Midnight Bayou Page 51

"I'm too heavy for you." He rubbed his lips at the curve of her throat.

"I like it. I like this." Lazily, she angled her head so he could work his way up to her jaw.

Her body felt used and bruised and wonderfully loose. "Even better than chocolate cake.”

He laughed and rolled over, taking her with him so she sprawled over his chest. "There, now I don't have to worry about crushing you.”

"A gentleman to the last." Content, she settled in. "I've always liked a clock that chimes the hours," she said. "But you need to set it. It's not midnight yet.”

"I know.”

"Sounded like a big, old grandfather clock. Where'd you put it? In the parlor.”

"No." He stroked a hand over her hair, down her back. "I don't have a clock that chimes.”

"Cher, you absolutely ring my bells, but I heard a clock chime twelve.”

"Yeah, so did I. But I don't have a clock.”

She lifted her head, let out a slow breath. "Oh. Well then. Does it scare you?”

"No.”

"Then it doesn't scare me, either," she said, and laid her head back over his heart.

The best way, in Declan's opinion, to break through the obstacles and opposition to any goal, was not to ram headfirst against them and risk a skull fracture, but to chip away at them. Gradually, reasonably. Relentlessly. Whether it was a lawsuit, a sporting event or a love affair, it was imperative to keep the end in sight in order to select the correct means.

He found out which Mass Lena and her grandmother attended, and at which church. Research was essential in any strategy.

When he slipped into the pew beside them on Sunday morning, he got a long speculative look from Lena, and a conspirator's wink from Odette.

He figured God would understand and appreciate the ploy, and not hold it against him for using Sunday Mass as a means to his end.

But he wouldn't mention the brainstorm to his mother. She was, in Declan's experience, a lot less flexible than the Almighty.

Aiming the leading edge of his charm toward Odette, he talked them into brunch afterward, and got another cool stare from Lena when he gave his name to the hostess. He'd already made reservations for three.

"Sure of yourself, aren't you, cher?”

His eyes were the innocent gray of a former altar boy. "Just prepared.”

"You ain't no Boy Scout, sugar," she told him.

"Your granddaughter's very cynical," Declan responded as he offered his arm to Odette.

"What she is, is smart." Odette patted a hand on his and had her bracelets jangling. "A woman's got to be about smooth-talking, handsome men. Man who comes into church so he can spend a Sunday morning with a woman, he's pretty smart, too.”

"I thought I'd come in and pray for a while.”

"What'd you pray for?”

"That you'd run away with me to Borneo.”

With a laugh, Odette slipped into the chair Declan held out for her. "Aren't you the one.”

"Yeah." He looked directly at Lena. "I'm going to be the one.”

They settled in with mimosas and the first round from the expansive buffet. While a jazz quartet played Dixieland, Declan told them about the progress on the house.

"I'm going to stick with the outside work as long as the weather holds. Tibald's still dealing with the plastering, and I'm trying to line up a painter for the exterior. I don't want to do that myself. The guy I had paint the parlor came in to take a look at the library, but he left sort of abruptly.”

Declan's expression was rueful as he sipped his mimosa. "I don't think he's coming back. Tile man, either. He got one bath half done when he packed it in.”

"I can do some asking around for you," Odette offered.

"I'd appreciate it. But I think I'm going to have to start looking outside the parish or try my hand at some of this stuff myself. Things are getting a little lively at the Hall.”

"Grown men running off because a couple of doors slam." Lena curled her lips into a sneer. "Ought to have more spine.”

"It's a little more than that now. Clocks bonging where there aren't any clocks to bong, music playing in empty rooms. When the painter was there, the pocket doors in the library kept opening and closing. Then there was the screaming.”

"What screaming?”

"Tile guy." Declan smiled wanly. "Said he heard somebody come in the bedroom door, thought it was me. He's talking away, setting the tiles, listening to what he assumed was me moving around in there. Since I wasn't answering whatever questions he had, he got up, walked in. Nobody there. From what I could get out of him when he was semi-coherent, the bathroom door slammed behind him, the logs caught fire in the fireplace. Then he claims he felt somebody put a hand on his shoulder. I had to peel him off the ceiling when I got up there.”

"What do you think about it?" Odette asked.

"A couple of things. Seems to me the more the work progresses on the house, the more overt and volatile the … paranormal activity, we'll call it. Especially, well, when I veer off from the original scheme.”

Lena scooped up a forkful of grits-a particular southern culinary custom Declan had yet to get his tastebuds around. "What do you mean?”

"For example, the plasterwork. The areas where that is going on, things are pretty settled. I'm restoring them, replicating. But in places where I've made changes-bathroom setup, tiles-things get really interesting. It's like whatever's in the house gets royally ticked that we're not sticking with the original plan.”

"Something to think about," Odette commented.

"I have been. I figure Josephine Manet." Even here, with Dixieland bright in the air and champagne fizzing, the name coated his belly with dread. "Mistress of the Hall. You only have to look at her photographs to see that was a woman who didn't like to be crossed. Now, I come along and put my fingerprints all over what's hers.”

"You resolved to living with her?" Odette asked, and watched his jaw firm.

"I'm resolved to living in the Hall, and doing it my way. She wants to kick up a fuss about it, that's her problem.”

Lena sat back. "What do you figure, Grandmama? Brave or stubborn?”

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