The Secrets of Colchester Hall - Sophie Barnes

Chapter 1

Rivulets of water slid down the windowpane, blurring the view from the carriage. Jostling along the rutted country road, Angelica Florence Northbridge pressed her palm to the glass and peered out at the dreary wetness, hoping to catch a better glimpse of her destination. From what she’d seen so far, it did not look nearly as inviting as she had hoped.

Although she was a self-professed gothic novel enthusiast, there was a difference between reading about a bleak castle haunted by restless spirits and actually having to visit one. Not that Colchester Hall was rumored to house supernatural entities, but with black clouds hanging low and rain pelting down, the setting was perfect for an Anne Radcliffe story.

“Why did we have to come here?” Angelica asked her mother, Rose. “I would so much rather have remained at home.”

“And done what exactly?” Rose inquired.

“Read?” Angelica suggested. “Work on my correspondence?”

“Both of which can be accomplished anywhere. And since Viscount Sterling was kind enough to extend an invitation to us, I thought it wise to accept.”

What went unsaid was the fact that Rose desperately longed to see her youngest daughter settled. Angelica’s four older sisters had all married in recent years, but with another Season come and gone, Angelica’s future remained uncertain.

“Have you ever met him?” Angelica asked. The carriage rocked as it followed a curve in the road.

“Once. Before he married. His father attended Oxford with your papa.”

A mournful silence followed. According to what Angelica had learned from her mother, Sterling had been only eight and twenty when his wife perished. Now, two years later, he was looking to re-marry. Any uncertainty regarding this had been dispelled by the blunt invitation. It had read as follows: I am in need of a wife and your daughter could be a suitable candidate for the position. Please join me at my estate from September 10th to September 24th so we may determine our compatibility.

In Angelica’s opinion, the blunt order hadn’t deserved a response, but of course her mother had disagreed. One could not snub a viscount. It simply wasn’t done. And as tempted as Angelica had been to argue the point, she’d refrained because of her mother’s clear desperation. With no other suitors forthcoming, the time for being picky had passed “What was your impression of him?” Angelica asked.

Rose sighed. “He was nice enough, I suppose.”

With a roll of her eyes, Angelica muttered, “I can scarcely wait to meet him, Mother.”

“Well, opinions are objective. I’ve always been wary of swaying those of others.”

Angelica slumped against the squabs and glanced out toward the grey stone façade now filling her vision. “How annoyingly diplomatic of you.”

Rose smiled. “You’ll meet him soon enough and then you may judge for yourself.” The carriage rolled to a swaying halt near the front steps of Colchester Hall. A footman holding an oiled silk umbrella opened the carriage door and helped Rose alight.

Careful to steer her around the puddles, he escorted her inside the manor before returning to offer Angelica his assistance. She made her way across the short expanse of gravel, climbed the wide steps, crossed the threshold…and froze.

“Goodness gracious.” Judging from the dull exterior, she never would have dreamed Colchester Hall possessed a foyer so grand. Domed and three stories high, it seemed to stretch toward heaven, the walls and ceiling adorned by murals featuring colorful garlands carried by birds and angels. The paint was faded and even peeling in a few places, but that did not detract from the beauty. A sweeping stone staircase rose toward the first floor landing to join the balcony bordering the periphery of the room.

“Isn’t it magnificent?” a breathy voice that wasn’t Rose’s asked.

Angelica lowered her gaze to a young lady with eyes so large and inquisitive they made her look slightly owlish. “It is indeed,” Angelica said. She waited for the lady to introduce herself, but when she didn’t, Angelica decided she would go first. “I’m Lady Angelica Northbridge. And you are?”

The young lady blinked. “Miss Lucinda Harlow, but um…” She shrugged. “You can call me Lucy.”

Angelica instantly smiled in response to her timid yet friendly tone. “It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Lucy. And please feel free to forgo the honorific with me as well”

Lucy offered a shy smile. “All right.”

Unsure of what else to say, Angelica glanced around in search of her mother and found her chatting with another woman of similar age. Perhaps Lucy’s mother? Or maybe she was chaperone to one of the other four ladies who’d piled