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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.4
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.4

           Elizabeth Lowell
slower 1  faster

  “The muggers can. The last one was two doors down and twenty-one hours ago.”

  She grimaced. It was the rash of muggings, robberies, and assaults that had made Archer decide to assign – Donovan International security guard to Timeless Dreams, and her. Today he had informed her that Walker was her new shadow. When she had retorted that she couldn’t see how much good Walker would do leaning on a cane, Archer had just looked at her and then gone back to trying to sort out Donovan International contracts in a world where national boundaries changed with the six-o’clock news.

  “About that insurance,” Walker said again.

  “I’m checking out the cost of separate insurance for the necklace, just for the Savannah show and the travel out there.”

  “No one will handle it without an appraisal. A real one, from a GIA-certified lab or one of equal reputation.”

  Silence.

  “Are the stones with an appraiser now?” he asked.

  “No.” Reluctantly she added, “I haven’t found a qualified appraiser who could guarantee getting them back to me in time to set them in Mel’s necklace for the Savannah show.”

  “Archer wondered about that.” So had Walker, but he wouldn’t earn any points mentioning it.

  Faith’s mouth flattened. Her brother had done more than wonder about it. He had quizzed her almost as thoroughly as Walker and a lot less patiently. “I told Archer I’d take care of it.”

  “No problem. I’ll appraise the rubies for you.”

  “You’re a certified appraiser?” she asked, surprised.

  “I know rubies. If I say they’re worth a million, Archer will insure them for a million with Donovan money.”

  “I didn’t know you were a ruby expert.”

  “There’s a lot about me you don’t know,” Walker said neutrally. And thank God for it. “Where are the rubies now?”

  “Right here.”

  As she spoke, she opened one of the belly drawers in the long workbench and pulled out a small cardboard box. It held a bunch of slim, neat little paper packets stacked on edge. Each jeweler’s packet held a single gemstone.

  “Judas Priest,” Walker muttered. “No wonder Archer told me to practice being your skin until you handed the necklace over. You don’t even keep the damn rubies in a safe.”

  “I have to work with the damn rubies,” Faith pointed out with transparent sweetness. Her smile was a double row of hard white teeth. “That’s what I do. Design and execute jewelry. Contrary to what my brothers think, I’m a big girl who is quite capable of running her own business. Handling valuable gems is part of that business.”

  “Most people with a million in loose gems have an armed guard at the door.”

  “I have a man with a cane.”

  “Sure enough, you do. Ain’t it grand.”

  This time Faith didn’t miss the steel buried in his gentle drawl. “I’m glad it’s good for someone,” she said under her breath.

  Walker heard. “And that someone isn’t you?”

  “It’s not the first time the man had all the fun.”

  “Are you comparing me to a certain pile of road apples?”

  “Road apples don’t have lapis lazuli eyes.”

  Walker opened his mouth, closed it, and shook his head. “Help me out here. I’m pretty sure I just lost the direction of this conversation. What does lapis have to do with horseshit?”

  “Exactly. You’re not lost at all.”

  Suddenly he laughed, enjoying her quick, slightly skewed sense of humor.

  Despite having promised herself that she would keep Walker at a coolly professional distance, Faith couldn’t help smiling at him with warmth as well as teeth. It was nice to know that someone outside of her family could share an off-the-wall joke with her. Tony hadn’t liked her “snotty” sense of humor.

  “Kyle used to claim that trying to follow my sister’s and my conversation was like trying to predict where a butterfly would land next,” Faith said.

  “Easy. Wherever the nectar is sweetest.” Walker’s vivid, dark blue eyes lingered over her mouth. Then his smile faded and he walked the few steps that separated him from the workbench. The hitch in his gait irritated him more than it hurt. It was a reminder of how stupid he had been. Almost as stupid as he was being now, swapping smiles with Archer’s little sister and wondering if her mouth tasted half as hot and sweet as it looked.

  Faith’s smile wavered. While her unwanted guard wasn’t as big as her brothers – much less Tony – there was something very solid about Walker. It made her grateful for his limp. If she had to, she could run rings around him.

  “Do you have a loupe in one of those drawers?” he asked. “Shore ‘nuf,” she said, imitating his soft drawl. He ignored her, because it was smarter than doing what he wanted to do.

  “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, rummaging in the drawer. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

  He looked at her bent head and the teeth biting into her lower lip. “What way?”

  “Insulting. You know. The male ego thing.” He knew that the Donovan males didn’t insult that easily. Neither did any man worthy of the name. “I suppose you’re talking about ol’ road apples again.” Faith stiffened.

  “Well,” Walker drawled. “I’m male and I have an ego and teasing me about my accent doesn’t insult me or threaten me or any of those man-woman discussion-group things. Your southern accent needs some work, though. Good thing I’m an expert.”

  She let out a soft breath and gave him the loupe. “I’ll keep my childish attempts at humor to myself.”

  His eyes narrowed at the echoes of old pain in her voice. “Now, that would be right disappointing, sugar. Nothing is as wearisome as a female with no sense of play.”

  “Sugar!” Faith’s head shot up.

  Grinning, he opened the loupe. “Gotcha. Nice thing about sisters. Their brothers teach them how to rise to the bait real quick.”

  “I knew it. You’re somebody’s brother.”

  The humor vanished from Walker’s eyes, leaving them the deep, empty blue of high-mountain twilight. “Not anymore.”

  He propped his cane against the bench and focused his attention on the box of tiny paper parcels.

  “I didn’t mean – ” she began.

  “I know,” he said, cutting across her words as he selected a fragile little parcel that was barely half the size of his palm. “Forget it.”

  She sensed that he meant it. Literally. But she couldn’t forget the emptiness in his eyes. She hadn’t meant to hurt him, yet she knew she had. She just didn’t know how.

  After a moment’s hesitation, Faith let it go. Walker’s pain or pleasure was none of her business. She wasn’t his girlfriend; the care and feeding of his male ego wasn’t her fulltime job. It was a good thing, too. She had been as lousy at it as she had been as a lover.

  But I’m a hell of a good jewelry designer, she reminded herself fiercely. That was where her future lay – business, not pleasure. She would be the artistic, eccentric aunt who kept cats and brought her nieces and nephews gifts from all over the world at Christmas.

  Broodingly she watched Walker unwrap the first ruby with quick, deft motions. His familiarity with the thin paper told her that he had unwrapped a lot of gems.

  Curiosity flicked through her, the same curiosity she had felt the first time she had seen the quiet, easy-moving man with the soft voice and slow speech. He had struck her as unassuming, almost shy, but according to her sister-in-law Lianne, Walker’s nerve and quick thinking had saved the day when the Donovans had conducted a midnight raid on an island to recover a priceless, stolen jade shroud.

  “Tweezers?” Walker asked.

  She fished around in another belly drawer and handed over a long pair of tweezers with an angle on the pinching ends.

  He took the tool without looking up from the single stone that burned like an ember against the backdrop of stark white paper. Whistling tunelessly, he positioned one of the goose-necked work lamps, held the
ruby between his eye and the intense light, and looked through the loupe.

  It was like falling into another universe, an alien, exquisite universe where red was the only reality, the only meaning, the only god.

  The slight irregularities and “silk” inside the stone twisted light into new directions. Every faint impurity reassured Walker. Only man was obsessed with perfection. Natural rubies were created from the heart of planetary fire, a volcano’s seething, secret, molten blood transforming ordinary rock into something extraordinary, unearthly. Yet traces of the earthly beginnings always remained.

  It was those imperfections Walker sought and savored. Each small flaw, each slight patch of silk, told him that the bloodred gem he held came from a distant, ancient mine rather than one of man’s clever, high-tech laboratories.

  “Well?” Faith asked.

  “Nice red.”

  “I can see that for myself.”

  “Just enough silk to tell me that it hasn’t been cooked by some Bangkok gem chef or created by U.S. labs.”

  “I could have told you that. The stones were taken from old Montegeau family jewelry.”

  Walker’s dark eyebrows shifted. “Must have been some real wealthy old Montegeaus. South Carolina?” he asked, because some curiosity would be expected. Archer had already filled him in on the basics.

  “How did you know?” Faith asked.

  He tried to think of a short way to explain that the Montegeaus had been the local gentry of his childhood, the rich folks whose house had always glittered like a crystal palace in the long nights when he had stalked the marshes and bayous, hunting for something edible.

  “I was a kid in South Carolina. Montegeaus were like gators – worth a lot on the hoof, always around, and sometimes real nasty.”

  “I thought alligators were protected.”

  “Sugar, ain’t nothing protected from a hungry man.”

  Faith’s head snapped up again. She saw instantly that Walker hadn’t called her “sugar” just to yank her chain. He probably hadn’t even realized what he said. He was whistling tunelessly again, totally focused on the gemstone burning in the tweezers’ delicate steel grip. Idly she wondered how many of his women he called “sugar,” and if he did it so he wouldn’t have to remember their names. Like Tony, whose all-purpose “baby” had covered a patchy memory for who he was with, especially when he was drinking.

  The memory sent a frisson of unease over her, like a chill breath across her forearms. She reminded herself that her life with Tony was over. She had learned her lesson. Picking a man because he was big and brawny enough to stand above her older brothers had been stupid. But she had wanted to prove to her family – and herself – that she could find a mate they respected, just like Honor had.

  After her twin married, Faith had felt adrift and alone. She and Honor had shared so many firsts with each other, from bras to boyfriends to driver’s licenses. No longer, though. Honor and Jake were a unit, parents of a wonderful little girl called Summer. The sisters still talked, still laughed together, still loved each other as only sisters could, but it was different now. It always would be.

  Until Faith had been left behind, she didn’t appreciate just how close she and her nonidentical twin were.

  “Next one?” Walker said.

  He was holding out the neatly wrapped package to her, gemstone safely inside again. Something about the look he gave Faith made her realize that he had tried to get her attention more than once.

  “Sorry,” she muttered, “I was thinking.” She pushed the small box of packets down the bench toward him. “Help yourself.”

  While he did, Walker wondered what thoughts had dimmed the gleam in Faith’s silver-blue eyes and put a downward curve on her soft mouth. He wondered, but he didn’t ask. It was none of his business. The fact that he wanted it to be his business just told him how much of a fool he was.

  Silently he filed the old packet, took a new one from the box, and removed the gem from its paper wrapper. Moments later he was back in the ruby universe where everything was pure color, glorious light, and reassuring imperfection.

  Completely magnificent.

  He had nearly been killed in hope of finding untreated rubies of this quality. The irony of discovering them in Faith’s belly drawer made him want to swear and smile at the same time.

  With a soft, rustling sound, Faith pulled out her sketch pad. Quickly she flipped to the back. Walker’s absentminded, oddly soothing whistle told her that he was caught up in the new ruby. She grabbed a mechanical pencil and began reworking a sketch for a client who was as fussy as he was rich. The man wanted something more “important-looking” than the spare yet lyrical elegance that had become the hallmark of Faith’s designs.

  Frowning, she studied the sketch. The customer wanted something lush yet not baroque, rich but not clunky, “impressive” but not heavy. The exotic sensuality of Lalique was “too feminine.” The geometries of the late twentieth century were “too masculine.”

  With a corner of her mind, she wondered if she would end up refusing the commission. Some clients simply couldn’t be pleased.

  Grimacing, Faith went to work on a new sketch. Gradually she forgot where she was, forgot Walker standing only a few feet away, forgot everything but the compelling curves and shadows of the design she was creating. Flaring lines suggested ferns uncurling in solid gold, with an opal moon cradled in the fronds and smaller opal raindrops caught randomly near the tips of each frond. The design could be a pendant or a brooch, a bracelet or a ring, earrings or a belt buckle. Only the size and delicacy needed to change.

  For a time the only sounds in the room were the rustle of paper, Walker’s low whistle, and the occasional shout of a self-appointed world saver holding forth in Pioneer Square.

  Finally Walker put back the thirteenth packet. He looked at the belly drawer and the elegant blonde who wasn’t aware of anything but her sketch pad. When she absently moved the valuable chunk of lapis lazuli to clear more space to draw, he shook his head in disbelief. She really didn’t have the faintest idea of what kind of trouble the Montegeau rubies could be.

  Saying nothing, he went to the front door of the shop, locked it, and flipped the sign to closed.

  “What are you doing?” she asked without looking up from her sketches.

  “Not me. We.”

  Faith’s head turned. The gooseneck lamp Walker had abandoned lit her face from the side and turned her eyes into silver-blue diamonds. “Excuse me?”

  “I need some equipment from my apartment. I can’t be in two places at once, so you’re coming with me.”

  “I have to work.”

  “Bring the sketch pad with you.”

  “This is ridiculous! I’ve spent a lot of time alone in my shop and never – ”

  “If you have a problem,” he cut in, “take it up with your family. I work for them.”

  She shot out of her chair, unlocked the door, and flipped the sign around. “I’m not going anywhere.”

  “Suit yourself, sugar girl,” he drawled, “but I’m taking these with me, where they’ll be safe.”

  He scooped up the box of rubies, grabbed his cane, and limped out of the shop without a backward look.

  Before he reached the curb, he was on the cellular to Donovan International’s security department. If those rubies were half as good as they had looked through the loupe, they opened up a whole new approach to getting around the Thai cartel’s stranglehold on the cut-ruby trade: Donovan International could mine old jewelry and thumb their nose at the cartel. The only problem was that when that kind of money and power clashed, danger was a certainty.

  You could die just as dead in a U. S. city as in the barren mountains of Afghanistan.

  5

  Faith looked up as the shop doorbell buzzed. She had wondered who would take Walker’s place. Now she knew.

  Ray McGuire waited patiently on the other side of the locked door. He was second-in-command of Donovan security, and often guar
ded members of the family. Lately he had spent a lot of time in her shop. She had objected to Archer that it wasn’t necessary. He had pointed out that all the locks, alarms, and safes in the world weren’t any good when you locked the shop door behind you, walked to your car, and found a gun in your back. Then you had no choice but to turn around, unlock the locks, turn off the alarms, open the safes, and pray that the guy with the gun didn’t kill you. Better to avoid the whole problem in the first place by never leaving your shop except with an armed guard.

  She pressed the button that released the front lock, letting Ray into the shop.

  “You must have run all the way,” she said, looking at her watch. “Walker hasn’t been gone ten minutes.”

  “I drove. I’m always glad to see you.” He smiled as he walked around the two small glass cases that displayed samples of Faith’s work. Curves of gold and the gleam of silver, flashes of sapphire and opal, diamond and topaz, ruby and tourmaline, pieces of God’s own rainbow. It always amazed him that such beauty could come from the ratty, burned workbench in the back of the shop. “You make the best coffee in Seattle.”

  “Flattery will get you a sixteen-ounce triple americano, no sugar.”

  Faith abandoned the design that she wasn’t making any progress on-she kept seeing lapis lazuli rather than the opals her client wanted – and went to the espresso maker she had installed at the back of the room.

  “You remembered,” he said, wiggling his salt-and-pepper eyebrows. They matched his short salt-and-pepper hair. “Does this mean you’re going to run away with me after all?”

  Steam hissed as she worked the machine with the skill of a sidewalk barista. “Millie would have my head.” Millie being Ray’s wife of sixteen years.

  “Millie refuses to learn how to make espresso. Says French press is better.”

  “No problem. I’ll teach you how to make espresso.”

  “Me?” he yelped in mock dismay. “What’s it all coming to?” he asked the ceiling. “Men learning to make fancy coffee. Women carrying guns. The last guard we hired was female, for God’s sake.”

  “Really? Remind me to ask for her next time.”

 
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