In the 1830s, Eleanor Travers has resigned herself to living a quiet life as housekeeper to her uncle, an expert in antiquarian occult books. She is stunned when he demands she marry Mr. Helling, a vile man with a cadaverous look and a vaguely threatening air. Shaken, she turns to Julius Pagan, another scholar who frequently calls on her uncle. To her surprise, Julius offers to help her out of the arrangement by eloping with her.
As she considers whether to run away with Julius, Eleanor learns a bizarre truth about both her suitors. Marrying Mr. Helling might be a fatal mistake, but some things might be worse than death—such as becoming the bride of man who is already dead. Yet she cannot deny that the strength of her feelings for Julius might just lead her to take the biggest, and possibly the last, risk of her life.
“Sir! This is most inappropriate!” she said, shocked. How had he entered her room? He could only have crawled up the outside of the house and slipped through the casement window. No doubt she had neglected to lock it—but why would she need to?
Once her initial astonishment passed, fear gripped her. Did he mean her harm? She felt the blood drain from her face as Julius Pagan took a step toward her.
“Forgive me. I realize I should not be here, and my intrusion into your private space is discourteous in the extreme. However, I saw no alternative. I must speak to you on a matter of some urgency.”
Eleanor looked over her shoulder to make sure her uncle had not come upstairs. Not entirely confident in her choice but seeing no alternative, she closed and locked the door behind her. “Very well. Please be as brief as possible. You should not be here, Mr. Pagan.”
“I understand—but impropriety is the least of my concerns just now. What I need to speak to you about could be a matter of life and death.”
She struggled not to show her alarm. “Perhaps you had best get to the point.”
He nodded his understanding. “First, I must ask about the exact nature of your connection with Mr. Helling.”
“You heard all that directly from both him and my uncle.” She averted her face so he could not see her anguish. “Must I go through it again? We are to be married.”
“I did hear it, and I could scarcely believe it. But that is not exactly my question. What I must know is whether joining your life to his is agreeable to you.”
“What difference does that make? My uncle says it must happen. He assures me Mr. Helling can care for me adequately. I must be content with that.”
Julius’s face contorted with rage. “No! No, you must not be content! And as for caring for you, Helling is the last man I would entrust a woman like you to. He is not what he seems. In fact, I daresay he is incapable of caring about anyone’s needs but his own.”
“Why are you telling me this?” she shot back. “It is all well and good for you to tell me that he will make an unsuitable mate. At the same time, you know I have little to no chance of avoiding the fate my uncle has chosen for me. What other options are there?”
“Miss Travers, there are always options.” Julius stepped forward and placed his hands on her shoulders. Though his skin was cool through the fabric of her dress, she felt warm thrills race from each point of contact to the middle of her body. Her pulse quickened. He seemed to sense that too. He dropped his hands to his sides and stepped back. “What I mean to say is that I cannot in good conscience encourage this match. Though I cannot go into specifics just now, suffice it to say that Baldemar Helling’s past makes him an unsuitable match for anyone…except perhaps the devil himself. His name certainly suits him.”
The feelings in her stomach, previously warm and slightly excited by his touch, turned to icy weights as the meaning of his words sank in. Dark dread made her tremble, but she struggled not to show how deeply his words had affected her. She did not want him to think her weak—or frightened by his word-games, on the off chance that was what he was playing at. After all, she knew him no better than she knew Mr. Helling. The fact that Mr. Pagan was more handsome did not mean he was necessarily more trustworthy, no matter what any number of alluring Gothic novels for ladies tried to suggest.
“Some might find your own surname equally inauspicious,” she said boldly, looking up to meet his gaze directly.
“My surname dates back to a time when the world held far different beliefs than it does now,” he said with a touch of haughtiness she secretly found amusing. “I daresay a few of our contemporaries could learn a thing or two from their distant ancestors.”
“I have no doubt you are correct about that,” she admitted, hiding a smile.
“Never mind all that.” He waved an impatient hand between them. His skin, like Helling’s, was so very pale, she thought. No doubt both of them spent their days in libraries and lecture halls, pursuing their scholarly interests, much like her uncle—though he was not nearly so pallid. “Let us return to the matter we were discussing. Again, I must caution you in the strongest possible terms not to proceed with this marriage.”
“Please do not think that we are not of one mind on the topic—but I can only repeat that my uncle has already made up his mind. If you know him at all well, you will also know that he is not generally amenable to changing his attitudes.” An idea struck her. “Perhaps if you spoke to him….”
“I tried. He would not listen.” Julius sighed. So her impression had been correct—the two men had words while she and Mr. Helling were in the garden. They had indeed been speaking about her. Julius’s face soon grew resolute again. “However, you must trust me. Had you told me you wished to give your life to Helling, I would have had no choice but to respect your wish in spite of my disapproval. Since it is clear that you are not entering this match of your own free will, I promise you that I will not allow this marriage to take place. I shall find a way to stop it before tomorrow evening.”
She was about to respond when she heard footsteps on the landing outside her door.