Read The Taking Online

Authors: Erin McCarthy

The Taking (8 page)

“Actually, I will, I’m single.” For which she was grateful on a daily basis.
“I meant the spirits. Everyone knows this house is haunted.” Leaning over his steering wheel to stare up at the balcony, he pointed. “That’s where she died, you know.”
“Who died?”
“Some girl. Threw herself off that balcony over a hundred years ago. Boy trouble. You know how that goes.”
“No, actually I don’t.” She’d never once felt the urge to throw herself off a balcony. Run like hell? Yes. Scream witlessly into a pillow? Definitely. Throwing herself off a balcony to shatter every bone on the stones below had never once occurred to her.
Maybe she was normal after all.
But she was already questioning that again an hour later when she was staring across the powdered-sugar-laden table at Jen, saying, “Ask him again.”
Jen made a face over her coffee cup. “Regan, I can’t. He said no, what am I supposed to do? Threaten him? Use a spell to coerce him? He’s the voodoo priest, not me.”
“Well, maybe he didn’t understand what the event was,” Regan said, crumpling up a napkin on the sticky table in front of her. She couldn’t believe Felix had said no to doing readings at her party. “Did you give him my name?”
“Um, yes.” Jen set down her coffee cup.
“So give me the address to his store then. I’ll go and ask him in person. He just can’t say no.” Regan wasn’t sure why it was so important, it just was. But she realized a second too late how her determination could be misconstrued.
Definitely too late. Jen’s brown eyes were curious. “You’re going to walk into his shop and ask him in person? Are you freaking kidding me? What’s the big deal? We knew it was a long shot to get anyone on such short notice.”
“He’s just really good, that’s all,” Regan said, the words sounding lame to her own ears.
Given that they had been friends for twenty years, Jen wasn’t buying that for a second. “When did you meet him, by the way? You never said.”
Shit. “At a Christmas party.” She strove for casual, taking a big bite of her beignet and occupying her attention with shaking powdered sugar off her fingers.
“Which Christmas party? I don’t recall you going to any except for the one Beau’s firm threw.”
“It was that one.” She blotted her mouth and blinked at Jen. Time to change the subject and quick. “So, have the tabletop decorations gotten in yet? I know I said I wanted ten rounds, but I’m thinking we should go with twelve. The living room is huge and I don’t want it to seem empty.”
“Nice try.” Jen moved her finger in a circle. “But let’s back up to the moment of meeting the voodoo priest that you’re clearly dying to have at your party. If my math is right, which it is, you met this guy the night you left your husband. Would you care to explain that to me?”
“What difference does that make?”
“Hello! It makes a huge difference.” Jen sank back in her chair, her beignets forgotten. “Oh, my God, you slept with him, didn’t you? That’s what this is all about. You panicked in your marriage, had a fling, left your husband, now you’re thinking the answer to all your problems is with this guy you don’t know jack-shit about.”
“I did not sleep with him! And my leaving Beau had nothing to do with meeting him. We barely exchanged five words.” The doughnut sat in her gut like an anchor, and Regan crossed her arms over her chest, feeling belligerent. “Can’t you just accept that being married to Beau blew and that’s why I left him? Why isn’t that good enough?”
“It’s not good enough, I’m sorry. You had this great husband who was madly in love with you, who catered to your every whim, and you just threw him away for no apparent reason. Relationships don’t always go your way every single second of the day, Regan. You have to work at them and appreciate what you have. Do you know how many women would have loved to be in your designer shoes?”
Regan’s arms fell to her sides as she stared at Jen, stunned. “I see. I didn’t realize you thought I was such a spoiled brat.”
Her friend sighed, tucking her caramel-colored hair behind her ear. “I’m sorry, that didn’t come out right. I don’t think you’re a spoiled brat. You’re very generous and not even remotely pretentious. I just don’t see what it is you want. I mean, how could you not be happy with him?”
Picking at the damp coagulated sugar on her half-eaten beignet, Regan swallowed the twin lump in her throat. “Maybe,” she said softly, “because he was the wrong man for me. Maybe, because he made me feel horribly inadequate and intensely lonely. And because no matter how good it looks on paper, a marriage that does that to you is not a good one.”
Jen stared at her for a long minute then tossed her napkin on the table. “Shit. I’m sorry.”
Knowing that was a major concession for Jen, Regan nodded. “Thanks.”
But Jen was already rifling around in her handbag, which she had carefully set on the empty chair next to her, on top of a layer of protective napkins she had spread out. Powdered sugar was a fact of life at Café du Monde, stuck to every surface and scattered all over the floor. It was the price you paid for the luxury of beignets caked with the addictive stuff.
“Here.” Jen shoved a piece of paper at her.
“What’s this?”
“It’s the address for Felix Leblanc’s shop. Take it. Do whatever you want with it.”
Regan grinned as she glanced down at it. Orleans Street. “Thanks.” She could have looked it up herself, but it was touching that Jen had given it to her, no matter how begrudgingly.
“And for God’s sake, if you start screwing the guy, can you please be discreet about it? If Beau finds out he’ll hurl an adultery charge at you so fast your head will spin.”
“But we’re legally separated.”
“Like that will matter to him?”
True. “I’m not going to have sex with him. I just want to talk to him.”
Jen finally cracked a smile. “Famous last fucking words.”
“Is there anything else you’d like to know?” Felix said, knowing precisely what the girl in front of him had spent twenty minutes working up the nerve to ask.
She was a plain, shy girl in her early twenties, the kind who had been dealt an unfair hand by fate. No amount of makeup could mask the squareness of her jaw, there was no way to alter the closeness of her eyes, and no cream that could fix the stretch marks that had already appeared on the peak of each of her breasts. This was the kind of young woman who had spent her life being judged as less than attractive, and had clearly retreated into shyness as a result of harsh societal standards of beauty.
He would have to coax the question from her.
“No, I guess that’s it,” she said, shaking her head, even after her friend nudged her with her shoulder. “Thanks.”
“Don’t you want to know about your love life?” he asked, smiling at her. “Most people do.”
The sallow yellow shirt that didn’t flatter her ruddy complexion slipped and she tugged it, covering the bulk of her cleavage back up. “Oh, well.” She laughed, a self-conscious, sad sound. “What love life?”
At one point in his life, back when he was young, mortal, greedy, he would have flirted and flattered for the sole purpose of ensuring repeat business. If you gave customers what they wanted, they kept coming back. It was a basic business principle.
Now he did what he did simply because everyone needed some kind of hope. Everyone needed to believe that there was one person out there for him or her, a soul mate.
If they didn’t have hope, they became Felix.
And the world didn’t need another one of him.
“We are talking about six, maybe nine months from now,” Felix said, his smile pleasant, not flirtatious. He never flirted with customers anymore. That was something that had died back in the nineteenth century with Camille, as had the desire for money. For any of the things money could buy.
The girl was trying not to look too interested. “Oh?” she asked.
“That’s when you’re going to England!” her equally unattractive friend said in an excited whisper.
“Exactly,” he said, with a confidence he didn’t feel. But he had learned that confidence could create an illusion that could create a reality. If he bolstered this girl, maybe she would go off to England and take a chance and talk to a man she was interested in, and maybe, just maybe, she would find some kind of happiness.
Or at the very least, get laid. That never hurt either. Felix couldn’t always shake his cynicism, and he figured sex was better than no sex even if it came without a declaration of love and a promise of forever.
“There is a man, outside a castle . . . a tour guide, maybe? He likes your accent.”
The friend giggled. “Do we have accents in Georgia?” she said with a rueful grin.
“You’re wearing a navy shirt when you meet him.” Might as well steer her in the direction of a better color for her complexion.
She frowned. “I don’t have any navy shirts. I like bright colors.”
“Maybe I’m wrong about that,” he said, soothingly, knowing she would be out shopping that very afternoon for navy. “But he shares your interest in horses.”
“Oh,” she said, her voice breathy, expression thoughtful. “That would be . . . nice.”
The two girls sighed and exchanged a look of contentment. Maybe the fantasy would be enough. Or maybe just the idea would spur confidence in her, and that was worth a few words of encouragement from him.
The doorbell tinkled the arrival of another customer and Felix wrapped up the reading. He couldn’t see who had entered the shop, since he did readings behind a screen, but he could care less if someone robbed him of every last voodoo doll and scented candle in the shop. It was meaningless to him.
The girls thanked him with smiles, dropping a five-dollar bill into his tip jar. Not that he could keep it. Most of it went to the master, not to his pocket. But he expressed his thanks anyway, smiling and wishing them a good day as he escorted them around the screen.
They walked toward the door, scooting around the new customer, and he opened his mouth to say hello.
Then he realized who it was and his greeting died on his lips.
Regan Henry Alcroft.
Just who he didn’t need to see.
She was wearing expensive jeans, boots with heels, and a black sweater. Along with a tentative smile.
“Hi. I’m not sure if you remember me, but I was at a function you gave readings at . . . you gave me a reading. I’m—”
He cut her off, not wanting to prolong this, not wanting to feel any compassion or desire for her. “Regan Henry Alcroft. I know who you are.”
She was startled, but then she recovered, dropping her large handbag down onto the floor at her feet. “Actually, it’s Henry. Just Henry.”
“Excuse me?” He didn’t follow her thought, preoccupied with wondering if it was coincidence that she was in black again, or if she preferred black and white clothes.
“I’ve dropped the Alcroft. My divorce will be final in a few weeks, I hope.”
Well, well. Felix’s eyes automatically fell to her ring finger. It was bare. Alcroft hadn’t mentioned a divorce in progress, but then why would he? The master gave no explanations to the servant.
“Do I offer congratulations or sympathy?” he asked, leaning against a display table a few feet away from her.
“Congratulations.” There was a pink stain on her cheeks, and she looked nervous, but pleased with herself. “It’s a good thing and it was my decision.”
“Then congratulations. May Regan Henry be very happy.” Far, far away from him.
She smiled. “Thank you.”
“So are you just passing by?” he asked. “In need of a potion to win more in your divorce settlement?” He didn’t think for one minute she had just been strolling down Orleans Street and walked into his shop by accident. She had sought him out, and damn it, that made him uncomfortable. Her being anywhere near him was dangerous, for both of them.
“No.” Regan shook her head. “I don’t need a potion. I wanted to ask you a question, but first I want to thank you.”
Felix could feel the coil of tension in him tighten. “For what?”
“For the reading that night, at the Christmas party. I’m sure you had no idea that I was thinking about leaving my husband, and well, it sounds stupid, but when you asked to see my ring, and I took it off, the freedom I felt then was the push I needed to get the courage to leave. So thank you. I might still be with him if it weren’t for you.”
The hot burn of anger spread out through Felix’s body. When the hell would he ever learn? He should have never, ever gotten involved with Regan that night. He should have been smart and given her a generic reading, not brought up her ring, or her sister, or her free will. He had acted out of compassion and concern, but in this case it would only bite them both in the ass, and he had known that.
He’d known that.
But he’d done it anyway, because he had seen the pain in her eyes and he had been unable to stop himself.

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