Stepping out of the backseat of the Lyft car, I’m practically knocked on my ass by a veritable party for the senses.
The narrow street is lined with old buildings, each with different pastel-colored facades, alternating in pink, orange, turquoise, and white, and all with brightly colored, contrasting doors and shutters. Nearly all of them have multiple levels of balconies, all of them featuring the iconic cast iron railings, adorned with tropical plants, strings of shiny beads, and flags boasting pride for everything from the New Orleans Saints football team, to the state of Louisiana, to the green-gold-purple colors of Mardi Gras. Tourists and locals mingle as they wander down the brick-paved sidewalk, carrying souvenir bags and go-cups of hurricanes. The air is pungent with the heady scent of Cajun food and thick with humidity mingled with the slow, swinging melody of a solo jazz trumpeter who stands at a street corner a few blocks away.
“Here ya go, miss,” the driver cuts into my brief escape into my senses, setting my rolling suitcase on the sidewalk next to my feet.
“Oh. Thank you.” I turn to him and smile, pulling out my phone to tip him.
“You enjoy your visit now, miss,” he says, lifting his black Saints ball cap in an old-school salute to me before plodding back onto the cracked asphalt street and to the door of his car.
“You too,” I say in reflex, then cringe at my awkwardness even though he’s already closed the door and probably didn’t hear me, and also probably wouldn’t care anyway. Nevertheless, the verbal faux pas lingers in my mind for several seconds as I turn from the bustling sidewalks and look at the door to Lucky De Luca’s jazz manor.
The emerald green door is recessed from the sidewalk by two stone steps leading to an elevated front alcove that is flanked by pristine white columns and an awning. The manor consists of three balconies, each with the same intricate railings and long rows of floor-to-ceiling windows, which feature shutters in the same deep green as the door. Peering upward, I can see a few people loitering on each level, making conversation too low for me to hear, and I don’t recognize any of them.
“Sooo…” I say under my breath, “I guess I just knock on the front door then?”
Grasping the handle of my suitcase, I roll it over the bumpy sidewalk to the front door and heft it up the steps. I pause there to check my phone again, just to make sure I have the right address.
Before I even get to the email with the itinerary, the front door swings open, revealing a man in his late twenties who’s so handsome that I have to dart my gaze away from him. In the half-second I saw him, it was all dimples, an easy smile, pale green eyes, slicked-back chestnut hair, and a square jaw so sharp you could slice cheese with it.
“You’re one of the contest folks,” he prompts in a smooth, velvet voice.
“Um, yeah,” I say, mostly to my suitcase and the concrete step below my feet.
His upturned palm appears in my line of sight. “Patrick Donnelly. I’m Lucky’s drummer.”
I glance up. “Oh.”
Getting a good look at his face, I suddenly recognize him. I recall a vague awareness I’ve had over the years that Lucky De Luca has an attractive drummer, but that he’s usually somewhat hidden behind the rest of the spectacle of shiny brass instruments, bodacious dancers, and striking female vocalists.
Now that I’m thinking about it, everyone in Lucky’s band is striking, attractive, and bodacious, which is one more reason why I’m now terrified to be here.
Patrick’s palm is still hovering in mid-air between us, and I hastily release the handle of my suitcase to shake with him. “I’m Ava Herald. I’m from Austin, and I—”
I snap my gaze to my feet to see that my suitcase has toppled backward down the steps and landed face-down on the sidewalk.
I suppress a listless sigh and start to retrieve it, when Patrick touches the base of my elbow, stopping me.
“Allow me,” he says, effortlessly reaching to scoop up the handle and hefting the suitcase back onto the top step. He stands to one side, pushing the door wide, and gesturing for me to go ahead inside. “After you.”
“Thank you.” Clutching my purse against my side like a security blanket, I step through the door and take in the spacious front room. I recognize it immediately from a number of Lucky’s videos, with its rich, wood-paneled walls and matching hardwood floors. A shiny, black baby grand piano is positioned in the center of the room and a few luxurious, antique sofas are perfectly positioned around it to allow simultaneously for conversation and a front-row seat for whenever Lucky—or whomever—is playing. The windows are dressed with heavy, emerald, floor-to-ceiling drapes with sheer white panels over the glass, offering privacy, but still letting in light.
“Everyone’s on the second floor.” Patrick closes the front door and joins me at my side. “The other two contest folks are already here, and they’ve picked their rooms. Would you like me to take your bag to get you settled in before we go join ‘em?”
“Sure.” Nerves twisting my stomach cause the word to come out like a squeak, and I twist the straps of my purse between my palms.
Patrick looks at me. “You’re kinda nervous about this, huh?”
I force a laugh. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?”
He offers another easy, dimpled smile. “Yeah,” is all he says, and then he just continues to look at me.
He doesn’t make a move to lead me to wherever the bedrooms are. His steady gaze feels kind of intimate, or penetrating, or something I can’t put my finger on, and I reflexively push my hair over my shoulder.
“You said you’re from Texas,” he prompts.
I quickly nod. “Yes. From Austin.”
He offers an acknowledging dip of his chin, scans my face for a second, and then says casually, “I’ve heard Texas girls are pretty.” Then he turns and starts strolling toward a staircase behind the piano before adding with his back to me, “That was probably the understatement of a lifetime.”
The compliment is simultaneously so nonchalant, so flattering, and so unexpected that I have no idea how to respond. I’m left speechless for long enough that even saying thank you would be awkward. But Patrick doesn’t appear to be fazed or even notice my lack of response as he starts up the hardwood stairs. I’m stuck in a momentary trance watching him disappear up the stairs while I overanalyze the compliment.
“I am not here to hook up with anyone,” I mumble, “I am absolutely not here to hook up with anyone.”
After dropping off my purse and suitcase in one of the guest bedrooms on the second floor, I follow Patrick down a long, narrow hallway as the sound of music and loud conversation drifts nearer and nearer. We pass the stairwell, and he pushes open a door to reveal a scene that resembles a prohibition-era speakeasy.
Men and women mingle in groups of three and four; men wearing trousers, shirts with the sleeves rolled up and top few buttons undone, and loosened ties, a couple with black fedora hats set at dramatic angles on their heads; women wearing all manner of flashy, beaded dresses, some of them with long strands of double-wrapped pearls around their necks, others with feather boas, others still with sequined headbands. Everyone is holding a drink; either low-ball glasses, or martinis, or champagne in vintage, saucer-style glasses. They’re all chattering freely while seated on gold and red vintage couches or meandering in and out through French doors that lead to the balcony or standing next to a looming fireplace that is roaring with flames, despite it being about eighty degrees outside. One woman is perched, legs crossed with stockings and garters on full display, on a dark, walnut-brown baby grand piano while she sips from a vintage champagne glass.
And there’s Lucky, seated at the bench, tickling the keys with a smoldering cigarette deftly secured between his index and middle fingers.
“Can I get you a drink?” Patrick breaks through the trance I’m suddenly trapped in. I have a feeling these little trances I keep being overcome with are going to be a regular occurrence this week.
“Uhhh…” I wordlessly flap my jaw as I take in the scene. One of the men picks up a trombone and leans against the piano next to the woman, then starts playing an accompaniment to the melody Lucky is plunking out. I turn to Patrick with an expression that likely looks deadly serious. “That would probably be a good idea.”
He chuckles heartily, flashing me the bright, wide version of his smile, and then drapes his arm around my shoulders as though we’re old chums. “I’ll admit it’s a bit of a spectacle. Greasing the wheels’ll keep it from overwhelming you,” he says, nudging me toward a large, mahogany bar that spans the length of one wall and features a brass rail footrest affixed to its base. “What’ll it be?”
“I, um…” I stammer, my eyes fixed on Lucky, who lifts his cigarette-holding hand to caress the woman’s thigh while she leans down so they can meet in the center for a lingering kiss. When their lips part, he winks at her and then slips the cigarette in his mouth to take a long drag and continues to play. “I mean…whatever’s good, I guess.”
Patrick steps behind the bar while I lean against the front and rest my foot on the brass rail. The mirrored shelves behind it are stocked with gins, liquors, cordials, and so many other types of alcohol that I can’t even identify all of it.
Patrick rests his palms on the edge of the bar, his corded forearms on full display below his rolled-up sleeves. “Ever had a Sazerac?”
Behind me, a trumpet and saxophone join in with the casual jam session, and I’m officially in sensory overload. “I haven’t.”
“Well, you should have one.” He retrieves two low-ball glasses from below, sets them on the bar, and then turns to start retrieving bottles from the shelves. “It’s allegedly the oldest-known American cocktail and originated in pre-Civil War New Orleans.”
He quickly and effortlessly mixes up the ingredients and some ice in a shaker, then pours the drinks into the glasses, and finally garnishes them with curls of lemon. He picks them up, holds out one to me, and I take it.
“To you, Miss Texas,” he says, quirking his mouth in a half-smile that pulls a dimple deep into one cheek. We clink the glasses together. “Welcome to New Orleans, where we will likely corrupt you.”
I can’t help but laugh. “We’ll see about that.”
Taking a sip, I turn slightly to look at Lucky again. A different woman is now standing behind him, draping her arms over his shoulders and peppering his neck with kisses while he continues to play.
My face contorts on its own accord. “So…I guess he really likes the ladies, huh?”
Patrick steps out from behind the bar and leans against it next to me. “Yeah.”
I nod slowly and casually hold the glass at the level of my mouth. “Good to know.”
I can’t decide if it makes me feel better or worse about the faux pas of accidentally trying to kiss him at his show, but on some level, I feel an internal guard go up. Not that Lucky De Luca will have any interest in pursuing the likes of me—the two women currently kissing on him are stunning and sexy, and I am not—but the fact that he appears to be a total ladies’ man has me slightly on the defensive.
As if sensing he’s being watched and talked about, Lucky abruptly cuts a glance in my direction. He looks right at me through coy slits in his eyes, and a curl of smoke is wisping out between his parted lips. After a few more bars of the melody, he draws the song to a close and shrugs off the woman dangling her wrists over his shoulders. She steps away, unfazed by the brush-off and turning her attention to the woman perched on top of the piano, and Lucky stands up from the bench.
Holding the cigarette at the side of his thigh and slipping his opposite hand into the pocket of his trousers, he saunters away from the piano in a straight line directly toward me and Patrick. He walks right into my bubble, stopping only about a half an arm’s length from me, causing me to reflexively press my back hard against the bar, and lifts his arm like he’s reaching for me.
His eyes are focused on mine like lasers, and I have no idea what he’s doing, but I can’t look away. He’s close enough that I can smell his subtle scent; a combination of rich, musky tobacco, fine bourbon, and some kind of spicy cologne or aftershave. My lips part, my breathing picks up, and he’s so close that I can see the tiny speckles of microscopic facial hair on his clean-shaven cheeks and chin.
“Um,” I say in reflex, “hi, I’m—”
“Ava,” he says in that voice that makes me weak, and I’m suddenly so weak that I dart my eyes sideways from his. In doing this, I see that he’s actually reaching to snuff out his cigarette in an ornate, crystal ashtray on the bar behind me.
After a second, he retracts his hand to slip it in his pocket and offers his other one to me. “Glad you made it safely.”
I meet his palm with mine, and he lifts my hand to kiss my knuckles. “Thank you.”
Releasing my hand, he tilts his head sideways in a gesture at Patrick. “I see you’ve met Patrick.”
I turn my head to look at Patrick. The easy pleasantness of his expression has hardened into something imperceptible, and I’m not sure what to make of it. “I did. He let me in and showed me to my room.”
Lucky turns to Patrick and cocks his head at a dramatic angle. “Oh, did he?”
“Yeah,” Patrick says flatly. The two men stare each other down until Patrick breaks first, lifting his glass to salute me with it before stepping away. “Good meeting you, Ava. I’ll see you around.”
He makes it a few paces away from the bar before Lucky whistles at him. “Hey, make sure you’re back by nine so we can play.”
Patrick merely lifts his glass in the air but doesn’t otherwise acknowledge him.
Lucky turns back to me with a coy smirk. “Ava, Ava, Ava.” He braces both hands on the bar behind me, caging me between his arms. “How are you, sweetie? How was your flight?”
He’s super close to me again. Close enough that if I avoid his gaze, it’ll be completely obvious. “Good,” I squeak, once again sounding like a mouse while I clutch my Sazerac to my chest.
Lucky peers at my face. “I’m making you nervous again, aren’t I?”
I frantically shake my head.
His smirk relaxes into an easy, warm, closed-lip smile as he continues to look deep down into my eyes. “You really are such a doll,” he murmurs, then leans forward to press a light kiss to my cheek. Stepping back, he slips his arm around my waist and presses his hand on the small of my back to firmly nudge me away from the bar. “Drink up, sweetie. It’ll help you loosen up. Let’s go say hi to your cohorts.”
Lucky’s confident strides are so long that I have to hastily shuffle my feet in an erratic speed-walk to keep up with him. We cross the room toward one of the ornate, vintage sofas where an elderly woman and a guy in his late thirties are seated with a man and woman from Lucky’s entourage. All four of them are all dressed up in roaring twenties outfits, and I obviously missed the memo at some point.
“Pearl, Stephen,” Lucky says, pulling me to a stop with his hand wrapped around the side of my waist, “I’d like to introduce the final member of your Top Fan squad, Mizz Ava Herald.”
I wave with my drink. “Hi.”
Pearl shifts enthusiastically on the sofa toward me while the redheaded woman from the entourage preens the sequined, feather-festooned headband on Pearl’s head. “Ava Herald! I know that name from Facebook-land!” She salutes me with her martini glass. “I’m so excited to meet you in person!” She picks up one end of the lush, black feather boa wrapped around her neck and flits it at me. “We’ve talked to each other on there before.”
Like a thunderclap of recognition, I suddenly recall both her and Stephen from Lucky’s posts. They both comment as often as I do, and she’s correct that we’ve talked to each other before.
This instantly sets me at ease, and I smile brightly. “Oh my gosh, you’re right! Hi, Pearl!” I look at Stephen, who’s adjusting his black derby hat with a white satin band. “Hi, Stephen. It’s so awesome to meet you both. You know…in person.”
Stephen runs his hand down the length of his bright red tie and black pinstripe vest, and then tips his low-ball glass toward me. “Hey there, Ava. Take a load off.” He reclines against the sofa, nestling in and making himself at home. “This is shaping up to be a really accommodating week.”
The sofa directly opposite them is vacant other than people leaning against the back of it, so I step away from Lucky’s hand on my waist to sit down. Setting my drink on the center coffee table, I find myself sitting stiffly with my arms crossed over my lap as though I’m attempting to hide my “traveling clothes” from all these gussied-up people. Per usual, I dressed for comfort on the plane and the hot, humid New Orleans climate, so I’m wearing a plain, light pink tank-top and cropped jeans with sneakers.
“When, um,” I start to say, hoping I won’t have to carry the conversation, “when did y’all get in?”
“Oh my heavens, listen to that!” Pearl chortles, fluffing the boa again. “I love that you say y’all.” She turns to the redhead, who has now produced a tube of lip gloss and is now touching up Pearl’s mouth. “Nobody says y’all where I live in California.”
Lucky sits on the sofa next to me—very next to me—and crosses his ankle over his knee in my direction. “It’s adorable, isn’t it?” He leans forward to pick up my drink and hands it to me. “Everybody around here says y’all, and I love it.”
I manage a laugh that sounds normal and not completely put on. “Yeah, it’s a southern thing, I guess.”
“Yeah, back in Pittsburg, we sometimes say yinz,” Stephen says with a chuckle, lifting his glass again. “And I have to admit, it doesn’t exactly have the same charm.”
“The word ‘y’all’ especially has charm,” Pearl chimes in again. She carefully lifts her very-full martini to her lips and takes a tiny sip. After swallowing, she smacks her lips exuberantly. “Especially when such a pretty girl says it.”
“I concur,” Lucky says, draping his arm along the back of the sofa behind me.
I death-grip my Sazerac as I take a long drink of it, because I’m feeling extremely uptight. My mind will not shut up.
What’s with all of these people calling me pretty?
I can count on one hand the number of times anyone has called me pretty.
Why is everyone so much more at ease than me?
Are they all just drunk already, or am I really that awkward that I can’t even be comfortable around people I don’t know?
This must be why Roger doesn’t want me being an onsite project manager. I have no idea how to act around people who aren’t Zoey, my perpetual security blanket.
But most of all, is Lucky De Luca hitting on me?
Why is he sitting so close to me, and why is he sort of putting his arm around me?
Why would he hit on me?
Is this just the way he is with everybody like that girl said at the concert?
Am I reading this all wrong just like when I thought he was trying to kiss me?
I keep drinking my Sazerac until there’s only about a quarter of it left.
“Patrick makes a mean Sazerac, don’t he?” Lucky breaks through my thoughts, his head turned all the way toward me.
I turn to look at him.
Why does that sound like an accusation?
I lift my shoulders. “It is good, but I’ve never had one before.”
A quick smile tugs the corners of his mouth. “He’s a good guy. Hell of a drummer.”
I rack my brain for something conversational to say. “Yeah, he’s been with you for a long time.”
Lucky offers a sage nod, keeping his gaze trained on my face. “Since almost the very beginning. We have a tendency to lock antlers sometimes, but we always kiss and make up.”
I might be tipsy from my drink already because the mental picture of Lucky and Patrick kissing each other makes me giggle.
A wide grin stretches across Lucky’s face. “You think that’s funny, Ava?”
“I mean…a little.” I giggle again. And then I snort.
I nearly drop my glass attempting to cover my mouth.
My snort is noticed by the whole Top Fan Squad, and everyone breaks into laughter. Stephen chuckles heartily, and Pearl titters as she swings the end of the boa.
“Could you be any more adorable, Ava?” She clutches her sternum. “I love you already!”
My face is flaming, but I force myself to keep laughing along with them. Lucky, I notice, is not laughing. He’s just looking at me with that same easy, warm smile. Once again, I’m having trouble looking away, and my laughter fizzles out. The look between us holds for a number of seconds before he abruptly removes his arm and stands up, swiping the glass out of my hands.
“Piper, sweetie. Do me a favor.”
The redhead turns from Pearl while still holding the lip gloss wand at the ready. “Anything, Luck,” she replies in a bird-like tone.
“Mind raiding the closet again and finding Ava something to wear?”
“Sure!” Piper chirps, putting away the lip gloss and leaping up from the sofa.
She daintily steps around the coffee table and reaches to snag my wrists, giving my arms a tug to stand up. With hands on her hips, she knits her brow as she glides her gaze up and down my body. She reaches for me, encircling my waist with her hands, and I reflexively lift my arms at my sides.
She removes her hands, but holds them the same distance from each other, as though she just measured the circumference of my waist. “You’s about a two, yeah?”
I squint at her. “A size two? Yeah. Good guess.”
She drops one of her arms at her side and twirls her opposite hand in the air. “I gotcha. I’ll meetcha in your room so we can get you dressed.”
After she waltzes off, I turn to Pearl and Stephen. “So y’all didn’t actually come here dressed up like that.”
They both laugh again.
“Heavens no!” Pearl swings the end of the boa again. “Lucky had Piper get us changed right away.” She snickers before taking another tiny sip of her martini and smacking her lips. “I sure do love the way you say y’all.”
Stephen swirls his drink. “Make sure you get a refill on your way to change.” He chuckles. “I think down here in ol’ New Orleans, they call it a go-cup. At least, that’s what I was told at the bar I stopped off at before I got here this afternoon.”
A genuine laugh shakes out of me.
So, they are just a little tipsy. That’s what’s really wrong with me. I’m not drunk enough yet.
Well, I’ll just have to get to work on that.
“I’m gonna escort Mizz Ava to her room, and then I’ll be back.” Lucky wraps his hand around my waist again. “Then, I’m taking you guys out so we can kick off the week properly.”
As we’re leaving the room and heading down the hall, I have no idea what to do with my hands while Lucky is holding my waist like this. I settle for clasping them stiffly at the level of my hips while I stare at the dark hardwood floor below my feet.
Once at my room, he follows me inside. And then he closes the door.
And then, he locks it.
I freeze up, standing rigidly in the center of a circular, Victorian-era rug positioned between the large dresser and four-poster, king-size bed. I’m staring at him while he stands across the room, and my eyes feel like they’ve stretched as wide as they can go.
If Lucky De Luca has locked us in here together to have his way with me, he doesn’t seem very motivated. He’s just standing there, hands in his pockets, while he looks at me thoughtfully.
“Ava,” he finally says.
My mouth is dry, but I manage to speak. “Yeah?”
He presses one palm flat against his chest. “Please don’t be scared of me.”
I shift my eyes. “I’m not,” I say with emphasis. “I’m just…I mean, I’ve literally been here for about fifteen minutes, and I don’t know anybody.”
He takes a couple of steps toward me. “But you do know me, Ava. You know Pearl. You know Stephen. We got a little community, all of us, even if it is just via the internet.”
I mean, it is kind of true. After realizing who they were, I’m pretty familiar with Pearl and Stephen. We’ve carried on comment threads that go for days on some of Lucky’s posts. So maybe I am just a little uptight and need to loosen up.
Closing the distance between us, Lucky picks up both of my hands and holds them at the level of his chest. “The Jazz Manor is an escape. There are no rules here, and we live large. I want you to make the most of that. I want you to feel free to do anything and everything you feel like doing. If there’s anything you want this week, you let me know, and I’m gonna make it happen.” He angles his head closer to my face and narrows his eyes playfully. “And why am I gonna do that?”
My eyes shift again. “Because…”
“Because Lucky loves ya.” He flashes his full, white grin. “Ain’t I been saying that to you for years?”
Miraculously, hearing him say that—something I have heard him say for years—while standing right in front of me, tenderly holding my hands, I am immediately at total ease.
Although, that could be the Sazerac that I downed in record time.
Nevertheless, my posture relaxes, and I offer him a genuine smile. “You have always said that.”
“Well, I mean it.” He lifts his shoulders and skims his gaze across the room before meeting mine again. “That’s why you’re here. I want to do something for you after all you’ve done for me.”
I nod agreeably. “Okay.”
“Oh-kay,” he echoes, giving my hands a small shake before lifting them to his lips and kissing both of them.
As if on cue, there’s a knock at the door. “I gotcha some clothes, Luck!” Piper calls.
At that, Lucky drops my hands and strides back across the room to open the door.
“Perfect,” he murmurs, eyeing the dress and accessories gathered in Piper’s arms. “Thanks, doll.” He kisses Piper’s cheek, and she leans into the kiss with a smitten, closed-lip smile. He strides toward the door and turns at the last minute. “Meet us back in the big room when you’re done, and then we’re going to get the party started.”
I arch an eyebrow as he marches out the door and closes it behind him.
So, the spectacle down the hall in the big room wasn’t the party.
I obviously had no clue what I was signing up for by coming here.