False Pretenses Excerpt

Secrets of Roux River Bayou Series #1


“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 4:13

Shelby Sieger sat straight up in bed, clutching her pillow. Trembling. Had she called out again—or imagined it? She clamped her eyes shut and listened. Had she awakened anyone else at the Woodmore House?

An entire minute passed without a sound. She threw back the covers and slid her legs over the side of the bed, groping the nightstand until she found the thin metal chain on the lamp—and pulled it. Sixty watts instantly transformed the room. Why should a twenty-seven-year-old woman feel safer with the light on?

Her three packed suitcases were neatly lined up in front of the white marble fireplace. Maybe once she was away from here, the nightmares would cease. But leaving would be harder than she thought.

Shelby picked up the framed photo of the Woodmore staff taken last Christmas and slowly traced the faces with her finger. Six years was a long time. No one could dispute that Adele Woodmore treated her more like a blood relative than merely a trusted member of her household staff. But hadn’t she worked hard for her keep? Adele never ran out of things for her to do. The meager salary she earned in addition to room and board would never have been enough to realize her dream.

She sighed and put the photo back on the night stand. And why shouldn’t her dream come true? Was she less deserving than everyone else?

Her father’s words still taunted her. You stupid, worthless little brat! If I thought someone else would take you, I’d park you on their doorstep. You’re nothin’. And you’ll never amount to nothin’.”

Shelby blinked several times to clear her eyes. It wasn’t her fault that he was a mean drunk guilty of unspeakable acts or that her mother was a blubbering weakling with no backbone. But she wasn’t that helpless little girl anymore. Who could blame her for seizing the moment? She’d simply done what she needed to do. Adele got over it; her life would go on as usual.

Shelby slid open the second drawer and took out her wallet and looked at the new name on her driver’s license and social security card. She had waited an entire year to avoid suspicion. Then, two weeks ago, she gave Adele notice—and managed a sufficient show of emotion to convince her that the decision to leave Woodmore had been prompted by her mother’s failing health.

A howling wind caused branches of the longleaf pines to scrape the roof—and cold air to seep through the windows. She shivered and put her wallet back in the drawer, then crawled under the patchwork quilt, content to leave the light on. Soon she would be on her own, self-employed, and accountable to no one. Hadn’t that always been her dream?

Shelby glanced at the clock. As long as she remained in this house, wasn’t there a chance something could go wrong? It would be a huge relief when she could stop worrying that Adele might uncover what the police never did. Six hours from now, she would board a Greyhound bus for Lafayette and never look back. And no one would ever know what she’d done or where she’d gone.

Chapter 1

Vanessa Langley stepped gingerly across the creaky wood floor in the empty parlor at Langley Manor, the eyes of the bearded man in the painting above the fireplace seeming to follow her.

A popping noise overhead sent her pulse racing. She looked up at the chandelier. “What was that?”

Her husband, Ethan, grabbed her arm, a grin pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Maybe it’s the ghost of Josiah Langley”—He nodded toward the painting—”he’s still hanging around.”

Vanessa smiled in spite of herself. “I’m sure it’s just the house settling.”

“Is it?” Ethan lifted his eyebrows up and down. “Or have we traveled back in time—through six generations of Langleys—and entered into… the Twilight Zone? Do do do do, do do do do …”

“Don’t. That’s creepy.” She shoved him playfully. “You even look like Rod Serling.”

Vanessa walked into the dining room and stood at the oblong window, the musty smell of old wood pervasive, her eyes feasting on acres and acres of tall green stalks undulating in the summer breeze. “I love the way the cane fields sway in the wind.”

“Yeah,” Ethan said. “It’s like Mother Nature’s doing the wave.”

“It’s amazing to think that many of your ancestors stood at this very window, looking at these same fields. I wonder how much land Josiah Langley owned when he built this place.”

“Almost all the land that’s now Saint Catherine’s Parish.” Ethan came over and stood next to her. “But the fifteen acres we inherited with the house will be plenty for us to maintain. Be glad my great grandparents had the foresight to sell the cane fields and use the money to give the house a facelift. That’s going to make converting it to a bed-and-breakfast a lot more doable.”

“It’ll still be a monumental challenge.”

“We can work together on the big decisions.” Ethan kissed her cheek. “But I really want to make a go of my counseling practice so you can stay home with Carter and oversee the renovation. You’ll be great at it.”

Carter Langley darted out of the kitchen and over to her, his mound of strawberry blond hair falling in a straight line just above his eyebrows, his tattered stuffed beagle, Georgie, tucked under his arm.

“I’m going a-a-all the way up.” He pointed to the stately white staircase, his sapphire blue eyes wide with resolve.

Ethan scooped the four-year-old bundle of energy into his arms before he could take off running. “Hold on a second. Daddy will go with you.”

“Georgie and me want to see the candy man. He’s nice. He gives us lemon dwops.”

“I thought we agreed to nip this in the bud,” Vanessa said.

Ethan put his lips to her ear. “That’s what I’m about to do. Do you really think we’re going to find a candy man up there?”

“But why feed his imagination when there are so many ghost stories floating around about this house?”

“If we let Carter explore every nook and cranny, he’ll see for himself that those spooky stories are ridiculous. The kid’s going to live here some day. We might as well dispel this myth up front.”

Vanessa tilted her son’s chin, and held his gaze. “It’s important to remember that the man in the closet wasn’t real. He was just pretend.”

“He let me touch his whiskers,” Carter insisted. “They felt pwickly.”

“Let’s you and me and Georgie go take a look.” Ethan winked at her and started up the staircase, Carter letting out a husky laugh.

Vanessa bit her tongue. Maybe Ethan was right. But she didn’t like it. She pulled up on the window and forced it open about a foot, letting the muggy July air flood the room. Not that it was much of an improvement.

She turned around and brushed the dust off her hands, admiring the spacious dining room trimmed in white crown moldings and the oval mahogany table with matching chairs, the only furniture still in the house. The red and white floral wallpaper seemed busy and overpowering and was at the top of her list of things to replace. What type of pattern would soften the room? Or should she forget wallpaper and just have it painted a solid color? She had so much to learn about preserving the rich history and yet making the place tasteful and comfortable. Was she really the right person to take the lead on this?

She studied the sepia photograph in an oval frame hung in the nook that led to the kitchen. Ethan’s great grandparents, Chester and Augusta Langley, were the last to reside in the manor house and chose to demolish all the out buildings. They recorded in their Bible that those structures were reminders of a time when people had “wrongfully prospered on the backs of slaves.”

The plantation house was in remarkably good condition at the time of Chester’s passing, and five years later when Augusta died. But hadn’t two decades of it sitting empty taken a toll? Though structurally sound, it needed furnishings and a great deal of renovating before it would make a suitable bed and breakfast. And what would it take to make their family quarters kid-friendly without spoiling the historic value of this Langley heirloom?

Vanessa turned again to the dining room window and imagined Ethan and his cousin Drew as little boys, playing hide-and-seek in the cane fields. How did those two little scamps keep from getting lost in there? She imagined herself surrounded on all sides by cane stalks considerably taller than she and felt short of breath.She heard a car door slam and came back to the present. Who even knew they were out here? She walked through the parlor and opened the front door.

A black Lexus SUV was parked in the driveway, and Pierce and Zoe Broussard were already out of the car and heading in her direction.

“Hey there.” Zoe waved. “Hope you don’t mind the intrusion. Pierce and I decided to take you up on your offer. We want to see the house before you start renovating.” She grinned. “So we can appreciate it afterwards.”

“I’m glad you did. Come in.” Vanessa held open the door and imagined for an instant that she was welcoming the first guests to the bed-and-breakfast. “Don’t get your clothes dirty. The maid hasn’t been here in over twenty years.” She laughed.

Pierce followed Zoe inside. “I didn’t realize Langley Manor is only three miles from Les Barbes,” he said. “For some reason, I thought it was twice that far.”

Zoe’s gaze danced around the room. “It’s not as big as it looks from the outside.”

“Probably because it’s empty. Except for that dining room table and chairs and a few pictures on the wall, everything else was sold in the estate sale years ago. Great Grandmother Augusta specified the table and family pictures were to stay with the house. She probably never dreamed it would be vacant this long. But Ethan’s dad and uncles didn’t want to leave Tennessee.”

“Where are Ethan and Carter?” Pierce asked.

“Upstairs looking for the imaginary fellow in the closet.”

“Ah, the candy man.” Zoe shot her a knowing look.

“I think once Carter’s familiar with every inch of the house his imagination will take a rest,” Vanessa said. “I’m sure it’s been hard having his entire world uprooted.”

Zoe glanced up the white staircase. Tell me again how many bedrooms.”

“Four up and two down. We plan to knock out a few walls upstairs so we’ll have six guestrooms.”

“Where will you live?” Pierce asked.

“On this level. There’s plenty of space in the back of the house to add a third bedroom and make it into our private living quarters.”

“So all the guest rooms will be upstairs?”

Vanessa nodded. “The biggest challenge could be adding private baths to each one. People who routinely stay in B & Bs have probably shared a bathroom with other guests at some point. But I never liked it.”

Pierce shot her a crooked smile. “I know bed-and-breakfasts are really the in thing, but I find it amusing that people actually pay to sleep in an old house and share the toilet with strangers.”

“It’s about the ambiance, cher.” Zoe poked him with her elbow. “It’s a little slice of history and a lot more romantic than staying at a motor inn.”

“Well, if at all possible,” Vanessa quickly added, “the guest rooms at Langley Manor will have private baths. Thankfully, the house has been updated over the years and has indoor plumbing and electricity and modern conveniences. But it’s been empty a long time, and it needs a complete makeover.”

“Who’s going to do the work?” Pierce asked.

“We’ve contracted Southern Pride.”

He nodded. “I’ve heard they’re the best. When do they start?”

“The plans are being drawn up now. We’re hoping to see blueprints sometime next week.”

“So how much longer will you be renting the apartment from us?”

“Oh, I don’t see us moving in here for at least eighteen months,” Vanessa said. “Probably closer to two years. Even if our private quarters are finished before that, I have no desire to move in here until all the remodeling is finished. I wouldn’t do well with the mess or with the workers traipsing in and out.”

“Not that I want to lose you as tenants, but I can hardly wait to see this place done over.” Zoe smiled, her intriguing blue-gray eyes looking as big as quarters, framed by her dark, chin-length hair. “It’s one of the few plantation houses in Saint Catherine’s Parish that survived the Civil War. The locals are proud of that—even if the Langleys were British.”

“I’ve read some of Augusta Langley’s diaries,” Vanessa said. “It really bothered her that the British mistreated the Acadians.”

“Mistreated?” Pierce raised his eyebrows, his voice an octave higher. “The British ordered the forced removal of every last Acadian from what’s now Nova Scotia—because they wouldn’t renounce their Catholic faith and become Protestant. And wouldn’t swear allegiance to the British flag and take up arms against France. A third of the Acadians died in the process. I’d say Le Grand Dérangement was more like ethnic cleansing than mistreatment, wouldn’t you?”

Vanessa felt embarrassment scald her face in the awkward silence that followed. “Yes, I suppose it was,” she finally said. “What the British did to the Acadians was similar to what the U.S. government did to the Native Americans. It was shameful.”

“Yes it was.” Pierce turned his head, his Charles De Gaulle-like profile decidedly French. “Louisiana may have been a safe haven, but life in the bayou was totally foreign. Summers were stifling. And I’m sure alligator and crawfish weren’t all that appetizing at first. They learned to make do with whatever they could find. But it’s not like they had a choice.”

“And think of the delicious cuisine that just keeps evolving.” Zoe put her hand on his back as if to calm him down. “Our entire Cajun culture has evolved into something unique in all of America. We can be proud.”

“I am proud. Just not of the way it all came about.” Pierce was quiet for a moment and the tautness left his face. “Sorry for getting on my soapbox, Vanessa. I used to teach history and have strong feelings about the plight of les Cadiens. Some Acadians were my ancestors who settled here in long before that fat cat Josiah Langley bought up the land. No offense.”

“None taken.”

“Langley didn’t even try to adapt. He clung to everything British, right down to the name he gave this place. He chose manor instead of plantation—his way of flaunting his British superiority. The Cajuns resented it.”

“Were any plantations owned by Cajuns?”

“Not around here. French Creoles, not Cajuns.” Pierce’s dark eyes matched his mood. “Back then, most Cajuns barely had enough to live on. Look, no one can change what happened, but outsiders should understand how and why the Acadians settled here—and what was taken from them. It drives me crazy that most everything associated with the word Cajun has been reduced to a tourist attraction or a souvenir.”

So Pierce regarded them as outsiders? Vanessa was relieved to hear footsteps coming down the staircase and turned just as Ethan and Carter reached the bottom.

“I thought I heard voices. Hey, guys.” Ethan walked over to Zoe and hugged her and shook Pierce’s hand. “What’s up?”

“Just came to get that tour you offered us,” Pierce said. “Maybe Carter would like to show us around.”

“Yay!” Carter threw Georgie up in the air and then caught him.

“Looks like the yays have it.” Ethan smiled. “He knows his way around as well as I do.”

“And what about the candy man in the closet?” Vanessa raised an eyebrow.

“No sign of him or his lemon drops.” Ethan winked. “I guess he’s moved on.”

“Maybe he went a-a-all the way up on the roof.” Carter stood on his tiptoes, his hands stretched toward the ceiling. “Like Santa Claus!”

“Are you old enough to show Mister Pierce and me all the rooms in the house?” Zoe asked.

“I had my birfday. I’m four.” Carter proudly held up four fingers.

“Well, that’s certainly old enough. “Zoe winked at Vanessa. “Where should we start?”

“There’s a big big big big fireplace—bigger than Daddy. Big as a giant!” Carter took her hand. “I’ll show you.”

“Okay, I’m ready.”

Zoe reached for Pierce’s hand and let Carter lead them toward the back of the house.

Vanessa met Ethan’s gaze and wondered if even he could love that child as much as she did.

“This place is going to make a wonderful bed-and-breakfast,” he said. “I can picture us living here. What a great way for Carter to grow up. He’ll charm the guests and learn some important people skills in the process. I can hardly wait to see the blueprints.”

“Me either. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that all the guest rooms should have a private bath.”

“I agree … Honey, what’s wrong? You look flustered.”

“I am.”

“What happened?”

Vanessa fanned herself with her hand, the heat suddenly oppressive. “Oh, I mentioned something I read in Augusta Langley’s diary about her feeling bad that the British had mistreated the Acadians, and Pierce went off.” She told Ethan everything she could remember about the uncomfortable exchange. “I totally agreed with Pierce about how awful it was. But I was floored at how prejudiced he is toward the British. I didn’t see that coming.”

“I haven’t noticed it.”

Vanessa arched her eyebrows. “You will if you ever get into a discussion about Cajun history. Be forewarned.”

“The last thing we need is a Cajun landlord who resents us. It’s going to be a long time before we move in here.” Ethan looked over her shoulder, seemingly distracted by something. “Is that a marble on the floor?”

He walked past her to the dining room table, got down on all fours, and stretched out his arm underneath it until he had something in his hand.

“No way,” he said. “You’re not going to believe what this is.”

“Tell me.”

Ethan crawled out from under the table and rose to his feet, his eyes wide, a tiny yellow object held between his thumb and forefinger. “It’s a lemon drop.”

“Very funny.”

“See for yourself.”

Ethan walked toward her, the object in his open palm.

“It’s obviously a lemon drop,” she said. “I just think you put it there.”

“What? Why would I do that?”

“As a prank. To make me think Carter actually saw some guy in the upstairs closet. I don’t think it’s funny.”

“Neither do I. And I’m not into cruel pranks. I have no idea where it came from.”

She studied his stony expression, half expecting him break into laughter at any moment. “Well, I’m sure Carter didn’t put it there.”

“Honey”—Ethan gently gripped her wrist—”I didn’t. I promise.”

“We had all the locks changed. No one else has a key to the house.”

“Well,”—Ethan pursed his lips and looked up the white staircase—”if Carter did see a man up there, the guy got in without a key.”

“How? The doors are all locked. Windows too.”

Ethan shrugged. “I don’t have an explanation. Yet. But it wasn’t the ghost of Josiah Langley. Besides, I doubt they had lemon drops in 1839.”

“Don’t kid around, Ethan. This is creepy. How will we ever be safe here if someone can get in and out without a key?”

“Take it easy, honey. There has to be an explanation.”

“It terrifies me that Carter might actually have been close to this … this … trespasser.”Vanessa glanced up at the oil painting, a chill crawling up her spine. “Let’s don’t say anything to Zoe and Pierce. I don’t want anything else added to the ghost stories about this place.”

“Agreed. We need to talk to Carter again and start taking his description of this character seriously. And we need to report it to the sheriff.