Excerpt: Heart Burn

Book 3 : The 1st Freak House Trilogy

Heart Burn (Freak House) by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

Frakingham House, Hertfordshire, December 1888

What young lady didn’t love to attend balls? Particularly ones held in the glittering London residence of a nobleman?

This girl, that’s who.

Ever since the invitation had come from our new friend, Mrs. Beaufort, I’d dreaded going. I’d never been to a ball, never attended a soiree, assembly or the theater. It’s difficult to make your debut while locked in an attic. What made my anxiety worse was knowing that I didn’t deserve to attend—I was a nobody with both feet firmly on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. All the other guests would be so grand and important, like the Beauforts themselves. I kept sneaking peeks at the invitation to check whether it was a mistake, but there was my name in bold, sweeping strokes: Hannah Smith.

My friend, Sylvia Langley, was not so worried. She twirled around the entrance hall of Frakingham House, humming a tune she claimed was a waltz, but sounded more like a hive of angry bees. She’d tried teaching me the steps, but gave up after I stood on her toes for the fifth time. Dancing was not one of my talents.

I didn’t mind sitting out while she practiced alone. I was too tired to put much effort into the activity, and it was pleasure enough watching Sylvia. She positively glowed with happiness, even when she’d tried to explain the etiquette of balls over and over to me. I simply couldn’t remember half of the rules, but that was probably because my mind was elsewhere. One’s pending death can be a distraction.

The heat inside me was slowly killing me, consuming my energy so that I was often exhausted and feverishly hot. Dancing certainly didn’t help, which might explain why Sylvia didn’t pressure me too much. I did wonder if she was in some sort of denial over my health as well as other horrible events that had occurred recently. She seemed too positive considering all that had passed in the last week.

Aside from learning that the compound injected into me as a baby was destroying me, two men had died on the estate, others injured and we’d killed not one but two demons. It was just like Sylvia to put all of that to the back of her mind and focus on something fun. She had a tendency to want her problems to magically disappear.

I couldn’t blame her. I would have liked to forget it all too. Only I couldn’t. Not when heat swirled through me like a fire and a madman named Reuben Tate wanted to abduct and experiment on me. He hadn’t tried since the day we’d destroyed his demon assistant, Ham, but none of us at Frakingham assumed he’d given up. That’s why I’d been confined to the house under the constant guard of Jack Langley. Jack had taken it upon himself to be my champion. I was rather pleased about it, to be honest. I liked being near him, talking to him, watching him.

It was he who’d been watching me, however. He stood in the arched doorway, one shoulder leaning against the frame, his arms crossed. He had the sort of face that made women look twice as he passed, and a physique built for power and speed.

The chiseled edges of his jaw and cheekbones were softened somewhat by the curved lips and dark lashes surrounding sea-green eyes. Usually those lips were set with determination, but now they smiled at me. Indeed, he looked relaxed, amused almost. He must have witnessed my attempts at dancing. How positively humiliating.

“How long have you been there?” I asked as he approached.

“Long enough to see how light you are on your feet.”

“The bruises on Sylvia’s toes would prove otherwise.”

“She ought to keep them out of the way.” He tilted his head to the side and frowned at his cousin. “What is she doing?”

“I’m dancing.” Sylvia stopped in the center of the hall. Her full skirt swayed around her until it settled into perfect lines once more. Everything about Sylvia was perfect, from her golden hair and pretty face to her full bust and rim waist. She could be trying at times, and a little silly, but I enjoyed her company overall. “You are a philistine, Jack. Have you ever danced the waltz?”

“Have you ever seen me attend a ball?” he countered.

She tossed her blonde curls. “No.”

“Well then, the conclusion would be that I’ve never danced the waltz. Which, I might add, you haven’t either.” He leaned closer to me, but we did not touch. We couldn’t. We were both fire starters, and when our heat combined in passion, it became overwhelming. Intimacy led to sparks and a sensation within that I likened to my blood boiling. “I’m not sure she’s the best teacher on the subject, Hannah.”

“Better than you,” Sylvia said, hand on hip.

I laughed. I enjoyed their teasing. It was never malicious. I knew they cared for one another as any true cousins would, despite it recently coming to light that they weren’t related at all.

“If you’ve never been to a ball, Sylvia, how do you know all of these rules and dances?” I asked.

“I learned to waltz from a dancing master. As to the rules, the Young Ladies Journal has been a great source of information.”

“You learned everything about balls from a periodical?” Jack scoffed.

“And my dancing master.”

“I remember him. A small fellow with a false French accent.”

“It was not false! Monsieur Bourgogne was from Paris,” Sylvia said with a sniff.

“His accent was atrocious.”

“Are you an expert on the French now? My my, haven’t we come a long way from the gutters of London.” She must have realized she’d spoken out of turn because she bit her lip.

Beside me, Jack seemed unfazed at the mention of his street urchin roots. He knew that it didn’t bother me, and I was beginning to think it no longer bothered him like it used to. I liked that he’d accepted it as being a part of the man he’d become and not something that could be flicked off like an insect on the skin.

Sylvia signaled for him to join her. “I need a male partner.”

“Perhaps Samuel can oblige,” Jack said. “I’m busy.”

“You are not. You’re sitting there criticizing my dancing and poor Monsieur Bourgogne.”

“Actually, I’m leaving.”

“Oh?” I said. “Where are you going?”

“Into the village to see Mrs. Mott.”

Mrs. Mott was the widow of the builder who’d recently died at the hands of a demon just outside the house. Although simply saying he died didn’t convey the ghastliness of the situation. It would be more correct to say he was eaten. He and his colleagues had been working on the renovations to the house and uncovered a lost medieval dungeon from which the demon had emerged. Someone must have summoned it from the Otherworld, and since Mott had been closest to the dungeon and shown little fear or surprise, we assumed it had been him. He couldn’t have done it without help, though. Not only did he bear us no grudge, but it was unlikely that he’d discovered how to summon a demon and gotten a hold of a cursed amulet himself. He must have had an associate, one with sound knowledge of demons.

Hopefully Mrs. Mott could tell us who. We’d decided to wait until the initial shock of his death had worn off before paying her a visit. We were in no hurry now that Jack had killed the demon. The amulet that had been used to summon it was also broken and useless, so it was unlikely Mott’s accomplice would unleash another demon on us so soon.

The only urgency now was finding a cure for my condition. August Langley was working day and night. We’d hardly seen Sylvia’s uncle or his assistant, Bollard, for days. Nor had we seen any sign of Reuben Tate, although I didn’t think he’d given up trying to kidnap me. He was dying too, and dying people were desperate. I would know. I’d stood countless times outside Langley’s door, trying to listen through the wood for any signs that the microbiologist was getting closer to discovering a cure. It took all my waning energy to not interrupt him every half hour.

“I’m coming with you,” I said, standing.

Jack shook his head. “Stay here and rest.”

“I need to get out of the house or I’ll go mad.”

“You need to rest.”

Having a champion might be wonderful at times, but it could also be stifling. I adored Jack, and I knew he cared deeply for me, but my nerves were stretched to the limit. I supposed it was inevitable that I’d find confinement difficult after being released from the attic of Windamere Manor. I was like a jack-in-the-box toy. Once the lid opened and the jack released, stuffing him back inside the box wasn’t the easiest of tasks.

“Jack,” I said, trying for a gentle yet insistent voice similar to what I’d heard Samuel use when hypnotizing someone. “I need a distraction from…” I sighed and waved a hand at my body to get my point across.

He closed his eyes, and for a moment I worried that I’d taken it too far and only served to remind him of his troubles. I went to touch his arm, but withdrew my hand when it grew hot.

“Very well.” He opened his eyes. They were filled with shadows that were there much too often of late. “You may come. Sylvia, I suppose you wish to come too as chaperone.”

She gave an inelegant snort. “Don’t be absurd. I’ve seen you two kissing in the lake. You’re beyond worrying about appearances. Besides, it’s cold outside.”

I blushed to the tips of my ears. I should have guessed that she’d seen us. Jack and I had discovered we could touch each other in the freezing waters of the lake, although there was a limit to how…intimate we could get. Kissing was as far as we’d taken our relationship. I was well aware that propriety forbade even that, and I was surprised that Sylvia hadn’t admonished us in her self-appointed role as my chaperone.

Then again, there were so few visitors to Frakingham that no one would see, and perhaps she thought a dying girl didn’t have to follow the same rules as everybody else. It was certainly how I felt about the situation.

Jack winked at me. “We’ll be all the poorer for your lack of company, Syl.”

“Don’t tease me, or I’ll come just to spite you,” she said. “Now wouldn’t that put a dent in your plans to whisper sweet sentiments in Hannah’s ear?”

He ignored her and turned to me. “Ready, Hannah?”

I rose just as Tommy the footman walked in carrying a vase of flowers with one hand. He set them down on the marble-topped table near the door and was about to walk out again when I spoke.

“Good morning, Tommy. How’s your head?”

He touched the lump on his forehead. It had diminished in size, and the color wasn’t quite so purple, but it still looked angry. He’d acquired the lump and a sore arm from Ham when he attempted to stop the demon from kidnapping me. “Much better, thank you, Miss Smith.”

I rolled my eyes at him but did not tell him to call me Hannah like I used to do. I’d discovered that even though Tommy and Jack’s friendship went back several years, he kept up a formal facade when he was in the presence of anyone else in the household. I’d tried on numerous occasions to get him to address me by my given name, but had failed every time.

“I have an idea,” Jack said, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Syl, why not practice your dancing with Tommy? You did say you needed a male partner.”

“Don’t be absurd.” She screwed up her nose. “He’s a servant.” Sylvia might be sweet most of the time, but she was of the belief that servants and their employers shouldn’t mix, nor should the staff have an opinion or a thought that didn’t center around their duties. She and her uncle agreed on this.

“I’m quite sure that doesn’t mean he can’t dance,” Jack said, brows raised at his friend in question.

“I can dance,” Tommy said somewhat apologetically.

“The waltz?” Sylvia asked.

Tommy shook his head and rubbed his sore arm, as if that were the reason for his lack of dancing ability. Of course a man like Tommy wouldn’t know how to waltz. Like Jack, he would never have had the opportunity to learn.

Sylvia tilted her chin, apparently oblivious to his discomfort. “Samuel will know how to dance with a lady.”

“I’ll fetch him,” Tommy said quickly. He left before anyone could stop him.

Sylvia sucked in her lower lip and blinked after him.

“Do you have to be so cutting?” Jack scolded her. “He’s protected you on more than one occasion. He deserves some respect.”

Her blinking became more rapid and for a brief moment, I thought she was going to cry. Then the shadows passed from her eyes, and she thrust out that regal chin of hers even more. “He knows I appreciate his efforts in that regard.”

“Does he?” Jack muttered.

“My opinion stands, however. He does not know how to waltz. Samuel does. I don’t see how telling the truth can be construed as disrespectful.”

“We’d better go,” I said before Jack could berate her further and make the situation worse.

***

We traveled by coach to Harborough, driven by the new driver who’d replaced the deceased Olsen. Jack rode opposite me in the cabin, our knees close by not touching. We wore hats and gloves despite not needing them with our internal fires to keep us warm. It would have looked strange to the villagers to see us out in the depths of winter without them. We wanted to keep knowledge of our supernatural abilities confined to members of the household. It was bad enough that the Harborough residents called Frakingham ‘Freak House’ because of Langley’s disability and Bollard’s muteness. We didn’t want to give them any more reasons to be wary of us. We’d managed to convince them that the recent deaths had been caused by wild dogs, but it had not lessened their distrust of us. Indeed, we’d found it difficult to get the servants to return to work until Jack had increased their salaries.

“Will you go swimming with me later?” he asked.

“I don’t know if I should. We were spotted yesterday.”

“Don’t worry about Mrs. Moore,” he said, referring to the housekeeper. “She’s very discreet. That’s why August likes her.”

“Yes, but how long will it be until someone else sees? Someone less discreet.”

Some of the good humor left his eyes, revealing the turbulence that I was more familiar with. “Are you…?” He swallowed. “Are you regretting our liaisons in the lake?”

“Not at all.” I leaned forward. My fingers itched to touch him, but I held back. I would have to convince him with words. “I regret nothing. I know some consider our kisses shameful, but I do not. I look forward to meeting you in the lake more than anything.”

His chest expanded with his deep breath. He stared back at me, his intense gaze seeing all the way through to my soul. The corners of his lips inched up in a small, relieved smile.

“I’m mindful of maintaining a sense of propriety,” I said to fill the thick silence. “It’s important to Sylvia and Langley. I don’t want to give him any cause to send me away.” Not only would I have nowhere to go, but I was dependent upon him to find a cure. I was dependent upon him for a great many things.

“He wouldn’t do that,” Jack said, but he nodded in understanding. I knew he wouldn’t pressure me. “Hannah, if things were different, if you and I could touch, I would take you—”

“Don’t, Jack. Please.” I held up my hands for him to stop. “Not now.”

Whether he was about to say he would take me as his wife or lover, I didn’t want to know. Our future together could be wonderful. I knew that with deep certainty, but I had doubts as to whether I had a future at all. Making plans only saddened me, and I didn’t want to spend what few weeks I had left wallowing in self-pity. I wanted to live my life as best as I could in the time I had left, and regret nothing when the end came.

“Perhaps we could go to the lake at night,” I said, pushing my melancholy thoughts away.

He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. My dislike of discussing the future bothered him. Many times he’d wanted to make plans together, as if a cure was a certainty. But Langley had given us no such hope. I couldn’t pretend, so I tried to ignore the future all together.

“I’d like that,” he said. “Like it very much.”

“Tonight then.” I looked out the window and realized we’d slowed for the approach into Harborough. The shops along High Street came into view. Few people were out in the freezing cold. The small shops huddled together for warmth and company beneath the gray, cheerless sky. I scanned the area for Reuben Tate, but saw no sign of him. Not that I expected to. He knew he could not abduct me while Jack was near. Tate was much too weak.

We turned a few corners and finally stopped outside a row of cottages with no front porches or yards. They were all joined together under a single roof, the brickwork a little crooked in places as if they’d been quickly laid. They seemed deserted, but perhaps that was because everybody was either elsewhere or inside. Younger children would be at school, husbands and older children at work and wives in the kitchen.

We knocked and waited. I was afraid Mrs. Mott wouldn’t answer. She might be in a state of despair, or perhaps not home, although there was also the chance that she’d seen our arrival and wasn’t answering. Some of the villagers avoided us at all costs, preferring to cross the muddy road than pass by the residents of Freak House.

Eventually the door opened, and I was relieved to see that she was neither terrified of us nor in the depths of despair. I’d been impressed by her composure at Mr. Mott’s funeral. Her face had been stoic, her posture upright as she comforted her children. I did wonder if her lack of tears stemmed more from an acceptance of the hardship of her life rather than bravery.

The Motts were a part of that class that Sylvia did her best to ignore. They lived cheek by jowl in the cottages, wore ragged clothes, and scratched out a living in whatever way they could. I was suddenly very glad Jack had set Mrs. Mott up with an annuity until she remarried. Since her husband’s death had occurred at Frakingham while he was employed to restore it, Jack felt somewhat responsible.

“Miss Smith! Mr. Langley! What a surprise.” Mrs. Mott gave us a sad smile and opened the door wider. She was a tiny woman of indeterminate middle age. The bones in her face were sharp, the skin stretched tightly over cheeks and jaw. Small but pronounced wrinkles underscored her eyes. She seemed genuinely pleased to see us. Perhaps that was because Jack, as manager of August Langley’s estate, was now her benefactor.

“Come in out of the cold before you catch your…” She swallowed, and her eyes dulled. “Well, come in.”

She accepted the basket of pies, preserves and canned soup I’d brought with profuse thanks and led us to the front room. A fire burned in the grate, throwing out enough heat to make me feel like I was suffocating in the small parlor. A chair sat close to the hearth, a piece of brown woolen fabric on the seat and a sewing basket on the floor beside it. Mrs. Mott scooped up the fabric, but not before I saw it was a pair of men’s trousers that she was shortening.

“Are your children at school, Mrs. Mott?” I’d seen the three children at the funeral, two lanky boys in their teens and a young girl. It had torn my heart as they’d watched their father’s coffin descend into his grave. The girl and one of the boys had cried, but the older one did not. The modified trousers were probably for him, having belonged to his father.

“Aye, they are.”

Jack and I sat in the only two other chairs in the bare room and Mrs. Mott sat in the one beside the fire. She self-consciously tucked her dark brown hair under her cap and smiled uncertainly at us.

“Would you like tea?” she asked.

“No thank you,” Jack said. “This is a quick visit. We’re sorry to disturb you at this time, but we wanted to express once again how sorry we are for your loss.”

“Thank you.” She blushed a little at Jack’s sympathetic smile.

He didn’t often show his gentler side, but when he did, I was reminded of just how charming he could be when he tried. With his dark good looks and bright green eyes, he was achingly handsome. It was no wonder Mrs. Mott blushed when all he did was give her his full attention.

“Do you have everything you need?” I asked her. “Is there anything we can do for you and your children?” I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d already given her my sympathies on the loss of her husband at the funeral, but I still felt awkward sitting in her house mere days after his death. I wasn’t sure of the etiquette for bereavement. Should I have brought flowers instead of the food? I wished I’d asked Sylvia before we left.

“That’s kind of you, Miss Smith, and I thank you.” She turned adoring eyes on Jack. “But Mr. Langley has already done so much for me and the children. I don’t know where we’d be without his generosity.”

“I’ll pass your gratitude on to my uncle,” Jack said.

Mrs. Mott’s smile slipped a little, although mine broadened. I covered it discreetly with my hand. I knew the annuity had been all Jack’s idea, and that he’d implemented it too. August was probably not even aware of it, although it was his money. It was just like Jack to downplay his own role and let someone else receive the gratitude.

“Right then,” Mrs. Mott said. She rubbed her dry, cracked hands together and blew on them. “Sorry it’s a mite cold in here. I’ll add some more coal.”

“Not on our account,” I said. “We’re warm enough.”

“I insist,” Mrs. Mott said, pouring coal from the scuttle onto the fire. “Don’t know why I was savin’ it anyway. We’ve got coal to last us through the winter and into spring. Mr. Mott saw to that just before he died.” She set the scuttle back down and sat again.

That was something at least. I felt relieved knowing the family would be comfortable despite the icy temperatures.

“Mrs. Mott,” Jack began, “we need to ask you something regarding your husband’s recent behavior.”

“Oh?”

“Was he acting any differently in the weeks before he died?”

Her bottom lip protruded as she thought. “In what way?”

“Did he become friendly with anyone new, for example? Anyone not from Harborough?”

She shook her head. “The only time he left the village was to work on Freak— I mean Frakin’ham House.” She made an elaborate show of tucking her hair under her cap again, avoiding our gazes.

“How about new acquaintances in Harborough?” I asked.

“I couldn’t say, Miss Smith. He might have met someone down at the Lion. That’s the Red Lion, on High Street. Mr. Mott drank there twice a week, sometimes more. If he met anyone new, it would have been there.”

I sighed, unable to hide my disappointment. We would have to traipse down to the Red Lion and ask more questions of the proprietor. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. It was more that weariness was beginning to pull at me. Not that I would tell Jack. He would insist on returning home, and I didn’t want to waste the opportunity of learning more.

“Thank you, Mrs. Mott,” Jack said, rising. “You’ve been most helpful.”

Mrs. Mott tucked her hair away again, although it looked neat enough to me. “It’s good of you to visit me, Mr. Langley. You and Miss Smith. But, forgive me, why are you askin’ about my husband’s friends? Did he do somethin’ wrong?”

“No,” I said quickly. I didn’t want her to know about the terrible thing her husband had unleashed up at the house. For one thing, she might think us mad, and for another, he probably didn’t fully understand what he was doing. It was best that she remembered her husband fondly. What was done was done, and he’d paid a terrible price for his actions.

“Mr. Mott mentioned that he was doing some work for another builder,” Jack said, lying through his teeth. “The plans sounded impressive, and I wanted to see them. I have an interest in architecture. That’s all.” He gave her a smile.

She smiled back, but it soon turned into a frown. “Well, that would explain the coal.”

“Pardon?” Jack and I said together.

She waved a hand at the full coal scuttle. “He came home with sacks full of coal about two weeks ago. He shared it with our neighbors, and so pleased they were too. Another building job, you say?” Her frown disappeared, and she looked relieved. “Thank the lord. I don’t mind tellin’ you both now that I worried where the coal came from. Mr. Mott has always provided for this family, but I knew him well enough to know his work weren’t always honest.” She pressed a hand to her chest. “I am mighty relieved to hear you speak of another proper job. He must have been paid already.”

“So you don’t know who that employer may have been? Did Mr. Mott mention anything about another job to you?”

“I think I do recall somethin’ like that.” Her smile was quite false, and I didn’t believe she’d suddenly remembered something important. Her reluctance to tell us earlier was understandable. If her husband had indeed gotten the coal by illegal means, she would have had to give it back. She might be an honest woman, but she was a widow with three children. Who could blame her for being cautious? At least now she was telling the truth.

“Oh?” I prompted. “Did Mr. Mott give you a name for the other builder?”

“Not a person’s name,” she said. “He just spoke of ‘the Society.’”

Good lord. Surely not. The only society I knew was the Society For Supernatural Activity, a group that Langley and Tate had once belonged to. They had interests in all things paranormal and would certainly know how to summon demons.

“Does that mean anything to you?” Mrs. Mott asked.

“Not really,” Jack said idly, without meeting Mrs. Mott’s gaze. He had obviously made the same connection I did.

We said our goodbyes and thanked her. I waved at her from the carriage window and didn’t turn to Jack until she was gone from view.

“Well,” I said, settling back in the leather seat. “How do you think Mr. Mott came to be involved with the Society?”

Jack’s finger skimmed across his top lip as he thought. “More importantly,” he said, “why was the Society paying Mott to summon a demon onto Frakingham?”

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