By the time he reached the Davison house, his nerves were humming. He had to park halfway down the block and walk back, steeling himself for seeing relatives he hardly knew anymore. But there were trade-offs, and they leaped into his arms the minute Geneva let him in the door, getting his attention while he spared no more than a glance for the somber group in the drawing room.
“Uncle Landry!” seven-year-old Mariela squealed.
Immediately nine-year-old Faith shushed her. “We’re s’posed to be quiet!”
Mariela scowled at her. “You’re not the boss.”
“I am, too. The bigger kid is always the boss of the little one. Isn’t that right, Uncle Landry?”
He settled a girl on each hip, their dresses—dark green for Mariela, dark red for Faith—vivid against his gray suit. “Sorry, sweetie. That’s not always the case.” Ducking his head, he whispered conspiratorially, “I’m bigger than your mom, and I can’t boss her around at all.”
Mariela stuck her tongue out at Faith, who retaliated with a pinch. Though they looked like pint-size versions of their mother with brown hair, dark eyes and porcelain skin, they’d been known to indulge in more than a few brawls, like their uncle. The thought made him smile.
“Can I wear your scarf?” Mariela pulled his tie free of his collar and wrapped it around her neck. “Do I look pretty?”
“Gorgeous. But I’m afraid I’ve got to wear it. In fact, I need to find your mom so she can help me put it on.”
With a roll of her eyes, Mariela wrapped it twice around his neck, tucked the loose ends into his collar, then cupped her little hands to his face. “Now you look gorgeous.”
Faith gave a long-suffering sigh. “Mama’s in the kitchen.”
He let them slide to the floor and strode down the hall to the last doorway before the sunroom. The caterers were at work, covering every surface in the large kitchen with trays, bowls and pans of food. They hurried about, avoiding collisions practically every time they turned around, intent on their work, paying no attention to Mary Ellen, seated at the small table out of the way, a glass of iced water in front of her.
“Hey.” Landry nudged her as he pulled out a chair to join her. “You okay?”
Though she gave him a smile, her face was as pale as the starched napkins stacked two feet high on the counter behind her. The sadness in her eyes wrenched at him, reminding him why he’d had no choice in coming today. “I’m okay. Lord, can you believe we have to do this again tomorrow for Miss Viola?”
He nodded grimly. He’d got a call from Brett Fulsom yesterday.
Her voice dropped to a quavery whisper. “I wonder where Mama is. I wonder if she knows....”
Landry wondered if she knew, was she celebrating? Deeply relieved? Or was it possible she might/could/did miss the man they were well rid of?
“Why would she disappear like that? She loved Daddy. He loved her. With his retirement coming up, they were going to have time for each other, to travel and just enjoy each other.” Mary Ellen’s breath caught in a hiccup. “Scott thinks she left him, but he’s wrong. Mama would never do that...would she?”
This would be the perfect moment for some nearly forgotten family member to come into the room or for one of the catering people to drop a load of glassware. He looked around for a distraction, but no one wanted attention, not even his nieces, who had mastered the art of interruption before the end of the days they were born.
Then Mary Ellen’s cell phone chirped, and he stood with a great rush of relief. He caught her attention, waved, and she wiggled her index finger, something she’d started when a pacifier had still been one of the most important things in her world.
Back in the hallway, he listened to the voices from the front of the house, an even mix of men and women, from places all around the country but each of them sounding as if they’d been born and raised on the bayou. You could take the family out of the South, but it just reclaimed them the instant they set foot back on Louisiana soil. He didn’t dislike most of them. They were like any other family—some friendly, some not, some barely tolerable.
He just didn’t want to interact with them.
A left turn took him through the sunroom, then he headed outside. He didn’t stay in the back—too many windows offering full views—but circled the house and found a quiet place on the front veranda, on the opposite side from the room the Jacksons and Landrys occupied. The seldom-used steps creaked under his weight, but none of the suits gathered around the door seemed to notice him.
Sliding out of his jacket, he hung it on the back of the nearest wrought iron chair. Before he’d managed to return to the railing to gaze off down the street, a dry voice spoke.