Midnight Bayou Page 20

"I think I can do better than a randy teenager." Despite, he admitted, the fact that she made him feel like one. "What happened between you?”

"Drifted is all. I went up North to school, she stayed here. Fever burned itself out, and we slid into being friends. We are friends, Dec. She's one of my favorite people.”

"I know a warning when I hear one. You want all the girls, Remy?”

"Just thinking to myself that I'd hate to see two of my friends hurt each other. The two of you, boy, you come with a lot of baggage.”

"I know how to store mine.”

"Maybe. God knows she's worked hard to keep hers locked in the attic. Her mother-was He broke off when Effie screamed.

Beer spewed over the floor when Remy kicked the bottle over as he leaped up. He was through the kitchen door one stride ahead of Declan and shouting Effie's name.

"Upstairs." Declan veered left and charged up the kitchen stairway. "She's upstairs.”

"Remy! Remy, come quick!”

She sat on the floor, hugging her arms, and threw herself into Remy's the instant he crouched beside her. "Baby, what happened? Are you hurt?”

"No. No. I saw …" She turned her face into his shoulder. "In there. On the bed in there.”

Declan looked at the open door. The only bed in there was the one he'd imagined. Slowly, he pushed the door open the rest of the way. He could see the layer of dust on the floor, where it had been disturbed when Effie had started to go in. The sun beamed through the windows onto nothing but wood and faded wallpaper.

"What did you see, Effie?" Declan asked.

"On the bed. A woman-her face. She was dead.”

"Baby." Staring into the room, Remy stroked her hair. "There's nothing in there. Look now. There's nothing there.”

"But I saw …”

"Tell me what you saw." Declan knelt down beside her. "What did you see in there?”

"I saw …" She shuddered, then pressed her lips into a firm line. "Help me up, Remy.”

Though her face was stark white, she got to her feet and stepped to the doorway.

"Effie darling, you're shaking. Let's get you downstairs.”

"No. No, wait." Her eyes were wide, and her heart continued to beat wildly as she scanned the room. "I couldn't have seen anything. It's an empty room. Just an empty room. I m/'ve imagined …”

"A tester bed? Blue drapes? A chest of drawers and mirrored bureau. A woman's vanity and a blue chaise. Gaslight sconces, candles on the mantel and a framed picture.”

"How do you know what I saw?”

"Because I saw it, too. The first day I was here. I smelled lilies.”

"White lilies in a tall vase," Effie continued, and a tear trickled down her cheek. "I thought it was odd, and sort of sweet, that you'd have flowers in there. Then I thought, for just a minute, well, how did he fix this room up so beautifully, why didn't he mention it? And I stepped in and saw her on the bed. I'm sorry. I really need some air.”

Without a word, Remy scooped her off her feet.

"My hero," she murmured as he carried her toward the stairs.

"You gave me a hell of a fright, chиre. Declan, you get my girl some water.”

For a long moment, Declan stared into the room. Then he followed them down.

He fetched a glass of water, took it out to the gallery where Remy sat with Effie cradled in his lap.

"How do you feel about ghosts now?”

She took the water, sipped while she studied Declan over the rim. "I imagined it.”

"A white robe over the chaise. A silver brush set, some sort of gold and enamel pin.”

"Watch pin," she said quietly. She let out a shuddering breath. "I can't explain it.”

"Can you tell me about the woman?" "Her face was all bruised and bloody. Oh, Remy.”

"Ssh now." He stroked her hair, gathered her closer. "You don't have to think about it. Let her be, Declan.”

"No, it's all right." Taking slow breaths, Effie laid her head on Remy's shoulder. Her eyes met Declan's and held. "It's just so strange, so awful and strange. I think she was young, but it was hard to tell. Dark hair, a lot of dark, curling hair. Her clothes-nightgown –it was torn. There were terrible bruises on her neck-like … God, like she'd been strangled. I knew she was dead. I screamed and stumbled back. My legs just gave out from under me.”

"I need to find out who she was," Declan declared. "There's got to be a way to find out who she was. Family member, servant, guest. If a young woman died violently in there, there's a record somewhere.”

"I can do some research." Effie lowered the water and managed a smile. "That's my job, after all.”

"If there was a murder, it seems we'd have heard stories over the years." Remy shook his head. "I never have. Honey, I'm going to take you home.”

"I'm going to let you." Effie reached out, touched Declan's arm. "Come on with us. I don't know if you should be staying here.”

"I've got to stay. I want to stay.”

Needed to stay, he thought when he was alone and the whooshing sound of his nail gun echoed through the dining room. He wasn't just restoring the house, he was making it his own. If a murdered girl was part of it, then she was his, too.

He wanted to know her name, to know her story. Where had she come from? Why had she died? Maybe he'd been meant to come here, to find those things out.

If those images, those feelings, had driven others away, they were only locking him in.

He could live with ghosts, Declan thought as he ran his hand over the side of his first completed cabinet. But he wouldn't rest until he knew them.

But when he finally called it a day and went to bed, he left the lights on.

For the next few days, he was too busy to think about ghosts or sleepwalking, or even those nights out he'd promised himself. The electrician and plumber he'd hired were hard at work with their crews. The house was too full of noise and people for ghosts.

Frank and Frankie, who were as alike as their names, with beefy shoulders and mud-colored hair, trudged around his gardens, made mouth noises that may have been approval or disgust. Little Frankie seemed to be the brains of the operation, and after an hour's survey gave Declan a bid for clearing out underbrush and weeds. Though he wondered if they intended to retire on the profit from the job, Declan trusted Remy and hired them.

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