A place between heaven and hell really did exist.
Justin Maitland knew this beyond a shadow of a doubt. Hidden amongst the trees outside Maitland Manor—a place no longer his home but his prison—he gazed upon the smiling, carefree visage of his brother, Jonathan. No doubt courting yet another comely lass. A stab of longing sliced through Justin, and wistfully he stared down at his hands. Five fingers, five fingernails, all very human in appearance . . . but he knew better.
Was he in Purgatory?
Perhaps. But this Purgatory was not so much a place as an altered state of being . . . a curse with no hope of redemption.
Justin’s thoughts often drifted to the moment he’d been cast into this Devil’s existence—lost his humanity and become a beast to be loathed—a moment he simply called the lighting. It was a space in time when all of life’s purposes and regrets swirled to a single point of clarity. All that could have been no longer wavering in indecision, but perfectly clear, like the sky after a blistering rainstorm. To suddenly realize all that he wanted from life, and know it would never again be within his grasp was a fate worse than death. In truth, death would be a blessing.
Instead, his destiny was to wander the earth not quite a man, nor amongst the living. Trapped for eternity as an entity to be feared.
No turning back now.
Victoria Fawson gripped the plush edge of the coach seat and stared anxiously through the window as the landscape whisked past her. The village of Exmoor brought shivers to her as it was, but when she spotted Maitland Manor looming ominously ahead, chills rushed up her spine as the whispered secrets of this place whirled through her mind.
Victoria’s every instinct screamed to turn tail and run, but her heart told her the answers to her father’s murder lay here.
She glanced across the coach at her French maid, Francine. The younger woman sat ramrod straight with her lips pulled tight, her gaze aimed out the window. As Maitland Manor came more fully into view the color slowly drained from the maid’s face.
“We are almost there.” Victoria managed a tight smile, twisting her hands in her lap, a nervous habit she’d never managed to break.
Francine took an unsteady breath. “Are you certain this is what you want, Mademoiselle?” A slight tremor shook her. “After all, Maitland Manor is haunted.”
Nervously Victoria laughed. “Don’t tell me you believe all those silly ghost stories.”
“Oui. They are true.”
Victoria arched an eyebrow, suppressing her own trepidations, and taking hold of logic. “Do you have firsthand knowledge?”
With a flick of the wrist, Victoria brushed the maid’s concerns away. “I think the stories are told to keep people away.”
Francine nodded. “It’s working rather well, if you ask me. There aren’t many women who volunteer to stay there.”
“I have no other choice,” Victoria grumbled as helplessness filled her. “According to my father’s journals, Justin Maitland was the last man to visit him. I need Mr. Maitland’s help if I’m to discover the murderer’s identity.”
“I understand, Mademoiselle, but there has to be another way.” Francine peeked out the window and shivered.
“When I met Mrs. Maitland in the marketplace the other day,” Victoria continued, “and she invited me to the manor to meet her brother-in-law, Jonathan, I knew this was the only way I could get inside to ask questions.”
“Doesn’t Mademoiselle Maitland think you’re coming to court Mr. Jonathan?”
“Yes, and she must continue to believe that.” Victoria adjusted the cloak over her traveling gown. “My father was a close friend with Justin, who is the oldest brother. I’ve tried to contact him, but the letters I’ve sent over the past year have gone unanswered. The Maitland family is purposely keeping secrets. I feel it. Getting inside the manor is the only way to find what I’m searching for.”
“Then I pray you find what you need quickly. I cannot bear the thought of staying longer than a week in such a haun—” Francine flicked her gaze toward Victoria, “um, I mean dreary place.”
The vehicle slowed as it neared the house. Silence expanded inside the vehicle as Victoria leaned against the seat, trying to collect her wits. If only she felt as brave as the front she had presented to her maid. Victoria bunched her fingers in the folds of her velvet traveling dress and nibbled her lower lip. She must do this to discover the truth. She prayed she’d be able to accomplish her goal.
The vehicle jerked to stop and her uncle’s footman, Jeffries, opened the door. The older servant helped her down, and as soon as her feet touched the pebbled ground, she glanced up at the towering Maitland Manor. Trepidation clutched her throat.
“I’m not afraid,” she whispered, taking her first step toward the dark, foreboding structure. “And I absolutely do not believe in ghosts.”
For one fleeting moment, the shuffling of the maid’s footsteps fell into rhythm with Victoria’s. Her nerves eased slightly knowing she wasn’t in this alone. Francine would help her through thick and thin. Maid or not, the other woman was Victoria’s friend. Jeffries waddled closely behind them.
The morning air settled around them as still as death. Autumn leaves of red and brown littered the walkway and crunched beneath Victoria’s feet. North Devon’s chilly air nipped at her cheeks and she pulled the bonnet ties more tightly around her ears. The scent of burning fields hung thick as area landowners prepared for another planting season.
The place where she would find answers lay straight ahead, creeping closer with each step. As she walked from beneath the shade of the trees into the sunlight, the estate rose above her in a crescendo of magnitude. She stopped and sucked in her breath in awe.
The red-bricked manor rose with breathtaking splendor into the sky. The distinctive turrets and pinnacles masterfully structured. The manor looked out over acres of parklands, gardens, lakes, and woods. Francine’s gasp overrode Victoria’s. Two large rock columns cornered the house, and at least three sections sprawled from the structure. Only a few curtains hung open at the many windows, but most were hidden behind closed draperies. Her curiosity piqued. What secrets did the draperies conceal?
She stood still for several minutes, marveling at the glory before her. Yet a strange eeriness settled around the place. Darkness lurked in the East Wing as if a silent storm cloud resided.
As she studied each window on the left side, her interest grew. The curtains of one window moved. She squinted and stepped closer but was too far away to see anything or anyone.
Slowly she continued toward the mansion, gooseflesh rising on her arms with each step. The nape of her neck tingled and Victoria would swear she could feel someone’s eyes upon her.
The bitter cold seeped through her cloak as she moved into the house’s shadow, and the loss of the sun added to the eerie sensations assailing her body. Her heartbeat quickened, and her palms grew moist in the folds of her dress.
With her maid following close behind, Victoria hurried to the front door and rapped on the hard oak.
Jeffries cleared his throat. “Miss Fawson, permit me to do that if you will.”
She flipped her hand through the air. “I’ve never been waited on in my life, and I’m not about to start now.”
“Nevertheless, you must. Your uncle would insist, I assure you. And what of the Maitlands? They’re expecting a gentle-bred lady.”
She shrugged. “If they wanted a gentle-bred lady, then why did they ask me to come?” Everyone in town knew she was born and raised in America, practically a heathen in their opinion. Only after her father earned fame from his novels had they moved to England to live more isolated.
The footman’s eyes widened and his mouth gaped from her comment, but he remained silent.
She squared her shoulders, focusing on the door as she waited for entrance. Uncle Edward was sure to hear about her less-than-genteel approach. Maybe an apology was in order. She smoothed her dress. “Forgive me, Jeffries. From now on, I shall try to act accordingly.”
Even if it was ludicrous.
The door creaked open. A stooped, thin, gray-haired man dressed in black butler attire walked into the light.
Jeffries stepped in front of Victoria and faced the other servant, handing him Victoria’s card. “Good day, sir. May I present Miss Victoria Fawson, daughter of the renowned American novelist, Peter Fawson. Mr. Roderick Maitland and his wife are expecting her.”
The butler nodded and opened the door wider. “Please, come in.”
The inside of the manor didn’t reflect the dreariness of the outside façade. Instead, the marbled floors gleamed to perfection, and the dark-wood furniture held a fresh-waxed glint. The Persian rugs reminded her of those she’d had as a child when her mother was alive. Lovely shining chandeliers, silver and gold candlestick holders, and colorful tapestries brought a heavy sadness to her chest.
This place almost felt like home.
After her mother’s passing, Father had lost all ability to cope and ignored his debts. The collectors had come and, over time, confiscated everything they’d had. Now Victoria lived off a small inheritance from her maternal grandmother.
The butler took their cloaks, bidding them to wait in the hall while he shuffled into the parlor to announce her arrival.
“Mademoiselle,” Francine whispered urgently. “Can you feel it? There are ghosts here.”