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EXCERPT:

Chapter 1

Madeline Jourdain has recently moved from her hometown, Houston, Texas, to New Orleans, Louisiana, for a paid Internship at a new art gallery. Not in her wildest dreams could she have imagined starting such a fantastic position at the young age of 22, a week after graduating with a liberal arts degree.

The last few weeks are a blur. Madeline, of course, received a standing ovation at graduation. She felt beet red, humiliated. In a wheelchair, you receive applauds for the dumbest stuff. The only way she got through it was to lock eyes with Jane Summers, who was sitting behind her parents, as instructed. This gave Madeline the courage to smile at the well-meaning but patronizing crowd. Her parents received her beaming smile as a sign of excitement. No one ever suspected that the reason she looked so giggly was that Jane was standing up behind her parents, rolling her eyes, doing a mock golf clap. No one on earth will ever understand Madeline Jourdain better as she winked at Jane, and their eyes kissed.

Madeline Jourdain knew she should be more gracious about these things. It had been a long road getting here from being an abandoned baby found in the back parking lot in a church in a tiny town in Louisiana. The small parish priest, Peter’s oldest and dearest friend, asked if he and his wife would foster this abandoned baby. That was that. Her adopted father, Peter, although she never thought of him that way, says she was their serendipitous angel. And even if she was born on the other side of the world, they would have found their daughter. Madeline has never considered searching for her birth parents. Not even for a second, Linda Vu Jourdain, adopted mother sent from heaven, was her mama.

Linda was a very loving but stern mother. Yet, she had a dry wit that could send Madeline into hysterical laughter. She was fiercely protective, never allowing Madeline to be treated differently, even though her daughter was in a wheelchair. And to Peter’s dismay, Linda and Madeline bonded over food and shopping, as often as schedules would allow. These Mother and daughter dates fizzled out during the high school years. Still, they made a strong comeback during Madeline’s college career.

Bed, Bath, and Beyond, kind of their jam. Linda has taken her on a shopping spree for the last four years before moving Madeline into her dorms. The move to New Orleans should have felt routine, but somehow this felt bigger, not just because college was downtown and her Internship was in a different state. Something was pulling Madeline East.

Luckily the Internship came with a furnished apartment. Caravanning two cars from Houston to New Orleans was a simple move. Mostly clothes, kitchen stuff, and art supplies. And no one ever knew that Madeline played sad songs for the entire drive down I-10, sobbing. Knowing that this moved ended a chapter that did not have a happily ever after.

The apartment was a smudge bigger than her dorm room but felt like a palace to Madeline. It had three rooms counting the kitchen and the bathroom/closet combo. The main area was about 700 square feet, cute rugs defined the kitchen and living area. A futon faced a tiny tv that looked 15 years old. Linda made Madeline promise to make her bed every night, including fresh linen. Peter smirked, knowing this was unlikely, but a mother could dream. The broken brick walls made the tiny, very ordinary efficiency apartment feel magical. The front door opened into a small courtyard.

For a second, Madeline dreaded trying to get into the bathroom in her wheelchair, even though her employer guaranteed everything she needed would be accessible. Because it did help on at least a spiritual level, Madeline held her breath as she rolled into the small but oddly large bathroom. Somehow her wheels did not even come close to touching the doorframe.

Peter inspected every inch of the apartment, frowning at the number of deadbolts on the door, knowing his daughter would lose interest after one or two clicks. He immediately researched getting an alarm. Madeline smiled and nodded, knowing this was one battle she should not even express an opinion on.

Madeline twirled in her new apartment, giggling like she was drunk the second Peter and Linda left. Of course, her folks wanted to stay longer, to help her really settle in. She somehow convinced them to return in a month when they all could enjoy the city. Madeline said she had to get to work immediately, and on their next visit, her mom could take her shopping for bathroom stuff. This seemed to appeased mom, a little more than it should have.

To ease the guilt of sending her parents home early, Madeline would go into the gallery in the morning for a few hours just to soak in the vibe. Then she sort of had a week off, and Jane and Steven were coming up for a few days the minute Peter and Linda headed back to Houston. Madeline was just glad she was not stuck in a 6-hour car ride with neither the departing nor the arriving visitors. Even though they were her four most favorite people in the universe, they were most enjoyable when separated.

Madeline Claire Jourdain is 22 years old. Her birthday is celebrated on October 22nd. The priest found her when she was a few days old, and since she was four, Madeline has persuaded her dad, Peter, into celebrating her birth week, in case they were off by a few days.

Peter and Linda headed to Louisiana the day after Father Michael called to pick up their baby girl. It was truly textbook, love at first sight. Father Michael had warned that the baby looked to have special needs. And for the past 24 hours, that is all the couple could talk about. Could they love and support a child with a disability? Would that be all that they saw when they looked at the baby?

The second that Father Michael put baby Madeline in Linda’s arms, their world changed. Linda could not stop smiling, and Peter kissed her tiny fingers a hundred times. And that was that.

For the next 5 years, Peter, Linda, and Madeline visited 20 doctors and specialists in four countries. They also visited different historic churches and supposedly sacred places where miracles had taken place. Somewhere in a dusty album, there is a picture of young Madeline in a wheelchair at the Marian shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. In front of a row of crutches, the cured had left. This was the only family picture ever taken that made Madeline extremely sad.

Doctors spoke in different accents and speeds. Some expressed empathy, too many were blunt and dismissive. One even suggested Madeline was just extremely lazy and stubborn. Well, ok, he was half right…

Overall, the consensus was the same; besides being paralyzed from the waist down, Madeline was one of the healthiest kids they had ever seen. But even with the hundreds of scans, MRI’s, blood tests, and x rays from a million different positions, no one could explain why she could not walk.

On Madeline’s 7th birthday, she received the best gift ever. Her parents promised her that aside from wellness checkups, they were done. She was their perfect miracle, as is, no questions asked. And for a very long time, this fairy tale kept away her demons late at night.

*

There was a knock on the door early the next morning; luckily, Madeline had been awake for hours. She did not sleep well on her first night in her new apartment in her new city. Her lack of rem sleep was a mixture of nervousness, really weird dreams, and maybe she missed her mom, oh the horrors!

“Hey Madeline,” The light knocked at the door came with a familiar voice. “It’s Danny Boudreaux, from NL Foundation.” She rushed to the door, cursing the 4 locked deadbolts that her father stood outside, impatiently waiting to hear the clicks before they headed back to Houston the night before.

“Finally, we meet in person.” Madeline opened the door and was pleasantly surprised. She had been talking to Danny almost every day for the last few months. He oversaw the foundation that hired her to open the new art gallery. He was instrumental in finding her apartment and mentioned he looked forward to having a new neighbor. She knew he was also part owner in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant across the street from her new home. He, however, neglected to mention how gorgeous he was. Looking back, this may have been a very good thing.

“Umm, you knew I was in a wheelchair, right?” Madeline suddenly felt self-conscious. Why was this man staring at her? Like almost stalker-like? At least most of her boxes were still packed. Steven and Jane could help her make a quick exit back to Houston if needed.

“No,” Danny started backtracking, which restored the cuteness and safety factor.

Madeline grinned again. He was leaning against the tiny bar that separated the kitchen from the living area. Although she didn’t focus on his voice during the hundreds of phone calls over the last month, Madeline quickly found a new appreciation for it. His voice was deep but friendly. Which kind of matched his three-piece suit. She really didn’t know what to expect.

It made sense that he was wearing a suit since Danny was an attorney and board member of the NL Foundation that hired her. He just sounded less business-like on the phone. He stood about 5’11. It was a strange knack that Madeline had; she was very accurate in telling people’s height. Probably because she had always felt short in her wheelchair.

Danny Boudreaux had salt and peppered hair, a little premature for his age, maybe late twenties, but it fit him. His eyes were hazel, and his skin more olive than white. He probably went to the gym as an obligation, not as a fun outing. He was just very attractive physically, and his warm personality added to his charm.

“No. Yes… What I meant was,” Danny grinned from embarrassment. “Did I mention I’m an eloquent speaker in court? I apologize; yes, I knew you were in a wheelchair. You are not what I envisioned during our conversations, you’re stunning. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I blurted that out.”

“Coffee?” Madeline offered, breaking the awkward silence, feeling herself blush. Luckily the coffee maker was the only thing unpacked and ready for duty.

“Coffee.” And except for one more very unexpected moment later that week, they immediately talked like they knew each other all their lives. There was something about him that felt like home.

Danny finished his 2nd cup of coffee, apologizing for the 4th time that he had to be in court most of the day, ruining his “Welcome to New Orleans tour extravaganza.” But he did offer to be Madeline’s personal tour guide that weekend. Madeline debated sharing him with Jane but figured she owed her after what Jane is currently doing and figured it might make her less grumpy. Danny seemed pleased that there would be a group and promised a good time would be had by all. Madeline was less certain, but stranger things have happened.

On a piece of paper, Danny jotted down directions to the art gallery, which was only three blocks away, and the alarm code. And handed her a set of keys. They laughed as they felt a spark. Madeline usually hated static electricity sparks…

She tried to hide how pleased she was as she closed the apartment door behind her. The two left the quaint courtyard together but parted ways at the main street. Danny now rushing, not realizing where the morning had gone.

Madeline didn’t remember anything about her swift roll from her apartment to the gallery, but she will always remember every detail of the new art space. The building itself was an old house, outside kept to the original structure as much as possible. Three sides of the house untouched except for replacement bricks. The fourth updated to look more like a modern business. The front had two huge windows on each side, double doors in the middle, made from cypress wood, with colored broken mosaic stain glass as panels. Three steps led up to the door, and a side ramp lined with flowers led to the same entrance.

Madeline didn’t think she had been in front of the store that long, but when the 4th stranger walking by asked if she needed help, Madeline forced herself to go in. The lock felt a little stuck, but as Madeline turned the key, both doors swung open, as if a light breeze pushed them.

Besides the somewhat accessible path, this looked like a scene from extreme hoarders. The peaks of the stacks of treasures, trash, and junk towered over Madeline’s head, And for the first time, she wondered if she should have asked for hazardous pay. She looked around and started playing eye spy. Just off the top of her head, she spotted two bikes, four TVs, stoves, broken furniture, books, paintings, some in one piece, others not so much, clothes, jewelry, and boxes and boxes of general crap.

“Hey Danny,” Madeline left a message, knowing he was doing lawyerly things, trying to sound firm. “The outside looks spectacular, but unless our first exhibit is ‘1960s junkyard’, I really don’t see a finish line within our three-month target date. Please call me asap. Hope you’re having a good day.” She smiled at the phone as if he could see her.

“Hope you’re having a good day?” Madeline mumbled to herself, what the hell? That kind of nulls and voids the urgency of the message, dummy.

Madeline felt completely turned around, somewhere towards the back, mentally sifting through another mountain of stuff when she heard an alarm beep announcing that someone had come in.

“Hello,” She began her introduction speech she had been rehearsing in her head for a week. “ Welcome to the Phyllis L Art Gallery. Please excuse the mess…” her voice trailed off.

“Hi.” He said softly as if asking for permission. He was an athletic-looking guy in khaki shorts and a purple polo shirt, in his mid-twenties. Too pretty and cocky for boyfriend material, unless you were into that. Madeline certainly wasn’t, anymore.

“Hi,” Madeline whispered, with sadness in her voice; her heart was a different matter. He bent to his knees to kiss her. Madeline tried to resist but giggled as she gave in. “Jane is going to kill me, but I did find her a new distraction,” Steven laughed and kissed her forehead as he stood up, now looking at the space in disbelief.

“Muffaletta. Let the food fetish weekend begin.” Jane suddenly appeared, as if magically. Madeline didn’t hear the door open. Steven jumped away from Madeline as if he was a 5-year-old who got caught putting gum in the hair of the girl he loves. “Oh damnit, Madds. You promised.”

“He was just saying hello.” Madeline was trying not to grin because Jane seemed genuinely irritated, and Madeline really wanted a Muffaletta. “I promised that he wouldn’t get to third base. Besides, what is the proper way to greet your ex-boyfriend?”

“I’m pretty sure Emily Post would strongly suggest… No. Tongue.” Jane was hiding her smirk behind the big bag of food she was laying out over a picnic tablecloth on the floor in one of the clearings.

“Do I get a vote…” Steven asked, knowing what the answer was.

“Nope.” The girls sang in sync. Madeline laughed until Jane joined in. Finally greeting her best friend with a kiss on the cheek.

Jane was Madeline’s most favorite person on earth. They met freshman year on the first day of orientation and have not gone 48 hours without talking since. They met Steven on the 2nd day of orientation, so of course, they still tease after 5 years that Steven was the third wheel. And to some extent, it was true.

Jane Summers was a gorgeous girl. A little too gorgeous for Madeline’s taste, but we all have our own cross to bear. To Jane’s absolute disgust, Madeline frequently referred to her as a Greek goddess. With perfect cream skin, green eyes, graceful, and long spirally red hair, how else would anyone describe her besides the Greek goddess? To add insult to injury, she was very smart. A month ago, Jane finished culinary school after getting her B.A. in three years. They really should not be friends at all.

“Can we just have a really fun weekend?” Madeline asked, raising a can of soda. Trying to shake the feeling that this would be the last weekend the threesome could be together, pretending they were sophomores when things were still pure.

“Cheers.” Jane winked at Madeline and leaned into Steven’s arm.

“Cheers,” Steven added. “Hey, Madds said she found you a shining new plaything.” “Ooh, do tell.” Jane smiled. “Is he cute?”

“Oh my god, I’d definitely tap that,” Madeline admitted.

“Hey!?!?” Steven screamed, almost choking on his sandwich.

“He is gorgeous.” Madeline continued, ignoring Steven’s outburst. “And he owns a restaurant. You may flirt with him, but no hokey pokey until I’m hired permanently, then you have my blessings.”

“Hey!?!?” Steven screamed again, this time louder and with more feelings. Madeline and Jane burst into uncontrollable laughter.

The quick lunch lasted far into the night. They did discuss Danny a little more, but it was just nice to have a long, flowing conversation like they used to, before things got complicated, before words broke hearts. They talked about almost everything from Steven starting his Master’s Program in the fall in Atlanta to Jane’s plans now that she just finished culinary school. They mostly enjoyed watching Madeline trying to roll around the gallery, pointing out her ideas for projects she could not wait to start.

The next morning, Danny appeared at Madeline’s door with coffee and fresh beignets.

“Hey, you must be Danny. “ Jane opened the door and invited him in. “Have you met Steven? Madeline’s boyfriend?” She giggled, her signal to Madeline that Danny would do just fine.

“I’m so getting to third base; your bodyguard just approved,” Steven whispered in Madeline’s ear before getting up from a sleeping bag to shake Danny’s hand. Madeline felt embarrassed, but she wasn’t sure about whom or why.

And so began a wonderful weekend. A little warm for late June, but the low clouds tamed the sun to a pleasant temperature. It was interesting to Madeline that even though her dad was born in a small town west of New Orleans, they rarely visited this amazing city. Everything Danny introduced them to was fresh and wonderful.

Of course, the three were obsessed with the food equally as the next meal seemed better than the last fabulous one. For lunch, they ate at Oceana. Danny called it a local favorite; no one argued. Everyone ordered a different entrée and shared bites. The winner with an overwhelming clean plate was the blackened duck stuffed with crawfish.

After the amazing lunch, the foursome wandered around the French Quarter, just enjoying the relaxing day. Steven loved the architecture, Jane stopped to read every menu, and Madeline had to stare into the window of every gallery, making mental notes of what she needed.

But indisputably, the favorite outing Saturday was Preservation Hall. In all the churches in the world that Madeline had visited, she had never felt a stronger presence of a higher being than here.

Preservation Hall was a small space. Maybe held 150 people, most of them sitting on the floor. Danny had gotten them a VIP table, but Madeline would have been just as happy on the floor. The hall featured local old school jazz bands. The youngest musician in the band they saw was 75 years young.

Maybe it was the candles or the old brick building that looked like it had survived hundreds of fads and was still standing, almost as is after decades of change. Opened in 1961, the music venue features acoustic concerts featuring over 100 local master jazz musicians.

Madeline was surprised as tears ran down her cheek when the crowd was brought to their feet as the band played “When The Saints Go Marching In.” She looked around her, finding unexpected comfort that the other three had tears too.

Madeline promised herself that she would return to Preservation Hall as much as she could. A tiny part of her worried it would get old. But in all the years she would live in the city, she went at least once a month, Usually for their Sunday brunch. And never once did it feel old.

After this spiritual event, the four agreed the only way to end the night was drinking and dancing, celebrating the true essence of the French Quarters. And that they did.

“Oh, damn,” Danny mumbled as the four stepped out of the third bar of the night. “I didn’t see this text. My grandfather is short-staffed tonight. I should go help close up. Will y’all join me for brunch there tomorrow? I saved the best for last.”

“That sounds fantastic.” Madeline nodded as Steven shook his hand, thanking him for the day.

“Can I tag along?” Jane offered, dying to see the restaurant Danny had been telling her about. Madeline giggled, wondering what Jane was more excited about, getting her hands on a kitchen or Danny. The group said their goodbyes, and Jane and Danny disappeared into the crowd on Bourbon Street.

“We should go get coffee and Beignets,” Steven suggested. Madeline suddenly felt nervous. They once bonded over coffee. They decided they were best friends over coffee. Steven confessed he was madly in love with her over coffee. And two years later, Steven confessed something else, again over coffee.

“Stupid coffee,” Madeline muttered under her breath as they were seated at Café Du Monde. She had been here a few times on family trips, but the night had a different feel to the airy restaurant, tables, and people packed in like sardines, even after midnight.

They ordered six Beignets, square-looking doughnuts that tasted better than any pastry should.

“So.” Steven started. Madeline bribed herself. If she could get through this conversation without either bursting into tears or stabbing him, preferably in the penis. Then, she could buy an insanely expensive brush Monday.

“So…” Madeline’s devilish grin hid the tears she felt swelling.

“Excuse me,” Their moment was interrupted by two ladies. “We hate to bother you, but we’d be so honored if you could say a blessing; my mother just got into a car accident. And she would be in awe if she was blessed by a direct descendant.”

“I’m…” Madeline didn’t see this conversation. “I’m sorry, I’m from Houston, but I certainly will keep her in my prayers.” The words just came out. Madeline didn’t want to sound mean, but this was bizarre.

“We are so sorry; please accept our apologies. Have a good evening.” The other lady said, now kind of bowing. They both insisted on shaking Madeline’s hand. This was beyond weird as the last one cuffed her hand for what felt like an eternity. The two backed away and disappeared into the crowd.

“Ok, they did drink too many Hurricanes.” Madeline tried to laugh it off, feeling very uneasy. Now very annoyed that Steven seemed glued to a card that one of the ladies must have left on the table. “Steven!” Madeline hissed. Holding the card up so she could see it, he looked directly at her with a very strange expression.

It was a laminated card, 2x3. On the front, one of those old-timey portraits, the back, a paragraph. It looked like a Saint’s card from the Catholic Church.

“You have her cheeks.” He continued to study the picture. “And her eyes. Look, Madeline.”

“And we are extremely drunk.” Madeline flat out lied. Madeline had maybe a total of half a drink the entire day. Between her new co-worker and her ex-boyfriend, she wanted to keep a clear head. Steven did have a drink or two but wasn’t even tipsy. Madeline took the card from Steven, ignoring the picture and the shiver that ran up her spine the second she touched the paper.

“Listen to this crap.” Madeline read the back of the card. “I seek protection and sound my alarm, my body, mind, and spirit be safe from harm. My aura a shield to help me stay strong. I block negativity and all that is wrong. Blah blah blah. WHAT!?!?”

“That paragraph is written in French.” Steven leaning towards Madeline, angrily whispered. “You do not speak French! You speak English, Vietnamese, and a little bit of Spanish. NOT French! How the hell are you reading this?”

“This is NOT in French.” Madeline tried not to raise her voice. How in the world was this turning into a fight? Madeline wondered as she felt her blood boiling. Worse playful fight and excuse for makeup sex ever!

“Come on.” Steven said forcefully, “I texted Jane. She’s going to meet us back at the apartment.” He got up and left, hoping Madeline would follow. He knew her. She would have stubbornly sat at that table at Café Du Monde until she could prove she was right, or at least less wrong than Steven. Madeline followed against her better judgment. At least Jane would bitch Steven out for the strange game he was playing, And Madeline would win. And everything would be fine.


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