Grief changes you, and no one is more aware of that inescapable fact than Carlotta Mercier.
It’s been four years since her husband, John Paul, passed, but moving on feels impossible. She feels like a shell of the woman she once was, but what else is there? Better to just lose herself in work. Better to fill her days to the brim so she doesn’t have time to wallow. Never mind that she’s so lonely for his company that she’d rather be alone if she can’t have him. Never mind that she’s so starved for his touch that her dreams of him border on hallucinations. Never mind because her heart will always be broken after losing the soul mate she waited most of her life meet. How can anyone move on from that?
Apparently, her late husband, John Paul, knew.
In a letter, written the year before he passed, Carlotta’s husband, who loved to celebrate his wife and the day they married, guides her through a tenth-anniversary trip he planned before he got sick. A trip that will take her to his hometown of New Orleans, where she will finally get to know the man he was before he left that city. Will this trip down memory lane help Carlotta discover who she is now that he’s gone? Can a young man who idolized her husband introduce her to the woman born from the love that remains?
CW: Death of a spouse, cancer, IVF (but not infertility), unprotected sex
* * * *
During a dinner of red beans and rice, fried chicken, and okra, Enoch and Carlotta shared every bit of the man they loved with each other. She told him how he’d become the kind of guy who hiked and went to breweries on the weekend. How, after one visit, he fell in love with Maverick, their harlequin Great Dane, and immediately decided to bring him home. She told him about the artists he’d written with over the years. The songs he’d featured on without wanting any credit or recognition. Talking to someone who knew and loved John Paul felt so good — someone who could share in her grief without the expectation that she should be over it by now.
After dinner, they walked back to Enoch’s place shoulder to shoulder on the shadowed banquette. Carlotta’s mind raced, trying to find reasons to spend more time with him, knowing she probably shouldn’t.
“Thank you so much for having dinner with me,” she said as they approached her SUV.
He turned to her under the streetlight and his face… The scar in his brow caught the light as his brows lifted in surprise. His eyes caught the light, too, and all of her softened under his gaze. Warmed under what she saw in them.
“Mrs. Mercier, I’m—”
What came over her? Was it his mouth and how she’d stared at it all night and wondered about his taste? The shape of his lips and the way they framed his crooked smile? Either way, she reached for him, slanted her mouth over his, and delivered a kiss that had far more behind it than gratitude.
Enoch startled then held her away from him. “Baby, what y’doin’?” he asked, confusion in his soft voice.
She shrugged, then brushed her lips across his again. “Enoch… I’d really like it if you called me Carlotta.”
“Hm,” he grunted in response. His hand slid up her back and crushed her against him. The other hand cradled her cheek, stroking gently. “I’d like that too…Carlotta. But do you want this? I —”
She kissed him again. Kissed him to prove that she really wanted the kiss, to quiet any questions he had about her desire. More than anything, Carlotta needed and wanted to be held and kissed.
Enoch tipped her head back, and she sighed, lips parting so he could deepen the kiss. When she softened against him, he pivoted so that her back pressed against the passenger side door of her SUV. He slid his hand down the curve of her waist to her hip and wedged his thigh between hers. A move that only made her spread her legs wider and press her hips flush to his to feel how hard this little bit of contact had made him. To revel in how he slid his hands lower to cup her ass.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” he murmured, then pulled away abruptly.
“I’m sorry.” Carlotta’s cheeks lit and burned like she’d been smacked. Sheepishly, she righted herself, closing her legs and pulling her dress down so that she was decent again.
“Carlotta,” he whispered, grabbing her wrists to stop her nervous fidgeting. “I worded that poorly. I meant we shouldn’t do this now. We’ve had an emotional day, and I don’t know about you, but I feel a little raw.”
He was right. She did feel raw. She’d hoped his kiss would soothe it, and it did, and it made her want more.
“You’re right. I’m probably just reacting to all the emoting,” she said with a nervous laugh. “It felt good to talk to someone about John Paul without being pitied or treated like the eternally weeping widow.”
“It did feel good to talk about him. And I was glad to be that person for you. But...”
Enoch made a soft sound, reached for her, and pulled her body up against his again. Sweat had dampened the back of her dress on the walk back to his place, and she felt flushed and sticky from the heat and a little bit self-conscious about it. But when his mouth covered hers again, she melted into him. He lapped and sucked at her lips. A soft moan slipped from her when he gripped her ass, pressing her hard against his thick length. Kissed her with a recklessness that woke up the thing in her that had been tightly coiled and sleeping in the pit of her belly.
With a soft, needy grunt, he pulled away from her again. “Mrs. Mercier…” he said softly, tugging at her hand. “I think it’s about time to get yourself home.”
With her hand in his, Enoch walked around to the driver’s side and opened the door for her. It wasn’t an outright rejection, but it felt damn close. “I’ll give you a call tomorrow. I wanna show you ‘round. Take you to some spots that JP loved,” he said once she climbed in.
“You don’t have to do that—”
“I want to,” he said softly.
He stared at Carlotta thoughtfully, then leaned in and kissed her again. Cupping her cheek with one hand, he delivered soft pecks that made her open to him. His lips were so soft, and he was so easy to kiss. She didn’t want it to end, so when he pulled away, she tried but failed to suppress a disgruntled moan.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” he said with a sad smile. “Drive safe.” He closed the door and then immediately turned, jogged up his steps, then went inside.