Marrying Mr Argenton will restore her family's fortunes and save them from scandal, but condemns Sophie to a life in Northwood, a vast and unnaturally dark mansion situated hours from civilisation.
Sophie struggles to adjust to her new position as mistress over the desolate house. Mr Argenton's relatives are cold, and Mr Argenton himself is keeping secrets. Even worse, the house is more than it seems.
The piano plays in the middle of the night. Blood drips from the ceiling. Sophie is pulled towards the terrifying truth: Northwood's ancient halls are haunted. The malevolent spirits—produced by grisly deaths—resent her intrusion into their home.
Trapped in Northwood and desperate for an escape, Sophie's fate is further complicated as she finds herself drawn to the tall, dark-eyed man she married. She suspects her feelings are returned, but Mr Argenton is hiding something... and his secrets are so dangerous that they might just be unforgivable.
Release date: October 15, 2015
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 294
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
House of Shadows
Sophie couldn’t stop watching the tall, black-haired man.
The opera had not long finished, and the theatre’s foyer was filled with some of the most elegant people Sophie had ever seen. Everywhere she looked gave her a new sight: silk, chiffon, and lace dresses shimmered in the candlelight. Decadent flower-and-feather headwear bobbed as the ladies moved through the crowds. All around her was a cacophony of laughing voices and eager conversation. And yet, in the busy room, one person commanded Sophie’s attention.
He stood nearly a head above the patrons surrounding him, and his long, pale face contrasted strikingly with eyes so dark they could have been black. He seemed to have stepped out of a colder, grimmer world. If he’d enjoyed the opera, he didn’t show it. Sophie thought he must have been searching for something; he stood at the base of the stairs, scanning the crowd, his restless eyes skipping from silk-clad guest to silk-clad guest, until they landed on Sophie and her uncle.
Sophie looked away as a flush of embarrassment rose across her face. Did he see you staring? You should know better!
Her Uncle Phillip, who had stopped to greet a friend, waved his companion off and turned to Sophie. “Well then, how did you enjoy the show?”
It was the third time he’d asked, but Sophie replied just as enthusiastically as she had the first time. “It was beautiful! I’ve had a wonderful night. Thank you.”
Her uncle’s substantial chest swelled, and he beamed at her. Sophie loved his visits; he was a kind, generous man who liked to indulge her and her siblings whenever he could. Her own father preferred spending his evenings at home, so the opera had become a rare treat since her mother had passed away shortly after Sophie’s debut.
Her uncle was on the verge of saying more, but then his eyes rose towards someone behind Sophie’s shoulder, and a broad grin bristled his moustache. “Well, Mr Argenton, I wasn’t expecting to see you here! How did you like the show?”
An instinctive part of Sophie knew whom her uncle was addressing even before she turned. The tall, captivating man towered above them. His cheeks seemed a little gaunter at a close distance, and his eyes were dark enough to match his pitch-black hair. Sophie tried to guess his age; she thought he must be close to thirty.
The man inclined his head towards Sophie’s uncle and said, with a voice as clear and cold as winter air, “Very well. Thank you, sir.”
“Excellent, excellent. It was a superb show.” Her uncle patted his pocket watch absent-mindedly as he spread his smile on both of his companions. “Have you met my niece, Miss Hemlock, yet?”
Mr Argenton’s eyes turned to Sophie. They held her gaze then flicked to her hair for a split-second before returning to her face. “I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure. Miss Hemlock.” He bowed, and Sophie returned the gesture.
She was used to her hair drawing attention. It was long, fine, and almost pale enough to be white. Her father had convinced her to wear it in a simple open style with small flowers woven through it, but she was beginning to think that had been a mistake. Even in the foyer packed with showy gowns and glittering, feathered headdresses, her hair drew too much attention. She wished she’d covered it.
“Mr Argenton imports,” Sophie’s uncle continued happily. “He’s had several joint projects with your father.”
“I came to enquire after Mr Hemlock, in fact. Is he presently at home?” Mr Argenton faced Sophie’s uncle, but his eyes lingered on Sophie.
She tried to smile. His scrutiny made her feel clammy and uncomfortable, but she didn’t want to appear rude—especially if Mr Argenton had business dealings with her father.
“At home, for the time, though I believe he’s planning to travel out of town next week.” Sophie’s uncle, oblivious to his companion’s divided attention, continued to beam and pat his pocket watch. “Will you be in town for long, sir?”
“Not for long, no.” Mr Argenton’s gaze finally left Sophie to settle back on her uncle.
Sophie let her smile fade. There was something strangely, unsettlingly intense about the man. He was cultured and polite, but she thought there were subtle hints—the slight inflection in his voice and the intense edge to his eyes—that suggested he was capable of terrible, dangerous things. A sleeping wolf. She was suddenly grateful to be surrounded by company, even though the theatre was quickly emptying.
“I was hoping to visit Mr Hemlock before I return home,” Mr Argenton continued. “Perhaps tomorrow, if it’s convenient.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure it would be. I know he has plans in the morning, but he should certainly be available after three.” Uncle Phillip seemed in the mood to continue talking, but Mr Argenton bowed before his companion could move to a new subject.
“Good day, sir.” He nodded to Sophie. “Miss Hemlock.”
Sophie bowed in reply and felt the tension in her shoulders relax as the tall, mysterious Mr Argenton moved through the lingering guests and towards the street entrance.
“Well, well, fancy meeting him here,” Phillip said, more to himself than to her. “Such an odd fellow. I was starting to think he’d never leave that house of his. Well now. Did you enjoy the show?”
Sophie found it more difficult to fill her voice with enthusiasm after being pinned in place by the dark eyes. Still, she managed to praise the singers enough to make her uncle swell happily as he fished his pocket watch out. He took one look at the time, gave a shocked little scoff, and offered his arm to Sophie. “I wasn’t expecting us to be this late. I’d better get you home before your father has me shot.”
Sophie laughed at that. She let her uncle lead her onto the busy main street, to a row of coaches waiting to ferry their charges across the city.
She was already intending to be out of the house well before Mr Argenton’s visit.
An Unwelcome Guest
All of Sophie’s plans were foiled.
Despite having been told to come at three, Mr Argenton rode up to their home not long after one. It was unforgivably early; Sophie had only just changed into her afternoon half-dress, and her father hadn’t returned from his appointment with their lawyer.
Sophie had intended to return a visit to one of her friends. It was a long walk and would have easily kept her out until five. She’d hoped Mr Argenton would have paid his visit and safely departed by then.
Instead, the housemaid brought Sophie his card while another maid was fixing her hair. Sophie tried not to look shocked as she read it.
“I explained Mr Hemlock was presently out,” the housemaid, Hill, said with a small curtsy. “The gentleman said he would be glad to pay his respects to you.”
“Oh.” Sophie sucked a deep breath in through her nose and straightened her shoulders. “I’ll be down in a moment.”
She’d taken on the role as hostess of the house twelve months before. She tried her hardest to do the job with as much grace as her mother had, but she knew there was no comparison. Her mother—always kind, always with a clever or insightful remark ready to break through awkward pauses—had made enough friends in the city to fill a theatre. In stark contrast, Sophie mishandled more situations than she saved.
“You’ll get better with practice,” her father had said one evening as he read a book at the dinner table. “You just need to give people a chance to know you.”
Sophie looked down at her simple pale-blue dress. The comfortable outfit was meant for a visit to a close friend, not to impress anyone. It makes me look childish. There wasn’t any time to change, so Sophie sucked in a breath and stood, squeezing her trembling fingers into fists.
You’ll be fine. Talk about the poor weather we’ve been having. Ask him how his trip was. He won’t stay for more than fifteen minutes, surely.
She left her bedroom and pressed her back to the wall as her younger brother, Thomas, chased their sister Lucy down the hallway, waving a bug at her. Lucy shrieked with laughter and darted into one of the guest rooms. Their governess gave an apologetic smile as she followed in their wake, and Sophie cringed as Thomas slammed the door. The walls were thin; Mr Argenton had certainly heard. The noise wouldn’t have bothered her so much with any other guest, but Mr Argenton had radiated such a cool dignity the night before that it almost felt like a sin to disturb his tranquillity.
She fought to keep the embarrassed blush off her face as she took the stairs to the ground floor. She paused with her hand on the sitting room’s cool brass doorhandle and took a moment to fix what she hoped was a gracious smile onto her face before entering.
Mr Argenton stood in front of the window, examining the busy street outside. He seemed even taller inside their home, giving Sophie the impression that their ceiling had been accidentally built a foot too low. He wasn’t a large man, but his leanness didn’t make him seem weak, either. On the contrary, his pose radiated quiet strength. He turned when he heard the door open, and a faint smile flickered over his lips.
“Miss Hemlock, I hope you’re well today.”
Sophie gave a small bow. She desperately hoped he wouldn’t notice how shaky it was. “I am. Thank you. I’m afraid my father is out, and isn’t expected to return for another hour at least.”
“That’s no concern.” His crisp voice was entirely devoid of warmth and life. “I had business near your home and thought it might be a pleasant diversion to sit with you until your father’s return.”
It wasn’t to be a brief visit, after all. Sophie prayed her father would arrive quickly to save her. She indicated to a spare seat and sat opposite. Mr Argenton crossed his legs and rested his top hat on his knee as his dark eyes skimmed over his host. Once again, Sophie felt faintly embarrassed by her dress. I should have worn the maroon pattern instead.
Her mouth was dry, and she wet her lips before speaking. “Can I offer you some tea?”
“Thank you, but I’m fine.”
She nodded and cast around for a safe, easy subject. “Are you planning to be in town for long?”
“Not at all.” A hint of faint amusement lingered around his otherwise-bleak eyes. “I came to acquire some furniture for my house; that’s all.”
“Mr Johnson in West End has an excellent range—”
“Mr Johnson’s furniture is suited to comfortable homes, such as this one,” Mr Argenton interjected. “I’m afraid it would look sadly out of place at Northwood.”
Sophie scrambled to find something to say in reply, but all she managed was, “Oh.” Under Mr Argenton’s disconcerting gaze, she felt vulnerable and weak—a lamb sat before a wolf—as though the civility could be dropped at any second and replaced with a danger she couldn’t have imagined in her darkest dreams.
Mr Argenton inclined his head slightly, as though he knew his reply had been too harsh. “Though Mr Johnson certainly is an excellent woodworker.”
Realising she’d lost her smile, Sophie forced it back onto her face. “Yes, of course. I…” She’d lined up a list of subjects before leaving her room, hadn’t she? There’d been something about the weather. Why couldn’t she remember even one of them?
“You have younger siblings,” Mr Argenton observed, saving Sophie from the silence.
“Y-yes,” she stammered, heat flooding her face again. Should I apologise? “Two sisters and a brother.”
“I was an only child. I sometimes wonder how different things might have been with siblings.”
There was nothing to say to that. Sophie searched for another safe subject. “What part of the country is your house in, sir?”
“A part not many people are familiar with. It’s beyond Garlow Town and nearly entirely surrounded by woods. My ancestors didn’t make the best choice in location, I’m afraid. Do you like it here?”
The question caught Sophie off guard. “Yes. I’ve always loved the city. That is—the country is beautiful, too—”
That secretive little smirk was back. “Some of it, certainly.”
“Do you live alone?”
“No, my uncle, aunt, and cousin stay with me. Though I’ll admit it offers somewhat limited society. None of them play, for instance.” He nodded towards the grand piano nestled in the room’s corner. “Do you?”
“Ah, yes. A little—”
His dark eyes fixed on hers. They were so intense that Sophie felt the hairs rise on the backs of her arms. “I’d like to hear you, some time,” he said.
A door slammed, and Sophie gasped. She thought it might have been Thomas and Lucy again, but then she heard her father muttering to himself as he shed his coat. Relief at being rescued from the uncomfortable meeting washed through her.
“Sophie?” her father called, his feet clicking on the tile foyer as he crossed to the sitting room. “Are you in here? Ah—” He broke off as he entered the room and caught sight of Mr Argenton.
Sophie felt a chill run through her at her father’s face. It was blanched white, and he looked a full five years older than he had when he’d left that morning. She rose from her seat, and Mr Argenton followed smoothly.
“Pardon the intrusion, sir,” Mr Argenton said, stepping forward. “I was hoping I could speak with you.”
A myriad of emotions quickly replaced the shock on her father’s face. Sophie saw confusion, frustration and reluctance. He looked as though he would have given anything to excuse himself, but there was no polite way to avoid the meeting. “Yes. Of course. Would you follow me to my study?”
“I think I might take you up on that offer of tea,” Mr Argenton said to Sophie as he passed her.
She nodded mutely as the door closed behind the gentlemen. Feeling a confusing and alarming mix of sensations, she wrapped her arms around her torso. Mixed into the adrenaline of a danger narrowly escaped was a small hint of euphoria. It was the same rush that made an emboldened man poke at the lion’s cage for a second time.
As small and frightened as she felt in Mr Argenton’s presence, Sophie realised she found him strangely fascinating. She would have hated to have sat with him for longer, but conversely, she was disappointed that their conversation had been cut short.
Her mind turned to the interruption—her father. He’d been agitated and had sought her out as soon as he’d arrived home. Is something wrong? Has he heard bad news?
Her father had recently invested in a large shipment of silks from France. It was the sort of import he would have normally split with one or more business partners, but his companion had pulled out at the last minute, leaving him with full ownership of the trade. He’d said he had never before invested such a large amount in a single order. Nothing could have gone wrong there, could it?
Sophie remembered that Mr Argenton had requested tea. Shaking off her stupor, she hurried from the room to find a maid to pass instructions on to, then retired to the library to wait for their visitor to leave.
It wasn’t a short wait. Mr Argenton and Mr Hemlock remained in the study for more than three hours.
Sophie stood when she heard the study door open. She stayed in the library and listened at the lock as Mr Argenton crossed the foyer and left their home with brisk, even steps. Once she was sure he was gone, Sophie went into the foyer and waited for her father.
He didn’t leave his study for several long minutes, and when he came out, he looked like a changed man.
Sophie hurried to him and put her arm through his to support him. “What’s wrong? Are you unwell?”
He opened his mouth but didn’t speak. Sophie had the impression there were so many things to say that they all collided on his tongue and choked him. At last, he said, “Come in to the study, my dear. Summon some fresh tea.”
Sophie sat on the guest’s side of the desk. Her father first went to the decanter and poured himself a large glass of brandy. That worried her; Mr Hemlock never drank before dinner. He then sat next to Sophie, in the second guest chair, rather than in his usual seat behind the desk.
He stared into his glass without speaking for a long time. The maid arrived with a tray of tea, and Sophie poured two cups. Once the maid had left and the door was safely closed, Mr Hemlock said, “I’ve made a terrible mess of things, Sophie.”
There was nothing she could say, but she leaned closer to encourage him.
“I thought I was being clever. I knew there would be risks, but the rewards would have been so great that I was willing to take the gamble. And now I’m tasting a very, very bitter defeat.” He sighed, drained his glass in one swallow, and set it aside. “We’ve lost the silks. It was foggy last night, the Victor Isle lighthouse keeper became drunk and forgot to refill the lamp’s oil, and the ship ran aground on the rocks. Two lives lost… as well as all the cargo.”
Sophie knit her hands together. She wished she could say something—anything—to help, but her father wasn’t looking at her, and he seemed to want to talk uninterrupted.
“I think I told you that our co-investor pulled out shortly before the order was finalised. I took up his share of the order, which was a substantial amount more than I’ve ever invested before. But the silks were a good quality at an excellent price, and the turnover would have set us up comfortably for quite a few years.”
“How much?” Sophie asked.
Her father finally raised his eyes to meet hers. They looked weaker than she’d ever seen them. “It’s not everything we own, but it was a large enough sum that it may as well have been.”
Sophie let her breath out and focussed on her hands. “What does that mean for us?”
“We have enough to hold us for a few more months, but we would need to give up this house. We may be able to afford a smaller place in the country, but the comforts we’re used to—the carriage, the maids, the cook—will be too extravagant to keep.”
Thomas, who was eight, had been enrolled in an excellent boarding school for the following year. Sophie hardly dared ask what would happen about it. “Thomas’s schooling—”
“No, even if we tightened our belts to the point of starvation, we wouldn’t be able to afford a full education for him. He will have to be raised as a farmer.”
Her father bowed his head. “I’m afraid there’s no chance of pulling our situation back without assistance, my dear. We don’t have enough to invest in a new import—let alone to wait for it to arrive and sell. We are effectively half a step above poverty.”
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...