Adrian’s Landing, Louisiana 2017
Felicia Thornberry had only to think about Belle
Femme and the hairs on her arms would stand on
end. Growing up in Adrian’s Landing, she’d made
sure to steer clear of that place, especially on
Halloween. Even a double-dog-dare-you couldn’t
tempt her or any of her friends to set foot on that
property, much less peek into a window. So,
imagine her surprise when twenty years later, she
received a call from the owner of the long-abandoned
At seventy-five years of age, philanthropist and
world traveler Jeffery Harrington had decided to
stop frittering away his life and consider his legacy.
He came to the conclusion that nothing would be
more fitting than the restoration of the family home.
“Ms. Thornberry,” he said, “I know I haven’t
done the town any favors by ignoring Belle Femme,
but I’m hoping to make amends. I intend to restore
the house to its original grandeur and would very
much like to hire you and your company to
landscape the grounds.”
At the time of the call, Felicia was working in
her nursery and was surrounded by a throng of
Saturday customers, all wanting information about a
particular plant. The hubbub and Mr. Harrington’s
unexpected request left her confused and
speechless. Was he insane? Everyone knew the
place was haunted. Finally, she found her voice.
She smiled at the people wanting her advice and
pointed at the phone. The chatter quieted somewhat.
“Excuse me,” she said to the customers. “I’ll be
with you in just a minute.” She turned away and
covered her other ear. “Would you mind repeating
that?” she asked Mr. Harrington.
“Young lady, I’m offering you a chance to make
a great deal of money, not to mention the notoriety
that will come from completing such an
undertaking. That’s something any good business
owner should appreciate.”
“Yes, but why me?” she asked. “Thornberry
Nursery is a small operation.”
“The size of your business had nothing to do
with my decision. Of all the candidates I researched,
you were the only one with a degree in both
horticulture and landscape architecture. And you
have another qualification that sets you apart, one I
consider most important. You’re a native of
Adrian’s Landing, the town my great grandfather,
Adrian Sherburne Harrington, founded.”
Felicia was flattered that he held her in such high
esteem, and she seldom turned down a job, but this
just might be the exception. When she hesitated to
respond, Mr. Harrington continued.
“Would you at least meet with me and discuss
“I, uh, guess I could do that,” she stammered.
“Wonderful. I’m presently in New Orleans but
have to be at the house Monday morning at nine
o’clock to receive a delivery of construction
material. Would you be available around ten?”
“That’ll work for me.”
“Thank you, Ms. Thornberry. I’ll advise my
housekeeper to expect you.”
Felicia stood there cradling the receiver to the
office phone, the dial tone buzzing in her ear. His
housekeeper? At Belle Femme? She couldn’t
imagine the place livable enough to accommodate
anyone. Was he really bringing a housekeeper?
Hmm, perhaps she was actually his companion…or,
considering his age, his nurse.
Megan McCoy, the nursery’s office worker,
glanced up from her computer. “You look worried.
Is something wrong?”
Felicia shook her head and replaced the receiver
on Megan’s desk phone. “I hope not,” she said,
rubbing the back of her neck. “Tell the guys I want
to meet in the break room in an hour.” She turned
her attention back to the customers. “Sorry about
that. Now, how can I help you?”
~ * ~
Thornberry Nursery’s employees totaled five—
three nursery laborers, an office worker, and Felicia.
They were a close-knit group who had built a
reputation for quality of work and timely
completion of a project. Restoring the grounds of
Belle Femme would be the biggest job the nursery
had ever tackled. Even so, Felicia was confident
they could handle it. With a name like Thornberry,
how could they possibly fail?
The revival of Belle Femme would mean a boon
to Adrian’s Landing. If Mr. Harrington opened the
house or grounds to visitors, the tourist trade alone
would boost the economy. She could visualize the
addition of a new motel, maybe a few bed and
breakfast facilities, even another family restaurant,
but nothing that would spoil the town’s quaint, rural
In fact, Felicia couldn’t imagine anything
disrupting the lifestyle of those who for generations
had lived at Adrian’s Landing. Several years earlier,
one of the fast-food chains opened an establishment
in the heart of the town. It had lasted all of three
months. The locals continued to support the homegrown
eateries. Same held true for a chain drug
store. Who else but Mr. Chaucer would fill your
prescription in the wee hours and deliver it to you
While the nursery was Adrian’s Landing’s most
productive business, the town’s population of 1,500
forced Felicia to reach out to the surrounding
communities for the bulk of her jobs. Nevertheless,
the rural setting had its advantages. The low price of
land made it possible for her to expand her physical
operation. The latest purchase of fifty acres had
been turned into a tree farm.
The nursery was her father’s dream, and over the
years, he’d taught Felicia everything about the
business. Throughout high school and college, she’d
spent summers and holidays working alongside
him. Things were different now. He was no longer
Five years ago, he was diagnosed with
Alzheimer’s, such a cruel disease. There wasn’t
anything she could do but stand by him and love
him, and that she did. He lost his battle after three
years. By then, he no longer recognized her.
The day she buried him, a part of her died, too.
She would give anything for one more glimpse of
his smiling face. Clutching her arms into a hug, she
looked out over a sea of flowering plants. Her heart
swelled at the profusion of colors. Yes, he was
gone, but his presence was everywhere.
As the men shuffled into the break room adjacent
to the main office, she turned her thoughts to the
present. The small room was bare of plants. Shiplap
walls surrounded a Spartan interior: a wooden table,
a scattering of plastic chairs, a metal file cabinet, a
sink, and a small refrigerator. It provided just
enough space to grab a quick lunch and something
to drink, not a place to while away one’s time.
Chairs screeched across the flagstone as they
gathered around the table.
Megan settled into a chair near the door. A hint
of her perfume wafted on the air. In such close
quarters, the scent was refreshing.
“I’ll sit here in case we have a customer,” she
Megan McCoy was a local girl. After two years
of college at Southeastern, she’d told Felicia she
was ready for permanent employment, adding that
campus life didn’t appeal to her. Felicia believed
something more was behind Megan’s reason for
withdrawal, but she’d offered no other explanation.
Felicia wasn’t one to pry but made it clear she was
available should Megan ever want to talk.
“What’s up, boss?” Luis Romero asked over the
chatter of the other two men. At thirty-eight, he was
the oldest and considered the unofficial foreman of
the group. A native of San Salvador, Luis had been
with the nursery from the beginning. He and her
father had formed a special bond, and Luis had
taken her father’s passing very hard.
Luis was loyal, trustworthy, and dependable. He
also knew the business inside and out and had an
easy-going temperament. Physically, he was by far
the strongest. His tanned, muscular arms and
scarred hands spoke volumes about his life. He and
his wife had come to America on work visas, and
after applying for and meeting all the requirements,
they had obtained their citizenship. Both of their
children were born in America.
Greg Wheeler and Harley Wilkes hailed from the
surrounding area. They were quick to learn,
dependable, and several years younger than Luis.
Being single, their paychecks were adequate for
now, but more than likely, they would move on to
higher-paying jobs. Turnover in the nursery
business was a given.
Felicia remained standing. She leaned against a
wall and brushed remnants of an earlier pruning job
from her blouse. “I know you’re all familiar with
the old Harrington mansion on the outskirts of
town,” she said. “Well, I just received a call from
The men stared at each other in silence but with
Felicia continued. “He plans to restore the house
and wants Thornberry Nursery to handle the
Luis was the first to respond. He gave a quick
nod and a low whistle. “We know the house, okay.
The grounds are enormous, and they look like a
jungle. It’ll take several months to clear out all the
undergrowth. Did Mr. Harrington include combat
pay in his offer?”
“If the offer is as good as he hinted, everyone
will see a bonus.”
The mention of extra money brought a cheer.
“When can we start?” Luis asked.
“I’m meeting with him Monday morning to
discuss the project. If I agree to take the offer, we’ll
want to move fast. It’s April, and that means new
growth is already getting the jump on us. That’s
something we don’t need. So, stop what you’re
working on and start getting things ready. Sharpen
everything and make sure the power equipment is in
good running condition.
“Greg, I want you to fill up the truck and have it
ready to load. The checklist is on top of the file
cabinet. You’ll work the grounds with Luis and me.
Harley, I want you to stay with Megan and help
with the nursery.”
Harley nodded, but a frown crossed his brow.
Felicia guessed at what he was thinking. “Cheer
up, Harley. Whether you go with us or work the
nursery, everyone will get the same bonus. We’re
A grin stretched across his face. “Yeah, doggy.”
~ * ~
At six o’clock Monday morning, Felicia’s alarm
blasted out the sound of clanging bells loud enough
to wake the dead. She slapped at the phone on the
nightstand, finally pressing the right button. “I’ve
got to change that ring tone,” she grumbled. Pulling
the twisted sheet from her legs, she forced her eyes
to open. The morning light burned like fire, thanks
to a night with little sleep, a night where her mind
had refused to turn off. Instead, a montage of her
life, like scenes from an old black-and-white movie,
flashed over and over again on the back of her
Why me? She thought. And why today of all
days? She had so wanted to look her best—fat
chance. Thank goodness the coffee pot was on a
timer. She might see things differently after a jolt of
caffeine. Like the Pied Piper, the rich aroma called
to her from down the hall. Oblivious to everything
else, she stumbled into the kitchen. After two cups
of dark roast and a protein bar, she rejoined the
world of the living.
Coffee, followed by a shower, worked wonders.
Wrapped in a towel, she opened her closet door. A
less than sterling wardrobe stared back—not exactly
a selection of what’s hot; more like what’s not.
Nursery business and the night life didn’t mix. She
couldn’t remember the last time she’d bought a new
outfit. Fingering through the hangers, she settled on
a plain, blue sheath and matching heels. Simple is
never out of style, she told herself. A colorful scarf
and medium-sized hoop earrings added a little flare.
Taking a seat at her vanity, she reached for the
tube of concealer. She was tempted to apply it
everywhere, but showed restraint and limited the
cover-up to the dark circles under her eyes. A touch
of blush put a glow on her pale cheeks, and a light
dusting of eye shadow, followed by brown eyeliner,
brought a sparkle to her hazel eyes. Some mauve
lipstick provided just enough color. Yes, the person
staring back from the mirror was finally alive. Now
she had only to perk up her auburn hair with some
gel. For the first time that morning, a smile curled
her lips. Her short, spikey cut was perfect for her
line of work but so not her. Her best friend, Holly
Ingram, had convinced her to take the plunge.
Felicia tucked her purse under her arm, grabbed
her keys, and headed out the door. To say she was
more than a little anxious about meeting Mr.
Harrington would be an understatement. No
butterflies in her stomach; more like a flight of
birds. Over the years, she had seen pictures of the
family in news reports and magazines, but she had
never actually met a Harrington. They were like
royalty to Adrian’s Landing—filthy rich and all
glitz and glamour. Then there was Belle Femme
itself. Her stomach still wrenched, thinking back to
her youth. “No,” she said, shutting out childhood
tales. It was time to let the past stay in the past, time
to finally step on those grounds, even enter the
Felicia lived a mile east of the town in a small,
ranch-style house her father had built. The
Harrington mansion was located five miles south of
town and across from the landing, but the ten-minute
drive wasn’t nearly long enough to calm her
nerves. She was still gathering her thoughts by the
time she arrived. With a few minutes to spare, she
steered her white Chevy truck onto the shoulder of
the road, left the vehicle, and walked over to the
wrought-iron fence that fronted the property.
Wrapping her fingers around one of the metal
bars, she glanced up at the spear-like tips that lined
the top of the structure. A fleeting thought crossed
her mind—were they meant to keep people out or
the spirits in? It seemed she was fighting a losing
battle with her memories.
“Enough,” she mumbled. Others were counting
on her to ink a contract. She needed to concentrate
on this job. Drawing a deep breath, she scanned the
grounds. How long had Belle Femme sat
abandoned—ten or fifteen years? In the humid
south, that was a lifetime. Reclamation would
indeed be a grueling job. To her surprise, the gates
were open, something she hadn’t seen in a long
time. Then she remembered Mr. Harrington was
also expecting a delivery. Could be he had other
appointments as well.
Like sentinels from a time long passed, ancient
live oaks lined the driveway. Some limbs had
grown so massive they could no longer bear their
own weight and had come to rest on the ground. In
many cases, they provided support for the main
trunk that might otherwise have a tendency to split
under such pressure. Strong and less heavy limbs
grew thinner as they climbed high overhead and
interlaced with others to form a living tunnel. Moss,
like silvery shawls, hung in long strands from
gnarled branches and swayed gently on the morning
breeze—an eerie but awesome sight. Not even time
could diminish their beauty. Felicia took pride in
knowing that with her help, a new day would soon
dawn for them.
The lawn was a patchwork of dirt, weeds, and
exposed roots. It would require a tremendous
amount of sod. The shrubs and ornamental trees
were almost unrecognizable. Out-of-bounds
camellias and crepe myrtles mimicked a miniature
forest, their existence threatened by briars and other
vines. Beyond the immediate grounds, a forest of
oaks, pines, maples, cottonwood and numerous
other varieties of trees cluttered the landscape.
Ponds lay dry, and fountains filled with leaves. The
same had to hold true for structures beyond her
At the end of the drive, Belle Femme stood
derelict, no longer synonymous with its name,
pretty lady. English ivy covered the first-floor
walls, its stem roots digging into the façade.
Grayish-green mold had invaded most of the white
paint. Plaster littered the ground beneath the eight
Doric columns that graced the main entrance. Two
large wings on each side of the main structure held
three floor-to-ceiling arched windows, their once-gleaming
panes dulled by layers of dirt and grime. Like eyes sealed shut
against the world, they closed out any view of the interior.
As she continued to assess the grounds from
afar, a white truck loaded with lumber and stacked
high with building material, barreled down the long
driveway and disappeared behind the house. That
had to be the nine o’clock delivery Mr. Harrington
was expecting. If so, it was late.
After brushing her skirt, Felicia climbed behind
the steering wheel and drove to the front entrance.
Hers was the only vehicle present. After parking,
she stepped from the cab and stared up at the
columns. The house loomed larger and more
intimidating than it had from the road, but she stood
tall and gathered her resolve. Time to make a good
impression—shoulders back, head high, she told
herself as she stepped to the front door.
Leaded glass panels distorted the view within.
Felicia rang the doorbell. No one answered. She
tried again. Then a woman screamed.