From award-winning novelist Wendy Webb comes a spine-tingling, modern-day haunted house story set on Lake Superior.
Grace Alban has spent twenty years away from her childhood home, the stately Alban House on the shores of Lake Superior—for reasons she would rather forget. But when her mother’s unexpected death brings Grace and her teenage daughter home, she finds more than just her own personal demons haunting the halls and passageways of Alban House.
Long-buried family secrets, a packet of old love letters, and a lost manuscript plunge Grace into a decades-old mystery about a scandalous party at Alban House during which a world-famous author took his own life and Grace’s aunt disappeared without a trace. That night has been shrouded in secrecy by the powerful Alban family for all of these years, and Grace realizes her family secrets tangle and twist as darkly as the hidden passages of Alban House. Her mother was intending to tell the truth about that night to a reporter on the very day she died. Could it have been murder, or was she a victim of the supposed Alban curse? With the help of the disarmingly kind—and attractive—Reverend Matthew Parker, Grace must uncover the truth about her home and its curse before she and her daughter become the next victims.
Wendy Webb has woven a suspenseful mystery that skillfully skirts the boundary between what is paranormal and what is psychological.
Release date: February 5, 2013
Publisher: Hachette Books
Print pages: 352
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The Fate of Mercy Alban
Fate Alban had come running down into the garden that morning wearing the delicate floral print dress she used to like so much, her wispy cornsilk hair fluttering behind her as she ran. She was laughing, a big, throaty laugh that seemed impossible coming out of a girl as small as she. Adele had been sketching on the cool marble bench next to the fountain when Fate flopped down beside her, breathless, and said: “Draw me, why don’t you?”
So Adele turned to a new page in her sketchbook and put pencil to paper, amused by the way Fate’s hair was framing her face like a halo. The sunlight streamed through the leaves, and Fate blinked against it before placing one hand, wrist as slim as a reed, across her forehead.
Adele looked down at her sketchbook and was surprised to see she hadn’t drawn Fate’s face, not exactly. It was off somehow. Adele wondered what she had gotten wrong—the angle of Fate’s nose? the arch of her brow?—and she squinted to focus more intently on the page.
As she looked closer, the drawing began to move and shimmer, its eyes glowing with life, its mouth contorting from Fate’s sweet grin into a wicked smile baring the teeth of a predator. Adele tried to tear her eyes away from the image but found she was caught there, locked into whatever malevolent magic had suddenly taken hold of the page. She could not look away as the image of Fate’s beautiful face morphed into that of a hideous demon.
“I’m coming for you,” the image hissed.
Adele’s eyes shot open and she sat up with a start. She looked around her room, quieting her racing heart by taking in the familiar—yes, there was her desk, the fireplace, the tapestry hanging on the wall—reminding herself she was safe. That terrible day was long in the past. But even after a lifetime filled with love and loss, births and deaths, weddings and funerals, and the glorious minutiae of everyday living, the memory still gnawed at Adele, creeping every so often out of the vault she had constructed inside of her heart to contain it.
A soft rapping at the door brought Adele back to herself, shaking the familiar dream and the ache that always came with it from her mind.
Jane poked her head into the room. “You awake, Mrs. Alban?”
“I’m up, Jane.” Adele smiled as she slid her feet into slippers and rested a moment, making sure she was steady enough to stand. “It’s a strange sensation, dreaming I’m twenty years old and waking up to seventy. Doesn’t seem quite fair, somehow.”
“Beats the alternative, so it does.” Jane chuckled, crossing the room to draw back the curtains and open the French doors leading out to the patio. “I’ve got your breakfast all set up out here. Shall I help you?” She came toward Adele, holding her arms wide.
“I can manage, for goodness’ sake.” Adele wrapped a thick terrycloth robe around her brittle frame. “She’s old and rusty, but she still runs.”
Jane hovered as Adele made her way out the doors and onto the patio, where coffee, yogurt, croissants, and the morning paper were waiting. Adele braced herself on the back of the chair before sinking down into it. “Another gorgeous morning,” she said with a sigh, gazing out over the lake. “I’ll tell you, Jane, if I live to be two hundred years old, I’ll never tire of this view.”
Before her lay a wide expanse of water; steam hovered just above the lake’s surface. A rower appeared out of the fog, gliding up the shoreline before vanishing silently into the mist. In another time, Adele would’ve been out there with him, greeting the early morning with the familiar push-and-pull movements she loved. Not anymore. How many decades had it been since she last rowed?
Jane poured a cup of coffee and Adele added a splash of cream before lifting it to her lips, savoring the heat as it slipped down her throat.
“The journalist called again,” Jane sniffed. “He’s not going away quietly, that one.”
Adele rolled her eyes as she tore off a piece of a croissant and buttered it. “I’m too old for this, Jane.”
“Aren’t we all?” she said.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have opened the house to tours. It’s when strangers started coming that all of this was dredged up again.”
Adele took another sip of her coffee, the dream still hovering on the edges of her mind.
“You were here that summer,” she said, the past closing in around her as she stared out across the hazy lake. “You had come over from the old country with your mother years before, isn’t that right? You were learning what it took to run this household, even then, young as you were. Your mother was teaching you the tricks of the trade.”
“That’s right, ma’am, sure enough.” Jane smiled. It was a conversation the two women had had often over the years.
Adele nodded and let out a sigh. “So long ago. You know, Jane, you and I, Mr. Jameson, and Carter are the only ones still alive who were here that summer. When we’re gone, nobody will remember what really happened that day.”
Jane put a hand on Adele’s shoulder. “Aye,” she said, “but perhaps that’s just how it should be. Let the spirits of the dead rest, I say.”
Adele swiveled in her chair to look at the hill in the back of the house. “I’m not so sure about that,” she said. “I’ve been thinking—maybe I will talk to the man, Jane. Maybe it’s time the truth comes out. Call him back, will you? Tell him to come this afternoon.”
She chewed her croissant as she considered what to do next. “Before he comes, I think I’ll go for a walk on the hill,” she said finally. “It’ll do me good, getting a bit of exercise.”
Jane crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Do you think that’s wise, ma’am? You’ve been ill and …” She clucked in disapproval.
“Oh, I know it’s not wise.” Adele chuckled. “But at my age, who cares?”
“Shall I ask Mr. Jameson to accompany you?”
“I’m sure he’s got enough to do in the garden.” Adele smiled, rising from the table. “I’ll be fine on my own.”
Jane knew better than to try to talk the woman out of whatever she set her mind to doing. Half an hour later, she watched from the patio as Adele pushed open the side door, waved, and started across the lawn.
The walk took Adele’s breath quickly, much more quickly than she had remembered, and at this, she smirked. The ravages of age. When she reached the hilltop, she sank down into the soft grass, breathing heavily, and surveyed what was before her.
From this height, she could see all fifteen acres of the property—the house, the extensive gardens, the lawn, and the lakeshore beyond it. If she turned a bit, she could follow the shore-line all the way to downtown, where new shops and restaurants were popping up in the century-old storefronts. She saw the paved path, all four miles of it, snaking along the shoreline, where people were riding their bicycles, walking dogs, or running. A single freighter hovered on the horizon of this Great Lake as gaggles of kayakers paddled their way up the shore. Tourists were waking up in the hotels along the beach, she thought, and marveling at the view. It really was quite magnificent.
That’s when she heard the noise, soft and low. A delicate hissing on the wind. Whispers all around her. Adele put a hand to her throat and turned her head this way and that but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Grass bowing low in greeting to the soft breeze. A hummingbird visiting a flower. A caterpillar feasting on a leaf. She exhaled, satisfied she had been imagining things. No whispers here.
But then she heard it again. Louder this time. A voice?
She tried to listen closely—her ears were full of the ringing that came with age—but she couldn’t quite make out what the voice was saying. She wasn’t even sure of the language. It sounded ancient and guttural, like it was coming from another place, a more savage and primitive time. And then the memory hit her—she had heard this voice once before, on a summer night many years ago. But it couldn’t be. Could it?
Adele shuddered and rose to her feet, wanting very much to be in the company of someone else. Jane, Mr. Jameson, anyone. She hurried down the hill toward the fountain where she had found him that night, all those years ago. But the voice was louder there. It came swiftly nearer until it was right behind her, whispering in her ear. She swung around and could not believe her eyes. What sort of magic is this? It was the last thought that ran through her mind before everything went black.
Jane looked at the clock. That journalist would be here in no time, now wouldn’t he? Where was Mrs. Alban? Jane rambled from the living room to the library, poked her head into the study—no sign of her employer anywhere. And she certainly wouldn’t be in the kitchen, Jane thought with a hint of a smile.
“Mrs. Alban?” she called up the grand staircase. No response. Jane put her hand on the cherry-wood banister and thought about the dusting she’d do tomorrow.
Reaching the second floor, she scurried down the hallway and knocked quickly on the door of the master suite. She pushed open the door and poked her head inside. “Ma’am?”
And then it settled around her like a cloak, the deafening silence. There was no energy, no noise, no signs of life. This enormous house was empty but for her.
Jane hurried down the stairs and out onto the front patio, spotting the gardener kneeling over a rosebush.
“Mr. Jameson!” Jane called out, rushing toward him down the smooth marble patio steps and into the immaculately manicured English garden that he had coaxed to life in this harsh, northern climate for a half century. She was out of breath when she reached him and took a moment to recover before speaking.
“And what can I do for you, Mrs. Jameson?” Her husband, Thomas Jameson, smiled at her.
“It’s herself,” she said breathlessly, looking into his eyes and putting a hand on his chest. “She went out for a walk on the hill this morning and hasn’t come back. That fool journalist is supposed to be here soon, and …” She stopped as she watched her husband’s expression fade from amusement into worry.
“How long ago, did you say?”
“About an hour. A bit more than that now.”
“Did she have any shopping to do?” Mr. Jameson asked, looking across the rose garden toward the carriage house where Carter, the family’s driver, lived. “I didn’t notice the car pull out, but Carter might have driven her somewhere.”
Jane shook her head. “I don’t think so. Why would she go anywhere when someone was coming here to meet with her?”
“All the same, I’ll check in with him. And I’ll get the lads to help us search the grounds.” He put down his shears and took his wife’s hands into his own. “Don’t you worry, dear. I’m sure she’s all right. We’ll find her. You go back up to the house now and wait.”
As Mr. Jameson strode off in search of Carter and the two young men he had hired earlier that spring to help with the gardens, Jane hurried back up the steps to the house. Where was the old girl? She rushed from one room to another, one floor to another. Forty rooms later, Jane was officially panicked.
She wound up in the green-and-black-tiled solarium, a room full of leafy plants, gurgling fountains, and plush sofas and chairs, where Mrs. Alban always took her tea in the afternoons.
Breathing heavily after all that rushing around, Jane sank down onto one of the wicker chairs and fished a tissue out of the pocket of her apron, dabbing at her brow. But she couldn’t sit still. The feeling, the same one that had taken hold of her moments before when she was upstairs, was stronger now. Nobody else was alive in this house.
“Mrs. Jameson!” Her husband’s muffled voice startled Jane, and she pushed herself up to her feet and rushed out the doors onto the patio where he and Carter were climbing the steps toward the house.
“Well?” Jane asked, knowing the answer by the look on her husband’s face.
“Nary a trace,” he said. “We’ve searched the entire grounds. More than once. Even the cemetery beyond, thinking she might have been visiting the relatives, so to speak.”
Carter shook his head. “I don’t like this.”
“I don’t like it, either,” Jane said, her voice a low whisper. “Something just doesn’t feel right.”
“Aye,” her husband said, pulling the blue felt fisherman’s cap from his head and twisting it in his hands. “Aye.”
“Tell the lads to search the grounds again,” she said. “I’ll get us some iced tea while we wait. But if they don’t find her soon, it might be time to call the police.”
A few moments later, Jane joined her husband and Carter on the patio with a pitcher of iced tea and three glasses on a tray.
As she was pouring, Jane’s gaze drifted toward the main garden in front of the house, the one with the fountain and the manicured hedges. Her shriek pierced the afternoon’s silence as the pitcher tumbled out of her hand and shattered on the cool cement floor, the dark tea pooling in the crevices like blood.
After a restless flight from Seattle to Minneapolis, my daughter and I rented a car and drove northward, watching the landscape change from city to suburb to farm fields to pine forests. Cresting the top of the hill near Spirit Mountain, I took a quick breath in as I saw the expansive view before me—the bay between the cities of Duluth and Superior, the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge, rising and falling to accommodate the massive ships that needed to get into the port, and the flood of city on either side of the bay that seemed to have crested in my absence. Beyond all that, the vastness and ferocity of Lake Superior shimmered. Taking it in for the first time in two decades, I felt my stomach twist itself into knots.
I had come home to bury my mother, an event that seemed as surreal to me as the circumstances of her passing. As I drove down the hill toward town, it felt like time itself was ticking backward, the years folding in on top of themselves as though I were leafing through a book, back to the page when my mother was a vibrant fifty-year-old who still rowed on this greatest of lakes every summer morning. It simply didn’t seem possible that death could find her or, if it did, that she couldn’t persuade it to come back another day.
I wondered if it all hadn’t been a mistake, if I would arrive at the house to find her on the patio sipping a glass of lemonade or a gin and tonic, as she liked to do in the summer months.
Looking back on it now, it wouldn’t surprise me if my mother’s spirit had indeed been hovering as I drove toward the house that day. Not to welcome me home but to warn me of what was awaiting me there—memories that would unearth themselves from the graves I had dug to contain them, and things much stranger than that, monstrous things that would creep and lurk and hide. I’ve always known that old houses are full of such things, Alban House most of all.
As I turned into our driveway, I gasped aloud when I saw a ticket booth at the end of what was now a parking lot. I knew the croquet lawn had been paved over, but it still gave me a jolt to see dark asphalt where the grass my father tended so carefully—obsessively, my mother always teased—used to be.
Visions of our annual summer parties crept into my mind—girls in cotton dresses, boys in seersucker suits, lemonade we’d secretly spike with vodka. A croquet tournament in the afternoon; a bonfire on the lakeshore at night. I could see the shadows of my brothers, the twins Jake and Jimmy, running their ridiculous victory lap around the croquet lawn, mallets held high over their heads. The sound of their laughter floated around me before diminishing little by little until it was gone, as if it were buoyed downstream on a river of memory that flowed through this place and through me.
My daughter’s voice pulled me back from those visions of the past. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing toward the booth and pulling the earbuds out of her ears for the first time in the nearly three hours it took to drive here from the Minneapolis airport.
“The house is, well … it’s sort of a museum now, remember?” I reminded her.
Amity’s face didn’t betray any hint of recognition. She furrowed her brows. “What do you mean, a museum?”
“We talked about this, honey.”
She opened her eyes wide and shrugged with the particular type of silent sarcasm that only teenage girls seemed to possess. I sighed and tried again. “The university asked us if it could conduct public tours of the first floor of the house and the garden because of their historic value. I told you all of this last year.”
“I don’t get it. It’s just an old house.”
“Oh, Amity, for goodness’ sake.” I pulled through the parking lot and into our driveway. “Why don’t you read a history book or, better yet, listen when your family talks to you? In any case, it couldn’t matter less right now.”
Instantly, I regretted my shortness with her and put my hand on her arm. “Sorry, honey,” I started, but she had already slumped back into her seat and put the earbuds back into her ears. Another fantastic mother-daughter moment.
As I climbed out of the car, I noticed a woman poke her head out the ticket booth’s door, eye us suspiciously, and then skitter across the parking lot toward us, her high heels clicking all the way. “Excuse me!” she chirped, wagging a finger at me. “Excuse me! You can’t park there!”
I ignored her and opened the rental car’s tailgate as Amity unfolded herself from the passenger seat.
“This driveway isn’t for visitors, and besides, the house is closed,” the woman huffed, finally reaching us. “I’m sorry, but there are no tours today or for the foreseeable future. And we don’t want people wandering around the gardens on their own. That’s not allowed.”
“I’m not here for a tour,” I said, managing a smile. “I’m Grace Alban.” I watched as the woman’s scowl melted into confusion and then recognition.
Then a breathless stream of backpedaling. “Oh! Miss Alban! I’m so sorry! I should have recognized you right away!”
“That’s okay,” I said with a nod. “I haven’t been here in quite a while. Thanks for being so vigilant, keeping people out. We appreciate it, especially now.”
“I’m Susan Johnson,” she said quickly, still staring wide-eyed at me. “I’m with the university. I’m just here gathering some things. We’re not sure how long the house will be closed or if we’ll be able to open it up again.” She squinted at me. “I suppose that’s up to you now.”
I supposed it was.
She clutched her clipboard tighter to her chest. “I’m so sorry about your mother. We all are. What a wonderful lady.”
Tears were stinging at my eyes, so I grabbed my bag from the back of the car and nodded to Amity to do the same. “Thank you,” I said to the woman as I popped the suitcase’s handle up into place, grateful for something to distract me from her concerned face. “We’ll be in touch with you about reopening, but don’t plan on it for a while.”
“Of course. And, Miss Alban, this goes without saying, but if there’s anything the university can do …”
“Thank you,” I said to her again, eyeing her name tag. “Susan.”
I turned and let myself look at my home, Alban House, for the first time in twenty years. The redbrick façade rising three stories tall, the parapets jutting out from the roof, the enormous stone patio running the entire length of the house facing the lake, the stairs down to the gardens that framed the property—none of it had changed at all.
Growing up in Alban House, I felt I was a princess living in an enchanted castle, and indeed, the house was designed to look like one, patterned after the Jacobean estates European kings built for themselves in centuries past. But I soon learned people who lived in castles—the ones I read about in my storybook fairy tales—didn’t necessarily live enchanted lives. Not sweetly enchanted, anyway. Strange and otherworldly things swirled around them, threatening, no, wanting their happiness. At least that’s how the stories I read went. I held my breath as I realized I was walking right back into mine.
As I climbed the patio steps, I could almost see my mother standing there, her arms open wide. Jane ran right through the very spot, dissipating the image into wispy shards that fluttered away on the wind. “Oh, my girl,” Jane whispered into my hair as she threw her arms around me and hugged me tight. “Finally back where you belong.”
I relaxed into her embrace and felt the stress of the past few days begin to melt away. I put my head onto her shoulder and wanted nothing more than to stay there for a good long while—safe and comforted by the woman who had always handled everything for my family for as long as I could remember.
“And Amity, dear,” Jane said, cupping a hand to my daughter’s cheek. “Haven’t you grown since the last time you were here! You’re taller than your mother already. What grade will you be starting in the fall? Eleventh, is it?”
Amity smiled at this. “That’s right. I’ll be a junior. Nice to see you, too, Jane.” She gave me a sideways glance. “Should I take this stuff up to my room?”
I nodded, knowing my daughter wanted nothing more than to escape adult company, flop onto her bed, and start texting her friends. “Sure, honey. Go and get settled. I need to talk to Jane. Then I’ll be up and we’ll see about dinner.”
Amity lugged her suitcase across the patio, pulled open one of the massive wooden front doors, and disappeared inside.
“It meant the world to your mother that you sent the girl here every summer, once she was old enough,” Jane said to me, fishing a balled-up tissue out of her sleeve and dabbing her eyes with it. “Mrs. Alban doted on Amity, so she did.”
I cleared the sadness and shame from my throat. “Now I wish I had come with her. I wish …”
“I know, child. I know.”
Jane hooked her arm into mine and I let her lead me to the patio table. The sight of it, after all these years, gave me a pang of melancholy that reverberated through my whole body. The huge wooden table, with seating for fourteen, had always reminded me of something out of an ancient Celtic legend. My great-grandfather had imported it, and much of the materials used to build the house, from Ireland when he broke ground on this place in the late 1800s—at least that was how the story went.
We used to have meals on the patio during the warm summer months and even into the fall, Mother, Daddy, Jake, Jimmy, and me, along with whatever friends were circulating in our orbit at the time.
I thought of those days, and there it was again—the twins’ laughter, low, musical, infectious. I wished it would engulf me and carry me along whatever river their giggling was floating on, back to another time in this same place, back to evenings when my family debated our way through mealtimes, talking about art and politics and literature and even celebrity scandals of the moment; carrying me back further still to the days when our mother would wrestle with the cook for the kitchen so she could bake for us herself, greeting us with love and good humor and a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies as we came through the door after a long day of school; and back further to lazy summer afternoons when my brothers and I would lie on the lakeshore counting the sailboats as they passed.
And now they were all gone. Only I remained.
Jane’s voice dissolved these memories. “I thought you might like a bite of something after your journey,” she said, patting my hand. I saw she had set one end of the table with a bottle of wine, a basket of bread, some sliced cheeses.
I couldn’t remember the last meal I had eaten. Lunch yesterday? Or was it dinner the night before? Time was a blur ever since I got Jane’s call. I pulled out one of the heavy wrought-iron chairs and sank into it with a sigh. “This is just what I needed. Thank you.”
She hovered beside me, waiting. “Please, Jane, join me,” I said, gesturing to the chair next to mine. Even after more than fifty years of running this house, she still stood on ceremony.
I poured some wine for us both and took a big bite of the crusty bread and cheese, Gouda with caraway, which she knew was my favorite. With all she had been through in the past few days, Jane still took the time to attend to the little things to make me feel welcome.
She peered into her wineglass, a bit scandalized. She smiled, and I saw a devilish glint in her eye. “I suppose I could have a wee nip.”
Dear Jane. I had missed her gentle, good humor, the brogue making music of her words. I smiled at her for a moment but could feel my smile fade as quickly as it came. I had been dreading this conversation, yet I knew now was the time. I took a deep breath, let it out in a long sigh, and said: “You said on the phone you didn’t want to tell me the whole story until we could sit face-to-face. So here we are. What exactly happened, Jane?”
Jane shook her head. “I still don’t rightly know.”
I waited as Jane smoothed the apron in her lap. Finally, she began. “Your mother had her breakfast on the second-floor patio, right outside her bedroom, as usual. I told her that journalist called again, the man interested in writing the book about Alban House, and—”
I held up a hand to stop her story and squinted at her. “Wait a minute. What book?”
She sighed. “They’re always pok. . .
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