The old castle stood high on the wooded hill above the Dover cliffs. Deep purple clouds and the dark lowering sky gave warning of a coming thunderstorm. In fact, the rumble of thunder could already be heard in the distance.
Although the surrounding countryside showed the blossoms of summer, there was a certain air of brooding autumn around the castle on Holmden Hill. Its grim gray turrets, outlined against the gathering darkness of the storm, did not inspire confidence. Nor did the overgrown unattended quality of its front park and the deserted look of its dark windows give any indication of a happier atmosphere within its gray stone walls.
On the narrow winding road that led up to the castle, a road that appeared little used, full of holes and ruts, a small figure trudged bravely along. A brisk wind whipped the cloak around the slight young woman and threatened to tear away the aging straw bonnet anchored firmly beneath her chin by a faded scarf. The same wind teased her dark hair loose from the severe chignon that tried to confine it. But the wind had little or no effect on her otherwise. She paced steadily along, her arms swinging in rhythm with her determined stride, her chin set stubbornly.
Edwina Pierce smiled to herself. The wind had the salty smell of the sea about it. She'd lived all around the country, dragged from pillar to post by her father, but of all places she'd lived she loved best to be in sight and smell of the sea, so she could sneak away and swim in secret. That would have outraged Papa, a woman knowing how to swim, but then anything he didn't like had outraged Papa.
Though the wind blew stronger and several dark clouds directly overhead looked as though they might loose their watery contents on her at any moment, Edwina kept up a steady pace toward the castle. If it rained, she told herself, she would just arrive at her destination wet. There was no help for it. Except for a few straggling trees behind the hedgerows, there was no place along the road to take shelter. Likely as not she'd be drenched even there.
She set her shoulders and trudged on. Life had taught her to endure, and anyway a summer soaking was a small thing in comparison to what she'd already undergone. The castle, at least, was a chance. Her only chance.
She had decided to go to the castle, to present herself before the earl and ask -- no beg -- for employment as governess to his children. It would not be the first time she'd been thrown on the mercy of strangers. Life with Papa had never been easy. By the time she'd reached marriageable age, he'd wasted all his resources on that grand obsession of his -- acquiring the title of baron. He had nothing left with which to provide a daughter a dowry. If he'd ever given the matter of his daughter that much thought. Which he never had.
Still, she was four and twenty now, and she had overcome most of the feelings of bitterness that had overwhelmed her when she realized that she was doomed to spinsterhood -- that Papa, for whom she had done everything she possibly could, had doomed her to such an empty life. But above all things she was practical -- life had forced that practicality on her, perhaps, but it was useful -- and eventually she had come to accept her fate. Eventually, after great effort, she no longer blamed Papa for her condition. Acquiring that title had become the whole reason for his life, had in effect become a terrible sickness, obscuring all else. Nothing but that title had mattered to him. Now that he was dead and gone it was futile to harbor resentment toward him.
As the castle drew ever nearer, she told herself to forget the past. She didn't have time to worry about it. No matter what her feelings about her previous life, she still faced the difficulty of supporting herself now. There was nothing left of Papa's land, what he'd had as a squire had been sold off to acquire funds. The land that went with the title was worth little. After his death, his creditors had taken everything that could be moved and soon, she expected, would take the house and land too. The servants had all departed unpaid, the larder was bare, and there was no money, not even enough to pay for coach fare to London.
After Mama's death, Papa had been a man alone. He had few relations or friends, and those he did have he'd annoyed so much that they soon vowed to have little to do with him. Consequently, after his death, she was left with no one to turn to.
So, faced with starvation, she'd made up her mind to apply to the earl. Since the latest governess had just departed, in great haste so the villagers said, Edwina believed it likely that there would be no other applicants for the position. No young woman who knew the history of the castle would willingly go near it, the villagers said, and certainly not as a live-in servant. With the latest governess so newly departed, the earl had not yet had time to advertise the position in the London papers.
Edwina's gaze went again to the castle's grim turrets and, though she didn't slacken her pace, she shivered a little inside her one and only cloak. Coming here could be a dangerous decision for her -- for anyone. It was beneath one of those turrets, just two months ago, that the broken body of the earl's wife had been discovered. Edwina felt a chill go through her bones, a chill that had nothing to do with the freshening wind. No one was sure how it had happened, but everyone in the village was certain the castle was cursed. That it had been cursed for some time.
They discussed the curse in hushed horrified voices and kept their distance from the place. And as for the earl himself -- few were the villagers who did not find that cold and brooding man a fearful sight.
It was from one of them that Edwina, desperately seeking some means of livelihood, had heard that the girls' latest governess had fled after only two nights at the castle. Edwina had listened to the tale of the curse, but it was mention of the position, now vacant, that made her heart pound faster and her empty stomach growl with longing. So she'd resolved to go to the castle. It stood to reason, she told herself -- and she meant to tell the earl, given the chance -- that a girl like her would be a better choice for the position than some newcomer brought in from London.
As she approached nearer to the castle, she rehearsed the speech she'd prepared for the earl. She had nothing left at home -- the larder was stone cold bare, not even a crumb -- and her future, including that very day's dinner, rested on the earl's decision. She had to do this right. She had to convince him to give her the position.
She reached the great door, pulled in a deep breath, and lifted the knocker. At that exact moment, like an omen of disasters to come, a great clap of thunder reverberated through the darkening air. Edwina jumped, startled by the sudden sound, the knocker falling from her fingers.
Great drops of rain came pelting down on her. Pressing closer to the door, she knocked again, this time more energetically, but still there was no answer, and the rain continued to fall, bouncing off the brim of her aged straw bonnet and soaking through the shoulders of her shabby cloak.
Perhaps she should make her way home again and return to the castle another day. But it was a very long way home. There was nothing for her there. Not even a piece of stale bread to make a sparse evening meal. No. It was useless to go home. She needed this position and she needed it now. She'd just have to stand knocking at this door till someone opened it. Straightening her shoulders, she raised her hand again.
Finally, the door swung open. A wizened little man, several inches shorter than she, stood there staring at her in surprise. His bald pink pate was surrounded by a ruff of white hair and his wrinkled face wore an expression of complete bewilderment. Probably visitors no longer came to the castle.
"Yes, miss?" he said, as though finally believing his eyes.
"My name is Edwina Pierce. I wish to speak to the earl." She spoke evenly, trying to disregard the water dripping from her straw bonnet, the dampness rapidly soaking through her cloak.
"To speak to the earl," repeated the butler in wonderment.
"Yes, to speak to the earl. Now," she added firmly, hoping to move him to action before she was completely soaked.
Only then did the butler seem to notice that she was standing in the rain. "Oh dear, you're agetting wet. Step in, miss, please. You kin wait here in the hall."
"Thank you." She stepped out of the rain with gratitude, but after the little man shuffled away, she almost longed to be back outside. The rain, at least, was on the warm side. The huge hall was icy cold and in her damp things she shivered in earnest.
She wasn't unfamiliar with the chill that penetrated many old castles and made them uncomfortable places to live. There was more to this coldness than that, though. She sensed a feeling of something terribly wrong, something sinister. The villagers were right, this place was cursed.
She pulled the cloak more tightly about her and fought off another shudder. If there were any other place go, any other way to live, she would leave the castle before the butler could come back. The premonition of disaster was that strong within her. Still premonitions were flighty things, after all, not worth listening to, at least not when one was facing starvation. Enough of such ridiculous thinking. She pushed the wet hair out of her eyes, and tried to prepare herself to meet the earl.
Her heart beat a little faster and her palms were damp from more than rain, but -- curse or no curse -- she had to go through with this. She had to beard in his den this man the villagers spoke of in hushed whispers. A few villagers felt sorry for him, seeing him as victim of the castle's curse, but at mention of his name most shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and muttered mysteriously. It was one of those, the greengrocer, who, lifting a suspicious eyebrow, looked around and then whispered to her, "He's a cold fish, that one. Then, too, there's her ladyship's sister living right there in the castle. With them two men. Who's to know what all's agoing on?"
She had not replied to that, of course. Certainly she had no wish to suspect the earl of ill-doing. This position was her last hope. He could be as cold and scornful as he pleased if only he granted her employment. His attachments, whatever they might be, were entirely his own concern. She wanted only to care for his children, and in the caring to find a haven for herself. Was that so much to ask?
The aged butler appeared again. "This way, miss."
She moved after him with relief. Halfway down the great hall, he paused. "His lordship, he'll be seeing you in the library. Here, miss."
"Thank you." She straightened her shoulders and stepped through the door. It was very obviously the library, and a large one. Row after row of books lined the walls. Well-used books, she noticed, feeling a little more secure because of them. She even let herself admit a faint hope that on some future day she might have a chance to read in some of them.
A small fire burned on the hearth, but didn't succeed in taking the chill from the air. At least, not at the distance from it that she waited. By the mantel stood a tall lean man. He looked to be brooding, his shoulders slightly stooped as though he labored under a heavy burden. The gray streaking his temples made him seem older than she knew him to be.
Now he gazed at her suspiciously, the eyes above his hawkish nose, dark and cold. "I understand you wish to speak to me." His voice was as cold as his eyes and she suppressed another shiver.
She took a deep breath and returned his look. "I do, milord. I have come to apply for the position -- the position of governess to your daughters."
Charles, Earl of Holmden, stared at the sodden creature facing him. She looked sturdily built, but her face had that pinched look that spoke of hunger. Even in that wet cloak it was apparent there wasn't much meat on her bones. Her dark hair curled in damp tendrils from under a battered straw bonnet that listed to one side, and wide sea green eyes stared at him appealingly from a pale face. But her chin had a jut to it and her mouth stubborn lines.
He noted the threadbare cloak, the scuffed half boots, the faded straw bonnet that was at least five years old. The clothes said she was poor, this girl, but the voice said she was educated.
She continued to stare at him, and finally, her voice firm, said pointedly, "Milord? Your daughters? The position?"
He shook his head. She shouldn't have interrupted his reveries. He'd like to just dismiss her, send her away so he could remember his former life in peace. But the creature appeared as stubborn as she was wet. He had a feeling she wasn't going to just go away. If he wanted to return to his solitude so as to think of Catherine and the life they'd lost, he'd first have to deal with this obstinate young woman.
He frowned. "You couldn't have known about the position," he said, his voice sharper than he intended. "Miss McGovern left here only last night. I have not advertised for a replacement."
"I-- I know that, milord."
She met his eyes bravely, her back ramrod straight. A stubborn chit, not easily cowed. Was that good or bad? He wasn't sure.
She moistened her lips. "I live in the vicinity, milord. I was shopping in the village. It was there I heard that your governess had left and you needed someone, someone to care for your girls."
He glared at her. He didn't want to think about governesses, about children. Not even his children. He wanted to think about Catherine, about those times together, times when-- He sighed. The girls did need a governess. That much was true. If this young woman had been in the village ... "Do you know about the castle, about the curse?"
Her back still straight, she kept her gaze on his face and said firmly. "Yes, milord, I know about it."
He frowned. Why must he be bothered with this kind of thing? He wanted to think about Catherine, just Catherine. "You know about the curse and yet you came here anyway? What on earth is wrong with you?"