When she arrives at the Sinclairs' enormous estate on Lake Superior, Julia begins to suspect that there may be sinister undercurrents to her "too-good-to-be-true" position. As Julia delves into the reasons of why Amaris chose to abandon her successful writing career and withdraw from the public eye, her search leads to unsettling connections to her own family tree, making her wonder why she really was invited to Havenwood in the first place, and what monstrous secrets are still held prisoner within its walls.
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About the Author
Xe Sands is an award-winning narrator known for her authentic characterizations and intimate delivery. She has more than a decade of experience bringing stories to life through narration, performance, and visual art, and she has been recognized for her engaging romance narrations.
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By Wendy Webb
HyperionCopyright © 2014 Wendy Webb
All rights reserved.
Havenwood, present day
When I awakened that first morning at Havenwood, for a moment I had no idea where I was. As sleep receded and I drifted back from wherever one goes in dreams, I sensed I wasn't in my own familiar nest of pillows. When my eyes fluttered open and I caught sight of the dark red walls, not the subdued yellow of my bedroom at home, I shot up and looked around, trying to get my bearings.
The bed where I lay, and had presumably spent the night, had an ornately carved wooden headboard and a thick, embroidered comforter. A matching dresser with a pink marble top stood on one wall. My gray sweater was slung over a chair in the corner. A bank of windows was draped with a heavy curtain, and in the fireplace across from the bed, coals were still smoldering from the night before. It all looked vaguely familiar, but distant, as though I had dreamed about this room in another place and time.
I curled back down under the covers when I remembered that these sorts of blackouts were not a new sensation. I'd forgotten conversations, events, even whole days since the scandal and its horrible aftermath took over my life. And, truth be told, even before that.
It began to come back to me, bit by bit, as I knew it would. Images, like a slide show in my mind. Jeremy. A gunshot. The funeral. I squeezed my eyes shut tight, trying to hold back the flood of memories. Wasn't the medication supposed to help with this? That was its purpose, wasn't it? To muddle the mind, to blur the edges of reality just enough to make life endurable despite all manner of horror and heartbreak.
I shook those thoughts out of my head and roused myself, pouring a glass of water from the pitcher on the nightstand before padding across the thick woolen carpet to the windows. I drew back the curtain and felt the warmth of the morning sun shining on my face despite the chill coming from the panes. Outside, I saw the remnants of a manicured garden, now covered by new-fallen snow, and a wide expanse of yard spilling into a forest beyond. The green of the enormous pines contrasted with the whiteness that blanketed everything as far as the eye could see. Cutting through it all, a road followed a river that meandered out of sight. Somehow, it felt like home, even though it was no home I had ever known.
I had been on that road the night before, I knew with sudden clarity. In a car. After the flight! Ah, yes, I thought. I remember. A wave of excitement washed over me when I remembered whom I'd be meeting, in just a few minutes. I could scarcely believe I was here.
Mr. Sinclair had arrived on my doorstep a few days earlier with an invitation. Now, as I recall that first meeting, shaking his hand for the first time, I remember the feeling of warmth when his skin touched mine, a fiery glow illuminating his eyes with a definite familiarity, though he was a stranger to me. Or maybe my memories are colored by what happened after that day, by everything I know now. Time and experience have a funny way of altering one's recollections of the past.
There was a quick knock at the door. I snapped my head around to see a woman entering the room.
"Oh, ma'am! You're up! I was just coming to wake you for breakfast."
Had I seen her the night before? I wasn't sure. Her round, smiling face, gray hair, and kind blue eyes might have belonged to anyone, and her gray maid's uniform seemed to be something out of Central Casting.
"If you'd like to freshen up before joining Mrs. Sinclair downstairs, towels and everything else you need are in the bath." She pointed to a door I hadn't noticed.
She crossed the room and opened the closet to reveal my clothes, all hanging in neat rows. "Is there anything I can lay out for you?"
I looked from her expectant face to my clothes and back again. "No, I can manage, thank you—" I said, grasping for her name. I couldn't bring it to mind.
"Marion," she said.
She gave me a quick nod. "Right, then. Please be in the breakfast room in thirty minutes. Mrs. Sinclair likes things on a schedule; that's one thing you should know right off."
"The breakfast room?"
"Oh, of course. It was quite late when you arrived last night, and this house can be so confusing for ... newcomers." She opened the door and gestured out into the hallway. "Follow this corridor around to the left until you reach the grand staircase. Take that down to the first floor. You'll see the living room on your right and the foyer in front of you, with the archway to the dining room on your left. You'll find the breakfast room adjacent to the dining room." She hesitated a moment. "You're on the third floor here in the east wing," she said. "The Sinclairs' suite of rooms is on the second floor in the west wing. I'd advise staying away from those. Mrs. Sinclair likes her privacy when she's in her rooms."
I thanked her, perching on the edge of the bed as she closed the door behind her.
Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair. I struggled, trying to unlock the memory. I knew this game—I was supposed to think of the last thing I remembered to help piece it all together. I played it often enough throughout my life. In a flash, I remembered rummaging through my travel kit on the plane looking for my bottle of pills. Had I taken too much of my medication? Was that the reason my memories of the night before were so fuzzy? I shuddered at the thought of it.
I made my way into the bathroom, where I did indeed find a stack of fluffy towels on the vanity, just as Marion had said, along with my own travel kit. I dug up the pill bottle, then considered pouring its contents down the drain. But instead, I put it right back where it had been. Blackouts might be a troubling side effect, but sometimes forgetting is a blessing. What is it they say about ignorance?
After standing under the stream of hot water washing away the night's sleep, I dried my hair, quickly pulled on jeans and a black turtleneck, and opened the door out into the hallway slowly, wondering what awaited me.
The hallway was so long and dark, I couldn't even see the end of it. This house must be massive, I thought, following the corridor as it turned left, then right and right again. As I began to descend the "grand staircase," as Marion had called it, I saw a living room on one side of the stairs and the archway leading into the dining room on the other, just as Marion had described. The rooms in my view were filled with heavy antique furniture, overstuffed chairs and ornate lamps that looked like they had been standing in their places forever. The whole effect reminded me of a museum, or a palace, and it smelled vaguely musty, as though the ghostly memories of other lifetimes hung in the air.
As I walked on, I saw that the ceilings were sky-high, and the walls were lined with paintings in gilded frames, portraits, mostly, of people from another time: women in long dresses, children sitting beside them; men in suits or hunting clothes. The largest portrait, which hung above the mantel of the floor-to- ceiling fireplace in the living room, was of a man wearing a kilt, bagpipe in his hand, a wolflike dog curled at his feet. He was standing in a landscape of rolling hills and heather. Something about this man's eyes entranced me, and I stood there for longer than I should have, lost in imaginings that dissipated in my mind as soon as they formed.
I shook my head. How long had I been standing there? I was expected at breakfast! I couldn't be late on my first day, so I hurried along, my footsteps echoing on the foyer's marble tiles. Where was this so-called breakfast room? I stopped and turned in a circle just in time to see a man—Mr. Sinclair—descending the staircase. His face broke into a wide smile.
"Julia!" he said as he finished the last of the stairs. "How did you sleep? Your room was comfortable, I trust?"
His grin was so welcoming that I couldn't help but smile back.
"My room was lovely," I said, sliding my arm into the crook of his when he offered it. "Thank you, Mr. Sinclair."
"I thought we had dispensed with that 'Mr. Sinclair' rubbish yesterday." He patted my hand.
"Adrian," I said.
He led me through the dining room, down yet another hall, and, finally, through a doorway to the breakfast room, where an elderly woman was sitting at a round table in front of a wall of paned windows. Outside, the creek was babbling along, not yet frozen by the cold temperatures, and the sunlight was bouncing off snow-laden pine trees. A pair of bright red cardinals flew into view and perched on a snowy branch. The whole effect reminded me of a Currier and Ives Christmas card I had received the previous year.
"Mother, this is Julia," Adrian said, motioning toward me. "You were asleep when we arrived last night—the flight was late. And the drive after we landed was quite something, with this new snow. I really must put the Bentley away for the winter. It's time for the Land Rover, I'm afraid."
"Julia, dear," the woman said, folding her hands and beaming at me. "What a pleasure to see you at last."
I took a deep breath before speaking. I could scarcely believe I was in the same room with this woman, let alone conversing with her.
"No, the pleasure is all mine! It's such an honor to meet you. I'm thrilled to be here!"
I took a seat across from her and fumbled with my napkin, not quite sure of what to do or say next.
Adrian poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the sideboard and gestured to me. I nodded, and he poured me a cup as well.
I could see the resemblance between mother and son immediately. Two dots on a timeline, with nearly the same face, one generation apart. They seemed familiar to me somehow, in the way that sometimes happens with complete strangers. Adrian was older than me—late forties, early fifties, perhaps. His dark hair was graying at the temples, and fine lines around his eyes betrayed years of laughter. He wore a dark, tailored suit and a yellow tie, dressed for a workday.
His mother seemed at once utterly ancient and completely youthful. Her deeply lined face, powdery makeup, and rather haphazardly applied lipstick contrasted with her dancing, bright green eyes. Late seventies, early eighties? Older than that? I couldn't tell.
She reached one hand across the table and covered mine with hers. "I'm thrilled as well, Julia, dear," she said. "It will be a wonderful treat to have you with me at Havenwood when Adrian takes his leave today. We have so much to talk about!"
My stomach was doing flips, but I managed a smile as I savored my first sip of coffee. A maid, not the same one who greeted me in my room, clattered through the door carrying a tray, set it down on the sideboard, and began serving a breakfast of eggs, sausage, oatmeal, fruit, and toast. Seeing all of that food made me realize I was famished, and I wondered when I had last eaten anything.
As we took our first bites, Adrian chattered on about the new snow and his hopes that the gardener had turned the roses. Suddenly, the enormity of what I had done seemed to settle in. I realized, as I sat there eating my breakfast with these two relative strangers, that my life, on that morning, was completely different from what it had been the morning before. What my future held, I had no idea. But I knew one thing for sure: I was here at Havenwood to stay.
How did I find myself living at Havenwood, a place I hadn't even known existed the day before I arrived there? The answer is it found me. Three months after my husband's funeral, Adrian Sinclair came calling.
Just answering the door had been quite a feat. I had done nothing but drift around the house since I buried Jeremy, not wanting to talk to anyone or go anywhere. And that, I supposed, was a lucky thing, because nobody but reporters wanted to talk to or see me, either.
All of our friends had abandoned us when the allegations came to light, when they realized the full extent of what my husband had done. From the first story in the newspaper hinting at what was to come, they began distancing themselves from us. They stopped calling. Stopped returning my calls. I'm not sure if they thought I was involved in the whole sordid business, but the truth is I was just as much a victim as they were. I was left with nothing—no husband, no money, no friends or family to lean on for support.
It was just a matter of time until my house was gone, too. I was reading the foreclosure notice from the bank when Adrian appeared on my doorstep, standing there in his dark overcoat and hat. I assumed he was another reporter, trying for an interview with the grieving widow of the man who had bilked hundreds of Chicagoans out of their life savings. The Midwestern Bernie Madoff, the newspapers called my husband. What they called me was no better.
"I have no comment," I said, eyeing the man through the door's glass pane. "I've asked you people to leave me alone. Please."
"I'm not a reporter, Mrs. Bishop," he said to me, smiling slightly. "Nor am I a police officer, an investigator, or a bill collector. I'm not going to issue you a summons or serve you notice of anything. I've come to ask for your help."
This was new. I squinted at him, wondering if he was some sort of religious fanatic. "What kind of help?"
"I have need of your services. And I believe you're in need of ours."
Definitely a religious fanatic, then.
"I'm really not interested," I said. "Please go away."
"I've traveled a very long way to find you, Mrs. Bishop," he said. "Please. Let me say what I've come to say."
"And what is that, exactly?"
"I've come to offer you a job."
I didn't know quite how to respond to that. Apparently the look on my face said it all, because he said: "This is a serious offer that I believe will benefit both of us. Won't you please let me in and we can discuss it?"
With nothing to lose—what could he possibly take from me that wasn't already gone?—I sighed and opened the door.
I led him into the living room and motioned to the sofa. "Something to drink?" I asked as he took off his coat and laid it over the arm of one of the chairs. "Tea? Or something stronger?"
"Tea would be lovely, thank you," he said, and I detected a slight English accent buoying his words. "There's a bite to the wind out there. Winter is on its way."
As he settled onto the sofa, I shuffled into the kitchen and turned on the kettle, glad he hadn't followed me. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink. I hadn't had much energy for housework since Jeremy died—what was the point? I pulled a box of tea bags and two cups from the cabinet, dropped a few of the bags into a pot, filled it with boiling water, and put the whole mess onto a tray.
Back in the living room, I set the tray down on the coffee table in front of the sofa. "I hope you like hibiscus tea," I said, pouring him a cup. "It's all I had."
"That'll do just fine, thank you." He smiled, lifting the cup to his lips.
I sunk into one of the armchairs and crossed my legs, eyeing him. "So. What is this all about?"
He nodded and cleared his throat. "As I said, I'm here to offer you a position."
The earnestness on his face told me he wasn't joking. "Listen," I began, reconsidering the decision to let him inside the house. I pushed myself up from my chair. "Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying. I think this was a mistake and you should go."
"Please, just hear me out," he said. "Give me five minutes. If, after that, you'd still like me to go, I'll simply leave and never bother you again."
I settled back into the chair, studying him warily. "Five minutes."
"My name is Adrian Sinclair." He stopped to take a sip of his tea. "I live with my mother at our country estate. Havenwood."
The sound of that word, "Havenwood," crackled through my mind. I had heard it before. I just couldn't place how, or when.
"It's near the Canadian border not far from Lake Superior's north shore in Minnesota," Mr. Sinclair went on. "My mother is elderly, of course, and in fairly good health, but she does have episodes."
He leaned forward and lowered his voice, as if to take me into his confidence. "Times in which she is not entirely lucid."
"I see," I said, but I really didn't. I had no idea what any of this had to do with me.
"I travel on business often, and I'm going away again very soon," he continued. "Of course, we have several servants, but they're busy tending to the house and grounds, and what my mother needs in my absence is a full-time companion. Someone who can keep an eye on her, especially on the bad days. She has been known to wander. With winter coming on ..." He looked at me with expectant eyes.
I let what I thought he was saying to me sink in.
"You want me to be her companion, is that it?"
"Yes. Live in, full time."
I snorted. "But that's ridiculous. You don't even know me."
He didn't respond to that. Instead, he just went ahead with his pitch. "The estate is quite lovely, I assure you."
Excerpted from The Vanishing by Wendy Webb. Copyright © 2014 Wendy Webb. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
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