Behind Iron Lace
Hot and steamy in The Big Easy isn’t the life Darcy Butler wants, until he meets a smooth talking bad boy…
Darcy Butler is a fish out of water and is suffocating in the humid New Orleans heat. Dissatisfied with his career, his life, he is homesick and heartbroken. Above all Darcy is straight. Or so he believes until he meets the drop-dead gorgeous photographer he wants to revamp the art department of his e-magazine.
Caleb Mitchell, bad boy extraordinaire, lives life on the edge. He’s been around the world covering murder and mayhem. Back in New Orleans to tend his dying mother, Caleb is worn down by grief. He seeks the diversion of working at a local e-magazine to help keep him sane. He doesn’t expect the instant attraction to the bright-eyed editor/owner. That Darcy is probably straight doesn’t matter to Caleb. Because when Caleb wants something, nothing will stand in his way.
Will Darcy be his salvation or his undoing?
After four years, I’ve heard your requests, and your pleas, and your begging. There is a now a sequel to Behind Iron Lace. Titled Lagniappe. And conveniently found directly behind the original story…a two-fer in one volume. Behind Iron Lace, and the Christmas story Lagniappe.
The offices of Y not ask Y! were like an oven. Strike that—the temperature was unbearably close to sauna level, if said sauna just happened to be located in hell. What a day for the damned air-conditioning unit to die. Wiping sweat from his forehead before it could drip into his eyes, Darcy Butler glanced up towards the ceiling fans almost in supplication. He prayed for a hint of cool air. Just a hint. One slight breeze, was it too much to ask?
One hundred degrees in the shade, with a heat index of nearly one-ten, according to the radio. God, how do people live like this? he wondered, and not for the first time since moving to New Orleans last winter. It was too hot to do anything but lie naked in a tub of ice. Shit, it was only June, early June at that—still spring. Summer was still to come and, if spring were any indication, he was not going to survive to see the fall.
“I absolutely cannot do this today,” he said to the two people sitting across from his desk. He couldn’t focus on the budget or any other trivial little detail. Irritated, he tossed a pencil on his blotter and peeled his sodden shirt away from his body. “I’m afraid someone might die of heat exhaustion if we don’t get out of here.”
“Why don’t we call it a day then, Dar? The repair crew can’t get here until tomorrow anyway.” His partner Bailey flashed him a suggestive smile that he studiously ignored. “I, for one, wouldn’t mind finding a nice cool pool to slip into.”
He and Bailey went all the way back to freshman year at college when they had been dreaming of setting the world on fire. Now it looked as if they would spontaneously combust before they ever got the chance. Or, worse, melt clean away. “I will gladly settle for an air-conditioned bar and a cold beer. Okay, yeah, send everyone home—we’re not going to get anything done today. Tomorrow either…” He paused for a moment. There was something he had to do today, he just couldn’t remember. Then it dawned on him. “Oh crap, I have an appointment with a new graphic artist in an hour.”
“What’s the name?” Bailey spun his phone around and, with a few deft finger jabs, she paged through his appointments. “Caleb Mitchell?” She raised a questioning brow, to which Darcy nodded, and she shot off a text in seconds flat. “I told him to meet you at O’Doul’s down the street instead of here.”
“Thanks, Bailey.” Darcy hated the damned phone, hated text messaging, hated technology. Sometimes he wondered how he’d ended up in a technology-based field at all, publisher of his very own e-magazine that—thanks largely to Bailey and Chester, her secretary—they’d somehow managed to take international, even in a tanking economy.
Moving to New Orleans last Christmas had been a money-saver, he reluctantly admitted, though he still wasn’t entirely happy about the move. The building was in the heart of the French Quarter and, because of the damage to the lower floor, it had been a steal. With a little time and a little more money, Darcy had managed to find a talented group of contractors who’d made quick work of bringing the building back to life.
During the winter and the gorgeous spring, Darcy had been quite happy with his new home… Then June and this ridiculous heat wave had hit. Now he just wanted to go back to Oregon and the tranquility of a mild, heat-free summer. He tried not to panic whenever some well-meaning local assured him this was nothing, that he should wait until summer really got here in August. He wasn’t going to make it to August.
“Aw, shucks, boss, ’tweren’t nuthin’.” She laughed, not really at him as much as because he was a hopeless technophobe. Darcy just took the teasing in stride, mostly because it was funny as hell. He’d long ago decided Bailey could have the gadgets all to herself. He’d stick with words and content, thank you very much.
Glancing over to the man sitting beside her, Darcy caught Chester smirking. Chester seemed to smirk a great deal, Darcy thought briefly before wondering for the millionth or so time what sort of pseudo-symbiotic relationship the two of them had.
His long-time best friend and sometimes lover, Bailey was taller than him, taller than Chester too—nearly six-foot one in her bare feet—and slender as the proverbial reed. She kept her straight hair short, in one of those weird Japanese comic book styles, very short in back with longish bangs framing her face. She dressed like a supermodel, preferring anything couture she could get for bottom basement prices off the Internet. Today was no exception, except she was dressed for the weather, while he wasn’t.
Chester… Did the man even have a last name? Chester was prime-grade emo kid, all grown up and graduated to hipster. He was so thin Darcy wondered if he actually ate at all. His hair stood in chopped spikes, the tips blond and whatever color he liked for the day—today the tips were turquoise to match his surfer tee. He was younger than either of them, maybe twenty-three, probably even younger. He’d started out as an intern from U of O last fall and had followed them down to be Bailey’s secretary.
To Darcy, Chester was just a glorified gopher groupie and a major pain in his ass. However, Bailey loved him, swore she couldn’t get along without him. Darcy wasn’t quite so enamored. When he was especially homesick, like now, his imagination liked to run amok. Sometimes he imagined Chester was plotting his demise behind those huge emo eyes of his. The smirk he wore so often seemed to lend credence to the suspicion.
Despite the heat and the sweat, Darcy shivered when Chester’s gaze cut through him, almost dismissively, to land on Bailey.
“Okay, I guess that’s a day then, gang. Free the horde and let’s all go find someplace cool before we stroke out.” He shook off the momentary miasma of paranoia and shooed them out of his office. Remembering something, he shouted, “Oh and don’t forget, bright and early Thursday morning, air conditioning willing, we are going to put up the galleys for next week’s mag. So be here with bells on.”
“Okay boss.” Bailey stuck her head in through the doorway. Waving a quick little pinkie in the air, she disappeared. A couple of minutes later, Darcy heard a mass, almost hysterical chorus of relieved cheers as the sweaty employees were told to take the party elsewhere.
Darcy went about closing his office down. He transferred data to his phone from his computer, the task taking him longer than it would have Bailey—or anyone else in the office, for that matter. While he worked, the outer office began to grow quiet as people put their own workstations to sleep and left for cooler atmospheres and an unscheduled vacation.
“Hey, do you want me to come with you to O’Doul’s? Afterward we can go hang out somewhere.” Bailey, sans Chester, poked her head into his office, startling him. Her cornflower-blue eyes looked hopeful but wary, turning almost morose when he shook his head no. “Aw, come on, Dar, you never have time to just hang out anymore.”
“I’m just tired, Bai. It’s this heat. When the weather cools down…” He let the promise trail off. He couldn’t explain why to her. Hell, he didn’t know why he didn’t want to hang out anymore. That he just didn’t feel like it wasn’t enough of an excuse, at least not one she would let pass without wanting to dissect it. And Darcy sure as hell didn’t want to be dissected right now.
“Okay, we’re all going over to Megan’s place for drinks around her pool. If you change your mind, you know where to find us.” She masked her disappointment behind a smile, but he could hear it in her voice.
“Sure, and hey, you know I love you, right?” He wanted to see her smile again—really smile, instead of the plastered-on, social smile that seemed to be part of her uniform where he was concerned.
“I love you too. I’ll see you Thursday.” She smiled wanly and in a flurry of loose flowing skirt she was gone, leaving him alone to lock up.
It was Chester. Of course, it was Chester. She called him ‘Chess’, which irritated him, much like ‘Dar’ irritated him, only worse. Bailey and her preference for nicknames had always baffled him. Darcy knew one thing—Bailey only gave nicknames to people she had some use for. He couldn’t call this thing between them love. He’d never really thought she loved him.
Chester had come between them long before they’d left Oregon behind for the Big Easy. Darcy had suspected that as early as last September, when she had dropped the last syllable of his name. Of course, he wasn’t going to blame anything on the appearance of a nickname. There were other indications that they were sleeping together. She would take Chester’s call when they were together. Darcy lost track of the number of conversations in which Chester was the only topic. He was young, fresh, idealistic, not burdened down by his own mortality.
Sex had become infrequent, but that was Darcy’s fault more than hers. He just didn’t like thinking there was a third person in bed with them. As a result, they’d drifted apart before the move—the last time he’d slept at her place was long before Christmas, and then, not much had happened. He’d shrugged it off. Blamed the magazine, blamed her for letting Chester come between them, for losing interest.
Darcy didn’t delude himself, he knew it was him. He’d lost interest long before Chester came along. The friends-with-benefits relationship they’d shared since college didn’t excite him anymore. He wanted something else. But damned if he knew what that something else was.
Shaking off the unwanted thoughts, Darcy loped down the three flights of stairs and locked up. The very second he hit the street, heat engulfed him, heavy, damp heat that seemed to seep into his very bones. He inhaled deeply, hoping to clear his head, but the stench made him gag. The assorted odors of New Orleans had never grown on him. The river, the lake, the aging city all combined to create an odd smell that he couldn’t get used to. Today was one of those days. The oppressive heat, the swamp-like humidity, the bum pissing in the alley… Shit, he wanted to go home.
O’Doul’s Pub, just up the street, was a welcome relief from the heat. It was open, filled with light and music at all times of the day or night, and, most importantly, the bar was blessed with a working air conditioner.
“Hey, Ducky, you want the usual?” the bartender called to him the second he stepped inside, a smile on his face. The taunting nickname Darcy could live with. He was proud to be a Duck.
“Anything, as long as it’s cold. God, it feels like heaven in here.”
“I heard about your AC problems. Damned copper thieves most likely got to it. They stripped mine clean last year. Not once, but twice. Cost me a fortune to replace, but what you gonna do? You gotta have it.” The bartender talked while he reached into a barrel filled with ice and pulled out a bottle of the imported beer Darcy loved, popped the top and handed it to him.
“Start a tab for me, will ya? I’m meeting someone, an artist for the magazine. I want to impress him. He’s gifted, just what we need to class up the joint.” Darcy found a booth with the best possible vantage point, beneath one of the industrial-sized air vents, so he could watch the front window and get as much of the blasting air as he possibly could.
“Sure thing, Ducky. You want some lunch or should I just call the paramedics now?” The bartender hitched his eyebrows as he looked him up and down.
“I look that bad, huh? I can’t get used to this heat.” He tried to make his voice light.
“This ain’t hot, cher, not by a long shot. Just wait till August, then we’ll talk about heat.” And there it was—the mocking grin, the familiar yet oh so hated litany that made Darcy physically fear the coming of August.
“Yeah, yeah, so you keep telling me. Send me out a sandwich or something, but after I stop sweating.” He held the bottle in a salute and caved into the wonderfully cool leatherette booth with a sigh.
Two beers later, Darcy felt humanoid again. His button-down shirt was rumpled, but at least it was dry now. He’d long ago done away with his tie and loosened his collar. Hell, he’d even rolled up his sleeves to his elbows. He felt like a slob, but he was cool and that was all that mattered.
Caleb Mitchell’s file lay out on the table before him. Just the basics, no formal schooling. He’d done time trotting around the globe, photographing war and unrest. His paintings had been displayed in New York, London and France. Impressive. Why he wanted to freelance for Darcy’s little e-mag was beyond him, but he wasn’t about to turn up his nose at talent.
He heard the rumble of an engine before the motorcycle pulled up outside and parked in front of the bar. The rider, dressed in faded blue jeans and a plain white T-shirt covered with an unbuttoned brown leather vest, pulled the helmet off and brushed his hair back from his face.
Fascinated, Darcy watched him climb off the bike and saunter into the bar. He stopped to talk to the bartender and, while Darcy watched, they both looked at him. The biker’s gaze seemed to caress him as he walked in his direction. He had an easy, infectious smile, his gait long and rolling. Jesus, this was Caleb Mitchell?
“You’re Darcy Butler?” He didn’t wait for Darcy to say a word. He just fell into the seat across from him, laying his long, tan arms on the table. Smooth, muscular arms adorned with silver chain bracelets of varying sizes that moved fluidly as he did. “I was expecting a woman… Sorry, that was rude.”
“I get that a lot, the curse of a romance-loving mother. She named me after her favorite heroes and didn’t seem to think I’d get my ass kicked for it. You must be Caleb Mitchell. It’s nice to meet you, Mr Mitchell. I must say, I’m a fan of your work.” Darcy didn’t know why he was babbling like a fish. He hadn’t expected the man to look like a movie star version of a Hell’s Angel biker. Or that he’d have such piercing eyes. Green eyes. Damn. He cleared his throat.
“Mr Mitchell was my father, just Caleb is fine.” He pulled his file over without even asking. “I see you’ve done your homework. I look pretty good on paper.”
In real life too.
Jesus, why in the hell did he just think that? He cleared his throat again. “What is it about my magazine that interests you? Certainly not the pay. A talent like yours, you could go anywhere. Not that I’m not flattered, and we could certainly use you. I’m just curious.”
“I’m bored. You’re here,” Caleb stated simply, his smile growing wider as his gaze went to the bottle Darcy tipped to his lips.
“Pardon me, where are my manners? Can I get you a drink, some lunch? I’m sorry to have changed the meeting place but the air conditioning quit at the office and the heat was just unbearable.” Babbling again, shit.
“Probably copper thieves. Little pricks can strip a unit faster than you can sneeze.” Caleb had a wonderful accent, not really regional, more like you’d hear in old movies—a long, slow drawl, very southern. “I’ll have one of those, thanks.”
Darcy raised his bottle and stuck up two fingers. The bartender smiled and nodded. “Sure thing, Ducky. You want that sandwich now or later?”
“Now would be great. Whatever you got up there, O’Doul,” Caleb shouted before Darcy had a chance.
“Sure thing, Caleb.” The bartender grinned and sent back a shout to his kitchen staff.
“I come here a lot when I’m in town. Only the locals know this place, it’s off the main tourist drag and I like the sandwiches. Why’d O’Doul call you Ducky?” Caleb looked him over, his intelligent eyes filled with a curiosity that had Darcy to the point of blushing.
“I graduated from the University of Oregon. Made the mistake of telling him, been stuck with the name ever since.” What was it about this man that made him want to talk?
“Them Ducks nearly beat Auburn last year in the BCS Championship, nothing to be ashamed of there. We judge people by the quality of their football program down here, if you haven’t figured it out yet.” Caleb’s laughter rumbled across the table, making Darcy smile.
“Yeah, well, I did notice, about a week after I moved here.” He picked at the label on his empty bottle under the unwavering green gaze.
“What part of Oregon are you from?” Caleb pushed his hair back from his face with a practiced move, the chains gliding from his wrist to his forearm. His hair was all one length. Pushed back, it fell to his collar, brown with blond highlights he hadn’t got from a bottle.
Darcy cleared his throat before he spoke. “Astoria, on the Oregon coast.”
“Yeah? It’s a gorgeous town. I went whale watching up there a couple of years ago and stayed in Astoria.”
“Where are you from originally, if you don’t mind me asking? You don’t exactly have the native accent.” Curiosity finally got the better of him.
“Oh, cher, you have no idea how long it took to get rid of my accent.” His voice changed, growing more melodic, his accent thicker even than O’Doul’s. “But no, I’m not born down here, you are right about that. My mama, she came from here. I spent most of my life on the bayou, seems like, here and in South Carolina. I speak low-country tidal and Cajun as a first language. You have no idea how messed up that is.” He shifted back to his original accent with ease as O’Doul brought out their sandwich baskets.
“Don’t mess with the boy’s head, cher, he’s new around here.” O’Doul smiled at the two of them, then winked at Darcy before he left them alone.
“Hey, O’Doul, you think I ought to go work at this here boy’s magazine?” Caleb said suddenly, seeming to catch himself off guard if the look in his eyes was any indication, the Cajun accent infusing his speech almost as if it were unintentional.
“It’s a pretty good rag, cher. You want to kill it before it can do any good?” The bartender laughed, his eyes sparkling with good humor.
“I don’t aim to class it up none, no. Thought it would class me up a tad,” Caleb shot back in the same accent. Darcy just sat and watched them banter.
“Not gonna happen. You need the dough?”
“No, cher, I got too much of that.”
“Then, if Ducky there is willing to take your bullshit on, go for it. Can’t hurt none, and might keep you out of trouble.”
“You willing to take my bullshit on, Ducky? And believe me, I come with some heavy shit. You might regret it before it’s said and done.” Caleb turned serious, his eyes losing some of the sparkle.
Darcy took a bite of the sandwich, hot beef juices searing the back of his throat while he wondered how he’d gone from being the interviewer to the interviewee. He swallowed, watching Caleb watch him.
“I believe we can come to some arrangement.”