Mistress of Darkness
Dredthorne Hall Book 2
Gwen Archer does not fear the curse of Dredthorne Hall. Instead it is the message she must deliver that gives her pause: she will inform her future brother-in-law, Christopher, that her sister has run away.
But what Gwen discovers at the Hall is far worse than being the bearer of bad tidings. She finds Christopher’s older brother, the reticent and rude Robert Sheraton, there to greet her. Now she must impart her unwelcome news to him instead.
To her shock though, the man that she meets is not the Robert that she remembers. Instead he seems the perfect host. But as her stay at the hall lengthens, and she and Robert draw close, strange accidents beset her. Soon she must watch every shadow and listen at every door, lest the Ghosts of Dredthorne envelop her in their dark embrace.
What Readers Are Saying
This is the perfect Gothic who done it with a twist.
Hazel Hunter always knows how to write a tale full of mystery, secrets, betrayal, suspense, intrigue, murder, ghosts, secret passageways, hot steamy scenes, and twists you never saw coming.
I love how Hazel Hunter has the habit of creating these amazing stories and characters that draw you in and make you keep reading until their story is complete. I found it difficult to put this book down and cannot wait to see what happens next.
I think that I might like it better than the first.
You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. Robert and Gwen....perfect!!
NOTHING HAD EVER been good enough for Regina; not even her fiancée. As Gwen listened to the soft clapping of the horse’s hooves against the packed snow, she reviewed her sister’s cryptic letter again. Its meaning was clear, even if it was lacking in the thousand specifics Gwen would have liked: Regina had run away from home. Her betrayal still carried a razor edge of pain. Her sister had run away mere weeks before the elaborate wedding that Gwen and her mother had spent months planning, preparing, and slaving over. She wasn’t merely thoughtless. Regina was ungrateful. Gwen would have done anything for the beautiful, white-and-crystalline celebration that she and her mother had devoted so many countless hours to making possible.
“Regina, where are you?” she whispered into the growing country darkness.
The crisp air, with a few gently pirouetting snowflakes, made the jingling of the halter sing all the clearer in Gwen’s ears. The sound reminded her not of Christmas, but of the tiny, sparkling bells that they had imported from Paris specifically for her absent sister’s nuptials. Gwen had been looking forward, with a tinge of jealousy, to the sound of so many bells ringing while Regina and Christopher walked down the aisle. Now, all that Gwen had to look forward to was the dread responsibility of her current mission. Gwen, older and only sister, now carried the weight of telling poor Christopher that his willful bride had become wayward.
Gwen sighed, closing her eyes, trusting the horse to do its work. The loss of her sister was almost too much for her to bear. Regina had been a constant presence in Gwen’s life, and she had never thought that they would be apart. They would marry and live in the same town, see each other every Sunday for dinner, raise their children together...
I do not know who I am anymore, Regina had written in a wobbly script. But I know that I cannot be with Christopher, not now. Perhaps not ever.
If there was a hideous truth behind her words, Regina’s parting message did not specify it. Gwen’s own letter to Christopher avoided telling him any of the dire news.
Please, meet me, sir. I need to speak with you about my sister and my family as soon as can be arranged.
Gwen’s note was enigmatic, perhaps, but it wouldn’t be right to tell Christopher the crushing news in any other way than in person. She had at least been able to summon that much courage.
She peered ahead and spied Dredthorne Hall looming in the distance. The house was foreboding, a large harbinger of doom, if the rumors from town were to be believed. Gwen knew some of the details of the place already. It was of overwhelming size, with fifty-eight rooms and four floors, and was one of the oldest halls in the region. Gwen spared a thought for the poor staff that would have to keep the house. It reminded her of an aged lady of class and manners who had once been beautiful in her prime. While the overarching structure was still there, the details were fading into the background, overwhelmed by time, decay, and inevitability.
How the Sheratons came to own it or what exactly they planned to do with the place was less clear to Gwen. She had avoided the family prior to the engagement due to the poor manners of Christopher’s older brother, Robert. She hoped that her mission to Christopher could be completed without having to deal with that ogre. It was fortunate that Regina had found a match with such a worthy family, but that did not mean Gwen had to like her new brother-in-law. Her mind hurried to correct the detail: the man who could have become a brother-in-law had Regina not vanished into the night with little more than a crumpled piece of paper left behind.
The rig rolled past the gate, the gentle beat of hooves on snow being replaced by the clack against brick. Stately twin lions carved from Italian marble sat atop pedestal columns and seemed to gaze down on her in disapproval. Gray slate roofs capped the soft buff stone of the house. Two towers flanked it, as though it were a small castle. The closer she got, the higher its weathered facade rose, along with her anxiety. Gwen took a deep breath as she slowed the rig to a stop. She was up to this task, she assured herself, for she had to be. There was simply no escape from it, short of finding her lost sister.
A footman approached and held out his hand to help her. She took it, lifting her dress as she stepped down, and it took everything in her to keep her face agreeable at the sight that greeted her. In that moment, she desperately wished that her home was close enough to Dredthorne Hall for her to return this evening, but nothing was close to Dredthorne Hall.
Robert Sheraton, Christopher’s elder brother, stood tall in the midst of a small army of servants, with no Christopher in sight. The older brother’s dark hair and eyes matched his somber dress. He wore a white shirt, cravat, and waist coat, accompanied by a black jacket and trousers.
Gwen had the prudence to withhold the groan that he inspired. There was nothing about Robert that appealed to her. He was prickly, quick to speak his anger, easy to enrage, and condescending. Robert made friends with no one, and had always seemed to prefer it that way. She watched as he tucked a strand of black hair behind his ear and his movement reminded her of her own appearance. She smoothed her skirts and tried to stand taller as she approached him.
Hiding her displeasure as best she could, as she had been trained, Gwen said, “Mr. Sheraton, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
With satisfaction, she noted that she had managed to sound the perfect picture of politeness. If Robert could find anything disagreeable in their meeting, it would not be her words.
He cleared his throat, smoothing a minuscule wrinkle along his coat, and bowed slightly.
“Miss Archer. How wonderful to see you,” he said with a deep voice that was suited to his large frame. But she wondered if anything he spoke besides her name was true, remembering their last encounter, in her youth. “My brother has not yet arrived from London. He asked that you remain here to await his presence in order to personally receive your….news.” The last word was said with distaste, but she was pleasantly surprised to find the rest of his words kind in tone.
How strange, Gwen thought, examining him. It was unlike Robert to be anything but reticent and rude. No doubt he was making an extra effort, now that he thought they were to be brother and sister-in-law. Yet that would not be like him either. He’d always been one to act as he saw fit, regardless of its effect on others. She would have to watch this new Robert to see if his manners were brought upon by some unknown illness or a true change of heart.
Naturally Dredthorne Hall gave her chills, both from its appearance and its legends. There were rumors that ghosts lingered within its confines, haunting their unfortunate victims into insanity, or even worse. The prospect of spending a night in an old house was hardly appealing. But spending a night in Dredthorne with Robert? When Regina returned she would owe Gwen a lifetime of apologies.
“How unfortunate about your brother,” she said finally. “I had hoped to speak with him as soon as possible.” She surveyed the servants lined up beside the elder Sheraton, the sight of them distracting her from what she could only call a vexed mood. She’d never lived in the grand style in which Robert had apparently been raised. But she swore to herself she would not appear overly impressed or act like a country simpleton. Though she might have to submit to his acting as her host, she did not have to ingratiate herself. She offered him a courteous smile. “I am certain that we will be able to find ways to entertain ourselves until he arrives.”
Robert gestured toward the rig, and two footmen rushed forward to fetch her luggage. “I would think that can be arranged.”
Despite her intentions, Gwen had to force herself not to stare open-mouthed at the reception hall. High above them, in the vaulted ceiling overhead, cherubs and angels seemed to be descending from heaven. Gilded alabaster carvings of delicate flowers and vines framed then, glowing as though lit from within. Lifesize paintings surrounded them, no doubt important Sheraton progenitors, some of them obviously military men.
Further inside, enormous tapestries hung from floor to ceiling, some glinting with lavishly used gold and silver threads. Over-large floor vases stood in front of them and Gwen thought she spied oriental lettering depicted on them.
As the footmen approached with her trunks, Robert gestured to the left stairwell. “The maids can show you to your chambers, Miss Archer,” he said smoothly. “I do hope that you find it to your liking. It has been…less touched by time.”
“My thanks, Mr. Sheraton,” she said lightly, trying to hide the awe that the surroundings had already inspired. But she noticed him smiling at her and had to speculate as to whether she’d succeeded at hiding her wonderment or not. She searched his dark eyes for a moment, trying to find the dismal Robert that she knew had to be buried within their depths. But instead she only saw a penetrating intensity that was rather unnerving. She looked away. “I’m sure the accommodations will be lovely. I would, however, like to send word to my family that I may be delayed.”
“Of course,” he said. “One of the footmen can post your letter. I would be honored if you would join me for dinner. Shall we say at seven o’clock this evening? I am sure Frances would be happy to see to any needs you might have.” He gestured to a maid, who bobbed a quick curtsy. “Frances, see that Miss Archer finds her way.”
But even as he spoke to the young maid, Gwen saw that he was watching her with a strange expression; something akin to pleasure combined with confusion, which made no sense at all to her.
Gwen nodded to him with a small smile, and followed the maid up the gray-laced marble stairs, with the footmen in tow just behind. They seemed to climb forever and Gwen wondered if she might actually be able to touch the angels overhead. When they reached her chambers, Gwen could see that Robert was right.
It was far more beautiful than she had expected. The elegant paper-hangings that covered every wall seemed new, and in the most recent Neo-Grecian fashion. From chair rail to cornice, the walls glowed with what appeared to be silk. The blankets and pillows on the bed looked as soft as clouds, and Gwen had to resist the urge to run her hands over them as the footmen deposited her luggage. High windows looked out upon a garden, though winter had left only green hedges and borders. A large dresser and armoire dominated the wall opposite the window and both gleamed with fresh polish. A charming dressing table, complete with oval mirror, sat in the corner.
It would certainly do.
Indeed, though she would be loathe to admit it in anyone’s presence, these chambers were infinitely more opulent than what she had at home. Some days in the Archer household there had not been enough firewood to keep the place warm, nor enough blanket layers to keep out the cold. Hard times had fallen upon her parents in recent years, and it would seem that their burdens would not lighten any time soon, now that Regina had vanished in the wind.
“Thank you, Frances,” Gwen murmured absently. “I won’t require any assistance until shortly before dinner. I will expect to see you back at six o’clock.”
“Yes, Miss,” the girl said, as she curtsied and then hurried out after the men, shutting the door behind her.
Gwen preferred to see to her own things and started by unpacking her trunks. A she sorted her clothes into the various drawers and shelved her dresses in the armoire, her thoughts inevitably turned back to Robert.
His behavior had been so, well, correct, for lack of a better word. But even as she thought it, an explanation sprang to her mind. Was he acting out of pity?
It was true that her family was nearly penniless, particularly now that they’d spent the last of father’s money on a wedding that would not happen. Gwen had no prospects for suitors, and she was nearly at that age that men would begin to wonder why she had no suitors. She sat down on the bed, worry washing over her, even as another explanation assailed her: perhaps she herself had changed.
Regina’s disappearance had not just thrown all their futures into confusion, it had made Gwen see people differently. She’d known her sister so well—or at least she’d thought she had. Now she found herself questioning everyone’s motives for even the smallest thing. Was she also finding the worst in people as well?
She flopped back on the soft bed as her thoughts continued to whirl. Why hadn’t Regina told her of her troubles? What could have been so pressing that she hadn’t come to Gwen first? Indeed, her sister could have gone to their parents. Gwen closed her suddenly burning eyes. Her mother and father had been as wounded as she had been, if not more. Regina would have much to answer for when…
There was a knock at the door. “Miss?” said a small voice. “It’s six o’clock.”