Excerpt from Haunting Miss Trentwood

ONE

Compton Beauchamp (three days ride west of London), February 1887

At two in the afternoon the coffin of Mary Trentwood’s father was lowered to its grave. The sun shone unseasonably bright. Mary squinted through burning eyes. She heard the wooden box hit the bottom of the hole. She heard the whispers of her servants and father’s friends behind her. However quietly they thought they were speaking, Mary heard every word. The whispers grew louder and moved closer, crowding her ears.

“Right barmy, that’s what she is.”

“I heard she hasn’t any feeling at all.”

“Certainly would explain the lack of tears.”

“Making us stand here and watch the digging of the grave, it’s indecent, that’s what it is.”

“Well, I certainly don’t know how you can expect any better from hermits, they’re not fit to be gentry, I say.”

Mary didn’t know who they were, these people whispering about her as she stood a mere four feet in front of them. She didn’t care. They weren’t there for her, they—whoever they were for she hadn’t invited them, no, that had been the workings of her aunt Mrs. Durham—only cared about their gossip mongering. The local farmers and tenants would never treat her thus. But the funeral guests were certain to spread their hissing rumors across the countryside. Mary hated that unnamed mass of huddled, whispering heads standing behind her. She hated her father for dying, for making this entire ordeal necessary in the first place.

The vicar finished his sermon and snapped his Bible shut.

Mary hunched her shoulders as the mourners filed past. She gritted her teeth, but allowed the men to solemnly brush their lips against her gloved fingers. Her jaw all but shattered in her effort to not scream at the women making tut-tutting noises.

And then Mary was alone, her black netted veil scratching her pale cheek as the wind blew. She stared at that father-sized hole. She stepped closer. How close to the edge did she dare tread? How soon before her nerves, strained to their last, snapped, rendering her as lifeless as her dear father at the bottom of that dark pit?

Mary jumped when Mrs. Durham’s hand touched her arm.

Mrs. Durham was a squat woman, with soft features that hinted at great beauty, once. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, Mary figured. Mrs. Durham had been her mother’s twin, fraternally speaking. Mary was glad she didn’t resemble her aunt in the slightest. Mrs. Durham’s cheeks arched upward—reaching, straining, pushing—trying to touch the topmost curve of her eye sockets. Truly an appalling sight; Mary decided her aunt should never squint, if she could help it.

“Come away,” Mrs. Durham murmured, “let the men folk do their job.”  She shifted so Mary’s view of the gravediggers filling the grave was blocked. She began pushing Mary back to the manor house, where a light luncheon waited for them.

Whatever suggestive power Mrs. Durham had on Mary could not prevent the horrifying vision of a man, muddy and coughing, clawing his way from the grave site. He hung from the edge of the hole into which Trentwood’s coffin had descended, his elbows digging into the dirt as he wriggled his way out.

Mary stared open-mouthed.

He was dismayingly flexible, able to swing a leg over the edge and roll onto the disturbed ground. He stood, brushing himself off almost apologetically though no dirt clung to his clothing. He gave Mary time to study his determined chin, firm mouth, and snappish eyes. He combed his sandy hair back from his forehead while clearing his throat, revealing streaks of gray running from temple to crown. The overall effect was chilling familiarity.

Mary wrenched free of Mrs. Durham. “Father?” she said, her voice hoarse from not speaking the week since his death. “Papa?”

Mary sat upright, kicking her bed sheets away from sweat-soaked legs. A lock of her dark hair was plastered to her cheek. Her head ached from the bobby pins still shoved into her scalp. She lifted her hand to pull the bobby pins out and noticed she was wearing black crepe sleeves, the same she wore in her nightmare.

Her hands shook. She hadn’t been dreaming. Mary knew she hadn’t been dreaming. She had buried her father, and he had crawled from his grave right before her eyes.

Her bedroom door opened to reveal Mrs. Durham with a tray of tea. “Oh good,” Mrs. Durham said with false cheer, “you’re finally awake.”

“Finally?” Mary said. Her voice was no more than an awkward croak, but it seemed Mrs. Durham understood her.

“You’ve been sleeping for three days.”

Mary shook her head. She gasped. Three days? Had it been three days since she had buried her father? Panting, she unbuttoned her dress to her collar bone, unable to inhale with the neck buttoned to her chin. She felt so hot. Why hadn’t anyone undressed her? Right, that’s right, she had dismissed her maid after her father died to alleviate costs.

Mary shook her head again as Mrs. Durham placed the tea tray on the little table beside her bed. Everything felt fuzzy.

Mrs. Durham sat in the vanity chair that had been dragged to the bedside while Mary slept. Her black dress rustled sweetly as she moved, the fabric shining in the gray sunlight. “You fainted dead away after the coffin went down.”

Mary sighed. “Yes, I just—I thought I saw Papa.”

“But you did, my dear.”

Mary’s hazel eyes narrowed to slits. “I did?”

“Well, do forgive my callousness, but I’m not certain who else you think we buried.”

Mary felt a retort forming, but she held her tongue. She had to remember her aunt had lost her dear husband only four months ago, and was still out of sorts. She took the time to study Mrs. Durham shiny black earrings, the way her hands folded in her lap, the perfection of her graying hair pulled into a tight chignon topped with white lace.

Do I tell her? Do I admit I saw Father crawl from his grave? No, Mrs. Durham was not one for believing such “folderol” as she called it when Mary confided her nightmares or shared folklore and haunting stories with the servants.

Mary looked at the bedroom door, not hearing the raucous laughter of the funeral guests. “Where is everyone?” Mary asked instead, accepting a lukewarm cup of tea.

“Ah, I sent them home. Well,” Mrs. Durham chuckled, “they left fairly quickly on their own. They were quite startled when you announced you wanted everyone to follow the coffin to its grave. What in the world made you do such a thing? It simply isn’t done.”

No, it wasn’t done, but then, there were a great many things that Mary had done to satisfy Society, and she had decided that Society, in turn, could grant her this one aberration. Mary swallowed the last of the tea and placed the cup on the tray. “I’m rather tired.”

Mrs. Durham frowned, hearing the finality in Mary’s tone. “Of course,” she replied, standing. “I trust you will send for me should you need me?” At Mary’s silent nod, she took her leave, looking none too pleased.

As soon as the door was shut, Mary threw her hands to her face. “I did not see my father’s ghost.” She shivered despite being drenched with sweat. “I must be mad.”

“A bit dramatic, I suppose, but mad? Would I allow you to run my household if you were mad?”

Mary screamed. She grabbed her skirts and scrambled atop her headboard.

At the foot of her bed stood her father. At least, she thought it was her father. It certainly looked just like him. Trentwood stood as he always had when lecturing her, hands clasped behind his back with a stern look on his face. “So you didn’t see me, eh?”

TWO

It had been a year since the candle-lit chandeliers had bounced overhead the strenuous motions of the dancers. The ballroom had smelled of perfume and body odor, and the air was littered with conversation, music, and laughter. Mary had stumbled from the dance floor laughing, her hand resting on the arm of her dance partner. He had taken her to her father, who had watched sternly as they approached.

“Father, I’d like you to meet Mr. Steele,” she had said, motioning to the towheaded man bowing beside her. She had been panting a little from the dance, which explained the flush in her cheeks and brightness in her eyes.

“A pleasure, sir,” Steele had said, his voice faltering a little, betraying his nerves. He had watched Trentwood as they had approached, and somehow knew he had been found lacking. He shared a small, tight smile with Mary.

It had been the way Trentwood’s lip had quirked to the side ever so slightly that had worried Mary.

She had looked at Steele, trying to see what she suspected Trentwood saw: a young dandy determined to engage his daughter in nefarious acts.

Steele had taken great care with his appearance. His shoes had shone in the gaslight, his pants hadn’t a wrinkle, and though he had been far too young, not even thirty, he had tucked a quizzing glass surreptitiously in his waistcoat pocket. Still, there had been much in him to like, such as his carriage: broad-shouldered and standing tall. He had not been afraid of Trentwood like the other gentlemen she had brought her father’s way, merely respectful.

“You’ve danced with my daughter twice now,” Trentwood had said. He had crossed his arms over his broad chest. “There will not be a third.”

Mary had pressed her lips together, praying to her dearly deceased mother for patience. “Come now, Father, give him some credit. He wouldn’t dare, not without your permission.”

Steele had shaken his head vigorously. “Indeed, sir, I have brought her to you with the hopes I might call upon you at a favorable time tomorrow.” He had squeezed Mary’s hand resting on his arm.

“You may not,” Trentwood had replied. “Mary, get your things, we’re leaving.”

Mary had sent an anguished look Steele’s way, but had taken her father’s arm. She had followed his lead to the door and had accepted her wrap without a word. She had waited for the proper moment to say something, anything, which would have changed her father’s mind.

It wasn’t until they had been alone in the carriage, bumping along the road in tense silence, that she had gathered the courage to say, “I don’t understand.”

“What?” Trentwood had snapped.

“I don’t understand why you didn’t like him.”

Rather than responding, Trentwood had yanked the window sash so the cool winter air had access to charge into the little carriage. With the window open, Mary had heard hoof beats charging down the dirt road, taking her farther away from Steele. She had felt pressure rising up through her chest and into her throat. Her eyes had begun to burn.

“I liked him.”

“No, you didn’t,” Trentwood had said, eyes not meeting her begging expression. “He turned your head with pretty words and fancy footwork. If I allowed him to pay a call you’d be sorely disappointed.” He had looked at her then, his expression somber. “You’ll thank me, one day.”

A brisk wind had whistled through the crack in the window sash on the opposite side of the carriage. Mary had shuddered, hugging herself. “We’ll catch our death of cold.”

The next morning, Mary had entered the dining room with sunken cheeks and bags beneath her eyes, hinting at how the remainder of her night had fared. She had pulled a couple of rashers, a roasted tomato, and a slice of toast onto her plate from the breakfast buffet to accompany her strong tea. She had sat at the table and ate because it was habit, not because she was hungry.

I am in love with him, Mary had thought with dull surprise. I am in love with Mr. Steele.

Mary had not been able to understand just what Trentwood disliked about Steele. Steele had been eligible, able to provide for her, and he had been interested. What more did a father want for his daughter? Furthermore, Steele had been her last chance; she had been certain of that.

One simply did not receive many interested suitors by the time one turned twenty-six, that was the way of the world. Mary had been resigned to a future of tending her father’s house, until Steele came along with his smiles.

A rattling cough had startled Mary from her reverie. She had looked up to find a haggard Trentwood shuffling into the dining room, his eyes bloodshot. He had, it seemed, refused aid from his valet for his hair hadn’t been combed, and he still wore his evening finery beneath his dressing robe.

“Did you sleep at all?” Mary had ventured to ask, watching him shovel food on his plate.

“Damned cough,” he had rasped, “kept me up all night.” He had dropped his plate to the table, accepted a strong cup of coffee from the silent servant, and rested his forehead in his hands.

Alarm spread, chasing away the dull surprise of Mary’s feelings for Steele and the memory of her own haggard night. Trentwood had taken a chill last night, just as she had feared, and was ill, far more ill than he was letting on. She had shoved away from the table and waved the servant away impatiently. She had circled the table to stand beside Trentwood. After a moment’s hesitation, she had pulled his hand from his forehead and replaced it with her own. She had gasped, snatching her hand from his burning skin.

“Send for a doctor,” she had snapped at the servant. “My father has a severe fever.”

“Utter nonsense,” Trentwood had muttered.

“Father, I’m taking you to your room. You need rest.”

“Not until I’ve had my bacon.”

Mary had slapped the fork out of Trentwood’s hand. “Bacon! You can hardly lift the fork to your mouth and you’re worried about your bacon?” She had tugged at his arm, shocked by how heavy it felt. “Come, you are going back to bed.”

Trentwood had tilted his head when he looked at her, his expression slack but his eyes bright with fever. “Gertrude?”

Tears had sprung to Mary’s eyes. “No, I’m Mary. Your daughter.” She had stooped so she could drag his arm around her shoulders to help him from the table. She had managed to get him to the doorway before she had to stop, hardly able to breathe due to her rising panic.

Thankfully, Pomeroy, her father’s valet, had appeared at her elbow and taken Trentwood from her. “The apothecary is on his way, Miss.”

Mary had sighed. When her mother was alive, they had been able to afford a surgeon. What a disgrace to be relegated to the local apothecary.

The apothecary had arrived to bleed Trentwood and alternate bathing him in wet cloths while piling blankets high atop him to break the fever. Trentwood had recovered after a week, but never quite fully. He had never managed to regain that solid dependability Mary had assumed was inherent to her father. He had come to rely on her for most everything from the moment he woke fever-free.

Mary had not recognized this man, this man with the body of her father. Most nights, she had cried herself to sleep, unsure whom she mourned more, the loss of Steele or Trentwood.

She had shouldered the burden of being master and mistress of the manor to distract herself. She had balanced the ledgers, addressed the farmers’ complaints, and continued managing the servants and general household management that had been her original duties.

Trentwood, meanwhile, had refused to eat unless she fed him. He had refused to sleep unless she read to him.

Yet even with all these distractions, it had never been quite enough to fill the ever-widening hole in her heart.

A year later, Trentwood had died in his sleep, holding the miniature of Mary’s mother, Gertrude. Mary had relied on her aunt Mrs. Durham for the funerary details, knowing she would be unable to face her father’s burial, and resurrection, alone.

THREE

Mary remained where she was, clinging to her headboard and staring at Trentwood. She shook her mind free of the memories from that horrible night over a year ago. There was nothing to be done about that now. Steele had never called, and she hadn’t the time for courting anyway, not with her father so ill. And now that her father had died—and his ghost was standing at the foot of her bed—well, that didn’t make her future chances at courtship seem any brighter.

Practically speaking, of course.

Mary’s mouth wavered between hysterical laughter and another scream. Her father was dead, and she wanted—needed—to mourn him. She wanted to remember him fondly and cry herself to sleep over her loss. She did not want to be crawling away, terrified of this vision that was her father.

It wasn’t right or decent, this horror replacing sorrow.

She swallowed, biding her time, waiting for words to come. Did ghosts need to sit? Or was it merely the principle of the matter? Her father had been, if nothing else, concerned with the principle of the matter. Did such things carry over into the afterlife?

“Aren’t you growing rather tired of hanging from that headboard as if you were some primate?” Trentwood said.

Mary dropped to her knees. She landed with little grace in the jumble of sheets piled atop her bed. She couldn’t take her eyes from Trentwood. His fingers were grimy, most likely from his unearthly climb. He smelled of earth and age and disease, spiced with a hint of peppermints—his favorite treat.

“There now, isn’t that better?” Trentwood looked as he had in his life but for his eyes, the irises particularly. They had lost almost all pigmentation, so that the dark hazel she had inherited looked an insipid beige.

She scowled. A knock at the door startled her from responding.

“Miss Trentwood?” It was Pomeroy, Trentwood’s valet-cum-butler. His voice was gentle, but firm, as he said, “I happened to be in the hallway just a moment ago and had the oddest idea I heard you scream. Might I come in and inquire?”

Mary cleared her throat and dragged her gaze from Trentwood. “No, thank you,” she said, raising her voice so Pomeroy could hear her. “I thought I saw… er, there was—”

As Mary scanned the room looking for an excuse for screaming, she caught sight of Trentwood looking rather smug while he waited for her reason. She pressed her lips together. He was having fun with this! She crawled from her bed and backed to the door. Her chin jutted out, and she glanced at Trentwood, noting the way his brows rose.

It was easier to breathe by the door, Mary couldn’t smell Trentwood. She pressed her cheek to the carved wooden door that kept Pomeroy from entering. She breathed the warm smell of old wood, relishing in its solidity. She needed to convince herself she was grounded, sane, normal.

“I had a nightmare,” Mary said, “and frightened myself awake. Please don’t concern yourself, it was very silly.”

She heard Pomeroy clear his throat and imagined him shifting his weight from one foot to the next as he searched for the most proper way to voice his thoughts.

“Shall I ask Mrs. Durham to keep you company?”

Mary closed her eyes. “No, thank you.”

“Shall I keep you company, Miss?”

Now that was an interesting thought, to allow Pomeroy enter. Especially with Trentwood standing there as if he hadn’t died a week earlier. If Pomeroy saw Trentwood, then Mary would know she wasn’t entirely mad, or certainly not delusional. Of course, the danger in ushering Pomeroy inside would be the realization that I am, in fact, losing my wits. Mary bit her lip.

“Why not let the poor man in, make certain you haven’t done harm to yourself?” Trentwood suggested. He had moved to the vanity, taking the seat Mary had not offered to him. He watched her archly, radiating his displeasure with his stiff carriage and the way he picked at the dirt beneath his fingernails.

If I answer him, I acknowledge his existence, and then I’ll know I’m mad. If I don’t answer him, I don’t know either way. Decision made, Mary threw open the door. “Just for a moment, yes, I’d like your company. I find my… thoughts disturb when I’m alone.”

Pomeroy was as tall and lanky as Trentwood, and as old as him, if not older. Mary had no idea, in fact, how old Pomeroy was. She knew only that he had always been her father’s valet, he never had a hair or piece of clothing out of place, and he worried about her as if she were his daughter. And that he was a prize pugilist who was more than happy to teach her a thing or two.

Pomeroy’s hair was completely white and had been so since he turned twenty—something about the shock of losing his sister in a fire. Mary never knew the details and knew better than to ask.

“Thoughts are one’s own enemy at a time like this,” Pomeroy murmured, entering the room.

“Would you care to have a…” Mary’s voice trailed off. Trentwood sat in the only available chair in the room and didn’t look as though he was about to give it up to anyone, especially not his valet. Thankfully, Pomeroy had no plans to sit.

“I’ve only come to say, and do pardon my impudence, that I’m worried about you. We both are, Mrs. Beeton and me. You’ve had a rough year, taking care of your father and your aunt besides.”

Mary nodded once. She crossed her arms over her chest. It rankled, the awkward sounds of kindness about her loss. She hadn’t decided if she was prepared to accept such words yet. Having her dead father in the room didn’t help matters.

Pomeroy continued, stammering a little as Mary stepped away from him. “It was decided I should tell you we will handle the running of the house, to—to ease your burden.”

Trentwood scoffed from his corner. “A lovely sentiment, I’m sure, but what are you to do with yourself if he takes away your one occupation, hmm?”

Mary squared her shoulders. She anticipated Pomeroy to shout, scream, blanch, faint, or all of the above. He did none. He waited for her response, giving no indication that he had heard Trentwood speak, nor revealing any suspicion that anyone but Mary was in the room with him.

This does not bode well for my sanity.

“I must admit the offer is tempting, and so very generous. I am, of course, touched and overwhelmed by your kindness,” Mary whispered, “but I must keep myself busy.”

Pomeroy bowed. “I find it’s best to stay busy, Miss, and be certain to not be alone for too very long.”

Mary risked a sidelong look at Trentwood, who grinned. “Depend upon it; I don’t think I shall be alone often.”

FOUR

Swindon (a train ride west of London), March 1887

Mr. Hartwell was jolted awake, his arms flailing, when the train from London pulled into Swindon. His low-brimmed hat, which he had pulled down to shade his face while he slept, fell to his lap. He heard the snickers of the little boy sitting in the aisle across from him. He knew he should resist the temptation, but he looked at the boy and scowled.

The boy gasped and pointed at Hartwell’s face. “Mama,” he cried, “what’s happened to him?”

The boy’s mother looked at Hartwell, blanched, and slapped her son’s hand. “Don’t point, dearest, it’s rude.” She turned to Hartwell, though he noted she avoided meeting his gaze. “Please forgive him. He’s the most mischievous terror of all my children.”

Hartwell nodded and gathered his things, but not before making a face at the boy for good measure. He couldn’t help it. The boy was a brat, his mother knew it, and Hartwell was in no mood to be someone’s entertainment, child or otherwise. He slapped his hat onto his dark hair, threw his coat over his shoulders, and stomped from the train.

The station was far quieter than the London one he had left that morning. There were still children crying, paperboys shouting, train attendants ushering, and far too many people milling about as if they had no idea where they were going. Well, Hartwell knew where he was going. At least where he needed to get to, and damned if he was about to tarry simply because someone wasn’t sure just which car they wanted to sit in and happened to be making that decision in the middle of his path.

“You there,” Hartwell said to a dirty boy playing by the tracks, “where might I find the manor house at Compton Beauchamp?”

“At Compton Beauchamp, methinks,” was the reply.

Hartwell clamped his jaw. “And where, pray tell, is Compton Beauchamp, exactly?”

“Me Pa can drive you there, if you like,” the boy said, jumping to his feet.

Hartwell stepped back so the upset coal dust didn’t touch his suit. “Take me to your father, and be quick about it. I need to catch the evening train back to London.” He followed the boy, who he discovered was named Peter, to a wagon full of animals. Pigs, of all things, and geese, and sheep. “Oh no.”

Peter bounded to his father’s side and tugged the hem of his frayed jacket. “Gent here’d like a lift to Compton Beauchamp, Pa.”

Hartwell shook his head when Peter’s father squinted at him from beneath his straw hat. “Forgive the intrusion, I thought your son was taking me to the stables.”

“You’ve a pretty way with words, son.” Peter’s father had a voice of gravel. It sounded smooth, yet Hartwell could hear ball bearings tumbling over one another in the undertones. “What are you doing trying to get to Compton Beauchamp?”

“I’ve business with Mrs. Durham,” Hartwell admitted, “and the sooner I get there, the sooner I can return home.”

Peter’s father chuckled and tightened the harness on his farm horse. “I’ll be the only one heading that direction. No one goes to Compton Beauchamp unless they live there.”

Hartwell’s shoulders sank. “Really?” he said, his voice flat.

“Aye, and you’ll be having a trial of getting to Mrs. Durham, what with the goings on at the manor house.”

One of the geese looked at Hartwell and honked loudly at him, finding some offense. Hartwell rubbed his forehead. “What has been going on at the manor house?”

“Well, the young miss lost her father a month ago, and the house is in mourning.”

“Ah, I see.” That certainly posed a problem; they would be in mourning for a year, and Hartwell simply didn’t have that sort of time. He shook his head. “Sorry, I must have misunderstood you. Young miss? Mrs. Durham is forty-five if she’s a day, as I understand it.”

Peter’s father chuckled. “Not her, but her niece by way of her twin, Miss Trentwood. Mrs. Durham’s doing her duty and watching after the girl. Though she’s going through her own mourning.”

“How very noble of her,” Hartwell said through clenched teeth. Well, he had come this far for answers. Certainly he could come and go quickly without disturbing their period of mourning too much. “I should be much obliged then, if I could ride with you to the manor house.”

Peter cheered and scrambled up the large wheel to sit on the wagon’s wooden bench that would seat the three of them.

“I’m Frank Brown,” Peter’s father said, holding his hand out for Hartwell to shake.

Hartwell glanced at the weathered hand, seeing years of dirt encrusted in its folds. He shook Frank Brown’s hand with a tentative smile. “Alexander Hartwell.”

The ride to Compton Beauchamp was, Hartwell found with no little surprise, pleasant. Frank Brown was by no means chatty, but he answered all of Hartwell’s questions amiably enough.

The countryside was the sort of tame green beauty he remembered from his childhood, and Peter, when Hartwell had removed his hat to enjoy the warmth of the sun’s rays on his head, made no mention of his scarred face, which he appreciated.

Even the noisy animals crowded in the back of the wagon seemed to Hartwell a happy respite from the drudgery of London life. It was charming to hear the pigs snort as if scoffing at something the geese said, or the sheep’s low murmuring when the wagon swayed over a bump in the road.

Hartwell marveled at The Great White Horse, an ancient carving in the chalky ground on the hills just outside of Compton Beauchamp. The Browns humored him and drove the wagon up the hill so he could study the horse closely. He shared their packed luncheon of generously cut bread and cured meat while listening to Frank Brown’s folktale that the horse was actually the bones of the horse belonging to none else but William the Conqueror.

In fact, by the time he was dropped off at the pale lane just outside the manor house, Hartwell was so totally enamored with his new friends that he almost forgot why he had come to Compton Beauchamp in the first place. He waved to the Browns as they ambled away, and chuckled at the sight of the pigs, sheep, and geese watching him forlornly from their rocking, wooden cage.

When the wagon was out of eyesight, Hartwell sighed and turned to the high wrought iron gate that provided the only opening to the brick wall surrounding the manor house. The gate was propped open by a sizable rock, so he slipped inside. He squared his shoulders. Better get this over with, Hartwell thought, shrugging to adjust his shoulder cape.

Hartwell walked along the gravel path that was wide enough to usher carriages to the portico that sheltered the front door. The manor house, it seemed, had seen better days.

Far better days, by the looks of it.

The house had a Palladian façade that spoke of modest grandeur. The yellow limestone of the façade was laid in an irregular pattern and was accented by smooth ashlar dressings smartly jointed together. Red brick archways decorated the windows, pulling the eye up to the roof, which sorely needed repairing.

Hartwell tugged the embroidered bell pull hanging just right of the door and waited. And continued to wait, hearing neither a bell, nor anyone coming to open the door.

He yanked the bell pull again. This time it snapped in pieces into his hand.

His mouth dropped open. Frowning at the portico and seeing finger-sized cracks in the plaster, Hartwell lost confidence, what with the remnants of the bell pull dangling from his fingers. He rapped his knuckles against the front door and jumped away just in case the portico decided to fall on his head.

Finally, Hartwell thought he heard someone approach the door. He heard concerned mumblings. Whoever was behind the door continued to mumble for a full five minutes. He tapped his leg with the bell pull impatiently. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, will you open this door?”

The voices fell silent.

He hadn’t expected them to hear him.

The door creaked open to reveal a tall, lanky man with a shock of white hair and a woman with a cap of white lace atop her graying hair. They both wore black, reminding Hartwell that the house was in mourning. Their solemnity seemed out of place with the fine weather tickling the hairs on the back of his head. I ought to have sent a letter ahead.

The two persons stared at him, and Hartwell realized they wanted him to explain himself. He reddened. “I’m Alexander Hartwell, and—.”

The woman lost all color and slammed the door in his face. She, he assumed, was Mrs. Durham.

He knocked on the door again, relieved this time when the man opened the door, the woman was nowhere in sight.

“Do come in, sir,” the man said. “I believe Mrs. Durham has fled to her room. If you would wait in the library, I will send for my mistress.”

“Then Mrs. Durham is not the lady of the house?” Hartwell asked as he entered with a small frown.

“No indeed.”

“Excellent.”

“Yes indeed.” The man smiled at Hartwell’s apparent surprise. “I’m Pomeroy, the butler and valet to Mr. Trentwood that was. If you’d be so kind as to wait in the library, I shall send for Miss Trentwood and have a pot of tea sent to you.”

Hartwell allowed Pomeroy to take his hat, coat, and satchel, relieved to be rid of the carried weight. He ignored the way Pomeroy started at the sight of his face, already building up his tolerances as he followed Pomeroy to the little library just off the main hall. I’ve been so used to being with people who are used to me, he thought with a disgruntled sigh.

“Miss Trentwood will be in shortly,” Pomeroy said.

Hartwell nodded, and handed Pomeroy the bell pull. “Er… do apologize in advance to Miss Trentwood for me?”

Pomeroy stared at the bell pull in his hand, and his face tightened as if he was trying not to laugh. He cleared his throat. “We haven’t had visitors in quite some time, sir.”

“I never would have guessed,” Hartwell replied.