The name Isolde Ophelia Goodnight did rather spell a life of tragedy. Izzy could look at her situation and see just that. Motherless at a young age. Fatherless now, as well. Penniless. Friendless.
But she’d never been hopeless.
Because the name Isolde Ophelia Goodnight also suggested romance. Swooning, star-crossed, legendary romance. And for as long as she could remember, Izzy had been waiting—with dwindling faith and increasing impatience—for that part of her life to begin.
Once she’d grown old enough to understand her mother’s death, Izzy had consoled herself with the idea that this was all part of her epic tale. The heroines in fairy stories were always motherless.
When Papa overspent their income, and the maid was dismissed, she told herself the drudgery would pay off someday. Everyone knew that Cinderella had to scrub the floors before she could win the handsome prince.
By time she turned fifteen, their finances had improved, thanks to Papa’s writing success. Still no prince, but there was time. Izzy told herself she’d grow into her largish nose and that her frizzled hair would eventually tame itself.
She hadn’t, and it didn’t. No ugly-duckling-turned-swan here, either.
Her seventeenth birthday passed without any pricking of fingers.
At twenty-one, life forced a difficult truth on her somewhere on the road between Maidstone and Rochester. Real highwayman were neither devilishly charming nor roguishly handsome. They wanted money, and they wanted it quickly, and Izzy ought to be very glad they weren’t interested in her.
One by one, she’d let go of all those girlish dreams.
Then last year, Papa had died, and all the stories dried up completely. The money was gone soon after that. For the first time in her life, Izzy verged on true desperation.
Her cravings for romance were gone. Now she’d settle for bread. What fairy tales were left over for a plain, impoverished, twenty-six-year-old woman who’d never even been kissed?
She clutched the letter in her hand. There it was, in black ink on white paper. Her very last hope. She forced herself not to hold it too tightly, for fear it might crumble to dust.
Dear Miss Goodnight,
It is my duty as executor to inform you that the Earl of Lynforth has died. In his will, he left you—and each of his goddaughters—a bequest. Please meet me at Gostley Castle, near Woolington in the county of Northumberland, on this twenty-first of June to settle the particulars of your inheritance.
Frederick Trent, Lord Archer
A bequest. Perhaps it would be as much as a hundred pounds. Even twenty would be a windfall. She was down to shillings and pence.
When Gostley Castle came into view, Izzy gulped.
From a distance, it could have looked romantic. A collection of mismatched turrets and ranging, crenellated walls, studded amid rolling green fields. But the surrounding park had grown so wild and dense from neglect that by the time the castle came into view, she was already cowering in its shadow.
This castle didn’t welcome or enchant.
She almost worried it might pounce.
“Here we are, miss.” The driver didn’t seem to like it any better than Izzy did. He pulled his team to a halt well outside the barbican, a stone gatehouse set some distance from the castle itself.
After helping her down from the carriage, he turned up the collar of his coat and unloaded her baggage—a single, battered valise. He carried it to the stone steps of the ancient gatehouse, strode briskly back, jammed his hands in his pockets, and cleared his throat. Waiting.
Izzy knew what he was after. She’d paid the man in Woolington—he wouldn’t agree to transport her without payment in advance—but now he wanted an additional expression of thanks. She fished a sixpence from her purse. So few coins remained, the purse didn’t even rattle.
The driver pocketed her offering and touched his cap. “What was yer name again, miss?”
“Goodnight. Miss Izzy Goodnight.”
She waited to see if he would recognize it. Most of the literate people in England would, and a great many of their domestic servants, besides.
The driver only grunted. “Jes’ wanted to know it, in case someone comes around asking. If you’re never heard from again.”
Izzy laughed. She waited for him to laugh, too.
Soon driver, team, and carriage were nothing more than the fading crunch of wheels on the road.
Izzy picked up her valise and walked through the barbican. A stone bridge carried her over what once had been a moat but now was only a slimy green trickle.
She’d done a bit of research in advance of her journey. There wasn’t much to read. Only that Gostley Castle had once been the seat of the Rothbury dukedom, in Norman times.
It didn’t look inhabited now. There was no glass in many of the windows. No lights in them, either. There should have been a portcullis that dropped to bar the entrance—but there was nothing there. No door, no gate.
She walked through the archway and into the central, open courtyard.
“Lord Archer?” Her voice died in the air. She tried again. “Lord Archer, are you here?” This time, her call got a respectable echo off the flagstones. But no answer.
She was alone.
Dizzied from her strange surroundings and weak with hunger, Izzy closed her eyes. She coerced air into her lungs.
You cannot faint. Only ninnies and consumptive ladies swoon, and you are neither.
It started to rain. Fat, heavy drops of summer rain—the kind that always struck her as vaguely lewd and debauched. Little potbellied drunkards, those summer raindrops, chortling on their way to earth and crashing open with glee.
She was getting wet, but the alternative—seeking shelter inside one of the darkened arches—was less appealing by far.
A rustling sound made her jump and wheel. Just a raven taking wing. She watched it fly over the castle wall and away.
She laughed a little. Really. It was too much. A vast, uninhabited castle, rain, and now ravens, too? Someone was playing her a cruel trick.
Then she glimpsed a man across the courtyard, standing in a darkened archway.
And if he was a trick, he wasn’t a cruel one.
There were things in nature that took their beauty from delicate structure and intricate symmetry. Flowers. Seashells. Butterfly wings. And then there were things that were beautiful for their wild power and their refusal to be tamed. Snowcapped mountains. Churning thunderclouds. Shaggy, sharp-toothed lions.