Dark Gothic Series
His Dark Kiss
Rumors of madness and murder lurk within the crumbling walls of Manorbrier Castle. But Emma Parrish is not easily put off. She accepts a position no one else dares, as governess to the son of Lord Anthony Craven, the castle’s dark master. Her presence stirs up shadows and threat. She feels unseen eyes watching her. Eerie laughter haunts her. And the seductive pull of Anthony Craven lures her.
The secrets of Anthony Craven’s shadowy past lurk behind the locked doors of the estate’s forbidden Round Tower. Mysterious lights flash there in the night. The servants whisper warnings of death. And Anthony himself warns Emma that there is only danger to be found in his sensual embrace.
Powerfully drawn to the dangerously alluring Anthony, Emma finds herself unable to deny her deepest yearnings. But even as she succumbs to the master of Manorbrier, she is touched by the whisper of evil that rises from the secrets of his past.
Riveting! A dark, steamy and twisted tale!
—Lisa Jackson, New York Times bestselling author
—Diana Tixier Herald, Booklist
Romantic Times BOOKreviews Reviewers Choice award nominee
To travel on a day such as this was a task only for the addled or the desperate.
Allowing herself one small sigh, Emma Parrish pressed her back against the seat of the ancient coach, the hope and courage that had fueled her decision to leave Shrewsbury flagging under the onslaught of exhaustion and too many hours spent with naught for company but her own jumbled thoughts. A brutal rain battered the carriage as the high wheels dipped and lurched on the rutted road, threatening disaster.
A particularly violent pitch sent her careening across the bench, the harsh contact of her shoulder cracking the far wall, forcing a gasp. The stink of mildew and decay hung heavy in the stale air, sullying her very breath, and the storm eroded her composure. Rubbing her shoulder, she scooted forward and then rested one hand against the window frame. ‘Twas better sitting thus. The contact with the solid frame kept her from sliding across the cracked seat onto the dark, wet stain that had grown with each passing hour as the rain leaked through the thin fissures that patterned the roof.
After a time, the rain eased, slowing to a drizzle, and Emma peered out the side window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the passing countryside. Bleak sky stretched as far as the eye could see, a dreary canopy of endless gray. Then the clouds parted. A single ray of brilliant light descended from the evening sun, breaking through the gloom to touch the earth.
A chill of foreboding raced along her spine. There, in the distance, silhouetted in sharp relief against the backdrop of that solitary ray of sunshine, stood a jagged shape, a stark Mephistophelean castle set high atop a lonely hill. Darkness in the light.
Her choice. Her future.
A whisper of unease teased her senses, making her skin prickle and her heart race.
The end of her journey was close at hand, though any comfort to be found in that thought was tinged with a heavy measure of apprehension. She had fled from the certainty of a fate she refused to bear to the possibility of one that was even worse.
And so she traveled on a day such as this. To a place such as this. To the home of the man who was—
Emma jerked back, startled, her musings scattering like raindrops in the wind as the churning wheels of the carriage flung up clumps of mud that splattered against the window with a solid thunk. And then the downpour resumed, drumming steadily on the carriage roof as the creak and sway of the coach marked the passing time and the deepening gloom heralded the dusk.
The minutes dragged into hours, and the shadows lengthened into the full blackness of night. Finally the vehicle rolled forward and back as it lurched to a stop, and after a moment the door was jerked open, letting a blast of damp and chilly air into the carriage. The coachman leaned in, lifting his lantern high, the sudden burst of light leaving Emma blinking against the glare.
” We’re here, miss,” he said, his gaunt face a study in shadows, the collar of his greatcoat pulled up about his chin. Water spilled from the edge of his low-crowned hat, and with a frown, he swiped at the damp brim. “Though I do question if here is where you truly want to be. Are you certain, then, that you don’t wish to return to Shrewsbury? I’m thinking this is no place for an innocent young miss.”
Emma pressed her lips together. Shrewsbury was no place for a young miss, at least not for this young miss. And innocent? Well, she had escaped her aunts’ home with her virtue intact, but she had left the ashes of her innocence behind. She suppressed a shudder and leaned forward to look out the open door, peering into the darkness beyond. Night was upon them.
“Are we arrived at Manorbrier Castle?” she asked.
“No, miss. This be the meetin’ place yer aunts told me to bring you to. There be another carriage to take you to Manorbrier. I’ve already given the gent yer bag.” The coachman’s face tightened with unease. “I heard it when I stopped to water the horses. There’s tales that mark that place, miss. Stories that turn honest folk away.”
Yes. She knew those tales. From the day she had arrived on her aunts’ doorstep, orphaned and alone, with naught save a single portmanteau housing her every possession, Emma had been besieged with stories of Manorbrier Castle and its dark lord. Sinister tales of murder. Tales of evil that could disquiet the most stable constitution. Her pregnant cousin Delia had died there, and Delia’s unborn child with her. She was thrown to the bottom of a staircase by the man who had sworn to love, honor and cherish… Lord Anthony Craven. Delia’s husband. Delia’s murderer.
Emma’s new employer.
The coachman cleared his throat and said, “I can still take you back the way you came.”
Back the way she came. Back to the home of her aunts, who viewed her as a terrible burden, an unwanted and unasked for responsibility tainted by the stain of her illegitimate birth. Back to the fate they had ruthlessly decreed was hers. She shivered, thinking of Mr. Moulton, with his broken teeth and groping hands. Her aunts had cared only for his fat wallet.
“Thank you, no. I will go on to Manorbrier Castle,” she said firmly. “I am expected.” And I have nothing to go back to. Her aunts had been only too eager to put her in this coach and send her to an uncertain fate. And if truth be told, she had been only too eager to let them.
She would never go back. She had made her decision and had no intention of reneging.
The wind swirled through the open door, and she shivered as the cold penetrated her worn cloak. His expression resigned, the coachman waited off to one side, his lantern casting out a paltry circle of light. Emma forced a weak smile, then turned her attention to the distance, to a second light that flickered and bobbed against the night sky. The lantern of the coach that had come to greet her.
Taking a fortifying breath, she dragged her cloak close about her person and stepped into the night. The heavens seemed to frown on her arrival, pouring forth a deluge that left her soaked to the skin before she had taken three steps.
She closed the distance between the two conveyances, shivering as she hastened toward the light of the unfamiliar carriage, barely visible now through the heavy sheeting of rain. Her heart pounded a wild and disturbing tattoo. A harsh gust of wind caught her hair from beneath her bonnet, tearing it loose from its secure roll at the nape of her neck. Wet strands twined about her throat, snarling in the fastening of her cloak.
Tugging at the tangled curls, she turned slowly back, eyes straining against the wall of darkness and storm as she anxiously sought a glimpse of the coachman who had brought her. One last look at a familiar and friendly face. But the light of his lantern was not there.
No kindly coachman. No hired carriage. Only black, black night behind her, and before her an open door and a single yellow light that bobbed and twisted in the frenzied wind, tethered by a precarious clasp to the side of the coach that had come to carry her to Manorbrier Castle. She was well and truly alone here in this bleak and distant spot.
Alone. No novelty that. She had been alone for a very long time, and this was her chance to end that loneliness, to build a life, a place for herself. To make a difference in the life of one small, solitary boy. He was the reason she had made this journey.
Bending into the storm, she took a step, and another.
“Stuff and nonsense. Stuff and nonsense.” She chanted the words out loud to herself, a mantra against the tug of unease in the pit of her belly, but the raging storm snatched them from her lips and carried them away, to be drowned out by the drumming of the rain against the earth.
As she drew near, the looming bulk of the unfamiliar carriage blocked the worst of the wind. Resolutely, she grasped the edges of the door frame and pulled herself into the relative warmth of the vehicle. She settled herself on the seat and looked up to find that the hired coachman had not vanished after all. He had followed her, and now his broad frame filled the doorway, his face barely recognizable in the sickly light shed by the bobbing lantern outside. She forced herself to give him a reassuring smile before she realized that he likely could not see it so wrapped was she in the shadows of the carriage.
He waited, squinting into the darkness, giving her one final chance to change her mind.
” Thank you,” she whispered.
His shoulders slumped. Stepping back, he tipped his hat and shut the door, closing out the paltry lantern light, leaving her in inky darkness.
With a muffled thump the coach lurched into motion. Emma made an effort to right her ragged appearance and calm her anxious thoughts. Struggling to still the quaking of her chilled body, she forced her fingers to obey her mental command. After untying her bonnet and placing it on the seat, she began the arduous task of blindly unsnarling her wet hair.
Of her portmanteau there was no sign. She murmured a fervent prayer that the hired coachman had indeed passed it to the driver of the carriage in which she now rode. All her worldly possessions were in that bag. Small mementoes of her mother, of value only to a daughter’s lonely heart. And her books, treasures whose well-thumbed pages whispered of hopes and dreams.
As Emma continued to work her fingers through her hair, the unkempt snarl was reduced to a slightly untidy mess, and even that soon gave way under her patient onslaught. Within a short time, she had rolled the wet strands into a tidy bun at the base of her skull and secured the lot with the pins she had dug out of the tumbled mass at the outset.
She could only hope that she would make an adequate impression upon her arrival at Manorbrier, and that her appearance would prove acceptable. That she was no raving beauty was in her favor, given that few wished to hire a governess who was considered a diamond of the first water. Her complexion was smooth and unmarked, and she did allow herself a small measure of pride in her thick, long tresses. She had inherited her dark hair from her mother, along with her brown eyes and her temperament, a cheery, practical nature that boded well for her success in the face of adversity, for she preferred to see life as an exciting challenge with trials and tribulations viewed as part of a pattern, like a detailed design on her aunts’ best woven rug.
Lulled by the sound of the rain, which had abated to a dull patter on the carriage roof, she relaxed her posture and rested against the seat back to await her arrival at the castle. The inside of the coach remained a dark cocoon, enfolding her in its interior, blocking out the night.
A sound, so faint as to be almost imperceptible, caught her attention. Emma shivered. Surely she was imagining the steady rhythm of soft breathing. She sucked a slow, steady breath in through her nostrils. There was a slight whooshing sound as she pursed her lips and blew the air out through the tiny round hole she had shaped with her mouth.
The other sound continued, a soft, steady huff of inhalation and exhalation that was not her own. What had been suspicion coalesced into certainty. She was not alone in the coach. Something occupied the shadowed interior with her. Oh, what she would not do for a lamp. Even the tiny glow of a single candle would shed adequate illumination.
“Hello?” she whispered. “Is anyone there?”
Her imagination conjured a beast with glowing red eyes and a tongue that lolled from an open mouth replete with razor sharp teeth set in massive jaws. Emma squinted into the darkness. There were no glowing red eyes looking back at her. No sharp teeth. No fetid animal breath. In fact, there was no longer even a hint of sound.
There was also no reply to her softly voiced query.
Perhaps she had imagined it. Imagined the faint breathing sounds. Just as she had imagined the beast in the corner, poised and ready to pounce. She almost laughed aloud at her own foolishness.
Then a quiet, scratching noise brought the worst of her fears swirling up from their subdued place, to surface again and take control of her every thought. Before she had opportunity to take those roiling emotions in hand once more, there was a flare of light that illuminated a being curled in the shadow in the far opposite corner of the coach. The glow came from a point close to the creature’s face, but below it, thus allowing a play of light and shadow that cast eyes, nose, and mouth in fearsome relief.
Emma reacted without thought or logic and from the back of her throat came a tiny squeak of terror, which grew and gave way to a resounding noise that ricocheted off the interior of the carriage before escaping into the night. She paused to draw breath, and the brief silence was filled by clipped masculine tones.
” Good Lord, woman! Have you not the sense that God gave a mouse? My ears are ringing from the sound of you!”
She resented the comparison. Mice were meek creatures, and Emma was not meek. But she was cautious. Her fear subsided with near laughable speed, replaced by a niggling suspicion that the man across from her might be her new employer or, at the very least, was acquainted with him.
And she had shrieked in the man’s ear. Oh, dear. Pressing one hand to her breast, she willed her racing heart to slow to a more reasonable pace.
The small flame glowed in the interior of the coach, continuing to reveal the planes and hollows of what she now realized was a man’s face, and just below that, his hand holding the remains of a friction match. The fire raced down the length of the match, burning the fingers that held it. Emma knew that fingers had been singed because she heard a hiss of pain just before the match was abruptly blown out, leaving her alone with the man, and the dark.
“You startled me, sir,” she ventured into the silence. “Had I known of your presence from the outset, I would not have reacted with such… such volume.”
He did not reply immediately, but when he did, his voice reached across the carriage, deep and smooth. “See that you do not raise your voice to my son.”
His reply gave confirmation of his identity. She was in the company of Lord Anthony Craven, and she had behaved ridiculously. Not an auspicious beginning.
Uncertain how to reply, she sat in tense silence, her back ramrod straight, a part of her thinking that he ought to apologize for giving her a fright.
“There is no need to perch on the edge of your seat like a little brown wren.” He sounded more amused than angry.
Emma’s eyes widened. The man must have the vision of a cat to be able to see her when the inky blackness veiled him from her sight. The eyes of a cat, and the manners of a baboon.
He made a sound low in his throat. “Do you think I purposely lurked here in the darkness, waiting for the opportunity to frighten you out of your skin?”
She had thought exactly that, but hearing the question put so bluntly made the idea sound preposterous. “No, of course not,” she lied.
The silence lengthened, and then he grudgingly said, “I fell asleep. When I awoke, I had no idea you were unaware of my presence. And then you screamed.”
“I see.” Well, she now knew that her employer did not habitually lurk about purposely terrifying young women in his employ. At least, it seemed he had not done so on this occasion.
“Where is the chaperone I requested?” he asked.
Chaperone? For a moment she was strangely touched that he had thought to send funds for such. Yet the very idea was laughable. Aunt Cecilia would never spend money on a hired chaperone. She would consider it an arbitrary and foolish waste of coin, given that Emma was already tarnished beyond repair by the circumstances of her birth. In fact, given the choice, Cecilia would gladly have sold Emma into-
“Ah, let me guess… your Aunt Cecilia felt my monies could be better spent on herself, and your Aunt Hortense, having imbibed at least half a bottle of good brandy, hidden in her tea of course, was too insensate to argue on your behalf. Not that she would have bothered had she been conscious. She would have simply helped herself to more tea and muttered ‘quite so, quite so’.” His tone was biting, but a subtle hint of humor softened the sound.
Emma swallowed a startled giggle at his irreverent monologue, a small amount of her fear allayed by his sarcastic, and accurate, description of Aunt Cecilia and Aunt Hortense. She frowned, wondering at this odd conversation.
Neither spoke for a time, and then Lord Craven said, “The rain has stopped.”
She listened. There was no longer the sound of water beating on the carriage roof. “Yes, it has.”
There was something in his tone that touched a place inside her, made her wonder why he disliked the rain so. And then she wondered why she cared.
She was saved from having to conjure a reply by the rapid jerk of the coach heralding the termination of her journey. The beginning of her new life.
A soft rustling signaled Lord Craven’s movement on the opposite seat, and Emma sensed his nearness as he leaned close. She gasped, a sizzle of awareness jerking her upright at the feel of his warm fingers cupping her chin, the pad of his thumb brushing her cheek, her lower lip.
“So you came despite the storm, despite the rumors, alone, to a place far from home.”
She heard something in his tone, admiration, or perhaps surprise. “I have no home,” she whispered and then wished she could call back those naked, far-too-revealing words.
He was close enough that she could feel the fleeting touch of his breath against her cheek, smell the subtle scent of sandalwood and man. She sniffed lightly, then deeper, enticed by the lovely aroma.
“And I gave my word to come,” she blurted into the silence. Her word was her greatest treasure, her most valuable asset.
She felt a subtle tension lace his frame.
“Brave girl to come alone,” he said softly. His voice held no humor now, and the words, along with the inflection, seemed to carry both praise and warning.
Brave? In the face of what danger? She opened her mouth, wanting to question him, uncertain of what query to pose. Before she could formulate her thoughts, Lord Craven moved from his seat and flung open the door.
A swirl of black greatcoat and a tall, powerful frame filled her vision as he left their conveyance and strode toward the house. Feeling oddly deflated by his abrupt leave-taking, she scuttled forward to the open door of the carriage and watched his progress. The wind had carried the storm away, leaving behind the clear night sky and the smell of clean, wet earth.
Lord Craven vaulted up the wide stone stairs, then paused and turned slightly, leaving his profile silhouetted against the light that poured from the lamps flanking the open front door. She thought his hair was dark, so it seemed from this distance, his chin strong and his nose straight and fine. More she could not see, but the overall impression was of a tall, forbidding man. Handsome in both face and form.
Tension coiled inside her as she stared at him, and her skin tingled in the place his fingers had contacted. She caught her lower lip between her teeth, wishing that he had not walked away so quickly, wishing that he had tarried. Sucking in a breath, she was left wondering why such thoughts should plague her, and why the lovely scent of him yet swirled about her, tantalizing her.
Unwilling to forfeit the sight of him just yet, she leaned out a little farther. Lord Craven inclined his head, appearing to speak to someone inside the doorway. Then with a swift glance in her direction, so brief she almost missed it, he turned and disappeared into the house.
A sound drew Emma’s attention, and she glanced to her left to find a stranger standing near the coach. The light that shone so brightly closer to the house filtered to a timid glow this far from the source and left the man’s face in shadow. Dark hollows and subtle highlights accentuated the terrible scars and puckers along his cheeks and chin, permanent marks that labeled him as one of the lucky.
Lucky because he had survived. Smallpox killed so many of those it touched, and scarred those whose lives were spared. Emma met the man’s gaze, silently wondering what loved ones he had buried while he lived on to mourn them. Tears burned the back of her eyes as she thought of her own mother, a victim of the same terrible plague, dead these many years but never forgotten.
“Is this Manorbrier, then?” she asked with forced brightness. She had no doubt as to her location, but she wished to open a conversation and dispel her melancholic mood.
“Yes, miss,” the driver replied, his expression blank as a child’s fresh slate.
“And your name is?”
The man stared at her for a long moment. “Griggs,” he replied.
Emma heaved a sigh of relief. For a second she had feared he would not answer at all, but would turn and disappear like his enigmatic master, leaving her alone on the front stairs.
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Griggs.”
“No mister. Just Griggs. And you be Emma Parrish. Now we’s got the introductions all done, let’s get you in to Mrs. Bolifer.”
As Griggs helped her down from the carriage, Emma spun slowly about, taking in her surroundings. The manor house appeared sizeable, a great, dark shadow against the vast backdrop of night sky. Two large lanterns flanked the open door and spilled light onto the stairs and the closest part of the cobbled drive. Emma stared at the front of the house for a moment, perplexed. There was something odd about the windows. Then understanding dawned. Every window was dark. Not a single light shone from the face of the manor, save that which radiated from the lanterns.
Struck by the strangeness of the place, Emma turned and examined the drive. It was cobbled and long, passing through a huge gate set in the crumbling remains of a wall that surrounded the bailey. Like a diamond hidden in a lump of rock, the newer house nestled within the crumbling shell of the original Manorbrier Castle.
To the south of the gate rose the silhouette of a round tower that looked to be as old as the wall. It leaned slightly to the right, giving the impression that it might tumble to the ground in a tumult of stone and mortar. This she saw by the light of the moon, giving the whole an eerie, shadowy cast that Emma assured herself would be gone when she saw the place on the morrow in the brightness of day.
Suddenly, near the top of the tower she saw a brief flash, a rapid burst of brilliance that was extinguished almost before she registered its existence.
“Oh!” she cried. “Did you see that, Griggs? There, at the top of the tower?”
“No, miss. I saw nothing at all.”
“A flash of light in that tower. It was there but a second.”
Griggs hefted Emma’s luggage with a grunt. Ignoring her comment, he started toward the front door of the manor house. Emma lifted the hem of her still-damp skirt and followed, casting a glance over her shoulder toward the tower.
“What you got in here? Rocks?” Griggs asked, looking back at her.
“No, books.” Again she glanced at the tower. “But, Griggs, I did see a light. A very bright flash. A flare. Almost like… I don’t know… a match. No, brighter than a match… the light was bigger somehow, and then it vanished–”
Griggs stopped so suddenly that Emma trod on his heel before she could stop herself. He turned slowly to face her, his eyes narrowed. “If I was a new governess come to Manorbrier,” he said, drawing out each word, “I would pay no mind to the Round Tower. No mind at all.”
Taking a step back Emma met his gaze, a strong flash of annoyance rushing through her. She had been uprooted from her home of the past five years. Despite her aunts’ malevolent attitude, Emma had taken pleasure in parts of her life as a sojourner in their house. She had loved Cook, and Annie the downstairs maid, the flowers in the garden, and her stolen moments of freedom in the afternoons when her aunts slept. Whatever small sense of security she had enjoyed had been wiped out on her journey to this rain-washed castle so far from anything known and familiar. Griggs’s warning was the last straw.
Pulling herself up to her full height, which barely reached the hulking man’s shoulder, she tilted her head to glare at him. Intent on politely but firmly setting some rules for their future association, rules that included an absence of veiled threats and warnings, Emma was startled into silence by his next words.
“There’s death in the Round Tower, miss. Death in the very air. You stay away from that tower.”
Griggs looked at her with focused intensity, as if willing her to heed his warning.
She shivered as she realized he meant it. Every word. Griggs was afraid of the tower, and he meant for her to be afraid as well. “What?”
Ignoring her startled query, the man adjusted his grip on her bag and turned away.
A shadow fell across the lighted doorway, and Emma looked up to find a woman blocking the entryway. Her gray hair was coarse and wiry, with long strands poking out from the coil she had rolled in an attempt to tame her appearance. Her gray eyes were flat and seemed coldly unwelcoming, an impression bolstered by the fact that her thick brows were drawn together and the corners of her mouth pulled down in an expression of distaste.
“The servants’ entrance, if you please.” The woman held firm as Griggs approached.
“Bag’s heavy.” He shifted his stance. “This way’ll do for tonight, Mrs. Bolifer.”
Emma swallowed and took a step forward, more than willing to enter by whatever door would create the least controversy, but, to her surprise, the woman moved to the side to let him pass.
“Griggs,” Mrs. Bolifer said, “you may take her bag to the blue room on the upper floor.”
He paused, looking down at Mrs. Bolifer, his mouth open as if he wished to say something. Her expression grew even more forbidding.
“The blue room,” she repeated firmly. “Until we know what sort she is.”
With a nod, Griggs moved on and thudded up the wide staircase at the end of the entrance hall, leaving Emma standing just outside the house on the top step, prevented from following by the barrier presented by Mrs. Bolifer’s stout body. Bewildered by the odd exchange, she peered past the woman to the interior of the hall, gleaning the quick impression of geometric black and white floor tiles and a polished rosewood center table, complete with an arrangement of dark red roses.
Returning her attention to the woman who barred her entry, Emma hesitated. She was tempted to bob a curtsy to the housekeeper, but as the new governess, she thought the action inappropriate. Instead, she smiled and extended her hand.
“I am Emma Parrish. So pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am.”
“We are not at a tea party, Miss Parrish,” Mrs. Bolifer snapped back, ignoring Emma’s proffered hand. Her cold gaze scanned the girl from head to foot, and then she turned and made her way toward the stairs, the skirt of her stark black dress floating outward with her movement. Mrs. Bolifer pushed it down with her hands.
Or rather, hand. It was then that Emma noticed that Mrs. Bolifer’s left sleeve ended in a gathered band, empty from just a bit below the shoulder. The woman used subtle movements to keep her empty sleeve out of sight, rolling her shoulder to hold what remained of her arm behind her when she faced forward, and ahead of her when she turned.
“Come along,” she said, without looking back, and Emma followed.
Mrs. Bolifer carried a single candle to light their way as they climbed the stairs and walked the length of a dark corridor. Each room they passed was dim and quiet. The housekeeper climbed a second flight of stairs and a third. They reached the landing and proceeded to a room at the end of a hallway, in the farthest corner of the uppermost floor. The air smelled stale, laden with dust and disuse.
Eyes trained on the candle that had been left burning in the room, Mrs. Bolifer jerked to an abrupt halt just outside the open door. Emma could not be certain, but she thought the housekeeper’s expression held something akin to fear.
“The blue room,” Mrs. Bolifer intoned, standing stiffly to one side.
Emma peeked past her and saw that Griggs had left her portmanteau on the floor beside the narrow iron bed. On the far side of the bed was a small table and on it a single flickering candle, which cast dancing shadows across the walls and floor. An armoire was angled in the corner, and the only other furniture was a spindly chair beside the fireplace, softened by a pretty blue-and-white cushion.
A cheerful blaze danced in the hearth, bringing warmth to Emma’s damp and chilled form. She smiled. Griggs must have built the fire for her. Perhaps she had made one friend here in her new home.
Turning toward Mrs. Bolifer, who waited in silence, her posture angry and unyielding, Emma spoke quickly to hide her embarrassment as her stomach growled loudly. “Thank you for showing me to my room, Mrs. Bolifer.”
The woman stared at her and after a moment said, “You’ll use tallow candles here in your own chamber, but there’re wax ones for when you move about. His Lordship has no liking for the stench of tallow.”
“Yes, of course,” Emma murmured, masking her surprise at the use of wax candles, for they were so frightfully dear. She pressed her lips together as her stomach rumbled yet again.
“I’ll not bring you a tray,” the housekeeper said brusquely.
Emma opened her mouth to protest that she held no such expectation, but Mrs. Bolifer shook her head and glared her into silence.
“But I will ask Cookie to make you a little something in the kitchen. Down the stairway to the left, and then down a second flight, along the hall, down the back stairway to the right, take the first turn on the left. And from now on you are to use the back stairway and the servants’ entrance unless you are accompanied by the young master.” With a final glower, the housekeeper turned away. “Get yourself dry now.”
Dear heaven, it would be a miracle if she found the kitchen at all, but Emma sensed that her companion had no intention of repeating those directions.
Standing in the doorway of her room, she watched the light of Mrs. Bolifer’s candle recede into the darkness. Partway down the hall the bobbing flame stopped, and Emma could barely discern the housekeeper’s black-clad form.
“Do not leave a flame burning unattended,” the woman admonished in an eerie singsong voice. Her words drifted back to Emma, the empty hallway causing the sound to echo in an unnerving way. “Never, never leave a flame unattended.”
The shadows swallowed Mrs. Bolifer as she continued on her way until it seemed that the small and distant candle floated through the air, weightless. Then the light disappeared, leaving Emma alone to ponder what little she had seen of this unfamiliar household, her thoughts awhirl with confusion and unease. What a peculiar and somewhat eerie place.
The scarred coachman, Griggs, who regarded her with fear-darkened eyes as he whispered vague warnings.
Mrs. Bolifer, the one-armed housekeeper who watched the flames with a wary eye.
And Lord Craven, with his flowing black cape and dangerous beauty, which she had seen outlined against the light. The touch of his warm fingers against her chilled skin. The low, rich sound of his voice.
Emma sucked in a breath, wondering why the thought of her enigmatic employer made her feel restless and beset by uneasy emotion.
Brave girl to come alone.