Midnight Bayou Page 29

A man who could rein himself in like that, she decided, had a will of iron. That was something else to consider.

"You've got it backwards," he told her.

"I'm using you to get to Miss Odette. She's the girl of my dreams.”

"I'm sorry.”

"Good, you should be.”

Lena waited until their water and bread were served. His tone had raised her hackles. Mostly, she could admit, because she'd deserved the quick slap. Folding her arms on the table, she leaned toward him.

"I am sorry, because that was nasty. I'm going to tell you something, Declan, nasty words have a habit of popping right out of my mouth. I don't always regret saying them. I'm not a sweet– mannered, even-tempered sort of woman. I don't have a trusting nature. I've got good points, but I've got just as many bad. I like it that way.”

He mimicked her posture. "I'm single– minded, competitive and moody. I've got a mean temper. It takes a lot to get it going, which is a fortunate thing for the general population. I don't have to have my way in the little things, but when I decide I want something, really want it, I find a way to get it. I want you. So I'll have you.”

She'd been wrong. He hadn't snapped back to mild. Anger was still simmering behind his eyes. As the one person she tried to be honest with at all times was herself, she didn't bother to pretend it didn't excite her.

"You're saying that to make me mad.”

"No, that's just a side benefit." He eased back, picked up the basket of bread, and offered it. "You want to fight?”

Feeling sulky, she picked out a piece. "Maybe later. Getting riled up spoils my appetite. Anyway." She shrugged, bit into the bread. "You don't want to go by Grandmama's today. She's over visiting her sister this afternoon.”

"I'll stop in later this week. I got the kitchen counters installed. Remy gave me a hand, so to speak, with the wall units yesterday. It should be finished in a couple of weeks.”

"Good for you." She wanted to brood, and could see by his amused expression that he knew it. "You been back up on the third floor?”

"Yeah." He'd had to prime himself with a good shot of Jim Beam first, but he'd gone back. "Didn't fall on my face this time, but I had a major panic attack. I'm not prone to panic attacks. I found out more about the Manet family history, but there are pieces missing. Maybe you've got them.”

"You want to know about Abigail Rouse.”

"That's right. How much do-was He broke off because she'd turned her attention away from him and back to Marco, who brought out their pasta. He reminded himself as they fell into a lazy discussion about the food, that the wheel turned more slowly in the South.

"How much do you know about her?" he asked when they were alone again.

Lena rolled up a forkful of pasta, slid it between her lips. She sighed deep, swallowed. "Mama Realdo. She's a goddess in the kitchen. Try yours," she ordered, and leaned over to sample from his plate.

"It's great. Best meal I've had since a microwave omelette.”

She smiled at him, one long, slow smile that lodged in his belly. Then went back to eating. "I know the stories that came down in my family. Nobody can say for sure. Abigail, she was a maid in the big house. Some of the rich families, they hired Cajun girls to clean for them, to fetch and carry. Story is that Lucian Manet came home from Tulane and fell in love with her. They ran off and got married. Had to run off, because nobody's going to approve of this. His family, hers.”

She broke off a chunk of bread, nibbled on it as she studied him. "Mixing classes is an uneasy business. He moved her into the Hall after, and that was an uneasy business, too. People say Josephine Manet was a hard woman, proud and cold. People started counting on their fingers, but the baby, she don't come for ten months.”

"That room upstairs. It m/'ve been the nursery. They'd have kept the baby there.”

"Most like. There was a nursemaid. She married one of Abigail's brothers later. Most of the stories about the Hall come from her. It seems a couple days before the end of the year, Lucian was off in New Orleans on business. When he came back, Abigail was gone. They said she'd run off with some bayou boy she'd been seeing on the side. But that doesn't ring true. The nursemaid, her name was … Claudine, she said Abigail never would've left Lucian and the baby. She said something bad had to have happened, something terrible, and she blamed herself because she was off meeting her young man down by the river the night Abigail disappeared.”

A dead girl on the tester bed in a cold room, Declan thought, and the pasta lodged in his throat like glue. He picked up the fizzy water, drank deep. "Did they look for her?”

"Her family looked everywhere. It's said Lucian haunted the bayou until the day he died. When he wasn't looking there, he was in town trying to find a trace of her. He never did, and didn't live long himself. With him gone, and the twin his mother favored by all accounts, dead as well, Miss Josephine had the baby taken to Abigail's parents. You've gone pale, Declan.”

"I feel pale. Go on.”

This time, when she broke off a hunk of bread, she buttered it, handed it to him. Her grandmama was right, Lena thought, the man needed to eat.

"The baby was my grandmama's grandmama. The Manets cast her out, claiming she was a bastard and no blood of theirs. They brought her to the Rouses with the dress she had on, a small bag of crib toys. Only thing she had from the Hall was the watch pin Claudine gave to her that had been Abigail's.”

Declan's hand shot out to cover hers. "Is the pin still around?”

"We hand such things down, daughter to daughter. My grandmama gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. Why?”

"Enameled watch, hanging from small, gold wings.”

Color stained her cheeks. "How do you know?”

"I saw it." The chill danced up his spine. "Sitting on the dresser in the bedroom that must have been hers. An empty room," he continued, "with phantom furniture. The room where Effie saw a dead girl laid out on the bed. They killed her, didn't they?”

Something in the way he said it, so flat, so cold, had her stomach dropping. "That's what people think. People in my family.”

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