IT SMELLED like jasmine.
In the whole city of New Orleans, jasmine was the scent hanging heavy in the air, and no one could tell me any different. When I first moved to NOLA five years ago, I would walk around sniffing, asking people what it was, and after answers of crawfish or gumbo, dogwood or honeysuckle, the river or the rain, it always came back to that one underlying current: jasmine. It wafted through the Garden District or came in on a faint breeze off Dumaine, and when I walked the uneven, broken sidewalks in the quarter early in the morning or very late at night, it’s what I inhaled deep in my lungs. My friends thought I was nuts, especially my closest one, my best one, the guy I’d not gone a day without talking to since I met him two years ago. Scott Wren.
When he’d walked into my gallery to give me the flyer touting that he was moving into the French Quarter and bringing his semitraditional Spanish cuisine with him, I noted the gray eyes first, then the thick dirty-blond hair swept up, longer on top, short on the sides and in back, his graceful artist hands, long legs, and lastly his perfect, tight round ass. I was planning to lay a line on him when his mouth dropped open as he glanced around the main room.
It wasn’t my art—I was an interior design guy, not an artist, but I ran a very successful gallery that had my name, Boone Walton, on it, and the fact that he was gazing around in awe gave me pause, made me rethink.
“Holy crap,” he whispered. “I’ve been to ten or so galleries today, but this one is amazing. No wonder everyone said to skip it.”
I instantly bristled. “People told you to not come in my place?”
He nodded, still taking in everything, not giving me much attention. “They said you didn’t need anything, that you never had local food at your openings, that you had a catering company that came in from New York.”
It was all true.
“They said I would be wasting my time.”
And he would have been, had he not noticed the art, had he not appreciated it and thus opened my eyes to the possibility of what he had to offer.
“But I figure, we’re both transplants, yeah?” he asked, turning to regard me. “And you probably just haven’t found someone you trust. You’ve had no one to believe in who had the same things to lose as well as gain.”
“Am I right?”
He was, and the wink I got was adorable, so of course I glowered back. “What?”
“Would it kill you to smile?”
“I promise you can stop scowling. We’re gonna be friends.”
There were no guarantees.
“Does the glare thing usually work? Do people normally scatter?”
They did. Yes.
I could be as enthralling as the next guy, or just plain old menacing. My height combined with the way my clothes fit, hugging hard, heavy muscle, made people wary. If they’d been aware of the tattoos under my clothes, most of my patrons would probably run, but as it was, I could dial down the scary and turn up the charming to make a sale. And at that moment, even though I very much wanted to sell Scott Wren on me—because I really wanted to discover what he tasted like—more than that, I wanted him to go. I could already tell he could get under my skin and make me care about him. He wasn’t scared of me, and that could be bad.
“I hate to burst your bubble,” he informed me, “but I’m not going anywhere. I can already tell you need me.”
“I don’t—” I began, growling. “I have more than enough friends, thank you.”
“Nobody ever has enough of those.”
I couldn’t dispute him with any real authority. I’d made, up to this point, one friend in California and one in New Orleans, and all the rest of them from my childhood were dead or worse.
“So whaddya say? You want to take a chance on me?”
Did I? More importantly, could I? Because if my first instinct had been to want to sleep with him, could we be just friends?
“I think we could help each other out. Maybe you’d like to hang some pictures in my restaurant, and in return, I could cater for you. What do you think?”
It was a gamble. “Is your place nice?”
“Not yet,” he sighed, gazing wistfully around my gallery. “It’s not really anything yet. I wish it could look like this, though. God, it’s just gorgeous in here.”
Reluctantly, I was interested, wanted to take a peek at his space.
His focus returned to me. “This is the beginning of my dream; you want to take a ride with me?”
He wanted to be partners of a kind, and anything that included my business, I was serious about. So I had to make a decision right there on the spot. Were we going to be friends or simply a hot one-night stand?
“Come eat at my place,” he offered, moving close to me, into my personal space, touching my veined forearm. “Just see what you think.”
I was deciding, and then he took hold of my hand.
“Please. Let me cook for you.”
So I did. I allowed him into my home over the gallery. And everything I had from the Shrimp Azafrán to the Paella Valenciana to the roast pork was amazing. I had him cater my next opening, and the tapas and red wine were a huge hit. My patrons were thrilled; the referrals Scott got made him delirious, so all in all, we were great together. It removed him permanently from the conquest column and firmly into the colleague one, but that was better for me. The men I slept with were a dime a dozen, utterly forgettable. A collaborator, and then friend, was much harder to come by.
At the moment, my best friend was squinting at me from across a table at Café du Monde. We never came here; it was too loud, too crowded, but sometimes he just had to have beignets, and since he’d vowed never to make them at his own restaurant, we schlepped over to the packed tourist trap and ordered some.
“You should break down and make these,” I offered before shoving one in my mouth, using my fingers to cram the doughy morsel in.
He chuckled. “Wow.”
I flashed him a powdered-sugar smile.
I gestured for him to listen.
“No, babe, not a chance. I am never making beignets. I don’t ever want to be compared to the original.”
“I ha beyah,” I said through the food in my mouth.
“We’ve all had better, and worse,” he agreed, translating me even with my mouth full. “But frankly, why bother? I need something else, some kind of fabulous dessert. I need some kind of wow factor that will make people remember the restaurant.”
I arched one eyebrow.
“You know what I mean. Everyone needs a signature something.”
He’d been trying out lots of different desserts in his search for what would be that “one thing” people ordered when they visited his place. So far he’d been unsuccessful.
“They have this coffee down to a science,” he said as we got up, leaving a ridiculous tip, something we always did. “You gotta admit.”
It was café au lait, and yes, it was good, but his café con leche was better because he swapped out the chicory I wasn’t crazy about for cinnamon. Before I tried it, I would have thought it would be too sweet for me, but really, it was soothing, like chamomile before bed. “I like yours better.”
He snorted out a laugh. “Don’t placate me, I can take it.”
“Oh no, g’head, assume I’m lying to you, that’s perfect.”
His grin was huge and changed his face so much that a few people around us did a quick double take. When Scott Wren smiled, he went from being just another guy you’d pass on the street to a movie star. He stood shorter than me, five nine to my six two, leaner with long sleek muscles under golden skin. His eyes glittered a gorgeous shade of silver-flecked gray, his lips curled wickedly, his dimples popped, his nose scrunched up—and you noticed not only that he was adorable, but breathtaking as well. All the beauty was topped off with a husky chuckle that made everyone who ever heard it want to follow him home.
Normally he was too dog-tired to care. Scott worked really hard every week, so when he was finally done on that sixth night, I would get a call to come get him since higher brain function was over and he needed me to feed and water him, then tuck him into bed.
Tonight was his Friday, even though it was actually Sunday, just after close. His place, the bungalow—all the signage in lowercase letters, dark brown on lighter tan—was closed every Monday. So when he walked out at midnight, two hours after closing, he’d stroll over to my place. It wasn’t far from his restaurant down on St. Peter to my gallery three doors down from the corner of Bienville and Royal close to the Hotel Monteleone.
Sometimes, like tonight, he’d call and tell me to meet him at his place, and I’d always warn him that since the bungalow was closed, I’d be tempted to stop at The Gumbo Shop on my way to meet him.
“I’ll cook at your place,” he promised. “The shrimp you like.”
He left the shrimp intact so I had to pull it apart and suck the juices out of the head, and served it in an almost-soup I had to dig into to get at. It was heaven in a bowl.
“Yeah, okay,” I said, salivating.
He chuckled. “Come get me. I need coffee and beignets to wake up, and I wanna walk through Jackson Square on the way home and check if that guy is there.”
Always there was a guy.
No one trusted faster, fell harder, or jumped into the deep end with more abandon than Scott. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he would give it to anyone. It made me absolutely crazy how easily someone became “the one”—but even worse was the inevitable pain when he was disappointed. Each and every time, he was surprised when people either walked out of his life, disappearing as though they were never there, or screwed him over big time. The last guy, Jason Daly, had actually emptied Scott’s bank account. Luckily, Scott had put my name on his business account six months ago so no one could take a cent, not even him, without my approval unless the funds were being transferred to a vendor. So while Jason got about two hundred dollars and change, the nineteen grand—there right after Scott did payroll and paid everyone else on the first of the month, from his webmaster to the cleaning crew, laundry service, produce, meat and fish, etc.—was safe. Scott hadn’t wanted to report it to the police, feeling ten kinds of lame, but I’d pushed and he’d filed a report. Jason was long gone when the police went by his place, which turned out to be another friend’s, but at least if he ever showed up again, I could call and have him arrested after I beat the shit out of him.
“I’m swearing off men,” Scott had promised me.
And yet, here we were, on our way to check out another guy. I had no idea where he got either the interest or the energy.
Crossing the street from Café du Monde, we walked along St. Ann, in Jackson Square, toward St. Louis Cathedral.
“So,” I began, “if your tarot card reader is out tonight, does that mean I’m not getting fed?”
“No,” he said quickly. “I’m going to invite him out another day. This is the time he’s at work, for crissakes.”
I nodded sagely, brows furrowed.
“Don’t be an ass.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
We passed many tarot card readers along the way, but he had no interest in them, instead searching for the one he’d made a so-called connection with. I couldn’t have cared less, instead focused on the warm spring air, not quite hot yet, only a bit sticky, the slight breeze making the walk with my friend truly enjoyable.
“God, he almost killed himself.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked after a moment, realizing he was talking to me.
Scott was grinning crazily. “Did you even notice that guy who nearly walked into a pillar because he was staring at you?”
He shook his head. “Man, if I looked like you, I’d clean up.”
I glowered at him.
“You know it’s true. That’s why you run every morning and why you lift weights and don’t own a car because you walk everywhere. Your body is important to you.”
“I own a motorcycle,” I corrected. “And I don’t own it because it’s good for cardio, as clearly it’s not, but because there’s room for me to park it in the alley on the side of my building. I can’t fit a car in there no matter how small it is.”
“Don’t get me started on the frickin’ cafe racer that—”
“It’s a Norton Commando 961 Cafe Racer and I saved up years to get it,” I stated flatly. “And don’t make me out to be some douche bag who only rides a bike to get laid.”
“I wasn’t,” he said, chuckling. “What I was trying to insinuate was that you’re a rich douche bag trying to get laid.”
“Oh fuck you.”
“You do own a whole building on the 300 block of Royal Street, Boone.”
“Which I bought with what little savings my mom had, and my own,” I reminded him. “I didn’t inherit it or come by it any way that was easy.”
He had no idea how I’d gotten the money needed to run away from Japan. After Haru died, I’d taken what was given to me and run.
“Yeah, but not only did you buy it, you had to renovate it, as well. The cost had to be astronomical.”
It had been. “What’s your point?”
“I don’t remember,” he teased.
“And as you recall, no one else wanted that building anyway. It was empty for years.”
“Because it’s expensive,” he retorted. “Which brings me back to my rich comment.”
“Yes and no,” I said, responding to the first part of his reply but not the last. “Buying it was one thing, but that place was a mess. It needed to be completely renovated.”
“Plus, it’s haunted,” he told me.
“Every building in New Orleans is haunted.”
“Something you wanna say?”
“Just the fact of the matter is that you had the money to make a go of your dream.”
I’d needed to get a new one after the old one died with the guy who had been my whole world. “If you want something bad enough to work only for it, anything is obtainable.”
“That’s true, I believe that.”
“And I saved a lot of money because I didn’t have to pay anyone else to fix up my place. I did it all myself.”
“I know,” he said, bumping me with his shoulder. “It took you three years to get it how you wanted. You did most of the work yourself. That’s why it’s so gorgeous. Everything you do is stunning. Look at my place.”
I had renovated the entire interior of his restaurant from installing the Spanish colonial revival tiled entryway to hanging the Turkish mosaic lamps. Both bathrooms were redone in vibrant Mexican tile with Talavera sinks; I removed an ugly drop ceiling and fake paneling to reveal vaulted wood-beamed ceilings and exposed brick walls, along with finding farmhouse-style reclaimed wood dining tables. The wall behind the bar—lit with soft blue to give off a dreamy glow at night—was now stacked to the ceiling with liquor bottles, a rolling ladder like in an old library hung to reach everything. I treated the concrete floor to look like Tuscan slate, which added to the overall feeling of warmth and a depth to the room.
It was cozy but not stifling—you could breathe in his restaurant and familiarity settled around you even if it was your first time through the door. Every review he got said the same thing: it was simply a place where you wanted to be. People loved being in his restaurant, and eating there was even better.
“Your place was easy to do,” I yawned.
“Oh? How so?”
I shrugged. “I just made it like you.”
He stepped in front of me so that I had to stop moving or walk into him.
“What?” I asked, stilling as I frowned slightly.
“How do you mean, you made it like me?”
“Bright, cheerful, warm,” I explained. “Like you.”
His smile was brilliant. “You say the nicest things, Boone.”
I groaned, stepping around him.
“And for the record, if I had your dimples or your ridiculous jawline or your gorgeous shoulders, I would get all the pretty boys.”
I processed his words. “Ridiculous?” I asked, not sure if I should take offense.
“Only superheroes have your bone structure, buddy.”
I nodded, patting his shoulder, placating him.
“Oh, there he is,” Scott announced, darting away from me, intent on the tarot card reader sitting close to the wrought iron fence, in one of two chairs normally deployed only at soccer games by parents cheering on eight-year-olds, a small table in front of him. The twenty-four-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbon can beside his chair was a nice touch.
I had no doubt some of the fortune-tellers were actually legitimate, and I had great respect for those few who had a gift. But come on… how gullible did Scott have to be?
As he flopped down into the chair in front of the guy, I walked down to the corner of St. Ann and Chartres, glancing over at Muriel’s for a moment.
It made sense to me why Anne Rice put her vampires in New Orleans; if I was one, the dark streets, deep shadows, and lonely alleyways were where I would hide out. I meandered, no clear destination in mind, just walking, stopping at one of the jewelry stores and peering in the window. All the sparkling things were there to catch my eye, but even though it appeared expensive, it couldn’t be. If they were real diamonds and rubies, they would be locked up in a vault for the evening. It occurred to me then that my best friend should be safe behind closed doors as well. Flirting with some guy he barely knew was not smart.
Jogging back to the corner, worried for some strange reason, I made it in time to find Scott standing now, talking to some new guy while the tarot card reader, still seated, was checking out his ass and giving the new arrival a thumbs-up behind Scott’s back. It was crass and obnoxious and right there, it sealed his fate. No one disrespected my boy in front of me.
“Scott!” I barked across the space, using my Tokyo subway voice, the one that used to carry over the noises from the trains and the milling crowds.
He jolted and spun around, searching for me.
“I’m hungry now.”
He lifted one finger to get me to wait.
“Fuck that!” I snarled as I charged over to the three men, brows furrowed, reaching them and grabbing his bicep, my hand closing around it as I jerked him up against me. “I waited, I did what you wanted, now let’s go.”
He smiled sheepishly at the two men, muttered some half-assed apology and a promise to catch them later, and then yanked his arm out of my grip and stalked away.
I pivoted to face the fortune-teller. “You see him coming again, you walk the other way or I’ll hire some guy to stand behind you all night, every night, and warn off anyone that comes near your table.”
“Aww man, you don’t hafta—”
“I do,” I assured him darkly. “And I will.”
He put up both hands. “Hey, I’m sorry, all right, I had no idea the sweet little chef was spoken for.”
My eyes flicked to his friend who took a step back, shoving his hands down hard into the pockets of his jeans.
“Come on, man, just go already. I promise not to say another word to him.”
I returned my attention to the fortune-teller.
“Neither one of us,” he said flatly. “I swear. You don’t hafta tell me twice.”
I waited, like I always did, like I’d been taught, letting the silence stretch so they both understood beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was capable of more than they knew. Before I went legitimate and became first a construction contractor and then a gallery owner, I had moved and fenced all kinds of merchandise, starting in Tokyo when I was still in my teens. I wasn’t proud of it, but at the time, right after my mother died when I was all alone, I’d had two choices, and the other one was moving drugs. I didn’t want to do that; I’d already lost too many friends to a variety of illegal substances, so I went the other way. It was no more aboveboard, but as shatei—little brother—my options were to work or be an enforcer. The prostitution was just as hard to deal with as the drugs, so I put myself directly in the line of fire instead of in the shadows behind someone else. I wasn’t proud of it, but it had been, for me, the least of all evils.
Now, with those days long behind me except for the tattoos on my body, I no longer needed to carry a gun. The most important part for the two losers in front of me was that I still walked like I was packing, and that combined with my height and build gave them the message loud and clear.
“We get it, man, hands off your boy. He’s invisible from here on out.”
Excellent. “Okay,” I growled, then turned and strode away.
I caught up with Scott after he passed the Court of the Two Sisters, and I was glad that even though he was moving really fast, very obviously pissed, he was walking toward my place and not his.
“Sorry,” I said as I slipped into step beside him and threw my arm around his shoulders, “but they were assholes.”
“They’re just guys, Boone, and I need to get laid,” he explained as we crossed Toulouse.
I would take care of that for him whenever he wanted.
“And I know you don’t need it like I do.”
How could one person be so wrong?
“But me—I need it.”
Taking a breath, calming my pounding heart, I tightened my hold to bring him in closer so I could smell his cologne, the lavender and burnt wood, and then the spices from his restaurant, nutmeg, pepper, all swirled together with the musk that was him alone.
“So the next time I meet a guy—”
“He’s gotta be nice,” I insisted, leaning into him and nuzzling my face into his thick, silky blond hair.
“Fine,” he grumbled, giving up any and all irritation, content as he always was once we were alone.
I shoved him away gently before I was tempted to veer off the street and down an alley to take him right there up against the side of a building. There was no doubt in my mind that we would fit together perfectly; already his head notched easily under my chin. I was sure his legs would feel amazing wrapped around my hips. It was really a terrible waste that he didn’t notice me at all and that I couldn’t make him see me without the worry of losing him. He was in and out of relationships at the drop of a hat, and by the time he broke it off with one and I had talked myself into going for it, there was a new guy to wait out. The end was inevitable, but my timing was crappy. Unless….
“I’m sorry I got pissed. I know you’re just being a good guy and watching out for me. I don’t know what I’d do without you as my guardian angel.”
“You’re the only one who’s always on my side.”
With Scott, it was better to keep him as my best friend than to try and turn him into the dream in my head. A couple of weeks of having him in my bed wasn’t worth missing him for a lifetime after he bailed. At least, that was what I told myself.
“Okay,” he sighed, as we fell into step again, side by side. “Since I apparently can’t pick for crap, you need to find a good guy for me, all right?”
“I certainly will,” I promised.