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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.11
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.11

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “This just in from reporter Barry Miller, live from the murder scene at Live Oak Bed and Breakfast, one of Savannah’s most exclusive B and Bs.”

  Swiftly Walker went to the set and turned down the sound. He didn’t want Faith to overhear, but he sure was interested.

  The TV picture switched from the cheerful, well-scrubbed news reader to a suitably rumpled and solemn-looking field reporter. Behind him, several police squad cars and detective units were parked haphazardly, blocking a street. Yellow crime-scene tape was strung in several directions like a modern cliche. Barry Miller held the microphone and looked directly into the camera.

  “Words can’t describe the savagery of the act. The ‘knife-wielding murderer, or murderers, apparently came in through the bedroom window of the Gold Room, tortured the victim, and finally killed her. Ironically, the victim, whose name is being withheld pending notification of family, had obtained a room only because of a last-minute cancellation.

  Police are baffled by the brutal crime. No one saw anything or heard anything. Though the victim’s wallet was taken and the downstairs safe was robbed, the police aren’t saying that was the motive for the murder. They are presently seeking the victim’s former husband and ex-boyfriend for questioning.

  “Well stay with this story and bring you updates as they happen. Barry Miller reporting from the murder scene at the Live Oak Bed and Breakfast. Back to you, Cherry.”

  The picture cut back to the studio. Walker flipped quickly around the channels, found nothing more, and turned off the set. The hair dryer shut off a moment later.

  “Why did you kill the TV?” Faith asked as she came out of the bathroom. “I wanted to see if the expo got any local news coverage.”

  Walker looked up and was forced to swallow hard. Faith was dressed for work. Heels skyscraper-high. A cool silk blouse that matched the silver-blue of her eyes, rough silk skirt and jacket of a darker shade of blue, and sleek hair the color of a summer sun. She wore a pin of her own creation, combining opals and a beautiful baroque black pearl in a design that was neither shell nor sea, but suggested both.

  “I thought you’d like to sit out along the river and have a quiet breakfast before the mob scene,” Walker said. “It’s real pretty out.”

  She grabbed her purse and headed for the door. “What are you waiting for?”

  The riverside walk was warm by Seattle standards, but the dew point was so high that Faith and Walker could see their own breath. Over her objections, he took off his sport coat and made a clean seat for her on the bench, telling her that she couldn’t show beautiful jewelry wearing a dirty skirt.

  Anticipating the turmoil of the trade show, Faith was grateful for Walker’s easy, silent companionship. She didn’t have to worry about making conversation or entertaining him. He was content with the morning and his own thoughts. In blissful peace, she ate her crumb doughnuts and drank the cinnamon latte he had brought her.

  Where sunlight managed to spear through the evergreen leaves of live oak and the lacy scarves of Spanish moss, the sun had enough intensity to make Seattle skin tingle. Walker didn’t notice the intense sunlight. He was thinking about the TV news. Nothing he was thinking made him smile, but he was careful to conceal that from Faith.

  “What was the name of the B and B you were planning to stay at last night?” Walker asked idly.

  “Live Oak. I had the Gold Room, reputed to be identical to a southern belle’s bedroom in the 1840s.” She took another sip of latte. “Why?”

  Yawning, Walker stretched and let the sun beat down on his face. It didn’t warm the ice in his gut. “Archer will expect a report and I couldn’t remember the name.” Not quite true, but close enough to pass muster. He would be reporting to Archer shortly, and the name of the Live Oak B and B would definitely be part of the conversation. “You about ready to go?”

  “Another sip or two.”

  Walker gathered up his paper coffee cup and their paper napkins and stuffed them in the doughnut bag. He moved more easily than he had yesterday, thanks to Faith’s skilled, surprisingly strong fingers. The fact that it had taken him hours to fall asleep afterward was his fault, not hers. She had never offered anything more sensual than a therapeutic massage.

  He kept telling himself it was better that way. His mind believed it. His body didn’t.

  Faith drained the last of her latte, licked her lips, and sighed. Somehow, in a city of iced tea and drip-coffee drinkers, her unwanted escort had found an espresso place and then begged the cinnamon from the inn’s kitchen. For himself, he drank the bitter brewed southern coffee with every evidence of pleasure. Of course, he had been raised on the stuff.

  “Ready as I’ll ever be,” she said, crumpling her cup.

  “Not quite.”

  “What?”

  Walker’s thumb brushed lightly over the corner of her mouth. “Crumbs.”

  Faith’s heartbeat hitched. Then it raced. The touch had been casual rather than seductive, yet the warmth of his skin against hers made her head swim. She wondered what it would feel like to be his lover. She had wondered the same thing last night, while she probed and smoothed his surprisingly muscular thigh. “Er, thanks. How’s my lipstick holding up?”

  His dark blue glance moved lazily over her mouth, making her feel as though she had been touched again. Slowly.

  “Looking good from here,” he said after a moment. “But you might want to check for yourself. Your lips have so much color it’s hard for me to tell where you leave off and the lipstick begins.”

  She stood up briskly. “People will be looking at my jewelry, not me.”

  “The women, sure.” He grabbed his sport coat, shook it out, and put it on. “The men are going to love that outfit. All pale and silky and touch-me soft. And those high heels…” He shook his head slowly. “Sugar, what those shoes do to your legs is downright sinful.”

  She looked at herself. She had picked the outfit because it was comfortable and had a matching jacket in case the main room’s thermostat was set for men wearing suits. The shoes were left over from a time when she had tried to please Tony by wearing heels high enough to give her legs a sexy curve.

  “What they do to my arches is sinful,” she said. “By the end of the day I’ll be whimpering.”

  “Then why wear them?”

  “They make my legs look less skinny.”

  “Skinny?” Walker couldn’t have concealed his surprise if a big poker pot had depended on it. “You had your eyes checked lately?”

  “Yes.”

  “Try another optometrist. Your legs are – ” enough to make a man’s palms sweat “ – just fine the way they are. Both feet touch the ground, right?”

  “Last time I looked.”

  “There you go. What more could anyone ask?”

  She smiled and held out her hand to him before she could think better of it. “C’mon. You can help me set up my booth.”

  He had been prepared to insist on just that and was relieved it wouldn’t be necessary. The longer he was around her, the more at ease she became. By the end of the day, she would be treating him like one of her brothers.

  If that irritated him as much as it made his job of protecting the rubies easier, he would get over it. They would be living in each other’s pockets until she went back to Seattle. Better that they play at being brother and sister than lovers.

  Yeah. Right.

  All he had to do was keep telling himself that, just as he had kept telling himself last night that he couldn’t hear her undress, couldn’t smell gardenias and woman whispering out to him, couldn’t count her breaths slowing and deepening until she fell asleep.

  He really should have let her close the door to her bedroom. That way he might have gotten some sleep, too. But he doubted it. Falling asleep with a hard-on was a bitch.

  Walker stood up, moving more slowly than necessary. He sensed that at some unconscious feminine level, Faith was reassured by his appearance of physical weakness. The only reason
he could think of for that made him want to have a short, brutal chat with her ex-fiance.

  With subdued anger, Walker stuffed the remains of their riverside breakfast into a trash can. He picked up his cane in one hand. With the other, he casually took Faith’s hand. Instead of interlacing their fingers hard and deep the way he wanted, he squeezed gently before releasing her.

  “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go show those folks at the expo what quality jewelry looks like.”

  He picked up the aluminum case that held nine of the ten pieces she would display in her booth. The tenth piece – the ruby necklace – was where it had been since Seattle, tucked right next to the Walker family jewels.

  Which, at the moment, felt as hard as stones. Those shoes of hers really should have been outlawed, right along with her sexy fragrance and her wary, fallen-angel eyes.

  “Is your leg still stiff?” Faith asked, eyeing Walker’s drawn expression.

  He almost asked her which one. “It’ll ease up.”

  “I’ll work on it again tonight.”

  “No need.”

  “Don’t deprive me. I enjoy watching you grit your teeth and suffer in macho silence. It gives me a feeling of great power to make a grown man cry.”

  “I knew you were a sadist.” But he was smiling. His leg really did feel better.

  Even before Faith and Walker left the bench, sparrows flitted out of the trees and started vacuuming crumbs. The tiny birds all but landed on Faith’s toes.

  “Bold, aren’t they?” she said.

  “They can’t afford to be shy. The bigger birds will be along real quick. Then the sparrows are slam out of luck.”

  “Hardly seems fair.”

  He gave her a sideways look. “Whatever made you think survival was fair?”

  She opened her mouth, sighed, and said, “I keep hoping, even though I know better.”

  The corner of his mouth kicked up. “Hope all you want, sugar. Just keep your eyes wide open while you do.”

  Walker leaned against the classy rose and gold wall at the back of Faith’s booth. The showroom was the size of a big hotel lobby and laid out in much the same way. Business was conducted around the edges of the room. In the center there were flowered, overstuffed couches and chairs flanked by ornate mahogany or cherry tables that were either European antiques or excellent knockoffs. Flower arrangements as big as fountains sent messages of spring and gracious living throughout the room. Champagne and fresh fruit waited at the far end of the room, strategically placed to make certain that hungry show-goers had to walk through the displays to get to the bubbly. A discreet string trio played Bach – fugues mostly, so the customers wouldn’t feel any need to raise their voices.

  But there was no mistaking the room’s true purpose. Beneath the lush decor, business was the order of the day.

  From where Walker stood, he could watch each person who approached the booth. The show was not yet open to the public, but exhibitors and discreetly dressed security personnel mixed and mingled. Jewelers circulated, greeting old friends and checking out new competition. The security folks just circulated and kept their mouths shut.

  At the moment, Faith was bent over her own display case, fussing with the layout of jewelry she had brought. As far as Walker was concerned, the view was breathtaking. Literally. Long, long legs with silky thighs half revealed by a hiked-up skirt. Slender hips that were just the right size for a man with big hands to span and squeeze, testing the resilience of feminine flesh. Soft. Hot. Shadowed.

  “I need the necklace,” Faith said.

  “Coming right up.” Walker reached for the zipper on his one pair of good slacks.

  Her head whipped around toward him. “You wouldn’t dare. Not here!”

  He laughed until her cheeks turned as pink as her lips. He shouldn’t enjoy teasing her so, but he did. It was like touching her without actually doing it.

  “Get out of here,” she muttered, shoving him none too gently. “Shoo. The door opens in five minutes and I need the merchandise.”

  He didn’t want to leave her, but it would never be safer than it was now, before the public was let in. Picking up his cane, he walked around the beveled-glass case and headed toward the men’s rest room. The deep pile of the faded yet still colorful Persian carpet swallowed the sounds of footsteps.

  On the way out of the showroom, he collared one of the plainclothes guards and nodded toward Faith. “She’s been having trouble with a stump-dumb sonofabitch who just won’t take no for an answer,” Walker drawled. As he spoke, he simultaneously shook the guard’s hand and passed over a ten-dollar bill. “Keep an eye on her until I get back, would you? Just be a minute.”

  The money disappeared into an ill-fitting dark suit. “No problem, suh. My pleasure.”

  The glint in the man’s faded blue eyes said that beneath the white hair, jowls, and paunch beat the heart of a southern gentleman who would protect – and appreciate – a shapely pair of legs until the day he died.

  Walker headed down the hall for the men’s room, but before he reached it, he ducked into an alcove and pulled one of the Donovans’ cellular phones out of his coat pocket. It had been modified to accept a built-in scrambler.

  Archer answered on the first ring. “This better be good.”

  “It’s Walker. Did I get you up?”

  On the other side of the connection, Archer looked down at Hannah. Warm and sleek beside him, she was testing his belly with her teeth. “I was already up. What’s your problem?”

  “Could be I’m paranoid.”

  “I’m. listening.” His breath sucked in. Hannah was smiling like a cat. And like a cat, she was licking him.

  “The B and B where Faith had a reservation was burgled last night. The room she would have had was tossed, then the downstairs safe was drilled and cleaned out. The woman staying in the room was murdered by a guy who loved his knife.”

  “Christ.”

  Hannah looked up, concerned. Forcing himself to smile reassuringly, Archer ran a fingertip over her sultry mouth. She put her cheek against his belly and contented herself with nuzzling his arousal.

  “Most cat burglars don’t come prepared to do safes and . such,” Archer said carefully. “Not big safes, anyway.”

  “Do tell,” Walker drawled.

  “Who knew where Faith was staying?”

  Hannah nibbled what she had been nuzzling.

  Archer stopped breathing.

  “The show organizers knew,” Walker said. “So did the Montegeaus, the Donovans, and anyone else who cared enough to ask someone who knew.”

  Archer grunted. “You’re not helping me here.” Even he couldn’t have said whether he spoke to Hannah or Walker.

  “Sure I am, boss. I’m the soulless bastard who wouldn’t let her check into that genuinely historic B and B in the first place. I’m also the one who spent the night crucified on a foldout couch in one of Savannah’s finest renovated riverfront warehouses while your little sister slept in magnolia luxury on a bed straight out of Gone With the Wind.”

  Archer swallowed a strangled sound. His eyes warned Hannah that she was going to pay for every bit of the torment she was putting him through.

  Her smile said she could hardly wait.

  “Good catch on the B and B,” Archer managed. “I owe you one. A big one.”

  “It’s what you pay me for.”

  “Remind me to give you a raise.” His breath caught and all but groaned in his chest as his wife’s warm mouth closed around him.

  “Give me a raise, boss. And tell Hannah to stop teasing you. I’m getting all hot and bothered just listening to you trying not to pant.”

  Archer gave up and laughed out loud. “Anything else?”

  “Have Kyle check whether burgled B and Bs and dead lady tourists are the latest rage in Savannah. I’d do it myself, but I’m not letting Faith out of my sight.”

  “Ah…” Archer tightened all over as heat lanced through him, slicking his skin with sweat. “Anyt
hing else?”

  “You have a complete inventory on her shop yet?”

  “Check your email after dinner.” Archer moved suddenly, flipped Hannah over onto her back, and pushed deep into her steamy, welcoming body. Smiling like a pirate, he handed the phone to her and began to move. “It’s Walker, sweetheart. Say hello.”

  The guard gave Walker a nod when he passed by on the way to Faith’s display.

  “What took you so long?” she said impatiently “I only have a minute before they open the door.”

  “Phone sex.”

  Her eyes widened. “Excuse me?”

  “Phone sex is better than none a’tall.” Like hell. “Here.”

  The weight of the chamois bag dropped onto her outstretched hand. The warmth – and the realization of just why it was so warm – hit her. Embarrassment and something much more unnerving tinted her cheeks pink. She turned away and began unwrapping the necklace as though it was too hot to touch, but it was her thoughts rather than the gleaming swirls of gold and ruby that were burning her.

  The Montegeau necklace held center stage in her display. She had chosen a simple backdrop of pale aqua silk to set off the open curves of gold and provide a cool contrast to the brilliant, intense color of the Burmese rubies. The handmade links that joined each of the thirteen uneven segments of the necklace articulated in a way which allowed the jewelry to lie gracefully against any surface. The three magnificent rubies that made up the pendant could be detached and used as a brooch. The pendant held its rubies within subtle arcs of gold, like burning dewdrops condensed on the flickering edge of flame.

  Even without the fiery rubies, the necklace was a showstopper. No matter how many times Walker looked at it, he saw something different. It was fluid, feminine, powerful, both natural and the essence of a decorative art that had been refined through all the ages of man.

  Walker traced his fingertips over the necklace without actually touching the glass.

 
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