"She actually wore this?"
"Indeed." Mr. Woods allowed another single-word response to roll from his lips.
Danielle ignored the irritation rising within her at his inability to articulate more than a single word at a time, and inspected the collar and leash on the tray before her.
She wouldn't have expected it to be decorated with anything, especially not the silver hearts studding the black leather, three on each side of a silver ring. There was a standard clasp at the back of the collar, and the leash was made from the same black leather. Six more hearts studded the leash, which was otherwise unadorned. She lifted the tag, careful of the aging piece to which it was attached, and read the details.
Collar, leather, silver detail
ALL SALES FINAL
It sounded as ordinary as it looked, but Danielle knew there was more to it than indicated by that label. There always was, with the Blackwoods. She had read, at her sisters urging, more about the Blackwood family than she had about any single subject in four years of college. They were witches and warlocks if you believed one book, consorts of demons if you believed another. The one thing that all the books agreed upon was the mystery that surrounded the entire clan.
Angus Blackwood, the patriarch, was a theologian who focused his studies on the fallen angels and became possibly the most renowned demonologist of the early twentieth century. His books were still considered the final word on demonology today. His untimely death and apparent resurrection had been debunked by scholars and scientists decades ago, but he still maintained his status as an occult legend.
His son, Diarmid, followed in his fathers footsteps studying demonology and occult magic. He had made a name for himself when he resurrected his own father. Although the feat was scientifically proven to be a farce, many believed the truth had been covered up. Dozens of occultists around the world flocked to Blackwood Manor to learn from Diarmid.
His continued research and studies brought him into contact with Contessa Elena D'Alimonte, herself a student of mysticism and the occult who later relinquished her title in order to marry Diarmid. Their marriage produced no offspring, and Diarmid died only five short years after their wedding. The Lady Elena D'Alimonte Blackwood spent her remaining years locked within Blackwood Manor, never venturing beyond the walls of the estate.
"Finished?" Mr. Woods' single-word question was delivered monotone, interrupting Danielle's train of thought.
"I'm sorry." Danielle snapped back to the present. "It just seems so strange, her wearing a collar. Don't you think?"
Danielle shot a look from the corner of her eye that Mr. Woods either didn't see, or ignored. He turned his dispassionate gaze towards her and raised a single eyebrow.
"Madam?" It wasn't actually a question; it was more of a statement, Mr. Woods' indication that his time was too valuable for any more of it to be wasted.
"I'm sorry." Danielle felt like she had been apologizing to Mr. Woods ever since she had met him. "Are we finished with everything?"
"Actually…" He paused. Danielle assumed he was trying to avoid using another word.
"My sisters' signature, of course." Both Danielle and her sister, Gabrielle, needed to sign the final forms assuming joint ownership of the entire Blackwood estate.
"She won't be here until Friday."
"So." Danielle leveled a look at Mr. Woods. "We're done for now?"
"Then you can go." She waved him off with one hand. "I'd like to stay and look around some more."
"Alone?" Both eyebrows shot up into Mr. Woods' hairline.
"I'm a big girl, Mr. Woods. It's just a house."
"My mansion." She smiled at him, trying to keep the words that wanted to pour out locked inside. "And I'd like to look around some more."
Mr. Woods took a breath before responding. "Certainly," he said.
"Good evening, Mr. Woods. I hope you can find your own way out."
Danielle watched as he turned on his heel and made his way down the hall and around the corner out of sight. She wondered if Gabrielle would hold her temper in check when she met Mr. Woods. Knowing Gabby, it wasn't very likely. She hoped she was there when they met; it would be worth seeing.
Danielle turned back to the random piles crowding what was once Lady Blackwood's study. Every item had been individually tagged by the auction house, identified for the sale that was to have taken place in two weeks. It would take them forever to get the little tags and stickers off of everything in the house. But at least they had made it in time.
If those old documents hadn't turned up when they did, the entire estate might have been scattered across the globe, one piece at a time, in a public auction. The final proof had been buried for almost a century in a forgotten archive in Italy. Gabrielle had made the trip to find the last piece of evidence she required to prove what she had suspected for years since she first heard of the Blackwoods.
Gabrielle was positive that, although Diarmid and Elena's marriage produced no children, they each had children of their own before marrying. Diarmid had fathered an illegitimate daughter, Bianca, before marrying Elena. He had barely acknowledged her existence, but had paid huge sums to her mother, essentially buying her silence. After what was rumored to have been an ongoing incestuous relationship with an unidentified relative, Elena had given birth to a son, Damon, who had been given up for adoption.
Gabrielle had fit certain pieces together, but it was the parentage of Damon that had eluded her until her trip to Italy. Once the identity of his mother was confirmed, the rest fell into place like clockwork. Through some strange twist of fate, Damon and Bianca, the illegitimate and unwanted children of Diarmid and Elena, met when both were seventeen years of age, fell in love, and married.
Damon and Bianca's marriage produced twins, but one died at birth. It was rumored that their surviving son, Matthew, was insane. Before being institutionalized, he fathered twins as well, one of whom also died during childbirth. His surviving daughter, Emily, also had twins, but this time both survived. She named them Danielle and Gabrielle.
Diarmid Blackwood and Lady Elena D'Alimonte Blackwood had been Danielle and Gabrielle's great grandparents. Gabrielle had identified a direct link between the infamous Blackwoods and herself, a link that proved to be enough to legally inherit the entire estate. Months in various court-rooms had finally led to this day; the first day that either sister had been allowed to step foot inside what was now their property. Danielle only wished Gabby could have been here with her.
Danielle still couldn't believe that she was descended from Diarmid and Elena, two of the most mysterious figures in occult history. Everything in the house she now stood within had potential occult significance. Relics and artifacts from ages past were scattered about the house; it would take weeks just to identify the more important and well-known objects. Anything here could be the key to an untold mystery.
The leather collar was still atop of a pile of tagged items in the study, lying upon the tray where it had been when Danielle first saw it. It was not something she had expected. Lady Elena was not the type of woman to wear a collar. She might have placed collars on others to signify their service to her, but she was the wealthy one, the powerful one. Who would she serve?
No one that Danielle could think of, unless it was some sort of symbol of subservience to Diarmid. But even that didn't fit with the eyewitness accounts of their interactions. Elena and Diarmid were equals in most things, except in certain areas of knowledge where one or the other would submit to their partners' superior wisdom. Still, symbolic or not, who would want to wear a collar? What joy could anyone possibly get out of being leashed like a dog?
Danielle was curious. It was a piece that didn't fit into the Blackwood puzzle. She wanted to touch the collar, feel the supple leather against her skin. She wondered what it would feel like around her neck. What would it be like to be bound to the will of another, physically, mentally, emotionally? What sort of liberation could be found in the complete surrender of free will?
She looked down and realized that the collar was in her hands, the buckle unclasped. Had she been about to put it on? She must be more tired than she thought. She set the collar back atop the tray and headed into the kitchen.