Augusta Podos has just landed her dream job, working in collections at a local museum, Harlowe House, located in the charming seaside town of Tynemouth, Massachussetts. Determined to tell the stories of the local community, she throws herself into her work--and finds an oblique mention of a mysterious woman, Margaret, who may have been part of the Harlowe family, but is reduced to a footnote. Fascinated by this strange omission, Augusta becomes obsessed with discovering who Margaret was, what happened to her, and why her family scrubbed her from historical records. But as she does, strange incidents begin plaguing Harlowe House and Augusta herself. Are they connected with Margaret, and what do they mean?
Tynemouth, 1872. Margaret Harlowe is the beautiful daughter of a wealthy shipping family, and she should have many prospects--but her fascination with herbs and spellwork has made her a pariah, with whispers of "witch" dogging her steps. Increasingly drawn to the darker, forbidden practices of her craft, Margaret finds herself caught up with a local man, Jack Pryce, and the temptation of these darker ways threatens to pull her under completely.
As the incidents in the present day escalate, Augusta finds herself drawn more and more deeply into Margaret's world, and a shocking revelation sheds further light on Margaret and Augusta's shared past. And as Margaret's sinister purpose becomes clear, Augusta must uncover the secret of Margaret's fate--before the woman who calls to her across the centuries claims Augusta's own life.
I was beautiful in the summer of 1876. The rocky Tynemouth coast was an easy place to be beautiful, though, with a fresh salt breeze that brought roses to my cheeks and sun that warmed my long hair, shooting the chestnut brown through with rich veins of copper. It was enough to make me forget—or at least, not care—that I was an outsider, a curiosity who left whispers in my wake when I walked through the muddy streets of our coastal town.
Do I miss being beautiful? Of course. But it’s the being found beautiful by others that I miss the most. It was the ambrosia that made an otherwise solitary life bearable. And it was being found beautiful by one man in particular, Jack Pryce, that I miss the most.
He would come to find me out behind my family’s house as I helped our maid hang the laundry on the lines or weeded my rocky garden. He always brought me a little gift, whether it was a toffee wrapped in wax paper from his parents’ shop, or just a little green flower he had plucked because it reminded him of my eyes. Something that told me I was special, that those stories around town of him stepping out with the Clerkenwell girl weren’t true.
“There she is,” he would say, coming up with his hands in his pockets and crooked grin on his full lips. “My lovely wildflower.” He called me this, he said, on account of my insistence on going without shoes on warm days when the grass was soft and lush. Whatever little chore I was doing would soon be forgotten as I led him out of sight of the house. With my back against a tree and his hands traveling under and up my skirts, we found euphoria in a panting tangle of limbs and hoarsely whispered promises. Heavy sea mists mingling with sweat in hair (his), the taste of berry-sweet lips (mine), the gut-deep knowing that he must love me. He must. He must. He must.
But like all things, summer came to an end, and autumn swept in with her cruel winds and killing frosts. Jack came less and less often, claiming first that it was work at the shop, then that he could no longer be seen with the girl who was rumored to practice witchcraft and worship at the altar of the moon on clear nights. Finally, on a day where the rain fell in icy sheets and even the screeching cries of the gulls could not compete with the howling wind, I realized he was not coming back.
Time moves differently now. Then, it was measured in church bells and birthdays, clock strokes and town harvest dances. It was measured in the monthly flow of my courses, until they stopped coming and my belly grew distended and full. Now—or perhaps it is better to say “here”—time is a fluid thing, like water that flows in all directions, finding and filling every crack and empty place, like my womb and my heart.
I did not want to give the babe up, though I knew it could only bring heartache and pain to my family. A mother’s heart is a stubborn thing, and no sooner had I felt the first stirrings of life within me, than I knew I would do anything in the world to protect my little one.
It was folly, I know that now. A woman like me could never hope to bring a child into this cruel world, could never hope that the honey-sweet words of a man like Jack Pryce carried any weight. What irony that I should not realize such simple truths until it was too late. Should not realize them until my blood ran icy in my veins and my broken heart stopped beating. Until the man I thought had loved me stood over my body, staring down as the life ran out of me like a streambed running dry. Until I was dead and cold and no longer so very beautiful.
“Hello?” Augusta threw her keys on the table and slung her bag onto one of the kitchen chairs. As usual, a precarious stack of plates had taken over the sink, and the remnants of a Chinese food dinner sat out on the table. Sighing, she covered the leftovers with plastic wrap, stuck them in the fridge and followed the sounds of video games to the living room.
“I’m home,” she said tersely to the two guys hunched over their gaming consoles.
Doug barely glanced up, but her boyfriend, Chris, threw her a quick glance over his shoulder.
“Hey, we’re just finishing up.” Turning back, he continued mashing keys on the game controller, shaking his dark fringe from his eyes and muttering colorful insults at his opponent.
Chris and Doug weren’t the best housemates. Sure, they paid their share of the rent on time, but the house was constantly a mess, and video games took priority over household chores. She supposed that’s what she got for living with her boyfriend and allowing his unemployed brother to move in with them.
“Well, I guess I’ll be in my room if you need me,” Augusta said, too exhausted to pick a fight about the mess in the kitchen.
“You can stay and watch,” Chris said without turning back around.
She’d had a long, hard day. Between the air-conditioning being broken at work and discovering she only had ninety-eight dollars in her bank account after paying her cell phone bill, she wasn’t in the mood to watch Chris and Doug massacre each other with bazookas. She grabbed an apple from the kitchen, and went back to the room she shared with Chris, closing the door against the sounds of gunfire and explosions. Outside, the occasional car passed by in a sweep of headlights and somewhere down the street a dog barked. Loneliness curled around her as she sat at her laptop and began cycling through her bookmarked job listing sites.
Her job giving tours at the Old City Jail in Salem was all right; she got to work in a historic building, it was close enough that she could walk to work, and the polyester uniform was only a slightly nauseating shade of green. But it wasn’t challenging, and she wasn’t using her degree in museum studies for which she’d worked so hard. Not to mention the student debt she was still paying off. The worst was dealing with the public, though. Some of the people that showed up on her tours were engaged in her talks, but mostly the jail attracted cruise tourists who hadn’t realized that it was a guided tour and were more interested in snapping a quick picture for Instagram than learning about the history. The other day she’d really had to remind a full-grown man that he couldn’t bring an ice cream cone into the house, and then had to clean up said ice cream cone when he’d smuggled it inside anyway and dropped it. And the witches! Just because they were in Salem, everyone who came through the door assumed that there would be history about the witches, never mind that the jail didn’t even date from the same century as the witch trials. Most days she came home tired, irritable and unfulfilled.
From the other room came an excited shout as Chris blew up Doug’s home base. Augusta turned her music up. Most of the listings on the museum job sites were for fundraising or grant writing, the sliver of the museum world where all the money was. She knew she shouldn’t be choosy, the millennial voice of reason in her head telling her that she was lucky to have a job at all. But Chris, with his computer engineering degree, actually had companies courting him, and his job at a Boston tech firm came with a yearly salary and benefits.
She was just about to close her laptop when a new listing popped up. Harlowe House in Tynemouth was looking for a collections manager to work alongside their curator. As she scanned the listing, her heart started to beat faster. She wasn’t familiar with the property, but a quick search showed that it was part of a trust dedicated to the history and legacy of a seafaring family from the nineteenth century. She ticked off the qualifications in her head—an advanced degree in art history, museum studies or anthropology, and at least five years of experience. She would have to fudge the years, but other than that, it was made for her. She bookmarked the listing, making a mental note to update her CV in the morning.
The door swung open and Chris came in, plopping himself on the bed beside her. Tall, with an athletic build and dark hair that was perpetually in need of a trim, he was wearing a faded band shirt and gym shorts. “We’re going to order subs. What do you want?”
“Didn’t you just get Chinese food?” she asked.
“That was lunch.”
Augusta did a quick inventory in her head of what she’d eaten that day, how many calories she was up to, and how much money she could afford. After she’d fished ten dollars out of her purse, Chris wandered back out to the living room, leaving her alone. She picked up a book, but it didn’t hold her interest, and soon she was lost scrolling through her phone and playing some stupid game where you had to match up jewels to clear the board. A thrilling Saturday night if there ever was one.
In both college and grad school, Augusta had had a vibrant, tight-knit group of friends. She’d always been a homebody, so there weren’t lots of wild nights out at clubs, but they’d still had fairly regular get-togethers. Lunches and trips to museums, stuff like that. So what had happened in the last few years?
Her mind knew what had happened, but her heart refused to face the truth. Chris had happened.
She had been with him ever since her dad died. She’d run into Chris, her old high school boyfriend, at the memorial. He’d been a familiar face, and she’d clung to him like a life raft amid the turmoil of putting her life back together without her father. It had been clear early on that beyond some shared history, they didn’t have much in common, but he was steady, and Augusta had craved steady. A year passed, then two, then three, and four. She had invested so much time in the relationship, sacrificed so many friends, that at some point it felt like admitting defeat to break up. For his part, Chris seemed content with the status quo, and so five years later, here they were.
That night, after Chris had rolled over and was lightly snoring, Augusta lay awake, thinking of the job listing. The words Harlowe House, Harlowe House, Harlowe House ran through her mind like the beat of a drum. A signal of hope, a promise of something better.
Excerpted from A Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox, Copyright © 2022 by Hester Fox. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.