Authors: Grace Callaway
(Chronicles of Abigail Jones, Book 1)
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Copyright © 2012 by Grace Callaway
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
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As usual, this book would not have been possible without my village.
To my critique partners, Virna DePaul and Tina Folsom. Virna, your talent inspires me so much. Thank you for your insights and for suffering through those initial drafts. Tina—I'm running out of superlatives to describe you, dear ... so I'll just say "thank you" for being who you are: twin from another womb, self-publishing guru, and the most generous of human beings. Love you!
To Diane Pershing. You see straight to the flaws of the story, and I cannot thank you enough. I am in awe of your knowledge of story structure and craft. Your keen critiques help me more than I can say.
To the community of bright, warm, and gifted romance writers I have had the privilege to meet over the past few years. Members of my local San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of RWA—you rock! Every meeting is an inspiration (and a chance to eat donuts, so what more could a writer want?).
To my family. Mom, Dad, Candace, August, Stu, Renko, Tae, and Stan: my heart-felt love and gratitude for putting up with an aspiring writer—and for supporting my dreams, no matter how wacky they may seem.
To my guys. Brendan, every day with you is an inspiration. I love you, little fellow. And to my husband, Brian. Partner, soul-mate, ... and now editor, too. What more could a woman want? Thanks aren't enough for everything that you do and are—adore you utterly, babe.
Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
The rose and poppy are her flower; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.
—Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Hall at Hope End
In the time of
"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
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?"
. 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.
," 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
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.
, 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."