read the first chapter
PLANES, CHUTES AND PAPARAZZI
She didn't want
Lake Ponchartrain, shining in the sun, to be the last sight she saw
in this life, but unless the pilot was goodvery goodit
would be. Looking out the window of the 727, water sparkled, appearing
pristine beneath her. Beautiful to look at from this vantage, where
the remembered chemical stink of the dead water couldn't be smelled,
where the rainbow effect of decades of spilled gasoline and oil and
the scum growing on the surface couldn't be seen.
News reports said the lake had been cleaned
up but she never believed it. She hated it. Hated this lake, the buildings
huddled like beetles on its rim, the ships plowing their way out toward
the gulf, hated everything the view below represented. She was a fool
to have come here. But then, she'd been a fool quite often lately.
There'd been ample proof of that.
The flight attendant, a slim young man with
Humphry Bogart eyes, checked the passengers to see that their seats
were upright and locked, seatbelts cinched tightly, and made certain
they all had a pillow or blanket to burrow their faces in. He was
terrified, but trying not to show it. Too bad the airlines hadn't
thought to provide parachutes. He was awfully young to die today.
She wasn't usually this morbid. She wasn't ever
this morbid. A sudden flush of anger shot through her, and she forced
a smile onto her frozen features. If she died, she would not be pulled
from the dank water, face etched with fear. Instead she gestured to
the flight attendant on his way back to the galley. "Do we get
complimentary drinks when we land? I think I may need one then. A
double. What do you recommend?"
He stopped, surprised, and an answering smile fought
the fear in his famous-looking eyes. "Mrs. Stone, if the airline
doesn't offer you one, I'll buy you one myself."
"It's a date." He nodded firmly, as if
making a pact, and hurried away.
Moments later, she bent forward against the
seatbelt and pulled the sandals off her feet, tucked them into the
neckline of her silk shell. With deft motions, she pulled her raincoat
closed, buttoning it over the carry-on tote and camera bag slung over
her shoulders, the bags and spike heels hidden beneath it.
The 727 was descending. If the old bird survived
this landing without landing gear, these shoes would not be left behind.
Resting her face in the rough fabric of the U.S.Air pillow, she smelled
the stale scent of cigarettes and the last patron's hair spray. White
Rain? Alberto? And the fragrance of her own sweat.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," she whispered,
mostly in prayer. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph."
The landing was brutal. Metal shrieked, a grinding
squeal. Braking engines roared, vibrating through her bones. She was
forced forward, bouncing with the jet, the safety belt cutting into
her. She forgot to breathe. The sound crescendoed, beyond anything
she could ever have imagined. Someone was screaming nearby.
The seat beneath her lifted and fell again
slamming the breath from her. Her face banged onto her knees through
the thin pillow, the impact drawing mucous and tears. The jet skewed
to one side, throwing her against the armrest. There was the coppery
taste of blood. Beneath it all she could hear herself whisper through
clenched teeth, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Hail Mary full of grace." Catholic schoolgirl prayer.
An eternity later, the movement of the jet
slowed. The engines changed pitch. Deeper. Softer perhaps, just a
bit. The screaming of the jet's skin against the tarmac grew to basso
profundo and eased away. The forward momentum slowed.
A silence louder than the roar buffeted her
ears. They had stopped.
Slowly, Geneva raised her head, licked her
lips. Jack was beside her, pulling at the buckle of the safety belt.
She stood, her raincoat swirling around her, hidden carry-on baggage
bumping beneath the long folds. Barefoot, she stumbled up the aisle,
daylight from the open hatch blinding her.
She turned to Jack as he gripped her
beneath the arm. "That drink?"
"Bottomless Margaritas, Mrs. Stone. Enough
to swim in." His eyes were manic and she grinned at him. "Wipe
your face when you get to the bottom," he advised. "Your
lips are all bloody." He lifted her, fingers cruel beneath her
arms as he and another tossed her from the 727 onto the emergency
The world danced a sickening pirouette as
she skidded off the rubber slide into the waiting arms of the rescue
worker. With bruising fingers he too lifted her, and with an ungentle
shove sent her stumbling, barefoot, toward the terminal.
She had survived the landing.
Dizzy from the rough arrival, she fought for
balance and sucked wet air.
Geneva had prided herself for nearly twenty
years that her tolerance for stifling New York summers was the one
positive holdover from her youth. The first breath of New Orleans'
August air was an insult, searing her lungs, assuring her that any
real tolerance to southern humidity was long gone. Jet fuel exhaust,
the sour miasma of Lake Ponchartrain, and the sudden stink of her
own sweat enclosed her like a fevered wet fist.
Raw silk slacks, already creased from the
hours of flight time and the three hour holdover in Atlanta, wilted.
Her silk blouse stuck to her back beneath her raincoat like loose
snakeskin needing to be shed against some handy rock.
Shoving damp blond strings off her forehead,
she wiped blood from her lips and licked at the smear before slipping
her sandals from inside her blouse and onto her feet. Her bare soles
were already blistering on the hot tarmac.
She pulled off her raincoat, fighting the
heat. The heavy camera bagwhich she had refused to relinquish
to the exigencies of the landingshe slung over her shoulder
again as she slogged her way to the terminal. Her soles sank in a
line of tar in the concrete, and with each step after, they adhered,
leaving a trail of gooey black footprints.
But she was alive.
She waved at a small boy running past and
he waved in return, giving the thumbs up signal. She returned it and
laughed. She was alive. She wanted to cry, but laughed again
"I should have stayed in New York,"
a woman muttered beside her, mascara streaking her face. "I should
have stayed in New York."
"That's what I thought," Gen said,
"but then I'd have missed all the fun." The breath and the
words parched her lungs.
The woman looked at her as if she thought
Geneva was crazy, then quickly turned away.
Perhaps she was crazy. She had been
more than a little wired for days. The mascara-smeared woman pushed
past her and ran with the flow of passengers.
The terminal loomed ahead. Twenty-nine
years is too long. There were no bridges left to mend in this
Godforsaken, parboiled place, only bad memories and the ghosts of
the past. God only knew how her father would react. Sweat now ran
like spiders down her back, and she stretched her shoulder blades
to relieve the itch.
It was insane. And it was all Barry's fault.
She laughed again, feeling black despair gather in her chest, the
despair that had sent her running from New York and the paparazzi
and the fact of the lie that was her marriage. The laughter died.
Twenty seconds in Louisiana and the last dregs of her good humor had
evaporated. Not even her legal separation and impending divorce had
accomplished that. Tears, once an unfamiliar sensation, prickled her
eyelids. She would not cry. She would not. Geneva took
a deep breath of the fume-laden air.
Grimacing, she clenched her toes against the
slippery leather of the sandal bottoms, managing to make the last
few yards to the air-conditioned lobby as passengers from the plane's
nether regions merged around her, running for the building. Icy air
hit her face and dried the sweat already trickling down her temple.
She shivered in the sudden delicious cool and licked salt off her
lips. A remembered taste from childhood. Her tears faded and she shook
her head. It had been this way for days now. Despair and hilarity
in equal parts.
Once inside, she pulled off the ruined sandals,
holding them out to the U.S. Airways officer standing just inside
the building. If he had been about to badger her for refusing to leave
her possessions on board, the sight of her sandals stopped him. His
face fell as he took the delicate shoes by their thin ankle straps.
"I'm just glad I didn't have to walk across the hot concrete
in my bare toes," she murmured.
"Did an exceptional job." She smiled
warmly and watched the man's discomfort clear instantly. "The
captain is my hero for life. Honest." She held up a hand "Honest
Injun" style, a politically incorrect gesture she hadn't made
in decades. It was this place. Had to be.
Sticking the offending hand into a pocket,
Geneva looked back out at the plane. It was a wounded bird nestled
in a bed of foam, surrounded by fire trucks and workers in bright
yellow fire retardant suits. A long scar gouged the runway behind
it. A trace of fear remembered from the long descent fluttered through
her. Geneva clenched her jaw. She never gave in to fear. Never.
"It was my first belly landing, and I
expected it to be much worse." She laughed, pleased that the
sound was steady and calm, taking the opportunity to check the man's
name badge as she touched the black goo cooling on her shoes,. "But
perhaps bogging down the belly of the plane in strips of melted tar
is a Louisiana safety technique."
"Designed just for this kind of emergency,
ma'am," he said with a twinkle. "Not even landing strips
can handle the kind of heat we've had this week."
"Please pass along my compliments to
both the captain and flight crew, Mr. James. And if you would be so
kind, would you remind Jack, the flight attendant with beautiful Bogart
eyes, that he owes me a Margarita big enough to swim in?"
Mr. James looked nonplussed a moment and then
understanding dawned. "You earned it, ma'am. I'll make sure to
"Again, my compliments to the flight
crew, Mr. James," she said, leaving her ruined shoes dangling
on his fingers. She almost added, I'll pass along my compliments
to Mr. Stone, but caught herself at the last moment. Old habits
die hard. James nodded and turned his attention to another passenger,
one a bit more cranky, now that she was safely on the ground.
Geneva turned at the sound of the fresh voice.
"Keri!" She held out her arms, enfolded her niece, and hugged
her tightly, thinking fleetingly that perhaps there were compensations
to be found in this trip after-all. With a hand beneath the girl's
pointed chin, Geneva tilted back the black head of hair and smiled
down into the gamine face. "You beautiful child! And so tall!
Look at you. You've grown into a beauty. You are a sweetheart to meet
"The landing gear got stuck. And we were
all scared to death."
"I'm absolutely fine. Not a scratch on
me." Gen tucked a strand of greasy blond hair behind her ear,
remembering to check her earrings. The diamonds were still in place,
and suddenly she was feeling better, calmer, out of the fetid air
and the stink of near disaster, Keri in her arms. She kissed her niece
on the forehead.
"Some dramatic entrance, Aunt Gen,"
her tall, dark nephew bent across Keri and kissed her cheek. "You
look great, especially for someone who just went through a crash landing
in a 727."
"Destan! I look awful and smell almost
as bad," she added in mock whisper. "But you are a darlin'
to say so. Look at you, nearly six feet, are you?" He blushed
and Gen hugged her lanky nephew and linked arms with both teens, as
they relieved her of camera bag, raincoat, and the shoulder bag she
had forgotten she carried in the slippery departure. After she released
Destan, she could feel the bruises left in her skin by the spikes
of her ruined heels. She might be sore for a few days
"Barefoot through the terminal, Ginny?
Such gauche behavior for a Deveraux," a strange voice teased.
Gen looked up, startled at the sound, the almost-familiar accent on
her name as she found him. Time dilated and slowed.
He leaned against a support pillar, one leg
bent, booted foot flat against the column. Dark slacks, crisp white
shirt, sleeves rolled up. Whip-cord strong arms crossed over his chest.
Coiled strength. Lean. Lethal-looking.
She met his eyes. Black eyes crinkled in a
sun-worn olive-skinned face. French-black hair, black as Destan's,
black as a bayou in starlight, fell negligently over his forehead.
She remembered the feel of that silky hair
sliding through her fingers. The salty taste of his skin. Cold ran
down her body, a shock, like icy water.
"Ginny," he nodded, the sound
French with a soft G, almost Shen-nay. "Me? I can't see
you, pas you, being so . . . chokay. . . ." A flash
of white teeth in a dangerous smile.
"Starnes," she breathed. The blood
drained from her face. Her feet were frozen to the frigid floor. Her
skin prickled as if thousands of tiny hairs lifted. Starnes Templar.
. . .
He raised long fingers to tip an imaginary
hat, his face grave.
She started forward, lifted a hand as if to
"TV cameras are outside," Keri said.
Time snapped back in place with an almost audible pop.
Gen blinked, looked down at the girl, away
from the vision of her past, her niece suddenly remembered. "They're
filming the landing and interviewing the passengers," Keri said.
"Sure you don't want to put on some shoes? Uncle Barry won't
like--" Destan elbowed Keri to silence and the teens exchanged
a guilty glance.
Shoes? The conversation came back to
her, along with her despair. A fragile smile covered her reaction
to Barry's name, to the sight of the man nearby. "The floor feels
wonderful on my bare feet," she assured them. "Besides,
I'm only a photographer now, not a socialite, not Mrs. Barry
Stone. I can afford to be eccentric," she said, excusing the
aborted comment about her almost-ex-husband. "And your Uncle
Barry is no longer around to decide what I should do."
Putting her forehead down to Keri's, she added,
"You don't have to be careful about using his name, you know.
I'm divorcing him, not dying of Barry-cell leukemia." The teens
"I'm so glad you're okay," Keri
said, hugging her, voice muffled in Gen's shoulder.
"You may as well know." Destan looked
at his sister. She pulled away, shook her head 'no', but he ignored
the silent advice and plowed on. "We called Mama. Uncle Starnes
said we had to."
Uncle Starnes? Uncle Starnes? When
did that happen? Gen looked up, meeting the amused, dark eyes.
"Yeah. He brought us to get you. Stayed
with us all afternoon while the plane circled and landed."
"And? You called Lily . . ." Gen
prompted, her own eyes looking away from the dark form.
"So, anyway, the Old Man answered the
"You didn't." Dread washed through
Keri looked miserable as she added to the
narrative. "We had to tell him."
"Had to," Destan reiterated. "Mama
would have been pissed if we hadn't called and you had gone down in
flames, smeared all over the runway." Destan was delighted with
his vision, eyes alight and dancing.
"Mama won't like you using that word."
"Mama isn't here," Destan countered
"I don't suppose it occurred to either
of you that your grandfather didn't know I was coming."
"We figured that out." Destan said
with a devilish grin, flash of white teeth in his olive-skinned face.
So like Starnes. Why had she never noted the
typical-Louisiana coloring, the French-y similarity before? It had
been years since she thought of Starnes, and now suddenly, she was
seeing him everywhere. His lithe form pushed away from the pillar,
moved closer. She felt her breath catch, her eyes locked to his.
Rebound attraction, the rational part
of her brain whispered.
"So you may assume he saw your dramatic
entrance, Ginny," Starnes said. "In full color on
the new wide-screen TV at the foot of his bed."
"And he'll see you walk out of the terminal
without shoes," Keri said, grinning at the thought.
"He'll be pissed," Destan added
with teenaged jollity. He dropped his voice and set his face in stern
lines. "It is not the way we do things." It
was a good impersonation of her father. The fact that it also sounded
just like her near-ex wasn't lost on her either. Funny that she had
never noticed how alike the two men were until she was about to lose
both of them. She was seeing resemblances in everyone.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," she whispered.
"And he'll be making Mama's life a living
hell till we get back with you." Destan said. "He can be
a real devil. I know now why you and Mama never came back once you
left the estate."
Geneva sighed. It wasn't the entry she had
planned, worried over, and lost sleep over in the two days since she
had made the agonizing decision to come home. "Except for the
ones I was wearing, all my shoes are in my luggage. On the plane."
She looked down at her bare feet and wiggled her painted toes. Touching
the shoulder tote, she said, "This is it baggage-wise, until
the airline releases my luggage stored in the belly of the plane."
Geneva took in the cameras up ahead, the mobs
of passengers and frantic families with microphones stuck close to
their faces, the shouted questions and near hysteria. She had been
trying all her life to rid herself of the hated image of her father
and the terrified girl who had run away from him so long ago. And
now she was walking back into his life and his disapproval with bare
feet. A breathless sensation she hadn't felt since childhood gripped
her a for moment. Fear of her father. Of his swift, unpredictable
anger. His wide leather belt. Her father who lay dying.
Starnes' voice drawled, challenging.
She jerked, saw him again, just ahead and
to the side of them, standing alone, apart from the Deveraux's as
always, amused crinkles at the corners of his eyes.
"Pas ma Ginny. She fear nothing."
His black eyes seemed to be saying something else, hold another meaning.
Seemed to pull her in.
Gen sucked in a deep breath, her eyes locked
to his. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph." She paused, needing something
far stronger than the mild swearing. Maybe the old goat will die
before I get there.
Starnes cocked a mocking brow and she realized
she had spoken aloud. Destan and Keri giggled and urged her on toward
the TV cameras and press waiting at the end of the terminal, Starnes
falling in behind. Gen had known on takeoff, when she looked out the
window and saw the afternoon sunlight dappling the New York skyline,
that this trip south was a mistake. The landing from hell was further
persuasion, the tar clinging to her ruined sandals like black glue
had convinced her. And now the press. It was all one gigantic nightmare.
. She could feel him behind her, the heat of his
body seeming to blaze.
She would go on TV--in what might make national
news if this was an otherwise uneventful day--looking like a sweat-smeared
zombie from some C-grade movie. She hated this place.
Destan cleaved the way through the press like
a football fullback, one elbow up to shove aside bodies, the other
hand raised to push away microphones. Yet, one woman, more vicious
than the rest of the pack, managed to pull Keri from Gen's grasp.
Using the girl as ransom, she shoved a fuzzy microphone into Gen's
"Mrs. Stone, is it true that you left
your husband for a younger man?" she demanded.
Gen actually laughed. "Print what you
want! You always do!" Almost anything would be better than
the truth. "It'll be better fiction than most of the stories
Keri jerked her arm free, slammed her heel
down on the woman's instep and moved with Gen after Destan. Starnes
lifted an arm, elbowing a cameraman back.
"Good move, girl. You should be a bodyguard,"
"Stupid witch," Keri said, ducking
under another mic and breaking free of the mob. "I think she
bruised my arm. How can you stand these people, Aunt Gen?"
"They aren't people. They are parasites,"
Gen huffed, now following her niece and nephew into the parking garage.
"Leaches." She had started to sweat again and knew that
her deodorant had totally failed her. She was loosing her breath in
the heat and fumes, her head pounding. Someone had stepped on her
bare foot in the passage through the press. "They are scarabaeids."
Starnes jogged ahead, his gait uneven, and
vanished into the gloom. Behind them, several of the media turned
and began to follow in a tangle of bodies and cameras.
"What's a scarabaeid?" Keri asked
and guided her to one side, around a large woman who should never
have discovered Lycra, especially in such a vibrant purple shade.
Gen had no idea that boas and mules even came in that shade of grape.
The smell of exhaust stung Gen's eyes, or maybe it was the sight of
the stretched-thin Lycra. Keri glanced back and rolled her eyes, making
an awful face.
Gen managed to laugh at Keri's antics. She
loved her niece like the daughter she never had. "Dung beetles
are scarabaeids," she said. "Most men are scarabaeids.
Your Uncle Barry is a scarabaeid of the first order. President of
the Scarabaeid Society."
Laughing, Keri aimed Gen at a long white Lincoln,
its engine idling. She tossed the baggage into the trunk as Destan
climbed into the front passenger seat. Keri got into the back seat
with Gen. The upholstery was velour, soaking up sweat like a sponge.
The AC on high brought back her shivers.
The Lincoln peeled down the exit ramp like
a race car, taking the turns with abandon as the press raced toward
the parking site on foot. Gen cinched the safety belt in self defense.
Destan tuned the radio to a rap station. She thought her head would
explode. "Uncle Starnes, Aunt Gen looks a little green. Slow
down," Keri said.
"Can't. Got company. I have a feeling
Ginny doesn't want them following us to the estate."
Uncle Starnes? That familial title again.
It was unnerving. Swallowing her nausea, Gen turned her head. Behind
them was a news van, the distinct MSNBC logo painted on the side.
The woman who had waylaid Keri was in the passenger seat, a compact
open before her face, touching up her makeup. Even from this distance,
Gen could see the sweat glisten on the woman's skin. Starnes took
another turn, tires squealing. "Drive," Gen said.
On the straight length of down-tilted concrete,
Keri stretched across the front seat and turned off the radio. "I'm
telling you, Aunt Gen looks like she's gonna puke."
Destan glanced back at her but said nothing
as Keri dropped into her seat and buckled up. The radio stayed off,
however, and Gen thought she detected a slight decrease in acceleration.
Speed was really a waste of time as the ticket booths were just ahead
with lines of cars waiting to pay. Destan cursed, a new teenaged trait
Gen hoped he would outgrow. Lily would have a fit if she knew her
son used that kind of language. The car came to a stop. Starnes' tanned
fingers tapped gently on the wheel, his impatience clear in the rhythm.
The news van roared up behind them as a camera
man and the female reporter jumped out, mic in hand. She rapped on
Gen's tinted window with force, and Gen wondered what would happen
if she opened the window and threw up all over the woman. Would it
still make the evening news?
A new toll booth opened to the left of them
and Starnes gunned the engine and swerved hard, taking the first spot
and handing the teller correct change. Three more cars pulled in behind
them before the reporter could get back into the van. They lost sight
of the press in a sea of slow moving vehicles, as Starnes, pushing
the Lincoln, chuckled softly.
© 2007 Gwen Hunter