Prologue

One Year Ago

 

“Slow yourself down,” Tucker Delacroix said to her brother, Jim Bob. “You’re going to snap that line, and if you do, I’m kicking your ass.”

“You always threaten that, Augusta,” Jim Bob said, his voice strained.

He was only ten minutes into his battle with the bluefin tuna he’d hooked, and the fish had taken plenty of line as it went deep. It was their first fish of the day as they made their way out into the Gulf of Mexico to inspect their newest natural gas platform. The Stella III, named after their mother, was their fifth natural gas well, and it had just become operational ten miles out along the Louisiana–Texas border, which made for a good excuse to take a fishing trip in the middle of the week.

“That’s because your impatience is legendary. When was the last time you licked your way to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”

“My sucking habits are none of your business, and don’t I always prove you wrong?” Jim Bob chewed on the cigar that never seemed to fall out of his mouth, even when he was talking, and laughed. He was twenty years older than Tucker, but that hadn’t prevented the close bond they shared. He’d enjoyed his status as an only child until their mother had miscalculated her menopausal symptoms. From the day she was born, Jim Bob had enjoyed his big brother job of spoiling her and never left her behind if he could help it.

The fighter chair on the Pole Dancer Addict creaked as Jim Bob started reeling in in earnest, and Tucker moved them forward slowly to help tire the fish. Their jointly owned Azimut 72 flybridge yacht was named for what their grandfather had called their impressive collection of fishing rods. The seventy-two-foot power fishing vessel had been customized to their needs and they enjoyed taking it out together.

“Damn.” Jim Bob grunted. “This is a big fucker.”

“Get to it, old man.” Tucker used the teasing nickname even though he was only fifty-five. “And try not to have a heart attack, will you? I’d never get you to the hospital in time if I have to haul that fish in by myself.”

“Fuck, don’t make me laugh.”

Fishing and business were two things their father had taught them, but Bart only joined them on occasion now, and he’d completely retired from the business. It’d been her and Jim Bob who’d taken the Delacroix Oil and Gas Company way past where their father and grandfather had started it. They were now equal partners in a company with twenty-eight working rigs in the Gulf, one in deep water, and five natural gas wells. The best part of the job was sharing it with Jim Bob and getting to work and play with him every day. Tucker wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“Let me show you how it’s done.” Jim Bob brought the rod up toward his chest and reeled it in quickly before letting it come forward again.

It took two hours and both of them taking turns to get the almost three hundred pound fish on the deck. Their two permanent crew members threw it into the cooler built into the stern and iced it down. Once they reached the rig, the cooking staff would take care of cleaning the monster and preparing it for lunch.

“Go take a shower, and I’ll get us underway,” she said, heading back to the flybridge. There were two staterooms below equal in size, and two smaller rooms for the crew. The vessel also had two guest rooms they used when they were entertaining business associates and friends, but it was days like today with just the two of them that Tucker really enjoyed.

“Thanks, since I’m sweating like a son of a bitch even though it’s colder than a witch’s tit out here.” Jim Bob downed a bottle of water. “I’ll relieve you when I’m done.”

“Remind me never to date a witch, and go shower.” She made him laugh as she clipped the tip off a Cohiba, then opened up the two fourteen-hundred-horsepower engines and headed southwest.

Her satellite phone rang as she sat to light the cigar, and she smiled when she saw her assistant’s number. Syd White was a gorgeous curvy brunette with green eyes Tucker had hired after finishing a talk with the business school association at LSU. The college senior had sold herself aggressively but had refused to sleep with Tucker after a lot of flirting over dinner.

That’s what had cinched it for her. Tucker wasn’t a fan of office romances, especially since she wasn’t planning to settle down with anyone, ever. Marriage and commitment hadn’t worked out for the majority of the people she knew, so she avoided both like unseasoned crawfish served with lukewarm beer.

“The place isn’t on fire, is it?” She glanced at her watch, wondering what was so urgent at ten in the morning. Urgent things were the only reason Syd would ever bother her while she was on the water. It had been a lesson Tucker’s old secretary had taught Syd before she retired at seventy-nine.

“Maybe I missed you terribly and wanted to hear your voice,” Syd said in the teasing but somewhat sarcastic tone she’d perfected.

“That could be true, but I happen to know you leave at lunch when I’m not there, so let’s hear it.”

“Whoever told you that is lying,” Syd said, followed by a tapping that sounded like her fingernail against the receiver. “I leave at two, and it’s usually to get something for you, so don’t give me any shit about my hours.”

“Let’s be honest and admit the truth. We both know I work for you, and I do whatever I can not to piss off the boss.”

“Jefferson came by with a large package and told me to call and tell you he’s finished. He wanted me to stress that to make his life easier, you both need to make an appointment to get all this squared away before either of you drops dead.” Tucker heard a door open and close, then nothing but quiet. “Whatever it is, I’m putting it in the safe in your office.”

“He’s been after us to redo our wills and iron some stuff out, so be nice to me or I’ll cut you right out of the lifetime opportunity to fish tuna I’m leaving you.”

“Ha,” Syd said, making Tucker pull the phone away from her ear it was so loud. “I want cash or nothing, but do me a favor and don’t die anytime soon. It would take me forever to train someone new.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll do my best.” The rig was in sight, and there was a supply boat moored to one of the structure’s legs, making her bleed off speed. “Take my Amex card and treat yourself to a massage or something that won’t bankrupt us. It’ll loosen you up for the weekend.”

“You’re the best, Tucker.” Syd made kissing noises into the phone. “At least, that’s what Sage Beniot told me.” Syd’s laugh was deep and sexy. “Tell me, does she taste better with a name like Sage?”

“Zip it before I have no choice but to send you to sexual harassment sensitivity classes.” She laughed at Syd’s ability to come up with teasing remarks usually aimed at her active social life. The latest woman in her life, Sage, had been her date to the trade show she’d attended in October, and she wasn’t overly clingy so she was still around. Occasionally.

“I’ll go when Jim Bob stops chasing me around my desk.”

“I could probably get a group rate on you two.” The crew of the supply boat waved as they pulled away, so she idled until they were clear. “Enjoy your massage, darlin’, and I’ll see you on Monday.”

“Don’t forget, you’re expected at the Mardi Gras thing tomorrow. I had your tux cleaned, and it’ll be in your closet.”

“You’re too good to me, Syd.”

“I am, but you deserve it for not chasing me around the desk.”

“I’ll remember that, but I’ve got to go before I crash the expensive boat into the even more expensive rig.”

“Sage’s father would be thrilled if you did either. He’d love the repair work.”

“I’m sure he would, but Jim Bob would never let me live it down.” She hung up and skillfully tied up after the crew put the bumpers in place. “Send the winch down, fellas.”

“What’s on the menu?” one of the guys yelled down.

“Tuna, which means light the pit without blowing us to hell.” She went down for a quick shower and changed into jeans and a sweater. Louisiana didn’t really have much cold weather, but the wind on the water made it chilly in November.

Jim Bob was waiting when she came out, and he was looking at his phone like something was wrong. “Everything okay?” she asked, sliding her watch onto her wrist.

“Family stuff.” He put the phone in his pocket.

Those two words were code for problems, and she hated to see the fun bleed out of him. As successful as Jim Bob was in business, he was equally unsuccessful at home. His obvious misery ate away at Tucker, but she really couldn’t do anything about it. Her brother was the only one who could make the kind of changes that would solve all those problems, but he’d hung in there. For what, she wasn’t sure.

“Forget about that shit for now, and let’s go enjoy your fish.”

He nodded and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Are you on my side, Tucker?”

She pulled him in for a hug. “No matter what or against who, I’ve got your back, brother—never worry about that.”

 

v

 

Willow Vernon stood at the corner of Poydras and St. Charles in the Central Business District in New Orleans, waiting for the light to change. She’d finally finished the specs for the new pipeline they were setting up on the coast in Port Fourchon, and she was celebrating with her sister, Monique. They worked in buildings catty-corner to each other, only Monique was a paralegal for a law firm that specialized in oil field contracts and leases, and Willow worked for one of the majors, Suntrust Oil, as an engineer.

“Maybe we’ll have two things to celebrate since she said she had big news.” Willow spoke to herself softly as she made her way across to the InterContinental Hotel. Monique was already seated, and from first glance, Willow could tell something was off.

“Hey.” She leaned down and kissed Monique’s cheek and hugged her from behind. “Have you been waiting long?”

“I just beat you, but I took the day off. You could’ve taken your time.”

The new restaurant was known for oysters, but Monique had ordered a huge plate of french fries that the waiter delivered as Willow took her coat off and sat down. “Now I know there’s something wrong. You never do carbs unless it’s something really bad.”

She and her sister had inherited their mother’s petite frame, blondish-red hair, green eyes, and curves. The whole package made them noticeable, but the short curse—as they called their height—meant they’d both spent a lifetime dieting to prevent their curves from smoothing out into a more ball-like appearance. It was their joke that french fries were of the devil’s making and could only be enjoyed sparingly. That these had butter and Parmesan cheese on them meant there was something like an IRS audit or a colonoscopy in Monique’s future.

“I don’t know if I’d describe it as really wrong—it’s more of a shock than anything else.” Monique put two fries in her mouth and smiled. It didn’t reach her eyes.

“You aren’t wanted by the police, are you?” She took half the plate if only to save Monique the guilt of devouring two pounds of potatoes by herself. “If you are, start praying they serve these in prison. They’re delicious.”

“Don’t get upset, okay?” Monique put another fry in her mouth as if for courage.

“In my experience, no good conversation ever started with that phrase.” Willow exhaled, and all the great feelings of finishing her first really big project whooshed out of her with a lungful of air.

“I’m pregnant,” Monique said in a rush, like she was ripping a Band-Aid off a bad wound.

“You’re…pregnant?” she asked slowly before her coughing fit started from swallowing wrong. It took a few minutes for her wheezing to stop, and she stared at Monique through teary eyes. “Tell me how that’s possible before I embarrass myself by vomiting cheesy fries on this table.”

“You graduated top in your class. I hope you learned a little anatomy as well as all that math.”

The joke made her laugh, and she moved to sit by her sister. “We talk almost every day, and not once have I heard about a date, much less a guy you’ve seen often enough to have gotten pregnant. If it was a one-night stand, I’ll still love you, but it’ll shock the hell out of me.”

“I’m not a nun, thank you very much. And everyone is entitled to a few secrets.”

“I love you, but seriously?” She moved closer, not wanting to be overheard. “This isn’t the time for secrets. Unless…Oh. My. God.” She said the words slowly and with plenty of emphasis.

“What?” Monique covered her hand and squeezed her fingers.

“Please tell me it’s not Jefferson’s.”

“My boss Jefferson?” Monique laughed and slapped her arm. “His wife would skin him if he stepped one foot out of her control. Not to mention I’d be in fear for my life. That woman is downright scary.”

“Um, let’s focus.” She tapped her finger against Monique’s forehead. “You’re going to have to tell me who, then, because I’m not playing the guessing game.”

“Would you hate me if I don’t tell you right away?” Monique shook her head and pressed her fingers against Willow’s mouth. “I need to wrap my head around this, so I need some time to process it before I can really talk about it.”

“Monique, I love you, but have you really thought this through? You know what the doctor said.”

“I’ve had my numbers under control for months, and we shouldn’t concentrate on that right now. This is happy news.” It sounded as if Monique was trying to convince herself as well as Willow.

She smiled and nodded, hoping she looked calmer than she felt. “It is, sweetie, but it’s not worth the risk.”

“I know all the risk factors, and that’s all I’ve thought about since I heard the news.” Monique shook her head. “It’s something I’ve always wanted, and I’m obviously capable of, but Dr. Smith’s voice keeps running through my head like some kind of broken record. It’s damn annoying.”

“Kate only has your best interest at heart. Are you thinking of ending the pregnancy?” she asked gently.

Monique was careful and took great care of herself, but she’d been a diabetic since she’d been five, and it was a bear trying to keep her insulin levels consistent. Pregnancy was something the doctor had warned her not to try since it’d put way too much strain on her kidneys and heart. In a way, Monique had been her mother from an early age since their own mother had been ill for so long, but Willow knew having a baby was something her sister wanted to experience.

“What? No.” Monique grabbed more fries. “I’m thinking about how I didn’t plan this, and how I’m going to work it all out. Ending the pregnancy is off the table, so drop it.”

“I want to go to the doctor with you. A baby is happy news, but not if it comes at the expense of your life.” Monique was the only family she had left, except for a couple of aunts on her father’s side they never saw. The thought of losing her made her ill.

“It’s going to be fine, so just be happy for me.”

“Oh, sweetie, I am. No matter what, I’m going to take care of you, and I’ll be thrilled to be an aunt.” She stood and hugged her sister again. “I love you, and I’ll always be here for you, but don’t expect me to shirk my responsibilities when it comes to taking care of you.”

“I know that, but I can’t help but be happy.”

“Then I’m happy for you.”

 

Chapter One

Present Day

 

“Do you want me to take care of it?” Bubba Delacroix asked Tucker.

James Robert Delacroix Junior had graced them with his presence in the office on a Monday morning, but Tucker wasn’t an idiot. The only reason Bubba was volunteering for the assignment he’d brought to her attention was because it was in Costa Rica. He loved fishing and drinking more than anything to do with the office or any job, and Costa Rica had some of the best sport fishing in the world. It didn’t hurt that the country was as well stocked with good rum and beautiful women as its waters were with fish.

“No, I don’t, but I do want to go over some of these expenses you want to be reimbursed for.” She held the stack of receipts adding up to fifteen grand the accounting department had sent up for approval, considering the amount. Impressive for a quick weekend away. “What the hell, Bubba?”

“I was entertaining clients.” Whenever her nephew got defensive and couldn’t look her in the eye, it was time to start paying attention.

“Give me a list of the clients, and I’m going to follow up with their bosses. We keep this up and every fucker doing business with us will be over here looking for a good time. Because this much money adds up to a really fucking good time.” She handed over a copy of all the expenses and pointed at him. “If any of them are bullshit, make sure you take them out and give accounting a check.”

“Come on, Aunt Tucker,” Bubba said, trying his best to laugh it off. “You and Dad have a good time every chance you get.”

“Gret,” she said, holding up a hand as she spoke to their comptroller Gretchen Daigle on the speakerphone.

“What can I do for you, boss?”

“That stack of expenses,” she said, taking her copies and tossing them in the trash. The move made Bubba smile and do the same with his copies. “Take it out of Bubba’s pay. The whole enchilada.”

“You got it.”

“Wait the fuck up.” Bubba slammed his hands on her desk. “You can’t do that.”

“Do what?” Jim Bob asked when he walked in. Their offices were across from each other with hers facing the river, and his overlooking the city.

“Taking his fun weekend out of his pay. You play, you pay,” she said.

“Pop says that all the time,” Jim Bob said, laughing. “How much are we talking?”

“Fifteen grand and change.”

“For fuck’s sake, son. What the hell were you doing?” Jim Bob sounded disgusted, and that only seemed to make Bubba angrier.

Jim Bob had married his college girlfriend right after graduation because she’d told him she was pregnant, and he’d done what any stand-up guy would’ve. To his surprise, Bubba hadn’t shown up until eleven months later, which meant Ivy had been lying. That she tricked him should’ve been the end of it, but she’d threatened him with keeping Bubba from him if he filed for divorce. Despite Jim Bob’s faults, he’d enjoyed being a father, but having his son in his life had kept him in a marriage he didn’t want.

The problem was, he’d never say no to his two kids, and it had warped Bubba and his sister Tara into elitists who knew nothing about limits and moderation. When they were younger, there wasn’t much Jim Bob didn’t give them when they asked, but now it was out of control. The problem was, they weren’t game fish, and it was way too late to reel them back in.

“You guys are hypocrites,” Bubba said loudly.

“Tell you what,” she said, sick of this argument since it wasn’t the first time they’d had it. The repetition proved to her that not having kids had been a blessing. “When you work your ass off and build a company with a bottom line like ours, you can entertain your friends all you want. Until then, those losers will be on your dime. You make more than enough for a job you’re not doing, so quit your bitching. Your salary is where my charity ends.”

“You’re going to let her get away with that?” Bubba asked his father.

“Your job was a favor to me, but Tucker’s not responsible for your fun. Pay the goddamn bills, and try your best to avoid this conversation again. You’re too old to have a learning curve, son.” Jim Bob pointed to the door, and Bubba took a moment to get the message, but he stomped out with the indignation of an entitled brat. “Man, if there was a way to pay someone a million bucks and go back in time, there would’ve been more spankings in that kid’s past.”

“Your life’s been the best birth control I could’ve hoped for.” She smiled when he shot her the finger. “I remember the fun times of roaming the toy aisles when they were little, when a Barbie play house and a toy truck made them happy. They were so cute back then, and they didn’t talk back because they thought I was the cool aunt. Now I’m the bitch who won’t pay for their wild times.”

“Yeah, well, those days are long gone, and someone buried those sweet kids in the woods where there’ll never be found. It’s like the pod people came one night and took him and his sister and replaced them with these surly sarcastic people, and I’m waiting for them to bring back those kids I knew.” Jim Bob sat and put his feet on her desk. He did it often enough there was a worn spot in the corner. “Did he tell you his big news?”

“Who, the money burner?” The term was one of their mother’s favorites.

They’d grown up comfortable but not mega rich, which gave her and Jim Bob an appreciation for what they had. Jim Bob’s wife, though, had grown up without much, but had quickly become accustomed to the money. Ivy Delacroix, in their mother’s opinion, sat up nights thinking of new and stupid ways to spend money, and she’d definitely passed that habit on to her kids.

“The reason he probably spent a small fortune this weekend? He’s getting married.”

“Bubba’s getting married? To who?” Her nephew was a pain in the ass, but he was a lot like Jim Bob, which meant he was forgiven most of the time for his unending supply of shenanigans because he was charming. But there was a distinct flipside. Bubba had also taken up a lot of Jim Bob’s other habits, and that translated to there being a lot of women in his life. She was no relationship expert, but that might get in the way of marriage.

“Be at the house on Saturday and we’ll find out together.” Jim Bob dropped his head back and sighed. “Can you make sure he’s got a prenup?”

“Brother, he’s your kid.” She shook her head. “I’m leaving all my money to the homeless cats in my neighborhood, so call Jefferson and have him take care of it. You might want to stay on top of that since he probably met her when he put a dollar bill in her G-string.”

“You were easier to talk into things when you were four.”

“Eating a habanero pepper for three dollars taught me a lifelong lesson, which means you’re shit out of luck. Get your feet off my desk and go back to your office and do whatever it is you do here. I’ve got a meeting at Suntrust.” She stuffed a few files into her briefcase and knocked his feet off when he didn’t move fast enough.

“Don’t forget about Saturday,” he said. “I need you there for moral support, and to keep me from saying anything stupid. All these people hate me, yet I can’t get any of them out of my fucking house.”

“It’s that unending gravy train you got going over there, buddy.” She hugged him and kissed his cheek. “If you let me talk to you like you’re a piece of crap and still pay all my bills, I might move in too.”

“I don’t want you to give up your house.” Jim Bob punched her gently on the arm before dropping his head on her shoulder. “That would cut down my possible runaway locations if I ever decide to chuck it all and move out.”

“You’re welcome anytime, but call first, and bring your own underwear. I’m only generous to a point.” She laughed at getting the finger again and waved as she walked out. “And make sure there’s plenty of booze this weekend.”

 

v

 

It was Willow Vernon’s two-year work anniversary, and she stared out the window of the new office she’d been given the week before. Her work life had been on the fast track, and there were now ten people on her team, and they were all busy with the projects they’d been assigned. She juggled trips to Houston every week, the workload at the office, and treks out to the rigs they were responsible for at least twice a month.

The only thing in her life she’d enjoyed lately other than work was her four-month-old nephew, Grady. Her sister had been tight-lipped about Grady’s father for the first half of her pregnancy, but to her surprise Jim Bob Delacroix had wanted to be involved.

The asshole had actually insisted on it and had purchased a nice house in the Uptown area for Monique, since he’d decreed her apartment to be too small. Neither Monique nor Grady wanted for anything, except having the married asshole around full-time. Asshole was Willow’s nickname for Jim Bob, since divorce was the last thing he ever brought up, and considering he owned Delacroix Oil, she doubted that would ever happen.

“Why in the world would you settle for this pathetic half life?” she asked the picture of Monique and Grady on the corner of her desk.

“The team’s ready, Ms. Vernon,” Margo, her assistant, said from the doorway. “They called down and said they’re just waiting for someone from TPT Construction and Delacroix Oil, but our team is there.”

“Please, Margo, stop with the Ms. Vernon. It’s Willow, remember? Did they say who was coming from Delacroix?”

Delacroix—the asshole’s company. Monique had been careful to keep Jim Bob from crossing her path from the day Grady had been born, when Willow had given the asshole a lecture that made her feel better. From that moment, they’d all called a truce and didn’t talk about it, which meant she didn’t really know anything about Monique’s relationship with the asshole. She’d broken that détente a few times, and it always ended up in a heated argument with her sister, so she’d learned to keep her opinions to herself.

“I’m sure it’s someone from middle management. We aren’t exactly in the big leagues yet even though we do all the work. This isn’t a meeting to finalize anything, just to review your design.”

“Believe me, the big leagues are descending from on high. Jonathan Mann will be here, along with most of his team. Those are the only people I’m worried about impressing right now.” Willow stacked all the files she needed to bring with her before smoothing her skirt down.

“The VP of offshore production?” Margo asked.

“That’s him, and he’s hot to get Delacroix to sign the contract. If they do, Apache Delta will be the largest rig in deep water, and half the crew will be Suntrust employees. Add to that the development technology we’ll gain, as well as forty percent of the oil that will be ours. This will be a big win for Mr. Mann. He gets most of the product while assuming none of the risk.”

“I’m surprised he was willing to share the limelight.”

“Jim Bob Delacroix beat us out of the leases, so this is the next best thing.” She hated herself for doing it since she didn’t care if these guys thought she looked good, but she put lip gloss on. “On the flipside, Delacroix gets a break on expenses, and the contract is only good for six years. If they decide not to renew, they’ll be the big winners in this shell game.”

“Good luck then.” Margo gave her a thumbs-up and pointed to all her files. “Do you want me to carry all that over for you?”

“Thanks, but I can get it.”

The conference room was five floors up, and she wondered if Jim Bob really would show his face. They might’ve only met a couple of times, but he had to know where she worked and what she did. At least he hadn’t used his influence to get her pulled from the project, and she wondered if he even knew she was working on it. Since Monique didn’t tell her anything about Jim Bob when they spent time together, it probably meant Monique didn’t mention her when she was with him, either.

She’d promised Monique she’d never confront him on what a douche she thought he was, but she hated him for how he treated her sister. Today wasn’t the day to break that promise, especially in front of her bosses.

But Monique deserved someone who was going to be there for her and who would commit to her and their son. Monique was a kept woman who’d never celebrate a holiday or a night out with the asshole who paid the bills. All she did was wait for that magical day he’d leave his wife. When the hell had her sister become so brainless?

She’d taken enough deep breaths to calm down by the time the elevator stopped, but she took one more and closed her eyes momentarily as she started to step out. When she opened her eyes, the most perfect ass she’d seen in a while was right in front of her, and the sight made her run into the back of a man standing two feet from the elevator doors.

Of course, the guy was talking to Jonathan Mann, who stood by and watched as paper scattered around them. When Mann’s guest turned around, she realized the broad shoulders and trim waist actually belonged to a woman who was stylishly butch with a great smile.

“I’m sorry.” She immediately bent and started picking up the reports that were now a jumbled mess.

“No need to apologize.”

Whoever this was also had a deep voice that sounded gentle and surprisingly kind. It was a surprise since she hardly ever noticed things like that, but she also didn’t go around admiring asses either, so it was an enlightening day so far.

“Let me get all this.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jonathan Mann said, bending to help.

Willow stood at the woman’s insistence as she and Jonathan started stacking papers. “Thank you, and could you give me a few minutes, Mr. Mann? I’ll call my assistant up to get all this back in order.”

“Lead the way, and I’ll help out,” the woman said. “Jon, go in and bullshit those guys for a minute. Promise them some golf at the club, and they’ll wait around until tomorrow, but I doubt it’ll take us that long.”

“Really, I can handle this,” Willow said. Whoever this woman was, she wasn’t anyone’s secretary from the way she spoke to their VP.

“I promise I won’t make you look bad by putting anything out of order.” There was that great smile again.

“This way, then.” Her savior followed her to the smaller conference room next door and dropped the mess on the table and her briefcase on a chair. The bag looked expensive, as did the jacket and brown alligator cowboy boots.

Willow held her hand out and faced her attractive helper. “I know you said not to apologize, but I’m sorry you’re in here with me instead of trying to schmooze the power players coming today. I’m Willow.”

“Word of advice, Willow.” The woman held her hand as she spoke, and from her expression it wasn’t an oversight. It didn’t make her uncomfortable, but she did notice the roughness of the strong grip. They were the hands of a worker, not some desk jockey. “If it’s a choice between spending time with a pretty girl and the old guys in there, always pick the pretty girl.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” She was fairly sure she was being flirted with, but she proceeded cautiously. The last thing she needed was to insult this woman.

“Great to meet you, Willow, and I hope I didn’t overstep there.” The great voice was something she could listen to all night. “I’m Tucker, and we should get this back in there. We don’t want to be too late.”

“Sure, but can I get you a drink later for all your help?” The question was like the warp speed they used on Star Trek, but it was worth the risk.

Tucker smiled and nodded. “That’s a better offer than what we’re getting ready to sit through, but it has to be my treat. I’m the one who made you drop all this stuff, remember.”

“It’s a date.” She started laying out the sheets. Margo and a few others from downstairs showed up five minutes later, which meant Mr. Mann had called down for the cavalry. “We can get the rest, but thanks for offering.”

“See you in there.” Tucker picked up her bag and sauntered out with a smile.

The offer of drinks was a good incentive to get through the aggravating afternoon. The assembly line worked fast and quietly, and she was able to join the meeting without much delay. Whoever Tucker was with, the Suntrust management as well as the construction group were treating her like royalty. Her team member Roxanne joined them to run the PowerPoint presentation, so she stood to the side while Jonathan jumped through the hoops of kissing everyone’s ass.

“I’m sure we all know each other, but let me introduce you all to Willow Vernon. Willow’s the brilliant engineer who led the team who drew up the plan you’ll find in those files.” Jonathan winked in her direction and gave her a cheesy smile.

Willow stood stunned for a moment, not really believing that not only did Mann know her name, but he’d actually winked at her. That only happened to her when someone was flirting, and she hoped to hell that wasn’t what was happening now. She stepped next to the screen and nodded toward Roxanne. “Let’s begin.”

Her audience allowed her to complete her presentation before their barrage of questions started, but she was prepared for that, and Roxanne flipped through the design slides that responded to the questions. Surprisingly, it was Tucker who asked the most questions.

“Suntrust has had Crazy Horse up and functional for years, but Apache Delta will exceed its capacity by two to three times.” Tucker studied the blueprints in the file like there’d be a test and her future earnings would depend on all the right answers. “Does that sound about right?”

“Yes, we’re sure to double in capacity, but we’re optimistic for three times the output,” she said, feeling as if she was repeating herself. Tucker was good-looking, but was she really trying to impress these guys by questioning her work?

“You go with the support beams you have in the blueprints here”—Tucker took the laser pointer on the table and aimed it at a spot on the slide that was up—“and here”—she pointed to another spot—“you’re going to—”

“Every inch of this structure passes all the computer stress tests we could think of, so there’s no reason to drive cost up on redundancy.”

Tucker smiled when she interrupted her, and she lifted her hand as if to concede, but she still went on. “I also ran your numbers, and they don’t hold up when you run them through a few stressors that are out of the norm, but well within the range of possibility.”

“It’ll withstand hundred mile an hour winds and eighty degrees in temperature variation. It’s not going to get that hot or cold.” No one likes a smarty-pants, she thought as Tucker shook her head.

“Katrina churned in the Gulf with winds higher than that, and when you stack it with all the modules you’ll need to man this thing, it doesn’t hold up. I’d agree to not beefing up the support beams and legs if it was anchored, but it’s not.” Tucker stood and handed her a file. “Run the numbers again with that, and if I’m wrong, I’ll gladly admit it.”

“Anything else you see, Tucker?” Jonathan asked.

“Overall, it’s a design Ms. Vernon can be proud of. She and her team did an outstanding job, but this behemoth will be floating in thirteen thousand feet of water and we need to be sure.” Tucker shook Jonathan’s hand and gave him a file as well. “If the changes we’re suggesting are a problem, we’ll be willing to foot the bill, but it might change the partnership percentages. I don’t want anyone to accuse me of not paying attention in all those safety meetings.”

“Give us a couple of days, and I’m sure we’ll come to an agreement,” Jonathan said, slapping Tucker on the back. “Let me and the boys take you out for some drinks and a steak.”

Willow turned and smirked, and she motioned for Roxanne to start picking up. Tucker would be a fool to pass up the chance to join the boys for dinner. Though, if she were in the same position, she’d have a hard time passing up the opportunity.

“Sorry, Jon, I have other plans tonight, but maybe next time.” Tucker shouldered her bag and smiled.

Good Lord and the Baby Jesus she was good-looking. Willow whipped around to make sure Tucker wasn’t kidding.

“Ms. Vernon, can I walk you out and give you a hand with all that? Maybe we can set a meeting to go over my suggestions.”

“Thanks.” Willow turned her back again to hide her smile as she gathered her papers. “Rox, can you handle all this?”

“A laptop and two folders?” Roxanne asked dryly. “I don’t know if my back will hold out. I’d hate to break our streak of three thousand days without a workplace injury.”

“I’ll bring beignets in the morning if that’ll sweeten the deal for you,” she said, spurring Roxanne to pick everything up a little bit quicker.

“I’ll do it even without beignets since you seldom ask for anything.”

“Thank you, and don’t have breakfast tomorrow.” She turned to try and catch her ultimate boss before he left. “Mr. Mann, thank you again for the opportunity, sir.”

“I keep hearing good things about you, Willow, and I’ll be down tomorrow to review all the stuff our buddy handed over. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Tucker, and she’s going to push until we give in. My assistant will call with the time,” he said before going back to talking to the men with him.

“Ms. Vernon.” Tucker held the door for Roxanne as well as all the stuff Roxanne had volunteered to carry down.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay?” Willow asked as they waited for another elevator, giving Roxanne the first one that arrived, as if by unspoken agreement that they wanted to be alone.

“Am I sure about staying where?” Tucker seemed easy-going, but she didn’t want her to get in trouble with her boss.

“Mr. Mann sounded like he wanted you to join him.” Willow pressed the floor to her office, wanting to get her purse. “I don’t mind a rain check.”

“I’m sure he threw out the invitation to be polite.” Tucker followed her out to the now quiet floor. “Are you new to the area?” The boxes in the corner were what held Tucker’s attention as Willow placed all her stuff on her desk.

“Just new to the office. It was part of my promotion package.” She grabbed her bag and shut down her computer. Margo had left a few messages on her desk, but they could wait.

“Maybe you should treat me, if you got a promotion.” Tucker winked.

What was it with people winking at her today? She certainly didn’t mind it as much coming from Tucker, and she wanted to step out of her routine. Lately it had been all work, and the only play she got was at the park with Grady. Not that she didn’t love the little guy, but he didn’t make for an exciting social life. She nodded and said, “I’ll be happy to buy you a drink since it was my idea.”

“Judging by your work, you’re good at ideas, brilliant even, but I’m kidding. Drinks and everything else tonight is my treat. Is there anyplace you like to go?”

“Whatever you like. Since you somewhat questioned my brilliance and loaded me down with work tomorrow, it’d better be nice.” She shut her lights off, wondering what everything else might include.

“Would you mind dinner, or is that too much of an overstep?” Tucker put her jacket on and helped her with hers. “I was slammed with work today and didn’t get lunch.”

“That’s something we have in common, and I’d love to.” She’d have to tell Monique about this since her sister was constantly harping that she didn’t take any chances.

“Great, then no more work talk tonight.” Tucker pressed the elevator button and smiled.

“Weird time to ask, but are you married?”

Tucker shook her head and put her fingers up in some sort of scout’s oath position. Or at least, that’s what she thought. Their mother had thought Girl Scouts was some sort of cookie selling cult.

“Sorry, bad experience, and I had to ask.”

“I swear I’ve never been married, and I have all my teeth if that counts for anything.” Tucker did something with her phone and walked by her side to the lobby. “Do you mind Uber in case we have those drinks?”

“Good thinking.” She smiled as Tucker held the door for her, thinking about how long it’d been since she’d been out with someone with old-fashioned manners. Hell, it had been forever since she’d been out with anyone at all, much less a woman she met five minutes ago. It was a new but refreshing experience.

“And I thought today was going to be boring.”

Tucker got in next to her and confirmed to the driver that they were indeed going to the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles.

“What the hell?” The only decision now was whether to jump out of a moving car or punch this presumptuous butch in the throat. The nerve, to choose a hotel instead of a restaurant. Just what was Tucker expecting?

“Faith, Ms. Vernon, faith,” Tucker said with a smile.

 

Chapter Two

“Bubba told me what happened today,” Ivy Delacroix said. “I can’t believe you took your sister’s side over our son’s. If you’re trying to get the kids to hate you, you’re doing a great job.”

Jim Bob stared at his wife and wanted nothing more than to walk out and never come back. It was seven at night and Ivy was still in the nightgown she’d slept in the night before, and since she was sitting on the bed, she probably hadn’t gotten up either. Her hair appeared dirty and unkempt, and he didn’t understand how she’d allowed herself to backslide this much.

He’d tried for years to encourage her to find something to get involved in outside the house, but Ivy had ignored every overture and every invitation. Her response was always that she’d earned the right to do nothing. Since she’d spent a lifetime of doing nothing, he guessed the reward for that was to do even less.

The ever-present glass next to her on the nightstand, though, was her constant companion. That never changed, and he was tired of trying to get her to give up her one true love in life. He sighed and barely glanced at her, disgusted by her and the whole situation.

“The little bastard spent a fortune on his friends this weekend, and he barely shows up for work. Some of us need to remind him that he’s not some privileged prick who uses our money to show his loser friends a good time so they’ll like him. That it’s Tucker who’s reminding Bubba of that and not us is a total shame.”

“Don’t talk about my son like that.” Ivy stood and stumbled, trying to slap him.

He grabbed her wrist and stopped her, forcing her back a step.

“Go ahead. Go on and hit me.” Ivy was shaking as if she was rattling apart. “It’s the only thing left you haven’t done to humiliate me.” Her words were slurred and spit hit him in the face as she screamed at him. “You fucking asshole.”

Me humiliate you? Who the hell are you kidding, Ivy?” He let her go and was surprised at how fast her hand came up and connected with the side of his face. The stinging from her ring started immediately, and he closed his right eye to keep the blood out of it.

“Oh my God, baby, I didn’t mean it.” Ivy’s anger seemed to leave her like she’d flipped a switch and sobered enough to realize she’d truly screwed up.

“Get the hell away from me.” He put his hand up to keep her from coming any closer. There was no way he’d ever hit a woman, even if it was one he no longer cared much about and one who went out of her way to dredge him through misery every chance she got.

“You fucking bastard,” his daughter, Tara, yelled from the hall in that overly aggressive tone of hers. “What did you do to her?”

Jim Bob snorted as he went into the bathroom for a towel. Ivy’s engagement ring had caught him just right and sliced down the side of his eyebrow to the top of his cheek. The damn thing was bleeding profusely, covering his face and soaking his collar. A Band-Aid wasn’t going to fix this, so he pressed the towel to his temple and figured he had no choice but to head to the emergency room. Not the way he wanted to spend his evening.

“I’m calling the cops,” Tara said when he grabbed his keys and started for the door.

“Good, have them meet me at the hospital, and make sure your mother packs a toothbrush.”

“What are you talking about?” Tara put her hand on his shoulder as he started down the stairs, but she let go when he turned and glared at her. “Her wrist is all red. In case you missed it, that’s domestic violence.”

“I was trying to stop her from attacking me, and as you can see, I did a piss-poor job of it. The toothbrush is because they don’t provide any in jail, sweet pea, and I’m on my way to get stitches. Pray I calm down before the cops show up because my story is more plausible than hers, because it’s the truth.”

The lifestyle he’d given these people had far exceeded anything he’d grown up with, which made his mother right. Stella had told him from the beginning that just because you could afford to give a child their every wish didn’t mean you should. It was nights like this that proved he’d wasted his life. Nothing he’d ever given would change their relationship; it was beyond broken. He’d tried, but there were only so many times you could put your head on a tee and allow people who were supposed to love you to take a swing. In a way it was quitting, but he had to get out of here.

Tucker had shocked their parents, especially their mother, by coming out, and the only reaction he’d really had at the time was sadness because she didn’t want a family of her own. He loved his sister more than life, and what he’d first thought was a decision that would make her life poorer only showed her to be way smarter than him.

There was no doubt he hadn’t wanted this particular life, but he’d tried his best to make the situation work. He’d stayed with Ivy for their children, and the pregnancy deception she’d pulled on him wasn’t the worst part of their life together. The hell of what he’d readily agreed to had truly sunk in when the reality of living with an alcoholic smacked him in the face. Ivy had been a closet drinker, but once that ring was on her finger and his name was on a marriage certificate, it wasn’t a secret any longer.

“You really are an evil bastard,” Tara said as he opened the front door.

Her spewed venom made him stop. When had his life become this fucking nightmare, and what about him was so easy to hate? He loved his children, but lately he’d learned that words did matter, and they caused lasting harm. He was at a point of losing the fundamental love he was supposed to have when it came to these people.

“If you really feel that way, kid, move out. We’ve taken care of you, educated you, and paid your way for twenty-three years.” He stared at her and shook his head, tired of this argument as well. “It’s no secret you hate me, so give in to those feelings and get out. I’m tired of trying to change your mind, and I’m sure you’re tired of taking my money. You do keep telling me how much smarter you are than me, and it’s time to prove it.”

“You throwing me out on the street would prove my point.”

He wanted to wipe his face of the drying blood as well as of Tara’s contempt. “Of what, exactly?” he asked, genuinely curious.

“You’re nothing but a monster who makes everyone miserable.” Tara fired the words at him like she was squeezing the trigger on a machine gun.

“Tara, stop,” Ivy said, holding on to the railing on the second floor. “Stop before you say something you’ll regret.”

“Regret?” Tara laughed as if that was a good joke. “You and I both know every word is true. The only thing I can’t understand is why you married him in the first place. Jim Bob could not have been your only shot, Mom. No one should’ve ever been that desperate.”

“Tara,” Ivy said louder, as if to stop her before he finally told the truth of why the hell they’d gotten married. That was the only secret Ivy had kept in her life. To divulge it would mean giving up her victim mantle, and that she’d never do.

“She’s entitled to an opinion, Ivy,” he said, glancing up, “and congratulations. I’m giving you both what you want.”

“What’s that?” Tara said. “You’re dropping dead and finally making everyone’s day?”

“Not yet, little girl. I’m giving you your freedom,” he said, staring at Ivy as he spoke. When she wasn’t drinking, Ivy spent a lot of time talking shit about him, which explained Tara’s disdain. That was fine, but he wasn’t in the mood to put up with it any longer. He had more self-respect than that, and it was time to take his life back. “The evil bastard has had enough, so start planning your next step outside this house. Because remember, Ivy, the house belongs to the Delacroix family. A Delacroix by blood—and Tucker is next in line.”

“Baby, you know she didn’t mean it,” Ivy said, crying now.

“Give it a rest, and go back to your true love. We both know it isn’t me, unless you found me at the bottom of a Grey Goose bottle.” He wasn’t at all moved by the tears. They’d gone as stale as day-old French bread. “Both of us deserve to be happy with what’s left of our lives, and for me, this shit isn’t it.”

“You know I can’t live without you.”

“Sure you can,” he said, thinking about all the time they’d wasted on rehab. Ivy’s last stint had ended less than three months ago.

All those sessions had given him a keen understanding that alcoholism was a disease. That part of the education process he understood, since the counselors had pounded that point home until even their cat understood it. Unfortunately, he also knew no one was successful at sobriety unless they truly wanted it.

The person had to accept that their drinking was a problem ruining their life. But Ivy not only didn’t think her drinking was a problem, she loved the bottle more than anything or anyone in her life. That kind of devotion was hard to break through.

“Please, let me come with you.” Ivy started making her way down with both hands on the railing.

He slammed the door on her pleading and Tara’s continued screeching and got in his car. “Can you meet me at the hospital?” he asked when Monique answered her phone.

“What’s wrong?”

He gave her a condensed version of what had happened, and the story was embarrassing to tell. It was like his life had become some kind of trashy reality show joke, and he was a reluctant participant. “The damn thing is still bleeding, which probably means I need stitches.”

“Geez, baby, I’ll meet you there, but I have to bring Grady with me. Willow’s out tonight.”

“Wait for me then.” He parked across the street and sighed in relief when he entered an almost empty ER waiting room. “I don’t want you to have to bundle Grady up and bring him out in this weather. I’ll come over once I’m done.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want you there alone. What if you can’t drive after?”

Monique had been a definite change from what he was used to, which was why he’d gladly taken her to dinner the day they’d met. There hadn’t been as many women in his past as people thought, and he’d forgotten every one of them once Monique had entered his life.

At first their friendship was an escape from what he knew, and he talked to her because she listened, reallylistened. Once he truly got to know her, though, he’d fallen in love. The sensation was so foreign that he’d almost missed it for what it was, but Monique had given him hope for the future.

“It’s cold out, sweetheart. Stay home, and hopefully I’ll be there soon.”

“Okay, but call me if you need a ride.”

“I love you, and I will.” He hung up and all the anger of the night and why he was there vanished. It was a blessing to finally have something to look forward to.

“Are you all right?” the receptionist asked.

“No, but I will be.”

 

v

 

“Tucker!” The large African American man practically sang her name as he pressed the elevator button in the lobby of the Pontchartrain Hotel. “Long time no see, man. You know what they say about all work, and you ain’t no dull boy.”

“Time to rectify, my brother.” Tucker pressed a twenty in his hand and hugged him. “You staying out of trouble?”

“What’s the fun in that?”

“True, but now’s not the time to get into that.” She wanted to laugh at the scowl on Willow’s face as she observed their exchange. “Think you can call up for me?”

“You know it.” He held everyone back so she and Willow could ride up alone.

“It’s not what you think.”

“What do I think?” Willow asked, sounding like it was an effort not to add you fucking swamp scum to the end of the question.

She assumed that telling Willow she was even more beautiful when she was angry was the fastest way to get kneecapped. “That this swamp scum thinks you’re easy, and you’re wondering if you have anything in your purse to stab me in the eye,” she said, standing on the other side of the elevator, not to crowd Willow. The old elevator car was ornate, and Tucker glanced up at the brass needle that moved toward the top floor at a snail’s pace.

The joke seemed to loosen Willow up and she smiled slightly. “If you’d added asshole to that, you would’ve been closer to reading my mind. Dinner wasn’t an overstep, but inviting me to have a drink in a hotel room might be, Tucker.” The door opened, and the usual noise of the Hot Tin Roof Bar filled their small space.

“I’m really not an asshole…Well, I can be, but I try to keep it to a minimum.” She shrugged and found it humorous that Willow so far had acted like she was here as a favor to her, and not falling all over herself to entice her. It was a change of pace. “This place is newish and I thought you’d enjoy the view.” She waved her arm to invite Willow to go out first. “Let’s see where they set us up.”

It took the staff a few minutes to clear the table in the corner, and she took Willow’s coat while they did and placed it on the empty extra chair.

“The usual, Tuck?” the bartender who helped with their seating arrangements asked.

“Their specialty is a Hurricane,” she said to Willow.

“That sounds kind of touristy.” Willow scrunched her face up, giving off an adorable vibe that made Tucker want to kiss her despite the fact she thought Tucker was some kind of player.

“One for me then, and whatever the lady desires.”

“White wine, please.” Willow sat and scooted her chair closer. “So I can hear you,” she explained when their legs were touching.

She wasn’t about to call her on the lame excuse. “The whole place is supposedly decorated like Tennessee Williams’s apartment, since he lived here while he wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, and it’s quickly losing its best-kept-secret status.” The bartender delivered the drinks and Tucker held Willow’s back. “Try this first.”

“I see you’re not a germophobe, which gets you points,” Willow said, taking a sip. “Wow, that’s delicious.”

“It’s the original recipe of the touristy drink, so I should get even more points for picking such a cool place. I’ll also try to forget that you have such a low opinion of me. We just met, after all.”

“You think I could trade this in?” Willow accepted her wine and Tucker waved to her friend behind the bar and pointed to her drink. He nodded and another cocktail was on its way. “Well, for having just met me, you’re good at guessing what I want.”

“Nah.” Tucker tapped her glass to Willow’s and took a sip. “I know for a fact that these things are addictive, and you look like you could use one.”

“You should know I never do this, and I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.” Willow combed a lock of hair behind her ear and suddenly appeared nervous.

“You don’t drink and eat?” Tucker asked, wondering what made Willow tick.

“You’re hilarious,” Willow said, placing her hand on her arm. “No, I mean, I usually don’t ask someone I just met out. I don’t want you to think I’m easy or something. I’m sorry for misjudging you.”

“Or something,” she said slowly, and she liked the way Willow’s gaze flicked to her lips when she smiled at her. “Okay, we’ll get to that later. I can’t believe you’re not out often, considering.”

Willow narrowed her eyes like some kind of death ninja, and Tucker wanted to assume a crane kick pose in defense.

“Considering what?” Willow asked.

“Try to refrain from stabbing me with your little drink umbrella, okay? You’re an intelligent, beautiful woman. I’d think people would be lined up to show you cool places with a true mixologist behind the bar, who also happens to make his own mixers and tonic.” She stopped when the bartender delivered Willow’s new drink and took her wine back.

“Do you own stock in this place, or are you just their marketing department on the side? And the last couple of years have been busy, so I haven’t been out much at all. I may be rusty to the whole cool-place and wonderful-throwback-drinks scene.”

“The pressure’s on, then, to show you a good time. I’m not a serial killer, a con artist, or a letch trying to get in your pants. So you can relax.” She pointed to Willow’s drink. “Go on and take a sip. I promise it’ll make me look better and better.”

Willow laughed. “So you have a rule against getting in someone’s pants?”

The question made Tucker think Willow might fall into the mood-swing-crazy-as-a-loon category of women. The kind who burned shit on your front lawn or did mean things to your pets if you managed to upset them. One minute she was pissed off at Tucker being presumptuous—the next she was flirting like Tucker had a chance. Loony women made her nuts.

It was the number one group she tried to avoid like the plague. That special category was followed closely by women who desperately wanted her address so they could leave a few things over, and then it took federal agents to remove them from your home if they managed to wheedle their way in. Granted, that had only happened the one time, but the woman crying piteously on her lawn was a memory that was hard to shake.

“After about the fifth date I give it a shot if there hasn’t been a restraining order filed.”

Willow finally laughed and it sounded genuine. “Why have we never met?”

“Because you’ve been working your ass off, and I’ve been looking for dates in bars and not in business meetings, but I’ve got tonight to make up for it.” She finished her drink and smiled as Willow worked on hers. “Once you’re done, we’ll go out and do what everyone comes here for.”

“And that’s more than drinking and trying to impress girls with your charming personality?”

“Ha, that’s a given, but no. Drink up.” Once Willow downed the last of her drink, Tucker handed the bartender some money and helped Willow on with her coat. The outside dining space had one of the best views of the city Tucker had ever seen, and it was spectacular at night. Even her office on the top floor of their building didn’t give such an expansive panorama. “Do you mind if I really get close to you?”

“Is this where that letch thing comes in?” Willow stood next to her and put her arm around Tucker’s waist.

Willow was about seven inches shorter than her, utterly beautiful, and Tucker didn’t want to rush anything or risk a face full of the pepper spray Willow probably kept in her purse. And Tucker had a feeling that knowing Willow might be worth having some of her things go up in flames in her yard—she didn’t have any pets, so that wasn’t a worry, assuming it all went ass-end up.

“This is where the world’s obsession with selfies comes in,” she said, putting her arm around Willow’s shoulders and holding her phone out. “But sometimes obsessions are a good thing.” She framed a shot and waited for Willow to smile.

“Why’s that?” Willow asked when she took a few pictures.

“You have to give me your number if you want some of these.” She jumped a little when Willow pinched her side harder than expected, but she squeezed Willow’s shoulder before letting go and putting some distance between them. No rush.

“Are you fifteen all of a sudden?” Willow laughed and closed a little of the space between them again.

They were alone out there because of the cold temperatures and strong winds, but Tucker could’ve stood there for hours being insulted by this woman.

“And can we eat something before we drink anything else? If I do that on an empty stomach, you’ll have to carry me home and put me to bed.”

“Are you sure you don’t want another one, or maybe, like, twenty more?” She grinned.

“It’ll be really sexy when I throw up on you, so feed me.”

“Okay, are you a vegetarian?” She took Willow’s hand and led her back inside.

“What happens when a woman you’re out with answers yes to that question?” Willow stayed close and placed her hand in the crook of Tucker’s arm.

“I tell them I’ll meet them at their favorite restaurant while punching the address to Ruth’s Chris into my Uber app.” The way Willow laughed made her smile. “But since you haven’t answered the question with an affirmative, I’ll take a chance and surprise you.”

“Where would a vegetarian be surprised?” They got to ride down alone again in the elevator and Tucker took the chance to come closer.

“Toups’ Meatery.” The answer made Willow laugh harder and fall against her as if to hold herself up. “What? They have fantastic vegetable sides.”

“You’re a refreshing cliché, but don’t take that the wrong way.”

“Okay,” she said, taking Willow’s hand, gratified when Willow grasped hers in return. “What’s that supposed to mean, then?”

“You seem to know what you want and are unapologetic about it. You’re also a carnivore who doesn’t rattle easily, and you look comfortable in your own skin.” Willow threaded their fingers together and followed her outside.

“What’s clichéd about that?” The black Yukon was waiting and she opened the door for Willow again.

“You only usually find those qualities in men.”

She nodded and didn’t resist when Willow took her hand and placed it in her lap palm up. “Is that a turnoff for you?”

“Are you kidding?” It sounded like Willow was tweaking her a little but she wasn’t complaining. “I could probably learn a few things from you.”

“That would require you to spend time with me.” They left the Uptown area for one of the other older neighborhoods in the city closer to City Park. “I’m all for that, if you’re wondering.”

“I’ll have to take you up on that if only to see where you take me if I admit I’m vegan.”

“I love a challenge, so don’t say it if you don’t mean it.”

“Will work interfere, do you think?” Willow accepted her hand when they arrived, and she faced her on the sidewalk.

“I don’t believe so, but I’m willing to wait until our project’s done if that’ll make you more comfortable with the idea.” She released one of Willow’s hands and caressed her cheek with the backs of her fingers.

“That’ll be like…two years. You’re that patient?”

The way Willow phrased the question made her think her new friend wasn’t at all into waiting for the things she wanted.

“I guess if I’m going to be honest…” She moved her hand to the curve of Willow’s jaw. There was no reluctance in Willow’s gaze before she closed her eyes as Tucker bent her head and kissed her. All Tucker did was press her lips to Willow’s, but that simple move was so good, she wanted to skip dinner and go someplace more private. “Patience isn’t my thing at all,” Tucker said, resting her forehead against Willow’s.

“You don’t waste time, do you?” Willow’s hands were under Tucker’s coat and she wasn’t moving back, so Tucker kissed her again.

“If I misjudged and fucked up my chances here, I’ll take you home, but I’m not sorry.”

“You’re such a poet,” Willow said, tugging her toward the door. “Let’s eat before I ask you to take me home.”

“Do you see a good-night kiss in my future?”

“Either that or a lesson in all that patience we were talking about.” Willow turned so she could help her with her coat again, and the hostess showed them to the table. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Let’s pray the sides are really good then.”

“Go with the double cut pork chop. You might need your strength later.”