Madeleine: a Regency Romance Novella
Cursed or damaged?
As soon as Madeleine encounters Roderick Usher and his isolated Scottish castle, she is mesmerized. A soldier wounded in mind and body, he has the soul of an artist and the hands of a musician.
She falls in love and marries in haste…but will she live to repent? For the castle seems to have a personality of its own and Roderick, haunted by his past, lives on the edge of insanity.
Inspired by Edgar Alan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, Madeleine is a gothic tale of mystery, danger, passion and love overcoming all.
(First published as part of the USA Today Bestselling Boxed set The Midnight Hour: All Hallows' Brides, October 2019)
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Madeleine first heard of Roderick Usher at the Hart Inn in Sussex.
Her brother Daniel, whom she hadn’t seen for seven years, had met her off the ship at Southampton, and they were travelling toward London in very easy stages. The Hart was not precisely on their way, but Daniel had suggested the detour in order to meet up with an old friend whom he hadn’t seen since his school days.
It did cross Madeleine’s mind to wonder at this sudden urgency after a decade, but, her mind and heart were still somewhat restless after the sudden death of her father. She was just happy to become better acquainted with the brother she had not seen in years, and to meet any of his friends.
Although this friend, Lord Verne, had a house in the neighborhood, he came to dine in their private parlor at the inn. Lord Verne rushed in like a whirlwind, dark, handsome and distracted.
“My sister, Miss Madeleine Deare,” Daniel said, drawing her forward by the hand. “And her companion, Madame Kosara,” he added more carelessly.
Lord Verne bowed gracefully and shook hands with both ladies. “Forgive my poor hospitality, but my house is in uproar. My wife is en travail as we speak.”
“Good Lord,” Daniel said, clearly as startled as Madeleine. “I picked the worst evening in the year!”
“Not at all, you picked the best,” Verne insisted. “The women would only have thrown me out anyway. A man is useless at such vital events, and I assure you, I’m very glad of the distraction. Besides, although the food is plain here, it’s very tolerable.”
“I did not even know you were married,” Daniel said once they were seated and the first course served.
“For almost five years,” Verne replied. “I’m sorry you won’t meet Cecily on this occasion. Are you married, Deare?”
“Lord, no,” Daniel grinned. “No one will marry a pauper like me. But I am glad to see you looking so well on it! I have not seen anyone from the old days for years. Tell me, what became of your cousin, Usher?”
“Robert died, tragically.” Verne frowned. “Or do you mean Roderick, who was at Eton when we were? Haven’t heard from him in some time, not since Robert’s burial. But he was in the army—almost died at Waterloo. Sold out shortly after and immured himself in his Scottish castle. Which he inherited from poor Robert. Why do you ask? I didn’t know you were a friend of his.”
Daniel shrugged. “Neither did I. I only knew him through you, which is the odd thing. When we arrived here at the Hart, I found a letter from him waiting for me. It had just caught up with me somehow, via my lodgings in London, I suppose. He invited me to visit.”
“In Scotland?” Verne asked, surprised. “Well, that’s a good sign, if he’s looking for company. Will you go?”
Daniel shrugged, glancing at Madeleine. “My sister has only just come home. We’re still in mourning for my father.”
“Perhaps you’re better in Scotland than in London, then. Although it is a long way to travel.”
Madeleine laughed. “I have lived the last five years in Russia, and before that in the Ottoman Empire—our father was a diplomat—so these distances of yours seem quite puny to me. We never seem to quite grasp that we live on a small island.”
Verne smiled. “You have a point.”
“But would he have space to accommodate us?” Daniel asked. “I travel light myself, but Maddy comes with Madame Kosara and a maid.”
“Space is not a problem. But the Ushers are somewhat…eccentric, not to say cursed.”
“Cursed?” Madeleine repeated, startled.
Verne cast her a crooked smile. “Local myth, though I have to admit they are extraordinarily unlucky. On the other hand, they are also extremely talented—cultured and quite fascinating in their way. Roderick is no exception. If he’s invited you, you should go. Ask him where my invitation is. And when you come back, tell me how he does.”
Lord Verne, understandably restless over his wife and his about-to-be-born child, did not stay late, but bolted homeward almost immediately after dinner, with many imprecations flung over his shoulder at Daniel to write and come again.
“I like him,” Madeleine said. “He’s like some figure from Bryon. Childe Harold, perhaps.”
“Sadly, he seems to be spoken for,” Daniel said, going back inside the inn. “Providing the night’s occurrence is a happy one.”
“Daniel!” Madeleine protested, following him into their parlor. “And you know perfectly well I have no designs on him! Or on marriage, come to that.”
He laughed. “I’m only funning. Would you like to go to Scotland?”
“If you wish. To be honest,” she confided, “I prefer travelling. I am almost…afraid to arrive. Because I don’t really know what to do with myself.”
“You will marry and have a house and children of your own,” Daniel said, sitting and pouring himself another glass of brandy. “That’s what young ladies do. Very well. We’ll merely stop off in London and sort out what business we need to. And then we’ll travel north into Scotland.”
“To Lord Verne’s cousin?”
“We could look in on him,” Daniel said thoughtfully. “But to be honest, I only mentioned him because he’s related to Verne. Our aim will be the Duke of Kintyre’s ball in Edinburgh next month. I managed to get us cards of invitation.”
Not quite three weeks later, under the unrelievedly grey skies and relentless rain of Scotland, their carriage left the main road and slogged along muddy tracks. Forest and enclosing hills seemed to conspire to keep out what little daylight there was.
“We’ll get stuck in the mud,” Madame Kosara remarked.
“No, we won’t,” Madeleine said optimistically. “And even if we do, we must be almost at the house, so it won’t be far to get…” She broke off, because a gap in the trees suddenly lightened the rain-splashed view on the left. Not that there was any sun, but the grey was paler, reflecting almost silver on the lake that spread out between the highest hill and the building suddenly visible in the distance.
Like the scenery, the house looked large, dark, and indistinct through the rain-blasted carriage windows.
“Didn’t Verne say it was a castle?” Daniel said dubiously. “Who builds a castle at the foot of the hill?”
Leaning forward, Madeleine peered through the deluge. It might have been a castle—square and solid at one end, it seemed to splay out to the other side, and she could swear there were crenellations around the roof. Interest stirred, inspired more than likely by her secret love of gothic romances.
“The land might be good enough,” Daniel observed, “but the house! Verne was right. Space isn’t a problem, but it looks to me like it’s falling around his ears.”
He had a point. As the carriage lumbered closer, they could see the iron gates were rusted, and one looked as if it had come off a hinge and only hung there from will power. What might have once been a drive up to the house was largely weeds with a few flagstones still visible between.
“It isn’t worth our time,” Daniel said irritably. “I wish we had gone straight to Edinburgh.”
“Well we didn’t, and it will be totally dark soon,” Madeleine said. “We should at least try to see him since we’ve come so close. I’m not sure I care to drive back along that road in the dark.”
As she’d hoped, Daniel saw her point. With a sigh, he opened the carriage window. “John! See if you can get us through the gates!”
Perhaps there had once been a lodge house. There was a pile of stones where one might have been, but John Coachman, investigating, found no sign of bell or servant. He simply pushed the gates, and they gave easily. He spread them wide, climbed back up, and drove through.
At least the drive was less muddy, though considerably bumpier. Even through the teeming rain on the carriage windows, Madeleine could see the house was in poor repair. Part of it was boarded up, and the stone around this area was blackened as though there had been a fire, and no one had troubled to repair the damage.
It didn’t take long to reach the front of the house, which was discovered through an open arch leading to a courtyard and a porticoed front door. The stone walls were decorated with carvings Madeleine couldn’t make out, and with gargoyle-like figures she longed to see close up.
She descended from the coach in wonder, and turned a complete circle with her face turned up to the rain, taking in the dark buildings surrounding her and the overwhelming atmosphere of age…or was it agelessness?
She had just begun to think the house deserted, when, in her second full turn, she caught movement at an upstairs window. A man’s face, pale and handsome and ghostly.
Something shrieked in her ear, flapping against her hair. With a startled cry, she fell back.
“Bats,” Daniel said in disgust.
The face at the window had gone. Had she imagined it?
“There’s no one here, Madeleine,” Daniel said. “It’s all a hum. Let’s—”
Before he could finish, the front door opened wide with a satisfyingly loud creak. The Castle of Otranto, Madeleine thought with some glee and a mere hint of nervousness.
A manservant stepped out. At least Madeleine supposed he was a servant, for he wasn’t dressed as a gentleman. However, neither did he look like a butler.
“Ah!” Daniel strode toward him. “Mr. Usher at home? Mr. Roderick Usher?”
“Give him my card,” Daniel instructed, holding one out to the servant. “He should be expecting us.”
The servant hesitated. For a moment, Madeleine thought he would make them all wait in the rain. His gaze flickering over her, Sonya Kosara, and Mercer the maid, then on to John Coachman and the carriage horses.
“Come in out of the rain,” he said abruptly and pointed John wordlessly to the right, presumably to the stables. Turning, he then marched into the house and everyone else scuttled after him.
“Still want to stay?” Daniel murmured in Madeleine’s ear as they found themselves in a dark hall.
No fire burned in the hearth, and the rugs on the floor were well worn. A suit of armor stood in the far corner, crossed swords above the doorways leading off. A stone staircase with a carved, wooden bannister rose up from the middle, disappearing into the dusk.
“This way, if you please.” The servant led them to the left, toward the tower end of the building, Madeleine guessed, and into a surprisingly cozy room with beautiful wood-paneled walls and a polished wooden floor ornamented with a large, Turkish carpet.
As she entered, Madeleine glanced back over her shoulder across the entrance hall. A man stood on the stairs, unmoving in the shadows. Their host? She thought not, for she had an impression only of untidiness and white shirt sleeves before Sonya Kosara dragged her fully into the room.
Here, she was delighted to see a lit fire and hurried up to its warmth, her hands spread out. The servant left again, presumably sweeping Mercer up in the hallway and sending her to the kitchen.
Madeleine turned her back to the fire and gazed around her. The curtains had not been drawn, and the rain trickled relentlessly down the windows, adding to her pleasure at being indoors.
If one was strictly honest, the room was more cluttered than cozy. A pianoforte sat in the large window embrasure with music strewn over it and on the floor around it. Three painting easels stood haphazardly around the room, draped with multi-colored painted rags. There were splashes of paint on the portions of floor not covered by the carpet. A man’s coat, a waistcoat, and several books were strewn across the heavy old chairs and sofa.
Madeleine met her brother’s gaze. “I like it,” she said defiantly.
He laughed. “You are contrary. I believe you think it’s like those novels you’re always reading. Well, Verne said he was eccentric.”
“Hush,” Madeleine said. “I thought he was your friend?”
“Apparently he is, though I didn’t know we were on such terms until I got that very odd letter at the Hart.”
“You never said it was odd.”
Daniel shrugged. “Well, we were coming to Scotland anyhow. We have time to say a hail and farewell at least.”
“Yes, but they don’t appear to be expecting us,” Madeleine observed. “You did write back to him, didn’t you?”
“Can’t quite recall,” Daniel said vaguely.
Of course he couldn’t. For some reason, his mind was focused on this duke he was desperate for Madeleine to meet. So much so, that one day when Madame Kosara wasn’t present, she had said bluntly, “I gather his grace is rich and powerful, but I hope you are not set on trying to make a match between us because I couldn’t marry anyone for such reasons.”
Daniel’s lip had curled. “Oh, I have already gathered that after the society of emperors and princes, mere dukes do not impress you.”
She hadn’t been talking of rank but of love. However, since he would only say her head was full of trashy novels, she had not argued.
A quick footfall sounded, crossing the stone hallway. Madeleine and everyone else turned expectant gazes to the door. The handle turned, and a man strode in, fastening his coat with one hand. He paused, glancing into the room almost warily.
For no reason she understood, Madeleine’s heart lurched. He was tall and very lean with a shock of barely combed raven-black hair that was too long for fashion. Was he the man she had glimpsed at the window? She couldn’t tell now if this man was handsome, for he looked ill. His skin was too pale and drawn around his eyes and mouth. A frown marred his high brow, though it seemed to be unconscious—perhaps it was permanent.
As he came closer, she thought his dark eyes were almost black, the whites slightly blood-shot. He walked with quick movements that might have been nervous or simply restless.
“Deare,” he said in a deep, curt voice. “What a pleasant surprise.” There was no way to know if he meant it, but at least he thrust out his hand in welcome.
Madeleine’s gaze clung to that hand, so long and thin, its veins standing out like ridges. As Daniel put his into it, the tapered fingers closed, and she actually held her breath, as though it was her own hand he held.
“How do you do, my dear fellow?” Daniel said, shaking his hand. “As you see, I have taken you up on your kind invitation, and brought my sister, too. I hope you don’t mind.”
Their host’s unblinking eyes shifted suddenly, pinioning her.
“My sister, Miss Madeleine Deare,” Daniel said, standing aside. “Maddy, our kind host, Mr. Roderick Usher.”
From sheer nerves, she offered her hand. He took it in those long, strong fingers, his grip firm but perfectly gentle. And brief. He dropped her hand and her gaze almost at once, and greeted Sonya with the same civil indifference. So why did Madeleine feel as if she had been smacked in the head? Or the chest, for she seemed to have forgotten to breathe.
“Please, sit, make yourselves comfortable,” Mr. Usher said. Only then did he seem to become aware that they still wore their outer garments. Gesturing to Daniel’s, he said abruptly, “Give me your coats. I’m afraid Graham isn’t a domestic servant.”
“Our apologies,” Madeleine said as she removed her damp bonnet. “I hope we didn’t cause offence.”
His gaze flickered to her and clung. “No. You misunderstand. He isn’t domestic. Yet. He’s my old batman.”
“Ah, yes,” Daniel murmured. “Verne said you were in the army. A hero of Waterloo.”
Unexpectedly, Usher laughed, but didn’t explain his mirth, perhaps because he was taking Madeleine’s travelling cloak and bonnet.
As if just remembering its existence, he walked to the bell and pulled it, before accepting Sonya’s cloak and hat also.
The same servant, Graham, marched into the room, held out his arms to receive the coats from his master, and from Daniel. Without a word, he marched out again.
Madeleine, who rather liked odd households, smiled as she sat on the sofa beside Sonya. When Daniel had taken one of the armchairs, Usher perched on the edge of the other and regarded him curiously.
“What can I do for you?”
Definitely not expected, Madeleine realized with extreme discomfort. Why hadn’t Daniel taken the trouble to reply to his letter?
“Just answering your letter, old man,” Daniel said mildly.
“You invited me to stay.”
Usher’s frown deepened. “I never wrote to you in my life. I barely know you.”