Sarah banged her fist against the ancient looking front door. She was soaked from the sudden unexpected downpour, that combined with the difficulty she had with getting in through the front gate of the estate was setting this inspection off to a rather poor start. Starting to shiver, Sarah contemplated getting back in the car and returning on another day. Maybe this was a sign to go home? She laughed at her superstitious thought as she gazed up at the archway above her.
Despite her wet welcome, Sarah couldn't help but be distracted by the unbelievable grandeur of the estate. The man hadn't mentioned on the phone that the property was a mansion, and a beautiful one at that. True, it was terribly run down, that probably being the owner's cause for wanting to sell, but beneath the moss and grime, this place was a palace. Towering pillars of hand carved stone, Sarah could make out the engravings of what looked like angels at the base, matched by the renaissance elegance of the elegant moldings, each one arching with graceful precision as they supported the weight of the roof four stories above. There was a haunting beauty to this place, and as Sarah admired it she felt the faintest twinge of familiarity reaching out to her from its walls.
Distracted in her observations, she suddenly turned, realizing that someone was opening the door. Sarah Evers straitened her jacket, and gently patted her damp hair before stepping inside. The instant she did she felt her breath slip away as she looked in silent awe at her surroundings.
The entry hall for the mansion was enormous, crowned with the most beautiful staircase Sarah had ever seen. She noticed however that the state of the inside of the manor was not much of an improvement from the outside. Everything was draped in cobwebs and dust, and curiously there was no electricity. Massive candelabras on either side of the entry hall filled the room with a dim flickering glow
Sarah didn't know whether to laugh, or be concerned. She looked around to see who had opened the door but found herself standing there alone. Before her mind could dwell on it for too long, a flash of lightning struck somewhere nearby and illuminated the hallway in front of her in a terrifying flash. Sarah almost screamed in shock when she saw a figure standing there before her. He was very old and was well dressed in a black suit that seemed slightly outdated for the time. But Sarah soon relaxed, noting his composed presence and refined air, she assumed that the man must be a butler.
"Miss. Evers, I presume?" she recognized his haunting voice instantly, but didn't feel any more comforted by it.
"Yes, you must be Ramsley, it's nice to meet you." Sarah's voice was sweet as she offered her hand to him. He simply eyed it however and she soon let it fall awkwardly back to her side.
"Well, I must say I'm captivated by the house, Mr. Ramsley." She said, quickly composing herself, "Had I known the splendor of your home I wouldn't have hesitated to come by." Sarah smiled, genuinely impressed and trying to be as pleasant as possible. Ramsley remained unmoved by her kind words however, his expression one of blank disinterest.
"Not my house, Madam. Master Gracey is the owner of the estate. He was, undoubtedly, overjoyed to hear you could come on such short notice." The monotone of the man's voice left Sarah feeling skeptical. She wondered if 'the master's' version of overjoyed would be anything like the excitement the butler was displaying, if so she was in for a very lively evening indeed. "Speaking of which, madam, the master would like to meet you in the dining room. I will escort you there if you are ready?" Sarah nodded and followed the odd butler as he led her down the hallway he had come from. She shivered again and decided to take off her soft pink jacket; the wet fabric was beginning to cling to her arms.
Ramsley opened a pair of wide French doors, and stepped aside to let Sarah into the room beyond. Equally as stunning as the entry hall, the dining room sprawled out before her. Its floors of swirling marble stretched over to enormous pain glass windows that were draped heavily in rich red fabric. A long dining table was set in the center of the room with what looked like enough food for twenty people, let alone two.
Sarah walked into the room, taking in the forgotten elegance around her. She didn't see her mysterious client though, and turned back to Ramsley. Before she could ask he said,
"Master Gracey will be down shortly, and I will be off to see to the kitchen. Will there be anything you'll need?" She smiled shyly, not used to such service.
"No thank you, Ramsley, I'll just wait here."
"Very good, Madam." He said, and turned to leave.
Sarah set her jacket on the back of one of the end chairs and proceeded to walk the length of the massive table. Everything was so elegant, so sophisticated; candelabras, black china, the outfit of the butler. Sarah figured Mr. Gracey must have wanted everything this way, trying to capture that haunted house look. If he wanted to sell it though, she'd have to convince him to clean the place up. They'd bring in cleaning crews to remove all the dirt and spider webs, get some electricians to modernize it. But the elegance, no, she would keep that, this place was too beautiful to remodel.
Sarah turned around and walked toward the large fireplace in front of her. It too was beautiful, but seemed to capture her attention more than the other features she had seen thus far. It was tall enough for her to step inside and was framed with beautiful marbled stone. All around it scenes were carved, and Sarah found herself getting swept away in its artistry. People didn't make things like this anymore, pieces of such passion were only found in the past, preserved yet abandoned by time.
"I've never seen a fireplace like this before." Sarah breathed, letting her thoughts take voice as she admired the hearth in front of her.
"Haven't you?" the question caught Sarah by surprise, the low voice it had come from quickening her heart. Sarah turned at the question. Just as she did, another flash of lightning struck, illuminating where a man now stood in front of the massive window. Sarah was rather startled to see him appear so suddenly and caught her breath as she gazed upon him. Bathed in the white light of the lightning storm, his presence seemed almost ghostly. He stood there with a pose of composed refinement, and as Sarah met his eyes she was surprised to find herself oddly transfixed by the intensity of his gaze. He was young, and quite handsome too, nothing at all like how she pictured Mr. Gracey to look.
"My grandfather, spared no expense in the building of this mansion," he explained, taking a step closer, "only the finest craftsmanship went into its design." Sarah smiled, admiring his appreciation for the home.
"It truly is beautiful, Mr. Gracey. I can't help but admire the elegance of it all." She gestured to the room around them. Looking back, she noticed that he had kept his gaze on her. The warmth of a subtle blush creeping up her cheeks confused her. Sarah hadn't received such attention in while, needless to say she wasn't exactly accustomed to it. Trying to forget the warmth on her face, she walked toward him.
"I'm Sarah Evers, it's very nice to meet you." She was going to offer him her hand but stopped when she saw him give a slight bow instead. Not quite sure how to respond she simply nodded and smiled. He met her gaze again and smiled back. There was such warmth in his eyes, looking upon her with the sincerest affection.
"Edward Gracey, it is such a pleasure to have you here Miss Evers."
"Thank you." She said, feeling her blush spread under his gaze. "We were very excited when we got your call, Mr. Gracey." She continued, "My husband was only sorry he couldn't join us tonight."
"That's quite alright," he said almost curtly, "I'm sure he has his business to attend to. Besides, I always thought it better to discuss negotiations on a more intimate level. Don't you think?" before Sarah could respond she heard the doors open as Ramsley reentered the room.
"Madam, Master Gracey, Dinner is ready."
"Thank you Ramsley." Mr. Gracey said and addressing Sarah, gestured toward the table, "Shall we?" They walked over to the long table, adorned in food and surrounded by beautiful fabric chairs.
"My, what a meal. I thought we'd be talking over sandwiches not a five course dinner. You really didn't have to go through such trouble." Mr. Gracey smiled at her modesty.
"It's no trouble at all. In the past, the servants of the house would prepare meals of this size and larger every night. It feels almost tragic that the house is now deprived of its need to do so again." Mr. Gracey took his seat at one end of the large table; Sarah was lead to sit at the other.
"I can't imagine. Do you live here alone, Mr. Gracey?" she asked, taking her seat, and thanking Ramsley as he pushed in her chair. Gracey averted his gaze then, breaking the eye contact he had maintained since the moment he had arrived.
"Sadly, yes. I am the last of my family line. I've done my best to care for the estate for many years, but now I'm afraid, I can bear the loneliness of this place no longer." He looked up at Sarah, "That's Why I need you, Miss Evers." Sarah nodded, understanding the feeling of being alone, all too well.
"And I will do whatever I can to help, Mr. Gracey. That is why I'm here after all." She smiled at him, a gentle caring smile that warmed something in the cold of Edward Gracey's heart.
"Yes," he said, almost to himself, "yes it is."
Sarah's gaze was torn away as Ramsley appeared at her side, in his hands a large silver tray covered in a bounty of delectable foods. Sarah could almost feel her mouth water as the plate was set before her. What had she done to deserve such luxury? For a moment she closed her eyes and took in the tantalizing aroma. It felt like an eternity since she had been treated to such fine quality. Working late left her with only microwave dinners and greasy take out. The only actual meals Sarah ever had, she prepared herself, and though Jim and the kids denied it, she knew she was not a very good cook.
Edward Gracey smiled to himself as he watched his guest taking such obvious pleasure in the meal he had provided for her. How wonderful it was to have her company, to be graced with her smile, rewarded with her wonder toward his home and hospitality. He gazed at her through the candlelight, and thought to himself, she will never be deprived of this again.
In an odd wave of hunger, Sarah felt as if she had suddenly been starved for years. It took all of her professional control to keep herself from tearing into the food she was given and instead delicately enjoy it bite by bite. But even as she restrained herself and slowly ate what she was given, she felt the warm bliss of true satisfaction envelop her. From such richness, she had been tragically deprived.
Sarah paused to wipe her mouth, remembering that this was not a dinner date, but a meeting with a client. Straitening she looked across the table to her host.
Where she had been subtly scarfing down her meal, the refined Master Gracey simply sat reclined in his chair, sipping casually from a glass of red wine as he examined his guest, an amused expression playing lightly on his face. Again Sarah was surprised by the amount of intensity in his eyes, and for a moment she thought she saw some sort of passion burning there, or maybe it was just the reflecting candle light.
Clearing her throat, Sarah began asking him about the details of his home, how old it was, how long it had been in his possession and why he wanted to sell. For a while they discussed the prospects of the estate, the potential pricing and proposed basic marketing ideas, but all of these matters seemed to hold little interest to the Master of the house. He would answer her questions of course, but in a very unenthusiastic manner, tossing them aside as if they held no significance to him or their meeting here tonight. Instead the conversation would always return to Sarah.
Their tendency to stray far off topic would usually register poorly in Sarah's saleswoman mind, but tonight, she felt… differently. Sarah was surprised to find herself happy to discuss her interests with Mr. Gracey, a man who, as she quickly discovered, had no end to cultural insight and charm. He was pleased to learn she had sung in her high school and college choirs, and admitted to partaking in a song now and then himself, though, he confessed, he was more of a musician then a singer. Piano, harp, guitar, cello and violin: all were his specialties, instruments that seemed to share the same old elegance as the man who played them.
As she listened to him talk passionately about his music, she couldn't help but feel a growing desire to hear him play. To ask, of course, would be out of the question, but that didn't stop her from complimenting him profusely on his knowledge and passion on the subject.
"I'll have to perform for you sometime, if… you'll do me the honor of accompanying me with a song."
Sarah shook her head, smiling away her amused laughter. "I'm afraid I would be a shameful accompaniment."
"Nonsense! Miss. Evers, I have a wonderful ear for music, and in just your words alone, I can easily detect the sweet traces of a song. I have no doubt you would bring life back to the halls of this house as soon as you unleashed the first note." Sarah blushed again, easily getting swept up in the liveliness of his words.
"Well you are 'the Master', so I suppose I should take your word for it. It's only that… it's been quite a while since I've sang. I'm probably out of practice."
He paused "…You don't find many opportunities for song in your life?" Sarah looked down at her plate.
"Uh, sadly no. My busy life doesn't seem to allow for such pleasures anymore. It hasn't for a while." Sarah shook her head. Why was she telling him this? He was a client of hers, not an old friend to doll her confessions upon. This all must seem very unprofessional, she worried, especially to a man of his sophistication. But his words reached out to her and discarded her fears. Gently she heard him say,
"I too, know well the loss of such joy. There are elements in our lives, Miss Evers, that will insist on pulling us apart from what we love most, but what I have come to learn is that time cannot keep those treasures from us forever. After years of searching I have found that which I have loved and lost. The separation broke me, Sarah, but my dedication and loyalty proved true, and at long last, she's been brought back to me." He looked at her with that fire in his eyes, capturing her under the power of his gaze. For a moment Sarah almost seemed to lose herself in the intensity of his words. Something in what he said triggered something in her, a thought or perhaps the twinge of a forgotten emotion locked back in the corners of her memory. It whispered to her in a foreign, yet familiar way. Sarah opened her mouth to respond, but before she could do so she was startled, practically jumping out of her seat with alarm as a crack of lighting struck just outside the window, shaking the house in the aftermath of its thunder.
Mr. Gracey hadn't even flinched, but Sarah was oblivious to that. The strike had pulled her thoughts violently from the cloudy haze of their conversation and back to the world around her. She looked out at the window, startled to see how dark it had gotten, a fact that was enhanced even greater by the density of the downpour.
Pushing away from the table she went to look out at the storm.
"Oh no," she gasped, "I can hardly see the road, I don't know how it could have gotten this bad." Sarah turned to look back at Mr. Gracey but caught her breath when she found him directly at her side. She stared up at him as he gazed through the running glass, unmoved by the terrible conditions outside.
"The weather out here is often unpredictable; it could end soon or continue for days." He said nonchalantly, his hands held comfortably behind his back. Sarah looked from her host to the storm outside. He may not have been affected by it, but she was. She had taken the family van here, since Jim had their other car, and that beast barely handled well in the most pleasant of conditions. She had to cut this meeting short and leave while she still could. She would call back tomorrow and discuss the rest of the details with Mr. Gracey over the phone.
Sarah was about to tell her client this when another voice spoke before her. It was Ramsley, staring out the window on the other side of the room. Everything that man does is creepy, Sarah thought, and these conditions don't help.
"The storm has swollen the river." His ancient voice echoing eerily over the massive dining room. Sarah blinked.
"Excuse me?" she asked, praying he had not said what she had heard.
"The road is flooded, there will be no leaving the mansion tonight." Sarah shook her head. No! She couldn't stay here over night, she hadn't even told Jim she would be going out. Thinking of Jim, Sarah remembered the watch on her wrist. Checking the time she was shocked to see it had already gotten so late She should have been home hours ago, how had time passed so quickly? Not wanting her husband to worry, she reached for her phone, talking to Mr. Gracey as she dialed her husband's number.
"I'm sorry Mr. Gracey but that's not an option for me. I have to call my husband, maybe he can come and pick me…up." Sarah paused, swearing under her breath. There was no signal out here. She turned to her host, "Can I use your phone? Mine has no signal."
The previous light had vanished from his eyes, replaced by a rather stern look.
"The phone never works during storms. It's an old connection and I'm afraid you'll have to wait till the weather clears to use it."
"But how will I contact my husband?" he frowned at her question seeming almost disappointed in something.
"It seems, madam, that you will not be able to reach him tonight." He watched as Sarah seemed to fall into herself, nervously fiddling with her phone as she tried to think of what to do. This was clearly upsetting her. He could see her previous joviality quickly slipping away, and it worried him to see her so concerned. His gaze softened then as he put a hand gently on her arm. "Of course, Miss Evers it would be my pleasure to house you here tonight. Ramsley will make up a room for you and ensure that you receive nothing but the finest of our hospitality." Sarah looked up at him, feeling slightly defeated. He was being very kind, of course, but that still didn't help the fact that she was not where she belonged, that she had kept a secret from her husband, and would be faced with the guilt of that fact until she could reach him again. She nodded,
"Thank you Mr. Gracey. I suppose that's my only option now."
"I'm afraid there's no other way." His low voice was soft, but eerily truthful. There was no other way.
Sarah shivered then, suddenly cold from her damp clothes that still held the chill of the rain from before. Master Gracey noticed this and quickly looked concerned.
"Why, Sarah, you're freezing. You should have told me earlier, I could have fetched you something instead of leaving you to shiver in these wet clothes." Sarah pulled at the damp fabric that stuck to her arms.
"It's alright, I hadn't really noticed it until now."
"Still, please allow me to offer you something more comfortable to wear." Sarah smirked at him then, raising an eyebrow teasingly.
"Really, Mr. Gracey. You live here all alone and yet you have women's clothes to offer me?" a bit of a laugh pulled at the corners of his mouth.
"I was thinking more along the lines of a sweater, or a robe, just something warm to sit in while you dry off." Realizing this obvious option, Sarah nodded, feeling a little silly.
"Right, of course. Um, yes, thank you, that would be nice."
Keeping his eyes on her, Master Gracey called out to Ramsley, who was still standing idly by in corner of the room.
"Ramsley, take Miss. Evers to one of the western rooms, something that's made up where she will be comfortable… the scarlet lounge, I think will do nicely." Sarah looked between the butler and her host, a look of slight surprise in her eyes.
"The scarlet lounge? Sounds awfully fancy. I hope it's not too much trouble, honestly I'd be comfortable on just a couch." He chuckled softly as he led her toward the door.
"My dear it's no trouble in the slightest. This house is just waiting to be used again, and your presence here is just what it needs." They stopped at the large oak doors that led back out to the rest of the mansion, Mr. Gracey stopping to put his hands behind his back as he addressed his guest. "Since you'll be staying the night, would you care to join me later to continue our conversations from earlier?" Sarah nodded,
"Yes, I think that would be best, although I left most of the essential paperwork for the sales contract at home. But perhaps we could begin the house inspection. I'd like to talk to you too about renovations and managing the estate."
"Yes, the estate." Mr. Gracey looked at her with subtle amusement, and genuine admiration. She was so innocent, yet so focused. He of course had meant to continue their more engaging conversations of the musical and artistic variety, but he'd lead her to that later. For now, he needed her to be comfortable, have some time to herself to dry off and accept her current situations.
"Shall we meet in the library? In, say half an hour?"
"Sure, that'll be nice." Sarah still wasn't thrilled with the idea of having to stay the night, but her host's genial hospitality was certainly helping take the edge off. "I'll… see you then." With Ramsley at her side ready to lead her away, Sarah turned to go, but was stopped by the cool touch of Master's Gracey's hand as he gentle lifted hers. Bending low, he grazed the soft skin of her knuckles with his lips, giving her the whisper of a kiss that sent goosebumps running up Sarah's arms. As he rose, his golden eyes met hers, captivating her attention as they had done every time before. Sarah held her breath, as he gently held her hand.
"I am so pleased, that you came here tonight, Sarah. I've been looking forward to this for a long time." His voice, sweet and as thick as honey, seemed to wrap around her, warming her against the cold.
"You have?" she whispered, lost to everything but the man before her. He gave one slow nod, and then squeezing her hand gently, released it, leaving Sarah suspended in thought and pose as turned and exited the ballroom.
Sarah let out her breath, her hand shaking slightly as she pulled it close to her chest. That was so strange, she thought, there was almost something…familiar about the way he….no. She blinked, putting her hand to her head. She felt suddenly exhausted.
"Madam, are you alright?" Ramsley asked her.
"Yes, yes I think so. Um… would you mind taking me to that room? I think I just need to… relax for a moment." Ramsley nodded and turned without a word. Sarah followed silently behind him, looking back at the ballroom and the massive fireplace as she left.