Thomas Dupree looked like every woman’s wet dream in a tux.
He stood at the end of the line of groomsmen, rich brown eyes trained on his oldest brother Leon, who was taking his vows. Madison Rainey had a fine view of Thomas from where she stood with the peach satin and tulle–clad bridesmaids sweating in the sultry New Orleans afternoon.
A drop of perspiration trickled down Madison’s cleavage, and she had the brief, hot fantasy of Thomas, still in his tux but with black tie dangling, chasing the trickle with his tongue. As she shifted in her stilt heels, clenching her bridesmaid’s bouquet, Thomas’s eyes flicked to her. Their gazes caught and tangled, and Thomas gave her a hint of a smile.
Her blood heated, felt thick. Thomas had a square, hard face, hair so dark brown it was nearly black, and eyes the color of coffee. Rich black coffee, not a wimpy latte. When he looked at her, he truly looked at her, no evasive eye contact or pretending he didn’t take in all of her. He studied her and damned anyone who caught him doing it.
Madison had been having hot fantasies about Thomas Dupree for nine years, ever since high school in Fontaine, where she’d shamelessly chased him. He’d teased her, she’d written about him in her diary, she’d drawn hearts with MR + TD in them on picnic tables. She’d even bought him an ID bracelet, a gold-plated one with the name Thomas engraved on it in fine script, and slid it into his locker. One day, she’d caught him wearing it, and that day he’d finally asked her out.
The date had been a complete disaster, but she’d spent one golden week in giddy anticipation.
They’d lost touch after Madison moved in with her grandmother in New Orleans before her senior year, after losing her parents in a car accident. She’d seen Thomas from time to time over the years as he’d changed from cute teenager to a hot, tasty man, but they’d never reconnected. These days, whenever Madison had a sex fantasy or an erotic dream, Thomas Dupree was its star. She imagined him pouring champagne into tall glasses while slowly removing his tie, or he’d pick her up in a red-hot sports car and drive her somewhere they could be absolutely alone, or he’d take her out in a limo and make slow, sweet love to her in the backseat.
Seeing him in person today made her nipples perk and her peach satin panties grow damp. Thomas in the flesh was tall and broad-shouldered, with a dangerous air of take-no-shit she’d always liked. Would real-life sex with him be slow and sensual as in her dreams, or wild and wicked, and no holds barred?
Madison had heard a few unnerving whispers about Thomas. How he and his brother had begun a courier business, but Thomas seemed to leave town a lot, returning looking like he’d been living in the wild for weeks. No one knew exactly where he went, and his brother wasn’t saying. Thomas might only be taking extended fishing trips, but looking at him, Madison didn’t think so. No one who made the air crackle like that was sitting in a swamp fishing.
Madison realized with another frisson of pleasure that Thomas was assessing her, even if he didn’t do anything so crude as run his gaze down her body while they were standing in a church with a priest between them. Still, he looked as though he knew every thought going on behind her eyes and every wicked fantasy she’d ever had about him. And knew he could make them come true.
The ceremony was long, because they had a sermon and Communion, the whole works. But at last the recessional played and it was time to hurry down the aisle to photos, champagne, and a catered dinner in the beautiful old hotel down the street.
“Maddie.” Thomas Dupree extended his arm. A nice arm, thick with muscle under his coat.
Madison put her fingers through the crook of his elbow, trying not to shiver at the raw strength of him. He moved with a quiet confidenceand even more animal-like grace than when she’d known him nine long years ago.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Thomas was saying. “What you been up to, cher?”
His bayou accent wrapped its warmth around her, his voice grown deeper and fuller.
“You know. Life.” Trying to keep everything from being ripped out from under me, trying to put off frightening decisions.
“Yeah, I know.” Thomas’s smile fanned the spark that his cher had ignited. Heat curled down her spine to park between her buttocks.
They’d almost reached the door. The guests surged around them, pushing their way to the bride and groom, who stood on the steps. Thomas leaned to Madison, dark head bent.
“Maddie, I need to talk to you. Can we meet up later?”
The heat inside became a river of fire. She was acutely aware of his fingers on her arm, the way his head tilted, and the way his dark eyes held hers as he waited for her answer. Madison caught his scent, warm, masculine, coupled with whatever musky cologne he’d dabbed on.
“Sure, if you want.” Lord, she sounded so nonchalant. As though men as blatantly sexual as Thomas asked to speak with her all the time. As though her knees weren’t bending, ready to let her slide her face down that tight, gorgeous tux to the nice bump between his legs.
“I need to ask you a couple of questions about your grandmother’s house,” Thomas said.
Madison’s warmth died to ice.
The house. Of course. Everyone wanted to talk about the damned house. It had been in her family for two hundred years, and everyone from the historical society to developers wanted to get their hands on the property. So did predators like the prick Keith Girard, who wanted to marry socialite Madison so he could live in the famous house and move up the New Orleans food chain.
She was sick to death of everyone asking about her house, sicker because both she and the property were in such bad financial straits that she might have to sell it. And that, she determined never, ever to do. It was her home, damn it. The place she’d been happiest, the memories of family built up year after year like layers of paint.
She gave Thomas a cool look. “Sorry. I think I’ll be busy later.”
Madison released his arm and flowed away into the crowd, but not before she caught his frown and the flash of anger in his coffee-brown eyes.
Thomas watched Madison’s slim form as she moved down the church steps to hug Val and Leon in congratulations. She looked like a flower in the peach satin and tulle, her dark hair in a French braid that revealed her regal neck and the proud set of her head.
What the hell had he said? Thomas had been saying the wrong thing to Madison for years, ever since their one awful date. He still squirmed when he remembered that date, and he knew Maddie did too.
Lord, she got more beautiful every time he saw her. Madison was twenty-five now, elegant and gorgeous. Those wide, dark eyes looked as though they could see straight into his soul.
He needed to be with her, to talk to her. Thomas needed to find out why the parasite Keith Girard was fighting so hard to get his hands on Madison and her grandmother’s house. Girard was at the wedding today, invited by Thomas’s mother, because Girard’s family owned half of Fontaine. There he was now, ogling Madison and not bothering to hide it. Thomas had never paid much attention to Keith Girard, until rumors began to fly around that he was courting Madison Rainey and that an engagement would be announced soon.
Thomas’s goal in life since then had been to find out all he could about Girard. He had decided it would be best to take Madison out after the reception, to a bar, maybe, where she could sip a clear martini, her lips lingering on the rim of her glass. He’d ask how she felt about Girard. He had to know.
He hadn’t spoken to Madison in years, but he’d been aware of her, had seen her picture in newspapers and magazines. Madison the Crazy Hat Lady, they called her. Even in high school she’d created unusual and elegant hats, and now her hats were sold in upscale shops all over New Orleans. Everyone from celebrities to the social queens of New Orleans wore them, couldn’t get enough of them. Madison wore them herself, smiling her big, charming smile under their brims.
Thomas hadn’t spoken to her in months, and somehow he’d managed to piss her off in under two minutes. He’d pissed her off all those years ago, too, and he’d regretted it ever since.
No, it was safe to say he’d changed his life because of what had happened that night.
“Your eyes are about to fall out of your head, bro.” His brother, Jean-Marc, another of the groomsmen, had come up behind him on the church steps. Marc was closest to Thomas in age, only a year younger, and the two had always been tight. “Close your mouth before you drool on your expensive tux.”
“I don’t drool over beautiful women,” Thomas said. “I get dry-mouth, instead.”
“Hey, didn’t you have the hots for Madison in high school?”
“That was a long time ago. Another life.”
“You’re not that old,” Marc said. “Neither is she.”
Thomas shook his head. “Wrong time and place.”
Marc grinned, his looks so close to Thomas’s that many people were surprised they weren’t twins. “Bullshit. Ask her to dance at the reception and see where life takes you.”
Thomas wanted to. He’d love to cup his hands around her waist and pull her against him while they floated around the dance floor.
Madison had moved off with the other bridesmaids and the bride for the photo session. Val, Leon’s bride, wasn’t from Louisiana, or even the States. Val knew no one here, so Thomas’s mother had recruited the daughters of the Duprees’ old friends to be Val’s bridesmaids. Madison had been happy to help out. But Madison was like that, always welcoming, always friendly.
Leon kept smiling at his new wife, Val, slim in the white dress that hugged her body. Another man was watching Val, a friend they’d brought home with them from their travels, a Greek called Demitri. Thomas’s youngest brother Remy, who’d been with Leon out in Egypt, had told Thomas the incredible detail that Demitri joined Val and Leon in bed.
A ménage à trois. Thomas never would have believed it of Leon, the dutiful oldest Dupree son, who walked the straight and narrow. Thomas and Marc had embraced an adventurous sexual life, and even belonged to a club, but Leon had never been wild. Now, Leon looked happier than he ever had in his life.
Thomas was called to join the photo shoot, which went on and on. Shots of the bride; the bride with the groom; the bride and groom with Mom; the groom with his three brothers; the groom with the bride, the three brothers, and Remy’s wife. Leon with his best friend, Demitri, and a shot of Val, Leon, and Demitri together.
A threesome. Hmm. You go, bro.
“Go for a run later if you don’t get lucky?” Marc asked Thomas as they walked to the hotel for the reception.
Thomas nodded. He knew what Marc meant—a run in the swamps around Fontaine in some form other than human. Thomas and his brothers could shape-shift into any animal they wanted, provided they’d touched that animal at least once. Another barrier between himself and Madison. Shape-shifters weren’t thick on the ground, and how could he explain to the woman of his dreams that he sometimes liked to run around as a jaguar?
It probably wouldn’t matter, anyway, because Thomas couldn’t even get close to Madison at the reception. Thomas ate the banquet food and raised his glass in the many toasts to Leon and Val, wishing he were sitting next to Madison instead of between Marc and Remy at the other end of the table.
Finally the lights went down, and the newlyweds had their first dance. Thomas watched Leon gaze into Val’s eyes and her wicked smile flash in return. Val coiled her fingers around Leon’s neck, her body in the sleek wedding gown sliding against Leon’s. She certainly loved him. Their friend Demitri stood on the edge of the dance floor, watching with an intense dark gaze.
The music stopped, and the rest of the guests were invited to dance. Thomas looked for Madison, spotted her talking and laughing with girlfriends, her smile piercing his heart. Her scent, like orange blossoms, had filled him when he’d taken her arm, and it seemed to cling to him still.
He imagined hooking his forefingers into the off-the-shoulder dress and pulling down until he discovered whether she wore a little strapless bra underneath, a slash of lace on skin, or nothing at all. He’d teach her what he’d learned since their truncated relationship nine years ago—how to articulate her deepest needs and then beg for Thomas to fulfill them.
Everything you desire, deep in your heart. I will make it come true.
Someone blocked his view of her. Keith Girard, stopping to talk to Madison. Damn.
Madison was obviously uncomfortable with him. She stepped back on one heel as he curved over her, but Keith kept leaning in, talking fast.
Thomas was across the room before his brain registered that his feet had moved. He slammed his drink to an empty table and reached Madison and Girard in time to hear Girard say, “You know you want to, Maddie.”
“Keith, not now,” Madison said.
Girard grabbed Madison’s arm. She glared at him, and Thomas’s animal rage roared to the surface. He shoved himself directly between them, breaking Keith’s contact with Madison.
Keith flashed anger. “What the fuck are you doing, Dupree?”
“The lady, she don’t want to dance with you,” Thomas answered, his Cajun accent flowing out with his fury. “You leave her be.”
Girard sneered. “Can’t you talk right, Cajun boy?”
“I’ll talk better when you leave her alone.”
“Don’t make a habit of butting in to what you don’t understand, Dupree. I can make life hell for you.”
The man was an idiot. “I can make it a hotter hell for you, Girard.”
Madison had stepped to Thomas’s side, her wide eyes filled with anger. “Stop it, both of you. You’re like a pair of . . . rutting goats.”
“Maybe you should take this outside, gentlemen.” Marc had moved to them and stood between Girard and Thomas now, speaking in a quiet voice. “Don’t fuck up Leon’s wedding.”
He was right. Thomas stepped back. “Marc has a point. This isn’t the place.” He held out his hand. “Would you dance with me, Maddie?”
She glared. “No, I would not.”
Damn it. “Madison.”
“Don’t ‘Madison’ me, Thomas Dupree. You ignored me for nine years, and now you push people around and want to dance with me so you can poke me for information about my house. Well, forget it.”
“I don’t think that’s the only way he wants to poke you,” Girard said. “You’d better watch him, Maddie.”
“I think she’d better keep an eye on you,” Thomas said. “I am.”
Girard’s gaze flickered at that, but he kept up the smile. “This isn’t the swamps, boy, where you act like animals.”
The trouble was, Thomas had animal in him, or at least an animal spirit, passed down from a shaman ancestor. Sometimes it did his thinking for him, and he had to shift and run, hunt, to let off steam.
“Both of you. Grow up.” Madison whirled, her tulle skirt floating. “I need some air.”
Girard took a step after her, but Marc was there, hemming him in with Thomas, and Madison strode out of the ballroom unimpeded.
Girard’s sneer remained as he straightened his cuffs. Thomas smelled fear on him. One Dupree brother Girard thought he could handle. He knew he wasn’t up to handling two.
“You’re not worth it.” Girard brushed off his coat then deliberately turned his back and walked away.
Thomas let him go. As satisfying as punching the man in the mouth might be, he had more important things to take care of.
He started for the door. “I gotta run, bro.”
“Let me know what you find out,” Marc said behind him. He added, just loud enough for Thomas to hear. “Good luck.”
Thomas exited the ballroom of the old French hotel and hurried through the echoing tiled halls. The valet looked up inquiringly when he emerged from the front door, but Thomas didn’t need his car. He needed Madison. Needed her so much his body berated him for not simply taking her out of there when he’d had the chance.
The valet said he’d seen Madison walking away, up the block to the right. Thomas quickened his pace. His gaze darted everywhere as he walked one block, then another, but nowhere did he see a woman in a peach dress with a fluffy meringue skirt. Madison was gone.