Home > The House on Prytania (Royal Street #2)

The House on Prytania (Royal Street #2)
Author: Karen White

The Crescent City, with its long and tangled history, its glorious architecture and subtropical allure, along with its inarguably dark past and requisite restless spirits, is a forgiving place. A city with accepting arms for society’s lost and hungry souls, and a haven for people like me who’d stumbled and fallen yet managed to pull themselves back up. People who were brave enough to try again in a place known for its extremes, or simply too hardheaded to admit defeat.
As the St. Charles streetcar I’d just exited waddled its way down the tracks toward the river bend, I listened to its clanging and jangling. It had become the soundtrack of my life in a new city, much as the church bells chiming their holy chorus in my hometown of Charleston once were.
Slowly walking down Broadway, I enjoyed the afternoon air of an early-October Saturday. The oppressive humidity of summer had lifted, giving us a reprieve, and although the temperature was nowhere near what anybody up north would call cold, it was cool enough that I wore a sweater over my T-shirt. Even my fingers felt chilled as they gripped the straps of my backpack.
I considered slipping on the gloves that my stepmother, Melanie, had sent me—along with typed instructions on how to care for them. I was due a visit from my family—my parents and my twelve-year-old half siblings, Sarah and JJ—the following week, and I didn’t want to register Melanie’s disappointment at seeing my dirty gloves. Exactly the reason why I wasn’t wearing them. Because absolutely nobody in real life had the patience to clean their gloves to Melanie’s specifications. Unless they were Melanie.
I lived on Tulane University’s so-called fraternity row, my upstairs town-house apartment sandwiched between two fraternity houses, so I was prepared to dodge the street football being played as I made my way down the sidewalk. The days were shorter now, the rose-tinted dusk sky hovering over me as I walked, the growing dimness darkening the shadows between houses and behind unlit windows. Not for the first time, I was grateful that I had only five senses and couldn’t see anything within the shadows. But just because I couldn’t see anything didn’t mean that nothing was there.
I climbed the steps to my apartment, enjoying the drifting scents of something spicy and pumpkin-y baking in the oven. Being greeted by fresh baked goods was just one of the perks of having the Southern version of Martha Stewart as my roommate. A version that sported flame red hair and had a skill set that included all things domestic as well as the ability to change a tire while wearing high heels, and had an accent as thick as the Delta mud from her home state of Mississippi.
Jolene McKenna was a force of nature whose turns of phrase could be simultaneously head-scratching and profound, and whose sweet nature hid a backbone of steel mixed with concrete. Jolene had been my roommate during my abbreviated tenure at Tulane, and when we’d run into each other in New Orleans seven years later, I had needed a roommate, and she’d needed an apartment. It had seemed serendipitous.
As soon as I opened the French door at the top of the stairwell and threw off my backpack, I was attacked by a small gray and white fur ball with two dark button eyes and a matching nose and a wildly waving plumed tail. He was wearing yet another fall-themed dog sweater courtesy of his favorite aunt, Jolene. Although Mardi was technically my rescue dog, Jolene had taken over all his accessorizing, something my stepmother, Melanie, could appreciate. I had drawn the line at monogramming, but little by little I’d noticed MLT (Mardi Lee Trenholm) appearing on bowls, bedding, and his dog-sized bathrobe.
At the tap-tap sound of approaching high heels, Mardi and I looked up to see Jolene. As usual, her hair and makeup were perfect, and she wore a Wizard of Oz–themed apron over a cocktail dress. At her look of disappointment, something clicked in the back of my mind. “Oh, no. Did I forget . . . ?”
“Yes. Tonight is the big welcome-home party for Sunny Ryan. I’ve been texting you for the last hour, but you didn’t respond.” Her eyes widened as they settled on my unruly hair, which had had only a glancing swipe from a brush earlier that morning before I’d left for work. “I’m not sure if we have enough time to make you presentable, but I’ve never been called a quitter.”
She took Mardi from my arms. “Sorry—I was catching up on Beau’s podcast and my battery died. Really, Jolene, there’s no reason for me to get all gussied up.” I used one of her words to placate her. “It’s just a small gathering of family and close friends.”
Jolene grabbed my wrist and began pulling me toward the bathroom. “I’ve already drawn your bath. It’s grown cool, but that means you won’t lollygag. And of course you should get gussied up. Beau will be there.”
I blinked at her. My relationship with Beau Ryan was complicated. Which was a lot like saying the levee system in New Orleans might have a few flaws. I hadn’t the energy or the time to hash it all out now. Instead, I said, “Well, Beau is Sunny’s brother, so it would be strange if he wasn’t. And I’m sure his girlfriend will be there, too. Besides, I haven’t heard from Beau since Sunny showed up the night of Mardi’s gotcha party. He’s obviously moved on now that he doesn’t need my help finding his sister.”
Jolene stopped at the threshold of the bathroom and pulled off my baggy cardigan before gently pushing me inside. “For someone so smart, you sure can be ignorant. Now hop in the tub and do the best you can with that shampoo. You have exactly five minutes, and I’m timing you. Starting now.” She tapped the screen of her smart watch before closing the door in my face.
* * *
• • •
One hour and fifteen minutes later, we were in Jolene’s relic of a car—named Bubba by its owner—and headed down Broadway on our way to the Ryans’ historic family home on Prytania in the Garden District. Mardi, wearing a celebratory yellow kerchief that matched his sweater, sat dutifully in his car seat in the back, the air from the vent blowing his fur from his face like in a shampoo commercial. The heater in the old car apparently had only two settings: off and full blast. I wanted to crack open my window to let in fresh air but was scolded by Jolene, who warned me that the three layers of Aqua Net she’d applied to my hair could go only so far.
A silver platter filled with Jolene’s pumpkin nut muffins sat on my lap. Apparently, she had the hearing of a bat, because despite the volume of the heater and the rumbling of the tires passing over the ubiquitously uneven paving of New Orleans’s streets, she heard me carefully lifting the plastic wrap to grab a pinch of one, and she slapped my hand.
“You’re worse than Mardi,” she scolded.
“I’m starving. I’ve been cutting bathroom floor tiles all afternoon. Thibaut is teaching me, and he’s very patient, but it takes forever. I didn’t want to take a food break and disappoint him.”