A Star Frost Lovers Short Story
"You belong to this family.”
Grace lurched from her pillow, panting as the echo of the words rumbled through her mind. Thunder, poignant and ominous, shook the sky. Through the gauzy curtains shrouding her window, darkness loomed, and the clatter of raindrops striking her window chilled her. Hadn’t she closed the heavy brocade curtains before bed?
She slid from the down cover, her toes curling as her bare feet touched the cold carpet.
She never feared storms, but this one, nay—the very air around her, held her in suspense. Instinctively she turned toward the door, her heart skipping as the shadows revealed it was open. She'd closed it. Grace was sure of it.
“Clara?” Grace whispered.
The poor girl might be walking in her sleep, or awake, Grace could never really tell. Had the storm woke her too? Concern for her young charge drowned out her own fear, and she slid on her slippers, threw on her wrapper, and set out to check on Clara and Sophia.
In the nursery, she could clearly make out the form of Sophia in her bed, covers tightly tucked under her chin as she slept in the warm glow of the small hearth. Her heart skipped as her gaze turned to Clara's bed, covers askew, pillow on the floor, and empty of any sign of Clara. Visions of the girl, her long, pale blond braid swaying, her pristine white nightgown, no barrier against the frigid temperatures of the pitch-black halls. Barefoot—Grace noted, by the toes of the slippers peeking out from under Clara's bed.
Grace shivered. She must find her before Clara caught her death. In the bright sun, this house was only moderately eerie, but at night?
The walls whispered. The floors creaked.
Grace didn't believe in ghosts, not the literal kind. She was haunted by memories, words, and emotions she desperately tried to bury from a past she wanted to forget.
Her dream had brought them all back.
Perhaps it wasn't the storm or the house at all, but her own mind that tormented her. It was easier to blame this decrepit house. No—decrepit was not the right word. The duke would never allow his daughters to live in anything unsuitable. It had an ancient charm in the light of day, a musk that called to mind rich history. Still, at night the shadows stretched to ghastly caricatures, and the fires never entirely drove away the chill.
Especially on this night.
What was different on this night?
Grace lit a small oil lamp and entered the hall. The lamp did little to light her way, only filling a circle around her and leaving the rest of the hall somehow darker. She dare not rush, for the hall was not long, and she'd soon find herself at the edge of the landing. Flashes of herself tumbling to her death flickered through her mind.
“Stop it, Grace,” she muttered. Her heart already hammered like an enraged smithy.
“Clara?” Grace whispered, praying the girl would not pop out of the darkness.
She slowed her steps even more, sensing a change in the blackness, her instincts prickling. She cautiously slid her foot forward and just as her meager circle of light revealed the edge, so did her foot. Her slipper fell off into the darkness.
Grace exhaled and stretched the lamp farther, hand trembling, illuminating the stairs that somehow seemed far steeper than they’ve ever been in the light of day.
Lightning flashed. Bright white light filled the stairwell from a single circular window, blinding, and there at the bottom of the stairs, Grace saw her slipper at the feet of a phantom man.
Grace screamed. Dropping the lamp.
She clamped a hand over her mouth in shock. Grace never screamed. She was a self-contained woman. Grace was sure her heart had stopped, and time had slowed to a torturous degree. She watched in horror as the lamp hit the floor, glass shattering, oil splattering across one carpeted stair. Then another, and then another, followed quickly by hungry flame.
The house trembled with thunder or was it fear, or the stomping of the obsidian figure as he—or it—lurched up the stairs, throwing off… his robe?
Grace was paralyzed as the master of the house, the duke himself, threw the heavy velvet garment down on the flames. He smothered them, the orange light glowing in his eyes, his hair thrown back and revealing the scarred side of his face and neck.
Darkness fell over them, the only sound his heavy breathing as the fire was extinguished.
Grace's knees gave out, and she sank to the carpet. The smell of burnt oil and fibers filled her nose, and she remembered how to breathe.
“I—I'm so sorry.” She'd nearly set his house on fire. Grace didn't know the whole of the circumstances of how his wife had died, but she damn well knew it had been in a fire. A fire that had burned him and his daughter and killed his wife.
“Think nothing of it,” he said panting.
“How can I not.”
“You’re hysterical,” he replied calmly now, having regained his breath.
Grace blinked. He was nothing more than a denser shadow among shadows, a shapely, broad-shouldered silhouette as he stood erect.
She shivered again.
“I can’t find Clara,” she blurted.
“She’s asleep in my bed. She had a nightmare and came to me.”
Grace squeezed her eyes closed. She was the worst governess in the history of governesses. “Of course.” Grace hugged herself. She was sure to be sacked now.
“Come with me,” the duke said. “You need a drink.”
“You’ve had a fright.”
“I nearly set your home ablaze, and I lost my charge.”
“She wasn't lost, and I put the fire out.”
“Are you not…” She didn’t want to ask, but surely he saw the parallels.
“What?” he asked, his tone amused.
Grace swallowed. “I nearly burned your home down. Again.”
“You weren't there the first time that I'm aware of.”
The air left her lungs. This was madness. How could he be so calm?
“Come.” He presented a hand, and for the briefest moment, Grace wasn't sure this was real. He'd never touched her. He barely spoke to her.
She stood, not taking the hand he offered, and it fell to his side. Grace stepped around the carcass of his ruined robe, and he led her to a sitting room. Here the windows were not shrouded against the night, and what little light there was gave her enough to see that he was bare from the waist up and from the calf down. He wore only breeches.
Her mouth went dry, and her tongue swelled like when she ate strawberries. Not enough to choke her, but enough to make her speech clumsy.
Broad shoulders. Bare muscled flesh. Scars down his left side like licks of fire.
Her head grew hot as he poured her a drink from the decanter. Grace spun away from him, nose to the wall.
She could not hear his steps, but she felt him as he stepped to her back, a strong, long-fingered hand curving around her shoulder.
“Do not be afraid, Grace.”
She couldn't take a full breath. She couldn't remember his voice being so deep before. Perhaps she was sick, and this was a fever dream? A hallucination born of her mind?
“I can’t,” she said, more to herself than him.
She'd been frightened of him the moment she met him—this tragic duke with his two capricious daughters. She'd never expected him to be handsome, to want to look deep into his saddened blue eyes. To tie back the shoulder-length blonde hair he used to hide his facial scars.
She didn't fear him because she thought he'd hurt her. She was afraid of the way he made her feel—the way he made her want.
She’d never met such a large and gentle man. Gentle unless provoked. His staff said he broke through a burning wall to get to his wife with nothing more than his fearsome strength and fiercer heart.
What would it be like to be loved in such a way?
“I won’t hurt you.”
She knew that. But she also knew her heart yearned to be broken. She’d nearly been forced to marry someone she would never love. Someone who treated her more like a prize than a person. Who treated her body like something that was owed to him. But to fall for this man would be too easy. She’d come all this way intent to escape. Star Frost was the refuge of the ruined. A place where no one from her past life would find her.
She couldn’t ruin herself again.
Where then would she go?
“I know you won't, but this...”
“I can't let myself.”
“Letting go is part of life. Even when it hurts. Let the night ease the way. Let darkness shield you.”
Grace pressed her eyes closed as his words caressed her like velvet.
Did the darkness shield him? From what?
“I don't know what you mean.”
Her body tensed to move, hands curling into fists of control she desperately ought to cling to. And yet she turned, her feet pivoting her body to face him.
Her eyes had adjusted to the light enough to see most of his face except his eyes. Those crystalline depths were mysteriously hidden, and somehow it put her at ease. As if this weren't real. An incredible and surreal dream.
Her deepest fantasy.
Thunder rumbled, farther away, gentler, like the purring of a cat. The chill in the air was gone, the rain reduced to a gentle patter, steady and soothing.
She took a deep breath, her heart thudding, her nostrils filling with the scent of man and smoke. Tendrils of desire wound through her limbs.
“What is it you want, what are your wishes?”
She swallowed the word. “Peace.”
“Have you had no peace, sweet Grace?”
She couldn't see his gaze, but she felt it glide over her face like a ghostly touch. Gooseflesh erupted over her arms and upper chest. His examination lowered to her breasts, and warmth flooded her, climbing from her breasts to her cheeks.
The darkness hid her blush, but not the rapid increase in her breathing.
“Does something haunt you?”
Yearning and loneliness. Was that even possible? “Just memories.”
She swallowed. She did not want her past to intrude on this moment. If this was indeed a dream, she wanted to lead it. Her hand trembled as she raised it to his naked chest and spread her fingers over the taught skin.
Under her palm, his heart drummed steadily.
“I don't want to remember. I want to forget everything. I just want to be here. I know I'm safe here...with you, your Grace.”
“Calvin, my name is Calvin.”
“Calvin.” His name felt like honey on her tongue. Had he moved closer? The world disappeared, and all that existed was the two of them. This couldn't be real. Things like this did not happen to her in real life. She was a woman of no connections. Practically nameless, which made her a target to certain men who knew she had no protection as if that made her desperate for any offer.
Grace had been desperate to get away from Michael Fitzpatrick, but not the duke. She longed to be closer. She could feel the warmth radiating from his skin, and she wanted to snuggle in, to wrap herself in his strength.
His breath washed over her neck, scented with sweet brandy.
“Grace. I'm not a whole man.”
“You are more than a man.”
He loomed over her, a shadow, a dream. She closed her eyes. Grace couldn't bear to wake up from this. She stepped closer, her breasts meeting his chest. His chin brushed her cheek, and his lips brushed her ear. His hands came to her back, holding her delicately.
She wanted more.
He inhaled, and Grace did the same, embracing the salty warm scent of his skin. Her other hand joined the first, and her arms snaked around his neck. She pressed against him, too bashful to open her eyes, but her body too hungry to deny its wants any longer. Her lungs seized to inflate. Her heart skipped, and danced in jubilation. His grip firmed, and then his lips puckered against her skin, dragging along her jawline. Grace sucked in a quick breath before their mouths caught. She had to, or she'd faint in his arms.
The kiss was a brand on her soul. Searing and permanent. His tongue slipped inside her mouth, and she squirmed with unbridled passion in his hold. So lost in her wanton desire, she hooked her ankle around his calf. He grabbed her thigh and hitched it higher. She felt him against her core, long and thick. Her hips bucked for pleasure, her body demanding and aching. For once, she wanted this. She reveled in her crazed passion, set loose by a man who could protect her, shelter her, claim her. Not because he could overpower her, but because his heart bid him do so. More than passion, Grace wanted to be loved. For herself, exactly as she was. The duke was the only man who could. He could give her everything she'd ever wanted: love, family, a real home. She nearly wept with relief as he lifted her nightgown and tugged down his breeches. A frantic release was already clawing at her nerve-endings, an all-consuming climax on the immediate horizon. All she needed was him. Inside her, surrounding her.
“Please,” she begged. “I need you.”
He pinned her against the wall and jerked her higher. Grace was open to him completely, aching, and ready. She could feel the scorching heat of his body so close, and then he thrust inside her and her body shattered with an exquisite release.
Grace lurched awake, panting, shaking, her limbs heavy with the effects of her dream. She knew this feeling though it had never been this intense, and certainly not from just a dream.
Grace sat up and slapped a hand over her burning face. How could she have such a vivid and ludicrous dream about her employer?
A knock on her door startled her. She gulped down a horrified yelp and yanked her covers to her chin.
She swiftly scanned the room. Rain rattled her window, but the curtains were closed. Warm embers glowed in the hearth. It had all been a dream. She couldn't believe it. It had seemed so real. The images replayed in her mind so vividly.
Her door opened slowly, and Clara popped her head in. “Grace?”
“Yes, poppet. What do you need?”
"I heard you making strange noises. I thought you were...”
Grace should have caught flame from her shameful blush. “I had a bad dream.”
“Oh,” Clara said with relief. “I thought you were sick in the stomach and retching something terrible. I brought my father.” Clara pushed the door open further, and there, the duke stood. He wore a heavy velvet robe, a triangle of bare skin exposed at the neck, hair loose around his shoulders. He was achingly handsome, as he always was. Grace stared at him in alarm. She struggled to find her voice. He looked just like her dream duke.
“I can't stand retching, and neither can Sophie, but father is immune to everything. He can gut a fish without gagging,” Clara continued. Unaware of Graces panicked silence.
The duke had a small crease between his brows, but he studied Grace with only tired patience. Not a hint of the man who had her pinned against a wall while he ravished her was present.
“Are you well?” he asked.
“Then let us all return to bed.” He took Clara by the hand and led her out, closing the door softly. Grace fell back against the pillows, her nightgown sticking to her damp skin. It had all been a dream. How was she to face him in the morning across the breakfast table knowing... Feeling...
Grace squeezed her eyes closed. She wanted him. She couldn't deny it to herself any longer. But what would happen in the light of day? How could she face him again? She had no choice. Star Frost was her last refuge. She might yearn for him, for something more than her life as a governess, but dreams were just that, dreams. Now she was doomed to live in a waking nightmare.
He'd never know her true heart.
I hope you enjoyed a spooky peek into Star Frost. Grace and Calvin's book is yet to be titled and will be released after the new year.