My name is Jennifer Sinclair. Until a month ago, I’d never heard of the town of Collinsport, Maine. A letter changed that. A letter from a woman I’d never met named Amy Collins. At first, I ignored her request for me to work at her home, a house known as Collinwood. But strange forces seemed to be at work, and circumstance led me to consider her offer. I found myself traveling up the coast of Maine, to a place I’d never known, to live with people I’d never met. But a dream told me I had to take the chance, and that Collinwood may hold the answers to mysteries in my life…
Jennifer didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. At least she wasn’t hurt, although her car obviously wasn’t going anywhere. She sat behind the steering wheel and forced herself to concentrate. The engine had died in the collision, but the headlights were still shining, and she could see the front of her little car crumpled up against the tree she’d hit. The thick fog swirled around the vehicle, and it seemed ghostly shapes were looming all around her.
“Okay,” she said aloud, “good one, Jennifer. You managed to have an accident on a deserted road.”
She tried to relive the last few moments. She hadn’t been going fast, which was probably what saved her from doing more damage to her car. She was close to Collinsport, if the sign she’d passed a mile or two was correct. It seemed the closer she came to her destination, the thicker the fog became, as if nature itself was telling her she was heading for disaster. She’d just slowed down when there had been…something in the road ahead of her. Jennifer was certain she saw a figure outlined in the fog. A man seemed to be standing in the middle of the road, and instinctively Jennifer had slammed on the brakes and twisted the wheel. The car had veered off the road and collided with a tree. The man, if, indeed, there had been a man, had vanished. At least, when Jennifer had looked back, she couldn’t see anything moving in the mist.
Aggravated with herself, she opened the car door and stepped out. Shivering, she looked at the car’s damaged front end. The hood had buckled, and she didn’t even try to open it. What would be the point? She’d already tried to re-start the engine without success, and she was no mechanic.
There was no choice. She’d have to walk the rest of the way to town.
Jennifer turned and looked at the road. It was hard to tell with the gray mists swirling about, but she was sure no man was standing there. If there had been, he would have come to see if she was all right. No, there hadn’t been someone in the road. She’d crashed her car for nothing.
The night air was chilly, and Jennifer found herself shivering and wishing she’d put on a heavier jacket, not to mention more comfortable shoes. She’d gone for dressy rather than practical. After all, she was going to meet her new employer for the first time. Still, just the thought of the trek into town was making her feet ache.
She took out her cell phone, thinking she’d at least let the Collins family know that she was delayed. She frowned at the display. “No signal?” she said. She shook the phone, as if that would magically make the device work. “Lovely. Just lovely.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” a voice behind her asked.
Jennifer yelped in surprise and nearly dropped her cell phone. Her heart racing, she turned to see figure emerging out of the fog. Whoever it was–a woman from the sound of her voice–was coming from the direction of the woods, not the road. Jennifer wondered fleetingly what the woman was doing taking a stroll among the trees at night, but quickly dismissed the thought. Jennifer didn’t know the terrain. Maybe there were houses on the other side of the trees, a little subdivision out in the middle of nowhere. Whatever the reason for her presence, Jennifer was just glad to see another human being. “You startled me,” she said.
The woman was coming closer, and Jennifer could now make out some details. She was wearing a thick black cloak with a hood that hid her face, but Jennifer had the impression that it was a younger woman. A twig snapped under the woman’s foot, nearly making Jennifer jump again. “It looks like you’ve had an accident.”
Jennifer tried a smile, although she didn’t know how successful it was. “I thought I saw a man in the road. The fog must have been playing tricks with my mind.” She waved a hand, indicating her smashed hood. “As you can see, I’m not going any further. Not driving, anyway.”
The woman was only a few feet away now, and she raised her black-gloved hands to push her hood back, revealing a strikingly beautiful face. The woman had blonde hair and the largest, most intense eyes Jennifer had ever seen. It was hard to make out colors in the foggy night, but somehow Jennifer knew those eyes were a pale blue. “No,” the woman said. “I’m afraid not. Luckily, there’s a repair shop in town. They can come and get your car in the morning. Where were you headed?”
“A house called Collinwood.” Jennifer thought she detected surprise in the woman’s eyes, although it was fleeting. “I’m going to be working there.”
“I’m familiar with Collinwood,” the woman said, a faint smile on her lips, “although I haven’t been there in many years. You’re going to be working there, you say?”
Jennifer nodded. “I’ll be looking after Jasper Collins. He’s the son of…”
“Michael and Lori Collins. And the grandson of David and Amy Collins.” The woman gave a short laugh which seemed to resonate in the air, as if the night air was bearing the sound much further than normal. “You see? I’m very familiar with the family.”
“You certainly are,” Jennifer agreed with a smile. She stepped closer to the woman, and put out her hand. “I’m Jennifer Sinclair. I’m so happy to meet you. Especially under the circumstances. I was just beginning to feel cut off from the rest of the world.”
The woman’s eyes seemed to twinkle. “You might have to get used to that feeling if you decide to stay in Collinsport. Some call it the town that time forgot.” The woman took her hand. “My name,” she said, “is Angelique Bouchard.”
David Collins poured a generous amount of brandy into a snifter and wondered just when he’d become his father. How many times over the years had he witnessed his dad, Roger Collins, standing in this same spot, pouring brandy into a glass? Taking a sip, David turned from the sideboard and let his eyes go to the portrait of Roger Collins that now hung over the fireplace in the drawing room.
David thought the likeness a good one. He’d had it painted a few years before his father’s death, and somehow it seemed that some of Roger Collins’ spirit had embedded itself in the brushwork. David’s father, his face lined with age and nearly bald, had posed in his study, seated at his desk as if he’d just finished doing some paperwork. Some people, seeing the portrait, thought that Roger looked a little too dour, a little too stern, but David knew the artist had captured the real soul of Roger Collins.
David and his father had never been terribly close, but in Roger’s later years they had, at least, come to respect each other. David raised his glass in a salute to his dad and took another drink. “Cheers,” he said to the painting.
He wondered how much he looked like his father. Certainly, the years had brought more lines to his face, and his hair, still a little long and unruly, now had more gray than brown. David preferred to believe he took after his mother in looks, although now he could barely remember what she looked like. When he closed his eyes, and tried to bring up an image of Laura Collins, all David could think of was…fire.
“Getting some early brooding in?” his cousin Carolyn asked as she came into the drawing room. Perhaps because of his nostalgic mood, David had a vision of Carolyn as she’d been in his youth, barging through the big double doors of the drawing room, ready to chide him for not doing his homework or for spending too much time at the Old House. He blinked and saw Carolyn as she was now, still a handsome woman, although now she wore her blonde hair much shorter and had lines around her eyes and mouth. She looked years younger than her actual age and still had a spring to her step. David envied her vivacity as well as her outlook on life. Carolyn was so optimistic, despite the life she’d led. She’d been through so much. Well, they all had.
“Care to join me?” David asked, holding up his glass.
Carolyn shook her head. “Amy and I were going to open a bottle of Merlot later, once the new governess got here. I wonder what’s keeping her? She was supposed to be here by now.”
David smiled. “That’s why I’m thinking about the past so much tonight! This young woman–”
“Miss Sinclair,” Carolyn added.
“The arrival of this Miss Sinclair has made me recall the arrival of another governess, many years ago now.” David said as he strode across the room. He sat in an armchair by the fire and gazed into the flames.
Carolyn nodded. “Vicky.”
David smiled. “God, I was such a brat back then.”
“You’ll get no argument from me,” Carolyn said with a laugh. She sat on the sofa across from David. “You were awful! Especially in those early days when Vicky first came here. Remember the brake valve incident?”
“Don’t remind me,” David said, his face in a mock grimace. “I should have been institutionalized.”
“It was discussed,” Carolyn replied, chuckling. “If it hadn’t been for mother, you’d have been in Windcliff, along with all the other loonies.”
“People with nervous conditions,” David corrected. “Loonies, I’m pretty sure, isn’t the acceptable term nowadays.”
“Maybe not, but we were all loonies back then!” Carolyn threw her head back and cackled. “You, me, mother, Uncle Roger, Barnabas…” At the mention of Barnabas, Carolyn suddenly grew serious. Slowly, she looked into the foyer as if expecting to hear a rapping on the door, followed by the entrance of their strange cousin. “I wonder where Barnabas is now.”
“God knows,” David said. “I just hope, where ever he is, he’s found happiness.”
Carolyn hugged herself, even though the fire was keeping the room quite toasty. “I’m worried,” she said, almost to herself.
She shook her head. “I wish I knew. Maybe it has something to do with Miss Sinclair coming her to take care of your grandson. It’s like…I don’t know…we’re stirring up the ghosts in this old mausoleum. I just feel like it’s all going to start up again. All that craziness.”
David finished his drink and looked at the empty glass in contemplation. “I’ve been feeling much the same way. As if the dark shadows were once again filling up with ghosts and other things that go bump in the night.”
Carolyn frowned. “Where did Michael find this governess? Why didn’t he get someone from town?”
“He didn’t say.”
“She’s from somewhere in Pennsylvania, isn’t she? Harrisburg, I think Lori said. Why so far away? What do you know about her?”
“Nothing,” David admitted. “Michael and Lori tell me she’d extremely qualified and eager to work here. That’s all I know.”
“Well, she’s not prompt, I can tell you that!” Carolyn’s smile didn’t extend to her eyes. Her mood seemed to shift suddenly, and she said, “I had a dream last night. Mother was in it.”
Carolyn nodded. “She was trying to warm me about something…or someone. It was all very confusing. But the warning felt very real. I woke up in a sweat.”
“You keep your room much too hot,” David said, hoping to deflect the conversation.
“Bullshit. This house is full of drafts. Always has been.” She looked up at the portrait of David’s father. “I wonder what Uncle Roger would think if he could see us now, all old and ready for our graves.”
“You’re a long way from your grave and you know it.” David stood, intending to refill his glass but paused instead to study the portrait. “I think,” he said after a pause, “that he’d be proud of us. You with all your scholarly studies, and the books you’ve written. Me, with my business successes and raising a son who didn’t turn out to be a lunatic.”
“Oh, Michael’s a bit of a loony, he just hides it well!” Carolyn chuckled again. “And he married well. I like Lori. And now you’ve got a wonderful grandson. Although I’m not sure how I feel about the name Jasper.”
“It grows on you,” David told her. “It has me.” He frowned as he saw his cousin shiver. “Are you cold?”
Carolyn shook her head uncertainly. “No, not really.” She gave a little half-smile. “I think a goose just walked over my grave.”
Jennifer felt like she was in a dream. The woman, Angelique, was leading her through the woods, where apparently, she had a home on the outskirts of the town. The night seemed even colder, and although the fog had lifted somewhat, Jennifer still couldn’t make out much of her surroundings. If it wasn’t for the powerful flashlight that Angelique was using to show their way, Jennifer thought she’d probably fall into a ditch or something.
It was odd, though. Jennifer hadn’t seen the beam of the flashlight when Angelique had first appeared. Had she been walking through the woods with nothing to illuminate her surroundings? She had so many questions she wanted to ask Angelique, but something in the strange woman’s demeanor didn’t invite inquiry. All she’d learned during their trek to Angelique’s cottage (as she described it) was that Angelique had lived in Collinsport for many years, although she preferred nowadays to keep to herself, and rarely went into the town itself.
“You must get lonely.” Jennifer said as they navigated their way through the trees and the mist. “Living out here by yourself.”
“I have my books, and my studies,” Angelique replied. “There’s a boy from town who comes out once a week to bring me supplies. I find it a very good life. Believe me, I deserve a little down time. My previous life was a little too…” Angelique stopped moving for a moment as she searched for the right word. “…hectic.”
It seemed they’d been walking for ages, and Jennifer found the terrain, with ghostly trees looming before her in the mist, surreal. Before long they came to a clearing, and Jennifer could make out the dark shape of a small house on the other side of the glen. Beyond the house were more trees, but Jennifer could now see a few lights in the distance. She gave a sigh of relief, knowing the town wasn’t far off.
“Do you have a phone I could use?” Jennifer asked. “I wasn’t getting a signal back at the car.”
Jennifer couldn’t see Angelique’s face, but she detected amusement in the woman’s reply. “I don’t have a land line, I’m afraid. The telephone company doesn’t service out this far. I’m not surprised you had trouble getting a signal. It often happens around here. Some people call it Collinsport’s Curse.”
Now that they were closer to the cottage, Jennifer could make out more details of the modest home. It was made of brick, with what appeared to be black (it was too dark to be sure of colors) shutters covering the few windows. There was a small porch, and Jennifer saw a movement by a rocking chair. She almost gasped until she realized it was a cat which had stirred from its slumbers by the arrival of its mistress. Angelique stopped and knelt to scratch the animal’s ears.
“I never thought I’d have an animal like this,” she told Jennifer. “It seemed too cliché. A woman living out in the woods by herself with a cat. The kids in town already thought I was a witch. Now, they’re certain of it.”
“And are you?” Jennifer asked jokingly. “A witch?”
Angelique turned to flash her a wicked, mocking grin. “Oh, yes. I definitely am.”
Jennifer laughed, but part of her worried that the woman was speaking the truth.
Michael Collins entered the drawing room at Collinwood to find his father napping in an armchair by the fire and Carolyn on the sofa reading a book. “You two look lively,” he said.
Carolyn looked up from her tome with a twinkle in her eyes. “When you’re as old as your father and I are, this is as exciting as it gets.”
“You’re not that old,” Michael said. He was a handsome man in his early twenties, with wavy brown hair and bright hazel eyes. He greatly resembled his father, although he always said he got his shorter stature from his mother. He glanced briefly at the clock on the wall and then made his way over to the sideboard and immediately began to pour himself a sherry. “She’s late,” he said.
“The new governess?” Carolyn closed her book and set it aside. “Yes, your father and I were discussing her earlier. Well, before he nodded off, anyway. Not a very good start to her career here, is it?”
“Maybe she had an accident. The fog’s been thick tonight, and you know how the roads around town are.”
“Don’t I just. I think I’ve killed two cars on those roads in my time, although some detractors might say it was because I tend to drive too fast. Or at least I did, back in the day.”
Their conversation caused David to slowly come out of his slumber. He muttered something unintelligible, wiped a hand over his face, and then sat up straighter. He blinked. “Did I fall asleep?” he asked.
“You were just resting your eyes,” Carolyn said. “Anyway, it gave me a chance to catch up on my reading.”
“And what lovely little volume are you engrossed in at present?” Michael sipped his sherry and moved over so that he could see the book Carolyn had been reading. “Vampires and Their Kin. Somehow I’m guessing that’s not on the New York Times bestseller list.”
“It’s fascinating reading,” Carolyn said defensively.
Michael smiled at her. “I know the paranormal has been your field of study, Aunt Carolyn. She wasn’t, of course, his aunt, but he’d always referred to her as such. “But, respectfully, I’ve got to tell you it’s all a load of crap. There are no such things as vampires, ghosts, or what have you. It’s all fairy tales.”
Carolyn laughed. “Well, as long as you’re saying it respectfully!” She winked at her cousin, who was still wiping the sleep from his eyes. “Your father and I hold different views. The stories we could tell you–”
“Can wait for another time,” David said as he stifled a yawn. “Right now, I think we’d better find out what’s delaying Miss Sinclair. Do you have her number, Michael?”
“Already tried it. Can’t get hold of her. No answer.”
Carolyn frowned. “I hope nothing has happened to her.”
The interior of Angelique’s cottage was surprisingly cozy and warm, with a mixture of modern and rustic furnishings. At Angelique’s invitation, Jennifer had taken off her coat and was warming herself by the fireplace. The cat, who had previously been cautious approaching an unfamiliar person, now brushed herself against Jennifer’s legs.
“What’s her name?” Jennifer asked as she rubbed her hands over the flames.
“I call her Josette,” Angelique replied with a smile. “It seemed appropriate.”
“She seems very affectionate.”
For some reason, this made Angelique laugh. “She’s very attached to me. Someday, perhaps, I’ll tell you the story behind her name.”
Jennifer was aware that Angelique was studying her closely. “Is something the matter?”
“No,” Angelique replied. “Not really. It’s just that you remind me of someone I knew very many years ago. She also had long black hair and a voice very similar to yours. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were related.”
“Oh? What was her name? Maybe it was a relative of mine.”
“Her name was Victoria Winters.” Jennifer thought she detected an edge in Angelique’s reply. “It was a very long time ago.” She had removed her cloak and came to join Jennifer by the fire. “Fires are so lovely on these chilly nights, don’t you agree?”
“Yes. I hadn’t realized just how cold I was until now.” It seemed to Jennifer that the other woman was standing just a little too close to her.
Angelique nodded at the flames. “Look into the fire, Miss Sinclair. Look deep within. There are so many colors. Red, orange. Even blue, if you look closely enough. Do you see the blues?”
“I…” Jennifer suddenly felt very groggy. She touched a hand to her temple. Why was her brain so muddled? She couldn’t seem to think about anything other than the flames and Angelique’s voice.
“That’s it,” Angelique continued. “Look deep into the flames.”
Jennifer was dizzy. She felt like she’d fallen asleep on her feet, somehow aware but not awake. Now it seemed like Angelique’s voice was inside her head.
“I want you to do something for me, Miss Sinclair,” Angelique said. “I want you, when you arrive at Collinwood, to be aware of two names. If anyone mentions either of these two names, I want you to come back here and tell me everything you’ve heard.”
“What are the names?” Jennifer found herself asking the question almost as if the words were coming out of someone else’s mouth. The thought didn’t seem to have originated in her own mind.
“The names,” Angelique said with emphasis, “are Quentin Collins and Barnabas Collins.”