Giddiness tiptoes up my chest, sneaking out past my parted lips as a melodious giggle. The room swirls gently around me in a kaleidoscope of colors. I’m spinning. Not just my head, but my entire being. Candles flicker from the chandelier above, illuminating the ornate ceiling, the only things decipherable within my view. Grasping for steadiness, I reach out. Warm hands cling to mine, squeezing softly. The tender pressure sends a cord of warmth flowing from the source straight to my heart. I close my eyes and let the atmosphere sink into my pores. I have never felt this much happiness. Never have I dared.
A deep chuckle rumbles low in the belly of my partner as he stops whirling me around. Pulling me into his arms, he allows me to feel the joy trembling through his body as we continue to dance. The familiar scent of hay and cedar envelopes me as I lay my head against a solid chest. We begin to sway to and fro, our steps in sync, along with our souls.
Soft lips brush my forehead with a feathery touch. Next, my temple. My eyelids. My cheek. Blunt fingertips press underneath my chin, lifting it.
“Look at me,” he coaxes in a tone as warm as his touch. I know what will happen if I open my eyes. Shaking my head defiantly, I screw my eyes shut even tighter.
Another deep laugh.
“All right, my love.” His large hand cups my cheek, and I can’t help but lean into it. The rough pad of his thumb slides across my bottom lip. “So beautiful,” he murmurs, his lips brushing mine. His warm breath smells of apples and cinnamon, and tastes of the same as he kisses me. A sigh escapes me when his hand cups the back of my head as he deepens the kiss. My uncontrollable fingers make their way up his chest and over his shoulders, behind his head, plunging into the silky strands of his hair. He breaks the kiss to lean his forehead against mine.
“I love you,” he says softly, reverently.
My eyes fly open in surprise. The most beautiful hazel eyes stare back at me full of love and promise.
I wake up shouting. Reaching for a man that isn’t there.
It has been years since I’ve had this dream. Seven to be exact. The dreams stopped when I married a real hazel-eyed devil.
Gravel crunches under my heel as I step out of the rental car. Where has this woman taken me? A glance around reveals a house—as bedraggled as I feel—off the beaten path. It’s an old plantation-style home—almost a mansion, really. My fiancé will not approve. Contemporary is Vance’s style. Modern and edgy, he calls it. Harsh and sterile is how it feels to me.
“What are we doing here, Violet?” I approach the Realtor’s black Mercedes SUV. Her door is open, revealing her hunched over, rummaging in the passenger seat.
“I know,” Violet replies. Turning, she holds up her manicured hand to stave off any negative comments from me. “You only want to see houses built in the last ten years. But I swear I’ve shown you all the newest homes on the market, and you’ve turned your nose up at all of them—and I mean that with the utmost respect, Kendyll.” Her crystal-blue eyes plead with me for patience.
I know she’s right. If she hasn’t shown me every new home available in the area, then she’s come pretty damn close. Violet fumbles around in her satchel. I assume she’s looking for the MLS listing she printed up for the property. As I wait, I notice a cool breeze ruffle the towering trees overhead. Cheery bird calls carry in the wind along with the sweet scent of unpolluted air. It certainly beats the cacophony of incessant chatter, wailing brakes, and blaring horns surrounding my condo in the city.
“Where are all the neighbors?” Shielding my eyes, I look off into the distance. A speck on a hill across the way might be a house, but I can’t be sure.
“Oh, the closest neighbors are a half-mile east of here,” Violet replies, still riffling through her things. She pulls a sheet of paper out of her bag and shakes it with triumph.
East? I turn slowly in a circle attempting to spot another structure. Why do people have to use cardinal directions? I’m directionally challenged. Tell me left or right, for crying out loud.
“I’m sorry,” Violet says with a small shake of her head. She must have read the confusion on my face because she points to a spot over my shoulder. “The closest neighbors live over there.”
Turning, I see a large house in the distance. It’s not close enough to where the neighbors can hear you yelling and screaming at your spouse, but near enough that if your house caught fire, they could see it and call the authorities.
“Look,” Violet says softly, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I know that Vance is probably not going to be a fan of this house. And I’m not going to lie to you, it needs some work.” Surveying the large porch blanketed in ivy, with most of its white paint rolled up like pencil shavings, I arch my brow at her. “Okay, a lot of work,” she laughs lightly. “But I thought the romantic in you might appreciate the beauty in this rare gem.”
The home, reminiscent of Tara from Gone with the Wind, would have even the most practical-minded people slipping into fantasies of romance and drama. Bringing me here—a woman whose days and nights are spent weaving tales of desire, love, and romance—is like Violet taking a sucker-punch to my chest while I’m not looking. The old architecture would appeal to most dreamers, but then you add the gorgeous willow trees—perfect for an old rope swing—and a meadow full of buttercups and daisies, and it’s a dreamer’s dream come true.
“Oh, you’re good.” I smile, lightly shaking my head.
“Great!” Knowing she’s hooked me, Violet flashes a bright smile. She loops her arm in mine as if we’re old friends. After the last six weeks of helping me search for what Vance and I refer to as our “Forever Home,” and what I secretly pray is a fresh start for us, Violet and I have developed a friendship of sorts. Our heels click in unison against the brick path leading to the house. My stiletto catches in a crack, and I latch on to Violet to keep steady. Maybe this was the reason she linked arms with me. Not as a friendly gesture, but for stabilization. “Careful,” she cautions.
When we step onto the veranda, I turn to have another look at the scenery as Violet unlocks the door. There is a substantial pond to the left of the property and several acres of lush green grass on all sides.
“Who owns the pond and all the land surrounding it?” I ask.
“The land comes with the house. About twenty acres, give or take a few.” Violet pushes open one of the massive double doors. “Voilà,” she says, revealing a grand foyer. Well, it probably had been magnificent in its day. Now the white walls are tinged yellow, the wood floors scarred, and the high, coffered ceilings are cracked in several places. A large chandelier hangs overheard, its array of dangling crystals refracting the morning light into lovely rainbows scattered across the walls. The matching curved staircases leading to the second floor are magnificent, even in their disrepair. Violet secures the door behind us, leaving all warmth outside the threshold.
“It’s quite chilly in here, isn’t it?” Violet says, running her hands up and down her bare arms.
“How long has the place been vacant?” I ask, noting a darkened portion of the floor where a piece of furniture must have once stood. My voice crescendos off the walls, returning with increased volume. Violet’s eyes quickly rake over the tattered wallpaper, the colors less faded where pictures used to hang.
“I do apologize for the dishabille of my home.”
Startled, I squeak like a trapped mouse and clutch my purse in front of me like a shield.
“Aunt Aster!” Violet yelps, her eyes wide, hand over her heart. “You scared the bejesus out of us. What on earth are you doing here?”
The softly spoken words uttered by the tiny shrunken woman hadn’t reverberated around the room, but they had been disquieting in their unexpectedness.
“I apologize, dear.” Her voice is steady, unlike the fingers she presses to her lips as she looks at us apologetically. “I know I wasn’t supposed to be here for the showing, but I was feeling a bit under the weather.” Aunt Aster bows her gray head.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” I say with a wave of my hand.
I’m lying. It’s very uncomfortable looking at someone’s home while they’re in it. I like to pretend the houses are without owners when I silently—and sometimes verbally—judge the layout and décor. But I’m no shrew that would kick a poor woman out of her own home when she’s not feeling well. It could be the lighting, or my wild imagination, but when Aster lifts her head, her gaze meeting mine, there’s a glint in her eyes as fun and mischievous as a strobe light bouncing off a disco ball.
“That’s very sweet of you, dear,” she says, clasping her hands together in gratitude. “Don’t worry. You won’t even know I’m here,” she adds. Before Violet can tell her otherwise, Aster makes her way to a room on my right. Quickly sliding two large doors shut, she disappears from our view.
I look back at Violet with mild surprise. “I hadn’t noticed that room.”
“That’s the parlor—or what they used to refer to as the drawing room. The doors blend into the walls so it’s difficult to distinguish the two unless you’re looking for them.” Violet falls silent for a moment.
“So,” I say, placing my shield-slash-purse strap back over my shoulder. “Your aunt’s house, huh?”
“Yeah, about that...” Violet tucks her strawberry-blonde hair behind her right ear, revealing a pearl-drop earring. “I hadn’t mentioned it because—if I’m honest—bringing you here was a last-ditch effort.”
Creasing my brows, I cock my head.
“You made it clear you weren’t interested in older homes,” she says with a slight lift of her shoulders. “My aunt has been as picky about selling as you have been about buying. Again, not a complaint.” Violet holds up her hands as if in surrender, the MLS paper still in her grasp. “So I thought, why not? It couldn’t hurt.”
Great. Violet doesn’t have any more contemporary homes to show me. That means I’ll be stuck in a hotel room, driving around in a rental car, waiting for more homes to come on the market—indefinitely. It’s either that or choose one of the many uninspiring, box-shaped houses Violet has already shown me to be my “Forever Home.”
I’d rather eat a pair of my Jimmy Choos.
“Lead the way,” I say, looking up from my twelve-hundred-dollar metal-studded stilettos. For a man who loves clean lines, Vance sure does love busy shoes on a woman—high ones too. Lucky for me, I can strut around in nine-inch heels with the best of them—I just prefer not to. But though my fiancé isn’t here, I’m representing him, so—like many other women—I suffer in silence.
“Would you like to start upstairs or down?”
“Might as well start here,” I say with a shrug. Violet smiles, motioning for me to follow her.
“To our left here, we have the formal dining room,” she says sweeping her hand toward the room. “Complete with a wood-burning fireplace. A table seating twenty or more can easily fit in this space.” The place is void of a table, but Violet says it with such surety that I imagine in the past a table that large must have graced the room.
“How big is this place?” I haven’t really given the property much consideration, knowing from the moment we drove up that it won’t tick any of Vance’s boxes. But now that it’s the only option left on the table, I see the place for what it is, a beautiful masterpiece.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Here’s the listing information.” Violet holds out the paper she’s been clutching since we came inside. My eyes widen as I scan the information.
“Almost ten thousand square feet!” I had thought the house was a mansion, but I had no idea how accurate I was. “What could I possibly do with all this space? It’s only Vance and me.”
“Hopefully more to come”—Violet’s tawny brows crease together—“right?”
My hand goes to my flat stomach, resting there. My lips turn up at the corners as I easily envision my belly softly rounding with Vance’s child.
“That’s the plan,” I say. My voice is stretched so thin with yearning that it splinters, pricking us both. Embarrassed, I look away from the concern in Violet’s eyes. Trying to discreetly clear my throat, I ask, “Was this place really built in the 1800s?”
“Yes, but it has been well maintained, aside from some cosmetics,” she says, allowing me to divert the topic off the subject of children. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”
It’s another push for the historic home that gets me thinking…
“Wait.” My eyebrows raise as the fog of enchantment clears. “This isn’t some cheap replica.” I pause, taking another look around. “This was a real plantation?”
The expression on my face causes Violet to hesitate. “Yes?”
My heart brakes, almost stuttering to a complete stop. I’m barely able to form my next words coherently. “A. Plantation. With. Slaves?”
Violet’s phone rings. Her eyes brighten with surprise and then shutter with relief. “Hold that thought,” she says, putting up her index finger. I glimpse the plastic smile on her face melting before she can turn away completely to answer her cell.
A response to my question is no longer necessary. The answer is obvious. Hadn’t I thought of the plantation Tara the moment I laid eyes on the mansion? How could I not know this was the same kind of place? Maybe I wanted to believe that homes like these didn’t still exist. Or perhaps, even more than that, I wanted to think that my friend wouldn’t show me a house like this—with this sort of history.
The thought of my ancestors bound to this place, to its owners. Heads bowed, eyes lowered, scurrying back and forth to serve the Master. Every swallow I take feels like a stone dropping into the pit of my stomach. How stupid I am not to have made the connection sooner. The beauty I saw in the worn wood and gently curving staircases is marred by the knowledge that this home once belonged to slave owners. And if this house belongs to Violet’s aunt, who knows how long it has been in the family. It may have been Violet’s ancestors that owned and operated this plantation. The desire to leave is at odds with an unreasonable need deep in the pit of my belly to stay.
Violet is standing by the front door, speaking quietly to the person on the other end. Shifting my weight in my heels, I hover patiently. Violet looks at me and rolls her eyes, pointing to the phone nestled between her cheek and shoulder. “Five minutes,” Violet mouths, holding up one hand, her other on the knob to the front door. I nod, and she steps outside to finish the call.
There’s nothing for me to do but look around. I could stand here and wait for Violet to finish then tell her I’m not interested in seeing the plantation house, but that would be a lie. Even with the tang of distaste still lingering in my mouth, my curiosity is getting the best of me. The staircase beckons, a promise of a queen-like descent alluring.
As I decide where to begin my explorations, a glint from the corner of my eye catches my attention. A long sliver of light stretches across the foyer, falling across my shoes, shining against the metal studs. My eyes trace the line to two large doors on the other side of the antechamber, beneath the stairs. Following the shimmering light, I reach the doors and force them open on wheels that shriek in protest. Floor to ceiling windows encompass the far wall of the room, bathing it in warm rays. My eyes can scarcely take in the beauty of the place. A vast space with mile-high ceilings. Decorative motifs and sconces embellishing the walls. The floors are the same wood as the entryway and staircase except shiny and flawless as if they’ve never seen the heel of a boot or the sharp point of a stiletto.
“It’s not what you think,” Aster says.
“A ballroom?” I reply, not sparing the older woman a glance. My eyes are too busy eating up all the details of the room. Fantasies of women in their gowns dance in my head, waists cinched in by corsets, skirts pushed out with petticoats. The men whisking off their top hats and sweeping back their coattails as they bow. I’m no history major, so I’m not sure if the attire in my vision correlates with the era, but…I stop my daydreaming and remember where I am. I shift my eyes heavenward at my own foolishness, and my hand flies to my chest. Clutching at my blouse, I forget to breathe.
“No, I mean the plantation,” Aster continues. “It’s not…It wasn’t—”
“I’ll take it,” I gasp, my gaze transfixed on the ceiling.
“What?” Aster sputters in surprise.
My eyes are tearing. I’ve forgotten how to blink. Perspiration surfaces on the palms of my hands as my heart takes up the beat of a kick drum, banging against my ribcage. The candle-laden chandelier is missing, but I’d know that ceiling medallion anywhere.
“Tell Violet I’ll take it.”