Sunrise in a Garden of Love & Evil (3 page)

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"Jerk," Ophelia said under her breath.

"What?" Violet cried, slopping tea. "What dead cat? Not
Psyche
?"

"No, no, Psyche's fine. You're upsetting my sister for no reason," Ophelia growled through her teeth. "Not to mention my niece."

"Not at all," Gideon said, gaze back on Ophelia's breasts before coolly capturing her eyes. "They have every reason to be concerned about you, Ms. Beliveau." As if she were a mental case. Which was probably true, since she wanted to slug him and then fuck him into submission. But that was just her vamp gene speaking.

His phone rang and he flipped it open. "Yeah, Art, what is it now?" He retreated down the drive.

"Ophelia." Violet's voice had an edge to it now. "Tell me!"

"I'll frigging tell you later," Ophelia growled. "Better yet, ask Donnie. Zelda, pour Donnie some tea." She grabbed a Coke and popped it open, scowling in Gideon's direction. "Donnie, what did the cop ask you?"

Her neighbor dragged his eyes away from Violet long enough to take a glass. "Thanks, Zelda girl. Whether I saw anything, whether I thought Willy might have done it...That sort of thing."

"Of course he could have done it," Violet said. "He's been hitting on Ophelia forever."

"I told him that. Willy's a hot-tempered guy, too. But I got home just before Ophelia, so I didn't see nothing." He raised his chin toward a narrow driveway that disappeared into deep woods across the road. "He asked me who lives over yonder, and I told him Plato can't see nothing from his house, and he works evenings, so he's asleep all day."

Violet put an arm through Donnie's and steered him onto the lawn. "Tell me all about it..." Smitten as always, Donnie let out a long ecstatic breath as they strolled away.

Zelda's eyes held a touch of moisture. "Am I allowed to give the cop some tea?"

"Oh,
sweetie
," Ophelia said. "Of course you are. Just because I'm pissed off with him doesn't mean you have to be rude." She put an arm around Zelda's bony shoulders and squeezed. "I'm being such a bitch, aren't I?" This was what fear did: screwed up everything, even the relationships with people you loved. "I can't think of a better way to get rid of him. I'm sorry about Joanna Wyler, too."

"No skin off my back," Zelda said. "I'll be nice to her. She'll get over being such a dope."

"You are really amazing," Ophelia said. "But don't be surprised if she's not nice back to you. Last week Wyler told me never to speak to his kids again. He wouldn't say why." She hunched her shoulders. "He and Lisa used to ask me to watch them sometimes. I don't know what's got into that family all of a sudden. This whole thing really stinks."

"Art, baby, no one's going to take her children away!"

Ophelia's heart clenched as Gideon's voice sounded clearly up the driveway. "Thanks for serving the drinks, sweetie," she told Zelda as the detective meandered back toward them, still talking. "I'd better get some work done."

She slopped through the mud into her ravaged garden and tossed a few woody turnip plants to the side, then worked her way along the flattened mounds row by row as Gideon spoke and listened and belittled his sister's concerns. Ophelia came to the marijuana just as the detective hung up, and she pulled back and gaped at the disgruntled little plants that she had certainly not put there. "Where the hell did these come from?" she muttered.

Gideon was suddenly beside her. "Your neighbor lady pointed them out to me." He ripped one from the mud and tossed it aside, sounding way too amused. "Of course, I have no proof either way who planted them, you or one of the Wylers, but--"

"If I had planted them, they would be healthy! So, are you going to arrest me?" She glared at him and bit her lip hard. Then her fangs slid down and she turned away.

"Of course not. I'm corrupt, remember?"

Her voice shaking traitorously, she said, "Right. I suppose I have to sleep with you instead."

"You'll
never
have to sleep with me."

Ophelia cringed at the disgust in the lawman's voice. Well, what did she expect? She had done her best to turn him off. Mission accomplished. She flung the remaining marijuana plants onto the mounting pile of debris.

Zelda, bless her, showed up with Oreos. "Help yourself, Mr. O'Toole. Are you gay?"

Ophelia sputtered, and Gideon blinked. "What? Why would you think that?"

"That person you were talking to. Art. You called him baby. That sounds gay to me."

"Artemisia." Gideon smiled down at her. "My little sister." He picked up two Oreos.

"Artemisia O'Toole," Zelda said. "Cool name. Have a cookie, Ophelia. Want one, Mom?"

Violet was hurrying toward them, the wriggling Psyche clutched to her breast and Donnie close behind. "Ophelia, are you sure you won't come and stay with me while this nice policeman takes care of things? Even better, why not sell your place to Donnie and move back to town? He'd be glad to buy it, wouldn't you, Donnie darling?"

"Be a bit of a pinch right this moment." Donnie glanced at Violet, quivered deeply and visibly, and added, "But I can find a way to swing it. Anything you need."

"Don't worry, Donnie," Ophelia said. "I'm not selling." She couldn't.

Violet pouted. "You could run your landscaping business just as well from town, and also come to the club sometimes. It would be perfect!"

"No," Ophelia said. "I'm staying here."

Violet's sigh betrayed more than a hint of annoyance. "When Ophelia speaks in that tone, it's a waste of time to argue." She looked into Gideon's eyes with a gaze calculated to enthrall. "Mr. O'Toole, before you leave, I need your advice about a suspicious visitor at my club."

Gideon strolled down the driveway beside Violet, wishing he could brush her off the way she'd dismissed Donnie Donaldson, waiting for her to stop yammering so he could go home. Not that he didn't sympathize with her. The clubs in Bayou Gavotte were subject to endless scrutiny by moralizers who believed they were dens of sin. Of course, some of the clubs
were
dens of sin, but not, according to Violet, her precious Blood and Velvet.

"It's all tourists and posers, just silly people who want to pretend they're vampires or watch other people pretend they're vampires. What harm is there in that? We only serve drinks and bar food. The only drugs are the ones the customers bring in, and of course we try to discourage
that
, but what can we do? Certainly not confiscate every pill in everyone's purse or pocket! We have no whips and chains, no juveniles, no spectator sex in back rooms like
some
places I could name, and although vampire posers tend to get overexcited and bite their dates, our emergency care is excellent."

"In other words," Zelda piped up from the side, "it's a sissy club." In a darkling voice, she added, "But I still wish I could work there. Five more long, long years."

Gideon grinned at Zelda. She was a nice kid, and her mother wasn't too bad, if only she'd lay off the sexy stuff, which was not only annoying but unnecessary, since she was drop-dead gorgeous. Maybe she'd been putting on this act for so long she didn't know how to stop. He tried to ignore the visceral effect it had on him, fortunately nowhere near as strong as Ophelia's. But Ophelia had gone inside, thank God, so now he could get his head straight and go home and never have to see her again.

At the thought of never seeing her again something twisted in his gut, but he ignored that, too. Never seeing her again was a consummation devoutly to be wished. Not the ideal to-be-wished-for consummation, but never mind. Once you got past the incredible sex, she'd undoubtedly be a bore.
Dogs, beer, steak.
That was the life.

"Get a private detective," he said, when Violet took a breath. "Some guy asking nosy questions at your club isn't a job for the police. He hasn't done anything disruptive or illegal, so start with a background check." He reached for the door handle of his Mercedes.

"We already did that," Violet said. "His story checks out. I hope he's not a Fed. They're such a nuisance, and we do
so
much better without them." She slipped her fingers through the crook in Gideon's arm and steered him back up the driveway.

That was for damn sure. Gideon didn't know by what means, fair or foul, the underworld had convinced the Feds to mind their own business. The arrangement with the local police was comfortable enough, although the chief still vacillated between unease at cooperating with Leopard and his goons and pride in Bayou Gavotte's reputation for safety.

"There's definitely something phony about him," Violet was saying.

"We're experts at spotting phonies," Zelda spoke up. "Like, you're not a phony. Like Ophelia's not. Like Lep's not. Like Mom acts like one but isn't. Like I bet preppy Joanna Wyler wishes she didn't have to be. Like Constantine is, but he's okay underneath."

Christ. Teenyboppers hanging with vigilantes and rock stars. "You know Leopard and Constantine Dufray?"

"All the club owners do," Violet said. "And Lep does a wonderful job of keeping the clubs safe for tourists, but his idea of helping Ophelia would be to have that poor Wyler beaten up and thrown out of town. And no one in their right mind would ask Constantine for help."

"Actually," Zelda said, "it depends on the kind of help. He let me use him once for show-and-tell at school. That was a nonviolent activity, of course. We don't approve of violence, except when absolutely necessary." She spied Psyche under the truck and made kissy noises.

"That's why Ophelia called you," Violet told Gideon. "After Lep's thugs finished with Willy Wyler, they'd prowl around Ophelia's place, driving her crazy until they caught whoever did the cat thing"--she shuddered--"and do something
terrible
to him, which is probably what will happen now."

"He deserves to have something terrible done to him," Gideon said.

"I know, but you don't understand the effect Ophelia has on men!" Violet giggled. "Well, of course you do, but you're a stable person, not the type to get obsessed and violent and
stupid
about it." She sighed. "Ophelia's a sweet girl, although I suppose that's hard for you to believe, considering how she's treated you, but she's had some lousy experiences with men, and now she's moved out to the sticks with almost no neighbors and bought all these dreadful guns, and although I don't think she's ever actually shot anyone, I live in desperate fear that someday she will. And that would probably
destroy
her."

"Not to mention the dumbass she shoots," Gideon said. He guided Violet back down the driveway toward his car. And hers, which would have to be moved so he could get the hell out.

Violet stopped and cocked her head to one side. "No, she's an excellent shot. She'd just hit the poor guy in the foot or something, but she's naturally such a gentle person that...Try not to think too unkindly of her." She dimpled up at him. "Or to think of her at all. She's very stubborn. When she says no, she means it."

So am I stubborn,
thought Gideon, moving inexorably toward the Mercedes. Not that stubbornness was likely to get him anywhere with Ophelia. Not that he wanted to get anywhere with her. Beer, dogs...oh, hell. He almost snarled, and Psyche hissed at him from the safety of Zelda's arms.

"Let me apologize on her behalf, too, because she won't. You can be sure of that." Violet let go of his sleeve and got in her car. "Please drop by the club as soon as you can. Take care of your sister's friend's blackmailer first, though. She's much worse off than we are."

"Right," Gideon said. "When the blackmailer's caught, you're tops on my list."

He drove away determined to put Ophelia, her sister, and his own sister firmly out of his mind, and within five minutes leaped up his front steps to the joyous welcome from the dogs in the fenced backyard. The phone was ringing, and he got the door open just as the answering machine finished its spiel.

Ophelia's voice came on, low and hesitant. He listened, transfixed, as she began her message, but by the time he reached the phone she had gone.

"I'm scum," Ophelia told herself as she turned on the shower. She had left the others in the driveway with a list of breezy excuses--an appointment for an estimate, a truck full of plants to deliver, and of course a life to get on with.

She squared her shoulders against the memory of the disgust in Gideon's voice. Which was ridiculous, as she should have been relieved at the success of her tactics, as well as grateful for Vi's efficient takeover. She soaped her hair and remembered Gideon walking beside Violet in total absorption, which just went to show he was scum, too, albeit gorgeous, sexy scum. She scrubbed her scalp furiously and rinsed with rage, and stepped out of the shower clean and still scummy and knew that whatever he might be, she couldn't leave it at that.

Both cars were gone, Gideon no doubt following Vi into town like a puppy on a string. Fine. Whatever. Ophelia toweled her hair and flipped through the phone book.
O'Toole, Artemisia...O'Toole, Gideon--Highway 43, Bayou Gavotte.
Far too close for comfort. She returned to the entry for Artemisia, which listed Olive Street, near one of her customers. Whatever.

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