Feeling like an idiot, Tucker drove. The Porsche was as zippy and responsive ever, but Tucker's hands on the wheel were tight with tension, and he barely noticed where he was going or what he was doing. His mind turned somersaults over the thing with Tinsley Stewart. She was delectable, yes. But he had met delectable women before. He had done more than just "met" delectable women. And he had never felt this way. He felt, honestly, bewitched.
He was being ridiculous. Tinsley was right. It was just attraction. Tucker had been in a vulnerable state all the times he'd been subjected to her beauty: jet-lagged at Pat O'Brien's, drunk when he'd stumbled into the bedroom, hungover this morning. Surely that was the reason his responses to her were heightened. He was being silly to think it was anything more than that. Surely it wasn't anything so fabled as love at first sight. And surely love at first sight did not feel like this.
So, yes, it was just that he was attracted to her. He didn't have to act on the attraction. He could just avoid her. He could fix the heat, and she would go back to her floor, and everything would be fine. He would lay awake at night thinking of her sleeping above him. Yeah, everything was going to be fine.
Calm down, he told himself, severely. He was running away with himself. He turned the Porsche toward the French Quarter and parked in Reid's courtyard, then walked to the nearest restaurant and ordered himself a bloody Mary. The bloody Mary did make him feel better, and he ordered an omelet to go with it. Tinsley's omelet had had his mouth watering that morning, even with his stomach unsettled.
Or, possibly, he admitted to himself, it had been Tinsley that had had his mouth watering, and food had been completely out of the equation.
He ordered another bloody Mary while waiting for his omelet when Reid sat next to him, yawning. "Hey," he said.
Tucker looked at him in surprise. "Hi. How'd you know I was here?"
"Saw your car. Thought you wouldn't go very far. Why didn't you stop and tell me you were out and about?" Reid gestured at the waiter.
Reid glanced at him in surprise. "You didn't want company," he realized.
"No, it's fine," said Tucker, staunchly. "I think I need some company." Tucker nodded toward the waiter who had shown up. "Order."
"Bloody Mary," said Reid. "And the Creole French toast." Reid looked back at Tucker frankly. "So what's up with you? You're looking under the weather."
Tucker frowned. "Still? I feel lots better."
"Better?" Reid lifted his eyebrows. "You were worse than this?"
"Briefly. It was a bad oyster at Antoine's."
Reid drew his eyebrows together now in astonishment. "Were you hungover?"
"I'm having a bad morning," said Tucker.
"Can't possibly be worse than mine."
Tucker snorted, but sipped his drink instead of saying anything.
"Angelica and I had a roaring fight," Reid sighed, thanking the waiter as he delivered the bloody Mary.
"I may have said somebody else's name during sex," Reid admitted, sheepishly, into his drink.
"Oh, Reid." Tucker shook his head. "Such a mundane problem." Tucker took a sip of his drink. "I think I've had a voodoo spell cast on me."
Reid laughed. "Sure you do."
"Not joking," said Tucker.
The smile faded off Reid's face. "What the hell. You were hungover, you're babbling about voodoo. What have you done with Tucker Trenier?"
"I'm telling you, I'm having a bad morning."
"Tell me about this spell. Does it involve bloody chickens?"
"I don't know how the spell was actually cast. I'm just saying that I'm trapped in it now. The blonde from the bar."
"Oh, yes, she was a sorceress if ever I saw one."
"She's my tenant, Reid."
"What are you talking about? You don't have a tenant."
The waiter set the omelet down in front of Tucker. Tucker stared at Reid. "Yes, I have a tenant! You remember how my mother threw the fit when she got to Paris about the house being empty so I told her I'd rent that ridiculous apartment she'd furnished for me on the second floor. She drops off the rent checks at your office every month."
"Oh," Reid recalled. "Of course."
Tucker, shaking his head, took a bite of his omelet. "Oh, and Tinsley says she has no heat. Why didn't you tell me that?"
"I didn't know she had no heat."
"She says she told you."
"Tucker, I've never met her. Don't you think if I'd met your tenant, I would have recognized her at Pat O'Brien's last night? She isn't the sort of woman you forget."
"Well," Tucker allowed, taking another bite of the omelet, "she probably told that receptionist of yours. The one who didn't seem to believe my name was Tucker."
"I'm constantly behind on my appointments. She gets annoyed when non-patients throw me off."
"Well, she needs to give you your messages." Tucker took another bite of omelet, finally noticing it. "Oh, I missed the food here. I missed it badly."
"Oh, there's a new food critic in town. Writing for the Mignon."
"The Mignon's still in business?" said Tucker, in surprise, beginning to wolf down the omelet in earnest.
Reid got up and walked over to the front door, returning with the little paper.
"Oh, I even missed the Mignon," said Tucker, watching as Reid opened the paper.
"She's got a light touch. Came down here from New York. She wrote about this Dominican place on Canal that I'd never heard of, had the most fabulous food I've ever tasted. This girl is plugged in." Reid found the proper page, folded it over so Tucker could read it.
Tucker, sipping on his bloody Mary, read the headline. A Slice of...Romania? "Romania?" he repeated. "I've never heard of Romanian food."
"That's what I'm saying. She's like a food detective."
"What's her-" Tucker stopped, blinking at the byline. By Tinsley Stewart. "She's a food critic," he said, in surprise, putting down his bloody Mary and picking up the paper with both hands, bringing it closer to his face, as if the name Tinsley Stewart was going to leap up and embrace him.
Reid was ignoring him, in favor of the Creole French toast the waiter had just put in front of him.
"She said she was a writer," Tucker murmured. "And she's a food critic."
"Who are you talking about?" Reid's mouth was full of Creole French toast.
"Tinsley Stewart." Tucker showed Reid the byline. "That's my tenant."
"The sorceress," said Reid. "She's a good writer." He turned back to his Creole French toast.
"She isn't a sorceress."
"I thought she'd cast a voodoo spell over you."
"No, whatever spell I'm under, she's just as much under it," Tucker mused, looking down in surprise when he found he'd finished his bloody Mary.
"What is this spell? Just the coincidence that the blonde you had sex with in the bar is also your tenant?"
"I didn't have sex with her in the bar." Tucker caught the waiter's attention, lifted his empty glass..
"Yeah, you'd be a lot happier today if you had. So she came onto you in the bar, and then rebuffed you at the house?"
"Yeah. Basically. I don't know. I didn't really...Reid, there's something going on."
"Something like what?"
"I don't know. It's unexplainable. It's indescribable. It's like the strongest attraction I've ever...The most potent..." Tucker frowned into space. "She said my name and it was like...It hurt. I felt it hurt me. And I thought, If I kiss this woman, if I make love to this woman..."
Reid was staring at him in confusion. "What?"
"I have no idea." The waiter brought his bloody Mary. "And I'm not sure if I want to find out."
"The really frightening thing is I'm not sure that I can handle finding out. I don't...The whole thing...this whole thing..."
"Are you...in love with her?" asked Reid, incredulous.
Tucker took a long sip of his bloody Mary. "If this is falling in love, it isn't at all what I thought it would feel like."
Trenier wasn't sure how long Perkins would hide on his plantation. There was a possibility that he would borrow from others to pay Trenier, and then Trenier would lose his influence over him. So he had to move quickly. He had his valet, who bothered his head with such silly things, lay out his richest, most fashionable outfit, and Trenier spent some time in front of the mirror, practicing his speech, his most sincere, respectable look.
Then he rode to the Tuckers' house. The key was to avoid Clara. Clara and her infatuation with him, he thought, would not make this better. He didn't think her parents sounded like people who would be swayed by their daughter's wishes or happiness.
The butler who answered the door plainly did not approve of him on sight.
"I am Jean-Marc Trenier," he said, stiffly. "I have business with Mr. Tucker."
The butler looked dubious. "You do?"
Trenier inclined his head and strode confidently into the front drawing room. "Tell him I have called." Trenier, hoping he looked more at ease than he felt, leaned his elbow on the mantelpiece.
The butler, frowning, left. Trenier waited, keeping his elbow on the mantelpiece, reminding himself to breathe.
A man who apparently was Clara's father walked into the room. "I am Tucker," he said, in evident confusion.
He had blue eyes. Not as wide or deep or intelligent or alluring as Clara's. But blue eyes. And there was where any resemblance to his daughter ended. He was short and portly and red-faced and blustery. Trenier hoped he concealed all distaste, straightened and bowed briefly. "I am Trenier."
"The butler said. Have I business with you, sir? I think you must be mistaken. We have not met."
Trenier smiled slightly. Hadn't he just introduced himself? "I am aware. I have rather unusual business to discuss with you, and I do hope you will hear me out."
"Unusual business?" Tucker echoed.
"I wish to offer for your daughter."
Tucker stared at him in shock. "Offer for my daughter? She is already betrothed."
"It is not much of a match for her, you know. Perkins is badly in debt. To me, as it happens. Badly in need of the dowry. He has a habit of collecting wives, bringing them to his plantation, where they inevitably die of yellow fever. Here in New Orleans we believe in things like voodoo curses. Perkins is one of those. May I smoke?"
"You think you would be better than Perkins?"
Deciding he wasn't going to get a reply to the smoking question, Trenier lit his cheroot, puffed it for a second. "Infinitely better. For one thing, I haven't made a habit of killing wives. For another, I am not in debt. I don't need or want a dowry. Much better business deal for you."
"How is it a better business deal? I will be breaking the contract with Perkins."
"I'll pay Perkins his dowry. I'll forgive his debt, which I'm sure far exceeds the dowry you've offered him. He'll be well-compensated."
"And what of my daughter's reputation?"
"What of your daughter's reputation? Your daughter will be happy."
Tucker regarded him thoughtfully. "What makes you think so? I do not believe you have even met my daughter."
Trenier wished he had an acceptable explanation to offer. He hesitated. Then he offered, honestly, "Shall we call it a sense of fate?"
Tucker looked at him silently. Then he walked over to the door.
Trenier wondered what he should do to stop him.
Then Tucker barked, harshly, "Fetch Miss Tucker." Trenier presumed to the butler. Tucker turned back to Trenier, clasping his hands behind his back. "We shall settle this."
Trenier stood and puffed on his cheroot without noticing it, trying to determine what Tucker was about to do. Have Clara choose? Trenier wondered if he could possibly be so lucky. Then again, perhaps his luck had taken a dramatic turn for the better the evening he had spotted Clara on the verandah.
"Papa, what--?" Clara, entering the front drawing room, stopped abruptly when she saw Trenier. Then her face lit up with delight.
Trenier, for one wild moment, thought that she was about to rush across the room to throw herself upon him. He thought that might be inappropriate but he didn't much care. And when she didn't make a move toward him, he actually was disappointed. She looked as fresh as the first rays of sunshine in the morning, clad in a proper, flattering, pale pink gown. She was wearing her hair partly down, loosely knotted at the back of her neck, and curls had escaped around her face.
"Do you know this man?" her father demanded.
Clara tore her eyes off Trenier, looked at her father quizzically. "I-"
"He has offered for you."
This brought Clara's eyes back to Trenier, once again wide with unmistakable joy. "He has?"
"You have led him on in some way, haven't you?" her father demanded, crossly.
Clara looked at him in alarm. "Papa-"
"You have been determined to be stubborn and difficult over marrying Perkins, never believing that we might actually know what is best for you-"
"She hasn't-" Trenier began, eyes narrowed at Tucker's tone of voice.
"Well, you have chosen a completely inappropriate man, and I will tell you how inappropriate he is. His mother was a slave."
The words snapped into Trenier. It was, naturally, a not unfamiliar thing for him to hear, but he had thought, perhaps, that Tucker might not have heard. He had not prepared himself for it. And he had not even imagined what Clara's reaction might be. She looked at him, eyes inscrutable.
And she was silent. Completely silent. She said absolutely nothing in his defense.
Trenier puffed on his cheroot and looked at Tucker, who looked smugly victorious. "You are wrong about that," he said, casually.
"Oh?" Tucker lifted imperious eyebrows. "Am I a generation off? Was it your grandmother? Do you really think I would sell my daughter to a man so beneath her? Clara is strong-headed and impetuous. She should never have even seen you. She was unaware of her actions. You will please attempt to behave like a gentleman and not call here again."
Trenier did not look at Clara. Silent Clara. He thought if he looked at Clara, and saw disapproval in her eyes, he would shatter into a million pieces. He bowed in Tucker's direction. "As you wish," he said, and took his leave quickly.
Clara, feeling as if everything had happened far too quickly, turned after him, followed him into the front hall, trying to decide what to say, but he was moving swiftly, and she was too stunned to be effective. She stood in the front hall, as he closed the door behind him, and murmured, "He didn't tell me."
"Well, of course he didn't," said her father. "Now will you finally listen to your mother and me?"
Tinsley had her third meal at a little Cuban place off St. Charles that she was reviewing. It tasted like sawdust. She could have had the most phenomenal meal of her life, and she would never have noticed, because Tucker Trenier had her that flustered, that off-balance, that, she had to admit, unfulfilled. It had been a while since she'd had sex. Okay, she conceded to herself, pushing the rice around her plate, it had been a while since she'd wanted to have sex, actually desired it. Parker would never be known for his ability to inspire dizzying lust in a woman. Tucker had It. In droves.
And he'd run away. She frowned. She supposed she should be grateful. Desperate sex with her landlord against the kitchen cupboards was not what she wanted. Of course not.
But why hadn't he wanted it? That was unforgivable. She was beautiful, dammit. What had made him trip over himself in his haste to get away from her?
She drove back to the St. Charles house and parked the Lamborghini in the garage and headed in, sighing and trying to think what to do about Tucker. Maybe he would go back to wherever he had come from. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Then she could forget all about him.
Aimee called, distracting her, so they could recap the night before, but Tinsley's heart wasn't in it, which Aimee noticed. Aimee berated her for not being more social. Tinsley took the scolding, because she didn't really care.
She was laying there in his bed, talking on the phone, when he leaned against the doorjamb. Great, he thought, sardonically, regarding her. He would find her spread out for him like a feast.
"I've got to go," she said into her cell phone, and scrambled to a sitting position on his bed, her silver-blonde hair tangled from resting on the pillow. "If you fixed my heat, I wouldn't-" she began, half-tumbling off the bed in her haste to stand up.
"I've called someone about your heat." He was relieved she'd stood up. And disappointed. "It should be fixed as soon as possible. And I've gotten a hotel. I just wanted to stop by and tell you."
"And what about my oven?" She crossed her arms in front of her, keeping her distance across the room.
"What about your oven?"
She rolled her eyes. "It doesn't work. I told you it didn't work."
"Sorry. I didn't remember. I'll call someone about your oven, too."
"How long are you going to be in town?"
"Ah," she said.
"Don't sound so utterly delighted."
"Hard to be delighted with a man who can't wait to get away from you as quickly as possible after you beg him to kiss you."
"That was a mistake."
"The running? The not kissing? Or making the move at all?"
Tucker hesitated. He had not expected her to bring it up. He knew she had found the whole thing as alarming as he had. Except that he had apparently wounded her ego. Dammit. "Do we really want to talk about it?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Fine," she bit out. "I guess not."
"Good," he said. "I'll be in touch." He turned and was halfway through the living room before he turned back, swearing. "I think you're beautiful," he announced, marching back into his bedroom.
She blinked in startled surprise. "What?"
"Sublimely, out-of-this-world beautiful. Any man would think so. And if you were a normal woman-"
"A normal woman?" she cut him off, fuming. How dare he call her beautiful and abnormal all at once?
"You are possibly some sort of sorceress. Casting some sort of spell over me. If this is true, I wish you would stop," he requested, politely.
She stared at him in shock. "Wow," she said, finally, sounding a little dazed. "And you're saying that I'm not normal?"
He looked uncertain. He swiped a hand through his hair. "I'm usually very normal." He paced the length of the room. "I'm usually able to handle a few beers at Pat O'Brien's. I usually don't react the way I reacted when you kissed me."
He winced as if she'd struck him, which shocked her into silence.
He stopped pacing and looked at her. "There's something going on here," he said, grimly.
"What?" she asked, in bewilderment.
"It's something...beyond us. Beyond my comprehension. Do you think you're in love with me?"
"What?" She was astonished by the suggestion. It had never occurred to her.
"That's flattering," he remarked, almost muttering it to himself, before resuming his pacing. "Okay, so we'll cross that off the list."
What the hell was he talking about? "What list?"
"The list of what's happening here. Between us."
"There is nothing happening between us."
"Not now, no. That's because I'm keeping distance. If I took just a couple steps closer to you..."
He trailed off, because he was aware he didn't need to finish the thought.
"It's just attraction," she said, annoyed that he seemed to want to turn it into something more. "It's just lust."
"Lust?" He barked derisive laughter. "That is not lust, cherie." Tinsley blinked at the sudden endearment. "Don't play innocent. This is not just happening on my end. It if were just happening on my end, I don't think it would be so unmanageable. This is not lust. If that is how you feel every time you want someone, how do you ever have energy?"
She scowled. "Maybe I'm just a little bit more selective than you."
Tucker looked at her briefly. "It's not lust," he said.
"Are you in love with me?" she asked, after a moment of silence, because he seemed to be implying that.
"No." He shook his head. "I don't think so. Don't be offended, but I-"
"So we've crossed off love at first sight. What else is on your list?"
"Voodoo magic?" He sounded completely serious to her, strangely enough.
"Do you have a better explanation?"
"Yes. I've already told you my better explanation. You're very dismissive of it."
He drew his eyebrows together. "It's not lust," he murmured at the hardwood floor. Then he looked at her briskly. "Whatever it is, I have to stay away from you. Agreed?"
"It isn't that I don't want to make love to you. Of course I want to. Very, very badly." For a moment he looked at her across the room, with those sinfully heavenly eyes, and she shivered with the entire idea of those eyes raking over her body as he undressed her, lavishing attention over every single inch... He cleared his throat, and she realized that his thoughts must have been running along the same path. The air between them seemed scorching hot. "Yeah, I have to stay away from you. I don't know what this is. But it can't possibly be good."
"Or it could be incredible," she said before she could stop herself. She bit her lip. Maybe he was right. Maybe she was under some voodoo spell. She was not behaving at all like herself.
His eyes narrowed. "Do you want to try it? Is that what you're telling me?"
"I-" she stammered, because she wasn't really sure.
"You cannot tease me. I am not in a state to be teased. If you want it, we'll do it right now."
Her breath caught in her throat. Her eyes flickered toward the bed. This was, unbelievably, quite the offer. "How romantic," she managed, but her heart was pounding in anticipation.
"Yes, you see? That's what I'm saying. I feel like I can't do romance. I couldn't handle the time and the artifice of...This, whatever it is, would demand all of our attention. There would be no time left for anything else, don't you see? ‘Incredible' is not the word for what it would be. It would be positively indescribable. And we would never get out of bed. We would end up killing each other in that bed."
She didn't think it sounded like a bad way to die. It had to be a voodoo spell. This was so unlike her. She swallowed thickly.
"I think this is terrifying," he continued, resuming his pacing. "I was wrong to push it this morning. I apologize. We have to stay away from each other." He paced right out of the doorway, then turned back briefly. "And you're not allowed to say my name."
"What?" she asked him, dazed.
"It..." He shook his head in frustration, and left.