For the past two years, Eilidh has called the quaint Welsh village of Thistlecross home, embracing her new life as estate manager of a restored fifteenth-century castle. But the long-anticipated arrival of her employer’s three estranged sons and their wives transforms Gylfinog Castell from a welcoming haven to a place seething with dangerous secrets. When the escalating tensions culminate in murder, Eilidh must sift through a castle full of suspects both upstairs and downstairs. She can trust no one as she follows a twisting maze of greed and malice to ferret out a killer who’s breaching every defense, preparing to make Eilidh the next to die.
Praise for Amy M. Reade’s Secrets of Hallstead House
“Danger, mystery, a brave but resilient heroine, and a hero at her side, coupled with a house that is almost a character in its own right: these classic gothic romance traits are all to be found in Amy Reade’s debut novel.”
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Arthur Tucker sat on the floor, slumped sideways, head resting against the sharp edge of the nightstand. His eyes were closed. Blood seeped from a wound above his left ear.
Minutes earlier, in a drunken stupor, he had tried to crawl into bed and missed the mark, hitting his head on the nightstand and causing the deep gash on his scalp.
In rising pain and panic, he called for help in a voice that, though feeble and confused, somehow remained imperious and harsh.
A person stood in the shadow of the doorway, watching with ambivalence as the lifeblood flowed out of Arthur. The person had every intention of calling for an ambulance, but not until Arthur was good and dead.
It took longer than the person expected for Arthur to finally take in one last, ragged breath. Blood had stopped spreading beside him and was already beginning to congeal. The person watching from the doorway waited another minute or two, then walked over to Arthur, careful to avoid stepping in the blood, and felt his wrist.
No pulse. It was over.
The person went downstairs and called for an ambulance.
"Eilidh, I'm going to need quite a lot of help with this."
I smiled at Annabel, who tended to ask for quite a lot of help with everything, though she was perfectly capable of doing most of it herself. She had a way of making me feel needed, which I loved about her.
"That's what I'm here for," I answered.
"I'll make a list while you run into the village and pick up my package at the dress shop."
My room was at the end of a long stone hallway, punctuated at regular intervals by old iron sconces which had been wired for electricity. I passed Brenda on the way to my room, bustling by with a broom and dustpan. I greeted my eighteen-year-old coworker cheerfully.
"How are you this afternoon, Brenda?"
She scowled. "Ach-y-fi. It's always somethin' around here."
I didn't want to get involved in whatever the problem was this time, so I kept walking. The arched wooden door to my room creaked softly when I pushed it open. Every time I went into my room I was transported back to the first time I had seen it — between the stone floor and the damp stone walls, I was sure I would freeze to death. That was before I noticed the fireplace. And I didn't really have a choice, so I bucked up and told myself — and Aunt Margot — it would be an adventure to live in an ancient castle, updated, of course, with all the modern conveniences.
And I had been right. Living on Annabel's estate, in her magnificent home, for the past two years had indeed been an experience of a lifetime. Not only had I learned all about the job of being the manager of a big estate, but I had made friends and come out of my shell. Since I had come to Wales alone, divorced, and bewildered, I had been forced to mature quickly.
I was lost after I divorced Callum. Far from feeling free and exhilarated, I sank into a miasma of despair. How was I going to support myself? Where was I going to live? I couldn't stay in Cauld Loch, not with all those people whispering behind my back, or worse, pitying me.
It was my Aunt Margot, Greer and Sylvie's mum, who came to my rescue, who lifted me out of my depression when she convinced me to take a job in the village of Thistlecross, in Wales. Her longtime friend, Annabel Baines, was looking for someone to help manage her estate, Thistlecross Castle. Aunt Margot, with her typical good sense, had realized that Annabel and I had certain things in common that would make us natural friends.
I was hesitant at first, not knowing anything about managing property and employees. My previous jobs in Scotland had been as an antique shop and gallery assistant for my cousin, Sylvie, and her husband, Seamus, and as a clerk in a potter's shop. But Aunt Margot wouldn't take no for an answer, and I'm grateful she insisted that I step out of my comfort zone and into the responsibilities of being Annabel's assistant.
I grabbed my purse from the heavy mahogany armoire in my room and walked back to where Annabel was waiting for me in the sitting room, my footsteps echoing through the corridor.
She was sitting at an old desk, its burnished wood shining in the lamplight of the late afternoon. "Let me see," she said, tapping her pencil against the jasmine-scented notepaper. I could smell it even from where I stood. "I've started making a list of what we need to do before everyone arrives tomorrow evening. We're going to be busy."
I smiled, knowing I would be busy and that Annabel would take a more supervisory role. "Do you want to talk about it now, or do you want me to pick up your dress first?" I asked.
"The shop closes at five," Annabel answered, glancing at her wristwatch, "so you'd better go there first and we can talk when you get back."
I hurried outside to the small parking area where we kept the cars. It never ceased to amaze me that I was lucky enough to work in such a magnificent place. The four-story castle, built like a fortress, was made entirely of stone, with a huge turret at each corner, though one of the turrets, crumbling and unused, led to an ancient part of the castle that was decrepit. No one ever ventured into that wing, as it was too treacherous. The blue-gray slates on the many levels of roof had a matte look to them. They looked wet from this distance.
Most of the rooms on the upper floors of the castle were unused, though there were a few Annabel loved to visit. She made sure those rooms were comfortable and beautifully furnished. Many of the rooms were used only for storage. I had been amazed at the amount of space necessary to store the castle's supply of Christmas décor, as well as the light furniture and bedding which Brenda swapped out at the beginning and end of each summer.
Maneuvering my car past the stone walls of the enclosure, I headed down the mile-long drive, past the rolling hills that made up the "front yard" of the estate, and made a right to take the main road into the village. Thistlecross Castle had been built in the fifteenth century to protect Thistlecross, which was larger at that time. The village was quaint and charming, with stone houses situated side- by-side and colorful wooden signs hanging over the pavement in front of the shops and the local pub. A swollen stream tumbled along behind the homes and shops on the main street.
I parked in front of the ladies' boutique where Annabel bought most of her clothes and made my way inside.
"Hello, Mrs. Carrington," I called.
"Is that you, Eilidh?" came a voice from the back of the shop. "I'll be with you in a moment, dear."
I smiled. Mrs. Carrington was the village grandmother. She always had a kind word for everyone so I didn't mind when she called me "dear."
I browsed through the dresses I couldn't afford while I waited. Mrs. Carrington appeared, struggling with a big box wrapped in pink paper and tied with a pink satin ribbon. "Here's Annabel's dress. Just in time, isn't it?" she said, hefting the box onto the counter. I reached out to help her.
"Yes. Her kids arrive tomorrow evening and I know she's looking forward to wearing this," I answered.
Mrs. Carrington fixed me with a shrewd look. "Do you think this is a good idea?" she asked. Mrs. Carrington wasn't just the village grandmother — she was the village gossip, too, but she always seemed to gossip in the most innocent and pleasant manner. She never seemed petty or mean.
I needed to choose my words carefully when I answered her, or they would be repeated all over the village until they made their way back to Thistlecross Castle and Annabel's ears.
"Annabel is very much looking forward to seeing her boys," I said. "We're hoping everything goes smoothly."
Mrs. Carrington winked at me. She knew I couldn't say more than that. I took up the box and the elderly lady went around the counter to open the front door of the shop for me. I stashed the box in the boot of my car and waved to her as I drove off toward the castle.
Once I was back at the castle, Annabel was excited to open the box and see the dress. She had picked it out over a month previously and had been anxiously awaiting the alterations from the tailor. She ripped off the pink paper and lifted the dress from the folds of tissue paper hiding it from view.
"Isn't it gorgeous, Eilidh?" she exclaimed, holding it in front of her. It was a beautiful tea dress, made of crushed black velvet with three-quarter length sleeves and an empire waist. I had been there when she first tried it on in Mrs. Carrington's shop. It looked just perfect with her silvery-gray short hair and the simple jewelry she favored.
"I love it," I said. "Are you going to check the alterations before dinner?"
"I should; you're right." Annabel slipped the dress over the crook of her arm and carried it out of the room. I could hear her low heels clicking on the stone steps leading to her suite of rooms on the first floor, one story up. It wasn't long before she returned, looking aristocratic and regal in her new dress. With the money she had from the sale of her first husband's textile business and from her second husband's vast land holdings in Wales, she had enough wealth to buy Mrs. Carrington's entire store, as well as every other establishment in Thistlecross, but she was always thrilled to get a new dress. She turned around slowly in front of me so I could get the full effect of the twirling skirt.
"Perfect!" I exclaimed and she grinned.
"I'll take it off and we'll eat soon. Maisie said dinner would be at six."
I put my handbag away and returned to the sitting room to wait for Annabel. I assumed she would want to review her list as soon as she could. There was so much to do.
When she came back and had seated herself at her desk, she lifted her notepaper and invited me to sit down in one of the armchairs in front of the desk.
"What's first?" I asked.
She scanned the paper. "Have you come up with ideas of things for everyone to do while they're here?"
"Yes," I answered. "I thought they would enjoy horse riding — everyone except Sian, that is — and I have looked into some cooking classes."
"Wonderful! Anything else?"
"I've talked to two local guides who are willing to take them up into the foothills for a day-long hike if they're interested, plus I thought about hiring a hot air balloon and setting up a time for them to go beachcombing. I remember Sian has always enjoyed that."
"Those are excellent ideas, Eilidh," Annabel praised me. "Can you take care of all the reservations?"
"Already done, as long as you have no problem with the days I've chosen for each activity."
"Whatever did I do without you?" Annabel asked, giving me a fond look.
"What's next on the list?" I asked.
We talked about meal preparations and room readiness, which would be handled by Brenda and her mother, Maisie. We talked about which local doctor would be available in case Sian required medical attention. We also discussed what Annabel would do while her guests were occupied.
We took a break from the house preparations while we dined. Maisie was a wonderful cook and it seemed somehow disrespectful to discuss business over one of her meals. As we tucked into creamy leek soup followed by plates of breaded cod with steamed vegetables, we talked instead about my cousin Sylvie's planned visit to the castle, coincidentally scheduled at the same time as Annabel's guests. I was excited for Sylvie to visit; I hadn't seen her since leaving Scotland. Aunt Margot had visited, of course, mainly to see her old friend, but I knew I would have more fun with Sylvie around. As much as I loved Aunt Margot, her idea of a fun activity was not the same as mine. I had hoped my other cousin, Greer, could visit, too, but she couldn't take the time away from her job. She was a professor of art history at the University of Edinburgh and she had to take holidays when school wasn't in session.
"Sylvie will be staying in the coach house, correct?" Annabel asked.
"Yes. She'll be here day after tomorrow," I answered. I know Annabel worried a bit that I might not have the time to take care of her guests while Sylvie was visiting, but I assured her that I would make myself available every hour of the day. I didn't expect her guests to require my services too much, since all their activities would be arranged in advance and guides and other activity leaders would be readily available to offer any assistance they might need.
Annabel took a bite of the fish Maisie had prepared to delicate, firm white perfection, then set her fork down and fixed me with a concerned look.
"I'm nervous," she said.
I had been waiting for this. I wondered how long it would take Annabel to voice her feelings about the impending arrival of all her guests.
"I know you are, but we've talked about this many times," I reminded her. "Everything is going to be just fine and you needn't worry about a thing. I'll be here to help, and I know Sylvie will be happy to help, too. You leave everything to us."
"I know all that, but I can't help feeling apprehensive about the visit," Annabel said. "After all ..." Her voice trailed off. Maisie had bustled in from the kitchen, bearing a tray of fruit and cheese. "Oh, thank you, Maisie. Could you please bring the tea?" Annabel asked, then she turned to me and said in a low voice, "I need something to settle my stomach."
When Maisie left the dining room I asked Annabel, "What were you saying?"
She looked down at her hands, which were resting on the edge of the table. "Oh, it's nothing. Never mind."
I knew Annabel had been close to explaining why she was nervous for her three sons to visit, but she had apparently decided against telling me. She had come close so many times before, but hadn't been able to bring herself to share the secret she held.
But I knew the secret — Aunt Margot had told me. She thought it important for me to understand the complex relationships between Annabel and her sons.
I watched a movie in my room that night before going to bed. I thought about Annabel, alone in her big suite of rooms upstairs, probably pacing the floor out of nervousness over the arrival of her sons.
The next morning dawned cool and softly bright, the fog slowly shredding into tiny wisps that remained close to the ground, giving the estate an ethereal look in the watery sunshine of the early morning.
I yawned and stretched, savoring the quiet. There would be a storm coming, I knew, and its arrival would coincide with that of Annabel's sons. In the meantime, there was plenty of work to be done. I made sure Maisie and Brenda were caught up with their work in the kitchen and the guest rooms and then confirmed the various reservations I had made for the family over the next several days. I double-checked the office hours of the local doctor in case Sian required his services. I spent a good part of the day trying to calm Annabel's nerves. She was in quite a state by late afternoon. I almost wished she hadn't insisted upon this reunion — it was doing nothing for her state of mind.
The doorbell rang at precisely four o'clock. Annabel, in her favorite armchair in the sitting room, gave a start. She had instructed Brenda to admit the guests and show them to the sitting room. She twisted a scarf nervously in her hands, looking at me with uncertainty in her eyes.
"They're here. What should I say?" she asked in a loud whisper.
"They're your sons, Annabel. You'll know just what to say when you see them," I assured her, hoping I was right.
The door swung open without a sound and Brenda stepped into the room. "Mrs. Baines, Andreas and Sian are here." She stepped aside to allow Annabel's eldest son and his wife to enter the room.
I was glad I was sitting off to the side, where I could watch Annabel and her son and daughter-in-law without being obtrusive or seeming nosy. Andreas Tucker, a tall man with hair the color of onyx and a cleft in his chin, gave his mother a hug and Annabel held out her hand to Sian, who grasped it lightly and gave it a quick squeeze. Sian was tall and pretty, with wavy light brown hair and fair skin that seemed to glow. Her belly, which had grown substantially since I had seen her last, only added to her voluptuous beauty.
Brenda watched Andreas and his wife greet Annabel, then turned to leave the room, looking back over her shoulder and straight at Andreas before closing the door behind her.
"How was your trip? And how's that little grandbaby of mine doing?" Annabel asked.
"The trip was fine, and the baby's fine, too, Mum. He'll be here before we know it," Andreas said.
"I'm glad you two arrived first," Annabel said, looking up at her son. "It will be nice to have you with me when the others get here."
"Mum, you don't need to worry about Hugh and Rhisiart; they will be fine. It's Cadi you have to worry about," he replied, giving his mother a dark look.
"Please, no disparaging remarks," Annabel said in a scolding tone. But her expression softened and I knew she didn't hold Andreas's words against him because he was right.
Excerpted from "Murder in Thistlecross"
Copyright © 2018 Amy M. Reade.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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