Excerpt: The Secrets of Chateau Swansea

Excerpt: The Secrets of Chateau Swansea

CHAPTER ONE

Swansea, England

1889

A crack of thunder rumbled through the pane of glass separating Maribeth Sommerset from the torrential downpour. Inside the café of the Inn at Oxwich, she was protected against the elements. Outside, nobody strolled on the sidewalk or dashed across the street to hail a hack. The otherwise bustling street was empty, save for a single coach parked outside Chapman Brothers across the way.

A gentleman exited the frame shop, his shoulders square and his jaw tight. The wind whipped the edges of his black coat around his legs and his hat flew off, tumbling away on the sidewalk in a wicked dance. Within seconds, his black hair was plastered against his forehead.

He barked orders to the coachman, who jumped off his perch, rounding the box to open the coach door with haste. Shaking his head in apparent disgust, the gentleman flipped open an umbrella as two more men walked out of the shop with measured steps, carrying a sizeable package wrapped in brown paper. Their arms were stretched to the limits, their hands braced on each end of their bounty.

Droplets of rain pelted against the sleek outer surface of their raincoats, but they didn’t allow the fierce weather to distract them from their duty. What sort of portrait warranted a visit to the framer on such a bleak day?

“Have you heard a single word I’ve said in the past five minutes, Maribeth?”

She glanced away from the curious scene across the street and met her best friend’s perturbed stare. “I’m sorry, Edith, but I confess that I have not. What were you saying?”

A wry smile greeted her. “Mama believes Lord Bolton will attend your coming out ball next month in London. He rarely ventures into society. You will be the talk of the ton. What if he makes an offer for your hand?”

Maribeth rolled her eyes. “Let’s hope not. I’m far too young for marriage.”

“You’re twenty, which is far too old for coming out,” her friend countered. “It’s time you took a husband. As a married woman myself, I cannot accompany you on these adventures much longer. God willing, I will be with child soon.”

“My prayers are with you,” Maribeth said with a smile. “However, I cannot promise that I’ll marry someday. My future doesn’t include a townhouse in Piccadilly or pushing a pram through Hyde Park. I’m afraid Château Mont-Choisi was a frightful waste of my guardian’s money. Finishing school did little to improve my prospects of marriage.”

She peered outside once more, tilting her head to see beyond the back end of the coach to where the men still wrestled with the large package. The commanding gentleman with dripping dark hair motioned for the lackeys to turn the oblong painting horizontal.

“Madame Bisset would shudder to hear you confess as much,” Edith said. “She vowed to make a lady of you, and contrary to your arguments, I daresay she has.”

Me, a lady? Even so, she wouldn’t make a suitable wife. Maribeth rubbed the pad of her thumb against the tips of her fingers, seeking the gritty remnants of her youth, but they were washed away long ago. The secrets of her past lay beneath the surface, hidden from everyone. If exposed, her scars would scandalize the ladies and gentlemen of her acquaintance.

Across the street, the driver had taken his seat at the helm. The gentleman with the umbrella followed the progress of the departing coach for a moment before venturing into the street, headed straight for the entrance of the Inn at Oxwich. His stride was brisk and without fanfare.

“Should I pen a note to Lord Covington,” Edith asked, “requesting that he invite this gentleman to your soiree? You simply cannot take your eyes off of him. He is handsome, I grant you.”

Why must Edith turn the focus of every discussion to suitors? Maribeth took up a forkful of her cherry tart. She bit into the confection, savoring the richness of the gooey center.

“You have an overactive imagination, Edith. My mind is presently fixated on the sinister dealings of a madman. Who fetches artwork in the midst of a storm? Did you notice the crest on the coach? That package is being delivered to Chateau Swansea, former residence of the most famous clairvoyant ever to grace this earth.”

Edith stared over the rim of her teacup, her eyes widening. “Well, there’s the pot calling the kettle black. Your imagination knows no bounds. Dark, mysterious transactions do not occur within the four walls of the Chapman Brothers’ establishment. Even Queen Victoria is known to have commissioned one of their frames. Their craftsmanship is unparalleled.”

Only her best friend would spout that trifling bit of news and ignore the titillating piece of gossip regarding a renowned clairvoyant.

“How very unkind of you to point that out,” Maribeth said. “My musings were far more entertaining. Perhaps we’ll see this mysterious painting during our visit to Chateau Swansea today.” Tossing her linen napkin onto her plate, she stood. “Shall we go? Our hired carriage will arrive soon, and I forgot my notebook upstairs. Come, let us be off.”

Edith groaned. “But the weather is dreadful. I do not relish the thought of traveling in this rain.”

“Oh, hush.” She snaked her arm through Edith’s, dragging her friend to the adjoining entrance of the hotel lobby.

A pox on the weather! These were the moments she lived for. They were as close as she ever came to the adventures of her youth when she lived on a pirate ship. Once they were inside the infamous, reputedly haunted chateau, her friend would be silenced by the sheer beauty of the place. The photographs Maribeth had uncovered while planning for this trip were quite promising.

 “I’ll never understand your wanderlust and morbid fascination with ghosts,” Edith whined. “I will fall into a dead faint should we encounter one during our tour of the séance chamber.”

“Then I will stay close by your side and catch you.”

Few beyond Maribeth’s guardians ever understood her. Exploring the supernatural was as vital to her well-being as breathing air. Nothing would please her more than touring the Continent in search of specters and solving impossible mysteries with her God-given talent.

This wasn’t the eighteenth century! A young lady of means could travel to distant, exotic places or pursue a career. Edith was far better suited for embroidery and pincushions. But finding clients willing to pay for Maribeth’s services as a medium was proving difficult. Still, she would not abandon her dream.

Edith paused at the base of the grand staircase and squeezed Maribeth’s hands. “Be serious, for once. My greatest wish is for our children to grow up together. Promise me you’ll dance with all the willing gentleman at your ball and fall in love.”

Love was for gently bred ladies, full of hope and untouched by fate’s brutal backhand. There were too many tortured souls in the world who could benefit from Maribeth’s gift. Besides, after stealing away on a ship bound for America and communicating with ghosts, why settle for marriage and a house in London? Her purpose in life was self-evident, and she would fulfill it, if given the opportunity, even at the risk of disappointing her best friend.

“Of course I will dance every set.” She owed as much to her guardians, Dominick and Eveline, Lord and Lady Covington. “But don’t hold your breath waiting for one of my suitors to make an offer of marriage.”

“Whyever not?” Edith asked, cupping Maribeth’s cheeks. “You’re lovely.”

“No, I’m not. I speak whatever words come to mind, my tongue is as pointed as an arrow’s tip, and I cannot recall the proper placement of silverware when setting the table.” With the arch of an eyebrow, she dared her best friend to refute the truth. Edith’s silence served as all the confirmation required, and she continued, “Besides, a husband would only deter me from the one true love of my life.”

Edith sighed. “Haunted houses.”

“Just so,” she said with a smirk. “Don’t forget the abbeys, castles, and dilapidated schools.” 

Tugging on her gloves, Edith waved her away. “You are impossible. Go fetch your notebook while I inquire after our hired coach.”

Lifting her skirt, Maribeth dashed up the stairs.

“Miss Sommerset, wait!” the bellman called out.

She glanced over her shoulder and stopped as he approached with an envelope outstretched in his hand. “This arrived for you earlier.”

Turning to accept the missive, she read the direction on the letter as he strode away. Lady Eveline Covington, 687 Gatekeeper Lane, Devil’s Cove, England. Probably a note to remind her to meet her guardians in London soon.

She glanced up and her gaze connected with the darkest brown eyes she’d ever known. The gentleman from the frame shop stood near the doors to the hotel, holding his wet cloak over his arm. He was neither tall nor short. His trousers and jacket were serviceable, neither refined nor tattered. Nothing about him drew attention, except the utter stillness of his stance and the intensity of his stare. An odd look flittered over his face for an instant, with a slight parting of his lips. The exact nature of his expression eluded her.

Perhaps awe, mayhap disgust.

Either way, his perusal of her person was blatant and thorough. Her heart thudded a maddening rhythm in her chest. She refused to look away. Nay, she could not turn away. Why did she fascinate him? Perhaps he despised the curls in her hair, left to hang freely down her back. Or her almost child-like stature. Admittedly, she was small, even for a woman. But she wasn’t a circus act to be gawked at.

“Excuse me, Mr. Dunn, a coach has arrived,” the bellman said, gesturing outside.

The spell the gentleman had woven around her senses broke. She fled the rest of the way up the stairs, her pace brisk until she closed the door of her bedchamber behind her. Sagging against the door, she closed her eyes and inhaled. She was a grown woman, not a freak of nature. Dozens of gentleman were attending her ball to claim her hand in a dance.

Because of the dowry Dominick bestowed upon me.

She would not think about her coming out ball or the rude gentleman in the lobby any longer. This may very well be the last holiday she took with Edith. She would enjoy the afternoon touring Chateau Swansea. After packing her notebook into her reticule, Maribeth hastened to rejoin her friend.

Edith sat primly on one of the benches, observing the patrons moving freely between the hotel and café. 

“You needn’t have hurried,” she said with a bite of irritation lacing her words. “Our hired coach was hijacked by your gentleman, a Mr. Dunn, I believe.”

Maribeth leveled an icy glare on the bellman. “Quite ungallant of you to allow him to steal our ride in this foul weather.”

“My apologies.” The bellman nodded briskly.

Forty-five minutes later, they were finally on their way to the chateau. The storm raged on, wind and rain assaulting the carriage. Maribeth could scarce see the outline of her best friend sitting across from her in the cabin. Soon, the air turned cold and damp.

A mounting pressure weighed on her chest as the foggy memories of her youth crept into her mind. Hours of solitude in a dank, cold enclosure. No lamp to light her way, no food to warm her belly. Hungry, so very, very hungry. She shook her head and clutched her reticule, focusing on the lantern hanging just outside the window instead of the confined walls of the hack. Breathe. You’re not alone.

“Tell me again of the gown you’re wearing to my ball,” Maribeth said to Edith. With such an agreeable topic, her friend would fill the cabin with cheerful chatter for the rest of their journey.

As soon as they left the city streets behind, Maribeth sought a glimpse of the red bricks and sloping roof of Chateau Swansea through the window. The massive structure sat on the rise of a woodsy cliff in the distance. At least the rain had abated, but the storm left a horrid chill and the heavy scent of worms in its wake.

“Whoa now,” the coach driver called out ten minutes later, bringing their vehicle to a halt at the end of the driveway, behind several other coaches. Apparently, many other tourists wished to view Swansea’s greatest attraction for a small fee. Maribeth held the admission tickets safe in her reticule.

“Turn about,” a man shouted outside. “Turn about, I say! Nothing to see here. The chateau is closed to visitors tonight.”

Drat. What wretched luck. Maribeth poked her head outside the carriage window for a closer look. She hadn’t traveled all this way only to be asked to leave. Men crawled over the landscape, congregating near a pond that encircled the right side of the mansion. What had caused them to close their doors to guests for the night?

“Pardon me,” she said, waving the man in her direction. “We’re here on holiday and will be departing soon. When will the chateau open to the public again for the next tour?”

The older gentleman yanked on the lapels of his black suit jacket and scowled. “I can hardly say. Off with you!”

A moment later, the hack crawled forward in the line of other carriages making the turn in the driveway to leave. She surveyed the grounds. Several constables in black uniforms huddled around a white sheet strewn on the grass at the edge of the pond. The closer they drove to the head of the circle drive, the more apparent it became that something was amiss.

“Is that a dead body?” Edith suddenly whispered. “God in Heaven…”

Maribeth pounded her fist on the roof of the hired hack. “Stop the coach!” She grasped the handle to the door.

“What are you doing?” her friend shrieked, tugging on Maribeth’s sleeve. “We must leave at once. You heard the gentleman. The chateau is closed to visitors.”

But not investigators. This might be the luckiest evening of her existence. She had less than a month to prove to her guardian that she could support herself in her chosen path in life. A bit of rain and a bad-tempered servant wouldn’t hold her back.

“Wait here,” Maribeth said, jumping from the moving coach. “I’ll only be a moment.”

She lifted her skirt and trudged through the knee-length grass toward the men gathered near the pond. Goodness, but her dress was a nuisance. Before she managed five steps, someone caught her arm from behind and yanked her to a halt.

“Where do you think you’re headed?” The surly man from the road glared at her, his steely blue eyes boring into hers. He was so close she could make out the silver whiskers interspersed in his black sideburns. 

“I beg your pardon,” she said, yanking free of his hold. “I’m here to offer my services. Where might I find the master of the house?”

“That’s enough, Webber,” another man said from behind. “I’ll handle this matter.”

Maribeth whirled around, coming face to face with none other than Mr. Dunn. What business did he have here? Not that she cared one whit about him, except that he owed her a favor. Webber’s footsteps receded behind her, and the odious man resumed barking orders for the coaches to evacuate the premises.

“I apologize if Webber alarmed you,” Mr. Dunn said, folding his arms at the base of his lower back. “The butler is distraught at present. What can I do for you, Miss…?”

“Maribeth Sommerset,” she said with a lift of her chin. “And you are Mr. Dunn. You stole my hired hack earlier at the Inn at Oxwich. Don’t even try to deny it. The bellman confirmed the truth. That wasn’t well done of you!”

His eyebrows lifted, and a spark of amusement ignited in his lovely brown eyes. “I beg to differ, madam. Hired hacks are, by definition, ‘for hire.’ The driver accepted my generous offer to pay a premium fare.”

Cheeky fellow. Men shouldn’t steal coaches from ladies. His mama would be appalled by his behavior.

“Even so,” she said, tugging on her gloves, “I’m sure the bellman informed you that the hack was ordered by me and my dear friend. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

He coughed into his hand and glanced away, but not before she saw the undeniable curve of his lips. Running off with a lady’s carriage wasn’t amusing. After months of planning this trip, she’d almost missed her opportunity to tour Chateau Swansea on his account.

“Excuse me,” he said, meeting her gaze once again. “I do apologize for any inconvenience. I’m the steward of Chateau Swansea and had urgent business to attend here.”

Steward. Well, that changed everything. He was the right-hand man of the master of the estate. Bloody hell. Had she offended him with her quick temper? She dug inside her handbag and plucked out one of her trade cards.

“Apology accepted,” she said with a smile. There was no reason to quibble over a silly coach. She thrust the card into his hand. “As I said, I’m Miss Maribeth Sommerset. Private psychic investigator, at your service.” She gestured to the group of men near the pond. “I communicate with the dead. I’m staying at the Inn at Oxwich through Saturday should you need my assistance. My rates are reasonable and negotiable.”

Did she sound professional and assured? This being her first legitimate opportunity to offer her services, she couldn’t truly say.

He stared at the rectangular card, his brow pinched. She knew every printed word by heart, though she had yet to hand one out. Until now. Her palms began to sweat, and she glanced beyond him to the activity by the pond. From this distance and angle, the white sheet was no longer visible.

One of the constables sketched furiously on his notepad, while another scanned the perimeter of the pond. Yet a third spoke with a harried woman who worked her hands nervously in the folds of her apron. The scene suffused Maribeth’s veins with a tingling warmth. A real investigation!

“Leave. At. Once!” Mr. Dunn said, enunciating each word.

Her gaze snapped to his, taking in his stony expression. Had she misheard him?

He pointed to the hired hack she’d arrived in. “Get out! The last thing I care to deal with in this moment is another lunatic come to swindle the Turner fortune. Disgraceful! You should be ashamed of yourself, taking advantage of a grieving man. The master of the house isn’t accepting visitors today or any time in the near future.”

Lunatic. Disgraceful.

His accusations reverberated through her, sprouting roots in the depths of her soul. She had anticipated skepticism from her first client. But not anger or derision.  

“I’m—” She choked on the next word. Sorry? No, she wouldn’t apologize for pursuing her dream. Heat flooded her cheeks, but she held his gaze. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I was only trying to be helpful. Please, excuse me.”

She ran back to the hack, her eyes brimming with unshed tears.

“Move on, driver!” she shouted, plopping into the seat beside Edith.

“Maribeth, what—?”

“I don’t wish to speak of it!” She laid her head on her friend’s shoulder.

The ride to the inn passed in utter silence. Maribeth emptied her mind of all thoughts. She would not cry or rail against the injustice of the situation. One could dream, but it did not follow that those dreams would come true. Life had already taught her that important lesson.

“Would you care to join me for a cup of tea in the café so we can forget this nasty business?” Edith asked when they entered the lobby.

“Of course.” Tea and conversation would keep her mind occupied. As she strode by the wastepaper basket, she paused and clutched her handbag. Should she toss the remainder of her trade cards away? After all, dreams rarely came true.

 No, the opinion of a single working-class man would not set her off course! In a day or two, after the chief investigator got his bearings, she would pay him a visit.