What the Lady Wants


Page 8 of 19


"Are you accusing me of murdering my uncle and then hiring you to catch me?" Mae laughed at him. "Isn't there some kind of test you have to take to be a P.I.? Some kind of minimum IQ?"

"I'm saying that Claud doesn't want this investigated." Mitch frowned as he thought about it. "And he doesn't want it investigated a lot. And I think that's interesting."

"But not interesting enough to keep on investigating." Mae's glare was back in place. "You sold me out."

"Well, not yet I haven't. I'm pretty sure it's not contractual until I cash the check."

"Not a gentleman's agreement?" Mae's sarcasm was thick and acid.

"You need at least one gentleman for that. The butler was in the hall. It was just me and Claud, underestimating each other. We're both probably going to regret that."

Mae was so quiet that Mitch finally glanced over at her. "What?"

"Tear up the check."

"Are you nuts?" Mitch put his hand over his coat pocket in case she tried to lunge for it. "A hundred thousand may be spare change to you, but this is a fortune to me."

"But if you're working for me, you're not going to cash it, anyway." Mae leaned toward him, her eyes huge and plaintive. As she leaned closer, the neckline of her dress gaped open, and Mitch saw lush curves and creamy flesh and temporarily lost his train of thought. "Tear it up, and I'll believe in you again." Her voice flowed over him, low and warm, and Mitch reluctantly tore his eyes away from her cleavage and scowled at her.

"Don't believe in me, dummy. I'm a guy. Now, could we get moving? I've got to go home and call somebody I know to look into that missing stuff you just dropped on me in there." He gazed at her sternly. "You were supposed to tell me everything, Mabel. Keeping secrets from me is bad."

"It wasn't relevant," Mae began, and Mitch overrode her.

"Of course it's relevant. Tell me about it. You said a coin collection, furniture, and a lem-something."

He watched her face as she thought in rapid succession about killing him, bullying him, and then, finally, telling him what he wanted, and he grinned. She was stubborn, but she wasn't dumb. It was going to be easier to tell him the story than to argue with him, and she knew it.

Fast learner, his Mabel.

Mae sighed. "The Lempicka is a painting of this horrible nude blond woman. She's sort of mechanical and shiny-looking. Actually, she looks a lot like Barbara Ross."

"Is that why Armand bought it?"

"No, he bought it a long time ago. I was just a kid. He brought it home and showed it to me, and I said I thought it was really ugly, and he said that was because I had no taste. He told me it was a Tamara Lempicka, and he'd paid twenty thousand dollars for it." Mae shook her head. "I was disgusted. That much money for an ugly painting."

"So now twenty thousand dollars' worth of painting is missing?"

"No. Lempickas are hot right now. Barbra Streisand sold one last year for 1.8 million."

Mitch's eyes widened. "Dollars?"

"Yep. Of course, part of that was probably because it was Streisand's Lempicka, but we are definitely talking high six figures as a minimum. We're missing a small fortune. And that's just one of the things that's gone. We're missing his coin collection, Revere silver, two Whistler drawings, an Early American sideboard—"

"And you didn't ask Armand where this stuff was going?"

"He moved it out so quietly that it didn't register at first." Mae frowned at the traffic. "And then when we did notice, there wasn't much we could do. It was his stuff."

"And you don't have any idea what he did with it?" Mitch persisted, watching her face.

She turned and looked at him with weighty patience. "It was all in the last two or three months, which means that all the answers will be in the diary. Now can we talk about the diary?"

Mitch grinned at her. "You are something else, Mabel."

She smiled back at him, and he forgot his place in the conversation. "Don't you forget it," she said. "What are you going to do next?"

"Next?" Mitch bunked and came back to earth. "Oh. You're going to drop me off at my garage so I can tell the people there to put a hurry-up on my new wheels. You drive like a woman, and it scares me."

"Wimp."

"Then, tomorrow, we'll do the memorial, and then we'll start looking for the diary."

Mae watched him, suspicion blatant in her eyes. "So you're still investigating?"

"Until you do something to annoy me." Mitch sat up in his seat again. ''Then I'm cashing Claud's check. So, from now on, I want some respect from you. Could we get going now?''

"You want my respect, earn it." Mae put the car in gear and when they were out on the road again, she asked him casually, "So what did you say about my butt?"

"To Claud?" Mitch shrugged, trying not to let his thoughts dwell on her rear end. "I told him it was adequate."

"You lied," Mae said. "It's magnificent and you know it."

"Everybody lies," Mitch said.

Mitch called Newton as soon as Mae dropped him off at the garage. "I need you to check on a few things for me."

"I'm still checking on the other few things." Newton sounded harried. "I'm still a stockbroker, you know. I'm still covering all your clients for you. I'm—"

"There's a beautiful woman involved here," Mitch said soothingly.

"I know, you told me. Mabel."

"Not Mabel. Mabel is not beautiful." Mitch tried not to think about Mae's big dark eyes and curving mouth. "Not technically. This woman is technically beautiful. Perfect. You should see her, Newton."

"Why?" Newton's suspicion was palpable, even over the phone.

"Because every man should see her. It'll restore your faith in humanity. Her name is Stormy Klosterman, and she was Armand's mistress. Supposedly he bought her a condo. Find out if he did."

Newton's sigh was part exasperation, part resignation. "How?"

"Seduce her."

"Me?"

"She's a redhead, Newton."

There was a long silence. "Just like Brigid."

"Better than Brigid."

"All right," Newton said finally. "In the meantime, what are you going to be doing? Seducing Mabel?"

Mitch swallowed. "No. Seducing Mabel would be hazardous to my health. And my sanity."

"You're seeing a lot of her."

Mitch remembered Mae leaning toward him and the lush curves he'd seen when she had, and his breath started to go. Don't even think about it, he told himself. "You don't understand. She's surrounded by homicidal men who watch her like hawks. Plus, this woman is so stubborn, she makes mules look indecisive. If her relatives didn't get me, she'd drive me crazy in a week."

Of course, it would be one hell of a week. His mind went back to those curves, and his hands sliding up to cup those curves and then down to...no. He loosened his tie and shoved Mae out of his mind to return to the problem of Armand, making his voice brisk as an antidote to the thoughts that were making him choke. "I'm reading the most recent diary again tonight. Armand Lewis was evidently offloading some of his capital in the form of paintings and furniture and stock, and I want to see if I missed any mention of him having a garage sale. Oh, and here's something else interesting— a woman named Barbara Ross says she's married to Armand Lewis."

"She inherits half, then. Wives get half automatically."

"Another good reason not to get married."

"Her name is really Stormy?''

"Find out. You're the detective."

"And in the meantime, you'll be doing what?"

"I'll be at Armand's memorial." Mitch sighed as he thought about it. "Watching all the people who are glad he's dead."

Chapter Five

When Harold answered the door at two the next afternoon, Mitch was in his best suit and his Frank Lloyd Wright tie.

"That is the ugliest tie I've ever seen," Harold said.

"Nice to see you, too." Mitch pushed past him and peered down the dim hall. "Where's Mabel?"

Harold closed the door. "They're all

in the dining room. Don't pig out on the canapes."

"Thank you, Harold." Mitch nodded at him. "That will do. You may go now."

Harold snorted, and then the doorbell rang, and he returned to his duties.

Mitch ambled down the hallway picking up muted voices as he neared the second door past the library.

The place wasn't packed, but it was nicely filled with people who milled around sedately and chatted, obviously not overcome with grief for the departed. Mitch took a glass of punch from a tray that went by and drifted to the wall where he leaned on the edge of a sideboard and watched the people mingle. Then he saw Mae across the room and stopped with his drink halfway to his mouth.

She was dressed in a short black dress that fastened with a row of tiny black buttons that curved all the way up the front to a collarless V neck. She looked round and healthy and fresh, and he gazed at her for a minute for the sheer pleasure of having his eyes on her. There was absolutely no trace of the pink-suited Brigid who'd been snotty all over his office two days before, and for the first time, Mitch wondered where she'd gotten the pink suit and high-rise heels that were definitely not Mabel couture.

Then June swayed into the room carrying a tray of canape's, dressed in a pink suit and heels, and Mitch knew. She spotted him and rumbaed over, dazzling everyone in her path.

"Mitch, darling." She jabbed the tray at him. "Have a canape. I'll make you some real food later."

"Deep in mourning, I see." He snagged a sliver of bread decorated with a shrimp and moved the tray away from his solar plexus with his drink hand. "That's a nice suit you're wearing. How the hell did Mabel ever get into it?" He crunched down on the shrimp.

"We used a shoehorn." June poked him with the tray again. "Take a couple more. I've got to keep circulating, and these people are like locusts. I had a pin on this suit, and I swear somebody ate it."

"Why did you use a shoehorn?" Mitch picked up another bread finger. "What was wrong with the dress she's got on now?"

"This one's sexier. We were trying to seduce you into working for us." June picked up another canap6 and handed it to him, forcing him to eat the one he had in order to free his hand for the new one. "Try one of these. They're Harold's favorite."

"Why were you trying to seduce me?" Mitch mumbled around his mouthful of canapé. "The money was plenty."

"We wanted you to believe that Armand was murdered." June surveyed the crowd and sighed. "I should just throw the tray in the middle of the floor and let them fight for it. Feeding frenzy."

Mitch swallowed his canapé. "June, would you please tell me what's going on?"

"I have no idea." June moved back into the crowd, which closed around her like sharks around a tourist.

"Kincaid, don't tell me you were Armand's broker."

Mitch turned to see his lawyer, Nick Jamieson, regarding him with horror. "No, and I'm Mitch Peatwick, so just go away. The last thing I need is a hotshot society lawyer blowing my cover. What are you doing here, anyway?"

"I worked for Armand once," Nick said gloomily, as his wife joined them. "It wasn't my finest moment but—"

"Hello, Mitch darling." Tess slipped her arm around Mitch and kissed him on the cheek. "What a lovely party. It's always so much nicer when the body isn't actually present, don't you think? I understand he donated it to science. I overheard one of the mourners saying it was the first thing he'd ever given away."

"Shut up, Tess," Nick said amiably.

"I don't have to behave. It's just Mitch." Tess batted her eyes at him. "Mitch likes me unpolished, don't you, love?"

Mitch smiled down at her. "I'm crazy about you unpolished. I can't believe you married this stuffed shirt. It's like Tinker Bell marrying Donald Trump. When are you going to leave him and come live in sin with me?"

"No, no, he's doing better." Tess nodded approvingly at her husband. "He put his feet on the furniture the other day."

"Very funny." Nick tried to look supercilious, but his face collapsed into a grin when he looked at his wife.

"Of course, it was a footstool, but still, I saw it as A Sign of Things To Come."

Mitch watched them and felt a pang at how comfortable they were together. Maybe commitment wouldn't be so bad if it was like this. And God knew, if people as different as Nick and Tess could make it work, he could. With the right woman. If he ever found her. Not that he wanted to.

"Come to think of it, what are you doing here? If you're investigating the niece, I'm against it." Nick folded his arms. "I like her."

Tess nodded. "Me, too."

"So do I." Mitch sipped his drink to wash away the canapé. "I'm working for her. How the hell did you ever end up fronting for Armand?''

"I was dating Mae, and she introduced us. I was trying to make points, so I said sure when he mentioned he had a little problem." Nick shook his head. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Tess and Mitch both looked at him with distasteful interest.

"Is there something wrong?" Nick said, looking from one to the other.

"You never told me you dated Mae," Tess said coolly.

"I never told you about a lot of the people I dated," Nick pointed out. "It was years ago. She'd just divorced that loser Dalton, and she was dating everybody, and my number came up. It was never serious. I didn't even know you then." He frowned at Mitch. "What's your problem? You're only working for her."

"I don't have a problem." Mitch glared at his lawyer. "No problem at all. What did you represent Armand for?"

"Fraud," Nick said.

"Get him acquitted?"

"Hell, no, he was guilty as sin. I had to work miracles to get him off with a fine and no jail time, and then he was mad because he was convicted." Nick scowled at the crowd in lieu of Armand. "He was a real piece of work, let me tell you."

Mitch frowned. "What kind of fraud?"

Nick hesitated and then shrugged. "It's public record. The whole thing was pretty convoluted, but what it came down to was that he'd looted a trust fund he'd been administering. The old lady who'd been living on the income from the fund got hot when it dried up and she sued. We managed to get him off with restitution and a fine, but it was close."

"What year?"

Nick gazed at him suspiciously. "Why are you so interested in this?"

"Mae has a trust fund. It appears to have fallen on hard times. What year?''

"It was 1989." Nick looked unhappy. "Tell me that Uncle Armand wasn't taking care of that fund for her."

Tess looked skeptical. "Would he be stupid enough to pull the same stunt twice?"

"Stupid, no. Greedy, yes. Armand Lewis would steal anything that wasn't nailed down. If he had a chance at her trust fund, he'd take it." Nick stopped, considering. "Of course, she's probably going to inherit everything, anyway."

"Maybe not," Mitch said. "There appears to be a wife."

Nick's jaw dropped. "He married Stormy?"

Tess moved in closer. "Who's Stormy?"

Nick put his arm around her. "Forget her. I never dated her. He married her?"

"Nope. Somebody named Barbara Ross." Mitch looked at him thoughtfully. "Why didn't you date Stormy?"

"Barbara Ross? That shellacked blonde from the Junior League?" Nick frowned, perplexed. "Not Armand's type at all."

"Why didn't you date Stormy?" Tess echoed.

"She said no." Nick's frown smoothed out. "I've got it. It was the money. Barbara Ross is old money. This was just Armand looking for cash again."

"She said no?" Tess's voice was full of amazement.

"Stormy was faithful to Armand," Nick told her. "She never cheated on him. God knows why."

"So who else did you ask out?" Tess said and Mitch went to Nick's rescue.

"Listen, any guy would try for Stormy. She's fantasy material."

"Is she?" Tess turned to her husband. "Tell me about it."

"I don't have to." Nick turned her gently around and pointed over her shoulder. "That's her. The redhead."

Stormy h

ad drifted into the room, incandescent in a black lace suit. Every man in the room turned toward her.

"Oh," Tess said. "I see."

"I got to know her during the trial." Nick stood with his hand on Tess's shoulder, his mouth close to her ear, but Mitch could still hear him. "To tell you the truth, there's not much there. She's very nice, but..."

"She has the attention span of a fruit fly," Mitch finished. "I get the feeling she has a hard time remembering to mourn."

"Well, she's not the only one," Tess said. "Mae should have hired professional weepers for this gig."

"I thought about it," Mae said, and they all jumped.

"Don't sneak up on people like that, Mabel," Mitch said. "It's rude."

Mae folded her arms. "I didn't sneak, I walked. If you hadn't been drooling over Stormy, you'd have seen me coming a mile away."

"I was not drooling," Mitch said with dignity. "I was observing."

"How very professional of you." Mae turned to the Jamiesons who were watching them with interest. "Have you all been introduced?"

"Of course," Nick said before Tess could speak. "We've known Mitch Peatwick for years."

"Who?" Tess said.

"Peatwick," Nick said, emphasizing the syllables.

"Absolutely," Tess said.

Mae blinked. "How do you know one another?"

Nick froze. "Uh, tell her, Mitch."

"I did some work for Nick," Mitch said, wondering how Nick got his reputation as the fastest lawyer in town if he couldn't think any faster than that.

"Right," Nick said.

Mae shook her head at Mitch. "If you think I'm buying that, you don't know me."

"I know you plenty." Mitch jerked his head toward June who was exiting with an empty tray. "I notice June is wearing her clothes again, not you."

Mae waved this away. "We share sometimes."

"I also notice they fit her."

Tess broke in. "So exactly how long have you known each other?"

"Three fun-filled days," Mae told her.

"You're kidding," Tess said.

"Oh, no." Mae looked past her, and they all turned to follow her eyes.




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