Midnight Bayou Page 39

"Stay away from me." He staggered away, toward Manet Hall, toward his chosen hell. "Stay away.”

"You know!" Claudine shouted after him. "You know she was true.”

Clutching the watch to her breast, Claudine vowed to pass it, and the truth, along to Abigail's daughter.

Manet Hall

February 2002

From his gallery, Declan watched the day come to life. Dawn was a rosy blush on the eastern sky, with hints of mauve, like sleepy bruises, just beneath. The air was warming. He could feel the rise of it almost every day. It wasn't yet March, but winter was bowing out.

The gardens that a month before had been a sorrowful wreck, showed hints of their former grandeur. Strangling vines, invasive weeds, deadwood and broken bricks had been hauled away, revealing foot by foot the wandering paths, the shrubs, even the bulbs and plants that had been too stubborn to die away.

An old iron arbor was wild with what the Franks told him was wisteria, and there was an island of massive azaleas that showed the beginning of hopeful buds.

He had magnolia, crape myrtle, camellia, jasmine. He'd written down everything he could remember the Franks reeled off in their lazy voices. When he'd described the vine he imagined on the corner columns, they'd told him what he wanted was morning glory.

He liked the sound of it. Mornings here were full of glory.

He thought his body was adjusting to the five or six hours of disturbed sleep a night he was able to snatch. Or maybe it was just nervous energy that was fueling him.

Something was pushing him, driving him step by step through the transformation of the house that was his. Yet somehow, not only his.

If it was Abigail hovering, she was a damn fickle female. There were times he felt utterly comfortable, totally at peace. And others when cold fear prickled the back of his neck. Times when he felt in his gut he was being watched.

Stalked.

Well, that was a woman for you, he thought as he sipped his morning coffee. All smiles one minute, and slaps the next.

Even as he thought it, he saw Lena and the big black dog step out of the trees.

He didn't think twice, but set his coffee aside and started for the gallery steps.

She'd seen him long before he'd seen her. From the shelter of the trees and morning mists, she'd stood, idly rubbing Rufus's head, and had studied the house. Studied him.

What was it about the place and the man that pulled at her so? she wondered. There were any number of great old houses here, along the River Road, on toward Baton Rouge.

God knew there were any number of good-looking men, if a woman was in the market for one.

But it was this house that had always snagged her interest and imagination. Now it seemed it was this man, jogging down the thick stone stairs in a ratty shirt, rattier jeans, his face rough with the night's beard, who had managed to do the same.

She didn't like to want. It got in the way of things. And when that want involved a man, well, it was just bound to mess up your life.

She'd built her life brick by goddamn brick. And she liked it, just as it was. A man, no matter how amiable he was, would, at best, alter the design. At worst, he'd send those bricks tumbling down to ruin.

She'd kept away from him since the night she'd taken him into her bed. Just to prove she could.

But she had a smile ready for him now, a slow, cat-at-the-mouse-hole smile, and stood her ground as the dog raced over, tearing through the ground fog, to meet him.

Rufus leaped, slopped his tongue over Declan's face, then collapsed, belly up, for a rub.

It was, Lena knew, Rufus's way of showing unconditional love.

Charms dogs, too, she thought as Declan crouched down to rub and wrestle. The man had entirely too much appeal for anybody's good.

Especially hers.

"Rufus!" she called out, bringing the dog to his feet in a flurry of muscle and limbs that nearly put Declan on his ass. And laughing, she tossed the ball she carried high in the air, nipped it handily on its fall. Rufus charged her, a blur of black fur and enthusiasm. She hurled the ball over the pond. Rufus sailed up, over the water, and nabbed the ball with his teeth seconds before his massive splash.

"The Bo Sox could use you two." As the dog paddled his way to shore, Declan strode up, cupped his hands under Lena's elbows, and lifted her off her feet. He had an instant to see her blink in surprise before he covered her mouth with his, and took her under.

She gripped his shirt, not for balance, though her feet were dangling several inches off the ground. But because he was under it, all that muscle and heat and man.

She heard the dog bark, three deep throaty rumbles, then the water he shook off himself drenched her. She wouldn't have been surprised if it had steamed off her skin.

"Morning," Declan said and dropped her back on her feet. "Where y'at?”

"Woo." She had to give him credit for both greetings, and pushed a hand through her hair. "Where y'at?" she responded, then reached up and rubbed a hand over his rough cheek. "Need a shave, cher.”

"If I'd known you'd come walking my way this morning, I'd have taken care of that.”

"I wasn't walking your way." She picked up the ball Rufus had dropped at her feet and sent it, and the dog, flying again. "Just playing with my grandmama's dog.”

"Is she all right? You said you stayed over with her when she wasn't feeling well.”

"She gets the blues sometimes, is all." And damn it, damn it, his instant and genuine concern touched her. "Missing her Pete. She was seventeen when they got married, and fifty-eight when he died. More'n forty years is a long time to mesh lives.”

"Would she like it if I went by later?”

"She likes your company." Because Rufus was thumping his tail impatiently, she winged the ball again.

"You said she has a sister. Any other family?”

"Two sisters, a brother, all still living.”

"Children?”

Her face shut down. "I'm all she's got there. You been into town for any of the partying?”

Off limits, he decided. He let it go, for the moment. "Not yet. I figured I'd go in tonight. Are you working?”

"Nothing but work till Ash Wednesday. People do like to drink before Lent comes.”

"Late hours for you. You look a little tired.”

"I don't much care for being up this early, but Grandmama, she's an early bird. She's up, everybody's up." She lifted her arms high, stretched. "You're an early bird yourself, aren't you, cher?”

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