Authors: Crystal Collier
© 2013 Crystal Collier
Published by Raybourne Publishing
Cover Design by J.Matthew Collier
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Fly little sparrow, the Soulless are comin’
Fly lest yer caught on the Moonless night
Or render yer heart to the one that is callin’
Take up yer Passions and join the fight.
Alexia was reasonably confident that exiting the carriage was the equivalent of stepping into Hell. She glanced out again at the
grand Roman pillars of the finest country estate in Devonshire and shivered.
Just let me be invisible.
Mother cleared her throat. H
er golden tresses glowed in the lamplight leaking through the open door. Alexia straightened up. Her mouth curled into a forced smile as she smoothed the folds of her amber gown, the newest cut and height of fashion for 1768.
Mother rolled her eyes, took Father
’s waiting hand, and descended to the drive.
Alexia scowled. A month ago she had turned sixteen. A month ago the expectation to be lady-like and presentable had begun. A
month ago the nightmares had started. Her night terrors certainly resulted from Father’s talk of making her a match early—before anyone had a chance to glimpse the ghastly girl and advise the gentleman against it. Her too-thin frame and sunken jowls were enough to keep her own eyes away from reflective surfaces. How could she fault others for sharing that opinion?
Father extended a hand. “
’d inherited his dark tresses, but that’s where her resemblance to this handsome man ended. He gave her a grim smile and assisted her down before taking his wife’s arm. Her parents pulled together, draping her in their shadow—though out of embarrassment or a need to shelter her, she couldn’t decide.
She glanced back over her shoulder as the carriage rat
Goodbye, safety. Goodbye, anonymity.
She turned to the brightened steps.
“Ah, the Dumonts! It’s been six years since I’ve had the pleasure.” Baron Galedrew bounced on the balls of his feet as they arrived at the top step. He had only recently returned from living in London, and Alexia didn’t remember quite so many wrinkles.
“Welcome, welcome! And who is this?” He pushed her parents apart. His creased brow doubled, lip drawing back in a grimace. He coughed. “This cannot be
Alexia, can it? What a . . . mature young woman you are becoming.” He bowed.
She curtsied, wishing she could douse the heat in her cheeks and hurtle back into the carriage. “You are too kind.”
He opened his mouth to speak.
Thunder pealed behind them. She turned, ready for a distraction, any distraction. A cloud of dust billowed up against the sky, masking the night. With a shimmering white mane, a speckled grey horse sped toward them, the forerunner of an approaching storm, a rider bent over its neck. The beast skidded to a halt at the foot of the steps, spraying dust.
Alexia froze, unable to move even to save her hem from the prevailing dirt. That horse, she knew that horse—but it could not be!
“Oh dear,” the Baron uttered.
A cloaked stranger leapt from the animal and approached through the filthy cloud, face masked in a menacing hood. Alexia stumbled back toward Father.
The newcomer stopped two steps below, head turned in her direction. Her knees shuddered. With a slower but still harried gait, he ascended.
“You will excuse me.” The baron shook hands with her father and hurried into the house.
As the stranger rounded her parents, she glanced up to find him watching her. Though his face remained in shadow, the light caught his eyes, eyes that radiated the hue of deep still waters below wooded boughs—eyes that resonated with her soul.
She grabbed Father’s arm as the stranger disappeared after Galedrew. She forced herself to breathe. Surely she was mistaken—he could not be the same . . .
Alexia’s mind whirled, snatches of the dream racing through her memory:
Starlight streaked across the silvery hair of the man who lay on the entry’s floor, glassy-eyed. His open mouth was frozen in a gasp or silenced scream, a ladle protruding from the breast of his night-dress. Real, warm, oozing blood . . . It pooled across the estate’s open doorway and stained her fingers . . . A speckled gray stallion shrieked in the drive. She cringed into the shadows as the beast’s master, a cloaked stranger, snapped around. Blue eyes flashed.
Father growled, ripping her out of the memory. “Not fit to be seen in a nobleman’s home!”
“Father?” she whispered. “Who is he?”
He glanced at Mother, whose peachy skin had turned pearl-esque. “No one, Alexia.”
She blinked up at him. No one? Then why did Mother look as though she might faint? Why did his eyes hold a darkness and rage reserved for the greatest of miscreants? And most importantly, how had the stranger found a place in her nightmares?
Two women occupied the space next to a pianoforte, voices floating harmoniously over the assembly of yawning country gentry in a duet of ridiculous runs. Alexia’s mind raced away from the music with reckless abandon, circling the blue-eyed mystery. Such an unusual color. She’d seen eyes that hue many other times in slumber—reflected in the glassy stare of a dead girl.
Applause broke her out of her thoughts. She joined in late, and Mother shook a disapproving glare away with a stiff jerk of the head. Even when on her best behavior, Alexia could not please the woman. She never would. She could only imagine Mother’s embarrassment at having to sit next to her, to proclaim openly that she had produced this child, this unbecoming young lady both she and Father had kept from society’s eyes.
Alexia snuck a glance through the seven rows of noble “friends,” several stares darting away as she turned. Those haunting eyes were missing from the assembly.
Mother cleared her throat and snatched Alexia’s chin, pulling her face forward.
She bit down. Anger pulsed into her clenched fists. Her eyes landed on the double doors leading to freedom. What would Mother do if she simply rose and escaped? Surely she wouldn’t dare to come after her.
A corner of her mouth crooked up. Perhaps that was just what her family needed, a bit of gossip to brighten her future prospects. If a lady couldn’t be attractive, she could at least be distinct.
A door cracked open. The silvery-haired baron slipped inside, pausing in the curtain-framed entrance, skin white, hands trembling.
He is not dead.
Alexia frowned. Of course not. It was a dream and nothing more.
She turned back to the performance and something pelted her exposed neck from behind. She twisted.
Rupert Vanwick waved from his seat. Feathery walnut hair branched haphazardly on either side of his face, which had elongated. Narrow hazel eyes squinted below a lengthy forehead, thick brows, a fluted nose. She had to laugh at his attempt to grow a mustache. Their fathers went hunting together every summer, and that meant several extended visits. Ru may as well be her cousin or brother.
He pointed down to the penny he’d thrown at her and grinned. He had a year and a half on her, although she wondered which of them acted older sometimes.
With a nod, he asked her to join him and his sister, Abigail. At fourteen, she had similar hair, longer and pulled up, with a slender face and smiling eyes.
Alexia retrieved the coin and joined them before Mother could scowl at her for moving.
“Is that really you, Lex?” Rupert grinned. “You have changed.”
“I could say the same about you.” She handed back his penny and quirked her head at his thin lip-wig. He brushed a finger across it with pride.
“Hello, Abby,” she said.
An uncertain smile split the girl’s face. “What is this? I like the curl! You are so,” her nose crinkled, “beautiful.”
Alexia blushed. Yes, tonight the curl hadn’t fallen out of her hair as quickly as usual, but that would never be enough to qualify her as
. She silently thanked her friend for the kind, but overly generous word.
“Is your father staying for the hunt tomorrow?” Ru whispered.
She swallowed back a laugh. “Are you joking? He has not had enough things to shoot since his days in Officer’s Academy.”
“I know!” Abby snickered. “Daddy is always saying the same thing.”
Their fathers’ friendship stretched back to the early days, before schooling, before family, before history as far as Alexia could tell. They liked to sit up swapping stories of the old days and drinking themselves into a riotous depression.
She cleared her throat. “Baron Galedrew received a rather odd caller as we entered—a man who wore a hood and did not bother to remove his cloak. Did either of you see him?”
Her friends exchanged a puzzled look.
“A man in a cloak?” Ru’s tone was drier than the Sahara. “How terribly specific.”
She folded her arms. “I would swear the baron was running from him.”
Both their heads whirled her direction.
“Shhh!” Lady Vanwick glared. They slunk closer together.
“Running?” Rupert rubbed his chin.
She nodded. “And even now he looks as though he has met death face to face.”
They both leaned in their seats to view the nobleman pinched in the shadows of the doorway.
Ru huffed. “Probably a business deal come to ruin.” He smirked as his eyes darted about the parlor. “Or he has finally learned the reputation of this old place.”
“This estate?” Alexia asked quietly.
“Stop!” Abby covered her ears. “I don’t want to hear it again.”
Rupert leaned in, braced on his knee. “This is the Weeping House.”
Alexia gave him a dubious frown.
“The original owners were marauders, wealthy from a lifetime of piracy. They would shackle and torture disobedient servants in the cellar. It is said a stable boy died from the abuse, and they buried him under the compost heap.”
His mother turned on them, eyes blazing. “Rupert Vanwick!”
Lady Vanwick’s glare stopped on Alexia. Her brows pinched. She returned to the performance, glancing back once and shaking her head.
Rupert leaned closer, breath tickling Alexia’s ear. “The help rebelled. They chopped the family up with an axe and planted them in the herb garden, but they left the youngest alive—a little girl—and kept her prisoner until she hung herself in the cellar. Sometimes her crying can be heard at night.”
Alexia huffed. “Where did you hear this?”
“Gun Williams swears it is true.”
“Gun?” She couldn’t help the skeptical tone. “You trust a boy who answers to Gun?”
“It’s a nickname.”
“What is yours?”
His face colored. “Bones.”
She laughed. “He made the story up.”
“Maybe. We will see tonight.” He grinned and he snuck a valiant arm around her. “Do not worry, Lex, I will keep you safe.”
“Pardon me?” She knocked his arm off. “Who is it that faced the
attic rats last year?”
He reddened. “You are never going to let me forget that, are you?”
Movement in the shadows drew Alexia’s gaze to Baron Galedrew, chalky white but no longer trembling. What did he fear?
And had she truly seen him dead?