Cecile brushed newly fallen snow off her skirt as icy flakes lashed across her cheeks. Beside her, hunched against the cold, the wagon driver snapped the reins and urged the horses faster along the rutted highway.
Skeletal limbs of hollowed-out trees scraped the ashen mid-morning sky. Wind howled across the barren moorland, nestled between mountain ranges. To the east lay Slovakia, on whose border the Danube flowed on its way to the Black Sea.
Over the crest of the next hill, the tip of one stone spire appeared.
“Castle Winterdrecht,” the driver rasped, cutting an appraising eye at her. “No place for a pretty young thing like ye. What business d’ye have there?”
Cecile sat up straight and gave him a weak smile. It was 1891 and she was eighteen years old, free of the orphanage nuns and their overly strict, unjust punishments. A nervous thread of anxiety wormed through her. With her newfound position of respectability came the burden of responsibility. If she didn’t execute her duties properly, she’d wind up penniless, begging for bread on the street corner.
A fate worse than death.
“I’m the new housekeeper,” she said, gritting her teeth to prevent them from chattering. The wind tore through her threadbare woolen cloak. She clutched her hands tightly in her lap, wishing she’d repaired the hole in her mitten. They approached the massive castle that lay to her right, an imposing, crumbling stone structure rimmed by shadowy peaked gables. Fearsome, creeping gargoyles lurked at the bases of towering spires that crept upward, disappearing into the gloom.
Her new employer must be wealthy beyond her wildest imaginings. Cecile shivered at the sheer enormity of the castle. As if the size wasn’t overwhelming enough, the idea of being in charge of its upkeep nearly chased away the last of her resolve.
The driver paused at the bottom of the driveway and wiped a mittened hand across his bulbous, frostbitten nose. Out of the corner of her eye, Cecile watched him cross himself, close his eyes, and mumble a whispered prayer. The reins quivered in his hand.
His prayer would have to cover both of them. “Will you drive me to the front door?” she plucked up her courage to ask, fingering the coins in her purse.
He turned wide, bloodshot eyes to her, his breath forming clouds in the air. “That place is cursed, miss! No one who goes in steps out right the other side, for it’s the Devil that lives there, I promise ye.”
Cecile stared straight ahead. “Please deliver me the rest of the way.”
The driver grumbled a hasty retort and slapped the reins on the horses’ backs. They shied at first, bucking their heads and whinnying until the driver yelled at them, “Hee-yah!”
The wagon wound up the curved driveway. White snow laced the gaps between soot-colored crenellations. Cecile gripped the edge of the wooden seat, squeezing her carpet bag between her legs.
She had to admit, Castle Winterdrecht was not the most welcoming sight amid the outermost reaches of the Eastern Alps, but she could do worse. Devoting the rest of her life to the sisterhood, for example. She shuddered inside her cloak. Anything but that.
The nuns had always tried to hide the newspapers from the orphans. Their adherence to rules was ridiculous, as if society columns would fill the girls’ heads with worldly ideas and haughty airs, tempting them toward unwholesome urges and other dangerous impulses. If Cecile hadn’t stashed the advertisement under her mattress and snuck out to respond the next day, she’d never have escaped the city.
She’d stepped off the train at her first stop on the way to Winterdrecht, hoping the meager allowance she’d been allotted would be enough provision until she earned her first paycheck. A tired-looking peasant peddling her wares had pressed a silver crucifix into Cecile’s palm, intent on detailing what demon shadows would hunt her soul in the night if she didn’t wear it. The woman’s shrill warning had frightened her into submission, though the purchase around her neck had cost nearly all she had.
A talisman of sorts, Cecile considered herself safe as long as it hung there.
The wagon clattered to a halt before a thick wooden door overlaid with intricate steel coverings and a gleaming black doorknocker in the center. Cecile let herself out of the wagon, retrieved her bag, and paid the driver, who whipped the horses into a gallop and fled in a shower of snowflakes.
She turned around and rubbed her hands together, warming them before lifting the metal ring and letting it fall with one sonorous, resounding clang against the underlying steel plate. After a brief pause, the door inched open a crack, the wind whistling defiantly past the threshold.
Cecile pressed her fingers to the door. All was darkness inside. “Hello?” she called, unwilling to address her new master without a proper introduction. “My name is Cecile. Is anyone there?”
A deep-throated growl rumbled off to her left. Gulping, Cecile peered past her shoulder. A shaggy, dark-coated leviathan of a dog approached, blood-tinged icicles clinging to the fur of his muzzle. Rooted in fear, her breath quickened. That was all the time the beast needed. He lunged for her, all snapping, slathering jowels and gleaming, obsidian eyes.
With a startled scream, Cecile squeezed through the open crack. Lugging her carpet bag behind her, she threw herself against the handle using all her weight. The door clanged shut. Claws scrabbled against the wood, the great beast snarling, desperate for entry.
She took a moment to recover herself, allowing her eyes to adjust to the enshrouding darkness. Minor chords of a restless fugue filled the air, played with all the vivacity and energetic fervor of an accomplished organist. A stirring crescendo shook the walls and twin candelabra at the foot of a curved staircase blazed brighter, revealing the rich black marble composition of the floor tiles. Cecile hesitated, awed by the architectural grandeur amidst the decay.
As the organ notes diminished, the candlelight dimmed. She moved beyond the stairs, in the direction of the music, breathing in the thick, musty odor of the air. Cobwebs trailed across her skin.
Cecile passed along a narrow hallway and through an open archway to a room with a vaulted ceiling. She had entered a gathering hall, the organ to her left, a magnificent structure built into the side of the wall, pipes streaming above in dazzling array. A black-clad man sat in front of it, his delicate fingers flying across the bone-colored keys. To his right, a set of spiral stairs curved to the stone floor below.
The pipes trembled with the reverberation of the melancholy notes pouring forth from his effort. Surely this was Asher Grimbaud.
His attention did not waver from the music. At the next decrescendo in the score, Cecile set her carpet bag on the floor and cleared her throat. Loudly.
The man held his finger on the last note, head bowed. Slowly, he pushed back his seat and rose. When his gaze fell upon her, he seemed to stiffen. He was so fair she considered the fact that he might be unwell. His oiled hair shone blue by candlelight, his features refined, though spoiled by a certain air of hardness. He did not appear pleased.
“I’m Cecile,” she said. “The housekeeper you hired from Vienna.”
“From the orphanage,” he said, his voice a richness in itself. “Was it a tiresome journey?”
“I slept on the train, thank you,” she said, embarrassed by the quiver in her voice. “Whatever you require, I’m ready to be of service. Where may I put my things?”
He did not smile, nor did he offer an introduction in return. He glided quietly down the spiral stairs and approached her. He was young, hardly ten years her senior, by her best estimate. Now that he was closer, she noticed the scars above his upper lip, stellate and puckered. The poor man was disfigured, whether by injury or birth, she could not guess. It was a wonder it did not affect his speech.
Though she was careful to remain silent, Grimbaud seemed to have intuited her startlement and subsequent dismay, and it displeased him further. “This way,” he snapped. He swept past her, leaving her to pick up her bag and hurry after him as he strode down the passageway.
He led her down a dank, underground stairwell that delivered them to the kitchens. Freshly-picked herbs hung in gnarled clusters from the ceiling, the worn porcelain sink lined with scores of deep scratches and spidery cracks. When they arrived outside the laundry room with its collection of rusted mangles, Cecile’s heart seized. No servant could handle the upkeep of such a castle under these stringent conditions.
“How many others are employed here?” she asked.
Grimbaud gave a huff of derision. “None besides you.”
Afterward, they ascended to the second floor and headed down a long, carpeted hallway decked with heavy, gilt-framed portraits of serious-faced ancestors, their mouths drawn in the same fierce line as Grimbaud’s.
Between the dimly-lit sconces, shadows played across their visages, their eyes darting with her movements. Pressing the crucifix to her neck, Cecile bent low, squinting to read their names. Augustine Grimbaud. Renee Montpellier Grimbaud. The resemblance to her employer was unmistakeable, yet the vintage of their clothing was centuries past.
Grimbaud twisted a key in the last door at the end of the hall and held it open for her. These were no maid’s quarters, at least not the kind she had been led to expect. Far from a dusty attic garret with a single dormer window, the four-poster bed and stone-cold fireplace hinted at the promise of a decent night’s sleep, if she could secure kindling. A generous closet and chest of drawers provided plenty of space to store her belongings, though she noted the lack of a mirror above the washbowl in the corner. No matter. Clean and simple seemed best with the amount of work she faced.
“Please, sir, how will I get to town for supplies?” she asked, hoping he couldn’t detect the desperation behind her question.
Grimbaud hesitated, a shadow crossing his face. “You are never to leave the grounds,” he said, his voice strained, as if a clot had formed in his throat. “The gardens are accessible from the kitchen and whatever is there, you may use. Whatever else you may require, inform me. Shipments are delivered once a month.”
His eyes flashed, the molten black of a raven’s wings. “Enough,” he choked. “You stay here. You never leave. Do I make myself clear?”
The door slammed shut and a spray of plaster fell from the ceiling. She’d been here less than an hour and had already upset her employer. What was she thinking, questioning him like that? Stupid, stupid Cecile. Her mouth never ceased to get her into trouble, her insatiable need to feel important, like she had a role to play, a need to fill. She was an orphan and now a servant. She would do well to bury her pride, change into her linen work dress, and start preparations for dinner.
She lay her bag on the bed and unpacked her scant belongings. After she set her brush and hairpins by the washbowl, she approached the diamond-paned window facing the rear of the castle. Her single attempt to prise open the rusted latch met with bitter failure. The glass was liable to shatter if she forced the lock. An ice-cold sensation stung her fingertips and she winced, snatching her hand away. Beneath her dress, the crucifix burned hot on her skin.
As she descended the servant’s stairs to the kitchen two floors below, brushing the cobwebs from her face, it dawned on her. Perhaps the wagon driver had been right. This place was cursed. Was she trapped?
At six o’clock, Grimbaud took his supper in the dining room. Cecile served him a steaming bowl of soup from a filigreed tureen, then retreated to the shadows by the servants’ doorway as he feasted, observing his response.
Candlelight flickered off the buttressed ceiling, leering gargoyles perched at the tops of the colonnades. The great beast that had attacked her when she arrived lounged beside the roaring flames of a carved stone fireplace, his eye trained on his master.
“Ivar,” Grimbaud said, plucking a chunk of meat from his bowl and tossing it on the floor as the dog sniffed, then lapped up the morsel, along with its remains. She’d have to clean the spot later, though judging from the eager, wet sounds the beast made, she wouldn’t be at it long.
“It was not his intent to frighten you earlier,” her employer said softly, not looking at her directly.
Cecile shifted in place, unsure how to respond. He was talking about the dog as if he’d read the beast’s mind from afar. Perhaps he had. Living alone in this desolate castle with only a dog to keep him company, each was sure to have developed a sixth sense about the other. She was content to let the beast lie, grateful he wasn’t disturbed by her presence.
“Do you ever speak?” Grimbaud said, addressing her, broth dripping off his raised spoon.
Fearful that he would yell at her again, Cecile struggled not to stammer. “I was a stranger to him,” she said. “I’m certain Ivar meant to protect you.”
Grimbaud’s steady gaze was unnerving, lingering on her slightly longer than made her comfortable. “Sit.”
“I…I am a servant, m–”
He swept a pale, veined hand in the air, bedecked with a glimmering garnet ring. “Do as I say. Sit.”
Cecile slid into a seat at the far end of the table, head lowered, unwilling to add insolence to any other perceived offense she might accidentally make. “What breed is he?”
“Ivar is a seventh-generation Grimblehound,” he said, noisily sucking down another spoonful of soup. “My father bred them, and my grandfather before him.” He paused, waiting for a reply.
“Was your father a woodsman, then?”
Cecile snuck a glance at him. She caught him staring at her, and he resumed his speech, as if to disguise a rabid curiosity. What a stern fellow he was. Strict she coud manage, though if he was cruel…her heart quailed at the thought.
“Grimblehounds were bred to hunt with us, when we moved here generations ago. Unlike our Carpathian cousins, my great-grandfather was a peaceable man, choosing to live off what the land offered us rather than engage in the brutal competition of business in more densely populated cities.”
What business was that? She stopped herself from asking, not wanting to appear presumptuous or raise his ire. “Is that why you prefer to live alone, with no access to town?”
Grimbaud’s spoon rattled against the side of his bowl. He wiped his mouth with the corner of his napkin and tossed it on the table. “That’s none of your concern,” he snapped. His lip quivered with restrained rage.
He pushed the chair out behind him and stood. “Next time, use more salt,” he said, then stalked out of the room, Ivar loping at his heels.
By the time she finished cleaning up dinner, taking stock of the larder in order to prepare meals for the rest of the week, and a small amount of mending, it was after ten o’clock.
Cecile retired to her room, slipped into her nightdress, and lay still under the covers, restless despite her exhaustion. The fireplace reeked of dampness and cold as she’d been too tired to search for kindling. Outside, the wind howled, rattling the casement. Shadows of tree branches shivered and danced on the ceiling, revelers in the light of a full moon.
A mournful howl split the night air, sending a ripple of gooseflesh across her skin. Throwing off the covers, Cecile wrapped a housecoat around her shoulders and approached the window, her breath clouding the glass.
Across the grounds, a dark figure sped, phantasmic, black billowing out behind him as if he floated rather than ran. Grimbaud! The pallor of his skin was evident as he turned, briefly, and glanced back at the castle before he dashed toward the treeline of the darkling woods.
Every night he repeated the ritual. She kept to the shadows of the room, a silent observer of his wanderings as he left the castle at ten and returned an hour or two later. His errand was his own, Ivar did not accompany him.
The entirety of Cecile’s life felt obscured in secrets, withheld knowledge, and whispered warnings she was expected to heed. The nuns had claimed not to know who her parents were, yet kept a file locked away on every orphan delivered to their doorstep. Forbidden to read the newspaper or even the penny dreadfuls passed between the cots at night, she’d grown weary of the restrictions. The security of her new position demanded propriety, but the strangeness of Grimbaud’s behavior fascinated her.
Learning more about her employer was essential to being able to please him.
She made up her mind to follow where he went.
After throwing on a pair of boots, she grabbed a candlestick and the canvas bag stuffed with leftovers from the kitchen, and hurried down the hallway. Her feet flew down the servant’s staircase to the lower exit. At the doorway, she hesitated, waiting for the scratch of claws on the stone floor.
When Ivar appeared, she reached into the bag and threw him a knot of dried mutton. He caught it in his jaws, eyed her suspiciously, then padded off in appreciative silence.
She could catch up to Grimbaud, but she mustn’t waste time. Extinguishing the candlestick and leaving it behind, she followed the path her employer had taken. His reticence notwithstanding, she would discover who he was, who she’d signed up to work for. Cecile could be stealthy and remain undetected. The orphanage had taught her no less. She’d snuck many a midnight glass of milk from the kitchen, always ravenous after a dinner of watery gruel and stale bread.
The moon lit the way through the woods, limning the silken edges of Grimbaud’s cape. Cecile steeled herself against the biting wind and trudged through the snowdrifts, wrapping her housecoat tighter around her. Before long, Grimbaud stopped at a clearing. Sheltered behind the expansive trunk of a towering fir tree, Cecile waited, ignoring the searing heat of the crucifix at her neck.
A collection of gravestones marked the center of the clearing, but Grimbaud chose to approach only two. Bowing on one knee between the two mounds, he placed a hand on each headstone.
What was this? A soft weeping, spiralling into one long, mournful wail. Tears the color of mercury glinted in the moonlight, spilling down his cheeks and watering the ground at his feet. When he had spent himself, he stood, brushed off his clothes, whispered an indecipherable incantation, and headed back into the woods.
Cecile ducked behind the tree and waited until he was a distance away before creeping toward the headstones for a closer look at the engravings.
Augustine Grimbaud, 1610 – 1874. Renee Montpellier Grimbaud, 1614 – 1874.
Cecile pressed her fingers into her eyes. The names matched those on the portraits she’d seen in the hallway, the faces bearing the strongest resemblance to those of her employer, of all those she’d witnessed. Yet it couldn’t be. How was it his parents had been well over two hundred years old by the time they’d died? And what had transpired that they’d both passed in the same year?
She clawed at the molten crucifix, positioning the pendant overtop her housecoat in order to relieve herself of its infernal heat.
Whatever the past, Grimbaud bore the weight of it. The keening cry of his sorrow had driven a nail straight through her heart, a heart that bled for the depth of his anguish.
Upon her return, Cecile breathed a sigh of relief. Grim as it was, the castle offered protection from the bitter cold wind and snow. She relocated the candlestick and lit the taper. By the pale light of its flickering penumbra, she navigated the deepening shadows inside the moldering stone walls, the damp of night condensing with the advancing chill.
The library should contain the details of his family’s tragedy, for it must be that misfortune had befallen Grimbaud for him to so mourn. As an orphan, she was familiar with the weight of such sorrow. She felt the stirrings of a strange kinship with him, eccentric as he was.
Unfamiliar with the twisting warren of passageways, Cecile doubled back several times before locating the library. The thick wooden door squeaked on its hinges as she slid through the crack and closed it behind her. She let out her breath and the candle flames danced, sputtering. Heavy crimson drapes covered the windows, the scent of old books enshrouded with dust adrift in the air.
As she scanned the books’ spines, her thoughts lingered on what she had learned of him so far. His disfigurement. His obvious melancholy and decision to isolate himself from the rest of the village of Winterdrecht. His inheritance of the castle. The superstitious warnings she’d been given before stepping foot inside.
She stopped before a door flanked by elegant stone sconces, carved in the shape of dragons. When she pressed her fingers to the wood, it opened easily, delivering her into a circular room, the base of one of the towers. Above her, the eaves groaned at the wind’s touch.
A lacquered desk sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by shelves containing a small collection of more personal volumes: handwritten journals, castle blueprints, topographical maps of the family holdings, household ledgers. Cecile located a rolled-up parchment and unfurled it, holding it to the light to make out the print.
Breathless, she scanned its contents, listening closely for any hint of approaching footsteps. She could only imagine Grimbaud’s displeasure if she were to be caught snooping among his private library.
A family tree. Generations of Grimbauds, with connecting lines to indicate marriages and births. So that was it then. Asher was the only son of Augustine and Renee, born in 1863. She did the math in her head. Impossible. He was twenty-eight years old. His mother had borne him when she was two hundred forty-nine years old?
The parchment slipped from her fingers and fell to her feet, releasing a cloud of dust that produced a series of racking coughs, her eyes streaming with tears. Cecile fumbled through the other documents and found a ledger. She ran her finger down the page, expecting to find receipts for purchases of flour, wine, spices, and the like. Items the land wouldn’t produce.
Instead, there were shipments of bloodstock. Hundreds of entries in the ledger referred to deer, elk, bison, and in a few instances, wild boars. Goats. Sheep.
Compared to their Carpathian cousins, they were the peaceable ones.
Cecile’s hand flew to her throat, stifling a strangled cry. They’d attempted to live off the land, and when the land could no longer provide for their insatiable hunger for blood, they’d imported what they needed.
Numb with terror, she gripped the crucifix. Mirthless as Grimbaud was, she had witnessed the depths of his internal anguish. Despite his ghastly disfigurement, inside his chest beat a quivering, though shriveled, heart. A heart familiar with the same wretched pain she had endured since childhood. She reached for the open journal on the desk, quickly skimming the pages. Outside the door, the floor creaked. She hastily set down the book.
The door inched open and with the ensuing draft, the flame of her candlestick extinguished, leaving her in total darkness.
A hand yanked her wrist. “What are you doing here?” Grimbaud hissed.
Cecile cried out from the pain. “I only wanted a glass of water. I lost my way to the kitch–”
“Silence,” he yelled. “How dare you lie to me?” His hand shook, though his nails sank deeper into the tender flesh of her palm.
“Please,” she begged. “Let go. You’re hurting me.”
“Hurting you?” he spat, releasing her wrist and stepping aside. Papers rustled to the floor as books slid from the shelves, hitting the stones in a series of thumps. She sputtered as dust plumed in her mouth and clogged her nasal passages. “Have you considered anyone other than yourself since you set foot through my doors? You have no right to be here, among my things.”
“I mean you no harm, sir,” she said. “Please, you’re frightening me.”
He grabbed her by the arm and ushered her to the doorway. At a snap of his fingers, the dragon sconces lit with preternatural blue flames. “Look,” he sneered, pointing to his scars, ducking low to meet her eye. “Yes,” he said, lifting his lip to reveal the horrible empty sockets that should have housed his canines. “Yes, what you see is what I am. A monster.”
Cecile shook her head. “No…I do not believe it.”
“Why shouldn’t you? According to the whole of Winterdrecht, I will consume your soul within a fortnight. Never mind that they’ve already stolen mine.” He dropped her arm and she feared his weeping would begin again.
“What happened to you?” she asked, gently. “What did they do to your family?”
He lifted a sorrowful gaze to hers, his face wan and drawn, shadows darkening the hollows of his eyes. “You followed me into the woods.”
Cecile laid a steadying hand against the wall, unsure if her honesty would mollify or enrage him further. “Yes. I did.”
He straightened with a sigh, staring off among the towering shelves of the library. “They killed my birth parents when I was eleven years old. I watched them drown in their own blood, to the cheers of the villagers, brandishing torches, pitchforks, and every manner of weapon you can imagine. They threatened to burn down the castle and set fire to the fields. Our home, the very land my ancestors had worked so hard to acquire.”
“I’m so terribly sorry,” Cecile said. “I can see how superstitious they are. Their fears consume them.”
Grimbaud’s gaze snapped toward the crucifix at her neck, then lifted to her face, his eyes flashing, the night flowers of his pupils dilating, fraught with emotion. “And do you, madam, not consider yourself one of them?”
Cecile tore the pendant off the chain and tossed it aside. “I have seen your heart,” she said. “That is what I believe in.”
He stared at her, as if regarding her for the first time. Before he could respond, the door to the library squeaked open. Both Grimbaud and Cecile glanced up as Ivar approached, nails clicking on the stones.
“Ivar.” The giant Grimblehound’s name escaped his lips like a prayer. “It was his father who saved me as a young boy. Despite my being a vampire, the villagers were loath to have the blood of a child on their hands. They savagely extracted my fangs and left me to starve. But Winterdrecht understands nothing about the loyalty of a Grimblehound.”
“You said your family bred them to hunt.”
“And hunt his father did,” Grimbaud said. “To defend me from further harm, he slayed the villagers in our midst. I hid from everyone, frightened and alone without the protection of my parents. I barely knew how to hunt and lost my will to live, to feed myself at all. I owe my life to Ivar’s father. He hunted for me, coaxing me to eat and nursing me back to health as truly and as tenderly as a mother would her own child.”
“A noble act, indeed,” Cecile said, brushing her fingers through the Grimblehound’s rough, wiry coat.
Grimbaud led her out of the library and closed the door behind them. Ivar preceded them as they traversed the long hallway toward the main atrium at the castle’s entrance, tail swishing the air behind him languidly. The three of them climbed the marble staircase and traveled the long hallway with the portraits until they reached the door to her room. The vampire paused, hands folded before him, his garnet ring glowing in the shadows.
“Perhaps now you understand why it’s forbidden to leave the castle,” he said.
“They would kill me.”
Grimbaud studied her, then tilted his head. “They don’t take kindly to whoever chooses to work here. For that reason, no one has ever stayed.”
Cecile was tongue-tied. She bid him a good night, opened the door to her room, and stepped inside, not daring to glance at the expression on his face.
She leaned against the door and released her breath. Dear God in heaven. The villagers were no less monsters than him. His family had lived peacably enough on land of their own holding. What did it matter to Winterdrecht if they imported their own food? Bloodstock or livestock, the end result was the same. Everyone had to live. The Grimbauds had done the townsfolk no wrong.
By comparison, Asher Grimbaud had been victimized, held prisoner in his own home by the fears and superstitions of a frightened village who didn’t understand the choice his ancestors had made to live at peace among humankind.
His previous statement haunted her, the implication that she was one of them. She was no more one of the townspeople in Winterdrecht than she had been in Vienna. Much like him, she was an orphan, homeless, people-less, cut adrift in the world with not even a trace of a link to who she’d belonged to in her past.
Casting off her muddy boots, she removed her housecoat and crept between the covers, shivering. Her fitful sleep was punctuated by restless spells of wakefulness, her frightful dreams indistinguishable from reality.
She wandered the labyrinthine halls of the castle. Tracing the walls with her fingers, she swept along terraces bordered by mullioned windows, making her way to the farthest turret on the eastern side and winding up its central, spiral staircase. At the top, she entered a circular room with a peaked roof. In the center stood a canopied bed, draped in crimson brocade. A massive chandelier hung from the ceiling, its pale light illuminating the rich mahogany paneling, the tapestries on the walls, and the Persian rug gracing the stone floor.
Windows flung wide, a fell air swirled inside the room, making the shadows dance and leap along the walls. Cecile approached the bed, ignoring the darkened pool of liquid spilling over the side and staining the carpet below.
She swept aside the drape and froze at the sight. Flesh hanging in ghastly tatters from a skeletal frame, the body of Grimbaud languished in deathly repose, twin sockets of his canines as gapingly fractured as they’d been in life. A jewel-encrusted goblet lay toppled over on the sheets, its contents the source of the stain.
Grimbaud was dead!
Starved to death, left to rot in his own bed, alone. Loveless, without a soul who cared whether he lived or died.
The door slammed shut and her eyes flew open. She sat up in bed, bathed in sweat, her hair a riot of loose tendrils. The cold fireplace was her own.
It had all been a dream. Breath ragged in her chest, she clenched the sheets and swiped at the tears on her cheeks. She would not abandon him to this fate. Grimbaud did not deserve to die, not like that. As a child, he’d suffered starvation. He shouldn’t be made to suffer in his old age, not a second time.
Her inner orphan cried out for justice. She would have it, if not for herself, then for Asher Grimbaud. This one favor she could promise him, and she would.
The morning dawned gray and damp. Mist rose over the fields, a fine wispy substance that twirled into fantastic shapes with the wind sweeping off the moors. Cecile placed the silver teapot on a tray, along with a cup and saucer, a bowl of sugar cubes, and a pitcher of cream. Up early, she had noted light from underneath the door of Grimbaud’s study and determined he wouldn’t catch her being unproductive. Besides, she had no idea what he might want for breakfast.
She climbed the servant’s staircase to the ground floor, located the study, and hesitated in front of the closed door. “Sir?” she called. “May I come in?”
A brief shuffling of papers and Grimbaud received her at the door. His gaze traveled from her face to the tray she held in her hands, then back to her face. “What is this?” he asked. Fine muscles at his eyes twitched.
“Your morning tea, sir. I assume you take it with sugar and cream.”
Grimbaud took a step back, allowing her inside to place the tray on his desk. “That’s very…thoughtful of you.” He stared at the teapot as if it might bite him. “I’m unused to such formalities.”
Cecile smoothed the apron over her skirt. “It’s time you got used to them.” Her eyes flitted toward him, warmth rising through her collar at the intensity of his gaze.
His brows rose in a graceful arch.
“Sir,” she added. Hopefully in enough time so as not to seem impertinent. Had she spoken out of line, again?
“Cecile,” he whispered, glancing at the tray. “What have you done?”
Sweat broke out on her palms and she shifted her balance, biting one corner of her lip. “What is it? Please don’t ask me to leave.” She lowered her gaze, unable to meet his eye. “I want to stay. That is, if you’ll let me.”
Grimbaud took a step toward her, so close she could hear the catch in his breath before he spoke. “You’ve forgotten something.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“A second cup. I refuse to drink alone.”
Cecile glanced up. Playing at the corners of his mouth, the first smile she had yet seen him muster. A beautiful sight.
Lisa notes: “A Jersey girl at heart, when I’m not writing, I’m usually listening to hard rock, bouldering, or sipping amaretto sours. Before I started writing novels, I earned my doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University.”