Captive at Cragdale Hall by The Unlaced Book Club. Part One.

Once Upon a Time…

When the Blossom Twins asked the ladies from The Unlaced Book Club to write them a story, we jumped at the chance. Although all great friends, we had never worked collaboratively before. The nine of us, although all Harlequin Historical authors, have very different writing styles and write in different time periods, so we needed to find a way to make it work. We mulled plots, structure and characters but came up blank. In the end, we decided to write it as a tag team with each author picking up the thread where the other left off, none of us quite knowing where it was going. If we say so, we are rather pleased with the finished result.

So make yourself a hot beverage, put your feet up and letLara Temple, Laurie Benson and Nicole Locke start telling you our story…

Captive at Cragdale Hall

Her mother had read her bedtime stories that began just like this - tales of descents into dark realms, of leaving safety behind. There was always a point where she wanted to stop her mother’s calm voice and say – surely they knew better! Surely they should have realized it was time to turn back! Why did they go on into danger?
Yet here she was, though with each mile passed everything that spoke of safety was fading.
The yard of the coaching inn in York had been a bustling jumble of people and noise. Each mile passed leached some of that jumble away – people, noise, and daylight had drained away until there was nothing but blackness outside the swaying, squeaking conveyance.
The only reason she didn’t beat her fists on the roof of the carriage and beg to be returned to York and her fate as eternal and ever more downtrodden governess was folded into the frayed reticule clutched on her lap.
The letter had changed everything. At twenty six she had given up hope of finding love or even companionship. There were few opportunities for that immured in the nurseries of her employers. But she could, and did, at least indulge in her joy of reading anything and everything. Since she had no spare funds or free time to indulge in her love of circulating libraries she read the cast off newspapers and periodicals and that was how it had begun, with an article about the amateur and reclusive female astronomer Mary Delford, her observatory at her isolated mansion, Cragdale Hall, and her discovery of a new comet.
It had been impulse that made Emma write to her, an unnamed yearning for something larger, something meaningful in her life. She had covered two sheets of precious paper with thoughts, ideas, and wishes, and posted her letter off to the wilds of the Yorkshire moors without thought of it even reaching its destination.
It had never occurred to her it might not only be read but answered – and with an offer for employment complete with a salary that sounded exorbitant, a draft on a Yorkshire bank for five whole pounds, an amount beyond Emma’s recent imagination, and the peremptory announcement that a carriage would be sent for her in two weeks’ time.
Until the appearance of that carriage, precisely two weeks later, Emma had scarcely dared believe the miracle could indeed be true.
And yet here she was. Wrapped in her worn and oft-mended cloak, alone in an aged but stately carriage in the middle of the Yorkshire moors on her way to a new life.
She only hoped this was not one of those tales...

As the miles flew by, the rhythmic rocking of the dark carriage and the warmth from the hot brick at her feet made it hard for Emma to keep her eyes open. Who knew escaping one’s old life could be this exhausting? She woke briefly to see the dawn break and, later, to find the carriage lurching along a track that crossed snow-covered moorland. She was just about to nod off again when the carriage came to an abrupt stop. Blinking open her eyes, she peered out the window and got her first glimpse of the building that was to be her new home.
The cloudy sky dulled the white stone trim of the stately brick house to a sickly gray. Emma had never been inside a building that large and impressive. She imagined the aging Queen Victoria would feel at home here.
The door to the carriage was opened by a footman that had come from the house.
‘I’ve a letter from Miss Delford,’ she blurted out before he even had the chance to inquire. ‘She is expecting me.’
He nodded politely and lowered the carriage steps without saying a word. Clutching her cloak closed, Emma accepted his gloved hand and stepped down. Her boots crunched into the snowy ground as the frigid air stung her cheeks.
“Do you have any more bags, miss?” he asked, reaching inside the carriage and dragging out her lone carpetbag from where it had traveled beside her.
Emma shook her head while she began to count the windows on the front of the house. “I just have the one.” Visible puffs of air drifted from her lips with every word.
“Very well. Please follow me.”
Walking up the three shallow steps, she held her hand to her abdomen in an unsuccessful attempt to steady her butterflies and followed him inside.

Dark. Foreboding. Emma followed the servant into the parlor. The interior held as much light as an overcast night sky, and as much cheer as a lump of buried meteorite. Perhaps Miss Delford wanted no distractions from the stars or the comets. Yet it was the middle of the day and, surely, some light would be welcome.
But nothing. Drapes untidily closed allowed pinpoints of light from the tall windows. Dark wood furniture, even darker floors; trim in what could be black marble. Chairs and sofas to welcome a guest after a long journey were covered as if the owner was leaving for other destinations, or had never returned.
No ornaments to soften the precise lines of the room; no pictures to add insight into what she’d walked into. All was veiled, like a grieving widow.
 ‘I should make our apologies, we arrived only last night.’
She pivoted at the melodious voice.  A tall whip-like man strode into the room, and swept past her to the drapes. With a deft clench of his hand, he wrenched them open. His ring caught her attention – a huge square-shaped emerald that dwarfed his slender hand – before he turned to face her.
Handsome in an eerily inhuman way. Too perfect.  Not one of his fair hairs out of place, his eyes… She’d never seen anything like them; couldn’t help but stare. The man stood still, unblinking, as if expecting such a reaction.
     If the house was dark, his eyes held no colour at all. Not black, but a blue so light they were like seeing through clear glass into nothing.
     ‘I’m Arthur, Miss Delford’s nephew. I trust your journey went well.’
     Too full of her thoughts, she’d barely noticed her surroundings on the way here. Now she wished she had, if only to know how to return.
     And where did that foolish thought come from?  As if she had anywhere else to go; as if she wanted to. This was a dream come true; an opportunity for the grandest of adventures. Did it matter that in all their exchanged correspondence, Miss Delford never mentioned her nephew nor any relative? Certainly not when the bulk of their interests were in the skies.
      ‘It went well, thank you. I’m Emma. Miss Delford is expecting me?’
     He nodded. ‘We were, indeed, expecting you, but not for a few more days. I arrived here early to prepare the home for you.’
     ‘I have a letter.’ She held it out as if the written words of arriving today would change the truth before her. Another foolish reaction. Regardless of what a mere slip of paper indicated, it was clear Miss Delford was not in residence.
Yet something inside her persisted she misunderstood. The footman had not mentioned Miss Delford wasn’t in. ‘I’m sorry if I arrived early. I thought that—‘
‘That Miss Delford would be here?’ he interrupted.
She nodded.
A small pleased curve to his lips. ‘She was most eager to be here, but unfortunately has been momentarily detained.’
     The house all dark, as if in mourning. How momentary?
     Arthur had pulled back the drapes, but the exposed windows shed no light into her turbulent thoughts. She should have listened to the bedtime stories. They weren’t stories at all, but warnings against impulses to write letters to reclusive astronomers.
      ‘It is still early yet,’ he said. ‘The servants have taken your things to your room which is being prepared, and I’ve ordered a repast for you, but it, too, will take some time.’
     She was hungry, tired, and yet none of those comforts were available for her.  At a loss, she didn’t know what to say or do. It wasn’t as if she could afford a stay at a local inn to while away the time until her hostess arrived. Here was the only place for her.
But that did not help her now. No place to sit; nowhere to go. Even a walk was unlikely given the darkening clouds rolling in.
     ‘Perhaps it is presumptuous of me,’ he looked her over, ‘but I do know Miss Delford intended for you to read some of her more private papers on her studies. I’m afraid, however, that they are currently in the attic.’
     Her clothes dusty, her hair gritty. A few cobwebs could not worsen her appearance. Certainly, there would be no comforts in the attic, but she buoyed her thoughts that it could be no more foreboding than the parlor, and papers on comets would lend for hours of distraction.
 ‘I would be delighted.’
‘Splendid.’ A slight curve to his lips did nothing to soften his features. ‘I have to admit, there’s a few matters there I would be interested in. She often mentioned a mechanical device that sounded fascinating.  If you come across plans for such a device, would you mind bringing those to me immediately?’
Wondering what the immediacy could possibly be, but knowing she had no choice, she answered, ‘Of course.’

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