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Gillian ran her hands over the cracked and damaged oak wall panelling. Even though it was impossible to replace, she still felt she could save the 15th-century woodwork that was an important feature of Dashambly Hall. If she was successful, Clive Rushington-Hydes had promised to give the rest of the contract over to her and her company. Certainly a challenge as the Hall had been derelict for some time, so it wasn’t going to be a simple lick-and-spit job.
She was about to head back to the small workshop she’d set up on the site when she heard a voice somewhere behind her. Indistinct and whispery, as if close by, yet somehow distant.
Apart from Gillian, no one had been prepared to live in the old place until more than just the basics had been reconnected. Even Mrs Newly, the housekeeper, only worked weekdays part time, and she always left by noon. As it was nearly 4pm, there shouldn’t have been anyone else in the rambling old place.
Cautiously Gillian looked around for something to protect herself with. The only thing to hand was a length of broken curtain pole, which she used to test the floors in the more decrepit rooms before walking on them.
Straining to hear anyone moving around, she stepped out into the Long Gallery. With grime coating the tall windows, the main corridor was not bright, but it was light enough for her to be able to see well enough.
She heard the sound again, louder and to her right this time. Another burst of whispered muttering, now obviously coming from the Library. Her anger took charge, and she immediately burst into the room, curtain pole held high, ready to do battle.
Hurriedly she looked around for whoever had been making the noises, but all she saw were rows of empty bookshelves, the soot-stained marble fireplace, and the old Victorian wallpaper peeling off the almost-bare walls.
The library itself had been stripped bare, with almost all of the paintings, along with the majority of the books, taken away and sold off before the Hall had been abandoned. She turned back to the door. The only footprints visible in the dust were hers.
Even with no one there to see her blush, she felt a mixture of relief and embarrassment, amazed at the way she’d let her imagination run away with her. Then she suddenly gasped in surprise as something small ran up the inside of her jeans and over her inner thigh.
Immediately, she unzipped them, then kicked them off along with her canvas pumps, trying all the time to control the panic she felt. Wherever the bloody mouse was, she’d beat the little fucker to death the first chance she got! Yet, when she checked, she found nothing small and furry trapped in the folds of the material at all. Even so, she poked at them several times before she bent down to pick them up.
As she did so, she heard a distinct male voice coming from behind her.
‘What fine, rounded globes, encased in such a diaphanous prison. They cry out for release!’
Gillian spun round, conscious that she was now only wearing her T-shirt and light pink knickers. In front of her stood a Roman Centurion, in full ceremonial dress and helmet. His shoulders and arms were imposing, and the hand resting on the pommel of his short sword had long, slender fingers. As he strode forward and removed his helmet, Gillian caught sight of his muscular calves, circled by the straps of his sandals, and just above the knee, she could see where his thighs disappeared under the metal and leather skirtle he wore.
Gillian’s anger pushed her embarrassment to one side. ‘Who the hell are you, and how the hell did you get in?’ For some reason she couldn’t put her finger on, she found herself becoming more than a little aroused by the sight of this man. He was probably some clown from one of the local re-enactment societies, she thought, out to play some kind of practical joke. With his helmet now under his arm, she was able to see his face more clearly, and under a mop of short, curly black hair, he seemed to have a hint of olive darkness to his complexion.
Before the Centurion could speak again, she heard another male voice, again coming from behind her.
‘His name is Marcus Quiltillus. He was one of the Colosseum chorus line. He now resides in the Van Dessen oil painting, above what’s left of the fireplace.’
Still brandishing the curtain pole, Gillian spun on her heel and turned to face the new voice. Now she found herself looking at a Cavalier, in full King Charles collars and cuffs, with shoulder-length straw-blond hair. Out of fear, she lashed out with the wooden pole – which, to her surprise, did not hit the Cavalier but passed through him.
The Cavalier coughed discreetly into his handkerchief, then put his hands on his hips. ‘That’s not a very polite way to introduce yourself, now is it?’
Still confused, Gillian turned around again and prodded the Centurion firmly in the stomach. At least, she tried to, only the wood pushed through his breastplate with almost no resistance whatsoever.
She looked up to see the impassive expression on the Centurion’s face, then spun back around to the Cavalier, angry now. ‘I’m not into stupid tricks!’ she snapped. ‘I don’t know who you are, or how you’re doing all of this, but stop it right now! I don’t believe in ghosts!’
The Cavalier bowed formally to her. ‘Madam, I can reliably assure you that ghosts, revenants, apparitions and free spirits such as ourselves do most assuredly exist. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Daniel Mathias Dalverton – the third Lord Dalverton, in fact. And were all this but simple trickery, would I be able to do this?’
He stepped forward, took her face gently in his hands, then bent his head and kissed her. His mouth met hers softly, but when she instinctively parted her lips he became become more assertive. His hands moved over her shoulders, fingertips brushing down her back, until she felt him firmly cup her arse beneath the thin material of her underwear.