A bride is sent off into the unknown to marry a stranger on All Hallows Eve, October 31, 1749.
What she finds on her arrival is enough to make her skin crawl.
Limping footsteps, blood-curdling screams, smoking torches, and a house on a cliff… A man she only sees in the dark, his breathing labored behind a mask.
“A betrothal is as good as the wedding vows. You cannot leave.”
“Am I your prisoner?”
“You shall stay here until you bear me a child. Then you can stay or go, the choice shall be mine!”
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I have always liked the damsel in distress at the mercy of a ruthless rogue trope, and I wanted to write my own. The Gothic elements add so much atmospherics, I just couldn't resist.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The heroine had to be very young and inexperienced, to offset the rogue – world-wize, cynical. The other characters popped into the story as they were needed to carry the story smoothly forward.
It was a very dark night, the one before All Hallows’ Eve. Somewhere along the southeastern tip of Africa, at the edge of the Cape Colony, a carriage traveled along a lonely lane. It could barely be distinguished from the night, except when lightning snaked across the ebon dome. In the blinding light, the carriage shimmered in the torrential downpour; the four horses turned to silver.
The coachman had his hat pulled down low, and his coat collar turned up. The hands holding the reins were as wet as the horses. He let out a steady stream of whistling, often punctuated by curses too ribald for delicate ears. This was meant to reassure the horses—if they could hear it over the din. Their ears twitched as if they did.
The coachman was the only human being to be seen. There was no footman on the step behind the luggage rack, nor any outriders accompanying the carriage.
The single occupant of the vehicle was mercilessly tossed about. The road, barely more than a rutted track, led deeper into the unknown. Forests crowded closer around.
Lenora’s fingers ached from a combination of the damp seeping into the carriage and the effort of keeping her seat.
Neither the weather, nor the time of night, were conducive to safe and comfortable travel, but tomorrow was Halloween, the Year of Our Lord 1749.
Tomorrow, 31 October, was a wedding day, and the bride-to-be was still en route.
Rear wheels skidded around a bend, the vehicle lurching wildly. The tiny lantern, the only light inside the vehicle, was dashed against the wooden paneling for the umpteenth time. It seemed to be one time too many. The glass shattered, raining shards onto the floor. Plunged into deep darkness, Lenora’s heart contracted with fear. Her “Stanley, slow down!” was absorbed by another crash of thunder directly overhead and remained unheard by the one it was addressed to.
Darkness weighed down on her like a heavy cloak. Now only the lantern on the outside, made of sturdier stuff, provided meager light. She drew the curtain aside, but all she could see was rock no more than a hand-span from the window. Scooting along the seat to the opposite side, she whipped that curtain aside. There was nothing there but impenetrable blackness. The edge of the road dropped away sharply, barely containing the wheels. Dislodged stones and scree tumbled into the dark void.
Lenora screamed, she couldn’t help it. She was terrified. The carriage, horses and all, seemed to be about to plunge into the gaping maw.
As if he heard her, Stanley’s whip cracked. By sheer strength born from fear, the horses pulled the vehicle around the bend to safety.
Lenora’s heart hammered against her ribs as she tried in vain to swallow her terror, but when the rear of the coach swung out and crashed into the bank, she couldn’t even manage another cry. Again the whip cracked, extracting every last drop of speed the horses were capable of.
The next flash of lightning, almost instantly followed by an earsplitting rumble, showed the road easing away from the cliff. The almost palpable danger was over. The carriage imperceptibly slowed to continue rattling and creaking, jostling its solitary occupant, along the bumpy road.
Lenora heaved a shaky sigh of relief. She pulled a folded sheet of paper from her pocket and flattened it on her thigh. It was too dark to read, but the comforting words were seared into her memory. They meant more to her in her moment of anguish than any other passage she might have recalled.
My dearest Miss Hastings,
It is with impatience I await the moment of meeting you in the flesh again. I wish you well until our wedding day on October 31 and I hope an All Souls’ celebration would augur many happy years with your presence gracing my humble home as my wife.
Henry Du Pré
Your betrothed husband.
A sigh escaped her lips as she pressed the paper to her chest.
This journey should have ended long ago. Her nerves were shot, as much by the hazards of camping on the side of the road for the past nights and the packed food running out, as coming face to face with the stranger she was to marry.
Without warning, one of the horses reared, bringing the carriage to a sudden, jerking halt. Lenora was tossed from her seat and fell to her knees.
“Damn cat!” Stanley cussed over the din.
Lenora dusted herself off as she clambered back into her seat and returned the rug to her lap. She couldn’t get the window open fast enough. A cat? Out here, in the middle of nowhere?
Cold rain splashed her face. “Stanley! Go get it!” she demanded. “Poor darling must be cold and terrified.”
Her coachman leaned down from his perch, the lantern below him highlighting the creases of his face. He looked like a tokoloshe. “Now, madam?”
She tried to suppress a shiver. “Yes, now. Quickly, Stanley, before it disappears into the bush.” He didn’t really look like a short, hairy spirit, looking to make trouble.
Lenora strained to see out of the window when Stanley straightened, presumably to find where the feline had gone. Just then, something black, discernible only by its speed, streaked along the edge of the road past the horses. They screamed in fear, pulling away to the side. Only Stanley’s physical strength kept a wheel from going into a ditch. His whistles shrilled over the sounds of nature.
By the time he brought the horses under control, their muscles twitched. Snorting, they stomped in the mud. The cat was way ahead of the team now, and in the next flash of lightning, Lenora saw it dash into the undergrowth, and it was gone.
“Sorry, too late now, ma’am.” Stanley stood on the platform to bring the carriage back to the center of the lane. It rocked as each horse pulled against each other in a different direction. The whip cracked over their heads, again and again.
It took a while for order to be restored and the carriage to roll forward. As they passed the place the cat had disappeared, Lenora craned her neck. The light from the lantern caught something glittery, and just for a moment, yellow eyes met the green ones of the traveler before they were lost from sight.
“You did that on purpose!” Lenora snapped. Shoving the window closed with a crack, she flung herself back into her seat.
The forest closed in on the road from both sides until the branches met overhead. The rain became a soft hiss on the roof. It was eerily quiet and very dark, the only light cast by the swinging lantern and sporadic lightning filtering through the trees.
Lenora peered alternatively out the windows on either side, holding her breath. Ghostly fingers of mist hung between the trees, but when they emerged from the tunnel, the carriage was enveloped in white. Everything seemed brighter and lighter. It was as if they had emerged into a different world.
Lenora stared out of the window, even though there was nothing to see but white. When a shape appeared from the mist, she gasped, her hands clasped under her chin. It took a moment to recognize it as a horse, white as the mists. Its mane and tail flew as it kept pace with the coach.
The road leveled out, and the going became smoother. Stanley slowed the horses to a walk as they approached a fork in the road. The white horse reared, neighing, its hooves cutting through the white. The sound was amplified and distorted by the fog, leaving goosebumps all over her body.
As the carriage followed the road to the right, a house loomed out of the haze. When she looked for it again, the white horse was gone.
The house was unlike any she’d seen since leaving Cape Town. Double-storied, the gable facing them was as tall as the highest point of the peeked roof, a dormer window on either side. The windows on the ground floor jealously guarded their secrets. There was a round tower with a flat, crenelated roof at each end of the building.
Stanley stood on the brakes, his whoa distorted by the mist. The enormous vehicle rattled to a halt in front of double doors.
The journey was finally at an end.
Excitement, mingled with trepidation, filled Lenora. The moment of truth was finally upon her.
Unnoticed, her fist crumpled Henry’s letter, and she clutched it to her heart. The house was in complete darkness. Surely he was expecting her? Yet, there was no sign of life behind the windows.
Pushing the carriage window down a crack, she studied what she could see of the imposing facade. Lightning reflected off brass studs around the edges of the double doors. She’d never seen a door like that. The house had every appearance of belonging in a different era, a different country.
But where was everyone?
The coachman, the four big black horses stomping in the rain, and her might have been the only living creatures in this strange place. She felt utterly alone.
Stanley appeared beside the carriage and opened the door a crack. She closed the window and drew the woolen shawl tighter around her shoulders when wind whooshed into the conveyance, bringing with it a flurry of rain, and found its way under the rug over her knees; it even got inside her petticoats. She shivered again.
“I don’t think anyone is home, Miss Lenora.”
“Someone has to be here, Stanley. I am expected.”
“Of course, ma’am. I’ll knock on the door then, shall I?” He closed the carriage door, cutting off the wet cold, and turned to the steps. Runnels on the window distorted his diminishing shape.
Lenora wiped the condensation from the glass. It helped marginally to improve the vision of her coachman hammering a fist on the door. Even from her position in the carriage, she heard the hollow echo through the house.
Stanley gripped the latch and heaved his shoulder against the wood. The hinges creaked ominously as the door gave way, and Stanley stumbled into the hall. Dead leaves collected in the entrance, along with a blast of rain, was sucked in after him.
No one was in attendance. A fire should have been lit to welcome her, and every torch should have been ablaze. But there was no sign of life about the place.
Uncertain what to do next, Stanley turned back, keeping out of the rain as best he could. He hauled up his shoulders and half-raised his hands.
Lenora pushed the window down again. “Go in, Stanley, and see if you can find the kitchens. If anyone is home, there will be signs of it in the kitchens. Don’t mind me—I’ll be safe enough here. Quickly, now.” She closed the window, giving her servant no chance to object.
Leaving the door open behind him, Stanley was swallowed by the house. With nothing to do but wait, Lenora folded her hands under the rug, her eyes trained on the porch where the only other living being she knew of had disappeared.
The wind rocked the carriage and howled around the house. She studied the dark windows of the tower rooms under the fortifications, then the dormer windows. They all remained dark.
A shiver shook her shoulders.
With Stanley somewhere in the house, she was all alone.
A horse approached at speed; the hoof beats coming closer and closer. It came out of the night like a specter. Lenora cringed into the farthest corner of the carriage, her eyes stiff in her head.
Lightning flashed just as the horse came to a skidding halt, and the rider slid from the saddle. A black cloak fluttered in the wind, intermittently revealing a red lining.
She only saw the woman on the back of the horse when the man lifted her down. He slapped the horse’s rump, sending it back into the mists. The man pushed the woman in the direction of the open doorway. She carried a woven basket in one hand.
“Send Agnes down. I’ll be up soon. Do what you can.” The words were torn away by the wind, but Lenora heard. The woman was about to head for the stairs when the man caught her arm. Her head snapped around. The one word had to be distorted by the weather because it sounded like he told her to…scream.
Scream? Why would he instruct her to scream?
The woman nodded once, then swept a glance over the conveyance in the driveway. Lightning raced across the sky when the woman’s eyes collided with Lenora’s.
Those eyes were colorless, like water, and ringed by black, spiky lashes. A tremor shook her shoulders. And when the woman smiled, her breath halted in her throat. Everything started going dark around her.
The woman turned away and scurried up the steps, and the moment passed. Her hood blew off her head, spilling silvery blonde hair to the whim of the wind, the mass of it instantly darkened by the rain.
Lenora clasped her hands under her chin. They trembled violently. When Stanley appeared in the doorway, she could have cried with relief. She had no idea why that woman had affected her like that, but for a moment, she had been terrified.
Stanley gaped after the woman like an idiot when she passed him in the doorway and disappeared inside, clutching her basket to her chest. Lenora’s breath returned to normal as soon as the woman was gone.
The man turned and, with hands on hips, surveyed the vehicle in the driveway. He seemed unconcerned, or unaware, of the rain plastering his hair to his head. Lightning was followed almost instantly by booming thunder. From the shadows of the carriage, Lenora watched him with fingers pressed to her lips. He clutched the flapping edges of his cloak in one hand to pull the carriage door open with the other.
She gulped audibly when he filled the space. His bulk blocked most of the wind and rain, his glance sweeping the interior. She cringed into her corner, hoping he wouldn’t notice her. But the next lightning streak turned night into day, and his face a waxy gray. His eyes fixed on her, huddled in the seat.
When the light faded, she only had the illumination of the lantern to go by. He swept the hair back from his face, his eyes deeply shadowed. The meager light created hollows in the sharply etched features.
He was terrifying.
Ignoring the rain running down his face, he held a gloved hand out to her. Clearly, he expected her to trust him.
“Henry?” she managed through uncooperative lips. “Henry Du Pré?”
Over the rain hammering on the roof of the carriage, he said, “You can’t stay out here.” He expected her to obey him, too. This was not a man she wanted to cross. She hesitated only a moment before her hand disappeared into his gloved palm. When he pulled her to her feet, the broken glass crunched under her shoes, a grim reminder of what it had cost her to get here.
He vacated the doorway to make space for her to alight. She gasped when the wind flung cold rain into her face. Without hesitation, he swept her up into his arms against a solid chest and pushed her face into his neck.
He shouldn’t do that, she should object to the intimacy, but then she smelled his skin—a clean, all-male smell, mingled with undertones of horse and tobacco. She swallowed the protest. This was Henry, her betrothed, and tomorrow they would speak the vows. He was only gallantly assisting his bride.
Splashing through the puddles, he leaped up the stairs. She turned her head to see where he was taking her. It was as he twisted his shoulders to enter the doorway with his burden that she saw the cat.
It stood with its tail straight up in the air, its hind feet clawing the wet stone as if marking his territory. It watched her with yellow eyes glowing in the dark, the black fur plastered to its body.
Might it be the same cat they had encountered on the road?
The man stepped over the threshold into the hall, ignoring the cat, before he allowed her feet to touch the stone floor. The moment she made contact, she felt it—something in the dark, something creepy. A vice closed around her heart. She was scared; she wasn’t going to lie.
A match flared, then a torch started to smoke in a sconce against the wall. Increasing light pushed the shadows into the corners. As if noticing him for the first time, the man turned to Stanley. The dark gentleman towered over the bedraggled, plump coachman. Wordlessly, the coachman held out an oilcloth-wrapped bundle. Henry took it and tucked it under his arm.
Lenora glanced from her servant to the cat. He’d slipped into the hall after them. She would address the subject of obedience with Stanley at a more appropriate time. He did manage to bring her to her new home under the most adverse conditions, and at the moment, he was the only familiar person in this strange and scary place.
The cat regally crossed the hall to the stairs, where he perched on the bottom step and started drying himself. Henry urged her across the hall with a hand on her back. She only had time for a swift glance about.
The entrance was stark in the shifting torchlight. It was bare of furniture except for a tall clock in the corner and dominated by a large, cold fireplace. Stairs curved into the darkness of the upper floor.
Henry opened a door just as the clock struck the midnight hour.
A tremor shook Lenora, and she closed her eyes to shut out the dark room she was being ushered into.
A black cat, a white horse, and a dark, fearsome gentleman on a stormy night…
The next moment, her eyes flew open when a scream vibrated the very air around her.
It was all she could do not to fling herself into the stranger’s arms. He glanced toward the upper landing, unceremoniously pushing her into the other room. The darkness in there was solid, possessively revealing nothing. He guided her to a padded seat she couldn’t see but felt when he pressed her down into it.
She sensed him moving away. A match flared, highlighting the hand holding the flame high. Dropping to a knee, the kindling caught as soon as he held the match to it. The growing flames displaced the darkness, yet, with his back to her, she couldn’t see the man’s face. His shoulders were set in forbidding lines. Dark, almost black hair fell over his collar and ears and dripped rainwater onto the floor.
He held his hands out to the brightening flames for a moment before he slipped the bundle from under his arm. He seemed to have forgotten her as he flipped through the sheets of paper. Eventually, he straightened and turned. With his back to the fire, his face was in the shadows.
“How long has it been since…?”
She waited for him to continue, but when he didn’t, she cleared her throat and completed the question for him. “Since we last saw each other? If you will recall, I was only a little girl, so it is many years since. I don’t remember you.”
With a frown, he opened a drawer and deposited the papers inside. That was when she noticed the impressively carved bureau under the window. It had a rolled top, which was closed now, and drawers all the way to the floor on either side of the enormous chair.
The fire finally lit his face when he turned back to her. A strong face, heavy brows pulled down over penetrating eyes, the lips compressed.
Still, she couldn’t be sure he was who she expected him to be. She had no point of reference to guide her. But, now that she could see his face, he wasn’t all that scary. She assigned her fear to the night and the unfamiliar place she found herself in.
In fact, he could be what every young girl wanted in marriage—not too old, stylish, and well-heeled. Her father had done better by her than she had given him credit for. This was a man she could love. For the first time in her young life, she was ready to fall in love.
The hardships of the past days paled. She was here now, and in the morning, she would become this man’s wife.
Some of what she was feeling had to show on her face, for he opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, a boy of about fifteen rushed into the room, a nightcap flopping over his eyes. He lit the candles placed around the room. All the while, she felt Henry’s regard on her, studying her closely in the strengthening light, until the boy’s task was done.
Hovering beside the door, the boy waited to be acknowledged. Henry eventually looked at him, the light catching different angles and planes of his face. His features looked chiseled from stone, so precisely even they were. Fine lines wrinkled the corners of his eyes.
“Auntie Agnes, she says, do you want ’freshments?” the boy stammered.
“Yes, please. Ask her to bring a tray.” His voice was rich and smooth, used to giving orders. The timbre touched her nerve endings, eliciting a tremor of a different kind.
Even though Lenora stared hard at the man, there was nothing familiar about his face. He was every bit as large as she’d first thought him to be. Under the cloak, his black leather doublet, worn over a white shirt with sleeves gathered at the wrists, was studded with silver. The breeches encased well-defined thighs.
When the boy was gone, and he turned his attention back to her, she noticed the white scar from his hairline across his left eye and cheek to his chin. It was accentuated by the growth of stubble on the lower part of his face.
Wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue, she touched a finger to her own cheek. “What happened?”
The corner of his mouth quirked. “A little accident while cleaning my musket.”
Confused, she noticed the luminescent gray of his eyes, ringed by dark, wet lashes, topped by thick black brows, and she forgot he had looked amused by her question. She had never seen eyes like that. They seemed to register everything they beheld.
When he held a hand out to her, a frown pulled her brows together.
What did he want?
It took a finger pointing at the sheet of paper still clutched in her hand for understanding to dawn. He wanted his letter back? When she held it out to him, he smoothed the crumpled paper between his hands and read the words that had given her such courage on her way here.
Smiling shyly, she told him so. “Your letter was a comfort to me when I was scared and alone. Thank you for sending it to guide me to you.”
When he lifted his head, her smile dwindled. His full lips were tight, accentuating the brackets around them. He glared at her from eyes like flint. He looked absolutely furious.
Sounds of the carriage and horses interrupted, barely discernible over the howling of the wind and rain driven against the windows.
“I apologize for the house being in darkness when you arrived and no one here to see to your immediate needs. Why did your family send you off unchaperoned and unguarded?”
“I assure you, Stanley is quite up to the task of protecting me. He has the strength of three men.” Even though he suffered from selective disobedience, she grumbled to herself. But now wasn’t the time to mention the cat she’d wanted him to catch for her. The cat was here now, safe and sound.
“I wasn’t implying—” He dropped his chin, his eyes partially hidden. “It is a long journey from Cape Town for a young woman on her own. You should at least have waited for the weather to improve before setting out.”
Lenora folded her hands together in the volumes of her skirt. “Tomorrow is All Hallows’ Eve, our wedding day. I wanted to be here sooner, to get settled in, but the weather was only getting worse. I was concerned that I might not be able to get here on time if I delayed any longer.”
A fleeting frown creased his brow and was gone. “I see,” he muttered. “Quite eager to be wed, aren’t you?”
Lenora opened her mouth to defend her motivation when an older woman appeared in the doorway, bearing a tray with a carafe and two goblets. Lenora nearly sighed with relief. She’d been worried about being the only woman in a house full of men, with no one to talk to.
When Henry nodded, the woman placed her burden on the table in front of the fire. Only after she had straightened did she glance at Lenora. She clasped her hands in front of her, waiting for further instructions.
“Agnes, this is Miss Hastings. Please, light the fire in the front room and take a tray of victuals up.” He turned to Lenora. “Agnes Braun is the housekeeper and cook here at Ghost Horse Farm. She is the person to call on if you have need of anything.”
Lenora cleared her throat. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Braun. I’m sorry for the trouble at this late hour.”
“Please, it’s just Agnes, and it’s no trouble, ma’am. I fed your man in the kitchen. He will bed down in the stables. He wanted me to assure you he will rub the horses down well.”
“Thank you, Agnes,” Lenora smiled, very aware of gray eyes studying her.
When the woman was gone, Henry filled the goblets with red wine, handed her one, and almost drained the other in one gulp. He refilled it immediately. Shaking his cloak off his shoulders, he spread the soggy garment over a pair of chairs in front of the fire. He brooded into the flames for a while before turning back to her.
“Drink. It will warm your insides.”
Obediently, Lenora took a sip. She had never tasted wine before, but it was delicious. Her father hadn’t allowed alcohol in the house while she was growing up, but he wasn’t here now, and she was a soon-to-be-married woman. She took another sip.
The glass was empty too soon, but when she returned it to the tray, she had to use both hands for fear of dropping it. She felt decidedly wobbly. It had to be the insufficient nourishment since leaving Cape Town.
Henry took her elbow. “You must be exhausted. Let me show you to your room. We will talk in the morning.”
He led her back into the freezing hall. She didn’t miss the sidelong, brooding look he repeatedly sent her way as they climbed the stairs. The black cat streaked past them and disappeared into the dark above.
“Did you tell her to scream, the woman you brought on the horse?”
He looked down at her with a frown. “Of course not. Why would I do that?”
“Then who screamed just now?”
“Don’t trouble yourself. We have a bit of a crisis… The woman knows what to do.”
Her eyes felt heavy, and all she wanted was to get into a warm, comfortable bed. His crisis had nothing to do with her, as long as it didn’t interfere with the wedding tomorrow. After that, she’d assume her role as mistress of his house and take care of his problems.
The stairs ended on a landing, a passage leading off into the dark in both directions. Directly opposite was a single door. Tired as she was, she couldn’t have missed the gargoyles on either side of it because the moment she raised her eyes, lightning flashed through an oriel window high in the gable. She sucked her breath in sharply, pulling back.
He looked first at the gargoyles, then down at her. “They’re only stone figures.”
“Why are your gargoyles inside? They belong outside, don’t they?”
He looked up at the snarling faces again. “When the house was built, putting them here seemed like a good way of scaring innocent young girls.” Unsmiling, he looked inscrutable in the unforgiving light from outside. She gulped and dropped her eyes from his.
It was drafty and dark on the upper level. Their footsteps tapped hollowly against the floorboards when he led her down the passage on the left. Two doors opposite each other opened off it. The cat sat in front of the door on the left, its tail neatly tucked around its paws, waiting for the door to be opened. When Henry ushered her inside and left the door ajar behind them, the cat sedately followed as if he owned the place.
Lenora looked round. Flames in the fireplace cast shifting shadows on the walls. Although the fire was newly lit, already the chill was wearing off. Candles burned on every available surface. It looked warm and welcoming.
The four-poster against the opposite wall was hung with deep-green velvet, open on one side to allow the heat in. A red carpet covered the floor in front of the bed, which was invitingly turned down. There was a cushioned seat in the window.
Lenora slipped her shawl from her shoulders. Henry took it from her and spread it over the back of the couch. “Do you have something warmer than this?” he asked.
“My cloak got wet.”
A dresser with a looking glass on top occupied the corner under a narrow window beside the fireplace. There was a small bureau in front of the window on the other side, and a comfortable-looking couch faced the fireplace. The wind rattled the windows in their frames, but the drapes barely moved in the draft.
Smoke belched down the chimney into the room, only to be sucked out again. Lenora looked up at the man on whose goodwill she depended. The vows had not yet been spoken, and he could still send her back to her father for any reason he might devise.
He was a stranger to her—some people changed more over time than others. It could also be the scar on his face making him seem unfamiliar. She’d get used to the scar. It was a clean cut, with no jagged puckering, and would fade in time. It lent his face a ruggedness that went well with the intensity of the rest of him. At least he wasn’t as old as she’d anticipated him to be. On the contrary, he was a man she’d be proud to claim as her husband, even though he scared her a little, too. She’d get used to him.
He opened his mouth as he took a step toward her when a rap on the open door interrupted him. Agnes, bearing a tray with covered dishes on it, stood in the doorway. At his nod, she placed her burden on the bureau. When she straightened and spotted the cat on the foot of the bed, she shooed the feline out the door. The cat sneaked back in unnoticed a moment before the panel closed.
Determined little beggar, aren’t you. Lenora smiled.
A spine-chilling scream not even the weather could diminish filled the night. Lenora took an involuntary step closer to Henry, gripping her throat with both hands.
“There it is again. Who is that?”
“It’s nothing but the wind. Don’t let it distress you.” He turned away to follow the housekeeper from the room. “Lock the door behind me and don’t open it for anyone but me. You will be safe here. Enjoy your meal, then go to bed. Don’t worry about anything you might hear. The wind brings strange sounds, and things happen at All Hallows’ Tide.” He already had the door open when he added, “We will discuss what needs to be done in the morning.”
He had barely closed the door when another scream ripped through the sounds of the tempest outside.
Lenora clutched the nearest bedpost, the knuckles of one hand shoved into her mouth. The cat, in the process of making himself comfortable at the foot of the bed, arched his back, his tail puffed, his yellow eyes on the door. Lenora reached comforting fingers to him.
The scream went on and on, echoing through the house, making it difficult to determine where it was coming from. The tail end was swallowed by the storm.
In the relative silence, she waited for the next scream while the cat purred under her caress. When none came, she quickly locked the door as Henry had bidden her. With her back to the wood, she listened carefully, but now there were only the sounds from outside. The cat curled up on the bed and went to sleep.
Tantalizing aromas came from under the cloches on the tray. Her stomach rumbled. She was starving—her last meal had been breakfast, a hurried affair of the last of the porridge cooked on a smoking roadside fire in the rain, and a cup of water.
Crossing the room to the bureau, she tossed another log from the pile onto the fire on her way.
Under the covers were a steaming bowl of broth, bread and cheese, and a goblet of ruby red wine. She pulled the chair out and spread the napkin in her lap. The soup was as delicious as it smelled. She ate everything brought for her.
Her father had given her the barest of facts about the man she was to marry. All she knew was that Henry Du Pré was some sort of a business associate of her father’s. Father had said in so many words that he was pleased her husband was older, to curb her waywardness.
Waywardness? She had refrained from responding.
Her betrothed was supposed to be a wealthy landowner on the frontier, and what she had seen of his house so far, she could believe that. Her father had been specific to point out that Henry needed an obedient wife. She believed that, too.
As a girl nearing her nineteenth birthday, she’d dreamed about her wedding day for years. She’d imagined her husband to be a powerful man with a mansion and many servants. She’d pictured him as a handsome man with impeccable manners. They would fall deeply in love the very moment their eyes met for the first time.
That hadn’t happened.
Although she approved of his appearance, her wariness negated any romantic feelings she might have felt for him. She still had trouble thinking of him as her Henry. ‘Sir’ or ‘My Lord’ seemed more appropriate.
Given the news that she was a bride betrothed, she’d wanted to ask many questions, but her father had been too impatient to get her ready for the journey to allow her to voice any of her concerns. As his final obligation to her—after another man had accepted responsibility for her—he had shouted for a seamstress. The woman and her assistants had been charged with the making of a wedding gown, a few new day frocks, nightrail, and petticoats. A warm cloak had been added as an afterthought.
“Mr. Du Pré promised more clothes as part of your bride price.” As if her wedding had been a business transaction successfully concluded, her father had turned to the door.
“How much did he pay you for me, Father?” The sum would be an indication of how badly Henry Du Pré wanted her.
“A gentleman never reveals such details to the bride-to-be. Given women’s want to take exception, such knowledge could lead to marital discord from the beginning, and a man needs peace in his home.”
Where had Father gotten his information about women from? If her memory served, Mother had never been a nagging wife, and she herself had rarely made any demands on him.
“But what sort of a man is he?”
“A rich one. The rest you will find out for yourself soon enough. The wedding is arranged for the morning of All Hallows’ Eve, the 31st day of October.” The door had closed with a thump before she could voice another question.
Being wealthy didn’t mean he was of good character, but she knew she’d get no more out of her father. It would have been helpful to know what kind of business connected Henry Du Pré and her father.
Throughout the two weeks’ preparation for her departure, she’d desperately tried to glean more details about the house she would be the lady of, and where, exactly, she would be going, until, exasperated, her father had told her she would be going east and not to trouble her silly head about it. Stanley would have the exact directions to get her there in the shortest possible time. As to what Henry looked like, her father had huffed a single word. “Ginger.”
“Who are you sending with me as my chaperon, Father?” He would have turned away and left the room had she not gripped his sleeve. Her eyes had been insistent on the face she’d known all her life. “Mother would have wanted me to arrive at my husband’s door with dignity and the assurance of propriety.”
How she’d missed her mother then. She would have understood the anxiety of submitting to a man a few words would turn into her husband. What did Father know of the yearnings and fears of an eighteen-year-old girl?
The mention of her mother had given her father pause, and he had shaken her hand from his arm. “Must you make trouble over everything, Lenora? You are getting yourself a husband of means. Can’t you say thank you, Father, and be done?”
In the end, she’d left Cape Town before sun-up on a blustery, wet October 25th to face her destiny on her own, with only Stanley as her protector. A burly man gone a bit to seed, Stanley had been in her father’s employ since he had been but a lad. He was fiercely loyal to his employer, and by default, to his employer’s daughter.
Now here she was, and more questions popped into her head than answers. If the wedding had been arranged for tomorrow, she had seen no evidence of it. Where were all the servants Henry was supposed to have? It didn’t seem like a bride had been expected at all.
And Henry Du Pré himself worried her. For one thing, he didn’t seem to be old enough. She had expected a man at least twice her own age. This man certainly didn’t look close to forty. Another thing was her father’s one-word description of Henry. There was nothing ginger about the man in whose house she found herself.
But, over and above the discrepancies around Henry, there was one question uppermost in her mind—who had screamed like that? That blonde woman, as instructed by Henry?
Or was there something more sinister to the screaming?
Stanley seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth, her luggage with him. It didn’t look as if the man of the house was going to remember the arrival of his bride again tonight, either. She might as well go to bed, as he had told her to. She didn’t feel like a bride after the decidedly cool reception she’d received.
She was going to have to sleep in her shift. No maid had been provided to help her undress, so she was going to have to manage on her own.
The buttons behind her back were nearly inaccessible, and it took all her ingenuity to pull the heavy velvet traveling robe up behind her head, bit by bit, until she had pried every button from its loop. At least the effort took her mind off the rumbling thunder and the wind howling around the house and down the chimney.
Her arms ached by the time she allowed the robe to slide to the floor. It caressed her hips and stroked her legs before it pooled by her feet. The chill bit into her skin through her petticoats. The room was getting warmer with the fire burning merrily in the grate, but it was still too cold for a body without the protection of proper clothes. After draping the gown over a chair, she wrapped her shawl about her shoulders over her undergarments as she stifled a yawn.
Mother would have told her that everything would look different in the morning through well-rested eyes. She could only hope Mother was right.
A deep sigh was cut off sharply when a different sound reached her over the storm. It sounded like shuffling footsteps in the passage outside her door. Straining to hear didn’t help, and she daren’t open the door for a peek—Henry had insisted it remained locked to everyone except himself. If only she knew what was going on.
Something crashed into the wall, making everything in her room rattle. She nearly jumped from her skin. What could that have been?
Silent on bare feet, her shawl trailing off her shoulder, she ran to the door to press her ear to the portal—more shuffling and a muffled curse, followed by silence. The minutes ticked by, but she didn’t hear any more. Her feet were like blocks of ice when she eventually made her way to the enormous bed.
The sheets were crisp and cold, and even though she kept her shawl firmly wrapped about herself, her teeth chattered, and she shivered uncontrollably. A bed warmer should have been brought up before attention had been given to lighting the fire.
The cat curled against her legs as soon as she settled against the pillows, as if he, too, felt the chill in the air and was looking for warmth.
Lightning flashed through gaps between the drapes. Lenora reached out to close the bed hangings, snatching her hand back as fast as she could. Shivering against the pillows, she listened to the sounds of the house. The hangings muffled the mournful sigh of the wind; the drumming of the rain driven against the windows seemed to come from far away.
As warmth seeped through her, combined with the effect of two glasses of unfamiliar wine inside her, her eyes grew heavy until sleep claimed her.
It seemed mere seconds later when she was startled awake. She shot upright in bed, clutching the bedding to her heaving chest as her glance darted about her. It was dark in the bed, as the glow of the fire didn’t reach behind the hangings.
Where was she?
She didn’t recognize the enormous bed. The hangings around her narrow cot were pink. These were nearly black.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, and a moment longer to remember that she had arrived at her destination, that in only a few hours, she’d be a bride, Henry’s wife.
What had woken her?
She remembered the formidable man with his hair swept back from a chiseled face, being shown to a bedroom, and abandoned. She couldn’t be sure if she were still asleep, and this was part of a bad dream. The cat was still curled up beside her, his purr soothing. It was good to know she wasn’t completely alone.
Then she heard it. The fine hairs on her arms were instantly erect.
Tap, thump…scrape, tap, thump…scrape, tap, thump…
Oh, God! It sounded like uneven footsteps on a hollow wooden floor.
Where was it coming from?
Tap, thump…scrape, tap, thump…scrape.
It was coming closer, but where was it going? The limping footsteps might be coming from the very walls of the house.
She didn’t see the cat lifted its head when she yanked the covers over her head. Her heart hammered against her ribs, her mouth too dry to swallow her fear. What was that? Was it even human?
Holding her breath, she waited for whatever was to come next. The halting footsteps had stopped, heaven only knew where. She pushed the blankets off one ear, better to hear.
A sudden draft stirred the edges of the bed hangings. Her fingers clutched the blankets until they cramped. She peered over the protective covering, her eyes stiff in her head.
And then her worst fears became reality.
Tap, thump…scrape, tap, thump…scrape…
It is inside my room!
How did it get in? She had locked the door, as Henry instructed her to do. She’d left the big brass key in the lock on the inside of the door.
The door hadn’t opened.
Tap, thump…scrape… It was close to the bed.
Tap, thump…scrape, tap, thump…scrape, tap, thump… Now it was passing the foot of the bed.
Lenora barely dared to breathe. Someone was in her room! Rain drummed against the window, but the drapes hung motionless around the bed again.
The silence, when it came, was deafening.
Oh. My. God.
She was locked in a room with…with… Who or what was in her bedroom?
Tap, thump…scrape, tap, thump…scrape…
Rustling reached her, and then a log was tossed into the grate—she heard the crackle and hiss as the wood caught fire. Slowly, Lenora pushed herself into a sitting position, her shawl clutched tightly around her. That was very much a human in the room if stoking the fire against the cold was anything to go by.
Breathing, the kind through a blocked nose, rose and fell.
Even though she strained her ears, she couldn’t hear anything other than the breathing over the storm outside. She imagined a shadow standing in front of the fire, waiting for eyes to adjust to the gloom. Maybe she was still dreaming, after all. Or, could the halting footsteps be a distortion of the noise outside? Either that or her imagination was running amok.
She was having none of it. There was a logical explanation for what she thought she heard. And there was only one way to find out.
Her heart still fluttering frantically in her chest, she made sure the shawl covered her sufficiently before she reached out to pull the drapes aside. She never made contact, for she froze.
Tap, thump…scrape, tap, thump…scrape…
That was not her imagination playing tricks on her!
And she wasn’t brave enough to peek through the hangings. There was no question where the footsteps would end this time. Scooting down under the blankets, she held her breath, trying to be as still as possible. In the dark, he might think the bed unoccupied.
But she knew he wouldn’t. Whoever was in her room couldn’t possibly have missed her gown left in plain sight over a chair in front of the fire. He was looking for her, and he knew exactly where to find her—ensconced in the big bed.
Tap, thump…scrape, tap, thump…scrape.
The footsteps stopped beside the bed. The breathing was loud enough to wake the chickens.
She was about to be discovered! And then what?
Her eyes, stiff in her head, pierced the gloom, waiting.
Henry! Henreeee! You are supposed to protect me. You told me I’d be safe in this room!
Long, white fingers curled around the edge of the drapes.
A scream that drowned out the horrible breathing hurt her ears.
It took a moment for her to realize the screaming was coming from her own throat.
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