Midnight Bayou Page 67

She drew a breath, made herself sit again. "Anyway, she came back when I was three, made what would become her usual promises that she'd learned her lesson, she was sorry, she'd changed. She stayed around a few days, then took off again. That's a pattern that's repeated since. Sometimes she'd come back beat up from whatever bastard she'd taken up with most recently. Sometimes she'd come back sick, or just high. But Lilibeth, she always comes back.”

She fell silent, brooding over that single, unavoidable fact.

"It hurts when she does," Declan said quietly. "Hurts you, hurts Miss Odette.”

"She hurts everyone. It's her only talent. She was high when she showed up on my thirteenth birthday. We were having a fais do-do at the house, all the friends and family, and she stoned, with some lowlife. It got ugly pretty quick, and three of my uncles turned them off. I need a smoke," she said, and left the room.

She came back a moment later with a cigarette. "I had a boy I was seeing, crazy about that boy. I was sixteen, and she came back. She got him liquor and drugs and had sex with him. He was hardly older than I was, so it's hard to blame him for being an idiot. She thought it was funny when I stumbled over them out in the bayou. She laughed and laughed. Still, when I got this apartment, and she came back, I took her in. Better me than Grandmama, I thought. And maybe this time … Just maybe.

"But she turned tricks in my bed and brought her drugs into my home. She stole from me, and she left me again. From then I've been done with her. I'm done with her. And I'll never be done with her, Declan. Nothing I can do changes her being my mother.”

"And nothing she does can change who you are.

You're a testament to your own grit, Lena, and a credit to the people who raised you. She hates you for what you are.”

She stared at him. "She hates me," she whispered. "I've never been able to say that to anyone before. Why should saying such a thing, such an awful thing, help so much?”

"I won't say she can't hurt you any more, because she can. But maybe now she won't be able to hurt you as much, or for as long.”

Thoughtfully, she tapped out her cigarette. "I keep underestimating you.”

"That's okay. That way I can keep surprising you. How's this one? She's connected to Manet Hall.”

"What do you mean?”

"I don't know, exactly, and can't explain it. I just know she is. And I think maybe she was meant to come back now, to say what she said to me. One more link in the chain. And I think she's pretty well done around here, this time out. Call your grandmother, Lena. Don't let this woman put a wedge between you.”

"I've been thinking of it. I guess I will. Declan." She picked up her glass, set it down again. The useless gesture made him raise his eyebrows. "I was going to end things between us.”

"You could've tried.”

"I mean it. We'd both be better off if we stepped back a ways, tried to be friends of some sort.”

"We can be friends. I want our children to have parents who like each other.”

She threw up her hands. "I have to get back to work.”

"Okay. But listen, speaking of weddings, slight change of plans in Remy and Effie's. We're having the whole deal at my place.”

She rubbed her temple, tried to switch gears and moods as smoothly as he did. "In … with half finished rooms and tools and lumber, and-was "That's a very negative attitude, and not at all helpful, especially since I was going to ask you for a hand. How are you with a paintbrush?”

She let out a sigh. "Do you save everyone?”

"Just the ones who matter.”

Somewhere between Declan's leaving the Hall, and Effie's arrival, Lilibeth paid another call. She was riding on coke and insult. The lousy son of a bitch couldn't spare a few bucks for the mother of the woman he was screwing, she'd just help herself.

She'd cased the first floor when he'd led her back to the kitchen, and going in through the back, she arrowed straight to the library and the big rolltop desk she'd spotted.

People with money kept cash handy, in her experience. Moving quickly, she yanked open drawers, riffled through, then let out a shout when she found a neat pile of fifties. Those she stuffed into her pocket.

She figured the books he'd shelved and the ones yet in boxes were probably worth something. But they'd be heavy, and hard to sell. He'd likely have more cash, a few pieces of jewelry up in his bedroom.

She raced up the main stairs. The fact that he could come back at any time only added to the thrill of stealing.

A door slammed, had her falling straight to her knees. Just a draft, she told herself as she caught her breath, as the pulse in her throat began to pop. Big, drafty old house. In fact, she felt cold air whisk over her as she jumped to her feet again.

She touched a doorknob, yanked her hand away again. The knob was so cold it all but burned.

Didn't matter. What the f**k? His room was down the hall. She wasn't as stupid as people thought she was. Hadn't she watched the house over the last few days? Hadn't she seen him come out on the gallery from the room at the far corner?

Laughing out loud, the sound rolling back over her, she dashed down, streaked through the open door. She yanked open the top drawer of a dresser and hit pay dirt with the old carved box inside.

Gold cuff links-at least she assumed they were real gold. Silver ones, too, with some sort of fancy blue stone. Diamond studs, a gold watch. And in a box inside the box, a woman's ring of … ruby maybe, diamond and ruby, fashioned in interlocking hearts.

She set the box on the dresser, hunted through a couple more drawers until she found another wad of cash.

Paid anyway, didn't you, you bastard. Paid just fine.

She tossed the bills into the jewelry box, tucked the box under her arm.

Standing there, her breath whistling out in excitement, cocaine dancing in her blood, she debated the satisfaction of trashing the place. It would be satisfying-more payment. But it wasn't smart. And she was smart.

She needed time to turn the jewelry into cash, time to turn some of the cash into drugs. Time to get the hell out of Dodge. Best to leave things as they were.

She'd go out the other side, just in case her long-nosed mama was looking this way.

But when she stepped back into the hall, she found herself staring at the third– floor stairs.

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