Book Excerpt: Murder at Sea Captain’s Inn


“Seanabhean is ea mise anois go bhfuil cos léi insan uaigh is an chos eile ar a bruach.” / “I am an old woman now with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge.”

~Peig Sayer’s opening gambit, 1936

For Pippin Lane Hawthorne, being in her father’s secret study was akin to wrapping herself up in a cashmere blanket on a chilly afternoon. It had become her safe place. It was the room in the big, rambling house where she could forget everything and everyone. Where she could focus on the Lane family curse, picking up where her father, Leo, had left off.

She hadn’t gotten very far. Jamie McAdams had tapped into his expertise as a scholar of medieval Irish to translate the writing on the scrap of papyrus they’d found hidden behind the mechanism of a clock hanging on one of the study walls. It had been a stunning discovery. “This is an ancient text. An historical document. A primary source,” he’d said, tracing it back to the first century.

Knowing that had gotten them nowhere, and now Pippin sat on a pillow in the center of the small room, a collection of items laid out around her, no closer to an answer.

To her left was a hardcover book of poetry by William Butler Yeats that belonged to her father, Leo Hawthorne. Next to that was a goldenrod envelope that held a small plastic sleeve, which in turn held the worn, thick piece of papyrus. On her right side was a miniature carved ship in a bottle cradled in the wood frame where she found her mother’s necklace. She touched the cool metal of the medallion hanging from a silver chain around her neck. She had very few of her parents’ belongings. The books in this room; her father’s notes and maps; and the circular pendant embossed with a Fleur de Lis on one side and two trees and something else indiscernible on the other. The pendant had been terribly tarnished when she first pulled it from its hiding place, but she polished back its shine and hadn’t taken it off since.

Next to the maritime art was a transcription she’d done of the family tree her father had created and pinned to a large beige rectangular bulletin board hanging on the back wall of the room. It detailed the Lane family’s ancestry with Artemis and Siobhan Lane, Pippin’s great-great-grandparents at the top. The rest of the family-member’s names cascaded down like an expanding waterfall. Annabel and Edgar Lane. Their children, Lacey and Cassandra. Lacey’s children, Cora and Lily, who lived in Oregon. And Cassie’s kids—Grey and Pippin. 

Artemis and Siobhan were at the top, and above their names was a single word—Ireland.

On the floor directly in front of Pippin was a letter she’d received from her great Aunt Rose. It was written on a pale blue sheet of stationary. Pippin picked it up and reread it for what had to be the hundredth time.

My Dearest Peregrin,

What an odd coincidence that I should receive a letter from you today, after so many years and across so many miles.  Just yesterday, I was cleaning out a cupboard and discovered your mother’s copy of The Secret Garden.  She loved that book so much. I think she must have read it a dozen times or more.  Her name, with the curlicue “C,” is inscribed on the flyleaf, and I spent moments just tracing it with my finger, remembering your mother’s smile.  I swear the flowers in the garden used to turn their faces to her, because she was brighter even than the sun.

But then the book fell to the floor, almost as though it were pushed from my hands, and when the pages fluttered still, I saw the words your mother was trying to give to me: “It was in that strange and sudden way that Mary found out that she had neither father nor mother left; that they had died and been carried away in the night.”

It sent a chill down my spine, Peregrine.  A harbinger of death.  But whose?  I do not know.  I was just overwhelmed by a fear for you and for Grey.

Please be careful, my dear. 

In your letter you mentioned that you found a fragment of a document among your mother’s things.  The letter from Morgan to her soldier, Titus.  I wonder if it is related to the parchment that was tucked in your mother’s book?  It was just a scrap, written in some old language.  But the torn fragment was wrapped in a piece of notebook paper, and it looks like someone–perhaps your mother–had made an effort to translate.   It’s just a handful of words: “Lir,” “pact or contract,” “descendants,” “tribute? offering? sacrifice?” 

Life has taught me that there is no such thing as coincidence. Finding your mother’s book, finding the fragment of parchment, and then receiving your letter, out of the blue, the very next day?  It all means something.  The family curse has been quiet for years, since your mother’s death, but I feel that the magic is rumbling to life again.  

With deepest love,

Your Aunt Rose

Pippin donned the pair of white cotton gloves that had been in her father’s desk before she picked up the goldenrod envelope, undid the clasp, and slid out the plastic sleeve protecting the ancient scroll remnant.  She gently removed it from its protective sleeve, holding it for just a moment before replacing it and laying it down in front of her. She wondered if the parchment from her mother’s book was the missing half—two parts of a whole, an entire country apart. 

She removed her gloves and focused again on all the items laid out before her. There was the common theme of Ireland in all her father’s research: Yeats, her family’s country of origin on her mother’s side, the ancient language on the old papyrus, and the random words written in her father’s hand and in Aunt Rose’s letter: Lir; Tuatha de Danann; Morgan Dubhshláine. She just had to weave it all together. She started with what Jamie had translated from the fragment they discovered, filling in blanks from the missing half.

Morgan Dubhshláine wrote to her Roman soldier, Titus, telling him she would wait for him. 

Pippin recalled what Jamie had told her about the Roman Empire in the first century. They never landed on Hibernia—the Roman name for Ireland, he’d said. The small island country was never conquered.

But—and this was an important caveat—recent archaeological discoveries supported the idea that the Romans actually were there between the first and fifth centuries. “Artifacts have been discovered in Leinstar, close to Dublin, and they have unearthed burials on the island of Lambay,” Jamie had said. This meant that what might have been nothing more than a fictional story in her family’s history now had a historical basis.

She looked again at the words Tuatha de Danann, written in her father’s hand inside one of his books. Tuatha de Danann were the Gaelic deities in the pre-Christian world of Ireland. Her research had shown her that Lir, mentioned by Aunt Rose, was part of that supernatural race. Part of the Irish mythology. 

An idea had started to form in her mind. What if Morgan had made some sort of pact with Lir? She couldn’t have known what that promise might really mean. If Pippin believed in magic, which she was beginning to, Morgan may have unwittingly cursed all of her descendants. The Lane women were destined to die during childbirth, and the men would be taken by the sea. It had proved true, generation after generation. 

Her father had been trying to break the curse. To save his beloved wife, Cassandra. To save Pippin’s mother.

But the curse had won.

Pippin wrapped her hand around the pendant at her neck again. It had become a touchstone, as much of a comfort to her as being in this room. 

Pippin gently touched the book cover of Yeats’s poetry. Her bibliomancy, something she was still experimenting with and refining, had led her to a specific poem. The message revealed was titled simply My Descendants. 

She hadn’t understood at the time, but now she was beginning to. Her understanding felt as fragile as gossamer, though, as if the whole thing would tear apart if she pulled too hard. 

She held tight to the silky strands of information, trying to weave them together into something more substantial. Morgan Dubhshláine, who Pippin thought must be her oldest known ancestor, had made a deal with the devil—in the form of an Irish sea god. In turn, Lir had cursed Morgan’s descendants, taking payment with their lives.

A shiver snaked through Pippin. It was fantastical, yet in the deep crevices of her soul, she knew it was true. And if she didn’t finish what her father started…if she didn’t end the curse—she and her brother, Grey, were destined to suffer the same fate as their ancestors.

She jumped at a sharp tap on the sole small window in the room. A bird sat on the outside sill. A crow. She held her breath and waited for a feeling of dread to spread through her. The crow. A harbinger of death. 

But no darkness came. Only the many strands of her family’s story flopped around in her mind, untethered. Salty Gallagher swung wildly among them. What did he know about her father? About the curse? About her mother? She touched her necklace again, letting the weight of the silver ground her. He hadn’t succeeded in taking it from her. Despite that, he never fully left her mind. She still needed answers from him, but for now he was rotting away at the Dare County Detention Center. Just thinking about him ratcheted up her nerves.  

Pippin worked to quiet her thrumming heart, turning her thoughts back to the curse. As long as she didn’t get pregnant—not even a remote possibility—and as long as Grey stayed away from the sounds surrounding the island of Devil’s Cove and from any body of water, because the curse didn’t care where in the world you were—they were both safe for the time-being. But she knew fate had a way of catching up to a person. Case in point, their mother, Cassie. She survived childbirth when she and Grey were born, but the curse had taken her at the end of her second pregnancy.

No Lane could ever be safe while the curse lived.

Pippin scanned her father’s bookshelves. “Which book, Dad?” she muttered. Which of her father’s carefully curated collection held the answers? Her father’s own writing had led her to the Yeats book. “Dad, give me another clue,” she said softly, half hoping a volume would simply fly off the shelf. 

She held her breath waiting. When she looked at the window again, the crow was gone.


Chapter 1

A widow’s walk is “derived from the romantic tales of those loyal women who continued to keep watch for a ship that had long gone to the bottom of the coral reef.”

~James A. Michener, Chesapeake

On a clear day, the widow’s walk at Sea Captain’s Inn provided a dazzling view east across Roanoke Sound. The Bodie Island Lighthouse sat in the distance, the treacherous waters of the Atlantic beyond. Of course, Bodie Island wasn’t actually an island. Not anymore. Not for more than one hundred and fifty years. Centuries of storms passing through closed the inlets turning the island into a peninsula that was now known as Hatteras Island.

Cape Hatteras, the majestic 170 foot brick lighthouse, was barely visible from Devil’s Cove, and then only if you knew where to look. Pippin Lane Hawthorne stood on the widow’s walk staring eastward. Even in the waning evening light, she knew exactly where to find the black-and-white striped structure. It was nothing more than a speck, if even that, but there, nonetheless. She closed her eyes as she breathed in, feeling the summer air expand inside her body, filling every cell.

Devil’s Cove. 

This house. 

This air.

She was home.


Ruby’s voice floated up to this isolated part of the old house. “Up here,” she called. She scooted around the chimney, which took up the center of the widow’s walk, and leaned her forearms on the railing, facing west. The sky was a watercolor painting with filmy streaks of color brushed in broad strokes. Across the street, the houses on Rum Runner’s Lane were smaller than the one she and Grey had inherited from their parents, but no less charming and colorful. The island had a definite coastal vibe, which attracted tourists all summer long. 

“There you are!” Ruby Monroe suddenly appeared at the top of the ladder, popping up like a Jack-in-the-Box.

“You scared me!” Pippin said, hand to her heart. She’d been lost in her thoughts again. The floor below hadn’t creaked, and Ruby’s sandal-clad feet hadn’t made the slightest sound as she’d climbed to the scuttle. But there she stood, her black hair a halo around her head and pulled back with an orange headband. A purple sundress fell like a wave over her slim body, and her smile was as wide as the ocean. 

Ruby put one finger to her smiling lips. “Always quiet as a mouse.”

That silent presence Ruby possessed meant she could make herself invisible to her customers as they socialized at Devil’s Brew, her coffee shop on Main Street. The bartenders from The Brewery or hairdressers from Bed Head Salon had nothing on Ruby. She could compete with the best gossip on the island.

“What’re you doing up here?” 

Pippin moved over, making room beside her. “Just watching the sunset.”

Ruby draped one arm over Pippin’s shoulder. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever.”

It did feel like forever. Since the soft opening of the inn, Pippin scarcely had time to breathe. The treat of a leisurely morning and an iced coffee at Devil’s Brew sounded heavenly, but opening an inn—even one as small as hers, currently with just four rooms—was a twenty-four-seven job. “I admit, it’s been a lot of work. More than I imagined. When my head hits the pillow, I’m out.”

What she didn’t say was that most nights, as she drifted off to sleep, she feared she’d bitten off more than she could chew. She’d been on her own since Grey had decided to start his own custom woodworking business on the north end of the island. It probably wasn’t fair to him, but she felt a sense of abandonment. As if, truly for the first time in her life, she was alone, and it terrified her.

There’d been plenty of days when her twin’s pep talks over the phone were the only things that kept her going. “You can do it, Peevie,” Grey had said more times than she could count. The comfort of him using his childhood nickname for her was always reassuring. 

She came right back at him with her own encouragement. “We both can, Greevie. Forging our own paths, and all that.”

New paths. Wasn’t that the truth? If she said it enough times, maybe she would believe it. She and Grey had been raised in Greenville since the age of nine, on the mainland, not far from the island. They returned to the place of their birth after Grandmother Faye died and they discovered that they had inherited their parents’ old house. This old house. 

Forgotten memories had surfaced and neither one of them had wanted to sell the old place. Instead, they decided to renovate it and turn it into an inn. Pippin thought they’d do it together, but Grey needed to go his own way. Follow his own dreams. This wasn’t the first time the two had been apart, but this time it felt different, more permanent. While Pippin had wandered for a period after high school, it had been temporary. She’d always known she would come back to her brother, and she had. This time, though, Grey was the one to pull away. 

Ruby squeezed her shoulders, bringing Pippin back to the widow’s walk. To the house. To now. “Welcome to the joys of running your own business, where there’s rarely a day off and everything comes down to you. You’re the boss now. You’ll have to make a hundred decisions a day. Nobody else can make them for you. And you can’t just take a break when you need one because you are the business.”

Pippin wanted to step back in time and give more thought to her impetuous decision to turn the house into an inn. She knew nothing about running a business. What had she been thinking? “You’re kind of scaring me.”

Ruby smiled as she shivered. The temperature had dropped enough that a light sweater or jacket was useful. 

“Nah. I’m just saying it’s a big responsibility, and it never goes away.” 

Pippin saw goosebumps raise along Ruby’s arms. “Take my jacket.”

She started to pull off her white windbreaker, but stopped when Ruby said, “Nah, I’m fine.”

They stood in silence, staring at the sky. Suddenly Ruby turned to her. “You know that feeling you get, like something’s going to happen?”

Pippin nodded. She knew it well. That was the Lane curse. “Hey. Are you okay?”

Ruby shook it off. “Yeah. No.” She gave a short laugh. “I don’t know. I just need a vacation. Ignore me. Now, what can I do to help out for Saturday?”

At the mention of Saturday, a million little things suddenly raced through Pippin’s mind. It was the official grand opening of Sea Captain’s Inn. The two-room suite and the two singles were booked and the food and beverages were ordered from local businesses, including the Chocolatier and Oak Barrel Winery, the tasting room on the island. Zoe Ibis—thank God for Zoe, her only employee—was ready to pitch in whatever way Pippin needed. In her mid-twenties, she’d been looking for a job at exactly the right time. Pippin was at her wit’s end, trying to get everything ready for the soft opening. Zoe saved the day. Now she was making her way through each room in the house, giving each a deep, methodical cleaning. She’d done the guest rooms first. Once the open house was behind them, she would resume her deep clean, starting with the bunk rooms on the third floor.

Pippin made a quick mental list of her last-minute tasks. Bring in ice. Lots of ice. String a no trespassing rope across the bottom of the stairs. That was critical. Set up the food and drinks. Do a final cleaning. The top floor had the guest rooms and a back staircase leading down to the mudroom, and the third floor had the bunk room and another bathroom, both of which Grey and his team had finished, but she hadn’t gotten around to furnishing or decorating. That space wasn’t quite ready, but would be soon. There were two storage rooms, a sitting room, window seats in the dormers, and, of course, access to the widow’s walk. The second floor and above were off-limits during the party. With Zoe’s help, she could manage. “I think I’m good, but thanks.”

Ruby squeezed Pippin’s hand. “After it’s over, you’ll settle into a routine.”

“I know.” Ruby was right. Sea Captain’s Inn had only been open for sixty-one days. In some ways, those two months felt like a lifetime. She crammed so much into each and every moment of each and every day. From the time she woke up until she closed her eyes at night, it had absorbed her. What Grandmother Faye had always said was proving to be true. “The devil was in the details.” 

Pippin had quickly learned that owning an inn was about much more than the blueberry muffins she baked. It was about taking care of the guests, and anticipating their needs. 

Still, things really would begin to settle down once the official grand opening was over. She hoped.