Chapter One

Ivy Savoy gritted her teeth and sneered when she passed the Blazing Chili Pepper, as she did every morning when walking to work. Briefly, she glanced toward the store and caught Blaze Fontenot’s eye. He was struggling to move a life-size bottle of hot sauce in the window display. It was just like him to think bigger was better. She had to admit, though, it was certainly eye-catching. They’d have to come up with something even more impressive.

Blaze glared at Ivy and mouthed something she couldn’t quite make out, which was probably for the best. She stopped when he darted toward the front door and opened it. What now? He was forever giving her silly warnings about something or another.

He stuck out his head and yelled, “Tell your daddy to stop sweepin’ his trash in front of my store.”

“What?” Ivy asked but knew exactly what he’d said. She just didn’t have a good comeback, considering she’d seen her father do exactly that.

“I don’t want his leaves and twigs trippin’ my customers.”

“Those are the town’s leaves and twigs, Mr. Fontenot. Not ours. The wind probably blew them there.”

“You tell Savoy I’m watching him.” Blaze pointed a long, bony finger and flashed angry eyes.

Ivy shook her head, amazed that she’d ever thought that pain in the ass was a nice man. In fact, she even used to call him Uncle Blaze, but that was long before everything hit the fan. Ivy breezed past the Beignet Bakery and opened the door to Savoy’s Spicy Sauce. Zigzagging down the aisle, she passed hundreds of bottles of her family’s original-recipe hot sauce and placed her bag on the counter.

“Mornin’, Pop.” Ivy smiled at her father, who was fiddling with the cash register. “You should see what Blaze is putting up in his window.”

Hubert stilled and his eyes widened, which always happened when that particular man’s name was mentioned. “What now?”

“A hot-sauce bottle even taller than he is.” Which was saying a lot. Put Blaze and Hubert together, and they looked like Laurel and Hardy. Blaze was tall and lanky whereas Hubert was short and beefy.

“Probably compensating for something he’s lacking. If you know what I mean.” Hubert huffed.

Ivy knew, but it wasn’t something she wanted to think about. She briefly considered telling her father about Blaze’s warning but decided against it, since it’d do nothing but put him in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

“Nothin’ can beat our display.” Hubert puffed out his chest.

He was referring to the gigantic, bright-red chili-pepper trophy that took up the entire front window. St. Augustine, a small Louisiana town on the banks of Bayou Teche, was known as the hot-sauce capital of the state. Every year, they had a Hotter ’n Hell Festival, where the winner of the hot-sauce competition took possession of the trophy for a year. Even though others entered, it always came down to Hubert vs. Blaze. Last year, Hubert had nabbed the trophy from Blaze, which had probably made him happier than the day his own children were born.

“Speaking of the contest, I was working on a T-shirt idea.” Ivy reached into her bag and pulled out a sketch. She’d stayed awake half the night trying to think of something unique.

“This darn thing.” Hubert hit his palm against the cash register. “It’s jammed again.” He opened the cover, squeezed his meaty fingers inside, and pulled out a torn piece of paper.

“So, like I was saying, what do you think about this?” Ivy slid the drawing toward her father.

Without even glancing at it, he said, “I’ll come up with something. Stick to what you’re good at.”

Ivy let her shoulders slump. Mathematics, analytics, and anything technical. That’s what she was good at, according to her parents, anyway. Long ago, they’d labeled Ivy as the plain, brainy one and her twin sister, Violet, as the pretty, creative one. Who could live up to that?

“Hey, Billow Pad.”

Ivy flinched when her brother, Kurt, tugged a curl on the back of her head. Ivy must have taken after some great-great-grand-someone-or-another, since she didn’t favor anyone in her family, even her twin sister. She had a mop of unruly, curly black hair, a pale complexion, and blue eyes, whereas everyone else had straight hair, dark-brown eyes, and always looked like they’d just stepped out of a tanning booth. Ever since Ivy could remember, Kurt had teased her about her hair, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. He was an awesome big brother and her best friend.

Kurt dipped a spoon into a jar of red sauce and practically shoved it into Ivy’s mouth. “Try this. Pop doesn’t think it’s spicy enough.”

Scorching heat immediately filled Ivy’s nostrils and radiated upward into the center of her head, so much so she was sure her eyebrows were on fire. Frantically, she fanned her lips and grabbed a water bottle, which, thankfully, was within arm’s reach. She chugged down the entire thing and blinked rapidly, her eyesight blurry with tears.

“Seeee,” Kurt said to his father. “I told you it was hot enough.”

Hubert nodded resolutely. “The recipe ain’t right till smoke is coming outta da ears.”

Ivy coughed into the crook of her arm and cleared her throat several times. “Jesus, Kurt. You could have warned me first.” She sniffed and coughed some more.

“What?” Kurt looked genuinely mystified.

“Don’t jab something in my mouth without asking.”

“Oh.” Kurt lowered his head and looked hurt, which made Ivy feel terrible. He’d probably been expecting praise for his newest concoction. It was hard to believe he was eleven years older than Ivy. Sometimes it seemed as though Kurt were the baby of the family.

“Hey,” Ivy said, placing her hand on Kurt’s forearm. “It’s good. Really. What are you going to call it?”

Kurt lifted his chin and perked up. “I was thinking butt buster.” Ivy wrinkled her nose. “Ass kickin’?”

Hubert made some tsk-tsk sounds. “Get away from the derriere, son. Maybe,” he rubbed his chin, “flaming fire ants. We could put a big, red ant on the label.”

Kurt and Ivy grinned. Their dad was the best when it came to anything to do with hot sauce. A hundred times better than Blaze, that’s for sure.

They all looked toward the front door when a man entered and approached the counter.

“Well, if it ain’t ole Savoy himself.” The man smiled widely.

Hubert stared for several long seconds before his face lit up and he inhaled sharply. “Tank!”

Tank? Ivy and Kurt exchanged curious glances.

Hubert flew from behind the counter and wrapped his arms around the man, at least as much as he could, considering Tank was the size of a SmartCar.

“You haven’t changed a bit. Except maybe for a few inches here.” Tank poked Hubert’s belly.

“You’re one to talk.” Hubert poked him back. “You still doing construction in…where was it? El Paso?”

“Yep. Still out that way. I’m in town for the festival next weekend.”

“You’re in for a good ole time. Hey, you remember my young’uns? Kurt and Ivy.”

“Why, I haven’t seen Kurt since he was yea-high.” Tank lowered a hand to his knees. “And I don’t believe we’ve ever met.” He tipped his sweat-stained baseball cap to Ivy.

“Nice to meet you, Mr.…Tank,” Ivy said.

Tank scratched his head and looked at Hubert. “Didn’t you have another youngst—”

“Me and Tank went to high school together,” Hubert said, and patted his friend’s shoulder.

Nice save, Pop.

“Tank was the best center guard the St. Augustine football team has ever had.”

“Hey, whatever happened to what’s-his-name?” Tank asked, clearly excited. “You two were best friends.” He stared at the ceiling a few seconds and then blurted, “Blaze! Blaze Fontenot.”

Ivy groaned. You’re asking all the wrong questions, mister.

“Put a football in Blaze’s hands and he was off in a flash. Man, was he fast. Hey, isn’t he in the hot-sauce business, too?”

As expected, Hubert was bright red and his nostrils flared. Poor Tank. His big, innocent face was about to get squashed.

“Is something wrong?” Tank asked, finally catching onto the fact that Hubert was fuming.

Kurt shuffled his feet, eyes darting from his father to Tank. “The Fontenots’ store is two doors down, but Dad and Blaze aren’t friends anymore.”

Ivy’s heart melted at the hurt look on Kurt’s face. That horrid day fifteen years ago had been terrible for everyone, but no one more than her big brother.

Tank looked at Hubert and furrowed his brow. “A little competition got between you two?”

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Hubert said. “Sit for a spell, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Despite Hubert’s obvious displeasure, Ivy was certain she detected a gleam in his eyes. He loved telling the well-worn story.

Hubert dragged a chair from behind the counter, shoved Tank into the seat, and crossed his arms. “It all started with Blaze Fontenot’s daughter…”

 

v

 

Claire Fontenot stood in front of a mirror and yanked out a strand of gray hair. Running her fingers through thick auburn locks, she gasped when she saw another one. Well, what could she expect? She was two months shy of thirty-five, which was the same age her mother had been when she’d turned prematurely gray. Even though Claire had been only six at the time, she clearly remembered her mother arguing with the hospice nurse about coloring her hair. She’d always say she wouldn’t be caught dead lying in a coffin with salt-and-pepper. Claire plucked another strand out and shook her head. Thirty-five. Where’d the time go?

She leaned against the sink and stared into almond-colored eyes. It was time to get back out there. She’d hid in the bathroom long enough. Claire straightened her posture, inhaled a shaky breath, and yanked the door open, cursing Denny for setting her up on yet another blind date. Making small talk with strangers, especially women, wasn’t one of her strong points.

As Claire walked through the restaurant, she eyed her lunch date. Ashley looked to be in her early twenties. Denny knew better than that, though. Maybe she just appeared youthful for her age. When Claire reached the table, she was happy to see that the waiter had delivered a loaf of bread. She could always stuff a glob into her mouth to fill awkward silences.

“I thought you’d run out on me.” Ashley giggled like a schoolgirl.

Claire flashed a wry grin and took a sip of water. She drummed her fingers on the table and glanced around. How long did it take to make two salads?

Finally, Claire focused on Ashley. “So…um…you’re a hairdresser?” What she really wanted to ask was whether Ashley had even graduated high school yet.

Ashley nodded so enthusiastically her Miley Cyrus style hairdo bobbed up and down. “I’ve been working at an Aveda salon for three years now.”

Three? Hopefully she hadn’t started right out of high school. Surely, she’d had to go through some sort of training first. Maybe she had a double master’s in hair-cutting and had been in school for eight years.

“What did you do before then?” Claire asked, afraid of the answer.

“I got my stylist certificate after graduation. It took me nine whole months.” Ashley’s eyes widened, and she looked at Claire like she expected her to ooh and ahh.

Claire did the quick math in her head. Ashley was approximately twenty-three, a whopping eleven years younger. She’d kill Denny.

Ashley crossed her legs. “What is it you do?”

“I study clouds.”

Ashley raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow. “As in the internet?”

“No. Actual clouds.” Claire pointed toward the ceiling. “I work in the Nephology Department at GCC, Global Climate Corp, here in Houston. It’s a weather-forecasting company. Most people don’t realize how much clouds affect weather. Determining global cloud cover over time is a major aspect of understanding climate change.”

Ashley stared in a stone-faced, non-blinking sort of way.

“See, clouds are being pushed upward and poleward, which is a response to global warming. As they move higher, they trap more heat, causing further warming and triggering a vicious cycle of increasingly rising global temperatures.”

“I…uh…don’t know much about all that,” Ashley said. “But I do like those fluffy ones. They remind me of cotton balls.”

“You probably mean cumulus.”

“Do you have a favorite one?”

Claire smiled, which was the first time she’d done so since lunch started.

“Cirrostratus. They’re transparent, whitish clouds that veil the entire sky”—Claire swept her arms out—“and cause a distinguishing halo around the sun. It’s quite breathtaking.”

Claire’s throat tightened, remembering the first time she’d seen one. She took a swig of water to wash down the lump. “Did you know cirrostratus is Latin for curl-and-spread-out?”

Ashley shook her head.

“Clouds are classified based on the height at which they form. Cirrostratus belong to the high family of clouds, which typically occur at over twenty-three thousand feet.”

Ashley’s eyes glazed over like she’d just been asked to solve an impossible trigonometry equation. Claire had done it again. She’d bored yet another woman, which was about the only thing she was good at when it came to dating. What did she expect? The weather was the dullest topic ever. She broke off a piece of sourdough bread and stuffed it in her mouth. Maybe it’d prevent her from saying anything else and completely putting the woman into a coma.

After a few moments, Ashley pushed the breadbasket aside and leaned over the table. “Listen. You seem like a nice person, but I don’t think we’re really suited for each other. You’re a bit too…”

Old? Mind-numbingly boring?

“Sophisticated for me.”

At least Ashley was a lot nicer than Susan had been. They’d dated for two years before Susan had said she’d met someone else. Someone younger. Someone her own age. Someone interesting. Claire should have known better than to go out with a woman nine years younger than her.

“I understand. I should get back to work anyway. It was nice meeting you.” Claire stood, tossed a twenty onto the table, and took that long walk of shame out of the restaurant.

Claire sat in her car and sighed. Another one bites the dust. Not that she’d been interested in Ashley, but Claire was beginning to think she’d never find a partner. Before driving away, she grabbed her cell phone to check voice messages. One was from her dad, which was strange. He never called unless it was about something important. She connected the Bluetooth headset, dialed his number, and drove out of the parking lot.

“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”

“Claire? Is that you? What’s all that noise?”

“Sorry.” Claire banged her fist on the dashboard. “My car’s been making clanking sounds. I need to take it in.”

“Get Hank to look at it. He’s the best.”

That was probably her father’s not-so-subtle way of suggesting she visit since Hank’s Auto Shop was in St. Augustine, Louisiana.

“How’s the Blazing Chili Pepper doing?” Claire asked in an attempt to steer the subject away from her going back home.

“I’m shooting a new commercial tomorrow. You should see the one Savoy has running. What a goofball.” Blaze chuckled.

One of the many pluses of living in Houston, two hundred and fifty miles away, was that Claire didn’t have to witness the feud up front, especially since she was the one that had started it.

“I’ll bet,” Claire said. “How’s Aunt Henny?”

“Well, actually, that’s why I’m calling.”

Claire’s breath hitched. “Is she okay?”

Aunt Henny was Blaze’s sister and had helped raise Claire after her mother died. Since Claire had only been six at the time, Aunt Henny was like a mother to her. She’d be devastated if anything had happened to her aunt.

“She’s fine. But I was wondering if you’d come to a surprise bon voyage party I’m throwing for her.”

Claire exited off the freeway and stopped at a red light. “Party? Oh, right. She and the Golden Girl Gang are taking a cruise.”

The gang was made up of women in their sixties and seventies who traveled together. From what Claire could tell, they had a blast. Claire wanted to be just like them when she retired. First, though, she had a lot to accomplish in her career. The fun would come later.

“So how about it?” Blaze asked. “It’s Sunday. You wouldn’t have to miss any work. You could fly into New Orleans. We miss you.”

When the light turned green, Claire pressed on the accelerator so hard her tires screeched, and she smelled burnt rubber. Guilt tugged at her heart. He was practically pleading. This was almost too much to take, but she definitely didn’t want to go back to St. Augustine.

“I miss you, too, Dad. Why don’t you come here next weekend? We can go to that seafood restaurant you loved so much.”

“That’s when the Hotter ’n Hell Festival is!”

He’d said that like it was something Claire should have known.

“Right. Well, I don’t think I can make it. It’s just…you know.”

Silence. Lots of uncomfortable silence. Finally, Blaze said, “You’ve got nothin’ to be ashamed of. The likelihood of you running into a Savoy is slim, and even if you did, I’d smash a hot-sauce bottle over their head if any one of them gave you a hard time.”

“Something tells me you’d get pleasure out of doing that.” Claire snickered. “I’ll come some other time. Just not this weekend, okay?”

Blaze grunted. “All right, but now I have to buy your aunt a going-away present.”

“Why now?”

“Cause you were gonna be the present!”

“Sorry,” Claire said and pulled into GCC’s parking lot. “I have to get back to work. I’ll talk to you later.” After gathering her belongings, she marched into the building and straight to Denny’s cubicle.

He looked up, glanced at his watch, and furrowed his brow. “That was quick.”

“Denny. Just how old would you say Ashley is?”

Denny shrugged. “I dunno. Our age, I guess.”

“You’d guess wrong. Very wrong. Like you couldn’t be more wronger. She’s barely old enough to legally drink. What were you thinking? After the Susan thing and all.”

“Well, actually…I’ve never met Ashley.” Denny grimaced.

“What?” Claire yelled so loud the guy in the next cubicle popped his head over the partition and flashed her a dirty look. She cringed, knowing the last place she needed to make a scene was here. Not when she was gunning for that promotion.

“What do you mean, you never met her?” Claire whispered.

“Ashley is Maggie’s hairdresser. She thought you two would hit it off.”

Claire closed her eyes and shook her head. “Look. You and your wife are my best friends, but no more setups, okay?”

Denny jutted out his lower lip. “Aside from the age thing, how’d it go?”

Claire sat on the edge of the desk. “Not so great. Sometimes I wonder if there’s anyone I’ll ever click with.”

Denny playfully slapped her knee. “Of course there is. Didn’t you click with Susan?”

“Not really. We were more like roommates than girlfriends.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Denny grabbed a stress ball in the shape of a cloud and pumped it in his fist several times. He looked at Claire, concern etched on his face. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Are you happy?”

“I will be when I get the department-director position. I don’t understand why they haven’t announced it yet. Wright retired two weeks ago.”

“Why will you be happy then?”

Claire snorted. “Are you crazy? It’s what I’ve been working toward the past fifteen years. It’s a twenty-five percent raise plus a shitload of other perks. Where’s all this coming from?”

Denny took a deep breath and looked Claire directly in the eyes. “You’re never satisfied in the moment. It’s always ‘I’ll be happy when I get this or that.’ And you’re so hung up on your age. You have plenty of time to do everything you want.”

Claire stood and glared down at Denny, hot blood rushing to her head. He was wrong. Time wasn’t guaranteed. Not everyone lives until they’re eighty. Some people barely make it to their mid-thirties.

They both looked up when Mr. Renner, president of the company, suddenly appeared in the doorway. He nodded at Denny and focused on Claire. “Can I see you in my office tomorrow at two?”

“Um. Yes. Of course.” She’d never been summoned to the president’s office before. In fact, she’d never set foot on the executive floor. It was where all the big shots sat and where her office would be if she got the promotion.

Mr. Renner flashed a stoic expression and disappeared. Chills ran up and down Claire’s spine. He certainly hadn’t looked happy. In fact, one could say he even seemed downright angry.


Chapter Two

Ivy jolted upright in bed and glanced around her room, unsure of where she was. Why did she have to wake up now? In fact, why’d she have to wake up at all? She could have lived in that dream forever. It’d been so vivid, so real. Just like it always was. She lay back and closed her eyes. Maybe if she tried hard enough, she could go back to sleep and be in the arms of her kindred spirit again. Ten minutes later her eyes popped open. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. She rose to a sitting position and wrapped her arms around herself, still feeling a delicious warmth in the center of her chest.

The recurring dream was always the same. She was walking in a mist, aware that a woman was in the distance—someone she desperately wanted to see. Ivy quickened her pace, excitement building with each step. Slowly, the figure came into view, but before Ivy could see the woman’s face, she wrapped her arms around Ivy in an embrace that left her feeling elated and very loved. The moment their hearts touched, the sound of sweet strings filled the air. It was always one of the concertos from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This time it was Ivy’s favorite: Largo from the Winter opus. They swayed in the mist to the melodious notes until Ivy awakened. In the many dreams she’d had, Ivy never saw the woman’s features. That wasn’t necessary, though, to know that it was the person she was meant to spend the rest of her life with.

Reaching for a pillow, Ivy hugged it to her chest. She’d read about precognitive dreams and believed with every cell of her being that her soul mate existed on the earth plane, somewhere. It was just a matter of time before they actually met. But Ivy was ready now, not in the unforeseeable future.

She’d been out of the closet since she was eighteen, so she’d had a good six years of dating women who weren’t Ms. Right. Kurt said she was too picky, but Ivy knew she hadn’t met her kindred spirit yet. Just then she had a horrible, terrifying thought: what if she never met her? What if she was being punished for something that had happened years ago? Ivy’s pulse pounded. Actually, it would serve her right to live out her days loveless and lonely. She forced that depressing thought out of her mind, rose to her feet, and shuffled to the bathroom to get ready for work.

Ivy lived in a small apartment close to downtown. It wasn’t anything fancy, but the location was great since she could walk to work, restaurants, and the park, which was her favorite place. When she opened the door and stepped outside, scorching air hit her like a minibus. She’d lived in St. Augustine all her life, but she’d never get used to the summers. She blinked rapidly, sure that her contact lenses were melting to her eyeballs, and unsuccessfully tried to take a deep breath. Ugh. The humidity made everything worse.

When Ivy turned the corner onto Main Street, she picked up the pace and raced past the Blazing Chili Pepper, hoping to avoid running into Blaze. She was still in dream-bliss and wanted to stay that way as long as possible. Once she was in Savoy’s Spicy Sauce, she breezed past her father, who stood polishing the chili-pepper trophy, went into her office, and closed the door. She was the office manager and handled everything from the finances to ordering supplies, while Hubert and Kurt concocted recipes, did corny TV commercials, and were expert salesmen. Ivy had started working at the shop right out of high school. She’d planned to attend college, but that fell through. Sometimes life takes unexpected turns.

Ivy sat at her desk and closed her eyes, recalling the dream. Was it possible to love someone before you even met them? It sounded ridiculous, but what she felt with her dream girl was absolute, undeniable love. Ivy had no idea what the woman looked like or who she was. All she knew was that she’d never felt such strong emotions for anyone before. Slowly, Ivy opened her eyes, her gaze landing on a stack of papers in her inbox. She sighed and grabbed the top folder. Back to the real world.

Several hours passed before Kurt poked his head in the doorway. “Hey, Fuzz Bomb. Did you bring your lunch today?”

Ivy looked at the clock, surprised it was almost noon. “No. You wanna go out?”

“It’s too hot outside.” Kurt plopped in the chair across from her desk. “So, you ready for tomorrow?”

Ivy wrinkled her brow. “What’s tomorrow?”

“It’s your birthday, goof ball!”

Strange how she had completely blocked that fact out. Or maybe not so strange.

“What are you gonna be? Like seventeen?”

Ivy rolled her eyes. “You know I’ll be twenty-four. You’re just jealous ’cause I’m sooo much younger than you. I just wish Mom and Dad wouldn’t insist on doing anything.”

“Hey, you know I’ll be right there with you the entire time.”

“Thanks.” Ivy’s insides warmed, knowing she could lean on her brother for support.

“Plus, Katy will be there, too.”

Ivy grinned. “I really like her. Have you settled on a date yet?”

“Well…you know how it is.” Kurt lowered his head, looking sheepish.

Katy must have the patience of a saint, considering Kurt had dragged his feet on setting a wedding date for over six months. Ivy was surprised he’d even had the courage to propose. She chewed on her lower lip and resisted the urge to give her brother another speech about his fears. She’d done it before, which only seemed to make things worse.

“How about I pick up some crawfish pie at Bayou Belle’s for lunch?” Ivy asked.

“I thought you were sick of that stuff.” He leered at her, suspicious.

“I am, but I know you love it.”

“Well, get them to deliver. It’s like a hundred and fifty degrees out there.”

Ivy grabbed her purse and shot out of the chair. “I don’t mind.” Actually, she did mind, but it was a great excuse to pass the Old-Timer, the antique-clock shop.

“Are you crazy?” Kurt’s left eyebrow arched.

“I’ll see you in a bit.” Ivy ruffled the top of his head and left before he could say anything else.

She walked down Main Street and admired the multitude of quaint shops. The town was small but a popular tourist stop on the way to New Orleans. They had gorgeous plantation homes, alligators in the bayou, humongous trees, and of course the best hot sauce in the state. Ivy crossed the street and strolled through the town’s park, relieved to be in the shade of several large cypress trees. She reached high overhead and swung at moss hanging from the branches, just like Kurt used to do. Ivy smiled to herself recalling how she’d follow him around like a puppy when she was younger. It’s a wonder he didn’t tell her to get lost, considering she was probably annoying as hell, but he never did.

A breeze wafted across Ivy’s face when she stopped at one of her favorite spots. Moss-filled trees surrounded a small waterfall that spilled into a koi pond. To the right was a stone grotto framed in pink roses, which housed a life-size granite statue of St. Augustine, the town’s namesake. Ivy wasn’t religious, but she’d always liked his peaceful, kind expression. If saints existed, he’d be a nice one to know. She sat on a bench, relaxed by the sound of rushing water, and spotted Myra coming down the path dragging a blanket. Without making eye contact, she walked past Ivy, laid the blanket down at St. Augustine’s feet, and sat.

“How are you today?” Ivy asked.

“Hot.” Myra wiped her forehead.

“Did you cool off in the library?”

“They told me to leave,” Myra said, staring straight ahead.

Ivy’s heart plummeted. She despised the way some of the townspeople treated Myra. Most thought she was a nutcase. Others, like Ivy, knew she was just down on her luck.

“They always have room at the homeless shelter. Why don’t you sleep there tonight?” Ivy asked, but she already knew the answer. Myra wouldn’t leave the statue. She claimed St. Augustine talked to her, so she wanted to stay close in case he had something to say. Okay, maybe she was a little bit of a nutcase.

“I bet St. Augustine would want you to be somewhere cool tonight,” Ivy said.

Myra glared up at the statue for almost a full minute. Finally, she said, “He thinks maybe I should.”

“He looks smart. You should listen to him.” Ivy stood. “I’m going to Bayou Belle’s. You want spicy or regular?” She frequently brought Myra boudin, a Cajun sausage filled with rice and pork, since it was her favorite.

“Spicy. Double the order.”

Ivy grinned. “Right. St. Augustine likes boudin, too. I’ll see you in a bit.”

Ivy made her way through the park and down the street. After she’d walked only a few blocks, her shirt was drenched, and beads of sweat trickled down her back. She slowed when she spotted the Old-Timer, which was next to Bayou Belle’s. Hopefully the restaurant would be packed, and she’d have to stand outside to wait for her order. That way maybe she could peek into the antique-clock shop’s window.

Ivy opened the restaurant door and audibly sighed. The blast of cold air on her damp skin felt heavenly. She made her way to the bar, happy to see not one empty chair in the place.

Belle put her hands on her hips and stared Ivy up and down. “Sha, you look like a swamp rat.”

Coming from anyone else that would be an insult, but Ivy had known Belle long enough to know that was just her way.

“Hi, Belle. Can you give me a large crawfish pie and a double order of spicy boudin?”

Belle yelled the order into the kitchen and then said, “That’ll be ’bout fifteen minutes.”

“Great. I’ll just wait outside.”

Belle drew her head back and looked at Ivy like she had her hand in an alligator’s mouth. “No need for you to stand out in that heat.”

“That’s okay. I don’t mind. Really.” Ivy hurried out of the restaurant before Belle could protest.

Once outside, she scanned the area, looking up and down Main Street several times. Deciding the coast was clear, Ivy nonchalantly paced in front of the Old-Timer and peered into the window out of the corner of her eye. What a gorgeous sight. Hundreds of ornate clocks in all shapes, sizes, and styles filled the shop. She stopped when she spied a walnut grandfather clock. It had to be at least eight feet tall and, based on the style, looked like it was from eighteenth-century France. It was breathtaking, with classic French motifs and a carving of two doves with a vase filled with flowers. Ivy frowned when she noticed the pendulum wasn’t moving. It was a sin for a clock that amazing not to be working. It probably just needed to be wound or, at the very least, cleaned. She could have it working in no time. Thanks to her grandmother, Ivy was an expert at clock restoration.

What Ivy wouldn’t give to stroll through the shop. She could spend all day in there. Hell, she could live there. Her entire body flushed with guilt. Her family would have a conniption fit if they knew what she was thinking and especially what she was doing. A Savoy wasn’t allowed within ten feet of the Old-Timer. Why did the coolest shop in town have to belong to Henny Fontenot?

 

v

 

Mr. Renner’s office was five times bigger than Claire’s cubicle and a hundred times nicer. He had a gorgeous view of downtown, a mahogany desk that probably cost more than her weekly paycheck, and a private bathroom. Denny was probably right yesterday when he’d said that Claire wasn’t ever happy in the moment, but she’d certainly be smiling if she were sitting in a primo office like this.

Claire ran her hand down the smooth cedar armrest, marveling at the intricate designs. She inhaled deeply, the scent of what was probably the finest Italian leather she’d ever smelled filling her nostrils. She shifted in her seat and melted into the cushion, which hugged her shape perfectly. Ahh. It was like a vacation for her ass. Nothing like the hard thing she had to sit on eight hours a day, which did nothing but aggravate her sciatica. If the guest chair was this amazing, Mr. Renner’s must have been magnificent. Claire eyed the sleek, black recliner-looking item behind his desk, wondering if she had time to try it out before he came into the office. She glanced at the closed door and inched to the edge of her seat. He probably wouldn’t return for several minutes, maybe even longer. This might be her only chance to perch on a throne. Claire’s brain said “don’t do it,” but her heart screamed “go for it!” Unfortunately, she went with the louder of the two. The moment she stood, the door opened. Crap.

Elmira, Mr. Renner’s secretary, eyed Claire up and down. She pursed her lips and displayed a puzzled expression, probably wondering why Claire was standing. Instinctively, Claire reached behind her and pulled down the bottom edge of her underwear and wiggled around.

“Just…adjusting,” Claire said, her face immediately heating.

Elmira’s eyebrows shot upward. After several uncomfortable moments of silence, she asked, “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No thanks.”

Elmira nodded once and closed the door behind her. Claire rolled her eyes and sat back down. She needed to be sharper than that. A department director wouldn’t fix her undies in front of anyone else. She’d just let them ride up her butt cheeks. Claire stiffened when Mr. Renner opened the door.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said.

“No problem.” Claire gripped the armrest in an attempt to steady her shaking hands. He didn’t look any happier than he did yesterday.

Mr. Renner sat behind his desk, shuffled through some papers until he apparently found what he was looking for, and studied it. Finally, he focused on Claire. “You’re one of my best employees.”

“Thank you. I’ve enjoyed working here the past fifteen years.” Nothing wrong with reminding him about the large chunk of her life she’d dedicated to the company.

“So good that you’ve broken one of our policies.”

What? Claire’s face fell and her chest constricted. No, she hadn’t. If anyone was a rule-follower it was her.

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to, Mr. Renner.”

“It seems,” he looked at the paper again, “aside from a few sick days, you haven’t taken a vacation in over three years.”

Phew. Is that all?

Claire sat upright and puffed out her chest. “Yes, sir. I do take pride in my work ethic.”

Mr. Renner frantically tapped a pen on his desk. “That’s all well and good, but you have HR breathing down my neck because of it.”

“Sir?” Claire pulled her eyebrows together.

He stopped tapping and chucked the pen into a cup. “You’ve accumulated over ten weeks of vacation. It’s against company policy not to take time off. Rest and rejuvenation are necessary for a balanced life. Or so that’s what our handbook states.” Mr. Renner mumbled that last part like he didn’t believe it any more than Claire did.

“I wasn’t aware of that. I’ll be sure and take some days off this year. You have my word.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not good enough. HR wants to use you as an example since apparently you’re not the only workaholic in the company.”

Claire tensed. This couldn’t be good.

“They’re demanding that you take two weeks off, starting Monday, with absolutely no company contact. No emails, no coming into the office, no nothing.”

Claire resisted the urge to bolt out of the ridiculously comfortable chair. No way. That was impossible. She was in the middle of a big project that couldn’t wait that long.

“I don’t see how that’s possible, sir. The data-mining project is due in a month.”

Mr. Renner flipped through a calendar on his desk and jotted something down. “We’ll move it back.”

“But—”

“This is non-negotiable, Claire. You could be fired for not following company procedure, and we certainly don’t want that.” He pierced her with an icy glare.

Claire gulped. “No. Of course not.”

Mr. Renner picked up the phone when it rang. After a pause he said, “Send him in.”

Claire did a double take when Preston walked into the office. What the hell was he doing here? She scoffed to herself when Mr. Renner motioned for Preston to sit. His backside didn’t deserve such a comfortable seat.

“As you both know, Dan Wright retired a few weeks ago, and we have yet to fill the Nephology Director position,” Mr. Renner said. “Yesterday, the board narrowed it down to two candidates, and I’m happy to say that you were both chosen.”

Wait a second. That ass-kissing, lazier-than-a-sloth kid was Claire’s competition? The only reason Preston had gotten a job at GCC was because he was the vice president’s nephew. He’d been a sharp tack in Claire’s heel for a year. She regularly had to work overtime to make up for his shortcomings.

“Thank you, Mr. Renner. This is quite an honor.” Preston beamed.

Mr. Renner looked at Claire, obviously expecting her gratitude as well.

“Y-yes, thank you,” she said.

Mr. Renner rested his hands on his stomach. “We’re going to do things a bit different this time.”

Claire didn’t like different. Change was never a good thing.

“Two weeks from Tuesday, you’ll make separate presentations to the board about the direction you’d like to take the department, and, of course, what makes you best qualified for the position.”

A presentation? God, no. Hopefully she’d misunderstood.

“What exactly does that mean?” Claire’s voice quivered.

Mr. Renner looked at Claire several beats too long, which made her regret the question. “A speech. A dialogue, if you will.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Claire knew more about clouds than anyone, but all her confidence dissipated when it came to public speaking. Granted, most people get anxious, but we’re not just talking nerves here. With Claire, shaking, sweating, vomiting, and fainting were involved. Horribly embarrassing, debilitating things.

“You’ll each have an hour,” Mr. Renner said. “Let Elmira know if you want to show a PowerPoint, and she’ll set up the equipment.”

An hour?

Once, Claire was asked to give a five-minute update on the unusual accumulation of altocumulus clouds, and she passed out after thirty seconds. When she came to, she’d faked a stomach flu and had to miss two days of work just to back up the lie. Why did she have to give a presentation? That wasn’t part of the job. All her predecessor did was write emails, Facebook posts, and tweets. He never had to make a speech.

“Claire, are you all right?” Mr. Renner was standing beside her with his hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t even noticed that he’d gotten up. “You’re pasty white.”

Sweat trickled down the sides of her face. She had to think fast. Placing both hands on her stomach, she groaned. “I’m not feeling very well.”

Mr. Renner backed away, probably afraid to catch whatever nonexistent bug she had. “It’s Friday. Take the rest of the day off. Your vacation starts Monday anyway. And remember,” he wagged his finger, “I don’t want to see you back here for two weeks. Preston will give his presentation to the board at ten, and you can go at nine.”

Sour bile shot up Claire’s esophagus, burning her throat. She gagged, which caused Mr. Renner to move even farther away. Claire glanced at Preston, who was staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was about to hurl. She could practically see his wheels turning. No doubt he was already designing a gold-star PowerPoint presentation and conjuring up insightful points to make during his award-winning speech. Claire was completely and utterly screwed.

 

v

 

Claire jumped when someone banged on her door. She’d been sitting on her sofa all afternoon sick to her stomach, and not because of a virus. Not in the mood for company, she didn’t make a sound, hoping the person would go away. After the fifth insistent knock, she grudgingly hoisted herself up and opened the door.

Denny stormed in. “Are you okay? You left work today without telling me what Renner wanted.”

Claire plopped down on the sofa with Denny beside her.

“I have to take a mandatory two-week vacation and,” Claire inhaled a shaky breath, “give a presentation to the board about why they should choose me for the director position.”

Denny drew in a sharp breath and put a hand over his mouth. He was well aware of Claire’s inability to speak in public.

“And guess who my competition is.” Claire glared at Denny. “Preston.”

Denny almost jumped out of his seat. “What?”

Claire rubbed her face. “I might as well save myself the embarrassment and pull out now. I can’t give an hour-long presentation.”

“You can’t let him win that easy. You have to at least try.”

“Look.” Claire suspended a trembling hand in midair. “I’m already a bundle of nerves, and it’s still weeks away.”

Denny grimaced. “What’s this about a vacation? You never take off.”

“Precisely why I have to do so. Renner said vacation time is mandatory, or some such nonsense, and I’m breaking company policy. What in the world am I gonna do for two weeks?”

“Why don’t you go somewhere to take your mind off things?”

“I can’t even afford to get my car fixed, much less take a trip.”

Claire glanced around her apartment. She’d probably sit in that exact spot the entire time and ruminate about the presentation, so she’d be even more of a basket case when the time came.

“I guess I could…no. Never mind.” Claire shook her head. She got up, walked into the kitchen, and grabbed a bottle of iced tea. Maybe the caffeine would give her a boost.

Denny followed and sat on a stool at the bar. “What were you going to say?”

Claire rested a hip against the sink and took a swig. After swallowing, she said, “I talked to my dad yesterday, and he wants me to visit this weekend.”

“That sounds great.”

Claire’s face tightened. “I have some bad history with St. Augustine. There are people there I have no desire to see again.”

“Who?”

“For one, the entire graduating class of 1995. This may come as a surprise, but I wasn’t popular in high school. I was a total geek.”

“I’m not surprised.” Denny’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s not what I mean,” he said quickly. “You’re so smart that I could see you being…I mean…you know what I mean.”

Claire chuckled. “Relax. The surprise comment was sarcasm. I’m a geek today, so why wouldn’t I have been back then? Anyway, I wanted nothing more than to fit in. There was this girl, Brittney, who was rich, popular, beautiful, and everything I wanted to be. She made my life hell. She was the Empress of St. Augustine High. If she didn’t like someone, then no one else did.”

“And you were her target?”

Claire nodded. “She’d ridicule me every chance she got, whether it was my clothes, my hairstyle, how I talked, or my lunch box.”

“You carried a lunch box in high school?”

Claire’s face heated. “I’ll have you know it was a science of eating one that had a diagram of the digestive system, along with information about what happens to food once you swallow.”

Denny wrinkled his nose. “You mean like guts and stuff?”

“It was not only informative but also held my Lunchables and had a pocket for money and all sorts of things,” Claire said adamantly.

“All right. Don’t get huffy. Who else don’t you want to see?”

Claire studied her friend, who was wide-eyed. This wasn’t a story she liked to talk about, much less remember, mostly because she came out looking like the bad guy.

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay, so there I was, this gawky girl who never fit in, when along came the sweetest guy in school. Kurt Savoy. I don’t know if it was because he felt sorry for me or what, but he was my only friend.”

“Aww. Kurt sounds nice.”

“He was, which was the reason we dated through high school and had plans to get married after graduation.”

Denny drew his head back. “Married? What about the gay thing?”

“On some level I always knew I was a lesbian, but it took a while for me to admit it to myself or anyone else. It wasn’t until we were standing at the altar that I freaked out. When the preacher said, ‘speak now or forever hold your peace,’ I turned to Kurt and said I couldn’t marry him, and then I ran out of the church in tears.”

“At the altar? You couldn’t have said something before then?”

“I thought I could go through with it. Kurt followed me outside, and I told him I wasn’t in love. I felt horrible for hurting him.” Claire’s stomach churned, recalling the devastated look on his face.

“Did you tell him you were a lesbian?”

“I’d just admitted it to myself. I wasn’t ready to come out to anyone else yet. Over the years, I’ve tried to contact him to explain, but he wants nothing to do with me.”

“That’s too bad. That was what…fifteen years ago? Surely he can’t still be bitter.”

“Well, that’s not the whole story. My runaway-bride act put in motion a chain of events that caused a huge Savoy-Fontenot feud. My dad and Hubert, Kurt’s father, had a knock-down, drag-out argument in the church. Hubert demanded that we pay him what they’d spent on the reception, and my dad refused. A short time after that, Hubert opened a hot-sauce store two doors down from my father’s, and they’ve been fierce competitors ever since. And I do mean fierce. They’re known statewide as the dueling hot-sauce sultans.”

“Wow. But you can’t blame yourself for how the men reacted. And the Savoys should be thanking you for not marrying Kurt. It would have just ended in divorce.”

“I think thanking me is the last thing on their minds.” Claire snorted. “I’ve given up trying to apologize to any of them. The anger has built up so much between the families that nothing could mend it now.”

“So, you’re just going to let them run your life?”

Claire frowned. “They’re not running my life.”

“Yes, they are. You don’t even visit your own family because you’re scared of seeing a Savoy. Not to mention the fact that you’re hiding out from Brittney, who probably doesn’t even live there anymore.”

Claire opened her mouth to protest but then snapped it shut.

Denny slid off the stool and stood directly in front of her. “You should go back home and show all of them that you have nothing to be ashamed of. You’re a successful, smart, beautiful woman. What happened fifteen years ago is in the past, and it’s not your fault the two fathers are dueling whatever-you-called-them.”

Denny was right. Because of the Savoys, Claire had barely seen her father and aunt the past fifteen years. She’d pack her bags tonight and drive to St. Augustine in the morning.