Heart thudding, head fuzzy, and eyes still blurry from sleep, Shelby Miller tried not to trip over the hem of her robe as she raced down the grand staircase. She’d been in the middle of a perfectly lovely dream when someone started pounding on the door and jerked her mercilessly awake. Whoever it was, she thought as she stumbled past the landing, they’d better have a good reason for waking her.
Early morning sunlight spilled down the staircase from the huge window on the landing and into the foyer through the full-length windows flanking the door. Even this early—surely not later than seven o’clock—the temperature and the dense Missouri humidity made her long for central air conditioning.
Clutching the collar of her robe, she ran her free hand through the curls she could feel bobbing wildly with every step—the hated curls that had earned her the nickname “Medusa” as a child. She’d probably scare whoever was so rudely—and insistently—banging on the door. Well, if she did, it served them right. Maybe it would teach them a lesson in manners.
Before she could make it to the bottom of the staircase, the pounding started up again. “Hold on,” she shouted impatiently. “I’m coming.” Shelby had never been at her best in the morning, which was one of the reasons she loved her position at Winterhill. She didn’t have to look perky, dress for success, or even be coherent before noon if she didn’t want to be.
Slipping a little as she crossed the polished wood floor, she skidded to a stop in front of the massive door and yanked it open. Jon Davenport, her dearest friend in Hannibal—her only real friend anywhere—stood on the porch, backed by the rising sun, his hand raised to knock again.
She let out an annoyed sigh. “What are you doing?”
Jon lowered his arm quickly and ignored her question. “It’s about time you answered. Where were you?”
“In bed. Asleep.” She stepped aside to let him enter and closed the door behind him. “Why aren’t you at work? And why are you banging on my door like the world’s coming to an end?”
“You might think it has ended when I tell you what I just heard on the morning news.” Jon’s eyes were dark and uncharacteristically solemn, his mouth nothing more than a thin slash cut into his tanned face.
Shelby made another vain attempt to tame her curls. “Okay, I’ll bite. What did you hear?”
“The news report said that Evan McDonald has put Winterhill up for sale.”
It took a moment for Jon’s words to sink in completely, but when they did, the old, familiar anxiety began to pulse through Shelby’s veins. “He’s done what?”
“He’s listed this house on the market.”
Praying that she’d heard wrong, Shelby shook her head. “That can’t be right. He can’t do that.”
“He can,” Jon said, “and, according to the news, he has.”
“But why?” Her voice came out sharp, but she made no effort to soften it as she went on. “I thought he’d decided to restore Winterhill.”
“Apparently, he’s decided not to.”
Time slowed, ice water flowed through her veins, and a steady pounding started somewhere behind her eyes. Working as caretaker at Winterhill for the past six months had given her the first security she’d ever known. She’d even started to believe it would last. She should have known better. “But why didn’t Evan tell me first?”
“Who knows?” Jon moved closer and put a hand on her shoulder. The weight of his hand and the depth of his concern bore down on her.
She tried to step away from both. She’d spent most of her twenty-eight years on her own. Jon’s friendship was the first real tie she’d ever had to anyone or anything, and it still left her slightly off balance.
Jon didn’t let her escape. “Even when Evan’s mother was alive, he didn’t like this house, Shelby. And to tell you the truth, everyone at the historical society was surprised when he hired you instead of selling it after she died.”
She couldn’t bear the gentleness in his voice. It made the pain worse somehow. She’d grown to love Winterhill. She’s let herself dream of staying here in Hannibal. Its history appealed to her and made her long to be a part of it.
She moved toward the front window, glancing outside and letting her gaze linger on the crumbling turrets of the neighboring house that was barely visible above the rows of trees separating the two properties. “What about Summervale?” she asked softly, turning back to face her friend. “What about the movement to save the twin houses?”
“There is no movement,” Jon admitted reluctantly. “I haven’t been able to whip up much excitement about saving Summervale. Most people think it’s already too dilapidated to save. And without Winterhill—” He broke off and shrugged helplessly.
“But the twin houses are a piece of Hannibal’s history.”
“A piece nobody’s much interested in,” Jon reminded her.
Shelby pushed a curl away from her forehead. “Maybe whoever buys Winterhill will be interested in restoring both houses.”
“I doubt it,” Jon said, shaking his head slowly. “People are speculating that Evan will sell this place to some industry or developer.”
Shelby’s heart twisted painfully. “And they’ll tear it down. And Summervale will follow.”
Tears stung her eyes, but she refused to give in to them. Crying had never solved a problem for her, not even once in her life. “I won’t let that happen,” she said, lifting her chin.
A shadow flitted behind his eyes. “You can’t stop it, Shel. The only real selling point we’ve ever had in trying to save the houses was that they’re less than two miles apart, built by the same man within only a few years of each other, and virtually identical in every respect.”
“Yes. Exactly!” She in front of the window, ignoring the pity she saw on his face, fighting her sudden flash of resentment. “And the mystery, of course.”
“There’s no mystery.” Jon’s voice sharpened slightly as it always did when she raised the subject. “Summervale belonged to a crazy woman who lived as a recluse most of her life—”
“Yes, and Winterhill belonged to the husband and children who lived within spitting distance of her and never saw her.” Shelby let the fear building inside her come out as anger. “And nobody knows why. You can’t tell me that’s not fascinating stuff.”
“It’s not fascinating stuff,” Jon said, his voice slightly more gentle. “Not fascinating enough to convince anyone to shell out the fortune it would take to restore Summervale. Not enough to save Winterhill.” The pity in his eyes deepened. “Nobody cares, Shelby.”
“I care.” Desperation made the pounding in her head worse. If she couldn’t even convince Jon to fight for the houses, how could she convince anyone else? She waved a jerky hand toward the window and Summervale and tried again. “There was no hint of insanity before Agatha married Zacharias.”
“So, her husband drove her crazy,” Jon said with a lazy shrug. “The point is—”
“The point is,” Shelby interrupted, growing angrier and more hurt by the minute, “if we could find out what happened to her, maybe we could generate public interest in the houses.”
“We’ve tried to find out what happened,” Jon reminded her, “over and over again. Zacharias’s papers hardly mention Agatha at all, and we can’t find any of her letters or journals.”
“That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There has to be some record somewhere. Some explanation for why Agatha turned her back on her children.”
Jon’s eyes roamed her face, searching, probing, and making her distinctly uncomfortable. “Is that why you’re so obsessed with the Logans?”
“I’m not obsessed,” Shelby insisted. “I’m interested. There’s a difference.”
“Aw, Shelby.” Jon touched her shoulder again. “Finding out why some woman—a woman who’s been dead for more than a hundred years—turned her back on her children isn’t going to explain why your mother abandoned you.”
Shelby jerked away and wished she’d kept that part of her past secret from him, as she had from everyone else. “My mother didn’t abandon me. She put me up for adoption. The fact that nobody ever wanted to adopt me wasn’t her fault.”
Pity filled his entire expression now. “Why do you stick up for your mother, Shel?”
“I’m not sticking up for her,” Shelby said quickly. She hated thinking anyone felt sorry for her. She might not have any idea who her mother was. She might have bounced from one foster home to another as a child. She might even have moved from one city to the next as an adult, but that didn’t mean anybody had to feel sorry for her. Many people had difficult childhoods. It happened, and she’d long ago adjusted to the hard parts of her own life.
She forced a laugh and tried to change the subject. “We’re not talking about me,” she said firmly. “We’re talking about the twin houses.” She put some distance between herself and Jon again, trailing her fingers across the gleaming wood of the bannister. “If Agatha hadn’t died so young. Or if Zacharias had stayed in Hannibal. . . If they’d stayed together, there’d probably still be Logans living in both of these houses, and they wouldn’t be in danger now.”
“Maybe,” Jon said without conviction. “But Agatha did die, and Zacharias didn’t stay. And the houses have brought bad luck to every family who’s tried to live in them since.”
“That’s nothing but superstition.”
“Maybe.” Jon glanced at a scowling portrait of Zacharias hanging on the wall of the landing. “But wishing things had turned out differently won’t change anything.”
“I know that.” And she did. Only too well. She dropped onto one of the steps and stretched out her legs in front of her. “I’m not delusional, but I can’t stand by and let these houses be destroyed, Jon. I just can’t.”
Jon sat beside her, his shoulder barely grazing hers. “What do you have in mind?”
“Nothing, unfortunately. Not yet, anyway.”
Jon put a hand over hers and rested his cheek on the top of her head. “If I thought you had a chance, I’d help you in whatever way I could. You know that, right?” She nodded uncertainly and he let out a sigh that spoke of tested patience. “Why don’t I ask around and see if I can find you another job somewhere?”
Shelby fought the urge to draw away. “I don’t want another job. I want to save the twin houses.”
“I know. And I wish I knew of a way for you to do that. But I just don’t want you to get your hopes up. You can’t rewrite history.”
“Well, I wish I could,” she muttered as a wave of futility crashed over her.
Maybe she should know better than to get her hopes up. Maybe she should have learned her lesson after watching her dreams vaporize one by one over the years. But everything had seemed so different here in Hannibal, and the longer she stayed, the more she loved it.
She took a deep breath and tried to pull herself together. But she couldn’t face losing another home and having to start all over again. After the last time, she’d vowed it wouldn’t happen again. And that was a promise she intended to keep—no matter what it took.
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