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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.16
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.16

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Go home to your sweet wife,” Sal said. “Go on. I’m sick of looking at you and thinking that the best part of you ran down your mother’s leg. Huh.”

  “Leave my mother out of this! She’s a saint!”

  Sal itched to point out that a saint wouldn’t have spread her legs for a dog like Sal’s youngest son. But the old man kept his mouth shut; the only good thing about Buddy was his respect for his mother.

  “Go home,” Sal said gruffly. He gave his grandson a half slap on the cheek that passed for affection. “I’ll call you later. And don’t forget to collect from that asshole on the docks. No more sob stories. He don’t pay, break a knee. People start thinking I’m going soft and there won’t be no more money coming in, understand?”

  “Yes, suh.”

  Sal waited until Buddy’s footsteps faded. When he was sure he was alone, he picked up the phone and punched in a number.

  “It’s me,” Sal said when the call was answered. “You didn’t say anything about a cripple with a cane.”

  “What about ‘im?” The man at the other end slurred his words. He was drunk already and it wasn’t even dinnertime.

  Sal grimaced at the whiskey-roughened sound of his partner’s voice. He should have known better than to trust a drinker. On the other hand, he didn’t know any teetotalers. “He damn near crippled my grandson, that’s what.”

  “But he got the rubies, right?”

  “Wrong.”

  “What? I can’t pay you unless – ”

  “Shut up,” Sal cut in ruthlessly. “This is how it’s gonna be. You’re gonna get that woman to your place and lift the necklace yourself.”

  “I can’t do-”

  “I said shut the fuck up! You like breathing, you’ll do it the way I tell you. Get those rubies or you’ll be attending your own funeral. A week, no more. Unnerstand?”

  His partner understood. “Yes.”

  “All right,” Sal said. “I’ll send you a package. Just follow the instructions and the cops won’t know it’s an inside job.”

  “What’s in the package?”

  “You’ll know when you open it. Don’t fuck up. I been too nice lately. People think I’m going soft. I ain’t.”

  Sal broke the connection.

  His partner hung up and put his head in his hands. After a few long, shaky minutes he poured another drink and wondered what else could go wrong.

  15

  “Hurry up, Faith. Archer isn’t feeling real patient right now. Do you want me to bring the phone to you?”

  “Keep your shirt on. I’m just drying off.” Faith muttered a few more words as she let the still hot water out of the tub. She had really wanted to soak out the aches of the first day of the expo and wash off the feeling of that man’s hands on her.

  “Faith?”

  “I’m coming, I’m coming,” she said loudly. “I could have called Archer back, you know. I’m running late for dinner as it is. I could call from the restaurant.”

  “You could talk here much easier.”

  Walker preferred the security of a scrambled line to a restaurant phone, but he saw no point in worrying Faith by bringing up murders and federal agents and such. So he waited almost patiently until she emerged from the bathroom and he could hand over the phone.

  Grimacing at him, listening to Archer, Faith sat down on the inn’s overstuffed couch and adjusted the big white terrycloth robe the hotel had provided. Light from the lamp on the end table washed over her like liquid gold. Her wet hair stuck up in spikes.

  She glanced at her watch. Less than thirty minutes before she was supposed to meet Mel at what had been advertised as a “trendy new Italian restaurant.” She had to get dressed and dry her hair. Instead, she was talking on the cellular with Archer.

  Listening, to be precise.

  Across the room, Walker watched with eyes so blue they were almost black. He knew he should be thinking about Russians, not about the gentle swell of her breasts between the loose lapels of the robe, and certainly not about the long, bare legs that showed beneath the garment’s hem.

  Breathe in. Breathe out. Shadows and light and softness shifting, inviting.

  He was thinking, all right. What he was thinking was that there wasn’t a damn thing he could do tonight about Buddy Angel, the well-dressed mugger, or Ivan Ivanovitch, the customer who had come back after dark and helped himself to the inventory of Timeless Dreams. As for nuzzling the shadow between Faith’s breasts, Walker knew he should stop thinking about it, and about what her skin would feel like, whether her nipples would rise eagerly to his tongue, and if she would be soft and hot and finally wet between her thighs, wanting him the way he couldn’t stop wanting her.

  The next time Archer needed a bodyguard for Faith, he could get some happily married man. Or a woman.

  Or a marble statue.

  “Wait,” Faith said to Archer. “Back up. I’m not going anywhere. Send a bodyguard to hover over me if you feel you have to, but I’m staying in Savannah until the show is over and the necklace is delivered to the Montegeaus. And don’t forget the wedding. I haven’t. I promised Mel I’d be there.”

  “Tell her there’s an emergency and – ”

  “No, it’s my turn to talk and yours to listen. I’ve lined up three new outlets already and I’ve taken high-end orders from four clients. Everyone who sees the necklace at the wedding is a potential client. I’m not blowing that just because April Joy got a wild hair and called you.”

  “April Joy doesn’t have a wild hair on her,” Archer said dryly. “She’s a first-class agent with a world-class mind. She’s asking us a favor. We would be smart to grant it.”

  “She wants me back in Seattle?” Faith asked. “Is that what she said?”

  Her oldest brother sighed. “No. She wants you not to press charges against Ivanovitch, whose true name is indeed something else.”

  “The bastard robbed me, Archer! I’m supposed to smile and let it go?”

  “You’ll be repaid for any losses.”

  “Well, yippee.” Fingers combed through hair, making it stand up at new angles. “Oh, hell. Sure. Why not? Let him go. Make April smile.”

  “Thanks. I owe you, because now she’ll owe me.”

  “Oh, please.” Faith rolled her eyes. “Get real.”

  “Do you want me to send another – a bodyguard?” Archer corrected quickly. He wondered if his little sister had finally discovered that Walker was more than a soft drawl and a shy smile. Since Tony, Faith had been very skittish around men. Yet from the way she looked at her nieces and nephew, it was clear she wanted a family of her own. As far as Archer was concerned, that meant she had to get used to being around men who weren’t related to her by blood. Walker was a good place to start.

  Archer liked Walker. His sister could do a lot worse than that smart country boy – as Hannah, Honor, and Lianne had all pointed out.

  “No bodyguard,” Faith said. “Please. It’s hard enough to find suites with one sofa bed. Two would be impossible.”

  “You sure? I worry about you.”

  “Archer, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a woman fully grown.”

  Amen, thought Walker as he listened and watched. Then he closed his eyes. It was that or start running his tongue down the shadow between her breasts.

  “Why did April want this Russian to walk on the grand theft charges?” Faith asked.

  Walker’s eyes snapped open. That was a question whose answer he wanted to hear.

  “She didn’t precisely say,” Archer said.

  “But you want me to do the favor anyway.”

  “Yes. Please.”

  Faith’s frown turned into a smile. “ ‘Please,’ huh? Watch it, older brother. Summer was the first one to turn you into mush. Then Hannah. You’re becoming a closet pussycat.”

  Archer gave a crack of laughter. “I’ll remind Hannah of that the next time she gets mad. Let me talk to Walker again.”

  “Only if you promise not to tell him a
nything you didn’t tell me.”

  “You really want to know about the assay reports on – ”

  “Forget I asked,” she cut in. “My hair dryer is calling me.” She held the phone out to Walker. “He wants you again.”

  “Probably to chew butt.”

  “Nah. He doesn’t do that anymore. He’s a pussycat.”

  Walker stared at Faith as she walked away. “What planet is she living on?” he muttered into the phone.

  “I’ve always been a pussycat with family,” Archer said.

  “Now, it’s a real shame I’m too old to adopt. I suppose I could just start calling you Pa and – ”

  “You’re fired.”

  “Ma?”

  Archer gave up and laughed. “Is Faith running that hair dryer yet?”

  “Just fired it up.”

  “Okay. April Joy – you remember her?”

  “Beautiful and deadly. Like a coral snake.”

  “You remember. Kyle followed your advice and put out the word on the Internet with color photos and complete descriptions of what was missing from Timeless Dreams. Then we printed out photos from the online inventory you set up for Faith. We wallpapered Seattle and every West Coast jeweler with a fax.”

  Walker listened to the hair dryer with one ear and his boss with the other.

  “I still don’t know how or where April got into the loop,” Archer continued. “She didn’t say.”

  Walker said something under his breath. “Did April mention a fine ruby the size of a baby’s fist, or at least twenty carats?”

  “No.”

  “The Montegeau necklace?”

  “No.”

  “Well, hell. This thing has more legs and less brains than a trap full of crabs.”

  Archer didn’t disagree.

  “What are the chances of Ivanovitch having connections in Atlantic City?” Walker asked. “You know, sort of like professional courtesy among the international brotherhood of mobsters?”

  “Possible,” Archer said slowly, “but not high on my list. That kind of international summit stuff requires a more dependable hierarchy than the Russians have managed with their various mafiyas. They’re still at the stage of clan warfare. But I’ll ask April to check it out, if you want.”

  “Not yet. I’d rather keep Uncle on the credit side of the Donovan ledger.”

  “So would I.”

  “Can Kyle get into Savannah PD’s computer, and the Georgia motor vehicle licensing division, too?”

  “I’m not sure I want to hear this.”

  “Then put your brother on.”

  “And let you corrupt him?”

  “One of life’s little pleasures,” Walker drawled. “That boy purely loves being corrupted.”

  “Kyle,” Archer said away from the phone, “your public is calling.”

  Walker gave a last look at the rearview mirror. No doubt about it. They had been followed to the restaurant. A man and a woman following a man and a woman. Even if Walker and Faith split up and went out restroom windows, they were covered. This mixed pair of shadows were parked down the street in a beige Ford Taurus that fairly screamed, Your tax dollars at work.

  Walker consoled himself with the idea that no one would have to call 911 if things went from sugar to shit again.

  He slid his computer under his seat and went around to open Faith’s door. The laptop was filling up with important information. He didn’t want to lose it to Buddy Angel or to any other jerk who made his living ransacking tourist rooms.

  “Really, you didn’t have to come to dinner with me,” Faith said as he held open the passenger door of the Jeep.

  “I get hungry around this time just like normal folks.” He looked sideways at her and saw the telltale edge of her teeth against her lower lip. He had seen the Donovan women often enough to know that there were times when the company of men wasn’t appreciated. It put a real damper on girl talk.

  “Don’t worry. I won’t hang around. I’ll be at the bar, drinking sweet tea and eating shrimp and grits.”

  Slowly Walker opened the restaurant door, gave a fast glance around, and saw nothing immediately suspicious. Lots of smoke from the bar. Lots of noise. Stepping aside, he politely gestured Faith into the room.

  “How did you know La Cucina had a bar?” she asked, wrinkling her nose at the wave of smoke.

  “I called and asked. Do you see Mel?”

  Before Faith could answer, a slender brunette in navy-blue maternity clothes and medium heels rushed toward them.

  The woman seemed out of place in this southern setting. Even in pregnancy she had a tanned, outdoorsy look. Her dress was midcalf, the conservative South’s answer to women wearing pants. She was several inches shorter than Faith and wore a three-carat Burmese ruby as an engagement ring. Against the wide, beaten gold of the engagement band, the stone glowed on her finger like molten blood.

  Mel wrapped Faith in a big hug that was returned with enthusiasm. The silver-blue of Faith’s eyes gleamed with pleasure and a faint sheen of tears.

  “My God, it’s been years!” Mel said, smiling widely. Her accent was California rather than Georgia. She held Faith at arm’s length. “Let me look at you. You haven’t changed a bit. Still as slim and pretty as ever. Seattle must be full of blind men if none of them have snagged you.”

  “Can’t see for the rain,” Faith said wryly.

  Mel rolled her big, dark eyes like the actress she once had studied to be. “Well, that explains it.” She turned to Walker and held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Mel Montegeau, or I will be in a couple of days, anyway. And if you’re hoping to get a word in edgewise tonight, you’re out of luck. It’s been much too long since I’ve talked to Faith.”

  “A pleasure,” he said, shaking her hand gently. “Call me Walker. I’ve been around Faith and Honor long enough to know a country boy like me doesn’t have a chance once they get to talking. I’m fixin’ to sit at the bar until y’all are done talked out.”

  Faith heard the South rolling thick through Walker’s voice and wondered if he wanted Mel to think he was a Low Country working stiff. Perhaps his accent thickened with exposure to live oaks and magnolias.

  “You’re a family friend?” Mel asked.

  “I know the Donovans one and all,” Walker drawled. He smiled almost shyly and leaned on his cane. “I’m helping Faith run her little jewelry show at the expo, watching customers and such so that she can do the real work. Now, if you ladies will excuse me, I’ll be among the smokers.”

  “Nonsense,” Mel said. “We’ll tell the maitre d’ to set a third plate at the table.”

  “Thank you, ma’am, but it wouldn’t be right. Y’all would feel funny talking about growing babies and such, and listening to you would make me feel like my collar was too tight.”

  Laughing, Mel looked at Faith, silently asking her if she agreed that Walker should eat alone.

  “If you get bored watching Sports Center, give a holler,” Faith said to Walker.

  “Yes, ma’am, I’ll do that.”

  “Walker,” Faith said sweetly, “if you ‘ma’am’ either one of us one more time, I’m going to beat you over the head with your cane.”

  “Whatever you say. Sugar.”

  Mel snickered and watched while Walker made his way, limping, through the crowded room to the bar. “Is it permanent?”

  “Walker?” Faith asked, startled.

  “The limp.”

  “A recent accident.”

  “Good. That is one prime hunk of man. Hate to think of anything spoiling all that smooth and easy muscle.”

  “Down, girl. You’re married. And expecting.”

  “Doesn’t affect the vision.” Mel hooked her arm through Faith’s and headed for the small table. “Is Kyle as handsome as ever?”

  “Yes. The proud father of twins – boy and girl – and husband of a woman who can sometimes beat him in karate.”

  “You’re just saying that to make me cry. I had the worst crush on him when
I was a freshman.”

  “So did every girl who saw him. Unless they saw Lawe, Justin, or Archer first.”

  “Nobody is better-looking than Kyle.”

  “If you like blonds.”

  “What’s not to like?” Mel pulled in her chair and leaned across the table confidentially. “Or is it that soft-drawling, dark-haired southern boy at the bar who made you switch to brunettes?”

  Faith thought about explaining Walker – employee, not boyfriend. Then she thought of the endless follow-up questions. “I’m off men since Tony,” she said, taking the easy way out.

  “Tony?”

  “My ex-fiance.”

  “Whoa. It has been too long. I’ve been so wrapped up in the Montegeau family saga that I’ve let everything else go.”

  “No,” Faith countered quietly. “It’s my fault. Tony didn’t like it when I had friends he didn’t know. So I gradually stopped having friends. He probably would have resented my family, but he was hoping to do business with them.”

  “Possessive, you say?” Mel smiled at the hostess, who handed them menus.

  “Very.”

  “Glad you dumped him. I bet he wore tank tops that showed off his muscles.”

  “How did you know?”

  “In the South we call them wife-beater shirts.”

  Faith buried her face in the menu. Mel had made a joke, but it was too much like a good guess. Faith didn’t want anyone to know why she had ended her affair with Tony, because if anyone else knew, word would get back to her brothers. When that happened, there would be more trouble than a loser like Tony was worth.

  “Any recommendations?” she asked Mel tightly.

  “It’s all fantastic. And I could eat all of it. God, I’m never going to be a size eight again.”

  “Good for you. Men like women with some curves.”

  “Easy for you to say. You can eat anything you want.”

  “I could if I wanted my butt to drag on the floor,” Faith retorted. “Only my Stairmaster knows what I go through over an extra piece of pizza. Now, if those inches would only go on top, I’d eat pizza three times a day. With ice cream.”

  “You’re making me drool. Since I stopped throwing up, eating a pizza sundae is one of my secret dreams.”

 
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