Authors: Catherine Coulter
THE STRANGE VISITATION AT WOLFFE HALL
The first novella in the
Grayson Sherbrooke Otherworldly Adventures series, by
THE STRANGE VISITATION AT WOLFFE HALL
All Rights Reserved © 2015 by Catherine Coulter
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Published by Catherine Coulter
OTHER BOOKS BY CATHERINE COULTER
FBI Suspense Thrillers
A Brit in the FBI Thrillers
The Lost Key
The Final Cut
The End Game
Contemporary Romantic Thrillers
Born to be Wild
The Rebel Bride
The Wild Baron
The Sherbrooke Bride
The Hellion Bride
The Heiress Bride
The Scottish Bride
The Sherbrooke Twins
The Prince of Ravenscar
The Wyndham Legacy
The Nightingale Legacy
The Valentine Legacy
The Penwyth Curse
The Valcourt Heiress
Victorian / Early San Francisco
Season of the Sun
Lord of Hawkfell Island
Lord of Raven’s Peak
Lord of Falcon Ridge
Wolffe Hall, Yorkshire, England
Wednesday, nearly midnight
She jerked up in bed, wide awake, breathing hard and fast. The dream—this was the second time she’d had the identical dream. She was herself in the dream, and she was surrounded by a hazy sort of pale light that kept her from seeing anything clearly. It was as if she were in the middle of a long, foggy tunnel with a low humming all around her that slowly changed to a low voice that spoke quietly at first, all around her, then the voice became gradually harsher and louder, yelling at her. Then she came awake, sweating, terrified, and still not understanding what it was all about. The same sounds were in both dreams, and she realized this time the sounds were words, only they were garbled and distorted as if coming from a long way away, and she couldn’t make them out.
She pinched her arm—yes, she was awake. She was still breathing hard, her heart pounding. Had P.C. had the same dream again? She had to go to her, but suddenly, she was so afraid she couldn’t get spit in her mouth because the once-warm scented air was turning icy cold. She would swear she could see the air shimmering in the dim light cast by the half-moon from her window. What was going on?
She felt the first tremor, only a slight shuddering, and she saw her small writing desk slide across the floor.
What was going on here? She had to get to her daughter.
Miranda lit a candle, threw on her bed-robe and her slippers, and ran into the wide corridor, yelling her daughter’s name. She threw open P.C.’s door, but P.C. wasn’t in her bedchamber. Miranda ran back into the corridor and skidded to a stop when, suddenly, her candle went out, as if an invisible hand had pinched the wick, throwing the hallway into impenetrable darkness.
No answer. There didn’t seem to be another living person in Wolffe Hall, as if she were completely alone, but how could that be? It made no sense. She called out for the Great, her mama-in-law, the servants. No answer. And always as she made her way in the dark, feeling along the wall, she called out as she went, “P.C.!”
“Mama! I’m here. Where are you?”
Miranda got herself together. “I’m here, love, walking toward the top of the stairs. I yelled your name—where were you?”
“I was trying to find you. Then I heard you shouting my name. Didn’t you hear me?”
She shook her head. She hadn’t heard a thing. Her daughter ran into her, and she hugged her against her side. “The dream came again, but now it’s more.”
P.C. had her arms tight around her mother’s waist. “It’s scary, Mama, really scary. Did your candle go out too?”
“Yes. I couldn’t find you, and it simply went out.”
“Mama, it’s coming. Listen.”
Miranda felt something in the air itself, something black and cold, and it was building and building. She and P.C. heard a low growl of the voice, that same voice, so far away, but screaming the same words over and over.
“Mama, can you understand the words?”
Miranda got herself together. “No, I can’t, but it will be all right, P.C., because we’re going to leave. We’ll be able to see the moon through the downstairs front windows. Be careful. Come slowly, all right?”
“It’s like we’re the only ones in the house, but you know we aren’t.” P.C. panted out the words, pressing closer to her mother. “Mama, what about the Great and Grandmama?”
Miranda looked back up the stairs. With no light, the stairs quickly disappeared into inky blackness. “We have to try another candle.” Miranda ran into the library and fetched one of the Great’s candles. The flame flickered, but held. The air was so cold both of them were shivering violently as they walked back up the stairs, Miranda cupping the candle.
When they reached her mother-in-law’s bedchamber, Miranda turned the doorknob, but nothing happened. She twisted, but still, nothing. She pounded on the door, but there was no answer.
P.C. whispered, “Mama, where is she? Why is the door locked?”
Miranda pounded on the door again, threw back her head, and yelled, “Mama-in-law! Where are you?” And there it came, the voice from their dreams, not screaming, but low, a whispery faraway voice, muffled, as inside a tunnel, blurred, unintelligible. The same sounds over and over and it was coming from everywhere, closer and closer, like a circle drawing in tighter and tighter, swirling around them. It was becoming louder again, but they still couldn’t understand. Now the voice was shouting, but it was all confused, deep, guttural sounds.
Then silence, utter silence.
They ran to the Great’s door. It was locked too, but Miranda yelled, “Sir! Lord Great!”
But there was no answer.
Mother and daughter huddled in the dark hallway, wondering about the servants, when they felt a small tremor as if from an earthquake, something neither of them had ever experienced, but instinctively recognized. Then the house began to shudder and shake around them. “Mama, we’ve got to get out of the house, now.”
Miranda knew she was right, but what about the servants? She took P.C.’s hand, and they raced to the bottom of the third-floor stairs. Both of them shouted, “Suggs! Mrs. Crandle! Marigold!”
Again, Miranda felt like they were alone. It was terrifying because it made no sense.
The air was colder now than it had been an instant before, and the slight tremors were coming more frequently. No hope for it. Miranda grabbed P.C.’s hand. “We’re getting out of this cursed house, away from that cursed voice.”
She clasped her daughter’s hand as they ran back down the hall to the main staircase. They paused, listened, but there was no sound of another person, nothing, only silence, dead silence, and the cold air and the growing tremors.
It felt like the hall would be ripped from the ground itself so violent was the shuddering. They had to get out, now. This was real, and it was terrifying.
Once again they heard the voice, and yet again it was low and blurred, enfolding them. “Ignore it.” Miranda pinched out the candle when they reached the head of the stairs, afraid the tremors would make her drop it. The thought of a fire was more frightening than the infernal shaking. They stepped off the bottom step into the entry hall and nearly fell into a gaping hole in the middle of the black-and-white squares, and it was spinning around and around. From where they stood, they could see no bottom.
Miranda whispered, “An abyss.”
She grabbed P.C.’s hand and ran around the black swirling hole to the front door. Both of them felt its pull, trying to jerk them in and go—where? To hell, Miranda thought, that black gaping hole went directly to hell. She unfastened the three locks and tugged. The massive door didn’t budge. Miranda pulled, and P.C. added all her weight, but the big lion’s paw knob wouldn’t move. The voice came again, behind them. No more gentle whispers, now it was loud, angry, but still they couldn’t understand what it was saying. Miranda looked over her shoulder. Was the voice coming from deep in that black hole?
Miranda pulled P.C. to the large window beside the front door and unlatched it. It wouldn’t push outward. It wouldn’t do anything at all.
“It doesn’t want us to leave, Mama,” P.C. whispered, so afraid, and the voice kept coming, so loud now their ears hurt.
Miranda screamed, “What do you want? What are you saying? We cannot understand you!”
Louder and louder, the same words or sounds over and over again, belching out of the abyss. Then the voice simply stopped and the tremors became great shudders and the black hole suddenly disappeared. Miranda grabbed the gilt Louis XVth chair in the entryway and slammed it against the window. There was a grunting sound, like she’d struck someone in the belly, then the window shattered, not outward, but insanely the shards flew inward, showering them with glass, and something hurtled them back, and Miranda would swear she felt breathing on her face, fast and harsh, and then a whisper, right in her ear, and she knew it was the same words, only she didn’t understand them.
Miranda couldn’t move, couldn’t think. She felt the pricks of glass shards, but ignored them. “P.C., are you all right?”
“Yes, Mama, maybe a small cut on my arm—I think that’s all. Whatever it is, it’s really mad at us.”
Miranda felt the welling of blood from a cut on her own cheek and wiped it away. The house seemed to tilt upward, throwing them back. Miranda grabbed P.C., pulled her tightly against her, trying to protect her, but the shaking hurled them into a table leg, and the vase of roses atop it went flying, striking the tiles, sending water and flowers everywhere.
“Hold on!” Miranda shouted. She buried P.C.’s face against her chest and closed her arms around her head. The mad convulsions went on and on. Miranda would swear she heard the voice shriek out a low moan and a part of a word—it sounded like
. What was a hoos? Or who was a hoos? No more, she simply couldn’t stand any more. She grabbed her daughter and staggered across the wildly swaying floor. She managed to lift her out the open window, climbed out after her, and they ran as fast as they could away from the shuddering house.
Thursday, the next evening
Lightning slashed through the black sky and thunder rolled, so loud it shook the ground, sending rocks tumbling down the cliff in front of him. The wind whipped his hair about his head, and the rain pelted down on his black cloak, but he didn’t move, only stared off at the huge, dark castle bathed in clear, cold white light by yet another burst of lightning. Raven’s Peak—so old it should have crumbled long ago, but it hadn’t. It still jutted out proudly at the end of the distant promontory into the North Sea, the centuries-old sentinel to ward off enemies. It had festered with ancient mysteries and deadly secrets over the centuries, and too many deaths to be explained by the rational mind. But now at least one of those mysteries was solved, its secrets revealed.
Lightning burst wide, bathing Raven’s Peak yet again in daylight brightness. Only one final death tonight. He’d delivered the final blow himself, and the ancient evil was gone, hurled back into the depths of hell. The Ballinger family was now safe, at least in this generation. But the next? Who knew when evil would once again slither up from the deep crevices in the earth?
Grayson Sherbrooke laid down his pen, rubbed the ink off his fingers, and stretched his hands. He smiled.
The Evil Within
was done, and he was pleased. Thomas Straithmore had once again vanquished unspeakable evil, this time a demon from the bowels of hell unleashed accidently by the small son in the Ballinger household. Grayson’s publisher, Benjamin Hawkes, would be pleased with Grayson’s latest manuscript since he liked nothing more, he told Grayson, than a cup of hot brandy while Grayson scared him to his toes.
The Evil Within
, starring Grayson’s demon-killer Thomas Straithmore, should freeze all the blood in his toes at the gut-cramping scenes he’d written.
“Papa?” Tap, tap, tap on the library door. “Papa? Are you awake?”
Grayson wasn’t surprised. Pip always had perfect timing. Pip’s nurse, naturally, had no idea her four-year-old charge was wandering around Belhaven in the middle of the night since she slept the sleep of the angels. Grayson rose, stretched, and opened the library door to see his son looking up at him with his heart-melting smile, his small feet peeking out from beneath his white nightshirt, his arms held up. Grayson scooped him up, spun him around, and drew him close to his heart. “It’s midnight, you imp. Why are you awake?”
Pip pulled back in his father’s arms, studied his face, and lightly patted his cheek with damp fingers. Pip still sucked his thumb. He whispered against Grayson’s ear, “I heard my Mary Beth telling Mr. Haddock that you were finishing your next scary book tonight, so when I went to bed I told myself to wake up and I did. Mary Beth shivered when Mr. Haddock said that, Papa, and she knew it would frighten her right out of her stockings. Mr. Haddock said he wanted to see that. She called him saucy and hit him in the arm.”
So Mary Beth had called Haddock saucy, had she? Haddock was his butler and valet, since he’d confided in Grayson in a low, vibrating voice three months before that valeting was in his blood, his grandfather having taken care of the Duke of Devonshire way back in the olden days. Grayson had to admit Haddock had a fine way with ironing shirts. He’d also been giving Mary Beth, Pip’s nanny, interested looks for nearly three months now, but she was having none of it. He was too short, she said, too old for her. Both were true, Grayson thought, but Haddock was determined. Interestingly enough, Haddock’s hair had turned stark white when he was twenty-three. At thirty, he looked like Moses.
He looked down at Pip. “The book’s done, not two minutes ago.”
“What is the title, Papa?”
“The Evil Within
“At the end you saved everyone, didn’t you? You smashed the evil hard?”
“Thomas Straithmore saved the day again, and yes, the evil got smashed.”
“Grandmama said you always kicked evil in the dirt, and that buoyed her spirits. Grandpa laughed, said you were always a hero, even when you were as little as me. I told him that couldn’t be true since I’m not little now, Papa, I’m nearly five.”
“Four and a half.” His father believed he was a hero, did he? Grayson hugged Pip close, kissed his small ear, and breathed in that sweet child smell. He didn’t want fear or unhappiness to touch his young life. Thankfully, Pip had been too young when death had first knocked on their door. His mother, Lorelei, had been dead three years now, come next week. Grayson felt the familiar punch of pain, felt it recede into the past again. “It’s time for you to be in your bed, Pip. No, no arguments. That’s where I’m headed myself.”
“But you always have a glass of champagne when you finish a book, Papa.”
Pip was right. No matter what time of the day or night he wrote the last line, he toasted himself with champagne. “We can’t wake up Haddock—”
Pip pulled his thumb out of his mouth. “Mr. Haddock says he has to sleep eight hours to grow his hair.”
Since Haddock was blessed with more hair than he deserved, Grayson couldn’t argue with the eight hours a night. “Maybe Mrs. Elvan left a bottle of champagne in the icebox. I told her about my champagne tradition, and she knew I was getting close to the end of the book. Let’s go to the kitchen and see.”
Grayson carried the candle branch in one hand, Pip pressed against his shoulder with the other.
The house groaned with its night sounds as he walked along the wide corridor, boards creaking beneath his booted feet, and the air hung quiet as a crypt, musty, choking—but wait, he heard something. Something close, too close, maybe in the wall, a muffled moan, not a human moan, no—
Grayson shook his head at himself. His mind always went to the macabre, to the potentially terrifying. Hmmm,
Thomas was carrying the small son—or daughter—of the house to safety, not knowing what lay waiting ahead, but the sounds he’d heard were deep in the wall, or perhaps behind the wall, trying to punch through—
Belhaven House kitchen sported a brand-new icebox, an experimental invention by Mr. Hubalto Custer of York, who’d asked Grayson to give it a try, which he’d agreed to even though Mrs. Elvin believed the monstrosity to be the work of Satan.
Imagine, a box with a huge block of ice in it that melted all over everything and dripped on the floor and made a body slip and slide—no Christian would be responsible for that.
He unlatched the wooden box door and raised the candle. The once-big block of ice was melting, true, but it was a slow drip, most of it caught in a pan set in the bottom. And because Mr. Custer had stuffed sawdust in the inside doors, the interior remained cold. Mrs. Elvan hadn’t complained about that. It was an amazing invention. Yet another remarkable invention by a man named Fox-Talbot was photography, not a painting or drawing, it was a recording of what you actually saw. One of Grayson’s good friends, Murdoch Tynes, said it was time someone finally developed a cure for baldness. And train cars were becoming more widespread, and, of course, his icebox. Grayson leaned in and saw the two lower shelves of the icebox held three covered dishes and a single bottle of Legrandier’s finest champagne. The bottle was cold to the touch. Should he give Pip a sip? He could see Lorelei smiling, and so he did, a very small sip after they toasted his completion of
The Evil Within
He heard a noise, not a house sound, something else entirely, and it wasn’t from his imagination. “Pip,” he whispered against his son’s ear. “Don’t say a word. I’m putting you down. Don’t move.”
The sound came again, a scraping sound. Someone was trying to open the locked door at the back of the kitchen.
Grayson lightly squeezed his son’s arm, said again, “Don’t move.”
Grayson left the candle on a tabletop and carried the champagne bottle by its neck toward the back door.