Hellsinger: Book One
When his Uncle Mortimer died and left him Hoxne Grange, the family’s Gilded Age mansion, Tristan Pryce became the second generation of Pryces to serve as a caretaker for the estate, a way station for spirits on their final steps to the afterlife. Tristan is prepared for challenges, though not necessarily from the ghosts he’s seen since childhood. Determined to establish Tristan’s insanity and gain access to his trust fund, his loving relatives hire Dr. Wolf Kincaid and his paranormal researchers, Hellsinger Investigations, to prove the Grange is not haunted.
Skeptic Wolf Kincaid has made it his life’s work to debunk the supernatural. After years of cons and fakes, he can’t wait to reveal the Grange’s ghostly activity is just badly leveled floorboards and a drafty old house. More than a few surprises await him at the Grange, including its prickly, reclusive owner. Tristan Pryce is much less insane and much more attractive than Wolf wants to admit, and when his team releases a ghostly serial killer on the Grange, Wolf is torn between his skepticism and protecting the man he’s been sent to discredit.
“SMELL THAT?” Wolf Kincaid paused at a narrow doorway, his broad shoulders wedged up against the creaking wooden frame. “Effervescent in nature, a whiff of dirt.”
He was speaking of the wispy mist blanketing the battered floor, its swirls created by the uneven knotty planks as much as by the two men walking down the hall. Around Wolf, the plantation house creaked with noise and echoes, tidbits of sound reaching back to tantalize the men sent to document its haunted history.
Built during the early days of Louisiana’s settlement, Willow Hills Plantation was once a hub of Southern activity, providing the surrounding area with food and, during bleaker times, an avenue for escaped slaves to begin a new life in the North. Stripped down nearly to its frame by its aging tenants, Willow Hills had been resurrected from its near death as a bed-and-breakfast. Positioned as the last stop of an Underground Railroad tour, the plantation soon earned a reputation of being a great place to eat as well as a home to restless spirits.
It was the latter part of its reputation that Wolf Kincaid came to tear apart.
“Hey, Wolf, want me to get an air sample?” Matt peeked out from behind his shoulder-mount camera, its illuminated trim splashing up enough of a glow for them to see in the plantation’s dark halls. “Or is it an ambient leak from outside? Swamp gas?”
“Some kind of gas,” Wolf muttered. “Nah, I know what it is. Don’t bother.”
No, he wasn’t going to feel bad about taking out the Willow Hills ghosts.
And if he had a chance, he’d go back in time and kick the shit out of its builders too. At a little over six feet, he should have had more space to walk around in the upper floors’ hallways. Instead, he felt like Alice after she had too many frosted cakes. His elbows hurt from banging into the walls, and the household staff wouldn’t have to dust for cobwebs because Wolf was pretty sure he’d walked through all of the ones in the attic storerooms. If he’d thought ahead, he could have taken a feather duster, done the job right, and charged the Willows for a deep cleaning as well as a spectral investigation.
Another step into yet another tiny room in the warren of servants’ quarters and Wolf found himself face-to-face with an apparition.
As apparitions went, it was fairly strong. White pallor, groaning black mouth, and empty eye sockets, with trails of ebony bleeding out under the spirit’s surrounding mottled skin. Her features were difficult to see, but the jut of her breasts straining against the thin lawn shirt she wore left Wolf with no doubt that he was staring through a woman.
Then she opened her mouth and a horrendous shriek rattled his eardrums and set fire to Wolf’s nerves.
Somewhere behind him, Matt screamed, and from the thudding sounds that soon followed, Wolf guessed he’d toppled over, probably taking the camera with him. The woman flickered in and out, a blue-white veil of features and fabric. Without warning, she rushed them, advancing on Wolf with her hands stretched out in front of her like talons.
He ducked. It was instinct born of human nature, and he cursed himself for it nearly as soon as he curled his shoulders away from the ghost. An icy chill hit him, whooshing over his face and arms. Then another struck, a stronger blast of air, cold enough to peel goose bumps up from his skin. The screaming continued, a murderous shriek echoed at a lower volume by his cameraman.
Something wet struck his cheek, and Wolf turned, looking up at the angled ceiling, where clotting strands of something dark and viscous dripped slowly down on top of them. It smelled rank and of curdled metal. Dabbing at a moist spot on his cheek, Wolf tasted the thick fluid, recoiling at its sourness when it spread over his tongue.
“Blood,” he murmured, holding up his wet finger for Matt to see. “Are you recording this?”
“I’m fucking freezing my nuts off, and I think I swallowed my tongue.” The young man struggled to get to his feet, tugging his ill-fitting Hellsinger Investigations T-shirt down over his slightly rounded belly. “Did you fucking see that? Shit, tell me you got readings on that.”
“Oh, I got something on it,” Wolf replied with a grin. “Come on, Matty. See if you can keep up.”
He left the younger man behind, edging past him, then launching into a full run down the tight staircase leading to the kitchens. His elbows took a beating. Obviously, his body had picked through his genetic soup and decided it preferred the enormous bulk of his Scottish ancestors above everything else and poured out his muscles and bones with a maniacal, enthusiastic glee.
While height and brawn were good in a fight, it made for shitty going while trying to run down a spiral staircase meant for tiny seventeenth-century women.
Somewhere behind him, Matt clomped along. He’d hired the young man for his filming and technical skills, not for going through an obstacle course, but Wolf didn’t really care. Most of the time, Matt could keep up. This time, however, it wasn’t as important as Wolf getting down to where he thought the apparition originated.
Because he needed to put an end to the haunting.
It was what he was paid to do. It was what he loved to do. Capturing that moment on film wasn’t as important as just having that moment.
And Wolf Kincaid was famous for having those kinds of moments.
Booming thumps echoed in the rear of the house, percussive rounds loud enough to shatter the eerie silence that settled down after the ghost’s shrieking. The walls around Wolf shook, and he ducked out of the way as a framed sampler fell off its hanger as he rounded the stairwell’s landing.
Behind him, Matt followed, stomping and cursing at the tight fit. The young man would have a hard time of it. The camera was too big, too bulky to make the tight turns quickly if Matt insisted on keeping it fixed to his shoulder to film. Which was what he’d certainly do. It was what Wolf paid him to do, even as he was tumbling ass over teakettle down the stairs behind his boss.
The staircase let out into the servants’ kitchen, a dank-smelling, closed-in room that, despite the staff’s best efforts, seemed to cling to its grimy lower-class roots. Wolf slipped on a tile, his sneaker catching on a thick line of grout, the sandy mixture providing some traction against the overpolished ceramic floor.
Ahead, the noises grew louder, more ear-shearing rattles and booms. More shrieks followed, echoing first upstairs, then suddenly snapping to the bottom floor, louder and more profane than the ghostly banshee moans. Rounding the corner, Wolf found himself in a room directly beneath the staircase, a long, rectangular space the plantation used for storage.
A stein flew past Wolf’s head, nearly clocking him on the temple. The heavy ceramic shattered against a wall behind him, and he felt a shard cut his cheek, the brief sting deepening into something heavy and wet on his skin. Another stein followed, then a plate wide enough to host a good-sized turkey.
“Fuck!” Matt exploded into a round of curses. From the sounds coming from behind him, Wolf guessed a piece of flying crockery had found its target in the cameraman or his equipment. “Poltergeists now?”
Wolf fumbled to find a light switch. His fingers found a bank of sliders on the wall next to the door, and the storeroom burst into view, two banks of overhead fluorescents throwing everything into a stark contrast of bright and shadow. Fully drenched in light, two women in period costume froze in place, one caught in the middle of throwing a metal steaming tray while the other’s hands were tangled in audio-visual feed lines. The cables disappeared through a small hole in the ceiling tiles, and nearby, a tripod lay on its side on what looked like a camera case. Both women were bleached white from heavy layers of makeup, their eyes hollow and bleak from a coating of dense theatrical kohl.
Smug, Wolf gave both women a short, mocking bow, then sneered, “Hello, ladies.”
“THEY WERE pretending to be ghosts so people would go stay there?” Nahryn placed a steaming mug of black coffee in front of Wolf and settled into an empty wing chair next to his. “Why would someone do that?”
A bubbly young Armenian woman and Hellsinger’s Girl Friday, Nahryn kept their office running at a finely tuned hum and, more importantly to Wolf, made certain he had a pot of Ka‘u coffee to bolster him by the time he made it into their San Francisco office.
Even if sometimes her coffee was strong enough to bleach Wolf’s dark-brown hair to white from its bitter shock.
“Because ghosts equal profit,” Gidget pronounced from behind her teacup, her mascara-thick eyelashes fluttering the steam rising from her Earl Grey. “It was a pretty stupid rig too. Projection onto dry ice mists with leads feeding into speakers on the third floor. They’re never going to get the pig’s blood out of those ceiling beams.”
Their technician and Matt’s lover went for a more Rosie the Riveter look that morning, a piss-yellow bandana holding back a spill of flame-red curls from her pale face and her overalls creaking as she shifted in her chair, the heavy denim still so new it stank of dye. Glass cherries dangled from her lobes, a row of four in each ear, and they chimed when she moved her head. While they matched the printed cherries on her button-up shirt, Wolf thought it looked like she’d lost a fight with a fruit salad.
He’d tell Gidget that as soon as he told Nahryn about her coffee. One wrong, pissy word and Gidget could have his sensors bleeping a spectral hit on every pile of dog shit he walked by.
While he might get the hots for a long-legged man in jeans, he could commiserate with a straight man about the minefields of living with a woman. He spent days on end with two of them and still had to tread carefully with the best of them. Also—Wolf grinned into his coffee—he always had Matt to throw in as a sacrificial lamb whenever he needed an out.
“But that’s lying,” Nahryn insisted.
“It’s what keeps us in business, Nah-nah,” Wolf pointed out. “And since Willow Hills invoked our confidentiality clause and paid their invoice in full, we can’t say anything about their two wayward docents. The powers that be didn’t know, and now that they do, they want to make sure no one else does.”
“So we can’t even tell people they’re lying?” Her big brown eyes were narrowing. “That’s wrong too. The world sucks.”
“People hire us to prove their ghosts are real or at least come up inconclusive.” Turning on his tablet, Wolf tapped through his appointments. “Willow Hills gambled and lost. They didn’t know they were playing loaded dice. It happens sometimes. A lot of people think they can pull one over an investigator—”
“But the equipment doesn’t lie,” Gidget crowed, resting her heels on the corner of the conference table.
“Nope. It usually doesn’t.” Wolf saluted her with his coffee mug. “Let’s see what we’ve got on the books for today.”
“You have an appointment with a Mrs. Walter Pryce the Third in half an hour. She called right as I was making coffee, so I didn’t get a chance to put it down on the books yet.” Nahryn scrolled through her own tablet, then stopped to wrangle her curly brown hair into a tie. “She wants to hire you to look into a haunting. She thinks it’s bullshit.”
“She actually say bullshit?” Wolf’s eyebrows lifted. “People with the Third in their names don’t usually trot out the word bullshit.”
“No, she said implausible, but I was having problems spelling that so I just wrote down bullshit.” Nahryn grinned at him. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“Nope, I don’t,” Wolf admitted. “Okay, I’m going to talk with Mrs. Pryce. Then, after that, I’ll take all of you to 39 for some lunch.”
“Crab?” Nahryn paused halfway out of her chair and did a little dance with her butt against the upholstery. “’Cause you know… crab.”
“For you, Nah-nah, we can get crab.” He tweaked his Girl Friday’s nose. “First Mrs. Pryce’s boo-wigglies and someone get Matt on the phone. About time he got to work.”
“MY NEPHEW is insane.”
Wolf spared the woman a brief glance as he shuffled through the papers she’d brought with her. Mrs. Walter Pryce III was an older woman, one Born-to-the-Park, pinkie-lifting Junior Leaguer. Patting her swing of artfully done blonde hair, she took a moment to pause at the doorway of his pier-front office, her critical gaze taking in the space’s blend of gentlemen’s club furnishings and broad, sweeping view of the water. He almost didn’t catch the curl in her lip or the slight flare of her nostril, but he did. The brittle smile that chased after the hint of disapproval slipped from her face. After tugging carefully at the hem of her cardigan, she then smoothed her black pencil skirt and held her head up as she let herself be led into Hellsinger’s conference room.
Now, settled into a leather wing chair and armed with a porcelain teacup filled with a lavender-lemon blend, Mrs. Pryce seemed much more in control, especially after she’d shocked Wolf with her pronouncement. She nodded curtly at Wolf’s glance, probably mistaking his curiosity for something else. Or maybe, Wolf thought, she didn’t really care what he thought just so long as he took the assignment and delivered on the job.
“Rather than me reading through now, why don’t you give me the highlights so I can decide if I’ll take the case?” Wolf matched Mrs. Pryce’s haughty sip of her tea with a sloppy slurp of his coffee.
“I didn’t realize I was here to be auditioned.” Another sip, and this time, the nostril flare remained too long on her face to be dismissed as a tic.
“I don’t take every case presented to us,” Wolf replied. “If I did, I’d never get any sleep. But please, tell me about your nephew… the insane one.”
“Are you mocking me, Mr. Kincaid?”
“Not at all, Ms. Pryce.” Wolf shook his head. A lot of people walked into Hellsinger either thinking they were crazy and hoping to find out they weren’t or dancing on the razor’s edge of needing a wraparound jacket and looking for someone to prove them sane. It was, however, the first time someone sat across of him and openly declared her prey nuts. “Please go on. I’m all ears.”
“Tristan has always been a delicate boy.” Her pinkie flexed slightly, hovering over the cup’s handle as if she was afraid to let it touch the porcelain. “It all started when Great Uncle Mortimer Pryce died—”
“Mortimer?” Wolf nearly snorted coffee through his nose. “Really?”
“It’s a family name,” she replied smoothly. “My third son is named after him.”
“God help him,” he muttered to himself. “Sorry, continue. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Tristan’s parents were quite normal. Did the best they could for him, but of course, he always seemed to wander away. Even if he was right in front of you, he would… rather… appear to not be paying attention. Great Uncle Mortimer was fond of the boy and would have Tristan visit him over the summers. I personally didn’t think his parents should have let him go to Hoxne Grange by himself. Mortimer was… a confirmed bachelor, if you know what I mean?” Her eyebrows somehow both lifted and scowled with disapproval, something Wolf had not thought possible before he’d met the woman.
He didn’t answer, merely blinking with a muted ignorance of what she was implying. “There wasn’t anyone for him to play with?”
“No, that is not what I meant,” Mrs. Pryce said firmly. “Tristan was a young boy and at an impressionable age. Great Uncle Mortimer should not have had access to him. He filled the boy’s mind with rubbish.”
“What kind of rubbish?”
“That Hoxne Grange is haunted and that he somehow was its caretaker… the ghosts’ caretaker.” She shuddered, either with the foolishness or the growing bitterness of the cooling tea. “Mortimer was one thing. I mean, he was an older gentleman. Very set in his ways and the Grange is… well, it’s a family legacy. The Pryce family had it built nearly a century and a half ago. It’s on a fantastic property in Mill Valley. Great Uncle Mortimer inherited it when his father died. When he passed, he left everything to Tristan. It’s been a touchy subject in the family since then.”
“So Tristan getting the property wasn’t expected?” Wolf began taking notes, diagramming out the Pryce family tree.
“No, my husband is the next eldest son in the Pryce family. Tristan’s father was his youngest brother.” She set her cup down, the saucer rattling beneath it. “It should have gone to him, but instead, Tristan is Mortimer’s sole heir, and from what we can tell, he’s continued the man’s insane claims about the Grange being haunted.”
“How long has he been its owner?”
“Since he was nineteen. Really, it was too big a burden to hand over to a teenager. He’s almost twenty-eight.” Mrs. Pryce’s mouth flattened into a line, crinkling her pink lipstick. “Luckily, he kept most of the landscaping staff, and there is a daily housekeeping staff that comes in, so at least the estate isn’t being run to the ground.”
“So he’s maintained it?”
“Thankfully, Mortimer set up a trust fund to dispense monies to Tristan until his twenty-eighth birthday. It truly is a blessing. Tristan’s… an artist of sorts. A children’s book writer, I think. Certainly not enough of an income to keep the Grange up.” She lifted her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “On Tristan’s birthday, he’ll inherit the rest of the estate and have full control of its assets. The family is concerned that with Tristan’s… peculiarities… he’ll be taken advantage of. We’d like you to help us ensure this will not happen.”
“What about Tristan’s parents?” Wolf cocked his head, tapping the tip of his pencil on two empty boxes on his flow chart.
“Carol and Sandy… Alexander was his real name… they died in a small plane crash off of the coast of Italy about six months after Tristan inherited the estate.” A frown crinkled her smooth brow, and she played with a button on her sweater. “Sandy was against Tristan living there. He thought Mortimer was setting his son up to continue playing his little ghost game. Of course, Tristan denies this. He fully believes the Grange hosts his little friends. He’s turned the family home into an inn, Mr. Kincaid, and the majority of his guests are not real.”
Wolf didn’t have to guess at the Pryces’ motivations. Mortimer’s money and estate seemed to be their first priority, although he couldn’t rule out the woman’s concern for her nephew. A few taps on his tablet called up the Grange’s visual from an overhead map. Constructed during the Gilded Age, the sprawling estate was built into a nest of hills, and from what Wolf could make out, clearly designed by someone with a love for the Renaissance Revival form. A photo of Hoxne Grange called up a view of its front drive and landscaped grounds. The place was huge—sprawling seemed to be too weak of a word for the winged W set among the redwood trees—and embellished with formal gardens.
“What do you want me to do? I’m not in the business of declaring people mentally incompetent,” Wolf pointed out. “Even if I’ve got a sheepskin telling you I can.”
“The family would like you to stay at the Grange and investigate Tristan’s claims. Your agency is known to be fair. We’d just like you to show Tristan that his ghosts only exist in his mind. If you can do that, Mr. Kincaid, just show him that the Grange isn’t a way station for phantoms, we will pay you anything you ask for. He needs to be shown reality, Mr. Kincaid, and I think you’re just the man to do that.”
HIS UNCLE was going to wear a hole in the library floor; Tristan was sure of it. The last half hour was ticked off by the squeak of his Italian loafers when he turned, a five-second interval bleeding off Tristan’s morning. Checking the grandfather clock for what he thought might have been the hundredth time since Walter Pryce III came through his front door, Tristan waited for his uncle to wind up yet another argument meant to move him out of the Grange.
“Your aunt is speaking with the agency now—” Walter began another circuit, his meaty hands clasped around his back.
“Is she still counted as my aunt if she’s your third wife?” Tristan huffed a breath up at his forehead, hoping to move a chunk of blond hair away from his eyes. If he used his fingers, he knew he’d get trapped in playing with his hair, and anything Walter said to him would be lost in the contemplation of how the sunlight changed the colors as it bled through the shafts. “I mean, Aunt Judith counts because she was first, right? Sharon maybe because she had Mortie, but Ashley? Is she my aunt too?”
“Tristan, please concentrate on what I’m saying to you.” The man harrumphed, exhaling forcefully enough to make his lips flap. Tristan’s fingers itched for a sketchbook, wanting to scribble out his impressions of a disgruntled walrus waddling back and forth on an ice floe. “We’re hoping you’ll see reason.”
“Reason….” Tristan repeated softly. “By opening the Grange up to people who chase ghosts?”
“They are paranormal psychologists. Or at least the agency head is.” Walter turned again, squeaking off another tick of time. “I know it would be terrible to discover that perhaps you’ve been encouraged to… um… what is the word I’m looking for?”
“Hallucinate?” he supplied for his uncle. “Sucking on guano from the bats in my belfry? Rowing with one oar?”
“You’re not crazy!” His uncle frowned, caught in midstep, his large belly jiggling under his suit. “Look, boy, I’m fond of you. I want the best for you. Just let them come stay here for a bit and see what they can find. Is that too much to ask?”
Tristan stretched out his legs, rubbing at the cramp forming along his thigh. He’d not asked Mara to turn the heat on in the library that morning until Uncle Walter’s sedan pulled up in front of the Grange. It had been an unexpected visit, and they’d both sworn under their breath when the man’s driver let his short, soft-bellied uncle out of the car.
Well, he’d sworn. Mara merely muttered darkly and scurried off to turn the heat on before pulling together a coffee tray for his guest. He’d sworn enough for both of them. His elderly housekeeper, while a pleasant woman for the most part, liked to get her daily work done and out of the way so she could spend her afternoons watching the shows she’d recorded the night before. Since most of her day included making sure he kept himself fed, Tristan didn’t care how she spent her days so long as the Grange was always guest ready. With fifteen bedrooms to keep up and two young women from the nearby town coming in to help her dust and mop, Mara kept the Grange primed and lemony-fresh, and she resented his uncle’s sudden appearance on a tightly scheduled Tuesday morning.
Tristan wasn’t too fond of Walter’s arrival either. He had only ten more minutes before he had to be at the reception desk, and from the man’s squeaky pacing, it didn’t sound like Walter Pryce was going to leave until Tristan gave him some kind of concession.
“And if they find out I’m not crazy?” he offered up in exchange. “Suppose they hand you a report that I’m sane and the Grange is what Uncle Mortimer and I say it is? Will you leave me be then?”
The look of confusion on his uncle’s face told Tristan the man had not considered that possibility. A few lip flaps and another squeaka-squeaka pass later, Walter Pryce grumbled, “If he comes back and says that there’s something here, then yes, I’ll acknowledge that there might be something to your claims. But the agency has to verify that there is some sort of activity here. If not, then I’m going to insist you stop this nonsense and come home.”
“I am home, Uncle Walter,” Tristan said softly. “I’ve lived here at the Grange for most of my adult life and spent nearly all of my summers here. If this isn’t home, then where is that?”
“Then we’ll come to you.” The man’s hand on his shoulder was meant to be reassuring, but Tristan felt it held a greater weight than his uncle’s skin, bones, and flesh. “We’ll come here to you at the Grange. It is the family home, after all.”
He was able to hustle his uncle out with a few murmured assurances and then exhaled a sigh of relief when the door closed behind him. A few seconds later, the sedan’s quiet engine rumbled away and Tristan was left with the silence of the Grange around him.
The snick-snick of a dog’s nails on the foyer’s parquet floors echoed up into the high ceiling, and Tristan grinned at the shaggy gray head poking out from around the side of the sweeping mahogany counter Mortimer Pryce had built to be the Grange’s reception desk.
“Come on out, Boris.” He whistled to the Irish wolfhound. “He’s gone.”
“That dog knows evil when he smells it.” Mara appeared at Tristan’s elbow, moving as silently as one of the hall’s guests.
“He knows Uncle Walter doesn’t like him.” Bending over, Tristan scratched at the enormous dog’s floppy ears, sending Boris into a wiggling dance of ecstasy. “The man’s not evil, he’s just… closed-minded.”
“Well, ghosts or no, he’s a menace.” The woman’s harrumph was less pronounced than Walter’s, but it was still impressive. “Your ghosties are your business. This is your house. If you want to hold balls for faeries, it’s your right, and damn anyone else who says something against it.”
A dusting rag hung from her elbow crook, and a faint hint of the green-tea soap Tristan gave her for Christmas perfumed her soft white skin, its delicate scent fighting a losing battle against lemon polish and the arthritic salve Mara used for her aching knees. A softly curved woman, she came up to Tristan’s shoulder and often was in and out of a room, leaving behind only plates of sandwiches and cookies as evidence she’d been there. Something clung to the frosted candy floss of Mara’s silvery hair, and Tristan reached over to pluck it off.
It was a single diamond stud, and he handed it to her. “Did you find the other one?”
“No.” She shook her head, closing his fingers over the stone. “You keep that one. Maybe even change that silly hoop you have in your ear. You look like a little boy playing pirate.”
“Maybe.” He’d never told Mara the hoop belonged to his mother, a sliver of gold some faceless official handed him over her remains. She would scold him about being morbid, not understanding the hoop made him feel close to the woman who’d given birth to him but never really understood the changeling she’d been saddled with. “Or maybe even a second hole?”
“All you need is a parrot instead of that dumb Sasquatch you’ve brought into this house.” A deep belling roll began to sound off from the library, and Mara sniffed at the chilling air. “Well, that’s time, then. I’ll be off. You deal with… that. Don’t get to talking too much. I’ll be bringing you lunch at noon, and don’t forget, the gardeners will be here this afternoon, so get that beast to his walk before then.”
He was talking to her back by the time the final chime from the library’s grandfather clock struck. Settling himself on the stool behind the old-fashioned reception desk, Tristan immediately regretted leaving his coffee behind. There was no telling how late his morning arrival would be, and he’d only had half a cup. He’d have to scare up another pot before he headed to his study on the third floor.
“If I’d really been thinking, I would have brought a sketchbook too,” he informed Boris. The dog lolled his long pink tongue at him and began a leisurely scratch at a spot near his jowls. “Really, Uncle Walter showing up just screwed the whole morning.”
He didn’t have to wait long. A few minutes after he’d sat down, the Grange’s front doors rattled and swung open. A brisk wind cut through the open portal, carrying in the scent of rain on its breath. As suddenly as it opened, the wide doors closed, whispering on their well-oiled hinges. From behind the desk, Boris whimpered, tucking himself into a huddle, and Tristan patted the dog’s broad head.
A wet footprint appeared on the wooden floor about two feet into the foyer, then another, a sopping trail of steps marking someone’s progress toward the reception area. Elongated shadows played beneath a large round table set in the middle of the circular area, and something brushed against a stray pink rose that drooped from the enormous flower display sitting in a mint-green urn on the table’s top.
She came into view a step or two after she passed the table, a bedraggled woman dressed in a neatly patched plain dress. Clutching her case in front of her in a white-knuckled grip, she nodded carefully at Tristan, then plastered a tentative smile on her pleasant face, clearing her throat before she spoke.
“I’ve come about the cook’s position, sir.” Her melodic voice was stamped with the distinct grit of a Northern Londoner, and if Tristan looked carefully, he knew he would see the black grime of the Lower Hells stuck under her fingernails. The rest of her was neat and trim despite the wear on her clothes and the fatigue on her still young face. “I’ve got no references, as the Lady turned me out for what the Lord was doing, but….”
“I don’t need your references. You’ll do fine,” Tristan reassured her. “Wages are forty pounds, and you’ll be given tea, beer, and sugar, as well.”
“That’s too generous, sir.” She blushed, a pink lightening up her pallor. “I’m not skilled for that—”
“We’ve only one cook position,” he cut her off gently. “Kitchens are through that door and down the hall. Can you start now? I’ve nearly a full inn and need a dinner set up for the guests. Your rooms will be behind the kitchen.”
“Yes, sir. I can start immediately.” She dropped into a short curtsey, nearly losing her satchel. “My name’s Heather. Heather Cook, sir. Thank you so much. I won’t be letting you down.”
“I know, Heather. I know,” Tristan said, pointing to the door. “Welcome to Hoxne Grange. We’re glad to have you here.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, she whispered away, dropping out of sight in flecks of light until nothing remained of her but the wet footprints on the foyer’s wooden floor. He was about to fetch a mop when Mara came out of the door he’d directed Heather to.
“So she’s gone, then?” Mara asked, wheeling out a metal mop bucket in front of her.
“Yeah, she is.” Tristan smiled, saddened by the young dead woman he’d spoken to.
“Well, then, it’s done until next Tuesday,” his housekeeper pronounced in a firm voice. “I’ll clean this up, and you go on upstairs. There’s coffee waiting for you and some brekkie. Maybe later on, you’ll get a nap. I know how Tuesdays wear you down.”
“Thank you, Mara.” He kissed the froth of silvery-white curls at her temple. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d be mopping your own damned floors every Tuesday after you hire your dead cook again.” She slapped at his arm. “Go on with you, and take that cowardly beast with you.”
A great read and a even better story to keep around for a re-read.
Read the full review at
It’s an entertaining read with a creative premise I thoroughly enjoyed.
So, if you are a fan, get ready to love this book, and if you are new to the author you will certainly love the story.
This was an awesome story with the perfect balance of the romance and action.
The writing is superb. The storyline flows beautifully
I have been an avid fan of Rhys Ford's books since Dirty Kiss and she continues on her record of writing excellence in Fish and Ghosts.
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