by Anj
(a.k.a. Azurenon)


All disclaimers in Chapter One


        Throughout the next week, I grew more and more depressed each day. I abandoned thoughts of running to her, trying to convince her it would be alright, whether we were cousins or not; for, it seemed this parting was what she wanted. Perhaps it even gave her the excuse she needed in order to walk away. For, why else had she always been so afraid of hurting me?
        Brandon tried to cheer me up, but it didn't work. I feigned a smile for him, yet inside I was crying deep, sad tears, which no one ever saw, but me. Each night I drank the milk he brought and cried myself to sleep. And each morning I felt dizzy and sleepy, which only led me deeper into the pit of despair.
        At the end of the week, Brandon threw his lavish party. Young men I had never met before followed after me, each trying to outdo the other with common courtesies. They were supposed to make me feel like a princess, I'm sure, but I felt more like a bitch in heat, with all the studs in the neighborhood hot on her trail. These studs, however, weren't merely responding to biological urges, they were onto the scent of money. I sensed this by the way they kept glancing over at Brandon, as if for approval. I wondered how much green paper had been handed out to each one willing to take on the challenge. And what the proffered pay off was for the one who caught me. Needless to say, I wasn't interested in any of them. All I wanted was Sara. I knew Brandon noticed my inattentiveness, because I saw him watching us, while he downed one drink after another. Finally, when I'd had my fill of the drooling studs, I excused myself. I saw no sense in leading these young men on, only to please my uncle. I could not be something I wasn't. Nor would I even try.
        Upstairs in my room, with a bottle of brandy - pilfered from the kitchen- I locked the door and turned on the stereo to drown out the party below. I pressed play on the tape player on my way by, while I downed a big swallow of Brandy straight from the bottle. The liquor nearly took my breath away as it burned its way down my throat. I could feel it continuing down my esophagus and finally slam into the pit of my stomach, still burning as if it had been concocted from the fires of hell itself.
I went over to her chair and flopped down. In the song now playing, the female singer was talking about being alone again… silence filling the empty room… I turned the bottle up again, tears stinging my eyes. The singer wanted to turn back the hands of time. They had kissed in a warm September rain, before her heart was filled with pain. She wanted to love that way again. She longed for wishes to come true. I turned the bottle up once more, my heart breaking, my eyes streaming tears and my throat burning like I had swallowed embers of hellfire and brimstone. The song could not have been more appropriate. Funny thing was, I had never really cared much for this song before. Now, I grabbed the remote and rewound the tape.
        "Play it again, Sam," I said, aloud, as I downed another big swallow. I gritted my teeth and sucked in air. I was getting good at this. I started to sing along. Another burning gulp, when the next song began. "Come back to me," I sang, as the tears streamed down my cheeks. And they said Country was 'crying in your beer music', I thought.
        Next up was a song we had made love to. "Just great... just fuckin' great," I said aloud, turning the bottle up again, as that beautiful memory began playing in my head right along with the song. Remembering love this way was bittersweet, but it was all I had left. Preserve your memories… they're all that's left you.

        Celia brought up my milk that night which was quite a switch. But I was glad, because what she found was a very intoxicated woman who needed to be put to bed. She noticed my red, swollen eyes and questioned me. I almost let it all tumble out. Yet, even in my condition, I somehow managed to control my tongue. I made up the excuse of my monthly cycle. She seemed to buy it. Then added that she missed Sara, as well.
        "Whaddaya mean, as well?" I asked, shocked at her reference.
        "Very little slips by me, 'mum. Servants become invisible, but they're not deaf or blind," she replied, helping me up out of the chair.
        "You're... very obser-vant, Celia. I never realized..."
        "Yes, 'mum," she said, catching hold of me, as I stumbled. "I seen ma share of... strange things. Not that you two are strange, 'mum. Why in my day, hardly anyone woulda given it a second thought, you two being so close. But, today... well, 'mum, the servants notice things."
        "And what else... have you noticed?" I asked, as she sat me down on the side of the bed.
        "Well… Miss Sara, she bears a striking resemblance to Miss Ashley. I 'spect ya realized that too, after being in there." She nodded towards Ashley's room.
        I cleared my throat and hiccupped. "Yes, I did," I said, sadly.
        "I 'spect she left on account of it?"
        I nodded again. "She did."
        "I'm not condoning or condemning, 'mum. But, if I wuz you... I'd have myself a look in the attic. Miss Ashley spent time up there."
        "Attic? What are you talking about?"
        "This ol' house holds many secrets, 'mum, like the castles of our kings and queens. Sum' are best left alone, but others… could be helpful."
        "Exactly what are you... tryin' to tell me?"
        "Just look in the attic, 'mum," she replied, a bit of irritation in her tone now.
        "I… miss her," I babbled, struggling to remove my clothes.
        "I know, 'mum,” she sympathized, helping me out of the dress. “You wuz very close." She then went to get me some pajamas.
        "Are we cousins, Celia?"
        "Can't really say. Tom wuz fond of Miss Vivian and... wull, I'd be afraid ta speculate."
        "Would it be so bad if we were? I mean... we can't have children or anything, so..."
        "In the olden days, cousins wuz not too close for marriage," she offered.
        "Why'd she have to leave me, Celia?" I asked, as she sat back down beside me. I leaned my head over on her shoulder.
        "Oh, 'mum, maybe she'll have a change a heart, soon," she soothed, patting my cheek with her hand. "Cum' now, we need ta get ya dressed for bed."
        The last thing I remember was Celia cutting off the light. "Goodnight, 'mum. She'll be back. Don' ya worry 'bout that."

        The next morning, I had one hell of a hangover. Brandon came up after breakfast, but I think he was suffering from the same problem. He reluctantly left the room. And when I wouldn't join him later, still feigning a headache, he eventually left the house.
        I remembered bits and pieces of the conversation with Celia the night before. What could possibly be in the attic? I wondered. Secrets? What secrets?
        Needless to say the intrigue pulled me from my bed. I got up, despite the headache that lingered just behind my eyes and went looking for the attic. I searched the east wing and found nothing that even resembled stairs, behind any of the unlocked doors. So, I proceeded to the west wing. The very last door on the left was my only hope, although it looked much like all the rest. I expected one of two things: to find it locked like the others I'd tried, or find it another bedroom. Yet, when I opened it, I knew immediately I'd hit pay dirt.
In front of me lay a steep stairway. Upon first glance I thought it too steep for me and my cane. But I wanted to go up there now more than ever, so I tried the first step. My legs wobbled. This was not going to be easy, but I was determined to do it.
        Finally, I reached the top. The large open space before me was dark, except for daylight coming from an oval window in the middle of the house. I could tell by its immensity that the attic spanned the entire length of the house. Searching for whatever Celia wanted me to find was going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
        I wiped a trickle of sweat off my brow, wondering why she hadn't informed me where exactly to look for whatever it was she thought I should find. But then Celia was often vague: dropping hints and little suggestions without ever really coming out and saying what was on her mind. I assumed this must be due to her servitude position. Maids were often seen, but never heard. Or at least, isn't that the way it was said to be?
        I glanced around my general area, knowing that if I wanted to do any searching I'd need some light. I ran my hand over the wall and found a switch. I flipped it, expecting the attic to come to life before me. Nothing happened. I flipped it back down then up again. Still nothing.
        "Damn," I said, as I leaned against the wall. "What now? Get someone to change the bulbs before I can see what's up here? Shit!" I backed down the steep steps very slowly. I was turning to close the door, when I saw a silver tube like object on the floor by the wall. I hadn't noticed this on my way in. Because, it wasn't there, I thought. Thank you, Celia. I reached down and picked it up. I needed to rest a few minutes before reinitializing my ascent; my hangover didn't mesh well with climbing steep stairs.
I flicked the flashlight on to make sure it worked, as I wondered what it was Celia wanted me to find so badly that she would follow me and have a flashlight ready for use? Must be something very important. Or was she merely like me and loved a good mystery. Even if it was just watching someone else figure it out, since she obviously already had.
        I finally reached the top again and turned the flashlight on. The narrow beam skimmed over old furniture and clothes. What a task I had before me. I hoped whatever I was looking for was big, or else I'd never find it up here. Unless my benefactor has left me a trail to follow?
        "Come along Watson," I said to my cane. "The game is afoot."
        There was a narrow path, I presumed had been left open for the purpose of getting from one end to the other, most likely in order to carry more stuff up here, so I followed it. I took it slow, shining the flashlight around on either side, searching for some clue. There were loads of old dusty furniture, racks of clothes and even a few tailors' mannequins. Some of the clothes dated back to the Civil War era, or so I assumed.
        I made my way over to a very beautiful dark blue gown on one of the mannequins, which I took for granted had been worn by one of my ancestors. A true Southern Bell, I thought, touching the hoop skirt. How did they manage to get around in these things? I wondered, lifting the skirt up to look underneath. Jesus, look at all that wasted material. She coulda made two skirts with all that cloth. Beside this was a dingy white lace dress, complete with veil, draped across the headless knob of a mannequin. Someone's wedding dress? Perhaps this wouldn't be such an awful task after all. Being up here surrounded by history was quite intriguing in itself. I could definitely let my imagination run wild, conjuring up all sorts of images concerning my ancestors who wore the clothes or used the furniture. As I panned the flashlight around, I got so caught up in imagining what they must have been like, I almost forgot what I came for. Then again: What the hell am I looking for?
        I sat down on a stool -by a dressing table- and fanned the light around hoping something… anything would catch my eye. The beam of light skimmed over a mass of large wooden frames, which looked like picture frames, propped up against a headboard. When I found nothing else as intriguing, I made my way over to them. This could prove interesting, if nothing else, I thought. Maybe I would get a chance to see these ancestors, instead of merely imagining what they looked like.
        I walked over to the stack and bent down to admire the first portrait. It was a distinguished Southern gentleman. My, but he did look proud in his gray outfit and top hat. His light brown eyes twinkled, and his facial expression bore only a hint of a smile, as if he were too proud for that. I wondered who he was? Was this the first owner of Shady Grove –from the headstone I'd seen- or was he someone further down the line? I looked for a nameplate on the frame, to no avail. Silly! I thought. Who needed nameplates on family portraits? They only use those in movies.
        Feeling a bit tired, I noticed an old trunk near the portraits and took a seat. My, but this is conveniently placed, I thought, as I reached out to move the first portrait aside. A slight chill ran down my spine at the thought that I wasn't the first to do this very same thing. Silly-willy, now why should that scare you? Jesus, you're immature. You watch too many horror movies.
        I pulled out portrait after portrait from the stack for closer inspection. Young children, old men, old women, young men and young women all dressed in clothes from the 1800's to the turn of the century had all been immortalized on canvas. My ancestral history was unfolding before me and I enjoyed every minute of it, even if I didn't know a single one of their names.
        Finally, I reached a familiar face: Vivian. I pulled the portrait out. Her blue eyes seemed sad in this one. Or was it just the artist's interpretation? Funny how a photograph could catch a person within one unique frame of time and preserve that expression for all time to come, making others who saw it assume the person was always that happy or sad, as the case maybe. But an artist, on the other hand, saw the person for a longer length of time and in their interpretation they added things a camera wouldn't pick up in that split second interval. I scanned over the portrait again, seeing the vague likeness of Sara in the flawless face. I quickly put it back. I didn't feel like crying again this morning. Besides I had no Brandy to drown my tears with.
        The next one I came to was my mother. Her blue eyes twinkled and a smile spread across her lovely face, raising the dimples on each cheek. I pulled it out slowly, unable to control my own smile, because she looked so very lovely. When I propped it up in front of me, I was shocked at the low cut style of her blue dress, her bosom pushed up to tantalize the eye, like all the other Southern Bells that had went before her. Upon closer inspection, I realized she was wearing the dark blue gown I had been admiring previously.
        Had this been hers? I wondered. And why had she never mentioned this portrait? Why had she left it? Then I remembered Celia telling me how my mother and father had left so suddenly that they left things behind. I was intrigued. Was Celia leading me to some clue, as to why? And did this have something to do with Sara? I stared at the portrait, wishing my mother were here to clear it all up for me.
        Finally, I got up and started to put the portrait back. The others in the stack had shifted forward and staring me in the face now, was a portrait of Ashley. I put down my mother's and pulled this one out, unable to resist, though I knew it would only bring me grief. Sara's sad, green eyes stared back at me, from the face of a preadolescent young girl, no older than eleven or twelve. Yet, there was more than sadness in these eyes: they had a haunted, troubled look about them. I wondered what could have caused her to look this way? Why were these eyes filled with such turmoil? The thought of Sara's eyes having this same look, as she brushed by me, on the day she walked out of my life, filled me with sadness and a deep yearning. I wanted her back, dammit! I didn't care if we were cousins! I loved her and I wanted to be with her!
        I traced my fingers over the immortalized face of a young girl, who was in essence a stranger to me. I couldn't help but wonder if she was still a stranger to Sara. Had she regained her memories after the initial shock the other day? This was the preferred method for remembering in the movies. But then, this wasn't a movie. This was life and all too real!
I put the portrait back hastily, feeling the tears welling up in my eyes. Then I picked up my mother's and tried to replace it between Ashley's and another one, but it wouldn't go back in place. Something was in the way.
        "Damn," I said, as I looked over behind the picture to see what was holding it off the floor. I found a staple on the back of my mother's portrait, which had come loose and was striking the frame of Ashley's. As I leaned over to try to adjust the frame, I noticed writing on the back of my mother's picture. I picked up the flashlight and went around to the other side to get a better look. It read:
To the most beautiful princess in the world, Brandon.
        His pet name for me had been his pet name for her! I sat back down hard on the trunk. Had this portrait been a present from him, as well, which would suggest why she'd left it behind? Was Brandon's infatuation part of the reason they left? Did my father read this and get jealous? Or had there been more to it?
        Just then, I heard a noise from the other end of the attic. I quickly swung the light in the direction of the east wing and got to my feet to get a better look. Nothing moved. Rats, I thought, Yuk! I shivered at the thought of them running over my feet and quickly checked the area around me. Relief flooded my system when I found nothing there. I didn't like the thought of rats running around up here with me. And yet, I figured I might as well see what else was up here, while I had the chance.
        Mustering my courage, I continued down the path to the far end of the east wing and then crossed over to the other side of the house, which put me over what had been Sara's room. This side had no sitting room, only a bedroom, so it was much smaller. I ambled down its small path, wondering how much money lay up here wasting away. There were boxes neatly arranged on the outside wall, containing God only knows what. And on the opposing side of the path, fine antique furniture that must have been worth a fortune, sat covered in a thick layer of dust. I stopped and ran my hand over one of the dressers, which was still in very good condition. I opened one of the drawers, out of sheer curiosity, to find old clothes, still neatly arranged inside it. Did this family keep everything? I wondered. I then looked through several other drawers. If was as if time had stood still here. Every drawer was packed with some woman's neatly arranged clothes. What a strange thing to do, I thought. Why save these clothes like this? And whose are they? The style appeared to be from this century, the sixties perhaps. Was this Vivian's? Or my mother's?
        I turned my attention to another dresser and opened its drawers. These were empty, as I would have expected. And so were the next chest of drawers and an old blanket trunk. This puzzled me. Celia was right about secrets; this attic was a world of mystery. I scanned around me, wondering where the answers to these secrets might lie.
It was then that I spotted a mattress, with what appeared to be fresh linen on it. It was partially hidden behind an old dresser with a large mirror. I walked over behind the dresser and panned the light around. I was right, these were fresh linens; for, they weren't covered in dust. Here was yet another mystery before me. I bent down and inspected the linen. It wasn't the kind of fabric used today, because this was much thicker. I eased down on the mattress, pondering this new mystery I was faced with. What is this doing here?
I remembered Celia saying that Ashley had spent time up here, so had she put this here? Surely not, it would be dusty in five years time. Had Jason been up here? Was this perhaps his place, now? Not a bad place, I thought, panning the flashlight around.
        What was that? The flashlight had skimmed over something shiny, between the dresser and the chest of drawers. I scanned back to find the small object was a lighter. And beside it was a used candle in a holder. Someone had definitely used this place and recently. Did Jason hide from Brandon up here? I wondered. Like I would like to do at times?
        I sat down the flashlight and lay back on the mattress. Perhaps if Jason didn't mind, I could use this place as a hide out. Brandon would never think of looking for me here and then I'd have time to myself. "Damn it, Faith," I chided myself out loud, as I rolled over on my side. "You're thinking like a child, again. Grow up. You know you can't stay here forever, just waiting on Sara to return."
        Yet, what awaited me out there, without her, was frightening. I had only been on my own when I was in college. But then, at college you're seldom alone. There was always someone around. You were independent, but only to a certain degree. If I left this house and moved out on my own, I would be all alone. And I didn't want to be all alone, dammit. I wanted to be with Sara.
        I buried my face in the musty scented pillow and hit the mattress with my fist. "Sara, please come back to me," I whined. "I love... you."
        For a moment, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me, or at least my olfactory senses were, because I caught a whiff of her perfume. It was faint, but I knew the aroma very well. I lifted my head slightly and sniffed the air like a dog that's just caught the scent of game. Then I felt absolutely stupid for doing so. I had obviously imagined it, because I wanted to be with her so badly. What the hell are you even doing up here? I wondered. I'll never find what Celia wanted me to. I have no idea where to look. I picked up the pillow and put it in my lap, resting my chin on it. It felt good to have something to hold onto, even if it was just a musty old pillow.
        I caught another whiff of her perfume. Where the devil was it coming from? Was it on my clothes somewhere? I sniffed around my shoulder area. Not on that side. My nose brushed against the pillow on the way by. "Damn," I said, aloud, realizing the aroma was coming from the musty pillow itself. "You're here, aren't you? Yes, by God you are," I added, answering my own question, as I found the exact spot on the pillow that held her sweet scent.
        Sara… here…? Why? What was she doing here? Why hadn't she come to see me? Was she up here now? Was she hiding from me?
"Sara," I called out. "Sara, I know you're here. You might as well come out." There was no response, only silence. "Sara, please talk to me." I stood up. Still there was no response. "Dammit, Sara, I love you! I don't care about anything else. I don't care if we're cousins. I'm not ashamed of what we did," I continued, panning the flashlight around. "If... if you're ashamed, well… I can understand that, but.... at least talk to me." Nothing. "Damn you're a stubborn woman, ya know that?" I walked down the path, getting closer and closer to the west wing and the door. "Okay, fine, if that's the way you want it. I'll leave you to your... whatever the hell it is you're doing up here." With that I turned for one last scan of the attic and then made my way slowly down the steps.
        I sat the flashlight down on the inside of the doorway, leaving it for further exploration at another time, and was about to open the door when Brandon's voice drifted down the hall.
        "Where is she, Celia? This morning she had a headache, and I expected she would stay in bed most of the day."
        "I dunno know, sir," Celia responded from somewhere close by. "Perhaps she went for a walk."
        Nothing else was said and then I heard his footsteps going down the hallway. I knew I had to get out of there and fast. I opened the door just a crack and peeked out. The door to Jason's room, which was only a few doors down on the same side, was open. I assumed Celia was inside cleaning up. And I didn't see Brandon anywhere. The door to his room, which was two doors down from Jason's and closer to the stairs, appeared to be closed.
I shut the door behind me, then made my way down to Jason's room. Celia was nowhere in sight. I was perplexed. I turned to go out the door as Celia entered. She nearly dropped the bed linens in her arms. "Ooo!" she screeched.
        "I'm sorry I scared you," I apologized. "But, I was looking for you. Where's Brandon? "
        "He's outside, 'mum, looking for you, I should think."
        "Which door did he go out?" I asked, wondering how I could explain how we had missed each other.
        "I don't rightly know. I wuz..."
        I patted her on the arm. "Thanks anyway. Oh and thanks for the flashlight."
        "Flashlight?" she asked, looking at me rather peculiarly.
        "Yes, but you don't have to own up to it," I said, patting her arm again. "Just answer me this, how did you know she was here?"
        She looked down at the floor. "Strange sounds at night, 'mum. Thing's... disappearing…"
        "What kinds of things?"
        "Food, 'mum. Only food."
        "How long has she been here?" I couldn't help but think of how she'd conveniently shown up the very day Dr. Rosemund released me from his care and Brandon was ready to let her go.
        Celia shrugged. "Can't say for sure, 'mum. I... I think I said enough, already."
        "Why? Because she doesn't want to see me?"
        "I dunnno nuthin' 'bout nuthin' like that. I haven't seen her. I just know that ghosts don't eat chicken."
        "Ghosts, you mean this house has ghosts?"
        "Didn't say that either, 'mum. If you'll 'scuse me I have ta be about me work."
        I shook my head, dislodging these latter unnecessary thoughts. I wasn't worried about ghosts, it was the living I was hot on the trail of. And also hiding from.
        I proceeded down to my room and changed into my bathing suit. It was the only thing I could think of doing, to work off this pent up energy and hopefully give myself an excuse for missing Brandon, as well. There was no way I was going to let him know that Sara was here. I would say I went for a walk, came up the backstairs and changed for my exercise. Might just work, I thought. I'll deal with Sara, later.
        When I entered the heated pool, the water was so warm, I decided against exercise. I'd already had my share of that with the stairs and perusing the attic. Instead, I lay back in the water and relaxed. Only occasionally did I move my arms and legs to keep myself afloat. I stared up at the attic, wondering again: What's she doing here?
        Was she trying to torment me with her presence? No, that didn't sound like Sara. Keeping an eye on me, perhaps? But why? And if so, why hadn't she made her presence known to me? Then again, maybe her reason for being here had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Had she remembered her past? Was she indeed Ashley? Every indication seemed to suggest as much.
So, if she's Ashley then that means Tom had to find her after the accident, I reasoned. But how could that have happened? How would he even know she was missing unless…? Had he somehow been involved in the accident? Not directly, but inadvertently? If Ashley was his daughter, had he tried to make contact? Confront her even? Did Brandon know? Had she confronted Brandon the night of the accident? The night she was reported to have “left out like the devil himself was on her heels”? That was certainly possible, wasn't it? I sighed heavily. The questions were endless.
        And if Tom had found Ashley, I thought, my analytical mind changing gears, how did he manage to pawn her off as Sara Bennington? Were there two Sara Bennington's now… with the same social security number… birth certificate? Or had he falsified these documents? How did he know she'd have amnesia? Good lord, what a complicated situation! Was it even plausible that these things could have happened?
        Sara's presence in the attic suggested it was. For, why else would she return, unless she knew she was Ashley? Then again, if all this were true, then… why hide? Why not come out in the open with the truth and be welcomed back into her own family? Because she wouldn't be welcomed with open arms, I surmised. Not with the way Brandon felt about her now! Oh what a tangled web of confusion! What, if anything, could I do to possibly unravel this perplexing mess? How do I get Sara to at least talk to me? I have to know what she remembers. I have to…
        "Princess!" Brandon exclaimed. I nearly went under, as his voice seared through my thoughts. "Where have you been?" Anger tinged his tone.
        "Wh-what do you… mean?" I asked, spraying water.
        "I've been searching the grounds for you. You were not here a minute ago."
        "Well, I don't have my watch on, but I'm sure I've been here longer than that. Why were you searching for me anyway?" I asked, turning the tables on him. "I'm not a child. I'm not gonna wander off and get lost."
        "Well, yes, I know that, I just… I wanted to see if you were all right,” he explained, calming down considerably. “After your hangover this morning, I mean."
        "I'm fine. I'm exercising. The doctor has released me, ya know and... I can pretty much take care of myself.” As Sara's leaving is proof of, I thought, but said, “And I am a grown woman, after all."
        "Yes," he remarked, as he glanced down at my chest. "I can see that. I guess I'm just being overprotective of my princess."
        "A bit," I agreed, turning away from his stares.
        "Perhaps I'll join you," he said, as I swam away slowly. I didn't even offer a reply. I wasn't sure I wanted him in the pool with me. At least, not the way he was looking at me.
        He left and came back a few minutes later, wearing an outdated pair of swimming trunks and a short black robe. His pale muscular legs, covered in dark brown curly hair, reminded me of my father. He removed the robe to reveal his white chest, untouched by the sun, the dark hairs sprinkled with gray. He walked proudly over to the diving board and dove in. Not bad for a man his age, I thought. Perhaps, this could be okay, if he'd act like a father.
        I lost him in the water and he came up beside me. "Didn't think the old man could still do it, did you?" he asked, as he slicked back his thinning brown hair. "I was on the swimming team in college," he said proudly.
        "I didn't know that."
        "There's a lot you don't know," he remarked, as he gazed deeply into my eyes. "Especially about men." The look in those dark depths frightened me. It seemed he was insinuating something I knew I didn't want to hear. "You spent far too much time with... her. I dare say you know anything about men, do you?"
        "Enough," I responded, as I turned away from his stares and started moving again.
        "Oh, so you've made love with a man?" He was following me.
        "Uh... no, I mean, we never went that far," I answered honestly. I knew immediately I should've lied.
        "Then you don't know," he said, as he came closer. I quickly waded away from him and still he followed. "You are quite attractive, Princess, even now. And I'm sure the surgery will only enhance your natural beauty. Why only last night, one of those young men at the party, Robert, I believe his name was, asked if he might call on you sometime. Of course, I told him it would have to be your decision. But, I did give him my blessing to ask you."
        The thought that he was pushing me to date a man, in the hope I would forget Sara, made me angry.
        "He comes from a fine family, well bred, old money. He'd be quite a catch for a young lady like yourself. Could be just what you need."
        That did it. Now, he was telling me what and who I needed. This enraged me. "Do you really think this would change things?" I asked, sarcastically.
        "Of course, I've already consulted several psychiatrists and they all say you could definitely use a man in your life. Especially since you've never been with one before."
        "Oh and sex with a man... that'll cure me, right?"
        "Why are you so angry, Princess? Are you afraid it's true?"
        "No," I answered calmly, trying to control my ire. "Frankly, I detest your interference in my life." I spun around to face him. "If I want a man, I'll pick my own, thank you very much. And if I want a woman, I'll make that choice myself, as well."
        "Princess, don't say that!" he scolded. "You're not one of those... queers! You're simply a naïve and vulnerable child. You were seduced by that... that filthy whore. Women like her would lay down with anyone and anything, just to get their perverted kicks."
        I glared at him and my lip quivered, as I thought of how much I'd like to slap him. I turned away to avoid doing just that.
        "Princess," he said, more calmly now, as he wrapped his arms around my waist. "If only you knew the joys a man and a woman share. The ecstasy of their bodies joined together, the way God planned it." He pressed the lower part of his body against my backside. "Once you experience the passion of a man... a real man, you'll forget all this nonsense."
        I felt his passion growing, even as he spoke. And was suddenly afraid of what he might do next, because I was trying to pull away from him -without actually physically lashing out- but it was to no avail, he was too strong.
        "God made man stronger…" he persisted, as if reading my mind, "…so that he might overpower a woman, which women truly love. Men were meant to take women in this fashion and show them what true ecstasy is all about. You'll never find it any other way."
        "That's not love!" I exclaimed, as I struggled against him.
        "Love? What would you know about love?" he asked, as he finally released me. "True love can only exist between a man and a woman."
        "You're wrong!" I exclaimed, as tears filled my eyes.
        "So, you think you've experienced love with... her?" he asked, sarcastically. "Ha! That was just the lust of a whore who gets a thrill out of seducing innocent and helpless children like yourself. She could never have shown you love. What she did to you was… a perversion. An abomination unto the Lord."
        Oh great, now he's dragging God into it, I thought, when I had never known him to set foot inside a church in all the time I had been here. I swam away from him as fast as I could. I didn't want to listen to anymore of his accusations and especially his sanctimonious quoting of the bible. It felt sacrilegious.
        "You'll see, Princess," he called after me. "A man can satisfy your needs and desires in ways she never could. Women were made for men. Made from one of his ribs. God put woman here for man to protect and to bear his children. Trust me, Princess, I really do know what's best for you."
        I pulled myself out of the pool, by using the drainage trough, stumbled over to my cane and got away from there as fast as I could, leaving a trail of water behind me. I never wanted to see him again, at that moment. I'd leave if I had to and live right by myself.
        As I climbed the stairs, I couldn't help but think of my mother and father. This must be the side of his personality they saw. Surely he had subjected one or both of them to some type of verbal torture such as this for them to leave so suddenly. And I could see why my mother would leave her things behind. I had a good mind to pack what few things I would need and get the hell out of there, myself.
        Once inside my room, I closed and locked the door. Then I quickly changed out of my wet bathing suit. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. I was determined not to answer it. I didn't want any part of him, right now.
        "Miss Faith... lunch is ready," said Celia. I went over and unlocked the door for her, then locked it right back, once she was inside. "Is there sum'thin' wrong, 'mum?" she asked, as she placed the tray on the table.
        I wanted to tell her the whole sorted tale, but instead I merely said, "No, I just prefer a bit more privacy these days."
        "Begging your pardon, 'mum, but I overheard... out at the pool… Be careful, 'mum. Men can be… very sensitive 'bout this issue."
        "Very sensitive? Celia, how do you know so much about this issue?" I asked, curiously, as I crossed my arms.
        "I... me sister, 'mum. She wuz... like you. Just be careful, 'mum."
        "What do you mean, be careful?"
        "Men have sensitive egos, 'mum. A woman lover... threatens that. And... men do strange things when they feel threatened."
        "I don't understand. He's my uncle, not my boyfriend, so why should he feel threatened?"
        "He's still a man. Don't seem to matter much what relation they are ta ya. Another man don' pose a threat like a woman duz. I've seen it before, 'mum, believe me. Almost all men feel threatened by this. Sum' more'n others. Your uncle, he's a proud man. And he has no wife ta... soothe his battered pride. So please, 'mum, don't be throwing caution to the winds."
        "How do you know so much about men and their egos, where this is concerned?" I questioned.
        "It's… a long story."
        "I don't have anywhere to go," I said, as I moved over to the bed.
        "We-ell…" She paused, as she pushed the table over to me. "Like I said 'bout me younger sister…. Ya see, she had herself a suitor, a nice young man, he wuz, but... she met this older woman… and well, me parents found out what they wuz up ta. Oh my, me father nearly tore the roof off the house, he did. And he... he also did a very bad thing. He...he told her suitor 'bout it all. Told him it might be good if he… well, showed her what men wuz about, ya know. And... Marcus... he... Well, he took me… me poor sister by force. And... she wuz never the same after that. She… umm... Well, she run off, is what she did, 'mum and… me muther and father hasn't seen her since," she concluded, sadly.
        "Celia, I'm sorry, I didn't..."
        She waved my apology away. "It's alright, 'mum. Maybe better I told ya."
        "Are you trying to say that you think Brandon will try... something like this?"
        "I didn't say that, 'mum. No, what I said wuz be careful and don't injure his pride."
        "What about my pride? What about how I feel when he calls Sara a whore, who would lay down with anything just for kicks?" I asked, my anger showing again. "What am I supposed to do just stand there and take it?"
        She sighed. "We women been taking worse than that for centuries, 'mum. But, we survive, somehow."
        I sighed heavily and pushed the table away. I had lost my appetite. I got up and walked over to the window, gazing out at the great expanse of land behind the mansion. The trees were losing their leaves now. They were withdrawing their sap, preparing themselves for the cruel winter weather ahead. Was I to be like them and withdraw from the cruel wind of Brandon's words? Go along with all he said, just so his precious pride would not be damaged?
        No! I thought. Sara is here somewhere and despite the fact that she may be my cousin and may not want to see me, I'll get her to leave this place with me. One way or another. I wasn't about to leave her here for Brandon to torture. Because surely, he would, the way he felt about her. I doubted whether finding out she was his long lost daughter would affect his feelings any. Because I wasn't sure he had really loved Ashley. I wasn't sure he truly cared about me. True, he loved lavishing presents and attention on me, but he also wanted to lord over me. And I'd come to learn that this kindness was one way in which he bartered for that control.
        We both heard the bump that came from the vicinity of my sitting room. I braced myself, waiting for Brandon to knock. Celia got up and straightened her apron, seemingly on pins and needles now. No knock came. But there was another noise from the sitting room. It sounded like the squeak of a hinge. I recognized it immediately. I wanted to run over to the secret door and snatch it open to see if Sara had been in there, listening. Instead, I merely stared at the place on the wall, where I knew the door was, remembering the morning she had hidden there. Obviously, she was using it again. But why? Was she spying on me? To what end? Or was it that she had merely wanted to be near me? Had she been trying to sneak in and heard us talking?
        "Will there be anything else, 'mum?" Celia asked, looking at me rather strangely. I shook my head and watched her walk over to the door. She opened it a crack and paused. "If..." She frowned and shook her head as if she'd thought better of what she was about to say. "There's plenty of food in the kitchen, 'mum. No one but myself an' the cook down there. An' he sleeps like the dead, he duz," she said and then left, closing the door behind her.
        Was she insinuating that if I got hungry I could come down and get something during the night? Or was there more to her vague ramblings? Was this meant for someone else she thought might be listening?
        Listening? Had Sara exited or entered the closet? Worth a try, I thought. I walked over to the bed and sat down. "Food's getting cold," I said aloud. "Looks good, too." There was no response. "Plenty for two. And you know I don't like eating alone." I waited with baited breath. "Alright, I guess it'll just go to waste."
        Still there was no response. Musta been leaving, I thought, with a heavy sigh. But, I would give it one more try. I got up and walked over to the secret door. "I… love you, Sara. To me, you're not my cousin. You're not Ashley. You'll always be... my Sara."
        I was very tempted to push the door open, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I didn't want to force her like that, not yet anyway. I'd give her time to come to me, first.

        I hardly touched my lunch. I had no appetite. All I could do was stare at that secret door, hoping she would come through it. Tired of waiting, finally, I took the apple off my tray and went over to the door. I pushed on it slowly. Nothing moved inside. I pushed it all the way open and found it empty. My heart sank. Had I imagined the squeaking hinge? I placed the apple on the floor of the closet and closed the door back. Calling myself saving Celia a few steps, I carried the tray back down to the kitchen. I should've known it was a bad move; for, on my way back up, at the top of the stairs, I ran into Brandon.
        "Oh Princess, there you are. Please forgive me," he said, apologetically, as he drew nearer. "I lost my head for a moment out there. I truly didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
        I didn't offer a response I merely turned and headed back down the stairs.
         He followed. "Princess, please... I'm truly sorry. Please forgive me. I never intended to… say all those things. Believe me. It just makes me so angry when I think of how... she used you, Princess."
        I stopped and stared at him. Used me? I thought.
        "She did, you know,” he maintained, as if reading my expression. “She used you and cast you aside when she got ready to leave, didn't she? Princess, I can see you're hurting... I realize you probably felt she loved you and that... you loved her.” He frowned as if the words left a bad taste in his mouth and then continued, “But, you know now it wasn't real, don't you? I mean look around you... she's gone. And all she left you was a note. Dear Jill," he added, a very solemn expression on his face.
        I turned away and took another step down the stairs.
        "Princess, please. I'd hate myself if I thought I'd hurt you so much that you'd never forgive me. I wasn't considerate of your feelings and… I'm truly sorry for that. I'm... an old man. I've forgotten what it feels like to be young and naive and vulnerable. I've forgotten how these first... encounters can be. They can seem magical, I know. I was... just so angry, Princess. Please forgive me."
        As he apologized over and over, my heart was very reluctant to give in, because his words had cut deep and I knew down deep that I'd finally seen through his facade. Yet, my mind kept telling me I should say I forgave him whether I did or not. After all, I didn't need him following me around apologizing and trying to make up to me. I needed him to think everything was okay, so he'd go on with his business and let me get on with mine: getting Sara to at least talk to me.
        "Enough," I finally said, "I… I forgive you."
        "Thank you, Princess, I needed to know that," he said, as he reached for my hand. My insides turned cold at his touch. "By the way, where were you going?"
        "Oh... I... I thought I'd... do some reading," I lied.
        "That's good, I'll see you to the library."
        "No, that... that won't be necessary. I mean you probably have more important things to do." I bit my lip, knowing I had said the wrong thing, but unable to take it back.
        "Nothing is more important than you, Princess." He offered me his arm. "I'll escort you the rest of the way down. Perhaps I'll even do some reading myself."
        Oh what a tangled web we weave, I thought. Now I might possibly be trapped in the library with him for the rest of the afternoon.
        Which, to my utter dismay, is exactly what happened.

Part 17

original fiction | homepage | what's new | xena homepage