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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

The Heartbeat Thief (10 page)

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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A treat? It didn’t even begin to describe it. A glow pooled inside her, a flush of warmth that made her mouth water. She hovered behind a swell of sensation and knew—instinctively—that she needed a release or the pressure would cause her to pop.

She seized him, her palm on the back of his neck, and kissed him, a fierce press of lip against lip, a touch that could easily turn savage and devour.

He slipped a tiny groan against her mouth, sliding his free hand up her back, holding her close, returning the kiss with a fervor that shook her to the core.

Just a moment. He allowed her the indulgence for only the briefest moment, stoking the fire, deepening the kiss before breaking away, pushing her back.

His breathing was labored. She’d never seen him suffer from a lack of composure but this—he looked one step away from being undone. She ran her fingers over her lips, still feeling the heat of his mouth, the fading glow of the beat within her.

That first stolen heartbeat, that first passion-driven kiss. So much, so new—it all promised so much.

“Don’t get distracted.” His gaze trailed downwards from her mouth, and lingered over more forbidden portions before he forced it back up to her eyes. “This is an important lesson. Steal another, this time from her throat.”

The hunger for a taste of life once again seized her focus. She touched the woman’s neck, instinct drawing her fingers to the site where the blood throbbed close to the skin. Seizing a beat, she tugged it free. The warm glow travelled to her chest, much more muted than the first.

The locket warmed against her skin. Senza lifted it, expecting the metal to be glowing red. Closing her fingers around it, she could sense the beat within. It created a feeling of possessiveness she’d never before experienced. She fisted her fingers around it, feeling the bite of the clasp as it dug into her palm.

He nodded. “Good. You stored a beat. Now, take one more before I release our catch. Take this from her chest.”

She backed up a step. “Oh, no, I don’t think—”

“I am not going to bare her bosom to you. Although, in this state, I don’t think she’d mind. Would you, love?”

The woman tilted her head, exposing her throat. Empty eyes in an inanimate face, a puppet under his control.

“Come closer,
bien-aimé
. Pretend to adjust her lace, or pat her reassuringly. You will learn to be covert. It simply takes practice to be a good thief. And I suggest you learn quickly because bad thieves…well.” His voice dropped to darker places, his meaning clear. “They don’t remain thieves for long.”

She studied the woman: her stooping shoulders, her dangling head, her hat askew. “Well, he’s right, miss. Let me help you with that.”

Senza straightened her head, smiled like a friend, and repositioned her hat. Reaching for the ribbon, she trailed her fingers down its length to where it lay upon her décolleté. Just a brief touch, she nicked a beat before proceeding to tie the woman’s hat.

It was a vicious beat. Straight from the heart, the strongest of the pulse, the power of the heart’s squeeze. The beat surged into her, crashing with a tidal force. She reeled, rocking back on her feet, mouth open, the simple act of breathing almost too great a task.

He only smiled, that grin full of wicked delight. He licked his lips. “The first from the heart is quite a thrill as well, no? I didn’t want to spoil it for you.”

The woman drooped back against him, eyes half closed, and she sagged in his arms.

Her apparent weakness alarmed Senza. “Did I hurt her?”

“A single beat isn’t missed. However, she is here, where she doesn’t belong. Time to send her off.” He clouded again, vanishing from her sight. Upon his return, he brushed his hands together. “See? Right as rain.”

He pointed at the shades that moved around them.

Sure enough, she could see her. The woman shook her head as if to clear her mind before setting off once more, a bit of a drowsy stagger to her first steps.

“Will you teach me how to do that?” She spun, feeling an energy that was completely new to her. Anything. She could do anything. “How to pull people in here?”

“No. This is my place, and mine alone. I may have taught you a special trick, but some secrets are still mine to keep. Now, you go back to the world. Your best lessons will be through experience.”

He raised his hands and she braced herself for his embrace, eager for a chance to be in his arms once more. Her future spun out before her, a life free from death, a life spent with him. And she would steal more than beats. She would steal the secret of his name, the one who purloined her life and captured her heart. Just she and him, always and forever—

The embrace never came. With a firm hand, he pushed her shoulders and she staggered, tripping back into reality. The greyness of limbo had disappeared and she stood alone on the path, very much back in the real world.

Go, thief.
His voice echoed in her head.
Steal the beats. But,
bien-aimé—

She could hear the smile in his voice.

Don’t get caught.

 

Senza spun around, searching for him, but he was gone.

Her ear, warmed by the heat of his breath, rapidly cooled. As the heat seeped away, so did her confidence. What had he done to her? What had just happened?

Was it all a dream?

People streamed around her as she stood alone on the sidewalk. Polite nods and hat tips, shy smiles and murmurs. No one acted as if she’d simply appeared out of thin air. The surreal feeling dissolved as she drank in the sounds of the town. Even the woman who he’d pulled into limbo stood a piece away, smiling and holding out her beribboned wares to the passing ladies. She didn’t even look at Senza.

Had she imagined the whole thing?

She pressed her hand to her chest, her fingers glancing across the cool touch of metal. She hadn’t put any jewelry on today. Curious she looked down—

And saw the locket he’d given her. Hesitantly, she cupped her hand around it. A warmth seeped into her skin.

Real. She didn’t imagine it.

She walked along the path, her thoughts a jumble, toying with the gold chain. Aggie. Aggie would be worried, she’d better get back to the store before she realized she’d wandered off.

Crossing the street, she spied Aggie through the window of the shop, examining a rack of ribbons. She probably didn’t even know that Senza had left. Well, best to get inside before she was missed. And this…

She picked up the locket that lay against her chest and turned it over in her hand. Antique gold, scrolling and filigree, with a delicate latch holding it closed. A deep red stone, nearly the size of the cover, glittered. She peered more closely at the gem. It seized sunlight and made it dance deep within its depths, a sluggish swirl that reminded her of the pond in the garden, its volumes stirred only by the fish.

Under the shade of the milliner’s porch, the glow was as bright as a lantern in the night. Most unnatural. Better tuck this away before it drew uncomfortable questions. When she tucked it into the top of her dress, her fingers pressed against the flesh of her bosom. She finally noticed the eerie quiet in her chest.

No heartbeat.

Her eyes wide, she gulped for air. Her heart no longer beat. She did not live, he’d stolen her life and she was alone and—

Her legs melted out from under her and the ground swayed, ready to meet her. A pounding of feet inside the shop, the door opening, a man’s voice sending up an alarm. “Easy now, miss. Your cousin will be here in but a moment.”

The milliner. He must have seen her through the window. She reached out toward his voice, her vision dimmed with lightheadedness, and touched his arm. She grasped it to steady herself but when her fingers brushed his wrist—

His heartbeat sank into her skin.

She didn’t even have to pull it. She thirsted and it answered and tapped itself into her flesh, streaking a warm red line to her chest. Vision and awareness and strength immediately restored.

She yanked back from his grasp. He flexed his hand as if his fingers hand had become numb.

“No, no, Mr. Whitehill.” Fortified by the heartbeat, she smoothed her skirt and patted her curls. “I am fine, just a momentary spell. Thank you, but I am fine.”

She backed away, not looking behind her and when she turned, she bumped into an older woman, a friend of her mother. A circle of curious passersby had accumulated on the sidewalk and the older woman reached out a helpful hand.

The touch of a bare hand upon Senza’s only caused the girl to draw another heartbeat. The force of it made her whimper, the thump and the flush and the heat of the locket inside her corset. People staring. Drawing attention. Not good.

Mr. Whitehill had stepped back, whispering to another man. He knew what she’d done. He knew and she would be caught—

Senza broke away from their suspicious eyes and restrained murmurs. She hitched up her skirts, and ran for her life.

 

“And she positively broke us into a sweat, she marched us back so quickly. I’m fair exhausted.” Her cousin sank onto the parlor couch and tugged free a handkerchief, dabbing her mouth.

“What got into her?” Mrs. Fyne’s voice held disapproval more so than concern.

No doubt she worried that the episode would adversely affect Senza’s chances at closing a marriage deal. Senza stood in the hallway, back to the wall, head turned to listen. She’d stolen not one but two beats from Aggie on their way back. All the girl had been trying to do was calm her, slow her down, keep her from running herself to death.

But she couldn’t die, could she? Not even if she ran to London and back. Aggie was not as fortunate. When Senza had lifted the second beat—

She squeezed her eyes shut, not wishing to remember, but the memory flooded her head. There was no escaping it.

The second theft made Aggie stumble and she’d nearly fallen. Senza bade her sit on the stone wall lining the path, pacing fretfully until she was well enough to continue. The rest of their journey home was much slower. Senza put a great deal of distance between them. She couldn’t let it happen again.

What did Aggie remember? Would she tell?

Senza chewed her lip, fretting. Was she caught?

“Haven’t the faintest idea,” Aggie said at length. “It’s not like she left me any breath to ask. I’d only stopped in the millinery for a second and when I came out, she was running. I had to run to catch up with her. What will people think?”

What would they think? That she had fallen ill or succumbed to bizarre behavior seemed the least of concerns.

“I’m sure that this will pass,” Mrs. Fyne said. “She’s just recovering from her friend’s sudden passing. It is her grieving process. Perhaps it was too soon to take her to town, Aggie. You should have known better.” Her voice lifted. “Would you be a dear and let Winston know she is going to rest? He’s painting in the orchard, waiting for her return.”

Whispering a prayer of thanks, Senza pushed away from the wall and padded upstairs, quick as a kitten and just as quietly. By the time Della called her for supper, she was quite restored.

Seating herself at the table, she realized she was not only not hungry—she was afraid what would happen if she ate.

Her heart didn’t beat. She kept forgetting to breathe. What would happen if she tried to swallow something?

New terror rose up. Knell had given her no information, no instruction, and here, in full sight of her family, how would she handle a scene?

“My dear, you look rather pale,” Mr. Fyne said. “Are you well?”

“Of course, she’s well.” Mrs. Fyne looked around the table before settling her gaze on her daughter. “Winston is looking forward to hearing you play this evening.”

“I must beg your forgiveness,” she said, the weakness in her voice genuine. “I have developed a terrible headache. Please excuse me.”

Without waiting, she pushed away from the table and went upstairs to her room. Sitting at the window, she watched the sky grow swollen with sunset’s darkening clouds, a grey solidity that reached up toward the rising evening. Motionless, she sat and stared, her mind a buzz of questions and anxiety but, strangely, clear of fear.

The daylight might die, but she never would.

She would never, ever die.

So enthralled was she with the concept, she hadn’t realized that she’d completely withdrawn. The sky turned, its blazing sunset cooling to the deep velvet of twilight. Only Della came in, to straighten the room, to ask if she were coming down to eat something that Cook had kept warm.

Senza sat in near catatonia, barely registering the increasingly-agitated maid.

It wasn’t until the door closed once more that Senza roused to her surroundings.

“I’m sorry, Della, I was distracted…” She looked around her. “Della?”

But there was no one. She was alone.

Alone. It was a strange sensation, indeed.

 

She spent the remainder of the evening alone, reading. Pretending to read, at least. When the candle began to sputter, she decided it would be best to go to bed.

But she wasn’t tired, not in the least. No fatigue, no tired eyes, not even the pretense of a yawn.

But what else was there to do?

So, she went about doing the things she did every night. Brushed her hair, changed into a sleeping gown, sought out her parents to bid goodnight. Mother eyed her, part suspicion, part concern, and pressed a kiss to her forehead that was perhaps a bit more emphatic than the night before.

Normal, normal, normal. Senza had to pretend that everything was normal.

When it was anything but.

Her rounds made, she wandered back to her room. Della had turned down the blankets while she was out of her room. She slipped off her dressing shoes, draped her robe over the vanity chair, and slid into bed.

Leaning over the candlestick, she hesitated before blowing it out, half-afraid of what the dark would bring.

No. No more fear. That which she had dreaded most had been conquered.

Quickly, she puffed out the dying flame, breathing in the tiny curl of smoke, and pulled her blankets up to her chin, watching. Waiting.

Nothing.

Nothing was different. No drifting shadows, no strange other-worldly noises, no phantasms. It was another night in her room. Nothing more.

Without another thought she closed her eyes and let herself settle off to sleep.

 

High-pitched screaming, close to her face, made her open her eyes right back up, her heart in a painful squeeze of terror.

“Oh, master! Oh, mistress! Fetch help, help, quickly!” Della’s voice took on a shrillness she’d never heard before. “She’s dead! Oh, my miss is dead!”

Della’s screams had retreated into the hallway by the time Senza sat up, her curtains still drawn. Dead? Who? She shoved her blankets aside and clambered out of bed, sprinting toward the door, squinting in the sunshine. Footsteps and shouts, a dizzying flurry of action and panic, seemed to come from all directions.

At the doorway, it struck her dumb. Sunlight. But she’d only just gone to bed—

Della, her parents, Henry—they all poured into the hallway from different directions, seeming to head in her direction. When they saw Senza, they stopped in their tracks.

Her sense regained, Senza ran to them. “What happened? Who’s dead?”

Her mother turned a scalding look at Della, who stuttered and looked completely baffled.

“You, miss. I thought you were—but you’re not—but you were cold, and not breathing.” Della gave up trying to make sense and began to cry.

Mrs. Fyne was less than sympathetic. “Really, Della. Making us all worry like that. Don’t ever give us a scare like that again.”

Cupping her hands around Senza’s cheeks, she cast another glare at the distraught maid. “She’s fine, the very picture of perfect. How could you have mistaken?”

“Just a mistake, is all.” Mr. Fyne reached a hand to stroke Senza’s hair. “She hadn’t eaten last night, remember? She was probably a bit faint, is all.”

Senza held onto her father’s hand, trying to hold a smile that just wanted to slip right off.

Dead. Della had thought she was dead.

She’d only closed her eyes one moment, and it was bright morning the next, and Della said she had no life—

Was that what she looked like when she slept? Just a body?

“And I’m sure she’s more than peckish now,” her father continued. “But she’ll take breakfast in bed. Won’t risk you fainting on the stairs.”

“Of course.” With both hands on Senza’s shoulders, Mrs. Fyne turned Senza around before she had a chance to protest. “Back to bed with you. Della, fetch her something light. None of those fruit tarts, they’ll sit too heavily.”

Mrs. Fyne marched Senza back to her room and tucked her into bed, muttering the entire while.

“Really. What a goings on. Hollering out like that, frightening everyone in the house.”

“I was just sleeping soundly, Mother. The walk to town yesterday, and the headache—I was overtired. That’s all.”

“Overtired and dead are two completely different things. She should have known better.” Smoothing the blanket, Mrs. Fyne sat down on the bed and smoothed the hair from Senza’s forehead. “Giving me a scare like that. I ought to reprimand her.”

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
9.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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