With its crashing waves, secret coves, and rumors of being haunted, Greycliff Island is a thrilling and magical place to lonely eleven-year-old Carolyn Dawson. It is here that she meets Grey Brandon, whose family owns the island’s cannery and who becomes her only friend. Thirteen years pass before he walks into her London bookshop. After a whirlwind courtship, Carolyn returns to her beloved island off the Cornish coast—as Grey’s bride.
Not everyone likes the new mistress of Greycliff manor—not hostile, intimidating Burke, the servant who practically raised Grey; not Grey’s aunt; and not her insolent son, Evan, who think Carolyn is a fortune hunter. One day, in the gardens beyond the estate, Carolyn finds a tiny gravestone. That night, she’s awakened by a child’s screams. Years ago, a girl was murdered in one of the island’s caves. Is her ghost haunting Greycliff manor?
When the household is rocked by murder, Carolyn must confront a flesh-and-blood killer—and a long-buried secret someone will kill to keep.
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About the Author
Jennifer Wilde is the pseudonym under which Tom E. Huff (1938–1990) wrote his groundbreaking New York Times–bestselling historical romance novels, including the Marietta Danver Trilogy (Love’s Tender Fury, Love Me, Marietta, and When Love Commands). Huff also wrote classic Gothic romances as Edwina Marlow, Beatrice Parker, Katherine St. Clair, and T. E. Huff. A native of Texas who taught high school English before pursuing a career as a novelist, Huff was honored with a Career Achievement Award from Romantic Times in 1988.
Read an Excerpt
Room Beneath the Stairs
By Jennifer Wilde
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Tom E. Huff
All rights reserved.
I was eleven years old when I first saw Greycliff Island, and I immediately made it my own. I would never be able to go there, of course, but that didn't matter. It was my private place, safe and secure, removed from all the heartbreak and sadness I had known so often in my short life. It was a symbol, and in my imagination I dwelt there like a storybook child, surrounded by warmth and beauty and the friends I had never known. Every day that summer I would leave the cottage and pass through the woods and wander along the shore, and when I reached my secret cove I would perch on one of the rugged gray boulders and stare at my island, dreaming while sea gulls circled overhead and scolded with shrill cries.
Over a mile from shore, it rose majestically from the water, shining like a jewel on sunny days, frequently shrouded by mist, which made it dark and mysterious. The island was wedge shaped, a small village huddled near the water on the side facing landward. Behind it, pine-covered hills rose in levels to the high, flat stretch of land where the big house stood. From the ocean, I knew, one could see only the steep gray cliff that gave the island its name. On clear days, perched on a rock in my cove, I could see the village, with boats tied to the piers and rocking with the waves, fishing nets hanging like spider webs on ancient poles. The buildings were picturesque, very old-fashioned. Sometimes, if there was no mist, I could see the dull red-tiled roof of the big house rearing above the dark pines on the cliff side. A rich and powerful family lived in that mansion, and they owned the island. That didn't matter either. As I kept my lonely vigil on those hot summer days, Greycliff Island belonged to me.
Although it was English territory, the island was like a separate country, tiny and proud and self-sufficient. The men of the village, fishermen famous all along the coast, made their living from the sea, and the women made exquisite lace that was distributed all over England and sold in some of the finest shops in London. The islanders were a strange breed, clannish, dour, formidable. Maudie, my aunt's maid, said they were all descended from the pirates and smugglers who had once made the island their headquarters. Like many of the coastal folk, Maudie was superstitious, and she believed the island was cursed.
"Strange things 'appen there, Miss Carolyn, an' that's no lie. Evil things. Them caves where the smugglers used to hide their boats—why, not more'n a year ago they found a little girl there. Wudn't even as old as you are, poor mite, an' 'orribly mutilated—"
My aunt came in before Maudie could finish her frightening tale, and I was glad. Maudie was a silly thing, skinny and nervous, addicted to the tabloids and always chattering about axe murders and skeletons in the woods and witchcraft rampant in the suburbs. I had no intention of letting her spoil my island with her foolish babble. Greycliff Island was beautiful silhouetted against a pale blue sky, the pine trees dark emerald, the gray boulders glittering silver in the sunlight. It was mine, a place where sadness never came, a haven where I could roam in imagination and forget my grief.
My father had died when I was five. I remembered his hearty laughter and his smiling blue eyes. My mother had never gotten over his death. She was pale and sad and vague, and it was as though I were the parent and she the child. We lived in a drafty old flat in London. I looked after her, reminding her to buy groceries, reminding her to pay the bills, holding her hand when she had one of her bad spells. One afternoon she went for a walk and stepped in front of a huge red bus. It was a terrible accident, some people said, and others whispered that it was no accident at all. The conductor claimed she deliberately stepped from the curb and hurled herself in front of the bus, and a number of passengers agreed with him. Accident or no, my grief was almost unbearable. I was sent to the coast to stay with my aunt during the summer months. In September, I would go to a boarding school.
Aunt Angela was kind in her way, but she knew nothing whatsoever about children. A spinster, she was tall and thin and gaunt, her hair steel gray, her blue eyes bewildered at this sudden responsibility thrust upon her. She saw to it that I was well provided for, but she was immersed in church work and social activities and had no time to spare for those other needs every child has. There was no communication between us. We respected each other and kept our distance. Aunt Angela gave me a pleasant room and fed me and went on about her business. I was left free to roam the woods and walk the shore and dream of another, happier existence.
In memory, I can see myself back then. Was ever a child so plain, so serious? I was terribly scrawny, and my long brown braids were drab, the color of mud. My face was thin, and people told me I was always frowning. I remember being filled with doubt and insecurity. I wasn't meek and docile, no. I was fierce and independent and belligerent, unlovable because I was without love. I was hateful to Maudie. I kept to myself. There was a crusty shell around me, and it was only when I was alone that the real Carolyn was able to exist.
I spent several hours a day at my secret cove. Sometimes I would take along a book or my sketch pad and crayons, but usually I was content to sit and dream. The shore was wild and rugged, reached by a twisting, dangerous path down the side of the cliff. Great jagged boulders rose along the water, foaming waves lashing against them in fierce onslaughts; the air was laced with a strong, salty tang. There were barren stretches of beach littered with driftwood and broken shells, and always the gulls screamed as though in anguish. The cove was different. No larger than a room, it was surrounded by rock on three sides and sheltered a tiny yellow beach. There were crevices in the rocks where sand crabs scurried, and there was a small pool, blue and amethyst, alive with beautiful, exotic water creatures. The cove was snug, protected from the savage waves, and by sitting on one of the rocks I could look directly across to the island.
It was hot that mid-August day as I made my way down the steep pathway cut into the side of the cliff. The sky was yellow white; heat shimmered in visible waves. The water was pearl gray with deep bronze shadows, and calm, slipping over the rocks and washing over the sands with a quiet, slushing noise. Defiantly barefoot, wearing a short, ragged blue dress, I clambered over the boulders like a young mountain goat, pausing to stare into the depths of purple and azure pools nestled among the rocks. I picked up a tiny coral and orange shell and examined it. It was beautiful, delicately formed, the loveliest by far of any I had found. I would keep it always. It would remind me of the coast when I was banished to the gray school back in the city. I would be leaving soon. Soon I would no longer be able to visit my island.... I hurried along, eager to sit and stare, eager to dream.
By the time I neared the cove, my dress clung to me in damp patches of perspiration, and one of my braids had come undone. All arms and legs, my calves covered with a network of scratches, I must have looked an awkward, gawky puppet with stringy hair and heat-flushed cheeks. The boy stared at me as though I were an apparition, and my eyes widened with surprise when I saw him sitting there on my rock. His rowboat was pulled up on the small stretch of beach, and he dangled a fishing line into the pool. Surprise turned to fury. Dropping the tiny shell into my pocket, I glared at him with undisguised menace, my hands balled into fists. He merely grinned, and that infuriated me all the more.
He was perhaps thirteen years old, tall, with a healthy, muscular build. He wore scuffed tennis shoes, tight trousers bleached bone white, and a loose black and white striped jersey with the sleeves pushed up over his elbows. His shaggy dark blond hair curled behind his ears and fell across his forehead in tattered locks, making a startling contrast with his deep tan. His eyes were gray, surrounded by sooty lashes.
He stood up, his wide pink mouth curling in an infuriating grin, and I drew back. He was beautiful, a bronzed young Adonis with sun-streaked hair. I was afraid without knowing why. I hated him, because he had invaded my cove, and because I was ugly and awkward and insecure. I knew he was probably laughing at me. I wanted to hit him, and I wanted to burst into tears and run fleeing along the shore.
"Hello there," he said. His voice was low for one his age.
"This is my cove," I informed him coldly.
"You own it?" he inquired.
"Go away." I glared at him.
"What's your name?"
"That's none of your business!"
"I'm Grey. Grey Brandon. You've got sand on your knees."
I brushed my knees angrily. Grey thrust his hands into his pockets and smiled. With great natural charm, he exuded an affable, nonchalant warmth that made itself felt immediately. Most people are helpless in the face of such magnetism, and I was no exception. I could feel my anger melting, and I fought to hold on to it. I didn't want to give in to that charm. Defiantly, I stared at him, and Grey gave his head a little shake and shrugged his shoulders. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out a chocolate bar and began to unwrap it.
"Want some chocolate?"
"No, thank you!"
"Suit yourself," he retorted. Sitting back down on the rock, knees spread out, he began to eat the candy, ignoring me. My cheeks were flushed, and I felt warm all over. There was an ache inside that I couldn't understand. Part yearning, part sadness, it mounted, and I could feel the corners of my mouth begin to tremble.
"I thought maybe we could be friends," he said indifferently, without looking at me. "I don't have any friends. I hoped maybe you'd be one."
"You—you don't have any friends?"
"Not one," he retorted. "There aren't many boys my age on the island."
"You live on the island?"
Grey nodded, finishing the chocolate bar and wiping his hands on the rock. I felt regret. I loved chocolate and I rarely had any. I wished I had taken some.
"Why do you call this your cove?" he asked.
"Because I come here every day. It's my secret place. Now it's not secret anymore. You've spoiled it."
"It could be our secret place," he suggested.
"I—I don't know," I said. But I was gradually giving in, succumbing to that powerful charm. "You're a boy. I don't like boys."
"They're mean and nasty."
"Do you think I'm mean?"
"You might be."
"I rarely beat up little girls," he said gravely. "Come sit down. I won't bite you."
Hesitant, ill at ease, I obeyed, sitting on the rock beside him. He grinned, and I suddenly felt glad, experiencing a happiness I hadn't known for a very long time. The hot sun caressed my cheeks, the salty air was inebriating, the sound of the waves brushing against the rocks was like music. Grey reached into his pocket to pull out another chocolate bar. I accepted it shyly. His remarkable gray eyes were filled with pleasure as he watched me eat it.
"I'm Carolyn," I said. "I don't have any friends either."
"Well, now we both have a friend."
"Yes," I said quietly.
"I'm glad I met you."
"I—I'm glad, too. Thank you for the chocolate."
"Tell me about yourself, Carolyn."
"I'm an orphan. My father died when I was five. My mother—my mother stepped in front of a bus."
"That must have been dreadful for you."
With the calm, total frankness of children, I told Grey Brandon about myself, and he listened with a serious expression, nodding now and then. I felt that he understood, that he sympathized. Grey was silent for a while when I finished, and then he looked at me with something like anger. I knew the anger wasn't directed at me. It was directed at the world, at fate. He had experienced tragedy, too. I could sense that.
"Everything's going to be different now," he said sternly. "I'll look after you."
"'Course I will. You're my friend."
It happened that quickly, that simply. Children are direct, with none of the sham and pretense of adults. They respond immediately, with total commitment. A short while ago Grey and I had been strangers, and now we were bound together. I felt that I had known him all my life. We talked for a long time as the gulls screeched overhead and the waves slushed gently over the sand. Warmed by the sun and by his presence, I sighed, completely at ease now. I had never been happier in my life.
Then Grey was silent, staring across at the island with a moody expression. He had told me nothing about himself, but I assumed he was the son of one of the island fishermen. The striped jersey and sun-bleached trousers led me to think so. His tanned skin and streaked hair showed he had spent a great deal of time out-of-doors. Rowing and working on his father's boat probably accounted for the firmness of his body, which was extremely well developed for one so young.
A stiff wind blew over the water, causing his rowboat to rock with a wobbling motion, straining at the rope. Locks of sun-bleached hair fluttered across his forehead, and the loose tail of his black and white jersey flapped. Arms folded across his chest, Grey stared at the island, a curious look in his eyes. Was it sadness? Fear? Resentment? I couldn't tell, but once again I sensed some tragedy in his life. Perhaps that was what drew us together: both of us had experienced grief.
Grey sighed and shook his head, snapping out of his mood. His mouth curved in an amiable smile, and as he looked at me his eyes smiled too. He was the brother I had never had. I was his little sister. It was so natural being with him, so right. Heat waves shimmered in the air, and the gulls continued to screech, flapping overhead like scraps of paper. Grey touched my hair, rubbing a straggly lock between his fingers.
"You're very young," he said.
"I'm eleven," I retorted.
"You're very innocent. Very trusting, too. Terrible things happen to little girls who are too trusting. You shouldn't be here with me, you know. You should never speak to strangers."
"You're not a stranger, not anymore."
"I could have been someone evil. I could have hurt you."
"Don't be silly, Grey."
"Promise me you won't ever speak to strangers again."
"I promise. But—why?"
"I wouldn't want anyone to hurt you."
"I can take care of myself," I said irritably.
"Can you? I wonder. Anyway, I'm here to take care of you now."
He laughed, tugging my hair playfully. "Your braids are all undone," he said. "Let me fix them."
"You wouldn't know how."
"'Course I would. When I was a little boy I used to braid my grandmother's hair."
"All right," I agreed, "but be careful not to pull."
Positioning himself behind me, he loosened the braids, combing my hair with his fingers. Slowly, carefully, he began to loop the strands together into new braids, twisting them tightly without pulling. I leaned against his knees, my head tilted back to face the sky, my eyes closed, hot rays of sunshine stroking my cheeks. Grey finished the task, tying the braids with the scraps of blue ribbon I had used before. He rested his hands on my shoulders, fingers kneading the flesh ever so gently, and I smiled, wondering if it was a sin to be so happy.
"I wish we were older," he said.
"'Cause then we could get married and run away together."
"You'd leave the island?"
"I'd never want to leave it," I said dreamily.
He didn't say anything. Straightening up, I turned around to look at him. His handsome face was grave, and that curious look was back in his eyes. He was unhappy, and his unhappiness had something to do with living on the island. I remembered some of Maudie's tales about the place. Was it really cursed? Had all those evil things actually happened there? I didn't want to know. I didn't want anything to spoil my imaginary haven.
"You're ever so lucky to live on the island," I remarked.
"You think so?"
"I—I live there, too," I said shyly. "In my imagination. I go to the island and everything is different. Safe, and peaceful, and—well, different. I suppose you think that's silly."
"Not at all."
"Is it true that pirates and smugglers used to hide out there?"
Excerpted from Room Beneath the Stairs by Jennifer Wilde. Copyright © 1975 Tom E. Huff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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