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You want to do what, chere?"
Serena Sheridan took a deep breath and tried again. "I need to hire a guide to take me into the swamp."
Old Lawrence Gauthier laughed as if at the punch line of some grand joke. His voice rang out through the shop drowning out the Cajun music coming from the radio on the cluttered shelf behind him as well as the noises of the all-star professional wrestling emanating from the black and white television that sat on the counter. Lawrence sat on a stool behind the counter, his slender legs crossed at the knees, slouching in a posture reminiscent of an egret on a perch—thin shoulders hunched, head low between them. Hls face was narrow with a prominent nose and eyes like jet beads. His skin was tanned dark and lined like old leather.
His laughter ended in a fit of coughing. He reached for his cigarette makings and shook his head. "What for you wanna do dat, chere? You goin' after dem crawfish, you?" He laughed again, trying to shake his head and lick the edge of his cigarette paper at the same time.
Serena smoothed her hands down the front of the immaculate oyster-colored linen blazer she wore over a matching pencil-slim skirt. She supposed she hardly looked dressed to walk into such a place, much less make the request she had. "No, I'm not interested in fishing."
She looked around the store, hoping to spot someone else who might be able to help her. It was the middle of the day and Lawrence appeared to be the only person tending the dingy, dimly lit sporting goods store, though some banging noises were coming from behind him, from a room Serena knew to be an even dingier workshop where men fussed with their boats, drank beer, swapped outrageous tales, and passed girlie magazines around.
She knew because she had once snuck in there as a girl. A headstrong child, she had taken exception to being denied the chance to go in with her grandfather and had stowed away inside his bass boat under a canvas tarp. Her vocabulary had gained a number of choice words that day that their housekeeper had later attempted to wash out of her mouth with soap.
"I need to find my grandfather, Mr. Gauthier," she said. "Apparently he's gone out to his fish camp. I need someone to take me to him."
Lawrence looked at her, narrowing his eyes. Finally he shook a gnarled finger at her. "Hey, you dat Sheridan girl what left to be a doctor, no?"
"Yeah, yeah! Mais yeah!" He chuckled, tickled with his powers of recollection. "You lookin' for Big Giff."
"Yes, but I need someone to take me. I need a guide."
He shook his head, still smiling at her as if she were a dear but infinitely dimwitted child. "Non, cherie, all what fishin' guides we got 'round here is gone busy now till Monday. Lotta sports coming down to fish these days. ‘Sides, ain't nobody crazy 'nough go out to Giff's. Go out there, get their head shot off, them!"
He sucked on his little cigarette, holding it between thumb and forefinger in an unconsciously European fashion. Half of it was gone before he exhaled. He reached out with his free hand and patted Serena’s cheek. "Ah, ma jolie fille, ain't nobody crazy 'nough to go out to Big Giff's."
As he said it, a loud bang sounded in the shop behind him, followed by a virulent French oath. Lawrence went still with his hand halfway to a tin ashtray on the counter, an unholy light coming into his eyes, a little smile tugging at a corner of his mouth. "Well, mebbe there's somebody. Jes' how bad you wanna go, chere?"
Serena swallowed the knot of apprehension in her throat, clasping her hands together in front of her like a schoolgirl. Now was not the time for a faint heart. "It's imperative. I have to go."
He bent his head a little to one side and gave a Gallic shrug, then shouted over his shoulder. "Etienne! Viens ici!"
What Serena had braced herself for she wasn't sure, but it certainly wasn't the man who filled the doorway. The impact of his sudden presence had the same effect as being hit with the shock wave of an explosion, jolting her chest with a hollow thud and literally making her knees go weak —a phenomenon she had heretofore not believed in.
Her first impression was of raw power. Broad shoulders, bulging biceps. His chest, bare and gleaming with a sheen of sweat, was massive, wide, and thick, slabs of hard muscle beneath taut, tanned skin. The strong V of his torso narrowed to a slender waist, a stomach corrugated with muscle and dusted with black hair that disappeared beneath the low-riding waistband of faded green fatigue pants. Serena was certain she could live to be a hundred and never find a more prime example of the male animal.
She raised her eyes to his face and felt a strange shiver pass over her from head to toe, making her scalp tighten and her fingers tingle. He stared at her from under sleepy lids with large, unblinking amber eyes, eyes like a panther's. His brow was heavy and straight, his nose bold and slightly aquiline. His mouth did the most damage to her nervous system, however. It was wide, with lips so masterfully carved, so incredibly sensuous they would have looked perfect on a high-priced call girl. The effect of that mouth on a face so masculine—all lean planes and hard angles and five-o'clock shadow—was blatantly sexual.
He regarded her with a subtle disdain that suggested he didn't much care for women other than to bed them— something he appeared to be capable of doing on a more than regular basis. Pulling a cigarette from behind his ear, he planted it in the corner of his mouth, lit it, and said something to Lawrence Gauthier in rapid Cajun French, a patois no Parisian could begin to understand. The dialect had nearly been eradicated by the Louisiana school system decades before. And although it was making a comeback of sorts due to the latest craze for all things Cajun, it was still not widely spoken. This man spoke it as if it were his primary language.
Having grown up in Louisiana's French Triangle, Serena had picked up the odd word and phrase, but he spoke too quickly for her to understand anything more than the implication. That was clear enough by Gauthier's reaction— another laughing and coughing fit and a slap on the shoulder for his barbarian friend.
Serena felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment as the man sauntered to the end of the counter and leaned a hip against it, all the while assessing her blatantly with those lazy amber eyes. She could feel his gaze like a tangible caress, drifting insolently over her breasts, the curve of her waist, the flare of her hip, the long length of her legs. She had never imagined it possible to feel so naked while dressed in a business suit.
He took a leisurely drag on his cigarette, exhaled, and delivered another line to keep Gauthier in stitches. Serena gave him her coolest glare, defending herself with hauteur. "Excuse me, but I was raised to believe it is extremely rude to carry on conversations not all those around you can understand.”
One black brow sketched upward sardonically and the corner of that remarkable mouth curled ever so slightly. He looked like her idea of the devil on steroids. When he spoke to her his tone was a low, throaty purr that stroked her senses like velvet. "I told him you don' look like you're sellin' it or givin' it away," he said, the words rolling out of his mouth with an accent as rich as Cajun gumbo. "So what could I possibly want with you? I have no interest in americaine ladies."
He drawled the last word with stinging contempt. Serena tugged at the lapels of her blazer, straightening the uniform of her station. Her chin went up another notch above the prim collar of her fuchsia silk blouse. "I can assure you I have no interest in you either."
He pushed himself away from the counter and moved toward her with the arrogant grace of a born athlete. Serena stubbornly stood her ground as he stepped near enough for her to feel the heat of his big body. Her heart fluttered in her throat as he stared down at her and raised a hand to smooth it back over her hair.
"That's not what your eyes are tellin' me, chere catin."
Serena dragged in a ragged breath and held it, feeling as if she were going to explode from sheer fury. She slapped his hand away and took a step back from him. "I didn't come here to be insulted or manhandled. I came here to hire a guide, Mister—"
"Doucet,', he supplied. ''Etienne Doucet. Folks call me Lucky."
Serena vaguely remembered a Lucky Doucet from high school He'd been several classes ahead of her, an athlete, a loner with a reputation as a bad boy. The girls whose main interest in school had been guys had swooned at the mere mention of his name. Serena's interests had lain elsewhere
She looked at him now and thought whatever reputation he had sown back then he had certainly cultivated since. He looked like the incarnation of the word trouble. She had to be half mad to even consider hiring him. But then she thought of Gifford. She had to see him, had to do what she could to find out what had made him leave Chanson du Terre, had to do her best to try to convince him to come home. As tough as Gifford Sheridan liked to pretend he was, he was still a seventy-eight-year-old man with a heart condition.
"I'm Serena Sheridan," she said in her most businesslike tone.
Lucky Doucet blinked at her. A muscle tensed, the loosened in his jaw. "I know who you are," he said, an oddly defensive note in his voice. Serena dismissed it as unimportant.
"I came here to hire a guide, Mr. Doucet. Gifford Sheridan is my grandfather. I need someone to take me out to his cabin. Mr. Gauthier has informed me that all the more reputable guides are booked up for the weekend, which apparently leaves you. Are you interested in the job or not?"
Lucky moved back to lean negligently against the counter again. Behind him, Lawrence had switched off his wrestling program in favor of live entertainment. In the background Iry LeJeune sang "La Jolie Blonde" in crackling French over the radio. The pretty blonde. How apropos. He took a deep pull on his cigarette, sucking the smoke into the very corners of his lungs, as if it might purge the feelings shaking loose and stirring inside him.
When he had stepped from the back room and seen her he had felt as if he'd taken a vicious blow to the solar plexus. Shelly. The shock had dredged up memories and emotions like mud and dead vines churning up from the bayou in the wake of an outboard motor—pain, hate, fear all swirling furiously inside him. The pain and hate were old companions. The fear was for the control he felt slipping, sliding through his grasp like a wet rope. The feelings assaulted him still, even though he told himself this wasn't the woman from his past, but her sister, someone he had never had any contact with. Nor did he want to. They were twins, after all, maybe not perfectly identical, but cut from the same cloth.
He stared at the woman before him, trying to set all personal feelings aside to concentrate on only the physical aspects of her. It shouldn't have been difficult to do; she was beautiful. From the immaculate state of her honey-colored hair in its smooth French twist to the tips of her beige pumps, she radiated class. There wasn't anything about her that shouldn't have been carved in alabaster and put in a museum. His gaze roamed over her face, an angel's face, with its delicate bone structure and liquid dark eyes— eyes that were presently flashing fire at him—and desire twisted inside him.
He swore, throwing his cigarette to the battered wood floor and grinding it out with the toe of his boot. Without looking, he reached behind the counter and pulled out a bottle of Jack Danielts, helping himself to a generous swig. Lawrence said nothing, but frowned and glanced away, tilting his head in silent reproof. Resenting the twinge of guilt pinching him somewhere in the vicinity of where his conscience had once resided, Lucky put the bottle back.
Damn He damned Gifford Sheridan for having granddaughters that looked like heaven on earth. He damned women in general and himself in particular. If he had a lick of sense he would send Miss Serena packing. He would go about his own business and let the Sheridans do what they would.
That was the kind of life he had chosen to live, solitary, and yet other lives kept drifting into his.