Sometime during the night I ended up in the corner of the kitchen. I don't know how I got there, but I knew for certain that the raw screams that had awakened me from my nightmare were my own. Sweat was pouring down my temples and dampening the front of my nightgown, my heart beating at a quickening pace as my mind struggled to pull itself back into reality.
In through the nose, out through the mouth.
My eyes were drawn to the darkest corner of the room where I could almost believe I saw four pairs of gleaming white eyes staring out at me from the darkness.
"This is for your protection."
I closed my eyes and shivered, immobilized by fear.
Get a hold of yourself Katherine.
I sucked in shuddering breathes, remaining in a painful squatting position as I tried to reason my way out of staying where I was. Long minutes passed before I could force my muscles to relax and stand up straight, all the while keeping my eyes firmly locked onto the darkest parts of the room. Imagination fueled my fevered thoughts as the old cottage creaked and groaned around me, and I blindly stumbled towards the safety of my armchair. Burying my head in my arms, I only dared to raise my head once I felt the first rays of the sun trickling in through the window.
I released a shaky sigh, trying to take comfort in the feeble light peeking over the horizon. My thumb found its way to the scar on my left wrist and began to rub at it, my hands trembling slightly. I couldn't quite put my finger on how I'd begun to transform into this pathetic, cowering version of myself, but there were no doubts as to when it had begun.
I glared at the shadowy outline of the Hastings' mansion across the lawn.
One month ago I got sick and was forced to quit my home and move to Sussex to live with distant cousins. Lord Hastings was my mother's half-brother, although I had never even known he existed before I received his letter inviting me to join them at the estate. He offered to pay me to be a companion to his wife and daughter Lydia and wrote that I would be given my own cottage located on the edge of their extensive property. Our arrangement was that I would remain in their care until I was healthy enough to live on my own.
In theory it sounded like a very convenient arrangement: I'd be near family again, with a steady source of income and a roof over my head. But after the first week of miscommunications, I realized that I would never be anything more than an unwelcome houseguest.
I wasn't sure why they allowed me to stay after that rocky first week, but perhaps Lord Hastings felt some kind of misplaced responsibility for me. After all, I was his long dead half-sister's child that had been abandoned by her father. Anyway, the Hastings and I had lately reached a stalemate, mostly because I was too tired to fight with them anymore.
My eye caught movement through the trees, and relief flooded through me as I spotted the one person I cared for breaking out of the underbrush. Alan was my constant and true friend, a strong presence in my otherwise unstable life. I tried to gauge his mood as he slowly made his way toward the porch. His tall, wiry frame was radiating energy, hooded eyes alert as they swept across the yard. He certainly didn't resemble a person who'd been out all night prowling the woods. Which he had.
I jumped at the sound of his voice suddenly nearby. He had the uncanny ability to enter any room without being noticed, which was one of many baffling things about him.
He appeared around the side of the chair and pierced me with his usual inscrutable gaze.
"How bad was it?"
"Not that I can tell."
He leaned against my window frame. "I'm sorry I wasn't here."
"I'm alright, really."
He grunted and looked out the window.
He didn't believe me of course. He and I had weathered more bad nights together than I cared to count, and every nightmare took its toll on me in some subtle way. I doubted I would suffer very much at the hands of this last scare except for a few mild panic attacks during the next couple of days. Maybe I'd see some of my ghost friends too.
We shared a companionable silence for a while, simply staring out into the warmth of the rising sun until the chime of the clock spurred us into action. While Alan prepared breakfast I stirred my morning headache powder into a glass of water and pondered, not for the first time, whether or not I should demand an explanation about his midnight escapades. When I'd tried in the past, I hadn't been able to get any clear answer from him. He had a special talent for evading my subtle probing. As I snuck a look at him he gave me one of his familiar grave smiles. Somehow I couldn't force the question past my lips. If he wanted to tell me about it, then he would. He deserved his privacy as much as I did, and I certainly owed him that much.
We parted ways after breakfast with our typical exchange.
"Be careful today Katherine."
"You know I will."
Despite the early morning, there was a flurry of shadowy activity in all the windows. Preparations were being made for the arrival of the Hastings' guests, and as soon as I slipped through the doors there was a feeling of orderly panic all around. Servants were rushing up and down the stairs and in and out of the spacious front hall, adding the finishing touches to the already immaculate house for Lydia's impending birthday week. I wove in and out of the busyness, already dreading the madness of the day. I didn't understand why Lady Hastings wished to see me this morning, but I could already hear her imperious tones echoing down the hall from her vast apartment. As I entered, her personal maid was fluttering around and fixing her hair as she complained and fretted, sitting perfectly at ease in front of her ornately gilded boudoir.
I dropped a quick curtsy. "Good morning madam, I believe you wished to see me."
"Yes, yes," Was her irritated reply. "You're late. I expected you at least half an hour ago."
By the look of her, she probably hadn't been out of bed for more than a few minutes. Fortunately for us both, her daughter came bursting into the room, saving me from the embarrassment of offering the unkind reply that had first entered into my head.
"…I can't believe Lord Cumbray is coming out of hiding simply because papa asked him so especially!" Lydia's blonde curls were bouncing wildly as she plopped onto the foot stool near her mother's chair. "It is quite the compliment is it not? He is so handsome. And so rich!"
"Yes my dear."
"And I suppose Henry and his witch of a sister are coming as well."
I rolled my eyes. I'd heard this conversation so many times I could almost predict exactly what Lydia's mother was going to say next.
"I'm afraid it couldn't be helped. Lady Hollingsworth is an old family friend after all."
"But I do hate Henry so very much. It really is a wonder he can bear to show his face to me after our last meeting."
Henry was Lydia's on and off again beau. She enjoyed pretending to hate him just to see if he would beg to get her back. He usually did, the sad fop.
"I know my dear, but you must try to be civil."
"I will try to be very cordial to them all of course, but I will make sure Henry knows that I am very displeased with him. What do you think of this dress mama? I think it looks very fetching on me, and it will make Henry almost wild!"
Lady Hastings cast her daughter an indulgent smile before giving her full attention back to her own face in the mirror. My eyes shifted slightly as I watched her, and in a flash, I caught sight of my own reflection. I had to bite back a gasp.
My dark, wide eyes gave me a haunted expression as they stood out against my gaunt face. Standing at almost five feet ten inches, my weight was usually proportionate to my height, but even from so far away I could see that my body had taken on an almost scarecrow like quality to it. I would not have known myself had I not blinked a few times and lifted a hand to wipe my long bangs from my face. I looked ghastly.
A gentle knock sounded at the door and I was momentarily distracted as the housekeeper was allowed entrance. She hurried to Lady Hastings' side and handed her a note. After a moment Lady Hastings drew back in horror, her hand fluttering over her chest. "Assuredly not!"
"What is it mama?" Lydia asked eagerly.
"Lord Cumbray and his party were almost to town last evening when their carriage lost a wheel! They were able to find transport into town, but are begging us for assistance."
She turned around in a state of panic and spotted me, her eyes wild. "Katherine, go call your man Alan and prepare a carriage. I want you to oversee the transport of their luggage, for he apparently did not bring any man with him for such a purpose."
It was a servant's task, but at least I wouldn't have to be in the house while the rest of the guests arrived. "And what shall I use to hire the men from town?"
"Really Katherine, what have I told you about talking so brashly about money? It is such an unfeminine subject of discussion." She looked scandalized, and I remembered my mistake. The ladies of the house never discussed money, they merely used it. I would have to find Lord Hastings.
I found Lord Hastings in his study, and after arguing with him about the proper amount for hiring men to fix the carriage, I collected the coin purse and exited. I had to dodge my way through the ever thickening throng of servants who had migrated to the top floor to ready the rooms for the guests, but I eventually made it downstairs. Gripping the coins tightly, I stepped into the sunshine at a brisk pace. The sound of a horse's whinny in the distance gave me a wild thought.
What if I took the money and ran away? I had more than enough of my allowance saved up, and there were enough coins in the bag to cover transport to London at least. I could finally be free!
However, when I started to think about all the implications of living on my own my shoulders drooped. It was no good. How many times had Alan found me unconscious on the floor, bleeding, or unable to open my eyes because my head hurt so badly? No matter how many times I'd thought it over in the past, I'd come to the conclusion that I simply couldn't do it. Not yet at least. What I needed was some time to figure out how to control my illness so I could be my own master. Oh to be able to live my own life again…
I slid to an ungraceful stop in front of a tall stranger, my ankle twisting awkwardly in my flimsy shoe. "Ah!"
Hands shot out to steady me.
I winced, and struggled to regain my balance. "I'm sorry sir, I didn't see you."
"I can tell."
I shot the man a frown, but he was wearing an amused smile. "We should take a look at that ankle. It sounded pretty bad."
"It's fine really." I tried to protest as he half carried me towards a nearby bench. "This is an old injury and it doesn't hurt much."
I felt surprised as he threw decorum to the wind and pulled off my slipper, handling my stockinged ankle with his bare hands. He was the first person I'd met who appeared to hold society's rules in as much low esteem as I did. As he felt gingerly around the ankle bone, I took my time getting a better look at him. He was somewhere in his mid to late thirties, tall, ruggedly handsome, and judging by his strangely cropped hair and affected accent he wasn't from this part of the country. It also didn't escape my notice that he had well-sculpted muscles underneath that expensive looking suit.
After a few moments, he grunted. "It feels alright."
"As I told you, it was an old injury."
He handed me my shoe and moved to sit beside me. "You must be Katherine Williams."
"What gave me away."
He chuckled. "The name's Marshall. I'm an old friend of Lord Hastings."
"Hm," I said, managing to nail down his accent. He was definitely American, speaking very plainly and with unrefined vowels, but what business Lord Hastings would have with an American was beyond me. It had been my understanding that he despised England's rebellious spawn, and refused to have any dealings with them.
The man continued the one-sided conversation agreeably. "I've heard a lot about you, it's a pleasure to finally meet you in person."
I couldn't help raising a brow. "Really? How odd."
As he laughed I frowned, wondering why Lord Hastings would have a conversation with this American about me, even if he was an old friend.
"So what did you do to it?"
"The ankle. Was it a fracture or a clean break?"
"I broke it kicking something."
"Really? And what were you kicking?"
His laughter was extremely jolly, and I had to will the corner of my mouth not to rise in response.
"Well, that's not something I hear every day! You've got me interested Miss Williams. What happened?"
"I can't really remember, but I know he deserved it."
"Remind me never to get on your bad side." He gave me a slow wink. "I'm so glad we ran into each other Miss Williams. This has been a wonderful way to end a terrible morning."
I raised an eyebrow.
"I had the misfortune of meeting the Hastings' guests in town as I rode in. They seemed to be a very short tempered bunch. Apparently they're having carriage troubles."
"You didn't come for the party?"
"Fortunately no. I'm strictly here on business."
"And what is it that you do exactly?"
"I'm a contractor for the American government."
"Sounds terribly important."
His response piqued my interest and I decided to pry a little further. "And what would a government contractor be doing at an English manor filled with society people? There's nothing around here for miles."
He quirked a smile. "I'm here because George offered me a place to stay while I conducted my business in town."
I had to give him credit for his smooth transition past my not-so-subtle probing. He was almost as good as Alan. I'd bet that a conversation between the two of them would go absolutely nowhere, and fast.
I shrugged. "Well, I don't envy the time you're going to have in that house. Lady Hastings is very keen on getting her daughter married and I'm sure you've made it on the list."
"Thanks for the warning, but I'm on a time sensitive trip and I don't expect to be here for very long."
Disappointment settled in for a moment. He was the most interesting person I'd talked to for ages. It was a shame I wouldn't be able to enjoy many more conversations with him.
"So, I believe you were on your way to do something important when we bumped into each other."
"I was heading to the stables to ready a carriage. I'm being sent to town to rescue the guests and oversee the repair of their carriage."
"Doesn't George have servants for that sort of thing?"
"Then why you?"
I smiled tightly. "I'm sure it has something to do with keeping me out of the house and out of the way for as long as possible. The Hastings and I don't get on very well, and I believe they think this is some kind of punishment for me. I haven't bothered to tell them that spending time away from people is the highlight of my day."
His lips twitched upward. "I see. Well then, good-bye for now Miss Williams. I hope we'll meet again soon."
I couldn't think why, but I continued to wonder about Marshall as I found Alan and we made our way to town. I didn't envy Alan having to drive the angry guests all the way back to the manor, and the hours I spent sitting in the park waiting for the carriage repairs were a welcome change from my sorry house on the estate.
The sun was halfway across the sky when I began driving the newly repaired carriage back to the manor. Marshall was sadly absent from the house that evening, having apparently been summoned suddenly to town for a meeting. I thought it strange that I hadn't passed him while I was on the road.
The next morning didn't bring forth any sightings of him either, and I was forced to sit and listen to the ladies gossip for hours as I attended to Lady Hastings. It was just after tea, and I was taking a break from an abysmal piece of needlework I was attempting to create when a man suddenly appeared behind Lady Hastings' settee, holding his head in his hands.
"I'm sorry. This is for your protection."
I rubbed my temples as my chest started to clench painfully. I'd wondered when my delusions would catch up to me. My ghost friends had a habit of turning up at the most inconvenient times.
I tensed as I waited for the next arrival. After the beat of a moment, the masked man appeared at the doorway. He began prowling towards me, a rag clutched in his hand and I forced myself to close my eyes.
He's not real.
The hallucinations stayed with me for the rest of the day, but they were better when I was occupied with work. I practically jumped at the opportunity when supper was called and Lady Hastings mentioned needing shawls for herself and Lydia. It took me some time to find them, but once I did I didn't hurry back. I trailed a hand across the gilded wallpaper as I slowly made my way down the long hallway.
I hated being at someone's beck and call whenever they had a whim. I was twenty five years old for heaven's sake, old enough to take care of myself.
It didn't matter that I was paid a salary. I couldn't wait to leave the manor and be on my own again, with Alan, and I wouldn't be sorry if I never saw my family again. Perhaps I could figure out a way to safely live in London or Bath until I got better. Anything would be better than the drudgery I was forced to deal with on a daily basis. I just hoped that I wouldn't lose my sanity before I came up with a plan.
I puffed out a cheek full of air. All my hopes were hinged upon getting better. I had money put up for myself by my father, and for once in my life I found myself feeling something other than loathing for him. If nothing else, he'd provided for me to live independently for the rest of my natural born life, which was more than most fathers could provide. If only I wasn't so sick...
I jerked away from the wall as the door I was passing was opened. Adrenaline spiked through my system as a large figure loomed out of the darkness. "Ah Miss Williams, I wondered when we would meet again."
It took a few seconds for the voice and face to register in my brain, and I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding. "Marshall! You scared me!"
"I can see that." He sounded amused. "It looks like you're thinking of taking me down."
I relaxed slowly, easing up from my slight crouch and lowering my arms.
"How's your ankle?"
"Fine." I answered, still a little flustered. "How's your shin?"
"What? Oh I'm sorry, I guess I imagined kicking you just now."
His laughter was surprisingly jolly. Its warmth washed over me.
I tried to shake off the remaining tension in my shoulders. "What were you doing in there?"
He folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe with a smile. "I was just looking for a cigar, but I've got no idea where George keeps them."
"He didn't tell you where to look?"
"I actually didn't ask, but I knew he wouldn't mind if I searched for them myself."
There was a strange glint in his eye that I couldn't quite make out. I folded my arms. "They're in the bottom drawer of his desk."
"Huh, that's the only place I didn't check. I should have known." He shifted a little and I thought I detected a muffled gasp beyond the doorway. I strained to look past him, but it was too dark to see anything.
"I can get the cigars for you if you'd like."
I moved past him, and as I did I caught a whiff of something peculiar. It was similar to ash, but a bit more poignant. Was it sulfur? And on its tailcoat was the faint smell of roses.
I looked around slowly. "Did you light a lamp when you came in here?"
"I couldn't find the matches."
Even in the dim light, I could see that the matches were sitting next to the lamp on the corner of the desk. He was either blind or a liar.
I picked up the matchbox and looked at him. "If you looked for the cigars with as much effort as you looked for the matches, it's no wonder you couldn't find them."
He had the gall to grin back at me. "Would you look at that. I don't know how I could have missed it."
"Yes, it is curious." I struck a match and took a quick look around at the newly illuminated room. It was as clean as ever, except for the chair which looked like it had recently been pushed back from the desk, and a stack of paper had been tipped onto the floor. There was an empty vase on a small table near the window. I pulled out the cigar box and set it on the desk before shooting Marshall a sideways glance.
He was watching me with interest. "Find what you were looking for?"
"You don't believe I was in Lord Hastings' study to find his cigars?"
"Well you're right, I wasn't." He opened the box, his smile strangely enigmatic as he picked up and rolled a cigar between his fingers.
I watched for a moment in silence. How did he get in here anyway? Lord Hastings usually keeps the door locked. I made a mental note to look for signs of forced entry. "What were you looking for?"
"Nothing in particular. George doesn't own anything that interests me."
"Then why are you here?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that. Not now at least."
I crossed my arms and huffed. Frustrating man! "Well then you leave me no choice. I'll have to tell Lord Hastings that I found you inside his locked study and searching his desk."
"I guess you could do that, but I don't think you will."
"Oh really? And why is that?"
"You and the Hastings dislike each other, you told me yourself. You're just blowing smoke so I'll tell you what you want to know."
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
"But you can't deny that it's true."
I chose not to answer, but my non-answer seemed to be answer enough.
"Do you like living on the estate Miss Williams?"
"Then may I ask why you're still here?"
I didn't feel like telling him that I'd been pondering that same question not too long ago. "I've been making plans to leave."
"You're a pretty bad liar."
I scowled at him. "I've thought about leaving, but I just can't do it right now."
"I'm ill…" I stopped abruptly as he tilted his head. I cleared my throat. "…ill equipped to do anything at the moment. I haven't looked into other places I could live with the money I have, and I have to find what sorts of jobs are available for girls like me…"
"Not many, and most of those are of the prostitution variety."
"Thanks for the show of support."
"I'm just trying to be helpful."
"I don't need your help thank you very much. I'll get out of here someday soon, and then I'll work until I can make a good life for myself."
His mocking tone made me angry. "Well as you so kindly pointed out there aren't many options for girls like me, so it's the best I can do."
He lit his cigar and took a few puffs before blowing a mouthful of smoke slowly into the air. "I'm surprised you'd be happy to stay here after living so long on your own. How old were you when he left? Six, seven years old?"
I stilled. "What?"
"Your father. He sent you away to school when you were pretty young, right?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." I managed to mutter, my heart hammering in my chest.
How does he know about my father?
I never talked about it with anyone, not even with Alan even though he knew the whole story. I'm not even sure the Hastings knew exactly what happened, and I very much doubted they would willingly bring up such a scandalous subject of conversation unless they were asked about it in a manner too pointed to ignore. I tightened my jaw and frowned.
The last time I'd seen my father I was nine years old, but I wouldn't tell him that.
"It's none of your business." I glared at him. Then I added, a little louder, "I've got an inheritance waiting for me in a trust, and once I'm ready, I'm going to use it to start a new life far away from here. I suppose I've finally found one good reason to be thankful that I had a father."
His eye twitched as smoke slowly spilled out of the side of his mouth, then he smiled a little. "How long have you been having headaches?"
I scowled as I dropped the hand that had unconsciously risen to rub at my forehead. "None of your business."
"I know it's not. Call it professional interest. You clearly have them often, or you wouldn't have such dark circles under your eyes."
I held out only for a moment, then realized that there was no point because he'd already guessed. I gave in with a huff. "About a month."
"Has anything else been bothering you since then?"
My brain automatically began ticking them off: nightmares, sickness, headaches, hallucinations. But I shook my head anyway. I couldn't share those things with a perfect stranger. Besides, it really was none of his business. I didn't have to tell him any of my personal issues if I didn't want to.
"Hey, you all right?"
I realized that I was grimacing. "Yeah, it's just… the smoke from your cigar. I hate cigars."
"I know, it's a bad habit that I'm trying to break."
"And you call me a bad liar."
He chuckled. "Maybe I'm not trying very hard. My doctor would kill me if he knew I was smoking one right now."
"They'll probably kill you if you keep smoking them."
"I'll take my chances. Besides, medicine has come a long way in these modern times." He smiled like he was enjoying his own private joke.
The angry call came from down the hall, and I heaved a tired sigh. "I'd better get back downstairs. Lady Hastings' has been expecting me for the past half hour."
"Sure. See you around kid."
Somehow he managed to make the childish nickname sound... endearing rather than condescending. As I made my way downstairs I wondered if all Americans were like him: walking whirlwinds of confusion.