Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.3Elizabeth Lowell
“Nobody is born knowing about kids,” Archer said matter-of-factly. “It’s something you learn along the way, like how to tell a good ruby from a bad one.”
Walker looked into Summer’s radiant gray-green eyes. Clear yet misty, with luminous shades of green and whispers of blue. “We ever find a gem like her eyes, we’ll all be rich.”
Smiling, Archer pulled some lemons out of the refrigerator. From the front of the suite came the sounds of a door closing and Kyle and Faith ragging on each other.
“… about as funny as a freeway accident, bro,” Faith retorted. “Guess which one of my grubby fingers is for you?”
“Delicate, huh?” Archer muttered.
Summer smiled back at him. Like her eyes, her smile glowed with life and innocence. The sweet curve of her lips shouted that he was the only thing in her universe.
And he was beautiful.
The room seemed to shift around Walker. He forgot the residual ache in his leg. A yearning he wouldn’t name and refused to acknowledge went through him like dark lightning. Desperately he looked for a safe place to deposit the little bomb ticking away in his arms.
“She wet?” Archer asked without looking up from squeezing lemons.
“Uh, I don’t think so.”
“You think she’s going to be?”
“Uh…” Walker couldn’t think of anything to say. Summer was still smiling at him, charming and terrifying him with her innocent certainty of his worth and her own safety with him.
“I just changed her,” Archer said, “but sometimes she goes through diapers like fire through a fuse.”
Summer pursed her dark pink lips and bounced in Walker’s arms.
“She wants a kiss,” Archer said.
Gray-green eyes grew big with sudden tears. Summer’s little fingers patted against Walker’s lips as though to remind him of what they were for.
“Oh, Lordy,” he said. “Don’t cry, sugar.”
“Kiss her and she’ll shut up.”
Hesitantly Walker bent his head until he could kiss Summer’s small, pursed mouth. She bounced and patted him again.
“She wants another one,” Archer said, trying not to laugh out loud at the dazed look on Walker’s face.
Faith leaned against the kitchen doorway, crossed her grit-stained arms, and watched her redheaded niece wrap another man around her little finger. The smile Walker was giving Summer was unlike any Faith had ever seen on his face – hesitant, delighted, wary, and totally smitten all at once. It made him handsome enough to stop traffic.
It certainly did unwelcome things to her pulse.
“Make a loud smacking sound,” Archer advised. “That’s how she knows you mean it.”
Walker added suitable sound effects. Summer kissed him again with more enthusiasm than precision, then cooed and leaned against him. Between one breath and another she was asleep.
“Uh, Archer?” Walker’s voice was barely a whisper.
“She went limp.”
“It’s all in the technique,” Archer agreed. “Good going.”
Faith snickered. Walker turned his head toward her. The lapis lazuli blaze of his eyes surprised her. Over the last few months while he had been in Afghanistan looking for a source of uncut, untreated rubies, she had forgotten just how gorgeous his eyes were. In fact, she had made a point of forgetting.
“Just in time,” Walker said, gesturing with his chin at the sleeping child. “Rescue your niece.”
“Why would I rescue her from paradise?” Faith asked.
“Rescue me, then.”
“Can’t. My hands are dirty.” She held out her gritty fingers. “Besides, you look pretty comfortable yourself.”
“Kids terrify me.”
“Yeah, sure,” Faith said, unimpressed. “I could see that right away when you kissed her the third time.”
Faith went to the sink and began washing grit from her hands.
“How’s the Montegeau necklace going?” Archer asked as he spread marinade over two huge salmon fillets. “Going to be done in time for the show and the wedding?”
“Just barely.” She rinsed her hands, shook them, and wiped them on her jeans. Grit dampened on her thighs, making muddy streaks against the faded cloth. They matched the random grit marks on her cheeks.
Archer looked at Walker again. Delicate, huh?
Walker just smiled.
“Did you hear from your insurer about covering the necklace from here to Savannah?” Archer asked his sister.
“Not yet.” The tone of Faith’s voice said that it was none of her brother’s business.
Like older brothers since time began, Archer ignored the warning signal. “They’ll want a GIA appraisal or its equivalent.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” she retorted. The Gemological Institute of America was a benchmark of reliability. Unfortunately, GIA-certifled appraisers took weeks to get the job done. She didn’t have one week, much less several. She simply couldn’t let the rubies out of her hands for so long and still get the necklace done by Valentine’s Day.
“Is getting an appraisal going to be a problem?” Archer asked.
She didn’t answer.
“Faith?” Archer asked. But his steady look told her that he already knew. “You have less than a week before you leave.”
“I’ll work it out.”
Before Archer could ask another question, the phone rang.
“I’ll get it,” Faith said instantly, relieved. She didn’t like being cross-examined by her brother.
Especially when he was right.
“It’s by the bookcase near the paintings,” Walker said.
“Thanks,” Faith called over her shoulder. She found the wandering phone after one more ring. “Hello?”
“Faith Donovan, please.”
“One moment, please.”
There was a click as the call was handed off. Then Tony’s voice came into her ear, freezing her in place. “Hello, baby. It took me a while to get this number, but – ”
“No, thanks, I don’t need any tinfoil siding.”
“Wait, Faith! Don’t hang up! Damn it, you’ve got to listen to me! I didn’t mean to hit you. I’ll never do it again. I love you and I want to have kids with you and – ”
“I’m sorry,” she cut in hoarsely. “You have the wrong number.”
Quietly she depressed a button and ended the call. Then she took a deep breath to steady herself. She hated the adrenaline and anxiety that flooded her whenever she heard Tony’s voice. Seeing him was even worse. He was a mistake that simply wouldn’t go away.
Hell get tired of chasing me, she told herself grimly. We’re not talking the love match of the century. He had a woman on the side while we were engaged. My fault, of course. I wasn’t hot enough in bed.
The phone rang again. Faith jumped as though she had been pinched.
Walker reached past her and took the phone. Summer didn’t even stir against his chest. She was used to sleeping in someone’s arms.
“Yeah?” Walker said curtly. He didn’t like the pallor of Faith’s face.
“It’s Mitchell,” Archer’s assistant said. “This Walker?”
“As ever was,” he drawled. “You working late again?”
“Just waiting for the wife to pick me up. We’re going to the theater. The experimental one, where they’re still learning the English language and expect the audience to fill in the blanks.”
“Her turn to choose, huh?” Walker said, smiling. Mitchell and his wife traded off picking entertainment.
“What was your first clue?” the assistant retorted.
“You need Archer?”
“Actually, I was looking for you. Remember that contact in Myanmar? The one you said might have a lead on some good ruby rough?”
“There’s a package from him.”
“So far so good.”
“I’ll come by and pick it up. Ten minutes.”
He disconnected and looked at Faith. She met his eyes with a stubborn kind of defiance. “Was that Tony?” Walker asked bluntly.
“It was a wrong number.”
Walker grunted, not believing a word of it. “Take your niece. I’ve got to run across to headquarters and get a package.”
Archer came into the living room just as Summer was handed off. He looked from Walker to Faith. “Trouble?”
“No,” she said coolly. “Summer’s wet. I’m going to change her.”
Walker didn’t believe that, either, but he didn’t say anything.
Archer waited until Faith was out of sight and said softly, “Who called?”
“Mitchell was the second call. I’m going to pick up a package of ruby rough from a new contact in Burma. I’m betting the first call was her ever-lovin’ ex.”
“Son of a bitch.”
“On his best days, maybe,” Walker said. “Otherwise Tony is pure chicken shit.”
Archer raked long fingers through his short hair.
“She’s handling it,” Walker said.
“I’d rather do it for her.”
So would Walker, but as he wasn’t even related, it wasn’t something he was going to say aloud. His attraction to Faith was at best unfortunate. At worst it could be a disaster.
With a final curse, Archer put Tony out of his mind. “Go to Faith’s shop, check out those Montegeau rubies, and get back to me.”
Walker’s eyebrows lifted, but all he said was, “When?”
“Yesterday. Tomorrow at the latest.”
“What about that batch of ruby rough you’re expecting from Africa? Still want me to appraise it for you?”
“Damn.” Archer raked his hand through his hair again. “Do it first thing tomorrow morning. Then get over to Faith’s shop. I want you to stay close to the shop until I arrange for a fulltime guard for her.” Frowning, he mentally juggled various Donovan projects and their particular needs. Lately it seemed as though he spent most of his time hiring guards, and he still didn’t have enough people he trusted. Not with his sister. He wouldn’t say the world was going to hell in a handbasket… but he wouldn’t say it was going to heaven, either. “In fact, plan on going to Savannah with her. I need someone I can trust not to fly off the handle.”
“Besides Tony,” Walker drawled, “is anything in particular bothering you?”
“Kyle. He’s still got a bad feeling about those Montegeau rubies.”
“Really bad. Getting worse.”
Walker whistled softly. Kyle had had a really bad feeling about Walker’s recent trip to Afghanistan. Walker had gone anyway.
He had nearly died there.
“A million bucks for thirteen rubies?” Walker’s nearly black eyebrows rose skeptically. He shifted his grip on the cane. He didn’t really need it, but the old-fashioned wooden cane reassured people that he was harmless. It also reminded him how close he had come to being totally harmless, as in dead. It would be a long time before he was that stupid again. “I’d have to see the rubies before I’d sign the check.”
“You won’t be signing anything,” Faith said shortly. Then she looked at the workbench in front of her as though to remind Walker that he was interrupting her. “It has nothing to do with you or my brothers.”
Walker’s glance followed hers. The thick, rough wood of the U-shaped bench showed the nicks, gouges, and burns common on a jewelry designer’s work surface. Pliers of all sizes and shapes, rattail files, soldering equipment, goggles, awls, clamps, polishing wheels, a metal block for hammering, a leather-covered mallet, and other less easily identified pieces of equipment were laid out in a pattern that looked random to him, but he had no doubt that Faith could lay her hand on anything she needed without searching. Anyone who used tools to make a living knew how to take care of those tools.
With barely veiled impatience, Faith ignored Walker’s scrutiny and turned to the sketches of a jeweled suite she had been working on – necklace, bracelet, earrings, brooch, and ring. The loose papers covered with pencil drawings were held down by an expensive chunk of lapis lazuli. She stared at it – the stone was the exact shade of Walker’s eyes.
The thought annoyed Faith. After her disaster with Tony, she had sworn off men, yet Walker kept sneaking into her awareness.
She switched her attention to the large, discreetly wired front window of Timeless Dreams, her combination studio and jewelry store. Her social life might be a disaster area, but she was very proud of what she had achieved professionally.
Beyond the glass, Pioneer Square’s mix of street people, artists, shop owners, and shoppers swirled through the raw early February afternoon. Last fall’s leaves had long since been ground to brown paste and licked away by winter rain. Tourists, even the hardy Germans, wouldn’t arrive for months. The rain was still at work washing streets, buildings, and pedestrians with the insistence of a mother cat grooming a dirty kitten.
And Walker was still waiting for Faith’s attention.
“Damn,” she muttered.
Walker just kept waiting. He was good at it. He had learned patience the hard way, as a boy hunting salt marshes and black bayous in order to add protein to the family table. But Seattle was a long way from the torrid Low Country of South Carolina, Walker was a long way from his boyhood, and Faith had fewer survival instincts than the most innocent prey he had ever hunted in the haunting, primeval swamp. Walker knew the high cost of such innocence, even if Faith didn’t.
“What do you want?” she asked bluntly.
“Are the Montegeau rubies insured at all?”
“My shop insurance covers them while they’re on the premises.”
“Then you must have some kind of an appraisal.”
“Oh, sure. But it’s informal. The man who owns the rubies gave me a written description of the stones and his estimate of their worth.”
“Do tell. What are his qualifications to judge rubies?”
Faith glanced at Walker through narrowed, silver-blue eyes. “The customer’s family has been in the jewelry business for two centuries. Satisfied?”
Now, there was a word Walker tried not to use when thinking about Faith, much less when he was standing close enough to smell her sweet, heady fragrance, like a summer garden at dawn. He wished that Archer Donovan had assigned somebody else to guard his sister’s shop. Anybody else. Walker could see he irritated Faith, and she made no attempt to conceal it.
Considering what a loser her ex-fiance was, Walker was insulted by Faith’s dislike. He was also far too aware of her as a woman. A desirable one. Unfortunately she was also the younger sister of his boss. Way off limits for a South Carolina marsh rat.
He rubbed his short, nearly black beard and then the back of his neck. It was his own way of counting to ten or twenty or a hundred. Whatever it took to keep his temper.
“Does Archer know you’ve started trading in unapprised gems?” Walker asked finally. His voice was an easy drawl. Hiding his own emotions was another thing he was good at. It went right along with the patience of a hunter.
“I’m not trading in these gems. All I’m doing is designing a necklace for them.” She rubbed her temples. “It’s a rush job for an old college friend. Mel was my first roommate. The university thought it would be a good idea to separate the Donovan twins.”
Walker followed the elliptical conversation with surprising ease. “Mel is the one with jewelry in the family for two centuries?”
“No. That’s her fiance, Jeff. The necklace is a wedding present from her future father-in-law. It’s a surprise. She’s six months pregnant and they just decided to get married. She’s truly happy for the first time in her life. I couldn’t refuse to design her a necklace. Besides, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I want it
The twinge in Walker’s left leg became an ache. Old friends sometimes turned into new problems. Dangerous ones. “Are you buying the trip insurance and the show insurance?”
Faith looked at the ceiling. “Did you take lessons from my brothers or are you just naturally nosy and bossy?”
“Lessons, huh?” The drawl slowed and deepened. “Now, there’s a thought. I’ll be sure to take it up with Archer.”
“He’s too busy with his new wife.”
“She’s a woman to keep a man busy,” Walker agreed, smiling faintly as he thought of last night’s dinner with the Donovan family. Hannah’s edgy Australian slang was as surprising as her quiet stubbornness. She was every bit as hardheaded as the man she had married. Good thing, too. When the occasion arose, Archer could be a ten on the Mohs’ scale, right up there with diamonds.
“Archer isn’t complaining about Hannah,” Faith pointed out quickly.
“I noticed. It’s a burning wonder how quick the Donovan men took to leg shackles.”
“Leg shackles! What a way to describe marriage.”
“You must have felt the same or you would have married that pile of road apples you were engaged to.”
Faith tried not to snicker at Walker’s description of Tony Kerrigan. The best she could do was choke laughter off into a strangled cough. She saw the slight upward curve of Walker’s mouth and knew that she hadn’t fooled him a bit. That was another way he was like her brothers – quick.
“About that insurance,” he said. “Who bought it?”
“Does it matter?”
“Only if something happens to the rubies.”
“No one would dare. Someone – like you, right now – has been all over me like a rash every time I leave the shop and a lot of the time I’m here.”
“Complain to my boss.”
“It wouldn’t do any good. Besides,” she said with a shrug, “I’m not fighting it. The cops can’t be everywhere.”
Midnight in Ruby Bayou by Elizabeth Lowell / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes