PROLOGUE

Louisiana, 1995...


Her dark blonde hair flying behind her and the hem of her ball gown firmly in both hands, Amanda Jackson hurried up the winding marble staircase of Belle Reve. The Restoration Ball had been an unqualified success, unequaled in elegance, she'd been assured by the long list of society guests who lingered late, unaware of her impatience to be alone. She hadn't even had a chance to give Eric more than a fleeting description of what she'd found. Time for that tomorrow.

Her dark green slippers were soundless on the polished black and white tile of the second floor hallway, and the pale green, watered silk ball gown made only the slightest whisper as she closed her bedroom door behind her.

She had been politely disinterested in the restoration of Belle Reve, a tedious undertaking that had been her parent's dream. But she'd been so distraught when their private plane crashed she'd thrown herself into the project as a way of keeping them close to her. No one was more surprised than she was when what began as a mixture of healing and grief therapy became fascination with her family history.

And a source of tremendous mystery.

The plantation, reduced to near skeletal form during the Civil War, though rich in verbal history, had written records dating back only to the turn of this century. Tracing earlier records had been postponed until after the ball.

Two months ago, in a rusty-hinged, dry-rotted trunk almost hidden in a corner of the century old attic, she'd found a moth-eaten, faded ball gown, a gown whose beauty hadn't been dimmed by years. Along with the watered silk gown she'd found an exquisitely crafted diamond pendant on a heavy gold chain. Determined to wear both incredible creations when she presided over the ball festivities, she had the dress replicated. Many an envious eye had sought out her dress and pendant tonight.

This morning she'd again climbed the narrow attic stairs, wondering if there was anything she'd overlooked in her original search of the dusty cubbyholes and four cypress trunks. Maybe an antique, frilly parasol or two to hang beside the reproductions, for effect? Maybe even a few authentic Japanese lanterns--well, she didn't know what else she might find, but sitting in the cramped, though sunny, attic was peaceful, and encouraged mental images of the distant past.

The trunks revealed nothing promising. Already late with last minute instructions to florists and decorators, she started toward the stairs, then stopped. Brilliant sunlight bounced from the bronze latch of the trunk in the corner. The trunk where she found the dress and pendant. It took several seconds before Amanda realized there was something unusual about the trunk. No, it wasn't that it stood all alone. Or that the trunk was dissimilar to the others. Then it hit her. The contents! The dress and pendant were much older than anything else she'd found.

If she hoped to find anything else to use tonight, it would have to be in there, inside the antebellum trunk. After discovering the dress and pendant, her search of that trunk, admittedly, had been less than thorough, something she would correct immediately. Dragging the small, heavy trunk into the middle of the floor, she plopped onto her behind in front of it.

She flipped the lid up and began methodically sorting, once again, through delicate, yellowed-with-age white linen blouses, dark cotton skirts, cotton trousers and brown and gray woolen socks. Every item was riddled with holes from moths, several pair of stockings so fragile from accumulated years that they threatened to disintegrate in her hand. But the greatest surprise was carefully tucked inside an embroidered white blouse at the bottom of the trunk. Amanda's cry of delight when she saw the old, fragile diary resounded from the attic rafters. Inside the front cover was scripted The thoughts of Justin Beaumont. It was little more than a vague memory, but she was sure her father had told her he'd been unable to obtain information concerning their family founder. Justin Beaumont.

Now, taking the diary from her dresser drawer, Amanda propped herself on oversized bed pillows, tucked slippered feet beneath her, and opened the cracked, faded brown diary. The entries, written in the bold flowery penmanship of the nineteenth century, began with Justin's marriage in 1845 to Claudine Hamilton. Belle Reve had been a gift to the young couple from Claudine's father, a gift cherished and loved by both of them. Justin described tender, overwhelming joy he and Claudine shared at the birth in 1846 of their only child, Angelique. Drawn into the honest emotions in his writing, Amanda felt his and Claudine's deep joy as she read, then shared the total devastation Justin put into words five years later when his beloved Claudine was lost to the ravages of dreaded swamp fever.

The entries had become routine, Justin's words showing spark solely when he wrote about Angelique. Daily life had been entries of work, plantation accounts, and visits of friends.

Oddly, there were no long, passionate writings concerning the war or his feelings about it, only notations on fleeing with Angelique to safety in Texas. His fervent wish that Belle Reve be spared from the flames of Yankee torches had not been granted, and Justin had returned to find his home in ruins.

Amanda skimmed past these entries and pushed long, dark blonde hair behind her shoulders as her green eyes searched for the place she'd stopped reading that morning. Her fingers carefully turned fragile, yellowed pages and she drew her breath in as she found the entry that had been the first indication of a horrible tragedy. A tragedy hidden, for unknown reasons, nearly a hundred and thirty years. Settling comfortably into the blue-and-white-gingham pillows, she began reading.

April 28, 1867....How can I allow him to expose my daughter to this knowledge? I must find a way to convince him I do not have that which he seeks. But how?

April 29, 1867....He persists and my time grows short, for Angelique returns soon. I can feel his menace and fear he means to do harm, whether his demands are met or not.

April 30, 1867....I cannot face her if she knows the truth. I am a coward, but will do what I must.

May 1, 1867....I fear Angelique will learn the truth. She has agreed, most unhappily, to fake her death in the river and will hide in New Orleans until I feel it is safe. I am heartbroken, certain it is the last I shall ever look upon my beloved daughter.

May 2, 1867....It is done. She will hide, using the name Amanda Jackson, until I summon her. God be with her and watch over her. I fear my hour is near.


Amanda lowered the book but continued to stare at the name Amanda Jackson. Her name. Though most of the digging her parents did into the family history was unsuccessful, they certainly would have told her of such an odd coincidence. Or raised her knowing the story of the woman whose name she bore. Was she named for the girl in this diary?

Eric Montgomery, her closest friend, worked for the parish historical society. He'd expressed interest in Amanda's brief mention of the diary and promised to examine it first thing tomorrow when they discussed restoring the burial ground. Yes, she thought excitedly, Eric will be more than happy to help search headstones for these names. Turning back to the diary, she continued reading.

May 12, 1867....At last, word from New Orleans! Angelique is safe. My grief at her staged passing is painfully real, for his intent has become clear. I must act quickly.

May 13, 1867....I have never killed a man and pray I do not weaken from my chosen path. If the Lord does not stand with me, an explanation lies hidden in the ruins. I can only beg a coward's forgiveness.


Amanda turned the page but the entries had stopped. What was Justin talking about? Who did he plan on killing, and did he then do so? Fear and anxiety flowed from every stroke of his pen, and she found herself filled with sympathy for his plight. The entries stopped so abruptly she wondered if that meant he'd been killed instead. Justin's writings showed him to be a gentle man. If he had killed someone, perhaps he couldn't bear to put it into words. Tomorrow, she and Eric would search the burial ground until they found Justin's grave, then check the date of his death. She wanted to know what had happened to the devoted father she met through the words in his diary. And she definitely wanted to know more about his daughter. Especially why Justin insisted she hide under another name. Amanda's name.

Amanda rose from the bed and looked with new eyes around her room in the beautiful, nineteenth-century plantation house. She walked to the open gallery doors, hugging the old diary to her chest. She gazed through silver moonlight at the decaying burying grounds, then beyond them toward the crumbling red brick-and-mortar mausoleum.

"How many more of your secrets are waiting to be revealed?" she whispered, her smile expectant.

The wide, second floor gallery was drenched in moonlight. Amanda sighed as she walked toward the grapevine-patterned wrought iron railing, enjoying the fragrant summer perfumes of honeysuckle, roses and wild magnolia.

Without warning, she became dizzy, and was held in place by an unyielding, invisible force akin to a band of iron circumferencing her body. What looked like incredibly tiny sparks of ultraviolet light surrounded the fingertips of her right hand. Thick, total blackness engulfed her, and she found herself in a corridor. A corridor so short, and so narrow, it could have been a doorway.

Startled, Amanda saw her mirror image directly in front of her. As deep rolls of thunder boomed in the cloudless, moonlit night, her image, looking as startled as Amanda felt, moved toward her in slow-motion. When the fingertips of the image touched her own the thunder detonated with a roar that threatened her hearing, and with an explosion of pure white sparks that nearly blinded her. Then, almost immediately, the darkness cleared, and Amanda found herself standing, not in the beautiful restored plantation, but in the smoke-blackened ruins of Belle Reve, facing an angry man whose hand extended toward the diary she was holding.

"I will not ask again for you to return my diary, Angelique," the man said, his dark brown eyes steady. "I have explained all that I can. You must trust me."

Amanda was too terrified to speak, and just stared at the distinguished looking man who had appeared from nowhere to take part in her nightmare.

Where in the name of heaven was she?

"Angelique!" the man snapped. Her fright must have been visible, for he took the diary from her tight grasp, then kissed her hand.

"Forgive me, daughter, if my temper grows short. Tomorrow we take the Belle Orleans and people will believe you were a victim of the river. I swear to you, I will bring you home as quickly as possible."

Amanda continued to stare at the man who had to be Justin Beaumont. Finally he smiled and cleared his throat. "You will stay at the boarding house on Chartres Street, but we have not discussed what name you will hide under."

"Amanda Jackson," she answered automatically, her gaze riveted in disbelief on the diary. The cracked, faded diary was gone, replaced by one that looked brand new.
***