Read the first chapter of Murder in Devil’s Cove
“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke,
or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.”
The island of Devil’s Cove lay between the mainland and the barrier islands on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, smack in the middle of four ocean channels. Albermarle Sound was to the north. Roanoke Sound flowed to the east. Croatan Sound was on the west side of the island. And to the south was the inlet of Pamlico Sound. It was connected to the mainland with a single swing bridge. A ferry carted people and their cars back and forth. It wasn’t the easiest of the islands to get to, but it was perhaps the most special.
Colorful beach houses overlooked the water. A protected cove was a favorite spot for kayaking and swimming. The quaint town welcomed tourists, but generations of families called Devil’s Cove home. The island drew fishermen, treasure hunters who chartered boats to explore the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and sun-worshipers.
And now Pippin and Grey Hawthorne, siblings born seventy-three seconds apart, were back after being gone for twenty years.
They stood on the sidewalk in front of a decrepit looking house that sported a combination of Cape Cod and old Southern Coastal architecture, complete with a million paned windows, a screened porch on the left side of the house, a wide sitting porch, and a lookout at the top of the structure with a view straight to the harbor. A widow’s walk, Pippin thought, where a wife could keep watch as she waited for her husband to return from sea.
Behind it was Roanoke Sound, Bodie Island with its lighthouse, and beyond that, the Atlantic.
The house was so much bigger than Pippin remembered, and she remembered it as huge. In its heyday, it had to have been a spectacular house. Now, it sat neglected, longing for fresh paint, new shutters, and some tender-loving care. A shiver passed over Pippin and her hand moved to her neck. She looked up at the widow’s walk. Had her mother stood up there, staring towards the horizon while she waited for Leo to come home to her?
Pippin let the thought pass. She was hypnotized by the overgrown property as much as by the house itself, although both were in dire need of repair and upkeep. Her gaze skittered over the lawn that was little more than a map of weeds. Over the walkway leading to the wrap-around porch, more weeds grew between the red bricks. Over the flowerbeds that had probably once bloomed with hydrangeas, hyacinth, daisies, and who knew what other plants, but which was now filled with an abundance of yet more weeds.
For a moment, she closed her eyes and envisioned what the property could look like. In her mind’s eye, she saw it blooming with a perennial garden, annuals tucked here and there for added color and variety. The massive overgrowth of pampas grass behind their father’s dry-docked fishing boat could be cleared out and replaced with an enclosed vegetable garden.
Grey could renovate the massive house, bringing it back to habitable. Because right now, from the looks of it, it certainly wasn’t.
Grey looked at her with eyebrows raised and chin lowered. “We can’t keep it.”
She opened her eyes again and gave him a side glance. “We could.”
He shook his head. “We can’t.”
“Oh, but we could.”
Grey ran a hand over his face, ending by rubbing the stubble that had recently turned into a beard. Although his hair was chestnut, his Irish came out through the iridescent orange hairs peppered throughout. “Pippin, it’s been vacant for twenty years. I can see from here that the porch has dry rot. The place probably has termites. It’s not a matter of if in North Carolina, it’s a matter of when. Look. Half the windows are broken. That screen door is hanging on one hinge. And God knows what it looks like inside.”
“They left it to us,” she said. It wasn’t a plea, but a statement of fact. After Grandmother Faye died, Pippin found her parents’ will, leaving them the old beach house in Devil’s Cove. She and Grey had both thought the place had been sold when their father vanished. Why their grandparents had kept it from them, they’d never know for sure, but Pippin could venture a guess. Faye blamed their mother for their father leaving. She’d held out hope that her son was out there somewhere and that he’d come home. The house and boat hadn’t belonged to Pippin and Grey, but to Leo. It was as if holding onto it made it their own lighthouse…a beacon that would guide Leo home.
Only Leo had been gone for two decades. He was not coming back. All this now belonged to the twins. “Nothing’s keeping you in Greenville, Greevie,” she said.
He didn’t respond, but he knew it was true. He worked for a construction company, but it wasn’t a career. Neither of them had found their passions. Maybe this house—and coming back to Devil’s Cove—maybe these things would help them discover their paths.
Pippin saw movement from the corner of eye. She could just make out a pink nose poking out of the pampas grass. Slowly, it inched its way into the open. A dog. A very mangy looking dog. It was honey colored—and incredibly thin. When was the last time the pup had eaten?
“All right, let’s get it over with,” Grey said.
Pippin glanced at him, nodding. When she looked back to the yard, the dog was gone. She sighed, hoping it would be able to find its next meal. To Grey, she said, “Maybe it’s not as bad as you think.”
Her brother shot her a side-eye glance that clearly said he thought it was probably worse than he thought, but he led the way up the brick walkway. “Be careful,” he said, pointing to the patches of rotted wood on the steps.
Like all the beach houses on Buccaneer Circle, the house was built on stilts, pilings, and piers, elevated to protect it from flooding. They walked up the steps to the porch, jigging and jagging to avoid the damaged wood, as if they were trying to avoid cracks in a sidewalk. As Grey carefully took hold of the handle of the screen door, it let out a horrific creak, the last rusty hinge releasing its hold. “Watch out!” he shouted.
Pippin jumped back as the screen door fell. The bottom of it hit the torn-up porch, but Grey caught it and deftly moved it out of the way, leaning it up against the house.
They stood side by side, facing the front door, a haunting feeling coming over her as if this house was going to change things for them. At the same time, she felt like they were in a horror movie in a too stupid to live moment. Don’t go in. Bad things will happen. You may never come back out.
Pippin took a deep breath, swallowing her anxiety. This had been their parents’ home. Her home when she was little. An image of her and Grey splashing around in a pink plastic kiddie pool flashed into her mind. A memory of standing next to her mother, the solidness of her leg underneath one of the gauzy skirts she’d always worn. Her mother pacing back and forth as she stared out at the lighthouse on Bodie Island and at the horizon beyond.
Gooseflesh rose on her skin. “We can’t sell this house,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Grey opened his mouth, looking ready to contradict her, but stopped when he saw her face. “Are you okay?”
“They lived here.” She pressed her fingertips against the front door and pushed. It creaked as it swung inward. All she could see was a vast empty and dark room. A room she and Grey had run through and had played hide and seek in. She folded her arms over her chest and looked at him. “We lived here.”
He turned his back to the house, facing the yard, plunging his hands into the pockets of his jeans. His brow furrowed as he studied the property. “There used to be a fence and a gate, didn’t there?”
She tried to remember, thinking back to her childhood before Grandmother Faye and Grandpa Randal had taken them to Greenville. The image appeared in her mind’s eye. Grey was right. There had been a white picket fence enclosing the yard. Any remnants of it were long gone. She remembered a distinct clicking sound. “We would go through the gate and walk to the pier sometimes,” she said.
“I remember that.” Grey cupped his hand against the back of his neck. “She—Mom—used to tell me not to go near the water.”
It was true. The house was on the beach, but Cassie hardly let them go out there. Pippin and Grey had given her a run for her money, always escaping and running down the worn boardwalk that led from the house to the sand. Now they fell silent, giving into the memories that surfaced. Grey rocked back on his heels and peered up at the porch ceiling, hands still in his pockets. The traditional haint blue paint was old and peeling. Grandmother Faye had had the same cool blue color on the ceiling of her front porch. “It started with the Gullah communities in South Carolina and Georgia,” she’d told Pippin. “The color kept away the haints.”
“What’s a haint?” Pippin had asked.
“It’s a spirit, child. But no need to worry. Now it just keeps away the wasps and other bugs.”
“‘Cause they think it’s the sky?”
“Exactly,” Grandmother Faye had said before going back inside to her cool air-conditioned house. Pippin had stayed on the porch, swaying in the rocking chair, and staring up at the blue ceiling. If it wasn’t blue, would her mother come visit? From the moment her mother died, remembering her became harder and harder. The color of her eyes had been a vibrant Kelly green, but Pippin couldn’t picture them anymore. They’d faded in her mind to a muted version, like a shamrock browned by a fiery sun. Although freckles had dusted the bridge of Cassie’s nose, Pippin couldn’t picture them. It was only because she could look in the mirror and see her own copper hair that she remembered her mother’s. The shade had been the same.
What Pippin could bring to mind were the little things. The feel of her hand in her mother’s as they walked along the pier. The taste of the strawberry shortcakes she made every summer. The sound of her voice as she hummed quietly to herself when she thought no one was near.
The sound of Grey exhaling chased away the memories. “You’re right, Peevie. We can’t sell it.”
A wave of relief flowed through her at Grey’s nickname for her. They had their own way of communicating—including special words they’d formed—ever since they learned how to talk. He called her Peevie and she called him Greevie. They were nonsensical words that belonged to Pippin and Grey alone. She felt her eyes glass over. They hadn’t even been inside yet, but this was home. This was where she belonged.
She caught a movement from across the street, but when she looked, all she saw was a curtain falling back into place in the window of the purple and teal house. A shiver wound through her. Someone had been watching them.
“Let’s look inside,” Grey said.
Pippin took a closer look at the door handle before they stepped inside. “No lock?”
“There was one.” Grey pointed to the empty space that used to house a deadbolt. “Wonder how many times this place has been broken into over the years?”
From the broken windows and the evidence right here at the door, she’d guess too many to count.
They spent the next hour exploring the three stories of house. On the widow’s walk, she cupped her hand over her eyes, peering out to the sea beyond the harbor and Roanoke Sound. “What about turning it into a little seaside inn?” she said, turning to Grey.
“What, like a bed and breakfast?”
The second she’d laid eyes on the place, she’d started thinking of names. Devil’s Cove Inn felt uninspired.
The Inn by the Sea didn’t feel right because the village was in a harbor in the Sound.
Harbor Inn lacked umph.
She’d land on just the right name for it, eventually. To Grey, she said, “Exactly. We have Grandmother Faye’s house. We can sell that to help fund the renovations, plus we have the money she left us.” Excitement bloomed in her chest. She could bring the garden back to its glory days and, together, she and Grey could make the house what it once was. And they could make a living by opening it up to visitors and tourists. “Grey, we can do this. We’re supposed to be in this house.”
Grey chewed his lower lip. “It’s a big job.”
“You can do it,” she said. “We can do it.”
The consternation on Grey’s face lifted. He held up one hand, pinkie extended. Pippin intertwined hers with his and smiled.
He nodded. “We can do it.”
They stayed in the house, making plans, leaving only when the sun had set and a chill settled into the darkness.