Charlotte Fontenot was in way over her head, and not for the reasons she expected.
Lawrence led her up the stairs, winding them into a series of asymmetrical hallways that left Charlotte dizzy and disoriented. The homes in New Orleans were structured more evenly, with central halls and parlors leading to rooms on each side. The upstairs of this mansion was more like a maze, one she was quite positive once Lawrence left her alone she’d find herself lost within.
She hadn’t expected the moment of engagement to lead so quickly to personal attention. As the man of the night, Lawrence Henry had as many masters as there were guests, and his polite, but quick attention to each of them was what she expected for herself as well. Julian would give her grief for the calculated fall, but she feared a customary introduction wouldn’t be enough to make her stand out. She’d never know if it was the fall, the dress, or her, but she had Lawrence in her attention, a no doubt temporary state of affairs. She needed to make the most of what time she had.
Lawrence stopped before a long room with doors on each end. The ornate gilded handles were as lengthy as her torso, and nearly as thick. With a soft grunt, he pulled one of them open, dropping her arm briefly to make use of both hands, and gestured for her to enter first.
Charlotte’s breath caught as she stepped into the room. Mirrors, hundreds, lined the walls, obscuring an actual appraisal of the precise size of the space. Movable racks held dazzling clothing of all kinds, from smoking jackets to gowns. Rotating shelves shaped like long cylinders showcased an expansive collection of shoes.
“You weren’t kidding,” she breathed. She had never been especially snared by expensive things, but Charlotte was mesmerized. “Next time a guy tells me he wants to take me to his dressing room, I’ll believe him.”
“My authentic pickup lines are far more creative.” He stood at a distance, watching her. When she turned to look at him, his smile broadened. “I said I’d leave you alone.”
Charlotte pivoted away, heels clicking on the hard floors. She feigned a lack of interest with a dismissive wave over her shoulder. “You can stay, it’s fine. Unless you need to get back?”
“I might need medical attention. Your dress is blinding in these mirrors,” Lawrence teased. He threw his arms dramatically across his eyes when she turned to shoot him a look.
I can take it off, she nearly said, but that was far more forward than she wanted to be this early. In fact, she didn’t want to be forward at all. She only wanted to lower his defenses.
From the blush in Lawrence’s cheeks, she guessed he was thinking the same. He had the decency to move away and filter through a collection of men’s jackets.
Charlotte continued her tour of the shoes. Her size, seven, was on the other end of the room, but he didn’t know she knew that, so she took her time. She hadn’t expected time alone with Lawrence, so she wasn’t prepared with the right words to draw out his truths.
She felt his eyes on her again, and she moved with even more deliberateness, knowing full well how the dress sat on her hips, how it contoured and highlighted her best assets. Was she trying to seduce him? She didn’t think so. Certainly, she had no intention of seeing any such game through to conclusion, and she wasn’t looking to confuse the poor man. His measure was what she wanted. There were few things more telling about a man than how he handled himself in private with a beautiful woman.
“It’s so good of your sister to be here with you, supporting your good work,” Charlotte ventured. She turned over a size ten in her hands, pretended to regard it with more than passing curiosity.
“Gabrielle?” Lawrence said the name without the warmth of familiarity. “Yeah, she’s very supportive.”
“I have to confess, when we first arrived, I mistook her for your girlfriend.”
A darkness passed over Lawrence’s soft features. “No, I don’t have a girlfriend.” He stepped away from the jacket rack. “Where are you from, Miss Fontenot?”
“New Orleans.” She saw no reason to lie, as Julian had. If they did fold the Henrys into their world, as Colleen undoubtedly hoped they would, a lie was no way to start a relationship.
Lawrence smiled, nodded. “So that’s where I know the Fontenot name. My father is a business acquaintance of Luther Fontenot. Any relation?”
“Luther is my uncle,” Charlotte replied. “My father’s brother.”
“Small world. I escape New Orleans and it follows me to Paris anyway.”
Charlotte met his eyes in a hundred reflections. “And what do you have to escape, Lawrence Henry?”
Lawrence tried to focus on one iteration of her and laughed at his failure, at the confusing nature of the endless arrangement of mirrors. “If you can believe it, it’s Paris I’d prefer to escape.”
“La Ville Lumière? La Ville de L’amour?”
“Your French is quite good, Miss Fontenot.”
“My mother is French. And you’re deflecting.”
Lawrence stopped his casual perusing of clothes he obviously had no interest in. “Deflecting?”
Charlotte tried to hide her expression, as she remembered the tense conversation between Lawrence and his sister the night before, but this was impossible in a room of reflections. She forced a smile. “Why would anyone want to flee a city like Paris?”
Lawrence tossed his eyes to the side with a faint smile. “Right. City of Light. City of Love. All that?”
“I said it better.”
He looked to his feet and his grin widened. “Yes, you did.”
“Would you believe I’m homesick?”
“If you were anywhere but Paris. And home was anywhere but New Orleans.”
“Fair play,” Lawrence conceded. He pulled his jacket out to his sides with his pocketed hands and shuffled in place. “I have business back home I feel like I’m neglecting, you could say.”
“What sort of business?”
Lawrence clucked his tongue. “What a personal question, Miss Fontenot. Next you’ll be curious about my undergarment preferences.”
Charlotte set down a shoe and squinted one eye. “Oh, Mr. Henry, I would definitely peg you for a brief man.”
He chuckled. “I don’t think I want to know how you came to that conclusion.”
“That’s good, because I hadn’t planned to divulge my secrets.”