Evangeline Ames has rented a country cottage far from the London streets where she was recently attacked. Fascinated by the paranormal energy of nearby Crystal Gardens, she finds pleasure in sneaking past the wall to explore the grounds. And when her life is threatened again, she instinctively goes to the gardens for safety.
Lucas Sebastian has never been one to ignore a lady in danger, even if she is trespassing on his property. Quickly disposing of her would-be assassin, he insists they keep the matter private. There are rumors enough already, about treasure buried under his garden, and occult botanical experiments performed by his uncle—who died of mysterious causes. With Evangeline’s skill for detection, and Lucas’s sense of the criminal mind, they soon discover that they have a common enemy. And as the energy emanating from Crystal Gardens intensifies, they realize that to survive they must unearth what has been buried for too long.
The mu?ed thud of the shattered lock echoed like a thunderclap in the deep silence that drenched the cottage. Evangeline Ames recognized the sound at once. She was no longer alone in the house.
Her ?rst, primal instinct was to go absolutely still beneath the covers. Perhaps she was mistaken. The cottage was old. The ?oorboards and the ceiling often creaked and moaned at night. But even as the commonsense possibilities ?itted through her head, she knew the truth. It was two o’clock in the morning, an intruder had broken in and it was highly unlikely that he was after the silver. There was not enough in the place to tempt a thief.
Her nerves had been on edge all afternoon, her intuition ?ickering and ?aring for no obvious reason. Earlier, when she had walked into town, she had found herself looking over her shoulder again and again. She had ?inched at the smallest rustling noises in the dense woods that bordered the narrow lane. While shopping in Little Dixby’s crowded high street the hair had lifted on the back of her neck. She had felt as if she was being watched.
She had reminded herself that she was still recovering from the terrifying attack two weeks ago. She had very nearly been murdered. Little wonder her nerves were so fragile. On top of that, the writing was not going well and a deadline was looming. She dared not miss it. She’d had every reason to be tense.
But now she knew the truth. Her psychical intuition had been trying to send a warning for hours. That was the reason she had been unable to sleep tonight.
Cool currents of night air wafted down the hall from the kitchen. Heavy footsteps sounded. The intruder was not even bothering to conceal his approach. He was very certain of his prey. She had to get out of the bed.
She pushed back the covers, sat up quietly and eased herself to her feet. The ?oorboards were chilly. She stepped into her sturdy, leather-soled slippers and took her wrapper down o? the hook.
The assault on her person two weeks earlier had made her cautious. She had considered all possible escape routes when she had rented the cottage. Here in the bedroom, the waist-high window was her best hope. It opened onto the small front garden with its lattice gate. Just outside the gate was the narrow, rutted lane that wound through the dense woods to the ancient country house known as Crystal Gardens.
Out in the hall a ?oorboard creaked under the weight of a booted foot. The intruder was moving directly to the bedroom. That settled the matter. He had not come for the silver. He had come for her.
There was no point trying to silence her movements. She pushed one of the narrow casement windows wide, ignoring the squeak of the hinges, and clambered through the opening. With luck the intruder would not be able to ? t.
“Where do you think you’re going, you bloody stupid woman?” the harsh male voice roared from the doorway. It was freighted with the accents of London’s tough streets. “No one slips away from Sharpy Hobson’s blade.”
There was no time to wonder how a London street criminal had found his way to Little Dixby or why he was after her. She would worry about those questions later, she thought, if she survived the night.
She jumped to the ground and stumbled through the miniature jungle of giant ferns that choked the little garden. Many of the fronds were taller than she was.
To think she had come to the countryside to rest and recuperate from recent events.
“Bloody hell, come back here,” Hobson howled from the bedroom window. “Make things di?cult, will ye? I’ll take my time with ye when I do catch you, just see if I don’t. You’ll die nice and slow, and that’s a promise. Bloody little bitch.”
A string of savage curses told her that Hobson was ?nding it impossible to squeeze through the casement window. A tiny whisper of hope swept through her when she did not hear the pounding of footsteps behind her. Hobson would be forced to use one of the two doors in the cottage. That meant she had a little breathing room, time enough, perhaps, to make it to the only possible sanctuary.
There was no escape through the woods that bordered the lane. The moon was nearly full but the heavy canopy of summer leaves blocked the silver light that should have dappled the forest ?oor. Even if she’d had a lantern, she would not have been able to make her way through the dense undergrowth. She knew just how impenetrable the vegetation in the vicinity of the old abbey was because she had attempted to explore it during the day. The trees and undergrowth around the ancient ruins ?ourished in what the locals whispered was an unnatural manner.
She found the graveled garden walk and ?ew down it, the hem of the wrapper ?apping wildly. She paused long enough to unlatch the gate and then she was out in the moonlit lane, running for her life. She knew that Hobson would see her as soon as he emerged from the cottage.
Heavy footfalls thudded behind her.
“I have ye now, ye silly bitch. Ye’ll soon get a taste of Sharpy’s blade.”
She risked a quick glance over her shoulder and saw the dark ?gure bearing down on her. She would have screamed but there was no point wasting her breath. She ran harder, heart pounding.
The ancient stone walls that protected the vast grounds of Crystal Gardens appeared impregnable in the moonlight. She knew from previous explorations that the massive iron gate was locked.
There was no point trying to run the length of the long wall to the front door of the sprawling country house. There was no time. Hob-son was gaining on her. His footsteps were closer now. She could hear his harsh breathing, or perhaps it was her own labored gasps that she heard.
She reached the back wall of the ancient abbey and raced toward the mound of overgrown foliage that concealed the jagged hole in the stone barrier. She had discovered the opening a few days ago and had decided to indulge in some discreet exploration before the new owner had arrived to take up residence. She could not help herself. Her sense of curiosity was linked in some ways to her psychical talent and the mystery of Crystal Gardens had fascinated her from the start. It was the reason she had chosen to rent Fern Gate Cottage instead of one of the other properties available in the countryside around Little Dixby.
The fact that the rent on the cottage was considerably cheaper than it was for the other suitable lodgings in the area had also been a factor. But she had discovered soon enough why the little house was a bargain. The locals feared the abbey and the woods around it.
She slammed to a stop in front of the concealing foliage and pulled aside a curtain of cascading greenery. The jagged opening in the stone was about two feet above ground level. It was large enough for a person, even a man the size of Hobson, to squeeze through. But if he did pursue her onto the grounds she might have a chance.
She looked back one last time. Hobson had not yet rounded the corner of the wall but he would at any second. She could hear him—his thudding footsteps and his ragged breathing—but she could not yet see him. She had a few seconds.
She put one leg over the broken stone and then the other and then she was inside the grounds of Crystal Gardens.
She caught her breath, trans?xed by the eerie scene that surrounded her. She had seen enough of the strange gardens by day to know that there was something bizarre about the energy inside the walls and that the vegetation was not normal. But at night the paranormal elements were unmistakable.
The foliage on the vast grounds glowed with an eerie luminescence. In the very center of the gardens where the ruins of an anci
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