Two women. A history of witchcraft. And a deep-rooted female power that sings across the centuries.
Once there was a young woman from a well-to-do New England family who never quite fit with the drawing rooms and parlors of her kin.
Called instead to the tangled woods and wild cliffs surrounding her family’s estate, Margaret Harlowe grew both stranger and more beautiful as she cultivated her uncanny power. Soon, whispers of “witch” dogged her footsteps, and Margaret’s power began to wind itself with the tendrils of something darker.
One hundred and fifty years later, Augusta Podos takes a dream job at Harlowe House, the historic home of a wealthy New England family that has been turned into a small museum in Tynemouth, Massachusetts. When Augusta stumbles across an oblique reference to a daughter of the Harlowes who has nearly been expunged from the historical record, the mystery is too intriguing to ignore.
But as she digs deeper, something sinister unfurls from its sleep, a dark power that binds one woman to the other across lines of blood and time. If Augusta can’t resist its allure, everything she knows and loves—including her very life—could be lost forever.
Don't miss Hester Fox's next novel, The Last Heir to Blackwood Library...where a young woman inherits a mysterious library and must uncover its secrets!
Look for these other gothic mysteries from Hester Fox:
- The Witch of Willow Hall
- The Widow of Pale Harbor
- The Orphan of Cemetary Hill
Release date: February 1, 2022
Publisher: Graydon House Books
Print pages: 339
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A Lullaby for Witches
“Hello?” Augusta threw her keys on the table and slung her bag onto one of the kitchen chairs. As usual, a precarious stack of plates had taken over the sink, and the remnants of a Chinese food dinner sat out on the table. Sighing, she covered the leftovers with plastic wrap, stuck them in the fridge and followed the sounds of video games to the living room.
“I’m home,” she said tersely to the two guys hunched over their gaming consoles.
Doug barely glanced up, but her boyfriend, Chris, threw her a quick glance over his shoulder.
“Hey, we’re just finishing up.” Turning back, he continued mashing keys on the game controller, shaking his dark fringe from his eyes and muttering colorful insults at his opponent.
Chris and Doug weren’t the best housemates. Sure, they paid their share of the rent on time, but the house was constantly a mess, and video games took priority over household chores. She supposed that’s what she got for living with her boyfriend and allowing his unemployed brother to move in with them.
“Well, I guess I’ll be in my room if you need me,” Augusta said, too exhausted to pick a fight about the mess in the kitchen.
“You can stay and watch,” Chris said without turning back around.
She’d had a long, hard day. Between the air-conditioning being broken at work and discovering she only had ninety-eight dollars in her bank account after paying her cell phone bill, she wasn’t in the mood to watch Chris and Doug massacre each other with bazookas. She grabbed an apple from the kitchen, and went back to the room she shared with Chris, closing the door against the sounds of gunfire and explosions. Outside, the occasional car passed by in a sweep of headlights and somewhere down the street a dog barked. Loneliness curled around her as she sat at her laptop and began cycling through her bookmarked job listing sites.
Her job giving tours at the Old City Jail in Salem was all right; she got to work in a historic building, it was close enough that she could walk to work, and the polyester uniform was only a slightly nauseating shade of green. But it wasn’t challenging, and she wasn’t using her degree in museum studies for which she’d worked so hard. Not to mention the student debt she was still paying off. The worst was dealing with the public, though. Some of the people that showed up on her tours were engaged in her talks, but mostly the jail attracted cruise tourists who hadn’t realized that it was a guided tour and were more interested in snapping a quick picture for Instagram than learning about the history. The other day she’d really had to remind a full-grown man that he couldn’t bring an ice cream cone into the house, and then had to clean up said ice cream cone when he’d smuggled it inside anyway and dropped it. And the witches! Just because they were in Salem, everyone who came through the door assumed that there would be history about the witches, never mind that the jail didn’t even date from the same century as the witch trials. Most days she came home tired, irritable and unfulfilled.
From the other room came an excited shout as Chris blew up Doug’s home base. Augusta turned her music up. Most of the listings on the museum job sites were for fundraising or grant writing, the sliver of the museum world where all the money was. She knew she shouldn’t be choosy, the millennial voice of reason in her head telling her that she was lucky to have a job at all. But Chris, with his computer engineering degree, actually had companies courting him, and his job at a Boston tech firm came with a yearly salary and benefits.
She was just about to close her laptop when a new listing popped up. Harlowe House in Tynemouth was looking for a collections manager to work alongside their curator. As she scanned the listing, her heart started to beat faster. She wasn’t familiar with the property, but a quick search showed that it was part of a trust dedicated to the history and legacy of a seafaring family from the nineteenth century. She ticked off the qualifications in her head—an advanced degree in art history, museum studies or anthropology, and at least five years of experience. She would have to fudge the years, but other than that, it was made for her. She bookmarked the listing, making a mental note to update her CV in the morning.
The door swung open and Chris came in, plopping himself on the bed beside her. Tall, with an athletic build and dark hair that was perpetually in need of a trim, he was wearing a faded band shirt and gym shorts. “We’re going to order subs. What do you want?”
“Didn’t you just get Chinese food?” she asked.
“That was lunch.”
Augusta did a quick inventory in her head of what she’d eaten that day, how many calories she was up to, and how much money she could afford. After she’d fished ten dollars out of her purse, Chris wandered back out to the living room, leaving her alone. She picked up a book, but it didn’t hold her interest, and soon she was lost scrolling through her phone and playing some stupid game where you had to match up jewels to clear the board. A thrilling Saturday night if there ever was one.
In both college and grad school, Augusta had had a vibrant, tight-knit group of friends. She’d always been a homebody, so there weren’t lots of wild nights out at clubs, but they’d still had fairly regular get-togethers. Lunches and trips to museums, stuff like that. So what had happened in the last few years?
Her mind knew what had happened, but her heart refused to face the truth. Chris had happened.
She had been with him ever since her dad died. She’d run into Chris, her old high school boyfriend, at the memorial. He’d been a familiar face, and she’d clung to him like a life raft amid the turmoil of putting her life back together without her father. It had been clear early on that beyond some shared history, they didn’t have much in common, but he was steady, and Augusta had craved steady. A year passed, then two, then three, and four. She had invested so much time in the relationship, sacrificed so many friends, that at some point it felt like admitting defeat to break up. For his part, Chris seemed content with the status quo, and so five years later, here they were.
That night, after Chris had rolled over and was lightly snoring, Augusta lay awake, thinking of the job listing. The words Harlowe House, Harlowe House, Harlowe House ran through her mind like the beat of a drum. A signal of hope, a promise of something better.
Work the next day was eight hours of pure, unair-conditioned torture. They were understaffed that day—weren’t they always?—which meant Augusta was giving tours back-to-back, with little time to even go to the bathroom or grab a drink of water, never mind to hop on her laptop and fill out an application for the Harlowe House job. As busy and stressful as it could be sometimes, working at the Old Jail at least kept her busy, kept her mind from wandering and dwelling on all the unknowns and shortcomings in her life. Maybe it would be easier just to stay. It wasn’t her dream job, but at least she knew the routine and got along with most of the other tour guides. Dream jobs were for kids with trust funds and safety nets. Nothing would be worse than taking the risk of applying to a new job and then not getting it. If she was stuck here, then at least she wanted to be able to pretend that it was her own choice. It was the easy way out, but that was what was at the heart of it: if she was honest with herself about why she was playing it safe with her job, then what else in her life might she be forced to reexamine? Losing her dad and missing two semesters of school because of depression and starting over at twenty-two had been hard enough. Did she have it in her to make the leap and start again?
“Jesus, you look like you’re making Sophie’s choice over here,” a voice said, drawing Augusta out of her thoughts.
She looked up to find two of the other guides, Maureen and Vin. If she was going to be interrupted and interrogated by her coworkers, at least it was by the only two who she considered anything close to friends.
Maureen slid into the seat across from her at the circular lunch table, flicking her long black hair out of her face, while Vin examined the plate of muffins someone had brought in, finally choosing one. Maureen had light brown skin, penetrating dark eyes, and her full lips were perpetually pulled up at one corner in a crafty smile, as if she were plotting something.
“So?” Maureen asked expectantly. “What are you looking at?”
If anyone else had demanded to know, Augusta probably would have made something up to avoid having to get into a deep conversation, but Maureen had a way of getting Augusta to spill all her secrets. Maybe it was the genuine curiosity that lurked beneath her shrewd gaze, or that Augusta always found herself wanting to impress the cool girl with the dark eyeliner and green streaks in her hair.
“Just this job I found online. I’m thinking about applying.”
Maureen shared a look with Vin, who was popping muffin pieces into his mouth while he tipped his chair back, feet on the table.
“Finally!” Maureen exclaimed. “We’ve been wondering when you were going to start looking around for something better than this.”
She hadn’t been aware that her coworkers ever talked about her, let alone were concerned with her career. “You were?”
Vin finished chewing. Deeply tanned and freckled, Vin had a mass of dark curls that were only barely tamed into a pompadour for work, though he was forever running his hand through them, threatening to send them spilling out into a dress code violation. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, we love working with you, but you’ve been here how long? Two years?”
“Three years! Most people only stay like, a year, tops,” Maureen said. “Haven’t you noticed?”
“I’ve only been here since June and I’m already looking for something else,” Vin told her.
Augusta began to get the creeping suspicion that she was the odd one out on an inside joke around the Old Jail. “You are?” she asked.
“Hell yeah. This is a great stepping-stone job, but no one can keep it up forever. Aren’t you bored and exhausted from giving the same tour all day every day? I know I am.” Vin scrubbed his hands through his curls, standing them on end. “I hate this uniform and I hate that Ron makes me ‘tone down’ my hair.”
“I’m just doing it for the money while I take night classes in biology and chemistry, and then I’m going back to school for my forensic science degree,” Maureen added. “God, if I’m still here in another two years I give you permission to put me out of my misery. I can’t answer another question about the witches from a tourist.”
Augusta bit her lip. It was easy to dismiss her own reasons for not wanting to stay, but it was much less so when it was spelled out in black and white for her by someone else.
“Here, pull up the application,” Maureen demanded, scooting her chair closer. “I’ll help you fill it out.”
Augusta started to protest, but it was no use. Once Maureen was determined to do something, it was as good as done. Pulling out her laptop, Augusta started filling out the application, with Maureen occasionally telling her to change a word or to give herself more experience in a certain area. When Augusta began to draft the cover letter, Maureen drifted away, shifting her attention to Vin and giving Augusta a chance to compose it.
Augusta looked over her application package one last time and hit Submit. There. It was done. There was no going back now. A giddy sense of lightness bubbled up in Augusta’s chest. She’d been brave, and now it was in the hands of the universe.
“Tilly had kittens. They are so cute it’s nauseating. Look.” Maureen thrust her phone in Augusta’s face, snapping her out of her thoughts. “My sister’s boyfriend is taking two of them, and Vin is taking the orange one with the white face.”
“I’m going to name him Bruce,” Vin said proudly.
Maureen rolled her eyes. “I’m not giving him to you if you name him that. You can’t name a cat Bruce.”
Shrugging, Vin resumed tipping his chair back to its precarious angle. “Then I refuse to bring you any more of my mom’s pandan cake.”
“You wouldn’t,” Maureen whispered, her face falling.
Vin smiled triumphantly. “Oh, but I would. Unless you let me name him.”
“Ugh, you’re the worst, but you know I’m obsessed with your mom, so fine.” Maureen’s gaze slid to Augusta. “Do you want one? I’d rather they all go to people I know, not randos off the internet or anything.”
Augusta looked at the video of the mewling little babies one more time, before reluctantly handing back the phone. “I would love one, but my boyfriend is allergic. We can’t have any pets in the apartment.”
When Augusta looked up, she found Vin and Maureen staring at her like she’d sprouted an extra head.
“You have a boyfriend?” came the unified response.
Augusta opened her mouth. “I—”
“You’ve literally never mentioned you had a boyfriend,” Vin said accusingly.
“I haven’t?” Augusta was only half-aware that she had never mentioned Chris. It wasn’t that she was hiding him, or didn’t want people to know that she was in a relationship, he just felt like a separate part of her life from work. Besides, Chris was just...there. They never really did anything worth sharing.
Maureen held her gaze a beat too long, and Augusta shifted in her seat. “I definitely think I would have remembered if you said you were seeing someone.”
A stocky white man wearing a ranger’s uniform and a severe expression appeared in the break room doorway, saving Augusta from having to explain herself any further. “There’s a two o’clock tour in the front and no one there to check them in.” He let his gaze run disapprovingly over the three of them, Maureen’s phone still playing the video of the kittens. “We’re too busy for this kind of thing,” he said. “Vin, you need to fix your hair before you even think of going on tour, so Maureen or Augusta, you’re up.”
Poor Vin’s scowl could have eviscerated him, but Ron seemed oblivious as he perused the plate of muffins. “I’ll do it,” Augusta hurried to offer. Taking the tour would be a distraction from constantly refreshing her email to see if Harlowe House had replied, and she didn’t need Maureen’s knowing gaze sliding to her every few minutes. One more quick glance at her phone told her that Harlowe House hadn’t responded yet, so, pasting on a smile, she greeted the dozen or so tourists waiting in the front entrance. She rattled off the script as she ushered them out of the early autumn heat wave and into the equally stifling hall. She probably could have done it in her sleep at this point, and any meaning the words had once held had long ago faded.
The Old Jail was one of many museums in Salem, a restored building that offered tours, had a gift shop and lots of photo ops for tourists to take pictures of themselves behind bars. Unlike some of the other tourist attractions in the city, the Old Jail wasn’t related to the history of the witch trials in any way, didn’t have creepy wax figures and, mercifully, didn’t require its staff to give tours in costume. But, true to its original function, it was a barren, lifeless building. History was supposed to be alive, a way for people in the present to connect in meaningful ways from the past and learn from it. But that didn’t feel like the case at the Old Jail.
A woman in a Myrtle Beach T-shirt and a fanny pack interrupted Augusta as she led them past the old cells. “Is this where they kept the witches before they burned them?”
“They didn’t burn witches,” Augusta told her with a smile, drawing on all the patience she could muster. “They hanged them. And this prison wasn’t built until 1842—a hundred and fifty years after the witch trials.”
The woman looked disappointed, and whispered something to her companion next to her. They moved on to the warden’s office, and she resisted the temptation to sneak another peek at her phone. If she really did get the job, the best part would be never having to field questions about witches from belligerent tourists ever again.
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