I first glimpsed Aspenwald in the early spring when everything still seemed dead. A month earlier, I had buried my father and, with him, all of my joy. Every plan I had for the future was dashed and every hope ground to powder. The black tracings of bone-bare trees along the drive to the main house and the gray, unpromising stone of the mansion suited my mood. Uncle Henry wasn’t a blood relative, so I was fortunate he allowed me to come. Not simply allowed; he invited me with a letter so nicely written that he made it seem that I was doing him a favor. I had nowhere else to go. My mother had died when I was just a child; all other family was either dead or remote. So, even though I hardly remembered Henry Aspen, I accepted his invitation with thanks. The carriage stopped. I stepped out of it and into the bitterness. My maid, Mary, followed close behind. A long, lean man in black broadcloth bowed to me. I offered my hand and curtsied. “Are you my Uncle Henry?” I asked. “No, Miss. I’m his man Robert. He instructed me to meet you and show you your room.” “Thank you,” I said. “This is Mary.” “An honor Missus.” Robert led us into the stone mansion. Aspenwald was as foreboding on the inside as it had been on the outside. It echoed with emptiness and seemed constructed in a way designed to confuse. Hallways meandered and branched. Sconces with dripping candles made every shadow tremble. Finally, Robert stopped in front of a door and pushed it open on its creaking hinges. It revealed a room that was plain but clean. Someone must have prepared it for me. The curtains were open to the milky light. “Dinner is at six,” Robert told me. “I’ll come for you and see you back to your room after. You best not wander the halls at night.” “Of course she wouldn’t,” scolded Mary. Robert’s face turned ruddy. “I only meant that Aspenwald is haunted, Miss. I wouldn’t want you frightened.” “Haunted?” I said, smiling for the first time. “You believe such things?” He nodded. “It’s a strange spirit with a strange effect. I’ve heard it. You should be safe from it if you stay in your room.” “Utter nonsense,” Mary said, shooing him with her hand. “I never lie, Missus,” Robert said, winking at her. He headed to the door and looked back at me. “I’ll come back for you at six.” “Thank you, Robert.” # Mary lit a fire in the fireplace, which made the cold room a hint cozier. We spread my quit on the bed and put my books out on the shelves. Mary made me a cup of tea and I read The Tempest to her while she knitted. It felt almost homey. When she got me ready for dinner, I nearly could have imagined that I was going to meet my father. That illusion was dispelled the instant I walked into the dining room, whiffed the strong liquor, and saw my uncle for the first time. The man that stood before me was tall and richly dressed, with a neatly trimmed beard. He had a pocket watch in his waistcoat and a ring of keys at his waist. His eyes raked over me in a most un-familial way. “This is Emily, then.” “Yes,” I said curtsying. “It’s good to remember you.” His eyes lingered on my décolletage. “You’ve become quite the young lady. What are you? Sixteen?” “I’m seventeen now, Uncle.” “A mature seventeen, no doubt,” he said. His eyes slid over me again. A tiny smile played on his lips. He stepped closer to me–so close I could I could smell the whiskey on his breath. “You should call me Henry,” he said, his tone intimate. “My wife was your father’s sister, so we’re not really relatives.” My heart sped, like a warning. “If you like.” He led me to the table and sat beside me. A male server placed a plate in front of me. Another filled my glass with water. I took a long drink to sooth my dry mouth. “The roads were very dusty,” I managed. “Yes,” Henry said. “But it looks like rain. It seems you brought something with you to slake my drought.” I understood the double meaning and chose not to respond. Instead, I tried to think of somewhere–anywhere–that I could stay besides here. My father and I had many friends, but none well enough off to host me indefinitely. I tried for deflection. I coaxed him to talk about Aspenwald, which he did with some pride. It was a family home; there used to be a nearby village. But the village was gone now and the families moved on. Only Henry remained. I thought I had managed to cool his intentions. How wrong I was. Partway through the meal, Henry showed a sly expression and said, “You have something on your mouth.” Before I had a chance to respond, he reached over, held my face by the jaw, brushed a finger slowly over my lips, and offered it to me. I hesitated. “What?” he asked. “You don’t like the sauce?” He still had a tight hold on my face, so I licked his finger as he bade me. “I remember your mother,” Henry told me. “She was a sweet, pretty thing, like you. Ripe for marriage, as I recall.” My hands shook. I hoped avcılar escort bayan he didn’t notice. “What do you recall of my father?” I asked. The mention of my father had the desired effect; he finally let go of me. “That he was luckier than any man had a right to be.” We ate in silence a bit longer. I was torn between my upbringing of social obligation and my sincere desire to flee to my room. In the end, I decided it was more prudent to not show my fear. “I play the pianoforte,” I told my uncle. “If you have an instrument, I could entertain you.” “I do not. Perhaps I should order one… as a gift.” I ignored the offer. It was much too large of a gift to come without expectations. “I could also read to you,” I continued. “I’ve brought my Shakespeare and Homer.” Thunder sounded. It was still far off. Henry’s eyes darted to the window and then back to me. “It’s later than I thought. Not tonight.” Relief flooded me. “Robert will be here soon to escort you back to your room. See to it that you stay in your room after dark.” “Don’t tell me you believe in ghosts, too.” “I believe that the hallways aren’t safe for you at night, so you are to stay out of them.” He spoke so fiercely, I drew back. “Of course,” I replied. “I’ll stay in my room after dark.” “Good.” Robert came into the room and I stood; Henry did too. “Thank you for your hospitality,” I said. “You’re very welcome, Emily. Now, kiss me good-night.” My stomach lurched but I stood on tip-toe and leaned in to brush my lips against his bearded cheek. He smelled like whisky and sweat. He moved to return the gesture and I barely turned my head in time. His lips pressed against the corner of my mouth and held there a moment. “I’m very glad you’ve come to stay with me,” he whispered. I stepped back. “Good night, Uncle.” Then, I let Robert lead me back to my room. # The storm that raged around Aspenwald that night seemed intent on blowing down the stone. Lightning flashed in the window and the thunderclaps were almost simultaneous. I hadn’t jumped from a storm since I was a child, but I clutched the quilt now. “Poor kitten,” Mary said, using my father’s pet name for me. “I’ll get some milk to warm. That will put you right back to sleep.” “Henry warned me again about walking the halls at night,” I told her. “Oh, posh. No ghost is going to bother old Mary.” She was pale and I suspected wanted something to do, so I gave my assent. And I was quickly regretful. Being left alone in my chamber, without even her presence, made the storm that much more ominous. I thought of my uncle and worried about him coming to my room. I got out of bed and put on my dressing gown and slippers, pacing the floor. I waited for what seemed like an hour but Mary didn’t come back. The storm blew aside until only driving rain remained and still she didn’t return. I lit a candle and tried to read my Homer. I couldn’t concentrate and returned to pacing. Finally, I opened the door and peeked into the cold hallway. Nothing. I thought of Robert’s and Henry’s warnings, but I could no more believe in ghosts than fairies. The leading danger to walking the hallways was catching a chill, I imagined. Or, perhaps, encountering my uncle. I stepped out in my slippers and listened, hoping to hear Mary’s quick step. But that wasn’t what I heard. No, what came to my ear was some sort of music, like bells, or piano, or wind chimes, even. It was faint but I was sure it came from within the house, rather than outside of it. I had an undeniable urge to follow the sound. So much so, that I walked a few paces away from my room before I made the choice to do so. I looked back at my bedroom, closed the door, and continued down the hallway. The music led me away from my room and down a passageway I hadn’t visited yet. It was much louder here. Light spilled into the hallway through the crack of a door left ajar. I intended to slip past but conversation slowed my progress. “…damned thing making that confounded racket. We should call the priest again.” “Father McKenny won’t come back. Not after last time. They take a celibacy vow.” “No vow is going to stop the iron in my trousers.” I peeked through the crack in the door and saw two male servants. One leaned against the stone wall, his britches lowered, and his hand on his organ. I had only seen naked boys–babies, really. This was a full grown man with his full grown anatomy on display. Even though they didn’t see me, I flushed. “Want me to suck it for you?” the taller of the two asked. “I heard the Master’s niece was staying in the quiet part of the house.” the other answered, still stroking slowly. “I’d rather she do it.” My flush only got hotter. “The only cock she’s going to be sucking is his,” the taller man said, adding his hand to the stroke. “You should take what you can get.” The first man closed his eyes and his breathing beylikdüzü escort bayan grew rapid. “All right, then,” he said in a husky voice. The taller man fell onto his knees, like in prayer, but then took the other man’s member into his mouth, drawing it in an out slowly, licking the end of it as if it was a sweet. The man on his feet moaned loudly. How he managed to fit the whole thing in his mouth and down his throat, I didn’t know. He worked diligently, though, drawing it in more completely with each stroke, asking for no relief from his position. Indeed, the man standing didn’t offer any; he whimpered for more, putting two hands in his lover’s hair. I was ashamed that I still watched, but I found it difficult to look away. The music in my ears seemed to be part of my pleasure, though I couldn’t say how. Inexplicably, I had the urge to enter the room and join the two men; thankfully, my sensibility prevented it. Finally, with his eyes closed and an expression somewhere between pain and ecstasy, the man standing cried out. The man on his knees spluttered. In a few seconds, it was over. “Better?” asked the man on his knees, licking his lips. “For the moment. It won’t be five minutes before I’m up again. Damned spirit.” “Well, while we wait, would you do me?” I slipped past the door and down the hallway before they could resume, throbbing and nauseous in equal measure by what I had just seen. And what was the ‘infernal noise’ the one man had complained about? The music was as lovely as church bells. Down the hall much, much further, and around several corners that left me despairing that I would ever find my room again, the passage hit a dead end. Marred portraits decorated the walls and a threadbare tapestry covered the stone from ceiling to floor. The music was clearest here. It made no sense to me but I was more convinced than ever that this was no spirit. The music I heard was real enough; it was made by a real person. I backtracked down the hall but the music grew quieter. I returned back to where it was loudest, looking at the ceiling and floor, wondering if there was a way forward that I had missed. Finally, on an impulse, I looked behind the tapestry. To my surprise, there was a door hidden behind it. It swung wide under my hand. Curiosity drove me. I closed the door behind me and moved into a dark passageway. It echoed with the music and, somehow, the sound was even more beautiful down here. Candles gave the barest of light. I continued on, following the song. I came to a door–the only one along the stone hallway. The music seemed to certainly come from behind it. I hesitated for a moment, but I felt compelled to open the door. Like something was calling me from within. I could no more have returned to my room at this point than I could have turned into a bird and flown away. I pushed the door open and stepped inside. There, in the candle light, stood a gentleman. Golden, even in this dimness: his hair and skin remembering the sun. He had a fine face, a very fine face and he wasn’t much older than me in appearance. He wore breeches and a rich tail coat, like he was going to a dinner party. And, he was in chains. A wide iron collar cuffed his neck; shackles restrained his wrists; the leg irons seemed unnecessary, but he wore those, too. Each restraint was connected to a considerable chain, which was, in turn, connected to the stone wall. He bowed and everything clanged. “Good evening.” “Good evening,” I said softly, curtseying in reflex. “You’re not a ghost.” “No, I’m not,” I stood, just looking at him for a moment. “I would ask for an introduction if there was anyone to ask.” His tone gently teased me. I flushed. This wasn’t exactly proper: me standing in my dressing gown and slippers. “I’m Emily White. Henry Aspen is my uncle.” “And I am Allister. It’s an honor to meet you.” His voice drew me like siren song. And it dispelled anything I might have been thinking about before I entered the room: Mary gone missing, the sexual act I had witnessed, and even the mystery of the door behind the tapestry. I stepped further into the room, closer to him. “Forgive me,” I said, “but was that you making that music?” He smiled at me and I stepped forward again, without even thinking about it. It was like everything about him beckoned. “I sing when I’m lonely in the hopes it will bring me company. And look how lucky I am.” “Singing? It sounded a pianoforte or bells….” I looked around. There were no instruments anywhere around. Just a table piled with books and a wooden chair pushed back. “It was only singing,” he said. I looked at the heavy iron bands that restrained him. “May I ask you something else?” “Of course, Miss White.” “Why are you in chains?” He looked at me with eyes so blue. “That’s complicated.” “I have a quick mind and a ready ear.” He paused a esenyurt escort moment, looking at the ground, seeming to choose his words. “When I sing, it has an effect on men. I give them virility and enthusiasm and need.” “I’ve seen it,” I said. “It has an effect on women, as well.” There was a tingling at the back of my neck. “It’s arousing for us, too, but we follow the sound.” “Precisely.” He looked at me, his eyes piercing. It was like he could see my beating heart. “Your uncle wanted the virility for him and his men so he chained me here. He didn’t foresee the affect it would have on the women.” “They came to you?” I whispered. He nodded, looking almost ashamed of himself. He didn’t need to tell me what had happened. I wanted him to touch me; I wanted to press myself against him. It was a need so powerful it was like eating or breathing. He may not have been a ghost, but he wasn’t a normal man either. “What are you?” I asked. The blue eyes didn’t blink. “I used to be an angel, but I fell. Now, I’m nothing in particular.” “Are you dangerous?” “No, though your uncle doesn’t believe it. I am a millstone to him. He fears releasing me so he must stay and guard me. The other men took their wives away; his died. He’s left wanting with little outlet.” “He scares me,” I told him. “He looks at me as if he wants something from me.” “He does. You’re a beautiful girl. All men want something from you.” For the first time his eyes strayed from mine and lingered on my lips. It was the opposite of how I felt when Henry’s eyes roved over me. I had to restrain my thoughts; they were lusty and unlady-like. Instead, I tried to focus on how badly this creature had been used. Surely, it must have taken some time for the village men to understand Allister’s effect on women. I wondered how long this poor angel had been chained here. Months? Years? I stepped up to him, closer that I should have, breaking my own social rules. “How are these chains released?” “Your uncle holds the key. It’s made of iron.” “I’ve seen the ring. He wears it on his belt.” “That will open the locks.” I bit my lip. “If I do this… if I get the key from my uncle and free you, you must help me leave here.” He lifted a hand and I let him touch my face. It sent thrills all over me. It filled me with a need that was like hunger. He looked at me with something like fondness. “If you free me from this place, I’ll take you somewhere safe,” he said. “I’ll be back tomorrow night.” “Before you go…” He drew a thumb over my lips and tilted my face up to his. “I also want something from you, Miss White.” He didn’t need to say it; he was asking for a kiss. There was nothing I wanted more. “Please,” I breathed. The moment his lips touched mine, joy and ecstasy suffused me. Heat radiated from my lips to every part of me. His chains clanged and he cupped my jaw with his hands. Oh, his lips were strong and demanding. How I wanted to open my dressing gown and give him leave to do anything he liked. He broke the kiss. “You’re a virgin,” he moaned. “It’s the sweetest energy.” “I am.” He kissed me again and fire flashed through me. Heat pounded in places I had never noticed. It took everything in me to push on his chest. “Stop, stop,” I gasped. He took his hands off of me and stepped back. I pressed my palm over my thundering heart. “My apologies,” he said, tension in his voice. “None are required,” I told him. His eyes flickered to the ceiling. “You must go now if you’re to arrive at your room ahead of Mary. Stay to the left hallways, and you find your way to your door.” “How do you…?” “I know you, now. I see you.” “I’ll be back tomorrow. I promise.” I hurried back down the passage and found the door that opened behind the tapestries. I scurried as quietly as I could, keeping to the left-hand hallways. I passed the room that I had peeped into, but the door was now closed. Sooner than I would have dared hope, and without being detected, I found myself in front of my door. I let myself in and stoked the dying fire. Only a few minutes later, Mary returned. She had a small pitcher of milk and her hair was mussed. Her cheeks were pink. She looked ten years younger. I lifted my eyebrows at her. “Were you in Robert’s company?” I asked. Her whole face went red. “I… How did you…?” She hung her head. “I don’t know what got into me, Miss.” “I do,” I told her. “And I need your help.” # Coquette was not a talent of mine. However, Henry had been alone the past six years and he had Allister singing his song every night. At least I had that advantage. Mary dressed me in a frock that had been given to me as a gift and that my father hadn’t approved of. The neckline was too low and the pink too giddy. I said a small prayer of apology to my father and to God for what I was about to do. Mary powdered my chest and dressed my hair in the latest style, whispering pieces of advice. Lean forward to distract his attention with your bosom. Remind him that you’re womanly with your body, but act childlike to keep him disarmed. The more whiskey he consumed, the better. Robert came for me at six and exchanged a few heated looks with my blushing Mary.