HOLY CRAP!! It's been over a month since I posted. In my defense, I moved to a different state. But really there is no excuse for neglecting my blog. To say sorry, I'm giving you a taste of Never Say Just! Here's the first chapter. Read, comment, and you could win a free copy!!
Never Say Just
I am a cow. Just paint block spots on me and teach me to moo because it’s official. I’m a Holstein. There were at least five hundred head of cattle crammed into a pen decorated with vomit-colored industrial carpet and covered in Tag Heuer and Kay Jewelers advertisements. Just as I felt a long, melodious, and forlorn moo creep up my throat, the screen above the cattle yard changed from “On Time” to “Arrived.” Halle-freaking-lujah! My brother’s plane had landed and my barnyard hell would be over.
After eighteen months he would finally be home. Any moment he would ride down the escalator and I’d be able to hug him and make sure he’d returned home, healthy, and in one piece. Bouncing on the balls of my feet, I tried to see over the head of the Andre the Giant wannabe in front of me. I threw an elbow when a man with questionable fashion sense and way too much aftershave got too close. When I felt the unmistakable piercing of a cheap kitten-heel pump on the top of my foot, I very nearly spit cud at a woman who’d clearly eaten New Orleans’s share of fried Twinkies while waiting for her Internet love match to arrive.
The TSA sponsored bestial torture could be worse. Remember when you could practically walk right up to the plane, shake the pilot’s hand, and ask the flight attendants for a rum and Coke? When people crowded in front of the arrivals terminal as if they were the oldest group of single bridesmaids on the planet and the bride was about to throw the bouquet? After 9/11 they expected the family members, friends, and would-be terrorists to stand in the baggage area and wait for their passengers like civilized people.
I waited in the cattle chute from hell for my older brother, Tyler Wallace. Tyler was my hero. When the call to war resonated throughout our country, he left behind a full ride scholarship to Stanford to join the Marine Corps. Everyone thought he had gone nuts. In my opinion, he was definitely somewhere between a macadamia and a pecan, but he didn’t care. He wanted to serve his country as our father and grandfather and great-grandfather and great-great…. Well, you get the idea. My brother was probably the smartest person to be accepted to every Ivy League university in the country. If he ever went on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” he could answer all the questions correctly, use zero life lines, and walk off with the million dollar novelty check before the first commercial break.
Middle Eastern languages had been a hobby of his since the first Gulf War. He spoke fluent Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, and Dari. He took his hobbies seriously. Staff Sergeant Wallace could have been an officer stationed in a nice, safe office with a view of a golf course or yacht club. To no one’s astonishment he turned a life of leisure down and demanded his constitutional right to make stupid decisions and became a grunt.
He wanted to be in the trenches, or dunes, or whatever they’re called in this war. And that is why I saw him roll toward me in a wheel chair instead of on two healthy legs. Wait! A wheelchair? What is he doing in a wheel chair? Yes, he’d been injured in an explosion, but I had no idea he wasn’t ambulatory. I shouldered my way past the Jerseys, Guernseys, and Holsteins to get to him. Just as a TSA officer tried to rugby-tackle me to the ground and drag me off to some secret underground prison in the Louis Armstrong Airport, Tyler stood up, as if he’d been faith-healed, and walked toward me. As you can imagine, I was extremely relieved. I expressed how happy I felt to see him whole and healthy by throwing a punch aimed at his jaw, which he expertly blocked. After that nothing-but-love-hey-how-are-ya, I gripped Tyler in a fierce hug.
“What the hell?” I pointed to the empty wheel chair.
He pulled away from me. “What kind of big brother would I be if I didn’t tease my little sister?”
Son of a bitch.
He pressed a light kiss to my forehead. “How’ve you been, kitten?”
Emotion didn’t scare me. I didn’t consider tears a sign of weakness or anything. They’re just a waste of the Earth’s finite water resources. But hearing the one and only person left on the planet who could call me kitten without getting five fisted digits to the solar plexus whisper in my ear almost made me tear up. As the storms cleared, I saw five lethal Marines behind my brother. They just stood there, obviously uncomfortable, waiting for something.
I wanted to find the inconsiderate jerks who’d leave their country’s warriors to fend for themselves when Tyler released me and turned to face his brothers in khaki. He kept an arm around my shoulders and said, “Martinez, Switch, Doc, Horndog, Shooter, this is my little sister, Kat Boudreaux.”
They all nodded their heads slightly and said, “Ma’am,” in unison.
“We were all in the same unit. I told them they could stay with us.” He paused and cleared his throat. “For the summer.”
Tyler tightened his grip on my shoulder, firmly rooting me to the vomit-colored industrial carpet. I didn’t know what my face said, but it didn’t say, “I’m so glad! Please come and stay in my home. You’re always welcome.” In fact, I’m almost positive it said, “WTF!”
My darling brother stood his ground under the intense heat of my glare. The laws of physiology stopped. Daggers, real live actual daggers shot from my eyes and embedded into my brother’s neck. Okay, maybe that had been a hallucination, but my anger must have been tangible because my six-foot-four, two-hundred-eighty pound, big brother cowered under the stare of his five-foot-six, one-hundred-twenty pound little sister. His face resembled a lobster’s after it had been pulled from the safety of the tank at the local Tail n’ Claw. He knew he was about to be boiled alive and devoured.
“It’s okay, isn’t it?” As I’m about to say hell no, he hits me with, “They have nowhere else to go.”
Great! Just freaking great! Tyler and I had been orphans for a while and even though our parents died when we were both technically adults, we were still a little lost. Tyler knew I couldn’t turn someone away who had no family to go home to. He knew my weak spots and he’d exploited them. Bastard. It’s not that I didn’t have the room, I had acres of room. I didn’t like strange people in my house. I didn’t take in stray dogs or run an orphanage for abandoned kittens. I just wasn’t that kind of girl.
They have nowhere else to go. The second those words crossed Tyler’s lips they sent electricity into my cold, dead heart. I glared at him and then at Martinez, Switch, Doc, Horndog, and Shooter. Though their builds and stances resembled Spartan warriors that would have made Leonidas proud, they had matching expressions on their faces that looked like Cindy Lou Who asking the Grinch for a glass of milk. Not even the Grinch escaped the effects of Cindy Lou, so I didn’t feel too badly when I slumped from my brother’s grasp and pulled my cell phone from my bag.
“You better get down on your knees and thank God for the massive thunderstorm last night that forced me to bring the Escalade.” I pushed buttons on my phone with the same force required to slam a hot rivet through iron. “We’re on our way out, Gregory. All seven of us. Don’t ask. You don’t want to know.”
My new contingent of Marines followed me to the baggage carousel. As we watched the luggage, I observed my little group of the few, the proud. The one Tyler had called Switch helped a blue-haired lady maneuver a suitcase the size of a steamer trunk onto a Handi-Cart. Doc sat on his haunches while he thumb-wrestled a young boy whose mother pulled a Buzz Lightyear suitcase from the parade of black Samsonite. Martinez gave directions to an Asian couple. Obviously the self-appointed guardian of the group, Shooter stood back with his arms folded over his huge chest. Horndog flirted with a group of sorority sisters. Guess that explained the name. While their actions didn’t endear them to me, they did cause the permafrost that encased my heart to break a sweat. They reminded me of Tyler and myself, the lost boys. No family, except each other.
The big khaki duffels wormed their way up and out of the ejection ramp and on to the carousel. My Marines picked up their bags and hefted them onto their shoulders. As we walked to the curb, I saw them shoot each other wary glances. They most certainly didn’t feel welcomed to the great city of New Orleans. And they definitely would not receive the red carpet treatment when we arrived at my home in Bayou Boudreaux. It wasn’t my responsibility to make life any easier for them. They could blame Tyler for my less than Southern hospitality.
We emerged on the other side of the sliding doors and were instantly hit in the face by the trademark humidity of the Crescent City. My Marines staggered as if they’d received a physical blow. It took all the powers of heaven and hell to not turn around, point, and laugh. I guess going from an arid desert to a climate that allowed you to skinny dip in the open air could be a shock to the system. I led them to the curb where a black Escalade with dark tinted windows waited. Gregory had driven and maintained the Boudreaux family cars for years. He was part chauffer, part father figure. He got out of the driver’s seat, rounded the car, opened the back, and offered the interlopers help with their bags. They all declined.
My home was sixty-three minutes from the New Orleans airport, and the entire sixty-three minutes were spent in absolute silence. The Escalade had been tricked out with DVD players, TVs, satellite, game consoles, and a mini fridge. Was that why they held their tongues? Nope, the lack of chatter could be attributed to the hostility rolling off my body. I turned to see the six Marines wedged into the back two benches. They reminded me of too many pickles crammed into a jar. That gave me a bit too much joy. It was wrong to be happy about their discomfort. But I was.
You must understand. I didn’t hate these men. My gratitude for the sacrifices they’d made for their country ran deep, and at any other time it would have been an honor to be in their presence. But the fact was, I did not handle strangers well. Not very long ago, if a stranger knocked on my front door, I would have had a full blown panic attack. My vision would tunnel, my hands would sweat and tingle, I would hyperventilate and have a stab of fear not unlike what I imagine every big-breasted blonde in every horror movie ever made had when she ran up the stairs instead of out the front door. I didn’t blame them for throwing me into a panic-induced tailspin. How could they have known what their presence would do? No, the fault rested squarely on the well-muscled shoulders of my brother. The man I had been absolutely beside myself with worry over was the one responsible for my level of stress. He knew my fears. He knew why I had these fears. He knew what his guests would do to me. But did he take five seconds to consider me before he invited Private Gump and his band of Bubbas to stay at my house? No, no he did not. And for that he would pay. Dearly.
Strangers and visitors hadn’t always frightened me. Once upon a time my job required me to be cool and controlled at all times. Blending in literally meant life or death. I could have been an old woman in a bazaar or a young man on a dirt bike. Rolling with the punches and anticipating my opponents every move had been second nature. I had to know their thoughts before they did. My life literally depended on my ability to think on my feet and never let anyone know how terrified I was, not even myself. Over the years my skills had obviously cankered.
The sixty-three minute drive to my house took us through the city, on the freeway, across highways, down country roads filled with potholes, and through bayou country until we reached my driveway. My side dish to accompany my entrée of fear tonight will be a lovely steamed portion of apprehension on a bed of extreme anxiety. My apprehension wasn’t because my Marines would be forced to sleep in pup tents on my front lawn and battle gators for empty yard space. I was nervous because these Marines with nowhere else to go would be staying in the Boudreaux Plantation House, the largest private home in the South. Boudreaux House ranked number ten in the list of largest homes in the country—smaller than Whitehall in Palm Beach and larger than the White House in DC. These men, who had lived out of the back of a Humvee for the past eighteen months, would judge me based on the opulence of my home.
Boudreaux House wasn’t the home I’d been raised in. I grew up in a brown brick rambler with one fully functioning bathroom in Oklahoma. I married the plantation house. Three years before, it had become mine. All fifty-two thousand square feet, sixteen bedrooms, twenty-two bathrooms, two gourmet kitchens, theater, ballroom, library, music room, conservatory, six galleries, seven staircases, eighteen other rooms that could be used for anything from a book club meeting to a state dinner, and staff quarters complete with the workforce necessary to clean all the previously mentioned space. The grounds were home to a natural lake, formal gardens, tennis courts, stables, assorted outbuildings, and a natatorium—which is just rich speak for a building that housed a swimming pool. My daughter and I lived there with seventeen staff members: maids, cooks, gardeners, guards, and a driver. Yup, seventeen people to take care of two. If I wasn’t comfortable there, how were my “guests” supposed to feel at home?
As we pulled up to the gate and guard house, Jake, my head of security, craned his neck to peer into the Escalade. “Looks like you caught yourself ‘bout half a dozen there, Ms. Kat. Five more than ya went out for. Not a bad day’s fishin’ if you ask me.”
Biting back my retort, I said, “Yes, I definitely went over my limit.”
He chuckled and pushed the button to let us in. In the past three years the people who lived with my daughter and I had become much closer than staff. They were closer than friends. They were family. And I took care of my family. I should have closed up most of the house, but that would eliminate the need for the majority of the select people on the planet I could stand to be around for more than three hours. I kept the estate running for them. They needed it. Some of them had been with the place since they were kids, their parents cleaning the floors and pruning the bushes before them. Others were raising their own children there. Sending them all an eviction notice would be cruel.
As we drove down my driveway, I pulled the visor down. Through the mirror I could see the expressions on my Marines’ faces. Their reaction to my home would help me determine if the summer would be the Dante levels of hell I expected or the Rob Zombie horror fest I’d prepared for. The moment Boudreaux House came into view, I cataloged and analyzed their responses. Martinez raised an eyebrow and glanced at Switch who rolled his eyes. Doc’s jaw disengaged and hit the floor of the Escalade. Horndog calculated how many bikini clad Southern belles he could keep in a place that big. Shooter had no expression. He kept his arms crossed over his chest, staring straight ahead. Tyler had spent a lot of time in my home and was no longer impressed. He sat directly behind me, asleep, drooling on my leather interior. The sweetness of payback warmed my soul.
As we stopped in front of the two sweeping sets of front steps that led into the antebellum palace, I placed my hand on Gregory’s forearm and turned my gaze to my sweet, sleeping brother. Gregory knew me well enough to understand what my intentions were. I opened the front door, turned on the ball of my foot to face the back passenger door, and without warning, opened it, spilling my darling brother onto the pavement.
“Son of a—!” he yelled.
He jumped up, determined to kill the person who’d so rudely interrupted his Z’s. He’d forgotten he no longer had to battle immature Marines for bed space and when he righted himself, he threw a punch. At me. His fist never made contact. Big Joe, my enormous gardener with a heart the size of Texas, appeared and caught Tyler’s fist in the palm of his hand. Big Joe’s mahogany paw tightened on my brother’s clenched fist.
“I don’ really care who ya be, Mr. Tyler. You throw a punch at my Miss Kat, and we’s gonna have a problem.”
I placed a calming hand on the big man’s shoulder. “It’s all right Joe. He’d never hurt me. I startled him is all.”
He turned his molasses-colored eyes on me, read my face. Once he realized I had never been in any danger, he released my brother’s injured hand. Big Joe had been born in the staff quarters of the house thirty-seven years before. His mother had been let go from a more “respectable” home in New Orleans when her employers discovered she was pregnant with the chauffer’s baby. My mother-in-law took her in as a maid. Etienne and Madeleine Boudreaux insisted she stop working until six weeks after the birth. The baby came early. He had been so large that he got caught in the birth canal, deprived of oxygen. His mother lost a lot of blood bringing him into the world. She died during childbirth.
Etienne and Madeleine didn’t send him to child services or pawn him off on a relative. They took care of him and raised him with their own son. When it came time to put him in school, a very uncompassionate school counselor told them Joe had severe learning disabilities. Etienne and Madeleine fought tooth and nail to keep him in school. Finally, they decided to hire a tutor and educate him at home. He never learned to read or write. But he loved the outdoors and became very close with the gardener. He taught Big Joe how to grow flowers and mow a lawn and how to prune a pecan tree and how to get rid of kudzu. He grew to be the best gardener in all of Louisiana. And years ago he had been ordered to look after me by someone who once meant everything to me. He took that job very seriously.
Five Marines peeled out of the Escalade. A smile crossed my face when I saw them practically fall on their asses. It looked like a herd of hippos crashing out of a clown car. Grace must not be part of military training. I left them to get their bags. They were big boys; they could handle themselves. Besides, if I didn’t inform Edna Mae, my ancient housekeeper, about the impending horde, she’d kick my ass up one side and down the other.
I rushed through the big, white double doors and ran to the kitchen. Edna would be there. You could always find her in the kitchen even if she never had been, technically, the cook. I ran around two corners, down one set of stairs, through a long hallway, and crashed through swinging kitchen doors. When I skidded across the black-and-white tile floor, I caught myself on one of the free-standing stainless steel counters. The mansion had a gym, but the treadmills and stationary bikes were rarely used. Running the place gave me enough cardio, thank you very much. Edna jumped to her feet. Her steel grey hair didn’t move from its bun even though she had been thrown into an obvious state of distress.
“Where’s Lilly?” I asked.
“She’s out back pickin’ some herbs from the garden. Land sakes, child, what is goin’ on? Is Derek fishing with dynamite again?” Edna always got to the point.
“My brother,” I said through gritted teeth, “invited five of his Marine buddies to stay with us for the summer. I need five more rooms made up on the second floor, and I need to tell Lilly to make, like, ten times the amount of food then she normally makes. These guys must make the manager at the Golden Corral weep when they walk in. Tell her not to worry about the etouffee. We don’t have time. Tell her to just boil the shrimp and crawfish. But we’ll need lots of jambalaya. And don’t worry about serving in the dining room. We’ll eat in the back yard.”
Edna nodded and went to work. I knew she’d have the rooms ready before Hurricane Semper Fi made landfall upstairs. If that woman had been in charge of the Normandy invasion, we would have made it up the beach and into Germany in under a month. With washed and pressed uniforms.
I trekked back to the front of the house, the whole time thinking of ways to punish Tyler. He didn’t know it yet, but it was so on. Where in that beautiful, brilliant brain of his did he come up with the idea that it would be super great to invite five strangers to stay in my house for the summer? Not for a week, for the summer. That’s like, a fourth of the year!
I found all my Marines, except my brother, standing outside the door. I denied myself the pleasure of slamming the ten-foot tall, double white-washed door on their faces and waved them in. Why hadn’t Tyler invited them in? Maybe he had let them know I wasn’t too thrilled to have their company so they waited for me.
Maybe they suspected my house had been set with booby traps. At this thought a wry smile moved across my lips. Note to self, install booby traps to impale, blow up, fry, and/or electrocute Tyler.
They followed me through the house, up the stairs, and to their rooms. I showed them their bathrooms and pointed out the cupboards with towels and washcloths. Edna could work miracles. All the curtains were drawn, fresh linens were on the beds, and the showers were stocked with soap and shampoo. No doubt the medicine cabinets had been filled with spare toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, band aids, Tylenol, combs, and other stuff people tend to forget when traveling. Based on where these guys had come from, I guessed they’d need all of it. After they put their duffels down, I rounded them up in the hall.
“Follow me,” I said and, being good little soldiers used to taking orders, they did. We walked in silence to the end of the corridor. Edna had placed them in this wing of the house for a reason.
At the end of their hall was, what I to refer to as the Gentleman’s Club at Boudreaux House. It was a gentleman’s club in the most traditional sense. It wasn’t a place where naked tweakers danced around poles waiting for the random perv to slip a five dollar bill in their g-strings. My Club had a fully stocked bar, pool table, fireplace, humidor, 103” flat screen TV, every sports package known to man, card table, leather club chairs, and a variety of dead heads and skins from Africa hanging on the wall. All cherry wood and dark green, it was a big boys’ playroom. It hadn’t been used in years, but I kept things updated. I’d installed the bigger TV six months ago and made sure the room was ready to use. I had intended on giving the man cave to Tyler as a gift, but I didn’t know if he really deserved it any more.
When my Marines saw the haven of all things testosterone, a jolt of pride surged through me. They clearly liked it. Good, maybe they’ll stay in here all summer, and I won’t have to worry about them.
“Wait here. I’ll find Tyler. He can give you the tour. You’re welcome to use anything in my home but consider this area your base. It’s kind of the guys’ room in the house.”
I had started to leave but stopped when the deep, slow, surprisingly quiet voice began to speak. I turned back.
Shooter had the dark, thick-as-cold-honey voice. “Thank you for letting us stay here. Thank you for taking care of my men.”
I nodded and said much quieter than I wanted, “If you’re going to live here, I think you best call me Kat.”
No, no, no! Absolutely not! They are not allowed to be nice to me. They are imposing. They should be arrogant, lazy, and disrespectful. Their gratitude made it harder for me to be mad at my brother. Harder, but not impossible.
As I walked down the hall, I heard what could only be Horndog’s voice say, “Is it just me, or is Tongue’s sister really hot?”
I spun on my heel ready to give Horndog a piece of my mind and possibly a black eye when the unmistakable sound of an antique ivory pool ball hitting a human target rang through the corridor. I paused, waiting to hear which Marine had bean-balled Horndog. My stomach clenched when I heard Shooter say,
“We’re not here for that, Dog. Get your head on straight. And I mean your big head, not the one below your waist you tend to think with.”
A smile crept onto my face. Shooter had earned three gold stars. The rest were still on my no-fly list.
Normally I would never let someone else fight my battles, but I wanted to be around the tall, quiet, and deadly crowd as little as possible, so I let Shooter handle Horndog. It truly was a sacrifice. I hadn’t hit something with the intent to harm in a long damn time. But I had more important things to take care of. Finding and executing my brother was on the top of that list.
I searched all his usual haunts in the house but didn’t turn up so much as a toenail. I checked his room, the theater, the kitchen, and the library. Nothing. I ran into Jason, the young man in charge of the indoor plants. He told me he saw Tyler going up to the third floor. There would be only one reason for Tyler to go to the third floor and that reason is about three feet tall, has long blond hair, and two missing front teeth. I ran the stairs stopping on the landing of the top floor of the house. I paused outside a pink door and took a deep breath. I opened it and found Tyler.
He sat on the pink carpet wearing a tutu, boa, and tiara drinking a cup of imaginary tea. He even had his pinky extended, as no doubt Sam had insisted. Across from Tyler sat the only person in the world that made me truly happy, my five-year-old daughter Samantha. Samantha was an absolute joy. She never complained, never whined, and never caused trouble. She always had a warm hug and an I love you waiting for me. She saw me and ran at me, catching me around the waist.
“Hey, girlie, what have you done to Uncle Tyler?”
“Nothing, Mom, he wanted some tea and I had to make sure he dressed for it.” Sam was a Southern girl to her core.
“Well that’s very nice of you. How about you let me and Uncle Tyler talk? He needs to do something for me, but when he’s done he can come back and finish his tea.”
“The tea party’s over. So he can go. I have to move Barbie’s furniture to her new house and then I have to make sure all my bears are comfortable.”
Oh, how I wanted her concerns.
Tyler stood up and followed me out the door. “What’s scratchin’, kitten?”
I hated it when he’d say that. It reminded me of cat scratch fever and that was just disgusting. I didn’t say anything until we reached my suite of rooms. I didn’t want Sam to hear me give her beloved uncle a tongue lashing. I closed the door behind him, sufficiently trapping him, a rat in cage. He sat in an overstuffed white chair in my sitting room.
Sitting across from him, I said, “You know you’re going to die right?”
“I figured.” He said it like a man on death row who had exhausted all his appeals and was just waiting for the priest and the executioner to show.
“Of course, I won’t kill you right away. I need you to do some things for me first. Your friends are down in the Club. They need a tour. Show them the entire house and grounds. After that, set up tables and chairs on the back lawn for dinner.” Then I had a spark of brilliance. “And I trust you guys only have your khakis to wear. They’ll be too hot through the summer and they are absolutely dreadful. So you’re going shopping. Go to Lakeside in Metarie. They have J. Crew, Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer—you can get everything in one stop. Make them get casual clothes and shoes. I’ll arrange for Christopher to come in and fit all six of you for a tux. You’ll be here for the Founder’s Day Celebration. You know what that means.” I hadn’t asked him to break Mt. Everest into gravel, but the look he gave me said I might as well have. “I’m assuming the Corps doesn’t provide you with any of those things.”
He pushed himself off the chair to stand in front of me. “Is this how the entire summer is going to be? You’re going to torture me.”
I stood and stared him in the eye. “Torture? No, honey, this isn’t torture. This is hospitality. The torture starts tomorrow.”
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