Christmas in July With Karen White
Read an exclusive excerpt from ‘The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street.’
Fans of Karen White have eagerly been waiting—and asking for—a holiday novel. This season, the author best known for her “Tradd Street” series and novels like The Sound of Glass will finally deliver. White’s The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street will publish October 22 and serve as her first Christmas novel and sixth novel in her “Tradd Street” series.
Here’s what she wants fans to know:
Psychic and OCD Realtor Melanie Middleton is at it again—refusing to trust others and rely on husband Jack and her mother and sister to help eradicate a vengeful spirit lurking in her backyard cistern in her historic Charleston home. With tendencies that are part Nancy Drew and part Scarlett O’Hara (for her penchant for putting off until tomorrow things she doesn’t want to think about), Melanie is on her way to discovering how close she can go before pushing the boundaries of her marriage too far, and just how dangerous complete self-reliance can be.
Keep reading for an exclusive excerpt from The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street.
I quietly closed the bedroom door and paused in the upstairs hallway, listening. Even the ticking of the old grandfather clock seemed muffled, the sound suffocated by something unseen. Something waiting. The night‑lights that lined the hallway—a leftover from when Jayne lived with us and a concession to her crippling fear of the dark and the things that hid within—gave me a clear view of Nola’s closed bedroom door. She’d been sleeping in the guest room, as I’d decided right after the twins’ first birthday party in March that her bedroom needed to be redecorated. I felt a tug of guilt as I walked past it to the stairs, remembering the shadowy figure I’d seen in Nola’s bedroom window in a photograph taken by one of Sophie’s preservation students, Meghan Black. She was excavating the recently discovered cistern in the rear garden and had taken the photograph and shown it to Jack and me. We’d both seen the shadowy figure of a man in old‑fashioned clothing holding what looked to be a piece of jewelry. But I’d been the only one to notice the face in Nola’s window.
Having recently dealt with a particularly nasty and vengeful spirit at Jayne’s house on South Battery, I hadn’t found the strength yet to grapple with another. Despite promises to be open and honest with each other, I hadn’t told Jack, bargaining with myself that I’d bring it up just as soon as I thought I could mentally prepare myself. That had been seven months ago, and all I’d done was move Nola into the guest room and then interview a succession of decorators.
I stifled a yawn. Just one more week, I thought. One more week of working every possible hour trying to make my sales quota at Henderson House Realty, trying to put myself on the leaderboard once more. It was important not just for the sense of pride and accomplishment it gave me, but also because we needed the money.
Then I’d have enough energy and brain cells to be able to figure out who these new spirits were and to make them go away. Preferably without a fight. Then I’d tell Jack what I’d seen and that I’d already taken care of the problem so he wouldn’t have to be worried. He had enough on his plate already, working with a new publisher on a book about my family and how Jayne had come to own her house on South Battery.
I entered the kitchen, my stomach rumbling as I reached behind the granola and quinoa boxes in the pantry for my secret stash of doughnuts. But instead of grasping the familiar brown paper bag, I found myself pulling out a box of nutrition bars—no doubt as tasty as the cardboard in which they were packaged. Taped to the front was a note in Nola’s handwriting:
Try these instead! They’ve got chocolate and 9 grams of protein!
Happy visions of running upstairs and pulling Nola from her bed earlier than she’d probably been awake since infancy were the only reason I didn’t break down and weep. The grandfather clock chimed, telling me I was already late, so I gave one last‑minute look to see if I could spot my doughnut bag, then left the house through the back door without eating anything. If I passed out from starvation halfway through my run, Nola might feel sorry enough for me to bring a doughnut.
I stopped on the back steps, suddenly aware that the silence had followed me outside. No birds chirped; no insects hummed. No sounds of street traffic crept into the formerly lush garden that my father had painstakingly restored from the original Loutrel Briggs plans. When an ancient cistern had been discovered after the heavy spring rains had swallowed up a large section of the garden, Sophie had swooped in and declared it an archaeological dig and surrounded it with yellow caution tape. Several months later, we were still staring at a hole behind our house. And I was still feeling the presence of an entity that continued to elude me but that haunted my peripheral vision. A shadow that disappeared every time I turned a corner, the scent of rot the only hint that it had been there at all.
Walking backward to avoid turning my back on the gaping hole, I made my way to the front of the house, tripping only twice on the uneven flagstones that were as much a part of Charleston’s South of Broad neighborhood as were wrought‑iron gates and palmetto bugs.
“There you are!” shouted a voice from across the street. “I thought you were standing me up.”
I squinted at the figure standing on the curb, regretting not putting in my contacts. I really didn’t need them all the time, and not wearing them when I ran saved me from seeing my reflection without makeup in the bathroom mirror this early in the morning.
“Good morning, Jayne,” I grumbled, making sure she was aware of how unhappy I was to be going for a run. Especially when I had a much better alternative waiting for me in my bedroom.
I was already starting to perspire at the thought of the four‑mile jog in front of me. Despite its being early November, and although we’d been teased by Mother Nature with days chilly enough that we’d had to pull out our wool sweaters, the mercury had taken another surprise leap, and both the temperature and the dew point had risen, as if summer was returning to torture us for a bit.
Even though Jayne had already jogged several blocks in the heat and humidity from her house on South Battery, she was barely sweating and her breath came slowly and evenly. We’d only recently discovered each other, our shared mother having been led to believe that her second daughter, born eight years after me, had died at birth. Jayne and I had grown close in the ensuing months, our bond most likely accelerated by the fact that we shared the ability to communicate with the dead, a trait inherited from our mother.
“Which way do you want to go this morning?” she said, jogging in place and looking way too perky.
“Is back inside an option?”
She laughed as if I’d been joking, then began to jog toward East Bay. I struggled to catch up, pulling alongside her as she ran down the middle of the street. Dodging traffic this time of day was easier than risking a turned ankle on the ancient uneven sidewalks. “Will Detective Riley be joining us this morning?” I panted.
Her cheeks flushed, and I was sure it wasn’t from exertion. “I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to him in a week.”
“Did you have a fight?”
“You could say that.” Her emotions seemed to fuel her steps, and she sprinted ahead. Only when she realized she’d left me behind did she slow down so I could catch up.
“What … happened?” I was finding it hard to breathe and talk at the same time, but I needed to know. I’d introduced Jayne to Detective Thomas Riley, and they’d been a couple ever since Jayne, our mother, and I had sent to the light several unsettled spirits who’d been inhabiting her house earlier in the year.
“I told him I wanted to go public with my abilities to help people communicate with loved ones. He said it was a bad idea because there are a lot of crazies out there who’d be knocking on my door.”
I looked at her askance. “Funny, he didn’t … seem to … have such qualms … when he asked me about some of his … unsolved cases.”
I’d recently considered working with Detective Riley on a case involving a coed who’d gone missing from her College of Charleston dorm room in 1997.
“That’s because you’re working incognito. I want to advertise. And Mother said she’d be happy to work alongside me. She thinks you should also go public and work with us.” She sprinted ahead again, but this time I was sure it was because she didn’t want me to respond. Not that I could have since my lungs were nearly bursting.
I doggedly pursued her, turning left on East Bay and almost catching up as we neared Queen Street, dodging the fermenting restaurant garbage waiting for pickup on the sidewalk. My feet dragged, the humidity seeming to make my legs heavier, and my breath came in choking gasps. My stomach rumbled and I quickly did a mental recalculation of my route. In an effort at self‑preservation, I took a left on Hasell, not even wondering how long it would take Jayne to notice I was missing. With my destination in mind, I jogged toward King Street and took a right, my steps much lighter now as I headed toward my just reward.
Catching the green light on Calhoun, I nearly sprinted across the street toward Glazed Gourmet Donuts, almost expecting Jayne to show up just as I reached the door and yank me away. Instead I was merely greeted by the heavenly scent of freshly made doughnuts and the delicious smell of coffee gently embracing me and inviting me inside. I stood in the entryway for a moment, inhaling deeply, until I heard a cough from behind me.
I turned to apologize for blocking the doorway but stopped with my mouth halfway open. Not because the tall, dark‑haired man standing behind me was a contender for People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, or because he was smiling at me with more than just casual interest, his dark brown eyes lit with some inner amusement. Nor was it because he wore tight‑fitting running clothes that accentuated his muscled chest and that he breathed slightly faster than the average pedestrian— although, like Jayne, he appeared to be barely perspiring. I stared at him because I’d seen him before. Not just that morning, not just in the doughnut shop, but around town several times in the past few weeks as
I jogged down the streets of Charleston or ran errands or traveled to various house showings in the city.
It hadn’t struck me as odd until right at that moment, when we were standing only inches apart. Charleston was a small city, and it was inevitable that I’d run into the same person occasionally. But not every day. I blinked once, wondering what else about him captivated my attention, and realized what it was just as the door opened behind the man and Jayne appeared, looking flustered and not a little bit annoyed.
“I knew I’d find you here,” she said, walking past the man to stand in front of me and no doubt try to intimidate me. Which was hard to do considering we were the exact same height.
I looked at the man again. “Are you related to Marc Longo?” I asked, half hoping he’d say no. Marc was my cousin Rebecca’s husband, and Jack’s nemesis after having stolen Jack’s book idea. We were still trying to recover from the financial and professional setback it had caused Jack. Marc was also a boil on the behind of our collective well‑being, as he was currently trying to get us to allow in our house on Tradd Street, filming of (or similar) the movie based on the novel he’d stolen from Jack. Because he was that kind of insufferable jerk. The fact that I’d once dated him didn’t endear him in Jack’s mind, either.
“I am,” he said, a shadow briefly settling behind his eyes. He held out a slim hand to me. “I’m Anthony Longo, Marc’s younger brother. And you’re Melanie Middleton.”
“Melanie Trenholm now,” I corrected. I hesitated for a moment before placing my hand in his.
He grinned. “Don’t worry. The only things my older brother and I share are our last name and our parents.”
Turning to Jayne, he said, “And you two beautiful women must be related. Twins?”
I almost smiled at the compliment but didn’t. Because I was certain he already knew exactly who we were to each other. Being in the same family wasn’t the only thing Anthony Longo shared with his brother.
Jayne lifted her hand to shake. Her lips worked to form words, and before I could clamp my hand over her mouth, she said, “You have very dark hair. It’s brown.” She blinked rapidly before dropping her hand. “I mean … yes, you have hair. Well, it’s nice to meet you.” Her face flushed a dark red. Turning to me, she said, “I’m going to get us some coffee and doughnuts.”
“Sorry,” I said, watching her departing back. “My sister, Jayne, hasn’t had a lot of experience with the opposite sex. She seems to get tongue‑tied when dealing with attractive men.”
He laughed, a deep, chest‑rumbling sound. “I accept the compliment, then.”
I took a step back, as much to put distance between us as to allow a couple to enter the shop. I was reserving judgment, wanting to hate him on sight, but there was something likable about him. He was charming, like Marc, but without the smarmy self‑love that Marc exuded from every pore. I met Anthony’s forthright gaze. “Have you been following me?”
His eyes widened, and I wondered if I’d taken him by surprise with my candor or if he was just pretending. Instead of answering, he said, “Why don’t we sit so we can chat?” He held out his hand toward an open table, and I led the way.
We sat just as Jayne approached with a bag and two coffees. Marc immediately stood and took the coffees from her while Jayne clutched the doughnut bag close to her. “You don’t eat doughnuts?” she said to Marc, then quickly shook her head. “I mean, you don’t have doughnuts.”
He grinned warmly and I wanted to kick him to tell him being attractive and charming wasn’t going to help matters.
“I’ve got a delicious protein shake waiting for me at home, so I’m good, thanks.”
“She won’t share,” Jayne forced out, clutching the bag even tighter. We were going to have to work harder on social interactions with men. I’d thought that her relationship with Thomas Riley was a good sign that she’d been cured of acute awkwardness, but I’d been wrong. It apparently was on a man‑to‑man basis.
Anthony’s smile faded slightly as he glanced at me, as if needing reassurance that Jayne wouldn’t bite.
“She’s probably referring to me. I don’t share my doughnuts, and if anyone tries to take one, he will lose a finger.” I didn’t smile, trying to show him that I wasn’t joking.
I took a sip from my coffee while eyeing the bag expectantly, but Jayne kept it clenched closely to her chest, no doubt planning to hold the doughnuts for ransom until I finished the run. “So,” I said, “why have you been stalking me?”
Anthony quirked an eyebrow. “Stalking? Hardly. More like looking for an opportunity to approach you that wouldn’t be noticed by any of your friends, family, or coworkers. It’s very hard to do. You’re a moving target.”
I glanced around, glad we were in a public place and that Jayne was with me. Alarm bells were starting to go off inside my head, the same ones that rang out when Sophie or my handyman, Rich Kobylt, asked to talk to me. It was usually something bad—like wood‑boring beetles in the dining room floor—and always something I didn’t want to hear, such as the cost of the repair.
“So why did you want to see me?” I asked. “I’d like to make a deal with you.”
“A deal?” Jayne repeated.
Anthony leaned forward. “You may or may not be aware that I own Magnolia Ridge Plantation—or, as it’s known now, Gallen Hall. It was formerly owned by the Vanderhorst family—the same family who once owned your house on Tradd Street. It was purchased at auction by my grandfather back in the twenties, sold shortly afterward, and then bought by Marc a few years ago. My grandfather was the man found buried beneath your fountain, if you recall.”
Like I could forget. I kept still, trying not to remember the menacing ghost of Joseph Longo, or how his body came to be buried in my garden along with that of former owner Louisa Vanderhorst. “Okay,” I said, not sure where this was heading but fairly certain I didn’t want to go there.
“You may also recall that Marc and I started a winery venture together a few years ago, using the land around the plantation.”
“Vaguely.” The alarm bells were getting louder now. Jack had recently read to me—somewhat gleefully—an article in the Post and Courier about a Longo family member accusing Marc of swindling and threatening legal action.
“Yes, well, my dear brother knew the land wasn’t good for a vineyard— a fact he kept from me when he told me from the goodness of his heart he was going to allow me to buy out his share and give me a good deal.” His hands formed themselves into fists. “A good deal on worthless land.” “That wasn’t very nice,” Jayne said, her tone similar to the one she used when settling disputes between the twins. And Jack and me. She was a nanny, after all.
“You could say that,” Anthony said, giving Jayne an appreciative grin. She blushed, then resumed her deliberate breathing.
“So what does that have to do with me? He’s married to my cousin, but we’re not close.”
“I know. Which is why I was thinking we needed to talk.” He leaned very close. “It seems we both have a bone to pick with my brother.”
“We do? If you’re referring to Jack’s career, he just signed a new two‑book deal and is hard at work on the new book. Marc gave us a setback, but that’s behind us.”
“Is it? I thought Marc wanted to film his movie in your house.” “He does. And I believe Jack told him where he could file that idea.”
Anthony smiled smugly. “I’m sure he did. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting your husband, but I’ve heard Marc rant about him often enough to know they’re not friends.”
“You could say that,” I said. “Which is really why we’re putting all of that in the past and moving forward.”
“Yes, well, too bad Marc didn’t get that memo.”
The alarm bells were now clanging so loudly I was sure everyone in the restaurant could hear. “What do you mean?”
He leaned in a little closer. “Marc has lots of … connections. Has a lot of influence, even in the publishing world. Jack’s new contract might not be as ironclad as you’d like to think.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I hissed. “He’s signed it and received the advance.
He’s working on the book now and his publisher has big plans for it.” Anthony shook his head slowly. “Doesn’t matter to Marc. He has … ways to get what he wants.”
“And what does he want?”
“My house? We’re not selling. Ever. We’ve gone through quite a lot for that house.” I thought of the ghost of Louisa Vanderhorst, who watched over us, the scent of roses alerting us of her presence. Of old Nevin Vanderhorst, who’d left the house to me in his will, knowing long before I did that the house and I were meant to be together for as long as I lived. Or, as Jack had said at our wedding in the back garden, perhaps even longer.
Anthony smiled, but it wasn’t friendly. “Tell me, Melanie. Would you be financially solvent if it weren’t for Jack’s income? I’m sure he’s getting royalties from his earlier books, but without a new book, sales of his older books peter out, don’t they?”
I thought of how we’d had to borrow money from Nola, who had made a few lucrative sales of music she’d written, to keep the house. It was a loan, and we were still working on paying it back.
I started to say no, but Jayne kicked me under the table. “It’s none of your business,” she said, speaking slowly as if to make sure the right words came out.
“Right,” I agreed. “It’s none of your business.” I stood, and Jayne stood, too.
Anthony slid his chair back and stood as well, blocking our way to the door. “What if I said I could help you outmaneuver Marc and make a lot of money at the same time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Marc found something that’s convinced him that there is something valuable hidden in the mausoleum at the Gallen Hall cemetery. He can’t get access, though.”
“Why?” I asked, although with the mention of the mausoleum, I was afraid I knew why.
His voice very quiet, he said, “I know that you can speak to the dead.”
Jayne inhaled quickly, but I kept my eyes on Anthony. “I don’t know where you heard that … ”
“Rebecca, of course. I know she has premonitions in her dreams—she’s even told me of a few she had about me. But she said your powers are much stronger, that you can actually talk to the dead.”
“Well, she’s mistaken.” I slid my chair up to the table so I could inch my way around Anthony to access the door and saw Jayne do the same thing. “I’ve got to go. Sorry I can’t help you.”
We’d made it only a few feet before he said, “I heard about that cistern in your back garden—how several grad students assigned to the excavation refuse to return to the site. I was curious, so I did some digging. Do you know where the bricks came from?”
A chill pricked at the base of my neck as I recalled the apparition of the man in the photograph standing by the edge of the gaping hole and holding what appeared to be a piece of jewelry. And the menacing aura that had pervaded my house and yard ever since the cistern was discovered. “No,” I said, my voice wavering only a little. “And I don’t care.”
We’d made it to the door when Anthony called out to us, “They’re from an older mausoleum in the Gallen Hall cemetery. I thought you’d want to know. Just in case.”
I turned to face him. “Just in case what?”
“Just in case you find something … unexpected in your cistern.”
Jayne pushed the door open, then propelled me into the warm morning air with a gentle shove to my back. I turned around to see whether Anthony would follow us out and found myself staring at the glass door of the shop. Except instead of seeing my own reflection, I saw the clear specter of a gentleman in what appeared to be an old‑fashioned cravat and jacket staring back at me with black, empty sockets.
THE CHRISTMAS SPIRITS ON TRADD STREET by Karen White, to be published on October 22 by Berkley, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Karen White.