What the Lady Wants


Page 7 of 19


Barbara lived in an elite condo about four blocks from Armand's house.

Mitch swung the Mercedes into a parking space. "Birds of a feather."

Mae got out and stared up at the building, wilting in the heat. "I'd rather die than live here."

"Fortunately, you don't have to make that choice." Mitch came up behind her. She didn't move, so he put his hand on the small of her back to push her toward the door, enjoying the warm dampness there. When he realized how much he was enjoying it, he jerked his hand away. "No one will ever make you live in an overpriced condo."

"Somebody tried to once." Mae walked toward the door.

"Who?"

"My ex-husband."

Mitch stopped. "You were married?"

Mae looked back over her shoulder. "It didn't last long. Four years."

Mitch scowled, annoyed for some reason. "Four years is long. You lived with some guy for four years?"

"Four years is not long for a marriage. Marriage is supposed to be forever. And no, he didn't open the West, if that's your next question." Mae pushed through the lobby doors.

"I wasn't going to ask." Mitch followed her into the air-conditioned opulence, upset, wondering why he was upset. So she'd been married. Big deal. It was none of his business. "So what happened?"

"It didn't work out."

"Because you didn't like living in a condo?" What kind of a fool had this guy been? If she wanted to live in a tent, Mitch would have... He stopped himself. No, he wouldn't have. He was never getting married. But if he did get married, and it was to someone like Mae, he'd live in a tent if that was what it took to keep her. "You left because you didn't like the living arrangements?"

Mae rang for the elevator. "I didn't leave. He did."

"What a fool," Mitch said, and Mae smiled at him.

"Thank you. That's very sweet of you."

Mitch shrugged. "Just an observation. Nothing personal."

The elevator stopped, and Mae put her hand on his arm. "There's just one thing I want you to know."

Mitch tried to look understanding and supportive. "Yes?"

"If Barbara cries, it's your turn to pat."

"No way in hell," Mitch said and held the elevator doors open so she could pass through.

The maid was dark, thin and irritated at being bothered. Obviously, this was a job for someone with charm, so Mitch stood back to let Mae operate.

"We've come to see Ms. Ross." Mae smiled at her. "Please tell her Mae Sullivan is here."

"She's not here. She's still in Barbados. She'll be back tomorrow."

The maid started to close the door, and Mitch stuck his foot in it. So much for charm. "When tomorrow?"

The maid glared down at his foot. "In the morning."

Mae met Mitch's eyes. "Maybe she doesn't know about Armand." She turned back to the maid. "Do you know if she's planning on attending the memorial service for Armand Lewis tomorrow?"

"Of course she's planning on going." The maid stared at Mae as if she thought Mae was insane. "She's the widow, isn't she?"

"She is?" Mae's mouth dropped open. "The widow? Are you sure?"

"Sure I'm sure." The maid moved her head from Mae to Mitch. "Now, if you don't mind, I have things to do."

Mitch moved his foot, and she slammed the door in his face.

"She's the widow? They're married?" Mae slumped against the wall. "He married her?"

Mitch put his hands in his pockets and watched her deal with the blow. "When would he have had time to marry her?"

"Last week, I guess. He was out of town all last week, but he came back on Friday to be with Stormy, and he spent Saturday and Sunday at the house with us. He was on the phone most of the time, but he was with us. And he went from us to Stormy on Monday night, and then he died."

"And he never mentioned getting married. That is something he would have mentioned, right?"

"Well, you'd think so." Mae swallowed. "It must have been that week he was gone." She looked up at Mitch. "If he did get married, what would that do to the will?"

"I don't know." Mitch frowned. "It might invalidate it. She'd get something under Ohio law."

Mae pushed herself away from the wall and turned back to the elevator. "Come on."

Mitch trailed after her. "Where are we going now?''

"Uncle Claud," Mae called back. "If it's about money, Uncle Claud has the answer."

Claud Lewis's neat white frame condo on River Road

was not ostentatious. It didn't have to be. It was sitting on the most expensive real estate in Riverbend.

"Hello, Prescott," Mae said to the graying mini-aristocrat who opened the door. "I'm here to see my uncle. I know I didn't call, but this is urgent."

"Very good, Miss Mae Belle." Prescott opened the door wider and nodded as they went past. "I'll tell him you've called to see him."

"Who does he remind me of?" Mitch asked Mae when he'd left the hallway.

"Harold. Prescott gave him a few pointers a while back when Harold decided he wanted to be a real butler. The only difference is, Prescott is always like this. Harold fades in and out."

"You can't make a silk butler out of a leg-breaker."

"Mr. Claud will see you now," Prescott said, appearing silently in the doorway.

Mae shot Mitch a look. "Behave."

Claud's welcome to Mae wasn't as effusive as Gio's had been. He simply stood behind his desk and nodded to her and said, "Hello, my dear" with all the warmth of a carp.

He looked a lot like a carp, too: hatchet-faced, beady-eyed, lipless and remote. Mae bent over the desk to kiss him, and he inclined his head to offer his cheek without smiling. Mae's dress smoothed over her rear end as she bent, and Mitch was distracted, and when he raised his eyes from her derriere, he met Claud's.

They looked like dry ice. Unamused dry ice.

"This is Mitchell Peatwick, a private investigator," Mae said, and Claud stared at him, expressionless.

Mitch suddenly had a vision of Mae as a small child, facing Gio, Armand and this carp in a lawyer's office after losing her parents. Gio and Armand were no prizes, but Claud...the poor kid.

"Mr. Peatwick," Claud said flatly and sat down, staring at him.

Mitch knew exactly what Newton had been talking about the night before. Given a choice between facing down Gio or Claud, he'd pick Gio every time.

"We've just come from Barbara Ross's apartment." Mae sat down in the chair next to the desk, and Mitch followed her, watching Claud watch his every move. He felt like a rabbit being stalked by a snake. "She wasn't there, but her maid was," Mae went on. "The maid said she's Armand's widow."

Claud's eyes panned slowly to Mae. "She's mistaken."

"I don't think so." Mae took a deep breath. "It would be such a dumb lie. What if he married her? What would it mean?"

"She would inherit half." Claud evidently saw consequences only in monetary terms.

Mitch joined the conversation even though he knew it would bother Claud. Especially since he knew it would bother Claud. "Including half of your half of his stock," he pointed out.

Claud panned back to Mitch, his dislike palpable even though his face remained a mask. "There is no stock."

Mitch leaned back in his chair. "Why not?"

Claud's fish eyes didn't move. "Why are you here?"

Mitch was annoyed. Claud's one-note performance was getting on his nerves, and he hated being annoyed alone, so he smiled inanely at Claud to bring him along for the ride. "Mabel hired me to find Armand's killer. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

Claud's eyes chilled him. "There is no killer. Armand died of heart failure."

"Everybody dies of heart failure," Mitch said. "We'd just like to know what caused his heart to fail."

Mae kicked Mitch on the ankle. "Behave," she said under her breath. "Barbara is not the only problem," she said, returning to Claud. "Things have been disappearing from the house."

Claud blinked slowly. "Things?"

Mi

tch frowned at her. "What things?"

"Paintings. Furniture. His coin collection is gone. The Florentine chess set. The Lempicka."

Mitch leaned toward her, exasperated. "You might have mentioned this sooner."

Mae waved him back. "It wasn't relevant. Nobody stole them. Armand knew they were gone and didn't say a word."

"Perhaps Armand tired of them and sold them." Claud's voice was like dry ice, too, creeping across the floor of the room.

Mae sat back. "Well, he took them, anyway. I don't know that he sold them."

"If he didn't sell them, where are they?" Mitch asked.

"He is unnecessary," Claud said to Mae.

Mae blinked. "Mitch? Mitch is necessary. He just has no manners. Do you know anything about the stuff that's missing?"

"I will take care of this." Claud stood up.

"No," Mae said, still sitting. "I can take care of it. I just need information. If Barbara is his widow and is inheriting half, I need to know where the missing things went. There's a lot of money at stake here. Do you know what happened—"

"You have no need to worry. I will take care of this." Claud had all the animation of a dummy at Walt Disney World, and he was equally immovable.

Mitch watched the emotions flit across Mae's face until she gave up and stood, too. "I can take care of it, Uncle Claud. I just need to know—"

"I will look into this." Claud walked to the door.

"Wait a minute," Mitch said and they turned to look at him. "Why isn't there any stock?"

Claud's eyes panned to Mae. "He is highly unnecessary."

"No," Mae said politely. "I want him."

"So where's the stock?" Mitch asked.

Claud's eyelids fluttered, but he answered, "I bought it."

"You bought it?" Mae echoed. "All of it? It was worth millions."

"Six million," Claud corrected. "It had fallen in value."

There was no expression on his face, but somehow Mitch picked up a sense that Claud was feeling gleeful about that stock buy. Six million must have been a bargain.

"Why did Armand want to sell his stock?" Mitch asked.

A fleeting emotion crossed Claud's face and it wasn't pretty. Mitch almost took a step back, but he held his ground.

Mae swallowed. "He must have been selling everything." She looked at Claud, shaken. "What was going on? What was wrong?''

Claud's face was closed again. "Nothing, my dear. He had a minor cash-flow problem, and he solved it." Claud's voice was patronizing but not cold. In fact, it was almost comforting for a carp. "Don't worry about this matter, Mae. I will take care of it."

Mae sighed. "If you find out anything, please let me know what's going on. I'm worried." She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek again. "I'll see you tomorrow afternoon at the memorial."

Claud patted her arm once, and Mae went through the door, but Claud closed it behind her and locked it before Mitch could leave with her.

"Hey!" Mae called through the door.

Claud ignored her. "Now, Mr. Peatwick," he said, and Mitch sat back down, interested. What was Claud going to do? Threaten to give his credit rating concrete overshoes and throw it in the Ohio?

"You wanted to see me?" Mitch tried a man-to-man smile.

"Not particularly." Claud returned to his desk chair and surveyed Mitch over the gleaming mahogany expanse with no enthusiasm. "My niece is a very lovely girl."

So that was it. Claud wasn't anxious to have Peatwick in the bloodline. Mae's relatives were going above and beyond the call of duty in protecting her from him, a point that was moot since he wasn't interested, but it was annoying, all the same. He smiled at Claud blankly, trying to look as thick and obnoxious as possible. "Lovely is hardly the word for her. She's got a world-class ass. Every time she bends over, I forget my name."

Claud closed his eyes briefly. Then he opened the leather folder in front of him. "Since we're both men of the world, I'll make this brief."

Mitch looked around. "Well, two different worlds, of course. I bet they never cut off the electricity here."

"No." Claud was writing now, and when he was done, he tore off a slip of paper and handed it across the desk to Mitch who leaned forward and took it without rising.

"Ten thousand?" Mitch raised his eyebrows. "Hey, really, Mabel already paid me. Nice checks, though." He looked at the slip of paper again. "You know, Claud, you should get those ones with the monogram. These are kind of plain. Now, a monogram, that says class." He tossed the check back on the desk and flashed his best used-car-salesman smile. "Just a tip. One businessman to another."

"Very amusing. How much do you want?"

Claud still looked like a fish, but his carp was metamorphosing into barracuda. Not seeing any future in annoying him further, Mitch got down to business.

"How much do I want to leave a honey like Mabel high and dry? I assume that's the drift here? Dump the investigation?"

Claud nodded once. "That, certainly, and, of course, you will never see my niece again."

Mitch let the corners of his mouth droop. "You know, I've dated women whose families didn't like me before, but you people really hate me. And I'm trying so hard."

"How much?" Claud's lips barely moved.

Mitch shrugged. "A hundred thousand."

"Amusing," Claud said. "Twenty."

Mitch shook his head. "Twenty is chump change, Claud. A hundred."

"Twenty thousand is more than you make in a year."

"Well, that depends on the year...." Mitch settled down for a long financial discussion, but Claud cut him off.

"Twenty-five."

"Claud." Mitch shook his head. "You're not in a bargaining position here. A hundred thou or I go back to work for Mabel. Take or leave it. But act fast. She's waiting on the other side of that door, and while I admire her both physically and spiritually, she does have a temper."

Claud's face changed then, filled with such loathing that Mitch was taken aback for a moment. Then Claud picked up his pen and began to write.

"That's five zeros," Mitch said, and sure enough, when Claud pushed the check across to him, it had five zeros.

"Get out." Claud's nostrils flared, but otherwise his face was as impassive and cold as before.

"Pleasure doing business." Mitch stood and tucked the check in his coat pocket.

When he opened the door, Prescott was waiting in the hall.

"Seen Mabel lately?" he asked him, and the man replied, "Miss Mae is waiting in the car, sir," but the tone added, "you worthless creep."

"Hell of a lot of undercurrent in this place," Mitch said to no one in particular and strolled down the steps to the car where Mae sat in rigid fury in the driver's seat.

"Drive," he said as he got in, but she was scattering gravel across the sidewalk before he got the door shut.

"You know, some men find a temper really sexy, but I'm not one of them," Mitch said mildly. "So if this is for me..."

"Shut up." Mae peeled out onto the boulevard, stopping only when she came to a funeral home parking lot. She pulled in and parked, her abrupt stop bouncing Mitch off the dashboard, and only then did she turn to glare at him.

"Nice place." Mitch squinted through the window at the Victorian facade. "This one of Gio's parlors?"

"He bought you off, didn't he?" Mae demanded.

"Yeah." Mitch fished the check out of his breast pocket. "He did." He handed it over to her. "Generous guy, your Uncle Claud."

Mae took the check from him, scowling, but when she read the amount, she blinked. "Well, at least you didn't come cheap. Dalton got five hundred thousand, but he had to divorce me. All you have to do is walk away."

Mitch gaped at her. "You're kidding."

Mae met Mitch's eyes coolly, but he could see the misery there. "No, I'm not kidding."

"Claud bought off your husband?"

"We were pretty much not married by the time Uncle Claud paid him to leave." Mae swallowed as she looked at the check with Mitch's na

me on it.

"Well, I'm not like him." Mitch took the check back and pocketed it. "I think marriage is sacred, which is why I never do it."

Mae seemed to be having trouble breathing. "You're scum."

"Now here's a question for you," Mitch said as if she hadn't spoken. "Why would your Uncle Claud give me one hundred thousand dollars to dump you and your problems?"

Mae looked at him with naked contempt. "Because he knew you were corrupt and without honor."

"No." Mitch slid down into his seat and stared out the window in deep thought. "If that were the only motivation he needed, he'd be in Washington greasing senators. There's got to be a beauty of a reason behind this. I mean, I know he's protecting you, but a hundred grand is a lot to pay to protect a woman's virtue, especially since I have grave suspicions that you don't have any."

"I do where you're concerned." Mae put her forehead on the steering wheel. "Could you at least recommend another private eye?''

"You're not listening." Mitch rolled his head on the back of the seat until he could see her. "Stop pouting and think. Would your Uncle Claud, who looks like he has the first dime he ever made, pay one hundred thousand dollars to keep me out of your bed?"

"Dream on." Mae raised her head from the wheel and glared at him. "You're never getting into..." She stopped. "Oh." Her glare faded. "No. He wouldn't. If that's what he was worried about, he'd probably give Uncle Gio a call and just have your legs broken. Or something."

"That's not funny." Mitch winced. "Don't even kid about that."

"What did he say you had to do for the money?"

"Drop the case and stay away from you. But the part about you was an afterthought. I was really obnoxious about you, and it annoyed him, but that wasn't what was bothering him."

Mae perked up. "How obnoxious?"

"I mentioned your butt. He shuddered, but Gio would have had my liver."

"Uncle Claud wouldn't want your liver," Mae pointed out. "Your credit may be in jeopardy, however."

"My credit is comatose, anyway." Mitch frowned. "So why is Uncle Claud willing to pay a broken-down, incompetent private investigator a small fortune to stop him from investigating a murder that never happened?"

"Of course it happened."

"Not according to Claud. Would he pay that much to keep you out of jail?" Mitch watched her as she turned to him, incredulous. "If he thought you'd bumped off the old guy?"




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