Judith Malory knelt in front of the window in the bedroom she shared with her cousin Jacqueline, both staring at the ruined house behind the Duke of Wrighton’s mansion and formal gardens. Although Judith was the older of the two young women by a few months, Jack, as her father had named her just to annoy his American brothers-in-law, had always been the leader—actually, instigator was more like it. Jack said that she was going to be a rake, just like her father, James Malory. Jack said she was going to be a pirate, just like her father. Jack said she was going to be a superlative pugilist. . . . The list went on. Judith had once asked her why she didn’t have any goals to be like her mother, and Jack had promptly replied, “But that wouldn’t be exciting.”
Judith disagreed. She wanted to be a wife and a mother, in that order. And it was no longer a faraway goal. She and Jacqueline were both turning eighteen this year. She’d had her birthday last week, and Jacqueline would have hers in a couple months. So they were both going to have their first Season come summer, but Jacqueline’s debut was going to take place in America instead of London, and Judith didn’t think she could bear not being able to share this occasion with her best friend. But Judith still had a couple of weeks to figure out how she could change this disagreeable arrangement.
The daughters of the two younger Malory brothers, James and Anthony, the girls had been inseparable for as long as they could remember. And every time their mothers brought them to visit their cousins Brandon and Cheryl at the duke’s ancestral estate in Hampshire, they’d spend hours at this window hoping to see a light glowing eerily in the ruins again. The night they’d first seen it had been so exciting, they couldn’t help themselves.
They’d only seen the light on two other occasions since then. But by the time they’d grabbed lanterns and run across the extensive lawn to reach the old, abandoned house on the neighboring property, the light had been gone.
They’d had to tell their cousin Brandon Malory about it, of course. He was a year younger than they were, but it was his home they were visiting, after all. The Duke of Wrighton’s title and estate had passed to him through his mother, Kelsey, who had married the girls’ cousin Derek. His parents had elected to move into it when Brandon was born, so he would grow up aware of his stature and consequence. Luckily, being a duke hadn’t spoiled him rotten.
But Brandon had never actually seen the light himself, so he wasn’t the least bit interested in the vigil tonight or any other night. He was currently on the other side of the room engrossed in teaching Judith’s younger sister, Jaime, to play whist. Besides, having just turned seventeen, Brandon looked more like a man than a boy, and not surprisingly, he was now much more interested in girls than ghosts.
“Am I old enough now to be told the Secret?” Brandon’s younger sister, Cheryl, asked from the open doorway to her cousins’ room.
Jaime Malory leapt up from the little card table and ran over to Cheryl, grabbing her hand and pulling her forward before turning to her older sister, Judith. “She is. I was her age when you told me.”
But it was Jacqueline who answered, scoffing at her younger cousin, “That was just last year, puss. And unlike you, Cheryl actually lives here. Tell her, Brand. She’s your sister. She’d have to promise never to go investigating on her own and you’d have to make sure she keeps the promise.”
“Investigate?” Cheryl looked at her two older cousins, who’d been refusing for years to tell her their secret. “How can I make a promise if I don’t know what I’m promising?”
“This is no time for logic, puss,” Judith said, concurring with Jacqueline. “Promise first. Jaime had to, and she doesn’t even live here. But you do, and without the promise, we’d end up worrying about you. You don’t want that, d’you?”
Cheryl gave that a moment’s thought before she shook her head. “I promise.”
Judith nudged Jacqueline to do the honors, and Jack didn’t disappoint, saying baldly, “You’ve got a ghost for a neighbor. He lives next door.”
Cheryl burst into giggles but stopped when she noticed Judy and Jack weren’t laughing. Wide-eyed, she asked, “Really? You’ve seen it?”
“About five years ago, we did,” Judith said.
“Judy even spoke to it,” Jacqueline added.
“But Jack saw the light first, from this very window. So we just had to go have a look. We’d always thought that old house must be haunted. And we were right!”
Cheryl walked forward slowly and joined them at the window to take a quick peek at the old eyesore her parents had complained about more’n once. She let out a relieved breath when she didn’t see any light. She wasn’t nearly as brave as her cousins were. But in the moonlight she could see a clear outline of the large, old manor house that had fallen to ruin long before any of them were born, a big, dark, scary outline. With a shudder, she turned and hurried over to her brother for protection.
“You didn’t actually go inside that house, did you?” Cheryl asked.
“Of course we did,” Jack said.
“But we’ve all been warned not to!”
“Only because it’s dangerous with so many broken floorboards, crumbling walls, and a lot of the roof caved in. And cobwebs. There’s cobwebs everywhere. It took Judy and me forever to get them out of our hair that night.”
Eyes flaring a little wider, Cheryl said, “I can’t believe you actually went inside, and at night.”
“Well, how else were we to find out who was trespassing? We didn’t know it was a ghost yet.”
“You should have just told my father you saw the light,” Cheryl said.
“But that’s no fun,” Jack pointed out.
“Fun? You don’t need to pretend to be so courageous just because your fathers are.” When the two older girls started laughing, Cheryl said, “So you’re just pulling my leg? I should have known!”
Jacqueline grinned at her. “D’you really think we’d keep the Secret from you all these years just to pull your leg? You wanted to know and now we’re finally telling you. It was incredibly exciting.”
“And only a little frightening,” Judith added.
“And foolhardy,” Cheryl insisted.
Jack snorted. “If we let things like that stop us, we’d have no fun a’tall. And we had weapons. I grabbed a shovel from the garden.”
“And I took my scissors along,” Judith added.
Cheryl had always wished she was as brave as these two. Now she was glad she wasn’t. They’d thought they’d find a vagrant, but they’d found a ghost instead. It was a wonder their hair hadn’t turned white that night, but Judy’s gold hair was still streaked with copper, not gray, and Jack was still as blond as her father was.
“We couldn’t tell where the light was coming from when we stepped inside the house that night,” Jack was saying. “So we split up.”
“I found him first,” Judy said, continuing the story. “I’m not even sure which room he was in. I didn’t notice the light until I opened a door. And there he was, floating in the middle of the room. And none too pleased to see me. I promptly told him he was trespassing. He told me I was the trespasser, that the house was his. I told him ghosts can’t own houses. He just stretched his arm out, pointing behind me, and told me to get out. He was a bit harsh. He seemed to growl at me so I did turn about to leave.”
“And that’s when I arrived,” Jack said. “Only to see his back as he floated away. I asked him to wait, but he didn’t. He just bellowed, ‘Get out, both of you!’—so loud it shook the rafters, or what’s left of them. We did, ran right out of there. But we were only halfway back to the mansion when we realized he couldn’t really hurt us. And we were missing the opportunity to help him move on. So we went back and searched every room, but he’d already faded away.”
“You wanted to help him?” Cheryl asked incredulously.
“Well, Judy did.”
Cheryl stared at the slightly older of the two cousins. “Why?”
Judith shrugged evasively, saying, “He was a handsome young man. Must’ve been only twenty or so when he died. And he seemed so sad when I first spotted him, before he noticed me and got belligerent and protective of his crumbling ruin of a house.”
“And because she fell in love with a ghost that night,” Jack added with a snicker.
Judith gasped. “I did not!”
“You did!” Jack teased.
“I’d just like to know what caused him to become a ghost. It must have been something quite tragic and frightening, if his hair turned white before he died.”
“White hair?” Cheryl said with owlish eyes. “Then he must be old.”
“Don’t be silly, puss,” Jacqueline admonished. “My sister-in-law Danny has white hair, doesn’t she? And she was as young as we are now when she met Jeremy.”
“True,” Cheryl allowed, then asked Judith, “Was he really handsome then?”
“Very, and tall, and with lovely dark green eyes that glowed like emeralds—and don’t you dare go looking for him without us,” Judy added, sounding almost jealous.
Cheryl huffed, “I’m not daring or curious like you two. I have no desire to meet a ghost, thank you very much.”
“Good, because he seems to have magical powers, too, or haven’t you noticed that the roof’s been repaired?”
Cheryl gasped. “By a ghost?”
“No, I didn’t notice. My room’s on the other side of the house.”
“I noticed,” Brandon spoke up. “And I’ve never seen workers there to account for it, but the roof has definitely been repaired recently.”
“I hope you didn’t point that out to your father?” Jacqueline said.
“No, if I did, I’d have to tell him the Secret, and I’m not breaking the promise.”
Jacqueline beamed at him. “I knew we could count on you, Brand.”
“Besides, Father grumbles anytime someone mentions that old place. He’s annoyed that he can’t get rid of it. He’s tried to buy it so he could tear it down, but the last owner of record was a woman named Mildred Winstock, and she merely inherited it, she never lived in it. And no wonder, with a ghost in residence. It’s actually been empty since my great-great-grandfather’s day, which would explain its crumbling condition. But then I told you why he built it and who he gave it to.”
“Who?” Cheryl asked.
“That’s not for your young ears,” Brandon replied.
“His mistress?” Cheryl guessed.
Judith rolled her eyes at her precocious cousin and changed the subject. “It’s amazing this place didn’t fall to ruin, too, being empty for five generations as well.”
“Not quite empty,” Brandon replied. “The ducal estate has paid to maintain a minimal staff here to keep that from happening. But Father could find no record of who Miss Winstock left the ruin to when she died, so we’re stuck with it mucking up our backyard.”
Derek had planted trees and thick shrubbery along the property line, though, to block the crumbling, old house from view so people could enjoy the ducal gardens without having to look at that eyesore. But the trees didn’t block the view of the old house from the upper floors of the ducal mansion.
Judith sighed as she moved away from the window. “All right, Cousins, time for Judy and me to get to bed, so you probably should, too. We return to London in the morning.”
As soon as their cousins left the room, Jacqueline said, “What did you expect? They haven’t seen the ghost like we have.”
Judith sighed. “Oh, Cheryl’s lack of an adventurous nature doesn’t surprise me. Derek and Kelsey keep her too sheltered here, while you and I’ve grown up in London.”
“Ah, so that sigh was because we didn’t see the light on this visit? We can go search through the ruin tonight if you’d like.”
“No, the ghost only revealed himself to us once. I’m quite sure he hides now when we invade his domain. More’s the pity,” Judith said with another sigh.
Jacqueline threw a pillow at her. “Stop mooning over a ghost. You do realize he’s not the marrying sort?”
Judith burst out laughing. “Yes, I’ve had no trouble figuring that out.”
“Good, because it’d be quite difficult to get a kiss out of him, much less a nice tumble.”
Judith raised a brow. “Tumble? I thought you scratched being a rake off your list last year?”
“Bite your tongue. I’m just going to take a leaf from our cousin Amy’s book and not take no for an answer—when I find the chap for me. And when I do, heaven help him. The man won’t know what hit him,” Jacqueline added with a roguish grin.
“Just don’t find him too soon. And do not find him in America.”
There it was again, Jacqueline’s voyage looming in front of them. The first time Jacqueline had sailed off to America with her parents, Judith had been distraught and inconsolable the entire two months of Jack’s absence. The girls had sworn then never to be more’n a carriage ride away from each other ever again, so Judy got to go along the second time Jack visited America. But the girls hadn’t known at the time about the promise James Malory had made to the Anderson brothers when Jack was born. Her American uncles had agreed that Jacqueline could be raised exclusively in England as long as she had her come-out in America, because they hoped she’d marry an American. At least be given the chance to.
When asked why he would agree to something so out of character for him, James had said, “It kept me from having to kill them, which would have made George quite annoyed with me.”
True, they were George’s brothers, after all, and James hadn’t actually been joking, either, about killing them. George was Jacqueline’s mother, Georgina to be exact, but James insisted on calling his wife George because he knew her brothers would hate it, but truth be known, even her five older brothers called her that now on occasion. But that promise James had made had kept an unspoken truce in effect all these years with his five American brothers-in-law. Which had been needed, considering they’d once tried to hang James Malory.
“I’m not going to marry until you do,” Jacqueline assured her cousin, “so don’t you be in a hurry to either. We don’t need to be following the pack and getting married our first Season, even if our mothers are expecting us to. This year is for fun, next year can be for marriage.”
“That’s not going to stop you from sailing off without me,” Judith said forlornly.
“No, but we still have a couple of weeks to come up with a solution. We’ll talk to our parents as soon as we get back to London. It’s your parents that have to be convinced. My father would be glad to have you along, but when Uncle Tony said no, Father had to side with him. Brothers, you know, and those two in particular, always stick together. But if I tell them that I won’t go to America if you can’t come with me, they’ll see reason. And why did your father say no? It’s not as if he’s looking forward to your come-out. He’s been a veritable ogre with it approaching.”
Judith giggled. “My father is never an ogre. A bit terse and snappish lately, yes, but—you’re right, he’d be quite happy if I never marry.”
“Exactly, so he should have jumped at the chance to send you off with me, prolonging the inevitable.”
“But is marriage inevitable, with fathers like ours?”
Jacqueline laughed. “You’re thinking of Cousin Regina’s being raised by the four Malory elders after their sister Melissa died, and how none of them could agree on a man good enough for their niece, and she had to go through numerous Seasons because of it. Poor Reggie. But, remember, back then, the Malory brothers didn’t have wives who could put their feet down as they do now. D’you really think our mothers won’t do exactly that when love shows up for us? Wait a minute, that’s it, isn’t it? It was Aunt Roslynn who said you couldn’t go and Uncle Tony just agreed with her to keep the peace?”
Judith winced as she nodded. “She’s so been looking forward to my come-out here, much more’n I am. She’s even got her hopes set on one man in particular she thinks will be perfect for me.”
“Lord Cullen, the son of one of her Scottish friends,” Judith replied.
“Have you met him?”
“I haven’t seen him since we were children, but she has. She’s assured me he’s rich, handsome, a great catch by all accounts.”
“I suppose he lives in Scotland?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then he won’t do! What’s your mother thinking, to pair you with a man who’ll take you away from us?”
Judith laughed. “Probably that she’ll buy us a house in London to live in.”
Jack snorted. “We don’t take chances like that, especially with Scots, who can be stubborn. Wait a minute, is he why she won’t bend?”
“She is worried he’ll get snatched up by someone else if I’m not here at the start of the Season. So, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the real reason she’s refusing to let me delay my debut for a trip to America.”
Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “You silly. We just haven’t tackled this together yet. We’re much stronger when we do. Mark my words, you’ll be sailing with me. I never had the slightest doubt.”