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Meg Randall and her sister have been trapped by a storm at Seacliffe, a huge, glowering stone house Carolyn calls “something Poe thought up.” Seacliffe comes complete with the traditional domineering hero, sinister servant, semi-crazy mother, even a mysterious dark night rider and midnight piano music. As the days pass and the storm does not, it becomes clear that secrets roil under the already unnerving surface of life at Seacliffe. For one thing, what is so bad about the cellar, which they are ordered to stay away from?
To make matters worse, Meg is fighting feelings for Jerome Payne—and Carolyn isn’t. Meg is determined not to come between her sister and any man, but is drawn despite her best intentions to the nighttime Jerome, hunched over his piano, moody and unpredictable, but sometimes allowing her glimpses of his inner turmoil. Among other things, it turns out the family is on the verge of losing Seacliffe.
As the situation boils to a head, the sisters learn that the cellar mystery is more shocking than they could have imagined. What other secrets does this sinister family keep? Which of Meg’s own painful secrets will be dredged from her if she has to stay any longer?
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“It was a dark and stormy night. High in her chamber up a tower to the east, the princess gazed yearningly out into the blackness.” My sister stirred in her sleep, and I stifled giggles. When she was still, I continued in a dramatic whisper, “The ocean pounded like a huge, angry heartbeat, and the wind howled like a lost soul around the battlements of the castle, tearing ragged clouds apart with a shriek—” I clapped a hand over my mouth to smother a decidedly unprincessly snort. Carolyn sighed and turned over again.
This was ridiculous. By all rights, it should be Caro peering out the narrow stone-framed window and declaiming Gothic nonsense to the hostile elements. She’s the romantic one. It is well known that I have no nerves at all, and no patience with those who do.
Why, then, couldn’t I sleep? Under normal circumstances, the rhythmic rumble of surf, audible behind the storm, would have been a lullaby to me. Not that these circumstances were remotely normal. Shreds of the nightmare clung to my hair like cobwebs—walls…cold, gray, stone walls—I shook my head and leaned forward to press my nose against the icy, uneven glass. The hints of rough, shadowed terrain I could make out by the occasional flashes of lightning were wavering and distorted. At least there was glass! I wouldn’t have put it past that old bat to put us in a tower with arrow slits open to the vicious storm. I tried to pretend it was lessening in severity, but another rattling slash of rain hit the window, and I jumped. I swear it felt as if it were deliberately trying to reach me. I turned with more haste than dignity to go back to bed, tripping over the edge of the too-long robe.
Pulling the heavy bed-hangings aside, I crawled in beside Carolyn and wrapped my cold feet in the shabby royal blue velvet of the robe. I stifled another giggle at the sight of the tattered lace at my cuff. I can admit now that it was a decidedly nervous giggle. That night, I tried hard to tell myself I was merely giddy due to the lateness of the hour. And the idiotic situation we were in. Which, let’s face it, was my fault.
Pulling the smelly blankets over my ear, I settled down to think over the day. That ought to keep the nightmare at bay. With any luck, I’d bore myself to sleep and by the time I awoke, I’d have forgotten the dream entirely.
—walls…cold, gray, stone walls with dampness trickling down their rough surfaces—
I clenched my jaw and thought about the beach.
Talk about a perfect day. A perfect two weeks, in fact. Carolyn and I hadn’t actually taken a vacation in years. The press of business at the diner this summer had certainly not allowed it, and I admit if it had been up to me, we still wouldn’t have taken one, even off-season. But Carolyn had pulled one of her rare but effective dictator acts. So early November found us exploring the “stern and rockbound coast” of Maine. And believe it or not, the sun, for inscrutable reasons known only to itself, decided to display a week of incredible Indian summer for the second of our two weeks.
We could only afford a slummy hotel, so we didn’t spend much time in it. Certainly we never turned on the TV, even to see weather forecasts. Naturally, Carolyn had also confiscated both cell phones for the duration of our holiday. Maybe it should have clued us in when the hotel emptied and the droopy old owner started boarding up the windows. We assumed it was a normal end-of-season activity.
Oblivious, we spent all our time either on the beach or poking through little shops and boutiques. I preferred the beach. I don’t know how many bad seascapes I painted. Caro preferred the shops. I don’t know how many kitschy treasures she acquired.
This particular day was our last, and we were melancholy. It was also the finest. I think it actually hit 80 for a while there. We waded. We made a driftwood fire (strictly forbidden, but we were the only souls around, so who was going to stop us?) and ate roasted hot dogs and marshmallows.
The day grew chilly by late afternoon, and we knew we had to call it quits. The wind had picked up, and I yanked my hair back into a sloppy ponytail while Carolyn spun some nonsense about the sun needing to go to bed for his winter snooze. “It’ll take him till May to figure out what possessed him to be so lavish with his warmth in November, of all months.” I grinned. She can create great word pictures, when she tries. I could clearly see sleepy old Sol, scratching his fiery head in bewilderment. We cleaned up, put out the fire, and stuffed our blankets, paintings, and whatnot into our backpacks.
It was then that I made my first mistake. I like to think of myself as a practical soul, but I do have occasional streaks of…well, I don’t know what they’re streaks of, but they’re stubborn when they appear. I just couldn’t bring myself to let go of our vacation. All I could think of was going back to the Highway 18 Diner, slinging hash and juggling schedules, training new help every ten minutes because someone was too much of a prima donna to stand the heat. (Literally.)
I couldn’t do it.
I said, “Let’s walk up there to the end of the headland, just to see what we can see.”
Carolyn was reluctant. It wasn’t anywhere near dark, but it was getting chilly and grim-looking. (We still didn’t get a clue.) “Come on,” I begged. “It’s not far. We’ll come right back and go home afterwards.”
So we walked. The giant granite boulders on our left stretched creeping fingers of shadow toward the expanse of ocean on our right. Caro looked at the waves and shivered. “Look at that water. Its temperature probably hasn’t changed a tenth of a degree since noon, but it looks so much colder. Slower, and heavier, and, I don’t know. It gives me the creeps.”
“It just looks darker since the sun dropped behind the rocks,” I said. Trust Carolyn to find something scary about cold water.
I did start to think, myself, that there was something a little threatening in the atmosphere. That was the first time I thought there might be a storm brewing. But I didn’t say anything to Caro, because I still wanted to walk to the headland. My second mistake. We were almost to the place where the land curved away to the left so sharply it looked as if it disappeared entirely. The thought crossed my mind that we were reaching the end of the world. Beyond here there be dragons. You’ll have to take my word for it that such fancies really are not normal to me.
The vague uneasiness left me as we walked and warmed ourselves up. It was replaced by a sense of tranquility and contentment. The world seemed empty except for the two of us and a few birds. The only sounds were the occasional cries of gulls, the whispering of the wind among the tumbled slabs of granite, and the pounding of the surf—still a lullaby at that point.
There’s just nothing like the ocean. I feel a settled peace on a beach that I feel nowhere else. “I wish I could take this serenity home with me,” I said suddenly.
Caro just shivered again, looking down at me with a grimace and holding her long, pale hair out of her face. “You’re weird, Meg. I was just thinking how sinister it feels tonight. Look.” She let go of the tangle of hair and pointed to a broken oar half buried in the sand. “The ocean can feel peaceful on a hot, sunny summer day. But it’s too big, too…savage. I think I fear it at least as much as I admire it.”
I tried to rally her. “Don’t be such a wet blanket! Somebody probably threw that old oar away.” But she had succeeded in bringing back the uneasiness. I eyed the sluggish, leaden waves. I wasn’t about to admit it, but she was right, of course. There’s a little of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in everything on this cock-eyed planet.
Just then we rounded the headland, and I forgot everything in my eagerness to make my third mistake. “Oh, Caro, look!”
The line of boulders along which we had just passed were actually the backbone of a thin peninsula jutting north between the ocean and a small bay. Their western edge was narrowly fringed by sand and pebbles. The beach went back the way we had just come for some distance, then curled around west and north and east again to create the little bay, so round it looked as if it had been dug with a spoon by some gigantic child playing on the beach. In the center of this bay, connected to our finger of land by an insubstantial-looking causeway, was a tiny, steep-sided island. It was really nothing more than an extra jumbo-sized boulder jutting up from the sea. And perched on top of that islet, looking as if it had grown there centuries ago, was—
“A castle?” breathed my sister.
“Practically,” I agreed, probably sounding just as awestruck. “You’d think we were in Germany, or somewhere.”
Built of ancient native stone, the huge old house glowered at us as if challenging our right to set foot on its domain. (I never was one to refuse a challenge.) Several turrets, innumerable gables and chimneys, and the inevitable coastland widow’s walk made grim silhouettes against the pale beginnings of a fitful gold and lavender sunset. It was magnificent.
“How perfectly awful!” whispered Carolyn at last.
Wouldn’t you know it?
“Awful?” I scolded. “I love it!”
“Why are you whispering? It’s not a ghost, for pete’s sake, it’s a house!”
“House! That’s a mausoleum! It looks like something Poe thought up!”
Thinking it over in the middle of the night, in this nasty, dusty bed, I was forced to confess to myself that I’d have made the same mistake again. I had to see that house.
It took some convincing. Well, okay, some browbeating. Yes, I knew the causeway would be covered by the tide, but that wasn’t for a couple of hours yet; possibly there was a storm brewing, but that wasn’t coming any time soon, either; it wasn’t really dark, and I had a flashlight in my backpack…Carolyn never had a chance. I even told her she could wait for me, but I was going closer. (Thank heaven she didn’t take me up on that!) What she said was, “Sit here and watch you walk into the House of Usher alone? I don’t think so!”
It was a matter of fifteen minutes’ easy walking to cross the tidal causeway to the point where it touched the tiny island.
“What a forbidding place!” Carolyn quavered, looking up the rough gray path that led, presumably, to our destination. It might as well have been a tunnel, it was cut so deeply into the stone. “You can’t even see the house from here. And everything’s so gray and dead-looking.”
I was not about to let her infect me again with her nervousness. “What a perfect heroine you’d make for a horror movie,” I said admiringly.
She gave a shudder. “Please. Don’t talk about horror movies.”
The path was a dreary affair, winding this way and that, usually steeply upward, but once or twice downward. The sound of the sea roared and echoed as if we were inside a giant conch shell. A little tough sea grass scratched our legs on the way by, and a few wind-twisted trees reached out scraggly arms. Always the stone walls rose on at least one side, so the house was never visible. Caro complained that she was sure any minute now “that awful fortress” would jump out at us and she’d faint in terror.
“A perfect heroine!” I marveled. I almost made a blonde reference, but decided against pushing it. She was only too likely to respond in kind. Even though I am not blonde. More like a sort of Dijon mustard brown.
We rounded a curve and were confronted by a set of rough, uneven steps cut into an almost perpendicular wall. “We must be almost there, now,” I said brightly. “Here, go first and give me a hand up.” Maybe it would ease her nerves if she had something constructive to do. I didn’t even complain when she called me “Midget,” although I am doing my best to break her of that.
We stopped, panting, at the top. We had reached a terrace of sorts and could finally see the house. To reach it, we’d have to make our way through a ragged bit of wilderness that might once have been a garden. My fascination with the “castle,” which had begun to fade around the edges, revived.
“A terraced garden! Would you look at this place! I wish I could have a garden like this. Not that I’d know what to do with one, but still.” I wandered from long-dead rosebushes to crumbling stone benches to a sunken, cracked hollow containing dead leaves, a cupid with one arm, and several sporting, if melancholy, dolphins. “Look, Caro. A pond with a fountain.”
She was looking up at the house. “Once, those walls must have heard laughter and dancing.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Those windows must have looked out on sunshine and flowers.”
“Earlier today, for instance,” I said drily. Well, not the flowers, but still.
She looked at me reproachfully. “Once, someone loved this place.”
I looked out to the darkening waves and up at the tall, narrow-windowed towers, draped in ivy. “I love it now,” I said.
“Poor house,” whispered Caro. “I wonder how many ghosts you have?”
A sudden rustle startled a squeak out of her. Okay, I jumped, too, a little. It was only a bird that flew up out of some bushes and disappeared over conical fairytale towers.
I felt a sudden chill between my shoulder blades. I could swear someone was watching us. Of course that was nonsense. I shook it off.
“Can we go now?” asked Carolyn.
“I want to go in,” I said.
Hours later, huddling in a strange bed beside my sister, I made a fist and knocked it against my forehead several times. I was pretty sure those five simple words counted as mistakes number four, five, and six. Maybe seven.
“Go in!” squawked Carolyn. “Margaret, somebody owns this, you know!”
“Well then, they don’t care much about it,” I argued.
“It’s probably not even safe! The storm is coming, I can tell! The tide is turning!”
Oh, if only I had listened.
“I’m at least going to go look in some windows. You can wait here, if you want. I promise I’ll only be a few minutes.”
I could hear her hurrying to catch up, muttering, “ ‘Wait here!’ You’re impossible!”
As I rounded the corner tower and passed a second one, nearing the steps leading up to the dark, multi-arched porch, I slowed. The tower and porch were both nearly buried in ivy, partly dead, making rasping, dry noises as it rubbed against itself and the stone of the house. Dead leaves piled themselves in the corners of the steps, and somewhere something banged, making us both jump again. I moved my shoulders uneasily, feeling once more the sensation of being watched. The surf roared relentlessly and a wind rustled through, bringing with it an icy hint of moisture. Suddenly the sky seemed darker. I knew perfectly well I wouldn’t be able to see a thing through the windows. I might have given it up then if Carolyn hadn’t begged again to go.
I marched determinedly up the steps. It felt cold near the house. I looked up at the huge, carved door. Above my head was a rusty knocker in the shape of a snarling mythical beast of some kind. Maybe a sea monster.
I think that was when my first nervous giggle slipped out.
“Now what?” whispered Caro, starting to sound grouchy.
“I was just thinking of the visitors this door must have welcomed.” I picked up an imaginary train and swept across the porch, nose in the air, saying, “Come along, sistah deah, Cousin Cecilia will be so glad to see us!” Even Caro giggled. Then I raised a languid hand toward the knocker.
I was sure it was my imagination. It had to be my imagination. But no. I stumbled backward and grabbed my sister’s arm with both hands. We should have run. Instead, we both stood petrified as the door slowly creaked open.
Standing in a cavernous hall lit with dim and flickering light was a tall, gaunt woman. From silver-streaked black hair untidily piled on her head, to hollow dark eyes, to long, faded black skirts, she was easily the most terrifying sight I had ever seen.