New Orleans, Louisiana: Mardi Gras
“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” Let the good times roll!
The cheer bounced around inside Hank Renshaw, Jr.’s, head as he pushed through the crowd lining the road to watch the Mardi Gras parade. His mood was anything but party-worthy.
He needed to deliver a message on behalf of his friend who’d been killed in action ten months ago. Tracking down his best bud’s girlfriend added twenty-ton weights to Hank’s already heavy soul.
Determination powered him forward, one step at a time, through the throng of partiers decked out in jester hats, masks and beads. Lampposts blazed through the dark. The parade inched past, a jazz band blasting a Louis Armstrong number while necklaces, doubloons and even lacy panties rained over the mini-mob.
Not surprising to see underwear fly. In years past, he’d driven down from Bossier City to New Orleans for Mardi Gras festivities. This town partied through the weekend leading all the way into Fat Tuesday. If former experiences were anything to judge by, the night would only get rowdier as the alcohol flowed. Before long, folks would start asking for beads the traditional way.
By hiking up their shirts.
A grandma waved her hands in the air, keeping her blouse in place for now as she shouted at a float with a krewe king riding a mechanical alligator, “Throw me something, mister!”
“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” the king shouted back in thickly accented Cajun French.
Hank sidestepped around a glowing lamppost. He spoke French and Spanish fluently, passable German and a hint of Chamorro from the time his dad had been stationed in Guam. He’d always sworn he wouldn’t follow in the old man’s aviator footsteps. While his dad was a pilot, Hank was a navigator. But in the end, he’d even chosen the same aircraft his dad had—the B-52. He couldn’t dodge the family legacy any more than his two sisters had. Renshaws joined the air force. Period. They’d served for generations, even though their cumulative investment portfolio now popped into the billions.
And he would give away every damn cent if he could bring back his friend.
Chest tight with grief, Hank looked up at the wrought-iron street number on the restaurant in front of him. Less than a block to go until he reached Gabrielle Ballard’s garret apartment, which was located above an antiques shop. He plunged back into the kaleidoscope of Mardi Gras purple, gold and green.
And then, in the smallest shift of the crowd, he saw her in the hazy glow of a store’s porch lights. Or rather, he saw her back as she made her way to her apartment. She didn’t appear to be here for the parade. Just on her way home, walking ahead of him with a floral sling full of groceries and a canvas sack.
Hurrying to catch her, he didn’t question how he’d identified her. He knew Gabrielle without even seeing her face. What a freaking sappy reality, but hell, the truth hurt. He recognized the elegant curve of her neck, the swish of her blond hair along her shoulders.
Even with a loose sweater hiding her body, there was no mistaking the glide of her long legs. The woman made denim look highend. She had a Euro-chic style that hinted at her dual citizenship. Her U.S. Army father had married a German woman, then finished out his career at American bases overseas. Gabrielle had come to New Orleans for her graduate studies.
Yeah, he knew everything about Gabrielle Ballard, from her history to the curve of her hips. He’d wanted her every day for a torturous year before he and Kevin had shipped out. The only relief? Since she lived in South Louisiana, while he and his friend were stationed in Northern Louisiana, Gabrielle had only crossed his path a couple of times a month.
Regardless, the brotherhood code put a wall between him and Gabrielle that Hank couldn’t scale. She was his best friend’s fiancée, Kevin’s girl. At least, she had been. Until Kevin died ten months ago. Two gunshots from a sniper at a checkpoint, and his friend was gone. That didn’t make Gabrielle available, but it did make her Hank’s obligation.
Gabrielle angled sideways, adjusting the sling holding her groceries and the canvas sack, to wedge through a cluster of college-aged students in front of the iron gate closing off the outdoor stairs to her apartment. A plastic cup in one guy’s hand sloshed foamy beer down her arm. She jumped back sharply, slamming into another drunken reveler. Gabrielle stepped forward, only to have the guy with the cup block her path again. She held her floral sack closer, fear stamped on her face.
Instincts still honed from battle shifted into high gear, telling Hank things were escalating in a damn dangerous way. He scowled, shoving forward faster without taking his eyes off her for even a second. The street lamp spotlighted her, her golden hair a shining beacon in the chaos. She pressed herself into a garden nook, but the sidewalk was packed; the noise of the floats so intense that calls for help wouldn’t be heard.
Hank closed the last two steps between him and the mess unfolding in front of him. He clamped his hand down firmly on the beer-swilling bastard’s shoulder.
“Let the lady pass.”
“What the hell?” The drunken jerk stumbled backward, bloodshot eyes unfocused.
Gabrielle’s gaze zipped to Hank. She gasped. Her emerald-green eyes went wide with recognition as she stared at him. And yeah, he felt an all too familiar snap of awareness inside him every time she crossed his path, the same draw that had tugged him the first time he saw her at a squadron formal.
One look at her then, in the ice-blue dress, and every cell in his body had shouted, “Mine!” Seconds later, Kevin had joined them, introducing her as the love of his life. Still, those cells in Hank kept on staking their claim on her.
The guy shrugged off Hank’s hand, alcohol all but oozing from his pores into the night air. “Mind your own business, pal.”
“Afraid I can’t do that.” Hank slid his arm around Ga-brielle’s waist, steeling himself for the soft feel of her against his side. “She’s with me, and it’s time for you to find another spot to watch the parade.”
The guy’s eyes focused long enough to skim over Hank’s leather flight jacket and apparently decide taking on a trained military guy might not be a wise move. He raised his hands, a glowing neon necklace peeking from the collar of his long-sleeved college tee. “Didn’t know you had prior claim, Major. Sorry.”
Major? God, it seemed as if yesterday he was a lieutenant, just joining a crew. Okay. He sure felt ancient these days even though he was only thirty-three. “No harm, no foul, as long as you walk away now.”
“Can do.” The guy nodded, turning back to his pals. “Let’s bounce, dudes.”
Hank watched until the crowd swallowed the drunken trio, his guard still high as he scanned the hyped-up masses.
“Hank?” Gabrielle called to him. “How did you find me?”
The sound of her voice speaking his name wrapped around him like a silken bond. Nothing had changed. He was still totally hooked on her. Bad enough before when she and Kevin had been engaged. But now, one glance at her made memories of his dying friend roil in his gut again.
He needed to check on Gabrielle as he’d promised Kevin he would, pass along his friend’s final words, then punch out of her life for good.
“You still live at the same address. Finding you wasn’t detective work,” he said, guiding her toward the iron gateway blocking her outside stairway. His eyes roved over the familiar little garden and wrought-iron table he’d seen for the first time when he’d driven down with Kevin two years ago. Determined to gain control of his feelings, he’d accompanied his bud on a weekend trip to the Big Easy. Pure torture from start to finish. “Let’s go to your place so we can talk.”
“What are you doing here? I didn’t know you’d returned to the States.” Her light German accent gave her an exotic appeal.
As if she needed anything else to knock him off balance. Good God, he was a thirty-three-year-old combat veteran, and she had him feeling like a high schooler who’d just seen the new hot chick in class.
He took in her glinting green eyes, her high cheekbones and delicate chin that gave her face a heartlike appearance. A green canvas purse hung from one shoulder, her floral shopping sack slung over her head, resting on her other hip. The strap stretched across her chest, between her breasts.
Breasts that were fuller than he remembered.
Better haul his eyes back upward, pronto. “I’m here for you.”
The rest could wait until they got inside. He pulled her closer, her grocery sling shifting between them heavily. What the hell did she have in there?
He slipped a finger under the strap. “Let me carry that for you.”
“No, thank you.” She covered the sack protectively with both hands, curving around the smooth bulge. Smooth? Maybe not groceries, after all. But what? Her sack wriggled.
He looked at the bag again, realization blasting through him. Holy crap. Not a satchel at all. He’d seen his sister Darcy wear one almost exactly like it when her son and daughter were newborns. No question, Gabrielle wore an infant sling.
And given the little foot kicking free, she had a baby on board.