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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.20
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.20

           Elizabeth Lowell
 
Faith gave Walker a quick glance. There was nothing gentle about him now. Even his beard couldn’t conceal the hard line of his mouth. “You were better off with your father.”

  “Wasn’t much choice when it came down to it. The night I stomped Steve into the mud, Ma bought Lot and me bus tickets and sent us off before he came to. Took me three weeks, but I tracked down Pa. He was working at a ragtag little airport on the Gulf. He taught me about engines. One of the flyboys taught me about airplanes and books. I took to it like fire to pine straw.”

  She looked again, drawn by the change in him. He loved flying. It was there in the easing of his drawn face, in the huskiness and pleasure vibrating in his voice, and in the gentle, remembering curve of his lips.

  “By the time I was nineteen, I was shuttling stuff in and out of Central America and the Caribbean,” Walker added. “It was the first real job I had.”

  “What kind of stuff?”

  “Supplies and mail and medicine, most of the time. Some missionary pamphlets and Bibles. The occasional rich eco-tourist. That sort of thing.” He gave her a sideways glance. “No drugs. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. I left that to my brother.” Walker’s smile was like his memories, bittersweet. “Lot had enough young-and-dumb for both of us.”

  Walker didn’t mention that he had also run guns for the U.S. government or its surrogates from time to time. It wasn’t something he talked about. The pay had been good. The numbered bank accounts fattened on schedule. That was all a ragged twenty-year-old who was supporting his father and younger brother could ask.

  A gust of wind moved over the marsh like an invisible comb, making grass bow and sway in rippling lines. Walker lowered the window and let the soft air run through his hair.

  Out on the water, a shrimper was corning in. Its working arms, the two long booms that held the nets, now were folded straight up like a butterfly’s wings. Drying nets added to the illusion of something winged at rest.

  “If we had time,” Walker said, “I’d take you down to Tybee Island to watch the shrimpers come in. They sail in under a bridge so low that they have to put down their trawling arms to get under the span. A pretty sight at sunset, with the pelicans lined up on the pilings like kids watching a parade.”

  “Really?”

  He smiled. “God’s truth. But it’s the dolphins that really put on a show. Somehow they always know when a boat is coming in to unload at the packing house. The dolphins come pouring in from the ocean and start leaping and rolling and playing along the wharf. They know that when the shrimp tanks are flushed, a lot of juicy tidbits will be washed right into their lazy, grinning mouths.”

  Faith laughed. “I’d like to see that.”

  He smiled at the sound of her laughter. It was like the air, soft and warm and alive with possibilities. “I’d like it, too.”

  She smiled at him in return and decided not to ask any more right now about his brother and childhood and death. “How much farther to Ruby Bayou?”

  “Just up around this corner.”

  The Jeep turned past another property line, rattled over a rickety wooden bridge that crossed a creek, and bumped onto an overgrown drive lined with oaks that had been tall before the first shot of the Civil War was fired. With fields stretching away on either side, the driveway wound for a mile between moss-laden oaks. On a low, windswept rise, a huge two-story white plantation house faced the sea to the east and a dark, narrow bayou on the south. To the west and north lay fields, scrubland, and gardens.

  Walker glanced at the fallow fields that were slowly, silently being reclaimed by native scrub. Beyond them, the Montegeau mansion rose high and white. It had double galleries supported by pillars around both stories of the house. The lower gallery was screened in. The upper had been left open.

  Though nothing looked dangerous, there was a definite sag along one side of the lower gallery. Like the roof, the screens needed repair. Gardens ran wild in a riot of wisteria and gardenia, azalea and magnolia, with climbing roses threaded through. Though still beautiful, both the grounds and the house needed the kind of maintenance only money could bring. A lot of money.

  Walker grunted. “Looks like Crying Girl still hasn’t led the Montegeaus to the Blessing Chest.”

  “Crying Girl?”

  “One of the Montegeau ghosts.”

  “Mel didn’t mention her.”

  “Not surprising. Like most things about the Montegeaus, it’s not a happy story.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Walker leaned back in the seat and turned toward Faith. “Murder, incest, adultery, extortion, madness,” he said. “You name it, the Montegeaus have it somewhere in their history. Crying Girl is just one of the legends.”

  “Go on.”

  “I’m not talking bedtime fairy tales here.”

  “That’s fine. I’m a big girl.”

  Walker could hardly argue that. He shrugged. “Seems like one of the Montegeaus took a fancy to his own daughter.”

  Faith grimaced.

  “Yeah,” Walker said. “Not pretty. Depending on which legend you believe, Crying Girl is either the child of that incest or the betrayed daughter herself. She walks the dark places at midnight, looking for her lost soul or the baby that was taken away from her at birth by her own mother and drowned in the marsh.”

  Faith let out a long breath. “Lovely.”

  Walker’s smile was as sardonic as her voice had been. “Welcome to Ruby Bayou, sugar. Welcome to hell.”

  19

  Ruby Bayou

  Jefferson Montegeau was worried, and nothing his father said was making him feel better.

  “Wait,” Jeff said, cutting off Davis Montegeau. “You said you were going to explain why the wedding had to be moved from town to here and rushed through to Valentine’s Day. Well, explain. Faith and her boyfriend will arrive any minute, and I damn well want to know what was so important that you felt you could ruin the beautiful wedding Mel wanted.”

  Davis Montegeau looked longingly at the nineteenth-century mahogany library table where a whiskey decanter waited. The Montegeaus had acquired many decanters in two or three centuries of drinking, but this one was special. This one was filled with Davis’s favorite bourbon.

  His fingertips tingled. He could almost feel the slight hesitation as crystal rubbed over crystal in the instant before the stopper came free. The cool liquid sound as whiskey splashed into more gleaming crystal. Then the hot bite as liquor burned down his throat and into his brain, a sweet red haze that veiled a blinding world.

  “Dad?”

  Sighing, Davis rubbed his face. He hadn’t shaved today.

  Bad form. When he was a boy, he had known the old man was on a drunk when he showed up with gray whiskers at the breakfast table. Davis patted his thinning thatch of white hair with fingers he couldn’t keep from trembling. His hair was a little mussed, but not bad. Like his clothes. No one could tell that he hadn’t bathed today, could they? Or that he had slept in the clothes he was still wearing?

  “Dad!”

  Fuck it, Davis thought. He needed that drink.

  Abruptly he stood up, went to the mahogany table, and yanked out the crystal stopper. The decanter clashed against the rim of the glass as he poured, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was the numbing burn of high-test whiskey. It hit his throat and then his brain like Lucifer’s own benediction.

  When Davis started to pour another, Jeffs hand clamped around his father’s wrist. “That’s enough.”

  Davis focused on the tall, blond son who had once been a towheaded toddler hardly able to navigate across the library’s thick rug. “Wha’ chu – ” He stopped and carefully untangled his tongue. “What are you talking about?” he asked with great precision.

  “Liquor. You’ve had enough.”

  “No such thing, boy. If I’m breathing, I haven’t had nearly enough. Leggo – let go of my wrist.”

  Jeff looked at his father’s bloodshot gray eyes. They glittered with more than booze. The
re was an animal kind of fear. Jeff had been uneasy about his father’s condition for weeks. Now that nagging premonition crystallized into certainty. It settled in his gut like a ragged ball of ice.

  “Talk to me, Dad. For once, treat me like an adult. Let me help with whatever is bothering you.”

  His father’s laughter was worse than his smile. “Sure thing, boy. Got a half million dollars, cash?”

  Jeffs clear gray eyes widened. “You’re joking.”

  “I’m fixin’ to die laughing.”

  “You’re not making sense.”

  Fiercely Davis rubbed his face. “I’m making too damned sense. I need another drink.”

  “No.”

  Davis made a grab for the elegant crystal bottle.

  Jeff picked up the decanter and threw it into the old stone fireplace. Crystal exploded against sooty brick. Amber whiskey darkened ash to black. The pungent smell of alcohol spread through the room like an echo of the explosion.

  With a hoarse shout, Davis lunged at his son. Jeff made no move to avoid the first blow. Then he took his father down to the faded, intricately patterned rug and pinned him there beneath the oak pegs that held the shotgun that had killed his grandfather.

  Rage sobered Davis with a temporary storm of adrenaline. “Goddamn you! Let me up!”

  “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

  “I need a drink, that’s what’s going on!”

  “Not a drop. Not until you tell me.”

  Davis stared at his son in disbelief. Jeff had always been a dutiful, obedient – if only marginally competent – son. “What’s got into you, boy?”

  “I’m nearly forty.” Though anger burned on Jeffs otherwise pale cheeks, the hands holding down his father were as gentle as possible. “I have a mate. In a few months I’ll have a child. Since mother died nine years ago, all you’ve done is drink and hatch one money-losing real estate scheme after another while I worked like a donkey to keep the jewelry business alive.”

  “Who got you all the jewelry, boy? You tell me that! Who bought all the baubles and brought them back to you to cut up and sell?”

  “You did. Then you took the money I got from talking sweet to faded grannies and fancy ladies and you blew it all on bad land deals. No more, Dad. It’s over. I have a wife and family to think of. The lawyer drew up papers that give me power of attorney. You’re going to sign them. I’ll be handling all the money from now on.”

  Davis stared at his son’s face. Clean bones, thick blond hair, eyes as clear as rain, handsome as a god. It was like looking back through time at himself. It made him want to laugh and cry and drink until he was blind. Laurie, Laurie, why did you have to die? Damn, but I’m tired of being old and alone.

  “You’re crazy,” Davis said finally. “Why would I sign those papers?”

  “Because until you do, you don’t get a drink.”

  “How you going to stop me?”

  “I already am.” Sickness and determination fought in Jeffs stomach as he waited for the brutal truth to sink in. “Listen to me, Dad. I’ll do whatever I have to for my wife and my future child. All these years I tried going along and getting along with whatever half-assed scheme you came up with.”

  Davis twisted, but he was no match for his son’s sheer strength.

  “I figured you would give it up finally,” Jeff continued relentlessly. “Even a drunken fool could see that everything you touched turned to shit. But you didn’t see it. No matter how much you lost, you always had another plan that would make us all rich. So you squeezed the jewelry business and the shrimp business and wrung them dry and blew all the money on useless property. It’s time to get off that pony. The ride is over.”

  Davis started to argue, but the sight of the tears running silently down his son’s face was more effective than a gag. Booze had kept his worst fears at bay, but now, suddenly, he saw them burn through, hot and bright as the southern sun. For an instant Davis saw with savage clarity what he had done.

  “I need a drink.”

  Neither man recognized the hoarse, trembling voice.

  Both knew a defeated man had spoken.

  Jeff reached into his suit coat and pulled out a sheaf of neatly folded papers. “Sign these.”

  Numbly Davis nodded. As though looking through the long end of a telescope, he watched himself sign on each line as Jeff pointed. When it was over, he took the stiff drink his son poured and finished it in one long, ecstatic shudder.

  Now he would have enough courage to tell Jeff just how badly things had gone wrong. Maybe his son could pull all the chestnuts out of the fire before nothing was left.

  Despite Walker’s bleak description of Ruby Bayou and the Montegeau legends, Faith was impressed with the landscaping. Even rundown and overgrown with weeds, the shabby formal gardens echoed with past glory. She could easily imagine a time when the local gentry sipped homemade lemonade and aged bourbon at the cool feet of oaks while crickets sang and the heady, sensual fragrance of gardenias and magnolias breathed through the soft summer evening like a lover’s sigh. “It must have been spectacular,” Faith said as she turned in a slow, full circle.

  “It was.” But not as spectacular as Faith herself, standing in a shaft of moonlight like a princess made of spun silver and impossible dreams.

  Walker was careful not to say anything about what was on his mind. Bad enough that he was thinking it. Even worse, he felt it to the soles of his feet.

  An unpruned rose grabbed low on Faith’s back, beneath her soft suede jacket.

  “Hold still or you’ll snag the lining.” He hoped she didn’t notice that his voice had thickened with plain, unvarnished desire. He slid his hands beneath the jacket hem and began to work the thorn free. “I used to sneak up that bayou in a skiff and watch all the fancy folks drink and dance beneath the colored lights. Laurie Montegeau knew how to throw a party.”

  Faith couldn’t answer. Though the intimacy wasn’t intentional, the feel of Walker’s fingers brushing against her hip stole her breath. His body heat seemed to burn through her jeans.

  “The women looked like clouds of butterflies whirling through the garden,” he continued huskily.

  And not one of them had been as beautiful to him as Faith Donovan was now, standing in her jeans and running shoes and butterfly-soft leather jacket, surrounded by moonlight and a ruined garden. But he didn’t say anything about that either.

  “It must – ” Her breath broke. Surely he hadn’t caressed her hip. “It must have been hard for you to sit out there hungry and watch – watch all the – ”

  “No,” Walker said, lightly stroking the swell of her hip for a third time before reluctantly freeing her. “It was just the way it was.” Knowing he was a fool and too hungry to care anymore, he turned her slowly until she was facing him. “Like you and me. Are you going to let me kiss you? Or are you going to keep me out in the dark, watching everything beautiful that I can’t touch?”

  “I’ve sworn off men.” But even as Faith spoke, her arms slid around him and she tilted her face up to his kiss.

  “According to my fourth-grade teacher, men is a plural,” Walker said. “There’s only one of me.”

  The last words were breathed over her lips. She shivered and leaned closer to his warmth. “Yes.”

  “Yes what?” His lips brushed like moonlight over her face.

  “Just yes.” She turned her head to follow his tantalizing, warm mouth. “Kiss me, Walker.”

  When his head dipped, she expected a quick, thrusting kiss and fast hands all over her. What she got was a slow, savoring kind of caress, as though he was absorbing every texture of her mouth. Absorbing her.

  She lost herself in the soft brush of lips over lips, the silk of his beard and the heat of his breath and the hard edge of his teeth in gentle, knee-loosening nips that circled the edge of her mouth. When he finally let her taste him, she made a low sound and arched up against him. He tasted like a Low Country night, dark and warm and alive with secr
ets. She couldn’t get enough of him.

  Walker felt the same about her. He told himself he would stop soon. Real soon. The next breath.

  Then he wondered how long he could hold his breath.

  She was burning in his hands, in his mouth, against his aroused body, trying to get inside his skin the same way he wanted to be inside hers. Her hungry little sounds went through him like electric shocks. No whiskey could be stronger, no sugar sweeter than her mouth, no fire hotter than the promise of her thighs pressing close and her whole body an arc of desire curving into him.

  He forced himself to lift his head and dragged in air. “We shouldn’t be doing this.”

  She took a broken breath. “Why?”

  The huskiness of her voice licked over him. His body clenched with a hunger so raw and deep it caught him by surprise. “I’m not ready for this.”

  “You sure feel ready,” she said without thinking. Then she thought of Tony’s anger when she had once suggested that he slow down and let her catch up. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you’re, um, too fast off the mark.”

  “Is that what you were implying?” His voice was deep and amused, because he was undoubtedly ready, willing, and fully able against her belly.

  And the Montegeau necklace was damned uncomfortable in a smuggler’s pouch that was suddenly too small.

  “No, I wasn’t implying anything,” she said quickly. “It’s just that you’re obviously, um, capable and I’m, um, slow.”

  For a moment Walker was too astonished to speak. She had damn near set fire to his shoes with a single kiss and she called herself…

  “Slow,” he said, not sure he had heard right for the blood pounding in his ears.

  She bit her lip and nodded. “Slow. But it’s okay. I know men and women are different and I – ” she took a quick breath “ – I’m okay with it. I enjoy anyway.” Some of the time, she admitted silently. Well, not much, not really. But it sure had been nice before Walker started talking. She had never been kissed like that, as though she was a rare treat to be touched and sampled in tiny little bites and slow tastings.

  “Different, huh?” Walker said. He looked into her beautiful, earnest eyes. “Am I’m getting the ripe smell of ol’ road apples here?”

 
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