England, 1921. Three years after her husband, Alex, disappeared, shot down over Germany, Jo Manders still mourns his loss. Working as a paid companion to Alex's wealthy, condescending aunt, Dottie Forsyth, Jo travels to the family’s estate in the Sussex countryside. But there is much she never knew about her husband’s origins...and the revelation of a mysterious death in the Forsyths’ past is just the beginning...
All is not well at Wych Elm House. Dottie's husband is distant, and her son was grievously injured in the war. Footsteps follow Jo down empty halls, and items in her bedroom are eerily rearranged. The locals say the family is cursed, and that a ghost in the woods has never rested. And when Jo discovers her husband’s darkest secrets, she wonders if she ever really knew him. Isolated in a place of deception and grief, she must find the truth or lose herself forever.
And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House...
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Simone St. James is the award-winning author of The Haunting of Maddy Clare, which won two RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America and an Arthur Ellis Award from Crime Writers of Canada. Her second novel, An Inquiry into Love and Death, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. She wrote her first ghost story, about a haunted library, when she was in high school, and spent twenty years behind the scenes in the television business before leaving to write full-time.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Simone St. James
My bedroom at Wych Elm House was on the second floor, overlooking the front of the house. I could see the circular drive leading off into the trees, and the overgrown front lawn. It did not escape me that my window was almost beneath the upper gable and that my view was of where Frances Forsyth’s body would have landed the day she jumped.
Queer cousin Fran. She has died, poor thing.
That simple sentence of Alex’s, one that hid so much. Perhaps he had hoped to shield me from disturbing family news; perhaps he hadn’t wanted to put the distressing facts in a letter from the Front that would be read by censors, strangers. Perhaps he’d been ashamed of Frances’s madness, the strain of insanity in his family, and he’d hidden it from me.
But Alex had known about Mother. He had met her. He knew about the madness in my family. And he’d come home on leave in early 1918, after Frances had died. Why hadn’t he told me of it then?
They kept her locked up, out of sight.
I sat in my bedroom’s window seat and pulled up my legs, hugging my knees, as darkness fell and the house settled into silence, gazing out at the tangled landscape, a book unopened in my hand. I could not complain about my room, which was nicer than any flat I had lived in—the furnishings were polished and expensive, including the high bed heaped with thick linens and the imposing walnut wardrobe that reached nearly to the ceiling. I almost did not want to touch the gleaming wainscoting or the expensive carpet, so perfect were they. My own modest trunk, lodged against the door of the wardrobe, looked shabby in comparison.
Alex and I had been as intimate, I’d thought, as two people could be. We’d married quickly—I supposed marrying a man two weeks after you’d met him even qualified as hasty—but we’d spent endless hours talking deep into the night, telling each other about our lives. He had been orphaned as a child. He had German relatives on his father’s side—foreign blood was part of what made his father so unsuitable, according to his mother’s family—and had spent some years with them. He had gone to Eton, then Oxford. He’d told me of his relatives in Sussex, but the family rift meant they were not close.
His was a slightly unusual life, due to his being orphaned, but it was not an overly strange one. A man from a good family, educated, brilliant, handsome, tall, and athletic—granted every privilege, on his way to becoming something breathtaking and splendid until the war had taken him. As it had taken so many others.
A mist had settled, sliding among the trees. I watched it dully, following its dirty gray smear as it moved across the darkness. I scraped a cold knuckle across the glass.
I could not countenance what I had seen today. That girl in the small parlor, the set of her thin shoulders, the way she had turned and looked at me. I wondered with a chill if somewhere in this house there was a photograph of Frances Forsyth. Whether that same face would look out at me if I found it.
No. That is Mother. That is not me. That was never me.
I had been the sane one, the one who saw that the rent was paid, the one who had gotten a job and married a good man. Mother was the one who saw things, not me.
A man was torn to pieces. They kept her locked up, out of sight.
The mist had stopped moving, I realized. It hovered in the woods, blurred among the trunks of the trees, still and cold. It almost seemed to be watching me. I stared out the window and watched back.
When I had packed up Alex’s things, getting ready to leave for the Continent with Dottie, I had gone through his personal papers. I had found the usual dry things—bank records, school records, our marriage certificate, all the milestones of his life. But I had not found one memento. No letters, photographs, or journals. No postcards or souvenirs from vacations, no notebooks or letters from schoolmates. Not one.
The man I had married was gone.
I slid into the overweening bed late, and I slept badly. I dreamed of something falling past my window, the ruffle of a skirt and a sleeve, the fabric flashing as I startled awake. And somewhere in the dim place between waking and sleeping, I thought I heard soft footsteps in the corridor, tapping past my door.
I reported to Dottie at eight o’clock the next morning, as instructed. She was in the morning room, located at the back of the house, a warm room with glass French doors that opened out to the back terrace. The windows let in swaths of sunlight, bright and slightly chill. The sideboard was set with a variety of breakfast foods, steaming in large dishes and smelling thickly of sausage. Dottie sat alone at the table, straight as a needle, surrounded by an expensive tea set. Robert was nowhere to be seen.
I filled a plate with eggs and toast. Dottie checked her watch ostentatiously as I pulled out a chair and sat. She did not greet me, but gave me a prying glare. “I trust you have settled properly in your room,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, picking at my breakfast. “Thank you.”
Her gaze raked me up and down. “Now that we are at Wych Elm House, I see that we will have to find you some new clothes. I will be meeting important people, and you will be with me. I cannot have you dressed like a fat schoolgirl.”
I looked up at her. I was wearing a skirt and blouse again, with a cardigan. Part of me was offended—I was not in the least fat—and another part admired the deftness of the insult. Besides, she was right. I had looked well enough on European trains, but in the luxury of this house, I was as out of place as chipped china or an unpolished lamp. “My dresses are too old,” I said.
“Then go into town and buy new ones. The dressmaker there will be able to send to London for anything she cannot supply. You’ll need new stockings, too, and shoes. Tell the shopkeepers to put the items on my account.”
“Thank you,” I said, though I knew well that the items were not a gift. Dottie would extract repayment from my wages to the penny.
She gave me a nod, then stared at my hair. We had seen each other every day for three months, yet this morning she inspected me anew. “At least you don’t wear cosmetics,” she commented. “I don’t approve of them. You must do your hair more tidily; have a maid assist you if you need it. Also, I warn you that I do not approve of the current fashion for bobbed hair. I think it’s fast and horribly unattractive.”
I touched the chignon at the back of my neck. Alex had always loved my long hair. “I have no desire to cut my hair.”
“That is excellent news,” came a voice from the doorway. Robert Forsyth came into the room, freshly bathed and clean-shaven, dressed in another well-cut suit. He gave me a wink. “Good morning, Mrs. Manders. Dottie.” He moved to the sideboard and put food on a plate. “I’ve had a letter from the Dennistons,” he said to Dottie before either of us could return his greeting. “They’ve heard of our return. I believe I’ll drop over and pay a visit. Denniston has a first-rate stable, and my riding in Scotland was interrupted. I’ll take my own motorcar.”
“Robert,” Dottie said, her voice low. “Martin comes today.”
Robert poured himself a cup of coffee and shrugged at her. “I’ll see him later.”
“He comes this morning.”
“I don’t see why it matters.” His tone had a note of sullenness now. He pulled back his chair with a bang and sat.
“You don’t see why it matters?” Dottie’s cheeks were growing red. “Don’t you want to be here when your son comes home for the first time in three years?”
“For God’s sake, the boy isn’t going to be expecting me.” Robert jammed his fork into a piece of sausage. “Must you ruin everything? Do you expect me to sit here all day while we wait? What did you drag him home for, anyway?”
“You know perfectly well,” Dottie said. “He is coming home to be married.”
“To whom?” Robert said. “I suppose you’re going to choose some milksop girl for him so you can get grandchildren? The boy’s just been to war, and already you’re trying to suffocate him.”
Dottie’s jaw flexed, and she blinked her small eyes. For a horrified second, I thought she might cry. “Martin and I have written about this,” she said, her voice tight. “He has agreed to take a wife. It is our chance for children in this family. Someone to leave our legacy to.”
“Your legacy, you mean,” Robert said. “He’s always been your child, not mine. Besides, I’ve nothing to do with weddings. If I want to go riding, I’m going to go riding. You know how I hate this house.”
“Yes, you’ve made it very clear,” she sniped, “with all the assistance you give me in the running of it.”
“It isn’t even mine,” Robert said. His brow smoothed and he turned to me. “Did you know that, Mrs. Manders? Wych Elm House came to me as part of the settlement upon marrying my lovely wife. From her side of the family.” He smiled sourly, his eyes traveling me as I sat, uncomfortable and horrified, in my chair. “We should start a minstrel show, you and me. The Poor Married-for-Moneys.”
I made to push back my chair, but Dottie held a hand up and I froze. “I won’t sell this house,” she said to Robert, her chin up, her eyes furious. “I won’t.”
Robert put down his fork. I felt the hideous presence of Frances in the room, the heavy memory of her in all of our minds, as if her name were even now echoing off the walls, and all I wanted was to escape.
“It shouldn’t be sold,” Robert said. “It should be burned.” His gaze flickered to me again, and I saw how grief and dissipation had worn away his long-ago handsomeness into something tired and almost haggard. “You’ve made me heel so far as to come here for Martin,” he said to Dottie, “and I’ll do my duty. But you can’t make me sit in this fright of a house all day.” He stood and left the room without another look at either of us.
A long, painful silence followed. I stared at my hands. Finally I raised my eyes and looked surreptitiously at Dottie. Her expression was blank, impassive. The flush of anger had gone from her face.
“Manders,” she said.
“I wish you to go into town and run errands for me. Purchase your new clothes at the same time. Use the car and driver.”
She sat quietly. She made no comment on my use of her first name; she never had. It was one of my small victories. I may be her paid companion, but I was family. I had refused to call her Mrs. Forsyth, and she had never complained.
She turned her head and looked at me, taking me in with her intelligent gaze. “I suppose you think I’m a fool,” she said.
“No,” I said truthfully. “I do not.”
“You were a married woman, so perhaps you have some understanding.”
I nodded. Alex and I had never had a row like that—he had never shown me one-tenth the contempt that Robert seemed to think was Dottie’s due—and yet I did understand. A marriage is unfathomable to those looking on, running as deep as the strata of rocks in the earth. That, I understood.
I pushed back my chair and stood. “What are the errands you wish done?” I asked.
Dottie followed the change of subject without a flicker of expression. “I have letters to post—they are on the holder by the front door. I do not trust the servants to do it. And you must make a trip to the chemist’s for me. You know the stomach remedy I usually use.”
“Manders, there is one more thing.”
I stood by the door and waited.
She raised her impassive gaze to me. “I assume Alex told you about Frances,” she said.
I was so surprised that the truth sprang from my lips without thought. “He told me about her existence. But all I had was a letter from the Front saying she had died.”
She blinked, and before she shuttered her gaze I saw honest surprise in her eyes. “Is that so? How interesting. However, when you go into town, you will likely hear certain rumors.”
I nodded, not wishing to mention that I’d ferreted out those same rumors from the servants’ quarters already.
Dottie lit a cigarette, the fumes mixing with the leftover smells of sausage and tea, making my stomach turn. “Frances is buried in the churchyard in town, if you want to see her,” she said. “That should tell you everything you need to know. I do not wish to speak of her, for obvious reasons, and I expect you to maintain the family’s privacy if you encounter any prurient interest in town. Do you understand?”
“I hope so. There is also a letter in the holder to go directly to my solicitor and not into any other hands.”
I left the room, collected the letters, and went to the kitchen to ask Mrs. Bennett how to go about ordering the motorcar and driver.
Once in the car, I sat in the back, watching the trees go by on the way to town. She is buried in the churchyard, if you want to see her. As with everything with Dottie, it was not a casual suggestion; it was an order, deep with meaning I could not yet discern. And as we came closer to town, I began to wonder what it was she wanted me to see.
The village was called Anningley, and it was a brisk little place, pretty and polite, cradled in the palm of a cup of land. I had the driver drop me near the edge of town and instructed him to wait; he gave me a succinct nod and sat back in the driver’s seat, likely hoping for me to leave so he could light a cigarette. I walked into town on foot, taking in the fresh smell of the air and the scent of the sea, somewhere over the rises to the south.
High Street held a few ladies shopping, servants gossiping at the butcher’s as they waited for the day’s cuts of meat, nannies from the nearby homes walking with small children. Shopkeepers nodded at me as I passed. I immediately felt like a stranger, dark-haired and wild-eyed after my sleepless night and unpleasant morning at Wych Elm House, lacking a husband or a child or even a pleasant routine of shopping and talk. I already felt painfully visible, so I took Dottie’s letters to the post office first and let the postmistress have at me.
The postmistress was a woman of about forty, immensely large, her flesh so soft and ruddy that I briefly wondered if she’d just had a late baby. She looked at the letters, but when she raised her gaze to me, there was no smile. “Wych Elm House,” she said. “I’d heard the family was in residence again.”
I shifted, remembering Dottie’s instructions. “Yes, they are.”
She took the letters and tucked them away. “They’ve been away for a long time.”
“They had their reasons,” I allowed.
“Perhaps.” The postmistress turned back to me. “I’m Mrs. Baines. And who might you be? Are you a member of the family?”
I stared at her. This woman, standing in her tidy rural post office with the sun shining outside, was giving me a sour expression that made me feel like an unwelcome intruder. It was a chilly interrogation, not cheerful gossip. “I was married to Mrs. Forsyth’s nephew, Alex Manders.”
“I’ve heard of him,” Mrs. Baines said. My husband’s existence, it seemed, was now verified by the village authority. “A decent man, as far as the Forsyths go...
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