Genre – Paranormal Romance
Rating – Adult
Published May 2017
Cover photography coverangel.com
Cover art by ctcoverdesigns.com
It was a place they said they’d never go, but when Constance, his dying human wife begs him to turn her, vampire Nion Ellison weakens and gives her his dark gift. But was he in time? Interrupted by a mob intent on sending them both to hell, he can only carry on without her and wait for her return. Now over one hundred years later in his latest lifetime as the enigmatic billionaire Nion Eastman, he’s still waiting. Tormented by hope, he makes his lonely annual pilgrimage to her grave and meets a woman with the same name as his wife. A woman who claims to have been dreaming about him for the past few months.
Connie Pearson’s gift as a dream-seer comes in very handy for her day job as a celebrity hunting journalist. When she gets a hot tip-off about the whereabouts of the enigmatic Nion Eastman, she nearly breaks a leg getting to the abandoned church high on the lonely Lancashire moors. An exposé on the reclusive billionaire who seems to have the secret to time itself will make her career. There, she finds more than she bargained for. Her name and birthday on an abandoned grave. With her prophetic dreams slowly centering on the man himself she knows she’s there for a reason that has nothing to do with celebrity exposés. He’s in her head, and she needs to know why.
Excerpt – Read the first four chapters here
Copyright first edition © 2017 Alexandra Marell
All rights reserved, all copyrights and registered trademarks acknowledged
110 years ago—1907
“Do it, Nion. I beg you, please do this for me.”
The words cut him like a stake through the heart. Dying. His beautiful wife was dying. Consumption, the silent victor ravaging her lungs, would take her before the sun sank into the distant peaks.
No, he could not, would not condemn her to darkness.
Outside in the neglected garden a merciless breeze plucked at the fading petals of her beloved roses, flinging showers of pink and white at the leaded windows. And in the bed they’d shared for too few years, Constance, his life, tangled her fingers in his crumpled shirt, her voice fading with every rattled breath.
“Nion, where are you?” A damp muslin shift clung to her wasted body. Arching her back, she strained to be near him one last time, using every drop of her waning life force to give voice to one final plea.
“Do it, Nion.”
The hope in her smile shattered what remained of his heart. She paid no heed to the growing howl of the mob marching with grim determination towards their woodland sanctuary. To the thatched cottage that had sheltered them both for so brief a time.
Slim fingers, cold like his own, lifted to touch his tear-stained cheek.
“We vowed to be strong, yes I know. But I will not leave you. Make me like you my love, so I may return. A love like ours cannot die. I will not allow it.”
And so it came to this. They’d spoken long into the night of the time when age or disease would reach out to wrest her from him and he would remain untouched, forced to go on alone with only her memory to sustain him.
The curse of the living dead; he’d vowed never to taint her with such horror. Truly believed himself strong enough to go on without her.
He smoothed the damp tangle of hair from her forehead. The rich chestnut strands that once slipped through his fingers like spun silk now lay lifeless on skin so pale he could see the map of veins beneath, feel how feebly the blood struggled to flow.
She stiffened at the sharp crack of splintering glass, gazing past him with eyes too large for her face to the hammers and shovels battering at wood and stone. Trampling and ripping down her precious roses with no thought but to gain entry and send them both to hell.
“Now.” She wailed out the words, rolling her head to the side, offering her slender neck. “You will not hurt me.”
“Constance, I never wanted to hurt you.” He held her with tender care. So fragile she might shatter in his arms. Lost in her ethereal beauty, his mind too fogged with grief to form coherent thought, he wanted only to stay and ease her passing. To send her pure to the afterlife she deserved.
The heavy oak door shook, bowing under the weight of blows. Moments, they had only moments before the mob exploded into their private space. Too late. Even if he turned her now, she would not be strong enough to fight them off. And he would not leave her.
“A curse on you all,” he roared. “Let my wife die in peace. Then you may have me.”
Nion touched his mouth to his wife’s cracked lips. If only he could breathe for her. Her chest barely moved now, each breath a faint sigh.
“If I do this you will be damned, like me. You will give up your soul.”
“Damned but together, Nion.” She nodded, encouraging, giving permission. His resolve slipped slowly away. Hadn’t he always been a slave to her will?
He traced the line of her neck, touched the weakly-pulsing vein with his tongue while behind him the bedroom window exploded in a shower of thick glass littering the floor like ice. A Crescendo of sound forced into the gaping hole. A man climbed through the gap, then another.
How could he deny her paradise? Condemn her to the pit of eternal despair where creatures of the night like him would eventually pay their dues?
Too kind. Too pure.
And he’d dared to love her. Somewhere in the precarious checks and balances of life, he’d somehow managed to earn her love. With a hideous groan, the front door splintered and crashed onto the polished tiles.
Hell, it seemed, was not content to wait for him. It was here in the thunder of feet, the press of bodies at the bedroom door, the gaping windows.
Hell could wait. All that mattered lay on this bed.
The cacophony dimmed to a distant hum. Around him, the mob faltered, hammers and sticks in hand, falling into an uneasy silence. Nion ignored them. Let them kill him, stake his heart and send him to the devil. He’d go there having known love and feel doubly blessed.
Time meant nothing to creatures like him but in that moment it raced away into distant futures, down long, lonely years at a dizzying pace. As Constance squeezed his hand, his fogged mind cleared, his fangs sharpened and almost without thought, he bit down, oblivious to her weak cry of pain. Blood so sweet, so familiar, flooded his tongue, wet his lips. Her head rolled back as he pulled it deep into his throat. Around him the mob went wild.
“Monster. Demon. Look at him, he’s the devil himself.”
Frantically, he let go, shoving away the hands snatching at his arms, his shirt and hair. He hit back with an elbow, kicked out and pushed his wrist onto his fangs.
Feed her. He must feed her his blood before she drew her last breath.
The mob fell on him, hauling him from the bed. With a feral growl, he twisted, punched and kicked and threw himself across the limp body of his wife.
“Drink.” His wrist, slick with borrowed blood, skidded across her lips. Her tongue touched his skin, reaching for the gift he’d vowed never to give.
Or had he imagined that smallest of movements?
Hands grabbed him again, throwing him to the floor in a rain of blows from wood, metal and fists. Heavy boots ploughed into his side until he heard the sharp crack of ribs. A meaty fist slammed into his face and through blurred vision he saw them take her, one at her head, the other hoisting her feet.
“No.” They would not have her.
But have her they did. They bound him in unbreakable chains. Helpless, they dragged him to the churchyard, to the other side of the boundary wall where the suicides and those lost to eternal life met their final rest. There, they forced him to watch them dump his beloved into an unmarked grave, outside of consecrated ground, a stake driven deep into her heart.
And then they hauled him back to the cottage, hammered a wooden stake into his own un-beating heart and burned him in the ruins of all he held precious.
As the flesh melted from his bones and agony blackened his vision, he could only wonder how the fools, with their crude superstition, had missed his heart by a hair’s breadth. Condemned him to an agony of pain and loneliness but not death.
And in doing so each and every one of them had sealed their own fate.
Constance Emily Pearson.
Born the tenth day of November 1880
Taken from this life on that same day 1907
Weep not me for I am not dead
Nion Eastman’s lips lifted in a rare smile. More than a hundred years between them and still he came. Destiny owed him nothing and yet still he managed to hope.
Hope. A futile endeavour better suited to poets than warriors made cynical by time. The petals of the single rose hanging from his fingers shivered in the stirring breeze. His beloved Constance had given him hope. Made him smile and remember a part of himself he thought lost.
And then she left him to face eternity alone.
He knelt, falling onto the loose gravel littering the lonely grave, ignoring the sharp stab of stones ruining his hand-made suit. The dead didn’t care how he dressed; he wore it for her. To prove he hadn’t wasted their years apart in idle grief. She begged him not to do that.
But she left him, as he always knew she would. That stark reality never changed. The rose dropped from his fingers, lingering for a moment on the stony ground hiding her from him. Pushed by the wind, it rolled as if seeking solace in the stone marker bearing her name.
Constance. His salvation. His torment.
The words blurred through unshed tears. No, Nion Eastman no longer wept. The president of Eastman Corp International did not weep or show the pain in his heart. Lightly, he traced the fading inscription detailing a woman loved, a brief life.
He rested his forehead on the smooth granite, searching for the undeniable connection they’d shared. For the promise she’d whispered with such passion from her deathbed.
Make me like you so I can return.
I will return.
Words burning in his brain and echoing down long years, tormenting him with the sharp sting of regret. He never wanted to hurt her and more so when she had no strength to spare.
His hesitation cost them everything. In the time it took to make his decision, to go to a place he’d vowed never to go, he lost her.
Nion pushed to his feet, pitying the windblown rose flailing valiantly at the stone as if somehow a corpse might hear its silent plea. He knew how it felt. How near he’d come in those terrible early years to digging the freshly-turned soil with his own hands for one last glimpse of her before time and the elements wreaked their havoc and stole her beauty. For one more attempt to bring her back.
He knew better. If it took an eternity of waiting, she could only return if he let her lie.
He breathed in a gulp of frigid air, more from force of habit than necessity, picking out the bite in the wind heralding early snow, the acrid scent of smoke curling from a chimney in the nearby village. The distant grumble of a car engine toiling up the steep track to the forgotten, boarded-up church surrounded by graves of the long-dead.
After so many years the anguish of that terrible day still had the power to wound. Those ignorant fools thought they’d consigned him to the fires of hell with their chants, their simple country magic.
As if their puny spells could hold him.
Damn you, Constance. You said you’d return. You promised me that. How much longer must I wait?
Hadn’t he suffered enough for believing himself brave enough to let her go? Didn’t he taste her blood before they fell on him? Feed her his own as she hovered between life and death?
Why hadn’t it been enough?
Questions he had no answer to.
“Come back to me.” The flare of anger died as quickly as it ignited. “If you loved me, come back to me.”
No reply, no matter how hard he strained for her voice. Only the creak of the weather vane atop the apex of the church he’d purchased and boarded up with his own hands to show contempt for a God who’d ignored both his prayers and his threats.
And yet he would not give up hope. For over one hundred years that saw the flame she lit in his eyes, dim, the heat she brought to their bed grow cold, he continued to believe. Years in which he’d come to despise his futile attempt at nobility, his determination to spare her the curse of the living dead.
This was his reward for daring to love a human. He touched the headstone reverently. No. This, he would never regret. Her love had blessed him more than he deserved.
Five thin chimes floated on the air from the market square clock in the distant village. One thing left to do before stepping back into his current life and his latest incarnation as Nion Eastman a reclusive billionaire, so elusive he made Howard Hughes look like the world’s biggest exhibitionist.
“Happy birthday, my love.” With a growl, he pushed his wrist onto his fangs, nipping with grim precision at the vein pulsing with borrowed blood. Extending his arm, he watched red beads form at the small puncture holes, clinging then falling to the damp earth. All he had to offer on this, her birthday.
She must not be disturbed. The oracles and psychics, the mediums and demons he’d consulted worldwide all spoke with one voice. If she’d taken his blood before her last breath, she would return at a time only she would know. It was frustratingly out of his hands. A feeling the owner of Eastman Corp did not relish.
He frowned at the red stain on his white cuff. Careless, like the early days of his curse when he’d let his true nature slip and the vigilantes had hounded him from town to city, across countries and continents.
Running, always running until he learned to hide his true nature behind reasons humans understood. They spoke of a man with sunlight allergies and hideous disfigurements put right by too many plastic surgeries. They called him a recluse, an agoraphobic, secretive and lately just plain weird. If it bought him a few moments of true peace and distance from their prying eyes, they could call him the devil himself.
In this new age of science and reason, he enjoyed relative safety from the mob. For the majority, vampires and shifters, demons and wizards lived only in words and high action drama on big screens. The danger now rested with the fanatics who banded together in secret organisations. The self-invested few who would rid the world of anything they did not understand.
Hidden by his cuff, his Cartier Tank watch covered a coin-sized patch of puckered skin. He touched the scar at his temple, the two marks all that remained of the terrible injuries he suffered in that burning. Ten years it had taken him to regenerate. Years of torment and pain, of demanding then begging every god, every demon he knew that his curse be lifted so death could take him and allow him to join his beloved on the other side.
It never did.
His phone buzzed, rattling softly in his inside pocket. He pulled it out, absently wiping at the grit clinging to his knees. Keying in the password with his thumb, he watched the screen change and scanned the updates with a practiced eye. A text from Joseph his trusted aide sending the usual blunt reminder of the folly of being here in this remote churchyard, alone and unarmed. Asking if he’d at least taken a pistol with him for the short walk from his car to the grave?
He had not. Only Joseph dared question his right to come here unarmed. Constance had risked everything to be with him. And on this one day, every year at the exact hour she left him, Nion vowed he would do the same for her.
He changed pages, moving to the hourly security alerts that warned of activity in the demon-hunting secret society cells. The Vanatoris, the Regium Emptor, the Amorali, all quiet for now. Too busy spending the millions in protection money he handed them in cash-filled suitcases. His mouth twisted in a dark smile. How easily their morals and beliefs toppled at the sight of a hefty mountain of dollars, roubles or pounds sterling.
He slid the phone back into his pocket and touched the gravestone one last time, frowning at the soft crunch of boots in the lane. The footsteps slowed to a halt on the far side of the derelict church, paused then moved towards the canopied church gate.
* * * *
“Hush, you’ll scare him away. We’re in a graveyard, John. Show a little respect.”
“Yes, I had noticed. And all alone by the look of it. I thought your contact said Eastman would be here at five pm?”
Connie ducked behind the stone wall surrounding the church, sliding the camera bag from her shoulder. Rising cautiously, she scanned the shadowed graves. “They said he’d be driving a blacked-out Range Rover. I didn’t see it parked in the lane. Maybe he walked up here?” She let out a short, exasperated breath, dropping down to crouch beside her partner. “It was a hot contact, John. Perfectly timed to my latest dreams. They said he’d be here.”
“Maybe he’s in the church? Doesn’t Eastman Corp own this place? He’ll have a key.”
“Eastman owns most of the village and the moorland for miles around. The church is boarded up, both doors. I checked last night. It’s a bust, John. He’s too clever to be caught out by a pair of journalists looking to hang him out to dry.”
“You came up here last night? Why didn’t you knock? I’d have come up with you.”
Connie ignored the gentle reprimand and took a swift inventory for her notes. A small country church, derelict, windows and doors boarded and locked against intruders. A stand of stately yew trees on the far side, a flying angel hanging at a precarious angle. A desolate huddle of neglected grave markers, headstones and crosses engraved with the faded names of people long dead.
Little wonder the sign hammered into the covered church gate warned trespassers of danger and to keep out.
“I needed to check on something.”
John shot her a slanting glance. “Does that mean you dreamed again?”
A casual comment, laced with an edge of excitement, of glee he couldn’t hide. Connie bit back the irritation. Didn’t he realise the toll these precognitive dreams had on her? Casually, John brushed back a hank of his surfer’s hair and returned his attention to scanning the churchyard for their elusive prey. No, of course he didn’t.
She shouldn’t be mad at her partner in crime. One half of a freelance journalist team, between her special psychic gift and his ruthless streak, they’d carved themselves a lucrative niche dishing the dirt on the rich and infamous.
“Yes, I dreamed again.” She flipped open the lid of the camera-case, running a quick check of the body, the lens and spare batteries. The flash unit for this dark November evening. Doubtful they’d get a clear photo, but she could hope. “And before you ask, these particular dreams started a couple of months ago, before the source turned into our contact.”
John reached out to squeeze her arm, scanning the churchyard with a journalist eye. “But that’s how this works, right? You dream then shit happens. I wondered if the headaches were linked. How are you feeling?”
“Like my head is about to explode.” The nerve-splitting headaches came with the deal. Part of being a dream-seer, or whatever the hell this gift was that she’d inherited from her mother’s female line. None of this came for free.
“But that’s a good thing, right?” John straightened, abandoning all attempts at subterfuge. Five past five and the light had faded to full-dark. The sharp scent of rotting vegetation mingled with a vague hint of chimney smoke. Filmy threads of mist crept over the slopes of the fields below the church, shrouding the pinpricks of light from the village below. Eastman’s personal fiefdom, if rumours of his vast holdings were true.
John stretched out a hand, inviting her to stand. “We’re the only two living souls up here. Come on, show me what was so important you had to come up here alone in the dark.”
Without me. He didn’t have to say it. She allowed him to haul her upright and took a moment to dust grass from her jeans. Above them on a high branch a crow dipped almost comically to stare down at them, head cocked as if listening. It dived into the air and cut an arc towards the yew trees.
Leaning on the dry-stone wall, Connie watched the bird blend effortlessly with the dark mass of trees. No sign of anyone, let alone enigmatic billionaires well versed in dealing with the paparazzi. She tipped back her head, gazing up at the dull gleam of the church clock that no longer marked time. A tragically beautiful place, heavy with neglect and sadness.
Always a great angle for a story.
She followed John through the canopied lych-gate, ducking under the stone angel guarding the entrance and brushed away the vine clinging to her long ponytail.
John propped one casual foot on a fallen gravestone, eyebrows raised expectantly.
Connie turned slowly, fitting the tangle of stone and overgrown grasses, the straggly shrubs to her dreams. “It’s definitely the same church I’ve been dreaming of. And the same graveyard. I wasn’t told why. I might never have made the connection without that email yesterday saying Eastman would be here at five o’clock today and driving a black Range Rover.”
“That’s all they said? And this contact wanted nothing in the way of payment, right?”
She nodded, fighting a sudden tremor. “Right, which usually points to some disgruntled employee or ex with a grudge. Anyhow, it looked on track for being the scoop of the century, but we’ve obviously missed him. If he was here at all. I’m not getting any sense of him.”
John picked at a clinging ivy vine. He flashed her a sly grin. “But it puts us one step nearer than anyone else to tracking him down. This is why I love you, Constance.”
“Don’t call me that.” She stalked past him, crunching over loose gravel to the heavy oak door, padlocked and boarded against intruders. Touching a flat palm to the old wood, she breathed and listened, searching beyond.
Nothing, thank God. The dreams that sometimes foretold the future, sometimes opened a window to the past, she could cope with. Her mother and grandmother started the same way but then it changed. First the dreams and then slowly, like a creeping madness came the ability to enter the dreams of others. To hear the voices of souls long dead begging and screaming for justice, or simply to be heard. To witness scenes from the past. A madness that confined her mother to an institution. She shuddered again, stepping away from the door as if burned.
Please don’t let that happen to me.
“Hey, Con, I didn’t mean it.” John stood behind her, hands hovering at her shoulders. His warm breath fanned her cheek. “But you’d be the first to admit, we have a great thing going here. Your gift gets stronger and we’ll be bloody unstoppable.”
“There’s more,” she said, sidestepping him neatly, shaking off the cloak of doom that had settled on her shoulders. One of the few women immune to his charms, she knew it frustrated the hell out of him. He gave a good-natured laugh and followed, zipping his padded jacket against the chill.
“The church in my dream was clean and new. The graveyard neatly tended and laid to lawn with only twenty graves at the most. This churchyard is full, and it’s crumbling to dust and overgrown. No one cares about these graves.”
John whistled. “Freaky. So you saw what, a window to the past? Does that mean Eastman is connected with this place in some way? You think it holds some sentimental value for him?”
“Perhaps. Eastman Corp has been buying up property and land around here for years apparently. And if you think this is freaky, then come and look at this.”
She pulled up her collar against the biting wind laying flat the overgrown grasses, sparing an anxious glance at the fat-bellied clouds hanging low on the horizon.
Snow. The weather channel had forecast a freak white-out in the area, but it would have taken an apocalypse to stop them throwing their holdalls into the boot of John’s car the moment that email arrived and pointing it north.
A photograph of Eastman, hell, even a glimpse of the invisible man who poured a personal fortune into researching the effects of time itself through his laboratories and clinics made the journey worthwhile. To say nothing of her insistent whispering dreams, the fragments and pieces of this particular story moving together like magnets, demanding she give them meaning. They wouldn’t be ignored.
Picking her way through the maze of tumbling, lichen-covered stones to the far boundary wall, Connie felt her heart thud against her ribs. Knowing what she would see this time didn’t make it any less freaky than last night. A throaty croak from the crow split the quiet peace of the East Lancashire moors. A desolate place as autumn slipped into winter and nature fell quietly asleep.
“It’s over there, on the other side of the wall.” She turned her back to the tumbling stones. John took a torch from his jacket pocket. Night was falling fast, like a heavy muffling blanket, the full moon sailing in and out of the rapidly advancing clouds casting fitful light.
“Christ, it’s a suicide.” John hoisted himself onto the loose stones of the ancient wall, extending a hand to help her climb. She scrabbled over and regained her balance, wiping the moss from her hands. Here at the lonely grave on the wrong side of the churchyard wall the sadness hung like a gathering cloud.
“Do you think that’s what this is? I know they were buried outside of consecrated ground.”
“A good chance. Fuck, have you read the inscription?” John turned to her, dazzling her with the sweeping arc of the flashlight. “Oh hell, Con, of course you have.”
“Yes. Constance Emily Pearson. My full name inscribed on an abandoned moorland grave. What are the chances?”
“Did you see this in your dream?” For a moment, the flashlight caught John’s face, casting it in an eerie, otherworldly glow, making the pale stubble of his cheeks glitter. He trained the beam on the stone, tracing the letters etched on black granite with a reverend finger.
“No, I knew only that the church in my dreams looked new and this church is supposed to be over a hundred years old so I came up to check they were one and the same. I found this grave while looking around.”
A spike of pain hit her between the eyes, crawling like a needle through her brain. Instinctively, she curled inward, hands on her knees. John caught her around the shoulders, steadying her and this time she didn’t protest. “She might be an ancestor of mine or it might just be coincidence. Or maybe our contact is playing some sick joke, knowing how I’d feel when I saw this. Whoever she was, she died a hundred and ten years ago, today. On our mutual birthdays.”
Nausea rose, sour in the back of her throat. Closing her eyes, she leaned gratefully on John’s shoulder. He hugged her tighter, dropping a light kiss on her hair.
“Your name. Your birth-date on a gravestone? I’d say that was more than coincidence, don’t you? My money’s on the contact and the sick joke since Eastman is so obviously not here.”
“Maybe.” Who was she? And what drove her to this? The grief-filled aura hanging over the grave spoke of tragedy and unquiet death. But then weren’t all deaths tragic?
“Poor, Con, I know it hurts, but it pays your obscenely large mortgage on that London flat of yours. Just remember that. There has to be some meaning in this.”
“Something we can use, you mean?” She rubbed her eyes. Shouldn’t be snippy with him. The dreams were a part of this, she’d agreed to that. John shook his head, trying and failing to look more concerned.
“Come on, I’ll take you back to the hotel and buy you that birthday meal.”
“Sounds good. And you could be a little more sympathetic you know. It bloody well does hurt.” The nausea rolled over her, settling low in her belly. John, ever practical, pushed and cajoled and she paid her mortgage for another month. She thanked him for that.
“Well, you know what they say. No pain, no gain.”
“Easy for you to say.” Wriggling free, she stepped away, putting distance between them. Sliding her phone from her pocket. Too easy to fall into the moment with so many emotions running rampant. Keep it professional and maybe one day she’d pay off that mortgage for good.
“I need a photograph of this,” she said and lifted her phone.
The crow landed suddenly on the wall beside them, ruffling its feathers, tipping its head from side to side like some eagle-eyed guardian of the dead.
“Look.” Her voice cracked on a hysterical waver. “Central casting’s sent in some props. John, do you think we ought to pursue this? What if Eastman is involved here? Why would he be visiting somewhere remote as this on the same day she died? It’s starting to feel a little ghoulish.”
John’s explosive laugh echoed around the quiet stones. The crow croaked indignantly. “Christ alive, woman, we’re scandal-mongers. Paparazzi—this is what we do. Prey on anyone who’s fair game. And believe me, billionaires who never show their faces to the world are always fair game. Come on, I’ll buy you a drink before we eat.”
“Make that a large one.” She cast one last look at the grave, engulfed now in shadow and then followed him over the wall.
* * * *
Paparazzi. Scum Nion placed even lower on the food-chain than hunters.
Hunters at least lived by some sliver of a moral code.
He slid farther into the shade of the yew trees, blending effortlessly with the greying landscape and the lengthening shadows. Five, perhaps ten minutes in the fading light before the setting sun’s burning fingers scorched his skin, reminding him of what he was.
A creature of darkness. A bloodsucking demon whose only light died with his beloved over a hundred years ago. He fixed his attention on the intruders disturbing this most sacred of days.
His super-senses sharpened to the point of pain. The woman’s rapid heartbeat, the blood pulsing in the man’s veins, the soft rustle of dry grass beneath their feet, he heard it all with perfect clarity.
They’d come here to find him. To find truth in rumours that called him everything from the world’s most ruthless businessman to some demon sent from hell to bring about the apocalypse. Sent by someone who claimed privy to his inner circle? How, when only three beings knew he’d be here today and they were loyal to the death?
Heads would roll when he found out who’d betrayed him.
He curbed his first instinct to instruct Mary, his PA to go straight in with an offer. They would not be so easily bought. The man, yes. But the woman who claimed to share a name and this special day with his beloved? Her motives were less clear; she certainly had other reasons for being here. Reasons and needs that might mesh with his own and could not be ignored.
So she had a gift that allowed her to see beyond human sight? Nion folded his arms, distracted for a moment by the brown fall of clipped-back hair cascading down the woman’s back. No, not brown. Auburn shaded with secret hints of copper that would ripple and glow in soft candlelight.
He knew that colour well.
Could she feel him lurking here in the shadows? Carefully, he reached out to touch her aura. No, he was safe for now.
He rested his head against the rough tree trunk. On a good day he’d have heard the quiet hum of the intruders’ car from the village over a mile away. He’d been far too distracted. Today was never a good day.
Calm. Stay centred and tamp down this useless anger. Hadn’t he built an empire on a heart of ice, a demeanour that gave nothing away? Always protected his back, listening and watching. Using his secret senses to advantage in commerce and finance. He heard, saw and felt more than mortal men. Could read an expression and know almost before his adversary what they were thinking. For such a creature the wealth of the world lay at his feet. He would do nothing to jeopardise that.
From his hiding place, he watched a crow alight on a branch above his head. It returned his stare with rapt interest, cawing softly.
The invisible man? He couldn’t blame them for that title.
They wanted an interview. He should give them one, right now, here in this churchyard where they’d hoped to find him doing what? Sucking on some poor victim’s neck, their still-beating heart clutched in his fists? Standing on a tomb and howling at the rising moon?
Kneeling at the grave of his hundred and ten year’s dead wife?
His face contorted in a sneer. How charmingly naive these journalists were. Like clueless vultures. One look at his true face and they’d be in bedlam, rocking in a corner and covered in their own shit. They had no idea what they were playing with.
The crow cawed again, leaning insistently from its perch high in the tree.
“Yes, she shares my beloved’s birth-date.” Nion gifted the bird a ghostly smile. “I admit that’s difficult to ignore.”
The answering croak echoed across the valley. The crow cocked its head, gazing down at Nion with unblinking eyes.
“Yes, I will be cautious my old friend. This woman intrigues me. The man is merely an irritant and easily bought. I know his type.
The crow nodded its assent, ruffled its feathers and then took off to glide across the churchyard and land effortlessly on the wall flanking the lonely grave. The woman started, stared at the bird with incredulous eyes and then laughed. A thin thread of hysteria that belied her calm reaction to finding her name and birth-date on an ancient gravestone.
Not a suicide. Nion wanted to bellow out the words so the whole valley trembled. Constance would never have left me of her own free will.
Now came an edge of rippling anger, a feeling he usually kept under tight wraps. His eyes narrowed, fixing on the man with laser precision and his gums hummed, teeth stinging with an ancient yearning to rip and slice through flesh. No. He turned abruptly, two tight fists pressed into his eyes.
No, not here. Never again. His demon had enjoyed free-rein in the years after he crawled from the ashes of his life. As his strength returned, he sought out each and every villager who’d been there that day. Found them and sent them to hell with his beloved’s name on their lips.
And then he locked it away, shut down all feeling and attempted to go on.
Nion straightened, smoothing down the lines of his bespoke suit. Wealth and power had soon supplanted his demon, the stroke of a pen, the click of a computer key replacing the slash of a fang. A whispered word and it was done for him, no questions asked.
This John would live to see another day, his insult no more than Nion expected from mortal men. The woman who claimed kin with him through dreams and portents? That certainly warranted further investigation. Nion slid the car keys from his pocket, clenching them in a fist. Connie and John disappeared from his view, but he had only to follow the soft crunch of feet on loose gravel to see them climbing into the white SUV parked in the lane. The engine fired and it roared away in a show of spinning wheels and loose stones, disappearing into the well of mist where the lane dipped towards the village.
No need to panic, the grave did not bear his current name, only his beloved’s maiden name. Nothing connected it to him or the creature who dared love a human.
Other than this dream-seer with pictures of one possible future already forming in her head. A future he’d craved for so long.
Devil in chains, how much longer must I wait? That bitch called Hope had tortured him for long enough.
Breaking into a run, Nion reached his car in five seconds. Rare that he indulged his super senses to this degree. Energy taken would necessarily need to be replenished and he didn’t need a coffin night. Not now when he had the best lead in half a century of the whereabouts of his dead wife’s spirit.
The crow skimmed low, dipping and diving towards the fields. Then it turned and flew off down the lane.
Grimly, Nion shoved the Range Rover into gear and followed it.
Stepping from the shower, Connie towelled off her hair, eyelids squeezed tight against the thumping at the base of her skull. Back at the hotel, still freaked out about the name on the grave she’d begged half an hour’s respite from John before going down for dinner. It hadn’t helped.
Damn him for being right about the mortgage on her overpriced London flat. And damn Fate for seating them together at that conference three years ago. Two bottles of wine later they were toasting their new celebrity-hunting freelance team.
Might as well cash in on that gift of yours, Con. You’ll get the headaches with or without the money.
She hung up the towel. Avoided the blurred image in the fogged-up bathroom mirror. Okay, so she hadn’t put up too much of a fight. John’s ruthless streak and her seemingly uncanny ability to smoke out the latest prey had earned them more than one suspicious glance from their colleagues. On a roll, she put down a deposit on the three rooms and bath overlooking a wooded London park, wincing only a little when she calculated the mortgage repayments. And then as if punishing her for using the gift for material gain, the damned dreams started to take over her life.
She reached for the hair dryer screwed to the bathroom wall and snapped the switch. Head tipped forward, she fanned the long strands of her hip-length hair with the weak stream of air. So long it skimmed the tiled bathroom floor.
Be brave. Get it cut.
Somehow she couldn’t bring herself to do it. A reluctance that went beyond rational, given the efforts it took to keep in shape.
After five minutes, she gave up and re-hung the dryer on its clip. She finger-combed her hair through and shook it out. The headache changed gear, lodging on either side of her temples, a predictable side effect of the dreams that had plagued her since her teens and had in the past few months centred on one man.
Wiping a clear patch in the steamed-up mirror, she stared at the slow reveal. Christ, she looked like a cave-woman. She grabbed her hairbrush from the shelf and set about swiping it through the knotted strands.
Why Eastman? Yes, an interview, hell any scrap of information on the man would be a real scoop, but she knew easier prey that paid just as well. Her subconscious obsession with the man made no sense.
Her intuition had some urgent message? But what?
She threw down the brush and closed her eyes, both hands braced on the basin. Had Eastman somehow found out about these dreams of the creepy church he owned? How could he when she’d only discussed them with John?
Dark circles under her eyes. Frowning, she tipped the messy contents of her make-up bag onto the bathroom shelf, searching for the concealer that promised to wipe ten years from her face. They’d packed in a hurry, throwing a few essentials into John’s car and hitting the motorway for the northern village named by the contact. The village with the church she’d dreamed of in such startling detail.
Normally it all fell into place, piece by piece. A jigsaw of paid informers and insiders married with her dreams of people and places and she and John had given new meaning to the expression right place, right time. She found the make-up and screwed up her eyes to read the small print without her glasses.
Hold back time with this dew-soft cream. She spotted a liberal blob under each eye. If anyone held the secret of time it would be Eastman. Cryogenics, cosmetic surgery clinics, ground-breaking research into prosthetics and facial reconstruction, the man had built an empire around the ravages of time and its effects on the human body. Eastman himself their best advert if the stories about him were true.
A fortune made in his late twenties, he must be pushing fifty by now. And yet in the few photographs she’d found the guy didn’t look a day over thirty. She could hate him for that alone. But with access to the best time-defying technology, wouldn’t anyone give nature a helping hand?
Damn, she wanted this story so much it hurt. If only to put a stop to these plaguing dreams. She wandered into the bedroom deciding to pass on full make-up. Only a meal in the downstairs bar with John and he’d called her beautiful covered in mud and drenched to the skin, her hair plastered in rat-tails about her face. A notorious flirt, she’d trust with her life but never with her heart no matter how many hints he dropped about them getting it out of their system with a couple of wild nights together.
He’d hit home in the graveyard. She was his conscience, his window to things he would never understand and he was her edge, the ruthless streak that sent them in for the kill. A good combination they’d be fools to complicate it with sex.
Jeans and a clean white shirt. A soft grey cashmere cardigan thrown casually over her shoulders. Connie dressed quickly, listening for John’s knock for dinner in the bar of the tastefully restored hotel.
A hotel they’d chosen deliberately given the Eastman connection. Connie lifted her laptop lid. She’d assumed some family ties, but her research turned up nothing to connect the man to this place other than his astute eye for an appreciating investment. One of many that had seen him join the exclusive club of ridiculously young billionaires.
He didn’t only start companies, he bought them up, exploited them and sold them on. Connie laughed softly. Much too polite a description for what Nion Eastman did. He acquired, he stripped bare and then he walked from the wreckage grasping his profit.
Walked, but to where? So many properties in the UK and around the world, an office in every major capital city, a journalist could follow him around the globe and never catch up.
One eye on the screen, she rummaged in her handbag, finding a strip of painkillers to dull the aching in her head. This lead had seemed a sure bet. Someone claiming to be from his inner circle, most likely nursing a grudge, and in good time willing to dish the dirt, in full. She studied the image frozen on her laptop screen. A rare photograph of Eastman, his hair bleached blond and casually brushing his suit-jacket collar. Snapped in an airport lounge in the late nineties, a fleeting hint of amusement lit his eyes, suggesting he knew full well he was being papped and on this occasion chose to let it go. No cash had been flashed by some lackey in order to acquire the camera and memory card.
She changed the screen, tilting her head to push a crystal ear-stud into place. The next photograph dated to 2002, showed a man with dark brown hair, tied at his nape with a leather strip. Casual this time, in heavy boots and jeans, a plain white tee hugging sculpted muscles. No hint of mirth in this face. No hint of censure either, only a cool appraisal, as if studying the photographer and storing the information away for future use.
A meagre montage made up the rest of her Eastman album. Taken in locations world-wide, some in a small group, some alone and none showing him as a child or a younger man. How could he have achieved so much and left so small a footprint on the earth? Worth chasing him for that question alone.
The album cycled back to the first shot, the earliest photograph of him on any media according to her research. A photograph she found by accident browsing the web on a boring afternoon in her first year of university. She’d fantasised then of interviewing the enigmatic businessman for the essay that kept her stuck in the library on one of the hottest days of the year. And then, that night, he invaded her dreams with vague images and words she couldn’t understand. She put it down to heatstroke, too long staring at an impossibly handsome man and a teenager with an overripe imagination.
Tilting her head, her expression softened. Dehydration, the doctor said the next day when she crawled to the campus medical centre, fuzzy-headed and convinced she was about to expire.
And now the invisible man had returned and she needed to know why.
“What do you want from me, Nion Eastman?” If she was to have peace, she needed to know.
Connie closed the laptop and dipped her head to peer into the low, dressing table mirror. Weeks of dreaming about churches and graveyards, his name winding through them, like some plaintive voice in the wilderness. Someone had a message for him from the other side? Fine, she’d be happy to deliver in return for a peek at the man.
Still no sign of John. She flipped open her notebook and slid the pen from its holder. A few brief notes on the graveyard visit while fresh in her mind. She smoothed back her damp hair. Odd for her to freak out over a few creepy looking graves, but to see the place in her dreams so pristine, the grave-mounds with their freshly turned earth, the stained-glass windows of the church glowing softly in the candlelight within and then to encounter the same place so neglected and decayed had whipped her heart into a frenzy of beating so painful, she’d almost passed out.
A window to the past? Lord, how she hated it when the dead called and sometimes screamed down the years, tapping into sensitive minds like hers with stories needing to be told.
Eastman, church, derelict, new. Pad it out after dinner in front of that roaring fire in the hotel sitting room with John and the rest of the hotel guests for company. She stilled, chewing on the pen, a picture of the windswept churchyard, the lonely grave beyond the wall so clear her mind. What were the chances of finding her name on someone else’s grave? Fair to middling, maybe? The woman might even be an ancestor of hers and it must happen occasionally. But together with her birth-date? A coincidence too bizarre to ignore.
She jerked at the sharp rap on the door. The pen dropped to the carpet. She let go a shaky breath, a soft giggle.
Get a grip, girl. The dead are all safely tucked up in their graves. You know they can’t hurt you.
“Hey Con, are you decent in there?” John’s voice filtered through the heavy oak.
“Yes, hang on a mo.”
Grave. My Name.
She retrieved the pen and scribbled the words then drew a line connecting to the words to Eastman. The trigger, the pivot on which everything balanced.
“Con, are you okay?”
“Yes, just grabbing my bag.” She snapped closed the notebook wishing she could so easily shut off thoughts of premonitions and coincidences that might mean nothing, or something. This particular picture was already forming and she could do nothing to stop the slow reveal. Fighting it only made the headaches worse.
She attacked the door, flinging it open and forcing a friendly smile to her lips. A few glasses of wine, a good brandy after dinner and John’s clever banter making her laugh despite her determination to find some serious meaning in this vapid world of celebrity exposé. Exactly what she needed right now.
Eight years her senior, pale grey eyes perpetually lit with amusement, a thatch of corn-blond hair peppered with grey, John Brinkman had an undeniable charisma she found harder and harder to resist.
Nion Eastman had worked the blond look. If only she could discover his real hair colour. She blinked. Damn, but Nion Eastman seemed determined to intrude on her every thought. Blinked and noticed the holdall at John’s feet. His padded jacket, much too warm for the hotel restaurant.
A set of car keys dangled from his fingers. He shoved a hand through his unruly hair.
“God, Connie, I’m sorry but I have to split. Ben fell off a climbing frame at school today and well, they thought it was nothing and then he suddenly took a turn for the worse. Brain bleed apparently. He’s in surgery now.”
“Oh no, I’m so sorry.” She stepped forward, enclosing John in her arms. His son from a short, ill-fated marriage. Of course he must go.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll catch the train back to London. Go, they need you.”
John flicked her a self-conscious glance, reading the subtext in her words. She hadn’t meant it to come out like that. Everyone knew he left the marriage and broke his bereft wife’s heart. He deserved to be the villain and in most people’s minds he fitted the role with honours. Connie refused to judge the man who’d once saved her life. He’d always thanked her for that. Thanks that could easily turn to more, if she allowed it.
He lifted a hand, pointing vaguely at her holdall beside the bed. “I could wait while you pack. I don’t like bailing on you like this.”
“They need you,” she said gently. “I’ll be perfectly fine. Eastman’s not going to show so I’ll hire a car and drive up to Pendle and then on to Lancaster jail. Take the witch trials tour. And maybe chase up that other Constance Pearson and see what I can dig up for us. She might be a distant relative of mine. It could be a story worth following.”
John’s mouth flattened in a watery smile absent his usual bravado. She hugged him again. For all his flippancy, he loved his son and would move heaven and earth to keep him safe. Any man who’d do that had her blessing.
“You’re sure?” He stared past her at the bed. A flash of genuine regret quickly followed by a shadow of guilt crossed his features. “I have to go. Take care, and promise me you won’t go wandering around churchyards in the dark.”
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me there.”
“No, Connie. Tell me you mean it.” His turn to be serious. “Not the kind of thing you should be doing alone. Dreaming your weird dreams all safe in your own bed—that’s one thing. Doing it up there by yourself with no one to ground you—that’s downright dangerous.”
“Okay, I mean it.” She swallowed the prickle of irritation. Didn’t he realise she’d been battling these dreams long before she met him? They both fell silent, watching a young couple with a sleeping child walk past them in the corridor. John stared after them, his face tight with the effort of keeping feelings under wraps. Connie took his hands in hers, immediately contrite.
“John, I’m sorry too. Go to them, you have bigger things to worry about than me. I absolutely promise I won’t do anything stupid.”
“You’re a bad liar, Connie Pearson.” John dipped for his holdall, his mind already two hundred miles away with a child in a hospital bed. He kissed her, a light touch of lips to hers. “Forget what I said earlier, at the church. This story isn’t worth your sanity. Don’t let Eastman ruin your life.”
“It’s just a story, John. And it might clear the air to confront the man. Put a stop to the dreams before they really do drive me crazy.”
She stood facing him in the doorway, the words heavy between them. John lifted his spare hand, touching it lightly to her cheek.
“Call me. At least let someone know where you are. Remember the current safe-codes? If everything is okay with Ben, I’ll come straight back.”
She nodded, lips pressed together. Not the time to remind him he’d never worried half as much about sending her in alone when a hot lead or an exclusive story lay on the line. When John showed any hint of concern, then things were usually serious.
He hugged her again, folding her awkwardly in her arms, still hefting the holdall.
“You’re shutting me out, Connie. I can feel you going away and it’s scaring me.”
“Still right here, John.” She squeezed his hand to prove it. “Still your partner in crime.”
John opened his mouth to reply but shook his head instead. Connie felt the wall between them build. Separate motives, clashing ambitions would be the death of their partnership. They both knew it. He left with a backward wave of his hand. She stepped into her room, closing the door with a soft click.
More than empty words. She would never hoard a story for her own personal glory. She thought about wrenching open the door, calling after him to wait while she packed and joined him on his trip south. Her feet refused to obey.
She turned her back to the door. John wanted the dirt, she wanted the story. With him gone, she might get her wish. If only she knew where to look.
A blinding flash edged the bed with blue light. Five silent beats then a deep rumble rolled across the sky like a growling beast. Connie trembled despite the comfortable warmth of the room. The hairs on her arms prickled, turning the shivers to shudders when a jagged arc of lightning pointed an accusing finger at her window. She rubbed her arms to chase away the chills, pulling her cashmere cardigan closer about her shoulders.
Forcing herself to breathe and be calm, she opened her handbag and scanned the contents, grounding herself in the mundane. Key-card, credit cards and cash, while outside the thunder chased the lightning in its futile attempt to catch up.
A moment of pure panic froze her in place. She shook it off. Come on, you’re braver than this. To prove it, she moved to the window, pressing her hands against the glass, waiting for the next flash to illuminate the empty flagstone courtyard at the back of the hotel.
Nothing there, and then suddenly the image of a man flashed to life in the split second the next arc of lightning leapt across the sky. Connie stumbled backwards her heart banging painfully in her chest.
A man. Head tilted back and looking directly up at her window.
Breath caught in her throat, she edged towards the glass, craning her neck to peep around the frame.
Dark hair, not John’s golden blond. She’d registered that much before shock sent her staggering away. With a hand pressed to her chest, she peered out into the gloom of the square space.
Nothing and no one visible in the weak solar garden lights lining the path. She snapped the curtains closed, shutting out the temptation to keep on staring until the next flash. A hysterical laugh bubbled in her throat. High above, the super-heated sky rumbled.
And John thought her brave enough to walk up to the graveyard headlining a grave with her name on it while a storm provided theatrical side effects? She covered her mouth, stopping the laugh. Had she just seen a ghost? The Rams Head Hotel went back five hundred years according to the plaque on the foyer wall. Or had the guy simply been out back for a cigarette or a breath of air?
Dreams were her thing, not ghosts and spirits of the departed. Not yet, anyway. The man would be one of the group of suited businessmen she noticed yesterday when checking in with John. She shook her head, clearing the images cluttering her mind.
If she didn’t eat soon she really would start hallucinating. A room service menu sat on the desk. She ignored it and walked resolutely to the door, standing for a moment to survey the corridor and say hello to an old man shuffling to his room. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d dined alone. She closed the door, flicking one-handed through the friends list on her phone. Looking for someone, anyone within driving distance of this smart northern village to help her celebrate her twenty-ninth year.
No one. The nearest, an old university friend, lived in York, two hours away. She closed the screen. Slid the phone into her bag, curiosity whispering furtively in her ear.
One little look at the photograph of the grave and she’d discover they both misread the carving on the headstone and it didn’t say Constance Pearson at all. She made her way down the hotel stairs, staring at the screen. At Constance Emily Pearson, a name that hadn’t miraculously changed in the few hours since she snapped the image.
She clutched at the phone, spinning around to seek out the voice that had come from nowhere.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” A tall and painfully thin man with lank, grey hair inclined his head, looking suitably contrite. “I’m the night porter. Reception called your room, but didn’t get an answer. I was just coming up to tell you there’s a car waiting for you outside. A birthday surprise, so I gather.”
“A car?” Connie slid the phone into the front pouch of her bag, instantly in journalist mode, every instinct on high alert. Had John left her the car after all and returned to London by train? Or decided she really needed to go back with him? Who else knew about this visit but the two of them and their lead?
The night porter’s expression cycled smoothly into a look of mild surprise. “It’s not your birthday?”
“Yes.” Connie leaned over, gazing past him to the front door and the hotel steps beyond. A black shape hugged the kerb. Not John’s car, then.
“Yes, it’s my birthday.”
“Well many happy returns, Miss Pearson.” The porter waved his arm with a flourish, waiting politely while she decided whether to follow.
“Are you sure it’s for me?” The boxy shape looked suspiciously like a Range Rover. A black Range Rover.
“The gentleman asked for you by name.”
A gentleman who knew her name? In London that could be one of a dozen men, but here? She took in a careful breath, ordering her rapidly accelerating heart to calm down.
A black car, a scrap of white lace, and roses. Fragments of recent dreams flashed in and out of memory.
“Are you quite well, miss?”
She fought back the nausea. “Yes, thank you. I’m fine. It’s just a surprise, as you said. Will you accompany me outside?”
“Why of course.” The porter pushed open the heavy glass door, standing aside so she could pass through. A suited man sitting at the bar waved to her, lifting his wine-glass in invitation. A grey suit, she noticed. Not the dark colour of the man watching her window.
The man sitting in the car outside? Him? Connie swallowed down the knot of panic.
Get it together, girl. It’s one of those surprise parties. The man in the car is the driver or knowing her friends more likely a stripper. The choice of black Ranger Rover a coincidence. Her rational mind slotted everything neatly into place.
Prepare to be hideously embarrassed. She shook her shoulders, attempting to relax and go with the flow. To smile and quietly plot her revenge. As long as it didn’t involve clowns, none of her friends would die hideous deaths.
No. Her natural caution kicked in. No friend of hers would expect her to get into a strange car with a man she didn’t know and let him drive her into the dark night. She pulled the cardigan close, feeling the bite in the November air. Two white spots floated lazily to the ground, caught in the light from the sconces on either side of the grand hotel entrance. Two more, then two more until snowflakes danced before her eyes and dusted the black vehicle with a scattering of white.
On the step behind her, the porter had opened a glass cabinet to fuss with the notices, sending the occasional glance her way. Connie nodded him her thanks, spotting the knowing smile as the man shifted his gaze from her to the Range Rover parked at the kerb and then went calmly back to his arranging.
The blacked-out driver’s window slid silently down.
An elderly gentleman sporting a neat, grey beard sat at the wheel. Not what she expected. He turned his head and smiled. Connie’s heart started a slow, downward slide, the surprise party turning ominously into a mafia hit in her mind. Their last story, an exposé linking a Hollywood star to a notorious Sicilian gang was about to come home to roost.
“Hop in, lass. You be looking mighty cold standing there.” The accent spoke of the broad, flat vowels of the north country. The man leaned an elbow on the open window, his gaze flicking swiftly from her loose hair down to her black pumps. He shook his head at the shoes, an almost imperceptible disapproval that jolted her out of silly thoughts of surprise birthday parties and mafia hits.
“Okay, what’s this all about?” Connie folded her arms, making a barrier between them. From somewhere in the hotel, she heard a voice calling. The door opened and closed. When she looked back, the night porter had vanished.
“You came ‘ere to find the master? Well it seems you’ve found ‘im. Now, if you’ll get in the car before you catch your death I’d be very obliged.”
“Master?” Connie caught the bubble of laughter lodging in her throat. Hastily she cycled back to the more sobering mafia hit. The old man saw the mirth in her eyes and straightened. His face creased in a frown.
“Seems to me you shouldn’t go looking for things you don’t want to find.” He pressed the starter and then turned as if addressing someone in the back seat.
“She ‘aint the one. Your lass were not such a coward.”
“Where in God’s name had the night porter gone? Connie stepped backwards over the ice-slicked flagstones. Nothing amusing about the strange little man sitting so indignantly at the wheel of this expensive car. He knew more than he let on.
Another flash of lightning lit the Rover with blue light. The leaden grey sky rattled ominously. In her experience, when the bizarre happened, it went all out. Thunder, lightning and snow, all in one package? When did that ever happen? Her rational mind was rapidly handing over to the intuitive, searching out threads, making those connections she excelled at.
He called her a coward? She lifted her chin. The strange driver gave no indication he’d heard her question.
“I came here looking for something? Well you tell me. Have I found it?”
The old man choked on a wheezing laugh. “Well, it ‘aint me, if that’s what you’re thinking. “But I still got it in me if you want to ‘ave a go. Back seat’s nice and roomy.”
“That’s enough, Joseph.” A voice from the rear seat of the car. Smooth, male, assured, but with no hint of censure for the mocking driver who continued laughing as he opened the car door and slid to the ground. He rose to his full height, the top of his head level with Connie’s shoulder, waggled his eyebrows and then shrugged.
“He’s in the back,” he said without ceremony and turned to knock on the rear door with his elbow. “At least open the door and let the lady inside. You want ‘er getting the white plague, too?”
“I said that’s enough.” The faceless voice remained oddly calm in the face of the driver’s outrageous insubordination. Like that of a man who had no need to prove who ran the show. Connie had known precious few men like that.
A ripple of laughter, the clink of glass on glass floated from the hotel and then she heard the sound of footsteps and low murmurs behind her. A couple, arm in arm passed her, too wrapped up in each other to take any notice of her little drama.
“Have I found what I came looking for?” she said to the closed door. Bloody hell, if Nion Eastman owned that voice she might be about to pull off the scoop of the century.
No way. Nion Eastman made ghosts seem real. Why would he come here, to this country hotel and park outside where anyone might see him? She swallowed the growing sense of disappointment. One of his lackey’s perhaps? Come to pay her off or scare her off depending on how much they knew of her investigation.
“Are you brave enough to venture down to the cellar, Miss Pearson?”
Something about the voice dislodged another piece of the jigsaw forming in her mind. Another fragment of dream drifted forward, floating tantalisingly across her line of vision before merging with the falling snow.
The memory of a voice calling her name over and over.
Snow crystals glistened on the heavy fall of her hair, whipping into a tangled mess by the gusting wind. Blizzard conditions in the making, which made the Range Rover a practical choice for these narrow country lanes and high moorland roads. This man knew the area well.
“It depends on what’s down there.” Walk away. Don’t do anything foolish. Had she remembered to slip her phone into her bag? Yes, and fully charged too. The night porter knew what time she left the hotel and before she got in that car she would call John and keep him in the loop. All bases covered.
Because she was getting in that car. Years of chasing shadows and now this? A set up, or had Eastman merely discovered the Judas in his ranks and decided to take a personal interest?
“You’re a journalist, Miss Pearson. Isn’t that for you to find out?”
The driver picked at his nails, huffing on a wheezing breath in the growing silence.
“Get in the car, miss.” The driver tilted his head at the back door. When she didn’t move, he took her hand, stroking it briefly with his thumb before letting go. “It’s cold enough to freeze a cock off a statue, out here. And you know you want to.”
The look in his eye, the direct, unblinking stare spoke of a knowing, a kinship. Okay, so the little guy had the gift of seers and intuitives always knew their own. She couldn’t hide that part of herself.
A chill raced over her skin, the fine cashmere cardigan too thin for a night cold enough for snowflakes to linger on her eyelashes and cheeks. She blinked them away knowing this opportunity, this chance to answer questions and maybe lay Eastman’s ghost to rest, would never come again.
“Do I have a story?” She addressed the question to the driver and the faceless voice. “Or are you abducting me so you can murder me quietly and shut down my investigation?”
The driver snorted at her comment, gazing at her through his choking laugh with new respect.
“A woman with a sense of humour? Thank the fates for that.” He tilted his head at the blacked-out car window. “The master could do with a bit more laughing in ‘is life. Get in the car, miss. You’re in no danger.”
“I need to make a phone call.”
“Signal’s down.” The little man eyed her nonchalantly.
Connie pulled out her phone. No signal on this network. Well hell, that had been working perfectly fine ten minutes ago.
“Then I’m going inside to use the landline.”
“I’m afraid that’s out of service, too, Miss Pearson.” From out of nowhere, the night porter appeared, raking fingers through his wildly flapping hair. How long had he been standing behind her? “Apparently the lines are down due to the snow.”
The snow? Connie raised a cynical brow. The scattering of white barely covered the gravel on the drive.
“Okay, this is a joke, yes?” The mobile phone mast and the landline wires down at the same time? Her mind cycled right back to her first thought—the surprise party. Any moment now all three men would burst into fits of laughter and tell her which of her wretched friends organised this.
She waited, ice crystals stinging her nose and cheeks, knowing she would arrive at said party wet with snow, her hair like a haystack. Gathering the flailing strands in one hand, she pushed them behind her ears. A crystal ear-stud sparkled, like a small falling star and landed somewhere at her feet.
Damn, and those were a gift from her god daughter. Now she’d have to scour the net to replace the set. No hope of finding it in this light.
“There you go, miss.” The little man held out a palm bearing the earring. When had he moved to pick it up? Bemused, she took it, sliding it into the pocket of her jeans. Had she blacked out momentarily, experienced one of her waking-dreams?
“Thank you, Carter, you may go now.” The faceless voice issued the order. Carter the night porter bowed from the waist and turned obediently for the steps.
Decide, she thought. What would a journalist do? What would Connie Pearson do?
“Let me make it easier for you, Miss Pearson. Believe me, if I was out to murder you, you’d already be dead.”
She heard a click, the sound of a catch being released. Her skin prickled. He thought that little speech would make this easier? Freed from its lock, the door opened to the width of a man’s hand. The handle so close she could reach it without moving. Clever, she’d give him that. No coercion; she acted of her own free will and his lawyer would have advised recording the conversation for later evidence when she claimed abduction and tried to file kidnapping charges.
Men like Nion Eastman had everything covered.
It might not be him. How disappointing would that be after this charade?
What are you waiting for, get in the car. As always the journalist won the argument. Just for a glimpse of him, she thought, unable to stop herself grasping the handle and pulling open the door.
She took in a careful breath.
Black hair. Dark as sin. What else would it be? In front of her, doing a credible impression of a fallen angel sculpted from the purest marble, sat Nion Eastman.
She reached out with every sense, every bit of her gift, desperate for information. A heavy darkness. A glimpse into a pit so deep it had no end.
What the hell?
The revelation was there and then gone. The mental shutters came down like a door slamming in her face. She staggered, hitting the car door-frame with her shoulder, trying to hide the shock.
Nion Eastman was hiding more than his true face.
“I believe you wished to speak with me, Miss Pearson.”
Connie gripped the door handle to stop herself from falling. Don’t faint at his feet. Men like him had hordes of women swooning over them. A fortune in the billions and a face like Lucifer before the fall would give a man that power.
So he had his dark little secrets. That’s what she was here to find out.
“You’re a hard man to pin down, Mr Eastman.”
Jeans, brown tan boots, neatly polished. No jacket, only a plain black tee, showcasing the kind of physique perfected by men with all the time in the world to get it right.
The story was already writing itself. Her mind taking furious notes. Unblemished skin, apart from a small puckered scar at his temple. No one looked that perfect or stayed this young without surgery or virgin blood. Whatever his secret, she ached to know.
“I try to be, Miss Pearson. Would you get into the car?”
A last brief pause, another scribbled mental note. His even measured tones had faltered only when he spoke her name. Twice now, she’d heard the hesitation.
“Call me Connie. Everyone does.”
“I prefer Constance.” He lingered over the word, caressing each syllable with the rich dark silk of his voice.
“They call me that, too.”
No smile. No reaction to the comment or her earlier shock. This man had earned his titles with honours. Invisible man. Ice man. So clinically cold in his business dealings they said he’d take food from starving babies if it furthered his own interests.
Rumours or truth? Some said he invested heavily in charities, offered free treatments to disfigured veterans or anyone too poor to pay. Had he come out of hiding to dispel the lies? To let people know what really went on behind his inner fortress walls?
She bloody well hoped so. Her stomach clenched but with excitement, not fear, the familiar adrenaline kicking in, a cascade of questions tumbling through her mind.
No one looked that perfect without intervention. Why, with all the resources available to him had he allowed a scar at his temple? The silvered lines of injured skin had healed long ago, leaving a small pucker that could easily be remedied. That made no sense.
Questions worth the risk of stepping into that car with him. A risk no different from chasing a story in a ravaged war-zone or infiltrating a gangster drug den.
“Just to be straight, you’re granting me an interview?”
“If you’d like to call it that.” A hint of lazy amusement lit his green eyes. The man was human after all.
“And you are Nion Eastman?”
“They call me that, too.” His unblinking gaze fixed on her face like a man looking through her to something far beyond. Her shoulders prickled. Hadn’t the night porter gone back into the hotel?
“Get inside, miss.” The driver took her arm, urging her into the vehicle. He didn’t have to urge too strongly, her feet moved independent of the warning flashing in her head.
Just how dark was Nion Eastman’s metaphorical cellar? The stories surrounding this man involved more than plastic surgery to hold onto his good looks. Darker tales of rituals and demons and creatures of the night surrounded him. Gossip he’d neither acknowledged nor denied.
All part of his mystique.
Connie settled into the leather seat, holding herself rigid so they didn’t touch. Still a little shocked at the shadows she glimpsed in that brief first probing. From the rumours surrounding Nion Eastman, he dealt directly with the devil himself.
“You have no reason to fear me, Constance.” He sat easy in his seat. She hugged her bag with one hand, feeling for the seat belt with the other.
“I’ve conducted interviews in worse places than this. Fear is all relative, Mr Eastman.”
He considered her words. Nothing hurried with this man. The car door closed, the lock engaged with a determined click.
“I agree. Fear is so often misdirected. “Will you drink with me? Do you take alcohol?”
“Journalist, so yes I take alcohol.” What a strange turn of phrase. The customised interior of polished walnut boasted a drinks cabinet in the centre foot-well. Cut-glass decanters and two glasses. Nion poured out two whiskies and offered her a glass, brushing his fingers with hers.
Blood. Payment in blood. The touch flashed words in and out of her mind. Fragments of dream, the meaning frustratingly out of reach.
“You have cold hands, Mr Eastman.” Another of his mystery ailments or merely the man living up to his reputation? Cold in business, cold in life.
Before she had a chance to answer, he pressed a light finger to her lips, stopping the words. Connie blinked, surprised into silence by the cool touch. The way he commanded with the slightest of gestures.
No images this time, only the feel of his flesh on hers.
“Drink first. It will warm you.” He tilted his head at her glass, smoothly persuasive. Connie sipped obediently. Not a great fan of whisky, but this slipped down her throat with little burn.
Nion threw back his drink, savouring the spirits for a moment before swallowing.
“I keep a small distillery in the highlands, purely for personal consumption.”
Another small nugget of information and she had no means to write it down. He saw her glance at her bag. The voice recorder on her phone should still be working.
“No notes,” he said, his tone inviting no argument. “And no recording. You may have only what you remember of me.”
“Then I must warn you, Mr Eastman, I have a good memory.” Connie saluted him with the glass and replaced it on the silver box between their legs. “How long do I have?”
“How long do you need?” He put down his own glass, leaning casually into the corner of the seat. No seat belt, she noticed. “You missed your dinner engagement. Let me make that up to you.”
I must be dreaming, or in some sort of alternate reality. Exactly where did reclusive billionaires who hid from the world take people to dinner? A restaurant with only the two of them in residence, booked under an assumed name? Or maybe he had a helicopter waiting to whisk her off somewhere?
Somewhere she might never be seen again?
Stop it, Connie Pearson. You’ve been in scarier situations than in a car with a reclusive billionaire with good genes.
That’s all this is.
With no recorder, she needed to think. Take mental notes.
“Dinner would be nice.”
Nion Eastman, relaxed and in command, except for when he said her name. Then he lingered on the word, watched her more intently. So he liked the name Constance? Did it hold some special significance? She stored the information away.
“Where are you taking me?” The trick? Show deference, but not too much and the answers would come. Celebrities lived for fame, no matter how much they protested their privacy.
“Where would you like to go?”
For a man who never gave interviews, he seemed expert enough with the thrust and parry of words. If only she had her tablet or laptop. She needed to write that down.
“I just want an interview, Mr Eastman.”
“And this interview will what? Boost your career? Let me ask you something, Miss Pearson. What do you get out of ripping open the rich and famous so the public can feast on their entrails?”
“That’s a tad dramatic, don’t you think?” She snapped back the reply, a little ruffled but sensing a weakness in the bitter venom of his words.
“People are naturally curious, they want to know. I provide a service.”
“Humans would ever stick their noses into the business of others. Why do they need to know anything about me?”
“They don’t, but it’s the price you pay for being disgustingly rich and famous. People simply want to put flesh on the bones.”
“I didn’t ask to be famous.”
“And yet you are.” The rapid-fire questions and answers left her breathless. Nion laughed softly, as if stimulated by the verbal sparring. Connie took a beat, reminding herself to tread carefully. He might find her direct approach amusing, but one wrong word and the interview would be history and she could be walking back to the hotel in a blizzard.
“Let me ask you something,” she said, “That is the point of all this, after all? You must want the world to know one version of your story or you wouldn’t be kidnapping me.”
“As I remember, you entered the car of your own free will. But ask your question. And text your partner your whereabouts. I understand you have safety protocols. I’d prefer you didn’t make a call, but I believe the phone service is up and running again.”
A quick glance and yes, everything working. So he commanded the elements, too? She bit her tongue, knowing sarcasm wouldn’t get her the answers she wanted. Or would it? With luck a sense of humour lurked under Nion Eastman’s enigmatic exterior.
“Okay, it’s a question about questions. Will you answer all my questions or do I have to stick to a pre-approved list? You’ll have your PA with you, I assume?
“You may ask what you will. And my PA? I believe she’s in Russia right now enjoying a clan holiday.”
“So I can ask anything I want?” Connie’s heart tripped in anticipation, the list of questions already forming in her mind. She took in a calming breath, aware of his acute attention. The Range Rover hurtled into the blizzard. A whirling wall of white that had come out of nowhere, increasing her sense of detachment from the world.
“Don’t worry. Joseph is an excellent driver with truly astounding reflexes. Yes, you may ask me anything you wish. I don’t promise to answer all your questions, but you may ask.”
At this point she’d take anything. Each crumb of information would be gold. She inclined her head. Was that a smile lurking at the corner of his lips? Playing with her, no doubt, but for now he made the rules, no matter how casual he appeared.
“Your terms, Mr Eastman. I accept.
“Call me Nion.” He watched her with a laser focus, almost as if waiting for a reaction to his name.
“Nion, okay.” The name echoed in her head, tugging at some awareness she couldn’t pin down. “Then will you call me Connie? Constance sounds so Victorian.”
“Why did you say that?” For a brief moment the temperature in the car dropped. Like a sudden frost settling over them both.
“Well, it does, doesn’t it?” She shivered, despite knowing the temperature hadn’t actually changed, only his demeanour. Nion thawed as quickly as he’d iced over, recovering his composure with a nod of agreement.
Yes, I suppose it does. But I’d still like to call you Constance, if you have no objection.”
Impeccable manners. She made mental notes, surprised that a man as powerful as he would even think to ask.
“Yes, if you like. People usually call me Connie.”
“I prefer Constance. So much more dignified, don’t you think?”
“I’ve never felt much like a Constance.”
His look of piercing appraisal made her squirm in the seat. “The name suits you.”
He turned his attention to the glass partition between them and the driver. “Call Katherine and let her know we have a dinner guest. And tell her to make up the room. With the weather closing in I believe our guest will be staying overnight.”
“Staying overnight?” She should text John, tell him everything. Torn, so torn between caution and jumping into the lion’s den, wanting this interview so badly, she’d do anything for it.
“You perhaps have something more important scheduled? Should I ask Joseph to turn around and take you back to the hotel?”
“No.” She spoke too fast, her decision already made. As if she’d say no to a dream invitation to the Eastman inner sanctum? Nothing was more important than this and he knew it. Nion Eastman commanded and everyone obeyed without question. That’s how his world worked.
“As you wish.”
Did her compliance make her brave or stupid? A bit of both, she decided. Not only chasing a story, she needed to find meaning in this particular dream cycle. She pushed back her hair, noticing Nion’s gaze following her fingers combing through the long strands. He’d never been romantically linked to one particular woman, or man. How did anyone amass this kind of wealth and yet remain such a shadow?
The man sitting beside her, dark-haired and solid, watching her with lazy amusement was no shadow. His interest in her all too obvious.
“Would you like to start the interview now? Ask me anything, Constance. While I have a mind to answer questions.”
Affected, or a genuine throwback? A modern man with his customised car and casual elegance, yet with a hint of the archaic in his speech. Questions. She had so many questions demanding answers. The night porter at the hotel had been much too comfortable handing a lone woman over to a stranger. And why would a secretive man like Eastman sit so publicly outside that hotel?
Unless he owned it along with all the staff.
“Let me help you with a question of my own, if I may.”
Connie bit back the smile at his smooth interruption of her thoughts. Had he mistaken her pause for hesitation? Unlikely given his negotiating skills. Trying to distract her into forgetting the finer details? He must know she’d remember this meeting for the rest of her life.
“Ask away. It’s only fair.”
“Did you visit this area recently?”
An innocent enough question, yet sparks flew in her head, imaginary lines joining random events. Exactly how it always happened. A stab of pain pulsed at her temples.
“Yes, for a wedding two months ago, in Lancaster.” So there was the elusive thread connecting her to this place. She must have passed within a few miles of the village on her way to the county town. A tenuous thread as yet, but why would he think to ask? She blew out a frustrated breath. Counted to five and forced herself to smile.
“Is it my turn for a question now?” No reaction to her reveal but a steady tap of one finger on the arm rest. He played this game well.
“I do believe it is.”
Why not go straight in for the kill? No, keep that ammunition for later and use it if needed. Start with something simple.
All right, Nion. Lord, how odd it felt calling a billionaire she’d known for all of ten minutes by his first name. But then how could she ever know what constituted odd for a man like Eastman?
“Just to be clear, I can ask anything?”
“You may.” The tapping stopped. He faced her, open and attentive. Nothing left of the darkness she’d glimpsed. Or more likely, imagined.
Quite beautiful manners, if one discounted the kidnapping. And those eyes, the intensity of his gaze, so sharply appraising. Nothing passive about the way he looked at her, he studied her every gesture, listened for nuances in every word.
No point in being coy, or clever around him. Meet him face to face, armed and ready to fight. Something told her he’d appreciate that.
“All right, how old are you?”
Had she blown it already? The silence between them stretched out wafer thin. Any moment he would bark out an order for Joseph to stop the car and throw her out into the blinding snow. Blacked-out rear windows, but she could make out the fuzzy storm of white through the tinted partition separating them from the driver.
He followed her gaze.
“No gentleman would strand a lady in a storm. Have no fear.”
She sat back, feigning nonchalance. Handsome, masterful, a kidnapper and now a gentleman. So many slants to put on this story.
“I trust you’ll get me home safely.” Couldn’t doubt it or she shouldn’t be here.
“Will you answer my question?”
He gave a rumbling laugh. “Are you ready to hear it?”
“As ready as ever,” she said and realised her hand shook. The biggest reveal of all that would put the rumours to bed, if he told the truth.
I’m two hundred and thirty-four years old.”
He waited, giving her time to calculate his birth-date, for the outrageous claim to sink in. Her mind clicked over, a prickle of annoyance giving way to soft laughter of her own. Playing with her, then. He had no intention of sticking to any rules and this interview, in the middle of God only knew where would likely consist of a nice dinner and a load of spin.
She would end up looking like every other journalist after his story.
A fraud spewing lies weaved from scraps.
Where the hell were they? The car bumped, absorbing ruts in the road. The wind had picked up, as it did high on the moors. The GPS on her phone would pinpoint the location, if she could sneak a look.
“Two hundred and thirty-four years old? So you were born in what, seventeen eighty?” Her mouth twitched. Used to celebrities who lived in imaginary worlds, but she’d never yet met one who claimed immortality. Somehow, Eastman, so calmly watching her reaction didn’t strike her as delusional.
“Just so, Constance. Just so.”
He liked saying her name, a sensual whisper of consonants and vowels. She found herself caught and held by his sheer presence. Would make a good stage hypnotist, she noted, squeezing her hands into fists to stop them from shaking.
Who wouldn’t fall for a man who wrapped your name with such love?
Oh Lord, where did that thought come from? Connie leaned back into the leather seat, concentrating on taming her skittering breath. First her name on a gravestone and now a man who seemed to have a fetish for a name she’d loved and hated in equal measure. And still no real clue as to why she’d been led here. Because she had been led, the dreams never lied. Only took pleasure in confusing the hell out of her before playing straight and revealing the true purpose behind the headaches and broken nights.
Had Nion Eastman been at the graveyard after all? Maybe watching them?
He’s testing you, so play along.
“All right,” she said. “We’ll start with something simpler. What’s your favourite colour?”
“You don’t believe me?” Nion checked himself. “Of course you don’t. Why should you? My favourite colour is white.” He watched her reaction, the disbelieving lift of her eyebrows.
“You were expecting me to say black?”
“Yes, actually I was.” So he owned a sense of humour? She took the olive branch, careful not to look too eager. “Why white?”
Had he really expected her to believe him to be over two hundred years old? Something in the flash of emotion in his face told her yes, he might well have. What did she see? Resignation? Disappointment at her glib reaction?
“I knew a rose once. The purest white painted with delicate pink. Do you like roses, Constance?”
Again that whiff of nostalgia, some far away pull that drew him from the car to another place. So the man loved his roses. Everyone knew he bred them in state of the art glasshouses around the world, specialising in rescuing and bringing back the old cottage garden varieties.
Calmly feeding her his human face? The cold hard billionaire who cared for nothing but profit brought to his knees by a beautiful rose? A great angle for the story.
He made my name sound like liquid silk. And he loves roses. Hang on to your hats, ladies. There’s more to Nion Eastman than billion dollar corporate raids.
“Yes, I suppose I do.” No real enthusiasm in her reply. She’d never given much thought to roses other than the odd single red bloom gifted by some boyfriend or dinner-date.
“I’ll make you a believer. You have one more question before we arrive. Please go ahead.”
“People have died in your facilities in the pursuit of vanity and youth. What do you say to that?”
“I say that humans have free will. They should be allowed to exercise it no matter that their motives make no sense to those who love them.”
“You don’t think they have a responsibility to their loved ones?”
“Would you allow someone to stop you if your path was determined and set?” He raised one eyebrow in question. “Would you?”
“Probably not.” She allowed him that without argument. Obviously a touchy subject, don’t push.
“I know your foundations are deep into research of facial reconstruction and trauma rehabilitation. And that your burn units are the best in the world. Would you like to talk a little about that?” She could flatter too, although she instinctively knew to lay it on thinly with a man like Eastman who had no interest in basking in public glory. Had she ever seen photographs of him at fundraisers or attending charity dinners at ten thousand dollars a plate? He never walked the red carpet. Yet sitting there beside her, casual and relaxed, his green eyes focussed and intent, he looked anything but shy and retiring.
She’d asked two questions, not one. He made no comment.
The sound of the engine changed, a subtle labouring as the powerful vehicle battled the howling gale.
“I believe my chief scientist would be happy to answer any technical questions you might have regarding the veteran rehabilitation programme. I’ll make sure you get an interview.”
“Thank you.” Connie stiffened with a new resolve. More than she’d hoped for, the veteran programme, the free surgery and therapy given to thousands of wounded soldiers would make an article in itself.
Please let this be the real Eastman and not some body double sent to string me along. How stupid would that make her look?
“Relax,” he said, tilting his chin at the driver. “We’re in safe hands.”
“If you say so. I’ve never seen weather close in this fast.”
“Send your text before we lose the signal again. Up here on the tops, phone reception can be temperamental.”
“The tops?” Connie searched her memory for a reference. The tops of what? Shouldn’t they still be in the village? Surely it had been only a matter of minutes and a short conversation since they left the hotel.
Her phone screen told a different story. Half an hour gone by and three waiting texts she didn’t hear arriving? That couldn’t be right. They’d been talking since she got into the car.
“A problem with your phone?”
Head tilted and watching her so intently, he stripped her naked with his gaze. Nothing sexual in his intense focus, this was a deeper seeking. She knew that look.
Oh God, does he have the gift, too? It hit her with stunning force. Protection, quickly. White light. She visualised a glow of light around her, knowing it came too late if he’d already looked inside her head.
“Just a glitch with the clock. I need to get it fixed.” Her intuition whispered caution. Give nothing away, let him work for it. Nion smiled faintly, sending her scrabbling to fill her mind with random pictures, a dog, a pink rabbit, a dancing tree, all the while watching for the tell-tale frown of another intuitive picking up her strange thoughts.
No reaction. If he was reading her, he was good and giving nothing away.
“Where are we?”
“At one of my country residences. You’ll excuse me for not elaborating on the location?”
Location, yes. Scrolling through her texts, she wondered at her chances of checking the GPS. Not very good, she decided, with him watching her. Nion extended an arm across the back of the seat, dipping his head to peer through the tinted divider. The driver held up three fingers in response.
“Make your texts, Constance. I’ll need you to surrender your phone at the door. Are you willing to do that?
Her hand tightened instinctively on the phone, moving it away, as if he might snatch it from her. “I’d rather keep it with me.”
“That won’t be possible. A woman of your profession should understand that.”
Yes, she did and it wouldn’t be the first time. She tapped out a quick message to John. Would he take a break on the long drive back to London? She hoped so.
With Nion Eastman, will explain later, but don’t worry about me. Everything is in hand.
Hell, no. She backspaced, deleting the message that would bring John hurtling north the moment his son came off the danger list. Did she really want him barging in and sending Eastman running for cover?
Staying up here for a few days following up on the Pendle witches and the grave. Fascinating stuff. Give Ben a hug from me.
She hit send quickly before she changed her mind, hoping John would do the right thing and stay around for his son and hysterical ex when they needed him. She changed to the home-screen and the glitching clock. Had half an hour really passed without her knowing?
A thought struck her, making her breath catch. Could she be back at the hotel, in her bed and dreaming all this? About to jerk awake and gaze about the room in confusion, gasping for air like she did when the dream pictures were so real she almost lived them?
“Are you quite well, Constance?”
“Yes, why do you ask?” Did the confusion show on her face?
“You’ve been a little quiet. As if you slipped away for a while.”
The whisky, had he drugged the whisky to stop her logging the route to his home? More subtle than a blindfold she thought and remembered times in war zones and no-go areas where the whole team would be blindfolded and led to a story or perhaps death. A thrum of excitement she recognised well coiled in her gut.
Danger. Didn’t the best stories come with a huge side of danger?
“I’m fine, thank you.” She straightened, yanking away a strand of hair that had somehow caught in his fingers still resting nonchalant on the back of the seat. Did it matter if he got under her skin as long as he left his story there in indelible ink?
The Range Rover braked and slowed to a halt. Ahead, she made out the ghostly outline of high gates set in a stone wall, sliding open to reveal a driveway lit on either side by lights like a runway.
The car glided through, flanked by lit beams of dancing snow. Too dark to see past the verge, she strained to pick out the wavering shape of the house. The long drive curved into a circular carriage circle in front of grey stone steps covered by a square-pillared portico. A row of carved faces scowled down at her like gargoyles in a horror movie.
So Eastman, for all his hiding from the world did have some showman in him after all. She should be intimidated by the gothic overkill of the place, the heavy front door with roaring lion’s head knocker, the brass coach lights gleaming softly on either side of the door. She smiled instead, strangely grateful he would give her a story worth writing. She already had enough to stoke up interest all over the world.
He dipped his head, watching with her through the car window as if trying to see the house with her eyes. “Welcome to the Lodge,” he said, snapping out of his reverie. “The original building is late Tudor with a major addition in the Regency. They say the Romans marched across this very spot and also pilgrims, on their way to the northern abbeys, to beg for divine intervention.
Sound-bite over, he paused for the information to sink in. Abbeys could mean one of many in the north, ravaged during Henry the Eighth’s purges by some of the very people who built this house. Fountains, Riveaulx, Whalley Abbey? Her fingers twitched to take out her phone and plot it all on a map. But that would remind him of the request to surrender the phone at the door.
As if he’d forget.
“Your phone, Constance. Hand it to Joseph, please. A necessary precaution, I’m afraid. You do understand?”
Kudos that he managed to force a hint of apology in his voice. “Yes, of course I do.” Last chance to press the panic button.
Nion had already jumped out of the car. Her door opened and Joseph stood waiting. She offered the phone, knowing that no self-respecting recluse would allow her access to his house in possession of a camera. At least he hadn’t smashed it on sight like one of the warlords in Colombia.
She shuddered, staring around her at the grey towers, the banks of windows disappearing into the gloom, the heavy blanketing cloud. Eerily quiet, the silence punctuated by fitful screams of biting wind. A man could be alone here. She felt the keen sense of isolation and with it, her gift stirring. One day she wouldn’t need to sleep to see the past and speak to the future. She shook it off and tottered towards the strip of light revealed by the half-open door, hanging onto the car for support. Scratch the gentleman part, both Nion and Joseph had disappeared inside.
“Here. Let me help you.” Nion materialised without a sound. He draped something soft over her shoulder and with the slightest of touches urged her towards the light and the warmth of his home.
No, one of his many residences. Homes were alien concepts to billionaires. She’d used that angle many times to great effect.
Impossible to pinpoint the location or the direction they’d taken. Half an hour from the hotel might take them into Yorkshire, or if they’d travelled north, up into the Lake District and the wild fells where a man with Nion’s resources might easily helicopter in and out and never be seen by the locals.
She stood in the great hall pushing back her damp hair, gazing like a child at the time capsule around her. Dark panelled walls hung with watercolours and crackled oil-paintings gleamed in the muted light. A ceiling of carved wood-panels painted with roses and intricate knots. Coat of arms of owners long dead proudly proclaimed from every wall.
His ancestors, or had he like many self-made men, bought himself a lauded history along with the house?
“The arms of the Ashworth family,” he said standing beside her while she stared in wonder. “An unbroken line right up to the first world war when all the heirs were killed fighting and the line died out. The house was used as a military hospital and then abandoned and left to rot. It was purchased by a local benefactor, a Mr Hamilton in the late fifties. He brought it back from the dead.”
“So they’re not your ancestors?” She turned around slowly, tuning in to the lingering energy of the building’s colourful history. Women in heavy velvet gowns, the men in leather and silk. Stewards and chamberlains overseeing a small army of servants who served the lord and lady’s every comfort. She pulled the throw around her shoulders against the draught of the open front door. The muffled roar of the Rover’s engine receded.
“No, they’re not mine.”
The front door was closed. When did Nion do that? She studied the ceiling, aware of his presence eclipsing all else in the gloomy space. In his tee shirt, arms bare he showed no signs of cold and almost seemed to blend with the shadows and become a part of them. Her fingers tightened on the throw. That thought had dropped in out of nowhere. Hell, her transition to dream-seer and psychic. It was definitely happening
I’m not ready for this.
Dreaming, she could cope with. She woke up from dreams, but voices in her head she could do without. She blinked.
Talking. Nion was still talking, relating the history of his sanctuary with a pride he didn’t bother hiding. An elderly woman, hair pinned back in a bun, stepped from one gloomy corner, listening with a look of satisfaction that echoed his own.
“I’ve owned this particular house since the mid-nineties. The perfect place for a reclusive billionaire who never sees the light of day. Do you not agree?”
A hint of amusement in the remark told her not to take that comment too seriously. Connie caught and held the next thought materialising in her mind. Pride. The emotions were too genuine for that glib remark. This house and Nion Eastman went back a lot farther than the mid-nineties. But he didn’t want her to know that.
A childhood home, a secret connection? He touched her elbow, breaking the thought and nodded at the woman standing quietly by. She returned a curt bob of the head, acknowledging some silent command.
“Welcome to the Lodge, Miss Pearson. I am Katherine Radcliffe, housekeeper of this place.”
Of course you are. The thought made Connie bite her lip for fear of offending the woman with a smile. Obviously fresh from her other career as an extra in a horror movie with her black dress, demurely buttoned in front, the neat little boots and severely slicked back hair. The expression of welcome didn’t extend to Katherine’s face. The woman didn’t want her here. No need to be psychic to know that.
“Pleased to meet you.” Connie raised a hand, dropping it when the woman returned only another stiff bob of her head, disapproval written large in the flare of her nostrils, the disdainful tilt of her chin. Nion stood impassively by, reaching out to touch one of the white roses filling a silver bowl on the dark-wood sideboard. He stroked it reverently, a flash of something creasing his perfect features.
Seriously, the man could be a god just standing there without having to watch him caress the rose, so intent, so careful of its beauty. One word and he could have women falling out of the sky at his feet.
And did she just hear the housekeeper sigh? A soft exhalation and a brief softening of the woman’s mouth as she watched Nion caress the rose?
“I have a fire made up in the small parlour. Some beings feel the cold, Mr Eastman.” Katherine tilted her head at Connie, the frost back in her face.
Beings? Connie noted the pointed remark, struck again by the leeway Nion allowed his staff. Blunt to the point of insubordination, but she suspected loyal to the death. Nion dropped the rose into the bowl, no sign of anger or annoyance at the woman’s words.
“My apologies. Come warm yourself while Katherine oversees dinner. We keep an informal household here. Please feel at home.”
Following him into the dark corridor lit only by a sliver of light from one of the doors at the end, Connie decided she could never feel at home in such a dark and spooky place. So remote and cut off from the world.
Yes, absolutely perfect for the world’s most reclusive billionaire. The door opened onto a room lined from floor to ceiling with carved and pillared bookcases darkened with age and crammed with a jumbled mess of books from all eras. Musty old leather-bound tomes next to paperback novels and hardback manuals with no thought to catalogues and preservation.
A cosy fire at the end of the room, mismatched leather armchairs arranged around the hearth. Hand knotted rugs covering the bare wooden boards. The ceiling covered in red and white roses entwined with stems and leaves of vibrant green on a background of silver stars on black. She could only gawk in astonishment.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Again the undisguised hint of pride, as if the man had designed that ceiling himself.
“Did you have it restored? Is that a part of the original house?” Connie lowered her voice in reverence, only now noticing the letters picked out in gold.
“Yes, it was painted over early last century. This was revealed during the restoration.”
The letter C. Connie lifted a finger to trace out the shape. An ornate C tangled protectively in roses. C for Constance? A sliver of knowing edged into her mind. Is this why Nion Eastman latched onto her name?
“Is that the initial of a previous owner? It must be exciting discovering the history of a house like this one.”
“No, not a previous owner. Would you take a seat?”
Out in the real world the formal speech coming from a man dressed in casual jeans and tee had seemed an anachronism. Standing in the centre of the room, surrounded by history that went back five hundred years, it felt so natural she hardly blinked.
“Oh, yes, thank you.” She tore her gaze away from the C. Who was he, or she? Had they loved this place the way Nion obviously did?
Nion. On first name terms with Nion Eastman and she couldn’t text John to tell him. Walking the length of the long room, she felt the night closing in, saw pale swirling shapes hurl themselves at the squares of thick leaded window glass enclosed by heavy stone mullions.
Designed to keep the world at bay at a time when they really did believe monsters walked the night.
She settled into one of the leather chairs, extending her chilled hands to the log fire spitting and crackling in the inglenook. Don’t get too comfortable. Working, she reminded herself. And so is Nion Eastman, the master of spin.
“You’re cold. I’ll ask Katherine to bring you a camomile tea. You do like camomile tea, don’t you, Constance?”
“Yes.” Don’t panic, everyone on social media knew that little fact. Nothing yet to make her think him a psychic. She turned her attention to the leaping flames.
“About staying the night.” She gripped the arms of the chair at the thought of sleeping with such history. The dreams that would trigger.
Nion shook his head, missing nothing. “Not open for discussion. I believe we had a deal?”
She sank into the chair, breathing away the panic. Stupid girl. So there might be ghosts? When had she ever been afraid of the dead?
“You wish me to send Joseph out again on a night like this? Believe me when I say the roads will already be impassable.”
“No.” A log exploded in a shower of ashes. Her heart beat double-time. “Of course I wouldn’t. Although I don’t get the impression Joseph would let himself be hampered by a bit of snow.”
Nion’s eyebrows rose a fraction. “A bit of snow? Will you come to the window, Constance?”
Again that loving caress of the name. To her shame, she found her skin prickling in time with his voice. The guy certainly knew how to work an audience. She rose and followed him to the window, watching him rub a clean patch in the misted up pane.
“Christ almighty.” She stooped to see better, rubbing at the condensation with her fingers and pressing her nose to the image-distorting glass. A curved mountain of snow reached almost to the window sill and beyond that as far as she could see in the dim light from the room the world shone white. “How can it have got so deep so quickly?”
“Time is a strange master.” Nion traced a swirling pattern in the glass and quickly scribbled it out. “Perhaps you’ve been here longer than you realise, Constance Pearson.”
Shit. She turned her back on the astounding sight. Had she slept again? Drifted off in that leather chair without realising? She must have. The storm had closed in with sudden intensity, yes. But not five minutes ago, she’d been outside in the driveway with the snow barely covering her shoes.
“Stop scaring the girl.” Katherine appeared at the doorway, a steaming cup in her hand. “And God’s blood, move her away from that window before she takes ill from a draught.”
Nion answered with a low laugh indicating Connie to sit down again. “Modern women are stronger than they look, Kate. No need to concern yourself.”
“And yet concern myself I do.” Katherine placed the cup on a side table next to Connie’s chair, her severe features softening for another brief moment. The flowery aroma of chamomile filled the air. “Dinner will be in an hour in the dining room.
Connie shook herself mentally, determined not to fall asleep again. Please don’t let these strange episodes of missing time be her gift morphing and growing into something entirely more sinister.
Questions, she should be compiling a list of questions in her head. Thinking up a system to remember the answers without the benefit of her tablet or phone.
Katherine turned to go then paused, reaching out to cover Nion’s hand with her own. She held his gaze and sighed loud enough to hear.
Connie watched covertly, observing the concern in the old woman’s eyes, the obvious affection she held for her employer. With her leathery, mottled skin she must be well into her eighties.
He allowed the intimacy, nodding briefly in that way they seemed to have of communicating without words.
“Have a care,” Katherine whispered and glanced at her. Connie lifted the cup and feigned a sudden interest in the painting hanging above the fire, reluctant to intrude on their moment. A country cottage view, the front porch overhung with white roses. The movement silenced whatever wisdom Katherine had yet to impart to Nion regarding the granting of impromptu interviews to nosey journalists who wanted only scandal and gossip and cared nothing for the man. The disapproving shutters rolled down. Katherine turned and left the room without a backwards glance.
Gripping the back of his armchair, Nion watched the housekeeper leave. Only when she closed the door did he walk around to sit down. He sprawled back, legs outstretched, staring at the painting.
“Am I really scaring you?”
“Are you trying to?” The cup felt unusually heavy. Had they drugged the tea too? It must be barely nine o’clock and she was fighting the urge to curl up into the old armchair, lay her head down on the padded arm and drift off into blissful sleep.
His eyes, she thought. Mesmerising, hypnotic eyes that held her fast. And the way he said her name. No one ever seriously called her Constance and especially not like that.
So tired the painting blurred, the roses above the cottage door seemed to move, shivering to life in an invisible breeze. She could so easily imagine the plain wooden door swinging open, just a crack and beyond, a shadowed figure, standing tantalisingly out of reach.
Nion. She thought she heard his name, whispered with such reverence, such love. His real name, she realised. But then why wouldn’t it be? Why would she think that? Concentration eluded her as the detail in the painting wavered and she thought she heard a bird sing out an evening song. A light illuminated the window, the flickering of candles or an oil lamp. She hadn’t noticed that before.
“You’re tired, Constance. Sleep now and dream.” A man’s voice drifted over her, heavy with an anguish that cut her to the bone. She struggled to stay awake to keep her focus on the painting, the feel of worn leather under her palms.
“And for my sake, remember. Hell, Constance, where are you? How much longer must I wait?”
“Constance Pearson…” Connie forced the words through uncooperative lips. “My name is Constance Pearson.”
“I know.” With a sweep of his palm, Nion covered her eyes, encouraging them to close. Like one closing the eyes of the dead, she thought. Katherine, stood beside him again, the frown of disapproval softened to anxiety. From the engulfing haze, Connie watched them exchange a brief glance of mutual understanding and then in the painting, the cottage door swung open and the shadowy figure beckoned her in.
“This is a dangerous game, Nion. She is not like the others.”
Nion stood, his eyes never leaving the sleeping figure lying slack in the armchair. So like his own Constance it hurt. Back at the churchyard, his mind had leaped upon the chestnut hair, the name, the birth-date, grasping at details he so desperately wanted to make fit. Wishful thinking that blurred lines and made him believe things that might not be there.
Gently, he pulled up the rug Katherine had draped over Connie’s legs. How many chestnut-haired women named Constance had he chased down over the years? How many disappointments when they raised their heads in query and gazed at him with no hint of recognition? No spark. He made his apologies and left, vowing to put an end to the fruitless crusade. To shut the door on the past and cast the key into the deepest ocean. And then another lead surfaced and that damned hope would well unbidden in his chest.
“She’s a sensitive. Has gifts beyond the dreaming, I can feel that.” He reached out, touching a light finger to her hair. Let me in, he wanted to roar. You look so much like her. You have her name.
Her memories, too? If only she would let him in.
“A dreamer, yes.” Katherine touched his hand, moving it gently away. “And you will torture yourself for naught. The dreams are for her alone.”
“We can do something about that.” His face hardened. He shook Katherine off, a new determination in the rigid set of his jaw. “How difficult can it be to reach inside someone’s dreams? Can you do it for me?”
“I could try. But I will not. And I will caution Joseph against such folly. The creature is entirely too meddlesome these days.” Katherine stepped away in a swish of skirts. Her face gentled. “Your happiness is foremost in my heart, Nion. I am ever in debt to your kindness, but this woman is dangerous. She sees beyond and she will find you and what you are. And then she will tell the world.”
“You think I care about that?” He shoved back his hair, holding on to a hank as if he would rip it clean from his scalp.
Katherine nodded sadly. “I think you do, Nion. I think you care very much. Why here, why violate your sanctuary like this? You have never brought anyone here. What has changed?”
“She has her name, Katherine.” His voice gentled too as he wrested control of his feelings. “They share a birth-date and she was led to the grave by some force beyond. The thread is not so thin. Worth investigation, is it not?”
The old servant looked around as if imprinting the details of the house she loved for one last time. She sighed. “You are planning a rebirth.” It was not said as a question. The words were heavy with sadness.
He moved to her, touching her lightly on the shoulder. “Do you think this world will allow me one iota of peace? I’ve lived this identity too long, Katherine. Can you not feel the heat building? How much harder it’s becoming to feint and parry and hide behind this facade?”
Katherine’s voice dropped to a whisper. “What will become of us? Of this house?”
Nion moved to the window. The more he stared at the sleeping woman, the more he saw his own Constance slumped in a similar chair, the leather worn soft by age. Her hair falling in a curtain over her eyes. The embroidery threads, the fine cotton lawn of a shirt in a heap on her lap.
He looked back at the aged servant who’d served him so well through so many identity shifts. “Don’t worry. You and Joseph, the Italian staff will be coming with me as always. They’re already working on new identities. And this house? That will be sold. I’ve owned it for too many years to avoid suspicion. You can’t stay here any longer, you must know that.”
Katherine’s shoulders slumped a little, the tension not quite leaving her body. “I remember the first mistress here. I will miss this place.”
“As will I.” Nion stared from the window, seeing beyond the misted pane and out into the rambling gardens and the wild moors beyond. A sanctuary, for sure.
“I have nothing written in stone as yet. I might linger as Nion Eastman a while longer.”
“For a fool’s errand. This will end like all the rest and you will lose another piece of your heart.”
Nion moved away from the window. Standing close, he slid an arm around the old servant’s shoulders. A vampire, like him. “There is little of that left. How old are you, Katherine?”
“Six hundred and fourteen years.” She pursed her lips in a rueful smile. “Would that my master had turned me in my youth. I begin to feel the weight of those years.”
“I need you, Katherine.” He placed a soft kiss on her wiry grey hair. “Tell me you’ll be moving on with me. How would you like to be a Mary for a change?”
Katherine lifted her chin, turning to take his face between her soft wrinkled hands. “Katherine has served me well all these years. And it will continue to serve me as I will continue to serve you. Remain as Nion when you move on. Your own birth name suits you well.”
He allowed her the scrutiny, standing still as her fingers roved his face, lingering on the scar. Her mouth flattened. She touched it gently, her expression momentarily in the past.
“It was poorly done, Nion. A terrible act born of ignorance and fear. Would that I heard in time and could have intervened that day. I might at least have mitigated the effect of the binding spells.”
“And exposed yourself into the bargain?” He took her hands, squeezing a moment before removing them from his face. “You, Joseph could have done nothing to stop them without putting yourselves in danger.”
“Your Constance did not deserve that terrible fate. Nion if she has risen, she would have found you by now.”
“You don’t think she will return? You don’t entertain the possibility that she might have risen and be out there somewhere, perhaps without even knowing who she was?” He stood behind Connie’s chair, hands gripping the leather. Unable to resist lifting one hand to ghost over the polished copper strands glimmering in the flickering firelight.
“Is this our punishment for something we don’t even understand? Why did fate pick us for this torture? What did I ever do but love a woman who loved me back?”
“Some past life transgression perhaps? The sins of our fathers? Who knows why we were chosen.”
Katherine gathered herself, smoothing out her skirts in the way she had of deciding they’d talked quite enough of one subject.
“How long do you mean for her to sleep?” She nodded at Connie, unmoving in the chair except for her chest rising and falling. Her chin on her shoulder, she no longer faced the painting.
“Long enough to dream. She saw something in the painting, I know it. I need to find out what.”
“You do, but keep your distance, Nion. She’s a journalist who would not hesitate to exploit every word you utter for her own gain. She does not have your best interests at heart.”
“And why should she?” Making a decision, he slid an arm behind Connie’s back, the other under her knees, gathering her up. Too achingly familiar, the weight of her, the way her unbound hair fell in a river over his arm as he lifted her. She moved, snuggling unconsciously in her sleep, the fingers of one hand gripping his tee shirt, anchoring herself in his hold.
“Is the rose bedroom ready for guests?”
“Yes, as always, but Nion. You can’t mean to show her that.”
“Do you think me insane?” He paused, gazing into a small round mirror on the white plaster, the one strip not covered by bookcases. A woman suspended in space, hair spilling to the floor. Held by an invisible force she would never understand. “I sometimes feel her, Katherine. My Constance, wandering the mists, tangled in the veil of time and calling my name. Pleading for entrance at windows that will never open unless I open them for her. Do you understand why I do this?”
Katherine patted his shoulder, offering solace he’d come to depend on. “Without the insanity, how would we go on?” She opened the door, standing aside for him to sweep through. “Do you wish Joseph to bring fresh roses from the orangery? There should be roses when she awakes.”
He nodded, moving past her, the scent of the hot-house roses they grew year-round already calming him. Yes, this Constance would awake to roses and a room she may or may not remember. A room that in this incarnation only three beings had ever entered. He, Katherine and Joseph. No mere room. A shrine to his dead wife’s memory. Or perhaps a lure? A place he’d made for her spirit to find and remember her promise. He paused. By taking this Connie there he would be exposing it to the world. Inviting questions he might not wish to answer.
“Once done, there will be no going back.” Katherine, ever his conscience offered her last warning. He didn’t break stride. Caught the hard press of her lips as she steeled herself to aid him in his quest. She’d loved his wife dearly.
“There is fresh blood in the fridge. When you come down you must eat, Nion. You’re looking pale.”
Yes, he needed blood. Days were long past that he denied his demon and attempted to exist on human food. At least in this time sustenance could be ordered with the tap of a computer key. No need to lurk at abattoir doors begging for blood, or in the early days to waylay some poor vagrant or reveller who would awake, dizzy and sore unaware they’d been tapped by one of the undead.
He needed no light to find his way up the oak staircase, past the turn to the right at the top that led to the master suite. Named as the rose wing even back then when the house was built. A happy coincidence and one of the reasons he bought the house as the enigmatic, blond-haired and heavily bearded Mr Hamilton in the middle of the last century.
The familiar scent of roses assailed him through the closed door. Her special rose. Of all his hybrid roses, bred in state of the art facilities around the world, this one refused to be tamed. Taken from the charred remnants of the gardens surrounding the small cottage he’d shared with her, the roots had showed a heartening tenacity for life. Nion liked to believe it still held something of his wife’s spirit.
As always, he steeled himself to enter, forgetting for a moment the unconscious woman held secure in his arms. Never giving up hope that one day he’d enter and find his own Constance lying on the quilt, arms outstretched to him and telling him that the past hundred and ten years had been but a nightmare born of his greatest fear. That of losing her.
Empty, the lonely roses in their bowls ever waiting for someone to notice their beauty. The patchwork quilt of rare silk panels, neat and untouched, the chair at the dressing table sitting vacant. No Constance curled before the fire, arms wrapped about her knees and turning to smile at him as he entered. Calling him in to lie with her on the rug before the flames.
Connie mumbled in her sleep, pawing fitfully at his chest. He laid her carefully on the antique quilt, wishing he could be party to her dreams. Did she dream of his Constance? Why this coincidence of face, name and birth-date if it meant nothing?
A lock of hair swept over one cheek. He smoothed it away, watching her lips tilt at his touch. Lazily, her eyes opened, vacant and uncomprehending. He stilled, knowing she still slept, fascinated by the heart-shaped mark on the side of her neck.
Shit. With an oath, he stepped back. Did Constance have one on that side? Could he even remember what his wife looked like?
Dark hair with hints of auburn. The birthmark. Her way of smiling as if she held the secret to life itself. He’d painted her image for real over the years, but even a vampire’s memory dimmed with time. He vowed never to forget her and now he found himself studying the woman on the bed, fitting curves and lines, the sweep of lashes and the rhythm of her breath to an image he’d painted from memories that might be playing him false.
Rubbing his face, he stepped wearily away. He should be downstairs replenishing the energy he expended celebrating this sad anniversary that never failed to drain what little remained of his soul.
People called him the invisible man? How right they were. The dresser mirror reflected no image. Captain Nion Ellison, lately Eastman had ceased to exist during the war with Napoleon, on that day in Spain when he led his men into a deserted village and stopped to make camp for the night. Few had survived the demons that came for them. He’d awoken with no concept of time to the sight of the apocalypse itself.
And when he begged for death the hellish beauty gazing down at him had stroked his cheek with one long fingernail and laughed.
Oh no, not you. You’re too beautiful. You, we intend to keep.
As the sun rose above the Spanish mountain, he learned that dying came in many forms.
Nion opened the door, his fist tight around the handle. Confusion, disorientation and a lust such as he’d never known. Four survivors of the carnage, they’d fallen upon their comrades dismembered bodies, on the outstretched arms of the grinning demons, sating themselves on the sweet taste of blood. And in doing so, sealed their own fate and joined the ranks of the undead.
Two bedrooms in this wing of the house. He opened the door to the master suite, pausing to take in the sight of his wife smiling from the portrait on the wall opposite his bed. In one smooth motion, he pulled the tee shirt over his head and made his way to the en suite shower room. He hardly broke a sweat, needed no human food to give him energy and yet some memory remained of the courageous soldier who commanded men. The needle sharp impact of water on skin reminded him of standing in the yard on smooth stone, Constance holding a bucket of cold water, a wicked smile on her beautiful face. He’d chased her and exacted his revenge, soaking her so the fine cotton lawn petticoat clung to her skin, revealing her curves, the rosy pink tips of her nipples.
One arm braced on the shower wall, he reached for his cock, her name on his lips. Spent, he rested his forehead on the smooth tiles. How could a man with so much have so little? This body, taut muscle and bone, this face that Constance claimed he must have stolen from an angel. A face coveted by demons. What use of any of this if he had no one to share it with?
Stepping from the shower, he let go of the maudlin thoughts. A day or so of pitying indulgence once a year and then he would step back into his life of corporate raids and billions poured into researching cures for diseases that cut short the lives of mortal men. Into finding new ways to rebuild the lives of those ravaged by illness and war.
A crusade strangely at odds with his public persona of a hard man who’d sell his grandmother if she’d turn him a profit. But perhaps the good would buy him a little divine intervention. A wise businessman had all his bases covered. If Constance made it to paradise, he’d bribe Saint Peter himself to let him join her.
Rubbing at his hair with a towel, he switched on his laptop and tapped in a quick search. The first hit a photograph of Connie the journalist and her partner at some charity event or award ceremony, everyone in tuxedos and evening gowns. John’s hand rested lightly on Connie’s bare shoulders, his gaze fixed on her exposed cleavage. A man who manipulated women under the cover of a jest and a patronising smile. Who would not hesitate to use the woman in his arms for his own ends.
A surge of possessiveness engulfed Nion. The towel dropped to the floor. Were they an item, this John and the woman named for his beloved? That wouldn’t be hard to discover. Humans left their lives like a trail of litter on the internet. He switched to the database of women around the world named Constance Pearson. A tenuous link that over long years yielded few leads worth following.
But coupled with the birth-date? The resemblance to his beloved? The mention of dreams that led her to his dead wife’s grave?
He didn’t dare look at the portrait hanging on the wall for fear of seeing too much. Sometimes, if he stared too hard it would seem to change, the expression to one of pleading. As if asking why he left her trapped in limbo. Why he hadn’t done more to save her?
No. That road led to madness. He must remain calm. Listen and watch. And prepare for yet another disappointment. To hell with that. Nion snapped down the lid and snatched up the laptop, lifting it above his head, aiming it at the raked-over ashes in the fireplace. With a weary breath, he replaced it on the desk and reined in the rage.
Yes, it was time to move on. To start afresh as someone new.
Weary. Tired of the relentless chase, the endless waiting. Of being a creature always at bay or on the run. His billions hadn’t spared him that. Back then in simpler times he’d been the scapegoat for every violent storm, for unexplained deaths. Even the warts on the post-mistresses face. Humans ever needed someone to blame and little had changed except that he no longer cared what they said of him. No longer needed to argue and explain that there were forces even he couldn’t control.
They called him callous, cold. Let them. He feared no man but himself.
Naked, he walked into his closet and stared at the hanging rails, the racks and shelves lining the walls. Here, in this moor-top sanctuary tended only by his most trusted inner circle, he lived simply. He stepped into a pair of thigh hugging boxers, smoothing them over his hips. No one to impress. And if he did feel a lack of material goods, or decide that he needed ten suits instead of five from which to make his choice, it happened in a word, the click of a button.
He hooked a plain black tee shirt from the neatly folded pile, wondering what the journalist asleep in the adjoining room would think of this meagre stack of tees and jeans, the boots and running shoes. The shirts, the few suits and formal shoes, he kept here at the Lodge. Nothing like the larger wardrobe stored at the Surrey mansion. The one his PA insisted he stock with every designer label known to man if only for form’s sake.
In her eyes a billionaire with less than a hundred designer suits was a more scandalous state of affairs than his status as one of the undead. No use arguing. Mary’s loyalty was gold to him. As long as he wasn’t required to appear at her annual open wardrobe sessions, where a decoy collection of suits, shoes and high end designer clothes were carted to a warehouse in Copenhagen and opened up to the press, he was happy for her to continue spinning his public image into that of a typical and smug self-made billionaire.
He pulled on a pair of sweatpants and returned, barefoot to the bedroom, glad for a few days respite from her gentle bullying. Immortality taught him to travel light. When he reappeared with a new name, all of this would be gone. He stood in front of the window, one arm raised and braced against the frame, his forehead pressed to the cool glass. What need had a recluse of a hundred bespoke suits?
This close to transition, to killing off his current persona and starting over, the world saw so little of him he’d become a shadow built on rumour and dark whispers. He might as well have been naked.
The open curtains revealed the sweeping front drive, the formal gardens he let nature reclaim on each side. A full moon masked by a mantle of steely grey cloud. He did not have to see it to feel its presence. To know there would be other creatures abroad this night out there, bowing their worship to the queen of the skies.
As if in answer to his thoughts, a cry echoed across the moors. A lonely sound of anguish asking why and what had they done to deserve such fate?
Rolling taut shoulder muscles in a bid to rid himself of the tension invariably caused by hope, he considered taking a run before the drifts really did close the roads and the moors became impassable. Perhaps he could offer some solace to Old Tom, the lonely wolf-man out there howling at the moon. He sat on the bed to slide on socks, don a pair of running shoes.
Fate it seemed, chose at random the victims of her little games. Wrong place, wrong time. Or perhaps a weakness for wine and supernaturally beautiful women. One of his few close friends had returned from a hunting trip early last century with a wolf bite that refused to heal and a new fascination for the moon. Over the years Nion had seen it all.
He’d still not decided if he’d been dealt the lesser or greater blow in being made a fiend who existed on blood. Would he take the moon as mistress in return for a long walk in the sun? Give over five days to madness at full moon-tide in exchange for a normal life for the remainder of the month?
Useless thoughts. He ran fingers through his hair, smoothing it back from his face. Perhaps he would be a redhead in the next incarnation? It might help lend colour to his pale cheeks.
A long walk in the sun, the heat seeping into his bones, the light dazzling his eyes. Pleasures he would never know again. Stepping back from the window, he took in the reflection of the room, the bed, the open closet door, the antique dresser and the four hundred year old rugs adorning the floor. No image of a man in that picture. To this world he existed only as a spectre. He turned his back, hunger tearing at his insides. Yes, he should eat before waking Connie from her slumber. She would be hungry too and full of questions.
A muffled thump caught his attention, the soft footfall of a woman from the adjoining room. He stilled, tuning out the screeching wind, the creak of old timbers protesting the buffeting of the storm. Picked out the delicate pad of stockinged feet on antique carpets, the softly muttered words that made no sense.
She’d awoken so soon? He glanced at the clock on the nightstand already knowing barely half an hour had passed since putting her down on the old metal-framed bed.
Had she dreamed? Noticed the roses? Really noticed them? Did they mean anything to her?
A black shape alighted on the stone sill, huddling to puff out its feathers against the unending blanket of snow. It tapped twice on the wavering glass.
“Go to the barn.” He waved a dismissive arm at the bright-eyed crow. “I have no need of your interfering counsel right now.”
The bird tilted its head, dark eyes glassy and unblinking. It squawked once, as always urging caution, and then sensing his mood, dived into the storm to find shelter. In the rose bedroom, the oak door to the antique wardrobe swung open with a wail of ancient hinges stiffened by disuse. Nion caught the rustle of cotton and silk, so quiet and yet so familiar. If he closed his eyes he would see his Constance, in corset and shift, frowning at the iron wall pegs holding her clothes, deciding which of her small selection of gowns she would wear for her visit to the market in the next village.
They’d long since stopped serving her in their own hamlet. Not with the rumours surrounding their unholy union.
Fuck. Nion’s bunched fists trembled. He wanted to hit the wall, to fling his fists at the ancient plaster until it cracked and crumbled from the lath and beams. People returned from the dead every day. Undeserving spirits crossed the veil with negligent ease. He knew it, so why not her?
Calm. If this journalist turned out to be one more blind alley then no matter. Time at least was his friend. He would wait for all eternity if need be.
He crossed the room and placed a flat palm on the rough plastered wall. Connie’s swift heartbeat made his palm tingle and twitch. Her breathing had hitched up a notch, become more irregular. The silk sighed softly.
Sleepwalking? Or Connie taking the opportunity for a good poke around before storming down the stairs to accuse him of kidnapping and inappropriate behaviour?
He could hardly blame her for that or the consequences of this impetuous move. Cash wouldn’t buy her silence. Journalists were motivated by things other than the money made from syndicating their exclusives around the world. Exposing Nion Eastman’s inner sanctum with his full blessing would make her reputation. Grant her entry to places and people beyond the reach of most mortals.
Whatever the outcome, she would publish and gain from this encounter. And he might only lose.
The light pad of a woman’s feet crossed the wooden boards of the rose bedroom. The door handle turned with only a soft click of the latch. He heard the rose bedroom door swing open and then the creak of boards in the corridor, slow and measured, tentative even. Not the determined stomp of a storming valkyrie. No. This modern-day Connie thought with her head, not with her heart. Had already weighed up the risks of coming here alone and accepted them.
He knew every creak and groan of the wood. The footsteps stopped at his door.
Had he locked it? He crossed the room, using up the last of his reserves in a burst of supernatural speed. Not locked. Hard to tell by the erratic breathing whether Connie slept or the jittery breath was panic or excitement at what she might find behind the dark oak door. The handle rattled and then turned, agonisingly slow, catching as it always did on the half turn. It stuck for a brief second and then continued its turn until the door opened a crack.
The woman on the other side of the door hesitated. Connie Pearson, journalist on a mission to expose. Deciding her next move? Nion waited, standing his ground. Taking in her marker, the unique scent he’d already learned, mingled now with the faint smell of age from the fibres of the antique gown. Did she feel anything when she touched them? Would she tell him if she had?
She’d tell him. He stepped back, mindful not to alarm her into running. Aware he’d seriously depleted his inner resources in these past few days and any response to this invasion might not be the most measured or rational on his part.
He would make a trade. Feed her information and details enough to make her reputation before he assumed his new identity. In return she would give him a window into her mind. She’d never refuse that.
The door swung open and every muscle in his body weakened in a sudden rush of unfamiliar emotion. Perfectly framed in the doorway stood a dazzling vision in the black silk ball-gown he’d acquired from a private museum collection at the turn of the millennium. Unbound hair falling in a dark river to the vision’s waist.
She could be his Constance reborn.
He grasped the window sill, feeling the strength returning, his rational mind repainting the picture before him from that of his beloved to one of Connie the journalist, her eyes glazed and unseeing. The ball-gown hanging unfastened from her shoulders because she’d dressed without the aid of a lady’s maid or a willing husband. She stood unmoving, her gaze flickering from him to the room beyond and then returning, puzzled, to him. He stepped towards her, ordering his feet to move, one after the other. Not daring to speak or touch. He must not wake her.
Sleepwalking? Still in the midst of some dream, prophetic or triggered by this house and the darkly lit rooms? Or merely play acting? Using the information bought from that fucking contact who’d be lucky to live when he discovered who’d betrayed his most private thoughts. Questions tumbled through Nion’s mind.
How could he berate this woman when he’d set himself up for this shocking revelation?
It had been a shock. More than he’d ever imagined. He thought of the early days after the fire. The dark-haired women he’d paid to dress up in Victorian gowns and parade before him. The anger and frustration of hardly being able to look at them, let alone touch them or take the charade further.
Smoke and mirrors. Illusions that left him feeling empty beyond measure.
They were not her. Never her.
But this? Connie glided past him, moving easily in the hampering gown to the portrait of Constance, reaching out a hand to touch the cracked and mottled oil paint. She breathed, gazing at the sad-looking woman in green silk then turned as if taking in the room, a slow contemplative breath igniting a comprehending smile that lit her face like the sun rising over the hills.
The line of her back, the bumps of her spine. Smooth skin visible from the gaping, open back of the gown begging to be touched, all the way down to the curve of her buttocks.
Naked under all that silk.
His body responded without urging. Hardening, every muscle ready to obey the command that he take her now, while she lived and breathed before him. Warning that he may never again be this close to the heaven he’d lost.
An arrow of pure pleasure pierced his groin. Desire that went beyond physical wanting. He swallowed the urge to lock her in his arms and look deep into those eyes to see what they held. If she truly slept and dreamed he couldn’t risk waking her. Not now when his Constance might be in there somewhere.
“Nion?” Her face lit in wonder and almost as quickly the light faded. She put out her hands, palms forward like someone searching in the dark. “Nion, where are you?”
“I’m here.” He spoke softly, without effort feeling the weight of the years roll away. No will to fight this, to bring logic and thoughts of being the perfect gentleman to the fore. He wanted it too much.
“Where?” Her hands flailed blindly. “I waited but you didn’t come. Why didn’t you come to me?”
The plea, the desperate calling cut him to the bone. Didn’t she know he’d battle all the demons of hell to bring her back? How could she believe he’d abandon her?
No. Nion forced down the anguish, the flare of anger that she would ever doubt his love for her. Not Constance, but Connie stood before him. A gifted journalist who could be playing him at his own game.
“Constance, if that’s you speaking then tell me where you are. Tell me so I can find you.” He kept his voice measured and even, taking a firm grip of his tumbling emotions. Only once before had he succumbed to such abject desperation. Caught at his lowest ebb by a calculating pair of fraudsters who’d so convinced him of his wife’s imminent reincarnation, he’d ordered the rose bedroom in this old house decorated in her favourite colours. Spent a fortune on couture gowns and shoes, antique and new. To say nothing of the wasted hours he’d spent planning his new future with her.
That would never happen again.
Hell, why did he put himself through this?
Connie turned to the sound of his voice, tilting her head like one listening. The dress slipped from one shoulder, revealing the curve of her breast. Her gaze turned to the window, staring into the glare of freshly falling snow. She pulled at the gown.
“Will you fasten me, Nion? Such a beautiful gown, I…” She bit her lip, confusion clouding her hazel eyes, like someone awaking from a deep sleep.
Awaking half dressed and in his bedroom. Wearing some antique gown she wouldn’t remember donning. More than enough for her to cry foul and drag his hide through the gutter press he’d worked so hard to avoid.
Risky. He was playing a dangerous game balanced on the sharp edge of reason. Nion scanned the portrait, marshalling his resolve. No danger too great for a prize like her.
With a flash of comprehension Connie turned to take in the room, eyes wide in wonder at the dress frothing about her feet.
“Miss Pearson. Connie, look at me.” He touched her gently, fingers cupping her shoulders, tangling his gaze with hers. He must step carefully. Keep ice-cold reason to the fore. He would not hope. Not yet.
“You need to go back to your room. You need to take off the gown and dress in your own clothes. Do you understand?”
Psychics gifted with seeing beyond were often immune to thrall. Thankfully, Connie succumbed to his insistent stare with a mute nod, her eyes locked with his. He should follow her. Make sure she didn’t slip back under the covers naked and then wake up and freak out.
“Put on your own clothes before lying down. Promise you’ll do that for me.”
He stared, deep into her eyes, searching for tell tale signs she might be testing him as he was testing her. Enough for now. He tipped his head at the door, inviting her to leave.
She flattened her lips with a resigned sigh. Half turned to go and then paused as if she’d thought of something else to say.
“Yes.” That devil’s spawn called Hope ran rampant in his chest. He had no fucking control over it. He crushed it down. How easy it would be to believe. To latch onto every crumb and let his desperation cloud his reason. Katherine’s caution echoed in his mind. Close off and stop feeding this woman information. Sensitive or not, she was a professional, versed in subterfuge and in infiltrating hidden places. An expert in extracting information without the benefit of thrall. He should never underestimate her.
“May I kiss you, Nion?”
The front of his jeans strained uncomfortably tight. Oh, devil incarnate, yes. A surge of lust overtook him, blackening his vision, sending every nerve into overdrive. Connie turned, one arm raised, beckoning him to her.
He stayed in place, rigid, knowing that if he went to her now he’d be lost forever in this charade. For what else could this be? His Constance never sought permission to kiss him.
“You have to ask?”
“It’s been too long, my love. Come to me.” Connie’s voice dropped to a whisper. Not the voice he remembered, nor the voice of the journalist on whom he’d pinned all his hopes; it pitched somewhere in between, a wistful thread of ethereal sound that tugged at his heart.
“No, you come to me,” he said evenly. He flexed his tight muscles, let them relax. Control was everything.
“All right.” She stepped up before him, touching one cheek with light, searching fingers. Rose up on tiptoe, dark lashes making shadows on her cheeks as her lips brushed his. A feathery touch so brief he might have imagined it, yet heavy with memory that sent him spiralling helplessly through endless years. He wanted so desperately to repeat her name, to throw her onto his bed and sink so deep inside her he’d reset time itself.
And do everything differently.
She kissed him again, tasting his lips with a slow, sensual sweep of her tongue. He leaned into her, seeking the warmth she always gave so freely. He should laugh. The master of thrall held fast with the whispered touch of a woman’s lips. Curving light fingers to her nape, he pressed his mouth to hers, only now tasting the cool chill that matched his own.
Icy lips, frigid as the snow covering the window. Her skin, too, cold way beyond that of the living human he’d put to bed not half an hour ago.
Cold as one in the grave.
“Connie.” He held her at arm’s length, searching for signs of life. People had died in trance, died channelling those already dead. She lived, she breathed, but she was so pale, bloodless as a vampire.
He chafed her arms, wishing he had some heat of his own to lend her. He hadn’t eaten in two days, no borrowed warmth from the blood that kept him alive. His mind whirled in turmoil. Why not grab this opportunity and keep her here, in this state where he might at least know some facsimile of his own Constance? Why not make her like him and keep her forever? He pushed her gently away from him.
Tempting. Oh so tempting.
“Connie, go back to the rose bedroom and take off the gown. Put on your own clothes and get into bed.”
“You begged me to come. So many times you begged me to return.” Again he saw confusion. “Do you no longer wish me back?”
“I do. You know I do.” He stepped away from her, nodding at the door. “But you’re losing too much heat and you need to get warm. Go now.”
It killed him to send her away. To see disappointment cloud her face. To hear the accusation that he’d lied and let her down yet again. Yes, he wanted her back, but at the risk of an innocent woman’s life?
“There will be time again,” he said and folded his arms to make a barrier between them. She turned away, leaving a sigh in the air. He watched her drift from the room, the train of silk slithering around the frame.
Time enough to pursue this and discover whether it was a true channelling or an elaborate deception. Whether it might yet be the reincarnation he’d dreamed of for so long. He crossed the room to the heavy oak dresser and pushed it easily aside. Hadn’t he paid for his hesitation in blood and tears? In endless years of aching loneliness? How much more did the fates want from him? He pulled out his phone and keyed in a private code. One of the ancient oak planks slid soundlessly aside, revealing a heavily-armoured wall-safe.
For a moment he stared at the thick metal door, remembering evenings spent combing out his wife’s glorious hair, talking to her in quiet murmurs long into the night. Simply being with her, no words required. Watching her needle flash in and out of the silk panels of collars and shawls, the monogrammed handkerchiefs and personalised linen she made for wedding trousseaus.
Nion punched in the second code to open the fireproofed compartment, feeling the ache in his throat building to a crushing lump. He missed her. The feel and sound of her, the space she filled in his life. She understood him as no woman ever had, before or after his transformation.
A flat velvet box sat at the back of the compartment. Beside it a slim envelope and a hairbrush, the back and handle inlaid with mother of pearl. A pitiful collection of memories that could never begin to describe the life reflected in them. He pulled out the box and reverently opened the lid.
Two plain bands of yellow gold threaded onto a black velvet ribbon. Nion lifted the ribbon, watching the rings touch and twirl in the muted bedroom light. Rings those bastard villagers tore from her finger and his and fought over in a drunken frenzy as they looted their meagre possessions.
He’d never forget the feel of the stone flags beneath his broken body. The choking stench of the petrol they poured over the furniture and his body and clothes to accelerate the fire. The feel of hands tearing at his finger while he fought like a demon to break the chains crushing his arms and chest. The man calling for a knife to cut it from him if the ring didn’t give. Voices arguing and crowing as their tormenters stripped the cottage bare.
None had lived to regret that day. He found the rings in the window of the village trinket store, offered as curiosities to entice customers in. Demon’s rings they called them. How the thieving storekeepers begged for their lives when he appeared in the night and told them to say their last prayer. How cold he’d been for so long after that day. He touched the rings to his lips, in some way still connected to his Constance through the smooth metal, the engraving on the inside declaring their love to be eternal.
From the guest room he heard the creak of bedsprings on the metal bed frame. He would have Katherine wake Connie with a believable cover story and a hot drink to warm her. With over six hundred years to perfect her own powers of thrall, Katherine would convince Connie that waking up confused and disorientated in Nion Eastman’s guest room was nothing to call a lawyer about.
He stowed the rings safely in their hiding place and reset the codes. Pushed the dresser back into place. How long had Connie lived with these dreams of hers? She didn’t strike him as the kind of woman to run screaming into the night when ghosts and demons or even the living threatened. They would come to some agreement over this.
He turned his back on the dresser and with one last look at the painting, swiftly exited his bedroom. Eat and replenish his strength. He smiled grimly. There would be no force involved in keeping Connie close. In persuading her to repeat this experiment and take this to the end.
He had something she wanted. And she would have it. A full exclusive before Nion Eastman mysteriously disappeared from the world.
She would have it in return for a few short months of her life and full access to her gift.
His quest for power, for the obscene wealth amassed over the years had but one reason at its cause. To find his dead wife. A new resolve tightened his chest, every muscle. The alternative was too much to bear. While she occupied his heart, he could love no other, human or vampire.
And eternity was a long time without love.