Authors: Susan Laine
is the devil incarnate, and I can’t take it anymore.”
Taking her emotional statement in stride, Niall Valentine nodded to acknowledge what the woman sitting across from him had said. “Tell me more, Mrs. Talbot.”
Angelina Talbot could be described in one word: classy. Her trouser suit might have appeared casual, but her attire was composed of expensive brand names. Her long blonde hair had been gathered into a complex knot on top of her head, the kind of style that mimicked simplicity but probably required the expert services of an expensive hairdresser. Her long legs were crossed, and she rapped on the arms of the guest chair with her painted nails, betraying her agitation.
What she wasn’t, however, was afraid.
“My husband of three months, Florian Talbot, has changed since we got married,” she began. “When we met a year ago at a gallery opening, he was intelligent and yet somehow broken, if you know what I mean. Women sense these things.” She shrugged her slender shoulders; Niall thought she might actually have been shuddering. “Naturally, I wanted him immediately. I wanted to heal him.”
Unperturbed, Niall asked for clarification. More often than not, the origins of a relationship entailed delicate hints to the future of said relationship. Sometimes these whirlwind romances were all set to be re-enacted, with roles as old as time itself, unhappy ending already written in stone. Besides, Niall was inclined to be suspicious of pure-chance meetings anyway. “How did you two meet exactly?”
Mrs. Talbot frowned, perhaps about the interruption, maybe because she didn’t have a good answer. “We were introduced by the owner of the gallery, Tia Delaney. Apparently, Florian was a co-owner of the gallery, a silent partner, if you will.” She straightened as if catching up with her train of thoughts after getting sidetracked. “Anyway, he invited me to the opera, and I agreed.”
Angelina fell silent, and Niall waited her out. No point in interrupting again.
“The night of the opera was wonderful.” She sounded wistful, and her blue eyes glazed over in reminiscence. “Florian was attentive, though a little shy at times. But with every new date he opened up more. He was charming, and those eyes….” Angelina swallowed hard and stopped tapping on the armrests. “If you saw him, Mr. Valentine, you would understand. When he looks at you, it’s as though time stands still. As if a whole universe of beauty—and horror—spreads out before you, into infinity. It was impossible to resist his magnetism.”
“So you married him?”
Angelina nodded, all present again.
“Who asked who?”
“Florian asked me. He got down on one knee, if you can believe it. I didn’t think men did that anymore.” She smiled, her full lips glistening with lip gloss. “Four months ago we had our honeymoon in the Caribbean, on a private island. It was heaven. I was so happy….”
When her voice trailed off, Niall decided to steer the conversation along toward her problem, whatever it was. “What changed?”
A shadow passed over Angelina’s beautiful face, twisting the features of a thirty-two-year-old woman into something much older—and haunted. “About three weeks into our honeymoon Florian grew angrier and increasingly more withdrawn. I could not think of anything I might have done wrong. I was sure it wasn’t just me. At night, he spent endless hours just staring out the window into the dark. And then….”
Opening and closing her mouth, Angelina seemed incapable of going on, so Niall gave her a gentle nudge. “And then?”
But Angelina only blinked and seemed to hesitate. Then she popped open her purse, dug around inside, and pulled out a rumpled piece of paper. “Here. See if you can make heads or tails of this. I cannot.” She shivered, and her tanned skin appeared paler and clammier.
Now this frightens her
, Niall concluded and flicked open the paper.
Thankfully, he had long ago schooled his features against revealing what he thought or felt. Niall did not walk around with his heart on his sleeve.
But despite his experience, he was surprised as he stared at the piece of paper. It was simple stationary from the hotel the Talbots had stayed in, but the curious letters and odd symbols scribbled on it were far from ordinary. The language of the hastily written note was not one Niall recognized, if it even was a language.
“Where did this come from?” he asked, his neutral tone belying his inner curiosity.
“I found it by our trash can at the hotel. He must have missed it.” Angelina’s tone was guarded and cold, that of a woman trying to hold on to rationality. “I only discovered that because of other things that were already suspicious.” She took a calming breath before continuing. “He’d wake up in the middle of the night, babbling in some strange language. Gave me the chills right down to my bones. Then, after a while, he started speaking it during the day too, as if he briefly forgot English altogether. He didn’t understand why I looked at him so funny.”
Niall considered this strange twist of events. “You are aware some medical problems can manifest—”
Angelina scoffed, waving her manicured hand about dismissively. “Yes, I am aware of that. He had a full checkup four days after we returned from the Caribbean. Nothing’s wrong with him. Not medically, anyway. Physically, I mean. And he’s not acting odd all the time.”
“What do you suspect, Mrs. Talbot?”
Angelina lowered her gaze, and when she spoke, she sounded pained. “What if… what if Florian is… is losing his mind? What if he is going mad?”
“Are this note, his mood swings, and the bizarre language everything there is to know?”
“No.” Angelina shook her head fiercely. “There’s more. A lot more.”
“Please, go on.”
“There are several other, um, problems.” Angelina took a sip of the water Niall had given her. He had offered something stronger, but Mrs. Talbot had declared she did not drink. “You see, I may be Florian’s wife, but he has a big family. And they are all very, um, shall we say reserved. And secondly, there’s Florian’s….” She swallowed hard again, jittery. “Florian’s coven.”
With great effort Niall held himself still, though every muscle in his body screamed to be allowed to shift. “Beg your pardon?”
Angelina smiled a little, as if wanting to put him at ease. Niall felt anything but. “I’m from a distinguished family line. The Yateses. The women in my lineage have always been strong in their support of civil rights and gender equality. My great-great-grandmother worked with Bertha Landes, a trailblazer in the world of politics in terms of women in positions of power.”
“Impressive.” Yet Niall had no idea where she was going with this trip down the ancestral lane, so to speak.
“When I married Florian, I took his name. Yes, it’s old-fashioned and not considered the trendy thing to do, but I wanted to. What I soon learned, however, after his erratic behavior began, was that the Talbot name has some notoriety attached to it.”
“Like what?” Niall asked, intrigued.
Angelina leaned forward and lowered her voice. “They are into the occult.”
But though Niall said it, he didn’t know enough when it came to the occult. Only rumors, innuendo, and bits and pieces of history that had cropped up when cases of the occult had crossed the public awareness threshold.
“When Florian took me to both of his family’s homes—a mansion in Madison Park and another in Medina, by Lake Washington—I learned a lot. The truth, I’m embarrassed to admit, is that before I married Florian, I didn’t care about his family, and he never spoke of them. The only thing I did know was that they did not object to our union. In any case, his birth family lives in Medina, in a huge estate by the water, and his, um, coven resides in Madison Park, close to the woods, in another lavish manor house.”
Niall turned a page in his notebook, using the shorthand his father had taught him to jot down everything he heard. “How many people are we talking about here?”
“Florian’s birth family or the coven? Well, Florian’s parents are dead. A boating accident of some sort many years ago. There are three siblings: first, an older brother, Goddard. From what I’ve gathered, he was into the family business—”
“Lumber, shipping, and politics. Goddard had a hand in all of them. He was in line to become the next mayor of Seattle, you know. But he apparently suffered some kind of stroke and is confined to a wheelchair with a professional nurse to take care of him 24/7. It’s not that he can’t move, but he’s not really… there, if you get my meaning.”
Niall did. “Please, go on.”
“Goddard had a wife, but she went missing many years ago. His second wife—”
“What was the first wife’s name?”
“Patience Lansdowne. I never met her, of course, but she seemed to have commanded a great deal of respect among the family. Now, this second wife Goddard married about eight months before his stroke, Farrah, is much younger than her husband—early twenties compared to his late forties—and from what I hear, she’s also of questionable social origins. I confess I don’t know much about her, other than her being a nurse. She’s the one who tends to him these days.”
“Would you like some coffee or tea?” Niall offered since the woman had been talking for quite a while.
“Thank you, no.” Angelina smiled graciously. “Water’s just fine for me. I don’t care for alcohol, coffee stains the teeth, and tea reminds me of childhood sick days.”
Niall chuckled. “Understood.”
“All right. Goddard and Farrah have no children, neither did Patience.” She cleared her throat, as if clearing her thoughts. “Then there are Florian’s other two siblings, both younger than Florian by about ten years. Ivan and Ida. They’re twins, in their early thirties. Neither is married, engaged, or in a relationship, as far as I know.”
“What do they do?”
“Do?” Angelina cocked her head as if puzzled. “Oh, you mean their occupations? I don’t think they do anything. They are often mentioned in the society pages and gossip columns. They each have their trust funds, and they are burning through them like wildfire. You see, Mr. Valentine, the Talbots are not just rich. They are filthy rich. I have my own money, of course, but I come from both wealth
refinement, while the Talbots have only their wealth.”
“They aren’t an old family like yours, the Yateses?”
“No. The Yateses date back to the foundation of Seattle, whereas the Talbots do not. The Yateses took part in the Battle of Seattle in 1856. And that was only a few years after the city was officially founded. In our family homes, we have historical relics dating back to those times, such as letters which speak of Chief Leschi and Chief Seattle, as well as “Doc” Maynard and Arthur Denny.” She spoke of these records with such obvious pride in her ancestry that Niall could only nod in reply. Every Seattle native knew those names. It was the history of the city, after all, and his family, too, had lived here for five generations.
Niall decided to move on. “All right. Anyone else in the family?”
“Yes. There’s Florian’s aunt, Millicent Marsden, two first cousins—Henrietta Devin and Oswald Marsden—and Nola, the housekeeper. I think she’s a third or fourth cousin, or some such, poor as a church mouse.”
“And all these people live in the family mansion?”
Angelina nodded. “Yes, they do. I believe some of them have apartments or town houses in other parts of the city, but they also have rooms in the mansion and are found there pretty much all of the time. Except Ivan, who is rarely seen there by anyone. I’ve only met a few of them, you understand, and only once. The only one who I believe lives on the estate full-time is Millicent Marsden. Although you should not take my word of their living arrangements as gospel, of course.”
“What about this, um, coven? What can you tell me about that?” Niall knew enough not to jump to conclusions. There was a lot of prejudicial, so-called information to be had on the occult, and he could not trust that in itself. He had to be willing to keep an open mind. If these coven members were anything like Gus’s—Niall’s boyfriend’s—full-moon Wiccan gatherings, then it was unlikely anything alarming was going on.
Angelina fidgeted in her seat, frowning. “I only met two of them, a man and a woman. Her name was Ella and his Titus, no last names given.” She licked her lips nervously, resumed rapping her fingernails on the armrests. “Right away I knew there was something off. I felt it in my very bones.”
“Which of them did you meet first? The family or the coven?”
“The family. Of Florian’s immediate kin, there was only Goddard in his wheelchair, not at all present as it were, and Millicent, Ida, and Farrah. I have not met Ivan, but from what I hear he has, um, problems with, um, gambling and… other things.”
Niall could get his own information about the family members, including the elusive Ivan. “Florian introduced you to them?”
“Yes, the day we got back.” Angelina let out a sharp laugh without much humor. “At first, when Florian did these possessive acts, I found them appealing. He was a man, and I liked the fact that he wasn’t ashamed to behave as one. Now, in hindsight….” She looked down at her hands as she wrung them in her lap. “Now I feel like such a fool. Well, naïve.”