Miss Rye Fontaine wasn’t one for slow—much less dead. Dead meant no patrons, no lonely souls filling the booths and drinking her liquor. Her boys looked bored. Listless. More than that, they looked like they were getting paid to do nothing.
She narrowed heavily made-up lids over gray-blue eyes.
“You’re going to get wrinkles if you frown like that,” Solstice blew maroon bangs out of her face and grinned, knowing she could get away with smart-talking the boss.
Miss Rye patted her assistant’s shoulder. “Thank god you work for college credit, Sol. Otherwise, after a drought like this I might have to let ya go.”
Solstice just laughed.
“And you’re wrong about the wrinkles. I’m never gonna age.”
For a moment Miss Rye stared at the heavy oak door, willing some timid housewife to walk through, eager for the companionship of a handsome man for hire. When her glare didn’t summon a patron, Miss Rye demanded to the room at large:
“Where in the hell is everyone?”
Her accented voice echoed back to her.
Only three boys were actually scheduled to work the floor that afternoon: Nicky, who lay in a booth with his feet up on the back, Rellen working on his thesis in the corner, and Callum—Under the Table’s number one host, and her secret boyfriend—the only one actually making her money. He cost her twice as much as the other guys when he was on the clock but at least he was working. He held his work cell and texted with his main patrons to make sure they knew he was “thinking about them.” Two more of her boys were on Outsides, Brook and Leon; they’d report in later that evening. The rest were doing whatever it was they did when they weren’t on the clock. She’d never been one to care.
“We knew when we started opening for lunch that it would be a gamble,” Tyrone, the floor manager, walked up behind Solstice. “It’s going to take some time for our patrons to get used to it.”
Miss Rye’s eyes narrowed further. She was not widely known for her patience. “Well, then you guys need to go out and make this less of a gamble and more of a sure thing.”
“And how do you propose we do that?”
“Do like they do in Japan, Ty. Go out on the street and promote. We have food. And liquor. And handsome men waitin’ to listen to a woman’s every inane thought.”
“You want us to solicit?”
“You make it sound like I run a brothel, you know I shut that down.” Her voice rose as she spoke. “I want ya’ll to go act like sexy sandwich board guys. If the ladies aren’t comin’ in on their own, go bring them in. Drag ’em in by the hair if you gotta.”
“So not soliciting. Kidnapping?” Solstice snorted.
Rellen had looked up from his research and Nicky’s feet twitched on the back of the booth. Callum ignored her, focused on his texting.
She cleared her throat and smirked. “All of you handsome boys, listen on up. You’ve got an hour. Bring back at least one patron each and you can keep your jobs.”
That got everyone’s attention. Rellen’s mechanical pencil clattered to the table and Nicky pulled himself all the way into a standing position. Even Callum looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Clock’s tickin’, boys,” she said, pointing one painted nail at the timepiece over the bar.
“Should I go too?”
It was Jem, her bartender. Most nights he poured the most delicious drinks for Under the Table—but once a week he worked in tandem with one of her top selling hosts, Bailey, who was at that moment sitting at the end of the bar. There were rows of empty glasses spread out in front of him.
If they hadn’t worn her down on the issue, Miss Rye never would have let Jem host. Her bartender was too timid and his drinks were too damn good. But a woman could only take so much of the mournful looks, before she just had to give. Plus he’d proved himself in a pinch one night and made her a ton of money. Puppy dog eyes alone didn’t pay the electric bill.
“I need you here to pour,” she replied sweetly.
“But…no one is here.”
“A patron could walk in any minute and without a bartender, what would we do?”
“I’m here,” Bailey said after a moment’s delay. There was a slight slur to his voice.
For the last two hours, Jem had been experimenting with new cocktails, trying to develop a new, exciting flavor, and Bailey—who was not on the clock—had been sampling the wares. Thumbs up, thumbs down.
“You aren’t scheduled,” Miss Rye said firmly.
It was funny, really. Bailey was paid to drink with women every single night—but in all the time he’d been in her employ (and he’d been around from the beginning), Miss Rye could not remember ever seeing him really drunk. His bleary-eyed look was amusing.
“How much has he had to drink?” she asked Jem.
“I’m fine,” Bailey insisted. “Put me in, Coach. I can walk the tightrope.”
“Um,” Jem flushed. “Well, he was just taking sips, but then I made the poison apple and—”
“Delicious,” Bailey insisted. “Y’know what, lover? Hit me again.”
Without missing a beat, Jem reached for a glass.
“Miss Rye,” Bailey said. “Since you need patrons, tell you what. I’ll pay you to book the private room.”
She looked at him uncertainly.
“A round of poison apples, your finest host, and the private room…”
“The hosts are—”
“I can do it!” Jem agreed emphatically, his smile warm.
Taking a deep, controlling breath, Miss Rye said, “You do realize that if I catch y’all doin’ in there what I think y’all are gonna be doin’ in there, there’s gonna be consequences, right?”
Jem nodded earnestly and Bailey shrugged.
“And I’m not giving you a discount just because you work here. You’ll either pay for the room outright or work tonight off the clock.” And then judging the state of him, she decided. “Or tomorrow, off clock.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Bailey looked over at the bar where his boyfriend was blushing furiously.
“You didn’t have to rent the private room,” Jem insisted, as he let the door click quietly closed behind him. Inside was a large maroon couch, big enough, at least, for six, pressed up against the wall, and a round table, plus a small wet bar and a television. The lighting was low, intimate. It was nice.
“I know,” Bailey agreed. “Except you wanted to go out and drum up business and I’m not on the clock. What if she’d said yes? You’d be out there flirting with women and trying to get them into the club. Couldn’t have that.”
“You’re so jealous.”
“Yup,” Bailey agreed shamelessly. “Now get over here and sit in my lap.”
Jem knew he should have a little decorum. If Miss Rye caught them—and she was sure to catch them—they were going to get it. But Bailey’s alcohol-flushed cheeks and come and get it smile were so gorgeous that Jem couldn’t resist. He walked over to where his boyfriend sat on the couch and allowed himself to be pulled into Bailey’s lap. Warm arms wrapped around Jem’s waist and Jem leaned forward into a kiss.
“The poison apple is making you bold.”
“You’re making me bold, kid.”
They did this sometimes for their patrons—well, a variation of it. Touched each other and kissed for the fantasy and entertainment of onlookers. But they’d agreed that when they did it for the club, there would always be an element of play to it. (Ha! As if Jem could play pretend where Bailey was concerned…) Now, completely alone, Bailey’s lips on his, Jem melted into Bailey and there was only the two of them, only their mingling breath, only their hearts thudding in time, only their hands feeling up under each other’s clothing, only the taste of poison apple on Bailey’s lips.
“Let’s break her rules, Jem.” Bailey insisted, nipping playfully at Jem’s neck.
He’d have hickeys. It didn’t matter. He didn’t care. All he could do was groan.
“I want you.”
Jem nodded dumbly in agreement.
“Jem, honey, I need ya to—” Pour. The word caught behind pursed lips as Miss Rye stopped just within the door of the private room. Her bartender was underneath her number two host, the latter out cold, though from drink or post-orgasm, she couldn’t tell. She took a deep, steadying breath. “I should fire y’all both, y’know that, right?”
Jem nodded dumbly, obviously trapped under Bailey’s weight.
She was too nice. She was too damned nice. It had always been a fault of hers. Plus, there were patrons waiting on drinks.
“Need me to shove him off of ya?” she asked.
Jem shrugged as best he could.
“Let me put it to you this way. If I don’t shove him off of ya, are you going to be behind the bar in three minutes like I want you to be?”
Jem considered this for a moment too long and Miss Rye, on a heavy exhalation of breath, walked over to Bailey, got her hands up under his naked torso and rolled him. He fell away from Jem, muttering and smacking awake.
“You,” she said to Bailey as he groggily opened his eyes, “are workin’ a double tomorrow. Without pay. What do you have to say to that?”
Bailey’s lips quirked and his lids fluttered closed as Jem scurried off the couch. “Worth it.”
Beautiful morning light filtered into Chloe Devereaux’s kitchen and for a moment, Giordan was lost in the way it played through the blue and white checkered curtains. Maybe paints… Maybe prismas… Colored pencils weren’t his strongest medium, but there was something wholly inviting about the challenge of using pencils to capture the scene. His paints would have been too easy. He’d add glass bluebirds on the sill—likes the ones that had maybe belonged to his mother. Maybe. Probably. For a moment, he could almost see it. Was he making it up? Or was it a real memory?
The sound of his name startled him and Giordan’s moment of almost-memory was broken. It was Chloe, sashaying back into the kitchen in her flowered broomstick skirt. Of course, she hadn’t known Giordan was drifting, or she would have let him drift. She always let him explore the boundaries of his amnesia, for seconds or minutes or hours even.
His expression must have told her what she’d interrupted because her prettily painted lips formed a little o of surprise and then she relaxed into a smile. “Remember anythin’ good this time?”
“Just my mother’s glass bluebirds,” he told her.
“You’ve painted those for me many’a time,” Chloe said, climbing daintily up on a stool at the island where Giordan leaned awkwardly. He’d sat for a while, but the pain in his stiff side got to him and he had to stand and relieve some of the pressure off his cramped nerves.
Giordan nodded. “This was a little different, though, Maman. I could see all the tiny bubbles in the glass and there was a fence outside the window. I could hear someone saying ‘blue bird of happiness.’ It felt really warm there.”
“Sounds beautiful. Thinkin’ another paintin’ is in the works?”
He nodded and then looked down, realizing that he hadn’t taken a single bite off the large plate Chloe had made for him. Here he was, supposed to be helping with an experiment in the kitchen, and he’d let himself get lost in the thought of glass bluebirds. His surrogate Maman followed his gaze, her lips quirking.
“They’re only sweets,” she said. “Ain’t gonna kill you. At least, I don’t think so.”
Giordan had not only lost his memory in the accident but, according to Chloe, his love of her chocolate pie as well. Maybe he had enjoyed it in the past, but it certainly didn’t agree with him now. For a long time she’d lamented this—altering the recipe by degrees to see if she could convince his taste buds to see her side of the argument. Finally, the sassy Southerner who rarely ever gave up, was forced to throw in the towel where pie was concerned at least, simply because one more alteration, she said, and she’d be making brownies instead of pie.
And then she’d had an idea: make brownies! And cookies. And crumble. And homemade ice cream. And all manner of good and sweet treats that she had, for years, brought to church picnics, sold at booster club, and competed with at the county fair. Chloe had spent the entire day cooking, and now Giordan had a small plate of bite-sized sweet treats.
“I want you t’be honest with me now, Giordan Stone,” Chloe told him in her melodic Reverie accent. “Try everythin’ and you let me know if somethin’ makes your pallet jump. And if it don’t, we’ll just get my grandmama’s cookbook right back out and start over. I’m gonna figure out somethin’ I can make you for dessert.”
Giordan nodded and dutifully tried a bite of the lemon cookie, Chloe’s large brown eyes on him. Slowly he shrugged and Chloe sighed. Luckily, he was not forced to face her disappointment further because there was a firm knock on the front door that called her away. Giordan spit the cookie into a napkin.
Even before Chloe opened the front door, Giordan’s heart began to thud happily. It was Shane, he just knew it. Despite what his lover said about not being able to get away from the office for the weekend, he felt him nearby. Then there was the deep rumble of Shane Devereaux’s voice as he greeted his Maman and Giordan’s smile could not be contained. He walked to the kitchen door, almost completely unaware of his limp, and waited to be swept up into Shane’s arms—except Shane did not immediately come.
Slowly Giordan pushed the door open, still expecting to find his green-eyed devil waiting to kiss him, but instead there was only the low hum of voices coming from the living room. Chloe and Shane were talking, very quietly, out of earshot.
Forced to swear on a Bible, Giordan couldn’t say that he hadn’t meant to listen in. If he hadn’tmeant to listen in, he would have gone back into the kitchen. He certainly would not have crept farther forward and avoided the planks in the gleaming hardwood that always creaked under his weight. He might have knocked on the sitting room door and let them know he was there. Instead he stood, and listened to their conversation.
“Why does Julian have my Granddaddy’s ring?” Chloe was asking hotly. When her temper flared, her slow drawl became quick and biting as a cat’s hiss.
“He picked it up.” Shane’s voice was a counterweight to his mother’s. Calm. Steady. Deep.
“Picked it up? Stole it?”
“Maman, no. Of course not.”
“Then what do you mean picked it up?” She punctuated every word with a little exclamation point. “And why, pray tell, did that boy not then turn around and hand it right on back to you?”
“I….” Shane let out a long sigh and Giordan could imagine his lover rubbing the tense spot between his eyebrows. “I threw it into a trashcan on Main Street in downtown Midday—”
Chloe squawked in surprise.
“Maman, stop looking at me like that. You know what I was going through. I… I thought I’d never see Giordan again. Thought I’d never get the opportunity to give him the ring, so I tossed it.”
“But Julian picked it up.”
“Thank God. Y’know I’ve always loved that boy.”
Giordan had to put his knuckles to his lips to keep from laughing.
“But he’s got to keep it a little longer.”
“I will drive to Midday right now and turn him over m’knee,” Chloe said. “That is my ring and I want it back.”
“And why on earth would that be? He could have any damned ring he pleased! He better not be givin’ it to some model fling of his. Oh, I swear—”
“Maman,” Shane said firmly, wrestling the conversation back. “Stop before you’ve started a feud with my best friend’s family that can’t be undone for six generations. Just listen. Julian wants to pay for its restoration. As a gift.”
There was a long silence and then Chloe said stiffly. “Well, that is kind of him.” Then, suddenly the haze of annoyance lifting she said, much louder than before, “Oh! Oh my… Shane, honey, this… does this mean what I think it means? Are you plannin’ on askin’ Gio to marry you?”
As quickly as he could manage with his injured side, Giordan hurried back into the kitchen. For a long moment, he didn’t realize that he was smiling. Shane was going to propose again—and this time, Giordan would remember it. If he could have danced, he would have danced. He didn’t care how silly he might look.
He went to the cutting board Chloe had floured for a batch of cinnamon rolls and—grinning stupidly—he began to draw in the flour with the tip of his finger.
“So you overheard that, hmm?” Shane asked, running his thumb gently across Giordan’s cheek.
Giordan jerked away from the touch. He was startled, embarrassed. When did Shane come in and how did he get so close? “I guess maybe that was a little obvious.”
Shane bent to kiss his neck and Giordan leaned into the contact. “Are you surprised I want to marry you?” he asked, his lips pressed behind Giordan’s ear.
Giordan wanted to say No, of course not! But the words caught. There were mornings he awoke, pressed up against his beautiful lover, and still couldn’t believe they had found each other again. Giordan smiled. “I don’t know, maybe I was going to propose to you.”
“Oh, were you now?”
“You tend to take the lead. Maybe I want to do the getting down on one knee.” Then patting his bad leg, Giordan said, “Well, so to speak.”
“Proposing marriage to me, Giordan Stone?”
Giordan took Shane’s hand and tugged gently, bringing him around to where he’d played in the flour moments before. For a minute, Shane stood, admiring the work. “You’re so talented.”
But Giordan swiped the flower, creating a blank slate, and whispered soothingly as Shane groaned at the loss of the picture. Then he took Shane’s hand and placed it, top down, into the flour. When Shane lifted his hand, his dark skin was coated white and the flour canvass was left with the imprint of his hand.
With one of the fancy toothpicks Chloe kept—the sort with ribbons of colored cellophane on the end—he began to draw again, using the white medium to create a ring on the appropriate finger of Shane’s handprint. He did not lose himself to the sway of the art trance now, only drew, as carefully as he could, in the flour with the toothpick.
He gave the ring form and depth, shadowing the edges. And when he was satisfied, he finally looked up, cheeks a little ruddy at the silly thing he’d just done, wondering what Shane would think. But Shane had swiped a tear away from the corner of his eye—just the one and quickly. He was still so consumed with pride sometimes.
“Yes, absolutely.” Shane nodded.
“You will? You’ll marry me?”
Shane grabbed him into a kiss, careful, as he always was, not to jar Giordan’s bad side. Their lips met and melded, Giordan’s tongue slipped past his lover’s lips. No, not just lover. Not friend nor boyfriend nor lost-and-found-again love, but fiancé. Shane’s mouth gave back playfully, excitedly, careless that they were in his Maman’s kitchen. He tasted sweet, like peach tart. It wasn’t half bad.
Suddenly Giordan became aware that Chloe was nearby.
“Oh, don’t mind me a bit, boys,” she said, her normally calm voice tinged with excitement. She’d done her own eavesdropping, it seemed.
Shane broke the kiss and looked over Giordan’s shoulder at his mother, “Maman? Is that Daddy’s old camera?”
Giordan turned then to find Chloe snapping a photo of the flour artwork with a camera that seemed almost too big for her.
“Just gettin’ pictures.”
“Any particular reason?” Shane teased, still holding Giordan possessively to him. Giordan leaned his head against Shane’s chest, listened to the steady thump of his heart, and was comforted by it.
“For the scrapbook,” she said pleasantly, her accent light and airy. “Have to get a shot before y’all sweep the whole thing in the trash and, I dunno, try to christen my new marble countertops—doncha dare, by the way.”
“We’ll keep our celebrations to the bedroom, Maman,” Shane promised. “Or at least our own countertops.”
Even Giordan’s toes turned red at the comment.
“So… are y’all gonna announce now or…?”
“Well, Maman,” Shane said. “It seems you already heard.”
“’Course I already heard,” she said with a chuckle. “Though I’m waitin’ to be formally told so I can get out my phone and call every person I know, includin’ Ophelia Morton.”
Giordan had heard Chloe go on about Ophelia—the new member of her women’s group who had just given her granddaughter “The Weddin’ of the Decade” down in Ounair. Something to outstrip the Westbrook wedding even.
Chloe’s eyes twinkled mischievously as she spoke. “Can’t you just imagine it? You’ve got that connection with the parks department. And your father knows that man who does those handsome pavilions. Oh! Think of it! No one, far as I know, has been allowed to marry on the Hawthorn Plantation in more than a hundred years. But I bet I could convince the Historical Society. Weddin’ of the century.”
“But Maman,” Giordan smiled, safe in Shane’s arms. “What if we were thinking of eloping?”
Shane’s rumbling laughter filled every part of Giordan and he melted into it. Even Chloe’s scandalized look was worth that laugh.
“You made a joke,” Shane crooned. For a moment, Chloe’s delicately plucked eyebrow remained arched and then she softened and laughed too.
“I’ll support anythin’ you decide to do,” she said slowly.
“But you’d prefer to gift us with a wedding so large it will shame Ophelia from ever mentioning her granddaughter’s wedding again?”
“I don’t care at all,” Giordan said, more to Shane than to Chloe. “I just want to be married to you. Always.”
“So now that we’ve got all the romantics out of the way,” Shane teased. “What’s with the bakery explosion?”
“Oh!” Giordan smiled. “You should help me. I’m testing my palate against every one of Chloe’s dessert recipes… that peach tart was a pretty good place to begin.”
“You liked that, huh?” Shane asked, grinning.
Giordan said, “Maybe everything just tastes better on your lips.”
Chloe threw her hands into the air with a dramatic sigh and told her son and future son-in-law, “No Christenin’ my countertops.”