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Page 17

“Are you sure you don’t need me there?” Allie says gently. “If not for moral support, then just for the fact that old houses can be tricky. I’d feel better knowing you had some help.”

“I’ll call if I need any advice,” I say.

“No,” Allie says. “You’ll call or text at least once a day. Otherwise I’ll think you died in an epic table-saw accident.”

When the call is over, I get out of the truck and approach the gate, which dwarfs me by at least five feet. It’s the kind of gate you’re more likely to see at a mental hospital or prison. Something designed not to keep people out but to keep them in. I find the key for the lock, insert it, and twist. It unlocks with a metallic clank.

Almost immediately, a man’s voice—as gruff as it is unexpected—rises in the darkness behind me.

“If you’re looking for trouble, you just found it. Now back away from that gate.”

I spin around, my hands raised like a burglar caught mid-job. “I’m sorry. I used to live here.”

The truck’s headlights, aimed at the center of the gate to help me see better, now end up blinding me. I scan the darkness behind the truck until the source of the voice steps into the light. He’s tall and solid—a cool drink of water poured into jeans and a black T-shirt. Although he could pass for younger, I peg him to be just north of forty, especially when he steps closer and I can see the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin.

“You’re Ewan Holt’s girl?” he says.

A prickle of irritation forms on the back of my neck. I might be Ewan Holt’s daughter, but I’m no one’s girl. I let it slide only because this man seems to have known my father.

“Yes. Maggie.”

The man strides toward me, his hand extended. Up close, he’s very good-looking. Definitely fortyish, but compact and muscular in a way that makes me think he does manual labor for a living. I work with similar guys all the time. Taut forearms with prominent veins that crest bulging biceps. Beneath his T-shirt is a broad chest and an enviably narrow waist.

“I’m the caretaker,” he says, confirming my first impression. “Name’s Dane. Dane Hibbets.”

My father mentioned a Hibbets in the Book. Walt. Not Dane.

“Hibbs’s boy?”

“His grandson, actually,” Dane says, either not picking up on my word choice or deciding to ignore it. “Walt died a few years back. I kind of stepped in and took over. Which means I should probably stop standing here and help you with this gate.”

He pushes past to help me in prying it open, him pulling one side and me pushing the other.

“By the way, I was real sorry to hear about your dad’s passing,” he says. “Others in this town might have unkind things to say about him. His book is none too popular in these parts. None too popular at all. But he was a good man, and I remind folks of that on a regular basis. ‘Few people would have kept on paying us,’ I tell them. ‘Especially twenty-five years after leaving the place.’”

A hiccup of surprise rises in my chest. “My father was still paying you?”

“He sure was. First my grandfather, then me. Oh, and Mrs. Ditmer. I mow the grass, do some landscaping, pop in once a week to make sure nothing’s wrong with the house. Elsa—that’s Mrs. Ditmer—came in every month to do a good cleaning. Her daughter does it now that Elsa’s infirm, to put it kindly.”

“She’s ill?”

“Only in the head.” Dane uses an index finger to tap his temple. “Alzheimer’s. The poor woman. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. But your father kept us all on and always made sure to check in on me whenever he was here.”

Another surprise. One that makes me release my half of the gate, letting it swing shut again. “My father came here?”

“He did.”

“A lot?”

“Not often, no,” Dane says. “Just once a year.”

I remain completely still, aware of the cocked-headed stare Dane is giving me but unable to do anything about it. Shock has left me motionless.

My father came back here once a year.

Despite vowing never to return.

Despite begging me on his deathbed to do the same.

These visits go against everything I was told about Baneberry Hall. That it was off-limits to my family. That it was a place where nothing good survived. That I needed to stay away.

It’s not safe there. Not for you.

Why did my father think it was safe for him to return and not me? Why didn’t he mention—not even once—that he still owned Baneberry Hall and came back here regularly?

Dane keeps on giving me that funny look. Part curiosity, part concern. I manage to cut through my shock long enough to ask a follow-up question.

“When was the last time he was here?”

“Last summer,” Dane says. “He always came on the same date—July 15.”

Yet another shock. A giant wallop that pushes me back onto my heels. I grip the gate for support, my numb fingers snaking around its wrought-iron curlicues.

“You okay there, Maggie?” Dane says.

“Yes,” I mutter, although I’m not sure I am. July 15 was the night my family left Baneberry Hall. That can’t be a coincidence, even though I have no idea what it means. I try to think of a logical reason why my father would return only on that infamous date, but I come up empty.

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