A year ago, Dovie Larkin’s life was shattered when her fiancé committed suicide just weeks before their wedding. Now, plagued by guilt, she has become a fixture at the cemetery where William is buried, visiting his grave daily, waiting for answers she knows will never come.
Then one day, she sees an old woman whose grief mirrors her own. Fascinated, she watches the woman leave a letter on a nearby grave. Dovie ignores her conscience and reads the letter—a mother’s plea for forgiveness to her dead daughter—and immediately needs to know the rest of the story.
As she delves deeper, a collection of letters from the cemetery’s lost and found begins to unravel a decades-old mystery involving one of Charleston’s wealthiest families. But even as Dovie seeks to answer questions about another woman’s past—questions filled with deception, betrayal, and heartbreaking loss—she starts to discover the keys to love, forgiveness, and finally embracing the future...
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Blackhurst Asylum for Unwed Mothers Cornwall, England January 6, 1962
The place smells of sickness and damp—of tears and misery and shame.
Alice places a hand on her belly as the familiar flutter comes again, soft beatings like an angel’s wings against her insides. Her baby. Her angel. The wave of sickness comes next, as it always does after the flutterings, a clammy surge of heat and nausea that threatens to buckle her knees. She swallows it down, scrubs the sudden moistness from her palms, and turns one last time to glance over her shoulder, praying Mam has changed her mind about leaving her in this terrible place, with its cold walls and colder faces.
“This way, girl,” comes a disembodied voice from the nameless black-clad nun in front of her. “There’s more here than just you to tend, so be quick.”
Tears threaten again, scorching lids already raw with days of crying, of begging, of pleading. Alice blinks them away, then drags a hand over her eyes for good measure. She has found no mercy at home, and she’ll find none here, so what good are her tears? She won’t cry again. Not for Mam, or for Sennen Cove, either, with its sweeping coast and Cornish blue sea, or even for Johnny, who is long past tears now, lost somewhere at the bottom of the sea he loved so well. And tears aren’t good for the baby. Besides, her heart is too torn to think of Johnny just now, too hollowed out by the terrible words her mother has flung at her. Words meant to judge and shame. Words Alice can never forget—never forgive.
The nameless sister is moving away now. Alice has no choice but to scurry after her. The nun’s feet are invisible beneath the folds of her black habit, strangely silent on the uneven stone floor. Finally, they halt before a heavy gray door with a small pane of glass near the top.
The door is pushed open and the nun stands aside, waiting, chilly and stiff jawed, for Alice to enter. Alice steps forward, eyeing the long room, with its tall drafty windows and bare iron cots. And then there’s a hand on her back and a rough shove that nearly sends her toppling.
“This is where they’ve put you, and we’ll have no trouble. There’s uniforms in the trunk there at the foot of the cot. Change out of your clothes and leave them on the bed to be collected. You’ll get them back after.”
Alice bristles at the word, left to dangle in the air with all its ominous meanings. After she has done her penance for her swollen belly. After she has been delivered of her mistake, as the Sisters of Mercy call the babies born at Blackhurst. After her child has been taken from her and handed over to strangers.
There is a ceaseless drumming at the windows, a dull gray rain blowing in off the sea, lashing at the loose panes. Alice registers the cold then, slicing through her as she moves deeper into the room, the kind that finds its way through every patched place and seam, clinging to skin and curling damply into bone, taking root in a place—or in a soul. Instinctively, her arms curl around the small bulge of her belly, quiet now, as if the child, too, is holding its breath.
There are a handful of girls in the room, sad-eyed creatures of every age and color with bellies of every shape and size, all dressed in identical brown pinnies and white cotton blouses. They are as plain as little field sparrows, stripped of the vanity that has led them to their downfall, and to Blackhurst. None look up at her as she enters.
“You’ll be given new uniforms as need arises,” comes the gruff voice again, jolting Alice from her staring. The nun’s gaze slides with pointed disdain to Alice’s belly. “You’ve a while yet, by the look of things. You’re up at dawn for prayers, then breakfast, then work. Tomorrow you’ll learn where they’ve put you—the laundry, maybe, or the kitchens, depending on what they need. And you’ll do as you’re told. No exceptions and no nonsense, or you’ll be sternly dealt with. You’re not here to make friends, but to repent of your sins and earn your keep while doing so. Do you understand me, girl?”
Alice doesn’t answer. She wants to say that she’s committed no sin, except to love a boy who loved her in return, a boy who wanted to marry her when he had saved up a few pounds. But she can’t form the words. Instead, her eyes are fastened to the ponderous ring of keys at the nun’s waist. So many keys. So many doors. Surely one of them—
The nun’s eyes narrow, a merciless gray stare that seems to cut straight to Alice’s backbone. “Don’t go getting any ideas, you hear? We’re careful with the doors at night, though there’s been more than one girl who’s ended up smashed to pieces after slipping out and losing her way in the dark. It’s a straight drop off those cliffs, with nothing but rock and sea below, so you’d best take care.”
Alice makes no reply as the nun turns away, slipping back out into the corridor with her silent feet and jangling keys. For a while there is only the sound of the rain and the sudden awareness that she is alone in this terrible place. The sparrows don’t count. They’re alone, too. All the girls at Blackhurst are alone. Finally, she lets herself think of Johnny as she cradles the little mound of her belly with both hands. A boy—she’s almost certain—with brown curls and eyes the color of the sea. And they were going to take him. How would she ever bear it?
Without any awareness of her legs carrying her, she is at one of the windows, her breath fogging the rain-spattered glass. She had taken little notice of the landscape as Mam’s old Hemsby coughed its way up the wooded drive, then passed through Blackhurst’s heavy iron gates, but she takes notice now and sees its rocky and spare where the woods peter out, desolate. And in the distance, the cliffs the nun had talked about—or at least the place where they fell away—and she can’t help wondering if maybe a few of the girls who’d smashed themselves to bits had known exactly where they were going when they slipped out at night.
Magnolia Grove Cemetery Charleston, South Carolina September 27, 2005
Saturday’s roses were already beginning to fade.
She’d known better when she bought them—too delicate for the Carolina sun, even in late September—but she’d wanted something special. They would have been celebrating their one-year anniversary today if William hadn’t chosen to end his life just two weeks before they were set to walk down the aisle.
His father’s bourbon and his mother’s sleeping pills—that’s how he’d done it. Nice and neat. No note of explanation, no clue of any kind as to why he’d chosen death over the life they’d planned together. Just . . . gone. And now, fifty-two withered bouquets later, Dovie Larkin still had no idea what had happened. Or why.
She stared at William’s headstone, nestled among the other Prescott dead, carefully tended by Magnolia Grove’s crew of expert groundskeepers. He would have detested the cold granite slab his parents had selected, declaring it altogether lacking in originality—an affront to his artistic tastes. But then, he hadn’t bothered to leave instructions about his final arrangements. He hadn’t left anything—except her.
With concerted effort, Dovie shifted her attention to her surroundings, canopy oaks and shade-dappled lawns stretching as far as the eye could see, burbling fountains, granite benches, and the curved mulch path that bordered it all. But for the neat rows of headstones, one could almost mistake Magnolia Grove for a park.
Fishing a chicken salad sandwich and a small bag of grapes from her tote, she proceeded to spread her little picnic out on the bench beside her, pretending not to notice the scandalized double take of a woman strolling past with a fistful of cellophane-wrapped daisies.
She should be used to it by now, the scowls and pinched expressions of strangers silently scolding her for being disrespectful. She’d heard the whispers, too—words like morbid and obsession—from family and coworkers who couldn’t understand why she had taken to eating her lunch every day on a cemetery bench, or why her only friend of late seemed to be Josiah Ramsey, Magnolia Grove’s eighty-year-old groundskeeper.
She didn’t blame them for not understanding. How could they? Only someone who’d gotten the call she had could know what it was like to lie awake, night after night, replaying a thousand conversations in your head, looking for the thing, the one thing, you’d somehow missed—the thing that might have kept your world from crashing down around your ears.
Grief was a messy thing. It was inconvenient and intrusive, not quite contagious but the next thing to it. It made people uncomfortable, and thoughtless in ways they never intended. They didn’t know what to say, and so they invariably said the wrong thing. She didn’t blame them. Only someone who’d suffered such a loss could understand that there are simply no words, no platitudes or pep talks, to heal the broken place left when someone you love is suddenly and explicably gone.
Which was probably why she spent her life dodging awkward but well-meaning questions. Was she really okay? Should she maybe think about talking to someone? A grief counselor, a priest? It had been a year, after all. She shuddered to think about what they’d say if they knew her wedding dress—the one she’d never worn—was still hanging in her closet.
Perhaps that was why she preferred her own company. She had simply reached the point where she could no longer bear the pitying looks and clumsy platitudes. Not that she saw much of the pearl-and-twin-set crowd of late. They were all married now, starting families and doing good works, holding bake sales, or rummage sales, or dinner parties to impress their husbands’ bosses. Even now the thought made Dovie squirm. And from somewhere deep down in places she didn’t care to examine came the guilty whisper that she had somehow dodged a bullet.
At the edge of the path, a flicker of movement caught her eye. She turned, happy to see Josiah heading in her direction. His limp was more pronounced today. His hip must be acting up. He talked about retiring, but Dovie knew better. He’d been working at Magnolia Grove since he was old enough to hold a job, back before a black man could safely walk down King Street after dark. It was all he knew. And all he cared about since losing his wife.
“Afternoon, Little Miss,” he said, tipping the brim of his straw Panama.
Little Miss. It was hardly a proper nickname for a thirty-six-year-old woman, and certainly not for one who stood five-ten in her bare feet. But the truth was she had grown rather fond of it. Patting the bench beside her, she invited him to sit. They’d been eating lunch together for months now, and he still wouldn’t sit until invited.
“Chicken salad today,” she told him before he could ask. “No salt, like the doctor said. And grapes for dessert. Healthy.”
Josiah pulled a face but took the proffered half sandwich.
“Making chess pie this weekend,” he grumbled around the first bite. “Essie’s recipe.”
Dovie cocked a disapproving eye. “And what would your doctor say about that?”
Josiah looked sullen as he scrubbed his knuckles along his jaw. “Don’t much care, really. Way I see it, an eighty-year-old man’s earned the right to eat what he pleases.”
Dovie hid her smile as she tucked into her sandwich. He had a point. “So, do I get to taste this pie, or did you tell me that just to tease me?”
“I’ll bring you a piece Monday. And no lectures, hear? You just eat it.”
She grunted but made no promises as she passed Josiah the bag of grapes. It was part of their patter, their routine. She nagged. He grumbled.
“You all right?” he asked gruffly.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Thought you might be having a little trouble, what with the date and all.”
Dovie looked away, pretending to watch a pair of mockingbirds squabble over the crust of bread she had tossed their way. Of course he remembered. Eighty or not, there wasn’t much Josiah Ramsey forgot when it came to his charges—the Prescotts, Tates, Lowrys, and Gosnells—all etched into his memory as sure as their dates were etched into their headstones.
“I’m all right,” she said, finally. “Not fine, but all right. It’s sweet of you to ask, though.” She reached for a handful of grapes, popping one into her mouth. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Why is it, in all the time you’ve known me, from the first time you saw me sitting here with my lunch, you’ve never once given me one of those looks?”
“Which look is that?”
He was being kind now, feigning ignorance, but they both knew what she was talking about. “You know the look I mean. The one that says there must be something wrong with a woman who hangs out in a cemetery every day, waiting for some bolt from the blue to come along and explain why her fiancé committed suicide.”
Josiah dragged a faded red bandanna from his back pocket and took his time mopping his brow. When he finally spoke, his voice had taken on the husky tenor he used when he was about to impart one of his patented bits of wisdom.
“Little Miss, I’ve seen a whole lot of grieving in my time. Yes, sir, a whole lot of grieving. And in all that time it never occurred to me to make it my business how folks choose to go about it. Folks hurt, and they gonna hurt for as long as they need to. And that’s just the way that it goes.”
Dovie blinked against the hot sting of tears, always too near these days, and gave Josiah’s free hand a squeeze. He wasn’t comfortable with touching, she knew, but it was that or start to cry, and she still had half a day of work ahead of her. She never had been any good at patching up drippy eye makeup.
“Thank you for that.”
Josiah extricated his hand, giving hers a quick pat before returning to the safety of his grapes. “You’ll be ready one day, you’ll see. Until then, I guess I’ll just have to eat your sandwiches and put up with your fussing.”
Dovie tried to look severe. “What makes you think I’m ever going to stop fussing at you?”
Groaning, he rolled his eyes heavenward. “Lord, give me strength. It’s like having my Essie back. Nothin’ sacred, not even my chess pie. Don’t you have somewhere to be, some kind of important new job to get back to, instead of sitting here pestering a broke-down old man?”
It was true. She did have somewhere to be. She glanced at her watch, then shot to her feet. Damn it. Not again. If she caught all the lights she might make it back before anyone noticed.
Get it together, Dovie.
Dovie’s hopes for a stealthy reentry were dashed when she hit the front walk of the Charleston Museum of Cultural Arts and saw Jack Livingston lounging against one of pillars, puffing on a Marlboro Light. He flicked the cigarette into the azaleas, glanced at his watch.
“I’m sorry, Jack. I lost track of time. I . . .” She let the rest dangle. He’d heard it before. Twice this week, as a matter of fact.
He said nothing, but his lips thinned as he reached for the door and waited for her to walk through ahead of him. Dovie held her breath as they stepped into the cool, quiet lobby, expecting to be summoned into his office, or at the very least, followed to hers. Instead, he rounded on her, his cheeks an even deeper shade of pink than usual.
“I should think today of all days, you could have managed to get back on time.”
Today of all days?
Dovie combed through a series of possible excuses but came up blank. Hardly a surprise, since she had yet to ascertain what she was apologizing for.
“Dovie.” He sighed the word, like a parent weary of repeating himself. “Please tell me you haven’t forgotten you had a one o’ clock. The Tates have just forked over two million dollars to the museum. I’m sure they’d like to think their generosity buys them the consideration of at least being punctual.”
Dovie’s cheeks flamed. Gemma Tate—one o’ clock. She remembered penciling the appointment into her planner last week, but had forgotten it was today. Maybe because she hadn’t bothered opening her planner this morning to check her appointments. “Oh God . . . I thought that was tomorrow.”
“No. It’s today,” Jack said tightly. “And the reason I know that is there’s someone sitting in your office right now—waiting. So you might want to pull yourself together and try looking like the professional I know is in there somewhere.”
Dovie smoothed her hair and squared her shoulders, but inside she felt sick. She hated the look on Jack’s face, disappointment mingled with the growing suspicion that he’d made a mistake in going to bat for her when the curator position opened up last year.
Get it together, Dovie. If not for your sake, for Jack’s.
She was about to scurry to her office to salvage what she could of her meeting with Gemma Tate when Jack laid a hand on her arm. The look of exasperation was gone, replaced with a paternal concern that brought a grinding lump to her throat. Don’t, she wanted to say. Please don’t say something kind. If you do, I’ll fall apart. She steeled herself for whatever was coming.
“Dovie, now isn’t the time to talk about this, but it does have to be said. You’ve had a lot on your plate, losing your father, and then that awful business with William. I know you’ve been trying, but I wonder if stepping back might not be a bad idea, just until you get your bearings again. There will always be a place for you here, but right now you seem to be flailing a bit. Why don’t you give it some thought?”
Dovie gave him a stiff nod. There would always be a place for her at the museum, just not the one she had broken her neck for three years to get. That’s what he was saying. “Are you firing me?”
Jack looked away. “Of course not. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about you.”
“Worried about me? Or about my performance?”
“Both, actually. I fought for you because I believed you were the right person for the job, but that was before William’s accident. Today is just one more—”
“It wasn’t an accident,” Dovie blurted before she could stop herself. Why did people insist on calling it something it wasn’t? William hadn’t accidentally killed himself. In fact, he’d been very deliberate about it, going to great lengths to make sure he wouldn’t be found until it was too late.
Jack was staring at her. “I beg your pardon?”
“William’s suicide. You called it an accident. It wasn’t.”
“Does it matter what I call it? My point is, you’re not past it, and I need someone who can handle this project—and the Tates. Right now I’m not sure that person is you.”
Dovie let the words sink in, wondering just how long he’d been holding them back. “You said you’re not firing me. Are you demoting me?”
“I’m not doing either. I’m just saying I need you dialed in. I’m on your side, and always have been. You know that. But the board is breathing down my neck about this new wing, and I need your head on straight. If it isn’t, I need you to tell me—before you go into that meeting.”
“My head is fine, Jack. Really. I’ll go smooth things over with Mrs. Tate, and we’ll start making plans for the fund-raiser. It’s going to be great. You’ll see.”
Jack nodded, a single but firm bob of the head. “Go.”
Relieved to have at least calmed him down, Dovie headed down the hall. She was halfway to her office, still trying to salvage the remnants of this morning’s ponytail, when she heard Jack hiss something at her from the other end of the hall. She turned, motioning that she hadn’t heard. He seemed to vacillate a moment, as if weighing whether to bother again or not. Finally, he checked his watch and, with a shake of his head, waved her on. Whatever it was must not have been important.
Squaring her shoulders, she pasted on what she hoped was her best groveling smile and opened the door to her office, prepared to meet the woman who, with a stroke of her pen, had made the museum’s new art education wing possible.
“Mrs. Tate,” she said, both breathless and contrite as she closed the door behind her. “Please accept my sincerest apology—”
The words dangled as Dovie registered her mistake. The person waiting for her wasn’t Gemma Tate, but her son, Austin, newly crowned head of Tate Development, and keeper of the family purse strings since his father’s death six months ago.
Dovie struggled to get her bearings, not sure whether to be relieved or piqued that her visitor had yet to acknowledge her. Instead, he stood with his back to her, studying the sculpture displayed on a smoked glass pedestal behind her desk—a bust William had done of her just after they met. Even now, looking at it left her feeling exposed, the come-hither tilt of the head, the long, sinuous line of neck and collarbone, the barest suggestion of breasts and the shadowed valley between.
She’d been blown away the first time she saw it, by its beauty and subtle sensuality, but also by the realization that William saw her that way. She had teased him at first, insisting he must have modeled it after some woman from his past. He had laughed at that, vowing that before Dovie there’d been no other women. It was nonsense, of course. Men like William—blond, blue eyed, and boyishly charming, not to mention well pedigreed—would always have women lined up.
“I’d say he’s captured you perfectly.”
Dovie dragged her eyes from the sculpture, forcing herself to focus on the man in front of her. He was tall, six-three or six-four, and even better-looking than he appeared in the social pages of the Post and Courier: dark hair combed back from a face that was all suntan, square jaw, and high cheekbones. And was he kidding with that Cary Grant cleft in his chin?
“It was a he, wasn’t it?”-
Dovie blinked at him, trying to wrap her brain around the question. “I’m sorry. Yes, it was. My fiancé, actually.”
“That explains it,” he said, his smile bordering on seductive as he trailed a finger along the slender clay neck, lingering finally, maddeningly, at the deeply hollowed throat. “A man would have to know his way around that neck pretty well to do it this kind of justice.”
Dovie’s hand went to her throat—to the place he had touched, but not. A clever bit of sleight of hand, a caress that involved no touching at all, and yet the warmth of that nontouch felt very real—as he had no doubt intended. It would seem Austin Tate was every bit the ladies’ man rumor made him out to be. Not that she had ever doubted it. He was known for the company he kept, blondes mostly, with a closet full of skinny heels and plastic surgeons on speed dial. So why was he wasting his time trying to get under her skin?
“He’s talented,” Austin said, holding her gaze. “And lucky.”
“He died last year.”
She had said it for shock value, to shame him out of whatever game he was playing. It must have worked. His smile faltered, and for an instant his face softened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t . . . I’m sorry, really.”
“Thank you,” Dovie said, once again off balance.
Had she only imagined the change that seemed to come over him? The fleeting sense that for a moment someone else had been looking at her through those mossy green eyes? Whatever it was—if it had been there at all—was gone now, hidden behind a facade clearly designed to give nothing away.
“I’m Dovie Larkin,” she said, extending a hand. She needed to get control of this meeting, to get things back on a professional footing and keep them there. “I’m the museum’s curator. I was expecting your mother, I believe?”
Austin took her hand. Cool, dry, brief—a man in charge of his surroundings, even if those surroundings belonged to her. As if to thrust the point home, he eased himself into the nearest chair, which happened to be the one behind her desk.
“My mother hasn’t been well since my father’s death. She asked me to take the meeting in her place, but I’m a little pressed for time. I’d like to get started if that’s all right with you.”
Dovie stared at him. This wasn’t going to work. She had a fund-raiser to plan, and her job to save, apparently. And here she stood, on the wrong side of her desk, engaged in some testosterone-fueled mind game with a man she’d be willing to bet didn’t give a damn about art.
“Mr. Tate, why don’t we—”
“Austin . . . why don’t we just reschedule when your mother’s feeling better? I’m sure you’re much too busy, and not at all interested in planning a gala.”
He shot her a crooked smile. “I’m never too busy for a party.”
So I’ve heard.
Dovie took a deep breath and managed to swallow the retort. “I’m not sure we’re talking about the same kind of party, Mr. . . . Austin. This is a black-tie fund-raiser, which entails very careful planning. The kind your mother is probably better suited to handle.”
Austin leaned forward, steepling his fingers beneath his chin. “You thought I was talking about a kegger?”
“No, of course not. It’s just that there’s an enormous amount of work involved in these things, the venue to choose, a menu to plan, entertainment to arrange, all of which requires a hefty time commitment. I assume you’ll be too busy with business to spare that kind of time. I’m sorry, by the way—about your father passing, I mean. I should have said so earlier.”
He sat back in his chair, his expression darkening into something Dovie couldn’t label but didn’t like the look of. “Thank you. But the business runs itself. My father made sure of that.”
Dovie looked down at her shoes, not sure how to respond. She’d hit a nerve of some kind. Or maybe she had only imagined the sudden edge in his voice. Who could say with this man? After a moment he seemed to shake off whatever it was, ready to return to the business at hand.
“I’ll tell you what, Miss . . . Larkin, is it? Why don’t you just go over whatever it was you’d planned to discuss with my mother, and let me decide if I’m in over my head, hmm?”
Dovie nodded coolly. If he was going to pretend to be interested in his mother’s pet charities, he deserved the full show. “I’ll need to get to my files.”
“They’re in my desk.”
Dovie waited for the words to sink in, then realized they already had, just without the desired effect. She had hoped he’d take the hint and vacate her chair. Instead, he wheeled back a few feet, making room for her to step around and retrieve the necessary paperwork.
He can’t be serious.
She tried to ignore his proximity, the mingled scents of soap and cologne that lingered about him as she opened and closed drawers, gathering a stack of legal pads and neatly labeled folders. She could feel his eyes, studying her so intensely that she was tempted to turn and ask if there was something she could help him with. Or better yet, tell him to get his entitled ass out of her chair, although she was pretty sure Jack would tell her two million dollars entitled him to sit where he damn well pleased.
With the requisite materials rounded up, Dovie settled for one of the conference chairs, relieved to at least have the desk between them again.
“The first thing we’ll need to settle on is a date, which will depend on our choice of venue. There are three possibilities, at this point.” She paused, laying out several brochures for him to look at. “Unless, of course, there are other options you’d like us to consider? We’ll need facilities for about two hundred, I should think. CPAC—Charleston Performing Arts Center—is my personal pick. There’s plenty of parking, and the Silver Room has great acoustics, not to mention that beautiful ceiling.”
She sat very still, waiting for some sort of response. Instead, she saw that his attention had wandered back to William’s sculpture.
Fabulous. Not only passive-aggressive, but the attention span of a gnat.
Exasperated, she sat back, folded her hands, and waited for him to notice she’d stopped talking. Eventually, he did.
“I’m sorry. You said two hundred?”
Dovie bit her lip, keeping her face bland. “I did. I also said I thought the Performing Arts Center would work well for our needs. Unless you or Mrs. Tate has other venues you’d like me to check out?”
“No. I’m sure that will be fine. My mother—”
He broke off when his cell jangled. Mouthing an apology, he fished the thing from his shirt pocket and took the call. Dovie was still trying to decide if she should remain where she was or give him some privacy when he held up a hand, motioning her to stay put.
“Fine. Where are you now?” he asked whoever was on the other end. “All right. Stay there. I’ll meet you at the clubhouse in half an hour.”
He was on his feet the minute he ended the call. “I’m sorry, but something’s come up and I’m going to have to cut this short and reschedule. Or, if you’d like, we can do it over dinner. Cypress has a great menu, and the wine list is incredible. Or McCrady’s is good.”
Dovie stared at him, astonished. He had just dumped out of a meeting for an emergency at his club. Now he was asking her to dinner?
“Thank you, no,” she said, getting to her feet. “I can’t . . . I mean, I don’t . . . I have very strict rules about keeping my business and personal interests separate.”
Something about her response must have amused him, because the smirk was back. “Who said anything about getting personal? You can bring your brochures if that makes you feel safer. I just thought a meal might make the business more pleasant, but suit yourself. I’ll have someone call to reschedule.”
Dovie drifted toward the door, ready for the meeting to be over. “It was nice to meet you,” she managed as she ushered him out into the hall. “I’ll wait to hear from you.”
When he was gone, she sagged into her chair, eyes straying to the sculpture in the corner, to the slight hollow where Austin Tate’s fingers had lingered moments before. With any luck, his mother would soon be on the mend and today’s meeting would be her first and last encounter with the head of Tate Development.
Excerpted from "Love, Alice"
Copyright © 2016 Barbara Davis.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
1. Blackhurst Asylum for Unwed Mothers was a fictional institution but depicted conditions prevalent in many so‑called “Magdalene laundries” across the U.K., U.S., and Australia. Before reading Love, Alice, had you ever heard of Magdalene laundries? If so, what had you heard? What was your reaction to learning the last of the asylums was still operating so recently?
2. A predominant theme in Love, Alice is the unbreakable bond between mother and child. It was that bond, and the need to right a forty-year-old wrong, that brought Dora Tandy from Cornwall to Charleston. In what other ways did the mother-child bond play out in the novel to bring about understanding and, ultimately, forgiveness in many of the characters?
3. In times past, suicide has carried a certain stigma or air of taboo. It has been referred to as “the mark of disgrace” or “a sign of the evil eye.” Do you think suicide carries as much of a stigma today? What do you think causes these perceptions and how do you think society can better understand the issue?
4. Each of the main characters in Love, Alice is dealing with grief in some form or another, and most are having trouble moving past it. Have you ever known someone, yourself included, who experienced the kind of grief that just couldn’t be shaken? Do you feel it’s possible to hold on to grief too long, to become so mired in loss that the line is crossed from normal grieving into something less healthy? Or, for you, is grief such a personal thing that there simply are no lines?
5. In the novel, we learn Alice’s story through letters written to a child she is unlikely to ever meet. Have you ever considered writing a letter you knew would never be read, and if so, what did you hope to accomplish by writing it? Did you actually write the letter? Was it helpful?
6. Denial is a coping mechanism we’ve all used from time to time, though it is rarely successful. How does denial play a role in both Dovie’s and Austin’s past relationships, and how does each of them help the other eventually forgive themselves and move on?
7. The theme of complicity by avoidance is brought up several times throughout the novel, both with Dovie and with Austin. Have there been times in your life when you chose to turn a blind eye rather than face an uncomfortable truth? In retrospect, can you now see how facing that truth head‑on might have saved you a lot of heartache?
8. Another issue touched upon in Love, Alice is the fallout that occurs when we allow what others think to govern our life choices. Discuss the ways society’s rigid roles and mores affected Alice, Dovie, and William. Have you ever been at a place in your life in which you’ve had to risk a relationship with a parent or partner in order to stand your ground? If so, how did you handle it?
9. The notion of secrets kept, for better or worse, appears throughout the novel. Do you personally believe honesty is always the best choice? Or do you believe there are some secrets that are better kept from a loved one—and if so, under what circumstances?
10. Forgiveness is hard. Sometimes impossible. And yet Alice finds a way to forgive both Gemma and Dora after seemingly unforgivable deeds. What specifically do you feel causes her change of heart by the end of the novel?
11. In times of deep grief nothing is more sustaining than true friendship. As unlikely as the relationship seemed to some, Josiah Ramsey was a friend to Dovie when she badly needed one. How do you feel his life experiences and personal brand of wisdom helped Dovie better understand her grief and eventually move through it?
12. At the end of Love, Alice, Dovie hints at the possibility that Alice might have been responsible for orchestrating the events that lead to the novel’s happy ending. Do you believe it’s possible for a deceased loved one to provide guidance in times of trouble or nudge us in the direction of happiness? Have you ever felt that kind of guidance in your own life?