Historical, Paranormal Romance
May 12, 2014
Elizabeth Albright lives a simple life at Penham Manor under the watchful and disapproving eye of her father and stepmother. They think she’s odd for loving to paint Cromar Castle, a ruin on the hill. Even Elizabeth doesn’t understand why she insists on painting the structure over and over. Yet her compulsion demands it—there is something alive and beautiful about the castle that she cannot resist. When she meets the devilishly handsome Damian, more than her interest is piqued, for he engages her like no other has. But her stepmother has plans that will take her away from Cromar—and Damian—forever.
Elizabeth Albright came to the castle ruins late at night, when the moon dropped low and the gray stone walls glowed with the silver of its light. This night, when she reached the high, craggy walls, she knew something was different. The usually cool wind that blew between the ancient stones was still, the air pungent with a flower scent, sweet yet refreshing. As she ascended the last few feet, she inhaled a pleasing, refreshing bouquet that settled her from the inside, bringing a peace so often missing from her life.
She stood on the crest of the hill, her breath coming hard. She wished her skirts were not so heavy, and her corset not so restricting. Maybe next time she ascended to the castle she would leave the house without such confinements. After all, no one would know.
She sighed, taking in the grand sight of the edifice before her; it never failed to inspire, to make her painting that much easier. Of course, painting at night here without light ... impossible. But in the morning...
In her thoughts she could hear her stepmother Anne’s whiny, ugly voice. “Elizabeth, Elizabeth, how is it you can paint that awful place...”
And her dear stepbrother George’s voice. At nineteen years of age, he had the zeal of youth but amazing maturity. “Elizabeth, that is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen.”
She smiled in remembrance and turned to see the landscape below she had labored many times to paint from her mind’s eye. In the deep of the night, the land was a mass of dark mounds and shadowed valleys, the ground made sterling by the moon. A single cloud passed across the gray face of that faraway orb, and for a moment her world went dark. But not silent.
Deep within the castle walls lay secrets deep and ancient. Void of warmth. Void of meaning.
She held her breath.
Felt everything around her with acute clarity.
Her skirts under her hands, the whisper of a thousand voices in her ears.Voices that begged to be heard, but no one would listen.
The cloud moved on, and she was relieved to have the light again. It was at these moments she sometimes wondered if she had gone insane. Mad.
“Unreachable,” she had heard her stepmother murmur to one of her cronies just that day when the women did not realize Elizabeth listened around the corner. “She paints those bizarre pictures of that horrid castle on the hill. Never anything else.”
Anne did not understand Elizabeth.
Neither did anyone else.
Reminding herself that it did not matter, she finally turned from the landscape and wandered toward the mouth of the castle. The dark maw of the structure remained almost intact, as did a good portion of the facade. Without fear she stepped through the arch and stopped.
There it was again.
A lingering scent. Not unpleasant. Unusual.
Ignoring it as her imagination playing tricks, she wandered until she found the room she usually chose to rest in. She guessed it might have been the great hall at one time. Now the moon shone through where the roof had once been. And when she sat down on the cold stone floor, she let herself imagine the walls covered with tapestries, swords, shields, and—
She thought she heard a noise.
Almost like a sigh.
No. It could not be.
No ghosts had disturbed her in all the weeks ... nay, months she had come here. Maybe the loneliness brought her here. The isolation from her stepmother’s insults and her father’s pointed disinterest. George was too young to defend her against them. Her mother a beloved, long-distant memory. Mother had died when Elizabeth was five, but she’d never forget her love and kindness.
Concentrating again on her fantasy of what the ancient hall must have looked like, she thought perhaps she would try drawing or painting this place as it may have looked hundreds of years ago. Before time and weather and neglect had worn it bare.
Tears welled in her eyes.
Maybe something similar would happen to her. She would never leave Penham Manor and would eventually be an old maiden aunt. At four and twenty she had never had a true suitor, not one who fired her imagination. She would end up dried up, dull, and as spiteful as her stepmother. A desolate shell of what she might have been. If only...
If only what?
Hope welled in her breast. What if she ran away? Left her home here in England and ran to France or America, where fields of flowers and beautiful monuments would serve as her inspiration. Not the drab, eerie light of the full moon on this forgotten monstrosity.
But she knew that would not be. She could see her future. Every month, when the full disc of the moon emerged, she would return to this promontory and yearn for something she did not understand. A single tear rolled down her cheek. She wandered to the center of the great hall and found a large slab of stone in the middle of the room. She sat down.
“Are you well, mistress?”
Startled, she whirled, scrambling to her feet. A man stood at the entrance to the room. He was nothing more than a shadow.
She licked her parched lips. “Who is there?”
The man moved into the room, walking with a smooth gait. When she could see him, surprise kept her still.
He was devilishly handsome. More handsome than any man she had seen. No angel could be so noble, she thought feverishly. So he must be a devil.
“I am Damian.” His voice was a deep, mellow baritone, pleasing to her ears.
Cautious, she looked from side to side and noted two points of egress along the walls. She looked at him again. “Good evening, Mr. Damian.”
“Please, just call me Damian, mistress.”
Though she deemed it inappropriate to call a man by his first name, the night, she thought, cloaked many things with special intimacy.
The tall man stepped closer, and she stepped back. He smiled, his grin wide and stunning. In the half-light she could not see the color of his eyes, but she imagined their darkness. His black hair hung thick about his shoulders.
“Do not be afraid. I mean you no harm.”
“I’m Elizabeth Albright.” She offered her hand and he took it. Cool and dry, the press of his hand felt strong. He brought her hand toward his lips. For a moment she was mortified that she had offered her hand to a stranger. She had no gloves. He bowed over her hand, and yet she did not feel the brush of his lips against her skin. She withdrew her hand hastily.
He walked toward another large stone slab that jutted from the uneven floor. As she observed him, she noted the old-fashioned cut of his clothing. No one wore breeches like he did, nor did they wear white shirts with such deep lace cuffs. Silver buckles adorned his black shoes.
“What brings you here every moon?” he asked, sitting on the stone slab.
Fear overcame her. “How did you know I come here every full moon?”
“Because I do also. For longer than you have.”
“I have never seen you here before.”
He stood up and walked toward her again, and she allowed him to stand much closer to her than any man should to a woman he had just met. She felt no threat from him or desire to hurt her. The fear she’d felt just seconds ago had vanished on the wind.
“Perhaps you have never needed to before,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“You will when the time is right.”
She suddenly wondered if Damian had been spying on her all this time, and the idea he had been watching her both frightened and excited her. It was a wholly unreasonable excitement.
“Do you not think this a beautiful place?” he asked.
“Yes. I have always thought so.”
“And why do you come here?”
Did he enjoy keeping her off balance with unexpected questions? She reached up to pat the secure mass of curls at the back of her head. “That, sir, is none of your affair.”
He frowned, and the sharp angles of his face seemed to deepen, to take on sadness. Instant remorse twisted her gut.
“I apologize. I’m not accustomed to such familiarity,” she said.
His brows rose. “This place breeds comfort. I think when one comes here all convention loses meaning. With me, there is no reason to hold back what you feel.”
His voice curled around her like warm wool, a dark inky sound that inspired strange sensations. Something odd in his tone, in his way of speaking nagged at her. Begged her to be cautious and to take note.
Yet she found herself leaning toward him. Her gaze linked with his. A cool wind drifted around her, ruffling through her skirts and her hair. It was icy and abrupt and broke her from the trance of her thoughts.
As soon as the wind had come, it departed.
“I should go,” she whispered and turned to leave.
She stopped but kept her back to him.
“Will you come again?” The tone of his voice was almost a plea.
She turned slowly to look at him. “When the moon is again full.”
As she ran from the castle, she paused and realized he was no longer there.