Karen White invites you to explore the brick-walked streets of Charleston in her fifth Tradd Street novel, where historic mansions house the memories of years gone by, and restless spirits refuse to fade away...
With her extended maternity leave at its end, Melanie Trenholm is less than thrilled to leave her new husband and beautiful twins to return to work, especially when she’s awoken by a phone call with no voice on the other end—and the uneasy feeling that the ghostly apparitions that have stayed silent for more than a year are about to invade her life once more.
But her return to the realty office goes better than she could have hoped, with a new client eager to sell the home she recently inherited on South Battery. Most would treasure living in one of the grandest old homes in the famous historic district of Charleston, but Jayne Smith would rather sell hers as soon as possible, guaranteeing Melanie a quick commission.
Despite her stroke of luck, Melanie can’t deny that spirits—both malevolent and benign—have started to show themselves to her again. One is shrouded from sight, but appears whenever Jayne is near. Another arrives when an old cistern is discovered in Melanie’s backyard on Tradd Street.
Melanie knows nothing good can come from unearthing the past. But some secrets refuse to stay buried....
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Karen White
There is no escaping the dead. On the slender peninsula that is Charleston, we cannot help being surrounded by them, packed as they are into ancient cemeteries behind ornate iron fencing. Beneath our streets. And under our homes and parking garages. Land is at a premium here, and it was inevitable that over the course of time the living and the dead would eventually rub elbows. Most residents of the Holy City are blissfully unaware of its former citizens who have passed on but whose names and homes we share and whose presence lingers still. Others, like me, are not so lucky.
It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always been such a light sleeper. Even before I became the owner of a needy, money-sucking historic home on Tradd Street, and then the mother of twins, I always slept half awake, anticipating a cold hand on my shoulder or a shadow by the window. For years I’d learned how to ignore them, to pretend I’d felt only a draft, had seen only a shift in the light as morning nudged the night. But that’s the thing with pretending. It doesn’t make them go away.
Which is why when the shrill of the telephone jerked me fully awake I was already reaching for the nightstand to answer it before I remembered that we no longer kept a house phone in our bedroom. Sitting straight up in bed, I stared at my nightstand, where my cell phone lay, its face glowing with an unexpected blue light, the ring tone not my usual “Mama Mia” but identical to the tone of the now-defunct landline handset.
Fumbling to pick it up before it woke my sleeping companions, I slid my thumb across the screen and answered, “Hello?”
A distant, hollow sound, like a small rock being dropped into a deep well, echoed in my ear.
“Hello?” I said again. “Grandmother?” She’d been dead since I was a little girl, but it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d called me since then. Yet I knew it wasn’t her. When she called I always had a sense of peace and well-being. Of love and protection. Not the feeling of unseen insects crawling over my scalp. And somewhere, in that deep dark space at the other end of the line, was the sound of groaning nails and something being pried loose, and a tinny note, almost indecipherable, vibrating in the empty air.
I pulled the phone from my ear and hit end, noticing the local 843 area code but not recognizing the number. Placing the phone back on the nightstand, I looked at the video monitor, which showed my ten-month-old twins sleeping peacefully in their nursery down the hall, then turned to Jack. I was met with the wet nose and large eyes of my dog, General Lee. I’d inherited him along with the house and housekeeper, Mrs. Houlihan.
Despite my protestations that I didn’t like dogs, I now found myself the owner of three. Even in his advanced years, General Lee had proven himself quite virile and had fathered a litter of puppies, two of which had been given to us as a wedding present the previous year. With the addition of a husband, two babies, and a stepdaughter, I barely recognized my life anymore and had to pinch myself on more than one occasion to make me believe it was true.
Which is why the phone call unnerved me more than it should have. The restless dead had left me alone for almost a year. It had been a blissful period when I’d begun to settle into my life as a new wife and mother without the distraction of spirits needing me for something. I’d even begun to hope that the dead had forgotten about me.
General Lee crawled on top of my pillow, above my head, allowing me to see Jack’s face in the soft glow of the monitor. I still couldn’t believe that he was my husband. That the irritating, opinionated, overly charming, and irresistible bestselling author Jack Trenholm was my husband and the father of my children. He was still irritating and opinionated, especially where I was concerned, but that somehow added to his attraction.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he slurred, his voice thick with sleep.
He reached over and pulled me toward him, spoon position, and I melted into his warmth. His lips found my neck, and the rest of my skin seemed to jump to attention, hoping to be next in line. “Who was that on the phone?”
“Hmm?” I said, forgetting what the word “phone” meant.
“The phone. It rang. Was it important?”
“Hmm,” I repeated, the sound coming from deep in my throat. I’d already started to turn in his arms, my hands sliding up his chest, any phone call long since forgotten.
“Because I was wondering if it was your boss, checking to see if you were still planning on coming in today. Before your maternity leave, you were always there by seven on Mondays.”
My eyes flew wide-open, his words the equivalent of ice-cold water thrown on my head. I jerked up in bed, receiving an unhappy groan from General Lee, and picked up my phone again. Five after seven. I looked across the room, where I’d set three different alarm clocks, all the old-fashioned wind-up kind, just in case the electricity went out in the middle of the night and my phone battery died.
I stared at them for a long moment before Jack sighed. “You really should keep your glasses nearby. I’ve seen you wearing them often enough that it wouldn’t be a shock.” He sat up so he could see better. “That’s odd. It looks like they’re all stopped at ten minutes past four.”
I leaped from the bed, not really registering what he’d just said. It was my first day back after nearly a year away on extended maternity leave. It was supposed to have been only until the babies were three months old, but our inability to find a nanny who would stay longer than two weeks had proven not only baffling but problematic.
I ran to the bathroom and turned on the shower, then retreated to my closet, where I had laid out my outfit—complete with shoes and accessories—the night before. I threw off my nightgown, a slinky silk thing Jack had bought for me and didn’t resemble the old high-necked flannel gowns of my single days, folded it neatly on my dressing table bench, and jumped in the shower.
Five minutes later I was brushing my teeth while simultaneously buttoning a blouse that didn’t want to be buttoned and zipping up a skirt with an equally reluctant zipper. I stared at my reflection in the full-length mirror, too horrified by what I saw to allow my gaze to linger very long. I could hope that everybody in the office had gone blind and wouldn’t notice my unfastened blouse and skirt, or I’d have to find something else to wear.
I carefully rinsed off my toothbrush head and then the handle and replaced it on the holder—only two tries to get it standing up perfectly straight—before marching back into the closet. “Damn dry cleaners,” I muttered as I tried on outfit after outfit. I had no idea to whom Mrs. Houlihan was taking my clothes to be cleaned, but it needed to stop immediately or I’d be reduced to wearing my maternity clothes. The ones with elastic seams and stretchy fabrics.
When I finally emerged into the bedroom, I wore an A-line dress my mother had purchased for me around the fifth month of my pregnancy. The way it hugged only my chest and nothing else and its pretty green color that turned the color of my hazel eyes to something more exotic, like jungle leaves, were its only assets. I hobbled in my five-inch Manolo stilettos, my toes folding in on themselves, and wondered how my shoes had managed to shrink along with my clothes. Maybe there was something in the air in the newly renovated closet, something my best friend, Dr. Sophie Wallen-Arasi, professor of historic preservation at the College of Charleston, might know about. She was the one who had supervised its historically conscious construction, along with the never-ending number of renovations and preservation projects that seemed to have no end in my house on Tradd Street.
Like the recent roof replacement, which still had me dreaming of renting a bulldozer and being done with all of it. I had never liked old houses, mostly because of the restless dead who hated to leave them. And now that I owned one, and could even grudgingly admit that I occasionally experienced fond feelings toward it, I often found myself torn between thoughts of hugging that rare slab of Adams mantel and of accidentally throwing a flaming torch through a downstairs window.
I paused by the bed, where General Lee was now spooning with Jack. Jack opened his eyes, those beautiful blue eyes that both twins had inherited along with his black hair and dimples—I’d apparently been just an incubator—and I felt my knees soften. I wondered how long we had to be married before that would stop.
I picked up my phone and checked the time—eight o’clock. On the monitor, I watched as Sarah began to fret, right on time, in her pink canopy–draped crib. She was more reliable than the bells of St. Michael’s for telling time, especially when it came to her feeding schedule. Her brother, JJ—for Jack Junior—continued to sleep peacefully in his own crib, flat on his back, with all four limbs spread out like a little starfish. No matter what position we placed him in to sleep, he always ended up like that. Just like his father.
“I got this,” Jack said, reaching up to kiss me, his lips lingering on mine and making me regret my decision to get out of bed.
“I know. It’s just . . . well, I’ve been with them since they were born.”
“So have I. There’s nothing to worry about.”
I bit my lip. “I have their charts in the nursery and in the kitchen. Don’t forget to write down all their bowel movements, including descriptions, as well as what they eat and how much. And I’ve laid out their outfits in their room, including spares in case anything gets dirty. If they need a third, their hangers are color-coded, so it’s easy to match different pants with tops.”
Jack stared up at me for a moment. “Sweetheart, don’t take this the wrong way, but do you think the reason we haven’t been able to hold on to a nanny is that things might be a little too . . . regulated?”
I straightened. “Of course not. Children do best when they’re on a schedule and live in an organized environment. It’s not my fault that I seem to know more about childrearing than some of these so-called nannies. We’ll try a new agency with more stringent qualifications. I just need to ask around, because I think I’ve already tried the ones that were recommended to us.”
“You might need to go out of state.” A corner of his lips turned up, and for a moment I thought he might be joking.
“That’s a good idea. I’ll make some calls this afternoon.”
Sarah started to fret in earnest, while JJ continued to be oblivious. Jack was already out of bed and padding toward the door. “I know it’s hard, but you probably shouldn’t go in to see them—it might rile you up more than them. You’ll see them when you get home, and I’ll Skype with you at lunchtime. We’ll be fine. I’m just working on revisions my editor wanted for my book, and I can do that while watching two little babies. I mean, how hard can it be?”
It was my turn to stare at him. “My mom said to call if you needed anything, and I’m just a phone call away as well. Sophie said to call her if you got stuck, but between you and me, I’d use her as a last resort. Last time I called she mentioned a baby massage while listening to whale music.” I gave in to an involuntary shudder.
He walked back to me and gave me a long, deep kiss, one that left me not caring that I had to repair my lipstick. “We’ll be fine. Now go.”
His firm hand steered me toward the stairs as he headed to the nursery, briefly brushing my rear end before he let go. “And I just might have a surprise for you when you get home.”
His eyes definitely held that look and it took all my strength reserves to continue down the stairs.
Halfway down, Nola’s bedroom door opened and she peered out, a puppy in each arm—appropriately named Porgy and Bess—as she waved a front paw of each dog. “Say bye-bye, Mommy. Have a great first day back at work. Bring us back some kibble.”
Nola, Jack’s daughter whose surprise appearance after her mother’s death a few years before had taken a bit of an adjustment, was one of life’s unexpected gifts—and I never thought I’d be saying that about any teenager. A sophomore now at Ashley Hall, she was quirky, smart, an accomplished songwriter, and as much my daughter now as Jack’s. Like all his children, she was his spitting image, right down to the dimple in her chin. I’d come to the conclusion long ago that Jack’s genes were simply bullies in the conception department. She was a vegan (most of the time), and my self-appointed nutrition guru who liked to slip in tofu and quinoa on Mrs. Houlihan’s shopping list in place of creamed spinach and fried okra, but I loved her anyway.
“Thanks, Nola. Good luck on your French test. Alston’s mother is driving the morning and afternoon carpools today, so you can spend the time going over your flash cards.”
“Yes, Melanie,” she said, rolling her eyes.
I heard Mrs. Houlihan in the kitchen and tiptoed toward the front door to avoid her. Sophie had detected wood rot in one of the kitchen windows and had it removed so it could be restored and then reinstalled. That had been six weeks ago, prompting me to suggest replacing all the windows with new, vinyl ones, knowing it was only a matter of time before the remaining ones would start going soft around the sills and leaking water. Sophie, a new mother herself, had clutched at her heart and had to sit down, looking at me as if I’d just kicked a puppy. I’d let the suggestion drop. But I was tired of listening to Mrs. Houlihan complain about how dark it was in the kitchen with a boarded-up window, and how it was impossible for her to continue to work in such conditions.
I pulled on my coat before opening the front door, then shut it silently behind me. I drew up short at the sight of the van parked at the curb, hard rock foundations painted on the side, and my father’s car behind it. My father, with whom I’d recently reconciled, had made it his mission to restore my Loutrel Briggs garden to its former glory. He’d done such a good job that both his remarriage to my mother as well as my own wedding had been held beneath the ancient oak tree in the back garden surrounded by roses and tea olives.
But that didn’t explain why he and Rich Kobylt, my plumber, foundation repair technician, general handyman, and even erstwhile counselor, would be there so early in the morning. I remembered my conversation with my father the previous evening, his asking me when I planned to leave for work. As if he’d been secretly scheduling something with Rich Kobylt that he didn’t want me to know about.
Probably because Rich’s presence upset me. Not because of his penchant for low-slung and overly revealing pants, or even the sound of fluttering dollar bills and the ringing of a cash register I usually heard right after he showed up on my doorstep. His presence upset me because Rich had the uncanny ability to uncover things that I’d preferred not to deal with. Like foundation cracks and crumbling chimney bricks. And buried skeletons.
I looked with longing at the carriage house, where my Volvo station wagon was parked next to Jack’s minivan, wanting nothing more than to pretend that I had no idea I had visitors and head into work as planned. But I was an adult now. The wife and mother of three. I was supposed to be brave.
Mentally girding my loins, I headed down the recently rebricked pathway to the rear garden, past the silent swing hanging from the oak tree, and the fountain, recently relieved of two skeletons, burbling in the chill winter air. I stopped when I reached the rear corner of the house. I must have made a noise, because both my father and Rich turned to look at me.
They were standing in the rear garden, where the famous Louisa roses had been blooming for almost a century. But where there had once been rosebushes there was now only a deep, circular indentation on the ground.
My father took a step toward me, as if trying to block my view. “Sweet pea—I thought you’d be at work.”
I frowned at him, then directed my attention toward Rich, quickly averting my eyes when I saw he was squatting at the edge of the indentation, his back to me. “What’s happened?”
Thankfully, Rich stood. “Good mornin’, Miz Middleton, I mean Miz Trenholm.” His cheeks flushed. “I think with all this rain we’ve been having, this part of the yard sank. Looks like there might be some kind of structure underneath.” He squatted to look more closely into the crevasse and I turned my head. There are just some things you can’t unsee.
“A structure?” I waited for him to say the word “cemetery.” I’d seen Poltergeist after all. And it wasn’t as if that sort of thing hadn’t happened before in Charleston. The recent construction of the new Gaillard Auditorium had unearthed a number of graves that had been there since the Colonial era.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, sweet pea,” my father said as he took another step toward me. I made the mistake of meeting his eyes, and knew he was also thinking about the anonymous letter that had been sent into the Post and Courier and printed right after the twins were born by intrepid reporter and staff writer Suzy Dorf. Something about more bodies to be found on my property.
I hadn’t realized until now that I’d been holding my breath ever since, waiting for just this moment, and knowing that even though I claimed to be done with spirits and the dead, they would never be done with me.
I sidestepped them both to stand near the deep indention that looked like a navel in my garden, old bricks now visible through the soggy earth and ruined rosebushes. My phone began to ring again, the old-fashioned telephone ring that didn’t exist on my phone. I ended the call, then turned off my phone, knowing I’d hear only empty space if I answered it. Somehow this chasm in my garden and the phone call were related. And the clocks in my bedroom, all stopped at the same time. I didn’t know how, but I suspected that I’d eventually find out whether I wanted to or not. There was no such thing as coincidence, according to Jack. And when my phone began to ring again, I had the sinking feeling that he was right.
Despite the cold January air and shoes that felt like vises, I decided to walk the few short blocks to Henderson House Realty on Broad Street. I had hopes that the bright blue sky and the sun that shone valiantly despite the frigid temperature might clear my head. By the time I reached my old standby, Ruth’s Bakery, my head was clear of all thoughts but only because my feet were screaming at me, overriding any coherent thinking.
I smiled with surprise at Ruth, who shoved a folded over bag and foam cup across the counter, just like old times. “How did you know I was starting back at work today?”
She smiled, her gold tooth winking at me. “That sweet girl, Nola, just called me. She’s so thoughtful and caring, isn’t she?” Ruth’s hand patted the bag, and I felt my heart sink.
“Nola?” I asked, staring in horror at the bag, knowing it wouldn’t contain my favorite cream-filled chocolate-covered doughnuts. “What’s in the bag? Dirt and cardboard or grass and tree moss?” I wasn’t completely joking. During my pregnancy, both Nola and Sophie had done their best to sabotage my food choices just because my ankles had been a little bit swollen. And Ruth had been a willing participant in their subterfuge.
Ruth threw back her head and laughed, her dark eyes shining as if I’d just made a joke. “No, ma’am. This is my new spinach and goat cheese in a chickpea flour wrap. Your friend Sophie gave me the recipe and I said I’d try it. Not that I’d eat it myself, but I figured being a businesswoman I should cater to my health-conscious customers, too.”
“Of which I’m not one,” I said. “I’m one of your taste-conscious customers—don’t forget about us.” I indicated the cup. “Is there at least lots of whipped cream and sugar in that?”
She made a face. “In green tea? No. Just good-for-you tea. Still nice and hot.”
“I’m sorry you went to all that trouble, but I’d like my usual, please.” I looked at her hopefully.
Instead of taking back the bag and cup, she let her gaze wander down the length of my maternity dress. “You sure about that?”
I stuck out an ankle, back to its trim prepregnancy size. “See? No more swollen ankles! I can eat what I like now.”
Still, she didn’t move. I caught sight of the clock on the wall behind her. Not having time to argue, I grabbed the bag and cup and slid a few bills across the counter. “Fine. But tomorrow, I’d like to go back to our regularly scheduled program. Don’t make me turn to Glazed Gourmet Donuts on King. It’s out of my way, but I need my doughnuts in the morning and can’t be responsible for my actions if I’m deprived of them.”
Ruth stopped smiling and I realized that my voice had risen an octave. Without breaking eye contact, she reached over and grabbed a single sugar packet and placed it on top of my cup. “Sounds like somebody’s having withdrawal. Tomorrow we’ll try half a packet.”
I narrowed my eyes. “We’ll see about that.” I made my way to the door.
“You bring those sweet babies in, you hear? I’m sure they’re getting so big. And with that Mr. Trenholm as their daddy, I just can’t imagine how beautiful they must be.”
I was torn between a mother’s pride over her babies and resentment over how everybody completely overlooked the fact that I was the one who had not only carried the babies for nine months, but also given birth to them.
I backed out of the door. “Well, then. Maybe we can come to some sort of a deal.”
She raised a dark eyebrow, and I did the same before turning around and letting the door close behind me.
I hobbled the few blocks to my office, my blistered feet almost completely numb by the time I opened the door into the reception area with its tasteful leather furniture and pineapple motif evident in the lamps, art, and throw pillows—all in an attempt to appear “old Charleston.”
“May I help you?” said a voice from behind the reception desk.
I stared at the stranger. She had a mop of dark, curly hair and bright green eyes. She was one of those older women whose age was impossible to determine because of a lifelong avoidance of the sun and an expensive skin care regimen. A brilliantly colored enamel dragonfly pin sat gracefully on the lapel of her pale blue jacket. “Where’s Joyce?”
“She’s moved to Scotland to immerse herself in her knitting. Wanted to be closer to the source, she said. She trained me for about a month and now I’m going solo while I study for my real estate license. I’m Mary Thompson, but everybody calls me Jolly.” She beamed and I noticed her sparkling earrings that matched her pin, with no golf motif in sight. I still missed Nancy Flaherty, my favorite receptionist who’d been here before Joyce, but she’d followed her love of golf and Tiger Woods and moved to Florida.
“Oh,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you.” I hadn’t expected a big welcome-back celebration, but a familiar face would have been nice. Especially since I was in the middle of an alarming sugar low. “I’m Melanie Middleton. I mean Trenholm.” I still wasn’t used to saying that. “I’m back from maternity leave.”
The woman’s smile broadened. “Oh, yes. I’ve heard all about you.” She paused, leaving me to try to guess what she’d heard. “You used to be the number-one salesperson here. We have a new leaderboard now—it’s no longer a chalkboard. Do you think I’ll need to have a nameplate made with your name on it? Lots of competition for that number-one spot, and you’ve been gone awhile.”
Maybe it was my blistered feet, my lack of sugar and caffeine, or the absence of my babies, but I was sure I was about to cry.
Jolly smiled sympathetically. “It’s always hard coming back.” She brightened. “I guess word has got around that you’re back, though.” She slid three pink message slips toward me. “These came in this morning—and there’s someone waiting for you in your office.”
Jolly nodded. “She’s a walk-in, but she asked for you by name. I told her I wasn’t sure when you’d be in—Mr. Henderson said you’re usually here much earlier—but she said she didn’t mind waiting.” She slid a clipboard around to face her. “I made her sign in. She said her name is Jayne Smith—Jayne with a Y—and she’s relocating here from Alabama.”
“Alabama,” I repeated. It had been so long since I’d shown homes to anyone that I was searching through my fuzzy head for what I was supposed to do next. And where Alabama was. I’d hoped to have the first week to get my bearings again, but the thought of a prospective client did manage to stir my adrenaline a bit.
“Yes,” said Jolly. “And, Melanie? May I call you Melanie?”
She pulled out a notebook with a photograph of an alligator glued to the front cover, and opened it. Very carefully, she picked up her pencil and crossed off the first two items on a very long list. I peered at the notebook and, reading upside down, read, Give Melanie her telephone messages. Let her know a client is waiting in her office. I’d started to read the third item Find recipe for . . .
Jolly slammed the notebook shut. With a guilty smile, she said, “I’m a habitual list maker. Pay me no mind.”
I found myself relaxing for the first time that morning. “I think we’ll get along just fine, Jolly.” I turned toward the corridor that led to the small offices and cubicles of the various agents. I supposed I should have been grateful that Mr. Henderson had allowed me to keep my office, a perk to only the top-selling agents. I hoped that meant he was confident I’d be at the top of the leaderboard soon, assuming that I’d be given a name tag.
I paused and faced the new receptionist. “Yes, Jolly?”
“Since we’re going to be working together, there’s something you should know about me.” She paused, her blue-painted fingernails playing with the dragonfly pin. “I’m a psychic. I do readings for people at fairs and festivals on the weekends, but since we’re going to be coworkers, I’ll give you a discount if you’re interested in a reading. Just let me know.”
My earlier optimism quickly evaporated. I wasn’t exactly sure how I should respond, so I just smiled and nodded, then made my way back to my office.
Jayne—with a Y—had her back toward me when I reached the door. She faced the credenza, where she was carefully organizing my magazines and journals, making sure that each was spaced apart the same distance, and that the edges lined up in a perfect parallel to the edge of the furniture. I frowned. They might be out-of-date, considering I hadn’t been into the office in a long time, but I always kept them tidy, organized by date, and with the title and issue of each volume clearly visible. And I’d left strict instructions that they weren’t to be disturbed in my absence. I found it vaguely annoying that she’d mess with my magazines, and wondered if she might be nervous.
“Good morning,” I said as I placed my bag and pink slips on the top of the desk.
The woman turned and smiled, then held out her hand to me. “Hello,” she said, shaking my hand in a firm grasp. “I’m Jayne Smith,” she said in an accent that was definitely Southern but not Charlestonian. Her hand felt bony, matching her thin wrists. And the rest of her body I noticed as I stepped back. The woman looked practically emaciated despite the fact that there were distinctive powdered sugar crumbs on her upper lip.
“Melanie Trenholm,” I said, trying to ignore the crumbs, but wondering how I could let her know without any awkwardness. When I dropped my hand I surreptitiously flicked my index finger over my own lip. Her green eyes widened in understanding as she reached into her purse and, after removing several candy bar wrappers, found a napkin to wipe her mouth.
“I guess that’s what I get for giving in to temptation,” she said. “There’s this wonderful bakery down the street—Ruth’s Bakery, I think—and I could smell the doughnuts from the sidewalk. I’ve never been able to turn down sugar.”
My own smile faltered as I thought about my ex-favorite bakery, imagining I could smell the sweet aroma of baking doughnuts. Feeling more than a little bit hurt, I reached for the paper bag from Ruth’s and dropped it in the wastebasket, then resisted the urge to ask Jayne for her candy wrappers to throw away so I could bury my nose in them later.
I indicated for Jayne to take the seat in front of my desk while I sat down across from her. She was younger than me, early thirties, I thought, and her hair was blond—dyed—but her eyebrows were dark. She was attractive in an all-American way, with long legs and a wide smile. Despite her thinness, she had the kind of chest I’d always wanted yet had only attained when I was pregnant and nursing. Or wearing a padded bra. Mine were still bigger than they had been, but had somehow managed to migrate to new positions on my chest since the children were born.
“I’m sorry to just drop in. I can reschedule if you have other appointments,” Jayne said.
I was about to pretend to check my calendars when I paused. There was something oddly familiar about her smile, and the way the light through the office window lightened her eyes to a pale green.
“Have we met before?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Probably not. I’ve never been to Charleston before. Never been much farther than Birmingham before now, actually.” She smiled again, but the light behind her eyes had dimmed somewhat. “I think I have one of those faces that look like a lot of other people’s.”
“That must be it,” I said.
The sound of magazines slipping off the credenza and slapping against one another as they hit the floor had us both jumping from our chairs. Jayne quickly moved to pick them up, stacking them as neatly as they’d been before. “I must have put these too near the edge.”
“That must be it.” But they hadn’t been. There had been five inches from the edge, and there was no way they could have slid on their own. I frowned. There was another presence in the room, someone I couldn’t see and could barely feel. Not even a shadow, or a shimmer of light. I could tell that whoever it was wanted me to see them, but something was preventing me. I could almost see a curtain that had been pulled across my sixth sense, forcing me to use only the five senses everybody else had.
I sat down suddenly, confused and irritated. I wanted to call the shots regarding my inherited ability or disability—depending on how I was feeling about it at any given time—and something I couldn’t understand was blocking me. I recalled how during my pregnancy my ability to see dead people had disappeared and how I’d found myself oddly missing it. I couldn’t help wondering whether motherhood had somehow had the same effect. Maybe that was the reason I’d been undisturbed for so long. Maybe.
Jayne returned to her seat and smiled, but there was something different about her expression. Like a painting where the artist was still a few brushstrokes away from completion. “I’m looking for a Realtor. And when I was walking by the agency this morning, I felt compelled to stop. I saw your photo in the window and you looked . . .”
She paused, not sure I wanted to hear what she had to say. I was notoriously unphotogenic, as my driver’s license photo could attest. I had visions of it pinned to a bulletin board in the DMV’s break room as an example of their best work.
“Approachable,” she finished. “Like you’d understand what it was I needed.”
Feeling pleased and not a little relieved, I pulled out a notepad and pencil and regarded her. “So, what can I help you with?”
“I need to sell a house. And buy a new one.”
“I only work in Charleston. So if you have a house in Birmingham to sell . . .”
She shook her head. “I’ve inherited a house, here in Charleston. It’s an old house—I’ve walked by it a few times. I want to sell it and buy a new one.”
I sat back, not completely understanding. “Have you been inside the house?”
“No. I don’t need to. I don’t like old houses as a rule, so there’s no reason for me to go inside.”
I stared at her. “You don’t like old houses?”
“I don’t like all that . . . history in a place. I want something fresh and new. Lots of metal and glass and stone.”
“I see,” I said, jotting down notes. I did see. I’d said those exact same words when I first inherited my house on Tradd Street and had said them often since, the most recent this very morning as I’d turned my back on my sunken garden and headed toward my car. “Where is your house located?”
“On South Battery Street. Right near the corner of Legare—the big white house with the portico and columns”
I thought for a moment. “The old Pinckney house?” I knew it, of course. I was on a first-name basis with just about every old house in Charleston either through a family connection or from my job as a Realtor specializing in historic real estate. “Button Pinckney was an acquaintance of my mine—a lovely woman. Was she a close relative?”
Jayne looked down at her hands as if embarrassed. “Actually, I’d never met her. And I didn’t know until now that Caroline Pinckney had a nickname. I didn’t even know of her existence until three weeks ago when her lawyers contacted me to let me know I’d inherited her estate.”
Déjà vu. I had a flash of memory of me sitting in a lawyer’s office not far from here as a lawyer explained to me that Nevin Vanderhorst, a man I’d met just once, had left me his crumbling house on Tradd Street that I neither wanted nor needed.
I was clenching the pencil so tightly that I had to place it on the pad of paper. I forced a smile. “Miss Pinckney was a friend of both my mother’s and my mother-in-law’s. They all went to school together at Ashley Hall.” I thought for a moment. “As far as I recall, Button never married or had any children. There was an older brother, I believe, who died a few years back. I don’t believe he had any children, either, although I’m pretty sure he was married at some point.” I remembered, too, that there had been some sort of tragedy associated with the family, but I couldn’t recall the details.
Jayne sighed. “Yes, well, you can’t imagine my surprise to hear that I’ve inherited an old house from a complete stranger.”
“Believe it or not, I actually can.” I closed my mouth, unwilling to share my personal feelings toward old houses and the way the walls always seemed to be whispering. “Maybe your mother or father or some other family member might want to see it first before you make any decisions. Surely they’ll have some idea as to why Miss Pinckney left her house to you.”
Jayne went very still. “There’s no one.” She slowly raised her eyes to mine. “I don’t have a family. I was raised in the foster care system and was never adopted.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. A disturbance in the air behind her made the space shimmer, like the shift in air pressure before a storm. I stared hard, trying to see what it was, but saw nothing. But I knew it was there, watching us. Listening. Wanting to be seen but unable to show itself. My gaze met Jayne’s. She stared back at me unblinking, and again I felt as if we’d met before.
She continued. “I’m fine with it now—it was a long time ago. Maybe this inheritance is just karma for an unsettled childhood and I shouldn’t question it too closely.” She smiled brightly, and I almost believed her.
“Did the lawyer have any indication why Miss Pinckney chose you?”
“I did ask, but he said she didn’t share any details or more information, even though he asked her repeatedly anticipating, correctly, that I’d have my own questions. He did say he’d done a little bit of research on his own but hadn’t been able to discover anything.”
There was something about this woman that I liked, that made me want to help her. Maybe it was because I remembered a time in my life when I’d felt like an abandoned orphan, navigating life all on my own. “My husband is a writer who writes books about the area and knows everybody in Charleston living or dead. He has a real knack for finding unturned stones. If you like, I could ask him to help.”
“Thank you—I’ll think about it,” she said. “I can’t help wondering if finding out why would be a bit like looking a gift horse in the mouth.”
I nodded, understanding her position more than she could imagine. “And you’re sure you want to sell it?”
“Absolutely. Old houses don’t appeal to me at all. They all have that . . . smell about them. Like decay and mildew and dust. That’s why I’d like to take the money from the sale of the house and find something more modern and fresh. Preferably built within the last five years.”
I nodded, thinking about my old condo in Mt. Pleasant, with its plain white walls and gleaming chrome and glass surfaces, where I’d lived before my unexpected inheritance and still thought fondly of from time to time. Usually directly after writing out another check to Rich Kobylt for a repair. “All right. But we’ll have to go into the house to get a value. To see what kind of shape it’s in and if it needs any immediate repairs before putting it on the market. Sadly, most of them do.” I thought of Mr. Vanderhorst and his sad smile. “It’s like a piece of history you can hold in your hands.” I smiled at Jayne, trying to appear hopeful. “A good friend of mine—Dr. Sophie Wallen-Arasi—is a professor of historic preservation at the College of Charleston, and I know she’d love to come along and give us her professional opinion.”
I could hear her swallow. “You can do that on your own, right? I wouldn’t have to go inside, too, would I?”
“Not necessarily,” I said, studying her. “But I think it would be a very good idea for you to see it for yourself. Who knows? Maybe you’ll change your mind about selling. It’s been known to happen.”
“I won’t,” she said quickly. “So, ballpark—how much do you think the house could be worth? I’m not being mercenary or anything, it’s just that I’ll need to know how much I can spend on the new condo. I have no idea how long it will take to get a job here, so I won’t be able to rely on a salary at first.”
“To be honest, I have to go inside before I could make any determination. There are several houses on the same street that have sold in the low seven figures in the past few years, but there are also some that have sold for quite a bit less, mostly because of their condition. Buyers get them for a steal but then end up spending three or four times over the purchase price in restoration work. It would be in your best interest to get the highest selling price possible, which might mean doing some basic renovations before it hits the market.”
She nodded slowly. “Well, that’s a start anyway. And I’ve already made appointments with several agencies to start the job hunt. It’s just a long process with background checks and all, and I really want the sale of the house behind me before I start working full-time. And I can’t buy a new place until it sells.”
I was busy writing down notes, including reminders to talk to Jack and my mother about Button Pinckney and her family, and their connection with Jayne Smith. “What is it that you do?” I asked absently.
“I’m a certified professional nanny.”
The lead from my mechanical pencil snapped. “A nanny? Like, for small children?”
She laughed. “Are there any other kinds? But yes, a nanny for small children—and older ones, too. Some people find it odd that somebody raised without siblings would want to be a nanny, but I think that’s why I am. I was in lots of foster families, and I always ended up taking care of the younger children. I guess even back then I knew that would be my only chance at having siblings—at least for a short time.”
I placed the pencil down on my desk and leaned back in my chair. “What is your take on sleeping and feeding schedules for infants?”
“A definite must. Schedules are incredibly important to growing children. They need regular feeding and sleeping times.”
“A bad idea.”
“Bottles in the crib?”
“Never. Rots their teeth.”
“Time-out chair is more effective.”
“Cloth or disposable?”
“Baby French lessons?”
“Infant beauty pageants?”
Jayne send me a sidewise glance. “Seriously? You don’t seem the type.”
I smiled. “I’m not—just checking.” I pushed my chair back from the desk. “So, it just happens that I’m looking for a nanny for my ten-month-old twins. Their last one left rather suddenly and we’re a bit desperate, I’m afraid. It seems as if we agree on many child-rearing issues. If you’re interested, I’d love for you to come meet them and allow us to get to know each other better. Perhaps even make it a permanent thing if it all works out.”
She practically beamed and I had to restrain myself from doing cartwheels around the room and giving myself fist bumps. “I’m definitely interested,” she said.
“Good. I’ll have to do a background check, of course.”
“Absolutely. I can give you all the contact information from my agency in Birmingham, as well as references from my last three families. I think you’ll be happy with my past performance.”
I pulled out one of my business cards from the holder on my desk and handed it to her. I waited for her to say something about the multiple phone numbers, but instead she responded by sliding her own card across the desk toward me. I picked it up and saw that she had two cell phone numbers. I looked at her and smiled, feeling as if I had finally met a kindred spirit.
“Because you never know when one phone will stop working or has a dead battery,” she explained.
“Exactly.” My smile widened. “It’s so nice to finally meet somebody who thinks ahead. Everybody else seems to only understand how to live in the minute.”
Jayne stood, too. “I know, right? It can be annoying to be the only one prepared for the ‘just in case’ scenario.” She reached her hand across the desk and we shook. “It’s a pleasure meeting you. I’ll get all my information together and bring it over later today so you can get started with my background check. And call me anytime to set up an appointment to meet your children and husband.”
“And to go over and look at the Pinckney house. I’ll check with Sophie about her availability and let you know.”
Her smile dimmed. “All right. I guess the sooner we start, the sooner we can get it sold.”
We said good-bye and I returned to my desk, spotting the pink slips Jolly had given me. Two were from my annoying cousin and Jack’s ex-girlfriend, Rebecca, and one was from the journalist at the Post and Courier, Suzy Dorf, who had an abnormal interest in me and my house. Preferring to stick a knitting needle into my eyeballs rather than speak with either of them, I folded each note up into tiny little squares, then placed them in the bottom of my trash can.
It was only when I picked up the phone to call Sophie that I realized the presence was gone, leaving only the fresh scent of rain as evidence that it had even been there at all.
Reading Group Guide
The Guests on South Battery
Karen White Questions for Discussion
1. Melanie Trenholm has psychic abilities that she is reluctant to use in a public way. If you had psychic abilities, would you feel the same as Melanie does and try to hide them from people or would you share them? Why?
2. Melanie is able to see and communicate with ghosts; is this a blessing or a curse? Do you know anyone with similar abilities?
3. The novel is set in Charleston, South Carolina, which is a city that really celebrates its history and is reputed to have many ghost sightings. If you had Melanie’s ability to communicate with ghosts, would you choose to live in Charleston and/or work as a Realtor? Why do you think Melanie stays in both her city and her profession when she seems to hate her abilities?
4. Karen White often uses real, existing buildings and locations in her novels. Do you enjoy “seeing” a city through a novel in the way a reader sees Charleston in The Guests On South Battery?
5. As a new wife and mother, Melanie still expects to live life according to her detailed plans and schedules, but she is finding it extremely difficult to do so. Why do you think Melanie can’t seem to allow for deviation from her plans for her family and life?
6. Do you consider Melanie to be a reliable or unreliable narrator? Why?
7. Melanie has a complicated relationship with her mother, and has to confront her mother’s past unexpectedly in the novel. If you discovered your mother had another child whom she never told you about, would it permanently affect your relationship with your her? Do you think Melanie reacted in a realistic way?
8. Jack is the first one to realize who Jayne Smith is; did he do the right thing by not telling Melanie right away? If you were him, would you have told Melanie or kept it a secret?
9. Do you think that Melanie jumped to conclusions prematurely about Jack and Jayne or was she justified in believing they were having an affair? Do you think Melanie should have trusted Jack despite any evidence to the contrary?