Hugh lounged against the plastic-wrapped table as a battle waged in Birdie’s eyes. The Greeks and the Trojans going at it inside her skull, and it was anyone’s bet which side was winning.
Odds were, she didn’t want to come clean. But from the looks of her, she wasn’t comfortable lying either. He recalled the sad bits Fatman had told him about her life, a childhood that had been damn abusive. Wish Kaminsky, a grifter more interested in lining her pockets than in raising her daughter. A father in prison.
Making the slog to the moral high ground wasn’t second nature for Birdie.
“Why not play straight with me?” he asked, frustrated. Even if he couldn’t alter the trajectory of her life, he could offer friendship. “The bricks have something to do with your search, don’t they? The way you keep studying them, they must be important.”
“They are.” She rolled her lower lip beneath her teeth, her violet eyes smoky with doubt.
“Tell me why.”
“I’m still deciding if it would be a smart move or a dumb-ass one.”
“It’s a good move, a winning move. If you don’t have someone to trust, what have you got?”
“Peace of mind,” she said, but she grinned. Kneeling, she dragged a box close. “I have to find the holiday decorations and move them into the dining room. You want to help? Then help.”
“You’ve got it.”
Anxious to gain her trust, he scanned the notes written on the top of each box she pushed forward. The cursive was thin and wavery, rather difficult to read. Ethel Lynn’s handwriting? The first two boxes were labeled ‘linens’ and ‘Wedgwood China’. The third was marked ‘holiday.’
“Birdie, the contents are listed on top. Good for us, or we’ll never find all the stuff.” The enormous room was filled to overflowing with boxes, furniture, and bric-a-brac. Hugh nodded toward the next aisle. “Why don’t you look over there? I’ve got this row covered.”
Moving away, she hunted for several minutes in silence. When she made a whooping noise, Hugh nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Jackpot!” She did a quick count. “Eighteen boxes. Delia said most of the decorations were stacked together.”
“I’ll get the dolly.”
They worked in silence for twenty minutes. After the last of the boxes were deposited inside the restaurant, they returned to the storeroom. He expected her to douse the lights and lock up. Instead she weaved through the clumps of furniture, halting before an overstuffed chair. Peeling off the plastic sheeting, she tossed it to the cement floor and sat.
With her elbows on her knees, she knitted her fingers together. “I came to Liberty because I’m trying to find something,” she said, and a surge of satisfaction brought Hugh to a standstill. She’d decided to trust him. “I’m not having much luck. It’s a puzzle, really.”
“I’m good with puzzles.” Scanning the room, he spotted a chair upholstered in green cloth. Whipping off the sheeting, he dragged it close enough to sit knee to knee. “It’s all about problem solving.”
“What if I don’t tell you what I’m looking for? Will you still help?”
“Sure.” Stung, he kept his expression neutral. Apparently her trust had limits. He’d take what little she’d give. “Tell me what you’ve got so far.”
“It’s kind of like a family heirloom, and it’s hidden.”
“Why would something owned by your family be hidden in Liberty?”
“Not in the town. Somewhere in this building.” She made a sweeping motion to encompass the room. “This place was built during the Civil War. Believe it or not, a former slave built the place and operated the restaurant.”
“Justice Postell,” he supplied.
Her brows shot up. “You know about her?”
“She was an important figure in Liberty.” He’d read up on Justice last August during a week interviewing Blossom. “The historical society has an archive on her. Justice was the first woman, black or white, to operate a business in Jeffordsville County.”
“I know. Theodora told me.”
“The Chamber of Commerce manages a foundation in her name. Grant money is given out each year to small businesses, but it’s done anonymously. Whoever the benefactor is, he’s publicity shy.”
“Or she’s publicity shy. Maybe a successful businesswoman is the anonymous benefactor.”
A playful light entered Birdie’s matchless eyes, and Hugh toyed with the idea of kissing her. Seated this close, it would be easy to lean in and lay one on her. Outside, snow was blanketing the town. The lazy Thanksgiving holiday was upon them. They’d spend the rest of the day in the sack…
“I’m glad someone thinks enough of Justice to honor her memory,” Birdie said, drawing him from his salacious thoughts. She reclined against the chair’s soft padding and he was grateful for the distance. “She’s always been like a…well, like a hero to me. My mother was a lousy storyteller, but my grandfather’s stories made Justice sound noble. Noble and beautiful. You’ve probably seen her portrait in the dining room so you know what I mean.”
“I have seen it.”
Birdie’s eyes grew dreamy and he was entranced. “Tell me about your grandfather’s stories,” he prodded.
“They were about one of our French ancestors, a wealthy plantation owner from Charleston, South Carolina. Justice was a slave on his plantation. She worked inside the mansion, helping with the housekeeping and tending to his daughter.”
“Lucas Postell. I’ll take you over to the historical society whenever you’d like. They have a sketchy background on Lucas, including several love letters he wrote to Justice. The letters were hidden away for decades—someone bequeathed them to the society around the same time The Beatles took America by storm. Are you sure you’re one of his descendants?”
“My mother’s maiden name was Postell. The plantation burned to the ground during the Civil War, but a painting of Lucas survived. You’d laugh—my grandfather was his spitting image. I’m positive I’m related.”
“I’ll be damned.”
No wonder she admired Justice. Birdie’s parents were reprobates. Neither one deserved a daughter who could make so much more of her life if given half a chance. In Justice, she probably saw an example of how someone could overcome the worst of circumstances. The freedwoman was a hero.
“Your grandfather, were you close to him?” he asked, desperate to find one example of decency in her harrowing life.
On a sigh, Birdie smoothed her palms over her jeans and his heart sank. “I loved him,” she said. “He wasn’t around much.”
Was her grandfather another con artist? Anger shot through him. For Chrissake, were all her relatives criminals?
“Did his job keep him on the road?” he asked, needing to push her to tell more—tell all of it, if she had the courage.
“Grandpa was usually in prison.” She looked at him squarely, her defiance colored by something deeper. Hurt? “He drank too much and he had a temper, but he liked to eat. No one in our family was into cooking except me. If I made an omelet or spaghetti, Grandpa paid up by telling a story about Justice.”
“How old were you when you became the family chef?”
“Seven or eight.” She tapped the porcelain curve of her cheek, a line he often dreamt of kissing. “Grease spatter is a real bitch when you’re four feet tall. I probably burned myself a dozen times before I snagged a step stool from a drugstore.”
“Someone should’ve been watching you.” Rage at her parent’s negligence made him clench his fists. “It’s wrong to leave a kid alone at a stove. You could’ve been injured.”
“Hey, I was glad when we had a stove. My mother never stayed in one place long. Most of the time, we lived in motel rooms.”
“The stories of Justice carried you through?”
She looked at him with wonderment. “I guess they did.”
Now her special kinship with a freedwoman from the 1800s seemed entirely logical. Hadn’t they both lived in bondage? Justice overcame impossible odds to reach the North and build a new life. Did Birdie dream of escaping the shackles of a world with nothing but the criminal arts to guide her?
Yearning spiraled into Hugh’s chest. It wasn’t sexual in nature; it certainly wasn’t love. Empathy. He wanted the same things, to escape the prison of his past, the doubts and the regrets.
He recalled the etiquette book and the novel, Portrait of a Lady, Birdie carried around in her army coat. “I’m sure Justice was quite a lady,” he said, acutely aware of the emotion burnishing his voice. “Pregnant with Lucas’s child, traveling north. She married a preacher’s son and carried on after his death. She raised her son alone and managed a business right alongside the men in Liberty.”
“She was an amazing woman.” Birdie drew her legs up onto the chair and cradled her knees. She looked sweet, animated, nothing like the hard woman who launched brusque comments like grenades. “After Lucas lost his wife, Justice was there for him. She comforted him and helped raise his daughter, Molly.”
Hugh was familiar with the story. “He sent Justice north and promised to follow after he sold his land holdings. But The Civil War erupted. She arrived in Liberty, pregnant—” He stopped, the rest clicking into place. “Do you realize you’re related to the son Justice had with Lucas? You might have relatives here in Ohio. Maybe even some in Liberty.”
Birdie’s expression grew wistful. “I’d like to search for them…”
Disappointment flooded him. “But you can’t stick around long enough to meet them? You’ll find what you came for, and leave?”
Wearily, she rose from the chair and approached the nearest wall. With fingertips she traced a line of grey mortar, her movements oddly sad. “Lucas, my great-great grandfather, gave Justice something before she left South Carolina. Something valuable. She was supposed to trade it for cash and use the money to start a new life. She never did cash it—them—in.”
His memory was nearly photographic and he didn’t recall anything of the sort in the historical record. “Is that what your grandfather told you?”
Nodding, Birdie moved her hand in a swirling motion across the wall, her expression distant. “Lucas died soon after the war, and Molly was destitute. She was raised by someone else. Cousins, or an uncle—I’m not sure. Justice wanted to return the valuables. Somehow, she got a letter to Molly. There was a clue inside.”
Hugh joined her. “What was it?” he asked, brushing his knuckles across her forearm.
A nervous smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Liberty safeguards the cherished heart.” She tried to catch his gaze but her eyes scuttled. “Theodora says Justice brought rubies to Liberty.”
“Did you say rubies?” Lucas had been a wealthy plantation owner. The possibility he’d owned precious gems was entirely plausible. “What are we talking about? A few small stones or something larger?”
“I’m not sure exactly.” She grabbed hold of his shirt. Which was nice, because he was able to steer her into his arms. “Hugh, I’m trusting you. Don’t tell anyone.”
“Not a soul.”
“I’m serious. And don’t try to steal the rubies from me once we find them. I’ll hunt you down if you do.”
Wasn’t he the one on the hunt? “Tomato, you can follow me wherever you like. There’s a nice fat bird roasting in the oven upstairs. I’ll serve dinner. Have me for dessert.”
She tried to struggle free. “Stop joking. This is my life we’re talking about—my future.” Her eyes blazed. Yet he noted with satisfaction the mirth flickering on her full, thoroughly kissable mouth. “I shouldn’t have told you about the gems. Obviously your brain is clogged with thoughts of sex. What I really need to know is if your heart pumps with avarice.”
“What do you take me for?” Sure, he’d like to seduce her. Nothing more. “I’m honorable to the bone.”
“Of course you are.”
She tried to shoot him the evil eye. She grinned, ruining the effect and giving him the opportunity to nibble on her neck. Luscious.
He grazed his teeth across her collarbone. “I’m a born and bred gentleman.” She trembled, and his thermostat skyrocketed. “You need to follow the clues to the rubies? I’m your man. I’ll help you unravel the mystery. Honorable chump that I am, I’ll ask nothing in return.”
“If you’re so honorable, why are your hands on my ass?”
“That’s not honor, Eggplant. That’s human need.” Palming the silky curve, he was aroused in an instant. “Kiss me, Birdie. I’m willing to help you, but I’ll work better with an incentive.”
“Wait a second. Aren’t you the guy who asked me to move out of the apartment? Something about my lack of modesty interfering with your ability to meet deadlines? I thought your job was on the line.”
“No one worries about job security on Thanksgiving. We’re supposed to be eating too much and enjoying ourselves.”
Her jeans were damn tight, but he managed to inch his fingers toward her pelvis. Birdie shuddered, and the fire in his groin leapt higher. “We’ve shared secrets,” he murmured against the tasty curve of her collarbone. He steered her away from the wall and toward the nearest table. “We’ve bonded. I’m not into sealing our pact with blood, but I can think of a way we can form a more perfect union.”
“You aren’t planning to recite The Declaration of Independence while we’re doing it, are you?” Giggling, she flattened her palms on his pecs. He watched, dizzy, as her eyes dilated with an unexpected and thoroughly greedy passion. “Scratch that. We’re not doing it. Get off me! We need to check the wall, the bricks—”
Pinning her on the table, he swooped in and caught her lips in a hungering kiss. She stilled and the taste of her sent his heart into a gallop. Then she was returning his kiss with equal heat, a whimpering moan escaping her throat. Victorious, he eased back enough to better position her on the table.
She delighted him when, impatient, she grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged his mouth back down to hers.
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