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Authors: Jennifer Blake

Night of the Candles

BOOK: Night of the Candles
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Night of the Candles
Jennifer Blake
Fawcett (1978)

Lovely Amanda Trent hadn't known, when she came to the decaying Monteigne mansion to give her cousin Amelia a valuable family heirloom, that her cousin had recently died under mysterious circcumstances. Nor did she know that sheh so strongly resembled the deceased.

But soon after her arrival, strange things began to happen to her. Inexplicable things that couldn't happen. And suddenly Amanda realized that she was slowly begin guided from beyond into a dead woman's life, a dead woman's romance - and, quite possibly, a dead woman's grave...

Chapter One

THE house stood stark and tired on its hill, a plain white antebellum house with four square columns across the front and two chimneys at each end thrusting toward a darkening sky. Its sloping roof was made of gray and aged cypress shingles. Utilitarian black shutters were fastened back from tall narrow windows under the shadowy overhang of the upper and lower galleries. The only concession to ornament was the black wrought-iron grilles that covered the lower half of the bottom windows, grilles that matched the iron fence with its spiked top enclosing the house with a tiny lawn of parched grass and a spreading chinaberry tree.

Beyond the fence the long dry grass was dotted with the flagrant yellow of bitterweed. A long winding drive lined with dust-coated trees curved before the house. A wagon track led away to the left to barns and outbuildings seen vaguely through the trees.

Amanda Trent pulled her hired gig to a stop before the wrought-iron gate, and then sat for a moment with the reins in her hand, a frown puckering the white skin between her brows. The place looked deserted. Nothing moved behind the windows of the house. There was no sign of activity about the yard. The only sounds were the jingle of the harness as the livery horse stomped to dislodge a persistent horsefly and the sighing of the wind through the yellowing leaves of the chinaberry.

Still, there was nothing she could do but get down. She had come all this way. Her conscience would not let her retreat now.

Wrapping the reins around the whip handle standing in its socket, she looked about her for her petit point reticule. Looping it over her wrist, she bunched her skirts in one hand, placed her foot on the metal step, and jumped lightly down.

As she touched the iron gate, it swung open with a warning squawk of rusty hinges. She paused a moment, her nerves quivering, a momentary fright beating up into her throat at the loud sound in the stillness. A bleak depression gripped her, a sense of abandoned hope. Was it something within herself, in her weariness after a long day in the gig rattling over rough roads? Was it something in the atmosphere, a combination of the autumn droop of the leaves on the trees and the twilight hour? It must be. It was nonsense to suppose that it was the effect of the house before her, though in all truth it appeared barren enough to give pause to a more sensitive person than herself. With a faint curve of good humor on her mouth for her moment of foolishness, she passed through the gate and started along the brick walk, covered with the searching tentacles of Bermuda grass, toward the steps.

Suddenly there was a deep growling sound. A gray dog standing as tall as her waist appeared from around the side of the house. He had the huge head of a mastiff and the rangy body of a hound. His eyes were strange, nearly opaque, with the glazed look of cracked marbles. His yellow teeth were bared in a snarl.

Amanda stopped, standing absolutely still, her wide eyes fixed on the animal. A part of her mind recognized that this was no ordinary watchdog. She knew she must not show fear.

But the dog kept coming, a continuous rumbling in his throat. A few feet from her he dropped into a crouch, ready to leap. Blindly she flung her arm up to cover her throat and drew in her breath to scream.

“Down!”

At the harsh masculine command the dog wavered.

“Down, Cerberus!”

The dog flattened himself against the ground, his ears back. He was obedient to the voice of authority, but in his peculiar eyes there seemed to burn a lust for the taste of her blood.

Amanda breathed a trembling sigh of relief so deep it was almost a shudder. She dropped her hand, clenching it on her reticule, and then raised her eyes to the dog’s master.

He stood in the open doorway, one hand braced against the frame, his face hidden in the dimness. He wore an open-necked shirt with the sleeves rolled above his elbows and rough breeches tucked into riding boots. Amanda received the impression of height, of darkness, and of a closed-in countenance hastily assumed, as if something about her had shocked him.

“I apologize for your fright,” he said in clipped tones that were devoid of feeling. “Cerberus does not like visitors.”

Cerberus — the three-headed dog with a collar of snakes who guarded the underworld. It was not so unusual here in the South to find people and animals named for mythological characters. In the not-too-distant past many had had the leisure and, due to the classical revival the inclination, to study Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. Her own grandfather had been addicted to the Greek and Roman poets and was fond of classical allusions. Still, few, when the time came to choose a name, settled on the more repellent characters of the ancient legends.

“I … I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to trespass.”

He glanced toward the gig waiting before the gate, then returned his gaze to her. His eyes merely passed over her, but she was sure he had missed no detail of her toilette — the polonaise and skirt of smoke gabardine trimmed with black braid, her bonnet of black straw, her side-buttoned shoes. Acutely uncomfortable, she wondered if there was dust on her face or in her auburn hair.

“You came alone?”

“Why, yes,” she answered, startled by the sharp tone.

“It wasn’t a very intelligent thing to do. It will be night soon, and the roads have been thick with … unpleasant characters … these days.”

She took in his meaning at once. The carpetbag rule in Louisiana was entering its sixth year. There was great political unrest in the state. The dark — and robes made of sheets — was being used to cover much of the struggle for power that was taking place. But many crimes other than political could be covered with the night and a sheet.

Though she was aware of the dangers, she felt bound to defend herself. “I have always driven myself. In any case, I didn’t intend to be out so late.”

“Are you lost then?” he asked with the economy of words of a man with other, more important, things on his mind.

“I don’t think so. I was for a time, but then I was directed to this house. I’m looking for a man, Jason Monteigne.”

At the name stillness came over the man in the doorway. Slowly he straightened and stepped forward into the evening light. When he spoke there was a soft note of dread in his voice mixed with a timbre that was somehow menacing.

“What need have you with Jason Monteigne?”

The dog growled again at the sound, his hackles rising.

“Truthfully, nothing,” Amanda said, quelling the impulse to step back a pace. “I really wanted his wife, Amelia Trent Monteigne. She is my first cousin.”

The change came from within. His eyes seemed to catch flame with a blazing pain before they hardened into the frozen fire of emeralds. The color drained from his face, leaving it like a bronze mask with his features chiseled upon it — the thick arched brows and high cheekbones, the high-bridged nose and firmly molded mouth.

Amanda knew, and she wanted to stop him, to keep him from voicing the words that would give such hurt. She could not.

“My wife is dead,” he said, and the burning light in his eyes was suddenly gone.

“I … see.” Amanda dropped her gaze to her gloved fingers as she began to tear at the strings of her reticule. “We didn’t know. I … don’t know what to do, but perhaps … that is … my grandfather wanted her to have this. Perhaps you would…”

Fumbling in the small cloth handbag attached to her wrist, she drew forth a necklace of opals and garnets set in gold and thrust it toward him. Her fingers, she saw, were trembling so violently that the sections of gold made a faint clinking sound.

“What is it?” he asked, making no move to take it from her.

Behind Jason Monteigne a woman moved from the house, a conscious expression in her brown eyes, as if she had been listening. She sauntered to his side with a lazy insouciance and placed a possessive hand on his arm. She had hair like fluffy white cotton and a mouth that wore a look of sullen stubbornness.

“Why, Jason,” she drawled. “Anybody can see what it is. It’s a necklace.” She flicked a glance at Amanda, the glitter of self-interest barely hidden behind long, blond, almost white, lashes.

“Not just a necklace,” Amanda corrected her. Without realizing it she brought the piece of jewelry closer to her own body. “It is a legacy from my grandfather. It belonged to his wife, my … our, Amelia’s and my own … grandmother. She is dead now, and my grandfather died a month ago. He left this to Amelia in his will, to his only grandchild, beside myself. He called it the collar of Harmonia.”

“Take it, Jason,” the woman beside him said. “You are your wife’s heir.”

Jason did not answer her. He lifted his head, staring down at Amanda. “The collar of Harmonia was a bribe.”

“You’re right of course,” she said, her words tumbling over themselves, the effect of his unnerving stare. “But this one was called by the classical name because it was a wedding gift from my grandmother’s father on her wedding day more than fifty years ago. You must remember that in mythology the collar was originally given to Harmonia by the god Vulcan on her marriage to Cadmus. It was only later that it was used to curry favor. I have come a long way to bring the collar to … to its rightful owner. However, if you don’t want it…”

She could sense the stiffening of attitude in the man before her. So could the blond woman.

“Oh, come. Let’s not be hasty,” the other woman said, pressing her fingers into the muscles of Jason’s arm in a silent, physical appeal. “Why don’t you ask this lady to come into the house where we can talk about it in comfort? I’m sure she would like to wash the dust from her face and hands and take some refreshment.”

Amanda smiled, grateful for the offer of hospitality though it was not hard to recognize the motive behind it. She was torn between what she conceived to be her duty to turn over the necklace and a reluctance to see the collar of Harmonia fall into the hands of the woman before her. She would be glad for a few moments to think. Jason hesitated, his reluctance to proffer his hospitality patent. His green eyes moved from the expectant woman beside him to Amanda’s tired and pale face. His lips tightened, then he gave way with a shrug and a mocking half bow, inviting Amanda to mount the steps and go before him into the house. As she went she could feel the eyes of the dog boring into her back.

Inside, the house was well furnished but shabby. It was obvious it had not been refurbished since the years of bounty before the War Between the States. The Turkish carpet which stretched the length of the entrance hall connecting the front and back galleries was threadbare down the center and before the doors of the principal rooms. The wallpaper, in a stylized pineapple pattern indicative of hospitality, was faded almost beyond recognition. Overhead, the bronze chandelier had only a handful of candles in its brackets instead of the five dozen it was designed to hold. Its teardrop lusters were dull, sadly in need of a vinegar bath. The sideboard against one wall also showed the effect of neglect. Its foot pieces were gray with dust, and the silver tea service, which occupied one end, was purple with tarnish.

Through the open door, Amanda caught a glimpse of the front parlor. Cold ashes lay caked beneath an Adams mantel. The straight lines of Federal furniture were plain in a small secretary and a pair of armchairs.

In keeping with the simplicity of the earlier era in which the house had doubtless been built, a plain staircase with a square newel post mounted to the second floor. If the house ran true to form, the upper rooms would follow the same plan as the lower with six spacious rooms, three on each side, leading off the main hall.

“If you will come with me?” the woman called Sophia said, irony lacing her tone as Amanda stood staring about her.

“Yes, of course,” Amanda said, flinging an embarrassed glance to where Jason Monteigne leaned in the doorway. The intensity of his gaze as he watched hastened her steps, and she mounted the stairs at the side of the white-haired woman.

“I appreciate your offer of hospitality,” Amanda said as they reached the upper landing.

The woman slanted her a small smile, but did not answer.

The bedroom into which she was shown was large and comfortable. It had its own fireplace with a white Carrara mantel flanked by windows on each side. A Brussels carpet strewn with pink cabbage roses on a maroon ground covered the floor. Crimson velvet draperies hung at the windows with lace curtains beneath them, while matching draperies were drawn back from the head of the great walnut tester bed. An armoire took up almost the whole of the opposite wall but for a tall connecting door into the next room. The wallpaper was of silver stripes with a heading of red roses intertwined with silver lace ribbon. At a glance the room seemed to have seen little wear. It had not been used in some time. A layer of dust covered everything, even the white drawn-work spread and pillow shams on the bed. A brown spider had made his web in the bowl on the washstand.

BOOK: Night of the Candles
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