In regards to the Matter of the un-entailed Estate of the late-Jonathan Hambly, 10th Earl of Banfield, be advised that your attendance is urgently required at the reading of his lordship’s Last Will & Testament, to take place on November 1st of this year at Castle Keyvnor in Bocka Morrow, Cornwall.
Mr. Timothy Hunt, Esq.
When the late-Earl of Banfield’s distant relations descend upon Bocka Morrow, they’ll find gypsies, witches, pixies, smugglers, and one very haunted castle. And if they’re lucky, they might just fall in love while they’re there.
MYSTIFIED, The Haunting of Castle Keyvnor includes:
Renee Bernard’s The Sweetest Curse
Jerrica Knight-Catania's Possessed by the Baron
Erica Monroe's The Mad Countess
Erica Monroe's The Mad Countess
Theodore Lockwood, Earl of Ashbrooke, has been in love with his best friend, Lady Claire Deering, for as long as he can remember. Claire too harbors a secret desire for him—but a witch cursed her family with madness, and she’s terrified she’ll only hurt him if they act on their feelings. When a will reading at a mysterious castle in Cornwall brings them both together, they’ll work to break her family’s curse…and find true love.
October 27, 1811
Cornwall, en route to Castle Keyvnor
It was such an innocuous word, when printed so tidily in the pages of Lady Claire Deering’s journal. She had neat, tiny handwriting. When she was locked up in a cell in an asylum like her mother had been, was that what they’d remember about her? Unadorned, clear script, a direct contrast to her dark, deranged mind. The mad were only to be whispered about, a harrowing bedtime story meant to caution children to confine to society morals.
Be a good girl, darling, or you’ll end up like those savages.READ MORE
But Claire knew better. It did not matter how good she tried to be, or how much she prayed that the wickedness would escape her. Some things were simply unavoidable, when one had been cursed. The madness had taken her mother and her aunt, and some day it would claim her too. Until that day, she would bide her time. Silently. Alone.
“What’s troubling you?” came a female voice.
Or as alone as she could be, in a carriage with her lady’s maid on her way to the will reading of her uncle, the old Earl of Banfield. Kinney had been sleeping for most of the journey, but now she was awake. They sat next to each other in the single-benched traveling coach, a fluffy red blanket spread across their laps to keep warm.
When Kinney glanced out the window, Claire slipped the journal underneath the blanket, hiding it from the older woman’s curious gaze. The last thing she wanted was to worry the maid. These days, Kinney was more friend than servant, and friends were in short supply.
“I was just thinking about Uncle Jonathan,” Claire said. “It is a sad business, his death.”
That was the least of her concerns, if she were to be completely honest. The late Earl of Banfield had been seventy-two at his death, and he had led a long and sane—if not entirely happy—life. The loss of his young child years prior had not undone him as it had affected his wife.
He had not been included in the hex upon their family.
Kinney eyed her skeptically, seeing through her, as she always did. The maid had been with her since she was but a child. “Is that all that concerns you, Peach?”
Kinney’s half-scold, half-singsong tone brought back as many memories of Claire’s youth as the name Peach did. Bestowed upon her because at four years old she had only wanted to eat peaches, the silly appellation had carried through the years, becoming more a sign of the closeness between the two of them than any indication of her dietary contrariness.
“If I were to tell you that I do not look forward to a sennight at Castle Keyvnor, would you leave me be?” Claire asked, a bit of hopefulness creeping into her tone, even though she knew it was futile. Had she been born a lad instead, Kinney would have made a brilliant Bow Street Runner—she had a nose like a bloodhound for secrets.
“‘Course not.” Kinney half-smiled, her far-too-perceptive gaze back on Claire, stripping her of her secrets. “’Tis my job to tend to your welfare. Speaking of which, you ought to have a nibble. Between the ghosts and that witches’ coven in the woods, you’ll need to keep your strength up for that ghastly castle.”
The very idea of being so close to the coven made her stomach endlessly flip. Instinctively, her fingers closed around the pearl pendant around her neck, wishing that it would protect her. But the pendant had belonged to her mother, and it hadn’t saved her.
From the large portmanteau at her feet, Kinney pulled out a cloth-wrapped package. She undid the ties, revealing six biscuits from the tea tray at their last inn stop. Claire had been too distracted to eat much, her thoughts on the will reading and seeing her distant family members. She hadn’t seen Kinney even reach for a biscuit, let alone wrap them all up.
“When did you—” Claire shook her head. It was never good to admit how much she missed, even to Kinney. Instead, she took a biscuit from the cloth. “Thank you.”
They ate the remaining biscuits, staring out the windows of the carriage. The Cornwall countryside flashed before them, a seemingly endless monotony of moss-green forest and dank dirt. The only change in scenery was the glimpse of red and black from the coat of arms on her father’s carriage, ahead of them on the road.
At least Papa was traveling separately. He rarely spent more than ten minutes in the same room as her now—she reminded him too much of his late wife.
In fact, Papa had refused most company since Mama’s death. He’d shut himself up in Brauning Manor, only leaving the estate’s grounds during the Season—and then, he rarely left their townhouse in London. If Claire ever needed a chaperone, Kinney came with her.
Yet even a fortnight in close confines with only Papa for company would not be the worst of torments. That dubious honor applied to the times she had spent visiting her mother in Ticehurst, a private lunatic hospital catering to those members of the aristocracy one never spoke of openly.
Two years Lady Brauning was at the asylum, and Claire had only seen her thrice.
The fourth visit was supposed to be the week she died.
The week they killed her, the quack practitioners under Samuel Newington’s advisement. Newington, who was supposed to be kind, better than the butchers at Bedlam that tended to the paupers. Newington, who should have known better than to allow his doctors to practice water therapy on her mother. Newington, who had met his own demise this year.
He had not died in a windowless shower room, every part of his body bound and restrained in the special chair, whilst ice-cold water rained down upon him endlessly. He had not tried to suck in breath after breath in a laudanum-induced haze, swallowing only water until he drowned. He had not left his family exiled in the ton, his child marked as the “Mad Daughter.”
Claire leaned back against the squabs and closed her eyes. That was a mistake, for the blackness reminded her of how her mother must have slipped from consciousness, her throat relaxing, water flowing into her lungs.
For a second, her breath came in fierce pants, as the image gripped her tight. The churn and fall of the carriage wheels against the dirt road did not steady her, for they were just another reminder of where she was going. What she’d face.
Then, when her heart had begun to thump so fast against her chest that it overshadowed the noise of the hack, she felt Kinney’s hand brush against her arm, warm and real, centering her in reality. She did not have much, but she had Kinney.
And that was enough for her. She would not yearn for more; she refused to. Love was not in the cards for her.
No matter what longings stirred for the boy she’d known all her life, the boy with the sparkling green eyes, clever mind, and impish grin that made her heart squeeze so.
The carriage swayed as they turned right, down the road that would take them finally to Castle Keyvnor. The maid gathered up the now-empty cloth that had held the biscuits and stuffed it back in her portmanteau. Kinney brushed the crumbs off the blanket, and then reached up to readjust Claire’s traveling bonnet.
“There, my dear Peach,” she declared. “You look ready for anything. Those ghosts and goblins shall have nothing on you.”
Kinney looked so convinced Claire couldn’t help but smile, the slowest of smiles, as genuine as her previous attempt had been faux. “Perhaps I shall be bigger than my demons, for once,” she said, pasting a smile on her face. She wanted to be strong, like Kinney saw her, but she knew her fate was already sealed.
“Besides, you shall get to see your cousins,” Kinney said. “That should be fun.”
“It’ll be nice to see Letty and Violet. And I expect the Priske clan will be there too. I do so like Lady Cassandra.” The eldest Priske sister had always been kind to Claire, even as the ton turned upon her last year. “Lady Samantha is nice too.”
“Aye. But I do wish Lord Ashbrooke would come too.” Kinney sent her a pointed look so acute that Claire knew any attempt she’d made to mask her feelings had been in vain.
“Kinney, please,” she murmured, turning in her seat so she faced the window. She didn’t trust herself to keep her expression neutral, not that it seemed to matter now. “He won’t be at the reading. It’s family members only.”
“’Tis a shame,” Kinney said. “But I suppose a will reading is a far too somber of an occasion for romance. You shall have to visit him when you return.”
Claire sighed. “You know Teddy and I can never be more than friends.”
“Because of some curse?” Kinney scoffed. “What happened to your mother, and your aunt, was horrible, Peach. But you are not doomed. You, of all people, deserve happiness.”
Claire turned back around, laying her palm down on top of Kinney’s again. “Thank you, but my mind is made up. I’m not going to take the chance that I’d hurt him.”
Kinney frowned. “I think you’re making a mistake, my dear, but…”
“There’s nothing you can do to convince me,” Claire finished for her.
Kinney squeezed Claire’s hand, a sad smile across her lips. “You always were a stubborn chit. Ah well. Keyvnor is so large. I doubt we’ll even see half the party.” She pointed out the window at the castle, looming in the distance. “I shall need a map to find our room.”
“Don’t be silly,” Claire said. “You have an impeccable sense of direction.”
Kinney let out a loud “harrumph” at that, but she seemed pleased nonetheless at the compliment. Claire scooted closer to the window, pushing the curtains all the way back to give them a better view. Even in the bright light of day, Castle Keyvnor was intimidating. Made of the darkest stone, it retained much of its original Norman motte and bailey design. With a wooden drawbridge, a barbican, and a gatehouse with a single rectangular tower, the castle screamed of the old and the long dead.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kinney draw back and mumble a prayer. Years ago, Claire might have poked fun at Kinney’s fear of the occult—but now Claire knew that the devil was so very, very real.
And as they passed through the massive gate with its twin battlements and crest carved into the stone, a shiver went down Claire’s spine, and she had no trouble believing that the most malevolent of spirits lived between these storied walls.
Three hours later
Theodore Lockwood, Earl of Ashbrooke and known as Teddy to his closest friends, had never liked leaving things to chance. He was a planner, a researcher, a scholar. Even when he tried to be courageous—as he attempted now—he went about it with a methodical approach.
So he knew, even as he climbed the stairs to the parapet walk at Castle Keyvnor, exactly how high up from the ground he’d be when he reached the top. He had hunted down the original floor plans of the castle, making a special stop at the British Museum to consult with the leading expert on twelfth-century architecture. His visit, and his reasoning for finding such a vast array of information necessary for a seven-day jaunt, had surprised the professor. But as in all things, Teddy believed preparation would be the key to success.
He climbed higher, the wind whistling in his ears. Each step made him a little more lightheaded, but devil take his very soul, he’d complete this task. He’d skipped nuncheon with the rest of the castle guests, just so that he could conquer his fear. Probably best not to have a full stomach when he got to the top of the castle.
He paused on the steps, leaning back against the stone foundations. He told himself he was admiring the view, but really, he was marshaling his strength. For most of his twenty-five years, every day faded into the next in a similar order. He kept the same friends he’d had since his days at Eton, and he frequented the same establishments his family had always visited. He’d completed his time at university, and moved on to study with the Inns of Court. His life progressed according to plan.
Until a year ago, when the letter arrived at his Half Moon Street townhouse. He still remembered how the cream-colored parchment had appeared upon the silver tray where the butler placed all of his mail, so innoxious, as if bad news could never be relayed with such an innocent piece of paper.
He should have known better.
In the span of a single day, he went from the spare intent on becoming a barrister to the new Earl of Ashbrooke.
His eldest brother, Gerald, was dead. Killed in the middle of the night by a bullet to the chest. The duel had happened so suddenly—both men were deep in their cups, and their equally foxed friends had been all-too-eager to offer themselves up as seconds. That, Teddy had learned, was the way of humanity. There was little men loved more than blood sport, and watching two young bucks fight over the affections of a well-known courtesan qualified as prime entertainment.
There’d been no time for planning. No time to stop him from this rash mistake. Not that Gerry would have listened to him—the two brothers had been as different as night and day, with Gerry being a proper rogue, and Teddy much preferring the company of his books to Society.
Teddy hadn’t even been able to say goodbye. According to the code of honor, duels were supposed to happen the next morning. But Gerry had disregarded that rule as he did every other edict, and he’d bled to death in the worst parts of the East End as a result.
The memory of identifying Gerry’s body in the coroner’s office made Teddy’s stomach churn, and his hands grow slick with sweat. Such a senseless death! All for nothing, since the courtesan in question moved on from the duel winner’s bed within a week. Gerry’s life had been squandered.
Teddy, who had been governed for so long by his fear of change, would not waste his own life.
So he climbed, each foot hitting a stone step until finally there were no more left. The stairwell bottomed out into the allure. He stood at the top of the left tower, surrounded by gray granite. The grayness faded into the equally dank sky, until he felt as though he was enveloped in a blob of watered-down ink.
It was as if the sky was waiting—holding its breath before a great storm. Waiting, as he’d done for so much of his life.
“You let fear rule you, my good man. You’re too afraid to ask Lady Claire to marry you, and so someday she’ll marry some other fellow,” Jack Hazelwood, Lord St. Giles, had remarked as they leaned against the track guardrails at Newmarket. Teddy had been friends with St. Giles since they were first enrolled at Eton as young lads, and unfortunately St. Giles knew him far, far too well.
It hadn’t helped when Hal Mort, Viscount Blackwater, agreed with St. Giles’s assessment. Beside Blackwater, Lord Michael Beck nodded vigorously. Their enthusiastic response was probably prompted more by the copious amounts of ale they’d imbibed than real concordance—but it didn’t change the fact that St. Giles had hit on the truth.
He’d waited for far too long. For half his life, he’d been in love with Claire, but he’d been terrified to tell her how he felt. They’d been friends since childhood—what if she refused him? What would happen to their friendship then? It had seemed easier to stay silent, and keep her in his life.
But he wasn’t going to take the easy way out any more.
He pressed himself against the back wall of the castle, swallowing down the ball of nervousness in his throat at being so high up off the ground. It was not just the wind that sang in his ears. His heart slamming against his chest now joined to create an unsettling cacophony.
Intellectually, he knew the purpose of this wall-walk. In medieval times, the allures had been instrumental in the castle’s defense, for they allowed quick travel between the various towers. The garrisons had also used the walks to repel intruders.
Intruders like me.
He hadn’t been invited to Castle Keyvnor. The will reading was meant only for the Hambly Family and their many relations. Relations like Beck, who had received the summons to attend when they were all at Newmarket. Relations like Claire, his beautiful Claire, who would have to face all the memories Castle Keyvnor brought back of her Aunt Evelyn’s descent into madness and eventual death here.
A mere year had passed since Claire’s own mother, Evelyn Banfield’s sister, had died in the asylum.
He wouldn’t—he couldn’t—let Claire face this bloody castle, and all it stood for, alone.
So he’d come with St. Giles, Blackwater, and of course Beck. They were a merry band of brothers. Where one went, the rest followed.
Yet for all they’d proved their worth over the years, for all the support they’d given him, there were still some things he had to do alone.
Like moving off of this damned wall. He started to count under his breath, and when he got to the count of three, he still hadn’t moved.
Just do it already.
He shut his eyes and pushed off from the wall. He remained still, heart hammering and stomach churning, until numbness sloshed through his body.
For the love of God, he was the Earl of Ashbrooke now! How could he possibly help Claire fight her demons if he could not even face his bloody fear of heights?
No one wants to marry a white-feathered coward.
He opened his eyes. Stared straight ahead. Pretended that there was absolutely no chance that he could fall to his death, splashing his blood and guts upon the green grass below. Except that didn’t work, for he’d always been horrid at pretending. He preferred to live in reality, where logic and law won the day.
He nudged one foot forward, and then the other, until he was at the parapet. Hands out in front of him, he held onto the lower portion of the stone. Embrasure. Being able to put a name to the lesser segment of the alternating portions of the battlements gave him some sort of solace. If he could understand it, see it with his own two eyes, he could face it.
Notching his chin higher, he surveyed the landscape beneath him. The village of Bocka Morrow, so peaceful—and so bloody small. Each tiny cottage looked like a doll’s abode. And if he looked directly down, which he did only for a few moments because his stomach roiled fiercely and bile rose in his mouth, he saw the gatehouse and the front gardens.
The old Teddy would never have asked a servant how he could get to the allure. The old Teddy would have stayed with his friends, instead of striking out on his own.
But the new Teddy, the one people addressed as Ashbrooke, and not Lockwood, had climbed this whole bloody tower and faced his fear.
Even if he currently wanted to double over and retch on these stones.
What was it Claire had once said, when they were younger? “The bravest thing one can do is act in spite of fear.” Granted, at the time she was eight years old and trying to convince him to filch biscuits from the pantry, but the philosophy held. He retreated to the wall, leaning his head against the cool stone and sucking in a deep breath. His heartbeat gradually slowed, no longer galloping toward an imaginary finish line like a racehorse.
That was enough for one day. Maybe tomorrow he’d work on his crippling fear of spiders, take a hike outdoors, or finally eat black pudding. His stomach gave an unwelcome leap at the mere thought.
Or maybe he’d just focus on convincing Claire she wasn’t cursed.
He nodded swiftly. That was clearly a better plan, and it didn’t involve him eating blood sausage. He turned away from the wall, pointedly avoiding looking down as he made his way to the stairwell. He’d already proved he could do it—no need to be excessive.
His descent was much faster, as he practically sprinted down the steps in his urge to get to solid ground. By the time he reached the last step, he’d started an all-out run toward the door at the end of the landing, leading to the interior of the castle. He flung open the door and surged through.
And he smacked straight into another body. A warm, petite body with voluptuous curves that had haunted his dreams more times than he could count.
He grabbed hold of her, his hands clutching her arms seconds before she fell. He helped right her, not releasing her until she’d caught her breath.
Even then, he did not want to let her go. She was here—his Claire, with her crystal blue eyes and red lips. That pert little nose that wrinkled whenever she was amused. Her blond brows that arched just so whenever he said she was good and true and never, ever would she become something so dark and malignant as she believed.
“Steady now,” he told her, as she regarded him wide-eyed, surprise splashing pink across her high cheekbones.
He let her go, dropping his hands to his sides and taking a few steps back, because that was what friends did. Friends did not linger, their touches too long, their mouths dry from the mere sight of each other.
They were friends now, but God how he longed to change that. And he would, devil take his soul. Because the urge to drag the pad of his thumb across her full lips and down her soft skin until he met the curve of her chin was so pressing, he could barely breathe. It was as if he was up on that tower all over again—except now he only saw her.
She reached up, checking that her chignon was still secure. Alas, it was, and for what was probably the four hundredth time he vowed he’d see her with her golden curls unbound, flowing freely down her shoulders.
“Teddy?” She blinked up at him, so adorably confused. “What are you doing here?”COLLAPSE