The house was enormous, frighteningly ugly, and Jace Montgomery had just paid four and a half million dollars for it.
As he drove his car slowly through the wrought-iron gates that were set inside square brick pillars topped by stone lions, he dreaded seeing the house. Priory House was his now, but he could remember little from his one-time viewing with the realtor. The graveled road meandered through parkland that was quite pretty. He’d been told that the gardens had been laid out in 1910 by some famous landscape architect. The trees were now mature, the flowering shrubs were well established, and the grass perfect. If Jace were a horseman, which he wasn’t, the parkland would have been a dream come true.
As he neared a big oak tree, he pulled over, stopped the car, and got out. In a moment the house would come into view, and he needed to prepare himself for it. To keep himself solvent, he’d borrowed the purchase price from his billionaire uncle. Since the house had been on the market for over three years, Jace knew that when the time came to sell the house, it would be a pain to unload.
He’d tried to rent the house, but the owner wouldn’t consider it. The man wanted to get rid of the monstrosity free and clear.
“All right,” Jace said to the realtor, or estate agent as they were called in England, “what’s wrong with the house? Other than being ugly, that is.” He imagined plumbing that was perpetually clogged, low-flying jets, murderous neighbors. At the very least, dry rot.
“It seems that there’s a ghost,” Nigel Smith-Thompson said with the air of a man who doesn’t believe in such things.
“Don’t all old houses in England have a ghost?” Jace asked.
“We were told that this ghost is particularly persistent. She appears rather often and it annoys the owners.”
Scares the hell out of them is what you mean, Jace thought. “Is that why the house has changed hands so often?” When Jace asked to borrow the money from his uncle to buy the house, Uncle Frank had had it thoroughly researched. Since the late nineteenth century, the house had never been owned by anyone for more than three years. Uncle Frank’s conclusion was that the house was a bad investment and Jace shouldn’t buy it. Jace hadn’t said a word, just handed his uncle the envelope he’d found inside a book that had belonged to Stacy. Frank took the photo of the house out of the envelope, looked at it in distaste, then turned the picture over. On the back someone had written “Ours again. Together forever. See you there on 11 May 2002.”
It took Frank a moment to put it all together. “Stacy died on...?”
“The next day.” Jace took a breath. “On the twelfth of May, Stacy Evans, my fiancée, committed suicide in a room over a pub in Margate, England.”
Frank picked up the envelope and read the postmark. “This was sent from Margate and the postmark is the eighth of April.”
Jace nodded. “Someone sent that to her before we left for England.” He thought back to the trip that had changed his life. Jace had worked in the family business of buying and selling companies since the day he graduated from college. Less than a week before he was to marry Stacy, his uncle Mike, Frank’s brother, had called and said that the owner of an English tool manufacturing plant was pulling out of the sale. If that happened, three export deals would fall through and about a hundred people would be out of work. Since it had been Jace who’d negotiated the deal, he’d been the only one who could put it back together. He told Stacy he was sorry but he was going to have to fly to England. He promised that he’d work night and day and be back as soon as possible.
But Stacy had surprised him by asking to go with him. “I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to go,” Jace said. “The truth was, I didn’t want to have to deal with her stepmother. Stace had enough stress on her without a foreign trip thrown into it all.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Frank said. “If Stacy said no to purple daisies then Mrs. Evans went on a campaign for masses of purple daisies. Anything to cause problems—and to put the attention on herself.”
Jace looked away for a moment. There had been no love between the young, beautiful Mrs. Evans and her stepdaughter, who was just a bit younger than she was but a great deal more beautiful—and a great deal more elegant. Stacy was the kind of woman who could wear a sweatsuit and people would know she came from money and breeding. Her father was a self-made man, but Stacy’s mother had come from an old family: penniless, but with ancient bloodlines.
It was only after Stacy’s death that her stepmother had professed great love for her stepdaughter, and she’d made Jace’s life miserable. At the funeral Mrs. Evans had screamed that Stacy’s suicide was Jace’s fault. “You killed her!” she screamed in front of everyone. “Did you find somebody you liked better so you took Stacy out of the country, away from her family, so you could drive her to death in secret?”
It had all been absurd, of course, but it hurt just the same. Jace had loved Stacy with all his heart, and he had no idea why she’d killed herself just days before their wedding.
“You think this house has something to do with Stacy’s death, don’t you?” Frank asked.
“I have nothing else to go on.” Jace got up and began to pace the room. “It’s been three years, yet it’s all I can think of. That moment when Stacy’s sister threw the suicide note in my face and told me I had killed her sister haunts me every hour of every day.”
“What did the psychiatrist say?” Frank asked softly.
Jace waved his hand. “I quit going to him. We spent six months talking about Stacy and me. What deeply buried, hideous things had I done to her in secret—secret even from myself—that made her take her own life? He got frustrated because I couldn’t come up with anything, so he started on my family. When he concluded that I felt unworthy because I’d been born into a family that has money, I got out of there.”
Frank looked at Jace hard. “So after you buy this white elephant of a house, then what?”
Jace sat back down. “I don’t know. All I know is that I have to make this pain stop.” When he looked at his uncle, his eyes were full of such anguish that Frank’s breath stopped for a moment. “I haven’t touched a woman in three years. Every time I take a woman out, I think about Stacy.”
“No one truly believes it was your fault. I think Stacy must have been unbalanced. She—”
“That’s what everyone tells me.” Jace got up again, anger beginning to boil inside him. “But Stacy wasn’t unbalanced. She was sweet and kind and funny. We used to laugh over the silliest things. She didn’t care about my family name. She laughed when Forbes magazine declared us one of the richest—” He broke off and ran his hand over his face. “I’ve been over all this a thousand times, in my mind and with the doctor.”
“And with your family.”
“Yes,” Jace said. “With everyone. I know I’ve been a bore and a pest, but I seem to be in the middle of a whirlpool. I can’t go up, down, back, forth, nowhere. If I could put it behind me, I would. ‘Get on with your life,’ as everyone keeps telling me to do.” Jace sank onto the chair. “If I could figure out what happened and why, maybe I could go on.”
“And what if you find out something you don’t like?”
“You mean that I might find out that I’m such a monster that she knew if she wanted to call off the wedding I’d refuse? Or maybe I’ll find out that the only way she could get away from me was to kill herself.”
“You don’t believe that and neither does anyone who knows you. What’s really eating at you?”
Jace looked away for a moment, then back at his uncle, his face bleak. “I need to understand what happened. The horror of it is bad enough, but the mystery of it is driving me insane. Stacy and I were in a hotel in London and we had a fight.” He took a breath. “Out of the blue, she told me she didn’t want to have children. My mind was fully on getting that man to sell his company to us. He’d asked for verification of our family’s good financial standing back seven years. The truth was, the man was a snob and I think he really wanted to know our family tree back seven generations. I was swamped with work and frantically trying to get back in time for the wedding. Stacy had to say it twice before I heard her, then I thought she was kidding. She said she had put off telling me, but she couldn’t leave it any longer.”
Jace took a breath, then let it out. “It was an argument that got out of hand. Everything I said seemed to make her angrier. When I said she might change her mind, she said I was accusing her of being a person who couldn’t make a decision. Finally I told her it was okay, that I loved her enough that if we didn’t have children it would be all right. That’s when she started crying and ran out of the room. I thought she’d gone out for a walk to cool down. I didn’t know it, but she’d taken the rental car.”
Jace stopped talking, drained from yet again telling the same story. He’d agreed to be hypnotized in an attempt to remember more of that night, but even in a trance the events didn’t change.
The next morning Jace awoke to find that Stacy hadn’t returned to their room. At the time, he’d been more angry than worried, and he’d spent the day with the owner of the tool company. That night, after a long, hard day, he’d returned to their hotel room to find that Stacy hadn’t been back. Jace called the police.
But by that time, Stacy’s sister in the United States had been notified by the English police of the death by apparent suicide of her sister. Stacy had taken a full bottle of her own prescription sleeping pills. Her passport had been in her handbag and the person marked to notify was her sister.
Jace had not been allowed near Stacy’s body and the police had looked at him as though he’d murdered her. In three days, Jace had gone from being a happy man who was looking forward to his marriage to a man who was reviled by his dead fiancée’s family.
Since then, his life had not existed. He’d slept and eaten, and even worked some, but he wasn’t really alive. The questions “Why had this happened?” and “What really happened?” haunted him incessantly. He’d tried everything he could to get rid of the doubts that now ruled him, but he was unable to. He’d gone on a few dates, but he couldn’t be himself. He was polite to the point of coldness, and a first date never turned into a second.
Jace had thought that he and Stacy were a happy couple. He thought they’d had no secrets. Stacy was a legal secretary in an old, established New York law office, and even according to her bosses she nearly ran the office. She remembered where every brief was and every due date. And her classiness had fit their image of themselves. They always had her greet new clients. All of the young lawyers had tried to date her, but she’d have none of them. She used to smile graciously and say that when she met the man of her dreams, she’d know him.
And that’s how it had happened. Jace had walked into the boardroom, a briefcase full of papers about a building in Greenwich Village that his company was buying, and he’d looked up and seen her. She’d been handing out documents to each lawyer, but with her eyes on Jace, she’d shoved them into the hands of a lawyer and left the room.
Jace hadn’t been able to concentrate. For the first time in his life, he lost his train of thought and signed contracts that he didn’t read. He was oblivious to the smirks and smiles of the lawyers around him. They had all tried with the beautiful, elegant Stacy, but she’d politely but firmly told them no. They could now see that her days of being the untouchable maiden were over.
After the meeting, Jace had stood outside the boardroom door and looked for her. Another secretary, smiling, had pointed the way to him and he’d walked to her desk. She was waiting for him, her coat on, and they’d left the office to go to lunch.
After that, they’d been inseparable. They’d talked and laughed and during the three years they knew each other, Jace had thought they’d told each other all about their lives.
But they hadn’t. He had told her all about himself, but it seemed that Stacy had had secrets.
Jace looked back at his uncle Frank. “I can’t go forward until I do all that I can to find out what happened and why.”
“And you think this house has something to do with it?”
“Maybe not the house, but certainly whoever she was to meet that night. Stacy had some connection to that village and to someone in it. People there know things that they haven’t told.”
“Couldn’t you hire—?”
“A private detective? I thought of that, but I think that if anyone walked into that small village and started asking questions, the people would clam up.”
“So how does buying an expensive, ugly old house help you?”
Jace shrugged. “Maybe it won’t, but I thought I’d say I was writing a book on local history. Some woman who robbed stagecoaches lived in the house and it’s said that she now haunts it. Writing a book would give me an excuse to ask questions.”
“Be careful. The lady highwayman may turn out to be an ancestor of ours.”
“None of the women in our family would do that,” Jace said and almost smiled.
“You did hear about our ancestor who was called ‘the Raider,’ didn’t you?”
“Of course I did.” Jace looked at his uncle pointedly. “Will you help me or not?”
“You couldn’t rent the house?”
Jace gave his uncle a hard look. Jace had money of his own, quite a bit of it, but the bulk of it was tied up in long-term investments. He could have gone to a mortgage company, but his family liked to keep to themselves. Jace didn’t like having to borrow money, but he also didn’t like that his uncle was treating him like a kid.
“I’ll give you the money,” Frank said.
“Lend me the money.”
Frank nodded, then looked at his watch. “I have a meeting. Tell me how much and where and the money will be wired.”
True to his word, Frank had sent the money. Jace had already repaid part of it by selling the house he had bought for Stacy and himself. It had been vacant for years, partly furnished, ready to receive the bride and groom. Jace often remembered the day they’d closed on the house. He’d carried her across the threshold, both of them laughing and pretending the ordeal of the wedding was over. They’d drunk champagne while sitting on the new sofa they’d chosen together and talked about their future. Stacy had surprised him by saying she wanted to go back to school to get her law degree. Jace had agreed readily. He liked the idea of having a lawyer for a wife.
He brought himself back to the present and looked up at the sky. The sun was shining brilliantly; a beautiful day. He had to get back in the car and go to that house. Already he missed his family, missed their concern and their efforts to cheer him up. In the years since Stacy’s death, his family had never failed to listen to him and to try to understand. But he knew he was wearing on them. How many times could a person go over the same material? How long could he stand in one place and not move forward? Last month his uncle Mike told him that he had to either move forward or die. “Is that what you want to do?” Mike asked, his eyes angry. “Have you so glorified Stacy that you want to die with her?”
Jace couldn’t meet his uncle’s eyes, and that’s when he realized he had to do something. Good or bad, he had to. A few days later, he was looking for a book when he’d pulled out a paperback that had fallen to the back of the shelves. He was still living in the small apartment that he and Stacy had shared. Her sister, in a rage after the funeral, had gone to the apartment and taken whatever she thought had belonged to Stacy. Jace had returned to an apartment that was cleaned out, almost as though Stacy had never lived there with him.
When the paperback fell on the floor, he saw that it was the one Stacy had been reading just before they left for England. For a moment, Jace forgot that she was gone and almost called out to her. When it hit him yet again that she was dead, he clutched the book and collapsed onto a chair.
He looked at the book with its gaudy cover and smiled. He used to tease Stacy that she had “low-class taste” when it came to novels. “I read legal papers most of the time,” she’d said, “so at home I need fun reading. You should try them. They’re great.”
He got up, meaning to put the book by his bedside, but something fell onto the floor. When he picked up the envelope, his heart nearly stopped. It was postmarked “Margate,” the English village where Stacy had died.
Inside was the photo of an ugly house and on the back someone had written that he/she would meet Stacy the night before she died. “This is why she wanted to go to England,” he’d said aloud. It wasn’t that she wanted to be with him but that she was meeting another person. Who? Jace wondered. Why? Was it a man?
For days he thought of nothing but the photo. He memorized the words. “Ours again.” What did that mean? That Stacy had owned the house before? Jace spent sleepless nights going over everything Stacy had told him about her life. Her parents had divorced when she was three. Her mother had moved them to California while her father stayed in New York with his business. When Stacy was sixteen, her mother had died of cancer. One day she had a headache that wouldn’t go away, so she went to a doctor. Six weeks later she was dead. Stacy was sent to live with her father, a man she’d seen only a few times in her life. Stacy used to laugh when she said that at first they “didn’t get along.” She’d meant it as an understatement. She was a teenager and angry that her mother had been taken from her, and angrier still that she was sent to live with her father, who was always working and never had time for her. Stacy said that she managed to be so bad that after a year her father sent her back to California to live with her mother’s sister.
After Stacy graduated from Berkeley, she and her father finally became friends. But the friendship nearly died a year later when her father married a woman who was deeply jealous of Stacy.
Jace tried to remember all the places Stacy said she’d been. In the summers while she was in college, she used to go with a group of kids to Europe to “see the sights.” “My hippie days,” Stacy would say, laughing. Was that when she saw the house? Jace wondered. Is that when it was “theirs”?
He wanted to ask her father questions, but Mr. Evans had said that...Actually, Jace didn’t want to remember what Stacy’s father had said to him on the day of the funeral.
On impulse, Jace had gone to the Internet and brought up the name of the premier real estate agency in England, then typed in “Margate” for the location. The house was for sale. He recognized the photo as the one in the envelope and was sure that the picture of the house had been cut out of a sales brochure.
Jace downloaded the brochure for the house and read every word carefully. It was a very old house, part of it built on the remains of a monastery established in the early 1100s. When the Dissolution of the Monasteries was ordered in 1536, the brochure said it had been converted into a “stately manor house.”
The second Jace saw the house he knew what he had to do. He knew in his heart that the secret to why Stacy had killed herself was inside that house. She had been there before. She had met someone who was so important to her that when he/she had written just a few words, Stacy had figured out a way to go there to meet...him. Jace felt sure that she was meeting a man. Yes, he was jealous, but he was sane enough to know that there could have been reasons other than love to explain her actions.
When Jace knew he was going to buy the house, he said nothing to his family because he knew that whomever he told would come up with a sensible reason for why he shouldn’t. In the end, the only person he mentioned it to was his uncle Frank because he had the money that Jace needed to borrow to buy the big house.
When Jace got to the real estate office in London, the agent was cool and polite, but he got the feeling that the man and his office mates would be toasting with champagne if someone at last sold the odious old house. Maybe the realtor had an attack of conscience because he handed Jace a thick stack of brochures on other houses in England that were for sale. Jace had smiled politely, thanked him, then tossed them into the back of his brand-new Range Rover and left them there.
He saw the house only once before he bought it. It was a Sunday afternoon, raining hard outside, and the electricity had gone off. The darkness made the gloomy house even more dismal. But it didn’t matter as Jace hardly looked at the place. At least not at what the realtor was pointing out. Had Stacy sat on that window seat and looked out? he wondered. Had she climbed those stairs?
Since it was Sunday, he hadn’t met the housekeeper or the gardener. The realtor said that Jace was, of course, free to hire his own employees, but both of them had worked at the house for many years and—“Yes, I’ll keep them,” Jace had said. He didn’t plan to stay long enough to go to the bother of hiring new employees.
So now he was ready to take possession of the house and the contents. For an extra hundred grand, the realtor had persuaded the previous owner to leave behind a great deal of furniture and housewares. Few antiques, no valuable ornaments, but some couches, chairs, beds, and china were left. During the price negotiation, the owner had taken more time discussing the furniture than he had the house. Frustrated, Jace said, “Tell him that the ghost might have attached herself to the furniture and might leave with it.” He’d meant it as a joke and the realtor presented the statement as humorous, but the owner didn’t laugh. Immediately, he stopped haggling and gave in to Jace’s requests.
Now Jace got into his new car, turned on the engine, and continued to drive. When the house came into view, he sighed. Yes, it was as hideous as he remembered. From the outside, it looked to be an enormous square fortress, three stories high, with thick brick turrets pasted on top of each corner. The truth was that the house was hollow—or at least that’s how he thought of it. Although it looked to be solid, when you drove through a gap between the buildings, you were inside a large, graveled courtyard. If the house were seen from the air, it would look like a rectangle with an empty interior.
Inside, it was almost as though there were two houses, one for the owners and one for the staff that it took to run such a large place. Two sides of the box formed a normal house, with large rooms, several of which had beautiful ceilings. The other two sides had smaller rooms that contained the service areas, including the laundry and a big kitchen. There were also two apartments for the live-in staff.
Above the owners’ part of the house, there were two floors of bedrooms and baths. The master bedroom was huge, thirty by eighteen, and it had been connected to two smaller bedrooms that the previous owners used as giant closets. The third floor was a kids’ paradise, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms, and a walk-in closet under the eaves that could be used for a “hideout.”
Jace let the car roll through the wide opening between the buildings and into the courtyard. So far, he’d seen no one, not a gardener, nor the housekeeper, not even a kid on a lawn mower. He hadn’t even seen any animals. Were there animals on the grounds? Dogs? Sheep? Cows, maybe? For a moment he sat in the car and reminded himself that he was now the owner of the estate and should know whether or not there was livestock on his land.
When there was a knock on his car window, he jumped so high his head hit the ceiling. Turning, he saw a little old woman standing outside. She was short and plump, with rosy cheeks and an apron full of green beans. He pushed the button to lower the window.
“Well, come on,” she said in a thick accent that seemed to leave out half of each word. He had to wait a second before he understood her. “Are you gonna sit there all day or come inside and have some lunch? I’m servin’ Jamie today.”
With that, she bustled through a brick archway that was topped with a pointed roof. Jace hesitated for a second, then leaped out of the car and followed her. Life! he thought. She was the first sign of life he’d seen about the place. Besides, what with there being a north wing and a south wing and a main house, he feared she’d disappear and he’d never see her again. On the other hand, was she the ghost? She didn’t look like a swashbuckling lady highwayman, but...
Inside the house, there was no sign of a human. It was dead silent. The thick brick and stone walls kept out all sound. He was in the main reception hall and in front of him was a beautifully polished oak staircase. Halfway up was a tall, leaded glass window with a little round insert of a couple of lions. Where could she have gone? he wondered as his stomach gave a growl. He hadn’t eaten since early that morning and it was now after three.
He couldn’t remember the floor plan from when the realtor showed him the house. He took a right and went down a hallway, peeping into rooms as he went. He saw a big living room with oak paneling three-quarters of the way up the walls. Next to it was a kitchen. Eureka! he thought, but there was no one there. The cabinets were beautiful, the floor slate, the windows stone-cased. He opened the refrigerator. It was empty. Maybe the woman cooked outside. On a grill, maybe.
Vaguely, Jace remembered the realtor telling him that there were two kitchens, one for the family and one for Mrs. Browne. The man never called her “the housekeeper” but always referred to her by name, as though she was someone of significance.
Jace turned right and went past another little sitting room, then into a second drawing room. Huge, floor-to-ceiling windows ran along one side, while the other wall had nothing on it. “I’d put bookcases there,” he said aloud. “If I were staying here, that is.” The ceiling was rounded and covered with delicate designs done in plaster. There was no door except the one he’d entered through.
Turning, he backtracked until he got to the entrance hall. This time he took the old oak door to the left. This led into a narrow passage that took a sharp left turn. He went past a laundry big enough to take care of the crew of a submarine, an office, a little room that contained another staircase, a walk-in closet, a powder room, and a door to the outside. He had his hand on the knob to the exterior door when his nose made him turn left. He walked into a big kitchen that looked like something out of a history magazine. It was as unlike the other kitchen he’d seen as it could be. For one thing, there wasn’t one built-in cabinet. The walls were lined with a mixture of tall wardrobes and a Welsh dresser that displayed an amazing array of old dishes, none of which seemed to match. There was an old sink along one wall, one of the constantly on, beloved-by-the-English, multidoored Aga ranges on another wall, and a huge oak table in the middle of the room. The legs on the table were about a foot in diameter and turned into huge rounds.
Mrs. Browne was at the sink, her back to him. “Had trouble findin’ the place, did you?” she asked.
“Totally lost,” Jace said.
She turned around to look at him. “You’re a big one, aren’t you?” In her hand was a plate with a long sandwich on it. “And near as handsome as our Prince William. But not as handsome as my Jamie. Now sit down there and eat. You look starved. I imagine you been livin’ on sausages and burgers in the States. Now, sit and have a good meal.”
Like a child, Jace did as she told him to, pulling out an old oak chair and sitting down. The sandwich she put before him was divine: roast beef, cooked onions, and cheese on what he was willing to bet was homemade bread.
“Good,” he said, his mouth full. “Excellent.”
“It’s from me Jamie.”
“He your son?” Jace asked when he’d swallowed.
“Oh, heavens no! Wish he were, but then we all wish Jamie was our son.” She nodded toward a framed photo on the wall. Since it was half-buried under hanging pots, dish towels, and strings of garlic, he could barely see it. The photo was of a handsome young man, blond, blue-eyed, and he looked vaguely familiar. “He’s Jamie Oliver,” she said and seemed to expect Jace to know who that was. When he didn’t, she gave a look of disgust, her eyes wrinkling at the corners. Jace thought that whatever her age, it didn’t match her little-old-lady looks. He thought she was either a lot older than she appeared, or a lot younger.
“Jamie Oliver!” she said louder, as though Jace was deaf as well as ignorant.
When he still looked blank, she grabbed a thick book off the countertop and put it on the table beside him. It was a cookbook and on the cover was the young man in the photo on the wall. “Ah,” he said, “a cook.”
“Julia Child was a cook,” Mrs. Browne said, going to the cabinet beside the sink and opening a door. Inside was a refrigerator of a size that Americans would use to hold their drinks on the family boat. She withdrew a bottle of something dark and brown, poured a big glassful, and set it on the table in front of him.
She was looking at him as though he was supposed to say something.
“If this sandwich is an example of what Jamie Oliver can cook, then I say he’s an artist.”
She looked at Jace for a moment as though trying to figure out if he was lying, then she smiled, showing that her top left canine was missing. She seemed to be pleased and went back to the range to stir a pan.
Jace smiled, feeling that he’d passed Test Number One, and took a deep drink of what he assumed was beer. He didn’t usually drink beer in the afternoon, but he didn’t want to offend Mrs. Browne—again. The brown liquid was beer, but it was so strongly flavored and so strongly alcoholic that he thought he might choke. Mrs. Browne had her back to him, stirring her pot while she told him all about Jamie Oliver and what a magnificent chef he was and how she followed his advice to the letter. Behind her, Jace was quietly trying to rebound from the swig of beer. His eyes were watering and his head swimming. He thought he might have to lie down on the stone floor to recover.
Mrs. Browne turned around and looked at him, her eyes narrowed to slits. “That beer’s too strong for your American stomach, isn’t it? I told Hatch it wouldn’t suit you. ‘That’s English beer,’ I told him. ‘Yanks drink things that say “light” on the bottle. They don’t drink that homemade concoction of yours.’ Here, I’ll take it.”
As she reached for the glass, Jace felt that he was representing all of American maledom and he held onto the glass. “No,” he said, then cleared his throat since his voice had come out in a squeak. “No, it’s fine. I love it. See?” he said, then picked up the glass and drained it.
When he finished, he thought he might pass out, but by strength of will, he stayed in his seat and looked at her. He hoped his eyes weren’t going round and round as they felt like they were.
Mrs. Browne gave a little smile as though she knew exactly what was going on, then she turned back to her bubbling pot. “Well, maybe I was wrong about you Yanks. You go tell Hatch that you like his beer and he’ll give you more.”
“That’ll be a treat,” Jace said under his breath, then tried to pick up his sandwich, but missed. His hands went one way and the sandwich another. “Who is Hatch?”
She turned on him, hands on hips. “Didn’t that uppity estate agency tell you anything? Hatch is the gardener. Of course he hasn’t been here as long as I have, and I have no idea what his parents did before he came here, but he’s been here a while. He’ll be wantin’ instructions from you as soon as you’re finished here.”
Jace again tried to get his hands onto his sandwich but again missed.
Frowning, Mrs. Browne moved the plate under his hands. When Jace got hold of the sandwich, he smiled at her in accomplishment.
“Instructions about what?” Jace asked, his mouth trying to hit the sandwich. He bit his hand twice, but it was numb so he felt nothing.
Mrs. Browne was watching him and shaking her head. “The gardens. Hatch will want to know what you want done to the gardens.”
“I have no idea,” Jace said as he sank his teeth into the sandwich. That the little finger on his left hand was in the bite didn’t bother him. “I know nothing about gardens.”
“Then why did you buy this great bloomin’ place?”
“To see the ghost,” Jace said, chewing and wondering how much of his little finger was left.
Mrs. Browne smiled warmly. “And she’ll be glad for the company. The last two families were scared to death of her. Poor thing.”
“Then you’ve seen her?”
“No,” she said, turning back to her pot. “Never seen her or heard her. I’m not a ‘sensitive,’ as they’re called. Some people can see her and some can’t. She talked to a few of ’em, but they all got scared and run away. You gonna be calm when she comes clankin’ down the stairs in the wee hours?”
“Maybe I’ll give her some of Mr. Hatch’s beer. That should loosen her chains.”
Mrs. Browne laughed. It was a rusty sound, as though she didn’t laugh often. “You go on now and have a look-see. Unless you need to lie down a bit on a count a the English beer.”
Jace heaved himself up by his arms because he was dead from the waist down. “Tell me, Mrs. Browne, am I bleeding anywhere?”
Again came that rusty little sound. “You go on now. I’m spendin’ the afternoon with me Jamie so you can have a good dinner. Hatch makes wine as well as beer.”
“Lord save me,” Jace muttered as Mrs. Browne put her strong hands on his lower back and gave him a push. When he opened his eyes he was standing outside and the door was being closed behind him. The sunlight threatened to crack his brain open.
“So you came to see me, did you, Mr. Montgomery?” said a soft voice behind him, a woman’s voice.
Jace turned as fast as he could, but considering the state of his body, that wasn’t very fast. No one was there, but he thought he smelled something. Flowers and wood smoke, he thought. It lasted only a second, then it was gone.
He turned back, put his hand over his eyes, and looked out across the gardens. Green trees, green grass, flowers. He saw it all, but there was no person in sight. Had he just been spoken to by a ghost? He smiled. Maybe he should have been frightened, but he had an odd thought. He could say anything to a woman who was already dead and he wouldn’t have to worry about the consequences. “You can’t hurt someone who’s already dead,” he said aloud.
“That proves that you didn’t meet the nasty little boy who lived here in 1912,” came the woman’s voice, so soft the wind in the trees almost drowned it.
Jace gave the first semblance of a laugh that had passed his lips in years. He put his hands in his pockets and tried to lift his neck, which was nearly as numb as his feet, and went in search of the gardener.