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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.13
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.13

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Are you telling me that you normally drive in circles?”

  “Squares, actually.”

  “Or, to borrow a phrase from Jake, turning squares.” She faced Walker with a coolness that matched his. “As in doubling back to flush out or sneak up on a tail.”

  “Smart man, that Jake.”

  “Evasive man, that Walker.”

  “Yeah. We’re being followed by some clown with a white Caddy and a cell phone.”

  “All the way from the expo?”

  Walker nodded.

  “Well, damn,” she said. “Why?”

  “I don’t know.”

  But he was afraid he did. Someone hadn’t bought the diversion with the rubies and the expo safe. Shit. He never should have left the expo hall. His taste for real food had put Faith at risk. Now he would have to carry the damn purse himself.

  “Guess,” she said in a clipped voice.

  “Maybe he wants to find the best fish shack in town.”

  “Maybe I’m built like Miss February.”

  “I’ll have to take your word for it, sugar. Playgirls aren’t my style.”

  She wanted to believe him, and she knew she was an idiot for wanting. Every man alive lusted after the playgirl body, even if it came complete with scars from a surgeon’s scalpel. “Such convincing lies. Must be those lapis lazuli eyes. No, it’s that honeyed drawl.”

  Those lapis eyes narrowed. “We’ll get along better if you smile when you call me a liar.”

  “White lies don’t count.”

  “Counting has nothing to do with it. I know what I like. You don’t.”

  “Right,” she muttered. “Like you aren’t a man. Is he still following us?”

  “Yeah. Hell’s fire. I just drove by it.”

  “What?”

  “Cap’n Jim’s Fish Shack.”

  “So turn another square.”

  Instead, Walker made an illegal U-turn and slid into a parking place in front of the cafe. It was the only parking spot along the block on either side. There was nowhere for the white Cadillac to hide. It continued on down the two-lane street, giving Walker a good look at the driver.

  He was in his mid-twenties, black hair, sunglasses, no smile, and one big hand locked hard on the wheel. His other hand was fisted around a cell phone. From the look on his face, he didn’t like what he was hearing.

  The bad news was that their tail was wearing a black leather jacket despite the heat of the day. He was either a @clofheshorse or he was armed.

  Silently Walker swore at the complication.

  “Sloppy,” he said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “A pro would have changed his look. Different glasses, a hat, different jacket or no jacket at all. A pro would have had a partner to hand me off to the first time I started turning squares.”

  Silently she absorbed what Walker had said. And what he hadn’t. “No wonder Archer trusts you. You must have led an interesting life. Like his, before he quit.”

  “I was never a professional like your brother or your brother-in-law, Jake. I’m just a real cautious country boy. That’s why I’m still alive.”

  And why Lot wasn’t.

  The realization of loss and rage and guilt was always fresh, and always bit deep with teeth that never dulled.

  With an edge to his expression that was as grim as his thoughts, Walker grabbed his cane and slid out of the car.

  Faith had the door open and was standing on the sidewalk before he got around the Jeep’s square butt. Her smart, slim black purse dangled from its shoulder strap to her hip.

  “I’ll take that.” He slipped the purse from her shoulder.

  “You’re joking.”

  He stuffed the purse into his sport-coat pocket. It didn’t quite fit. “Am I smiling?”

  The look in his eyes made Faith think better of the hot words crowding her tongue. “You think he knows that the rubies left with us? Probably in my purse?”

  Walker grunted.

  “My brothers taught me how to defend myself,” she said evenly.

  “You do that little thing, sugar. I’m being paid to defend the rubies.”

  12

  Faith stalked into Cap’n Jack’s. The smell – fish and hot oil – rolled over her, but both were fresh, clean smells, not stale. Her salivary glands reminded her that a crumb doughnut and a cinnamon latte wasn’t much breakfast for a woman who had just spent four hours on her feet answering the same questions over and over again. And smiling. Smiling until her face ached.

  No wonder she felt like attacking something. Owen Walker, for example.

  From the corner of his eye, Walker watched Faith’s reaction to a hole-in-the-wall eatery whose decor could most charitably be described as modest. Worn linoleum floor. Faded beer advertisements on dingy walls. Fifteen cracked tables with mismatched chairs and randomly sized paper napkin holders, ketchup, and tartar sauce squeeze bottles.

  The place was packed like fish in a tin with carpenters and painters, plumbers and workers whose hands were freckled from the sun and scarred from the tools of their trade. The men, and a few women who had wedged their way into blue-collar jobs, were up to their lips in the kind of deep-fried sin your doctor warned against. The customers’ faces said that like many things sinful, the experience was divine.

  The only polish in the place came from people sliding into and out of the plastic chairs. Not that Cap’n Jack’s was dirty. It wasn’t. It just looked like it had been bought at a neighborhood rummage sale and would be sold the same way. There was no hostess to seat customers, no server to take orders. Folks waited in line in front of a counter that was just big enough to hold a cash register. That was all Cap’n Jack accepted. Cash.

  Despite the ruby necklace in his shorts and the woman’s purse in his coat pocket, Walker felt right at home. He had been selling his catch to fish shacks like this before he got out of fourth grade.

  In her expensive clothes, Faith looked as out of place as a princess at a demolition derby. If that bothered her, Walker saw no sign of it. She studied the chalkboard menu as though it held the answer to the meaning of life.

  “Well, that security guard was right about the fancy part,” Walker said. “From the way folks are chowing down, looks like he was right about the rest.”

  She was too busy trying to choose among the handful of menu items to do more than nod absently. Fresh shrimp, steamed or fried. Two kinds of fresh fish. Oysters, raw or fried. Scallops. She groaned, unable to make up her mind. “I’ll have one of everything and two of the shrimp.”

  He laughed, pleased that she didn’t object to the shabby decor and grubby, hardworking customers. “If you like shrimp that much, I’ll order fish and fried oysters and we can share.”

  “Make it shrimp, then.”

  “Steamed or fried?”

  “Steamed. Two pounds.”

  His eyebrows shot up.

  “Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “I know all about ‘sharing’ with older brothers. It’s like sharing a lamb chop with a hungry wolf.”

  Before Walker could answer, she spotted three men getting up to leave. She shot over to the vacated table, politely cutting off two carpenters in stained Carhartt coveralls. Grabbing a handful of napkins, she wiped up spilled cocktail sauce and emptied the heaping ashtray into a trash container as though she did it every day. Then she looked expectantly at Walker.

  Smiling, he went to order for them. When he came back, he was carrying a pitcher of cold tea and two empty plastic glasses that had the opaque finish that comes only from long, hard use. He set the pitcher down with a thump.

  “What’s that?” she asked.

  “Sweet tea, the house wine of the South.”

  He poured a glass and handed it to her. She sipped, swallowed, and cleared her throat.

  “It’s an acquired taste,” he said. “Like beer.”

  “I’d rather have beer.”

  Walker would rather have had beer, too. He drank tea a
nyway. Only a fool started sucking up alcohol when some Low Country knee breaker was parked outside, sweating in the unseasonable heat and waiting for Faith to reappear.

  But that didn’t mean she had to suffer along with everyone else. “I’ll get you a beer,” Walker said.

  He rose to order one, only to stop when her fingers locked with surprising strength around his wrist.

  “No thanks,” she said. “I’d fall asleep before we got back. I’ll stick to, um, the house wine.” She took a second sip. “Suppose they have any lemon?”

  “Doubt it, but I’ll ask. Around here, folks use tartar sauce rather than lemon on fish.”

  “Wait.” She took a third sip, then a fourth. Cool, clean, brewed, and undeniably sweet, the tea was refreshing. “I’ll drink it straight up, just like the natives.”

  It didn’t take long for the gravel-voiced counterman to call their number. As one, Faith and Walker headed for the food. He picked up the plastic baskets of fries, coleslaw, fish, and oysters, and a fistful of plastic silverware. She balanced a plate mounded with unpeeled shrimp and a plastic carton of shrimp sauce. When everything was unloaded onto the table, he tucked her chair beneath her. She was already stripping off her jacket and rolling up her silk sleeves.

  “Don’t touch anything just yet,” he warned her. “I forgot something.”

  As soon as his hack was turned, she dove into the mound of shrimp and started peeling, dipping, and eating. After the first bite, she began making noises that were half hum, half purr. The shrimp was pure ecstasy – succulent, sweet, perfectly cooked.

  “I told you to wait,” Walker said when he returned.

  Without looking up, she made noises that roughly translated into “Do I look stupid?”

  Smiling, he shook out the clean apron he had borrowed from the kitchen. “Stand up and hook up, sugar. We don’t have time to go back to the inn for a change of clothes.”

  “Mmph.” She swallowed, licked her fingers, then tried and failed to wipe them clean on a paper napkin. Hastily she stood, turned her back to him, and held her arms away from her body. “Go for it.”

  After an instant of hesitation, he took the neck strings and tied them in place. He tried not to notice the warmth of her skin and the exotic mixture of gardenias and cocktail sauce that tantalized his senses. When he reached around her for the waist ties, he discovered they were hip ties on her. Even after he wrapped them around twice, he still had enough left over for a big double bow.

  While he worked, he told himself that he didn’t enjoy discovering just how good she felt in his arms. He even tried to believe it. He tried really hard. Then he sat down in his own chair, shifted and shifted again, and decided that sometimes, just sometimes, testosterone could be a literal pain in the ass. Sitting down to eat with a woody and a ruby necklace stuffed into your shorts was one of those times.

  And if she kept licking her fingers and making sex-kitten noises, he was going to do something stupid. Like grab her and start doing some serious licking of his own.

  Instead, he forked up several fried oysters, bit into them, and then went still as the memories of childhood washed over him, drowning him. The sounds of the swamp, deep to shrill, and the echoing silence that followed a noisy misstep. Raking oysters in the salt marsh, the rich smells of mud and brine and shellfish, the cruel slice of shell through careless flesh.

  Sun like a million burning daggers. Bayous steeped in heat and silence and time. Swamps alive with the pale flash of herons. Dark water shimmering with the slow, rippling wake of an alligator. The elation of finding his net squirming with fish or his pots bristling with crabs. Hunger. Cool glide of water over sunburned skin. Warm mud squeezing between bare toes. Sunrise like a silent explosion. Surprise at discovering that few of his schoolmates knew what possum or alligator tasted like.

  And his dead brother echoed through every memory, every scent, everything. Ragged pants and reckless grin. The first one to take a dare and the last one to give up a losing game. Black hair, golden eyes, handsome as sin and twice as hard to live without. Smart about women before he had to shave.

  Fool enough to believe his older brother walked on water.

  Come, on. We can do it. Hell, Walker, you can do anything. You got us out of Colombia alive. What are a few Afghani tribesmen next to that? Think of the adventure!

  It had worked just the way Lot said it would. For a while. Then Lot trusted his brother to get him out of one too many jams.

  And Lot died.

  Faith watched Walker power through oysters as though they were an enemy to be vanquished. If she wanted any, she had better move fast. “You’re not holding up your end of the bargain here.”

  Walker’s mouth turned down in a sour twist. “That’s the problem with me, sugar.”

  She made an unladylike sound. “I doubt that.”

  “Don’t.”

  The darkness in his eyes told her that he wasn’t teasing any more than he was talking about dividing up the lunch. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, she smiled brightly and began forking some of his food onto her plate. “Then I’ll just have to take my fish and oysters up front, won’t I?”

  He looked at her for a long, tight moment, seeing both her concern and her offer of companionable laughter. Reluctantly the corner of his mouth turned up. “There you go.”

  As she cut into a delicate, fragrant grouper filet, she wondered what scars lay beneath Walker’s easy drawl and slow smile. Then she told herself that it was none of her business. It certainly wasn’t her business to take him in her arms and simply hold him until the bleak pain faded from his eyes.

  Yet she wanted to do just that.

  Deliberately Walker looked only at the food he was eating. Not at the brutal mistakes of the past that added up to his brother’s early, rocky grave. Not at the mistakes he had to avoid in the future. And certainly not at the woman whose simple, sensual pleasure in the Low Country lunch made his whole body tighten with a hunger that no amount of food would satisfy.

  He was way out of line. He had no business thinking about how much fun it would be to peel her like a shrimp, lick her, taste her, suck on her, swallow her whole and get swallowed in turn, the two of them slick with sweat and rolling over and over like a roadside gator wrestler who had bitten off more than he could chew. Hell, a gator would be nothing next to a woman like Faith Donovan. Sensing the elemental sex beneath her coolly expensive exterior aroused him to the point of pain.

  With a silent curse, he went to work on his fish and fries. Both were equally hot, tender-crisp, and fresh. The tartar sauce and the spicy cocktail sauce were homemade and good enough to lick right off your thumb, which was what he did when he made a miscalculation. The coleslaw was pure blue-collar – heavy on the mayonnaise and light on the greens.

  Walker concentrated on the fish. As he ate, he couldn’t help noticing that despite a slow start, Faith was getting the hang of peeling shrimp. An uneven mound of translucent pink shell fragments was growing on one side of her plastic basket. Some of the time she dipped the shrimp into the fresh, spicy cocktail sauce. Most of the time she just ate the tender beauties in her own messy but increasingly rapid fashion, using her tongue on any scrap that was in danger of getting away from her.

  Watching it was making him nuts.

  “That’s your finger you’re working on, not a shrimp,” he muttered.

  “That’s why I’m licking and not chewing.”

  He grabbed a wad of paper napkins from the scarred metal holder in the center of the equally scarred table. “Try these.”

  “Why? No one else in here is.”

  “I am.”

  “Are not,” she retorted with the ease of a younger sister. “You’re licking your fingers, not wiping them daintily.”

  “I’m a man.”

  Her tawny eyebrows arched. “Last time I checked, there was no sex difference in tongues and fingers. One and ten each, male or female.”

  Walker had the losing end of this conversation
al tug-of-war and he knew it. Part of him wanted to laugh. Part of him wanted to swear. Most of him wanted to grab her and show her just what a man could do with his one tongue and ten fingers.

  With great care, he wiped his hands on the napkins she had refused.

  She went back to the slowly shrinking pile of shrimp.

  “Are you fixin’ to share those shrimp with me?” he asked, taking the last bite of fish.

  “Sure. The way one pig shares with another.”

  This time he did laugh. Then he reached out and scooped up a big handful of shrimp. It had been years since he had earned money peeling Low Country shrimp, but the skill came back quickly. Soon he was drawing even with Faith in the shrimp eating. Then he was pulling ahead.

  She started to peel and eat faster, then faster.

  Smiling like a pirate, so did he.

  Soon the conversations at the closer tables faded to silence as folks watched the silk-shirted lady in the oversized counter apron and the rough-looking man in the black sport coat race each other through two pounds of shrimp.

  “Five on the classy blonde,” one young man said.

  “Done,” said the older man who was eating with him. “Get out your wallet.”

  “Why? It ain’t done yet.”

  The other man lit a cigarette, took a hard drag, and smiled as he exhaled a long plume of smoke. “I peeled shrimp as a boy. From the look of him, so did he.”

  “She’s got a head start.”

  “She’s gonna need it.”

  More money appeared on the other tables. The younger customers bet on the blonde. The grizzled pragmatists went with Walker.

  Shrimp shells flew every which way.

  “You have to eat them, not just peel them,” Walker said, stuffing another shrimp into his mouth.

  “Says who?”

  “God.”

  “Prove it,” Faith retorted.

  “Prove he didn’t.”

  “She.”

  Walker gave a crack of laughter and nearly choked on a shrimp. “Sugar girl, if you can prove that, you win it all.”

  But even while he laughed, chewed, or choked, his fingers worked so quickly the separate motions blurred into one quick unzipping of flesh from shell. Despite his speed, the shrimp emerged whole and clean, no missing pieces and no prickly legs clinging to sweet meat. He peeled and ate two shrimp to her one, then three.

 
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