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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.18
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.18

           Elizabeth Lowell
 
“Do you mean that the Montegeaus lost their Blessing Chest?” Faith asked.

  “‘Fraid so. Someone came into the house and shot Jeffs grandfather, Rich. The thief either stole the Blessing Chest or killed the only one who knew where it was hidden, that being Richmond Montegeau. Whatever. It hasn’t been seen since. Jeffs grandmother, Bess, went a little nuts after her husband was murdered, but not enough so she had to be locked in a closet or anything. A genteel nervous breakdown followed by a five-year slide into death. Antigua, who must have been about fourteen or fifteen at the time her father died-”

  “This is Jeffs aunt, the one who phases in and out like a ‘Star Trek’ character?” Faith cut in.

  Mel nodded. “Tiga might have seen the murder. No one knows and Tiga never talks about it, or if she does, nobody can figure out what she’s saying. But Tiga wasn’t ever the same after Rich, her father, died. She kept it together enough to finish raising her brother – that’s Daddy Montegeau now – while her mother was going nuts, but Tiga was a little weird even back then.”

  Faith blinked, sorted through the conversation, and grabbed a thread. “I take it Tiga didn’t improve with age?”

  “Depends on your definition of improvement. For all I know, the ghosts think she’s better than a pizza sundae. So when you come to Ruby Bayou, just treat her like a pet cat. If she wants to talk to you, listen and try not to look confused. If she doesn’t see you and talks to dead Montegeaus instead, I’ll give you a genealogy so you know who’s answering. Or what.” Mel paused, “Is a ghost a what or a who?”

  Faith gave up trying not to laugh out loud. “Ask them.”

  “I’ll leave that to Auntie Tiga. Where was I? No, no hints. I figure if I talk fast enough, you won’t have to kill me for stealing all your shrimp. Let’s see. The Blessing Chest,” she said triumphantly, looking away from the temptingly full plate across the table from her nearly empty one.

  Biting her lip against a laugh, Faith forked a shrimp and its attendant linguine onto her friend’s plate.

  “You’re a saint,” Mel said. “The calories don’t count if someone gives them to you, right? God, why does everything that’s bad for you taste so good?”

  “Shrimp is good for you.”

  “Minus the olive oil and pasta, sure.” She closed her eyes, savored every morsel of forbidden food, and whimpered. “No more. Even if I beg and drool like Boomer.”

  “I’m almost afraid to ask. Who’s Boomer?”

  “He’s a what. A big mixed hound that Jeff found hurt along the side of the road. We fixed him up and took him home. Our apartment in Hilton Head was too small once Boomer got well – that’s how he got his name, booming around the apartment – so we gave him to Tiga and Daddy. What’s a creaking southern mansion without a hound?”

  “Blessing Chest,” Faith said firmly, feeling the conversation sliding away from her again.

  “Oh. Right.” Mei took a drink of mineral water, pretended she was full, and went back to talking. “Every generation was supposed to add a special piece of ruby jewelry or a particularly fabulous loose ruby to the Blessing Chest. Kind of a tradition and a superstition at once. The generations that fed the chest rubies and other goodies got rich. The ones that took without giving back got poor.”

  Faith suspected that Mel’s wedding necklace would have ended up in the Blessing Chest in a previous generation.

  “Of course, Daddy Montegeau never got a chance to add to the Blessing Chest, because it was stolen. He blames the loss of the family heirloom for his money problems.”

  “What does Jeff think?”

  “That his father is a lousy judge of real estate. So Jeff runs the Hilton Head jewelry store and Daddy keeps trying to make a killing in real estate and Tiga runs Ruby Bayou after her own wacky fashion. A good cook, though. She can do scattered, smothered, and covered with the best of them.”

  “You lost me.”

  “Scattered, smothered, and covered?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Potatoes scattered with onions, smothered with cheese, and covered with gravy,” Mel said longingly. “It’s a style of southern breakfast. Heavy on sin and real light on fresh fruit.”

  “Have another bite of shrimp.”

  “If I close my eyes, the calories won’t count, right?”

  “Um,” was the kindest thing Faith could think of to say. As though she was feeding her niece, she tucked a shrimp between Mel’s eager lips.

  Mel chewed slowly, swallowed, sighed, and opened her eyes. “Next to Jeff, fresh shrimp is the best part of being in the South. How soon can you come to Ruby Bayou? The show ends tomorrow afternoon, doesn’t it?”

  “Yes, but I can’t promise anything. Especially for Walker.”

  “Then we’ll let the man speak for himself.”

  Mel stood up and walked over to the bar. Even six months pregnant – or perhaps because she was so gloriously pregnant – she moved with a feminine confidence that drew men’s eyes.

  She leaned dramatically on the bar next to Walker and fiddled with his jacket collar. “What’s a good-looking guy like you doing in a bar like this?”

  Walker’s eyes crinkled at the edges. “Waiting to get lucky?”

  “Consider yourself got.” She tugged at his collar.

  “You sure? I don’t want to get in the way of ladies’ night out.”

  “Positive. We’re ready to move on from labor-room horror stories to the all-time great fights in the NHL.”

  The smile spread from his eyes to his mouth. “Should I bring my own barstool?”

  “If you limp hard enough, our server will get the point.”

  “There you go.”

  Sure enough, the server beat them back to the table. The fact that he managed to cram a chair between the other two without upsetting Faith’s plate into her lap assured his tip.

  Any reluctance Walker might have felt about intruding vanished when he saw Faith. At the beginning of dinner, she had been as pale as bone china. Now her color had returned and laughter danced in her silver-blue eyes. She was finishing the last of her shrimp and twirling pasta around her fork with obvious enjoyment.

  Relieved, he settled into his chair. “You’re good for her,” he said quietly to Mel.

  “What do you mean?” Mel murmured.

  “The mugging shook her more than she wanted to admit.”

  “Mugging?” Mel’s shocked voice carried easily to the FBI agents seated nearby.

  “At lunch,” Walker said.

  “Today?” Mel asked, horrified.

  Faith shot him a nice-going-champ look.

  “Oops,” he said. “Guess Faith didn’t get around to telling you.”

  “That does it. You’re coming to Ruby Bayou tomorrow night, if not sooner.”

  Out of the corner of his eye, Walker saw the agents look up sharply. The thought of Uncle’s best-dressed agents crawling around Ruby Bayou at midnight made Walker grin like a gator.

  “I never argue with a beautiful lady,” he drawled. “We’ll be there.”

  17

  After the expo awards were handed out, dozens of customers and designers prowled the aisles of the exhibit hall, taking stock and keeping score. At least ten uniformed, obviously armed men circulated among the lookers. After the brazen robbery yesterday, the management was taking no chances. It had hired off-duty policemen and to hell with being discreet about showing weapons.

  Faith and Walker mingled with the crowds. Today she was wearing a sleek pants suit whose deep red echoed that of a prime Burmese ruby. Her killer heels had been replaced by simple, sinfully expensive black Italian shoes. They were even more comfortable than they were costly, which was all she cared about at the moment.

  Walker was dressed in his same dark sport coat, a different pale blue shirt, no tie, and dark pants, all of which were calculated to be as close to invisible as clothes got. The less people looked at him, the more he could watch what was going on without being obvious about it.

  His personal nomina
tion for “Most Ridiculous” entry in the expo was a piece of jewelry that looked like a dropped fried egg. A very expensive egg, to be sure, with fancy yellow diamonds as the yolk and colorless diamonds as the white, but still your basic model hen’s egg. Offhand he couldn’t think of a woman who would want to wear a half million dollars worth of breakfast on the front of her business suit. However, he was just a country boy. He didn’t know what moved women in Manhattan or Los Angeles.

  “Stop snickering!” Faith said to him without moving her lips.

  “Why? Whoever voted that pin Best in Show must have had a keen sense of the ridiculous.”

  “This isn’t a dog contest. The award is ‘Most Inspired Design,’ not ‘Best in Show’.” Leaning over the case, she read the judges’ card that accompanied the award. “The pin is a ‘droll postpostmodern statement of the everyday trivia that lies at the heart of even the most glamorous life’.”

  “So’s a pile of road apples.”

  She bit her lower lip, hard, and tried not to laugh out loud. That would only encourage him. But it felt very good to remember the real indignation on his face when the Montegeau necklace was awarded an Honorable Mention “for our talented western jeweler, Ms. Faith Donovan.” He had all but growled at the balding professorial type who had handed Faith her framed certificate with such fine condescension.

  “This particular design association,” she said mildly, “began on the East Coast. Their idea of important designs is firmly grounded in the academic.”

  “No professor could afford that fried egg.”

  A snicker escaped despite Faith’s teeth leaving marks on her lower lip. “That’s not the point. The winning design will be documented in every modern-jewelry design text for the next decade.”

  “Documented, huh? Just like it was really important.”

  “It is. If, after a year, the piece itself doesn’t sell to a museum or a private collector, the gems will be removed and reused in other pieces.”

  “I’ll look forward to that part of it.”

  “You’re a bad dog,” she said under her breath.

  “There you go. Want to scratch my belly?”

  She squeezed his arm and made a soft, shushing sound.

  “From a designer’s point of view, the interesting thing about the fried egg award is that the era of sandstone and stainless steel is pretty well gone.”

  “Back up. You lost me.”

  “The last decades of the twentieth century were full of jewelry designers who wanted their artistic vision to set the price of the piece, rather than the market value of the materials themselves. Like painters or sculptors. Oils and marble aren’t valuable in themselves; the value is in the creation. So the jewelry designers used common stones and base metals in their pieces instead of gold, platinum, and precious stones.”

  “A lot cheaper,” he agreed. “But the final price didn’t reflect that?”

  “Nope. It was a return to the Renaissance idea of jewelry, before we learned to facet, and therefore covet the beauty of, truly hard gems. Back then, the value of the jewelry was in the design, not solely in the worth of the gems. Then we learned faceting, and the role reversed. Gemstones became the heart of important jewelry, and design was secondary, at best. While the, um, ‘droll postpostmodern’ piece isn’t to my personal taste, at least it represents a fusion of materials and design as equal partners in determining the value of the finished piece of jewelry.”

  Walker tilted his head slightly to the side, studied the glittery piece again, and nodded. “Okay. If you look at it that way, it’s not bone-deep silly. But if you’re looking at jewelry that way, you should have the card next to your work, not that guy’s. All of your pieces are a fusion of gem value and intelligent, elegant design.”

  “I take back what I said about you being a bad dog. You’re a love. It’s nice to be appreciated.” She smiled, stood on tiptoe, and kissed him on the cheek above the beard as though he was Archer.

  But he wasn’t her brother. Walker’s heartbeat quickened. He could think of some other ways to appreciate her, but he doubted she wanted to hear about them and he damn well was certain he shouldn’t be thinking about them.

  “You’re worth appreciating,” he said casually. “So, what’s your interpretation of this?” He gestured to the next display, which held a small, jeweled sculpture that looked to him like a Chihuahua plugged into an electric socket. “Nope,” he said, covering her eyes. “No fair reading the card.”

  She was still laughing when a guard approached. “There you are, Ms. Donovan. A Mr. Anthony Kerrigan has been looking for you.”

  Walker felt Faith’s body stiffen. He removed his hand from her eyes. Her skin was pale as bone, the way it had been when she sat down to dinner last night. A shudder went through her that could have been fear. For an instant she leaned toward Walker as though seeking shelter. Then she straightened and turned to the guard.

  “Tell Mr. Kerrigan what he already knows,” she said in a clipped voice. “I have no desire to see him. Ever.”

  It was too late. Tony was shouldering through the crowd with the carelessness of a man who was used to being bigger and stronger than anyone else around.

  “Hiya, babe,” Tony said, reaching toward Faith with the obvious intention of grabbing her for a big kiss. “I had business in Savannah and saw your name in the papers. Lots of fancy jewelry. Bet you could use a little protection.”

  She sidestepped him in a move that took her farther away from Walker. She sensed that Walker, like her brothers, was protective of her. Unlike her brothers, Walker was five inches shorter and at least eighty pounds lighter than Tony. Worse, Walker was injured.

  And she had bitter experience with how Tony dealt with those who were weaker than he was.

  “Goodbye, Tony,” she said.

  “Now, don’t pout. You know I hate it when you pout.”

  “Do I know you?” Walker asked idly.

  “Don’t let it bother you,” Tony said, dismissing the other man without looking away from Faith. “This is between me and my fiance.”

  “I’m not your fiance,” Faith said.

  “Nothing has changed, baby. I love you and you love me.”

  Rage sizzled through Faith, burning away anxiety and fear.

  She wished she was big enough to pound Tony into paste. “You’re wrong. I don’t love you and you don’t know how to love. It’s over, Tony. Goodbye. Don’t bother me again.”

  Though Faith hadn’t raised her voice, heads began to turn. Tony’s voice carried well enough to be its own PA system.

  “Hey, hey,” Tony said, smiling despite the narrowing of his light blue eyes. He reached out as though to take her arm in his ham-sized hand. “You’ve had enough time to get over your mad. If you haven’t, it’s because you won’t talk to me, listen to my side. Now, this isn’t the best place to do it, but you’re not giving me any choice.”

  Faith didn’t want to be humiliated in front of a room full of fellow professionals. Tony’s grin said he knew that as well as she did.

  Walker hooked his cane over his own arm and reached out as though to shake Tony’s hand. Considering the result, Walker’s movement was remarkably subtle. Only the guard noticed and understood why Tony’s face lost color. The lumbering nose tackle sucked air through his teeth in reaction to sudden, blinding pain. The guard smiled slightly. Looked like the guy who was harassing the pretty jeweler had bitten off more than he could chew.

  With a few steps, Walker “encouraged” Tony to turn his back on Faith. “Hi there. My name is Owen Walker.” Smiling, pumping the other man’s big hand, Walker put more pressure on Tony’s thumb, bending it back and under until it almost touched the big man’s wrist. “Good to meet you. Faith is kinda busy right now, but I’d really like your autograph. I hear you used to be a big football hero. You can tell me all about it outside.”

  Tony’s mouth opened, but no sound came out.

  “Great,” Walker said genially. Against the cover of his b
ody, Walker switched hands without releasing Tony from the nearly paralytic pain of the “come-along” grip. To the people standing around, the big man appeared to be helping the smaller man with the cane walk to the door. “C’mon, pal. I’ll buy you a beer.”

  Faith watched Tony and Walker leave. She didn’t know how Walker had managed to hustle Tony out without a fuss, but the proof was in front of her eyes. He and Walker were going out side by side, with Tony leaning down as though to hear whatever the smiling, soft-voiced Walker was saying.

  Even when they were on the street outside the hotel, Walker maintained his grip on Tony’s hand. He turned and faced the much bigger man. To anyone watching, they still looked like two friends having a chat on the sidewalk.

  “Let me tell you how it’s going to be.” Walker’s voice was as gentle as his hold on Tony’s hand was agonizing. “Faith already knows what you are, so you’re not going to apologize to her for being a sorry asshole. You hearing me okay, boy?”

  Tony was sweating, but he managed a nod.

  “That’s real good,” Walker said. “Apparently you didn’t hear what Faith told you, so I’m going to go over it again, just to make certain you get it through your thick head. Faith is finished with you. Don’t call her. Don’t email her. Don’t write her. Don’t bump into her anywhere in the world. If you see her coming anywhere, anytime, haul your lard butt in the opposite direction. You hearing me?”

  Tony nodded. He could still hear, even if he couldn’t speak.

  “Just so you don’t make a mistake as stupid as you are big,” Walker continued easily, “you got the nice one with me. Yesterday Faith put down an Atlantic City mobster with one swipe. She would have ripped off his balls, but I stepped in. Blood makes me puke, you see? So if you’re thinking of catching her alone, think again. Her brothers have taught that lady some purely nasty tricks. They work best on big, slow, beefy types like you. Of course, if there was anything left after she was finished with you, I’d feel honor-bound to finish the job, and I purely hate yakking up my guts. Sure as sin, I’d take it out on you. You still with me?”

  “Let – go,” Tony managed hoarsely.

 
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