The Ghost of Depford Hall, Chapter One
Where did the year go?
It’s the first day of October, which means Halloween is only 30 days away! With two books coming out, the month will be a busy one. The Duke She Despised part of the Winter Wishes Holiday Regency Romance Anthology will be released on October 15th. Haunting Miss Fenwick arrives October 23rd. I’ll update information about release day events on my Welcome page, my Facebook page, and in my newsletter.
The Ghost of Depford Hall
Meanwhile, October 2nd is the Amazon “book birthday” of The Ghost of Depford Hall, a sweet Regency Halloween short story that continues where Liliana’s Letter leaves off. In past years I’ve posted the story on my Free Reads in October, but since it’s on Kindle Unlimited, that’s not allowed.
But here’s the first chapter, and if you’d like to read the rest of the story, it’s free on Kindle Unlimited, or just 99 cents if you’re not a KU member.
31 October 1817
With a thump, Leo Fordingham settled the last of the breakfast room chairs into the motley line fanning out from the red-upholstered, gilt-gallooned, gold-fringed central chair.
He dusted his hands and raised a dark eyebrow. “There you go, my love. The monstrosity has its last retainer.”
A howl of wind sent the drawing room windows rattling, puffing out the closed draperies like the lungs of a velvet clad giant. In the fireplace, a log popped and spat, as if someone had sprinkled gunpowder.
Katie propped her hands on her hips. “Dear husband. You are angering the spirits. Clearly they must be partial to that chair.”
“Dear wife, do you not want me to conjure them for your party?”
It had been several months since their wedding, but whenever his eyes twinkled, a fluttering still started up near her heart.
The old house creaked, and Katie put a finger to her lips and shushed him. “The servants only claim one spirit,” she whispered. “And though I know you don’t believe in spirits, to have a ghost among all the saints tonight would be lovely.”
He came up behind her and nuzzled her neck, targeting the spot that always made her squirm and giggle.
“Lovely,” he murmured.
“Yes, lovely.” She gripped his clasped hands. “Perfect.” It would be perfect. It would be the very best possible All Hallows’ Eve celebration, and a new tradition at the sprawling, decaying, centuries-old house Leo’s parents had deeded him upon marriage, Depford Hall.
He turned her around and put his forehead to hers. “Perfect will be when we have packed all of our guests back into their traveling coaches.”
Pleasure rippled through her, the touch of his lips making the flutters in her chest uncurl into warm ribbons.
He gripped her bottom and pulled her against him. “Then we can resume our honeymoon.”
“Mmmm,” she said. She would like to retire to their bedchamber…and make love, and not think, and not worry, and not grieve, not just yet. Her mother was, after all, still with her.
And it was her mother she should be thinking about. “I relish every minute of our honeymooning.” She went up on her toes and kissed his chin. “But we have been, er, occupied with it for several months, and Samhain is Mama’s favorite holiday.”
Footsteps clomped in the hall, growing louder. She dropped her hands from his shoulders. “Someone is coming.”
“And I hope it is one of the servants finally coming to help.” He took a step back, and went on, his tone gentle. “You must take this time with your mother. She must stay through Christmas, and beyond, if you wish, for as long as you wish, Katie. We can even defer ripping out this dreadful paneling and red wall hangings and stirring up ancient dust.”
He really was the best of husbands. She kissed him again.
The door creaked open, admitting a footman clutching a batch of candles. “Had to wrest these from the housekeeper. She didna’ believe I’d need so many. Told her to come have a look herself, and that did it. Gave me them all, she did.”
Leo released her. “You’re a good man, Richard.” He sent Katie a cheeky grin. “I suppose it’s providential for our All Hallows’ Party that we’re living in this old haunted manse.”
A thud and a crash sent Leo flying across the room to rescue an ancient torchiere. Richard grabbed for the lampstand, scattering candles like wax missiles.
“Careful, Richard.” Katie gathered the white tapers rolling across the moth-nibbled Turkey carpet.
“Beggin’ your pardon, miss, but I didna’ so much as lay a finger upon her.” Richard righted the torchiere, an enormous figure of a woman, as tall as Katie herself. His tone was defensive, as if he’d been accused of fondling a maid’s bottom instead of the torchiere’s.
She clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. She’d found the torchiere in the attic, her toga shrouded with cobwebs, the ridiculous laurel-wreathed platter that crowned her head layered with dust.
“Yes, Richard,” Leo said, helping the footman steady the womanly figure. “Be careful. You might knock the cake plate off this lady’s head.”
Richard squeezed his lips closed, no doubt hiding his own grin. One of the tenants’ men, he was only a temporary footman, hired after the harvest to help with their house party. The butler had been schooling him in proper conduct, ineffectually. He was a good lot though, much like the steady men her father employed in his warehouses.
Katie handed the candles to the footman. “We must not have St. Lucy losing her light.”
Leo grinned. “My love, I believe this shapely lady is more likely Artemis.”
She wagged a finger at him. “We have talked about this. We’ll have no creatures from Celtic lore, or any other mythology, else Father will have an apoplexy.” No ghosts, either, unless she could have a spirit ferry Father away. “Now, when you have finished with St. Lucy, Richard, you must be off to the kitchen and fetch the punch bowl.” She unfurled a black cloth over a table. “And you, Mr. Fordingham, must change into your costume.”
Leo helped tug the cloth into place. “And where, pray tell, are the rest of the footmen and maids I’ve hired for this party?”
“Busy. We have a great crowd of Fordinghams occupying all of our bedchambers.” Not that she was complaining; she loved her new, large, jovial family.
“One or two of them could have been down here helping you and the gallant Richard. I will need to get my grandmama to give you lessons on bullying the servants. What say you, Richard? Has Mrs. Fordingham been too soft on the staff?”
The man did not even look away from his task. “Not a bit, sir. It’s that she’s taken pity on them, is all.”
“Ah.” Leo winked at her. “The ghost.”
“Aye, sir. They be afeared of the ghost.”
“My mother will love the ghost,” she said. “I must find one of the locals to whisper the story tonight while you distract my father.”
Mama loved All Hallows’ Eve—Samhain, to her people. On cold winter nights, she’d often tucked Katie in with stories of ghouls and wraiths and bogles, stories handed down from her grandmothers. Father pronounced them low, like all things Celtic.
Leo laughed and kissed her again. “Perhaps we’ll send him into the library with the vicar. I should like to hear the tale also. I’m as intrepid as you and Richard, braving this haunted drawing room.”
“Reckon an old woman can’t hurt, be she alive or dead. Don’t look for harm, don’t find it.” Richard saluted and clomped out.
The door creaked on its hinges and thudded shut, and Leo swept Katie into his arms for a long stirring kiss. If they could sneak away for but fifteen minutes… but no, dusk was setting in, and there was not even that small bit of time. The guests would be down soon. She sighed into his kiss.
He drew back and studied her face. “There are dark smudges under your eyes. You are working too hard. And I’ve been required to spend far too much time entertaining relatives instead of doing this.” He nipped that ticklish spot again, making her giggle.
“Run off and don your armor, St. George.”
“Ah. I didn’t tell you—since my little brother Harry deigned to join us, I’ve handed George off to him.”
“Is that wise? He may attempt to truly slay the poor dragon.”
“Think how that will add to the party. Do not worry, I will play his liege lord, Alfred the Great, and whack him myself if he goes too far. And what of your disguise?”
She shook her head. “I’m playing the hostess.” The very nervous hostess, this being her first house party. “I will don a mask when everyone comes down and go greet them. Richard needs to know where to place everything.”
“Do not lift anything. I shan’t be long.” He kissed her again and left.
Another puff of wind stirred the air around her, raising a fine dust that sparkled in the firelight. Half the room would serve as a makeshift performance area, the dark draperies closed behind. Elsewhere, she and Richard had spun gauzy grey spider webs and crape, as thick and dark as the clouds gathered in this late afternoon sky.
She must send word to the cook for extra refreshments. The rain might bring all of their All Hallows’ festivities—and the local people—into the manor house. With a great fire in the fireplace, St. Lucy lighting up one side of the pantomime stage, and a table sconce the other, the eerie light might coax a wee ghost story or two, after they’d finished with the saints. After Leo, or one of his uncles, had lured Father to the library for a bit.
Leo’s uncle, the Marquess, would not be in attendance, his regrets a relief to Katie. He would outrank anyone here. Once she’d spotted the red-upholstered antique chair in the attic, she knew it must be the place of Samhain honor, and it must be for her mother.
Sadness pricked behind her eyes, and she blinked it away. Mama deserved a glorious night, not tears.
In the dimming light, the chair’s velvet cushions looked less worn and stained, the gold galloon less frayed, the fringe less straggly. The carvings on the arms and legs could be the visages of ghouls. It was no wonder the staff all thought the chair haunted.
Mama would love it. Katie’s father, on the other hand, would be appalled. Except for the gilding, he would hate everything about it. He might even, in his heart of hearts, wonder if evil lurked there, just as the servants did.
What twaddle. Fortunately, neither she nor Mama was the least bit superstitious. Ghosts were naught but good fun.
Her insides roiled, and she planted a hand on the mantel.
Not now. Week after week of the expected retching had finally ceased, mercifully in time for her to host this party. Please not now.
Bile rose up, and she dug for her handkerchief, gagging, staggering to the nearest wooden chair and resting her dizzy head in her hands. Her meager accounts, a bit of tea sipped earlier, stained the linen like the streaks on Mama’s white hankies.
She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting tears. Perhaps Leo was right. Perhaps she’d taken on too much with this sad little party, forcing a saintly entertainment when everyone wanted ghouls. Leo’s family would be bored. So would the locals when the rain washed away their bonfire and ghost stories and forced them indoors for a pantomime about the saints.
She wanted to do something special for Mama, and a show would be special. Plus, Mama might not be with them for a Christmas pantomime.
Her stomach twisted again. Mama might not be around for the birth of her first grandchild, either. If a child was coming—there’d been no quickening, not yet, and shouldn’t the child have moved by now?
She would have shared her worries with her former companion and dear friend, Liliana, but Liliana was not here, and Katie dare not write it in a letter, lest the worst become true.
She rubbed her eyes. Perhaps she was a tad superstitious.
Well, and she dared not tell her worries to Leo, else he’d have wanted her to cancel this party.
And right now, preparing for the party required her attention. She eased in a breath of the oak scented air, took another breath, and another, this one deep into her belly, willing her insides to calm.
Footsteps above stairs reminded her, the guests would be down soon. She might as well light the candles.
When she reached the fireplace, another wave of nausea hit her, and she leaned her forehead against the whorls of ivy carved into the mantel.