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Rider In The Mist
By Caroline Burnes
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAurelia Agee pulled the collar of her coat tighter. It was normally cold in Minnesota in February, but somehow she'd expected a balmier welcome in Mississippi. Like all of her other expectations, this one was wrong. The wind blowing off the Mississippi River was bitter cold, and the storm clouds gathering in the west promised wind, rain and lightning. It was not an auspicious beginning to her quest.
Shivering, she stared up at the eighteen columns that stretched into a sky growing dark. Tragic. That was the word that came to her mind. The columns were all that remained of her family's Natchez, Mississippi, estate - except for the shame. Now, a century and a half later, the shame lingered. She bit her bottom lip. How was it possible that she could feel any responsibility for the actions taken by a man who died on a gallows in 1869? A man - though he was her great-great-great grandfather - she'd never even heard of until recently.
That, at least, was in keeping with the little she knew about the man who was listed on her birth certificate as her father. Serge Agee had abandoned his wife and infant daughter without so much as a farewell. It had come as a big surprise to her and her mother to discover they were heirs to an Agee family estate in Mississippi.
Aurelia walked along the high bluffs of the river. In the daylight, it would be a magnificent view. In the gathering dusk it was positively eerie. Blackthorn had once been a thriving estate. The fertile land had produced some of the finest cotton grown in the South. Andre Agee had supplemented his income by donning a mask and becoming a highwayman on the stretch of road from Nashville to New Orleans known as the Natchez Trace. Yvonne Harris, a local Realtor, had told Aurelia a few of the stories that were part of his legend in Natchez. Andre had ridden a huge black horse and he'd come thundering out of the woods with his sword drawn. No traveler was safe from the diabolical highwayman who seemed to take pleasure in terrifying his victims.
Until he was caught and hanged.
Yvonne had been somewhat gleeful in recounting how the townspeople had built a gallows right on Blackthorn Estate and hung him on his own property.
That was why Blackthorn was haunted. The ghost of Andre Agee still rode the unkempt fields and forests of his old home.
Yvonne Harris had been a great source of information, until she'd abruptly quit, which was why Aurelia had decided to come to Natchez and sell the estate herself.
Shoving her hands in her pockets against the cold, Aurelia found the key that would unlock the caretaker's cottage. That was where she'd stay until she made arrangements to sell Blackthorn Estate. Then with the money in hand, she'd return to Minnesota with enough funds to pay her mother's nursing home care.
She heard the sound of the car long before the headlights broke through the thick woods that surrounded the old estate. Surprised, she waited for the Mercedes SUV to stop. The tall, good-looking man who stepped out from behind the wheel came straight toward her.
"Leon Kimball," he said, holding out his hand. "I heard the heir to the Agee estate was in town, but I certainly didn't expect her to be so ..."
"Young?" Aurelia asked with sarcasm. She was only twenty-two, but she'd borne the responsibilities of an adult since her mother's illness had robbed Ursula of her mental capacity.
"Young, yes, but I was going to say beautiful." He continued to hold out his hand and Aurelia finally shook it.
"I'm a local attorney," Leon said. "I heard you were going to put Blackthorn on the market. I'd like to make an offer. I want to tell you I've been trying to buy it for back taxes, but now that the rightful heir is here, I'm willing to make a fair offer."
Aurelia felt the first flush of relief. She'd been in town less than four hours and she had an offer, despite what the Realtor had told her. "Yes, I'm going to sell the estate. But I thought there was no local interest." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized what a mistake they were. If this man was interested, she'd all but told him no one else was.
Leon only laughed. "Blackthorn does have something of a reputation." He glanced behind her at the bluffs that overlooked the Mississippi River. "A lot of people believe the place is haunted. I understand Yvonne Harris came out here to put up a For Sale sign and had something of a fright."
"She refused to give me any details, so I'm not certain what actually happened," Aurelia said.
Leon leaned closer and lowered his voice. "She was walking through the woods and she heard someone following her. Whoever it was pursued her through the woods. I can tell you as an eyewitness, she was scratched up pretty good from running through tree limbs and brambles."
"Probably a squirrel rustling through the fallen leaves," Aurelia said with a hint of contempt. "After all these years, you'd think people wouldn't believe in ghost stories."
"Not just ghost stories," Leon said, giving her a wide smile. "Yvonne isn't the kind of woman to be frightened by rodents. She's quite determined, under normal circumstances. You should know that I sent a contractor out here several weeks ago to assess the property for development. He walked around the estate and when he returned, someone had let the air out of all of his tires. He found a devil's walking stick beside his car."
"A what?" Aurelia tried to ignore the tingle of flesh at her neck. Despite the fact that she didn't believe in ghosts or spirits, Leon Kimball was getting to her.
"It's a type of tree with thorns all over it. There's a thicket on the estate. I believe that's where the Blackthorn name derived from."
"Fascinating," Aurelia said with sarcasm. "But this sounds like made-up tales to lower the price of Blackthorn. I can assure you those tactics won't work."
Leon laughed and shook his head. "The local teenagers insist that Andre Agee rides the premises on his black stallion, Diable, straight from the gates of hell."
"Of course the local ghost would ride a black stallion with the French name for devil." Aurelia had no interest in local bogeymen, especially if they might drive off a prospective buyer for the estate. "That's such a clich� I can't imagine how anyone could believe it."
Excerpted from Rider In The Mist by Caroline Burnes Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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