Authors: A. G. Howard
I stood rooted to the ground. “Just a short walk amongst the headstones.”
My uncle offered me the umbrella. He said something to Coachman Giddings. After helping Enya into the warmth of the carriage, the plump hearse driver leaned against the carriage and drew out a cheroot to gnaw upon.
Uncle Owen started to accompany me.
I stiffened. “Please. I should like to go alone. I am no longer a child.”
A worry line scrawled his forehead. He would always see me as the dreamy-eyed little princess who used to drape daisy crowns on her head, who sat upon his knees as he shared picture books of castles and handsome heroes riding white steeds. He didn’t want to accept that I’d given up on fairytales and princes years ago.
“Don’t be long,” he finally conceded. “The sun will set soon. And take care not to trip over any graves. They are difficult to see in the fog.” Reluctant, he released me and settled next to the coachman.
Ribbons of water drizzled from my umbrella. I wove through crumbling headstones, past two life-sized angels of masculine granite perfection: one carved and ravaged by time, the other youthful and smooth. Despite their subtle differences, they both stood tall and stalwart, protecting the living from the dead.
Or perhaps the dead from the living …
That unbidden thought made me shiver. My mood soothed as the rain softened to a gentle mist, and the scent of earth, damp and clean, drifted upward. The clouds parted and I closed the umbrella. Sloshing through puddles so deep my stockings soaked to the ankles, I stopped at the furthest end of the graveyard. Tentative rays of warm sunlight curled around my shoulders, illuminating a scene a few feet away at a fenced-in enclosure.
A man dressed in black stood with his back to me, built with the same tall stature and muscular grace as the angel monuments. A governor’s cane crooked around his elbow as he clenched the outside of the ivy-wound gate with gloved hands. Glistening through particles of mist, a sunbeam fell upon a lone headstone centered inside the fence, spotlighting it. The man’s shoulders shook as if he wept.
I glanced behind me. The carriage was hidden from view by a six-foot wall of English hedgerows. I considered reaching out to the mourner, knowing his pain intimately. Instead, I tugged my veil down and started to leave, stopping only when his head began to jerk back and forth, banging on the bars, as if a rage had broken loose—so intense, the thuds of metal against his skull shuddered through the ground and into the soles of my shoes.
I couldn’t move, nailed in place by morbid fascination.
His hat flipped off. The wind carried it to my feet and he turned my direction. Gasping, I dropped my umbrella and backed up. My heel caught on the edge of a headstone, and I fell on my rump. The large crinoline cage that held my skirt’s hem aloft so I could walk protruded like a bowl turned on its side and impeded my view. I couldn’t see the stranger until his gloved palm appeared next to my shoulder.
A groan scalded my throat. I accepted his help, replaying his emotionally unstable outburst at the gate. I was alone here; would Uncle be able to get to me in time if I had cause to scream?
Upon standing, I sought the man’s face, wondering if his forehead had suffered any bruises or gashing. The sun met the horizon, and in a final searing display, it burst behind him, blinding me. He’d replaced his hat over his thick, dark hair. The brim’s shadow obscured his eyes, and lush whiskers blurred his squared jaw. For all intents and purposes, he remained faceless.
Only his lips stood out … full and lovely. They formed words I couldn’t read clearly through my lace veil, so I remained mute to hide my deafness. He crouched to wipe mud from my shoe with a hanky. His gloved fingers gently grazed my stockinged ankle and stirred a hot flush of sensation that tingled in my abdomen and rushed to my cheeks. I jerked away.
As if oblivious he’d touched me, he handed over my umbrella, tipped his hat, and left. His off-set gait might have been awkward on another man, but he held his spine straight, his shoulders and chest forming a counterbalance. His weight eased from the governor’s cane to his good foot with a meter so rhythmic, he appeared to glide on the waves of an ocean.
Intrigued, I watched until he vanished around the hedges in the direction of my uncle and the carriage. I debated following. Uncle might worry that I’d been unchaperoned in the back of the cemetery with a man, but curiosity got the better of me.
I rushed to the padlocked gate to read the epitaph on the tomb within … to see what had caused such a volatile reaction in the stranger.
One word stood out across the slight distance:
. If ever there had been a surname, time’s razor had shaved it away. Movement at the grave’s base distracted me before I could look any closer. A flower—stem covered in prickles—danced on the chill wind in a fringe of dying, yellow grass. It was odd that a blossom would bloom so many weeks after the first frost.
The shimmering silver petals folded downward, hugging the stem like a woman’s skirt, to expose a raised central cone the blue of an autumn twilight. During all the times I’d gardened with Mama while growing flowers for our hats, I’d never seen such an upended blossom, or such unique colors.
An overwhelming ache began to well within me. My fingers itched to touch the petals, to burn from the stem’s prickles. I needed to absorb what the flower knew all the way to its roots. Seated atop a tomb, it was closer to death than I had ever been—closer to Mama and Papa than I could be now. If I held it in my hands, perhaps I would somehow be closer to them, too.
I dropped the umbrella and flipped back my veil. I glanced toward the hedgerow. No one had come searching for me yet, so I found a large stone and pummeled the rusted padlock on the gate until it snapped open with a pouf of red dust.
Inside the enclosure, I used a stick to dig up the flower with roots still intact. While shaking mud from the stem, I noticed another gate on the backside of the fence. It opened to a path worn through a wild and writhing thicket that hedged the enclosure. Someone from those woods had been keeping a vigil over this grave.
As though in reaction to my discovery, a sharp wind gusted from the north and the sky became a gray-green swirling mass.
I trembled in the dimness, my attention snapping to the overturned dirt at my feet, shocked at what I’d done. I had desecrated a holy resting place. Would God unleash his stony angels and condemn my soul to Purgatory? What would that faceless gentleman do, or the anonymous grave keeper in the thicket, were they to find me standing here, a robber cradling her plunder?
I swallowed the lump from my throat. My gloves squeezed the flower’s stem. The silver petals glowed in the dimming light. A floral scent drifted up, redolent and spiced like cider—an exotic thrill that fed my waning courage.
The harshest bite of winter was just around the bend, and this beautiful creation—so unique, so fragile—would not survive. Its well-being was now my responsibly, and I would not abandon it, no matter the consequences.
I tucked the flower beneath the flap of my pelisse overcoat, raced out of the enclosure, shut the gate, and snagged the umbrella.
When I arrived behind the English hedgerows, I spotted the top of the stranger’s hat bobbing on the other side, a few inches taller than the six foot barrier. I peered through the leaves. Coachman Giddings and Uncle Owen leaned against the carriage, deep in conversation with him. His back was turned, broad shoulders tense in the dissipating light.
Perhaps he was relaying how a brash young woman had spied upon his private grief then fell on her backside with all the grace of a circus clown. I bided my time and stayed hidden, trusting Uncle to keep my secret.
Once the stranger had climbed a white steed and trotted cautiously down the road back to town, I plunged from the bushes and stumbled by Giddings’ horses. The crinoline beneath my skirts slapped the lead mare. She bucked and reared, her mouth and eyes wide with terror, aiming to trample me beneath her forelegs.
Uncle lunged, thudding us both into the mud.
A dull pain rattled my shoulder blades, quickly passing as I gasped for air. Coachman Giddings settled the rigging while Uncle helped me stand and straighten the hateful contraption holding up my hems.
Lavender twilight bent shadows around us, but I could still make out his lips. Although I didn’t need to read his words to know I was being scolded. He’d always forbidden me to be in proximity of horses, since they were flighty and I couldn’t hear to react to them.
I patted my coat’s flap to check the blossom underneath. Assured of its safety, I interrupted Uncle’s concerned ranting with a question of my own. “Who was that man?”
The worry line across his brow deepened. “The Viscount, Lord Nicolas Thornton.”
I snapped free of Uncle’s grasp. “How dare he come! All these months, Mama couldn’t even rest for his incessant missives to buy the house.” Tears burned behind my eyes. “And now he storms her burial to feast upon her carcass.”
Devastation twisted Uncle’s features.
I bit my tongue. Because I couldn’t hear, I tended to say whatever entered my mind without a thought as to how it would sound to another person. Uncle’s gaping wound was proof of the sword I wielded so carelessly. “Please, forgive me.”
He took my hand inside both of his. Cold, wet gusts whipped at my dress as I was dragged into the depths of sadness in his eyes: lost moments, never to be reclaimed … nagging regrets and bittersweet longing.
Uncle was my rock, and nothing hurt more than hurting him. “Why was the viscount here?” I asked, lacing our fingers tighter to pull him back from his grief.
He squeezed my hand. “To meet you. He’s a fine gentleman, Juliet. I’ve invited him to call before he returns to Worthington at week’s end. He’ll be by on Thursday.”
“To what end?”
“He wishes to give you his condolences, naturally.”
“No.” I swallowed. “Condolences are only natural coming from a friend. He knows nothing of me, and nothing of the woman Mama was. He only knew her through missives he sent, all selfishly-motivated.” It was common knowledge the viscount was an only child and didn’t get along well with his father. Perhaps that made him less sympathetic to familial boundaries. “He’s coming to offer again on the estate. The fool won’t take no for an answer.”
Uncle shook his head. “I truly hoped, after your mother’s death, you would feel more amenable toward him.”
?” I held my vocal cords lax in hopes my voice remained soft and steady. I bit back the urge to tell Uncle about the viscount’s strange actions earlier. Lord Thornton was twenty-seven years old and a nobleman. Men of his age and breeding were expected to suppress their passions, not bang their heads on iron fences. But I couldn’t condemn him openly without outing myself as a grave robber.
He must be dual natured. For he seemed in control, even kind and gentle, when he freed me from the mud. My ankle shook on the memory. I wasn’t sure what disturbed me more … the fact that he’d touched me so intimately, or the fact that I liked the way it felt—and craved to know more of that foreign sensation.
“I do not trust him,” I said simply. “Not as a gentleman. And most certainly not as a guest in
Mouth clamped, Uncle cupped my elbow to assist me into the carriage next to Enya. He was too kind to flaunt the truth: that in reality, I didn’t legally have claim to anything. With Mama’s death, Uncle Owen had become the executor of the estate, so I now lived as his tenant. It was all a grand façade; a masquerade set into play to ensure I would keep the lands and money without contest. Yet, at any given time, he could force my hand to sell. I wasn’t sure how long his patience would hold, now that Mama was gone and the place held nothing but painful memories for him.
I sniffled as I took my seat, averting my gaze when Enya’s green eyes locked on me with pity. Uncle climbed in and I pulled down my veil, turning toward the darkening horizon.
Having been my stand-in father for so long, he was more adept at peering into my soul than the most masterful gypsy. I couldn’t afford for him to read my face, to know that it wasn’t sadness causing the warm flush in my cheeks, that instead, vindication radiated through me. I had ravaged a grave to which the unrelenting Lord Thornton appeared emotionally shackled.
The carriage bounced over pits in the road and the hard-backed seat offered little comfort for the bumpy ride, but I was snuggled within the cushion of my machinations.
Before now, I never understood why the viscount wanted my property. From what Uncle had told me, he was a gifted architect, with a passion for odd color pairings and design. Held to such standards, my home would be considered mundane. But, perhaps it wasn’t the house he wanted. It was the location. No other estate stood as close to the graveyard and the grave that seemed to hold him in some dark, impassioned thrall.
Who was this “Hawk” I had stepped upon and defiled? Why did their tomb have such an impact on the viscount? And how could I use this knowledge to save my home and rid myself of Lord Thornton’s manipulative persistence, once and for all?
I had two days before his visit in which to solve the riddles, or risk losing the one thing left of my parents. The one thing left of myself.