What the Lady Wants

Page 3 of 19

The first thing he saw as he went through the door was a huge, vivid painting of the biblical Judith, darkly beautiful and triumphant, holding up the severed head of her enemy, Holofernes. He cocked his head at Mae and said, "Relative of yours?'' She rolled her eyes at him and took his arm to turn him toward the massive desk in front of the wall of windows to his right.

And then he was face-to-face with Gio Donatello, diminutive and deadly, and his giant grandson, Carlo, the finger chopper.

Gio barely spared Mitch a glance. He shot out from behind the desk and swept his niece into his arms, shouting her name and calling to his grandson to back him up on how beautiful she was, how healthy she looked, how long it had been since she'd seen them— three whole days.

Meanwhile, Carlo Donatello stood like a god in the sunlight and eviscerated Mitch with his eyes.

"Uncle Gio, I want you to meet Mitchell Peatwick," Mae said, and Gio turned his little obsidian eyes on Mitch. The air in the room grew colder and heavier.

"Who's he?" Gio's voice was like a stiletto.

Mae patted her uncle's arm. "It's all right. I'm not dating him. He's a private detective I've hired."

The temperature went up a few degrees, Carlo abandoned Mitch to look at Mae with all the helpless longing of a science major for a cheerleader, and Gio tightened his arm around Mae's shoulders. "Mae, baby, you don't need a P.I. when you've got us to take care of you. You want something found out? Carlo will find out for you." He turned back to Mitch. "You're fired. Leave."

Carlo moved toward him, and Mitch took a step back.

"No, Carlo." Mae's voice stopped her cousin in his tracks. "I hired him. I want him. I have a problem, and I want a professional."

Carlo didn't listen any better than his grandpa. "Mae, honey, I can do anything you want. You don't need this creep."

Mae smiled at her cousin and said, "No," and he stopped talking and just stared at her, his mouth slightly open, his eyes glazed with love. Mitch shook his head in sympathy. This guy had it bad, which was always a mistake. Maybe if he read The Maltese Falcon...

"Let us handle this, Mae," Gio said, and Mae said, "No, I want to do this myself," and Mitch wondered how many times she was going to have to say it before they gave her what she wanted.

Several times, it turned out. Mitch had stopped listening since hearing Mae repeating no had dulled his nerves, so he started when Gio barked, "Sit." He looked up to see the old man back behind his massive desk, glaring at him.

Mitch sat.

Mae sank into the chair next to him. "I hired Mr. Peatwick to investigate Uncle Armand's death."

"You hired him to check out a heart attack?" Gio's face was incredulous. "What is he, a doctor?"

"No." Mae smiled at him, and his face smoothed out, and Mitch reminded himself not to do anything to annoy Mae while he was in reach of her Donatello kin since she was obviously the center of their existence. "He's just a private detective checking out a few things for me. This is what I want, Uncle Gio. Please."

Gio nodded. "So be it." He turned to Mitch. "Ask."

Mitch double-checked, just to make sure. "This is all right with you?"

Gio shrugged. "Whatever Mae Belle wants, Mae Belle gets."

"Mabel?" Mitch turned to Mae, incredulous. "Mabel?"

"Mae. Belle." Mae made the words distinct and separate. "I do not use my middle name."

"Mabel." Mitch shook his head and tamed back to find Gio glaring at him. "Oh. Great name. Really." He regrouped. "Now, Mr. Donatello, when was the last time you saw Armand Lewis?"

Gio scowled at him. "June 11, 1978. Any other questions?"

Mitch scowled back. "Yeah. What happened on June 11, 1978, that you remember the date?"

"I graduated from high school," Mae said. "I told you this was a waste of time. He hasn't seen—"

"Hey, I'm doing this," Mitch said shortly, and Carlo stirred ominously in the seat beside him. Mitch sighed. "If that's all right with you, Miss Sullivan."

"Of course." Mae sat back and waved her hand at him. "Go ahead."

Mitch turned to Gio, who glared at him. He glanced back at Carlo and saw his scowl deepen. Behind him, Judith gloated on the wall, and Holofernes was still dead. Get out of here now, he told himself. It was the only intelligent thing to do.

On the other hand, he had more questions, and he sure as hell didn't want to come back. He took a breath. "Did you ever have business dealings with Armand Lewis?"

"Once." Gio's face was impassive, but remembered rage bubbled beneath the surface. Mitch was willing to bet there was a reason it had only been once.

"Did you know he kept a diary?"

"No." Gio's eyes flickered at the question, but that could have been anything. The eyes of most psychos flickered at odd moments.

"Do you know of anyone who had a reason to kill him?"

"No." The flicker was back again. For some reason, Gio's temper was rising. And it had been stratospheric when they'd walked in.

The hell with this. Time to go.

He stood up, and Mae and Carlo rose on each side of him.

"I'll see you out," Carlo said, and Mitch turned to him.

"That reminds me, where were you Monday night?"

Within seconds, there was a gun in Carlo's hand, and almost as quickly, Mitch took one step back and one step to the right so that Mae was squarely between him and Carlo.

"Put that thing down," Gio barked at his grandson, but Carlo had already let his gun hand drop as soon as Mae was in range.

"Oh, this is impressive," Mae said over her shoulder to Mitch. "Aren't you supposed to be protecting me?"

"No." Mitch met Carlo's appalled eyes with a shrug. "I'm supposed to be investigating your uncle's death. Somebody pulls a gun, you're on your own."

"God, what a loser," Carlo said to Mae. "Where'd you get him?"

Mitch felt wounded. "Hey, if I wasn't almost positive that you probably wouldn't shoot her, I wouldn't be doing this." He looked down at Mae apologetically. "A man has needs, you know."

Mae blinked. "Needs?"

"Yeah. And top on my list is staying alive." Mitch eyed Carlo over her shoulder. "Could you disarm your cousin so we can go?"

"Put it away," Gio snapped, and Carlo tucked his gun away under his jacket. "Carlo's a little jumpy right now," he explained.

"Listen, if I'd killed Armand for shopping me, he wouldn't have gone peaceful in his bed," Carlo told Mitch. "Get real, bozo."

"Shopping you?" Mae echoed.

Gio watched Mitch warily. "It's nothing, Mae."

Oh, terrific. Two psychos, two motives. Mitch had never wanted out of a place more. "Well, that should about do it. Thanks for all your help. We've gotta go now."

"Good." Mae crossed to her great-uncle and hugged him goodbye, while Mitch followed, keeping an eye on Carlo.

"You take care of yourself," she scolded the old man. "I'm going to check with Nora about your blood pressure when I come back on Sunday, and it had better be down again. You hear me?''

Gio's face went to mush. "Now there, don't you worry about an old man." He patted her shoulder. "You hear that, Carlo, how she worries?"

"I hear, Grandpa." Carlo glared at Mitch. "Mae's a good girl."

"Well, let's go." Mitch edged toward the door. "Great meeting you all."

"Just a minute, honey." Gio caught at Mae's arm and nodded at his grandson, and somehow Mitch found himself alone in the cream-and-gold hall with Carlo, who immediately slammed the door behind them, grabbed a fistful of his shirt and hauled him off his heels the inch that brought them nose to nose.

Mae winced as the door slammed shut after them. "I have to go, Uncle Gio. Carlo's going to do something to him."

Gio's face leaned closer to hers. "What's this about, Mae Belle?"

"Nothing I can't handle." Mae patted his hand and then pried it off her arm.

"You know we'll give you anything," Gio insisted. "Anything at all. Let's get rid of the P.I."

Mae patted his hand

again. He was fussy and he never listened to her, but she loved him, so she tried to erase the worried look in his eyes. "I'm fine. All I want is my private detective for a week or so. That's all." She stopped, distracted by a thud from the hallway. "Oh, hell, Carlo's beating him up." She stooped and kissed Gio's cheek with an audible, affectionate smack that made him grin, and then she headed for the doorway. "Call Carlo off, will you? I don't need him screwing things up for me."

"He'll just keep an eye out," Gio answered, but she was already through the door.

"Tell her you quit," Carlo had growled in Mitch's face as the door closed behind them, his godlike handsomeness distorted with hate. "Right now."

"Your interpersonal skills need work." Mitch jerked Carlo's hands off his jacket and smoothed the worn cloth as his heels hit the floor again. "Of course, that was obvious when you cut off that guy's finger but—"

"She doesn't need you." Carlo shoved his face in Mitch's. "She's got me."

Mitch glared back at him. "Lucky her."

"Tell her you quit now," Carlo said, practically spitting the words.

"No," Mitch said, and Carlo punched him.

Mitch slammed into the wall and slid slowly down to the floor, his head ringing, hitting the carpet just as Mae came through the door.

"Carlo!" Mae swung her purse and caught him a good hard clip across the shoulder. "Damn it, he's my detective. You leave him alone."

"Aw, Mae." Carlo rubbed his shoulder, but he seemed a lot more upset by the force of her anger than by the force of her blow. "It was just a tap. It didn't even hurt, did it, Peatwick?"

He glared down at Mitch, who glared back and wiped the blood from his mouth. "Of course it hurt, you Neanderthal." He turned his hand over and showed them the blood. "See that? That's blood. If there's blood, there's pain. It's like smoke and fire. What the hell's wrong with you?"

Carlo reached down and grabbed his shirtfront again and hauled him to his feet. "Don't be such a wuss."

"That's enough, Carlo." Mae's voice was sharp with warning. "Let go of him."

"I'm just helping him up." Carlo released Mitch's shirtfront and patted him on the back with enough force to dislocate a lung. "He's got something to tell you, Mae. Don't you, Peatwick?"

Mitch scowled up at Carlo's glare. "Yeah." He turned to Mae. "Your cousin is a psychopath. Are you ready to go?"

Carlo moved toward him, and Mae pushed herself between them. "Don't hit him anymore, you hear me?

If I want him to quit, I'll fire him. You stay away from him."

Carlo's movie-star face creased with unhappiness. "I was just trying to protect you. This guy—"

Mae put her face very close to his. "Stay. Out. Of. My. Business. Understand?"

Carlo shot Mitch a glance of pure loathing. "Whatever you want, Mae."

Mae folded her arms and held her ground. "At the moment, I want him. Back off."

To Mitch's amazement, Carlo backed up a step.

"I'll see you Sunday for dinner." Mae's voice was soothing, and Carlo relaxed visibly as he gazed at her. "Take care of Uncle Gio."

"All right." He scowled at Mitch again. "You have any trouble with this guy, you call me."

"You'll be the first to know." Mae tugged on Mitch's arm.

"Actually, I'd prefer to be the first to know." Mitch let himself be towed down the hall, keeping an eye on Carlo over his shoulder. "At least promise me you'll give me a head start."

"Come on." Mae didn't bother to conceal her exasperation as she pulled him through the front door to his waiting car. "I'll take you home and get you cleaned up. You're a mess."

"Thank you." Mitch dabbed at his bloody mouth. "What a wonderful client you've turned out to be."

"Don't whine," Mae said. "It's bad for your image."

Mae's house wasn't as palatial as Gio's, but it was impressive nonetheless, a wedding cake of a mansion piped with white trellises. Mitch surveyed the facade as he got out of the car and then turned to Mae. "Doesn't anybody in your family live the simple life?"

"Uncle Claud lives in a very small condominium on River Road

," Mae offered. "He's very austere."

"River Road

is pretty expensive austere," Mitch said, remembering his own condo payments there.

Mae climbed the wide, shallow steps to the front door. "You said simple, not cheap."

"I meant," Mitch began, and then Mae reached the door, and it opened before she could touch it, and he got his first glimpse of the butler.

As a butler, Harold made a nice bouncer. Still, he was a slight improvement over the bulging scowlers at Gio's, looking more like a seedy aristocrat on steroids than a garden-variety thug. He nodded formally at Mae and stepped back from the door. "Good afternoon, Miss Mae."

"Good afternoon, Harold." Mae nodded to him just as formally, and walked past him into the house, and Mitch trailed after her, wondering who they thought they were kidding.

The place was impressive in its oppressive elegance. Everything was dark, rich and heavy: paneled walls with red brocade inserts, figured carpets in oriental reds and greens, massive walnut posts on the curving staircase. The overall effect was one of great weight. It wasn't the kind of place that anyone had ever dashed through, laughing gaily.

Mitch resisted the urge to ask for a flashlight and followed Mae farther into the dim hall.

Harold frowned at him as he closed the door after them. "Who's the stiff?"

Mitch turned back to him. "Excuse me?''

Mae took Harold's arm and drifted deeper into the hall, leaving Mitch to follow. "This is Mitchell Peatwick. He's the private investigator I've hired to look into Uncle Armand's death."

"So this is what you and June cooked up." Harold sounded displeased.

Mae jerked her head at Mitch. "Not in front of the help. We'll discuss it later."

"I am not the help," Mitch said with dignity. "I'm a professional."

Both Harold and Mae shot him incredulous glances, and then Harold turned back to Mae. "This is a bad idea."

"Maybe so, but it's the only one I've got, so we're going with it." Mae stopped. "I'm hungry."

"Tray in the library in ten minutes." Harold moved toward the back of the hall. "Don't spill."

Mae caught his arm to stop him, stood on tiptoe, and kissed his cheek, and Mitch's opinion of butler-hood as a career improved. "I never spill."

"Tell that to the library carpet." Harold moved on again.

"What's he mean, 'Who's the stiff?'" Mitch scowled. "Who's he calling a stiff?"

"You, evidently." Mae nodded toward the door through which Harold had just vanished. "Come on out to the kitchen. I'll get you cleaned up and then we can talk in the library."

Mitch's first impression of the kitchen was a lot of gleaming white tile and massive appliances surrounding a Marilyn Monroe look-alike.

"Oh, my." She smoothed her white dress over her hourglass figure, and Mitch realized belatedly that she was sizing him up. "Is this him?"

"This is Mitchell Peatwick, June." Mae went past her to the sink and pulled down a paper towel before she turned on the tap. "He's the private investigator I hired."

June tilted her head to survey him, her blue eyes caressing every inch of him. "Very nice."

"Thank you," Mitch said. "It's about time I got some appreciation."

"Oh, poor baby, what's wrong?" She pulled out a chair and motioned him to it, every movement sensual and pleasing, and Mitch blinked as the butter of her charm flowed over him. For some reason, she reminded him of Mae, which made no sense because there was nothing butterlike about Mae. "Is that blood on your mouth?" June asked him.

"Yes. I met Mae's cousin Carlo." Mitch sat in the chair and then jumped a little as June laid soft, gentle fingers against his face to tip it up to her.

"Poor baby," June cooed again, and Mitch stared at her, fascinated. Her oval face had the soft blurring that women got as they aged, but she was still stunning.

Harold came in from the pantry a

nd dropped a trayful of plates on the table with a clatter, glaring at Mitch in a definitely unbutlerlike manner. "Mae's hungry," he said pointedly to June, and she smiled one last time at Mitch and went to the refrigerator.

Mitch leaned toward her automatically as she went, and then caught himself as a midsize, sloppily spotted dog of no particular breed joined them from the pantry and collapsed by the counter. Harold ignored the dog and stomped away while June began to haul out food: a leftover roast, two fat tomatoes, a slab of cheese, a plastic bag full of greens, a gallon of milk.

Suddenly, Mitch was starving.

Mae caught his attention by bringing the wet towel over from the sink, nudging the dog away with her foot to get to him. "Get away from the counter, Bob." Bob immediately returned to his place by the cabinet.

Mitch opened his mouth to ask Bob about the diary, but then Mae bent over to see his face, and he looked directly down the front of her jacket to the pink lace bra she was wearing. There was a lot of lace, and a lot more of Mae. "My God."

Mae put her hand under his chin and yanked it up. "First June and now me. Stop ogling or I'll tell Carlo."

"It'll be worth it. Ouch!"

Mae dabbed at the cut on his lip. "Don't be such a baby."

"Be careful, Mae." June looked up from the cutting board where she was slicing minislabs off the roast and dimpled at Mitch while Mae used a lot more force than he thought was necessary to clean his lip. Then June caught sight of Bob and patted her hip. "Come here, Bob. Get away from the counter."

Bob blinked at her and yawned.

Mae dabbed at Mitch's mouth again, gentler this time, and he looked up into her eyes. "Sorry about Carlo," she said softly, and pressed the towel against his lip for a moment, and Mitch forgot she'd been nasty. In fact, as far as he was concerned, she could hold that towel there forever, her face tipped close to his, her scent drifting to him, her jacket gaping open. It was the best he'd felt in a long time. A few more hours with Mae, and he might even get back his enthusiasm for life.

Then she stepped back and surveyed her handiwork, and the mood was broken. "That'll do it. You're fine. He barely tapped you."

"Thank you for the sympathy." Mitch scowled at her.

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