Today, it is my birthday. On Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the US, and then we’re about a month away from Christmas. The family and I are finally shaking off the last of a nagging, lingering cough/cold that decided it would be great for me to sound like a squeaky-voiced teenager for about two weeks. I’m a bit behind on schoolwork with the kids since I couldn’t go over their lessons with them without descending into a horrible coughing fit, and on Saturday, the temperature here in Central Pennsylvania decided to drop from a lovely 72 degrees to OH LAWD NO IT’S SLEET AND SNOW WINTER HAS COME in the span of about two hours.
And tomorrow, The Crimson Gown releases.
So you can imagine how much marketing and trumpet-blasting I’ve done so far to acknowledge the arrival of my third book.
Yeah, that much.
But as we rush at a terrifying pace towards the end-of-year holidays, I figure I need to be a bit better at announcing this story’s debut. Today, I bring you a treat! And for the next several days, as well! Today, I give you the first full chapter of The Crimson Gown. Tomorrow and the next day, I’ll treat you to chapters two and three, as well, so stay tuned!
The air pushed through the interstices of the old house, seeming even colder than when Lydia had still been beneath the burnished blue of the winter sky. She clutched her shawl around her shoulders and ducked through the low doorway, the strike of her heels on the bare floor sounding too loud to her own ears.
Before her, only a few paces ahead, the housekeeper—an older woman who introduced herself as a Mrs. Latimer—drifted on silent feet, only the swish of skirts and the rattle of keys at her waist marking her progress from one room to the next.
“The rugs will all need a good beating,” the woman said, her voice hard, as if she were a mouthpiece for the very bricks and beams that made up the walls surrounding them. “And the draperies need to be washed, some of them mended…” Her words trailed away as they passed into yet another room, all dark wood and darker furnishings, the walls bearing streaks of soot from untended candles and lamps left to burn with wicks untrimmed.
Lydia’s eyes drifted towards the artwork that decorated the walls, the frames thick with dust, some bearing the remains of tattered cobwebs that drifted softly, their ragged tendrils caught by an unseen draft. The canvases were nearly as dark as the panelling behind them, but what could be seen of the images portrayed in the muted shades of paints and charcoals was nothing that could be described as entertaining to the eye.
Grotesque beings gazed out at her, yellowed eyes gleaming, teeth bared, malformed bodies writhing. They were scenes she remembered from her childhood, evenings spent learning her letters over the family Bible. Too well she recalled that good book, filled with etchings meant to remind her of the sin that she nurtured inside her heart, of monsters and demons waiting to tear the flesh from her still quaking limbs should she stray too far from the righteous path.
She turned away quickly, blinking as she allowed the stentorian voice of the housekeeper to draw her attention back from the darkness of her own thoughts and memories.
“What was your name?” the housekeeper asked, her eyebrows lifting with the impatience of one repeating a question for the second or perhaps third time.
“Lydia, ma’am.” She allowed her head to dip in a deferential manner, though she suspected her height would count against her in this instance. The housekeeper was a short thing—broad across the shoulders, yes—but still so near to the floor that she gave off the unnerving appearance of having only recently sprung out of it. Lydia, on the other hand, was tall. Too tall, her father had often taken to reminding her. As tall as a man, and yet her twenty-four years had still not allowed her enough time to grow accustomed to the length of her offensive limbs.
“Well then, Lydia,” Mrs. Latimer pronounced, as if even her name were repugnant to her. “You will remember to keep your place while you are here. I’ve no knowledge of what you’ve learned from labouring at your father’s inn, but to work in a grand house such as Mowbray Hall? You must remain invisible.” Here, the old woman’s grey eyes surveyed Lydia’s tall frame. “Or as invisible as one such as you can manage.”
Another nod, this one tinged less with deference than with the inability to gaze upon the housekeeper’s disapproving expression. It was work, Lydia reminded herself. Work for which she would earn actual pay, unlike her long days at The Lamb’s Head, where the never-ending drudgery was gifted with nothing more than a few cold meals and a colder bed once the inn’s guests had received their proper attention.
“Come.” Mrs. Latimer gestured before turning away. The woman’s hurried, silent steps led her back towards where the tour had begun, in the kitchens. “I’ll show you where you can keep your things, and then I’ll set you to work.”
Her hands ached. Lydia was used to work, to hours of relentless scrubbing and polishing and ironing, only to fall onto her unyielding mattress with nothing more than the promise of another day’s labours to be found waiting for her the moment daylight slanted across her bedroom floor. But that did not mean the muscles in her arms could not still burn, that the skin of her knuckles was no longer susceptible to the cracks and abrasions that would so often sting and bleed afresh with each dip into the bucket of hot water at her feet.
She had worked steadily now for four days, her exertions broken only by the consistent arrival of the three daily meals and the mugs of hot tea with which she and the other servants were provided. They ate in the long, low kitchen, seated at a scrubbed wooden table, their backs and shoulders bent forward over their plates as if the darkness itself that resided above them could reach down with its shadowed fingers and snatch their food away from them.
Few of them lingered once the dishes from the final meal had been washed, the crumbs brushed away and the dinner scraps swept up from beneath their seats. Lydia shared her room with another girl—Anna, a petite slip of a thing who could not have been more than sixteen and spent an inordinate amount of her spare time trading glances with the tallest of the footmen—their narrow beds as rigid as the floor, their blankets carrying the mingled odours of wool and age and damp.
Anna was often quick to fall asleep, soft snores emanating from her side of the small room while Lydia stared into the blackness above her bed. A stub of candle stood on the nightstand beside her, but she dared not light it for fear of what she might see should some measure of illumination be permitted within their four walls.
A thump reached her ears—nothing out of the ordinary, merely the sounds of a large house settling into slumber. Other noises drifted up towards their level, the whisper of voices, the push of the wind through the cracks that surrounded their single window, but she shut her eyes against them, as if blindness would prevent any of those bodiless sounds from taking on a more corporeal form. Again, she thought of the candle, but she turned her mind away from it. Light would bring her no solace, especially one as ephemeral as a single flame.
She rose before the pale light of dawn had begun to illuminate the threads of frost that feathered across the window panes. A plain dress, stockings, shoes, and then it was only a few pins into her brown hair and a minute of fumbling with the knot of her apron before she slipped out through the bedroom door and into the darkness of the corridor beyond.
She would walk before the rest of the house had risen, before their breakfast was laid out on the table and her list of chores delivered to her. She moved downward through the building, towards the main staircase, that grand piece of architecture flanked by carved mahogany rails that curled into monstrous shapes beneath her palm. The carpet muffled her steps, the dark green pile offering more cushion to her feet now that it had been brushed and swept more times than she wished to count.
The walk acted as a balm to her troubled mind, still plagued by the thoughts and nightmares that had tortured her during the paltry amount of rest she could truthfully categorise as sleep. She should have thought to bring her shawl along, the chill of the upstairs rooms unbroken by the warmth of well-tended fires or gas lamps. Though she and the other temporary maids had spent hours cleaning in every room to prepare them for the guests that were expected to arrive, they still remained unoccupied, the cold from out of doors still permitted to seep in with every blast of wind that sounded against the side of the house.
Her arms crossed over her chest, she moved from one corridor to the next, her mind and body sloughing off the effects of her poor night as more and more of the building’s shadows were banished by the weak sunlight that filtered through the windows. Her gaze passed over various pieces of furniture, heavy-legged tables on the floor and various pieces of armour, of shields and swords and axes that decorated the walls. They were the trophies of battle, of violence, vying for space with the heads of stags and black-winged birds that looked at nothing, their glass-eyed gazes portraying none of the horror they may have experienced in their final moments.
And they had all been cleaned—at least, the ones that had not languished beneath the protection of pale dust cloths, their shapes rendered to nothing but ghostly figures when she had the misfortune of coming upon them on her first day of tending the upper floors.
Her limbs warmed as she passed countless doors, doors that she knew opened to writing rooms, sitting rooms, parlours, libraries, studies and the like. And yet for all of these rooms—nearly one hundred spread across four floors, Lydia speculated—there were only the half dozen maids, the handful of footmen, the cook, the gardeners and the random assortment of other servants who sheltered in their narrow bedchambers, dining from the surface of a rough, wooden table while multiple dining rooms and breakfast rooms on the floors above spent their days entertaining nothing more than a few spiders and the families of mice that resided in the walls.
She continued her circuit until she found herself near one of the back staircases, where the faint light from the windows failed to reach, no matter the time of day. There were less weapons on display in this part of the house, where guests were not as wont to frequent. A few paintings graced the walls, inferior to the ones she had seen on her first tour of the house, the frames lacking the gaudiness of the ones put up for the pleasure of the visitors and the more esteemed members of the household. Lydia struggled to keep her gaze pinned to the floor beneath her feet, for fear of catching her heel on an unseen edge of rug that would send her tumbling down the stairs. But her eyes seemed determined to betray her, a single glance to the wall on her left putting a catch in her step that ultimately brought her to a halt.
The picture was unfamiliar to her. Its frame was dark, the gold paint that had once decorated the carved wood having long worn away, leaving only a few brighter streaks along its edges. But it was the subject of the portrait itself that drew her attention: the pale figure of a naked woman stretched out across a backdrop of rocks and leafless brush, her back arched, her head thrown back in something that may have been either ecstasy or torment, depending on the artist’s intent.
The whiteness of her skin seemed to pick the light from the air, forcing Lydia to follow the curve of the woman’s hips, up towards the fullness of her breasts. The woman held one breast in her hand, offering it to the hoofed creature that crouched beside her. The monster possessed red eyes and a nose that almost resembled a snout, its forked tongue dripping in anticipation over the woman’s abdomen.
Lydia forced herself to pull in a breath. She had not realised that her hand was at her throat, her fingers clutching at the high, plain neckline of her dress.
Wicked, a voice chimed from her thoughts, from her earliest memories. You are wicked, the voice said again, and she closed her eyes in an attempt to force out the memories that threatened to overwhelm her.
She opened her eyes again, and the woman’s skin appeared to be even brighter, while the clawed hands of the monster had grown even darker against the pureness of the woman’s thighs…
“This is one of my favourites, as well.”
Lydia bit back the scream that threatened to tear from her throat. She spun around on her heel, nearly staggering backwards as she sought to move away from the deep voice that had sounded so close to her ear.
“I’m sorry,” the voice came from in front of her now, but instead of the disembodied spectre she had imagined, it was a man of flesh and blood who stood before her, his blue eyes gleaming in the darkness that shrouded the narrow corridor. “It was not my intention to frighten you.”
Her hand was still at her throat, her pulse pounding out an erratic rhythm beneath the tips of her fingers. “You…” Her breath stuttered and she sealed her lips together until she could trust her own voice not to betray her fear.
“Are you all right, Miss?”
She nodded dumbly. The man would not look away from her, and as her eyes adjusted to this new figure before her, she found she was able to take in his features: the angular line of his cheekbones, the darkness of his hair against a smooth, pale complexion.
But it was his voice that remained in her thoughts, the depth of it and how it possessed a huskiness that gave each word the quality of a whisper, meant for no other ears than her own.
“I could fetch you a drink,” he said, dark eyebrows rising with the request. “A brandy, perhaps. That is, if you’re not one to object to the imbibing of spirits so early in the day.”
“No,” she said, and shook her head to better underline that single, softly spoken word. “I was simply startled, is all. And I really should be returning downstairs.” She glanced towards the staircase. Surely the rest of the household would be rising, beginning to assemble in the kitchen for breakfast and the dull chatter that arrived along with the start of another day.
“If I am keeping you from some appointment, you have my apologies.” He bowed to her, his head dipping low enough that she was able to make out the length of his dark hair, much longer than was fashionable, and currently tied back with a simple leather cord.
She wondered if he was mocking her, with the bow and the overly civil manner. She was nothing more than a servant, the daughter of an innkeeper, and he… Well, he was…
He was well-dressed, she realised. Impeccably so. From the tips of his polished boots to the perfectly tailored seams of his jacket, there was not a thread out of place, neither did she miss the blink of a brilliant blue jewel that winked at her from amid the folds of his snowy white cravat. He was quality, the likes of which she rarely saw pass beneath the roof of her father’s inn.
“I must go,” she said, her own figure dipping into a hasty curtsy before she again turned her attention towards the stairs.
“But the painting,” he said, and there was a plaintive tone to his voice now, as if he would not have her leave his presence. “You seemed to be engrossed in your inspection of it, and I… Well, I admit I am curious as to your opinion.”
“My opinion?” She blinked at him, unsure whether he was speaking in jest or if the sincerity in his eyes was not merely an act put on by a bored member of the peerage, looking for a bit of fun by humiliating a lowly member of the staff.
“Yes.” He nodded, and she thought she saw one corner of his mouth begin to lift in a smile. “I am most eager to hear your thoughts.”
Her teeth grasped at the flesh inside her lower lip. “Well,” she began, her chin dipping down until it nearly touched her chest. “It is… sinful.”
“Sinful?” He spoke the word carefully, as if only hearing it for the first time. “How so?”
Her head began to shake, a slow movement from side to side. “Everything about it is wrong. The woman’s state of undress. The monster about to attack her. She is being punished, I think, for some great sin.”
“Punished.” He spoke the word in a whisper, and she shivered at that sound, at the way his breath seemed to tease the hairs at the back of her neck, though he stood several feet away. “I’m sorry to say it, but I think you are quite mistaken.”
She swallowed. She did not wish to speak again, to open her mouth before this man. He made her feel uncomfortable, and so she kept her gaze fixed on the rug, until that moment when he would allow her to depart for the kitchen.
“Look at it again,” he said.
For a second time, she shook her head. “I would prefer not to.” The truth of the matter was, she did not need to. The figures were clearly etched in her mind, the play of darkness against light, the soft curves of the naked woman contrasting with the sharp muzzle of the creature—the demon about to…
The man sighed. A cool finger touched the underside of her chin, his hand raising her head until she was once again gazing upon the well-defined lines of his face. “I do not believe the woman is enduring any manner of punishment.”
The slightest twitch of his fingers, and her chin was even higher, so that she was nearly eye-to-eye with him. She was tall, yes. Taller than any man would want to see in a young woman, but he still held several inches over her, and while his clear blue gaze scanned her face, she felt in that brief moment that she was nothing more or less than his equal.
“Look again,” he said, his words still spoken in a whisper. “Please.”
He released her chin, giving her the choice to turn her head whichever way she chose. Slowly, she looked back towards the painting, her gaze only drifting over the frame, over the murky colours of the backdrop before she returned again to the two figures near the centre of the piece.
She skimmed over the woman’s nakedness and settled on examining her face instead, the rapture that contorted her lovely features into a mask of wretched pleasure.
“Do you see?” The man’s voice was nearer to her, quite close to her ear. “There is no chastisement there. She welcomes the creature’s advances, even appears to be most eager for them.”
Lydia followed the line of the woman’s throat, her shoulder, before settling on the heavy fullness of her bared breasts, pushed forward until they became the prominent feature of the portrait.
“Look at her fingers,” he said, his breath teasing the hairs that had already escaped from her hastily pinned bun. “Look at how she holds herself, how she offers herself to her lover.”
“The monster,” she spoke up, and she enjoyed a feeling of pride that her voice hadn’t quaked on either word.
“But is he a monster? Because of his appearance? Surely, if she is rendered into such a state of yearning for him, I cannot imagine he could be so very wicked.”
“No.” She closed her eyes at the pronouncement of that final word. She took one step backwards, only to find herself pressed against the solid form of this strange man who spoke so easily of such terrible, such sinful things. “I am sorry, but I really must… I must…”
She told herself that no matter what he said, she would not be pulled back into further conversation with him. But he remained silent, only nodding his head once as she took another step away from him and then finally moved towards the stairs, heedless of the shadows that lingered at the bottom of every step.
If you’d like to see more, please check out the link on Amazon! It’s available for pre-order for ONE MORE DAY, and then will be ready to read!
Now, back to chores and reading about birds with the kids. And bake cookies. Always cookies.