Trigger warning: depictions of rape
“Do you like it?” Tim asked as they pulled up outside the cottage.
Rose stared at the surprise her husband had planned for her, noting the honeysuckle round the door and the way the late afternoon sunlight caught the windows, and smiled. “It’s beautiful,” she said. It really was a picture-perfect place to spend the weekend.
“What time do the others arrive?” she wanted to know.
Tim consulted his phone. “The last message I had from Mark said they’d be here by six. That gives us plenty of time to christen the bedroom...” He let his words dangle suggestively.
“Play your cards right,” she teased, “and we might squeeze in a few other rooms as well!”
But in the end, the master bedroom with its large, wrought iron bedstead and crisp white sheets was all they had time for. When they had finished, Tim leaned over and kissed her on the nose. “Why don’t I run you a bath? After all, you won’t get much time to relax once Mark and Helen get here. You know she can’t cook – she’ll leave all of that side of things up to you.”
“Okay.” Rose settled back into bed, watching the shadows dance on the walls. A part of her wished that it was just the two of them this weekend, but the cottage would have been so expensive without another couple to share the cost – and besides, Mark and Helen were two of their oldest friends. She and Helen had been at university together and had kept in touch over the years, meeting up regularly before they married, less often afterwards. Tim hadn’t known Mark at all, but the two of them had clicked straight away when they met at Mark’s stag do – even if he’d only been invited because he was Rose’s other half and she was off on the hen night with Helen. It was lucky the two men liked each other so much because it had made it easier to keep the friendship going; neither couple had children yet, so meeting up usually involved a meal out at a good restaurant and a lot of wine. They’d never actually been on holiday together before, though – so this weekend break was a first.
“Your bath’s ready.” Tim’s voice floated up the stairs. Rose climbed out of bed and made her way along the landing. There were no en-suites in this place, but there was a little shower room in addition to the large old-fashioned bathroom that she entered now. The tub was a huge Victorian one on claw feet – and Tim had actually filled it with rose petals! She could smell their perfumed aroma now rising from the steaming water.
It wasn’t like him to be so romantic! she thought as she sank down into the bubbles, closing her eyes and breathing in the heady scent of the flowers. Perhaps this time away would do them both good. Tim had been a little distant recently – working late a lot and too tired to do anything other than fall into bed at the end of the evening; but at least they’d got it right when they arrived today. She let her body relax. All it needed now was for Tim to offer to scrub her back...
Her reverie was suddenly interrupted by the sound of screaming. Rose sat up, shaking. What was going on? There were no other houses for miles around.
“Tim!” she called in a panic.
Moments later, he burst through the door. “What’s wrong?”
“I heard screaming.” Her voice shook as she said it.
“Are you sure?” Tim seemed puzzled. “I didn’t hear anything. Do you think it might be...” He stopped delicately.
“Do you think it might be my imagination?” Rose finished for him. The calm of the bath had dissipated already and all she could think about was the number of other unexplained incidents that had happened recently – taps flooding the bathroom when she was sure she’d turned them off; loud bumps and bangings when no one else was in the house. She rose to her feet. “The petals were a lovely idea, but I can’t stay in the bath when I feel so agitated. Pass me a towel.”
Tim was staring at her in bewilderment. “What petals?”
Surely he could see them, smell them?
“What petals?” he repeated, and a chill ran down Rose’s spine.
“I can’t believe you found this place!” Helen poured herself another glass of red as she pushed her empty plate aside. “No wi-fi; no electricity... It’s like stepping back into Victorian times!”
“You still get a phone signal, though,” Tim pointed out. “And the gas lamps are doing okay so far, aren’t they?”
The sconces and shades were pretty, Rose thought; but hadn’t she read somewhere that gas lighting produced carbon monoxide? She said as much now.
“You just need to make sure you’ve turned it off properly when you go to bed,” Tim said. “And if Mark wants a cigarette, he’ll have to take it outside.”
“Did you hear that, Mark?” Helen turned to her husband. “No smoking in bed.” She appealed to her friends. “I keep telling him he’s going to fall asleep with a fag in his mouth and set the bed alight one day if he’s not careful.”
Mark looked hurt. “I never smoke in bed when you’re around. Anyway,” he fumbled in his pocket, “I’ll have to make this box last. That village shop we stopped off at didn’t have any Marlborough.”
“I forgot to tell you about the shop, didn’t I?” Helen said as if just remembering. “We popped in on our way here – I was looking to see if they had any decent wine and Mark wanted cigarettes – and the woman behind the counter asked if we were here on holiday and where we were staying. Well, I said it was called Rose Cottage, and then she went a bit quiet. I asked her what was wrong and she said the place is supposed to be haunted!”
“I don’t remember any of that,” Mark said in surprise.
“You were too busy checking out the girl in the tight tee shirt,” Helen said severely. “Anyway, it turns out the place is called Rose Cottage after a girl named Rose who was murdered here some time in the 1800s. The local squire took a fancy to her and brought her here to seduce her. He had his wicked way with her and then drowned her in the bath – and he filled it with rose petals to hide the stench of the body as it lay in the water, rotting from the inside out.”
Once more, Rose felt a chill down her spine. There had been rose petals in her bath, she was sure of it; but Tim hadn’t been able to see them at all.
“Do you mind if we change the subject?” she asked. “All this talk of death and murder is making me feel a bit sick.”
It was only nine o’clock, but Rose felt ridiculously sleepy. She’d only had a glass or two of wine – what was wrong with her? The other three were playing cards by gaslight. It was good to see Tim making an effort to get on with Helen as the two normally seemed awkward with each other.
Rose stood up slowly. “I can’t keep awake any longer,” she said apologetically. “I think I’ll turn in now.”
“Don’t forget what I said about the gas,” Tim said without looking up. “Turn it off properly when you get into bed or you’ll gas us all in our sleep.”
As she climbed the stairs, Rose found her mind dwelling on the story Helen had related earlier. Had she heard the dead girl’s screams in her bath? But Tim claimed to have heard nothing at all. And then there were the rose petals... Maybe, the thought struck her, she was sensing the other Rose’s presence because they shared a name.
She undressed quickly and climbed into bed, turning the knob on the gas lamp until it clicked off. Tim had brought several battery-operated torches with them – he could always use one of those if he didn’t want to get undressed in the dark. Through the open bedroom window, she could hear the sound of a nightingale trying to attract a mate. Hoping Tim wouldn’t be too long, she closed her eyes and let sleep overtake her.
The squire’s hands had been so gentle when he had helped her into his carriage, offering to take her back to her parents’ cottage. Mind you, she would have been able to walk back as she normally did, had he not failed to notice her in the lane and let one of his carriage wheels roll over her foot. She had only realised his true intentions when they had passed the row of narrow houses where she and her family dwelt and continued on to this cottage in the middle of nowhere – a lace so isolated that no one would hear her scream.
Those hands reached for her now, pushing her down, bunching her skirts out of the way. His face glistened with sweat as he took what he wanted, using his weight to keep her in position and not caring that tears stood in her eyes.
Afterwards, she heard the key turning in the lock and knew that she was his prisoner. He was going to keep her there, using her against her will, and no one would know her whereabouts.
Could she climb out of the window and escape that way? She crossed the room and measured the distance of the drop. Maybe. But if she landed awkwardly and twisted her ankle, or, worse still, broke something, she would be even more helpless than she was now.
Without warning, the door opened again and he was at her side in three easy strides, yanking her away from the window and shaking her violently. She screamed.
“Rose! It’s me. Wake up!”
Concerned faces peered down at her as she groggily opened her eyes. For a moment, she wasn’t sure where – or when – she was, and then her head slowly began to clear and Tim’s words slid into shape.
“...could have killed yourself,” he was saying. “I thought I told you to switch the gas off.”
“I did,” she protested, bewildered at his comment. “I turned it as far as it would go until I heard the click. And I left the window open too – just in case.”
“The window was closed.” Tim looked troubled. “Helen opened it as soon as we smelt the gas.”
“Do we need to call an ambulance?” Helen looked at Tim.
“I’m fine,” Rose said hastily. “I feel a bit muzzy, but that’s all.”
“Put your head by the open window and take deep breaths,” Helen instructed.
Rose did as she was told, wondering if she should say something about her dream. It had all been so vivid...
The next morning, Helen said she had a headache. Rose felt guilty for leaving the gas on, even though she could have sworn she’d turned it off. She seemed to have forgotten to pack half the things she normally took with her on holiday as well, because when Helen asked if Rose had any paracetamol or aspirin, she couldn’t find either.
“It’s not like you to forget basic necessities,” Tim said, adding that he would drive Helen to the supermarket twelve miles away so she could get what she needed. “There’s no point you coming,” he told Rose. “Besides, you said you’d do some baking – try out the Aga.” He kissed the top of her head lightly. “Mark’s pottering about in the garden, so you won’t be on your own.”
Rose tried not to mind at the sight of another woman climbing into her car with her husband. It wasn’t as if Tim and Helen liked each other: she suspected they both tolerated the other’s company for her sake.
By the time they returned, she had a batch of scones, still warm from the oven, and a tray of cooling brownies.
“You look a bit hot and dishevelled,” Tim said tactlessly.
“So would you if you’d been slaving over a hot Aga all morning!” snapped Rose.
Helen, cool and seductive in high heels, jeans and a rather provocatively cut top, said nothing, but Rose thought she caught her friend exchanging glances with Tim. It seemed that going to the supermarket together had been a bonding exercise.
But by the time lunch was ready, she’d forgiven them both. After all, she enjoyed cooking: it was her way to unwind.
“Let’s all go for a walk this afternoon,” she said. “It would do us all good to get away from these four walls for a bit.”
“You’ll have to count me out,” Helen purred. “I can feel my headache coming back with a vengeance.”
Mark offered to stay with her, but she insisted that peace and quiet was what she wanted, so in the end, they left her to it.
Rose strolled along hand in hand with her husband while Mark mooched behind them, catching up with his nicotine habit.
“Do you think the cottage is really haunted?” she began once Mark was far enough behind not to hear.
Tim gave her a startled look. “Why would you think that?”
“Well...” She was aware that she must sound crazy. “The rose petals in the bath, for one thing...”
“I didn’t see any rose petals,” he corrected her.
“And the way the gas was on last night even though I switched it off. And the window being closed when I know I left it open.”
“Rose...” Mark had caught up to them, but Tim said it in front of him. “You’re acting very strangely at the moment. Do you think you need to go and see a doctor?”
She was not crazy! Rose blinked away angry tears, scarcely able to believe what was happening. She’d gone upstairs to change her shoes after the walk and had seen the duvet on their bed covered in rose petals. Of course, she thought Tim must have put them there – there was no other explanation; but when she expressed her gratitude at the dinner table, he looked worried.
“There aren’t any rose petals on the bed.”
“But there must be! I saw them,” she protested.
She’d dragged them all upstairs in the middle of the meal to prove it – and the duvet had looked just as it had that morning: pristine white with not a rose petal in sight. She could tell the others were embarrassed: they’d been extra nice to her for the rest of the evening – humouring her, she thought bitterly. In the end, she’d left them to their own devices and come up to bed on her own, not even switching on the gas this time. She didn’t want a repeat of last night’s performance.
She drifted off quickly but was woken a while later by a murmur of voices. Lying immobile, as if she were still asleep, she listened carefully.
“Is the window closed?” That was Tim’s voice. Who was he talking to?
Helen’s voice answered, the sound a low whisper in the dark.
“Yes. She’d left it open but I’ve shut it. The carbon monoxide teamed with the sleeping tablets you gave her will make sure she doesn’t wake up.”
Tim had given her the tablets, saying she was overwrought and they would help her sleep. When she’d pointed out that she only normally took half a tablet, he’d told her not to be silly, saying that she hadn’t slept properly the night before and that two tablets would knock her out properly. The tablets were sitting in her bedside drawer. She hated taking any sort of medication unless it was really necessary.
“Did Mark fall for it?” Tim asked next.
Rose heard Helen chuckle. “He’s as convinced as she is that she’s losing it. The rose petals in the bath yesterday and on the bed today were a brilliant idea – even though they’re tricky to get rid of in a hurry.”
“It’s all worth it.” There was the sound of kissing. “This weekend to get rid of Rose; then in a few weeks’ time, you can arrange for Mark to fall asleep in bed with a cigarette. His life insurance will still pay out for ‘death by misadventure’ – I checked.”
Her husband and her best friend! Rose lay there in shock, scarcely able to believe what she was hearing.
“I suppose we’d better turn the gas on, then,” Helen said at last. “How long do you think it will take?”
“Up to a couple of hours,” her lover said. “Unless...” He paused. “We could just put a pillow over her face now and then turn the gas on once we know she’s dead. As long as there’s a whiff of gas that helps Mark discover the body, it doesn’t matter how she dies.”
This really was a most surreal experience, Rose thought. She knew she should be scared, but she was more insulted than anything else. How dare Tim think she was so stupid she would fall for his gaslighting techniques. And as for Helen...
Rose sat bolt upright in bed, unable to bear it any longer.
“Rose! You’re awake,” Tim said feebly. “Helen and I were just coming to see how you were.”
“That’s interesting,” Rose muttered, “because I could ask you the same thing.”
Her eyes flickered to Helen who had gone into spasm and was clutching at her stomach.
“I laced the brownies with strychnine,” Rose said clearly. “Mark and I didn’t have any – I know he doesn’t like chocolate – but you both had enough to kill you. You’ll be dead by tomorrow morning.”
Watching them both fall to the ground convulsing, she felt a certain amount of satisfaction. And now she and Mark could be together without any obstacles.