He remembered how small and lost Cici had looked standing on the dock after he’d told her he didn’t love her. He’d lied to protect her and him. Strangely, his lie had made him feel equally sad.
Don’t think about the past. Or how you felt. Just deal with Cici now.
Despite his best intentions not to revisit the past, he remembered young, vivacious Cici trying to pretend she was strong and tough and as good as the rich and powerful Claibornes. He’d hurt her. Hurt Jake. Hurt everybody, including himself. And told himself it was collateral damage because the family was richer and stronger than ever.
After locking the car, Logan turned and strode up the gravel drive toward the softly glowing house. But at the base of the stairs that led to the lower gallery and massive front door, he paused.
Slowly his gaze drifted over the mansion and lawn. A newly built wooden wheelchair ramp that avoided the stairs snaked back and forth from the ground to the front door.
Logan’s eyes roved over the familiar grounds, out to the garçonnière where he and Jake had lived as teenagers before their quarrel over Cici, and he wondered who owned the two-seater Miata parked at such a jaunty angle beside the building.
Frowning, he made for the stairs, but just as he was about to turn the knob and push at the front door, it was opened by someone inside the house.
“Why, hello there, Mister Logan,” said the soft, familiar, French-accented voice of his childhood nanny.
Noonoon, his grandfather’s housekeeper now, stood just inside the big door. At the sight of him, her dark face lit up as brightly as a birthday cake.
An answering warmth filled him. This generous-hearted woman had always loved him, loved Jake, too. Ever since their mother’s death, she’d practically run Belle Rose single-handedly.
“Lordy, it shore is a hot day.”
He nodded, gave her a quick hug, then released her.
“Come on in out of the heat before you melt. If it’s this hot now, what’ll it be like in August?”
“Don’t get me started about August.” Because of the gulf heating up in the summer, August was a prime month for hurricanes.
“Can I fix you something? A drink maybe? Iced tea with a sprig of mint?”
He shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“You shore are. At thirty-five, you’re as tall and handsome as ever.”
“Why do you remind me of my age every chance you get?”
“Maybe because it’s time you stopped grieving so hard for your pretty Miss Noelle.”
She stopped, realizing he wasn’t the sort to encourage sympathy. “Life is short,” she said.
“I have someone new in my life.” He stepped into the welcoming cool of the wide central hall. “Her name’s Alicia Butler. You’ll meet her soon. She’s a real lady. Someone the family will be proud of.”
Noonoon shut the door behind him. “I’m real glad. So, what brings you all the way down here from New Orleans?”
“My grandfather. He’s so deaf he’s hard to talk to over the phone. I thought we had things settled, but this morning he was saying he was better and wanted to stay here on his own.” Deliberately Logan refrained from mentioning Cici.
“Mr. Pierre, he be napping upstairs. But he’ll be mighty pleased, he will…that you’re here…since we don’t see much of you these days, you bein’ such a busy, important man and all and living in New Orleans.”
“Napping? Where is she, then?” Logan asked.
“Miss Cici?” Noonoon inquired a little too innocently.
Logan nodded. “Who else?”
“I knew it wouldn’t take you long…as soon as you heard about Miss Cici. There shore isn’t nothing like a rich older man taking an interest in a beautiful, younger woman for getting the rest of his family’s hackles up, now is there?”
“That’s not why…”
Her intelligent, black eyes regarding him intently, Noonoon placed her hands on her wide hips. So, Cici had already won Noonoon over.
“When you heard about Miss Cici, you come down here faster than that lazy hare sprinting at the last second to catch that tortoise in that story I used to read to you two boys. Why, I’ll never forget that last summer she was here. Miss Cici, I mean. She was eighteen and just the prettiest little thing I ever saw.”
Logan wished to hell he couldn’t remember the way slanting sunlight had washed Cici’s breasts with light and shadow as she’d stood in her pirogue the first day he’d come home. When she’d seen him, she’d jumped out of the boat and had run into the woods, her long legs flying gracefully. When he’d followed her, she’d said hi and her dark eyes had sparkled with such joy, she’d bewitched him. After that, she’d been too shy to say more, and, hell, so had he.