"READERS OF RUTH WARE AND GILLIAN FLYNN WILL LOVE IT." LIBRARY JOURNAL (STARRED REVIEW)
"FASCINATING, BRILLIANT, CREEPY." GOOD HOUSEKEEPING
If you had the perfect life . . . how far would you go to protect it?
Professor Olivia Sweetman has worked hard to achieve the life of her dreams, with a high-flying career as a TV presenter and historian, three children, and a talented husband.
Only one other person knows that Olivia's perfect life is in fact a desperate tangle of lies: Vivian Tester, the socially awkward, middle-aged housekeeper of a Sussex manor who found the Victorian diary of a pioneering female surgeon on which Olivia's new biography is based.
In a gripping narrative that shifts between London, Sussex, and the idyllic South of France, Olivia and Vivian will learn knife-edged truths about themselves and discover just how far each will go to protect her reputation.
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)|
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Ileford Manor, East Sussex, two months previous
Summer has not come to Sussex this year. It has rained incessantly since early July and now in mid-August it shows no sign of abating. Sometimes fat balls roll from the clouds and bounce off the well cover and courtyard, filling all the dips and runnels, but mostly it is just a mindless gray drizzle that scribbles everything out.
I have taken to writing things down while I have my elevenses in the library every morning. I have bought a special notebook and I do it most days now. I need to make sense of how I came to be in this uncertain position. Writing things down seems to ease the chaos in my mind a little and, of course, it occupies my brain. After all, I cannot just sit here and wait for her. Not again.
My thoughts are as hectic as ants disturbed from a nest, they cannot be corralled. This is partly a result of sleep deprivation. Sleep has been problematic since I lost Bertie, but since Annabel came to an end the problem has worsened considerably. Last night I didn't drop off until very late. I slept fitfully for an hour or so, but then, as I knew she would, my visitor woke me just before dawn.
When Bertie was with me, she almost never came. He protected me from her as he did from so many of life's painful troubles. He was also a great comfort on the rare occasions that she did come. He would calm and reassure me; we would go and sit together in the kitchen, wrapped in a blanket, until my breathing and heart rate were steady. But now that Bertie is no longer with me, now that I'm alone again, she is back, and it is as bad now as it was when I was an adolescent — perhaps even worse. For the past nine days, she has appeared in my room nightly.
Perhaps the tension of waiting for Olivia has something to do with this. My mind has certainly become overactive. While there is always the cleaning and upkeep of the house — leaks to fix, dampness to treat, roof tiles to pin — these tasks do not occupy my brain. I did not realize how dependent I had become on working with Olivia, what purpose it gave me, until it was over. For eighteen months, my mind has been engaged. I had almost forgotten what it felt like to be stimulated by work. I was interested again, I was developing new skills and learning about the past.
I also, and perhaps this is the greatest surprise of all, miss the contact I had with Olivia. I have developed a great fondness — yes, even admiration — for Olivia, and I never for a moment believed that would be possible.
My email inbox is eerily silent now. The manuscript has been edited, though I have not seen the finished product. It is two months until publication and my services, it seems, are no longer required. It is hard to adjust to this. I have become accustomed to opening my computer every morning after breakfast to find my inbox full of Olivia's messages: responses to my queries, instructions on a new line of inquiry, discussion about how to approach a particular issue or section. Now that all this is over, my inbox is a wasteland. This morning I had four emails: one from a company offering knockdown deals on remedies for malaise or pitfall traps; another selling beating trays; a third, walking boots; and a fourth announcing the Marks & Spencer summer sale. I long for the words "Dear Vivian ..."
My coffee is getting cold, though I seem to have eaten my two biscuits without realizing it. I know I should not have the digestives every morning but this has been my habit for decades now and habits are very hard to change. The mere sight of the Japanese ladies on the biscuit tin seems to calm and reassure me. They are almost the only thing now that connects me to my old life and routines. I have always found it hard to let routines go, even when they no longer serve me well.
The library door is open, and the faint sound of the leak in the gunroom ceiling echoes across the great hall. Drops of rain burrow through the plaster, pause, then clang into the bucket. Ileford is in a permanent state of disintegration; it spits water from every joint, swells and groans and leaks around me. I seem to be constantly calling out roofers and plumbers and damp specialists. Increasingly I feel as if my body is mimicking the house. The joints of my fingers are swampy and tender, my ankles are swollen, and pockets of gas explode between my vertebrae when I twist or turn. My left knee is particularly troublesome. Sometimes it is reluctant to bend at all.
I have to get away from this place. I am impatient to get started on the new book. For the first time since my retirement, I can see a future for myself, but Olivia has gone silent. She has not even responded properly to my last email. I fleshed out the Chocolate Cream Poisoner idea for her in the hope of a more specific response or even instructions to start on the background work (which, of course, I already have). I sent it to her exactly nine days ago now — six full days before her departure — so she has had plenty of time to think about it.
Of course, I know that Olivia's life is very different than mine. She is terribly busy, and there are a great many demands on her time. But she could at least have given me an indication of her intentions. Instead, all I got was "Thank you for this, I'll certainly take a look when I get back from my holiday."
It never occurred to me when I began this that I might end up working with Olivia, or even that there would be a book. My plan was simply to allow her to write an academic paper on the diary.
I had a strategy worked out for piquing her interest. I knew she was likely to come to the Farmhouse at half-term, so I managed to persuade Maureen to visit her sister in Jersey while I filled in for her at the museum. I knew it would be better if Olivia came to me rather than the other way around.
If that hadn't worked — if she hadn't responded to the flyer — then the next step would have been to write to her explaining that I had a sensational and unseen Victorian source and offer to bring it to her Bloomsbury office. I would have said I had seen her BBC documentary about insane Victorian women and felt sure that Annabel's diary would be of interest to her. She would not have been able to resist a document that Annabel called "my sole confidant" and which contained a startling confession — what historian would? Fortunately, I did not have to go to her because the flyer brought her to me. I don't think I really believed it would until she burst through the museum door with her wet child that February day. I was very shocked. I froze behind the desk, unable to look at her, braced as if for a blow. For a few moments, I could not even speak.
And now here I am, eighteen months later, waiting for Olivia again — albeit in a very different frame of mind. This time I am full of such hope, impatience, and agitation that I almost cannot bear it.
That's why, late last night, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I decided to take a holiday. To the south of France.
I leave the day after tomorrow, which will give me time to clean and shut up the house. I have booked the ferry and a modest bed-and-breakfast — they call it a chambre d'hôte — and I plan to spend a week walking in the low-altitude Provençal hills looking for harlequin ladybugs. The harlequin is a worrying, devious, mimicking species, a most destructive invader and so charismatic. I have always had a soft spot for ladybugs.
The library shutters are open today, but layers of rain blot out the view and I can barely see as far as the wych elms at the edge of the lawn. Rain is a brutal jailer, it cuts one off from the world, seals all the edges. It is probably not healthy to be alone so much, even if you are by nature a solitary person, as I am. When Lady Burley and Bertie were here, the rain did not bother me at all. Bertie and I would bring the coffee and biscuits into the library on a tray every morning, and the three of us would sit together and discuss whatever needed to be done that day. It felt reassuring and calming to hear rain lashing at the windows. When Lady Burley went to the nursing home, it was just Bertie and me, but we did not lose the elevenses habit. Rain rarely troubled us. I would just put on my Barbour and get on with it. Now it is only me, though, I find myself preoccupied by weather. There is no coziness anymore, just the aching damp and the leaks.
I still miss Bertie, intensely, daily. Every day as I pass beneath the minstrel's gallery with my tray, I feel as if he is by my side. It can be a jolt to settle into the wingback chair, reach for my coffee, and find that I'm alone. Perhaps writing things down is also a form of companionship. If so, it is a poor one, because when I lay down my pen I often feel more alone than ever.
The problem, of course, is that I have allowed myself to become tied up in another person's life. Other people are messy; they have a tendency to let you down. It is my great hope that Olivia will turn out to be different. We share a passion, after all, and we are a team now — she said it herself — so she surely will not disappoint me.
But as I put away my notebook each day, I ask myself the same question: What on earth will I do if she does?CHAPTER 2
South of France, Day One
The front doorstep of Mas Saint Pierre was an actual tombstone.
Olivia dropped her bags and crouched to look at the faded lettering. The word sacré was etched into the stone beneath her plimsolls but the rest of the inscription — a life packaged between two dates — had been erased by generations of feet crossing the threshold. The pocked stone made her think how insignificant it all was, really, their stresses and worries, hopes and fears, how quickly erased and forgotten all this would be. She must keep things in perspective. She could fix this. She had to. Nobody had died.
She heard David stomping across the gravel courtyard below and she straightened, sucking in the hot, herb-scented air.
It had been an interminable drive down through France, but of course the ferry was cheaper than five of them flying. They were three hours later than planned. There was no sign of the others, so they were probably lost, too. The GPS didn't work and the sign at the property gate was so decrepit, so snugly cradled in rock, that they'd had to circle back several times before they spotted it. By then Paul and Jess had been fighting savagely over a packet of dry French biscuits that neither of them liked while Dominic, plugged into headphones, had let out intermittent snarls and thrown an occasional slap.
When she'd eventually noticed the sign, Olivia had wrenched the steering wheel so hard that they'd almost slammed into the rock face. The children yelled, and the car bumped up onto the roadside, wheels hurling up gravel and dust. "Jesus Christ!" David had clutched at the dashboard theatrically. She'd said nothing, but when he'd gotten out to open the tall iron gates she'd put her foot down and driven up and around the corner, leaving him to follow on foot.
She'd pulled up in the shady courtyard beneath the house and next to a crumbling limestone tower. The tower was just a couple of stories tall with a single slit window. It was in the shade of the hillside, surrounded by silvery olive trees. She had a feeling the owners had mentioned it — a connection to a priest, perhaps — or maybe the ecclesiastical house name had implanted this idea in her mind. She wasn't sure. She had, in fact, only a very hazy memory of booking the place back in January. Work had been so intense at the time.
The house was up some stairs. It was pale, low, and wreathed in vines, with lavender bushes lined up along the front like patient purple hedgehogs. It looked beautiful, and expensive. She'd never have booked it if she'd known then what she knew now, but she had to put that out of her head — they were here, it had all been paid for months ago. She had to try to push everything aside and enjoy what she could of this holiday.
The August heat was intense even this late in the day, the heavy air busy with the high, tinnitus whirr of cicadas. She knew that she should go back down and help David bring up the remaining bags, but she didn't want to help him. Jess and Paul were out of the car and over by the tower now, shoving at its peeling front door. Dom was still in the back seat, as if the long drive had softened his fifteen-year-old bones. If they brought him regular food and water he'd probably choose to spend the entire fortnight right there.
David had the trunk open and she watched him lift out the bags. His shoulders were solid from his daily swims, his linen shirt crumpled, hair disheveled, his jaw shadowed by stubble; and his skin, always olive hued, now lightly tanned from a recent week in the States. He looked a little tired, admittedly, but also robust, as if he was stubbornly oblivious to the chaos he'd created. It was unreasonable to resent him for his good health and his optimistic, handsome face, but at that moment she just couldn't help herself.
The tower behind him seemed to tilt slightly, as if wearied by all the comings and goings, all the petty family dramas it had seen. She remembered then that the owners had called it a cabanon. They'd said something about an unsafe upper floor.
"The tower's locked," Jess yelled over the courtyard. Paul had flopped onto its front step, his pale and gangly legs spread out. The poor boy looked so limp and dejected, like an unwatered plant. He needed feeding. He always needed feeding. At thirteen, he was growing about an inch a day.
"Come on," she called down. "Help Dad with the bags. And tell your brother to get out of the car!"
The Parisian owners had extended the place, but it didn't look as if it could accommodate three couples and six children. She must have checked this at some point, but she'd been so stressed when she was booking that she couldn't remember the details. She'd just transferred the vast sum of euros and forgotten about it. David was coming up the stairs now, but Jess and Paul had vanished behind the tower. She heard Jess scream, "Lizard!"
"Christ," David dropped the bags and pointed at the doorstep. "Is that a gravestone?"
She shrugged and tucked her hair behind her ears. "The door's locked."
He held up an old-fashioned key with an ornate handle. "It was in an open box at the gate," he said. "I assume it's for the front door."
She took it from him.
"Didn't they leave you any instructions?" he said, as if it was all her responsibility.
She looked back at him, blinked, and then she replied, quite slowly, "They said they'd leave the key in the box."
The entrance hall was dim and cool. They dumped the bags by an armoire that smelled of beeswax. Jess shot past them. Her long golden hair undulated and her new sandals slapped on the flagstones as she vanished down the hall and through a doorway.
They followed her into a chilly living room. Olivia felt a wash of relief as she took in the open-plan kitchen, a pale-hued living area, and a wall of French doors through which she could make out a vine-shaded terrace, wooden lounge chairs, a long trestle table, a generous swimming pool, and a view of dusky hills. Jess started wrestling with the locks.
"Well, not bad." David went into the kitchen. "Not bad at all." If he felt that they shouldn't be here then he wasn't going to let it show.
He was obviously planning to behave as if nothing had changed. Perhaps he was right to take this approach. Nothing would be gained by ruining the next two weeks with recriminations, guilt, and apologies. And yet the effort of maintaining this pretense already felt immense to Olivia. She felt as if they were balancing an unexploded bomb between them, and if one of them dropped their end it would detonate, taking out the whole family.
Dom slouched past her into the kitchen and straight to the fridge. "The doorstep to this house is a gravestone," he growled as he passed her. "Is it just me, or is that fucking creepy?"
Paul opened the French doors and he and Jess burst onto the terrace. Behind her, she heard David say to Dominic, "There's nothing in the fridge, buddy, we need to unpack the food first."
Dom did not reply. He walked past his father without looking at him, onto the terrace. How much, she wondered, did Dom know about his father's recent actions? Was that what this was about?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Night Visitor"
Copyright © 2017 Lucy Atkins.
Excerpted by permission of Quercus.
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