The pilot waited for permission to land at New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport and circled the private jet around the city while Rachel and her guest sipped champagne.
Rachel peered out of the cabin window. Shiny skyscrapers and interconnected freeways looked like a child’s simplification of Chicago. A large, white-domed stadium sprouting from the edge of town resembled a mushroom. She tried to dismiss the oddity, but its presence made her wonder if the city had sprung from the surrounding swampland like a fully formed carnival ride.
In all the times she’d visited New Orleans on behalf of The Square, she’d stayed in luxury hotels and eaten in gourmet restaurants, but she’d never looked past the city’s potholed streets and considered who lived beyond the streetlights.
From her vantage point, she examined the landscape surrounding the metropolis. Inland lakes reflected late afternoon sunlight, cypress trees studded marshland and expansive cemeteries competed with suburban sprawl.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Grace Anne rested her chin in her hand and stared out of the window at her hometown. “When does Bourbon Street open?”
Rachel laughed. “Bourbon Street is the last place I want to go. You said St. James Parish had enough moss and oak trees to hide me.”
Grace Anne turned and made eye contact. She wore a sleeveless dress and full eye makeup, but flawless skin clearly made her makeup optional. “It does. I promise you’ll be safe in my hometown.”
Believing her, Rachel nodded and recalled what had brought her to Louisiana four days before Christmas. After another violent fight with Ricky, she’d called the police on her asshole boyfriend and taken refuge at the crowded police station. When the responding officer had told her to get out of town and file for a restraining order, she’d taken his advice, but she’d also panicked. Where could she go until Ricky accepted the separation?
A good chunk of the world knew her as the face of The Square, a female empowerment network. She had considered calling celebrity friends with robust security details, but she didn’t want to jeopardize their holiday plans. Plus, Ricky was a financial genius, and he had friends in high places, too.
Then Grace Anne had stepped into the station wearing a full-length fur coat and heels. Despite the windy city’s biting cold, nobody in Chicago under the age of eighty still wore fur. Millennials might turn a blind eye toward Grandma’s Christmas Mass proclivities, but the woman in the police station was a long way from receiving her Social Security benefits. To add insult to injury, Grace Anne let the luxurious fur coat swirl around her ankles like she’d been born to wear it.
Rachel had stared and tried to determine if the coat was vintage, but she had bigger problems on her hands, and she had looked away to avoid being rude.
“Hey! Which one are you? Rachel or Cookie?” Grace Anne had dropped into the seat beside her. “I can’t believe this is my first chance to meet you! I love The Square.”
“Rachel.” She offered her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Gosh! Your hands are freezing!” Grace Anne rubbed them between hers. “What are you in for? Grand theft?”
The preposterous question had pulled a genuine laugh from Rachel. Then she had remembered her situation and lost control of her tears. Twenty minutes later, her new, fur-wearing acquaintance, Grace Anne, had invited her to rural Louisiana to celebrate the Christmas holidays.
Rachel had jumped at the chance and knocked over a chair. In addition to her furs and warm hands, she’d discovered Grace Anne was a canny lawyer who knew exactly what she was getting herself into. She’d arrived at the station working a pro bono case, and she’d left with a grateful, lifelong friend.
Twelve hours later, Rachel shifted in the private jet’s seat and wondered if decamping to the swamp had been her best call.
Grace Anne had promised the weather could be fickle but the people were genuine. If the mornings were cool, the days would warm up and feel downright tropical. If a hard freeze settled in, homeowners would wrap their tropical plants in tarps and Christmas lights. At the first sight of snow, highway patrol would pass judgment on the state’s reasonability and perhaps close down the entire interstate.
Rachel had laughed at the thought, but the jokes made her consider if Grace Anne was serious about letting her hide out. In a dogfight, she might cut and run.
Rachel would fight until the end.
Resolving to make the best of her decision, she stretched out her legs. Private jets offered legroom, but they also offered on-demand service, anonymity and cloaked bookings. Ricky would have a hard time tracking her. “Besides, doesn’t Bourbon smell like stale pee and cigarette smoke?”
“If you’re lucky.” Grace Anne toyed with the end of her long, glossy ponytail. “Most nights on Bourbon, you forget the smells until you’re hungry.” She looked up. “Once that gnawing ache hits, every fried oyster and greasy pizza slice smells like heaven.”
Smiling, Rachel wished late-night hunger was her only concern, but she knew the crowded party street would be off limits. “I appreciate what you’re doing for me.”
Grace Anne picked up her champagne flute. “So far, you’ve excised me from the security line at O’Hare, plied me with canapés and drowned me with champagne.” She polished off the glass. “Who’s doing who a favor?”
Rachel toyed with the audiovisual controller. “Tell me more about St. James Parish. Besides a quick search, I know more about the pilot than I know about my destination.”
“Oh, you’ll love it.” Grace Anne leaned forward. “After the Louisiana Purchase, a bunch of old men wearing wigs established the parish along the same lines the Spanish had used during the 18th-century. Little surprise their descendants are drag queens.”
Covering her mouth, Rachel tried not to laugh.
“The parish is just about the smallest and cutest of Louisiana’s sixty-four parishes, and few things have changed. The Mississippi River sustains strong agricultural and industrial ventures, people know their neighbors and most folks born in the parish are inclined to stay.”
“But you left,” Rachel said.
Grace Anne waved her hand. “Men.”
Rachel nodded. Her rescuer’s empathy made more sense. “Did your ex stay in St. James Parish?”
“My ex?” Grace Anne laughed, raised her empty glass, and frowned. “No, I’m talking about my big brother, Andreas. He thinks he knows everything—and sometimes he does—but a woman needs space to flex her wings. Space was the last thing Andreas could give me. You want to talk about hard-headed, opinionated men?” She wrinkled her nose and set aside the empty glass. “Well, never mind. You’ll meet him.”
If Grace Anne brought this much passion to her defense cases, Rachel felt bad for the prosecution, but she was grateful to have found an ally.
“Cleared for landing,” the pilot said. “Sorry about the delay. Lakefront is the preferred choice for NOLA’s private jets, but the little field sees more traffic than usual over the holidays. Did you know the fields served as the city’s original aviation hub? This place was the bees knees until Moisant Field opened.”
“I think he means Louis Armstrong International,” Grace Anne said.
Rachel glanced at the art deco terminal building on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. Sure enough, a line of private jets taxied toward the hangers. She hired people with passion, and the pilot’s enthusiasm for aviation history confirmed he’d been a good choice. Also, he had an uncanny knack for avoiding turbulence. “I think you’re right.”
When the plane touched down, she and Grace Anne deplaned. Despite the season, New Orleans’ humidity felt like walking into a steam shower. Her silk blouse had been a poor choice, and she understood more clearly why Grace Anne had skipped her foundation. Shaking her head, she followed an airport liaison toward the terminal building and wondered what else about the visit would surprise her.
Inside the structure, the 1930s building looked brand new. Light blue tiles, terrazzo floors and decorative railings gleamed. In the center of the terminal, black and white photographs showcased the airport’s past. Amelia Earhart had stayed in the airport’s VIP suites on her way to California to launch her final flight. Spectators had watched air races from the terminal’s rooftop observation deck. Spanish-American artist Xavier Gonzalez had clung to scaffolding to paint the atrium’s second-floor balconies. Rachel turned in a circle and took in the unexpected site. “This airport is beautiful.”
“Thank Katrina and FEMA for the restoration.” Grace Anne laughed and headed straight for the gift shop. Her steps meandered across the terrazzo floor, but she made her way there.
Rachel hoped she would buy a few salty snacks to go with her bottled water. Judging by the amount of champagne she had consumed, she would need them. Powering up the new phone she’d purchased after leaving the Chicago police station, she texted Cookie to confirm her safe arrival and checked on the status of her hired car.
Rachel, where are you?
I’m not sure, but when I get settled in, I’ll let you know.
You’re not sure?
Rachel sent a shrugging emoji and closed the chat app.
A woman wearing a gray suit with Riverside Limousine embroidered over the breast pocket walked up. “Ms. Grace Anne Tregre?”
Adjusting the purse hanging from her shoulder, Rachel nodded. “Ms. Tregre went to get a bottle of water, but you found the right people. Our luggage?”
“We’ll get it loaded,” the driver said.
Grace Anne returned clutching a bag of popcorn and a large bottle of water. “You ordered us a car?”
Throwing an arm around her new friend’s shoulder, Rachel dropped her voice. “Did you want to drive?”
Grace Anne hiccupped.
“Right, and I have no idea where I’m going. Can you give the lady your address?”
“New Magnolia General Store on River Road, between Gramercy and Lutcher.” Grace Anne leaned close. “You smell good.”
“Don’t you have a street address?” Rachel asked.
Grace Anne yawned. “She’ll find it.”
The driver pursed her lips. “Tell Ms. Tregre if she pukes in the car, I’m charging her extra to clean it.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Rachel bit back a smile, supported Grace Anne’s weight6
and followed the driver to the idling, black car.
As night fell, Rachel let the driver navigate their exit from New Orleans along I-10. Cars swerved between vaguely marked lanes like turn signals had never arrived in the Big Easy. The driver honked and swore in return, but she navigated the field and directed the car out of the city.
Sprawling, blinking refineries lined the Mississippi river, and Rachel felt the waterway’s dark, mysterious presence. Ensconced in the back of the car with Grace Anne sleeping off her indulgences, she wondered how different her life would be if she and Cookie hadn’t made their women-centic enterprise into a multi-million-dollar reality.
The Square was a growing, subscription-based online space that hosted women-based content from across the world. Rachel and Cookie served as moderators and hosts, but they hand-selected content, and the programming shone. Their media empire inspired and encouraged women to have deeper, more meaningful relationships. Each week, they invited their audience to dive into the subjects that interested them and to build connections in the world around them.
As the driver navigated a two-lane, rural road, Rachel debated whether she could find a way to manage Ricky’s outbursts, but far from her comfort zone, she admitted the relationship was a failure. If any one of her subscribers had called in to report a similar relationship, she would tell the caller to kick Ricky to the curb and move on.
Instead, Rachel had hoped the sweet, goofy man who’d swept her off her feet with fancy dinners in Chicago’s finest restaurants would return. That man had slowly become a memory. After her miscarriage, he’d put marriage discussions on hold. She’d known she should move on, but she cast him as a frustrated genius. For months, she’d feared starting over. The night she’d summoned the courage to leave, he’d shown his true colors, and she’d fled to the police station.
The driver stopped the car on a gravel pull out. “We’re here.”
Rachel peered out of the car window. Floodlights lit a two-story, white wooden building with a wide porch, a jutting annex and a pitched roof. A painted sign hung between two columns proclaiming the building the New Magnolia General Store. True to Grace Anne’s word, moss hung from wide oak trees surrounding the entrance, and moths fluttered beneath the bright lights. “How old is this place?”
Grace Anne pulled down her skirt and yawned. “Close to one hundred and sixty years.”
During the ride along the river, the Chicago lawyer’s inelegant sprawl had revealed a penchant for lace briefs. Rachel had laughed off the reveal and pondered what had possessed Grace Anne to go out on a limb for a stranger, but every woman had her quirks. The Square encouraged its subscribers to embrace new opportunities, and as long as Grace Anne remained upright, Rachel could follow her own advice. “And it’s still a general store?”
Yawning, Grace Anne nodded. “And a butcher.”
“Convenient.” Rachel’s stomach rumbled.
“Isn’t it?” Swinging open the door, Grace Anne climbed out and lost her footing on the gravel.
At the last minute, Rachel grabbed her dress and hoped the fabric held. Letting her savior fall face first into floodlit gravel wouldn’t earn her an extended invitation.
Turning, Grace Anne gripped the doorframe. “Thanks.”
“Anytime.” Rachel meant her pledge. If Grace Anne’s family could shelter her from Ricky’s violent outbursts, her relatives deserved respect and admiration. Most strangers in Chicago would report her location for a healthy bribe, but the general store looked like it had plenty of fresh paint. Red bows graced the columns, and a Christmas tree sparkled from the front window.
Releasing Grace Anne, she climbed from the car, smoothed her silk blouse and met the driver’s gaze. “Bring the bags up to the porch.”
“Sure thing.” The driver popped the sedan’s trunk and pulled out their luggage. “I hope Ms. Tregre’s sober enough to leave me a good tip—or would that be you?”
Giggling, Grace Anne took Rachel’s arm. “You have to stop acting like the boss. Remember… You’re incognito.”
Her last word sounded like the name of an exotic lizard, but judging by the size of the moths buzzing the general store lights, geckos were the least of Rachel’s worries. Alligators and black bears packed a more worrisome punch, but she could cope with wildlife and disgruntled drivers. Pulling out her phone, she left a hefty tip on the car app and pulled Grace Anne toward the general store. “Thanks for the reminder.”
The black shadow of a man stepped away from a porch column.
Rachel dropped Grace Anne’s arm and screamed. Panic flooded her adrenaline system, and every moss-draped form surrounding the store looked like it sheltered a hit squad. If Ricky could find her this quickly, she would never be able to hide from him. Pivoting, she considered sheltering in the car. The driver might peel out and leave her defenseless. Panicking, she froze and broke out in a sweat.
“Come here, you big ass hat!” Grace Anne threw her arms wide. Falling forward, she wrapped her arms around the man’s neck and planted a wet kiss on his cheek. “Did you miss me?”
Mouth agape, Rachel stared and tried to pull herself together. Deep breaths slowed her heartbeat, and the ringing in her ears subsided to a dull buzz. Sweat trickled down her back, and she knew she had no chance in hell of saving herself from Ricky. In a panic, she’d frozen. Maybe she should have stayed at the police station.
The looming man, cast in shadow by the floodlights, pulled away from Grace Anne. “Are you drunk, little sister?”
“Oh!” Grace Anne tipped back her head, and her ponytail grazed her butt. “Andreas, the champagne was so good.” Laughing, she gasped and covered her mouth. “I mean the wine was so good. Our flight attendant comp’d us a few drinks.”
“Really?” he asked.
She patted his chest and hiccupped. “You should be nicer to people, Andreas. Good things happen to nice people.”
Looking past Grace Anne’s shoulder, he stared. “And you are?”
Rachel cleared her throat. Remembering Grace Anne’s admonishment to tone down her boss vibe, she clutched her hands in front of her pants and shrugged. “My family bailed on our Christmas plans, and Grace Anne invited me to spend the week with your family. I hope you don’t mind.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Oh.” She hadn’t brainstormed this conversation. Maybe she could be Lola or—she scratched her head—Sarah Cherry? Didn’t Southerners have a thing for double names? She was terrible at deception, but her empathy had made her successful in Chicago.
After the Chicago police officer had filed his report, she and Grace Anne had gone to the courthouse to request an emergency order of protection. The clerk had given Rachel the forms and recommended that she work with a domestic violence legal advocate. The entire time Rachel had filled out the forms, she’d cried.
Grace Anne had encouraged her to use descriptive language.
Each time Rachel had written words like ‘slapping’ and ‘choking’, her hand had shaken. She never thought she would be in this position, but she’d persevered. If Ricky fought the restraining order in court, she would need a plan B, but right now she needed a backstory.
“Leave her alone, Andreas. She’s a friend from my apartment building. She’s a burned-out writer, and she doesn’t need shit from you or anyone else. Just go help the driver with the bags, all right?”
Andreas pulled Grace Anne to his side, sniffed her hair and made a face. Cocking his head, he examined Rachel. “Are you drunk, too?”
She swallowed. Was he a teetotaler? Had she landed so far south of Oz that she needed a roadmap to interact with the locals? Maybe Andreas would take pity on their dying buzzes and let them to go to bed without further inquisition. She shifted her weight and bent her knees. “Kind of. I also, really, really need to pee.”
“Oh my God, me, too!” Grace Anne pulled away from Andreas. “Like, right now!”
“Shit!” Andreas strode toward the car. “No wonder I asked for a little brother.”
Laughing, Grace Anne grabbed Rachel’s hand, linked fingers and swung their entwined hands like schoolyard friends. “Just hold it a second, huh? We’re almost inside. I have the biggest bed in the house, but the guest room has a decent bed and a claw-foot tub. It’s upstairs, but you only have to make it into the store. Just don’t pee on the lawn.”
“And don’t pee on my floors!” Andreas’s voice cut through the night. “I’m not a maid.”
Rachel tried not to laugh. She needed her host in a good mood, and marking his territory was the last thing she wanted to do. As long as the New Magnolia General Store stocked junk food and accepted cash, she could fill her stomach, displace her fear and face down this bear of a man in broad daylight. She raised her hand in acknowledgement.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Andreas said from the gravel parking area.
She looked over her shoulder. With the store lights at her back, she caught her first glimpse of him. He had Grace Anne’s tanned, smooth complexion, but sunlight had darkened his skin to a swarthy glow. A five-o’clock shadow blurred his strong jawline and softened the evening shadows. Where Grace Anne’s hair hung long and straight, his hair curled around his face in a riot of windswept trouble.
He took both suitcases from the driver and balanced the weight.
If stocking a general store created broad shoulders, toned arms and a narrow waist, CrossFit should watch its back. She swallowed her original lies and offered an olive branch in exchange for his hospitality. “My name’s Rachel.”
“And are you hungry, Rachel?” he asked. “My sister can eat a horse.”
Feeling caught in a trap, she shook her head. “We ate on the plane.”
“It was delicious!” Grace Anne tugged her up the wide steps. “You should try the canapés! I ate my weight in them.”
Feigning ignorance, Rachel shrugged and fell into step with her buzzing savior. She’d said she needed to pee, and standing on the steps admiring Grace Anne’s asshole brother should be the last thing on her mind. The store looked cute, and who would image she would decamp to this part of the country for Christmas break?
As long as she kept her wits about her, she could survive in St. James Parish and reward Grace Anne and Andreas with the trip of a lifetime. If Ricky found her first, well, her life might come to an end before she could express her thanks. Shuddering, she slipped past the general store’s sparkling Christmas tree and disappeared into the building’s shadows.