Lord Patrick Delaney promised to deliver an important message to his best friend’s sister, but promises are hard to keep when one becomes a ghost. After Patrick is attacked in the forest and tossed into a river, he is surprised to wake at the country estate where the lovely Miss Laura Chetwey is mourning the loss of her brother. Even more surprising, she seems to be the only person who can see or hear him, which should make his mission easy to complete… if only he could remember the message he is supposed to deliver.
Laura’s brother has been missing for four months and she has come to believe he perished at sea. Taking refuge at her uncle’s estate, she tries to escape her grief by immersing herself in the imaginary world of fiction by penning a horrid novel. But the line between reality and make-believe becomes hard to distinguish when a handsome ghost arrives at Torrington Abbey to protect her and steals her heart in the process.
Trapped between the span of life and death, Patrick fears he will vanish forever once he remembers the news of Laura's brother. Will they ever have a chance to be together, or is the opportunity for love lost to them forever?
Her Muse, Lord Patrick
Copyright © 2014 by Jane Charles
February, 1815, Cumberland, England
Lord Patrick Delaney glanced up through the forest of trees to the darkening sky. He must reach Torrington Abbey before nightfall. The woods were treacherous enough in the light of day. The last thing he needed was his horse twisting a leg on an overgrown root. The further he traveled, the thicker the forest became until he could barely make out the sky above through the twisted arms of bare trees. If this were summer, or even spring, it would be nearly impossible to find what remained of the path. As it was, layer upon layer of dead, brown leaves carpeted the ground. Fog was moving in, and it was becoming difficult to see much beyond the trees closest to him. The rest were misted in white.
Patrick pulled his greatcoat tight and shivered. It wasn’t so much cold as it was damp, and this forest wasn’t the least bit comforting. In hindsight, the road would have been quicker, even if it added additional miles, but Patrick had a message to deliver and this path was more expedient to his destination.
At least it should have been. What happened to the trail? It had been well-used and wide when he was last here. Were there no longer hunts at Torrington Abbey? The area was overrun with deer, rabbit, and pheasant. “A virtual hunter’s paradise.”
A rustling ahead drew his attention. It was probably another animal.
His horse shied, and Patrick reached forward, patting her neck. Something spooked the old gel. He straightened, turned in his seat, and strained to see beyond the darkness and mist, listening for sounds that may not belong in a forest. He slipped a hand to the inside pocket of his jacket. The trusted knife was in place and he resumed holding the reins with both hands.
A chuckle escaped. He was being foolish and was no longer a lad, easily scared by a story of the ghost of Mad Marcus Miller roaming these woods. Those childhood fears, leftover from the days when he visited his best friend, Blake Chetwey, were what put him in this state. Everyone knew there was no such thing as a ghost. He was a grown man, and there was very little, if anything, he feared these days.
Cautiously he continued toward his destination. A deer shot out in front of him and his horse reared. Patrick tightly grasped the reins and held his seat. As the horse’s hooves thumped back against the ground, Patrick let out a nervous laugh. Heart pounding, he nudged the mare forward. One would think after his sea voyage that had been plagued with storms, illnesses, and general bad luck, natural forest noises wouldn’t raise the hair on the back of his neck.
He was simply tired. He hadn’t rested once the ship had docked in Liverpool but had hired a horse and started the journey immediately, only to learn that Miss Laura Chetwey, Blake’s younger sister, was no longer at the family home in Cheshire but residing at Torrington Abbey in Cumberland, with her aunt and uncle. He had been traveling for three days, sleeping only when necessary and for short periods of time. The urgency of this trip couldn’t be ignored. Blake’s sister needed to be told what had happened to her brother.
It was strange that, in all the years he and Blake had been friends, Patrick had never met Miss Chetwey. That would be rectified tonight.
An owl hooted above, and there was rustling in the leaves to the left. At the snap of a branch from behind, Patrick sat straighter in his saddle. He pulled up when a bearded man appeared on the path in front of him, a tree limb clutched in his right hand. Patrick reached inside his jacket, but before he could grab the knife he was struck from behind. The crack against bone sent pain shooting through his left arm and deep into his shoulder. Patrick clenched his jaw against the searing pain and held tightly to the reins as his horse danced and bucked. He peered down at a third filthy attacker who was brandishing a make-shift weapon. The first weapon-bearing imbecile ran toward him.
Patrick fought to hold his seat while they struck him from all directions and landed blows against his back, thighs and arms. His mare just needed an opening to bolt from this madness. Instead, the mare reared again. Patrick lost his grip and slid from the back of the animal, landing on his arse. Despite the dizzying blows, he struggled to his feet and pulled the knife from his pocket while backing away from the three bearded and unkempt miscreants. His mare shot off in the direction he had just ridden and left him with no means of a quick escape. At the last moment, he turned and ran. He was not in a position to take on all three and suspected his left arm was broken from the earlier blow.
His feet were sure and steady as he raced away, jumping logs, avoiding roots, and gritting his teeth against the sharp, jabbing pain in his arm and shoulder each time his booted foot slammed against the ground. The rushing river appeared before him, and he stopped short, almost toppling face forward in the churning water.
“Bollocks.” Normally it was an easy swim, and he could have made it with one arm, but the recent rain had left the river swollen and treacherous. Patrick didn’t dare chance it now. He tested his arm by lifting it. Pain sliced through the bicep after just a few inches. He would never be able to fight the current.
He turned back and glanced to his left then his right, trying to determine which way to go. The brigands emerged from the forest to block all options of escape.
Patrick brandished the knife before him. The battle may be lost but he was not going out without a fight.
All three men rushed him at once. A branch connected with his gut then his other shoulder, jarring the knife from his hand, before another limb was slammed against his skull.
Patrick crumbled and fought the waves of darkness that threatened to engulf him as he was kicked in the belly, back, and head. Two of the brigands searched his pockets while the third removed his boots and then his greatcoat. When they were finished taking what they wanted, the three lifted Patrick and tossed him in the river. Cold, wet darkness engulfed him.
* * *
“I do wish you would join us at the assembly, dear.”
Miss Laura Chetwey glanced up at her loving aunt, a small woman of five and forty, gentle smile, and black hair with just a few wisps of gray. “You know it isn’t right that I participate in a public event, especially an assembly.”
Aunt Ivy pursed her lips then sighed. “We do not know what has become of your brother.”
“His ship was due four months ago.” Laura stood and paced before the large fireplace in the library of Torrington Abbey. “And there has been absolutely no news.”
“That doesn’t mean. . .”
Laura wheeled around. “Then I should expect my parents to walk through the front door any day as well. Perhaps they simply stopped somewhere on their way home from Ireland for five year long visit.”
Tears formed in her aunt’s eyes, and Laura immediately regretted her tone. “I’m sorry, Aunt Ivy.”
“We know their ship sank in a storm. Others witnessed it,” her aunt gently reminded her.
Laura allowed her shoulders to slump, and she looked down at the gold and red carpet. “I know.” Her words were barely a whisper.
“But you go on as if Blake is dead. You’ve been wearing half-morning since Christmas.”
“It should be full mourning. I only bowed to your wishes in that.”
“Until there is news there should be no mourning at all.” There was firmness in her aunt’s tone that Laura rarely heard, but she could not give in on this argument. Wearing any other color was disrespectful to her brother. It wasn’t right to go on as if all was as it should be, or wear pretty dresses and dance. If her brother wasn’t dead, he would have arrived in London in October as scheduled, or at the very least, sent a letter explaining his delay. But he hadn’t. There was nothing – not a word from him. “I will remain in gray and lavender until I know for certain one way or the other,” Laura insisted.
“Your brother will not be happy to learn you’re avoiding society.”
Laura fisted a hand against her aching heart in remembrance of Blake’s last letter, sent a month prior to his scheduled departure from Barbados. I expect you to have settled on a gentleman when I return, and he should be anxiously waiting to ask permission for your hand. I will not support you forever. He was teasing, in this she knew. Before he left there had been offers of marriage. Blake could have married her off to any of the gentlemen, but he was concerned that she be happy as well.
“I’ll discuss it with him when he returns, and perhaps he will learn to be more diligent in his correspondence.” A rush of tears came to her eyes. Blake wasn’t going to come back, and the only family left was her aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Torrington. Two months ago, her uncle had assumed guardianship because at the age of twenty she was not at liberty to make her own decisions, and Uncle Edmond refused to allow Laura to remain in her family home in Cheshire with only servants and a companion to watch over her. Laura had rarely visited Torrington Abbey. However, Blake had been practically raised here in preparation of inheriting the earldom from his uncle one day. As her aunt and uncle had not been blessed with children of their own, Blake was the heir. Unlike Blake, Laura did not like this place. It was far too dark, dreary, and damp for her taste.
“Are we ready to depart? We need to be finished with the drive before it grows dark. ”
Laura glanced at her uncle as he came through the door. He’d aged twenty years in the last five, ever since his younger brother and sister-in-law died. His hair was completely white, and wrinkles ran deep on his gaunt face. His health had declined as well, and Laura knew he feared Blake was dead, even if he never admitted so to her.
He took in Laura’s appearance. “Lavender!” he grumbled, whirled, and stalked out the door. Uncle Edmond probably wanted to marry her off, before official word of her brother’s death arrived, so she wouldn’t have to remain here an additional six months to a year. She expected his sudden interest in taking up her guardianship was to force her to London in April to enjoy the Season.
“Have a pleasant evening, dear.” Aunt Ivy leaned forward and brushed her lips across Laura’s cheek. “Don’t stay up late. We will return in the morning. ”
The door clicked behind her aunt, and Laura turned and studied the room. What to do now? She glided over to the bookshelves and began reading titles, again. She had read the spines so often these past few weeks that they were practically memorized, but she was still hopeful there was one book among them she had not read.
Treatises would bore her but came in handy when she couldn’t sleep. The same could be said for poetry. Though Keats wrote lovely prose, it wasn’t her choice for enjoyable reading. What she needed was another horrid novel. Her aunt and uncle had so few, and she had already read them. There was little excitement in reading a novel when one knew the ending.
With a sigh she spun from the bookshelf and made her way to the window overlooking the gardens sheltered by three walls of the U-shaped sixteenth century abbey. Lights were lit on the upper floors of the west wing, where the servants resided. The floor below housed the family apartments where Laura had been given a set of rooms. In stark contrast, the upper floors of the east wing were completely black, void of any light or movement. Did her aunt and uncle close off the wing because only the two of them lived here and had so few visitors?
If this abbey were in a horrid novel then a specter would surely wander about the vacant chambers. Perhaps she should investigate. Why, there could be a poor soul trapped inside who had the answers to all the secrets, such as what became of her brother.
Laura sighed and turned away from the window. Even if there was a ghost trapped inside, he or she would have no knowledge of her brother since they had been, well, trapped.
There was a scratch at the door before it slowly opened. Laura held her breath. Her imaginings of ghosts had her waiting for an apparition to float through the opening. Instead, it was Mildred, the young housemaid, quiet as a mouse and slow as a tortoise, carrying a tray with tea and cakes.
“Good evening, miss.” Mildred bobbed a curtsey The china rattled on the silver tray at the slight tilt but settled once placed upon the small table.
“Mildred,” Laura began. “Is there anything of interest in the east wing?”
The maid’s brown eyes grew wide for a moment. “No, miss.”
“Why is it kept shut?” Laura settled into one of the velvet upholstered Elizabethan chairs before the table.
“The…, um…draft.” Mildred busied her hands straightening a napkin that didn’t need to be folded.
Laura’s lips quirked into a smile. Why didn’t Mildred simply tell her the family was too small, or it was too much upkeep for the staff, or something reasonable? But drafty? “I think I would like to explore.”
All color drained from the maid’s face. “Oh, no, miss. That’s not a good idea. ”
“Why ever not?” Laura chuckled. “What horrible secrets are hidden in the east wing?”
Mildred narrowed her eyes and looked about as if to make sure nobody was listening, which was rather odd since it was just the two of them in the room, before she leaned over and whispered. “It is haunted, miss.”
Laura burst out laughing. “Have you been reading my uncle’s horrid novels?”
The maid slumped and lowered her chin. “I can’t read, Miss Chetwey, but I’m telling you the truth,” she whispered earnestly.
“Have you seen this ghost, or is there more than one?” Laura tried to be serious, but the idea of a real ghost was ridiculous. Everyone knew there was no such thing. Not even in a century’s old abbey such as Torrington. They existed only within the pages of horrid novels and fanciful imaginations.
“No, but I’ve heard.”
“Gossip or stories made up to keep people entertained. The Abbey does have a rich history of unexplained deaths, murder, and disappearances.”
“There is a ghost,” Mildred insisted.
“Then who does the ghost belong to?” Laura bit her upper lip to keep from smiling. She didn’t wish Mildred to think she was laughing at her, but truthfully the idea was ridiculous.
Again, Mildred looked around the room as if she expected someone else to be there, before she sank into the opposite seat and leaned forward. “They say it is the third earl of Torrington,” she whispered.
As her uncle was the seventh earl, that would be four generations ago, approximately from the seventeenth century. Laura had never been good with remembering the years each earl had been alive.
“He was killed by Mad Marcus Miller,” Mildred anxiously continued in a hushed tone.
Laura remembered hearing about Mad Marcus when she was a child.
“Stabbed the earl, he did, in the east wing then ran into the forest.”
The story was coming back to her now. The king’s men hunted Mad Marcus Miller down, killed him, cut him to pieces, then scattered his body among the trees. He’s been haunting the woods ever since.
“So, we have a ghost in the east wing and another in the forest?”
Mildred nodded, eyes wide, face pale with fright.
This was ridiculous. “When did anyone last see the ghost in the east wing?”
Mildred straightened and blinked. “I don’t know, miss. The wing has been closed for nigh on a hundred years.”
“So, he may be gone.” Laura slapped her hands down on her thighs.
The maid’s head flinched back. “Where would he have gone?”
“To the ever after.” Laura raised an eyebrow and pointed up, then gestured toward the floor, and shrugged. “Whichever it may be.”
“Do you really think so, Miss Chetwey?” Mildred asked anxiously.
“Why don’t we investigate and see if he is still with us?”
Any color the maid may have regained in the last few moments disappeared. Mildred stood hastily, twisting the apron with her hands. “I don’t think that is a very good idea.”
“Come on, Mildred.” Laura jumped to her feet and grinned. “It will be grand fun.”
Mildred backed away, edging toward the door. “I have work to do, miss.” She turned and bolted out of the room as if the hounds of hell were at her heels. Laura hadn’t thought Mildred had it in her to move so quickly.
A chuckle escaped her and she leaned forward to pour herself a cup of tea. “Haunted indeed.”
She glanced toward the window again and sipped her tea. The east wing intrigued her. What might she find hidden away for the past one hundred years? As the west wing where the family resided was in sturdy condition, Laura reasoned the east wing would not be in disrepair. If it were, wouldn’t the walls be crumbling by now?
She wandered to the window and studied the structure. Not even a window was broken, and the roof was level and even as it should be. She drank the tea and set the cup back on the table. “Why not see if the old earl is still roaming about?”
After lifting a smaller lamp, Laura walked into the hall and up the long stairway before continuing down the corridor leading to the east wing. A dark, wide door blocked the entrance. With a deep breath she reached forward and turned the handle.
Her heart hammered as the door creaked open. The hinges probably hadn’t been oiled in years either.
Laura took a step inside. Cool air enveloped her almost immediately. She shivered. Raising the lamp, she set her trepidation aside and walked forward. As with the west wing, it began with a short corridor of paintings, long enough for a large bedroom before one reached the end and turned onto a longer hall. She paused at the end and held her lamp higher. Darkness and silence waited for her beyond the reach of the pool of illumination.
What lay down the corridor and behind the doors? Had the rooms remained untouched for several decades because the servants and families were afraid to come in here? Or, were they simply stories and the reason the wing was shut up was because only a husband and wife resided at the Abbey?
It didn’t matter and Laura couldn’t wait to explore. She started with the rooms opposite the garden and opened them one by one. There was nothing but bedchambers, eight to be exact, all arranged similarly to the west wing. The only difference was this bedding had been removed, the furniture covered in cloths, and curtains shut against any sun. Laura stopped at the end of the hall and looked back. No light shone from where she’d come. She paused and listened. Not a sound. She was quite alone in this wing of the house. Apparently the former earl had vacated, or he was very quiet and didn’t mind her invading his wing. “If I had been locked up for nigh on a hundred years, I wouldn’t mind company either.”
She crossed the hall and opened another door. Instead of a bedroom, a set of stone steps curved down. They probably would take her to the ground floor of this wing. Laura pulled the door closed and moved onto the next room. It was another bedchamber. And so it continued until she came to the fourth door. The room was smaller and did not have a bed. She stepped inside to investigate. The shadow of a candle fell across the desk, which she lit from her lamp. Another sat on a table by the door and soon Laura had enough light to see the room more clearly than the others. It was an office. A small one for a lady, judging by the delicacy of the desk. A shelf of books rested on the far wall and a thick layer of dust covered the entire room. Cobwebs laced between corners and from ledges to the floor. Under the window was what she assumed to be a settee, given the draping of the cloth and a small fireplace took up the center inside wall.
Laura continued her examination of the room and ideas formed, one after the other. She pulled the chair out and settled at the desk. Both were of a perfect height, and she couldn’t stop her smile.