Read an Excerpt
Hurry back to Lionsheart before it's too late! Your mother never left the bayou.
Tendrils of anxiety squeezed Laura Larame as she recalled the whispered phone call that caused her to return to the Louisiana backwoods. She hadn't seen or heard from her mother in twenty years. It had been so long, she could hardly remember what she'd looked like, and yet, every now and then, her mother's voice would echo in the back of Laura's mind, haunting her.
Reminding her of all she'd lost.
Laura sat in the backseat of the cab, barely noticing as cityscape gave way to countryside, which gave way to bleak isolation. For days she'd tried to ignore the cryptic call, tried to focus on her work at the firm, but she couldn't stop wondering, was it true? Was it possible that her mother was alive and well, and living down here in this…swamp?
Laura's boss gave her the leave of absence she'd requested, and her roommate gave her the push she'd needed. Find out what happened to your mother. Go after what you want, girl. Take control of your life. Take charge .
Babs had been right. Laura had let life kick her around long enough. It was time she took a chance. Even if it was only on a half-baked hope that her mother was alive and living right here. She needed to explain how she could have abandoned Laura.
"Are you sure you want to go all the way to Lionsheart?" the cab driver asked. Dark, wary eyes set deep under salt-and-pepper eyebrows watched her through the rearview mirror.
"Yes," Laura answered, her voice unwavering. Her gaze dropped to a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary hanging from the rearview mirror, swinging back and forth. Back and forth.
"How 'bout I drop you at Larame Manor? People… people who wander too deep into the Atchafalaya Swamp…sometimes they don't come back."
A chill swept through Laura. The cab driver couldn't have known how dead-on he was. But she'd made it out…once.
The cab slowed in front of the large white home with massive Doric columns and a pristine lawn, Larame Manor. The home of her stepgrandparents and the main house on a two-hundred-acre estate that encompassed the bayou and Lionsheart—the last place she'd lived with her mother.
The Larames were the closest relatives she had, even if they weren't blood. Their only son, Paul, had adopted her after he had married her mother, and from what Laura could gather, they were the ones who paid for her years at the boarding school. And yet she'd never heard from them. Not once.
An old familiar ache replayed like a worn-out sad song—the longing for family. For her mother. Resentment caused her to seethe inwardly. She would not partake in a pityfest today. And she wouldn't push herself onto unsuspecting relatives who never wanted any claim on her in the first place. All she wanted was answers, and she wanted those from her mother.
"Please continue to Lionsheart," she said.
He stiffened and they drove across a narrow bridge above the black, murky swamp.
"Devil's Walk, they call this bridge," the cab driver said, his voice barely above a whisper.
Laura stared into the water and felt anxiety rising within her, tightening her chest. She searched the shadows creeping across the water's surface looking for… She didn't know what. It was there, hidden in the dark depths of her mind, but she couldn't quite grasp it. A briny taste coated her tongue. She tried to swallow, but her throat closed. Her stomach twisted.
"Terrible accident happened right here," the driver said. "Things 'round here haven't been the same since."
They reached the edge of the bridge and Laura gasped, a long-lost memory forming, but then fading out, and leaving a raspy burning in her throat. She stared back at the black water. She'd gone into the swamp before. She knew what that murky water felt like against her skin, what it tasted like in her mouth.
A shudder coursed through her.
Before she could ask about the accident, she pitched forward as the cab came to a sudden halt on the other side of the bridge. The driver jumped out of the car, popped open the trunk and tossed her bag to the side of the dirt road.
Stunned, Laura quickly got out of the car. "What are you doing?"
The driver slammed the trunk shut. "This is as far as I go."
"Why? We're not there yet." She looked at the isolated swamp around her. "You can't leave me here." Surely he wouldn't! "I don't even know where Lionsheart is."
"I'm sorry. I won't go any farther. It's…dangerous." He demanded payment and glanced furtively around him.
"Just continue straight down this road," he said. "You can't miss it."
Disbelief caught in Laura's throat. "What do you mean dangerous?"
"This part of the swamp is haunted…it's evil." He crossed himself over and over and muttered what sounded like a litany of Hail Marys. "Voodoo. Demons."
With a shaky hand, Laura fumbled in her wallet and handed him the fare.
"Are you sure you won't come back with me?" His dark eyes pleaded with her.
Demons? She looked around and a fresh wave of anxiety crashed over her. But she couldn't stop now. Not when she was so close.
"Yes. I'm sure."
Incredulity filled his face. Shaking his head, he climbed back behind the wheel and threw the car into a wild U-turn, spewing gravel and dirt all over her nice leather shoes. She jumped back.
"Superstitious idiot," she muttered.
She picked up the handle of her fallen suitcase and started pulling it down the road. The wheels, meant for smooth airport floors, bumped along, jerking her arm. This was crazy, she thought, and grimaced as black clouds thickened above her.
With each step, the swamp grew darker. Large insects droned around her head. A fine mist gathered and swirled above the water. Sounds echoed and carried through the air. Some she could identify— frogs, giant bees, birds—others she couldn't. A thin sheen of nervousness shrouded her.
For the hundredth time since she'd received the call, she racked her brain, trying to remember everything she could about Lionsheart, but only came up with jumbled images, and a knot of fear in the pit of her stomach. What if the house was dilapidated? What if no one was there? Questions cycled through her mind; doubts tore at her.
People say you can never go home. As she stared at the moss-drenched cypress trees reflecting off the black waters of the swamp and the thick tangle of green, Laura felt as if she had come home. And with that feeling came the overwhelming urge to turn and run.
She couldn't. Not yet.
The road curved. She rounded the bend. The house came into view. She stopped and dropped her bag. In boarding school, she'd wake up in the middle of the night, breathless and terrified, dreaming of this house. She had never been sure if it was real.…
With her heart lodged in her throat, she peered up at the house. The white structure soared three stories tall. Balconies adorned with swirling patterns of ironwork stretched across the front of each floor. Thick, green thorny vines were wrapped around tall columns, reaching skyward to smother the house and pull at the walls.
Laura stifled a shiver and again fought the instinct to flee. Nothing about this house was welcoming. Nothing moved. Both the grounds with their dark moldy fountains and the house seemed as quiet and still as a graveyard.
Then she scolded herself. She could do this. She had to do this. She hadn't been able to remember what had happened to her or her mother when they lived in this house, no matter how many different treatments the doctor had tried.
Now maybe she'd discover the truth.
Towing her suitcase, she filled her tight chest with a deep breath and cautiously climbed creaky steps onto the wide porch. With a trembling hand, she reached for the brass lion's head knocker on the front door, lifted it and let it drop. A loud thud reverberated around her, through her.
She scanned the large wooden door and expansive front porch. She'd spent her first eight years in this house. The answers she'd spent her whole life searching for were here. Someone must know what had happened and how she ended up alone in San Francisco.
Footsteps sounded within.
Laura stiffened and braced herself. The door swung open.
A tall man filled the doorway. Magazine-perfect with dark brown hair and smooth chiseled lines underlying his face and strong jaw. His tailored jacket hung snugly across wide shoulders. Dress slacks hugged his form, betraying long, muscular legs. A cream linen shirt lay across smooth bronzed skin.
He was so unexpected, so out of place in the dank bayou, that for a long moment, Laura couldn't speak.
"Yes?" he said, his voice low and deep.
His intense moss-green eyes, the same deep green hue of the swamp, locked onto hers. Questioning.
Say something. She blinked, moving her focus to his wide, generous mouth. She took a deep breath. "I—I'm looking for Delilah Larame."
The man stepped onto the porch, pulling the door shut behind him. He moved closer to her, stealing the air around her, or at least her ability to breathe it.
She took a quick step back, tripped on her suitcase and grasped for the rail. He grabbed her arm, steadying her with his strong grip. She felt his touch clear through to her insides.
"Who are you?" he asked, the deep tone of his voice making her heart beat double time.
What was with her? She was acting as if she'd never seen a man before. He reached forward, his fingertips almost grazing her cheek as he released a strand of her hair caught in a vine. For a heart stopping moment, he held it then let it slide slowly through his fingers.
"Laura Larame," she answered, the words catching in her throat.
An unsettling hint of recognition filled his eyes as his gaze moved in a slow perusal of her face, her body…before finally settling on her dusty bag.
"My cab driver abandoned me back by the bridge." Story of her life, she thought as her tongue tripped, impairing her speech.
His perfectly sculpted dark eyebrows lifted in momentary surprise, before he nodded with understanding. "The locals can be a little superstitious."
"I gathered that," she said dryly.
For a moment neither of them spoke.
"I'm Drew Michel," he said then stepped back and opened the door. "Please, come in."
Drew. She knew that name; she just couldn't quite place it. She followed him, stepping through the front door and onto large black-and-white checkered tiles.
"I'm looking for my mother. Is she here?" Laura asked again.
His eyebrows arched with surprise. "Were you expecting her to be?"
"Yes," she said, feeling a touch confused.
Behind her, the front door closed with a resounding thud. She jumped, then turned and stared at a long staircase that stretched up into the shadows. Unfocused memories teased the back of her mind. Apprehension circled the base of her spine.
"I've received word that she's here," she muttered.
"Come into the living room," he said, his voice low and quiet, his words hanging between them in the gloom. "So we can talk."
Something lingering in the depths of his eyes sent warning bells ringing in her mind. She should leave. "I'm sorry. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea." She stepped back toward the door. "If my mother's not here—"
Was that a plea in his voice? She searched his face for the truth but couldn't find it.
He stepped close, too close. "It's been such a long time, Laura."
She swallowed. Something about the way he said her name, about the way his mouth moved over the letters, rolling them off his tongue and tasting them, knocked her off balance.
He reached out and traced his fingers along her jaw. She felt frozen, as if he'd trapped her under some voodoo spell known only to Louisiana natives—the rabbit caught in the eyes of the snake.
"There's something you should see."