Excerpt: Banished

Book 2 : The 3rd Freak House Trilogy

Banished (Freak House) by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

Hertfordshire, Summer 1889

Frakingham House had never looked less freakish. Light blazed from every one of its windows and from the lamps lining both sides of the front steps. The shadows had been banished, and the recent terrifying events forgotten, albeit temporarily. A steady stream of grand coaches led by handsome pairs of matching horses deposited gentlemen and ladies before heading around to the stables. The hats and glittering tiaras tilted back as the guests peered up at the usually somber façade of the house and passed judgment. It was the first time most had seen the infamous mansion.

Whether their opinions were favorable or not, I didn’t know. I was too far away to hear, seated as I was in the music room. I turned away from the window and instead stared at the empty space in the middle of the room where the piano usually stood. It had been carried upstairs to the ballroom for the evening, where the pianist was currently playing a gentle sonata as Sylvia Langley greeted her guests alongside her cousin and his new wife. The music room seemed wrong without its main focus. Not only empty, but pointless. It was now just another room in a house full of them.

“There you are,” said Emily, sailing gracefully through the door like a boat across the smooth surface of a lake. “I’ve been instructed to fetch you and march you upstairs whether you want to go or not.”

“By Sylvia?”

“Goodness, no. She’s too excited to notice your absence. My instructions came from Hannah and Charity.”

“That’s sweet of them,” I said, absently.

“I was coming to look for you anyway.” Emily’s smile faded and her dark eyes softened. The time for forced cheerfulness was over, on her part, at least. “Are you all right, Cara?”

“Of course. I was a little overwhelmed and needed some time to myself, that’s all. There are so many grand personages in the ballroom that I’m quite giddy from switching my gaze between them all.”

Her lips twitched, despite her frown. “You might fool Sylvia with that little speech, but not me. I doubt you even know who any of the guests are.”

“I do! I saw that dreadful woman arrive with her odious son.”

“Which one?”

Clearly I’d met so many dreadful women with odious sons since my return to England that not even my niece could remember them all. “The one whom you foisted upon me at some soiree or other. She talked about how wonderful her son was all evening, yet he couldn’t stop looking at my chest.”

“Be thankful he even noticed your chest, flat as it is.”

That finally coaxed a genuine smile from me, making Emily grin back. “Oh, and Mr. and Mrs. Butterworth from the village are here,” I went on. “I think she’s the only person more excited than Sylvia tonight. So many eligible gentlemen to dangle her silly daughters in front of! Which ones will take the bait?”

“Which ones deserve the twin twits?”

“Far too many to count.”

“Now, now. There are some young gentlemen in there who are quite pleasant to talk to.” I rolled my eyes. “Pleasant? Good lord, Emily, you make them sound so dull. Please, stop me from throwing myself at all those pleasant men!”

She gave me a withering glare. “That isn’t fair. I’m only trying to take your mind off—” She pressed her lips together and looked away.

“You can say his name, Em. Quin. Quintin St. Clair.” I spat it out, challenging her, but I wasn’t quite sure why. “And I do not have him on my mind.”

“No? Then why did you assume he was the one I was about to mention?” Her hand on hip posture was a challenge to me.

I would not rise to it. Indeed, I said nothing and stood, turning to watch through the window as one of the footmen opened a coach door for two new arrivals.

Behind me, Emily sighed. “I know why you’re hiding away in here.”

“I’m not hiding.”

“And I don’t blame you in the least,” she went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “You miss him.”

“I don’t.”

“I am sympathetic. But you must come back to the ballroom. Not only for Sylvia’s sake, or Charity and Hannah’s, but for mine.”

I squared up to her. “Yours?”

“I’m worried about you.” She looped her arm through mine and fixed me with those brown eyes of hers that were incongruously soft, yet determined too. She wasn’t going to surrender easily. “In the three weeks since you were last here at Frakingham, you’ve hardly been anywhere or done anything. You won’t go visiting with me or receive callers. You wouldn’t even come shopping.”

She was worried. It was etched into every new line around her mouth and the way she looked at me, as if she expected me to burst into tears. I had, but not in company. Since leaving Frakingham, three weeks prior, I’d been listless, unable to concentrate on tasks and disinterested in the world around me. I’d hardly smiled and never laughed. Emily was right. I missed Quin.

But missing Quin was a pointless exercise. Even if he came back to this realm, he was dead anyway, destined to return to Purgatory. I might have liked kissing him and being with him, but I wasn’t fool enough to dream that there could be more.

It was easy to tell myself that. Much, much harder to get my heart to listen.

“Come on,” I said, steering her toward the door. “Let’s see which gentlemen have fallen into Mrs. Butterworth’s trap.”

“And then we shall see which ones fall into mine.”

I groaned. “It’s going to be a long night.”

We headed up the stairs and rejoined Sylvia and the others. As August Langley’s niece, she had been mistress at Frakingham for the last eight years, despite not even being twenty yet. But now that her cousin had married, she was destined to take a back seat to Hannah Langley. She claimed not to mind, but watching her hosting her first ball, I wondered if she would continue to be so gracious.

She smiled at all her guests and made a point of engaging them in conversation. Her behavior could have been taken straight from the handbook on hostessing. She made everyone in that room seem like they mattered, even the wallflowers sitting on the chairs at the edge of the dance floor. I noticed her nudge Jack and Samuel toward them on more than one occasion.

“She’s quite the tour de force when she wants to be,” said Hannah, sidling up to me. Her red hair was bound in a loose style that was all the rage in Paris, apparently, allowing some of her curls to hang free around her pretty face. She wore a lovely deep green gown with rosettes and lace at the bodice and along the hemline. It suited her perfectly.

“I admit to being very impressed with Sylvia’s handling of tonight,” I said. “The evening has run smoothly so far, and the guests seem charmed by her.”

“They do, and I admit to being somewhat surprised that it has turned out so well. It wasn’t that long ago that the mere thought of throwing a ball would send Sylvia into fits of anxiety.”

“She told me she hasn’t slept in three weeks.” Hannah smiled. “I can vouch for the truth in that. I heard her pacing up and down the hallway one night.”

“Are you sure she wasn’t visiting Tommy on the sly?”

Her smile widened. “If she was, then nothing has come of it. He complained to Jack that he’s hardly seen her lately.”

“Poor Tommy.”

My heart felt heavier at the thought of him, although I hadn’t seen him since my arrival yesterday. According to Jack and Hannah, Tommy’s arm was still bandaged from when he’d injured it fighting off an army of demons alongside Quin.

“Don’t worry too much about him,” she said. “He’s been busy teaching the new servants what to do, and barking orders left and right in preparation for tonight, much to Bradford’s displeasure.”

Bradford was the new butler who’d taken up the position mere weeks ago. It would seem the power struggle between Tommy and Bradford was destined to continue, despite Tommy’s incapacity.

“And what happens when tonight is over and the servants no longer need directing?”

“We must hope that Tommy is willing to take on a new role. One that doesn’t require him to use both arms.”

“One that involves Sylvia?”

We both watched her as she flitted through to the refreshment room like a butterfly between roses.

“I’m not so sure that she wants to be involved,” Hannah said.

She did seem to have forgotten all about Tommy, despite showing signs of affection for him earlier. Perhaps having Jack and Hannah home had put things into perspective for her, or perhaps her uncle had made it clear he didn’t condone the relationship—if he knew about it at all, that is.

I was about to ask Hannah when Charity and Samuel joined us. They’d been inseparable most of the night, except for when Samuel had obliged Sylvia by dancing with the odd girl, here and there. I was struck again by how dazzling they were as a couple. Both tall, blonde and strikingly beautiful, they were a match in looks as well as sensibility. He was charming and she was somewhat reserved, although I’d seen how fierce she could be when necessary. Like Jacob, Emily and myself, they had arrived at Frakingham yesterday and would stay overnight while the rest of the guests drove back to the village or to other houses nearby. Securing accommodation for everyone had been quite a feat for Sylvia. She really had surpassed my expectations.

“Have you seen who’s here?” Samuel asked me.

I scanned the guests milling behind him and seeing nobody I knew, shrugged. “Who?”

“Faraday.”

“Nathaniel!” I looked again, but still didn’t spot him. “What’s he doing here?”

The last time I’d seen Nathaniel Faraday was in Harborough, just before Quin had left this realm three weeks ago. He’d been with Everett Myer, the master of the Society for Supernatural Activity, and they’d been after the same ancient book of spells as us. We’d reached it first, thanks only to Nathaniel delaying Myer in London. I wasn’t yet sure whether to trust him or not. I certainly didn’t trust Myer, and if Nathaniel continued to assist him, it would seem I couldn’t trust him either. It was a pity, because I’d enjoyed his company when I’d first met him on the long voyage from the colony of Victoria on the S.S. Bombay. At the time, I’d wanted to get to know him better. Now, I felt about him in much the same way I felt about most gentlemen I’d met in England—ambivalent.

“I think Sylvia invited him,” Charity told me, also scanning the guests standing at the edges of the ballroom.

“Why would she do that?”

Three pairs of eyes looked at me as if I were a fool. “Oh.” I felt my cheeks burn, and I wished they wouldn’t, since I no longer thought of Nathaniel in that way. “Well. You do all know that he cannot be completely trusted, don’t you?”

They nodded.

“And that he may be on Myer’s side.”

“We know,” Charity said gently, taking my hand and squeezing it. “But he also may not be. Emily told us how he failed to tell Myer where to find the book until it was too late.”

Hannah took my other hand. “So much has happened here in our absence. I must say, it’s been a busy spring.”

“But you’re back now,” I said with the cheerfulness I knew they all hoped to hear. “Frakingham will resume its normal routine again and all will be well.”

“Yes,” Hannah said, searching the crowd. Her gaze rested on a tall, dark-haired figure striding toward us. She smiled then walked off to meet her husband.

“He’s coming,” Charity whispered in my ear before she and Samuel melted into the crowd.

I thought she meant Jack Langley until I saw Nathaniel splitting off from a group of gentlemen and heading my way. I was torn between pretending to see someone I wanted to speak to and greeting him like an old friend. My indecision meant I remained rooted to the floor and an easy target.

“Good evening, Cara.” He bowed smoothly, sending his sandy curls tumbling forward over his eyes, where they remained after he straightened. They did not hide the way his gaze roamed down my length, however, or lingered on my mouth. “You’re looking particularly handsome tonight.”

Handsome? That was the best he could do? Apparently not, because he continued on. And on.

“That shade of pink is particularly pleasing for a girl of your coloring. And the beading around the neckline and in your hair sparkles in this light. Indeed, the ones in your hair are like stars in the darkest night sky. You should be commended on your choice of gown and accessories tonight.” His chortle didn’t suit a gentleman with such a lean frame and handsome face. It belonged on someone more robust and older. “Listen to me. I’ve become quite the fashion critic. My friends would laugh to hear me talk to a pretty young girl in such a manner, but I just can’t help myself.”

“Indeed. Excuse me, Nathaniel, but I must find my niece and her husband.” I wasn’t usually so dismissive of a gentleman’s attempts at flattery. It was rare enough that I was ordinarily pleased to receive any and all compliments. But tonight, and for the last three weeks, my tolerance had sunk low and my patience worn thin. Even so, Nathaniel’s crestfallen face gave me pause. I offered him a smile and my hand. He kissed it with dry lips. “Forgive me, Nathaniel. I’m out of sorts lately.”

“That’s quite all right. I suppose it’s been an odd time for you, what with that fellow from Purgatory clinging to you and learning of my involvement with Myer.”

“He didn’t cling. He saved my life, more than once.”

“How? Was there a demon infestation? Or something else related to the portal here at Frakingham?”

I hadn’t told him about the curse that had been inflicted upon me, and Quin’s role in keeping me alive while we hunted down the book that contained the counter curse. Nathaniel had worked out that Quin was from Purgatory, but had not told Myer, something for which I was grateful. Nathaniel seemed the less inquisitive of the two, preferring to avoid Quin, after he discovered the truth about him, rather than pepper him with questions.

Or so I’d thought. “Tell me, what was he like?”

I shrugged one shoulder, causing the strip of silk there to slip down and reveal more skin. Nathaniel didn’t seem to notice, intent as he was on my mouth as he waited for my answer. “Quin was a gentleman and a warrior, with the traits of both,” I told him.

“I see. Was he old?”

“Very.”

“And how did he get into Purgatory?”

“He didn’t say.”

“Didn’t or wouldn’t?”

“I’m not sure.”
He leaned in closer. “Did you summon him or did he simply appear?”

“I summoned him.”

“Did he happen to mention what Purgatory is like?”

“These are quite a lot of questions, Nathaniel. A lady might think you were only talking to her to get answers.”

His face reddened. “I, er, my apologies, Cara. I didn’t mean to offend.”

“I’m not offended, but I am curious as to why you’re asking these questions of me now, when you could have asked Quin when he was here. Instead, you ran away.”

He stroked his jacket lapels, brushing off lint that wasn’t there. “I admit his presence was somewhat…”

“Intimidating?”

“Overwhelming.”

“I see. Tell me, Nathaniel, are you still assisting Mr. Myer with his research now that the book has been found?”

“I am not entirely sure what the future holds in that regard.”

We had told Nathaniel and Myer that Quin had hidden the book without telling us where, but it was doubtful that Nathaniel believed that, considering he knew Quin was a warrior from Purgatory. Myer, however, did not know and quite likely believed our story. In truth, Samuel had hidden the book and not told any of us. He was the only one immune to Myer’s hypnosis and therefore the only one who could keep the location safe. We hadn’t heard from Myer since Quin left but I was in no doubt that he hadn’t given up the search. He was obsessed with obtaining the book and keeping the portal at Frakingham Abbey open, despite the dangers that could be summoned through it.

The music changed to a waltz and more people flowed onto the dance floor in waves of silk and perfume. Nathaniel bowed to me. “Will you do me the honor of dancing with me, Cara?”

My dance card was entirely empty since I had spoken to so few gentlemen thus far. I had no grounds on which to refuse him, and doing so would be terribly poor manners. Besides, Nathaniel had proven to be a thoroughly interesting conversationalist, as long as we steered away from discussions of Myer, magical books and Quin. I thought it safe to assume we’d exhausted those topics.

“Of course.” I put out my hand and he beamed as he led me onto the dance floor.

We took a few moments to find our rhythm, but once we did, he resumed the conversation about paranormal matters. I instantly regretted my decision to dance with him.

“Nathaniel,” I said, interrupting his question about spirits and what they look like to we mediums. “Do you think we can have a conversation that does not involve ghosts, ectoplasm, demons, other realms, or spells?”

He blinked owlishly at me. “Oh. What topic would you like to discuss?”

“I don’t care, but we used to talk about a great many things on the journey from Melbourne.” I hadn’t even known he was a paranormal historian until meeting him again in London. It hadn’t come up on the ship.

It would seem he couldn’t think of a single thing and we finished the rest of the dance in silence. When the music ended, he politely bowed and walked away. I headed in the opposite direction, feeling somewhat bruised. It would seem Nathaniel only enjoyed my company these days when the paranormal was a topic.

“Good evening.” The mumbled, sluggish voice halted me in my path. “It’s Miss Moreau, isn’t it?”

My heart plunged and I forced myself to turn with a smile plastered to my face. “Lord Alwyn,” I said, giving the giant gentleman a shallow curtsy. “I’m surprised to see you here.” Particularly since he wasn’t on the guest list. I ought to know; I’d helped Sylvia draw it up.

His wide, fleshy lips stretched around the cigar that was perpetually perched between them, despite the ballroom not being the place for such smelly things. I think he was smiling at me, but it was difficult to tell. I forced a smile anyway.

“Lady Alwyn and I are delighted to have been invited to this fine house,” he said with a thrust of his considerable girth. The man was very tall and broadly built. In his youth, he probably cut a fine, strong figure, but in middle age, the muscle had run to fat, his hair was thinning, and the skin on his face had slackened and sagged. “I must say you’re looking somewhat prettier than the last time we met.”

Considering the last time we’d met I’d been dressed as a boy, it wasn’t much of a compliment. Byron Mordant-Turpin, the eighth earl of Alwyn, had forced Quin to fight in an illegal boxing match before he would tell us who had bought many of the books from his library, including the book of spells that would cure me. He was a notorious gambler, liar, cheat, and a generally unpleasant fellow who’d backed us into a difficult corner, getting us in trouble with the organizer of the bare knuckle fights, a nasty ruffian by the name of Bains.

“Shall we dance, Miss Moreau?” he asked as the music changed again.

Dancing with him meant touching him. Ugh. “I regret that my card is full.”

“Come now, there’s no need to lie.” He chomped down on his cigar, dropping ash onto his jacket. “I’ve been watching you, Miss Moreau, and I know your card is empty. Fellows prefer English roses to African exotics. You need to make your connection to Beaufort better known if you want to make ’em flock.”

“Do you usually insult the ladies you ask to dance?”

He held out his hand. “I only want to waltz with a pretty young lady. There’s nothing sinister in that, eh?”

I glanced around, but saw nobody I knew. Rescue would not be forthcoming. “Put out your cigar first. I don’t want ash in my hair.”

He chuckled and did as I asked, stabbing the butt on the back of a nearby chair and flinging it into the corner. I pulled a face at his back and steeled myself for a horrid few minutes.

He led me onto the dance floor and we took up our positions. I stood as far from him as I could while still performing the waltz, but his stomach was so large that I kept bumping against it.

“Suppose you’re wondering why I’m here,” he said.

“Not particularly.”

“You are, you just don’t want to admit it.” Even without the cigar in his mouth, he still mumbled his words. “I made some enquiries about you and your friend, St. Clair.”

I held my breath and hazarded a glance up at him. “And what did you learn?”

“I learned that St. Clair has returned to Melbourne, and I already knew more about him than anyone else I spoke with. He’s quite the mystery man.”

I blew out the breath and relaxed a little. It would seem Alwyn wasn’t aware of Quin’s supernatural existence. Hopefully he wasn’t aware of the supernatural at all.

“I also learned that you’re friendly with the Langley girl. My wife mentioned this ball and we took the liberty of turning up tonight, since Miss Langley’s invitation must have been mislaid.” The grin he gave me was wolfish.

“Is there a point you’re trying to make, my lord?”

“Well, well, aren’t you the inquisitive one? I should have guessed, considering the circumstances in which we first met.” His grip tightened on my hand and waist, trapping me. “You’re a fortunate woman, Miss Moreau. I don’t dance with just anyone these days.” He leaned down until his mouth was near my ear. His hot breath fanned my hair. “I also don’t like being lied to.”

I would not be intimidated by this man, particularly in a room full of people. He couldn’t do anything to me here. “Are you referring to me being dressed as a boy at The Brickmaker’s Arms? Because I assure you, that had nothing to do with duping you and everything to do with me wanting an adventure. When did you realize I was a girl?”

“Almost immediately. I thought it safer to keep your secret. Not sure what all those brutes would have done to a pretty chit like you if they’d sniffed out some sport.”

“Thank you. I think.” His words didn’t particularly worry me. I’d had Quin to keep me safe at the time. I certainly wouldn’t have entered into such a place without him there to protect me.

“What is it you want, sir? I doubt you came all this way just to dance, and there’s little sport to be had here in sleepy Hertfordshire.”

“I’m not here for sport, I’m here for answers. I want to know why my book was so important to you and St. Clair.”

“Quin is a historian and the book was one he needed for his research.”

He swung me about a little more violently than the dance necessitated. “Don’t lie to me, girl,” he snarled, baring large teeth. “You’ll find I make a very unpleasant enemy.”

I swallowed. My thoughts raced, even as my stomach dove. Telling him about the book risked too much. He might not have an interest in the paranormal now, but if he knew the book’s value and power, I suspected he would suddenly develop one. But this man was astute and would know if I lied.

“It was just a book, my lord,” I said in the strongest voice I could muster. “You would need to ask Mr. St. Clair what was in it. I barely glanced at it.”

“No. No, no, no.” His grip on my hand became bruising. I winced and tried to pull free, but that only brought more pain shooting into my wrists. “You see, some days after I last saw you, I began to ponder about the book and the vast distance Mr. St. Clair had traveled to find it. It was his nature that first set off alarm bells. You see, he’s not the bookish type. Not in the least. So why did he want to read the books in my library? When I could also find out nothing about him, I began to wonder. I spoke to the priest who’d brokered the purchase, and he told me about the bookseller. He in turn told me about yourselves and a certain other gentleman who’d come looking for the book that day. I believe Mr. Faraday is here tonight, but not his employer, Mr. Myer. If Myer had an interest in the particular tome, then I am certainly interested now too.” He spoke as quietly as his booming voice allowed. “Because if he wants it, he will pay to get it and not care about the sum. The man is richer than the queen.”

“He is that. But I can assure you, I no longer have the book. Quin hid it.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Either way, you’re going to get it back for me, Miss Moreau.”

He eased his hold and I pulled free and stepped a little away from him, bumping into the couple whirling past. We both stood in the middle of the dance floor as the dancers dipped and swirled around us to the increasing tempo of the music. It was like standing in the eye of a storm, waiting for it to unleash its force upon us. The problem was, I had no anchor, no strong pillar to hold onto. I was alone with an unpredictable and very large man, without any friends or family to keep me safe.

“Why would I do that, sir?” I asked him. It was easy to sound brave. Much harder to feel it. My heart hammered in my chest and my palms felt cold, clammy. “You sold the book and we acquired it from the gentleman who bought it from you.” Acquired it under the most violent circumstances that saw Lord Frakingham’s heir, Douglas Malborough, die.

“You’re not hearing me, Miss Moreau. I don’t care that the book has been bought and sold. I want it back. It’s my family heirloom.” He fished in his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a cigar longer than his finger. “The book belongs in the Alwyn library. For sentimental reasons.” He shoved the cigar between his lips and chomped down on it. “I’m sure a girl like you understands the importance of family and history.”

If anything sets my blood boiling, it’s men like him who think of me as having little more value than an exotic curiosity. “A girl like me?”

He chuckled, apparently finding my hot temper amusing. “A girl who likes her family. A girl with a lot to lose.”

Just like that my ire dissolved, replaced by uncertainty again and a sickening sense of dread. “What are you implying?” My small voice was almost lost as the band whipped their playing into a crescendo that had the dancers spinning into a frenzy.

He leaned forward and kept his voice low. “I am a man who gets what he wants. Always. Sometimes I have to use unsavory methods to achieve my ends, but that’s only because I find those methods are the currency that get a response. Do not force my hand, Miss Moreau. I don’t want to hurt any of your loved ones—but I will.” He straightened to his full height and pushed out his barrel chest. He didn’t smile, but there was a hard gleam in his eyes that dared me to test him so he could prove what he was capable of. “Do we understand one another, Miss Moreau?”

I nodded quickly. What else could I do? The man was unscrupulous and greedy. Whether he was the sort to follow through on such a horrible threat, I didn’t know. Nor did I want to find out. I felt sick as I watched his thick lips spread into a grin.

“I’ll be generous and give you four days. If you don’t have the book by then…” He bowed and walked off the dance floor as the music died away and the dancers came to a stop.

I ran past them and out of the ballroom, my stomach doing wild flips and my hands shaking. I couldn’t think through the dilemma he’d slapped on me, couldn’t decide what the best course of action was. All I knew was that I wanted Quin, not simply for his advice and the protection he offered, but to share the burden of the decision that had to be made.

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