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Max was out to make a buck.

His brilliance was in putting together what the public wanted and in the art of delegating, he had told Nikki. He'd had the cash to start up the business, she'd had the ability and the knowledge. When he'd hired her, she'd suggested bringing in Julian, who'd been her best friend forever. As they'd prospered, they'd added the rest.

Nikki was Max's number two. She was responsible for hiring new guides, then for training them. It worked out well, since Max didn't particularly like to stick around and run the business. Max liked his money and having other people work for him, so he could travel the globe. At the moment he was hiking in Colorado.

"That took long enough," Patricia said as they approached the table.

"Nikki was flirting," Andy teased.

"Oh?" Patricia Broussard had been born and bred in Cajun country, and, like Andy, she had long dark hair. Her eyes were equally dark, and her grin was entirely impish. "Nikki's got a guy?"

"Very mysterious," Andy said.

"I gave a bum a dollar," Nikki said, shaking her head.

"She gave him a twenty," Andy corrected.

"He looked like he needed it," Nikki said quickly as Julian stared at her in surprise.

"Actually, he looked like he might be pretty handsome if you cleaned him up a bit," Andy said.

"You gave a bum a twenty?" Mitch, their out-of-towner, a blonde from Pittsburgh, demanded. "Wow… you're making a lot more in tips than I am."

"She's cuter," Patricia told him.

"He just seemed really needy," Nikki explained. "So let's get past this moment, shall we?"

"No, I like this conversation. All work and no play, Nikki… " Nathan, who was living with Patricia, teased.

"Actually," Patricia said, eyeing Julian and then Nikki, "most people think you two are a couple."

"Ugh," Julian said.

"Thanks," Nikki told him.

"No, no, that wasn't about you," Julian protested quickly.

"I know," Nikki assured him. She stared at Patricia. "It's just that we've known each other forever. It's like a brother/sister thing. Now can we get down to business?"

But Nathan grinned, leaning forward. "Nikki, forget business. We've got to get you set up with someone."

She sighed deeply. "I do not want to be set up with anyone."

"Her last excursion into amore didn't go so well," Julian said with a dramatic sigh. "But, then, I did tell her not to date the creep."

"I've never seen you date," Patricia told her.

"That's because she hasn't in nearly a year," Julian informed them.

"What? Why, that's… un-American," Mitch protested.

Nikki groaned, clenching her teeth. "He wasn't a creep. He just wanted to go off to Hollywood and get rich and famous."

"And he wanted Nikki to come along and support him while he did," Julian said dryly.

"We had different agendas," Nikki said firmly. "I love this business and I love New Orleans. I like California, but I want to live here. He really wasn't a jerk."

"Not a total jerk," Patricia interjected. "He was really good looking, and he could be really sweet."

"Sweet?" Mitch queried politely.

"Flowers, opening doors… the little things. But in the big things, he wanted his own way."

"See, I just don't think that she felt that thing for him, you know? Good-looking guy, charming… but when it's just not there, it's just not there," Nathan said.

"Yeah, but if you always had to wait for it to be there," Mitch laughed, "I'd spend a lot more nights alone than I already do. No wonder you're so tense, Nikki."

"I'm not tense," Nikki said.

"Yeah, and if you don't get off it, she'll talk to Max and see that your ass is fired," Patricia warned sweetly.

"Ouch!" Mitch said.

"Guys, please," Nikki said. "I'm busy, and I'm discerning, and I take my time, okay? And right now we need to worry about work, okay?"

Julian turned to Andy. "Just how decent would this bum of hers be if we cleaned him up?"

"Pretty decent," Andy said thoughtfully. "He just looked… down on his luck."

"Okay, guys, playtime over," Nikki said firmly. "Julian, Greg wasn't that much of a creep, just a little self-centered. I had no intention of going anywhere with him, so it was fun, but it's over. And thanks, but I don't want to date the bum. I'm fine. I love my apartment, love my work and enjoy my friendship with all you guys. I'm normal, not tense, and when I want to date, I will."

"Maybe she's working the strip clubs at night under an alias," Mitch teased. She shot him a glare from blue-green eyes. He lifted his hands. "I'm going to behave now. Really."

"Okay, guys, I've got notes from Max. Mitch, you're welcome to introduce any new story, as long as you validate it first. Julian, if anyone makes you feel uncomfortable on the walks, tell them you're married."

"What?" Julian said, startled.

Nikki shrugged. "That's what Max said to tell you. He said it works for him all the time."

"Oh, really? Who would be trying to pick up old Max?" Julian demanded.

"Oh, come on," Patricia protested. "Max is cute—in a creepy kind of way."

"Great. I say I'm married, then when the right person comes along… they think that I'm married or a liar," Julian said. "There goes my social life." He groaned. "I'll end up like Nikki."

"Oh, come on, will you guys please, please leave me alone?" Nikki demanded.

"That bum is looking better and better," Julian said to Nathan.

"You didn't even see him," Nikki protested, irritated.

"We're just trying to help," Nathan said.

"I don't want to be helped," Nikki snapped. "Hey—work on Andy for a while, huh?"

On cue, they all turned to stare at Andy. She laughed. "Nikki, they don't know me as well. I won't be nearly as much fun to torture."

"Besides, Andy is a flirt," Nathan said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

"Really?" Andy said.

"Yeah, really," Mitch assured her.

Andy giggled. "Okay… I am a flirt. I admit it."

"You can flirt with me anytime," Julian teased.

"And if he's not around, and you're looking for a good solid Yankee boy… " Mitch suggested.

"Never play where you work, that's what Mom always said," Andy told them with a sad shake of her head.

"Well, you could just sleep with me," Mitch said. "We wouldn't have to play at all."

"Hey! Go back to torturing Nikki, will you?" Andy demanded.

"If you all don't quit, tomorrow night's off," Nikki said.

"The tour is off?" Julian asked, puzzled.

"Of course not," Nikki said patiently. "If you'd all just behave like adults and listen… We had a record month. Max is going to pay for a celebration at Pat O'Brien's. Dinner and drinks on him, tomorrow, after the night tour."

"All right!" Mitch cried happily.

At that moment Madame D'Orso made one of her sweeping appearances, bearing her elegant coffeepot, chatting with her guests.

And they were special guests. Their tours met in front of her place, bringing her lots of business.

"It's calmed down out here some, huh?" Nikki asked her.

"Yes. Not that I complain about business, but we had a busy late lunch crowd today," she told them, pouring them more coffee. At her place, it was premixed. Café au lait meant café au lait.

"Hey," Mitch said to her, setting a friendly hand on her back, just above her waist. The gesture wasn't flirtatious, just affectionate. Mitch was in his late twenties. Madame was in her late… well, hard to tell, but she was a few decades older. "Should Nikki date the bum who was in your place?"

"What bum?"

"You didn't see him?" Andy asked.

"Honey, I wouldn't have noticed if Robert E. Lee stopped in. It was busy in there today. As if this parish isn't nutty enough, it's election time. Campaigners, do-gooders and politicians everywhere, thick as flies. There's those trying to clean up the place, make New Orleans a 'family' destination. And then there's those trying to keep her wild, wicked and free." She removed Mitch's hand, grinned and moved on.

"Damn. Wish I'd seen the bum. Then I'd know if we could clean him up enough or not," Mitch said with a wink.

"Drop it. Or there will be no free meal for you tomorrow night," Nikki warned him.

"It's dropped," he assured her.

Nikki rose. She could see a tour group gathering out front. "Julian, it's showtime. Andy, you're following along. Patricia, Nathan, don't forget you're on tonight."

With a last long swallow of her café au lait, Nikki started off with a smile to meet the growing crowd. Twenty minutes later, she was standing in front of the Bourbon Street bar, once a blacksmith's shop, that the pirate turned patriot Jean Lafitte was said to haunt. She found the story of the man a fascinating puzzle, and focused her speech on his enigmatic history, along with a mention that there were definitely "spirits" of all sorts to be found there—many of them behind the bar.

Her smile was as enigmatic as her story. She was certain that Jean Lafitte's ghost loved to have his story told. She could feel the mischief in the air, something a little wicked, and yet benign.

She always told the story of the man with affection, and she knew that she always gave her audience a few delightful chills.

Ghosts filled the streets here, between the neon lights that advertised Girls! Girls! Girls! and the shop fronts offering voodoo charms, the ever-present music, the mimes on the street, the antique shops, the boutiques and the T-shirt shops that also sold pralines and potions.