French Quarter, New Orleans
Liza knew she was being a total tourist, but she couldn’t help herself. The last time she’d been here, she was blitzed on monsoons the entire time and most of her memories of the French Quarter and Algiers Point were hazy. She figured the novelty would wear off after a few weeks of living here, and since she had a few hours to kill before her meeting with Jimmy Hall of Frenchmen Street Records, she opted to meander around the square of streets that made up the French Quarter—or simply the Quarter, as the locals called it—taking in the sights and sounds and smell as if it were her first time to ever set foot here.
The smell was interesting. On the one hand, the sweet, yeasty scent of fresh beignets drifting from the open-air Cafe Du Monde was heavenly, and she was going to indulge herself momentarily, but swore up and down she wouldn’t make the pastries a habit. On the other hand, the Quarter kind of reeked. The heady, but not necessarily overwhelming scent fell at the intersection of river water, cigarettes, diesel fumes, something that was probably urine, dead fish, and manure. All of which made sense, given that Decatur Street flanked the Mississippi where she was standing, and mule-drawn carriages rolled along the wide avenue.
Despite its strong scent, the river was quite picturesque, similar to her last memory of it. The water glittered and the white ferry glinted in the sun as it churned its way toward Algiers Point. Between being drunk at the time and it being ten years ago, she couldn’t really remember much of riding the ferry, but she remembered this spot and when she’d last stood on it.
It had been night. The Crescent City Connection, the two large bridges that connected the sections of New Orleans severed by the winding Mississippi, had glowed silver against the inky sky and blackened river, while her hair whipped at her face and his, as he’d tenderly held her cheeks and kissed her long and slow.
That memory managed to survive the effects of alcohol leaving her bloodstream and the many years that passed because, all things considered, it had been pure magic. Music drifting from the Quarter and filling the atmosphere, while hope filled her chest after he’d whispered sweet, yet determined promises in her ear. Short as their relationship had been, she should’ve known better than to take such declarations of love and forever to heart. But she was only twenty-one at the time, never been in love, and—truthfully—had probably given too much weight to his American hero status.
Not that he wasn’t heroic. Even now, after everything, she retained a serious measure of respect and admiration for the things he’d endured. But the things that make a man a good soldier don’t automatically translate to making them the kind of person you can spend the rest of your life with. Soldiers were just people; fully capable of dishonesty and cowardice when not towing the line of duty.
Regardless, standing there again all those years later, the wind once again whipping her hair and the music once again filling her ears, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to indulge in that one good memory. Just like the touristy Quarter itself, she was sure the novelty would wear off after a while.
“Liza Hardin,” came a graveled, yet feminine voice from nearby.
Liza snapped her eyes open and whipped her head to the right to see an elderly woman wearing a white head scarf, white dress, and a long strand of ruby-red beads. Liza felt her brow crinkle in total confusion. “Yes ma’am? Do I know you?”
“You do not.” A toothy grin stretched the woman’s paper-thin cheeks. “But I know you. And you have arrived right on time.”
Liza pulled her chin close. “I beg your pardon?” She squinted. “How do you know my name?”
The old woman chuckled as she raised one arm at the Mississippi, gesturing with an upturned palm. “I know many things.”
Liza raised one eyebrow as she clutched her purse close to her side. Sweet and friendly as the elderly lady seemed, the situation also seemed like good opportunity to get pickpocketed. “Do you now? Are you one of the French Quarter fortune tellers?”
“I am a teller of ikusasa,” the woman declared.
“Ikusasa,” Liza repeated. Dare she ask? “What exactly is that?”
The woman shook her finger at Liza, sending the rainbow of beads on her wrist jingling. “Ikusasa is destiny, Liza Hardin. I know yours.”
A patronizing smile plastered itself across Liza’s face as she took a step backward. “That is really interesting, but I’m here for work. I don’t have any cash on me and I have a meeting soon, so I can’t really do a fortune-telling session today.”
The old woman lifted her bony index finger and pointed across the river at Algiers Point. “Lowo muntu udinga wena.”
Liza took another step backward and held her purse tighter. “Okay…?”
“Ikusasa lakho liphelile lapho.”
“I’m really sorry.” Liza closed her eyes and shook her head before glancing at Jackson Square and checking the time on the large clock on St. Louis Cathedral. “I have to get going.”
A trombone wailed from somewhere in the Quarter that somehow sounded simultaneously close by and distant. A bone-chilling gust of wind blasted down the avenue. Leaves fluttered from God only knew where because there were no trees on this stretch of Decatur, and then they swirled and swooped before hitting the sidewalk, and the wind carried them away.
Liza’s eyes stretched wide as her gaze shifted from side to side. “Who are you?”
The elderly woman offered a tender smile. “Forgiveness can save a man’s life.” She patted Liza’s arm and then turned to walk away. “Yours too.”
The woman plodded along in the opposite direction and Liza stood like a stone statue. The trombone wailed again, sounding much closer, and she turned her head toward it just as a colder gust blasted her face, forcing her eyes closed for a second. She opened them and turned to look back at the elderly woman, only to find that she was nowhere to be seen.
Liza shifted her gaze again as her jaw hung open and she clutched her purse tighter. She turned a small circle and noticed there wasn’t anyone within a hundred or so feet of her. The old woman was just gone, as if she’d disappeared into the atmosphere like a curl of cigarette smoke. She blinked as she reminded herself that there were hundreds of those kinds of tourist attractions in New Orleans. Fortune tellers, illusionists, magicians, and so forth. Her tight grip on the top of her purse assured her that nobody could have slipped a hand into it without her noticing.
The purse buzzed, causing Liza to jump slightly, and then she recovered and fished out her phone.
“Liza Hardin,” she answered.
The line was silent for a beat and Liza pulled the phone away from her ear to check if the call was connected.
“Oh,” a man on the other end said before giving a hearty laugh. “I don’t know why I got it in my head that you were a guy.”
Liza furrowed her brow. “I beg your pardon?”
“Sorry. I’m Jimmy Hall.”
“Ohhh.” She held the phone to her ear with her shoulder as she zipped the purse closed and slung it over her shoulder. “Hi, Jimmy. I’m sorry for the miscommunication. I go by L on all written communication so I don’t get dismissed immediately. This industry isn’t very kind to women.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” He paused and she heard paper shuffle. “So your name is Liza?”
“Yes, Liza Hardin.”
“Well, good to talk to you, Liza. I’m Jimmy. We’ll get your paperwork all settled when you get here so we’ll all be on the same page. I’m guessing you’re somewhere in my hometown right now?”
“I am indeed.”
“You free to head on over here? I know it’s earlier than we talked about.”
“Oh yes,” she said, stepping away from the railing and waving her arm at a cab that was puttering along down Decatur. “I’m available and ready to hit the ground running.”
“There ya go. We’re at the corner of Frenchmen and Burgundy, across from the sushi joint. It’s an old, yellow house,” he said just as the cab eased up to the curb and a leggy woman in a tight dress and tall heels stepped out. “If you take a cab or something the driver should know where we are.”
Liza switched the phone to her opposite hand as she slid into the backseat and closed the door. “I just got in one.” She glanced out the window at the clock on St. Louis Cathedral. “I expect I’ll be there in fifteen minutes or so.”
“Right on. See you soon.”
“I need to go to Frenchmen Street Records,” she told the driver as she continued to look out the window and admittedly scanning the sidewalk for the fortune teller. “It’s at the corner of—”
Someone cleared their throat and Liza whipped her head around to see that a man was still sitting in the backseat. A really attractive man with dark hair that hung slightly over his dark eyes, who wore an expensive, yet slightly disheveled suit, sans tie and top few shirt buttons unfastened, and an amused smirk.
“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry,” she blurted out. “I thought the cab was vacated after that woman got out.” She pitched forward to address the driver. “You can let me out. It was my mistake.”
“No need for that,” the man said to the driver, and then turned to Liza and offered his hand. “Brennan Riley. I’m actually on my way to the record label.”
Liza’s gaze shifted and then she raised an eyebrow skeptically. “Are you really?”
He retracted his hand that he’d offered to her and slipped it into his jacket pocket, then held out a business card.
She took it and, sure enough, there was the label’s name and his. She looked back up at him with delight. “Well, how about that? What a small world.” She offered her hand and he shook it. “I’m Liza Hardin. Mr. Hall… I assume you know Mr. Hall, right?”
Brennan nodded. “Jimmy.”
“Right. Jimmy. He just brought me on as his new brand manager and digital marketing lead.”
“Oh yeah. Yeah, I heard him mention this week he was bringing someone on.” Brennan paused as a funny look crossed his face. “I don’t know why I got it in my head that you were a guy.”
Liza had to laugh. “That’s okay. Mr. Hall literally just said the same thing. We seem to have had a breakdown in communication.” She offered him a congenial smile. “I can assure you both that I’m definitely a lady.”
Brennan eyed her face briefly before turning his head forward, and then drummed his lap as he said somewhat under his breath, “Yes you are.”
She peered at him out of the corner of her eye as her mind flashed a picture of the woman who stepped out of the car. Then there was also the disheveled suit. The unbuttoned shirt. The smirk. The fact that he was really attractive. And not that Liza was trying to be all judge-y, but Brennan suddenly struck her as a certain type of man.
She cleared her throat and shifted to sit up straight in the seat, crossing her ankles away from him. “So what is your role at Frenchmen Street, Mr. Riley?”
He adjusted his lapels and crossed his leg over his knee in the opposite direction, almost as if he perceived her thoughts regarding his appearance and body language. “I would describe my role as a pseudo venture capitalist.” He cut his eyes toward her. “And you can call me Brennan.”
She tilted her head. “A pseudo venture capitalist.”
He fastened an extra button at the top of his shirt and adjusted his collar. “That’s right. I supplement the label financially so that it stays afloat when things get slow.”
Liza pressed her lips together to avoid smirking. He’s the trust fund baby.
“I can’t say I’ve ever encountered anyone in a role such as that at a label that’s so well established,” she said as politely neutral as possible.
“Yeah, it’s not normal,” he said with a laugh. “But the thing is I really believe in what Jimmy’s been trying to do with his label. The musical landscape of New Orleans is changing and he’s committed to keeping tradition alive.” He shrugged. “This is my city. The music is part of its cultural DNA. I’m in a position to help him keep it that way, so that’s what I do.”
She lifted her eyebrows, impressed at the explanation and idea. “I like that. Good on you, Mr. Riley.”
“Thanks.” He raised his eyebrows in mild amusement. “And seriously, don’t call me Mr. Riley. Call me Brennan. Mr. Hall is Jimmy.” He adjusted his jacket again and slipped on a pair of classic Ray-Bans. “Frenchmen Street isn’t a big stuffy corporate label.”
“Well, all right then.” She clasped her hands together and rested them on her knees. “Brennan and Jimmy. Duly noted.”
He rested his chin on his knuckles and turned his head to look out the window. “Right on.”
The cab shook and rattled the entire ten minute drive, and Liza clutched the door handle to keep from being thrown across the seat and into Brennan’s lap as the driver whipped around corners. Her torso pitched forward and slammed back against the seat as the cab screeched to a halt. Brennan practically leaped out of the cab, and she took a moment to adjust her well-fitting skirt in preparation for the meeting.
She’d just reached for the handle when the door was pulled open and Brennan’s hand appeared in her line of sight.
“Allow me,” he said, pleasantly neutral.
“Thank you.” She took his palm as she stepped out, and then he immediately let go. She followed him around the cab as she briefly glanced up and down the street. A few people in dusty work overalls meandered down the sidewalk and a man zipped by on a bicycle. Palm trees flanked the building, their long leaves waving in the breeze as if beckoning them both toward the entrance of an old house featuring a vintage neon sign in one window that declared Frenchmen Street Records.
Brennan held open the front door. “After you.”
“Thanks,” she said, and she guessed that even a certain type of man could also certainly have manners.
She stepped inside the house and was immediately greeted by a tall, stocky man, probably early fifties and wearing a loose Hawaiian shirt and white linen pants.
“Liza Hardin!” he declared, sticking his hand out toward her. “Jimmy Hall, founder of Frenchmen Street Records and fifth generation New Orleanian.”
She shook his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Jimmy.”
“Likewise.” He stepped aside to make room for both Liza and Brennan, and then his face contorted at the sight of Brennan. “Riley, what are you doing here so early?”
Brennan slipped off his shades as he took a noticeable step away from Liza. “I was dropping off a friend over in the Quarter and happened to bump into Mizz Hardin here, so we shared a cab.”
“Huh.” Jimmy chuckled and scratched the back of his head. “Small world in the Big Easy.”
Liza matched his casual laugh. “It is indeed.”
Brennan offered a smile before stepping farther away and then heading toward the back of the house as he pulled out his phone. “I’ll let you two get down to business.” He gave her one last quick glance over his shoulder as he lifted his hand in a small wave. “Nice to meet you, Liza.”
“You too.” Liza glanced at him as he left and then let her gaze skim over the layout of the house. The interior was distinctly vintage, probably nineteenth century, with a lot of French finishings. The ancient hardwood creaked under her stilettos as she followed Jimmy into what likely used to be a dining room, but had filing cabinets and two large, oak desks pushed against the deep red walls. An equally large, mahogany desk sat dead-center in the room, with a large leather chair on one side and two metal folding chairs positioned on the other. All the surfaces were stacked at least a foot high with manila folders and paperwork, and hung from the walls were several framed gold record albums from various jazz musicians and brass bands. A stereo in one corner blasted the music of what Liza guessed might have been one of those brass bands, and in her mind’s eye she could practically see a Mardi Gras parade.
She glanced around the room wearing a smile and then looked at Jimmy. “This is a beautiful house.”
“Thank you. It’s been in my family for all five of those generations.” He sat in the leather chair and reclined slightly, lacing his fingers together and resting them on his round belly. “And I kinda see it as the home to my family at this label. I’m a bit old school and I see Frenchmen Street as a family business. That’s part of why I’ve been slow to adapt to the changing industry. Thought I could hold on to the small town culture from my childhood and teen years, but New Orleans isn’t the same city it used to be. After Katrina, the world seemed to focus its attention on us even closer, which has been good for some reasons and bad for others. It’s almost like the chaos of that storm increased the tourist appeal.” He scratched his head. “I don’t understand that at all, but tourism has always been part of our lifeblood here, so…” He shrugged. “I don’t even know.”
He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk as he gestured at the walls. “What I do know is it’s become clear that if I want to keep my label around for another twenty-five years, I need to adapt to the changes in the industry. I have no idea where to start. I’m hoping you can fix that for me, and teach me everything you know.”
Liza slipped a small tablet out of her bag and powered it on, navigating to the file she’d created with all the information he’d emailed her. “Well, fortunately for you, I’m not only a digital native, but I’m also one of the best in my field. I’ve reviewed your catalog and local engagement and distribution, and I’ve got a slew of ideas. I have a very clear idea how to start and am completely confident that we can reposition Frenchmen Street quickly and efficiently.” She set the tablet down on her lap and clasped her hands together on top of it. “The first thing I’m going to do is create a detailed outline for a rebranding effort and marketing plan for the next six months that encompasses each of your artists and for the label in general. If that looks good to you, we’ll hit the ground running.”
Jimmy’s bright, white smile only grew wider as he listened intently, and she couldn’t help smiling back. “That sounds fantastic.” He wagged his finger at her. “You sound like you’re worth every penny.”
She leaned back in her chair. “I can assure you that I am.”
“Well, all right.” He clapped his hands together. “How long do you think it’ll take you to come up with that?”
She lifted her shoulders as she pressed her lips together. “By Monday for sure. I’d like to go to any shows you have scheduled for this week, talk to the artists’ individual managers, check out their merch tables, how the clubs are promoting shows, so on and so forth. I’d also like to take a closer look at your distribution channels and digital platform.”
He waved his hands. “I got no digital platform. And distribution is just to local record stores mostly. They were able to handle converting to and offering MP3s and stuff.” He chuckled. “I don’t know how that shit works.”
“Fortunately, I do.” She set the tablet on the desk and tapped a browser tab. “We’ll get everything set up in digital format and then distribute to streaming services. I think you’ll see an immediate uptick in visibility. I was looking at a really basic Google analytics report that showed people are actually searching for your artists on the major streaming services and YouTube.” She looked up at him. “You’re still extremely relevant. You just need to beef up your platform.”
Jimmy slapped the desk. “Then let’s do that.”
She grinned. “Perfect.”
He stood up and gestured for her to follow him out of the open room and crossed the foyer into another room that had two large desks pushed against each other. “So this’ll be your office. You can have your pick of the desks cuz my people are almost never around.” He gestured toward the back of the house. “You’ve already met Riley. He normally comes and goes as he damn well pleases because I’ve got an unorthodox, yet necessary financial arrangement with him—”
Liza waved her hand casually. “He explained it. I think it’s kind of neat.”
“Yeah, so because of that he just sort of hangs around to chat up the artists and goes to the shows and offers opinions and moral support and stuff.” Jimmy chuckled. “He hardly qualifies as an employee, but he’s a Marine Corps vet and a good kid for the most part, and he’s definitely part of the fam.”
Liza smiled placidly. “He seems very nice.”
“Yeah.” Jimmy pointed in the direction of a couple of doors that lined the hallway toward the back of the house. “My art department is a young lady named Frankie Huckabee, who lives over in Kenner, so I let her come in a little later and work from home some days. My legal team is an attorney who works downtown. He’s Carson McDermott, and I only call him when I need him for contracts and stuff. And my A and R guy is usually around every day, but prefers to work by never sitting down and mostly marches around the house while he’s on the phone.”
She gave a nod as she set her bag down on the chair that faced the front windows. “He sounds Type A.”
“Oh he’s type something, all right.” Jimmy chuckled again and smoothed his shirt. “He’ll be bursting through the doors any minute all sweaty ‘cuz he’s crazy and likes to jog here from way over on Algiers Point.”
Liza raised her eyebrows. “That’s an insanely long way to jog. Especially in this humidity.”
“Yeah, well. We’ve all warned him about it, but he’s bull-headed.” Jimmy shook his head. “Anyway, his name is Connor Deneau and I’ve already let him know I’m expecting him to work closely with you on this new artist we’re planning to sign here in the next week or so. Connor’s been scouting him for a couple of months and we’ve got high hopes for this young man.”
Liza’s stomach plummeted as she went effectively blind and deaf. On some level, she had an awareness that her face probably exuded shock and disbelief, but she was lost in the recesses of memories from ten years ago, and how in the hell had the universe orchestrated this?
It was that fortune teller. It had to be. Between the fact that she happened to step into a cab that was carrying one of her new colleagues and having taken a job where Connor worked, there was no other explanation. Liza didn't even believe in magic or spirits or any of that nonsense, but right then and there, she believed with every bone in her body the old woman had placed a spell on her.
“You all right?” Jimmy asked, placing his hand on her shoulder and lowering his head slightly to her eye level. “You look kind of pale.”
She hastily cleared her throat and blinked. “I’m fine. Still adjusting to the weather, I guess.”
And she was fine. She knew crossing paths with Connor was a possibility, and she’d prepared herself for that. Just because the crossing of paths happened to entail fate dropping her smack into the center of his path, it didn’t make her any less of a professional nor any less exceptional at her job. She could handle this. She would conduct herself with class and tact and professionalism, no matter how he behaved, and nothing negative would reflect on her.
Beyond that, Connor had essentially disposed of her ten years ago and she’d never heard from him again. It was entirely possible he’d forgotten about her completely. Six months, no matter how intensely passionate, was barely a blip on the radar in terms of a decade. Compared to back then, Liza knew she was almost unrecognizably different now in terms of both lifestyle and appearance. Maybe she’d be lucky and he wouldn’t make the connection at all.
Regardless of what he did, she’d treat him as nothing more than a new colleague at a new job. There would be no harping on their history because, after all, he’d made it clear their time together was meaningless. Therefore, their shared history might as well not exist.
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 open the front door. Gloriously dry, 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 daintier 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. That was damn close to— “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 God’s 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 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 as he marched toward the kitchen to grab a coffee before getting in the shower, and saw Brennan lounging on the sofa in the adjoining living room, who glanced up at him.
“Well shit.” Brennan’s brow pulled low. “Who pissed in your Cheerios?”
“Fuck off, Riley.” Connor opened a cabinet to grab a mug and then reached for the carafe as Brennan stood from the sofa and entered the kitchen.
He stood close to Connor and lowered his voice significantly. “Did you see that out there?” He lifted his eyebrows as a mischievous smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
Connor knew exactly what Brennan meant by that out there, and shot him a threatening look. “If you so much as even think about that, I’ll skin your ass.”
Brennan laughed heartily as he slapped Connor’s shoulder. “Aside from the fact that I don’t fucking take orders from you, Sarge, I don’t think I need to remind you that I don’t mix business with pleasure.” He slipped his hands in his pockets, leaned against the counter, and inclined his head toward the hall as he smirked. “I was actually thinking you might be interested in that and I could help you out. However, since my personal policy slipped your mind and you’ve got a damn chip on your shoulder, I have half a mind to chat her up just to piss you off.”
Connor slammed the carafe back under the coffee maker and took an aggressive step closer to Brennan. “Do not chat her up. And there’s no way in hell I’m interested in that.”
Brennan pulled in his chin and drew his brows together. “Why in the hell not? Did you get a good look at her? She’s magnificent.” He looked down the hall again and the muscle in his jaw twitched, and Connor had half a mind to deck him for what he knew was probably going through Brennan’s over-sexed brain.
As if reading Connor’s mind, Brennan turned to look at him again with a shit-eating grin. “Oh wait. Oh no,” he said, feigning sympathy. “Has it been so long that your shit doesn’t work anymore?”
Connor inclined his head and lowered his voice, still looking at Brennan with severity. “I’ve been there and done that already, and I’m not doing that again.”
Brennan eyed his face, his gaze shifting back and forth between Connor and the hall. “What, like she’s your ex or something?”
Connor made a face that required no further explanation and Brennan threw his fist to his mouth to stifle laughter. “No fucking way.”
Connor gulped the coffee and relished in the scalding sensation that rushed down his throat.
“Shit.” Brennan jingled the change in his pockets as he lifted and dropped his eyebrows. “Things just got interesting at Frenchmen Street. I think I’m gonna be showing up here more regularly for a while.”
“Keep your trap shut about it, Riley.” He marched out of the kitchen. “And keep your snake in your trousers.”
Before Brennan could say anything else, Connor 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.