Authors: Marilyn Pappano
“When my mother told me he had died, all I could feel was relief.” She spoke so softly that Jones could barely hear her despite the quiet around them. “I hardly knew the man. I don’t remember much about him. But I just thought, ‘Oh, good. He’s gone.’ Valerie—my mother—pitched a fit when I told her I wasn’t coming for the funeral. She kept saying, ‘He was your
’ as if that meant something, but when my only response to his passing is, ‘Oh, good,’ how much can it possibly mean?”
Jones studied her—the sheen of sweat on her forehead, the moisture glistening in her eyes, the faint quiver of her lower lip, the insubstantial voice, as if she was afraid to say out loud the things she’d just murmured—and his gut tightened. Was it possible… Had the old man…
They were ugly words: abused. Molested. Hurt. He didn’t want to think them. But it would explain her feelings toward her grandfather. It would account for her avoidance of family and this place for fifteen years.
It could also explain her insistence that she didn’t know her way around Fair Winds, her not recognizing him and her denial that she’d had contact with anyone else that summer. A kid whose father had just died, whose mother abandoned her, whose cousin tormented her and whose grandfather molested her… Any one of those could be reason enough to block that time from her mind.
He turned away from the headstone, revulsion making him queasy.
“What made you decide to come back now?” he asked as he started back toward the gate.
She caught up with him at the brick pillars, and they set off into the woods again, following the path of least resistance. “Truthfully?”
“Call me strange, but I always prefer the truth.” In an effort to lighten the gloom from the cemetery—and chase those ugly thoughts from his mind—he wryly added, “Except about Mick. Don’t tell me my dog is homely or has bad breath.”
“He’s a beautiful boy, and his breath smells just like doggy breath should.” She swiped away the sweat on her forehead, then detoured around a fallen pine. “My psychic—who also happens to be one of my best friends—suggested it.”
She walked on a few feet before looking at him. “No laughter? No horror? No ‘Uh-oh, she’s crazy’?”
“I told you, I believe in ghosts. Why should I think going to a psychic is crazy?” Besides, he had generations of female relatives who’d made decent money in fortune-telling. Most of them had been frauds, but there had been a few true seers in the bunch. His granny had been one of them.
“Evie’s legit. I know they all claim they are, but she really is. And she’s a good friend, too. She knows I have some…issues, and she thought coming here would be good for me.”
Jones heard her words, but right after “issues,” he stopped paying attention. They’d reached the easternmost side of the farm, marked by a wooden fence that had long ago been painted white, gleaming even out here in the woods out of everyone’s sight. He recognized the small hollow between the trees, the not-too-distant trickle of water from the creek, the lone crooked pine that grew at a forty-five-degree angle over the fence.
This was where he and Glen had camped during their time at Fair Winds.
This was the last place he’d seen his brother.
eece felt as if she’d intruded someplace she wasn’t wanted. It wasn’t a new feeling, by any means, just unexpected. Jones had been so friendly from the start; she hadn’t expected him to suddenly forget she was there.
She looked around, wondering if it was something about the place that had yanked his attention away, but there was nothing remarkable about it: a small clearing surrounded by trees. The creek ran nearby, and they were close enough to the highway to hear passing traffic. Other than that, it was woods, like the rest of the property.
She stayed where she was while he walked into the open area, then slowly turned. For a moment, he stared off to the northeast, and she had the strangest sensation that he’d left her. Sure, his body was there, but
wasn’t. She was alone.
Just as slowly, he completed the circle, then looked at the ground, the bent tree, cocked his head and listened to something—the creek? The breeze? A ghost?
After intense scrutiny, his exhalation was loud enough to startle her. He realized that she was watching him, but he didn’t try to brush off the odd moment. “This place…” he murmured.
His smile was thin, almost…sad. “Yeah.”
They didn’t talk much after that. They tramped through the woods, Mick staying close most of the time, running off on occasion to trail some forest creature. Reece tried to open herself to the place, searching deep inside for a familiar memory. She didn’t find it, not in the trees, the trails, the creek or the pool where it widened to an idyllic swimming hole.
Jones suggested they stop there, and they sat at opposite ends of a crude bench, one long slab of wood hammered atop two shorter ones. It looked old enough to have been built by the very first Howard, but she guessed it was probably Mark’s work when he was younger. He’d liked swimming, fishing, hunting—those guy things he shared with Grandfather—while she’d had nothing in common with the man but blood.
The thought made said blood run a little cold.
“You mentioned your other job sites,” she said at last. “How many jobs do you have going at once?”
“No more than one major one, usually, like this, but we’ve got a lot of smaller jobs. Enough to keep me busy and on the road most of the time.”
“You like being on the road?”
He grinned. “It’s in my blood. My father and grandfathers have spent a large part of their lives on the road.”
“And your mother and grandmothers?”
“Wait at home.”
“Nice, I guess. If you don’t want to actually spend time with the man you’re married to.” It wouldn’t work for her. She’d been looking a long time for Mr. Right. Once she found him, she’d like to share her bed with him more often than not.
“They spent enough time together. Both my grandmothers had seven kids, and Mom and Dad had six.” Leaning forward, he scooped up a pinecone, broke off a chunk and tossed it into the water, where the current danced it out of the pool. “You ever come here before?”
“Not that I recall. I told you, I don’t swim.”
“Yeah, but what kid can resist throwing things in the water?” He tossed another small piece, then a second. As they bobbed along, an old memory came to mind: her and her dad at the duck pond in Denver. How many hours had they spent on a concrete bench not much better than this one, tossing in stale crackers and chunks of bread for the ducks and talking about the wonders of life? Of course, to a nine-year-old, everything was pretty wondrous.
The wish that it still was ached deep in her chest.
“This one,” she answered in response to his question.
With a grin, he shook his head. “You must have read an entire library’s worth of books that summer.”
Maybe. In dire need of escape to a world where things still made sense, she’d read a lot those first weeks, when she wasn’t crying and trying to convince herself it was all a horrible nightmare and she would wake up soon. After that…
Well, that was why she was here. To find out.
For the hundredth time, she wondered if knowing was really important. It didn’t take a psychiatrist to know that there was a
she’d blocked that summer out. Something bad had happened that her thirteen-year-old mind had deemed unbearable. Was she any better equipped to deal with emotional trauma at twenty-eight?
Evie thought so. Martine did, too. Sometimes so did Reece. But sometimes…
She was about to suggest they get moving again when a wind blew over them. Elsewhere around them, the air remained still; the leaves didn’t rustle; the branches didn’t sway. The current was icy and bore hints of smells: sweat, brackish water, fresh dirt, rain, tobacco. Goose bumps raised on her arms, and she hugged herself tightly to contain a violent shudder.
When she managed a look at Jones, he was watching her. The skin on his arms was pebbled, too, but he wasn’t shivering. He sat as still as stone.
As quickly as it had stirred, the wind stopped. For an endless moment, the woods were silent as a morgue, until one brave bird chirped. Another swooped from one tree to the next, and the usual chatter slowly resumed.
Jones stood, his movements smooth and easy, and extended his hand. She wasn’t sure she could have stood without his help. Her legs were unsteady, her hands trembly and her insides awhirl.
They’d gone a hundred feet, her hand still clasped inside his big, warm one, before he spoke. “Now that’s something you don’t experience every day.”
She laughed, just a little, enough to ease some of the tension making her vibrate. “I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t experience ghosts every day.” As relief and calm seeped into her, self-consciousness flooded her, and she eased her hand from his and put a few more feet between them. “My father used to tell me stories about this place. Grandmother said they were all nonsense, and Grandfather…well, he thought pretty much everything about Daddy was nonsense. They didn’t get along. The first time I can remember coming here for a visit, I must have been five or six. As soon as we walked into the house, I started asking, ‘Where are the ghosts, Daddy?’” She shook her head. “My grandparents were not amused.”
“Did you see anything?”
“I never actually see them. I hear things. Feel things. Footsteps, that wind, creaking, emotions.” She looked up. “Do you see anything?”
“Sometimes just wisps or vague shapes. But usually not.”
The conversation might have struck anyone else as ridiculous, but not Reece. Besides her own sensitivity to other presences, Evie talked to spirits and they talked back, and Martine had her own experiences with things otherworldly. It was a common thing in their small circle.
“But Miss Willa doesn’t believe.”
“Oh, no. So if you have any trouble with the ghosts when you start digging up the yard, don’t expect her to understand.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The trees thinned ahead, allowing the sunlight through, and the house became visible. Jones’s gaze fixed on it. “It’s a beauty, isn’t it?”
Reece tried to appreciate the house from a purely architectural view. The symmetry of windows and doors was nice. The porch that stretched across the front was shady and cool in the morning, sunny and warm in the afternoon. It was a wonderful place for watching storms sweep across the river. The bright white and the crisp green paint contrasted starkly with each other, and the faded brick softened the whole effect.
It was exactly how a plantation-era house should look.
But where Jones saw beauty, she saw despair. In every one of those windows reaching three stories high, she saw unhappiness. Gloom. Unsettledness. Cold. It was the most unwelcoming place she’d ever been and, having grown up with Valerie, that said a lot.
“I’m afraid I’m too biased to answer that fairly.”
A slight figure rose from one of the rockers on the porch and faced their direction. Grandmother. It was too early for lunch, so probably a good time to talk to her. Reece had tried a couple of times the afternoon and night before, but it was just so hard to start the conversation.
Her experience with Valerie didn’t make it any easier. Every time the word
came from Reece’s mouth, even if it was something as innocuous as a mention of summer vacation, her mother tensed, lines appeared at the corners of her mouth and a look passed through her eyes.
Here we go again.
But Reece hadn’t tried three dozen times to get any information from Grandmother.
“Mick and I are going back to the cottage to get to work,” Jones said, his path angling toward the back of the house.
“Coward,” she murmured.
“I heard that.”
Her own steps slowed until she was barely moving. Once she realized it, she gave herself a mental shake and picked up the pace. As she walked across acres of neatly mown grass, she wondered what had possessed Grandfather to tear up the gardens that had been such a large part of Fair Winds’ legend. Surely he hadn’t resented the staff needed to care for them. And it couldn’t have been a financial decision; he’d had more money than God.
What problem had flowers and shrubs and fountains caused that led him to destroy them?
Long before she was ready, she reached the house. Grandmother had seated herself again, a book open on her lap. Dressed as formally as ever, she slid her gaze over Reece’s shirt, capris and sneakers, and her nose crinkled in the slightest
though she said nothing about Reece’s appearance.
She gestured to the nearest chair, green wicker with a floral-patterned cushion. “Have you been getting Mr. Jones acquainted with the property, Clarice?”
“Getting both of us acquainted with it.” Reece didn’t correct the names. That Jones preferred no
preceding his name and she generally answered only to Reece was of no consequence to Grandmother.
was the arbiter of what was correct and it wasn’t open to discussion.
“You spent enough hours out there in those woods. I don’t see how you could possibly have forgotten any part of it. Of course, that was a long time ago.”
It was as good an opening as any Reece was likely to get. Shifting enough to make the wicker creak, she tried to project a casual attitude, in both voice and posture, as she said, “There’s a lot I don’t remember about that summer.”
“There wasn’t much to remember. You got up in the morning, played outside until mealtime and you went to bed at night. Once a week you went to town with me to shop, and on Sunday mornings we went to church.”
“All of us?” It was hard to imagine Grandfather putting on a suit, going to church and being sociable.
“You, Mark and I. Your grandfather believed in God. He just thought he was more likely to find Him out there—” she gestured toward the property “—than in some stuffy church.”
More likely he’d been afraid that God might strike him down if he stepped through the doorway of the sanctuary.