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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.21
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.21

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “What? Oh, Tony. Well, he’s a man.”

  “I’ll take your word for it.”

  “And I’m a woman – ”

  “Amen.”

  “ – so I know that I have to make allowances for different sexual drives, that’s all.”

  He lowered his forehead until it was resting against hers. Then he breathed softly against her lips, “Bullshit.”

  She snickered. “But it’s true.”

  “Sugar, ain’t nothin’ true all the time and ain’t nothin’ always a lie. There are some times you couldn’t get a man hot with a blowtorch and vice versa. Trust me, tonight wasn’t one of those times.”

  “Sugar, huh?”

  “Sure enough. If you were any sweeter, I’d just have to slide you out of those clothes and lick you all over.”

  The lazy intensity of Walker’s voice sent ripples of heat through Faith. The thought of that kind of love play stopped her breath.

  The combination of curiosity and desire was clear on her face, so clear that for the space of two slamming heartbeats, Walker thought he was going to do just that – strip her naked and lick her until she melted in his mouth.

  “You better hope we don’t have adjoining rooms,” he said, his voice almost hoarse.

  “Why?”

  “Because I’m supposed to be too smart to seduce my boss’s baby sister,” he said bluntly.

  Her eyes narrowed. “Yeah? What if she seduces you, just sneaks in your bed and starts – ” Her voice broke at what she was thinking, Walker naked and herself all over him like a warm rain. The idea had never appealed to her before. With him, it was different. She didn’t know why. She just knew it was. Like the heat shimmering hot and sweet beneath her skin. Different.

  Walker told himself he wouldn’t ask Faith to finish her sentence. It wouldn’t be smart. Like standing so close to her that her breasts brushed against him with every breath she took. And she was breathing fast.

  “Starts what?” he asked before he could stop himself.

  “Licking you all over,” she whispered.

  He opened his mouth. Nothing came out but a soft, rough, hungry sound. His arms tightened around her until neither one of them could breathe. “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”

  But even as he spoke, he was slanting his mouth over hers.

  Suddenly a pale blur moved at the corner of his eye, white cloth fluttering where there was no breeze.

  Faith saw it at the same instant. “What – ”

  His hand covered her mouth. He shook his head, silently telling her to be quiet. She nodded. He lowered his hand and they turned their heads toward the bit of motion.

  At first they saw only moonlight and darkness, heard only silence. Then something moved at the end of the garden, where roses ran in a tangle toward the bayou. White flickered like cold flame before it was snuffed out by the weight of night.

  Breath held, Walker and Faith waited.

  Moonlight, darkness, and then the low, keening wail of a girl buried in grief like moonlight smothered by night.

  Cold prickled over Faith. She started to speak. She couldn’t. Her mouth was too dry, her throat too tight with a sorrow that wasn’t her own. Even after she swallowed, all that came out was a whisper.

  Walker understood. “Crying Girl,” he explained softly. “She walks Ruby Bayou. She’s real early tonight. Usually it’s midnight when she roams.”

  “That was a ghost?”

  “You don’t believe in haints?”

  “Haints?”

  “Spirits. Ghosts.”

  “Er, no, not really.”

  “I usually don’t, either. Crying Girl is different. I make allowances for her. I was seven when I saw her for the first time. My first night alone in the bayou, too.”

  “You were seven?”

  He nodded.

  “My God,” she said, trying to imagine what it must have been like for a young child alone in the dark with that un earthly wailing rising like black mist through the silence. “What did you do?”

  “Wet my pants.” He smiled slightly, remembering. “But I got used to her. Came to think of her almost like company. Hardly ever saw her after Lot started swamp-crawling with me. He was too noisy. Crying Girl likes her solitude.”

  Cold still prickled down Faith’s arms and spine. Warily she peered out toward the edge of the garden. No pale flash of white. No feeling of someone or something hovering just at the edge of awareness.

  “Well, I’m happy to give Crying Girl all the solitude she wants,” Faith said briskly.

  Walker took her cool fingers and lifted them to his lips. After a brushing kiss, he put her palms against his neck, warming them. Then he thought of some other things that would warm both of them to flash point. Slowly he pulled her soft hands away from his skin, kissed her knuckles, and released her.

  “Come on,” he said. “Folks in the house will be wondering where we are.”

  “I don’t think they saw us drive up.”

  He didn’t think so either, but he knew if he didn’t get her out of the garden real quick, they would find out if those overgrown weeds had stickers that poked through clothes.

  The wind shifted in a long sigh, as though the marsh itself was breathing slow and deep. A moment later a deep, belling cry came from the house. It was the call of a hound that has just caught a scent.

  “Boomer,” Faith said. “Mel’s dog.”

  “He sure is.”

  “No, that’s his name.”

  “Good nose on that boy,” Walker said, judging their distance from the house. The dog must have caught their scent the instant the wind shifted. “Helluva doorbell. I’ll get the luggage.”

  “I’ll help.”

  By the time they had unloaded their bags, someone in the house had called off the hound. As Walker and Faith climbed the front steps, a light came on in the hallway. Then the porch light came on. Or rather, the porch lights. There were strings of Christmas lights wound on the tall Doric columns. The columns supported porches that wrapped around both stories of the house. The once colorful lights had been all but bleached out by the relentless southern sun. Most of the bulbs had burned out. None had been replaced.

  Walker had already noted the weeds growing between the bricks of the driveway. The walkway to the house couldn’t decide if it was stone, gravel, or more weeds. The stately columns loomed pale and straight in the moonlight. Paint peeled from them. The porch wasn’t dangerously rotten, but it needed work real soon. Privately he thought that the Montegeaus would do better to sell the rubies in Mel’s wedding necklace and put some money into the old mansion before it crumbled under the weight of neglect and time.

  “It’s as sad as Crying Girl,” Faith murmured.

  “It won’t be the first old house to rot back into the land.” But Walker’s voice was a lot softer than his words. Setting down his luggage, he picked a brittle flake of paint off a column and remembered twenty-five years ago, when the Montegeau house was a magical white palace shimmering with light and music and wealth.

  “You feel it, too,” she said.

  It wasn’t a question, so he didn’t answer. He opened his fingers and let the bit of old paint drift down to the porch where other flakes lay like dandruff circling the pillar.

  The ten-foot doors with their intricately designed leaded glass panels seemed to shudder. Finally one door came open with a reluctant squeal of hinges. Light shifted and changed over the glass before spilling out onto the porch. Faith’s hair burned bright gold and her eyes shone gray.

  The woman who had opened the door took one look at Faith, said a choked word, and fainted.

  20

  Walker kicked aside the luggage and caught the woman before she hit the floor. Like a bayou heron, she was long-limbed and weighed very little. Though she was wearing a midcalf dress of shiny, pale cotton, she smelled oddly of marsh and crab pots as well as baby powder and some innocent floral fragrance. Her hair was a mixture of gray and blond. It l
ooked as though she cut it blindfolded, with a dull pocket knife.

  “Is she all right?” Faith asked anxiously.

  “She’s breathing. Her pulse is okay.” Walker shifted her into carrying position in his arms. “Looks like just an old-fashioned genteel fainting spell.”

  Ignoring the luggage, Faith held the door open so that Walker could carry the woman inside. He moved so easily that Faith wondered how he managed it with his hurt leg. Then she wondered if he was being stoic for her benefit. “Should you be carrying her?”

  “Sure, why not?”

  “Your leg.”

  “It’s just stiff, not really hurt.”

  “Did you understand what she said before she fainted?” Faith asked.

  “Ruby.”

  “Ruby?” She followed Walker in and shut the door behind. The hinges squealed again, making her wince. Surely someone in the house had oil or silicone spray. Even soap would work. “Do you suppose she knows about the necklace?”

  Walker shrugged despite his burden. With a twist of his body, he shouldered open the massive door that led to the parlor just off the entry hall. Here, in lemon-scented splendor, properly dressed visitors once had been entertained. Now the smell of must, dust, and curtains brittle from too much sun filled the room.

  “See if you can find a light switch,” he said.

  Faith fumbled around for a few moments before she found a set of switches. When she hit the right one, an extraordinary crystal chandelier scattered rainbows through years of dust. Another switch set off a Tiffany lamp, which sent spears of colored light out from a dark corner of the room. Tarnished silver bowls of potpourri sat in the middle of each end table on either side of the elaborate, faded velvet couch that was styled after the court of Louis XIV.

  Walker laid the woman on the uneven cushions and propped her feet on the high arm.

  Mel’s voice came from the back of the house. “Tiga? What was Boomer carrying on about? Boomer, quit shoving. Stay! Was that Faith?”

  “We’re here,” Faith called out. “Tiga-”

  “Hang on,” Mel interrupted. “Let me untangle myself from the hound.”

  Mel grabbed a double handful of Boomer’s warm, loose scruff and hauled back. The hound’s nose had been wedged in the barely open door leading from the kitchen into the dining room. He looked up at Mel as though asking what all the tugging was about.

  “Jeff, Daddy, are you in there?” she yelled in the direction of the library, which was opposite the parlor but toward the kitchen end of the house. “Tiga answered the door!”

  Boomer wagged his yard-long whip of a tail against Mel’s legs and gave her a big wet swipe across the mouth with his tongue.

  “Bleh! Dog kisses,” she said, but she was laughing. “Jeff,” she yelled, “we’ve got company, Boomer wants to make friends with them, and I don’t know if they’re dog people.”

  “Let ‘er rip,” Walker called back. “Tiga just fainted. We’re in the parlor.”

  “Oh, no!” Mel cried. “Jeff, I need you!”

  She yanked the kitchen door fully open, Boomer took off, and the library door swung wide at the same time. Looking disheveled and hunted, Jeff ran out of the library. Dog and man collided, skidded, windmilled.

  Jeff caught himself and the hound with the ease of long practice. “Settle down, you big mutt.”

  Boomer woofed softly and licked Jeff wherever he could reach him. Jeff strengthened his grip on the dog’s collar and thumped his barrel amiably. He and the hound strode toward the front of the house.

  “Didn’t you tell them to come in the back way?” Jeff asked as Mel hurried to catch up with him. “I don’t even know if the lights still work in front.”

  “I forgot to tell them. Tiga fainted.” Mel hurried past her husband and the dog. “They’re in the parlor.”

  Jeff cursed under his breath. “Leave it to Tiga to put on a show for company. Heel, Boomer.”

  The dog wagged his tail and leaned harder into his collar.

  “You’ve forgotten everything we taught you,” Jeff complained to the hound.

  “That would have taken all of five seconds,” Mel said over her shoulder.

  “Slow down, darling. You might slip. Tiga’s all right. You know what she’s like.”

  “That’s why I’m worried about our guests.”

  After his chat with Daddy, so was Jeff, but he didn’t say anything. He was still reeling between disbelief and fear. He felt like a chicken thrown into an alligator pond. Until he figured a way to get out of it, he didn’t have energy for frills like strategy. Survival was all that mattered.

  As Mel hurried into the parlor, Tiga moaned and opened her eyes. She saw a dark beard, a hard-edged mouth, and deep blue eyes that were watching her intently.

  “Are you a pirate?” she asked in a little-girl voice.

  “No.” He smiled gently. “I’m just an ordinary Low Country boy, Miss Montegeau. How are you feeling?”

  “Quite well, thank you. And you?”

  “Fine. Do you remember fainting?”

  “Did I faint?” She let out a long breath. When she spoke again, her voice was that of an adult. “Oh, dear. I thought it was one of The Dreams.”

  Walker raised his eyebrows at the capital letters in her voice. “The dreams?” he asked politely.

  “Tiga, don’t you dare,” Mel said quickly. “You promised you wouldn’t, uh, dream when we had company.”

  “Did I? What was I thinking of? I don’t choose the time to dream, child. It chooses me.”

  Mel turned and looked over her shoulder. The eager Boomer had just towed Jeff into the ornate, faded parlor. The dog’s nails scrabbled on the hardwood floor and then fell silent as soon as they bit into the beautiful old carpet.

  “Hi, I’m Jeff Montegeau, but things will sort out faster if you meet Boomer first,” he added.

  Faith looked up and saw a man who could have modeled for any upscale men’s fashion magazine, but it would have taken a woman to really appreciate his lithe build and beautifully sculpted face. Gray eyes. Blond hair. A smile that made you believe he meant it. A voice as supple and beguiling as a cello. She gave Mel a look that said, Nice going, roomie, and then turned back to Jeff Montegeau.

  “I’m Faith,” she said, smiling at him. “That hundred-pound wonder is Boomer, I take it?”

  Hearing his name, Boomer lunged forward, tail thumping against everything within range.

  Just as the dog wrenched loose from Jeffs grip, Walker reached out and snagged the big hound’s collar.

  “Easy, boy,” Walker said, bracing himself. He jerked once on the collar. Hard. “Sit.”

  The dog’s butt hit the floor and he panted happily up at Walker.

  “Good dog,” Walker murmured, running his hands appreciatively over the hound’s short, smooth coat. “You’re a handsome feller, aren’t you? Long, strong legs for swamp running. Deep chest for stamina. Short fur to make it easy to find ticks, widely spaced eyes, enough forehead for the brains you never use.” As he talked, he squatted on his heels next to Boomer and scratched the hound’s long, silky black ears.

  Boomer’s eyes glazed with adoration.

  Walker glanced up at Jeff, who was almost as pale as his aunt Tiga. Nervous, too. “I’m Walker. What is he – black-and-tan, redbone, bluetick?”

  “Yes,” Jeff said dryly.

  Walker smiled. “One hundred percent hound. Two hundred percent knothead.”

  Boomer’s tail slapped the rug in happy agreement.

  “How do you feel about dogs?” Walker asked Faith.

  “Envious of everyone who has the time to take proper care of one.” She walked forward and savored the soft whuffing sounds as the loose-lipped hound sniffed her hand. When he began to lick intently, she laughed and petted him.

  “I wouldn’t get up just yet, ma’am,” Walker said, sensing movement behind him.

  Tiga ignored him. She sat up and stared at Faith. “Ruby.”

  Mel rolled her eyes at Jef
f, who sighed and tried to deflect his aunt before she got off into one of her loopy, semi-rhyming monologues.

  “Aunt Tiga, this is Faith Donovan,” he said. “No one by the name of Ruby lives here anymore.”

  Tiga gave her nephew a pitying look. “There are none so blind as those who won’t see.”

  “The original Ruby died more than two hundred years ago,” Jeff said patiently. “Ruby wasn’t her real name. It was just a pet name her father gave her.”

  Tiga shuddered. “She hated him. It was a different Ruby, anyway. She went away so long ago, far away, goodbye, I never got to know you. I’m a child, too, you see.” With a heartbreaking smile, Tiga turned to Faith. “I’m glad you came home to me, Ruby. I was so angry when Mama took you away. I looked for you a long, long… so long, goodbye, hello, now I’ll know and you never will.”

  Her laugh was gentle, musical, and gave Faith goose bumps even as tears burned against her eyelids. Tiga was fascinating, eerie, and frightening by turns. Her eyes were twilight gray, haunted by something unspeakably sad, unspeakably terrible.

  Faith wanted to believe it was simple madness. “Tiga,” Davis said from the door of the library. “Are you being silly again?”

  Tiga. jumped as though slapped. “Papa?” Pain flickered across Davis’s lined face. “Papa died, Tiga. I’m his son. Your brother.”

  “Oh.” She sighed. Blinking as though coming into light after long darkness, she turned to Faith again. “Have we met?”

  “I’m Faith Donovan,” she said gently. “I’m Antigua. People used to call me Miss Montegeau, but now everyone just calls me Tiga. May I call you Faith?”

  “Please do.”

  Tiga nodded and stood with the agility of a woman half her age. “Dinner at eight.” Then she walked out of the room as though no one else was there.

  When Davis heard pots and pans clash toward the back of the house, he let out a sigh of relief. “Welcome to Ruby Bayou, Ms. Donovan, Mr. Walker. Please excuse my sister. She means no rudeness. She isn’t entirely… here. This hasn’t been one of her better weeks.”

  Davis was an older version of Jeff, more puffy and more hunted. His eyes were the same fog gray as his son’s, but the whites were a road map of red blood vessels. His white hair was just beginning to thin on top. His skin was pale except for a flush that could have been embarrassment, fever, or booze. “No problem,” Faith said, forcing herself to smile despite the emotions still ripping at her. “Sometimes things get a little hectic around the Donovan family, too.”

 
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