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It looked like something out of a Stephen King novel, Justine Chatry thought, as she stared at the house in front of her in the fading dim of daylight. Of course, mansion was a better word for the ten-thousand-square-foot, three-story monstrosity that rose up out of the bayou, its dark windows peeking out from moss-covered stone and seeming to stare back at her.
It was at least eighty degrees in Cypriere, Louisiana, but Justine felt a chill come over her, and she crossed her arms in front of her chest, trying to cast off the feeling of foreboding. laMalediction, the locals called itmeaning "the curse." Both beautiful and horrifying, seductive and sinister, it seemed to call to her.
And that gave her the creeps.
She chided herself for being fanciful and reached back into her car to grab her small suitcase. Just because her mother chose to believe in haunts and curses didn't mean Justine followed suit. The house was a house. Granted, this house was an extremely large onewith a bloody historybut that didn't change the job she had to do. In fact, it made her job all the more interesting.
"You made it." A voice called from the entry to the house, and Justine looked up and waved at Olivia Mark-ham, the woman who'd hired her for the research job at la Malediction. Olivia smiled and crossed the courtyard to Justine's car.
"I'm glad to see you," Olivia said. "I was starting to worry you wouldn't make it here by dark. We've made some strides clearing the road to the house, but it's still not the best place to be at night if you don't know where you're going."
Justine smiled, thinking "road" was a bit of a stretch to call the dirt path almost hidden by the swamp. "Sorry I worried you. I got held up by my mother. She's a professional at making me late."
Olivia opened the door to the backseat and pulled out one of Justine's boxes of supplies. "I hope she's not worried about you staying here," Olivia said, as they walked toward the house.
Justine frowned. "She's not thrilled, but my mother is not your average person."
Olivia balanced the box on her hip and opened the front door to the house so Justine could walk inside. "What do you mean?" Olivia asked. "Is there such a thing as an average mother?"
"Probably not, but mine is worse than most. She was raised deep in the bayou and still believes in the old ways."
Olivia closed the door and stared at her. "Voodoo?"
"Yeah," Justine said and stared beyond Olivia at the wall behind her. Her mother's insistence on using spells and potions to manage every aspect of her life and health, along with her attempts to direct Justine the same way, had resulted in years of constant friction between them.
"Wow," Olivia said and started down a hallway. "You never told me that when we talked before."
"It's not something I like to tell a lot of people."
Olivia gave her a sympathetic look. "I understand, but iven the situation here, your secondhand knowledge of voodoo may help you with your research."
Justine stared at Olivia. "You don't believe in that stuff, do you?"
"I believe there are more things unexplained than explained here at laMalediction. And I believe the former residents believed in it. Understanding those beliefs may help you find the missing emeralds."
"And fulfill a voodoo prophecy, right?"
Olivia shrugged. "That's what the journals say. I figured a historian like you would love to solve an old mystery with a treasure at the end."
"Yes," Justine agreed, although her reasons for taking the job involved so much more than locating the allegedly cursed emeralds that Olivia referred to. So much more that Justine hadn't told Olivia or anyone else, and didn't intend to. If Olivia knew the real reason Justine had jumped at the chance to access the old journals and photo albums at laMalediction, she may have thought twice about hiring her.
Olivia stepped into a library and set the box she was carrying down on a table in the center of the room. "I figured you'd want to set up shop here in the library. I moved all the books from the underground chamber up here."
Justine looked around the library, at the wall-to-wall bookcases teeming with old books, and could hardly contain her desire to get started. "It's perfect." She pulled a book from one of the shelves and opened it, immediately drawn to the beautiful longhand text inside. "You said you brought everything up from the tunnels? Do you think you and John found everything
all the passageways?"
Olivia frowned. "We hope so. But I don't want to lie to youwe really don't know. I
Damn, there's something
I need to tell you, and I'll understand if you change your mind about staying."
Justine studied Olivia, wondering what had made the calm and collected woman she'd met in New Orleans so nervous. "What's wrong?"
Olivia took a deep breath and blew it out. "When I stayed here before
when all those things happened to me, John and I assumed it was the estate attorney, Ross Wheeler, who was responsible for everything."
Justine nodded. Wheeler had been killed by Olivia's fiancé, John, while holding Olivia hostage in an attempt to force her to reveal the location of the missing emeralds. He'd used the secret passages in the house to spy on her and play tricks with her mind.
"The thing is, the day someone locked me in a tunnel, Wheeler was in court in New Orleans. We just found out a couple of days ago. It couldn't have been him."
Justine took a couple of seconds to process that information. "So someone else was sneaking around besides Wheeler?"
Olivia bit her lower lip. "Yeah, and we don't know who, as there's no indication from Wheeler's documents that he was working with anyone. But the reality is, if that one incident wasn't Wheeler, then some of the others, like the night someone shot at John, may not have been him, either."
"And with Wheeler dead, you can't ask."
"Exactly. John and I talked it over with the new estate attorney and none of us want you or anyone else to be at the house alone. We also don't think it's safe for anyone to stay here at night. You're at a complete disadvantage against anyone who knows the estate, and with the storms that move in, you can become trapped in a matter of minutes. So the estate attorney found a vacant house in town to rent
and John and I sorta convinced the attorney to hire a bodyguard."
"You what?" Surely, she hadn't heard correctly.
"The rental house is right behind Main Street and has two bedrooms. Unfortunately, the owner is out of town until tomorrow, so you can't get the keys until then. The commute isn't bad, as long as it's not raining, and this way you both have a safe place to stay, hopefully where the electricity works better."
Justine frowned. Staying in a rental away from the estate wasn't optimum, but she could hardly blame the estate attorney for being careful. He probably didn't want the liability. Then Olivia's exact wording hit her. "Both of us? This bodyguard is staying in the rental house with me?"
"His name is Brian and he's a longtime friend of John's," Olivia rushed to explain. "He's an ex-Marine and works at the New Orleans police department with John. He's overdue for vacation and offered to do this to help us out. I promise you he's completely trustworthy and qualified to protect you. You'll be here at laMalediction during the day and only at the rental at night. Even in closer quarters, I promise Brian won't get in your way."
Despite the ten-thousand-square feet of laMalediction and the unknown amount of acreage to get lost in, the thought of some strange man roaming the halls while she worked bothered Justine on a number of levels. And that was daytime. She couldn't even comprehend staying in close quarters every night with a strange man. Especially a cop. Justine's family didn't have the best of relationships with law enforcement, and she'd grown a bit jaded about the whole "protect and serve" claims they made.
"I don't know
" Justine said, not sure how to argue with what appeared to be a reasonable plan, given the circumstances.
"If you're not comfortable with him, then we'll get someone else. But we can't let you work here alone. I'd feel guilty forever if something happened to you, and, well, the attorney sorta insisted."
Justine sighed. "I understand. It's not that I blame you for being concerned, and I certainly understand the attorney's position. It's just that I have
well, reclusive tendencies."
Olivia placed a hand on her arm and gave her a sympathetic look. "I totally get that, and I'm really sorry that this turned out to be different than what you signed up for. But I hope you'll still take the job. I have a good feeling about you."
Justine smiled. "I'm not going to let a man keep me from this job. It's by far the most intriguing thing I've ever been asked to research. I'm looking forward to it."
The relief on Olivia's face was obvious. "I promise Brian will blend into the background and will not be around unless needed. The attorney scheduled appointments with appraisers and contractors to provide bids for the repairs needed. The old caretaker was only able to minimally maintain the estate, and the house needs a lot of work before it can be sold. Brian will escort those people to do their job while he's here."
The sound of crunching gravel sounded outside the library window and Justine looked out to see a Jeep pull into the courtyard.
"That's him," Olivia said. "I'll go get him so I can introduce you." She hurried out of the room.
Justine stepped up to the window and watched as a hulk of a man stepped out of the Jeep. He was well over six feet tall, and even from a distance, she saw muscles rippling through his T-shirt. His brown hair was cut military short, and his erect stature gave away his Marine background. The intense expression he wore moved swiftly into a smile as Olivia bounced across the driveway to give him a hug.
Justine could tell by the genuineness of the smile and the hug that he liked her, but not in a sexual way. More like a brother-sister sort of thing. His former intensity had made him look dangerous and sexy. The smile made him human. He released Olivia and reached into his Jeep to pull out a duffel bag, and Justine saw a flash of metal at the back of his waistband.
The gun made him a cop.
She stepped back from the window with a sigh. Maybe Brian would be too busy dealing with contractors to get in her way. The thought of a man, much less a cop, watching her every move made the walls seem more narrow, the air in the room thin. She was a woman who needed her spacereveled in it, truth be told.
Olivia stepped into the library, the cop close behind, and waved one hand at Justine as she made the introductions. Justine froze when Olivia said his full name.
The blood rushed to her head and she struggled to maintain control. Surely, it couldn't be. She studied his face, hoping it was all a coincidence, but his dark blue eyes gave away the boy she remembered from long ago. Brian extended his hand and Justine hesitated just a moment before placing her hand in his. His hand was solid, with a firm grip, and he studied her as they shook, just like cops always did. Sizing people up.
Did he recognize her? Did he remember? She'd legally changed her name years ago, and the confident woman she was today didn't even remotely resemble the scared child of the past. Was that enough?
Olivia turned to Brian and said, "Justine has reclusive tendencies, so no hovering. Okay?"
A hint of a smile crossed Brian's face and he held one hand up. "Scout's honor," he said to Olivia, then locked his gaze on Justine. "There's some things I want to go over before we get settled in, about the security and all, but I'll do my best not to get in your way."
The light from outside dimmed, as if someone had turned down the power, creating shadows across the library. Olivia looked outside and groaned at the dark clouds swirling above. "My car won't make it down that path in a rainstorm. I better run." Olivia looked at Justine, her hesitation and indecision clear as day.
"Go," Justine reassured her. "Get back home to your fiancé. Brian and I can work out all the details of avoiding each other without a referee."
Olivia gave her a quick hug, clearly relieved, then grabbed her purse and rushed out of laMalediction without so much as a backward glance. Justine watched her car as it pulled away, the taillights shimmering in the fading light. She sure didn't waste any time leaving.
"So," she said as she turned to face Brian, "is there a plan? A security system?"
"I'll start installing the security system tomorrow, here and at the rental, but nothing is in place for tonight. John and I covered every square inch of a couple of bedrooms upstairs and made sure there's no way in or out except the bedroom door and the windows. We'll bunk there tonight."
Justine felt her pulse increase. "Are they next to each other?"
"Yes, and there's a connecting door. Olivia figures the rooms probably belonged to a child and nanny."
"Is that really necessary? A connecting door, I mean?"
Justine could already feel the walls closing in on her. The possibility of someone with access to her bedroom, watching her sleep, was far more than she'd bargained for when she'd taken the job.
"John and Olivia think so, and I work for them."
Justine took in the stern expression and the set jaw, and knew it was useless to argue. If Brian was anything like his uncle, he made having things his way a personal crusade. If she wanted to search through the historical documents at laMalediction, she was going to have to find a way to deal with him. "And during the day? Do you plan on sitting across the library table from me as I work?" She couldn't keep the sarcasm from her voice.
Brian narrowed his eyes. "Once the security system is in place, that shouldn't be an issue. I'll carry a remote alarm sensor on me. It will let me know if there's a security breach. I won't be very far away."
"And this security system will be rigged to do what, exactly?"
"Let us know if anyone enters or exits this house or the rental, either through a door or a window."
"So I can't leave either house without setting off an alarm? That's sorta like prison, don't you think?" Justine could feel a flush rising up her neck and she struggled to remain calm. "Look, I know I'm here to do research, but I jog every morning. I spend too much time sitting in a chair to ignore exercising. This job is no different."
Brian nodded. "Give me a time and I'll go with you. I'm used to jogging myself."
Justine bristled. Jogging was her personal time. Granted, she spent most of her time alone, but jogging was when she centered herself for the day ahead and cleansed her mind of everything cluttering it. "I jog alone."