Excerpt: Blue Bayou

Book 1 : The Callahan Brothers

Blue Bayou (Callahan Brother Series) by JoAnn Ross

Chapter One

The sky was darkening, the only visible light a band of purple clouds low on the western horizon. Dani had forgotten how quickly night came to the bayou. As she steered the rented boat through the maze-like labyrinth of waterways, fireflies lit up the waning twilight while nutria and muskrats paddled along, furry shadows in waters as dark and murky as Cajun coffee.

Bullfrogs began to croak; cicadas buzzed; blue herons glided among the ancient cypress which stood like silent, moss-bearded sentinels over their watery world.

The boat’s light barely cut through the warm mist falling from low-hanging clouds; when the ridged and knobby head of an alligator appeared in the stuttering glow, looking like a wet brown rock amidst the lily pads, Dani’s nerves, which were already as tattered as a Confederate soldier’s gray uniform, screeched.

“This is nuts.”

If she had any sense at all, she’d cut her losses now and return to town. But she’d already come this far, and unless both her internal homing device and the boat’s G.P.S. system had gone entirely on the blink, she couldn’t be that far from Beau Soleil.

She checked her watch. Despite the way the isolation and deepening shadows had seemed to slow time, she’d been out on the water for less than half an hour.

“Five more minutes,” she decided. If she hadn’t reached Beau Soleil by then, she’d turn back.

A moment later she came around a corner, and there, right in front of her, was the Greek Revival antebellum mansion. Dani was glad she’d undertaken the nerve-racking trip tonight; as bad as the plantation house appeared, it would have been far worse to first see it again after all these years in the hard, unforgiving glare of southern sunlight.

The double front entrance harkened back to a time when if a suitor happened to catch a glimpse of a girl’s ankles, he was duty bound to marry her. In a typically southern blend of practicality and romance, the house had been designed with dual sets of front steps – one for hoop-skirted belles, the other for gentlemen escorts. The ladies’ staircase had crumbled nearly to dust; the other was scarcely better, held up as it was with a complex design of erector-set-style metal braces.

Beau Soleil had survived being set on fire by the British in the War of 1812, cannonballed, then occupied by Yankee soldiers – and their horses – during the War Between the States. It had also stalwartly stood up to numerous hurricanes over its more than two centuries. Seeing the once noble plantation house looking like an aging whore from some seedy south Louisiana brothel made Dani want to weep.

It had belatedly dawned on her, after she’d left town, that her plan to catch Jack unaware could backfire if she came all the way out here only to find the house dark and deserted. But she’d been so frustrated that she’d acted without really thinking things through.

The light in the upstairs windows of the once stately house was an encouraging sign and she eased the boat up to the dock that was still, thankfully, standing. It appeared to be the same dock her father had paid Jack to build the summer of her seventeenth birthday, the summer her carefree, youthful world had spun out of control.

With a long-ago learned skill some distant part of her mind had retained, she tied up the boat behind an old pirogue and then studied the house. Amazingly, most of the centuries-old oak trees had survived time and the ravages of storms; silvery Spanish moss draped over their limbs like discarded feather boas left behind by ghostly belles.

She lifted her gaze to a darkened window on the second floor and envisioned the reckless teenager she’d once been, climbing out that window to meet her lover. Her skin, beneath her white T-shirt, burned with the memory of Jack’s dark, work-roughened fingers encircling her waist to lift her down from that last low-hanging limb.

“A smart fille like yourself should know better than to sneak up on someone at night in this part of the country,” a deep, painfully familiar voice offered from the blackness surrounding her.

Dani yelped. Then hated herself for displaying any weakness. Splaying a palm against her chest to slow her tripping heart, she turned slowly toward the gallerie .

He was hidden in the shadows, like a ghost from the past, with only the red flare of a cigarette revealing his location.

“You could have said something. Instead of scaring me half to death.”

“If I figured you and I had anything to say to each other, I would have returned your calls.” His voice was even huskier than Dani remembered. Huskier and decidedly uninviting.

“So you did get my messages.”

“Yeah. I got ’em.” Although night had dropped over the bayou, there was enough light shining from the windows of Beau Soleil for her to see him. He was wearing a gray Ragin’ Cajun T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, a pair of jeans worn nearly to the point of indecency and cowboy boots. He was rugged, rangy, and, dammit, still as sexy as hell.

“But you chose to ignore them.”

He took a swig from a longneck bottle of Dixie beer. “Yeah.”

Well, this was going well. “I happen to know your mother taught you better manners.”

“I was never known for my manners. Drove Maman nuts.”

That was certainly true. He’d been known throughout the bayou as Bad Jack Callahan. A devil in blue jeans with the face of a fallen angel.

“I was sorry when she died.”

Unlike so many of the large sprawling Catholic families who made the bayou their home, Dani had no brothers of sisters, nieces or nephews, aunts, uncles, or cousins. After her mother had abandoned them before Dani’s second birthday (subsequently dying two years later), there had only been her and her father, and while single fathers may have been a staple on television, her own had left her upbringing to a revolving parade of housekeepers.

And then had come that fateful day when, after the shooting that had tragically claimed her husband’s life, Marie Callahan had shown up at the house, her three teenage sons in tow. Marie had quickly stepped into the role of surrogate mother; she’d baked Dani birthday cakes, taken her shopping for her first box of tampons, and soothed her wounded pride when an attack of nerves had her failing her driver’s test the first time.

Of course, Marie had also sided with her employer against the two teenagers that bittersweet summer that still, after all these years, lingered in Dani’s mind like a dream remembered upon awakening.

When she’d died, too young, of breast cancer, Dani had swallowed her pride and sent Jack a handwritten note of sympathy. He never responded. Nor did he return home for his mother’s funeral, something that surprised even his most stalwart detractors, who reluctantly admitted that despite his wild devilish ways, Jack Callahan had always been good to his maman.

“Yeah. I was damn sorry, too.” He sighed heavily as he flicked away the cigarette, which flared in a sparkling orange arc that sizzle then snuffed out when it hit the water.

After polishing off the beer, he tossed the bottle aside, pushed himself to his feet, and came down the stairs, crunching across the gleaming oyster-shell walk on the loose -hipped, masculine stride that had always reminded Dani of a swamp panther.

Now, as he loomed out of the blackened shadows, his tawny gold predator’s eyes gleaming, the resemblance was a bit too close for comfort.

He’d always been outrageously handsome, and the years hadn’t changed that. But time had carved away deep in his heart. His full sensual lips were drawn into a forbidding line, and a savage slash of cheekbones harshly hewn than they’d been when he was younger.

His hair appeared nearly as long as hers and glistened darkly with moisture. It flowed back from his strong forehead and was tied at the nape of his neck in a way that made her think of the pirates who used to escape to Blue Bayou after raiding Spanish merchant ships in the Gulf. Taking in the surprising gold earring he hadn’t owned when she’d known him last, Dani decided that all he was missing was the cutlass.

Dangerous was the first word that sprang to mind. Maybe Bad Jack Callahan himself didn’t present any danger to her, but the unbidden feelings he’d always been able to stir in her certainly could be.

“You shouldn’t have come here, Danielle,” he said bluntly.

He’d said those same words to her once before. Warning her off. Dani hadn’t listened then, nor could she now.

“You didn’t give me any choice, hiding away out here in the swamp like some mad hermit trapper.”

He didn’t respond to her accusation. Just gave her a long, deep look. Then grazed his knuckles up her cheek. “You’re bleeding.”

Her skin heated, as if he’d skimmed a candle flame up it. Dani took a cautious step back, lifted her own fingers to the cheek she belatedly realized was stinging and had to remind herself how to breathe.

In.

“It’s undoubtedly just a scratch from a tree limb.”

Out.

“This isn’t the easiest place to get to, with the road gone.”

In again.

“Flooding from last season’s hurricane wiped out the road,” he revealed. “Since the place was already crumblin’, the parish commissioners didn’t see any reason to spend public funds to rebuild a road to make it easier to get to some place no one wanted go anyway.”

“Which, from what I hear, suits you just fine. I suppose you would have been happier if I’d gotten lost coming out here.”

“Hell, no, I wouldn’t have wanted you to get lost.” He blew a frustrated breath between his teeth. “I’m paying to have the road graded, since I’ve decided it’s got to be cheaper than continuing to brings things in by water. If you’d only waited another week, you could have avoided the boat trip,”

“I couldn’t wait that long.”

“Sa c’est fou.”

“I’ve done crazier things.”

A rough, humorless sound rumbled out of his broad chest. “I sure as hell won’t be arguin’ with that, chérie .”

Dani was not foolish enough to take the endearment to heart. Hadn’t she heard him call his old bluetick hound the very same thing?

“We were both damn crazy that summer,” he mused aloud, with something that surprisingly sounded a bit like regret.

Jack was the one who’d deserted her . If he’d regretted his behavior, he could have called. Or written. Instead, he’d disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving her to face the consequences of their reckless romance alone.

“I’m not here to talk about that summer.”

His eyes, which seemed to soften a bit with remembered affection, shuttered, like hurricane shutters slammed tight before a storm. “Then why are you here?”

Good question. If it’d been only herself, she would have slept on the street rather than come crawling to Jack for anything. But she had Matt to think of. An innocent little boy who needed a roof over his head.

There was nothing Dani would not do for her son, including winding her way through inky-black bayou waters risking gators and heaven knows how many different kinds of snakes to beg this man for help.

“You seem to have hired every available construction worker from here to Baton Rouge.”

“As impossible as it may be for you to fathom, sugar, this place is even worse structurally than it looks. It’s a smorgasbord for termites, half the roof blew away in the last storm, the plumbing’s flat rusted through, and what the inspector laughingly referred to as an electrical system is a bonfire waiting to happen.

“I could hire every damn construction worker from Lafayette to New Orleans and probably still not have a large enough crew to finish the work in this lifetime.”

“Perhaps you ought to just build a new house that won’t give you so many problems,” she suggested with openly false sweetness.

“And let the bayou reclaim Beau Soleil? Not on your life.”

The force in his tone surprised Dani. “I never realized you felt so strongly about it.”

He rocked back on his heels as he looked up at the once magnificent house draped in deep purple shadows. For a fleeting second his tawny eyes looked a hundred years old.

“Neither did I.”

“Well.” That unexpected bit of honesty left Dani at a momentary loss for words. She reminded herself of her mission. “I need a carpenter, Jack. And I need him now.”

He gave her another of those long unfathomable, brooding looks. Then shrugged again. “I don’ know about you, but I skipped lunch today to meet with a pirate who calls himself a septic tank engineer and I’m starving.’

“There’s some chicken in the smoker, and after we take care of that scratch on your face, you can peel the shrimp while I make the roux. Then we can pass ourselves a good time over some gumbo and jambalaya and see if we can come up with a way for both of us to get what we want.”

Determined to settle her business, Dani forced down her concern about getting back to town. Marie Callahan had once told her that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. At the time, since she’d been sleeping with Marie’s son, Dani had known–and kept to herself–the fact that Jack’s other hungers had held first priority.

Still, perhaps he might be more amenable to negotiation after a good meal. Even on he’d cooked himself.

“That sounds like a reasonable enough solution.”

A waning white moon was rising in the sky as they walked in silence toward the house, the bayou water lapping against the raised narrow pathway. Dani had just about decided that the rumors she’d heard of Jack as a dark and crazy swamp devil, living out here like the fabled Loup Garou , were merely gossip, when he suddenly crouched down and plunged his hand into the inky water.

The violent splash sent a flock of ducks who’d been sleeping in the nearby reeds exploding into the sky, firing the night with a dazzling shower of falling stars.

” Bon Dieu ,” he murmured. “I’ve never seen the ghost fire so bright.” He brought up a broad, long-fingered hand that glowed with phosphorescence in the purple velvet dark surrounding them. Sparks seemed to fall back into the water as he stood up again. “You still set the bayou on fire , mon ange .”

His feral gold eyes drifted down to her lips and lingered wickedly for what seemed like an eternity, as if he were remembering the taste and feel of them.

He moved closer. Too close. But if she tried to back away, she’d risk falling into the water.

“I’m not your angel,” she insisted, even as erotic pictures of them rolling around on a moss-stuffed mattress flashed through her mind, making her breasts feel heavy beneath the white T-shirt that had been pristine when she’d begun her long, frustrating day but was now clinging damply to her body.

Although it had to be at least ninety degrees, with a humidity equally high, her nipples pebbled as if she’d dived naked into the Arctic Ocean. She dearly hoped it was dark enough for him not to notice.

It wasn’t. “You can lie to me, sugar. You can try to lie to yourself. But your pretty angel’s body is saying something else. It remembers, she. The same way mine does.”

Dani managed, with Herculean effort, to drag her gaze from his, but couldn’t resist skimming a look over his broad chest and still-flat stomach, down to where his erection was swelling against the faded placket of his jeans.

“See something you like, chère?”

Heat flooded into her face. “You know how it is,” she said breezily. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It is comforting to discover that not everything around Blue Bayou has changed. You still have sex on the mind.”

“Mais yeah,” he countered without an iota of apology. His wicked eyes glittered with predatory intent as they took a blatantly male appraisal from the top of her head down to her sneaker-clad feet. Then just as leisurely roamed back up to her face. “The day I stop reacting to a desirable female is the day I tie some weights around my neck and throw myself in the bayou as gator bait.”

Dani was no longer a virginal Catholic girl experiencing sexual desire for the first time. She was a grown woman who, in the years since she’d left home, had overcome a broken heart, married, given birth to a son she adored, and, if it hadn’t been for that wayward piano, would have been the first divorcee in Dupree family history.

This bayou bad boy leering at her should not make her stomach flutter and her pulse skip.

It shouldn’t.

But, heaven help her, it did.

As they resumed walking toward Beau Soleil, she vowed not to let Jack’s still powerful sexual magnetism turn her into some fluttery, vapid southern belle who’d swoon at his feet. Or any other part of his anatomy.

But when he put a casual, damp hand on her hip to steady her as she climbed up the braced stairway to the gallerie, Dani feared that if she wasn’t very, very careful, she could discover exactly how dangerous supping with Blue Bayou’s very own home-grown devil could be.