Excerpt from Elli


Elli by Tina DeSalvo

Elli

A Second Chance Novel


Available in e-book and print at Amazon, and on request at your local bookstore.

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Chapter One

Today is my mother’s birthday. Please say a prayer for her. Her name was Mary Grace. I’ve never told you all this before, my Bosom Blog Buddies, but breast cancer killed her when she was just 40. I miss her so much. I was only 13 at the time, too young to think of things like how awful it had been for her to know she was leaving her only child and beloved husband…especially when I was hurting so much. I was aware enough to understand how much my dear, sweet father grieved at the end of my mom’s life and in all the years afterwards. As his daughter, I was a salve for his open wound, but it never healed. I could never make him whole again as much as I tried. He loved her so deeply. Thank God, I am single. I will never know that kind of pain. I will always remain single. I hope that doesn’t offend any of you with families. If I had a family before cancer, I would probably have a different perspective. I’m sorry to sound so morose. I promised you all to keep this blog real from the beginning…good days and bad and all that fall between. BTW, say a prayer for my dad, too. Today is the two year anniversary of his death. It wasn’t cancer that killed him. He had a bad heart. A broken heart. I wish you good health, E.

Bosom Blog Buddies Post


Cane, Louisiana
Present Day

“You know, Elli, you can only eat an elephant one bite at a time,” her attorney and friend, Abby McCord, said. Her raspy, familiar voice resonated over the speakers in Elli’s parked 550 Mercedes Cabriolet. Her tone was clear: “You aren’t getting any pity from me, girlfriend. Toughen up.” What she did get from Abby was an eternal and undiluted kinship. It had been that way from the day they met over three years ago in the chemo infusion clinic, each connected to an IV line one month after Daisy passed away. She also got a confidant who understood what it was like living in remission.

Elli gripped the steering wheel. “Yes, I know, you can only eat an elephant one bite at a time. What I don’t know is why it always has to be butt first.” She stared out the window at the locked gate keeping her from continuing down the narrow country road to salvation, or at least to what would be the foundation’s salvation. “When is it my turn to get the easy button?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Of course not.” Elli leaned back into her seat. A lazy breeze wafted into the car, carrying the scent of rich, moist soil and slow-moving water from a canal flowing through the Sugar Mill Plantation. It was a break from the heavy humidity thickening the mid February day. It helped break the cloying gardenia perfume from the tiny dog she rented, who was thankfully sleeping next to her. Right now, the only thing on her mind was getting onto her property, the beautiful Sugar Mill Plantation that she had inherited one month earlier…half inherited, she corrected to herself with a sigh. The other half belonged to a man she’d never met and had only spoken to through his attorney.

Elli closed her eyes a moment and took a deep breath to center herself. Since finishing her breast cancer treatment three years ago, she never let herself forget that life was complicated, fragile, imperfect, unpredictable…wonderful. The wonderful part often came in varying degrees, but there was a life to live. A life she now understood was grand in its imperfection. She had to keep that truth at the heart of each day. She was a blessed woman. Blessed to be alive and blessed to have gotten this inheritance from an aunt she barely knew, at a time when she really needed it.

“I’ve been on the road for nearly three days with a dog who has a queen-complex and is frustratingly relentless with her demands. I’m tired, anxious, and cranky. I can sort of see and smell the Holy Grail, Abby, but can’t touch it. The Gene I.D. Foundation will die if I don’t capture it. I want to capture it, hold it up, and hear the chorus of angels sing ‘hallelujah’ as a brilliant white light shines down on it.”

“Really, Elli?” Abby said, sarcasm and humor echoing over the phone. “Don’t you think that’s a bit over the top? Life isn’t played out in movie scenes. Life is a bit more . . . more . . .”

“Real.”

“Realistic,” Abby stated, in her usual solid, stable, logical way.

“I know. I know. I’m being melodramatic.” Elli frowned. “I’m just worried about not being able to change the foundation’s dire fate. So many people are counting on me to help them.”

“We are in this fight together.”

“Thank God.” Elli smiled, remembering how, over pizza and tears, they came up with the idea. It had been two years after Elli finished cancer treatment that, following Abby’s advice, they both decided to take the genetic test for the inherited breast cancer gene. She tested positive but Abby did not. She was happy about her friend’s results, but it felt like she had been diagnosed with cancer again; only this time, she wasn’t as hopeful she would ever be rid of this awful disease. Cancer was in the very basic foundation of her body, like a poorly set cornerstone inadequately supporting a stone building. It was only a matter of time before it crumbled . . . before she crumbled. So, working their way through the heartache and fear, Elli and Abby established an agenda, a mission statement, and a timetable for the Gene I.D. Foundation. The foundation would provide financial assistance for patients unable to afford the expensive BRCA genetic test. They soon expanded their goals to include providing financial assistance for families who had negative fallout because of positive test results. This was possible because Abby provided legal and administrative work for free while Elli generously donated her ready cash to start the foundation. Being able to use her healthy movie residual checks to live on made this possible since she no longer had other income.

“You are my rock,” Elli told Abby, knowing the words fell short of expressing how much she treasured their friendship.

“And you are my roll,” Abby laughed. “Your crazy talk and perspective on a situation are pure joy when they don’t get on my nerves.” She laughed again. “Seriously, you’re not giving yourself credit. You’re a big-time producer who can manage multimillion-dollar budgets and flaky stars at the same time. You can do that because you are organized, ambitious, and thorough. Just because there is a drama-queen gremlin living inside you that likes to raise its frazzled head from time to time doesn’t make you incompetent.”

“I know that. I’m not completely lacking in self-confidence.” Elli laughed, looking at the canine diva sleeping next to her without a worry in the world. “And for the record, I’m no longer a producer. I’m a cofounder and chairwoman of the Gene I.D. Foundation that is in major trouble—thanks to me. And we were so close to being financially solvent, Abby. The Griffith Park fundraiser was so amazing, wasn’t it? The gowns, the celebrities, the sparkle, the money . . .” Elli paused, took a deep breath and sighed. “Oh dear, God…the money.”

“Don’t go there. What’s done is done.”

Elli again felt the weight of the world on her heart. “It was too perfect. I still can’t believe I didn’t follow my something-doesn’t-feel-right radar that went up during my initial meeting with the FR Group.”

“Don’t beat yourself up. They were considered one of the top event planners.”

Still, she had ignored the warning signs. They had been too anxious, too accommodating. Pride had her reasoning that their red-carpet treatment was a result of them being thrilled to work for her noble project and with her, an Academy Award-winning producer. “Have you heard anything from the LAPD?”

“Nothing you want to hear.” Elli heard Abby typing on her computer, where she always kept her notes. “The LAPD found that the once-reputable CEO of the FR Group not only stole all of our Griffith Park event donations, but he stole an additional two million from the credit cards our donors used to make their contributions.”

“Identity theft?” Elli’s heart sank, then constricted.

She clutched her chest, knowing it wasn’t a heart attack but unable to imagine it hurting more if it was. “God help us.” She forced herself to take a deep breath.

Abby exhaled and Elli imagined seeing her friend lifting her chin and stiffening her spine. “We need the money from the sale of your share of the plantation to have any hope of keeping this foundation operating. That’s how we’ll rebuild our reputation. Doing good deeds. Good PR.” There was more tapping on the computer. “By the way, I had my accountant check the business plan you sent me. He agrees with your figures. The money from the sale will cover the current commitment to our clients and fund operating expenses for a year.”

Elli glanced at the tiny, furry, rented dog that would help her save the foundation. “The Gene I.D. Foundation can’t die.”

Both women remained silent, each left to settle the demons Elli’s statement awakened. Elli scanned the locked, pristine, white gate and the eight-foot, vertical slatted fence. Maybe Tom Cruise could scale the fence with his Mission Impossible skills, but she couldn’t, despite the fact that she was the fittest she’d ever been. Besides, the fence looked wired. She wasn’t willing to find out if it was just a security sensor or an electrified line. Either way, the fence was doing what it was supposed to do. She wouldn’t have expected anything less after googling Ben Bienvenu and his highly reputable dog-training facility located on Sugar Mill Plantation. He’d spare no expense keeping the dogs safe at his prized kennel. He’d also spare no expense to keep her out.

“I’d appreciate it if you could do your legal magic and get me onto my property.”

“I’ll call Mr. Bienvenu’s attorney,” Abby said, her voice all business.

“I already did. His answering machine message said, and I quote, ‘At parade. If you need an attorney, check the telephone book.’”

“You’re kidding me!” She laughed. “What parade?”

Elli glanced at the handwritten note stapled to the gate’s lock-entry keypad. At parade. Kennel closed. “The parade apparently.”

She reached out her car window, trying to keep the Louisiana road dust from dirtying the sleeve of her Escada suit. She’d just taken the car through an automatic carwash thirty minutes before, but it was dirtier now than before she washed it. She pressed the call button on the keypad with her short, unpolished fingertip once, then five times more.

“It’s Mardi Gras.” Abby stated as if it just dawned on her what the parade business was all about.

“Mardi Gras is always on Tuesdays. Today is Friday.”

“It’s Mardi Gras season. I just read something in the Wall Street Journal about the expected economic impact and trickle-down effect it has on Louisiana.” Abby’s voice faded on the last words. “Anyway, I’ve gone off topic. The bottom line is the story indicated that there are weeks of parades and parties.”

“Are you telling me that the kennel is shut down for weeks and I won’t be able to get on my property until after Mardi Gras?” She hadn’t driven three long days with a gardenia-scented dog that had an over inflated ego, only to be defeated before she got a chance to fight. “We don’t have that kind of time. Funding will run out by the middle of next month.” She thought about that for a few seconds before continuing. “I intend to get the money to continue our work.”

“Then,” Abby said, “you have to convince Mr. Bienvenu to sell the plantation. It’s a hell of a predicament. It was generous for your Aunt Rosa to name you in her will, but it’s pretty damn rude of her to have so many strings attached. The worst being that the plantation has to be sold as a whole entity to a nonrelated third party. It would have been simpler if you could have just sold your share of the plantation and kennel to Mr. Bienvenu.”

Elli looked past the gate toward an outcropping of buildings 1.4 miles down the road. She knew the distance and the function of each of those buildings after studying the site maps she’d been sent. Some of the buildings were hidden from view by the large trees and evergreen bushes surrounding them. The vegetation hadn’t been noted on those maps, but she was pleased to see it there. Landscaping, natural or otherwise, added value to the property.

“I have some third-party investors in mind,” Elli said, thinking about the list she’d compiled on her computer. Most of them were venture capitalists with movie industry interest. “First things first. I have to get on my property, survey the place, and put together a sales brochure. I’ll make sure I include this Fort Knox fence. It makes a good first impression. The movie cameras will love its long, thick lines and hate its bright, reflective hue. Best of all, producers will love how it offers a layer of security to keep their stars safe.”

“Correction. First, you need to convince Mr. Bienvenu to sell the place.”

Elli reached under her seat and pulled out the binoculars she found handy to travel with long ago, when she used to scout movie locations. She scanned the area around the buildings, hoping to see signs of someone coming to let her in. Nothing. Nobody. She didn’t even see any canine things nearby. The only dog she knew for certain was around was the tiny, designer rent-a-pooch she had the great misfortune as her travel companion. An adorable bundle of champagne fluff that was sleeping in the passenger seat and not giving her one of the perfected, disparaging doggie-looks she was apt to give when she was awake.

“I can’t imagine that they’d shut down the kennel for the entire Mardi Gras season,” she said, slouching in her seat.

“Mr. Bienvenu’s attorney would’ve told me if it was a problem when I informed him of your plans to see your property.”

“As I remember, he did tell you it was a problem. So did the Louisiana lawyer we hired to help us navigate through the state’s Napoleonic laws.”

“Let me clarify. The problem with you going to Vacherie Parish and Sugar Mill Plantation has nothing to do with Mardi Gras. It has to do with Mr. Bienvenu. He doesn’t want to share, nor does he play well with others.”

“No problem there. I want to conduct business with him, not play games,” Elli said, spotting a five-foot alligator sunning itself on the bank of a wide canal off to the right of the drive. She lifted her binoculars to study it more closely. Two mockingbirds swooped down over the alligator and narrowly escaped a quick thrash of the gator’s wide-open mouth. “I’ve been dropped into Swamp People,” she whispered, dropping her binoculars back into the case.

“Okay, movie lady, let’s not be too dramatic here. You are on an elegant southern plantation.”

“Huh. Just get me the code to the gate or get someone over here to open it. Please.” She and Abby ended their conversation with neither one confident about Elli’s prospects.

Elli returned the binoculars beneath the seat and picked up her BPA-free bottle of organic grape vitamin water, taking a deep gulp. The tiny fur ball next to her cocked her head prettily and perked her ears. Donna was bred to look adorable. She was equal parts white Bolognese and champagne toy poodle—a Bolonoodle. According to her friend, Blaine, a movie dog handler, he discovered his new talent in a very famous and exclusive dog-breeding salon in Paris. Elli hadn’t been charmed by the dog’s pedigree, but she’d foolishly been attracted to her sweet-looking button eyes when she’d gone to her friend Blaine’s house to rent one of his movie dogs.

She needed a dog to impress the stubborn Ben Bienvenu. Elli figured if he trained search-and-rescue and hunting dogs, he must have a genuine affection for the species. That was what she had learned from observing the dog trainers she’d had around the movie set. They loved the dogs they trained. Elli figured that since she couldn’t find any common ground between her and Ben, other than owning the plantation and kennel they had jointly inherited, she’d create a commonality. She would be a dog owner and lover, like Ben. The plan seemed sound until she was two hours east of Los Angeles on I-10 and Donna got carsick. Eww. She realized right then that even designer Bolonoodles were gross. The thought of the episode, and the two after, still made Elli gag. Thank goodness for the doggie car-sickness medicine she found at the PETCO just outside of Palm Springs.

She took another swig of water and Donna lightly tapped her high-end paw on Elli’s hand that lay on the armrest between them. She poured a little bit of flavored water in the tiny weighted bowl in the drink holder, knowing little Miss Prissy wouldn’t be happy with its tepid temperature. It was better to have her reject it than hear her whining, especially when Elli was doing enough of it on her own.

“Now what do we do, Donna?” The dog sneezed at the water and sat, head cocked. “I had hopes that Mr. Bienvenu wasn’t as ill-mannered as he presented himself in our dealings over the past month. It seems I may have been too optimistic. He’s definitely not the up-on-a-pedestal, honorable genius Aunt Rosa raved about in her will.” Donna yawned, looking bored. “Yes, I know. Why did I take what my crazy Aunt Rosa said as gospel when I didn’t really know her except for her crazier-than-a-loon reputation? Well, when a person dies and gives you her fourteen hundred plus acre estate, you tend to ignore the bad stuff and think kindly of them. The truth is, it’s not her fault Mr. Bienvenu is a coward and a jerk.”

Elli looked at the note again, then lifted it and began punching random numbers onto the keypad beneath it. A red light flashed. The gate didn’t budge. She tried again. The red light stayed on. Donna looked at her and sniffed. “Well, I have to do something.”

A breeze wafted into the car, once again carrying the rich scent of the fertile soil. Donna stood, sneezed, and tinkled on the three-inch stack of newspapers Elli had learned to keep positioned beneath her. The four-legged doggie-diva high-stepped away from the wet spot, looking at Elli as if to tell her to clean up the mess, which, of course, Elli did.

“Don’t you worry, Donna,” she told the pooch, certain she wasn’t worried at all. “I’ll get us in.” Donna sat back on the remaining newspapers, crossed her dainty paws with their dark pink Chanel polish, and ignored Elli. She decided to ignore Donna too. She needed to focus on getting onto her property and not being eaten by an alligator in the process.

Elli scanned the freshly painted, white and kelly green sign identifying the place as the Sugar Mill Plantation Kennel and punched the phone button on her steering wheel.

“Number?” the factory-programmed female voice asked.

She read the number off the sign and waited for the call to connect. Once again, she got the answering machine. This time, she didn’t leave a message. If no one responded to the six before it, she supposed a seventh wouldn’t help. She turned off the car’s engine, uncertain how long she should wait, but certain she didn’t want to waste fuel in her current financial situation. She was also certain she didn’t want to waste money on a hotel room when she owned a perfectly fine, five-bedroom plantation down the drive on the other side of the locked gate.

Elli ran her hand over the soft wool of her favorite powder blue suit. She had selected it to give Ben Bienvenu a first impression of her being a woman of confidence, professionalism, and competence. It was four years old, but the color, a few shades lighter than her eyes, still looked as rich as the day she purchased it at Neiman Marcus. Would he even see it today? Would she be able to initiate her plan to earn his trust and persuade him that she had a profitable solution to their impasse?

Blast. How long did a parade occupy someone’s time in Cane, Louisiana?

Elli flipped down the visor and looked into the mirror. Her makeup, which she had applied with a light hand at the gas station down the road, was still good. Her eyes might look a bit brighter with annoyance and her cheeks rosier with frustration, but she didn’t think she appeared as anxious as she felt. She snapped the visor up, not bothering to check her unruly, short, caramel curls. Her hair no longer held the importance her once long, flowing, blond, wavy tresses had.

“Ready to find a way in, Donna?” The furry mass of cuteness blinked her perfect, coal-black pooch eyes and yawned. Elli smoothed her skirt and took in a deep, cleansing breath. “I’m coming around to get you. Stay and be good for ten seconds. No tinkling.” She knew only one of the three requests would be met. The dog was not going anywhere.

Elli stepped out of her car onto the edge of where the crushed rock and oyster shell drive met dark Louisiana mud. Her Christian Louboutins sank into the ground. “Perfect,” she groaned, looking down where she should have seen the Louboutins’ red soles. She guessed the soft earth, the color of dark chocolate, was what you got when you built a road a few yards from what the estate maps called a bayou. It was the size of one of the small channels around Balboa Island near Newport Beach. Regardless of what you called it, the result of its ebb and flow was acres of healthy sugarcane, she noted, looking across the bayou at the straight rows of knee-high swaying cane. The land lease for the cane fields was a profitable perk for Sugar Mill Plantation, one she would make note of in the sales brochure she planned to send to prospective buyers.

Elli hobbled to the passenger side of her car to get Donna, who was doing her usual kangaroo imitation. Whenever left alone in the car for two seconds, Donna bounced up and down on the seat as if it was a trampoline. “Can you not be so demanding this one time? I’m struggling here.” Elli thought about her comfy running shoes in the trunk. She was ruining a great pair of Laboutin’s for a man who happily walked in doggie poop.

She opened the door and Donna stopped jumping, lifting her high-class snout. That’s what she got for renting a dog that looked like a little girl’s toy with one of those cute commercial names like My Lil’ Petty. She’d been bred for childless couples with deep pockets or for women who wanted to carry her in a matching Gucci bag. Blaine had dressed this particular model in a fuchsia leather and rhinestone collar to coordinate with the trim on her zebra-patterned kennel.

“Don’t get all better-than-thou on me, you little snob. You may be pretty, but you pee like a stray mutt in a dirty alley.” Elli lifted the overly excited Donna from the car seat and was promptly rewarded with a pale yellow spot shaped like the state of Idaho on the front of her tailored skirt.

“Of course, you did . . .” she gasped but her voice was drowned by the blast of an air horn and the whooping of a dozen men. It startled Elli so much she dropped Donna back onto the car seat, causing the princess puppy to begin yapping like a cocaine-addicted auctioneer.

“Happy Mardi Gras!” someone shouted as a decapitated school bus of chaos plowed down the drive toward her. The roof-less old bus was painted in stripes of royal purple, kelly green, and metallic gold. Fat letters proclaiming it The Party Express spread across its side. Ten speakers positioned for maximum coverage blasted “Iko, Iko” at higher decibels than the gospel music in her car. Donna was having no part of this rowdy group. She took off, heading away from the bus and straight for the canal.

“No,” Elli shouted, seeing the image of a huge alligator mouth thrashing toward mockingbirds—scratch that—toward Donna! Elli took off after her. “Stop. No. Heel.” She managed only four long strides into the field before her shoes were sucked into the Louisiana mud hiding beneath the tall green grass. Her feet jerked out of the shoes and managed a few more steps until they got sucked into the wet pudding earth as well. She fell facedown. Elli heard a splash, then a doggie yipe. “Donna!”

“Well, I’ll be damned. I’ve never seen a dog that can’t swim,” a deep, masculine voice drawled from somewhere above and behind her. Elli gave no thought to how high her skirt slid up her legs or the fact that her tiny scrap of lace panty might be exposed. Donna was going to be eaten by an alligator!

A flash of neon orange leaped over her as she tried to get up. She watched as the back of a tall man with shoulder-length black hair, wearing a satin, neon-orange costume trimmed in black sequins, raced into the water. An oversized black, red, and white-lighted pirate ship hat flew off his head as he reached for Donna. It bobbed like an amusement park ride with its lights twinkling in the wake created by both man and dog. She heard him shout something in the direction of the alligator on the bank, and her heart stopped.

“Watch out for the alligator,” she screamed, knowing it was seconds too late and unnecessary. The man obviously saw it. Still, she warned him again. “Alligator.”

Elli got up and raced on bare feet to the bayou’s edge, watching as the alligator swam away. It gave her little comfort. The vicious creature was still too close and might return. Elli turned toward Donna who was wet, wide-eyed, and safe in the man’s arms. In fact, Donna looked better than safe. If Elli wasn’t mistaken, the silly dog was looking all dopey-eyed at her human rescuer. Oddly, Elli understood why. He was a fine specimen of male human. She supposed even a dog would appreciate his dark, rugged, man’s man features set against dreamy eyes the color of the emerald sugarcane. He was a beauty, and Donna was appreciating his rescue with smooth, happy licks to his large hands.

“This your dog?” the super gorgeous man asked.

“What? Uh. Yes.” Elli’s heart seemed to skip when all that male energy was directed at her. She looked away, hoping to reengage her brain, then spotted the twinkling hat. “Your pirate ship is sinking in the canal.”

He looked at her a moment, then cocked his head in the confused way she’d seen Donna do when she discussed her plans for the Sugar Mill Plantation. “It’s a bayou.”

“Whatever.” She needed distance from the alligator, the murky water, and the neon pirate. They were sucking all the dense, humid air and she needed to breathe. She turned to walk back to her car and plowed into an army of neon-orange-clad men lined up as if ready to charge into some amusement park battle. Most had the same silly, lighted pirate’s hat, except for one man who had a lighted hard hat with cans of beer on both sides and clear tubing extending from it. The ends of the tubes were positioned near his mouth. “Convenient.”

“I think so.” He laughed and took a big sip.

“Hey, lady,” the deep voice behind her rumbled with annoyance. “Your dog.”

Elli turned and saw his lifted brows and crooked I’m-not-so-happy grin. “Can you hold her until I get a towel?” She looked down at her skirt with the Idaho-shaped piddle stain, mud, and grass smears around it and sighed. “What’s the point?,” she muttered in a defeated tone and walked back to the good-looking pirate man standing on the bayou edge and took Donna from him, holding her away from her body at arm’s length. The dog whined and began to tinkle.

“Hey, your dog’s leaking,” one of the pirates shouted, to the hooting laughter of the others.

The jabs and laughter continued until the man with the giant beer-can hat walked up to Elli and scratched Donna under her chin. Donna kicked her hind legs with excitement. “You’re a cute thing,” he said, sliding his finger under the fuchsia and rhinestone Prada collar. “This, however, is way over the top.”

“That said by a man wearing neon-orange satin clothes and a six-pack on his head,” Elli countered.

“Hey, it’s not a six-pack. It’s two tall forties.” The men laughed. “Besides, men are supposed to look like this during Mardi Gras. Never should a dog look like a nursery rhyme in drag.” He turned to Donna’s rescuer. “Tell her. Real dogs should have drool dripping from their mouths and hunters walking alongside them.”

Mais yeah, Ben,” another man shouted in a heavy Cajun accent. “Tell her, a real dawg should fetch a beer from da fridge while da ball game is on. Dat way nobody has to get off da recliner.”

Elli’s head snapped around to the man they were addressing. She noticed that he had a sexy little scar bisecting his lopsided grin. Ben. Ben Bienvenu? Her partner? Donna’s hero. Alligator eliminator.

“A real dog,” another man in neon shouted as he swayed a bit drunkenly. “A real dog should be able to protect your woman and lick his . . .”

“Whoa, I think she’s got the picture,” Ben said interrupting the rowdy group, all of whom, Elli now realized, were well on their way to having hangovers. The only man seemingly sober was her new partner.

She whirled around to face him, Donna still projecting out from her arms. “So, you are Ben Bienvenu.”

He bowed at the waist and waved the dripping pirate hat he’d just retrieved from the bayou. “At your service.” He winked, and she noticed another thin scar in the crease of his smiling eyes, causing an unwelcome fluttering in her midsection. Nerves, she reasoned, as his cronies howled and offered a few R-rated suggestions on what kind of services he could render. No doubt about it, his at your service comment was intended more for them than her. The way his eyes crinkled and mouth smirked in boyish humor made that clear. Her odd reaction to him wasn’t worth a second thought. It had just been the result of her encounter with the alligator, Donna’s near demise, and all that neon.

“Well,” Elli said on an exhale, not exactly sure how to introduce herself to her partner. This was not the first impression she’d spent days planning. She stiffened her spine and lifted her chin.

“Uh-oh.” The man with the beer cans strapped to his head frowned.

“Mr. Bienvenu.” Elli tucked Donna into the crook of her arm, wiped her free hand on her skirt, and extended it to Ben. “I’m Elli Morenelli, I own the Sugar Mill Plantation with you.”

Ben Bienvenu shook her hand but looked at the man with the beer cans strapped to his head. His once emerald eyes darkened to the color of army fatigues. Beer man ignored Ben and with a smile, extended his hand to Elli.

“Hi, Elli. I’m Beau Bienvenu, Ben’s attorney. We spoke on the phone a few times. Welcome to Cane, Louisiana.”


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ISBN 9780996075015