Hugh leaned out of the carriage window and looked up the drive to the large house on the rise. It was quite an eyeful, a big sprawling house that had obviously been added to over the generations. Surprisingly, the mismatch of styles created a whole that was warm and inviting.
It had been three years since he had last seen his Simmercy relatives, though that had been in London before his cousin-in-law, William had inherited the Hall. He had never been to their country estate before and, though he sometimes felt out of place with the rather stuffy William, his wife Alicia had always been most welcoming to Hugh and his mother. He did want to see their son, Charles again; if only to discover if his inappropriate reaction to his young cousin was still in evidence. He had convinced himself he was over it, but that was when he was nearly a hundred miles away, and there was no immediate possibility of seeing the man.
The driver pulled the carriage to a halt in front of the wide stone steps and Hugh opened the door before the footman could do so. As he stepped down from the carriage a happy sounding voice called his name.
"Hugh! It's been too long," Alicia said as she hurried down the steps.
Hugh smiled at his mother's cousin, Alicia, but his eye was caught by Charles moving more slowly as he followed his mother. At twenty-one, Charles was three years younger than Hugh, yet somehow Hugh felt much older. Charles was still slim but Hugh could not fail to notice the wide shoulders and the strong thighs. He had filled out in all the right places.
"Cousin Alicia," Hugh said, and Alicia gripped his shoulders, giving him a quick peck on the cheek before moving aside to allow Charles to approach. Hugh smiled as he stretched out to shake Charles' hand. "It's good to see you, Charles. You look..." He had been about to say wonderful, but quickly changed it to, "Well."
"I am. It is good to see you again too." Charles smiled.
"I'm so pleased that your mother finally persuaded you to come," Alicia said. "I asked her to twist your arm if she had to."
Hugh felt the heat suffuse his face. "I was not being difficult in not coming sooner, I just had'"
"No, no. No excuses, Hugh. You had your reasons, I may not understand what they were, but I'm just happy that this time you came. We have missed you. Haven't we, Charles?"
"Yes," Charles said, but Hugh could have wished for more enthusiasm.
"Come, we'll have some tea while your luggage is taken to your room, and then Charles will show you around."
* * * *
Hugh had been relieved to discover that William, Charles' father, was not going to be in attendance after all. He had been called back to London on business the day before. William Simmercy had a supercilious air that had always intimidated Hugh, even though his mother had told him that Cousin William was not at all as snobbish as he appeared. Hugh could not deny that it was just as likely to be his own inferiority complex at work. His own father's pedigree could not compare with the Simmercy's.
Charles was following his mother's instruction to show Hugh the house and as he moved along the narrow corridor with Charles, Hugh did his best to relax and enjoy being with the man, pleased that Charles now seemed more at ease in his company. It was the first time they had been alone since his arrival, and Hugh was trying to regain the camaraderie they had shared the last time they had been together.
Simmercy Hall was full of history, both the contents of the building and the lives of the generations who had lived within its walls. There was pride in Charles' voice as he spoke of how the original building had been awarded to Philip d'Simmercy in 1486 by the then new King Henry VII, for his bravery in the Battle of Bosworth Field.
"Father is already talking about holding a party next year to celebrate the family's three hundred years in the Hall."
"It is quite an achievement," Hugh agreed. "Your family has been lucky to have such a settled history."
"Settled?" Charles laughed. "Oh, you have no idea of the number of scandals in my family. Adultery and murder are not even the most outrageous."
Charles was clearly excited now and he tugged at Hugh's sleeve. "Come, my friend, I'll tell you the most salacious story, but do not let mother know I told you, she is scandalized that I even know all the details."
He laughed again, chivvying Hugh back along the corridor towards the room he was using. Two doors down from Hugh's room Charles threw open a pair of double doors. As they had bypassed the doors earlier, Hugh had assumed it must be William and Alicia's room, its location in the centre of the Hall suggesting it was the master bedroom.
"No one has used this room in a hundred and fifty years," Charles said as he stepped inside. "They say it is haunted," he added in a purposefully affected voice, making Hugh roll his eyes.
The room was dark and dusty. Charles moved swiftly to the two tall sets of windows and pulled back the drawn curtains allowing light to flood the room, the dust mites seeming to multiply even in the weak rays of the autumn sun. It was easy to see though how, with care, the room could look magnificent. There was a thick rug in the centre of the room surrounded by darkly stained wood flooring, which was echoed on the lower half of the panelled walls. The upper walls were covered with tapestries and paintings. The furniture was of thick oak and the curtains of the four poster bed matched the design of the rug and the window curtains.
Hugh was drawn to the magnificent bed and was surprised to find only the bare mattress. His hand slowly moved across the dusty material and it was only as the dust rose beneath his fingers that he realized what he was doing. He stepped back sharply, a shiver running through him which he put down to his own odd behaviour. He lifted his eyes and found Charles watching him closely, a slight smile on his full lips.
"You said it was haunted?" Hugh queried, not about to admit the strange feeling he'd had when he had touched the bed.
"I don't know the exact year, but it was somewhere around a hundred and fifty years ago, or so the story goes. Lady Maude Simmercy found her husband in flagrante delicto with his manservant."
"Yes, his manservant," Charles repeated with a gleam in his eye. "She brought her three brothers to the Hall and they confronted the husband. It is said he didn't even try to deny his ungodly act. The manservant was dragged in and killed before the husband's eyes ' and then they killed him."
As Charles was speaking, Hugh had a strange feeling he was being watched but Charles' attention was on the bed.
"It is said it was here she found him, in bed with the servant, but I'm not even sure I believe that anyway."
"You mean you do not believe a man would indulge in such an unholy act?" Hugh asked quietly.
"Lord, no. I am not such a prude that I don't believe that goes on, but not with one's servant surely. There must be'"
He was interrupted by a cough followed by a footman saying, "I am sorry to interrupt Master Charles but your lady mother requests you attend her immediately."
Charles sighed with frustration but simply said, "I will be right there, Norton. Will you wait here for me," he asked Hugh, grinning as he added, "or back in your room if you prefer?"
For some reason even Hugh did not understand, he did not want to leave the room just yet. "I'll wait here for you. I want to hear the rest of the story."
"Good," Charles said and left.
Hugh turned back to the bed, looking stark in its unmade form. "Did you risk it all just to be with him?" he whispered. "Did it not matter to you that he was a servant?" He laughed hollowly. "Or was it just that he was a convenient body and you needed'"
"I did need, but I needed Thomas, he was everything to me. Your words speak of understanding."
The words were spoken close to his ear, but it was a voice Hugh had never heard before. Deep and husky. An icy chill washed over him. But when he spun around there was no one there.
"Charles?" he called hesitatingly. "Was that you, playing a trick on me?"
The door suddenly blew shut. But there was no window open. What was happening? Hugh shuddered. Lord, I wish now I had left with Charles!
"No, it was not Charles, it was I." As the words drifted to him, a form began to take shape by the door. A man a little older than he was, taller and heavier, clothed in very out-dated doublet and hose, the white lace of his shirt almost shining in contrast to his dark doublet.
Terrified, backing away, Hugh gasped. "What in Heaven's name!" It couldn't be real, it couldn't!
"No, I am not granted that mercy. I sometimes wonder if this is just another version of Hell. Do not be afraid, I mean you no harm. Allow me to introduce myself, Sir Adam Simmercy." The figure bowed, extending his right arm in a sweeping arc. "It is a rare gift to find someone who can not only hear me but see me. It has been' let me think, seventy-five years I believe, since it last occurred. Your name, if you please, sir?"
Hugh stared at the figure. It was hard to believe it was real and yet it did feel as if he was speaking to a normal person. A living person, not a ghost, and yet he had no doubt that this' this was an apparition. Taking a breath to calm his racing heart and attempt to steady his nerves, he replied, "I am Hugh Preston, Charles' cousin twice removed."
"Ah, Charles' cousin twice removed. I am delighted to meet you, Hugh. And who is Charles?"
"Oh, I thought you would know. Charles Simmercy, your descendant, I assume."
Adam laughed heartily. It seemed very odd to imagine a ghost could laugh like that.
"No, my wife never carried any child of mine. After my' removal, she married my cousin, my heir. It was always the title she was more interested in than me, and Cecil had always admired her. Suited them both admirably, I imagine."
"Still, how is it that you did not know he was' of the family? You must have seen him."
"Not really. I am trapped in the house but I do not manifest often, it is too hard to watch those living, loving and enjoying life when I can have none of it. I spend most of my time here, where it is very rare that anyone comes."
"Why me?" Hugh suddenly asked. The more normal the conversation became the more lost Hugh was feeling.
"That is something I cannot answer. Certain people can sense me, or sense something when they enter this room. But to see me, and hear me? Rare people it would seem, because it has only happened three times since I died." Adam stepped closer and Hugh shivered as it became more apparent then that he could see the door through Adam's form. "Rare indeed," Adam continued, "because you have not run screaming from the room, or called to Heaven for protection from the demon, as did the last person who saw me. You have the strength of heart to stand there and converse with me."
"I think it is more that I am too afraid to move," Hugh said quietly. But privately he acknowledged there was some truth in what Adam claimed. He was nervous of the ghost, confused by his own reaction, and intrigued by both the man's history and his own need to understand. Yet he felt no real fear of the spectre.
Adam laughed again and Hugh could not deny the man's laugh was intoxicating. As strange as it seemed, his laugh was so full of life.
"There is no tremor in your voice, no fear in your stance. No, my young Hugh, I do not believe you are truly afraid of me. Puzzled I grant, but not afraid. And for that I thank you, for I mean you no harm. It might be that you can be of help to me."
Hugh frowned, "I don't understand."
"No, but then you don't know my story. You drew me here soon enough that I heard a little of what that fool, Charles, told you and he does not know the half of it. Will you let me tell you all?"
Hugh knew in that instant he had to know everything, but at that moment he heard voices and knew that Charles was returning.
"I would, but not now, he is returning. I cannot be found talking to thin air, for I do not believe he would see you."
"No, he would not. Can you come back later, tonight?"
"Yes." Hugh said firmly.
As he stepped into the room, Charles said, "I am sorry I left you alone for so long, especially in this place."
"It was no hardship, I had a good look around." As he spoke, Hugh saw Adam's form dissipate as if it had never been, and he heard, as if whispered on the wind, "Midnight."
Charles was already speaking, "Mother has been trying to get me to allow her to invite Cecily Hampton and her parents over for dinner tonight, and I told her we should allow you to settle in quietly first." Charles glanced around before continuing, "Truth is, she and Lady Helen are trying to engineer a betrothal between Cecily and I, which is the last thing I want. Goodness, I used to chase the girl around the garden, and I can never see her as anything but a dirty child." Charles shrugged. "Anyhow, I have no wish to marry ' not yet anyhow."
"No, I well understand that feeling. I am older than you and though I don't have the pressure of your family lineage, still my mother would like to have grandchildren. It is not easy." Hugh couldn't help his sidelong glance at Charles, who caught his eye and smiled.
"We have to stand together ' bachelors together!" Charles raised a hand in salute and Hugh laughed.
"Together forever." Hugh grinned back at him, wishing it could really be like that. Three years apart, and already Hugh knew nothing had changed for him. He wanted Charles now as much as he had three years earlier.