What the Lady Wants


Page 11 of 19


Mitch sat down, depressed by his own inadequacies. Okay, so he wasn't exactly broke—once the bet was over, he could go back to living like a stockbroker— but he wasn't in Dalton's financial league and never would be. And he was also never going to look magazine-smooth like Dalton, which normally didn't bother him at all but was now bothering him significantly. Look at the guys Mae hung out with: Carlo, Nick, Dalton—hunks every one.

"No, Mitch stays," he heard Mae say to Dalton, and he jerked his attention back to the situation at hand.

"What I have to say is personal." Dalton looked deep into her eyes.

"Why don't you sit down?" Mitch growled at him. "She's tired. Cut her a break."

Dalton turned to him. "I need to see Mae alone. I'm sure you understand."

"No, I don't." Mitch crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat. "I'm staying."

"Dalton." Mae's voice cut across their antagonism. "Just tell me what you have to tell me and go. I'm really tired."

Dalton hesitated and then surrendered. He took her hand and said, "I think we should try it again, Mae."

Mitch swallowed hard.

Mae blinked at Dalton. "Try what? Marriage?"

"Of course, marriage." Dalton smiled down at her. "You silly. Of course, marriage."

"Not in this lifetime," Mae said flatly. "If that was what you wanted to see me about, you can go now."

"Mae, I know we made mistakes—"

"We didn't. You did." Mae glared at him. "You took half a million to dump me, and as I understand it, you did quite well with it. Well, now you can cuddle up to your cash because you're not getting me back."

"Mae, I was a fool—"

"You sure as hell were," Mitch growled. "Now get out."

Dalton turned to glare at Mitch, but Mae forestalled him. "He's right. If that was your message, you can leave."

"That wasn't all of it." Dalton's glare went out like a light, and the look he turned on Mae was sincerely sympathetic. "I'm sorry about this, Mae. I really am. I just heard today that all Armand left you was the house and its contents."

"I'll get by," Mae said stiffly.

"No, you won't," Dalton said without a hint of gloating in his voice. "Armand sold me the house and its contents last week. The money's been transferred. I don't know what he did with the money, but the house is gone. It's mine. He didn't leave you anything."

Mae took a deep breath, as if she'd had the air knocked out of her. "He sold you the house last week," she repeated.

"I'm sorry, Mae." Dalton's face was miserable. "But he got the money. The money must be somewhere."

Mitch watched her, wanting to go to her, knowing she'd want to handle things herself. He could have killed Dalton for doing this to her, but in all fairness, it wasn't Dalton's fault. It was Armand's. Before, he'd disliked Armand because of his general rotten behavior; now he loathed him for a good and present reason—he was torturing Mae from the grave.

If he'd been alive, Mitch would have killed him.

"Thank you for telling me, Dalton," Mae said faintly.

"Mae, my offer still stands." Dalton put his hand on her shoulder. "I'll take care of you and June and Harold. I promise. I've learned a lot since we broke up. I'm not the same guy I was. Give me a chance."

Mae blinked up at him, and Mitch closed his eyes.

It was a decent offer. Dalton was trying to do the decent thing. It would get Mae out of all of her troubles and save June and Harold. All he was asking for was a chance.

Mitch wanted to kill Dalton, too.

"No," he heard Mae say firmly, and his world swung back into place. "I'm sorry, but no. You'd better go now. You're going to be late for your dinner with Stormy."

Dalton flinched and gave up.

Mae walked Dalton to the door, and Mitch waited for her to come back, trying to figure out what had happened to him in the past half hour. Here he was, sweating out Mae marrying another man. Big deal. He didn't want to marry her. He didn't want to marry anybody.

What would it have been like married to Mae? And what kind of a fool was Dalton to have taken money to leave her? He remembered the pain in Mae's voice when she'd thrown that at Dalton, and he hated the pain because it meant that she still hurt from something Dalton had done to her seven years ago.

He didn't want her to remember anything about Dalton. Or his damn check.

He reached in his jacket and pulled out his wallet, riffling through the papers and bills he'd jammed in there until he found Claud's check. He ripped it in half, and the halves in half, and the quarters in half, continuing until the pieces were tiny. Then he let them fall from his hand into the ashtray on the table beside him. He'd never meant to cash it, anyway, just to use it as a bargaining chip with Claud, but as a bargaining chip it was too expensive if it hurt Mae the way Dalton had hurt her.

She came back into the room then, the skirt of her sundress swinging slowly back and forth over her long, strong legs, and Mitch watched her with hypnotic interest.

He really didn't want to marry her. He just wanted to watch her move for the rest of his life.

"Are you okay?" he asked her when she was standing in front of him.

"This has got to be the bottom." Mae's voice was dead. "We've lost everything."

Mitch ached to pull her into his arms. "We can try to find the stuff that disappeared. I checked around today, and the rumors are that he was selling a lot of stuff. Get me a list of the things that are missing, and I'll try to track down the sales for you. And we can look for the money. It must be somewhere. Even if he bought something with it—stamps, gold, real estate, whatever—that's got to be somewhere."

"I can't think anymore." Mae smiled weakly down at him. "I'm going to bed, Mitch. I just can't think anymore. Can we talk about this some other time?"

He stood up. "I'll call you tomorrow." He put his hand on her cheek. "We're going to figure this out. Trust me."

Mae nodded, her cheek moving softly against his hand. "I know we will. I trust you. Call me in the evening. I go to Uncle Gio's tomorrow for Sunday dinner." She nodded again, her eyes looking up at him, huge as saucers. "Call me in the evening."

"In the evening." Mitch leaned forward and kissed her forehead, feeling awkward and foolish, hating it that he was leaving her, hating it that they were both alone. "Get some sleep. Tomorrow we'll get this right."

When Mae went back into the library to put back the last of the books, she found a pile of paper scraps in the ashtray. When she had them reassembled into Claud's check, she put her head down on the arm of the chair and cried, for no particular reason that she could think of.

"So, how are things, Mae Belle?" Gio asked the next day over lasagna for forty. There were only three of them, but Mae knew that Gio didn't like the idea of being caught short at Sunday dinner. If she suddenly decided to eat herself into a coma, he'd be ready.

"Fine," Mae said automatically, knowing that she was supposed to be eating herself into a coma but not finding the energy to do it. Most Sundays she tried, just to please Gio because she loved him, but this Sunday her heart wasn't in it.

"Then why are you picking at your food? She's picking at her food, Carlo. What's wrong, Mae? You can tell us." Gio peered at her anxiously. "I don't want you worrying, baby. You can tell us."

"It's that Peatwick jerk," Carlo rumbled.

"No, it's not the Peatwick jerk," Mae said irritably. "In fact, he's been wonderful. It's Armand."

"Armand is dead," Gio said.

"Yes, but before he died, he sold everything he had including the house, and now the money had disappeared. It's gone." Mae felt her voice quaver and stuck out her chin. "So Mitch and I are looking for it. And when we find it, everything will be fine."

"Mae, you want money, I'll give it to you," Gio said. "How much do you want?"

Mae shook her head. "I don't want you to give me money, although I may have to ask you to take on Harold and June. I can't afford to keep them if I don't find the money."

G

io scowled. "What happened to your trust fund? You get that pretty soon, don't you?"

"It's gone," Mae told him. "Uncle Armand told me that most of it had gone in some bad investments years ago."

Gio's face went hard. "Armand told you that?"

Mae shrugged. "I checked when he told me. He was right. There was only a couple of thousand left."

Gio sat back. "I wish that bastard wasn't dead so I could kill him myself."

Mae shook her head. "Just because my trust fund is empty, it doesn't necessarily mean that Armand stole it. And besides, it doesn't matter. It's gone. What matters is finding what happened to the money and the stuff that's disappeared lately. Mitch is looking for it, and if it can be found, he'll find it. He never gives up. Mitch makes pit bulls look flighty."

Carlo scowled at her from his end of the table.

"He takes good care of me, Carlo," Mae said soothingly. "And he never makes a pass. Never. He's a good detective."

"Does Claud know about the trust fund?" Gio's voice was short and cold, not the usual warm honey that flowed over her.

Mae blinked. "I suppose so. I never discussed it with him."

"Hmmph." Gio's eyes went to Carlo. "Armand."

"I know," Carlo said. "I told you we should have—"

"Never mind," Gio broke in. He turned back to Mae. "This P.I. He's not giving you any trouble?"

"I told you." Mae's voice was patient. "He's wonderful. He's funny and kind and smart and hardworking, and he never makes a pass, and he's doing everything he can to help me. He's wonderful." She stared down sadly at her lasagna.

Gio exchanged glances with Carlo. "Well, that's good. You let us know if he gets out of line."

"He won't get out of line," Mae said glumly. "He's a real gentleman."

"I'm going to kill him," Carlo said.

Mae looked up, startled. "Why?"

"It's just a figure of speech," Gio told her. "Just an expression." He glared at Carlo.

Mae cast a wary eye at Carlo. "Don't do anything, Carlo. I mean it."

Carlo frowned at his lasagna.

"Have some more lasagna," Gio said, heaping more on Mae's already laden plate. "It's good for you."

"I mean it, Carlo," Mae said.

"Eat!" Gio told her, and Mae picked up her fork and began to work her way through three pounds of lasagna.

"There's too much stuff missing, Newton," Mitch said over his own lunch that same Sunday.

"Why can't we eat someplace better than this?" Newton surveyed the clean, bright, plastic surroundings with distaste.

"Because this is what I can afford. Eat your Big Mac. You know you like it. You're just being a snob." Mitch bit into his sandwich, trying to ignore the fact that there wasn't enough room for his legs under the table.

"You've won the bet," Newton persisted. "You don't have to live like this anymore."

Mitch swallowed. "I like living like this. Now, concentrate. What would Armand have done with the stuff? Or with the money from the stuff."

Newton's eyes glazed over as he thought, and as he did, he absentmindedly bit into his sandwich, chewed and swallowed. "The missing items are paintings, antiques and collectibles, correct?"

"Correct."

"If he sold them, there will be a record of the sales. Try antique dealers, art galleries, known collectors. If you can't find any record of sales, look for well-guarded storage facilities and bank deposit boxes."

"And if I find out he's sold the stuff?"

"You know where to look. Swiss bank accounts, real estate purchases, bonds." Newton shook his head. "This doesn't make sense, Mitch. He wasn't planning on absconding. He was married. His position in the community meant a lot to him. If he were the type to swindle people and then go to Rio, I'd say that was what he was up to, but not Armand Lewis. He'd stay where being a Lewis meant something. It makes no sense that he'd be liquidating his estate."

"What if he was being blackmailed?" Mitch suggested. "What if he was paying somebody to keep his mouth shut?"

Newton shook his head. "Not Armand Lewis. He was used to risk. Not unless whoever it was had something that would really ruin him. Something that would put him in jail, for instance."

Mitch nodded. "Like the diary. The only problem is, he seems to have had the diary the night he died, and he'd been liquidating the estate for a couple of months. And if he was being blackmailed, it would make no sense to kill him. He'd be the goose that laid the golden eggs."

"Do you really think someone murdered him?" Newton sounded incredulous. "I thought that was Mabel's fantasy."

"Mabel is not a stupid woman." Mitch's voice was defensive. "Although I'm not even sure she really believes that he was murdered. She has ways that are murky. But there is something wrong here. Really wrong. And she's stuck in the middle of it." He looked at his sandwich, his appetite gone. "I think she's in trouble, Newton. I'm pretty sure that son of a bitch stole her trust fund. Unless I find out what he did with the cash he had, she's broke."

"Maybe she found out about the trust fund and killed him." Newton bit into his sandwich and missed the glare Mitch shot at him.

"Mabel did not kill her uncle. Gio might have if he'd had the chance. That quarter of a million must still rankle. Carlo would have killed him in a minute for turning him in to the police. Even Claud might have killed him to keep the family name from the gutter. But Mabel? Not a chance. She's a good woman, Newton."

Newton blinked at him. "I thought she was Brigid."

Mitch gazed at him in disgust. "Mabel is not Brigid. Stormy might be, though."

"Stormy doesn't have the concentration to be Brigid," Newton said flatly.

Mitch raised an eyebrow. "You've met Stormy?"

Newton shrugged. "Briefly. She's quite..."

"Harebrained?"

"Brains aren't everything."

Mitch shook his head in disbelief. "She got to you, too. I thought you'd be immune."

"Nonsense," Newton said.

And then he grinned.

Mitch called Mae that night, but June told him she was sleeping. "I'm worried, Mitch," she said. "She's never like this. She's just worn-out with worry. You'll take care of it, won't you?"

"Yes," Mitch said, knowing that Mae would go ballistic at the thought of anyone taking care of her.

Well, what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her.

On Monday, Mitch picked up his car and began to track down Armand in earnest, checking in at every art gallery and antique store he could find. As the day grew late, his list grew longer. Armand had been to most of the places, and most had bought from him or knew someone who had.

Somewhere, Armand had stashed a hell of a lot of money.

His last call was at Stormy's condo, and she was delighted to see him.

"I can only stay a minute," he began, but she pulled him down beside her onto a huge overstuffed sofa and leaned into him, and for one confused moment, Mitch wasn't sure which was sofa and which was Stormy, there was so much softness pressing against him.

"I'm so glad you're here," Stormy breathed into his neck, and Mitch winced and pulled away a little. Her perfume was exotic, and a week ago he'd have been breathing deeply, but lately, he'd developed a preference for women who smelled like soap.

"I just have a couple of questions about Armand," he told her, and she leaned closer again. He felt her softness give against him and wondered once more why Armand had ever left her for Barbara. Then he wondered why he was wondering that instead of enjoying the experience of having Stormy climbing up his arm.

Stormy was evidently wondering the same thing; she pulled away from him, confusion evident in her eyes.

"Did Armand leave anything here?" he asked her. "A box, maybe, or an envelope?"

"No."

Stormy flounced a little on the sofa and everything shifted under her sweater, and Mitch noted it with appreciation and moved on. She was fun to look at, but she wasn't Mabel. "Did he leave—"

"He was never here," Stormy said impat

iently. "All his stuff is at the town house. Harold packed up Armand's clothes in boxes, and put his stuff that wasn't clothes in another box, and threw out all his underwear and socks, and took the things in the box home with him, and that's all there was. Armand was never here. I like you a lot."

"Good," Mitch said absentmindedly. "I like you, too. Did he—"

Stormy's lips closed on his as she slithered into his lap, and his arms went around her automatically as all her pneumatic roundness pressed against him. "Mae said it was okay," she breathed into his ear.

"She said what?" Mitch said, outraged, and then Stormy kissed him again, and he concentrated on getting out of her octopus embrace so he could go yell at Mae for setting him up. He pulled his lips away from hers with an audible pop. "No. I'm really flattered, Stormy, but Mae lied. It's not okay."

Stormy slipped off his lap and onto the couch beside him. "Are you sure? She seemed sure."

Mitch stood up before she could leap on him again. "I'm sure. Listen, if you remember anything that Armand left behind, call me—uh, Mae. Call Mae, please. It's important."

Stormy frowned up at him. "Usually, men really like kissing me."

"And I did, too," Mitch assured her. "Absolutely. Well, I gotta go now." He beat a hasty retreat to the door, wondering in the back of his mind why he was fool enough to leave this beautiful woman, and knowing in the back of the back of his mind exactly why he was leaving her.

He was seeing too much of Mabel. She was clouding his thought processes, and he didn't have many to begin with. That was going to have to stop.

He got into his car and checked his watch. He was meeting Mae at eight, and he was definitely going to have to shave and shower before then so she couldn't smell Stormy's perfume on him. Not that she'd care. She'd told Stormy that it would be okay to rape him on a couch. Well, the hell with her. He wasn't even going to dress up to see her. He didn't care, either. Jeans and an old T-shirt, that would show her.

He sighed as he drove toward his apartment. Somehow, lately, all his thoughts of Mabel were depressing. He was definitely going to have to solve this case and stop seeing her.




Back to What the Lady Wants book