Felix’s hollow fibre duvet had never seen so much action. It bucked and heaved as he writhed beneath it. The faster he moved the better. The harder he thrust the better. Felix groaned and flung out his arms and legs like a frenzied starfish before he curled up into as small a ball as possible. The chill crept back. Nowhere near energetic enough. He needed to keep moving. Felix rubbed his chest -- and, oh shit, by default his cock -- against the bottom sheet. Before he grew overexcited, he flipped onto his back and kicked his legs in a bicycling action. He was warmer now but exhausted. Ah, and horny.
The flash of heat resulting from his acrobatics was so fleeting Felix might as well have saved his energy. The bedroom window was closed, the thick curtains drawn, but the arctic wind blasting the coach house had managed to find a way through every crack to torment him. Felix could see bursts of transient ghosts each time he exhaled. With no warm body to cuddle up to and no spare cash to install central heating, he’d end up freezing to death before the will was sorted and he received his share of the money.
Too cold to stay in bed, yet Felix had no desire to get up. Doing so would mean acknowledging Black Friday had started. He pulled the duvet tighter around his shoulders and rolled over, wrapping himself in a blue cocoon. Maybe he wouldn’t get up. Maybe he’d lounge in bed all day, and while he slowly turned into an ice pop he’d pretend he had plenty of money, a faithful girlfriend, and a flashy sports car.
Felix gave brief consideration to what he’d like most and had to admit it was the car. How sad was that? Yeah, well, while he was frozen in de-Nile, he’d also need to pretend he hadn’t signed away his ancestral home, the place that had been in his family for almost four hundred years.
He threw the duvet over his face and cringed. For the first time in his life, he was glad his parents were dead. Lucky for him he didn’t believe in an afterlife, so there was no chance of them looking down in disappointment from heaven. Still, he did believe in hedging his bets, and just because he
didn’t believe, didn’t mean his parents weren’t reclining on clouds, clutching gin and tonics and scowling down at him.
“Sorry,” Felix turned to mutter into his pillow. “Sorry I let you down. Again.”
Though this time, the mess he was in wasn’t entirely his fault. The fact that Felix had remained in blissful ignorance of how far things had deteriorated in his absence brought guilt he had to live with, but if his father were alive, Felix would have strangled him. Fucking inconsiderate to get himself killed before Felix had a chance to do the deed.
He clenched his teeth. If his father had listened to his friends, listened to his accountant, listened to the bloody weather forecaster and not gone out in the boat that day, he and Felix’s mother would still be living in Pevenhurst Castle; his father would still be the twelfth Earl of Sherbourne and Felix would be the profligate son doing what the fuck he liked. Instead, he was now the thirteenth earl, and the first thing he’d done was lose the family home.
Felix stretched out and shuddered when his feet hit an icy patch of bed. He briefly considered going to the bank, waiting for the money from the sale of the house to be transferred, and emptying his account. The two million from the buyers and his forty-seven pounds and eleven pence could take him a long way.
Nice idea, only he couldn’t do it. Felix had evaded responsibility all his life, once with serious consequences, and now it lay tight around his neck like a choke collar. Whether he liked it or not, he was the thirteenth Earl of Sherbourne and he’d promised himself that one day he’d buy back Pevenhurst Castle and park his silver Aston Martin on the drive. Having a wife and kids might be good too.
That thought gave rise to a mirthless laugh. Hermione, the woman he’d intended to marry, was now shacked up with his half brother Clive. After his parents died, Felix discovered he had four half siblings in the locality, all born to different mothers. All male. All supported by his father. All with a bloody claim on the estate. Clive, who was a year older than Felix, much to his dismay, didn’t care about Pevenhurst, only about money and his rights, which of course involved money. Felix suspected Clive had only taken Hermione from him to show he could.
He bristled at the memory. After years of avoiding entanglement and rejecting every woman suggested by his father, Felix had wrapped himself around the gorgeous realtor he’d appointed to sell Pevenhurst. He thought he was in love. Seems she wasn’t. Sometimes Felix wondered if there was a curse on his family where they ended up left at the altar. Three earls had been jilted on, or close to, their wedding days. At least the bitch had walked out early enough to avoid that embarrassment.
Hermione had been…he’d thought… Felix’s hand slid to his deflated cock and gave it a gentle squeeze. Instant response. At least there were some things he could rely on, unlike his cheating bitch of an ex-fiancée and his bastard, conniving brother. Blood rushed to Felix’s groin and his cock went hard as a tree, turned on by anger rather than lust. His cold fingers leached warmth from his erection as he caressed himself.
Felix had fallen in love with his fist over the last four months. Jacking off was one of his few comforts: free, convenient, and reliable. He’d decided the only thing that would interest him from now on was no-strings-attached sex. Unfortunately, the concept didn’t exist for most women, no matter what they said. He wasn’t yet desperate enough to purchase the services of a prostitute. Felix hoped it was more than lack of funds that kept him off that particular track.
He reached for a tissue before he ended up spurting over the bed. He hadn’t the inclination to wash sheets. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d changed the one he lay on. The duvet cover hadn’t been washed since he’d moved in several months ago. Good thing he never met any women he wanted to introduce to his bed. Hermione had preferred them to use her apartment because it had heating.
Even as his hand sped up, Felix thought about stopping. He didn’t feel like doing this. Starting the day by wanking off had become an annoying habit, only now it was easier to keep going than stop. He turned and came up on his knees. The duvet covered his head, but he could see his cock glistening with precum as he jerked his hand tighter and faster along his length, smooth skin slipping under rough fingers. His balls tensed and separated, and Felix groaned his release, pulsing into the tissue.
He wiped himself off and emerged from the duvet like a belligerent tortoise, frustrated, furious, and still fucking horny.
* * * * *
“Have I been here before?” Erin asked.
She peered through the car window as the world flashed past, her father driving well over the speed limit. A sandstone building sat on a distant hill, looming like a dirty cliff face in the failing light.
Syren’s “no” had been a little quick, and Alicia’s “never” a little slow. Her parents were trying much too hard. Erin tilted her head to keep Pevenhurst Castle in sight. The name sounded familiar and the place looked familiar; though Erin couldn’t trust her memory, not yet anyway. Still, something here called to her.
Pevenhurst took on substance as they drew nearer. A dwelling that must once have been full of light and life, it now seemed lost and a bit sad. Rather like her. Four centuries ago, Pevenhurst had been the majestic home of the local nobility, master of the land around, controller of those who lived in its vicinity. Now stones crumbled, drainpipes teetered into midair, and miscellaneous plant life had taken root on the crenellated roof. Erin was a little disappointed her new home didn’t look more like a castle. No moat, drawbridge, or any of those narrow slits in the stonework.
“What are those windows called that archers used?” Erin asked.
“Loopholes,” Syren said.
Erin waited for the long explanation to follow, but Syren kept quiet, which made her suspicious. Her father, a history fanatic, usually jumped on any opportunity to display his vast knowledge. Erin guessed his obsession with the past was the reason he’d bought this place. It had taken them hours to get here, plenty of time for Erin to imagine herself a fairy princess being transported to a castle prison. She hadn’t paid much attention to the landscape they passed through, though once or twice Erin had the distinct impression they were travelling in a circle.
The two sitting in the front of the car might or might not be her parents, but they were definitely her guards. They’d hardly let her out of their sight for weeks. She was disconcerted by the fact that they looked so young. They’d told her she was twenty-four. How could she have parents in their midthirties? Why couldn’t she remember them? Why did she think they didn’t want her to? Erin sighed. A growing mountain of questions and no answers.
“What do you think?” Alicia turned to look at her.
“It’s…big,” Erin said.
“It will be a great project while you recover from…” Alicia’s voice trailed away.
From? Not just recover her memory? What else? “I wish you’d --”
“There’s the realtor,” said Syren. “Umm…why’s she hiding?”
A slim blonde in a smart red suit had emerged to wave from the side of the building.
“Hermione Sutton,” said Alicia. “She’s brought the keys. I did wonder if she might be someone you could befriend.”
“Erin needs to be left alone.” Her father glared at her mother.
Erin had heard them arguing several times over the last few weeks and heard her name mentioned on each occasion. She felt bad to have caused problems between two people who clearly adored each other. Erin also felt fortunate her bedroom lay at the other end of the house from theirs, though it was impossible to ignore the passionate cries every flipping night. Much more comforting to think they’d only had sex once and she was the result.
Syren pulled up in front of the steps. As they exited the car, Hermione tottered across the gravel in vertiginous heels and a tight suit. Erin liked high heels, but no way could she walk in anything like those, especially on stones, though the shoes still made her mouth water -- open-toed with a leather flower on the front. The realtor was immaculately made-up, not a hair out of place. Erin disliked Hermione on sight.
“Mr. and Mrs. Markov, lovely to see you again. This must be poor Erin.”
Erin clenched her jaw. The bitch. Good to know her instincts weren’t letting her down.
“Your father told me about your little problem. So sorry.”
Hermione shook her head and gave a tremulous sigh. Erin thought she’d make an excellent professional mourner and was so busy wondering if Hermione could shed tears to order, she was a little slow taking in what had been said.
“Little problem?” Erin glared at Syren’s back, pleased to see his shoulders cringe as if she’d poked him hard with her finger.
“Your allergy to sunlight,” Hermione said. “Gosh, you’re very pale. Really pale.”
Erin stared at her without blinking, imagining her gaze could fry.
“You could always use fake tan. Mine’s the real thing, courtesy of the Caribbean.” Cue stupid giggle. “There are some excellent products on the market. I could suggest some if you like.”
Erin continued to stare, willing her to break out in spots.
“Though your skin is lovely as it is.” Hermione beamed at her.
Erin didn’t beam back. Hermione’s smile faltered, and she turned to Syren. “The workmen have been inside today and fixed wooden shutters at every window as you instructed. The locksmith changed the locks and added the extra security.” She handed him a bunch of keys. “Any problems, don’t hesitate to get in touch.”
Quite a talent to say that in a voice that also said don’t bother. Hermione’s smile was as fake as her nails. When she retreated around the corner to get her car, Erin wondered why she’d not parked in the open area at the front. Why would she want to keep out of sight? Had Syren been right? She’d been hiding? Erin watched as Hermione sped down the drive, swerving to avoid the potholes and scattering gravel in her wake. What was she running from? Erin cringed to think they had anything in common.
“Come and look,” Alicia called from the door.
Erin’s jaw dropped when she walked inside, her brain stunned in a combination of delight and horror. The marble-floored entrance hall was very grand with a painted, domed ceiling featuring fat cherubs reclining on clouds, though large cracks made it look as though they were in the middle of an earthquake. A huge cobweb-laden crystal chandelier hung beneath, resembling a relic from a haunted mansion. Ahead laid a curving stone staircase covered by a disintegrating red carpet. The stairs divided at a landing to sweep either side to the next level. The place might have been grand once, now it was falling apart.
“Needs a little work.” Alicia ran her hand along a broken oak sideboard and winced at her black fingers.
It needed a bulldozer. A thick layer of dust lay over everything. The air was heavy, damp, and stale. Good job Erin didn’t feel the cold because the house was like a fridge.
“It’s going to be fabulous,” Syren said. “So much history. Henry the Eighth stayed here. The baron’s hall dates back to the 1400s. Ha! It predates me! It has the original tiles on the floor, and the tables have been in there since the place was built. Fabulous. Let me show you around, and we can check the shutters.”
He took hold of Erin’s hand and smiled at her. Erin hoped he was
her father. He was completely crazy, but she liked him. He was fun, and his enthusiasm infectious. When she’d been miserable about her rate of recovery, it had been Syren who’d snapped her out of it. He’d distracted her, read to her, played games with her, and made her laugh.
Syren rattled the shutters in the first room they came to. “Make sure you keep them locked.”
Erin knew she couldn’t go out in sunlight. When she’d emerged from her coma and realized she’d forgotten everything, including her name, they told her the aversion to sunlight was a genetic problem. Erin had received blank looks when she asked why both parents had it. It was a moment before Syren explained Alicia had adapted to a nighttime existence to spend more time with him. Erin wasn’t convinced that was the truth.
They had good genes too, Alicia had rushed to tell her, ones that kept their skin looking young and also gave them excellent health and strong, fit bodies. Their senses of smell and hearing were superior to most. Both of you? Erin had wanted to ask. She could see Alicia might give up the light for Syren, but her mother was as genetically advantaged as her father, which didn’t make any kind of sense Erin wanted to accept, particularly considering their frequent and noisy lovemaking. In any case, Erin wasn’t convinced any of it compensated for having to spend life in the shade.
As her recovery continued its slow path and she remained uncertain of what was the truth and what might be lies, Erin forced herself to stay awake one day, opened a shutter, and put her hand into a patch of sunlight. She came to appreciate the expression “Curiosity killed the cat.” Erin had slammed the shutter closed, though not before she’d blistered and burned. By time she woke, the marks had gone. Good healers too. Their saliva worked on most cuts and grazes. Erin experimented and discovered it was true.
She found herself sleeping by day, unable to keep her eyes open for long. It convinced her Syren and Alicia spoke mostly the truth, only there was so much Erin needed to know, and now that she felt better, they were pushing her away, making her stay in this decrepit place. Alone. Why?
Erin tuned back in to her father. He was talking about his discussions with the architect, what he’d arranged for workmen to do, how Pevenhurst would be transformed into a home for them all to share. When they walked into the oldest part of the building, the baronial hall, a sharp spike of memory shot in and out of Erin’s head. A vision of the place when it was warm and bright, a fire burning in the hearth, candles everywhere, people laughing and dancing. She looked up at the wooden figures lying along the roof joists and knew without being told they were modelled on the people who had worked on the estate.
Erin stared at the central hearth and asked, “Sure I’ve not been here before?”
“Positive,” chimed two voices.
As she followed them around, she felt more and more incredulous they expected the place to be transformed into something habitable. Syren might be the one who enthused about what the house would become, but it was Erin who had to live in it now.
“Where will I sleep?” Erin asked, regretting the slightly pathetic tone to her voice.
“We thought you could use the rooms where the previous owners seemed to have spent their time,” Alicia said.
“I’ll get the rest of your things out of the car,” said Syren.
Erin walked through a living room with hideous floral wallpaper, into a bedroom with equally hideous wallpaper, on into a thankfully plain bathroom, and back through another door to a kitchen with white tiled walls that looked like a swimming pool. Her mother kneeled on the floor loading the fridge from the cool box.
“I’ve stacked everything in date order. You’ll get a fresh delivery every second week. Don’t forget to drink a carton every day. Two if you feel you need it. Plasmix is full of vitamins and minerals.”
“Mmm. So delicious. How can I resist?”
“Erin! I mean it. Promise you won’t forget.”
The glutinous green liquid tasted vile, but Erin couldn’t deny she felt instantly energized after she drank it.
“I’ve brought you a few basic foodstuffs. There’s a twenty-four-hour supermarket seven miles away. Your means of getting around will be delivered in the next couple of days.” Alicia smiled. “Your father told me he bought you something special.”
“There’s plenty of money in the green box. You must stay here until we’re sure there’s no --”
“Alicia!” Syren snapped as he walked into the room, laden with bags.
Her mother clamped her lips together.
“No, what? Why can’t you tell me what happened?”
Alicia’s mouth twitched. She wrapped her arms around Erin. “Because we don’t know, sweetheart. Not all of it. Better that you remember on your own. You’re safe here, and that’s what’s important.”
“We need to go,” Syren said.
Erin followed them to the door. “Can I come and see you?”
“Not for the time being,” he said. “Stay here and e-mail me regularly with details of how the work is progressing.” Syren pulled her into his arms and kissed the top of her head.
“Will you come and see me?” Erin asked, annoyed her voice sounded so pleading.
“We’ll be in touch,” said her father.
That was a no, then.
After she watched them drive away, Erin slammed the door as hard as she could. A chunk of plaster fell off the wall and landed on her head.