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Excerpt for The Girl On Legare Street

 CHAPTER 1  

      The milky glow of winter sun behind a sky rubbed the color of an old nickel failed in its feeble attempt to warm the November morning.  I shuddered in my wool coat, my Charleston blood unaccustomed to the infrequent blasts of frigid air that descend on the Holy City from time to time to send yet another reminder of why we choose to live in this beautiful city where its inhabitants, both living and dead, coexist like light and shadow.

      I yanked open the door to the City Lights Coffee Bar, the wind behind me threatening to close it again before I'd gone through it.  Glancing around, I spotted Jack at a table by the front window, a latte with extra whipped cream and a large cinnamon roll already sitting on the table across from him.  Immediately suspicious, I approached the table with caution.

      “What do you want?” I asked, indicating the latte and cinnamon roll.

      He looked up at me with a pair of killer blue eyes that I'd spent the last six months of my life trying not to notice.  His look of innocence would have made me smile and roll my eyes if I didn't still have the lingering aura of dread that had dogged me all the way from my house on Tradd Street to Market.  It had been a strong enough feeling to make me linger outside the café for a moment longer than necessary, hoping to identify whatever it was.  I wanted to think it was my grogginess caused by a phone call at two o'clock in the morning after which I'd been unable to fall asleep.  That would have been an acceptable explanation, but in my world where phone calls from people long-dead weren't as unusual an occurrence as most people would expect, I wasn't satisfied.

      “Good morning, Melanie,” Jack said cheerfully.  “Can't a guy just want to buy breakfast for a beautiful woman without expecting anything in return?”

      I pretended to think for a moment.  “No.”  I unbuttoned my coat and folded it neatly on the back of my chair before sitting down, noticing that all of the women in the restaurant, including the gray-haired woman with a walker at a table by the bar, were staring at Jack and regarding me with narrowed eyes.  Yes, Jack Trenholm was way too good-looking for a writer, especially a writer of historical true-crime mysteries.  He should have been bald with a gray beard, wearing thick turtlenecks that protruded over his paunch, his teeth tobacco-stained from his ubiquitous pipe.  Unfortunately, like so much about Jack, he didn't even try to fit the stereotype.  

      “So, what do you want?” I asked again as I took out the bottle of hand sanitizer from my purse and squirted a dollop on my palm.  I offered the bottle to Jack but he shook his head before taking a sip of his black coffee.  Emptying two packets of sugar into my latte I looked up at him again then wished I hadn't.  His eyes were certainly bluer than they needed to be, their intensity not needing the help from the navy blue sweater he wore.  But something flickered in his eyes as he regarded me, something that I thought looked a lot like concern, and it made me squirm in my seat. 

      “How's General Lee?” he asked, ignoring my question and glancing out the front window then down at his watch.

      I swallowed a bite of my cinnamon roll.  “He's fine,” I said, referring to the small black and white dog I'd reluctantly inherited along with my historic home on Tradd Street.

      “Are you still keeping him in the kitchen at night?”

      I avoided his gaze.  “Um, no.  Not exactly.”

      A wide grin spread over Jack's face.  “He sleeps in your room now, doesn't he?”

      I took a huge bite of my roll to avoid answering, annoyed again at how astute Jack could be where I was concerned.  After having failed at foisting General Lee off onto my best friend, Dr. Sophie Wallen--who'd turned out to be allergic--I'd sworn to all who would listen that I wasn't a dog person and had no intention of actually keeping the animal.

      “He's sleeping at the foot of your bed now, isn't he?”  Jack couldn't keep the glee from his voice.

      I took a long sip of my latte, studiously avoiding looking at him.

      Jack crossed his arms over his chest and slid back in his chair, a smug look on his face.  “He's on the pillow next to you, too, right?”

      “Fine,” I said, slamming down my coffee mug.  “He wouldn't sleep anywhere else, okay?  He'd cry if I left him in the kitchen and when I brought him up to my room he'd sit next to the bed staring up at me all night until I brought him up there with me.  Sleeping on my pillow was his idea.”  I slid the mug away from me.  “It's not like I actually like him or anything.  He just seemed…lonely.”

      Jack leaned forward, his elbows on the table.  “Maybe I should pretend I'm lonely and look up at you with sad puppy eyes and see what happens.”

      I stared at him for a moment, suppressing the unwanted trill of excitement that settled somewhere near my stomach.  “You'd end up in a crate in the kitchen.”  I pushed my empty plate away and signaled the waitress for another.

      Jack laughed then shook his head.  “You know, one day those calories are actually going to stick to you and you'll have to watch what you eat like the rest of us mortals.”

      I shrugged.  “I can't help it.  It's hereditary.  My maternal grandmother was as slim as a reed until the day she died and she ate like a linebacker.”

      “Is your mother the same way?”

      My eyes met Jack's and I saw he wasn't smiling any more.  “I wouldn't know, would I?  I haven't seen her in more than thirty years.”  This wasn't precisely the truth, as I'd accidentally spotted the famous soprano Ginnette Prioleau several times while flipping channels on the television, the remote control in my hand unable to flip quickly enough from the PBS station broadcasting a production of the Metropolitan Opera.  The exact truth was that my mother was still as slender and as beautiful as she'd been when she'd abandoned her seven-year-old daughter without a backward glance.

      The darkness that had been hovering over me all morning seemed to descend on our corner table, obscuring the light as if someone had hit a dimmer switch.  I fought a wave of nausea as the hairs on the back of my neck rose and I looked at Jack in panic to see if he'd noticed a change, too.  But he was too busy staring past my shoulder to notice anything else.

      “You look a lot like her, you know.”  Jack's eyes slid back to mine and I saw the look of concern quickly switch to one of apology.

      “Oh, God, Jack, you didn't!”  I made a move to stand but he placed a hand on my arm. 

      “Melanie, she said it was a matter of life or death and that you wouldn't see her or return her phone calls.  I was her last resort.”

      I looked around blindly, searching for an exit other than the door through which I'd entered, and wondered if I could run through the kitchen before anybody noticed me.  A small, gloved hand gripped my shoulder as a bright light seemed to pop in front of me like a curtain being pulled back from the window to reveal a sunny day.  The darkness dispelled as she squeezed my shoulder and dropped her hand, but the light remained, leaving me to wonder if the sigh and whisper I'd heard as the darkness left had been only in my imagination.

      I looked up into the face of the woman who'd once been the world to me, when I was too small to understand the vagaries of human nature and that calling somebody 'Mother' didn't always mean what you wanted it to.

      “Hello, Mellie,” she said in a soft, melodious voice that had haunted my dreams for years until I'd grown old enough to believe that I didn't need to hear my mother's voice anymore.

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