In Victorian England, 21-year-old James Eyre, frightened by his feeling for another man, decides to leave the boys’ school where he has spent ten years, first as a student and then as a teacher. He manages to secure a position as a private tutor for Axel Vance, the ward of a wealthy man who owns an estate in Yorkshire.
From the night of his arrival, James begins to sense that things are not as they should be at Thistleton Manor, the home of the enigmatic Edmond Manchester. Late at night, wild screams seem to echo through the house, and during the daytime objects disappear from James’s room and are replaced with sinister-looking voodoo dolls. Though his instincts tell him to flee, James stays on because he enjoys his duties and the company of his pupil—and even more so because he has begun to develop an attraction for his employer, Mr. Manchester.
To his surprise, Mr. Manchester seems to return his feelings. However, a jealous former lover and a phantomlike presence in the house seem determined to tear them apart. If he is to have any hope of a happy future with the man he loves, James must solve the mystery of Thistleton Manor and save Edmond’s life as well.
Up close, Thistleton Manor appeared less unsettling a spectacle than it had from the road. The dark, severe angles of the stone walls and turrets now struck James as dependably sturdy rather than barbaric, and the glow of candlelight within softened the grayness of the rain-streaked windows. Yet the stone had a bruised, depressing air about it, as though he approached a prison instead of a wealthy man’s country home.
“I’ll leave you here and get the horses put away,” the driver told him, swinging his trunk down with little effort and depositing it on the worn stone entryway. The overhang was narrow enough to provide only partial protection from the continued assault of the needle-like droplets. James shivered as he banged the iron knocker, wrought in the shape of a grinning gargoyle, against the scarred wood of the front door. While he waited, he willed his body to shrink so he could withdraw into the warmer shell of his hat and overcoat.
Finally the door opened and a plump, balding man stood staring at him with an annoyed expression. James waited for him to speak first, but he made no effort to offer even the simplest greeting. Finally he gave up and offered his own introduction.
“I’m James Eyre, Mr. Manchester’s new tutor.”
The man raised a thick gray brow. “I suspected as much,” he said as though speaking to an imbecile. “And I think you will find that you journeyed here to become Master Axel’s tutor. Mr. Manchester completed his own education many years ago.”
James fought back a blush. “Of course I am well aware of that. I meant that he is my employer, as you surely must have guessed.”
“I did, especially since I am the very man who engaged your services. Do step in.”
So this was the mysterious Fairman, James thought as he came inside. As he did, Fairman glared at the trunk lying beside the threshold. “No doubt Reynolds will fetch your things as soon as he puts the horses away. For the time being you may leave this here.”
“I hardly feel we should leave it in the rain!” James protested. “Here—let me take it.”
With some effort, he pulled it into the foyer, with Fairman standing to the side and making no attempt to assist him. James began to dislike the man very much. He wondered that the master of the house kept such an insolent servant in his employ. At Gloamwood, such insubordination among staff members would be punished by instant dismissal without a reference. Not even the most arrogant teachers dared to chance that distressing and potentially impoverishing fate.
“I take it you will be satisfied now until Reynolds returns,” Fairman said when he had finished pushing it against the wall. In truth, James marveled that Reynolds—if Fairman was indeed referring to his hitherto-nameless coachman—had been able to lift it so easily. His arms ached merely from dragging it a few feet inside. “I promise your possessions will come to no harm here. Meanwhile, I have been instructed to conduct you to the study. The master is there now—waiting to interview you.”
The manner in which he said it made James wonder if perhaps he had meant the word ‘interview’ as a euphemism for ‘cannibalize.’ He was taken aback at not having a chance to wash his face and hands and or change his travel-rumpled clothes, but reminded himself that he was in a different world than the one he had grown accustomed to. Northern England, at least from what he had seen so far, might as well have been another continent entirely, one where ordinary manners had not yet penetrated and taken hold among the populace. He thought of Gulliver adrift in the land of the spiteful Lilliputians, though so far all the Yorkshiremen he had encountered were of an ordinary human size.
“Very well. Lead the way, then.”
Fairman held out a hand. “You might wish to divest yourself of your outer garments first. I see no reason to drip water on Mr. Manchester’s Oriental carpet.”
“Quite so.” James continued to battle the fierce heat forcing itself into his cheeks, but feared he was losing. He waited as Fairman took the overcoat and rain-spattered hat and hung them on a nearby rack. He avoided the older man’s supercilious glare as they set off down a long, wood-paneled hallway lined with oil paintings. Some depicted men and women in the dress of earlier centuries—Mr. Manchester’s ancestors, no doubt—while others featured more modern representations of the moors and other landscapes. In artistic form, he had to admit, the northern countryside looked safer and more appealing than it had from the carriage windows. All the same, he would not have cared to be lost on one of those bleak, windswept surfaces.
At last, Fairman opened a pair of double doors and motioned him through. The moment James stepped into the room, Fairman withdrew and slammed them shut again. James found himself enclosed inside a vast, darkened space lit only by a fireplace at the opposite end and a single candle on a small table. Above the fireplace hung an array of antique pistols and swords, including one vicious and exotic-looking blade that curved out as long and thick as a man’s arm. In front sat both the carpet in question and a winged chair with its wide back to James. A pair of booted feet, visible at the bottom, and a ringless hand carelessly extended to the left, served as his first glimpse of his new employer.
“Mr. Manchester?” he ventured, taking a tentative step closer. “I’m James Eyre—the new tutor. I’ve just arrived, and I understand you wanted to speak to me.”
“No need for the announcement—I heard you come in.”
James picked up the cadence of the strong northern accent, though its rough edges had obviously been tempered by the years of education common to country gentleman of his employer’s status. A current of irritation ran through the words, even if they were not overtly harsh. James began to see whose mannerisms Fairman had learned to emulate.
The chair cushions rustled as the unseen figure pushed to his feet and turned toward James. The light from the single candle touched his broad forehead and angular cheeks, casting the master’s strong features into sharp relief. Recognition seized James at once, and he froze, his breath catching in his throat.
Mr. Edmond Manchester was none other than the maniacal man on the black horse who had terrorized him in the coach.
Up close, James noticed once his thoughts became untangled and his heart began to slow, his face seemed nowhere near as ugly and malevolent as it had seemed under the more stressful conditions on the road. It was a strong countenance, to be sure, as though the man who owned it had seen plenty of pain and experienced a good bit firsthand. Light brown hair, tinged with a hint of gray at the temples, hung across his broad forehead in an appealingly tousled manner. A ruffled cravat gave his dark, tightly fitted suit a whimsical and continental touch. The body beneath looked trim and athletic, suggesting that Mr. Manchester was no lazy aristocrat who seldom strayed farther than his well-stocked liquor cabinet. Indeed, James could not doubt his horsemanship after the fine display he had witnessed firsthand.
Mr. Manchester tilted his neck, his full lips twitching as though he were fighting back a smile. “Why are you looking at me that way, Mr. Eyre? Admiring me from head to toe, I hope. Do I please you?”
“No, sir.” James blushed and struggled to find his voice. “I mean—I apologize for staring. You looked familiar for a moment.”