When they finally came for him, he was almost glad to go.
Two of the guards attempted to pull him to his feet, but the crushed bones gifted to him by the torturers refused to support his weight. Seeing there was no way he could walk or even stand, their captain muttered an oath and sent for a litter. One soldier ripped the last tattered remains of clothing from his blood-streaked, stinking torso while another fetched a bucket of cold water and a few cloths to wash him with. Too weak and sick to care, he let them do with him whatever they would, until a black-robed friar bent over him, waving a crucifix and spouting a string of homilies about reconciliation and the hereafter. Somehow, he found the strength to spit in the startled cleric's face and vomit forth a series of oaths and blasphemies so horrendous, his immortal soul's would-be savior instantly scuttled from the cell, crossing himself as he went.
Hardened though they were, even the soldiers fell back with signs against the evil eye and hasty incantations to whatever saint they believed in.
Fools! It's too bad I'm only a mortal man. If I were even half the witch you claim, you'd be dancing to a very different tune. Oh, Jeanne! I'm thankful you didn't live to see this day.
Blessedly, they'd never tortured the Maid. She'd gone to her fiery death as erect as ever: smiling and with her head held high, so secure had she been in her belief in those damnable voices of hers.
Had he really done those things? He'd been looking at the world for so long from the bottom of a wine cup, he really didn't know. Leaving his cousin to run the estates, he'd spent his days and nights brooding alone in his apartments, drinking himself into a stupor where he could no longer distinguish between dreams and reality. Only then could he fend off the nightmares and stop asking himself how such a magnificent quest could have gone so horribly wrong.
The soldiers pulled a white linen robe over his head and debated whether to put the miter with its cabalistic symbols on him now or save it till he was chained to the stake.
He closed his eyes and watched Jeanne's silken banner with its glowing colors ripple against the morning sky. Riding at her side to yet another victory, he felt the movements of his great black destrier between his knees and savored the spring blossoms' fragrance as they passed.
Blocking out the waiting mob's growl beyond his window, he harkened to the creak and jingle of a thousand harnesses and armored knights and all the other sounds of an army on the march. The land behind them was black with men, their ranks stretching as far as the eye could see. Beyond them, Jeanne's army swelled with volunteers from the surrounding countryside with their pikes and tools in their hands.
Again, he comforted Jeanne in his arms while they pulled the arrow from her shoulder. On the wintry eve of yet another battle, he wrapped her in his cloak against the cold then stood with her on the heights. Below them on the plain the golden pinpricks of a thousand watch fires stabbed the velvet night. But when he offered her the protection of his ancient name and a refuge in his distant manor she gently told him no.
"You were the first to offer me your sword and you'll be my last true friend when it's time for me to go. When we're done with this, I'll return home and live the rest of my life amid my cows and sheep as peacefully as it began."
It was not to be. The shining king she crowned at Rheims amid clouds of fragrant incense and paeans so glorious as to make the angels themselves weep, evolved into a two-faced serpent. Jeanne's betrayal and abandonment were His Majesty's thanks to the savior of his throne. When the Burgundians sold her to the English, he lifted not one finger to save her and sabotaged the attempts of those who would. Those damnable clerics tried and retried her, imprisoned her as a heretic, then sentenced her to die by fire.
He went in disguise to Rouen and followed the proceedings dry-eyed. And during all the years since, he had never shed a tear for her. Powerless to save her from her chosen destiny, he granted Jeanne the only gift he could and offered the executioner a purse of gold to strangle her before he lit the fire.
The man swore Jeanne's gaze met his in forgiveness as he put his hands around her throat and that a shaft of light left her body at the moment of her death. Lancing into the darkened sky, it lit the heavens from end to end before his wondering eyes. Weeping bitterly, he stumbled away from her blazing pyre, and vowed to never again take a human life.
The prisoner could expect no such mercy today. The hungry crowd would be waiting in the Place des Armes, beastlike in its impatience to feast on his final agony and watch him writhe away from the flames' lick against his living flesh.
Lining the streets ten deep, they'd hold up their children to catch a glimpse of the monstrous sorcerer who was about to pay for his crimes. His name was already a synonym for evil and he knew the legends would grow. He'd be the beast in the dark in countless horror stories and a monster with which mothers would threaten their children if they failed to behave.
When the soldiers carried him outside, he squeezed his eyes shut against the morning's unaccustomed brilliance. Propped in the waiting cart, with the decorated miter jammed firmly over his brow, the crowd's roar and stench hit him like a physical blow. The cart lurched and he fell sideways, sliding helplessly across its rough bottom. A splinter of wood pierced his cheek, barely missing his eye, but he scarcely felt the pain.
The soldiers yanked him up to face the hungry crowd once more. When he saw he was unable to hold himself upright with his broken hands, their captain took a length of rope and lashed him to the front rail.
Opening his eyes as the cart began to move, the condemned man spotted the friar. For good measure, he spewed forth another torrent of hideous invective against him and the stinking church he served; then he watched in amusement as the cleric dropped his precious crucifix in the mud and hastily formed the ancient sign against the evil eye. So much for religion. Something soft struck his face. Juice ran down his cheek and he realized what it was. A shower of rotten fruits and vegetables rained down from all sides, accompanied by roars of approval as each missile found its mark.
Again, he closed his eyes.
In their last encounter with the cursed English, Jeanne's troops turned back the invaders who'd oppressed France for so long. Had she not been captured, those final days would have been pure gold. But the Maid's shining future already lay behind her and her fate henceforth would follow a twisting, slippery road ending only in imprisonment and death.
The cart lurched to a stop and the crowd fell silent. He twisted in the ropes to gaze upward at his funeral pyre. Stepping outside himself, he watched the guards drag and push his unresisting body up the ladder. Seeing the executioner with the chains in his hand, a thought struck him. I have nothing with which to buy his mercy. When someone uncurled his fingers and pressed a coin into his hand, his eyes met the captain's. The younger man's eyes were awash with tears and he recognized one of his lieutenants from the battlefield.
He painfully turned up his palm to reveal the gleam of silver. The sum meant no more to him than a coin to toss to a beggar, but it represented a full month's pay to the captain. Summoning a faint smile, he whispered his thanks. But instead of giving him a merciful poison draft or a quick death by strangulation, the executioner thrust the coin back between his fingers. Then, crossing himself, the man muttered a hasty prayer.
Incredibly, that damnable monk had followed them up the ladder. While the executioner was chaining him to the stake, the friar once again waved his crucifix. Exhorting him at the top of his lungs to confess his sins, he ordered him to make his peace with God and plead for his immortal soul. Once again, he cursed the insistent cleric and spat in his face.
If he could have found a way to save his wondrous beloved fool from herself and those damnable voices only she could hear, he would have surely done so. Jeanne had been no more witch or heretic than he, and, the day those incense-swinging bastards condemned the Maid of Orleans, he'd forsworn his ancient faith and any belief he'd had in an afterlife.
Looking across the teeming square and surrounding streets, he wondered if Charles was watching. It was said the king had taken to his bed after Jeanne's execution and hadn't been seen again for three days. Doubting that His Majesty would display any such grief for him, he glanced up at the sky. A perfect day for a burning with nary a rain cloud in sight.
Judging by the sudden roar, he guessed the executioner had thrust the first brand between the pitch-soaked faggots beneath his feet.
An acrid sweet smell drifting past his nose told him he was right.
Closing his eyes for the last time, he focused his thoughts firmly on Jeanne and prepared to die as stoically as he'd lived.
The Perfect Gentleman
It was a normal Friday afternoon at Minneapolis's International Airport. Amid the cavernous hubbub of a twentieth century population on the move, the terminal was abustle with weary commuters and family members awaiting their loved ones. Outside, a slate-colored sky drizzled a dreary welcome onto the planes lined up on the glistening tarmac. After swooping down like so many silver birds of prey, they waited to ingest a fresh load of travelers and wing them to yet another far-off destination.
No one waited for Darcey Norris when she emerged from Asia Pacific's gate. A seasoned traveler, she looked neither to the left nor the right. In her early thirties with reddish-gold hair and delicate pale features, she was comfortable in well-worn jeans and a butter-soft suede jacket. Reaching for her cell phone to switch it on, she shifted her enormous purse's strap to her left shoulder and headed for the escalator leading to the Baggage Claims.
When a chirp sounded from the purse, she reached into its depths without breaking stride and pulled out the phone. Startled by the voice on the other end, she halted so abruptly a family of Japanese tourists almost cannoned into her. Ignoring their anxious bows and repeated apologies, she stopped in the middle of the concourse and let the crowd flow around her.
"Is that really you? How in the hell did you find me? Now? I know your office isn't that far but... Oh, all right. I'll grab a cab. See you in about twenty minutes."
Snapping the phone shut, Darcey thought for a moment. Resting her elbows on a nearby ticket counter, she flipped it open again and punched in a number.
Well past the hour when most sensible Minneapolitans had gone home, Darcey emerged from the elevator of one of the most spectacular office complexes in the entire city. Below the suite's tall windows, the city lights twinkled against a rapidly darkening sky and beacons winked on the planes landing and taking off from the airport she'd just left.
Without waiting for an invitation, she marched across the darkened reception area to push open Baird McEvoy's red lacquered office door. Flinging her ancient carryall into one of the easy chairs flanking the lawyer's prized antique desk, she sank into the other and stretched her aching arms. Cramped and miserable after eight hours of travel, she'd planned on a hot shower and a comforting bowl of soup by her own fireplace, followed by a long, long sleep till noon. In retrospect, she realized she should never have come here.
Baird's summons had been so urgent, she hadn't been able to find it in her heart to tell him no. Now she wished she had.
Cool and elegant as ever, her host gave her a half-smile. He moved to a well-stocked bar, busied himself with a couple of Waterford crystal tumblers, and handed her one. "Two fingers of JD on the rocks. Just the way you like it."
When she gulped the smoky liquid and mutely held out her glass for a refill, he lifted a sandy eyebrow. Splashing more whisky over the remaining ice, he remarked "You a drinker now?"
Darcey set her glass on the edge of the desk and stood up. "Yes. No. I don't know. Right now, I'm so tired I can't see straight. It was nice seeing you again and auld lang syne and all that but I'm leaving before I pass out on my feet. Oh, and thanks for the drink."
She was about to telephone for another cab when Baird grinned in that all-American way of his and wrapped a comforting arm around her thin shoulders. Leaning into him with a sigh, she suddenly realized he was wearing a tux. She'd never seen the normally jeans-clad Baird in a tux before. And that was when it hit her that at least fifteen years had passed since she fled his apartment on that awful winter night.
Darcey shook off the memory. "Were you going somewhere?"
"Symphony opener. Marty's been promoted to Concert Master and he gave me a pair of tickets."
She reached for the glass and took a sip, rolled the whiskey around in her mouth and swallowed it. "You're still together?"
"Like a pair of old shoes. When he sees my empty seat, he won't be pleased. But he'll understand, I hope."
"Who's the other ticket for?"
"No one. The concert doesn't start till nine, which gives us a couple of hours. Why? You wanna go?"
Darcey glanced down at her worn jeans and shabby Nikes. "Like this? I'm itchy all over and stink worse than a barnyard."
Still with his arm around her, Baird sniffed her hair. "You smell pretty good to me. The shower's in there and the dress shop downstairs is still open. Give me your sizes and I'll get you whatever you need."
She indicated the carryall. "I'll take you up on the shower. As to the rest, thanks but no thanks. I've got clean undies along plus a custom-tailored outfit I treated myself to in Hong Kong."
"Well then, what are you waiting for? While you're showering, I'll see about dinner."
"We're gonna eat here?"
"Why not? The Del's still open and they deliver. At least, they will if I wave enough filthy lucre at 'em. There's a menu around here somewhere. Ah, here it is. Now what's your fancy?"
Defeated, Darcey sank back into the chair. "Dammit, Baird! You know how I am about Jewish food. Why don't you just admit you planned this whole thing? Marty gave you those tickets? In a pig's eye he did! That wop fiddler's so cheap, he's still got the first dollar he ever made and even I know those house seats don't come for free. Whose idea was this stupid tux by the way? Yours or his?"
"His. Marty can't help being Italian but I'll admit he's cheap. The last time we went to Europe, he bitched for virtually the entire flight about my extravagance. I'd booked us a private charter so I could stretch my legs, and you'd have thought it was his money for pity's sake. He finally shut up after I threatened to pitch him out mid-Atlantic and his miserable effing Stradivarius after him."
Unlike Martin Brazzio, who'd struggled through the university by waiting on tables, doing odd jobs and playing at countless weddings and bar mitzvahs, the amiable Baird McEvoy was heir to one of the largest milling fortunes in the entire Midwest. A true workaholic, he was still putting in longer and harder hours than any first year associate in his firm. Despite never having had to worry about money in his entire life, he had amassed yet another fortune as one of the shrewdest corporate lawyers in the entire country. Or so Darcey had heard.
Perching his wire-rimmed glasses on his nose, Baird leafed through a sheaf of documents on the desk, then handed her one.
After reading it through, she looked up in disbelief. "You've got to be kidding. This is Max's will and he's asking me to.... Oh, no. There's no way in hell I'd even consider it."
"You have to, Darce. There isn't anyone else. Besides, I promised Max I'd take care of things, starting with you."
While that surprised her, she didn't rise to the bait. "How about you and Marty? Don't you have a yen for parenthood?"
"Uh uh. Even if we did, it wouldn't be this kid. Marty can't stand him, and if I don't get him out of the apartment pretty soon, the kid and I are both liable to find our clothes on the sidewalk."
"He's staying with you?"
"When the IRS seized Grayhaven, he had no place else to go."
"Whoa! Wait just a damn minute here. When the IRS what?"
"Max was up to his ears in debt and he hadn't been paying his taxes. Between the creditors, the sovereign State of Minnesota and the IRS, there's nothing left."
"But you were his lawyer. You had to know."
"I only did his will as a favor and you know... er, knew Max Ravencroft. The man endowed the word secretive with a whole new meaning and I still have no idea what happened, let alone why. He was the best-known psychiatrist in the country and Grayhaven should have been a goldmine. Even the Vandeivers used to go there to dry out, for pity's sake. But I didn't know about the kid till I opened the letter."
"The same letter that told me where to find you. The president of First National had instructions to forward it to me if anything happened to Max. It arrived the morning after his death and it's around here somewhere. As soon as I lay my hands on it, you can read it for yourself."
Darcey grabbed her carryall. "Later. Right now, I'm going to take you up on that shower before I pass out on my feet. You! Get us some food! And you'd better have a damn good explanation when I return."
He grinned and threw her a mock salute. "Yes, ma'am, anything you say. Incidentally, does Fayre know you're back?"
"I called her from the airport. Her latest squeeze is some software jillionaire by the name of Dick Seymour. They're on their way to Aspen in his private jet for a conservation thing. Saving the rain forest... or maybe it was saving the whales. No, that was last year. Now I remember. She definitely said rain forest."
The thought of her outrageous Southern grande dame business partner dissipated some of the gloom enveloping Darcey. She still couldn't believe that it had been less than five years since Fayre had entered her life. The Aruna Health Spa's grand opening in Hong Kong had been an unqualified smash, and the two of them were eyeing Beijing and Shanghai as their next franchise locations.
When she first met Fayre Montgomery, Darcey was a struggling widow. Her only asset was a run-down combination gym and health food store in South St. Paul named Aruna. It was there that she created a small line of food supplement capsules based on her Cajun grandmother's handwritten herbal recipes. To gain some much-needed publicity, she sank the last $2,000 from her late husband's life insurance into a homemade infomercial. After fast-talking a local station into extending credit for a month's worth of airtime, she donned her most colorful leotard and performed the on-camera pitches herself.
Dubbed the Ultimate Queen of Style, Fayre Montgomery's steel magnolia ways, constantly changing hair color and languid Southern drawl were famous to the point of being a clich?. The not always willing subject of a thousand skits and parodies, even she had to admit her image had become a bore. She'd been in Minneapolis to star at the annual Women's Festival and Home Show and her investment banker date had just bailed out on her, wife trouble, he said. Idly flipping through the channels in her hotel suite, the Aruna infomercial caught Fayre's attention.
With her quirky manner and awkward charm, Darcey Norris came across as an on-camera natural, and, within minutes of viewing her aristocratic college-girl pitch, Fayre was on the phone with Montgomery Enterprises' financial manager. The two women met for lunch on the following day. They liked each other from the start and the rest was history.
With the biggest household name behind her since Nike burst on the scene with its Just Do it advertising campaign, Darcey's herbal line soon became #1 across the country. As instantly recognizable as Nike's Swoosh, Aruna's ubiquitous twin parrot logo adorned every imaginable product, from environmentally friendly baby diapers to their much-sought-after "Made in the USA" pure silk T-shirts.
Even though the latter were priced at what was to Darcey a ridiculous $100 a pop, the brilliantly colored shirts were selling out as fast as Aruna could get them into the stores, and that was only part of it. There seemed to be no end in sight and things couldn't have been more perfect.
As a high-powered businesswoman on the go, Darcey Norris had no room in her life for a troubled teenager, and where had Max gotten him anyway? Dr. Ravencroft wasn't the type to go around adopting orphans and he certainly hadn't been into charity. Well, that hadn't been strictly true. He adopted the orphaned Darcey after her grandmother died, but that was different. Besides being shirttail relatives, Aruna Severin and Max Ravencroft had been lifelong friends and that was why he'd taken her in.
Darcey's elopement to California with an Olympic athlete turned physical education instructor named Ted Norris infuriated Max. After he returned her letters unopened and refused to accept her calls, Darcey resigned herself to the inevitable. Max Ravencroft had disowned her and that had been that.
Her husband was in bed with another woman when his lover's apartment building collapsed in the biggest earthquake to hit California within living memory. Only the day before, he'd casually told Darcey over the breakfast table he was divorcing her. Then he'd packed his bags and left. He hadn't had time to remove her as a beneficiary from his $50,000.00 life insurance policy and, a week after his death, she lost the baby she'd never told him she was carrying.
With nothing to keep her in California, Darcey fled back to her Minnesota roots. Too proud to ask Max for help and unable to find a job that paid a living wage, she moved across the river and invested in a combination gym and health food coop in South St. Paul. She named her new business after the grandmother she'd loved so much, then she dusted off Aruna Severin's treasured herbal book and set up a manufacturing and packaging operation in the store's tiny kitchen.
Emerging from Baird's bathroom with her hair slicked back, Darcey literally shimmered in a coppery silk tunic and matching loosely cut pants. She'd completed the outfit with flat golden sandals and a pair of enormous earrings set with chunks of sapphire to match her eyes. Catching his appreciative smile, she did a small pirouette.
"I definitely like. And now, Madame, dinner is served."
He must have waved a great deal of filthy lucre around, reflected Darcey when a hovering black-tied waiter solicitously pulled out her chair from a small linen draped table and a second offered a silver trayed array of sizzling hors d'oeuvres. She looked accusingly at Baird. "This didn't come from the Del!"
He had the grace to look sheepish. "True. I called Jacques Marinen at La Charcuterie and asked him to send something over."
"Oh, sure. And he did it just like that."
"You don't like this?"
"That's not the point. Jacques Marinen is always booked up for at least a year in advance and he only talks to heads of state. He won't even return Fayre's calls."
"Um, well. A couple of years ago, I got him out of a serious jam and, since then, I've become La Charcuterie's main investor."
"You're his partner?"
He noted her glance at the waiters. "Don't worry about them. They're Jacques' nephews and they don't speak English."
They ate in silence for a while, then she said "All right."
"All right, what?"
"Let me get a good night's sleep after the concert and I'll meet with you and the kid tomorrow. I'm not making any promises, mind you, but I will at least come see him."
"The kid has a name incidentally."
"Charles Ferrault. He's sixteen, nice-looking, and very well-mannered."
"Isn't he manic-depressive?"
"Some psychologist hung the label on him for want of a better word. Withdrawn would describe him better."
"He and Marty don't get along?"
"Marty is... er, a very jealous type. He's feeling his age and he doesn't want a good-looking kid like Charles around me."
Darcey's fork clattered against her plate. "Baird!"
"Oh, don't worry. Any interest I have in Charles is strictly platonic. But Marty will never believe that in a million years. The kid deserves better than the hand life's dealt him and I'd like to help. Unfortunately, I'm caught between a rock and hard place, and the sooner he's out of my place the better. You do understand, don't you?"
She sighed. "Fifteen years ago, we could never have had this conversation. I've done a lot of growing up since then."
"I tried to tell you a dozen times, but you and Max had it so firmly in your heads that we were the perfect couple. You never told him, did you?"
"I had enough trouble handling it myself. In high school, you lettered in every sport, you were pulling straight A's, you were the student body president, a physical hunk, richer than snot and a perfect gentleman. Baird, you were every girl's dream."
He gave a short laugh. "A dream that was secretly lusting after my football coach. Unfortunately for me, Greer had no inclinations in that direction and he'd have knocked my block off if he'd known. For whatever it's worth, Darcey, if I'd been the least bit attracted to women, you'd have been the one."
She continued to reminisce. "Then when my dorm's power went out after that ice storm, you let me stay in your apartment. You were so nice and the fact that you never tried to take advantage made me love you all the more."
"Yeah. I was the perfect gentleman all right. I'd met Marty a couple of weeks before and we'd instantly clicked. Since he was rooming with five other guys, we could hardly meet there. We were doing our best to be discreet and it was our bad luck you came back from your ski trip a day early."
"Max never knew, did he?"
"Not as far as I know. Nor do my clients. Corporate CEO's tend to be anything but politically correct and it would cost me one hell of a lot of business if they did."
"Surely you must socialize."
"Mary Larson runs an escort service out of this building's fifth floor. Whenever I attend some dog and pony show, she furnishes the date."
"The Mary Larson?"
"Not only does our best-known TV celeb enjoy a very expensive drug habit, but she has a taste for the finer things that her salary doesn't begin to cover."
"I suppose you're going to tell me you financed her too."
"Well, as a matter of fact...."
When Darcey burst out laughing, Baird couldn't help himself and the two of them sat howling till the tears ran down their cheeks and their sides ached.
"Monsieur?" One of the waiters pointed at the clock.
Baird sobered instantly. "We've got fifteen minutes, so we'd best get going." He tapped a button on his cell phone. "Peter? We'll be down in just a second."
While Darcey looked around for her wrap, he rattled off a series of instructions in perfect French and the waiters nodded. One began to pack up the dishes while the other opened the office door.
As the elevator doors slid open, Baird called after her, "I've got a couple of things to take care of here. Tell the chauffeur I'll be down in a minute."
Chauffeur? In the old days, Baird wouldn't have been caught dead in a limousine, and as for his speaking French.... Idly, Darcey wondered if he spoke Italian as well and how much of the change was due to Marty's influence. Well, she'd know soon enough. In the meantime, she determined to enjoy the rest of this thoroughly unexpected evening. Tomorrow's problems would arrive before she knew it, and until they did, she wasn't going to worry any more.
A pounding on her apartment's outside door, punctuated by the doorbell's insistent buzz and the telephone's ring, awoke Darcey from a deep sleep. Less than a half-dozen people possessed her private number and, with the exception of Fayre, they knew better than to disturb her on the day after an overseas promotional trip. Fumbling around the bedside table with her eyes still closed, she located the receiver and jammed it up against her ear.
"Wake up, sleepyhead. It's noon already. When you didn't come to us, Charles and I decided to bring you brunch."
"You unnatural heathen! Why aren't you tired? Are you on speed or something? How in the hell did you get this number and where are you anyway?"
"Right outside your door. Come on, Darce. The food's getting cold."
Slamming down the phone, she fished around for her ancient chenille bathrobe, which should have been at the end of the bed. Naturally, it was on the floor. Cursing, she managed to locate one fuzzy slipper, but not its mate, and finally decided to go barefoot. If her appearance wasn't up to snuff, it was Baird's fault for not giving her any warning and as for the kid.... The kid! Halfway through the bedroom door, she did an abrupt U-turn and whipped into the bathroom. Blinking under the mirror's brilliant lights, she hastily dragged a brush through her hair to settle down the worst of its spikes, then swished mouthwash around her teeth and spat it into the sink. It would just have to do. Pulling the robe's belt even tighter, she hurried across the still-curtained living room, barking her shin against the coffee table and cursing as she went.
When she opened the front door, the first thing that struck her about the boy next to Baird was the color of his eyes. Clear golden yellow like a cat's and flecked with green and blue, they were fringed with a set of black lashes luxuriant enough to make Fayre Montgomery fall to the floor and weep with envy. His calm gaze left her feeling as transparent as glass and, just from the way he looked at her, she suspected there was little about the human condition he didn't know.
Taller than average and as supple as a willow tree, the only word to describe Charles Ferrault was beautiful. A heavy lock of blue-black hair flopped over his pale high forehead. When he raised his hand to smooth it back and she was struck by his extraordinary grace. Chronologically, he might be only sixteen, but this physically perfect creature had obviously left childhood behind him long ago. Even she could feel his sexual heat and now she could fully appreciate poor Marty's agitation. If Baird wasn't attracted to this kid, he had to be made of stone.
When he spoke, Charles' voice was surprisingly low with an attractive break in it that was all of a piece with the rest of him. "Aren't you going to introduce us?"
"Oh... er, sure. Darcey, this is Charles Ferrault, as if you hadn't already guessed. Charles, this is Darcey Norris. In addition to being one of my oldest friends, she was Max's adopted daughter."
Charles dropped the bags he was carrying, raised Darcey's fingers to his lips and brushed them across the back of her hand. "Enchant?, Mademoiselle. Why did Max never tell me that I had such a beautiful sister?"
Baird pushed the door wide and strode into the apartment. "That's a long story and it can keep till after we've eaten. Where's the kitchen? I assume you have one."
Darcey fumbled behind her for the light switch and he stopped short of the coffee table just in time. "This is a lovely room, but you need to do something about the Sears Roebuck furniture."
She sniffed. "This furniture belonged to my grandmother and it did not come from Sears. If you don't like the d?cor, you can always leave."
Charles grabbed the rest of the bags and headed in the general direction of the kitchen. "Actually, it looks quite comfortable. And, Baird, you don't need to be such a snob. Some of your stuff is nothing to write home about either, starting with the furniture in your spare bedroom."
"The furniture in my.... Why, you ungrateful pup! If that's all the thanks I get for rescuing you from the gutter...."
Baird followed Charles into the kitchen, then poked his head around the corner of the archway. "While we're getting this set up, why don't you get dressed? The zoo just got a pair of white tiger cubs and Charles wants to see them." Seeing Darcey's mouth open in protest, he shook his head. "Go on. Shoo!"
With a glance behind him, he lowered his voice. "This is the most Charles has talked since Max died, and it's the first time I've ever seen him smile. Come on, Darce. Give the kid a break."
"What choice do I have? Talk about being run over! I thought Fayre was bad but she's got a ways to go to catch up to you." With a muttered curse, she whisked into her bedroom and slammed the door. Rooting around in her closet, she came up with a forest-green silk and cashmere designer creation and matching suede boots Fayre had insisted she buy during their last trip to Milan.
The softly draped top featured a huge cowl neck that doubled as a hood and the snug-cut stirrup pants fit her as comfortably as a set of old sweats. Facing herself in the mirror, she had to admit Fayre was right. The Italians certainly had a way with a sweater and this was one of their best. Hmm. I actually look sexy. Or I would to anyone except Baird. Then she wondered for the umpteenth time why she had such rotten luck with men.
Darcey emerged from her bedroom to be greeted by appetizing aromas from the kitchen. The balcony's sliding glass doors stood open to the sounds and sights of the river below and Charles was hastening back and forth in response to Baird's shouted instructions. He'd covered the wrought iron table with brilliant white linen, a bowl of multi-colored daisies, red and blue pottery, cut crystal glassware and a set of delicate porcelain handled cutlery she had never seen before.
Seeing her in the doorway, he pulled back one of the brightly cushioned chairs with a flourish. "Breakfast is served, Mademoiselle. While your omelet is being prepared, would you care for a mimosa? Or a croissant with framboise perhaps?"
"Good grief, Charles. I was thinking more in terms of a bagel with jelly and cream cheese and a cup of coffee. What, pray tell, is a mimosa?"
Deftly, the boy removed the top from a waiting bottle of champagne, half-filled a crystal tulip glass and topped it off with orange juice. "That, my beautiful sister, is a mimosa!" Before she could stop him, he'd mixed one for himself and was holding it up in a toast. "To your very good health, Mademoiselle, and what I hope will be a long and happy association."
"I'll second that." Baird stood in the doorway with a steaming silver platter. "Here, Darcey. Eat your omelet before it gets cold."
"You made all this? I seem to remember a time when you couldn't even boil water."
"That was then, this is now. Marty and I took a course with Julia Child when she was still doing such things. Splendid woman! By the end of the seminar, she even had Marty groveling at her feet. The two of us have been happily cooking ever since."
"Speaking of Marty, where is he today?"
"Sulking in his apartment. You looked so spectacular last night, he got jealous. He's still in a snit."
Darcey didn't dignify that with an answer. "What do you mean, his apartment? I thought you...."
"Lived together? Not exactly. Our places are across from each other in a restored building in the warehouse district. I divided the loft in two and we go back and forth. That way, he can practice his violin without disturbing me and I can play with my computers till all hours without disturbing him."
She glanced at Charles before saying anything further. The boy's eyes met hers in perfect understanding. "In case you're wondering, I know how it is between Baird and Marty. M-Max t-told me all about such things. He-he...." Unable to continue, his face crumpled, then he turned away and disappeared into the living room.
Darcey made to follow him when Baird caught her arm. "Leave him be. It all happened so fast. Max was cremated privately before Charles even had a chance to say goodbye. Forty-eight hours later, the process servers were at Grayhaven's front door with their writs and seizure papers and he was out on the sidewalk with no place to go."
Darcey shook her head as he guided her back into her chair and poured her a cup of coffee. "How could that be? The Ravencroft Foundation alone had to be worth..."
"Nothing! Grayhaven was a bottomless money pit. Max had been robbing Peter to pay Paul for years and he'd been treating the Foundation as his personal slush fund."
"Max was an embezzler?"
"For want of a better word, yes. My accounting staff has spent most of the past month trying to sort things out, but the further they delve the worse it gets. If Max hadn't died when he did, he would have done at least twenty years."
"Max set up an independent trust. It should have been enough to put him through school and give him a decent start till the IRS decided his inheritance was funded with stolen money and froze the account. They can't prove a damn thing. But by the time we fight it through the courts, there'll be nothing left of the trust and Charles will be an old man."
"What was he to Max anyway?"
"His natural son. Charles's mother was a half-Cherokee exotic dancer named Genevieve Ferrault. Her stage name was Tempest South and she never told Max about the baby. When Genevieve died, Charles set out to find his father. After gathering up all of her cash, he invested it in a one-way bus ticket from New Orleans to Minneapolis. He turned up on Grayhaven's doorstep in a rainstorm clutching a letter from his mother, his birth certificate and a brown paper sack containing all of his possessions. That was four years ago."
Darcey tried to imagine the cool silver-haired Dr. Ravencroft in a passionate embrace with a dusky-haired Bourbon Street stripper, and failed utterly. Baird saw her disbelief. "The affair happened all right, but Max flatly refused to acknowledge the kid as his. He did a DNA to settle the matter and it turned out he was wrong."
"Max did the right thing, but if they had any kind of a relationship you could have fooled me. A Grayhaven staffer took care of Charles and the good doctor would see him once a day for exactly twenty minutes. By appointment and just before dinner."
She winced. "Max could be a cold fish all right. How did Charles feel about his father?"
"It's hard to say because this is the first time I've seen him display the slightest emotion. I had someone look at him when Max died and he was so withdrawn, Doc diagnosed him as autistic. Children's Services was about to toss him into a group home for the handicapped when I volunteered."
"Obviously, they didn't know your... "
It was Baird's turn to wince. "Hardly. This ain't San Francisco, you know. Marty hails from a devout Catholic family, my mother's clan is steeped in three hundred years of solid Lutheran tradition, and, every time I see her, my Aunt Sigrid trots out yet another robust Norwegian lass. Speaking of which, there's a family reunion coming up next month. If you could see your way to going...?"
Was there no end to his gall? "No. I have a life of my own. Besides, I'll be in Paris to meet with a couple of fabric designers."
"Just a couple of days."
"And my reunion will happen to fall on one of those days."
Darcey's guilty expression told Baird all he needed to know. He laughed and took the chair opposite her just as Charles reappeared in the doorway. "You want the cheese sauce and fruit salad?"
Baird grabbed a croissant. "Cheese sauce first. We'll have the salad after we've eaten, with the chocolate mousse."
Drooling, Darcey dove into her omelet and savored every last bite. Still swallowing and speechless, she waved a hand at Baird, who promptly slapped a croissant onto her plate.
He shook a finger in her face. "You pig. You didn't even wait for the sauce."
She emitted a small burp. "Can I have seconds?"
"Thirds, fourths, fifths, whatever you want."
Charles set the bubbling sauce on the table, then he took a deep breath. "It's so beautiful here. You're right downtown, yet this feels just like an eagle's aerie."
She grinned. "This balcony is why I bought the place."
"You own it?"
"I own the top three floors of this building. The rents from the other two help keep me in the style to which I've become accustomed."
"Baird said you were rich. You have something to do with Aruna, don't you?"
Baird growled "Charles!"
Darcey cheerfully ignored his embarrassment. "You might say I have a little something to do with Aruna. As for the other, I've been poor and I've been rich and rich is much, much better. Ain't that right, Baird? But how would you know, you silver spoon brat? You've never had to scratch for a dollar in your entire life."
He spooned another omelet on to her plate and blanketed it with cheese sauce. "That's a crime now? Believe me, I did enough penance in my college days, and it's a damn good thing my mother's folks had my inheritance tied up in trusts. Otherwise I'd probably have given away the lot, or else wasted it running for political office like the Dayton kid."
Darcey vaguely recalled Max roaring with laughter over some department store heir's expensive try for the U.S. Senate. According to a news columnist at the time, he'd been so hopeless his own family had financed his opposition, and some of them were reportedly heard praying he wouldn't win.
Watching her, Baird reflected on the paths their lives had taken. His father had been a well-known movie star and his mother a university drama student. They'd met during Sean McEvoy's annual summer stint at Minneapolis's Tyrone Guthrie Theater. Karen Osheim's staid Norwegian family had virtually disowned her when the couple eloped at the close of one of the legendary theater's most stellar seasons.
"Bad enough she picked a stage actor," huffed Baird's grandfather Olaf, "but he had to be an Irish Catholic to boot."
Following Sean and Karen's deaths in a fiery plane crash over the Atlantic, Olaf Osheim traveled east and braved the wilds of Manhattan to retrieve the infant Baird from the dubious care of the McEvoys' Central American housekeeper. With the help of various female aunts and cousins, the 70-year-old widower then proceeded to raise his only grandson in his own image as a proper God-fearing hymn-singing fundamentalist Norwegian Minnesota Lutheran. Awed by the immense Osheim fortune, none of the Brooklyn based McEvoys had summoned the nerve to suggest that the boy be raised in his father's religion. They'd been much too intimidated to demand visiting privileges and Baird had grown up knowing nothing of his Irish relatives or that particular portion of his heritage.
Exactly when Baird realized he differed from his peers, he couldn't remember. Silent during the endless locker room brags about backseat conquests, he'd gone on several fumbling, sweaty dates with the high school's reigning cheerleader and wondered what all the fuss was about. The cheerleader put his hesitation down to shyness but he knew it was something else. When the legendary Damon Greer arrived at University High to coach its football team into their first championship season, Baird finally discovered what he was.
Twice divorced, and a legendary cocksman, the tall, dark-haired Greer spotted Baird as a comer the first time he stepped on the field. Throughout three matchless seasons, the younger man never disappointed his idol. With his Scandinavian good looks and diffident manner, Baird became a media darling. However, he remained popular with his peers because he could knock back a beer and tell sexual lies with the best of them.
When Damon Greer went to the state university as its athletic director, Baird passed up Purdue and Notre Dame and followed him. By the time he completed his junior year, his gridiron fame was nationwide and the pros came courting. With the Osheim fortune behind him, their offers meant nothing to Baird who was burying his anguish over the aggressively heterosexual Greer in extra schoolwork. When he opted for law school instead of the pros, the press suddenly grew bored with his straight arrow ways and sterling reputation.
By that time, Baird and Darcey were dating regularly and his delighted aunts and cousins began counting the days till the wedding. Had Darcey not discovered him and Marty when she did, he'd probably have married her to please his family and led an increasingly unhappy double life. Her unexpected arrival had proved a blessing for him, if not for her, and he and Marty had been a monogamous couple ever since.
While Charles Ferrault was far more interested in the Osheim fortune than in Baird himself, the kid was dangerously attractive. What was more, he knew it. In the face of Marty's jealousy and his own impulses, Baird had become desperate to get the boy out of his life before something happened that he would bitterly regret and Darcey looked like an answer to his prayers. Shifting Charles' allegiance to her should be no problem and, from what he could see, the process had already begun.
She finally pushed back her chair. "Oof. I've never been so full in my entire life."
Baird took that as his cue. "Come on, Charles. No, Darcey. Go in there, put your feet up, and watch a soap opera or something. A good brisk walk is what you need, and just as soon as we're done in the kitchen, we're leaving for the zoo to see those white tigers."
The streetlights were coming on when they returned.
Stuffed with hot dogs and certain she had at least one smear of mustard on her chin, Darcey shifted her purse to her other shoulder. Then she reached into the limousine for the riotously colored stuffed tiger the two of them had bought for her in the zoo's gift shop. Tired and sunburned, with aching feet and a faint suspicion of heartburn at the back of her throat, she hadn't had this good a time in years.
"You may as well come up and wrap yourselves around something tall and cold. You guys have been feeding me all day and I owe you that much."
Baird nodded to the chauffeur. "Go get yourself some dinner. I'll call you in about an hour."
Touching a finger to his cap, the young man put the limousine in gear, pulled away from the curb, and merged smoothly with the evening traffic.
"There's something to be said for that decadent form of transportation," remarked Darcey as she rummaged in her purse for the electronic card that would admit them to her building, "There's also something to be said for doormen and don't I wish I had one now. Don't tell me I left without the damn thing."
Baird grinned. "Okay, I won't. Is there anyone you can call?"
"Sure. Mrs. Lundberg if she's in. She's one floor down from me."
"One of your tenants, huh?"
"If she isn't there, there's always Mr. Hashimoto. He's across the hall from her. We're always losing these damn cards and we buzz each other in all the time."
"I know. In case you were wondering how Charles and I got in this morning, I happen to have a client in this building." He watched her punch a number into her cell phone. "Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose?"
"Security. After all, isn't that why you have this system in the first place?"
"Oh, I suppose, but there is such a thing as being too fearful of your fellow-man. Mrs. Lundberg? This is Darcey Norris. Sorry to disturb you but I've locked myself out again."
The lock buzzed and Baird was pushing the door open when Charles peered into the bushes next to the steps. "Wait a minute. There's something down there. Hey. It looks like a body."
"Darcey, hold the door. I'm going to take a look."
Shoving the cell phone in her jacket pocket, Darcey wedged her purse in the opening and followed Baird. "It's probably a wino sleeping off a drunk. They like this corner because it's out of the wind and the patrols don't come by nearly as often as they do on the other side."
Baird bent over the body. "This man's not drunk. He's hurt. Darce, call 911."
"You call 911. I went to med school, remember? Now get out of my way and let me see what's going on. Charles. Stick that tiger in the door and bring me my purse!"
After checking the man's breathing and putting an ear to his chest, Darcey grabbed a pencil-thin flashlight and shone it in each of his eyes.
"Sir. I'm trying to help you. Can you tell me what happened?"
The man's matted eyelids flickered, and he looked straight up into her face. "Mon Dieu. Jeanne. Ce n'est pas possible." His voice broke up in a fit of coughing and his head lolled to one side.
Darcey gently touched him on the shoulder. "Sir. Please. Help's on its way. Stay with me, dammit!"
"Ma'am?" One of St. Paul's finest loomed over her, and just beyond him, she could see his partner. Their car radio squawked and the other man moved toward it.
"The ambulance..." she said, "It's on its way."
The cop gently brushed her aside. "In the meantime, let's have a look. Did you folks see or hear anything?"
Baird shook his head. "We were just going into the building when Charles spotted something in the bushes. At first, I thought he was a wino sleeping it off. Till I saw the blood."
The second officer flipped open his notebook. "Your name and address, sir?"
Darcey interrupted. "Listen. He's saying something."
The officer shook his head, puzzled. "I don't understand."
"That's because he's speaking French. Well, a sort of French. Wait a minute. Let me see if I can make it out."
"You speak French, Ma'am?"
"It's a bit rusty." She pointed at Baird. "His is better."
The lawyer's glance told her he'd rather be anywhere than here and she suspected he was cursing her under his breath.
"I speak French too," Charles offered brightly.
Baird's expression grew even more morose. But whatever he started to say was lost in the ambulance's keening arrival. In a matter of minutes, the medical technicians had their patient on a stretcher and in the ambulance. Just as they were about to close the rear door, Darcey ran up to them. "Where are you taking him?"
"St. Dismas. Ma'am, he's in pretty bad shape and we just got another call."
Rummaging in her purse, Darcey fished out a card and scribbled something on the back. "Here. Give this to the admitting doctor. I want to know how this man does."
An increasingly nervous Baird pulled at her arm. "Just let these folks do their job. Social Services will take care of him. That's what they're there for."
One of the officers held out his hand. "May I have one of those?" His eyes slid around to the lawyer. "Sir?"
Baird slid a flat gold case from his inside jacket pocket. He flipped it open and silently extended an ivory pasteboard square with two fingers.
The cop took it with a nod. "And the boy?"
"Charles Ferrault. F-e-r-r-a-u-l-t. He's staying with me."
The second officer wrote in his notebook. "Just so we know where to reach you."
Baird grabbed Darcey's arm and pointed. "I knew it."
A television news truck was just rounding the corner with a small car bearing the insignia of Minneapolis's best-known daily newspaper right behind it. Before either vehicle had even stopped, the doors flew open, spilling out a videocam operator and two reporters.
"Are you done?"
"Yes, sir. At least for now."
"Good. Come on Charles."
Baird scooped Darcey into his arms and sprinted up the steps. He shoved the building door open, almost tripping Charles in the process, and slammed it in the face of the first reporter.
"Dammit, Baird! You put me down this instant! Oh, hell!"
"You left my tiger outside."
"I'll buy you another! I'll buy you a dozen! For pity's sake, it's just a stupid, stuffed toy!"
"You can't! It was the last one they had! Besides, it's the only gift you ever gave me."
"It means that much to you? All right. Is there a side door to this place?"
"Just down that hall and to the right."
"Charles. If you can retrieve that tiger without them catching you, I'll give you a hundred bucks."
The boy's elfin face lit up in a grin. "You're on." He disappeared down the passageway without another word and was back in less than two minutes with the tiger in his hand.
Darcey's eyes widened. "How did you do that?"
Charles shrugged, and looked expectantly at Baird.
The lawyer slid a slender calfskin wallet from his jacket with a sigh. "How do you want it? I've got a couple of big bills and some tens and twenties."
"A big bill, definitely. Er, how big?"
"Not that big. How about a couple of fifties?"
Darcey watched Charles pocket the money. "That's one expensive tiger. Are you sure you don't want it back?"
She never questioned how Charles had gotten back into the building through a self-closing steel security door with no handle on its outside until long after he and Baird had left. At first, she told herself that he must have had some tape in his pocket and used it to hold the lock. Until she remembered that particular lock was tamper-proof. As countless delivery men and residents had learned to their chagrin, any attempt to wedge open that particular door or tape its lock would trigger alarm bells all over the building. Quite apart from all that, how had Charles managed to get all the way around a crowded downtown street corner and back in so short a time? Let alone run up and down the front steps unnoticed. The tiger had been lying in the middle of the top step where Baird had kicked it just before slamming the front door. She'd seen it through the glass as plain as day and Charles certainly hadn't gone out that way. He'd disappeared down the far passageway, then reappeared with the tiger in his hand as if by magic no more than two minutes later.
There had to be a simple explanation and she was sure that once it came to her, it would be as plain as the nose on her face. However, by the same token, she knew she'd never rest easy till she figured out what it was.