A GIANT SET OF ORNATE gates is the first glimpse I’m offered of the Conrath Estate. Ornately sculpted iron twists and curls and frames the beautiful relief sculpture of a raven in the middle of a crest. The line down the middle where the two gates come together is barely even visible. They’re anchored by two great stone pillars, which connect to the giant iron fence that seems to imprison the whole property.
“Think I just ring the button there?” the driver asks with uncertainty.
“I guess,” I offer, just as tentative as him. I peer through the gate, but all I can see is rolling green property and a well-kept gravel driveway.
The driver presses the button. I expect to hear a voice, demanding to know what we want. But instead, there is simply a buzzing sound and the gates swing open.
There must be hundreds of trees lining the driveway. Sprawling green lawns stretch beyond, rolling into gardens and unknown places. I catch sight of a barn, a guest house, a garage. A house starts to crest into view. The driveway circles into a giant loop with a water feature at the center, framed with well-trimmed, perfectly solid green hedges. There are flowers spilling everywhere, beautiful stonework creating garden edges, sculptures of gargoyles, angels, and dark creatures that hide in the beauty of it all.
But none of that can hold my attention.
Not when there’s that house before me.
Or rather, mansion.
What looks to be the original house is tall and grand. Two stories with a massive porch supported by eight gigantic white pillars. Mantles decorate the space above each window. It’s perfectly white, the paint flawless despite the obvious age of the house.
Extending from either side of the house are two massive wings, one to the north, one to the south. They’re stone, ancient, and perfect looking at the same time.
The place is massive. Like a Southern, antebellum castle.
My heart picks up double time, taking up residence in my throat.
I’ve had a week to anticipate my arrival. But the reality of actually being here is overwhelming.
I climb out from the backseat and the driver pops the trunk to remove my two suitcases, setting them in the gravel. He stands there expectantly, and it takes me a beat too long to realize that I still need to pay him. I dig in my purse and hand him the cash.
“Good luck, miss,” he says in his heavily Southern accent. He tips his hat to me, climbs back in the cab, and starts back down the driveway. The taxi’s tires grind through the gravel as it pulls away.
My driver gets to go back to his normal life, while I am left here with only the unknown. I watch him go and go until the car is out of sight, pulled down the long drive and around the bend. Because once he’s gone, I have to accept that I’m here and I’m not leaving.
I take a quivering breath and turn to face the house.
It sits on, I don’t even know how many, acres of pristine landscape. And there’s the Mississippi river directly behind it. Some kind of insect chirps around me, one I don’t know the name of yet because I don’t know anything at all about Mississippi other than that the river is named after it.
But it is my home now. I guess.
I grab my two suitcases, everything I own that is of worth in them, and finish the walk up the driveway to the doors.
“Good afternoon, Miss Ryan.”
Suddenly, my heart is in my throat and my foot slips on one of the steps. The man who had opened the door takes a step toward me.
“My apologies, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he says, blinking slow and hard. He reaches forward and offers a hand.
“It’s fine,” I stutter, setting one of the suitcases down so I can accept his handshake. “I just forgot that you were going to be here.”
“May I help you with your bags?” he offers.
“Uh, sure,” I say uncomfortably, indicating for him to take the one on the porch. He grabs it and turns back into the house.
He walks in, easy as day and night, like his surroundings are no big deal. But the second I step foot inside, I freeze in awkwardness.
Because standing just inside is a row of people.
“Welcome, Miss Ryan,” a few of them mutter.
But the greeting is cold and uncomfortable.
Because when they say it, not a one of them looks me in the eye.
“Miss Ryan,” the man who greeted me says. “This is the staff. Katina, the house cook,” he says, indicating a plump woman with brilliant red hair. “Angelica and Beth, the housekeepers. Juan, Dave, and Antonio, our grounds men. And Kellog, our handyman.”
I struggle for words. I wasn’t expecting any of them. “Uh, hello.”
Still none of them look at me. The man beside me gives a nod and they disburse without a word.
The breath leaks between my lips slow and heavy now that they aren’t all standing here. And finally my eyes are free to take in the scene before me.