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For a moment, she felt so sorry for herself, she almost cried.
Mitch moved to stand behind her, looking out over her shoulder, and she felt vaguely comforted by his nearness. "When the will is probated, we're going to move to a place on the river," she said to him. "It's going to have big open windows and clean hardwood floors and white gauze curtains, and when the breeze blows in off the river, it will fill the whole house."
"Sounds nice." Mitch's voice was hesitant, and she knew he didn't have the slightest idea what she was talking about, but at least he sounded sympathetic. And he was listening.
She turned to him. "And we're going to have about twelve dogs."
"So much for the clean hardwood floors."
She met his eyes. "It's what I've always wanted. I hate all that velvet and brocade and money at Armand's. All the furniture is too valuable to sit on, and all the books are too valuable to read, and we can't let the sun in because it will fade all the damn velvet." She stopped, aware that her voice was rising. "All we want is a home, June and Harold and I. And that's what this place makes me think of. A home." She gazed at all the comfort in the sunny little room. "Armand wouldn't know how to make a room this nice. Stormy must have chosen this stuff."
A small voice startled them. "I did."
Mitch turned around, and Mae saw past him to the childlike woman standing just inside the archway to the room.
She'd forgotten just how amazingly beautiful Stormy was. Her red-gold ringlets and huge blue eyes were dazzling, but mostly it was Stormy's skin, opal-like in its translucence, that took people's breath away. At twenty-five, Stormy Klosterman was the closest thing to perfect beauty Mae had ever seen.
Mae shot a glance at Mitch and sighed. He had that stunned look that men usually got when they saw Stormy. It wasn't his fault. Even women tended to stare openmouthed at Stormy. But it still hurt, which was dumb because she didn't care who Mitch stared at.
"I'm sorry." Mae moved past Mitch to meet her. "We didn't know you were here, or we'd never have barged in on you. Are you all right?"
Stormy sniffed. There were beautiful bluish shadows under her eyes, and her mouth turned down at the corners. "Yes. It's all right that you're here. I don't live here anymore. Nobody lives here anymore." Her face crumpled and she began to cry, and Mae put her arms around her and led her to the couch.
"I'm sorry, honey." She looked back over her shoulder at Mitch, who was evidently frozen by the combination of beauty and tears. "Get her a drink of water, will you?"
"Sure." Mitch blundered past them, trying a closet door before he found the door to the kitchen, only to return with a glass of water. He looked at the weeping Stormy with no enthusiasm whatsoever.
"Go away," Mae told him.
"Right," he said, and she heard him climbing the stairs a moment later.
"I'm sorry," Stormy said when she was all cried out. She straightened her head from Mae's shoulder, and Mae watched with envy as all the pinkness from her crying jag faded into rose-blushed cheeks.
"Have you been alone all this time?"
"Yes." Stormy sniffed. "I've been mostly at my new place, but I come by everyday, just to say goodbye." Her face crumpled again.
Mae patted her on the back as Stormy's head hit her shoulder again. "I'm sorry, Stormy. I should have called you. I just didn't think."
"That's okay." Stormy's voice was muffled in Mae's shoulder.
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
Stormy pulled back a little and looked at her wistfully. "Maybe we could have lunch sometime. Like we were friends, sort of."
"Lunch?'' Mae nodded, a little confused but grateful to have found something that cheered her up. "Sure. This weekend, maybe?" Friday was the memorial. There was no way she was taking Stormy to lunch before the memorial.
"Saturday." Stormy beamed at her, and Mae blinked again at how beautiful she was and how volatile. In anyone else, the mood change would have been a sign of mental instability. In Stormy, it was childlike and enchanting. And Armand had planned to leave her to go to Barbara Ross? "I'd like that," Stormy finished. "Lunch. Saturday would be good. At the Levee. I like the Levee."
"Oh, me, too." Mae did a quick calculation to see if she had enough money to cover lunch at the Levee. Paying Mitch had tapped her out. Maybe if she sold the Mercedes.
"Why are you here?"
Mae started, but Stormy's voice was still friendly. "Uh, I..." Telling Stormy that she'd hired a detective to find Armand's murderer was probably not going to be a good move at this point. "I'm looking for something."
"Who's the guy?"
Mae blinked at her again.
"The guy you came with. He's cute." Stormy wrinkled her nose in pixie appreciation.
"Cute?" Mae stared at her. "Mitch?"
Stormy nodded. "Like a teddy bear. Is he yours?"
"Uh, no. I hired him."
Mae spoke slowly, taken aback by Stormy's sudden focus. "To find Armand's diary. We thought it might be here."
Mitch's voice broke in from the doorway. "Well, it isn't."
Stormy turned to him and smiled. "I know. All his things are packed up. Harold came and took some of them."
"The diary isn't in the box that Harold brought home," Mae told her. "Is there someplace here he might have hidden it?"
Stormy shook her head, her ringlets dancing in the sunlight. "No. There's no place like that here." She held out her hand to Mitch. "I'm Stormy."
He came forward and took it. "Hi, I'm Mitch. Can you think of anybody who might have wanted to kill Armand?"
"Kill him?" Stormy's voice sounded stunned, and Mae mentally kicked Mitch around Greater Riverbend.
"He died of a heart attack. I was there. We were making love and he died. In my arms." She started to cry again on the last words, and then she collapsed back onto Mae's shoulder.
Mae glared up at Mitch, but he just stood there, staring at Stormy with a frown on his face.
"I loved him." Stormy sobbed. "Nobody believed that. They all thought it was for the money. But I loved him."
Mae patted her again. "I believe you."
Stormy stopped crying and sat up, blinking at her. "You do?" She sniffed. "I always liked you."
"Oh. Thank you." Mae stood up before things got any weirder or, worse, before Stormy started to cry again. "If you're all right, we really have to be going." Mae backed away from her and bumped into Mitch. "We'll see you at the memorial tomorrow."
"Oh, will Mitch be there, too?" Stormy stood and drifted after them.
Mitch took Mae's elbow. "Wouldn't miss it." He pulled her through the archway, and Mae waved once to Stormy and then went gratefully, eager to be gone from all the beauty and loneliness and strangeness in the town house.
Mae was so deep in thought that she handed over the keys to Mitch without argument when he asked for them.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked her when they were in the car.
"No kidding." Mitch put the key in the ignition. "That woman is strange. What's her IQ, twelve?"
"I think she was upset," Mae said nobly, trying to defend Stormy without feeling cheered that Mitch wasn't impressed with her.
"That whole setup is strange," Mitch went on. "Why would he buy her another place when they had that one?"
Mae frowned in agreement. "That's not the only thing that's strange. Could you explain to me why a man would cheat on a mistress as beautiful as Stormy?"
"Sure." Mitch started the car and pulled out onto the road. "He's a guy."
Mae felt the anger that she'd been nursing for Armand's insensitivity veer toward Mitch. "There are a lot of men who don't cheat on their lovers."
"No, there aren't."
Mae glared at him. "Is this based on personal or professional experience?''
Mitch looked over at her condescendingly. "Don't get huffy because you don't like the facts. I'll admit I see a lot of it because I get hire
d to look for it, but the fact is, men cheat. We have to. It's a biological imperative."
"An imperative," Mae repeated. "This would be testosterone we're talking about here, right?"
"Well, that's part of it. But a lot of it is just man's need to see what's beyond the next hill. It's the reason men crossed the oceans, built the pipeline, opened the West." Mitch waved his hand, obviously feeling expansive. Iron Mitch.
"So you're saying my Uncle Armand cheated on Stormy because he couldn't open the West?"
Mitch looked over at her warily. "I don't suppose we could let this drop."
Mae set her jaw. "No, I don't suppose so."
"I don't know why women always get so upset over this." Mitch shook his head. "This is just the way men are. It isn't in our nature to commit."
"And why is that?" Mae asked between clenched teeth.
Mitch turned onto the street that led into Mae's high-rent district. "All right, let's say I'm married." He shot a stern warning glance at Mae. "Of course, I'm never going to get married because I don't believe in it and there are still a lot of librarians out there that I haven't kissed, but for the sake of argument, let's say I'm married."
Mae settled into her seat, her jaw still clenched. "This should be good."
"And let's say my wife is beautiful, intelligent, exciting, with terrific legs and the world's most perfect breasts. I mean, perfect breasts. High. Round. Smooth." He took one hand off the wheel and cupped it in the air. "Firm. The kind that bounce but don't shimmy, if you know what I mean."
Mae raised her eyebrows. "Been thinking about this a lot, have you?"
"No. I never think about women's breasts. Where was I?"
"Bounce, no shimmy."
"Right. So I'm married to the perfect woman with perfect breasts, but then I see another woman. On a street corner, maybe."
Mae frowned at a woman in a blue dress on the corner. She was leaning into the wind, unnecessarily, in Mae's opinion, and the dress molded itself around her curves. "On a street corner."
"Right. And she has a nice figure, nothing like my wife's, of course, and her legs aren't as good, and she's just attractive not beautiful."
"And the point is?"
Mitch shrugged. "I want to see her breasts."
"Why?" Mae said. "I thought you just said your wife—"
"Yes, but I've seen those. I want to see these."
"Even though they're not as good."
"Well, yeah, but they're still good."
Mae thought for a moment. "Suppose she turns out to be a Playboy centerfold. If you buy the magazine, will that do it?"
"Suppose she's a stripper, and you get to see them for real. Will that do it?"
"But you're seeing them," Mae said, exasperated.
"I'm seeing them, but all I did was pay money to see them from a distance. I need to personally—"
"Open the West." Mae glared at him. "You are disgusting."
"No, I'm not," Mitch protested. "I'm not married, and I never will be, and I have never promised a woman I wouldn't see other women. I am free to open the West anytime I want."
"You're still disgusting."
"Look, there's no point in getting upset about this. You can't understand because you're a woman, and women don't think like that."
"Women don't want to open the West?"
"No. Women want to stay home and keep the East looking nice."
Mae took a deep breath as a red mist rose before her eyes. "You're deliberately trying to make me kill you, aren't you?"
"No." Mitch's voice was the Voice of Reason. "This is just biology. Men need multiple breasts in their lives. Women need to make a commitment to one penis."
"That is garbage," Mae said flatly.
"Then why do women always want to get married? Because they want to commit to a penis."
"Then why do men get married?"
"For backup. That way, they always have a set of breasts at home."
Mae picked up her purse, using every ounce of self-control to keep herself from hitting him with it. "Stop the car, I'm getting out."
Mitch blinked at her in alarm. "Why?"
"There's a man on the corner back there, and I think his penis is bigger than yours."
Mitch scowled at her. "Don't take this out on me. This isn't about me. We're talking about other guys here. I'm not married. I don't cheat. And anyway, you've never seen my penis, so how do you know his was bigger?"
"Well, I can't be sure, of course. But I want to find out. I feel this need to explore, to lay pipeline, to open the West." Mae craned her head to look behind her. "Turn around. I'm pretty sure we can find him."
"You don't want to open the West," Mitch dismissed her. "You just think you do because of women's liberation."
"Long." Mae lingered on the word. "Thick. Hard. Throbbing. Bobs not droops. I can see it now. Take me back. I want him."
"You are no lady." Mitch turned down the road to Mae's house. "Besides, a good detective never gets distracted on the job. We're working. Pay attention."
"Whoa." Mae turned her head to watch a man on a motorcycle go past. "Look at that one. Hello, Daddy, come to Mama." Mitch pulled into the driveway, and she opened her car door before he was completely stopped. "If anybody asks, tell them I went West."
"Very funny." Mitch caught the skirt of her dress as she got out and yanked her back into her seat against him, and she tried to ignore the heat his hand generated against the small of her back. It was such a little thing, but it made her throat close and her breath come shallow, and when she turned to look at him, he was staring at her with a funny look on his face. He pulled his hand away and cleared his throat and said, "Are you going to help me find out what happened to your uncle or not?"
"I suppose so. Duty calls." Then she remembered what they'd been arguing about. "And after all, there'll be another man along any minute. And it's okay because I'm not married." She beamed at him and slid out of the car before he could catch her this time.
"This is not an attractive side of you," Mitch called after her. She ignored him, but she heard him sigh, and then he followed her into the house.
June wasn't home, so they foraged for food on their own.
Mitch stared at the mounds of food inside the refrigerator: plastic-wrapped trays of cold cuts and vegetables, tiny chilled petits fours, gallon jugs of punch. Bob joined him, and they surveyed the feast with equally wistful eyes. "You have enough food here for an army."
Mae came to stand beside him, distracting him from the food.
She was distracting him a lot lately.
"That's all for the memorial tomorrow." Mae pushed past him to rummage on a lower shelf. "How do you feel about leftover lasagna?"
"Enthusiastic." Mitch told himself not to watch her as she bent over farther to get the lasagna, but he did, anyway. He was human. And so was she, thank God.
He wondered how long it would take for her to get over her snit about opening the West. Probably days.
She pulled the lasagna from the fridge and nudged the door shut with her hip as he backed out of the way. Then he watched as she put the lasagna on the counter and stretched to take down two plates from the cabinet, nudging Bob away from the counter with her foot. Her dress was loose, but it pulled against the muscles in her arms and back and flowed over her rump, and he sighed just from looking at her.
He'd never met a more watchable woman in his life.
That was odd, when he thought about it. He'd known a lot of very attractive women, many of them more attractive than Mae Belle Sullivan. All right, not many, but some. Stormy Klosterman, for one. So why was he watching her more and more and thinking about the case less and less and Stormy not at all? This was a bad sign in more ways than one.
A smart man would tell her he was investigating the rest of the case on his own.
Mae slid lasagna-filled plates into the microwave, tapped in the time, punched the power button and turned back to him. "So w
here are we going this afternoon?"
Mitch said the first thing that came to mind. "I want to meet Barbara Ross, the woman who convinced Armand to leave Stormy."
"I thought he did that because he had to open the West."
"Well, sometimes you get a trail guide to take you, so to speak."
Mae laughed and Mitch grinned back.
"Does this mean I'm forgiven?"
"For what? That drivel in the car?" Mae shook her head. "Well, you're a macho jerk, of course, but at least you're an honest macho jerk. You didn't try to convince me that you had to go West for my own good, or that deep down inside, women want men to go West. You're up front about being a jerk. That's kind of nice."
"I object to the jerk, but if it gets me off the hook, I'll take it."
"It gets you off the hook." The microwave dinged, and Mae turned to pull the lasagna out.
Good. Now she was happy again, and he could leave her at home and get to work.
"And you're not fooling me with this sudden need to see Barbara," she added. "You just want to meet more women." She put the lasagna on the table and distracted him by smiling at him.
Suddenly, leaving her behind held no appeal. "With you there as a chaperon? Hardly. What else are we having besides lasagna?"
"Bread." Mae went into the pantry to get it, and Mitch watched her move.
Okay, so he'd tell her tomorrow he was working alone. After the memorial service.
A bird chirped outside, and Bob swung his head into the cabinet with a resounding thunk.
"I know just how you feel," Mitch told him and went to see what Mae was doing in the pantry.
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