Cruel Sister (The Haunted Ballad Series)by Deborah Grabien
Penny Wintercraft-Hawkes's brother has returned from Hong Kong with a comfortable fortune and a new bride and is planning to build a house on land he's inherited. Because they want a house as much like an Elizabethan mansion as its "mod cons" will allow, they ask Penny's lover, Ringan Laine, to work on it as a consultant. Ringan is not only a noted musician but
Penny Wintercraft-Hawkes's brother has returned from Hong Kong with a comfortable fortune and a new bride and is planning to build a house on land he's inherited. Because they want a house as much like an Elizabethan mansion as its "mod cons" will allow, they ask Penny's lover, Ringan Laine, to work on it as a consultant. Ringan is not only a noted musician but also a designer and architect well versed in the first Elizabeth's colorful period.
The house is to be on the Isle of Dogs, and Penny's brother, his new wife, and Penny herself are delighted with the site. Ringan, however, comes away feeling very uncomfortable. A few weeks later, in London on business, he goes back alone, hoping to clear up any misgivings he has about the place. But this visit is even worse than the first. He hears women's voices, frightening and full of passion, coming from the air around him.
That evening, Ringan is sleeping in Penny's flat; she has taken her theater troupe to Italy. A late-night phone call from Penny reveals to them both that they had an identical dream. In it, two young women on the Isle of Dogs are fighting. One is begging the other not to drown her. Their speech and their clothes put them firmly in the reign of Henry VIII. Once more, Penny and Ringan are being visited by tragic spirits from their country's past.
This is the fourth in Deborah Grabien's gripping and unusual Haunted Ballad series. Her stories pair two sophisticated and very likable people whose lives are invaded by tortured souls from England's history. With each encounter, Penny and Ringan are forced to find a way to lay a long-suffering ghost to rest.
Read an Excerpt
Cruel SisterA Haunted Ballad
By Grabien, Deborah
St. Martin's MinotaurCopyright © 2006 Grabien, Deborah
All right reserved.
There lived a lady by the North Sea Shore,
Two daughters were the babes she bore.
As one grew bright as did the sun,
So coal dark grew the other one.
On a sun-washed April afternoon, Penny Wintercraft-Hawkes and Ringan Laine sat drinking cider on the grass behind Ringan’s Somerset home, Lumbe’s Cottage.
“Wasn’t that a lovely wedding?” Penny’s first action on arrival had been to kick off her shoes. She wriggled her bare toes in the grass. “I thought Char looked sensational. So did Julian, of course, but then, one expects that of him. What’s the point in being a movie star if you can’t look like Adonis at your own wedding?”
“Charlotte looked amazing. A definite change from the usual clothing of choice. I was half-expecting her to turn up at the door of St. Giles draped in purple and orange homespun burlap, but that wedding dress was brilliant on her. I noticed her hair still wasn’t behaving, though; there were red-gold bits flying everywhere.” Ringan, never comfortable in formal dress, had changed clothes entirely. He took a deep chug at his cider, and sighed. “I expect they’ll be quite happy. They’re weirdly well suited. And it was niceto be able to walk into Callowen House and not worry about ghosts. But how nice to be home again.”
“Isn’t it?” Penny agreed. “As much as I’d love to sit in this chair and get snockered on cider for the rest of the week, I have to head back to London tomorrow. And aren’t the Broomfields coming here to rehearse for your new CD? Is that tomorrow as well? What time are they due to arrive? I’d love a few minutes with Jane before I head out. . . .”
The conversation continued, idle and pleasant: their notes on the wedding they’d just attended; Ringan’s upcoming time in the studio recording a new CD with his band, Broomfield Hill; Penny’s reluctant agreement to be interviewed for a television piece on the difficulties faced by women in theatre. Both of them were old enough to recognise and treasure these brief interludes of peace, and neither was inclined to break the moment, even for dinner. In the tall grass, the local cat, an orange Persian called Butterball, stalked butterflies and pounced on pillbugs. The afternoon sun touched the grass, the people, Glastonbury Tor in the near distance, with soft colour and vagrant warmth.
They had reached the point of Penny suggesting that scrounging for a scratch meal might be desirable, and Ringan bemoaning their lack of foresight in not stealing some of the sumptuous goodies Miles Leight-Arnold, Lord Callowen, had provided for his only daughter’s nuptials, when they heard themselves hailed. Albert Wychsale, Baron Boult of Glastonbury, Ringan’s landlord and Penny’s business partner, strolled across the grass towards them.
“Hello, Ringan, Penny—I see you had the same idea I did, shedding the fancy plumage and pouring a good stiff drink.” Albert, sixtyish and on the round side, settled carefully into a lawn chair. “Good to be back where it’s quiet.”
“Hello, Albert. What on earth are you doing back so soon? And do you want some cider?” Penny waved a languid hand towards the kitchen’s Dutch doors. “There’s lots. Only, I’m being a lazy cow and not getting up, so you’ll have to fetch your own glass.”
“Thank you, Penny, but no, I’ve already had some. It was the first thing I did when I got home, that and getting rid of the tie.” Albert moved his fingers in the grass, and Butterball pounced. “Silly cat, are you glad to see everyone? Anyway, I’m home early because, having done my duty as a godparent and stood at Charlotte’s side and supported the bride during her wedding, I consider that my responsibilities stop well short of watching a display of, er, well, foreplay.”
Penny blinked. Ringan, quicker on the uptake, grinned. “Ah. I gather they’d reached the smooch-and-meaningful-glance stage?”
“Oh, no, that would have been tolerable, not to mention normal, and expected. But this is Char we’re talking about, remember? No inhibitions at all? Julian was nibbling her ear and feeding her petits fours, and she was just beginning her announcement that she was glad everyone had come and now could we all get the hell out of it so that she and the groom could go upstairs and have a lovely slap-and-tickle?, thanks ever so, goodbye, and drive carefully. I heard the last of it as I joined a small throng of guests backing out as fast as our legs would carry us. Julian was grinning like a very handsome satyr.” Albert shuddered. “She certainly does know how to empty a room.”
On the lawn near Penny’s chair, something suddenly buzzed furiously. Albert jumped. “What on earth was that?”
“My cell phone. Damn!” Penny scrabbled for the vibrating phone, and peered at the caller identification. Her jaw dropped as she registered the name. “Oh my God, it’s my brother!”
She clicked the answer button. “Stephen! Is that really you? Right, sorry, it took me a minute. Where are you? Are you calling from Hong Kong? What?” She was silent for a long minute, listening, her face growing perceptibly slacker. “You’re what—you did what? Are you joking? Do Mum and Daddy know?”
As she listened to the tinny rattle of her older brother’s voice, Ringan and Albert watched her face, at all times mobile and reflective of her feelings, going through a remarkable variety of changes: pleasure, surprise, caution, bewilderment, and, at the end, something less easy to identify. The two men exchanged glances; Penny was not an easy woman to confound.
“Right,” she said finally. She sounded stunned. “Well. Stephen, look, hang on a bit, would you? Just—give me a moment. This is a bit much to take in. I’ll put you on to Ringan, but first of all, you can’t really think I wouldn’t be staggered. I mean, you’re fifty-something, you’ve been gone for twenty years, and all of a sudden you’re in London and you’ve got a wife? Who is she—no, not her name, you told me her name, and a very pretty name it is, too. So I’ve now got a sister-in-law called Tamsin. That’s lovely. But where did you meet her?, what—?”
The rattle started up again, stopped. Penny shook her head, rather in the manner of a swimmer trying to clear water from her ears.
“All right,” she told the phone. “Here. You talk to Ringan—yes, I’m aware you’ve never met, but really, as Scots go, he’s very social. Not a hint of dour. And besides, if I understand you, this is his patch you want to be on, not mine. Here he is.”
She handed the phone to Ringan, who, slightly slack jawed himself, was staring at her. “This is my brother Stephen on the phone,” she told him, enunciating carefully and clearly. “He’s back from living for donkey’s years in Hong Kong, and he’s got a new wife called Tamsin, and it seems that Tamsin is keen to build a house, and Stephen says you’re what’s needed for the purpose. Here. Cope with it, please.”
Ringan, blinking in bewilderment at Penny, took the phone. “Hello? Ringan Laine here.”
“Yes, I know.” The voice was deep, and commandingly firm. “My sister told me she was giving you the phone. This is Stephen Wintercraft-Hawkes. I was wondering if you might be available to consult on an architectural project.”
“Consult? What sort of project?” Ringan was beginning to understand Penny’s reaction; there was something unexpected about Stephen, a kind of eccentricity. It was there in the very cadence of his voice. “Penny said something about building a house. I don’t do anything in the way of modern architecture; I specialise in period restoration.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that. But I believe you’re just the person we need for this. Here’s why. . . .”
It was now Penny and Albert’s turn to watch Ringan’s face go through a succession of rapid changes. Really, Albert thought, Penny’s brother Stephen seemed to have a peculiar effect on facial muscles.
“Yes, well, right. Of course.” Ringan sounded as bemused as Penny had. “Okay, then. I’ll give you my number—I’m busy rehearsing and recording for most of the next month, but I have got this weekend free. I could come up to London and have a look. Did I hear you say the building site is on the Isle of Dogs? Which bit—on the river itself? Bloody hell. No, nothing. Tell you what, does Saturday work for you? If it’s all right with Penny, I can come up late Friday, and we can discuss this over lunch. Yes. Yes, of course. See you then. Yes.”
He clicked the phone shut, and stared at Penny. There was a long silence.
“The Isle of Dogs?” Albert finally managed. “Did you say something about a building site on the Isle of Dogs? On the Thames?”
“He said that, yes. Land down there goes for, what? About two trillion quid per half cubic yard of dirt, or something?” Ringan looked at Penny. “Would you mind if I asked what your brother does for a living to make that kind of money? The only thing I can think of would be something like international arms merchant, or maybe official blackmailer of potentates.”
“He’s a banker and financial adviser for wealthy industrialists.” Penny remembered her cider, and drained the glass. “But that land wasn’t bought; I’ve just remembered about it. It was his coming-of-age gift from my uncle Stephen, and yes, that same uncle Stephen who was married to my eccentric French aunt. My brother was named for him. He’s had that patch of ground for nearly thirty years. I remember that it wasn’t worth much back then; it was really filthy. All polluted and whatnot—the Isle of Dogs used to be your basic mix of environmental disaster area and occasional bit of green parkland. But these days, I don’t even want to think what a nice tidy patch of residential zoned building land on the Isle of Dogs, all cleaned up, is worth. However . . .” She looked meaningfully at Ringan. “Right now, I’m far more interested in this new wife and this consulting job they want to offer you. Since when are you willing to touch modern projects? Explain, please.”
“The new wife—Tamsin? Right, Tamsin.” Ringan was grinning now. “She apparently wants to build a Tudor-style manor house. And she wants it to be as exact a replica as possible, using as close to the original building materials as possible. Of course, even money on her also wanting central heating and a washer-dryer combo and double-glazed windows and all the rest of the mod cons. But there you are. I gather that either your brother or his wife has a direct pipeline to the Bank of England. And they’re offering to pay me a hefty chunk of lolly—he said something about money not being an issue. So if you don’t mind offering me houseroom, Pen, I’ll sneak up to the City Friday afternoon, and we can meet up with your rich relations at Saturday lunch.”
“Penny for them?”
Penny, at the wheel of her elderly Jaguar, spared Ringan a quick glance, and then brought her eyes back to the road. Driving in London on a pleasant Saturday morning, especially near an area as popular with tourists as the Tower, required as much concentration as possible.
“I was thinking about Tamsin, of course. Wondering what to expect.” She muttered something rude under her breath as a taxi nearly clipped them. “My money’s on a trophy wife. You know what I mean? Twenty years his junior, twee and spoiled, probably gorgeous. I’m envisioning blonde, skinny, legs up to her neck. I bet the wanting a Tudor repro house comes from reading too many historical romances. Trophy wife.” She shook her head mournfully. “I thought my brother had some sense.”
“So, you think a younger woman, latching on to a wealthy older banker, you mean?” Ringan considered it. “I don’t know, Pen. Your brother sounded very crisp, very decided, and terrifyingly competent and sure of himself. And in any case, you don’t get as successful as he seems to have got by being a fool, even about bedroom matters.”
“Terrifyingly competent? Yes, that’s Stephen to the life.” She turned off towards the south. “But any man might make a fool of himself over a pretty girl. And Stephen’s fifteen years my senior—he’s well into midlife, and right at the age for that sort of thing.” Her profile was unreadable. “I don’t know—I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.”
“True.” He glanced at her, and spoke gently. “You adore him, don’t you?”
“Meaning, that’s why I’m upset about the idea of him possibly being fool enough to get hooked by a harpy? Or do you mean, it’s why I’m upset about the idea of him marrying at all?” She considered this, with some dismay. “Oh, damn, Ringan, now you’ve got me thinking about it, and truly? I don’t know. I always did worship him when Candy and I were schoolgirls. Much-older brother—not to mention, only brother—and, what’s more, mysterious. You know how it is, Ringan, or no, maybe you don’t. You and Duncan and Roberta, you’re all close in age. This is a rather different thing. He wasn’t around much, but when he was, he seemed so splendid. He’d take us out for treats, and buy us things we weren’t supposed to have, and always give us brilliant advice. I rarely saw him after I left for school, because he’d gone off to Hong Kong with the bank—an occasional phone call back then, an occasional email these days, strictly at holidays. So I suppose he is rather fixed in my head as my very own personal godlike older-brother-man-of-mystery figure, someone I don’t want to share outside the family. Damn! I hope I’m not that petty. I don’t want to be. Damned childhood remnants.”
“You aren’t petty, love, and those reactions are all perfectly natural. I was just wondering about it.” Ringan patted her thigh, and changed the subject. “You know, I don’t think I know anything at all about this bit of London. Why is it called an isle—it’s not one, is it? And why dogs?”
“It’s sort of an island—or really, more of a peninsula, now that I think about it.” Penny kept her eyes on the road. “I’m not familiar with it either, except that it used to be the docklands; all the big shipping came here before container ships made it impossible to get to. Oh, and the Canada Tower is up nearer the north end of it—look, you can see it from here, it’s the blinky pyramid thing. Tallest building in Europe, or something. As to the dogs, I haven’t got a clue.”
“Right.” Ringan peered ahead, seeing the Pyramid coming nearer. This, he thought, was awfully flat ground. “Where are we meeting? On this patch of pricey turf he owns?”
“No, we’re having lunch first. Some restaurant at the Canary Wharf, on Churchill Place, right near the Canada Tower, actually—a restaurant called Galliard. Sounds very trendy. It’s probably some overpriced mix of bad fusion. You know, Thai meets Algerian, athletic chunks of overcooked lamb, sprinkled with turmeric and garnished with wilted parsley, or something.” She slowed the car, and peered sideways. “Ah—there it is.”
They parked the car as, somewhere nearby, church bells lightly chimed the hour. The restaurant, in an old warehouse that had been refurbished and restored within an inch of its life, boasted lofty ceilings, cool smooth tables and chairs, and a sense of roominess. Penny gave her name to a cheerful waiter and was told that her party had already arrived and been seated and was led to a corner table, Ringan following in her wake. He was surprised to realise how curious he was about this unknown member of Penny’s family.
The man who stood at their approach was immediately recognisable as Penny’s sibling. Here was her dark cloud of hair, though his was faded at the temples; here, too, were her generous mobile mouth and dark eyes, her sharp cheekbones, a more warlike version of her straight nose.
Ringan, who had known Penny for a dozen years, got his first look at her in the guise of exuberant baby sister; before this, he had only seen her as the careful older sister to the family’s skittish youngest, Candida. This was a side of Penny he hadn’t known existed. She flung herself into Stephen’s arms, babbling with delight. Since she was actually a bit taller than he was, this manoeuvre left him staggering.
“Hello, little one. Do you realise I’ve not seen you in the flesh since you were at school?” Stephen, looking faintly amused, managed to disentangle himself from her enthusiastic grip. “The one time I know of that your theatre troupe did Hong Kong, I was away in Singapore on business. And you’re not so little, now I look at you; you’re all grown-up. I’m betting you lace up your own shoes, and everything.”
“Shut your face, you.” This was clearly an old Wintercraft-Hawkes family form of conversation. Ringan, weirdly charmed, watched in fascination. Lightly, affectionately, she punched Stephen on the arm. “So, you’re really back to stay, then?”
“Yes, indeed. And if you’ve bubbled yourself out, perhaps I can introduce you to Tamsin?” He spoke over his shoulder to the woman in the booth behind him, who had been sitting and watching the family byplay with interest. “Here’s Penny. We weren’t actually raised by wolves; I’m sure her manners will come back to her in a moment. Training, and all that. Or maybe genetics; I’m never sure which covers what.”
“Oh, my God, I’m sorry!” Penny was laughing, her face alight. “He’s right, my manners went straight down the loo, but honestly, it’s been decades since I’ve seen him, and he is my only brother, after all. I’m Penny. So, you’re my new sister-in-law?”
“Indeed I am. Let me out, Stephen, do.” Tamsin Wintercraft-Hawkes stood up, and edged her way out of the corner, past her husband. As she did so, Penny caught Ringan’s eye in a tacit acknowledgement that every preconception they’d come up with between them had been completely, and ludicrously, wrong.
Tamsin, five feet tall at the most and ten stone in weight at the least, fit no known description of a trophy wife that Ringan had ever come across. Her smooth round face could have been any age between thirty-five and fifty; her brown eyes were enormous and bright behind a pair of thick glasses. Pale wavy hair showed silver streaks, which Tamsin made no attempt to disguise. She reminded Ringan of a very distinguished bird, small yet vital, perhaps a sparrow, or a robin, or even a . . .
“. . . Finch,” she said cheerfully, and Ringan jumped. It took him a moment to realise that she was responding to a question or comment of Penny’s. “Much easier to sign when grading papers than ‘Wintercraft-Hawkes,’ so it’s probably for the best I’ve retired from teaching. Excuse me? Oh, history—I taught Renaissance sociology for a few years, and then decided to specialise in the Tudor period. Such fun!”
Her voice was beautiful—musical and well educated. Ringan, trying to reconcile the preconception of the woman with the woman herself, took a second look and saw something in her face that made him wonder. It might have been a kind of ruthlessness, or simple detachment. Whatever it was, it took a tiny round woman with a mild voice and added an edge to her. Tamsin Wintercraft-Hawkes, née Finch, was somehow formidable.
“Tamsin’s not just a teacher—she’s also a writer.” There was a fond pride in the look Stephen threw his wife. “Three enormous volumes about the social infrastructure of England during the Tudor years, for a university press.” He thought for a moment. “At least, I think that’s what they’re about. I’m still trying to read them. I don’t do the scholarly thing very well, I’m afraid, although I do read thrillers. Shall we get on with it? Let’s order.”
They had a very nice lunch, eating Galliard’s beautifully cooked traditional English food and discussing a wide range of subjects, none of which included the main topic on Ringan’s mind. Stephen, after leaving an impressive pile of bills on the table, led everyone out into the Saturday sunshine, and finally got to the point.
“Ah. The valet’s brought our car around. Excellent.” He gestured at a gleaming silver Mercedes. “If everyone’s ready, shall we go have a look at the site we want to build on? Penny, I’ll wait for you, and you can follow us down. Take Westferry Road, southwest. It’ll be just beyond St. David’s Square—you can’t miss it, really. Big open patch of ground, with nothing on it. South side of the road, right by the water.”
The drive down took less than fifteen minutes, even with Saturday traffic, and was done in near-silence. Penny was busy readjusting her thoughts about the newest member of her family, and Ringan was taking as much of a look as he could at the neighbourhood that would likely be his immediate surroundings for stretches of the next several months.
He was completely unfamiliar with the Isle of Dogs. Despite having lived in London for some years before settling down near Glastonbury, he couldn’t remember ever having so much as set foot in this area before.
The immediate impression he got from it was one of absolute flatness. London has few hills of any note, but even by London standards the Isle of Dogs felt completely level. Ringan reflected that it would be impossible to get lost on this patch of ground—all you’d have to do would be to orient yourself to the blinking pyramid atop the Canada Tower, at least until something taller blocked your view. Of course, it might not have been so simple during the days before the Canary Wharf project.
He tried to mentally gather the bits he knew about the area. The Isle of Dogs, immediately recognisable on a map of London because of the huge curve dipping into the profile of the Thames, had been mostly industrial for a good long time. Ringan found himself wondering, what with the London Docks, whether the structures in those days, the cranes and gantries and whatnots, had been tall enough to provide a central visual reference point. And before the docks, before the original East India Pier had been built, what then? Had anyone lived here? Of course, people must have lived here; there was all of the borough of Millwall, on the western side of this deep spit of land. How . . . ?
“Wake up, darling. We’re here.”
Stephen had swung the Mercedes off the road, with half its bulk and two of its wheels up on the kerb. Penny gingerly followed suit, holding her breath as she eased the Jag’s wheels up onto the bumpy kerb. As she did so, a lorry, overweighted and swaying and nearly as wide as the road, rumbled past, missing the side of the car by inches. Penny let her breath out, said something unprintable, and got out of the car. Ringan was already out.
“This was a bog at some point, wasn’t it?” he asked. “Or a marsh, or something? Some kind of wetlands, anyway.” He bounced in place a few times letting the balls of his feet take his weight. “Has the ground been checked for building-code suitability? It’s so flat, and feels so wet, and there’s a sensation that the ground’s moving underfoot.”
“Really?” Tamsin, her hair lifting a bit in a soft light breeze blowing inland off the Thames, had come up behind him. She bounced a bit, experimentally. “It feels quite firm and dry to me, which is a good thing since we want to put our house on it. Yes, to both your questions; we’ve had the borough people out, and we’re good to go on the house. And yes, this was actually Stepney Marsh—they began a massive drainage project back around the time the Children’s’ Crusade was going on, early thirteenth century. For a while, this was actually some lovely land for growing veggies.”
Penny, having made certain that her beloved car was well out of the path of any oversized vehicles, joined the others. “How long did it stay drained?” she asked curiously. “I mean, water has a way of reclaiming any land it wants. Not just the river, either—you see that out in the fen country.”
“About two centuries. Really, it was a very successful experiment, considering the technology that was available to them at the time.” Tamsin turned to Stephen, who was standing a few feet away, surveying an empty and sizeable patch of land. “Stephen, darling, you’re looking pensive. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just the opposite, actually: I’m inwardly beaming with pride of ownership. This is a much-larger patch than I’d remembered its being after so many years away.”
He was right about the size. Ringan, eyeballing the area, estimated the better part of an acre. The ground was scrubby, with very short grasses and a few oddly stunted trees that looked like small, unhealthy cousins of lime trees. Near the road, on the north-western edge of the property, was a kind of crater, a depression about twenty feet across. Other than that, the land was flat.
“Dear God.” Penny, her eyes elsewhere, sounded almost reverent. “Would you look at that view? You can see the masts of the Cutty Sark, clear across the Thames!”
The aged uncle for whom Penny’s brother had been named had done his namesake proud. The vista was postcard quality, absolutely staggering: this land ran all the way down to the river, offering a completely unimpeded look at the Thames, the boats, the borough of Deptford, and the inlet to Deptford Creek, southward across the water.
“Fabulous, isn’t it? And the drop-off to the water is perfect—just steep-enough pitch to minimise flooding risks. I’d be willing to wrestle the powers in charge for the privilege of building our own dock if either of us had the slightest interest in sailing.” Tamsin began picking her way towards the southern edge of the property. “Come along,” she called over her shoulder. “If you stand at the far bit here, you can see the Millennium Dome and most of Greenwich, across the river.”
“It’s absolutely incredible.” Penny sounded enraptured. “If I lived with that view, I’d never get any work done. Honestly, I don’t think I’d ever even leave the house—I’d just spend my entire life staring out the windows, and have all my meals sent in. I may have to ditch my Muswell Hill flat and set up a squatter’s camp under your front windows, Tamsin.”
“Yes, well, we’re going to have to discuss windows.” Tamsin was grinning now. “Earlier Tudor houses had very little in the way of them, actually—Hardwick Hall, Bess of Hardwick’s house, was the talk of the town when she put all those bizarre bits of glass in the walls. Shock! Horror! It simply wasn’t done. However, I’m planning to buck tradition on that, and going post-gothic with it. As Stephen has pointed out to me, what’s the point of having a view like this if you don’t take advantage of it? Besides, I hate dark houses.”
“True.” Ringan looked a bit troubled. “You know, just looking at this, I’d love to take it on. But honesty compels me to point out that I’ve always consulted on existing structures. I’m no sort of designer. There are a few firms, right here in London, that do this sort of thing from the ground up, period blueprints and all. I can name at least two that specialise in period-reproduction properties—they’re very good, as well, and they do the research, everything from woods available at the time to door hinges. It seems wasteful to pay me as well. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be dealing with them?”
“We are dealing with them, and so will you be, if you take this on.” Stephen sounded mildly amused. “We’ve been on to BIDA, and they’ve hooked us up. That part is taken care of. They’re dealing with the zoning, water feed, electrical, all that. Also, we’ve got some brilliant architects. You don’t have to worry about the plans. That’s already in hand.”
“I feel as if I’m listening to a language I don’t know,” Penny said plaintively. “BIDA? What’s that, please?”
“British Interior Design Association,” Ringan told her. “A superb organisation, one of the best resources anywhere for this sort of project. I’ve worked with them before, many times. The thing is . . .” He took a breath. “Look, Stephen, Tamsin, I want to make damned sure I understand you before I commit to anything, even verbally. Just what is it, precisely, that you want to hire me to do?”
“It’s about the feel.” Tamsin spoke up at once. “As Stephen says, we have a firm of architects lined up and ready to go. The house is going to be a classic Elizabethan floor plan, in the shape of an E: central reception, wings, staircase at the back. Two bedrooms, two offices, two full baths, and a downstairs loo for guests. All that, and windows, of course. We’ll have a greatroom overlooking the river. All that’s just basic design work. I trust them to do that for us. But the—the honesty of it, that’s going to be beyond them. Because a designer, a researcher, an interior decorator—they’re not what’s needed for the feel of it. For that, well . . .”
Her voice trailed away. Penny suddenly understood.
“You want a folklorist, don’t you?” She saw that Ringan’s beard, which had been jutting slightly, had relaxed; he’d got where she was heading. “You want someone who can stand under your not-Tudor windows, presumably all double-glazed, in the middle of all that half-timbering and period furniture, and sing a nice juicy ballad from the period, and see if it clashes with its surroundings. That’s it, isn’t it?”
Tamsin was silent a moment. Stephen was looking at his sister, surprise and dawning respect in his eyes. Tamsin smiled suddenly, an extraordinarily open and beautiful smile.
“Well, yes. That’s exactly right.” She leaned forward unexpectedly, stood on tiptoe, and planted a light kiss on Penny’s cheek.
“You were quite right, Stephen,” she said. “I do like your family.”
Copyright © 2006 by Deborah Grabien. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Cruel Sister by Grabien, Deborah Copyright © 2006 by Grabien, Deborah. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Deborah Grabien, a former resident of England, now lives with her husband in San Francisco, California.
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As usual for the books in this series, I read it quickly. It absorbed my attention completely while my nose was buried in it. The characters have individual, distinct and sympathetic voices, making them people the reader feels at home with. This book fits the established pattern in the series: Penny and Ringan find themselves a ghost (or two), clues to whose unrestful repose lie in one of the traditional folk songs that Ringan sings. Lest the readers, and one assumes the writer as well, get bored with a formula, Deborah Grabien has found a way to put a twist to this one. There was a time when I would have put Grabien in the same league as Elizabeth Peters, but I am finding that this comparison is less apt than it used to be: There is no hint of madcap in the Haunted Balads - wit and humor, yes, these are the functions of intelligent, fully formed characters, but there is no hint of over-the-top silliness as of the later Amelia Peabody mysteries.
In Somerset, period piece architectural expert Ringan Laine discusses with his girlfriend Penny Wintercraft-Hawkes, the wedding they just attended when her cell phone rings. It is her brother Stephen, who vanished two decades ago in Asia but now lives in London married to someone named Tamsin he cuts off his stunned sibling demanding to speak with Ringan. Stephen asks Ringan to evaluate their plans to restore a Tudor home just across the Thames from one of the historical palaces of Henry VIII. --- Always excited to work on a restoration project and besides this is his squeeze¿s long lost brother, he agrees. However, on site, Ringan begins seeing unexplained happenings especially near the crater where a WWII bomb exploded killing a soldier. He observes a girl in a sixteenth century garb begging he assumes him for a haven from those with hounds chasing her while Penny is performing in Italy. If he fails to put the ghost that has assaulted his senses to rest in eternal peace, Ringan will be possessed. --- This supernatural mystery switches the possible possession from Penny to Ringan as a five hundred year old ghost demands he obtain satisfaction for her or she will haunt him forever. Ringan has no earthly idea how to proceed which adds to the fun as he fumbles before seeking help at Oxford and from Penny. Though the fascinating historical references and Oxford ground the tale in the mortal realm, the ghost steals the show in Deborah Grabien¿s fine fourth ¿Haunted Ballad¿ paranormal whodunit (see THE FAMOUS FLOWER OF SERVING MEN and MATTY GROVES). --- Harriet Klausner