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The Hall at Hope End
In the time of Victoria Regina
“Keep your eyes cast down, but your wits about you,” the housekeeper told me. “In and out. That’s the way to do it. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mrs. Beecher,” I said, not for the first time.
She handed me the tray. I gripped the wooden handles tightly for fear of spilling the precious contents. The smooth red globes of grapes gleamed in the light of the kitchen tapers. Circling them were delicate rings of pineapple and slices of an exotic orange-fleshed fruit for which I knew not the name. “There, you see? I’ve got it.”
Mrs. Beecher’s brow furrowed beneath her frilled cap. “Oh, but I worry about you, Abby. This is not a position suited for a girl such as yourself. What would dear Agnes say?”
At the mention of my aunt, I swallowed a swell of sorrow. Three months now she’d parted this earth, and how I continued to yearn for her gentle smile, the warmth of her grey eyes. She’d been the only shelter I had known in my two and twenty years.
“Aunt Agnes would thank you, her dearest friend, for doing her this service,” I said. “For finding me employ, when I might otherwise find myself in the direst of straits.” Suppressing a shudder, I tried to close off the images of poverty, the lurking miasma of factories and workhouses which fed on desperation. My current position was the only protection between me and the hunger of those ruthless jaws. “I will not let you down, Mrs. Beecher, for your favor to me. I vow to be the best maid Earl Huxton has ever had.”
Mrs. Beecher’s lips pressed together. “Blessed Mary! That is exactly what I fear the most.”
I gave her a perplexed look.
With a sigh, she shook her head and pushed the spectacles further up the scant curve of her nose. “To be honest, Abby, you’re more suited to being a governess than a maid. Are you certain you wouldn’t rather find a place in a more … conventional household?”
The housekeeper’s emphasis on the word conventional did not escape me. Despite his fabulous wealth and aristocratic blood, my employer teetered on the brink of respectability. His mysterious past was a source of titillation to the upper and lower classes alike. According to Ginny, another of the maids, he’d been briefly married. The Huxtons had been living abroad in Italy at the time, so no one knew much about the countess—or what had led to her untimely death some half-dozen years ago.
Ginny, however, had been quick to point to a single clue: the unnamed portrait which hung in the library. Above the fireplace (and in direct view of the earl’s desk), a beautiful woman reposed in languid splendor. As she combed her rose gold hair, she stared dreamily into a hand-held looking glass. A loose gown of flowing white set off her flawless figure, revealing skin like cream and curves so voluptuous they seemed to leap from the paint. The bower surrounding her was no less lush: a constellation of white roses lit the background, whilst foxglove and peony bloomed in colorful counterpart. At the bottom of the gilt frame, three mysterious letters stood darkly carved into the wood. P. R. B.
With a wistful sigh, Ginny reckoned that the model had been Earl Huxton’s bride—and that the initials stood for some secret endearment shared by the lovers.
Pretty Rich Bride? Ginny had mused while I’d stifled a snicker. Well, whatever it means, you can take me word fer it, Abby—’e loved ‘er true, ‘e did. Why else would ‘e keep ‘er in the lib’ry wif ‘im, instead o’ in the gallery wif the other pictures? ‘E wants ‘er close to ‘im, that’s why. The master’s still a-grievin’, after all this time.
Grieving was one way to describe the earl’s behavior. The papers overflowed with thinly veiled accounts of his current exploits. The Tales of Lord H. (or Lord Hellfire as he was sometimes called) delighted the Upper Crust. Apparently, the sordid gossip provided many an anxious mama with precautionary tales for their offspring. Young Ladies Beware, the articles might have begun.
A sudden surge of panic overtook my thoughts. Certainly I was no well-born miss—but Mrs. Beecher would not change her mind and turn me out for my own good, would she?
“Please, Mrs. Beecher, I have nowhere else to go,” I said in a rush.
The housekeeper looked me up and down. The feeling of fear intensified that she might find something lacking. But, no: though I had little use for vanity, I had taken pains to braid and pin my hair in a severe fashion. Not a strand of brown hung below the starched frill of my white cap. My face was clean, freshly scrubbed as my black maid’s uniform.
As for the other thing, the aberration beneath the surface …
She could not possibly know, I tried to reassure myself.
An imperious ring came from one of the brass bells mounted in rows on the wall. Already I had memorized the sequence of the chimes and to which room each corresponded. This one came from the master’s bedchamber.
“Entertaining Her Majesty tonight, are we?” Mrs. Beecher muttered. But she wiped her hands on her pristine apron and hurried over to the counter. She added the crowning touch to the tray: two flutes filled with sparkling champagne. She opened the door for me and, pausing, gave me a severe look. “Well, if you’re to work here, I don’t suppose I can keep you under foot at all times. Best you learn to earn your keep. But you are an innocent, Abby—see that you keep it that way. In and out, do you hear me?”
The direness of the housekeeper’s warning did not escape me, nor did the anxious flicker behind the lenses of her spectacles. With a slight quaver in my voice, I asked, “Is … is there something in particular I should be watchful of, Mrs. Beecher?”
“Watch nothing. But whatever you happen to see …” Pinning her lips together, she jerked her chin, as if coming to a decision. “Well, I’ve never been one to honey-coat the truth. Better to know who you’re working for. And while the master may be many things, he has always shown the staff respect. You’ll be fine, so long as you’re a good girl. No more questions now. Her Highness is waiting.”
Taking the tray, I bobbed a quick curtsy and hurried into the servant’s corridor. As the door clicked shut, musty dimness enveloped me. I tamped down my sense of disquiet and made quick progress up the steep, narrow steps. Since my arrival here a month ago, I had learned to navigate the maze of passageways that ran alongside the rooms on all three floors. It hadn’t been that difficult. Despite its grandeur, the country house had a simple layout: the ground floor was split between the kitchens on one side and the library and rooms for entertaining on the other. The first floor boasted the master’s suite and some dozen guest chambers. The second floor held the servants’ quarters on the east side and an exquisite open gallery on the west.
The crystal glasses tinkled against the plate of fruit, and I slowed, careful lest I make a mess of things right on the proverbial threshold. Balancing the tray on my hip, I released the latch that let me out into the first floor hallway. I walked down the dark-paneled hall and tried not to pay mind to the wall sconces shaped like gargoyle heads. Though I knew they were fashioned of stone, something about the creatures’ grins, the way the light danced behind their mischievous carved-out eyes, stirred the pit of my stomach. ‘Twas as if I was being watched by some unseen presence, some mysterious aura that seemed to permeate the very brick and mortar of Hope End.
With a shiver, I shook away my fanciful imaginings. I had enough of my own troubles to contend with; the last thing I needed was to conjure up more. No, I must focus on survival—on completing my tasks and proving my worth to Mrs. Beecher. Only then might she let me stay. Only then might I have a home again.
Straightening my shoulders, I stopped before the imposing arched door at the end of the hall.
“At last,” I heard a sultry female voice say. “I thought I would expire from thirst.”
Taking that as a bid for entry, I managed to release the handle with my elbow, and the door swung slowly open. The blaze of blue candles assaulted my eyes so for a moment I just stood there, dumb and blinded.
“Well, don’t just stand there like a twit,” the woman’s voice drawled.
I blinked as the dark spots faded. My mouth opened in shock; quickly I lowered my eyes, my heart spurring to a furious pace.
“Wh-where shall I put the tray, ma’am?” I asked.
“That’s my lady,” she said. “And look at me when you speak, girl.”
“Yes, m-my lady.” Swallowing, I lifted my lashes to the blonde goddess reclined upon the chaise-lounge. She was entirely naked and luridly posed against crimson velvet. Her voluptuous breasts, white and tipped with dark red nipples, swung with indolent depravity as she eased to a sitting position. Mrs. Beecher’s advice sprang into my head, and I averted my eyes quickly. But not before I saw the most startling thing: beneath the alabaster expanse of her stomach, her womanly place was like that of a young girl’s. Completely … bare.
“Like what you see?”
I was certain I had heard wrong; my shocked gaze flew up to hers. Her full mouth, polished red, uncoiled snake-like over her face. The glasses rattled; I hugged the tray into my midsection to still its shaking. It was a trick of the light, I told myself. An odd flicker that had made her eyes seem to glow with an other-worldly light.
I blinked again. Her eyes, green but now otherwise unremarkable, narrowed to a calculating slant.
“Bring the tray over here, girl.”
I saw no choice but to do as I was told. I held the tray out in front, keeping as much distance as possible between myself and her. Instead of taking a glass, she pulled a grape from its stem. I felt the pop of the fruit falling into her palm, and the faint vibration lifted the hairs on my skin. Smiling, she bit into the sphere, releasing droplets of juice. As her tongue traced the rim of her lips, my throat clenched.
Her nostrils twitched, as if catching the scent of my alarm, and her smile widened further. “Hand me my dressing gown. The one on the bed.”
Grateful for an escape, I deposited the tray on the nearest table and headed to the bed. The decadent four-poster affair occupied an entire corner of the room. I felt my face heat as my gaze travelled from the gilded mirror on the ceiling to the disordered bedclothes below. What my betters did was none of my business, I reminded myself between uneven breaths. Spotting the filmy red clump, I fished it out from amidst the rumpled navy satin.
Without warning, the vision bore upon me. The room contracted into disorienting color, then expanded into wavy dimensions. I felt myself falling, the world spinning … and then I was flung back. Like a bird dashed against glass, my thoughts flapped in wild confusion. I grappled to find my bearings. I could see the room clearly, yet the view seemed distorted. Off-kilter somehow, the perspective not quite usual. Then the grisly realization gripped me.
I was looking through eyes not mine.
Too late, terror spiked. Like quicksand, the hallucination sucked me in. I bucked at its hold, at the fierce, familiar panic overtaking me. But the harder I fought, the greater the trance’s power until I saw myself as Lady Priscilla, blonde and naked in the mirror above the bed. I was purring, writhing against the dark satin. Lust clawed through me as I feasted on my own voluptuous beauty. I wanted to touch myself. But my limbs would not move. I was tied.
With a hiss, I strained against the silken ropes binding my hands and feet to the posters. But as I lay spread-eagled upon the smooth sheets, ’twas no longer fear I felt, but … anticipation. I felt the mattress dip beneath a new weight, and a primal quiver coursed over my splayed thighs. I looked up into the mirror, my teeth baring at the sight of a large, tanned hand juxtaposed against my delicate paleness. As the long fingers maneuvered up my leg, I caught the gleam of a signet ring engraved with an archaic “H”.
With a touch, he mastered me. He blazed a relentless trail over my calf, my knee, and higher yet … my hips arched as he scaled the eager precipice, circling to the apex. My lips shaped to pleas, to carnal demands until, with a commanding stroke, he possessed the burning core of me. I mewled with abandon as his fingers swirled the blonde curls, darkening them with something foamy and slick … soap. Shaving soap. The scent of sandalwood filled my nostrils.
The pungency of the smell jolted me, gave me an instant’s purchase into reality. Gasping, I released the garment and fought to close my mind. I focused on the black tops of my serviceable boots and tried to stem the onslaught of sensation. The flood of images, sounds, smells. My heart contracted in fearful pulses; my blood roared in my ears. With my chest bound in panic, I tried to anchor myself in reality. To stave off the tide of madness crashing over my senses. To stay afloat as the carnal undertow dragged at my soul.
Concentrate, Abigail. Use your mind. Do not give into darkness.
I saw the precise flexing of my aunt’s lips as she read to me. Grasping onto the first poem to surface, I clung to that stanza like one drowning. Tyger, tyger burning bright … My blood was burning, raging … In the forests of the night … I would not follow the dark path, I would keep going, keep going toward the light … What immortal hand or eye … could frame thy fearful symmetry?
I repeated the words to myself over and over until slowly, slowly I felt the darkness ebbing. My rational mind returned; my skin became my own. The smooth ropes wisped into nothingness, and I was free. As I swayed upon my feet, I suddenly sensed a new presence. Palpitations bobbed my breast. I’d been so absorbed in the battle for self-control that I had not registered the door opening.
“Lucien, dearest, you are back at last,” Lady Priscilla said, her voice trickling with honeyed sweetness. “The champagne has arrived. Brought to us by a little country mouse.”
I remained head-down, paralyzed, wishing I could disappear.
“There’s no need to denigrate the staff, Priss.” The deep, low-pitched voice slid over my frazzled senses. “You’re embarrassing the girl.”
“Well, I’m thirsty.” I could hear the pout in her voice. “I know standards in the country are different from Town’s, but really, Lucien, you must take a firmer hand with the help. I might have picked the grapes and made the stuff myself in the time it took her to bring it here.”
Belatedly, I remembered Mrs. Beecher’s instructions. Deliver it to them. In and out. With my head still down, I stumbled over to the table and took hold of the tray’s handles. Footsteps approached. Into my downcast view entered masculine feet, bare and large, coming toe to toe with my boots. Slowly, I lifted my lashes. My gaze collided with that of Lord Lucien Langsford, Earl Huxton. An electric sensation shot through my belly. Breath hitching, I dropped my eyes quickly.
I had seen my employer from afar on several occasions and was well aware of his physical perfection. Up close, however, the power of his charm slammed into me with visceral force. I felt his presence; it called to some dormant and alarming part of me. Of their own accord, my eyes returned to his lean, long frame, the subtle, potent play of muscle beneath his dressing gown. I was drawn higher, to the dark dusting of hair above his collar and up the strong, sure line of his throat.
Mesmerized, I looked into his face. The earl was said to be in his thirties, a man in his prime. But his virile charisma struck me as timeless. It went beyond mere good looks—though he had those aplenty as well. His hair was wavy and thick and black as night save for the bold streaks of silver. As if chiseled by a master hand, his features radiated male grace from the straight nose and strong jaw to the clean slash of his cheekbones. But it was his eyes that most arrested. Vivid blue, framed by decadent dark lashes and heavy lids, they transformed his human beauty into something altogether more powerful.
These were not the eyes of a mortal, but a brooding archangel.
As if he sensed my thoughts, one corner of his mouth lifted. The impact of that lazy, sensual movement shivered through me, and my throat went dry. Oh, he was an angel for certain—the fallen kind.
I became aware of the heated throb of my blood, a strange and painful ache that seemed to infuse my every breath. Mayhap it was the recent hallucination and the lascivious aftermath still humming through me. Or mayhap the foreign experience of being in close proximity to a member of the opposite sex. But I found I could not look away. I could not summon the strength to free myself from the spell weaving around my senses.
I inhaled sharply as his hands slid over mine. Sparks danced over my trembling nerves. Upon his ring finger, the gothic initial glinted.
“Soft,” he said.
“S-sir?” My breath came fitfully into my chest.
“Your hands. You haven’t been here long, have you?”
I shook my head, transfixed by the demon blue of his eyes, the rough graze of his fingers over my bare skin. Handling the reins, came the nonsensical thought. That could be the only reason for this robust, calloused grip from a gentleman of leisure. My heart thumped faster as his hold tightened. Regaining my wits, I tried to tug away. He did not release me, but used his stronger fingers to pry into my grasp.
Then I realized his intent: he was merely taking the tray from me. Shaken, I let go. My arms fell to my sides, leaden weight, and, indeed, I felt as if I was drowning.
“What is your name?” he asked softly.
“Abigail,” I whispered, keeping my eyes trained on the black velvet lapel of his dressing gown.
“An apt name,” he said, and I could hear the dry humor in his voice, “for a maid.”
“Or a servant of God,” I replied, before I could think twice.
I made the mistake of looking up. Something flashed in his eyes—hell fire came the hysterical thought—and then his mouth twitched. “And so you are.”
“Lucien. I am waiting for my champagne. Either dismiss the maid,” Lady Priscilla twirled a blonde ringlet with her finger, “or have her join us.”
Her demand pierced my reverie. Good heavens, surely she could not be implying that she … we … Shocked, I broke away from his lordship’s gaze. A single impulse gripped me: I had to escape. I had to run or else—
“May I go, my lord?” I whispered urgently.
“For now, Abigail-of-God.”
I did not wait another moment. I fled from the room. His voice seemed to follow me as I escaped into the servants’ corridor. Shaking, I stumbled along in the darkness, his words reverberating with each step.
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