Midnight Bayou Page 68

What was up there? she wondered. Maybe something good. Maybe something she could come back for later. Something that would make her rich.

Her breath wasn't just whistling now, but wheezing. Her skin was ice cold. But she couldn't resist the urge to climb those stairs. She was alone in the house, wasn't she? All alone, and that made it her house.

It was her house.

Swallowing continually to wet her dry throat, she started up. Shivering.

Voices? How could she hear voices when there was no one there? But they stopped her, urged her to turn back. Something wrong here, something bad here. Time to go.

But it seemed hands pressed to her back, pushed her on until, with trembling fingers, she reached for the door.

She meant to ease it open, slowly-just take a peek. But at the touch of her hand, it swung violently open.

She saw the man and woman on the floor, heard the baby screaming in the crib. Saw the woman's eyes-staring and blind. And dead.

And the man, his hair gold in the dim light, turned to look at her.

Lilibeth tried to scream, but couldn't grab the air. As she opened her mouth, something pushed into her. For one horrifying moment it became her. Then it swept through her. Cold, vicious, furious.

Another figure formed in the room. Female, sturdy, in a long night robe.

Julian.

And in speechless terror, Lilibeth turned and ran.

Within twenty-four hours, Declan discovered he had more help on the house than he knew what to do with. Apparently everyone in Louisiana was invited to the wedding, and they were all willing to lend a hand.

He had painters, plumbers, carpenters and gofers. And though it occurred to him in the middle of the melee that if half that amount had pitched in to repair the original venue, the job would have been done in about twenty minutes, he decided to keep the thought to himself.

It seemed rude to voice it.

And he appreciated the labor, sincerely. Reminded himself of it whenever he felt certain pieces of the house slipping away from him into someone else's charge.

He'd been looking forward to screening in the lower rear gallery himself, but comforted himself that one good hurricane would demand rescreening.

He'd intended to sand and varnish the ballroom floors, but bucked up when he thought of all the other floors waiting for him throughout the house.

And he sure as hell didn't mind turning over the exterior painting to others. It was a hot, exacting and laborious job, and crossing it off his list left him free to tackle the downstairs powder room, and to hang the blown-glass chandelier he'd bought for the foyer, and to finish plans for the mud room. And …

Well, there was plenty to go around, he reflected.

Then there was the pure pleasure of watching Effie zip in and out on her lunch hour or after work. Even when she brought her mother in tow. Mrs. Renault was a spit-and-polished older version of her daughter with an eye like an eagle and a voice like a drill sergeant.

Remy was right, she was pretty scary. Declan hid from her, whenever possible and without shame.

On the second day of the full-out campaign, Declan strode toward the rear gallery to check progress. He was feeling pretty peppy from the tile he'd just set, was covered with ceramic dust from cutting it.

The noise level was amazing. Voices, radios, power tools. As much as he enjoyed people, he'd have given a thousand dollars for five minutes alone in his house.

"Jim Ready? I want those windows sparkling, you hear? How's it going to look in the wedding pictures if those windows are dull? Put your back into it, boy!”

The sound of Mrs. Renault's voice had Declan turning sharply on his heel and changing direction. He all but bowled over Odette.

"Hey, sorry. You all right? I didn't see you. I was running away.”

"You got a houseful.”

"You're right about that. If this place isn't fixed up enough to suit General Renault by D-Day, we're all going to be shot." He took her arm as he spoke and, thinking only of self-preservation, hustled her into the library. Shut the doors.

"Can I come live at your house?”

She smiled-a curve of lips that didn't reach her eyes. "You're such a good boy, Declan, doing all this for your friend.”

"I'm not doing much more right now than staying the hell out of the way.”

"And you'd rather all these people go back where they came from, and leave you be so you can play with your house.”

"Yeah, well." He shrugged, pushed his dusty hand through his dusty hair. "There'll still be plenty to do once they go. We're not touching the third floor or the servants' area, and only doing one other room on the second. Tell me what's wrong, Miss Odette?”

"I gotta work up to it." She set down the shopping bag she carried, then walked over to look at some of his books. There were still boxes of them to be shelved, but she saw what it would be. Towers of words, some old and worn, some fresh and new. Small treasures, deep colors.

"You got vision," she said at length. "You picture what you want, then you make it happen. That's a fine skill, cher.”

"Some people call it single-minded.”

"You're anything but. You've got a lot of channels in that head of yours. Working on one at a time till it's done shows character to me. I'm awful fond of you, Declan.”

"I'm awful fond of you, too. I wish you'd sit down, Miss Odette. You look tired." And troubled. "Why don't I get us a cold drink?”

"No, don't you trouble and risk getting shanghaied by Sarah Jane Renault. Now that's a single-minded individual, and I don't fault her for it.”

"She told me to get a haircut by the end of the week so I don't look shaggy or freshly shorn for the wedding." Sulking over it a little, Declan ran a testing hand through his hair. "And that she'll be putting fancy soaps, towels and so on in all the bathrooms the day before the wedding. I'm not to use them under penalty of death. And I'm to get more green plants inside the house. A house can't breathe without green plants.”

"She's just nervous, honey. Effie's her baby. Her youngest daughter." Odette pressed her lips together. "Declan, I'm shamed to say what I have to say to you, and I won't blame you if, after I'm done, you ask me not to come back in your home again.”

The words alarmed him, nearly as much as the pain in her eyes. "There's nothing you can say that would make you unwelcome in my home, Miss Odette. Who hurt you?”

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