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Authors: C.J. Archer

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Playing With Fire

BOOK: Playing With Fire
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Playing With Fire

(Book 2 of the 1st Freak House Series)

C.J. Archer

 

Copyright 2013 C.J. Archer

Visit C.J. at
http://cjarcher.com

 

CHAPTER 1

Frakingham House, Hertfordshire, December 1888

 

"There are simply too many men," Sylvia announced. "We need another woman. A single one, preferably of middle age for Uncle's sake." She sighed and scanned the piece of paper in her hand for the third time since joining Jack, Samuel and me on the front lawn of Frakingham House. Her sigh said it all. It would seem she couldn't conjure a spare unattached female from her list of invitees.

"I'm not sure your uncle would care one way or another," I said, dipping my paintbrush into the blob of indigo on my palette. "Is he looking for a wife?"

"I'm not trying to marry him off, Hannah. I want a perfect dinner party, and you can't have the perfect dinner party with an unbalanced number of ladies and gentlemen."

"Are even numbers an absolute must for the perfect dinner party?" Jack asked, twirling a dueling pistol around his finger. It wasn't loaded, nor was Samuel's, but Sylvia did not take her gaze off it.

I'd made the two men hold them and stand a little apart, their backs to one another. My painting was going to be titled
Pistols at Dawn
and have a dramatic, swirling sky, but I wasn't a very good artist. It was particularly difficult to render the house in the background since it was still covered in scaffolding.

"Honestly, Jack," Sylvia said with a shake of her head that made her blonde curls bounce, "I can't believe you have to ask me that." She pulled the fur collar of her coat up to her ears and huddled into it. "On second thought, perhaps I can believe it, all things considered."

Jack caught the pistol's handle, halting the twirling. His mouth flattened and his gaze flashed in Samuel's direction. Fortunately the meaning behind her words appeared to be lost on our resident hypnotist. Either that or he was too polite to ask for an explanation. He simply remained standing side-on to me, his pistol at his chest in the pose I'd asked him to assume for my painting. I knew that Sylvia was referring to Jack's past as an orphan living on the London streets. Dinner party etiquette was not something he was overly familiar with. Nor was I. As the orphan daughter of servants and living most of my eighteen years in Lord Wade's attic, I was lucky that I had received food at all. Parties had occurred downstairs, out of my hearing and sight, and very much out of my world.

"Tell them, Samuel," Sylvia said, sniffing. Her nose had gone red from the cold, and I was surprised she was still with us. She hated being outdoors now that autumn had slipped into a freezing winter.

I, on the other hand, loved the cool air whispering across my warm skin, and I couldn't abide wearing gloves. Jack too. As fire starters, we didn't feel the cold like normal people.

"Samuel?" Sylvia prompted when he didn't answer. "Do not tell me that dinner parties are foreign to you too. How can that be?
You're
a gentleman."

The implication being that Jack was not. Samuel made no indication that he understood the slight, which indeed confirmed that he was a gentleman in every sense. Not that it mattered. Jack wasn't listening. He cocked his head to the side and frowned, intent on something in the distance. I looked about, but all seemed as it should be. The foreman stood at the base of the scaffolding in discussion with one of his workers, and two other men tapped away at the newly rebuilt turret. They'd had to tear down the old one after the fire that ravaged the upper level of the eastern wing had rendered the turret unstable.

The fire that I'd accidentally started.

"I've attended my share of dinner parties," said Samuel, oblivious to Jack's distraction. "Of sorts." Samuel Gladstone had joined us a mere two weeks earlier after leaving the employ of a premier London neurologist as well as his studies at University College. He'd come to the country to conduct hypnosis research, but I'd yet to learn the exact nature of it and why it necessitated him being here, or if it had anything to do with his natural hypnosis ability. He'd been born with a talent for coercing people with little more than his voice and eyes, something which he'd hidden from most people, including his former employer.

"Whatever do you mean?" asked Sylvia.

He rubbed the pistol's ivory handle with his thumb. "Dinner was served, and they were indeed parties."

Sylvia looked to me askance, and I shrugged. I hadn't any idea what he was saying either. "What was your mother's opinion on the matter of equal numbers of gentlemen and ladies?" she asked.

He looked up sharply. "My mother?"

"Was it not your mother who hosted the dinners?"

He gave us a lopsided grin, turning his angelic face into something more like that of a naughty boy. He was terribly handsome with his fair hair and blue eyes. Not at all like Jack whose darkly brooding good looks and stormy green eyes were more devilish. I hoped to catch that contrast on canvas.

"My mother had nothing to do with the dinner parties I attended," Samuel said. "I was away at school and university while she was being hostess to her friends. I endured one or two while on holidays, but mostly I avoided them. Mother's parties were a little more…formal than what I was used to."

"Oh? In what way were your parties informal?"

Samuel had an amiable face, and he smiled often, but it didn't always reach his eyes where shadows lurked at the edges. This was one of those times. "Never mind, Sylvia. I don't want to shock you."

She bristled. "I'm not easily shocked."

"There are some things a lady shouldn't hear."

"Then why bring it up at all?"

He flinched then bowed. "I apologize."

She made a sound through her nose and turned away from him, cutting him in the rudest manner. It was rather unfair since
she'd
been the one to bring up the subject of party etiquette. She may have done it to put Jack in his place, but it had backfired since he wasn't listening, and Samuel had proved to have an elusive past shrouded in mystery too. Sylvia was mostly kind and sweet, but there were times when I wanted to pinch her. Samuel always took her childishness with charm and good grace, which I admired. Where Jack would tease his cousin further, Samuel chose the higher ground.

I didn't know much about him, but I did know that I liked him. I also knew that being born with the ability to hypnotize people had been as much a blessing as a curse for him. He didn't speak often of the past, but I got the distinct feeling he hadn't always used his talent honorably. I was quite sure that he'd changed since then and no longer hypnotized anyone against their wishes.

Jack was not so certain. He'd not
said
he distrusted Samuel, but he tended to avoid him as much as possible. Considering they were of similar age and both had strange natural abilities, I thought it a shame they weren't friends. Perhaps time under the same roof would change that.

"What am I to do?" Sylvia asked, once more checking her list of guests.

"I could bow out," Samuel said. "I have upset the balance in the household, so it's only fair that I be the one to miss out." He glanced at Jack as he said it, but Jack's attention was still drawn to the house.

What was the matter? Everything seemed in order to me. The workmen were busy. The scaffolding looked steady. August Langley was nowhere in sight, presumably in his temporary room working on a new drug. Yet Jack took a step forward, frowned, and seemed to be straining to hear beyond our light chatter.

"Don't be ridiculous," Sylvia scolded Samuel. "You are coming to the dinner. You're a part of Frakingham House now and as such, you'll be involved in all social occasions."

"Are your lives here a whirlwind of events?" he asked.

"We do our best to fulfill our responsibility as the pre-eminent house in the area."

I rolled my eyes at Samuel over Sylvia's head. He winked at me and seemed to be trying not to laugh. Frakingham may be the most established estate in the area, but social occasions were rare. We hardly even went into the village and had not entertained guests in the weeks since I'd arrived. It was no wonder they called the place Freak House behind our backs. We'd not given them reason to think otherwise.

Sylvia continued to pore over her list. "Jack, what do you think of Miss Appletree? I know she's got a face like a horse, but she's always nice to me, and she'd be quite used to invalids, her mother being bed-bound."

"I thought you weren't looking for a companion for your uncle," I said, trying to hold back my smile.

She flapped her hand in dismissal. "I'm not, but you never know when love will strike, and it's better that Uncle fall in love with someone suitable rather than a horrible old fishwife, for example."

I didn't think Langley capable of love, but I refrained from telling her that. She seemed quite fond of him, yet afraid of him in equal measure. It was an odd relationship. Langley's relationship with his nephew was equally strange. That's if Jack
was
his nephew. I wasn't entirely sure. I didn't think he was sure either. Langley himself may have been the only one who knew the entire truth, and he never answered any questions of that nature.

I glanced at Jack. Ordinarily he would have something to say about his cousin's matchmaking, but he was completely disinterested.

"Jack, what is it?" I asked, setting my palette down on the small table beside me. "You've been staring at the house for several minutes now. Is anything wrong?"

"I don't know."

"Are you listening to something? What can you hear?"

Sylvia stood too, her list forgotten. "Jack?" The frightened tremor in her voice had me worried. Did Jack often behave like this? I hadn’t seen evidence of it thus far.

Samuel turned to look at the house as well. "All seems in order to me," he said. "Langley?"

Jack held up his hand for silence.

Predictably, Sylvia ignored the request. "Jack, you're frightening me."

"Wait here." He walked off across the lawn. Despite his command, Samuel followed, and I trailed behind with Sylvia holding my arm.

"It's as if he can hear something," Samuel said. "Is his hearing exceptionally good?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Sylvia muttered. "I gave up whispering to Uncle long ago when Jack was near."

"I thought I told you all to stay there," Jack said without turning around.

"See."

"Why should we remain behind?" I asked.

"Is there danger?" Samuel said, drawing up alongside Jack. They were of a similar height, their shoulders both broad, their backs straight. I was grateful they were on my side. I felt safe with them nearby. If another intruder were in Frakingham, Jack and Samuel would easily overpower him. Add Tommy the footman into the mix, and there was nothing to worry about.

So why did coils of dread twist in my stomach?

"I don't know," Jack said. "Which is why I want you all to remain behind."

"Not going to happen," Samuel said lightly.

Jack stopped and glared at him. "I told you to stay back."

Samuel squared up to him. His eyes narrowed, his jaw set hard. There was none of the usual friendliness in the way he glared at Jack. He was all quiet determination and not at all afraid of Jack's temper.

"Mr. Langley, sir!" The foreman ran toward us, his hat scrunched in his hand.

"What is it, Yardley?" Jack asked, his conflict with Samuel forgotten.

Yardley bent over and fought for breath. "Come quickly," he said between gasps. "There's something strange in the dungeon."

"The dungeon?" Jack shook his head. "Frakingham House doesn't have a dungeon."

"He must mean the basement," Sylvia said.

"No, ma'am. I mean the dungeon. And forgive me, sir, but you do have one. Come with me, and I'll show you. Anyways, you need to see this with your own eyes. I don't know how to explain it."

He set off, Jack and Samuel at his heels. Sylvia and I lagged behind until I removed her fingers from my arm, picked up my skirts and ran after them.

"Hannah!" she called out. "Hannah, I don't think we should go."

I ignored her. She might be frightened of what Yardley had found, but my curiosity had gotten the better of me. I'd never been an overly curious person, which was perhaps fortunate since I lived in an attic for most of my life. It would have been frustrating to always want to discover what lay beyond the boundaries of Lord Wade's estate of Windamere if I'd been the inquisitive sort. What curiosity I possessed was indulged with books and maps, and that used to satisfy me most of the time. Until Jack Langley abducted me and brought me to Frakingham House. My newfound freedom had unleashed a deep-rooted desire to know everything I could about everything. My questions were ceaseless, much to my host's frustration, and my desire to see the world grew more and more every day. Once I learned to control the fire within me, I was going to travel the world.

We rounded the side of the house and stopped at a narrow trench running beside the wall. It was deep, deeper than the house's foundations, and looked like a gash slicing through flesh with the thick timber beams used as reinforcement resembling the bone structure holding the body together.

BOOK: Playing With Fire
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