Sneek peek into A STRANGER AT ALCOTT MANOR
copyright 2019 Alyssa Richards
Ancient water oaks swayed in the warm, salty breezes and threw their inky shadows against the front pillars of Alcott Manor. Peyton Alcott stood next to the passenger side door of the rental and dropped the car keys onto the seat. She stared at the front of the house, tracing the outline of the bottle of Xanax bulging in her small soft-sided purse.
The manor’s first floor windows were warped with age, and the darkness inside appeared deep and cold and formless. The home’s secrets were palpable, but unseen. They shifted like forgotten spirits, hidden memories and old nightmares.
This visit to her family’s ancestral estate was her first alone in twenty years. The prescription bottle lid flicked open with a pop. Just one dose would cushion whatever memories came to light. She glanced at her overstuffed computer bag in the backseat. Remembering the mountain of work she had to do, she reluctantly recapped the bottle.
She lifted her work satchel, filled well beyond its unzipped brim with a laptop, client files and instructions from her mother. Rounded oyster shells crunched beneath her Jimmy Choos.
At a long squeal of brakes, she spun, squinting at the black car with its round headlights and narrow front grill. She lowered her bag to the ground, her stomach clenched. The car’s white-haired driver was a ghost from her past she’d hoped to outrun.
An oceanic updraft caught her work papers and they scattered. She snatched at them, catching only one. The rest danced and twirled down the stark white drive and away from Alcott Manor. She envied their ability to escape.
She cursed the wind and the lost papers, the manor and the land it was built on, and her own attendance at this godforsaken place.
The old Plymouth rattled to a rolling stop behind her rental car with another long screech of brakes. The elderly woman exited with a slowness that made Peyton wonder if it was wise for her to be driving.
“Hope those papers weren’t important.” Her smile was broad and welcoming, a gesture Peyton knew better than to trust. Her eyes were moist, more from age than emotion. One was glassy.
“My goodness, it’s been years.” Peyton leaned down to hug her. Mrs. Miller was frailer than she remembered, but her perfume was the same. The delicate scent of roses infused with Mentholatum.
“Well, let me take a look at you.” Mrs. Miller cocked her head to the side. She raked her good eye in a slow survey from the top of Peyton’s jeweled hair combs to the tip toes of her polished heels.
Peyton stood trying to hold her smile, feeling like the blue-ribboned pig at the county fair where winning made you the blue plate special.
“Still have your daddy’s good looks, I see. Let’s hope you kept his temperament. Your mother says you’re a big city girl now, but coming home to get married?”
“Yes, ma’am. I live in Boston, and the wedding is in four days.” Peyton wished she had remembered to spin her large diamond engagement ring to the inside of her hand. But Mrs. Miller caught sight of it and Peyton saw her lips tighten.
“Mmm. You still take all those pictures like you used to?” Mrs. Miller asked.
“No, sad to say, I haven’t had the time for much photography these days.”
“I thought as much.” She patted Peyton’s shoulders twice. “I’ve got just the thing for you. Carry these inside.” The rear car door groaned when she pulled it open. Mrs. Miller pointed to two large gray containers and instructed Peyton to be careful.
“These are more of the estate’s cameras and tintypes that we had at the museum. We’re bringing much of it here, now that you’re organizing the house for tours. You’ll need them for exhibits and whatnot. Jayne Ella insisted I bring these. You know how your mother is.” She raised one eyebrow.
Yes. She knew exactly how her mother was.
“Are you still working at the museum?” Peyton hoisted the first plastic carton from the back seat and directed the small talk away from herself.
“Lord, yes, honey. I’ll probably die in the place. No one else in Charleston knows as much about the city’s history. Or Alcott Manor’s history. Except for you, of course. I taught you especially well.”
“Yes ma’am.” She put the container near the double front door, and the tintypes shuddered with a metallic clatter. She stared at a sign that was pasted to one of the front pillars, and her stomach dropped to the floor.
Last Seen at Alcott Manor
Beau was in his early twenties, with bed-head-sexy blond hair and light blue eyes that were striking enough for a double take. The camera had caught him with his devil-may-care smile that won him a free pass whenever he wanted. Too many emotions knocked at the back door of her memory bank.
“Sad about Beau, isn’t it?” Mrs. Miller said.
Peyton started at the closeness of Mrs. Miller’s voice that squeaked like an old chair.
“He was such a wild child. Lord only knows if he’s really missing or if he just hopped a plane and left. Did y’all ever speak after he stood you up at the church?”
The question hit her like a slap, Peyton squeezed her eyes shut to stem the angry tide of memories: Waiting for an hour in the church parlor in her full-skirted wedding dress, her mother ultimately telling her they had waited long enough, that Beau obviously wasn’t coming. Her father saying he would make the announcement to the guests.
“No,” she finally said. “Do you know who posted this here?”
“His daddy, I’m sure. Austin Spencer has them posted all over town. He stuck one right on the museum’s front window.”
Beau had been gone for nine years, long enough to be declared legally dead. His parents had even held a funeral for him and erected a gravestone with his name on the front as if he were buried there.
Peyton peeled the tape from the white paint, folded the flyer in half, and half again.
Mrs. Miller’s phone rang like an old telephone bell. She retrieved it from one of the patch pockets of her cotton dress and tilted her head to look through the bottom half of her glasses. “Just a minute, honey. I have to take this.” She walked to the far end of the wide porch, her low-heeled shoes scuffling along the painted wood.
Mrs. Miller looked and moved like a woman far older than she actually was. She used to be a vibrant and beautiful woman, not much older than Peyton’s own mother, Jayne Ella. But when Mrs. Miller’s daughter went missing over twenty years ago, her hair turned stark white and everything about her physique withered and slowed and sagged.
Peyton loaded the other container to the front porch to keep herself distracted. Mrs. Miller was still talking on the phone. Peyton’s directions for the combination lock were gone with the wind, so she decided to wait. Maybe Mrs. Miller would have the access code.
She opened one of the containers and found seven neat rows of dusty tintype photographs. She hadn’t touched a tintype since college. The first captured memory—several Alcott family members posed in front of the grand staircase—sent a pang of anxiety from her head to her heart and back again. The threat of an old nightmare.
“Stop it,” she whispered to the fear as if she were the one in charge. She licked her dry lips and held a different glass plate to the light.
This tintype was a traditional wedding photo from the 1850s, and Peyton recognized the bride. She was a niece of the original owners of the manor, Benjamin and Bertha Mae Alcott. The wedding party had gathered in the ballroom and Peyton scanned the faces one by one. She knew them all, and their stories, thanks to her internship with Mrs. Miller at the museum.
One man at the side of the gathering sent a shiver of cold dancing across her back. His hair was shorter in length, though the layers had grown out. His light-colored eyes fixed straight ahead as if he looked right at her. The charm-filled smile he had often used as his ticket to get what he wanted was gone, but his lips were the same full shape she remembered.
It was impossible, though undeniable. The guest in the 1850s tintype was the man she almost married. He was the man who was missing, Beau Spencer.
continue with adventure with A STRANGER AT ALCOTT MANOR ~ AMAZON!