Thirty minutes earlier, two blocks away…
Tori was supposed to be the Best Man.
If she was, she would be having drinks at some place called Trahan’s right now. Tori didn’t even care what they served there, only that it would be off Bourbon Street. And she’d be talking to Andrew and his friends. And not babysitting Paisley and her friends. All of whom made Tori want to stab her eardrums with the tiny colored plastic swords that were skewered through the pineapple chunks at the top of their drinks.
Correction—all of whom made her feel like someone was stabbing her eardrums with tiny plastic swords.
The subjects of their conversations were bad enough—how could anyone talk this much about shoes?—but the talking also never stopped. And then there was the giggling. And the squealing. Holy shit, the squealing.
It got louder and more frequent the more of the icy, pink and green drinks the girls consumed.
Andrew owed her big time.
It was interesting that the guy from out of town was celebrating off Bourbon, while the girl who had grown up in New Orleans was the one getting shit-faced on the infamous party street. Paisley struck Tori as more the mint-juleps-on-the-front-porch type than the doing-shots-and-flashing-her-boobs-for-beads type.
But she’d become that second type tonight. On Tori’s watch.
Thanks, Andrew. At least he was going to be the one dealing with Paisley’s puking later. And her hangover tomorrow. Tori couldn’t imagine the Southern princess hungover. Yikes.
Tori took a tiny sip of the pink concoction she held. And grimaced. She was a beer girl, when she drank at all. This was, obviously, meant to be consumed quickly and after several other drinks.
But this was one of those places on Bourbon. It had the neon-on-steroids lights, the crowds of people, the overpriced-but-loaded-with-liquor drinks in collectible glasses that you’d never want to see again after spending the early morning hours kneeling next to the toilet.
What the hell were they doing here? Paisley was a rich girl. Classy.
A loud, screeching squeal went up from the herd of girls standing a few feet away and Tori rolled her eyes. Classy-ish. Apparently Paisley didn’t go out partying like this with her friends on a regular basis, and the rum and lights and festive atmosphere were getting to her. And, of course, the fact that people kept pinning dollar bills to her chest. It was a tradition, apparently, that if you saw a bride during her bachelorette party in the Quarter, you pinned money to the little clip she wore on her shirt. Or, in Paisley’s case, the very low-cut, tightly fit, strapless dress she wore.
Oh, and then there were the masks. The masks were such a huge part of Mardi Gras that Paisley’s girlfriends had insisted they all wear them tonight. They were meant to obscure your identity and make it easier to just let go and revel in everything crazy and sinful.
Paisley’s was a bright pink, glittery thing that matched her dress—including the sequins—and covered everything but her mouth. No one would know she was the daughter of Robert Darbonne, the past and very beloved Mayor of New Orleans and a current United States Senator. It was the main reason that Paisley’s father had agreed to let her take the bachelorette party down to Bourbon tonight. Her mother thought a tasteful cocktail party would be more appropriate. So they were doing that. Too. Tomorrow night. But Paisley’s bridesmaids—minus Tori—had insisted on taking her to Bourbon for a traditional bachelorette party. For better or worse.
Paisley had grown up in the Garden District of New Orleans in a real, honest-to-God mansion on St. Charles Street, the only child of her politician father and nationally renowned neurosurgeon mother. Paisley was a princess. At least as far as Tori could tell. She dressed the part with lots of designer labels and flashy styles. She certainly acted the part too, making lots of demands and clearly expecting people to ask “how high” even before she said to jump. She was the most spoiled person Tori had ever met.
And she was marrying Tori’s best friend, Andrew.
In four days.
Tori was in New Orleans, a part of the bridal party for a woman she barely knew and didn’t like, for an entire week-long wedding extravaganza.
And the Darbonne family didn’t do “nontraditional” things like letting a woman be the groom’s first attendant. So Tori was the ninth bridesmaid—the last bridesmaid—standing up on Paisley’s side of the aisle.
Tori took a bigger drink of the strawberry slush in her hand—and instantly regretted it—as Paisley stuck her chest out for a group of guys to pin bills to her dress and give her congratulations. Though “congratulations” really sounded a lot like “how about I make you wish you were staying single.”
Tori wished Paisley was staying single. That was for sure.
Not that anyone—especially Andrew—knew that. As far as he knew, Tori was happy for him and his bride-to-be. That was mostly thanks to the fact that Tori and Andrew didn’t often see each other in person. He’d been living in Louisiana and she’d been in Iowa for the past six years.
Tori sighed as she thought about how things had changed between them. That was why she’d been so happy that he’d wanted her to be a part of his wedding. “You’re my oldest friend, Tori. You know me in a way no one else does. Of course you need to be a part of my wedding.” Those words were why she’d said yes to standing up at a wedding she didn’t really want to happen. She didn’t have a lot of close friends and none like Andrew, who she’d known since kindergarten and who had always liked her in spite of her weirdness.
She missed him. Andrew had grown up next door to her, literally, and she couldn’t remember a time when she’d gone more than a day without talking to him even when they were both at Iowa State. It wasn’t until he’d gone to law school at Tulane that they started to talk less. She’d been in vet school, so they’d both been working hard and the time between phone calls had stretched, sometimes to a couple of weeks at a time.
But it had been okay. Mostly. They had texting and Snapchat and Skype.
Until he’d met Paisley.
She’d swept him off his feet. A political science major, Andrew knew all about Paisley’s father, and the promise of a dinner with the famous, mostly-beloved Louisiana politician who they’d been courting to run for President—yes, of the United States—had been more than enough to get Andrew wrapped around Paisley’s dainty, perfectly manicured finger.
He hadn’t come back from that first dinner as the Andrew Tori knew.
“Oh my God, Paisley!” Jenna, one of Paisley’s bridesmaids, exclaimed as she finished her drink. “This is the most fun ever!”
Tori felt her eye twitching.
The girls were loving this because of the attention they were getting.
Tori guessed that bachelorette parties always got a lot of attention from the men on Bourbon. Where else could you find entire herds of young, beautiful, tipsy women who were out for nothing but a good time?
Oh yeah, pretty much anywhere else in New Orleans on any other day of any other week.
Tori almost took another sip of her drink, but then remembered that she hated everything about the slushy pink mix of…whatever. She lowered it and sighed as she watched Paisley look at her phone, grin widely, and then show it to her friends.
Andrew had just texted her a photo of him making a kissy face.
What the hell had happened to Tori’s best friend?
Paisley was exactly the opposite of everything Tori would have expected Andrew to fall for. She spent more time on her hair than Tori spent going from waking up to walking out the door. Paisley had studied early childhood development in college but had no intention of teaching. Or working with kids at all. She was clearly trained and intent on being a politician’s wife. And, maybe worst of all—no, definitely worst of all—Paisley didn’t like animals. She said she was allergic to both dogs and cats, but Tori thought it was really more that she was a terrible person.
Tori again lifted her glass, thought for a second about just chugging it so she’d at least have some liquor in her system, opened her mouth, and then thought better of it. She lowered the glass again. Dammit, she wanted a beer.
She never thought people were terrible. She didn’t like every person she’d ever met, of course, but mostly she gave people the benefit of the doubt and…avoided them as much as possible.
Animals really were superior to people, in almost every sense, and spending her days taking care of everything from cats to cows, and even one alpaca, made Tori exceedingly happy.
She watched Paisley’s friends gather around her for a selfie. They didn’t ask her to join in and she had no desire to. She knew that Paisley was putting up with her because of Andrew.
No, scratch that. She knew that Paisley absolutely did not want her here.
Why Andrew had told Tori that, she had no idea. Why he thought that she and Paisley should hang out tonight, she had no idea. Didn’t Andrew know Tori better than this?
The two women had absolutely nothing—other than Andrew, she supposed—in common. That had been painfully clear when Tori had come to visit Andrew for Mardi Gras last year. Things had been tense and cool between the women, and Tori had ended up spending a lot of time alone while Paisley monopolized Andrew as if they didn’t see each other every single day.
Of course, that had led Tori to Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday last March, which had led her to Bourbon O, the bar five blocks from where she was right now, which had led her to Josh Landry.
So she should probably be grateful to Paisley.
Tori sighed again, but happily—maybe wistfully—this time.
Tonight was Mardi Gras. The night. The only night she really cared about being in New Orleans. The night she was supposed to meet Josh Landry back at Bourbon O. If she wanted to. If he wanted to. If they were still thinking of each other.
And dammit, she wanted to.
She was definitely still thinking of him, and when Andrew had announced that he and Paisley were getting married the weekend after Mardi Gras and asked her to come, Tori had immediately decided to come for the festival and stay for the week-long extravaganza that was going to be Paisley Darbonne’s wedding. Not Andrew and Paisley’s wedding. This thing was all about the bride.
Most women had one day. Maybe a weekend. Not Princess Paisley. The week before the wedding was filled with activities and meals and tours all designed to make the wedding in her hometown into something of a destination wedding for all of the Iowa guests.
Tori hadn’t gotten to New Orleans until today, but she would have waited and shown up on Friday if it wasn’t for Josh Landry.
And now she was five blocks away from the place they’d agreed to meet up.
Just the fact that Josh had suggested this had been making her heart pound for nearly a year. Whenever she thought of it, anyway. It wasn’t like she thought about him constantly. Just once or twice. Every day.
But this kind of stuff didn’t happen in her life. Her life was very…normal. Other than the occasional set of bovine twins or an injured mare, there were very few dramatic flares in Tori’s life.
So what the hell was she doing even thinking about running down Bourbon Street to the bar where she’d first met Josh? They’d only spent about six hours together total and that hadn’t even been all at once. She’d sat across the bar from him as he worked for two nights. The first had only been for about an hour. The second had been for five hours. Five hours that had flown by. They’d only talked. And laughed.
But, as she was leaving each night, he’d come after her. And kissed her.
The best kisses of her life.
Seriously. They were easily the best four out of the twenty-three she’d had.
And then he’d asked her to come back a year later. After two nights of just talking. And four amazing kisses.
That had all been enough to get him to ask her to come back.
That was just…wow.
And she was right here, after all. On Bourbon Street. On Mardi Gras. She could just pop in and see if he was there. He was maybe even working tonight.
She cringed as Paisley called to her across the bar. Paisley refused to call her Tori, no matter how many times Tori told her to.
“You have to go and stall Andrew, okay?”
It wasn’t a big place. Why did the girl think she needed to yell like that? Tori moved around the group of people between her and the perky blonde socialite with the hope that if she was standing closer to her, Paisley would lower her voice a little.
“Stall him?” Tori asked.
“Yeah, the girls and I are heading to the Hustler store,” Paisley said. Loudly. “But we’re supposed to meet them in like ten minutes. I need a little more time.” She winked from behind her pink sequined mask with the tiny bit of tulle attached like a veil to one corner.
Well, helping Paisley pick out sex toys or lingerie for her and Andrew was not on Tori’s To-Do list tonight and hell yes, she’d love an excuse to meet up with the guys somewhere besides the craziness of Bourbon Street.
She’d enjoyed it last year. It had been a part of the whole I’m-so-not-in-Iowa-anymore whirlwind she’d experienced. But Paisley had insisted that Andrew needed to attend her grandmother’s family dinner. Family only. Left out and pissed off that she’d nearly had to sell a kidney to afford her hotel room on Canal Street, Tori had stubbornly headed to the French Quarter on her own. It was freaking Mardi Gras. She wasn’t going to sit in her hotel room alone.
But as soon as she’d stepped out onto the crazy, loud, crowded, holy-crap-there’s-nothing-in-Iowa-like-this street, she’d had a mini panic attack. It wasn’t safe. What the hell was she doing? So she’d ducked into the first place that had no neon in its windows. Bourbon O. She’d taken a seat at the bar and ordered a drink as she pulled her phone out to search for a local taxi company. Then she’d looked up and met Josh Landry’s gaze. He’d grinned at her. And she’d put her phone away.
And now, here she was in New Orleans on Mardi Gras again…and irritated on Bourbon because of Paisley again.
But if she went and found Josh, he’d make her grateful for the turn of events all over again. She couldn’t help that thought. Her trip to New Orleans had turned out to be amazing last time. Maybe it could be again.
“I will definitely go find Andrew,” Tori said, setting her glass down and pulling her phone out to find out where Andrew was.
“Oh, they’re on their way to Bourbon O,” Paisley said. “It’s just up the street.”
Tori lifted her head and stared at her. She would have had Paisley repeat the name of the bar if the other girl wasn’t completely incapable of talking softly. Tori had not misheard her. Andrew was on his way to the very place Tori wanted to be.
“Great. I’ll meet them there.” She tucked her phone into her back jeans pocket, her heart thundering.
This was a great chance for a little time with her best friend. She’d come in that morning and had been promptly caught up in getting settled at the plantation—of course Paisley was having her wedding at a plantation—and then heading for Bourbon.
Tori and Andrew hadn’t had any alone time just to talk in over a year. Even when they got on the phone together, Paisley was there in the background.
So yeah, she and Andrew needed some time alone to catch up and talk. And, yes, Tori needed to hear and see in his eyes that he really wanted to marry Paisley.
But she was going to be meeting him at Bourbon O. Where Josh Landry might be working behind the bar. And if he was, and she walked in, he’d think she was there for him.
And she would be.
She definitely would be.
Would he be happy to see her? Shocked? Would he remember her?
Suddenly her stomach plummeted down to somewhere around her pinky toe. Why had it never occurred to her that Josh might not even remember her? But that was very possible. The guy met hundreds of people every single weekend. And the guy was obviously a player. What were the chances she was the only out-of-towner that he’d charmed and laughed with? How many times had he used that suggestion to send a woman off with a soft smile and thoughts of how romantic and amazing he was?
But dammit…now she couldn’t not go to Bourbon O. Andrew would be there. And even if Paisley hadn’t sent Tori to meet him, she wanted the chance for a few minutes alone with him. In the chaotic sea of people on Bourbon Street.
“How long do you think it will take Andrew to get to Bourbon O?” Tori asked Paisley.
She shrugged. “Trahan’s is several blocks over, and with this crowd? It could be a while.” She giggled. “But getting up to Hustler is going to take us some time too.”
Okay, so it might take Andrew a while. Whereas Tori was just five blocks away. Sure, she’d have to get through the crowd too, but she had a few blocks head start. Which meant, she could pop in there, see if Josh was working, see if he recognized her and if he acted thrilled…or like a serial killer stalker had just shown up…and then duck back out if it was the latter. She could catch Andrew on the sidewalk and talk him into another bar instead.
With a deep breath, she stepped out onto the sidewalk and started down Bourbon without another glance at Paisley.
It was slow going for sure. Tori scowled as she jerked back to avoid a guy’s elbow and a set of beads flying from somewhere overhead. Then she was hit right in the cheek with a strand of pink beads the color of Paisley’s dress and mask tonight. Tori frowned up at the balcony full of drunk frat guys. No, she wasn’t going to show them her boobs. Or anyone else her boobs.
Unless it was Josh Landry.
I adore this book!! I didn’t just fall in love with Josh and Tori, I fell in love with the whole Landry family (Allian family and extended members included)!! I can already tell that I am going to LOVE this series. There is just nothing better than revisiting characters you know and love time and time again.
I’m not always a fan of instalove romances but this one just worked for me. I appreciate that, although they both knew they were feeling something “more” from the very moment they first met and during their year-long separation, they didn’t rush to proclaim forever with each other. Although this entire book spanned just a couple of days (with flashbacks from the few days from the previous year) I still felt a genuine and real connection between Josh and Tori. The way that Josh took the time to really know Tori and her passions and did it with enthusiasm was really sexy. The way that he let her make decisions for herself while also letting her know that he was going to be by her side regardless was everything. He was exactly the opposite of Andrew.
Speaking of Andrew. I was so irritated by him and how he used his history with Tori to make her question her feelings for Josh and her wanting to have fun with him. By default, I was at times irritated by Tori for letting him get into her head. I can’t even say that I hate Andrew but I hate that he was misguided in his attempts to “protect” Tori. Just the same, I couldn’t say that I hated Paisley for the way she treated Tori. I didn’t like her because of her personality but I actually understood her reasons for being upset by Tori’s presence. I don’t care to see these characters redeemed though. So, no worries about fitting them in later books, Ms. Nicholas! LOL.
Tori was such a unique character and her love and passion for her animals was the best!! While I didn’t always love her loyalty to Andrew and their friendship, I appreciated it just the same. I love that she liked to live boldly and that being with Josh gave her the freedom to be herself.
This story was a fun, sexy ride from beginning to end and I was actually sad to not be able to go right into Owen’s story when I finished. I had a great time getting lost in New Orleans and Autre and I can’t wait for my next visit!!