The stiff breeze blowing off the Mississippi River whipped Ivana Culpepper’s long, natural hair around her head. She caught it up and twisted it in an attempt to tame the mass of wavy locks, to no avail. Forgetting about her hair, Ivana took another ten steps forward before stopping at the corner of Ursuline and Chartres Streets. She could make out the sloped roof of the house on the far end of the block, could tell by the fresh cornflower blue color of the dormer that it had received another coat of paint since she’d last seen it three years ago.
Three years ago.
It didn’t seem that long, yet, in a way, it seemed like a lifetime ago. When Ivana thought about the person she’d been when she left New Orleans on that balmy summer afternoon, she had a hard time reconciling her with the woman standing on this chipped French Quarter street right now. Save for a few additional wrinkles that had popped up in the corners of her eyes and a faded scratch courtesy of a run-in with a cactus during a hike in the mountains of Hispaniola, she looked the same.
It was the insidethat had changed.
“Not completely. You’re still too much of a coward to face him.”
She sucked in a deep, cleansing breath and tried to convince herself that she wasn’t a coward. But as comforting—even necessary—as it occasionally was to lie to herself, it had never done her any good in the past.
If she wasn’t a coward, she wouldn’t have spent the past two weeks avoiding the man she was supposed to marry just a week before she’d left that faithful day in July. She wouldn’t have spent an entire night in costume two weeks ago at the kickoff party for the Diane Holmes Foundation, trailing him around the room, wondering about his relationship with the gorgeous woman he’d had on his arm.
It isn’t your concern who he has on his arm.
She’d had her chance to be that person, and had thrown it away. When it came to Jonathan Campbell, she didn’t have any claim on him. Zero. He was a man from her past. A man she’d loved, but one she’d run from. And if it wasn’t for the fact that a close friend needed legal advice, Ivana would have done everything in her power to continue running from Jonathan.
She should have told Angus that she couldn’t help him. There were other channels he could have gone through to address his situation. But it went against everything in her nature not to help a person in need. Providing aid to those in trouble was at the heart of her very existence. It’s how she’d met Angus Thomson. A fellow relief worker, they’d worked alongside each other for the past three years in Haiti. So when Angus had called, frantic over an issue with his G-1 visa, Ivana couldn’t help but get involved. When she realized that they needed to talk to someone with legal expertise, Jonathan was the first person who came to mind.
A chill raced through her body, and it had nothing to do with the brisk wind still blowing off the river. She lifted the long, simple, slightly tarnished chain she kept around her neck and fiddled with the breathtaking ring that hung from it. For the past three years she’d worn the engagement ring Jonathan had given her close to her heart, treating it like a talisman, seeking strength from it when she needed courage. Ironic that she would turn to it today, when the courage she sought had to do with facing the man who’d given her the ring in the first place.
She’d envisioned the moment when she would face Jonathan again countless times, speculating about how he would react. Would he be upset? Relieved? Would he look at her as if she were a ghost? She’d tried to put herself in his position, but when she considered what herreaction would be to seeing someone who’d left only a week before their wedding, she could barely stomach it.
Regret coasted through her bloodstream. Thick, suffocating regret. She knew the taste of it well. It had been a healthy part of her diet for years now.
She needed to just get this over with. She would fulfill her promise to Angus, and then she would leave. Who knows, maybe Jonathan wouldn’t even be around. It was late. He may have already left the office.
Ivana closed her eyes, sent up a quick prayer, and crossed the street. A mixture of anxiety and anticipation traveled along her skin as she moved ever closer to the gorgeous structure. The sun had just started its descent, turning the western sky an array of warm oranges, reds and purples.
Her heart thudded within her chest when she noticed a sleek black sedan parked in the reserved parking spot next to the law office.
Well, so much for him not being here.
She’d spent the afternoon coming up with things to do in order to delay her trip, hoping by the time she arrived everyone would be gone for the day. Jonathan had always put in way too many hours at the office. She’d gotten him out of the habit, but apparently he’d reverted back to being a workaholic.
As she approached the house, Ivana couldn’t help but remember the first time she encountered Jonathan here, the very first day they met. She’d charged up the steps of the three-story creole cottage, prepared to do everything within her power to save the house from the ruin she just knew its new owner was preparing to heap upon it.
It had been determined that the house was the place where the first known voodoo healing in New Orleans had occurred, according to her sisters of the religion, which she had practiced for years. When she learned the house was slated to become a new law practice, Ivana assumed the buyer was going to gut it. Instead, he’d restored it to its former glory.
Only days after their thorny initial encounter, she’d been stunned speechless when she’d gone to dinner at the home of longtime family friend, Margo Holmes, and found herself sitting directly across the table from Jonathan Campbell. That’s when Ivana learned that he was the college basketball teammate of her now brother-in-law, Tobias Holmes, her baby sister Sienna’s husband.
It all seemed so, so long ago.
This little jaunt down memory lane isn’t helping. Speed it up.
Ivana rolled her eyes at the annoying voice in her head, which, for some reason, did not want to get with the program when it came to stalling this inevitable meeting. But it wasinevitable. She knew this. It was a miracle she’d managed to go the past two weeks without Jonathan discovering her presence in New Orleans. He was too tied to her family to expect this avoidance dance to go on much longer. It was time she ripped off the Band-Aid.
She climbed the porch steps and tried the door. It was locked.
Of course, it was locked. It was after normal work hours. She rang the doorbell, her heart’s ridiculous racing picking up even more steam as she waited. Ivana counted a full sixty seconds before ringing it again. Maybe he wasn’t here after all. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he left a car parked at the law firm at all times.
Just as she made the decision to leave, the door opened and the man she’d been prepared to marry appeared on the other side.
Every drop of breath she possessed seemed to rush out of her lungs. She’d seen him at the gala a few weeks ago, but always from a distance. This was the first time she’d been this close to him in three years.
The aromatic, woodsy notes of his cologne assaulted her senses, the faint smell bringing with it powerful memories of the one time in her life when she’d felt true happiness. When she’d felt loved. The weight of it was almost enough to break her.
“Hello, Jonathan,” she managed to say, the words struggling past the knot of emotion wedged in her throat.
He stared at her for what seemed like an eternity. A silent, unbearably uncomfortable eternity. Those arresting, gorgeous eyes she’d spent hours gazing into as she lay languidly in his arms now looked at her with a mix of shock and aversion.
“I hope I’m not—” But before she could finish, the alluring lilt of a woman’s soft voice came from somewhere nearby.
“Jonathan, what time is the band supposed to start?” The woman arrived at the door, sidling up alongside him. “Oh, hello,” she said to Ivana, her eyes wide with surprise.
Ivana took in the stunning, honey-toned beauty with legs that went on for days. She looked from the woman standing next to him in a gorgeous body-hugging gown that shimmered with thousands of crystals, to Jonathan, whom she just now realized wore a sleek, black tuxedo.
He was going out. Theywere going out. On a date.
A retched sensation settled like a lead anchor in the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t as if she was surprised he was seeing someone; she’d had to put a stop to Sienna’s reports on his extremely robust dating life over the years. But hearing about it from her sister while she worked in a village thousands of miles away was different from witnessing it firsthand.
“I…” Ivana started. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just…I needed to speak with you.”
The discomfort in the air was palpable as he continued to stare at her with that stoic expression. After another few moments passed, he finally said, “We’re late for an event.”
The iciness in his tone caused a shock of goosebumps to pop up along her skin. They were the first words he’d spoken to her in three years. To have him address her so coldly, without an ounce of feeling, was something she probably should have anticipated, but foolishly had not.
She would be lying if she said it didn’t hurt. She would also be lying if she didn’t admit that it was nothing less than what she deserved.
“I—” Ivana said again, but she wasn’t sure how to respond. “I’m sorry for bothering you,” she finally managed. The words felt like sandpaper as the came out of her throat.
“Come by tomorrow during normal business hours,” Jonathan said. He turned to the woman next to him. “Are you ready?”
“I just need to grab my clutch.” She looked to Ivana. “Excuse me,” she said, her eyes kind, her smile even kinder. “I love your skirt, by the way.”
Ivana looked down at her bright, flowing skirt. She had a closet full of them. “Thank you,” she returned.
She looked back up to find Jonathan staring at her with an emotionless expression. She’d run dozens of scenarios in her head, anticipating how he would react when they finally saw each other again. She’d readied herself for his shock. Even for his fury. But never for such…indifference. His apathy at what she considered to be one of the most significant moments she’d faced in years made her feel hollow inside.
“I should have called before coming,” Ivana said once she and Jonathan were alone again.
His brows arched and he shook his head, huffing out a humorless grunt of laughter. “A call? Yeah, maybe you should have called after three years,” he finished with unmistakable disdain in his voice.
Ah, there it was. There was the anger she’d anticipated.
The knot in her belly tightened by several degrees.
She’d expected this, hadn’t she? Anger was an acceptable reaction when the woman who’d left you at the altar showed up on your doorstep without warning after three long years. His anger was totally justified. Still, that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt.
“Jonathan, I know—” Ivana started, but stopped when his date returned, carrying a sparkling royal blue clutch in her hand.
“I’m ready,” the woman said. She captured Jonathan’s arm and wrapped her hand around it. It wasn’t an overly possessive move, yet Ivana still had a visceral reaction to seeing the woman’s delicate fingers caressing his skin. Her head knew that she’d given up all rights to him the moment she’d boarded that plane to Haiti, but her heart didn’t care. Her throat ached and her insides clenched with proprietorial jealousy.
Jonathan and his date stepped out onto the porch. Ivana wasn’t sure why she remained standing there as he locked the door behind him. She should have left two minutes ago, after he’d so coldly told her to come back tomorrow.
Yet she remained standing there, watching as the impeccably dressed couple turned toward the stairs.
“Goodnight,” the woman on his arm said. Jonathan tipped his head in a bid of farewell before escorting his date down the stairs and to the black sedan.
Ivana walked down the porch and onto the sidewalk. She stood there watching as his car backed out of the parking spot and pulled onto the street.
Her eyes connected briefly with Jonathan’s as he stared at her in the rearview mirror seconds before turning onto St. Phillip Street.