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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.23
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.23

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “You’ve only had a bite or two,” she fretted.

  “I’m fixin’ to make up for that.”

  She looked at him closely. “You’re nice. Have we met?”

  “Owen Walker, ma’am.”

  “Do you like gravy?”

  Faith looked at her plate. Only three days until the wedding. With a muffled sigh, she took a bite of chicken. Like the dinner, it was extraordinary.

  For food like this, she could put up with a little family eccentricity.

  Mel and Walker were laughing over some story from his Low Country childhood. Faith told herself it was just as well. She was tired and a bit too relaxed after two glasses of wine. If Walker came upstairs with her, she doubted that she would sleep alone. Part of her quickened at the thought. Another part of her wondered if she was crazy.

  Just as Faith started up the stairs for bed, Jeff pulled her aside. “Do you have a minute?”

  “Sure.”

  With a tip of his head, he indicated the library.

  Faith hesitated. She didn’t want to see Davis Montegeau again while he was drinking.

  “Don’t worry. Daddy has long since staggered off to bed and passed out.” Though Jeffs voice was mild, love and bitterness clashed just beneath the calm. The lines around his face and eyes were deeply cut, telling of emotional turmoil.

  She followed him into the library without saying anything. There were no words to lighten the suffering of the child of an alcoholic.

  Like the dining room, the library was clean if not polished. The smell of whiskey was almost overpowering. When she saw the sparkling fragments of a decanter lying jagged in the fireplace, she remembered Jeffs words at the dinner table. My father and I argued earlier. He’s very upset with me.

  It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

  Jeff closed the door. “I know it’s an imposition to ask you to keep the necklace until the wedding, but Daddy insured it separately from our normal policies. Coverage won’t begin until after Mel and I are married. Normally I wouldn’t worry about the lapse of a few days in the coverage, but – ” he laced his fingers together and squeezed “ – the Montegeau luck hasn’t been very good lately. If anything happened and the necklace wasn’t insured, it would be the final blow.” He smiled, but it turned upside down. “I would very much appreciate your understanding in this. I don’t want anything else to spoil Mel’s wedding.”

  Faith said the only thing she could. “Of course. When would you like to have the necklace?”

  His mouth flattened, then softened. “Daddy wants to put it on Mel just before she walks down the aisle. It’s his gift to us.”

  There was sadness in Jeff’s voice, the complex yearning of a son for a father. It twisted Faith’s heart. She wished she knew him well enough to give him a hug. “I’ll see that he gets it.”

  “Just before Mel walks down the aisle.” Obviously Jeff didn’t trust his father with a million dollars worth of rubies. Faith couldn’t blame him. Compassion turned her eyes into silver-blue mist. “Of course.”

  “It – it won’t be a problem?” he asked almost reluctantly. “No.”

  “You don’t have to go back to Savannah to get it?”

  “No.”

  “Good. I was afraid you were counting on me to pick it up or something.”

  “Don’t worry. The necklace is here.” She thought of its resting place in Walker’s underwear and smiled. “It’s quite safe.”

  “If you say so. I worry about valuables kept in luggage. We have a safe in the library.” He gestured to a massive painting of Black Jack Montegeau with the Blessing Chest gleaming in shades of silver at his feet. “It’s behind there.”

  “What about your father?”

  “What about him?” Then Jeff realized what Faith was delicately trying to say. “Oh. Yes. Well, I doubt if he even remembers the combination. Other than the family Bible and some documents, there’s nothing inside the safe now. It’s fireproof, you see. I’d be happy to let you use it.”

  “I’ll suggest it to Walker.” Jeff’s eyebrows lifted slightly.

  “The necklace is his responsibility,” Faith explained. “He’s sort of a walking insurance policy.”

  Jeff cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable. “Well, if you feel that’s safer than metal and combination locks…”

  “That will be up to Walker. My brother Archer is insuring the rubies. Walker works for Archer.”

  “Ah. I see.” He shrugged jerkily. “Well, as long as the necklace is secure, that’s what counts. But I’d really feel better if it was in the safe. Would you mention it to Walker? I’ll be working in here for another hour or so. It wouldn’t be any trouble at all to put the necklace in the safe. And you have pieces of your own, don’t you? You’re welcome to put them in as well.”

  “Thank you, I will,” she said, wanting Jeff to feel as though he had done something to make up for his father’s behavior. “I’ll get them now and talk to Walker about the necklace.” She smiled and touched Jeff lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. You and Mel will have a wonderful wedding and a beautiful baby. That’s what you should be thinking about, not your father and his problems.”

  Jeff smiled grimly. “When it comes to family, it’s hard not to worry. But thank you, Faith. You’re as nice as Mel said.”

  Walker wasn’t in the living room when Faith came out of the library.

  “He went up to bed,” Mel said. “I think his leg was bothering him.”

  “I wish he would let me help him.”

  “How?” Mel yawned. “ ‘Scuse me. He’s too big to carry.”

  “Deep muscle massage.”

  “Mmmm. Sounds like fun.”

  “That tells me you’ve never had it,” Faith said dryly. “It does good, but it doesn’t feel good.”

  “Forget it,” Mel said with a grimace. “I’m into being pampered.” She smiled at Jeff, who had followed Faith into the living room. “Take me to bed and pamper me.”

  “As soon as Faith brings a few things downstairs to put in the safe. Go on up, darling,” he said to Mel. “If you’re asleep, I’ll wake you up.”

  “It’s a deal, but only if you kiss me good night now.”

  Smiling, Faith made her exit. As she climbed the stairs, she admired the broad banister, polished by generations of hands, and probably by generations of knee pants and pinafores. The lovely, centuries-old Persian carpet was still colorful and thick enough to muffle sounds in the hallway. Flower-shaped brass sconces and flame-shaped lightbulbs gave the sculpted plaster ceiling a golden glow. Dust and jasmine potpourri competed to scent the air. If time had a scent, it would smell like the hall.

  The sitting room was empty when she arrived. She hesitated, then got the jewelry case and set it on a chair. Stretching long and hard, she wondered idly if Walker had already gone to bed. Then she heard the muted thunder of water filling the master bedroom’s big claw-footed tub. She knew from her own earlier bath that the tub was a more comfortable reproduction of the original Victorian model. Longer, deeper, wider, with a slanted ledge running all around the back that was just right for propping up your head. She hoped that Walker enjoyed it as much as she had.

  Then she thought of his leg and how slippery wet tile was. A long soak might take out the aches, but it wouldn’t make his leg any stronger on a treacherous floor.

  Frowning, she went to the spun-aluminum case that looked as out of place as a spaceship in the faded elegance of the Victorian sitting room. Opening the locks on the case, she looked inside at the three pieces of jewelry that remained. They weren’t her most valuable pieces – the emerald cat and the Montegeau necklace were – but the iridescent Pearl Cove baroque black pearl set against a ruby-rimmed platinum cloud was irreplaceable. She had sold the earrings from the suite of platinum and ruby jewelry, but not the ring and bracelet.

  Her own fault, really. The rubies, while richly colored and clean, weren’t in the same class as the incomparable Montegeau rubies. She shouldn’t have
displayed them in the same case.

  The sound of water stopped. Out in the darkness toward the bayou, something large called out with a sound that was a cross between a boom and a grunt. She wondered if it was an alligator or a bullfrog the size of Nebraska.

  A night breeze lifted the gauzy privacy curtains and moved over her like a sigh. Walker had opened the French doors leading to the second-story gallery. The unseasonable heat the Low Country had been enjoying felt like the tropics to Faith. She was accustomed to Seattle’s bracing, sleet-laced winters.

  For a moment she was tempted to open the decanter of brandy that sat on the small cherry table at the end of the couch. It would be lovely to stand barefoot on a second-floor gallery in February and sip brandy while the mild, salt-scented air caressed her.

  But first, the necklace.

  She went quickly to the bathroom door and knocked. “Walker?”

  “C’mon in, sugar.”

  She distrusted the barely subdued anticipation in his voice, just like one of her brothers before he sprang something on her. “Are you decent?”

  “We’re all born decent.”

  “Uh, right. Does that mean you’re wearing what you were born in?”

  “Sure does. Plus a tub full of bubbles.”

  “Bubbles?” she asked, startled. The thought of the bearded Walker awash in froth was… piquant. “You’re having a bubble bath?”

  He laughed low and soft. “Sure am. You going to call the macho police and turn me in?”

  “Nope. It’s a family secret, but The Donovan, Kyle, and Lawe all love soaking in suds. It hasn’t dented their macho a bit.”

  “There you go.”

  Faith found herself grinning at the heavy mahogany door with its ornate crystal and brass handle. “You still wearing the necklace?”

  “That would be above and beyond the call of duty.”

  “Darn. I was having this nice fantasy of you wearing suds and rubies.”

  “Well,” he drawled, “I wouldn’t want to get in the way of a nice fantasy. I’ll have them on in no time at all.”

  She snickered even as her breath shortened. She shouldn’t tease him this way – and herself – but it was just too delicious to resist. “You going to shave your chest, too?”

  There was silence followed by the sudden wash of water over porcelain sides. “How do you know I don’t already?”

  “The shadow under your shirt.”

  “Dirt,” he said quickly, muffling a laugh.

  “Sugar,” she drawled, tracing the dark grain of the wood with her fingertips, “that’s an out-and-out lie. I know what dirt smells like. It doesn’t smell like coffee and soap and a spicy, special kind of musk.”

  Walker told himself he wasn’t going to stand up, open the door, and haul her into the tub with him.

  “You fixin’ to come in and see the family jewels?” he asked. “They’re ready and waiting.”

  Faith didn’t doubt it. Temptation swept over her, hotter than any Low Country breeze. “Thanks, but I’m supposed to take all the jewelry downstairs and lock it in the safe. It’s Jeff’s way of apologizing for not taking delivery of the necklace right away. And for a few other things, as well.”

  Walker grunted. “His safe, his house, his insurance?”

  “No. His father took out a separate policy on the necklace. It won’t go into effect until the night of the wedding.”

  Walker scooped up a double handful of suds and stared into the mound as though it was a crystal ball. His eyes were almost as dark as the night beyond the etched-glass window.

  “Tell you what,” he said finally. “Jeff has enough on his plate with his dear old daddy. I’ll keep track of the necklace until the wedding.”

  “Jeff’s going to feel bad about that. He really wants to do something nice to make up for his father’s performance.”

  “So don’t tell him. Just take your case down, smile sweetly, and ask him to leave you to it.”

  “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt his feelings, is that it?”

  “That’s one of the things I like about you. You catch on real quick.”

  “What’s the other thing you like about me?” she asked before she thought better of it.

  “Your sweet, unquestioning nature.”

  “I walked right into that one.”

  “Sure did.”

  “Just for that, you’re not getting out of it tonight.”

  “Out of what?” he asked warily.

  “More deep work on the leg.”

  He laughed despite a rush of desire. She hadn’t given him a sexy little massage the other night, but it had loosened up one leg… and made another one hard as hell. “I’m beginning to think you’re a closet sadist.”

  “You just keep thinking about it, sugar. I’ll be right back.”

  Walker let out a breath and reached for the coldwater tap.

  One of them had to start being sensible.

  22

  When Faith emerged from the library with an empty aluminum case, Jeff was waiting at the foot of the stairs. Boomer stood at his side, looking like a hound ready to find a soft nest for the night.

  “All set?” Jeff asked.

  “Yes, thank you. I spun the dial for you and pushed the portrait hack in place. Everything’s locked up tight. I even turned off the lights.”

  “Thanks.” Jeff yawned, easing the taut lines in his face. “Funny how things like that weigh on a man. It’s only money, after all, and no matter what, one way or another, everything is insured, right?”

  “Right.”

  He smiled slightly. “I guess all the family history is nagging at me. I have to keep reminding myself that even if something happens, it’s the insurance company that loses, not us, and the good Lord knows they have money to spare.”

  “Mel would lose, too. That’s a beautiful necklace, if I do say so myself.”

  “I’ll take your word for it,” he said rather grimly. Up until today, he hadn’t even known the combination to the wall safe. That had changed hands along with the power of attorney.

  “Daddy never showed anyone your drawings. He kept them in the safe and then burned them after the necklace was done. He wanted it to be a complete surprise. He’s the only one at Ruby Bayou who has the least idea what it looks like. Other than you and Walker, of course.”

  Faith smiled. “No matter how beautiful the necklace is, you’ll only have eyes for Mel.”

  He grinned suddenly and looked ten years younger. “She’s wonderful, isn’t she?”

  “Yes. You’re a lucky man.”

  His smile shifted, but held. “I hope so. I surely hope so. The Montegeaus could use a change in their luck.”

  “Papa was greedy,” Tiga said from behind them. “He didn’t put any souls in the Blessing Chest.”

  Faith made a startled sound. Jeff didn’t even flinch. He was used to Tiga’s soft-footed ways.

  “Rubies, Tiga,” he said mildly, yawning again. “The Blessing Chest holds rubies.”

  “You’ve never seen them in moonlight. Sometimes they sing. Sometimes they laugh. Mostly they just weep for all that happened before souls bled and turned into red stone.”

  The calm reason in Tiga’s voice was so at odds with her words that the hair on the nape of Faith’s neck moved.

  Tiga walked forward and put a cold, brine-scented hand on Faith’s cheek. “I would have loved you, but they took you away. Pretty little baby girl. Are you safe from him now? I put something very special in the chest for you, for me. A soul to set us free.” She looked at Jeff. “You must do the same. Thirteen souls. If enough rubies weep, your generation won’t.”

  “Tiga,” he said wearily, “it’s time for you to be in bed.”

  “Haven’t I told you about time? It comes and goes like moonlight. You can never tell, never tell, wishing well, souls wishing, sighing, crying, never dying.” She smiled at him. “Breakfast at eight. Pancakes, Papa’s favorite. Sugar pie and Fourth of July. Pecans for Thanksgivin
g. Thanks be I’m not a ruby, I think. He drinks. I’m not just rubies, am I?”

  With a sigh Jeff took Tiga’s arm and led her off toward the family wing of the house. Boomer followed, nosing the older woman’s slack fingers as though to remind her that she was indeed flesh and blood. Gradually the sound of her voice faded into silence.

  Faith rubbed her hands up and down her arms to smooth away the primitive ripple of unease that came in the presence of madness. Suddenly she understood why tribes made shamans or spirit doctors of the insane. There was an eerie feeling of larger truth woven like a glittering black thread through Tiga’s irrationality.

  After a moment Faith shook herself and went back upstairs. She needed Walker’s wry sanity and laughter.

  The bathroom was silent. The door to his bedroom was closed. She stood just outside it and called softly, “Walker?”

  There was no answer.

  After a few moments she quietly turned away. She opened the door to her own bedroom and saw the single snifter of brandy sitting on her bedside table. The message was clear: she would be sleeping alone. Ignoring the stab of disappointment and something very close to sadness, she kicked off her sandals, grabbed the snifter, and went back to the sitting area.

  There was no reason to feel hurt and rejected. It wasn’t like she had propositioned him or anything.

  Yet she felt rejected just the same.

  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?

  Apparently Walker had decided he would rather be alone in the dark.

  Faith turned off all the lights and went out onto the gallery, in the dark, and thought about everything beautiful that she couldn’t touch.

  Some women weren’t good at sex. She was beginning to accept that she was one of them. She had always been able to take it or leave it. Tony had known. That was why he had sex on the side. That was why they argued. That was what drove him to hit her.

  That was why she hadn’t married him.

  Obviously Walker didn’t want her. Not really. Not the way she wanted him. Once he had cooled down from that surprising kiss in the garden, he had managed to avoid her quite easily.

 
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