The house was enormous, frighteningly ugly, and Jace Montgomery had just paid four and a half million dollars for it.
As he drove his car slowly through the wrought-iron gates that were set inside square brick pillars topped by stone lions, he dreaded seeing the house. Priory House was his now, but he could remember little from his one-time viewing with the realtor. The graveled road meandered through parkland that was quite pretty. He’d been told that the gardens had been laid out in 1910 by some famous landscape architect. The trees were now mature, the flowering shrubs were well established, and the grass perfect. If Jace were a horseman, which he wasn’t, the parkland would have been a dream come true.
As he neared a big oak tree, he pulled over, stopped the car, and got out. In a moment the house would come into view, and he needed to prepare himself for it. To keep himself solvent, he’d borrowed the purchase price from his billionaire uncle. Since the house had been on the market for over three years, Jace knew that when the time came to sell the house, it would be a pain to unload.
He’d tried to rent the house, but the owner wouldn’t consider it. The man wanted to get rid of the monstrosity free and clear.
“All right,” Jace said to the realtor, or estate agent as they were called in England, “what’s wrong with the house? Other than being ugly, that is.” He imagined plumbing that was perpetually clogged, low-flying jets, murderous neighbors. At the very least, dry rot.
“It seems that there’s a ghost,” Nigel Smith-Thompson said with the air of a man who doesn’t believe in such things.
“Don’t all old houses in England have a ghost?” Jace asked.
“We were told that this ghost is particularly persistent. She appears rather often and it annoys the owners.”
Scares the hell out of them is what you mean, Jace thought.
“Is that why the house has changed hands so often?” When Jace asked to borrow the money from his uncle to buy the house, Uncle Frank had had it thoroughly researched. Since the late nineteenth century, the house had never been owned by anyone for more than three years. Uncle Frank’s conclusion was that the house was a bad investment and Jace shouldn’t buy it. Jace hadn’t said a word, just handed his uncle the envelope he’d found inside a book that had belonged to Stacy. Frank took the photo of the house out of the envelope, looked at it in distaste, then turned the picture over. On the back someone had written “Ours again. Together forever. See you there on 11 May 2002.”
It took Frank a moment to put it all together. “Stacy died on … ?”
“The next day.” Jace took a breath. “On the twelfth of May, Stacy Evans, my fiancée, committed suicide in a room over a pub in Margate, England.”
Frank picked up the envelope and read the postmark. “This was sent from Margate and the postmark is the eighth of April.”
Jace nodded. “Someone sent that to her before we left for England.” He thought back to the trip that had changed his life. Jace had worked in the family business of buying and selling companies since the day he graduated from college. Less than a week before he was to marry Stacy, his uncle Mike, Frank’s brother, had called and said that the owner of an English tool manufacturing plant was pulling out of the sale. If that happened, three export deals would fall through and about a hundred people would be out of work. Since it had been Jace who’d negotiated the deal, he’d been the only one who could put it back together. He told Stacy he was sorry but he was going to have to fly to England. He promised that he’d work night and day and be back as soon as possible.
But Stacy had surprised him by asking to go with him. “I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to go,” Jace said. “The truth was, I didn’t want to have to deal with her stepmother. Stace had enough stress on her without a foreign trip thrown into it all.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Frank said. “If Stacy said no to purple daisies then Mrs. Evans went on a campaign for masses of purple daisies. Anything to cause problems—and to put the attention on herself.”
Jace looked away for a moment. There had been no love between the young, beautiful Mrs. Evans and her stepdaughter, who was just a bit younger than she was but a great deal more beautiful—and a great deal more elegant. Stacy was the kind of woman who could wear a sweatsuit and people would know she came from money and breeding. Her father was a self-made man, but Stacy’s mother had come from an old family: penniless, but with ancient bloodlines.
It was only after Stacy’s death that her stepmother had professed great love for her stepdaughter, and she’d made Jace’s life miserable. At the funeral Mrs. Evans had screamed that Stacy’s suicide was Jace’s fault. “You killed her!” she screamed in front of everyone. “Did you find somebody you liked better so you took Stacy out of the country, away from her family, so you could drive her to death in secret?”
It had all been absurd, of course, but it hurt just the same. Jace had loved Stacy with all his heart, and he had no idea why she’d killed herself just days before their wedding.
“You think this house has something to do with Stacy’s death, don’t you?” Frank asked.
“I have nothing else to go on.” Jace got up and began to pace the room. “It’s been three years, yet it’s all I can think of. That moment when Stacy’s sister threw the suicide note in my face and told me I had killed her sister haunts me every hour of every day.”
“What did the psychiatrist say?” Frank asked softly.
Jace waved his hand. “I quit going to him. We spent six months talking about Stacy and me. What deeply buried, hideous things had I done to her in secret—secret even from my-self—that made her take her own life? He got frustrated because I couldn’t come up with anything, so he started on my family. When he concluded that I felt unworthy because I’d been born into a family that has money, I got out of there.”
Frank looked at Jace hard. “So after you buy this white elephant of a house, then what?”
Jace sat back down. “I don’t know. All I know is that I have to make this pain stop.” When he looked at his uncle, his eyes were full of such anguish that Frank’s breath stopped for a moment. “I haven’t touched a woman in three years. Every time I take a woman out, I think about Stacy.”
“No one truly believes it was your fault. I think Stacy must have been unbalanced. She—”
“That’s what everyone tells me.” Jace got up again, anger beginning to boil inside him. “But Stacy wasn’t unbalanced. She was sweet and kind and funny. We used to laugh over the silliest things. She didn’t care about my family name. She laughed when Forbes magazine declared us one of the richest—” He broke off and ran his hand over his face. “I’ve been over all this a thousand times, in my mind and with the doctor.”
“And with your family.”
“Yes,” Jace said. “With everyone. I know I’ve been a bore and a pest, but I seem to be in the middle of a whirlpool. I can’t go up, down, back, forth, nowhere. If I could put it behind me, I would. ‘Get on with your life,’ as everyone keeps telling me to do.” Jace sank onto the chair. “If I could figure out what happened and why, maybe I could go on.”
“And what if you find out something you don’t like?”
“You mean that I might find out that I’m such a monster that she knew if she wanted to call off the wedding I’d refuse? Or maybe I’ll find out that the only way she could get away from me was to kill herself.”
“You don’t believe that and neither does anyone who knows you. What’s really eating at you?”
Jace looked away for a moment, then back at his uncle, his face bleak. “I need to understand what happened. The horror of it is bad enough, but the mystery of it is driving me insane. Stacy and I were in a hotel in London and we had a fight.” He took a breath. “Out of the blue, she told me she didn’t want to have children. My mind was fully on getting that man to sell his company to us. He’d asked for verification of our family’s good financial standing back seven years. The truth was, the man was a snob and I think he really wanted to know our family tree back seven generations. I was swamped with work and frantically trying to get back in time for the wedding. Stacy had to say it twice before I heard her, then I thought she was kidding. She said she had put off telling me, but she couldn’t leave it any longer.”
Jace took a breath, then let it out. “It was an argument that got out of hand. Everything I said seemed to make her angrier. When I said she might change her mind, she said I was accusing her of being a person who couldn’t make a decision. Finally I told her it was okay, that I loved her enough that if we didn’t have children it would be all right. That’s when she started crying and ran out of the room. I thought she’d gone out for a walk to cool down. I didn’t know it, but she’d taken the rental car.”
Jace stopped talking, drained from yet again telling the same story. He’d agreed to be hypnotized in an attempt to remember more of that night, but even in a trance the events didn’t change.
The next morning Jace awoke to find that Stacy hadn’t returned to their room. At the time, he’d been more angry than worried, and he’d spent the day with the owner of the tool company. That night, after a long, hard day, he’d returned to their hotel room to find that Stacy hadn’t been back. Jace called the police.
But by that time, Stacy’s sister in the United States had been notified by the English police of the death by apparent suicide of her sister. Stacy had taken a full bottle of her own prescription sleeping pills. Her passport had been in her handbag and the person marked to notify was her sister.
Jace had not been allowed near Stacy’s body and the police had looked at him as though he’d murdered her. In three days, Jace had gone from being a happy man who was looking forward to his marriage to a man who was reviled by his dead fiancée’s family.
Since then, his life had not existed. He’d slept and eaten, and even worked some, but he wasn’t really alive. The questions “Why had this happened?” and “What really happened?” haunted him incessantly. He’d tried everything he could to get rid of the doubts that now ruled him, but he was unable to. He’d gone on a few dates, but he couldn’t be himself. He was polite to the point of coldness, and a first date never turned into a second.
Jace had thought that he and Stacy were a happy couple. He thought they’d had no secrets. Stacy was a legal secretary in an old, established New York law office, and even according to her bosses she nearly ran the office. She remembered where every brief was and every due date. And her classiness had fit their image of themselves. They always had her greet new clients. All of the young lawyers had tried to date her, but she’d have none of them. She used to smile graciously and say that when she met the man of her dreams, she’d know him.
And that’s how it had happened. Jace had walked into the boardroom, a briefcase full of papers about a building in Greenwich Village that his company was buying, and he’d looked up and seen her. She’d been handing out documents to each lawyer, but with her eyes on Jace, she’d shoved them into the hands of a lawyer and left the room.
Jace hadn’t been able to concentrate. For the first time in his life, he lost his train of thought and signed contracts that he didn’t read. He was oblivious to the smirks and smiles of the lawyers around him. They had all tried with the beautiful, elegant Stacy, but she’d politely but firmly told them no. They could now see that her days of being the untouchable maiden were over.
After the meeting, Jace had stood outside the boardroom door and looked for her. Another secretary, smiling, had pointed the way to him and he’d walked to her desk. She was waiting for him, her coat on, and they’d left the office to go to lunch.
After that, they’d been inseparable. They’d talked and laughed and during the three years they knew each other, Jace had thought they’d told each other all about their lives.
But they hadn’t. He had told her all about himself, but it seemed that Stacy had had secrets.
Jace looked back at his uncle Frank. “I can’t go forward until I do all that I can to find out what happened and why.”
“And you think this house has something to do with it?”
“Maybe not the house, but certainly whoever she was to meet that night. Stacy had some connection to that village and to someone in it. People there know things that they haven’t told.”
“Couldn’t you hire—?”
“A private detective? I thought of that, but I think that if anyone walked into that small village and started asking questions, the people would clam up.” “So how does buying an expensive, ugly old house help you?”
Jace shrugged. “Maybe it won’t, but I thought I’d say I was writing a book on local history. Some woman who robbed stagecoaches lived in the house and it’s said that she now haunts it. Writing a book would give me an excuse to ask questions.”
“Be careful. The lady highwayman may turn out to be an ancestor of ours.” “None of the women in our family would do that,” Jace said and almost smiled. “You did hear about our ancestor who was called ‘the Raider,’ didn’t you?” “Of course I did.” Jace looked at his uncle pointedly. “Will you help me or not?”
“You couldn’t rent the house?”
Jace gave his uncle a hard look. Jace had money of his own, quite a bit of it, but the bulk of it was tied up in long-term investments. He could have gone to a mortgage company, but his family liked to keep to themselves. Jace didn’t like having to borrow money, but he also didn’t like that his uncle was treating him like a kid.
“I’ll give you the money,” Frank said.