After the seventh loan denial, Peyton Boudreaux knows she’ll never get the money to start her own healthy junk food restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She’s left with no other choice than to trudge back home to New Orleans to claim her trust fund with her tail between her legs. But before the money is hers, she’s got to complete the required hours, cleaning grease traps and mopping floors at Boudreaux’s: Home of the Chocolate Hazelnut Beignet. On top of that, she must face the CEO of the dual family business – former love of her life, Braxton Broussard, Traitor. He shot her down both romantically and professionally years ago, and now he’s the one whose butt she’s got to kiss.
Not even the ten years Braxton has spent apart from Peyton have been enough to shake the brown-eyed girl from his fantasies. As much as he loves to see her dressed as a fairy, sitting in his office on Mardi Gras day, he was really hoping he could get the money back into her faux trust fund before she came home to claim it. He can’t let her know her deceased father gambled her cash away. He’s got to find another way to get her the money she’s owed. But more importantly, he’s got to work his way back into her heart, because now that she’s home, he never wants her to leave again.
Peyton’s heel bounced off the carpeted floor in rapid succession as she stared at the painting on the wall opposite her. There was no need for her to be this nervous around Braxton Broussard. Yes, she’d been in love with him since, oh, birth. But that was a long time ago. She’d spent the past six years away from him, living her life in Brooklyn…making plans for her business with her two best friends. She was no longer the immature little kid who used to follow him around like a lovesick puppy. She was an established, sophisticated, well-respected business woman…whose wand was getting stuck in her tutu.
“Crap.” The gems in her wand would not let go of the tulle on her skirt. She lay her head back on the wingback chair. Leave it to Braxton to work on Mardi Gras Day. Nobody with an office job worked on Mardi Gras. Sometimes she wondered if he didn’t choose this location for the office just because it was out of the perimeter of the shutdowns for parade day.
But that was fine with her. She had to see him now. She was ready to do this thing, and she wasn’t up for waiting until Mardi Gras settled.
A lady appearing to be in her fifties in an expensive looking suit opened the door. “I’ll have my admin send you that report this afternoon. You’ll still be working, right?”
Braxton appeared in the doorway. “Yeah, I’ll be here.”
Her belly back-flipped off the high dive at the sight of him. Damn. She’d held out hope that he’d gotten fat, bald, and gross over the years, but from what she could tell, he was in better shape than ever. The sleeves on his white oxford shirt were rolled up exposing his forearm, a muscle working in it as he ran his hand through his thick, blondish-brown hair. His hair never could make up its mind which color it wanted to be.
The distinguished lady caught sight of Peyton and nodded as she passed with a courteous smile. Only in New Orleans could a grown woman sit in an office building wearing a tutu and nobody think a thing of it.
“Peyton.” He looked her over, his baby blue eyes wide and blinking. “What are you doing here?”
When she stood, she lifted her hand, and the wand, which was hooked on the tulle, rose high enough that she flashed him. She slammed her hand down on her leg. “I’m your two o’clock. Did you not know I was coming?”
He craned his neck around toward his admin’s desk and then shook his head. “No, everyone’s gone. I think it’s just me and the security guard.”
“Your admin didn’t tell you about this meeting?”
“She sent me my schedule. I just haven’t…” He looked around distractedly.
“Are you okay to still see me?” she asked, but it was only out of courtesy. She was meeting with him today come hell or high water. It’d taken her seven loan denials and six months of internal struggle to bring herself to this point. The last thing on earth she wanted to do was ask Braxton Broussard for money. But it was her money, fair and square. She just had to get him to approve her short-term employment at Boudreaux’s to fill the trust requirement, and then she would be on her way to getting the money to open her business.
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Of course.”
And there was that pang again…that feeling that she was bugging him like an annoying little sister. Why did he do this to her every time?
He held out his arms to her. “Here, give me a hug.”
Warm sensations filled her core as she inhaled the scent of his neck, wrapping her free hand around his back and pressing him into her. God, she’d missed hugging him.
This was ridiculous. She had to remind herself that she hated him after what he’d done to her six years ago. But somehow, seeing him in person wasn’t doing much for the grudge she’d been holding.
He pulled away from her. “Peyton. Wow.” He looked her up and down. “You look…”
She couldn’t stand the awkward silence between them while he searched for his words to describe her in that get up. “Can we just get started?” she asked, pointing to his office.
He nodded. “Of course. Come on in.”
He offered her a seat on the stiff, leather couch. She tried as gracefully as possible to cross her legs, but her tutu kept springing up, and her wings were knocking against the back of the couch. She settled for sitting on the edge of the couch, her skirt tucked under her thighs as much as possible.
“So, what’s up?” he asked. “How’s New York?”
“It’s fantastic,” she said, sitting up straighter. “I just quit the bakery, though.”
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
Her heartbeat quickened as she fiddled with the wand still attached to her skirt. “Well, I’m opening a business with two of my friends.”
“Oh,” he said, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “A…chocolate business?”
His hesitant words stung her heart, a big brown elephant now wedged between them.
“No, I don’t make chocolate anymore.”
His features melded into that sad, pitying look she despised. “Peyton, I think we should talk about—”
She held up her hand to stop him. “No, I’m not here to talk about…that. I’m here because I’ve decided to work my hours to earn my trust fund.”
Color drained from his face. “You are?”
His hesitation was not helping her do this. Swallowing her pride to come here with her tutu between her legs had been the most unpleasant thing she’d had to deal with since the day he and her father had so easily squashed her hopes and dreams six years ago, sending her back to Brooklyn, never to return to this godforsaken place again…until now.
She inhaled a deep breath. “Yes, I am. Is there a problem with that?”
He looked like a deer caught in the headlights for a quick second, but then straightened himself out. “Sure…I mean…no, there’s no problem…that I know of right now.” He loosened the tie around his neck.
Was he that disgusted with her? Sure, she’d gotten on his nerves when they were little, but they were adults now. It wasn’t like she was going to be following him everywhere going, “Hey, Braxton! Look at me!”
“I’m not wanting to work in the corporate office or anything.” She looked around his stuffy office with its wingback chairs and its paintings of sailboats and lighthouses. “I’d lose my mind here. I want to work at one of the stores.”
He rubbed his knuckle against his forehead. “Yeah, that’s…that’s fine. I’ll place you at a store. Do you have a preference?”
She shrugged. “I always sort of liked our St. Charles location.”
He glanced around the room distractedly. “How many hours do you have so far?”
“Something like twenty-three-hundred, I think? Do you have a record somewhere?” She looked at a laptop computer on his desk.
He furrowed his brow. “Yeah, I’m sure. Remind me how many hours you need to earn the trust?”
It was her turn to frown. She, Braxton, his two brothers, and her sister were all set up with trust funds. Braxton had been working full-time in the dual family business since he’d graduated Vanderbilt almost a decade ago. So, he had more than worked the three years required to earn his trust fund. How did he not already know this?
“Three thousand? Didn’t you get yours?” she asked.
He waved her off as if it wasn’t important. “When do you want to start?”
“As soon as possible. I’m done at the bakery, and I’ve moved home…temporarily, of course.”
“How long have you been home?” he asked.
“I just flew in this morning. I didn’t want to miss another Mardi Gras. Watching the televised meeting of Rex and Comus on the Recreation Network wasn’t quite cutting it for me.” She smiled, but he gave a serious nod in return. He’d always been so serious. Part of her attraction to him all those years was trying to figure out what was going on in that complicated brain of his.
She couldn’t help herself. She nudged him. “You want to blow off work and come to Mardi Gras with me?”
His lip crept up in a hint of a smile, sending her heartbeat into a flurry. But then he dropped the smile and looked down at his lap. “No, I have some things to sort out here.”
Rejected, once again, by Braxton Broussard. What else was new?
She stood, needing to be the one to end this meeting. “So, you’ll contact me to let me know when and where to start?”
“Yeah,” he said. “But I need your number. You changed it after…”
She cleared her throat, looking for her dignity. “Yeah, let me give you the new number.”
He handed her the phone out of his pocket, and she typed in her info.
“Thanks.” She grasped the wand still hanging from her tutu and finally broke it free from its grip. “I’ll see you around?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” He put his hand on the small of her back, leading her to the door. She inhaled deeply at the feel of his touch on her. How was it that six years and multiple boyfriends could pass and she could still be at that exact same emotional stage with him after seeing him one time?
She turned to face him at the door to his office. He searched her eyes, and she swallowed hard from the intensity of his gaze.
“Dazzling,” he said.
She blinked, her stomach in her chest. “Excuse me?”
“You look dazzling. That’s the word I was looking for earlier.”
It’d be cheesy as cheddar coming from any other guy on the planet, but from Braxton, the word was sincere and meaningful.
She grinned. “Thanks. You don’t look so bad yourself. Happy Mardi Gras, Braxton.” She turned from him and left without looking back, as much as she was dying to.
When she stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the building, she texted Aliyah and Lori.
Just got approval for my hours. Off to work I go!
Aliyah: Woohoo! How long till you get back and we get this show on the road?
Peyton: Four months tops. Hopefully closer to three.
Lori: Make it three! The shop we’ve been eyeing has a coming soon realty sign in the window.
A lump formed in Peyton’s chest at the idea. She’d given them the go-ahead to move forward, guaranteeing them she’d come through with her part of the money. It was a done deal, after all. It wasn’t like Braxton would have said no. He didn’t have the right to do that, did he?
It didn’t matter. He’d said she could start, and she was just waiting for him to get the process going, whatever that entailed.
She texted back.
Three it is! See you all in a few…
She tucked her phone into the top of her tights. She could relax for the day and enjoy Mardi Gras now. She just wished the sinking feeling she got from Braxton’s ghost white face when she said she was here to earn her trust fund money would kindly screw off.
Braxton set his elbows on his desk and rubbed his palms against his forehead, trying to soothe away the headache. What had just happened? First of all, that was not the way he was hoping to see Peyton for the first time after all these years. He knew she’d eventually make it back home. Every time he went to the Boudreaux house for a function, he mentally prepared himself for the possibility of seeing her again despite the perpetual let down of her no-show.
But here, in his office? And at the exact same time his CPA had come to notify him that the money was just about completely gone? Not that he didn’t already know that.
Why had he told Peyton he would place her in a store? He was looking at cutbacks, not at adding additional employees. She had every right to her trust fund and to work the hours to earn it, but after what his CPA had just told him, he wasn’t sure there was a trust fund anymore. Trust fund was the term they’d used all these years, but it was just money in an accessible account.
He could throttle his dad and hers—his for mentally checking out of the business the second he found his new twenty-something wife, and Peyton’s dad for draining the company of all its cash, and then going and dying on him.
The door opened and Savannah poked her head in. “Hey. I came to rescue you.” She opened the door farther, revealing herself to him. She was wearing a solid black, skin-tight suit adorned with rubber neon necklaces and bracelets. “Come on. Come with me to the parade. I’m meeting up with the krewe above the St. Charles store. We’ll take intermittent breaks to talk strategies about the new marketing plan I’m ready to present to you.”
“Is that your idea of a good Mardi Gras?”
She shrugged. “No, but I’d be with you. That is.”
His stomach knotted at her words. He’d tried with her. He’d taken her out on an official date with dinner and wine and all that stuff. But when he kissed her at her door, he’d known it wasn’t going to work out. She’d be perfect for him. She was smart and funny, invested in the business as much as he was, and she was beautiful to boot. But something didn’t feel right about dating Peyton’s cousin.
Peyton. When had she gotten so damn hot? Stressed as he was over his meeting with the CPA, he’d gotten worked up just sitting so close to her in that pink tutu with the angel wings sprouting from her back. She’d done her makeup all sparkly, and her dark hair falling out of its bun made it all seem wrong in the best possible way. She’d looked freaking fantastic. He’d have that vision of her in those pink tights when he went to bed.
“So, what do you say?”
“Hmm?” he asked.
Savannah put a hand on her hip, “About the parade? Wanna go? Should I remind you that you missed our krewe’s walking parade already?”
He narrowed his gaze at her. “You say you’re meeting up with Garrett?”
“Yeah. Wanna come?”
He put his pen down. He’d need to explain the new person on Garrett’s payroll when Braxton had just told him last week not to ask for help again.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll come.”
She held up a finger and snuck back into the reception area. She reappeared with a black cat suit on a hanger. “I present to you, the official costume of this year’s Krewe of Thaumaturge.”
He stared at it. “You aren’t expecting me to put that on, are you?”
“No, but your stepmother is.”
Braxton pointed at her. “Do not call her that. She’s not my stepmother. I’m three years older than her.”
Savannah hung the costume on the back of his door. “Technically, she is your stepmother. But feel free to call her Crystal…or Mommy.”
He glared at her.
She clasped her hands and held them to her waist, a worried look etched on her features. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
He shook it off. “It’s fine. Just leave the thing here. I’m probably already on her shit list for missing the walking parade.”
He’d missed the parade last year as well. When he’d shown up at the balcony wearing a T-shirt and jeans, Crystal had taken it personally as soon as she’d found out it was the first year he’d missed a parade, and on top of that he’d failed to wear the costume she’d provided him. He wasn’t trying to be outwardly rude to her. They’d just put his mom in the facility, and he hadn’t really been up to parade marching.
“I know she’ll appreciate your support of her costume idea,” Savannah said, a grin showing through. She held up a finger. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She went back to the reception area and reappeared with a grocery bag. “Your accessories.”
She smiled. “Meet me out front in ten?”
He took the bag and peeked in. He retracted at the sight of a bunch of neon crap.
Happy Mardi Gras to him.