Skeleton's Key

By: Stacy Green


“And so polite. Everyone I’ve spoken to has been the same. Must be the country upbringing.”

He dragged his teeth across his bottom lip. Country upbringing. She no doubt pictured him in tattered overalls with a piece of straw sticking out of his mouth and a greasy trucker’s hat on his head.

“Maybe. Listen, we’ve got a development here at the plantation, and I’ll be needing to speak to Mr. Evans right away.”

A beat of silence and then more laughter. “Oh goodness, Cage. We’ve had a bit of a misunderstanding.”

“Ma’am?” The question came without thought, and he rolled his eyes. He’d definitely proven himself a country bumpkin.

“Yes. There’s no Mr. Evans. At least not around here. We Northern women are independent, you know.” She might have been smiling, but all Cage could hear was the condescension in her voice.

Embarrassment swept over his already flushing skin and rendered him silent.

“I’m Dannette Evans, but I can’t stand my first name. Call me Dani, please.”





3




Heat rushed her in a single, eye-watering wave. Her breath, hot as fire, stunted in her lungs and evaporated. Shimmering waves of color, dulled by her sunglasses, danced across her field of vision. Her skin boiled and then erupted in sweat. Dani gasped at her first encounter with Mississippi.

“Holy God.”

She squinted at the ticket for the rental car she’d ordered and then looked at the map of the enormous lot at the Jackson airport. “This is going to be fun.”

By the time she found the blue Ford Focus, Dani’s fine, strawberry-blond hair was plastered to the back of her neck. Her thin cotton t-shirt clung as heavy as wool to her flaming skin. The heat was so oppressive dizziness swept over her. She jammed the key in the lock and leaned against the little car only to jump back in agony.

“Ouch!” Her forearm burned where the skin had touched the hot metal. Opening the car door was like unsealing an oven. She cranked the air conditioning and lost count of how many minutes passed before the air was breathable.

She’d lived through thirty Indiana summers, suffering through days that were so hot walking outside was nearly unbearable. But nothing compared to the take-your-breath away misery she’d just experienced.

Doubt cluttered her head. What was she thinking moving down here? Starting a new life entirely on her own so soon after her mother died?

Her barely recovered breath lodged in her aching throat. Had it really been less than six months since she’d buried her mother? The grief ebbed and flowed, and right now it flowed stronger than rushing flood waters. Diabetes. The silent killer. But the disease wasn’t so silent in the end. Death came as a relief to Dani’s mother, but it nearly shattered Dani. She’d spent the last few years of her life caring for her mother, and suddenly, there was nothing left but her career.

Dani’s world splintered. Pain swallowed her whole. Her mother’s influence stretched over every facet of Dani’s life. Her mother encouraged Dani’s profession, and after her mother’s death, work was a prison, and home was hell. She couldn’t bear to walk through the house, expecting to hear her mother’s throaty voice and then realizing the comforting sound she’d relied on her entire life was gone. The loneliness was indescribable. Days drifted by until she realized she’d sunk to the bottom of the well of grief. Something had to change, or she’d spend the rest of her life sleepwalking between her warm bed and a haze of misery.

And even then, her mother’s guidance remained.

Dani’s mother nurtured her love of history and lived vicariously through Dani’s career in historic preservation. They’d dreamed of traveling the Deep South, exploring the old plantations, and maybe finding one of their own to restore.

Her mother never got out of Indianapolis, but she’d made Dani promise to follow that dream someday. Embarking down this road without her mother stung worse than a yellow jacket, but it was better than rolling into a ball and giving up.

So here she was, melting in a Mississippi inferno, a new preservation specialist at the Adams County Historical Foundation, and the proud owner of a once great plantation home in desperate need of her expertise.

With a skull in the basement.

She caught her wilted reflection in the rearview mirror and realized she was smiling. She should probably be frightened–or at the very least, sickened. She definitely shouldn’t be rushing down to Roselea nearly two weeks before she was due to move. But she’d been counting the days. Her apartment was packed, her affairs were in order, her goodbye party at Indiana Landmarks Association over and done with. A skull in the basement gave her the perfect opportunity to grab the necessities and leave early.

Cage Foster had called this morning to let her know the coroner believed the remains to be more than a hundred years old. With Dani’s permission, the coroner and Cage were digging for more bones, which would then be shipped off to a state medical examiner for identification.

Ironwood’s caretaker had sounded testy on their second phone call, and Dani worried she’d embarrassed him with the good-natured teasing she’d given him about assuming she was a man.