Chloe went to get her camera, slung it over her shoulder, and escaped to the grounds from the oppressive atmosphere inside. She wondered about driving into Harrogate and going to Betty’s, a traditional tea room that served delicious food. Chloe wasn’t sure she could last until that evening, but every time she tried to walk to her car, she found herself heading in another direction.
“All right,” she said. “I get it.”
.” That was the female voice.
Chloe burst out laughing. She was going nuts. What other explanation could there be? The voices had pulled her here and wanted her to stay. Part of her was curious to know why.
The walled garden looked as well cared for as when her grandfather had tended it. Row upon row of vegetables in a weed-free environment, frilly topped carrots next to curly headed lettuce next to -- ooh peas. Chloe loved peas. She helped herself to a peapod and split it carefully with her fingernail, scooping out the sweet green balls with one swoop of her finger. So tasty.
As she bent to pick her fourth pod, a hand clamped around her wrist.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
She looked up at a tall, blue-eyed man with tousled, sun-kissed hair. Apart from the scowl, he was rather good-looking. Was he why she’d been pulled here? Maybe her voice had decided to help her find Mr. Perfect, since Chloe was making such a mess of it.
“Sorry. I couldn’t resist.” She’d done exactly the same as a child. Her grandmother had stopped asking her to pick the peas because there were never enough to shell by the time Chloe returned to the house.
“What are you doing here?” he asked in a not very friendly tone.
Ah, maybe not Mr. Perfect
. “I came out for a walk.”
“I mean -- here.” He nodded at the hall. “You’re trespassing. You shouldn’t be taking photographs.”
“I haven’t taken any photographs. I’m not trespassing. I’m staying here.”
Chloe stared in a pointed way at the hand still clamped around her wrist. Lovely long fingers and filthy fingernails. Ah, he was the gardener. No wonder he was pissed off. He let her go suddenly and she rubbed her arm. The itch had started up again. She tried not to scratch for too long. She didn’t want him to think she had fleas.
Chloe bristled. What was the matter with the flipping staff in this place? It was as if they neither wanted nor expected guests. “Yes…I’m…staying…here,” she repeated slowly. Maybe he was a bit thick. “I’m…booked…in…for…four…nights.”
He gave her a quizzical look. “How did you find out about Sunset Spa?”
“It was a consolation prize.”
“What does it have to do with you?”
He looked around and then bent his head to her ear. “Leave right now,” he whispered and walked off.
Chloe watched him stride away. Nice butt. She lifted her camera and took a snap. When he got to the gate in the wall, he turned and shouted, “And stop eating the peas.”
She broke off three more pods. By the time Chloe reached the gate, he’d vanished.
* * * * *
Back in her room, Chloe sat on the bed trying not to look at the fireplace. She should leave. If a complete stranger told her she should go, then she ought to be out of here. There was just the little problem of not being able to approach her car and she had the sneaking suspicion that if she were to try and walk out, she’d go in a circle and end up back at the hall. But if there were demons to confront, they were hiding. She’d come, seen the place without freaking out, and now she could go.
Only she couldn’t. So why was she here?
She trembled as her gaze slid back to the wooden fire surround. Maybe the people who owned the hall didn’t know how bizarre it really was. Chloe had to admit she was curious to see if the passageway was still there, if the things she’d left as a kid were still around. Why else had she brought the flashlight?
She stood up and walked across the room. Bad idea. Pack up and go
. That wasn’t her sixth-and-a-half sense; that was her common sense. But when her hand opened the drawer she took out the flashlight, not her clothes. Chloe crouched at the base of the fireplace. It hadn’t been used when she lived there, but it was a period feature in a listed building and not to be touched, which was probably why Sunset Spa hadn’t ripped it out. She put her hand up the chimney and felt for the lever. Still there. As she pulled, part of the carved wooden surround slid out. Chloe looked at the wooden mouse standing proud of the other carvings and her heart beat faster.
Taking the mouse in her hand, she twisted left. The fireplace slid into the wall with a grinding crunch, leaving a gap at the side. Chloe switched on her flashlight and crawled into the darkness. An old habit made her press the lever inside to return the fireplace to the correct position.
The musty smell of stale air and dust held a familiar comfort. It had been Chloe, not her sister, who’d found the passageway. Blabbermouth Lucy had told their mother and the sisters had been threatened progressively with a cold bath every night for a week, no chocolate for a month, and no TV for two months if they played in there. Chloe thought her mother showed a distinct lack of imagination because the bathwater rarely rose above lukewarm, they could buy their own chocolate, and their grandmother behaved like Gollum with the precious TV remote.
But then their grandmother had died. A few months later their grandfather had come home with a dazed look on his face and the elegant Selena on his arm. Chloe’s mother had stressed the girls were never to tell their new grandmother about the secret corridors. Nor were they to call her Grandma. Ever. That instruction came from Selena. Chloe didn’t blame her. Selena was younger than Chloe’s mother and was as far from a grandmother as it was possible to get. Short skirts, high heels, and perky breasts. Chloe wondered what she looked like now.
Despite dire warnings about getting trapped, falling through rotten timbers, encountering family ghosts or flesh-eating insects, the passageways were an irresistible lure to Chloe. She discovered that the narrow channels wove throughout the walls of the house and had found five ways to get into them. There were even hidden stairways between the attic and the basement so she could move around undetected and spy through peepholes. It was unlikely that was still the case. The alterations to the building had probably sealed up most of them. She thought back to the very last time she’d played there. She’d heard her grandfather and his new wife arguing and it was her grandfather who’d been crying. Something to do with sex and Chloe hadn’t listened to more. What had been fun, suddenly wasn’t.
She’d never been able to figure out why the passageways existed. Lots of old houses in England had priest holes where members of the Roman Catholic clergy hid from soldiers, but why have secret walkways that roamed the whole house? Chloe wondered if the man who had it built wanted to spy on his wife. She had visions of craftsmen being put to death after its construction, like the workers who made the hidden chambers in the pyramids. She imagined skeletons hidden behind the wooden walls and when she told her sister, Lucy hadn’t wanted to play there again.
Chloe moved carefully down the dark corridor, shining the light ahead as well as down. The deeper she went, the more memories flooded back. She tried to look through the spyholes in a couple of places to find they’d been covered over on the other side. Maybe that was just as well. She was a grown-up now with a more developed sense of guilt.
She descended two levels to the basement and smiled when she illuminated the wider section of passageway where she and Lucy had set up a den. Chloe shone the light around their secret play place and stopped on a shelf of toys. She bit back the gulp in her throat, picked up the dragon, and gave him a hug. A cloud of dust shot into her nose and she struggled to suppress a sneeze. When she’d been carted off into care, she’d not been given the chance to retrieve the toys hidden here. Her favorite trio, and she’d missed them for a long time.
“Rufus, you need a bath,” she said in a quiet voice.
She put him back next to Angel, the horse that was sometimes a unicorn, and then moved Phoebe to another shelf.
“No fighting over the princess, guys,” she whispered.
There were more treasures in a shoebox: marbles, a compass, novelty erasers that crumbled when she touched them, and a bag of candy.
As Chloe’s watering mouth and growling stomach contemplated whether fifteen-year-old lemon sweets might still be edible, assuming she could break them apart, she heard a soft groan. Her hand froze around the bag. There was no further noise, and she’d begun to convince herself that the sound had been a creak -- timbers settling, maybe something she’d disturbed -- when the noise came again. A definite male groan. Tiptoeing the few steps to the spyhole to look into what had once been a storage area for garden junk, Chloe swung the hinged circle of wood to one side.
Darkness. She hesitated and then shone the flashlight through the hole and tried to peer in at the same time. The beam caught something that almost stopped Chloe’s heart. She sprang back. No way. That couldn’t be what she’d seen. Chloe leaned against the wall and rubbed the flashlight on her itching arm, knowing that she’d have to take another look.
She wasn’t wrong.
Hanging on the far wall was a naked man wrapped in chains.