Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
In this celebrated gothic romance, will Miranda be
the next victim of Barrett’s Hill?
When her father’s will sends strong-willed,
irreverent Miranda to the New England estate of nearby Barrett’s Hill to live under
the guardianship of her elder cousin—the sour Reverend Smathers—and his
scheming family, trouble quickly brews.
Two decades earlier a murder took place on Barrett’s
Hill, and the suspects are few. Miranda’s spirited investigation raises the fear
of public scandal among her hypocritical relatives—the Reverend’s alcoholic
wife and viciously manipulative daughter—especially since the suspects are the
Reverend, his toadying assistant Fathimore, Miranda’s own father, and the darkly
irresistible Adam Traywick.
Adam turns his masterful charms on Miranda, and she
falls in love. Yet as it becomes clear she’s provoked the killer’s survival
instincts, with herself his target, she can’t help wondering if Adam is
seducing her or planning her murder.
IT WAS COLD. Icy, icy cold. The kind of
cold that pains your lungs when you breathe, cold that stings your face when
you walk. Cold that seeps down into your bones and stays there till you’re
three weeks into summer. Cold.
People said the winter of 1881 was the
roughest they’d lived through yet. Seemed like every other day we’d have a snow
storm, and when the snow wasn’t falling and clogging up the twisty dirt roads,
then the wind blew hard enough to knock a person halfway to Montpelier. By mid-November
I was practically housebound.
At that time I was living with my
father’s cousin, the Very Reverend James Karlew Smathers. At the end of summer
I had been dropped summarily on his doorstep per the instructions of my late
and unlamented father’s will and consequently had spent the last three months
in a constant state of rebellion against the holy postures of my cousin and his
small-minded family. My father, a second-rate classics professor at a
third-rate college outside of Boston, had only one good quality: he had left me
entirely alone to bring myself up as I had thought best. My mother was never
spoken of. She’d run off with an actor when I was barely four years old and
then died some time later in a train wreck. My father seemed likely to live forever,
I thought, until a disagreement with one of his colleagues brought on apoplexy,
leaving me, at the age of twenty, dependent on a man my father had stigmatized
as a hypocritical moron who supported himself by a God he didn’t believe in.
I took after my
mother in many ways; I suppose that was one reason why my father hated me. I
had her elegant curves, her blue eyes, her face. I was no great beauty, but I’d
made peace with that long ago, accepting the fact that I was ordinary. My hair
was a redder blonde than hers had been, and I was definitely lacking her charm
of manner. In character, much as I hate to admit it, I resembled my father,
with a tendency to say what I thought despite what people might think, mainly
because I really didn't care. Unfortunately this failed to bring me closer to
my father, since I detested him as thoroughly as he did me. I knew perfectly
well that morning when I sat dry-eyed in Lawyer Hargreaves’s office, listening
to that infamous will, that now my father had his final revenge for all the
outrageous behavior of my adolescent years. He’d left my genteel fortune and my
rebellious body in the care of the ruddy-cheeked individual looking suitably
solemn as he sat to my left on the horsehair couch.
whose custody she will remain until she has learned to control her wild
behavior and provided herself with a husband, or, failing that most necessary
adjunct to womanhood, until she reaches the age of thirty-five, at which time
her money will be taken over by a trust fund.”
I choked in
helpless rage, and Cousin Karlew, charitably assuming it was my grief getting
the better of me, patted my shaking hand. I controlled the impulse to slap him
away and raised my head defiantly. The Reverend looked at me in surprise. I
think it was the poor man’s first inkling of my true nature. I could find it in
my heart to pity him.
Miranda,” Cousin Karlew turned to me when Mr. Hargreaves’s fussy little voice
had finally finished reading my father’s last words, "I hope you know how glad
your cousin Elinor and I will be to have you with us,” he said jovially, his
eyes a bit alarmed.
"I can imagine
just how glad you must be, Cousin.” I smiled sweetly. "My father told me so
much about you.”
became more disturbed. "And my daughter Maxine is only a few years younger than
you are. You and she will become great friends, I’m sure.”
"I’m sure,” I
echoed tonelessly, glancing around the office for a way to escape this pompous
man. My purse contained three dollars and some change, my few possessions of
any worth were packed and already on their way to a tiny, misbegotten village
in the hills of northern Vermont called Pomroy. I looked back into my cousin’s
colorless eyes. "Whenever you’re ready, Cousin,” I murmured, temporarily
The train ride
from Boston was endless, and Karlew did little to beguile the time. My black
wool traveling dress was scratchy and rough against my skin; the air was stuffy
and sooty. When I first sat down in my seat I’d taken out a frivolous novel,
but the looks of shock and disapproval from my holy cousin made it impossible
to concentrate, and I put it down within half an hour. The look of censure
faded from his face, and some shred of tact (which he has not exercised since)
prevented him from commenting on my lack of proper feeling.
It was late
when the train arrived in Montpelier. The August night was cold, and for the
first time that day I was glad my only mourning dress was made of wool. Feeling
quiet and strange inside, I waited on the little platform while Karlew arranged
for my trunks to be sent on. I’d never seen so many stars—or maybe I just
hadn’t noticed them when I’d lived in Boston. I was still staring skyward when
my cousin bustled up.
"We’ll push on
ahead tonight, Miranda. The sooner you get settled with your new family the
easier it will be for you in this time of bereavement.” He eyed me warily,
expecting a denial. "I’ll just head on over to the livery stable and hire a
wagon. Won’t take but a minute.”
I stared after
his stocky figure with speculative eyes. My father had never been terribly
perceptive about human nature, and he had been wrong about his cousin. Karlew
was no moron, however shallow he seemed. It was possible this could prove
entertaining after all. But not for fifteen years, I promised myself firmly.
An hour later
we were following a winding dirt road along a seemingly endless series of hills
and valleys. The pair of horses was slow and strong, lumbering along in front
of us. The faint scent of manure clung to the wagon and mingled with the cool
farther is Pomroy?” I asked, staring idly into the underbrush alongside the
road. It would have been almost too easy to imagine dark and malevolent
creatures skulking there, waiting to attack, I thought, and gave myself a little
"See that hill
over there?” Karlew said, pointing to what my city-bred eyes considered a small
mountain. "That’s Barrett’s Hill. We live a little ways up it.”
It didn’t look
suspicious or threatening, just a hill, like any other. I glanced at it with
mild curiosity, then dismissed it from my mind, deciding it wasn’t likely to be
of much importance to me. Foolish girl that I was.
It was another
forty-five minutes before we pulled up in front of a huge house, three stories
high with several peaked roofs dark against the night sky. While Karlew stopped
by the porch and I scrambled down, the front door opened, and a stout, friendly
poor orphaned girl?” she cried. Then, seeing me standing there stiffly, she
folded me into a hearty embrace. I endured it with good grace, wondering what
had possessed my cousin to marry such an exuberant creature.
Nanny,” Karlew greeted her, quickly dispelling my illusion. "Is my wife
"That she is,
Reverend, and best not wake her up. She had one of her bad nights,” she said
significantly, over my head. "I’ll just take Miss Miranda up to her room and
get her settled in, poor thing. She must be exhausted.”
rather,” I said, letting her lead me through hallways I paid no attention to.
Within fifteen minutes I had washed up a bit, changed into a borrowed
nightgown, presumably belonging to my cousin Maxine—I couldn’t imagine a grown
woman choosing that shade of pink—and been tucked comfortably into bed. I lay
there, looking docile, while Nanny busied herself straightening the already
"Don’t you pay
no attention to that hill outside,” she warned before she left me. "Gives some
people the willies, it does, but don’t you pay it no mind. You just get a good
night’s sleep, and tomorrow you’ll meet the rest of your cousins.” She beamed
fondly at the thought of the treat in store for me.
I lay there
alone in the darkness, waiting for sleep. But I was too restless, too curious
about my new surroundings. I knew I was up on the third floor, in a small but
attractively simple room. I was lying in a sturdy old sleigh bed, a patchwork
quilt covering me, bringing me warmth I’d never thought I’d need in midsummer.
A small amount of light from the quarter moon came through the casement windows
above the window seat, throwing fitful shadows of the maple leaves onto the
braided rug. I could see Barrett’s Hill rising behind the house, and I found
its presence comforting.
When I awoke
the next morning my first sight was a vision perched on the end of my bed. She
had dark brown, almost black hair flowing in graceful curls around her
shoulders, her dress a bright shade of rose pink that would make me look
bilious but suited her perfectly, and her dark brown eyes were unpleasantly
Cousin Miranda." She smiled broadly, as though the number of teeth showing
measured my welcome. "I thought I’d come and wake you up.”
thoughtful of you, Maxine. I assure you are Maxine and not Cousin
apparently amused her, for she went into gales of affected laughter. I waited
patiently for her to regain her self-control.
know how funny that is when you see Mummy.”
"I’m sure I
will,” I answered, glancing around the room for my trunks. "Have you any idea
where my luggage is?”
surveyed me for a moment. "You aren’t going to like it here, you know. It’s the
back end of beyond, and you’re not very pretty, are you?”
I don’t know
if she was expecting me to agree with her, but I kept my mouth shut. Maxine
shrugged. "Still, you’re not my responsibility, thank God.” She jumped up, her
curiosity satisfied. "I’ll see you at breakfast.” She almost seemed to
disappear—a not unlikely occurrence for such a fairy-like creature. Or a troll,
I arrived downstairs
in my travel-stained black dress, my hunger winning out over my vanity. I was
directed to the breakfast room by a young maid whose name, I later discovered,
was Emma. I entered the dark, depressing little room and met Maxine’s smirk.
Miranda!” Karlew said heartily across the room. "I trust you had a good night’s
absently, my attention drawn to the third occupant of the room, my cousin
Elinor. She was short and washed-out. Her hair had faded to an indiscriminate
shade of blonde and gray, her eyes had faded to a watery hazel. Even her
clothes seemed faded. She fluttered nervously, rising from her chair and
floating to my side with a trail of wispy garments behind her. She touched her
dry cheek against mine, and I could see tears in her eyes as she pressed my
"My dear,” she
murmured, quite overcome. "We are so happy to have you here! You poor
emotion before breakfast has always been against my principles, so I gently
disengaged her clinging form, helped her back to her chair, and then sat down
opposite her. Karlew flashed me a look of surprised approval before embarking
on a long and boring prayer thanking Our Savior for the oatmeal. I survived it
the best I could, staring at the red-flocked wallpaper above the dark brown
wainscoting and the tasteful still life of dead pheasants staring down at me
with glassy eyes.
breakfast conversation was no better than his train conversation, consisting
mainly of bald statements which he ended with "Eh?” expecting us to agree
meekly. My cousins did their part; I preserved a stony silence. I was not about
to compromise my principles to help Karlew’s obviously overwhelming vanity.
would you come into my study when you are free?” he inquired affably—but I
could tell he was not best pleased with me. I nodded my agreement and followed
him into that room, prepared for a stern and pious lecture.
He sat down
behind his large, impressive desk and looked at me earnestly. "Miranda, my
child, I am most disturbed.”
I sat down
gracefully on a low stool. "Are you, Cousin?” My tone was not encouraging.
He was daunted
for a moment but rallied bravely. "My dear, I realize how great your grief must
interrupted flatly. "Surely you don’t think I mourn my father? If you do then
you must have forgotten what he was like. A more self-centered, evil-tongued,
commanded, horrified to the tips of his Christian toes. "You can’t know what
perfectly well what I’m saying, Cousin Karlew. You should have paid more
attention to the will. Along with the trusteeship of all that money you have
the care of someone my dear father variously called a termagant, a shrew, a
feminist, and a creature worse than her mother. And that, my dear cousin,
describes me well enough for your purposes. The sooner you give me possession
of my money and allow me to leave, the happier we both shall be.”
Karlew sat in
silence for a moment, his bland face creased in thought. Finally he spoke. "Miranda,
how can you ever hope to get along with your fellow man if you don’t take a
more conciliatory attitude? Surely you must see that I can’t let you leave here
until the terms of your dear father’s will are fulfilled? I would feel that I
had broken a sacred trust if I avoided my responsibilities and let you run
He folded his
hands and arranged his puffy features into a look of benevolence. "You’ll be
happy here, Miranda. I have given the matter a great deal of thought, and I
feel your father regretted his renunciation of the Church and gave me your
guardianship so that I could right the grievous wrong in your upbringing. I can
think of no better way to start your life with us than with prayer.”
With that he
got down on his knees then stared at me suspiciously. "What was that you said,
Cousin?” Reluctantly I sank to my knees on the slightly threadbare carpet.
"I said ‘Oh,
Lord,’ Cousin. A little prayer of my own.”
AT KARLEW’S soon settled into a pattern: bearable but stifling. That first
evening I was introduced to the honorary member of our happy little family,
Fathimore Wilby, Karlew’s meek assistant. Just above medium height, and
weighing as much as a wet cat, he had a pinched, pock-marked face, tiny little
eyes, a sickly gray mustache, and an extremely large, pimpled nose. When we
first met, all I could do was stare at the monstrous nose; his light
conversation was not such that could distract me.
had rooms at the local hotel and to my regret was given free run of the house.
He took almost all his meals with us and from the start made me the object of
fulsome compliments and attentions. I found him repulsive, and I kept out of
his way as much as possible. I had never cared much for men at all, but the
idea of Fathimore paying court was ridiculous. Besides, he had a way of looking
at me through those moist, ravening eyes that made me extremely uncomfortable.
should feel complimented, Miranda,” Maxine told me with cheerful malice. "He
hasn’t looked at another woman besides his mother for as long as I’ve known
him. Why, maybe he’ll propose and you can be mistress of your own house.”
gave her a look of sheer hatred in reward for that. "Where’s his mother now?
I’m surprised the disgusting creature isn’t tied to her apron strings.”
he was. They used to live in the little red house by the church for the longest
time. You know the one I mean?”
voice took on a sepulchral depth. "They seemed like the perfect couple until it
what happened?” I demanded.
his mother was found dead. Fell down the stairs, they said. I don’t believe it
for a minute.”
think Fathimore pushed her?” Life in Pomroy was becoming more interesting all
don’t know,” Maxine admitted. "But I wouldn’t put it past him. His eyes are
enough to frighten anyone.” She shuddered. "Like spiders.”
I said calmly, "who would have guessed such depths lurked beneath this New
England calm? Murders and such.”
not the only murder that happened around here,” Maxine said darkly. "There was
waited for her to continue. "Well?” I demanded. "Tell me! Who was killed? Who
don’t exactly know,” she admitted. "All I know is it involved your father,
mine, Fathimore, and a man named Adam Traywick. But no one will ever talk about
thank heavens, my sixth sense, which had failed so miserably with Barrett’s
Hill, began to work. Adam Traywick immediately fascinated me.
Traywick,” I repeated slowly, savoring the sound of his name. "Who do you
suppose he murdered?”
didn’t say he murdered anyone,” Maxine said grumpily. "I just said he
was involved. And I know where it happened, too. On Barrett’s Hill!”
if you know who was involved and where it happened I don’t see why you don’t
know who was killed,” I remarked sensibly. "Have you ever seen this man?”
Adam Traywick? I’ve never seen him in my life. Anyway, I told you, no one will
talk about the murder,” she complained. "Lord knows, I’ve tried dozens of
times. Nanny once scrubbed my mouth out with soap when I tried to question
I’m a bit too old for that sort of treatment,” I said confidently. "I’ll find
out what happened.”
better be careful,” Maxine warned.
worry, Maxine. I can get away with a lot more than you can.”
her tongue out at me.
KARLEW...,” I began casually at dinner that night,
trying to avoid Fathimore’s fawning gaze from across the table. "Who was
murdered on Barrett’s Hill?”
the knife with which he was carving the roast and turned to me, his puffy face
pale with anger and perhaps fear. "That is something we don’t discuss in this
house, Miranda!” he said shortly.
"Don’t we?” I
said. "Then I suppose I’ll just have to keep questioning everyone else I see until
I get an answer.”
Horror at the
idea silenced Karlew for a moment or two. Even Fathimore lost his habitual
was raped and murdered twenty years ago,” Elinor spoke up suddenly. "As it had
nothing to do with any of us we don’t like to speak of it.”
looking at me with reluctant admiration. ‘Thank you, Cousin Elinor,” I said.
"That’s all I wanted to know. Except... who was Adam
will leave the table immediately!” Karlew thundered.
sweetly. "Of course,” I murmured, and left the room, happy for my reprieve.
Whoever Adam Traywick was, he still had a strong effect on the Reverend
Smathers. I wondered if he was still alive and where he was at that moment. His
return would be just the thing to put the cat among the pigeons.
TO September, and the trees turned flaming red and gold up on Barrett’s Hill.
Cousin Elinor and Maxine began extensive redecorations on the house—I didn’t
bother to ask where the money came from. I was perfectly comfortable in my
little room on the third floor. There was only one other bedroom up there, and
that was unoccupied. The rest of the space was taken up with storerooms and
such. I had no desire to trade my patchwork quilts for Maxine's satin
The days got
colder. To Karlew’s great disgust I had given up mourning when I’d ordered new
winter clothes from the village dressmaker, and Karlew’s little family now made
quite a fashionable impression when we were dragged to church to hear his
impossibly boring sermons. My one consolation was that Fathimore was allowed to
preach only once a month—any more and I would have become an atheist. Maxine
and I sang in the choir: I with a good strong alto and Maxine consistently
off-key. September passed to October, and I wondered how long I’d have to stay
towards the end of October, Karlew announced he would take Maxine and me with
him into Montpelier the next day. "Give you a chance to look around the big
city,” he told me jovially. I sniffed, demonstrating my disinterest while my
brain was quickly assembling a plan of escape.
I was tense
the next morning as we climbed into Karlew’s fancy new carriage—my money was
certainly not idle—and started off. Maxine was wearing a traveling costume of a
deep shade of pink; its one redeeming feature was the fact that it set off my
sky blue wool perfectly. I settled back among the cushions and smiled,
well-satisfied with myself. Karlew had been very generous to me with my money;
I had more than enough cash to carry me halfway to California. Not that I
intended such a long distance. I thought Boston would be the best choice. I
could throw myself on my mother’s relatives.
Miranda, it’s nice to see you smiling for once,” Karlew said cheerfully,
winking broadly at Maxine in a display of good-humored indulgence. "I hope the
addition of your devoted swain won’t impair your pleasant temper.”
cousin,” I said calmly, "the moment Mr. Wilby steps into this carriage I step
chuckled. "Now, now, my dear. I was only teasing you. I’ve never known such a
girl for discouraging admirers. Prospective husbands don’t grow on trees, you
prospective husbands nor money, Karlew. Since the good Lord saw fit to provide
me with the latter, I’m sure he’ll produce the other in His own good time.”
silenced for the rest of the journey.
barely larger than the village of Pomroy, even though it was the state capitol.
A few feed stores, dry goods stores, the capitol building, a hotel and a
restaurant sufficed the local citizenry. The leaves had left the trees, and
everything was a dull, dead brown that matched the color of the buildings. I
would be almost sorry to miss the snow.
"Now, what did
you two have in mind? I have to see old Judge McQueeney over at the courthouse,
but that shouldn’t take more than an hour or so. Where would you like to go?”
fast. "When we crossed the river I noticed a dry goods store near the railroad
station. If Maxine wouldn’t mind, I thought I’d go over there and look at a few
things. I thought I might take up needlework. I’m sure you’d approve of me
having a useful occupation?”
indeed!” Karlew said heartily. "I wish you could persuade your cousin Maxine to
do the same.” He directed the horses back towards the train station.
"You want to
go to this grubby old store?” Maxine demanded in disgust. "They look like
they’ll have nothing but burlap bags.”
wouldn’t want to waste your shopping time, Maxine,” I said easily. "I’m used to
being by myself in much larger towns than this. You could go on ahead with
whatever you wanted to do, and I could meet you in a couple of hours—perhaps at
silent as he maneuvered the carriage to a stop by the railway station. "I must
say, I don’t really care for that idea, but I suppose... His
voice trailed off, and a look of blank horror paled his ruddy face. "No—no—” he
gasped, and quickly I followed the direction of his stare.
And there he
was, standing in the doorway of the station, amusement as strong as Karlew’s
horror written on his face. He was tall, very tall, with a lean strong body
that gave the impression of controlled strength, and even danger. Looking
across the dusty street at him, I felt surprisingly small and defenseless, in a
not altogether pleasant manner. He had long blond hair and a strong-featured
face. And his eyes were like emeralds, hypnotic and sensual. I stared at him,
open-mouthed, and for a second his eyes met mine.
Daddy?” Maxine’s avid voice disrupted my reverie. Karlew was hurriedly moving
the horses, keeping his attention away from the man in front of the railway
"I don’t know
what you’re talking about!” he snapped as the carriage leaped ahead with a
I turned back
to look at the stranger once more as we sped out of town. He smiled at me.
Any attempt at
conversation on that long ride home was quickly stifled by Karlew. His face was
creased with a secret fear as he hurried the horses along the road. I sat back,
absorbing what I’d just observed. Surprisingly enough, I never even thought of
my frustrated plans for escape. I was far too busy remembering that slow,
sensual smile with a pleasure I’d never felt before. I hugged my strange
delight to myself, jealous of the new sensations filling me.
someone would explain what’s going on,” complained Maxine. "Daddy’s looking
terrified, and you keep grinning like the Cheshire cat in that book you lent
to me in a fury, nearly going off the narrow road. "How dare you give my
daughter that book? I don’t have it in my house—that man was a drunkard and had
strange habits. I refuse to allow his foul writings to pollute my child’s
"He is a
mathematician,” I corrected him, being fully aware of the identity of Mr. Dodson.
"And I do not consider that book evil, Cousin. It’s merely a fairy tale, and a
lovely one at that.”
"I refuse to
discuss it any further. When we arrive home you will kindly bring me that book,
and I will dispose of it in the manner it deserves,” he said angrily.
Cousin,” I said with false calm. "But tell me, can we expect Mr. Traywick to
pay us a visit now that we know he’s in Montpelier?”
silence filled the carriage. "Miranda, if you don’t want me to take this
horsewhip to you, I suggest you not utter another word!” He was furious enough
to do just that, so I remained silent, meeting Maxine’s amazed expression with
"How did you
know that was Adam Traywick?” she asked me as soon as Karlew had dropped us off
at the house and gone on to stable the horses.
replied. "And something else.”
"I don’t know
what to call it,” I confessed. "Somehow I just knew.”