He was right behind her. Very tall. So close. Funny, she hadn’t heard him move. Not a rustle, not a whisper of air.
He seemed to tower above her. He was definitely over six feet, lean, lithe, just like a black panther. Tall, smooth, so handsome, and with such a wicked, compelling smile.
Why, the way he was looking at her now ... he was just riveting.
You devil, she thought.
He accepted the coffee from her.
“Why, actually, ma’am, I’ve come to inquire about your employer, Miss Montgomery. Would she be coming in today?”
“Oh, no, sir. Miss Montgomery takes her weekends. Unless, of course, we’re in Mardi Gras season, or the like, which we’re not.”
“Oh, dear. I’m so sorry I’ve missed her.”
“She’ll be back in on Monday.”
“Well... I can always find Miss Montgomery when I really need to do so ... but she’ll be here on Monday. I’m so glad.”
He was incredibly close. She wondered how she could be so rude as to feel that he had “snake” eyes, and yet find his proximity to be such a pleasant thing.
“I’m so sorry that you’ve wasted your time.”
She didn’t exactly remember him drinking his coffee, but his cup was empty. He set it down, and took her hands. “Why, ma’am, I’ve not wasted my time. I’ve met you.” She was going to swoon. Get the vapors. She did, indeed, feel as if she was wearing a corset that was far too tight, when she wore no such apparel.
“Why, sir, you are a flatterer.”
He smiled, and turned to leave, walking toward the front. She was so addled she didn’t think to follow him, to lock the door when he had left.
She turned back to the coffee, still smiling to herself. Silly old thing, being so flattered and unnerved by a handsome younger man. Not that she didn’t have pride in herself. She did, but he was so polite, such a charmer ...
She turned about in a no-nonsense fashion to get back to work.
But she gasped in stunned surprise.
He was back. Right in front of her again.
Smiling ... his eyes on hers.
“Why ... sir!” she stuttered.
“Ah, well, there was just one more thing!” he told her, and it seemed that his eyes drew her to him. “Just one more thing!” he said very softly. And touched her ...
The Montgomery plantation was an extremely handsome picture of antebellum architecture.
Coming along the drive, Sean paused, staring at the beautiful old house. It had been built in an age of gracious living with a tremendous amount of money. He estimated that it probably contained about eight thousand square feet of living space. A semicircle of steps led to a deep grand porch with thick, white columns. The porch wrapped around the house, as did that on the second floor of the dwelling. He could well imagine that in decades gone past, guests escaped the heat of a Louisiana summer by opening their bedroom doors to the river breezes, and walking by night on that porch beneath the moonlight.
He had no idea how much property still remained to the house, but the lawn was meticulously manicured. The gravel drive left him right in front of the circular steps and he parked the car, again staring up at the facade of the Montgomery place and noting that it was freshly painted and in good repair.
Far better repair than Oakville, certainly. But then, it was larger than Oakville. Way back when, Sean thought with humor, there had been money—and then there had been money. The Montgomerys had managed to accrue the second kind.
He wasn’t expecting to find Maggie Montgomery in, but he had grown very curious, and since the place was in such great shape, it didn’t seem unlikely that there would be a full-time housekeeper in residence.
He strode up the steps and rang the bell.
He wondered if the door might be opened by a Lurch-like character right out of The Addams Family.
At the very least, he thought, the bell would be answered by a gaunt, dark-haired, dour-faced woman—the housekeeper from a dozen Gothic-type movies made back in the fifties.
His summons was answered by neither.
He was incredibly startled when a short, very round and very cheerful woman of about fifty opened the door. She wore a frilly apron over a simple flowered day dress. Her cheeks were incredibly red, and her smile was quick and warm and trusting. He hadn’t come across Morticia Addams; he had stumbled upon Missus Santa Claus.
“Hello. My name is Sean Canady. I’m looking for Miss Montgomery. Is she in, by any chance?” He offered her his warmest smile, his heart alive with renewed hope that he might be asked in—even if Maggie Montgomery wasn’t here. His curiosity about her was growing to obsessive bounds. He wanted to see her home.
“Mr. Canady, please step inside,” the woman said. “The heat today is just monstrous, and our brand-new air-conditioning system is pure heaven!”
To his pleased surprise, she stepped back. He entered through a mud room to the grand foyer.
The house was spectacular. Typical of its time, it was built with a great hall, or breezeway, with rooms opening symmetrically to either side. The foyer itself was immense, and the breezeway doors to the rear opened on either side of a grand double staircase. A double set of stairs led from the ground floor to a halfway landing point, then again to the floor above. The wall in the center of the landing was covered with an immense oil painting, pre-Civil War, Sean was certain, and to each side, stained-glass windows brought the day’s sunlight streaming inside with rays of fantastic colors.
“Whoa!” he said.
“Isn’t it just lovely!” the chubby housekeeper said.
Sean smiled at her. “Ma’am, it is.”
“I’m Peggy, sir. You go right ahead and admire!”
He barely heard her. He was already walking deeper into the foyer, staring up at the oil painting.
It was a portrait of a woman—an exceptionally beautiful woman. Her red hair was swept up, with only a single ringlet left to curl against the expanse of her neck. She was dressed in a deep blue velvet ball gown, the neckline low, the skirt sweeping. She had been painted standing on the landing by a talented artist who had caught more than the form and grace of her beauty, but something of her inner soul as well. She was elegant, aloof, and yet there was a wistful quality within her eyes, something of wisdom, and something of innocence. The painting was breathtaking, and more. It was haunting.
All the more so, Sean thought dryly, because Maggie Montgomery was very like this painting.
“Magdalena,” he heard someone say softly.
Startled, he spun around. He was amazed to see that the housekeeper had left the foyer—and that Maggie Montgomery was indeed in residence. He was annoyed to realize just how off guard he had been. All his years in the police force—and before that a stint in the army!—and she had come upon him as quietly as a puff of smoke.
He hated to be caught by surprise.
But Maggie Montgomery was smiling—amused to have so startled him.
“Why, what’s the matter, Lieutenant? I’m assuming you did come here to see me.”
“I was hoping to see you, but I doubted that I would find you in.”
“Oh. Well, you could have called. I do have a telephone, you know.”
“And the number is listed?” he inquired.
She shrugged. “You are an officer of the law,” she reminded him. “Surely if you’re seeking a phone number, it’s easily enough done.”
“I wanted to see you.”
“Me, or the house?”
“The house is spectacular.”
“But you’re more so.”
She arched an amused brow. “You are incredibly good at flattery. What a glib tongue. But then ...” She paused, looking him up and down with hazel eyes that seemed to glitter with pure golden color. She crossed her arms over her chest. She was dressed in black sandals, and a casual black knit halter dress.
Her hair was swept up in a ponytail. She looked young, innocent... and almost at ease. “But then, you’ve come here to delve into my life, to search my house, and my past, and to try to discover if I might somehow be guilty of murdering a pimp a few feet from my office door. Since you’ve done so— invaded my premises, is that really legal these days?—it’s a good thing that you’re good at flattery as well.” He laughed aloud, amazed that any woman so beautiful could be so guarded—and convinced that a man might want anything but her.
“I have no evidence whatsoever against you. As to my being here, well, my father insisted I see if you were here. He’s anxious to meet you.”
“Oh?” He was glad to see that she seemed startled.
He nodded. “Oakville is not far from here.”
“Now I’m flattered that you know about the old Canady homestead. It’s not, however, nearly so grand as this.”
“Oakville is—I’ve heard—filled with exceptionally fine woodwork. Rumor has it that the house has been cherished by generations of thoughtful Canadys who have preserved it with exceptional care. I think you’re being far too modest.”
“I love Oakville, and it is outstanding.”
“We’ve nothing like that, though,” he assured her, pointing to the painting.
She came further into the foyer. He could see through an open doorway that she had come from the library. Now she walked over to stand with him beneath the painting.
“Magdalena. She fell in love with the wrong man, and died young.”
“Very,” she agreed.
She turned to look at him, eyes glimmering with humor. “She was sent to Europe to bear her illegitimate child. Thankfully, though people talk, the world has always had a way of forgiving the sins of the very rich.”
“Poor girl. She appears so vulnerable!”
“Oh?” he inquired lightly. “You knew her well?” he teased.
Maggie Montgomery flushed, lowering her lashes, smiling. “I’m telling you about family lore. It was a very sad story. She fell in love with a Frenchman, a man her family didn’t approve. He and his friends—a Canady among them, by the way—went after the lover. He was killed, but he had his just revenge.