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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.17
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.17

           Elizabeth Lowell
slower 1  faster

  Faith threw back her head and laughed. She had forgotten just how much she enjoyed Mel. The realization reminded her of how much she had let slip away because of Tony. Looking back at her eagerness to please him was both frightening and sickening.

  Silently she repeated the mantra she had spoken as she lay on the floor of Tony’s apartment, her ears ringing from his casual blow. It’s over. Finished. Done. It never should have been. It’s over. Finished. Done.

  But the experience hadn’t been a total loss. She had learned an important lesson. She would never again make the mistake of giving a man that kind of control over her life.

  “So what’s this about the Montegeau family saga?” Faith asked, turning the conversation away from herself.

  “Ohmygod, the Montegeaus,” Mel said, leaning over the table confidentially. “It’s so southern.”

  “Seems reasonable. This is the South, after all. Are we talking Erskine Caldwell southern or Tennessee Williams southern?”

  “And the difference would be?”

  “Poor trash versus rich trash.”

  Before Mel could answer, their server came. The slender young man looked good in his tuxedo. He put down a saucer of olive oil, grated Parmesan cheese into it, and ground fresh pepper on top. Then he repeated his litany of specials, pasta, fish, and meat, and withdrew.

  Faith dipped in a bit of bread and made a humming sound of surprised approval. She was still occupied with the tastes and her conversation with her friend when the front door of the restaurant opened and another couple entered.

  The hostess started to turn them away, but then the man said something that must have changed her mind. She surveyed the dining room, then signaled the busboy and instructed him to set up a table. It was a tiny table. It had to be in order to fit into the space immediately adjacent to the table that had been reserved for Faith and Mel.

  Walker watched the whole transaction from the corner of his eyes. He had expected to see money change hands. It had. But it had been preceded by a leather folder holding a badge. The move had been smooth, discreet.

  He was certain the FBI had just joined them for dinner at La Cucina.

  16

  Faith laughed, then shook her head slightly when the server offered her more wine. “The Montegeau founding father was a pirate?” she said to Mel. “You’re kidding. That’s definitely not Tennessee Williams.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. You’d be amazed how much old money came from tainted wells.” Mel eyed the bread and olive oil hungrily, thought of her merciless scale at home, and took a sip of mineral water instead. “Anyway, Jacques ‘Black Jack’ Montegeau was a straight-out brigand. No special privateering license from a queen or king, no political overtones or undertones, just full-on rape and pillage. If he could run down your ship, you belonged to him. Mostly he took the valuables and killed the passengers, unless they were worth ransoming.”

  “Wow. Talk about a black sheep. I thought the Donovans were doing well with their Scots outlaws, witches, horse thieves, and men who shot first, last, and always.”

  “Sounds like the Montegeaus.” Mel spotted the salads coming toward them in the arms of their very graceful, very pretty male server. She leaned toward Faith and said quietly, “If I had that boy’s eyelashes, I’d burn mine.”

  Faith bit her lip against laughing out loud while the server, who indeed had improbably long eyelashes over artificially colored green contact lenses, positioned a salad plate in the precise center of each place setting. After a few expert grinds of the pepper shaker, he left them alone again.

  “You can buy those eyelashes at any beauty supply house,” Faith said, but she was careful to keep her voice down.

  “Oh, the disillusionment.” Mel pouted spectacularly. “Like finding out your scale counts calories that you just know shouldn’t really count.”

  “Tell me something cheerful. How many people did Black Jack Montegeau kill?”

  Mel waved her fork airily. “Thousands. Well, hundreds. Twenty or thirty for sure.”

  “Then they caught him and hung him high?”

  “Never caught him. He bribed the local authorities with a few chests of loot, got a sweeping pardon, and married a local beauty whose family needed money more than respectability. Her only dowry was a ruby brooch the size of a chicken.”

  “Poor thing.”

  Mel shrugged. “Save your sympathy. She made that old pirate’s life a living hell. He smoked on the back stoop with the servants just to get away from her.”

  “Any children?”

  “Two to speak of. A lot more, if legends hold true. The ones the family talks about were sons. They went to England to school, became ship’s captains, and took up dear old Dad’s career. Or was that the grandsons? Great-grandsons?” Mel shrugged. “Whatever. The tradition continued.”

  “Piracy?”

  “You got it. Only, the offspring were smart enough to get a license to steal. One of them was hanged anyway. Couldn’t keep his hands off a juicy ship no matter what flag it was flying. The other son married and had kids. Legend is that the daughter went to sea with her brothers, but no one will talk about her. Must have taken after the first Mrs. Montegeau, she of the chicken-sized ruby brooch.”

  Smiling, Faith let Mel’s conversation wash over her.

  “Somewhere about then, they got into the jewelry business Ruby Bayou came into the family,” Mel continued, eating neat bites without pausing, “only they didn’t call it Ruby Bayou until later. Family legend has it that the land was ransom for some rich planter. If it was, he got the last laugh.”

  “Why?”

  “This was just before the Civil War. Nobody sold much cotton for the next few years, but somehow the Montegeaus not only hung on, they managed to build a big mansion. The place came to be called Ruby Bayou because supposedly the mansion was financed by selling off some of the family jewels that had been hidden in a nearby bayou. Or were those the rubies stolen from the jewelry store?” Mel made a frustrated sound. “It’s hard to keep all these gory details straight. Anyway, the family jewels were hidden somewhere and then sold to build the house.”

  Faith thought of Walker and his uncomfortable means of carrying gems.

  “Stop snickering into your salad,” Mel said. “I wasn’t referring to that kind of family jewels.”

  “Too bad. I imagine some governments would have paid a lot to see the end of the Montegeau line.”

  “That was then. The Montegeaus went kind of respectable in the nineteenth century and mostly respectable in the twentieth. Jewelry, shrimping, farming.”

  “How do you define ‘mostly respectable’?”

  “Well, they still keep a loaded shotgun in the library – supposedly the same one that killed Jeffs grandfather – but they gradually switched from privateering to importing.”

  Faith’s fork paused over the last of her salad greens. She decided to let the shotgun go and pursue more recent topics. “Privateering to importing. That’s quite a jump.”

  “Not really. They specialized in jewelry and art goods from the Continent.”

  “Gotcha. The very things they used to steal.”

  Mel winced. “Don’t let Daddy Montegeau hear you say that. He’s real sensitive about the black sheep in the family. Every time Tiga – ”

  “Who?”

  “Antigua Montegeau, Jeffs maiden aunt. His father’s sister. You know – the obligatory nutcase.”

  Faith swallowed salad before she choked on it. “Excuse me?”

  “The batty older relative. Every family has to have at least one. In the South they’re considered local landmarks. The government should have a special historical register just for them. Same for the ghosts.”

  “I’m floundering.”

  “Welcome to the South. It took me months to sort the Montegeaus out, dead and alive.” Mel licked her fork clean. “If I reach for your wineglass, smack my fingers. Even though the doctor says a sip or two now and again won’t hurt the baby, I’m determined t
o do it right.”

  “It?”

  “Being a mother.”

  Faith watched the flicker of sadness on Mel’s pretty face and reached across the table to take her friend’s hand. Mel’s childhood had been miserable, thanks largely to a mother who couldn’t open her mouth without criticizing her daughter. Miraculously, Mel had turned out as a glowing mirror image of her caustic mother; from the day Faith met her, Mel had been a generous spirit, easy with her smiles and her compliments.

  “You’ll do very well,” Faith said, leaning forward to grip her friend’s hand for a moment. “You’ll teach your baby to laugh and enjoy life and be careful of other people’s feelings.”

  Mel sighed and smiled slightly. “Thanks. I worry about it. Being like her, I mean.”

  “Your mother could find fault with God. Tell me about your new family. They sound much more interesting.”

  “Oh, once they gave up robbery and mayhem, they turned out pretty normal, if you don’t count ghosts and the odd one locked in the attic.”

  “Ghosts in the attic?”

  “Yeah, but they only locked in the nutty live ones. And only when important company came.”

  Laughing, Faith shook her head. “I’ve missed you, Mel.”

  “Really? Is that why it took a jewelry expo to drag you to this side of the continent?”

  “Guilty as charged.”

  “I’d love to see the expo, but Daddy Montegeau has kept me hopping the whole time. He wouldn’t even let me take off enough time to meet you for lunch. Had a fit when I suggested it to Jeff. Why, even my future husband sided with his father. It really made me mad.”

  Faith hid her smile in a glass of wine. She suspected that the Montegeau men didn’t want Mel to see the ruby necklace before the wedding. In any case, it was just as well Mel hadn’t come to lunch. The food had been wonderful, but the mugging afterward had taken the shine off the day.

  “I married the last of the slave drivers,” Mel muttered while the server removed salad plates.

  “Really?”

  “What? Oh, no. I didn’t mean it that way. There might have been some Montegeau slaves before the Civil War, but I kind of doubt it. The family fortunes came and went like an express elevator, and slaves were really expensive to buy.”

  “An express elevator, huh?”

  “Rags to riches to rags to riches to rags to upper middle class,” Mel said. “Or it might have been riches, riches, rags, ri - ”

  “I get the point,” Faith cut in. “Every generation was pretty much its own thing. From the looks of your engagement ring, Jeff is on the upswing generation.”

  Mel hesitated. Something close to fear shadowed her beautiful brown eyes. Then she smiled with more determination than conviction. “Even at seventy-one, Daddy Montegeau keeps a firm grip on the reins. Jeff mostly takes orders.”

  “Must make for some lively family conversations. Sort of like a prince waiting for the aging king to step aside.”

  The understanding in Faith’s voice warmed Mel’s smile. “Jeff is nearly forty. He’s real tired of waiting. But Daddy Montegeau has vowed to make the Montegeaus wealthy again.”

  “Back to rape and pillage?” Faith suggested dryly.

  “Nope. Real estate.”

  “Ah, modern pirate stuff. Don’t walk the plank, just give me your life savings for this loooovely piece of waterfront property. Only you have to visit just at the lowest of the low tides, because otherwise you’ll have surf in your mouth.”

  Mel’s laughter was as rich as the chestnut brown of her hair. “Wicked child! Don’t say anything like that in front of Daddy. He doesn’t have a sense of humor, especially about real estate and money.”

  “Don’t worry. I won’t even be meeting your father-in-law.”

  “Oh, but you will. After the expo ends. We want you to stay at Ruby Bayou until the wedding. You’re coming to the wedding, right? Please say yes.” Mel’s smile threatened to slip. “When Jeff got his wildly romantic idea to get married on Valentine’s Day and at Ruby Bayou instead of Savannah, I had to change all my wedding plans. A lot of people aren’t going to be able to make it on such short notice, but I guess it doesn’t matter because the library can’t hold more than ten or twenty anyway.”

  Faith could see the anxiety and sadness in Mel’s eyes. She suspected her friend wasn’t happy with the changed wedding plans. “Of course I’ll come to the wedding,” Faith said, “but – ”

  “Oh, good,” Mel said eagerly. “And Owen Walker. We want him to stay at Ruby Bayou, too. Daddy Montegeau said it was the least we could do, because you’ve done us a real big favor. He didn’t say what it was. Is it a secret?”

  Dinner arrived, saving Faith from having to make an immediate answer to any of the questions. She knew that Walker would be more than willing to go to Ruby Bayou, because he wanted to talk to the Montegeaus about buying some family rubies. She wasn’t quite as pleased by the prospect. The thought of living in Walker’s pocket for another few days unnerved her.

  Up until now, she had found the idea of going without the male of the species to be quite wonderful. Walker was making a shambles of her vow.

  He actually seemed to like her. He even laughed at her jokes. And the flashes of heat she sometimes saw in those lapis eyes made her curious.

  Or something.

  “Your shrimp smells divine,” Mel said, tearing into her swordfish and polenta.

  “Trade bites?”

  “Sure thing. It really was Daddy’s idea, by the way, if that makes any difference.”

  Instantly Faith thought of the beautiful ruby necklace. “What was?” she asked cautiously.

  “Having you come and stay for a few days at Ruby Bayou. He knows how much I was looking forward to seeing you.” Mel grimaced. “Actually, Jeff and I had a row over the no-lunch bit. Daddy must have heard, because he suggested that you come out to Ruby Bayou and stay with us until after the wedding.”

  “I don’t want to get you in trouble with Jeff.”

  “If Daddy says do it, it gets done.” Hearing herself, Mel winced. “That makes him sound like a tyrant. He isn’t. Not really. He’s just, I don’t know, a bulldozer. He knows what’s right for the family and that’s that. He means well, and he’s a snuggly gruff old teddy bear with me.”

  “Sounds like The Donovan,” Faith said, referring to her own father.

  “Mmm. He still fighting with his sons?”

  “Only every other day.”

  “And then they make up, open some beer, and bond in front of an NFL game, right?”

  Laughing, Faith tore into her shrimp. “I forgot. You have brothers.”

  “Only two. Younger and bigger than I am. Too bad Mother and I couldn’t pop open a beer and bond over dishes.”

  Privately Faith doubted that Mel’s mother could have bonded with superglue.

  “Well, that’s old news,” Mel said. “Let me tell you about Tiga and the Montegeau family Blessing Chest. Much more interesting.”

  “Tiga,” Faith repeated. “That would be the dotty aunt?”

  “Dotty? She phases in and out of reality quicker than one of the old ‘Star Trek’ characters. Kind of sneaky, too. Every time I looked around she was there. Quiet as a cat and three times as curious. Jeff told me to ignore her. Everyone else pretty much did. Then I got used to her, like the wallpaper in the parlor. Oddest shade of green you ever saw.”

  Faith swallowed a laugh and took a sip of wine. “That leaves the Blessing Chest.”

  “For what?”

  “Explanation. As in yours to me.”

  “Ah. Gotcha.” Mel’s brown eyes gleamed with mischief. “It must have been fun, growing up with a sister. Sharing secrets and jokes and boyfriends.”

  “Not boyfriends. No way. Honor and I were smarter than that.” Faith smiled rather wistfully. “Yes, it was fun. And times change. My twin and I are still very close, but she’s a wife and mother now. Different worlds in many ways.” Faith shrugged as though it didn’t really
matter, as though she hadn’t gotten engaged to Tony because she felt left behind. That had been her biggest mistake, but she had learned from it. No man could make her feel good about herself. Only the person in the mirror could do that. “About that Blessing Chest?”

  Mel forked a shrimp from her friend’s plate. A long strand of linguini trailed after. She sucked it up with surprising neatness. Smiling behind her napkin, Faith decided she wouldn’t demand a bite of swordfish in return. Obviously Mel was one hungry woman.

  “This is where the ghosts come in.” Mel dabbed at her lips with her napkin, leaving a faint smudge of bronze-plum lipstick behind. The shade exactly matched her long fingernails. “By the time the first Montegeau paid off everyone who could have hanged him, he was down to seeds and stems, lootwise.”

  Faith blinked, hung on hard, and followed the thread of Mel’s meaning. It was a skill left over from their university freshman days when they had been assigned to each other as roommates.

  “At least, that’s what he told everyone,” Mel added. “It might even have been true. But one chunk of wealth remained. It was a solid silver casket, elaborately carved after the Spanish fashion. The casket was either four or eight inches wide and eight or sixteen inches long, depending on how hopeful you’re feeling.”

  “Either way, that’s a lot of silver.”

  “Hey, it should have been gold.”

  “It should?”

  “Sure.” Mel waved an empty fork. “What good is a legend about silver? Gold is the stuff of myths. You ever hear about a world-changing silver rush in History One-B?”

  The empty fork swooped down, speared another of Faith’s shrimp, and departed in the direction of Mel’s plate, trailing a banner of linguini. Shrimp and accompanying pasta disappeared neatly.

  “Be grateful it was silver,” Faith said. “If it was gold, one of the Montegeaus on the downward curve of prosperity would have hocked it by now.”

  “They still might if they could find it.” Mel eyed the handful of shrimp remaining on Faith’s plate and decided to keep her fork close to home. Friendship only stretched so far. Not to mention the waistband of maternity clothes.

 
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