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One, two, three, four
Counting in her head, Reece Howard moved thirty-eight steps along the ancient brick wall, then counted out another six before reaching the gate recessed into the wall. She counted a lot, but only steps. She'd done it for as long as she could rememberwhich was only fifteen years with any clarity, a little more than half her lifebut who knew why? Maybe she was obsessive-compulsive with that lone manifestation. Maybe she was just freaking nuts. Maybe, her boss suggestedteasingly?she simply liked numbers.
If that was the case, then she must really like the number thirty-eight. That was as high as she went. No more, no less.
It was a warm October afternoon, and Evie Murphy was keeping her regular appointments in the courtyard of her French Quarter home. Evie was many things to Reece: friend, confidante, counselor, advisor. Officially her title was psychic, and she was very good at what she did, but even her talents had limits.
Evie was waiting at a wrought-iron table and chairs near the fountain. Playing in the grass a few feet away were Jackson, her four-year-old son, and Isabella, her two-year-old daughter. Eight-month-old Evangeline was asleep on a quilt in the nearby shade.
"Aunt Reece!" Jackson flashed her a wicked smile, the very image of his father, and Isabella wandered over, looking around with anticipation. "Puppies?"
"I had to leave the puppies at home today, sweetie. Next time I'll bring them, okay?" Reece slid into the chair across from Evie, who was looking calm and serene and beautiful. Not in the least like the dark, mysterious "Evangelina" who told fortunes for tourists in the shop that fronted the house.
"How are you?"
A lot of people asked the question, Reece reflected, but few put the sincerity and interest in it that Evie did. She was the only one Reece answered honestly. "Terrible. I had the dream again last night. I woke up soaked in sweat with all three dogs staring at me as if I were possessed. And I didn't remember a thing except that it had to do with my time at that place."
She'd used the same words in a recent conversation with her mother, who'd scoffed. Your time in that place? You spent four months with your grandparents in a beautiful Southern mansion, and you make it sound as if you were incarcerated. Really, Clarice.
"Your dreams got worse when your grandfather died. Maybe he's sending you a message."
"Like what? I'm next?" Reece retorted. The response startled her, both in its content and vehemence.
Evie's gaze steadied on her face. "Why would you think that?"
Good question. Why would she think that Arthur Howard wanted her dead? Besides those months she'd spent in his house, she hardly knew the man. When she tried to picture him, she couldn't bring his face to mind but only images: large, hulking, menacing. And numbers: one, two, three, four.
"Damned if I know," she replied to Evie's question. "I look at pictures of him, and it's as if I've never seen him before. He's just this blank in my memory." A large, menacing blank.
"You have a lot of blanks in your memory." Evie touched her, her hand warm and grounding. "How many people know what happened that summer, Reece? Three? Maybe four? Your grandfather's death made it one less. If you ever want answers "
Go to Fair Winds. Ask your questions.
They'd had the conversation before, but the idea of returning to Copper Lake, Georgia, to the Howard ancestral home on the Gullah River, tied her stomach into knots. Maybe she didn't really want to know. Her mother was convinced that the best thing she could do was forget the past and move on in the present.
Of course, her motherValeriewasn't the one missing three months of her life, or facing the nightmares, or so full of resentment and distrust that every potential relationship became a burden too cumbersome to manage. Reece was twenty-eight years old, and her only real friends were Evie and Martine Broussard, her boss, and they made it easy for her. They didn't ask for too much; they understood her as much as anyone could.
Much as she loved them, she wanted more. She didn't have grand dreams, but she wanted to fall in love, get married and have children. She would like to make a difference in someone's life, the way her father had made a difference in hers. She would like to be a part of something special, something she'd had in the years before Dad's death had taken it from her: a family.
She wanted, she would like she needed. Answers.
"Ah, Evie, I swore I'd never go back there again."
"You were thirteen."
"I didn't even go back for Grandfather's funeral."
Evie echoed the words Reece had only thought earlier. "You hardly knew the man."
Reece offered her last feeble excuse. "I have to work."
"As if Martine wouldn't let you off at a moment's notice."
Tension knotted in her gut. All these years, her refusal to return to Fair Winds had been a source of anger, frustration and more than a few arguments, but it had been a constant. Valerie had wanted to spend Christmases there; Reece had refused to go. Grandmother had invited them to Mark's wedding; Reece said no. Grandfather had unbent enough to ask her personally to attend Grandmother's seventy-fifth birthday celebration. Reece had stood her ground.
Valerie thought she was childish and melodramaticironic insults coming from the woman who embodied both. Grandmother thought she was stubborn and selfish. And Grandfather had told her that her father would be ashamed of her.
Not as much as he would be of you, she'd retorted before slamming down the phone. She believed that wholeheartedly. She just didn't know why.
She was tired of not knowing.
Across the table, Evie was waiting patiently. If something bad would come of a trip to Georgia, surely she would sense it. She warned people of danger; she helped them make the right decisions. If she thought Reece should go.
Reece huffed out a sigh. "Okay." Then "I don't suppose you'd want to go with me."
"And leave Jack alone with the kids? His idea of day care would be sticking them in a holding cell while he interviewed suspects." She squeezed Reece's fingers. "You can call me anytime day or night, and if you need me, I'll come."
A knot formed in Reece's throat, and she had to work to sound casual. "At least you didn't say, 'And take my kids to a haunted house.'"
Her brows drew together. Yes, she had a psychic advisor; yes, she worked in a shop that sold charms, potions and candles to true believers. But ghosts, haunting her father's childhood home? The mere thought should make her laugh, but it didn't. It felt like truth.
"A place that old, that was worked by slaves, is likely to have a few spirits, but generally they won't harm you."
Maybe. Maybe not. It was impossible for Reece to know what she feared about Fair Winds and her grandparents without knowing what had gone on during those months she lived there.
Grimly accepting, she got to her feet. "All right. I'll go. But if something happens to me while I'm there, Evie, I swear, I'll haunt you for eternity."
Evie stood, too, and hugged her. "I'd enjoy it, sweetie. Now, I'm seriousif you need anything, you call me."
"I will." Though, as she hugged Jackson and Isabella goodbye, she acknowledged she lied. Fair Winds was an evil, forbidding place, and she wouldn't expose these kids' mom to that for anything, not even to save herself.
It was a quick walk from Evie's to the building that housed Martine's shop on the first floor and both her and Martine's apartments on the second. When she walked in, the faint scent of incense drifted on the air, sending a slow creep of calm down her spine. The tourists browsing the T-shirts and souvenirs glanced her way, and she automatically flashed them her best customer-service smile as she passed through to the back room.
"I suppose you're going to ask me to take care of those mutts of yours while you're gone." Martine's back was to Reece as she collected specimens from the bottles and tins that lined the shelves behind the counter. Some customers thought she had a sixth sense, maybe seventh and eighth ones, too, but Reece knew there were mirrors discreetly placed along the tops of the shelves.
"My puppers are not mutts."
Martine sniffed. "What's their breed? Oh, yeah, Canardly. You can 'ardly tell what they are."
"And they love their Auntie Martine so much."
Another sniff before she turned, laying ingredients on the counter. "When are you leaving?"
"What are you, psychic?"
"iPhone and I know all." Martine's wicked grin was accompanied by a nod toward the cell on the counter. "I'll have everything you need in an hour."
Everything included charms, amulets, potions and notions. Reece couldn't say from personal experience that they would ward off evil or work to keep her safe, but they sure as hell couldn't hurt. "Then I'll leave in an hour and five minutes."
"You don't waste any time, do you?" Martine asked drily.
The answer was a surprise to Reece, as well, but she knew if she put off her departure for even one day, the dread and anxiety that were tangled in her gut would just keep growing. The drive would give her plenty of time to think of all the reasons this was a bad idea; no use giving herself additional time to wuss out.
"I wish you could go in my place. Grandmother hasn't seen me in fifteen years. She might not notice the difference."
How did Martine make a snort sound so elegant? "Oh, sure, we look so much alike. Maybe the woman's gotten deaf, blind and stupid in addition to old."
Reece grimaced. Though they were about the same height and body type, she was light to Martine's dark: fair-skinned and blond-haired. Having lived all her life in Louisiana, Martine had a pure and honeyed accent, while Reece's frequent moves had left her with a fairly nondescript voice.
"Okay." A sickly sigh. "I'm going to pack and tell the puppers that Auntie Martine will be taking care of them. They'll be so excited."
As she slipped through the rear door and trudged up the stairs, she wished she could dredge up a little excitement.
But all she felt was dread.
Thin streaks of moonlight filtered through the clouds to silver the landscape below, glinting off the stick-straight spears of wrought iron that marched off into the distance on both sides of the broad gate. Spelled in elaborate curls and swoops was the plantation name: Fair Winds.
Though this night there was nothing resembling fair about the place. Trees grew thick beyond the fence. Fog hovered low to the ground. No birds sang. No wildlife slipped through the dark. Silence reigned inside the wrought iron.
Jones had been in town for two days and had found plenty of people willing to talk. They said the place was haunted. Strange things happened inside those gates. On a quiet night, wailing and moaning could be heard a mile away.
This was a quiet night, but the only sound drifting on the air came from the dog beside him. Jones laid his hand on Mick's head, scratching behind his upright ears, but it didn't ease the quivering alertness that had settled on the animal the instant he'd jumped from the truck and scented the air.
Mick would rather be in town at the motel or, better yet, back home in Louisville. He liked traveling; he went with Jones on most of his jobs. But he didn't like spirits, and here, there be ghosties.
It was his father's voice Jones heard in his head, a voice he hadn't truly heard in fifteen years. His father was loving and generous and good-natured, but he wasn't forgiving. He nursed a grudge better than the meanest of spirits. His two middle sons were dead to him and always would be.
It appeared that Glen really was dead.
Absently Jones rubbed his chest as if that might make the pain go away. He'd been cold inside since he'd heard the news that everything Glen had owned in the world had been found buried under a pile of ancient brush outside Copper Lake. Clothes, books, driver's license, money, photographs, hidden no more than thirty yards from where Jones had last seen him. Maybe Glen would have gone off without his books or his license, even without the clothes or the money, but not without the photos of Siobhan. He'd been crazy mad in love with the girl, had intended to marry her. He never would have left her pictures behind.
And it was partly Jones's fault. All these years, he'd thought Glen was doing the same as him, making a life for himself that had nothing to do with family tradition. All these years, he'd been wrong.
Jones had rushed through his last job when he'd heard the news, then driven straight through from Massachusetts to Georgia. He'd had hours to come up with a plan, but after two days in town, he still didn't have one. All he'd been able to do was think. Remember. Regret.
Had his life been worth everything he'd given up? Doing what he wanted, being what he wanted? If he hadn't gone along with Glen, would his brother still be alive?
Their granny had been big on fate. Things happened as they were meant to, she'd insisted, and he'd been eager to share her belief. After all, that absolved him of responsibility. So he'd broken his mother's heart; it hadn't been selfishness but fate. He'd turned his back on the life his family had embraced for generations because fate had meant him to. He'd denied his heritage and lived for himself because that was the cosmos's plan for him.
But had fate decreed Glen should die before his eighteenth birthday?