Where the stark expanse of Blackheath Moor met the rocky thrust of the Cornish coast, Sophie St. Clair hurried along a dusty road to the one place in the windswept countryside expressly forbidden to her.
The air today shivered with an intense, startling sort of light she had never experienced before coming to Cornwall, as crisp and sharp as spring water on a winter’s day, brightening colors, deepening outlines and rendering futile any attempt to be inconspicuous.
Sophie knew she presented an all-too-apparent blotch on the nearly treeless landscape, a small, dark figure scrambling along a pitted road bordered by a patchwork of heather and gorse, miles and miles of it, beneath a sky so thoroughly unblemished as to rival the brilliant blues of her mother’s most prized Sevres porcelain.
Only minutes ago, after calling out a quick reassurance that she was going for a walk along the beach, she had put as much distance as quickly as possible between herself and her Aunt Louisa’s house. One hand gripped her bonnet brim to fight the tug of the wind; the other steadied the satchel slung over her shoulder.
As she topped a rise, the sight of the gray slashes of four stone chimneys and a bit of peaked roof sped her steps. She was almost to Edgecombe, a sprawling property perched between the moors and the sea, abandoned these several years since the death of its last owner.
Even now, the details of the death of the previous Earl of Wycliffe remained sketchy. There had been rumors of a fire, but the family had refused to discuss the matter, and with Edgecombe being so remotely located, no one had been able to verify the truth. As far as Sophie was concerned, Lord Wycliffe may rest in peace. Her interest lay in events that occurred centuries earlier.
As a girl she had read the history and the tales, poured over details both fantastic and improbable. Edgecombe had captured her youthful imagination, but never once had she thought she’d have a chance to see the rambling estate first hand. Not until the incident last month that altered the course of her life.
Her first glimpse of the place had been little more than a jagged shadow thrown across the evening landscape, framed by the window of her grandfather’s barouche whose driver had conveyed her from London and summarily dumped her at Aunt Louisa’s front gate. But from that first glance, she had felt the call of the somber stone gables beckoning with an invitation that could not be ignored.
“Stay away from there, girl,” her aunt had warned when Sophie broached the subject yesterday. “Don’t you so much as point your toes in the direction of that old wreckage of a house.”
“Oh, but Aunt Louisa, it’s wonderful. Dark and brooding, and poised so precariously at the edge of the land. And the history…”
“Mark my words, Sophie. Strange things happen there, things a girl like you has got no business knowing about. Things that turn men’s hair gray and their souls black.”
“Are you speaking of ghosts, Aunt Louisa? Surely you don’t believe –”
“Never you mind, girl.”
The admonition had only strengthened Sophie’s desire to see the house first hand. Reaching the drive, she halted before a pair of wrought iron gates – closed, locked, doubly secured by a boat chain coiled several times around and held by a padlock twice the width of her palm.
Keep out. The gate’s message echoed Aunt Louisa’s words of warning. The two flanking stone pillars and the high granite walls that marched away in either direction issued the same command. Stay away.
“I hardly think so,” Sophie whispered.
The house itself stood but a stone’s throw beyond a short drive that opened onto a cobbled forecourt. An imposing pair of gargoyles kept watch from either side of an elaborate portico, topped by a gothic arch. The windows were shuttered, emphasizing the air of abandonment permeating the property.
Along the north boundary wall, she discovered another, smaller gate which might have been easily missed, half hidden behind a tangle of hawthorn growing beside it. Sophie shoved the spiky branches out of her way and found the latch. No chains barred her way. With a fluttering breath of excitement, she slipped inside.
A slate path led her past a dry fountain and across a wooden footbridge. Bushy fern and tall, bristly spikes of bulrush choked the narrow brook below. From there she made her way up the garden slopes. A set of steps mounted a grassy surge to a terrace, onto which several sets of French doors opened from the house. Sophie climbed the steps, took in her surroundings and enjoyed a private laugh at Aunt Louisa’s superstitions. Edgecombe was only a house, after all. Filled with history and misty legend, yes. But ghosts?
She perched on the top step, removed the satchel from her shoulder and reached inside for her pen, pot of ink and leather-bound writing tablet. Tucking a wind-blown lock of hair beneath her bonnet, she flipped to a blank page.
“A house crouched at the edge of the world,” she wrote, “defying the elements – wind, storms and sea – to attempt their worst and be damned.”
Well. She’d need to modify that last word, of course. Grandfather St. Clair, owner and editor-in-chief of The Beacon, one of London's weekly newspapers, would never set it to print. Just as he never published any of Sophie’s feature pieces under her true, decidedly feminine name. No, if she wished to be employed by The Beacon, she must do so under the pen name of Silas Sinclair and, further more, must stick to such topics as her family deemed appropriate for a lady.
Sophie St. Clair, nice girls do not ask bothersome questions…nice girls leave news reporting to men, for it is hardly a pastime appropriate for wellborn ladies.
Sophie, can’t you for once behave as the proper, wellborn young lady you are?
How she loathed proper. Despised appropriate. Detested nice. Despite a lifetime of trying to emulate all three concepts and more, she had always fallen a lengthy stride short of success. If curiosity killed the cat, as her mother always warned, then Sophie had flirted with death all her life.
Pen hovering above the page, she studied the house. A quick count of the shuttered windows suggested fifteen or so rooms, laid out on either side of a square tower that had, two centuries earlier, served as the seaside fortress of Sir Jack and Lady Margaret Keating.
According to the legends she had read as a child, Sir Jack had been something of gentleman buccaneer, a pirate and a smuggler, yes, but not a killer. Together, supposedly, he and Lady Meg had ruled the seas from Cornwall to northern France to Ireland and back, dispersing much needed goods among people who could not afford the excise taxes. After his death at the hands of the Royal Navy, however, they say Lady Meg snapped, embarking on a high seas rampage of murder and pillage until she, too, had been caught and hanged.
Be a nice girl, Sophie.
Yes, very well then. Today, she would try to think architecture, not violent pirate history. She set her pen to the paper.
“A gaunt sentinel from an ancient time, whose granite walls seemed quarried from an ancient haze, with mysteries and memories trapped within each chiseled block…”
The whirling breezes abruptly dropped, replaced by an utter stillness that immediately felt…unnatural. A weighty silence fell over the trees while the birds roosting in their boughs went quiet as though caught in a state of hushed expectancy.
Uneasy. Apprehensive. She glanced up at the house.
A cloud covered the sun, casting a gloom across the view and raising a sudden prickliness down her spine. She passed a gaze over the house. A fluttery sensation quivered in her stomach. Had the shutters on the bay window in the far corner always been open?
She sat quite still, watching. Waiting...for the wind to pick up, the trees to resume their creaking, for the house to remain as dark, empty and unchanging as ever.
The house did not comply. As Sophie watched, a curtain in the exposed window moved, fluttering aside then falling back into place.
In an instant she was on her feet, her hand flying to her mouth as her writing tablet slapped the terrace and her pen clattered down the steps. Her pulse trouncing, she backed away until her foot met with insubstantial air, and she nearly tumbled down the stairs.
With a quick maneuver she caught her balance. Hooking the satchel over her shoulder, she straightened, and found herself staring directly into a face on the other side of the window. Through the mullioned panes she could make out a tumble of fair hair, darker brows knotted over piercing eyes and a full mouth bracketed in lines of displeasure.
He stood in shirtsleeves and a waistcoat, one hand fisted against the buttons. He glowered long and hard at her, rendering her immobile, locked in a silent battle of scrutiny. Good heavens, she was caught!
A whisper of logic brought a measure of reassurance. She was a neighbor, after all, or at least a guest of this man’s neighbor. There was nothing for it but to offer a friendly apology for trespassing and hope the man, be he servant or nobleman, possessed a forgiving nature. Or a sense of humor.
She raised her hand to wave, but he had vanished. The sun burst from the clouds and the wind picked up, plucking at her skirts and whipping loose hair in her eyes. She shoved it back under her bonnet and waited, expecting the man to come walking out of one of the terrace doors. A minute passed, and another, with no sound or sign of movement issuing from the house.
Confused, Sophie descended the steps, was about to turn and leave when an impulse sent her back up to the nearest set of doors. Rapping several times at the door, she called out, “Good morning. Is anyone here? I’m dreadfully sorry to be trespassing. I believed the place to be empty. My name is Sophie…Sophie St. Clair, and I’m a guest of the Gordons down the road. Perhaps you know them?” She knocked again. “I say, won’t you come out and become properly acquainted?”
“How insufferably rude.”
At the bottom of the stairs a realization brought her up short. Only moments ago clouds had blocked the sun, but as she scanned the sky now, she detected not the faintest trace of a cloud, not in any direction. She shielded her eyes with her hand and peered out at the horizon. Rare though it was for an English summer day, nothing but unending blue stretched above the Atlantic.
She made it as far as the footbridge, when a rustling sifted through the bulrush along the banks of the brook. The sound brought her to a halt. It was more than the wind stirring the plants, more…solid. The rub of fabric, the catch of a thread.
Sophie stood motionless, listening, searching her surroundings. “Is…is anyone there?” she asked in a small voice, one that hardly sounded at all like her own.
Her knuckles whitened where she gripped the rail. Leaning out over the stream, she scrutinized the bank. At the thud of a footfall on the wooden planking beside her, she pulled back with a gasp. Seeing nothing, panting for breath, she braced to run. And then she felt, quite plainly, a graze against the back of her hand. Not the wind, not a falling leaf, but fingertips – cool, slightly rough as if from an old callus and then…the sound of her name tingling in her ear.