The slip of yellowed parchment—a clue to the location of the hidden treasure—was safely tucked inside Birdie’s bra. Containing her excitement was a struggle. She’d have to wait to read the message until after finishing the late night supper with Hugh.
Entering the apartment with her plate balanced on one hand, she fought for patience. How easy it would be to hurry off to the bathroom, lock the door, and read the clue.
Even as she imagined ditching Hugh her attention strayed to his face. To his eyes, which were red-rimmed and framed with faint shadows. When he’d discovered her in the restaurant he’d mentioned waking from an upsetting dream. Actually it was a nightmare, something about a play by play, as if, while he slept, he’d relived some distressing event in his life. Not that it was any of her business.
If she started asking questions, she’d ramp up the intimacy between them. They were already sharing close quarters. They could bicker all they liked but the sexual attraction between them was nearly thick enough to see. The last thing she needed was a short-lived romance mucking up the works. She’d found a clue in the portrait, hadn’t she?
She’d wondered her entire life if Lucas Postell had sent untold riches north with his beloved. The clue hidden in the portrait gave the story weight: At the dawn of The Civil War, something of great value was spirited out of the Deep South by the freed woman slave, Justice, who was probably his lover. She kept the treasure for safekeeping in a northern state—Ohio. The slip of parchment found inside the portrait might lead to a bag of Civil War gold bullion hidden somewhere in the restaurant. Or a cache of jewelry waited to be unearthed by a determined thief with a reporter on her tail and a plate of eggs in her hand.
Skirting around her, Hugh asked, “Where are we dining?”
“I’d rather eat alone. No offense.”
“None taken. But I’m joining you.”
“If there’s no other choice.” Birdie came to an abrupt standstill in the kitchen. “Hold the phone, Parsnip. What happened in here?”
The kitchen was immaculate. A lemony scent wafted from the linoleum floor. The countertops gleamed. Even the window above the sink looked sparkly and new. Did Mighty Maids have a satellite office in bucolic Liberty, Ohio? Doubtful, which meant Hugh had done the cleaning.
She spun around and gaped at him.
Which must have rattled his tender emotions because he blushed. “Who’s Parsnip?” he asked, no doubt to steer her away from making wisecracks about his feminine side. “A friend of yours? Does he run numbers with your other pal, Mr. Potato Head?”
“It’s an old joke. When I was a kid, a man who dated my mom called me vegetable names.”
“Not nearly as endearing as your domestic skills. You’re quite the nester.”
With jerky movements, he set his plate on the table. “The place was filthy. I cleaned up. So what?”
She cocked her hip against the doorjamb. “You keep a fine house, darling.”
“Give it a rest, Turnip.”
Grinning, she ran her fingers across the gleaming counter. “You steal my apartment, take a nap and when you wake up, you…clean. Like a happy housewife from one of those sixties shows on late night cable. I’m touched.”
The chair made a scraping sound as he pulled it out and sat. “I’m all about order. Everything in its place.”
“Will you do laundry and leave chocolates on my pillow?”
“It depends on what I get in return. For starters, tell me why you broke into the restaurant. Were you robbing the place?”
A direct assault, and there was no way to prepare for incoming. For an excruciating moment her brain turned to mush. Not the best state of affairs for a thief who survived by her wits.
She sank into a chair. “I was just looking around.”
“Sure you were.” He studied her with unnerving intensity. “Do you always steal from your employer? There’s not much loot in a restaurant. Maybe they need a bank teller at Liberty Trust.”
“I never steal from people I like.” Horrified by the outburst, she backpedaled. “I mean, Finney is a little tough and Ethel Lynn is weird. But Delia is nice—they’re all nice.”
Hugh rubbed his jaw. “So if you didn’t like them you would steal from them?”
She would, but it wasn’t his business. “I can’t chew and talk at the same time.” She dived into her omelet. “Shut up and eat.”
“I knew it. You are a thief.” He dug in with relish. “It must be a hard life. Do you worry about prison?” he asked between mouthfuls. “Waiting until someone hides a file in a pastry and you can escape? I would.”
Frustrated by Hugh’s powers of deduction, she shrugged out of her army coat. And immediately regretted her decision when he stopped eating. Leaning sideways in his chair, he took in the skimpy waitress uniform while she squirmed. His attention danced from the gold piping embellishing her breasts to the ruffled hem, which revealed no small section of her thighs.
He pointed at her with his fork. “You’d draw rave reviews in whorehouses across Paris.”
“Go to hell.”
“I meant it as a compliment.” He shoved eggs into his mouth, tried to swallow, and choked.
When he grabbed his throat, Birdie rushed to the sink. She filled a glass with water and thrust it at him. After the long day waiting tables she didn’t need a run to the nearest emergency room. Not unless she could dump Hugh off on the curb and get away with his car. She gave him a few good thumps on the back. Oh, why hadn’t she learned the Heimlich maneuver? Concern for his welfare warred with the lure of grand larceny and she cringed when he pushed the glass away and stomped his foot.
When he finally sucked in air, she drew back. What if Hugh drove a Mercedes or a Beemer? Maybe she should offer to take him to the hospital.
Before she decided her position on auto theft, he began mouthing the words stuck in his throat.
“Fishnet stockings,” he croaked. When she crossed her arms, he had the sense to ditch the bedazzled expression. “I mean it. All you’re missing is a little whore’s netting on your gams.”
Searching for a hostile retort, she noticed Mr. Clean’s duffel bag still propped in the corner. Given the amount of gear he’d arrived with, he’d probably run out of shelf space in the bedroom closet. Sifting through the bag, she found a pair of sweatpants and another softly worn sweatshirt like the one she’d stolen from him earlier today. This one was emerald green.
Pulling it on, she threw back the only rejoinder that came to mind. “In the restaurant, what did you mean about a play-by-play?” She sat back down and reached for her plate.
Thankfully the question doused the passion in his gaze. “I don’t want to go into it.”
Darting his fingers through his hair, he gave himself a sexily disheveled appearance. When his ebony gaze wavered, her heart lurched. Doubt bloomed on his face.
Some cajoling was in order. “C’mon, Hugh. Your secrets are safe with me.” The hesitancy in his eyes made him more likeable even if she was loath to consider why. “How bad can it be?”
“Let’s just eat and hit the sack.”
“I’m not sleeping with you.”
“I didn’t mean together. Not tonight.” He stabbed repeatedly at the spinach poking out of his omelet. When the leaf was suitably impaled, he stuck it into his mouth.
Now the man was as buttoned up as a stockbroker on Wall Street. Which was fine. He liked putting her on the hot seat with questions about her line of work. Time to take as well as he gave.
She let out a theatrical sigh. “I’m waiting,” she said, and immediately regretted the desire to push. The question bore down on him, curving his shoulders and sending pain flashing across his brow. The fear scuttling his features took her by surprise. He really was upset.
The silence grew full. Finally, he said, “I wrote an exposé fourteen years ago when I started out at a newspaper in Cleveland. It was my first big story, about an investment firm in the city. The guy running the place was playing fast and loose with the sweep accounts.”
She tried to keep up. “What’s a sweep account?”
He warmed to his story. “If a company pours millions of dollars through an account, a bank pays interest daily. Let’s say you keep, on average, twenty million in the account. You rack up interest every day.”
“Nice deal. Where’s mine?”
He swiped his hand through the air, silencing her. “The investment firm used the sweep as a way station for client funds before putting them into the stock market, mutual funds—wherever clients were investing. The firm’s owner stole from the sweep. I found out about it.”
“You wrote an article about the theft?” She’d have to watch her step or he’d be writing about her.
“It was front page news.” Hugh laughed, but the sound was hollow. “I was so proud of the scoop even though I knew the guy would only get a slap on the wrist. He had powerful friends and a crack attorney. His wife was wealthy and all the money was repaid to the investors. But it didn’t end there. What I didn’t expect were the repercussions the publicity had on his wife.”
Dread shivered across Birdie’s skin. “What happened?”
“She learned why her husband was stealing from the sweep. He was seeing another woman and had bought her a pricey condo. The works. All sadly predictable—a bored middle-aged man and a hot blonde ten years younger.”
Birdie thought of her mother, how she glided through life on other people’s money. But she stole from innocent men, not bastards who cheated on their wives. The bastards had it coming to them. “Please tell me the blonde took him for all he was worth.”
“She did, but it gets worse. His wife had a shouting match with the other woman in the middle of a department store. Because of the wife’s standing in Cleveland—she was a prominent socialite and philanthropist—it made the gossip columns. Not to mention every radio talk show from here to Cincinnati.”
An awful memory edged to the corner of Birdie’s mind, a fleeting image of a woman in an elegant suit. The woman smelled of roses. She was shouting and someone took Birdie by the wrist to tug her out of the way. It was impossible to grab hold of the nebulous threads of the memory but it left her feeling oddly blue.
“The wife took her boat out on Lake Erie right before a storm,” Hugh continued and she wheeled her attention back to him. To his hands, which he clenched and unclenched, his knuckles white. “They said it was an accident. She drowned.”
His guilt looked overwhelming, which was something she understood. Didn’t she feel the same way every time she lifted money from a wallet?
Rising, he collected the plates and deposited them in the sink. Clearly he’d lost his appetite. They both had.
Absently, he dumped the eggs into the wastebasket and filled the sink with soapy water. He attacked each plate with a dishcloth, scrubbing with single-minded purpose. The set of his jaw was hard. Yet his eyes were vulnerable and Birdie found herself on her feet, walking toward him. What was it like to hold yourself responsible for a death? None of her transgressions compared, not the robberies or the petty thefts. She’d never owned a gun. If it ever came down to risking a life in the commission of a crime she’d walk away first. She’d walk away gladly.
She came up behind him, unsure of how to comfort a man who was little more than a stranger. His back was to her and she noticed his hair was too long even if he did carry it off well. His shoulder blades worked beneath his chambray shirt as he let out the water, then dumped in scouring powder and began scrubbing the sink. Why hadn’t she noticed his height? Standing this close it was easy to see he had a good three inches on her, maybe four, and she was a tall woman.
Rub his back? It was how a friend offered comfort. Yet the gesture felt like an invasion. Her hand froze in mid-air, her confusion unnoticed by the man who’d dried the dishes until they squeaked and rattled them into a stack inside the cupboard. He polished the forks and flung them into a drawer. When he’d finished he gripped the edges of the counter and stared out the window above the sink. She understood suddenly what he’d meant by a play-by-play. His dream, or nightmare, rather—the image haunting him—was a play-by-play of the woman who’d drowned, the woman he believed he’d sent to her death with an article written in his youth.
Offering solace with a phrase was inadequate. It’s not your fault.
Hugh wasn’t to blame—people did all sorts of crazy things. Hadn’t Birdie’s own mother shaken out a handful of heart-shaped pills on the day she’d threatened suicide? The Valium looked pretty, like candy, but it threw a wall up in their tumultuous relationship. And how could a teenager convince her mother not to die? Birdie had felt responsible; she knocked the fistful of Valium from her mother’s hand, sending the pills scattering across the motel’s filthy bathroom floor. On hands and knees she scrambled after them. Every last pill landed in the toilet while her mother clawed at Birdie’s scalp, yanking hair out by the handful. You bitch, don’t you dare throw my drugs in the toilet. Seared by the belief she was responsible for her mother’s mental state, she’d barely felt the hair wrenched from her scalp.
Did Hugh carry the same remorse?
“Hugh, it’s all right.” She rested her hand on his back. He tensed, a fierce little movement, and her heart clenched. “Fourteen years is a long time to punish yourself. Let it go.”
His arms lowered to his sides. “If you were in my shoes, would you let it go?”
“You don’t know what it’s like. Wondering if you could’ve done more. Wondering if everything would be fine if you’d done nothing at all.”
Flinching, she saw herself at sixteen, when she had given up on trying to live with her mother. The canvas tote bag stolen from a boutique was stuffed full of everything she held dear. The contents were light, inconsequential, as if her life didn’t matter to herself or to anyone else.
“Still, I’d try,” she said, the hurt cascading over her in waves. “No one said life is simple. You keep moving. You try to forget the bad stuff and move on.”
Hugh turned and regarded her. “I tried letting go.” He smirked but she wasn’t fooled. He was raw and didn’t like showing it. “First, I broke my engagement to my college sweetheart. I screwed up the next relationship too.”
“Afterward, I had a love affair with Scotch,” he said, refusing to let her get in a consoling word. It seemed he needed to flail himself in front of her even if she didn’t understand why. “I drank my way out of a few good jobs. Talked my way onto other newspapers. I’m beyond rehabilitation even if I have gotten myself off the sauce. Birdie, some mistakes don’t go away. You live with them like a disease you manage but never cure.”
He did look sick, the guilt a cancer on his soul. She couldn’t cure him. It wasn’t wise to try. Yet she felt compelled to do something, if only to wash the moment clean.
She went up on tiptoes like a clumsy ballerina. Pressing herself against his chest, she took his face in her hands. She kissed him full on, the way she’d kiss a man she knew intimately. Hugh shuddered. Then he jerked his hands up, splaying them across her back. Her heart tripped as he took control of the kiss as if she were his first taste of heaven.
Curving into him, she sank into sensation. The pads of her fingertips scraped across the bristle shadowing his cheeks. She let her eyes drift shut to better focus on the experience. Hugh felt like heat and tasted like glory. No hesitation, no doubt—he kissed her as if he’d done so a thousand times before.
When he’d finished, he let her go. A mistake. Her knees dissolved and she nearly slumped to the floor. Deftly, he grabbed her by the shoulders.
She blinked. “Thanks.” She edged out of his grasp.
“Thanks for catching you or for kissing you?” He took a strand of her hair and rubbed it between his fingers. There was a nice flush on his cheeks and some of the light was back in his eyes. “You have incredible hair. Spun gold.” He drew away. “Goodnight, Birdie.”
He left without another word. No sexual innuendo trailed in his wake. Steadying herself, she leaned against the counter. Rating a man’s kissing ability was silly but Hugh deserved a ten.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish