This story is by Kimberly Keagan and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The ballrooms of London, now a hundred miles behind her, lost the battle for Charlotte Oakley’s heart. She lifted her arms above her head and stretched toward the starry sky. With her hat removed hours before, the wind loosened tendrils of her chestnut hair from its Gibson-girl pile.
After a six-month engagement to a peer of the realm—a selfish, cheating peer of the realm—Lottie relished the freedom from the suffocating embrace of society. A few shed tears were all she’d needed for Mother’s permission to join their cousins for a two-week-long retreat from Mayfair to the countryside.
Olivia shifted in her front seat. “Well, my dear, do you feel better yet?”
Lottie nodded and breathed in the clean air as the Wentworth’s Panhard took them further away from the city and closer to Norfolk with its quiet, quaint villages. “Tell me about the friend we’re staying with. Graeme met him during the war, didn’t he?”
“That’s right. Sebastian was a war correspondent. Lost his leg at Belmont. He’s a bit of a loner, but you’ll like him once you get acquainted. Just be patient with his moods.”
Lottie leaned back in her seat and sighed at the prospect of trading the pompous windbags of London society for a grumpy recluse.
Since they’d not ordered beds for the night, the trio of travelers skipped afternoon tea and pushed on for Sedgewick Hall. Other than a few farmers tootling along in their horse-drawn carts during the daylight hours, they encountered little traffic on the journey to the coast. At nightfall, Graeme switched on the acetylene lamps to light the deserted road ahead.
The briny scent of the nearby coastline tickled Lottie’s nose. She leaned forward and tapped Olivia’s husband on the shoulder. “How much further?”
“We’re about ten miles out but making wonderful time.” Graeme patted the leather steering wheel. “At the speed we’re going, we should be there in less than half an hour.”
The moon bathed the landscape in an eerie glow as they sped along the deserted road. Lottie yawned and snuggled into her leather seat, only to be jolted awake a few moments later when a pop rent the air. The motor car came to a stuttering stop.
“We’ve blown a tire.” Graeme turned off the engine and climbed out. He ran a hand through his thinning hair. “We’re not far from the village that borders Sebastian’s estate, but we’ll have to walk there and hire someone to carry us to Sedgewick.” He helped Olivia and Lottie to the pavement, and they made their way down the moonlit road toward the lights ahead.
Lottie’s heart leapt to her throat when a blood-curdling howl pierced the eerie silence of the night.
“What was that?” Olivia grabbed Graeme’s arm.
Graeme chuckled and patted his wife’s gloved hand. “It’s most likely a farmer’s dog.”
“It sounded like a wolf,” Olivia insisted.
“There haven’t been wolves in East Anglia, or Britain for that matter, for a hundred years.” Lottie chuckled at her cousin’s wild imagination, but she glanced around anyway. A shadowy four-legged creature skulked across the path behind them and vanished into the darkness. Neither Olivia nor Graeme seemed to notice. Goosebumps crawled along Lottie’s arms.
They made their way up a steep hill and arrived at a bustling pub where tobacco and wood smoke wafted out open windows. Graeme pulled on the heavy oak door. Laughter, music, and the smell of onion and ale greeted them.
“Welcome to the Lion and Lamb,” a round woman with apples for cheeks called from behind the bar.
Olivia found an empty table, and she and Lottie sat in the stiff-backed chairs while Graeme searched for someone to notify Sedgewick Hall of their predicament. Before long, the trio dug into their hearty meals and filled their empty stomachs with pork sausage and mashed potatoes.
Always willing to chat with strangers, Olivia struck up a conversation with the table of people next to her. Lottie’s mind wandered, and she listened half-heartedly to the discussion about the last time a wolf was sighted in the area.
“So ye heerd the cry of the Black Shuck, did ye?” An old man with an unkempt white beard and eyes of onyx shifted in his seat.
“What’s the Black Shuck?” Lottie asked, although she feared she already knew.
The old man’s husky voice had the entire pub captivated. “I couldn’t say as I’ve seen’n, but I’ve heerd ‘im. Sure as I be sitting ‘ere there’s something evil that lives out there.” He nodded his head toward a darkened pub window.
The barmaid wiped down a scarred oak table. “The Black Shuck is a phantom dog seen here and there for hundreds of years. A creature with fiery eyes and a coat as dark as midnight.” She stopped and narrowed her green-eyed gaze on Lottie. “If you see him and then tell another, you’ll die within the following year.”
An icy shiver crawled up Lottie’s spine. She’d not mentioned what she saw on their trek into town, nor would she. Her cousins would think she’d gone mad. Besides, there had to be a logical explanation for what she’d witnessed. Legends were for the weak-minded, and Lottie saw no reason to scare the skittish Olivia.
“What malarky are you feeding them, Georgina?” A deep voice chuckled from behind them.
Lottie peered over her shoulder at a tall, athletically built man who hung his cap on a hat rack near the pub’s front door.
Graeme grinned and lifted his hand in greeting.
The newcomer wound his way to their table. Lottie took in the approaching man, and butterflies danced in her stomach. With thick chestnut hair, cerulean blue eyes, and a slight limp, he cut a dashing figure. “Heard that contraption of yours broke down a few miles back.” He bussed Olivia’s cheek.
Olivia beamed and waved a hand in Lottie’s direction. “Sebastian, let me introduce you to my cousin, Miss Charlotte Oakley.”
Sebastian bowed slightly to Lottie, straightened, and tipped his head toward the group of men at the next table. “So, these troublemakers are telling you of the legend of the Black Shuck, are they?”
“All I know is that we heard an unearthly howl,” Lottie said after Olivia recounted her version of the story.
Sebastian laughed. “The legend of the Black Shuck changes. Some say he is harmless. Just roams the fields at night. Others claim he kills cattle.” He paused. “However, from where I understand you broke down, I’m guessing you heard Felix.”
“Felix?” Lottie tilted her head.
“My dog. He wanders the estate and sometimes doesn’t return home until after dark.”
“What type of dog?”
“A German Shepherd.” Sebastian folded his tall form into the too-small chair. His hands gripped his left leg and shifted it underneath the table.
Lottie raised her eyebrows—she’d never heard of a German Shepherd. “You don’t like English dogs?”
“I saw his sire at a dog show and couldn’t resist purchasing one of the next litter.”
“What does he look like?” Lottie asked.
“He’s about seven stone and has tall, pointed ears. He’s all black, except for his brown socks.”
Lottie let out the breath she’d held, now confident she’d seen a dog, not a skulking phantom.
They soon left for Sedgewick Hall—an imposing grey-bricked Palladian manor nestled in tall trees. Over the following fortnight, Lottie found herself seeking out Sebastian’s company. She loved his quick wit and their deep conversations. And the kiss they’d shared in a hidden alcove. Lottie sent prayers of gratitude that she’d narrowly avoided marriage to a dishonorable aristocrat.
On her last night in the country, Lottie’s heart ached with the thought of leaving Sebastian. Would he miss her, too? She wandered onto the balcony and stared toward the woodland that sheltered the estate from the outside world. At the sound of footfall, Lottie turned, and her heart thudded as Sebastian approached.
He leaned against the railing, his eyes on her face. “The season isn’t over for another month. Will you go back to London to find yourself a husband?”
“No. My mother will disagree, but I don’t believe marriage to a man in possession of a lofty title is in my best interest.”
Sebastian rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “That’s a shame, as I’ve just received word from my solicitor. My mother’s cousin has passed, and I’m now Lord Beckthorpe. And I’ll be in want of a wife.”
Butterflies danced in Lottie’s stomach. “I could be persuaded to change my mind.” Sebastian was nothing like her former fiancé. Her eyes moved from Sebastian’s handsome face and narrowed on the grounds below. A shadowy figure on four legs slipped into the woods.
“There’s something out there.”
Sebastian’s head turned toward the gardens, and he shrugged his shoulders. “It must be Felix. He’s probably slipped out for his nightly constitutional.”
Lottie glanced at drawing-room window, lit from within.
Felix lay sound asleep at Olivia’s feet.