Authors: Sonia Gensler
Asher turned to find the young lady in distress, her eyes closing tightly as she leaned against the door to steady herself. The camera tumbled from her hand and landed in the grass.
“No,” Miss Atherton moaned. “Not now, not
Kate clutched at the girl’s hand. “Are you ill, miss?”
“I need my medicine,” Miss Atherton said. “I’ve been a fool and left it behind.”
“Where is your medicine?” Asher stepped forward and took her other hand. “We’ll get it at once.”
Her eyes widened. “Don’t leave me!”
He took her by the shoulders, pulling her hand from Kate’s grasp. “I won’t leave you. Where is your medicine?”
Miss Atherton pressed fingers to her temple. “It’s in my quilted bag,” she gasped. “Jones will show you my room.”
Asher turned to Kate. “Did you hear that? Go back to the porter and find her bag.”
Kate stared at him, eyes wide with alarm.
“Miss Poole,” he said more gently. “Please be as quick as you can.”
The girl broke into a run toward the building just as Miss Atherton collapsed in his arms.
Asher had little regard for young ladies, having yet to encounter one who wasn’t a hardened schemer, but a curious feeling of tenderness settled over him as he carried Elsie Atherton toward the college buildings. With her head resting against his
chest, all that mattered was to have her peaceful and smiling again.
He set her down in the shade of an oak tree and sat next to her, cradling her head in his lap. His hands trembled as he smoothed the hair out of her eyes.
Soon enough Kate came barreling through the arch, her face sharp with anxiety, followed by a much slower Jones. Bag in hand, she threw herself to the ground next to Asher and rifled through Miss Atherton’s possessions. She pulled out a bottle of brown glass and peered at the crisp white label. “Good God. It’s Chlorodyne.”
Asher did not recognize the name, but the girl’s frown gave him pause. “Is it the only medicine in the bag?”
She poked through again. “Yes.”
“Then open it and pour some in her mouth. I’ll hold her.”
Cradling Miss Atherton’s head with one hand, he gently grasped her jaw with the other and pulled her mouth open. Kate leaned in and poured a thin stream of the liquid down her throat. Miss Atherton swallowed and coughed.
Asher turned to Kate. “Is that enough?”
Her face was solemn. “I know this medicine. You don’t want to give her too much. Wait a minute and see how she does.”
“Is everything all right?” Jones stood behind Kate, hunched over and wringing his hands.
Asher considered Miss Atherton. She no longer trembled, and her clenched jaw had softened. As her body relaxed, her breathing deepened into a steady rhythm.
“I think she’s falling asleep,” he whispered.
Kate sat back on the grass and sighed. Then she pushed the stopper into the medicine bottle and returned it to Miss Atherton’s bag.
Asher nodded toward the bag. “What do you know about Chlorodyne?”
“My own mum used to take it. So much that she couldn’t live without it.”
“Did it help her?”
She frowned. “She’s been dead for two years.”
He hardly knew what to say. The girl was such an odd little creature—angry one moment and cringing like a wounded puppy the next. She unsettled him. It would be a relief to see the back of her.
“Oh dear,” murmured Jones. “Here comes Mrs. Thompson.”
Asher looked up to see a tall, thin woman in black gliding toward them. Her narrow face was grim as she knelt next to him.
“Did she have an attack?”
“She clutched her head as though it pained her, and then she began to shake,” Asher said. “But she calmed down once she’d swallowed her medicine. She seems quite peaceful now.”
Mrs. Thompson let her fingers rest on the girl’s neck, feeling the pulse. Then she stroked the pale cheek before turning to him. “Whom do I thank for attending to her?”
“I am Asher Beale, ma’am. My father is Harold Beale.”
Her stricken face broke into a smile. “Harold’s son! How wonderful to meet you, even under such circumstances. Look, here’s Oliver—he’ll be so pleased.”
A grey-haired man, stooped and frail, shuffled toward them with the aid of a cane. He did not kneel. “What’s happened, my dear? Is she breathing?” His own breath came in gasps, and to Asher it seemed that even his long beard quivered.
Mrs. Thompson rose to her feet. “She had an attack, but her medicine brought it to a halt. She’s resting now.” She met
Asher’s gaze. “It’s something akin to epilepsy, as far as we can tell. We must make her more comfortable. Would it be too much to ask you to carry her?”
“Of course not,” Asher said, shifting to his knees so he could gather her up. Miss Atherton slumped against his chest, breathing softly through her open mouth.
“I must speak to Mr. Thompson, please.”
Asher turned to Kate, having forgotten for the moment that she was there. The girl’s voice was a little too loud and had a nervous edge to it—clearly she was peeved at being overlooked.
Mrs. Thompson’s expression hardened. “And who might you be?”
“I’m Kate Poole.” The girl lifted her chin. “I’ve come to speak with Mr. Thompson about my lost situation.”
Mr. Thompson’s mouth opened, but he did not speak. He looked to his wife instead.
“And what would your lost situation have to do with my husband?”
“He’s the cause of it, ma’am.”
Asher expected Mr. Thompson to order the girl off the premises, for she was making a spectacle of impertinence in this moment of crisis. Instead the man merely stared at her.
“What can you mean?” Mr. Thompson finally asked, a catch to his voice.
“If you’re a true gentleman, you’ll hear what I have to say.” The girl took a breath and stood a little straighter. “Especially since it pertains to your friend Frederic Stanton.”
The man’s jaw dropped, but he said nothing.
“Oliver?” His wife laid her hand on his arm.
“Well … I …”
Asher shifted uneasily, his shoulders aching. Mr. Thompson couldn’t seem to
a proper sentence, let alone finish it, and
Kate merely stared back at him. If they didn’t move soon, the girl might slide through his arms.
He cleared his throat. “Shall I carry your niece inside, sir?”
Mr. Thompson turned to him and seemed to collect himself. “If you would be so kind, yes. I would be more than happy to speak to Miss Poole in my study … once we get Elsie settled. Helena, will you lead the way?”
Relieved, Asher held Miss Atherton’s body close as Mrs. Thompson guided them all toward the grand arch of the tower.
lsie sighed contentedly.
She always felt safe in his arms. Snuggled against the warmth of his body, she hardly felt the small jolts as they moved from step to step on the staircase. When he finally settled her upon the bed, she struggled to open her eyes, fighting the black wave of sleep that threatened to engulf her again. She wanted to thank him before she gave in to the darkness. She wanted to tell him she loved him, to feel his lips on hers. With great effort she opened one eye.
The man standing above her was a stranger—a boy, rather, with light-brown hair and a smattering of freckles over his nose. It wasn’t him.
was gone. She sobbed and turned into the pillow.
The dose of Chlorodyne soon swept away her sorrow, replacing it with happier memories of
—chestnut hair ruffled by the breeze, the familiar crooked smile, his expert hand guiding hers as she applied paint to canvas. She was forever attempting to paint the grotto by the lake, the only place she could be alone with him. The only place she was free.
Photography was easier—for her, more natural. She imagined
framing the same scene through her camera lens and felt him standing behind her, his chest pressed against her upper back as his hands steadied her own. She heard the shutter click, and her skin prickled as his fingers stroked the inside of her wrist before moving along her arm, coming to rest at her waist. Warm lips brushed her cheek as she turned to face him.…
t first Kate had imagined the school’s great arch as a battlement to ward off invaders, with Jones the porter acting as sentinel, but it turned out Mr. Thompson actually
in the forbidding building. She’d barely had a chance to look about when she’d dashed in to get Miss Atherton’s bag. Now she let her eyes linger. Having been Mrs. Martineau’s prisoner for two years, she was eager to see what sort of house honest people might keep.
With Asher Beale and the old lady attending to Miss Atherton, Kate found herself alone with Mr. Thompson. Mr.
Thompson. She could have kicked herself for being so thick-skulled. Her father’s watch had been inscribed
TO DEAR FRIEND AND PUPIL F. STANTON FROM O. THOMPSON
. Mrs. Martineau had been right after all—the two
great friends. Had Billy known of this connection when he’d asked for her watch? If so, what had he meant to do with it? She regretted not having the watch with her now. It might have proven useful in her wrangling with Thompson.
She studied him out of the corner of her eye. His beard was biblical and his body withered, but his eyes were clear and stern behind the spectacles. He crooked a beckoning finger.
Kate followed him to the doorway of a study stocked with books—more books than she’d ever seen in one room. Leather-bound volumes of various sizes lined the shelves, just visible behind the ones stacked in front of them. Others were piled on the floor. Several more teetered precariously in untidy stacks upon the desk. Covering the books, furniture, and any spare patch of floor were hundreds of papers.
Mr. Thompson cleared a trail to a wide upholstered chair and transferred its contents—more books—to the floor. “My wife is extremely tidy, but she knew I was set in my ways when she married me,” he said casually. “She lets me keep this room as I like, and thus I am always shifting books and papers when I have visitors.” He gestured at the chair. “Please have a seat.”
She had expected him to be pompous and rude, to have it out with her in the foyer, if not the alley behind the building. But he was treating her like a guest.
She didn’t like it. Didn’t trust it. She must keep her wits about her in the face of such politeness, even if her heart hammered wildly.
He leaned against his desk, not seeming to care that he crumpled a stack of papers and sent books sliding. “Now,” he said briskly, “what’s this about your lost situation? And what does it have to do with Frederic Stanton?”
She slumped, suddenly at a loss. When she’d imagined this conversation, she’d cast herself as the angry, injured party. How best to launch into her story now?
“I suppose you don’t recognize me,” she said lamely.
Mr. Thompson leaned forward to peer at her, lifting his spectacles briefly before placing them back on his nose. “There’s something familiar about you, but I can’t quite place it.”
“I was the spirit at Mrs. Martineau’s séance Saturday night.”
His eyes widened. “Ah.”
“She sacked me and I have no place to go.” Anger roiled anew in her belly. “It’s your fault, you see. You interfered, and now I shall have to beg on the streets.”
“You have no family?”
“Mum’s been dead two years. She never told me of her people.”
“And your father?”
“I only just learned he’s dead.” She took a breath. “My father was Frederic Stanton.”
Mr. Thompson went pale and gripped the edge of the desk, a reaction that sent her heart thudding again. Tears scratched behind her eyes, but she couldn’t lose her calm in front of this man. Instead she fixed her gaze upon him, willing her heartbeat to slow.
He took a handkerchief out of his pocket to mop his brow. “As far as I knew, Frederic had no children, but there’s no denying you have the look of him. Perhaps that’s what seemed familiar about you.” He thrust the cloth back in his pocket and spoke gently. “Would you please share more details? I confess to being deeply curious.”
“My father …
… my mother before he married.”
Mr. Thompson grimaced slightly, nodding his understanding. “Go on.”
“He thought her too common to wed, or at least that’s what she told me. He didn’t abandon her, though. He gave her an allowance and paid my tuition at a proper day school. I didn’t know him well, but he was kind when I did see him. Three years ago the money stopped and my mother took ill.” Kate paused, feeling her face crumple. “Mum died a year later.”
A heavy silence followed. Kate wiped her nose on the inside of her sleeve. When she glanced at Mr. Thompson, she saw a
glistening in his eyes, and it made her own prickle again. “I never knew my father had died. Perhaps Mum didn’t know, either. Sir, please tell me when it happened.”
He did not hesitate. “He died three years ago, on the first of June.”
Mr. Thompson shook his head. “Oh, it was a terrible thing. A very shocking and mysterious death.” He paused, clearly uncomfortable. “I’m certain it was an accident,” he finally said. “A tragic accident.”
“But I must know.”
He stared at the bookcase behind her. “It was an accident, and that is all I shall say. I hate to dwell upon it. He was a great man, a dear friend, and though three years have passed I’ve still not accustomed myself to the loss.” His shoulders softened and he turned to her with a smile. “Let us instead discuss your predicament.”
Kate straightened her back, prepared for battle. But before she could open her mouth, he spoke again.
“You needn’t look so fierce. I wish to help you, especially now that I know you to be the daughter of a dear friend. I am horrified at the very thought of you participating in a fraud in order to keep fed and housed. You must stay here for a time, at least until Mrs. Thompson and I find a better alternative.”
Kate breathed out, the battle fury rushing from her body along with the air in her lungs. A small voice in the back of her mind advised suspicion. She couldn’t trust the people she
to do right by her, much less strangers. But she was deflated by weariness and worry.