COTSWOLDS, ENGLAND, 1816
Well, isn’t this simply lovely?
The icy river water rushed into the carriage, sweeping Miss Calliope Worthington from her seat and crashing her into the tilting ceiling of the contraption before towing her out through the opposite door. Gasping at the shocking chill of the water, she choked on froth and mud and terror.
The river tore one of her shoes from her dangling feet. Callie closed her eyes as she clung desperately to the leather hand loop that had dangled annoyingly over her head for the entire journey from her home in London to this dark, flooded Cotswolds bridge.
The other hand was fisted into the back of the coat of her mother, Iris, who had both arms wrapped around Callie’s stout, unconscious father, Archie.
Callie threw back her head and screamed for her brother. “Dade!”
* * *
At last the grand house loomed up in the dark before them, the fine Cotswolds limestone seeming to glow in the moonlight. No one answered the booming summons as they pounded on the vast oak door. Calliope helped her brother Daedalus ease their father’s unconscious body through the unlocked portal and through the dark chill house while Mama followed toting the single small bag they’d managed to recover. No one interrupted their progress through the entrance hall to a small salon.
As Calliope helped her mother clear the dustcovers from a pair of sofas, her heart leaped in relief as her father began to mutter fretfully as he rose to awareness.
Dade turned to her. “Callie, I should go help Morgan with the horses.”
The team, elderly and panicked and quite unused to being swept off bridges by icy snowmelt, had managed to entangle themselves thoroughly in their broken harness. Morgan, the Worthingtons’ driver and general manservant, had elected to stay behind on the riverbank until the horses had calmed.
Callie helped Dade bundle up against the chill though they had nothing dry but a few musty lap rugs found folded up within the window seat. For herself, she turned a dustcover into something of a toga, and hung her dress to dry by the hearth. Then she bent to make a fire by use of the tinderbox on the mantel.
Once Dade had left and Mama had subsided onto the opposite sofa, gazing worriedly at her husband, Callie had a moment to truly examine her surroundings.
It was a very fine house. Grand even, although one could hardly apply such a word to such terrible housekeeping. Really, some people had no respect for their things.
“Mama—” But Mama had drifted off, soothed by the fire and her husband’s even snoring. Calliope brushed a lock of silvering hair from her sleeping mother’s brow, then tugged her makeshift canvas wrapper more tightly about herself. Her gown still dripped on the hearth, like her mother’s and several items of her father’s.
Mama and Papa slept like exhausted children on the paired sofas, now slanted toward the glowing coals heaped in the hearth. If she liked, Calliope could join them in rest, curling up upon a thick albeit dusty rug before the welcome heat.
Or she could satisfy her curiosity as she searched the house for something better for them all.
First, small candlestick in hand, she found the kitchens, situated where most kitchens were—belowstairs in the rear of the fine house. She blinked in surprise at the wealth of hung meat and cheese stored in the vast larder. Baskets of root vegetables sat below the stocked shelves. All things that would keep, to be sure, but why so much in a house where no one had apparently resided for years?
Well, perhaps the owners were on the way even now. Surely they would not begrudge a stranded family a few bites of simple food? Calliope prepared a heaping plate for her mother and another for Dade when he returned with Morgan. Thick slices of salty ham and creamy white cheese kept her own hunger at bay as she carved a bit of cured beef into a pot with water and vegetables to create a soothing broth for her injured father.
She returned to the salon and left the pot of broth to thicken by the fire. She checked Mama’s brow but her mother slept deeply and without any sign of fever or chill. She squeezed Papa’s hand and he grumbled and pulled away, a lovable grump even in sleep.
After lighting the fine silver candelabra from the chimneypiece and leaving it in the front window to ease Dade’s journey “home,” Callie could think of nothing more to do. Restlessly, she tightened her coarse wrapper over her still damp shift and took up her little candle.
Soundless in bare feet, she drifted through the first floor of the house. It was an unworthy thought perhaps, but she reveled in the novel sensation of being completely alone. Her family was large and loving—if sometimes maddening—but she was never, ever, alone.
With seven outrageous siblings and two even more outrageous parents all crammed into the comfortable but shabby house in London, Callie could scarcely recall the last time she’d walked in silence and solitude. Surely it had been years.
And now this lovely house lay before her, empty rooms waiting like a box of bonbons to be unwrapped by no one but her! There was a spacious dining room with a long, grand table fit to seat half the House of Lords, two entirely different but pretty parlors, a music room with piano and a looming, cloth-covered shape that could only be a grand harp, and a library that might have been impressive had not the books been coated in a layer of dust too thick to read the titles through.
It was not the vast, endless mausoleum she had first thought. In fact, if one squinted a bit and imagined clean, jewel-toned carpets and polished woodwork, it would be a most cheerful and welcoming hall. She shuddered and brushed a dangling cobweb from her cheek as she pursued her curiosity up the gracefully curving stair and into the upper gallery. Her own home might be furnished in things well past their best years, but it was also, due to her own industry and the ancient housekeeper’s tutelage, quite spotless.
Well, except for that odd stain in the parlor, where the twins had spilled something nasty and tried to destroy the evidence by dissolving it with something yet nastier …
In the spacious, elegant gallery, silvery light poured through the tall windows along one wall and carved the long room into boxes of light and dark, only slightly blurred by her single flame. Calliope moved into one of the window casements and gazed out at a night turned from stormy nightmare to moonlit dream. She could see the bank of drained clouds moving aside to allow a nearly full moon to spill over her where she stood.
She felt the unwelcome sensation of a string pulled by fate somewhere in the weave of her life. What if they had roused at the inn half an hour earlier this morning? Or had left half an hour later? Either they might have passed over the wooden bridge long before it suffered damage in the flood or they might have simply driven up to it, seen it washed away, and turned safely back.
Yet she must remember to be grateful for the health of her family. It was lucky for them all that Mama had somehow spotted this dark house set back so far from the road.
Callie smiled at the grand space before her and began to run lightly down it in her bare feet, guarding her small candle flame with one hand. Laughing, she curtsied to a very grand old lady in a somber portrait. Some women had no sense of humor. Callie gave the old witch a cheeky salute and spun away, singing just to hear her voice fill the gallery. Just her own voice, alone.
“‘O merry maids do come afore, and let thy feet be dancing…’”
* * *
Ren Porter, recluse and cynic—and don’t forget monster—had been drunk even before the storm began. He hadn’t noticed its arrival and he cared little for its departure, save that he favored his house silent and still.
Draped on a chair before the hearth in his bedchamber—well, perhaps it was bit of a reach to call it “his” bedchamber. It was merely the latest in a long line. When one room became too fouled by smoke and crumbs and empty bottles, Ren simply moved one door down the seemingly endless hall to clean sheets and clean shirts.
It was his bloody house, wasn’t it?
His house, his fire, and his wine cellar, all conveniently provided just when he’d needed it most by an elderly cousin Ren barely remembered.
Feeling unusually mellow due to extreme use of the aforementioned wine cellar, Ren almost tipped his bottle to that cousin, who now doubtless watched the ruination of his fine estate from above—until Ren remembered that he didn’t believe in an above. Or a below.
There was plenty of hell to be found, right here on earth.
So instead, he tipped the bottle to the departed storm, for leaving him in peace and silence—
Now, Ren had experienced a few fever dreams and many drunken hallucinations, but never had one of these visions included the light lilting voice of an angel echoing through his hallowed hermit halls.
Since the pain in his back and shoulder scarcely allowed any chair to give him comfort, it was no great sacrifice to give in to his curiosity and leave his room in search of that haunting melody. It wouldn’t be the first time he tried to chase down an illusion. He’d once spent an entire night chasing a violet dog through the attic, so this hardly seemed odd at all.
The hall was dark but a feeble light shone from an open doorway down the hall. Angel light? Perhaps stealth was in order. Angels didn’t much care for monsters.
And he’d never managed to catch that damned dog …
* * *
Deep within the house, in a grand bedchamber clearly meant for the lady of the house, Callie found a small chest of jewels sitting on an ornate mirrored vanity. She set down her small candleholder so as to reflect in the mirror, doubling her light.
Her dancing had made her warm so she let the canvas wrapper fall to her feet, which freed her hands to run her fingers through the heaped baubles. Playfully she tried them all on, layering strands of rubies, emeralds, and pearls. Her reflection in the mirror was scandalous. Callie grinned.
A slight noise behind her brought a halt to her breathy song. What was that?
Callie frowned at her reflection. It must have been the candle flame guttering, but she almost believed she’d seen a shadow move behind her. That was silliness, of course. The house was empty but for Mama and Papa sleeping downstairs. Perhaps a draft pushing past the shuttered windows had fluttered a bed curtain, just there … in the corner of her vision.
Staring so hard she felt her eyes grow hot, she watched the room behind her, too breathless with tension to even turn around. It seemed safer to stay where she was, standing before the vanity, with the mirror to give her the light of two flames instead of just one.
Then a shadow parted from the others and moved toward her. She shivered. “Dade, don’t play the fool.” Her voice, meant to be sharp, came out a breathless gasp instead. Even as she spoke the words, she knew it wasn’t her brother.
Turn. Turn and run. And scream.
She tried. She took one quick step to her right, prepared to spin on her heel and flee to the door. Her body came up against a solid mass and bounced back. Another swift step, this time to the left, only brought the edge of the vanity pressing to her hipbones once more.
Her throat closed in terror as she watched her own candlelit image in the mirror be dwarfed by the towering darkness behind her. A shade, left alone in the house to wander in mourning, or in anger.
But no, she had bounced off it as if she’d run full on into the chest of a human man. According to legend, a shade would have chilled her, overtaken her, perhaps even drawn the life from her—but bounced her?
“Ah, but you do please.”
Two hands emerged from the darkness and came down to cover her shoulders. They were large and heavy, hot on her bare skin, on the narrow shoulders of her chemise. The weight of them pinned her like a butterfly in a collection, holding her there, standing before the vanity, watching her doom come at her in a mirror.
“I name you thief, sweet angel.”
Callie started at the deep voice.
“Or are you a wraith, sent to torment me with what I can never have? Stealing is a crime. Crimes have penalties, do they not?”
Then the hands slid inward, toward her neck, until her throat disappeared behind them.
I am to die, then.
The ruby necklace slipped its catch, slithering down almost between her breasts before being caught by one of the hands. The hand hefted the jewels.
“Warm, for a wraith.” The voice from behind her was husky and rough, although its tones were cultured. It was also a bit slurred. “Warm enough to heat the stones whilst they glowed upon your skin.”
She shivered as the hand drew the necklace away from her and deposited it back into the open jewel chest on the vanity. When she made to twist away, the hand swiftly returned to hold her still, gentle but implacable, hot and chilling at once.
The sapphire chain came next. This time the hands held the center stone to let the parted ends slither down beneath her chemise. When the skin-warmed silver hung dangling from her nipples, she realized how erect they were, pressing hard and high from beneath the thin batiste.
A warm exhalation upon the back of her neck told her she was not the only one to have seen. Her face flamed. As the hand holding the sapphire necklace left her to return its prize to the jewel chest, she tried to fold her arms over her chest.
“No.” The heavy hands slid smoothly down to her elbows and gently pulled them back, parting her hands and forcing her back to arch. Her breasts jutted obscenely against the tightened chemise, her nipples crowning them like diamond-hard jewels, clearly visible beneath the worn fabric.
“That’s better. This is my haunting, pretty wraith, and I wish to enjoy every moment of it.”
The hands moved slowly back up her arms, eventually allowing her to relax her embarrassing stance, but she dared not try to cross her arms again.
Hot fingers, roughened but gentle, retrieved the earbobs from her lobes. He was only removing what was doubtless his own property, which she’d been very naughty to pilfer, yet as each piece of shimmering glory left her, she felt more and more naked.
“I’m sorry,” she began. “I ought not to have—but if you would only let me exp—”
One large hand covered her mouth, wrapping clear across her face. She stiffened in terror, then began to struggle wildly.
One step forward was all it took for her captor to press her so firmly against the vanity that she was immobilized from the hips down. His large body pressed full against her back, flooding her with heat and fear and an intense awareness of being entirely at his mercy. She could see her own eyes, wide with shock in the mirror, then gazed higher to find that the shade had a face after all.
He was half in shadow still, the candlelight blocked by her body, so all that she could see was one eye, one slanting cheekbone, one side of a sculpted jaw. Dark hair fell long and unfettered against that unshaven cheek, shadowing his features until all she could see was that eye, dark and intense and perhaps a little mad.
Handsome. Dangerous. She’d never known a demon could be so beautiful.
Caught by that heated gaze, she didn’t move again, nor try to scream around his repressive hand. After a moment, the hand slid from her mouth and wrapped loosely about her throat. She let it, feeling the heat of his palm sink into her flesh, gentled in spite of her fear.
The other hand slid down her arm to remove the diamond bracelet from her wrist. As it reached across her to deposit the jewelry into the case, his muscled arm brushed against her rigid nipples. Callie gasped at the sensations jolting through her at such shocking contact.
Never. Never, ever. She’d never been touched … there.
And you never will. Your time has passed, remember? A spinster’s life, that’s all there is before you.
He froze as well, his arm still crossing her body. Then, slowly, he pulled it back, dragging it intentionally sideways. His fine white sleeve tugged slightly at the paper-thin chemise, rubbing the fabric into delicate flesh so tight it ached.
A sound came out of Callie’s throat. Part fear, part shock, part astonished, shivering awakening.
She began to shiver now, her body caught in tremors beyond her ability to still. His arm dropped away. She closed her eyes tightly.
All he has done is take back his jewels. Perhaps he yet means me no harm.
“A virgin fantasy? Not my usual delusion, but one learns not to argue the point.” His tone was soft, odd, as if she weren’t even there.
“Seduction, then? Make her want me? Impossible. This is even worse than the damned dog…”
Callie’s eyes squeezed shut more tightly. He thought she wished to be seduced? Yet what else was a man to think, to find a soaking-wet, half-naked girl in his rooms? Horror laced through her, building in her throat, unable to be released in a scream.
One shoulder of her chemise began to slip down, down …
She started, jerking in his grasp. “Shh,” he whispered in her ear. “There’s nothing to fear, sweet wraith. You are simply too lovely to remain concealed.”
One half of Callie’s mind was gibbering in panic, running about in tiny circles and waving mad hands in the air. The other half wondered at a man who seemed so determined to be gentle with a woman so entirely in his power.
She felt his arm go around her and then the other tiny sleeve fell halfway down her elbow. A tug on the fabric was all it took to drag the damp, clinging fabric to puddle at her waist, her arms trapped at the elbow by the sleeves. The chill in the room sent another shiver through her that seemed to culminate in her ever-hardening nipples.
She felt rather than heard him drag in a long, deep breath.
“Open your eyes.”
Callie hesitated, then did as he commanded her in that roughened voice. The image in the mirror was a wicked one, indeed. Her shoulders, her torso, her breasts, bare and ivory against the larger darkness of him behind her. The crumpled chemise, pinning her arms, made her look shameless, somehow almost worse than being naked.
She raised her gaze to her own eyes in the mirror, wide and shocked above his big hand covering her mouth … Is that me?
“You yet have something of mine.”
She still wore the long strand of perfect pearls. It draped down between her breasts, gleaming ethereally in the golden glow of the candle.
Her hands fluttered up to take it off, but he caught them like butterflies, trapped carefully in his larger ones. He pressed their tangled fingers between her breasts.
“You could keep it, delicious spirit, if you wish.”
The words were broken, as if torn from a throat unused to coaxing anyone for anything.
“A small request, perhaps? No, too many in my mind to choose … I could ask for more … one for each and every pearl?”
Warm fingers trailed down the strand, brushing lightly on her skin. “There are so many pearls … I could keep you for a year or more with such a bounty. Would you return to me each night to earn a pearl? A dying man’s wish? I would release you happily in the end, if only you would bring your warmth to my cold evenings and my colder dawns…”
Callie felt some of the fear leak away at the loneliness in his deep voice. He did not know what he said, locked into his brandy-soaked fancies. She would explain herself, convince him that she was a real girl, a gently bred one at that, fallen upon his hearth in need of shelter from the storm.
Then, releasing her, his hot hands closed over her breasts and his hot mouth dove down upon her neck. Her gasp of shock and protest was lost in the deep growl of need reverberating from his throat as he drew her back hard against him.
Then he was gone, torn from her with a violence that spun her hard against the vanity. Unable to catch herself with her arms pinned to her sides, she stumbled and fell to the floor. The strand of pearls caught upon the corner of the marble tabletop and broke as she fell. Iridescent orbs bounced and scattered everywhere.
She scrambled to her hands and knees, frantically tugging her chemise back up, then turned to see two struggling forms in the shadows.
On her feet once more, she grabbed her candle and held it high. Two heads, one dark and one light—that would be Dade, his hair much more golden than her own! Callie searched for something heavy to swing, ready to enter the fray in defense of her brother.
Then the fight swung closer to her and she saw what had been hidden from her in the mirror. Her assailant’s face, twisted and half ruined—dark and demonic!
Callie screamed and lost her grip on the candlestick. The room went entirely dark.
Copyright © 2013 by Celeste Bradley