"An enthralling story of secrets, sisters, and an unsolved mystery."Kate Morton, New York Times bestselling author of The Lake House
Four sisters. A house with a past. One secret summer.
When fifteen-year-old Margot Wilde and her three sisters arrive at Applecote Manor in June 1959, they expect a quiet English country summer. Instead, they find their aunt and uncle still reeling from the disappearance of their daughter, Audrey, five years before. As the arrival of two handsome neighbors divides the sisters' loyalties, Margot is drawn into the life Audrey left behind and the mystery of her vanishing. Fifty years later, Jessie is desperate to move her family out of their London home, and gorgeous Applecote Manor seems like the perfect solution. But once there, Jessie finds herself increasingly isolated, at odds with her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, and haunted by the strange rumors that surround the manor. Rich with heat and angst, in The Wildling Sisters the thrill of first love clashes with the bonds of sisterhood, taking readers on a breathless journey into the darkest secrets of the human heart.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Applecote Manor, The Cotswolds, England
The last weekend of August, 1959
None of us can bear to touch his belt, so horrifyingly intimate. But as we drag him across the lawn it ploughs into the soil. He’s heavier than he looks too, unwieldy. Every few steps we stop and catch our breath, startling at each other’s faces in the dawn light, daring each other to look down at the unbelievable fleshy fact of him, the childlike abandon of his outstretched arms.
Daisies are stuck to him now, their pink-white petals opening to the sun that is rising at a worrying speed behind the orchard. There's something very wrong about these daisies, stars in the dark sticky of his hair. Dot leans forward as if to pluck them out, sit down and thread them into a chain over the hammock of her gingham skirt. If she did it would not make anything stranger.
Another few stumbling steps, Dot’s spectacles fall off. She starts to scrabble for them. We tell her to stop. There is no time. The birds are starting to sing, all at once, an explosion of noise, a wild loop of fear.
I try to talk myself down from blind panic: we are the same girls we were at the beginning of this long hot summer. Applecote Manor still stands behind us, gazing sleepily over the valley. And in the meadow beyond the garden gate, our beloved circle of prehistoric stones, unchanged, unchanging. We need to get him much closer to those stones, away from the house and fast – the orangery’s glass roof is glinting dangerously in the first rays of sun, even closer than we thought.
A whoosh of nausea folds me in half. I cough, hands on my knees. Flora slips her arm over my shoulders. Feeling her tremble, I look up, try to reassure her, but can’t.
Eyes full of fear and light, Flora blinks repeatedly, as if adjusting to something in my face she hasn’t seen before.
Pam, jaw clenched, starts tugging at his shirtsleeve. But the fabric is no match for the dead weight of his arm and it rips, the noise horrible, deafening. Dot smothers a sob with her hand.
‘It’s all right, Dot…’ I start to say then stop short, noticing a splatter of blood across her fingers.
I lower my gaze to check my own hands. Flora’s. Pam’s. My stomach rolls again. Our summer dresses are butcher’s aprons. We all look like we killed him now, not just one of us. Sisters. Bonded by blood.
Over fifty years later
Crime. Crowds. The way a big city forces girls to grow up too fast, strips them of their innocence. It’s time for the family to leave London, move somewhere gentler, more benign. They’ve viewed a number of houses in the last three months – the estate agents’ brief, rural, roomy, a fixer-upper – but not one that Jessie felt could be called home. Until this moment: standing in Applecote Manor on a late January afternoon, feeling like she’s being filled up with sunlight.
It is in a right state, of course. They couldn’t hope of affording a house like this otherwise. Evergreens are packed hard against the orangery’s windows, threatening to break them, scatter the wooden window seat with poisonous berries like beads. The stone flags on the floor undulate, rising in the centre of the room as if a creature might be pushing up from the earth. But Jessie is already imagining oranges dangling, blood-warm and heavy in the hand, the glass doors flung back to the euphoria of summer, the peal of girls’ wild laughter.
Her face soft, opening, Jessie tracks the paned glass as it climbs to its geometrical peak, a feat of Victorian engineering that promises tangy Mediterranean fruit in the English climate among the woolly pippins. Something about that optimism – control through enclosure, a sort of forced nurturing – whispers in her ear: isn’t she trying to do something similar, only with a family?
Jessie glances at Bella, who is slumped on the window seat, pecking out a text on her mobile phone. A twist of too-long legs and inky hair, her sixteen-year-old stepdaughter is the striking spit of her dead mother, the first Mrs Tucker. Sensing Jessie’s questioning gaze, she lifts her pale, aquiline face, narrows her eyes to glossy pupil-filled cracks, and answers it with a look of fierce refusal.
Jessie’s glad Will didn’t catch it, that look. Hands stuffed boyishly into his coat pockets, her husband is gazing back into the shadows of the adjoining kitchen with a sweetly furrowed air of recalibration as if struggling to square the rural dream – an urban male fantasy of chopping logs, foraging, probably sex outside – with the eerie sound of birds fluttering in cave-like chimneys, the sense of imprisoned pulpy damp, this terrifying, thrilling isolation.
Beneath the shearling of her favourite lambskin jacket, a 1970s-style one that suits these rough-hewn surroundings, Jessie’s heart quickens. She tucks her unruly autumn-red hair repeatedly behind her ears, ordering her thoughts. For she knows there’s a huge jump between viewing an old country house on a winter afternoon – filmy silver light filtering through skeletal trees, moody and strange, like something dreamed – and the stress of moving hundreds of miles away, shedding their city skins. It would be an act of reckless blind faith, like falling in love with Will had been. But the house simply feels right, as Will did from the start, and, on a level that she can’t explain, like it was destined to be theirs.
And really, the scale of Applecote is perfect. They wouldn’t be lost in it. Huge compared to their London semi, it’s still a doll’s house compared to the real old piles in the area – the name ‘manor’ is definitely pushing it. Only two rooms deep, the square footage is in the width, and it’s rustic rather than grand with gnarled wood-wormed beams, walls that bulge as if breathing, no straight edges. A pelt of ivy covers the Cotswold stone exterior, the house not immediately visible from the road. Jessie likes this, the unshowiness, the way Applecote doesn’t dominate the surrounding lush countryside but settles into it, like an elegant elderly lady dozing in long grass. Jessie can see Bella finally finding some peace here, and her daughter, Romy, freed from rubber-matted city playgrounds, climbing trees, those strawberry blonde curls catkin-fuzzed.
Romy already seems perfectly at home, prodding at the kiss of a snail’s fleshy sucker on the other side of the glass with chubby toddler fingers. Jessie is sure her little girl will love the freedom of the countryside, just as she did as a kid, all those secret nooks of childhood, tiny worlds invisible to grown-up eyes. When the snail foams forward, Romy giggles and looks up: Jessie sees her own pixie-pretty features miniaturized, her family’s Irish teal-blue, copper-lashed eyes, Will’s full mouth. Jessie grins back, Romy’s delight her own. Their relationship is still porous, umbilical, the opposite of the one with Bella, which seems to be fortressed by a wall just as thick as Applecote’s. Occasionally, she can peer over it, if she pulls herself up, dangling precariously. Not often. Certainly not today.
It’s been over three years since Jessie crossed the city with her five months pregnant belly, the world’s happiest accident, bulking under her coat like a hidden present – and moved into Will’s house. Two years after Mandy died. Not wanting to intrude upon his life or his daughter’s, Jessie had hung on to her independence and Dalston flat-share as long as possible, resisting the man she’d fallen madly in love with – ‘I don’t want to waste another minute of my life apart from you, I need you, we need you, Jessie’ – until it became ridiculous and impractical. They didn’t want to unsettle Bella further by moving then, not with a new baby on the way. And Jessie naively believed that a big heart, an eagerness to love Bella as her own, would eventually win over the fawn-like girl with the haunted eyes, who clung to her father’s hand as if he were the last human left on earth. She had no idea that trying to love Bella, let alone parent her as she grew into an angry teen, would be like trying to hug an animal that wanted to sink its teeth into her neck. That she might never be forgiven for invading Bella’s private world with her father and bringing forth the joy, noise and disruption that was Romy, a rival for her father’s affections, and embarrassing proof of his new sex life. And who could blame poor Bella?
Time, everyone says. But time seems to be making things worse for Bella in London, not better, like something fragile left outside in the polluted city air, accruing damage. These last few months have been particularly bad, hormonally explosive with an unsettling crescendo that’s forced their hand here. Both Jessie and Will are agreed that Bella, whether she wants it or not – not, obviously – needs a fresh start. She must be removed from the skunky parties and the toxic cliques, taken far away from what she did to that girl, everything that happened. There’s no point just moving to another London borough. If they’re going to do it, they need to be radical, reframe their lives. They will leave the city for somewhere much more innocent and benign. And what could be more innocent than Applecote Manor?
The windowpane bisecting the family’s reflection seems uncannily symbolic, reminding Jessie that there are other, murkier reasons Applecote draws them: Will trying to escape the mental imprint of a lorry turning left, the broken body of his beautiful wife churned along a concrete road; Jessie’s insecurities, the ones that flare secretly, pettily in her brain. For how can she tell Will that she’s never felt comfortable in his dead wife’s smart house, a domestic life that was never hers? That she has to fight terrible childish urges to paint over the chic grey walls with a riot of colour? That this is his second marriage, yes, but it is her first, her only, and she wants it to have its own unique character. And, that, Mandy, magnificent Mandy Tucker, a subject so huge and heartbreaking that Jessie daren’t mention her at all, is inescapable in that London house. Only last week Jessie pulled out one of Mandy’s silk scarves from behind the radiator in the hallway. Sitting down on the stairs, the grey walls pressing in, the scarlet scarf limp in her hand, secreting another woman’s expensive scent, she wondered what to do with it. In the end, at a loss, she dropped it back behind the radiator and felt terrible. But Jessie knew that bits of Mandy would always be in that house, her marriage, hiding in crannies, waiting, watching.
They wouldn’t be at Applecote Manor. No ghosts here.
‘I can tell you’ve already moved in,’ says Will, making her start, guiltily pushing thoughts of Mandy away.
She can see her own smile spread in his tawny brown eyes. ‘And I can tell you’re still on the motorway. Outside London.’
A laugh rumbles up from his thick coat. ‘I might turn off.’
Something inside sinks. He’s losing his nerve. ‘Might?’
‘We can’t afford it, Jessie. Not if you figure in all the work that needs doing. Unless you want to live like a squatter.’
Even this has a romantic appeal. Jessie imagines them all huddled around a roaring fire for warmth, drinking cocoa from tin mugs, telling each other stories.
‘The commute to the London office will be like some sort of daily triathlon.’ Will’s eyes sparkle, warming to his theme. ‘We don’t know a soul here. In fact, there isn’t a soul here. We may as well move to Mars.’
Out of the corner of her eye Jessie sees Bella nodding fervently in agreement.
Jessie thinks of the journey out of the city earlier in the day through sleepy suburbs, the anonymous banker satellite towns, chocolate-box villages, the cold skies clearing, bluing, until they passed the point at which a daily commute into London was, Will joked blackly, ‘completely unfeasible without a mid-life crisis,’ on and on, a series of country roads, smeared with the bloating carcasses of fox and pheasant, then a narrow lane, squeezed between hedgerows, a deserted old house, waiting. In a way she doesn’t quite understand, it felt like a route back inside herself. She can’t turn back.
‘Total madness.’ Will’s mouth starts to twitch with a smile. ‘But…’ He is the only man she’s ever met who can seduce only with his eyes. ‘…it is wild and beautiful, just like you.’
Bella groans, ‘Oh God’.
‘And you’ve got a slightly mad, determined look going on that’s making me think you might just move here anyway, whether I come or not.’ He grins at her from beneath his mop of floppy dark hair that he likes to wear a little too long, a little rock and roll, a small rebellion against being forty-five, nine years older than Jessie, and the demands of the growing logistics company he set up fifteen years ago with an old college friend, Jackson. A large, loud bachelor, Jackson was best man at Will’s first wedding (huge, white) and absent from his second, (a family-only affair in a registry office, Jessie in a green dress, scarlet lipstick, a baby on her hip).
‘So, yes, there’s a chance that you might be able to persuade me. A very small chance.’ He pulls her toward him, lightly pressing his hand against the curves of her bottom.
Jessie wishes they could make love here, right now, mark their territory. She nuzzles against the stubble of his chin.
Appalled by any display of physical affection – and attuned to it – Bella looks up abruptly, and guns her father’s right hand. Jessie feels the flinch in the contracting muscles of Will’s fingertips. She sidesteps away to make it easier for him. The embroidered hem of her skirt swishes back against her knee-length leather boots. ‘What do you think, Bella?’ she asks, maybe a bit too brightly.
Bella burrows her eyes into the phone again. ‘I’d sooner hang myself from a door by a belt than move here.’
‘Don’t hold back. Tell us how you really feel,’ says Will, gamely trying to humour her. Bella’s face remains blank, violently silent.
Romy’s large blue eyes look up from the roly-poly scuttling along the floor to her mother, sensing something wrong.
Jessie’s fingers reach for the gold charm, a tiny gingerbread man, that hangs on the chain around her neck, a necklace Will gave her to mark Romy’s birth, her most cherished possession. The skin-warmed metal calms Jessie, as it always does. She’s needed to touch it a lot in the last few months as worries about Bella and the fractures in this rapidly patched-together family rumble beneath the surface of her day.
‘Bell, Bell.’ Romy stomps over to Bella, presents an offering of a roly-poly balled in her cupped hand, and grins, ever hopeful. Bella recoils and shoots one of those chilly looks at Romy that makes Jessie shudder. There’s something in Bella’s gaze that is just not sisterly sometimes, not even particularly human. But she’d never say this to Will.
‘Shall we hit the road then, baby bear?’ Will swings Romy up in his arms, on to his shoulders, where she sits very upright, kicking her feet like a tiny mahout. He tries to talk to Jessie as Romy covers his eyes with her hands. ‘I’m starving, sweetheart.’
‘One last look?’ Something in Jessie sinks at the thought of returning to London. It feels like Applecote might vanish the moment they leave it. ‘I’m sure there’s a room on the top floor we didn’t see earlier. It’s probably only a storeroom or something, but I’d like to check it out. The agent rushed us past it, didn’t he, Bella?’
Bella shrugs. But Jessie remembers how Bella kept curiously glancing back at that top floor as they all clattered downstairs.
‘I now have no option at all but to feast on this scrumptious foot then.’ Will starts to pretend gobble Romy’s boot. Romy squeals. Jessie turns back into the shadowed old heart of the house, quietly amazed to hear Bella’s slouching footsteps following behind her.
Excerpted from "The Wildling Sisters"
Copyright © 2018 Eve Chase.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
A haunting mystery about the secrets of the past, the bonds within families, and the hidden ties that connect people across time. A story to be savored, The Wildling Sisters is a book I’ll be recommending to everyone I know.
The Wildling Sisters is a gripping mystery that beautifully portrays the aching longing of youth, as well as the complex frustrations of love fulfilled. A magnificent, lyrical page-turner.
Reading Group Guide
1. Did you have a favorite Wilde sister? Why or why not? Did the sisters remind you of your own siblings?
2. How does the novel portray family? Is sisterhood different for the Wilde sisters from how it is for Romy and Bella? Is the sisterhood bond different from brotherhood or from the bond between siblings of different genders? If so, why?
3. The novel asks us to consider how far we would go to protect those we love. Were you surprised by the decisions the Wilde sisters make? Margot thinks they are “bonded by blood” (p. 2). Do you think the sisters committed a crime? If so, are they all equally guilty?
4. When talking about Sybil, Moll tells Margot, “Like I believe in the Good Lord, she believes in Audrey” (p. 194). What does Moll mean? Discuss the role of faith in the novel. How does Sybil’s faith in Audrey shape her character? What does Margot have faith in? What about Jessie?
5. Margot misses Audrey terribly at the beginning of the novel, but as the summer progresses, her relationship to Audrey seems to change as well. What does Audrey’s friendship mean to Margot? Why do you think Margot goes along with Sybil’s fantasy? How does pretending to be Audrey change Margot?
6. Margot thinks “Applecote Manor was summer” (p. 38). How does visiting Perry and Sybil change the Wilde girls? Was there somewhere you went as a child that offered you a similar sense of freedom? Do you remember a particular summer in which you think your life changed?
7. Jessie feels as though she was destined to live at Applecote, and Margot also feels a lifelong bond with the property. Have you ever been drawn to a place? Why do you think the house calls to Jessie the way it does? Is its pull different for Margot?
8. Jessie and Will believe that Applecote Manor will be a “gentler, more benign” place than London, a city that “forces girls to grow up too fast, strips them of their innocence” (p. 3). Do you agree with their decision to move the girls? How does the house prove their expectations wrong? Have you ever moved somewhere in hopes of achieving a different lifestyle?
9. As the summer goes on, Margot notices that Sybil and Perry “are really one system, redistributing their appetites, that the marriage that once looked so dead may actually be alive at the roots” (p. 202). How does the novel portray marriage? How does marriage for Sybil and Perry differ from marriage for Jessie and Will, or for Will and Mandy?
10. Were you surprised by Harry’s confession to Margot? Why or why not? How do you feel about the way Audrey’s story ends?