Monday, October 30, 2017

12 Days at Bleakly Manor by Michelle Griep, © 2017

Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series, Book One

The Second Chance Coin.
The Second Chance Coin

My Review:

Time stands still as changes are on the horizon, unexpectedly; a suddenly.

I was so surprised by this story ~ a quaint assembly of hodge-podge attendees to a Christmas season they will not forget; well most won't. It left me with questions about the secret cubby and its occasional inhabitant; how they kept silent without being seen. Not even a sneeze on a cold winter's night?

I wondered if the character names were part of a clue to discover their participant journey? But let's gather at Bleakly Manor and discover the intent of the visitors.

Bleakly Manor at sunrise.
Bleakly Manor at sunrise.

Two of the people have met before. Clara Chapman and Benjamin Lane had deep expectations that were hampered by an unforeseen timing of events. Were they pawns in a game of deceit?

Clara Chapman
Benjamin Lane

Longing to find the truth, they scramble to be understood without building walls of defense.

Bleakly Manor
Bleakly Manor
Image result for clue
Would you stay at Bleakly Manor, being promised your one wish could be attained? It appears cozy enough while they wait for their host to appear. Each knock at the door delivers another inkling of suspicion as the question arises, "How do they know the casual occupants and their inclusion?"

Unraveling the sequence to the end, you may await with the characters to find out their course.

EnJ*O*Y this excerpt from 12 Days at Bleakly Manor ~ Chapters One - Four

The First Day
DECEMBER 24, 1850

Chapter One

London, 1850

Christmas or not, there was nothing merry about the twisted alleys of Holywell. Clara Chapman forced one foot in front of the other, sidestepping pools of. . .well, a lady ought not think on such things, not on the morn of Christmas Eve—or any other morn, for that matter.
   Damp air seeped through her woolen cape, and she tugged her collar tighter. Fog wrapped around her shoulders, cold as an embrace from the grim reaper. Though morning had broken several hours ago, daylight tarried, seeming reluctant to make an appearance in this part of London—and likely wishing to avoid it altogether. Ancient buildings with rheumy windows leaned toward one another for support, blocking a good portion of the sky.
   She quickened her pace. If she didn’t deliver Effie’s gift soon, the poor woman would be off to her twelve-hour shift at the hatbox factory.
   Rounding a corner, Clara rapped on the very next door, then fought the urge to wipe her glove. The filthy boards, hung together more by memory than nails, rattled like bones. Her lips pursed into a wry twist. A clean snow might hide the sin of soot and grime in this neighborhood, but no. Even should a fresh coating of white bless all, the stain of so much humanity would not be erased. Not here. For the thousandth time, she breathed out the only prayer she had left.
    Why, God? Why?
   The door swung open. Effie Gedge’s smile beamed so bright and familiar, Clara’s throat tightened. How she missed this woman, her friend, her confidant—her former maid.
   “Miss Chapman? What a surprise!” Effie glanced over her shoulder, her smile faltering as she looked back at Clara. “I’d ask you in but. . .”
   Clara shoved away the awkward moment by handing over a basket. “I’ve brought you something for your Christmas dinner tomorrow. It isn’t much, but…” It was Clara’s turn to falter. “Anyway, I cannot stay, for Aunt’s developed a cough.”
   Effie’s smile returned, more brilliant than ever. “That’s kind of you, miss. Thank you. Truly.”
   The woman’s gratitude, so pure and genuine, rubbed Clara’s conscience raw. Would that she might learn to be as thankful for small things. And small it was. Her gaze slipped to the cloth-covered loaf of bread, an orange, and used tea leaves wrapped in a scrap of paper. Pressing her lips together, she faced Effie. “I wish it were more. I wish I could do more. If only we could go back to our old lives.”
   “Begging your pardon, miss.” Effie rested her hand on Clara’s arm, her fingers calloused from work no lady’s maid should ever have to perform. “But you are not to blame. I shall always hold to that. There is no ill will between us.”
   Clara hid a grimace. Of course she knew in her head she wasn’t to blame, but her heart? That fickle organ had since reverted to her old way of thinking, pulsing out “you are unloved, you are unwanted” with every subsequent beat.
   Clara forced a smile of her own and patted the woman’s hand. “You are the kind one, Effie. You’ve lost everything because of my family, and yet you smile.”
   “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. I suppose you know that as well as I, hmm?” Her fingers squeezed before she released her hold. “I wish you merry, Miss Chapman, this Christmas and always.”
   “Thank you, Effie. And a very merry Christmas be yours, as well.” She spun, eyes burning, and pushed her way back down the narrow alley before Effie saw her tears. This wasn’t fair. None of it.
   Her hired hansom waited where she’d left it. The cab was an expense she’d rather not think on, but altogether necessary, for she lived on the other side of town. She borrowed the driver’s strong grip to ascend onto the step, then when inside, settled her skirts on the seat while he shut the door.
   Only once did she glance out the window as the vehicle jostled along London’s rutted roads—and immediately repented for having done so. Two lovers walked hand in hand, the man bending close and whispering into the woman’s ear. A blush then, followed by a smile.
   Clara yanked shut the window curtain, the loneliness in her heart rabid and biting.
   That could have been her. That should have been her.
   Why, God? Why?
   She leaned her head back against the carriage. Was love to be forever denied her? First her father’s rejection, then her fiancé’s. She swallowed back a sob, wearier than twenty-five years ought to feel.
    Eventually the cab jerked to a halt, and she descended to the street. She dug into her reticule and pulled out one of her last coins to pay the driver. At this rate, she wouldn’t have to hire a cab to visit Effie next Christmas. She might very well be her neighbor.
   “Merry Christmas, miss.” The driver tipped his hat.
   “To you, as well,” she answered, then scurried toward Aunt’s town house. A lacquered carriage, with a fine pair of matched horses at the front, stood near the curb. Curious. Perhaps the owner had taken a wrong turn, for Highgate, while shabbily respectable, was no Grosvenor Square.
   Clara dashed up the few stairs and entered her home of the last nine months, taken in by the charitable heart of her Aunt Deborha Mitchell. The dear woman was increasingly infirm and housebound, but in her younger days she’d hobnobbed with people from many spheres.
   Noontide chimes rang from the sitting-room clock, accompanied by a bark of a cough. Clara untied her hat and slipped from her cloak, hanging both on a hall tree, all the while wondering how best to urge Aunt back to her bed. The woman was as stubborn as. . . She bit her lower lip. Truth be told, tenacity ran just as strongly in her own veins.
   Smoothing her skirts, she pulled her lips into a passable smile and crossed the sitting room’s threshold. “I am home, Aunt, and I really must insist you retire—oh! Forgive me.”
   She stopped at the edge of the rug. A man stood near the mantel, dressed in deep blue livery. Her gaze flickered to her aunt. “I am sorry. I did not know you had company.”
   “Come in, child.” Aunt waved her forward, the fabric of her sleeve dangling too loosely from the woman’s arm. “This involves you.”
   The man advanced, offering a creamy envelope with gilt writing embellishing the front. “I am to deliver this to Miss Clara Chapman. That is you, is it not?”
   She frowned. “It is.”
   He handed her the missive with a bow, then straightened. “I shall await you at the door, miss.”
   Her jaw dropped as he bypassed her, smelling of lavender of all things. She turned to Aunt. “I don’t understand.”
   “I should think not.” Aunt nodded toward the envelope. “Open it.”
   Clara’s name alone graced the front. The penmanship was fine. Perfect, actually. And completely foreign. Turning it over, she broke the seal and withdrew an embossed sheet of paper, reading aloud the words for Aunt to hear.
The Twelve Days of Christmas*As never’s been reveled Your presence, Miss Chapman,Is respectfully herald.Bleakly Manor’s the placeAnd after twelve nightsFive hundred poundsWill be yours by rights.
   She lowered the invitation and studied her aunt. Grey hair pulled back tightly into a chignon eased some of the wrinkles at the sides of her eyes, yet a peculiar light shone in the woman’s faded gaze. Aunt Deborha always hid wisdom, but this time, Clara suspected she secreted something more.
   “Who sent this?” Clara closed the distance between them and knelt in front of the old woman. “And why?”
   Aunt shrugged, her thin shoulders coaxing a rumble in her chest. A good throat clearing staved off a coughing spell—for now. “One * Brief explanations of historical traditions mentioned throughout this story can be found on pages 183–184. does not question an opportunity, my dear. One simply mounts it and rides.”
   “You can’t be serious.” She dissected the tiny lift of Aunt’s brows and the set of her mouth, both unwavering. Incredible. Clara sucked in a breath. “You think I should go? To Bleakly Manor, wherever that is?”
   “I think”—Aunt angled her chin—“you simply must.”
* Brief explanations of historical traditions mentioned throughout this story can be found on pages 183–184.

Chapter Two

Running an absent finger over the burnt scabs on his forearm, Benjamin Lane sagged against the cell’s stone wall, welcoming the sharp sting of pain. It wouldn’t last long. The crust would fall away, leaving a series of black numbers etched into his skin. A permanent mark, forever labeling him a convict to be feared, and driving a final stake through the heart of his efforts to be something in this world. Turning aside, he spit out the sour taste in his mouth, then his lips curled into a snarl. He was something, all right.
   An outcast.
   Anger rose in him like a mad dog, biting and completely impotent, for he had no idea who’d put him in this rat hole. The only thing he did know, he wished he didn’t. Not now. Not ever. Growling roared in his ears. Was that him? Oh, God. Not again.
   Betrayal from an enemy he could understand, but from the woman he loved? What man could fathom that? For nine months he’d turned that question over and over, examining every angle, each nuance, and still he could not reckon Clara’s duplicity.
   Why, God? Why?
   A finger at a time, Ben opened his hand and stared fiercely at a small chunk of stone, barely discernable in the darkness. Worn smooth now by nearly a year of caressing. He flipped it over, just like his unanswered questions, the sleekness of the rock against his palm reminding him he was human, not beast. Outside his cell, a shriek crawled beneath the crack in his door, reaching for him, taunting him to believe otherwise. To join the howl and become one with the pack of hopeless men.
   He flipped the rock again. The movement tethered him to sanity.
   Cocking his head, he listened with his whole body. Something more than screams crept in. The scrape of boot leather. Growing louder. Metal on metal, key battling key. The low murmur of a coarse jest shared between two guards.
   Sweat popped out on Ben’s forehead. He pressed his back into the wall, an impossible wish to disappear digging into his gut. The footsteps stopped. Only a slab of scarred wood separated him from his tormentors. Some Christmas this would be.
   The key jiggled in the lock, and his stomach twisted. It was safer to remain here. In the dark. At least in this womb of crumbling brick and blackness he still heard the cries of other prisoners, as regular as a mother’s heartbeat. He yet felt the dampness of rot on his skin, tasted the rancid gruel served once a day. Still breathed. Still lived.
   He flipped the rock again.
   The door swung open. A lantern’s glow silhouetted two ghouls.
   One stepped forward, a club in his grasp. “Out with ye, Lane. Warden’s got a little Christmas gift with yer name on it.”
   Ben wrapped his fingers tight around the stone. Should he make a run for it? Spring an attack and wrestle for the club? Go limp? He’d sigh, if he had any breath to spare, but even that seemed a precious commodity nowadays.
   No, better to face this head-on and not relinquish the last morsel of his dignity. He shuffled forward, the chains on his feet rasping. Shackles bit a fresh wound into his ankles with each step.
   Leaving behind the only haven he’d known the past nine months, he stumbled into the corridor, guards at his back, prodding, poking. He lurched along, passing other doors, other convicts, inhaling the stench and guilt of Millbank Prison. How many wretches as innocent as he perished behind those doors?
   One foot. Then the other. Drag, step. Drag, step. Until the stairway. The weight of his chains pulled him back as he ascended. By the time he reached the top, blood trickled hot over his feet.
   “Move it!”
   The guard’s club hit between his shoulder blades, knocking him forward and jarring loose his precious stone. It clacked onto the floor, as loud to him as the hammer pounding in Christ’s nails, then bounced down the stairs, taking his soul along with it.
   He wheeled about, diving for his only remainder of hope.
   But a boot caught him in the gut. A club cracked against his skull. Half-lugged, half-dead, he landed in the warden’s office like an alley cat thrown against a curb. The warden’s sigh barely registered.
   “Don’t know why I expected anything different. Thank you, gentlemen. You may wait outside. Up you go, Lane.” Warden Hacksby extended a hand.
   Ignoring the offer, Ben sucked in a breath and forced his body up, staggering until the room stopped spinning.
   “If nothing else, you are consistent.” Hacksby chuckled and seated himself behind a desk as angular as the man himself. “Do you know what day it is?”
   Ben worked out the soreness in his jaw before words could escape. “Sorry. I’ll have to check my calendar and get back to you. Or. . .wait a minute. Ahh, yes. Am I to sail for Australia today?” He narrowed his eyes. “But we both know I’ll never reach the shore.”
   “Ever the cynic, eh? Really, Lane. After all the hospitality I’ve shown you.” Hacksby tut-tutted, the curl of his lip exposing yellowed teeth. “But no. There’s been a change of plans. You’ve received another offer, should you choose to take it.”
   Bitterness slipped from Ben’s throat in a rusty laugh. “What, the gallows? A firing squad? Or has Queen Victoria invited me for Christmas tea?”
   “Aha! So you do know what day it is. Always the sly one, are you not?” Hacksby rose from his seat and leaned across the desk, a creamy envelope with Ben’s name in golden script on the front. “For you. Your freedom, possibly—providing you play by the rules. If not, you’re to be shot on sight for any escape attempt.”
   Ben eyed the paper. What trick was this? He was supposed to be transported to a labor camp halfway across the world, not handed an engraved invitation. He stiffened. This was a trap. He knew it to the deepest marrow in his bones.
   Nevertheless, he reached out, and for the smallest of moments, the warden held one edge, he the other. Liberty hanging in the balance.

Chapter Three

Despite her cold fingers, Clara rubbed away the frost on the coach’s window, then peered out into the December night. She ought be sore by now, riding such a distance over country roads, but truly, this carriage was magnificent—and so was the mansion that popped into view as they rounded a bend. She leaned closer, then reared back as her breath fogged the glass. With a furious swipe of her glove, she stared out the cleared circle, slack jawed.
   This was Bleakly Manor?
   A grand structure, torches ablaze, lit the night like the star of Bethlehem. The building stood proud at three stories tall, with candles winking behind row upon row of mullioned windows. Clearly whoever owned Bleakly didn’t care a fig about window taxes. Clara held her breath and edged closer, careful not to muddle her view with rime. Garland swagged from the roofline the entire length of the building. How on earth had they managed that? Red bows with dangling ribbons hung from each wall sconce, and as the carriage drew nearer, a gust of wind lent them life, and they waved a greeting.
   She sat back against the cushion, stunned. There was nothing bleak about this manor. Who had invited her—a lowly lady’s companion— to such an estate? Who would even want to keep company with her? And more importantly, why?
   The coach stopped, and the door opened. She gave up trying to solve such a puzzle as the footman helped her to the drive.
   “I’ll see to your bags, miss.” A lad, no more than fourteen yet dressed in as fine a livery as the older man, tipped his head in deference.
   The respectful gesture stung. She hadn’t been so favored since that awful day, that nightmare day nine months previous, when she’d stood in front of an altar in a gown of white.
   “Ready, miss?”
   The footman’s voice pulled her from the horrid memory. She lifted her skirts to follow him without tripping. “Yes.”
   She was ready, truly, to meet whoever had invited her. Perhaps if she explained the frail state of her aunt, she wouldn’t be required to stay the full Twelve Days of Christmas.
   After ascending granite stairs, she and the footman passed through an arched doorway and entered a foyer the size of Aunt’s dining and sitting rooms combined. A crystal chandelier dripped golden light over everything, from a cushioned bench against one wall to a medieval trestle table gracing the other. Fresh flowers filled a cut-glass vase atop the table. Marble tile gleamed beneath her feet, the echo of her steps reaching up to a mounted lion head on the wall in front of her, just above a closed set of doors. She couldn’t help but stare up into the cold, lifeless eyes, wondering how many people before her had done the same.
   “I should be happy to take your cloak and bonnet, miss.” The footman held out his arm.
   Her fingers shook as she unbuttoned her coat and untied her hat, though she was hard-pressed to decide if the jittery feeling was from cold air or nerves. Handing over her garments, she waited for further instruction from the tall fellow.
   But without a word, he pivoted and disappeared down a darkened hallway to her left.
   She stood, unsure, and clenched her hands for fortification, sickeningly aware of a gaze burning holes through her soul. Yet the only other pair of eyes in the foyer besides hers was the lion’s.
   She sucked in a breath. Nerves. That’s what. Had to be.
   To her right, another set of doors hid secrets, merry ones by the sound of it. Yellow light and conversation leached out through a crack between threshold and mahogany. Licking her lips, she squared her shoulders, resolved to meet the master of the house, then pushed open the door.
   Across the Turkish carpet, perched upon a chair and balancing a small box on her lap, a white-haired lady held up a quizzing glass to one eye and peered at Clara. “Oh, lovely! Such a beautiful creature. Don’t you think, Mr. Minnow?”
   “Why yes!” A lean man, more bones than flesh, jumped up from a settee and dashed toward Clara so quickly she retreated a step.
   He bowed, deep enough that his joints cracked, and held the pose longer than necessary. The scent of ginger wafted about him. When he straightened, he smiled at her with lips that were far too elastic. “Mr. Minnow at your service, mum. William Minnow, esquire. Well, not quite yet, but soon, I am certain. And you are?”
   Clara blinked. Was this the master of Bleakly Manor? A lanky eel in a suit?
   Instant remorse squeezed her chest. Who was she, a woman fallen from the graces of society, to judge the appearance of a man of substance? She dipped her head. “I am Clara Chapman.”
   “Clara Chapman! Oh, but I like the sound of that.” The elder on the chair waved a handkerchief at her. “Step nearer, dearest, and let’s look at you up close, shall we?”
   Familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the elderly, she complied, but froze several paces in front of the woman. A pink nose with whiskers poked out of the box on the lady’s lap, where a hole had been cut jaggedly into the side. Red eyes emerged, followed by a furry body and a naked tail, flesh-coloured and long. A second mouse emerged after it. The two scampered to the edge of the old lady’s knee and rose up on hind legs, testing the air with quivering noses.
   Clara stiffened. Hopefully the creatures would turn right around and disappear back into the box.
   The lady merely scrutinized her as if nothing more than a teacup and saucer rested on her lap. “Such a marvelous creature, Miss Chapman.”
   Was she speaking of her or the mice? “Th–Thank you,” she stuttered. “I am sorry, but I didn’t catch your name, ma’am?”
   “No, you did not.” The lady beamed at her. “I am Miss Scurry, and now we shall all be the jolliest of companions, shall we not?”
   “We shall, and more.” Mr. Minnow’s heels brushed against the carpet, then he reached for her hand and placed it on his arm. “Come, sit and warm yourself, my pet.”
   Pet? She barely had time to turn the word over before he escorted her to a settee near the hearth and pushed her into it.
   “I’m wondering, Miss Chapman”—Mr. Minnow smiled down at her—“not that Miss Scurry and I aren’t exceedingly grateful, for we are, but why exactly have you invited us here to share the Twelve Days with you?”
   “Me?” She shook her head, yet the movement did nothing to make sense of his question. “But you are mistaken, for I received an invitation myself.”
   “Bosh! This is a pickled herring.” Flipping out the tails of his suit coat, he joined her on the settee, much too close for propriety. “I thought you, being a lady of such grace and beauty, surely belonged to this house.”
   “I’m afraid not.” She edged away from him.
   “Sh-sh-sh.” Miss Scurry, evidently just discovering the two escapees had scampered to the top of the box, shooed both mice into the hole on the side and plugged it up with her handkerchief. “Rest, my dears.” Then she gazed over at Mr. Minnow. “Don’t fret so, my fine fellow. The day of reckoning will come soon enough, and all will be made clear.”
   Mr. Minnow clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “I suppose there’s nothing to be done for it but to wait for the host to appear.” His head swiveled, and he narrowed his eyes at Clara. “You’re sure that’s not you?”
   “I am, Mr. Minnow. Very sure.”
   She bit her lip. Clearly neither of these two eccentrics was the host. So, who was?

Chapter Four

The prison cart juddered over a hump in the road, rattling Ben’s bones. He’d curled into a ball in one corner, tucking his knees to his chest and wrapping his arms about them. Even so, after hours on end and with the chill of night bearing down, there was no stopping the chattering of his teeth. He snorted. Between teeth and bones he was quite the percussionist.
   A low “whoa now” slowed the wheels, and finally the cart stopped. Ben jerked upright, crouched and ready, the sudden hammering of his heart forgetting the cold. The long ride here had given him plenty of time to consider his situation, and he’d come to one conclusion—these were his last hours on earth.
   So be it. He’d go out fighting against such a wicked injustice and find some measure of worth in the fray.
   The scrape of a key shoved into the metal lock, then a click, a creak, and the door swung open. “Yer ride ends here, Lane. Out ye go.”
   The dark shape of the guard disappeared and light poured in. Ben’s eyes watered. Light? Was it day, then? How far had he traveled?
   He edged forward, cautious, scanning, as more and more of the world expanded into his view. Black darkened the sky, so it was still night, but torches ablaze changed the immediate area to morning.
   “Move along! I’ve still got a drive back to London.” The guard spat out a foul curse. “Ye’d think I’d signed up to be a bleedin’ jarvey. They don’t pay me enough, I tell ye. Not near enough.”
   Ben dropped out of the door and immediately wheeled about, fists up, stance wide, prepared for battle.
   The guard merely shoved the door shut and relocked it, ignoring him—and there was no one else around.
   Truly? No one? Ben stared hard into the darkness beyond the light. The expansive grounds were rimmed with trees along the perimeter, black against black. Nothing moved except the wind through barren branches. Apparently he’d been taken some distance into the countryside. He turned to face the manor. Impressive, really. Tall. Well masoned. Crenellated at the top. Perhaps used as a stronghold centuries ago.
   He spun. The cart lumbered down the curved drive, the guard urging the horses onward—without him. He was left standing alone. Unfettered. A brilliant mansion at his back and acres of freedom in front. He could run, here, now. Tear off and flee like the wind. Should he? He scrubbed a hand through his hair, recalling Hacksby’s threat.
   “You’re to be shot on sight for any escape attempt.”
   The prison cart disappeared into the night. But slowly, emerging out of that same darkness, another shape loomed larger. A carriage, and a fine one at that. Should he wait and meet head-on whomever it carried?
   Cold ached in his bare feet and up his legs, yet the pain of the unknown throbbing in his temples hurt worse. He’d have a better chance of putting up a fight if he could actually move his frozen body. Pivoting, he climbed the stairs to the main entrance and rapped the brass knocker.
   The door opened immediately, as if the butler had stood behind it waiting for him.
   “Welcome, Mr. Lane.” The man’s upper lip curled to nearly touch his nose.
   Ben smirked. He ought be ashamed of his stench, but his time at Millbank had dulled that emotion, especially when it came to issues of hygiene. Even so, he took out his manners and dusted them off. “Thank you. I see you were expecting me.”
   “Yes, sir. We have a room prepared for you after such a journey. If you would follow me.” Turning on his heel, the butler strode the length of the grand foyer toward a door with a stuffed lion head mounted above it.
   Ben studied the man as he went. He could pose a threat, for his shoulders were broad as a ceiling beam and those stout legs might pack a wallop of a kick. But the silver streaks in his hair labeled the fellow past his prime. Even so, better to keep his distance.
   He followed, leaving plenty of space between them, then paused and stared up at the lion head. Light from the chandelier reflected back brightly from those eyes, transparent, lifelike and—
   “Mr. Lane?”
   He jumped at the butler’s voice. What was wrong with him? There were bigger mysteries afoot than a dead lion. “Of course. Sorry.”
   He caught up to the man, who’d opened double doors, revealing an even bigger lobby. A wide, carpeted staircase, lit by intermittent wall sconces, led up to a first-floor gallery, where more lamps burned. Interesting that pains had been taken to decorate the outside of the manor, yet not one sprig of holly or mistletoe hung inside.
   Behind them, the front door knocker banged. Two stairs ahead of him, the butler stopped and pulled out a gold chain from his waistcoat, then flipped open the lid of a watch tethered to the end of it. His eyebrows pulled into a solid line, and a low rumble in his throat gruffed out. “Pardon me, Mr. Lane. If you’d wait here, please.”
   Here? On the stairs? A duck at rest to be shot from behind? He waited for the butler to pass, then tracked him on silent feet and slipped into the shadow cast by a massive floor clock.
   A man in a sealskin riding cloak entered, frost on his breath and hat pulled low. He stomped his boots on the tiles, irreverent of the peace.
   The butler dipped his head. “Mr. Pocket, I presume?”
   “I am.” The new arrival pulled off his hat and ran a hand through his shorn hair, the top of his head quite the contradiction to his bushy muttonchops. A rumpled dress coat peeked through the gap of his unbuttoned coat, and his trousers looked as if they’d never seen a hot iron. Clearly the man was not married, nor was he the master of the manor.
   “You were not due to arrive for another half hour, sir.” A scowl tugged down the corners of the butler’s mouth.
   Mr. Pocket twisted his lips, his great muttonchops going along for the ride. “Yet the invitation did not specify an arrival time, unless. . . ahh! I see. The deliveries were spaced out to ensure a regulated arrival schedule. Am I correct?”
   “Very clever, Inspector.”
   “Part of the job.”
   So the fellow was a lawman. Ben flattened his back against the wall, sinking deeper into the shadow of the clock. Questions ticked in his mind with each swing of the pendulum. Was Pocket sent to make sure he didn’t run or to finish him off? Or possibly set him up for something more sinister than embezzlement and fraud? But why the big charade? Why not just kill him in jail or ship him off as planned?
   “If you wouldn’t mind stepping in here until dinner, sir.” The butler opened a door in a side wall, but his back hindered Ben’s view into the room. “You may meet some of the other guests while you wait.”
   “All right. Don’t mind if I do.” Mr. Pocket swept past the man and vanished.
   Ben dashed back to the stairs, folded his arms, and leaned against the railing as if he’d never moved.
   The butler hesitated on the bottom stair only long enough to say, “My apologies for the delay, Mr. Lane. Please, let us continue.”
   Ben trailed the man as he traveled up two flights, then noted every door they passed and any corridors intersecting the one they traveled. There were two, one lit, one dark. They stopped at the farthest chamber of what he guessed to be the east wing.
   The butler opened the door but blocked him from entering. “You’ll find a bath drawn in front of the hearth, grooming toiletries on a stand opposite, and a set of dinner clothes laid out on the bed. I shall send a footman up to retrieve you in”—he reclaimed his watch once more and held it up for inspection before tucking it away—“forty-five minutes. Is that sufficient?”
   “Very generous,” he replied.
   “Very good.” The butler stepped aside, allowing him to pass, then pulled the door shut.
   Ben froze. The chamber gleamed in lamplight and gilt-striped wallpaper, so large and glorious it might overwhelm a duke. At center, a four-poster bed commanded attention, mattresses high enough to require a step stool. Against one wall stood an oversized roll-top desk and matching chair, decked out with full stationery needs. Several padded chairs and three different settees formed two distinct sitting areas. A screen offered privacy for necessary functions, and thick brocaded drapery covered what must be an enormous bank of windows.
   He changed his mind. This would overwhelm a king.
   Shaking off his stupor, he stalked to the copper basin in front of the fire. Steam rose like a mist on autumn water, smelling of sage and mint. Nine months. Nine never-ending months of filth and sweat and blood.
   He stripped off his prison garb, heedless of ripping the threadbare fabric, and kicked the soiled lump from him, uncaring that it lodged beneath the bed. Good riddance.
   Water splashed over the rim as he sank into the water, warmth washing over him like a lover’s embrace. A sob rose in his throat. This time last year, he’d bathed before dinner just like this. Dressed in fine clothes similar to those laid on the counterpane. Dined by candlelight with the woman he loved fiercely. Kissed Clara’s sweet lips until neither of them could breathe.
   What a fool.
   He snatched the bar of soap off the tray hooked to the tub’s side, then scrubbed harder than necessary. Of course this wasn’t like last Christmas Eve. It could never be.
   For he wouldn’t see Clara ever again.
Michelle Griep, 12 Days at Bleakly Manor Shiloh Run Press, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., © 2017. Used by permission.

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author Michelle Griep
**I received a complimentary copy of this book from Barbour Publishing and was under no obligation to post a review.**


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