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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.30
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.30

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Then you’re an idiot,” Archer said.

  “Hey, every man has to be good at something,” Walker said.

  “Why is the sheriff sniffing after you and Faith?”

  Hannah gave Archer an alarmed look. He kissed her fingers, released them, and returned to rubbing his tight neck.

  She brushed his hand aside and leaned into the job of loosening tight muscles. He tried not to groan aloud with pleasure. “Down here,” Walker said, “everybody blames outsiders.”

  “I suppose the sheriff never heard of a local pillar of society breaking into his own safe.”

  “That’s the problem. The Montegeaus don’t stand to gain anything if Faith’s pieces disappear. Ditto the necklace. It’s not part of their insurance coverage until Mel wears it at her wedding.”

  “Even without insurance, the jewelry is valuable.”

  “Sure, but you have to turn it into cash first. That’s not easy, as good old Ivan Ivanovitch discovered when he got tagged trying to fence one of Faith’s unique pieces.”

  “Ahhhh, I get it,” Archer said, almost purring with the pleasure of his wife’s fingers kneading away the tension. “You’re waiting to see where the new pieces turn up.”

  “Amen. Then I’m going to kick some serious ass.”

  There was silence at the other end of the line. It didn’t bother Walker. He knew Archer was mentally summarizing and filing everything that had been said and not said, done and not done.

  Phones rang incessantly in the background. At least two computers beeped impatiently.

  Frowning, Hannah kept working on Archer’s hard shoulders. Even if she hadn’t heard half of the conversation, the tension in his body would have told her that it was family rather than business at risk. He was fiercely protective of the people he loved.

  “Get Faith on the next plane out,” Archer said finally.

  “Short of tying her up and stuffing her in a bag, how do you suggest I do that?” Walker asked calmly.

  “Tie and stuff works for me.”

  “Kidnapping is a federal crime,” Walker said. “It’s hard to get away with such things when there are federal agents camped on your butt.”

  “Try sweet reason on her.”

  “I did.”

  Archer didn’t have to ask the outcome: Faith was still in Ruby Bayou. “E-mail directions to Ruby Bayou to – ”

  “Kyle already has them,” Walker interrupted. “He didn’t say anything to me about it.”

  “Probably didn’t want to rain on the baby parade.” Archer smiled slightly and kissed what he could reach of Hannah’s strong, nimble fingers. “Probably not. If the sheriff is as stupid as he sounds, you’ll need the name of a good local lawyer. I’ll put Mitch on it.”

  “He took care of it while I was on hold. The woman’s name is Samantha Butterfield and she’s been in the South since the first mosquito hatched. Knows where all the local bodies are buried, who buried them, who went to jail for it, and who didn’t.”

  “Does she know the damned sheriff?”

  “Second cousins.”

  “Kissing kin, huh?”

  “Down here, we’re more serious about our cousins than just kissing,” Walker said wryly. “We like to keep things in the family. Don’t want to spread all that poverty too wide, hear?” Despite his tension, Archer laughed.

  Hannah smiled. Walker was one of the few people who could knock Archer out of full work mode. Then she remembered the circumstances the last time she talked on the phone with Walker. She didn’t know whether to laugh or blush. She supposed it served her right for teasing Archer when he was on the phone, but it had been so delicious to listen to him carry on a rational business conversation while she seduced him.

  She wondered what would happen if she did it again. Right now. Right here.

  He would probably do what he had the last time – pull her on like a glove, hand her the phone to talk to Walker, and then make her forget her own name.

  Archer felt Hannah’s touch change from medicinal to sensual. His blood heated, his heartbeat kicked, and the fit of his pants changed. He figured he had a minute before she got him unzipped. Maybe two.

  He was hoping for one.

  “Get Faith on a plane if you can,” Archer said.

  “And if I can’t?”

  “Take care of her any way you have to. Lawyers are cheap.”

  The line went dead.

  As Walker disconnected, he hoped that Samantha Butterfield didn’t look like the north end of a southbound mule. Unless he got real lucky, he would be spending a lot of time with the formidable southern lawyer.

  “Faith?” he called.

  There was no answer.

  Walker went through the house very quickly. Faith was nowhere to be seen. The gardens were empty. The rickety wharf stood vacant in the sun.

  He swore in Afghani with deep conviction and considerable expertise. He knew if he told her not to let him out of her sight, she would tell him to go to hell. So he hadn’t given her any orders.

  Now she was gone.

  Trying to still the rush of adrenaline in his blood, Walker untied one of the battered oyster skiffs and started rowing. Boats were the fastest means of travel in the murky depths of Ruby Bayou.

  28

  Faith hesitated, trying to remember which path she had taken down from the house. The faint dirt tracks braided their way along the dunes and through the scrub in startling confusion. She was beginning to think she might be lost.

  Well, not lost, exactly. She knew where the ocean was. She knew where Ruby Bayou was. She just didn’t know how to get from here to there through the knife-blade grass, waist-deep mud, and brackish water so dark it could have been a mile deep. Or an inch.

  “Faith?”

  She jumped before she recognized Walker’s voice. He was calling from somewhere out in the tall marsh grass.

  “I’m over here.”

  “Yeah, I figured that out. But I’m damned if I can figure out how you got there.”

  “Me too,” she admitted.

  “Stay put and keep talking.”

  “What about?”

  “Anything you wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the local paper.”

  “Darn. And here I was fixing to talk dirty to you.”

  “Just as well. My poor old heart couldn’t take it.”

  Faith’s laugh was as silky and hot as the sun pouring over the uncertain margin between ocean and land.

  “Talk to me, sugar,” Walker said.

  “I’m trying to think about something that wouldn’t get us arrested.”

  “Good idea. Bondage only works in books.”

  She snickered, drew a breath, and memories came flooding back. She didn’t know why the restless breeze and the earthy smell of wet ground called up an incident that had happened years ago and thousands of miles across the continent, but at least she had something to talk about.

  “When we were thirteen,” she said, speaking in a voice that would carry to Walker, wherever he might be in the tall grass, “Honor and I sneaked out after bedtime and rode our bikes to the local make-out place.”

  “Keep talking.”

  “We watched Archer at work on Libby Tallyman, who was two years older than he was. Talk about sucking tonsils…”

  Walker laughed out loud. He eased the flat-bottomed, leaky skiff through a shallow spot, poling against mud that was almost as liquid as water in places. For a moment he thought he was going to get stuck. Again. Then the skiff went through the narrow opening between clumps of grass.

  A startled heron took off with a squawk.

  “What was that?” Faith asked anxiously.

  “Shitepoke. Keep talking. It’s easy to lose direction in all this grass.”

  “Kyle followed us.” She stood on her tiptoes and looked, but all she saw was the marsh grass. She hadn’t known it was tall enough to hide a man. Maybe Walker was wading through the mud. “He threatened to snitch us off to Archer unless we agreed t
o do his dishes for a week and his laundry for a month.”

  “Out-and-out blackmail.”

  Walker’s voice now came from Faith’s left. She turned and stared. Nothing.

  “The worst kind of blackmail,” she agreed. “You know how unpleasant a brother’s dirty socks are? Especially to delicate little flowers like we were. Yuck! But we agreed. Anything was better than one of Archer’s endless lectures.”

  Walker chuckled.

  She looked for him again. She could tell he was closer, but she still couldn’t see him. Sound carried a long way in the marsh. “Where are you?”

  “Behind a tongue of mud and marsh grass. Keep talking. I’m liking the picture of you and Honor doing your brother’s laundry.”

  “We’re smarter than that. We let Kyle herd us home, then we waited. Sure enough, he slipped out and got on his bike. We followed him back to the make-out spot. He hid where we had before and watched. You should have seen his eyes. Did I mention that Libby had the biggest boobs in the county?”

  “Nope, but I’m getting the picture.”

  “A cow at milking time?” Faith asked innocently.

  “Never seen one of them.”

  “She had two, actually.”

  Walker gave up and laughed. “There you go.”

  “Where? I haven’t moved.”

  He pushed back from a blind tongue of water that ended in a mudbank. “Just full of sass and vinegar, aren’t you?”

  “Moi? You must be thinking of my twin.”

  Quietly he poled around a bunch of reeds. Faith stood thirty feet away, her back to him, just on the other side of a low ridge of grass. She wore jeans that were old enough to be soft and tight enough to make him remember where she was the hottest.

  “What I’m thinking about,” he said, “is that sweet spot I found last night.”

  His voice was low, husky, and seemed close. But she still couldn’t find him. She made an impatient sound and peered over the grass toward the trees. No one. “Think out loud. I can’t see you yet.”

  “I’m thinking about how I’d like to slide you out of those jeans again. I’m thinking about the way the backs of your thighs feel against my palms when I – ”

  She cleared her throat loudly and started talking. Fast. “And I’m thinking about the front page of that newspaper you mentioned.”

  “Turn around, sugar. No one’s here but us.”

  She looked over her shoulder. Walker was screened by a clump of grass. Or standing in the mud. Or something. It was a lot wetter out where he was than where she was.

  “I knew you were good, sugar,” she said huskily, “but I didn’t know you could walk on water.”

  Laughter and an odd sort of pain sliced through Walker. He found himself wishing that he could put Faith into the skiff, glide from marsh to bayou, and disappear with her.

  Forever.

  Take care of her any way you have to. Lawyers are cheap.

  The best way he could take care of her was to get her back to Seattle and then disappear. She was a forever-and-family kind of woman. All he would let himself be was a here-and-now, solitary kind of man. The cost of failing someone else was just too high.

  For the second time in his life, Walker wished all the way to his soul that things could be different.

  Nothing changed except the amount of pain he carried around inside him.

  He wasn’t surprised. He had learned a long time ago that wishing didn’t change a damned thing.

  “What are you doing?” Faith asked.

  He eased the skiff around the mound of grass. “I’m thinking about the best way to get you into this skiff without getting you muddy as a frog hunter.”

  The sexy humor in her eyes disappeared as she saw the disreputable-looking skiff. “Me? In that? Forget it. I’d rather be lost in the marsh.”

  “It’s a good skiff.”

  “It’s a piece of crap.”

  He gave the oars a deceptively easy pull. The prow of the little boat buried itself in the grass about six feet away from her. “Climb aboard.”

  “I wouldn’t get in if my life depended on it,” Faith said flatly.

  Walker looked over his shoulder at her. She wasn’t kidding.

  “Don’t like small boats?” he drawled.

  “Wrong. I loathe them.”

  “Any particular reason?”

  “I spent the most terrifying hours of my life with Honor and my brothers in a small boat. Naturally the younger sisters were facedown in the fish and stinky water at the bottom of the boat while the boys worked like hell to get us ashore before the wind or waves dumped all of us into the strait. Where, by the way, the water temperature would have killed us in about half an hour.”

  “There’s no wind here, no waves, and the water isn’t cold.”

  “I’m happy for you.”

  “But you’re not getting in the boat.”

  “Right.”

  “I’ll let you sit up just like one of the guys,” Walker drawled. “No, thanks.”

  “I’ll bail it out.”

  “Hang colored lights and banners if you like. I’m still staying on land.”

  “You’re really scared, aren’t you?” he said quietly.

  “Give the boy a gold star for figuring it out.” Faith’s voice, like her mouth, was tight.

  He laid the pole aside and climbed out easily over the bow, dragging the little skiff well above the reach of the slowly rising tide. When he turned toward her, she backed away as though afraid he would grab her and dump her in the skiff.

  “Easy, Faith,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

  She took a shaky breath and a better grip on her nerves. Walker wasn’t the kind of bully who would grab her and force her to do something – for her own good, of course.

  “I know,” she said. “Sorry. Some people are terrified of snakes, or bats, or moths, or heights, or caves. I’m terrified of little boats.”

  “Sounds like you have reason. I guess it didn’t take Honor that way, since she and Jake spend so much time on his boat. Or is it only open skiffs and such that bother you?”

  “Both Honor and I were terrified by anything less than a ship for years. Until Kyle disappeared, Honor refused to board any craft shorter than two hundred feet. But the only way for her to help Kyle was to use a small boat.” Faith shrugged jerkily. “Honor used the damn thing. After a while, she came to love it. And Jake. He had a lot to do with it.”

  “Well, nothing so dire as death or love is at stake, so let’s see if we all can’t find our way out of this little bit of tidal marsh on foot.”

  “What about that?” she asked, pointing toward the skiff as though it was a snake.

  “I’ll take care of it.”

  Walker checked that the skiff was secure before he led Faith over her back trail. It took several false turns before he found the point where she had turned wrong. Soon muddy clumps of grass gave way to sandy scrub. From there, the path to the beach was clear.

  “If you know the way to the house from here,” he said, “I’ll get the skiff and meet you at the dock.”

  “I know the way. Just go up that dip in the sand berm and follow the path to the live oaks. But I want to go shelling some more.”

  Walker tried to think of a nice way to tell her to head back to Ruby Bayou where he could keep an eye on her. If he gave her an order, she would get her back up and walk the beach until hell froze solid.

  Sensing his reluctance, Faith dug in her jeans pocket and pulled out the swirling fragment of whelk. “The lines of the shells here are incredible. Elegant yet powerful.”

  “Sounds like your jewelry.”

  She smiled almost shyly, pleased all over again that he truly liked her work. “With luck, some of it will be.”

  Walker made his decision – roundabout rather than head-on. “Watch what you pick up. The cone shells are poisonous if the snail is still alive. They won’t kill you, but they sure won’t help you, either.”

&nb
sp; She blinked. “Poisonous snails?”

  “This is the Low Country, sugar, home of copperheads and cottonmouths and even a rattler or two. Anything that survives here likely has teeth or a stinger. Or both.”

  “Does that include people?”

  He smiled, showing two rows of hard white teeth. “What do you think?”

  She looked beyond the smile to the tension around his dark blue eyes. “I think I’ll head back to the house and see if Mel is awake. She hasn’t been here long enough to bite or sting.”

  “There you go.”

  “Since I’m being so nice about it, why don’t you tell me the real reason you don’t want me on the beach alone.”

  “Kyle’s gut. Archer’s orders.”

  “Oh.” She blew out a breath as she shoved the shell back in her pocket. “Well, damn,” she drawled as she turned toward the path to Ruby Bayou. “I sure do wish that boy would eat more antacids.”

  Walker laughed, then grabbed Faith and held her close. The gardenia, salt, and woman scent of her went to his head like the best bourbon.

  “Thank you,” he said against her hair.

  “For what?”

  “For not making me use the tie-and-stuff method.”

  She looked at him curiously. “Should I know what that means?”

  “I sure do hope not. See you at the dock.”

  “You might as well tell me. Sooner or later, I’ll find out what it means.”

  “Later works for me.”

  With a sideways look that promised retribution, Faith headed for the path that led to Ruby Bayou. Walker watched until her bright hair disappeared beyond the brown marsh grass. Then he went back to get the skiff.

  It was gone.

  Adrenaline slammed through Walker. He didn’t bother looking for the little boat. He knew it hadn’t wandered off on its own. Heart racing, he ran back to the path to Ruby Bayou, hoping that whoever had stolen the boat wouldn’t beat him back to the house. Back to Faith.

  Protect her however you have to.

  He had tried. But now it looked like he had screwed up.

  Again.

  29

  Davis Montegeau drove the dirt road to Ruby Bayou with the blind stubbornness of a wounded animal dragging itself to its lair. He had to use his left foot for both accelerator and brake pedal, because his right leg was useless. The pain in his right knee was excruciating and nauseating by turns.

 
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