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Welcome to Katrina's Aftermath, a restaurant started after the disastrous hurricane, a symbol of the dedicated people of the region who rebuilt after others predicted it could not be done.
Blogger Claire Langois is impulsive, flighty, and prone to mischief, especially when she gets together with her cousin, Mary Elizabeth, and best friend, Jenny. While men are drawn to Claire's beauty and lively personality, she always manages to chase them off. After countless breakups and two failed engagements, she is ready to be the one in control of when – and if – she dates anyone else.
Jeremy Schnaydre meets Claire at his brother Everrett's wedding. For him, it's love at first sight. Now the reformed playboy just has to convince Claire he has staying power. As owner of Schnaydre Janitorial agency, his slogan is ‘Call Me If You Want to Talk Dirty’. He specializes in cleaning up messes, and this impulsive redhead seems to always find herself in one. He thrives on the challenge, determined to make her his wife no matter what.
When he finds out someone is out to hurt his woman, Jeremy goes into protective mode. Can he protect Claire from someone determined to make her disappear?
Publisher's Note: This book contains elements of domestic discipline and sexual scenes. If any of these themes offend you, please do not purchase.
*** Currently available exclusively at Amazon ***
Six Months Before
"All men are jerks." Claire's words slurred a bit after her fifth rum and coke. As a rule, she stopped drinking long before she even got a small buzz. Tonight, was different. She would keep knocking back drinks until she passed out, if possible. Dressed in a sapphire cotton slip outfit, she looked fetching. Single men around the restaurant tried to catch her eye, but she was too preoccupied with her own trouble to notice.
Sitting across from her at the booth was her best friend, Jennifer. A college student and party girl, the dark eyed woman wore a colorful cocktail dress. She seemed quite sophisticated until she spoke. Her Cajun inflection was rich and musical, but she hated it. "Mais, yeah," Jennifer raised her glass to click it against Claire's. Most of the liquid sloshed over the table, and both women giggled hysterically.
A third woman walked back to their booth. A redhead like Claire, she was dressed in modest attire. Mary Elizabeth discovered walking was not as easy as it generally should be. Returning from the bathroom, she shared the problem with her friends. "The floors in this place slant up both ways. That's against the laws of physics. Someone needs to let the press know."
"I'm from the press," Claire jumped up, her cell phone in hand. It took her several attempts, but she finally got the camera app to open on her phone. Pointing the camera at herself, she started filming. "Claire Langois, here, St. Charles Tribune, reporting from Katrina's Aftermath in New Orleans. Why was I filming again?"
Chef James Boudreaux rushed over and herded the two women back into their table. Deaf since the age of three, he signed at his sister Jennifer to keep her friends contained. He still had a few hours on the clock before he could drive them all home. Going back to the kitchen, he told the bartender to cut off the three. "Watered down drinks only." He mouthed.
"Let me read his text again?" Mary Elizabeth grabbed the phone out of her cousin's hands. The two looked like twins, both sporting long red hair and blue eyes. A librarian by trade, Mary Elizabeth tended to dress more reserved than Claire. Tonight, was no exception. The librarian's outfit had a high neckline and full skirt. The reporter's clothing had a low neckline and the miniskirt had a slit that ran up her thigh.
Holding the phone a few inches away so the words would stop blurring, she read, "After today, it has become abundantly clear we are too different to make a relationship between us last. You can keep the ring. Maybe you can sell it to defray the cost of the wedding dress. Good luck in the future."
Jennifer got more and more indignant. "What kind of shit ass dumps a person with a text? I say we track the asshole down and shove his ring up his... Oh, look, here comes more drinks." The older waitress put another round down and waited for their angry reaction. How long would it take them to notice the coke only had a splash of rum in it? "Damn, this taste good," Jennifer sighed. "Keep 'em coming, Sha!"
Mary Elizabeth rested her head against the half wall blocking their booth from another section to the left. She just needed a few winks, she told herself. Then she could help her poor cousin drink away the pain of another broken engagement. This was the second she knew about. Claire had more ex boyfriends than she had reference books in the school library.
Batting away a stray leaf from a plastic plant on top of the half wall, she happened to notice a couple sitting on the other side. The woman was dressed for seduction. The man with her looked like he had just gotten off work. A pocket protector peeked out of his shirt. Turning her head, Mary Elizabeth motioned for her friends to peek at the couple. Three heads stuck out at different angles of the thick plant. Luckily the couple they spied on seemed deep in conversation and did not notice the intrusion.
"What are they saying?" Claire whispered loudly.
"I can't hear, but it looks like they are breaking up, too. Maybe we can invite the woman to join our breakup recovery party?" Mary Elizabeth smiled at the attractive man. Usually quite reserved, the alcohol had her feeling more daring tonight. She would not mind partying with him herself. He was hot. Maybe she should go over and say hello.
"He's not dumping her," Jenny announced, reading the couple's lips to eavesdrop on their conversation. "She's telling him it's over."
Mary Elizabeth held up the phone she had taken from Claire. "I've never heard of a woman doing that. Oh, let's film it so we can take lessons on how to deal with jerky men. You keep talking, Jenny. We need to know exactly what she says."
"She loves some guy named Jeremy. Hot dog, I think this dude Jeremy is her date's brother."
"Goodness, he has a hot behind. Hotbuns seems to be handling his disappointment well," Mary Elizabeth commented. The man did not show much emotion at all. The handsome guy just sat there, listening without protest. Now that was a real gentleman, the librarian thought. Why couldn't she find a decent guy like that to date? She had been in Louisiana three years now and yet to meet even one man who attracted her.
Claire added her own thoughts to the situation. "He's probably been dumped a few times in the past. Take it from me, after a while, you sort of get numb about the whole thing" At least this time it was not her getting rejected. The reporter took solace in that small favor. It helped ease her pain, really, seeing someone else get pushed aside.
She started thinking about the video Mary Elizabeth was making. They should upload it to the internet. People would probably enjoy watching some authentic reality entertainment instead of the contrived bullshit they got watching television. She always wanted to start an internet blog. While her family's newspaper had a website, she had little control over what was posted. Even her own section had to be approved by her older sibling.
"Give me my phone when you're finished. We are about to launch the first episode of our ‘Real Reality TV’."
The next morning, cautious Mary Elizabeth found herself suffering from more than a hangover. Her conscience was teeming with regret for posting last night's video. She hounded Claire into pulling it down. That is when they discovered it had already gone viral.
A month later, after featuring several other couples splitting up at various locations, the girls were at the same restaurant again. "Are you sure it's the same guy?" the librarian asked. She was excited to see the man again, but the thought of him with another woman irked her.
A sober Jenny let some of her Cajun accent slip through. "Mais, yeah. I checked the reservation list from that night. It's him alright. I can't wait to see who he hooked up with next. Hopefully he'll have him some better luck with this one."
Sure enough, it was the same guy. Jenny said his name was Everrett something or other. Claire started filming the minute they sat down. After dinner, this woman broke up with him, too. Jenny was just starting to translate the conversation when a commotion at the next table caught their attention. A tall man was arguing with a table of women beside them.
"Hand over the phones, ladies. How pathetic do you have to be to spy on other people? Do you know the trouble you've caused my brother?"
Oh, shit. It was Everrett's brother. What if he was searching for them? The three friends quietly exited their booth and slipped away. "Shit, that was close. If we ever do this again, we'll have to wear disguises. My brother would have my ass if we got caught."
Claire was looking back over her shoulder at the tall man who was now arguing with one of the restaurant owners. The dark-haired man was sexy and just a little bit threatening. What would he have done if he caught them filming tonight? A shiver went down her spine at the idea.
A pattern seemed to be forming, because they returned to Katrina's Aftermath just one month later. Mary Elizabeth was running late, but Jennifer and Claire watched the couple. The dark-haired man who almost busted them last time was nowhere in sight. They had searched high and low for him before taking seats in their regular spot. Dressed in a wig and dark clothes, Claire phoned her cousin to have her hurry up. The reporter was a little disappointed the big guy was not around tonight.
The footage they got that night never made it to the website. Mary Elizabeth ended up injecting herself into the scene when the poor guy got dumped yet again. Instead of being pleased with her rescue, Everrett had hauled the librarian outside over his shoulder. As Jenny and Claire rushed to save her, they knew ‘Real Reality TV’ was probably over now. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted.
"Laissez les bon temps rouler! Here he comes. Oh my, he's a looker, him. What are you going to do if I need to rescue ya?" Jennifer Boudreaux generally worked hard to suppress her 'down the bayou' accent, but she felt comfortable enough with her best friend Claire to speak naturally. She was working the bar tonight at her brother's business. She used to spend all her free time and money flitting around with Claire. All that had changed recently. Thanks to her brother's bossy partner, the Cajun was now an employee, forced to earn her own spending money.
Claire Langois, a petite, curvy redhead strengthened her resolve. Tonight she had on an emerald green cocktail dress. The color reminded her of the intoxicating eyes of someone she was trying to forget. Her waist length hair was pulled in a bun, small curls escaping on the sides of her cupid shaped face.
People went on blind dates all the time, she reminded herself. There was nothing to get so nervous about. Well, nothing if Jeremy did not find out. He would probably make a big deal out of her dating someone else. But it was not like she had not warned him, Claire reminded herself. She had been very clear about her intentions to see other men.
"If I order a glass of wine, find a way to call my cell. I'll be able to claim there's a family emergency or something so I can escape."
The redhead took a deep breath as her waitress and best friend Jennifer gave her a thumbs up and backed away. The issue with going on blind dates, even if you were the one who snapped the guy's picture yourself, was the mystery involved. There was always the possibility you could be meeting up with a mass murderer for all you knew. That fear must have been what was bothering her so much. It surely was not concern about a certain green eyed man catching her. If luck was on her side, he would not even learn about the date until tomorrow morning.
Blogger for 'Single Men and Where to Find Them’, Claire Langois personally snapped secret photos of guys around New Orleans, or even other cities in the state if she was working there for her family's newspaper. Then she played detective and found the man's personal information: name, address, income. She would post the material on her website. Single ladies often used the site as a way to weed out the field of the dating scene. Her website was like a restaurant menu, allowing viewers to pick and choose potential mates.
Claire was in the market for a new man, and had started the site after finding herself a third wheel now that her closest friends were in committed relationships. It was baffling to her, really. Neither Jennifer, or her cousin Mary Elizabeth were even dating someone six months ago. Claire had been engaged at the time, but her fiancé got cold feet before the wedding took place. It was a second broken engagement, in fact, but don't even get her started on that subject. It made her uptight and defensive.
Her blog was a shoot off of another website she and the other girls had started a few months back. ‘Real Reality TV’ was a collection of videos of actual people going through genuine breakups. They amassed thousands of fans who were still begging for more.
Mary Elizabeth lost her obsession with the now defunct site. After she married the first man featured on the videos, she felt it was not appropriate to film other people’s personal moments. She even made Claire pull down a few wedding pictures she posted to the website.
Viewers deserved to know why the site was ended, the reporter argued. People were always telling her what she could and could not post, so Claire had moved on to her new project solo. Now she was ready to try out the menu of available men for herself.
This was experiment number one. She selected Troy from the hundreds of men showcased on her site because he had no known police record and headed a respectable car dealership in the city. He looked dependable in his picture, and his salary was nothing to complain about either. Troy was not some playboy who chased women around just to break their hearts, she decided. The image of such a dark-haired man popped in her mind. Stop thinking about Jeremy Schnaydre, she warned herself.
"Claire?" An attractive man in his late twenties stood by the small table in the middle of Katrina's Aftermath. "Please tell me you are Claire, because if you're not, I might have to stand up my blind date and join you instead."
Interesting pick up line, she thought. So he was only as loyal as his fickle taste allowed. Claire Langois smiled, but it did not reach her light blue eyes. "You must be Troy? Please have a seat." She indicated for him to sit across from her instead of the seat to her left, not wanting to send any mixed signals. This date was only a chance to meet and see if they were compatible. She highly doubted they were.
He pulled out the chair and sat down, studying her carefully, as if she was a new car to put in the showroom. Troy appeared to like what he saw. He was a salesman alright, and before long he was trying to charm her. Dressed in an expensive suit and tie, this guy met all the physical requirements she set out to find in her next boyfriend. He was attractive, in a pretty boy sort of way.
Yet, she could already tell he was not the right guy for her. First of all, he smelled all wrong. Most women probably went for the expensive aftershave he wore tonight. It smelled artificial to her. She preferred a more down to earth smell. His smile was all wrong, too. Those perfect white teeth peeked out ever so slightly from between flawless lips. It was too flashy and lacked genuine warmth. Lately, she found herself enjoying more natural grins where the man's face sort of tilted to the left a bit as he mocked her.
"Tell me about yourself," he asked after ordering a cocktail. No accent, either. Claire found she preferred a southern drawl these days. Did he really just order a cocktail? How metro. She favored men who enjoyed a good, old fashioned beer. It made them seem more masculine somehow. "I head the fashion section of the St. Charles Tribune." This was a big mistake, she told herself, trying not to let it show on her face.
"The whole section? That's impressive," he complimented. "Tell me all about it."
Generally, she enjoyed talking up her job and all the opportunities to travel it afforded her, but not tonight. "It’s no big deal, really. My parents own the paper, it’s a family business. All the other sections were taken by the time I finished college. It was fashion or the obituaries. Black makes me looked washed out, so fashion it was..." Her husky voice sort of trailed off. She really did not have much to add to the topic.
The poor man kept trying to start one conversation after another, but she could not bring herself to even pretend this was going somewhere. No, she did not need a new car. Yes, she did get a budget to purchase the newest fashions. No, she did not like to discuss politics. Yes, she was born in the region. No, she did not have dreams of moving away.
"How many in your family?" He reached over to take her hand. Claire noticed the action and managed to grab her menu just before he could make any physical contact. He had small hands. Jeremy's hands were probably twice as big.
"Eight siblings, seven-in-laws, fourteen nieces and nephews." She answered his question, still staring at his little hands. They were manicured, probably by a professional. While always clean, Jeremy's hands were rough and a bit stained from the work he did. Was it too early to end things now? Was there a proper amount of time one needed to invest in a blind date before one admitted defeat. She would need to pose these questions to the followers of her blog.
"Your parents had nine children? Wow!" Troy looked truly astonished. "Blended family?"
Why did everyone assume big families had to be products of divorced people moving on to a new marriage? "Nope, Catholic." Her parents practiced their religion in the strictest sense. Natural family planning was the only acceptable form of birth control. The method netted them nine kids in less than thirteen years.
Poor Troy attempted several different topics before it was time to order, but all garnered one or two word replies. Surely he knew this was a mistake, too. Claire was motioning over Jennifer to order a glass of wine, when they both caught sight of an attractive couple standing at the reservation desk. Claire sucked in her breath and openly glared.
Troy realized the other couple was heading their way, and he could not help but notice how attractive the blonde woman was. 'Lucky guy’, he thought, ‘I bet she has more personality than the woman I am stuck with tonight.' He found Claire attractive, but he preferred women who could hold up their end of the conversation. To think she headed a whole section of the paper, he wondered. It probably had lots of pictures, because her vocabulary seemed limited.
"Claire," Jeremy Schnaydre forged surprise. Over six feet tall, the dark-haired man looked impressive, she had to admit. "Kim? Meet Claire. She's the one I was telling you about. You must be Troy?" The taller man looked down at Troy. "Kim, this is Troy. He owns the car dealership on Veteran's."
Troy was a bit confused by how this stranger knew so much about him. Maybe he sold the guy a car or something. If he had, the guy did not seem impressed with his purchase. His smile was menacing. He leisurely stood up and shook hands with the new arrivals. Troy got the feeling this guy wanted to hurt him.
"Hello, Kim. It's a pleasure to meet you." He reluctantly reached over to shake Jeremy's hand next. It took a bit of effort, but Troy fought against the urge to flinch when the other man squeezed much harder than necessary. Was that a challenging look in the other man's eyes? What could he have possibly done to tick him off? They just met, for goodness sake.
"Tell Troy who I am, Claire." The tall man gave Claire a mocking smile.
Jeremy Schnaydre did not wait for her response. He pulled out the chair next to Troy and sat Kim down. Then Jeremy arrogantly walked around and took the seat beside the redhead. The two seemed to be trying to stare one another down, Troy realized, still confused by what was going on. He put his money on the tough guy blinking first. The woman who he met here tonight seemed completely in control of her emotions. She was not going to do or say anything, unless she wanted to do so. This lady had control issues Troy wanted no part of. How could he manage to end this date without being too rude?
"Fet pi tain," Jennifer cursed as she rushed over to the table. "Can I get you something to drink, ma’am?" Claire's best friend was unsure of how to help. They had not planned for this turn of events.
She knew Claire had been trying to make Jeremy leave her alone since the wedding they both stood in a month ago. While Jennifer thought the man was perfect for her friend, she respected Claire's wishes not to pursue a relationship with Jeremy. She had been hurt by her last boyfriend. It left her as skittish as a crab avoiding a trap.
"Hello, Jennifer. I'll have a beer." Jeremy did not even look up at the waitress, his green eyes locked with Claire's. "You were getting ready to order a glass of wine, weren't you, Red?" he mocked.
Shit, how did he know her signal and how close she was to using it? It was a good thing Troy had not put any money on his bet about who would blink first. He would have lost. A rattled Claire hissed at the tall man before she looked away. Apparently, this guy had his own control issues.
"What are you doing here?" Forcing herself to look back up, Claire glared at the man beside her. Dressed in faded jeans and a cotton pullover shirt, he looked unfazed by her cool demeanor.
"I'm on a date," he smiled back, his handsome, rugged face tilted left ever so slightly.
Jeremy addressed the other man at the table without breaking eye contact with the redhead. "Troy, did you know Kim here is in the market for a new car? She's looking for something compact. Tell him what you want in a car, honey."
The other couple were soon engrossed in the topic of the latest innovations with small cars. This left Claire free to openly frown at Jeremy without the fear of looking too unattractive. Her position as head of fashion at the paper meant keeping up appearances.
Everything from the way she dressed to the way she handled herself was often scrutinized. Right this moment, she did not care if others saw her frustration with this man. Instead of being unsettled by her reaction, he let out a rich chuckle.
She could not believe Jeremy had shown up there tonight. As hard as she tried not to notice, his aftershave crept through the air, masking all signs of her date's. Damn him, why did he have to always smell so nice? It was a mixture of clean and masculine, she concluded. The redhead looked over at the woman he came here with tonight.
Blonde, tan and dressed in a lady's business suit, she looked way too refined for a man like Jeremy. Did she know her date ran a cleaning agency? Unlikely, Claire mused. A woman like her would never date a hardworking man like Jeremy. She would prefer some pretty boy like good old Troy, not a muscular guy who was not ashamed to work as hard as any employee working under him.
Then again, maybe she did know, Claire thought. Who in their right mind would walk away from a man as handsome and sexy as Jeremy? This Kim person probably was doing her best to get him into her bed. Claire wanted to scratch the other woman's eyes out.
Stop it, she warned herself. She should be happy Jeremy finally moved on. Hadn't she been doing everything in her power to make him leave her alone? Well he did not have to move on right in front of her face, especially with some uptight woman who wore a business suit on a date.
"This isn't a double date," she narrowed her eyes at him. Taking her frustration out on the man beside her.
"I guess one couple will have to leave then." Jeremy gave her another crooked grin, his hazel eyes lit up with mischief.
"It would be best," Claire muttered. Damn, did his feelings for her mean so little? He did not need to give up so fast. He could at least pretend to be a little disappointed.
Jeremy stood up and reached for his wallet. Pulling out a hundred-dollar bill, the tall man tossed it on the table. "My treat."
"We do not need your money," Claire hissed again, stiffening at the insult.
"It's not for you," he mocked. "Kim, Troy, have a wonderful night. Good luck with getting your new car. I told you I could hook you up with a man who could help you out. Come along, Claire. I have reservations at a Jazz club downtown." Before she could comprehend that he had just switched dates with Troy, he had her out of her chair and heading for the exit. She did not know if she should be insulted or pleased with the turn of events.
"Another point for me, Red," he whispered for her ears only. "You have tried to chase me away long enough, and it has not worked yet. When are you going to believe I really am interested in a long-term relationship with you?"