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The question echoed in Alexandra Chandlerâ€™s mind as she ventured to Belle Haven, the remote estate where stepsister Charlotte Steele had lived so secretly, loved so fearfully, and died so mysteriously. But Belle Haven did not welcome Alexandra. The sinister secrets of the Steele family were not for her to share. Secrets of the tormented cries that haunt the lonely halls at twilightâ€¦of the midnight sentinels who cast shadows by moonlight over Charlotteâ€™s tomb. If Alexandra is to unfold the cursed past she must surrender to the impassioned desires of Charlotteâ€™s husband Matthew, the handsome and cunning master of Belle Haven.
Charleston, South Carolina, 1850
For nearly two months now I had lived with the cold, heart-shattering fact that the stepsister who had been so dear to me was dead.
Repeatedly throughout the long voyage home to America from France, I had told myself that it just couldnâ€™t be true, until the words of denial ringed my head with tight bands of pain. Charlotte was gone! I had to accept what her husband, Matthew Steele, had made so clear in his letter.
In the open carriage I had hired to drive me out to Belle Haven, the Steele plantation, the grizzle-haired driver flicked the reins at the chestnut mare. I was nearly pitched off the seat when the animal lurched forward and one wheel plunged in and out of a deep rut. "Slow down, sir,â€ I entreated, grabbing my slipping bonnet with one hand, while the other hand flashed out to clutch the side of the rattling conveyance.
"Itâ€™s gettinâ€™ late,â€ he threw gruffly over his shoulder in a thick Southern accent. "I aim to be back in the city before dark.â€ He glanced up at the gathering dusk in the slate-gray sky. It was barely visible through the overspreading branches of moss-draped oaks and pungent pines that lined the lonely country road. "It ainâ€™t much farther now.â€
If heâ€™d meant that last remark as a measure of reassurance, the attempt fell flat. I could hardly be anything but apprehensive when we were moving at a dangerous speed that turned the damp spring air from cool to cold and the trees and dense, subtropical undergrowth into a blur. "Youâ€™re going to land us upside down in a ditch!â€ I shouted over the sound of pounding hooves. "Slow this carriage at once!â€
The driver muttered an expletive, and after several more hair-raising seconds he reluctantly obeyed.
By then my gloved fingers were gripping the lacquered buggy so tightly that I practically had to pry them free. How foolish Iâ€™d been to hire this slovenly man who smelled of spirits. Not that Iâ€™d had much of a choice. Only he and one other driver, of the handful Iâ€™d approached at the Charleston harbor, had been willing to journey the short distance out of the city in the approaching dark. And the other man had looked me over with a lascivious gleam that left no doubt heâ€™d been mentally divesting me of my cloak and matching burgundy traveling dress.
Suppressing a shiver that had nothing to do with the dampness, I settled back on the leather seat and returned my attention to the lush panorama. The city, with its teeming port, elegant homes, quaint shops, and cobbled streets, was a good fifteen minutes behind us. And the smell of bracing salt air had given way to the sweet fragrance of jasmine and honeysuckle that intermingled with the scent of pines. So far the only other person weâ€™d seen since leaving the city was a robust Negro man driving a heavily laden cart toward Charleston. As weâ€™d come upon him, he had slowed his vehicle as if he had expected to be stopped. Slaves, Iâ€™d heard, were not allowed in public without a pass, which they were obliged to show any white man upon demand. I was more than a little relieved when my driver did not stop and issue the unjust order.
From time to time we passed long drives that led to magnificent clapboard and brick homes, with handsome, columned verandas. Spacious lawns, stretching in every direction, edged striking flower gardens, magnolias, and weeping willows. Beyond the lawns were outbuildings, slave quarters, and endless acreage planted with rice or cotton.
To me, the picturesque countryside was a wilderness compared to congested Boston, where my stepsister and I were born and reared. Through business acquaintances Charlotte had met Matthew and married him after a whirlwind courtship in that city. Mere weeks before their initial meeting I had sailed for Paris to study under Madame Fontaine, the renowned couturiere. Now three years had come and gone, and Charlotte, just twenty-two, a scant ten months older than myself, was also gone.
Irene Pascoe lives near Seattle, Washington with her husband. She has three grown children and two grandsons. She enjoys the outdoors, tending her flower gardens, figuring out new computer programs, and having fun with family and friends.
Irene and her husband love to travel and have had the good fortune to see much of America as well as many distant countries. The majority of her books are set in places she and her husband have visited. Their next journey is a transatlantic cruise to Lisbon, Portugal.
Book Publisher: Wings e Press
No. of Pages: 261
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