Joie de Vivre
Romance in New Orleans Book 1
May 27, 1997- Austin, Texas
Thunder rumbled low in the distance. A chilling gust of wind blasted through the warm, humid air. Scott Latimer locked his Honda Civic, and a deafening thunderclap cracked in the atmosphere, causing him to drop his keys. Picking them up, he glanced over his shoulder at the sky, which had darkened from gray to a threatening black.
A shard of silver lighting split the sky and a billowing cloud hung suspiciously low. Even more suspect was the way another pile of black clouds below it rolled and crawled up the horizon. Even though Scott had never seen it happen before, the sinking feeling deep in his gut told him he was witnessing the birth of a tornado. A particularly big and nasty one from the looks of it. And he was at the grocery store.
He scanned the parking lot and strip center. Nothing but glass doors and windowed storefronts.
More thunder shook the atmosphere and his gut told him to get inside. Rain began pouring in diagonal sheets as he darted through the automatic doors of the grocery store, and he squinted in the bright, fluorescent lights. The power was still on. A good sign. Maybe his gut was wrong. Might as well get what he came for in the event that the nasty weather wouldn’t actually produce any tornadoes. Maybe he’d get lucky and it would just be a standard Central Texas spring thunderstorm.
His shopping list was standard fare for an apartment full of college guys who’d just finished a grueling week of finals and were headed to graduation: beer, extra beer, emergency beer in case they had unexpected company, and some kind of actual food. He pushed a cart in front of a few aisles and stopped at an end-cap was stacked with chips and dips of all varieties. He dumped an armful of the snacks into the cart. That would suffice until they reached the pizza stage of the evening, and he pushed the cart toward the beer aisle.
He rounded a corner as thunder cracked and the lights flickered, and he darted a glance over his shoulder to look out the windows. Black as ink. Not good. He should’ve stayed—
Something collided with his cart and he whipped his head back around to see a cute girl in cut-offs grappling with a swinging shopping basket.
“Oh! Sorry!” She pushed her long hair away from her face as she adjusted her grip on the overfull basket. She looked at him through big, hazel eyes and flashed a wide, yet sheepish smile. “Freaking thunder distracted me.”
“No worries,” Scott said. They lingered for a moment, regarding each other as the thunder rumbled again. Apprehension draped her pretty features and she glanced at the windows. She opened her mouth as if she were about to say something, and the lights flickered again.
She looked him directly in the eyes. “Better get home,” she said through another bright, yet nervous smile, and then stepped around his cart. “Be safe.”
“You too,” he said over his shoulder, glancing back at her. Nice calves. Like a long-distance runner, and he wondered if she was part of a track team—maybe even the one at his university. Maybe he'd keep an eye out for her on campus later. Not in a creepy way. Just in a hey, you bumped into me in a supermarket once kind of way. He smiled at the totally cheesy thought of it. Her shiny, brunette hair fell to the small of her back, lazily swishing from side to side as she headed toward the dairy section.
Go talk to her, something inside him prompted.
He turned his cart around to do just that, when thunder exploded, jarring him and rattling the foundation and shelves. The lights flickered again and he now stood in pitch darkness. In the distance, a tornado siren wailed.
“Folks! Folks!” someone shouted from a few aisles over. “Everybody listen up!” Flashlight beams danced across the ceiling and back wall of refrigerated cases. “Everyone needs to take cover immediately. Head to the back of the store and go through the double-doors. Watch your step!”
Jogging parallel to the refrigerated cases, Scott could make out about a dozen figures scrambling down the wide aisle. Frantic voices shouted and shrieked. Lightning briefly lit up the store. A baby cried and a woman shushed. Rain and wind roared outside and the roof groaned.
“Quick, quick, quick!” the same voice hollered. At the end of the aisle, someone waved a flashlight toward one section of the wall, and the shoppers funneled through the doors.
Frigid air blasted Scott’s face as he pushed through the doors, and an explosion of shattering glass and clanging metal forced him to his knees. He shielded the back of his head with his arms as the deafening chaos barreled nearer and nearer.
A freight train. It does sound exactly like a freight train. An endless whoosh and tremor that you feel in your chest and stomach, and light flashed, and the frigid air sucked upward and outward.
“Holy! Shit!” he yelled, but he couldn’t even hear his own voice over the roaring wind, and the snapping wood, and the scraping, crumpling sheet metal, and the glittering clatter of glass sprinkling on the floor. And this was it, he knew it. People don't survive a tornado barreling right over them, and Scott was a dead man at only twenty-two.
He gripped the back of his head and gritted his teeth and braced for the end, whatever that may look or feel like. But then, almost as quickly as the chaos began, it ended. And, grabbing at his hair and neck, he gathered that he must have survived.
Screaming and crying began displacing the roar of turbulence and daylight slowly overtook the darkness. Scott's adrenaline-riddled, trembling hands scrubbed his hair free of tiny bits of broken glass and splinters. He covered his face, panting and willing his heart rate to slow, though his body seemed to be in disbelief that he'd just escaped certain death.
“Oh my fucking God. Oh my fucking God,” he mumbled into his palms before slumping and melting to a prostrate position on the floor. He drew in and blew out five deep breaths to settle his frayed nerves, convincing himself he wasn't dead or horribly injured, and then lifted his head to assess the havoc.
The grocery store had been gutted; as if God himself had dragged his mammoth index finger right through center of it, clear from one side to the other. The roof was gone, or rather it was scattered in millions of pieces all around him and the dozen other terrified people with him.
A few of them huddled together. Some sat up, bewildered, surveying the damage. To his right and several feet away, the cute girl with the long hair lay curled up in a fetal position next to a mangled shelf. Her hair was a ratty, tangled mess, full of leaves and splintered wood, and it draped to the floor, leaving her bare, lacerated shoulders exposed. It registered after a beat that she was deathly still, and he pushed himself up and approached her.
“Hey,” he said quietly. As he neared her still figure, his ears picked up a faint whimper, like shallow coo; a distraught, almost disembodied sound. Crouching next to her, he detected the most subtle of trembling in her shoulders. “Hey, are you okay?”
He gently placed his hand on one of her arms, careful to avoid touching the sparse cuts on her skin. She didn’t respond and continued to murmur the quiet, pained noises, and he leaned over her to attempt eye contact.
Blood. A lot of it. On the concrete floor next to her head and seeping through her fingers, which clutched her face, bright and thick, blood was everywhere.
He scanned their immediate surroundings for paper towels or rags or something to mop it up. Finding nothing but debris, he removed his outer shirt, folded it up, gingerly pulled her hands away, held the side of her head, and wiped her face. Her whimpering grew louder as he discovered the source of the blood, and his body flushed numb and cold through his extremities.
Her flesh was splayed open at one side of her forehead and opposite cheek, exposing bone and gore, and it almost didn’t look real. The gaping cut sliced diagonally over the bridge of her nose and extended across her face, causing her nose to be massively swollen, but had miraculously missed both of her eyes.
“Oh God,” he mumbled. Spots formed in his vision and his head began to swim and float as his jaw hung open at the sight of it. Some part of him that was still just a kid wanted to cry. “Oh my fucking God.”
This poor young woman—who, mere minutes ago, had a face Scott registered as very pretty and quite pleasant—was going to be horribly, horribly disfigured for the rest of her life. If she managed to survive at all. There was so much blood. How could a person bleed that much and live?
“Can you hear me?” he asked, holding the side of her face that was still largely intact, and she cooed in response. “Can you open your eyes?”
She sucked in a ragged breath and choked out a sob. “Help. Someone. Help.”
He angled away from her and shouted into the space, “Hey, I need some help! Has someone called 911?”
“They’re on their way!” someone shouted back, and Scott turned to the girl again.
“Help is coming,” he told her, because one of them had to remain calm and that was a burden he’d have to bear. “What’s your name?”
“O-O-O…” she attempted, hiccups punctuating the syllables.
“O-O-Ophelia,” she sputtered.
“Ophelia? That’s really pretty.” He positioned his shirt so it was pressed to the open flesh on her forehead and that of her cheek, but didn’t obstruct her sight or breathing. He held it in place using both hands, holding her face as if this were an intimate embrace and not a desperate attempt to keep her from bleeding to death. “I’ve never met anyone with that name before. Do you live around here?”
Her teeth chattered as she nodded slightly.
“Are you cold?”
She offered a subtle shake of her head.
“Does anything else hurt besides your face?”
“I’m n-not s-sure. I d-don’t th-think so.”
“That’s good,” he said, although from the state of her face it seemed inconsequential. The damage was so severe he imagined the pain had reached the point of no longer registering beyond simply unbearable. Her skin was pale and cold under the blood. She might be in shock or could even be dying, and the only remedy he knew was to keep her talking. “Got any big plans for summer?”
“New Orleans? Badass,” he said, gushing with genuine excitement. He’d always had a romanticized perception of the Big Easy and the legendary culture of jazz. Although he wasn’t thinking about that right then, and mostly hoped his excitement might keep her alive. “What are you planning to do there?”
“M-my g-grandmoth-ther l-lives there. Sh-she o-owns an a-a-a…” Another sob choked out of her and her teeth chattered more rapidly.
“Take a deep breath,” he said, pressing on her cheek and stroking her hair back. “What does your grandmother own?”
She drew in a ragged breath and exhaled with a high-pitched groan. “An-antique sh-shop. G-gonna h-h-help her.”
The sound of distant sirens drifted through the humid atmosphere. The formerly frigid air had disintegrated into the hot afternoon sun, which now found no clouds to hide behind.
“I f-feel s-sick,” Ophelia mumbled under her shallow breath. “I'm s-so tired.”
There were a million reasons why she would feel sick and tired, but what stuck out in Scott's mind were A: a severe concussion, and B: internal injuries that he couldn't see. He'd escaped certain death relatively unscathed, but there was no way the finger of God could raze a massive structure and not turn at least one or two of the people seeking shelter in it into casualties. Pretty Ophelia, with her youth and obvious health and her entire life ahead of her, was looking more and more like she might be one of those casualties. What a fucking tragedy, and he felt a subtle surge of anger at the cruelty of fate.
“Ophelia,” he said as he picked up her hand, and he suddenly loved that name. That name was now etched in his mind in sweeping calligraphy; like visual music; like the warbling trill of Louis Armstrong’s horn. “Can you please look at me? I know your face hurts, but try to look at me. Don't fall asleep, okay?”
Stay conscious, he wanted to say, just stay conscious.
She slowly lifted her flinching eyelids with a great amount of effort and another tiny whimper. He dabbed the bridge of her nose to keep the blood from pooling in the inner corners of her eyes, and he got a better look at them than before the chaos. Dark hazel; like a beautiful, deep russet with an undertone of emerald and amber. She looked right at him and blood-infused tears trickled down her temples.
“M-my h-head hurts.” Her teeth chattered so violently it seemed they might shatter against each other. “I’m s-so t-t-t-tired. I j-just w-want t-to s-s-s-sleep.”
“Please don’t sleep,” he said urgently. He squeezed her hand and rubbed the back of it with his thumb. “Don't sleep. I'm holding your hand. Can you feel my hand?”
She blinked slowly, as if holding her eyelids open were the ultimate test of strength and endurance.
“Ophelia, look at me.”
She dragged her gaze to meet his and her shivering abruptly ceased. “I’m dying,” she whispered in a tone that indicated she honestly believed she was; a tone that convinced him she was as well.
“No, you’re not,” he assured her, though he couldn’t even assure himself. “Look at me. Focus on me holding your hand. Don't go to sleep. Just stay—”
“Hello! Austin Fire Department!” a new voice called from the direction of where the front of the store used to be.
“Back here!” Scott shouted, just as someone else hollered, “Head to the back of the store! Multiple people are hurt!”
A handful of firemen descended upon him and Scott pushed himself off the floor, taking several steps back and clasping his hand over his mouth. They pressed gauze to Ophelia’s face and affixed an oxygen mask to her mouth and nose. Working quickly and efficiently, they lifted her on to a stretcher and began weaving her through the piles of debris. Just before her face was out of sight, Ophelia turned her head and caught his gaze.
Scott waved at her, as if merely telling a friend see ya later. As if it wasn't entirely possible that she could be dead soon. As if she wasn't being pulled from rubble with physical and psychological injuries that would maim her for life if she survived.
She blinked twice before lifting the fingertips of one hand in what he guessed was as much of a wave as she could muster, and the firemen carrying her disappeared beyond the rubble.
Scott stood amidst the chaotic aftermath. Two other people were carried out on stretchers. The baby and its mother were unscathed. A police officer congratulated a store employee for his quick thinking that had saved all of their lives. An EMT approached Scott wearing rubber gloves and poked and prodded him, flashing a light in his eyes and asking him lots of questions.
“I'm fine,” he assured the young woman. “Where are they taking the injured people?”
“The hospital on Research Boulevard,” she answered, and he determined he would go later that evening.
The heroic employee gifted Scott with the case of beer he'd come to the store for in the first place. He drove home in a daze, passing apocalyptic scenes through a neighborhood in which weather-induced Russian roulette had leveled some houses and left others untouched. Families huddled on the sidewalks, crying together and surveying the damage in disoriented disbelief. A tree lay on its side. An overturned truck sat on the lawn of an unscathed house.
Back at his apartment he drank half of one beer before passing out in his room to the sound of gentle rain.
Scott awoke the following day at around noon to a cloudless sky and scorching temperatures. He dressed hastily and jumped in his car, then headed to the hospital on Research Boulevard.
“I was at the grocery store that was hit by the tornado yesterday,” he told the woman at the triage desk. “There was a girl who was seriously injured and I wanted to see how she was.”
The woman looked at him sympathetically before checking her computer. “Do you know her name?”
“Her first name is Ophelia. I didn't get her last name. She had a really bad injury on her face. The paramedics said this is where they were bringing everyone.”
“Umm…” the woman hummed as she punched buttons. “There was a young woman here by that name, but she was transferred to another facility this morning.”
“Can you tell me which one?”
The woman gave him an apologetic smile. “I'm really sorry, but I can't give out any of her information unless you're family.”
He figured as much. “That's okay.” He tapped the counter lightly as he glanced around the waiting room. “But if she was transferred this morning, she's probably okay, right?”
“It means she's being treated by doctors who specialize in her injuries,” the woman said, meticulously vague.
“So is she okay? She was in pretty bad shape.”
The woman looked at him sympathetically. “I wish I could give you more information.”
Scott swallowed hard. All he could do now was hope. Then again, that’s basically all he’d been able to do for Ophelia in that moment of chaos. He looked at his hands as he lingered at the desk. His fingernails still had remnants of her blood caked in the edges, and he could’ve cried.
“Can I leave my name and phone number for her? I mean…” he stammered, suddenly sheepish for whatever reason. “Just in case.”
The woman smiled and nodded, and pushed a small piece of paper and pen across the counter toward him.
Get well soon.
Scott Latimer (The guy you bumped into at the supermarket.)
He added his phone number and was about to slide the paper back to the woman, but hesitated and then added one more small bit.
If you ever need anything, call me. I'll be there.
Only the Strong
Romance in New Orleans Book 2
Spots were swimming in Connor’s vision and blackness began closing around his periphery just as he reached the doorstep of the label. He pitched forward at the waist, throwing off his backpack and clutching his knees as he dragged in oxygen.
The hot, damp air filled his lungs, but it was so thick he may as well have been breathing water. It took him a good, solid minute before he caught his breath enough to stand upright, grab his pack, and push the front door open. Gloriously cold air conditioning blasted his face upon stepping inside, and his vision blackened again, but he managed to stay upright.
“... going on, Connor? Come meet… our new…” a voice he knew was Jimmy was saying, although he couldn’t hear much of it because high-pitched ringing always accompanied the blackness. Connor looked in the direction of Jimmy’s voice, maintaining a neutral expression as he waited for his senses to return.
Jimmy gripped Connor’s shoulder. “Can you even hear me?”
Connor wiped his face with the hem of his shirt as his vision came back and the ringing slowly faded. “I’m standing right here, ain’t I?”
“Yeah, well you got that blank look on your face.”
Connor blinked the last of the blackness away and forced his mouth into a wide, yet patronizing grin. “How’s that?”
“You’re lucky you’re pretty.”
Connor framed his face with his palms as he batted his lashes. “Shucks, Jimmy. You make me blush.”
“You’re a hot mess, son.” Jimmy shoved Connor’s shoulder, turning him toward the front room. An attractive, brunette woman about Connor’s age stood up from one of the desks and approached them. Connor’s gaze immediately fixed on the woman’s shoes, which were classy, but also total fuck-me heels; shiny and a perfect match to her creamy bare skin, connecting her dainty feet to even dantier ankles and slim, yet shapely calves. The perfect calves led to beautiful knees, half-covered by a slim, gray skirt, which hugged the curve of scintillating hips and a nipped-in waist that was accentuated by a thin, white cotton blouse. And Connor was going to be in trouble if he didn’t drag his mind out of the gutter.
“Connor, this is our new digital marketing lead, Liza Hardin.” Liza Hardin. Why was that familiar? “Liza, Connor Deneau. Manages our artists and repertoire.”
Liza offered a hand featuring perfectly manicured nails, and Connor glanced at her face. “Hi, Connor. Pleasure to meet you.”
Espresso-colored hair fell in cascading waves around her smiling face and as soon as his hand connected with hers, the lightheaded sensation assaulted his brain again, and no. Fucking. Way.
“Hey,” he managed, shaking her hand. “Likewise.”
He dropped her hand and she clasped her palms together at her waist. Her hazelnut eyes focused on his for a moment as an expression blanched her features, as if she knew too, and then she glanced at Jimmy.
“She’s gonna be putting together a marketing plan this week, revamping our website, and going over our distribution, and mostly figuring out how to get us out of the stone age,” Jimmy went on. “We’re gonna take her to the shows and I need you to familiarize her with our people. Show her what we’ve been doing and she’s gonna fix it all. Right, Liza?” He slapped her shoulder and she flinched, rubbing her arm and offering Jimmy an amused smile.
“That’s right.” Her gaze briefly cut to Connor’s face and then back to Jimmy’s. “Lots of work to do.”
“Yeah you right.” Jimmy placed his hands on his hips and turned to stroll across the entry way back to his desk. “For fuck sake, Connor. Go shower. You reek.”
The center of Connor’s forehead ached from a tightly-furrowed brow, and he released it as he took a step backward and slung the pack over his shoulder. He cast a glance at Liza’s face and her throat bobbed as she offered a small nod and smile and turned away to return to the desk.
With her back to him, he took in the sight of her dark hair sweeping the small of her back. He could practically feel its silken strands, as if it had only been yesterday that he’d last tangled his fingers into it, and this was a big fucking problem.
She sat at the desk and began typing on a small laptop, pausing to drag and click with a mouse and peer closely at the screen. She picked up her phone and tilted the screen toward her and then clicked the mouse again. “Jimmy, I just shared the calendar with you. You should’ve gotten an—”
“Yep!” Jimmy hollered from the other side of the house. “Look at that! Wow, this is crazy.” He chuckled. “Shit, Connor. I’m gonna be keeping serious tabs on you.”
Connor’s shoulders drooped as he exhaled. He cast a glance at Liza, who turned her eyes toward him and gave a quick, impish smile before looking back at the screen, and he needed to get the hell out of here before he did something he regretted.
He stomped out of the room and toward the bathroom at the back of the house.
“After you clean up, have Liza set this thing up for you!” Jimmy called after him. “We got a real company email now! Shit! Where’s this stuff been all my life?”
Connor growled in the back of his throat and shoved his way through the bathroom door, shutting it loudly and locking it behind him. He dropped the pack on the floor and wrenched on the shower. Cold water. He needed cold water. For a lot of reasons, many of which had little to do with the fact that the mere sight of her obviously still did very noticeable things to him. He stripped off his sweaty clothes, and then braced his palms on the counter, staring at himself in the mirror.
He studied his appearance. Other than a few crow’s feet, a couple of creases on his forehead, and thicker stubble on his sharp jaw, he looked the same. Ten years out of the army left him with slightly longer hair, but the daily running had maintained his peak physical form. There wasn’t a single gray hair amidst the light brown. Unless she’d gotten a blow to the head that wiped her memory clean, there was no way she didn’t recognize him. And that look on her face indicated she was well-aware of who he was.
How had she ended up there? Part of him was convinced she’d sought out the job because of him, but why in the fresh hell would she do that after he’d—
He clamped his eyes shut as the memory of what he’d done to her gave way to the picture of Morales, pale and blue on Scott and Ophelia’s lawn, all of which gave way to the ghost-like faces of his long-lost brothers, and if Connor didn’t want to end up in a fetal position on the bathroom floor, he needed to get control of himself.
He shoved away from the counter, throwing the shower curtain aside and stepping in, and the shock of cold drenching him shook him out of his tortured mind. He rubbed his eyes and his thoughts drifted to Liza’s face. More mature and elegant, but still classic and captivating as it had been. Full lips. Elegant, arching brows, and lush, obsidian lashes over big, hazel eyes. It wasn’t all that different from Lizzie’s face, which was what she’d gone by way back when, and what the hell was that all about? There was a reason she was here, and he was going to figure it out.
He just hoped he wouldn’t implode in the process.