The USA Today–bestselling author crafts a haunting Southern tale of a house that harbors centuries-old sorrows and a family fraught with lies.
“Do you know what stories Sarah could tell you about the things that happened in these little cabins? They’d curl that pretty red hair of yours.”
Outside of Charleston, South Carolina, beyond hanging curtains of Spanish moss, at the end of a shaded tunnel of overarching oaks, stands the antebellum mansion of Peppernell Manor in all its faded grandeur. At the request of her friend Evie Peppernell, recently divorced Carleigh Warner and her young daughter Lucy have come to the plantation house to refurbish the interior. But the tall white columns and black shutters hide a dark history of slavery, violence, and greed. The ghost of a former slave is said to haunt the home, and Carleigh is told she disapproves of her restoration efforts. And beneath the polite hospitality of the Peppernell family lie simmering resentments and poisonous secrets that culminate in murder—and place Carleigh and her child in grave danger . . .
“If you’re a fan of Gothic Romantic Suspense novels by Phyllis A. Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Barbara Michaels, you’re going to love The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor.” —Jane Reads
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The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor
By AMY M. READE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Amy M. Reade
All rights reserved.
It had been a long drive to South Carolina, but Lucy and I had made the best of it, giggling through nursery rhymes, eating fast food, making silly faces at each other in the rearview mirror, and playing I Spy on every highway between Chicago and Charleston.
We arrived one sultry afternoon in late August last year. I barely remembered the back roads from Charleston to Peppernell Manor, so it was like watching the scenery unfold over the miles for the first time. Spanish moss hung low to the ground from stately trees over a century old. Perfectly still water reflected the magnolias and camellias and the hazy sky in the Lowcountry lakes and waterways that we passed. Lacy clumps of wildflowers nodded languidly as we drove by. Lucy was interested in everything that whizzed past the windows of the car, commenting excitedly on all the new sights as we drove toward Peppernell Manor.
"Look at the cows! Moo!"
"Look at the pretty flowers!" she would pipe up from the backseat in her high-pitched little-girl voice. I loved driving with her because she helped me see all the things I missed with my adult eyes.
As we got closer to Peppernell Manor, I found myself sharing her excitement. I hadn't been there since college. My thoughts stretched back to the only other time I had visited South Carolina, when Evie took me to her home for a long weekend. We had gone sightseeing in Charleston, horseback riding, boating on the Ashley River, and on a tour of an old Confederate field hospital nearby. But despite all the fun we had, it wasn't the activities I remembered best about that trip—it was her house.
Manor, actually. Peppernell Manor had been in her family for generations and even though it had seen better days and was in need of some work, it was exquisite. As a lover of art I could appreciate its romance and graceful architecture, but as a history major I was more interested in the home's past as a plantation house.
It was to this plantation house that I was returning, this time with my daughter.CHAPTER 2
I had been surprised to get Evie's phone call a month earlier at my office in Chicago with that offer that was too good to refuse.
"You remember Peppernell Manor," Evie had said.
"I remember it very well," I answered.
"It needs refurbishing badly. Gran doesn't know what to do with it. I told her that you're the best restoration specialist money can buy," she told me excitedly. I smiled into the phone.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done. It needs attention from top to bottom. The whole family voted and the job is yours. If you want it," she added hastily.
I was thrilled. Of course I wanted it!
But I had some practical concerns. First, I wasn't sure I should leave my business for an extended period. Luckily, my assistants, a capable young architect and his interior-designer wife, assured me that they would manage the restoration firm during my absence with the same attention to detail and respect for the past that had made Warner Restorations a success.
Second, and more importantly, I knew I would have a hard time convincing my ex-husband to let Lucy come with me and there was no way I was leaving her behind to take a job in South Carolina.
"You must be nuts," he said flatly when I first broached the subject with him.
"Think about it, Brad. It would only be temporary, while I'm working on the restoration. And we could come back to Chicago a few times so you could see her for extended periods. Or you could even come down to South Carolina to see her and stay as long as you like. And I'll make sure she calls you every night."
Silence. I waited. Brad loves Lucy, but he loves himself more. I could almost hear him thinking about all the free time he could have without a toddler to care for on the weekends.
"You would take good care of her?"
"I won't even answer such a stupid question."
"Well, let me think about it."
"That's all I ask."
In the end, he decided his weekends with the new girlfriend were more important than his weekends with Lucy. I knew that's what would happen. Lucy and I left a few weeks later.
And after several long days on the road, we had finally arrived at our destination. I turned off the main road. Driving up to Peppernell Manor was not like going up any other driveway. I slowed the car to a crawl so we could enjoy the view. The sweeping allée, the rows of oaks that lined the long brick drive to the house, looked as old and graceful as it had during my first visit to this remarkable place. The branches of the trees arched over the drive to form a dappled tunnel through which visitors were given their first glimpse of the home beyond. Lucy squealed with delight when she saw those big old trees. She had never seen anything like that long drive with its arching branches back in Chicago. At the end of the allée the driveway formed a wide, sweeping circle in front of the house.
The manor house was a gem of Federalist architecture. It was a huge square structure with white clapboard siding that was set off by tall black shutters outside each of the many windows. A large veranda yawned between two enormous white pillars. The brick front steps separated at the top to sweep down to the ground from the left and the right. Below the veranda and stretching all around the manor were whitewashed brick archways through which one could glimpse large windows gazing into the basement. Despite the beauty of the old house, I could see where the paint was peeling and where the hinges had come loose from some of the shutters. The manor had a neglected air about it.
I parked my car along the side of the circle and got out to extract Lucy from the back. As I helped the small, wriggling body out of the car seat, we both turned to see Evie running down the front staircase.
"Carleigh!" she shouted, a huge smile lighting up her face.
I put Lucy down and turned to give my friend a big hug. Though we had kept in close contact in the years since college, I hadn't seen her since graduation and I had missed her. We shared photos online and frequent e-mails and phone calls, but it wasn't the same as seeing each other in person.
Evie crouched down next to Lucy, wrinkling her linen sheath dress. "You must be Lucy. I recognize you from your mom's pictures!" she said brightly.
Lucy nodded, averting her eyes from Evie, and held my hand.
"Lucy, you remember me telling you about Evie. She's our good friend," I told her gently. "You can say hello."
"Hello," she said shyly, then turned her head to face my leg.
Evie smiled. "I'm very happy to meet you, Lucy. There are more friends to meet inside the house. Would you like to go in?" Lucy nodded again, her face still pressed against my shorts.
I picked her up and took the hand Evie offered me and the three of us walked up the stairs and into the manor.
We stepped into the expansive and breathtaking entry hall. Its marble floor and soaring ceiling lent an elegant coolness to the space that belied the sweltering heat and humidity just outside the door. A scuffed but gracefully curving mahogany staircase swept upward to the second floor. At the opposite end of the entry hall I could glimpse through another door the slow-moving Ashley River as it meandered past the property. Though not visible from this particular bend in the river, the magnificent, historic city of Charleston lay downstream about fifteen miles and across the water.
I set Lucy down, but she stayed close, grasping my hand. Evie pointed to the room on our right.
"Carleigh, you remember Cora-Camille, my grandmother," Evie said in her sweet Southern drawl. "She's right in there and she can't wait to see you."
We walked through the wide doorway into a large drawing room with tall windows that invited the light in from outdoors. Cora-Camille Chadwick-Peppernell, Evie's warm and gracious grandmother, stood up from where she had been reading a book on an old-fashioned sofa. She walked over to me with her hands outstretched.
"Carleigh Warner. It's been such a long time! Evie keeps us up to date with stories about you and your beautiful little girl, but it's just not the same as having you here. Welcome back!" She looked at Lucy. "I am so happy to meet you, Lucy. Will you call me Cora-Camille?"
Lucy shook her head.
Cora-Camille laughed. "How about Miss Cora? Do you like that better?"
"Yes," the child answered, her blond curls bobbing up and down.
"Then Miss Cora it is."
She held out her hand to Lucy, who took it after a quick look at me for approval. They walked over to the sofa where Cora-Camille had been sitting and she motioned Evie and me to sit down in the two chairs facing her.
"The others are all out right now, except for Ruby," Cora-Camille said with a smile. "They're all thrilled that you're here to do the restoration."
She looked fondly at Lucy. "I can't tell you how wonderful it is to have a child in this house again," she said wistfully. She turned to my daughter to talk of little-girl things, like dolls and stuffed animals and dress-up clothes. Evie got a work-related text and left the room, apologizing for having to reply right away.
While Cora-Camille and Lucy chatted, I had an opportunity to observe Evie's lovely grandmother. She had stood straight and tall the last time I was here, years ago, and though time had been kind to her, I could see the evidence of her aging. Her back was slightly less straight than it used to be, and her shoulders hunched forward just a bit. Her face was crisscrossed with wrinkles, the signs of a life well led. Her hair was a little thinner than I remembered it, but still a soft, glorious white. She and Lucy were both giggling and I knew they would be fast friends.
Evie returned and grinned at Cora-Camille and Lucy. "This is so good for Gran," she said softly. I nodded.
Cora-Camille turned to me. "Did you meet Ruby when you visited us before?"
"Not that I recall," I replied. I knew Ruby was Evie's aunt, Cora-Camille's daughter. Evie had spoken of Ruby in the past, but only briefly. I knew Ruby suffered from anxiety issues.
"Ruby has been so excited to meet you and Lucy," Cora-Camille told me. "She's been in the kitchen for hours, baking something special for you for dinner tonight."
Lucy bounced up and down. "What is it?" she cried.
Cora-Camille laughed again. "It's a surprise. You have to eat your dinner and then you'll find out."
"Is dinner now?"
"In a little while," I answered. "We have to get our things out of the car first and unpack."
She seemed eager to help with the unpacking, so the two of us and Evie walked back outdoors and took two suitcases from the trunk of the car. Though Lucy's bag had wheels, she struggled with it. I suggested that she take her stuffed bunny, Cottontail, into the house so I could take her bag. She agreed readily and ran ahead of me into the house, excited to introduce Cottontail to Miss Cora. Evie and I carried the bags upstairs, returning to the car several times for more luggage.
Once the car was unpacked, I moved it to a four-stall garage that had been erected on the left side of the driving circle since my last visit. Though it was relatively new, the garage had an antique look to it, with distressed white wooden clapboard siding and a loft, presumably for storage. The structure matched the manor well.
I went back into the house in search of Lucy. I could hear her talking excitedly in the back of the house, so I wandered back toward the kitchen. There I found Lucy, Cora-Camille, Evie, and another woman I assumed to be Ruby.
Lucy turned to me, pointing to a gorgeous cake on the counter.
"Mama! Ruby made cake!"
Ruby smiled shyly at me, her eyes downcast. She was of medium height and appeared to be in her sixties. The sides of her shoulder-length brown-gray hair were pinned to the top of her head with a barrette. She was dressed in a simple light pink shirtwaist.
"The cake is red on the inside!" Lucy said, grinning.
"How did you know red is Lucy's favorite color?" I asked Ruby with a wink.
"I love to make red velvet," she answered in a quiet voice.
"It looks delicious," I told her. Then, turning to Lucy, I suggested,
"Why don't we go upstairs and see where you and I are going to sleep?"
Evie led the way upstairs to one of the two guest bedrooms on the second floor. We had placed all the luggage on the floor just inside the door, so it was a bit of a mess. But the room was spacious and inviting, with plenty of storage for us to put away all of our clothes and other belongings. Lucy immediately went to the window to see what she could identify outside. She turned to me and yelled, "There's water down there!"
Evie joined her at the window, explaining that the water was part of the Ashley River and was very important to the Peppernell Manor farm.
"Are there animals on the farm?"
"Yes. We have some cows and horses, and of course chickens, and some sheep. Would you like to see them?"
Lucy jumped up and down, clapping. "Yes! Yes!"
Evie smiled at her. "Once you and Mama are done unpacking, we'll go for a drive and you can see some of the animals, okay?"
"Okay!" Lucy was beaming.
It took over an hour to hang up and put away all the clothes Lucy and I had brought. When we were done, we went downstairs in search of Evie. We found her in the kitchen talking to Ruby and she offered to take us to see the stables and pens. Lucy couldn't wait to see the animals. We all climbed into my car, but I let Evie drive. She swung out of the garage and down the long allée to the main road. She took a right turn and went a half mile or so, then pulled off the road onto a bumpy dirt track. We drove slowly for a couple minutes, then stopped next to an old stone stable. On the far side of the stable were a pen and another, larger, stone building.
"Want to see the horses first, Lucy?" asked Evie, her eyes twinkling.
"Yes!" came the answer from the backseat.
The three of us went into the stable. I was struck by the coolness of the building, despite the heat outside. It smelled of horses and leather. Horses could be heard whinnying and chewing and stomping, and Lucy could hardly contain her excitement. She ran along the stone floor, making neighing noises and peering in each stall, shrieking and clapping with delight at every horse. She pulled Evie along with her, demanding to know all their names.
"Can I ride one?"
"Sure," exclaimed Evie.
"No," I said firmly.
Evie glanced at me sheepishly. "Spoke too soon. Sorry."
"That's okay. I just think she's too little."
"But I want to ride one!" cried Lucy.
"You're too small to ride a horse. Maybe when you're bigger."
That's when the wailing started.
Evie grimaced. "I started all this. I'm really sorry."
I smiled at her. "It's no big deal. She's just exhausted. Lucy, would you like to see the other animals before we go back to Evie's house?"
Lucy nodded, red-eyed and sniffling.
Evie led us to the next stable. The tour of the second stable was quick because Lucy was getting so tired. We saw ducks, sheep, cows, pigs, and chickens, but by the end of the tour Lucy was barely able to drag her feet. I picked her up and we headed for the car.
Back at the manor, she took a short nap in our room while I caught up with Evie in the drawing room downstairs. Though I had wanted to wander through the rest of the rooms in the house, Evie convinced me to chat for a while before dinner, promising that we could tour the home after dinner.
"So how have things been—really—without Brad?" she began.
I grimaced. "Good riddance to him and that stripper girlfriend of his. Her name is Jilly, but I call her Jiggly. Not to Brad's face, of course.
"Can you believe he said I wasn't spontaneous enough? I guess if 'spontaneous' means leaving your family behind for someone you barely know, then he was right.
"When he first left, I was heartbroken. And furious with him and Jiggly. I felt like a failure. I was always exhausted, but I couldn't sleep at night. I cried a lot. It took me a long time to realize that the anger and hate were hurting me and Lucy much more than them. I had to let it all go for my own sanity. So I've moved on; I've stopped being so angry and now all I feel is relief. Not that I would ever want to go through it again, but it made me finally face the fact that he wasn't the one for me."
She put her hand on mine. "I'm so sorry for everything you had to go through. How'd he meet Jiggly, anyway?" I smiled at her use of my name for Jilly.
"At a bachelor party for his brother."
"You know, I never liked Brad, even in college," she revealed in a conspiratorial tone.
"Why not?" I asked in surprise.
"He was a control freak. He always had to be part of everything you did. We could never do anything alone, just us girls."
"I never noticed."
"Love is blind, Carleigh."
"I guess. But if it weren't for him, I wouldn't have Lucy. So I'm at least grateful to him for her."
"That's true," she conceded, then changed the subject.
"Are you dating? You look fabulous. I've always been jealous of that long red hair of yours," she sighed.
I laughed at her. "I'm through with men for a while. I'm just concentrating on Lucy and my work. Speaking of men, how's Boone?" Evie and Boone, a banker, had been together for years, but neither was ready to get married. Both of them always joked that they were already married to their jobs.
Excerpted from The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor by AMY M. READE. Copyright © 2015 Amy M. Reade. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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