A paranormal gothic romance
- The Secretary and the Ghost
Pip Leighton is in a fix. His sister’s marriage hinges on him staving off the family’s impending financial ruin by taking the job of secretary to Lord Cross, a reclusive man with a temper befitting his name. Developing a passion for his employer was not on the cards. Neither was getting caught up in the deep mystery surrounding Foxwood Court and its resident ghost, but Pip has never been one to shirk a duty.
As Pip delves deeper into the past, he discovers that his only hope for a future with Cross may depend on a man long dead—a man with a curious resemblance to himself.
Written for lovers of gothic romance and ghost stories, The Ghost and the Secretary is the first in a series of gay romance novellas.
Heat Level: 3
Romantic Content: 3
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay, Questioning
Protagonist 1 Age: 18-25
Protagonist 2 Age: 36-45
Tropes: The Bargain, Class Differences, First Time, Forbidden Love, May/December, Wide-Eyed Innocence
Word Count: 31000
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Same Universe / Various Characters
Mr Leighton and Pip went to Charing Cross Station by carriage, but upon alighting at Rotheram, Mr Leighton elected to walk. "A charming day," he said loudly. "A walk in the countryside will suit us well. Come on, Pip."
Months of endurance had not hardened Pip to these affectations of his father. He said nothing until they were walking down a country lane, the hedgerow either side blocking any view of the surrounding scenery. "I do wish you wouldn't."
"My dear boy, it would be a disaster if anyone suspected we could not afford even a dog cart."
"In London, yes." People were always watching in London, and worse, people were always talking. While the Leighton family was far from well known, they belonged to that section of society where reputation—and thus, appearance—was everything. "But Foxwood is as deep in the country as you can get without a shovel. We know no one here, and more importantly, no one knows us."
You will not annoy me with misplaced witticisms. There is one here who knows me, and it is vital Lord Cross does not know the true extent of our"—Mr Leighton wavered, as if overwhelmed by the very thought of it—"situation."
Pip winced. The less said about the situation, the better.
Father and son continued down the lane, hedgerows gave way to open fields, and the well maintained country lane dwindled to a track with pretensions. Pip now understood why his father had insisted on an unfashionably early departure from London. They'd been walking an hour at least, but there was no sign of Lord Cross' habitation.
Pip couldn't help a smile. Lord Cross. How ridiculous! He would, of course, be old, his face set in a mask of permanent disapproval, with a sour, thin mouth habitually scowling—for no one named 'Cross' could ever be merry. True to his name, Lord Cross had quarrelled with Society years ago, and retired to his country seat to nurse his grievances. A regular tartar of an employer. Pip's smile faded, and he tightened his grip on the carpet bag he carried. It was for a good cause.
An hour later, they reached the gates of Foxwood Court. Twenty minutes after that they reached the house. Judging from the thickness of the ivy covering the red-bricked exterior, this was the work of previous members of the Cross family. Foxwood Court consisted of a solid rectangle in the Queen Anne style, gleefully augmented by later generations of Crosses as the family's fortunes had improved.
The sheer amount of Gothic augmentation in the form of grey stone arches, additional wings and the chapel attached to the house, demonstrated the considerable wealth of the Cross family. Yet in later years, the forest had encroached. The trees that lined the approach overshadowed the front of the house, allowing moss to carpet the steps. Pip watched his father ring the bell, sensible of a deep chill in the air.
After a short pause, a man in footman's livery opened the door. He took Mr Leighton's card and allowed them to stand in the drawing room while he informed his master of their presence. Pip watched him go. Odd that Lord Cross insisted on liveried servants in the depth of the country where no one but himself saw them, while allowing his garden to go to seed.
The footman returned, ushering them into the library, and Pip could gauge the full extent of Lord Cross' oddness.
He stood as they entered, his form momentarily in shadow. Something deep within Pip thrilled. His heart beat first faltered, then resume its operation with an emphasis, beating harder to compensate for its momentary lapse. Pip's cheeks heated, his throat tightening, but he could only stand, his eyes on Lord Cross.
Cross had such a powerful effect on him that Pip struggled to take him in. He was aware the man had tensed, freezing in the act of stepping forward to meet them. Pip had a vague impression of height and breadth; mostly he was transfixed by his lordship's eyes, a light shade of brown speckled through with so much yellow the effect was like a well-aged whiskey, down to their intoxicating effect. He couldn't look away.
He was dimly aware that his father spoke. "I hope you'll pardon the intrusion. I have a proposition I hope will prove satisfactory to us both and am anxious to learn what you think of it."
With what appeared to be a massive effort, Cross wrenched his gaze away from the son and onto the father. He gripped Leighton's hand and then resumed his seat. "Make it brief. I am, as you state, a busy man."
Pip swallowed disappointment. Lord Cross might not be an old curmudgeon, but he was uncommonly rude.
"I present my son, Phillip. It is about him I wish to speak." Leighton paused, but received no encouragement. "As you're well aware, I have, thanks to your lordship's generosity, borrowed a not inconsiderable amount—"
Cross snorted, shuffling the pile of papers foremost on his desk. "I have not forgotten you owe me a large sum of money, no. If you think you can get out of paying me what you owe—"
Mr Leighton drew himself up. "I would not attempt anything of the sort. I respect your lordship too much to ever... The very idea!"
Pip winced. As much as he despised the petty schemes and deceptions to which his father was party, he could not but sympathise. Leighton was essentially an upright man and felt his position keenly. "My father is a man of his word. Listen to his proposal before you dismiss it."
Cross looked up. Pip experienced again the shock of encountering the man. He was younger than he'd first assumed, his manner placing him in his forties rather than his thirties, a man of force and energy, tempered but not yet softened by age. His jet-black hair made his skin more noticeable—fashionably pale, but there was nothing of the dandy about him. His desk was littered with papers and books, and his dress the understated everyday suit of a country gentleman, albeit a country gentleman with a first-rate tailor. Pip traced the length of his arms, noting the snug fit, to his hands, which had stilled. They were long hands, with the appearance of having worked outside, and something about them made Pip swallow, tasting something unknown.
"I apologise," Cross said at last. "By all means. What is your proposition, Mr Leighton?"
"I can't fault your lordship's assumption." Leighton seated himself in one of two chairs set before the desk. "As a matter of fact, I am in a rather delicate position. One of my interests—the one I anticipated using to pay you back—is delayed. I received promising reports of its progress and expect it within the month. But my account to you is due next week."
"So close up your house in London and retire to your country seat," Cross said. "It's been done before."
"Indeed," Leighton said. "But there is my daughter to consider. Julia has made an attachment that we have hopes of. At this stage things are still in their infancy, and to retire precipitately to the country would be to deprive her of a great chance."
Cross sneered. "In other words, the girl stands a chance of making a catch and you don't wish the fish to escape."
Anger surged, displacing Pip's unaccountable fascination with Lord Cross' hands. "You are speaking of my sister's future happiness. Her joy, no, her entire life rests on her finding a suitable mate. This gentleman is fond of her. He would respect and treat her well."
Again Cross paused. "Have we met before? Newmarket, perhaps, or Epsom?"
Pip shook his head. "I'm not much for horses, Lord Cross. Besides, I am sure that if I had met you, I would not forget the occasion." To his own ears, he sounded breathless. What was wrong with him? This was not the time to go to pieces! And for what—because Lord Cross looked at him and had nice hands?
Cross looked at him still. "What part do you play in this proposition?"
"I was just getting to that, your lordship," Mr Leighton said evenly. "In asking for more time in which to pay our debt, I ask a lot of your lordship's patience, and I am naturally eager to fulfil my obligations. However, I heard your lordship was recently obliged to dismiss his secretary. My son is eminently suited to such a role. I propose Phillip replaces your secretary, and in lieu of wages, his work is counted against my debt."
Cross leaned back in his chair, raising his eyebrows. "A most irregular proposition."
Mr Leighton smiled, a little grimly. "As I explained, the family situation is a trifle delicate. If I was to attempt to raise funds in a more usual way, it might be misinterpreted."
"You mean that if your fish learns your family is in straits, he will slip the hook."
"You sneer, Lord Cross, but you know as well as I the damage that can be done to an individual's entire career by rumour."
Phillip stood rigid. There was a weight in those words, and although they carried no bite, it seemed that Lord Cross held himself remarkably still.
"I imagine you will find it hard to replace your secretary, given you live so far removed from society," Mr Leighton continued. "Fortunately, Phillip is not of the temperament that craves excitement. The country life suits him perfectly. I do not doubt you will find in him exactly what you need."
Cross snarled. "Am I to take your word for it? Failing to find a place for your unsuitable son, you instead hope to pawn him off on me—in the pretence of doing me a favour! What gall, Leighton."
"On the contrary," Pip snapped. "Castlewight and Thawne were sorry to lose me."
Cross' gaze flicked back to him. He stroked his chin, a measuring light in his eyes. "I have had some dealings with Castlewight and Thawne. I found them quite competent." His statement was grudging. "You are a lawyer?"
Pip shook his head. "A clerk. I read for the bar, but realised I do not possess the right temperament or ambition for court. To be a legal clerk is enough for me." He set his carpet bag on a side table, and snapped it open. "A letter of reference from Castlewight." He held it out.
Cross took it from him with a grunt. He scanned the page. "And your vices?"
"I protest," Mr Leighton. "Pip is a steady worker and a most—"
Pip placed his hand on his father's shoulder. "I have been known to fall asleep in church services, if I remember to attend at all. Left to my own devices, I can sleep till the afternoon and am overly fond of novels."
For the first time in the interview, a smile played about Cross' lips. They were thin but powerfully suggestive. As they moved now, Cross transformed. He looked almost human. "I see."
"He is good-natured," Mr Leighton allowed. "Not that this is a fault in itself, but it does mean Pip tends to be imposed on by his friends... But of course, here in the country, he is not likely to meet them."
Cross' expression tightened. "No," he said, all the indulgence vanishing from his voice. "He is not." He addressed Pip. "We lead a lonely existence here at Foxwood Court. You need not expect any amusements or luxuries while you're here."
Cross studied him closely. "You agree to this scheme of your father's, irregular as it is?"
"And if I refuse this proposition?"
"I shall go back to Castlewight and Thawne, cap in hand, and ask for my job back. Or seek new employment."
Cross raised his head. "You already resigned your post?"
"Precipitate, of course," Mr Leighton said. "But the chance was too good to miss, and Phillip is dedicated to his sister's happiness."
Cross narrowed his eyes. "I’ll try you for one week. If, at that time, I am satisfied with your work, then I will agree to this scheme of your father's."
Pip bowed. "I will endeavour to give satisfaction." He cleared his throat. "When shall I start?"
Cross' hard stare seemed to pierce him. "Any urgent business elsewhere?" Pip shook his head. "At once. Your father can send your things from London. It will do you no harm to rough it for a couple of days." Evidently considering the interview over, Cross rung a bell on his desk.
A few moments later, the door opened noiselessly. A thin man, attired with the precision that marks a first-class butler, appeared as if conjured.
Cross waved towards Pip. "Mr Phillip Leighton and father. My butler, Surplis. Phillip will be acting as my secretary for the next week. See Mr Leighton off, and then show Phillip the ropes. Be quick about it. I want the mess Yardley left sorted out."
Pip's face coloured, but he said nothing. It was a secretary's lot to be ordered about and dismissed peremptorily. He followed his father and Surplis down the staircase.
"Walk with me a few steps," Mr Leighton said. "I must say goodbye to you properly."
Surplis remained on the front steps, examining the stonework with studied indifference as father and son walked down the path.
"I don't feel easy leaving you here." Mr Leighton put his hand on Pip's arm. "You'll have work to do to prove yourself. Cross is a man whose only reference is his own judgement."
"I'll be fine, don't you worry." Pip patted his father on the shoulder.
"It's only until Julia's safely married. After that, well, it doesn't matter what becomes of the rest of us. You're a young man any father could be proud of. You'll make your own way, I have no doubt."
"But what of you and Mother?" Pip asked quietly.
"Don't trouble your head about us," Mr Leighton said. "We've weathered many a storm, your mother and I. We'll survive this."
Pip swallowed. "Death is too merciful for Uncle Andrew. If I see him—"
"He is still your uncle. Be respectful." Mr Leighton squeezed his son's hand. "Leave him to your mother and I. You've got your whole life before you. He can't rob you of that."
It was about the only thing Uncle Andrew could not take. Pip watched his father begin his weary trudge back to the station. Again, the chill of Foxwood Court stole over him.