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The Haunting of a Duke

By´╝ÜChasity Bowlin

Chapter One

Emme Walters emerged from the dark, damp dungeons of Briarwood Hall in a state of dishabille that would send her aunt into apoplexy if she saw it. Thankfully, it was well into the wee hours of the morning and most people at the small country gathering had found their own beds, or someone else's, to occupy for the remainder of the night. Noting that the corridor appeared to be deserted, Emme sighed in relief. The dungeon undoubtedly contained endless horrors of mice and spiders, and she wanted desperately to be free of it. She shuddered a bit and gave the door a push. Having freed herself, albeit clumsily; she stepped further into the hall.

Unfortunately, the door was closing much more freely than it had opened, and in a panic, she grasped it to prevent it from banging shut, managing only to smash her fingers. She uttered a mild oath, though it was the strongest one she knew, and clasped her battered fingers to her chest. It would be an interesting addition to the cadre of other scrapes and bruises that she had accrued during the night. Her nocturnal wanderings usually resulted in at least a few injuries that her maid would have to work diligently to camouflage.

There was a candle on the table, but the shadows provided some protection for her. Sleepwalking, or spells, or whatever one chose to call it, would be the ruin of her. She ducked into an alcove, molding herself to the wall, before peering out to be certain that no one was about. The corridor remained deserted and she uttered a quick prayer of thanks before making her way to the next shadowy recess. The last thing she needed was to be found in such a compromising position. It was all well and good for people to call her a medium or mystic, and to speculate about her and her strange ways, but to be caught outside of her room in such a state—wearing only her night rail, her hair disheveled and various scrapes and bruises covering her body—her reputation would soon be as tattered as her appearance.

Shoving those thoughts forcefully from her mind, she stepped forward and her hip bumped the edge of a small table. It teetered ominously, but she managed to right it. The noise, to her ears at least, was deafening. When no one rushed forward to brand her a thief or a woman of loose morals, Emme continued toward the guest wing of the ducal estate, or rather in the direction she believed the wing to be. In truth, she had no idea where she was or how she'd come to be there. Briarwood Hall was massive, and though she'd only been there for a single day, she'd already been lost several times. Her aunt, the imperious and glacial Lady Isabella Harding, had already taken her to task for it.

With the thought of her aunt's glaring disapproval in mind, she forced herself to move, to continue the trek back toward her room. Her bare feet were silent on the marble floors as she crept along the hallway. Her heart thundered in her chest and she trembled. The fear of being discovered was so intense, it left her weak. She tried to calm herself, to reassure herself, that most of the servants were abed, and the guests as well. There were a few stragglers still roaming the halls, and of course there were the romantic assignations that were the very reason for house parties. She was attuned to every noise, every creak as she made her way toward the stairs and she wished fervently that she knew the house better and knew where the servants’ stairs were located, as they would greatly decrease her chance of discovery.

Just as Emme neared the main staircase, as she could see the intricate carving of the banisters, a noise from behind her made her thundering heart skip. She froze mid-stride and peered over her shoulder at the growing triangle of light emerging from the doorway of the billiard room. Tension coiled in her stomach, and her breath seized in her lungs. Someone was coming, and her wits fled her entirely.

From the shadowed recesses beneath the staircase, Lord Rhys Brammel watched the stealthy movements of the shadowy figure traversing the hall. At first glance, painted in the silvery light and long shadows of the darkened hall, she had appeared more phantom than flesh and blood. As she had moved closer, her identity as an exalted guest had been unmistakable. In truth, she was not his guest. She had been invited by his mother without his knowledge. It was not an unusual occurrence. His mother frequently invited inappropriate people to their home in her quest for truth, enlightenment and a direct line of communique to the spirit world. His aunt, Lady Eleanor Brammel, had attempted for years to dissuade his mother from such pursuits, but had met with little success. That was to be expected, of course. Lady Phyllis Brammel, in her own quiet way, was a force to be reckoned with.

He had ducked into the stairwell upon first observing the “apparition.” Was that part of her game, he wondered? Was she a thief and a liar, or simply returning from a midnight tryst? He didn't have the answers, but he meant to find out. If Miss Walters was playing at being a ghost, or attempting to frighten other guests to raise her own social cachet, he would send her packing, regardless of his mother's protests. He knew from experience that it was impossible to dissuade his mother from anything once she'd set her mind to it. She had issued the invitations regardless of any protests, but if it came to it, he was the head of the household. It was at his discretion to rescind the invitation at any time and for any reason of his choosing. He would, of course, pay dearly for utilizing that authority, but that was neither here nor there.

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