Penelope’s Ghost by Goldie Alexander
Fleeing a humiliating end to a passionless marriage, Lisa Harbinger seeks refuge in a posh summer retreat on Australia’s lush South Coast. There she finds work as a nanny for two willful children on one prestigious estate. But behind Rangoon’s ivy and red brick walls lies a mystery: What really happened to the family’s beloved Penelope?
Even more mysterious is Richard Prescott. Cold and aloof by day, Lisa’s boss heats up her nights and awakens her soul. But to have a future they both must escape their pasts. Vengeful ghosts and a generations-old curse seek to bring ruin on Richard and his family. But if Lisa can find the answers, she—and her growing love—could be the one to set him free.
Sometimes, in Mornington Peninsula, Australia, in early autumn or late spring when warm air meets a cold current, the dam is covered in mist. On the farthest side, under wind-torn clouds sliding over a full moon and trees pointing bony fingers into the sky, the mist takes on the shape of a young girl stepping along the banks. Behind her, shadowy figures fade into the bushes….
Mornington Peninsula, Australia—present day
As I looked up at the house, a shiver ran down my spine. The tremor was small, but it was definitely there—much like a malicious waft of air or a jarring note in a piece of music.
I took a deep breath and dismissed it as nerves. It had been too long since I last applied for a job.
Across the courtyard, stairs led to a carved door surrounded by stained glass. On one side was an electronic buzzer. I pressed it. When no one answered, I pushed it again.
This time the door flew open so quickly I took a step back.
The guy on the other side was in his mid or late forties. Maybe because of his colouring, I had the impression of an older Jude Law, only not nearly as handsome, not quite as picture-perfect.
He stared at me for a good half minute as if equally startled at finding a stranger on his doorstep. “Lisa Harbinger?”
Looking at him, I felt a tingle of awareness and I had a sudden hunch that this man would be important to me. The knowledge was certain and frightening. I swallowed hard before saying uncertainly, “Mr. Prescott?”
“Yes.” His tone was abrupt. “I’m Richard Prescott. Please come inside. Hope you don’t mind being interviewed in the kitchen.”
“Course not.” I stumbled over the step. Something about his intense gaze turned me into an awkward teenager.
He led me into a huge entrance hall, the walls lined with wooden wainscoting and grey and blue flock wallpaper. A flight of stairs curled to an upper floor and a magnificent chandelier glittered like a frozen fountain. Every surface shone as if recently polished and the air smelt of lemon and lavender. It all reminded me of an old-fashioned hotel; everything seemed too large, too grandiose for ordinary people.
I followed Richard past the stairs down a narrow passage into the kitchen. Part of this room was taken up by a long table scored by decades of use and flanked with bentwood chairs, the seats covered in colourful cushions. Everything here also seemed oversized—from the double bank stove to the industrial refrigerator, long marble counters and sinks. I later was to learn of a walk-in pantry, shelves stacked with preserved fruit and vegetables, and a cellar filled with expensive and often irreplaceable wine.
It all spelt money, lots of money.
Richard gestured at a chair and waited for me to settle. “Tea or coffee?”
My throat felt as parched as after a heatwave. “Ahh… Just water, thanks.”
He filled a glass from a ceramic vat and placed it in front of me. I swallowed the contents in almost one gulp. It tasted cold and sweet.
He sat opposite me. “I’ve read your references.” His tone was abrupt. “One refers refer to you as Lisa Wall. Are you married?”
Though half expecting this, I paused before saying, “I was. I’ve now gone back to my single name.”
“Hmm.” He frowned as he thumbed the pages. I wondered if he was prejudiced against divorcées.
“I note you have no formal experience with kids.” His voice was dry. “But you have two years college, and you worked seven years in real estate.” For a second he looked puzzled. “What led you to that?”
If only I had a dollar for how often I’ve been asked that same question. I said, “During a uni vac, I took a job organising rental properties and found I was good at it.”
His eyes narrowed. “So why throw it in?”
His tone was so patronising, I was half ready to walk out. Only needing this job kept me seated. Anyway, this wasn’t the time to explain that I was sick of mean landlords and rude whiny clients, tired of prattle about an erratic real estate market—and fearful of meeting more ghosts.
I cleared my throat before saying. “I needed a fresh challenge and, anyway, I wanted to get out of the city.”
He sat back and stared at me quite openly. “So what’s your experience with kids?”
“Nothing formal,” I was forced to admit. “I used to babysit for the neighbours through high school and uni. We got on well. There was never any trouble—” My voice trailed away. But as this didn’t seem enough, I lamely added, “Kids and animals seem to like me.”
Convinced he was about to send me away, I was astonished this answer seemed to satisfy him. Possibly because it was honest. I had already concluded that he was a terrible snob—he had to be. But he could recognise truth from lie. That, at least, was in his favour.
The slight resemblance to the actor was emphasised by brown hair streaked with grey flopping over a high forehead, thick eyebrows, and the kind of dark blue eyes that catch people’s attention. Smudges under his eyes could be due to stress or maybe lack of sleep. Weathered skin told me he worked outdoors. Add to that paint-spattered jeans and a washed-out T-shirt. I glanced under the table. His boots were dusty. His nose had a slight kink as if it once was broken and that cleft chin hinted at a stubborn personality. The backs of his hands seemed strong though the fingers were long and slender, the nails slightly grimy, his right thumb covered in a bandaid. They were rough hands but sensitive. Those fingers looked as if he knew exactly where to touch—
“So”—I woke up to what he was saying—“you need to know what your duties will be.”
I almost blushed. What had I been thinking? Instead, I leaned forward to show he had my full attention.
“My brother, Thomas, and his family will be staying here over their summer vacation. The children are Mitchell and Willow, aged five and seven.”
No babies or toddlers. I hoped he doesn’t notice my shoulders subside.
“Their mother, Anna, insists on a break from childcare.” His mouth gave a slight twist as if he didn’t quite believe this. “It will be up to you to look after the children and keep them outdoors as much as possible. Think you’re up to it?”
I swallowed, still finding that piercing gaze disconcerting. “Yes.” I hoped my voice sounded firmer than I felt. “I’m sure I can. Kids like the sort of things they can do here in summer: surfing, swimming, exploring the beach. I noticed horses in your paddocks.”
His eyebrows lifted slightly as if implying, what would someone like me know about horses? “You ride?”
Hating his condescending tone, I said tersely, “I’m no expert. But yes, whenever I can find time.” I didn’t add that this was a hobby I could no longer afford.
He rubbed his chin as if remembering he’d forgotten to shave. Then he got up to refill my glass before returning to his chair. “I suppose we need to discuss wages and hours.” He cleared his throat. “As we’re offering room and food, how about—” He named a sum I considered generous. “We’re paying well as it’s a six day week. You can let us know when you want time off. That okay?”
“Sounds fine,” I assured him, though I had no idea of what conditions other nannies worked under.
He stood up. So did I. I was so close to him, I could feel the warmth of his breath. The top of my head barely reached his chin. I felt myself softening toward him, but he broke the spell, saying, “If you take this job, you need to see where you and the children will sleep.” And with that, he led me out the back door into the courtyard.
Goldie Alexander is best known for My Australian Story: Surviving Sydney Cove, now in its 10th edition, and multiple YA and middle-grade reads that includes some 80 fiction and non fictions, plus award winning short stories and articles. She facilitates creative writing workshops, and she uses her blog to feature other authors, books and writing. Her website is www.goldiealexander.com. and www.goldiealexander.com/blog
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