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Garden of the Moon
By Elizabeth Sinclair
Medallion Press, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Elizabeth Sinclair
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHarrogate Plantation, St. Lucius Parish, Louisiana, 1855
Sara Wade slipped closer to the edge of the carriage seat. Tension gripped her entire body. Excitement flowed through her like warm, mulled cider on a cold October night. She had waited so long for this day and now that it had finally arrived, she had to pinch herself to make sure it wasn't just another of her wild dreams.
Strange dreams had been a part of Sara's life for as long as she could remember. It wouldn't have surprised her if she suddenly woke up in her bed in her family home, Azalea House, in the Garden District of New Orleans, instead of in her papa's carriage driving up the long, oak alley to Harrogate Plantation.
Chills rippled through her to the bone. She closed her eyes tightly. Please, please, don't let that be the case this time.
"Laws a mercy!" The whispered expletive came from the young black woman seated beside Sara.
Her eyes popped open, and she turned to her maid. The maid's wide-eyed gaze flittered from tree to bush to flower, then made the same journey again and again, as if she was searching for something. The frantic wringing of her hands in her lap told Sara the maid hoped she wouldn't find whatever she believed lurked somewherebeyond the carriage.
"What is it, Raina?"
Sara's father, Preston Wade, had gifted her with Raina the day of his daughter's birth, and the slave, who had been only four years old at the time, had been her devoted personal maid and friend ever since. To leave Raina in New Orleans would have been unthinkable, like leaving part of herself behind. Not to mention that, even though Sara's mother had virtually pushed her out of the house, Patricia Wade would have never allowed Sara this freedom without Raina to stand guard over her mistress' virtue, even though Patricia was certain that, living in the outback of St. Lucius Parish, her daughter would wither on the vine before she ever found a suitable husband. Suitable being defined as non-Creole, rich, well-placed, and tolerably good-looking.
But as much as she loved Raina, right now Sara had to fight down the urge to shake the woman for scaring the bejesus out of her for no apparent reason. "Raina, what is it?"
Eyes widening, Raina leaned to the side to see around the large body of Samuel, her father, seated atop the driver's bench. "Dis place makes my skin itch, Miss Sara." Frantically, Raina ran her hands up and down her bare arms.
Sara laughed and then looked around. Her laughter died in her throat. Drawing her handkerchief from her reticule, she dabbed at her forehead and top lip, the perspiration not entirely a product of the humid, Louisiana summer weather.
Since she'd been so absorbed in her thoughts, Sara hadn't been paying attention to her surroundings, but now the cause of Raina's alarm became abundantly clear. All along the tunneling oak alley leading to the mansion, the gardens seemed to close in on them. An unexpected spasm of unease coursed through Sara. Had her grandmother's home always been ... so untamed, so hostile?
Unlike the formality of the grounds outside her father's Garden District home or the Wades' Magnolia Run Plantation just outside New Orleans, the landscaping at Harrogate afforded no sense of order. The careless growth of overgrown foliage seemed to have a mind of its own, as if cloaking the secrets of the old house from the outside world. Without form or design, the branches of the shrubs had interwoven into a tangled, jungle-like setting, giving the impression that they were hiding some long-held mystery within their shadowed recesses, a mystery to which only they were privy and which they would vigorously guard from intruders.
An inexplicable chill ran down Sara's spine.
Suddenly, doubts buffeted her. Was she capable of running this big house? This plantation? Could she care adequately for all who resided there and who would depend on her? Would her gift prove to be an asset or a hindrance?
Had Sara allowed her mother's disdain for something she couldn't and didn't want to understand to cloud her own judgment, to make her take on more than she could reasonably handle just to make a point?
She searched her mind for answers.
She'd always loved this old house. Since the reading of her grandmother's will, five long years ago, she'd dreamed of the day she would be able to live permanently in the only place she had ever felt she really belonged. However, her mother, a socially conscious, cold woman, would hear none of it. It just wasn't seemly for a young, single woman to live alone.
Along with Harrogate, Sara had inherited the ability to see dead people from her beloved deceased paternal grandmother and had long ago accepted it ... something her mother seemed incapable of doing. Sara's affliction, as her mother referred to Sara's ability to see and converse with departed souls, had always embarrassed Patricia.
Then came the mishap at Patricia Wade's lawn party, when her mother had caught Sara talking to a dead person. Patricia had changed her mind overnight. Not only would she allow Sara to go to Harrogate; she'd strongly encourage it and couldn't seem to get her daughter out of Azalea House fast enough. Afraid that at any moment her mother might have a change of heart, Sara had Raina packing her trunks before her mother could order tea, all the while trying not to be hurt by her mother's haste to hide her from her society friends.
Affliction. Her mother had no idea, nor did she care, how humiliating and degrading it was to Sara to have her beautiful gift labeled in such a way. Patricia made it sound as though Sara had some horrible, disfiguring disease, when in reality no one could guess by merely looking at her.
Of course, when her mother's smug society friends had quizzed Patricia about why she was sending Sara to Harrogate alone, Patricia hadn't mentioned the affliction to them. That would have countered her reason for getting Sara out of the house before anyone discovered her strange behavior. So instead, her mother swept the truth under the rug as effortlessly as Raina swept dirt out the door, and then she lied through her perfect teeth.
"Since poor Sara's passed a respectable age for marriage, I've given up trying to find a suitable man for her. I'm afraid her unmarried state has become somewhat of an ... embarrassment to her father and me. Allowing her to set up her own home at Harrogate in the seclusion of the country is the wisest choice." She'd paused for effect, and then confided, "Perhaps after living alone for a time, my willful daughter will come to her senses and think twice about her lofty requirements for an acceptable suitor and, hopefully, find a husband. Of course, all the men of her age are already spoken for, so perhaps a widower ..." The words had faded off into a deep, heartfelt sob and a dramatic dab at her eyes with the corner of a white linen handkerchief.
Her mother's friends had nodded in sympathetic, yet sage agreement and then patted Patricia's shoulder in consolation for having a daughter who would rain down such embarrassment on her dear mother's head.
Sara often wondered what they'd think if they knew the real reason her mother was suddenly shipping her only daughter off to St. Lucius Parish. Enraged at her mother's performance, Sara had been seriously tempted to pop out from behind the door where she'd been eavesdropping on their conversation and to tell Mrs. Dubois that her dead husband was smiling at her from right behind her left shoulder or that Mrs. LeFarge's long-deceased father was scowling down at her from his perch on the mantel.
But Sara had controlled her urge for revenge and kept silent. Divulging her gift would have only labeled her as the freak her mother believed her to be, and that would have afforded her mother more of the attention and sympathy she thrived on. Besides, Sara hadn't wanted to do anything that would have enraged her mother enough to change her mind about allowing the move to Harrogate.
Sometimes Sara wished she simply had some physical flaw: a twisted limb or a deformed ear. At least she could hide a crippled leg beneath her billowing gown or a missing ear beneath her chestnut curls. Though she had gotten used to seeing dead people long ago, one aspect of Sara's gift was often hard for her to hide, especially when her mother caught her talking to someone only Sara could see. The dead spirits who sought her out had no discretion about when they'd suddenly appear on the scene.
Unlike her mother, her father had grown up with a mother who had the same affliction, so none of it seemed strange to him. He'd even developed a bit of the same talent himself, but he'd never told his wife. It had been something he shared with no one but his only daughter. However, while her father only saw an occasional deceased relative, Sara seemed to find dead people around every corner, or so it seemed sometimes.
Sara shook the doubts away. All this reminiscing was just magnifying her anxiety and taking the edge off her excitement. So what if the gardens were a bit wild? It certainly didn't mean anything sinister lurked out there. It had been, after all, five years since the house had been occupied, and the grounds simply needed grooming.
Papa had promised to send her a dozen of Magnolia Run's best field hands the next day. But the thought of slaves from her father's plantation coming the next day didn't really sweep away Sara's unease. Like Raina, she continued to study their surroundings with a wary eye. Then suddenly, as if by magic, the carriage rounded a curve in the drive and Harrogate came into view. Her unease did not ebb. Instead, the closer they got to the sprawling mansion, the more intense her anxiety became.
Oaks dripping with amethyst wisteria and ghostly, pearl gray moss surrounded the house. Stirred by the brisk wind, their gnarled limbs seemed to crouch over the roof like protective, disapproving dowagers taking measure of the intruders in their midst. Blazing red azaleas and deep crimson crepe myrtles hemorrhaged their blossoms into the overgrown lawn, spattering the tall grass like droplets of blood. From a tangle of holly shrubs and jasmine vines, marble statuary gowned in sage green lichen peeked at her like naughty children preparing to do mischief. Even the angry puffs of dust nudged into life from the drive by a stiff breeze off the river seemed to voice the very earth's displeasure at their intrusion.
What of the other times she'd visited her grandmother's home? Had it been like this? No. On those occasions, the house and grounds had always been a welcoming presence in her young life. Now they seemed to be warning her away, even angered at her appearance. But in the five years since her grandmother's death, there had been no slaves to keep the place manicured. Naturally, the grounds would be wild and overgrown.
But it wasn't just the overgrown vegetation that made Sara's skin crawl. The heavy atmosphere seemed to suck the air from her lungs, as though something dark and evil lurked in the shadows of the trees and bushes. Something that had been waiting just for Sara.
I'm waiting. The words the ghost had spoken to her in the bayou played through Sara's mind. Was he here at Harrogate ... waiting for her?
She drew her shawl closer around her trembling shoulders. Surely she was being foolish. But the icy fear continued to lie in a tightly coiled ball in the pit of her stomach.
Fighting the inexplicable alarm that had suddenly turned her insides to ice, Sara forced a smile and calmly patted Raina's arm. "It's fine. Just a bit ... out of hand is all. Samuel will have the men Papa's sending organized in no time, and before you know it, everything will be as beautiful and orderly as when my grandmother was alive."
"Yas, 'um." Raina didn't sound at all convinced. Her wide-eyed gaze continued to dart over the snarled landscaping, and her hands twisted in her lap until Sara thought the woman might remove the skin from them.
Sara shook her morose thoughts loose and peered eagerly ahead of them. Nothing would spoil this day for her. Nothing. Clearing anything that would dampen this moment from her mind, Sara gazed raptly at the house.
Unlike the gardens, the snow-white, antebellum mansion resembled a giant, frosted wedding cake. The identical wings extending from either side of the main house created an image of conformity, order, and balance. Though the grounds had been far from what she'd expected, in her heart, she could feel the welcome the old house extended to its new mistress.
Samuel maneuvered the carriage down the drive and then drew the horses up in front of a wide porch flanked by two sweeping staircases leading to the main level of the home.
Excitement drowned out the anxiety. "Oh, what parties I'll give here." Sara clapped her hands like an excited child. "They'll be just as grand as the ones Gran gave. You'll see."
Raina remained silent, obviously still not finding anything about the place to feel good about.
"I'll invite all the neighbors to celebrate the reopening of Harrogate, the rebirth of this stately old home."
Raina still didn't reply. She just continued to look around her as if some demon would lunge from the bushes at any moment and devour her.
"Can't you imagine it, Raina?" Sara went on, caught up in her daydream. "Can't you just picture elegant ladies in Worth gowns straight from Paris gliding over the galleries or hurrying down the wrought iron stairs to the veranda?" She giggled. "Maybe some will even sneak into the shadows of the Corinthian columns for a clandestine assignation with their sweethearts, out of the view and hearing of vigilant parents and hovering guardians."
Plans for the future filled her head. Her thoughts bursting with images of her new life, Sara took in the beauty of the house. Closed shutters covered all the windows, save one on the second-floor gallery. She glanced up at the window.
The tall, handsome man from St. Claire's Bayou gazed down at her.
He smiled and nodded as though approving her being there.
She blinked and gasped again.
Like a puff of smoke from one of Papa's cigars, the man had vanished.
Excerpted from Garden of the Moon by Elizabeth Sinclair Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Sinclair. Excerpted by permission.
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