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Chapter Six

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  2. CHAPTER 1
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  4. Chapter 1
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  7. Chapter 1 Moose Malloy
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  10. Chapter 10

Wind rattled the windows in Mason's bedroom. The high-pitched howl of a dog left out in the storm carried past the creaking panes. Ralph lifted his head from Mason's thigh and whimpered his concern. She stroked the warm dome of his skull and whispered, "Hush, you're safe."

For a guard dog, one of a long line of finely bred Dobermans, he was a wuss. The noise drew closer and Mason deliberated. Perhaps a dog had wandered into the grounds, lost and seeking shelter. Driving conditions had been lousy in the Berkshires for the past few days. Maybe it had been hit by a car. She pictured an animal in pain, stumbling toward the house or, God forbid, the stables, where canines were not warmly received. Most of her horses tolerated dogs during rides, but Shamal despised them.

Mason tried to sink back into sleep but she had surfaced too fully. After lying with her eyes closed for a few restless minutes, she slipped out of bed and padded across to the windows. The curtains were open and night threw its mantle across the lawn in a silver sheen. She contemplated the moonshadow landscape. Nothing moved. The dark, shimmering lake surface twinkled with the crystalline legacy of far-flung stars. At water's edge the temple cast its own pale glow, standing serenely, marking the passage of time.

Beneath the dome, in a black sepulcher, lay the man who'd built Laudes Absalom. Nathaniel Cavender was entombed next to his wife, grandsire of five generations of Cavenders buried at Laudes Absalom. Other ancestors were interred in a family cemetery at the far end of the walled garden that adjoined the disused south wing, Mason's parents and brother among them. Getting the burial permit for Lynden had been another nightmare in a demoralizing series of events. She leaned her forehead against the cool window frame, flooded with helpless fury. Everything was crumbling around her. She'd lost all she cared about, except the house and her horses, and Vienna Blake was poised to steal them from her in a final coup de grâce.

Needing to clear her head, she stumbled across her room and dragged a coat from her closet. Ralph padded after her as she descended the staircase into the great hall. Moonlight spilled through the leaded windows, shining across the dead marble eyes of countless taxidermied animals. Decapitated stag heads adorned the walls alongside portraits of their killers. Mason shuddered as she passed beneath the shadow of an axe. An image gnawed at her mind like a hyena scavenging for tender morsels: Vienna standing in front of the stables at Laudes Absalom as the horses were led out by rough men who cared nothing for their noble hearts and sensitive souls.



A panicky sweat damped her skin. Fear almost crushed her to the floor. She dragged her bare feet across the smooth wooden boards. Every step she took added a creak to her discordant passage through the hall. Ralph's toenails clicked after her in a metallic staccato that distracted her from the noisy assault of her heart. Mason slowed as she caught an odd scent. The fragrance was floral and didn't belong in the musty gloom. She let her gaze roam. Nothing moved, but she smelled the scent more strongly. Amaryllis.

"Hello?" she called, feeling foolish.

Ralph's ears rose and their hair along his back bristled. Growling, he lowered himself into a defensive crouch at her feet. Mason heard a sound then, a whisper too low to decipher, and the skin on her cheek dampened as though someone had breathed on it. She swung around, sensing a presence behind her. It wasn't the first time. She'd always felt a stifling tension beneath the inertia of the house, a melancholy in certain rooms that made them hard to endure. Mason wasn't sure if the sorrows of former residents had somehow infused the walls and objects, or if the pervasive desolation was her own. The house was so familiar to her, its moods and quirks bothered her no more than its grim décor. But tonight something more palpable had stirred, the watchful entity Mason had glimpsed in the flickers and shadows since she was a child.



"Who's there?" she asked, swatting at thin air.

Her hands encountered nothing. She saw no light, heard no more whispers. When she was younger, she'd convinced herself that the unseen observer was a guardian angel. There was only one possible candidate. Her mother. Before she gave up her fight for life, Azaria had promised she would always be with Mason, watching over her. The thought was comforting, yet in her heart Mason knew the "angel" had been there long before her mother's death. She'd always felt that iciness, that strange silent reverberation in the atmosphere. And so had others.

Visitors to Laudes Absalom were rare, but those who couldn't dismiss their unease as creepy house syndrome would discreetly ask about ghosts, and for their benefit, Mrs. Danville had named the resident phantom The Unhappy Bride. She'd hit upon this evocative soubriquet after a whiskey-soaked houseguest claimed to have seen a woman in a Victorian wedding dress staring out the library window. After he cloddishly made a grab for her, the lady passed through a wall and vanished. On another occasion a visitor had claimed to see the bride standing in the family cemetery.

Mason wasn't sure if Mrs. Danville believed there really was a ghost or if she'd merely chosen to dignify the fantasies of guests out of tact. She soothed Ralph with a pat and resumed walking with her fierce guard dog tucked in close, his body quivering. They passed the padlocked door of what had been her father's office, then ducked beneath the low arch that led to the rear of the house. Pausing in the shadowed recess, she stared back once more, seeking out a shape that didn't belong, listening for a scrape or a footfall.

She heard it again, then, that half-whimpered howl. Moving as quietly as she could, Mason slid her feet into the Blundstone boots she kept next to the back door. Her hand found the doorknob and she turned the long, heavy key and pushed hard with her shoulder. The door scraped across the stone stoop until it couldn't budge any wider. She left it open, sagging on its hinges, and stepped down into the walled garden.

Ralph knew the drill. He romped ahead of her through the dense, wet foliage. In a few minutes he would rejoin her on the brick pathway and they would pass through the wildly overgrown azaleas until they reached the sundial. There, the path branched in three, with the herb garden and summerhouse diagonally to the right. Mason could find her way blindfolded if she had to, so she hadn't bothered to bring a flashlight. The waxing harvest moon drenched the garden in thin light. The damaged south wing towered above her, its charred, crumbling walls etched raggedly against the night sky.

When she was a child, the roses had been left to run wild in that area of the garden, rioting over the walls and trailing down through the smashed windows of the house. Thorny branches roamed through the gutted rooms, draping them in fragrant blooms all summer. Ivy crept across the ruins in a slow-encroaching tide of glossy green that spread farther toward the rest of the house with each year. Ravens nested in what was once a ballroom, and swans occasionally found their way up from the lake to inspect the grand remains, hissing at the peacocks that wandered the grounds.

Mason wasn't sure when the Cavenders had held their last great party. In her time the only guests they had were relatives making a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to pay their respects to the head of the family. Her father Henry was an only child, so she had no first cousins other than those on her mother's side, and they were not made welcome once her mother died. Second and third cousins like Pansy abounded. Traditionally these relatives had found employment within the Cavender empire if they wished. If not, they could count on their famous name to open doors elsewhere in the corridors of power.

The family tree was littered with politicians, Wall Street tycoons, TV producers, and even a governor. Mason's grandfather, Alexander, had been groomed since birth to run for president, but his campaign was eventually scuttled when the Blakes orchestrated a campaign of lies about a bigamous marriage to a former prostitute. A black former prostitute. The story had been huge at the time and Mason's father had never forgotten the humiliation, or the price his mother had paid for her role in the sordid debacle. When he drank, he would always insist that his father hadn't married the woman, for God's sake. But Mason now managed the trust fund that supported her in her old age, and it was clear from their few conversations that she had really loved Alexander, unlike his wife.

Mason's grandmother, Nancy, seemed to loathe him. She didn't have much interest in their only son either and had returned to her Park Avenue penthouse as soon as Henry started prep school. She used to sweep into Laudes Absalom a few times a year with her city friends, and they would party hard and tear up the countryside. She was killed on one such wild jaunt, when her car stalled on the railway track near Glendale and she was hit by the Sunday morning train. Her death had been the subject of a salacious Vanity Fair article titled "Another Doomed Bride-The Cavender Curse Strikes Again."

Nancy's portrait hung in the library next to that of Mason's mother. They both wore the Cavender Diamonds, a famous necklace Henry sold when he was trying to save Cavender Steel by converting his mills into manufacturing plants for auto parts. Unfortunately he'd swapped one dying industry for another, and having invested most of his personal wealth in the new strategy, he was in big trouble when foreign competition started affecting his bottom line. But Henry had refused to believe that Americans would buy cheap imported parts when they could have superior American-made products so he wouldn't move his manufacturing offshore.

And while the Cavender Corporation was crumbling around him, their enemies at Blake Industries were already out of the steel business and had moved into aerospace and high-tech arms manufacturing, buying up patents and investing spare cash in Silicon Valley. Their shareholdings in firms like Intel, IBM, and Apple were reportedly worth a hundred million and Blake Aerospace had just turned down a half-billion-dollar acquisition bid from Boeing. Mason wondered why Vienna was bothering to bid for a relic like Cavender. But, of course, the decision wasn't business, it was personal. Everything between the Blakes and the Cavenders was personal.

Mason cast a desperate look around the garden, struggling with the decision she had to make. If she accepted Vienna's offer, she didn't know how she could keep Laudes Absalom, let alone embark on the restoration she'd always dreamed of. Vienna's offer for the company wouldn't leave her with enough cash to repay both the banks and the pension fund. Laudes Absalom would have to be auctioned to make up the difference. And there would be nothing left to finance Azaria's diamond farming operation if Mason couldn't find an investor. Meanwhile they were falling deeper in debt with every month and the banks were going to pull the plug at any moment. She had two choices. She could accept Vienna's offer, which was higher than the book value of their assets. Or the company could simply file for bankruptcy. Most Cavender employees would lose most of their pension entitlements, but Mason would be able to keep Laudes Absalom.

The thought turned her stomach. The option was perfectly legal, but she couldn't imagine anything more disgraceful. Robber barons like the men who ran Enron or Countrywide might stoop to stealing money from employees to fund their millionaire lifestyles, but no Cavender would sink so low. Whatever her family's faults, they had always done right by the people who were loyal to them.

"What am I to do?" she asked the garden.

She often found her answers strolling the mossy bricks around the sundial, but tonight all she could hear was the rustle of a breeze through the pines wall and the melodic groans of the bamboo grove that led to the maze. She and Lynden used to hide there when they were kids, waiting for their father to cool off after his rages. Mason would bring icepacks and the first aid kit, and they would treat their respective injuries. When all was quiet, they would creep back indoors and Mrs. Danville would make them sandwiches in the kitchen.

Mason massaged Ralph behind the ears and listened intently as another faint howl carried through the night air. "Damn," she mumbled. If there was an injured dog on her property, she would not be able to go back to bed until she'd found it.

She trudged along the pathway until she came to the family cemetery. Lynden was buried beneath the sycamore tree he used to climb as a boy. Mason paused at the simple black granite crypt. The distinctive citrus fragrance of Daphne, a favorite flower of Lynden's, sweetened the woody air. She'd filled the classical urns on either side with freshly cut stems as soon as she'd arrived home after her trip to Boston.

Ralph hunkered down at her side as she paid her respects. She didn't pray. She'd given up doing that when her mother died. Numbly, she stared down at the name etched on the shiny surface. In the moonlight she could pick out the letters that should have been her own. She buried her head in her hands and wept silently. She had no idea how she'd survived that plane crash. A passing motorist had dragged her from the wreckage. Lynden was already dead. All she had was a few scratches and a concussion.

If she'd been at the controls, they would have landed safely.

She was a better pilot than her brother, but she'd indulged his ego and his illusions. Lynden was the bad boy bachelor with the fast cars and the private plane. She'd always boosted his confidence, knowing how important it was for the Cavender heir to become the man the family needed at its head. After three decades of mismanagement, the corporation had to have leadership and Mason would never be a smooth-talking charmer. But now, with Azaria seeking investors, she would be stuck in New York for most of the next two months, pressing the flesh. Then there was the New Jersey mobster.

Mason dreaded to think what that was about. As far as she knew Lynden didn't have a gambling problem, and if he owed money to loan sharks, she was quite sure they would have made their demands before she had time to bury him. Obviously there was something else he'd been afraid to tell her.

"God damn it, Lynden," she choked out. "How could you do this to me?"

She stepped back from the crypt, trembling with barely controlled rage. Of all the emotions suffocating her, the hardest to deal with was her anger. She wanted to claw at something, to throw her head back and howl.

She knew what she had to do, but the thought was unbearable. She almost wished Vienna had shot her, although a swift end would have been too merciful; Vienna wanted to watch her squirm. Ralph nuzzled her hand and Mason turned away from her cowardly thoughts and continued along the path with her head down and her shoulders hunched. The gate at the end led onto the lawns. She heaved it open and jogged down the slope toward the lake. Ralph bounded ahead, anticipating their usual foray along the winding path into the pines.

Mason called him back, but fell silent when she glimpsed a pale splash of movement through the trees. It was a dog coming straight for her. Pale, tall, and graceful with a plumed tail. She stood completely still, her body angled slightly away so she didn't spook the nervous animal. When it veered across the lawn toward the temple, she broke into a run, inhaling the smell of wet grass as her feet struck the soft turf. She whistled but the dog didn't look back until it reached the temple steps. Mason slowed, keeping Ralph at her heel as it regarded her. She tried to make out the dog's breed characteristics, but it vanished into the deep shadows of the portico before she could be certain. The face, ears, and tail looked like those of a Saluki. Animals usually responded to her but Salukis were an aloof breed, so this one could be shy.

Signaling Ralph to stay, she walked the final yards to the temple and climbed the moonlit steps. Sidling around the pillars, she listened for the sound of panting. All she could hear was the faint, faraway shush of the north woods alongside the driveway. She made a circuit of the temple and checked the interior chamber. There was no trace of the dog. Puzzled, she stared out at the glassy glow of the lake and the dark mass of the house. The elegant Saluki was nowhere to be seen.

Ralph stood and wagged his stubby tail as she descended the steps. His alert posture and beaming stare had given way to a more relaxed attitude. Mason signaled him and he loped off toward the front of the house. Shivering in the chill September air, she took a last look around, then followed. She was relieved. If the animal had been able to give her the slip so effortlessly, it was uninjured and must have simply strayed into the grounds from a nearby property. By now, it was probably bounding up the driveway at its own home. If the owners were anything like her, they would be outside with flashlights searching for their missing pet.

Smiling at the thought, she went back to the house. Several clocks chimed the hour as she trudged upstairs. It was 3.00 a.m. She was about to face another day without the only person who had ever truly loved her.

 


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Chapter Five | Chapter Seven. "What do you want?" Mason asked
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