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The thirty-year-old nightmare was older than Celeste Kincaid Monroe's daughter Cleo, but it gripped Celeste ruthlessly all the same, dragging her instantly from sleep to terror.
The bayou again. Moss hanging like sticky, gray spiderwebs in the trees. The scent of wet decay.
Thunder. Once. Twice.
Then, as always, he appeared, a dark figure carrying something even darker. Fear surged like adrenaline through Celeste's veins. It sang in her blood, an eerie, high-pitched dirge. She dug her bare toes into the mud.
But escape was impossible. The tall silhouette of her brother, Jeremiah Kincaid, kept coming toward her, the water swishing around his knees. The burden in his arms didn't seem to trouble him. He carried it to Celeste as if it were a gift.
"No, Jeremiah," she whispered. No, he shouldn't be here in Louisiana. He'd never come to see her once she'd done his bidding and married Ty Monroe.
"Look," he said, his voice commanding her, always telling her how it was, what she must do. "Look what is yours."
"No." She kept her gaze away from the limp body in his arms. It would be her sister Blanche, who had died after childbirth. It could only be Blanche, and Celeste refused to look at her. She couldn't bear to see her sister's vibrant fall of hair trailing through the stagnant, murky water. Just the thought made her heart stop, then disappear altogether.
In the cavern of her chest, only pain remained, echoing over and over.
"Look," Jeremiah insisted.
Fear again, with its high-pitched song. No. But then she obeyed, her gaze angling down, down, toward the dead body of
No! Celeste jerked up her head
and jerked right out of the nightmare's grasp.
Lying against the soft sheets in her bedroom at Whitehorn's Big Sky Bed & Breakfast, Celeste tried to catch her breath as tears rolled down her cheeks. She wiped at them with her hands, then turned her face against the pillow. Still, the dream clutched at her.
"Montana," she whispered to herself, sitting up and lighting the white candle beside her bed. She'd left Louisiana with her husband after only a year, coming back to Whitehorn and buying this house on the lake that with her sister Yvette she'd turned into the Big Sky Bed & Breakfast. This was where her daughters were born and lived. Montana.
Forget the dream. But despite the steady, bright flame of her candle, the emotions the dream always roiled up still lurked in the dark corners of the room. She shivered.
And the past. The past lurked, too, hovering above her bed like a dark cloying canopy.
Celeste threw off the covers. Though her clock said it was only 5:00 a.m., she wasn't going to find any more sleep. Dressing in jeans, sweater and lambskin boots, Celeste told herself a cup of coffee would burn away any last traces of the bad dream.
She quickly made up the bed, blew out her candle, then stepped into the hall, shutting her bedroom door firmly. Just as decisively, she shoved the memory of the dream to the back of her mind.
She couldn't help being a victim to her nights, but she refused to let her waking hours be tainted, too. Today she wouldn't let the one emotion that always stayed with her after the nightmarethat one unnameable emotionovershadow her every daytime hour.
Celeste took the long route to the kitchen, walking through the public rooms of the B and B as if inspecting the inlricate, natural-hued woodwork of the arts-and-crafts-style house could bring her quickly and fully into the present. Through the large living room windows she could see the last of the stars reflected in the glassy surface of Blue Mirror Lake. She stared out at the water, her hands absently stroking the Native-print blanket thrown over the back of one of the room's rattan couches.
After the years she'd spent alongside the bayou in Louisiana, this house, overlooking the water of the small natural lake, had drawn her, and not just because it was a respectable distance from the controlling influence of her brother, Jeremiah Kin-caid. She'd always been grateful to her late husband Tyler's agreeing to return to Montana and to buy this property. He'd recognized that she'd needed something to call her own, especially when he travelled so often. And the house was a true gem. There were a few others scattered among the pines surrounding the lakevacation places, all of themand most newer than her three-story house. It had been an ideal location to raise a family, an ideal home for her and Yvette to turn into a ten-bedroom bed-and-breakfast, and an ideal way to support themselves while they also raised Summer, the orphaned daughter of their sister Blanche.
Celeste shivered as that dream-born emotion she was trying to bury struggled to surface. She hurried away from it by hurrying out of the room, past two more rattan couches and overstuffed club chairs, through the massive dining room with its long mission-style table and heavily beamed ceiling.
Letting herself think only of coffee, she swore she could almost smell it as she pushed the swinging door that led into the kitchen.
Celeste blinked in the dazzling overhead light. The room was bright, there was coffee already brewed, and she wasn't going to keep her insomnia a secret because it seemed another Monroe woman shared it.
"Mama!" Celeste's twenty-seven-year-old daughter Cleo looked up from the mug she'd been frowning at.
"Sweetie, what's wrong?" Celeste crossed the hardwood floor in the direction of the scarred oval table where Cleo was sitting. "You're looking at that coffee as if it's your worst enemy."
Cleo's full lips raised in something that wasn't quite a smile. "It is my coffee, after all, Mama, not Jasmine's."
Well, her younger daughter was undoubtedly a master in the kitchen, but Celeste knew Cleo was just avoiding the real question. "C'mon, sweetie, this is your mother you're talking to. You don't usually have trouble sleeping."
Cleo's eyebrows came together in concern. "No, it's you that usually can't get any rest. Another nightmare?"
Celeste gestured with her hand as if to brush the subject away. She didn't want to discuss it. "I'm asking what's keeping you awake."
There was a long pause, then Cleo looked bale-fully back down at her coffee mug. "Beansprouts. I'm worried about the day care center."
Celeste let the admission go for a moment and moved to the counter to pour herself some of Cleo's less-than-stellar coffee. She was proud of her daughter's success as the director of the day care center and knew that Cleo also took a lot of pride in what she did. The man she leased the building from had told Cleo last week he was going to sell the property as soon as possible. With her lease agreement up for renewal, Cleo had a legitimate worry that her business might not survive.
"You haven't found another possible site, honey?" Celeste added a dash of milk to her mug then held the hot ceramic against the knuckles of her left hand. Their deep arthritic ache was as unpleasantly familiar as the dream that brought it about.
"Nothing," Cleo said, shrugging. "And Gene came by again yesterday. He's putting up a For Sale sign next week."
Celeste came forward to lay a hand on top of her daughter's head. "Maybe he won't find anyone interested in buying."
Celeste's eyes narrowed. If she had to guess, she would say that Cleo wasn't thinking about Bean-sprouts or For Sale signs or anything to do with business. There was a sad, faraway but dreamy look in her daughter's beautiful violet eyes. "This is about something else. Something besides Beansprouts."
Cleo didn't look up.
Celeste's heart squeezed, and she used her aching left hand to tilt up her daughter's chin. "Oh, Cleo," she said. "This isn't about him, is it? He's been gone three months, sweetie. You wouldn't still be mooning over a man like Ethan Redford?"
A new voice broke in. "Of course Cleo's not mooning over Ethan, Mama. Cleo is much too sensible, much too pract ical to be letting a big shot, here-today-gone-tomorrow man like Ethan Redford even give her heart a tickle."
Celeste chuckled as her younger daughter Jasmine glided into the room. At twenty-three, with her short-cropped black hair and a slender face, she looked too fresh and wide-awake for five-thirty in the morning. "You're up early."
"Mmm." She took one sniff at the coffee carafe, grimaced in mock disgust, then dumped its contents into the sink. "Cleo would be in a better mood if she could learn to make better coffee."
Since Jasmine's coffee was universally acclaimed as fabulousas well as anything else she created in the kitchenneither Cleo nor Celeste bothered disagreeing with her. As a matter of fact, Cleo only said, "Sit down, Mama," and then took both their mugs to the sink. She poured out the contents, then set the cups on the counter to wait for her sister's heaven-blessed brew.
She gave Jasmine a significant look. "Mama had another nightmare."
Both young women turned toward her. Celeste froze under her daughters' worried gazes. "No" But she stopped, because they were pointedly looking at her hands, and she realized she'd been massaging the painful left one with her right. She sighed.
"Please, girls, let's talk about something else," she pleaded. Talking about her nightmare might allow that disturbing, unnameable emotion she was keeping under strict control to rise again. "Please."
Jasmine surrendered first, sliding her gaze toward her more voluptuous sister. "Okay, Mama." She grinned, that devilish grin of a younger sibling who knows just how to push the older one's buttonsand revels in it. "Let's talk about what's bugging Cleo."
"Watch it," Cleo threatened. "I can still hide your Barbie dolls, brat." She propped her hands on her hips.
Jasmine's grin widened. "I've hidden them from you. At your insistence, I recycle, Cleo. I compost our kitchen scraps. I'd never wear fur. But you're not going to make me give up my precious fashion dolls. Uh-uh."
Before Cleo could retort, the kitchen's back door opened and Frannie, Celeste's niece, stepped over the threshold. In a brown, knee-length business suit that matched the brown of her hair and the brown of her eyes, she looked completely prepared for another day in her job as a loan officer at the Whitehorn Savings and Loan.
At five-nine, Frannie towered over her cousins. In a familiar morning ritual, she automatically took the cup of coffee Cleo poured for her. "What are we talking about?" She lived at her parents' house, located just behind the B and B.
Jasmine started bustling around the kitchen, getting ready for the breakfast she'd serve the guests. "Fashion, I'd guess you'd say."
Frannie touched the brown tortoiseshell clip that held her hair at the back of her neck. She sighed. "I guess that lets me out, then."
Jasmine shook her head. "Only because you won't let me make you over, Frannie. If you'd just give yourself a chance, you'd be stunning."
Frannie flushed. "Let's talk about something else."
That mischievous smile twitched at Jasmine's lips again. Uh-oh, Celeste thought. Prepare yourself, Cleo.
"We could go back to discussing Cleo's love life," Jasmine said, taking eggs out of the refrigerator.
"Oh, no, you don't." Cleo's face blushed just as pink as Frannie's.
Jasmine acted as if she hadn't heard her. "Mama wondered if maybe Cleo was still smitten with that Ethan Redford who was here three months ago."
Frannie blinked owlishly. "Who?"
"You remember." Jasmine took the juicer out of a lower cupboard. "He took Cleo out a couple of times, and I admit the looks he gave her could have melted that old wallpaper off the downstairs hallway, but then he justpoof!left Whitehorn. What do you think? Is Cleo in need of romantic repair?"
"Of course not." Frannie blinked again and her voice was absolutely certain. "Cleo is much, much too practical to make any kind of romantic mistake."
"Sensible, too. You missed sensible, Frannie," Cleo added. Her face had regained its normal color and her voice was without animation.
Somelhing in the nonemolion of Cleo's voice niggled at Celeste and her mother radar went on the alert. "Cleo, sweetie"
"Good morning!" The back door had opened again to admit Frannie's parents, Celeste's sister Yvette and her husband, Edward Hannon. The smell of a cool spring morning accompanied them as they headed for the countertop and Jasmine's coffee.