England 1861 - The rakishly charming Charles Phillips, Viscount Chesterholt, is repeatedly surprised by a female nightly visitor who roams his country estate seemingly in search of somethng. She appears entranced. Is she real or ethereal? What is she seeking?" In searching for answers, Charles enters a realm of mystery, deceit, and murder to discover who this woman is and why she 'haunts' him.
The mantel clock was just chiming three in the morning when Charles ambled into his study.
The tinny chimes echoed in his head like the exploding report of fireworks. He splayed his fingers through his long, straight blonde hair and wished for silence…blessed silence. He had consumed far too much alcohol resulting not in a state of euphoric numbness but rather in a persistent and unrelenting headache.
Charles groaned. He was becoming much too old at three and thirty years of age for nights of unbridled carousing.
He collapsed onto the leather winged-backed chair positioned before the hearth and dropped his head backward against the headrest. Even that seemingly simple move produced excruciating pain. In that moment, he decided that the time had certainly arrived to mend his wayward ways.
He sat with eyes closed for several long minutes before deciding to re-position his body farther from the sweltering heat of the fire in the fireplace. The heat was becoming oppressive and he suddenly wanted…needed fresh, cool night air.
He rose slowly to his feet, swaying slightly in his inebriated condition. He found it difficult to focus his eyes. His vision was annoyingly blurry. He stumbled to his desk and leaned a hand on its surface for needed balance. He should never have listened to his friend, Gabriel, and sampled that new drink. What had it been called? It did not matter what it was named. Its potency was now producing unwanted and undesirably intoxicating effects.
He slowly circled the writing desk and crossed unsteadily to the French doors directly behind the massive piece of furniture. Turning both the brass handles simultaneously, Charles thrust the doors open and breathed in the rejuvenating fresh air. The pounding in his head eased slightly…but only slightly.
As he turned toward the centre of the room and away from the gaping doorway, he caught movement in the corner of his eye. Angling his head, he peered through the opening, futilely trying to focus his bleary eyes and discern what had caused the unexpected movement in the nearby garden. Perhaps, it had been a predatory bird swooping downward toward some unsuspecting prey crawling upon the ground.
There, it moved again.
It was no bird. Something larger than a winged creature was moving about among the flowering bushes and ornamental trees. And then Charles heard what he thought was pure imagination.
He heard a child’s giggles. He shook his throbbing head. Impossible!
It was the wee hours of the morning. No child could be awake and playing in his flower garden. Charles tried to concentrate, shaking his head once again to clear the fumes of intoxication from his brain.
Some of the servants had small children but they lived in the nearby village. Their parents would never bring them to his country estate. Not that Charles would have minded. He loved children, provided they were not his.
One day he would sire a son who would inherit his title as Viscount Chesterholt. But that day would be far in the future. In the meantime, he enjoyed his godson and namesake as well as little Charles’ sister, Genevieve. They were his cousin Portia’s and his best friend Nate’s delightful children with whom he spent as much time as possible, enjoying their childhood years. Portia was due to give birth to their third child which would round out the happy family to five.
Again, he heard a child giggling…presumably, a little girl.
He cocked his head, listening attentively. The giggles were most certainly in the garden.
Movement caught his eye once again. This time he could see more clearly and could distinguish the tall figure of a woman clad all in black. Were it not for the full moon shining its brilliant light onto the central path of the garden, he would have missed her. But the moonlight captured her pale face in its brilliance and highlighted the beauty of her classical features.
Charles stumbled backward. He blinked, startled by the vision before him. An ethereal beauty walked slowly on his garden path and was seemingly oblivious to his observing eye.
She was several feet from where he stood in silhouette, the firelight and lit gaslights to his back. Only the wide stone veranda separated her from him. And yet she did not seem to notice him. Or if she did, she did not seem to care that the Master of the manor had discovered her strolling his garden in the moonlight.
Charles suddenly felt perfectly sober, alert and exceedingly curious. Why was this female stranger wandering in his garden in the middle of the night? And she was most certainly a stranger for if Charles had ever met her, he would have remembered making her acquaintance. Her features were far too striking to ever forget.
The giggling reached his ears once again and seemed to be coming from his right. He quickly turned to look, expecting to see a child but saw nothing but the outline of bushes silhouetted in the moonlight. Immediately, he turned back to where the lady had been but she was gone…vanished.
Gathering his wits, he rushed through the open doorway and ran across the stone patio to traverse down the multiple steps leading to the central path. He promptly looked to his right and then to his left. The woman was nowhere in sight.
Charles considered the woman’s options. Perhaps she had wandered off the main path to the side trail leading to the gazebo near the duck pond?
Charles quickly followed the path he was on as it bent to the left before connecting with the side auxiliary trail. Hurriedly, he strode down the pebbled route toward the white gazebo partially hidden by flowering vines. The water in the small duck pond, beyond the octagon structure, glistened in the moonlight and created a mystical, other worldly aura.
He halted at the base of the gazebo steps, visually scanning his surroundings. The woman was not there.
Again, the gleeful sound of giggling startled him from behind. He whirled around to search for the source of the laughter but saw only foliage edging the path nearest the gazebo. But he saw movement on the path from where he had just come. It was the lady traversing the path and moving away from where he stood.
Now he could see that she wore a black riding habit sans a coordinating hat. Her head was bare of any covering, fully revealing long black hair pulled back from her forehead and braided into one lengthy braid trailing down her spine. Its feathery tail reached the small of her back. The hairstyle was wholly unfashionable and more suited for sleeping than for a social visit to another’s country estate. Charles grimaced. An unexpected visit to his estate would be more precise.
Charles was not only sober now he was angry. What was this cat and mouse game this mysterious woman was playing? Was she the one giggling, able to project her laughter with the same high-pitched cadence of a child?
Charles strode quickly toward the retreating figure. He was determined to overtake her and demand answers. Within seconds his long-legged strides brought him to the intersection of the two paths but the lady was nowhere in sight.
He stood perfectly still, listening for footsteps or the teasing laughter. Silence reigned.
A cloud passed across the moon cloaking Charles’ environs in deep shadows. Still he waited, expecting to see or hear something out of the ordinary.
Logically, Charles assumed the woman had taken the other side path leading to the pasture separating the acre of flowering gardens from the dense copse of trees bordering both his estate and his friend Nate’s property. If she did, then he would see her crossing the field toward the forest where perhaps a tethered horse was hidden among the trees.
He sprinted along the trail curving to the right. Once past the bend he would have full view of the field and presumably the escaping female. Reaching the vantage point he halted and waited for the moon to shine its light upon the verdant ground. Seemingly complying with his unspoken wish, the cloud glided passed the moon and summarily removed its shielding effect. Moonlight poured forth, illuminating Charles’ surroundings.
There was no one plodding across the meadow.
The woman and the child, if one or the other truly existed, were gone.
Charles ran the splayed fingers of both hands through his long hair before pushing the blonde strands behind his ears. Perhaps he had been hallucinating. Mayhap the combination of different liquors consumed, in a variety of drinks, had produced crazed imaginings.
Charles abandoned his search, silently chastising his foolishness. He took the stone steps two at a time and entered through the French doors into his inner sanctum.
He chastised himself. The time had certainly arrived to limit his alcohol consumption and court sobriety over inebriation!