Authors: Kate Morton
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New York Times
and internationally bestselling author of
The Secret Keeper
The Distant Hours
, an intricately plotted, spellbinding new novel of heartstopping suspense and uncovered secrets.
Living on her family's idyllic lakeside estate in Cornwall, England, Alice Edevane is a bright, inquisitive, innocent, and precociously talented sixteen-year-old who loves to write stories. But the mysteries she pens are no match for the one her family is about to endureâ¦
One midsummer's eve, after a beautiful party drawing hundreds of guests to the estate has ended, the Edevanes discover that their youngest child, eleven-month-old Theo, has vanished without a trace. What follows is a tragedy that tears the family apart in ways they never imagined.
Decades later, Alice is living in London, having enjoyed a long successful career as an author. Theo's case has never been solved, though Alice still harbors a suspicion as to the culprit. Miles away, Sadie Sparrow, a young detective in the London police force, is staying at her grandfather's house in Cornwall. While out walking one day, she stumbles upon the old estateânow crumbling and covered with vines, clearly abandoned long ago. Her curiosity is sparked, setting off a series of events that will bring her and Alice together and reveal shocking truths about a past long gone...yet more present than ever.
A lush, atmospheric tale of intertwined destinies, this latest novel from a masterful storyteller is an enthralling, thoroughly satisfying read.
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Kate Morton, a native Australian, holds degrees in dramatic art and English literature. She lives with her family in Brisbane, Australia.
Also by Kate Morton
THE HOUSE AT RIVERTON
THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN
THE DISTANT HOURS
THE SECRET KEEPER
Cornwall, August 1933
The rain was heavy now and the hem of her dress was splattered with mud. She'd have to hide it afterwards; no one could know that she'd been out.
Clouds covered the moon, a stroke of luck she didn't deserve, and she made her way through the thick, black night as quickly as she could. She'd come earlier to dig the hole, but only now, under veil of darkness, would she finish the job. Rain stippled the surface of the trout stream, drummed relentlessly on the earth beside it. Something bolted through the bracken nearby, but she didn't flinch, didn't stop. She'd been in and out of the woods all her life and knew the way by heart.
Back when it first happened she'd considered confessing, and perhaps, in the beginning, she might have. She'd missed her chance though and now it was too late. Too much had happened: the search parties, the policemen, the articles in the newspapers pleading for information. There was no one she could tell, no way to fix it, no way they would ever forgive her. The only thing left was to bury the evidence.
She reached the place she'd chosen. The bag, with its box inside, was surprisingly heavy and it was a relief to put it down. On hands and knees, she pulled away the camouflage of ferns and branches. The smell of sodden soil was overwhelming, of wood mouse and mushrooms, of other mouldering things. Her father had told her once that generations had walked these woods and been buried deep beneath the heavy earth. It made him glad, she knew, to think of it that way. He found comfort in the continuity of nature, believing that the stability of the long past had the power to alleviate present troubles. And maybe in some cases it had, but not this time, not these troubles.
She lowered the bag into the hole and for a split second the moon seemed to peer from behind a cloud. Tears threatened as she scooped the dirt back, but she fought them. To cry, here and now, was an indulgence she refused to grant herself. She patted the ground flat, slapped her hands against it, and stomped down hard with her boots until she was out of breath.
There. It was done.
It crossed her mind that she should say something before she left this lonely place. Something about the death of innocence, the deep remorse that would follow her always; but she didn't. The inclination made her feel ashamed.
She made her way back quickly through the woods, careful to avoid the boathouse and its memories. Dawn was breaking as she reached the house; the rain was light. The lake's water lapped at its banks and the last of the nightingales called farewell. The blackcaps and warblers were waking, and far in the distance a horse whinnied. She didn't know it then, but she would never be rid of them, those sounds; they would follow her from this place, this time, invading her dreams and nightmares, reminding her always of what she had done.
Cornwall, 23 June 1933
The best view of the lake was from the Mulberry Room but Alice decided to make do with the bathroom window. Mr Llewellyn was still down by the river with his easel, but he always retired early for a rest and she didn't want to risk an encounter. The old man was harmless enough, but he was eccentric and needy, especially of late, and she feared her unexpected presence in his room would send the wrong sort of signal. Alice wrinkled her nose. She'd been enormously fond of him once, when she was younger, and he of her. Odd to think of it now, at sixteen, the stories he'd told, the little sketches he'd drawn that she'd treasured, the air of wonder he'd trailed behind him like a song. At any rate, the bathroom was closer than the Mulberry Room, and with only a matter of minutes before Mother realised the first-floor rooms lacked flowers, Alice had no time to waste in climbing stairs. As a skein of housemaids waving polishing cloths flew eagerly down the hall, she slipped through the doorway and hurried to the window.
But where was he? Alice felt her stomach swoop, thrill to despair in an instant. Her hands pressed warm against the glass as her gaze swept the scene below: cream and pink roses, petals shining as if they'd been buffed; precious peaches clinging to the sheltered garden wall; the long silver lake gleaming in the mid-morning light. The whole estate had already been preened and primped to a state of impossible perfection, and yet there was still bustle everywhere.
Hired musicians slid gilt chairs across the temporary bandstand, and as the caterers' vans took turns stirring dust on the driveway, the half-assembled marquee ballooned in the summer breeze. The single still note amidst the swirl of activity was Grandmother deShiel, who sat small and hunched on the cast-iron garden seat outside the library, lost in her cobwebbed memories and completely oblivious to the round glass lanterns being strung up in the trees around herâ
Alice drew a sudden breath.
The smile spread across her face before she could stop it. Joy, delicious star-spangled joy as she spotted him on the small island in the middle of the lake, a great log balanced on one shoulder. She lifted a hand to wave, an impulse, and a foolish one because he wasn't looking towards the house. Even if he had been, he wouldn't have waved back. Both knew they had to be more careful than that.
Her fingers found the ribbon of hair that always fell loose by her ear and she wound it between her fingers, back and forth, over and over. She liked watching him like this, in secret. It made her feel powerful, not like when they were together, when she brought him lemonade in the garden, or managed to sneak away to surprise him when he was working in the far-off reaches of the estate; when he asked after her novel, her family, her life, and she told him stories and made him laugh and had to struggle not to lose herself within the pools of his deep green eyes with their golden specks.
Beneath her gaze he bent, pausing to steady the log's weight before easing it into place atop the others. He was strong and that was good. Alice wasn't sure why, only that it mattered to her in a deep and unexplored place. Her cheeks were hot; she was blushing.
Alice Edevane wasn't shy. She'd known boys before. Not many, it was trueâwith the exception of their traditional Midsummer party her parents were famously reserved, preferring one another's companyâbut she'd managed, on occasion, to exchange surreptitious words with the village boys, or the tenant farmers' sons who tugged their caps and lowered their eyes and followed their fathers about the estate. This, thoughâthis wasÂ .Â .Â . Well, it was just
, and she knew how breathless that sounded, how awfully like the sort of thing her big sister Deborah might say, but it happened to be true.
Benjamin Munro was his name. She mouthed the syllables silently, Benjamin James Munro, twenty-six years old, late of London. He had no dependents, was a hard worker, a man not given to baseless talk. He'd been born in Sussex and grown up in the Far East, the son of archaeologists. He liked green tea, the scent of jasmine and hot days that built towards rain.
He hadn't told her all of that. He wasn't one of those pompous men who bassooned on about himself and his achievements as if a girl were just a pretty-enough face between a pair of willing ears. Instead, she'd listened and observed and gleaned, and, when the opportunity presented, crept inside the storehouse to check the head gardener's employment book. Alice had always fancied herself a sleuth, and sure enough, pinned behind a page of Mr Harris's careful planting notes, she'd found Benjamin Munro's application. The letter itself had been brief, written in a hand Mother would have deplored, and Alice had scanned the whole, memorising the important bits, thrilling at the way the words gave depth and colour to the image she'd created and been keeping for herself, like a flower pressed between pages. Like the flower he'd given her just last month. “Look, Aliceâ” the stem had been green and fragile in his broad, gloved handâ“the first gardenia of the season.”
She smiled at the memory and reached inside her pocket to stroke the smooth surface of her leather-bound notebook. It was a habit she'd brought with her from childhood, with which she'd been driving her mother mad since receiving her very first notebook on her eighth birthday. How she'd loved that little nut-brown book! How clever Daddy had been to choose it for her. He was a journal-keeper, too, he'd said, with a seriousness Alice had admired and appreciated. She'd written her full nameâAlice Cecilia Edevaneâslowly, under Mother's watchful eye, on the pale sepia line in the frontispiece, and felt immediately that she was now a more real person than she had been before.
Mother objected to Alice's habit of caressing her pocketed book because it made her look “shifty, like you're up to no good', a description Alice had decided she didn't mind one bit. Her mother's disapproval was merely a bonus; Alice would have continued to reach for her book even if it didn't make that faint frown appear on Eleanor Edevane's lovely face; she did it because her notebook was a touchstone, a reminder of who she was. It was also her closest confidante and, as such, quite an authority on Ben Munro.
It had been almost a whole year since she'd first laid eyes on him. He'd arrived at Loeanneth late in the summer of 1932, during that glorious dry stretch when, with all the excitement of Midsummer behind them, there'd been nothing left to do but surrender themselves to the soporific heat. A divine spirit of indolent tranquillity had descended on the estate so that even Mother, eight months pregnant and glowing pink, had taken to unbuttoning her pearl cuffs and rolling her silk sleeves to the elbow.
Alice had been sitting that day on the swing beneath the willow, swaying idly and pondering her Significant Problem. Sounds of family life, had she been listening, were all aroundâMother and Mr Llewellyn laughing distantly as the boat oars splashed a lazy rhythm; Clemmie narrating beneath her breath while she turned circles in the meadow, arms outstretched like wings; Deborah relaying to Nanny Rose all the scandals of the recent London Seasonâbut Alice was intent only on herself and heard nothing more than the mild burr of summer insects.
She'd been in the same spot for almost an hour, and hadn't even noticed the creeping black ink stain her new fountain pen was bleeding on her white cotton dress, when he materialised from the dark wooded grove onto the sunlit reach of the drive. He was carrying a canvas kit bag over one shoulder and what appeared to be a coat in his hand, and walked with a steady, muscular gait, the rhythm of which made her slow her swinging. She watched his progress, the rope rough against her cheek as she strained to see around the willow's weeping bough.
By quirk of geography, people did not come unexpectedly to Loeanneth. The estate sat deep in a dell, surrounded by thick, briar-tangled woods, just like houses must in fairy tales. (And nightmares, as it turned out, though Alice had no cause to think that then.) It was their own sunny patch, home to generations of deShiels, her mother's ancestral home. And yet here he was, a stranger in their midst, and just like that the afternoon's spell was broken.
Alice had a natural bent towards nosinessâpeople had been telling her so all her life and she took it as a compliment; it was a trait she intended to put to good useâbut her interest that day was fuelled more by frustration and a sudden willingness to be distracted than it was by curiosity. All summer long she'd been working feverishly on a novel of passion and mystery, but three days earlier her progress had stalled. It was all the fault of her heroine, Laura, who, after chapters devoted to illustrating her rich inner life, now refused to cooperate. Faced with the introduction of a tall, dark, handsome gentleman, the dashingly named Lord Hallington, she'd suddenly lost all her wit and pith and become decidedly dull.
Well, Alice decided as she watched the young man walking up the driveway, Laura would just have to wait. There were other matters come to hand.
A narrow stream chattered its way across the estate, delighting in the brief sunny respite before being reeled inexorably back towards the woods, and a stone bridge, the legacy of some long-ago great-uncle, straddled the banks allowing access to Loeanneth
As the stranger reached the bridge, he stopped. He turned slowly back to face the direction from which he'd come and seemed to glance at something in his hand. A scrap of paper? A trick of the light? Something in the tilt of his head, his lingering focus on the dense woods, spoke of deliberation and Alice narrowed her eyes. She was a writer; she understood people; she knew vulnerability when she saw it. What was he so uncertain about, and why? He turned again, coming full circle, lifting a hand to his brow as he cast his gaze all the way up the thistle-lined drive to where the house stood behind its loyal guard of yew trees. He didn't move, didn't appear to do so much as breathe, and then, as she watched, he set down his bag and coat, straightened his braces to the top of his shoulders, and released a sigh.
Alice experienced one of her swift certainties then. She wasn't sure where they came from, these insights into other people's states of mind, only that they arrived unexpectedly and fully formed. She just
things sometimes. To wit: this was not the sort of place he was used to. But he was a man on a date with destiny, and although there was a part of him that wanted to turn around and leave the estate before he'd even properly arrived, one did notâ
notâturn one's back on fate. It was an intoxicating proposition and Alice found herself gripping the swing's rope more tightly, ideas beginning to jostle, as she watched for the stranger's next move.
Sure enough, picking up his coat and hoisting his bag over his shoulder, he continued up the drive towards the hidden house. A new determination had entered his bearing and he now gave every appearance, to those who knew no better, of being resolute, his mission uncomplicated. Alice allowed herself a smile, slight and self-satisfied, before being hit by a burst of blinding clarity that almost knocked her from the swing seat. In the same instant that she noticed the ink stain on her skirt, Alice realised the solution to her Significant Problem. Why, it was all so clear! Laura, grappling with the arrival of her own intriguing stranger, also gifted with greater perception than most, would surely glimpse beneath the man's faÃ§ade, discover his terrible secret, his guilty past, and whisper, in a quiet moment when she had him to herselfâ
Back in the
bathroom and a year on, Alice started, hitting her cheek on the wooden window frame.
“Alice Edevane! Where are you?”
She shot a glance at the closed door behind her. Pleasant memories of the previous summer, the heady thrill of falling in love, the early days of her relationship with Ben and its intoxicating link to her writing, scattered around her. The bronze doorknob vibrated slightly in response to rapid footsteps in the hallway and Alice held her breath.
Mother had been a nervous wreck all week. That was typical. She wasn't a natural hostess, but the Midsummer party was the deShiel family's great tradition and Mother had been enormously fond of her father, Henri, so the event was held annually in his memory. Mother always got herself into a spinâit was constitutionalâbut this year she was worse than usual.
“I know you're here, Alice. Deborah saw you only moments ago.”
Deborah: big sister, chief exemplar, prime menace. Alice gritted her teeth. As if it weren't enough having the famed and feted Eleanor Edevane for a mother, wasn't it just her luck to follow an older sister who was almost as perfect? Beautiful, clever, engaged to be married to the catch of the SeasonÂ .Â .Â . Thank God for Clementine, who came after, and was such a curious scrap of a girl that even Alice couldn't help but seem vaguely normal by comparison.
As Mother stormed down the hall, Edwina padding behind her, Alice cracked the window ajar and let the warm breeze, fragrant with fresh-cut grass and salt from the sea, bathe her face. Edwina was the only person (and she was a golden retriever, after all, not
a person) who could stand Mother when she was like this. Even poor Daddy had escaped to the attic hours before, no doubt enjoying the quiet good company of his great work of natural history. The problem was that Eleanor Edevane was a perfectionist and every detail of the Midsummer party had to meet her exacting standards. Although she'd kept the fact hidden beneath a veneer of stubborn indifference, it had bothered Alice for a long time that she fell so far short of her mother's expectations. She'd looked in the mirror and despaired of her too-tall body, her unobliging mouse-brown hair, her preference for the company of made-up people over real ones.
But not anymore. Alice smiled as Ben hoisted another log onto what was fast becoming a towering pyre. She might not be charming like Deborah, and she'd certainly never been immortalised, like Mother had, as the subject of a much-loved children's book, but it didn't matter. She was something else entirely. “You're a storyteller, Alice Edevane,” Ben had told her late one afternoon, as the river tripped coolly by and the pigeons came home to roost. “I've never met a person with such a clever imagination, such good ideas.” His voice had been gentle and his gaze intense; Alice had seen herself then through his eyes and she'd liked what she saw.