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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.34
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.34

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Who are you?” Mel asked bluntly. “Government.”

  “FBI?” Mel asked. “No.”

  “Then what?”

  Walker handed over the platter of ribs. “If she tells you, she’ll have to kill you.”

  “Funny,” April said. “Really funny.” She piled ribs on her plate. “Ms. Buchanan, you’re not cleared to take part in the discussion I’m about to have with these people. If you stay, you’ll end up in protective custody along with your future father-in-law. That’s assuming that the wedding is still on?”

  “Valentine’s Day,” Mel said, standing up. “Two days from now.”

  “I doubt that the matter will be cleared up by then,” April said, picking up a rib. “Your call.”

  Mel hadn’t been hungry to start with. She had even less appetite now. She tossed her napkin on the table. “I’m glad you find our situation so amusing.”

  There was no humor in April’s clear black eyes when she looked up from her plate. “Ms. Buchanan, I’m doing you a favor by letting you walk out of here. I could jail both you and your unborn child as material witnesses with criminal knowledge about an international smuggling operation.”

  “She doesn’t know anything,” Davis said roughly. He scrubbed his hands over his face, flinched at the pain, and stopped. “Damn it, she doesn’t know!”

  “He’s right,” Mel said in a tight voice. “All I know about the Montegeau finances is that Daddy Montegeau held the reins until very recently.”

  “So take a walk and keep your ignorance intact,” April said. She bit into a succulent rib and chewed thoughtfully, as though comparing southern barbecue with the Hunan her grandmother made.

  Mel stalked out of the room. She shut the door behind her. Hard.

  April worked on the rib until the bone was as clean as the Cheshire cat’s smile. Then she licked her fingers, scrubbed them off on her napkin, and said to Walker, “I’m giving you the same invitation I gave Ms. Buchanan.”

  “I’m turning you down.”

  “You figure you owe Archer Donovan enough to risk protective custody?”

  Faith slammed her knife down on the table, drawing April’s attention. “Walker doesn’t know anything about the Montegeau money,” Faith said flatly.

  “You keeping him in the dark, is that it?” April picked up another rib, bit into the spicy, savory meat, and began cleaning the bone.

  “Is that supposed to mean something?” Faith asked sardonically.

  “You’re a Donovan, so you can’t be as stupid as you sound.”

  Beneath the table, Walker’s hand closed over Faith’s thigh. She stiffened, then relaxed. There was nothing intimate in the pressure of his fingers. He was simply warning her to be careful.

  April glanced at Davis. “Nothing to say?” she invited.

  “I told the FBI every-”

  “Tell me,” April said coolly. “Tell me how you got the Heart of Midnight.”

  “I thought that was just a legend,” Walker said, lying easily.

  “It’s as real as the blood that will be spilled if we don’t get that ruby back to Russia real fucking quick.” April’s voice was flat, like her eyes watching Davis. “How did you get your hands on the stone?”

  “In a shipment with other jewelry.”

  “From?”

  “Marat Tarasov.”

  “You do much business with Russian mafiyas?”

  “Tarasov is a businessman. At least, I believed he was.”

  April’s quick tongue flicked over her fingers while she watched Davis with eyes like slices of midnight. “So are half the businessmen in the former Soviet Union. What about Dmitry Sergeyev Solokov? You do business with him, too?” Even before Davis answered, she read the blank look on his face. Bloody hell. There goes that possibility. The clean bone hit her plate with a faint clinking sound.

  “I’ve never heard of him,” Davis said. “Is he another exporter?”

  “What did you do with the Heart of Midnight?” April asked.

  Davis looked at his plate. Grease and barbecue sauce swirled against the white bone china like an ugly nouvelle sauce. Slaw wept trails of milky tears. He picked up a hush puppy and bit into it. Tender, fragrant… and it tasted like sawdust.

  “I lost it,” he said heavily.

  “That’s not what you told Ivan Ivanovitch.”

  “Who?”

  “The man with the accent,” April said, reaching for another rib. “The one who likes to carve pictures into people with his knife, while he watches them bleed to death.”

  A choked sound was Davis’s only answer.

  “You listening, Faith?” April asked.

  “Why?” she countered.

  “Because unless you turn the Heart of Midnight over to me, you’re next in line for the knife.”

  “I can’t give you what I don’t have.”

  April shrugged, wiped her fingers on her napkin, and reached for a glass of ice water. “You’d do better to have it. Trust me. If you can’t do that, trust your brother. Archer would be the first to tell you to hand the damned stone over. Right, Walker?”

  “Sure enough. There’s just one little problem. Faith doesn’t have the stone. She never did.” He smiled ironically as he gave April’s words back to her. “Trust me. If you can’t do that, wire Davis to a little black box and ask him whether he ever sent the stone to Faith Donovan.” Eyes the color of dark blue death focused on Davis. “So tell me, old man, did you send Faith the big ruby?”

  “No,” Davis said hoarsely. “I lied to the Russian who called. I was too scared to do anything else. I thought I could buy some time to find it. But it’s gone. Most of the time I can’t even believe I ever had it.”

  April leaned forward and tapped a clean rib bone against the china. She didn’t want to believe Davis.

  But she did.

  She dropped the bone against the plate where it lay beside the other, like ivory against snow. “Well then, boys and girls, you’ve got yourselves one hell of a problem. Ivanovitch is after the stone and he’s not going to believe you don’t know where it is. If I were you, Davis, I’d cozy up to the FBI like stink on shit. They’ll keep you alive.”

  Davis closed his eyes.

  April’s black glance shifted to Faith. “Too had you can’t get the same protection. If what you and Davis say is true, the Heart of Midnight is gone. Too bad Ivanovitch won’t believe you. After he works on you for a while, you’ll tell him whatever you think he wants to hear. That’s the problem with torture. As a way to get the truth, it’s overrated. But that won’t be your problem. You’ll be dead as a plate of barbecued ribs.”

  32

  Walker paced in the garden until he was out of patience. Then he went inside and headed for the dining room. Faith had been avoiding being alone with him, and he was damn tired of it. She had been in the dining room for more than an hour now, with the door closed, supposedly drinking afterdinner coffee.

  He opened the door. “Is this a solitary game, or can two play?”

  Reluctantly Faith looked away from the lineup of Montegeau ancestors and their bloodred ruby jewelry. Something about the jewels and Tiga’s odd monologues kept teasing her mind. She hadn’t been able to chase it down yet, but she kept feeling there was something there, something important.

  In any case Faith wasn’t eager to face Walker, who was watching her with blue eyes burning darkly. She had been an idiot to be angry with him for not telling her up front that he had been assigned by Donovan International as her bodyguard. The evidence had certainly been there, right in front of her eyes.

  She just hadn’t wanted to admit that Walker looked at her as a job. With some delightful side benefits, to be sure, but still just a job.

  Yet what made her furious was that even now, even knowing that she was his job rather than his woman, her skin still heated and her stomach still quivered just at the thought of being his lover again. She knew how soft his beard was, how clever his tongue, how easily he brought her t
he ecstasy that she hadn’t even believed existed.

  Even worse, she liked being with him out of bed. She liked his slow smile and quick mind, his gentleness with those who deserved it and his impatience with those who didn’t.

  It was hard to stay mad at a man you loved.

  And no one could wound her as fast and deep as someone she loved.

  “Game,” she said bitterly. “That’s what it all is, isn’t it? Just a damned game with rubies and souls as the markers.”

  “That’s all life is, a game, and when you lose you’re dead.”

  Walker came into the room and stood close enough to Faith to inhale her gardenia and woman scent with every breath he took. He knew he was torturing himself and he didn’t care.

  “Right now you’re thinking I checked in to your bed like it was a Holiday Inn, and that I’ll check right out of it the same way when my business is done,” he said roughly.

  She shrugged despite the tightness of her shoulders. “As you said, just a game.”

  “You’re wrong, sugar. And I wish to hell you weren’t.”

  “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

  “Lot played life as a game. Pull the devil’s tail and run like hell. And if he wasn’t fast enough, I’ll take care of the demons. It worked, up until he tried to beat some Afghani smugglers at their own game. By the time I fought free of the men who jumped me, Lot was dead. Game over.”

  Faith grimaced in unwilling sympathy.

  “I lost the game for him,” Walker said flatly. “I don’t deserve to play with anyone else.”

  She tilted her head to one side and studied him as though he was an unusual gem. “If you keep saying that long enough, sugar, maybe you’ll really believe it. I don’t.”

  “Damn it, Faith. I’m no good for you.”

  “Well, you fooled me on that one.”

  “I’m not talking about sex.”

  “Neither am I.”

  “Shit.”

  “Same here.” Her smile was all edges and no warmth. “As Hannah would say, no worries, mate. I’m finally an adult. I’m responsible for my own feelings and what I do about them. You’re responsible for yours. And I’ll make sure Archer doesn’t fire your very talented ass for sleeping with his baby sister. If I word it right, he might even give you the raise you’ve been after.”

  For a raging instant, Walker thought he was going to lose his temper.

  So did Faith. She was looking forward to it. She wanted to know, needed to know, that she could cut him as hard and deep as he cut her. She stood up from the table and turned to face his rage.

  “Is that what you think of me?” Walker said finally, softly. “That I’m fucking my way to a raise?”

  She wanted to say yes, to light the match to both their tempers and watch the explosion. She was shocked that she would deliberately goad a man to fury; the realization told her just how much she trusted Walker’s steely self-control.

  “No,” she said tightly. “I’m sorry. Neither one of us deserved that. I could plead the pressure of circumstances, but it would be a lie. You hurt me without meaning to. I wanted to hurt you back.” She almost smiled. “Guess I’m not as adult as I thought.”

  Walker didn’t know he was going to reach for her until he felt her in his arms. He didn’t know he was going to kiss her until her taste filled his senses like thirty-year-old bourbon, hot and fine and potent.

  She didn’t fight him or herself. If this was all there was, she would take it.

  “Damn, sugar,” he groaned finally. “What am I going to do about you?”

  She took a shaky breath. “What do you want to do?”

  “Remember that book we talked about?”

  “The Kama Sutra?”

  “Yeah.” He grinned slowly. “That’s the one.”

  “Sounds like a good start. Except…”

  “What?”

  “Did they have Victorian claw-footed hathtuhs then?”

  “We’ll write a new hook.”

  “Good idea.”

  Walker went to the door, closed it firmly, and jammed a side chair under the knob. Then he went to the windows and drew the drapes. “I just had a better idea than bathtubs.”

  She raised her elegant blond eyebrows. “So did I. Bet I can get you out of your clothes before you get me out of mine.”

  “You’re on.”

  It was close, but they both won. The ruby necklace hit the floor the same time her panties did.

  Faith lay on the dining room floor with her head on Walker’s bare, muscular shoulder. Idly she traced the line of his ribs as she studied the portraits again.

  “You trying to tickle me?” he asked lazily.

  “Nope.”

  “You’re doing a damn fine job of it.”

  “Suffer.”

  He laughed silently and started to pull her over on top of him. To his surprise, she fought.

  “Wait!” she said urgently.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Remember what Tiga said?”

  Walker drew back until he could focus his eyes on Faith. “Which time?”

  “In the marsh. Oh, damn, you weren’t there.” Faith stared at the ancestors on the wall. “She talked about a wide gold bracelet with hundreds of rubies.”

  Walker shifted until he could follow Faith’s glance. “Like the one that hook-nosed battle-ax in the picture is wearing?”

  “She’s not that ugly.”

  “The hell she isn’t.”

  Faith looked at the next portrait. “There was something about a crown of thorns with blood at the tips.”

  “Like the blond beauty on the left, the one who reminds me of you? She’s wearing a spiky tiara with a ruby at the end of each needle.”

  “She’s not that beautiful.”

  “The hell she isn’t.”

  Faith laughed softly while Walker’s beard stroked her throat like a silk brush. The gentle edge of his teeth made her breath catch. “Don’t distract me,” she said. “I’m working on something here.”

  “So am I,” he said, but he stopped nibbling.

  “‘A long ruby rope, burning hate, burning hope…’” she whispered, remembering Tiga’s words.

  Walker sensed as much as felt the uneasy shiver course through Faith. He looked at the wall and saw a portrait of a young woman with a necklace of ruby beads wrapped around her neck six times before falling almost to her hips.

  “Then she talked about pecans….” Faith said.

  “Nuts, in more ways than one.”

  “No. It makes a kind of weird sense, somehow. Let me think.” Faith frowned. It wasn’t hard to remember her conversation with Tiga in the marsh. Eerie, spooky, like a kid tiptoeing through a Halloween cemetery. “Rope. There was something about silver rope. And souls – those are rubies in Tiga’s personal language – the size of pecans, hanging by silver rope from her ears, swinging like dead men.”

  Walker grunted and looked around the dining room. “Behind us. The brunette with the big teeth.”

  Faith looked. Sure enough, the young woman was wearing a pair of earrings with spectacular rubies dangling from twisted silver.

  “‘They don’t cry, can’t sigh, dead as only a hanged man can be’,” she murmured, remembering.

  “So Tiga remembers what some of the ancestors are wearing. So what?”

  Unconsciously Faith’s fingers tightened on Walker’s arm.

  “Find the king or the queen,” she said, “the ruby that is ‘too big for a cat or a child to swallow’.”

  Walker stared around the room. “There are lots of rubies in those portraits, but none of them look quite that big.”

  “Nor are any of them surrounded by gems that are as white as blood is red. Angel tears. Pearls, Walker. Natural pearls.”

  “Sweet Jesus,” he whispered. “She saw it. She saw the Heart of Midnight.”

  “She saw more than that. She told me, ordered me, begged me, to find the rest of the queen’s court.”

/>   “The rest?”

  Faith looked around the room at the Montegeau ancestors lined up in all their silks and satins and ruby glory. The detail in the portraits was precise, as though the artist had been instructed as to just what was important to show future generations: rubies, not people.

  Thirteen new souls just for me, and the fourteenth to set you free, a soul as big as your sweet little fist, angel tears for my dead baby. When you give me the thirteen, we will both be free.

  “Thirteen curves, thirteen rubies,” Faith said simply. “Mel’s necklace. Tiga knew.”

  “Wait. From what Davis said, there were fourteen rubies in the Heart of Midnight necklace, not counting the big one.”

  “And only thirteen in Mel’s, because one was mine to keep for making the necklace. But Tiga didn’t know that. She only saw the drawings.”

  “Not if Davis kept them locked in the safe the way he said he did. No. Scratch that. Tiga probably knew the combination.”

  “She was more than four years older than her brother,” Faith said. “Maybe her mother gave her the combination before she died. Maybe Tiga knew it all along. Whatever. Tiga told me I had to bring the thirteen souls to her, that they belonged in the Blessing Chest, that I wouldn’t be free until I brought them to her.”

  “And you’re her precious baby.”

  Remembering Tiga’s pain and urgency and hope, Faith closed her eyes in helpless empathy and whispered, “‘You must bring it to me, precious. It belongs in the Blessing Chest, not a noose around your neck. I can’t bear hearing you scream, let-me-go, let-me-go…’”

  Walker grimaced and held Faith even closer. “I’ll bet Ruby was her baby’s name. I’ll bet that little girl baby was blond with misty blue eyes. I’ll bet the first time Tiga saw you, she thought her prayers had been answered, that God had given her daughter back.”

  “Child of incest,” Faith said raggedly. “It wasn’t the baby’s fault. It wasn’t Tiga’s. But they’re the ones who suffered. My God, Walker. Do you suppose that Tiga’s mother actually took her granddaughter into the marsh and drowned her?”

 
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