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About The Book

The New York Times bestselling author of the beloved Summerhouse and James River series brings her signature “enchanting and exquisite” (BookPage) writing to this charming and tender yuletide tale of love and passion.

When Hollander Latham’s parents purchase Spring Hill—a beautiful North Carolina plantation—she’s thrilled that she can finally return to the gorgeous estate where she spent a memorable thirteenth summer. Now a successful architect, she fantasizes about reuniting with Spring Hill’s neighbor, the wealthy heir Laurence Beaumont, whom she fell in love with during that long-ago summer.

But as Christmas fast approaches, her plans for a romantic reconnection turn upside down with the arrival of Nick Taggert, a mysterious stranger who makes her laugh and tempts her with a surprising passion. One man can seduce her with fortune and privilege; the other can promise her the simple gift of love. And on a frost-covered Christmas night, Holly’s choice will unmask astonishing truths and hidden dangers that will forever change her charmed life and her vulnerable heart.



Chapter One

HOLLY FELT AS THOUGH SHED PULLED OFF THE coup of her life—and by Christmas it would all be settled. After many calls, letters, emails, and promises, she’d finally persuaded her parents to buy Spring Hill Plantation just outside beautiful, historic Edenton in eastern North Carolina. Of course, it hadn’t hurt that her stepsister, Taylor, was going to marry a man who lived there.

Now, she was in the little grocery store that was two miles down the road from the ghastly house her parents had rented last year and she was trying to find something to eat that didn’t have a thousand calories a bite. She’d recently lost eleven pounds and she didn’t want to put it back on. Facing a summer near her skinny, beautiful stepsister had made her quit eating and go to the gym four nights a week.

And of course there was the prospect of seeing Lorrie again, she thought. For a moment her eyes glazed over as she remembered him. She was no longer seeing the store, but instead, saw the river and the dock and Lorrie. She’d been thirteen that summer and Lorrie had been sixteen—a tall, lean, bronzed young man, with golden hair and brown eyes.

That summer had started out horribly. Her parents nearly always rented a house somewhere for the summer, but until that year the houses had been in communities where their two daughters could swim and meet other people their own age.

But that summer a friend of her father’s had offered them the free use of his beautifully restored old house, built in 1778, located on a river, and set in the midst of four and a half acres of old trees and pretty flower gardens.

Holly had hated the place at first sight. Its isolation, the remoteness, had made her want to scream. In an instant she’d envisioned a summer in a hell of loneliness. Taylor was old enough to drive so she’d be going to nearby Edenton and joining the real world.

But what am I to do here the whole summer? she thought, near to tears. Catch tadpoles? Sit by the river and watch the turtles come up for air? It wasn’t what a pubescent girl wanted to do.

She’d tried to persuade her parents that they absolutely, positively could not force her to stay in that horrible place for an entire summer. They’d just smiled, then answered the always-ringing telephone.

For the first week, Holly had been so bored she thought she might lose her mind. Her parents had already left to fly to London, and Taylor had met a young man. Holly had been left in the charge of a woman who was at least as old as the house and who did little except sleep in the padded swing on the back porch.

It was at the beginning of the second week that Holly had been sitting on the edge of the pier, her legs tucked up to her chest, and contemplating her family’s regret if their youngest child ran away from home, when she heard an unusual noise. She looked up to see a rowboat coming toward her.

She had to blink, then rub her eyes and blink again to be sure she was seeing correctly. Coming toward her, his back to her, was a beautiful, shirtless young man. She couldn’t see his face, but if the front of him was half as good as the back of him, he was an Adonis.

Holly had stood up, smoothed her shorts and T-shirt—wishing she weren’t wearing her rattiest clothes—and waited.

When he reached her dock and turned, he was so beautiful that her breath nearly stopped.

“Hello,” he’d said, throwing a rope at her feet. “I’m Laurence Beaumont and I’m your next-door neighbor. You want to tie that down?”

She had no idea what he meant. Tie what down?

“The rope,” he said. “Tie it to the cleat.”

It had taken her a moment to understand what he meant. Cleat? Oh, yeah, the thing she used to scrape mud off her shoes. She picked up the rope and tied it in a very neat bow to the metal cleat, then looked over at the young man.

He looked at the cleat, then back at her, but he didn’t laugh. Later, she wondered at that. What other sixteen-year-old would have looked at a boat rope tied into a bow and not howled with laughter?

But Lorrie hadn’t laughed at her, not then, nor at any other time.

From that first moment, they’d been friends—kindred souls maybe, since they were so alike. Her name was Hollander, his was Laurence, but they were Holly and Lorrie to everyone. His family had lived in the same house since 1782 and two of his ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence.

Holly had some big-shot ancestors on her father’s side, and her father himself had been an ambassador to three different countries. “He knows everybody and talks to each one every day on the phone,” she’d said under the breath.

Lorrie had laughed. “My old man makes deals all day.”

“What about your mother?”

“Died when I was three.”

Holly felt as though she’d been hit in the stomach. Her mother had died when she was one. When she told Lorrie, he sat down on the dock and they began to compare notes of their lives in earnest.

Both their fathers had been raised in impoverished gentility, with fabulous educations and old-world family names. Both fathers had married heiresses who’d died young. Both men had remarried women with no money. The difference was that Holly’s stepmother, Marguerite, was a sort of financial genius, while Lorrie’s stepmother’s main talent was in spending. Holly’s mother’s fortune, from Hollander Tools, had increased, while Lorrie’s mother’s fortune had long ago disappeared.

“All I have left is the title to the falling-down old house and a few hundred acres,” Lorrie had said cheerfully, looking at Holly. “What is it about you, kid, that’s making me tell you my life story? I didn’t tell my last three girlfriends this much.”

Holly hadn’t liked being called “kid,” and she didn’t like to think that this beautiful young man had ever had a girlfriend, but she took the compliment to her heart. “I guess we were just meant to be together,” she said, willing him to take her away forever in his canoe.

Smiling, Lorrie tousled Holly’s short, dark hair. “Maybe so, kid. Maybe you’re what I need this summer. Hey! I’ll race you to the other side of the river.”

Holly wasn’t a very good swimmer, but by the end of that summer she was, for she spent nearly every day with Lorrie. Although Lorrie had revealed lots of secrets about his past, she soon found out that he was close-mouthed about his current life. It was only through listening to the gossip her stepsister so loved that she knew Lorrie was hiding out that summer.

“The biggest snobs in eastern North Carolina,” Taylor had said at dinner. She was talking about the Beaumont family. “They’ve lived here since George Washington surveyed the area and even have a few letters from him. But seventeen years ago, the family was broke, so Laurence Beaumont the second married some rich little heiress and she conveniently died three years after having Larry the third.”

As always, Taylor had been oblivious to the emotions her careless words caused. Their father had also married an heiress who died young.

“Lorrie, not Larry,” Holly said and immediately wished she could take the words back. Her father, her stepmother, and her stepsister paused to look at her in surprise.

“The cook works for them sometimes,” she muttered, looking down at her food.

Taylor gave Holly a speculative look before returning to her gossip. Taylor was as gregarious as Holly was quiet. Taylor loved being in a crowd, while Holly wanted just a couple of girlfriends to pal around with.

Taylor had gone on to say that Lorrie—“silly nickname for a boy,” she’d said—was supposed to have gone to some elegant summer camp, but at the last minute one of his father’s stupid land deals fell through so there was no money. “The kid doesn’t want any of his rich friends to know, so he’s hiding out at his father’s family’s rotting old house. Have you seen him?”

It took Holly a moment to realize her stepsister was talking to her. “Who?” she asked, her heart fluttering wildly. She didn’t want anyone to know she was spending most of her time alone with a sixteen-year-old boy. Even though all she was doing was helping Lorrie remove paint off the molding in the old house, she feared that if they knew, they’d stop her.

“She’s been reading the classics, haven’t you?” her father said, looking at his only child fondly. Taylor was his wife’s daughter.

Holly looked at her plate and nodded.

Somehow she managed to keep her secret all summer. Her father and stepmother had flown in and out all that summer; Taylor had spent her time in Edenton, and the woman hired to baby-sit Holly couldn’t have cared less where her charge spent the day.

It had been a magical summer of long, hot days spent with Lorrie. They’d constantly worked together on his family’s plantation. His family had lived there since it was built before the American Revolutionary War, and Lorrie loved the place as much as his father hated it. One day while they were painting the dining room, Lorrie told her that his mother had married his father for his name and his home. She’d traded her fortune for the Beaumont history.

Lorrie’s grandfather, shrewd in business, had blessed his daughter’s marriage even though he saw what Laurence Beaumont was. However, before the marriage he’d made sure the plantation was given to his daughter’s children so that her husband couldn’t sell the place.

“I don’t remember her,” Lorrie said as she stroked butter-nut-colored paint onto the clean molding. “But I’ve been told she loved this house so much that she died for it.” He said the last with bitterness. He told Holly that his mother had died giving birth to another child. She’d so wanted to have her baby born in the Beaumont house that, against the doctor’s orders, she’d tried for a home birth. There were complications and both mother and child had died before the ambulance could get them to the hospital.

“Maybe your mother’s death is why your father hates this place.”

“Naw. He just loves Tiffany’s ass more.”

Tiffany was his father’s third wife and Lorrie despised her. She’d made her husband buy her a new, modern house in Raleigh and they stayed there, rarely even visiting the old plantation.

Holly never asked Lorrie about the camp he was supposed to have gone to. In fact, she didn’t ask him about anything that didn’t have to do with the house. He took her around to the falling-down outbuildings and told her what they’d been used for. He talked of his dream of someday restoring every building and being “a gentleman farmer,” he’d said, smiling.

“You can do it, Lorrie, I know you can.”

He’d laughed and tousled her hair—the only way he ever touched her.

It had been an idyllic summer in spite of the fact that she spent ninety-nine percent of her waking hours and a hundred percent of her sleeping hours imagining Lorrie kissing her. She stared at his lips until she knew every little crease in them.

If Lorrie had any idea she had a crush on him he never let her know. At the end of the summer she had to go back to school—this one in Ireland—and Lorrie had a year of high school to finish.

When they’d said good-bye, he’d picked her up, twirled her around, and said she was the kid sister he’d never had. Holly’d looked at him and willed him to kiss her. He did, but only on the forehead, then he’d tousled her hair one last time before he got in his car and drove away.

She’d told him she’d write him and she did. For six months she wrote Lorrie long letters, pouring her heart out to him, telling him of spats at her boarding school and of any accomplishments she was proud of. The only time he’d written back was when she sent him a paper she’d written about Colonial architecture. Lorrie had sent her a postcard that said, “Good work, kid. L.”

It was that summer with Lorrie that sent her on her career path. She decided to study architecture in college, but that soon changed to architectural history, then narrowed to American domestic architecture.

Over the years his lack of response made her stop sending him letters, but she never lost track of him. She followed his career after he graduated from law school, and she saw how he won nearly every case. She sent him a card of sympathy when she read that his father had shot himself after another bogus land deal had left him impoverished. She cried for three days after she read that Lorrie got married. But Lorrie’s marriage had been good for her. It had made her stop living in a fantasy, take her nose out of the books, and begin looking at the men around her.

She’d grown up to look like her mother, who had won a couple of beauty pageants, so Holly had never had trouble getting men. Over the years she’d had a few love affairs, one serious, but she’d never given her heart away. She’d never told anyone about her summer with the boy next door, but she knew that no man had ever made her feel as Lorrie had. No man had made her feel as though she wanted to say, “Here’s my life, take it. Do with me what you will.”

When she turned twenty-one, she came into her inheritance. Millions. After two days of elation and buying new clothes, she decided she had to do something real with the money, something worthwhile. What interested her was the preservation of old houses, but at the same time she didn’t want to become one of those rich women real preservationists put up with just for the money. She wanted to be treated as though she had a brain in her head, as though she knew Federal from Colonial from Greek Revival. She decided to get her Ph.D. in American architecture.

When she turned twenty-four, her father had a mild heart attack and was told to stop jetting all over the world. While Holly was at the hospital, she’d flipped through a Town & Country magazine. It had been two years since she’d read anything outside her subject so she could barely comprehend the magazine. It was when she saw the name Laurence Beaumont III that her eyes began to focus. The article said that Mr. Beaumont had recently divorced and that he was going home to his plantation outside Edenton, North Carolina, to open a law office there.

Suddenly it was as though everything Holly had ever wanted was within her grasp. She knew she had the money to buy the house next to Lorrie’s, but she also instinctively knew that he’d know exactly what she was up to. She’d learned that, to men, the chase was everything.

As soon as her father was well enough to leave the hospital, she started her campaign to get him—not her—to buy Spring Hill, the old house they’d stayed in when she was thirteen. The isolation would allow him the peace he needed, she said. Maybe he could buy a pedal boat and get his exercise by gliding down the river.

Holly felt guilty about it, but she then led her father into asking her to please spend the summer with them. When he had finally asked, she acted reluctant, until her father said, “If you can’t, that’s all right,” then turned to his wife to change the subject.

Too loudly, Holly said that maybe the old house would be a good place for her to write her dissertation for her doctorate.

Her stepsister had looked at her so sharply that Holly’d had to hide her face. Her parents were so busy with their own lives that they didn’t have time to examine the lives of their two daughters, but Taylor rarely missed anything.

“I think Holly has a good idea,” Taylor said.

When Holly looked up, her stepsister’s eyes were saying that she meant to find out what Holly was up to.

After that, everything seemed to fall into place. Taylor had returned to Edenton to check out the house, had re-met an old flame, and had, unexpectedly, become engaged. She was planning an enormous wedding to take place on Christmas Eve and Holly was to be her maid of honor.

Holly’s secret was that she fantasized about making it a double wedding. She and Taylor would walk down the aisle together and join the men in their lives at the altar.

However, Taylor knew Holly was up to something. “I don’t know what you are up to but I’ll find out,” Taylor had said, then she’d smiled and asked Holly to take over some tasks for her. When Holly protested that she didn’t have time, Taylor said she’d strongly suggest to her parents that they not retire to the house outside Edenton. “They can stay in a hotel for the wedding. After all, after I’m married I plan to travel so there’s no need on my part for our parents to live in Edenton. But if you want them to live there…”

“Blackmail,” Holly had muttered more than once after her stepsister had dumped yet another unpleasant task on her.

One of Holly’s jobs was to go to the house her parents had rented before her father’s heart attack and oversee the movers. Dutifully, she had left her studies to go to an atrocious house in the Smokey Mountains to pack everything up. When she saw the pink and white house, with its matching boathouse, she was appalled. To her, any house built after 1840 wasn’t worth living in.

So now she was in the little resort area around Lake Winona and waiting for the movers to show up. Everything in the house except for one bed had been boxed or crated and all that was needed now was to put it all on the truck. But the truck had broken down somewhere and they’d called to tell her they would be late, but that they’d be there for sure by 3:00 P.M.

Now, at noon, Holly was in the little general store near the house and trying to decide what to buy for dinner. She could get lunch at the little diner at the front of the store, but she’d cook dinner. She had a jar of pasta sauce in each hand and was trying to decide between the two when she looked over the counter into the dark blue eyes of an extraordinarily handsome man. He had black hair that swept across his forehead, rather like Superman’s, and a full-lipped mouth set over a cleft chin.

“Oh!” Holly said, then ducked down to grab the jar of sauce she’d nearly dropped. When she stood up again, the man was gone. Turning, she saw him walk toward the glass doors. He was tall, lean, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped.

On the other hand, he had on paint-spattered old blue jeans and a torn T-shirt that said TRUCKERS LIVE IN HEAVEN. He’s from the other side of the lake, she thought. The people who lived in the “real” houses.

She put the jars of pasta sauce back on the shelf and decided she’d grill some shrimp instead. Maybe she should go into town and get a bottle of wine or two. Just because she was alone was no reason to live on jarred pasta sauce, she told herself.

She took a seat at one of the three tables at the end of the store, and waited while the woman at the cash register finished with the customers before she took Holly’s order. While she waited, she looked out the window. “He” was there, the beautiful man she’d just seen. There were several people in the graveled parking lot and three big motorcycles. “Hogs,” she thought. That’s what the big motorcycles were called and the women, with their over-bleached hair and sleeveless leather vests, were “biker chicks.” At least she thought those were the correct terms. With her past, she was more likely to know the name of the Queen of Lanconia’s best friend (Dolly) than motorcycle slang.

The woman at the register was still busy with customers so Holly kept watching the scene outside. The man she’d seen—who she’d nicknamed “Heaven” because of his shirt—didn’t seem to know the others in the group. He had a bag of groceries and seemed to want to be on his way, but the bikers kept blocking him.

Why? she wondered. As the big-bellied bikers talked to the man, the two women circled behind him, looking him up and down, then laughing and nudging each other. Holly smiled to herself. If she were with them, she’d be laughing, too. He was a gorgeous man!

“Honey, you don’t want anything to do with the likes of him.”

Startled, Holly looked up at the waitress. “I, uh…” she began, unsure of what to say.

“You’re Ambassador Latham’s daughter, right?”

Holly nodded. She was used to people knowing “who” she was.

“He’s good to look at, but he’s a friend of Leon Basham’s, so you don’t want to get involved. Besides, a girl as pretty as you are doesn’t need his kind.”

“I wasn’t—I don’t—” Holly said, frowning, but then couldn’t resist asking, “Who’s Leon Basham?”

“A thief, a liar, and a cheat,” the waitress said. “He’s one of those truck racers. They have these big, ugly trucks that they race up hills on the weekends. They take the things all over the country to race them.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Holly said. She couldn’t stop glancing at the man. There was a way he carried himself, the way his shoulders stood back at attention, the way he looked the other people in the eyes, that intrigued her.

“Leon’s different. He robbed half a dozen places in a fifty-mile radius of here before he got caught. He did odd jobs around the area to make enough to live on, but it wasn’t enough to pay for that truck.”

“What does this guy Leon have to do with him?” Holly nodded toward the scene outside. Now it looked as though the men were trying to get “Heaven” to ride one of their motorcycles.

“He’s staying in Leon’s place. You can’t call that shack a house.”

“Yeah, but he’s got that barn,” said a man who walked past them.

Holly saw the woman sneer and could tell that she hated her employer. He was dressed like the locals, in T-shirt and jeans, but the waitress was dressed like Holly: khaki trousers, cotton knit shirt with a collar, and a striped belt. Holly would have thought the woman was a college student with a summer job, except that she was probably in her early forties.

“My husband thinks it’s noble to dedicate your life to a truck,” she said in a tone of disgust.

Holly was just thinking that the two of them were certainly mismatched as a couple when their attention was caught by what was happening outside. One of the women took the groceries from Heaven, and the man put one long leg over a huge motorcycle.

The waitress put her hand on the table as she looked out the window. “It’s a trick. It’s a test. That machine is souped-up, so if he touches the gas petal he’ll go flying off the back. They know he’s living in Leon’s house, so they want to see if he’s worthy of having a key to the barn.”

“What’s so important about the barn?” Holly asked, never taking her eyes off the man. Was he about to be thrown into the gravel? Would he land on his beautiful face? On the other hand, maybe she’d have to administer CPR to him.

One of the biker men started to explain the controls, but Heaven pushed his hand away.

“He seems to know what he’s doing,” Holly said.

“He’d have to if Leon let him have a key,” the woman’s husband said. He’d moved to stand beside his wife, who turned on him.

“You know that Leon’s in jail. Carl probably gave the man a key and Leon doesn’t even know he has it.”

“Carl’s not stupid. He knows Leon would kill him if he did that.”

“Over a key to a barn?” Holly asked.

“Yes!” the man and woman said in unison.

The three of them turned back to watch the man on the motorcycle.

“Five he falls,” the woman said.

“Ten he makes it,” Holly said before the man could speak. She didn’t see the waitress frown at the back of her head.

As the bikers stood back, smiles on their faces, Heaven kick-started the machine—no electric ignition—and seconds later left the parking lot in a blaze of flying gravel, then hit the pavement at full speed.

For a moment the bikers looked chagrined, but as the seconds passed, they seemed to worry that he’d never return with the bike. If he was the thieving Leon’s friend, had he stolen the motorcycle?

Several long minutes later, the man returned from a different direction and, again in a flurry of gravel, stopped the bike exactly where he’d taken off. Calmly, he dismounted and took his groceries from the woman who was still holding them.

“You owe her ten bucks,” the man said to his wife, “and get her something to eat.” He sauntered away, obviously pleased.

As the woman removed a ten-dollar bill from her apron, Holly said, “You don’t have to pay me. It was all in fun.”

“I pay my debts,” she said tersely, and Holly knew she was angry at her husband. “Now, what can I get you? And before you ask, we have no pasta salad—or any kind of salad to speak of.” Her voice was rising so her husband could hear. “All we have is pork. If we serve it, it has pork in it or on it. Even the chicken is fried in half bacon grease.”

“A sandwich?” Holly said meekly, not wanting to be part of a domestic quarrel.

“I suggest a club sandwich,” the waitress said loudly. “Even though it has ham and bacon on it.”

“Okay,” Holly said. “And a glass of unsweetened tea.”

“Hear that, Ralph?” she yelled. “Here’s one of the city people who does not want half a pound of sugar in her drink.”

Holly was relieved when the waitress went away and she again looked at her watch. She’d planned to stay another night after the truck took the furniture away, but maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she’d leave this evening.

When the waitress brought her sandwich and tea, Holly willed her to go away, but she stood there until Holly looked up at her.

“Look,” the woman said softly, then slid into the booth across the table. “I’m sorry for that outburst, sorry you were involved in it, but you remind me of myself at your age. You wouldn’t think so to look at me now, but I used to look a lot like you.” Leaning forward she glared at Holly. “And my husband looked a lot like that man you were lusting over.”

“I wasn’t—” Holly began, but decided to take a bite of sandwich instead of finishing the sentence.

“They’re sometimes gorgeous when they’re young.”

“They?” Holly asked.

“You know, these local boys. Boys who are driving pickups by the time they’re eleven; boys whose dads give them rifles for their ninth birthdays; boys who’ve never eaten anything that hasn’t bedded down with a pig.”

“Bedded…? Oh,” Holly said. Those boys. Forbidden boys. Boys who weren’t the “right sort.” Boys who grew up to be men like the one her stepmother had first married.

“I was like you and I fell in love with a beautiful young man who made love to me on the seat of his pickup. He told me he’d like to give me the moon for a mirror.”

“That sounds sweet,” Holly said.

“Yeah, and look where it got me.” She gestured around the little grocery. Holly knew that the people on “her side” of the lake never ate at the diner. “The cholesterol content of the food would kill you in thirty seconds flat,” her stepsister had said. It was true that Holly’s club sandwich had about a quarter of a cup of mayonnaise on it and at least four slices of bacon and three slices of ham. It was delicious, but Holly figured she’d gain a pound from this one meal.

“So why don’t you get out?” Holly said before she thought. She’d always been a practical person. Yeah, it had hurt that the boy she wanted didn’t want her, but life went on. And, now, wasn’t she doing something about it?

“And give my family the satisfaction?” the waitress said. “I’d have to hear everyone, even to third cousins, say, ‘I told you so.’ ” She stood up. “So now I have to watch my sister drive up in her Mercedes, and I have to pretend I’m the happiest person on earth and that I don’t hate every minute of my life.”

Holly didn’t want to hear that anyone anywhere was miserable. She didn’t know what to say. After all, all she’d done was look at a handsome man with muscles bulging out of his T-shirt.

The waitress hovered over the table. “You’re a nice girl so I don’t want to see you get mixed up with a guy who’s friends with Leon Basham.”

“I won’t,” Holly said, but the woman kept standing there, as though waiting for Holly to say more, so she lied. “Besides, I’m engaged to be married. As soon as the movers leave, I’m going to him.” When the woman still didn’t leave, Holly said, “He’s from an old family. His ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence.”

“Any money?”

“Loads,” Holly said, swallowing the lie.

The woman nodded seriously. “Just stay away from that side of the lake and those old houses. Revolution or not, what’s in those houses is dangerous to girls like you.”

“Revolution?” Holly asked quickly. “What revolution?”

“Nothing,” the woman snapped, looking at Holly’s wide eyes.

As her husband came by, he said over his shoulder, “Those old houses on this side of the lake were probably built before the American Revolutionary War. The North Carolina preservation people are trying to get them moved off the land because they’re scheduled for demolition. Gonna build more of those pink houses in there.” He said the last with a contemptuous look at his wife.

“Pre-Revolution?” Holly whispered, her mind whirling. “How can that be?”

“Deserters from the war,” the woman said, shrugging. “Maybe English, maybe American, nobody knows for sure. The land was sold to a developer over a year ago, but somebody from the preservation society came out here and said the houses couldn’t be destroyed. There was a lot about it in the local paper, and it’s an on-going war.”

“Who’s winning?”

“It’s a standoff. Believe it or not, Leon Basham is the big holdout.”

“Let me guess: Because of his barn.”

“You catch on fast.”

Holly smiled, pushed away her half-eaten sandwich, and looked at her watch. “Look at the time! I have to go. It was delicious.”

The waitress gave her a check, then went to the register to take care of some customers. Holly left a ten-dollar tip to cover the wager and maybe because the woman had tried to help Holly.

As she left the store, she remembered that she hadn’t purchased anything for dinner. She decided instead she’d drive the twenty miles to a big grocery, somewhere where no one would comment if she looked at a handsome bag boy, and buy a bottle of wine, a bag of shrimp, and some corn on the cob.

But it was as though her car had a mind of its own. She turned right instead of left, and found herself heading toward the side of the lake opposite from the house her parents had rented. She’d heard her parents’ guests comments on their view of the old houses. Some had been favorable, some not. Most of them agreed that their view was better than that of the people in the old houses. Her parents looked at a heavily forested hillside, the houses hidden in the trees and barely visible. But people on the other side looked at a bulldozed hill covered cheek to jowl with poorly built, monster-size houses painted in absurd colors.

Slowly, Holly drove her little Mini Cooper down the rutted road and studied the old houses that were tucked back under the trees. Most of them were difficult to see because mobile homes had been set in front of them, or they’d been covered with siding, or they were buried under voracious vines.

She drove to the end of the road, until she came to a big sign that said LAKESHORE ESTATES RESIDENTS ONLY and turned around.

It was, of course, impossible that a group of pre–Revolutionary War houses existed in western North Carolina. There were no European settlers in the area at that time. Or were there? She’d have to check her history on that.

So why were the locals saying these houses were that old? Legend? Stories passed from one generation to another? If so, there was probably a basis in fact.

Or perhaps some preservationist had started the rumor in an attempt to save the houses. Under similar circumstances Holly would have had no qualms about that. To save an old house from destruction, yes, she’d lie.

“Lie, cheat, and steal,” she said aloud and thought of Leon Basham and what he’d done for his truck. Maybe loving a truck so much was misplaced, but Holly understood. She liked passion; admired it. Lorrie had passionately loved his old house, just as his mother had. And this man Leon was in prison because he’d stolen for love of his truck.

Wonder if he stole Hollander tools? she thought as she parked her car under a drooping black walnut tree. She’d purposefully chosen a small car so she could get into tight places, and she’d ordered it in dark green so she could hide it more easily. “And it’s fast so you can outrun property owners with shotguns,” her stepsister had said.

Yes, it was true that Holly had an unfortunate habit of trespassing on private property to snoop through old houses. She liked to drive down curvy country lanes and see what was hidden in the woods.

Even if her methods were illegal, she’d been successful. She’d discovered a house built in 1784, that had been buried under a cheap new façade of leaky vinyl siding. She’d bought the house from the owners and had it moved to a new location. One time she’d waded through waist-high grass to find three acres covered with rotting outbuildings from an old plantation. Holly had paid to have them moved and restored. It was easy to find young couples eager to restore and live in old houses. All they needed was the money for the materials—which Holly provided.

Now, she got out of the car, looked around, and listened. When she was satisfied that no one was near, she opened the back of her car and removed the tall, triple-layered leather boots she always carried with her. Snakes loved old houses nearly as much as she did. She got her digital camera, a bottle of water, her walking stick, and a flashlight, then set off up the hill toward a house that could barely be seen under the encroaching weeds.

As soon as she got close enough, she saw that the exterior of the house wasn’t very old: 1880 at the earliest. Cautiously, she stepped onto the porch, testing each board before putting her weight on it. The door had fallen off one hinge, which made it difficult to open. When she turned on her flashlight to examine the door’s molding and hinges, she saw it was a replacement from the 1950s, so she gave it a shove. Some of her colleagues believed in preserving everything before 1980, but Holly wasn’t one of them.

Inside, the house was in bad shape. Grapevines had taken over one side, growing through two windows like great, hairy snakes. Several floorboards had rotted through, and she could see the pale weeds growing below, inching up toward the sunlight.

She looked around the interior of the ruin, and decided she was wasting her time. Either this wasn’t one of the houses considered pre-Revolutionary, or the whole idea was a hoax. She turned to leave, but then in the back she saw a beam—a large beam, maybe from a ship. Old houses were often made from dismantled ships. But here, so far inland? Cautiously, Holly made her way toward the back of the house, stepping gingerly on the floorboards, as she kept her light fastened on the overhead beam.

It was when she reached the room, saw that the beam was nothing special, that she heard the sound. The unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake. Instantly, she froze into position, her heart pounding in her throat. When she’d calmed herself enough, she turned just her head slowly in the direction of the sound. Not two feet from her was an enormous rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike if she moved even an inch. Holly had been so busy looking up at the beam that she’d almost stepped on the snake.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought. Okay, so now what did she do? Wait until sundown and the cool temperature made the snake seek warmth? How about testing her snake books? They were three layers of leather, hot beyond belief, but guaranteed to withstand any snake bite. Guaranteed, huh? Did that mean she got her money back if they didn’t work?

She told herself to stop being sarcastic and to think of a way to get herself out of there alive. No sudden movements, of course, but how about a slow, steady tiptoe out?

“Nice snake,” she whispered, then swallowed when the tail rattled enthusiastically. Slowly, she stepped backward.

One second she was standing on the floor of an old house and the next she was falling through the air. She screamed in fear and shock, then let out an oomph as she hit bottom.

Blinking, she lay on her back and looked up. She seemed to have fallen into an old cistern. About twelve feet above, she saw the floor with its broken boards, and as she watched, the snake slithered over to peer down at her.

“That’s all I need,” she muttered. “Caught in a pit with a rattlesnake.” Wincing with pain, bruised from the fall, she removed her camera from its case around her neck, then shot four quick photos of the snake. Blinded by the flash, it moved away from the edge.

Holly put her hand to her back and rolled a bit to one side to look around her. She was in a pit about twelve feet deep and eight feet in diameter. It had most likely once been a root cellar or used for ice storage and had probably originally had dirt or stone walls. But some industrious owner had smeared a layer of concrete over the sides, which made them slick and unclimbable.

A feeling of panic rose in Holly, but she tamped it down. Of course she could get out. Slowly, feeling her body for any injuries, she got up off the debris-covered floor. If the walls were modern enough to be concrete, then there was probably an aluminum ladder nearby.

On the floor was a foot-deep cushion of rotten wood and plants—and animal carcasses. It looked as though anything that had ever fallen into the pit had not been able to find a way out.

As she looked up at the high walls, she told herself that she was smarter than the animals, and that of course there was a way out.

An hour later, she was beginning to panic. She’d piled all the debris up and tried to climb on it, but it was so rotten her feet went through to the bottom. The decaying wood had cushioned her fall, so she hadn’t been hurt, but she couldn’t climb it.

Above her head were the old floorboards. She could see a rusty hinge that had once been the trapdoor that led down to the cellar. If she could latch onto the boards, could she pull herself up? Latch on with what? she wondered.

Stepping back, she took inventory of what she had to use. She had her camera in a case with a thin nylon strap. She had a bottle of water and what she was wearing. Her walking stick and flashlight had flown out of her hands when she’d fallen.

“A rope,” she said as she started unbuttoning her shirt. “I have to make a rope.”

About The Author

Photograph by Kim Jew

Jude Deveraux is the author of more than forty New York Times bestsellers, including Moonlight in the Morning, The Scent of Jasmine, Scarlet Nights, Days of Gold, Lavender Morning, Return to Summerhouse, and Secrets. To date, there are more than sixty million copies of her books in print worldwide. To learn more, visit

Product Details

  • Publisher: Pocket Books (October 29, 2019)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982123437

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