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Hundreds of Years to Reform a Rake
By LAURIE BROWN
Sourcebooks CasablancaCopyright © 2007 Laurie Brown
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNO EVIDENCE OF PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Josie Drummond keyed the final notes on her Castle Waite investigation into her computer. She wished things had been different. Poor Ms. Thornton had been so positive Josie would certify the existence of a ghost. Discontinued monitors at, she glanced at her watch, three twenty-five.
As her hand touched the off switch, the sound monitor sputtered to life with a burst of static. Hopes rising, she turned up the volume instead. Two of the maids chatted as they entered the great hall. Again Josie reached to turn the monitor off but hesitated when she heard her own name mentioned.
"Miss Drummond is leaving after tea?"
Josie checked her voice printout and identified Emma, a recently hired maid.
"And it should have been sooner, to my mind. With that ghostbuster still here, we'll have to set for three." Vivian's whining voice was easily recognizable.
Josie hated the term ghostbuster. To those who took her work seriously, she was a paranormal researcher. But eavesdroppers should expect to hear nothing good about themselves. This wasn't the first time she'd been called that name, or worse.
"Being as it's Thursday, we'll have to drag everything into the library," Vivian continued. "Never mind that it's extra work for me. No one ever thinks of that."
"I thought the swells always took tea in their drawing rooms. Three? Is someone else coming?"
"Mind you, I'm not one to gossip, but I might as well be the one to tell you. Amelia Thornton is crazy as a loon. Every Thursday, she entertains the ghost of Deverell Thornton, and she says Lord Waite prefers his tea in the library."
"You mean him?" Emma squeaked.
Josie pictured the plump maid pointing to the life-sized portrait that scowled down from the landing of the grand stairway. He was posed casually despite his formal evening clothes; one elbow on the mantle, a nearly empty, brandy snifter close by, and a thin cigar dangling from his long elegant fingers. His snowy neckwear was tied in an elaborate knot as if he were about to leave for dinner at his club or for a romantic assignation at the opera. Yet his gray eyes held no merriment or anticipation. His gaze seemed to mock the pretense of posing, to challenge the artist to be unflattering, to dare the observer to look into his tainted soul. A shiver shook Josie's shoulders, an echo of the jolt that had ricocheted down her spine at her first confrontation with his saturnine countenance.
"The ninth Lord Waite, Famous for his wicked parties and his lavish generosity to his mistresses, had been killed in a duel after thirty-seven years of debauched living," Vivian said, her tone that of a tour guide. "There are those ..." she continued, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, "who claim to have seen his ghost riding to the hounds or striding through the gallery."
"Really?" Emma whispered, her tone revealing rapt attention.
Josie turned up the volume another notch. She hoped for details of a recent sighting, names, dates. Maybe the servants knew more than they'd been willing to share with an outsider.
"I say crazy Amelia is in the library alone," Vivian said in a superior tone. "Everyone knows a ghost doesn't take tea."
The women moved out of range. Josie had set up monitors only where sightings of the ghost had been reported: the great hall, the library; the drawing room, and the gallery. Listening to conversations was her least favorite part of the job. Next year, if she got the Burkes-Sheetz Grant for Scientific Research, affectionately known as the BS Grant, she'd buy a new computer that filtered out identified voice patterns. For now, her company, Paranormal Certification, operated on a shoestring budget.
She unplugged the equipment, packed the instruments in their padded cases, and piled them by the door with her luggage. She'd pick up the monitors on her way out. Looking around to be sure she hadn't forgotten anything, she realized she'd miss the quaint blue and white bedroom with the old-fashioned poster bed, ruffled-skirted dressing table, and comfortable chaise next to the fireplace.
Finishing the Castle Waite job early left her with two unexpectedly free weeks. A call to her office in Chicago brought more unwelcome news. Her next appointment had canceled. Now with five vacant weeks, she really should visit her mother, but then she would have to listen to the "your body clock is ticking" speech. At age thirty, Josie didn't need reminders.
Since breaking up with Richard eleven months, three weeks, and four days ago, she'd totally immersed herself in her work. Maybe she'd paint her apartment as she'd been meaning to do for nearly a year. Or purchase some artwork for the still bare walls. Slipcover the old couch that came with the furnished space. One unappealing plan after another occupied her until teatime.
Josie dreaded the interview with Lady Amelia Thornton because she still hadn't come up with a gentle way to dash the hopes of the sweet, apple-cheeked woman who had made her so welcome in her ancestral home for the past three weeks. At precisely four o'clock Josie presented herself at the open library door. The afternoon sun sparkled through the leaded glass of the mullioned window, dispelling the gloom of the dark wood paneling and weighty books.
Her hostess motioned her to a Queen Anne chair covered in deep green damask and seated herself on the matching sofa. Amelia wore a light gray cashmere sweater with a single strand of pearls, an over-the-knee tweed skirt, and sensible shoes, the outfit that comprised the afternoon uniform of every country gentlewoman past the age of sixty.
"Beautiful day today for September," Lady Amelia said as she poured tea from a pot shaped like a country cottage. She handed Josie a delicate china cup decorated with pale pink rosebuds. "Did you get out to enjoy the weather?"
"No, I didn't." Josie breathed an inward sigh of relief, but her reprieve was short-lived.
"I hate to seem in a rush, but do you give me the certificate verifying our ghost now, or should I expect it in the post?"
"Actually, I ..." Josie hesitated. Quite against her natural inclination to maintain a professional distance, she'd become fond of the eccentric older woman, even if her conversational leaps were sometimes difficult to follow.
Amelia added a dollop of cream to her cup and settled back into the overstuffed sofa with a wiggle of her shoulders. "I ran into Ruth Simms this morning at the Altar Committee meeting. I told you about her, didn't I? She owns Twixton Manor, across the river, and she said she's made enough money from her guests to put on an entire new roof."
Josie knew Amelia planned to open her home to tourists to bolster her sagging financial situation and pay for the much-needed repairs to the aging castle. "No, but ..."
"Of course, her ghost plays the harpsichord. They say it's Mina Cracklebury. The Cracklebury girls were known to put themselves forward. No relation to the Simms who bought the manor in 1897; came up in trade you know, and the Crackleburys were long gone by then. Did I tell you this castle has been in my family since the first stone bailey was built in 1273?"
"Yes. That was in the history I requested." Amelia hadn't sent the usual dry report of building dates and styles, but a rollicking saga of knights and their ladies, intrepid explorers, and dashing heroes. That was probably one reason why Josie was disappointed at failing to find evidence. However, she wasn't one to put off unpleasant tasks in the hope they'd fade away. "About your ghost ..."
"I can't imagine Deverell playing the pianoforte for guests. Why, I don't even know if he can play, but surely the ghost of an earl will have more draw than a baron's daughter. This would be so much easier if he were ... well, accommodating is not a word I would use to describe him." Amelia paused to sip her tea. "I'm rather anxious to get started. That nice young man from the National Trust said the south wing needs immediate work to prevent a total collapse."
"I know this is important to you." Josie wished she'd found something, anything to substantiate a ghostly presence. "Unfortunately, I can't issue a certificate. I found no scientific evidence to support your claim. You have a delightful home. I'm sure guests will come."
"But I've seen the ghost, talked to him." Amelia blinked. Her tight gray curls bounced as she shook her head in denial.
"I'm sorry. I monitored nothing out of the ordinary."
"Maybe you looked in the wrong place at the wrong time. You could stay longer, try something else." Amelia leaned forward and touched Josie's arm as if the action would hold her there.
"I checked for sound, temperature, and air movement in every room you named." Josie's passive sensors even covered the full electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to gamma and x-rays. There was no ghost at Castle Waite. "I'm sorry."
Amelia looked away, but not before Josie noticed the glisten of tears.
Josie couldn't totally rob the woman of the small comfort her delusion seemed to give her. "Maybe he appears only to you." She knew it was a sop, but what harm would it do?
Amelia sniffed and straightened her shoulders. "That won't do me any good in the tourist market. One must have a gimmick to be successful on the scale I need to restore this castle."
Josie stood. She was trying to think of some consolation, some way to close the assignment on a positive note, when a sphere of opalescent light near the fireplace mantle caught her attention. Chimes tinkled as if a breeze teased unseen bells to life. The ball of mesmerizing light lengthened to a column within which tracings of bright blue electricity, and ribbons of rainbows swirled and twisted around each other, faster and tighter. Goose bumps rose on Josie's arms.
A clap of sound as sharp as a gunshot startled her. Then the unearthly light coalesced into the figure of a tall handsome man. Dressed in a navy blue coat, snowy white shirt with a stand-up collar and elaborately knotted cravat, buff-trousers, and knee-high black boots, he looked nearly as solid as if he'd walked through the door in the usual way. When he stepped forward, the last bit of the shimmering light clung to him like an aura.
She recognized the dark visage, black hair, and deep-seated gray eyes from his portrait. She recognized Deverell Thornton, ninth Earl of Waite, and ghost of the castle, before Amelia triumphantly introduced him.
Virile is the word that came to her mind, and she'd never used that term to describe a man before.
Josie's legs buckled, and she plopped back into her chair, her gaping mouth clacking shut. She'd built her career on the supernatural. She'd photographed misty apparitions and recorded eerie wailing with equal aplomb. But never had she confronted a fully materialized ghost. Could this really be happening? She shrank farther into the cushioned chair and stared at the oh-my-god, honest-to-goodness apparition.
Deverell was unperturbed by her rudeness. He'd meant the flash and flourish of his entrance to shock her, to impress her. After sitting in his favorite high-backed leather chair, he accepted a cup of tea and allowed Amelia to chastise him for not making himself known earlier so Josie's gadgets could detect him.
"Now we can proceed," Amelia said. "I think we should begin with an advertisement in the Travel Times. Tastefully done, of course." Her usual buoyant spirits apparently restored, she popped a tiny cucumber sandwich into her mouth.
"Tasteful advertisement is an oxymoron." Deverell set his cup on the table with deliberate care. "I fear you misunderstood my purpose in advising you to hire Miss Drummond."
Indeed, he had intended she should. The very idea of strangers tromping through his home, gawking at his belongings for the price of a night's lodging, was absurd. A member of his family reduced to the status of innkeeper; he shuddered at the thought.
Perhaps he was partly to blame. He should have noticed the deteriorating condition of the castle. However, financial matters were so tedious, and it wasn't his nature to worry about shillings and pence. Now the situation had reached a crisis, forcing drastic measures.
"I never intended for her to certify my existence," Deverell enunciated. He spoke to Amelia, but he did not want either woman to miss his meaning. "My apologies for misleading both of you as to my purpose, however I deemed the small ruse necessary. This family's finances began to decline after a gypsy seer fleeced my gullible mother by holding expensive séances in a futile attempt to recover a lost family treasure." He purposely left out the other reason his mother had paid the gypsy the bulk of her fortune.
"Your mother was quite avant-garde. Even though Swedenborg's books had been around for more than fifty years, spiritualism did not become all the rage until the Victorian era." Amelia shook her head. "Back to the point, I can't see that séances held nearly two hundred years ago are relevant."
"I am simply providing a bit of background for the benefit of our guest," he nodded toward Josie, who still stared at him with wide eyes, "And in so doing, the resolution of the current problem becomes obvious. If you want to kill a snake, you do not cut off its tail, you cut off its head."
"I don't see-"
"The solution is simple. Miss Drummond will accompany me backward in time to 1815 to unmask the charlatan who stole your inheritance."
"Time travel?" Josie asked, her voice a raspy whisper. "That's impossible."
"While not effortless, it is possible."
"It's the stuff of science fiction. Books that-"
His quelling look halted her explanation. "There is nothing wrong with my memory." Despite a few gaps that he'd rather not explain, he was not unaware of the world. "Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon in 1866, speculative fiction of the most imaginative sort ... until your countrymen actually went there." He turned to Amelia. "Your grandfather was much enamored of H. G. Wells's work when he was a boy, but I always-"
"That's different." Josie jumped up from her chair. "Science-real science-deals with facts. Quantum theory proves time distortion is possible only if one travels faster than the speed of light, which is physically impossible."
Deverell also stood as good manners decreed he should. He was not surprised by her reaction. He did not expect a scientist to believe easily. But he had researched her career quite thoroughly before choosing her. Possessed of quick intellect, she'd written several articles on techniques of detection that revealed that she was not only logical and precise but also open to innovation. He schooled his expression to one of blasé disinterest that he had used so successfully when holding a winning hand at the gaming tables. In truth, it mattered not in the least whether she believed; it mattered only that she agree to help him.
She appealed to Amelia for support. "You can't seriously think he ..."
Amelia looked to Deverell. "When you go back, will you confront Sir Albert? Perhaps he knows where the jewels are?"
"Bah!" Deverell's mouth twisted with a sour taste at the very thing that had obsessed his mother and caused her to fall prey to every charlatan who claimed a dubious connection to the afterlife. "The emeralds are a myth perpetuated by fools and believed by the foolish. I, Madame, am neither."
"Who is Sir Albert?" Josie blurted out.
Deverell wished Amelia hadn't mentioned that despicable old pirate, but now that she had, he must offer some sort of explanation. "Albert was the ghost of the castle prior to me."
Josie put her fingers to her temples and pressed. "Two of them?" she muttered. Her equipment had detected nothing!
"Please pay attention. I find repeating myself quite tedious. Albert was here prior to me, and he is not relevant to my plan. Now as to the matter of your role ..."
She shook her head. "You're crazy. Your plan is crazy. And I'd be crazy to listen to any more of this ... this ... nonsense." She turned and went to the door.
Over the years Deverell had refined the skills of a simple poltergeist to a fine art. With no more effort than a flick of his fingers, he caused the door to shut and the lock to click into place. She was his best hope for success, and he could not let her walk away before she'd had a chance to fully consider his offer. Surely she would come to her senses. He allowed Josie a few minutes to struggle with the door and with herself. His inquiries had led him to believe that she would embrace an opportunity for unusual research, but the behavior of modern women was difficult to predict. Particularly, that of modern American women.
Excerpted from Hundreds of Years to Reform a Rake by LAURIE BROWN Copyright © 2007 by Laurie Brown. Excerpted by permission.
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