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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.22
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.22

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Hectic.” Davis smiled like a man not accustomed to it.

  “Well. I’ll show you to your rooms. After you freshen up, we’ll eat. Tiga might be, uh, scatterbrained about some things, but there’s no finer cook in the Low Country. We don’t dress for dinner anymore. If you’ll follow me?”

  Don’t dress for dinner…

  For a moment Faith had visions of everyone sitting down naked to eat. Walker’s grin told her that he knew what she was thinking. She didn’t look at him, afraid she would laugh or blush. She didn’t look at him when she saw that they had connecting rooms, either. If she had, she would have blushed, remembering her own threat to sneak into his bed and lick him all over.

  Biting her lip, she concentrated on the accommodations. The suite had been designed for a visiting family. There were bedrooms on either side of a shared sitting room. A bathroom had been added on to the larger bedroom forty years ago, according to their host. That was when Mrs. Montegeau had been alive and they had entertained nearly every week.

  “I’m afraid you’ll have to share the bathroom,” Davis said apologetically. “The other ones on this floor just aren’t reliable anymore, except for the suite Mel and Jeff use, which is on the opposite side.” With a hand that had a fine tremor, he gestured toward the far reaches of the second story.

  “This is wonderful,” Faith said quickly. “It’s very kind of you to have us on such short notice.”

  Davis closed his eyes for an instant. The visions of disaster he saw awaiting him weren’t pleasant. He opened his eyes and looked at the likeable young woman who was his future daughter-in-law’s old friend.

  And perhaps his own salvation.

  In the meantime there was whiskey. With enough of it, he wouldn’t think about all of his mistakes coming back to haunt him.

  “My pleasure, I assure you,” he said softly. “We have drinks in the library before dinner, if y’all would care to join us.”

  “Thank you,” Walker said. “We’ll be down as soon as we have a chance to freshen up.”

  “I’ll bring up the luggage,” Faith said after Davis disappeared.

  Walker was already out in the hall, heading downstairs. “You’re in the South, remember? I’ll get it.”

  “But-”

  “Unless you’re wanting company in that bathroom,” he drawled, “you better hurry along. I’m not fixin’ to be late to a Low Country feed cooked by Antigua Montegeau.”

  Faith was relieved when the cocktail hour was over. She no longer wondered about the cause of her host’s flush. Despite lethal looks from Jeff, Davis had consumed two whiskeys in short order and was hard at work on a third. Mel was looking strained beneath her generous smile. Walker was impassive, as though the sight of a man drinking way too much was familiar. Considering the little that he had told Faith about his childhood, she was pretty sure Walker’s thoughts weren’t happy, no matter how bland a face he put over them.

  Exactly at eight, Tiga picked up an antique crystal bell and swung it briskly. Sweet sounds rang through the hall leading to the dining room.

  Boomer had been curled asleep in front of the unnecessary but attractive fire. At the sound of the bell, the hound scrambled to his feet, bolted out of the library, and took up his station at one end of the table, just beside Davis’s tall-backed captain’s chair.

  Except for dust on the extravagant chandelier, the dining room was much cleaner than the parlor. Time and use had turned the intricate, elegant lace tablecloth from white to gold, but the delicate threads were mostly intact. While the huge mahogany table, sideboard, china cupboard, and eighteen chairs could have used a good polishing, the woven seat covers were relatively fresh and glowed with rich jewel tones in the candlelight.

  Despite tarnish, the ornate silver candelabra and silverware added to the warm light of the pale beeswax tapers. They looked like living satin glowing from within. The bone china was either as old as the house or an excellent reproduction.

  Faith guessed the former because the intricately designed gold border on each plate had been dulled by use. Cut-crystal pitchers filled with icy mineral water waited by each place setting.

  No matter what the status of the present Montegeau generation, there had been real money around in the past.

  Or real pirates.

  Walker caught Faith running a thoughtful fingertip around the gold-rimmed crystal wine goblet and smiled. She didn’t have to hear his low murmur of Black Jack Montegeau’s name in her ear to know what Walker was thinking. The bad old days had been very good to some Montegeaus.

  The dark, ostentatious, gilt-framed portraits on the wall announced just who had benefited from the legacy of piracy. Every generation of Montegeaus since Black Jack’s had been painted in turn, except the two most recent.

  And each woman was wearing one piece of ruby jewelry that would have suited an empress.

  “None of them are the same,” Walker said, following Faith’s glance at the portraits.

  “What?” she asked absently.

  “The rubies they’re wearing. Either the necklaces weren’t passed down or each generation designed new settings.”

  “You have a good eye,” Jeff said. “The tradition was that after each portrait was painted, the jewelry went into the Blessing Chest to assure the fortune of that generation and the next. Once in the Blessing Chest, jewelry could be worn but never sold without bringing bad luck. At least, that’s the family legend.”

  Walker whistled softly and looked at the portraits with new interest. “That would be a chest worth opening.”

  “Tell me about it.” Jeffs voice was bitter. “It disappeared in my grandparents’ day.” He looked up as his aunt handed him a platter heaped with deviled crab that had been stuffed back into individual shells. “Thank you, Tiga.”

  She nodded and took her seat. Though there were only six People at the big table, she sat down alone at the far end, opposite her brother, Davis.

  “People were still talking about that when I was a boy,” Walker said. “A sad occasion all the way around.”

  Jeff smiled slightly. “I thought I heard Low Country in your voice.”

  “Born and mostly raised,” Walker agreed. He took a bite of deviled crab. “Lordy, Lordy,” he murmured. “Miss Montegeau, it’s God’s own miracle some man hasn’t up and stolen you for your cooking skills.”

  Tiga’s smile was as fresh and sweet as a child’s. “You are very kind, sir.”

  “A lot of folks will be relieved to hear it,” he said, and winked at her. “Bet you have angels sneaking down from heaven just to get a taste of what you put on this table.”

  Tiga giggled like a girl who still was learning what it was to catch a boy’s eye. And hold it.

  Faith smiled down at her food. It was much smaller than the Dungeness crab of the Pacific Northwest. Though this Low Country crab flared to wicked-looking points on either side of the “shoulders,” its shell would have fit in the palm of her hand. There had to be at least twenty of the little beasties piled on their backs on the platter. Maybe thirty.

  Silently wondering if crab was the main course rather than the appetizer, Faith took a bite. She closed her eyes with unconscious delight and made a murmuring sound of approval. “Sea-tasting and steamy, creamy and succulent,” she murmured, “with just enough spice to hold your attention.”

  Walker swallowed hard and tried to think pure thoughts.

  “It’s perfect.” Faith opened her eyes and gave Mel, who was sitting across from her, a look of sympathy. “No wonder you’re worried about gaining weight.”

  Mel sighed and ate another carefully rationed morsel of the rich crab. “I tell myself that a few bites won’t hurt, despite the cream. Besides, I know dessert is coming.”

  “Don’t tell me what. Let me dream.”

  “As long as you’re dreaming of sugar pie, pecan pie, lemon refrigerator pie, and Key lime pie, some of your dreams will come true. Unless we’re having Tiga’s own version of Chocolate Sin. Then you j
ust can’t have more than one helping.”

  “Stop! I’m drooling.”

  “You can afford to,” Mel retorted. “You’re not fighting your waistline.”

  Some of the tension around Jeffs mouth and eyes eased as he smiled at his pregnant lover and soon-to-be bride. “When she moved out here, Mel thought she was going to miss West Coast fusion cooking. After she ate one of Tiga’s meals, she never looked back. Sometimes I think Tiga’s cooking is the reason Mel agreed to marry me.”

  Mel gave him a slow smile. “It wasn’t Tiga who made me fat, now was it?”

  Walker snickered. Faith kicked his foot under the table. He winked at her.

  Davis finished his first glass of wine as though it was the bottled water. When he reached for the decanter, Jeff beat him to it. He topped off everyone’s glass – except his father’s – and set the decanter down on the floor beside his chair, out of his father’s reach.

  Boomer sniffed the top of the decanter, sneezed, and moved to the other end of the table in a huff.

  The narrow glance Davis gave his son told Walker that Jeff was going to pay for the stunt.

  “Yes, my dear papa lost the Blessing Chest,” Davis announced as though someone had asked. “That old son of a bitch lost everything but the way into his zipper.”

  “Eat fast,” Walker muttered to Faith. “The storm is about to break.”

  21

  “I don’t think our guests want to hear about Grandfather Montegeau,” Jeff said.

  “I was almost ten,” Davis said. He fiddled with his empty wineglass and looked pointedly at Jeffs Ml goblet. For a price – a glass of wine – Davis would be happy to set the family history aside.

  Jeff ignored him.

  Davis started airing dirty Montegeau laundry. “My papa wasn’t like me or Jeff,” he said to Faith. “He was a sure enough hell-raiser and skirt lifter.”

  “Dad-”

  “Shuddup. ‘S rude to innerupt your elders.” Though the words were slurred, they were quite understandable.

  With eyes accustomed to drunks at the family table, Walker measured Davis Montegeau. The old man was angry, but not violent. Not yet. Maybe not at all. Davis lacked the bone-deep coldness of a truly violent man.

  Walker helped himself to another crab and did the same for Faith. “Mel?” he asked.

  “No, thank you. I’ll wait for – ”

  “Papa liked ‘em young,” Davis said loudly, interrupting Mel. “Just budding, he used to say, when their nipples were near as big and tender as their breasts.”

  Tiga stood with a speed that made candle flames jerk. “It’s time for the chicken.”

  “I’ll help you,” Mel said quickly.

  “Mama was ‘bout thirteen, near as I can tell, when he wed her,” Davis continued. “From the wedding picture, I can’t be sure she was even bleeding regular.”

  Faith took another bite of crab. The fingers of her left hand dug into the heavy, lavender-scented linen napkin that was in her lap.

  Beneath the table, Walker’s hand closed over hers gently. The simple warmth and comfort of the touch loosened the tension around her lungs. She laced her fingers through his and breathed deeply.

  “Took him a while to breed a baby on her, but she finally caught and held.”

  Jeff looked grim.

  His father kept talking and fiddling with his empty wineglass. “Antigua came along before mama was sixteen. I came along a little more than four years later. One child died in between us. Maybe two. I forget. What with all the babies and the miscarriages, Mama was looking a whole lot older than twenty. Papa started lifting skirts. Girlish ones.”

  “Pass the salt, please,” Jeff said to Walker.

  Walker did. “Pepper?”

  “Please. How did the show go, Faith?”

  “Very well. I-”

  “He got caught with a sharecropper’s daughter,” Davis said loudly. “She was thirteen and-”

  “I sold most of my pieces and made some excellent connections,” Faith said, pitching her voice above her host’s. “There is one piece in particular that I would like – ”

  “ – money changed hands, so there was no lawyering. The nex’ time, the gal was barely – ”

  “ – to deliver to its owners,” Faith said, giving Jeff a meaningful look. “It is very, very valuable.”

  “ – twelve, and there was a royal pissing match over that, Papa – ”

  “I understand your problem,” Jeff said, and hoped his expression didn’t give away just how much more he understood.

  “ – paid off the family with some rubies from the Blessing Chest and stayed out of – ”

  “But,” Jeff said, “I believe it was made clear that the transfer wouldn’t occur until – ”

  “ – jail. Then there was a sweet little gal – ”

  “ – the night of the ceremony, correct?” Jeff finished grimly.

  “You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten Tiga’s buttermilk chicken,” Mel announced, coming into the dining room with a flourish that made her dark hair swing jauntily against her lipstick-red blouse.

  “ – daughter of a local shrimper. Papa always denied – ”

  “I should have worn clothes the color of cream gravy,” Mel said as though her father-in-law wasn’t in the middle of a loud monologue about the seamy side of the Montegeau family. “It’s all I can do not to roll in the heavenly stuff.”

  “ – he was the bastard’s father, but a few months later the little gal sold off a ruby brooch and – ”

  “Buttermilk,” Walker said. The reverence in his voice was almost like a prayer. “I haven’t had really good buttermilk fried chicken since I was sixteen.”

  “Help yourself.” Mel put down the platter, shot Jeff a do-something look, and went back out the door.

  Jeff took a sip of wine.

  “ – went to Atlanta with her older sister,” Davis said, smiling coldly. “I was near eight then, plenty old enough to remember the fights. Mama might have married young, but she grew – ”

  “Gravy?” Tiga asked brightly. Her pale, work-roughened hands clutched a priceless tureen that was brimming with cream gravy. She looked as though she wanted to throw it at her babbling brother. “This is for soup, but everyone loves my gravy, so I make – ”

  “ – teeth,” Davis said over his sister’s voice. “Mama chewed him up one side and down the other for giving away Montegeau rabies to hussies.”

  “ – so much that I serve it in the tureen,” Tiga said in a rush. “Makes for less running back and forth to the kitchen. Mr. Walker? You look like – ”

  “Things quieted down for a few years,” Davis continued, looking hard at Jeff, “but that didn’t mean Papa kept ‘er zipped, just that he was – ”

  “ – a man who enjoys gravy,” Tiga said, keeping her haunted gray eyes on Walker as though he was her one promise of life ever after.

  Walker usually preferred his gravy over potatoes instead of straight up, but he said, “Yes, ma’am, I sure do.”

  “ – never caught. Least, that’s what the police figured,” Davis said. “The night before Tiga’s birthday – ”

  “Oh, good. Here.” Tiga shoved the tureen into Walker’s hands, gave Davis a terrified glance, and fled.

  Walker thought about dumping the tureen over his host, but decided it was a waste of what smelled like sublime cream gravy, the kind a Low Country boy would hitchhike across hell to eat.

  Faith passed Walker some chicken.

  “ – Papa musta needed some more rubies to pay off some other outraged father, cuz he – ”

  Walker ladled gravy over his chicken and looked at Jeff. “Gravy?”

  “ – had it out from its hiding place when – ”

  “I’ll wait for the potatoes,” Jeff muttered.

  “ – someone came in, blew a hole in him with his own shotgun, and – ”

  “Might be a long wait,” Walker said neutrally.

  “ – took off into the night. We neve
r saw the damned Blessing Chest again!” Davis shouted at his son. “It was gone and so was our luck! I need a drink, damn it!”

  Davis stood up so fast that his chair slammed over backward and sent Boomer scooting out of the way with a surprised yelp. Davis lurched against the table hard enough to make wine goblets sway. Without another word, he straightened and staggered from the room. A minute later the library door slammed hard behind him.

  Silence expanded in the dining room like a relieved sigh.

  Jeff put his elbows on either side of his plate and massaged his temples with both hands. Mel went to stand behind her future husband. She kneaded his tight shoulders as if it was something she had to do often.

  “Please accept my apologies,” Jeff said in a rough, muffled voice. “My father and I argued earlier. He’s very upset with me.”

  “No need for apologies,” Walker said. “Though I must admit, it was the most longwinded grace this ol’ boy ever heard spoken over a good hot meal.”

  Faith snickered, then gave up and let out her tension in a laugh. So did Mel. After a moment, even Jeff lifted his head and smiled wearily.

  Tiga tiptoed in with a bowl of potatoes and whispered, “Is Papa gone?”

  Jeff started to explain that it was her brother, not her father, who had left in a drunken snit, then decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. “Yes. He’s gone.”

  “Oh, good.” She smiled with the transparent glee of a twelve-year-old. “I brought the potatoes. Is there any gravy left?”

  “Not more than a gallon.” Walker got up, took the potatoes from Tiga and set them on the table, and then seated her like a princess. “Allow me to serve you, ma’am. You’ve done enough for one night.”

  “Thank you, sir.”

  “It’s the least I can do for the best cook in the Low Country.”

 
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