Marian Byrne stood at the door of Lacybourne Manor smiling at the last tourists that left through the grand entry.
At seventy years old, she’d been a volunteer for The National Trust working at Lacybourne for seven years. She had no idea how long she would be able to continue, her feet were killing her.
Marian was tall, straight, thin as a rail and had the energy of a fifty year old (or, at the most, a fifty-five year old). Her hair was cut short, its curls died a peachy red that was not old lady peach but a colour she, personally, found very becoming.
She was under strict instructions to have all the tourists and their cars and the other flotsam and jetsam cleared from the area before the man of the house came home.
Colin Morgan had inherited Lacybourne just over a year before. His aunt and uncle left no heirs so upon their untimely death (he of cancer, she of a broken heart, the latter Marian believed although the doctors said differently), the man from London became owner of the grand house with its medieval core. The old owners were not nearly as demanding as Mr. Colin Morgan. They would often mingle with the tourists and even open some of the private chambers.
He closed the house all days except Mondays and Tuesdays and allowed it open only one Saturday a month. It was available solely from February through June, which was quite a muddle for The National Trust as that cut out the height of the tourist season and school holidays. And he expected all of the tourists and The National Trust pamphlets and laminated leaflets that lay about the rooms to be locked out of sight by the time he came home.
This would have vastly annoyed Marian, if she hadn’t met Colin Morgan.
He was near as the spitting image of the man in the portrait that hung in the Great Hall.
For that reason alone, Marian knew she’d do whatever he required.
The day had turned gusty, the sky already dark with encroaching night. The clouds, long since rolled in, had begun to leak rain.
Marian began to push the heavy front doors closed when she heard a feminine voice in an American accent call, “Oh no! Am I too late?”
Marian peeked out the door just as thunder rent the air and lightning lit the sky, illuminating the woman who stood on the threshold.
Marian couldn’t stop herself; she gasped at the sight.
The woman was wearing a scarlet trench coat belted at the waist and her long, thick hair, the colour of sunshine liberally dosed with honey, was whipping about her face. She had lifted a hand to hold the tresses back but she wasn’t succeeding. The tendrils flew around her face wildly.
“It’s so hard to find time to fit Lacybourne in the schedule, it’s rarely open,” the woman continued as she smiled at Marian.
It was then that Marian realised she’d been holding her breath and she let it out in a gush.
The woman standing before her was the image of the other portrait that hung in the Great Hall.
She was not, however, dark-haired, like the lady in the portrait, but rather blonde. Marian thought that interesting, considering Colin Morgan had the exact visage of the long since murdered owner of this house, except Colin’s hair was dark, nearly black, rather than fair.
“I’m afraid you are late, my dear. We close at four thirty, on the dot,” Marian informed her lamentably.
The disappointment was evident on her face; Marian could see it by the light shining from the entry. Marian was pleased at this, she hadn’t been volunteering at Lacybourne for seven years without having some pride in the house. It was nice to know this woman on the threshold so desperately wanted inside.
There were other reasons as well that Marian was pleased the woman wanted desperately to be inside.
“Why don’t you come back tomorrow?” Marian asked, her voice kind, her face smiling but her mind working. She was wondering how she could finagle a meeting between the American woman and the man of the house.
For she had to find a way to arrange a meeting.
It was, quite simply, Marian Byrne’s destiny.
“I can’t, I’m working. I couldn’t be here until well after it closes. I’ve been trying to find time to get here since last year.”
“What time could you arrive? I know the owner of this house, perhaps, if I explain –”
“No… no, please, don’t do that. I’ll just try to get here next Monday,” she offered politely then lifted her hand in a gesture of farewell, giving one last, longing look at the house and started to leave.
Marian rushed her next words in an effort to stall the woman and then she fibbed (for, she knew, a very good cause), “He’s a lovely man, he won’t mind. I’ll stay personally to give you a private tour. Or he might like to do so himself, considering how much you wish to see the house.”
She’d turned back, hesitating. “I couldn’t.”
“Oh, you could,” Marian moved forward and encouragingly placed her hand on the woman’s forearm. “Truly, he won’t mind.”
That was an outright lie, Colin Morgan would very much mind. But what could she do? She could see the indecision on the other woman’s face, Marian had to do something.
Marian forged ahead. “We’ll set it at six o’clock, shall we? You can give me your telephone number and I’ll phone you if there’s a problem. What’s your name, my dear?”
“Sibyl,” she said, smiling her gratitude so sensationally Marian felt her heart seize at the sight. “Sibyl Godwin.”
It was with that announcement that Marian’s hand clutched the woman’s arm with vigour far beyond her seventy years.
“I’m sorry, what did you say your surname was again?”
The woman was studying her with curiosity and Marian watched the spectacular sight as the hazel in the other woman’s eyes melted to the colour of sherry as curiosity became concern. Her hand, Marian noted distractedly, had moved to cover the older woman’s hand protectively.
At her single word, Marian couldn’t help herself, she whispered, “Oh my.”
* * * * *
“Tell her, no,” Colin Morgan said into the phone, his rich, deep, baritone voice showing his obvious irritation.
“Mr. Morgan, she’s been wanting to see the house for over a year. She’s a very busy lady –”
“I said no.”
“She’ll be very disappointed.”
Colin attempted to conjure an image of the woman to whom he was speaking. He assumed he’d met her at some point but he couldn’t remember. Her voice was strong but it betrayed her age. If it hadn’t, he would have told her exactly how little he cared that an unknown American would be disappointed at not having a private evening tour of his home. The very idea was ridiculous.
Instead, he said, “If you would, please remind this woman of the opening hours of the house and request that she visit during them.”
There was a sigh and if he wasn’t mistaken it was a vaguely reprimanding sigh. “Very well, Mr. Morgan.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Byrne.”
For the life of him, he had no idea why he was thanking the older woman for annoying him but the impeccable manners his mother had drilled into him would not allow him to do otherwise.
When he set the handset in the receiver he dragged frustrated fingers through his dark hair and looked up at the two portraits in front of him without seeing them.
Tomorrow, Tamara would be at Lacybourne. He had far more interest in entertaining Tamara (or, more to the point, allowing her to entertain him) than avoiding some American wandering around his house proclaiming everything “quaint” and exclaiming, “Oh, if these walls could talk!”
The will of his Uncle Edward and Aunt Felicity was clear; he inherited the house only if he continued to open it to The National Trust. Colin did so but under his terms. He had no idea why he moved into the house in the first place. He vastly preferred London to this sleepy seaside town and the enormous house was far too big for only one man to be in residence.
If he was honest with himself, it was, he knew, those bloody portraits.
His eyes focussed on them but he didn’t have to look at them to know what they portrayed. He’d long since memorised them.
Since he was young and his parents would bring their children to this house during holidays to visit their childless aunt and uncle, he and his brother and sister were always fascinated by the portraits and the famous, romantic yet grisly history of their subjects.
For obvious reasons, as Colin grew older, the portraits became all the more captivating.
Throughout his life, everyone said he resembled the long dead Royce Morgan but as he grew from a child to a man, that resemblance became stunningly clear.
It was that, Colin knew, that drew him to this damned house.
That and the portrait of Beatrice Morgan, of course.
She had been Beatrice Godwin when the portrait was painted; she’d only been Beatrice Morgan for scant hours of her short life. She stood in the portrait holding a fluffy, black cat in one arm with the hand of her other arm resting lovingly on the head of a great mastiff. She was surrounded by the black shadows of trees with the blue-black backdrop of night and the sky behind her was dark and, strangely, rent with a bolt of lightning.