostly in prayer. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph."
    The landing was brutal. Metal shrieked, a grinding squeal. Braking engines roared, vibrating through her bones. She was forced forward, bouncing with the jet, the safety belt cutting into her. She forgot to breathe. The sound crescendoed, beyond anything she could ever have imagined. Someone was screaming nearby.
    The seat beneath her lifted and fell again slamming the breath from her. Her face banged onto her knees through the thin pillow, the impact drawing mucous and tears. The jet skewed to one side, throwing her against the armrest. There was the coppery taste of blood. Beneath it all she could hear herself whisper through clenched teeth, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Hail Mary full of grace." Catholic schoolgirl prayer.
    An eternity later, the movement of the jet slowed. The engines changed pitch. Deeper. Softer perhaps, just a bit. The screaming of the jet's skin against the tarmac grew to basso profundo and eased away. The forward momentum slowed.
    A silence louder than the roar buffeted her ears. They had stopped.
    Slowly, Geneva raised her head, licked her lips. Jack was beside her, pulling at the buckle of the safety belt. She stood, her raincoat swirling around her, hidden carry-on baggage bumping beneath the long folds. Barefoot, she stumbled up the aisle, daylight from the open hatch blinding her.
     She turned to Jack as he gripped her beneath the arm. "That drink?"
    "Bottomless Margaritas, Mrs. Stone. Enough to swim in." His eyes were manic and she grinned at him. "Wipe your face when you get to the bottom," he advised. "Your lips are all bloody." He lifted her, fingers cruel beneath her arms as he and another tossed her from the 727 onto the emergency chute.
    The world danced a sickening pirouette as she skidded off the rubber slide into the waiting arms of the rescue worker. With bruising fingers he too lifted her, and with an ungentle shove sent her stumbling, barefoot, toward the terminal.
    She had survived the landing.
    Dizzy from the rough arrival, she fought for balance and sucked wet air.
    Geneva had prided herself for nearly twenty years that her tolerance for stifling New York summers was the one positive holdover from her youth. The first breath of New Orleans' August air was an insult, searing her lungs, assuring her that any real tolerance to southern humidity was long gone. Jet fuel exhaust, the sour miasma of Lake Ponchartrain, and the sudden stink of her own sweat enclosed her like a fevered wet fist.
    Raw silk slacks, already creased from the hours of flight time and the three hour holdover in Atlanta, wilted. Her silk blouse stuck to her back beneath her raincoat like loose snakeskin needing to be shed against some handy rock.
    Shoving damp blond strings off her forehead, she wiped blood from her lips and licked at the smear before slipping her sandals from inside her blouse and onto her feet. Her bare soles were already blistering on the hot tarmac.
    She pulled off her raincoat, fighting the heat. The heavy camera bag—which she had refused to relinquish to the exigencies of the landing—she slung over her shoulder again as she slogged her way to the terminal. Her soles sank in a line of tar in the concrete, and with each step after, they adhered, leaving a trail of gooey black footprints.
    But she was alive.
    She waved at a small boy running past and he waved in return, giving the thumbs up signal. She returned it and laughed. She was alive. She wanted to cry, but laughed again instead.
    "I should have stayed in New York," a woman muttered beside her, mascara streaking her face. "I should have stayed in New York."
    "That's what I thought," Gen said, "but then I'd have missed all the fun." The breath and the words parched her lungs.
    The woman looked at her as if she thought Geneva was crazy, then quickly turned away.
    Perhaps she was crazy. She had been more than a little wired for days. The mascara-smeared woman pushed past her and ran with the flow of passengers.
    The terminal loomed ahead. Twenty-nine years is too long. There were no bridges left to mend in this Godforsaken, parboiled place, only bad memories and the ghosts of the past. God only knew how her father would react. Sweat now ran like spiders down her back, and she stretched her shoulder blades to relieve the itch.
    It was insane. And it was all Barry's fault. She laughed again, feeling black despair gather in her chest, the despair that had sent her running from New York and the paparazzi and the fact of the lie that was her marriage. The laughter died. Twenty seconds in Louisiana and the last dregs of her good humor had evaporated. Not even her legal separation and impending divorce had accomplished that. Tears, once an unfamiliar sensation, prickled her eyelids. She would not cry. She would not. Geneva took a deep breath of the fume-laden air.
    Grimacing, she clenched her toes against the slippery leather of the sandal bottoms, managing to make the last few yards to the air-conditioned lobby as passengers from the plane's nether regions merged around her, running for the building. Icy air hit her face and dried the sweat already trickling down her temple. She shivered in the sudden delicious cool and licked salt off her lips. A remembered taste from childhood. Her tears faded and she shook her head. It had been this way for days now. Despair and hilarity in equal parts.
    Once inside, she pulled off the ruined sandals, holding them out to the U.S. Airways officer standing just inside the building. If he had been about to badger her for refusing to leave her possessions on board, the sight of her sandals stopped him. His face fell as he took the delicate shoes by their thin ankle straps. "I'm just glad I didn't have to walk across the hot concrete in my bare toes," she murmured.
    "U.S. Air—"
    "Did an exceptional job." She smiled warmly and watched the man's discomfort clear instantly. "The captain is my hero for life. Honest." She held up a hand "Honest Injun" style, a politically incorrect gesture she hadn't made in decades. It was this place. Had to be.
    Sticking the offending hand into a pocket, Geneva looked back out at the plane. It was a wounded bird nestled in a bed of foam, surrounded by fire trucks and workers in bright yellow fire retardant suits. A long scar gouged the runway behind it. A trace of fear remembered from the long descent fluttered through her. Geneva clenched her jaw. She never gave in to fear. Never.
    "It was my first belly landing, and I expected it to be much worse." She laughed, pleased that the sound was steady and calm, taking the opportunity to check the man's name badge as she touched the black goo cooling on her shoes,. "But perhaps bogging down the belly of the plane in strips of melted tar is a Louisiana safety technique."
    "Designed just for this kind of emergency, ma'am," he said with a twinkle. "Not even landing strips can handle the kind of heat we've had this week."
    "Please pass along my compliments to both the captain and flight crew, Mr. James. And if you would be so kind, would you remind Jack, the flight attendant with beautiful Bogart eyes, that he owes me a Margarita big enough to swim in?"
    Mr. James looked nonplussed a moment and then understanding dawned. "You earned it, ma'am. I'll make sure to remind him."
    "Again, my compliments to the flight crew, Mr. James," she said, leaving her ruined shoes dangling on his fingers. She almost added, I'll pass along my compliments to Mr. Stone, but caught herself at the last moment. Old habits die hard. James nodded and turned his attention to another passenger, one a bit more cranky, now that she was safely on the ground.
    "Aunt Gen!"
    Geneva turned at the sound of the fresh voice. "Keri!" She held out her arms, enfolded her niece, and hugged her tightly, thinking fleetingly that perhaps there were compensations to be found in this trip after-all. With a hand beneath the girl's pointed chin, Geneva tilted back the black head of hair and smiled down into the gamine face. "You beautiful child! And so tall! Look at you. You've grown into a beauty. You are a sweetheart to meet me."
    "The landing gear got stuck. And we were all scared to death."
    "I'm absolutely fine. Not a scratch on me." Gen tucked a strand of greasy blond hair behind her ear, remembering to check her earrings. The diamonds were still in place, and suddenly she was feeling better, calmer, out of the fetid air and the stink of near disaster, Keri in her arms. She kissed her niece on the forehead.
    "Some dramatic entrance, Aunt Gen," her tall, dark nephew bent across Keri and kissed her cheek. "You look great, especially for someone who just went through a crash landing in a 727."
    "Destan! I look awful and smell almost as bad," she added in mock whisper. "But you are a darlin' to say so. Look at you, nearly six feet, are you?" He blushed and Gen hugged her lanky nephew and linked arms with both teens, as they relieved her of camera bag, raincoat, and the shoulder bag she had forgotten she carried in the slippery departure. After she released Destan, she could feel the bruises left in her skin by the spikes of her ruined heels. She might be sore for a few days….
    "Barefoot through the terminal, Ginny? Such gauche behavior for a Deveraux," a strange voice teased. Gen looked up, startled at the sound, the almost-familiar accent on her name as she found him. Time dilated and slowed.
    He leaned against a support pillar, one leg bent, booted foot flat against the column. Dark slacks, crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up. Whip-cord strong arms crossed over his chest.
    Coiled strength. Lean. Lethal-looking.
    She met his eyes. Black eyes crinkled in a sun-worn olive-skinned face. French-black hair, black as Destan's, black as a bayou in starlight, fell negligently over his forehead.
    She remembered the feel of that silky hair sliding through her fingers. The salty taste of his skin. Cold ran down her body, a shock, like icy water.
    "Ginny," he nodded, the sound French with a soft G, almost Shen-nay. "Me? I can't see you, pas you, being so . . . chokay. . . ." A flash of white teeth in a dangerous smile.
    "Starnes," she breathed. The blood drained from her face. Her feet were frozen to the frigid floor. Her skin prickled as if thousands of tiny hairs lifted. Starnes Templar. . . .
    He raised long fingers to tip an imaginary hat, his face grave.
    She started forward, lifted a hand as if to touch him.
    "TV cameras are outside," Keri said. Time snapped back in place with an almost audible pop.
    Gen blinked, looked down at the girl, away from the vision of her past, her niece suddenly remembered. "They're filming the landing and interviewing the passengers," Keri said. "Sure you don't want to put on some shoes? Uncle Barry won't like--" Destan elbowed Keri to silence and the teens exchanged a guilty glance.
    Shoes? The conversation came back to her, along with her despair. A fragile smile covered her reaction to Barry's name, to the sight of the man nearby. "The floor feels wonderful on my bare feet," she assured them. "Besides, I'm only a photographer now, not a socialite, not Mrs. Barry Stone. I can afford to be eccentric," she said, excusing the aborted comment about her almost-ex-husband. "And your Uncle Barry is no longer around to decide what I should do."
    Putting her forehead down to Keri's, she added, "You don't have to be careful about using his name, you know. I'm divorcing him, not dying of Barry-cell leukemia." The teens grinned, relieved.
    "I'm so glad you're okay," Keri said, hugging her, voice muffled in Gen's shoulder.
    "You may as well know." Destan looked at his sister. She pulled away, shook her head 'no', but he ignored the silent advice and plowed on. "We called Mama. Uncle Starnes said we had to."
    Uncle Starnes? Uncle Starnes? When did that happen? Gen looked up, meeting the amused, dark eyes.
    "Yeah. He brought us to get you. Stayed with us all afternoon while the plane circled and landed."
    "And? You called Lily . . ." Gen prompted, her own eyes looking away from the dark form.
    "So, anyway, the Old Man answered the phone."
    "You didn't." Dread washed through her.
    Keri looked miserable as she added to the narrative. "We had to tell him."
    "Had to," Destan reiterated. "Mama would have been pissed if we hadn't called and you had gone down in flames, smeared all over the runway." Destan was delighted with his vision, eyes alight and dancing.
    "Mama won't like you using that word."
    "Mama isn't here," Destan countered his sister.
    "I don't suppose it occurred to either of you that your grandfather didn't know I was coming."
    "We figured that out." Destan said with a devilish grin, flash of white teeth in his olive-skinned face.
    So like Starnes. Why had she never noted the typical-Louisiana coloring, the French-y similarity before? It had been years since she thought of Starnes, and now suddenly, she was seeing him everywhere. His lithe form pushed away from the pillar, moved closer. She felt her breath catch, her eyes locked to his.
    Rebound attraction, the rational part of her brain whispered.
    "So you may assume he saw your dramatic entrance, Ginny," Starnes said. "In full color on the new wide-screen TV at the foot of his bed."
    "And he'll see you walk out of the terminal without shoes," Keri said, grinning at the thought.
    "He'll be pissed," Destan added with teenaged jollity. He dropped his voice and set his face in stern lines. "It is not the way we do things." It was a good impersonation of her father. The fact that it also sounded just like her near-ex wasn't lost on her either. Funny that she had never noticed how alike the two men were until she was about to lose both of them. She was seeing resemblances in everyone.
    "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," she whispered.
    "And he'll be making Mama's life a living hell till we get back with you." Destan said. "He can be a real devil. I know now why you and Mama never came back once you left the estate."
    Geneva sighed. It wasn't the entry she had planned, worried over, and lost sleep over in the two days since she had made the agonizing decision to come home. "Except for the ones I was wearing, all my shoes are in my luggage. On the plane." She looked down at her bare feet and wiggled her painted toes. Touching the shoulder tote, she said, "This is it baggage-wise, until the airline releases my luggage stored in the belly of the plane."
    Geneva took in the cameras up ahead, the mobs of passengers and frantic families with microphones stuck close to their faces, the shouted questions and near hysteria. She had been trying all her life to rid herself of the hated image of her father and the terrified girl who had run away from him so long ago. And now she was walking back into his life and his disapproval with bare feet. A breathless sensation she hadn't felt since childhood gripped her a for moment. Fear of her father. Of his swift, unpredictable anger. His wide leather belt. Her father who lay dying.
    "Hésitant, Ginny?" Starnes' voice drawled, challenging.
    She jerked, saw him again, just ahead and to the side of them, standing alone, apart from the Deveraux's as always, amused crinkles at the corners of his eyes.
    "Pas ma Ginny. She fear nothing." His black eyes seemed to be saying something else, hold another meaning. Seemed to pull her in.
    Gen sucked in a deep breath, her eyes locked to his. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph." She paused, needing something far stronger than the mild swearing. Maybe the old goat will die before I get there.
    Starnes cocked a mocking brow and she realized she had spoken aloud. Destan and Keri giggled and urged her on toward the TV cameras and press waiting at the end of the terminal, Starnes falling in behind. Gen had known on takeoff, when she looked out the window and saw the afternoon sunlight dappling the New York skyline, that this trip south was a mistake. The landing from hell was further persuasion, the tar clinging to her ruined sandals like black glue had convinced her. And now the press. It was all one gigantic nightmare. And Starnes…. She could feel him behind her, the heat of his body seeming to blaze.
    She would go on TV--in what might make national news if this was an otherwise uneventful day--looking like a sweat-smeared zombie from some C-grade movie. She hated this place.
    Destan cleaved the way through the press like a football fullback, one elbow up to shove aside bodies, the other hand raised to push away microphones. Yet, one woman, more vicious than the rest of the pack, managed to pull Keri from Gen's grasp. Using the girl as ransom, she shoved a fuzzy microphone into Gen's face.
    "Mrs. Stone, is it true that you left your husband for a younger man?" she demanded.
    Gen actually laughed. "Print what you want! You always do!" Almost anything would be better than the truth. "It'll be better fiction than most of the stories about me."
    Keri jerked her arm free, slammed her heel down on the woman's instep and moved with Gen after Destan. Starnes lifted an arm, elbowing a cameraman back.
    "Good move, girl. You should be a bodyguard," he said.
    "Stupid witch," Keri said, ducking under another mic and breaking free of the mob. "I think she bruised my arm. How can you stand these people, Aunt Gen?"
    "They aren't people. They are parasites," Gen huffed, now following her niece and nephew into the parking garage. "Leaches." She had started to sweat again and knew that her deodorant had totally failed her. She was loosing her breath in the heat and fumes, her head pounding. Someone had stepped on her bare foot in the passage through the press. "They are scarabaeids."
    Starnes jogged ahead, his gait uneven, and vanished into the gloom. Behind them, several of the media turned and began to follow in a tangle of bodies and cameras.
    "What's a scarabaeid?" Keri asked and guided her to one side, around a large woman who should never have discovered Lycra, especially in such a vibrant purple shade. Gen had no idea that boas and mules even came in that shade of grape. The smell of exhaust stung Gen's eyes, or maybe it was the sight of the stretched-thin Lycra. Keri glanced back and rolled her eyes, making an awful face.
    Gen managed to laugh at Keri's antics. She loved her niece like the daughter she never had. "Dung beetles are scarabaeids," she said. "Most men are scarabaeids. Your Uncle Barry is a scarabaeid of the first order. President of the Scarabaeid Society."
    Laughing, Keri aimed Gen at a long white Lincoln, its engine idling. She tossed the baggage into the trunk as Destan climbed into the front passenger seat. Keri got into the back seat with Gen. The upholstery was velour, soaking up sweat like a sponge. The AC on high brought back her shivers.
    The Lincoln peeled down the exit ramp like a race car, taking the turns with abandon as the press raced toward the parking site on foot. Gen cinched the safety belt in self defense. Destan tuned the radio to a rap station. She thought her head would explode. "Uncle Starnes, Aunt Gen looks a little green. Slow down," Keri said.
    "Can't. Got company. I have a feeling Ginny doesn't want them following us to the estate."
    Uncle Starnes? That familial title again. It was unnerving. Swallowing her nausea, Gen turned her head. Behind them was a news van, the distinct MSNBC logo painted on the side. The woman who had waylaid Keri was in the passenger seat, a compact open before her face, touching up her makeup. Even from this distance, Gen could see the sweat glisten on the woman's skin. Starnes took another turn, tires squealing. "Drive," Gen said.
    On the straight length of down-tilted concrete, Keri stretched across the front seat and turned off the radio. "I'm telling you, Aunt Gen looks like she's gonna puke."
    Destan glanced back at her but said nothing as Keri dropped into her seat and buckled up. The radio stayed off, however, and Gen thought she detected a slight decrease in acceleration. Speed was really a waste of time as the ticket booths were just ahead with lines of cars waiting to pay. Destan cursed, a new teenaged trait Gen hoped he would outgrow. Lily would have a fit if she knew her son used that kind of language. The car came to a stop. Starnes' tanned fingers tapped gently on the wheel, his impatience clear in the rhythm.
    The news van roared up behind them as a camera man and the female reporter jumped out, mic in hand. She rapped on Gen's tinted window with force, and Gen wondered what would happen if she opened the window and threw up all over the woman. Would it still make the evening news?
    A new toll booth opened to the left of them and Starnes gunned the engine and swerved hard, taking the first spot and handing the teller correct change. Three more cars pulled in behind them before the reporter could get back into the van. They lost sight of the press in a sea of slow moving vehicles, as Starnes, pushing the Lincoln, chuckled softly.

copyright © 2007 Gwen Hunter



Author: Gwen Hunter
Hardcover w/dustjacket
Retail: $24.95; 384pp

ISBN 978-1-933523-02-6
LCCN 2006909402

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