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Book Jacket

0310253543
Trade Paperback
320 pages
Oct 2004
Zondervan

The Mill House

by Paul McCusker

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Chapter One

SATURDAY, THE 26TH OF JUNE

LAINEY BISHOP GROUND THE GEARS ON HER MINI-COOPER, MUTTERED recriminations to herself, then found first as she pulled away from the stoplight on the outskirts of Stonebridge. She was late. Worse, she was agitated by the cryptic message her mother had left on her answering machine, and every delay made her annoyance grow.

She never should have taken the unfamiliar shortcut through East Grinstead rather than her usual route on the motorway via Brighton. The earlier downpour of rain had snarled London traffic. The usual ninety-minute journey now hit the two-hour mark.

Normally the transition from the concrete and noise of Shepherd’s Bush in London to the lush forests and rolling downs of Sussex helped to relax her. It was one of the reasons she came to visit every weekend. The green beauty touched her soul, renewed her to the core. Today, however, Lainey didn’t feel renewed. She was late. And she was worried.

She guided her car through the one-way system that formed a triangle around Stonebridge’s town center. She drove past the quaint shops that now sat alongside the national chains of grocery, book, and electronics stores. Just over the tops of the Georgian and Victorian buildings she could see the perpendicular tower of St. Mark’s, the twelfth-century church that sat in the very heart of the town. The rain had stopped; the sun broke through the clouds, giving the tower’s brown stones a golden glow. The clock in the tower—a much later addition to the building—came into view and showed ten past one. She was ten minutes late.

George Street led her around to High Street, which she crossed and found a parking spot in the large lot behind the Waitrose food store. She parked and raced toward the Great War Memorial that sat in the middle of the main shopping area. It was an obelisk with the names of fallen soldiers carved into the pedestal at the base. A wreath of white lilies— now fringed with a forlorn brown—leaned on a stand against the side. Puddles dotted the pavement around it.

Lainey saw her mother and stopped short. Margaret Bishop was sitting on one of the benches that faced the memorial. Her black-and-gray hair was pulled back in a tight bun and her hands clasped the handbag in her lap. Her brown overcoat was snug around her. She looked tightly wound, coiled like a spring. Her eyes were on a wreath that hung in front of her.

“Hello,” Lainey said as she dropped down on the bench next to her mother and kissed her quickly on the cheek. Her mother’s skin was milk white and soft as velvet. She smelled of sweet perfume.

“Was the traffic bad?” her mother asked, her eyes still on the wreath.

“Yes. Sorry I’m late.”

Her mother tilted her head and said, “That wreath is crooked.”

“Is it?”

Margaret frowned, deepening the lines around her eyes and highlighting the wrinkles around her lips. “People need to take more pride in their surroundings.”

“I don’t care about the wreath, Mother,” Lainey said. “Now, please tell me what your message meant. I’ve been in a state the entire way down.”

“Let’s stroll over to the Mill House,” her mother said. “I’d like a small glass of something before we talk.”

“You need a drink first?” Dread ignited like a small burst of flame in the center of Lainey’s stomach. “Tell me what’s happened, Mother.”

“Be patient.”

THE MILL HOUSE WAS AN EASY WALK JUST OUTSIDE THE TOWN CENTER. Originally built as a flour mill sometime in the fifteenth century, it had been added to and renovated over the years and was now the most popular restaurant and pub in the area. Outside was a waterwheel that slowly turned in the man-made pond—the original river long since gone. Inside, the restaurant was a charming mixture of uneven doorways and ceilings, Tudor beams, and dark paneling. A new wing, built in the early twentieth century, had an entire wall of windows that allowed the early afternoon sun to shine in. Booths lined the remaining walls, and freestanding tables were scattered around the main floor.

Margaret insisted on a booth in a corner to insure maximum privacy. Lainey sat down, trying to control her anxiety, while her mother ordered a glass of house white wine from the waiter. Lainey indicated that she was happy with water. “It must be serious if you’re drinking wine this early in the day,” Lainey said in what she hoped was a carefree voice.

Margaret gazed at her daughter for a moment, then reached across the table and took her hand. To someone watching them, it might have appeared like a moment of tenderness between a mother and her daughter. Lainey knew better. Her mother was stalling for time until the waiter was out of earshot.

“Mum—”

“You favor her, you know,” she said as she withdrew her hand.

“Who?”

“Your grandmother. I found a few photos of her when she was your age. Pull your hair back.”

Lainey obeyed, pulling her long chestnut brown hair back behind her.

“You could be twins. You have that dainty Holmes nose and dark eyes, from Great-grandfather’s side of the family. Dangerous eyes, people always said. And those thick pouty lips. Not thin, like mine or your father’s.”

Leaning forward, Lainey asked, “The bad news is about Gran?”

“She’s not well at all.”

Lainey had seen her grandmother only a week ago and she’d seemed as strong and robust as ever. “What’s wrong?”

Margaret was still. The waiter returned with her glass of wine and placed it on the small round napkin in front of her. “Would you like to order?”

“Nothing right now,” Lainey said impatiently. “Come back in a few minutes.”

The waiter, a splotchy-faced man with steel gray hair, looked at her indignantly, then spun on his heel and strode away.

“There’s no need to be rude,” her mother said, sharing the waiter’s disapproval.

“Tell me about Gran,” Lainey insisted.

Her mother sighed. “We had an incident.”

“What kind of incident?”

“Your grandmother was found in the woods.”

“Was found? Had she been lost?”

“For a little while.” Margaret sipped a little of her wine, then grimaced. “Too dry.”

“Mother.”

She patiently resumed. “Early Thursday morning, Serena took in a tray of tea, as she does every morning. But your grandmother was gone. The bed had been slept in, but she had vanished. She was nowhere in the house, nor in the garden, nor anywhere on the grounds—which didn’t make sense because it was dropping buckets of rain.”

“It isn’t like her to take a walk in the rain.”

“Well, Serena called the family right away and we tried to solve the mystery. She had no engagements that anyone knew about. Worse, she hadn’t taken any clothes.”

“She’d left the house naked?”

“Don’t be silly. She was in her nightgown, robe, and slippers.”

“Oh, well, that’s so much better.”

“I should think it is,” her mother said firmly and took another drink of her wine. It was more than a sip. “We don’t know what became of the slippers, come to think of it.”

“I don’t care about the slippers,” Lainey said. “Tell me about her.”

“She was found two hours later, sitting alone in the pouring rain near the old chapel.”

“What old chapel?”

“The one at the edge of the Boswell Farm. You’ve seen the top of it, I’m sure. From over the old wall. It’s the one the Germans destroyed.”

Lainey remembered it. During the Blitz, the Germans had a nasty habit of dumping their excess payload onto the south of England as they returned to their air bases in France. The bombings were indiscriminate. One of several casualties in the Stonebridge area included the small chapel. “What was she doing there?”