Still holding her cocktail, Judith rambled through the castle garden. She passed a crumbling bailey wall covered with moss, large oaks flanked by woodlands and orchards, and bold borders of roses, delphiniums, lavender, peonies, and herbaceous plants. Here and there she came across a nude sculpture of a goddess or a nymph carved from stone, rising from a fountain or languishing under an arbor bursting with wisteria. Her spirits lifted as she absorbed the tranquility of the setting, plucking a rose and inhaling its fragrance, or listening to the sweet calls of the birds.
She reached the end of the garden and came to the top of a cliff, stopping to survey the beauty of the landscape. The turquoise water frothed against the shore, beating against a foot of black rock, and the white sand shimmered before a backdrop of mossy green hills. Seagulls wheeled and cawed. Cornwall was a place of savage beauty, holy and enchanted. It was where Daphne du Maurier had spent most of her life, and where her sublime Gothic novel Rebecca was set. To Judith, this gave it an especially enchanted air.
She descended the hill and followed the rough-hewn stone steps to the sand. The beach was empty save for a couple seated on folding chairs, several women making their way back to the castle, and a man walking his dog along the shore. The wind whipped the tall tufts of marram grass and tousled Judith’s fine brown hair.
She sat down on her beach towel and gazed at the shimmering water, the glare hurting her eyes.
Suddenly a shadow came over her. She started, and glanced up to see a man standing over her. He was silhouetted against the sky, a masculine cutout with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, his shirtless outline chiseled and well defined.
Judith froze in fear. She had only felt this kind of terror once before: in the woods when she was a child, and a man had flashed at her and chased her all the way home. Then as now, a feeling of dread chilled her bones. For a moment, she thought she was going to be sick.
He circled her until he was lit by the sun, and she saw that it was the handsome man from the chapel. She breathed a sigh of relief. He was wearing only a small pair of briefs despite the freezing wind, and she couldn’t help but ogle his beautiful physique.
“Oh! It’s you!”
The man smiled charmingly, putting her instantly at ease. “I’m sorry if I frightened you,” he said in an upper-class accent, his voice so deep and sexy that it made her blush.
“You just startled me, that’s all.”
The drinks had given her courage, and she was surprised at her own forwardness as she made eyes at him. “Won’t you sit down? I’m Judith.”
The man parked himself at the edge of her towel. “Glad to meet you. I’m Gavin Garnet.”
“That’s an unusual name.”
“Yes, it is. Gavin is after Gawain of the Arthurian legends, and Garnet is after the gemstone. I changed it from my family name, Longueville, because . . . well, it’s a long story.”
He held out his hand and flashed a large garnet ring, which sparkled spectacularly in the sun.
Her eyes widened. “What a lovely ring! I love garnets. Garnet is my birthstone.” It was true that she loved garnets. She loved all gemstones, having been enchanted by her mother’s fantastic jewelry, but garnets were her favorite because of their blood-red color, and because they were a symbol of Christ’s blood sacrifice.
He moved his hand to make the ring sparkle. “My mother loved garnets too. She married my father because he gave her a spectacular garnet ring that had been passed down for generations in his family, along with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires as big as the crown jewels. He’s loaded with cash. Oh, and because of his lineage. He’s Baron Hastings. Someday it will be my title.”
Judith had known there was something special about this man. That was it . . . he was from the peerage! Now, it all made sense. His obvious breeding reminded her of some of the titled young men she’d met at her parents’ parties. But she was amused to think that, because of his stunning good looks, he also reminded her of some of the male models and gigolos there.
“Baron Hastings,” she drawled playfully. “That sounds familiar. Weren’t you at St. Moritz last season?”
“Yes. I saw you there.”
“I’ve never been to St. Moritz.”
“Neither have I.”
They both burst out laughing.
“How do you know Victoria?” she said.
“Victoria?” His smile became tight.
“The girl whose birthday party we’re here for.”
“Oh, Victoria! Of course. Stupid of me. I’ve always called her Vicky.”
“No one calls her Vicky.”
“Well, I do. We’ve known each other since we were children, and I’ve always called her Vicky. It irritates her like mad, but I love to tease her. Anyway, Victoria sounds too stuffy . . . reminds me of the Queen.”
They both stared at the water for a moment. Then he turned to her enthusiastically. “I’ve been watching you for two days. I wanted so much to meet you, but I was too intimidated to approach you.”
“Because you’re Judith Moore, the mystery writer. It’s not every day one meets a famous author. I’m a big fan.”
Judith was startled. It was true that she had written seven books, five of them bestsellers, under the pen name Judith Moore (her family name was de Courtenay), but her readership skewed heavily female, and she had never had a man approach her about her writing, let alone recognize her from her book jacket.
She smiled modestly. “Thanks very much. I’m surprised you know about my books; most of my readership is female.” “Gothic fiction is my favorite. You’re very young to be such a prolific writer. When did you start writing?”
“When I went to boarding school, at age fourteen.”
“You did start young! What school did you go to?”
“Malvern St. James, in Worcestershire.”
“Isn’t that where Barbara Cartland went?”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
“My mother went there. Cartland is their most famous alumna, I believe. And the world’s most prolific author. Did you know that she published seven hundred books in her lifetime?”
“Well, I’m not that prolific,” she said, and they laughed.
“Your novels are wonderful. They’re romantic, but they’re also chilling . . . they have a dark side.”
She basked in the compliment. “I suppose they do. I like to write about my experiences, but also about things that frighten me—like murder. To me, being murdered is the most frightening thing that can happen to anyone.”
“I’m interested in murder too.” Somehow, it was creepy when he said it—as if he was interested in actually murdering someone, rather than just reading about it.
There was a silence, and then she looked at him and she saw that he was brooding.
“Is that why you came down to the beach to see me? Because you’re a fan?”
“No.” He turned and fixed his gaze on her.
His expression had changed. It was now reminding her of the way he had looked at her at the chapel. She had liked it then, because she had needed the ego boost after her deflating encounter with Tony, but now she had to face the consequences of her silly flirtation. She had led this man on. And no doubt about it—he was a man. Not a boy, not a harmless pussycat like Tony, but a grown man. And she was afraid of what might happen.
The couple on the folding chairs had left, and they were all alone. Judith suddenly felt nervous, wondering what she would do if he made a pass at her.
Now he was speaking again. “I didn’t come down to the beach because I’m a fan. I came because I wanted to look at you again.”
His eyes ran up and down her body. “I’m a man,” he said, in the manliest tone she had ever heard. “Do I have to explain it to you?”
Now things had definitely gone too far, and once again fear crept up and down her spine. She rose and picked up her bag. “No thanks, I’m good.” She turned and walked away in the direction of the castle.
“Hey!” he called out, standing and moving towards her. “You’re quite the narcissist, aren’t you?”
She stopped and turned, genuinely surprised.
“Yes. What girl would ask a man why he wants to look at her . . . unless she wants to be told she’s pretty?”
Now she was furious. How dare he mock her looks, by suggesting she was so desperate for a compliment? She hadn’t asked for his opinion. Being pretty was not her forte, nor did she want it to be. Where she shone was in her mind, and she was disgusted at the way everyone made such a fuss about how women looked.
“I’m not a narcissist,” she blurted out. “Anyway, my sister Anne is the pretty one. I’m the clever one.”
She couldn’t believe she’d said this. She might have blamed it on the three drinks, or on the fact that she’d had nothing to eat all day, or on the way the wind was whipping her hair, and the sea was shimmering like diamonds, and the sand was blinding her eyes. But the real reason she’d said it was that when she was excited, she always said whatever she was thinking. Anne and mother had called it “being dramatic.” Fine, she thought. So I said something stupid; now he’ll go away and leave me alone.
But her outburst appeared to have the opposite effect. He moved close to her, fixing her with his gaze. “Anne is attractive in an obvious sort of way, but you’re the real beauty in the family.”
He was standing so close that she could hardly breathe, and she felt overpowered by the scent of his pheromones. “You’re crazy,” she said. “No one thinks that. Anne is the beauty in the family. Everyone says so.”
He smiled, impaling her with his gaze like a lepidopterist pinning a butterfly to a board. “Well, they’re wrong. I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. And I love you.” At these words she became overwhelmed with emotion.
All her life, she had lived in the shadow of her beautiful sister. Everyone had always hinted that she was plain, and even after she had blossomed at the age of fourteen, no one had ever told her she was beautiful; but she believed him. For although his confession was implausible, the eyes don’t lie, and his longing for her was radiating straight from his eyes to her soul.
From Bluebeard’s Castle by Anna Biller. Used with permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2023 by Anna Biller.
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