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Something had been following me for days. Whether it was human, ghost or an in-betweenlike meI had no idea. I'd never caught more than a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. No more than a flicker of light or a fleeting shadow. But it was there even now, in my periphery. A darkness that kept pace. Turning when I turned. Slowing when I slowed.
I steadied my gait even as my heart raced, and I berated myself for having strayed too far from hallowed ground. I'd lingered too long at my favorite market, and now it was nearing on twilight, that dangerous time when the veil thinned, allowing those greedy, grasping entities to drift through into our world, seeking what they could never have again.
From the time I was nine, my father had taught me how to protect myself from the parasitic nature of ghosts, but I'd broken his every rule. I'd fallen in love with a haunted man, and now a door had been opened, allowing the Others to come through. Allowing evil to find me.
A car thundered down the street, and I tensed even as I welcomed such a normal sound. But the roar of the engine faded too quickly, and the ensuing quiet seemed ominous. The rush hour traffic had already waned, and the street was unusually devoid of pedestrians and runners. I had the sidewalk all to myself. It was as if everything had faded into the background, and the scope of my world narrowed to the thud of my footsteps and heartbeats.
I shifted the shopping bag to my other hand, allowing for a quick sweep to my left where the sun had set over the Ashley River. The mottled sky flamed like embers from a dying fire, the light casting a golden radiance over the spires and steeples that dotted the low skyline of the City of Churches.
It was good to be back in my beloved Charleston, but I'd been on edge ever since my return, the raw nerves a symptom of the emotional and physical trauma I'd suffered during a cemetery restoration in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But there was another reason I couldn't eat or sleep, a deeper unease that made me pace restlessly until all hours.
I drew a quivering breath.
The haunted police detective I couldn't get out of my mind or my heart. The mere thought of him was like a dark caress, a forbidden kiss. Every time I closed my eyes, I could hear the whisper of his aristocratic drawl, that slow, seductive cadence. With very little effort, I could conjure the scorching demand of his perfect mouth on mine
the honeyed trail of his tongue
those graceful, questing hands
Returning my focus to the street, I glanced over my shoulder. Whatever stalked me had fallen back or disappeared, and my fear eased as it always did when I neared hallowed ground.
Then, a bird called from somewhere in the high branches, the sound so startling I stopped in my tracks to listen. I'd heard that trill once before in the evening shadows of a courtyard in Paris. The serenade was like no other. Gentle and dreamy. Like floating in a warm, candlelit bath. I would have thought it a nightingale, but they were indigenous to Europe and by now would have made the three-thousand mile trek to Africa for the winter.
In the wake of the songbird, a fragrance floated down to me, something lush and exotic. Neither sound nor scent belonged to this cityperhaps even to this worldand a warning prickled my scalp.
I heard a whisper and turned, almost expecting to see Devlin emerge from the shadows the way he'd appeared to me from the mist on the night we met. I could still see him as he was thenan enigmatic stranger, one so darkly handsome and brooding he might have stepped straight from my adolescent fantasies.
But Devlin wasn't behind me. At this hour, he was probably still at police headquarters. I'd heard nothing more than the rustle of leaves, I told myself. The phantom whisper of my own longing.
And then, distantly, a child's laughter drifted over me, followed by a soft chant. Somehow I recognized the voice even though I had never heard it before, and an image of Devlin's dead daughter formed in my mind as clearly as if she stood before me.
Papa would have warned me to remember the rules. I recited them to myself as I turned slowly to scour the gathering twilight: Never acknowledge the dead, never stray far from hallowed ground, never associate with the haunted and never, ever tempt fate.
The ghost child's voice came to me again. Come find me, Amelia!
Why I didn't ignore her and continue on my way, I had no idea. I must have been enchanted. That was the only possible explanation.
The nightingale crooned to me as I left the sidewalk and followed a narrow alley to where an ornate gate opened into the walled garden of a private home. By entering, I ran the risk of being shot on sight for trespassing. Charlestonians loved their guns. But the danger didn't stop me, nor did Papa's rules because I'd fallen under that strange hypnotic spell.
Months ago, when I'd first seen Shani's ghost hovering at Devlin's side, she'd tried to make contact. That was why she'd followed me home that first night and left a tiny garnet ring in my garden. That ring had been a message just as surely as the heart she'd traced on my window. She wanted to tell me something. .
This way. Hurry! Before she comes
An icy foreboding clutched my spine. Danger was all around me. I could feel it closing in, but still I kept going, following the nightingale and that tantalizing scent through a maze of boxwood hedges and palmettos, through trails of evening primrose and midnight candy. The trickle of a fountain mingled with Shani's ethereal laughter and then the hair on my nape lifted as she started to chant:
"Little Dicky Dilver
Had a wife of silver.
He took a stick and broke her back,
And sold her to a miller.
The Miller wouldn't have her,
So he threw her in the river."
It was a ghastly rhyme, one that I hadn't heard in years, and the lines were made even more grotesque by the innocence of Shani's singsong.
Fighting that sinister lethargy, I turned to retrace my steps to the gate, but she'd materialized on the walkway behind me, a mere shimmer of light at first, and then slowly the outline of a child began to take shape as the garden grew colder. I was scaredterrified, actuallyand I knew that I was treading on dangerous territory. I was not only acknowledging the dead, but also tempting fate.
None of that seemed to matter at the moment. I couldn't turn away. I couldn't tear my gaze from that delicate specter that now barred my exit.
She wore a blue dress with a matching ribbon in her hair and a sprig of jasmine tucked into the lace trim at her waist. A mane of wiry curls framed her tiny face, giving her a winsome loveliness that stole my breath. She was lit by the softest of auras, silvery and diaphanous, but her features were clear to me. The high cheekbones, the dark eyes, the cafe-au-lait complexion spoke to her Creole heritage, and I fancied I could see a bit of her mother in that gossamer visage. But not Devlin. The Goodwine influence was far too dominant.
Very deliberately, the ghost child plucked the stem of jasmine from the lace and held it out to me.
I knew better than to take it. The only way to deal with ghosts was to ignore them, pretend not to see them.
But it was too late for that. Almost of its own volition, my hand lifted and I reached for the flowers.
The ghost floated closertoo closeuntil I could feel the death chill emanating from her tiny form. My fingers brushed the creamy blossoms she held out. The petals felt real to me, as warm and supple as my own skin. How that could be so, I had no idea. She had brought them with her from the other side. The blooms should have been withering. For you.
She didn't speak but I heard her just the same. Her voice in my head was sweet and lyrical, like the faint tinkle of a crystal bell. I lifted the jasmine to my nose and let the heady perfume fill my senses.
Will you help me?
how?" I heard myself ask her. My own voice sounded distant and hollow, like an echo. She lifted a tiny finger to her lips. "What's wrong?"
She seemed to fade as the air in the garden trembled and shifted. My heart was still racing, and I could see the rime of my breath mingling with a milky vapor that curled up out of the shadows. There was an odd copper taste in my mouth as if I had bitten my tongue. I felt no pain. I felt nothing at all except an icy fear that metas-tasized from my chest down into my limbs, paralyzing me.
The jasmine slipped through my numb fingers as the hair at my nape bristled. The night went deadly silent. Everything in the garden stilled except for that coil of mist. I watched, mesmerized, as it slithered toward me, twisting and writhing like a charmed cobra. The tension humming along my nerve endings was unbearable, as if the lightest touch could shatter me.
But when the contact came, it wasn't light at all. The blow was quick and brutal, propelling me backward with such force, I lost my balance. Tripping over a small garden statue, I went sprawling. The ceramic cherub shattered on the stone pavers, and a moment later, the sound of voices inside the house dimly registered. A part of me knew the residents must have heard the racket, but my attention was still riveted on the walkway. Another entity had formed in the garden, and she hovered over me, dead eyes blazing in the deepening twilight.
Mariama. The ghost child's mother. Devlin's deceased wife.
In one petrified moment, I took in the filmy swirl of her dress, the bare feet, the hedonistic spill of curls down her back. And that mocking smile. Terrifyingly seductive. Even in death, Mariama's mystique was pervasive, palpable. And so was her cunning.
Something Devlin had once told me about her flitted through my mind. According to her beliefs, a person's power wasn't diminished by death. A bad or sudden passing could result in an angry spirit wielding enough force to come back and interfere with the lives of the living, even enslave them in some cases. I had always wondered if that was her intent. To keep Devlin shackled to her with his grief and guilt. She sustained her existence on this side of the veil by devouring his warmth and energy, but the moment he let her go, the moment he started to forget, would she simply fade away?
I huddled there shivering, scolding myself for having followed Shani's voice and that strange songbird. I shouldn't have allowed myself to be lured into that garden. This was Mariama's doing. I understood that now. She was interfering in my life, warning me to stay away from Devlin.
I felt a sting and looked down to find my hand covered in ants. I shook them off as I scrambled to my feet. In that brief moment when my eyes left the ghosts, they'd vanished, leaving nothing but a lingering frost in their wake.
The back door opened, and a woman stepped out on the porch. "Who's there?" she demanded. She didn't sound frightened at all, merely annoyed.
I didn't know how to explain my presence in her garden so I grabbed my shopping bag and ducked behind a stand of azaleas even though I felt like a coward for doing so. I saw her shiver as she pulled a sweater around her body and gazed out into the shadows.
If I hadn't still been so shaken by the ghostly encounter, I might have made my presence known instead of skulking in the bushes like a thief. I could have made up some story, told the woman that I'd chased my cat through her gate, then offered to pay for the broken statue. I was on the verge of doing exactly that when I spotted the silhouette of a man behind her in the doorway.
"I thought I heard something," she said over her shoulder, and then he came out on the porch to join her.
My heart contracted as though from another powerful blow. I recognized the man, her companion. It was Devlin. My Devlin.
Now I knew why I had been enticed into this garden. I had been meant to see this.
Mariama appeared at Devlin's side, and I could feel her glacial eyes on me, taunting and mesmeric. Her hair tangled in the breeze, and the gauzy hem of her sundress wrapped snakelike around her legs. I could see right through her, and yet, she seemed at that moment as vital as any living thing.
Her hand lifted to Devlin's face, and she stroked his cheek, slowly, possessively, her gaze focused on mine. I didn't hear her in my head the way I'd heard Shani, but her message was clear just the same. She would never let him go.
My chest contracted painfully, as though an invisible hand had reached inside my chest and gripped my heart. I sucked in air, willing my heartbeats to slow even as my legs trembled and weakened. Something horrifying was happening to me in that garden. I was being drained, my warmth and energy usurped by an entity that had made me her enemy.
Papa had cautioned me so many times: What the dead want more than anything is to be a part of our world again. They're like parasites drawn to our energy, feeding off our warmth. If they know you can see them, they'll cling to you like blight. You'll never be rid of them. And your life will never again be your own.
The ghost laughed at me now as though she'd heard Papa's warning, too.
Shani materialized on the other side of her father and tapped his leg, willing his attention. He never looked down, never so much as flinched. He couldn't feel her. He hadn't a clue she was there. His focus was entirely on the brunette. He came up behind her and slipped his arms around her narrow waist. Her head dropped back to his shoulder, and the intimate murmur of their voices drifted across the garden to where I crouched in my hiding place.
He didn't kiss or caress her the way a lover might. Instead, he just stood there holding her as his ghosts floated around them.
I couldn't move or breathe. I couldn't look away even though it was quite possibly the worst moment of my life.