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Authors: Laurie Paige

The Unknown Woman

BOOK: The Unknown Woman
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My darling Remy,

What a Twelfth Night this has turned out to be!

I should have never tempted fate by asking what else could go wrong the night of the blackout. I’m beginning to believe that trouble really does come in threes. First the power outage, then the generator failure and now a dead woman in one of our courtyard rooms.

No one seems to know who the poor woman is, and the police are investigating, but you can imagine how disturbing this has been for the guests and the staff. But as we always used to say, mon cher, we have been truly blessed with our daughters, and likewise with our staff. You would especially appreciate our new concierge, Luc. He has done so much for the hotel since his arrival, and has been so supportive through all the difficulties we have been facing recently. The guests adore him, and he’s willing to help whenever—wherever—we need him.

So with a wonderful family and a loyal staff, it would be wrong of me to worry. I have to believe that things will get better for our Hotel Marchand. We built it with love—what could be stronger?

Missing you as always,

Anne

Dear Reader,

While in New Orleans for a writing conference, I researched the city during every spare minute between workshops. I loved exploring the museums, touring the famous French Quarter and—I couldn’t believe my luck—meeting a retired steamboat captain. We were both having beignets and coffee near the river and I just had to ask about his uniform and the captain’s bars on the shoulders. Talk about good juju! He played the calliope on one of the river queens three days a week and invited me to ride along. The captain and I stood on the roof of the steamboat while he played an electronic keyboard connected to the calliope. I felt like a homecoming queen as the big paddle wheel churned and pushed us up the river, leaving a white wake and trail of music behind us.

Cost of airline ticket to get to New Orleans? I don’t remember. Food and lodging? I can’t recall. Standing on the roof of the steamboat with a handsome older man and waving at the crowd? Priceless!

Laurie Paige

L
AURIE
P
AIGE
The Unknown Woman

Laurie Paige
says, “One of the nicest things about writing romances is researching locales, careers and ideas. In the interest of authenticity, most writers will try anything…once.” Along with her writing adventures, Laurie has been a NASA engineer, a past president of the Romance Writers of America, and is a mother and a grandmother. She was twice a Romance Writers of America RITA
®
Award finalist for Best Traditional Romance and has won awards from
Romantic Times BOOKreviews
for Best Silhouette Special Edition and Best Silhouette, in addition to appearing on the
USA TODAY
bestseller list. Recently resettled in Northern California, Laurie is looking forward to whatever experiences her next novel will provide.

CHAPTER ONE

K
ERRY
J
OHNSTON STUDIED
the brochures on New Orleans that she’d picked up that morning. Here she was, having lunch in the famous French Quarter, and she was feeling down. This trip was supposed to cheer her up after the difficult year she’d just had, not leave her feeling more lonely than ever.

The restaurant she’d chosen, up the street from the Hotel Marchand where she was staying, had a charming Old World atmosphere and seemed bustling after the slump caused by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Fortunately this area of the city was higher than districts west of the river and hadn’t suffered as much flood damage. She surveyed the historic buildings with their lovely fretwork of iron lace. They reminded Kerry of elderly ladies dressed in their finest outfits, waiting for gentlemen callers.

She winced. Maybe that would be a description of
her
one day.

Well, she didn’t feel old and she wasn’t waiting for anyone, but she sure wished she didn’t feel so blue.

“Here you are.”

The waitress, dressed simply in black slacks and a crisp white shirt, expertly placed a huge salad, complete with crayfish and a secret house dressing, in front of Kerry.

The woman’s name tag read Patti, and she was truly beautiful, with blue eyes and the blackest lashes Kerry had ever seen. Her smile was infectious, and her complexion, a blend of tan and rose, was flawless.

By contrast, Kerry felt rather plain with her short spiky light brown hair and hazel eyes, her face pale from the Midwest winter.

The waitress was at least ten years younger than Kerry, maybe twenty-five. She looked vivacious and happy with her life, and on her finger was a gold ring with an intricate rope design.

From a lover? Kerry wondered. She sighed inwardly as her gaze drifted to her bare ring finger. Last summer an engagement diamond had sparkled there.

“Are you here for Mardi Gras?” the waitress asked in a friendly manner, placing a glass of iced tea and a basket of hot rolls on the table.

“Well, not the whole season,” Kerry replied, returning the smile. “I have a week. The trip was a birthday present from my friends back home.”

“How nice of them. Where do these friends live? Perhaps I can meet them?”

Her soft laughter was enchanting. This woman was exotic and beautiful enough to be a movie star.

Kerry felt as stale as day-old bread. “White Bear Lake, Minnesota—a tiny place that no one’s ever heard of. It’s near the St. Paul–Minneapolis area.”

“It sounds charming,” Patti said.

“Are you a native of New Orleans?” Kerry asked, thinking her accent and manner of speaking suggested that.


Mais oui.”

“Creole?” Kerry asked, smiling at the obvious pride in the lilting voice. From a TV documentary, she knew those of Creole descent often prided themselves on speaking fluent French without the patois of the Cajun population.

“Yes. My people have been here a long time. We are descended from the same line as Empress Josephine, who was born, as my own ancestors were, on Martinique. My family moved to Louisiana. She married Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, son of the French governor of the island, and lived in Paris.”

“Where she met and later wed Napoleon Bonaparte after her estranged husband was executed,” Kerry concluded, recalling her history lessons.

Patti’s eyes sparked with delight. “It’s a romantic story, is it not?”

“Except possibly from the
Vicomte’s
view,” Kerry said drolly, causing Patti to laugh.

A couple came and sat down at the next table.

“Enjoy your lunch,” Patti said, then turned to attend the new guests.

Kerry wasn’t sure whether the waitress’s story about her ancestors was true or a put-on for the tourists, but she found it interesting. Just as she had been cast aside for another woman, Josephine Bonaparte had been replaced by a younger woman who could give the emperor an heir.

At least Ben had married someone her own age, Kerry thought, a divorced classmate who’d returned to town for their high school reunion. Kerry’s fiancé of four years had fallen for Marla like a “ton of bricks,” as he’d so eloquently—and rather shamefacedly—explained.

It turned out he’d had a crush on her their entire senior year and the flame had rekindled the minute he’d seen her again. Kerry had said she understood and returned his ring, freeing him to find happiness with his new love.

Since then, she’d often wondered if a four-year engagement should have told her something. Neither of them had been in a hurry to make that final commitment.

With a philosophical shrug, she determinedly put the past behind her. That had been in July. This was January.

In fact, it was Twelfth Night, the very beginning of the Mardi Gras celebration. Actually, her friends had wanted to get her a reservation on her birthday, Valentine’s Day, but the hotels were booked solid then.

She glanced heavenward, thankful for small favors. Being alone in New Orleans—the most haunted city
in the U.S., according to the brochures, and certainly one of the most romantic—on Valentine’s Day, her birthday, would have been too much.

Blinking away sudden tears, she sipped the iced tea until she was over the attack of self-pity. When she finished the meal, which was delicious, she reviewed the brochures once more, annoyed by her inability to make a decision about what to do.

“Have you been to the voodoo museum?” Patti asked, pausing at Kerry’s table after serving salads and drinks to the couple. “Most visitors seem to enjoy it.” She glanced at her watch. “You should go there this afternoon if you’re free. From two until three is usually a good time. The museum is quieter then.”

“Thanks. That sounds like the perfect place to begin sightseeing on my first day in New Orleans.”

“Have fun,” the waitress said brightly before sailing off once more to attend to her customers.

After leaving a generous tip, Kerry left the restaurant and wandered around Jackson Square and the streets of the French Quarter. Going into a tourist shop, she checked out various voodoo-related souvenirs with her nephew and two nieces in mind.

Poor kids. They all had chicken pox. Her sister Sharon was supposed to be on this trip with her, but when the kids got sick, she’d had to stay at home. Shane, Kerry’s eleven-year-old nephew, was into mystery and magic these days, and had requested a shrunken head, but his parents had vetoed that idea.

Thinking a voodoo doll might be a good substitute, Kerry checked the bottom for the price and was annoyed to see that the doll was made in another country. She put it back.

One of the brochures had mentioned a place that stocked “authentic” voodoo items made by local practitioners. She studied the map the concierge at the hotel had given her that morning. The shop was a block from the museum, which was located on a nearby street in the Quarter.

It wasn’t two o’clock yet, so Kerry decided to stroll the sunny streets of the Big Easy, before delving into the darker side of America’s most haunted city.

 

S
HORTLY AFTER TWO
, Kerry arrived at the voodoo museum. The jawbone of an alligator was mounted over the front door. From her reading, she knew this was a good
Ju-Ju,
meant to ward off evil spirits.

If the thing didn’t fall on her head, she would count that as lucky, she decided as she went inside.

Kerry understood at once why the waitress had suggested she come during a quiet hour. The museum was tiny, the bottom floor of an old row house. If she’d met someone in the hall, they would have had to turn sideways to pass.

The pungent aroma of incense tickled her nose. The place was so silent the hair stood up on the back of her neck. A sign indicated a modest fee to see the artifacts, so she began to count out the exact amount.

“Please come in,” a low feminine voice said. “I am Queen Patrice, your guide into the other-world.”

Kerry nearly dropped the money as every nerve in her body tightened spontaneously.

A woman in a type of gypsy outfit stood in a door way off the hall. She wore a purple scarf over her head. Sooty black hair spilled from under it and lay in waves down to her waist.

Her eyes were outlined in black with a long line that slanted up to her temples. Bands of purple and gold were brushed over her eyelids, and her full lips were a brilliant carmine.

The blouse she wore matched the scarf and coordinated with a swirling skirt of purple, green and gold, the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. Dangling earrings, sparkling bangles and several necklaces of gold coins completed the outfit. There was nothing threatening about the woman, but Kerry felt slightly uneasy.

“You have arrived at a propitious moment,” the woman told her. “Come. I will show you the other rooms.”

“Who do I pay?” Kerry asked, indicating the cash clutched in her hand. She made herself relax.

“I’ll take it.”

In the flick of an eyelash, the money disappeared into a fold in the woman’s skirt. With a swishing sound and a rippling wave of purple, green and gold, the voodoo queen led the way into another room.

“Ah, Jolie is awake. Would you like a picture taken with her?”

Kerry’s heart did a double back flip when she spied a huge python—no,
two
of them. “A picture?” she echoed.

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “It is a great honor.”

Kerry knew her nephew would be awed and overjoyed to show off the photo to friends. “Uh, sure. How much does it cost?”

“Nothing. I’ll use your camera.”

“Oh.” Kerry handed over the digital camera, a gift from Ben two Christmases ago. A tiny pang went through her, but she ignored it.

“I’ll see if she’s willing.” The woman opened the cage. “Madame Jolie? I have someone here for you.”

Kerry briefly worried that the rest of that statement might be “to eat.” The snake looked more than large enough to swallow a person who was five-two and wore a size four petite dress.

“Ah, she’s agreed.”

Kerry tried to appear nonchalant as Queen Patrice directed her to stand beside the cage. Next, she draped the snake around Kerry’s shoulders like a shawl. “Hold her right here,” she directed.

Kerry did as told. She and the snake studied each other while the woman circled Kerry’s waist with the creature and let its tail end trail over the side of the cage.

“She’s, uh, heavy,” Kerry commented.

“Naturally. She’s full-grown, a queen in her own right.”

“I see.” Kerry was beginning to have doubts about this photo op.

The docent turned away, but not before Kerry caught a glimpse of a suppressed smile. She inhaled deeply, then smiled as the camera was brought into focus. She wasn’t going to act the frightened tourist. Her nephew would never forgive her.

After three poses, the woman returned Jolie to her cage and the camera to Kerry, then departed, leaving Kerry to wander around the crowded rooms until she’d absorbed the information in the displays on voodoo and its history.

Marie Laveau had been the premier queen of voodoo, a woman who’d created her own legend as skillfully as she’d practiced her craft, it seemed.

At a table in the front room, Queen Patrice invited Kerry to join her for tea. “I will tell your fortune. And you must buy
gris-gris
bags for your nephew and nieces before you leave New Orleans.”

Kerry gasped. “How did you know about them?”

“The spirits inform me. If they do not, then Madame Jolie does.”

Every hair follicle on Kerry’s body contracted. Before she could leap from the chair, Queen Patrice laid a hand on hers. “Give me your hand,” she said in a very soft voice that nevertheless held a command.

Kerry let the woman turn her palm up and study it for several minutes.

“You are recovering from a sadness,” Queen Patrice
said. “But your heart isn’t broken, although you may think it is.”

Kerry silently scoffed. Fortune-tellers always told their victims some vague tale of woe, then predicted great happiness would soon follow.

“An adventure awaits you. Follow it to the end.”

Now for the great happiness part, Kerry thought.

“Perhaps it will lead to sorrow, too,” the woman said, her voice going so soft that Kerry had to lean forward to hear the words. “I see a tragedy.”

The hair on her neck rose. Sheesh! She must be getting freaked out by this place if she was starting to take this voodoo stuff seriously.

“But you must follow the shining path that begins tonight, Twelfth Night, all the way to the summer solstice or else you’ll forever change the course of your history and all who touch your life on this day.”

Kerry nodded, the promise wrung out of her by the intense focus of the woman’s eyes, which were very dark and shadowed by extremely long false eyelashes.

Queen Patrice released her hand and poured them each a cup of tea. “Drink. It will calm your spirit.”

“Thanks.” Kerry managed a smile and tried to act like an amused tourist who was taking the performance with a grain of salt. “I think my nephew would like a voodoo doll. Can you recommend one? I’ll get the
gris-gris
bags, too. Oh, and charms for my nieces. The girls are into those.”

“Yes. I will show you several to choose from.”

While Kerry drank the flavored tea, Queen Patrice brought several items to the table. Kerry made her choices and handed over her credit card.

“You must get this for yourself,” the woman said. She fastened a charm bracelet around Kerry’s wrist. “It is sterling silver. Here. This charm is a cross. It has been blessed with holy water. Use it if you are out at night.”

“To ward off vampires?” Kerry asked.

“And werewolves,” the queen said, seemingly dead serious. “There are ghosts, too, but they are usually benign, only sad because they were betrayed by those they loved and trusted.”

“I know the feeling,” Kerry said before thinking.

The docent touched Kerry’s arm gently, then withdrew to take care of the payment.

Kerry checked the charms on the bracelet. She found the tiny cross mentioned by Queen Patrice, a group of three bones, a charm shaped like a feather and another like a tiny bag. The
gris-gris
, she assumed.

BOOK: The Unknown Woman
12.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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