“At the end of the week Mr. Percy Livingstone, our beloved founder’s heir, will evict us all in order to turn our philanthropic school into a profitable venture. Next Monday, he will begin converting the grounds into an exclusive sanitarium catering to the mentally unstable offspring of society’s wealthy elite.”
Miss Violet Whitechapel stared uncomprehendingly at the misty words escaping from Headmistress Parker’s mouth into the early morning fog. The heir planned to do what? Desperation seared the breath from Violet’s lungs. She sent a frantic glance at her colleague, Miss Belham, who appeared as shocked and devastated as the other instructors. For the first time in Violet’s memory, even the headmistress struggled to maintain her hallmark serenity.
In disbelief, Violet turned from her associates to face the long-standing campus she’d delightedly called home. Five and a half glorious years with clean water, honest work, a cot of her own in a room with a door she had no need to bar at night. She had found paradise, and she’d be damned if she lost her home to some spoiled toff more interested in lining his pockets than helping orphans.
Old Man Livingstone had been a godsend—or at the very least, the only man of Violet’s acquaintance who had actually meant the words “benefactor to underprivileged girls” without dehumanizing strings attached. He’d started this school, given ladies like Miss Parker and Miss Belham positions of some power, and when Violet had blown onto the doorstep willing to do anything—yes, anything—for a crust of bread and a delousing, he’d rung her a bath and a hot meal and offered her a position. And not a position like “on yer back, now, there’s a gel,” either. A respectable position. And a home.
“The new heir and his surveyor are currently perusing the property,” the headmistress continued relentlessly. “You’ll recognize them by their Town finery, I’m sure. They plan to have the sanitarium operational within a fortnight. Nonetheless, young Mr. Livingstone is providing each of us a month’s wages as a courtesy, in the hopes many will seek new environs immediately.” The headmistress began doling out tiny satchels to each instructor.
Violet’s jaw fell open. “A courtesy? By sending us—and the children—back to the streets? We’re supposed to be saving these girls from such a fate, not consigning them to it. Without the school, they’ve nowhere else to go!”
“We cannot fight the law.” A crack in Headmistress Parker’s firm voice betrayed her frustration. “Young Mr. Livingstone is the legal heir, and his changes are already in motion.”
“Well, I’ll just have to stop them.” Violet’s fists curled with rage. “For close on twenty years, I survived out there as best I could, and to speak plainly, there were many times survival wasn’t worth the sacrifices. Where is this so-called gentleman, whose only desire is to benefact his pockets?”
“‘Benefact’ is incorrect in that context,” the deportment instructor murmured.
“You quite take my meaning,” Violet snapped back, although she was more upset at her helplessness than with Miss Belham. She tried so hard to be as stoic as the headmistress, but strong emotion released the terrified street urchin she desperately tried to keep caged beneath the façade of a proper young lady.
“You cannot save everyone, Violet, no matter how fervently you may wish to.” Headmistress Parker’s ever-ramrod spine seemed to grow even straighter. “There will be no petitioning Mr. Percy Livingstone. He has already finalized his contracts and accepted pensions from families who wish to conceal . . . unfortunate situations. We must all find a new home.”
“How?” Violet fought the stinging in her eyes. Not only had she herself climbed out of the gutters, she was finally able to keep others from returning. When these girls found themselves tossed in the dirt, how was she supposed to live with herself?
How was she supposed to live?
“I have heard enough,” she said stiffly, trying and failing to think of words of encouragement to share with her pupils later. In that moment, she’d never hated a man more than she hated Mr. Percy Livingstone. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve a promising new student awaiting me for special instruction.”
She barely paused for Headmistress Parker’s nod before turning on her heel and striding across the foggy green to the art studio. If they were all to be tossed out with the bathwater, she would make the most of every moment between now and then. Oh, God, what was she to tell her students?
Children like Emma made the thought of losing the school utterly insupportable. The girl was almost fifteen, but a lifetime of malnourishment had given her the tiny frame of a twelve-year-old. When she’d arrived, Violet had gently washed off the layers of grime only to reveal a patchwork of bruises and scars. Furious at whoever had harmed a child, Violet had made Emma’s physical and mental recovery her personal mission. There’d been precious little progress these short two months, but although Emma still hadn’t spoken a single word—and refused to interact with the others—she’d been fascinated by the paintings in Violet’s studio, and was hopefully waiting there now for her first lesson in watercolor.
Candlelight blurred the morning mist as Violet drew closer to the tiny cottage. Her heart warmed. Emma did keep their meeting! Violet’s relieved smile faltered when a painfully familiar sound escaped from the other side of the closed wooden door. The barely audible whimpers of a terrified young girl . . . and the impatient grunting of a grown man.
Violet picked up her skirts and burst through the door.
Two expensively groomed toffs loomed inside her studio. Young Mr. Livingstone and his surveyor! Violet couldn’t begin to guess which villain was which, but it hardly mattered. One perched on the edge of a work stool, cravat awry, looking for all the world like a scoundrel chomping at the bit to take his turn.
The other had Emma—Emma!—bent across an art desk, petticoats to her hips. He was too busy struggling to undo the buttons of his fall to have noticed Violet’s arrival, but the blackguard upon the stool leapt to his feet at once.
“Lookit here, Livingstone, there’s one for each of us.” He headed toward Violet with wicked intent carved into his smirking countenance.
She snatched up the closest weapons she could find and hurled them at his head, one after another. The bucket of turpentine did little more than drench the man in foul smelling liquid, but the full can of paint dropped him to the ground.
The heir pushed back from Emma, pausing only to refasten his breeches. His mistake. Years of surviving by her wits alone had taught Violet never to hesitate. Often, the element of surprise was the only chance a girl had against men twice her size. Violet leapt across the tiny space, arms outstretched to snatch Emma away.
“Bitch!” He reared one arm back, clearly intending to slam his overlarge fist directly into Violet’s face.
Emma was faster. Her tiny fingers grappled at the clutter scattered across the wooden desktop, knocking candles to the floor. In an instant, she swung backward, a tall paintbrush firmly in her grip. The handle found its home in the eye of the blackguard who had intended to violate her.
With a choking scream, the heir slumped across the desk, the slender paintbrush protruding from his eye socket. The flames from the fallen candles ignited the spilled turpentine, roaring across the oil-painted canvases and up over the motionless men. Within a half second, the fire had eaten the curtains and engulfed the rafters above.
“Come,” Violet shouted, tugging at Emma’s icy hand. “We must go! Everything in here is violently flammable.”
Already the air was thick with greasy smoke and the stench of burning flesh.
Emma stumbled around the unnaturally still bodies, then promptly bent over and vomited. Violet’s stomach felt much the same, but there was no time for weakness, for conscience, for second-guessing.
“Come,” she repeated. The oils popped and the blackening rafters spit ash and fire as Violet dragged Emma across the tiny room with one arm around the girl’s waist. “We can’t stay here.”
No, Violet realized as a chill crept down her spine. It was much worse than that. She was a murderess. In saving a child, she had unintentionally slain the new benefactor and his companion. Emma would be able to rejoin the other students with no one being the wiser, but half the school had witnessed Violet stalking toward her studio with murder in her eyes. She had made no attempt to conceal her animosity toward Mr. Percy Livingstone. And now there would be no hiding what she had done.
She’d lost her position, her dreams . . . and now her future.
Smoke searing her lungs, she hobbled out of the burning cottage. Everything she owned, everything she cared about, had been in that studio. Well, not quite everything. Pulling Emma further away from the blaze, Violet touched shaking fingers to her pockets. One contained the small leather diary that never left her side. The other pocket contained her final wages. She wished she’d hidden her precious savings anywhere but the back of a drawer in her art desk . . . but this would have to be enough money to get out of Lancashire. Immediately.
She had to flee. Find shelter, obviously, but more importantly: procure a barrister capable of saving her from criminal prosecution. She touched her neck and shuddered. She would not go to the gallows. Not for a blackguard like Percy Livingstone. She would find a way to clear her name and keep moving forward. She was a survivor.
If she ran faster than she’d ever run before, she just might make the morning coach before anyone realized she was missing. It wasn’t much of an advantage, but she had learned to make the most of any scrap Fate chose to leave her.
But first things first—Emma. The girl was young. Traumatized, but still innocent in all senses. Not a soul would or should suspect her of anything. And this would be the last opportunity for Violet to save one of her students. There were no guarantees that the next heir in line would be any better than Mr. Livingstone, but the school was still a far safer option than dragging Emma back into the streets. As for Violet . . . she could take care of herself.
“Listen, sweetheart.” She held Emma’s trembling hands and wished the girl would make eye contact, even for a second. “You did nothing wrong. This is not your fault.” Nor was it Violet’s, but she could not help feeling sick with guilt. “No one knows you were in the studio today, and no one needs to know.” She brushed ash from the girl’s sleeve. With the heir up in flames, the plans to convert the school into a madhouse should come to an end—she hoped. “Go to Headmistress Parker. You can trust her.”
Emma nodded miserably, shoulders shaking. Violet gathered her into her arms and held her for a long moment. She had to believe this was the right thing to do. It was the only choice. She could not stay, and she could not risk endangering Emma. Sending her to the headmistress was the best hope for keeping her safe.
“This is not your fault,” she repeated, giving the girl a fierce hug.
Emma pulled back and looked up, her eyes hollow. The girl suddenly looked far older than her fifteen years. Violet gave her another hug, viciously pleased that Mr. Percy Livingstone was dead. She wished she had killed him herself. By closing down the school, he’d be sending all the girls into the clutches of other evil men just like him.
“Get cleaned up,” she instructed Emma, “and remember: you did nothing wrong.” She touched the girl’s pale cheek. “You’ll be safe now.”
With a smile full of far more confidence than she felt, Violet gave her a last hug goodbye then took off running for the Lancashire coach stop. Little time remained, but she’d learned through years of practice how to run very, very fast.
Not long after her coin petered out, so did Violet’s limbs.
She’d traveled via mail coach as far as her meager purse had allowed. Five long days of constantly looking over her shoulder. When the money ran out, she’d forced herself to continue over hills and through forests on foot until her blisters had blisters, and both her body and her brain grew sluggish from lack of food and water. Once again, the sun had begun its inexorable decline. If she did not find shelter soon, she would pass the night alone in the woods, hungry and defenseless.
She trailed the last rays of sunshine through a break in the trees and discovered herself at the edge of a sprawling moor. The land stretched away from her in green-brown waves, an endless sea of dense bracken disappearing into shadow along a distant horizon broken only by the silhouette of what looked to be an enormous convent or monastery.
Her legs crumpled in relief. She was saved.
An enormous cathedral loomed out of the growing darkness, its twisting gothic silhouette stark against the crimson sunset. Several similarly medieval outbuildings flanked the primary structure. The only element detracting from the beauty of the flying buttresses arching from the nave and sanctuary was the thick wooden boards covering what once must have been handcrafted stained glass windows.
No light shone, but she pushed forward anyway. Abandoned or inhabited, the walls were still standing—more than she could say about her own limbs—which made it the perfect resting place. And if there were nuns, the sisters wouldn’t turn her away just because her pockets were empty. She could finally sleep. The nuns’ seclusion would also keep them from outside influence, buying precious time before Violet had to fear news from Lancashire catching up with her. If there were no one at all, at least she would have peace.
She rose on trembling legs and pushed forward through the moorland. Coarse grasses tangled with her skirts and sent her stumbling, but she forced herself to keep moving. Her luck was finally turning around.
Or was it?
As she neared the structure, the grasses seemed to grow ever taller. The towers seemed more dilapidated than imposing, and even the stone walls were chipped and lackluster.
Not a single candle flickered in the windows because there were no windows. Layers of thick board crisscrossed over every surface, blocking all access to light. Whoever had worshiped here was long gone. Violet’s shriveled stomach clenched in protest at the realization that there would be no monks or nuns to offer bread and water. But at least the crumbling roof would be a respite from the empty rolling moors and offer shelter from whatever animals left the forest to hunt at night.
When her aching feet finally crossed the border between the open moorland and the cultivated lawn, she wanted to sob in relief. Instead, she barked a sharp cry of pain as her ankle connected with an unseen hindrance and sent her sprawling into a cluster of roses. A thousand simultaneous pinpricks assaulted every limb as thorns clawed at her skin through her tattered clothes.
Ankle throbbing, she rolled sideways onto the cool grass. She stared up into the growing darkness and blinked back tears. She doubted she had the stamina to close the remaining distance by hopping on one leg or crawling on her knees.
The chill breeze rustled the rosebushes, scraping sharp thorns against her hair and clothes. As the sensation reminded her more and more of insects crawling across her skin, she batted at her cheeks and forced herself into a sitting position.
She pulled her ankle close enough to prod the tender skin with her fingers. Her entire body tensed and her eyes stung. She was able to flex her toes, so at least it was not broken.
“‘Merely’ turned,” she muttered wryly, abandoning her self-examination to seek out the obstruction that had caused her downfall in the first place.
She glanced about to realize she lay upon a trampled path through the weeds. No, not trampled—trimmed. Someone did reside in the convent, then, and came this way to tend—what? She could discern nothing of interest except a pair of large stones. Unable to move far without exacerbating her injury, she leaned forward and ran a finger along the edge of the nearest stone. Flat and rectangular. Uniformly so. With grooves that felt almost like etchings . . .
She snatched her hand away in horror.
A gravestone. She’d tripped over a gravestone and fallen directly atop a grave! Mindless of the pain, a sudden rush of irrational panic propelled her to her feet. Torn between the urge to flee and the morbid desire to know whether anyone was truly buried here, she swayed on her good foot as she stared at the sharp inscriptions, not yet blurred by time and weather:
She really was standing upon a gravesite! Violet hopped backward, turning away from the graves and toward the looming abbey. Sudden dizziness rolled over her in waves. Her arms flapped woodenly but were no match against the pull of gravity. Before she’d managed to hop more than a few feet along the path, the craggy moor proved too difficult to navigate on one leg and she crumpled to the hard ground once again.
The sun chose that moment to concede defeat as well, giving way to the night. As the thick blackness enveloped her, so did a pervasive chill, permeating her to the very soul. This close to shelter, and she would not be able to reach it.
Frustration pricked at her eyes. She would lie next to the graves all night, until whatever creatures haunted the woods came to make an easy feast of her. She would be helpless to defend herself.
But a tended walkway meant residents. Perhaps not a convent full of friendly nuns spending their days in the kitchen (oh how she yearned for fresh-baked bread!) but someone had to be minding the path to the gravesite. Perhaps an abbot or even a groundskeeper. She propped herself up on her elbows and tipped her face into the oppressive darkness.
“Help,” she croaked, far more quietly than she’d intended. Her throat was ruined from lack of water, and if she did manage a good shout she’d no doubt lose her voice on the morrow. But what choice did she have? “Help! Please, help!”
When her voice finally gave out, so did her consciousness. Her head collapsed backward against the hard soil and her vision blurred. Just before exhaustion robbed her of her senses completely, a female countenance swam before her eyes.
She could’ve sworn a distant male voice asked, “What have you found?”
Waldegrave Abbey, Shropshire
Alistair Waldegrave slammed his fist atop the ancient desk hard enough to send dust spiraling into the musty air. Another rejection. How many more pleading letters must he be forced to send? He already spent every waking moment sequestered in his office, and had absolutely no time to waste penning even more flowery invitations to England’s brightest medical geniuses.
To be fair, it wasn’t as though the men could leap astride their stallions and pop over to Waldegrave Abbey instead of the usual trot about St James Square. He was inviting them not to a party, but to a scholarly conclave one hundred and seventy-five miles north of London. But weren’t scientists supposed to be intrigued by puzzles to solve? And weren’t surgeons supposed to be dedicated to the idea of helping the infirm? And weren’t these people tempted to indulge his invitation if only out of curiosity and the fact that all their expenses would be paid out of Alistair’s own pocket?
Good Lord, if he couldn’t even appeal to basic human greed, what the devil did that leave him to bargain with?
Roper, Alistair’s manservant, hesitated at the doorway to the office. He was the sole staff member who’d been with the family since before everything had gone to hell. He was also the only living soul to have earned a modicum of Alistair’s trust. Roper hung back at the doorway, however, because service history notwithstanding, to cross that threshold without permission was a one-way ticket to an immediate sacking. And Alistair never granted permission. He could scarce afford to entrust any of his overly solicitous staff in the room housing his deadliest secrets.
“Inform my daughter,” he bit out without rising, well aware that Lillian’s antics were the only reason Roper ever hovered at the door, “that I am trying to help her, and if she would desist making impossible demands and refrain from attacking those who attempt to give aid, then perhaps she would find less to complain about.”
“Master . . .” Roper’s voice lowered. “It’s not Miss Lillian.”
Frowning, Alistair removed his pince-nez. “It’s not?”
Roper hesitated then shook his head.
Alistair stared at his manservant’s uneasy countenance. There was clearly a problem. And the problem was always Lillian. Lord help him, he did not have time for new problems. He didn’t even have time for the problems he already had.
“Well?” he demanded. “What is it?”
“There appears to be . . . a girl.”
Alistair blinked. “A what?”
“You may wish to come see,” Roper began, but Alistair was already on his feet. He swept through the doorway and automatically closed the self-locking door before continuing on.
A girl? What the devil could Roper mean?
He followed his manservant along the corridors to the entranceway, and made his way past the gaggle of servants blocking the threshold. There, on the front stoop, lay a crumpled mass of elbows and frayed hems, muddy boots and tangled hair.
A girl? So it was. A dirty, malnourished, unconscious girl. He sighed. Yet another riddle to solve.
No wonder Roper was so grim.
“All right, all right,” Alistair said, batting a hand at the hovering servants as if to disperse flies buzzing about a corpse. “Quit hanging about doing nothing, and bring her in.”
“In, Master?” Roper repeated in astonishment.
The other servants looked equally doubtful. Mrs. Tumsen in particular had an air about her that suggested the girl was better off in the street than within the devil’s lair. Alistair gritted his teeth. He had earned the housekeeper’s loyalty, but he had yet to earn her trust.
The only individuals who had willingly entered Waldegrave Abbey in the last decade were the ones whose desperation had enabled Alistair to bribe them into employment, if only for short periods of time.
Visitors new to the forgotten town of Shrewsbury took one look at the great crumbling abbey with its boarded-over windows and questionable stability, and turned the opposite direction. The folk who’d been around long enough to experience its haunted history firsthand well remembered the morning Alistair Waldegrave had gone completely mad. The screams. The funeral. The destruction. For all he knew, the rumors had travelled as far as London and his reams of desperate invitations would never garner a single acceptance. Perhaps even the superstitions had spread.
So, yes, he could appreciate his servants’ reluctance to bring someone within these unhallowed walls who wasn’t even conscious enough to make the wise decision to get the hell away while her heart still beat.
But she clearly had nowhere else to go. No one with anywhere else to go ended up here with him. Alistair opened his eyes and sent his gaze heavenward. Fine. The least he could do was provide her with a warm bath and a hot meal. And then send her back wherever she’d come from.
“Sir?” Roper asked again.
All of the servants were staring at Alistair in horrified fascination.
“You heard me,” he said blandly, retracing his steps in order to shove open the door allowing admittance into the black depths of the abbey. “Bring her in.”
Violet awoke naked. And terrified.
Even before checking for bruises and broken bones, she gingerly shifted one leg across the other. The only twinge came from her swollen ankle. Careful to keep her eyes closed and her breathing modulated, she emptied her mind to everything except the sounds of the room. Silence. Not even a whisper of air circulated in the eerie stillness. Perhaps she was locked in a closet, awaiting her captor. Assuming there was only one. Perhaps she hadn’t imagined voices after all.
She tensed at an unfamiliar noise. Was that the sound of someone breathing? No. Just the faint crackle of flame atop a candle. She was alone.
Ever so slowly, she cracked open one eyelid. The sight she beheld had her shooting upright, both eyes open wide.
Not a closet. By any means. She was in a . . . prayer room of some kind. The chamber was small, but stretched up to the heavens. At one time, the walls had presumably been adorned floor-to-ceiling with stained glass, but were now completely covered over from the outside and boarded again on the inside, allowing not even the slightest hint of sunlight to filter through. Perhaps there was no sunlight. Perhaps it was still nightfall. Perhaps—
Rescued! Of course. A bubble of laughter escaped her parched throat in relief.
Clutching an oddly luxurious blanket to her chest, she took stock of her surroundings. She had awoken not on a bed, but a pew. No wonder her back felt bruised and sore.
She laughed again, her desolation lifting. Religious folk would be too godly to send her to the gallows and too reclusive to know about her crimes in the first place. A chill slithered across her bare skin as she recalled her fright at awakening to find herself stripped of her vestments. Perhaps her hosts weren’t as godly as they’d like to appear. One should never be too trusting.
A large wooden tub of soapy water sat near a gold-encrusted altar. She approached, favoring her sore ankle, and touched the tepid water. The temptation of cleanliness was too divine to resist but, before indulging, she hobbled across the room to verify the lock was engaged on the prayer room door. It was locked tight, with a slender brass key protruding from the keyhole.
Twenty minutes later, she was drying her hair with the edge of her blanket when a sharp rap came at the door. Fear flooded back. Gripping the blanket in one hand in order to grab a heavy chalice with the other, she crept to the door. After taking a deep breath, she raised the chalice above her head.
“Your garments and boots, miss.” The voice was elderly. Female. And . . . nervous?
Violet lowered the chalice. If this was a ruse, it was a bloody good one. And she could hardly stay locked in a prayer room forever.
“Just a moment.”
After enshrouding herself with the blanket, she hefted the makeshift weapon in one hand, twisted the key, and creaked open the door.
A wiry older woman stood alone in the hallway, dressed in servant garb. She held a stack of clean, folded vestments and a freshly cleaned pair of very familiar boots.
The servant’s shoulders were hunched and her posture tense, as if she half-expected monsters to spring from the darkness. The woman’s knobby fingers trembled, but Violet could not be sure if this were due to age or anxiety. The servant’s clear lack of ease did nothing to soothe Violet’s own shattered nerves.
She snaked one arm through the crack and snatched her dress to her chest. Ratty and frayed as ever, but blessedly free of grime.
The servant nodded once, and at first made no move to go, nor to enter and offer assistance. If anything, she appeared to be warring with herself as to whether or not to speak her mind.
Just when Violet was about to break down and beg the strange visitor to say her piece so she might close the door and dress herself, the old woman finally spoke.
“Don’t make deals with the devil for a crust of bread. He may tempt ye to tend that creature of his, but if ye value your life, you’ll run whilst you still can. If ye still can.”
Without waiting for a reply, the old woman turned and melted into the darkness.
Violet blinked at the gap in the door where the servant had just stood. What on earth had that meant? Clearly the old woman had meant a warning of some kind, but of what creature did she speak? And who was “he”, this devil with whom Violet was not to bargain?
She nudged the door open far enough to poke her head out into the hall.
Nothing. No candles. No windows. No light. The old woman had managed to disappear into the shadows in less than a half dozen steps.
Unsettled, Violet slowly shut the door, then blinked in surprise when the key rotated clockwise of its own accord. She tested the handle and discovered the door had locked automatically. She tensed. If someone hadn’t left the key behind . . . A shiver chased up her spine and she shook her head. Being held against her will still had the power to paralyze her with fear and panic, and she must keep a clear head. She drew in a breath and forced her trembling limbs to relax by imagining the medieval beauty of the boarded-over stained glass windows. Reds, yellows, blues. Simple. Calming. She set down the chalice and dressed as quickly as she could. She wouldn’t be able to run with a turned ankle, but if she did need to escape, at least she’d be ready.
What had once seemed an improbable boon—a timely rescue by a kindhearted religious community—now felt much less auspicious. Violet would eat her boots if that gnarled old woman was a nun.
Which meant what? Who lived in a ramshackle medieval abbey in the middle of nowhere if not virginal nuns and godly monks? Violet swallowed hard. Had she been rescued . . . or abducted?
By the time a second knock struck the prayer room door, she had worked herself into a shivering ball of nerves. She took a deep breath, forcing her muscles to relax and her frenzied thoughts to slow, then swung open the door.
A different servant stood in the darkness, this one even less monk-like than the old woman was nun-like. The flickering of his candle sent distorted shadows dancing across his face. A well-muscled build bespoke hours of daily exercise and the scars slashing one cheek indicated he had survived a knife fight. All in all, not the most calming visage to emerge from the shadows.
“Come. The master wishes to speak with you.”
She shrunk back. “Wh-who?”
Surprise fluttered across his face before the servant’s blank expression returned to mask it. “Master Waldegrave, miss. You’re in Waldegrave Abbey.”
Well. That answered one question, at least. And spawned a dozen more.
The manservant retrieved the brass key from the prayer room door and beckoned her to follow him into the shadows.
She sent one last glance over her shoulder into the gilded prayer room, with its boarded-over stained glass and wooden tub of bathwater next to the altar, then followed the servant into the gloom.
He slowed to match her pace. “Are you injured?”
A turned ankle,” she murmured, hating to confess any weakness. She preferred to appear strong. She preferred to be strong. One never knew when one might need to run. Resting had helped, but it would take at least another day before her ankle could fully withstand her weight.
The manservant offered his arm without further comment. After twisting down a murky passageway, he paused to unlock a dark-paneled door before gesturing for her to enter.
Panic crept over her once again as he pocketed the key rather than offer it to her. “No. You’re not locking me in any chambers.”
Once again, the heavily muscled servant seemed surprised at her refusal. “There are those who would say it’s for your own safety.”
Doubt and more than a touch of fear sent gooseflesh rippling beneath her threadbare gown. If this huge, strong man feared for his safety . . . She glanced at the scars crisscrossing one side of his face. Had that been done here? Had whatever caused his disfigurement also caused the deaths of the women in those graves? What kind of godforsaken place was Waldegrave Abbey?
She slowly turned around, taking in the unsettling dimness of her surroundings and admitting the even grimmer reality of her situation. She had nowhere else to go. In her weakened condition, even the five minute walk through the tall, windowless corridors had made her dizzy from exertion and half-nauseous with repressed hunger and pain from her swollen ankle.
As if her physical deterioration weren’t bad enough, she needed coin to flee to London, and a king’s ransom to pay for a barrister capable of saving her neck when the lawmen inevitably caught her. Exhaustion, hunger, and poverty aside, she needed to hide until the search for Percy Livingstone’s murderer began to wane. Anywhere she could.
With a slow, measured breath that did absolutely nothing to calm her nerves, she rolled back her shoulders and stepped into the chamber. The servant followed in her shadow, closing the door behind them with such speed that she wondered if there were monsters creeping closer on the other side.
They had entered what appeared to be another prayer room. Once upon a time, this room also must have boasted floor-to-ceiling stained glass. Now, the artistry had been defiled with layers of thick planks nailed across every single inch. A lit candelabrum stood atop a fat altar, scattering light and shadow in equal measure about the darkly glittering room.
A man sat in the front pew, his back to the locked door, his head bent in what Violet assumed to be prayer. Perhaps this Waldegrave was a holy man after all—an unconventional holy man, to be sure—and his servants merely indulged their master’s efforts to keep out the devil.
He rose slowly. His clothing, like hers, was years out of fashion and hung a bit loosely on his frame, as if the superfine material had been tailored during a time when food had been less scarce. But there the similarities ended. Where her shabby gown was of the best quality three months’ teaching wages could afford, this man’s ill-fitting attire had been the first stare of fashion . . . ten years ago. Although the seams were off in places, the height and length were perfect, leading her to suspect that when he’d first been fitted for his wardrobe, Mr. Waldegrave’s musculature had rivaled that of his burly manservant.
When he finally turned his face in her direction, however, her first impression was: white.
Mr. Waldegrave wasn’t merely pale; he was translucent. The depth of which was made even more striking by the inky blackness of his hair and brows and eyes. Had the man never been out-of-doors in his life? Toffs had long believed that the flush of the summer sun was a faux pas only a peasant like her would court, but Mr. Waldegrave’s pallor appeared more deathly than lordly.
Even so, the fine bone structure chiseled beneath his improbably handsome face and the regal aura of his bearing beneath his once-fine vestments spoke to the blue blood undoubtedly coursing beneath his pale flesh. Whether he’d ever seen the sun or not, this was a man well used to getting what he wanted. Those powerful eyes alone held her in something not unlike thrall. When she wrenched her gaze from the spellbinding weight of his, her trembling knees finally buckled beneath her.
The manservant caught her by the shoulders. “She suffers a turned ankle, master.”
Mr. Waldegrave stepped closer. “Ring for bindings. Mrs. Tumsen can assist.”
With a nod, the manservant led her to the closest pew.
She gathered the strength to perch on the outer arm rather than allow herself to be seated in its ranks. She wasn’t frightened, she told herself for perhaps the hundredth time since the lock had automatically clicked home behind her. She was merely weak from lack of nourishment.
But she had learned long ago to trust no man.
Mr. Waldegrave stopped within arm’s reach, but did not offer his hand. He regarded her in silence, as if her appearance was equally as arresting as his own. When at last he spoke, his deep voice was shockingly seductive. “Welcome. I am Alistair Waldegrave. May I ask from whence you come?”
No, the frantic voice deep inside her cried out, you cannot. She stared up at him.
His gaze burned into hers. “What is your name?”
“Violet . . .” she blurted out, the word torn unbidden from her tongue. “Smythe,” she added lamely, certain he would see through the paltry deception. What had happened to the practiced dissimulation that had saved her from more horrors than she cared to count?
His raised brow provided proof of his disbelief, but he did not waste his breath demanding honesty. “I see,” he said in that incredible voice, smooth and dark. “Miss Violet Smythe, if that is your real name, pray tell me to what I owe the pleasure of your company this eve?”
She gripped the edge of the pew. Had she appeared so dishonest, he hadn’t even believed her when she’d been fool enough to admit to her first name? Add that to the likelihood that this man never ventured far enough from his shadowed chambers to hear the barest whisper of news from a town as far away as upper Lancashire, and she might actually be safe . . . If she could convince him to grant her asylum for a spell before tossing her back into the wild.
And assuming Waldegrave Abbey was safer inside than out.
“I’m looking for work,” she admitted. The best lies were based on truth, and she would get nowhere with empty pockets. Like it or not, temporarily trusting her fate to this man was a risk she would have to take if she wished to avoid the gaol. That the mistrust was mutual spoke to his intelligence. “Have you a garden that needs tending or stockings that need darning?”
If anything, the skepticism lining his coldly beautiful face deepened. “Am I to believe you a misplaced gardener, then? A wandering seamstress in search of torn hems?”
She jerked her hands from the hard pew and laced her fingers in her lap to hide their trembling. “I don’t suppose my curriculum vitae would carry much weight in an abbey. I’m . . . a governess by trade.”
The manservant at her side started violently, as if she’d brandished a blade and lunged at the unscarred side of his face.
Mr. Waldegrave’s chiseled cheekbones paled further—if that were possible—as he cast his manservant a quelling glare. “A governess?”
“Of a sort. I specialize in art of all mediums.” Not that she imagined him to be an enthusiast. She couldn’t prevent an involuntary glance at the boarded-over stained glass and wondered what devilry would incite a man to cover up medieval beauty in order to live in darkness.
Mr. Waldegrave’s black eyes glittered. He clearly didn’t trust her, but hopefully the bit about teaching art held enough ring of truth to convince him of her harmlessness. At least long enough to get a scrap of meat in her belly and few more hours of sleep upon a wooden pew. With the lock securely engaged.
“I will pay you two pounds per week—”
She started. “You’ll what?”
“—for tutoring my daughter until she recovers from her . . . illness.”
The manservant at his side tried to mask his shock, but he looked equally as blindsided by the proposal as Violet felt. This was madness. Why would Mr. Waldegrave offer such riches without requesting names and references or at least testing her basic literacy?
Her stomach soured with suspicion. Was there a daughter?
Perhaps she had misread the signs completely. Was the tension emanating from Mr. Waldegrave’s every muscle due to a desire to enslave her as his personal plaything rather than due to a simple mistrust of strangers? Perhaps this was the devil’s bargain the old woman had foretold. Alluding to a man’s “creature” could as easily be figurative as literal.
She dug her fingernails into her palms as she tried to puzzle the outlandish offer. Was there more to it? As unusual as his pallor might be, he was still strikingly handsome enough to win the attention of any number of willing females. Unfortunately, she well knew that to some men, desire could only be provoked by unwillingness. Or helplessness. Perhaps the sanctuary had already turned into a trap.
“If two pounds per week is insufficient for your needs, you may begin the negotiations. Or if you prefer, I’ll return you to wherever it is you call home.”
She pulled herself together long enough to shake her head violently at this last suggestion. The bitter truth remained that she had nowhere to go. If there were coin involved—particularly that much coin—she would be ten times a fool not to take it. No matter what she must sacrifice. After she’d saved enough money to save her own neck, she could worry about her soul. But before she agreed to any sordid schemes, she wished to at least know the truth.
“Do you have a daughter?”
Even the chill of Mr. Waldegrave’s harsh features could not hide the surge of warmth—and anguish—from his eyes. “I do.”
So there was a daughter. A “creature” she had been warned to flee, lest she risk her very life.
“Is she . . . contagious?”
Hesitation flickered in his dark eyes, followed quickly by a glint of curiosity. “Do you consider yourself to be strong of character?”
Violet did not miss the evasion. Fighting a sudden urge to run, she somehow kept a neutral expression fixed firmly on her face. “I do, indeed.”
At that moment, the old woman arrived with strips of cloth. To Violet’s surprise, both men averted their gazes while her ankle was being bandaged. As soon as the servant woman took her leave, however, Violet was once again the object of Mr. Waldegrave’s scrutiny.
He studied her so intently that she shifted uncomfortably against the hardwood pew.
“Come,” he said, shocking her speechless when he offered his elbow as smartly as if he were a London lordling accompanying his ladylove to dinner. “It is late. And just moments ago, I was informed that my daughter is still very much awake. As I shall have to put Lillian abed anew, you may as well meet her and decide your future for yourself.”
Lillian. The name on the grave. Violet’s heart pounded double-time.
There was no daughter. He had lied.
And yet, her best hope for food and shelter was to play along. To bide her time until escape was possible. Even as she slipped unsteady fingers between the heat of his body and the taut muscle beneath his shirtsleeve, she couldn’t help but suspect this new risk was far more dangerous than any she’d managed to live through yet.