This excerpt from KISS THEM GOODBYE introduces us to Vivian Patin and her mother, Charlotte. They have inherited Rosebank, a big old lush Louisiana Estate just outside the little town of Toussaint. Unfortunately Rosebank needs a major faceliftand the women are waiting for the arrival of their lawyer, Louis Martin of New Orleans.
"Vivian Patin, I’m your mother." Charlotte hissed the words at her daughter. "You have absolutely no right to speak to me in that manner."
She paused to peer down the passageway leading from the big, antiquated kitchens to the hall and the receiving room where their next door neighbor, Mrs. Susan Hurst, waited for tea. After taking no notice of Charlotte and Vivian since they moved in months earlier, she had appeared on the doorstep today, just appeared without warning and invited herself for tea. Imagine that. With a plate of cookies in hand, she’d showed up to be "neighborly."
"Mama," Vivian said in a low voice but without whispering. "I’m a little old to be treated like a child. Now tell me what you’ve been up to. No, no, don’t tell me you haven’t been up to anythin’ because I can tell. Guilt is painted all over your face."
Her mother’s pretty, fair-skinned face and innocent, liquid brown eyes couldn’t hide a thing from Vivian. Charlotte Patin feared nothing and would dare anything. Her close-cropped gray hair and petite frame added to the impression that she was a dynamo. In fact, she rarely stood still and she hatched a plan a minute. And Vivian adored her. She also knew that her mother was putting a great face on her grief. She and Vivian’s father had lived a love affair. As brave as Mama was, David Patin had only been dead a year and Charlotte’s odd, empty expressions that came and went without warning, made lumps in Vivian’s throat.
"Mama, please," Vivian said gently. "I know whatever you’ve done is with the best intentions. Butand I’m beggin’ nowput me out of my misery."
Charlotte hushed her and leaned out of the kitchen door once more.
"Just tell me what you’re up to," Vivian said. "I’m worried out of my mind about Louis Martin. Where can that man be? That should be all you care about, too, but you’re up to something else. You got off the phone real quick earlier." Her mother in a stubborn mode was a hard woman to break down.
"I’d better call Louis’s offices in New Orleans and see if he ever left," Charlotte said, knowing she was going to be on thin ice with Vivian. "I don’t hear any hammerin’ or bangin’ in this house, do you? No? That’s because workers have to be paid and we’re about out of money." A mother had to do what a mother had to do and right now this mother had to safeguard her little surprise planned for the evening.
Vivian shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans. She decided they were better there than taking out her ire on some innocent dishparticularly since most of the dishes around here were actually worth something. "Don’t try to distract me with what I already know," she said, raising her voice a little. "Tell me the straight truth."
"She’ll hear you," Charlotte whispered. "She’s only here because she’s a nosy gossip who finally decided to come and poke around. That woman will run straight from our house to chatter about us to her cronies. She behaves like the lady of the manor visiting the poor on her estates. I can only imagine what she’ll say about us."
"If I shout at you, she’ll have a lot to say."
"Oh, all right, I give up. You have no respect. I called that nice Spike Devol and invited him to dinner this evenin’. A handsome man like that all on his own. Such a waste."
Vivian took a calming breath. "He has his daughter and his father," she said while she turned to water just under her skin, all of her skin, at the mention of that man. "Anyway, I’m sure he didn’t accept. Why would he?"
For a smart woman who, until months ago, had managed an exclusive hotel in New Orleans, Vivian, Charlotte thought, could be plain stupid. "Well, he did accept and he’ll be here around seven. He may be a deputy sheriff and we know the pay’s not so good, but I hear he does well with that gas station and convenience store his daddy runs for him, and now he’s got his crawfish boilin’ operation."
She watched for Vivian to react and when she didn’t, said, "He’s obviously not afraid to work and he’s had his hard times with his wife leaving him like that. For a body-builder. There isn’t a thing wrong with Spike’s body as far as I can see. Of course, I haven’t seen" Vivian’s raised eyebrows brought Charlotte a little caution. "Well, anyway, he’s just about the best-looking single man in these parts, and quiet in that mysterious way some strong men are. I’m tellin’ you, Vivian"
"Nothing." Vivian hardly dared to speak at all. "You are telling me nothing and from now on you won’t make one more matchmaking attempt. Y’hear? I can’t imagine where you got all your personal information about him."
"You like him, too. You have since you first met him. That had to be a couple of years back. I’ve seen how the two of you talk"
"Not a thing, Mama. You will not do or say another thing on the subject. Give me that tea." With that, she snatched up the pot. "Bring the cups and saucers and help me get rid of this woman quickly."
"He had a disappointing thing with Jilly at the bakery in ToussaintAll Tarted Up," Charlotte said from behind Vivian. "I guess everyone thought they were goin’ somewhere but it didn’t work out. They’re still good friends and I always think that says a lot about people."
"I know that," Vivian said.
"Father Cyrus and Spike are good friends so Spike must be a good man."
Vivian faced Charlotte, pressed a finger to her own lips and said a fierce, "Shh," before hurrying on, crossing the hall with its towering gold relief plasterwork ceiling and walls hung with faded chartreuse Chinese silk. She entered the shabbily opulent receiving room. With a big grin, she said, "Here we are, Mrs. Hurst. If I say so myself, my mother and I make the best tea I ever tasted." She grinned even more broadly. "But then, I only drink tea when we’re at home together."
Apparently Mrs. Hurst didn’t see any humor in what Vivian said. She looked back at her from a couch covered with threadbare gold tapestry and supported on elephant foot legs. Mrs. Hurst’s glistening pink lips hung slightly open and vague confusion hovered in her blue eyes. The woman could have been as young as forty or approaching sixty. It was hard to tell but everything about her was pretty tight and with not a wrinkle or sag in sight. She did have a nineteen-year-old daughter, Olympia, but that didn’t really give much of a clue to the woman’s age.
Vivian remembered to pour tea into three cups.
"Hot tea?" Mrs. Hurst said with horror in her voice. "Well."
"We drink hot tea in the afternoon," Charlotte told her. "My English grandmother taught us the right way to do things. Hot tea on a warm afternoon. The tea makes your body temperature higher. Brings it closer to the temperature of the air and you feel cooler. Anyway, Grandmama would turn in her grave if I served you iced tea at this time of day."
Without further comment Mrs. Hurst accepted her tea. Vivian caught her mother’s eye and winked. Mama’s grandmothers had been French and mama liked hot teathat was all there was to it.
"We are so happy at Serenity House," Mrs. Hurst said. With her younger, handsome husband she lived at the estate that bordered Rosebank to the north. They’d bought the place some months earlier and the building had swarmed with architects, contractors and workmen ever since. Susan Hurst reached for one of her own cookies but thought better of it. "We’re still renovating, of course, but the house is already beautiful. Do please call me Susan, by the way. Dr. Link would like me to take his name but when we were married I chose to keep Hurst because it’s Olympia’s name. Anyway, I believe a woman should have some independence, don’t you? Without appearing strident, that is."
On the surface Susan’s accent was almost southern, but that was forced and phoney and spread on over of something Vivian didn’t recognize. "A woman should never be strident," she said, and found herself looking at her mother again.
"Never," Charlotte said. She stood behind Susan. Making outrageous faces at Vivian, she took one exaggerated step backward, then another forward to her starting position. "Never strident." Vivian’s mother had an irrepressible sense of fun. "I thought your house was called Green Veil."
Susan managed a haughty toss of the head. "It’s called Serenity House now. Much more refined and appropriate. I’m sorry to see the work on this place slow down so. It’s huge. Such a maize of wings and outbuildings. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to get rid of this asian jungle theme. Monkeys and pineapples everywhere." She shuddered discreetly.
"Guy Patin was still in residence when we bought Serenity or we might have looked at thiseven if it is in a terrible mess. And the grounds are horrible, you poor things. Give me the word and I’ll send my head-gardener over to talk to you. I know he and his crew could give you a few hours a week, or suggest another crew who can. Make sure you don’t get those people who work on Clouds End. Marc and Reb Girard’s place. All that overgrown tropical look wouldn’t appeal to me."
Vivian had seen Clouds End and her ambition was to have Rosebank look just as lush. The Girards were nice people and had welcomed Charlotte and Vivian to the area. Marc was an architect and Reb the town doctor in Toussaint.
"Rosebank was never on the market," Charlotte said. "You probably noticed right away that we’re also Patins. Guy was my husband’s brother and the house was left to us."
"Of course I knew that," Susan said. "Silly me to forget. We’ve been so busy for such a long time these things slip my mind sometimes."
"We like what you call the jungle theme, y’know," Vivian said. She might as well show the woman they weren’t easily intimidated, especially by money. "We’re going to keep it. It’ll be made wonderful again, of course."
"Poor thing." Susan patted Vivian’s hand as if she didn’t take a word seriously. "I can see you’re overwhelmed. Let me help you. Did I tell you our pool house is just about finished. It’s all marble. Very Roman and wickedly decadent, but almost edible." She hunched her shoulders. "Morgan and I want you to use it whenever you have a mind. We know the pool here isn’t usable."
"Thank you," Vivian said, making a note never to have a mind for a swim in Susan’s decadent pool. "We do have a gardener and we’re very pleased with him." Gil Mayes might be seventy-two and a bit crippled by gout but he showed enthusiasm for the work. Unfortunately he moved slowly and the gardens were big, but more men couldn’t be afforded yet, not until some serious money came in.
Susan said, "Hm," and flipped back her artfully shaggy red-streaked brown hair. Good looking, sexy even, her mannerisms were naturally provocative. "I hope you won’t think me too curious, but after all we are neighbors. There are rumors about your having some intentions about this placenot that I believe a word."
"Of course you don’t," Charlotte said. "And a very good thing, too."
If Susan didn’t know their intentions perfectly well Vivian would be amazed. And Mama might enjoy her banter but afternoon crept toward evening and she glanced repeatedly toward the front windows. Vivian knew her own uneasiness was for the same reason as her mother was edgy. Where was Louis?
"It may be crude to say so, but I come from money," Susan announced. "Might as well have honesty among friends. I’m accustomed to a quieter, more gracious mode of life. It’s true that I’ve had my share of the social whirl in Paris, LondonMilan, and New York of course, but I need the life only a true Louisianan lady knows how to live. Quiet. Refined. I’m sure you know what I mean. Soon Serenity will be perfect and I expect a good many visitorsfriendswho expect a certain atmosphere at a house party."
Vivian said, "I thought you wanted peace and quiet, not a load of uppity visitors."
Vivian spied Boa, short for Queen Boadicea, her hairless chihuahua. The tiny dog had roused herself from some hiding place and stood in the middle of the green silk rug with one minuscule paw raised. Her black eyes popped and shone while she watched Susan. Like her namesake, Boa just didn’t accept her limitations.
"I didn’t know you had an animal," Susan remarked. "I prefer big dogs myself, not that I have any." Her nose wrinkled. "They just aren’t clean."
"That always depends on the dogs you hang around with." Vivian made sure she sounded sweet. "Come to me, sweetypie. Come to mama."
Her daughter, Charlotte thought, could be charmingly snippy. "I’m sure you’re very happy at Green Veil, Susan."
"Serenity House." The woman corrected Charlotte firmly. "Just to put my mind at rest, tell me you don’t intend to turn Rosebank into a hotel with some sort of, well, trendy restaurant."
With Boa under her arm, Vivian had strolled to the windows and peered out into the rapidly darkening grounds. She heard Susan’s question and winced a little, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything but Louis’s failure to show up. Anger had begun to replace concern. He obviously wasn’t coming now and the way he’d treated them was just plain rude. Louis had always been polite, kind even, but she guessed they might not be important to him if a more valued client needed attention.
She realized there was silence in the room and turned around. Mama ate a cookie, toothful by toothful, with the kind of close attention that spelled avoidance. Vivian recalled the question Susan had asked. "This will become a hotel, a good hotel, and we will be opening a restaurant in the conservatory. We intend to pull in clients who aren’t necessarily staying with us. My mother and I have a lot of experience in the business. I managed Hotel Floris in New Orleans. My parents owned Chez Charlotte. They ran it together and it was a huge success. I thought everyone in the area knew our plans."
"A hotel?" Susan set down her cup and saucer and pressed her fingers to her cheeks. "I thought it must be a joke. Say you aren’t serious. Why, at your time of life, Charlotte, you should be taking things easy and enjoying yourself."
"I will enjoy myselfdoing what I like best. Vivian, it’s 5:30."
The heavy significance in Mama’s voice meant she was reminding Vivian that they would have a guest for dinner and that Susan Hurst needed to leave.
Susan wasn’t hearing anything that didn’t relate to the reason she was hereto try to influence Charlotte and Vivian onto her side. They would, if she had her way, come to realize that Susan was a superior person who should not be thwarted in any way.
"We have traditions to uphold, we Louisianan ladies. The reason I moved herewhat I want from lifeis to model a way of living that’s in danger of disappearing. I know both of you understand what I mean. Louisianan ladies, and houses like this, are about grace and holding out against progress." Susan turned up her nose and turned down her mouth. "It’s up to us to keep certain standards alive. With something like a hotel, you could get any sort of person wandering about and most of them just wouldn’t fit in."
Charlotte sat beside Susan and rested her hand on the back of the woman’s right forearm. "Now you calm yourself and trust our good judgement. We intend to make sure our business doesn’t endanger anyone who lives around here." The devil had gone to work on her. "Why, we’ve already started looking for a reliable firm of uniformed guards to patrol the groundsespecially when we hold outdoor concerts that will draw lots of young folk."
"Concerts on the grounds?" Susan said weakly.
"Oh, yes," Vivian said, her expression angelic. "We’ve already reserved dates with some of the best known zydeco bands aroundand some swamp pop, of course. And we’re in negotiation with one or two popular groups, hip-hop will really bring in the crowds."
Susan was no fool. She narrowed her eyes and cast suspicious glances at each of them. "I think you have very strange senses of humor."
Vivian didn’t argue. She did look at her watch, then at her mother. They were running short of time if they were going to prepare dinner. Boa nuzzled her neck but repeatedly arched her little back to cast a suspicious glare at Susan.
The phone rang and Vivian went into the hall to answer.
"Vivian," the voice at the other end said. "It’s Madge at the rectory. Father Cyrus asked me to give you a call." Madge was Cyrus’s assistant.
"Is something wrong?"
"No! Why would there be? He said you were having a meeting with a New Orleans’ lawyer earlier this afternoon and you said you’d call and let him know if the news was good. He wanted me to check in with you."
Vivian yanked on the bottom of her too-short T-shirt. "Now I feel guilty. I should have gotten back with him. We waited all afternoon but Louis didn’t show. Guess we’ll call his office in the morning. Maybe there was a muddle up over the date. Tell Cyrus we’ll talk to him tomorrow, would you?"
Madge agreed and hung up.
And the doorbell gave a rusty buzz.
Charlotte got to her feet at once. "Louis. He must have gotten lost, poor man." She looked at her watch. "Oh, my, it’s almost six-thirty."
"I’m going to the door," Vivian said, frowning. "This is turning into a messy evening."
Charlotte waited for Vivian to add that it was her mother’s fault but she didn’t, although the look in her green, almond-shaped eyes said it all.
"I suppose I should leave," Susan said, her attention on the hall and curiosity oozing from her pores. "I’ll slip along now. Don’t forget how convenient that path between the two estates is. Come over anytime, anytime at all. You’ll fall in love with Morganand Olympia’s a charmer" she didn’t as much as blink when Charlotte put a hand beneath her elbow and eased her to her feet. "Olympia is a beauty. She’s considering the Miss Southern Belle Pageant. I’ve tried to dissuade her but you can’t stand in children’s way, can you?" Her long sigh wasn’t convincing.
Vivian opened the front door.
Rather than Louis Martin, Deputy Sheriff Spike Devol stood there.
He stood there, a broad brimmed black Stetson covering his hair, his eyes very blue in a tanned face, and with a bunch of flowers in each hand. Rather than say, "Hi," or "Good evening," or even, "Here’s looking at you," he studied the flowers as if he’d never seen them before and raised and lowered them as if figuring out how to get rid of them.
Behind Spike, bands of purple streaked the setting sun, shading his face but backlighting him with gold. The deputy was in his thirties, with the mature, muscular body of a man who knew all about being physical. His shoulders and arms, and his chest filled a crisp, dark gray shirt to capacity, but his hips were slim. His legs weren’t so slim. Once again long, well-developed muscles strained at his clothes; in the best possible way. Vivian felt a definitely sexual thrill.
"Hi, there, Spike," she said, making sure she sounded pleasant but detached. "Mama said you were coming for dinner." She felt Susan Hurst arrive at her side and knew she’d heard what Vivian had said.
"I’m Susan Hurst. I live next door at Serenity House," Susan said with a new, husky sound in her voice. "I’m just going to pop along the path and go home. So convenient."
"That’s nice." Spike had a deep voice, deep and soft and impossible to read. There was something a little different about him than Vivian had noticed on the previous occasions she’d run into him, but she wasn’t sure whatother than his being out of uniform.
Finally he grasped both bunches of flowers in one hand and took off the Stetson. "Evenin’ Vivian," he said, managing to get his thumbs anchored in the pockets of his jeans.
Susan Hurst still hovered.
"Take care," Vivian told her. "Best make it home while there’s still enough light. It looks like it could rain, too."
Susan didn’t look happy, but she gave a stiff smile and trotted off, her very nice behind swaying in tailored white slacks.
"C’mon in," Charlotte said from behind Vivian. "You’re never going to believe this but Susan Hurst’s visit was a surprise. We haven’t gotten far with dinner done yet, but it won’t take too long."
"I’m early," Spike said in that still voice of his. "I’m useful in the kitchen. I’ll give a hand."
Vivian stood aside for him to enter and her heartor the vicinity of her heartsqueezed. As he passed her he looked sideways and down into her face. The faintest of smiles pushed dimples into the creases beside his mouth. His sun-streaked hair, she noticed, had a way of standing up on end in front.
Down girl, down.
"We wouldn’t hear of it," she said when she found her voice. "What do you like to drink? Make yourself comfortable and we’ll show you how quickly we can get things done."
"Thank you, ma’am," he said, inclining his head and broadening his smile enough to deepen those dimples and show very good teeth. He actually made Vivian feel small and feminine and she’d never thought of herself as either.
The phone rang again and Charlotte hurried away, apparently to answer it in the kitchens although she could have done so in the hall. Mama was still in matchmaker mode, but then, she’d been trying to marry Vivian off for years.
"If it won’t upset you," Spike said. "I’d like to help. I’m not good at sitting still and doing nothing."
"Neither am I," she told him, emphatic. "I guess it’s because my parents were always busy."
He only nodded and suddenly thrust both bunches of flowers into her arms. Boa had disappeared at the sound of the doorbellguarding wasn’t one of her dutiesbut she chose this moment to skitter into the hall and make a dash for Vivian, screeching to a halt with all four feet braced in the forward position.
"Nice dog," Spike said, with a look that suggested he wasn’t sure Boa was a dog at all.
"Thank you," Vivian said, and smiled at him. "Nice flowers. I don’t remember the last time someone gave me any."
His smile dropped away. "You should be given flowers every day." Immediately he colored under the tan and the result was disarming. "I thought you could share them with your mother. How is she doin’?"
For an instant she didn’t understand. Then any last reserve against this man melted. He wasn’t just a tall, good-looking piece of manhood, he was thoughtful. And that was a killer combination. Almost no one here mentioned their loss. "Mama’s strong, but she and my dad just about grew up together. It’s hard and it’s going to be hard for a long time. Especially because of the way he died."
Spike slid the brim of his Stetson through his fingers. "There’s nothing anyone can say to whitewash that. I’m real sorry. Not that it helps."
David Patin had burned to death in the fire that destroyed Chez Charlotte. "Kindness always helps," Vivian said feeling the too familiar desire to be alone again.
"Vivian!" Charlotte came from the kitchens and her face was too pale. "I don’t know what to make of it. That was Cyrus. He says when he was walking toward the road, to his car, he saw Louis Martindriving a brand new powder-blue Jag."
Vivian’s mind became blank.
"Y’hear me?" Charlotte said, her voice rising. "That wretch Louis drove all the way hereCyrus spoke with himand then he must have decided he couldn’t be bothered and left again."