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The late February mist rolled in thick, tattered swaths off the Atlantic as Bella DiCaprio rode her bike along the exposed cliff tops of Ileen-Mer, one of the tiny, storm-ravaged islands off the French coast of Brittany. Water poured from the brim of a red rain hat pulled low over her brow, snaking down the matching slicker Madame Dubois had loaned her for the duration of her employment as housekeeper. The old-fashioned bicycle was on loan, too, tires slipping in black mud as she negotiated a narrow trail through the heath.
Bella had been on the island two weeks now. She was using the name Amelie Chenard and she'd taken a job in the home of Estelle Dubois, a wealthy and eccentric widow who'd once worked in theater and been married to a Parisian banker.
The fact Bella was not in possession of a work visa did not faze the colorful Madame in the slightestshe was happy to pay in cash, under the table. More than a housekeeper, Estelle Dubois seemed to want someone to amuse her two pampered Papillons, particularly the youngest, a seven-month-old pup named Kiki. Part of Bella's job was to walk Kiki once a day, and play with her. The male dog was old and arthritic and preferred to spend his days sleeping in his basket by the fire.
The arrangement suited her fine. Now that she'd settled into a routine, Bella had plenty of free time for her real missionto investigate the mysterious stranger who lived in an imposing stone abbey that loomed over cliffs on the bleak windward side of the island, accepting the brunt of the Atlantic storms.
Island lore claimed the foreboding structurebuilt in the high medieval period and renovated over the centurieswas haunted by the ghost of an abbess who'd been killed during a Breton revolt in the twelfth century. The abbess's headless body was said to have been walled behind rock in the dungeons, her head staked outside on the monastery gates as a warning to others who might shelter rebels.
Some said in a certain slant of moonlight the abbess's ghost could be seen floating through the arches. Others claimed they heard her screams when winter storms blew and fog swirled thick over the surrounding heath.
Whatever anyone wanted to make of it, the legend gave Bella an excuse to poke around. And, if she was right about who was living in that monastery now, she'd nail a journalistic scoop that would salvage her career, rock U.S. politics and put her name squarely back on the political news map.
If the story didn't kill her first.
Already, she'd been attacked by three men back home in Washington, D.C. If it hadn't been for the intervention of two cooks from a nearby Chinese restaurant, she was certain she'd be dead. She'd also been followed, her apartment ransacked and her hard drive hacked. Fearing for her life, Bella had fled the States and come in secret to this island. Fear was one of the reasons she was hiding under an assumed identity now, as she continued to track down her story.
Bella had gone looking for the Mont Noir Abbey during her first days on the island when the weather had been slightly more gracious. She'd found the black stone structure to be a startling mix of architectural periods, but predominantly gothic with spires and turrets reaching into the mist. Parts of it were still in ruin. The monastery had been constructed right at the cliff edge overlooking the Atlantic, a sharp plunge down to where waves pounded rocks far below. The extensive grounds were enclosed by an eight-foot-high stone wall topped with iron spikes. A sign in French warned trespassers to steer clear of the wrought-iron gates.
Bella had rung the bell at the gate, but no one answered.
Poking her telephoto lens through the bars she'd managed to capture some haunting architectural shots of the spires, arched windows, massive flying buttresses, gargoyles, but she'd suddenly noticed the security cameras atop the stone pillars flanking the gates tracking her motion. Then she'd detected more cameras positioned at discreet intervals between the spikes and creepers along the perimeter wall, and a frisson of unease ran through her.
Glancing slowly up, she caught sight of a dark figure in one of the mullioned windows in the upper floor window, watching her. But a shroud of mist sifted in from the sea, cloaking the abbey, and Bella had quickly returned to Madame's to serve the afternoon coffee.
Then just yesterday, while Bella had been in the village boulangerie buying fresh pain au chocolat for Madame, through the misted windowpanes of the little bakery she'd glimpsed a tall, dark figure moving down the cobbled sidewalk, his profile hidden by the hood of his black cape. Despite a limp, his stride was swift. Two dark-complexioned men in suits flanked him closely. Wind gusted, revealing a holster under the jacket of the man closest to the window.
Bella's pulse quickened and she spun round, trying to catch a glimpse of the hooded man's face. In the process she fumbled and dropped the small change being handed to her by the boulangerie owner who'd smiled at Bella's sudden distraction.
"He's the stranger from the other side of the island," the owner said as she helped Bella gather her coins.
"Do you know where he comes from?" she said, pocketing the change and picking up her basket of chocolate croissants.
The owner gave a Gallic shrug, pouting her lips. "Who knows?" She leaned forward, dropping her voice conspir-atorially. "And we don't ask. Important peoplerich, famous peoplecome to our island every summer. They come because we don't bother them. We don't try to guess who they are and we don't talk to paparazzi. But their estates lie on the southeast side of Ileen-Mer where the climate is more temperate. Who would live on the west cliffs, and in winter? In a place that is haunted?" She gave a huff. "It's beyond me."
Bella thanked the owner and dashed out into the chill air. But the caped stranger was gone, the cobblestone streets eerily deserted.
"He goes by the name of Tahar Du Val," Madame told her in French that afternoon as Bella served the croissants and coffee, a fire crackling in the hearth, the little dogs curled in a fur ball in front of the flames. "You are very interested in this occupant of Abbaye Mont Noir, non this dark man with his one eye and secrets?" Madame accepted the cup and saucer from Bella as she spoke, arthritis making her movements awkward.
"I'd love to visit his abbey, ask him about the ghostresearch for my novel," she lied. "The more I know about him, the easier it'll be to approach him."
Madame took a sip of her coffee, her watery blue gaze fixed on Bella over the rim of her cup. And Bella reminded herself to be cautiousthere was a sharp and analytical mind behind that papery skin, the powdery rouge, the red lipstick. Estelle Dubois could read people better than most.
"He moved into the abbey last August," Madame said, her features going slack and thoughtful as she dipped her croissant into the milky coffee. "He arrived with another man"
Bella glanced up sharply. "What man?"
"I think he might have been Monsieur Du Val's brother," she said, delivering the soppy croissant to her mouth. "He was younger, a little broader in the shoulder, slightly shorter. And according to the villagers who saw his facehe and the monsieur have similar features."
Bella's pulse quickened, but she kept her expression neutral as she crouched down, opened the fire grate and poked at the logs. "Did he stay long?"
"Long enough to organize the employees at the abbey and see to the shipping-in of furniture," Madame said around her croissant. "And he handled the grocery shopping in the first weeks, before a chef came and took over."
"Did this man give a name?" Bella asked.
'Won. He barely spoke beyond what was necessary to do his business in the village."
Dryness tightened Bella's throat. Calmly, quietly, she reached for Madame's empty plate.
"Then one day, a private ferry came over from the mainland with gymnasium equipment," she said. "A woman came with it."
Bella stilled. "A dark-haired woman, exotic-looking?"
Madame's penciled brow rose quizzically. "No, the woman was fair. I think she had something to do with the gymnasium equipment, perhaps a personal trainer. But she left very abruptly, the next dayshe was angry when she boarded the ferry."
"How do you know all this?"
"Jean-Claude, the ferryman who lives in the hut at the end of the pier. The younger man departed the island late September. He returned a few times until the end of November, but we haven't seen him since. And when all the summer visitors were gone and the winter storms started rolling in, that's when Monsieur Du Val started walking alone along the headland. Every day at precisely four-thirty. Always he wears his cape with the hood, and his black eye patch. His limp, it has been improving. After Christmas he began dining late every Tuesday night at Le Grotte below the hotel. He sits alone in a stone alcove in front of a window that overlooks the harbor. The maitre d' draws the curtain across the alcove for privacy, and Monsieur Du Val's men sit close by at another table, watching the door. He orders a la carte and always a bottle of cabernet franc from the Chateau Luneau estate in the Loire Valley."
Bella knew the wineryit all fit.
It had to be him.
She stole a quick glance at the ornate Louis XVI clock on the mantel above the fire. Almost 3:30 p.m. "You're certain Monsieur Tahar walks along the cliffs at the same every day?" she said.
"Oui. Pierre, the sheep farmer on the other side, goes to bring in his flock before dark. He sees the Monsieur in the distance, always at the same time."
"You talk to this farmer?"
"Everyone on this island talks, Amelie." She held up a gnarled finger in warning. "But always, the talk stays here, on the island. It has been this way for centuries."
The whole island felt liked it was locked in medieval time, thought Bella as her attention went back to the Louis XVI clock. Madame's eyes followed Bella's gaze and a smile curved along her mouth, red lipstick feathering deep into wrinkled creases.
"Go, Amelie," she said with a dismissive wave of her veined hand. "Go see him for yourself. All this talk has exhausted me. But feed the dogs first, and don't forget to lock the house when you go. Put the key under the mat so you don't wake me when you return."