hile most Mardi Gras balls were lively, with performers from their parades that day in attendance to entertain the guests, this particular party overflowed with a very different vibe.
I looked around me at the rich and powerful who made up the guest list, sizing everyone up, their connections and names more of a résumé than their educations or careers.
And while everyone around me appeared relaxed – due to the heavy flow of champagne, I was sure – it was just a mask on top of their masks.
They weren’t calm. They were working. Deals were being made and relationships bought, and the politicians were always on the job.
But still… there was a charge in the air. It was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, after all.
It was the time of year when many locals escaped the city, with the tsunami of tourists clogging the streets and the traffic turning what was normally a fifteen-minute drive into three hours as constant parades blocked your route.
The city and its surrounding areas hosted between forty and fifty parades every Mardi Gras season, and each parade had a krewe – a not-for-profit organization that donated money to build the floats, some costing as much as eighty thousand dollars, while the krewe members enjoyed the privilege of donning masks as they tossed beads and other trinkets into a bedlam of outstretched hands and screaming crowds.
This particular krewe was exclusive, almost aristocratic with its money and political connections. Lawyers, CEOs, judges, you name it… Anyone who was anyone in this city was here tonight. Hence why my brother accepted an invitation.
Jack knew that New Orleans society was like a candy-covered chocolate. You had to break through the shell to get to the good stuff.
Deals and relationships weren’t made at conference tables or offices. They were settled over glasses of Chivas at a cigar bar or around ten pounds of crawfish at a filthy seafood dive in the Quarter with calliope music from the Natchez steamboat drifting in through the open French doors. People didn’t trust signatures so much as they trusted your ability to bullshit while you were drunk.
All reasons I loved this city.
It held the history of weathered storms – of blood, sweat, music, agony, and death by people who expected to fall but knew how to get back up.
I offered the waiter a modest smile as I plucked another glass of champagne off his tray and turned back around, regarding the imitation Degas hanging before me.
Oil on canvas would burn quickly. Very quickly, I mused, inching closer as the chill from the champagne flute seeped through my manicured fingers.
God, I was bored. When I started fantasizing about inanimate objects going up in flames, it was time to call it a night.
But then I felt my phone vibrate against my thigh, and I straightened, pulling away from the painting again.
“Jack,” I whispered under my breath as I set down my glass on a high, round table and clawed my dress up my leg to get at my phone strapped around my thigh. I hated carrying purses, and since my brother was here with me and had the credit cards, all I needed was a place to secure my cell.
Swiping the screen, I clicked on the text notification.
If you say anything rude, my future is ruined.
I shot my head up, a smile spreading across my face as I scanned the ballroom. I spotted my brother standing in a circle of people but facing me with a warning eyebrow raised and a smirk on his face.
Moi? I texted back, looking at him like I was affronted.
He read the text and shook his head, grinning. I know your vibes, Easton.
I rolled my eyes at him, amusement tilting my lips up into a smile.
Jack most certainly did know my vibes.
But he should’ve known better. I would never let my brother down. I might have inherited our father’s quick temper and our mother’s inability not to say things that shouldn’t be said, but I was loyal. When my brother called, I came. When he needed me, I didn’t ask questions. For him, I would tolerate just about anything.
I shall endure, I replied, my usual sarcasm evident as I met his mischievous hazel eyes.
Jack was three years older and about to finish his third year of law school at Tulane. Time and again, he dragged me to benefits, luncheons, and galas as he schmoozed his way through the New Orleans elite, making his connections and building relationships. All so he could secure the right job offers when he graduated a little more than a year from now.
I hated wasting time on things that didn’t interest me, but Jack didn’t have a girlfriend to bore with these functions, so I often stepped in as the dutiful “plus one.”
Find something to play with, he teased. And don’t get dirty.
I cocked an eyebrow across the room at him, hoping he saw the dare in my expression. Even through my black metal half mask.