Midnight Bayou

By: Nora Roberts

Prologue




Death, with all its cruel beauty, lived in the bayou. Its shadows ran deep. Cloaked by them, a whisper in the marsh grass or rushes, in the tangled trap of the kudzu, meant life, or fresh death. Its breath was thick and green, and its eyes gleamed yellow in the dark.



Silent as a snake, its river swam a sinuous line--black water under a fat white moon where the cypress knees broke the surface like bones piercing skin.



Through the dark, moon-dappled water, the long, knobby length of an alligator carved with barely a ripple. Like a secret, its threat was silent. When it struck, its tail whipping a triumphant slice through the water, when it clamped the unwary muskrat in its killing jaws, the bayou echoed with a single short scream.



And the gator sank deep to the muddy bottom with its prey.



Others had known the cruel, silent depths of that river. Knew, even in the vicious summer



heat, it was cold, cold.



Vast with secrets, the bayou was never quite still. In the night, under a high hunter's moon, death was busy. Mosquitoes, voracious vampires of the swamp, whined in a jubilant cloud of greed. Players of the marsh music, they blended with the buzzes, hums and drips that were punctuated by the shocked squeals of the hunted.



In the high limbs of a live oak, shadowed by moss and leaves, an owl hooted its two mournful notes. Alerted, a marsh rabbit ran for his life.



A breeze stirred the air, then was gone, like the single sigh of a ghost.



The owl swooped from its perch with a swift spread of wings.



Near the river, while the owl dived and the rabbit died, an old gray house with a swaying dock slept in shadows. Beyond, rising over a long, lush spread of grass, a great white manor stood watchful in the moonlight.



Between them, teeming with life, vigorous with death, the bayou laid its line.





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Manet Hall, Louisiana



December 30, 1899



The baby was crying. Abigail heard it in dreams, the soft, unsettled whimper, the stirring of tiny limbs under soft blankets. She felt the first pangs of hunger, a yearning in the belly, almost as if the child were still inside her. Her milk came down before she was fully awake.



She rose quickly and without fuss. It gave her such pleasure--that overfull sensation in her breasts, the tenderness of them. The purpose of them. Her baby needed and she would provide.



She crossed to the recamier, lifted the white robe draped over its back. She drew in the scent of the hothouse lilies--her favorite--spearing out of a crystal vase that had been a wedding present.



Before Lucian, she'd been content to tuck wildflowers into bottles.



If Lucian had been home, he would have woken as well. Though she would have smiled, have stroked a hand over his silky blond hair as she told him to stay, to sleep, he would have wandered up



to the nursery before she'd finished Marie Rose's midnight feeding.



She missed him--another ache in the belly. But as she slipped into her night wrapper, she remembered he would be back the next day. She would start watching for him in the morning, waiting to see him come galloping down the allée of oaks.



No matter what anyone thought or said, she would run out to meet him. Her heart would leap, oh, it always leaped, when he sprang down from his horse and lifted her off her feet into his arms.



And at the New Year's ball, they would dance.



She hummed to herself as she lit a candle, shielding it with her hand as she moved to the bedroom door, out into the corridor of the great house where she had once been servant and was now, well, if not daughter of the house at least the wife of its son.



The nursery was on the third floor of the family wing. That was a battle she'd fought with Lucian's mother, and lost. Josephine Manet had definite rules about behavior, domestic arrangements, traditions. Madame Josephine, Abigail thought as she moved quickly and quietly past the other bedroom doors, had



definite ideas on everything. Certainly that 5 a three-month-old baby belonged in the nursery, under the care of a nursemaid, and not in a cradle tucked into the corner of her parents' bedroom.



Candlelight flickered and flew against the walls as Abigail climbed the narrowing stairs. At least she'd managed to keep Marie Rose with her for six weeks. And had used the cradle that was part of her own family's traditions. It had been carved by her grand-père. Her own mother had slept in it, then had tucked Abigail in it seventeen years later.