The Secrets of Colchester Hall
by Sophie Barnes
Publication Date: January 12, 2021
Genres: Adult, Historical, Romance
She’s the woman he wants… But will his love for her be enough to make her stay?
As one of six possible candidates vying for Viscount Sterling’s hand, Lady Angelica has been invited to stay at his grand manor for a week-long house party. But an unpleasant feeling lurks within Colchester Hall. It’s almost as if someone’s watching Angelica just beyond the edge of her vision. And while she tries to explain the chill creeping up behind her as merely a draft, she can’t shake the feeling that something disturbing might be at play.
When Sterling decides she’s the woman he wants, can Angelica accept her new home and the sinister secrets she fears it might hold, or will she give up on true love because of what could be nothing more than her own imagination?
A Gothic inspired Regency Romance to get your heart racing.
Angelica took a deep breath and shared a quick look of despair with her mother. For although she might have been rapidly approaching a state of spinsterhood, she never would have thought she deserved to be grouped with what appeared to be the least marriageable women on the market. It was harrowing, to be sure, and frankly quite sad. Worst of all was the prospect of having to prove she’d make the most suitable wife. Nothing appealed less.
All she wanted was to go home.
“Ah. I see you are all assembled,” a breezy feminine voice said. It belonged to an elegant woman of slim build with a lovely face and hair that shone like gold. “I am Mrs. Essex, housekeeper to Lord Sterling and this…”
Angelica didn’t hear anything else the woman said. She was too busy wondering how a young woman who looked as she did could possibly be a housekeeper to anyone.
“Angelica,” Rose hissed right next to her ear.
“Shall we follow Mrs. Essex upstairs so she can show us to our rooms?”
“Oh. Um. Isn’t there a butler?”
Rose shook her head in dismay and gave Angelica’s hand a tug. The rest of the party had started climbing the stairs while she’d been woolgathering. “Mrs. Essex just introduced him. He’s the older gentleman over there issuing orders to the footmen. Clarkson is his name.”
Angelica cast a glance toward the spot her mother indicated and instantly found the man to whom she referred. Gray hair and a serious demeanor, she noted with some satisfaction. He fit his role so much better than Mrs. Essex did hers.
“Dinner will be served at precisely seven o’clock,” Mrs. Essex told Angelica once she’d shown her to her room. Apparently the mansion was large enough to allow each guest a room of her own so Angelica wouldn’t have to share with her mother.
She turned and allowed her mouth to fall open. The room she’d been given was at least twice the size of the one she had at home. Furnished in pretty cream tones accented by soft shades of blue, it was, quite literally, perfect.
With a satisfied sigh she stepped farther into the room. Her trunk had been placed at the foot of the canopy bed, and a maid was already busy unpacking it. Angelica thanked the girl and went to peer out the window. Water streaked over the glass but she could still make out a series of walkways leading toward a pavilion. Strategically placed statues and benches offered further evidence of a well-planned garden, although it didn’t look terribly inviting in the rain.
“Good heavens. Your room is at least twice the size of mine.”
Angelica turned from the window, ignored the shiver blowing over her shoulders, and smiled at Lucy. “Really?” She rubbed her hands together and moved closer to the fireplace. “I would have imagined all the guestrooms to be the same size.”
“They used to be.” Mrs. Essex said. She’d somehow materialized directly behind Lucy, causing her to jump.
“Goodness,” Lucy gasped, her hand pressed to her breast. “I didn’t realize you were there.”
Mrs. Essex gave an indulgent smile. “Forgive me. It was not my intention to startle you.” She approached Angelica. “I believe your mother is freshening up, so I chose not to disturb her. But I thought it prudent to inform you that you can use this connecting door over here to access her room more directly. If you wish.”
Angelica hadn’t even noticed the door since it was located behind a screen that separated the dressing area and toilette from the rest of the room. Tilting her head, she considered the convenience. “How unusual.” She glanced at Mrs. Essex. “For guestrooms, I mean, to be joined in such a manner. I’m assuming there must be a key, because otherwise it—”
“Of course there is. I have it right here.” Mrs. Essex handed an ornately fashioned brass key to Angelica. “But you’re right. It is unusual.” She inhaled deeply while giving the room a full perusal, then said, “If you must know, this used to be her ladyship’s room. Your mother has the viscount’s former bedchamber.”
“I…see,” Angelica murmured. Another shiver raked the length of her spine, like fingernails scraping her skin. She instinctively glanced over her shoulder, but of course, no one was there.
“The viscount decided to move to the opposite side of the castle a couple of years ago.”
Angelica stared at her. She then glanced at Lucy, whose eyes had grown to the size of saucers. As if reading her mind, Angelica let her gaze wander across the room until it settled on the bed. She swallowed. And then, because she simply had to know, she quietly asked, “Did the late viscountess, um… Did she…”
“No,” Mrs. Essex said. “She did not die in that bed.” Angelica breathed a sigh of relief. The housekeeper smiled, perhaps with reassurance or perhaps with a touch of wistfulness. “She froze to death outside. Beneath that very window.”
A tremor swept through Angelica’s body and she instinctively turned. A gentle movement caught the corner of her eye – the curtain perhaps. A draft could have stirred it, she reasoned. Or there might have been nothing at all except for her own overactive imagination.
“Well, then. I do believe I’ll let you get settled,” Mrs. Essex announced in a cheerful tone. “Please use the bell pull if you need anything else and feel free to explore the downstairs at your leisure. Just be sure to stay out of the east wing. His lordship likes to keep that part of the house private.” She spoke a few extra words to the maid, who appeared to be nearly done with unpacking Angelica’s things. One minute later, both had departed, leaving Angelica alone with Lucy.
“She’s a bit odd, don’t you think?” Lucy asked with a quick backward glance as if to make sure Mrs. Essex wouldn’t suddenly pop up behind her.
“Very,” Angelica murmured. “I can’t imagine the future Lady Sterling wanting to keep her on. She’s far too young and pretty.”
“It all depends on what his lordship is like, I suppose. Perhaps he has kept Mrs. Essex in his employ for intimate reasons.” She gave Angelica a pointed look.
Angelica felt her lips twitch. “You’ve quite a wicked mind for someone who’s so soft spoken.”
“Well, I might not be outgoing, but that doesn’t stop my brain from working. And don’t tell me you haven’t had the same notion.”
Of course she had. Her mother had always been shockingly forthright with her, for, as she liked to say, knowledge was power and ignorance only led to bad choices. So Angelica knew what went on between men and women behind closed doors, and she knew it was common for some men to keep a mistress.
Angelica rolled her eyes at her own wayward thoughts and shook her head. There was obviously a Mr. Essex and shame on her anyway for immediately thinking the worst just because the woman didn’t fit the typical housekeeper mold.
“Come on,” Angelica told Lucy as she grabbed a shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders. “I’m sure there must be a library. Let’s go find it, shall we?”
They checked with both of their mothers first just to let them know where they were off to. “We’ll order some tea,” Angelica said as they walked down the stairs. She pulled her shawl tighter to ward off the chill creeping up the back of her neck. Good lord, it was only September, yet it felt like the middle of winter. Which was reason enough for her not to marry Lord Sterling. In spite of its grandeur, Colchester Hall was a huge mausoleum, and she could not see herself living here.
About the Author
Born in Denmark, USA TODAY bestselling author Sophie Barnes spent her youth traveling with her parents to wonderful places all around the world. She’s lived in five different countries, on three different continents, and speaks Danish, English, French, Spanish, and Romanian with varying degrees of fluency. But, most impressive of all, she’s been married to the same man three times—in three different countries and in three different dresses.
When she’s not busy dreaming up her next romance novel, Sophie enjoys spending time with her family, swimming, cooking, gardening, watching romantic comedies and, of course, reading.