Deep in the shadowy foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains lies a dying town...
My name is Amelia Gray. They call me The Graveyard Queen. I've been commissioned to restore an old cemetery in Asher Falls, South Carolina, but I'm coming to think I have another purpose here.
Why is there a cemetery at the bottom of Bell Lake? Why am I drawn time and again to a hidden grave I've discovered in the woods? Something is eating away at the soul of this town—this withering kingdom—and it will only be restored if I can uncover the truth.
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Amanda Stevens is an award-winning author of over fifty novels. Born and raised in the rural south, she now resides in Houston, Texas.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The breeze off the water carried a slight chill even though the sun had barely begun its western slide. It was still hours until twilight. Hours until the veil between our world and the next would thin, but already I could feel the ripple of goose bumps at the back of my neck, a sensation that almost always signaled an unnatural presence.
I resisted the temptation to glance over my shoulder. Years of living with ghosts had instilled in me an aberrant discipline. I knew better than to react to those greedy, grasping entities, so I leaned against the deck rail and stared intently into the greenish depths of the lake. But from my periphery, I tracked the other passengers on the ferry.
The intimate murmurs and soft laughter from the couple next to me aroused an unexpected melancholy, and I thought suddenly of John Devlin, the police detective I'd left behind in Charleston. This time of day, he would probably still be at work, and I conjured up an image of him hunched over a cluttered desk, reviewing autopsy reports and crime scene photos. Did I cross his mind now and then? Not that it mattered. He was a man haunted by his dead wife and daughter, and I was a woman who saw ghosts. For as long as he clung to his past—and his past clung to him—I could not be a part of his life.
So I wouldn't dwell on Devlin or that terrible door that my feelings for him had opened. In the months since I'd last seen him, my life had settled back into a normal routine. Normal for me, at least. I still saw ghosts, but those darker entities—the Others, my father called them—had drifted back into their murky underworld where I prayed they would remain. The memories, however, lingered. Memories of Devlin, memories of all those victims and of a haunted killer who had made me a target. I knew no matter how hard I fought them off, the nightmares would return the moment I closed my eyes.
For now, though, I wanted to savor my adventure. The start of a new commission filled me with excitement, and I looked forward to the prospect of uncovering the history of yet another graveyard, of immersing myself in the lives of those who had been laid to rest there. I always say that cemetery restoration is more than just clearing away trash and overgrowth. It's about restoration.
The back of my neck continued to prickle.
After a moment, I turned to casually glance back at the row of cars. My silver SUV was one of only five vehicles on the ferry. Another SUV belonged to the couple, a green minivan to a middle-aged woman absorbed in a battered paperback novel, and a faded red pickup truck to an elderly man sipping coffee from a foam cup. That left the vintage black sports car. The metallic jet paint drew my appreciative gaze. In the sunlight, the shimmer reminded me of snake scales, and an inexplicable shiver traced along my spine as I admired the serpentine lines. The windows were tinted, blocking my view of the interior, but I imagined the driver behind the wheel, impatiently drumming fingers as the ferry inched toward the other side. To Asher Falls. To Thorngate Cemetery, my ultimate destination.
Brushing my hand against the back of my neck, I turned again to the water, mentally rummaging through the tidbits I'd gleaned from my research. Located in the lush Blue Ridge foothills of South Carolina, Asher Falls had once been a thriving community, but in the mid-eighties, one of the town's most prominent citizens, Pell Asher, had struck an unsavory bargain. He'd sold acreage to the state to be used as a reservoir, and when the dam opened, the area flooded, including the main highway leading into Asher Falls. Already bypassed by a new freeway system, the town sank into oblivion. The only way in and out was by ferry or back roads, and the population soon withered. Asher Falls became just another statistic in a long line of dying rural communities.
I'd never set foot in the town, even to conduct a preliminary assessment of the cemetery. I'd been hired sight unseen by a real estate agent named Luna Kemper, who also happened to be the town librarian and the sole administrator of a generous donation made anonymously to the Daughters of our Valiant Heroes, a historical society/garden club for the beautification of Thorngate Cemetery. Luna's offer couldn't have come at a more perfect time. I needed a new project and a change of scenery, so here I stood.
As we approached the dock, the engines powered down and we came to a near standstill. The heavy shadows cast by towering trees at the shoreline deepened the water to black. At no point could I see the bottom, but for a moment, I could have sworn I saw something— someone—just below the surface. A pale face staring up at me….
My heart took a nosedive as I leaned over the railing, searching those blackish depths. People without my ability would have undoubtedly wondered if the play of light and shadow on the water had tricked them. Or worse, if they might have spotted a body being washed ashore in the ferry's wake. I thought instantly of a ghost and wondered who on board might be haunted by the golden-haired apparition floating underneath the water.
"I believe this is yours."
A man's voice pulled me back from the railing, and I turned reluctantly from the lake. I knew at once he belonged to the sports car. He and the vehicle had the same dark, sleek air. I thought him to be around my age—twenty-seven—with eyes the exact shade of a tidal marsh. He was tallish, though not so tall as Devlin, nor as thin. Years of being haunted had left the magnetic police detective hollow-eyed and gaunt while the stranger at my side appeared to be the picture of health—lean, sinewy and suntanned.
"I beg your pardon?"
He extended his hand, and I thought at first he meant to introduce himself, but instead he uncurled his fingers, and I saw my necklace coiled in his palm.
My hand went immediately to my throat. "Oh! The chain must have snapped." I plucked the necklace from his hand and examined the links. They were unbroken, the clasp still securely closed. "How strange," I murmured, unlatching the claw fastener and entwining the silver strand around my neck. "Where did you find it?"
"It was lying on the deck behind you." His gaze slid downward as the polished stone settled into the hollow of my throat.
Something cold gripped my heart. A warning?
"Thank you," I said stiffly. "I would have hated to lose it."
"It's an interesting piece." He appeared to study the amulet intently. "A good luck charm?"
"You might say that." Actually, the stone had come from the hallowed ground of a cemetery where my father had worked as caretaker when I was a child. Whether the talisman retained any of Rosehill's protective properties, I had no idea. I only knew that I felt stronger against the ghosts when I wore it.
I started to turn back to the water, but something in the stranger's eyes, a mysterious glint, held me for a moment longer.
"Are you okay?" he asked unexpectedly.
"Yes, I'm fine. Why do you ask?"
He nodded toward the side of the ferry. "You were leaning so far over the railing when I came up, and then I saw your necklace on the deck. I was afraid you might be contemplating jumping."
"Oh, that." I gave a negligible shrug. "I thought I saw something in the water. Probably just a shadow."
The glint in his eyes deepened. "I wouldn't be too sure. You'd be surprised at what lies beneath the surface of this lake. Some of it occasionally floats to the top."
"Debris, mostly. Glass bottles, bits of old clothing. I even once saw a rocking chair drifting to shore."
"Where does it all come from?"
"Flooded houses." As he turned to stare out over the water, I studied his profile, drawn by the way the late afternoon sunlight burnished his dark hair. The coppery threads gave him an aura of warmth that seemed to be absent from the midnight-green of his eyes. "Before the dam was built, the lake was half the size it is now. A lot of property was destroyed when the water rose."
"But that was years ago. You mean the houses are still down there?" I tried to peer through the layers of algae and hydrilla, but I could see nothing. Not even the ghostly face I'd spotted earlier.
"Houses, cars…an old graveyard."
My gaze shot back to him. "A graveyard?"
"Thorngate Cemetery. Another casualty of the Asher greed."
"But I thought." Uneasiness crept over me. I was good at my job, but recovering an underwater cemetery wasn't exactly my area of expertise. "I've seen recent pictures of Thorngate. It looked high and dry to me."
"There are two Thorngates," he said. "And I assure you that one of them does rest at the bottom of this lake."
"How did that happen?"
"The original Thorngate was rarely used. It was all but forgotten. No one ever went out there. No one gave it a second thought…until the water came."
I stared at him in horror. "Are you telling me the bodies weren't moved before they expanded the lake?"
He shuddered. "Afterward, people started seeing things. Hearing things."
I fingered the talisman at my throat. "Like what?"
He hesitated, his gaze still on the water. "If you look for this basin on any South Carolina map, you'll find the Asher Reservoir. But around here, we call it Bell Lake."
"In the old days, coffins were equipped with a warning system—a chain attached to a bell on the grave in case of a premature burial. They say at night, when the mist rolls in, you can hear those bells." He glanced over the railing. "The dead down there don't want to be forgotten… ever again."
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