When Roland discovers the monstrous secret at the root of his family tree, he must make a choice: embrace his fate, and lose the man he loves. Or fight back, and lose himself.
Roland Boone arrives in Southern Alabama determined to revive the commercial pecan orchard he inherited from the grandfather he never knew, and to learn about the family whose existence he only recently discovered. But Night Orchards presents him with a puzzle both intriguing and unnerving. It isn’t simply the odd behavior of the neighboring farmers, or the orchard’s unnatural silence. It’s the shadows at the edge of his vision. The strange shapes in the forest. The bizarre, vivid dreams that bring back memories of a childhood spent locked up and medicated. Dreams that make him fear for his hard-won sanity.
The one solid element in Roland’s shifting new world is the estate’s enigmatic caretaker, Gilbert Vargas. In spite of his reserve, Gilbert offers both support and a sympathetic ear. And the heat in his secretive glances gives Roland hope that his attraction to the caretaker is reciprocated. What Roland wants most, however, is information about the Night family—his birth parents, his grandparents, his ancestors. But that’s something Gilbert never talks about.
Until a gruesome murder forces the family’s long-buried secrets into the light. When Roland discovers the unexpected power and joy of his ancestral heritage, he finds himself faced with an impossible choice: become what he was born to be, and lose the man he’s come to love. Or help end a centuries-old horror, and lose the only true belonging he’s ever known.
© Copyright 2018 Alyce Black
Standing beside his car, thunder rumbling behind him, Roland Boone eyed the haunted mansion he’d inherited with curiosity and not a little trepidation.
Okay, he didn’t know it was haunted. But it sure looked the part. Three stories of fading Colonial elegance, graying paint, even a broken porch swing.
Honestly? Ghosts, he could deal with. Might even be kind of cool. But he wasn’t sure he was up for this level of home improvement. The massive pecan orchard was going to be a big enough pain to get in shape after decades of neglect.
The thunder boomed again. Roland turned to frown at the lightning arcing across the gathering clouds. The air smelled damp and metallic. The storm was coming up too fast for comfort. He hitched his overnight bag onto his shoulder and strode toward the house, looking around. The caretaker, Mr. Vargas, had promised to meet him out front, but so far Roland hadn’t seen any sign of him.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Roland climbed the steps to the porch, setting off a chorus of squeals and pops from wood a couple of centuries old. He crossed the splintering width of the porch, studying the tall windows, the tremendous double doors, and the sky-blue beadboard ten feet above his head. The place possessed a mournful, decayed loveliness that spoke to him. It must’ve been beautiful once, a true stately Southern lady. He could almost picture the parties his ancestors had held out on this front porch, or on the lawn, or beneath the trees, a parade of revelry stretching back two hundred years and beyond, back even to the days before the house was built, when nothing stood here but forest and nothing illuminated the night but moonlight and starlight, and the firelight flickering across the faces of the Few…
The rusty groan of hinges yanked him out of his strange daydream. “Mr. Boone?”
He blinked, and found himself staring off into the overgrown orchard. Damn, but his brain could conjure some weird shit. His mama would’ve laughed.
Embarrassed, he turned to face the open door of the house and smiled. “Yeah. Hi. You must be Mr. Vargas.”
“I am, yes.” The man standing in the doorway looked him up and down. His forehead creased as if he found Roland disappointing. Or unexpected. “Come in, Mr. Boone.” He stood aside, holding the door open. “Welcome to Night Orchards.”
Thunder growled, louder, closer. Roland glanced behind him. The wind had picked up, tossing the leaves against a bruise-black sky. He edged past the caretaker into a foyer bigger than the studio apartment he’d left behind in Atlanta. “Please, call me Roland.”
The man’s thin lips twitched like that was funny. “Excuse me for not being out front to meet you. I’ve been stocking the kitchen in preparation for your arrival.”
“Not a problem.” Roland mopped his face again as Vargas—no first name given, now or in the handwritten letter he’d sent Roland a couple of weeks ago—shut the door. “It’s almost as hot in here as it is outside. I was hoping there’d be air conditioning.”
Vargas let out a humorless laugh. “This house was built at the end of the eighteenth century, Mr. Boone. It had outhouses and an outdoor kitchen during its early years. I’ve had a window unit installed in your suite upstairs, but the rest of the home is cooled by open windows and natural air flow, just as it has always been.”
Vargas pursed his lips, but didn’t argue. Roland wandered farther into the huge circular foyer. Sweat traced a ticklish path down his neck. He wanted to scratch at the itch, but he didn’t. Like visiting his Great Aunt Tilda when he was a kid. Best behavior and all that. He didn’t dare make a move for fear of it being a wrong one. Which was stupid, really. Even if Vargas was actually judging him—which he probably wasn’t—so what? This was Roland’s house now. He needed to claim his space here. And his space was by God going to be first-names-and-scratching casual if it killed both of them.
Thunder rolled, almost on top of them now, like boulders crashing down a hill. Beyond the tall front windows, the storm broke in a solid downpour, battering the oak leaves and churning the ground into mud. The wall of water turned Roland’s car into a sedan-shaped ghost.
“Well. The rain should cool things off a bit, at any rate.” Vargas smiled. At least Roland assumed that particular quirk of his lips was supposed to be a smile. “Would you like me to show you your suite, Mr.—that is, Roland? Dinner should be ready soon, if you’re hungry.”
Roland’s stomach, never one to ignore an obvious cue, growled loudly. The predictable blush heated his cheeks, and he thanked his lucky stars his dark skin would hide it. “As a matter of fact, I am, thank you. And I might as well go ahead and see my room now. I’ll get the rest of my stuff later, when I’m less likely to drown trying to get to my car.” He flashed his brightest grin, just to see if Mr. Solemn would grin back.
Vargas arched one dark eyebrow as if he found Roland amusing, but he only nodded, his serious expression firmly in place. “Follow me.”
Roland followed, studying his companion as they climbed the elegant, curving staircase together. Vargas seemed pretty ordinary at first glance—roughly Roland’s height, forty-ish at a guess, thin, pale bordering on sickly, short dark hair, unremarkable features. Nothing special.
Except his eyes. Huge, haunted eyes of a brown so dark it was almost black. That steady stare pierced straight through Roland’s skull to his primitive brain.
He couldn’t decide whether he found it attractive, or unnerving.
Probably both, he mused, letting his gaze drift down the slim body clad in black shirt and pants in spite of the choking heat. He’d always had a thing for mysterious, melancholy men.
And hadn’t he wished more than once that he didn’t. It was a curse.
On the second floor landing, Vargas led Roland down the hallway to the left, then to the last doorway on the left. “This is the most fully furnished bedroom in the house, and one of the few with an en suite. It also happens to have an excellent view over the rear portions of the property. I hope you’ll enjoy it.” He opened the door and stepped out of the way. “The formal dining room is no longer furnished and has been closed off for years now, so we’ll eat in the kitchen. It’s directly back from the foyer. Come down whenever you’re ready.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Acting on sheer impulse, Roland grabbed Vargas’s slender wrist before he could get away. Vargas’s needle sharp gaze locked onto Roland, and he let go. “What’s your first name?”
The one brow lifted again. “Gilbert.” He blinked and stepped back, the first sign Roland had seen thus far of anything less than perfect composure. “I know this place probably isn’t what you expected. But it’s been my home since I was a child. I hope you’ll eventually come to see it as your home, too.”
Surprised and touched, Roland nodded. “I’m sure I will. Thank you.”
Gilbert Vargas turned and strode down the hall toward the stairs. Roland watched the man glide into the stormy afternoon dimness. Uneasy for no reason he could pinpoint, Roland stepped into his room and shut the door.
The bathroom had a shower.
Roland had never been so happy to see running water in his life. Vargas’s comment about the estate having had outhouses at one time had worried him. Figuring he’d have time for a quick wash before dinner, Roland kicked his sandals onto the throw rug beside the tremendous bed, peeled off his sweaty clothes, and threw them—not without guilt—onto the gleaming dark plank floor. He padded naked into the bathroom. His bare feet slapped the black and white tiles, creating echoes that bounced off the white beadboard walls and the high ceiling, and returned twisted into parchment-dry whispers.
He rubbed at the gooseflesh rising on his arms. Damn creepy old house. Maybe he ought to open it as a museum and look for someplace more friendly to live.
He had to laugh at himself. He’d come here expecting to live in the country. You couldn’t have a pecan orchard anywhere else. But hell, he hadn’t seen so much as a single tin-roofed shack for more than an hour before turning down the dirt road leading to the estate he’d only recently learned had belonged to his father’s family for more than two hundred years.
Roland had never known his birth parents. According to his real parents—the ones who’d adopted him as a baby, raised him and loved him—he’d been found under a bridge in Chicago by a group of the city’s homeless, who’d saved him from a man trying to slit his throat. The police had shot and killed the man. After exhaustive attempts to determine the identities of the infant and his would-be killer went nowhere, authorities had been forced to release baby Roland into the foster care system, where he’d found his parents.
The chance to learn something about his birth family—and maybe solve the mystery of how he’d ended up in Chicago, in the hands of a psychotic man who wanted to kill him—figured heavily into Roland’s decision to keep the estate rather than sell it. Seeing the condition of the place took some of the shine off the whole adventure. But he didn’t have the money to build or buy anything new. Which meant that if he wanted to keep this estate and revive the pecan business—which he did, though everyone told him he was nuts, pun intended, haha—he and this ponderous old mansion were stuck with one another, for the time being at least.
Tackling the pecan business promised a challenge he could sink his teeth into. That part, he definitely looked forward to.
Pushing the whole tangled mess to the back of his mind, Roland went to the window and peered out. Even though the air conditioner the good Gilbert had installed in the bedroom had cooled the suite almost to the point of comfort, he had an urge to let in the storm-damp air, so he hooked his fingers into the indentations on the window’s sash and tugged. After a moment’s resistance, it rose with a horrific squeal. Roland wrestled it open a few inches before it stuck. He bent and breathed in the scent of the rain and the pine forest stretching God only knew how far behind the house. Lightning flickered somewhere in the distance. Long seconds later, thunder grumbled, a retreating threat. Damn, the storms moved fast here.
A dark shape moved somewhere beyond the rear lawn, in the depths of the shadows under the trees. Roland squinted, but the shape didn’t budge again, as far as he could tell. It was hard to make out anything much through the unrelenting curtain of water.
Probably an animal. Were there bears here? Kind of a scary thought. He manhandled the window back down and started the shower. The aging pipes knocked, groaned, and pinged alarmingly for a few seconds, but the water emerged clear and clean. That was good enough for Roland. He stepped over the high edge of the clawfoot tub and into the spray.
He went downstairs fifteen minutes later, clean if not particularly refreshed. The heat crept in everywhere here, even with the bedroom window unit on full blast. Maybe all old houses were like that, soaking up the atmosphere around them through the inevitable cracks of age.
To his surprise, the kitchen felt wonderfully cool. He stopped in the doorway to catch the fresh, fragrant draft flowing from the wide-open rear windows and screen door and down the hallway to the front of the house. “Man, that feels fantastic.”
“In the days before air conditioning, people paid close attention to the placement of windows, doors, and hallways, to maximize airflow through the home.” Gilbert strolled from the old refrigerator to the table carrying an open bottle of a wine Roland didn’t recognize. His sleeves were rolled up, showing wiry forearms. “I’ve already poured some iced tea, but I hope you’ll try some scuppernong wine as well. It’s a local specialty.”
Roland raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t think you had the climate here for grapes.”
“Scuppernongs. It’s a type of muscadine, a wild grape native to many areas of the south.” Gilbert poured the golden wine into two glasses. “People have grown them here for a long time, but winemaking is still rare. This particular vintage is from a family-run vineyard whose property borders ours.” He glanced at Roland, dark eyes full of something unreadable. “I mean yours, of course.”
Roland had no idea whether or not to read anything into that, so he said nothing. Instead, he picked up his glass—thin, graceful crystal that he suspected was generations old—and took a sip. It was delicious, with an unusually rich, round flavor for a white wine. “Mm. I like that.”
The smile he got from the caretaker turned the long, thin face almost handsome. Roland tried not to stare.
“It’s very good, isn’t it? I can get more for you whenever you like. Or you can ask the Cobbs yourself.” Gilbert pinned Roland with a swift, intense look on his way from the table to the stove. “I imagine they’ll be over before long. They’ll want to meet you.”
Roland couldn’t imagine why, but he smiled and nodded anyway. “That’ll be great. I’ll look forward to it.”
He wasn’t sure he liked the particular wry tilt of Gilbert’s lips in response. He kept his reservations to himself, though, when he caught the mouthwatering scent from the pot Gilbert was carrying to the table. “Damn, that smells fantastic.” Roland watched Gilbert set the pot down on a colorful quilted potholder. “Is that chicken and dumplings?”
“Yes. Homemade.” Gilbert started dishing food onto the plates. “I hope that’s all right. I wasn’t sure what you’d like.”
Roland had to laugh. “Well, it was a hell of a guess. My dad used to make chicken and dumplings every weekend when I was growing up.” When I was home, anyway. When I wasn’t locked up in a soft room someplace, strapped to the bed. He swallowed the words and all the pain that went with them. “It’s probably my favorite thing ever.”
“I’m glad.” There went the smile again, lighting up Gilbert’s face. “It’s my grandmother’s recipe. I hope you enjoy it.”
“I’m sure I will.” Pulling out a chair, Roland sat down and scooted up to the table. He held up his wine glass. “To new beginnings.”
A strange expression slid across Gilbert’s face. He smiled, dark eyes glittering, as he took his seat. “New beginnings to old traditions.” He lifted his wine glass.
Roland had no idea what that meant, but what the hell. He clinked his glass with Gilbert’s and drank.
After dinner, Gilbert insisted he’d rather clean up alone and shooed Roland out of the kitchen. Roland wandered out the back door to the screened-in porch. The rain had stopped, leaving behind a sticky breeze and the smell of wet earth. A three-quarter moon shone through the shredded remains of the day’s clouds, creating strange shadows on the grass. Somewhere nearby, an owl called once then fell silent.
In fact, the whole of creation lay unnaturally quiet. No cricket songs, no night birds, no chorus of bullfrogs from the lake Gilbert had told him lay nearby in the woods behind the house. Nothing moved but the branches and moon shadows.
Roland peered out into the summer night, held his breath, and listened, trying to pin down the source of the tense, waiting stillness. A faint fluttering hovered behind the constant rustle of the leaves, on the edge of hearing, like the slow pulse of great papery wings.
“Just the owl flying away,” Roland whispered, as if saying it out loud might make it true.
Something snagged the tail of Roland’s vision—a swift movement between the treetops and the moon. His heart caught in his throat. He turned in time to catch a shadow, tattered and vague as a wisp of cloud, shooting across the night sky.
It vanished between one blink and the next, before Roland could decide what he’d seen. He opened the screen door to the lawn. It screeched in protest. He descended the creaking wooden steps in spite of the voice in his head saying don’t and wandered out into the wet grass, letting the door bump shut behind him.
He peered up into the rain-washed sky. Whatever he’d seen was gone. Only the moon, the stars, and the rapidly dissolving ribbons of cloud remained.
A cricket chirped from the forest beyond the lawn. Another answered it, and another. The bullfrogs joined in, a bird trilled from a nearby branch, and that simply, the world went back to normal.
Roland stood there in the grass for a few minutes, listening to the summer-night sounds, before the itch at the back of his neck drove him inside.
Gilbert waited until an hour after Mr. Boone—Roland—had closed the door of his suite that night before creeping outside and into the darkness among the pecan trees.
Out of sight of the house, of the road, of the world, he stood still, closed his eyes, and breathed. He loved nights in the orchard. Always had, ever since his earliest memory. The earthy smell, the cool grass beneath his bare feet, the endless susurration of leaves in the breeze.
Insects and birds didn’t sing in the orchard, though they lived here in their mute millions. They’d learned the value of silence long ago, and passed on that knowledge to their offspring over countless generations. Gilbert had often wondered if these few acres held the world’s only evolved community of completely voiceless creatures.
He opened his eyes and smiled at his wayward thoughts. His mother had always told him he was too curious. That he poked at things too much. You want to watch that, she used to tell him when he was young, her mouth firm and her black eyes stern. They don’t like it. Don’t go getting ideas beyond your station.
Now, nearly fifteen years after her death, he found the thought amusing. The Hesake were powerful, yes, but they couldn’t yet see inside his head. Beyond his station or not, his thoughts remained his own, for now, and he would indulge them as he liked.
Even if that meant envisioning his new employer naked, soft-eyed, and panting.
He laughed, muffling the sound with his hand. Mother would thrash him within an inch of his life if she knew.
A sudden prickle at the back of his neck warned him that he wasn’t alone. He turned to face the shadow hulking among the trees, every cell in his body on guard. After forty-one years on this Earth, the Hesake still affected him that way. They didn’t frighten him, but he’d never trusted them, and never would.
The shadow said nothing, but he felt the weight of its expectations. He smiled through the burn of resentment. “All is well,” he said, though they never spoke and he’d often wondered how much human speech they understood. “No need to worry.”
No need to come skulking around here spying on me either.
Having seen how the Hesake dealt with those they deemed impertinent, Gilbert kept the thought to himself. He was important, but not irreplaceable, and he had no intention of spending his last breath watching the orchard’s silent scavengers feast on his intestines.
The Hesake didn’t answer, but Gilbert had spent enough time in their company to sense the restlessness coloring its endless, boundless patience. That patience had kept its kind hidden through the centuries since Gilbert’s ancestors first invaded this land, through the population explosions and the technological advances which shone lights into the dark corners of the world. They’d learned to lurk. To wait. To adapt.
One couldn’t help but admire them, in spite of everything.
“Don’t worry,” Gilbert repeated, keeping the acid out of his voice through decades of practice. “This is my time. I know what to do. I won’t fail.”
When the Hesake left, returning to the lair whose secret even Gilbert and his line had never known, an invisible weight lifted from his soul. His chin rose, his spine straightened. Even the night sky seemed brighter, as if the creature had the power to dim the moon Herself.
Gilbert chuckled, the sound loud and dull in the quiet. He knew the Hesake were no more capable of such things than he himself. Something about their presence encouraged fanciful thoughts and odd ideas.
He peered up through a gap in the branches, watching a wisp of cloud drift across the moon while his thoughts wandered to the man currently sleeping in the old house beyond the orchard. He’d seen Roland frowning at the forest out back earlier. Seen the uneasiness in those bright, clever eyes. Roland was an intelligent man. One who noticed things. Who questioned things. He’d been here at Night Orchards for mere hours, and already he’d begun to notice, and to question. What would happen when he inevitably asked Gilbert about this place? About its secrets?
Gilbert rubbed the spot where pain throbbed in the side of his head when he let his anger bubble up. He’d been born and bred for this one season of his life. He was ready. Had always been ready. But sometimes, he hated it. Hated his mother and father for bringing him into this life, hated the Hesake for looming over his family tree. Hated himself for never having the courage to break free.
What would happen if you did? If you packed a bag and simply walked away? You could live your own life, on your own terms.
He covered his face with both hands and vented his turmoil in a soft moan. He would never give in to his longing for freedom, because he knew what would happen if he did. And he knew he couldn’t live with it.
When the moon began to sink toward the treetops, Gilbert decided it was time to leave the orchard, for now. Great events were afoot, and they wouldn’t wait for his personal angst. Neither would breakfast in a few hours, for that matter, or the other chores a conscientious caretaker-slash-housekeeper-and-cook must shoulder.
With a deep sigh, Gilbert paced through the cool, wet earth back toward the house and his lonely bed.