St. Germain des Pres
So this was what a nightmare looked like by the light of day.
Ingrid stared through the window as the coach drew to a halt along rue Dante’s snowy curb, a single block from the ice-crusted Seine. Mother could not be serious. This place, this ruin, was to be their new home? Ingrid rubbed at the fogged glass and saw the ancient and desolate abbey clearly.
“You’ve completely lost your mind,” Ingrid whispered. Her mother ignored her cheek and continued to gaze out the coach window.
Pockmarks riddled the blocks of dirty gray limestone, leaving the abbey to look like a ravaged victim of the pox. The four front-facing arched windows held dull and warped stained glass that had more cracks and gaps than lead and glass. The two planks of desiccated wood acting as doors had been left slightly ajar as if beckoning someone, anyone, to enter. Ingrid didn’t think she’d ever seen a lonelier place.
Her mother’s eyes began to mist over. “Isn’t it marvelous, girls?”
“Mama, please don’t start crying again. You’ve gone through all your hankies.” Ingrid’s younger sister, Gabriella, opened her beaded reticule for one of her own.
Their mother, Lady Charlotte Brickton, had been sniffling ever since their steamer had reached Calais and her feet had met with solid, French soil for the first time in over sixteen years. She was overjoyed to be home. Ingrid was just relieved to be gone from London and their old home at Waverly House. She never wanted to go back there. Not now, not after what had happened and what she’d done. But this abbey…it only added insult to injury.
“Marvelous? It looks condemned,” Ingrid said.
The place was a hulking wreck. Even the new layer of powdery snow couldn’t soften the blow. It coated the spikes of a tall, wrought iron fence and a gate leading onto the grounds like icing. Thick twists of iron formed the gate, draped with carved iron ivy, roses, and thorny vines. It was all as cold and uninviting as the frigid, white-capped waters of the English Channel had been.
“It’s absolutely horrifying,” Gabby whispered. An awestruck grin bowed her lips. Ingrid’s sister pressed the tip of her nose against the cold pane of glass.
“Gabby, you do realize that among the sane horrific things don’t cause smiles?” Ingrid flipped up the black mink hood of her cloak.
Gabby pushed out her full lower lip. “It has charm.”
“If you find abandoned and haunted churches charming,” Ingrid shot back.
Their mother spared Ingrid an irritated glance as the footman opened the door. “Don’t be so dramatic, girls. The abbey is not haunted. It’s a masterpiece, and entirely fitting for my gallery.”
The footman kicked down the short flight of steps and helped their mother to the curb. Behind them, a second carriage carrying their lady’s maids and luggage, rolled to a stop.
“Do you really think it’s haunted?” Gabby asked. “We’ll have to ask Grayson if he’s sensed anything. Oh! I know—we’ll host a séance!”
Ingrid sighed. Her twin brother, Grayson, would likely have better luck talking Gabby down from her idea of a resident ghost. Not even eighteen and without so much as one personal servant, Grayson had been allowed to travel ahead of them six months before to explore the Continent. Ingrid had been insanely jealous, but her mother would not budge when she’d begged to go as well—she was supposed to have been catching a beau, just as every seventeen-year-old girl was expected to do.
Grayson’s final stop had been Paris, where he’d had the task of meeting with a real estate man and scouting out a perfect place for their mother’s art gallery. It had been her lifelong dream to open one, and at long last Ingrid’s father, the Earl of Brickton, had decided to fund it. Reluctantly, of course. Patronage of the arts was his wife’s torch, not his. Either he’d grown weary of Mama’s repeated requests, or he’d finally seen the light. Ingrid would have bet her dowry that it was the former.
The footman held out his hand for Ingrid. Reluctantly, she took it and navigated the steps to the curb. December air ate through her burgundy velvet dress as if it was a sheer slip of silk. She stared at the abbey, at the frescoes that had crumbled into unrecognizable scenes, and the dozens of slates missing from the ramshackle roof. Her brother had always been so reserved. So sensible. So much like Ingrid. What on earth had he been thinking when he’d invested in this heap?
“Where is Grayson? I thought he was to meet us here,” Gabby said as she lighted on the curb. Her ruffled pink parasol was already open against the flakes drifting from platinum clouds.
With her smoky eyes, a short, slightly upturned nose, rosebud lips, and hair the color of golden rum, Gabby was the fifteen-year-old replica of their mother. Ingrid stood out in sharp relief to them. Her hair, flaxen like Grayson’s and Papa’s, was only a shade lighter than her fair complexion. She’d been told more times than she cared for in her seventeen years that she was the epitome of English beauty: all cream and roses and soft petal pink lips. With it came the expectation of a sweet disposition—an expectation those who knew Ingrid knew to disregard entirely.
“He’ll be inside, Gabby. It’s too cold for him to stand out here all day waiting for us,” Ingrid answered.
She clenched her fingers into fists, hating the buzz of anxiety she hadn’t been able to cast off since setting out across the Channel. It flared at the mention of Grayson, turning her blood into a glass of frothing champagne. The jittery feeling didn’t worry her. This sixth sense had been with her for as long as she could remember. She and Grayson shared it, the same way they’d shared a womb, a nursery, and in many ways, a personality. No, what worried her was what it had always meant: That something was wrong with her twin.
It could have been anything, really—a head cold, a migraine, a bruised ego, even an anxiety of his own—Ingrid didn’t know what the problem was, but she felt it just the same. The sooner she saw Grayson, the better.
Mother spoke in her native tongue to the footman, gesturing toward their bags, boxes, and trunks strapped to the top and rear of the servants’ coach. Ingrid couldn’t understand the fast flow of French. She’d never quite grasped her lessons the way Gabby and Grayson had. Ingrid could only guess that her mother was instructing the footman to have their drivers go around to the abbey’s rectory, where they would live while mother managed the abbey’s renovations. Grayson had written about it in his letter. Renovations would definitely be more extensive than Ingrid had imagined.
Her mother pushed the great iron gates ajar. The hinges squealed, disturbing a flock of blackbirds on the copper gutters, oxidized to a sickly green, running along the abbey roof. The sudden movement turned Ingrid’s eyes upward. A cloud of fluttering black wings cleared, revealing massive statues rimming each of the abbey’s twin bell towers.
Most of the statues were covered in white powder—angels, most likely, as Ingrid could make out the shape of wings—but a few smaller ones sat on the jutting ledges at the base of the rectangular towers. The snow had blown free of these and Ingrid saw them clearly: not angels. Gargoyles.
Their mouths had been carved wide in silent screams, tongues rolling out from daggered teeth. They had bulging eyes, clipped, dog-like ears, and talons curling straight into the roofline’s stonework. The wings were spread open on some, while on others they’d been carved into folds behind their hunched backs.
Ingrid stood just outside the open gates, her stomach in twists. Who would put gargoyles on a church? The stone creatures were hideous enough to cause the small hairs on Ingrid’s arms prickle stiff. She turned her eyes away. The abbey sat at the head of an intersecting street lined with grand, pale stone buildings. Apartments, Ingrid supposed, terraced here and there, with ground floor shops and colorful awnings. There were a few people out, but the wide avenue looked mostly stark. Much like the abbey that crowned it.
Gabby and their mother had already reached the abbey’s vaulted double doors. They disappeared inside, ignoring two more gargoyles that protruded from the façade on each side of the doors. Ingrid slowly followed the tracks her sister and mother had made in the dusting of snow. The gargoyles’ wings were tightly folded husks around their bodies, their heads bowed in solemn threat. They unsettled her. Still, she wanted to get to Grayson. She wanted to keep moving. Every step brought her further from London, from their home on Grosvenor Square, Papa, even her dearest friend, Anna Bettinger. She’d miss her friend, but Ingrid could never face Anna again.
Not after what Ingrid had done.