Dark Gothic Series
His Wicked Sins
Determined to help her impoverished family, Elizabeth Canham accepts a position at Burndale Academy, an isolated girl's school filled with secrets and shadows. There she meets mysterious widower Griffin Fairfax, a man dogged by dark rumours, a man who both frightens and fascinates her.
But Beth has secrets of her own, nightmares that haunt her and fears that follow her into the light of day when a woman is found dead in the nearby woods—the victim of a brutal murder… a murder that bears terrifying similarity to others. Then Beth discovers that all the victims were intimately connected to Griffin. Beth’s past has taught her to be wary, but her heart tells her that Griffin cannot be the charming, seductive killer stalking the night, stealing women’s hearts…and lives.
…brooding, atmospheric…suspenseful, emotionally driven tale…A multifaceted plot, well-timed backstory clues, and steamy passion add sparkling currency to this intricately crafted story…
Silver expertly matches a brooding sense of atmosphere with a generous measure of suspense…
—John Charles, The Chicago Tribune
Featured Alternate in the February 2009 issue of Rhapsody and Doubleday Book Clubs
Stepney, London, January 15, 1813
Crimson splatter painted a gruesome landscape on the pale walls of the Black Swan Tavern.
Parish constable Henry Pugh picked his way around the stiffening corpse, taking note of the arc of blood that splashed far and wide and the congealing pool at his feet. Dark and glossy, it reflected the flickering candlelight and colored the air with a cloying, heavy scent, both sweet and sour.
He had never seen so much blood.
But then, today was Henry’s first day with the Shadwell Police Office, and he had never before seen foul murder.
Outside, on the cobbled street, the night watchman called out the time. Half-past-midnight.
Raising his candle, Henry squinted at the floor, noting the bloody footprints that moved along the hallway. Then his gaze slid back to the dead man, William Trotter, the landlord of the Black Swan. He lay on his back, sprawled over the steps that led to the taproom, eyes wide and staring, face twisted in a look of surprise. From all appearances, he had been attacked from behind, likely never knowing the identity of his assailant.
Bits of brain and bone speckled the landlord’s clothes, the wood of the step, the wall at his side. His head was bashed in, and his throat slit for good measure. Rivulets of blood wended down the stairs and across the floor, merging and puddling a small distance away.
Henry squatted low. The stink of human refuse slapped him, and he reared back, appalled to witness such ultimate humiliation. Death was neither kind nor dignified.
An ugly thing, this. An ugly thing.
The coal-heaver, Jack Browne, a lodger here at 34 New Gravel Lane, had run to summon Henry when his banging and ringing failed to rouse Mr. Trotter to come open the door. On hearing the tale, Henry had expected that Jack was locked out for the night, and the Trotters gone to bed of an early hour as was their custom. Mrs. Trotter was insistent upon that, and lodgers, most of them sailors taking a room for a short while, knew that should they come late, the door would be barred against them. Odd, for a tavern to keep such hours, but that was the way at the Black Swan.
Henry’s benign suppositions had proven bitterly untrue. Before him lay Mr. Trotter’s savaged remains. He’d not be answering the door this night, or any other. This man who had laughed and joked and drawn ale just hours past was cold and dead now, his life snuffed in a manner that was purely evil. Henry’s shock at discovering the body had been so great that he had barely managed to hold his composure and instruct Jack Browne to fetch more men.
With a sigh, Henry reached out now and closed the landlord’s eyes.
As he drew his hand away, Mr. Trotter’s lids flipped open once more, pinning him with a blank and eerie stare, the eyes filmy, the whites gone gray.
Startled, Henry cried out and scuttled back, slapping one palm against the floor to steady himself. The stare seemed to judge him and find him guilty. He should have listened earlier that day when Mr. Trotter complained of a stranger lurking in the shadows outside the parlor window. He should have listened.
But in the end the landlord had clapped him on the back and made light of his own concerns, and so Henry had laughed along with him.
Swallowing against the sting of bile that clawed up his throat, Henry’s gaze shifted from the dead man’s eyes to the gaping slash across his throat, to the blood and brains and shards of bone. He lacked the experience to know how to set his feelings and abhorrence aside, to see only the crime that need be solved. Still, he was determined that he would not disgrace himself. He would not, though the provocation and justification were strong.
Fingers trembling, he closed the landlord’s eyes once more, willing them to stay shut. Then he rose and went to find the others.
He felt chillingly certain there were others.
The Great North Road, Yorkshire, England, September 1, 1828
A lone tree endured atop a distant, windswept hill, its dead branches stretched skyward. Charred, begrimed stones sat in the tree’s twisted shadow, burned and blackened remains of old cottage walls. They prevailed against time and weather, with the desolate landscape stretched behind like a joyless painting colored in flat hues.
Elizabeth Canham found she could not look away, for the scene touched a place inside her, one that nagged and ached like a sore tooth.
That cottage must once have been a home, a haven.
Surrounded by harsh moorlands, it was now a friendless place, steeped in loneliness, calling to her as the stagecoach rumbled on its way. There was a haunting beauty to the sight, and an odd, disturbing afterthought, a warning…but perhaps that was only the tuneless echo of her own melancholy.
Beth turned in her seat and leaned close to the window, watching the ruin until it disappeared from view.
What had happened to them, the family who had once lived there? Her imagination conjured all manner of terrible visions, but in the end, she decided to lean toward the hope that they had escaped the fire and gone on to live healthful and content lives. To think otherwise was horrific, for she had intimate knowledge of the damage that fire could do.
After a time, she glanced down and unclenched her fingers where they curled and crushed the material of her black bombazine skirt. She was not in mourning, but the dress had been both available and inexpensive, two factors in favor of its purchase.
The drone of a woman’s voice buzzed through the confined space of the coach. Today, Beth was not alone in the conveyance, but tomorrow she would be. That was an eventuality she could not despise.
Her carriage-mate, Mrs. Beacon, had nattered on the entire trip from the coach yard at the Saracen’s Head in London. A well-meaning and fine woman of incomparable verbosity, she was free with both her words and her advice.
“You are pale as a shroud,” Mrs. Beacon offered now, shifting on the seat beside Beth and leaning close to peer at her from beneath her bonnet. She evinced no hesitation to offer such personal observation to a near stranger.
“That dull black makes you look whiter than a cod’s belly. With your blond hair and fair skin, you need a bit of color.” Mrs. Beacon softened her words by producing a tin of peppermints and offering one to Beth, then to each of the two gentlemen occupying the opposite seat.
One was plump and pasty, and rather green about the gills. Coach travel appeared to disagree with him.
The other was bland as oat pudding, with thin sandy hair worn in a disheveled style, and small, pale eyes that darted nervously about.
Glancing down, Beth smoothed her palm over her skirt. Mrs. Beacon’s observations aside, Beth was well pleased with her drab and sad wardrobe, purchased at a significant discount when the young widow who had ordered it never arrived to claim the dresses from the seamstress. Mindful of her limited funds, Beth had bought only the bare minimum that she needed, serviceable garments of black and gray, clothing suitable for her new position.
“Blond hair and blue eyes…my youngest daughter has the same coloring as you, though she is by no means as skinny. There, there” —Mrs. Beacon patted Beth’s knee consolingly— “you’ll put on a bit of meat when you reach my age.”
Her monologue continued throughout the ride, and then, close to Grantham, the sandy-haired gentleman took advantage of Mrs. Beacon’s need to draw breath and spoke in the rare instant of silence.
“We are near to Gonerby Hill. ‘Tis just to the north of Grantham,” he said, leaning forward in his seat. The movement pushed his high collar and stock even higher, and his chin was nearly swallowed by the cloth. “Steep it is. The steepest on the Great North Road. Why, I heard that last winter, there was so much ice and snow that the wheels could not hold to the road and the stagecoach slipped and careened down to the bottom, flipping end-over-end and crushing the driver and guard.”
No one said a word.
“Everyone died,” he continued, his tone tinged with morbid glee. “And the horses, as well.”
A cheering thought.
“Oh.” Beth could summon no more appropriate rejoinder.
Mrs. Beacon made a sound low in her throat and, after a moment, leaned close to Beth and spoke for her ears alone.
“Remember, luv, you must pay the coachman an extra shilling per stage, and the guard, lest you find he loses your luggage. At the inn where you stay the night you must give sixpence to the chambermaid and tuppence to the boots. My son and his wife are in Grantham and their twelve little ones. I’ll not be going on with you to Northallerton…”
There, Mrs. Beacon made a lengthy pause, cleared her throat, blinked again and again, her rheumy gaze locked on Beth’s, until at last Beth understood the hint. In truth, her thoughts were consumed by Mrs. Beacon’s talk of shillings and sixpence and tuppence, inordinate sums when compared with Beth’s rapidly dwindling resources. Nonetheless, she summoned a rejoinder to satisfy the other woman.
“I am bereft to lose your fortifying companionship, Mrs. Beacon,” she murmured, attempting to instill the observation with the appropriate tone of regret.
Closing her eyes, Beth battled a sharp pang of loss, not for the thought of leaving Mrs. Beacon, but for her home, her parents, her brother, for everything known and customary.
She opened her eyes to find the gentleman who had spoken of the carriage accident studying her with interest.
“I believe you mentioned Northallerton…Do you stay on there?” he asked.
“No. I go to the village of Burndale, to Burndale Academy. I am to be a teacher.”
To Burndale Academy. Her mother had not wanted her to go, but there had been little choice that Beth could see. Unless starvation was an option. Food was not free, nor lodging, nor coal.
The gentleman made a rude sound that snuffled out his nose. “I know of such places, such academies.” He sneered and nudged the man next to him. “William Shaw, the headmaster at Bowes Academy, was prosecuted…oh…some years past, on account of two boys went blind from his beatings. And he starved them, too.”
Beth felt a wary tension creep through the muscles of her limbs, her shoulders, her back. His assertion shocked and horrified her. Pressing her lips together, she suppressed a shudder.
Her horror would only burgeon and grow to unmanageable proportions if she let it.
Beatings and starvation.
“Burndale Academy has no such reputation,” she said firmly.
“So you say.” The man shrugged. “But such schools always harbor death, from maltreatment, neglect, disease.”
“If that is the case, who would send their children to such a place?” Beth demanded.
“Well, I suppose some do not know, and others do not care. Some of the children are born on the wrong side of the blank—”
Mrs. Beacon cleared her throat loudly, and the gentleman broke off and gave a nervous little laugh.
“I would not lodge a dog at Bowes Academy,” he said, vehement.
“You ain’t got a dog!” the second gentleman pointed out, and gave a loud guffaw, the noise drowning out Beth’s rejoinder as she said, “Then it is a fine gift of fortune that I do not travel to Bowes.”
For some inexplicable reason, Mrs. Beacon chose this moment to cocoon herself in silence. Beth gritted her teeth and turned her gaze back to the window, her heart heavy.
What viciousness had precipitated such discourse?
She recalled the gleam in the gentleman’s icy pale eyes as he spoke of the carriage accident. Some people were malicious creatures who thrived on tales of horror and pain. Perhaps he was such a one and had set out with the purpose of creating unease.
She should not allow it.
Still, a troubling wariness gnawed at her. Was there a possibility that the man’s horrific assertions sprouted from a seed of truth? She truly knew almost nothing of Burndale Academy…
No, she would not cast her mind to needless worry. Her correspondence with the headmistress of Burndale had been most pleasant, and she would carry that positive expectation until such time as it might be proved faulty.
Not so very far now, she thought, though she felt as though she had been traveling for an eternity. The jolt of the wheels as they dipped into grooves and ruts in the road shook her bones, leaving her feeling bruised and broken.
But the worst of it for her was the confining nature of the carriage, the walls close, the space small and tight. She felt the tug of panic, and she tamped it down lest it surge free and drown her in an icy deluge that would rob her of breath, of rational thought, leave her in a despised state of mindless terror.
An attack of dismay, her mother called it. Beth thought that a polite and benign term for the ugly reality of her secret infirmity.
Forcing her shoulders to relax, she turned her gaze to the carriage window and the vast space beyond. She could only be grateful that her destination was not so far as Edinburgh, which would take a full fourteen days of travel.
A fortnight in a small, restricting coach. Dear heaven, what a thought.
Mrs. Beacon shifted closer, pressing her tight to the corner. Beth fixed her gaze on the patch of sky she could see through the window and deliberately ignored the walls that surrounded her.
Despite her current discomfort, she knew herself to be fortunate. Many women in her position would be driven to truly desperate ventures. Surely traveling to Yorkshire, alone, with only a letter to guide her and without friend or even acquaintance, was not desperate. After all, she had secured honest employment as a teacher at Burndale Academy, and so must count herself as privileged.
Her strengths lay in French, English language, music and drawing, and she was quite competent in geography and history. She was glad of her mother’s tutelage these many years, else they would all be in a terrible fix.
Yes, well, a worse fix than they were in.
She must not be afraid.
The thought brought a sad smile to her lips, for she could hear her mother’s voice, kind but firm, recalling that exact sentiment so many times over the years.
She must not be afraid.
Yet, in a secret corner of her heart, a place she shared with no one, Beth admitted only to herself that she was always afraid of so many things…the memories…the dreams.
Northallerton, Yorkshire, September 3, 1828
Sarah Ashton lugged her third load of coal up the stairs to the fireplaces of Briar House. So many fireplaces in this cursed place. Midmorning sun streamed through the window, showing the dust on the table and the mantle. Sarah sighed. She would need to take care of that before her workday ended, else Mrs. Sykes, the housekeeper, would make her stay back on her afternoon off.
When the last of the coal was done with, she scrubbed her hands over her apron, careful not to soil her dress. It was a pale blue cotton print, unlovely and faded from many washings, but the color was fine on her. She hoped to keep herself clean until the afternoon.
Fetching a wooden bucket, she started on her next task. Down on her knees, she dragged forth the chamber pot from beneath the bed. She emptied the contents into her slops bucket, then wiped out the pot with a wet cloth that hung from the waist of her apron. Her nose wrinkled at the smell and she thought herself better than this, better than chamber pots and slops and fetid rags.
He thought so too, her gentleman. He thought her worth pretty ribbons, a silver thimble, a lace handkerchief, a silver watch. Imagine! She kept the delicate little watch pinned to her dress, hidden beneath her apron so none would see. No sense inviting questions. Likely, the housekeeper would think she’d pinched it.
In turn, she had gifted him with a lock of her hair. It was all he had asked of her, and she had been happy enough to give it.
Sarah moved to the next room, the next chamber pot, and the next. Seven bedrooms. Almost done now.
She paused and smiled as she thought of him. She’d not let him do more than hold her hand and kiss her cheek. Only once, she’d been brave and bussed him on the lips. They had been smooth and warm, and she thought perhaps today was the day she would let him do more. He had been true, meeting her every week on her free afternoon. Today marked the sixth week.
Sarah was no fool. He was taken with her, but no man of his ilk would stoop to marry such as she. The best she hoped was that he might set her up, nice and quiet, and barring that, well, a few trinkets and gifts. She was sentimental, but only to her limit. In the end, she would sell what he gave her in order to buy herself a better life.
There was a sound in the hallway, barely a whisper. Sarah quickly fell to her knees and dragged out the chamber pot. It would not do to be caught woolgathering. She emptied the pot and wiped it as she had done with the others already that morning, then she rose and turned toward the door. As she had expected, Mrs. Sykes, stood in the doorway.
Sarah bobbed a quick curtsey.
Mrs. Sykes frowned, her brows drawing together to gouge deep furrows, her fingers worrying the ring of keys at her waist. She looked as though she meant to say something, and Sarah wished she would not.
Perhaps the housekeeper knew what Sarah did with her free afternoon. Perhaps she meant to warn her away. If that was the case, Sarah wanted no part of it. ‘Twas her own affair, and she meant to keep it that way.
Pressing her lips together, Mrs. Sykes shook her head, and after a moment, she turned and left Sarah alone.
Sarah’s breath left her in a harsh whoosh as, hefting the half-full bucket, she moved to the next room. There, she repeated her motions, emptying the slops, the stink from the bucket heavy in her nostrils. Hot, revolting work, it was, and she dragged the back of her wrist across her forehead, anxious to be done.
In the final chamber was a pitcher and bowl, and when she had emptied the last pot, she poured fresh water, and was thrilled to see a sliver of soap—too dry to work a good lather—laid by the side. The servants here at Briar House were allowed to take the remnants of the soap and the worn down stubs of candles for their own use. That was not considered thieving, though she would catch a tongue lashing at the very least if Mrs. Sykes caught her washing up here.
With a glance at the open door, she used the water and soap to wash her hands and scrub her face. She’d not go to him smelling like a hog rooting in the mud, and if she emptied the basin and wiped it clean, none would be the wiser.
Above the hearth was a glass, and Sarah checked her appearance. Her hair, a bright guinea-gold, was naturally straight as a pin, and fine. Her man liked curls. Thick, bouncing curls. He had said as much, more than once. So early this morning, long before the sun came up, she had wet her hair, doused it in a mixture made from water and sugar. She had turned the strands with a hot iron—she had a horrible blister at the top of her right ear where she’d not been careful enough—until she had a head full of curls. They weren’t soft and fine, for the sugar-water made them hard. Instead, they were solid, fat ringlets.
When Mrs. Sykes had seen them she had frowned something fierce, and made tsking sounds and clicked her tongue. In the end, she had said nothing, just shook her graying head with its white cap, and let Sarah go see to her chores.
Sarah turned from the mirror and did a cursory dusting of the room. Finally, finally, her work was done, and she walked as quickly as she could along the dark hallway, down the servants’ stairs, and out the back door. She was careful to avoid the other servants, having no wish to be enveloped by a group of chattering girls off to buy ribbons in town on their half day.
Stepping out, she found that the afternoon was warm enough, if a little gray. Anxious now, she lifted her skirt and flew along the muddy lane, past the icehouse and into the woods. Their special place was a clearing deep in the trees. As she came upon it, she saw he was waiting, tapping his crop lightly against his thigh, impatient.
A fine figure he was, in his cord breeches and square cut coat.
Turning at her approach, he stilled and stared hard for a moment, saying nothing. At length, he stepped forward to take her arm and hold her in place, his fingers biting deep until she gasped.
“You’ve done you hair in curls,” he said in a strange, dead voice. His grip tightened, making her flinch and jerk in response, but he held fast, raising his free hand to touch her hair.
His gaze slid to hers, cold and dark and pitiless, and his lips curved in a terrible smile. It was only then that Sarah thought to be afraid.