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The Cajun CowboyTHE CAJUN COWBOY
Warner Books
June 2004
ISBN-10: 0446612952
ISBN-13: 978-0446612951

Was reissued in May 2007 for a limited
time at a special low price.

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Chapter One 

Give me a buzz, baby...

"I'm a born-again virgin."

Charmaine LeDeux made that pronouncement with a soft feminine belch after downing three of the six oyster shooters sitting on the table before her at The Swamp Tavern. She was halfway to meeting her goal of getting knee-walking buzzed.

The jukebox played a soft Jimmy Newman rendition of "Louisiana, The Key to My Soul." Someone in the kitchen cooked jambalaya which filled the air with pungent spices. Gater, the bald-headed, long-time bartender, washed glasses behind the bar.

Louise Rivard--better known as Tante Lulu--sat on the opposite side of the booth. She arched a brow at the potent drinks in front of Charmaine compared to her single glass of plain RC Cola and looked pointedly at Charmaine's stretchy red T-shirt with its hairdresser logo, I Can Blow You Away. Only then did the old lady declare, "And I'm Salome about to lose a few veils." In point of fact, Tante Lulu, who had to be close to eighty, was wearing a harem-style outfit because of a belly dance class she planned to attend on the other side of Houma this afternoon. In the basement of Our Lady of the Bayou Church, no less! But first, she'd agreed to be Charmaine's designated driver.

"I'm sher...I mean, serious." Charmaine felt a little woozy already. "My life is a disaster. Twenty-nine years old, and I've been married and divorced four times. Haven't had a date in six months. And I've got a loan shark on my tail."

"A fish? Whass a fish have to do with anything?" Tante Lulu sputtered.

Sometimes Charmaine suspected that Tante Lulu was deliberately dense. But she was precious to Charmaine, and Charmaine teared up just thinking about all the times the old lady's cottage had been a refuge to her over the years when she'd run away from unbearable home conditions. Being the illegitimate daughter of a stripper and the notorious womanizer Valcour LeDeux had made for a rocky childhood, with Tante Lulu being a little girl's only anchor. And she wasn't even Charmaine's blood-relative; she was blood-aunt only to Charmaine's half-brothers, Luc, René and Remy.

So, it was with loving patience that Charmaine explained, "Not just any fish. A shark. Bobby Doucet wants fifty thousand dollars by next Friday or he's gonna put a Mafia hit on me; I didn't even know they had a Mafia in Southern Loo-zee-anna. Or maybe they'll just break my knees. Jeesh! Yep, I'd say it's time for some new beginnings. I'm gonna be a born-again virgin."

"What? You doan think the Sopranos kill virgins?" Tante Lulu remarked drolly.

"The born-again virgin thingee is a personal change. The loan shark thingee would require a different kind of change...like fifty thousand dollars, and it's going up a thousand dollars a day in interest. I gotta get out of Dodge fast."

Tante Lulu did a few quick calculations in her head. "Charmaine! Thass ten per cent per day. What were you thinkin'?"

Charmaine shrugged. "I thought I'd be able to pay it off in a few days. It started out at twenty thousand, by the way."

"Tsk-tsk-tsk!"

"I don't suppose you could lend me the money?"

"Me? I ain't got that kind of money. I thought yer bizness was goin' good. What happened?"

"The business is great." Charmaine owned two beauty spas, one here in Houma and the other in Lafayette. Both of them prospered, even in a slow economy, or at least broke even. Apparently, women didn't consider personal appearance a luxury. Nope, her spas were not the problem. "I made a lot of money in the stock market a few years back. That's when I bought my second shop. But I got careless this year and bought some technology stocks on margin. I lost more money than I put in. It was a temporary problem, which spiraled out of control when I borrowed money from Bucks 'r Us. Who knew it was a loan shark operation?"

"Well, it sure as shootin' doan sound like a bank. Have you gone to the police?"

"Hell, no! I'd be deader'n a door nail within the hour if I did that."

"How 'bout Luc?" Lucien LeDeux was Charmaine's half-brother and a well-known local lawyer.

She nodded. "He's working on it. In the meantime, he suggested, maybe facetiously, that I hire a bodyguard."

Tante Lulu brightened. "I could be your bodyguard. I got a rifle in the trunk of my T-bird outside. You want I should off Bobby Doucet. Bam-bam! I could do it. I think."

Off? Where does she get this stuff? Charmaine groaned. That's all I need...a senior citizen, one-woman posse. "Uh, no thanks." With those words, Charmaine tossed back another shot glass filled with a raw oyster drowning in Tabasco Sauce, better known with good reason as Cajun Lightning, then followed it immediately with a chaser of pure one hundred proof bourbon. "Whoo-ee!" she said, accompanied by a full-body shiver.

"Back to that other thing," Tante Lulu said. "Charmaine, honey, you caint jist decide to be a virgin again. It's like tryin' to put the egg back together once the shell's been cracked. Like Humpty Dumpty."

Hump me, dump me. That oughta be my slogan. Oughta have it branded on my forehead.

A more upbeat song, "Cajun Born," came on the jukebox, and Charmaine jerked upright. Shaking her fifty-pound head slowly from side to side, she licked her lips, which were starting to get numb. "Can so," she argued irrationally. Or was that rationally? Whatever. "Be a virgin again, I mean. It's a big trend. Some lady even wrote a book about it. There's websites all over the Internet where ladies promise to be celibate till their wedding day. Born-again virgins."

"Hmpfh!" was Tante Lulu's only response as she sipped on her straw.

"Besides, I might even have my hymen surgically replaced."

Tante Lulu was a noted traiteur, or healer, all along the bayou, but she was outrageous beyond belief in her antics and attire. For once, Charmaine had managed to shock her. "Is hey-man what I think it is?"

"It's hi-man, and yes, it is what you think."

"Hey, hi...big difference! You are goin' off the deep end, girlie, iffen yer thinkin' of havin' some quack sew you up there."

Deep end is right. "I didn't say I was going to do it, for sure. Just considering it. But born-again virgin, that I am gonna do, for sure."

"Hmmm. I really do doubt that, sweetie," Tante Lulu said, peering off toward the front of the tavern, which was mostly empty in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday.

Frankly, Charmaine shouldn't be here, either. She should be at one of her spas, but she was afraid Mafia thugs would catch up with her in advance of the deadline.

"Seems to me that all yer resolutions are 'bout to melt," Tante Lulu chortled.

Charmaine turned to see what Tante Lulu was gawking at with that strange little smirk on her face. Then Charmaine did a double take.

It was Raoul Lanier, her first ex-husband. Some people called him Rusty. She'd preferred his real name in the past. Raoul always said he liked the way his name sounded on her tongue, slow and sexy, especially when...

She'd been a nineteen-years-old student at LSU and former Miss Lousiana when she'd married Raoul. He'd been twenty-one and a hot-shot football player and pre-med student at the same school. As good as he'd been at football, which earned him a scholarship, his dream had always been to be a veterinarian. His last words to her before they'd parted had been, "Once a bimbo, always a bimbo." She would never forgive or forget those words. Never.

Charmaine had been avoiding Rusty for weeks, ever since he got released from prison. And, yes, she was bound and determined to think of him as Rusty now. She thought about ducking under the table, but he'd already seen her. And he had a look in his black Cajun eyes, unusually grim today, that said, "Here I come, baby. Batten down the hatches."

Man oh man, her hatches had always been weak where Rusty was concerned. All he had to do was wink at her, and she melted. Today he wore faded jeans with battered, low-heeled boots, a long-sleeved denim shirt and a cowboy hat. He was six-foot-three of gorgeous, dark-skinned, dark-haired Cajun testosterone. Temptation on the hoof.

Good thing she was a born-again virgin.

*****

Women are the root of all trouble, guar-an-teed!

Finally, after a month of off-and-on bird-dogging of Charmaine, Raoul had finally caught up with her. She wasn't going to escape now.

"Ladies." He took off his hat and nodded a greeting, first at Charmaine and then at Tante Lulu, who was wearing the most outlandish outfit...looked like a belly dancer suit, or something. But then, Charmaine wasn't any better. She wore her usual suggestive attire designed to tease, which didn't bear close scrutiny in his present mood. Not that he wasn't teasable, especially after two years in the state pen.

But, no, he couldn't blame his reaction to Charmaine on his two years of forced celibacy. She'd always had that hair-trigger arousal effect on him. When she'd dumped him ten years ago, he'd about died. Quit school for a semester. Lost his football scholarship. A nightmare. Every time he'd heard about her remarrying, he'd relived the pain. He couldn't go through that again, especially not with all the current problems in his life.

Steel, yourself, buddy. She's only a woman, the logical side of his brain said.

Hah! the perverse side said.

He pulled up a chair and sat down, propping his long legs, crossed at the ankle, on the edge of Charmaine's side of the booth, barring any hasty departure on her part. He was no fool. He recognized the panic in her wide whiskey eyes.

After taking a swallow from the long neck he'd purchased at the bar, he set the bottle down, noticing for the first time the line of oyster shooters in front of Charmaine. Holy Shit! Had she really drunk four of them already? In the middle of the afternoon?

"What are we celebrating, chère?" he asked.

"We aren't celebrating anything," Charmaine answered churlishly.

Hey, I'm the one who should be churlish here, Ms. Snotty.

"We're celebrating Charmaine's virginity," Tante Lulu announced.

"Is that a fact?" Raoul said with a grin. You had to give the old broad credit. She was always full of surprises. Well, so was Charmaine, and she was a young broad. Not that he would call her that out loud. He'd called her a bimbo one time and she'd about knocked his block off before walking out on him.

Charmaine groaned at Tante Lulu's announcement and downed another oyster shooter, first the oyster, then the bourbon. Gulp-gulp! He watched with fascination the shiver that rippled over her body from her throat, across her mighty-fine breasts, her belly and all her extremities, including her skin-tight black jeans. Then his eyes moved back to her breasts where her nipples bloomed under his scrutiny in a flame-red hooker T-shirt. Charmaine watched him watching her and groaned again.

Was it possible he still affected her the way she affected him? Don't go there, Raoul, he advised himself.

Tante Lulu chuckled. "Yep, Charmaine's a born-again virgin. She's joinin' a club, and everything. Might even have her doo-hickey sewed back up."

Yeah, and I'm a born-again loser. I joined a club, too. It's called prison. Raoul wasn't about to ask Tante Lulu what doo-hickey she referred to. Instead, he commented to Charmaine, "Hot damn, you always manage to surprise me, darlin'?"

He immediately regretted his words when Charmaine batted her eyelashes at him and drawled, "That's my goal in life, darlin'."

He gritted his teeth. He was so damn mad at her, not because she was being sarcastic now, but because she'd made his life miserable the past few weeks...in fact, the past ten years.

Tante Lulu giggled. For a moment, he'd forgotten she was there. He glanced toward the old lady, not wanting to rehash old...or new...business in front of her. "Charmaine and I shouldn't be squabbling in front of you."

Tante Lulu just waved a hand in front of her face and said, "Doan you nevermind me, boy. Squabble all you want. Jist pretend I'm not here."

Right. Like everything we say isn't going to be broadcast on the bayou grapevine by nightfall.

"You never used to be so...uh, serious," Charmaine observed, staring at him sadly.

"I never used to be an ex-con." He could tell that didn't melt any ice with Charmaine, and it was a half-assed excuse for whining.

"Was you framed?" Tante Lulu asked him all of a sudden.

He hesitated. This was a sore subject with him and not one he was ready to discuss. "Yes," was all he disclosed in the end.

"I knew it!" Tante Lulu whooped, slapping her knee with a hand which set her bells to jingling. "This is yer lucky day, boy, 'cause I been thinkin' 'bout becomin' a dick."

Now, that pronouncement boggled his mind till he realized that the old lady meant private eye and that she was offering to help clear his name.

He heard Charmaine giggle at his discomfort.

"Uh, thanks for the offer, but no thanks."

"Are you still an animal doctor?"

Raoul's heart wrenched with pain, and he couldn't breath for a second. This was definitely a subject he did not want to discuss. Finally, after unclenching his fists, he said tersely, "I lost my veterinary license when I went to prison."

"Oh, Raoul." It was Charmaine speaking now. Her eyes were filled with sympathy.

Yep, that's what I want from you, babe. Pity. And now you call me Raoul. Talk about bad timing!

"Being a vet was always the most important thing in the world to you."

Not the most important thing. "I'll get it back."

"I hope so," she replied softly.

Before Tante Lulu had a chance to voice her opinion, he steered the conversation in another direction, "What's the reason for the binge, Charmaine?"

"None of your business." She licked her flame-red lips which were probably desensitized from all the booze.

He'd like a shot at sensitizing them up.

No, no, no! I would not. That would be a bad idea. I am not going to fall for Charmaine again. No way!

Still, if she doesn't stop licking those kiss-me-quick lips, I might just leap over the table and do it for her.

"The Mafia is after her," Tante Lulu said. "And her life's in the outhouse."

"The toilet," Charmaine corrected her aunt, with another lick.

"Huh?" Raoul had lost his train of thought somewhere between Charmaine's new virginity and her licking exercise.

Back at the beginning of time--probably post-Garden of Eden since Adam was a dunce, for sure, when it came to Eve--men had learned an important lesson that even today hadn't sunk in with women. The female of the species should never lick anything in front of the male. Licking gave men ideas. He would bet his boots good ol' Eve had licked that apple first before offering it to Adam. So, keep on lickin', Charmaine, and you might just see what's tickin'.

"You asked why Charmaine's on a binge. And I said the Mafia is after her," Tante Lulu explained. "You thick or sumpin, boy. By the by, I been meanin' to ask, you being so pretty and all...uh, did you have a boyfriend in the joint?"

Raoul should have been insulted, but it was hard to get angry with the old lady who didn't really mean any offense. Besides, she probably just asked what everyone else was thinking.

"No, I didn't have a boyfriend."

"Oh, goody, I was afraid you'd gone gay."

"People don't go gay, auntie," Charmaine said.

Tante Lulu just ignored her and smiled at him. Every time she moved, the bells on her belly dancer outfit chimed. "Great outfit, by the way," he remarked. It was always smart to stay on Tante Lulu's good side.

"It's a bedleh," she informed him.

I think I have landed in bedlam. What the hell do I care what the name of her outfit is! But what he said was, "How interesting!" Then he addressed Charmaine. "What's this about the Mafia, darlin'?"

"Don't call me darlin'. I am not your darlin'." How like Charmaine to home in on the most irrelevant thing he'd said.

"They's gonna kill her, or break her knees," Tante Lulu interjected.

"How about her doo-hickey?" he teased.

But Tante Lulu took him seriously. "They doan know 'bout that yet."

"Tante Lulu! I can speak for myself," Charmaine said. She turned to him, slowly, as if unsure if she might topple over, which was a real possibility. "I just have a little money problem to settle with Bucks 'r Us."

Her words were slurred a bit, but he got the message. "A loan shark? You borrowed money from a loan shark?"

"Doan s'pose you have fifty thousand dollars to spare?" Tante Lulu inquired of him.

"Fifty Thou?" he mouthed to Charmaine, who just nodded. "No, I can't say that I do."

Charmaine probably hadn't expected him to help her, and the question hadn't even come from her. Still, her shoulders drooped with disappointment.

In that moment, despite everything the flaky Charmaine had ever done to him, he wished he could help.

"So, you can see why Charmaine's a bit depressed," Tante Lulu said. "That, on top of her pushin' thirty, not havin' a date fer six months, and being married and divorced four times. Who wouldn't be depressed by that?" Tante Lulu stood then, her bells ting-a-linging and said, "I'm outta here. Gotta go to belly dance class. Will you take Charmaine home, Rusty?"

"No!" Charmaine said.

"Yes," he said.

After the old lady left, he stood, then sat down beside Charmaine in the booth, which required a little forceful pushing of his hips against hers. He put his one arm over the back of the booth, just above her shoulders and relished just for a brief moment the remembrance of how good Charmaine felt against him. Same perfume. Same big "Texas" hair as her beauty pageant days. Same sleek brunette color. Same soft-as-sin curves. "So, you haven't had a date in six months, huh? Poor baby!"

She lifted her chin with that stubborn pride of hers. "It's not because I haven't been asked."

"I don't doubt that for a minute, chère. And, hey, I haven't had a date in two years; so, we're sort of even."

"Go away, Rusty. I want to get plastered in private."

He didn't mind people calling him Rusty, except for Charmaine. He wanted her to call him Raoul, in that slow, breathy way she had of saying Raaa-oool. No, it was better that she called him Rusty now. Besides, it was an apt description of his equipment these days...out of use and rusty as hell.

"I have a bit of good news for you, baby." He could tell she didn't like him calling her baby by the way her body stiffened up like a steer on branding day. That's probably why he added, "Real good news, baby."

Her upper lip curled with disgust. She probably would have belted him one if she wasn't half-drunk. "There isn't any news you could impart that I would be interested in hearing."

Wanna bet? "You know how Tante Lulu said you were depressed over being married and divorced four times?"

"Yeah?" she said hesitantly.

"Well, no need to be depressed over that anymore. Guess what? You're not."

She blinked several times with confusion. "Not what?"

"Divorced four times." He took a long swallow of his beer and waited.

It didn't take Charmaine long to figure it out, even in her fuzzy state. Her big brown eyes went wider, and her flushed face got redder. "You mean...?"

He nodded. "You're not even a one-time divorcée, darlin'. You've never been divorced."

She sat up straighter, turned slowly in her seat to look at him directly, and asked with unflattering horror, "Rusty, are you saying that you and I are still married?"

"Yep, and you can start callin' me Raoul again anytime you want." Dumb, dumb, dumb.

That's when Charmaine leaned against his chest and swooned. Okay, she passed out, but he was taking it as a good sign.

Charmaine Lanier was still his wife, and it was gonna be payback time at the Triple L Ranch. Guar-an-teed!

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