The Witch of Stonecliff

BOOK: The Witch of Stonecliff
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Shadowy forces gather an unholy harvest

Malicious whispers have long swirled around Stonecliff, Eleri James’s family estate—especially the eerie bog called The Devil’s Eye. But the bodies recently discovered on the property are no rumor. Twelve men pulled from the ooze, their throats slit, their flesh corrupted. Suspicion has perched on Eleri’s shoulder with the croak of a single syllable: witch. Now her only hope of evading prison is a man who could destroy her, body and soul.

Kyle Peirs is a survivor. Two years ago, he awoke in the inky night on the shore of The Devil’s Eye, bleeding from his throat and barely alive. He’s returned to Stonecliff to learn the truth about his ordeal and lay his own demons to rest. He never expected to find an ally—and a lover—in the woman he branded a killer.

Unless Kyle and Eleri can penetrate the evil surrounding The Devil’s Eye, they, too, will fall to the reaping….

The Witch of Stonecliff

Dawn Brown

For Mom and Dad. Thank you for everything.

Table of Contents

I

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

II

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

III

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

IV

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Epilogue

I

Red agony burned across his throat—his first coherent thought as he emerged from unconsciousness.

And someone was touching his hand.

Fear spiked inside him. Memories, fuzzy and terrifying, played out behind his closed eyes.

Fingers tangled in his hair.

Blade pressed to his neck.

Hot blood dribbling down his bare chest.

They’d come for him, to finish what they’d started, and he was too weak to fight.

He tried to shift back, to disentangle his fingers from the big hand holding on to him. The grip tightened. A groan crept up his torn throat, but no sound came and a fresh wave of heat burned across his neck.

The hand grasping his fingers squeezed. “It’s alright, son. You’re safe.”

His father’s rough voice penetrated the mind-numbing panic. He opened his eyes, meeting his father’s light blue gaze. Relief rolled over him and warm moisture sprang to his eyes.

He never thought he’d see his father again.

He blinked away the tears and shifted his gaze while he struggled for control. He was in a hospital room, the walls pale yellow, bits of furniture cheap and utilitarian. Through the window, the sky was dark. How much time had passed since he’d woken next to the bog? Hours? Days? Weeks?

He met his father’s worried gaze and opened his mouth to speak, but the sound lodged in his burning throat. He squeezed his eyes closed, willing the agony to ease.

“Jack?” Fear laced his dad’s voice. “I’ll have a nurse bring you something for the pain.”

Sweat soaked his skin and he forced his eyes open. He wanted to nod his thanks, but he was afraid even the slightest movement would worsen the fire engulfing his neck.

“Bloody hell,” his father muttered, pressing the call button next to his bed repeatedly. “It’ll be faster if I fetch someone.”

Slippery fear swelled inside him, and he tightened his grasp on his father’s hand. He didn’t want to be alone. Not now. Maybe not ever. What if
they
were waiting?

Nodding, his father slowly lowered himself back into the chair next to the bed. “I’m here, Jack. Not going anywhere.”

His father spoke in the same even tones he used for the animals that came to him injured, frightened and broken. At one time, it would have driven him mad to hear his father speak to him like one of his strays, but right then he hung on every word. Christ, was that who he was now? Injured? Frightened? Broken?

“The nurse will come in a moment.” His father dropped his gaze to their joined hands, thumb gently stroking the back of his. “The police were here earlier. Now that you’re awake, they’ll want to speak to you.”

Panic squeezed his chest and for the first time the damage blazing his throat seemed like a blessing. He tried to lift his free hand to gesture to his neck, but the IV in the crook of his arm and tangle of thin tubes connected to the machines beside him made his movements stiff and awkward.

His father lifted his gaze and frowned. “Lie still. I know you can’t speak, but maybe you could write something down while the details are still fresh, before you forget anything.”

A perverse part of him wanted to laugh. He closed his eyes instead. As if he could ever forget the things that had been done to him. Even now, the memories pressed against his skull—blood soaked and riddled with fear and pain.

“You’ve been through a lot, but you must tell them what you remember so they find whoever did this to you.” Dad’s calm voice took on a slight edge.

He opened his eyes. His father’s face was sallow, haggard. Guilt twisted low in his gut. He’d been a terrible son. Funny how clearly he saw that now.

Maybe because he was dead.

It may not have looked that way to anyone else, but the man who’d gone into those woods hadn’t come out.

When the police came, he would write down everything he could remember. He only hoped it would be enough for them to finally arrest The Witch of Stonecliff.

Chapter One

Murderer.

Die Witch.

Eleri stood transfixed, unable to tear her gaze from the slashing red strokes of paint almost glowing against the pale stone wall. Sweat slicked her skin despite the chilly spring wind slapping at her face.

She did her best to squash the dread mushrooming inside her. Most of her life she’d been called those names. She really should have been used to them by now. But since the bodies of a dozen men had been pulled from the bog on her property four weeks ago, the name-calling seemed far more sinister—especially with the looming possibility of prison.

“I’m sorry to be the one to show you this.”

The housekeeper’s voice jerked Eleri from her reverie. She’d nearly forgotten Mrs. Voyle was standing next to her. The woman’s beady eyes gleamed in her narrow face, belying her words.

Of course Iola Voyle wasn’t sorry. She was probably elated. The only thing that would please the woman more would be if the police turned up with handcuffs and dragged Eleri away right now. Or better still, if an angry mob of pitchfork toting villagers hung her from the nearest tree.

“There’s more farther down. To be expected, I suppose, given the situation,” Mrs. Voyle added, with a sidelong glance. Her thin mouth pressed in a tight line, she turned away following the old stone wall, lumbering through the overly long grass. The combination of her ankle-length skirt and rubber boots made her gait slow and awkward. Periodically, she glanced back as if she feared an attack from behind. With any luck, she’d fall flat on her face.

Eleri blew out a sigh. She had more to worry about than her housekeeper’s suspicious stares and innuendos. Following Mrs. Voyle, she trudged over the wide strip of wet grass between the estate wall and the road. The tangled blades wrapped around her mud-caked boots, threatening to trip her up. Her luck,
she’d
be the one to land on her face.

Wind gusted with mossy smells of rotting leaves, wet earth and the salty tang of the sea hidden by the woods. Bare branches only starting to green with spring rattled in the breeze, and frigid water droplets sprayed the back of her neck. She hunched her shoulders so her coat collar protected her bare skin.

This morning’s rain had stopped, but if the steel-colored clouds hanging low in the sky were any indication, the reprieve was temporary.

As Eleri drew closer to the wall, the words painted two feet tall in the same red slashing strokes as the others stopped her.

Killer.

Burn Witch.

Well, her vandal was consistent if not terribly original. “I’m beginning to detect a theme.”

“Whoever’s responsible had quite a busy night. Did you not hear anything unusual?” Another sidelong glance.

“Obviously not, or I’d have put a stop to it.” She bent forward and rubbed the edge of a letter with her thumb hoping the paint might smudge. Nothing. The stone had already absorbed the paint. Would turpentine take it out? Or would she have to replace the stone? And how much did it cost to replace three hundred-year-old stone? She didn’t have a clue, masonry not exactly being her forte.

She folded her arms, then lifted one hand to her mouth and nipped at her thumbnail.

Mrs. Voyle sniffed. “That’s a filthy habit.”

A little of the woman’s usual condemnation crept into her voice, and it was almost a relief—a cantankerous Mrs. Voyle was preferable to a wary one. Still, she shot the woman a hard glare and flicked her nail loudly off her front tooth before turning back to the wall.

“Repairing this mess will be dear,” Mrs. Voyle continued, her words like a probing finger in a gaping wound. “I don’t know where your father will find the money.”

Neither did she, actually. There was precious little left for the day-to-day running of the estate—and her attorney. Maybe she could convince her father to sell off another few acres of land. He’d been making a living from the proceeds of parcelling off property for years now. Convincing him to sell a little more shouldn’t be too difficult. Especially since he had so little time left.

Persuading him to sell the estate entirely was out of the question. He refused to let the house go. Though, why anyone would willingly stay on these tainted grounds escaped her. Burning the whole thing down and collecting insurance sounded good to her. Hell, burning the place down for nothing provided she could walk away and never look back sounded even better.

The low hum of a car engine cut the quiet. Mrs. Voyle turned to see who was driving past, but Eleri tensed and kept her attention fixed on the wall, heat creeping up her neck into her cheeks.

“What in the world could this be?” Mrs. Voyle said.

Eleri looked up in time to catch sight of a dark blue sedan disappearing down the driveway. Her stomach sank like an icy stone.

Well, this was it. They’d come at last.

“Expecting visitors?” Mrs. Voyle asked.

“No,” Eleri lied. Panic squeezed her chest, and the urge to bolt was nearly overwhelming. She’d been expecting this moment for weeks now. Every night when she went to bed, her last thought before falling asleep was tomorrow the good detective would come to arrest her.

Reece, her sister’s boyfriend, had been certain Detective Harding would be very careful before arresting her, dotting every
i
and crossing every
t
. Last month, her father’s nurse had murdered two people. And while Harding had been doing his best to pin the murders on Eleri, Ruth had nearly managed to kill Reece and Eleri’s sister, Brynn.

Eleri let out a slow breath. It seemed Harding finally had everything he needed to bring her down—even if the evidence was wrong.

“I need to get back.” She turned and kicked her way through the grass toward the driveway. Mrs. Voyle huffed and puffed behind her, but Eleri didn’t slow her pace. She wanted distance, some quiet so she could think.

She passed the stone pillars flanking both sides of the drive and a cold weight settled on her chest. The forest stretched out on either side of her. A thin layer of mist hovered above the leaf-covered ground, snaking between tree trunks and shifting with the breeze like a living, breathing thing. Skeletal branches tangled overhead like arthritic fingers, but offered little protection against the drizzle that had started falling again.

Her calf muscles tightened with the urge to run as fast and as far as she could. But she continued toward the house. Running now would only make her look guiltier, and there was nowhere to go, anyway.

Memories of men’s bodies hauled from the black waters of The Devil’s Eye filled her head. One after another—twelve in total. Her pace faltered and she stopped midstep. Mrs. Voyle bumped into her from behind and let out a soft gasp.

“What are you on about?” The housekeeper’s voice sounded reedy, and she scurried past Eleri.

Swallowing hard against the swirling in her belly, Eleri forced her feet to move again.Flashes of the house appeared between the branches. A section of slate roofline. A peaked window. Then the trees fell away and Stonecliff stood before her in all its hideous majesty.

God, she hated this place.

She’d tried to build a life away from Stonecliff, away from her past. And after a few years, she’d actually fooled herself into believing she’d managed to do it. Then Detective Harding had turned up at her flat with questions about a murdered man and she’d come to the sad realization that this place would never let her go.

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