Midnight Bayou Page 69

"Oh, mon Dieu, if this spoils what I see between you and my Lena, I'll never forgive myself. My daughter stole from you," she blurted out. "She came in your house and took what was yours.”

With a heavy heart she reached into her bag, took out his carved box. "This was in her room. I knew it was yours even before I looked in and saw a set of cuff links with your initials. I don't know if it's all here, but that's all there was. If anything's missing-was "Let's just see. I want you to sit down now. I mean it.”

She nodded, sank into a chair.

He chained down his rage as he set the box on a table, opened it. He saw the ring box first, opened it, and felt the worst of the anger fade when the stones glittered up at him.

"Okay." He breathed out. "The most important thing's still here." As was, as far as he could see, everything else but the couple thousand in twenties he kept secured with the money clip that had been his great-grandfather's.

"It's all here.”

"You're not telling me the truth," Odette said dully.

"A little cash, that's all.”

"I need to know how much so I can pay it back.”

"Do you think I'd take money from you?" Some of the anger lashed out, made her wince. "Look at my face. Do you think I'd take money from you for this, for anything?”

Her lips wanted to quiver, so she pressed them into a firm line. "She's my responsibility.”

"The hell she is. Don't insult me again by talking about restitution.”

Despite her promise not to shed one in front of him, a tear spilled over. "I know what she is. And I know she'll never be what I hoped for, worked for, wished for from the moment I knew she was inside me. But she gave me Lena.”

She dug out a tissue, patted her cheeks. There would be no more tears. "I expected she'd steal from me before she took off again, but I didn't think she'd take from you. I never thought of it, and I'm sorry for that.”

"You want to look at my face again and see if I blame you?”

"No, you don't blame me. Oh, I want you for my Lena. I'm sitting here knowing my child stole from you, and all I can think is I want you for my baby.”

"Good thing, because I want me for her, too." He picked up the ring box, crossed over to her chair. "I bought this for her. Maybe you could put in a good word for me so when I give it to her, she takes it.”

Odette looked at the ring and sighed. "Suits her. Sure does suit her. She's got a good heart, Declan, but it's got scars on it. She's so strong. Sometimes I worry she's too strong, and she'll forget how to give. I'll have to tell her about this.”

"Yes.”

"And you'll have to figure out how to keep her from pulling away from you when she knows. That's what she'll want to do.”

"Don't worry. Where's Lilibeth?”

"Gone. I found this in her room this morning. She's barely come out of there since the day before. When I went in and found it, I put it away where she wouldn't find it. Then we had words about it. She packed up and left. She'll come back," she said in the same hollow tone he'd heard from Lena. "In a year or two. And we'll go through it once more."

"We'll deal with it when it happens." He leaned down, kissed her cheek. "I love you." When her eyes filled again, he took her hand. "Whether Lena's ready for it or not, we're family now. Family sticks.”

"When I meet your mama," Odette managed, "I'm gonna give her one big, rib– cracking hug.”

"That'll set her up. Why don't we take a look at what's happening around here, and you can protect me from General Renault.”

He didn't expect it to take long, and wasn't disappointed. About the time most of his free labor was packing up for the day, and Effie and her mother had him out in the back garden, Lena strode around the side of the house.

Since he was in the middle of the series of: uh-huhs, you-bets and no-problems that had become his litany of responses to the Renault women's wedding agenda, he decided the confrontation in Lena's eyes would be a relief.

"The railings and baluster will be wrapped in tulle and lace.”

"Uh-huh.”

"And we'll have baskets-white baskets-of flowers set out on the gallery there.”

"You bet.”

"The florist will need to start early on the day of the wedding, so you just scoot out of the way and make sure they have access to all the areas of the house I've got marked off on my chart here.”

"No problem. Lena." He reached out and clutched her hand. A drowning man grabbing a rope. "We're just talking about flower arrangements.”

"Flowers are the landscape of a wedding," Mrs. Renault declared, and made more notations on the clipboard she carried everywhere. "How are you, Lena?”

"I'm just fine, Miss Sarah Jane. Isn't this exciting? Counting right down to the big day. Effie, you must be half mad with the details.”

"I've passed half, working toward pure insanity.”

"It'll all be beautiful." She kept her smile bright, her voice light even as the dark heat coursed through her. "Those rhododendrons are going to be spectacular on your day." "The gardens are going to be a sight," Mrs. Renault agreed, and ran down her checklist again. "Pity, though, there wasn't time to put up an arbor, train some sweet peas up." She looked over the tops of her reading glasses at Declan with a faintly accusatory gleam.

"Maybe the Franks can rig something. Ah, can you excuse me a minute? There's something I need to show Lena.”

He escaped, pulling her toward the steps to the second-floor gallery. There was still some of General Renault's militia on the lower level. "They're like ants," he babbled. "Crawling out of the woodwork when you're not looking.”

"What're you talking about?”

"P. Everywhere. Watch that bucket. I think the ballroom's safe.”

"Feeling a little pressed, are you, cher?”

"I'm thinking of a nice vacation in Maui until this is over. I've got to say, I admire women.”

"Really." She glanced down at the ladders, the tarps, the debris of construction-and the two women picking their way through it with visions of tulle and lace in their heads. "Why is that?”

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