What the Lady Wants


Page 9 of 19


A tall, skeletally thin, blond woman draped in black crepe was posed in the doorway. She looked like death with big hair.

"That's Barbara," Mae said as she pushed past Mitch.

Nick moved to lean against the sideboard beside Mitch. "This should be good. Where'd you get that drink, anyway?"

"Take mine." Mitch handed it to him. "Somebody's going to have to head off Stormy." He moved away, hot on Mae's trail.

"Barbara, how lovely to see you," Mae burbled, trying to keep an eye out for Stormy.

"At such a terrible time," Barbara reminded her, offering her heavily made-up cheek to Mae.

Mae air-kissed her, which seemed to please her, and then shot a quick glance over her shoulder in time to see Mitch steering Stormy in the opposite direction. Mitch looked as unhappy as he looked determined, a knight in a really bad tie, and she felt a wave of affection for him roll over her.

"Such a terrible thing," Barbara was saying. "We'd been married just a little over a week."

"It must not seem real," Mae comforted her, not adding it doesn't seem real to me.

"Well, legally it's real." Barbara's eyes swept the room's contents. "My things will begin arriving on Monday."

"Things?" Mae echoed. "What things?"

"My furniture and things." Barbara's eyes narrowed. "I'll be moving in, of course."

"Of course." Mae tried to regroup. "Why?"

"Because this was Armand's house." Barbara's voice sharpened. "He'd want me to be here."

Mae repressed the impulse to point out that Armand was dead and even if he was watching them now, he probably didn't give a damn where she lived. Armand's interests had always centered solely on Armand. If there was an afterlife, Armand was scoping out the possibilities of after-profit, not worrying about his widow. And now that she'd spent a few minutes with Barbara, Mae wasn't sure why he'd wanted her around when he was alive. Of course, she had the Ross name. Old money. Just like Armand to acquire a wife with the equivalent of a label on her butt. Poor Stormy was generic, and Barbara was private brand.

Barbara's voice cut through her reverie. "This won't be a problem, will it, Mae?"

"Of course not." Mae smiled brightly at her. "I'll just alert June and Harold that you're coming."

"Fine. And give them two weeks' notice while you're at it." Barbara's eyes swept the room again. "I have my own help."

Mae clenched her teeth to keep from telling Barbara what she could do with her help. "Actually, Barbara, that would be a very bad idea. We can talk about this later, but for now, I'll just not mention the two weeks' notice."

Barbara opened her mouth, and Mae took her arm and moved her toward the front of the room. "After all, this is a memorial, not a discussion of Armand's assets. We must remember Armand now. Which reminds me, Uncle Claud will want to see you." She smiled at Barbara coldly, not adding to find out if you really married his brother. Let Claud handle that.

"We're brother and sister now, Claud." Barbara extended her hand to the old man.

"Hello, Barbara," he said, taking her hand for a nanosecond before dropping it.

"I know you'll be glad to know that I'm moving here," Barbara went on, as if daring Mae to object. "It's what Armand would have wanted."

Claud looked at Mae. "I will take care of this."

"She plans to fire Harold and June," Mae said. "I suggested that would be bad."

"Well, really, Mae." Barbara stared down her nose at her.

"Harold and June will stay," Claud said flatly.

"I fail to see the reason—"

Claud's voice cut across Barbara's. "Because that is what Mae wants. Half of the equity in this house is yours. We will work out suitable financial recompense."

"I don't want money." Barbara made cash sound like something unclean. "I want to live in Armand's house, just as he intended."

"Fine, I'll take the money," Mae said.

Claud's eyes slid to hers. "Is that what you want?"

"I don't like this house. Harold and June and I would be happier somewhere else."

Claud's eyes panned back to Barbara's. "I will negotiate the sale."

"I don't want to buy anything." Barbara sounded exasperated. "I'm Armand's widow. I don't have to buy anything."

"I'm missing something good, aren't I?" Mitch whispered in Mae's ear, and she jumped in surprise as his breath tickled her neck.

"Where's Stormy?" she whispered back.

"Some face in an expensive suit came and took her away from me." Mitch grinned at her. "I was so glad, I almost tipped him."

"And who is this?" Barbara did not sound amused.

Mitch turned to Barbara, and Mae could tell from the way he looked at her that he had her number immediately. He took her hand and pumped it. "Mitchell Peatwick. Sorry about your loss. When exactly did you marry Armand?"

"A week ago Monday in Barbados." Barbara answered automatically as she recovered her hand. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure of meeting you before."

"No," Mitch agreed. "Why did he come back on Friday in the middle of the honeymoon?"

Barbara's nostrils flared. "Really, Mr. Peatwick, I fail to see how that is any of your business."

Mitch beamed at her. "Oh, it's my business. Mabel hired me to look into his murder, so his movements the week before his death are definitely my business."

"His murder?" Barbara stiffened. "He wasn't murdered."

Mitch just smiled. "Say, you haven't seen his diary lately, have you?"

"Oh, look, there's Uncle Gio," Mae said brightly, and Mitch swung around and said, "Where?" She tugged on his sleeve, dragging him toward the door to the hall. "Come on."

"Great to have met you," Mitch called over his shoulder to Barbara. "What a trout," he said to Mae as soon as they were in the hall, out of earshot. "Was Gio really out there?"

"Yes, by the French doors with Carlo. Forget them.

Barbara's the problem. She's planning on moving in and firing Harold and June."

Mitch winced at the thought. "I wouldn't want her for a roommate. Maybe that's why Armand died. He couldn't stand the thought of living with her."

"Why did he have to marry her?" Mae leaned against him for a moment, weighed down by another unexpected problem, and she felt comforted when he put his arm around her. "Now I have her to contend with, too." He felt so good, so solid, so warm next to her that she nestled against him a little and closed her eyes.

"You're not alone here, Mabel." Mitch's voice seemed huskier than usual as she felt his arm tighten around her. "You hired me, remember? We'll work something out."

Mae blinked. "We?"

"Yeah. You and me."

He smiled down at her, and Mae swallowed. "I like you," she said. "I like you a lot."

Mitch's smile faded. "I like you, too. Are you all right?"

"Why?"

"Well, usually you're telling me what a loss I am. I'm not used to this side of you."

"Mae?"

She turned, startled, to see Dalton standing in the doorway, as perfectly pressed and symmetrically handsome as ever, the epitome of a GQ cover. The contrast between him and Mitch couldn't have been greater.

She'd never appreciated Mitch more.

"Mae, I need to talk to you." Dalton smiled as his eyes slid over Mitch, obviously dismissing him as inconsequential. "Could we have a moment alone, please?"

Mitch tightened his arm around Mae again. "No." He scowled down at her. "First Carlo, then Nick, now this stiff. Don't you know any ugly men?"

"Stiff?" Mae blinked at him.

"I've been hanging around Harold too long. This is the face who snagged Stormy. Do we know him?"

"Mitchell Peatwick, Dalton Briggs," Mae said obediently.

Mitch shook his head in wonderment. "So this is Dalton the fool."

"I beg your pardon," Dalton said, his voice heavy with disapproval.

"Yes," Mae said.

"You actually married him."

"I was young," Mae said.

&nbs

p; "Who are you?" Dalton asked Mitch, really looking at him for the first time.

"Go away," Mitch said to him. "That five hundred thousand meant you were supposed to disappear forever."

Dalton flushed. "I don't know who the hell you are, but—"

"Not now, Dalton." Mae moved away from Mitch's arm to go back into the dining room and away from this new crisis, whatever it was. "I've got a houseful of people for a memorial service. I can't deal with you now."

"We need to talk." Dalton took her hand as she moved past him. "I can stay after—"

Mitch tightened his grip on her other hand. "No, you can't."

"Listen, you," Dalton began.

"Tomorrow night," Mae said wearily. "Come by tomorrow night at six. I'll talk to you then, when this is all over.

"That is a bad idea," Mitch told her.

"I'll see you tomorrow night," Dalton said firmly, glaring at Mitch. "Alone."

"That is a really bad idea," Mitch said.

Mae opened her mouth to answer him but stopped when Stormy drifted out into the hall, her eyes glued to Mitch.

"Hello, Mitch, how are you?" she said, and Mae dropped Mitch's hand.

"I'm fine," he told her gently. "Are you all right?"

"Oh, yes. I'm going home with Dalton now." She smiled up at him. "But I want you to come see me, too. Do you know where I live?"

"I'll find out," Mitch promised.

Stormy tugged on Dalton's sleeve. "I'm ready to go now. I don't like this."

"All right." Dalton covered her hand with his. "I'll see you tomorrow night, Mae."

"Fine."

Mae wanted everyone to leave. Especially Stormy. Everyone except Mitch. The rest of this crowd could disappear in front of her eyes, and she'd only be grateful as long as she could still hang on to Mitch.

"I think I should be with you tomorrow night," Mitch said as soon as the pair were gone.

"What's with you and Stormy?" Mae asked, not wanting to fight about Dalton. "Have you adopted her?"

"I think that's what she's looking for. A daddy." Mitch leaned against the wall and watched her. "She's not like you. She wants somebody to make all the decisions for her."

Mae stopped. "What makes you think I don't want that?"

"The way you look like murder when anybody tries it." Mitch reached out and touched her cheek. "You look tired, Mabel. Why don't you go upstairs and take a nap? I'll tell everyone you were overcome with grief."

A nap sounded wonderful. Mae thought longingly of her big white bed upstairs, and then she thought longingly of Mitch in that big white bed with her. It wasn't even a carnal thought; she just wanted him to hold her. She tried not to dwell on the thought because if she did, it would become carnal and that would never work. The last thing she needed was carnal thoughts about somebody who needed to lay pipeline and open the West.

The big dummy.

She glared at him.

"What?" He blinked at her, surprised. "What did I say?"

"Nothing." Mae rubbed her hand over her forehead. "I'm having a rough day. Come on. Let's get this memorial over so people will go home." She turned back to the dining room.

"Fine," Mitch said as they joined the clutch of bored-looking mourners. "But I meant what I said about your not seeing Dalton alone. It would be bad."

"Why?" Mae moved deeper into the crowd, not really listening for his answer. It was time to get this show on the road, have a couple of people say nice lies about Armand and then get them all out of her house.

Or Barbara's house.

"You might miss something," Mitch was saying as he followed her. "He might say something that's a clue, and you'd miss it."

"I would not miss it." Mae stopped to scan the crowd. "Have you seen the minister? He was going to speak first."

"I am definitely going to be with you tomorrow. Dalton is—don't sneak up on me like that, damn it. It's antisocial."

"I didn't," Mae protested as she turned back to him, and then she stopped.

Carlo was standing beside Mitch, looking even more homicidal than usual. "You are not going to be with her tomorrow night," Carlo began.

"Don't even think about it, Carlo," Mae said. "I hired him, and I want him. Leave him alone."

Mitch scowled back at Carlo. "If you want to do something helpful, go beat up the widow. She's trying to evict Mae from the house."

Carlo swung around to Mae. "Is that true?"

"Uncle Claud is handling it," Mae stalled him.

A man in black appeared at the podium at the end of the room and rapped on it with his knuckles before Carlo could speak. "If you would all take your seats, I've been asked to say a few words about the departed. Then you may all share your thoughts with us."

People drifted into the chairs, most looking grimly determined not to share their thoughts. Carlo returned to Gio and whispered in his ear. Mae sat numbly through the minister's remarks, wincing only when he referred to Armand as "Almond," a mistake Mitch evidently found hilarious judging from the way his shoulders shook. Then the minister stepped back and invited others to speak. Mae had one moment of fear that no one would step forward, and then Barbara stood and made a queenly march to the front.

"Armand Lewis was my husband," she began, pausing only as the murmur of surprise swept the assembly. "And I loved him." She broke down then, and Mae said, "I don't feel well," and escaped out the side door.

The memorial went quickly after that. As Mitch remarked later, nobody could clear a room like Barbara Ross. Most of the people said vaguely comforting things as they sidled out the front door, but Tess Jamieson was the most help. "If all this starts to get to you," she told Mae, "call me. We'll rent videos and eat ice cream."

"That sounds wonderful." Mae turned to Nick to say goodbye, only to hear him say to Mitch, "You have to talk to Newton for me. He won't let me buy into this tin mine in Bolivia."

"Tin mine?" Mae's eyes went to Mitch. "What do you know about tin mines?"

"Exactly as much as Nick does, which is nothing."

Mitch glared at him. "Which is why he should listen to Newton. Tin mines. Grow up, Jamieson."

"Who's Newton?" Mae asked. "What's going on?"

"Newton is a mutual friend," Mitch said. "And Nick is leaving."

"Goodbye." Nick pulled Tess after him as he went out the door. "Let's not do this again sometime."

Tess laughed and blew Mitch a kiss.

"Tin mines?" Mae asked again, but there were more people to say goodbye to, and when they were all gone, Claud asked her to join him in the library with Barbara and Armand's lawyer for a discussion of Armand's assets.

"You may go," Claud told Mitch, and Mitch looked at Mae.

"Go or stay?" he asked her. "It's your call."

Mae thought of Claud and Barbara and the lawyer. "Stay. I know that's above and beyond the call of duty but—"

"Whatever you want, boss." Mitch took her arm. "Let's go hear what the lawyer has to say."

"He is unnecessary," Claud said, but Mae just shook her head and led them both to the library.

"The will in force predates Armand's marriage," the lawyer began. "But under Ohio law..."

His voice droned on, and Mitch tuned him out, watching Mae instead. She looked tired. It had been a god-awful afternoon, of course, but it was more than that. Whatever it was that was getting to her was growing worse. And he didn't believe for a moment that it was Armand's death. She was worried about something, and on a guess, that something was money. Whatever else happened, she believed she had to take care of Harold and June. And she needed money for that, and Armand's estate was disappearing before her eyes, some of it stolen by Armand before he died, half of it stolen now by this Mayflower harpy with the plastic hair.

Which meant he was going to have to find out what happened to the things that Armand had taken.

Which probably meant that he was going to have to find the diary.

Mitch grinned. Mae Belle was going to get what she wanted, after all.
<br /

> The lawyer droned on. "...and therefore, the will stands as is, with half of the assets devolving upon the widow, and the other half distributed as provided for in the will. Those provisions are as follows." The lawyer cleared his throat self-importantly. "Fifty thousand dollars each to June Peace and Harold Tennyson."

"Ridiculous," Barbara said.

"You're right," Mae said. "It should have been ten times that."

"One half of all stock held to Claud Lewis," the lawyer continued. "And the balance of the estate to Mae Belle Sullivan." He peered over his glasses at them all. "It's quite straightforward. However, there is a problem."

Claud's eyes flickered. "A problem?"

The lawyer cleared his throat again. "We are still investigating, of course, but the bank as executor and I..."

His voice trailed off again and Mitch sat up straighter, interested. This was one unhappy lawyer.

"Actually, there doesn't seem to be an estate," the lawyer said.

"What?" Mae said, and the lawyer looked miserable.

"As far as we can determine," he told her unhappily, "the only assets Mr. Lewis possessed were this house and its contents."

Claud remained silent. Mae took a deep breath and then was quiet. But Barbara began to talk immediately. "I can't believe it. Armand was a wealthy man. He had stock, investments...." She turned to Claud. "Surely you must know—"

"I purchased all his outstanding Lewis and Lewis stock. I have no knowledge of any of Armand's other assets." Claud stood and looked down at Mae. "Do not concern yourself about this. You and Harold and June will be taken care of." He nodded once to the lawyer and once to Barbara, and then he was gone.

Mae leaned back in her chair and covered her eyes with her hand.

"I want this house and its contents evaluated on Monday," Barbara announced to the lawyer.

"Miss Sullivan?" the lawyer said even more unhappily, and Mae waved her hand at him.

"Go ahead. I don't care."

"You have nothing to say about it," Barbara snapped.

"That's enough." Mitch stood up. "It's been a long day and Mae's tired. You can talk about this again on Monday."

"I'll talk about it now," Barbara said. "I want to—"

"Go home," Mitch said, and his voice was so firm and matter-of-fact that even Mae looked up. "Now."




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