Clara jumped and spun around, convinced she heard footsteps behind her.
The candle flickered with the movement, guttering with her gasped breath. But when she saw no one there, she sighed at her own jittery nerves and carried on walking.
The halls of the castle were cold and bare, the gray stone walls undressed and stark, the floor hard and uncovered. Clara shivered in the chill. The castle had a continuous gloom, the hallways so dark that a candle was required, regardless of the time of day.
“There is no one there,” she chided herself under her breath. “Stop this nonsense.”
Her blue cotton gown kicked out as she marched forward with a determination and confidence she didn’t feel. Her slippered feet were silent on the hard stone floor, and her long, dark hair had been twisted up into a knot at the back of her head.
Lady Clarabelle Fulton—or Clara, as she preferred to be called—was on the cusp of womanhood at nineteen years of age. The daughter of the Duke of Calverton, she was a tall young lady, her figure slim but shapely enough, and she liked to dress simply and practically.
Unruly curls tumbled around her face, the dark a pleasant contrast to her perfect porcelain skin. Her green eyes shone with a simple and unassuming intelligence, but they told a tale of a life lived in a cocoon of fear and overprotection.
She jumped again, this time letting out a squeak of fear, and she spun around and glared into the darkness.
“Who is there?” she asked, but, of course, she received no reply. She closed her eyes and sighed before turning back to continue on her way.
It had been happening more and more of late. It seemed that wherever she went in the castle, she felt eyes upon her, and she heard noises behind her, even when she knew she was quite alone.
Again, she shook her head, cursing herself for her foolishness.
It is an echo and the creaking of an old castle, nothing more.
But no matter how many times she told herself that, she could not shake the feelings of dread and fear.
Clara led an isolated life, often alone or with only the servants for company. Her mother, long-ago dead after a difficult childbirth, had never been part of her life, and so Clara had grown up with her father alone. In his terror of losing her, too, her father wrapped Clara tightly in a blanket of armor, and he rarely let her out of his sight.
She turned the corner of the hallway and started down the next, glancing quickly behind her again. She would feel better once she reached the kitchen.
The castle, at the top of a mountain and away from all civilization, felt more like a prison than a home to Clara. She rarely left it, and when she did, she was closely guarded.
The hallways were warrenlike, leading off each other in all directions, making it disconcerting and easy to lose oneself. It was a cold place and always dark, with towers that stretched high into the sky, and it had a strange feeling of despair to it which Clara always put down to the hole her mother left when she departed this world for the next.
She often wondered whether the castle would be an altogether different place if her mother had lived. Brighter, perhaps. More colorful.
Clara pushed open the heavy door to the kitchen and smiled brightly, feeling instantly better when she saw the friendly, familiar faces and the natural light that poured in from the open door to the gardens.
“Good afternoon,” she said.
“Ah, young Lady Clara,” Mrs. Betty Miller, the cook, said, turning to face her and wiping her hands on an already dirty muslin apron. “And how are you doing today?”
“I am alright,” Clara said with a shrug.
As she passed the large and well-used table in the middle of the room, she picked up a slice of carrot and bit into it with a crunch. She went to the high stool at the far edge of the room—her favorite spot—and she looked around at the busy servants.
“What is for dinner this evening?” she asked.
“A nice game pie,” Mrs. Miller said, leaning heavily against the table and smiling at Clara.
Her rump was as round as her bosom and her beige dress hung from her frame. Her skin sagged around her face, but it had the effect of making her look more endearing, if anything. She had a matronly air about her, and Clara loved her dearly.
“Our Ralph caught a pheasant in the gardens this morning. Biggest one you are ever likely to see,” Ellen said eagerly. The scullery maid’s cheeks were ruddy and bright, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and her dirty brown hair poking out from under her cotton bonnet.
“Goodness,” Clara said, nodding over to Ralph. “That is quite something!”
“Was quite a chase,” he said with a chuckle. “Should ’ave seen me, running after it like a mad thing. Mrs. Miller says there is enough to go around though, so we are all in for a treat tonight.”
“I can just imagine it,” Clara said, laughing as she pictured Ralph chasing the terrified bird.
Young Ralph Brooks sat in the large Windsor chair in the corner of the room—a place he seemed to be more often than in the garden where he belonged—and he nodded. He had become tanned and well-built, and despite his youth, his chin had grown bristly over time.
Before he could say any more, Adam, the stable hand, came bustling through the open door full of energy.
“’Ere,” he said, walking straight up to the table and pinching a slice of carrot, just as Clara had done. “You will never guess what I ’eard.”
“What is that?” Ellen asked. “You been snooping in other people’s business again?”
“The Master sent me into town to fetch him some books he ordered from the old fella on the high street.”
“You call that news?” Ralph said with a snort of derision.
“No,” Adam said, turning to look at him with wide-eyed annoyance. “Maybe if you would listen, you would hear what I have got to say.”
“All right, boys,” Mrs. Miller said. She had returned to her place at the stove, stirring the big pot of gravy. “Enough of that, please.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Miller,” Adam said. “Anyhow, when I was there, I overheard Browning—you know, the Wentings’ butler—talking to some young chap. Apparently, their cook has run off with the footman and a bag full of the Lady’s jewels! Can you believe that?”
“I would believe anything of the Wentings’ cook,” Mrs. Miller said. “Never did like her. Too much of a busybody, so she was.”
“Busybody all right,” Ralph said. “And a rich one now, by all accounts.”
“Nah, the Duke of Wenting will not let that pass without punishment,” Ellen said. “I’ve ’eard he is a right one to work for. Bit of a slave driver, so I hear.”
Clara listened intently. Despite their differences in status, she loved to spend time in the kitchen, and she had done so ever since she was a young girl.
There seemed to be an air of jollity and gossip in the kitchen, something bright and happy that the rest of the castle was missing.
She enjoyed most of all when all the servants chattered together, quick banter between them and tales of intrigue and scandal from other houses Clara had never had the good fortune to visit. Where other young ladies read novels, Clara listened to the servants’ stories.
Her father did not approve, of course. He called it “cavorting with the staff,” but he let her do it all the same. She suspected he felt guilty for his strict ways and that she had no friends to speak of. The kitchen was one of the few places she felt she belonged—and was welcomed.
“Do you ever wonder what they say about us in other kitchens?” she asked all of a sudden, and all the servants turned to her in surprise. Gossips rarely considered themselves gossip-worthy. There was a long silence, but then Clara laughed, and they laughed with her.
“I do not doubt that they tell their own tales often enough,” Ralph said.
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Miller said, creasing her brow. “Ain’t nothing to discuss about us. You ever ’eard of a scandal in this house?”
She looked at each of them in turn, eyeing them carefully and daring them to reply. Mrs. Miller was fiercely proud of the Calverton household, and she would not hear a bad word said about them.
Ellen shrugged and mumbled her reply.
“S’pose not,” she said.
“Well, there was that business with Lady Emilia,” Adam began, but Mrs. Miller shot him such a deathly look that he immediately closed his mouth and said no more.
“Lady Emilia?” Clara asked. “Was that not Father’s sister?”
“Your aunt,” Mrs. Miller said with a firm nod. “A lovely young lady she was, too.”
“What happened to her?”
“Terrible business, all that was,” Ralph said, although he was far too young to have witnessed it firsthand.
“What was?” Clara urged. She had ideas of what had happened, but no one would ever tell her exactly.
“Nothing you need to worry about, little ’un,” Mrs. Miller said, turning away from Clara.
“I am hardly little anymore, Betty,” Clara said, although it was a moniker that seemed to have stuck. “And surely I deserve to know my own family history. She died, did she not?”
“Under tragic circumstances, so I am told,” Ralph said.
“Ghostly, some say,” Adam added.
“I ’eard she had some sort of curse on her,” Ellen said, flour puffing into the air as she rolled out the pastry.
“A curse?” Clara asked.
“Enough,” Mrs. Miller roared.
She turned back to face them, a big wooden spoon held in the air as though in warning. “I am the only one ’ere who is old enough to remember any of it, and I am telling you there is no great story to tell. Now, we will have no more of that superstitious talk in my kitchen! Is that understood?”
The servants all lowered their eyes and busied themselves—Ellen with the pastry, Ralph with the peak of his cap—but Clara watched, intrigued by Mrs. Miller’s response. Despite her protestations, even Mrs. Miller had a glimmer of uncertainty in her eyes.
Clara leant back until she touched the wall and let her thoughts wash over her. She had heard the name many times, of course, and she knew that there was something odd about her aunt’s death. But ghostly? Cursed?
In that room, full of bubbling laughter and a natural light that did not seem to penetrate any other part of the castle, it seemed so far-fetched. And yet, she knew, when she walked the corridors back to her room, she would feel it again. The unease, the uncertainty, the eyes that followed her.
In other parts of the castle, she could easily believe in ghost stories. She had felt her skin prickle with the presence of something, her hair had risen at the back of her neck.
Strange happenings had occurred. Things had turned up in places where she was certain she had not left them. Yes, believing in ghost stories in such a castle would be easy enough.
“Are you cold, Lady Clara? You are shaking,” Ellen said, looking up over her brow but still pushing the rolling pin through the pastry.
“No, I just . . .”
“She is not cold. It is all this nonsense talk of curses that’s set the little ’un a-shiver,” Mrs. Miller said. “Now that is the end of it, or else.”
Later, as Clara found her way back to her rooms, she could not stop shivering. As much as she hated to admit it, their talk of Aunt Emilia’s curse had gotten to her, and she felt a ball in her stomach winding tighter with each step she took.
She kept sneaking backward glances, each time hoping to catch the eyes she felt upon her. But there was never anyone there.
Could it be that the curse has returned?
Her body felt tense with alertness, her eyes wide open, each step tentative and careful. Everything they had said seemed so similar to what was happening now.
Once in her rooms, she shut the door and leaned against it, sighing with relief. She closed her eyes while she caught her breath, and then when she opened them again, she laughed at herself.
“Clarabelle Fulton, you are being silly! There is no such thing as curses.”
But deep down, deep in her bones and in her heart, she knew that there was something more to this than mere imagination.
Sebastian Compton, the Duke of Greville’s son, had locked himself into the library—his very favorite place to be.
At five-and-twenty years of age, Sebastian had developed a love for books of all kinds, and he spent many hours in the library, reading and absorbing all the information he could, to satisfy his curious mind.
Having finished his studies recently, Sebastian basked in the knowledge that now, he could read whatever he wished—and he wished to read everything!
He was a handsome young man with ash brown hair that he found himself often pushing away from his steely gray eyes. He was broad-shouldered and tall, and he only ever wore the most finely tailored suits.
He was a curious and inquisitive chap, with a quick-thinking mind that left him always eager to solve puzzles and problems. He had the added benefit of being able to stay calm in the most stressful of situations, knowing that, with a cool head and a cup of tea, one could find the cure to most ills.
Were it not for the fact that he would, one day, inherit his father’s title and become Duke, Sebastian would have a mind to become an investigator of sorts. As he could not, he resolved to put his mind to any and all mysteries in his local vicinity, and that often led him back to his beloved books.
Without taking his eyes from the words on the page, he picked up the cup of tea that sat at his side and raised it to his lips. He held it there, too engrossed in the words to take a sip, until he reached the end of the sentence, and then he drank.
He spat it out immediately. It had gone stone cold in the time he had sat there, reading about ancient mysteries from around the world.
“Sebastian Compton, you are your own worst enemy sometimes,” he muttered to himself, before turning to the maid who waited patiently in the corner for his next command.
She quickly perked up when she felt his eyes upon her, and she dashed over to the desk.
“Would you like a fresh pot of tea, My Lord?” she asked, bright eyed, clearly happy to be on the move again.
“Please,” he said, “and something sweet, if you can find anything to suit.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
The young maid curtsied and picked up the tray before making her way out of the door.
“You have got a sweet tooth, like your mother.”
Sebastian looked up to see his father entering the room just as the maid left. The Duke’s eyes followed the young girl before turning to look at Sebastian.
“Good afternoon, Father. Are you well?”
“Still got your nose in a book, I see,” the Duke said, ignoring Sebastian’s question. He made his way over to the chair opposite his son.
He sat down heavily, hitching up his trousers and groaning as he did so.
Sebastian held the page of his book half-turned between his fingers, and he looked at his father over his brow, without fully lifting his head.
“Better that than a brandy glass, surely? Many my age seem to spend their lives at the club or worst still, with a lady of pleasure. Having a bookworm for a son cannot be all that bad, can it?”
“Well, no, I suppose not. Not when you put it that way,” the Duke said, crossing his legs.
“But you should try to get out of this room more often, my boy. A little sunshine—or dare I say it, exercise—now and then.”
“You can talk,” Sebastian said, snorting humorously. “I rarely see you leave your study these days.”
He reluctantly let go of the book and leant back in his chair. He and his father liked to banter with one another, often throwing insults that were neither meant harshly nor without care. They had a good relationship, one that Sebastian knew many of his friends envied.
“That is different,” the Duke said, shrugging. “I am old and past my prime. You have your whole life ahead of you, boy, and still a lot to learn about running the Duchy.”
“And I am learning. Did you come in here only to harangue me, Father, or do you have something you wish to say?”
“Harangue? That’s a little harsh.”
Sebastian merely shrugged.
“Well then, yes,” the Duke continued. “There is actually a purpose to my being here. I have a meeting later this afternoon. I should like you to attend.”
“Is it a personal matter, or is it to do with the Duchy?”
“Does it matter which, when your Father requests your presence?” the Duke asked.
“Of course not,” Sebastian answered, his eyes softening. “I shall attend anything you wish. I was merely curious as to which it was, that is all.”
“Good. There will be plenty more to come, now your formal education has finished. Your learning, however, has only just begun.”
“Indeed,” Sebastian. “And it is only natural. You have been doing this a lot longer than I have even been around, and I intend to squeeze you for every bit of knowledge and advice that I can. So, this afternoon?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, it is to do with our latest investments—so Duchy business, nothing personal. I would like you to meet the fellow who deals with it all for me, become acquainted. He is someone we do a lot of business with, so it will do you good to get to know him.”
Eric Compton, the Duke of Greville, was only forty-nine years of age, but he was older than his years. His blond hair and moustache had not yet fully grayed and his skin remained relatively wrinkle-free, but in his mind, he had become an old man who lacked the vitality of youth—and even the desire to be young.
Despite that, he was a pleasant enough fellow who worked hard and did all he could to protect his family. Although he had some enemies, as all gentlemen tend to have, they were few and far between, and he was a popular man to have at balls and soirees for his wit and dry humor.
“All right, Father,” Sebastian said. “As you wish.”
“Anything else?” Sebastian asked.
“Tomorrow, I would like you to come with me to survey the lands. Nothing to be concerned about, but we have not taken in the estate in a while, and I would like to check on its state—see where reparations need to be made, and so on.”
“Do we not have a man for that?” Sebastian asked, surprised his father was willing to do such hands-on work.
“Of course, we do,” the Duke replied. “But it is good practice to personally check over things once in a while. Being Duke is not about drinking fine wines and wooing foreign diplomats, you know. Well, not only that.”
“I know, Father, I didn’t mean to insinuate—”
“No matter,” the Duke said, waving away Sebastian’s defense. “At your age, I also did not know quite the load which being a Duke entails.”
“I have a lot to learn,” Sebastian said tactfully.
“You will get there, my boy.”
“May I return to my books now, or do you require me for something else?”
“No,” the Duke said, although he rolled his eyes at his son. “You can return to your books, if you must. I shall leave you be but remember our meeting—and do not be late!”
“I won’t, I promise, Father.”
Sebastian watched his father carefully as he stood and went to the door. He saw, in the Duke’s eyes, something he had seen many times before.
There was a hardness there, a coldness that Sebastian had often wondered about. It was not—and never had been—directed at him, but it was ever-present all the same.
His father, no matter how cheerful he seemed on the surface, always held an underlying sadness close to his chest, one that Sebastian had never been able to quite figure out. It was one of the few puzzles which Sebastian had not managed to solve.
At least, not yet.
“Your tea, My Lord,” the maid said, pushing her way through the door and placing the tray on the table. “And a little lemon cake.”
“Thank you, Fanny,” he said without looking up at her.
He had not gone back to his book, but instead sat cross-legged in his chair with a curled finger at his lip as he stared at his lap, lost in thought.
He had asked his father often about the sadness that was so evident in his eyes, but the Duke always brushed his concerns away, saying he was imagining it.
From his research, he had discovered a few things. He suspected the root of his father’s issues came from some trouble with the Fultons, with the Duke of Calverton in particular. But try as he might, Sebastian never could quite find out what his issue was with the Duke on the neighboring estate.
All he could surmise was that his father did not—and never would—trust the Fultons. It baffled him, because his father was not normally the sort to hold a grudge and yet with the Fultons, it seemed nothing short of a vendetta.
Sebastian sighed and closed his book. He knew he would no longer be able to concentrate on his reading. He would find a way to solve the puzzle of his father, but that would take time. For now, he would visit his mother, as he often did on sunny afternoons.
Lady Beatrice Compton, Duchess of Greville, was taking tea on the lawn, as was her summertime habit. At forty-six years old, she maintained her youthful spark and the glint in her eye that spoke of energy and life.
She was an extravagant sort, wearing boldly colored gowns with highly decorated bonnets. She covered herself in jewels, so that she glittered as much as her personality, and she smiled often.
Beatrice was a kindly woman, and Sebastian loved her dearly. They had been inseparable since the day he was born—his mother having refused the nursemaid many of her duties—and Sebastian made sure to visit her at least once every day.
“A fine day, is it not?” he said as he approached his mother. He squinted into the bright light, her shape a silhouette on the cast iron chair—one of four that sat around the matching table. It had been painted a pristine white and the tea tray rocked a little on the uneven surface.
“Sebastian, my darling boy. You are quite right—the day is glorious. Will you join me for a cup?”
“Of course, Mother,” he said, smiling at her as he took his seat opposite.
With the sun behind him, he could see her clearly, and he was pleased to see that she looked peaceful. He picked up the pot and the spare cup, and he poured himself a cup of tea before waving the pot towards her.
“Another?” he asked.
“No, thank you,” she said, shaking her head. “You look tired. Is everything all right? I do hope that father of yours is not pushing you too hard.”
He chuckled, lowering his face for a moment and then looking back up at her with a gentle smile.
“No, Mother, not at all. In fact, I have spent the morning in the library.”
“What enigma are you researching now?” she asked, and he blushed.
“I am not sure whether it is right for sensitive ears, Mother.”
“Ah, something grizzly and disturbing, then.”
“Something like that,” he said, tilted his head as he thought.
She was right. He was engrossed in murders that had no known culprit—not for the gruesomeness of the murder itself, of course, but in the desire to solve a crime that had yet to be solved.
“Well, let us not talk about that then,” she agreed. “I do not wish to hear it. You have a strong stomach, Sebastian. I hear you are going to meet the investment manager this afternoon?”
“With Father, yes,” Sebastian said. “A pleasant fellow, is he?”
He picked up his tea and took a gulp, enjoying its warmth. When he was alone, he rarely managed a warm cup of tea, being so easily distracted.
“Very pleasant,” she said. “He and his wife have been over for dinner once or twice. A very soft-spoken family.”
“I shall look forward to meeting him, then.”
“Are you sleeping alright?” she asked suddenly. He looked up at her, surprised by her question.
“Quite, yes. Why?”
“No reason. I worry about you, that is all. That mind of yours is always so active, and I am certain you do not eat enough to sustain such hard thinking.”
He chuckled and smiled sweetly at her, then reached over the table and took his hand in his.
“Mother, you do not need to fret over my health any longer. I am a grown man. It is time you let me look after you.”
She tutted and took her hand away, but good naturedly and with humor.
“I am not so old and frail yet, my boy,” she said with a mock sternness. “And no matter how much you are grown, you shall always be my baby.
“Good morning,” Clara said with a false brightness as she made her way to her usual perch in the kitchen.
“You are up early, little ’un,” Mrs. Miller said. She turned over a raw joint of beef, tugging the string tighter until the meat pushed out from the gaps.
Her hands were stained red with blood, but she seemed unbothered. “’Ere, Ellen, put your finger on this string a moment while I tie the knot.”
“Yes, Mrs. Miller,” Ellen said.
“I could not sleep,” Clara said as she climbed up onto her perch.
She rubbed at her tired eyes and sighed. The night had been a hot one, and she had tossed and turned, never quite falling into a deep enough sleep.
In her half-conscious state, her mind whirred with thoughts of creaking stairs and creeping ghosts, and she dreamed of being trapped with nowhere to go.
When she finally awoke properly, she reprimanded herself for having what she could only assume was an overactive imagination, but still she felt the knot of tension in her chest.
The feeling of being confined and hemmed in was neither new nor was it specific to thoughts of strange goings on.
“Want a hardboiled egg?” Mrs. Miller asked, wiping her hands on a cloth and looking at Clara with a spritely smile.
“Please,” Clara said, smiling back, grateful but weak and tired. “That would be lovely.”
“Coming right up,” Mrs. Miller said. “I have some already cooked in the pantry.”
She scuttled off to fetch the egg. Ellen had returned to the huge sink, a stock pot held up in one hand and a wire scrubbing brush in the other. Water sloshed as scrubbed at the burnt-on gravy.
Ralph, as he always seemed to be, sat in his chair in the corner, drinking a cup of tea before his day started in earnest.
“’Ere, Lady Clara,” he said, getting up from the chair. “Have a cup of sweet tea. It’ll do you wonders this time of day. I always ‘ave one first thing.” He poured her a cup then stumbled over and handed it to her.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice still thick with sleep. She took it gratefully and sipped at it immediately. “This is good tea.” It was sweet and not too hot, and she could feel the benefits of it already.
“It is the way I make it,” Ellen said, a grin on her face as she looked over her shoulder at Clara. “Plenty of sugar in the morning. Keep you going all day, that will. It is good for you, too!”
“She is not wrong,” Mrs. Miller said as she returned from the pantry.
She put a plate down next to Clara: a hardboiled egg, a spoon for cracking the shell, and a little pile of salt for dipping. Clara licked her lips in anticipation.
Mrs. Miller went back to work. She heaved the beef off the table and into an iron cauldron, then she grabbed a pinch of salt from the salt box and began rubbing it into the meat.
Clara had watched her work thousands of times and yet still, she found it fascinating how easily Mrs. Miller handled it all.
“What are your plans today then, little ’un?” Mrs. Miller asked.
“Plans?” Clara laughed. “I do not have any plans,” she said. “Just as I do not any other day.”
“Come now,” Ellen said. “Do not be like that. There must be plenty of things for you to do.”
“Plenty of things for me to do, that’s for sure,” Ralph muttered into his teacup.
“Enough of that, Ralph,” Mrs. Miller warned. “Know your place.” Then she turned to Clara. “How about a nice walk in the gardens? It is looking to be another beautiful day.”
Clara scoffed and put her teacup down on the table next to her. She picked the spoon up and hit the egg with perhaps a touch more force that was necessary, tapping it all over. The shell cracked into tiny pieces, and she started to peel it off, making sure she pulled the stringy membrane away with it.
“A walk in the gardens,” Clara repeated glumly, not looking up from her work. “That is about all my life adds up to.”
“What would you rather do?” Ellen asked. “I sure could do with a hand with the silverware, if you are bored enough, My Lady.”
Mrs. Miller turned to reprimand her, but even Clara could see the teasing glint in her eye and the smile on her face. Ellen meant nothing by it, she was only trying to lighten the mood.
As close as they had all become in that kitchen over the years, it always remained clear that they came from different worlds. Their roles were drastically different, and even Clara understood why it was unusual for her to be with them so often.
That’s all right, Clara often thought. We can still be friends.
But they were more than friends, and Clara knew that in her heart. Her relationship with her father—although pleasant enough—had a certain distance to it. He wanted only to protect her while she was desperate to break away from his guard.
No, these people in the kitchen, who she had grown to love, they were family, regardless of their differences in status and role.
She huffed and dipped the point of her egg into the salt.
“I do not know what I would rather do—certainly not scrubbing pots, before you offer again!”
She chuckled, and she meant it with good humor, but she felt a deep sadness that she could not shake. She had dreamed so often of the outside world, of meeting new people—perhaps, even, a suitor—but she knew that her father would not let her, preferring to keep her a caged bird.
“How about the library? We had a delivery of books just the other day. There is sure to be something to take your fancy,” Ralph said.
“That is as bad as a walk in the garden. I want to go out to see the world and new faces. I am tired of being chained up in this house.”
“Chained up? In a castle of this size?” Mrs. Miller asked. “Ellen, help set the cauldron on the hook for me, there’s a good lass.”
Together, they lifted the heavy iron pot and hung it over the open flame that had already been lit that morning. Beside it, one of the scullery maids had stacked wood to keep it fed all day long.
Clara bit into her egg and chewed sullenly. She did not think that they would ever understand; she did not suppose that they had ever been in such a situation. Their lives were so full compared to hers.
And they are free!
Mrs. Miller turned back to face her, and Ellen went back to the sink.
“Now listen here, little ’un, you know you cannot be doing any of those things today. You cannot leave the castle grounds. There would be no one to accompany you, and you know how your father feels about you leaving the house—even with a chaperone.”
“That is exactly the issue, though,” Clara cried, waving the half-eaten egg in the air. “I am trapped here, and there is nothing I can do about it.”
“Come on, now,” Ralph said, frowning at her. “Trapped is a bit much, ain’t it? Don’t you like it here?”
“Yes,” she whined. “I like it here. But I would like it much more if I were not unable to go anywhere else. I am suffocating under Father’s love. Why can he not see that?”
“Fret not, little ’un,” Mrs. Miller said softly. “It is only his way of looking out for you. He worries.”
“I know,” Clara said. “But I wish he could see how much it hurts me. I feel as though I live in a gaol.”
“Who lives in a gaol?”
They all turned to find Drew in the doorway, carrying a handful of berries that he had just picked in the garden. He threw them into his mouth casually and went to sit next to Ralph.
“No one,” Mrs. Miller said sternly.
“Feels like one,” Clara murmured sullenly and with a childishness she had not yet outgrown.
“I cannot imagine there is much garden walking in gaol,” Ellen said with a snort. “And besides, your father is only worried about losing you, what with his sister and his wife dying at such young—”
“Ellen,” Mrs. Miller snapped. “There is no need to be talking about such morbid things on this fine morning.”
“She is right though, Lady Clara,” Drew said. “This is a f-f-fine place to live and make no mistake about that. And b-besides, you have got us.” His smile was jaunty, cheeky even, and Clara smiled back at him widely and with love.
Andrew Ogden was forty-six years old and one of the head gardeners. His frame was tall and broad, his flesh weathered and dark from his long days outside. His dark blond hair was both graying and receding, but he still somehow managed to look handsome and youthful. His dark brown eyes shone with a desire to please and a loyalty to his employers.
He was a sweet and caring man, and he had worked for the Duke of Calverton—the current one and the late one—since he was a boy. Clara had grown to love him more than any of the others. To her, he was a big bear—fierce looking but cuddly and adorable, gentle even.
She even found his stuttering charming, although he had once admitted to her how it embarrassed him.
“You know I would never be without a single one of you,” Clara, looking calmly into each of their eyes. “But that does not make me feel any less trapped.”
Clara put the rest of her egg on the plate and pushed it away. She was not hungry any longer. She sighed heavily.
“It is not surprising that the Master is so protective,” Ralph said, his voice quiet in fear of Mrs. Miller’s wrath. “What with this blasted curse that seems to be blighting the lot of us at the moment.”
“Curse?” Clara gasped. “What curse?” She knew Aunt Emilia’s death was said to have been caused by a curse, but that was twenty-seven years earlier.
Even if there had ever been a curse, would it not have been long gone by now?
And then she thought of everything that had happened lately—the noises, the eyes that followed her—and she realized Ralph might, inexplicably, be right.
“There is no curse!” Mrs. Miller said sharply. “Do not go worrying yourself over nothing.”
“I do not know,” Ellen said, glancing at Ralph. “There seems to be lots of strange happenings around here lately.”
“It is an old castle,” Mrs. Miller said. She picked up a sack of potatoes and tipped them onto the table, then began sorting through them. “Odd things are bound to happen in old places.”
“Mrs. Miller is right,” Drew said, throwing a blackberry into his mouth. “Ain’t no such th-thing as curses.”
“Trapped spirits,” Ralph said with a nod, entirely ignoring their words. “That is normally what causes it. Wanting revenge.”
Clara looked from one to the other, mouth agape.
“Do not talk such nonsense,” Mrs. Miller said, still looking over the potatoes. She threw the bad ones into a bucket by her feet, and they landed with a dull thud.
“You do not really think there are ghosts, do you, Ralph?” Clara asked.
She felt suddenly nervous, just as she had when she walked through the corridors the night before, when she was sure she heard someone walking behind her.
“No,” Cook said. “He does not.”
“And if-f he does, he ain’t right in the ‘ead,” Drew said.
“Dotty said she heard a bell ring at midnight last week,” Ellen said. “Went running down the stairs, she did, pulling her cap on as she went. It was the drawing room that called her, and she thought it odd for the Master to still be up at that hour, but she went anyway.”
“And?” Clara asked, gripping the edge of the stool.
“And when she got there, there was no one there. Pitch dark, she said. Not even warmth from recent candlelight.”
“That proves nothing,” Mrs. Miller said, picking up her knife and beginning to scrape at the potatoes. “She probably dreamt it, silly girl.”
“Do you not feel it around the house, Mrs. Miller?” Ellen asked. “Always feels like someone is watching.
“Yes!” Clara’s word came out as an excited exclamation. “Yes, I have felt that, too. It is the oddest sensation.”
“Nerves, nothing more,” Mrs. Miller said, holding her knife up in warning. “And that is no surprise, given the nonsense these two fill your head with.”
“And sometimes I am sure there is someone following me,” Clara said, ignoring Mrs. Miller’s words. “I hear footsteps behind me, but when I look around, there is no one there.”
“Perhaps you just cannot see them,” Ralph said with a shrug. “Spirits are good at hiding themselves.”
“Ralph,” Mrs. Miller warned again, her voice laced with exasperation.
“Could just b-be an echo,” Drew said, shrugging his big shoulders.
“And then there was the clock last night. I cannot be the only one who heard it?” Ellen asked. She had completely abandoned the sink now in favor of leaning against it and gossiping.
“Struck thirteen, without a doubt,” Ralph said.
“And then stopped dead! No winding will help it now,” Ellen said.
“Well now,” Mrs. Miller agreed, nodding her head. “That was an odd thing, I ’ave to agree. That clock has not stopped in over forty years. Gets wound every day.”
Clara felt a shiver down her spine.
So, I have not been imagining things!
“Do you think it could be Aunt Emilia?”
“No,” Drew snapped, his voice surprisingly fierce. Everyone turned to look at him.
“No?” Clara asked, eyebrows raised, and Drew softened again.
“How could it b-be?” he asked. “She is no longer of th-this earth. I do not want you to worry yourself.”
“No, I do not think it is her either,” Mrs. Miller said.
“What happened to her? Will you tell me, please?”
“No, I will not.”
Mrs. Miller looked up from her peeling, and her eyes pleaded with Clara.
“But Ralph said she was cursed, and perhaps if we knew—”
“For the last time, little ’un, there is no curse and there never has been.”
“Will not one of you tell me what happened? Or are you only willing to talk gossip and nonsense?”
Clara looked first at Ellen and then at Ralph, both of whom studiously avoided her gaze. Then she turned her eyes on Drew, who looked back at her plainly, his eyes telling her all she needed to know—he would not frighten her with such talk, not when he believed it to be nonsense.
“No one, then?” She slid off her stool and stood glaring at them.
“There is nothing to worry about, little ’un.”
“Alright,” Clara said, her chin held firm in annoyance. She swung around and marched out of the room, the skirts of her gown snapping as she went.
The Duke of Calverton sat in the leather chair at the fireside in his study. He nursed a glass of brandy, although in truth he had barely drunk anything, and he gazed unseeing at the wall.
Evening had fallen and with it, darkness had arisen. Lanterns were lit around the room, bringing some light to the gloom, but the dark wood paneling that lined the walls and the deep red leather of the chairs did little to help.
It was inherently a dark room, within a dark castle, and so the evenings often fell heaviest here.
It was a large room, though, with a grand piano at one end and a fireplace at the other. There were chairs and tables dotted throughout, and two separate carpets that went some way towards softening the hardness of the room.
The windows were heavily draped, too, although the brocade was another dark red—rich and wealthy during the daytime, but shadowy and bleak at night.
Frank looked up at the bell cord that dangled next to the fireplace, and he allowed himself a moment’s consideration before pulling it. But pull it he did, and then he sighed and waited for his valet to arrive.
At fifty years old, Frank Fulton had a thick head of hair, but most of the black had turned gray and his face was lined with years of worry.
He was of medium height and medium build, although with every year that passed, his paunch grew a little wider.
He remembered a time, many years earlier, when he had been a happy young man. But then their family was struck down with the wretched Fulton curse and everything had changed. And now, after all this time, he was terrified history was going to repeat itself.
His beautiful daughter, Clarabelle, was soon to turn twenty—the same age that his sister, Emilia, had been when she died in those mysterious circumstances.
And it had all started happening again.
Frank knew how unhappy Clara was about being hidden away—he himself led an isolated life, with few friends and even fewer people to talk to. But he did what he believed he had to do to keep his precious daughter safe.
“You wanted to see me, Your Grace?”
Frank looked up in surprise—he had not even heard the door open, despite the creak he had been meaning to have repaired for weeks. The valet looked back at him expectantly.
“George, yes, please join me. Have a drink, if you wish.”
To Frank, his valet had become more than just a servant. He found himself talking to George almost as a friend—although always with that barrier of propriety between them. George had worked with the Fulton family since he was a boy, and he and Frank had grown up together. He knew everything there was to know about the family’s past.
George had come to know all of Frank’s secrets, his thoughts and feelings, and in return for his kindness and loyalty, he and Frank would occasionally indulge in a brandy or two together, or sometimes the valet would join him for a meal.
“Thank you, Your Grace. Is everything all right?”
Frank rubbed at his tired eyes, the lines on his brow deepening. He heard the decanter clink against a glass, the trickle of liquid, and the clunk of the stopper being returned to its place.
“Have you noticed how much Clarabelle has come to look like Emilia?” he asked, looking up as George took the seat opposite him.
“She does, Your Grace. It is quite uncanny sometimes.”
“I have, on occasion, even thought it was Emilia I saw passing outside my door. Quite a shock, I can tell you.”
“I can imagine, Your Grace. Lady Emilia has not been with us for such a long time.”
“Unfortunately not. But Clarabelle even shares some of her characteristics! My daughter is as fiery as my sister ever was, and just as clever.”
“Well, it is not that surprising, I suppose,” George mused. “Emilia was her aunt, after all, and Clarabelle is approaching her twentieth birthday—the same age Lady Emilia was when she died.”
Frank groaned, then knocked back his brandy in one gulp.
“Ah, that is what worries you, Your Grace.”
“Do you believe in the Fulton Curse?” he asked. They had spoken of it occasionally in the past, but Frank had never before asked his valet outright whether he believed in it.
George inhaled sharply, the noise loud in the quiet of the room.
“That is a difficult one to answer,” George said carefully, eyeing Frank for his reaction.
“Yes, I know it is, but be honest with me, George. Please?”
George looked away, gathering his thoughts.
“I am not sure I am superstitious enough to believe in a curse,” he said finally, turning back to the Duke. “But there were certainly a lot of odd things that happened back then, and it seems as though they are starting to happen again.”
“I knew it,” Frank said, shaking his head. “It is not just my imagination then. The curse has come back to us, and it will take my dear, darling Clarabelle as soon as she turns twenty.”
He thought of the sister he had lost, twenty-seven years earlier. She had been a happy, bright young thing, set to marry the now Duke of Greville and have a future which many would have envied. But the curse put an end to that.
A few months before her death, strange things started happening around the house—footsteps where there was no one, the feeling of being watched. Items went missing and turned up days later in a different place, and the kitchen was full of ghostly talk.
And then, on that tragic day, she fell to her death from the highest tower in the castle. A tragic accident, so Frank believed, but there were whispers of suicide and rumors of foul play, and the servants spoke of the curse having claimed its first victim.
“I never believed in the superstition, you know,” Frank said, “not when Emilia died. And I ignored all the horrid things people said. It was an accident—one that perhaps could have been avoided with a little more care, but an accident all the same.”
“And now?” George asked, taking a sip of his brandy.
“Now . . . well, it seems as though it is all happening again, doesn’t it? It is all getting a little too real for my liking, and I am concerned for the safety of my darling girl. After Emilia, and then my Elizabeth dying in childbirth, I simply could not bear to lose Clara as well.”
“Have you yourself experienced anything out of the ordinary, Your Grace?” George asked, head tilted, but Frank did not make eye contact with him, lost as he was in his own past.
“I have seen things . . . sooty footprints around the castle where there should be none, and, of course, I heard that blasted clock strike thirteen. I cannot be sure they were thanks to the curse, of course, but it does make you wonder, does it not?”
George leant forward in his chair, brow creased with thought.
“Your Grace, if you do not mind my saying, there is something of a mystery here. I am not as quick to believe in curses as some of the lower household are, perhaps, but there is definitely something unusual going on.”
“And I wonder if, by solving the mystery, we can somehow put an end to this curse.”
Frank leant back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling in thought. He held out his empty glass and, wordlessly, George got up to refill it. He knew he had to do something—he was getting increasingly desperate. And there seemed to be something sensical in what George said.
Perhaps, as one ensures a spirit has no unfinished business before laying them to rest, there is something required by this curse—or whatever it was—that needed to be offered before it could be cured.
“It is a nice idea,” he said finally, looking back at George. “But where on earth does one start in solving a mystery of something that does not even seem tangible?”
“And therein lies the problem, Your Grace. Do you have anyone you could call on for assistance?”
Frank thought for a long time, unconvinced that there was anyone who could help him. The only people he really ever communicated with were the household staff or the people that helped him with running the Duchy.
“I do not think there . . .”
He trailed off, a thought arising suddenly.
There is someone.
It was someone he had not spoken to since Emilia’s death, someone who had vowed never to speak to another Fulton as long as he should live.
Eric Compton, the Duke of Greville.
They had been best friends as boys and then as young men, but their friendship ended abruptly after Emilia’s death. Frank had heard rumors that Eric had never recovered from that tragic day, although he had married and gone on to have a son and heir.
Eric and Frank had never even talked about what happened, nor communicated at all since Emilia’s death, and Frank knew this was purposeful on Eric’s part. But now, Eric was the first person Frank thought of.
“Your Grace?” George asked, and Frank looked back at him with a new, excited energy.
“The Duke of Greville!”
“The Duke of Greville?” George repeated, surprised. “Do you think he would be willing to help?”
“He was always highly intelligent, and terribly inquisitive, too. Always wanted to know the answers to things, or how things worked. He loved a conundrum he could sink his teeth into, and what is this, if not an overwhelming conundrum?”
“Perhaps,” George said tentatively. “But, Your Grace, do you think he would be willing to come here, to the castle where Emilia died?”
“We can only try. Fetch me some parchment and a quill. I shall write to him immediately!”