SEX, LIES & PEARLS
I stepped out of the black town car and onto the cobblestone pavement that encircled Jackson House. The tan Valentino heels with sparkling gold bows purchased by the man of my dreams complemented the white Jason Wu dress he’d sent to me. It was a glorious day in the New Orleans Garden District and the cool breeze warmed by the sunshine diffused the smell of flowers throughout the air. It felt like coming home.
“Good afternoon, Miss Benson.”
Oscar Wilson, the caretaker of the eleven thousand square foot property, met me on the front porch of the white Italianate neoclassical mansion that had been a landmark on Third Street for one hundred and fifty years.
“Hello, Oscar,” I replied as I squinted into the sunshine and glare of the largely windowed home. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“Mr. Leo was expecting you earlier,” Oscar continued.
“Sorry. My flight was delayed,” I explained as I pulled my backpack from the car. Three staff members had already rushed to the trunk to retrieve my suitcases. When they discovered there was only one, they looked to each other as to who should carry it into the house.
“If you’d allowed me to fly you here myself, cher, you could’ve been here by breakfast instead of dinner.”
His deep voice made it to the front porch before he did. Dr. Leonidus Xanthus, or simply Z as he’d been nicknamed by my best friend’s husband, emerged in tan linen pants and a white shirt that was barely buttoned and nowhere near tucked in. The waves of black shoulder-length hair and closely shaved beard only added to his bad boy image. As the wind tousled his hair and opened his shirt, I could see his tan and toned abs and a trail of dark and very dangerous hair that led to all the parts I fantasized about.
“I said I was sorry,” I repeated with a smile and a hint of sarcasm. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him as he gingerly walked down the stairs toward me. Leo Xanthus was brilliant, charming, and woke up parts of me that had been seemingly comatose for years. An agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit and a PhD in psychology, he was the kind of man who could screw with your mind and your body. He was perfect.
In the last month he’d teased me with his gifts and attention. I’d never been happier or more scared in my entire twenty-seven years of existence.
“Mac and Samantha send their love.”
“Do they?” he mumbled as he took my backpack from my shoulder, passing it and my purse to one of the empty-handed staff members without losing eye contact. “How are the newlyweds? Resting up after our adventure, I presume?”
“Mac’s consulting for the Bureau and Samantha’s happy about that.”
I didn’t know where to look or turn as he came close without touching me as he’d done so many times. I could feel his hot breath on my neck and I inhaled him in. A mixture of his obvious maleness and a hint of something warm and inviting made me weak in the knees. But I’d never let him know it. That wasn’t my style.
“You made me wait too long for you, cher,” he whispered into my ear. Not one for the usual embrace, Leo placed his massive hands on the top of my arms and slowly rolled over my shoulders. Working his way down my back, he sent a wave of chills through my core.
I pressed my body into his and felt his tight physique encompass me. Dropping my head into his shoulder, I lifted my arms to return his embrace and he pulled me in tighter.
“Now,” he sighed in a voice only I could hear. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
I nodded into his chest and breathed him in again. I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to do more than kiss him, but I held back knowing that if I’d come this far – all the way to New Orleans from Shadeland, Alabama – I should at least play a little hard to get. Leo Xanthus was a man who’d had plenty of women. I had no intention of being any man’s bedpost notch.
Pulling away, I looked up into his dark eyes and felt myself melt a little. Who was I kidding—if he wanted another notch in his bedpost I’d gladly hand him the knife.
Leo kissed me on the top of my head and took me by the hand to lead me into the house I’d fallen in love with on my last visit. “Oscar has prepared your room.”
“The yellow room?” I asked, excited that perhaps I would get the same room I’d had before. There were in fact seven spectacular rooms and six bathrooms. Not to mention a beautiful garden, pool and if I was too tired climb the stairs, a hidden elevator.
The mansion was filled with fancy parlors and libraries. Each had ornate Louis XV furniture and more crystal chandeliers than I’d seen in one space in a very long time.
The only room I’d not seen in Jackson House was the master bedroom – where the Greek god of a man slept. I had a feeling Dr. Leonidus Xanthus had plans to remedy that while I was visiting.
“The gold room?” he laughed soft and low.
“Yes.” I was embarrassed that I didn’t use the correct terminology and yet I knew that Leo didn’t care. I wasn’t a Southern girl. I’d told him to cut out the aw shucks routine the first time I met him. But he wore me down and now I loved hearing him call me cher.
“You are indeed in the gold room. I know you like the view.”
He stopped at the bottom of the spiral staircase that led to the bedrooms and took my hands in his. “Are you thirsty? Hungry?” Tell me what I can do for you. Anything.”
“No! No! No!” shouted the little boy as he came tearing through the front rooms at lightning speed.
Oscar followed close behind as well as another younger woman. “Now son, you’ve got to stop!” Oscar shouted as he hurried as fast as his old body would allow.
On the boy’s second pass through the first floor of the massive home Leo grabbed him by the waist, picked him up and slung him over his shoulder like a sack. “Hey now, what’s this all about, Hank?”
The boy squirmed as Leo sat him down on the Persian rug in the front parlor. “No! No! I said no!”
“I’m sorry,” Oscar apologized. “He’s been having some trouble since his momma passed away.”
“Hey,” I said as I walked toward him. “I’m Polly. What’s your name?”
“Hank!” he shouted before he stuck his lip out in protest. Trying to run, Leo wrapped him up in a bear hug at Oscar’s request.
Hank struggled and grunted, unhappy that anyone was trying to calm him.
“Leo, will you bring Hank over to sit with me?” I asked as I sat on the ornate couch covered in swirls of golden wood and blue fabric. “Wow, this is a fancy couch,” I laughed, nodding at Hank. “What do you think?”
Hank nodded back.
“You upset?” Hank couldn’t have been more than ten, but at the moment he had the strength of a few boys.
“No!” he shouted.
“He’s had some problems, Miss Polly,” Oscar said. “We don’t mean to intrude. He came home from school today – upset.”
I watched Leo motion to Oscar to let him know it was perfectly okay that Hank was having a meltdown. Hank’s ragged breathing let me know he was having anxiety issues, something I was more familiar with than I cared to be. I’d had them myself growing up.
“Bad day?” I asked Hank calmly.
Hank nodded, still trying to catch his breath. He looked beyond me, wanting to run again.
“You know what? I lost my mom when I was about your age. It sucks.”
“It sucks balls,” he said.
“Hank,” Oscar scolded as I smiled at the boy.
“It’s okay,” I said, nodding in agreement. “It does suck balls. Big balls.”
He looked up at me and tried not to crack a smile.
“Try something with me. Let’s just breathe,” I said to him. “I learned this trick after my parents died. It helped me stay calm. Wanna try?”
Hank shook his head no.
“If you try and you still don’t feel any better, you can shout any swear word you want at the top of your lungs.”
He thought about it and tried to make a getaway just as Leo hugged him tightly again, giving me a smile.
“C’mon, just try. Breathe in through your nose,” I said as I took a deep breath and he followed. “Hold it…hold it…hold it. And exhale through your mouth.” Together we exhaled loudly.
“That’s great, let’s do it again,” I said with enthusiasm.
As we breathed in and out over the next minute, I watched as his shoulders began to drop and I knew he was beginning to relax.
“Feel better?” I asked as I leaned in to look him right in the eyes.
He stared back without saying anything. I could see the broken heart inside the little boy. It takes one to know one and I’d been there.
“Can I still yell the curse word?” he asked.
Leo laughed first and we all joined in.
“Just remember,” I said to him. “Feeling anxious like that is normal. You’re supposed to feel that way sometimes. It’s your body’s way of protecting you.”
“How?” Hank asked.
“Well,” I began as I sat back and glanced at Leo over his shoulder. “You need to have that fight or flight response in case a bear ever jumps out of the woods and starts to chase you.”
Hank smiled. “That won’t happen.”
“Probably not, but our bodies are wired that way in case it does. You know that uncontrollable feeling you get when something bad happens like today at school?”
“Well, that feeling is like an internal smoke alarm. Do you know what that is?”
“Yes,” he said as he continued to breathe in and out slowly, glancing at his grandfather.
“Well, your alarm inside goes off when you get anxious. The trick is knowing when the alarm is real. Would you call 911 if your grandfather burnt the toast in the kitchen and set off the smoke alarm?”
“But if the house was on fire and the alarm went off, what would you do?”
“That’s right. It’s hard sometimes when you feel bad inside to tell the difference between burnt toast and a house fire.”
He smiled at me and I knew he understood. “So next time when you’re having a bad day, ask yourself, is this burnt toast? Because it usually is.”
Hank gave me a hug and ran out of the room quickly.
Oscar let out a heavy sigh of relief. “I can’t thank you enough, Miss Polly. You’re here as a guest and you shouldn’t have to deal with all of this.”
“No problem,” I said. I’d been there. I got it. “Sorry if you find him in the kitchen later yelling the F word.”
“Thank you again,” Oscar said as Leo laughed and picked up my hand and gave it a squeeze.
Alone at last in the room, the air still buzzed with the energy of Hank’s outburst.
“That was pretty amazing,” Leo said, standing and pulling me with him from the couch.
“It was nothing,” I said, looking to my feet. “I used to be a kid. I took care of kids for a while, and I do have a degree in crazy.”
“No,” he laughed. “You have a degree in psychology, which you showcased brilliantly just now, I might add.”
“You have a PhD in crazy,” I said with a smile as I thought of all the criminally insane Leo must’ve studied in the past at Quantico.
Leo lifted my chin and stared into my eyes, making me squirm. “You amaze me more and more each day. What a gift you are.”
He shook his head at me. “And you’re so unaware of your beauty.”
Embarrassed, I smiled and said the only thing I could think of. “Aw shucks.”
“Now, once again, tell me what I can do for you. Are you hungry? Thirsty? I’ll get you anything you’d like.”
“Um…” I bit my lower lip in hesitation and he took it as a sign of something else.
“And when I say anything, I mean anything.”
“Do you have plans for us tonight?” I asked. “I mean, I’d like to clean up, maybe unpack, take a quick shower. That is, if you had plans.”
He brought my hands to his mouth and brushed his lips across my knuckles. “I definitely have plans for you, cher.”
His words gave me a rush of adrenaline, taking my breath. I knew I was blushing. “Then I need a chance to shower and – breathe.”
Leo leaned in and lifted my face with his warm hand. Brushing his lips across my mouth, I could feel my body shudder and I knew he felt it too. Embarrassed, I pulled away before the kiss went too deep.
“Let me show you to your room. I’ll bring you a cocktail for your bath and I’ll leave you alone – but just for a while.”
I hung on his every word. Leo had a deep resonating voice that—no matter what it was he chose to say—between the southern accent and the bass it sounded beyond sexy. This of course made the ordinary words seem extraordinary and the extraordinary words biblical.
He led me up the stairs and around the corner, turning the ornate handle to the beautiful gold room I remembered so well. As the door opened the fading western light shone through the French doors that bathed the gold fabric-covered walls and canopied bed in sunshine. Nightstands flanked the huge bed and were filled with fresh red roses. It was a new touch.
“It’s beautiful. Just like I remember.”
“Oscar should’ve had the boys bring up your luggage.”
“They did,” I said as I gestured to the one suitcase and my backpack.
“This is all you brought with you? You know I want you to stay…” he trailed off.
“Leo,” I replied as I walked to the bed and hiked my hip to reach the pillow-top mattress. As I sat the entire bed ballooned with my weight and I giggled at the pomp of the entire boudoir setup. “This may come as a complete shock to you but I’m not like other girls you’ve known. I travel light and have for most of my life.”
Leo gave me a long and thoughtful stare. Placing his hands on either side of me he leaned in and kissed my cheek before whispering in my ear. “This may come as a complete shock to you—I’m not like other men you’ve known.”
He turned and walked away, leaving me breathless and squirming on the fluffy bed. “Have a bath and a rest. You’re going to need your strength tonight.”
With a wink and a sly smile he shut the door. I waited a half-second before pulling my phone from my backpack. I’d promised Samantha I would call when I arrived. She treated me like one of her kids now that I was on my own but I liked having someone worry about me. Samantha was my family, and now that she had her husband and children settled in at their plantation in Shadeland it was time for me to go. It was time for me to find my own way. Something I’d not done in a really long time.
“Did you make it there?” Sam asked as she answered her phone.
“I’m here,” I said softly.
“How is the handsome Dr. Leo Xanthus?” she asked.
“Still heart-stopping gorgeous – looks like sex on a stick and smells of intoxicating man stuff and almonds.”
“Did you tell him Mac and I send our love?” she asked, ignoring my comment.
“Yes,” I said as I stood to pace the gold room.
“You can’t fool me, Polly. I can hear it in your voice,” Samantha prodded. “Out with it.”
“What am I doing here, Sam?” I whined. “Why did I ever agree to come to New Orleans?”
“Because you’re crazy about the man?” she offered. “Because he asked you?”
“How did I get here? I should be filling out applications for doctorate programs, not sipping mint juleps at sunset in the garden.”
“Excuse my brashness, but why the hell not?”
“Samantha,” I sighed as I walked to the French doors and looked out over what was surely the most beautiful grounds in the famous Garden District. “It all seems a bit much for me. It’s been a really long time since I’ve let anyone into my life.”
I could hear the edge of frustration in Sam’s voice and I knew I should quit while I was ahead, but she was my best friend and if I couldn’t be honest and bitch to her I was doomed. “Here’s where you tell me that everything will work out exactly as it’s supposed to.”
“Everything will work out exactly as it should, Polly. I promise. Look at Mac and me.”
I knew Samantha felt like finding Mac and having another baby after her first husband died was proof that life has a way of working out for you. I was thrilled for her and Mac, but I needed some happiness for my own.
“Did I allow Leo to sweep me off my feet too quickly? I mean, people do crazy things that are totally out of character when they’re under stress.”
“Maybe Hector had to come after me in order for you to meet Leo. What if that is the mystery of love?”
“You want me to believe that a crazy-ass psycho who wanted you dead and caused us to go on the run happened so I could meet Leo?” I asked with a laugh.
There was a long pause on the other end and I knew Samantha was thinking up her next pearl of wisdom.
“My crooked boss had to be under investigation by the FBI in order for me to meet Mac,” she said. “What’s the difference?”
“What are you even saying?”
“I’m going to treat you like Mimi always treats me in these situations,” Sam explained, knowing the wisdom of her one hundred-year-old grandmother was always on point.
“What would Mimi say?” I asked with a chuckle.
“Doors are going to open and close all the time in your life. The trick is knowing which ones to walk through.”
“And if the door is shut?”
I started laughing at Sam’s cryptic advice. “So you’re saying I should walk through this door and see what happens.”
“I think you’ve already walked through the door, sister. I just can’t wait to see what happens.”
“Sam, all I’ve done is kiss the man. Well, I’ve kissed him and accepted a very expensive set of pearls from him.”
“You’ll know if you can’t live without him, Polly. I promise.”
“And if I can live without him?” I asked.
“He’s not the one. Go find another door and knock.”
“Hey,” I suddenly remembered. “Will you tell King next time you see him that somehow I ended up with the keys to his place on Lake Pontchartrain? I found them in the bottom of my backpack. I’ll mail them to him from here.”
“Yes,” she sighed. “Dr. King Giles. There’s another handsome doctor for you. If you can live without Leo, come home to Alabama. Maybe you can’t live without King.”
“King Giles isn’t interested in me. And I hate to say this but Alabama is your home. Not mine.”
“Our home will always be your home, Polly.”
“I know, but it’s time for me to stand on my own two feet.”
On cue a knock came at my bedroom door. “Sam, I’ve gotta go. Kiss the children for me and let them know I miss them.”
“For heavens sake, let go.”
I didn’t want to commit myself to letting go of anything. I didn’t know if I was capable of changing my life around, even if it was for the perfect man. “Bye Sam.”
I opened the door and found Oscar waiting with a silver julep cup on a matching tray. The sides of the gleaming metal cup were frosty with condensation and a sprig of mint adorned the top. “Mr. Leo requested I bring you a cocktail for your bath, Miss Polly.”
I gave Oscar a smile. He of all people made me feel secure in the massive home. “Thank you, Oscar. I was checking in back –” I stopped myself, intending to say the word home. In reality I didn’t have a home at the moment.
“I needed to check in with Samantha.”
“I understand. Would you like for me to put it on the table by the balcony?”
“I’m sorry,” I gasped, not realizing I was rambling without taking the drink or asking him into the room. “I’ll just take it. Thank you, Oscar.”
As he began to walk down the hallway, Oscar stopped and turned to see if I was still in the doorway.
“Miss Polly, please make yourself at home in Jackson House. I know that’s what Mr. Leo wants.”
I gave Oscar the smallest of nods and thought about what home meant for me these days. With my parents both dead, I’d rambled around after college with Sam. Through her marriage, losing her husband and having Dax, we’d stuck together like glue. Until she met Mac and everything changed.
I shut the door and took a long sip. The bourbon was smooth going down and the mint tickled my nose. I took one last look around the room and headed for the bathroom.
Clicking on the light, I remembered it so very well from before. The white marble shone against the crystal chandelier that hung from above. It was decadent for a bathroom and yet it completely fit in with the rest of the house. I turned on the water and waited for it to warm before plugging the drain of the ancient claw-foot tub.
Bath salts sat on a shelf above the tub and I uncorked each of the three to smell. Deciding upon the vanilla I tossed a handful into the water and began to undress.
I hung my new white dress on the back of the door and pulled the robe with the X monogram from the hook to lay it on the chair.
Leo Xanthus was everything a woman could really ever want. He was smart, beyond handsome, wealthy and dangerous. Why couldn’t I let go and let him in? Really in?
I adjusted the pillow on the back of the tub and slid into the warm water. Turning the handles with my feet, the water stopped flowing and the room was silent. I closed my eyes and listened to the occasional drop from the old ornate faucet hitting the surface of the pool of water.
“You’re going to need your strength?” I asked myself as I repeated Leo’s words. “What the hell?”
I choked down the last of the mint julep and winced. I wasn’t one to drink too much or too often but I needed a little liquid courage if I was going to make it through the night. I closed my eyes and prayed not to make a fool of myself. I prayed I wasn’t the fool in the deal.