Book 1 in the Bayou Bachelors Series
There’s nowhere hotter than the South, especially with three men who know how to make the good times roll. But one of the Bayou Bachelors is about to meet his match…
New York City stylist Poppy Kaminsky knows that image is everything, which is why she’s so devastated when hers is trashed on social media—after a very public meltdown over her cheating fiancé. Her best friend’s New Orleans society wedding gives her the chance hide out and lick her wounds…
Brandon Boudreaux is in no mood to party. His multi-million dollar sailboat business is in danger of sinking thanks to his partner’s sudden disappearance—with the company’s funds. And when he rolls up to his estranged brother’s pre-wedding bash in an airboat, a cold-as-ice friend of the bride looks at him like he’s so much swamp trash.
The last person Poppy should get involved with is the bad boy of the Boudreaux family. But they have more in common than she could ever imagine—and the steamy, sultry New Orleans nights are about to show her how fun letting loose can be…
Heat Level: Full Steam Ahead
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Poppy Amberlin Kaminsky had never been so happy to hear her real name, no matter that she’d spent the last eight hours and had taken a taxi, train, and plane to do so. All to get to a place she swore she’d never come back to after a Spring Break visit almost a decade ago.
It was hard to tell whether the New Orleans’ Bayou air or her best friend’s cloud of Kate Spade Live Colorfully perfume embraced her first, but once Sonja’s arms crushed her against the familiar curvaceous figure of her college bestie, it didn’t matter. Poppy meant to give the bride-to-be a reassuring, ‘glad to see you’ hug, but instead ended up holding on for dear life. Tears shoved past her carefully made-up eyes, threatening to drip off her lash extensions. They were the only part of her previous life that she’d kept.
Sonja pulled back and stared. “Let me get a good look at you. What the hell did you do to your hair?”
Sonja’s expression reflected the shock Poppy had also experienced at her first glance of her new ‘do. Gone was her, or rather, Amber’s, signature sleek brunette bob. Her wild waves were back, as was her honey blonde ombre, albeit with a little more brass. She self-consciously reached for her bleached locks. “It’s part of my get-away disguise.” As was the huge pair of sunglasses she’d worn from New York City to Louisiana, which had worked since she’d garnered minimal attention on her flight. An unusual event for Poppy since being publicly dumped and Twitter-shamed by her ex-boyfriend. ‘Ex’ as in ‘I want to draw an ‘X’ across his face every time I see it.’ “It’s my real color, so at least the roots will grow out with no issue.”
“Aw, boo.” Sonja lifted the shades from Poppy’s nose as she uttered the Cajun endearment and Poppy wanted to weep with the relief of having the one person who really knew her—who got who she was, who she’d been, how far she’d come—look into her eyes and smile with no judgment. “That rat-ass did a number on you, didn’t he?”
Poppy shrugged. “Screw him. That’s history, baby. Two months and twelve hundred miles away. I’m here, and you’re getting married!” They both squealed and hugged, hopping around as if they were still college roommates with big dreams in front of them. Intact dreams that weren’t shattered in skin-piercing shards about their feet, as were Poppy’s.
“I can’t wait for you to meet Henry.” Sonja gushed as she opened the hatch of her BMW SUV and reached for Poppy’s tote. “And he can’t wait to meet you.” Poppy put her sunglasses back on and took in the upgraded Sonja. Gone was the straightened shoulder-length hair of their college days, replaced with a sexy soft afro. Lustrous pearl drop earrings set off Sonja’s mocha skin. No more flip flops but designer wedge sandals. Sandals that matched her thousand-dollar bag.
“What?” Sonja didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, these old things?” She posed like the magazine model she resembled but after a split second bent over in laughter, her smile flashing as honest and warm as it had ever been. “Poppy, you look like you can’t believe it. A nice paycheck and fancy clothes aren’t exclusive to New York City.”
“Did I ever say they were?”
“You don’t have to. Hell, I’ve been trying to get you here for years and I had to go and get knocked up and married before you showed.”
Poppy’s stomach flipped. “You’re pregnant?”
“Surprise!” Sonja threw her arms up in a big ‘V’, joy radiating from every inch of her curvy frame. Which was about to grow rounder. “But it’s going to have to be our secret. It’s super early, but I have all the signs and symptoms. I’m waiting until our wedding night to tell Henry. That man is always surprising me, spoiling me, and I want to be able to do it for him, just once.” Sonja’s eyes sparkled the way Poppy had once dreamed hers would. Once she was married and having Will’s babies.
“How exciting!” Her response sounded so lame even to her own ears. It wasn’t Sonja’s fault that Poppy had planned to be pregnant with her own baby by now, after having her own spectacular wedding on Will’s yacht as it cruised Long Island Sound. She decided on the spot to save her pity-party for later. This weekend her wounds had to remain in her room, away from Sonja and the gazillions of Louisianan’s she was about to meet. She hadn’t packed mini-bottles of Maker’s Mark and a two-pound bag of Hershey’s kisses for nothing. Although as the heat was already weighing in on her, she’d be lucky if the chocolate drops weren’t all mush.
Brushing her ruminations aside, Poppy leaned forward and gave Sonja a solid kiss on the cheek, seriously happy for her friend. And for herself—it was a relief to close the door on her sad life for the next few days. “We have a lot of catching up to do. I know it’s your big weekend, and that we can’t do it all now, but I have to tell you I’m so thrilled to be here with you, and happy that you’ve found your soul mate.”
Sonja laughed and gave her another quick hug before she hustled them both into the car and drove away from the New Orleans airport.
“How much of this do you remember from Freshman Spring Break?” Sonja spoke loudly as she had the sunroof open and the windows halfway down. The tropical air that blew against Poppy’s face was a balm after the chill that remained in New York’s still-slumbering spring.
“I remember that,” Poppy pointed at the Super Dome as they sped by it, “and I remember it being a lot muggier than it is right now.”
“It’s supposed to get ugly by Saturday but I’m hoping the rain stays away at least until Sunday. All I’m asking is for the wedding to go off smoothly and for Henry and I to get out of here for our honeymoon.”
Poppy nodded, not wanting to share that the weather app on her phone predicted rain in a big way starting tomorrow, early. Before the rehearsal dinner. “The ceremony’s all inside, right?”
“Of course. Henry’s from a long line of Catholics—they wouldn’t be happy with anything but a full-on Mass. They wanted it at Our Lady of the Rosary downtown. It’s where Henry’s little sister went to school so they have ties there. But we ended up picking St Louis Cathedral. We love the history of it.”
“Our Lady help of what?” Poppy had been raised in a Polish-Catholic enclave of Western New York and her own parish had been Our Lady Help of Christians but she couldn’t help teasing Sonja, the professed agnostic.
Sonja laughed. “You haven’t changed one bit. Don’t even try to tell me that you’re not the same girl I met in college.”
“Okay, I won’t.” It wasn’t the weekend to tell Sonja that any belief in something greater than herself had sailed away with Will’s humiliating betrayal.
“Where do you live again? I know you said it was outside of the city but not far from the French Quarter. Is it near where you grew up?” New Orleans was behind them and they appeared to be following signs for the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.
“Did you even read the invitation, Poppy?” Sonja softened her sharp query with a wide grin.
“I did.” And promptly forgot the details as her life had been entrenched in trying to put a positive spin on the bad press over her broken engagement. Broken engagement, hell. More like the most obscene, humiliating dump by a man ever. Her entire professional reputation had been sunk by the painful break-up from Will. The Twitter and Instagram shaming had taken off after Poppy’s very public Plaza meltdown in front of Will’s family. She’d appeared every part the screaming banshee she still felt like.
“Well, I know you’re a busy gal. I used to think I was, too, but then I met Henry, and now we’re having a baby, and we’ve been planning the wedding for over a year…” Sonja changed lanes to avoid a trailer hauling what appeared to be a load of empty cages. “Let’s just say I didn’t know what ‘busy’ meant.” Sonja’s profile hadn’t changed, nor had her effusive warmth and positive energy. She’d always been the bubbly one in their relationship, while Poppy was more deliberate and definitely less talkative. Sonja always seemed so much more certain of herself. Of life.
Poppy looked out her passenger window. Of course Sonja was grounded and happy. Most twenty-eight year olds had a good idea of where they wanted their life to go, right?
Except Poppy. Whoa. Pity party is later.
Sonja playfully tapped her thigh. “Listen up. Our new home, where you’re going to housesit, is in the little town of Millerville. It’s nothing like where I’m from, closer to the city. My parents are still in a bit of shock that someone from New Orleans society has asked me to marry him, and Henry’s parents are, well, coming around. Let’s just say this isn’t New York City, right?” Sonja tapped her long fingers on the steering wheel. Poppy sensed there was more emotion under Sonja’s casual demeanor. “Our house is huge, on the river, and it’s spectacular if I do say so myself. Roomy, with a huge deck to enjoy the water view. We even have a small guest cottage. But you’ll stay in the main house, of course. You’re going to love the greenery after all that concrete.” Sonja and Henry were both attorneys for the generations-old Southern law firm owned by Henry’s family. It’s how they’d met, when Henry’s father had hired her.
“So things are still going well with the firm? No conflicts of interest with Henry’s family?”
“It’s his parents that have issues with our marriage, and they’re all calmed down for the time being. By that I mean they haven’t requested any more meetings with us, to try to persuade us differently. And they’re not totally awful people, if you ignore the ‘Henry’s marrying a black girl from the bayou’ ‘tude.” Sonja adjusted her sunglasses and pursed her lips. “I hate seeing him so torn up about this. They’ve given him such a hard time over marrying me. As if I’d sully their good family name. It’s the god damn twenty-first century.”
“From what you’ve told me, Henry’s family is very old school.”
“Say it like you mean it, girl. You mean ‘bigots with old money’ and they sure are careful about anyone who gets close to it! Hiring me was one thing; my résumé speaks for itself. I made them look as if they were diversifying the partners by hiring a black woman who wasn’t family, and I wasn’t a threat to the family bank account or gene pool. They put me in the New Orleans office, of course, far from where his father runs the offices in Baton Rouge. But having their son fall in love with me? Another thing entirely. This wasn’t part of their equal opportunity plan.”
“But they’ve decided to come to the wedding, and are supporting you both now, right?”
Sonja stayed silent for several minutes. Poppy waited, knowing that her friend was trying to keep a positive spin on the ugly circumstance. “Let’s hope so. It’s either that or look like the asses they are. They’re often in print in the society pages. I’m betting they’ll show, at least for the professional photographs.” Sonja’s smirk forced a quick laugh from Poppy. Laughter. Not something she’d been doing much of.
“Doesn’t sound much different than New York. The high society part, I mean.” The sun was healing on her nape as the rays reached through the open sunroof.
“Trust me, when it comes to high society, they’re all the same. Just not the bigoted part.” Sonja made a lane change and gratitude washed over Poppy in a brilliant wave of nostalgia. Sonja was every bit the open, honest young woman she’d been years ago. “Enough about the wedding drama. I don’t want to spend our precious time together talking about Henry’s parents. Are you still sure you can stay here for the full two weeks to housesit?”
“Are you kidding me? You’ve seen the latest on my Instagram and Twitter accounts, right? Before I shut them down, that is. I can’t go back to New York, not yet. You’re doing me the favor by giving me a safe place to catch my breath. I have a lot to work on, with the new Attitude by Amber deal.” Poppy was excited to have Sonja and Henry’s waterfront home to escape to. No paparazzi, no constant stream of Instagram pics of her at her worst moments. Leaving the gym with her consolatory Ben and Jerry’s nights displayed prominently in the width of her ass, walking in or out of her apartment with that awful pinched look on her face that she felt down to her toes.
“I am so thrilled for you, Poppy. I read that they’re saying you’re the new Nate Berkus. This is so incredible! My college roommate, the country’s darling stylist. I’m so proud of you for landing this deal with what, every single most important store in North America? You’re on the brink of being a gazillionaire. You know that, right?”
The money wouldn’t be in her accounts until the actual launch of her custom line of clothing, furniture and home accessories. With her personal stylist business accounts frozen, she was feeling more than vulnerable, financially. But Sonja didn’t need to know about Poppy’s money woes. “I’m lucky, yes. But after a while, how much does anyone really need?”
Sonja’s smile disappeared and she gave Poppy one of her classic “don’t bullshit me” looks. “Let’s get real, honey. As in, how are you really doing, Poppy? You’ve sounded better on the phone this past week, but I can’t say you’re looking your best.” Sonja was right; she had felt better this week. Until the last round of tweets from Will. And the threatening private texts from her former assistant, Tori. Nothing she was going to talk to Sonja about now, during Sonja’s wedding weekend. No ma’am.
“Thanks a lot! I don’t have much makeup on, and I’m a little tired. Things are better. I’m better. Really.”
“Is that so?” Sonja frowned. “Remember me, Poppy? The one who knows you better than anyone else?”
“Yes, you do, and you’re right—this has been hard. But I’m doing a lot better. Sure, the psycho tweets and photos suck but it’s not about me. I’m not the crazy one here.” It was never about her, even when she and Will had been together. That was what probably hurt the most. Not disappointment in herself that she’d broken her own personal ethics code and dated a client, nor that she’d believed what she’d seen too many women fall for: that she’d be the one to change him. That Will Callis, billionaire entrepreneur and famous playboy, would stop whoring around and settle down for one woman. Her.
She’d been partially right. Because Will had changed and settled down, but not with her. The new and improved Will was on this very same weekend marrying her former personal assistant, a twenty-one year old college intern. Who was five months pregnant with his child.
Will had been screwing around on her for more than half of their engagement, at a minimum.
“So what will you do? When you go back to New York?”
Poppy watched the water that surrounded the causeway, finding the deep shade of blue soothing. “I’ll become the goddess of American style. It’ll be a full-time job running Attitude by Amber. I never have to style another person again if I don’t want to.” She ignored the New York City part. Of course she’d go back to New York. It was where she belonged.
“Oh, Poppy. I hope you mean it. I never thought being a personal stylist was the best job for you. You’re too smart to just cater to other people. And Will wasn’t the guy for you, sugar.”
“Sounds like you’ve been talking to my family again.” Poppy’s mother and sister had at first resented that she’d made it out of their downtrodden suburb, away from their sorry family drama, and made a name for herself. Until they realized her earnings could be their ticket out, too. Her mother had been vociferous about her suspicions that Poppy had somehow bought her engagement to Will. Why would he want a girl like her, after all?
“I beg your pardon. I’d never sound like them.”
“No, you won’t, and you don’t. I’m sorry, Sonja. It’s just that they’ve always thought Will was crazy to date me, and wondered what he saw in me.”
“Poppy Kaminsky. I never want to hear that out of your mouth again. Will is a lying no-good bastard. You deserve better, so much better. And why are you taking any kind of relationship advice from your family?”
Because even though she’d survived her upbringing and against all odds made it into the big-time, a happily-ever-after love wasn’t in the cards for Poppy. She was just like her mother and sister, and grandmother and aunt, and all the women in her family. They didn’t find true love with the men in their lives. Birds flew, bees buzzed, and men left.
Poppy had outrun the poverty of her childhood, the struggles of a fatherless family. And ran headfirst into the wall that derailed all of the Kaminsky women.
Men liked Poppy; they might even love her at times. But men didn’t stick around in her life. Poppy wasn’t a woman men gave everything up for.
Which wasn’t a problem for her, because Poppy had everything she needed. Good friends, a great paycheck, or well, soon-to-be humongous paycheck, and freedom to do whatever she wanted.
After the haters stopped stalking her and Twitter judging every aspect of her life.
The aroma of spicy gumbo wafted up through the French doors of Poppy’s room along with the tinkling laughter of women as the first pre-wedding party began. Casual barbecue and early cocktails were to be followed by the women and men splitting up in New Orleans for a night on the town. All Poppy really wanted to do was hole up in the guest room of Sonja and Henry’s fairytale riverfront dream home. To her dismay the chocolate had indeed melted but the bourbon was intact.
Unlike her pride and reputation.
No one knows you here. Even if there were any celebrity gossip addicts present, she was fairly certain they’d have a hard time recognizing her. She hoped.
Making her way down to the back deck she noted many of the rooms stood empty. The lack of furniture cast shadows in the rooms and made the new construction home feel older, like it was imbued with Southern history and lore. It was exactly the kind of decor Poppy was drawn to and hoped to make available to her shoppers with Attitude by Amber. Something new and made with quality, but evocative of the history, the ambience of whichever area of the country they lived in.
Quite a crowd was gathered out on what Sonja had described as a deck but in reality functioned as a beautiful terrace. Flowers Poppy had never seen before spilled from oversized terra-cotta pots and she let the blooms cheer her. There weren’t any flowering outdoor plants in Manhattan in January. The bright pops of yellow and fuchsia jolted her creativity the way the warm sunshine boosted her vitamin D production, she figured. A mermaid fountain gurgled near where the bar was set up and Poppy wound her way around several groups of young, attractively dressed people to reach it. All were engaged in what appeared to be animated, no-care-in-the-world conversation.
The most delightful part of the evening so far was that not one head turned sharply, followed by “hey, is that…?” No sudden clicks from camera phones that sucked in her image and whose owners sent it out to the world without her permission.
Better yet, it was pure heaven to not hear any mention of her professional name, Amber. Or the other name she dreaded more, Will Callis, followed in short order by Tori. Tori Callis by tomorrow. But no one here cared about a wedding thirteen hundred miles away.
Maybe there was such a thing as life beyond Manhattan.
Her heeled, beaded gladiator sandals and gauzy sundress were so far off from the tight-fitting style she was famous for she had to keep reminding herself that she was dressed. So used to Spanx and clothing with extra tummy-control to make herself and her clients model-slim, it was at once freeing and disconcerting to let her belly relax in public.
As for her hips and butt, which were always what her trainer in SoHo focused her grueling workout-until-you-puke sessions on, she was beyond caring. So what if her diet wasn’t nutritionally perfect? It wasn’t as if she needed it to be any longer. She didn’t have to put on a perfectly tailored haute couture wedding gown in a month. As she’d planned for the past two years.
Sonja was the one wearing the white gown this weekend. And Tori. Anger threatened to tear away her careful composure. Why the hell did that little witch think she could claim Poppy’s designs as her own?
Breathe. This weekend is about Sonja. She smiled to herself as she sipped the cocktail she’d grabbed off the bartender’s table. It was going to be fun to be able to relax and enjoy the entire event without either being the stylist or bride. She and Sonja had agreed she wouldn’t work Sonja’s wedding for this very reason.
Besides, as she looked at what everyone was wearing, her contemporary, take-no-prisoners New York styles were far off from the softer, more casual tastes of this crowd.
“What do you think of your Sazerac?” Sonja appeared next to her, pointing at her cocktail. Sonja was a vision in a simple white halter-top and cut-off jeans. Her gold jewelry and flowered sandals made up for the casual wear, so Poppy didn’t feel too overdressed.
“It’s delicious. Kind of like a Manhattan, but more tart.”
“I knew you’d love it! Come here and meet our friends.” Sonja dragged her by the hand over to a large group of mostly couples and proceeded to show her off to her friends. Henry smiled at her, as if saying “see what I told you?” When they’d met earlier in the kitchen, he’d been icing down drinks and told her she was amongst friends. Poppy immediately liked him. He was everything Sonja had said. Smart, funny and sexy. And obviously very in love with his bride-to-be.
Three of which Will hadn’t been. Will was always sexy, it was his trademark and what she’d worked with him on for the past two years as his stylist. But smart and funny? Nope. And in love with her? Um, no.
She’d never recognized the signs, though. You didn’t want to.
“Sonja says you’re in fashion in New York? How did you two ever meet?” A pretty blonde named Daisy tilted her head, smiling as her boyfriend snaked his arm around her tiny waist.
“Uh, yes, that’s right.” Please let this bright smile stop the Q&A. “We were college roommates, all four years, in New York.”
“And when I came back home for law school I couldn’t convince Poppy to join me.” Sonja kept the conversation going, and Poppy loved her for it.
Daisy wasn’t done. Poppy had just enough time to swig back another gulp of her bourbon drink before the gauntlet lowered.
“Wait a minute—fashion? You look just like that woman who works for the Kardashians or something.”
“You do! I thought you looked familiar. But your hair is way different, right?” Another woman in the group, Marie, spoke up, her smile wide.
Poppy shrugged. “I am a personal stylist, yes. But I’ve never worked with the Kardashians. Most of my clients are in the business sector.” Small lie.
“Didn’t you have a television show on TLC?”
“No, that wasn’t me hosting, although I’ve appeared in a few episodes.” One in particular that focused on hotshot Wall Street CEOs and their private lives. It had been the night Will proposed to her, on his yacht, with all of Manhattan lit up behind them.
“Poppy’s getting ready to launch her design line all across the country. ‘Attitude by Amber.’” Sonja shot her an “I’m sorry” look as she steered the questions away from the implosion that was currently Poppy’s life.
“I thought you looked familiar!”
“Oh. My. God. I just read about you, your um…”
Humiliation burned raw and sharp, making her skin feel as though it was being rubbed with brambles. The soft touch of Sonja’s arm around her shoulders was a lifeline.
“That’s all behind Poppy now. She’s come here to work on something new while she housesits for us.”
Poppy met her best friend’s gaze and smiled through her tears of embarrassment. “I’m here to celebrate your wedding, remember?”
The group laughed, skittishly at first but then the women took Sonja’s cue and focused on her new line.
“How cool! What will you feature?”
“Will it be more of that New York contemporary look you’re known for, or can those of us South of the Mason Dixon Line use it?”
Poppy was immensely grateful there was no further mention of Will or her disastrous career mistake. “I’m creating both clothing and home decor lines, all based on various regions in the U.S.” She could handle this question—it was her job, after all. “The purpose of any kind of decor, whether it’s for the home or your everyday work outfit, is to have it express your personal style. Help you enjoy life to the fullest. My focus is on helping you find what fits you, your life, your personality and tastes. As with any other customer-oriented business, style is all about the client.”
“So tell us, you make a lot of money doing this, right?” One of the men spoke up. Poppy gulped.
“I have. I did. I’m not as focused on that right now.” Oh God, she had to get away from this. Did she really think changing her looks and taking a plane to NOLA would make her problems disappear? No one knew about the whispers that had started right as she left New York. Rumors of the lawsuit type. Rumors that were in fact, true.
“Poppy, let me introduce you to some other friends.” Henry was next to her, pulling her away, while Sonja kept chatting up the circle of interested friends. They really were the perfect couple.
Henry took her elbow and led her down to the where steps gave way to a pier. The river flowed past and seemed to make a soft humming noise she didn’t recognize.
“Sorry about that. Sonja wondered if she should warn our friends not to bother you.”
“No, it’s fine, really.” She finished her drink and resisted the urge to throw the glass into the river. “That would have been beyond awkward. Like I was the insane relative everyone had to tip toe around. Besides, what were the chances anyone from here really follows the absurdities of a New York fashion stylist?”
Henry’s smile was kind and generous. “Obviously very good. But I think it bodes well for your upcoming launch. People like you as a designer.”
“Thanks, Henry. I can see why Sonja fell for you.”
He looked out at the water. “Sonja and I have been through the wringer ourselves. It hasn’t been all over social media like yours, but we understand the need for privacy and a chance to heal.”
“Is your family that tough, Henry?” She assumed that’s what he was referring to. Sonja hadn’t mentioned any other kind of relationship strain, not that she would this close to the nuptials.
Henry nodded. “Oh, yes. I haven’t mentioned it to Sonja but it won’t surprise me if they are no-shows for the wedding. They’ve already called off coming to the rehearsal dinner tomorrow night. At least my mother was polite enough to text me that much.”
“Henry, I’m so sorry!” She laid a hand on his forearm. “What about your siblings? You have two, right?” She hoped she remembered it correctly.
“Yes, I have a younger sister, Jena, who can’t make it because she’s overseas with the military. But my younger brother will be here.” His eyes were a bright blue but she saw the shadows of pain and turmoil in them.
“You really love Sonja. And she knows it, you know.”
“With all my heart.” And he’d be so thrilled when he found out he was about to be a father. Her heart eased the tiniest bit from the hard bindings she’d tied around it. Seeing someone else so in love, so happy, was good for the soul.
The soft humming of the water grew louder and turned into a huge ungodly roar as if it reached up from the depths of the river. Further dialogue was impossible without knowing American Sign Language.
Sonja watched Henry shade his eyes from the late afternoon sun with his hand and followed his gaze.
“What. The. Fuck.” She spoke under her breath and besides, no one could hear anything over the engines on the huge metal contraption that was obviously a boat. It had two giant turbo-fan-things on its back part, and the hull was pointed straight at the deck. What the hell was this, Duck Dynasty?
Water sloshed up and over the small pier and Poppy sucked in a breath. Holy crap, it was going to hit the pier and they were going to end up in the water. Poppy turned to run back to the house only to find the entire pre-wedding party at the edge of the deck, blocking her way to safety. They all either grinned, laughed or nodded in some kind of Cajun understanding. Or was it Creole? Either way, no one appeared as disturbed as she felt.
Poppy turned back towards the boat. Miraculously it hadn’t crushed the landing but instead was pulled alongside it. As loud as the engines were, the river was again silent as they powered down without warning. A tall, athletic man in jeans and a white t-shirt hopped off the boat and wound a thick tether line around the single humongous iron cleat she’d missed earlier. Poppy knew a bit about boating from her time in Will’s yacht. She’d watched the ship’s crew bring them into port dozens of times. But this wasn’t a pink sand beach in Bermuda and the ship’s crew obviously had a different dress code.
The partygoers behind her applauded as the boat hand swaggered up the dock towards them. Poppy snorted at his stride, because swagger was indeed the perfect description. She’d helped countless CEOs, male and female alike, learn to walk with such confidence, minus the shit-eating grin. That a regular workingman naturally had what others had paid her dearly for was comical.
And tragic. She bit back a deep sigh. Later, with her hunk of melted chocolate and mini-bottles of whiskey, she’d indulge. There had to be a hack for carving the strips of aluminum foil wrappers out from the congealed block of chocolate.
“Hey, bro.” The hunky ship’s mate smiled and only then did she see the blue depths of his eyes, the chiseled chin, the same shade of hair as…
“Gus.” Henry took two steps to meet the man who’d called him ‘bro.’ This hired hand was Henry’s brother? Sonja had said he’d had a brother, but she’d assumed he’d be like Henry, like the gentile southern family that she assumed the Boudreaux’s were.
Not some he-man with shoulders that stretched his optic white cotton t-shirt from seam-to-seam, tucked into worn button-fly’s. Who wore their shirts tucked in anymore, by the way? Must be a Southern thing. Or a boat hand who looks like an underwear model on a billboard in Times Square thing.
As the men gave each other a friendly but not overly affectionate hug, Poppy used the few heartbeats to gather her poise. She scanned the crowd from behind her sunglasses. They all looked in awe of Gus.
Gus? It had to be a nickname, right?
“Gus! We’re so glad you’re here. Now the party can start.” Sonja had pushed her way through the gawking party and was on her tiptoes to give Gus a big smackaroo on his lips. A tug of awareness in Poppy’s gut broke through her observation. What the hell? Since Will, her sex hormones had abandoned ship. No way could a good ol’ boy driving a tin can on muddy waters be calling them out. She took him in again, finding no fault in his attractiveness. Maybe Gus was some kind of lusty hormone Pied Piper.
“Come meet everyone, brother.” Henry looked around and —please, please, not me, not me— smiled when his gaze landed on Poppy. Fuck.
“Poppy, allow me to introduce you to my younger brother, Gus.”
“Poppy?” He had the same lovely drawl as Henry’s and the guests she’d met so far, but his voice was deeper. Less cultured, maybe. Definitely not a man who spent his life in boardrooms. He tilted his head slightly as he waited for her to nod in affirmation.
“Yes. Poppy Kaminsky. Nice to meet you.” At the awkward pause she shoved her hand forward. Henry’s brother met her halfway and grasped it, his fingers wrapping around hers in a firm, warm clasp that she felt to the base of her spine. Double what the hell?
“Trust me, the pleasure is all mine. And it’s Brandon Boudreaux, by the way. I only let my brother get away with calling me ‘Gus.’” His smile had appeared attractive as she watched him greet Henry, but at close range it was deadly. And he knew it, from his sparkling indigo eyes to the incredible six-pack he had to sport to be able to tuck in his goddammed undershirt. “What’s that I hear in your voice, a sprinkle of Yankee?” His sexy grin was so practiced she almost giggled. Giggled.
As heat that she couldn’t blame on the mild Louisiana winter infused her face Poppy realized that this was the third what the hell moment in as many minutes with Brandon Boudreaux.
She forced out her trademark husky laugh, but it sounded more like a bullfrog’s mating call from the surrounding marsh. “It’s a lot more than a sprinkle. More like a whole handful. I’m from New York.” She lifted her chin and mustered her inner vixen. Somewhere deep inside she knew to never reveal her quaking insides to this man.
Because Brandon ‘Gus’ Boudreaux was a triple threat. And her shredded psyche didn’t have the energy to deal with him. Her heart beat hard and sure, fighting to shove her ego aside. All the more reason to consider Brandon Boudreaux off-limits. She’d only see him over the next few days, thank all the voodoo spirits in the Bayou.