Haunted by the Earl's Touch - By Ann Lethbridge

Chapter One

The wind keened outside the ancient walls of Beresford Abbey. Bane, following on the heels of the ancient butler along the stone passageway, noticed that only one sconce in five had been lit. Blown out by draughts? Or a sign of his welcome? No matter which, the gloom suited his mood.

‘You should have left the dog in the stables,’ the butler muttered over his shoulder.

Bane glance down at Ranger, part-lurcher, part-wolfhound, pressed to his left side. ‘The dog stays with me.’

The butler tutted. ‘And how shall I announce you, sir?’ He gestured to the open door a few feet along the gloomy corridor.

A wry smile twisted Bane’s lips. Was there a protocol to be followed? If so, he didn’t know it. ‘I’ll announce myself.’

Looking shocked, but also relieved, the doddering old man turned back, shuffling down the dim stone corridor shaking his head. A wise old bird for whom discretion was the better part of valour.

Bane approached the doorway on feet silenced by carpet. He paused at the entrance to the cavernous chamber. The flickering light from ten-foot-high torchères on each side of the heavily carved four-poster bed fell on the features of the shrunken man propped up by pillows. A face lined by dissipation and framed by thin strands of yellowing grey hair straggling out from beneath a blue silken nightcap. Bony shoulders hunched in silk valuable enough to feed a family of four for a year shook with a spasm of coughing.

A dead man breathing his last. Finally. The chill inside Bane spread outwards as he took in the others clustered at the edge of the circle of light. Two women, three men, some of whom he recognised as family. He’d investigated all of his relatives to avoid unnecessary surprises.

The older woman was his aunt, his grandfather’s daughter, Mrs Hampton, returned home as a widow. Her gown was the first stare of fashion as befitted her station. Tight curls of grey hair beneath a lace cap framed a middle-aged but still arresting face. As a young woman she’d been lovely, according to his mother, and too proud to make a friend of a lass from Yorkshire. At her side stood her son, Gerald, an almost too-pretty lad of seventeen with a petulant mouth and vivid blue eyes. The other young man was a distant fourth cousin. A Beresford through and through, slight, dapper, with blond hair and light blue eyes and a man his grandfather would have been happy to see as his heir had Bane not stood in the way.

An aspiring tulip of fashion in his early twenties, Bane had seen Jeffrey Beresford in town. They had no friends in common, but they bowed in passing—an acknowledgement of mutual distrust.

The other woman he did not know. Young, with a willowy figure, standing a good head taller than Mrs Hampton, she had inches on both young men. A Beresford also? She had the blonde hair and blue eyes to match the name, though she was dressed simply, in some dark stuff bespeaking modesty rather than style. The desire to see that statuesque body in something more revealing caused his throat to close.

Surprised him.

As a boy he’d had lusty thoughts about anything in skirts. As a man, a businessman, he had more important things on his mind. Women like her wanted home and hearth and a man to protect them. His life was about taking risks. Gambling all, on the chance for profit. No woman should live with such uncertainty. They were too delicate, too easily broken as his mother had been broken. The pain of her death had been unbearable. Not something he ever intended to experience again. Nor was it necessary. He was quite content to avoid the respectable ones while enjoying those who only wanted money in exchange for their favours, the demi-monde.

So why couldn’t he keep his eyes from this most respectable-looking of females? Who was she? He wasn’t aware of a female cousin, close or distant. Not that there couldn’t be a whole host of relatives he didn’t know about, since he didn’t give a damn about any of them. But as his gaze ran over the girl, a prickle of awareness raised the hairs on the back of his neck. A sensation of familiarity so strong, he felt the urge to draw closer and ask for her name.

Yet he was positive they had never met. Perhaps it was the wariness in her expression that had him intrigued.

A blinding flash of lightning