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Everyone in Savannah, Georgia knows the Remington estate. The rambling old house bears blatant testimony not just to the esteemed family's vast wealth, but to unbearable tragedy and whispered secrets. Soon, the Remingtons will all come home to this secluded plantation nestled deep in the shadow of moss-covered trees. Then they will have to die. . .one by one. . .
Hasn't Just Come Back To Haunt Her. . .
For Charlotte Remington Maitland, the past five years have been a haze of pain and loss. Now, with her new husband and teenaged daughter, she's found a second chance at happiness--until the moment her grandfather's will is read. As the sole beneficiary of the vast Remington estate, Charlotte will get everything that's coming to her. A killer will make sure of that--no matter who has to die. . .
It's Come Back To Kill Her.
Trapped in a house of lies, searching for answers to deadly questions, Charlotte has never been more afraid. Someone knows her family's deepest secrets. Someone who will take Charlotte to the edge of sanity and the dark heart of her greatest fear in order to make her. . .
The Final Victim
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Three summers later
"You look pale. Why don't I ask Nydia to bring you a fresh glass of sweet tea?"
Startled by her husband's voice, Charlotte Remington Maitland looks up from the novel she's been pretending to read.
Royce is standing in the broad archway that separates this large front parlor from its twin just beyond. She didn't even hear him open the French doors.
"No, thank you," she murmurs, setting the book on the doily-decked piecrust table that once belonged to her great-great-great-grandmother, the first mistress of Oakgate. There, on an embroidered coaster, sits the full glass of now-lukewarm tea the housekeeper had brought her a little while ago.
Or maybe it's been longer than that.
Sunlight, spilling through the filmy lace curtains that cover the narrow, twelve-foot floor-to-ceiling windows, falls at a different angle now: more blue than golden, casting long shadows across the patterned Aubusson rug.
Charlotte glances at the clock on the marble mantel, studiously avoiding her grandfather's vintage portable electric radio that still sits beside it.
"Is that the right time?" she asks, startled to see that the hands indicate nearly seven o'clock. Maybe Nydia forgot her clock-winding ritual this morning, with all that's gone on.
But Royce assures her, "That's the right time."
Unbelievable. Charlotte had sat down at half-past four, promising herself a few quiet moments with her own ritual: afternoon sweet tea and a book.
"You must be hungry," she tells her husband as he crosses the room and sits beside her on the antique yellow-silk sofa.
She notices that his black hair is damp from a recent shower and his handsome face, prone to five o'clock shadow, is clean-shaven. He's changed out of his black suit and into clothes that are, for Royce, casual. Pressed chinos, white linen, long sleeved, button down shirt, leather loafers. With socks.
She loves that about him; loves the way he always manages to look as though he just stepped out of the pages of a catalogue, even when he rolls out of bed in the morning. Not a day goes by that she isn't thankful for him in her life; the proverbial sunshine after the darkest of storms.
"I'm not that hungry." He rests a warm hand on her shoulder. "I could eat anyway, though. I had two sandwiches at the luncheon after the service, but you didn't touch a thing. You must be famished."
She shakes her head. She hasn't been hungry in a few days now, her usual voracious appetite having given way to the dull pain of grief.
She didn't expect her grandfather's death to hit her this hard. After all, Gilbert Xavier Remington II was an old man, closing in on ninety. He wasn't going to live forever.
But he always said he'd be around to escort Lianna down the aisle when the time came, even if he had to roll by her side in a wheelchair. Until a few days ago, the idea of the formidable Remington patriarch in a wheelchair was far more outlandish than the presumption that he'd be at his adolescent granddaughter's wedding one day.
And the way he died ...
Maybe if he'd been sick, Charlotte would have been prepared for the inevitable. But he wasn't. She can't recall her grandfather ever being sick, even with a cold. He was indestructible.
In fact, the closest thing to vulnerability she had ever seen in the man was his reaction to the death last year of his stalwart lifelong friend old Doc Neville. Grandaddy, who in his lifetime had stoically buried his parents, wife, two sons, and young grandchild in the family plot, had seemed haggard and prone to uncharacteristic emotion for a long time after that loss.
"It was a beautiful service, wasn't it?" Royce is asking Charlotte, dragging her thoughts back to the present. "You did your Grandaddy proud."
She swallows hard. "I wonder if he was up there somewhere, watching."
"And counting heads."
Charlotte laughs despite the grief welling in her throat. If there was ever any doubt that Gilbert Xavier Remington II maintained a prominent place in Low Country society after all these years, today's turnout at the little Baptist church overlooking the sea put it to rest.
"I'll bet there were three hundred people at the service. And probably almost as many at the reception," she adds, remembering the crowd that gathered in the shade of the plantation's oversized portico for an elegant luncheon.
"And at least one who skipped the church but showed up for the free food after."
Yes. Vincent Champlain.
Royce is immediately contrite. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get in a dig at your ex today, of all days."
"Feel free to dig him any day, Royce. He sure doesn't hesitate to do it to you every chance he gets."
She finds it ironic that although her ex-husband chose to walk away from her and Lianna, he resents another man stepping in to fill his shoes. Especially a man like Royce, who has everything Vince has striven desperately to achieve — and, when all else fails, does his best to fake.
Like class, and good looks, and good taste, and a means of supporting himself.
"He 'accidentally' tripped me with those big feet of his when I was walking to the buffet table," Royce tells Charlotte, "then he fell all over himself apologizing. But believe me, he was about as transparent as that white blouse Phyllida put on after the funeral."
Again, Charlotte laughs. Leave it to her cousin, the would-be Hollywood actress, to go directly from mourning black to red-carpet sexiness.
Yes, and leave it to Charlotte's first husband to miss the lengthy church service and the burial beneath the blazing midday sun, arriving just in time for the catered reception. He claimed he got held up in traffic driving up from Jacksonville, but she doesn't believe him.
She learned years ago never to believe anything he said. If only their daughter would do the same.
"The irony," she tells Royce, "is that Vince couldn't stand my grandfather, and vice versa."
"Well, at least he was there today for Lianna."
"He wasn't there for her." He never has been. "He was there to rub shoulders with the Reynolds, the Chathams ... people who might be able to do something for him someday."
She shakes her head, remembering how Vince finally sauntered over to extend his sympathy to her, devouring several jumbo shrimp as he spoke.
"So sorry about your grandfather, Charlotte. What a shame."
He said all the right words, but his tone was utterly indifferent.
And that, right there, was the story of their lives together.
The marriage was dying long before their firstborn drowned off Achoco Island eight years ago. Vincent blamed her for Adam's death, of course — she was there; he wasn't.
She never knew where he was that day, but she has her suspicions.
Not that any of it matters now.
Adam is gone; so is Vince, for the most part, as well as the friends she once had as a young wife and mother. They turned away from her after she lost Adam — or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe it was she who severed the ties, unable to see them with their intact families when her own was shattered.
And now Grandaddy is gone, too.
Now all she has left are Royce and Lianna.
Nothing else, nobody else, matters.
Deep in the thicket beyond Oakgate, broad stretches of marsh are broken by dense wooded clumps of maritime forest: oaks, pines, cabbage palms, and a tangle of native vines. Abundant Spanish moss threads its scaly tendrils over every living bough. Years ago, a good portion of this marshy acreage behind Oakgate must have been dry land.
Dry enough, anyway, to house the row of slave cabins that are surprisingly well preserved after decades of neglect and encroaching tidal surges.
Of course, the cabins aren't in the water — yet. Just surrounded by it, and well sheltered from human destruction by acres upon acres of wetlands and dense undergrowth.
If there remains anyone on this earth who even remembers that the cabins exist, they certainly don't care enough to go to the trouble of paying a visit.
The structures poke their sturdy crowns through the tangle of foliage, looking for all the world like something out of a nursery rhyme ... except that all three are made of brick.
Pity there's no door on the nearest, and most easily accessible of the three.
Yes, otherwise I could knock and say, "Little pig, little pig ... Let me come in!"
Only there's no one inside to hear ... Yet.
Along with the roof, the wooden door has long since rotted away in the unforgiving, damp climate, leaving only a few scattered, spongy remains of hand-hewn timbers. But a door can easily be replaced.
A cursory examination of the interior, courtesy of a handy flashlight, shows that there are no windows here, and no other doors. Where the ceiling used to be, a jungle of moss and leaves block out the light. The only thing that breaks the expanse of brick wall within is a shallow fireplace. There doesn't seem to be even a toehold, should a future prisoner want to escape the sturdy cell by scaling a wall.
This will do. This will do quite nicely.
It's obvious that no living soul has been out here recently, though a proliferation of webbing and a rustling in the overhead foliation indicates countless living creatures have made the old slave cabin their home.
Bats, snakes, rodents, reptiles, bugs, spiders ... It will be a daunting job to rid just one of the three cabins of its furry and creepy-crawly twenty-first-century residents.
But one cabin is all that's needed.
One cabin that has been outfitted with everything that's needed for this ... project.
Yes, project is a good way to think of it. It makes it all sound very businesslike — which is precisely what this is, when you get right down to it.
He had no idea about this part, of course. No reason for that.
No, this is strictly my own little scene.
Time to roll up the sleeves — and get to work.
The third floor is always stuffy at this time of year. Electric box fans in two of the windows do little to cool the sultry air.
Perched beside the third window in her wheelchair, Jeanne Remington longs for a genuine breeze as she gazes down at the darkening grounds of Oakgate.
Her late brother refused to have central air-conditioning installed in the old house, saying he didn't want to rip apart the walls to install the necessary ductwork. Nor would he even allow window units in the bedrooms; the wiring was so old the extra strain would be a fire hazard, and replacing it was, again, too much trouble.
Anyway, he liked to say, generations of Remingtons got through Georgia summers without air-conditioning. We don't need it.
Maybe he didn't ...
But up here in the attic, there are only three windows that open, all of them small dormer-style. The others are even smaller: round bull's-eyes sitting high beneath the eaves, lacking even window treatments to block out the afternoon sun.
Gilbert never did spend excessive time worrying about anybody else's comfort, though. He was a difficult, self-centered man, to say the least.
A challenging boy, too, from what Jeanne can remember — when she chooses to remember anything at all about her childhood.
She was a few years younger than her brother, and frequently exasperated by his daring antics ... when she wasn't feeling sorry for him as he endured his father's harsh punishment for sins real and imagined.
She probably should have been grateful that she never had to endure being locked in her room, or having her mouth washed out with soap, or, far worse, being beaten with a leather belt.
Oddly, though, along with pity, she felt a strange resentment whenever her brother suffered at their father's hands. Not just resentment toward the man who dealt the harsh punishment, but resentment toward her brother.
Sometimes she could almost convince herself that any attention from the man she called Father would be better than none at all.
But he ignored her. Totally. For as long as she could remember. He didn't discipline her, barely spoke to her, never even pretended to love her.
She didn't comprehend the reason until her eighth birthday, when she found herself in tears, once again, because of something Father said — or, more likely, failed to say. That was when her big brother told her the truth: Gilbert Remington wasn't her real father, and he knew it. In fact, everyone in the household knew it. Everyone but Jeanne.
In retrospect, she and Mother were probably fortunate that Father didn't throw them both out of the house. His old-fashioned pride kept the family intact, if only for appearances' sake.
If Savannah was the most genteel of Southern cities, Father, with his impeccable manners, was the most genteel of its residents.
The first Gilbert Xavier Remington was an expert at keeping up the public charade. But in private, he had no use for Jeanne or her mother, Marie. He saw to it that neither of them would inherit a penny of the family fortune, and stipulated that if his son died without heirs, he was to leave his estate to a public trust — not to his sister.
That didn't happen. Gilbert II lost his wife and both of his sons years ago, but he has heirs: three grandchildren.
You can't resent them, or Gilbert, for that matter, Jeanne reminds herself. Your brother did more for you than you ever could have hoped or expected.
Unlike his father, Gilbert II had a heart. He must have. Because he clearly felt sorry for Jeanne. Especially when her mind started to go, just as Mother's did so many years ago.
Or so everyone believes.
Father isn't the only Remington who's an expert at charades.
* * *
"Let's go into town and have dinner," Royce suggests, giving Charlotte's hand a squeeze.
"Town," she knows, is not the Achoco Island's commercial strip but rather Savannah, about forty-five minutes' drive north of here.
"Here" is Grandaddy's vintage red brick, black-shuttered, white-pillared mansion.
Once a thriving plantation producing rice and indigo, Oakgate lies on the top third of the island, amidst the coastal marsh not far from the northernmost causeway. Its boundaries once encompassed several thousand acres of the island's narrower upper end, including a rice mill and brick slave cabins that now lie in ruins deep in the marsh. When the rice industry waned following the Civil War, the Remingtons sold off the southernmost parcels of land, traded for a prosperous paper mill.
Years before Charlotte was born, Remington Paper was swallowed up by an internationally renowned conglomerate, Global Paper Corporation; its operation moved to the Midwest, the paper mill was razed and a low-income housing development built on its site.
Grandaddy reinforced his position as one of the wealthiest men — and the family name among the most prominent — in coastal Georgia. As the local newspaper's social columnist once wrote: Boston has the Kennedys, New York the Rockefellers, Delaware the Duponts, and Savannah the Remingtons.
What the press failed to note is that unlike his Northern counterparts, Grandaddy wasn't exactly a philanthropist. The world never knew — or at least the press refrained from mentioning — his frugality. His children and grandchildren were provided with perfunctory trust funds, but he was determined to control the family purse strings until he died. His sons, who had been content with their figurehead positions in the mill, were equally content to live off the profits as long as they could afford their bon vivant lifestyles.
"What do you say?" Royce is asking. "Some seafood, a nice glass of Pinot Grigio ..."
"The Pinot Grigio is definitely tempting. I wish there were a bottle in the house, though ... That way we wouldn't have to go out." But there's no liquor here at Oakgate. Grandaddy didn't imbibe, or condone it in others, or allow the stuff to cross his threshold.
"Oh, let's go. Maybe we can even catch a movie after we eat. It'll get your mind off things."
"I shouldn't really be out socializing in public tonight," Charlotte reminds her husband. "It doesn't look right."
His brown eyes overcast with understanding, Royce nonetheless shakes his head and urges, "Come on, Charlotte. We're not staying on the island."
"Grandaddy wasn't exactly anonymous in Savannah, and neither am I. People will say, 'Look at her, out celebrating all those millions she just inherited.'"
That disapproving comment was uttered by Grandaddy himself about the widow of Dr. Silas Neville, his lifelong friend, when she showed up at the hospital ball in a red gown just weeks after the funeral.
"Who cares what people think?" Royce asks.
"Not me, but ..."
Oh, who are you kidding, Charlotte?
The magnolia blossom doesn't fall far from the tree, or so Grandaddy liked to say. The Remingtons have always played by the rules of polite Southern society. Charlotte was raised to be a lady at all times.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Final Victim"
Copyright © 2006 Wendy Corsi Staub.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
THE NEXT TO DIE,
Books by Wendy Corsi Staub,
PART I - THE FIRST VICTIM,
PART II - THE SECOND VICTIM,
PART III - THE THIRD VICTIM,
PART IV - THE FOURTH VICTIM,
PART V - THE FINAL VICTIM,