Part Twenty-Six

Elizabeth Collins Stoddard was having coffee in the drawing room the next morning when she heard the front doors open. Rising, she saw her daughter climbing the stairs. "Carolyn. Could I speak to you for a moment?"

Carolyn turned to look at her. "I'm tired, Mother- can't it wait?"

"Now," Elizabeth said firmly, turning back toward the drawing room. She sat down and poured a fresh cup of coffee into her bone china cup, waiting until Carolyn was standing nearby. "You were out all night again."

"Mother, we've been over this. I'm a grown woman. I can do as I wish- "

"And if you wish to throw your life away on someone like Nicholas Blair, I shouldn't try to stop you," Elizabeth finished. "You're right. I've heard it before. But there's something that *you* haven't heard before."

Carolyn frowned. "What?"

Elizabeth's dark eyes lifted to look at her daughter. "If you persist in seeing this man, I'll change my will to leave everything to David - and you will *not* be included in it all."

Carolyn's laughter surprised her. "You think Nicholas is interested in me because of my *money*?" she asked. "Oh, Mother. He doesn't need your money. The only thing that would make him less interested in me is if I weren't a Collins. But I am a Collins, Mother, and *that* is something that you can't take away in a will."

"It's just that I'm concerned about you, darling. I -"

Carolyn came to sit beside her mother. "I know. But you just have to trust me to know what I'm doing, Mother."

"He's dangerous, Carolyn," Elizabeth pointed out with a mother's concern for her child.

"I know that. Maybe that's part of the attraction for me. I've never really been attracted to men who weren't dangerous in some way. Just let me work it out in my own way, all right?"

"I suppose I don't really have a choice, do I? You *are* grown, after all. Just promise me that you'll be careful -"

Carolyn smiled. "And discreet," she added, kissing her mother on the cheek. "Now, I'm really tired, and I need to get some sleep before going to the shoppe this afternoon."

"Are you going to be here for lunch?" Elizabeth asked.

"Lunch?" Carolyn asked.

"We're discussing the wedding, finalizing plans - Julia, Angelique, Maggie, and Sarah are supposed to be here- I hoped that you -"

"I'll try, Mother," Carolyn said, rising. "See you later."

Elizabeth followed her daughter with worried eyes.


Upon his arrival at the offices of the Collins Shipyards, Mrs. Davis informed Barnabas that his cousin Quentin was waiting in his office. Frowning, Barnabas picked up the messages that the woman handed him, then opened the door. Quentin was standing at the window, watching the work outside. He turned, but there was no smile on his face, Barnabas noted.

"Quentin. It's a bit early for you to be up and about, isn't it?" Barnabas commented, going to the coffee pot and pouring himself a cup before lifting it toward Quentin, who shook his head.

Running a shaking hand through his dark hair, Quentin said, "It's easy to get up early when you don't get to sleep," he said.

Barnabas sat down at the desk. "What's wrong?"

"It's Blair. He knows that we've been playing a little game with him, Barnabas."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean he knows about Maggie and me. He was waiting for me last night when I got back from walking Maggie to the Old House." Barnabas watched as Quentin moved to the bar and poured himself a glass of whiskey.

"What did he say?"

"Told me I'm not good enough for her. I already knew that - pointed out that he's not a better choice."

"Quentin-" Barnabas said, frustrated by his cousin's ramblings.

"He said he could make it possible for me to stay at Collinwood with Maggie - "

"For a price, I'm sure."

"The same one he quoted you," Quentin confirmed. "I spent the rest of the night hearing his words, thinking about how much I wish I *could* stay -"

"Angelique's going to talk to Julia about an idea she has," Barnabas told him. "Blair's offer isn't the way, Quentin."

"I told myself that all night, cousin. Then I'd think about Jenny - remember what happened to her when I left -"

"Maggie isn't Jenny, Quentin. From what I understood from Magda, Jenny was never very stable emotionally. Maggie's strong. She'll survive."

"What are we going to do, since Blair's onto our little plan?"

"It's a relief, actually, not to have to maintain that charade. We'll simply come up with another one."

"I have an idea- if you want to hear it - But I know you're not going to like it."

Barnabas gave Quentin his full attention.


As soon as she could after their arrival at Collinwood, Angelique drew Julia to one side. "I need to speak to you, Julia. It's important."

Julia glanced toward the doors as Carolyn entered, greeting Sarah and Maggie. "I'll come by the Old House after lunch," she said. "It will give me a chance to examine Sarah anyway." She looked at Angelique. "How are things going between you and Barnabas with Maggie in the house?"

"It was difficult at first, but I think we'll be fine now."

"Julia, Angelique," Elizabeth called. "I believe Mrs. Johnson has lunch ready."


"You're right, Quentin," Barnabas said at last. "I *don't* like it."

"What other choice have we got, Barnabas?" Quentin asked. "And if works out right-"

"What if it doesn't? It would mean taking a big chance, Quentin."

Quentin shook his head. "What's he going to do? Kill me? You know, Barnabas, there are times, when I think that might be a blessing."

"You don't mean that."

"No. No, I don't. Are we agreed?"

"What are you going to tell Maggie?"

"For the moment, nothing - and it might be best if you don't tell Angelique-"

"I can't promise that, Quentin. Angelique and I promised each other there would be no more secrets between us."

"All right." He glanced at his watch. "I have to meet with Roger - I'm supposed to handle things at the plant while he's gone next week."

"Will you be at Collinwood for dinner this evening?"

"You really think I'd miss the rehearsal for Julia's wedding? I'll be there. I won't do anything until after the wedding - " He turned toward the door. "I'll see you later."


After Julia examined Sarah, Maggie and the girl went outside for a lesson at Angelique's suggestion. "How is she, Julia?" Angelique asked.

"She seems stronger physically," Julia announced. "I won't know about anything else until I have a chance to look at the blood sample." She closed her black medical case and sat down. "Now. What did you want to talk to me about?"

"Are you aware that Quentin and Maggie are seeing each other?"

"I knew they had been seeing each other before she met Sebastian - but I didn't realize it had started since her return. That's going to make Barnabas' plan to get rid of Nicholas more difficult, isn't it?"

"Perhaps. But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about. Maggie's in danger from Nicholas -"

"You're concerned about Maggie's safety?" Julia asked.

"I know. Strange, isn't it? But I've gotten to know Maggie - she truly cares about Sarah- and I can see how much Quentin cares for her every time he talks about her."

"What do you think Nicholas might try to do?"

"If he discovers that Maggie's in love with Quentin, I wouldn't put it past him to try and cause problems- problems regarding the curse and that portrait upstairs."

"And how do you suggest we prevent that from happening?"

"Tell Maggie the truth," Angelique said simply.

"Tell her that Quentin is really over a hundred years old? That he was placed under a curse? We can't do that," Julia insisted. "She wouldn't be able to accept it."

"What if you were to give her a post hypnotic suggestion?"

Julia looked thoughtful. "A- post hypnotic suggestion. You're suggesting that I put her in a trance, give her the suggestion -"

"Something simple. A word, a phrase that you can use to put her back in the trance once she hears the truth, in case she reacts badly." Angelique watched as Julia rose from her chair to move across the room. "I know that you're an expert hypnotist, Julia. And you've put Maggie under before-"

"To make her forget about Barnabas having kidnapped her," Julia reminded her. "Doing it again might bring back those memories."

Angelique shook her head. "The only one who can do that is Nicholas. Maggie's memory of that time is gone, Julia. The only thing we have to worry about is her reaction to the truth about Quentin."

"Have you discussed this with him?"

"Not yet. I haven't even discussed the details with Barnabas. I wanted to ask you first, to see if you could do it."

"Oh, I can put her in a trance, give her the suggestion - then bring her out of it so that she could be told the truth. But I don't think Quentin will agree to this. He's not going to risk her finding out the truth and turning from him. Not if he cares as much about her as you say he does."

"Let me handle Quentin, Julia. Can you get away this evening? After dinner? I know it's asking a lot, with the wedding tomorrow- but-"

"If Quentin- and Barnabas agree to this, then I can be here around midnight, I should think." She shook her head.

"Thank you, Julia."

She shook her head. "Don't thank me until it's done."


Maggie came back to the house with Sarah a few minutes after Julia left, having decided that Sarah needed a nap. She tucked the child into her bed, then went to her own room, where she sat at the window, notebook in hand, to make notes for Sarah's lessons. Within moments, her eyelashes fell to her cheeks, and she slept. When she woke, the room was dark, and Maggie wondered why no one had awakened her.

She lit a candle, then went to Sarah's room, but the child wasn't there. "Sarah?" she called. "Where are you? Angelique? Barnabas?" Even Willie was nowhere to be found. Suddenly she heard a flute, playing the tune "London Bridge", and felt chills up her spine. "Sarah?" she called, following the sound back up the stairs to the attics.

Why would Sarah be up here, playing that song? she wondered. "Sarah?" she called again, stopping before a door. The music was coming from inside, and Maggie reached out a hand to the doorknob. It was locked. "Let me in!" she begged, shaking the door in frustration.

Suddenly the music changed to a violin. "Quentin's music," she said, realizing that she was standing in the hallway outside Quentin's rooms in the West Wing. "How did I get here?" she wondered, opening the door to go inside. Quentin was sitting beside the antique gramophone, drink in hand. "Quentin-"

"You shouldn't have come here, Maggie," he said in a toneless voice. "You shouldn't have come."

"Why not?" she asked, frightened by his voice. He sounded so sad, so resigned. "Quentin-"

"The moon's about to rise," he told her. "You have to leave. While you still can. Get away from me for your own sake."

"No, Quentin," she told him, kneeling beside his chair, her hands on his arm. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to stay right here with you. You won't hurt me-"

"I won't be able to stop myself," he said, still in that toneless, lost voice. His fists clenched, the glass shattering in his palm, a groan of pain issuing between clenched teeth.

Maggie felt the muscles in his arm contract. "Quentin? What's wrong? What is it?"

"Get out of here, Maggie!" he begged. "Now! Before it's too late!" He fell from the chair, writhing in agony, and helpless to do anything for him, Maggie rose to her feet.

"You're ill. I'll go find Julia," she decided, "Hang on, Quentin," she pleaded, running out of the room. The door slammed shut behind her, and she turned back to open it- only to find it locked. "Quentin?!" she called. "Quentin! Let me in!" She heard something break, heard Quentin scream in horrible pain, and then a low growling from inside the room.

Maggie backed away, running. Suddenly she was in the woods, uncertain for a long moment of exactly where she was - She heard the growling again, this time from in front of her, and stopped as a huge wolf loped onto the path. Maggie screamed, and turned to run, feeling the creature close behind.

She tripped on a root in the pathway and fell, rolling over in time to see that the creature was upon her, and she screamed over and over as the animal's sharp claws tore at her flesh . . .

To Be Continued----

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