Valley of nightmares, p.1

Valley of Nightmares, page 1

 

Valley of Nightmares
 


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Valley of Nightmares


  Danger lurks in the valley, and its ghostly source stalks Lilly’s nightmares…

  As the threat of war darkens the skies over 1938 Europe, Lilly Divine trades the burlesque stage for a crumbling mansion deep in the mountainous heart of Wales.

  Taran House is steeped in legend, remote and compelling as the reclusive owner’s motives for bringing Lilly to the valley. All she knows is she is to be governess to Gethin Taran’s niece, Ceri. And at night, eerie lights swirl and dance on the mountainside.

  Although Lilly has never met Ceri, she knows the eight-year-old well. They meet in nightmares haunted by a sinister figure they both call the Hunter. The arrival of a mysterious black dog, and chilling howls echoing from the slopes, heighten Lilly’s fears.

  Enthralled by Gethin, bound to orphaned Ceri, entranced by the unloved old house, Lilly must fight to keep her balance—and her young charge safe. But even as Lilly and Gethin succumb to sizzling passion, danger stalks just beyond the edge of the shadows.

  This book has been previously published.

  Warning: Contains a bumping, grinding heroine and a stalker who haunts her dreams. Add a locked clock tower, an enigmatic employer, a psychic eight-year-old and a mysterious black dog… Can you handle a few nightmares of your own?

  Valley of Nightmares

  Jane Godman

  When the true darkness descends, stay indoors. Tend your hearth. Keep the night at bay with songs and laughter. Protect your loved ones and honour your ancestors. When the huntsmen stir, you are not safe. They will not fear your hallowed pathways. Shrieking ancient curses, they will sweep down the valleys and fleet through the mountain forests of your mind. The past is not dead. It will return, like these wild hunters, to stalk your dreams.

  —Ancient Celtic Creed

  Chapter One

  I tear through the maze of alleys, my feet skittering wildly over uneven, slime-coated flagstones. Black walls, oozing filth, soar steeply on either side, closing in on me. Nameless, stinking vermin cluster in corners, shrieking their disapproval of my presence. Cold flays my face and numbs my fingers, and a demon of fear sharpens its claws on the inside of my stomach. My ragged breath carves vaporous sculptures into the night air. Whiskers of mist stream ahead, showing me the way. A faint eerie glow softens the blinding darkness, tinging the edges of my vision milky-green. Sulphur—the smell of eternal damnation—stings my eyes and nostrils.

  I do not know where I am, nor where this desperate flight is taking me. I only know that the Hunter must not catch me. But no matter how quickly I move, he follows at his own unhurried pace. And he is gaining on me. Every nerve ending along the length of my spine crawls in anticipation of his touch. I have never seen the face of my pursuer, but in the eternal, wakeful dark, we know each other well.

  She is waiting for me around the next corner, exactly where I sense she will be. She stands stock-still, her face a pale, fey oval in the murky half-light, her eyes huge and dark. Beneath the white nightgown she always wears, her little, blue-chilled feet are bare. As I reach her, she holds out a hand to me. I don’t hesitate. Hands clasped, we run on together.

  The cemetery was tucked away, shamefaced, on a slight incline behind the lichened walls of the old synagogue. Weary headstones leaned at drunken angles like rotten teeth in a grin of gaping lunacy. Grey trees twisted their gnarled fingers in heavenward supplication, straining against the roots that tethered them here on earth. Oblivious to anguish, a cheery flock of birds serenaded us with lighthearted songs of love and gladness. Winter still retained a tenuous grip on the iron ground, but a few brave, early blooms dared to peek their vibrant faces through the scabby grass.

  The interior was cool and dark, and in contrast, the bright sunlight of the burial ground stung my eyes. We stood huddled together at the graveside, and when Fanny took my arm, I leaned weakly and gratefully against her. Icy fingers traced a filigree pattern of frost around my heart as I gazed into that gaping hole and pictured his body resting in its empty, mossy embrace. This was all wrong. In life, he had craved company the way a gambler craves the rattle of a dice. How cruel to condemn his vibrant, loving soul to lie alone for all eternity.

  The service itself had been a hushed, hurried affair. I didn’t know much about Ricky’s family, just that he had nothing to do with them. So we, the little group from the Felicia, became his family that day. And I, his best friend, was elevated to the unwanted status of chief mourner. I pictured him—hard drinking, chain-smoking, clever, sarcastic—and I couldn’t reconcile the Ricky Meyer I knew with the paragon of virtue the rabbi described. Whispered voices penetrated the ragged edges of my sorrow.

  “I still don’t understand what he was doing there at three in the morning,” Amethyst said, dabbing daintily at her kohl-ringed eyes with a lacy handkerchief.

  “Where exactly was he?” Fanny’s voice was husky with tears.

  “Near St. James’s Park.”

  “But that’s nonsense! Ricky lives five miles in the opposite direction, why would he go that way?”

  “Bastard didn’t even stop.” Rosy’s full, scarlet lips thinned. “Hit his bike head-on, drove right over him as he lay on the ground. Didn’t even have the decency…”

  Under the shade of an overhanging gallows tree, two men stood apart, watching us. Their identical dark suits and uncomfortable stance proclaimed their profession. They had questioned us all, and it was clear that the police suspected Ricky’s death might not have been an accident. They must be wrong. My hurt brain insisted on returning to travel this weary circular track. How could anyone possibly wish to harm my kind, silly, harmless friend?

  After the memorial prayer was said, and he was lowered into the unwelcoming depths, I stood for a long time, staring at the fresh mound of earth and breathing in the rank, mildewy smell. The others drifted away, heading back to the club for a drink—a burlesque wake, Maxie called it—and I promised to join them. I wanted to talk to him now we were alone, but the words I so desperately needed would not come. Instead, a series of images played in my mind. The first time we met, and the look of blatant admiration in his eyes. When I’d nervously auditioned for a part in the chorus line and Ricky spent long, patient hours rehearsing the steps with me. A mere month ago when we’d gone to the opening night of a new cinema in Leicester Square, and to Ricky’s lasting disgust, I’d fallen hopelessly in love with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The night we walked along the riverbank, and he took my hand and told me how he felt. And how I’d sadly explained that—although, of course, I loved him, too—we loved each other in very different ways.

  I looked up at last. The police officers were gone now, and another man stood close to where they had been. He was watching me. Something about him penetrated my sadness. He was dressed in fairly standard clothing. Despite the burgeoning spring warmth, his twill overcoat was buttoned and belted. A trilby was tilted so low that much of his face was in shadow. Even so, I recognised him instantly. I’d have known the width of his shoulders and that firmly chiselled jaw anywhere.

  I started toward him, wanting to thank him for coming. I’d only taken a few steps when I realised my mistake. I did not know this man. I stopped in midstride.

  I couldn’t say what it was that unnerved me. There was stillness—a guarded menace—about this familiar stranger that made me horribly aware of how alone and vulnerable I was. The inhabitants of this shady restful bower could not come to my aid. He began to move slowly toward me, and at the same time, two other men marched purposefully through the drunken wooden gate. Their bearing was straight and military. They, too, wore upturned collars and low-slanted hats to shield their faces from view. With their arrival, my only exit was blo
cked.

  Just as the first man came within a few feet of me, Fanny’s somewhat-strident voice penetrated the silence as she came back down the road. “Do get a wiggle on, Lilly darling! Maxie sent us to tell you there’s a G and T with your name on it…” I turned to greet her and Rosy with relief. With their arrival, the men moved aside. Rosy and Fanny each linked one of my arms and bore me off into the busy London afternoon. I craned my neck, but a trolleybus and a horse-drawn carriage competed for right of way, briefly blocking the cemetery from my sight. When I had a clear view once more, all three men had gone.

  * * *

  “Well, I’m sure I wish you well, Lilly dear,” Mrs. Comber, hands on hips in her usual stance, told me as I hauled my suitcase down the narrow stairs. “I could do with a few more like you who stump up the rent on time.” She rolled an eye at the other girls, who both appeared to have been afflicted with sudden deafness. “And, I must say, you do look proper smart today.”

  This comment provoked some suspicious choking sounds from my so-called friends, and I cast a reproachful look in their direction. I told them it was too much, and the approval of our staunchly puritanical landlady set the seal on my dismay.

  When they heard about my new job, the girls at the Felicia had been galvanised into a frenzy of wardrobe-related activity. I couldn’t believe it was only just over a week ago. The worst week of my life. Rosy had bundled me firmly into the shapeless tweed skirt I wore now. It was the exact colour of dried baby-sick. A plain white blouse with a high neck and a limp collar came next. The whole lot was finished off with a sensible brown coat and my own low-heeled, lace-up shoes. Fanny plonked an old-fashioned cloche hat over my curls and stood back to view the whole picture.

  “I look the most ghastly frump!” I protested. Between them, they had amassed a small pile of similarly “suitable” items that I eyed with disgust. These now lurked in my suitcase, waiting for me with dowdy menace.

  “Sweetheart, that is exactly the impression we are aiming for,” Fanny purred. She thought she had some sort of seniority over the rest of us. That was because she was Maxie’s favourite. For now. It was a precarious position and one she had to work hard to keep.

  “Haven’t you got a pair of spectacles or, better still, a pince-nez?” I asked glumly, and they went off into peals of laughter.

  Ricky had arrived at that precise moment. He stopped in mid-whistle as he saw me. “Darling, what have these evil bitches done to you?”

  “Turned me into a governess. And made me invisible in the process.” I gathered up my bag and gloves and struck what I hoped was a scholarly pose.

  Ricky put his head on one side. “Oh, I don’t know. You still look quite knock-’em-dead sexy, you know—” My snort of derision interrupted him. “If this chap has a drop of warm blood in him, you’ll have to watch yourself. Even in that getup, he’ll be chasing you round the schoolroom every chance he gets.”

  The pain that hit me whenever I thought of Ricky made me want to double up and clutch my stomach, as if I’d been punched.

  Mrs. Comber’s nasal whine brought me back down to earth. “I must say, though, Lilly dear, I was most put out yesterday when your young man had the cheek to call here. You know my thoughts on that sort of thing. There’ll be no nasty goings-on in my house, not while I live and breathe!”

  I wrinkled my brow. “But I haven’t got a young man, Mrs. C.”

  She sniffed. “Well, he told me that’s what he was, and who am I to disbelieve a nice, well-spoken gent like that? I says to him, ‘She’s out, paying her respects at a friend’s burial.’ Could he wait for you in your room, says he, bold as brass. Ho! I sent him away with a flea in his ear, I can tell you! I says to Mr. C…I says, ‘I don’t know what the world is coming to, I really don’t.’ I blame that nasty music. Jazz, they call it. I could give you another name for it—”

  “What did he look like?” I had no compunction about interrupting her. I knew from experience she could go on moralising in this vein for hours. It was just as well she clung steadfastly to the belief that the other girls and I were in the chorus line of a West End theatre. If she ever got so much as a whiff of what we really did…

  “Clean,” she replied promptly and unhelpfully. “A nice, smart-looking chap, all told.”

  “I really don’t know who it can have been,” I said. Mrs. Comber snorted disbelievingly, and I decided not to pursue it. She had obviously got it wrong. The man in question must have asked for someone else, or she’d just misunderstood what he’d said. It didn’t matter anymore. I no longer had to put up with her grudging approval or her criticism. I turned to Fanny and Amethyst and was promptly wrapped in a flurry of kisses and goodbyes and pleas to write. I felt an unexpected pang at the thought of leaving them and even my tiny attic room with its shabby rugs and the smell of cats and cabbage that pervaded the entire lodging house. I’d never really had a home. This aging London terrace and the Felicia were the closest I’d come.

  When I arrived at King’s Cross, the station was a hive of bustle and noise, but I noticed my new employer immediately. His height and powerful frame made him conveniently easy to spot in a crowd. If Gethin Taran noticed my red, puffy eyes, he made no comment. Hoisting the case that contained my sad little collection of belongings into his car, he held the passenger-side door open. I clambered in. The elegant Bentley smelled of leather and tobacco, and I settled into the comfortable seat with a grateful sigh. He was driving himself, and I didn’t know whether to be glad about that. A third person in the form of a driver might have alleviated any embarrassing trends in the conversation, such as questions about my past or my motives for wanting this job. But the newfound pleasure to be had in watching his hands as they steered the powerful car out of the city and onto the open roads turned out to be adequate compensation.

  “Will there be a war?” I asked. It had replaced the weather as the topic on everyone’s lips, so it seemed a good way to start a conversation.

  “There usually is. Somewhere in the world.” One of those lean, strong hands was tantalisingly close to mine as it rested on the gear lever. I didn’t know where the sudden wild impulse to touch it came from. But I managed to fight it off.

  “No, I mean will we go to war with Germany?”

  “I expect so.” His voice was serious. He had stopped as a tram crossed the road, and his dark eyes held my gaze. At that precise moment, Herr Hitler and the whole of his National Socialist German Workers’ Party could have goose-stepped through Piccadilly Circus and I swear I would not have noticed. “The Nazis will not be stopped by any other means.”

  “Not even by Mr. Chamberlain’s appeasement policy?” I wondered, as the car lurched forward again.

  “Least of all by that,” he said dismissively. “The prime minister has a tiger by the tail, and he has no idea what it will do next.”

  I was silent, watching the familiar landmarks as they faded from view. I wondered when I would see them again. A chill—a warning, I suppose I would call it now—lifted the hairs on the back of my neck, and I shivered. That’s what you get for following your instincts, Lilly my girl. All of a sudden, the little cautionary voice in my head was beginning to sound suspiciously like Mrs. Comber.

  “I like your sensible outfit.” Gethin’s comment drew my attention back inside the car. His eyes left the road briefly to flicker over me. “It’s certainly a dramatic change in approach from what you were wearing—or, should I say, taking off?—the last few times we met.”

  “I am reliably informed, by people who claim to be my friends, that nobody wants a sexy governess,” I told him. He gave a quick shout of laughter but shook his head when I looked enquiringly at him. With a shrug, I turned to view the increasingly green scenery.

  “I forgot to ask, do you have any references from your previous employer?” I was glad he kept his eyes on the road so he couldn’t see me blush.

  “No.” I dec
ided that honesty was the best policy. After all, he’d already admitted there wasn’t a queue of people beating a track to his door for this job. “You don’t tend to get a reference if you slapped the boss’s face before you walked out.” He did glance my way at that. “He tried to put his hand up my skirt…as I was giving his children their breakfast.”

  “So it seems he definitely wanted a ‘sexy governess’, and before breakfast too. A gentleman of ambition. Perhaps you should wear slacks in future?” he asked blandly, and it was my turn to bite back a laugh. At least he didn’t appear dreadfully shocked at my chequered past. Considering how we met, it would have been somewhat hypocritical of him to do so.

  “You haven’t told me much about your niece,” I said, when London had become a distant memory. Rolling hills flanked the now-quiet road. He glanced my way, and I wondered at the contrast between his remote aspect and the intensity of those sherry-brown eyes.

  “I don’t actually know her very well,” he admitted. “My brother worked for the Diplomatic Corps, and they—he and his wife—had lived abroad since they married. I’d only seen Ceri, short for Ceridwyn, half a dozen times when I had to travel to Austria to collect her after they died.” His voice was devoid of any emotion, and I wondered how he could remain expressionless when describing such a heartbreaking event. “That was three months ago, and since then, she has been in the care of Mrs. Price, the housekeeper down at Taran House. It’s all been damnably inconvenient.” The words—so cold and unfeeling—were a stark reminder that I knew nothing about this man. “Now, of course, she needs to continue her education. Which is where you come in.”

  I was starting to feel tired. There was something soporific about the countryside whizzing past us. And, of course, I hadn’t slept since Ricky… Resolutely I turned my mind away from that thought. “What does it mean? Taran?”

  “Taran means ‘thunder’ in Welsh, but it is also the name of many geographical features within the local area. Afon Taran—the Taran River—flows through the valley where the house is located. My mother, who fancied herself something of an artist, also used the word to describe a colour so black it is almost blue.”

 
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