Musician. Heartbreaker. Murderer. Dorien Valencourt is in deep shit. His cheeky grin and stormy eyes won’t help him this time. But I will. I’ve found love in the darkness. Three broken muses possess me, Mind, body, and soul. I won’t give them up for anything, Especially not for a witch with a blackened heart. In a school ruled by shadows and secrets, I’ll shine a light in the darkest places. We’ll expose a long-buried violation, And force a villain to confront her sins. If only our secrets don’t devour us all. With Titus and Ivan at my side, we’ll free Dorien from his cage. We’ll drag these skeletons into the daylight. The ghost of Manderley will have her revenge. A dark mystery unfolds around musician Faye de Winter in the final book of this gripping gothic college reverse harem bully romance by USA TODAY best-selling author Steffanie Holmes. Warning: Proceed with caution – this tale of three spoiled rich boys with unsettling secrets and the girl who refuses to put up with their shit contains dark themes, a creepy house, a smoldering second-chance romance, college angst, cruel bullies and swoon-worthy sex.
Release date: April 30, 2021
Publisher: Bacchanalia House
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Spirited: a reverse harem academy romance
“You want to see something wild?” Dorien Valencourt peered at me over his absinthe glass, all pouting, rich-boy lips and self-satisfied smirk.
I tilted my coke toward him and returned his smile with one of my own. “You’re going to vault over a piano again?”
“I learned my lesson. White pianists don’t jump.” Dorien winced. I could see he remembered the day at our summer music program when he bet me he could vault over the baby grand and land on his feet. Instead, he nearly impaled his testicles on a cymbal stand and destroyed the hopes and dreams of a generation of Dorien fangirls. He cut a long gash on his inner thigh and paid up from an infirmary bed – I still remembered his cavalier grin and the crisp notes he peeled off and tossed at me like confetti.
That was two years ago. We’d remained friends, causing chaos together whenever we met up at recitals and music camps. It was impossible not to like Dorien, not to be swept up by the whirlwind of his personality. We lived on opposite ends of the country and I hadn’t expected to see him again until college auditions at the end of the summer, but a week ago he’d randomly shown up on my doorstep, touting a Louis Vuitton suitcase and declaring he was spending the summer with me. As if I couldn’t possibly have had any other plans apart from hanging out with him.
He was half right – I didn’t have plans. My parents made plans for me. I was to tour the South with them as part of their ensemble – a perfect opportunity to get my name on the lips of their influential friends. But Dorien intervened with his rich-boy smile and the promise of an influential friend of my own and somehow, they agreed to leave me behind to hang out with him.
“Don’t you rich boys spend your summers in Martha’s Vineyard or Majorca?” I’d asked as he lugged his suitcase up to my second-floor bedroom. A shadow passed over his eyes, but it was gone before I could question it.
“You should be grateful I’ve decided to slum it with my pleb friend. I’ve saved you from a summer of dull recital rooms and cocktail sausages. Besides, I’m bored of my parents and their boring money. You’ll take the fold-out, of course. I can’t sleep on hard surfaces.”
It was hard to stay annoyed at Hurricane Dorien bowling through my life, especially when he pointed out with an impish grin that spending the summer alone as two sixteen-year-olds in New Orleans would be infinitely better than tagging along after my parents.
He was true to his word. With Dorien at my side, my city came to life. It’s funny how you can live in a place for sixteen years and not see it as special until you show it off to someone else. We spent our days walking along the banks of the Mississippi, keeping our eyes out for alligators, or buying cheap absinthe to guzzle beside the duck pond in Louis Armstrong Park (I didn’t touch alcohol – my parents believed if Micah’s friends hadn’t been drinking, they might’ve saved him – but drunk Dorien was hilarious). We spent our nights sneaking into jazz clubs with the fake IDs Dorien purchased from a black market pancake shop on Bourbon Street (the shop was a hub for anything illegal in the city – guns, counterfeit money, secret poker games. The pancakes were also delicious).
We were in one of those jazz clubs now, enjoying our first drinks of the evening before the city rose from her slumber and breathed her first jasmine-scented greeting to the night. “Sure,” I said. “Show me something wild.”
Bob Dylan once said that everything in New Orleans was a good idea, but I wasn’t sure even the Big Easy was ready for Dorien Valencourt.
Dorien pushed his chair back and stood up. I thought he was heading over to introduce himself to the group of girls at the bar who’d been eyeing us since they came in. They were college-aged – a good few years older than us – but with his arresting looks and my muscles, both Dorien and I could pass for twenty-year-olds. But he dodged around them and leaped onto the small stage in the corner. It was empty except for the polished piano in the center and some mic stands set up. A board behind the bar listed the three jazz ensembles that would play tonight – none of them were here yet. Live music in New Orleans didn’t start until late. You had to give the city time to wake up and unfurl her wings.
The bartender waved an angry fist. “Hey, man. You’re not allowed up there.”
Ignoring him, Dorien mashed the piano with his fingers, launching into one of his wild, incomprehensible compositions.
And just like that, the bartender dropped his fist. And his jaw.
Dorien’s music soared through the bar, reaching the ears of every patron and dragging their heads from their glasses to pay attention. Dorien played as only he could – dramatically, flamboyantly, with a passion and fervor that sucked the air from your lungs. Dorien bit his lip, his head bowed with focus as his fingers danced through the scales. The song soared and swooped, a breath of air that raised goosebumps along my arms.
Dorien had a gift.
I swallowed back the lump in my throat as I thought of another person with the gift. A person who could write music that could tear your soul to pieces and stitch it back together in three-and-a-half minutes. A person who should have been in this bar with us but was instead six feet under.
The girls crowded the stage, grinding against Dorien as he played on. One of them tipped his head back and poured her drink down his throat. Dorien dragged her into his lap and laid a trail of sticky alcohol kisses along her neck, all the while playing perfectly. Because he’s Dorien.
A crowd of people wandered in from the street, drawn by the music conjured from Dorien’s dark heart. They gathered around the stage – captured, enraptured, blessed by the melody of a music god.
My chest ached, groaning under the weight of memories.
At the end of the piano, I noticed a Les Paul nestled into a stand, a line of effects pedals lined up along the stage, waiting for the evening’s booked performance to take the stage. My fingers itched to pick up the guitar and join Dorien. My mind pricked at the spaces in his composition I could fill. His eyes met mine across the bar. Those slate-grey orbs didn’t beg me, they commanded.
I dug my nails into the sticky wooden table.
It took everything I had to remain in the chair.
The weight on my chest held me frozen.
If word got back to my parents that I was playing electric guitar in a dimly lit club…it would destroy them all over again. I pictured them the night our doorbell rang. I bounded down the stairs, thinking it was Micah home from the concert. But it was the police, to tell us he’d never be home again. I remembered my mother’s face crumpling like tissue paper wadded into a ball. My father beating his chest, crying to God to bring back his son.
I couldn’t do that to them.
So I downed the rest of my coke and watched Dorien’s passion burn through his fingers as jealousy raged inside me. The bastard had everything – money, talent, brash confidence. I wished I could taste that kind of freedom, but Micah had taken it with him to the grave.
When he finished the song, Dorien stood and took a deep bow. The crowd erupted into applause. Even the grumpy bartender whistled and hooted.
All except me. No way was I going to applaud the cocky bastard.
Dorien slid back into our booth with two of the girls hanging off his arms and that arrogant grin perfectly arranged. His cheeks and neck were smudged with lipstick. He dropped three napkins on the table between us. Each one had a phone number scrawled in crimson lipstick. “You should have joined me up there.”
I flexed my arm muscles. “That stage isn’t big enough for my guns and your ego.”
Dorien unbound himself from his two admirers and leaned forward, slapping his hands on the table. The mirth in his eyes vanished. “This should be our lives, Titus. Playing in bars like this, being on the road, writing music that speaks to us. No rules, no obligations. Being in the real world, not trapped in stuffy concert halls and orchestra pits.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“I’m not. I’m deadly serious. Let’s do it, you and me. Let’s make music on our own terms.” Dorien’s eyes flashed. I stared at him, for the first time seeing that the darkness behind them wasn’t part of his act. Maybe Dorien wasn’t here because he was bored and could do whatever the fuck he wanted.
Maybe the great Dorien Valencourt was running from something, too.
“You sound insane.”
“You want to get out from under the thumb of your parents? This is how you do it. You need this just as much as I do.”
“What exactly is the this you’re proposing?”
“We form a band. We refine the songs I’ve been working on and show them to the world. We take classical music away from stuffy halls and elitist wankers and give it back to the people. We make it cool again.”
I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the insanity. I had auditions this year at Juilliard, the Royal Academy of Music, Conservatoire de Paris. I couldn’t just drop everything for one of Dorien’s crazy schemes. But instead of shutting him down, my mind twisted around the melody he’d just played, seeing the gaps, hearing the harmonies and layers I could add. I could feel the music humming in my veins, and I hadn’t felt music like that since Micah taught me the riff to Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs.’
I opened my eyes. Dorien leaned in close, his shit-eating grin devouring his whole face.
“I knew you’d say yes.” With the certainty of someone who’d never been told no in his life, Dorien accepted another cocktail from the bartender – the aptly-named hurricane, on the house as thanks for his performance – and took a long sip. “Now, we need a third. A violinist, I think. I’ve someone in mind. Have you met Ivan Nicolescu?”
“Elena Nicolescu’s brother?” I met Elena at a music camp last summer. She was a waif from Romania who barely said a word to anyone, but was the greatest pianist I’d ever heard. I remembered she had a twin brother, white-haired and silent, with those same ice-cold eyes that bore holes in your skin. He played the violin. He was nothing special compared to his sister, but he had a certain sledgehammer style.
“That’s the fellow. He lives at Manderley Academy, can you believe it?” Darkness passed through Dorien’s eyes again, but it was gone before I could comment on it. “He must be a vampire. That’s the only reason I can think someone would want to shut themselves away in that shithole.”
“My parents made me apply.” Both Dorien and I were attending auditions for the major college music programs at the end of the summer. Manderley was low on my list. Why would I want to go to a rundown old mansion in the mountains when I could study in Paris? Or London? So many metal bands played in London, and it was almost far enough away from my parents for me to be able to breathe.
“If she offers you a place, don’t take it.” Dorien slurped his drink. “I studied at the Usher School in New York. Victor is a fine tutor, but Gizella Usher is a piece of work.”
I could smell the syrupy licorice of Dorien’s absinthe from across the table. My temples pounded. I didn’t really want to go to any of the schools I was auditioning for. Four more years of playing cello sounded like hell on earth. But what choice did I have?
Dorien was offering that choice.
“My friend Gabriel has a band named Octavia’s Ruin. They’re heading out on tour in a month. The opening act just pulled out and they need someone to replace them. I played him some tapes I made and he said if I could find a band and put a set together in time, we can have the opening slot. If we want it. I know it’s insane; that’s what makes it fun. What do you say?”
I leaned back in my chair. It wasn’t heavy metal. It wasn’t the roaring guitars and pounding drums I craved, but it was different. It had heart and soul and feeling, and that was enough. Dorien left space in the music for me to make it my own. His song flowed through my head, and I felt rather than heard the rough edges where his genius met the hurricane of his soul. Instead of polishing all those edges off, we could create something raw and bold and beautiful.
I could make the cello heavy metal.
I could do my own thing, away from my parents, away from the pressure of replacing the perfect son they lost.
I slammed my fist down on the table. “I’m in.”
Ivan flew down to New Orleans a week later. He was just as silent and terrifying as I remembered. But the moment he raised his bow and ripped through an improvisation that bowled me over with its quiet malevolence, I knew he was the violinist for us.
We recorded the album at Skulking Dog Studios, the same studio where my parents cut their first recording. The music flew from our fingers. Dorien joked that he sold his soul at a crossroads to give him the compositions, and I almost believed him. Every note, every motif, every phrase dripped with black magic.
Ivan spent every moment we weren’t practicing or recording on his phone to his sister, talking to her in harsh, barked tones in his native Romanian.
One of the girls Dorien met at that bar turned out to be an amateur filmmaker. She took us to the Lafayette Cemetery one night and had us run around in black cloaks and pale face paint, then cut an arty video for our first song, ‘A Graveside Story.’ We released it online and Octavia’s Ruin shared it with their fans and before we knew it, we were climbing the Spotify charts.
By the time my parents burst through the doors at the end of summer to take me to my auditions, Broken Muse amassed eighty thousand social media fans and we’d been booked on a ten-city European tour. I showed them the music video. Mom watched in stunned silence, tears streaking her cheeks.
Dad stormed from the room and slammed the door so hard it rattled the whole house.
I packed my cello and left with Dorien the next day. We blew off our auditions to play the nightclubs of Paris, Berlin, and London. We followed the Octavia’s Ruin tour bus in a tiny van jammed with gear, partied every night until dawn, and slept on friends’ couches, in roach-infested hostels, and in the van on the side of the road during a freak Polish thunderstorm.
Dorien was in his element – every night another crowd to enchant, in every city a new girl or guy to warm his bed. But sometimes, if I watched him carefully from across the stage, if the moonlight through the van window caught his face before he fell asleep, I saw that darkness creep into his eyes.
We never spoke about it, but I knew that Dorien wasn’t just chasing fame and riches and hot groupies – he was running from something so rotten that even on the other side of the globe, he couldn’t escape its hold on him.
BRUTAL KILLING AT MUSIC SCHOOL
A young woman’s life has been tragically cut short at the elite Manderley Academy. Police recovered the body of twenty-two-year-old Heather Danvers from her fiancé’s room at the music school. Her head had been brutally bashed against a steel bedpost, and she was stabbed seven times.
Heather’s fiancé, musician Dorien Valencourt, has been arrested and charged with her murder. Dorien is the genius behind the neo-classical rock band, Broken Muse, who shot to fame six years ago when their first single, ‘A Graveside Story,’ went viral.
This is the second death to occur at the music academy in the last year. A young girl, Clare Fairbanks, worked at the school as a maid. She was found at the bottom of the stairs with her neck broken. Her death was ruled accidental, but given that Clare was reported to be dating Dorien Valencourt and he was in the vicinity at the time of her death, her case has been reopened.
Sources close to the school believe Valencourt may have influenced another student, Faye de Winter, to commit this crime. De Winter has a history of violence – she once violently assaulted a man named Aaron Varney – and resented the impending marriage between Danvers and Valencourt. At this time, de Winter has not been charged with any crime, although she is being investigated as an accomplice. She is the daughter of famed musician Donovan de Winter, who disappeared mysteriously ten years ago and has never been found.
Authorities face a tough challenge untangling this sordid saga. All this reporter knows is that Manderley Academy has more skeletons in its closets than a gothic novel.
CHAPTER ONE: FAYE
“The genius behind Broken Muse?” Titus made a face as he tossed the paper onto the grave. “How dare he?”
“That’s what you take from the article?” Ivan growled.
“That even from prison, Dorien finds a way to take credit for all our work? Damn right that’s the message I’m taking from the article.” Titus’ usually kind features twisted with anger. Angry looked good on Titus – but then, so did every other emotion. The guy was a walking clit closet. “The bastard even suggested Faye beat up this Aaron guy because she’s under Dorien’s influence. I wonder who told them that? Someone who still believes the sun shines out his own arsehole, that’s who. When our girl goes nuclear, it’s for her own reasons, not because the bloody Bad Boy of Baroque told her to.”
“I’d like to point out for posterity that I didn’t actually beat up Aaron.” I drew my hands up to my shoulders in a vain attempt to rub warmth back into my arms.
We were splayed out inside the Usher mausoleum at Manderley. The hexagonal stone structure offered little shelter from the wet, gross rain dribbling down outside – bitter wind pushed the damp through the grated windows and into the cracks in the stone cupola. Our breaths came out in furious puffs, like steam locomotives building up momentum as they crested a hill. Elena sat next to me on Victor Usher’s empty sarcophagus, swinging her legs lazily and nodding her head to a song none of us could hear. Titus leaned against a wall of niches, and Ivan paced beneath a weeping angel statue.
Just being in this stone tomb made my skin crawl. Evil itself seeped through the walls. I wanted nothing more than to walk away from Manderley and the Usher family forever.
But that was impossible.
Heather’s death changed everything. Not even Commissioner Walpole could save Madame Usher from the media scrutiny of a second body to be uncovered at the school in the space of a year – both of them connected to Dorien Valencourt. The school was swarming with the press. At first, she tried to keep them out, barring the gates and forcing Harrison to stand out in the snow with his rifle to scare them off. But they’d flown out with helicopters and hiked in through the forest trails, and so she changed tactics and welcomed them inside, giving them the run of the place and filling their heads with her chosen narrative as she allowed them to paw through Heather’s things. She even allowed a paranormal investigation team to film a segment on the staircase, calling for Clare to show herself and identify Dorien as her killer.
I was learning all of this now from Ivan and Elena because Madame Usher kicked me out. After her insane effort to bring me to the academy in the first place, my dismissal was somewhat perfunctory – she simply had Harrison deliver me a letter informing me our contract was terminated, and I was to be off the property by the end of the day or she’d have me arrested for trespassing. Heather’s death had thrown a chink in her perfect plan, and now she couldn’t risk keeping me around.
I longed to confront her about it, to throw my mother’s poisoning back in her face, but I didn’t want to play my hand too soon. Instead, Titus and Ivan helped me pack my meager possessions. Madame Usher didn’t leave the east wing as I lugged my case downstairs, and a wicked idea occurred to me.
I marched into the storage room and took the Becker violin – my father’s violin – and waltzed out of the school with it. It was my legacy, after all. As Harrison drove me away, I looked back at the house and couldn’t see Madame Usher’s face at the windows, but I could feel her gaze boring into me, promising that she hadn’t finished with me yet.
My fingers closed around the neck of the violin. Is my father alive? What has she done to him? Why does he haunt Manderley, taunting me with these clues?
I wondered what Clare – the real ghost of Manderley – thought about it all. I came here today intending to ask her.
I moved into Mom’s hotel room in New York City, paid for until the end of the year by Natalie’s kindness. I found a job in a music shop and would hopefully be able to scrape together enough money to keep paying Mom’s medical bills.
When the lurid headlines about Heather’s murder hit, Amos and Delphine arrived to pull Titus out of Manderley. They were living in New York City too, while they applied to other programs so he could complete his schooling. They didn’t let him see me in case it reflected badly on his chances at Juilliard. Titus wasn’t talking about it much in the stolen conversations we had late at night, but I gathered living with his parents again wasn’t exactly pleasant. They still hadn’t forgiven him for having the guitar.
Aroha’s parents tried to remove her as well, but I heard her on the phone as I was packing telling them that she would be graduating no matter what. I guess with fewer of us around, she figured her chances of winning the Manderley Prize just shot up.
Elena stayed with her fiancé, which meant Ivan remained behind at Manderley also.
Just like that, we were scattered. Madame Usher achieved her ends – she destroyed Broken Muse. If only Heather didn’t have to die to make it happen. I hated that bitchbadger, but she didn’t deserve that.
That was why we were gathered today. Titus and I snuck back while his parents were out. We hiked four miles through the forest to escape the reporters and approach Manderley from the rear, then peeled off the forest path to meet Ivan and Elena at the mausoleum. It was clear from its neglect that Madame Usher never visited, so it seemed a safe place to plot our next move.
We brought them mobile phones so we could communicate in secret, and exchanged news from inside and outside the school. Titus showed Ivan some of the newspaper articles and tweets about the band. It was clear that no matter what the police charged him with, Dorien had already been found guilty by the world, and I was his puppet, dancing to the tune of the powerful men in my life.
“What do we do now?” Elena asked.
It was a good question. One I’d desperately been trying to figure out ever since I walked into Dorien’s room and saw him bent over Heather, the bloody knife in his hand.
“I suppose it depends if we believe Dorien is innocent,” Titus said.
Three pairs of eyes bore into me.
I stared down at the bag of supplies at my feet, watching my cold breath swirl around the stones. I didn’t know what to believe.
I believed the evidence of my eyes. Dorien had the knife. He was the only one in the room. We didn’t see anyone else enter or leave the house. He was being forced into a marriage against his will, and I knew better than anyone that when Dorien Valencourt was cornered, he could lash out with unimaginable cruelty.
Dorien begged me to believe in his innocence. He sounded distraught and genuine as they shoved him into the police car, but I’d been through this with Dorien before. Every time I believed things were different or opened myself up to him, he betrayed me. I thought I trusted myself with him, but that knife glinting in the dim light, the blood on his hands, Heather’s lifeless body staring up at me…
But then I came back to all the unexplained phenomena at Manderley – the objects flying over the staircase the first time Madame kicked me out, the face in the attic window, my dad’s book appearing, food going missing from the kitchen, and those times I felt like I was being watched. I remembered Clare’s words scrawled on the wall in the pantry. THE WALLS ARE TALKING. I’d seen the portrait of my father hidden in the attic, and we found Victor Usher’s empty grave and discovered Madame Usher’s plot to poison my mother. I knew we were on the cusp of unraveling Madame Usher’s secrets, and now Heather was dead and Dorien was behind bars and it all seemed too…convenient. Especially considering the story Madame Usher was spinning for the press.
I raised my head. “What do you guys think? Did he do it?”
They exchanged glances. No one spoke. No one knew what to say.
I slid off the sarcophagus and paced across the floor, shoving my gloved hands into my armpits again in a vain attempt to prevent my fingers from falling off. “Okay, we have to agree on this before we go forward. So let’s go through what we know. All of us were downstairs except for Aroha, and she met us at the doorway when I found Heather’s body. She couldn’t have snuck out of the room without Dorien seeing her, and if he’d seen her he wouldn’t lie to save her ass. So that means all of us, Aroha, the Valencourts, the Danvers, Madame Usher, Father Aaron, and Walpole couldn’t possibly have done it. That leaves only Dorien and Harrison. The only way Harrison could have made his way upstairs to kill her is if there was some kind of secret passage leading from outside to Dorien’s bedroom, which we’re not ruling out. But I don’t believe Harrison’s the murderer. His beef is with Usher, not Heather, and he had that gun with him, so why stab her? Why not shoot her?”
“That leaves only Dorien.” Ivan’s voice dripped with disdain.
“If we consider the living, yes. But what about Clare’s words? What about that portrait of my father and his violin? What about Victor Usher’s grave being empty?” I wrung my hands. “I’ve seen too many horror films to ignore the signs.”
Titus stepped toward me, his huge hands wrapping around my shoulders. “Faye, are you trying to convince us, or are you trying to convince yourself?”
I sagged against him, letting his warmth envelop me. Being held by Titus was all-consuming – he wrapped his body around me like a shield, and inside his embrace I felt stronger, invincible. “I don’t know what to believe. Is Manderley haunted by the living or the dead? Maybe Clare’s ghost killed Heather. But why? Heather wasn’t anywhere near the staircase when Clare died. And what about my father? Or Victor Usher? How are they connected to this? And it doesn’t change the fact that Dorien was upset about the arranged marriage. He had every reason to lash out at Heather. I’ve given him seven million chances and each time he’s broken my heart. I don’t want to use a ghost to excuse him.”
I looked up at the carved cupola. A rogue spiderweb brushed my face, its gossamer threads like fingertips reaching for me. I bit back a scream as the air sung with tension – the feeling that something monumental was about to happen. I remembered the sensation from the last time I’d been at the mausoleum, the night Dorien and Heather knocked me out with chloroform and trapped me in a leather bag. I remembered the cold in my veins as Clare rose from the shadows and closed in on me. Her hands reached for my throat as she rasped, “Only you can save Manderley from the voice in the walls.”
My heart pounded. “Clare.”
“What about her?” Titus murmured, burying his face into my shoulder.
“She broke all those antiques when Madame tried to kick you out,” Elena said. “You think she killed Heather too?”
“She is dangerous.” Ivan grabbed his sister’s hand. “We shouldn’t stay in the house with her.”
“She’s the key to all of this. I don’t think she’s trying to hurt us. I think she’s trying to warn us, warn me. Maybe about Dorien, but I don’t think so. The walls are talking, she said. I don’t think she’s responsible. She’s a victim, too. This is the second death at Manderley that’s been blamed on Dorien, the second death that’s been carefully constructed so he’s the only possible suspect. He got away once, but someone has made sure he can’t escape this time. We need the truth – we need to know what happened from someone who saw the whole thing. Heather can’t tell us what she saw in his room, and the only people who know what happened on that staircase are Clare and Dorien. We all know his version, but we should get hers. Clare seems willing to talk to me. I came here today because I need to do what I should have done ages ago. I need to listen.”
“How do you listen to a ghost?” Ivan said. “With a seance?”
I expected Titus to laugh, but no one thought this ghost thing was funny anymore. Not after we’d all seen the portraits and vases flying over the staircase and smashing to pieces. Not after Heather had been carried out of Manderley in a body bag.
“When should we do this seance?” Ivan asked.
“No time like the present.” I opened my bag to reveal a stack of candles and other supplies. Elena pulled her own from her tote bag. Ivan glared at her, then at me, but she poked her tongue out at him.
“Faye asked me to collect a few things,” she said. “If we told you, you would have forbidden it.”
He growled low in his throat. He knew we were right. “How do you know how to talk to the dead?”
I shrugged as I lit the last candle. “I don’t. I based this off seances I’ve seen in horror films.”
Ivan snorted. “Because they always end so well.”
Elena set about placing the candles around the mausoleum and lighting them. On Victor’s tomb, I laid out a serving tray from the kitchen, with a glass upturned on top. I tacked a piece of paper onto the tray. On a semi-circle around the glass, I’d written the alphabet and numbers 0-9, as well as the words YES and NO, just like a spirit board I found on the internet.
“The candles keep blowing out,” Elena pouted as she tipped another match from the box.
“Don’t worry about them.” I hadn’t needed a candle to see Clare in the mausoleum last time. “Come here. Everyone join hands.”
We sat cross-legged on the dais holding Victor’s stone tomb. The wind whistled through the trees, blowing out several of the candles. On my left, Elena giggled. Titus squeezed my right hand so hard I heard my knuckle crack.
“Clare Fairbanks,” I said, trying to project my voice, to pluck the tension in the air and snap it into the corporeal world. “You’ve been trying to give me a message for some time. I’m ready to listen.”
I narrowed my eyes at the glass, trying to see it and only it and not Elena’s gleeful face, but also trying to see beyond it, into the shadow realm Clare inhabited. Goosebumps rose along my arms, but whether they were from the cold or from a looming presence I couldn’t tell.
“Clare, please talk to us. We want to listen to you.”
My heart pounded against my ribs. The more I focused on that glass, the harder it was to believe the crackling voice was just wind in the trees, or that the mist encircling the tomb was just our freezing puffs of breath—
Wait a second…
The mists swirled and dipped, and I saw that the miasma didn’t come from our mouths at all, but seemed to rise from Victor’s empty tomb. It coalesced together, taking form and substance. Titus stiffened as he noticed it too, his fingers crushing my hand.
Elena cried out as a face emerged from the mist. On her other side, Ivan hissed.
She met my eyes. Her turned-up nose pointed to the crumbling carvings of Jesus stumbling under the weight of his cross. Her lips opened a crack, my name hissing from her mouth like air leaking from a balloon.
She’s here. I’m not imagining it. Clare’s really with us.
“Hello, Clare.” I kept my voice calm, even though I wanted to bolt from the mausoleum and never look back. “I’m sorry I’ve been ignoring your warnings. I won’t do that again. We’re here to talk to you, to get the story straight from you. Can you speak to us?”
The gaping hole of her mouth opened, and what poured out wasn’t words, not really. She issued forth a sound like no other, a sound like footsteps creaking on old floorboards and shadows moving in a quiet room. It was everything she already told me but spoken in a cold, creeping death that invaded my bones and squeezed at my organs. Dread pushed at the corners of my mind as I heard her, as I finally saw her for who she was. The girl wronged. The girl who must be avenged.
Elena whimpered. She heard it too.
An involuntary shudder rippled through my body. Clare snapped her mouth shut and shook her head. Okay, so she can’t talk to us without resorting to ghost speak, which I don’t think I ever want to hear again. Let’s try something else.
“Can you move the glass? Spell out a message for us?”
Clare stared down at the glass and shook her head. The corners of her mouth turned down. She looked sad.
“You can’t move the glass?”
She shook her head again.
“You can’t pick up objects?”
Clare shook her head so furiously it sent a wave of nausea through my body. My chest squeezed, thinking of the violin music I played alongside her for so many nights, and the objects flying around the house the first time Madame Usher tried to kick me out, or the clothes left out for me before the party. Clare had to be responsible for them, which meant she’d been able to move objects. So why couldn’t she now?
Or was she lying to us? But could ghosts lie? Maybe her ability to move things comes and goes.
I wish I knew more about ghosts than just which ones topped Fangoria’s best haunts list.
Titus squeezed my fingers, reminding me I had more important questions.
“We want to make sure whoever hurt you sees justice, but we need your help. Did Dorien do this to you?” I demanded. “Did he kill you?”
I forced my eyes to remain open as my stomach tied itself in knots. I didn’t want to see the answer, didn’t want to shatter my hopes into shards of ice.
Clare shook her head so hard her hair whipped around her face. She was certain. It wasn’t Dorien. My shoulders sagged with relief. I longed to fling myself at her and hug her, but I didn’t want to feel her slip through my fingers. I held onto my calm and tried another question.
“Was it Madame Usher? Was it Heather?”
Someone else, then. Answers started to form in my head, but I wasn’t quite ready to test them aloud.
“Who else is there?” Ivan demanded. Clare whirled around to face him, spreading her arms out toward the door of the tomb, toward me. She’s pointing to me.
She’s saying I have the answers already.
I hated that Clare was right. I’d been flirting around the outside of this for so long, and I had to face the truth of my father’s portrait and the Becker violin, of missing bones and murdered girls.
“Did you see who killed Heather?” I curled my fingers into Titus’ palm.
A nod this time. My heart hammered against my chest.
“Was it Dorien?”
The question hung in the air between us. Clare’s mouth hung open, her jaw slack, the dark void of her mouth yawning wide, threatening to swallow me whole.
She snapped her jaw shut and shook her head.
I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. The relief felt like dropping my bowing arm after a difficult concerto. Dorien didn’t kill Heather. He was innocent. That meant he was being set up, and we had to help him.
“Who killed her?” Ivan demanded.
Elena screamed as Clare whirled around. She pointed to the house, and then down at Victor Usher’s empty tomb.
“Was it Madam Usher?” I whispered, although I already knew the answer.
Clare shook her head. She gestured wildly, pointing to me, then back at the house, then at the tomb again. She mimed playing the violin.
“He’s been hiding in the walls,” I whispered. “He was there when you were alive, whispering to you, like a ghost.”
Titus’ fingers tightened around mine. Elena let out a choked noise.
“Faye?” Ivan barked out, his voice dark with fear.
I couldn’t tear my eyes from Clare. She nodded. I had my answer. The answer I’d been dreading but knew deep down inside all along.
Someone else has been at Manderley with us this whole time.
And that someone is a murderer.
CHAPTER TWO: FAYE
“Step this way.”
The officer shoved open a steel door and led me down a urine-soaked hallway, past a double row of cell doors. Even though the inmates couldn’t see out, they must’ve heard our footsteps, because they banged on the doors, rattled the hinges, and yelled and cried and shrieked. I squared my shoulders, wishing I could turn around and run from this nightmare.
The cop shoved his keys into the last cell in the row. The door swung open but it took a few tries for my leaden feet to shuffle forward. As I stepped inside, he caught my wrist in his hand, twisting it so I had no choice but to lean into him. His lip curled as he looked me over, nice and slow. His hot breath rasped against my cheek. “Fucking rich boy crims get all the good pussy.”
I raised my hand to slap his stupid mouth, but he’d already slammed the cell door behind me. I sucked in a deep breath and looked around.
A concrete bench covered with a thin plastic mattress. A toilet and enamel basin hanging at a precarious angle from the wall. A stench of feces and desperation thick in the air, clinging to every pore. A narrow window high in the wall, covered with steel bars.
A beautiful, broken boy stood beneath it, his hands shoved deep in his pockets and a curtain of dark hair covering his face.
I sat down on the concrete bench.
Dorien leaned against the wall opposite, so fragile the gentlest breeze would blow him away. He leaned his head back, and his hair started to fall away from his face.
I stared at my hands. If I looked at him for another moment, I’d break.
That voice. It fucking undid me. I dug my nails into my palm, but that only made me picture his fingers laced in mine as he and Ivan had me over the piano bench. I sucked in a shaking breath and diverted my gaze to the stained wall above his head. It was covered with scratched graffiti – nothing recognizable as words, just squiggles and cartoon dicks.
“Look at me, Sprite.”
I shook my head.
His voice cracked. I couldn’t deny him. I’d always had trouble saying no to Dorien, especially when he was hurting. I shifted my chin, lowering my gaze to see him, to really see him.
Even in this hellish place he looked incredible – he hadn’t been shaving, and the stubble on his chin and dangerous glint in his eyes made him appear worlds away from the polished performer who’d held my heart since I was a girl. Dim light from the window pierced the room, bathing his aristocratic face in dim light. The skin around his eye was bruised purple and swelling up. His normally cruel mouth twisted with misery.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes.” Dorien tried to flash that shit-eating grin of his, but the muscles wouldn’t do the job. He leaned forward, his fingers grasping my knee. His presence stole all the air from the room, and I struggled for breath.
Sparks darted against my skin where he held me. It took all my restraint to shove his hand off me and jerk away. “We don’t have much time. I can’t do this if you touch me.”
“I can’t help it. I miss you so fucking much.”
I sucked in a breath, anything to give me a moment to collect myself, find my strength. My mother’s words spun on repeat inside my skull. “Give him hell, mi cielo.”
“I’m still here.” I gripped the edge of the concrete bench. “You don’t have to keep saying my name.”
“Sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry. “I just…I know what they’re saying in the papers. When you didn’t come, none of you, I thought…I thought she finally convinced you I’m evil.”
He was right. We hadn’t talked since the police dragged him away. He tried to call us, but Madame Usher refused to allow any calls through the house phone, and I told the concierge at the hotel not to allow his calls through to me. I’d had to go through his lawyer to arrange this visit.
“Dorien, what happened?”
“They’re charging me with first-degree murder,” he sighed. “My lawyer thinks that if I spill about Jacob’s abuse, he’ll be able to argue self-defense at a trial. But that will jeopardize Rochester’s investigation. Rochester wants me to wait it out in here while he builds a case against Usher as well as Aaron, but I don’t know if I can wait that long. I’m going insane, Sprite.”
“Dorien, I can’t—”
“I swear to you I didn’t kill Heather.”
“I’m not asking that.” I stabbed my nail so deep I drew blood. “I’m asking you to tell me what happened that night. I need to know everything you saw.”
“I waited in the hallway for a few moments before I went inside my room. I needed some time to figure out what I was going to say. Heather and I aren’t so different. We both have siblings trapped in the Temple. I was going to ask her to help me. I thought I heard her talking or laughing inside, thumping my furniture around, but I might’ve imagined it. I was a bit of a mess.” He laughed without mirth.
“I pushed open my bedroom door and…and Heather was lying on the floor with that knife sticking out of her chest.” Dorien shuddered. “I’ll never forget how she looked in all my life, her mouth hanging open like that. I see now it was stupid for me to touch the knife, but I thought…I was trying to save her. It wasn’t supposed to be in her like that. I had to take it out, but then there was so much blood…”
His voice wavered, and he swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
“The police say the knife was taken from the kitchen. My lawyer says it’s my best defense – you were all at the bottom of the stairs, and you saw me head straight up to my room. No one saw me double back or stop to grab a knife. It’s not much, probably not enough for reasonable doubt from a jury that will have already convicted me in the media. But it’s something.”
I let out a long breath. He was right. I definitely would have noticed. But there was a long period between Dorien heading upstairs and me racing up to see what happened, the time when he said he was outside his bedroom door. The police might argue it was time enough for him to have slipped out the window in Titus’ room, shimmied down the tree, and come into the kitchen from the backdoor. Would it have been time enough for him to have grabbed a knife and got back upstairs without us hearing him?
Maybe. If he was fast.
“Please say you believe me.” Dorien pressed his knuckles into his swelling eye. “I can’t fucking survive in here if you don’t believe me.”
I think of Clare’s adamance that Dorien had nothing to do with either death. I know what we decided in the mausoleum, but I hadn’t been sure what I’d feel when I faced him again. Until now. I looked into those slate-grey eyes and saw the love and the hope shining there like a beacon in the darkness.
I dived into Dorien Valencourt, drowning myself in the depths of his anguish. I touched the edges of him, and I lifted off the weight of his betrayals that I’d been carrying for so long. He never smashed my violin. He wasn’t keeping me awake with footsteps in the storage room, or trying to frighten me by stealing food from the kitchen. The thousand tiny cuts of his cruelty healed over with new, tougher skin. When I first came to Manderley, I thought Dorien was my bully. But he was one of the victims, and I had to save him.
I had my answer.
I nodded. “I believe you.”
“Don’t sound so sure.”
“No, I do. I—” I closed my eyes. I needed a moment without his gaze on me, a moment to collect the maelstrom of emotions swirling inside me. “It’s hard. We’ve been down this path before, you and me. You say things and then you do something else. And you might have noble intentions, but what I see is betrayal. When I saw you holding that knife, I slipped back into that same pattern. But when I search deep down, I do believe you. That leaves us with a terrifying truth – that someone else at Manderley killed Heather. Probably someone hiding in the walls.”
“You think Clare did it?”
I shook my head, opening my eyes to meet those stony orbs once more. “I spoke to Clare. Well, not exactly. She can’t speak and she can’t pick up objects, but we had a seance and she informed me you were innocent.”
Dorien smiled. “I’m glad my ex-girlfriend is still amenable to my charms.”
I have never been able to resist Dorien’s smile, and today is no different. How could the simple movement of muscle and skin and sinew sing such music in my veins? How could that flash of perfect teeth and the dimpling of his cheek vibrate in my memory long after we part? Dorien.
That smile had been my comfort and my torment in equal measure, but that was what it meant to be in love. The joy of our music was the tension that wove us together, the hard and the soft, the tremolo shuddering against an open string. Thunder approaching over a calm lake, stirring the waters to life. Without the torment, my heart couldn’t beat for him.
My whole body ached to be his again, and I wasn’t going to waste another moment. I threw myself at Dorien, catching him by surprise. He wobbled off-balance and the pair of us toppled onto the narrow mattress. Dorien caught me before I rolled off the edge and held me against him, pressing our chests together so I could feel his heart racing against his ribs.
“I won’t let you go,” he swore, his breath hot on my lips. His fingers tangled in my hair, drawing my head toward him.
I nuzzled his neck, a lump rising in my throat at the thought that soon I’d have to leave him in this gross room to meet a fate we couldn’t predict. “I only have a little time.”
“Every moment with you is a gift.” Dorien’s lips brushed mine, soft, searching. He kissed like a criminal stealing his way to safety, silent and stalking, slipping his tongue between my lips to search out answers. He tasted like Dorien – dark and wintery – but also nothing like Dorien at all. He tasted of shitty jail food and despair. His tongue stroked mine, and I fancied I could taste the coppery bite of blood.
I pulled back, tracing the lines of his face. I wishing I could sneak him out under my bra and carry him far away from this place. I’d probably suffocate him in my tits, but what a way to go. I hated how comfortable he was here, how resigned to his fate. Dorien had been in a prison his whole life. I would not let him die in one.
“I’ll figure this out,” I said. The words echoed in the concrete room.
“There’s nothing to figure out. It was Usher,” Dorien said. “Nothing in that house happens without her knowledge. All of this is her grand plan, and she’s got the police in her pocket.”
“Madame Usher has nine witnesses saying she was downstairs the whole time,” I said. “Including me. We know she’s ultimately behind this, but she didn’t plunge the knife into Heather. She never gets her hands dirty. I know this sounds insane, but we think there might be someone else hiding at Manderley. Someone who’s been sneaking around doing her bidding, making us crazy thinking a ghost is responsible. Someone who smashed up my violin, and who left my father’s book and violin to torment me. Someone whose bones should be rotting in his grave.”
“You think Victor Usher is still alive?” Dorien raised an eyebrow. Of course he was into this – it was like something out of a gothic novel.
I nodded. “I have no proof, but it makes perfect sense. At least, it makes more sense than the other option, which is that my father is still alive.”
“Wait, hold on a second.” Dorien’s eyes crinkled at the edges. “What’s this about your father?”
As quickly as I could, I went over everything I figured out about Manderley and the portrait of my father and his violin, before cycling back to Victor Usher. “There’s someone else haunting Manderley besides Clare. That’s what this is all about. That’s Madame Usher’s secret. It’s either my dad or Victor, and I need to figure out which one it is. You said when Victor was sick, Madame Usher forbade any doctors to see him. We know she has knowledge of plants and poisons because of the birthwort she gave my mother. She probably fed him something from the poison garden to fake his death, and he’s been hiding in her private wing all this time. It explains why his bones aren’t in his tomb. I think he creeps around the house when we can’t see him, and does things to frighten us, like smashing my violin. Clare says she didn’t do that.”
“But why?” Dorien asked. “Why fake his death? What does it achieve?”
I smiled sadly. “I was hoping you might have some idea.”
“That’s what she thought I knew,” Dorien whistled through his teeth. “In Cauda Venenum.”
“The words on the poison garden? What does that even mean?”
“It’s Latin for the poison is in the tail—”
“I know what it means. But if I go to the police and say ‘In Cauda Venenum,’ they’re going to lock me up in here beside you.”
The corner of Dorien’s mouth quirked up. “When she was threatening to have me arrested if I didn’t stay away from you, I said those words to her and she relented. I was bluffing, but she didn’t know that. She thought I knew that she faked Victor’s death and I was going to go to the police.”
I tapped his chin. “And that’s why she’s coming after you now. If she can put you away for Heather’s murder, no one will believe if you tell an insane story about her keeping her dead husband locked up inside Manderley.”
“Rochester is investigating her,” Dorien squeezed my shoulders. “He’s trying to connect her to the Temple and Father Aaron. So far he’s got nothing, but if you tell him what you know, he might be able to help you. If you figure out what that means, you’ve got her. I know you can do that, Faye.”
“Yeah.” I kissed his lips. “It’s all starting to make sense now.”
Someone banged on the door. I started to pull away, but Dorien pressed his palm into my back, trapping me in place. He whispered against my lips. “What if it’s not Victor? What if it’s your dad?”
“Then I’ll do what my mom should have done ten years ago and kill the bastard myself,” I whispered back. The words trembled on my tongue. Dorien sighed against me as he pressed me into his chest. We both knew I was talking a big game. If it’s my dad…
I couldn’t face it.
If it’s my dad, he let me believe he was dead. He let me cry a river of tears for him.
If it’s my dad, he’s spent ten years hiding with that witch instead of being here for me, for us.
If it’s my dad, then he’s part of her conspiracy to poison my mother.
If it’s him, I will fall spectacularly apart, and I don’t think even my broken muses could put me back together again.
BANG BANG BANG.
“Ms. de Winter, you need to come with us now,” the officer barked.
Reluctantly, I slid out from beneath Dorien. He remained on the slab, his knees pulled to his chest, his arms still embracing the air as if he could still feel the ghost of my touch. As I slid out the door, my heart rattled like a marble in my chest, and the trailing notes of our song shattered into ash.
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