© 2017 by Eve Silver. 

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Dark Gothic Series

Seduced by a Stranger

The vast, dense forest and murky lake that surround Cairncroft Abbey aren’t the only menacing elements that envelop the estate. For a dark history lies behind its walls-where secrets and evil still linger…

Catherine Weston arrives at Cairncroft Abbey to visit her childhood friend Madeline St. Aubyn whose health seems to deteriorate with each passing day. Even stranger, Madeline appears to grow more nervous whenever she is in the presence of her cousin, Gabriel. But Gabriel has quite a different effect on Catherine-stirring a longing deep within her…

Gabriel St. Aubyn is haunted by the curse that has plagued his family for decades. Living with the constant torment that he too will succumb to it one day, he has resigned himself to a solitary existence.

Yet when he meets Catherine, he cannot resist her company-or his growing desire for her. But when a young woman is found dead, Catherine cannot ignore the link between this horrific crime and Gabriel. Is he the tender, charismatic man she loves-or a sinister stranger waiting to make her his next victim?…

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.…a highly complex tale of passion and intrigue that keeps us reading long into the dark night…

—Kelley Hartsell, Kwips and Kritiques

…Eve Silver’s talent for formulating a gripping story is in a class all its own…Her tales are going to have you at the edge of your seat in wonder, and her heroes will undoubtedly cause your heart to pound in more ways than one.

—Barbara, 123 Books

Marlow, Buckinghamshire, October 1812

At the age of eleven, Catherine Weston was buried alive in a shallow, wet grave.

Two months before that, she had stood in the cemetery beside the ancient stone church, clutching her mother’s hand as the tiny coffin containing her brother’s remains was lowered into the ground. All four of her infant brothers had been buried this way. Sent to the warmth and light of Heaven, her mother said.

But now, on this miserable, gray October day, as the damp earth weighed impossibly heavy on her chest and forced her to struggle for every breath, Catherine realized her mother had lied. There was no light or warmth. There was only the cold, pungent mud and the choking terror that made her heart beat so hard she was certain it would burst.

She wondered how long it would be until someone missed her. Too long, for though she had been at Browning School for Girls for nearly a month, she had not formed any close friendships. No one would note her absence with any alacrity. She was the only child of two only children, and she had spent the first decade of her life entertaining herself while her parents grieved for their four infant sons and grew distant and tired and old before their time. Solitude was a state she knew best. The constant noise and hubbub at Browning unnerved her. As she lay panting in her grave, she thought with bitter regret that her preference for solitude had come with a terrible price.

The morning had been stormy, the rain pounding, the boom of thunder loud and near. By the afternoon, the downpour abated and as soon as lessons were over, Catherine left the school and snuck off to gather smooth, cool stones like the ones she and her mother took to her brothers’ graves and left there to mark the fact that they had come and gone. In the spring and summer, they left flowers. In the autumn and winter, stones. There was a welcome familiarity to the task.

The large pocket at the front of her pinafore was already heavy with a dozen small rocks when she bent at the edge of a low embankment to pick up one more. Without warning or sound, the earth gave way beneath her feet. One moment she stood on wet ground, the next, she slipped down to the muddy riverbank and sank in the fetid mire as a good chunk of the embankment came sliding down atop her.

And there she was. Buried as her brothers were buried, though they were dead and she was not. Not yet.

Numb, she lay there at an odd incline, her head closer to the surface than her feet. The first thought that came to her mind was that she would die here and her mother would cry a river of tears and her father would have cried if she had been a son, but since she was a daughter he would remain stoically silent. Then all thoughts were swept aside by a roaring, surging panic.

Seized by horror and fear, Catherine tried to scream, but the weight of the earth did not let her put any force in the sound, and the effort robbed her of what little breath she could summon.

The more she cried and wriggled, the deeper she sank, the muck taking on a sucking, greedy life of its own, pulling her in. Beneath her, the slime parted and oozed to make her grave more secure, cold and dark and so foul that she retched and gagged. Above her, the weight of the fallen embankment pressed down and down, growing heavier by the moment.

She was dying. She knew it and she fought and struggled with all she was because she wanted to live.

Whatever the price, she wanted to live.

Her struggles grew weaker, her movements sluggish, and after a time, she simply lay there, taking shallow little breaths, trapped like a fly in honey.

Luck and happenstance had determined that her right hand was squashed in the space directly before her face, held fast in the posture she had taken as she tumbled, with her hand raised in a futile gesture of protection. Willing herself to hold still and quiet, she wriggled only her fingers, pushing aside the earth before her face, creating a pocket that allowed her to breathe. Then she moved her whole hand at the wrist, sweeping dirt from before her mouth and nose and eyes until finally a tiny opening let the gray of the sky peep through.

The sight of the sky, so welcome and sweet, overwhelmed her. A seedling of hope unfurled. She took a moment then to breathe, just breathe. Or perhaps she took an hour. There was no way to know.

More wriggling and waving of her hand, more inching of her forearm side to side, and the hole grew large enough that she thrust her hand and part of her forearm out of the ground like a dirt-covered branch sticking up toward the heavens.

With careful movements she pushed the earth aside as best she could, large clumps falling on her face, into her eyes and mouth. But the hole grew larger, and it was that she held on to, the sight of the ever-expanding edges of the opening and the hope that she could dig her way free.

A sound reached her, faint and distant, a squelching noise like footsteps in mud. It grew louder, then stopped, then started again. Catherine thrust her hand through the hole once more, waggling it to and fro and calling out in a hoarse, dry croak to make what paltry ruckus she could until she was forced to seal her lips against the earth that sprinkled on her face, loosened by her movements.

The footsteps stopped entirely, and Catherine’s heart stopped right along with them. Then louder, faster, they pounded toward her. From nowhere a face appeared in place of the patch of gray sky, pale cheeks and dull skin, scraggly yellow ringlets and wide blue eyes.

Catherine blinked against the soil that clung to her lids, and after a moment of hazy desperation, she recognized the face above her. Madeline. The strange, quiet girl from Browning who kept to herself, the girl the others whispered about. She was a little older than Catherine, perhaps three years or four, but her odd nature made her seem younger.

Madeline stood a distance away, her position causing her face to be neatly framed by the margins of the hole. Leaning in a bit, she peered deeper into Catherine’s grave, her brow furrowed. Then she reared back as though struck and made a startled sound. “Catherine?”

“Help,” Catherine wheezed, the single word all she could summon.

She heard sounds of swishing cloth, and a faint dull thud, and she realized that Madeline had got down on her belly and inched forward to push aside the wet earth at the edges of the hole. A cascade of soil tumbled onto Catherine’s face.

“No!” she cried, desperately afraid that these attempts at aid would only serve to bury her completely. They needed adults and more than just Madeline’s two hands to dig her free. “Get help!”

Tipping her head to the side, Madeline did nothing, and Catherine ran her dry tongue over dryer lips and struggled to find the breath to explain. But there was no need. Madeline offered an awkward nod.

“I shall return,” she said, then squirmed back, straightened, and finally, disappeared.

Catherine longed to call her back. Do not leave me. I beg of you, do not leave me alone in my grave. But she knew there was no other way, and Madeline was already gone.

It was a very long while—her despair and terror making time tick away all the more slowly—before Catherine heard the sounds of pounding feet and the shouts of the headmistress and others, and it was even longer until they dug away all the dirt and pulled her free.

She felt arms wrap around her and her body lifted. She cried, racking, dry sobs that faded to nothing, and she was only dimly aware of being bathed and clothed in a nightrail that smelled of soap, and then tucked in her bed. The headmistress made her drink something that was warm and smelled like cloves and milk and her father’s brandy.

Much later, she woke from an uneasy doze, her throat raw and dry. There was almost no light, and for a fraught instant she thought she was dead. Buried. Then she recognized the sliver of moonlight that drew a thin line on the floor and the smooth softness of the sheets that covered her, and she realized that she lay in her bed at Browning. Sounds became recognizable. The beating of her own heart, made loud and strong by her fear. The wind whistling through chinks in the wall. The rattle of the windowpanes. And the huff of steady, soft breathing.

She turned her head. Someone stood at her bedside, cloaked in shadow.

Madeline.

The girl stared at her, eyes glittering with the reflection of what paltry light bled through the darkness. She glided closer, reached out, and laid her palm flat across Catherine’s chest, above her heart.

“Tell me,” she whispered urgently. “What does it feel like to die?”

Catherine struggled to form a reply. She had not died. She lived. She lived. And she was so grateful for that.

Just then, the headmistress came with a candle, the flame dancing and bright against the blackness. Mesmerized, Catherine stared at the orange glow, so beautiful, so warm, and she wondered how to answer her friend, her savior.

What does it feel like to die?

Chapter One
Historical
The Gothic Series