Title: The Shadows of Stormclyffe Hall
Series: Dark Seductions # 1
Author: Lauren Smith
Genre: Paranormal Romance/Modern Gothic Romance
Formats: E-book and Paperback
Publisher: Entangled Publishing
Cover by: Heather Howland
Editor: Tracy Montoya
Pages: 253 pages
Date Published: 29 September 2014
To defeat a dark evil, they must face his family’s past…
Bastian Carlisle, the Earl of Weymouth, doesn’t believe in ghosts. Even though tragedy and mysterious hauntings have driven his family away from his ancestral home, Stormclyffe Hall, he is determined to restore the castle to its former glory. His plans are disrupted when a stubborn American shows up on his doorstep hoping to pry into his family’s tragic history.
Jane Seyton, an American graduate student, is convinced there’s more to the tragedy of Stormclyffe Hall than history claims. Ever the scholar, she is determined to discover the truth, even if it means putting up with the arrogant, yet sexy, Bastian.
Although Bastian wants nothing to do with the pushy American, it soon becomes clear that something evil is in the house—and that something is targeting both Jane and Bastian. The two must join forces to purge the ghosts of Stormclyffe Hall once and for all—even as they try to fight a physical attraction between them that grows more and more impossible to deny.
The crash of thunder woke Richard, Earl of Weymouth. The fire in the hearth was low, the embers no longer crackling, and a cold draft pressed in around him as a storm raged outside. Pulling a loose sheet around his hips, he reached across the bed for his wife, who was still weak from bearing him a healthy son a month ago. His hands stopped short as he encountered nothing but the twisted sheets where her body had lain.
An icy tendril of fear churned in his stomach. She never left their bed when it rained. Storms frightened her. Isabelle usually curled into his side, burying her face against his throat for comfort.
Heavy rain whipped against the windows, the fierce staccato a warning to stay inside. Wind whistled through the room, teasing tapestries out, then back against the walls as though bodies moved behind them. A rumble of thunder seemed to shake the stones of his ancestral home, Stormclyffe Hall.
“Isabelle?” he called out. “Love?”
Only the crash of thunder answered.
Lightning streaked past the window and illuminated his son’s cradle.
A sharp cry split the air.
Richard leaped out of bed, the icy floor stinging his bare feet as he rushed to the cradle. Murmuring soft, sweet words, he lifted his son, Edward, tucking him in the crook of one arm, relieved the babe was safe. He never thought he would be the paternal sort, but Isabelle and their babe brought out the tenderness in him.
The town viewed his marriage as a disgrace. Earls didn’t marry the daughters of innkeepers. But Richard hadn’t cared. He loved her and would do anything to have her in his life.
A frown tugged down the corners of his lips. “Where is your mother, Edward?”
Thunder once again rocked the hall. October storms thrashed the castle and nearby cliffs with a wicked vengeance. Trees were split in half by lightning; the edges of the cliff decayed inward, inching ever closer to the castle. Although the storm this night was no different, something felt wrong. A bite to the air, a sense of dread digging into his spine.
As the baby’s long eyelashes drowsily settled back down on his plump cheeks, Richard assured himself that the baby’s linens were dry and Edward was content. He brushed his lips over his son’s forehead and set him back in the cradle.
When he stepped back, glancing out the window that overlooked the sea, his blood froze. A feminine silhouette clambered through the rock outcroppings by the cliff’s edge.
Even from a distance, he knew with a horrifying certainty it was Isabelle.
It was madness to be outside, alone by the cliffs. She knew the dangers, knew the soft dirt around the cliffs crumbled into the sea. Only the year before, a boy from the village had fallen to his death when the ground by the edge gave way.
“Isabelle!” he gasped, the single intake of air burning his chest as though fire had erupted within.
Before he had time to move, the sky blackened, his vision robbed of light.
When lightning again bathed the rocks, Isabelle was gone.
His stomach clenched with a fear so profound, it flayed open his chest with poison-tipped claws.
Shouting for his cloak and boots, he raced from the room. The nurse emerged from down the hall, her white cap askew, and gray hair frizzing out from under the edges.
“Take charge of the baby!” he yelled as he ran past her.
She nodded and hurried to his room.
His valet, followed by several footmen, raced to his aid, carrying clothes. He snatched them and dressed as he ran, his men right behind him dashing through the deluge.
When they reached the cliffs, there was no sign of Isabelle.
“My lord!” a footman by the edge shouted.
Afraid to look, yet unable to tear his eyes away, Richard stared down to where the man’s finger pointed. The black shadow of Isabelle’s cloak caught on a razor-thin piece of rock, fluttering madly like a bat’s wing. Lightning slashed above them, its terrible light revealing a dark smear beneath the cloak’s erratic movements.
Blood. Isabelle’s blood. Had she jumped to her death?
“No!” A crash of thunder swallowed his roar of despair.
He dove for the edge, wanting to follow her into the frothing gray seas. A cloak smeared with blood. All that remained of his wife.
He’d fought too hard to win her love, her trust. They’d suffered through too much together, to be divided now. He couldn’t raise Edward alone.
“No…please, no.” The pleading came from the bottom of his soul, torn from his heart.
She was gone.
Strong arms hauled Richard back from the ledge, pinning him to the earth.
“It is too late, my lord. She’s gone.”
She was his Isabelle, his heart…
Why had she jumped? Had she been unhappy? It couldn’t be that. He would have known, and he would have done anything in his power to make her happy.
“We must find her,” he told the men standing around him.
An older man, Richard’s head gardener, shook his head. “We can’t search in this weather, and her body will be gone by the time the storm ends. But we’ll try to find what we can on the morrow, if you wish.”
“I do,” Richard growled. Despair was replaced with vengeance.
He faced Stormclyffe. Lightning laced the skies behind it in a white, delicate pattern. The centuries-old castle loomed out of the darkness, a defensive wolf with the battlements as its bared teeth.
It didn’t matter that his infant son waited in a lonely cradle, eager for the loving touch of his remaining parent.
Richard was lost.
He wanted nothing to do with the life he’d had, the riches, the earldom. He despised it all. Every blessed memory he ever had that reminded him of Isabelle made him furious. She was gone from his life forever. He could not bring himself to dwell on his son; it only cleaved his chest in two. His love, his heart, was being battered against the rocks below.
Chapter 1Weymouth, England, Present Day
Blood splashed against white porcelain, the ruby-red liquid spreading outward in a chaotic pattern.
Jane Seyton hissed, clutching her leg. The cut burned like the devil. She slapped a palm over the sliced flesh, but crimson liquid seeped through her fingers. She set down her razor and reached for the shower nozzle, aiming it at the red streaks, washing them down the drain. A thin trail of red still trickled down the tub’s edge, and she blasted with the nozzle again, desperately trying to erase the unsettling sight of her own blood.
She hobbled out of the shower, rummaging through her makeup bag until she found a Band-Aid.
Her room in the tiny inn was quiet, the silence thick and a little unsettling. She hummed to break up the suffocating lack of noise.
It had been a tiring journey from Cambridge to the small, desolate coast near Weymouth in southern England. The White Lady Inn had an almost macabre wooden sign, a silhouetted woman in white standing at the edge of a vast cliffside, her dress billowing out to sea in a cloud of smokelike swirls. It swung above the door and creaked with the slightest breeze. Despite the inn being situated between a lively pub and a quaint grocery store, there seemed to be a zone of quiet within the inn itself. Her room was a drab little place, with a narrow bed and whitewashed walls.
The same family had owned this inn for over two hundred years, passing it down from generation to generation. It was only natural that the place had seen better days and could use a little work. Yet, the awful silence made her skin tingle. She’d hardly slept last night, jumping at every small creak and groan. Taking herself to task, she’d consciously reminded herself that older places made such noises as the wood and stone settled into place.
Today she was driving up to the old castle-like manor house, Stormclyffe Hall, where she was going to meet the owner, the ninth Earl of Weymouth. After several emails back and forth, he’d reluctantly given her permission to tour the grounds along with other visitors but made no mention of getting access to the house’s historical papers. Her dissertation was on the tragic stories of some of Britain’s ancient castles and manor houses, with a particular emphasis on Stormclyffe and its effect on Weymouth. Her committee chair, Dr. Blackwell, had given her two weeks to find sources to supplement her theories on Stormclyffe Hall. Since the last four years of research footwork had been done on this one particular castle, she couldn’t switch the focus easily to another location. If she couldn’t get what she needed, she wouldn’t get Blackwell’s approval and she’d have to start her dissertation, for a PhD in history, over completely.
In order to complete her research, she had to find out what actually happened to the current earl’s ancestors, Richard and his wife, Isabelle, who’d both died under mysterious circumstances. Rumor had it Isabelle had committed suicide. People claimed to have seen her ghost walking the cliffs. Richard had been found one foggy morning shortly thereafter sprawled in his study, a broken brandy glass next to his body. He had apparently drunk himself to an early grave a year after his wife’s passing. The locals claimed the earl’s spirit was trapped within the walls of his castle, restlessly searching for his dead wife, his mournful cries piercing the air on windless nights.
What Jane hadn’t told the current earl or anyone else was the more personal reason for her focus on Stormclyffe Hall. Ever since she’d seen an old photo of it, she felt an almost mystical pull. Lately she couldn’t seem to focus on anything else.
The hall whispered to her on the darkest of nights, with soft murmurs and teasing visions just as she began to fall asleep. Before dawn, she’d awaken, hands trembling with the feel of heavy stones against her palms, her heart racing and lips drawn back in a scream as though she’d fallen from the cliffs herself. What she felt, however, in each and every dream she had lately were hands shoving at her lower back, pushing her over the edge against her will.
The obsession with Stormclyffe had cost her so much already. The months of work on her dissertation were now at risk of being set aside if she couldn’t find primary sources. It would be back to square one if she had to pick another castle and start all of her initial research over again, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Her fiancé Tim had broken off their engagement and ended their two-year relationship, telling her he found her obsession with the castle “creepy” and that he worried she was mentally unstable.
But Jane’s dreams made her wonder if the young countess hadn’t jumped but been pushed by…someone. And that was the root of her obsession. The nightmares were slowly driving her mad, and she knew she had to get to the bottom of what happened to Isabelle if she ever hoped to find peace. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could stand waking up every night gasping for breath and her bones aching as though they’d been smashed upon saltwater-covered rocks. The last few months she and Tim had been together, her dreams had grown increasingly vivid and terrifying, and they’d woken him up as well.
The beginning of the end.
She would never forget the look on his face, the tightness to his eyes and the way his lips pursed as he’d held out his hand and asked for his engagement ring back. His bags were packed and sitting by the door, and he’d left within minutes of destroying her life and all of her hopes for the future. Their future.
With a little sigh, she smoothed her left thumb over the base of her naked fourth finger. Even after four months, she still felt bare without it. A splinter of pain shot through her chest, and she clenched her fist, avoiding looking at her hand anymore. She rubbed a towel through her hair before blow-drying it. She could have used a flat iron to tame the mess of dark waves, but she’d fried that when she first arrived in England and plugged it into the wall socket with a converter that hadn’t worked properly. She’d never gotten around to buying another one.
Not that it mattered. Given that her academic pursuits tended to involve panels of older, balding male professors in tweed jackets, she rarely bothered with her looks. Her current mission, though, required a more professional touch to her hair and wardrobe. She figured if she looked fashionable and presentable, it might help further her research goals. Easier said than done. She was fully aware she wasn’t the sort of woman men fawned over, but her dissertation depended on access to the earl’s family archives, and she’d get dolled up if it would help make sure he didn’t change his mind about letting her pry into his papers.
The current earl had proved initially reluctant to allow her access to his family history, but when she’d persisted through a deluge of emails and letters, he’d reluctantly said she’d be welcome to tour the grounds along with other tourists once the remodeling was over. That had been four months ago. Stormclyffe didn’t have a website to clue her in on whether the grounds were open to tourists or not, but the remodeling had to be done by now. She couldn’t wait any longer. And she wasn’t going to take no for an answer on getting into those original sources from the current earl.
A smile tugged at her lips.
Sebastian Carlisle, the ninth Earl of Weymouth. A rich playboy with the world at his fingertips. Of course he was tall, with gorgeous, dark blond hair like melted gold and eyes the shade of cinnamon. By all reports, his life consisted of fast cars, leggy models with perfect hair, and wealth beyond imagining. The man was definitely not her type, but she needed to impress him if she was to stay at the castle and work.
Her internet searches also revealed a fair amount about him, aside from his romantic entanglements, and she’d been impressed. With a PhD in history from Cambridge and degrees in numerous foreign languages, he showed a surprising amount of scholarship. Despite his flashy lifestyle, he’d helped push for preservation of historical landmarks throughout Britain and was a member of the Royal Historical Society.
His town house in London was rumored to have one of the country’s best library collections, second only to other collections in aristocratic homes like Althorp, home to the ninth Earl Spencer. Even she had to admit that despite Carlisle’s reputation as the most seductive man in all of England, and he might also be one of the smartest.
She slipped into her favorite pair of jeans and a comfortable pair of black boots before donning a thick, gray, cable-knit sweater. Back home in Charleston, the weather would be light and warm, but the English coast was always cold in late October. Sea spray drifted far into town, sinking into her bones through the walls of the White Lady Inn.
Though it was still early afternoon, the sky outside her room dimmed as the low-hanging clouds drifted off the sea, dragging their vast looming shapes through the town and blocking out the sun’s illumination. A chill seeped through the glass of the window, frosting the edges with dew that pebbled around the panes.
A sudden knot gathered at the base of her skull, the tiny hairs on the back of her neck rising. The air inside was now as cold as outside. Her breath exhaled in a cottony puff, and her skin tingled with a strange sensation. Her muscles tensed in response as though her body expected something to happen. If she hadn’t known without a doubt that she was alone, she would have sworn someone was watching her.
Lauren Smith is an attorney by day, author by night, who pens adventurous and edgy romance stories by the light of her smart phone flashlight app. She’s a native Oklahoman who lives with her three pets—a feisty chinchilla, sophisticated cat and dapper little schnauzer. She's won multiple awards in several romance subgenres including being an Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-Finalist and a Semi-Finalist for the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award.
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