These Still Black Waters - First Chapter

Dullahan House has stood empty for years. Until the day she returns. That’s when the first body shows up… A twisting novel of suspense by the USA Today bestselling author of Do No Harm, Behind Every Lie, and The Night Olivia Fell.

Some secrets are best left buried…

After a violent home invasion, Neve Maguire returns with her daughter to Black Lake, her childhood summer home, hoping for a fresh start. But when the body of a woman is found floating among the reeds in the lake behind her house, she fears she has made a horrible mistake.

But others are worth killing for.

Neve is hiding secrets, though. Detective Jess Lambert can tell. Recently back after her own personal tragedy, Jess knows what it’s like to live with skeletons in your closet, and she’s sure Neve has a few of her own.

When another woman’s body is found, Jess and Neve are forced to confront a horrible truth. Because one thing is clear: the darkness of the past is waiting. And the secrets of Black Lake are only just beginning to surface.

Read the first chapter below and Add to Goodreads for chances to win advance copies!


These Still Black Waters
By: Christina McDonald
Coming Aug 8, 2023

Chapter 1

The body cooled quickly on the ground beside me.

The night was deep, the woods thick enough that the moon did not interrupt my work. I’d always equated darkness with unknowing. The unconscious, I believed, was unknown until something crossed into the light of awareness. A wood at night, as an example. What was ahead was obscured until you moved close enough for it to be illuminated. But tonight, although I worked in darkness, I knew exactly why I was here.

I’d made my choices.

That’s all life was: a series of choices. That was what it all came down to in the end. It didn’t just happen. We made our choices. The good. The bad. The mundane. Free will.

We made choices every day, both knowingly and unknowingly. From simple ones like what to eat for dinner to bigger ones like whether to take that promotion we knew would move us across the country. Some choices we regret. Some we are proud of. Losses. Gains. Successes. Failures. Friends. Enemies. We have the power of choice. The only inescapable thing is the inevitability of choice.

In other words, the past may be dead, but it is our choice if we bury it.


The past may be dead, but it is our choice if we bury it.


I sat on the cold dirt floor next to the body and extracted an item from my pocket. I turned it over in my hand. The colors were dull, the edges covered with dirt. It was small. Too small to carry such destruction. Wasn’t it funny how the smallest things could carry the greatest weight?

I closed my eyes and let the past play over the screen of my eyelids. Somewhere far away, I heard the sharp whoop of a police siren. Whoop, whoop. And the wind rustling in the trees, like the hissing of a snake.

I needed to leave, but I didn’t. Not yet. I listened, the sounds a melody, a rhythm, a poem, and I let myself be carried away until they swelled too big, like the surf, louder and louder, a cacophony of noise. I clapped my hands over my ears, trying to focus on the image of her face. It was the only thing that gave me peace.

If—when—people find out what I’ve done, I hope they understand that, at least. Why I made these choices. Why I had to do it.

It was all for her.

Later, people might say that I snapped. I lost my mind. Blew up, broke down, went crazy. All the mundane adjectives people use when they don’t know the inside of a person.

But that wasn’t true. I’d made my choices with a clear mind in the cold light of day. I knew exactly what I did and why I did it.

I often thought of life as an echo. Stand on the edge of any abyss and shout into the dark, your echo will return. What you send out comes back. You could choose to do what was right or you could choose to do what was wrong, but when you chose wrong, rest assured, those ghosts would come back to haunt you.

Choices have consequences.

They chose wrong.

Chapter 2


We don’t take much with us when we leave. There doesn’t seem to be a point.

What nobody tells you about being the victim of a home invasion is you never know when they’re coming back. And so we left.

That’s why Ash and I stand almost empty-handed in front of the creaking old Victorian house of my childhood summers.

I say “almost” because I’m holding a glossy-leafed plant Eli got me for our ten-year anniversary. Ash named the plant Priscilla years ago, when she was still a cute kid and not an angsty teenager. Priss the pinstripe calathea.

I set Priss on the gravel drive, and we stare up at the house. It looks like something out of a Brontë novel looming above us, a brooding presence with shiny pale bricks and washed-out, jutting attic dormers and dark, spiky turrets. The roof is steep and gabled, the windows long and narrow. The front porch is almost hidden beneath a sweep of ivy that stretches over the brick.

Above the front door in elegant script: Dullahan House.

It is different and yet the same. The house. The driveway. The rustling trees. Standing in the harsh, hot sunlight, staring up at it, I feel the strangest thing. A bizarre disturbance in the air. A restlessness. Like when your skin knows a storm is coming, or the prickly waves of something electric wash over you.

“So this is it.” Ash looks underwhelmed. “How long since you’ve been here?”

“Over twenty years. We came every summer when I was a kid. It’s been in my family for years.”

I have my reasons for not returning after that last summer, but some things are better forgotten than spoken of. Life goes on whether you dwell on the past or not.


Some things are better forgotten than spoken of. Life goes on whether you dwell on the past or not.


“It’s nice, right?” I say.

Ash’s lips twist, a hand on one hip. “Whatever. I don’t have the same disease you do, Mom.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You legit have denialitis. Like, look at this place! It’s totally falling apart.”

I look again at Dullahan House. “Maybe it’s a little . . . shabby, but . . .”

My voice trails off as I take a second look. The pale green trim is cracked and peeling. Some of the brickwork is crumbling. The wooden porch is listing to the side, the shrubbery a little wilder than it should be. I suppose I see what she means. It has a sort of . . . deserted air about it.

It’s the windows. There are too many of them. As if the house is staring at me. Something about it is uninviting, a little stark. A shiver rakes over me despite the midday sun beating down on my arms. Because I of all people know that appearances can be deceiving.

“It’s fine,” I say, because it is. It’s still perfectly pleasing. The front lawn has recently been mowed by the property management company, even if the grass is getting a bit scorched. The gravel driveway has been weeded. “It’s just not been used much lately.”

We’ve had it available as a vacation rental since my mother went into a care home, but when the pandemic hit, not a lot of people were vacationing.

Ash rolls her eyes. “Whatever.”

My body tenses. I wish Eli were here to provide a buffer between us. But now it’s just Ash and me and this house, the only place I could escape to after everything that’s happened. All we have is what’s ahead of us. A new start. A new home. A new life.

“Hey, would you rather have a mullet or no toothpaste for the rest of your life?” I ask as a way of lightening the mood. Would You Rather is something we’ve played since Ash was little. I like it because, like life, it’s a game of choice, and theoretical choices are a lot more fun than real ones.

Ash thinks about this. “A mullet. I could just put it in a ponytail.”

I laugh. Down the road, an ornate black gate creaks open, the shrill, metallic shriek carrying fast under the still, hot sun. The gate encloses this lakeside community of six houses, all made with the same grand old Victorian architecture: three, including mine, sitting directly on the lake and three across the street on a slope.

A BMW rolls through the gates and parks in a driveway across from us. The house is smaller than mine but still beautiful with leaded windows and classic Victorian features.

A woman gets out. She is middle-aged and shaped like a carrot, with scowling, argumentative eyes. Her dark hair is scraped into a high, round bun, and she’s wearing full workout gear, like she’s been to the gym.

A small dog hops out of the car, some sort of Maltese mix with cropped white fur. He catches sight of us and darts across the road as the woman gathers groceries from her trunk. I kneel, my hand extended so he can sniff it. He licks my fingertips and wags his tail.

“Hey, sweetie!” I croon.

I think of my dog back home, Molly, her silky black-and-white fur, her trusting brown eyes, and all the animals at the vet where I worked, and I feel an ache for everything I’ve lost.

“Toby, come!” the woman snaps, her eyes skittering over us. Toby obediently trots back to her, and a second later, they disappear inside.

Ash turns away from me, her blue-black hair ruffling as a hot gust of wind kicks up. She cut it a few weeks before, a short punk-rock bob with a funky little line shaved into the side. I could tell at the time that Eli secretly hated it, but I liked that Ash was confident enough to pull off something so bold. I think it’s brave. She is brave. Brave and courageous. The bravest person I’ve ever known.

An eerie quietness descends. I don’t like it. It reminds me that bad things have happened here. At one point in my life, I swore I would never come back, and yet here I am. I wonder, not for the first time, if returning was the right choice.


Bad things have happened here. At one point in my life, I swore I would never come back, and yet here I am. I wonder, not for the first time, if returning was the right choice.


“You’re going to love it here.” I sound too bright, shiny as a pearl in the sunlight. “The lake is out back, and there’s a beach and a dock and kayaks. Plus, there’s all the woods to explore. And there’s an old boathouse down by the lake. We can get outside more. Go hiking or swimming. Whatever you want.”

This is wishful thinking. Ever since the home invasion, Ash mostly stays locked in her room, where she feels safe. I’m hoping being here can bring a semblance of normality back to our lives.

Ash’s green eyes pin me with a hard glare, forcing me to see the angry red scar the bullet scorched along her hairline near her temple. “Whatever I want except see Dad.”

I want to be honest with her, but what’s the point when I’m not even honest about the things I’ve done? I’ve held my secrets close for so long, they’ve become like a second skin. But secrets turn into lies when they’re spoken out loud, so I measure my reply carefully before giving it.

“It won’t be forever, Ash.”

So often in parenting, love and guilt are intermingled, nearly impossible to separate. I should do this; I shouldn’t do that. It’s never clear until you look back. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as they say.

“The lady from the property management company will be here in about half an hour.” I set Priss in the shade of the porch and grab Ash’s hand. “Come on. I’ll show you the lake.”

We push through a path running along the side of the house. Ash’s black combat boots, too hot for this weather, crunch over the gravel. We emerge into the backyard, and there it is, Black Lake. The water is lower than I’ve ever seen it, climate change and successive droughts taking their toll, but it’s still there, glistening hypnotically in the sun. A wooden dock juts out into the water, shared between my neighbor’s house and mine. Kissing the dark waters is a narrow sand beach that runs for miles in either direction. In the distance, wooded islands dot the lake, towering white pines fringing the shore.

It’s exactly as I remember it: beautiful even though so much ugliness happened here.

“Gee, you can really see why they named it Black Lake.” Ash’s voice is tight and sullen.

“It’s the tannin from the trees. It’s safe, though, I promise.” I point at a path that disappears into the trees fringing the lake. “Let’s go for a walk. There are trails back there.”

I see her hesitate. She’s eager to get inside, to hide away playing Fortnite or reading a book or zoning out while listening to grunge music. Before she has a chance to argue, I head for the wooded path. With no other choice, she follows.

We wander the trail, our shoes crunching over dried twigs and pine cones and packed earth. We follow the shoreline and soon come to the boathouse. It’s ghostly, derelict, crouched among the reeds. The door is locked, so we carry on, following the narrow ribbon of dirt as it cuts through weeds and bushes.

All around us, the trees are thick and tall, the air clean and fresh, practically humming with birds singing and insects buzzing. The heat on my skin and the beads of sweat sliding between my breasts make me feel alive.

I find peace in the quiet stillness and exhale in one massive breath, the way I used to each summer when we’d finally arrive. Those days when I could take my shoes off and run into the water, slurp on half-melted Otter Pops, and marathon Nick at Nite with my summer friends were the best.

Until they weren’t.

We walk for about twenty minutes until we reach a small beach with a felled tree jutting into the lake. Ash unlaces her boots, pushes up her leggings, and walks into the water, one hand pressed against the tree for balance.

The water hits her knees, and there’s a small smile on her face. It warms my heart, and I begin to think maybe, maybe we’ll be okay here.

Ash dives into the water. After a minute, she comes up gasping and laughing, water streaming from her hair. Sometimes the child in her still emerges, the quiet, gentle girl I know. The world is so hard on soft things, I find. On sensitive, bookish introverts like my girl.

“Come in, Mom!”

“Absolutely not!”

She smacks the surface with her palm, sending an arc of water toward me. I jump out of the way, laughing. God, it feels good to laugh!

“All right, all right!” I slip my sundress off and wade in wearing just my bra and underwear.

The water is frigid, and I gasp as the chill bites my skin. “You’ll get used to it!” Ash calls.

The bottom falls away steeply, and soon I am underwater. It steals the breath from my lungs, but Ash is right. It is invigorating.

I swim out to Ash, and gradually our muscles warm as we race each other into deeper water and back. We lose track of time, our fingertips wrinkling as we splash in the shallows and float on our backs.

I’m treading water and laughing, Ash bobbing up and down in the water a little way from me, when I start to feel dizzy. It’s as if the whole world is tilting, a mudslide that I’m caught in. In front of me, Ash shimmers, a mirage in the bright sunlight.

And then, abruptly, she disappears.

I swim in a circle, stunned and confused.

“Ash?” My voice is shrill with panic.

There’s no reply. Adrenaline kicks in my veins.

“Ashley Rose, come out now!”

But she doesn’t.

The lake in front of me has righted. It is flat and calm. My body stills, my eyes darting, my mind forensically flashing through each possibility, the way I do when an animal is sick at the vet, running down the list of likely outcomes.

There are days in the late summer when the air is so thick with heat that time seems to slow down until it feels as if it has stopped altogether. That’s how it feels now—as if time has stopped.


There are days in the late summer when the air is so thick with heat that time seems to slow down until it feels as if it has stopped altogether. That’s how it feels now-as if time has stopped.


I dive under the water. I can’t see much of anything. It’s just a hazy mud color. I scoop my hands back and forth, feeling for Ash’s hair, an arm, a leg. But there’s nothing. My lungs are burning. My heart feels like it’s about to explode. She was just here! What’s happening?

I bob to the surface, gasping, blinking water out of my eyes.


I spin, and there’s Ash, and then I’m crying so hard that my body is shuddering, and Ash is wrapping cold, slippery arms around me.

“Where were you?” My fingers dig into Ash’s upper arms. I shake her, just a bit but hard. Too hard. I push away and tread water. “Where’d you go?”

Ash looks confused and a little scared. “I was . . . under the water.”

“You can’t do that!”

“I’m sorry!”

We stagger out of the water, climbing onto a tree log and letting the warm air dry our skin and hair and clothes. I take deep breaths to calm myself. This is not like me at all. I am cool in a crisis. It’s what makes me a good vet.

Next to me, Ash wraps her arms around herself, rubbing at goose bumps that have popped up despite the heat.

“I’m sorry,” she says again.

I shake my head. “You were just messing around. This is my own thing, Ash. I was scared, and it got the best of me.”

She gets it, I can tell. We’re both haunted by the things that happened.

I close my eyes, but I can’t get the image of her disappearing out of my head. Because it wasn’t like she dipped beneath the water’s surface. This was more like a mirage, the light reflecting off the surface of the water turning her into an optical illusion: there one moment and gone the next.

I have the strangest feeling that I’m coming undone, that my head has opened and the contents are spilling out, swirling into the frigid water. I stare across the lake wondering, not for the first time, what coming back here will do to me. If Dullahan House will be the fresh start I hoped for or the death knell I fear.

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