The Stone Men Series Book 1
“Welcome to Windsor Castle, Miss Myles. No need to unload your luggage. You won’t be staying.”
Jacqueline grinned at the elegantly stodgy butler, too excited by the idea of staying at a real castle to fully process his words through his English accent. And yes, she knew that he’d said Winsley Castle, not Windsor, but in her mind they were one and the same. Except that she was in Northern England, not London. There were no royal guards about in their big hats, just a zillion good looking footmen. And… and…
“Please do step in, Miss Myles. His lordship would like a word.”
His lordship! She forcibly stopped herself from giggling. She was about to have a word with a real life earl. The Earl of Winsley, to be exact.
“This way,” he said gesturing deeper inside. She really had to stop gawking, but it was like stepping into the set of Downton Abbey, only grander. And older. There was an actual suit of armor right there in the marble hall!
“Thank you,” she said, trying hard not to look like a tourist. “And please call me Jackie.”
“I think not, Miss Myles,” he said. She was adjusting to his accent and his tone, finally processing that despite his words, he wasn’t being complimentary. Or even polite, especially when he added, “This is a proper English household. We adhere to all the rules of appropriate behavior here.”
She blinked at him, quickly reviewing everything he’d just said, focusing more on his lifted chin, his sniff of disapproval, and the two statues of naked men holding platters just above their privates. It had taken her a half-second to know that they weren’t the statue she was particularly interested in and that they were completely tasteless, Euro trash decor.
“You’re a proper English household?” she said, trying not to gape.
“Yes, miss,” the butler answered repressively.
“I’m here to participate in a Saturnalia,” she said. She pulled out her print of the website, reading directly off the page though she’d already memorized every word. “A Bacchanal of Bliss, complete with lush food, naked men, and tasteful aphrodisiacs artfully prepared. Single women only.”
“The website,” the man returned, the words filled with loathing. “Master James intends to change it.”
“Well he hasn’t changed it—”
“And I’m afraid you won’t be staying, Miss Myles. His lordship has complete discretion on attendees. That too is on the website.”
Jackie felt her blood heat. After all the travel and the maneuvering just to get the time off? After all the research and work? After a fracking miserable flight? “Now you listen to me. I’ve paid the exorbitant fee, had all the medical certificates approved—”
“Master James,” the butler interrupted, smoothly giving her his back as he turned to face a young man in designer jeans and a stylish polo. “This is Miss Myles. She is requesting an explanation for the termination of her visit.”
“Visit? I haven’t even stepped past the foyer—” she began, but the newcomer raised his hand.
“It’s because you’re a journalist.”
“No, no,” she lied. “I work at a publicity firm doing press releases and the like.”
“And publish travel articles under the name JK.”
She mentally scrambled for something to say. A twin sister, an abduction by aliens, something, anything. Fortunately, before she leaped to her clone being the journalist, another car pulled up in the massive driveway. Master James flashed her an urbane smile that she didn’t trust for one second, then grabbed her arm.
“Why don’t we take this out of the foyer? My father wants to meet you anyway.”
His father, the Earl of Winsley. And damned if those butterflies didn’t tremble low in her belly. Honestly, this was ridiculous. She was an American. She didn’t believe a monarchy was the way to govern anything in this day and age. And yet she couldn’t seem to fight that little girl squee at the thought of meeting a real life aristocrat.
But she had to get it together. Because if she didn’t do some fast maneuvering, a quick hello as she was being shoved out the back door was all the meeting she was going to get.
So she did what she always did when backed into a corner. She relied on her research.
“Master James. You must be James Addison, the second son of the current Earl of Winsley.” Down butterflies, down! “You’re the computer genius who created that app.” It was a simple thing that managed a person’s gift-giving list, online purchases, and delivery info. Best of all, it was launched with a spectacular campaign before the holidays and presto whammo, he’s one of England’s richest men. “But your real love is in gardening and MMO gaming.”
He flashed her a rueful look. “If you were trying to convince me you’re not a journalist, you just failed.”
Right. Skip the research. Go with creative charm. “Please,” she said trying her most I-am-clueless drawl, “you’re like one of the top ten richest bachelor catches. Every female within ten years of your age knows your stats.”
He sighed. “It’s not limited to within ten years.”
She tried to smile winningly at him. “Have you been hit on by randy octogenarians?”
“That’s a horrifying thought,” he said with a shudder. “I think the oldest was seventy-six, but she might have been lying about her age.”
“And you’re still not giving me a good reason to let you stay.”
Ah-ha! He’d softened in his throw-her-out-now attitude. Which meant she still had a chance to talk her way in. “You know publicity is a good thing. Brings in customers, lets you expand to more than one Saturnalia a year, opens up new—”
“There will only be one a year,” he said firmly. And when she started to argue, he shook his head. “You have no understanding of our business—”
“But I can learn—”
“I’m afraid not.” There were more words. Lots more if she had to guess, but she heard only noise. Because just as they were stepping down a hallway, she saw it.
The statue. A handsome man in a short Grecian tunic with a hand raised as if in hello. Or perhaps—looking at the rueful expression on his face—it was more of a goodbye. It stood on a pedestal next to a window which bathed it in the rose gold of the autumn sun. It was late afternoon, and he was situated as if he wanted to look out at the back expanse of garden and trees.
The material was marble, but the carving was exquisite. So lifelike, she half expected him to turn and greet at her. Instead, she forgot all decorum and went straight to him, ducking under the cordon and squeezing through the partially shut doors. She had to be in his sight line. She had to look at him face to face.
What an expression, she thought sadly. She’d expected rage. That was the emotion she’d found on most of the statues by this unknown artist. But this statue was resigned, though she definitely saw anguish. And maybe—if the quirk of his lips could be trusted—a bit of gallows humor.
“Miss Myles! You can’t be in here!” James grabbed her arm, but she wormed her way free. She wouldn’t let him drag her away.
“God, he’s so sad,” she said. “It breaks my heart to see it.”
She stretched up and touched the face along the jawline. The stone was smooth and cold, but she stroked up the path, her gaze seeking its. His. Whatever. She’d never been able to shake the feeling that these statues were real. So damned human it scared her, but there it was. She caressed his face and brushed into the curling hair that was mere ripples in stone.
“He’s looking down,” she said. “Not quite out the window, but downward. At what, I wonder.”
“Me, actually,” James said but she barely heard him.
“What?” She wanted to look at him, but couldn’t drag her gaze off the tiny ridge of a scar along the statue’s neck. As if a chip had been badly repaired. She touched the raised line. “What happened to you here?” she murmured.
“Me again,” James said though she hadn’t been talking to him. “Or rather one of my drunken friends. We should have had a true stone mason fix it, but I was young and embarrassed, so I repaired it myself and botched the job. Now it’ll cause more damage to fix properly, so we let it be. He says he doesn’t mind, but I’ll feel bad about it for the rest of my life.”
“He?” she prompted, not really listening. But she knew that the longer she kept James talking, the more time she’d have with the statue.
“Kane. That’s his name, though of course, we call him the Satyr for the weekend.”
“Kane,” she echoed and this time she stroked his uplifted palm. The detail was exquisite. There were raised calluses on his palm and long fingers with unusual pads. “What are these from?” Ridiculous to ask the question of a statue, but there it was.
“Archery and some swordplay, I’d imagine.”
She stroked her hand up his muscular forearm, the bend in his elbow, and the bulging biceps. There was a bump on the back of his arm and she rubbed her finger over it twice before she could force herself to stop gazing at his front enough to look at it. She had to step around the pedestal, but fortunately, James didn’t block her, so she could move freely.
“A mole. He’s got a mole right here.”
“Most women look at his muscles.”
She smiled, her gaze sliding over the statue’s physique. “Oh, I noticed those too, I assure you.” Then she stroked the mole. “Why would an artist sculpt something so perfect and then add a mole?”
“Yes, of course.” The first statue she’d ever seen had had acne scars. “True realism, but do you know how hard it is to add something like that? When carving stone?”
“You have some experience in stonework?”
She nodded. “I’m awful at it, but it gives me enough experience to know what it takes to do something like this so perfectly. So real.” She looked back up into the statue’s eyes. “Kane, you break my heart.”
“Why?” It was a different voice. An older one with more anger, less forgiveness.
Her back stiffened when she heard it, and she knew she was about to be tossed out. She needed to confront this newest threat and win him over to her side. But she couldn’t look away from Kane. And then the man repeated the question, this time with a demanding tone.
“Why does he break your heart? He isn’t even real. He’s a statue.”
“True,” she said softly, her fingers sliding back up his arm to the statue’s shadowed cheek. Even knowing he was stone, the coldness still startled her. The other side had been warmed by the sun. This cheek had nothing to give it heat except her hand. “Just a statue. And yet he’s so real to me. I can’t explain but…” She feathered her fingers across his mouth. “Just look at his face. Look into his eyes. Can’t you see the despair in there?”
No answer. It hardly mattered. In the silence she was able to memorize every curve of Kane’s features. Every ripple of his lips, even the odd bushy push of his eyebrows.
“You need to come down, Miss Myles.” James said as he tugged on her sleeve. “Miss Myles!”
She blinked, startled out of her reverie. He grabbed hold of her elbow and jerked her hard. She stumbled, belatedly realizing she’d actually climbed up on the pedestal with the statue.
What the hell? She was wrapped around the thing like a lover. She’d all but humped it! Embarrassment burned in her cheeks as she half fell, half jumped to the floor.
“I’m so sorry,” she gasped. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“The Satyr affects everyone differently,” James said, his tone not exactly kind, but not harsh either. More filled with speculation, and her gaze jumped to his.
Unfortunately, the earl’s tone was a good deal harsher. “You will explain yourself, Miss Myles, or I will call the Constable.”
She looked to the man. He matched the pictures she’d found of him. Late fifties, bushy eyebrows, curly hair, and a jaw that was currently clenched in fury. The man was large with a paunch, but that was the only softness in him as he glared at her.
She swallowed. This wasn’t going to be easy. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m a stringer. Er, that’s a journalist that sells articles. I’m not on staff anywhere or anything.”
“I know what a stringer is,” he said. His gaze darted to the statue. “Why were you climbing on Kane? Do you think I will turn a blind eye to casual defacement of my family?”
“I… No, of course not.” She had no explanation. And if she weren’t scrambling for an answer, she’d take a moment to wonder why he’d called a statue “his family.” As it was, she could only stand there mute. And in standing, her gaze inevitably slid back to Kane. She couldn’t help it. She just wanted to look at him, talk to him. Something. She rubbed her hand over her face.
“Jesus, I’m insane,” she said. “Look, I don’t have to write the article.” Though how she was going to pay for this particular trip, she hadn’t a clue. If she couldn’t sell an article on this most exclusive of weekend resorts, she was going to be paying off her credit card debt for the next ten years.
“Then why come?”
Did she ‘fess up? Would it help or hurt her cause? “I’ve seen two others of these statues in my life. Same sculptor. Had to be. Perfect detail in every way. Such expressions on their faces.”
In her peripheral vision, James stepped forward. “Where? Where did you see these statues?”
“My friend’s house in Chicago where I grew up.” She wouldn’t tell them about the mystery there. Well, not the full mystery. “It’s not there anymore. The house… um… it blew up.”
She shook her head. “Old story. You can look it up online. Happened eleven years ago on June 12th.”
She saw James pull out his cell phone and start Googling.
“And the second?”
“Last year in a little naval museum for sailors lost at sea. It… I…” She was looking at Kane’s face again, mentally comparing it to the other. “The other two were angry. Like really, really pissed. As a kid, I was frightened. As an adult…” She shrugged. “It still gives me the creeps. I have pictures.”
Without looking away from Kane, she pulled out her phone, keyed in the passcode, and handed it over to James.
“And Kane?” James asked.
She tilted her head, stepping to the base of the pedestal as she looked closer. “I think he’s past anger. That takes a man to despair. Maybe even self-destruction.”
“It’s a statue,” the earl said coldly.
“I know,” she said softly. And again she touched his cheek—the cold one—pressing her palm flat to warm him. A moment ticked by. Then another. And another. In the end, she realized two things. She couldn’t warm stone with just her hand. And the other two men in the room were staring at her because she’d done it again. She was back up on the pedestal and staring into Kane’s eyes.
She really was insane.
She forced herself to look away. And then another act of will to step back down and guiltily look at the two men.
“I’m not here to hurt you or your business, I swear. I’ve just been drawn to these statues all my life.”
The earl’s hands were planted on his hips. “I will not permit you to write anything about the statues. One word, Miss Myles, and I will have my legal team bury you.”
She swallowed. She’d hoped that this would be her PhD thesis one day. Or an exposé. Or something. Her life’s obsession ought to pay off somehow, right?
But that was a problem for another day. Right now, she just had to stay near Kane. She had to learn all she could about him. It was a need bordering on obsession. Or insanity. So she nodded, and when that didn’t seem to be enough, she spoke.
“I’ll sign anything you want. Just let me stay for the weekend.”
James nodded, obviously convinced. But he clearly wasn’t the one with the ultimate say, because he turned to look at his father. The earl just stood there glaring.
“If this is an act,” he said, gesturing roughly toward the statue. “I will destroy you.”
It didn’t seem like an idle threat. “I’m not lying to you, sir. Er, my lord. And I’m the worst actor in the world.”
He glanced at his son who shrugged. “What have we got to lose?”
“Everything,” his father snapped. Then he stared hard at her. “I’m watching you. Every moment—even after you leave—I’ll have people watching you.”
Stalker much? But she’d take it.
“Come to my office in an hour. There will be contracts for you to sign.” Then before she could ask, he narrowed his eyes. “Nondisclosure agreements. A lot of them. Wherein you forfeit everything you have and a great deal more that you might get if you record anything I don’t like.”
No journalist in her right mind would sign anything like that. No sane person would agree.
“No problem,” she said.