from Private Sellers
The mu?ed thud of the shattered lock echoed like a thunderclap in the deep silence that drenched the cottage. Evangeline Ames recognized the sound at once. She was no longer alone in the house.
Her ?rst, primal instinct was to go absolutely still beneath the covers. Perhaps she was mistaken. The cottage was old. The ?oorboards and the ceiling often creaked and moaned at night. But even as the commonsense possibilities ?itted through her head, she knew the truth. It was two o’clock in the morning, an intruder had broken in and it was highly unlikely that he was after the silver. There was not enough in the place to tempt a thief.
Her nerves had been on edge all afternoon, her intuition ?ickering and ?aring for no obvious reason. Earlier, when she had walked into town, she had found herself looking over her shoulder again and again. She had ?inched at the smallest rustling noises in the dense woods that bordered the narrow lane. While shopping in Little Dixby’s crowded high street the hair had lifted on the back of her neck. She had felt as if she was being watched.
She had reminded herself that she was still recovering from the terrifying attack two weeks ago. She had very nearly been murdered. Little wonder her nerves were so fragile. On top of that, the writing was not going well and a deadline was looming. She dared not miss it. She’d had every reason to be tense.
But now she knew the truth. Her psychical intuition had been trying to send a warning for hours. That was the reason she had been unable to sleep tonight.
Cool currents of night air wafted down the hall from the kitchen. Heavy footsteps sounded. The intruder was not even bothering to conceal his approach. He was very certain of his prey. She had to get out of the bed.
She pushed back the covers, sat up quietly and eased herself to her feet. The ?oorboards were chilly. She stepped into her sturdy, leather-soled slippers and took her wrapper down o? the hook.
The assault on her person two weeks earlier had made her cautious. She had considered all possible escape routes when she had rented the cottage. Here in the bedroom, the waist-high window was her best hope. It opened onto the small front garden with its lattice gate. Just outside the gate was the narrow, rutted lane that wound through the dense woods to the ancient country house known as Crystal Gardens.
Out in the hall a ?oorboard creaked under the weight of a booted foot. The intruder was moving directly to the bedroom. That settled the matter. He had not come for the silver. He had come for her.
There was no point trying to silence her movements. She pushed one of the narrow casement windows wide, ignoring the squeak of the hinges, and clambered through the opening. With luck the intruder would not be able to ? t.
“Where do you think you’re going, you bloody stupid woman?” the harsh male voice roared from the doorway. It was freighted with the accents of London’s tough streets. “No one slips away from Sharpy Hobson’s blade.”
There was no time to wonder how a London street criminal had found his way to Little Dixby or why he was after her. She would worry about those questions later, she thought, if she survived the night.
She jumped to the ground and stumbled through the miniature jungle of giant ferns that choked the little garden. Many of the fronds were taller than she was.
To think she had come to the countryside to rest and recuperate from recent events.
“Bloody hell, come back here,” Hobson howled from the bedroom window. “Make things di?cult, will ye? I’ll take my time with ye when I do catch you, just see if I don’t. You’ll die nice and slow, and that’s a promise. Bloody little bitch.”
A string of savage curses told her that Hobson was ?nding it impossible to squeeze through the casement window. A tiny whisper of hope swept through her when she did not hear the pounding of footsteps behind her. Hobson would be forced to use one of the two doors in the cottage. That meant she had a little breathing room, time enough, perhaps, to make it to the only possible sanctuary.
There was no escape through the woods that bordered the lane. The moon was nearly full but the heavy canopy of summer leaves blocked the silver light that should have dappled the forest ?oor. Even if she’d had a lantern, she would not have been able to make her way through the dense undergrowth. She knew just how impenetrable the vegetation in the vicinity of the old abbey was because she had attempted to explore it during the day. The trees and undergrowth around the ancient ruins ?ourished in what the locals whispered was an unnatural manner.
She found the graveled garden walk and ?ew down it, the hem of the wrapper ?apping wildly. She paused long enough to unlatch the gate and then she was out in the moonlit lane, running for her life. She knew that Hobson would see her as soon as he emerged from the cottage.
Heavy footfalls thudded behind her.
“I have ye now, ye silly bitch. Ye’ll soon get a taste of Sharpy’s blade.”
She risked a quick glance over her shoulder and saw the dark ?gure bearing down on her. She would have screamed but there was no point wasting her breath. She ran harder, heart pounding.
The ancient stone walls that protected the vast grounds of Crystal Gardens appeared impregnable in the moonlight. She knew from previous explorations that the massive iron gate was locked.
There was no point trying to run the length of the long wall to the front door of the sprawling country house. There was no time. Hob-son was gaining on her. His footsteps were closer now. She could hear his harsh breathing, or perhaps it was her own labored gasps that she heard.
She reached the back wall of the ancient abbey and raced toward the mound of overgrown foliage that concealed the jagged hole in the stone barrier. She had discovered the opening a few days ago and had decided to indulge in some discreet exploration before the new owner had arrived to take up residence. She could not help herself. Her sense of curiosity was linked in some ways to her psychical talent and the mystery of Crystal Gardens had fascinated her from the start. It was the reason she had chosen to rent Fern Gate Cottage instead of one of the other properties available in the countryside around Little Dixby.
The fact that the rent on the cottage was considerably cheaper than it was for the other suitable lodgings in the area had also been a factor. But she had discovered soon enough why the little house was a bargain. The locals feared the abbey and the woods around it.
She slammed to a stop in front of the concealing foliage and pulled aside a curtain of cascading greenery. The jagged opening in the stone was about two feet above ground level. It was large enough for a person, even a man the size of Hobson, to squeeze through. But if he did pursue her onto the grounds she might have a chance.
She looked back one last time. Hobson had not yet rounded the corner of the wall but he would at any second. She could hear him—his thudding footsteps and his ragged breathing—but she could not yet see him. She had a few seconds.
She put one leg over the broken stone and then the other and then she was inside the grounds of Crystal Gardens.
She caught her breath, trans?xed by the eerie scene that surrounded her. She had seen enough of the strange gardens by day to know that there was something bizarre about the energy inside the walls and that the vegetation was not normal. But at night the paranormal elements were unmistakable.
The foliage on the vast grounds glowed with an eerie luminescence. In the very center of the gardens where the ruins of an ancient Roman bath were said to be located, the psychical light was as dark and ominous as a violent storm at sea.
She knew from the guidebooks that she had purchased from Miss Witton, the proprietor of the bookshop in Little Dixby, that Crystal Gardens was divided into two sections. The outer region in which she stood was called the Day Garden on the maps. It surrounded the walls of an elaborate maze, which, in turn, encircled the interior portion of the grounds known as the Night Garden.
In the nearly two weeks that she had resided in Fern Gate Cottage she had not ventured much farther into the gardens than where she was tonight. But she had seen enough to know that the peculiar nature of the atmosphere inside the walls would provide her with her best chance of escaping Sharpy Hobson’s knife.
There was a steady stream of curses as Hobson yanked and clawed at the foliage.
“No little whore gets away with making Sharpy Hobson look the fool. I’ll teach you to show some respect, see if I don’t.”
She looked around, summoning up a mental image of the layout of the gardens. The maze was the obvious place to hide. Her talent would very likely ensure that she did not get lost inside. But on a prior expedition she had discovered that a locked gate blocked the entrance to the labyrinth.
She started toward the gazebo. The graceful domed roof and the pillars glowed with a faint blue light that seemed to emanate from the very stone of which it was constructed. She hurried but she did not run. She wanted Hobson to see her.
He ?nally scrambled through the hole in the wall, grunting and swearing. She stopped and looked back, wondering how much of the paranormal light he could perceive. There was a shocked silence as Hobson took in his surroundings.
“What the ?amin’ hell?” he growled. He rubbed his eyes.
Then he saw her and promptly forgot about the strangely luminous landscape around him. He yanked a knife out of the leather sheath at his hip and lunged toward her.
“Thought you’d get away from me, did ye?” he growled.
She whirled back toward the gazebo. Her goal was the darkly gleaming pond in front of the structure. With luck Hobson would not be able to see it until it was too late. Her senses told her that if he tumbled into the gleaming black pool he would quickly lose interest in her. There was something nightmarish about those waters.
She was so focused on her plan to lure Hobson to the pond that she was unaware of the presence of the man in the long black coat until he walked out of the shadows and into the moonlight. He stopped directly in front of her, blocking her path.
“Is it the custom around here for visitors to call at such an unusual hour?” he asked.
His voice was as dark as the obsidian surface of the pond and charged with a similar chilling power. It stirred all of her senses. In the strange moon-and-energy-lit shadows it was di?cult to make out the man’s face clearly but there was no need to see him. She recognized him immediately. Indeed, she thought, she would know him anywhere. Lucas Sebastian, the mysterious new owner of Crystal Gardens.
She stumbled to a halt, trapped between Lucas and Sharpy Hobson.
“Mr. Sebastian,” she said. She was breathless and her heart was pounding. She struggled to identify herself, afraid he would not recognize her in the darkness, dressed, as she was, in her wrapper and nightgown, her hair falling around her shoulders. They had met only the one time, after all. “Sorry to intrude like this. Evangeline Ames, your tenant at Fern Gate Cottage.”
“I know who you are, Miss Ames.”
“You did say to call upon you if I had a problem. As it happens, I do have one.”
“I can see that,” Lucas said.
Hobson pulled up short. He made a slashing motion with the knife. “Get out of my way and ye won’t get hurt. I just want the little whore.”
Lucas regarded him with what could only be described as detached curiosity. “You are trespassing. That is a very dangerous thing to do here at Crystal Gardens.”
“What’s going on in this place?” Hobson looked around uneasily.
“Haven’t you heard the stories?” Lucas asked. “Everyone around here knows that these grounds are haunted.”
“Sharpy Hobson ain’t afraid of no ghosts,” Hobson vowed. “Won’t be hanging around long enough to meet one. All I want is this bitch.”
“What do you want with Miss Ames?” Lucas asked.
Evangeline was ?oored by Lucas’s matter-of-fact tone. It was as if he was only casually interested in Hobson’s reasoning.
“None of yer bloody business,” Hobson snarled. “But I can tell ye she’s worth a nice bit of blunt dead and I’m not going to let anyone get in my way.”
“You don’t seem to comprehend the situation,” Lucas said. “The lady is my tenant and therefore under my protection.” Hobson snorted. “I’m doing you a favor taking her o? your hands. The way I heard it, she’s a lying little bitch.”
“Someone hired you to kill her?” Lucas asked.
Hobson was starting to appear uncertain. Matters were evidently not proceeding the way they usually did when he went about his business.
“I’m not wasting any more time talking to you.” Hobson leaped toward Lucas, knife ready to slash. “Yer a dead man.”
“Not quite,” Lucas said.
Energy, dark and terrifying, ?ashed in the atmosphere. Evangeline had just time enough time to realize that Lucas was somehow generating it and then Hobson was shrieking with raw, mindless panic.
“No, get away from me,” he shouted. He dropped the knife and clawed at something only he could see. “Get away.”
He whirled and ?ed blindly into the gardens.
“Damn it to hell,” Lucas said quietly. “Stone?”
A second ?gure glided out of the shadows. “Here, sir.”
The voice sounded as though it emanated from the depths of a vast underground cavern and, like Sharpy Hobson’s voice, it carried the accents of the London streets.
In the strange light provided by the subtly glowing foliage Evangeline could see that Stone suited his name. He was constructed like some ancient granite monolith and looked as if he would be just as impervious to the elements. The moonlight gleamed on his shaved head. The shadows and the eerie luminescence around them made it di?cult to estimate his age but he appeared to be in his early twenties.
“See if you can grab Hobson before he blunders into the maze,” Lucas said. “Whatever you do, don’t try to follow him if he gets that far.”
Stone broke into a run, moving with a surprising lack of noise for such a large man.
Lucas turned back to Evangeline. “Are you all right, Miss Ames?”
“Yes, I think so.” She was still trying to calm her rattled senses and rapid pulse. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
A high-pitched, keening scream echoed from somewhere deep in the gardens. The unearthly cry iced Evangeline’s nerves. She stilled, unable to breathe.
It ended with horrifying suddenness. Evangeline was shivering so violently it was all she could do to remain on her feet.
“Sharpy Hobson,” she whispered.
“Evidently Stone did not get to him in time to prevent him from entering the maze,” Lucas said.
“Is he—?” She swallowed and tried again. “Is he dead?”
“Hobson? Probably or he soon will be. It’s unfortunate.”
“Unfortunate?” she managed. “That’s all you can say about the man’s death?”
“I would like to have questioned him. But as that does not seem likely to happen, you and I will talk, instead.”
She tried to compose herself. “Mr. Sebastian, I’m not at all sure what to say.”
“There will be nothing complicated about our conversation, Miss Ames. You will come inside with me now. I will pour you a glass of medicinal brandy for your nerves and you will tell me what you are doing here in my gardens at this hour of the night and why a man with a knife was trying to murder you.”
“But that’s what I’m trying to tell you. I have no idea why Hobson attacked me.”
“Then we must reason it out together.”
He shrugged o? his coat and draped it around her shoulders before she could summon up further protest. When his ?ngers brushed the nape of her neck a thrill of awareness stirred her senses. The heavy wool garment was still warm from the heat of his body. She caught a trace of his masculine scent. It caused her senses to ? are in a way that she had never before experienced.
Stone appeared. “Sorry, sir. He saw the open gate and ran straight inside. Probably assumed it was a way out of the gardens.” “I’ll deal with the body later,” Lucas said. “I wish to speak to Miss Ames ?rst and then I will escort her back to the cottage.”
“Yes, sir. Will you be needing anything else?”
“Not at the moment.”
Stone moved into the shadows. Evangeline watched him disappear. She was starting to wonder if she was caught up in some bizarre dream. Perhaps she was hallucinating. It was not beyond the realm of possibility, she thought. Her employers and her friends were convinced that her nerves had been badly strained by the attack two weeks earlier. Perhaps they were right.
Lucas’s powerful hand closed around her arm. The shock of the physical contact made her ?inch. Her talent was still ?aring wildly and it was linked to her sense of touch. She could perceive Lucas’s aura now quite clearly. The ?erce bands of ice-and-?re energy took her breath.
“Relax, Miss Ames,” he said. “I will not hurt you.”
There was nothing in his aura to indicate that he was lying. She was safe enough, she decided, at least for the moment. She pulled herself together and lowered her tpsychical senses.
“This way, Miss Ames.” He steered her around a large bush. “Watch your step. There are a number of hazards on the grounds, including those roses.”
The power she had glimpsed in Lucas’s aura warned her that he was probably a good deal more dangerous than anything in his strange gardens.
Sharpy Hobson had stopped screaming but she knew that she would hear the echoes of his last, horri?ed cries in her nightmares for a long time to come.