It was a cold, dark room he led us in to. I could feel the dampness on my borrowed flesh and see the sunlight fighting its way in through a narrow slab of window. Meredith Mae was sitting on a small cot in the far corner of the room. She was not alone. My body stiffened at the sight of the woman beside her, though I did not know why. I could feel Emie’s hand tighten in my own.
Meredith Mae ran into my arms. The young priest blinked his eyes and clutched at his rosary.
“I will leave you alone,” he uttered and left the room quickly.
Meredith Mae hugged me so tightly that Malcolm’s horrid flesh began to sweat again, even though the room was cold and the women had shawls about their shoulders.
“What perfect flesh you have stolen this time, Grandmamma,” she whispered in my ear. “What a perfect choice!”
I forgot about the devil in the nave below. I was too overjoyed to see my granddaughter after so much chronological time. The smile across my face was broad, and Malcolm’s heart was pounding so rapidly that I had to sit. I looked around the room for a chair.
“It is so good to see you. So good.” She laughed as she hugged me. “But where is Papa? Philippe? Where are they?”
“We do not know.”
I shook my head.
“You don’t know where they are?”
I felt her grasp on my arm.
“No.” I told her that I had been quite sure they had arrived safely at Montague Street and was very distressed to find out they were missing.
Meredith Mae sighed deeply and spoke softly. “Emie told me there was some tragic barrier in her communication with Philippe but we had so much difficulty here that we could not concentrate on it. Still, we thought they surely would have crossed with you. We must try and find them!”
It was then I turned to the stranger who had remained on the cot. She looked up at me with a glance so familiar that I rattled my soul to remember, but I could not recall her.
She was eyeing me with a raised brow.
I bowed my head to her and when I looked up I could not help but notice how deeply she searched my eyes.
“Ursula Boussidan,” she said, and stood to offer me her hand. I detected the dialect of her native France.
“Boussidan?” I asked as I stooped and kissed the hand she’d held out to me. It had been an impulse that was so instinctive that I could not prevent myself from doing it.
“Ursula is Louis Boussidan’s sister.” Meredith Mae’s sweet voice rang out. “She is trying to persuade her brother to reopen my case.”
“Isn’t it your brother who is responsible for Meredith Mae’s grief?”
“No, Mr. Northrup. You are responsible for her grief, and therefore I find your heartwarming embraces quite contrary.”
I was not sure how I would explain my change of heart. I noticed that her mere presence caused an odd anxiety in Malcolm’s chest. I could not honestly tell if it was my own emotion or whether it belonged to him.
“And just why would you help my granddaughter?” I asked as I led my massive flesh toward the cot and sat on the edge of it.
“Granddaughter?” she said and turned to raise her brow at me.
I realized quickly that I must now be cognizant of referring to Meredith Mae as my stepdaughter.
“That is certainly amusing considering you deny any family blood at all between you,” Ursula quipped.
Emie took the only chair in the room and told the woman that I had suffered a fall and it had affected me terribly. “He’s just recently come to his senses,” she explained. “He’s willing to give Meredith Mae back her share of the estate.”
“Oh?” Ursula said and sat beside me on the cot. “You now wish to give Meredith Mae back the very estate you took from her?”
I noticed with great difficulty, since my sight was very foggy, that she was quite beautiful. I could see that her hair was dark and worn up under a large, violet-colored hat. Her eyes were a piercing blue, and her cheekbones were noticeably pronounced. They were high above the cheek and left an attractive shallowness below. Her lips were lovely, and even without a smile a dimple appeared in her cheek. Yet her handsomeness unnerved me and I did not know why.
“That is exactly what I am saying, Miss Boussidan.” I smiled.
“I see,” she said and continued to stare at me with an unnerving intensity.
I looked at Meredith Mae as surreptitiously as possible, for I wanted to conceal a hint that she get rid of this woman, perhaps with a slight nod of my head, or a wink. To my surprise, my Meredith Mae sat beside Ursula on the other side of the cot and took her hand.
“I have the greatest sympathy for Meredith’s Mae’s financial loss, and I give you my word, Mr. Northrup, I will see to it that Louis looks into this more carefully. I will insist he hear me out. You see, I have considerable influence over my brother and he is not above admitting that you have deceived him. I believe that this young woman is indeed your stepdaughter and is entitled to her full estate.”
“As you wish.” I winked at Meredith Mae. “She can have it all. I want no part of it. As a matter of fact, I am on my way to tell your brother to give her what she is due,” I said as I stood from the cot and hoped she would take her leave.
Ursula Boussidan seemed shocked that I would say that, and even a bit disappointed to have a fight taken off her hands. Her lips fell open and she stared up at me contemptuously.
“You admit then that you took the estate spuriously and with malicious intent?”
She peered into my eyes with a penetrating inquisitiveness. I felt a shiver run through my soul.
“I have had a change of heart, Miss Boussidan. I have come here this afternoon to offer my stepdaughter the house and the entire estate. Now, if you will let us get on about our business?”
Ursula got off the cot and stood before me. I noticed she was quite tall and very thin. She had hardly any breasts, and yet, her diminished figure did not obscure her beauty. Though it was not a beauty I would have nestled poor Malcolm’s body against were I so inclined, for it seemed so self-contained and unapproachable.
“You had better be telling me the truth, Mr. Northrup, for I have become very fond of your stepdaughter.” She turned to my Meredith Mae at that very moment and cupped her face in her slender hands. “Take care, my precious,” she whispered before she bent to kiss Meredith Mae upon the mouth, briefly, but with a lingering emotion that horrified me.
She then returned the shawl to the bed.
“I will take my leave,” she said.
This time, she stared into my eyes so long that I coughed and turned my face away. She looked briefly to Emie before turning on her heels and leaving the room. We could hear her footsteps on the stairs. Meredith Mae sat and stared past the door, as if transfixed and unable to move. From a far distance, I heard laughter, menacing and evil laughter. I turned sharply.
“Did you hear that?” I asked them.
The laughter was an old, familiar reverberation that seemed to emanate from the nave, several floors below us, and yet it felt as close to the ear as the summer wind that flowed through the window. Certainly, it was Urbain. It was low, masculine laughter that rose in intensity, as if it would deafen us. Suddenly, it died as quickly as it had begun. In its wake a horrid smell permeated the small room. It was a familiar smell, like that of the body’s odor when it goes unwashed.
“Let us get out of here,” I said to Meredith Mae. “Let us return to Montague Street.”
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