A Portrait in Time
Trey Dalton is having a very bad day. Someone is trying to destroy his plantation, his meddlesome aunt has decided to extend her visit and some strange woman has appeared on his doorstep ,spouting some crazy nonsense about being from the future.
Alexandra Thibodaux’s day isn’t any better. An urgent message had her race to her grandmother’s side, only to find Grams was up to something and it dealt with the old Dalton plantation. It has a painting of a women who is her twin. When her grandmother urges her to touch it she is sent on an adventure that bring her face to face with a man who is a Neanderthal and takes her breath away.
Release Date: September 25, 2018
Genre: Historical | Time Travel Romance
Alex Thibodaux held the telegram in her trembling hands. Her world crashed in around her when she read the four words on the sheet of paper.
I need you. Grams.
She stood there in shock. Her grandmother was her best friend growing up. Always there when she needed someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on. Was she ill? She had to go. Turning to her assistant, she asked, “Where is Dr. Martin?”
“Last I heard he was going over the data from last night’s telescope readings. You’ll probably find him in the tomb.”
Alex nodded absently as she forced herself to move. Her footsteps echoed down the hallway as she headed toward the room labeled the tomb.
It got its name because to get to it, you had to travel down three flights, then through several dimly lit corridors. A lot of the newer employees didn’t like to venture down that far, but it had never bothered her. Dr. Martin loved the room because he could hide away in there for hours without being disturbed.
The door creaked as she pushed it open. The fluorescent lamp on the massive desk illuminated the doctor’s balding head.
She felt the cold metal of the door as she held it open with her palm. “I hate to disturb you.”
“Oh Alex, please, come in.” Dr. Martin shoved his black glasses back up his nose. “The data here is very interesting. The quasar we’ve been studying is starting to pick up speed. See?”
He stood and spread out the sheets he had been scrutinizing.
She sat in the old wooden chair in front of the desk. “Doctor, I need to take some time off.”
“Off. Well, you need to speak to the… You want time off?” He eased himself back into his old leather chair.
“Yes, sir.” Alex gave him a tiny smile. This was the first time she requested leave in the five years she had worked with him. “It’s my grandmother.”
Dr. Martin pulled his glasses off his nose and chewed on one stem. “And here I had hoped you found some young man.”
Their running joke, Alex didn’t date. She never let anything inside the tight shield she had erected around herself. Alex didn’t look like the stereotypical female scientist. Blonde hair, bright blue eyes with twenty-twenty vision, and a curvy figure. When she first started working here she had probably heard every blonde joke out there. But her no-nonsense way let people know quickly she was there to work, nothing else. Her serious attitude and controlling ways didn’t win her any friends, but she didn’t need them anyway. Grams was about the only one who could get around her facade. Grams. “Doctor…”
“Sorry. How long do you think you need?”
Alex sighed. “I don’t know.”
He placed his glasses back on as he stared at her. “You haven’t called her?”
She flushed. The thought never entered her mind. The telegram had flustered her, something no one else would believe.
“Use my phone.” He pointed to the 1940s-style instrument that graced his desk.
Alex clutched the cold receiver in her hand. Her grip tightened as she dialed in her grandmother’s number. The phone on the other end rang seven times before she hung up. “There is no answer.”
“Call the airline. I’ll clear the time off for you.”
* * *
Alex’s jeep flew down the shell road that led to her grandmother’s house. Why the areas around New Orleans used shells to cover their dirt roads instead of gravel was beyond her. She could hear them crunch and pop as she followed the road.
All she wanted to do was get to her only living relative.
Tires screeching, she stopped the jeep she rented in front of the house. Alex climbed the three stairs it took to reach the porch in one step. The handle on the front door turned with a rattle. It looked like her grandmother never had the knob tightened. Leaning against the door she shoved hard. The door flew open, banging against the wall.
“You didn’t have ta put your whole weight into it. It don’ stick that bad right now.”
Alex breathed a sigh of relief when she heard her grandmother’s voice. The door swung backward, stopping as it smacked Alex in the back. “So I noticed.”
“You okay, Grams?” She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Her grandma didn’t look sick, so why did she send the telegram?
“I’m fine, Alexandra.”
Alex cringed. She hated her given name, but she could never get her grandmother to use anything else. “So why did you call me home?”
“I needed you.”
“You had me run all the way from California because of your telegraph.” Alex’s brow crinkled. “What was so important?”
“You’ll find out tomorrow. Now, how ’bout some nice cold lemonade?” Her grandmother turned and headed into her small kitchen.
Alex wanted to smack her head. Her grams was up to something, and since she dragged Alex all the way from California it had to be big. What? was the question. And why tomorrow instead of now? A small sigh escaped her lips as she followed her grandmother.
* * *
Alex didn’t see the low-hanging beam until it was too late.
“Oh man,” she mumbled as she rubbed her head, glaring at the offending beam. Staring around the musty old attic, she sighed. Boxes were stacked everywhere. Why did she agree to climb into the proverbial black hole? The photo album her grams wanted was probably lost forever.
Her grandmother’s voice floated up to her from the first floor. “Alexandra, you okay up there?”
“Yes, Grams.” She looked around once again, grateful the evening air had started to cool off the stifling heat of the attic. “Grams? When was the last time you cleaned up here?”
“Don’t know, maybe thirty years? Before yer gran’pa passed away.”
Alex shook her head. Three hundred years sounded more like it. Cobwebs hung everywhere. The single bulb above her head cast more shadows than dispelled them. Tucking a stray honey-blonde hair behind her right ear she asked, “Which box should I look for the album in?”
She could hear her grandmother’s cane tap against the wood on the floor below as the woman thought. “Let’s see. Las’ time I had it out was the day you were born. Go in about ten paces and turn left. It should be in the top box.”
Alex’s brow shot up, but she did as her grandmother instructed. Pushing several cobwebs out of her way, she hoped she found it soon. The attic hadn’t cooled down enough for her tastes. She stopped in front of a pile of boxes. Pulling the lid off the top one, she found a leather-bound book embossed with an intricately engraved oak tree in gold leaf. Inside, on the first page, the face of her grandmother as a child stared back at her. They both shared the same aristocratic nose. The bright eyes and rosy cheeks in the picture made Alex smile. Although her gram’s chestnut-brown hair had turned to a feathery white texture, a youthful light still glowed in her grandmother’s eyes.
She grinned. Her grandmother could still surprise Alex with her sharp memory. “I found it.”
“Good. Meet ya in the den.” The tapping of her cane faded as Betsy Thibodaux moved away.
Alex climbed down from the attic and headed for the den. She seated herself on an overstuffed blue couch before her grandma walked in the room. Her grandmother didn’t move as fast as she used to.
Although her grandmother had turned ninety-three four months ago, knowing where to find the book proved she was still sharp as ever. After she settled down in her favorite chair, Alex handed her grandmother the family album.
“Now, sweetie, I want to tell you the story of…” Grams’ voice dropped off as she hunched over the album, flipping the pages in search of a specific picture. “Ah, here we are. Trey…”
“Trey?” There weren’t too many men with the name of Trey outside of the Crescent City. “A true boy from New Orleans, eh?” Alex took the album her grandmother thrust at her.
“Now, don’ fool wi’ me.” Her grandmother patted her hand. “His full name was Montgomery Brice Dalton. They called him Trey because he was the third.”
Alex rolled her eyes. When the letters started dropping from the ends of her grams’s words the stories got wild. “Yes, Grams.”
Betsy’s cane pounded against the floor. “Don’ you ‘yes Grams’ me. Dis is true life.”
The smile Alex tried to hide faded as her gaze fell on the picture. Like all the pictures taken in the late eighteenth century, Trey looked stiff. He didn’t smile, but humor shone through in his eyes. She wondered what went on in the background to cause that look. His attractive, chiseled features affected her. His eyes held hers, as though he actually stared at her instead of at the camera.
“My papa tol’ me about him when I was a chile. His daddy made him go to France during the war. Wanted him to become a ship’s captain. Just as the war ended, he heard about his parents’ deaths and returned home. When he came back, he rebuilt the family plantation. Made a name for heself.”
One of Alex’s blonde brows shot up. “And you remember the stories, Grams?”
Betsy Thibodaux straightened her spine. “Of course!” She tapped the side of her head. “Still sharp as a tack. Where do you think you got that scientific mind from? Anyway, he was friends wi’ my grandpa. Nice looking man that Trey. One that could turn a lady’s hade.’”
She knew her grandmother could spin more yarns than anyone she ever met. Laughter bubbled up inside her.
“He fell in love wi’ a woman from our family.”
Alex’s gaze slid to her hands when her grandmother looked her in the eye.
“In fac’, she had the same name as you. They had what you call a whirlwind affair. Papa tol’ me about their life, but I guess I jus’ don’ remember ever’thing.”
Alex coughed. An elephant would have an easier time of forgetting. “Go on, Grams.”
“Papa say she was real pretty. Very sophisticated. Trey fell for her like a ton o’ bricks. They were very happy, for a while. But somethin’ happen, an’ she had to go away. Papa say Trey pined and pined for her. He didn’t wan’ to live without her.”
“Talk about your Romeo and Juliet,” murmured Alex. “Did she ever come back?”
“Not sure. Would you like to see a picture of her? I have one in here somewhere.” Alex’s grandmother flipped through the family album. After a fruitless search, she yawned. “Well, I’ll find it in the mornin’. Why don’ you go on to bed? Tomorrow I plan on making my famous praline pancakes.”
Alex gave Betsy a quick peck on the cheek. Sleep sounded great. She stretched her back as she walked toward her room. “I’m looking forward to it, Grams. Good night.”
Once Alex had closed her door and turned out the light. Betsy reopened the album. Gently, she traced the picture of the woman Trey loved, a woman who was the spitting image of her granddaughter.
“Tomorrow is a whole new day, Alexandra.”
* * *
Alex woke early the next morning. Her nightshirt stuck to her body. Her grandmother didn’t believe in air-conditioning, and the room had started to heat up already. She pushed aside the delicate lace curtains and slipped her hands under the weather-beaten wood of her bedroom window. Her muscles flexed as she pulled up, forcing the window to rise upward with a loud groan.
The air in her room filled with the fragrant aroma of magnolias. This one smell let her know she was back home.
After dressing, she tiptoed down the golden oak stairs, hoping she wouldn’t wake Betsy, if that was possible. Grams always woke before anyone else, no matter how early they rose.
Peering into the pale yellow kitchen, Alex sniffed the heady aroma of freshly perked coffee, but found no sign of her grandma. Pouring herself a cup she sat and inhaled. One cup and she’d start in the living room. She knew her grandmother too well. She was probably napping somewhere in the house.
About fifteen minutes later she found her grandmother sleeping in her favorite chair in the den, where they had been the night before, the photo album still clutched in her gnarled hand. Just as Alex turned to let her grandma nap a little while longer, the book slipped from Betsy’s grasp and dropped to the rag carpet.
An embossed card fell out.
Bending down, Alex picked up the card.
“I see you found the invitation.”
“Good morning, Grams,” Alex said. “Is this why you wanted me here? For the reopening of the Dalton plantation?”
“Now, would I call you home for something silly like that?” Betsy banged her cane against the floor several times before she could get up out of the chair. “These old bones get more stubborn with each passing day.”
Alex shook her head as her grandmother headed for the kitchen. “Can I help?”
“Everything is under control, dear.” Betsy shooed her away. “Go sit down, it will be ready in no time.”
Within an hour, Betsy’s praline pancakes sat on the gray Formica-topped metal table, filling the kitchen with the aroma of roasted pecans, vanilla, and melted butter. Grabbing the butter and the syrup Alex made short work of the stack on her plate.
“I had forgotten about the Dalton plantation until you found the card. Why don’t we go?”
Alex placed her utensils on the edge of her plate. So it was the plantation she wanted Alex to see. Why? “If it’s okay with you I’d rather stay here.”
“I thought it would be fun.” Betsy got up and placed a few more pancakes on Alex’s plate. “They also have a portrait of that woman that Trey loved in the sitting room. You should see it.”
Alex pursed her lips. She wanted her to see some painting? Really? “So?”
Betsy watched her for a few minutes.
Alex felt heat climb up her neck and face under her grandmother’s scrutiny. When her grams wanted something she always got her way. “I don’t really want to go. I need to get back to work in California, Grams.”
“Pish posh. You will go with me. It ain’t gonna hurt you none.” Betsy stood up from her chair. “When was the last time you took any vacation time. A day or two ain’t going to do any harm. Then you can get back to your job.”
Alex knew she could argue with her grandmother, but she would end up giving in anyway so why fight her? She sighed. “Give me an hour. Then we’ll go.”
Alex’s grams smiled.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” Alex asked, hoping to talk her grandmother out of going.
“Yes, honey,” she replied, giving Alex a look as tender as it was mysterious. “I’ve been waiting for this most of my life.”
* * *
Alex’s hair whipped in the wind. She shifted into fourth gear before sparing a glance at her grandmother. She would have put the roof on, but her grams said a little wind wouldn’t hurt her. Watching gray hair pull itself free from her grandmother’s bun made Alex wonder.
“What you call this thing?” Her grams shouted to be heard.
Her grandma watched the rice fields go by as she looked out the passenger window. “Damned box.”
Alex fought a grin. Her grams would call a stretch limo a box; she didn’t care for ‘the contraptions,’ her word for cars. “We didn’t have to come, you know.”
“Yes, we do.” Her cane banged the floorboard. “You need to see that painting.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Following the signs, they pulled onto the shell road that led to the plantation. Alex didn’t look forward to this. Whatever her grandmother was up to she knew she wouldn’t like.
Her brown boots hit the white shells with a pronounced rattle. She quickly made her way around the green jeep to help her grandmother out.
Her grams straightened the hem of her flower-print dress, ground her cane into the shells, and moved toward the plantation, mingling with the flow of arriving tourists.
The sounds of people laughing and talking as they headed in the same direction did nothing to calm her nerves. The large white two-story box-type home towered over her, blocking the rays of the sun. Her throat went dry. She straightened her shoulders. Alex knew she was being silly, but she just couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that was starting to fill her.
This area, like all the land near New Orleans, was flat. The city was below sea level, making it a perfect place to grow rice, which the land surrounding the plantation still did.
A child’s cry caught her attention. Alex wanted to cry too. She didn’t want to be here.
* * *
Alex hung back behind the crowd as the guide led them from room to room. Her dread grew with each room the tour entered. By the time they entered the sitting room with the rest of the tourists, she wanted out. She rubbed her arms. Her white long-sleeved poet’s blouse didn’t help to keep away the sudden chill.
Her grandmother begged the guide for a few minutes of rest before moving on, giving them both a few minutes alone in the room without the other tourists or guides. “See, Alexandra, there’s the painting I tol’ you about.”
Alex stared at the painting. The picture was an exact likeness of her, but in period clothing. Instinct said she looked at herself, but Alex knew she never posed for a picture like that. The young woman sat serenely on a chair, her deep green skirt draped around her. “Grams, she looks just like me.”
“Interesting, no?” Her grandmother nodded. “No one knows where the picture came from, or who painted it. Look at the spot on the right side, just behind the chair. The brush strokes are different, as if something’s been removed. I think someone used this picture to taunt Trey. Whoever sent it put something or someone in the background to anger him and he had whatever had been in the painting removed.”
“Grams,” Alex admonished.
“It’s true. Go up and look and you’ll see the same thing.”
“Are you kidding?” Alex stared at her grandmother. “What if someone sees?”
“Who’s going to see?”
Alex glanced around to see if anyone watched. Ignoring the velvet ropes, she slipped one side off the pole, so she could walk up to the painting to study it closer. Her brow creased. Alex knew a little about art and the strokes made by a brush. Betsy was right. This painting had been altered. She reached out to touch the brush strokes on the woman’s face. A strong tingling sensation assaulted her. It shot up her arm and spread through the rest of her body.
Too late, she tried to pull her hand back. The sensation continued, overpowering her. She felt like Cinderella when the fairy godmother cast her spell. She saw the outline of the woman’s face turn a golden color, like a thousand fireflies had taken alight. The face turned toward her, as if to say, ‘It’s about time.’
The light circled around her body, covering her and squeezing away her breath. Slowly, she crumpled to the floor.
* * *
Her mind registered the movement of air on her face when she started to regain consciousness. The polished wooden floor felt cool against her cheek.
“Do you think she’s all right?” Alex heard a feminine voice ask.
“Yes. Her color’s returning. She should be fine.” This one sounded closer, also female.
“Where do you think she came from?” asked the first voice.
“How would I know?” A cane thumped the floor. “We found her at the same time, Fleurette.”
There was a short pause before she heard one of the voices ask timidly, “What sort of clothes are those, Miss Rose?”
“Nothing a lady would wear.”
Alex took a chance and opened one eye. Although she didn’t recognize the voices, the thumping cane could only be her grams. Two sets of eyes stared back at her. One set belonged to an older woman dressed in a long gray dress. The other belonged to a young black woman, who wore a simple brown dress with a white collar and white cuffs. The style of their long dresses was from the late nineteenth century.
One quick glance around revealed that her grandmother was nowhere to be seen. What was going on?
“She’s awake,” the young black woman said.
The cane thumped again. “I can see that, Fleurette.”
The two women in late nineteenth-century costumes must have been looking for stragglers before the next tour. Rubbing her head absently, she sat up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to faint. Let me get out of your way.”
“You all right?”
She nodded. “Fine. Um, let me find my grandma and we’ll—” She stopped talking when she glanced at the wall. The painting was gone. So were the velvet ropes that had surrounded it. Color drained out of her face.
“Oh dear, she gonna faint again.” Fleurette started to fan Alex in earnest once more.
She put her hand out, touching the black woman’s thin wrist. “Please, stop. I’m fine, really, it’s just—” Looking around stopped Alex again. She noticed the furniture wasn’t crowded into areas to allow room for tourists to walk through. The room suddenly looked lived in.
She stood up. “I’ve got to get out of here.” Her boots pounded against the oak floor. Once she hit the porch, she stopped again. Her heart started to beat faster. The vending machines were gone, along with the sidewalk and the shell road. There were no cars, or families with children yelling for attention. All she heard was a dog barking in the distance, and the pounding of horse’s hooves.
She started to hum the theme to the Twilight Zone as she looked around. Alex expected to find Rod Serling standing nearby doing his prologue.
She looked down at her boots. “Okay,” she said out loud. “This is only a dream. I must have hit my head when I fainted. That’s all. In a few minutes, I’ll wake up and Grams will be standing there laughing at me for being so silly.”
The pounding hooves she had heard before stopped in front of the stairs where she stood, forcing her to look up. Her eyes widened. “Oh God.”
Trey Dalton, still astride his horse, towered over her. His picture didn’t do him justice. No humor shone in his eyes now, only anger. Jet-black hair clung to his cheeks. His breakneck ride to the house had mussed the shimmering mass. Alex felt an urge to brush his hair back from his face.
A muscle throbbed in his jaw. Trey didn’t believe Jessie when he ran out to the fields to tell him that a woman had just appeared in the sitting room, but here she stood. “Madame, what right do you have to invade my home?”
Alex looked at him, and then back at the doorway she had come through, now crowded with the curious. Turning back to him, she gestured helplessly toward the door. “I...” Her eyes rolled to the back of her head as she crumpled into another faint.