Time for my favorite Halloween post!

This one is from a few years ago, but it is my favorite post on my most-loved occasion.

This is my favorite holiday–not entirely surprising for a girl who kills pretend people for a living, no? But I’ve always loved ghost stories and the fall, full moons and things that go bump in the night…

Halloween used to be a sacred holiday for many folks. The last of the three harvest holidays, it was the time for bringing in the remnants of the crops, storing them up against the winter–a time for celebrating the harvest and fattening oneself up. “Winter is coming” wasn’t just a saying in Winterfell, my darlings, and one wasn’t truly prepared for the coming hardships unless there were apples drying on the hearth, the hay baled, and the corn reaped. It was a time for dancing and divination, when one’s true love might be revealed in a bowl of dark water or the curl of an apple peel thrown over one’s shoulder. It was a time when people gathered at bonfires and crackling hearths, warming themselves and telling stories.

It was also a time for honoring the dead. The Celts believed that on this night, the veil between worlds was the thinnest, and those we love can come back to visit for just a little while. Want to show a Samhain welcome to those you have loved and lost? Light a candle next to their picture and leave an offering of something sweet. But scatter salt across your threshold to keep others away! Light a jack-o-lantern to illuminate the way for those who wander, and when you gaze up at the harvest moon–two days full and ripe as an ear of corn–wish them peacefully on their way.

On a more prosaic note–in our house, Halloween means chili, queso, and chocolate cake with classic horror movies. But we always spare a thought for those we have loved and honor their memory. It is also a perfect night to banish old habits and resentments. We usually observe the burning bowl on New Year’s Eve, but it is an old Samhain tradition as this night used to mark the turning from the old year to the new. Get a fireproof bowl or use a firepit. Write secretly whatever you wish to banish from your life. Hold the paper close to your heart and breathe out your resentments, your anger, your pain. Then drop the paper into the bowl and set it alight. When it has burned and dropped to cold ash, scatter the ashes on the wind. Time to make a fresh start–time for the Danse Macabre to call all ghosts home.

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Something to kick off the holidays…

The holidays are just around the corner, and you might be in a mood to putter around and start your December prep. Or you just might like to play with dead flowers. I don’t judge. In any event, I have a recipe for the winter potpourri mentioned in one of my previous works. It requires just a little lazy mixing of ingredients, and the payoff is a delectable scent. You might even be inspired to make enough to give away….

When the holidays are upon them, the Marches like to celebrate in style, blending old traditions with new excess. One of the oldest traditions for them is the making of seasonal potpourri. Here is Aunt Hermia’s own recipe to make your house smell like Bellmont Abbey from the novella SILENT NIGHT:

Aunt Hermia’s Recipe for Winter Potpourri

From the French for “rotted pot”, potpourri was originally this damp version preferred by Aunt Hermia. The high moisture content caused the flowers to fade as they decayed, so the mixture was traditionally kept in porcelain jars with pierced lids. When placed on the hearth, the warmth from the fire caused the fragrance of the potpourri to waft through the room.

Layer the bottom of an earthenware crock with partly-dried rose petals. (The depth should reach to the first joint of your forefinger.) Sprinkle with sea salt to cover and add a splash of brandy. On top of this, place a layer of partly-dried lavender mixed with carnation petals. Sprinkle this with sea salt to cover and splash with brandy as well. Continue to layer, repeating pattern of petals and salt and brandy and pack firmly. When jar is not quite full, place a heavy china plate on top. Weight the plate with a clean brick wrapped in linen and seal the crock.

Place on a high shelf or a dark corner and leave it be for two days. On the third day, stir the mixture, then leave to cure for a fortnight. By this time, the petals and salt shall have formed a sort of damp cake. Break this up with your hands, crumbling it gently. To this crumbled cake, add broken cinnamon sticks–two for each layer of petals originally placed in the crock—and half a dozen bay leaves. Add a palmful of carefully dried orange peel and sprinkle over a palmful of powdered orrisroot. Mix gently. Finish with a final splash of brandy and turn again. It is best to leave it be for another fortnight, but if necessary, it may be used at once. Spoon it into a porcelain jar with a pierced lid and place near a source of warmth.

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Rounding up some spooky reads

I don’t like to be scared–not really. A little suspense is fine, but no outright horror, please. Here are a few of my seasonal favorites:

*Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. WITCHES. That’s all you need.

*The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. It’s not a popular view, but I really, really dislike Ichabod Crane. I always root for the Horseman…and I’m very glad Katrina ends up with Brom. (That’s not a spoiler since the book has been out for almost 200 years.)

*The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The ultimate ghost story–a classic for all the right reasons.

*Poems: Haunted and Bewitched (Everyman) I adore the Everyman editions of poetry, and this one is full of delectable things.

*House of Spirits and Whispers by Annie Wilder. This one is a memoir which is utterly terrifying if you think about it too much. Wilder purchased a large, sprawling mansion in disrepair–you know where this is going, right? HAUNTED. I started rereading it last year and had to put it away again. I might manage another chapter this year…

*The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Honestly, you could just as easily sub in We Have Always Lived At The Castle. There’s no bad Shirley Jackson. I included Hill House because it is legitimately SPOOKY. In addition to being a beautifully crafted piece of fiction, it creeps the bejeesus out of me. What more can you ask?

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Remember when I said we were spoiled for new books this month? Yep, here we go again! Today is the pub day for the latest Sherry Thomas, A STUDY IN SCARLET WOMEN. I sometimes think that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to Sherlock; I am SO HAPPY to say I was wrong. I got my hands on this one a few months ago–a perk of being published by the same company!–and I can tell you it is everything you want it to be. Sherlockians will love the fresh new take on everyone’s favorite sleuth. Go on. Get it. Like, now. I’ll wait.

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Time to get our scared on!

Or in my case, not really. I don’t like horror movies. I like a little stylish suspense, but that’s as risky as I’ll go. Here are a two pieces I posted, the first on Crimson Peak, the second on some of my favorite creepy classics.


So last weekend I went to see Crimson Peak and it was everything I hoped it would be. Oh, first the caveat--if you don’t want to read spoilers, stop reading now and come back on Tuesday. I’m serious; I’m going to spoil this like nobody’s business.

I should start by saying that I’m old-fashioned. I believe in judging something by what it was intended to be, not what you wanted it to be. Crimson Peak was clearly not supposed to be a straight-up horror film, so if you’re into heaps of gore, it’s going to disappoint. There are a few cringe-worthy moments. I peeped through my fingers twice, but let’s be clear–there’s nothing in this film to TOUCH an average episode of Game of Thrones.

It also doesn’t try to make you leap out of your own skin. While it does begin with a decent hit on the creep-meter, the movie spends a fair bit of time setting up an atmosphere of seeming benignity before taking a macabre turn. But, as one of my Twitter pals pointed out, the scares are always well telegraphed, so if you’re a scaredy-cat (like me!), you’ll have a good idea of when to turn away. It’s beautifully designed, and even though the history isn’t perfect–the waltz was not new to Americans in the 1890s–the lush details more than make up for it.

If you grew up, as I did, reading Gothic novels, this is like watching one of your favorite novels come to life. This is Gothic in the most traditional sense of the word–Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis as opposed to Victoria Holt or Mary Stewart–and it’s lavish in its unabashed love of the genre. There is a touch of classic Hammer in this one, and I say that as someone who ADORES Hammer films.

So, here are a few of my favorite things about Crimson Peak:

*I’ve already mentioned the look of it, but in particular Allerdale Hall, the decaying mansion at the heart of the film is spectacular. It’s a desolate pile, as all good Gothic settings should be, but it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful desolate pile. There is not an inch of the house that hasn’t been crafted with obvious care and devotion, and the sight of snow falling softly into the grand hall through the broken roof is majestic and poignant. (If you’ve ever read Lisa St. Aubyn de Teran’s accounts of her houses, you’ll remember when she invokes the Marchesa Casati who lived in stylish decrepitude, preferring a roofless palazzo to a snug modern flat. She would have felt right at home in Allerdale Hall.) From the butterflies to the heavy keys, the sumptuous costumes to the delicate tea set, it’s a beautiful film.

*It’s not too beautiful. Just when it’s about to tip into overly-luxurious, something truly nasty happens–like moist red soil seeping up through the snow to look like spongy blood. Also, the ghosts? NOT PRETTY. They’re shown in advanced stages of decay, mostly skeletal, and dripping with gore. They aren’t shown in detailed close-up, mercifully, but the sight of them manages to make everything just a bit less pretty.

*There’s no gratuitous female nudity. Too many times, directors will default to showing the heroine in a state of undress to highlight her vulnerability and her role as victim. Crimson Peak doesn’t go there, even when the heroine takes a bath. The only nudity comes from Tom Hiddleston’s rear end–and I’m given to understand that he asked for it on the grounds that actresses are always being made to get naked and he felt it was fair. (If that’s true, we love him even more.)

*The cast. Jessica Chastain was utterly splendid, while Tom Hiddleston was exactly what you wanted him to be–by turns charming and enigmatic. The weak link in these stories is often the heroine who is usually so young and unnervingly naive you’re rooting for her to be pushed down the stairs. Not this time. Mia Wasikowska was the perfect choice. Her character IS young and naive, but she is also inquisitive and tenacious, daring to stand up for herself as she gains confidence.

*The fact that I want to see it again. I have no doubt I missed things–LOTS of things. I’m sure there are all kinds of delicious tidbits tucked away in each scene for me to discover on rewatching. This is going to become a regular on my Halloween rotation for decades, right up there with the silent classic Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey, Hammer’s The Gorgon, and Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein.

*In the end, the heroine saves herself. We could quibble a bit about this one since the heroine’s old friend and former suitor comes to take her away. But Crimson Peak redeems itself because ultimately the heroine has to save them both. It’s a truly powerful moment for a type of character who usually lies around waiting to be rescued. To give the heroine actual agency is refreshing and unexpected. And if you’re a true fan of the Gothic genre, there’s not much about this that will surprise you otherwise. The beauty of Crimson Peak is not that it’s innovative, but that it’s an homage to a genre so many of us truly love and that seldom gets this kind of attention. It’s the type of film no one makes any more, and I’m so tremendously delighted that someone did. Bouquets of kudos to Guillermo del Toro for this love letter to the Gothic.

*Other creepy faves:

I am Fraidy MacFraidycat, Mayoress of Fraidyville. I don’t do gore or serious horror, and slasher films leave me cold. Having said that, I ADORE Halloween. It’s seriously my favorite holiday of the year. (I’m a big fan of any holiday that lets you watch movies, gorge on candy, and let your inner demons off the leash without requiring you to shop or exchange presents.) Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of absolute favorites. I don’t get to see all of them every Halloween season, but it’s never REALLY autumn until I’ve viewed at least three or four. Here are my faves.

(Last week in my post about Crimson Peak I mentioned The Gorgon, Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey, and Bride of Frankenstein, so take those as a given.)

*Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. Ghoulishly sweet with a beautiful score and Joanna Lumley. ‘Nuff said.

*Sleepy Hollow (1999.) I know I said I don’t do gore, and this one is pushing it for me. But I am a sucker for things that are unapologetically over-the-top and this one is. It’s gruesome and creepy, and there’s just enough comic relief from Johnny Depp’s reluctant Ichabod Crane to make it all worthwhile. (I will never understand why people insist upon making Ichabod the hero of the story. If you read the book, he’s a jerk. I’m Team Brom.)

*The Hound of the Baskervilles. I haven’t specified a version because I’m not certain it matters. I love the Hammer version with Christopher Lee and the more recent one with Richard E. Grant. (The Basil Rathbone entry is a given.) There’s just something deliciously atmospheric about a deserted moor and the footprints”…OF A GIGANTIC HOUND!”

*Halloween. I know, I know. It’s exactly what I said I didn’t watch–a slasher film, THE slasher film, one of the pioneers of the genre. But I finally caved and watched it a few years ago and immediately understood why it’s a classic. For being such a giant of the genre, it’s remarkably tame–no pools of blood or spurting viscera. There’s just an atmosphere of mounting menace. Caveat: I won’t watch it alone.

*Practical Magic. Because WITCHES.

*Maleficent. Not really anything to do with Halloween, but she is the ultimate Disney villain, so it counts in my book.

*Book of Life. This one didn’t get the love it deserved. It’s a beautifully-animated story about el Dia de Los Muertos, a continuation of the observances begun with Halloween in South Texas. Even though I’m not from a Hispanic family, this particular tradition is one we observed, particularly after my grandmother died. The film is funny and sweet, and if you’re trying to figure out how to discuss death with your kids, you could do a lot worse than using this as a jumping off point.


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Milo and Amory are back!

Y’all know how much I love Ashley Weaver’s Amory Ames series, right? I mean, I am not shy about this. Ashley is not only a clever writer, she’s an uncommonly kind person. Hearing that I was bemoaning the fact that her second book would not be published in time to take it along on my book tour, Ashley sent me HER VERY LAST ADVANCE READER COPY. That is a generous gift, my dears. Since then, I’ve been waiting with nibbled nails for the next adventure featuring stylish society sleuths Milo and Amory. (Think Nick and Nora, but English and with some intriguing marital troubles…) And it’s finally here! A MOST NOVEL REVENGE pubs today, and I’ve had this one on pre-order for months, so I am beyond delighted. I can’t write anymore. I have to go read now.

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We are spoiled, dear readers

There are so many great books coming out this month! If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ve already gotten a peek at what I’m excited about, and today we have Juliana Gray up first. Gray is the alter ego of the delightful Beatriz Williams, and she writes–in her own words–“elegant adventures”. Gray has taken a brief hiatus while Beatriz has published several of her stylish 20th-century novels, but she’s roaring back with A MOST EXTRAORDINARY PURSUIT. Set in 1906, the book features the intrepid Miss Emmeline Truelove as she sleuths around the Mediterranean in search of a duke’s lost heir…I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy of this one, and believe me when I tell you that Emmeline and Veronica Speedwell would be fast friends. (And that is a tea party I would love to crash!) Best news? You don’t have to wait; this one pubbed two days ago. Move it to the top of your TBR list!

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It’s October!

Time for vampires, witches, and all things spooky, no? It’s the season for reading Gothic, so gather round and let’s talk about THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST, my only Gothic novel, and my love letter to Victoria Holt, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Stewart.

There are lots of goodies with this one, and today’s post puts them all in one place. First, to get you in an appropriately Transylvanian mood, the Pinterest board. Next, a list of Transylvanian reading and a recipe for a traditional Carpathian dish. Then we have the back cover copy of THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST to give you an overview of the action. After that, a link to exclusive content from the digital version, and we’re ending with an excerpt in hopes that you will be enticed to wander the stone passages of Castle Dragulescu…

*THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST Pinterest board

*Further reading and a Carpathian recipe:

*THE LAND BEYOND THE FOREST Emily Gerard. Once out of print but now mercifully reissued, this book was written by the first English-speaking woman to visit the Carpathians. It was the book Bram Stoker most heavily relied upon in conjuring his version of Transylvania, and it was the single most essential resource I had in writing THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST. Gerard’s tales of neighborhood gossip about a missing gentleman having “gone wolf” inspired my story of the Popa men.



*Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy


*VAMPIRES David J. Skal


To drink while you read, it must be plum brandy. It goes by various names in Transylvania, depending upon whether you are of of Romanian, Hungarian, or German descent, but it is similar stuff–warmly fruity and entirely potent. And just to make sure it doesn’t all go straight to your head, a nice bowl of corn porridge, a staple of the Carpathian diet.


This is a virtuous dish, being both exquisitely simple and endlessly varied. A cornmeal mash, it requires only three ingredients and is best prepared in an iron cauldron over an open fire. If you insist upon cooking it in a modern kitchen, you may.

Boil one quart of water in a pot. When it reaches a rapid boil, add one tablespoon salt and slowly pour in two cups of cornmeal, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and cook for approximately twenty minutes, continuing to stir to break up any lumps.

Mămăligă may be prepared with a little milk to make a softer dish to be eaten as porridge, or it may be sliced and served in place of bread or eaten out of hand with a salty ewe’s milk cheese and sour cream. It may be crumbled and served in a dish of hot milk to invalids, or sliced and fried in butter for heartier types.

*Back cover copy of THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST:

A husband, a family, a comfortable life: Theodora Lestrange lives in terror of it all

With a modest inheritance and the three gowns that comprise her entire wardrobe, Theodora leaves Edinburgh—and a disappointed suitor—far behind. She is bound for Rumania, where tales of vampires are still whispered, to visit an old friend and write the book that will bring her true independence.

She arrives at a magnificent, decaying castle in the Carpathians, replete with eccentric inhabitants: the ailing dowager; the troubled steward; her own fearful friend, Cosmina. But all are outstripped in dark glamour by the castle’s master, Count Andrei Dragulescu.

Bewildering and bewitching in equal measure, the brooding nobleman ignites Theodora’s imagination and awakens passions in her that she can neither deny nor conceal. His allure is superlative, his dominion over the superstitious town, absolute—Theodora may simply be one more person under his sway.

Before her sojourn is ended—or her novel completed—Theodora will have encountered things as strange and terrible as they are seductive. For obsession can prove fatal…and she is in danger of falling prey to more than desire.

*Link to exclusive digital content–a letter from Theodora to her sister Anna


Theodora Lestrange leaves her comfortable home in Edinburgh to visit Transylvania at the invitation of her childhood friend, Cosmina, now the betrothed of a Roumanian nobleman. Theodora arrives at the Castle Dragulescu to find that nothing is as she expected…

After a long while, the road swung upward into the high mountains, and we moved from the pretty foothills to the bold peaks of the Carpathians. Here the air grew suddenly sharp, and the snug villages disappeared, leaving only great swathes of green-black forests of fir and spruce, occasionally punctured by high shafts of grey stone where a ruined fortress or watch-tower still reached to the darkening sky, and it was in this wilderness that we stopped once more, high upon a mountain pass at a small inn. A coach stood waiting, this one a private affair clearly belonging to some person of means, for it was a costly vehicle and emblazoned with an intricate coat of arms. The driver alighted at once and after a moment’s brisk conversation with the driver of the hired coach, took up my boxes and secured them.

He gestured towards me, managing to be both respectful and impatient. I shivered in my thin cloak and hurried after him.

I paused at the front of the equipage, startled to find that the horses, great handsome beasts and beautifully kept, were nonetheless scarred, bearing the traces of some trauma about their noses.

Die Wölfe,” he said, and I realized in horror what he meant.

I replied in German, my schoolgirl grammar faltering only a little. “The wolves attack them?”

He shrugged. “There is not a horse in the Carpathians without scars. It is the way of it here.”

He said nothing more but opened the door to the coach and I climbed in.

Cosmina had mentioned wolves, and I knew they were a considerable danger in the mountains, but hearing such things amid the cosy comforts of a school dormitory was very different to hearing them on a windswept mountainside where they dwelt.

The coachman sprang to his seat whipping up the horses almost before I had settled myself, so eager was he to be off. The rest of the journey was difficult, for the road we took was not the main one that continued through the pass, but a lesser, rockier track, and I realised we were approaching the headwaters of the river where it sprang from the earth before debouching into the somnolent valley far below.

The evening drew on into night, with only the coach lamps and a waning sliver of pale moon to light the way. It seemed we travelled an eternity, rocking and jolting our way ever upward until at last, hours after we left the little inn on the mountain pass, the driver pulled the horses to a sharp halt. I looked out of the window to the left and saw nothing save long shafts of starlight illuminating the great drop below us to the river. To the right was sheer rock, stretching hundreds of feet to the vertical. I staggered from the coach, my legs stiff with cold. I breathed deeply of the crisp mountain air and smelled juniper.

Just beyond lay a coach house and stables and what looked to be a little lodge, perhaps where the coachman lived. He had already dismounted and was unhitching the horses whilst he shouted directions to a group of men standing nearby. They looked to be of peasant stock and had clearly been chosen for their strength, for they were diminutive, as Roumanians so often are, but built like oxen with thick necks and muscle-corded arms. An old-fashioned sedan chair stood next to them.

Before I could ask, the driver pointed to a spot on the mountainside high overhead. Torches had been lit and I could see that a castle had been carved out of the living rock itself, perched impossibly high, like an eagle’s aerie. “That is the home of the Dragulescus,” he told me proudly.

“It is most impressive,” I said. “But I do not understand. How am I to—”

He pointed again, this time towards a staircase cut into the rock. The steps were wide and shallow, switching back and forth as they rose over the face of the mountain.

“Impossible,” I breathed. “There must be a thousand steps.”

“One thousand, four hundred,” he corrected. “The Devil’s Staircase, it is called, for it is said that the Dragulescu who built this fortress could not imagine how to reach the summit of the mountain. So he promised his firstborn to the Devil if a way could be found. In the morning, his daughter was dead, and this staircase was just as you see it now.”

I stared at him in astonishment. There seemed no possible reply to such a wretched story, and yet I felt a thrill of horror. I had done right to come. This was a land of legend, and I knew I should find inspiration for a dozen novels here if I wished it.

He gestured towards the sedan chair. “It is too steep for horses. This is why we must use the old ways.”

I baulked at first, horrified at the idea that I must be carried up the mountain like so much chattel. But I looked again at the great height and my legs shook with fatigue. I followed him to the sedan chair and stepped inside. The door was snapped shut behind me, entombing me in the stuffy darkness. A leather curtain had been hung at the window—for privacy, or perhaps to protect the passenger from the elements. I tried to move it aside, but it had grown stiff and unwieldy from disuse.

Suddenly, I heard a few words spoken in the soft lilting Roumanian tongue, and the sedan chair rocked hard, first to one side, then the other as it was lifted from the ground. I tried to make myself as small as possible before I realised the stupidity of the idea. The journey was not a comfortable one, for I soon discovered it was necessary to steel myself against the jostling at each step as we climbed slowly towards the castle.

At length I felt the chair being set down and the door was opened for me. I crept out, blinking hard in the flaring light of the torches. I could see the castle better now, and my first thought was here was some last outpost of Byzantium, for the castle was something out of myth. It was a hodge-podge of strange little towers capped by witches’ hats, thick walls laced with parapets, and high, pointed windows. It had been fashioned of river stones and courses of bricks, and the whole of it had been whitewashed save the red tiles of the roofs. Here and there the white expanses of the walls were broken with massive great timbers, and the effect of the whole was some faerytale edifice, perched by the hand of a giant in a place no human could have conceived of it.

In the paved courtyard, all was quiet, quiet as a tomb, and I wondered madly if everyone was asleep, slumbering under a sorcerer’s spell, for the place seemed thick with enchantment. But just then the great doors swung back upon their hinges and the spell was broken. Silhouetted in the doorway was a slight figure I remembered well, and it was but a moment before she spied me and hurried forward.

“Theodora!” she cried, and her voice was high with emotion. “How good it is to see you at last.”

She embraced me, but carefully, as if I were made of spun glass.

“We are old friends,” I scolded. “And I can bear a sturdier affection than that.” I enfolded her and she seemed to rest a moment upon my shoulder.

“Dear Theodora, I am so glad you are come.” She drew back and took my hand, tucking it into her arm. The light from the torches fell upon her face then, and I saw that the pretty girl had matured into a comely woman. She had had a fondness for sweet pastries at school and had always run to plumpness, but now she was slimmer, the lost flesh revealing elegant bones that would serve her well into old age.

From the shadows behind her emerged a great dog, a wary and fearsome creature with a thick grey coat that stood nearly as tall as a calf in the field.

“Is he?” I asked, holding myself quite still as the beast sniffed at my skirts appraisingly.

“No.” She paused a moment, then continued on smoothly, “The dog is his.”

I knew at once that she referred to her betrothed, and I wondered why she had hesitated at the mention of his name. I darted a quick glance and discovered she was in the grip of some strong emotion, as if wrestling with herself.

She burst out suddenly, her voice pitched low and soft and for my ears alone. “Do not speak of the betrothal. I will explain later. Just say you are come for a visit.”

She squeezed my hand and I gave a short, sharp nod to show that I understood. It seemed to reassure her, for she fixed a gentle smile upon her lips and drew me into the great hall of the castle to make the proper introductions.

The hall itself was large, the stone walls draped with moth-eaten tapestries, the flagged floor laid here and there with faded Turkey carpets. There was little furniture, but the expanses of wall that had been spared the tapestries were bristling with weapons—swords and halberds, and some other awful things I could not identify, but which I could easily imagine dripping with gore after some fierce medieval battle.

Grouped by the immense fireplace was a selection of heavy oaken chairs, thick with examples of the carver’s art. One—a porter’s chair, I imagined, given its great wooden hood to protect the sitter from draughts—was occupied by a woman. Another woman and a young man stood next to it, and I presumed at once that this must be Cosmina’s erstwhile fiancé.

When we reached the little group, Cosmina presented me formally. “Aunt Eugenia, this is my friend, Theodora Lestrange. Theodora, my aunt, the Countess Dragulescu.”

I had no notion of how to render the proper courtesies to a countess, so I merely inclined my head, more deeply than I would have done otherwise, and hoped it would be sufficient.

To my surprise, the countess extended her hand and addressed me in lilting English. “Miss Lestrange, you are quite welcome.” Her voice was reedy and thin, and I noted she was well-wrapped against the evening chill. As I came near to take her hand, I saw the resemblance to Cosmina, for the bones of the face were very like. But whereas Cosmina was a woman whose beauty was in crescendo, the countess was fading. Her hair and skin lacked luster, and I recalled the many times Cosmina had confided her worries over her aunt’s health.

But her grey eyes were bright as she shook my hand firmly, then waved to the couple standing in attendance upon her.

“Miss Lestrange, you must meet my companion, Clara—Frau Amsel.” To my surprise, she followed this with, “And her son, Florian. He functions as steward here at the castle.” I supposed it was the countess’ delicate way of informing me that Frau Amsel and Florian were not to be mistaken for the privileged. The Amsels were obliged to earn their bread as I should have to earn mine. We ought to have been equals, but perhaps my friendship with Cosmina had elevated me above my natural place in the countess’ estimation. True, Cosmina was a poor relation, but the countess had seen to her education and encouraged Cosmina’s prospects as a future daughter-in-law to hear Cosmina tell the tale. On thinking of the betrothal, I wondered then where the new count was and if his absence was the reason for Cosmina’s distress.

Recalling myself, I turned to the Amsels. The lady was tall and upright in her posture, and wore a rather unbecoming shade of brown which gave her complexion a sallow cast. She was not precisely plump, but there was a solidity about her that put me instantly in mind of the sturdy village women who had cooked and cleaned at our school in Bavaria. Indeed, when Frau Amsel murmured some words of welcome, her English was thwarted by a thick German accent. I nodded cordially to her and she addressed her son. “Florian, Miss Lestrange is from Scotland. We must speak English to make her feel welcome. It will be good practise for you.”

He inclined his head to me. “Miss Lestrange. It is with a pleasure that we welcome you to Transylvania.”

His grammar was imperfect, and his accent nearly impenetrable, but I found him interesting. He was perhaps a year or two my elder—no more, I imagined. He had softly curling hair of middling brown and a broad, open brow. His would have been a pleasant countenance, if not for the expression of seriousness in his solemn brown eyes. I noticed his hands were beautifully shaped, with long, elegant fingers, and I wondered if he wrote tragic poetry.

“Thank you, Florian,” I returned, twisting my tongue around the syllables of his name and giving it the same inflection his mother had.

Just at that moment I became aware of a disturbance, not from the noise, for his approach had been utterly silent. But the dog pricked up his ears, swinging his head to the great archway that framed the grand staircase. A man was standing there, his face shrouded in darkness. He was of medium height, his shoulders wide and although I could not see him clearly, they seemed to be set with the resolve that only a man past thirty can achieve.

He moved forward slowly, graceful as an athlete, and as he came near the shadows of the torches and the fire played over his face, revealing and then concealing, offering him up in pieces that I could not quite resolve into a whole until he reached my side.

I was conscious that his eyes had been fixed upon me, and I realised with a flush of embarrassment that I had returned his stare, all thoughts of modesty or propriety fled.

The group had been a pleasant one, but at his appearance a crackling tension rose, passing from one to the other, until the atmosphere was thick with unspoken things.

He paused a few feet from me, his gaze still hard upon me. I could see him clearly now and almost wished I could not. He was handsome, not in the pretty way of shepherd boys in pastoral paintings, but in the way that horses or lions are handsome. His features bore traces of his mother’s ruined beauty, with a stern nose and a firmly-marked brow offset by lips any satyr might have envied. They seemed fashioned for murmuring sweet seductions, but it was the eyes I found truly mesmerising. I had never seen that colour before, either in nature or in art. They were silver-grey, but darkly so, and complimented by the black hair that fell in thick locks nearly to his shoulders. He was dressed quietly, but expensively, and wore a heavy silver ring upon his forefinger, intricately worked and elegant. Yet all of these excellent attributes were nothing to the expression of interest and approbation he wore. Without that, he would have been any other personable gentleman. With it, he was incomparable. I felt as if I could stare at him for a thousand years, so long as he looked at me with those fathomless eyes, and it was not until Cosmina spoke that I recalled myself.

“Andrei, this is my friend, Miss Theodora Lestrange from Edinburgh. Theodora, the Count Dragulescu.”

He did not take my hand or bow or offer me any of the courtesies I might have expected. Instead he merely held my gaze and said, “Welcome, Miss Lestrange. You must be tired from your journey. I will escort you to your room.”

If the pronouncement struck any of the assembled company as strange, they betrayed no sign of it. The countess inclined her head to me in dismissal as Frau Amsel and Florian stood quietly by. Cosmina reached a hand to squeeze mine. “Goodnight,” she murmured. “Rest well and we will speak in the morning,” she added meaningfully. She darted a glance at the count, and for the briefest of moments, I thought I saw fear in her eyes.

I nodded. “Of course. Goodnight, and thank you all for such a kind welcome.”

The count did not wait for me to conclude my farewells, forcing me to take up my skirts in my hands and hurry after him. At the foot of the stairs a maid darted forward with a pitcher of hot water and he gestured for her to follow. She said nothing, but gave me a curious glance. The count took up a lit candle from a sideboard and walked on, never looking back.

We walked for some distance, up staircases and down long corridors, until at length we came to what I surmised must have been one of the high towers of the castle. The door to the ground-floor room was shut. We passed it, mounting a narrow set of stairs that spiralled to the next floor where we paused at a heavy oaken door. The count opened it, standing aside for me to enter. The room was dark and cold and the maid placed the pitcher next to a pretty basin upon the washstand. The count gave her a series of instructions in rapid Roumanian and she hurried to comply, building up a fire upon the hearth. It was soon burning brightly, but it did little to dispel the chill that had settled into the stone walls, and it seemed surprising to me that the room had not been better prepared as I had been expected. I began to wonder if the count had altered the arrangements, although I could not imagine why.

The room was circular and furnished in an old-fashioned style, doubtless because the furniture was old—carved wooden stuff with great clawed feet. The bed was hung with thick scarlet curtains, heavily embroidered in tarnished gold thread, and spread across it was a moulting covering of some sort of animal fur. I was afraid to ask what variety.

But even as I took inventory of my room, I was deeply conscious of him standing near the bed, observing me in perfect silence.

At length I could bear the silence no longer. “It was kind of you to show me the way.” I put out my hand for the candle but he stepped around me. He went to the washstand and fixed the candle in place on an iron prick. The little maid scurried out the door, and to my astonishment, closed it firmly behind her.

“Remove your gloves,” he instructed.

I hesitated, certain I had misheard him. But even as I told myself it could not be, he removed his coat and unpinned his cuffs, turning back his sleeves to reveal strong brown forearms, heavy with muscle. Still, I hesitated, and he reached for my hands…

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Monthly wrap-up!

September is drawing to a close, my dears, and it’s time to remind you of all the good things you might have missed! First, the October newsletter goes out soon, so if you haven’t already signed up, please use the form on the right sidebar of this page to get onto the list. (We never share your information, and we only send out newsletters monthly.) The newsletters have exclusive goodies and first peeks at upcoming projects, so be sure you’re on the list!

Have you seen the Pinterest board for A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING? Veronica’s second adventure is out in January, and in honor of that, we’ve created a Pinterest page full of Victoriana, fashion, butterflies, mourning customs, and a few hints about the book itself…

Speaking of PERILOUS, we are still offering goodies for those of you who pre-order! Simply fill out this form to receive your digital pack of freebies–downloadable art, coloring pages, and an exclusive Veronica vignette.

Let’s end the month with a favorite quote:

“Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Christopher Robin to Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne)

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On the mat, on the bookshelf

Last June I made a number of changes in my routine. The first was to make a regular practice of yoga, committing to do SOMETHING on the mat every evening. (Full disclosure: I take off on average one night every two or three weeks when I feel my body just needs a bit of extra rest and head straight to bed.) The odd thing was that, as soon as I committed to doing it every day, I noticed changes even though I was working on exactly the same poses I’ve been coming back to for a decade. I was suddenly able to do things I have NEVER been able to do–like put my head on the ground during a wide-legged forward bend.

I’m a big fan of Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman’s AM/PM Yoga DVD. Most evenings I do both segments, forty minutes of stretches. (Some evenings I do an abbreviated version where I run through the poses on my own without the DVD; this clocks in at about 25 minutes since I never seem to hold them as long without guidance. I still figure it’s better than not practicing at all.)

Right about the time I made a daily practice part of my routine, I discovered Colleen’s book, YOGA FOR LIFE. It’s pubbed under her married name, Colleen Saidman Yee, and it’s superb for anyone wanting to deepen their yoga practice. She pulls no punches; each chapter is a story from her life with no whitewashing. She is honest, forthright, and vulnerable in her writing, and each chapter ends with a yoga routine designed to explore whatever characteristic was discussed in the chapter. Highly recommended.

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