Sparkling like jewels, they came toward her, ten doubloons of various colors, thrown by the masked man riding on the huge Mardi Gras float. Turning end over end and reflecting light, most were snatched out of the air by practiced hands. However, several slipped though eager fingers to hit the pavement bouncing and rolling. One golden doubloon bounced and started rolling toward her. On her knees, Joanna reached for the treasure. She felt it under her finger tips.
"OUCH," she screamed as a foot smashed her fingers into the pavement.
Looking upward, she saw a face glaring at her. Quickly it disappeared, the owner moved on seeking other Mardi Gras treasure. Joanna looked at the golden doubloon and put it in her pocket. Her fingers still smarting when she looked toward the float.
"THROW ME SOMETHING MISTER!" shouted the crowd.
The float had stopped and a masked rider was teasing everyone with some large Mardi Gras beads. He held them in the air above his head, titillating and egging on the crowd, which encouraged even more entreating.
Joanna had finally managed to work her way up front, where the riders could see her. This year's Bacchus parade was almost over and she still had not even caught one single set of beads. Oh, she had tried, but she was not nearly aggressive or tall enough. Someone else always grabbed them before they got to her. All she had for her efforts was the golden doubloon she had just pocketed.
The float rider was still teasing the crowd with his beads when he spied Joanna waving her arms. Looking directly toward her, he held them out in her direction, then reaching down with his hands; he mimicked lifting his shirt upward toward his neck.
Joanna was puzzled by his actions. What was he doing?
"SHOW HIM YOUR TITS!" Shouted someone next to her.
Joanna was shocked and looked down. She couldn't do that. Did he think she was some kind of an exhibitionist? When she looked again, he was handing them to another woman who was flashing him with her breasts.
Joanna was disenchanted with the parade and this whole Mardi Gras thing. Now, she would never get any beads. She hated all the noise. She hated the suffocating crowds. She hated the pushing and rudeness. She remembered how that guy who had stepped on her fingers hadn't even apologized.
"Why did I let Susan talk me into this stupid trip," she thought. "I could be back in Virginia, in my cozy apartment reading a good book or writing one."
Feeling lost, out of place and all alone, she once again looked toward the float. Next to the rider who had wanted her to flash him, was a tall rider. He was looking directly toward her. All she could see behind his mask were deep dark eyes. Like deep pools, they drew her into them. They were the most intimate and intoxicating eyes she had ever seen. She just stared into them, and they seemingly stared back into hers.
Slowly, he reached up and took from his neck the most beautiful set of beads she had ever seen. They were Bacchus medallion beads. Cast with the Krewe of Bacchus's crest and seal. Just as the float started moving, he reached down and handed them to Joanna.
Shortly there after, the parade ended with the sweeping crews and fire trucks coming through and cleaning up the mess. People started milling about and leaving.
Joanna was still in a daze when Susan found her.
"How did you do Joanna? Great parade, huh? Heyyy what's that? Oh, girl you did well. What did you do, show him your tits?"
"NO!" snapped Joanna.
"Whoaaa, sorry girl, I didn't mean to," replied Susan, not finishing her sentence.
"But, do you know how hard it is to get beads like that?" she continued as if nothing had happened. "Those are saved for someone special."
"Really?" thought Joanna, surprised. "I wonder?" she never finished her thought.
"Come on let's head to the French Quarter," urged Susan, as she took Joanna by the arm. "We can visit Pat O' Brian's. That's where the action should be"
Pat O' Brian's, was beautiful. The courtyard with its fountain of fire and water was how Joanna had envisioned New Orleans in her mind. The piano player in the bar played a mixture of Mardi Gras, Jazz and contemporary love songs reminding her of its historical past.
However, Joanna decided there were almost as many people jammed into the courtyard as the parade. The cacophony of their talking was distressing her. Joanna felt claustrophobic and for the tenth time, in the last hour, wished she were back in her hotel room. She took another sip from her fruity rum punch drink they called a Hurricane and debated whether she should just leave Susan and return by cab.
"I see you are still wearing my beads," stated a rich voice behind Joanna.
She turned and looked into those same deep eyes. "It's HIM!" she thought shocked and surprised.
Her musing broken and flummoxed by his appearance, she struggled for words, "Err... err I'm sorry, I"
"Oh forgive me, I am sorry," he apologized smiling. "I have forgotten my manners. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Paul de Strahan," he replied while offering her his hand.
"You, you are the one who gave me the beads," stammered Joanna while shaking his hand and trying to make sense of this sudden apparition. "Thank you!"
"Oh you are quite welcome," he said gallantly. "May I join you?"
"Yes sure," replied Joanna, wishing she had not drunk so much of her Hurricane. She suddenly felt dizzy.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes, thank you. I am fine. It's... it's just so sudden, your appearance. I mean... how did you know I would be here?"
As Paul laughed lightly, Joanna noticed that his entire face lit up. He seemed so natural, so at ease; the opposite of how she felt. She couldn't help liking him.
"Oh it was easy... well, actually it was just a guess... but, I was correct," He answered, laughing again.
"One of the things tourists often do when visiting New Orleans is come here, to Pat O'Brian's and drink Hurricanes, just like you are doing now. So, after the parade ended I quickly changed and came here hoping to find you."
"Why? Because, well because, I guess I wanted to find you. After seeing you from atop the float, I could not get you out of my mind. I wanted to meet you. I do hope I am not being too forward or presumptuous? If so..."
"OH NO!" Joanna cried. "I mean, no you aren't; I am pleased that you came looking for me," she continued in a much more restrained manner, wondering if the alcohol she drank was making her feel so queasy... and yet happy.
"Then," he smiled, "you have me at a disadvantage."
"I don't know your name."
"Oh my gosh!" exclaimed Joanna, embarrassed, "I am so sorry, it's Joanna Bryant from Richmond, Virginia. You are from New Orleans?"
"Yes, I am. Born and reared in New Orleans," he told her, smiling. "So are you here alone?"
"Yes err NO! I am here with my girlfriend, Susan," replied Joanna, pointing in her direction.
"Are you here just for Mardi Gras or for business, too? Often, people use business as an excuse to come to Mardi Gras," he asked her.
Because of the noise, Joanna did not hear everything he said.
"I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. What did you say?"
"I was asking why you were here. Look, would you like to go somewhere else that's quieter? I know a little coffee shop not far from here where they make that wonderful New Orleans' style coffee. Would you like to go there?"
"You mean that stuff you have to drink with a spoon?" chuckled Joanna while, wondering if she should go with this stranger. Her gut said yes, her mind said, be wary.
It was after one thirty in the morning when Joanna finally got back to her hotel room. After, washing her face and changing, she lay in bed and relived the events of the past few hours. She could not believe this was happening to her. It was like being the heroine in one of her novels. Yet, here she was and, it was really happening to her.
She knew that she should go to sleep. Paul would be picking her up at nine and taking her to breakfast at Brennan's. Later, he would give her a tour of New Orleans.
Never before had she felt so alive. Her lips tingled where he had kissed them lightly. Her stomach fluttered when she thought about him. She wondered what it would feel like to hold and kiss him, feeling his body against hers. She fell asleep imagining his hands touching her body.
Right on time, Paul met Joanna in her hotel lobby. After introducing him to Susan, who just had to meet this mysterious fellow, they took a short cab ride to Brennan's Restaurant on Royal Street. They walked into the paneled foyer and were greeted by the general manager of Brennan's.
"Well, look who has decided to grace us with his presence, Monsieur Paul de Strahan."
"Hi Gerald," said Paul, "It's good to see you again. Thanks for getting me a table on such short notice"
"For you, Paul, anything," exclaimed Gerald while shaking Paul's hand and giving him a hug.
"And who is this lovely and charming young lady, you have with you?" he asked.
"This is Joanna Bryant. She is visiting from Virginia."
Gerald turned toward Joanna, bowed slightly and extended his hand, "Virginia! Lovely state. Well, welcome to New Orleans. It is a pleasure to meet you."
Then, smiling at her he continued, "Has this rogue told you any lies about us?"
Joanna laughed, "No, I don't think so... only, that I would enjoy breakfast here."
"Enjoy, ENJOY!" exclaimed Gerald in mocked mortification, "Just enjoy? See if I will pay him to advertise Brennan's next month."
Then laughing, Gerald motioned with his hand. A waiter appeared. "This is Jerome; he will be serving you this morning. Enjoy, Joanna. It was nice meeting you."
"Same here," replied Joanna.
Jerome escorted Paul and Joanna to a table located next to a large plate glass window that offered a view onto a beautiful courtyard filled with lush plants and a fountain. She thought the setting idyllic. Jerome pulled Joanna's chair out for her. After she sat, he unfolded her napkin and carefully laid it on her lap. She felt pampered.
Handing her the menu Jerome asked, "Have you dined with us before?"
"No, I haven't. This is my first time. What would you suggest I try?"
"My recommendation would be to start with a cup of turtle soup as an appetizer. For the entrée, you might try Eggs Sardou, which are poached eggs on artichoke bottoms with creamed spinach and hollandaise Sauce. If you prefer a more traditional meal, try the Eggs Benedict, which are poached eggs and Canadian bacon on an English muffin, topped with hollandaise sauce.
For desert, I would recommend our famous Bananas Foster. Bananas sautéed in rum sauce flamed at your table and spooned over home made vanilla ice cream."
"All that for one meal?" asked Joanna wondering how she would eat it all.
"Don't forget the fresh baked French bread, coffee and wine," added Paul chuckling.
The meal was fit for royalty and Joanna felt like a storybook princess. For two hours, she and Paul ate and talked. She found herself admiring Paul for his easy wit, grace and intelligence. Never before had anyone captivated her interest the way he did. She loved looking at him when he talked and seeing the animation on his face. It was obvious that Paul was comfortable with himself. Joanna hoped that she wouldn't wake up and find that everything had been a dream.
Paul told her of how his family had arrived in New Orleans as mercenaries during the Battle of New Orleans and had stayed. She learned of the old warehouses his family owned near the river, and how he had been turning them into upscale apartments and condominiums.
She also found herself telling him about herself. She told him about how she wrote historical romance novels. She mentioned her love of historical buildings and art, and it was partially because, of the history of New Orleans that she had agreed to come with Susan. She also mentioned how she hoped to write a novel with New Orleans as the setting.
"Well, I for one am glad you came and I met you," said Paul, reaching for her hand.
"So am I," replied Joanna softly, as she felt flush with the touch of his hand on hers.
"Come let me show you the city and her elegant beauty," offered Paul rising from his seat and pulling Joanna's chair back for her.
The rest of the day was a dream for Joanna. Paul gave her the grand tour of New Orleans and her rich heritage. Later that afternoon, he dropped her off at her hotel, so she could freshen up and change for the evening's Krewe of Proteusparade and dinner.
"I have a special place to take you for dinner," announced Paul when he kissed her goodbye.
Closing the door behind her, Joanna felt her stomach fluttering and her body begging for more of his touch. Closing her eyes, she savored the wonderful feelings and made a decision.
Then, she heard Susan knocking with vigor on the door.
Paul picked her up around six. He brought her to the Columns Hotel on St Charles St., where they had reserved places for the parade.
"The owner," said Paul on the way over, "is a member of Bacchus. But, don't tell anybody, Ok?"
"Because, membership in the Krewe is secret," he told her. "Very few people outside a Krewe know who the members are, especially in older more prestigious Krewes"
Joanna knew that he could have easily added, "such as Bacchus," but didn't. She knew that Bacchus was one of the oldest and most famous Krewes of Mardi Gras. She was impressed that he did not act important or conceited about being in Bacchus.
"One of the wonderful things about Mardi Gras," Paul continued, "is that everyone is equal during Mardi Gras. We are all the same. That is the reason for the masks. No one knows who the other person is. It is the largest free festival in the world and provided by the Krewes."
"How do you do that?" asked Joanna.
"Each Krewe exists primarily to put on its Mardi Gras ball and parade. Each Krewe stages its parade for the people of New Orleans. All we ask is that you come out and enjoy yourself," he finished.
Joanna felt guilty as she thought how she had hated the parade last night. She was glad he had told her about their purpose. She felt happy and alive with him, and was excited that she was with him for this parade.
When they walked up the Columns' porch, Charles Landrum, owner of the hotel, greeted them.
"Hi, Paul, I missed you last night. You didn't attend the ball. What happened?"
"Sorry, Charles, something came up and I could not be there. I should have told you I was leaving. Charles, this is Joanna Bryant from Virginia, she is visiting. Joanna, Charles Landrum. Charles owns and runs this beautiful hotel."
"It's nice to meet you, Joanna," acknowledged Charles smiling, "I see why Paul was unable to attend the ball."
Joanna blushed, "Thank you, it is nice to meet you too."
The sirens drowned out anything else that she might have said. The leading edge of the parade had arrived. They headed toward the street and parade with everyone else.
Joanna witnessed a parade pro in action. She laughed and giggled with delight at Paul's antics. He was all arms and legs as he positioned himself to catch tossed beads. He jumped with the best and grasped them out of thin air, just before they fell into someone else's hands. He would then place them around her neck. Joanna quickly found herself exuberant and enjoying the parade.