The award-winning author of The Mysteries returns with another captivating novel in which modern-day enigmas and age-old myths come together to bear spellbinding fruit.
Nestled on the coast of Scotland, Appleton was once famous for its apples. Now, though the orchards are long gone, locals still dream of the town’s glory days, when good luck seemed a way of life. And outsiders are still drawn to the charming village, including three very different American women. . . .
Enchanted by Appleton’s famously ornate library, divorcée Kathleen Mullaroy has left her cosmopolitan job to start anew as the town’s head librarian. . . .
Widowed Nell Westray hopes for a quiet life in the place she and her husband spent their happiest moments. . . .
And young Ashley Kaldis has come to find her roots.
But when a sudden landslide cuts Appleton off from the wider world—and the usual constraints of reality—the village reveals itself to be an extraordinary place, inhabited by legendary beings and secret rooms. Most unexpected is a handsome stranger who will draw all three women into an Otherworld where, as in Eden, the bite of a single apple can alter the course of reality . . . if only one of them will believe.
Release date: April 25, 2006
Print pages: 352
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The Silver Bough
Ashley Kaldis leaned her head against the cool glass and gazed through the bus window at the Glasgow streets. Although this was her first foreign city, she couldn't get excited about it; she just didn't feel she was really here. Something about the quality of the milky light, the greyness of the streets, reminded her of old black-and-white movies made long before she was born--before her own parents were born--from a vanished, untouchable era. She looked at it all as if from a very great distance, and wondered if what she felt--or didn't feel--was simply the effect of exhaustion and jet lag.
It was late September. At home, it was still summer, with everyone wearing shorts and tee shirts or bright summer dresses, but here it looked like winter already, with people on the streets all bundled up in coats and jackets. The chilly air carried the scent of rain mixed in with traffic exhaust and fuel smells.
She sank a little farther into her seat and shut her eyes as the bus grumbled and shuddered and made its slow, complaining way from one stoplight to another through the teeming city streets. She'd made it to the last leg of her journey and there was nothing else she had to do, nothing to worry about for the next four hours and fifteen minutes until the bus delivered her to her final destination. She should sleep.
But after so long awake--she'd been too excited and anxious to get much rest the night before she left, and too uncomfortable on the plane, sandwiched between two strangers--sleep seemed like a skill she'd lost. Her nerves were jangling and her heart pounding, probably from that horrible coffee she'd had in the bus station, forcing herself to drink in an attempt to keep herself warm and alert while she waited.
With a sigh, she sat up again and dug into her rucksack for some distraction. She missed her phone; its absence emphasized how far she was from everything she'd ever known, in a foreign country where it wouldn't work. She reminded herself that it was only for six weeks; not worth changing to a more expensive contract. And, anyway, who was she going to call? Her best friend was dead, and she'd split up with her boyfriend. Her parents wanted her to check in with them, but if she did that too often, they might start thinking she was lonely or something.
She pulled out the cute, old-fashioned travel diary, which had been a present from her mother. So far, she'd only noted down her itinerary, and a few details about the long-lost relatives she was going to visit: Shona Walker (Daddy's first cousin; daughter of Phemie's brother), her husband Graeme, their children: Jade (6), Ewan (10), Callum (12). She wondered what they were like, and if she'd be expected to babysit. She had their home address, and two telephone numbers in case some unforeseen emergency kept them from meeting her at the village bus stop as planned. Also in her bag was her purse, with five hundred dollars in traveler's checks, a credit card linked to her father's account (for emergency use only), an AT&T International Calling Card, and The Rough Guide to Scotland. She'd be fine; nobody who knew her could doubt it. She could take care of herself.
But the thought of her own self-sufficiency made her feel a little bleak. She put the diary away and turned her attention back to the passing scene. They'd left the downtown area and were in the suburbs, which looked oddly crushed and miniaturized to eyes that took Texas landscapes as the default setting. She gazed at row upon row of nearly identical houses with front lawns the size of doormats, bijoux strip malls, filling stations, a supermarket, a car dealership, and, finally, the first appearance of open space: bits and scraps of empty land, vacant lots, and something that looked like a long-abandoned factory with a sign advertising a unique site available for redevelopment.
The bus continued to trundle along slowly, muttering under its breath, air brakes squealing every time it was forced to stop. She looked down on the cars in the next lane and saw a man with a ponytail behind the wheel of a small red car, nodding and smiling to unheard music. It felt strange to have such an elevated and detached view. She was used to going everywhere by car, and had flown half a dozen times, but bus travel was weirdly exotic. It was something old-fashioned, a routine from another age, like traveling by train or steamer. Apart from a few school field trips--and there was no glamour in thirty kids packed into a yellow school bus to be ferried across town--she'd been on one other bus journey in her life.
The memory of that trip to San Antonio gave the empty seat beside her a sinister aspect. Freya should have been sitting there. But, no, that was wrong, because if Freya were still alive, neither of them would be on this bus; they'd both be back at school in Dallas, planning their great escape to France. France was where they'd wanted to go, France or Italy. Scotland was never in the running. Freya had no great opinion of the home of oatmeal and bagpipes and men in plaid. The fact that Ashley was one-quarter Scottish was of no more significance than Freya's half-Swedish heritage. Their long-dreamed-of, long-discussed trip abroad had nothing to do with "finding their roots"--an urge which, she believed, did not strike normal people until middle age--but with fun and adventure, the desire to see lots of great art and sit in sidewalk cafes sipping cappuccino and flirting with the local talent.
She turned her face back to the window, watching urban wasteland give way to open countryside, feeling the bus pick up speed on the empty road. No art museums, no famous landmarks, no sidewalk cafes, no best friend, and nobody so far worth a flirtatious second glance; nothing to see but rolling fields dotted with grazing sheep, the gentle hills a luminous green beneath the milky sky. This was Phemie's country; this was the land her grandmother had departed more than half a century ago, left behind so utterly that she'd never had a word--good or bad--to say about it.
Ashley was here because Phemie and Freya were dead, although neither of them would have wanted her to go to Scotland. Really, this should have been her father's journey.
Since his mother's death, Jesse Kaldis had been trying to find out where he came from. He knew a fair amount about his father's family, which combined Greek and German stock, but about his mother's origins he knew very little. When she was alive, she'd discouraged his interest. The past was past, she'd say, and hers was not very interesting. She claimed her parents had been dead for years, and gave vague and contradictory answers to questions about exactly when, why, and how she'd come to America. He knew that his father had met her in California and married her in 1952. She'd acquired American citizenship and what was sometimes taken for a Canadian accent by the time Jesse was born. He knew that "Phemie"--which everyone called her--was short for Euphemia; that her maiden name was MacFarlane, and that she'd been born somewhere in Scotland in 1931. It wasn't a lot to go on, but within six months of her death he'd discovered that one Euphemia MacFarlane, born in 1931, had disappeared from her hometown of Appleton, on the west coast of Scotland, in the autumn of 1950, and that people still remembered her there.
Phemie's parents were long dead--although nothing like as long as she'd always implied. Her mother had survived until 1975, never knowing she had a grandson in America. Phemie's older brother, Hugh, had died three years ago, but his three children were all alive and well, with families of their own. One was in England, one in Australia, but the third, Shona, had remained in Appleton. She was married to a man called Graeme Walker, who worked as a postman and turned out to have a passion for local history. He was even more thrilled than his wife to learn what had become of Phemie, and no sooner had Jesse made contact with Graeme than he'd been invited to visit Appleton and offered free accommodation and introductions to the town's oldest inhabitants, some of whom could surely tell him more about his mother's early life.
Jesse meant to do it--but now was not a good time for him to be away from work. (It never was, thought Ashley.) Maybe next year, he said. Strangely, as the quest lost its urgency for her father, Ashley became more interested. She'd loved her grandmother Phemie, but she'd never been especially curious about her, taking her for granted the way kids did. She hadn't even realized that "Phemie" was short for "Euphemia"--she'd thought it was a peculiar family variant on "Granny," like Freya's grandmothers being known as "Gaga" and "Mimi." To Ashley it had come as a shock to learn that the sweet, rather dull old lady she had known and loved had once been an impulsive, smoldering young beauty, whose flight had made a deep and permanent impact on her local community.
She remembered telling Freya about it shortly before Christmas, as they sat together in her room wrapping presents.
"Nobody had any idea she was planning to leave; they all thought she was perfectly happy. Everybody liked her, and she was engaged to be married to the richest guy in town."
"Rich isn't everything. Maybe he was a creep," Freya suggested, pausing in her ribbon-curling to examine the small black-and-white photograph Ashley had borrowed from her father. It showed Phemie as a vibrant young mother in the early fifties, holding up her baby boy and laughing, her hair hanging in dark, lustrous waves around her face, looking at once glamorous and maternal. She nodded slowly, approving. "She was gorgeous. What about the guy she left?"
"I don't know. Dad didn't say much about him. I think he was older than she was . . . anyway, it sounds like he was pretty shattered when she dumped him; he left town himself within a couple of months, and the family business went to pot without him. That was bad news--it was a major employer. From what my dad's cousin says, it was the beginning of the end for the town. Local economy in ruins, all on account of this one girl deciding to run off. Although, of course, they didn't know for sure that she had run off--some people thought she'd been done away with. Maybe that's why her fiance left--too many suspicious looks, like they all thought he'd killed her and buried her in the woods and was just pretending to be heartbroken."
"Well, it usually is the boyfriend--although, of course, Phemie wasn't murdered! But who knows what might have happened if she'd stayed?" Freya looked thoughtful. "Could it have been like an arranged marriage? You know, she was supposed to save the town by keeping him there and giving him an heir or whatever? So she couldn't see any other way of getting out of it? And even though he was rich, he was maybe a lot older than her, and really awful, but she had to do it because the families insisted?"
Ashley frowned, uncertain. "Could Scotland have been that feudal in 1950?"
"Not an official arranged marriage, then. Maybe more like a done deal between him and her dad. Women didn't have that many options back then. And there must have been some reason why Phemie wouldn't talk about where she came from. Seems like she was scared of something, even after she was married to somebody else. She didn't want to be found. Because she knew they'd never forgive her, and the town would rise up and take revenge, no matter how much time had passed."
Freya laughed suddenly and rested her warm hand on Ashley's. "Ooh, or maybe her dad abused her, and she wiped it all from her memory. Or maybe . . . maybe I just watch too much TV! Probably it was just a really dull, boring place, and she felt guilty about dumping her fiance, so she just decided she'd pretend none of it had ever happened. Did your Phemie seem to you like somebody hiding a deep, dark secret?"
"Not really. But she never would talk about her past--nothing about her family, or anything that happened before she met Grampa."
Freya shrugged. "Still . . . now she's gone, I bet she wouldn't mind your dad finding his relatives. It's made him feel better. He's made some new friends, and he's got a project. It's always good to have a project. Takes your mind off being unhappy." She spoke, as she sometimes did, with absolute assurance, like someone wiser than her years. Two weeks later, she was dead after losing control of the dark green Camry she was accustomed to drive so fast and skillfully around the crowded, chaotic Houston freeways.
They'd been best friends since they were eleven. Losing her was like losing her soul or half her brain, Ashley thought despairingly. She couldn't believe she was still alive, left alone. Nothing made sense anymore. But she remembered Freya's comment about having a project, so she went back to school two days after the funeral, because at least there she would have something to do. Teachers were understanding, everyone was sympathetic, but without Freya she was just the ghost of herself. She experimented a bit with drugs and sex, trying to jump-start her life. When that failed, she threw herself into schoolwork, attended every class and lecture, took copious notes, did extra reading, and turned in every assignment on time. She also acquired a steady boyfriend, Brandon, to occupy the hours when she couldn't work; but well before the end of the semester she knew it wasn't working, that it couldn't work. More than willpower was required. She needed a change.
On the last day of classes, she'd arranged to meet Brandon at four o'clock in the sandwich bar--it was a crummy little place with few customers except at lunchtime, conveniently located halfway between her place and his. He was resigned, if not happily, to the fact that they'd be spending the summer apart, and wanted to talk about getting together over the Fourth of July weekend.
She ignored this opening gambit, and plunged in with her news without pausing for a sip of her usual Diet Coke.
"I'm not coming back to school in the fall. I can't take business classes anymore; I just can't think in those terms. Nobody knows what's going to happen; I always thought I could be practical and plan things out, but it's impossible. How can I take five-year plans seriously when I don't know what's going to happen in five years? When nobody knows?"
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