Excerpt: Playing With Fire

Book 2 : The 1st Freak House Trilogy

Playing with Fire (Freak House) by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

Frakingham House, Hertfordshire, December 1888

“There are simply too many men,” Sylvia announced. “We need another woman. A single one, preferably of middle age for Uncle’s sake.” She sighed and scanned the piece of paper in her hand for the third time since joining Jack, Samuel and me on the front lawn of Frakingham House. Her sigh said it all. It would seem she couldn’t conjure a spare unattached female from her list of invitees.

“I’m not sure your uncle would care one way or another,” I said, dipping my paintbrush into the blob of indigo on my palette. “Is he looking for a wife?”

“I’m not trying to marry him off, Hannah. I want a perfect dinner party, and you can’t have the perfect dinner party with an unbalanced number of ladies and gentlemen.”

“Are even numbers an absolute must for the perfect dinner party?” Jack asked, twirling a dueling pistol around his finger. It wasn’t loaded, nor was Samuel’s, but Sylvia did not take her gaze off it. I’d made the two men hold them and stand a little apart, their backs to one another. My painting was going to be titled Pistols at Dawn and have a dramatic, swirling sky, but I wasn’t a very good artist. It was particularly difficult to render the house in the background since it was still covered in scaffolding.

“Honestly, Jack,” Sylvia said with a shake of her head that made her blonde curls bounce, “I can’t believe you have to ask me that.” She pulled the fur collar of her coat up to her ears and huddled into it. “On second thought, perhaps I can believe it, all things considered.”

Jack caught the pistol’s handle, halting the twirling. His mouth flattened and his gaze flashed in Samuel’s direction. Fortunately the meaning behind her words appeared to be lost on our resident hypnotist. Either that or he was too polite to ask for an explanation. He simply remained standing side-on to me, his pistol at his chest in the pose I’d asked him to assume for my painting.

I knew that Sylvia was referring to Jack’s past as an orphan living on the London streets. Dinner party etiquette was not something he was overly familiar with. Nor was I. As the orphan daughter of servants and living most of my eighteen years in Lord Wade’s attic, I was lucky that I had received food at all. Parties had occurred downstairs, out of my hearing and sight, and very much out of my world.

“Tell them, Samuel,” Sylvia said, sniffing. Her nose had gone red from the cold, and I was surprised she was still with us. She hated being outdoors now that autumn had slipped into a freezing winter. I, on the other hand, loved the cool air whispering across my warm skin, and I couldn’t abide wearing gloves. Jack too. As fire starters, we didn’t feel the cold like normal people.

“Samuel?” Sylvia prompted when he didn’t answer. “Do not tell me that dinner parties are foreign to you too. How can that be? You’re a gentleman.” The implication being that Jack was not. Samuel made no indication that he understood the slight, which indeed confirmed that he was a gentleman in every sense. Not that it mattered. Jack wasn’t listening. He cocked his head to the side and frowned, intent on something in the distance.

I looked about, but all seemed as it should be. The foreman stood at the base of the scaffolding in discussion with one of his workers, and two other men tapped away at the newly rebuilt turret. They’d had to tear down the old one after the fire that ravaged the upper level of the eastern wing had rendered the turret unstable. The fire that I’d accidentally started.

“I’ve attended my share of dinner parties,” said Samuel, oblivious to Jack’s distraction. “Of sorts.”

Samuel Gladstone had joined us a mere two weeks earlier after leaving the employ of a premier London neurologist as well as his studies at University College. He’d come to the country to conduct hypnosis research, but I’d yet to learn the exact nature of it and why it necessitated him being here, or if it had anything to do with his natural hypnosis ability. He’d been born with a talent for coercing people with little more than his voice and eyes, something which he’d hidden from most people, including his former employer.

“Whatever do you mean?” asked Sylvia.

He rubbed the pistol’s ivory handle with his thumb. “Dinner was served, and they were indeed parties.”

Sylvia looked to me askance, and I shrugged. I hadn’t any idea what he was saying either. “What was your mother’s opinion on the matter of equal numbers of gentlemen and ladies?” she asked.

He looked up sharply. “My mother?”

“Was it not your mother who hosted the dinners?”

He gave us a lopsided grin, turning his angelic face into something more like that of a naughty boy. He was terribly handsome with his fair hair and blue eyes. Not at all like Jack whose darkly brooding good looks and stormy green eyes were more devilish. I hoped to catch that contrast on canvas.

“My mother had nothing to do with the dinner parties I attended,” Samuel said. “I was away at school and university while she was being hostess to her friends. I endured one or two while on holidays, but mostly I avoided them. Mother’s parties were a little more…formal than what I was used to.”

“Oh? In what way were your parties informal?” Samuel had an amiable face, and he smiled often, but it didn’t always reach his eyes where shadows lurked at the edges. This was one of those times. “Never mind, Sylvia. I don’t want to shock you.” She bristled. “I’m not easily shocked.”

“There are some things a lady shouldn’t hear.”

“Then why bring it up at all?”

He flinched then bowed. “I apologize.”

She made a sound through her nose and turned away from him, cutting him in the rudest manner. It was rather unfair since she’d been the one to bring up the subject of party etiquette. She may have done it to put Jack in his place, but it had backfired since he wasn’t listening, and Samuel had proved to have an elusive past shrouded in mystery too.

Sylvia was mostly kind and sweet, but there were times when I wanted to pinch her. Samuel always took her childishness with charm and good grace, which I admired. Where Jack would tease his cousin further, Samuel chose the higher ground. I didn’t know much about him, but I did know that I liked him. I also knew that being born with the ability to hypnotize people had been as much a blessing as a curse for him. He didn’t speak often of the past, but I got the distinct feeling he hadn’t always used his talent honorably. I was quite sure that he’d changed since then and no longer hypnotized anyone against their wishes. Jack was not so certain. He’d not said he distrusted Samuel, but he tended to avoid him as much as possible. Considering they were of similar age and both had strange natural abilities, I thought it a shame they weren’t friends. Perhaps time under the same roof would change that.

“What am I to do?” Sylvia asked, once more checking her list of guests.

“I could bow out,” Samuel said. “I have upset the balance in the household, so it’s only fair that I be the one to miss out.” He glanced at Jack as he said it, but Jack’s attention was still drawn to the house. What was the matter? Everything seemed in order to me. The workmen were busy. The scaffolding looked steady. August Langley was nowhere in sight, presumably in his temporary room working on a new drug. Yet Jack took a step forward, frowned, and seemed to be straining to hear beyond our light chatter.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sylvia scolded Samuel. “You are coming to the dinner. You’re a part of Frakingham House now and as such, you’ll be involved in all social occasions.”

“Are your lives here a whirlwind of events?” he asked. “We do our best to fulfill our responsibility as the pre-eminent house in the area.”

I rolled my eyes at Samuel over Sylvia’s head. He winked at me and seemed to be trying not to laugh. Frakingham may be the most established estate in the area, but social occasions were rare. We hardly even went into the village and had not entertained guests in the weeks since I’d arrived. It was no wonder they called the place Freak House behind our backs. We’d not given them reason to think otherwise. Sylvia continued to pore over her list.

“Jack, what do you think of Miss Appletree? I know she’s got a face like a horse, but she’s always nice to me, and she’d be quite used to invalids, her mother being bed-bound.”

“I thought you weren’t looking for a companion for your uncle,” I said, trying to hold back my smile. She flapped her hand in dismissal.

“I’m not, but you never know when love will strike, and it’s better that Uncle fall in love with someone suitable rather than a horrible old fishwife, for example.” I didn’t think Langley capable of love, but I refrained from telling her that. She seemed quite fond of him, yet afraid of him in equal measure. It was an odd relationship. Langley’s relationship with his nephew was equally strange. That’s if Jack was his nephew. I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t think he was sure either. Langley himself may have been the only one who knew the entire truth, and he never answered any questions of that nature.

I glanced at Jack. Ordinarily he would have something to say about his cousin’s matchmaking, but he was completely disinterested. “Jack, what is it?” I asked, setting my palette down on the small table beside me. “You’ve been staring at the house for several minutes now. Is anything wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you listening to something? What can you hear?” Sylvia stood too, her list forgotten.

“Jack?” The frightened tremor in her voice had me worried. Did Jack often behave like this? I hadn’t seen evidence of it thus far. Samuel turned to look at the house as well.

“All seems in order to me,” he said. “Langley?”

Jack held up his hand for silence. Predictably, Sylvia ignored the request. “Jack, you’re frightening me.”

“Wait here.” He walked off across the lawn. Despite his command, Samuel followed, and I trailed behind with Sylvia holding my arm.

“It’s as if he can hear something,” Samuel said. “Is his hearing exceptionally good?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Sylvia muttered. “I gave up whispering to Uncle long ago when Jack was near.”

“I thought I told you all to stay there,” Jack said without turning around. “See.”

“Why should we remain behind?” I asked.

“Is there danger?” Samuel said, drawing up alongside Jack. They were of a similar height, their shoulders both broad, their backs straight. I was grateful they were on my side. I felt safe with them nearby. If another intruder were in Frakingham, Jack and Samuel would easily overpower him. Add Tommy the footman into the mix, and there was nothing to worry about. So why did coils of dread twist in my stomach?

“I don’t know,” Jack said. “Which is why I want you all to remain behind.”

“Not going to happen,” Samuel said lightly.

Jack stopped and glared at him. “I told you to stay back.”

Samuel squared up to him. His eyes narrowed, his jaw set hard. There was none of the usual friendliness in the way he glared at Jack. He was all quiet determination and not at all afraid of Jack’s temper.

“Mr. Langley, sir!” The foreman ran toward us, his hat scrunched in his hand.

“What is it, Yardley?” Jack asked, his conflict with Samuel forgotten.

Yardley bent over and fought for breath. “Come quickly,” he said between gasps. “There’s something strange in the dungeon.”

“The dungeon?” Jack shook his head. “Frakingham House doesn’t have a dungeon.”

“He must mean the basement,” Sylvia said.

“No, ma’am. I mean the dungeon. And forgive me, sir, but you do have one. Come with me, and I’ll show you. Anyways, you need to see this with your own eyes. I don’t know how to explain it.” He set off, Jack and Samuel at his heels. Sylvia and I lagged behind until I removed her fingers from my arm, picked up my skirts and ran after them.

“Hannah!” she called out. “Hannah, I don’t think we should go.”

I ignored her. She might be frightened of what Yardley had found, but my curiosity had gotten the better of me. I’d never been an overly curious person, which was perhaps fortunate since I lived in an attic for most of my life. It would have been frustrating to always want to discover what lay beyond the boundaries of Lord Wade’s estate of Windamere if I’d been the inquisitive sort. What curiosity I possessed was indulged with books and maps, and that used to satisfy me most of the time.

Until Jack Langley abducted me and brought me to Frakingham House. My newfound freedom had unleashed a deep-rooted desire to know everything I could about everything. My questions were ceaseless, much to my host’s frustration, and my desire to see the world grew more and more every day. Once I learned to control the fire within me, I was going to travel the world.

We rounded the side of the house and stopped at a narrow trench running beside the wall. It was deep, deeper than the house’s foundations, and looked like a gash slicing through flesh with the thick timber beams used as reinforcement resembling the bone structure holding the body together. The head of one of the workmen popped out of the trench. His eyes were huge clean circles amid his dirty face.

“It’s getting bigger,” he announced and disappeared again.

“What’s getting bigger?” I asked.

Sylvia finally caught up to us. She was puffing hard, and her hat sat askew on her head. “Why is there a big hole beside the house?” she asked.

“Yardley was worried the repairs were damaging the foundations at this end,” Jack said. “He dug the trench so he could reinforce them.”

Sylvia put a hand to her breast. “Is it quite safe? Should we evacuate?”

“The foundations are strong now, ma’am,” Yardley said. “Stronger than they’ve ever been. There’s no basement in this part of the house, so we were able to get in easy enough. But my men discovered something just now as they were preparing to backfill.”

“A dungeon,” Samuel said on a breath. “You didn’t know it was there?”

“No,” Jack said. “There was talk that the previous house on this site had one.”

Sylvia, Jack and I exchanged glances. They’d told me the stories of the children that had been kept in the dungeon by their father many years ago in the grand manor that used to occupy this site. I’d not really believed them. Tales from centuries past had a way of growing out of control and becoming distorted by each storyteller along the way. None of us had taken them seriously. But that was before we knew there was a dungeon beneath Frakingham. How much more of the stories had been real? The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and I was happy to let Sylvia wrap her fingers around my arm and hold tight. It was a comfort, of sorts.

“This house couldn’t have been built on the foundations of the old one,” Yardley said. “The dungeon isn’t under the house.” He stomped on the ground. “It’s here. We discovered it when a clump of soil fell away from the trench wall.”

We all looked down.

“Under our feet?” I asked.

“Yes, ma’am. It appears to run the same way as the current house, but we won’t know for sure unless we go in.”

“You haven’t been in yet?” Samuel asked.

“We only just stumbled upon it this morning, sir. When the soil gave way, it revealed a stone wall and some rotted wood which must have once been the door. The doorway is now filled up with earth. My men dug a hole through it to look inside and realized it was another room. It was empty except for some rubble in the corner and chains attached to the walls.”

“Chains!” Sylvia squeaked.

“That’s why we think it’s a dungeon,” Yardley said. “It looks old too. The walls are stone, not brick, and thick. I’d wager it’s medieval and probably been closed up since then too. It stinks like rotted meat.”

“I wonder why it smells that bad,” I said.

Yardley shrugged.

“So what’s happened now?” Jack asked. “Before…I thought I heard something.”

Yardley’s mutton chop whiskers twitched. “Heard what, sir?”

Jack’s gaze shifted between all of us, then he shrugged. “If no one else heard it, I must have been mistaken.”

Nobody questioned him, and all seemed satisfied that he did indeed make a mistake. Except me. Jack didn’t make mistakes. If he thought he’d heard something, then he had. I tried to catch his attention, but he was looking into the trench, not at me. I was close enough that I could reach out and touch his hand, but I didn’t dare. Ever since we’d touched somewhat passionately in the old abbey ruins, we’d had to avoid contact of that nature. Otherwise the fire within us would be stoked, and we’d burn up from the inside. I hated it. We both did.

“So why have you called us here?” Samuel asked the foreman. “Why not simply board it up and backfill the trench?”

“Because the hole we made in the doorway…” He cleared his throat and stretched his neck out of his collar. He looked worried, something that I’d not expected to see on the weathered face of the burly, no-nonsense foreman. “It sounds odd, but the hole is getting larger of its own accord.”

Jack shrugged. “Perhaps it’s just caving into the cavity beyond.”

“It’s caving in all right, but into the trench, not into the dungeon.” As if someone were pushing out the soil from the inside.

Sylvia’s hand clutched mine so hard my fingers turned numb. “Ghosts,” she whispered, a tremor rippling her voice.

“Perhaps you should take the ladies inside, Gladstone,” Jack said.

Samuel huffed out a derisive laugh and didn’t move. I extricated myself from Sylvia and crossed my arms.

“I’m not going anywhere except down there.”

“Hannah!” Sylvia cried. “You can’t.”

“Why not? The men are.”

“Yes, but we’re ladies.” I snorted. “I’m not. My parents were servants, remember?”

“Come with me, sirs,” Yardley said to Jack and Samuel. He climbed down the ladder into the trench.

Jack shook his head at me and sighed. I took that as resignation and smiled back. His lips tilted up at the corners, a sure sign that he wasn’t in the least angry that I was flouting his orders.

“I’m sure there’s a perfectly rational explanation.” He peered over the side then jumped down, avoiding the ladder altogether. Samuel did the same. It was too far for me. I gathered up my skirts and put my foot on the top rung.

“Hannah, have you gone mad?” Sylvia cried.

“Quite possibly. Being kept prisoner in an attic can do strange things to one’s mind.” I looked cross-eyed at her.

She groaned. “For goodness sakes, be serious. There’s nothing amusing in what happened to you, and there’s nothing to be gained by going down there. Let Jack and Samuel report back to us later.”

I didn’t know where to start with that, so I simply ignored her and kept climbing down. As my face grew level with the ground, I had the satisfaction of witnessing her stomping her booted foot.

“Hannah, I think you should listen to Sylvia,” Samuel said from below.

“Save your voice, Gladstone,” said Jack. “She’ll do as she pleases so you might as well help her.” If Samuel thought it odd that Jack wasn’t helping me himself, he didn’t say and I couldn’t see his expression, backing down the ladder as I was. It may not be the time for passion, but Jack’s determination to keep from touching me was testament to the fact he knew desire could flare with the barest brush of skin against skin.

Samuel took my elbow and steered me to the trench floor. I thanked him and risked a glance at Jack. His gaze was fixed on Samuel’s hand, still holding me. He blinked slowly and looked away.

“Are you safely down?” Sylvia called out from above.

“Yes. Care to join us?” I teased.

“No thank you. I’m going inside where it’s warm, and there’s no threat of the house falling on my head.”

“The house won’t fall on us, ma’am,” Yardley said. “We’re not going under it.” He pointed to the wall of the trench away from the house where some large stones had indeed been revealed. A workman stood there, watching a hole the size of a fist at about waist height. Soil trickled from the edges of the hole down the earthen wall to the trench floor. A little pile of loose dirt formed a pyramid there.

“We’d made the hole about so big,” said Yardley, indicating it had come up to his chest. “After we looked inside, we filled it up again. Then this started happening just a short time ago.”

Jack bent down as more soil was pushed out. He cocked his head to the side, listening. Then he jumped back and stared at the hole. I’d never seen him look so alarmed before. It was most unlike him.

“Jack?” I asked. “What is it?”

He frowned. “You didn’t hear it?”

I shook my head. Samuel and Yardley did too. The workman who’d been squatting nearby stood. Another two builders working further along the trench put down their spades. They looked to each other, their eyes wide, frightened.

“Freak House,” one of them whispered.

“I’ll have none of that talk,” Yardley growled. He pointed a stubby finger at each of them. “You’re being paid well to not worry about idle gossip.”

From the looks on the men’s faces, I suspected they no longer thought they were being paid enough. The sudden shift in their focus told me something was happening with the hole. Then the man beside me gasped loudly. I turned to see the hole had gotten much bigger. It stretched from my waist to my shoulder and kept growing. Someone grabbed my wrist and jerked me back. Jack, I realized, somewhat startled. There were no sparks between us, no heat. We only grew hot when we touched with desire, and there was nothing romantic in the way he pinned me into his side.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered. “What’s that?”

“What’s what?” I asked. He blinked. “You can’t see it?” I stared hard at the hole. “No.”

“What can you see?” Samuel asked quietly. He normally had a deep, melodic voice, the voice of a hypnotist, but there was nothing melodious about it now. It was edged with worry.

“Can’t any of you see it?” Jack asked.

“All I see is an empty void,” Samuel said. “But I don’t doubt that you can see something more.”

I had no time to contemplate what he meant. Jack suddenly pushed me behind him. My bustle bumped the damp earthen wall, and I couldn’t see the hole anymore, only Jack’s back. His breathing seemed to stop. His hands spread out to either side, protecting me.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“What can you see?” Samuel murmured, edging away from the hole.

Jack half shook his head, but said nothing. Tension gripped his shoulders. The veins in his neck strained. And then I smelled it. Rotting meat, just like the foreman had described. I screwed up my nose and turned my face away, but the scent enveloped us entirely, filling up the trench. Someone gagged. It wasn’t Jack. He hardly moved and didn’t make a sound. He was entirely focused on that hole.

“Jack,” I said, “what did you hear when we were on the lawn?”

“A high-pitched voice,” he said without taking his eyes off the hole.

“What did it say?”

It was a moment before he spoke again, and when he did, his voice was calm, in control. “‘Let me out.'”

“Oh my God.”

“Then it said ‘I’m going to kill you.'”

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