Book 3 in the Bayou Bachelors Series
Not even the wildest Bayou Bachelor of all can resist the right woman.
Jeb DeVillier has a lot of explaining to do. True, he did steal millions from the sailboat business he ran with his partner, Brandon, and disappear to South America. But Jeb has a good reason—Brandon’s sister, Jena Boudreaux. A decade ago, she broke his heart when she chose career over their relationship. Still, when he learns she’s being held for ransom by drug dealers, he doesn’t hesitate. He’ll save her life, no matter what the danger.
When Jena called Jeb out of the blue, it was to ask him to give her last words to her family. She knew the risks when she took one final mission for the CIA. Suddenly, Jeb’s riding to the rescue like her own personal Cajun knight. Yet now that they’re both safe in New Orleans, he refuses to give her a second chance.
That’s not good enough for Jena. Because when you find someone crazy enough to risk everything for you, the only sane thing to do is to hang on tight . . .
Heat Level: Full Steam Ahead
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After they entered the house, Jena wished she’d thought of something scathing to say to Jeb. To prove she didn’t want to be near him any more than he wanted to be near her. Why had he come this morning, anyhow? He had to have known she’d be here.
It took some patience, but when she and Jeb passed one another in the small hallway between the kitchen and back porch, Jena saw her chance to speak to Jeb and went for it. She grabbed his arm and pulled him into the half bathroom off her brother’s screened-in veranda. He looked at her and she leaned in, nose-to-nose.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
He reached over her and snapped the fancy blinds shut to prevent anyone outside from seeing them. His insouciance drove her mad, and she knew the tips of her ears had to be crimson.
“What’s the matter, Jena? Isn’t your return to your roots going exactly according to your super secret plan?” His dark eyes glittered and his hair—thick and collar-length, contrary to the current shorter fashion—taunted her. Reminded her of how much they’d shared.
“My ‘return’? You say it like I had any control over what happened…before.”
“You had control over what you told those closest to you.” She didn’t think he meant just her family.
“You’re still angry that I never told you I was CIA? I thought you’d understand by now that my job description was classified. I’ll tell my family after my resignation is official.”
“All I saw in South America was a woman who came as close to being killed as I ever want to see.” His words rang true, but they weren’t enough. He didn’t mention that he’d cared for her, that her death would have affected him. She hated herself for wanting it.
She looked away from him, anywhere but into those eyes, and saw their reflection in the spotless mirror her brother paid a housekeeper to polish. At least, he had before he’d lost it all.
Jeb’s back was to the mirror as he leaned against the sink, his arms crossed against his chest. Did he think she was going to harm him? She stood to his left, and when she saw herself in the mirror her figure gave her pause. She was hunched over, the circles under her eyes pitiful.
Nothing had been easy since she’d returned home. Nothing.
“Jena.” Quiet, commanding. The new side of Jeb she hadn’t noticed before. The one he hadn’t had to use, not before her frantic text when she’d been locked in that closet of a room, sure that her captors were returning to assassinate her.
She summoned her courage and looked at him. “What, Jeb? What now? Because if you’re going to tell me again that we’re through, save it. I get it, I get you. ‘We’ never ‘were.’”
Jena spit the words out, and Jeb took them as the sharply honed weapons they were. He deserved it. As mad as he’d been, mentally fuming at her for never revealing her line of work, or at least hinting at it, nothing topped the anger he had toward himself for not being more in tune with her.
Her hand moved to her face, and belatedly he noticed the tears. Goddamnit.
“No, you look.” She shook, her thinner-than-usual frame wracked with emotions. The attempt on her life was still taking a toll on her, no matter how tough she tried to act. “I trusted you. I shouldn’t have texted you. It was a mistake. But for what it’s worth, I really did think I had no choice—I wanted my family to know I loved them, and I knew you’d tell them.”
He wasn’t going to call bullshit, as much as he wanted to. She’d known exactly what would happen with her text. They’d always shared a close bond, and for the past couple of years they’d been exclusive sexual partners. Family friends with sexy benefits.
She absolutely had to know he’d find her.
“All’s fair in war, right, Jena? I never had to tell anyone in your family bad news. You’re alive, back home. Mission accomplished.”
“And we don’t ever have to deal with one another again.” Her bottom lip trembled and, to her credit, she didn’t draw attention to it by biting or licking it.
Thank God. Was she emotional because she’d picked up on how he’d left out the other part of the quote? All’s fair in love and war.
“Nope.” God, was she playing him even now? Had that been what the past two years were about?
“Fine.” She eyed him before she grabbed a tissue and blew her sniffles away. “You leave first. I’ll follow in a minute or two.”
He laughed then; he couldn’t help it. “You mean like we did during the Christmas Eve party?”
She didn’t laugh with him, though. Her stricken expression stomped the humor right out of his heart. Hell. His brain knew that Jena possessed supreme skills of manipulation and control—it was in her goddamn job description. Or had been, if what she said was true and she was no longer employed by the CIA.
Is this how she wanted him to feel? As if he’d hurt her, sliced open her heart and left it trampled on the dirt next to the big tree in her childhood backyard, where he’d carved a heart for her more than two decades ago?
Shit. The woman had been manipulating him since day one.
Jena waited the prerequisite five minutes before she, too, left the bayou boat-themed bathroom and rejoined her brothers at the large island that dominated the immaculate contemporary kitchen. She noticed definite spots of bright color—potted flowers, fresh linens. Poppy’s touch.
“Jena, help me make the corn casserole, will you?” Brandon grinned from the other side of the island, where Poppy stood next to him whisking eggs, her expression unruffled. Poppy struck Jena as a self-contained woman by the way she observed them all as if studying laboratory rats behind glass.
“Sure, bro.” She took the cans of creamed corn he’d nodded at and picked up the can opener.
“There’s a casserole dish in the cabinet next to the sink, Jena.” Poppy smiled.
As she turned to find the ceramic dish, she bumped into Sonja, her brother’s fiancée.
“Whoops, I’m sorry, Sonja!”
Sonja laughed. “No worries. It’s hard to miss me right now.” She rubbed her swollen belly. Sonja looked as cool as a cucumber, which was quite an accomplishment for a woman several months pregnant in the midst of the late summer heat. Not that Sonja hadn’t had practice keeping her cool around their family—Hudson and Gloria had been complete jerks since the moment Henry announced his and Sonja’s engagement. They’d been cool with the pair living together, but when Henry decided to marry Sonja, Hudson’s dark beliefs surfaced.
Jena loved how Sonja and Henry were so open about how they’d fallen for one another immediately. They’d met at work, in the New Orleans law office owned by Hudson, and according to each of them it had been love at first sight.
“How are you feeling, Sonja?” Jena wondered what it would feel like to be an aunt.
“I’m good. Tired, but nothing too unbearable.”
“She’s lying. That baby never stops kicking—he woke us both up last night.” Henry’s fatherly pride was sweet. Jena wouldn’t have pegged her brother as touchy-feely, but obviously Sonja’s pregnancy had changed him.
“So it’s a boy?”
Henry looked caught in headlights, then his smooth attorney mask fell back in place. “No, we’re waiting to find out.” He kept chopping carrots for the crudités.
“How are you doing, Jena?” Sonja’s soft voice cut across the chatter on either side of them.
“I’m okay. It’s been an adjustment coming back this time.”
Sonja’s brow wrinkled. “Henry said you’re done with your Navy stint, though, right? Will you keep working at the same place? For the state’s social welfare offices?”
Jena sighed. “I don’t know. I haven’t been back to the office yet; I’m still on an unpaid sabbatical, basically. I’ve learned a lot more working for the state’s child welfare system than I would have if I’d struck out on my own right away, but I’m tired of working for the government. I want something different. I may have to work there for a few more months, though, until I find another job.” She didn’t have any other options—she didn’t have the funds to open her own nonprofit organization like she’d dreamed about each time she completed another undercover mission.
“You’re a gifted social worker from all accounts. I know firsthand how thorough you are.” Sonja’s words were kind, especially since she’d helped Jena out with cases involving foster children and their biological parents’ custody rights.
“Thank you. I’ll never stop doing it; it’s just a matter of which direction to take it in. Are you still interested in doing more pro bono work at the firm?”
“Definitely. The baby’s starting to take priority, but after my maternity leave Henry and I are planning to address changing the firm’s mission.”
“That’s fantastic! But what about my parents?”
Sonja smiled. “Henry has convinced your dad to sign the firm over to us. Your father only wants to be responsible for the Baton Rouge office.”
“Yeah, Dad says he’s going to spend more time doing charity work with Mom, give back where they should have in the first place.” Brandon chimed in and Henry nodded.
Jena looked at Sonja. “I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with their crap.”
“It’s not your fault, Jena.” Sonja’s grace was certainly something to emulate. Jena knew Sonja didn’t blame her or Henry or Brandon for their parents, but Jena had never been able to shake the guilt-by-association.
“I do have to admit, it’s a relief that they’re finally figuring out what matters.” It’d taken over a decade to get this far, and there was still a long way to go.
“You mean figuring out that they were complete asses?” Brandon handed Jena a large measuring cup with beaten eggs. “Here you go.”
She poured the eggs into the cornbread mix, stirred in the creamed and regular corn, and then dumped it all into the baking dish. “I do love corn casserole. You’re using Grandmom’s recipe, I see.”
“Not quite.” Brandon reached over for the dish, and Jena slid it across the gray granite surface. Her brother doused the top of it with hot sauce.
“I hope we don’t choke on it.”
“Never. We’re bayou born and bred.”
“Have you thought of getting your doctorate, sis?” Henry spoke up.
“No way.” Getting her master’s in social work had been excruciating, balancing night school with her “Navy” schedule. She shuddered. “At least, not for now.”
She looked around the room, and no one reflected any type of disappointment. Quite the opposite. Her brothers and their partners all looked like she’d given them the answer they wanted. But why?
She sought out Jeb’s gaze before she remembered that it wasn’t her place to do so any longer. Apparently he’d forgotten, too, as his eyes were on her, and she watched his cool assessment melt into something hotter. Primal.
This had to stop, but how? She offered him a small smile, a way of saying sorry. As if they stood a chance of moving into a casual friendship again.
Jeb looked away, and the loss of warmth made her shiver. No matter what he did or said, they’d always have this connection—which made it smart to break it all off completely now, while they were both young enough to move on. Except she felt like she was eighty, and in truth they didn’t have a hell of a lot to move on from. Their relationship had been shallower than she’d thought.
Brandon coughed. “Um, that’s what I’m trying to tell you, Jena. You’ve mentioned in the past that your dream is to run your own social work business, maybe an NPO, I don’t know—you’ll figure that part out.”
A tiny glimmer of hopeful comprehension dawned. What was her brother saying?
Brandon cleared his throat. “Dad’s signed over the NOLA law practice to Henry. He and Sonja are opting to eventually turn it fully nonprofit, or at least take on a heftier amount of pro bono work. Did I say that correctly, you two?” He addressed Henry and Sonja, who smiled as if they’d won the lottery. Sonja’s relaxed posture, with her arm resting on her baby bump, underscored her belief in the work she and Henry were going to do.
“We definitely need more time to transition fully to nonprofit, but we’ve already been able to take on cases that need our help.” Henry placed his arm across Sonja’s shoulders and she reached up and grasped his hand. A stab of envy hit Jena’s solar plexus and she closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath as her training had taught her to do when faced with something unpleasant. But no amount of training eased the constant heartache that had plagued her since Jeb found her in Asunción.
“Dad offered to help Brandon get back on his feet,” Henry began.
“Which I turned down, even before we knew that Jeb hadn’t blown through all of the money. Taking financial—or any other kind of support from Mom and Dad isn’t in the cards for me. No matter how much they’re changing.”
“Now that you have some resources again, will you quit your new job?” She couldn’t imagine Brandon working for someone else. He’d been his own boss since they were kids, really.
“I’m not certain. I was hoping Jeb and I could explore some new opportunities, or even start over with Boats by Gus. But he’s moving to Atlanta.” Jena noticed that Jeb didn’t voice support for Brandon’s words. The weight of how her failure in South America had affected her family blanketed her with exhaustion. As Jeb remained silent, Brandon turned his attention back to her.
“I may have a business opportunity for you, Jena.”
“I’m not a boat builder!”
“This would be a social worker job.”
“I’m fine with my job for now.” It was futile. She knew both Brandon and Henry had heard the lie, and Jeb, though silent, always saw through her bullshit.
“Having my life blown apart, then put back together in such a wonderful way, gave me time to think.” Brandon stared at Poppy, wrapped his arm around her small waist, and pulled her up against his side. He kissed her on the mouth before he turned back to Jena, who fought against squeezing her eyes tight and covering her ears. It wasn’t younger sister icks from seeing her brother and his girlfriend’s open affection, either—more like the pangs of regret she got when she watched Henry dote on Sonja and her burgeoning baby belly. She was alone in the world.
Brandon didn’t seem to notice her private pity party, though.
“Hear me out, Jena. I want to open a facility in NOLA that offers help to those who need it most. Sure, I could sign a check over to any one of a dozen charities, but there are so many cracks in the system that need filling. How many times have you told us that? I’d love to see you go after your dream. Let me help you get there, at least to start. I’d be a ghost contributor in the long run.”
Jena blinked, shook her head. “I think it’s great that you want to make a difference, Brandon, but I don’t want your money. I totally support whatever it is you want to do, of course. But I have my own career.” Hadn’t she always found her way? Until last month, but she wasn’t counting that. Couldn’t.
“But you’ve said yourself you’re ready to move on from working for the state.” Brandon dug in his heels.
“For God’s sake, Jena, have some common sense about it all.” Henry grabbed a celery stick from a large stainless steel platter and dunked it in bleu cheese dip.
“If you don’t want to take the money outright, then look at it as a loan. You’re not getting any younger, and you’ll want to get this idea of yours off the ground as soon as you can. That way you’ll be set for the rest of your working life. Aren’t you the one who always emphasizes the timeliness of social work? There are children and their families to save right now, today. Time’s a-wasting.”
“Henry’s right. Let me help you go for your dream, Jena. You’ve done your time in public service with the State of Louisiana and the US Navy. It’s your turn.” Brandon chimed in.
“It’s still public service, the social work center you’ve talked about starting over the years.” Jeb’s voice wrapped around her like it always did. His observation revealed he hadn’t missed one iota of the conversation—or of her desires when she’d confided in him about her career dreams. They’d had the best conversations, right after the hot sex.
Would memories of their sexy times ever die?
Brandon named a figure he was willing to donate.
Jena gasped. “You don’t have that kind of money to throw around right now, Brandon. And I don’t want to talk about this in front of everyone.”
He held up his hand. “I know it sounds like an exorbitant amount, and you may not use all of it. But I’m going to need the tax break if I’m going to get Boats by
Gus going again. And take it from someone who’s run his own business for over a decade: It takes a huge amount of personal investment, and time, before you’ll see a turnaround. I’ll provide annual private donations as well, but it won’t be enough to keep it all going. That’ll be your job.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything here.” She’d fought enemies of freedom and found placement for the least desirable foster children abandoned by their parents and the state, but at the Boudreaux table, she’d always be the little sister. The girl who needed a little extra boost.
“The reason I’m bringing it all up here is because Henry and Sonja have already agreed to help with the legal side of it all.”
“Whatever you decide, Jena, we’re going to support it. It’s a way to evolve your family legacy in New Orleans, too.” Sonja’s reasonable voice shook Jena more than her brother’s forthright offer. If she refused, she was sinking an entire family vision. Crap.
But if she agreed, she’d be able to start her new life now—no waiting, no searching for an in-between job to shore her regular household bills. A surge of hope mixed with anticipation swirled around her insides. It was the most promising thing to happen to her since she’d come back to NOLA.
“Let me get this straight. You’re going to donate funds for me to find a place to build and run a community social service nonprofit. No questions asked, no telling me how to do it?”
Brandon nodded. “Exactly.”
“When can you have the funds ready?”
He grinned and looked at Jeb briefly. “Already have them. From the funds that you didn’t need for the ransom.”
“Okay. I’ll need to find a building first.”
“That won’t take long. The real estate market is flooded with old office buildings.” Henry began to carry the food out to Brandon’s veranda.
Jena waited until everyone else was outside, then spoke to Brandon alone. “You’re not doing this because you feel sorry for me, are you?”
He barked a laugh across the granite island. “Sister, pity’s the last thing that I’d ever feel for you.”
She let a slow grin form before she held out her hand. “Okay then. I’m in. Deal.”
Brandon clasped her hand and they shook.