Midnight Bayou Page 27

The pond, he thought, choked with lily pads, steaming with mists at dawn. "That had to be rough on the parents.”

"The father's heart gave out a few years later. Josephine lived several years more, but had a reversal of financial fortune. She had the house, some land, but had all but run out of money. Again, speculation is Julian had gambled a large part of it away, and it was never fully recouped.”

"Remy said there was a granddaughter. Lucian's or Julian's?”

"There's speculation there, too. Though the records show that Lucian married an Abigail Rouse in 1898, and that a daughter was born the next year, there's no record of Abigail's death. After Lucian was killed, the Manets declaimed the child, legally. Had her written out of the will. She was, apparently, raised by the Rouses. I can't find anything on Abigail Rouse beyond the legal records of her birth and her marriage.”

"Maybe they kicked her out when Lucian died.”

"Maybe. I talked to Remy about it." She wandered toward the windows, stared out at the messy gardens. "He's a little vague, but seems to recall hearing stories about how she ran off with another man.”

She turned back. "Stories from the Rouse side differ sharply. They lean toward foul play. You'd get a fuller picture of her, and what might've happened, if you talk to someone from the Rouse or Simone families.”

"A clear picture about a girl who ran off or died a hundred years ago.”

"Honey, this is the South. A hundred years ago was yesterday. She was seventeen when she married Lucian. She was from the bayou. His family could not have approved of such a match. I doubt her life in this house was rosy. Running off might've been just what she did. On the other hand … I saw something, someone, in that room upstairs. I don't believe in that sort of thing. Didn't." Effie fought back a shiver. "I don't know what I think about it now, but I sure would like to find out.”

"I'll ask Miss Odette. And Lena. I've got a date with her Monday.”

"Is that so?" The idea brightened her mood.

"Looks like we'll have more rumor and speculation." She handed him back the glass. "I have to get on. I'm sending Remy out here tomorrow to give you a hand and keep him out of my hair. I've got a fitting for my wedding gown and other bridal things to take care of.”

"I'll keep him busy.”

"Why don't you come back into town with him?" she said as she headed out. She wanted to lock her arm around his and tug him through the door and away. "We'll have some dinner, go out to the movies.”

"Stop worrying about me.”

"I can't help it. I think about you way out here, alone in this house, with that room up there." She glanced uneasily up the staircase. "It gives me the shivers.”

"Ghosts never hurt anybody." He kissed her forehead. "They're dead.”

But in the night, with the sound of the wind and rain, and the bang of spirit bottles, they didn't seem dead.

He gave himself Sunday. He slept late, woke to a sky fighting to clear, and spent another hour in bed with the books Effie had brought him.

She'd marked pages she felt would have the most interest for him. He scanned and studied old photographs of the great plantation houses. And felt a thrill race through him as he looked at the old black-and– white picture of Manet Hall in its turn-of-the-century splendor.

Formal photographs of Henri and Josephine Manet didn't bring the same thrill. With those there was curiosity. The woman had been undeniably beautiful, very much in the style of her day with the deep square bodice of her ball gown edged with roses, and the high, feathered comb adorning her upswept hair.

The gown, tucked into an impossibly small waist, gave her a delicacy accented by the sweep of the brocade skirts, the generously poofed sleeves that met the long white gloves.

But there was a coldness to her face, one Declan didn't think was a result of the rigidity of the pose or the quality of the print. It overwhelmed that delicacy of build and made her formidable.

But it was the photograph of Lucian Manet that stopped him in his tracks.

He'd seen that face, in his dream. The handsome young man with streaming gold hair, riding a chestnut horse at a gallop through the moss-laced oaks.

The power of suggestion? Had he simply expected the face in the dream to be real, and was he projecting it now onto the doomed Lucian?

Either way, it gave him the creeps.

He decided he'd drive into New Orleans and treat himself to a few hours' haunting the antique shops.

Instead, less than an hour later, he found himself walking into Et Trois.

It did a strong Sunday-afternoon business, he noted. A mix of tourists and locals. He was pleased he was learning to distinguish one from the other. The jukebox carried the music now, a jumpy number by BeauSoleil that do-si-doed around the chatter from tables and bar.

The scent of food, deeply fried, reminded his stomach he'd skipped breakfast. Recognizing the blond tending bar from his second visit, Declan walked up, tried a smile on her. "Hi. Lena around?”

"Back in the office. Door to the right of the stage.”

"Thanks.”

"Anytime, cutie.”

He gave the door marked PRIVATE a quick knock, then poked his head in. She was sitting at a desk, working at a computer. Her hair was clipped back and made him want to nibble his way up the nape of her neck.

"Hi. Where y'at?”

She sat back, gave a lazy stretch of her shoulders. "You're learning. What're you doing at my door, cher?”

"I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd see if you'd let me buy you lunch. Like a prelude to tomorrow night.”

She'd been thinking about him, more than was comfortable. Now here he was, all tall and rangy and male. "I'm doing my books.”

"And I've interrupted you. Don't you hate that?" He came in anyway, sat on the edge of the desk. "Bought you a present.”

It was then that she noticed the little gift bag he carried. "I don't see how you could've fit a new car in there.”

"We're working up to the car.”

She kept her eyes on his a moment longer as she took the bag from him. Then she dipped in for the box. It was wrapped in gold paper, with a formal white bow. She took her time with it, she'd always believed the anticipation was as important as the gift.

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