Midnight Bayou Page 61

It wasn't as efficient, dragging his tools in and out, but he was making progress. That was the name of the game.

He didn't call Lena-he figured she needed to simmer and settle. But he thought of her, constantly.

He thought of her as he nailed boards, when he studied paint samples, when he installed paddle fans.

And he thought of her when he woke, in the middle of the night, to find himself curled on the grass by the edge of the pond, Lucian's watch clutched in his fist and his face damp with tears.

He tried to put the sleepwalking out of his mind in the daylight. But he couldn't put her out.

One more day, he ordered himself as he wiped sweat off his face. Then he was going into town, banging on her door. If he had to push her into a corner to force her to talk to him, that's what he'd do.

Remy's wedding was coming up fast. Which meant, not only was he going to watch his best friend get married, but … his parents were coming to town.

He was ridiculously grateful they'd declined his offer for them to stay with him. Everyone would be a hell of a lot happier with them tucked into a nice hotel suite.

Regardless, he was determined to finish the galleries, and one of the spare bedrooms. In that way, the house would look impressive when they came down the drive, and he could prove he'd had the room he'd offered them.

His mother would look to be sure. That was a given.

He backed down the ladder, grabbed the cooler, and gulped cold water. Then poured the rest over his head. Refreshed, he walked across the lawn, then turned back to look.

Dripping, already starting to steam, he felt the smile spread across his face.

"Not bad," he said aloud. "Not half bad for a Yankee amateur.”

He'd finished the dual staircases. The sweep of them curved up opposite sides of the second-floor gallery. The elegance of them negated all the nicks, cuts, scrapes, and the hours of labor.

They would be, he realized, his pride and joy.

Now all he needed was to bribe the painters to work in this heat wave. Or pray for a break in the weather.

Either way, he wasn't going to wait until he'd finished the rear of the house. He wanted the front painted, wanted to stand as he was standing now, and see it gleam in bridal white.

To please himself, he strode back, walked slowly up the right-hand stairs, crossed the gallery, and walked slowly down the left. It gave him such a kick he did it again.

Then he dug through his toolbox for his cell phone and called Lena.

He had to share his excitement with her. What did it matter if he was a day ahead of schedule?

The phone was ringing in her apartment when he glanced over and saw Lilibeth crossing his lawn. He pressed END, got to his feet, and put the phone back in his toolbox.

"I swear, this heat's just wilting.”

She beamed at him, fluttering her lashes as she waved a hand in front of her face. He noted the bracelets she wore were Odette's.

"And it's barely noon. Look at you," she said in a slow purr.

She sauntered straight to him, trailed a fingertip down his bare chest. "You're all wet.”

"Impromptu shower." Instinctively, he took a step back so her finger no longer touched his skin. "What can I do for you, Miss Simone?"

"You can start by calling me Lilibeth. After all, you're a good friend of my mama's-and my little girl's, aren't you?”

She wandered away a bit, let her eyes widen as she scanned the house. "I just can't hardly believe what you've done with this big, old place. You must be awfully clever, Declan." She said flirtatiously, "I can call you Declan, can't I?”

"Sure. You don't have to be so clever," he said. "You just have to have plenty of time.”

And money, she thought. Plenty of money. "Oh now, don't you be modest. It's just a miracle what you're doing here. I hope it wouldn't be putting you out too much to show me some of the inside. And I surely could use something cold. Just walking over here from home's left me parched.”

He didn't want her in his house. More than distaste, there was a kind of primitive dread. But whatever else she was, she was Lena's mother, and his own had drummed manners into his bones.

"Of course. I've got some tea.”

"Can't think of anything that would be more welcome.”

She followed him to the door, was pleased when he opened it for her and stepped back for her to enter ahead of him. She let her body brush his, just the faintest suggestion, then walked into the foyer and let out a gasp.

She didn't have to feign the shock, or her wonder as she gazed around the grand entrance. She'd been inside before. Remy and Declan weren't the first to get liquored up and break into Manet Hall.

She'd never liked it much. The place had given her the creeps with its shadows and dust, its cobwebs and faded glamour.

But now it was full of light and polish. Glossy floors, glossy walls. She didn't think much of the old furniture, not for looks anyway. But she had no doubt the price tags had been heavy.

Old money bought or kept old things. It was a concept that baffled her when there was so much new and glittery in the world.

"My lord, sugar, this is a showplace. Just a showplace," she repeated and wandered into the parlor.

She might've preferred the city, where the action was, but she could see that a woman could live like a queen in such a place. And bring the action in, at her whim.

"Goodness, did I say you were clever? Why, you're just a genius. Everything's so beautiful and fresh." She turned back to him. "You must be awful proud.”

"It's coming along. Kitchen's back this way. We can get you that cold drink.”

"That would be lovely, but don't you hurry me along now." She slid a proprietary hand onto his arm, clung there as she walked down the hall. "I'm just fascinated by what you've done with this place. Mama said you'd only started on it a few months ago.”

"You can get a lot done if you stick to the plan.”

And since he seemed to be stuck with her, for the time being, he banked down on the desire to get her out again. Instead, as she turned into the library, made purring noises, he took the opportunity to study her.

He couldn't see Lena in her. There were, he supposed, some physical similarities. But where Lena had that compact, bombshell body, Lilibeth's had been whittled down with time and abuse to nearly gaunt.

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