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Cleopatra

Whisper

By: Nancy Warren

Chapter 1


 GENNA MONROE CURSED the managing partner for choosing to host a law firm retreat in the mostunbusinesslike city she had ever visited.

 New Orleans.

 The Big Easy.

 Except it wasnot easy to be a businesswoman in this city that, as far as she could tell, treated laziness as a virtue. It wasn't easy that it took an extra five minutes to gel her hair into submission, fighting the humidity that teased it into a frizz. It wasn't easy wearing a suit and panty hose in the sticky springtime heat.

 And the time it took to have a simple conversation! She hated to think of the billable hours wasted here in the South just by the accent, those syllables being drawn out in that oh-so-relaxed Southern drawl till they begged for mercy.

 Time was a commodity Genna took very seriously. She had career deadlines, a life timetable. She had no time for dawdling, drawling, Southern warmth and hospitality.

 Give herChicagoany day. Efficiently cold in the winter, a businesslike use of air-conditioning in the summer. And no damned magnolias to drive a person to dreams.

 Magnolias.

 They were so ridiculously, over-the-top gorgeous, heavy with a spicy-sweet scent that made her think of romance. As did all ofNewOrleans, come to that. It was so extravagantly sensual, this crazy city, that she couldn't keep her thoughts straight.

 Every sense prickled, as though each of them was waking from hibernation, as she leaned over the curly wrought-iron railing and drank in the beauty of the night. She gazed into the walled garden tangled with dark-green vines that flirted with moonlit statues, wrapping coy arms round their stone shoulders.

 Behind her, inside the hotel ballroom, she heard the drone of more than a hundred lawyers and law-firm employees talking, arguing,schmoozing – just as she should be. Like they didn't do enough of that back inChicagoseventy hours a week. But ahead of her was the soft sound of water trickling from an unseen fountain, soothing and somehow cooling to her overheated imagination.

 Her nostrils twitched as she breathed deeply of a heady combination of scents, only a few of which she could identify. Magnolia hung heaviest, mixed with lighter notes. Jasmine, she was certain; rose; some kind of sharper scent, maybe an herb. Even the earth smelled rich and fruitful. Warm, heavy, moist air pulled at her with caressing fingers, urging her to step out into the garden.

 She glanced back through the lighted doorway where clusters of lawyers swarmed. Would anyone even notice she was gone

 In her navy cotton dress she'd blend right into the deep shadows of the garden. She stepped down one shallow stone step, then another, and finally another, with each step feeling her breath come easier and the surface irritability she'd tried to ignore all day deepen into a kind of sadness.

 Why was she here, in this romantic garden, alone

 She wandered, pensive and frustrated, pausing to touch a waxy green leaf here, to inhale a fragrant blossom there. The unfamiliar taste of a mint julep was still on her tongue, as foreign as this feeling of dissatisfaction.

 She was on track to being the youngest lawyer ever to make partner at Donne, Green andRaddison . She had the world by the tail.

 She sighed and sank to a stone bench, sheltered under a cloud of fragrant, creamy magnolia blossoms. Giving in to their spell, she shut her mind off and let her senses take over.

 The air was as moist and heavy as a kiss. The scent so pure and sweet she wanted to weep. The night sounds were so exotic she held herself still, as though she could become as much a part of this garden as the statue of Aphrodite, whose stone smile mocked her from across a twisting, shadowed pathway.

 Above her glowed the moon, a heavy gold ring surrounded by stars as bold and sparkly as costumejewelry. The gaudy sky suited the energy of this city that always seemed to be preparing to party, partying, or cleaning up from a party.

 And, for the moment, Genna was tired of the party. For a woman who was always in a rush, it was wonderful just to sit still. Not to think, plan, research or argue – just to be. She closed her eyes, letting her muscles relax and her senses indulge.

 "Tell me what you want." The whisper was husky, masculine and as sinfully rich as bourbon.

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