Sharon stepped out onto the balcony and took a deep breath. The fresh morning air, touched with damp, was a delight. She knew later in the day it would feel more like a sauna, but for now it cleared her mind and awakened her senses. She glanced over to her right and started when she saw a man sitting in the chair under the tree, staring back at her. She relaxed as he nodded his head and smiled.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there.” She offered him a smile.
“I did not mean to frighten. Please, join me. The morning is pleasant, and I could do with pleasant company with which to share it.” The man made a surprisingly elegant gesture to the chair next to him. He must be an artist, or maybe a musician. There were so many of them here.
Sharon sat down. Now that she was closer to him, she could see he was quite good looking, in an old fashioned sort of way. He wore a suit, of all things. Maybe he had a business meeting later. His hair was a bit long, sandy, and his eyes were dark brown. They twinkled as he watched her examine him.
“My name is Henri Renaud, at your service ma’am.” He tipped an imaginary hat at her and offered her a half-bow.
“Very chivalrous, Mr. Renaud. I’m Sharon. Are you enjoying your stay in New Orleans?”
She was puzzled to see his face dim momentarily. It brightened a second later as if a cloud had merely passed over the sun.
“How could I fail to enjoy such lovely scenery?” His blatant stare left her soul stripped bare.
She felt heat rise in her cheeks. What a flirt! There was something very old fashioned about the way he spoke. He sounded French, but it was more than that. She was about to ask him where he was from when he coughed. A loud, wracking cough. The kind of cough someone with pneumonia might have after smoking a cigarette. He covered his face with both hands as the fit possessed him.
“Are you ok? Do you need some water? I can get some from my room. Here, I’ll be right back!”
He waved his hand in protest as he bent over in another cough. Sharon ignored him and raced back into her room. She grabbed a glass from the tray by the TV, then filled it with water from the bathroom tap. Better than nothing. She hurried back out to the veranda. Henri looked quite at ease again, the coughing fit gone as if it had never been.
“Well, just in case.” She sat the water down on the table between them.
“I appreciate the kind gesture. Tell me, what brings someone so lovely here at this particular moment?”
“Oh, I just needed a break. Work was getting…well, let’s just say my job isn’t something I look forward to when I get up in the morning. I thought if I got away for a bit I might find it easier to take.”
“You are unmarried?” Henri raised an eyebrow. “I’m delighted to hear it, and yet surprised. There is no one to take care of you?”
She laughed. “No, not married. I haven’t found the one yet. Though I do keep trying. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet him on Bourbon street.”
Henri shook his head, and frowned slightly. “You will not find what you are looking for on Bourbon street.”
“Where would you suggest I look, then, Mr. Renaud?” She tilted her head at him.
“I would suggest that this gallery is an ideal place to start your search.” His eyes twinkled, and he tipped his imaginary hat again.
The next moment he was bent over double in a cough that shook his entire body.
Sharon jumped up from her chair. “You need help! I’ll be right back.”
She raced back into her room and picked up the phone next to the bed. She hit 0 without even thinking about it. After waiting a second or two she realized she’d never heard a dial tone. She had her cell, but she didn’t have the number of the hotel programmed in. It would be faster just to run down the stairs.
Sharon ripped open the door and pushed through it. She ran as fast as she could down the old, narrow hallway, down the stairs and to the check-in desk. The chair behind the counter was empty.
“Shit.” She pounded on the counter with her fist. “Help! Someone help”
She saw a bell on the counter and started to beat on it. The sound rang through the empty foyer. Ding. Ding! Ding! Ding!
Finally, she saw a man come around the corner from a room somewhere in the back. His gray hair looked like it hadn’t been combed in days. When she’d checked in, she’d found it endearing. Now, though, not so much.
“Help! There’s a man on the upstairs balcony who is choking. Please, call 911.”
“I’m sorry?” The man looked confused.
She stomped her foot. “Call 911, dammit! There’s a man choking to death upstairs. He must be staying in the room next to mine. He’s on the balcony!”
The old man shook his head. “There cain’t be. You the only guest on that floor. All the doors are locked. And nobody’s come through the door this mornin’. I’d have heard the bell. There just cain’t be anyone on that gallery. ‘Cept you.”
“I’m telling you what I saw, dammit. A very nice man is dying! Right now. Where is the damn phone, I’ll call myself.” She moved around the desk and pushed past the old man, frantic to find the phone. Her heart pounded in her chest. He was dying! Dammit, she couldn’t move fast enough. Her hands fumbled through the papers on the messy desk.
“Ms. Preston.” The old man’s quiet voice cut through her panic like a knife. “Ms. Preston. You the only living guest on that floor.”
“He’s dead already?’ Her voice squeaked. “He was still breathing when I left. He’s just sick. He needs help.”
The man shook his head, his eyes filled with kind sadness. It was an expression usually reserved for funerals or really sick people. “Ms. Preston, the man you saw died a long, long time ago. His name was Henri, and he’d come to New Orleans to seek a new life, and, some say, a wife. He died in the fire. The big fire that wiped out the town. Surely you heard the stories.”
The old man put a comforting hand on her arm. “He just ain’t been able to let go of his quest. He only shows hisself to women, and I can see why he took a likin’ to you. But he ain’t in pain no more, Ms. Preston. And there’s nothin’ anyone here can do for him.”
Sharon stood there, shaking. Adrenaline coursed through a body that suddenly had nowhere to go. She felt tears rise in her eyes and tried to blink them away. This just couldn’t be true. Never mind the sad story. She knew what she saw. And heard. He was there. He was real. She’d seen the sparkle in his eyes. She wasn’t losing her mind. She wasn’t. Was she?
“Will he still be there? To say goodbye?” She whispered. She could barely breathe, the sobs choked off her air. More than anything, it hurt to think the first man who had felt real to her, the first man to show the kind of interest that could mean a lifetime together, didn’t actually have a life at all. He was probably just a figment of her imagination, brought on by too many Hurricanes and maybe a little voodoo.
“I can’t imagine he’ll be able to stay away from a pretty thing like you. Not during Carnival.” The old man offered her a smile. “Go on, now.”
She made her way slowly up the stairs. Tears streamed down her face but she didn’t bother to brush them away. After all, she was alone on the second floor. Nobody there to see.
She stood in her room for a long time, staring at the open balcony door. Would he be there? How was this possible? She didn’t believe in ghosts. This was ridiculous. But, he’d been so nice. She’d been so excited by his courtesy, his twinkling eyes, his smile…his genuine interest in her. Wasn’t that what she’d come to New Orleans for? Something new, something different?
She half giggled through a sob. Well, he might not be new, but he was certainly different.
If he was even still there.
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and ran a nervous hand through her hair. Then she stepped out onto the balcony.