TRAPPED IN DARKNESS . . .
Violet Whitechapel committed an unspeakable crime to save a child. To escape the hangman’s noose, she takes refuge in a crumbling abbey with secrets darker than her own. When its master offers her a temporary post, Violet cannot say no. Just as she begins to see him in a new light, her past catches up to her and endangers them all.
THEIR PASSION BURNS BRIGHT . . .
Alistair Waldegrave keeps his daughter imprisoned in the black heart of his Gothic abbey. As he searches for a cure to the disease the villagers call demonic, his new governess brings much needed light into their lives. But how can the passion between them survive the darkness encroaching from outside their sheltered walls?
Regency-set Gothic Historical Romance Novel
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Livingstone School for Girls
“At the end of the week Mr. Percy Livingstone, our beloved founder’s heir, will evict us all in order to turn our philanthropic school into a profitable venture. Next Monday, he will begin converting the grounds into an exclusive sanitarium catering to the mentally unstable offspring of society’s wealthy elite.”
Miss Violet Whitechapel stared uncomprehendingly at the misty words escaping from Headmistress Parker’s mouth into the early morning fog. The heir planned to do what? Desperation seared the breath from Violet’s lungs. She sent a frantic glance at her colleague, Miss Belham, who appeared as shocked and devastated as the other instructors. For the first time in Violet’s memory, even the headmistress struggled to maintain her hallmark serenity.
In disbelief, Violet turned from her associates to face the long-standing campus she’d delightedly called home. Five and a half glorious years with clean water, honest work, a cot of her own in a room with a door she had no need to bar at night. She had found paradise, and she’d be damned if she lost her home to some spoiled toff more interested in lining his pockets than helping orphans.
Old Man Livingstone had been a godsend—or at the very least, the only man of Violet’s acquaintance who had actually meant the words “benefactor to underprivileged girls” without dehumanizing strings attached. He’d started this school, given ladies like Miss Parker and Miss Belham positions of some power, and when Violet had blown onto the doorstep willing to do anything—yes, anything—for a crust of bread and a delousing, he’d rung her a bath and a hot meal and offered her a position. And not a position like “on yer back, now, there’s a gel,” either. A respectable position. And a home.
“The new heir and his surveyor are currently perusing the property,” the headmistress continued relentlessly. “You’ll recognize them by their Town finery, I’m sure. They plan to have the sanitarium operational within a fortnight. Nonetheless, young Mr. Livingstone is providing each of us a month’s wages as a courtesy, in the hopes many will seek new environs immediately.” The headmistress began doling out tiny satchels to each instructor.
Violet’s jaw fell open. “A courtesy? By sending us—and the children—back to the streets? We’re supposed to be saving these girls from such a fate, not consigning them to it. Without the school, they’ve nowhere else to go!”
“We cannot fight the law.” A crack in Headmistress Parker’s firm voice betrayed her frustration. “Young Mr. Livingstone is the legal heir, and his changes are already in motion.”
“Well, I’ll just have to stop them.” Violet’s fists curled with rage. “For close on twenty years, I survived out there as best I could, and to speak plainly, there were many times survival wasn’t worth the sacrifices. Where is this so-called gentleman, whose only desire is to benefact his pockets?”
“‘Benefact’ is incorrect in that context,” the deportment instructor murmured.
“You quite take my meaning,” Violet snapped back, although she was more upset at her helplessness than with Miss Belham. She tried so hard to be as stoic as the headmistress, but strong emotion released the terrified street urchin she desperately tried to keep caged beneath the façade of a proper young lady.
“You cannot save everyone, Violet, no matter how fervently you may wish to.” Headmistress Parker’s ever-ramrod spine seemed to grow even straighter. “There will be no petitioning Mr. Percy Livingstone. He has already finalized his contracts and accepted pensions from families who wish to conceal . . . unfortunate situations. We must all find a new home.”
“How?” Violet fought the stinging in her eyes. Not only had she herself climbed out of the gutters, she was finally able to keep others from returning. When these girls found themselves tossed in the dirt, how was she supposed to live with herself?
How was she supposed to live?
“I have heard enough,” she said stiffly, trying and failing to think of words of encouragement to share with her pupils later. In that moment, she’d never hated a man more than she hated Mr. Percy Livingstone. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve a promising new student awaiting me for special instruction.”
She barely paused for Headmistress Parker’s nod before turning on her heel and striding across the foggy green to the art studio. If they were all to be tossed out with the bathwater, she would make the most of every moment between now and then. Oh, God, what was she to tell her students?
Children like Emma made the thought of losing the school utterly insupportable. The girl was almost fifteen, but a lifetime of malnourishment had given her the tiny frame of a twelve-year-old. When she’d arrived, Violet had gently washed off the layers of grime only to reveal a patchwork of bruises and scars. Furious at whoever had harmed a child, Violet had made Emma’s physical and mental recovery her personal mission. There’d been precious little progress these short two months, but although Emma still hadn’t spoken a single word—and refused to interact with the others—she’d been fascinated by the paintings in Violet’s studio, and was hopefully waiting there now for her first lesson in watercolor.
Candlelight blurred the morning mist as Violet drew closer to the tiny cottage. Her heart warmed. Emma did keep their meeting! Violet’s relieved smile faltered when a painfully familiar sound escaped from the other side of the closed wooden door. The barely audible whimpers of a terrified young girl . . . and the impatient grunting of a grown man.
Violet picked up her skirts and burst through the door.
Two expensively groomed toffs loomed inside her studio. Young Mr. Livingstone and his surveyor! Violet couldn’t begin to guess which villain was which, but it hardly mattered. One perched on the edge of a work stool, cravat awry, looking for all the world like a scoundrel chomping at the bit to take his turn.
The other had Emma—Emma!—bent across an art desk, petticoats to her hips. He was too busy struggling to undo the buttons of his fall to have noticed Violet’s arrival, but the blackguard upon the stool leapt to his feet at once.
“Lookit here, Livingstone, there’s one for each of us.” He headed toward Violet with wicked intent carved into his smirking countenance.
She snatched up the closest weapons she could find and hurled them at his head, one after another. The bucket of turpentine did little more than drench the man in foul smelling liquid, but the full can of paint dropped him to the ground.
The heir pushed back from Emma, pausing only to refasten his breeches. His mistake. Years of surviving by her wits alone had taught Violet never to hesitate. Often, the element of surprise was the only chance a girl had against men twice her size. Violet leapt across the tiny space, arms outstretched to snatch Emma away.
“Bitch!” He reared one arm back, clearly intending to slam his overlarge fist directly into Violet’s face.
Emma was faster. Her tiny fingers grappled at the clutter scattered across the wooden desktop, knocking candles to the floor. In an instant, she swung backward, a tall paintbrush firmly in her grip. The handle found its home in the eye of the blackguard who had intended to violate her.
With a choking scream, the heir slumped across the desk, the slender paintbrush protruding from his eye socket. The flames from the fallen candles ignited the spilled turpentine, roaring across the oil-painted canvases and up over the motionless men. Within a half second, the fire had eaten the curtains and engulfed the rafters above.
“Come,” Violet shouted, tugging at Emma’s icy hand. “We must go! Everything in here is violently flammable.”
Already the air was thick with greasy smoke and the stench of burning flesh.
Emma stumbled around the unnaturally still bodies, then promptly bent over and vomited. Violet’s stomach felt much the same, but there was no time for weakness, for conscience, for second-guessing.
“Come,” she repeated. The oils popped and the blackening rafters spit ash and fire as Violet dragged Emma across the tiny room with one arm around the girl’s waist. “We can’t stay here.”
No, Violet realized as a chill crept down her spine. It was much worse than that. She was a murderess. In saving a child, she had unintentionally slain the new benefactor and his companion. Emma would be able to rejoin the other students with no one being the wiser, but half the school had witnessed Violet stalking toward her studio with murder in her eyes. She had made no attempt to conceal her animosity toward Mr. Percy Livingstone. And now there would be no hiding what she had done.
She’d lost her position, her dreams . . . and now her future.
Smoke searing her lungs, she hobbled out of the burning cottage. Everything she owned, everything she cared about, had been in that studio. Well, not quite everything. Pulling Emma further away from the blaze, Violet touched shaking fingers to her pockets. One contained the small leather diary that never left her side. The other pocket contained her final wages. She wished she’d hidden her precious savings anywhere but the back of a drawer in her art desk . . . but this would have to be enough money to get out of Lancashire. Immediately.
She had to flee. Find shelter, obviously, but more importantly: procure a barrister capable of saving her from criminal prosecution. She touched her neck and shuddered. She would not go to the gallows. Not for a blackguard like Percy Livingstone. She would find a way to clear her name and keep moving forward. She was a survivor.
If she ran faster than she’d ever run before, she just might make the morning coach before anyone realized she was missing. It wasn’t much of an advantage, but she had learned to make the most of any scrap Fate chose to leave her.
But first things first—Emma. The girl was young. Traumatized, but still innocent in all senses. Not a soul would or should suspect her of anything. And this would be the last opportunity for Violet to save one of her students. There were no guarantees that the next heir in line would be any better than Mr. Livingstone, but the school was still a far safer option than dragging Emma back into the streets. As for Violet . . . she could take care of herself.
“Listen, sweetheart.” She held Emma’s trembling hands and wished the girl would make eye contact, even for a second. “You did nothing wrong. This is not your fault.” Nor was it Violet’s, but she could not help feeling sick with guilt. “No one knows you were in the studio today, and no one needs to know.” She brushed ash from the girl’s sleeve. With the heir up in flames, the plans to convert the school into a madhouse should come to an end—she hoped. “Go to Headmistress Parker. You can trust her.”
Emma nodded miserably, shoulders shaking. Violet gathered her into her arms and held her for a long moment. She had to believe this was the right thing to do. It was the only choice. She could not stay, and she could not risk endangering Emma. Sending her to the headmistress was the best hope for keeping her safe.
“This is not your fault,” she repeated, giving the girl a fierce hug.
Emma pulled back and looked up, her eyes hollow. The girl suddenly looked far older than her fifteen years. Violet gave her another hug, viciously pleased that Mr. Percy Livingstone was dead. She wished she had killed him herself. By closing down the school, he’d be sending all the girls into the clutches of other evil men just like him.
“Get cleaned up,” she instructed Emma, “and remember: you did nothing wrong.” She touched the girl’s pale cheek. “You’ll be safe now.”
With a smile full of far more confidence than she felt, Violet gave her a last hug goodbye then took off running for the Lancashire coach stop. Little time remained, but she’d learned through years of practice how to run very, very fast.
Not long after her coin petered out, so did Violet’s limbs.
She’d traveled via mail coach as far as her meager purse had allowed. Five long days of constantly looking over her shoulder. When the money ran out, she’d forced herself to continue over hills and through forests on foot until her blisters had blisters, and both her body and her brain grew sluggish from lack of food and water. Once again, the sun had begun its inexorable decline. If she did not find shelter soon, she would pass the night alone in the woods, hungry and defenseless.
She trailed the last rays of sunshine through a break in the trees and discovered herself at the edge of a sprawling moor. The land stretched away from her in green-brown waves, an endless sea of dense bracken disappearing into shadow along a distant horizon broken only by the silhouette of what looked to be an enormous convent or monastery.
Her legs crumpled in relief. She was saved.
An enormous cathedral loomed out of the growing darkness, its twisting gothic silhouette stark against the crimson sunset. Several similarly medieval outbuildings flanked the primary structure. The only element detracting from the beauty of the flying buttresses arching from the nave and sanctuary was the thick wooden boards covering what once must have been handcrafted stained glass windows.
No light shone, but she pushed forward anyway. Abandoned or inhabited, the walls were still standing—more than she could say about her own limbs—which made it the perfect resting place. And if there were nuns, the sisters wouldn’t turn her away just because her pockets were empty. She could finally sleep. The nuns’ seclusion would also keep them from outside influence, buying precious time before Violet had to fear news from Lancashire catching up with her. If there were no one at all, at least she would have peace.
She rose on trembling legs and pushed forward through the moorland. Coarse grasses tangled with her skirts and sent her stumbling, but she forced herself to keep moving. Her luck was finally turning around.
Or was it?
As she neared the structure, the grasses seemed to grow ever taller. The towers seemed more dilapidated than imposing, and even the stone walls were chipped and lackluster.
Not a single candle flickered in the windows because there were no windows. Layers of thick board crisscrossed over every surface, blocking all access to light. Whoever had worshiped here was long gone. Violet’s shriveled stomach clenched in protest at the realization that there would be no monks or nuns to offer bread and water. But at least the crumbling roof would be a respite from the empty rolling moors and offer shelter from whatever animals left the forest to hunt at night.
When her aching feet finally crossed the border between the open moorland and the cultivated lawn, she wanted to sob in relief. Instead, she barked a sharp cry of pain as her ankle connected with an unseen hindrance and sent her sprawling into a cluster of roses. A thousand simultaneous pinpricks assaulted every limb as thorns clawed at her skin through her tattered clothes.
Ankle throbbing, she rolled sideways onto the cool grass. She stared up into the growing darkness and blinked back tears. She doubted she had the stamina to close the remaining distance by hopping on one leg or crawling on her knees.
The chill breeze rustled the rosebushes, scraping sharp thorns against her hair and clothes. As the sensation reminded her more and more of insects crawling across her skin, she batted at her cheeks and forced herself into a sitting position.
She pulled her ankle close enough to prod the tender skin with her fingers. Her entire body tensed and her eyes stung. She was able to flex her toes, so at least it was not broken.
“‘Merely’ turned,” she muttered wryly, abandoning her self-examination to seek out the obstruction that had caused her downfall in the first place.
She glanced about to realize she lay upon a trampled path through the weeds. No, not trampled—trimmed. Someone did reside in the convent, then, and came this way to tend—what? She could discern nothing of interest except a pair of large stones. Unable to move far without exacerbating her injury, she leaned forward and ran a finger along the edge of the nearest stone. Flat and rectangular. Uniformly so. With grooves that felt almost like etchings . . .
She snatched her hand away in horror.
A gravestone. She’d tripped over a gravestone and fallen directly atop a grave! Mindless of the pain, a sudden rush of irrational panic propelled her to her feet. Torn between the urge to flee and the morbid desire to know whether anyone was truly buried here, she swayed on her good foot as she stared at the sharp inscriptions, not yet blurred by time and weather:
She really was standing upon a gravesite! Violet hopped backward, turning away from the graves and toward the looming abbey. Sudden dizziness rolled over her in waves. Her arms flapped woodenly but were no match against the pull of gravity. Before she’d managed to hop more than a few feet along the path, the craggy moor proved too difficult to navigate on one leg and she crumpled to the hard ground once again.
The sun chose that moment to concede defeat as well, giving way to the night. As the thick blackness enveloped her, so did a pervasive chill, permeating her to the very soul. This close to shelter, and she would not be able to reach it.
Frustration pricked at her eyes. She would lie next to the graves all night, until whatever creatures haunted the woods came to make an easy feast of her. She would be helpless to defend herself.
But a tended walkway meant residents. Perhaps not a convent full of friendly nuns spending their days in the kitchen (oh how she yearned for fresh-baked bread!) but someone had to be minding the path to the gravesite. Perhaps an abbot or even a groundskeeper. She propped herself up on her elbows and tipped her face into the oppressive darkness.
“Help,” she croaked, far more quietly than she’d intended. Her throat was ruined from lack of water, and if she did manage a good shout she’d no doubt lose her voice on the morrow. But what choice did she have? “Help! Please, help!”
When her voice finally gave out, so did her consciousness. Her head collapsed backward against the hard soil and her vision blurred. Just before exhaustion robbed her of her senses completely, a female countenance swam before her eyes.
She could’ve sworn a distant male voice asked, “What have you found?”
Alistair Waldegrave slammed his fist atop the ancient desk hard enough to send dust spiraling into the musty air. Another rejection. How many more pleading letters must he be forced to send? He already spent every waking moment sequestered in his office, and had absolutely no time to waste penning even more flowery invitations to England’s brightest medical geniuses.
To be fair, it wasn’t as though the men could leap astride their stallions and pop over to Waldegrave Abbey instead of the usual trot about St James Square. He was inviting them not to a party, but to a scholarly conclave one hundred and seventy-five miles north of London. But weren’t scientists supposed to be intrigued by puzzles to solve? And weren’t surgeons supposed to be dedicated to the idea of helping the infirm? And weren’t these people tempted to indulge his invitation if only out of curiosity and the fact that all their expenses would be paid out of Alistair’s own pocket?
Good Lord, if he couldn’t even appeal to basic human greed, what the devil did that leave him to bargain with?
Roper, Alistair’s manservant, hesitated at the doorway to the office. He was the sole staff member who’d been with the family since before everything had gone to hell. He was also the only living soul to have earned a modicum of Alistair’s trust. Roper hung back at the doorway, however, because service history notwithstanding, to cross that threshold without permission was a one-way ticket to an immediate sacking. And Alistair never granted permission. He could scarce afford to entrust any of his overly solicitous staff in the room housing his deadliest secrets.
“Inform my daughter,” he bit out without rising, well aware that Lillian’s antics were the only reason Roper ever hovered at the door, “that I am trying to help her, and if she would desist making impossible demands and refrain from attacking those who attempt to give aid, then perhaps she would find less to complain about.”
“Master . . .” Roper’s voice lowered. “It’s not Miss Lillian.”
Frowning, Alistair removed his pince-nez. “It’s not?”
Roper hesitated then shook his head.
Alistair stared at his manservant’s uneasy countenance. There was clearly a problem. And the problem was always Lillian. Lord help him, he did not have time for new problems. He didn’t even have time for the problems he already had.
“Well?” he demanded. “What is it?”
“There appears to be . . . a girl.”
Alistair blinked. “A what?”
“You may wish to come see,” Roper began, but Alistair was already on his feet. He swept through the doorway and automatically closed the self-locking door before continuing on.
A girl? What the devil could Roper mean?
He followed his manservant along the corridors to the entranceway, and made his way past the gaggle of servants blocking the threshold. There, on the front stoop, lay a crumpled mass of elbows and frayed hems, muddy boots and tangled hair.
A girl? So it was. A dirty, malnourished, unconscious girl. He sighed. Yet another riddle to solve.
No wonder Roper was so grim.
“All right, all right,” Alistair said, batting a hand at the hovering servants as if to disperse flies buzzing about a corpse. “Quit hanging about doing nothing, and bring her in.”
“In, Master?” Roper repeated in astonishment.
The other servants looked equally doubtful. Mrs. Tumsen in particular had an air about her that suggested the girl was better off in the street than within the devil’s lair. Alistair gritted his teeth. He had earned the housekeeper’s loyalty, but he had yet to earn her trust.
The only individuals who had willingly entered Waldegrave Abbey in the last decade were the ones whose desperation had enabled Alistair to bribe them into employment, if only for short periods of time.
Visitors new to the forgotten town of Shrewsbury took one look at the great crumbling abbey with its boarded-over windows and questionable stability, and turned the opposite direction. The folk who’d been around long enough to experience its haunted history firsthand well remembered the morning Alistair Waldegrave had gone completely mad. The screams. The funeral. The destruction. For all he knew, the rumors had travelled as far as London and his reams of desperate invitations would never garner a single acceptance. Perhaps even the superstitions had spread.
So, yes, he could appreciate his servants’ reluctance to bring someone within these unhallowed walls who wasn’t even conscious enough to make the wise decision to get the hell away while her heart still beat.
But she clearly had nowhere else to go. No one with anywhere else to go ended up here with him. Alistair opened his eyes and sent his gaze heavenward. Fine. The least he could do was provide her with a warm bath and a hot meal. And then send her back wherever she’d come from.
“Sir?” Roper asked again.
All of the servants were staring at Alistair in horrified fascination.
“You heard me,” he said blandly, retracing his steps in order to shove open the door allowing admittance into the black depths of the abbey. “Bring her in.”
Violet awoke naked. And terrified.
Even before checking for bruises and broken bones, she gingerly shifted one leg across the other. The only twinge came from her swollen ankle. Careful to keep her eyes closed and her breathing modulated, she emptied her mind to everything except the sounds of the room. Silence. Not even a whisper of air circulated in the eerie stillness. Perhaps she was locked in a closet, awaiting her captor. Assuming there was only one. Perhaps she hadn’t imagined voices after all.
She tensed at an unfamiliar noise. Was that the sound of someone breathing? No. Just the faint crackle of flame atop a candle. She was alone.
Ever so slowly, she cracked open one eyelid. The sight she beheld had her shooting upright, both eyes open wide.
Not a closet. By any means. She was in a . . . prayer room of some kind. The chamber was small, but stretched up to the heavens. At one time, the walls had presumably been adorned floor-to-ceiling with stained glass, but were now completely covered over from the outside and boarded again on the inside, allowing not even the slightest hint of sunlight to filter through. Perhaps there was no sunlight. Perhaps it was still nightfall. Perhaps—
Rescued! Of course. A bubble of laughter escaped her parched throat in relief.
Clutching an oddly luxurious blanket to her chest, she took stock of her surroundings. She had awoken not on a bed, but a pew. No wonder her back felt bruised and sore.
She laughed again, her desolation lifting. Religious folk would be too godly to send her to the gallows and too reclusive to know about her crimes in the first place. A chill slithered across her bare skin as she recalled her fright at awakening to find herself stripped of her vestments. Perhaps her hosts weren’t as godly as they’d like to appear. One should never be too trusting.
A large wooden tub of soapy water sat near a gold-encrusted altar. She approached, favoring her sore ankle, and touched the tepid water. The temptation of cleanliness was too divine to resist but, before indulging, she hobbled across the room to verify the lock was engaged on the prayer room door. It was locked tight, with a slender brass key protruding from the keyhole.
Twenty minutes later, she was drying her hair with the edge of her blanket when a sharp rap came at the door. Fear flooded back. Gripping the blanket in one hand in order to grab a heavy chalice with the other, she crept to the door. After taking a deep breath, she raised the chalice above her head.
“Your garments and boots, miss.” The voice was elderly. Female. And . . . nervous?
Violet lowered the chalice. If this was a ruse, it was a bloody good one. And she could hardly stay locked in a prayer room forever.
“Just a moment.”
After enshrouding herself with the blanket, she hefted the makeshift weapon in one hand, twisted the key, and creaked open the door.
A wiry older woman stood alone in the hallway, dressed in servant garb. She held a stack of clean, folded vestments and a freshly cleaned pair of very familiar boots.
The servant’s shoulders were hunched and her posture tense, as if she half-expected monsters to spring from the darkness. The woman’s knobby fingers trembled, but Violet could not be sure if this were due to age or anxiety. The servant’s clear lack of ease did nothing to soothe Violet’s own shattered nerves.
She snaked one arm through the crack and snatched her dress to her chest. Ratty and frayed as ever, but blessedly free of grime.
The servant nodded once, and at first made no move to go, nor to enter and offer assistance. If anything, she appeared to be warring with herself as to whether or not to speak her mind.
Just when Violet was about to break down and beg the strange visitor to say her piece so she might close the door and dress herself, the old woman finally spoke.
“Don’t make deals with the devil for a crust of bread. He may tempt ye to tend that creature of his, but if ye value your life, you’ll run whilst you still can. If ye still can.”
Without waiting for a reply, the old woman turned and melted into the darkness.
Violet blinked at the gap in the door where the servant had just stood. What on earth had that meant? Clearly the old woman had meant a warning of some kind, but of what creature did she speak? And who was “he”, this devil with whom Violet was not to bargain?
She nudged the door open far enough to poke her head out into the hall.
Nothing. No candles. No windows. No light. The old woman had managed to disappear into the shadows in less than a half dozen steps.
Unsettled, Violet slowly shut the door, then blinked in surprise when the key rotated clockwise of its own accord. She tested the handle and discovered the door had locked automatically. She tensed. If someone hadn’t left the key behind . . . A shiver chased up her spine and she shook her head. Being held against her will still had the power to paralyze her with fear and panic, and she must keep a clear head. She drew in a breath and forced her trembling limbs to relax by imagining the medieval beauty of the boarded-over stained glass windows. Reds, yellows, blues. Simple. Calming. She set down the chalice and dressed as quickly as she could. She wouldn’t be able to run with a turned ankle, but if she did need to escape, at least she’d be ready.
What had once seemed an improbable boon—a timely rescue by a kindhearted religious community—now felt much less auspicious. Violet would eat her boots if that gnarled old woman was a nun.
Which meant what? Who lived in a ramshackle medieval abbey in the middle of nowhere if not virginal nuns and godly monks? Violet swallowed hard. Had she been rescued . . . or abducted?
By the time a second knock struck the prayer room door, she had worked herself into a shivering ball of nerves. She took a deep breath, forcing her muscles to relax and her frenzied thoughts to slow, then swung open the door.
A different servant stood in the darkness, this one even less monk-like than the old woman was nun-like. The flickering of his candle sent distorted shadows dancing across his face. A well-muscled build bespoke hours of daily exercise and the scars slashing one cheek indicated he had survived a knife fight. All in all, not the most calming visage to emerge from the shadows.
“Come. The master wishes to speak with you.”
She shrunk back. “Wh-who?”
Surprise fluttered across his face before the servant’s blank expression returned to mask it. “Master Waldegrave, miss. You’re in Waldegrave Abbey.”
Well. That answered one question, at least. And spawned a dozen more.
The manservant retrieved the brass key from the prayer room door and beckoned her to follow him into the shadows.
She sent one last glance over her shoulder into the gilded prayer room, with its boarded-over stained glass and wooden tub of bathwater next to the altar, then followed the servant into the gloom.
He slowed to match her pace. “Are you injured?”
“A turned ankle,” she murmured, hating to confess any weakness. She preferred to appear strong. She preferred to be strong. One never knew when one might need to run. Resting had helped, but it would take at least another day before her ankle could fully withstand her weight.
The manservant offered his arm without further comment. After twisting down a murky passageway, he paused to unlock a dark-paneled door before gesturing for her to enter.
Panic crept over her once again as he pocketed the key rather than offer it to her. “No. You’re not locking me in any chambers.”
Once again, the heavily muscled servant seemed surprised at her refusal. “There are those who would say it’s for your own safety.”
Doubt and more than a touch of fear sent gooseflesh rippling beneath her threadbare gown. If this huge, strong man feared for his safety . . . She glanced at the scars crisscrossing one side of his face. Had that been done here? Had whatever caused his disfigurement also caused the deaths of the women in those graves? What kind of godforsaken place was Waldegrave Abbey?
She slowly turned around, taking in the unsettling dimness of her surroundings and admitting the even grimmer reality of her situation. She had nowhere else to go. In her weakened condition, even the five minute walk through the tall, windowless corridors had made her dizzy from exertion and half-nauseous with repressed hunger and pain from her swollen ankle.
As if her physical deterioration weren’t bad enough, she needed coin to flee to London, and a king’s ransom to pay for a barrister capable of saving her neck when the lawmen inevitably caught her. Exhaustion, hunger, and poverty aside, she needed to hide until the search for Percy Livingstone’s murderer began to wane. Anywhere she could.
With a slow, measured breath that did absolutely nothing to calm her nerves, she rolled back her shoulders and stepped into the chamber. The servant followed in her shadow, closing the door behind them with such speed that she wondered if there were monsters creeping closer on the other side.
They had entered what appeared to be another prayer room. Once upon a time, this room also must have boasted floor-to-ceiling stained glass. Now, the artistry had been defiled with layers of thick planks nailed across every single inch. A lit candelabrum stood atop a fat altar, scattering light and shadow in equal measure about the darkly glittering room.
A man sat in the front pew, his back to the locked door, his head bent in what Violet assumed to be prayer. Perhaps this Waldegrave was a holy man after all—an unconventional holy man, to be sure—and his servants merely indulged their master’s efforts to keep out the devil.
He rose slowly. His clothing, like hers, was years out of fashion and hung a bit loosely on his frame, as if the superfine material had been tailored during a time when food had been less scarce. But there the similarities ended. Where her shabby gown was of the best quality three months’ teaching wages could afford, this man’s ill-fitting attire had been the first stare of fashion . . . ten years ago. Although the seams were off in places, the height and length were perfect, leading her to suspect that when he’d first been fitted for his wardrobe, Mr. Waldegrave’s musculature had rivaled that of his burly manservant.
When he finally turned his face in her direction, however, her first impression was: white.
Mr. Waldegrave wasn’t merely pale; he was translucent. The depth of which was made even more striking by the inky blackness of his hair and brows and eyes. Had the man never been out-of-doors in his life? Toffs had long believed that the flush of the summer sun was a faux pas only a peasant like her would court, but Mr. Waldegrave’s pallor appeared more deathly than lordly.
Even so, the fine bone structure chiseled beneath his improbably handsome face and the regal aura of his bearing beneath his once-fine vestments spoke to the blue blood undoubtedly coursing beneath his pale flesh. Whether he’d ever seen the sun or not, this was a man well used to getting what he wanted. Those powerful eyes alone held her in something not unlike thrall. When she wrenched her gaze from the spellbinding weight of his, her trembling knees finally buckled beneath her.
The manservant caught her by the shoulders. “She suffers a turned ankle, master.”
Mr. Waldegrave stepped closer. “Ring for bindings. Mrs. Tumsen can assist.”
With a nod, the manservant led her to the closest pew.
She gathered the strength to perch on the outer arm rather than allow herself to be seated in its ranks. She wasn’t frightened, she told herself for perhaps the hundredth time since the lock had automatically clicked home behind her. She was merely weak from lack of nourishment.
But she had learned long ago to trust no man.
Mr. Waldegrave stopped within arm’s reach, but did not offer his hand. He regarded her in silence, as if her appearance was equally as arresting as his own. When at last he spoke, his deep voice was shockingly seductive. “Welcome. I am Alistair Waldegrave. May I ask from whence you come?”
No, the frantic voice deep inside her cried out, you cannot. She stared up at him.
His gaze burned into hers. “What is your name?”
“Violet . . .” she blurted out, the word torn unbidden from her tongue. “Smythe,” she added lamely, certain he would see through the paltry deception. What had happened to the practiced dissimulation that had saved her from more horrors than she cared to count?
His raised brow provided proof of his disbelief, but he did not waste his breath demanding honesty. “I see,” he said in that incredible voice, smooth and dark. “Miss Violet Smythe, if that is your real name, pray tell me to what I owe the pleasure of your company this eve?”
She gripped the edge of the pew. Had she appeared so dishonest, he hadn’t even believed her when she’d been fool enough to admit to her first name? Add that to the likelihood that this man never ventured far enough from his shadowed chambers to hear the barest whisper of news from a town as far away as upper Lancashire, and she might actually be safe . . . If she could convince him to grant her asylum for a spell before tossing her back into the wild.
And assuming Waldegrave Abbey was safer inside than out.
“I’m looking for work,” she admitted. The best lies were based on truth, and she would get nowhere with empty pockets. Like it or not, temporarily trusting her fate to this man was a risk she would have to take if she wished to avoid the gaol. That the mistrust was mutual spoke to his intelligence. “Have you a garden that needs tending or stockings that need darning?”
If anything, the skepticism lining his coldly beautiful face deepened. “Am I to believe you a misplaced gardener, then? A wandering seamstress in search of torn hems?”
She jerked her hands from the hard pew and laced her fingers in her lap to hide their trembling. “I don’t suppose my curriculum vitae would carry much weight in an abbey. I’m . . . a governess by trade.”
The manservant at her side started violently, as if she’d brandished a blade and lunged at the unscarred side of his face.
Mr. Waldegrave’s chiseled cheekbones paled further—if that were possible—as he cast his manservant a quelling glare. “A governess?”
“Of a sort. I specialize in art of all mediums.” Not that she imagined him to be an enthusiast. She couldn’t prevent an involuntary glance at the boarded-over stained glass and wondered what devilry would incite a man to cover up medieval beauty in order to live in darkness.
Mr. Waldegrave’s black eyes glittered. He clearly didn’t trust her, but hopefully the bit about teaching art held enough ring of truth to convince him of her harmlessness. At least long enough to get a scrap of meat in her belly and few more hours of sleep upon a wooden pew. With the lock securely engaged.
“I will pay you two pounds per week—”
She started. “You’ll what?”
“—for tutoring my daughter until she recovers from her . . . illness.”
The manservant at his side tried to mask his shock, but he looked equally as blindsided by the proposal as Violet felt. This was madness. Why would Mr. Waldegrave offer such riches without requesting names and references or at least testing her basic literacy?
Her stomach soured with suspicion. Was there a daughter?
Perhaps she had misread the signs completely. Was the tension emanating from Mr. Waldegrave’s every muscle due to a desire to enslave her as his personal plaything rather than due to a simple mistrust of strangers? Perhaps this was the devil’s bargain the old woman had foretold. Alluding to a man’s “creature” could as easily be figurative as literal.
She dug her fingernails into her palms as she tried to puzzle the outlandish offer. Was there more to it? As unusual as his pallor might be, he was still strikingly handsome enough to win the attention of any number of willing females. Unfortunately, she well knew that to some men, desire could only be provoked by unwillingness. Or helplessness. Perhaps the sanctuary had already turned into a trap.
“If two pounds per week is insufficient for your needs, you may begin the negotiations. Or if you prefer, I’ll return you to wherever it is you call home.”
She pulled herself together long enough to shake her head violently at this last suggestion. The bitter truth remained that she had nowhere to go. If there were coin involved—particularly that much coin—she would be ten times a fool not to take it. No matter what she must sacrifice. After she’d saved enough money to save her own neck, she could worry about her soul. But before she agreed to any sordid schemes, she wished to at least know the truth.
“Do you have a daughter?”
Even the chill of Mr. Waldegrave’s harsh features could not hide the surge of warmth—and anguish—from his eyes. “I do.”
So there was a daughter. A “creature” she had been warned to flee, lest she risk her very life.
“Is she . . . contagious?”
Hesitation flickered in his dark eyes, followed quickly by a glint of curiosity. “Do you consider yourself to be strong of character?”
Violet did not miss the evasion. Fighting a sudden urge to run, she somehow kept a neutral expression fixed firmly on her face. “I do, indeed.”
At that moment, the old woman arrived with strips of cloth. To Violet’s surprise, both men averted their gazes while her ankle was being bandaged. As soon as the servant woman took her leave, however, Violet was once again the object of Mr. Waldegrave’s scrutiny.
He studied her so intently that she shifted uncomfortably against the hardwood pew.
“Come,” he said, shocking her speechless when he offered his elbow as smartly as if he were a London lordling accompanying his ladylove to dinner. “It is late. And just moments ago, I was informed that my daughter is still very much awake. As I shall have to put Lillian abed anew, you may as well meet her and decide your future for yourself.”
Lillian. The name on the grave. Violet’s heart pounded double-time.
There was no daughter. He had lied.
And yet, her best hope for food and shelter was to play along. To bide her time until escape was possible. Even as she slipped unsteady fingers between the heat of his body and the taut muscle beneath his shirtsleeve, she couldn’t help but suspect this new risk was far more dangerous than any she’d managed to live through yet.
Violet allowed Mr. Waldegrave to help her rise from the edge of the pew. His manservant hovered just behind, holding aloft a freshly lit taper. Her limbs trembled as much from anxiety as hunger-induced frailty.
In the corridor, Mr. Waldegrave kept her fingers tucked against the crook of his elbow. Although she didn’t trust him as far as she could throw him—and in her current condition, she doubted she could throw so much as a breadcrumb—it was disconcerting to realize that this was the first time a gentleman had ever held out his arm for her. She despised her weakness at even noticing the solid warmth of his bicep beneath her fingertips. It was no doubt the novelty, and not the man himself, she found so intriguing. She hoped he realized any reliance on his aid was due to her swollen ankle, and not to any girlish fancy.
But what fancy did he suffer? The warmth in his eyes when he spoke of his daughter had not been feigned. And yet, the name he had given matched that of the grave behind the abbey. Either her would-be employer had named his daughter after a dead woman, or the girl she was about to meet was someone other than Lillian Waldegrave. A doppelganger meant to replace the dead Lillian Waldegrave?
No. Certainly she was overreacting from fatigue. If there was a daughter, then there was nothing to fear. Perhaps.
Mr. Waldegrave was no Prince Charming. He was tall and broad and his chiseled-marble features undeniably handsome, but he was far too cold and emotionless to be a desirable companion in any sense of the word. Although his flesh burned hot beneath his sleeve, his passions—if he had any—clearly did not. She doubted he’d spoken fifty words to her during the short interview, and none at all during this walk. Perhaps he was still overcome with grief over the loss of the two Waldegrave women buried behind the abbey. And the living “creature”?
More like as not, any rich child’s sole affliction was simply a lifetime of being spoiled by self-important parents whose concerns ran more to matters of high society than to childrearing. Violet was ashamed to admit that there had been innumerable moments in her childhood when she’d wished herself the most lonely and unloved of all the future debutantes rather than continue to suffer the unwanted attentions paid to a young girl with no place to call home.
“Why the frown?” Mr. Waldegrave’s voice was detached, but his gaze sharp. “Do you already regret agreeing to help my daughter? What have you heard?”
Trepidation began to prick along her neck once more. What did he fear she knew? She’d barely arrived at the abbey alive. She had heard nothing, save the ravings of an old woman. But what she’d seen was a grave bearing the same name as his alleged daughter.
No matter the circumstance, she was stuck here until she could conceive a better plan. She drew back her shoulders. If his concerns gave her bargaining power . . .
“Two pounds per week, you said?”
“I did indeed.” His gaze did not waver from her face. “I am a man of my word.”
Doubtful. She’d only ever met one who was, and now he was dead. She lifted a bland smile in Mr. Waldegrave’s direction. “Then I should like to be paid in advance. Two pounds, at the start of each week.”
She held her breath. The demand was a calculated risk. Payment in advance was unheard of. But any man who hired a crumpled scrap of a girl, one who tumbled across the moor like the broken seeds of a dandelion, was either lying about his intentions . . . or in no position to negotiate.
His shuttered expression indicated neither surprise nor suspicion. Just the same pale handsomeness and unreadable gaze. “Are you a woman of your word?”
She inclined her head. “I am.”
“As a woman of your word, do you agree to stay for not less than one full month?” His cold eyes flickered with what might have been actual emotion. “Come what may?”
She choked back a laugh—or perhaps a sob—at the question. Pay, and a full month of shelter? She had nowhere else to go. No one would look for her here, and he was offering coin for her services, whatever they might be. Without an income and a hiding place, she was a dead woman. She had no choice.
So she lifted her chin and said, “I do.”
She expected a shrug and a disdainful, “Then you’ll take your pay at the end of the month like the rest of the servants.” When he slipped her hand from his elbow, she broke out in an icy sweat, terrified that her cocky risk had provoked him to rescind his offer completely.
However, he simply paused to unlock one of the many mahogany doors along the dark hallway. He motioned for the manservant behind them to lift the sole candle, casting its meager light into the shadows. This door led not into a prayer room, but to what appeared to be an endless, windowless passageway carved into the earth itself.
Poised on the threshold, he replaced the slender key into his pocket then removed what could only be a money purse.
Violet couldn’t stop her jaw from slackening in shock. He would pay her now, before she’d worked a single minute, before his daughter had so much as laid eyes on her new governess? Now she knew he was mad.
“Hold out your hand,” he directed calmly.
Following his instructions, her trembling fingers uncurled between them. He placed two impossibly shiny coins in the center of her palm. Her breath caught. Had she ever even held two sovereigns at one time?
“If you accept my money, then you accept the terms of the contract. No less than one calendar month as my daughter’s full-time governess.” Mr. Waldegrave’s voice was as dark and smooth as the silver-tongued procurers lurking in the Whitechapel alleys. “Come what may.”
The slyness in his tone gave her pause, but her fingers were already closing tight about the strangely heavy coins and shoving them into her own pocket for safekeeping. After a few months of teaching an heiress to paint, not only would the hunt for Mr. Percy Livingstone’s killer have (hopefully) lost some of its ardor, she would be able to afford a competent barrister. She would be free.
She tucked the coins deeper into her pocket. “So shall it be.”
“Come.” Taking the candle from his manservant, Mr. Waldegrave stepped into the murky passageway.
The manservant made no move to follow, so Violet assumed the command had been directed at her. She took a step forward but paused at the threshold as she realized the floor sloped steeply downward, with no indication of a plateau. A musty odor seeped from earthen walls. Dust. Mold. And something darker. “Where are we going?”
“To my daughter.”
Against her better judgment, she crossed into the passageway. As soon as she did so, the hallway door closed behind her and the lock engaged. “Mr. Waldegrave, wait! The door . . .”
“Do not be alarmed.” He strode into the blackness, candle aloft. “All the doors in Waldegrave Abbey have been fitted with a mechanism to lock automatically, and Roper’s presence is required elsewhere. For now, you are safe enough with me. You may eventually be provided with a key of your own.”
Alarmed? Safe? Violet could not abide being locked in small dark spaces. She hurried to catch up to him, ignoring the twinge of pain when she put weight on her ankle.
“Where exactly is your daughter?”
He motioned to the shadows ahead. “The sanctuary.”
“Which is in the cellar?” she blurted doubtfully.
“The sanctuary is in one of the outbuildings.” He lifted the candle a little higher, but cupped the flame with the other hand as if to protect the light from a ghostly breeze. “These catacombs run beneath the earth and connect all seven structures to one another.”
She stopped walking, her swollen foot arrested in mid-air. “Catacombs, as in, ancient tunnels? Or catacombs, as in, ancient tunnels lined with”—she almost choked on the word—“corpses?”
“The latter. This was a working abbey for centuries. Every tunnel has history embedded in its walls. The monks’ graves are recessed, and quite old. The chances of stumbling over anything unpleasant are slim. The stale air, however, I can do nothing about.”
He did not so much as slow his pace. As he was the sole possessor of both key and candle, she was forced to hobble forward on trembling limbs. She took care to focus on the flickering light ahead, rather than the crumbling walls it illuminated.
Had she thought this man merely eccentric? He was off his dot completely.
She cleared her throat. “Might I ask a question?”
“Miss Smythe,” he said firmly, without slowing or even glancing in her direction. “Let us dispense with the formality of inquiring whether or not you may inquire something. I see no need to waste valuable time granting petitions to ask questions.” When he finally glanced down at her, his eyes glittered in the candlelight. “Though we may be master and servant, if you have something to say, please say it.”
Her chin rose. How positively generous of him. He was her master now, and she did know her place. The worst part was that he wasn’t being uppity, but rather quite progressive. Most gentry would have sacked her for any one of the impertinences she’d displayed thus far. Mr. Waldegrave was perhaps too distracted—or, rather, too focused on someone other than his newest servant—to bother reprimanding her atypical behavior.
Even at her most unconventional, however, she would never choose to stroll through corpse-lined walls.
“In that case,” she said with as much composure as she could manage, “why not take the shortest path aboveground?”
At this, he did stop. He turned, lowered the candle, and looked her dead in the eyes for a long moment before answering. “My daughter and I suffer an incurable sensitivity to the sun. Our bedchambers are in the sanctuary outbuilding, which is double-boarded and accessible only via underground passageways because natural light burns our skin on contact. Significant exposure would cause death.” He spun away from her without waiting for a reply and strode further into the gloom. “I, for one, prefer the catacombs.”
She stared after him, openmouthed. Surely he exaggerated! “Many individuals experience sensitivity to the sun and go about safely with the aid of a decent parasol. Have you considered—”
“Miss Smythe, I have considered. What you fail to comprehend is that I do not refer to a ruddy complexion from having played one too many rounds of cricket. I am talking about blisters on every inch of exposed skin starting from the very first second of sunlight.” His voice cracked. “Burning flesh . . . and screams of agony.”
Violet was uncertain whether she was meant to hear that last, but if his claim of acute sun sensitivity was even halfway true, she didn’t doubt the accompanying screams of agony. In fact, were she forced to witness such a horror, like as not she’d do a fair bit of screaming herself.
“Forgive me. I have never heard of such an affliction. Medical advances—”
“—have proven themselves to be of no practical use,” he interrupted coldly. “Science and medicine alike have failed us consistently since the moment of Lillian’s birth. To wit, I dare not admit publicly that my offspring suffers such a disease, or I’m like to find her forcibly taken from me and subjected to any number of gross experiments in the name of ‘scientific research.’”
He pronounced this last as if it were the most vulgar of profanities. Violet’s skin pricked in a cold sweat. Fodder for future nightmares. Her mind was more than creative enough to imagine the atrocities men of “science” might perform on a young girl.
His voice grew deadly calm. “I will not allow such barbarity, so I have kept her existence a secret from the entire world, including all but my most trusted servants.” The shadows about him shuddered. “You, as her first governess, will be expected to do the same.”
She glanced at him askance. “First governess in . . . a while?”
“Ever.” His voice hardened to stone. “If hiring you turns out to be a mistake, it is not one I shall repeat. Take heed, Miss Smythe. If you ever breathe a word of her existence, you will not like the consequences.”
Her head swam at both the threat and his anguish. Year after year of living under lock and key. Of darkness. Catacombs. And hoping for the impossible. She could at least relate to the latter.
She slid her gaze toward the ancient graves buried within the interminable tunnel. This abbey was no place for a child. Shivering, she turned back to her new employer. She couldn’t squelch the fanciful thought that the coins in her pocket were like those from the folk tale—guaranteed to always return to their owner.
She took a shallow breath and tried to think logically.
“Your daughter may be a well-kept secret, but your own existence must be widely known. Why do you not fear for your own safety?”
“My daughter is a child and an innocent. She is but nine years old. I, on the other hand, am the last male heir to a forgotten abbey. When Lillian was born, only a handful of individuals called Shrewsbury home. Those who recall the Waldegraves think me a harmless recluse, if they think of me at all. Those who have darkened my doorstep number even fewer, and have done so at my express request.”
“That may be,” she said hesitantly, “but is it not impossible to control servants’ wagging tongues?”
“I have had no such problems with mine. I keep their pockets far too well lined for them to risk being disloyal.” He cast a meaningful glance at the skirt-pocket where two gold coins burned against her leg. “You, however, I do not yet trust.”
That made two of them. Violet swallowed. Perhaps the old lady was right about striking a devil’s bargain. Know thy enemy, she reminded herself as she considered her new employer. “Is that why you demanded a minimum of one month’s employ?”
“Of course.” Something in his cold gaze indicated he’d been analyzing her more than she’d realized. “And mutual mistrust is what I suspect predicated your demand for wages in advance.” With this casually delivered observation, he released her from his gaze.
She colored. He was correct, of course, but she could scarcely come forth and agree that she’d at first thought him a childless lecher. She still did not feel safe. Now more than ever, she longed to be back at the Livingstone School for Girls. Before Old Man Livingstone had died and left paradise in the hands of true evil.
She hurried to keep pace. Moments after the tunnel intersected with another, the uneven floor finally began to incline. He halted before a scarred wooden door and drew a thick key from his pocket. Yet he paused before sliding the teeth into the lock.
“My daughter,” he began, then stopped to consider his words. The uncharacteristic hesitation was somehow more alarming than all the previous declarations together. “Lillian,” he said at last, “can be difficult. But please know that I will allow no harm to come to her. None. She is my reason for living just as I am her only hope. Having a governess instruct her will be beneficial in many ways, but my desire for her education is secondary. Your aid will allow me to dedicate more time to the one goal that drives me above all others: finding a cure.”
Her brow creased. “I thought you said your condition was incurable.”
“I shall never stop searching,” he repeated as if he hadn’t heard the interruption. His gaze slid from hers as he murmured, “But what we need is a miracle.”
As she watched him fit the key into the lock, her stomach soured with suspicion and remembered nightmares. “Why keep a nine-year-old child behind lock and key?”
He closed his eyes as if her words caused him injury. “Allowed to roam free, Lillian cannot resist the allure of the sun. She escaped into the back lawn when she was but five years old, and very nearly died that same day. I immediately installed automatic locking mechanisms on every door as a precaution. I long to take her out-of-doors at night, but between the dangers of being discovered and Lillian’s propensity to run away, the risk is too great. She is my world, and I cannot lose her.” His eyes opened. He gave the key a sharp turn and the lock disengaged with a soft click. “Other reasons for her solitude, you are bound to discover on your own. Come.”
What other reasons? But before Violet could inquire further, he swung open the door.
He nudged her inside, leapt into the sanctuary beside her, and closed the door behind them with the speed and finesse borne of long practice.
Before her eyes finished adjusting to the oddly lit sanctuary, a white blur flew at them from across the room. Violet dove out of the way with an alacrity learned in London alleyways and nearly re-twisted her ankle in the process. When Mr. Waldegrave’s head smacked backward into the door with enough force to concuss, she realized she hadn’t been the intended victim.
Mr. Waldegrave lifted a kicking and screaming waif by her ribs and contained her far in front of him.
She lashed out with her feet and fists. “Why must you lock everything? I hate you! Let me out!”
He set the child on her feet as if he’d heard none of her shrill accusations, but he was not so trusting as to release her just yet. “Lillian,” he said calmly, as if such a display were an everyday occurrence. Perhaps it was. “You have a visitor. This is Miss Violet Smythe, your new governess.”
“I don’t want a governess.” The child kicked and twisted, unsuccessfully trying to free herself from her father’s grasp.
“Miss Smythe is here to teach you maths and Latin and history, and even has a particular talent for—”
“I don’t care about maths and history! I want to see the sun! Let me go. Let me go!” This last was accompanied by a snarl and a nearly successful attempt to bite off her father’s hand at the wrist.
Violet slid her own hands into her pockets. She was fair-to-middling with maths and didn’t speak a word of Latin, but by the looks of things, the likelihood of bending heads over a schoolbook was close on zero. A greater concern would be discovering where in this medieval crypt the Waldegraves kept their battle armor. There was no longer any doubt as to the “evil creature” to which the old woman had referred. Nothing short of hammered steel would serve as protection from nine-year-old Lillian Waldegrave. And, Violet was beginning to suspect, no salary would be worth the scars.
“Lillian, enough. Bid goodnight to your new governess and get back in bed.”
“Is it nighttime, Papa? How would I know? It’s not as if I have windows.” When her father made no response, Lillian ceased struggling and bowed her head in defeat. “I have nothing.”
Mr. Waldegrave’s face twisted in pain, but he continued to guard his tongue. Or perhaps there was nothing more to say.
Violet stood awkwardly to one side, not trusting the apparent truce enough to approach. She took advantage of the moment to observe her new charge.
Lillian, not unlike her father, very much looked like someone who had never experienced sunlight. She was far too pale, too thin. Too . . . small. Her dress and slippers were well made and expensive, but she looked more a child of six or seven than nine. Her slender fingers curved into claws. A tangle of pitch-black hair streamed down her back and covered most of her face, giving only brief glimpses of a pert nose and the curve of a pock-scarred cheek.
“I see the roses have lost their bloom,” Mr. Waldegrave said softly. “Would you like me to bring you some new ones?”
“No,” Lillian whispered. And then slowly lifted her gaze toward Violet.
Violet’s fingers clenched at the abject misery reflected in Lillian’s blank gray eyes. Her actions were vicious, angry, vengeful, but she was not fighting her father after all. She was fighting despair.
This little girl was lashing out only because she didn’t know what else to do. Violet’s throat tightened. She knew despair intimately . . . and hated seeing it in the face of a child. She was at Lillian’s side within seconds.
“Leave us for a moment,” she murmured to her new employer. “Please.”
His incredulous gaze snapped toward her. His strong hands (one of which now bore ruddy teeth marks) fell from his daughter’s thin shoulders. “I hardly think that’s wise. For years, no one but me has been able to touch her.”
How many had even tried? Violet was not afraid of being pushed or bitten. She’d survived far worse over the years. She was more afraid of not giving the right first impression—that of ally, not enemy. But how could she convince Lillian that she was on her side?
Gently, carefully, Violet pulled the child’s wooden body into her arms. As anticipated, Lillian immediately began to buck and fight. Violet simply hugged her tighter, ignoring the elbow jabbing into her belly and the tears in her eyes from her chin being half-shattered by a blow from the back of Lillian’s head.
“Get. Off. Me.” Lillian kicked backward at Violet’s shins. “Go away. I hate you, too!”
“You’re entitled to,” Violet said calmly. “But I don’t hate you. As it happens, you remind me of someone I used to know. Someone I liked very much.”
Many, many someones. Her fellow exhausted children from the workhouse. The skinny mongrels fighting for the same scraps of food in the rubbish behind abandoned food stands. The empty eyes of the world-weary orphans who’d given themselves up for dead before they were rescued by the Livingstone School for Girls. Every single one of them had fought or growled or bit or said “Go away” when what they all really meant was “Come back” and “Stay here” and “I don’t want to be invisible anymore.”
Violet pressed a kiss to the back of Lillian’s matted head. Low, so only Lillian could hear, Violet whispered the words she’d longed for throughout her entire childhood. Words that never came. “You’re safe. Shh, now. You can’t scare me away. I’m here to help. I came for you.”
The fight fell out of Lillian’s limbs. Silent tears rolled down her face.
Alarmed, Mr. Waldegrave rushed forward.
“Miss Smythe, that’s quite enough. I won’t have you upsetting my child.” Holding his arms open for his daughter, he closed the distance between them. “I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave Waldegrave Abbey and seek employment elsewh—”
Lillian kicked him in the shins.
Mr. Waldegrave froze, his pale lips still parted but his words forgotten. A spark of something that might’ve been hurt or might’ve simply been confusion flickered briefly in his eyes. He held out his hands to his daughter, palms up, in supplication. “Lillian?”
Violet released the little girl. Rather than scramble away or resume her attack against her father or new governess, Lillian wiped her face on the sleeve of her expensive gown and straightened her spine.
“Go away,” she commanded, arms crossed and voice trembling.
“She will, sweetling. I just told her to—”
Lillian leaned against Violet’s torso. “Not her. You.”
This time, the pain etched across his granite face was unmistakable.
Violet longed to say something to ease his hurt, to tell him what Lillian really wanted was for him to stay, that she lashed out at him only because she was hurting and wanted someone to acknowledge her pain. But to do any of that right here, right now, would undermine the fragile bond she’d established with her new charge. And Violet knew girls like Lillian, knew herself well enough to recognize that without trust, there would be nothing. As much as Lillian needed her father, what she truly yearned for was to be listened to. Acknowledged. Treated as someone capable of knowing her own mind.
What Violet did say was, “When I accepted this position, Mr. Waldegrave, we agreed upon one month’s contract. Miss Lillian has asked for a moment’s privacy so that we might get to know one another. Please feel free to attend to other duties for a moment. We will be fine.”
Lillian turned and stared up at Violet, pale eyes wide with shock at having been not only taken seriously, but sided with.
Mr. Waldegrave’s open arms fell limply to his sides. “Are those your wishes, daughter?”
Lillian hesitated, then lifted her chin high. “Yes, Papa.”
“Very well.” His dark gaze colder than ever, he turned and quit the chamber without another word.
The door locked tight behind him.
After leaving the new governess inside the sanctuary with his only child, Alistair was sorely tempted to drop to the dirt floor, sag against the crumbling stones, and bury his face in his hands.
He allowed himself no such weakness, of course. There was no time to waste sitting about feeling hopeless when he was the only person he could count on to work toward improving their lot. There must be a cure. Somewhere. Somehow. And he would find it.
Lillian could not continue this way. Could. Not. The necessary protective measures were killing her as surely as her disease. He would trade his life to improve hers, if only it were an option. He loved her above all else.
And she hated him.
Most days, he hated himself, too. Except for those brief moments when he foolishly thought he was making progress. During those fancies, he was delirious with relief and joy . . . For a time. The truth always caught up with him. Failure always caught up with him. God help him, he could not continue this way. But he must. For Lillian.
When he reached the far side of the catacomb, he unlocked the thick door and let himself into an empty hallway. Faint light sputtered from the candle in his fist. He’d forgotten to retrieve a new taper, and now he held but a nub. Not that it mattered. He knew Waldegrave Abbey as well as those who’d built the complex centuries ago. He’d been born here . . . and spent years in its darkness.
He made his way to his office before the candle flame finally died. He tossed the tiny wick into the rubbish and stared gloomily at the pince-nez resting atop a pile of unsent correspondence. It was late. He would post missives in the morning. He needed something else, something mindless, something to keep his mind off of—
Lillian. The roses beside her bed had been slumped crisscross over the lip of the crystal vase, their wilted petals crumbling atop her small escritoire, as they did every week. He retrieved a worn pair of shears from atop his desk and quit the office. He would cut more. Again.
As the automatic locking mechanism clicked back into place, Alistair’s manservant materialized in the shadowed passageway. Roper said nothing—gloriously, he rarely spoke unless he had some important intelligence to convey—but today there was a different quality to his silent presence. As if there were something he wished he could say, and yet, could not.
“Out with it, Roper.”
A hint of pink flushed the man’s swarthy face, discernible only because the gnarled scars across his left cheek stood starkly pale in comparison. “It’s . . . the new governess, master.”
The new governess. Yes. Alistair turned his gaze to the gardening shears in his hands in order to prevent his manservant from reading uncomfortable truths in his eyes. Like how much it hurt to have Lillian prefer the company of a total stranger to that of her own father. Or how guilty he felt to dare hope he finally had someone to share the load.
When he’d seen the young woman lying upon his doorstep, he had believed the wayward “Violet Smythe” a disoriented guttersnipe. Nonetheless, he’d ordered her a bath, ordered her tattered garments washed, and intended to order her back out to the streets after offering her cheese and biscuits and perhaps a farthing or two, which would as likely be spent on cheap gin as anything.
But the creature he’d been presented with in the prayer room had been anything but a guttersnipe.
He’d just finished innumerable unanswered pleas to God, and turned to behold a grown woman, in her mid-twenties. The gown she wore was shabby from overuse, but fell perfectly against her too-slender frame. Her skin was an unfashionable bronze, but flawless and smooth across high cheekbones and scandalously bare arms. Her eyes were a blue so deep one almost believed them purple—no doubt why she’d given herself the false name of “Violet”—and framed by eyelashes as thick and rich as her unbound hair. The auburn tresses had been damp and lifeless at first, but during the course of the conversation, they’d dried into big, looping curls about her face and shoulders. The ringlets tumbled halfway to her hips. She looked a perfect angel.
Miss Smythe, he had realized in shock, was stunningly beautiful. With a few more pounds on her frame and a decent gown to accentuate the results, she’d be breathtaking. She was the last thing he needed.
“What about the new governess?” he demanded gruffly.
Roper hesitated. “What do we know about her?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Alistair returned. “And by the grace of God, that’s precisely how much she knows about us. That is the only way this arrangement could even work.”
“But two pounds per week, Master. It’s . . .”
Ah. The money. Truth be told, any young lady who landed upon a doorstep in as ragged condition as had Miss Smythe, must be in far greater need of those two coins than Alistair. However, he could well understand Roper’s concerns. Regardless of Alistair’s flush pockets, two pounds per week was an outlandish sum to promise a strange woman of unknown origin.
“I will hardly miss it. And Lillian’s education is worth any price.” Nonetheless, Alistair recognized this hope as the fanciful dream that it was. In nine years, his daughter had never permitted him to teach her so much as basic sums. “If Miss Smythe manages to achieve any improvement with Lillian, she will walk out of Waldegrave Abbey having earned every penny.”
Roper nodded slowly. He might or might not agree with his master’s decision, but he understood the logic and the emotion behind it, and would suffer his role as silent watcher without complaint. “Where is the young lady now?”
Alistair motioned in the direction of the shadowed passageway. “With Lillian.”
His manservant choked, his face purple beneath his scars. “Alone?”
“Lillian invited her to stay,” Alistair said simply. Although nothing was simple. Within seconds of her arrival, the fair stranger had already wrought her first miracle. He just wished Miss Smythe’s magic hadn’t made him feel so . . . trivial.
Roper appeared to be suffering apoplexy on the spot. “Miss Lillian . . . invited . . . ?”
Alistair fit his fingers into the handle of the shears and stretched open the blades. The shears were old, but still strong and serviceable. He sharpened them after every moonlit trip to the garden—which is where he would be now, were it not for his anxious manservant. He closed the blades with a snap.
“I’m going to take some air. Stay by the bells, should Lillian ring.”
Without waiting for a response, Alistair sidestepped his manservant. Bracing himself against the onslaught of a chill Shrewsbury breeze, he stepped out into the twilight.
He yearned to tilt his face up at the stars, to greet his old friends Hercules and Draco, but did not indulge the desire. Not if he couldn’t share the night sky with his daughter. Oh, how he wished to. But the last time, she had run off and nearly died from the breaking dawn. He would not take that risk again. Even though it was past twilight, he himself wouldn’t even be out-of-doors, were it not for the goal of bringing some small piece of the outside world to his daughter. Fresh roses, every week.
He pocketed the garden shears and approached with caution. As always, an explosion of flowers bloomed about Marjorie as if her mere touch could cause the tiniest seed to blossom. Inhaling their scent, he turned his back to the light of the moon.
His shadow fell upon the closer of two gravestones. His gaze locked on the stark letters etched therein. He would never forget the first of March, 1826. The morning of his daughter’s birth. And the morning of his wife’s death, as well as the death of life as Alistair knew it. Forever.
He had to rely on his memory in order to gaze upon his wife’s angelic face, for she lay in a casket six feet below the scented petals. And because he could not provide Lillian with her mother, he offered what little he could: stories. The more imperfect their lives became, the more perfect Marjorie shone in his memory and in his tales. And why not? He had thus far been unable to give Lillian anything else that she wanted. The least he could give her was a goddess for a mother. An angel who had returned to the heavens.
As the years went by, the sharpness of his grief had dulled. What his daughter really needed was a mother in flesh and blood. Someone just as good-hearted, just as pure of body and soul, just as perfect as the one she’d lost. He would not offer her anything less. He only wished he could give her so much more. First, however, he would have to cure her disease.