Mississippi City, Mississippi, 1895
“Mr. Collander is expecting me.”
The primly dressed Negress took his card and nodded, at the same time swinging the door wide. Raeford Stone stepped into a broad entry with polished floors of heart pine and a staircase to his right. The young woman took his hat, then motioned to him. “This way.”
They’d not taken two steps when a door several paces up opened on their left, brightening the dim foyer. A short, pleasantly plump woman with dark-hair filled the portal. She didn’t look his way, but focused her attention into the room from where she came.
“I want her out of here, Joe. Immediately. She’s going to ruin everything, you know it as well as I.”
If Joe responded, Rafe didn’t know. The woman rolled her head on her shoulders and looked at the ceiling. Then, her back to them, she stepped into the foyer, slammed the door shut, and hurried away from him and the maid.
When the dark-haired shrew disappeared into the room at the end of the hall, the servant led him to the slammed door, knocked, then pushed it open and beckoned him inside.
A tall, middle-aged man, hands clasped behind his back, stood staring out a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows on the far wall of an opulent study.
“Mr. Collander, suh?”
“Mr. Stone to see you. You was expectin’ him?”
The man, stout himself by anyone’s standards, pivoted with surprising grace. “I am indeed. . . . Ah, ha,” he said, meeting Rafe’s eye before moving around a large desk, “you’re already in.” He caught up with Rafe in the middle of the room and ex-tended his hand. “Welcome to Mississippi. I trust you had a pleasant trip from Galveston?”
“I did, thank you.”
Her hand already on the doorknob, the black woman turned. “Lemonade or ice tea, Mr. Stone?” Collander asked.
“Tea, thank you.”
“I will have tea, also,” the man said to Stella. “Please sit, Mr. Stone.”
And sit he did, in a fine leather wing chair strategically situated in front of that most impressive desk. Collander took his seat behind it.
“Dorian Tatum contacted me yesterday. Says you’re interested in that old plantation house on the river, south of Natchez.”
“I am, sir.”
“It’s a beautiful site. The house was once a showcase, I understand, looking down on that bend in the river. River’s Bend. Do you know anything of the history?”
“Some. Actually, I’m an architect. I came across the house while studying pre-War homes in the Natchez-Rodney area. I believe it could be a showcase again.”
Josephus Collander laughed. “The place has attracted its share of curiosity seekers in the past. For all intents and purposes, no one has lived in it for over fifteen years. I’ve seen it once, seven years ago. It was in a bad state then. However, Dorian assures me you are legitimate.”
“I will tell you that I made a close inspection of the exterior before I ever started to trace ownership. I am aware of the condition of the house.”
Collander sighed. “You must consider my lack of attention to it reprehensible.”
Rafe looked around the rich room. Obviously the man had some means, but the upkeep of a house like River’s Bend would prove costly.
“Not at all. I understand it came to you by way of inheritance?”
Collander nodded with wide-eyed exaggeration. “By way of my wife’s grandaunt who herself acquired it by a fluke.” The man waved the matter away at the same moment a knock sounded on the door. It opened despite the lack of a reciprocating entrée, and Stella came in, carrying a tray with two crystal glasses filled with chunks of ice and lemon floating in amber brew. Both men rose, and Collander took the glasses, handing one to Rafe, who nodded to his host and thanked the servant.
“Sun-steeped and sweetened with sugar,” Collander said and took a big swallow.
Rafe sipped. Sweet was right, but it was also cold and wet, the perfect complement to this hot and humid late-October day.
Joe Collander took another swig, almost finishing his drink, then placed his mostly empty glass on Stella’s tray and eyed her warily.
“What?” he said finally.
“Miss Ophelia wanted you to know that Mr. Champion has got here.”
Collander’s expression soured.
“She say she wants you to—”
“Watch them from the window.”
Rafe could have sworn Stella smirked. “Yessuh,” she said.
“Thank you, Stella.”
The maid turned to Rafe, who put his empty glass on the tray. He smiled, she smiled, and then she left. Collander watched the door close behind her. “Only woman in the whole damn house who isn’t a pain in my ass, Mr. Stone. And this is a house full of women.”
Surprised, Rafe met the man’s eye. Collander winked and, turning his back on him, walked to the bank of windows. Out-side, on the lawn, Rafe had already heard the sound of feminine voices and high-pitched laughter, now interspersed with the boisterous shouts of a man. He walked toward the desk, from where he could see what Collander was looking at.
A blonde woman sat in a swing, suspended from the stout branch of a live oak tree. She was being pushed by a tall, dark-haired man over whom a plump brunette fussed and, apparently, gushed. Rafe was too far away to make out any of their features, but the build and carriage of the man indicated he was around his own age. The two women were probably younger, the brunette not yet over the silliness of girlhood.
“After the War, the house passed to some Merrifield woman up in Ohio. She was from the Vicksburg area, but had married and moved away years before the unfortunate conflict. She and the plantation’s last master were half siblings, I do believe. The family had been decimated by the War, so she was about the only one left to inherit.
“She died a number of years later. Her husband remarried, and he and his family were murdered in the house, as I understand it.” Collander glanced briefly over his shoulder at Rafe. “A sordid affair.”
A double entendre? Patricide, matricide, fratricide . . . incest. Shoot, sordid didn’t begin to describe the tangled relationships leading up to those murders. Rafe followed Collander’s gaze back to the threesome outside. The blonde jumped gracefully from the swing and started away from the other two. The young man followed, hindered somewhat by the pleasingly endowed brunette.
“My niece has become troublesome, Mr. Stone.”
Rafe was sorry, but he really didn’t care to know it. The young man, hurrying after the willowy blonde, stopped when the brunette tripped and almost fell trying to keep up. Well, yes, he guessed she had become somewhat of a problem—more for the dark-haired man than her uncle.
“The other young woman is your daughter?”
“The young man her intended?”
Josephus Collander tightened his lips and nodded. “That is our dearest hope.”
“And your niece is displaying some affection for him?”
Collander turned on his heel and looked Rafe over.
“Are you married, Mr. Stone?”
“You’ve an intended?”
Rafe hesitated before replying, “No.”
Collander smiled, then stepped to his desk and sat, motioning for Rafe to do likewise.
“The house was sold again after the murders. Bought by a Missouri banker for his daughter and son-in-law as a wedding gift. They lived there for a few months and had, in fact, begun renovations when they abruptly abandoned the place. Sub-sequently, the Missouri banker tried to rent it out. The renters stayed only a couple of weeks. Shortly thereafter, the banker sold the place, at a loss, to my wife’s uncle by marriage. The uncle died before he and my wife’s aunt did anything with it, and her aunt withered away. They were childless, and my wife inherited the property nine years ago. I’ve had neither the time nor the compunction to do anything with it.”
“Were repairs that daunting?”
“The property is reputed to be haunted.”
Rafe laughed, and Collander cocked his head.
“Don’t be too quick to scoff. That unique feature of the place apparently drove out the newlyweds and the renters.”
“By whom is the place haunted, Mr. Collander?”
The man shrugged. “I believe the ghost ties into the murders following the War.”
“So a more recent ghost?”
“And a dangerous one. Some speculate it is the ghost of the killer.”
“That would make the specter quite ominous.”
Collander picked up a paper weight, studied it, then placed it back on the polished surface of the desk. “Have you any prospective feminine interests, sir?”
Rafe frowned. “My feminine interest is restricted to women of an easy persuasion.”
“Wonderful, Mr. Stone, and in my opinion, only a fool ever loses interest completely in women of easy persuasion.” Collander leaned forward. “And now that we understand each other, how old are you?”
Josephus Collander might understand what the hell he was talking about, but Rafe sure the devil didn’t. “I’m twenty-nine. I’ll be thirty in January.”
Collander nodded. “And have you given any thought to settling down?”
“I have not.”
Collander leaned back in his chair. He was different now from the friendly man who offered refreshment and showed pride in and consideration for his servants. Collander was assessing him, weighing his options. He had a deal in mind, and that worried Rafe. Collander had turned into a businessman, which, in fact, is what he was.
“You have made a generous offer for the house. Much more than it’s worth.”
“I have the capital.”
“Your offer tells me you want that property very much.”
“I think I can do a lot with it.”
“Desperately,” Collander said, as if he hadn’t heard him. “You’ve shown me your hand, Mr. Stone.”
Rafe felt like he’d swallowed a brick. Despite that, he smiled. “I’m a damn lousy poker player, too.”
Collander pursed his lips. “Either you know something I don’t, or you are a fool, or ‘lousy’ is a gross understatement regarding your card-playing ability.”
Damn. Rafe leaned back, hoping he appeared as nonchalant as Collander. “I didn’t want to haggle with you over the price. I’d like to get started on the house before winter sets in. I hoped to make you an offer you could not refuse.”
“Winters are mild in this neck of the woods, sir.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m not from here.”
“You’re not from up north, either.”
No he wasn’t, nor was he about to tell the man where he was from.
Collander rolled himself into the desk’s kneehole.
“I don’t know why you want that property. I don’t believe you’re an architect. An adventurer would be my guess. The house is not for sale, Mr. Stone. . . .”
That brick in Rafe’s stomach crashed into his lower gut.
“. . . but I will give it to you as my niece’s dowry.”
The mad man continued to talk. Rafe stared at him, though he wondered why he considered the man mad. Proposals such as this were not unusual, historically. Still, he never considered himself a candidate for such an offer.
“. . . my stepsister’s daughter. She was orphaned when she was twelve and raised by her paternal grandmother. The woman died three months ago. Delilah’s been with my family since then. The girl, young woman actually, is quite charming . . .
If fawning over an inattentive man could be considered charming.
“. . . and beautiful.”
In truth, beauty was a subjective thing. Where he came from, the derričre of choice did have meatier hips, but he preferred a slender bottom, trim waist, and flat belly. Still, the little brunette, from a distance, appeared to have a pretty face, and a man could always find fringe benefits in a plump body.
“She’s nineteen and very well educated.”
Her youth was a good thing. Education was not necessarily a plus. Well-educated women often proved more trouble than they were worth. At least, that’s what he’d been told.
Collander stopped the sale’s pitch.
“You know nothing about me.”
“I know you can support her.”
And leave her, or beat her, or even murder her should he be so inclined. “I would think you’d have more requirements on your list.”
Collander made a sibilant sound. “I have an uncanny ability to size a man up within minutes.” He waved his hand over the room. “A key to my success.”
Still, were there no eligible men Collander did know upon whom he could foist his niece? But, of course, “knowing” worked both ways. There was more to this story than the girl’s simply being a silly chit. “What’s wrong with her?”
Josephus Collander sighed. “There’s nothing wrong with her, except that she’s penniless and. . . .”
“In need of a husband,” Rafe said when Collander hesitated.
“In need of a refuge, most assuredly.” The graying merchant laid his arms on his desk and leaned forward. “And you, Mr. Stone, have inadvertently provided me the opportunity to rid myself not only of a worthless piece of tax-draining real estate but also an unwanted guest.”
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