“Been a minute,” she whispers in his ear in the same New Orleans drawl. Eli grins.
“You saw me at Mama’s last Sunday.”
“Been a minute,” she replies and steps back, smiling at me. “Hi, Kate. It’s good to see you again.”
“You too, Charly.” I’m pulled into another hug—the Boudreaux family is an affectionate bunch, and the middle sister, Charlotte, is no different from the rest.
“What can I do for you two?”
“Kate needs a hat,” Eli repeats.
“Oh, yes, sugar, you do,” Charly replies with a nod. “We need to keep the sun off your face and shoulders. Let’s see…” She leads us to the back of the shop and pulls three hats off the wall, all wide-brimmed and pretty. “I think green is your color, with that beautiful auburn hair and your pretty green eyes.”
“Thank you, but this hair is about to be a curly tangled mess with all this humidity.”
“I know the feeling. I’ll make a list of hair products to use while you try these on.” She jogs back to her counter as I plop the first hat on my head. It’s pink, not quite as widely brimmed as the green, and makes me look like a mushroom.
“Try the green one,” Eli suggests, but instead I pull on one with a rainbow of colors. It looks like a box of Crayolas exploded all over it. Eli just watches me in the mirror with humor-filled eyes and crosses his arms over his impressive chest. “You do have beautiful hair.”
“Thank you.” His jaw ticks. If he doesn’t like giving out compliments, why does he say anything at all?
“Oh no, dawlin’, the green one,” Charly says as she rejoins us. I smirk as I put the green hat on and sigh as I realize that she and Eli were right.
“Looks like this is the winner,” I say with a grin. “I’ll take it.” I pull my wallet out of my handbag, but Eli lays his hand over mine and shakes his head.
“Bill me,” he tells Charly, who smiles and nods happily, while handing me a list of hair products to try, waving at us as Eli leads me back out into the heat. “Feel better?”
“Hmm,” I murmur, but, oh, God, yes, it feels so much better. “Thanks for the hat.”
“You are welcome,” he replies, his accent making me squirm again. I met this man just a few hours ago, and so far, everything he does makes me squirm.
Not good. Not good at all.
“Tell me about yourself,” I say, surprising myself. All I know is, I need to get my brain on something other than the mass of testosterone walking next to me. We cross the street, me on the outside, and Eli immediately trades places with me, tucking me next to him away from the street. “Chivalry isn’t dead,” I whisper.
“No, dawlin’, it’s not.” He flashes me a quick smile before leading me to a café with beautiful courtyard seating.
“It’s surprisingly cool in here,” I murmur after we’re seated.
“The trees keep it cool,” the waitress says with a smile. “Need a minute with the menu?”
“Do you eat seafood?” Eli asks me.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Good. We’ll both have the seafood jambalaya, please.”
The waitress nods and walks away, leaving us alone.
“Now, tell me more about your plans to catch the person stealing from my company.”
“You didn’t answer my question first,” I reply, and butter a piece of the bread the waitress just set down for us.
“Tell me about you.”
“I don’t matter.” His voice is calm, but sure. Final. He leans back, folds his arms, and shutters immediately close over his eyes.
“It’s your company, so yes, I do believe you matter.”
“All you need to know about me is that I’m your boss, you’ll be paid timely, and I expect nothing but your best on this job.”
I set my bread on a small white plate and lean back, mirroring his pose with my arms crossed. “Actually, I believe it was Savannah who hired me, and I don’t ever give less than my best. Ever.”
He raises a brow and cocks his head to the side. “Beau, Savannah, and I hold equal shares and equal interest in the company. All three of us are your bosses, Kate.”
“Understood.” He watches me for several minutes. I can’t figure him out. He has moments of being so kind, nice, and I think he may be attracted to me, and then the walls come slamming down and he’s distant, impersonal, and borderline rude.
Which is it?
Not that it really matters, because starting tomorrow I’ll answer to Savannah, and I’ll hardly ever see the mysterious and sexy Eli.
I tilt my head back, close my eyes, and take a deep breath of the thick New Orleans air. There’s a light breeze now, cooling my heated skin. The trees above are green and lush, and I can see sprinkles of sunshine as it fights its way through the leaves.
Our meal is served and I stare down at the bowl of rice, shrimp, mussels and a bunch of stuff I can’t make out dubiously, then glance up to Eli, who has already dug into his bowl heartily.
“You won’t regret it,” he says simply, and shovels another spoonful into his mouth. I watch his square jaw as he chews, and then glance back down at my own bowl.
Why not? I take a bite and my gaze finds his in surprise. “It’s good.”
“I wouldn’t feed you something bad, Kate.” He chuckles and reaches for the bread. The jambalaya is delicious, and I’m hungrier than I thought, devouring the bowl in just a few minutes. Finally, I sit back and pat my flat belly.
“That was great.”
When the bill is paid and we’re back on the sidewalk, walking back toward my loft, Eli glances down at me, and then sighs and pushes his hand through his hair.
“How did you get into your profession?” he asks softly.
“Oh, we’re talking about ourselves now?” I raise a brow. “Look, you don’t have to be nice to me. It’s okay if you don’t like me. I’ll do my job, very well I might add, and be out of New Orleans in four to six weeks.”
“Four to six weeks?” he asks incredulously.
“Yes. I told you earlier, it takes time to settle in, gain my coworkers’ trust and confidence. I can’t just sit down at a desk and start pilfering through files. I’m supposed to be a new hire, on the down low, remember?”