The Great Charleston Earthquake catapults Penrose Heatherton from the 1880s into the present day. Though she's still residing in Arundell Manor, it's a very different world with a different man inhabiting the ancestral estate. And Keat Arundell is every bit as brooding and intriguing as his ancestorher former loverhad been.
Scared beyond reason by the new reality and the brilliant man who now lives there, Penrose hides in the mansion's secret tunnels. Until Keat finds her, and soon they discover an immense passion. But their days are numbered. When strange things start happening, Penrose realizes she must go back to her own era. For if she can't close a loophole in time, the man she's come to love will never exist
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Charleston, South Carolina
August 18, 1886
Penrose Heatherton stood at the window, her face lifted to the night sky, hoping for wind. But there was no wind to speak of. The skies were speckled with stars. The moon hung lazy and bright. It was a perfect Charleston summer evening and gave no hint of the troubles that lay ahead of her.
It was hot enough to boil water that night, and she wore her underthings in a futile effort to stay cool. The clothes clung to her damp skin and her black hair hung in sweaty strands. She fanned herself listlessly with the want ads from the newspaper. The effort only made her hotter. It didn't help that she'd just returned from the kitchen downstairs where she'd washed dishes for hours to help reduce the amount of rent she had to pay.
Rent. A knot of worry twisted in her chest and she rested her head against the window frame. Rent was due in the morning, and, even at a reduced rate, she had no way of paying. Renting her room at The Winding Stair Inn & Pub had already taken all of her funds.
She turned her face to the moon, pleading for wind. Tattered clouds sailed across it, scattering silvery light on the ground. None reached her. "Please," she whispered, hoping, waiting, for a gust to come and cool her down.
It seemed that, lately, she was always waiting. For a cool breeze or a hot meal, for a permanent job, for any sliver of relief, no matter how small, that would help fix the mess her life had become. She was tired, so very tired of waiting.
She tossed the want ads out of the window and watched as they fluttered to the ground. Worthless. If she'd learned one thing since her mother died six months earlier, it was that relief didn't come easy. If it came at all. No, she was beginning to understand the bitter truththat if you wanted relief you had to grab it for yourself.
But you can't grab the wind, so she stood there sweating. Sighing, she went to the cot and lay down. If it got any hotter, even one degree, she would melt into a puddle. But right when she thought that was about to happen, there came a change.
A gust of wind slipped through the window and eddied in the small space. It was a strange wind. Wintery, cool and dry, with a touch of wildness to it. The breeze tossed about the room and swirled around Penrose like a cool promise. She sat up, feeling it slip and slide over her skin, and she had the sense that something, anything could happen.
Right at that exact moment, she heard the sound of boots walking down the hall. The footsteps belonged to Mrs. Capshaw, the landlady of The Winding Stair Inn & Pub. Her walk was distinctive. When it came your way you knew she wanted something, and sure enough, it was coming Penrose's way.
Not a moment later, the door flew open as the landlady swept into the tiny room. There was barely space for her, but she didn't seem to care. Mrs. Capshaw was an ample woman with frizzy red hair and a bosom that sat like a shelf over her stomach. She had sharp, assessing brown eyes, which right then took in the sight of Penrose lounging on the bed. She said in her tough-as-nails voice, "Look sharp, Penny. There's an opportunity for you downstairs."
Instantly, she had Penrose's attention. "What opportunity?"
Mrs. Capshaw was an enterprising woman, always on the lookout for any venture that would be advantageous. Coming from her, an opportunity could mean a million different things, most of them dubious. But opportunities were rare, and Penrose was desperate.
Another cool gust of wind blasted into the room, slamming the door shut. The older woman yanked it open again and held it in her meaty fist. "If you're clever," she said, leaning over Penrose and staring at her hard, "and I know you are, you'll listen carefully."
"I'm listening," said Penrose. She rubbed her arms as she listened. The temperature in the room must have dropped twenty degrees.
Mrs. Capshaw continued, "Right at this moment, there's a woman sitting at a table downstairs. She reminds me of you so very much, young and full of distress. Another sad story, I'm sure. Except unlike you, she's downright foolish. I think you might have a chance to secure a well-paying" she looked at Penrose meaningfully "and respectable job."
Penrose jumped up. "Tell me. Is it a teaching position?"
"No. Better." Mrs. Capshaw's sharp brown eyes narrowed and she lowered her voice to a whisper. "The lady is on her way to a post that her agency secured for her. She needs a room while she travels." She smiled, a small twist of the lips. "But she is sitting there downstairs right now, blabbing for all the world to hear about her doubts and fears over the position."
That was interesting news. "Go on," said Penrose.
"She's to report the day after tomorrow. Seven a.m. sharp. But, she's reluctant. In fact, she's more than reluctant."
"More than reluctant?"
"She's terrified," Mrs. Capshaw blurted out. "I'm telling you straight off to get it out of the way." She shrugged as if it were of little consequence. " She's heard rumors. It seems her agency was less than forthcoming about the post. Her employer is a troubled individual and the house might be haunted."
For the first time, Penrose felt wary, but just a bit. It was a job, after all. She hedged. "How troubled? And what kind of hauntings? The rumors must be awful for her to reconsider."
"Awful?" Mrs. Capshaw threw her hands into the air. "What can be awful about regular income and a roof over your head?" Her voice lowered an octave as she said, "And wages that would make your eyes pop right out of your head. And, truthfully, do you believe in ghosts?"
"No, I don't." Penrose felt breathy. For decent wages, she'd be blind to a lot of things. Including ghosts. And regular pay? Something she could barely imagine. But she wasn't a babe in the woods. She was twenty-one. Old enough to know a thing or two. Something was wrong. "Still why such high wages? Something doesn't ring true. Maybe there's truth to the rumors."
Mrs. Capshaw huffed. "'Still' nothing. You've been here six months already. Six months since your mother died and no position to speak of. No prospects, either! I've watched your purse dwindle, your belongings dwindle. You're all boiled down like soup left too long on the stove. Only scrapings left." She wagged her hands in the air. "Penrose Heatherton, you are in debt to me. Not a small amount, either. And if you ask me, that's what awful is." She pursed her lips. "And, yes, the post seems suspicious. But, if you listen closely, it also sounds like an opportunity." She lifted a pearl comb from the nightstand. "This is the only thing of value you have left, isn't it? And rent's due tomorrow? Do you think I'd take a comb in payment? You're a sweet girl, but you're fooling yourself if you think you'll find work as a schoolteacher. Not in this town. Not with your name."
"But my mother had such a respectable finishing school"
"No offense, but you are not your mother. She was a Northerner. Sent to the finest schools and from a well-regarded family. She had credentials, Penny. Credentials. The big families in this town adored her because she attended those fine finishing schools. Yes, she fell from grace, there was always that."
"You don't need to remind me that I was her downfall," she snapped. Penrose always had trouble concealing her anger when the subject was brought to her attention.
"I'm not. A baby is a baby to the likes of me. But not to them. Not to those fancy folks. They never minded you as an assistant to her. But an illegitimate child as an assistant is one thing. As a teacher, it's quite another. Plus, your name. Penrose." She sighed. "Your mother did you such a disservice giving you your father's surname as a first name. She thought she was clever giving you that name! Calling him out and exposing him as the father. Those were passionate times, I'll give her that. But she was ignorant. The South doesn't work that way and she was foolish to think she'd change it. Oh, those abolitionists had such grand ideas, didn't they? No bigger name around here. Like a splinter in the eye of the most powerful family. You'll have a tough road around here. Surely my words are no surprise to you."
No, they weren't a surprise. Penrose shook her head. "Just painful."
"The truth hurts, Penny. It hurts." Mrs. Capshaw leaned down and put her hand on the bed. It creaked under her weight. "Just like when that young man stopped calling on you and I told you he wasn't coming back. I say it plain. You'll never find work on your own here. No education other"
"My mother educated me." Heat burned her cheeks.
Mrs. Capshaw pushed down on the bed. "Let me finish, girl. I said no education other than from your mother. It may be a fine education, but there's no stamp of a finishing school on your papers. In fact, you have no papers. Even worse, you're now living in a pub by the wharf. Your stock is dropping by the minute what's left for a girl like you? Hmm?" She loomed over Penrose, her shadow falling across her.
Penrose stared out of the window. A sliver of the moon was visible and she focused on that. Her chest felt tight, as if a belt were strapped around it and someone was tugging. Was it anxiety? Or something more? She remembered the strange breeze from earlier and felt the odd, prickly sensation spread over her once again. Change was in the air. Perhaps she should welcome it. "I deserve a break, don't I?" Her words came hot and fast. "Don't I?" She looked at Mrs. Capshaw with a pleading, angry gaze.
"You said it, Penny. Right from your own mouth. You deserve a break. But if you think a break is going to waltz in here and lay itself in your lap, you're mistaken." She shook her head, her frizzy hair barely moving on her head. "Listen, some girls are tough to their bones. Others are soft. Those are the ones that wilt. Still others, and I think you're one of theseare malleable, able to bend and sway. Adapt to changing conditions. You need to adapt. And I'm giving you an opportunity to do just that. What better than to work for a man who doesn't give two shakes what society thinks?"
Mrs. Capshaw was right. Penrose nodded.
"Get off that bed. Stand up and listen to me. Listen to what the post entails and then make your choice." She lifted her hand and stood straight.
Penrose slid from the bed and stood beside her landlady. "I'm listening."
Mrs. Capshaw seemed to soften then. She blinked and nodded, and gave a halfhearted attempt at a smile. "I'm sorry, dear. Life did you wrong. But I'm not a charity. You have to act fast."
"The post," Penrose reminded her. "I need more details."
"It's a single man, a bachelor, and he needs someone to help him in his scientific studies. Someone who can write, who has a bright intellect and one who doesn't mind "
Everything sounded fine until Penrose heard those words. "Doesn't mind what?"
Mrs. Capshaw spoke in a rush. "Working nights. He works at night, from sunset to sunrise. Though don't worry, because it's respectable. The little miss downstairs told me that the three ladies that walked off before her have never accused him of wrongdoing. He has an affliction, she says. It makes him unsightly, very unsightly, and causes trouble with his eyesight. The sun hurts his eyes and the night is the only time he can see untroubled. But it's the strange rumors of the manor that scare her so. The hauntings. They whisper that he does odd things. Practices dark arts." Then she added pointedly. "But those wages " She named the sum, a figure so high that Penrose coughed.
No, she choked. An amount like that, well, it seemed almost sinful. Penrose floated in an odd place, willing to be tempted, letting her mind imagine the riches of such a sum but knowing that she should be suspicious. Those wages, though. Finally, she said. "Very well, I'm interested. Not committing, but interested. What is your plan?"
"Smart of you to consider it. Just hear me out. I always say don't let the future toss you about. Sometimes you have to grab it." She smoothed her frizzy hair down, a useless habit because it just popped right back up again. "My idea is that we'll help the girl, make the decision easy for her. You'll steal her post." She watched Penrose.
"Steal it? Are you serious?"
Mrs. Capshaw nodded. "The girl doesn't want the job. One look at her face and I knew the truth of it. She let the name of the manor slip." Her voice trailed off in an odd way.
"I can't steal her post!"
"Now you think to be ethical? Right now, when your whole future is blanka black holeand your present is nothing but hunger. Yes, life did you wrong. But you don't even have money for the rent! I'll have to move your room again, to the porch this time. And after that, who knows?" The threat hung in the room.
It would be easier to stand up and grab a future than to sit around The Winding Stair wallowing in the slim pickings that came her way. "I'll do it." She didn't feel entirely convinced, but somehow the words came out sure and strong.
"Very well," said the landlady. "The plan is simple enough. You only have to show up a day early. Let them know the agency sent you instead of her. Plead prudence on your early arrival. Better to be early than late. I'll let the young lady downstairs know the bad news. Let her down easy, let her know it was for the best. By arriving early, there's no mistaking the job is yours. I'll break the news to the young lady." Mrs. Capshaw looked away as she spoke.
"Ah, I get it now. I wondered why you were so generous with an opportunity," Penrose said spitefully. "And once you tell the poor girl she's been wronged, you'll give her the good news that you have a room to rent her. That, strangely, one was just vacated."
The woman laughed, short and bitter, and her belly heaved. "You're a smart one, aren't you? Yes, I've seen her purse, and it's heavier than yours. Don't judge me. I have to survive. Just like you."