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Essex, England 1789
Elsie picked another flower. Her fist was full of them already, but she didn’t want to return home. She squinted up at the sky. Already it was darkening, and that meant her brother would be home soon.
Mother had the illness again. It would be loud there, with Mother moaning and wailing and Father shouting at her to stop. Only William could set her right.
So she jammed the stem in with the others and walked along the cracked stone walls of the Abbey. She would give William the flowers. Elsie-girl, he would smile, beautiful flowers from a beautiful girl. And he would twirl her about.
Except her shadow lengthened on the grass, and she worried. She might get in trouble. Worse, she might encounter the ghost. They said the Saint of Osyth was a witch in life and a ghost in death, walking the Abbey once a year. William said she wasn’t real, but Elsie didn’t want to chance it, so she turned toward home.
Rain touched her face and she sped up. She would definitely be in trouble now.
Elsie saw it as she passed the gatehouse, a flash of black through a missing stone in the wall. The ghost! She dashed away from the Abbey, even though it would take her the wrong way. Away from home and into the woods.
Footsteps thudded behind her and the wet wind slapped her face, but she ran and ran. Her shoe slipped on mud and she fell, sliding down into a wet ditch. A rock banged her head and her leg twisted.
She looked up at the dark figure above her, looming wet and large. Her head hurt very much, and the dark of the night closed in on her. But her last thought, as the figure tripped its way down the bank, was surprise that the ghost was not a woman after all, but a man.
The Honorable Viscount Sheldon was in a foul mood. He should have been at a rout, courting a young miss or two and stealing kisses in the courtyard. Instead he traveled in a smelly, bumpy coach on a stormy night.
After a mere six months of freedom, William was coming home. He’d been summoned, no doubt because his mother was speaking in tongues or screaming obscenities.
He had tried to be the good son, forsaking both play and his studies to remain by her side. He rushed home every break between terms and suffered her pleas when it was time to leave. No, he’d tell her, Father does not have a secret plot to kill you. Elsie does not wish you dead. The servants do not slip poison into your food.
It was only in the past few years since he’d graduated, when he’d chafed at the damp jail of a house did the most unkind thought occur to him, that maybe he was the one who wished her gone. So he’d implored his father to let him join his ex-schoolmates in London, to experience bachelor life before he settled down to marry.
She is inconsolable. You must return.
That’s what the note had said, so here he was.
A drawn out lurch ended his trip. He peered out at the familiar manse. Its three stories were cavernous considering the family of three, now four, who lived here. The only building nearby that could rival it for size was the Abbey, but that was a falling down pile of rubble. As well as haunted, if one believed the stories, which he didn’t.