From the New York Times bestselling author of Bittersweet comes a novel of suspense and passion about a terrible mistake made sixty years ago that threatens to change a modern family forever.
Twenty-five-year-old Cassie Danvers is holed up in her family’s crumbling mansion in rural St. Jude, Ohio, mourning the loss of the woman who raised her—her grandmother, June. But a knock on the door forces her out of isolation. Cassie has been named the sole heir to legendary matinee idol Jack Montgomery's vast fortune. How did Jack Montgomery know her name? Could he have crossed paths with her grandmother all those years ago? What other shocking secrets could June’s once-stately mansion hold?
Soon Jack’s famous daughters come knocking, determined to wrestle Cassie away from the inheritance they feel is their due. Together, they all come to discover the true reasons for June’s silence about that long-ago summer, when Hollywood came to town, and June and Jack’s lives were forever altered by murder, blackmail, and betrayal. As this page-turner shifts deftly between the past and present, Cassie and her guests will be forced to reexamine their legacies, their definition of family, and what it truly means to love someone, steadfastly, across the ages.
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MIRANDA BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE is the author of three other novels: New York Times bestseller Bittersweet; Set Me Free, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, given annually for the best book of fiction by an American woman; and The Effects of Light. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Prize in Fiction, she lives and writes in Brooklyn.
From the Hardcover edition.
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Houses don’t always dream. In fact, most don’t. But once again, Two Oaks was dreaming of the girls—the one called June, who looked like a woman, and the one called Lindie, who looked like a boy. In the dream, June and Lindie lay together in what was, in that era, June’s bedroom, just off the stairs.
It was dreaming that rescued Two Oaks out of its present state— from its third-floor ballroom wheeling with bats, down its dusty master staircase, into the foyer piled with mail addressed to the dead, and then back up the ruddy pine of the servant stairs—almost fooling the mansion into believing itself still on the precipice of adventure. The old house summoned the whispers swirling off the girls’ tongues, the secrets scuttling inside their quick minds, the push of June’s will and the pull of Lindie’s desire.
Houses that dream are built for the ages (one or two perhaps, in every small American town). Once revered as grand homes, they are now merely called “buildings.” They’re the columned fortresses stranded on the back streets you pass on the way to visit elderly aunties; sights to whistle at while snapping a cell phone picture, before motoring on. Constructed by ambitious dreamers (in the case of Two Oaks, an oilman named Lemon Gray Neely, who broke ground on the lot in the heart of St. Jude, Ohio, in 1895), such grand estates spend their infancies priding under the touch of skilled craftsmen, certain they’ll provide shelter to everyone who steps across their oak thresholds for centuries to come.
But after decades of relative emptiness, save the occasional mail carrier or handyman, after feeling the sun rake across their sooty floorboards on thousands of mornings, of enduring the undignified encroachment of ivy up their outsides, not to mention the mice nibbling the wainscoting, these houses finally accept the sad truth: they have been forgotten for good. Their foundations grow heavy with the memories of the great men who once burnished the banisters with their warm palms; of the diligent women who baked yeasty swaths of bread in their ovens; of the whistling boys who delivered light blue dairy through the milk doors; and the wild girls who clambered up the Corinthian columns to the second floor under the full moon, hoping for a glimpse of something new. Accepting their decline, these houses slip into their reveries and lose track of their place in the world. They slump their proverbial shoulders, nod to the side, and forget to notice when someone steps in from the snow with a suitcase and a pile of heavy boxes, and opens the chenille bedspread over the most comfortable mattress, and burns a can of Chef Boyardee on the only burner that still works.
But if Two Oaks was lonely, it was also lucky. Unlike other houses, at least it knew what it felt like to be full. At least it had gotten to have a Lindie and a June. Like an old retriever who, abandoned by his human family, lays his head upon the floor and sinks into the sweet fancies of the life he once knew—an exuberant towheaded toddler, a favorite shoe, the smoky waft of bacon—a house falling into decrepitude will luster to life remembering all that came before, which, in the case of Two Oaks, included the dark, terrifying night Lindie bashed in the man’s head, his hot brains quivering on her fingertips, yes; but also the open, shimmering promise of the movie stars; the silky noose of the blackmail around everything the girls had come to love; the soft, open moans of the stolen kisses; and the baby.
Cassie knew nothing of houses dreaming; she’d have balked. She only knew that since coming to St. Jude, Ohio, the previous December, sheltering in what she still thought of as her grandmother’s house—she could not bring herself to call it the snobby-sounding “Two Oaks” with a straight face, or to think of it as her own—she’d had the most elaborate, vivid dreams. Cassie, twenty-five, was going through “a quarter-life crisis,” and the house—where she’d never lived before, where even her grandmother hadn’t lived very much since moving to Columbus to raise her—had, at first, provided a practical (if frigid) solution: a landing pad just before Christmas, when it became obvious Cassie needed to clear out of Jim’s Williamsburg loft, specifically, and New York, in general.
The basement’s rusty furnace was broken (as were the roof and the stove and who knew what else); the grizzled handyman she called the next morning jerry-rigged a temporary solution to keep the pipes from freezing, loaned her a space heater, and urged her to call the repair ser- vice for an estimate. But now it was June; Cassie still hadn’t called. To be fair, the pipes hadn’t frozen, but she knew that was pure luck, and she was a fool to think that luck would hold. The roof was, well, soggy in parts, if she was being honest, especially in one of the closets off the ballroom—and keeping the door closed probably wasn’t the most mature solution to the problem. Nor was it a great sign that you could stand in the cellar and detect daylight through a chink in the foundation. Cassie didn’t know much about houses, but she did know that was bad.
Every day, Cassie woke intending to call the repairmen. All she had to do was pick up the handset of the old-fashioned rotary phone in the round office at the front of the house, spiral the numbers with her pointer finger, adopt a casual, firm tone, and solicit the services of a handful of experts. Every day, she watched herself not do it. Perhaps it was because she couldn’t afford it, but the truth was, she didn’t really know if she couldn’t, because, since November, when she’d inherited the fourteen thousand dollars left in her grandma’s account—shockingly less than she’d assumed she’d find there—and set up automated payments via her now neglected e-mail account, she had just, well, kind of ignored every bill, letter, and phone call that had come her way.
She didn’t like this particular aspect of her character, nor did she want to spend the winter in a freezing house. In fact, on a daily basis, Cassie forced herself to remember the discomfort of awakening to iced nostrils and a raw throat. She spent a significant portion of her daylight hours wracked with anxiety about the squishy ceiling in the closet directly above her bed. But nothing could get her to call. Maybe she was drawn toward the notion that the freezing of pipes and the risk of roof collapse were exactly the punishing strife she deserved after leaving a good man like Jim, not to mention breaking her grandmother’s heart and being too proud and foolish to see that the old woman was dying.
The vibrant dreams that Two Oaks offered made it possible to ignore human needs like heat and shelter. Cassie didn’t know the dreams’ origins—she believed, as most of us do, that they were born of her own subconscious—but she did know, without exploring why, that these nighttime dramas were much better than anything her waking life offered in that chilly house on those dark, wintry days. Come April, when the tangle of flora out the windows started to turn a hundred shades of emerald, Cassie was sleeping fourteen, sixteen hours a night.
The house nestled further into its thick, auburn slumber, gathering Cassie under its drowsy wing. On the few occasions a sneeze or shattered plate forced it to notice the human in its midst, it brushed aside her potential, considering her presence a temporary state, like the grackles nesting under the eaves, or the family of possums who liked that spot under the milk door. The girl was sure to pass with the seasons too.
The dream of June and Lindie, which Two Oaks and Cassie shared, went, as it always did, like this:
They were about to enter the month of June. Houses don’t care much about time—like many inanimate objects (except for clocks), they don’t really understand it—but that particular June of that particular year marked a clear Before and After in Two Oaks’s journey from habitation to emptiness, and so the red-numbered calendar hanging above Apatha’s cast-iron stove was duly noted: 1955.
Lindie and June lay on June’s bed together, in the gilded light cast by June’s ballerina lamp, on the night that served as bridge between May and June. Lindie watched June giggle at the notion of being someone named June inside the month of June, a bounty Lindie had been planning to point out all day, since long before she’d clambered up what Uncle Lemon insisted she call the “porte cochere”—the overhang above the drive. Lindie’s skin still clung with the damp, warm night sawing with cricket song. First she’d climbed into June’s window, then into her bed.
The girls were surrounded by what Lindie had, over the past three years (since June’s arrival at Two Oaks), come to think of as her best friend’s most essential possessions: the watercolors and jewel-toned hair ribbons sashaying when the cool hush of the fan raked them; a round china box painted with rosettes; the dainty shoes lined up by the door.
A plate of Apatha’s oatmeal cookies, of which June had eaten one (and which Lindie, having already downed four, was planning to finish), waited on the side table.
June sat up to examine her face in the mirror. She began to hum a Chopin piano concerto. Lindie swiped another cookie and added the melody to the list of details locked inside her mind, noting June’s slightly sharp pitch on the higher notes; another, lonelier night, Lindie would be able to close her eyes in her small, drab bedroom just across the street and conjure up the pleasurable ache she felt here, and imagine herself still inside June’s universe.
Lindie opened one of the brightly colored movie magazines she’d splayed across June’s bed. Screen Stars, Photoplay, Silver Screen, Picture-goer; she’d tied them together with a piece of rough twine for the climb up, and was wondering if she could get away with pinching one of June’s ribbons—the emerald one, maybe, which June never wore—for the trip down. From out across the flat, sultry midwestern night floated the faint putter of an old engine, the mewling of a cat, and always, ever, the crickets. School was out. In June’s case, it was out for good; she was eighteen to Lindie’s fourteen, and she was going to be a bride.
Of late, June’s mind swelled with white chiffon and boutonnieres, with chicken cordon bleu and a tall, tiered cake covered in rosettes. The fact that her fiancé, Artie, had been gone from St. Jude for seven months, not to mention that she could count the conversations she’d had with this future husband on one hand, had receded behind the promise of the grand affair her mother, Cheryl Ann, and Artie’s brother, Clyde, had been planning since that October day Artie had slipped a simple gold band onto June’s finger and promised her a diamond within the year.
June had excelled at geometry; she liked rules. The wedding would fix all that had come undone: her father Marvin’s death in Korea; the loss of the family home up on the grand “Golden Block” in Lima upon the discovery of Marvin’s gambling debts; and June and Cheryl Ann’s subsequent tumble from Lima’s high society onto the sawdust floor of small-town St. Jude. A tangential, distant relative had taken them in: Lemon Gray Neely, June’s great-uncle by marriage. He’d housed them in Two Oaks’s corner bedrooms.
June wondered if Uncle Lem (as her mother insisted she call him) had chosen to build his home with yellow bricks because they matched his name. Rumor had it he’d always been an eccentric, even before the apoplexy that all but silenced him. June was grateful for his charity; of course she was. But Two Oaks was the only mansion in St. Jude, and so, where June had once been one of many girls who inhabited grand homes, in her new life, she was an oddity. She’d started at Memorial High part of the way through sophomore year, when everyone already had friends, and, anyway, she wasn’t rich at all anymore, just living in the shadow of someone else’s money, although her mother seemed to forget the difference all the time.
“Wear this one,” June said, spreading out the cotton dress covered in strawberries that her bust had outgrown the year before. June was grateful for Lindie too, for the younger girl’s devotion, even if managing her felt, at times, like batting at a doggedly optimistic mosquito. June had chosen Lindie as her bridesmaid; she was hoping to wrestle the increasingly feral child into the seafoam chiffon number she’d picked for the July 3 wedding. A bridesmaid had to wear a dress, and though June hadn’t seen Lindie in one in more than a year, she wasn’t going to let that discourage her. A simple cotton frock in honor of all the excitement tomorrow seemed like a reasonable first step. They’d have to stuff the front, maybe pin up the skirt, but anything was better than Lindie’s current state, which summoned to mind a Victorian chimney sweep.
Lindie moved her filthy feet aside to accommodate the strawberry dress. June gestured at the other girl’s matted bob and stained dungarees and said, “You’re so pretty, Lindie. Why do you want to hide it?” Lindie really was pretty, under there somewhere. She had high cheek- bones and forest green eyes with specks of gold that lit up like fire when she laughed. June smiled indulgently as she pressed Lindie’s weak spot: “Just try it on. You know as well as I do that the Erie Canal people won’t cast you if you show up like this.”
Lindie frowned; June was right. She rubbed the fine cotton between her fingers. She told herself that the matter of the dress was a mere blemish on what would otherwise be a month of gorgeous possibility. For where June treasured the notion of her upcoming wedding, Lindie de- sired nothing more than to be cast as an extra in Erie Canal, the most extraordinary thing that had ever happened in St. Jude: Hollywood was coming, and tomorrow at that.
Trucks of equipment had already rumbled into town. All day, covered garment carts had rattled into Memorial High, and notices had gone up on the trees of Center Square, asking for volunteers to appear in costume in the background—“extras,” they were called, as if they were the cherries on top of the ice cream sodas served down at Schillinger’s Drug. But even though the night before, Lindie had overheard her father and his friends discussing the imminent arrival of the film crew, she would only truly believe it when she saw it. Something so good seemed just plain impossible.
“I’ll put the dress on first thing tomorrow,” she said. A dress wasn’t just a dress anymore. It stood for the lives she saw laid out before both June and herself, on the far side of the Hollywood fantasy. Quiet, adult lady lives marked by sanitary belts held on by metal clasps under rubber underwear, of regular bridge parties and dinner clubs, of loose face powder that smelled like old people. She flopped back onto the bed.
“What if you try it now?” June asked brightly, turning back to the wardrobe, riffling again through the other options, although she knew the rest had too many adornments for Lindie’s taste, not to mention too much room in the bustline. “We could do your hair. I’ll put some rouge on your cheeks. Just to make sure it all fi...
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