Midnight Bayou Page 45

"I like knowing where I stand. If you don't know where you stand, you can't decide if that's where you want to be, or which direction you'd like to go from there.”

"And I'm f**king up your compass.”

"You could say that.”

"Good. I'm a pretty agreeable guy, Lena, but I'm not going to be lumped in with others you've dealt with. In fact, you won't deal with me at all. We'll deal with each other.”

"Because that's the way you want it.”

"Because that's the way it is." His tone was flat, final. "Nothing between us is like, or going to be like, anything either of us has had before. You may need some time to get used to that.”

"Is this how you get your way?" she demanded. "By listing off the rules in that annoyingly reasonable tone.”

"Facts, not rules," he corrected in what he imagined she would consider that annoyingly reasonable tone. "And it's only annoying because you'd be more confident having a fight. We've already eaten into the twenty minutes we could've earmarked for sex. Good sex, or a good fight, take time. I'm going to have to take a rain check on both.”

She stared at him, tried to formulate any number of withering remarks. Then just gave up and laughed. "Well, when you cash in your rain checks, let's do the fight first. Then we can have make-up sex. That's like a bonus.”

"Works for me. Do you have to get right back, or have you got a few minutes? I could use a hand hauling in and unrolling the rug I've got for in here. I was going to snag one of the counter guys, but with what I'm paying them, I'd as soon they stick with the counters.”

"Pinching pennies now? And you with all those big tubs of money.”

"You don't keep big tubs of money if you let yourself get hosed. Besides, this way I'd get to keep you here and look at you a little while longer.”

"That's clever." And the fact was, she wanted to stay, wanted to be with him. "All right, I'll help you with your rug before I go. Where is it?”

"Next parlor." He gestured to the connecting doors. "I've got most of what I've bought so far stuffed in here. I'm working in the library next, so I can clean out what goes in the front parlor and in there before I start on this one.”

Lena moved to the pocket doors he opened, then just goggled. Aladdin's cave, she thought, outfitted by a very rich madman with very eclectic taste. Tables, sofas, carpets, lamps, and what her grandmother would call doodads were spread everywhere.

"God Almighty, Declan, when did you get all this?"

"A little here, a little there. I tell myself no, but I don't listen. Anyway"– he began to pick his way through the narrow aisles his purchases formed-"it's a big house. It needs lots of … stuff. I thought about sticking with the era when the house was originally built. Then I decided I'd get bored. I like to mix things up.”

She spotted a brass hippo on what she tagged as a Hepplewhite side table. "Mission accomplished.”

"Look at this lamp." He ran his fingers over the shade of a Tiffany that exploded with gem colors. "I've got a weakness for lamps.”

"Cher, looking 'round here, I'd say you've got a weakness for every damn thing.”

"I sure have one for you. Here's the rug." He patted the long, rolled carpet leaning against the wall. "I think we can drag it, snake it through. I should've put it closer to the door, but I wasn't sure where I was going to use it when I bought it. Now I am.”

Between them, they managed to slide it to the floor, then with Declan walking bent over and backward, they wove it around the islands of furniture. He had to stop once to move a sofa, again to shove a table aside.

"You know," Lena said as they both went down on their knees, panting a little, in the parlor, "in a couple months you're going to be rolling this up again. Nobody leaves rugs down through the summer around here. Too damn hot.”

"I'll worry about that in June.”

She sat back on her heels, patted his cheek. "Cher, you're going to start thinking summer before April's over. Okay." She pushed up her sleeves, put her palms on the roll. "Ready?”

On their hands and knees, they bumped along, pushing the carpet, revealing the pattern. She could catch only glimpses of the colors and texture, but it was enough to see why he wanted it here.

The greens of leaves were soft, like the walls, and blended with faded pink cabbage roses against a deeper green background. Once it was unrolled, she got to her feet to study the effect while he fussed with squaring it up.

"You bought yourself a rose garden, Declan. I can almost smell them."

"Great, huh? Really works in here. I'm going to use the two American Empire sofas, and I think the Biedermeier table. Start with those, then see." He looked up at the ceiling medallion. "I saw this great chandelier-blown glass, very Dale Chuhuly. I should've bought it.”

"Why don't we see how your sofas do first?”

"Hmm? Oh, they're heavy, I'll get Remy to give me a hand with them later. He's supposed to come by.”

"I'm here now.”

"I don't want you to hurt yourself.”

She merely shot him a look and started back into his makeshift storeroom.

They'd just set the second one in place, she'd only stepped back to ponder the arrangement, when she heard the baby crying.

She glanced over at Declan, but he seemed lost in thought.

"Did one of your counter men bring a baby with him?" she asked, and Declan closed his eyes, sank down on the sofa.

"You hear it? Nobody else hears it. The doors slamming, yeah. And water running when there's nobody in the room to turn on the taps. But nobody hears the baby.”

A chill whipped up her back, had her glancing uneasily toward the hallway. "Where is it?”

"The nursery, mostly. Sometimes in the bedroom on the second floor. Abigail's room. But usually the nursery. It stops when I get to the door. Remy's been here twice when it started. He didn't hear it. But you do.”

"I have to see. I can't stand hearing a baby crying that way." She walked into the foyer, started up the stairs. And it stopped.

For an instant, it seemed the whole house hushed. Then she heard the clamor from the kitchen, the stream of music from a radio, the hum of men's voices as they worked.

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