Authors: A. G. Howard
His shoulders drooped. “You may let them in now. They’re jiggling the latch. Given much longer, they’ll send for Miss Abbot and the other key.”
Hesitant, I scanned the room, but realized I was too tired to care. I cracked the door enough to invite Enya in, telling my uncle I loved him but needed a woman’s company tonight.
He surrendered under the insistence I let him check on me first thing in the morning.
Locking the door behind her, Enya stepped around the mess and lit two candles in the sconces on the wall, casting an amber glow so she might survey the damage.
Before she could ask, I spoke. “Do you know of his lordship’s tawdry past with women?”
Her cheeks grew rosy with embarrassment as she shook her head.
“He’s taken many lovers. I don’t believe I can ever trust him …”
Hawk frowned at me, then understanding dawned and he nodded in encouragement.
Pillows tucked beneath her arms, Enya dropped them two at a time on the bed. Her chin tightened. “That’s what it was all about—in the tower? The investor, Larson. He told you of Lord Thornton’s past and it started the fight?”
I suppressed the bitter smile threatening to break. I had become quite adept at leading people to conclusions. I was starting to feel a bit like a gypsy myself.
On that thought, I crouched to retrieve the comb and brush. My eyes clenched closed, images of Chaine’s betrayal an earthquake within me. Even now, some part of me refused to believe his guilt, despite the crumbling foundation of my trust.
Enya came to my side and lifted my chin. “The past is in the past. Anyone can see he desires only you now.”
I answered nothing, so Enya gathered the tray for me. Together, we arranged things on the vanity. Next, she dragged the chair over and bade me sit so she could work the feathers and flowers from my hair.
Upon finishing, she picked up the brush but I caught her wrist. “Leave the tangles for tomorrow.”
Her gaze toured the room once more and I feared she would insist on cleaning before we retired. Instead, she helped me out of my clothes.
For once, my ghost refused to turn away. And much as I tried to turn my back to him, I couldn’t. I hurt for him, for all he had learned of his identity, of his brother’s part in his unbidden death. He needed a distraction.
So I faced him, as I had wanted to for so long but was never courageous enough. I stood before him, vulnerable in my nakedness—and let his eyes drink me in. All of me.
He hissed through his teeth and watched like a predator behind a cage. When Enya finally tugged my bed gown on, and the clean, crisp fabric fluttered around my ankles to cover me, he whispered the sweetest words: “Thank you, China Rose.”
Enya retreated to her chambers after she tucked me into bed and blew out the candles. Hawk settled atop the covers, a comforting weight next to me—however insubstantial he was.
“I want to hold you.” I couldn’t stop the agonizing admission, or the tears slicked upon my cheeks.
He met my gaze. “And I you.” His fingers furrowed the covers along my ribs.
I sighed. “What would you do? Were we to have one moment, here and now?”
His focus shifted to my hair where I struggled to free a strawflower Enya had missed.
“I would pull the petals from your hair, one by one, and bury my nose in the tangles left behind.” He rolled to his back. “My father said you smell of gardenias and snow.” His palm rested on his chest and a cynical smile trailed his lips. “I always loved the taste of snow. So pure.”
I propped up on my elbow, the covers drawn to ripples beneath his indention. “Do you truly remember … the flavor of winter?”
He crossed his arms behind his neck and closed his eyes. “Yes. I do.”
“Is there anything else you recall? Anything happy?”
“I remember loving him. I remember loving my brother.”
I awoke at dawn, sunlight warm on my face, and opened my eyes to Hawk standing in front of the glass doors. I had to squint, his radiance almost blinding.
“I have doubts.”
That was all he said. But it was more than enough to give me hope. During the night, I had awakened to find Hawk seated and staring outside, oblivious to me. Reaching between the mattress and bed frame, I withdrew Chaine’s purple shirt and wrapped the silk around my gown to surround myself with his scent.
When I fell asleep again, I dreamt of wingless fireflies safe within fractured glass jars, and fields upon fields of wildflowers snapped at the stem and waving like rainbow-haired puppets in the wind.
Any man who could find beauty in the spoils of life and help others see it, would not have killed his brother in cold blood. Larson’s tale had another side. It had to. But I needed to do more than nurture hope.
Hawk’s memory had holes that must be filled.
As often happened, morning brought fresh perspective. I threw the covers off then stood barefoot beside my ghost, still wearing his brother’s shirt. Hawk made no comment. In thoughtful silence, we watched the sun rise; and as streaks of apricot and pink curled like lashes over the wide-eyed horizon, we shared our strategy.
Together, we would go to the mine I fell into as a child, the one beside the witch-faced tree. There, we would prove Chaine’s innocence … or make him pay for the unthinkable crime he’d committed over seven years ago.
Without any premeditation on my part, the groundwork fell into place for our plan.
I snuggled beneath my covers and feigned a headache while several servants cleaned Hawk’s mess from the night before. After they left, Uncle visited.
The worry on his face pricked my conscience, but I stayed focused, encouraging him to accompany the viscount and everyone else—including the majority of the servants—to Worthington for Sunday morning services. I assured Uncle I would stay abed until he returned. He conceded when Enya agreed to sit with me.
Chaine didn’t try to visit my chambers, but he did send up a bouquet—sunflowers, hollyhocks, and Sweet Williams from the winter garden. He’d dipped the petals in melted chocolate to fill my room with the delectable perfume. In the flower basket I found the picture he’d drawn of the flawed rose, though this time the stem pierced a bleeding heart. Upon the right-hand corner read the words:
in a script now more familiar than my own.
I watched from my balcony doors as everyone loaded onto berlines, carriages, and fourgones, ducking behind the curtains when Chaine looked up at my window. Even with the distance between us, I noticed the circles beneath his eyes. A pang of guilt wracked me over his obvious sleepless night, along with an even stronger emotion I had yet to name. I shook off the feelings. Today I sought facts, and would let nothing interfere.
After the forest swallowed the travelers, I allowed Enya to brush and plait my hair into a long braid that swished at the arch of my lower back. Then I convinced her to go down and read a book in the drawing room, as I intended to sleep all morning.
Miss Abbot almost caught me putting on my riding habit when she came up with tea, biscuits, and apple jelly. But Hawk warned me before she opened the door. I dived beneath the covers, boots and all, and feigned sleeping.
It worked. The maid set the food upon my vanity and left. Upon Hawk’s assurance she’d cleared the stairs, I leapt out of bed.
I folded a linen napkin around two biscuits slathered with jelly and tucked them in my jacket. Then, after gulping down the cream, as the tea was yet too hot to drink, I hesitated, fretful of how it would feel to see the mine again. But I had no time for second-thoughts.
I followed Hawk into the stairway behind the portrait, taking care to secure the picture shut. Finding Aunt Bitti gone, we used her back-steps to sneak out of the house and remained hidden in a labyrinth of icy shrubbery until we came to the stables.
The snow-clad roof glistened in the morning light. Hidden within the building’s shade, I checked for the stable lads, but they had accompanied the caravan of worshippers to tend the horses upon their arrival in Worthington.
Though Hawk did not approve of my riding a horse alone, he had no choice but to talk me step-by-step through the tacking of Little Napoleon. My ghost kept his distance, so as not to make the gelding nervous. The bridle presented the greatest challenge. Napoleon kept jerking his head until I opened a biscuit and smeared apple jelly on the bit.
After Hawk and I studied the map to determine my route, I removed my locket and tucked it in the saddle’s pouch. Then I mounted, and trotted through the gates of the manor with a chilly wind turning the ends of the scarf that covered my hat—not daring to look back … looking only ahead.
A drowning man is not troubled by rain.
Chaine did not exaggerate his horse’s sense of direction. Once I guided Little Napoleon onto the appropriate trail, he never veered from the snow-covered path, slicing through frozen sedge and undergrowth. I braved eating a biscuit while the shimmering scenery brushed by, keeping one glove on the reins.
I wasn’t sure how long we trekked, but when the forest thickened overhead and the scent of pine saturated the crisp air, I suspected I’d been gone an hour. Tucking my scarf’s loose ends into my collar, I studied Napoleon’s ears. On my first outing, I had learned that for both ears to turn back signaled annoyance, but only one signaled the horse listened to something that I could not hear. Today, neither possibility soothed my ragged nerves.
Twice I looked over my shoulder as prompted by the swivel of his ear, wondering if someone followed, if they had noticed my escape. But I saw only trees casting their willowy shadows on the snow along with the sporadic flutter of crows.
I knew the moment we arrived, for just as I remembered, a large oak, gnarled and aged, stood in the midst of a clearing, a few feet from the mine’s boarded opening. The bark’s knots and ridges formed a distinctive face with a long, crooked nose that tapered to a mouth-shaped hole—cruel and dark.
An overwhelming sense of dread shaded my thoughts.
I dismounted and tied Little Napoleon’s reins around an ash tree then turned toward the entrance of the mine.
My throat felt like sand. Something cold plopped on my nose—an icicle melting from a branch overhead. Balanced on my toes, I tugged it free and put half in my mouth, then gave the rest to Napoleon.
Desperate for Hawk’s company, I took off my gloves to fish my locket from the saddle’s pouch. As I tried to clasp the necklace around my neck under my scarf, my hands started to tremble.
It occurred to me, that I was as powerless to my circumstances as the icicles dripping from the branches all around. Alone in the middle of my childhood nightmare, in search of a skeleton belonging to one of the brothers that I loved. Depending upon what I found, I might be exposing the other brother as a murderer.
And yes, I loved Chaine. Why deny it any longer? I fell in love with the boy of the journal weeks ago. For his artistry and courage … for the ability to see past ugliness or failings and find beauty within. Perhaps even years before that, for being the mud prince who attended and comforted me when I fell into the mine, despite his own torment. And over the past week, I had come to adore and admire the man that boy became—gentle, accepting, patient, and wise.