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Magnolia Nights

Magnolia Nights

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A fortune, an old mansion, and a haunted past await in Charleston's historic South Battery.

**Audiobook version is digitally narrated. 



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Plagued by gaps in her childhood memories, Ellie Pringle has spent years in therapy trying to unlock the secrets of her past. But it's the unexpected death of a grandmother she hasn't seen in over three decades that catapults her into a journey of profound discovery.

Inheriting a fortune along with an antebellum mansion in Charleston's historic South Battery, Ellie decides to leave behind her life in San Francisco—and a heart-wrenching breakup—to confront her past head-on.Stepping into the cavernous halls of her ancestral home, Ellie immediately senses she's not alone. The house seems to whisper with ghosts of the past, the most pressing of whom is her own deceased mother. When Ellie stumbles upon her mother's leather-bound journal on a dusty bookshelf, she's plunged into a maze of haunting revelations that demand answers.

With the impending threat of Hurricane Lorene swirling toward the South Carolina coast, Ellie meets Julian Hagood—a charismatic architect with the skills to restore her crumbling mansion and perhaps heal her shattered heart. But delving deeper into her mother's diaries, her discoveries send her spiraling down a path of shocking realizations and harrowing truths.

Read an Excerpt

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Ellie approached the antebellum mansion with caution. Thirty-four years had passed since she’d last been here. Time had not been kind to the house, as evidenced by the paint peeling in sheets off the wood siding and rotten newel posts on the first- and second-floor porches. With Pixie dancing around at her feet, she climbed the brick steps and removed the brass key from under the mat where the attorney had instructed that she’d find it. After a struggle with the jammed lock, the key finally engaged, and she swung open the oversize paneled door. Standing stock-still on the threshold, she stared down the wide center hallway.

Memories drifted toward her, and her knuckles turned white as she gripped the heavy molding of the doorframe. She heard echoes of voices—some demanding and others more soft-spoken—and saw snapshots of the people who had once lived and worked in the house. Her mother and grandmother. Sally Bell the cook, Maddie the maid, and Abraham, the old black man they referred to as the chauffeur but who was really a jack-of-all-trades. Who was the little girl with dark curly hair and eyes as black as a moonless night? A playmate? A distant cousin or close family friend? In this memory, Ellie and the girl were huddled together behind an open door, hiding from something or someone. Were they playing a game? She’d spent endless hours and countless dollars working with a therapist to summon these memories from the deep recesses of her mind where they’d been locked away for most of her life. The voice inside her head grew louder, cautioning her not to let the memories out. When she backed out of the doorway and onto the porch, the voice escalated to a scream that warned her to get out of Charleston while she still had the chance.

But where would she go? There was nothing waiting for her in San Francisco. That chapter in her life had come to an end. She slipped the key back under the mat, and inhaling a deep breath, she wheeled her suitcase across the threshold and closed the door behind her.

Pixie was eager to stretch her tiny legs after being cooped up in her carrier during the long flight from California and the drive into town from the airport. Ellie followed along as her little dog’s button nose led them from one room to the next. To the best of her recollection, the furnishings hadn’t changed since she was last here as a six-year-old, the day the father she’d never met came to claim her. Even back then, everything had been faded and frayed. She found the dark fabrics oppressive in shades of browns, burgundies, and blues and thought the heavy furniture—enormous antique pieces with little detail and zero charm—belonged in an abandoned Scottish castle. Ellie remembered the grape juice stain on the Queen Anne sofa in the living room. She’d been punished for much lesser crimes than spilling the juice—a muddy footprint on the kitchen floor, leaving the lid off the cookie jar, hiding under her mother’s sickbed.

When Pixie grew bored with the living room, she ventured back to the center hallway toward the rear of the house. The red damask wallpaper that lined the walls of the hall seemed more suited to a parlor in a brothel. As a child, Ellie had never been allowed to go near the antique grandfather clock. Now she felt a peculiar satisfaction in opening the glass door and nudging the minute hand with the tip of her finger. The gears sprang into action and filled the hallway with the steady ticking and tocking of the seconds as the decades slipped away. Had the clock ever kept decent time?

She found Pixie in the dining room, licking at a spot on the oriental rug at the base of her grandmother’s chair. “Uh-uh, don’t do that. It might make you sick.” She scooped up the wiggling Maltese and tucked her under her arm. They’d eaten every meal in this dining room with her grandfather’s beady eyes leering down at them from his oil portrait above the mahogany sideboard. She knew little about the grandfather who’d passed away years before she was born. His name had rarely been mentioned by anyone in the house.

Ellie could hear her grandmother’s stern voice instructing her to finish her dinner. “There will be no dessert for you, young lady, until you’ve eaten your peas.” Night after night, Ellie had been forced to choke down every last pea. To this day, the smell of peas summoned the taste of bile.

Ellie had neither seen nor heard from her grandmother in thirty-four years, since her father had taken her to live with him in California. Perhaps her grandmother’s declining health had prevented her from getting in touch with her all these years. She wanted to believe her grandmother had loved her. She’d left Ellie her entire estate. Surely that was a sign her grandmother still cared about her, that she hadn’t forgotten her. Though if the woman had been as cruel as her memories suggested, why did Ellie even care how her grandmother felt about her? She was desperate, however, to know whether her mother had ever loved her. There was so much Ellie didn’t remember, and her father refused to tell her about her past.

When she sat down in her grandmother’s chair at the head of the table, Ellie experienced an odd sensation—a powerful awareness of something or someone monumentally important to her—that sent a shiver down her spine and left her gasping for air. Gripping her dog, she squeezed her eyes shut tight. “Why can’t I remember?” she called out to the empty room.

Her therapist had diagnosed her with dissociative amnesia. Her memory bank wasn’t empty. She remembered plenty of things about her childhood. But her inability to recall the traumatic events she’d experienced in this house had caused chronic headaches, stomach issues, and insomnia all her life. What could possibly have happened to her here that caused such irreparable damage to her psyche? When she’d told her father she was moving to Charleston, he warned her to stay away. Maybe she should’ve listened to him. But the therapist thought that being back in this house might trigger her memories. Somehow, someway, she was determined to discover the piece of the past that would make her whole.

The sound of the back door closing and the squishing of rubber-soled shoes against the linoleum floor brought Ellie out of her chair. She pushed open the swinging door and passed through the butler’s pantry, a rectangular room lined with storage cabinets that separated the kitchen from the dining room. She spotted Maddie depositing two grocery bags on the Formica counter. Deep lines had developed in her face, and her hair had gone gray, but Ellie recognized the woman she’d once known from the high cheekbones and bridge of freckles across her nose. How old had Maddie been back then? Surely not more than twenty-five or thirty.

The housekeeper set her dark eyes on Pixie. “Missus Pringle don’t allow no pets in the house.”

“Based on what her attorney tells me, she’s no longer in a position to object.”

Of all the people who’d been a part of her life back then, Ellie remembered the most about Maddie—even more than she remembered about her own mother. The housekeeper had paid special attention to the skinny little girl with strawberry-blonde pigtails. She’d bandaged her boo-boos, nursed her when she got sick, and snuck her treats from the kitchen—brownies and fudge and frosted sugar cookies. Had her grandmother’s stringent demands hardened Maddie over time? She would have to find a way to soften her up.

Setting the dog down on the floor, Ellie located a saucer in one of the cabinets, filled it with water, and placed it on the ground in front of Pixie. She turned to face Maddie. “Nothing’s changed around here, including you.” She gave the woman’s stiff body a hug, and when she pushed away, she was rewarded with a tentative smile tugging at the corners of the woman’s pale lips.

“It’s good to see you, Miss Eleanor.”

Ellie’s memories of her mother were fleeting glimpses of a willowy redhead with wide-set olive-colored eyes. They reminded her so much of herself she often wondered if these visions were figments of her imagination intended to satisfy her yearning for the mother she’d known for only six brief years. On the top of the list of things she yearned to ask her mother was why she’d name her innocent baby after a strict old woman like Eleanor Pringle.

“Please call me Ellie.”

“All right then, Miss Ellie.” Maddie set about emptying her grocery bags. “Mistah Calhoun called earlier. He said to tell you he’s gonna be a few minutes late. There’s a casserole warming in the oven for your dinner and a fresh pitcher of sweet tea in the refrigerator. I picked up some orange juice and coffee cream for your breakfast.” She unloaded the groceries into the ancient refrigerator. “I don’t know your food habits yet, but if you make out a list, I’ll go back to the market in the morning.”

“I appreciate your efforts, Maddie, but I can do my own shopping. But thank you for the casserole. After my long trip, I’m relieved not to have to worry about dinner.”

Maddie closed the refrigerator and folded the paper bags in half. She set her lips in a firm line. “That leaves me out of a job then, don’t it? If you’re planning to do your own cooking and cleaning.”

Ellie wondered if she could afford to keep Maddie on. If she couldn’t afford to pay her, Ellie couldn’t afford to live in the house. “As long as I stay in this house, I want you to stay here with me. I won’t know how long that will be until I meet with Mr. Calhoun about the estate. You worked for my grandmother for a long time, Maddie. If, for some reason, I decide to sell the house, I’ll make sure you’re well taken care of.”

The tension left the old woman’s body. “That’s mighty kind of you. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Ellie refilled Pixie’s saucer with water. “I’ll make out my list and leave it on the counter for you in the morning.”

“Yes’m. I put clean linens on all the beds upstairs and towels in the baths. They threadbare. I’m sorry about that. Lots of things are run-down around here.” Maddie appeared embarrassed, as though the burden of maintaining the household fell solely on her shoulders.

“Don’t worry; you and I will address everything that’s worn-out around here in good time.” Ellie hoped she’d have the means to address these things. The attorney had told her little about her inheritance—only that her grandmother had left her a sizable estate. She’d spent an afternoon doing online research on the real estate market in downtown Charleston. Even in its dilapidated state, because of its close proximity to the waterfront, the house was worth millions. What she didn’t know was whether her grandmother had left her a bank account to go along with the house. “How long was my grandmother sick? Mr. Calhoun didn’t say.”

“A few weeks at the most. She didn’t suffer none. Don’t you worry about that. The stroke left her in a coma. Mistah Calhoun and me, we made sure she had plenty of help to keep her comfortable till the end.” Maddie removed her handbag from the pantry and walked toward the back door. “All right then. If you don’t need me anymore today, I’ll be on my way.”

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