Home > Vow of Deception (The Ministry of Curiosities #9)

Vow of Deception (The Ministry of Curiosities #9)
Author: C.J. Archer

Chapter 1



Hertfordshire, Summer 1890



Frakingham House could have stepped out of a Gothic novel with its arched windows, abundance of turrets, and a vine creeping up one of the stone walls. If it weren't for the lake sparkling in the sunshine, and the lush green lawn, it would have looked grim. The house reminded me of Lichfield Towers but on a much larger scale.

"So this is Freak House," Gus said, tipping his head back to squint up at the gabled roof.

"Don't call it that to Mr. Langley's face," I warned, fixing a smile in place for the benefit of the approaching footmen. "We don't want to upset our host."

Seth held out his hand to assist Alice from the hack that had driven us from the station. "Not before we get information, anyway."

"Seth!" I hissed.

He merely shrugged and turned a beaming smile upon Alice. She was too busy blinking owlishly at the handsome couple framed by the arch of the massive doorway to notice. The gentleman's dark good looks and impressive height certainly drew my gaze at first, but it was the woman's abundance of curly red hair that demanded more attention. That and her lovely blue eyes. They brightened when she smiled. So this was Mr. and Mrs. Langley, the couple Lincoln had met in Paris before he met me. Apparently Jack Langley was a fire starter and knew about demons and portals that led to other realms. Indeed, a portal was said to exist on the Frakingham grounds.

"Welcome to Freak House," Hannah Langley said, taking her husband's arm.

Gus tossed a smug look my way.

Lincoln shook Mr. Langley's hand and bowed before Mrs. Langley. We exchanged introductions and insisted on calling one another by first names. It wasn't at all what I expected from the residents of such a grand country manor. Although I hadn't truly known what to expect. Lincoln had met most of my questions about the character of the Langleys with blank looks. He'd merely noted that Jack Langley had an investigative mind but could be overprotective of his wife. And apparently Hannah Langley had a courageous streak. Lincoln wasn't one for noticing whether a person was easy to talk to, kind, or amusing.

"We don't stand on formality here," Hannah said as we headed inside. Her husband walked alongside her, his hand on her lower back.

"Nor do we at Lichfield Towers," Seth said. "We all prefer it that way. Except for my mother. If it were up to her, I'd be head of the household and everyone else would be at my beck and call."

"Actually Lady Vickers would prefer it if she were head of the household," Lincoln said with a straight face. I knew he was joking, of course, and Seth and Gus seemed to know it too, but Alice and the Langleys gave tight smiles. Lincoln really ought to learn to laugh or wink when he made a joke.

"You mean she's not?" I said. "Someone really should inform her."

Hannah laughed, turning her eyes even bluer. "The footmen will take your luggage up to your rooms. Would you like some time to yourselves before we take tea in the drawing room?"

"No," Alice said at the same time that I said, "Yes, thank you."

She and I exchanged glances. "Just a few minutes," I assured her.

She was eager to learn as much as she could about herself from the Langleys. I hoped they had something to tell her. Alice had been restless of late. While usually composed and poised, I often found her at the piano giving the poor keys a pounding. She'd jumped at the offer to meet the Langleys after Lincoln received Jack's invitation last week. Two months ago, Jack had refused. I wondered why he'd changed his mind.

"May I show you to your room, ladies?" Hannah said, indicating the stairs.

We headed up the stone staircase, our footsteps deadened by the red carpet. The landing spread both left and right before more stairs ascended up and up. It would have been a cold entrance to the house if not for the summer sun streaming through the arched windows reaching high up the wall.

The men went one way, led by a footman, and we went the other with Hannah. Jack remained downstairs, talking quietly to the butler.

"I'm so glad you could come," Hannah said, lifting her skirts just enough so she didn't trip on them. Her gown was a lovely forest green and cream that complemented her hair and showed off her neat figure. "I think we can learn a lot from one another."

"What changed Mr. Langley's mind?" I asked. "I mean, he wasn't all that keen to meet us. Lincoln gave up requesting an audience some time ago."

"I happened."

"I don't understand," Alice said.

"Jack's worried that talking about the supernatural with people we don't know will invite danger to Frakingham. We've had quite our fair share of supernatural problems and we don't wish for any more, and we have a baby to protect now. But I knew Mr. Fitzroy—Lincoln—could be trusted when we met him in Paris. I convinced Jack to change his mind." Hannah smirked. "Sometimes husbands need to be reminded that their wives are not always delicate flowers. We don't all faint at the sight of paranormal activity."

"Quite true," I said. "Although I think Lincoln knows that about me. Seth, on the other hand…"

Alice stiffened. "Why are you looking at me, Charlie?"

"I…er…no reason."

We arrived at the room Alice and I were to share for the night. Hannah made sure the maids had set it up and the footmen had deposited our luggage before leaving us to change out of our traveling clothes into something prettier. Hannah had offered the use of a maid, since we'd not brought one, but we declined.

"What do you think of this house?" I asked Alice as I removed my jacket.

"It's quite forbidding on the outside, but I like it." She unpinned her hat and carefully placed the pin on the dressing table. "The abbey ruins down by the lake give it quite a spine-tingling feel, though."

"I thought the ruins added to the charm. Imagine being here in the midst of a storm with lightning cracking over the roof and black clouds closing in. What a commanding sight that must be. I can see why the locals call it Freak House." At her silence, I glanced up from my cuff buttons to see her staring at me.

"You have an appreciation for the dramatic," she said.

"It must be because I raise the dead. Although this place does tend to make one think of dark, stormy nights."

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