From a New York Times–bestselling author: In New Orleans, a young woman uncovers a family conspiracy only to find solace in a man with a dangerous past.
In nineteenth-century New England, flame-haired Skye Cameron was proud to be named for the misty island in the Scottish Hebrides where her father had been born—but it was the Creole heritage of her seductive mother, Louise, that would determine her destiny.
In the wake of her father’s death, with finances dwindling, Louise has accepted an invitation to return to her family home in New Orleans and start fresh. But as soon as Skye sets foot in her Uncle Robert’s dark, latticed mansion in the French Quarter—one ruled by a suspicious quadroon housekeeper—she begins to fear her homecoming is not what it seems. Feeling more outsider than family, Skye finally finds love, comfort, and trust in a man who both provokes and excites her. Justin Law’s scandalous reputation doesn’t stop her from developing feelings for the intense and determined stranger.
Now, from the Vieux Carré to the Garden District, Skye must navigate the darkest corners of New Orleans—a pawn in a dangerous game designed to destroy her.
With this novel, Edgar Award–winning author Phyllis A. Whitney once again proves why she is “the Queen of the American gothics” (The New York Times).
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Phyllis A. Whitney including rare images from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
Whitney resided in several places, including New Jersey. She traveled to every location mentioned in her books in order to better depict the settings of her stories. She earned the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1988, the Agatha in 1990, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Midland Authors in 1995. Whitney was working on her autobiography at the time of her passing at the age of 104.
Read an Excerpt
It did not begin in New Orleans at all, though that is where it came to a climax. It began on a soft spring day in the little New England town where I had grown up. A day of apple blossoms and warm golden sun, when we could believe for the first time that the long winter was really past. So calm and bright a day to be so filled with disaster.
I had no knowledge then of my enemy. I had never heard of a man from Leadville whose name was Justin Law. In that year of 1880 I was twenty-two — which was getting on for marrying — but I knew that I would marry soon, for I was in love with Tom Gilman, and he with me. My only rival was my mother. But this time — oh surely this time — Tom was mine.
If you are to understand this story, it will be necessary to understand my feeling about my mother. That is, insofar as I am able to understand it myself. It is very strange to so love and so hate a person from one breath to another as I have loved and hated my mother.
Who could not love her and wish her well and trust her anew, when she seemed at once so lovely and guileless and herself utterly trusting? Yet she was also a born coquette, adept at those feminine wiles so natural and appealing in southern women, though constantly shocking to the New England-bred. It was my father's delight, and also his doom, that he loved her with so deep and tolerant a love that he suffered her actions as one might suffer the flittings of an iridescent dragonfly, with no thought of controlling its flight. I had little in me of such tolerant love that day early in May when I went down to the apple orchard to revel in its scents and delicate hues.
But first I must tell you my name so there may be a beginning of acquaintance between us. It is Skye — Skye Cameron. There are some who think this a strange name, but I am proud to be named for that far misty isle in the Hebrides, where my father, Bruce Cameron, was born and grew to young manhood. I am proud of everything that ties me to my father, but I have always been afraid of those things in me that are my mother's.
Not that I ever resembled her outwardly, for hers is the dark beauty of the New Orleans Creole, blue-black hair, and eyes the warm velvet hue of brown pansies. She is not very tall and her bones are slight, so that she gives the impression of being delicate and fragile. Many have had the impulse to protect her from all that is harsh and hurtful — even those who know she does not wilt easily.
I am taller than she, and my own bones are larger, giving me the look of one who is strong and solidly planted. My hair is a wild red color, of which I have been desperately ashamed, for it is far from a fashionable hue. There are matching red freckles across my nose to mar me further. I can remember the way her friends would commiserate with Mama over my unfortunate hair, and I know it distressed her. She could pucker my skin with lemon juice in futile efforts to control my freckles, but there was nothing she could do about my startling hair. Papa said I was a red-gold Scottish lassie and for her to let me be. But as I grew older I learned to bind my hair severely back and hide its length and weight in the confines of a snood.
Mama did not approve of the severity either. She said I wore both my hair and my Creole mouth in too prim a line. My mouth was hers, and it troubled me. I wanted no soft, full lips that could go easily tremulous, or widen in lilting gaiety until a dimple was pressed into my cheek. I did not want to win men to me with that strange magic that was my mother's. I wanted respect and a granting of my intelligence — not blind adoration which noted only exterior grace. Later Justin Law was to call me in scorn a Puritan, though by that time I had come to recognize the dangerous fires that could burn within me, smothering all Puritan coolness. In New England, however, I had only impatience for what I regarded as light-minded in my mother and would not emulate myself.
Oh, I knew the spells she could weave! I had watched them all my life. Those lavish parties she loved to give, shocking our frugal neighbors, since my father's salary as schoolmaster scarcely allowed for such entertaining. But when some brilliant piece of writing by Bruce Cameron would appear in a magazine, he would likely as not bestow the money he received upon my mother and she would squander it gaily on a party. Every child in town fawned on me as my birthday drew near, wanting to be invited, knowing that my mother's parties were like no others seen in that part of the country. She could laugh like the youngest one there, and take their hands in dancing games, tease and enchant them. And afterwards, when we were replete with ice and those delicious confections she made of brown sugar and pecans, so strange to the northern tongue, she would gather us all about her and tell us wonderful stories.
She had married my father and come to the North shortly before the war and had returned to New Orleans only once during the carpetbagger government. But she could make us shiver with tales of the time when "Beast" Butler ruled the city. She could make us hate the wicked Yankees who had waged war upon her beloved Crescent City, and revel in her accounts of the bravery of New Orleans women, the gallantry of its men. Even I, who had heard these tales so many times, fell under her spell.
But later when we ran outside to play and were away from her witchery, it was I who recovered first in helpless anger. I can remember shaking a ten-year-old boy in fury when I was only nine. "Don't be so stupid!" I raged at him. "Don't you see — we are the Yankees she hates! We are the villains of her stories!" But they could never see that and only thought me crazy-wild.
Oh, I know how eaten I was with jealousy in those childhood days. Because, while I never admitted it to myself, I longed to have my friends crowd about me, admire me, love me — as they did my mother. Yet while I yearned I held myself apart and could not reach out to them as I longed to do. Papa said my eyes could be as blue-gray as Loch Dunvegan on a rare day when the mists drew apart, but mostly, I'm afraid, I made my eyes chill with the thoughts I hid behind them.
You must not think that Louise, my mother, was not a good mother to me. She loved me warmly, even while she despaired over me. And later, when young men came to the house she welcomed them and sang my praises till they were weary. Looking at her, they forgot to look at me, forgot her married state and the thirty-eight years she wore so lightly. She could not bear it otherwise. If a man looked at her without admiration, she must fly at once to a mirror to search for wrinkles and gray hairs.
All the while I dreamed of a stranger. A man who would be as strong and tall as my father. But unlike my father he would not care for my mother's sort of woman. He would want a woman like me — someone with depths my mother never dreamed of — or so I wanted to think in my vain young fantasies.
Tom Gilman came to town as a stranger. I met him away from home and we grew to be friends. He was neither tall nor strong, but rather shy, with a thin, sensitive face and an unhappy past. He needed me as no one had ever needed me before. I could comfort him and listen to him, talk with him, as with no one else my own age. Surely this must be the love I had longed for and dreamed about.
Papa was less sure. Sometimes I felt that he did not wholly approve of Tom Gilman, but wanted to give me every opportunity to know my own heart. For once he was almost unkind to Mama. He would whisk her away when Tom came to call on me, and even scold her gently when she wanted to tell him of my housewifely virtues. For a little while I had Tom to myself. Or so I thought.
Then I went down to the apple orchard that day and found them there. My mother sat on the warm green earth, with dandelions springing up about her. Indeed, she held one in her fingers. Tom Gilman lay with his head in her lap, staring dreamily up through apple boughs while she stroked his cheek with a yellow dandelion. She was all pity for him. I knew that in the moment I stood staring at them. How could she not pity him, how could she not be kind to this poor young man who had fallen in love with her and could not have her because she was forever my father's. That was the strange thing I had always to recognize, the thing that made my father's life bearable. There seemed to be no falseness in her, no betrayal of his love. At least there was none in those New England days.
They did not see me and I fled back to the house — straight into my father's arms. I sobbed against his broad chest as I had not done since I was a child and he held me fiercely, soothing and calling me "lassie," as only he could say the word. Through my stormy weeping he learned what had happened. For the first time that I could remember, I saw him angry with my mother.
He strode down to the orchard, though I begged him not to, and he sent Tom packing. What he said to Mama I will never know, but he frightened her, for she went weeping into the house, sick with what she regarded as bitter injustice. Of course Tom would marry me, she wailed — who else? And she never understood that I could never again want him.
It was his anger that was my father's undoing. Anger did not come to him easily and when it did it was an earth-shaking thing. It would have been better if he had beaten Tom — better perhaps for them both. But that was not his way. So all the dark, stormy fury was unreleased and must be drained out of him through physical labor.
For all his intellectual interests, his teaching and his writing, Papa loved to work with his hands. He indulged in a bit of farming and kept our small house in repair himself. Such labor gave him both physical satisfaction and time to think, he said. On this day he had been mending shingles on the roof, atop a high ladder, and when my mother had gone into the house, he went back to his work. He was a man of sanity and good sense; a man of wise caution under ordinary circumstances. But that day poison flowed through him, driving him to rage, making him uncertain of his movements.
I had gone to my own room, to sit there dully, staring at the walls, feeling that my life had somehow come to an end. It was not only Tom who was gone; it was my hope and my courage. The ladder went up past my window and I will never forget my stunned horror when it tilted, teetered for a moment, then crashed to the ground, carrying my father with it.
A moment later my scream must have echoed through the house, for my mother heard and went past me in the hall, her face white with fear as she rushed downstairs and out into the yard. My own trembling legs would not carry me so quickly and by the time I reached the place where he had fallen, Mama knelt beside him, murmuring his name over and over, "Bruce! Bruce, my darling." Papa's eyes were closed and he did not speak or move, did not respond to the ministering of her hands. She looked up at me, her eyes smoky-dark in her white face.
My father's body did not die that day and we did not know till later the thing which had happened to his spirit. Our doctor came and did what he could. On later visits he grew increasingly grave. It was probable, he said, that my father would never walk again. It was probable that all his splendid manhood must lie inert in a bed for whatever years of life remained to him. An injury to the spine had left his legs useless.
I can still remember that dreadful afternoon when the doctor told my mother the truth. She stood in the bedroom doorway, listening to his soft mumble. I had pulled a stool near the bed to be close to Papa, and neither of us could hear the words he was saying. But we could see Mama's face and hear the despair in her voice.
"What is to become of me if this is true?" she cried.
We heard the doctor's tones then clearly enough. "Madam," he said, "it is your husband about whom I am concerned. I will be here to see him again day after tomorrow. Good day, Mrs. Cameron."
Mama did not show him to the door. She turned back to us, shaken and trembling. "It isn't true!" she cried. "It can't be true!" Papa's lips barely moved. "Tell me what he said, Louise."
Mama was top shattered to withstand his plea, though I think she should not have told him until he was stronger. He listened until she was done, then closed his eyes and turned his head to the wall. He lay like that for the remainder of the day and would not speak to us. His courage might not have failed him for himself, but I think he gave up at that moment because of my mother. He had failed her and he wanted only to die.
Mama grew thin with worry in the weeks that followed. She could cook gruels and broths to tempt any invalid's appetite, but nothing had prepared her to take on responsibility as head of a family. She had been bred to lean on a man for guidance and now the man lay helpless in bed, his vigor gone, his power of decision as paralyzed as his legs.
The most frightening thing to me was the fact that we seemed unable to reach him in any way. He spoke no word of complaint, but once I saw his eyes follow my mother in agony as she went out of the room and the knowledge of his inner suffering brought me to my knees beside his bed in tears.
"It was my fault that this happened!" I sobbed. "If I had not gone down to the orchard that day ..." He spoke to me in the new, colorless tone that had become his since the accident. "'Tis no one's fault but mine."
Though I wept on, my head close to his on the pillow, no comforting hand reached out to touch my hair as it would have done before. I was so near to him that I could hear the catch in his light breathing, yet he was as far from me as the distant blue mountains I could see from his window.
It was Mama at length who made the decision. Or rather, it was made for her by her older brother who lived in New Orleans. I knew little of my uncle, Robert Tourneau, for my mother had never spoken of him with affection. I knew that her parents had died in a yellow fever epidemic when she was nine, and that she had been raised by a maiden aunt who had since died, and by her brother Robert, eleven years older than she. For all her love of New Orleans, she had been glad to marry my father and leave the home that belonged to her brother.
Now, however, in her need, she had written to Robert Tourneau. In the good days she had spent my father's savings prodigally. Now all income had stopped with Papa's injury and there was no one else to whom she could turn. I had proposed teaching school myself, but Mama grew indignant at the very thought. No daughter of hers should so demean herself. I must remember that I was half Creole and that Creole ladies did not work for a living. The fact that such work was preferable to starving made no slightest impression on my mother. Robert Tourneau, she pointed out, was a most successful lawyer who had recouped his losses in the fifteen years since the war. He also owned a shipping firm which ran steamboats and barges up and down the Mississippi. He was wealthy and would help us. Certainly no Creole would ever fail a member of his own family.
Uncle Robert did not fail us. He wrote what I felt was a most generous and courteous letter. Both he and his wife Natalie wanted us to make our home with them for the time being. Perhaps his own personal physician could do more for Bruce than northern doctors had. Uncle Robert had great confidence in him. At least we would have time in New Orleans to decide about the future. There was an order enclosed for sufficient money to cover our transportation south.
Mama seemed unreasonably indignant over the letter. "Why does he qualify the invitation?" she demanded. "That house is my home as well as his! He is only doing his duty."
I said nothing, but I determined not to have my opinion of this newly found Creole uncle beclouded by my mother's prejudice. I meant to go to New Orleans with an open mind, prepared to like the man who was coming to our aid in this moment of great need.
Mama read his letter aloud to Papa and her voice trembled in the reading. "We must go," she said. "There is no other way."
Papa's voice was weak, hardly more than a whisper. "As I recall, you bear your brother little love."
"I love New Orleans," Mama said, and now there was a hint of longing behind the words.
Papa closed his eyes and I saw something which hurt me more than all that had gone before. From one closed lid a tear coursed across his cheek and into the pillow. I turned away quickly and went out of the room. This breaking up of my father I could not bear to see. He had been a man of great courage. Now there was no will left in him — only weakness. Overnight he had crumbled and that was a frightful, an appalling thing to see.
Excerpted from "Skye Cameron"
Copyright © 1957 Phyllis A. Whitney.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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