“I've fresh uniform dresses in the storage closet, though nothing as small as ye. After the chores are done this evening, we'll find two that ye can take in. I expect ye to be wearing one first thing in the morning. Above all other rules there is two ye must adhere to implicitly. Yer to make no noise and once in yer room at night yer to stay there til morning. I'll not have any roving about, ye hear? The Killdaren sleeps during the daytime and is busy during the night. No one is to disturb him, ever. Do ye understand?”
“Yes, ma'am,” I replied, nearly biting my tongue to stop myself from asking why. What manner of man slept when all others were awake?
Mrs. Frye left after giving an additional warning not to waste another moment, and I hurriedly unpacked my sack, taking time to hide the pistol, my investigative journal, and my crime publications under the thin lumpy mattress. The room contained no frills, but was amply furnished with two small cot-like beds, a desk and chair, a washstand and mirror, and a small wardrobe. It reminded me of Mrs. Frye--serviceable, impeccably clean, and no character beyond what was necessary to be functional.
Keeping the housekeeper's warning in mind, I hurried downstairs, saving any further reflections for later. Even though I had taken less time than allotted, Mrs. Frye still frowned when I appeared then led me impatiently to the dining room. Once we exited the kitchens and entered what I thought to be the great room and the entry hall of the castle, I felt as if I plunged back in time as the Killdaren's history and wealth swelled around me.
Ornately carved, papered and paneled walls climbed twenty feet to where patterned and scrolled ceilings swirled around elaborate chandeliers. Even the marbled floor went beyond the traditional black and white squares and was edged with intricate designs along its borders. Oil painting after oil painting lined the walls, each depicting different scenes of life from past ages.
Everything captivated me so completely that I had to focus my gaze on Mrs. Frye's unrelenting back. Otherwise, some interesting tapestry of a knight, an unusual portrait, or a golden sculpture would have lured me to linger over it. That would have surely caused me to be dismissed from my position before I'd learned anything at all about Mary.
I thought my plan to bide my time before asking the servants about my cousin an easy one, but it wasn't, I wanted to shout aloud the questions burdening my heart. I wanted someone, anyone to stand up and take notice. Someone I loved had gone missing and no one seemed overly concerned about the incident.
Mrs. Frye soon passed through a set of paneled doors and I came to an abrupt halt in the doorway, stunned at the display before me.
Great Heavens. This was a dining room? A banquet hall fit for a king seemed to be a more apt description. Down the center of the room cut a long mahogany table topped with silver candelabras and surrounded by padded chairs covered in damask of a deep burgundy hue. A pair of dragons crested each chair back, giving the kingly room an almost medieval flare. Though as richly appointed as the great hall and entryway, the dark green silk and wood paneling on the walls along with the black marble mantle subdued its ostentation, made it natural in fact. It had to be the most elegant room I had ever seen.
“Bridget?” Mrs. Frye called out.
“Here, Mrs. Frye.” The muffled reply was followed a moment later by a pretty, young woman with wisps of fiery red hair escaping her mop cap. She peeped over the table. “I'm 'alf-way finished with the chairs.”
“I've brought help, so I expect ye to be done in half the time. This is Cassie, and I'm assigning ye the task of teaching her the proper way to clean the downstairs. She'll be sharing yer room as well, now, no more dawdling, ye hear?”
“Yes, ma'am,” I replied, moving to Bridget as Mrs. Frye exited the room.
“Lord must've 'eard me prayers!” Bridget said with a smile and stuffed a lemon-scented rag into my hand.
“Thank you,” I said, gazing at the huge table.
“Don't ya worry none, Cassie. This isn't as hard as it looks. The two of us'll have things done quick.” Her manner was as warm as her hair was red and her blue eyes bright.
Climbing under the table with her, I began polishing. After my fifth chair, I sat back and drew a breath as I patted the perspiration on my brow with the sleeve of my dress. My arms ached and the unfamiliar feel of the rough wool irritated my skin. I thought it amazing Bridget had already done twenty-five of the chairs before I had arrived.
When I glanced up, I saw that she too had stopped work and was studying me.
“I was just wondering who had fifty people to dinner at once.”
She laughed. “Ach, no one eats in 'ere at all, leastways not while I've been 'ere and my sister Flora before me as well. That'd be at least five years. Yet we polish and scrub every week as if the Queen herself were coming.” She leaned closer to me, her brow furrowing. “Ya aren't from around here, are ya, miss?”
I cleared my throat, for I had forgotten to speak as a maid would. “No. I'm from further North. Hard times have me working.”
“No shame in that, at all. Hard times 'ave us all working. My sister Flora's goin' to change that for us McGowans one day real soon 'ere. But for now we best get busy, Mrs. Frye doesn't put up with much chatter. She'll most likely be back in a hour and 'ave our necks if we aren't done with the table and workin' on the silver by then.”
We set to work, finished polishing the table, and had just started in on the silver when Mrs. Frye appeared. She grunted over our progress and pointed out a spot or two that needed more polishing before she left.
“So, why does the family never use the dining room?” I asked.
Bridget's eyes grew huge. “Ya mean ya don't know?”
“Is there something I should know?”
“They're cursed, the Dragon's Curse, ya know. Cursed since their birth to murder each other. Most folks are too afraid to even socialize with 'em,” she whispered. “A right shame if you ask me, too. Men as handsome as the Killdaren and the viscount shouldn't be cursed.”
“Handsome are they?”
“Like princes,” she whispered then looked cautiously about. “Come with me quick, and I'll let ya peek at the Killdaren's picture. It's all I 'ave ever seen of him.”
Her words shocked me. “How many years have you worked here?
“Three.” Rising quietly, she motioned me to follow her. As I did, and I wondered if Mary, having only been here a year, had met her employer either. Exiting the double doors, she tiptoed silently across the intimidating center hall into another room. “We'll not be cleaning in 'ere till tomorrow, but I didn't want ya to 'ave to wait that long to see 'im. His picture's on the far wall. I'll watch for Mrs. Frye while ya go take a peek. Make it quick.”
Feeling like a thief, I slipped thorough the door and would have gotten carried away at the multitude of books filling the massive shelves, if I had not seen the painting first. The impact of the image literally stole my breath, and I initially stepped back from the life-sized portrait hanging above the mantle of a massive stone hearth.
His green eyes, so vibrantly realistic, seemed to be staring directly at me from beneath dark brows over a chiseled nose and roughly hewn jaw. He wore a black suit, white ruffled shirt, and had a black cape flung over one shoulder. In one hand he held a pair of gloves and what appeared to be a silver walking stick with a fanged snake---no it was a dragon, I discovered as I moved closer to his image, completely drawn to it by a force greater than my own will. His other hand lay clenched at his side.
It was the first portrait I had ever seen done of someone in the moonlight. And as I studied it, I wondered if he needed the night to hide sins that he didn't want known. Yet despite the edge of darkness to his character and the hauntingly full moon against an eerily blue-black sky, the charisma emanating from the man would have brought a vibrant warmth to his picture were it not for the cynical, almost cold smile barely curving his full lips.
“It's whispered that he is a vampire, ya know.”
I nearly jumped from my skin. I hadn't heard Bridget leave her post guarding the door to join me in the room.
“Surely not,” I choked on my words. I wanted to add a scoffing laugh to the nonsense, but my throat was too constricted to utter another word. For I, the very voice of reason among my wildly imaginative family, could readily believe Bridget's gossip, provided the man was actually anything like his portrait.