Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.12Elizabeth Lowell
“You look like you’re wishing you lived in a century when men wore necklaces,” Faith said.
His smile was a quick, bright curve against his dark beard. “This one would be wasted against a hairy chest. But looking at it still makes me feel like I’m hearing the first bird of dawn after a long night in the swamp.”
She couldn’t think of anything to say. Even if she had, she couldn’t have spoken around the sudden closing of her throat. Walker kept on taking her by surprise. No one had ever said anything about her work that touched her so much.
“If you don’t get the purple ribbon for that,” he said, “there’s no justice.”
“Justice, huh?” she said huskily. “There goes my purple ribbon.”
He laughed and wished he could hug her. Then kiss her. Then – He reined in his impulses and settled for flicking a fingertip down Faith’s aristocratic little nose the way he had seen Archer do once or twice. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Besides, you can’t hand out awards until you’ve seen the competition.”
He looked at the twenty widely spaced display areas. Each held the cream of a designer’s work. Each had its fans and collectors. Each was radically different from anything else in the show. The designers were a show in themselves. Their clothing varied as wildly as their jewelry creations.
“I figure I need a native guide or a secret password or a special handshake to get close to some of those folks,” Walker said dryly.
She grinned and made a here-I-am gesture with her hands. “C’est moi. We’ll do a turn around the room when I take a break. Until then, you’ll just have to – Ah, here it is.”
Walker looked past her to the same white-haired guard he had spoken to earlier. He and another man were carrying a plush wingback chair covered in a heavy silk with rose and pale gold stripes. The chair was big enough to seat a man in comfort.
“Put it against the wall,” she directed. “Thank you. He’s too thickheaded to ask for one himself, and his leg is stiff.”
“Our pleasure, ma’am.” The guard’s grin said he didn’t mind getting a close-up look at the face that went with those legs, but he was careful to include Walker in his smile. “If y’all need anything else, just holler.”
“Not literally,” Walker said to Faith when she looked a bit startled at the idea of yelling across the refined room to get the guard’s attention. “It’s what the university types call a figure of speech.”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “Stuff it.”
“Another figure of speech. At least, this ol’ boy sure hopes it is.”
“I prefer to think of it as a tantalizing possibility.” Faith looked away from Walker’s laughing, dark blue eyes and tried not to laugh herself.
A ripple of subdued conversation washed through the room. The guards had opened the doors. The first of the collectors, dealers, and tourists came inside in an eager rush. Though their style of dress varied as dramatically as that of the exhibitors, the clothes had one thing in common: they were expensive.
“Sit over there and behave like a good southern boy,” she said. “It’s show time.”
Obediently Walker sat, shifting so that he could reach beneath his jacket easily. Being the bad southern boy that he was, he had a knife handy, and guileless blue eyes that memorized the face of everyone who walked by Faith’s display.
He was betting that one of the folks looking at all the fancy goods was the murderer who had burgled the Live Oak B and B.
After four hours on duty, Walker was thinking about the Low Country joys of cold beer and a pull-pork sandwich. Doughnuts just lacked staying power. But he doubted that the expo would have anything as ordinary as brew and barbecue on hand. He had seen nothing more substantial than melon balls and lettuce sandwiches on the buffet table.
Faith was discussing gold alloys with a fellow designer, a longhaired, sun-toasted California surfer dude in a red silk shirt and pegged pants. When the man finally moved on, Walker began to have hopes of a lunch break.
Before he could mention his rumbling stomach, a woman slid up to the display. She wore heavy makeup to hide deep acne scars and a Rolex big enough for a man’s wrist. Her outfit was European. It was set off by an emerald pin from a late-twentieth-century designer – a rectangular stone set within a rectangular frame of platinum with diamond-studded spikes jutting out in carefully uneven geometry.
There was an intensity about the woman that caught Walker’s attention. Her accent could have been Russian or perhaps Hungarian. He moved closer to Faith, just in case.
“The three-sided emerald,” the woman said. “How did you set such a stone?”
“Very, very carefully. Emeralds shatter if you look sideways at them.” What Faith didn’t say was that her globetrotting twin brothers, Justin and Lawe, had both threatened fatal retribution if she chipped their glorious stone while she was setting it. “The triangle is an unusual shape for any emerald, much less one of more than four carats. The unique possibilities of this emerald are what drew me to it. That’s a very fine emerald you’re wearing, by the way. Colombian?”
“But of course.” A wave of the woman’s manicured hand dismissed her own jewelry. A scarlet nail tapped on top of the beveled-glass case. “This brooch you have here, this triangle stone, it is stable now, yes?”
“As stable as emeralds ever are. The setting is more than a year old.”
The woman studied the deceptively simple silver shape. A few curves, two inverted vees, and the jeweled green wink of the emerald like a single eye.
“It is a cat, yes?”
“It feeds well, I think.”
Faith smiled. “Very well.”
The woman looked intently at the brooch. “Is for sale, yes?”
“Yes.” The price was $47,000, but Faith wasn’t going to bring that up until the woman asked.
The woman nodded so abruptly that her red hair jiggled. “I will think.” Her red nails tapped on the glass case. “The necklace. Rubies like blood. They are of Burma?”
“I’m sorry. It’s not for sale.”
The woman flicked away the words. “All is for sale. Only the price changes.”
“In this case, I don’t own the necklace. However, the ‘cloud suite’ over here – ” Faith gestured to a bracelet, ring, and earrings done in textured platinum “ – has very fine rubies and – ”
“Yes yes,” the woman cut in impatiently. “The necklace. Who owns it?”
Faith’s smile began to ache at the corners. “I’ll be glad to put you in touch with the owner, although I have to say I don’t think he’ll sell. It’s a wedding gift for his future daughter-in-law.”
“Name?” the woman asked.
Faith told herself that the customer probably didn’t mean to be rude. Different cultures simply approached business in different ways. She went to her purse, withdrew a business card, and handed it across the glass.
“Montegeau Jewelry,” the woman read aloud. “Established in 1810. This shop. It is where?”
“Someone else will have to help you with local directions. I’m from Seattle.”
With a last, measuring look at the smug cat, the woman moved on to the next display. She gave it only the briefest of glances before walking on.
“Rude, but she has good taste underneath all that war paint,” Walker said.
“What do you mean?”
“She passed right by that clown in the next booth.”
“That, uh, clown is one of the most respected designers in America.”
She looked into Walker’s bottomless blue eyes and thought of a well-fed cat. “Late Jackson Pollock.”
Walker laughed loud enough to draw a few amused glances. “Explosion in a paint factory, huh?”
“Has anyone ever mentioned that you’re a well-read good ol’ boy?”
“Amazing,” she said, wide-eyed. “You wouldn’t do anything to help them underestimate you, would you?”
“No, ma’am. Misleading good folks is a sin. Praise be that the Lord didn’t make too many good folks for me to fret over too much misleading.”
She snickered. “You could pour that country boy act into a spoon and lick it up like honey.”
Walker was saved from having to answer when a young woman in a floaty, ankle-length black skirt and a long-sleeved pink silk blouse walked up to the display. Her skin was pure magnolia blossom and her hair was the color of sunlight. The ID badge clipped to her collar identified her as Meg. “Ms. Donovan?”
“Your assistant requested this morning that someone sit with your display while you have lunch. I’m free now, if that’s agreeable to you.”
“That’s me,” Walker said easily. “Pack up the necklace. We’re @flxin’ to find some real food.”
“But the Montegeau necklace is the centerpiece of my display,” Faith objected.
“The rest of your jewelry is insured by an outside company. The necklace is my responsibility. It goes where we go, and we’re going to eat something more filling than lettuce sandwiches and fruit salad.”
Muttering, Faith removed the necklace from the glass case, wrapped it carefully in thin chamois, and slid it into the equally soft chamois bag. She handed the package to Walker. He picked up her purse, put the bag in, and closed it.
At least, that was what it looked like to anyone watching. Only Faith was close enough, and quick enough, to spot his sleight-of-hand pass of the chamois bag from one hand to the other to his pocket, instead of her purse.
“Is that how you beat Archer at poker?” she whispered.
“I was never foolish enough to sharp him,” Walker said. “And since he hired me, I haven’t had to worry about losing a few bucks.”
Walker handed Faith her purse before he took her elbow in a grip that was as gentle as it was unbreakable. He picked up his cane and made a show of needing it. “Thank you, Miss Meg,” he said, nodding to the young woman. “We’ll be along in an hour or so.”
“Y’all don’t rush your food.” Her warmth was genuine. So was her careful, feminine appraisal of Walker and his welcome-to-hell smile. “Things will get real slow around here now, until about three,” she said. “Then the lookers will start worrying about letting something special slip through their fingers.”
“We’ll definitely be back by then,” Faith said.
As they strolled out, Walker caught the eye of the white-haired guard, who came over immediately.
“Where’s the closest real barbecue place?” Walker asked.
The man’s eyes crinkled. “Have to go all the way down to Tybee Island for that, suh. Barbecue ain’t fancy enough for downtown Savannah no more. Now, if it’s fresh shrimp you’re lookin’ for, there’s a place along the riverfront folks seem to admire.”
“Do you eat there?”
“No, suh. I go to Cap’n Jim’s Fish Shack, down t’other end of the waterfront. Those boys own their own shrimper.”
Walker’s mouth watered at the thought. Truly fresh shrimp was almost as good as Low Country barbecue. “Tell me how to get there.”
The guard looked doubtfully at Faith. “It’s not a, uh, fancy sort of eatery.”
“I’ll tie her bib on personally.”
The guard gave them directions and Walker took Faith’s arm. They began working their way through the crowded room. Without seeming to, he kept an eye on the people behind him.
It didn’t take long to spot their tail. The man was too aggressive shouldering his way through people. No subtlety, just muscle. He acted more like a professional knee breaker than a cat burglar.
Walker frowned. Playing with all the unhappy possibilities, he left Faith by the registration desk and told her to make a show of depositing the rubies in the safe at the exhibition office. While she went through her charade, he ducked into the men’s room and returned the necklace to its safest hiding place.
Faith went through the motions of transferring an imaginary packet from her purse into the safe. In the privacy of the security booth, she rummaged through her belongings and finally dropped a tin of aspirin, lip liner, and a ballpoint pen into the box. While she watched the box being locked behind thick steel, she tried very hard not to think about what Walker was doing with the rubies that were supposedly now in the expo’s safe.
On the other hand, thinking about Walker’s method of guarding the Montegeau necklace took her mind off her whimpering feet.
Walker reappeared and handed her into the rental Jeep with automatic southern politeness. Faith kicked off her shoes, the better to flex her aching feet. He took one glance at the graceful arch of the foot she was massaging and forced himself to look away. Stockings that made a woman appear more naked than bare skin should be outlawed right along with perfume that smelled like gardenias and a night of slow, sultry loving.
Trying to look everywhere but at his passenger, he drove out of the parking lot. After a few minutes of massaging her feet, Faith sighed and let her head drop back against the headrest. She knew she should be admiring the stately, moss-draped squares and beautifully renovated mansions that flowed by on either side of the car, but she just didn’t have the energy. Four hours of selling herself and her jewelry was more exhausting than four weeks of real work.
Some designers loved the sales end of their job. Faith wished she was one of them.
Walker divided his attention between the driving mirrors and the cars ahead. Savannah wasn’t big enough to have much traffic, particularly in the off-season. There were plenty of white Cadillacs in this part of the South, but it was easy enough to pick out the one that turned squares every time he did.
“Are we lost?” Faith asked without lifting her head from the headrest.
“Not yet,” he said. “Why?”
“This is the third time we’ve been past this corner.”
“And here I thought you had those fallen-angel eyes closed.”
“Misty blue and deep enough to lure a poor country boy into sin.”
“Then I guess I better stick to rich city boys.”
His quick, husky laughter made her want to lean over and nuzzle against his neck, then bite him just hard enough to make him take her seriously as a woman. The thought startled her almost as much as it intrigued her. Tony had always complained about her lack of sexuality. She never got hot enough, fast enough, to suit him. The harder she tried to be what he wanted, the worse the sex got. And the angrier he got.
Don’t go there, she told herself automatically. He was as much at fault as I was. It takes two.
Sometimes – more and more often, lately – she believed that. When she didn’t, usually in the middle of the lonely nights when her memories echoed with Tony’s disappointment and rage, she simply poured herself into her work. There, she was sure of herself. Whatever her lacks as a woman, she could create ageless beauty by transforming her dreams into jewelry.
And when she got hungry to hold a baby or to heft the growing weight of a child, there were her nieces and nephew. They didn’t get impatient when she wanted to cuddle and nuzzle and just absorb the miracle of another life, another laugh, another heartbeat close enough to feel.
“Now, that’s a pure angel smile,” Walker said.
“I was thinking of Summer and Robbie and Heather.”
“That Summer is a pistol. Jake and Honor better get busy on another, or that kid will be too spoiled to breathe.”
Faith gave him a lazy, amused glance. “Says the man who brings Summer a stuffed animal every time he sees her.
Which, according to Honor, is almost every day since you got back.”
“Hey, an almost-uncle has privileges.”
“Good thing Archer sent them to Africa or the rest of y’all would never get within touching distance of Kyle’s twins.”
Faith laughed. “Lianne cleverly had one of each sex, too. I wonder what it would be like to be twin to a male.”
“About like it would be for a man to be twin to a female.”
“That’s one way of putting it. I figure Robbie is going to be the artist and Heather is going to run Donovan International and anything else she gets her hands on.”
“She’ll have to go through Summer first.”
“Nope. Summer is a wanderer. She’ll be backpacking over foreign mountains before she’s out of college.”
“Do you spend much time peering into your crystal ball?” Faith asked curiously.
“Not enough, or I’d be as rich as your brothers.”
And Lot would still be olive.
It was something Walker tried to remember whenever his pants started to fit too tight in the crotch just because he was listening to or looking at or talking with Faith. She was a Donovan. He was a trusted Donovan employee who had vowed over Lot’s grave never to tie himself to anyone else who might die trusting him. End of story.
Or it had been until Archer made protecting Faith’s rubies part of Walker’s job. To protect the rubies, he would have to protect her, too.
The thought was enough to send cold sweat down his spine. The last person he had been responsible for protecting was buried in the loneliest grave he ever wanted to see.
“Money can’t buy the important things,” Faith said.
“It sure can take the cuss off being poor.”
The cool neutrality of Walker’s voice told her that the subject was a tender one. She looked at the square that was sliding past her window. Same Confederate general. Same horse. Same pigeons whitewashing both.
“Fourth time is the charm, right?” she asked.
“You lost me.”
“The question is, have you lost the guy who’s following us?”
He slanted her a quick glance. “What makes you think we’re being followed?”
Midnight in Ruby Bayou by Elizabeth Lowell / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes