Housing. Work. A man.
Immediate needs to be met, and not necessarily in that order.
Huddling on a wrought iron bench, with three days of the Picayune and the latest edition of the Gambit folded on my lap, I should have been wary of sitting amidst the very unique personalities populating Jackson Square. Strangely, I was too comfortable for an out-of-towner. The fact was that I needed to start over and this historic city was my launching pad.
I searched the classified section. I wasn't taking any chances at missing the right thing, so I perused the repetitive listings and crossed out each of the ads that hadn't panned out--one at a time. By the end of the week, I needed to either find a job or invest in a vacant spot I could assume the rent on and start a business of my own.
Sighing, I acknowledged that I had to do it quick or I had to move on. I had no connections in the city and that wouldn't make a new venture easy. But nothing in my life had come easy, and blowing through the remainder of my cash wasn't an option, so I put on my big girl panties and searched the damn papers for an opportunity.
In retrospect, last week had been the lowest point of my adult life. Losing the job I'd worked so hard at all these years had been the final nail in the coffin. I'd rationalized packing my bags, and boy did I have baggage, and moving to a place where I knew no one. I knew the winters would be better in the South and there was absolutely nothing to keep me up North.
But I have to question my sanity. I mean, who makes life-altering decisions based on a fortune cookie?
Obviously, I did.
Let destiny be your guide.
Yeah, some guide. Closing my eyes, I had tossed the crumpled fortune on the newspaper travel map that was lying upon my messy coffee table. The lucky winner? The Big Easy. Woot-woot! The universe didn't disappoint. The colorful atmosphere would ignite my artistic inspiration and Jazz had always moved my soul. Besides, considering all the devastation this beautiful old city had endured recently, opportunities for hardworking people had to be available in New Orleans.
But days later, Destiny hadn't showed her face. I did my part and arrived as instructed, but I was still jobless and living in a hotel, going through my savings and severance pay in order to follow my freaking destiny. Not that I minded hanging out at the hotel's swanky carousel bar every evening, nor did I mind the plush down pillows on the king bed, but the dwindling of my funds was a burden that outweighed creature comforts.
My primary focus was to find an acceptable apartment and suitable employment to supplement my "starving artist" existence, so I pounded the bead-laden sidewalks, charted the Big Easy's tastiest muffaletta and spiciest jambalaya, knocking on every colorful door till my feet ached and my knuckles were raw.
On day three, I gave up a little after twelve, changed into shorts and flip-flops and headed to the riverfront for the afternoon. It would be most prudent to search in the early evening, when the crowds would push into the establishments and the managers would be reminded of the need for extra experienced hands. It's not like any of the people advertising for help were in before four or five, so I'd basically wasted my time, as I'd done the previous day trying to reach them by the phone numbers in the ads.
In the meantime, I was doing the local thing of minimizing all activities while the sun was high in the sky. An iced cafe au lait and some beignets to soothe my nerves and recharge my spirit.
"Come here, child." A woman in a flowing purple skirt coiled her index finger and smiled. "We need to talk."
"Excuse me?" I checked over my shoulder. Nobody. Glanced back at her. She was looking at and speaking directly to me. I brought my hand to my chest in a silent question.
"You heard correctly, Blue Eyes. Come here."
Blue Eyes? Warmth filled my chest and replaced the nervousness that had fluttered through me with her invitation. I was instantly drawn to the older woman. Grammy Celine used to call me Blue Eyes. She'd always said that mom had chosen to name me Lilly because of the color of my eyes--not a typical light blue, but a deep violet blue, like the exotic water lilies in Egypt.
"Girly, you've taken your sweet time getting here. Don't dilly-dally any longer." Scooting her rather sizable behind, she patted the bench and insisted I sit. "Come to Dalia. We have so much to chat about."
"Thank you, Dalia." I sat and let her take my hand in both of hers. "What would you like to talk about?"
"Your destiny, child."
Chills scurried down my spine and tiny goose bumps mapped the freckles on my skin. My destiny? Again?
It had to be a joke. First, the fortune cookie, and now a strange woman was talking about my destiny. What's next? Examining the destiny line in the center of my palm?
"Wipe that frown off your face." Dalia smoothed her craggy fingers over my forehead. "Wrinkles aren't becoming, and trust me, one day they will catch up with you. How many years have you seen?"
It took me a moment to translate her old world terminology to modern English, but I found the eccentric out-of-a-box pink-haired lady very comforting, in spite of her peculiar ways. Wearing a large straw hat with a trailing lace ribbon, a simple white cotton shirt and a flowing purple skirt, she looked like a woman who could be pictured on a postcard with a tropical bird on her shoulder--even if she was only tossing crumbs at the pigeons around her feet. The multicolored bangles on her wrist chimed as she moved her hands, and her earrings reflected the glow of the afternoon sun. She was definitely intriguing.
"I'm twenty-nine," I replied, wondering about Dalia's age.
"I have a few years on you." She smiled and dropped her hand over mine again. "Listen carefully and do not doubt my words. I have seen you in the cards. I have seen what is ahead for you if you remain honest to your heart. So, do not question your fate. Accept and embrace it."
"I do," I whispered, confused and slightly dazed. Dalia's voice had a mesmerizing quality and I couldn't walk away if I wanted to. But, I didn't want to leave. I remained seated to indulge the old lady and hear more of her so-called advice.
"Walk up the street on the north side of the square. When you come to Bourbon, make a right and continue past all the tourist hoopla. You will know when you reach your destination." Her finger poked at my chest. "In here. Listen and hear."
She was ancient and probably had more than a few screws loose, but I wasn't about to hurt her feelings and tell her how nutty it all sounded. Besides, how could I judge her? I'd made life choices based on a fortune cookie. There was no harm in playing along with her.
"Thank you." I stood and collected my newspapers.
"Leave those. You don't need them." She snatched the papers from my hands and smacked my rear with them. "Go. Your family is waiting."
Damn. I rubbed my palm over the tight knot that formed between my breasts and constricted my breathing. Surely it was unintentional, but Dalia had delivered a stake through the heart.
I had no family. I'd buried my mother and my fiance on the same day. A drunk driver had snatched them out of my life, and I hadn't even had a chance to realize how their deaths changed my world and left me vulnerable to the greatest hurt imaginable. The days that followed had been surreal. I contacted my should-be in-laws, prepared my grandmother to bury her only daughter, changed the wedding canapes to funeral food, but at least the mortician had discounted their coffins for the double tragedy. It was too much to deal with, so I shut down my feelings and went through the physical motions to get through the burial service.
It was only a few weeks later that my grandmother left me as well, probably died from a broken heart over losing mom. And with grams' passing, I had no more family.
No family in New Orleans. No family any place in the world.
So what difference did it make where I lived? I chose New Orleans, or better yet, it chose me. I might stay, I might move on, but I had to start someplace I found invigorating. A place with rhythm and soul. The truth was that I was numb and dead on the inside. The past few years had been more than brutal for me, and it had been so difficult to get up in the mornings and smile. Making funeral arrangements for every person I had ever loved drained me and left me alone and lonely in sorrow.
What was the saying? Life is short.
Yeah, bumper stickers had never sounded more profound than they did in the past week. I was looking to the future, getting a fresh start, and reaching for my dreams. I wanted to do something that made me happy, something that would make blood pump through my veins again. Distracting myself with things and people I enjoyed, without the emotional attachments, I'd survive. I'd make it through the long days.
Once I got settled, I was going to paint in Jackson Square. Not for money, but for me. I couldn't wait to pour the colors on the canvas and cleanse my mind of all the unhappiness.
There was also the very real and simple issue of physical loneliness. Though my mind knew that my fiance would have wanted me to find comfort and companionship again, I hadn't even been hugged since the funerals, much less contemplated a new lover. But New Orleans was crawling with eligible men who knew how to seduce a woman, and it was time to move on. I needed to be seduced.
"Hurry, Lilly." Dalia winked and smiled eagerly. "And seriously, wipe that concern off your face. Things may not be easy, but they are just what they should be." A strange aura of satisfaction settled over the old woman. She leaned back on the bench, clutched the papers to her chest, and dropped her eyelids. "Your men need you."
My men needed me.
I stifled a laugh. Shit, I needed my men. I had to get my mind going in the right direction, so I definitely needed a man to work off some of my pent-up frustration. Once upon a time, I'd enjoyed an active sex life. So, it made perfect sense that I also missed men. I never considered myself a nympho or anything like that, but good sex was the best remedy for any ailment.
Prescription written. Sex. I had to fill it.
First objective: get laid.
Not by just anyone, but by the best find in New Orleans.
Target: tall, dark, and handsome.
A smooth talker.
I wasn't looking for a husband, just a good fuck.
Dropping my sunglasses onto the bridge of my nose, I hoisted my treasured leather backpack and its mess of contents onto my shoulder and set off on my mission.
I could have walked in the opposite direction from the one Dalia had suggested, but a stroll on Bourbon sounded pretty nice, and a cold beer from one of the bars sounded even nicer. I'd been out in the sun all afternoon and the heat had formed a sticky layer on my skin. I set out on a determined search for an irresistible man and a bit of air conditioning.
With emphatic insistence, the street pulled me forward. The deep reds of the brick, the peeling paint of the doors, and the black iron railings coaxed me toward a distinct destination. Even the eau d'alcool on the street from the night before, swirling around my ankles with each step I took further into the Quarter, soothed my worries. It was as if the streets of New Orleans had a life of their own and they embraced and welcomed my presence.
I belonged. With or without family, I really belonged.
Now, if only I could find a way to support myself and get a tiny space to call home before my money evaporated into the humid atmosphere.
Making a right on Bourbon Street, my shin collided with the wheel of a bicycle. My legs stopped, but my torso pivoted forward. The oblivious rider popped a wheelie and disappeared in a blur, but a stranger flashed across the sidewalk and caught me as my body folded over his forearm.
"Jackass!" My hero called to the rider's back. He helped me stand straight while he apologized. "I should have seen that coming, ma'am. I'm so sorry. I was in a hurry and terribly distracted. I was on the way to--" He raised my chin with his thumb to look at my face. Pushing my hair back with the full span of his palm, his gaze locked on mine.
We stared at each other in stunned silence for a good ten seconds.
"I was on my way to find you," he said at last.
Damn. He was fine. Gorgeous in fact. Add his confidence and ability to speak in such a polite, smooth tone to his dark good looks and any woman was a goner. Target in view.
"Sweetheart, you okay?" His chocolate-colored eyes gleamed with concern. "Should I call 9-1-1?"
"No," I managed to whisper. "I'm not hurt." But I didn't dare budge. I didn't want him to remove his hands from my face. I didn't want him to step away from me.
He smiled, tracing my cheeks with long fingers, then bent and kissed me fully on the mouth. Soft, sure, and sensual, his kiss shot through me and made my mind swirl in delight. He didn't rush the sweep of his tongue over my lips or the deliberate enjoyment of pushing between them. Rather he prolonged the joining, teasing me with slow erotic strokes, and leaving me wanting more and more of his addictive taste.
I couldn't help it, and in spite of knowing him less than a minute, I raised my arms and wrapped them around his neck, returning his kiss with more passion than I'd ever felt. Tangling my fingers in his dark silky hair, I arched my back and brought my chest up against him. His hands roamed down my body, stalled a bit as his palms traced the sides of my breasts, eventually cupping my rear as he settled his strong erection against my abdomen.
"I'm so glad I had an attack for beignets," he breathed, ending the kiss with tiny nips on my neck. "Otherwise, I might have missed you."
Sealing my mouth with his lips, his tongue stroked through it and sent sparks of electricity through my body. With each caress, my legs grew weaker. I leaned against him, digging my fingers into the back of his collar and supporting myself.
"Did you dream of us, sweetheart?" he breathed.
"Dream of us?" I squinted against the sun, trying to understand his question. It made no sense. Maybe, he was joking.
But no, he appeared sincere and dead serious, as if he'd been expecting my arrival, and as if my dreaming about him would have been a totally normal thing.
I pulled my arm off his shoulder and adjusted the strap of my tank top. I didn't know what to do, what to say, but suddenly, I didn't feel like I was alone any longer. For some warped reason, I knew I was with him. My sexy stranger and I were together, as one, on Bourbon.
"Never mind. It's really not important. What matters is that you're here." Still holding me, he wrapped his other arm around my waist. "My name is Manolin Amaron. Can I buy you a cold drink?"
"Aren't you supposed to buy me a drink before you kiss me?"
"I couldn't help myself." He smiled, a big boyish grin, and playfully knocked his hip against mine. "I have a thing for redheads, and I act impulsively around beautiful women. I can't take the chance that they're not really thirsty, so I dazzle them with my kiss before I ask them for a drink. Come with me and I'll buy you everything you want."
Like he needed to promise me anything other than his attention. For some unexplained reason, I'd follow this stranger to any corner of the city. There was something about the way he looked at me, like he'd found a treasure. Then there was the way his possessive touch heated my skin, yet it was very welcomed and it comforted me. And all of this in only a few minutes.
Manolin didn't wait for my response; rather he kept his arm secured around me and started walking. Like a zombie in a trance, I followed without a single word of protest.
"You may think that what I'm about to say is weird, but you are just the woman I've been waiting for, and I am so grateful to meet you. My heart has been pounding like a jack hammer from the moment I touched you and I don't even know your name." As we reached the corner, Manolin's fingers hooked through the belt loop on my shorts and pulled me to a stop. He looked down at me and cocked his head in question.
"Lilly. My name is Lilly Marie."
"Makes sense, sweetheart. Perfect sense. A beautiful name for a beautiful woman."
I should have stopped blindly following him. Or at least I should have insisted that we stay on neutral ground and in a public place, but I didn't feel threatened in the least. It felt normal to walk beside this attractive man. He was my Lothario of Bourbon Street, with his handsome looks, irresistible charisma, dark-velvet voice, and a bulging groin to boot.
Moisture pooled in my core and I started daydreaming of the hours of passion that would follow our cold drink. "Where are you taking me? And what are the plans?" I asked, more out of needing something to say than really being worried about it.
"I told you. We're going to get a beer and introduce you to the rest of the family. We own and operate a place a few doors down."
I looked ahead and stared at the dangling sign he pointed to.
I stumbled and would have fallen flat on my face if Manolin hadn't caught me for the second time. The street distorted beneath my feet and suddenly everything went dark.