Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(11)


by Meghan March

She narrowed her eyes. “Spill. Now.”

I rolled my eyes and spilled. Her mouth was hanging open by the time I finished recounting the events of Saturday night.

“So you see, it was a humiliating mess. And I’m better off having dodged that bullet.”

She closed her gaping mouth and tapped a finger to her lips. “Dayum. Only you, Charlie. Only you would find a guy who won’t let you ‘one night’ him. I gotta see this man who’s got your wet panties in a twist.” She moved behind the counter and started typing. I could only assume she was Googling him. I forced myself to stay where I was.

“Holy shit. Now that’s a man. Damn, can he wear black tie. And in a uniform…” She fanned herself. I clenched my fists, embracing the sting of my nails digging into my palms. She started to read. “Simon Jefferson Duchesne. Age thirty-one. Highly decorated fighter pilot honorably discharged from the Navy two years ago, after he spent a year teaching at his alma mater, the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Only son of Jefferson Duchesne and Margaret LeBlanc Duchesne. The senior Mr. Duchesne served sixteen years as a congressman for Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, leaving his seat to run for governor. After he was defeated in his gubernatorial bid, he purchased a small Mississippi River shipping company, Southern Cross Logistics, which he has grown over the past decade to the ranks of the Fortune 500. Currently, the younger Mr. Duchesne is serving as vice president of Southern Cross, in addition to being a councilman for District A of the NOLA City Council. It is rumored he will be announcing his candidacy this fall to challenge the incumbent for his father’s congressional seat.”

I’d known the bare bones of this information, but hearing the details just highlighted our differences, once again reminding me why it was better I avoided him. I tried to tell myself this was a good thing. Then she continued.

“Simon Duchesne is frequently accompanied to charity events by long-time friend Vanessa Frost. Rumors abound as to the couple’s status, and all are speculating whether Mr. Duchesne will pop the question prior to hitting the campaign trail. Ms. Frost is the daughter of Royce Frost, CEO of Louisiana Steel Products, and the late Amelia Bennett Frost, heiress to the Bennett textile empire…”

The roar of blood rushing in my ears drowned out whatever Yve said next. I exhaled, feeling like someone had punched me in the gut. Long-time friend? Pop the question? A fucking heiress? What the hell? So why the fuck was he naked in my backyard on Saturday night? And why am I so pissed?

I pushed the anger and disappointment away. I told myself that now I knew I’d dodged a bullet. I didn’t screw around with guys who were taken. But if he were the cheating asshole I wanted to paint him as, why wouldn’t he have jumped at the opportunity to nail and bail? Nothing about Simon Duchesne added up.

“Charlie.” My attention snapped back to Yve. “Calm the hell down. It’s all gossip from the society pages. Who knows the truth? I’d say actions speak louder than this trash.” She gestured to the monitor.

“It doesn’t matter. I mean, whatever happened Saturday night was an anomaly. Not to be repeated. I’ll probably never see him again anyway.” Why had I felt the need to tack on that last sentence? Like I wanted to see him again? Ugh.

The rest of my shift passed slowly, and I was gearing up to head out when we closed at five o’clock. Mondays weren’t busy, so we’d been able to get ready for closing while the store was still open. Huck was bouncing on his paws, eager to get outside when I clipped the leash to his collar. I was pretty excited too, because I had the rest of the night free. Cognizant of Huck’s excess energy, I decided to walk my bike rather than risk another encounter that would require first aid. We were seven blocks away from the store and three blocks away from home when all hell broke loose.

I was distracted, thinking about everything Yve had read to me earlier. And then I turned my head and watched the whole scene unfold in slow motion: the carriage turning the corner, Huck tugging the leash from my negligent grip and darting into the street after it, the street sweeper careening down the narrow road.

I screamed as the truck clipped Huck’s torso and rear legs, sending him spinning toward the sidewalk on the other side of the street. I dropped my bike and ran into the road, barely missing getting hit myself. His broken body was sprawled in the gutter, his chest heaving, and a pool of blood was forming and running into the street. I dropped to my knees beside him and held back my vomit as I saw one of his rear leg bones protruding from beneath the skin and a gash along his side. I flipped the fur back over the wound, not able to stomach looking inside him. The truck hadn’t stopped, nor had the car behind it. The carriage was gone. The streets of the Quarter were rarely empty, but of course now … when I desperately needed someone, it was deserted. Tears streamed down my face, and I fumbled with my bag, where it still hung across my body. I pulled out my phone and pressed buttons. I had four numbers. One of them had to answer. It rang. Once. Twice. And then someone picked up.

“Charlie?”

It was not a voice I’d expected to hear. But I didn’t fucking care. “Charlie? I can hear you breathing.”

“I need you. Now. Please. Help me.” The words were disjointed syllables strangled by my sobs.

I could almost feel a change in Simon’s demeanor through the phone.

“Where are you? What happened? I’m getting in my car. Tell me where I’m going.”

I looked up. “Corner of Toulouse and Dauphine. Huck got hit by a car. I need…” My words broke off when Huck’s eyes blinked open at his name. “Please. Hurry.”

“I’m on my way. I’m not far. I’ll be there in five minutes. Just breathe, Charlie.”

Huck yelped, and I dropped the phone back into my bag.

I stroked Huck’s head and spoke to him in low, soothing tones. He tried to move his back legs and yelped again, and his panting breaths sped up. I tried to hold him steady. His big brown eyes stared into mine. “It’s going to be okay, baby. I promise. You’re going to be fine. I swear.”

Simon lied. He was there in less than five minutes, but it still seemed like an eternity. My face was buried in Huck’s neck, trying to keep him still, listening to his pained whimpers. I heard the roar of an engine before a vehicle jerked to a stop on the street next to me. The door flew open, but I didn’t look up. I kept my eyes locked on Huck’s. A hand on my shoulder snapped me out of my stupor.