“Lovely, don’t ya think?”
My New Orleans real estate agent pushes open the heavy front door of a first-floor unit in the Garden District, sighing with appreciation as the two of us walk through the apartment’s graceful foyer into a spacious living area with floor-to-ceiling windows and a gleaming hardwood floor. Violet Samuels runs one ring-adorned hand along the antique marble fireplace mantle mantel as if she’s stroking a cat, while describing the premises in glowing detail.
“This buildin’ dates back to before the Civil War,” she gushes. “It was converted into executive rentals a few years ago. All the wood trim, ceiling medallions and windows are original. You don’t see nothin’ like this anymore.”
Miz Violet, as she refers to herself, guides me through the open kitchen, where I’m relieved to see new appliances and upgraded lighting, past a couple of small bedrooms and into the master. Its focal point is a pair of graceful, arched windows overlooking the tree-lined street.
She turns to me and says, “Lotta character, and it comes furnished. Is this gonna work for you, hon?”
How would I know? The furniture is in good condition, but it’s too traditional for my taste. I prefer a clean, minimalist design. However, if this apartment was located in Manhattan, where I lived until a few days ago, it would be a rare find, a steal at three times the rent she quoted me. Instead, it’s in Naw Leens, in the state of Loozie Anna, where it’s unnaturally warm in January and the natives speak a language that only barely resembles English in its structure.
There’s only one bathroom, located down the hallway. It has been updated with a new pedestal sink and tile floor. An old-fashioned claw foot tub takes up most of the space.
“Great for relaxin’,” Miz Violet notes, but I’m not impressed by the vintage fixture. My schedule does not allow time for luxurious baths.
We make our way back to the living room, where I flop onto the sofa, fanning myself with a magazine from the coffee table. The last time I checked the weather on my phone, it was 61 degrees with 72 per cent humidity. Why does it feel so hot in here? Beads of sweat are breaking out on my forehead, which disturbs me, because I never want anyone to see me sweat, especially someone who will pressure me to sign a rental contract.
I’m The Ice Queen, one of the nicer terms my colleagues in New York used to describe me. Katie McDowell, : unflappable and all business, public relations consultant with a roster of high-profile clients. I’m best known for keeping my people out of the media and repairing their images when they drop the ball and do something illegal or stupid. Maybe I’m not Ms. Congeniality, but I do my job well., I don’t take bullshit from anyone, and I’m not intent on winning an office popularity contest.
As I perch on the sofa, trying to make a decision, I’m hit by a sudden wave of internal heat, flowing through my limbs like someone has pressed an “On” switch. Shrugging off my jacket and scarf, I fan my face again with the magazine. I’d take my blouse off, too, if Miz Violet wasn’t here. All I can think about is this feeling of being on fire inside. Is this a fever? Don’t tell me I’m getting sick my first month at a new job.
“You can walk to the shops and restaurants on Magazine Street,” she adds, still in salesperson mode. She watches me dab at my damp face with a tissue.
“And I guess you’ll like the central air.”
We could keep looking, I suppose, but this residence is by far the nicest she’s shown me, it’s fairly close to my office, and I need to get settled in somewhere. I wander back into the kitchen to check it out once more. The space is small, but it should fit my needs since I rarely cook. Walking over to the refrigerator, I open the top freezer compartment and stick my head halfway in, letting the chilled air fight it out with the fever that threatens to burn me alive.
“I’ll take it,” I tell Miz Violet before returning to the sofa. I’m feeling a little light-headed, so I rest the back of my head against the cushion. She blinks at me through a pair of rhinestone-accented reading glasses.
“You all right, hon? I don’t mean to get personal, but you don’t look too good.”
“I think it must be the humidity. I’m not used to it,”
“Hmm. ,” she continues. “Might be more than that. Maybe you’re goin’ through the change. You’re about the right age for it.”
The change? What change? Menopause is for old ladies, not me...
Swiftly changing the subject, I say, “Let’s go sign the lease so I can start moving in.”
I want to wrap this up so I can get through my next meeting before I go back to my hotel, crank up the air conditioning, and cool off. Thanks, Miz Violet, for reminding me I’m almost fifty, single, and living in a weird new city, which does not in the least compare to my home base of New York.
This is temporary, I console myself. A short detour off the path to long-term career success. But as we leave the apartment for the drive back to her office, I’m not entirely convinced. I’m hoping I haven’t made the worst mistake of my life.
Chef Andre Thibodeaux takes my hand in his enormous paws and trains his pale gray eyes on my face while I struggle to keep my composure. I’m breaking into another sweat, this one not caused from the temperature inside the building, but by his massive masculine presence, which has a way of unnerving me.
“Katie, dawlin’. I’m glad you’re finally here,” he booms, offering a toothy smile.
How is it possible I can remain cool and professional with CEOS and other luminaries, not to mention rock stars, yet the sight of Andre sends my pulse racing out of control? I haven’t seen him in six months, and I was hoping the time apart would help to dim my erotic fantasies, but today I realize it’s had quite the opposite effect. He looks even better than I remember. Damn, that man is fine.
Andre ushers me into his headquarters, a combination residence and television production facility located on the top floor of the French Quarter building housing his flagship restaurant. The open kitchen, designed specifically for his TV show, At Home with Andre, anchors one end of the space. An oversized contemporary painting of his culinary Holy Trinity—-bell peppers, onions and celery—-dominates another wall.
His restaurant empire, Crawfish Ventures, is what brought me to New Orleans. Andre was on the verge of pulling his multi-million dollar account from CP Global, the international marketing and public relations firm I worked for in New York, until he was assured the Louisiana office would undergo major changes, including new management.
In an unexpected twist of fate, the “new management” turned out to be me. Summoned to the office of the old man himself, Charles Porter, I was hoping to hear some good news about my long-awaited promotion to vice president.
This is it, Katie, I told my reflection in the executive floor ladies’ room mirror, right before I went into Porter’s office. Your reward for six years of hard work and forsaking a personal life to be at the beck and call of your clients. All your effort hasn’t gone unnoticed.
I was correct, except the “reward” wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Instead of getting a bigger office and a new title, I was asked to take over the company’s underperforming New Orleans office. Only for a year, my boss promised, before I return to Manhattan and the coveted VP spot.
Porter’s offer left me struggling to respond. I hadn’t counted on a year away from my beloved New York City and finding someone to sub-let my apartment, much less taking over an office and managing employees who were most likely suspicious and fearful of losing their jobs. However, deal-maker Charlie Porter didn’t get to be the head of a Fortune 500 company without being persuasive, and when he agreed I could continue to work with my existing clients from New Orleans, I caved in for the sake of my career, despite my misgivings about being around Andre.
Our lives have been intertwined for the past three years, beginning when I arranged for another of my clients, Robert Silver of the legendary band Deep Blue, to be a guest chef on At Home with Andre. The same day, Andre met Denise Hrivnak, eventually hiring her as the national spokesperson for his non-profit organization, Feed America’s Children. The following year, Denise brought me on as a consultant to a major fund-raiser and live Labor Day concert to benefit FAC. We raised more than $24 million that night to feed hungry kids, and since then we’ve become good friends.
From the first day I visited Andre’s TV set, I could tell he was taken with Denise, but she appeared to be more interested in Robert’s musical partner, Art Hoffman. How she could prefer Artie over Andre has always been a mystery to me, because to my way of thinking, there’s no contest. Andre is smart, successful, and asoozing with charismatic and charming a man as I’ve ever met. He has a big, booming laugh that draws attention. He’s hard-working and intensely loyal to his friends, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous, with a muscular build and symmetrical features that bring to mind Denzel Washington. To put it simply, Andre is the total package.
I’ll admit Artie has his own aging rock star style, although he’s not what I’d call handsome. He and I have what can best be described as a prickly relationship, because he is impossible to manage and unapologetically unfiltered. He tends to shoot off his mouth without thinking, like muttering “Funk this, America” into his mic during the live concert. His ad-libbed comment earned him the wrath of a loud-mouthed radio talk show host who said his words represented “another rip in the moral fabric of society.”
Artie found it all hilarious, while I went to work overtime on damage control. Another day in the life of doing public relations for a world famous band.
Despite my attraction to Andre, I have never acted on it, although he is everything I would want in a man. I know he doesn’t love me, and I won’t be used as a substitute for someone he can’t have.
Besides, I never mix business with my personal life, except for one slip-up last summer in Las Vegas. It was only a thing I remind myself, one of those unfortunate lapses in judgement brought on by stress, lack of sleep, and too much alcohol. The management of CP Global frowns on its employees having sex with our clients. Charles Porter is obsessed with maintaining the image of his “brand,” and he insists that all his employees have a squeaky-clean image. If anyone found out about our little tryst, I could be written up, or possibly lose my shot at a vice president position.cy.
So far, what happened in Vegas has stayed there, right where it belongs.
Andre directs me to a pair of matching sofas flanking an antique fireplace and motions for me to sit. He pours us both a glass of white wine. It’s a little early in the day for me to drink alcoholic beverages, but I’m making an exception this time, for the sake of appearing cordial. I’ve already discovered that “happy hour” in New Orleans can be any hour you choose, depending on the circumstances.
“Are ya gettin’ settled in yet?” he asks.
“I rented an apartment in the Garden District. It comes furnished, so I’ll check out of the hotel and move right in.”
“Give me your address,” he says, training those unusual eyes on me again. “I’d like to send ya a housewarming gift.”
He beams another smile in my direction, looking hot and spicy, like the jambalaya his restaurant serves. I find myself staring at a small scar on his right cheekbone, the only flaw onin an otherwise perfect face, wondering how he got it. An old football injury, a kitchen accident, or maybe a lover’s quarrel that got out of hand?
Another heat wave crashes over me and I feel an internal fire rushing to my head. Pressing one hand to my forehead, I try to determine whether I’m feverish…or something else.
“Ya look a little flustered,” Andre says.
I am not flustered! I am known for being cool, calm, and always in control. Sitting up straighter, I smooth my hair with one hand and ask, “Is it always so humid here?”
He leans back, totally at ease, and looks me over while I try not to stare at his sexy little salt-and-pepper goatee. It felt divine next to my bare skin, and softer than I imagined it might be. The thought of our night together makes my face flush again.
“Yeah, but you haven’t experienced summer yet. Ya gotta chew the air a bit before ya can swallow it.”
Oh. Great. Something to look forward to.
I take a sip of the crisp white wine while Andre’s eyes bore into mine. He’s seen me naked. I never should have taken this job.
“I’ve got a new project we need to discuss,” he says.
I breathe a small sigh of relief. As long as we stay focused on business, I can do this.
“I might’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a local boy who grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward.”
I nod. I know that fact and a whole lot more because I did a Google search on him years ago. Raised by his African-American mother and grandmother after his Cajun father abandoned the family, he learned his way around the kitchen at a young age. He made it to Louisiana State University on a football scholarship, and although he was a decent player, he lacked the skills to go pro, so he returned to his love of cooking. After culinary school, he spent several years working in the cutthroat New York fine-dining scene before returning to New Orleans and opening his first restaurant. Andre’s was an immediate success, due to the chef’s sizzling mix of Creole, Cajun, and soul food. Other restaurants were added to his growing empire, including Bayou Grill in Las Vegas.
His biggest career break came when a Food TV executive spotted him giving a cooking demonstration at an outdoor wine and seafood festival. Within weeks he had signed a development contract leading to his top-rated show, At Home with Andre, which showcases both his food and musical entertainment. In his spare time, he founded Feed America’s Children in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation more than a decade ago.
According to his Wikipedia biography, Andre and his wife are divorced, but they’ve stayed friendly. And while the tabloids have linked him to various women in the past, he has remained single.
He’s so busy that I don’t know how the man has time to stay fit, but he manages. There’s not a speck of fat on his body, which I recall is all muscle, sinew, and bone. His trademark black t-shirt stretches across a massive chest and muscled shoulders. When he gets up to refill our wine glasses, I catch a glimpse of his beautifully-sculpted ass in tight jeans, which makes my heart pound and my internal temperature rise even more. I’m getting a bad feeling about this.
Seating himself across from me, Andre continues.
“Hunger is still a big problem in this community, but I’ve found another way to help. One of the churches in my old neighborhood was servin’ free dinner once a month, but they don’t have the resources to feed many people. The church has offered its kitchen and meeting facilities if I wanna take it on.”
His pale gray eyes darken with intensity.
“I said I’d do it.”
Andre elaborates. On the first Sunday of each month, he pledges to feed several hundred people from the church kitchen, with the help of chef colleagues and food distributors. The concept is based on his own childhood, when his extended family would gather for potluck dinner every Sunday. While they never had much money, they always managed to put on a spread. At Andre’s Sunday Supper, people will be asked to pay what they can, but no one will be turned away.
“It sounds like a natural outgrowth of Feed America’s Children,” I respond, relieved that we’re sticking to the topic. “Give me a week and I’ll put together a plan and run it by you before you schedule the first meal.”
“It’s already done, dawlin’. Two weeks from Sunday. I want as much media attention as you can get me.”
“What?” His bossiness makes me bristle. I’m a collaborator, not some low-level order taker.
“That’s not nearly enough time to prepare. I’ll need pressnews releases, graphics for broadcast and social media, some b-roll…” My voice falters as Andre regards me calmly.
“I just got here,” I say.hesitate. “I’ve barely been introduced to my staff.”
“I have faith in ya,” he goes on. “I’ve seen the quality of your work.”
He flashes a grin.
“Porter told me you were up for a promotion. I said if anyone could understand what I’m dealin’ with, it would be you, Katie.”
Another wave of heat surges within me, but this time it’s anger rather than the change. He met with Porter and they talked about me? I’ve been manipulated into taking this job, away from Manhattan and all the things I love, because he cut some sort of deal with my boss? Sure, there was a significant raise and increased responsibility, a chance to further prove myself, but now I’m stuck in this eternal sauna of a city doing Andre’s bidding?
“Fine,” I mutter, tight-lipped. “We’ll start working on it tomorrow.”
He smiles again, a sight that makes my head spin and my heart drum out of control. Supervising an office staff may turn out to be a piece of cake compared to managing Andre. He may have gotten himself a highly-qualified public relations consultant, but if he thinks there’s anything more, he will be disappointed. I am neither a puppet nor a casual fuck. I don’t care how freakishly good-looking the man is.
“Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, this is good. I’m cooling down. What’s up?”
I put our call on speaker phone, recognizing a dim metallic whir and the steady thump of Denise’s footfalls. She’s working out on the treadmill again. My friend and client is more committed to her fitness regimen than anyone else I know. She claims it’s a necessity in her business, which involves making personal appearances and doing television events on behalf of Manhattan-based Feed America’s Children.
“No one wants to see an overfed adult talking about hungry kids,” Denise claims.
We both know about the pressure of looking good in front of the cameras, especially when you’re no longer considered young. Denise is one of the fortunate few who will continue to age graciouslygracefully, like Helen Mirren or Susan Sarandon. I’m not so sure about myself. One of the reasons I got out of the TV news business and went into public relations was because I didn’t want to get a facelift every few years to keep my job.
“I rented an apartment today,” I tell Denise. “A three-bedroom unit in the Garden District.”
I describe my new living quarters, trying to put a positive spin on my life in exile.
“Close to Magazine Street, so I can walk to shops and restaurants.”
“Sounds great,” she says. “And you’re right on one of the parade routes.”
“Mardi Gras, Katie. Dancing, decadence, and delicious food. I know you’ve heard the term before.”
Sure I have, but I’ve also been too preoccupied to think about New Orleans’ annual party, happening at the end of next month. What is it, anyway, other than a week and a half of total indulgence before Catholics give up something for Lent?
“I also met with Andre. He dropped a huge project into my lap with not nearly enough time to prepare.”
She laughs. “That sounds about right.”
“Listen, I’ve got something to ask you,” I say, abruptly changing the subject. “When you went through menopause, what was it like?”
Denise is never one to mince words, one of the reasons we get along so well. I can always count on her for an honest opinion.
“The hot flashes, or as I like to call them, power surges, were terrible. Same goes for the night sweats and the UMS’s.”
“Ugly mood swings,” she informs me, making me laugh in spite of myself.
“You think you’re menopausal?” The whirring stops as her cooldown ends.
“Maybe. I got dizzy this afternoon and had the strangest feeling, like I was on fire inside. I’ve never felt anything like it. All I could think about was ripping off my clothes and getting cool. Then, after a few minutes it went away.”
“Go see your doctor and get some hormones,” she recommends. “Buy some loose-fitting clothes, and make sure they’re made of natural fibers. Synthetics only make you feel hotter.
“It gets better, Katie. Look at it this way, –at least you won’t have to worry about birth control anymore.”
“I don’t worry about birth control now,” I remind her. There hasn’t been a man in my bed since last summer, and before then I’d gone through a particularly long dry spell.
“Give Artie my love,” I add, before we end our call.
“I will,” she says, “and the next time you get an urge to tear off your clothes, make sure there’s a hot-looking man in the room with you.”