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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.2
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.2

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  Of course, they all enjoyed the noise and laughter of family dinners at the Donovan condo, where every Donovan had a fulltime or part-time residence. Keeping track of Donovan International’s global enterprises meant that someone in the family was gone most of the time. At the moment, her twin brothers, Justin and Lawe, were in Africa, Hannah and Archer had just gotten back from a pearl auction in Tokyo, and Jake and Honor lived outside of Seattle.

  The fun of having most of the family under one roof might have had something to do with the fact that this was the third dinnertime “summit meeting” in a row.

  And here she was, still wearing old jeans and covered with fine, mud-brown grit when she should have been cleaned up and helping to fix dinner for seven. Ten if you counted the babies.

  She would get stuck with the dishes for sure.

  With a sigh, she yanked off her dust mask and goggles. Her short blond hair stuck up every which way. Running gritty fingers through it probably didn’t help, but the nearest comb was waiting for her in her suite at the condo. The nearest bath, too. Personally, she thought the tripoli streaks on her jeans, forearms, and hands added an interesting, finger-painted effect to her entire lack of ensemble, but she knew Kyle would tease her mercilessly about reviving the Seattle Grunge look.

  Well, tonight her siblings would just have to take her as she was, dusted by polishing grit and hollow-eyed from too many late nights at work. If she hadn’t gambled and begun casting the thirteen segments of the necklace without final approval of the sketch, she never would have made the deadline. But luckily the patriarch, Davis Montegeau, had approved the sketch without any changes.

  Thank God. Davis was an indulgent future father-in-law, but he had left things until the last second. If the future bride hadn’t been Faith’s best friend in college, she would have refused the commission despite the allure of working with such fine gems – and getting to keep the smallest one as her fee. If Davis hadn’t agreed to gold rather than platinum, she wouldn’t have been able to meet the deadline at all. Platinum was the most unyielding of all the metals used in jewelry. While she worked with platinum occasionally, because nothing had its icy shine, she much preferred the various colors of gold.

  Standing, Faith took off her leather apron. Like the long wooden workbench, it bore the scars of much use. The process of creating jewelry was as grubby as the result was elegant. That was something her ex-fiance, Tony, had never understood or wanted to understand. He was lazy by nature, so the idea of someone spending her life wearing goggles and hunched over tools that marked her hands as often as the workbench offended him. Especially when her parents were wealthy enough to carry her around on a silk pillow fringed with diamonds.

  Faith shoved aside the unhappy memories. Anthony Kerrigan was the worst mistake she had ever made. The important thing to remember was that Tony was right where he should be: in her past.

  Sooner or later, he would get the message. Then he would stop calling her and “accidentally” bumping into her. But until then…

  With a muttered word she reached for the phone and punched in a familiar number. Kyle answered on the second ring.

  “Sorry,” she said hurriedly. “I know I’m late. Do you want me just to lock up and come home?”

  “Alone? Not likely, sis. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

  “It’s not necessary. I could just – ”

  She was talking to herself. With a disgusted sound she hung up. She had fought having a Donovan International guard assigned to her shop, but she had lost. Part of her understood that it was a sensible precaution, if not for Tony then for the rash of muggings and burglaries that was plaguing Pioneer Square.

  But another, less sensible, part of her resented being dictated to by large, overbearing males. Even if they were her brothers instead of her bullying, ham-fisted ex-fiance.

  “No, don’t go there,” Faith told herself through her teeth. “You already know that you made a mistake. Beating yourself up about it won’t teach you anything new.”

  Sleet spattered and clung to the windows, sliding down in streaks of winter tears. Faith watched the random trails for a few moments and thought about what life would have been like if she had found a good man to love, like her twin sister Honor had. She wondered what it would be like to hold her own child during the day and be held by a man who loved her at night.

  “Don’t go there, either,” Faith said aloud, because the silence was overwhelming.

  Maybe she would get lucky someday. Maybe she wouldn’t. Either way, she would still be a good person who had a flair for jewelry design and a family who loved her. She had nothing to whine about and a lot to celebrate.

  As Faith locked up the workroom, she played with ideas for a piece of jewelry for her mother’s fortieth wedding anniversary. A present for The Donovan, her father, was a much bigger problem. She hoped her brothers had an idea.

  She hoped, but she didn’t expect much. Her brothers were, after all, men.

  Difficult, in a word.

  2

  St. Petersburg

  The river Neva was opaque white, the same color as the wind screaming sideways through the boulevards and narrow alleys. Though the room had a view overlooking a park with the required monument to Russian valor – and the trashed remnants of monuments to Soviet vision – there wasn’t much to see, only bundles of black clothes scurrying from shelter to shelter on the street. Vehicles weren’t so much parked as stuck for the duration of the storm.

  The room was a lush haven from the terrible white winter outside. Richly colored rugs that had once graced an Ottoman sultan’s palace covered the walnut floor. Pictures that had once hung in the offices of Jewish financiers brought a glow of grace and serenity to the walls. The desk itself was massive, a masterpiece of baroque carving said to have belonged to a czar’s cousin. Six cellular phones lay scattered along its polished surface.

  The man whose American passport stated that he was Ivan Ivanovitch lit a Cuban cigar to conceal the anger that was making his hands shake.

  Idiots. Shitheads. Dog turds. Do I not pay them twice what they are worth?

  But all he said aloud was, “Marat Borisovitch Tarasov is very unhappy with your bumbling.”

  The black-haired woman was sweating so heavily that her makeup bled down her face like muddy tears. “You know I would never cheat you or him. I took only what was ordered. I never saw this ruby pendant you speak of.”

  “The Heart of Midnight. As big as a baby’s fist. As red as the blood that will gush out of your lying throat when I slit it. Where is the necklace! If you tell me now, I will be merciful.” A lie, but perhaps a useful one. In any case, he didn’t care about the smaller rubies on the necklace, only the Heart of Midnight. “If you tell me later – and you will tell me – you will suffer.”

  “Truly, sir.” She was shaking, but it wasn’t with anger. Raw fear glazed her eyes. Hers would not be the first throat Tarasov’s pet assassin had slit, nor would it be the last. And worse, he was famous for torturing his victims first. “We were in the vault, yes, but I gave the same orders as always.”

  “There was no rummaging? Did no one open those center drawers?” Eyes as pale and opaque as stones noted her every twitch, the jerk of her pulse. “Did you watch each of your miserable thieves closely?”

  “Only once did it happen. Yuri opened the wrong drawer and he closed it again very quickly when I told him to. The jewels were tagged and numbered, part of a royal inventory.”

  “Yes, shithead, I know. So does Marat Borisovitch.” And so did Tarasov’s worst enemy, Dmitry Sergeyev Solokov, the rival for power who was trying to shove the stupid theft down Tarasov’s throat until he choked to death. Stealing was one thing, common enough not to make ripples. Stealing so that your enemies could hang you was quite another.

  If the Heart of Midnight wasn’t returned before the new wing of the Hermitage opened, Tarasov would hang. But first he would kill the man known as Ivan Ivanovitch Ivanov.

  “Se
nd Yuri to me,” Ivanovitch demanded.

  Yuri didn’t have the woman’s courage. After two minutes with Ivanovitch, the little thief was crying and begging and regretting the instant when greed had overcome fear.

  “I d-did not m-mean to,” Yuri stammered. “It – I – ”

  “Quiet!”

  Yuri took a choked breath and waited for Ivanovitch to speak. In all his dreams, Yuri had never imagined standing in such a powerful man’s presence.

  Now he dreamed only of leaving it.

  “You took the necklace.”

  Yuri whimpered.

  “Where is it now? Speak truthfully or you die.”

  “With the r-rest. I could not k-keep it.” A stone filled with Hood and surrounded by pearls. It would bring death. He knew it. “I w-was afraid of it.”

  Ivanovitch wished he didn’t believe the little worm, but he did. The man hadn’t the brains to lie. “Which shipment?”

  “To America, s-sir. I h-hid it with the rest.”

  “When?” Ivanovitch asked sharply.

  Yuri swallowed but still couldn’t speak. Instead, he looked at his second cousin, who had told him how easy it was to get rich working for Marat Borisovitch Tarasov.

  The black-haired woman, who had stood mute and shaking through the entire interview, said in a hoarse voice, “Weeks ago, sir, as you ordered.”

  Ivanovitch didn’t have to look at a calendar to know that his own life span could be measured in weeks unless he recovered the Heart of Midnight. Tarasov wasn’t known for his patience.

  Neither was Ivanovitch. “Wait in my outer office.”

  As soon as the sweating thieves left, he picked up one of the many cellular phones on his desk. It took several tries to reach America, but he managed despite hands that wanted to smash things rather than depress dainty buttons.

  When the phone was answered by a familiar voice, Ivanovitch spoke without prelude. His English wasn’t perfect, but it certainly got his point across. “What did you do with it?”

  “With what?”

  “The big ruby, shithead. Do not bother to deny. I know.”

  Silence, then something close to a groan. “It wasn’t on the inventory, so I sent it to a different place on consignment. I would have split the money with you like always, you know that.”

  Ivanovitch smiled at the fear and despair in the other person’s voice. He found people to be most cooperative when they were all but pissing with fright. “Where did you send it?”

  “Seattle, Washington.”

  “Where, exactly?”

  “A….” There was the sound of swallowing, then, “A shop called Timeless Dreams.”

  “Who has it now?”

  Another pause, another swallow. “Faith Donovan.”

  Dragging deadweight behind them, two men walked out onto the Neva’s thick ice. The trail they left looked black until one of the men stumbled and a flashlight jerked. Fresh blood gleamed the color of rubies against the ice. Turning off the flashlights, they hacked out a shallow trough with ice axes, kicked their burdens into it, and started back toward the cold lights of St. Petersburg.

  Yuri and his second cousin stayed behind, but they didn’t care. They didn’t even feel the cold wind or the ice-tipped snow that became their shroud.

  In many ways, they had been fortunate. Ivanovitch had been too desperate to get to Seattle to give his bumbling employees the full benefit of his expertise with a knife. They had died quickly and almost painlessly.

  Faith Donovan, whoever she was, would not be so fortunate.

  3

  Seattle

  “Can somebody get that? Summer wants to help me chop dill,” Archer yelled from the kitchen, above the ringing of the phone. Trying to get ready for yet another dinnertime summit meeting on his parents’ anniversary party was driving him nuts. Nobody was here to help cook. Lianne was up to her ears in taking care of her twins, Jake and Honor were napping after the dawn salmon expedition which had supplied tonight’s dinner, Kyle and Faith were on their way to the condo, Hannah was still at the Pearl Exchange, and if his niece Summer got any more helpful, he was going to look for some duct tape.

  In the condo’s living room, a hungry Walker winced at the idea of Summer helping Archer chop fresh dill. She had just recently graduated to semitoddlerhood, and Archer’s preferred kitchen knife was nearly as big as she was. In fact, Summer was why Walker had left his cane at the apartment; he just knew she would make a grab for it.

  The phone rang again.

  “Walker?” Archer yelled. “Pick it up, would you? It’s the private number.”

  “Yeah, I’ll get it.”

  Reluctantly Walker looked away from the living room wall that was hung with the matriarch Susa Donovan’s compelling landscapes. Limping slightly, he went in search of the phone. After another ring, he found one of the wireless handsets stuck in a bookcase. He punched in the talk button. “Donovan residence.”

  “Faith Donovan, please.” The voice was a woman’s and clipped to the point of being abrupt.

  “She isn’t here yet. Do you want to leave a message?”

  “When do you expect her?”

  “Any time,” Walker drawled, annoyed by the woman’s curt manner.

  “I’ll call back.”

  “You do that little thing,” he said, but the line was already dead.

  With a shrug, he shut off the unit and went to the kitchen. The cheery yellow decor offset the gloom outside. A thick kind of rain ran and sparkled darkly down the windows that gave a view of Elliot Bay and part of Seattle’s light-shot skyline. Leaning against the chopping table in the center of the kitchen, he watched his boss.

  “Who was it?” Archer asked.

  “Didn’t say.”

  The big knife hesitated over sprigs of fresh dill and cilantro. Summer clutched her uncle’s knees and tried to reach the big knife. When she fell about a yard short, she squealed impatiently. Archer ignored her.

  “Man?” he asked Walker. Archer’s tone was the same one he would have used with his siblings.

  “Woman.”

  Archer grunted and went back to work. The blade bit through the tender sprigs with speed and precision. A small mound of feathery minced greens grew on the long chopping table. “You sure?”

  “Yeah. Why?”

  “Tony has been bothering Faith. We had to change our unlisted number.”

  “Someone should take that ol’ boy out to the woodshed and teach him some manners.” Though Walker’s voice was soft, his eyes were inky blue stones.

  “We’d love to, thanks,” Archer said dryly, “but we promised Honor we would let Faith take care of it.”

  “You promised Honor?” Walker asked. “Am I missing something, boss?”

  Summer began squalling in earnest. She wanted that pretty flashing knife.

  “Twins,” Archer said laconically, ignoring the little storm breaking around his knees. “They watch out for each other. Honor said Faith is really upset that she ever got engaged to a loser like Tony, and having us beat the crap out of him would just make her feel worse.”

  “Women. Go figure.”

  Archer gave a crack of laughter. “I don’t have to anymore. I found mine.”

  Summer screamed.

  “Lordy,” Walker said, raising his voice and looking at the redheaded little girl in disbelief. “She’s got a voice like a siren on steroids.”

  “Just like her aunt.”

  “Lianne?” Walker asked, startled, thinking of Kyle’s small, exquisite wife. “That little darling?”

  “No. Faith. She has a scream that would bend sheet metal.”

  “Do tell.” Walker smiled faintly. “Wouldn’t have figured it. Slender, delicate lady like her.”

  “Delicate lady? Faith? My little sister?” Archer was all but shouting to be heard over his niece.

  Laying aside the knife, he picked up Summer, lifted her little rugby shirt, and tickled her with his short beard while making rude noises on her stomach.
Screaming turned into giggles. Forgetting about the knife, she made a dive for her uncle’s black hair.

  “Blond, misty blue eyes, slender as a sapling, sad underneath her smile,” Walker said calmly. “Your little sister Faith. Delicate.”

  “Um,” was all Archer said as he peeled strong, tiny fingers from his hair. He stared down into his niece’s eyes, so like his own, and wondered if he and Hannah would be lucky enough to have their own children. “Hard for me to think of the scourge of the Donovan brothers’ childhood as delicate.”

  “Scourge, huh? Bet y’all were unfailingly kind and gentle to her.”

  Archer gave him a sideways look from amused green-gray eyes. “You’d lose.”

  Walker laughed and thought of his own brother. Before Lot died, the two of them had pretty much raised hell around the globe. Or rather, Lot had raised hell and Walker had tried to keep both of them out of trouble. Along the way, Walker had chewed on Lot more than once, hoping to talk – or knock some sense into him.

  Win some. Lose some.

  Lot had lost big, thanks to his older brother.

  None of Walker’s grim thoughts showed on his face. He was sure of it, because Summer reached toward him with the assurance of a child who had never met an adult who didn’t love her.

  “Here,” Archer said, picking up Summer. “Take her before she screams again.”

  “Uh-uh. Not me. I told you before, I don’t know anything about kids.” Nor did Walker want to. Kids meant being responsible for another life. No way. Never again. He had barely survived his brother’s death. “She’s already bored with the fuzzy fake kitty I brought her and wants that damned lethal knife you’re using.”

  “Your point?” Archer handed over his niece, adjusted Walker’s grip on her, and went back to preparing dinner.

  “I’ve got a bum leg.”

  “You’re making me cry.”

  “Uh, Archer, I really don’t – ” Walker began.

  Archer kept talking. Walker’s reluctance to handle kids wasn’t unusual in a bachelor, but he would have to get over it if he was going to be around the Donovans. Since Walker was becoming a valued friend of Archer’s as well as an employee, it followed that Walker was going to spend a lot of time with Donovans of all ages.

 
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