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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

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BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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“Ladies and gentleman,” the herald called. “Miss Senza Fyne.”

He bowed and swept out his hand. Senza stepped into the doorway, framing herself within as she paused, soaking in the vision of the audience inside. She curtseyed, a slow graceful sinking of the knees, a dip of the chin and a matching downplay of her eyes. Perfectly timed, tirelessly practiced.

The guests applauded, their eyes alight with curiosity and admiration.

Aggie stood nearby, wide eyes trying to take in everything at once. Senza’s parents came in behind Senza and, thusly reunited, the introductions began. Her first dance, a quadrille, was awarded to the young man whose family held the ball. He stepped up to her and bowed, a grin tilting the corner of his mouth, taking her gloved hand and leading her away.

Once she stepped onto the floor, the quiet hush to which she’d become accustomed in town was magnified by a thousand, as conversations died off to watch the county’s most beautiful woman take her first dance on the arm of a nobleman’s son, who appeared completely smitten.

Son of a lord, and whatnot. Like a celebrated nobleman, he marched along beside her, back and shoulders straight like an officer-in-training, allowing himself to steal a glance or two at the prize beside him.

She paraded beside him as demurely as she possibly could.

Inside, she was buzzing with exaltation. She wanted to laugh, to spin like a child in a flower-strewn meadow. A glance at her mother’s intense scrutiny was all she needed to subdue herself. Mother’s training could not all go to waste at the first dance.

Senza had been briefed for well over a year, of course, to the intricacies of the local gentry. For months, she’d planned her dress, her hair, her smile. With Grandmother’s company and her mother’s rigid instruction, Senza practiced conversing and flirting and all the arts of maneuvering the London Season, even if she were to be confined all the way here in quiet Surrey.

She gave them a performance they would not soon forget; Miss Fyne’s debut was destined to become the gold standard to which young women aspired for years to come.

And so, Senza Fyne had been given to the world.

She never, ever wanted to leave.

 

The night swam past in a glorious haze, of music and dancing and beautiful people, so polite in their well-wishes, yet so obvious in their assessment of this newest ingénue. Although two other girls had also been introduced that evening, Senza was the fairest.

She never missed a look of admiration or a lingering gaze. It was simply her place in the world—an expansion of the environment of love and security within which she’d grown.

Her personality did not lack in comparison to her looks, nor her intelligence nor wit. She was as well-spoken and well-read as any of her peers, causing more than one tutor to pine for her, albeit inappropriately. Father indulged her love of reading by giving her a place of her own in his conservatory, so that she could be close to her worn volumes of Shakespeare and the great master poets.

But it was her beauty that was ultimately deemed to be the measure of her value. While the mirror merely reflected the face she’d always worn, over the past half-dozen years her mother’s constant lecturing about the sole purpose of reaching womanhood—to get a husband—made her outsides worth fortunes more than her insides.

That was the only expectation her mother had set out for her daughter. A husband. Anything in excess of that would be a grace from Heaven.

While the Fyne sons were encouraged to seek out their livelihoods, Senza’s destiny was somewhat more focused. A woman’s primary occupation was marriage. Mrs. Fyne would see that Senza did her job, and did it well.

That was the mindset of every girl Senza’s age. One must strive to appear beautiful and accomplished and worthy of an advantageous marriage. Senza was no different.

Her beauty was a blessing, a gift that her mother valued over all else, and each night, she lay awake, worrying about the day it would abandon her. If she lost her looks, she could very well lose her mother’s affections.

In the darkness of night, the preposterously illogical worry grew strong and plausible, driving her racing pulse and spurring her to pace a circuit around her room, waiting for the anxiety to subside.

Beauty was a fleeting thing, a moment of bloom before the blossom withered. Spring mornings always burned off into caustic summer afternoons before the shriveling winds of early winter arrived. Daylight always succumbed to the thrall of twilight, the slow death of sunset, the mindless sleep of night.

Her family’s comfortable lifestyle, her brothers’ doting affection, the comfort of her friendship with Aggie, so much the sister she never had—all of these things should have wrapped her in security and joy. But Senza was not shallow enough to see only the glimmer of sunlight on the surface—she was intelligent enough to know that sunlight in front meant shadows behind.

Her curiosity and her pensive heart were too much to suppress. Add to that a love for reading, a thirst for knowledge, and a pursuit of truth in all things—Senza not only knew the shadows existed, she persistently danced upon their edge. She saw the darkness at the edges and allowed the tendrils of fear to fuel the furious beating of her heart.

The end of beauty, the end of light, the end of life itself. One day, all would be lost to the oblivion of time. The thought chilled her to the core.

Life was a masquerade, her beauty a mask. And one day it would end. It ended for everyone.

But not this day
, Senza reassured herself many hours later, when the ball ended and the family rode home in happy exhaustion.
Not this perfect day. This one shall live on.

The carriage rumbled along the grassy lanes toward the warming horizon, where the night was gently releasing its hold on the sky. Few stars still winked, as bright as the jewels that the guests had worn, as sparkling as their smiles.

Life would end, surely must end, but tonight it seemed a distant impossibility. At least, for this moment, when all was as right and as wonderful as she’d dreamed.

Tomorrow, reality would return.

Aggie dozed gently upon her shoulder, still wearing a happy expression. Father and mother murmured quietly to each other, chuckling as they recounted some of the evening’s highlights. Every now and them, Senza would catch pieces of a tune as the driver sang to himself.

Senza closed her eyes and held tightly to the elation of her debut, if only for a few moments more. This perfect evening, those wonderful spinning moments, this sensation of being on the verge of something bigger than life itself—

If she could find a way to stop the hands of the clock, she would do it in a heartbeat.

Part I: Unbirth

 

“But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven, there are now none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waning away; and there flows a ruddier light through the blood-colored panes; and the blackness of the sable drapery appals; and to him whose foot falls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony a muffled peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reaches their ears who indulge in the more remote gaieties of the other apartments.

 

“But these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat feverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And then the music ceased…”

 

Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death

 

 

The sky blushed with the hints of dawn when the Fynes arrived home. Senza floated her way to bed, chattering endlessly to Della, who alternately shushed her and begged her to continue. Somehow, the chambermaid managed to get the girl undressed and into bed before the sun was properly risen. Despite the long night, the inexhaustible stream of memories made it difficult to fall asleep.

Her respite didn’t last long past noon. By the time she wandered downstairs, Grandmother was settled on her couch by the parlor window, reading through old posts she kept in a basket nearby.

Senza’s grandmother, a stately matriarch of the family, had been a constant presence in her life. While her mother ran the household—work enough for a dozen women—her grandmother positively doted on her. The privilege of her station, she’d confide with a wink.

The elderly Mrs. Thornton had taught Senza to read and write, taught her how to roll crusts out for apple tartlets, tutored her the steps of a waltz for her still-distant coming-out. Grandmother took her to town to shop for linens, sat next to her in church for Sunday prayers, climbed up to the attics with her to dig through the cedar chests, hunting for long-lost family secrets.

“Slow down, Mother.” Mrs. Fyne would caution. “Stop acting so reckless.”

“We are not reckless, dear,” Grandmother would say, sharing a secret smile with Senza. “We are simply living in the moment.”

But in the autumn before Senza’s debut, Grandmother seemed to simply stop living.

It wasn’t a lightning-strike death, a suddenly failed heart or a brain fever. It wasn’t a riding accident or a fall on the stairs. Grandmother merely aged, and as she aged, she faded.

Death was a lingering, debilitating dance. Death toyed with her, allowed her to have hopeful, good days, good enough to think the bad, past days were a momentary spell. Then the good day would end and Grandmother would remember she was dying again.

Grandmother no longer went riding in the pastures, nor went for slow walks around the courtyard. Grandmother no longer had the wind for shopping, the stamina for an afternoon of baking. She fell asleep in church and had forgotten all about the mysterious attics.

In the weeks following Senza’s coming-out, little by little, Grandmother’s world seemed to fray at the edges, the reaches of her existence drawing tighter and tighter together until her life became confided to her lemon-yellow bedroom suite, where she rarely left her bed.

Senza’s world changed, too. She couldn’t be lured outside by her siblings or her friends. She reluctantly attended teas and dinner parties and picnics, invitations to which came by the score. If not for her mother’s relentless insistence that Senza take her place in society or face dire unspoken consequences, Senza would never have left the house at all. The season ended by July, and the summer was a hot one. It was easy to blame Grandmother’s failing on the oppressive heat, and Mrs. Fyne went through great lengths to make her ailing mother as comfortable as possible.

Senza was content to sit on Grandmother’s bed, reading or sewing or simply talking, reliving funny stories and favorite moments. All the while Grandmother imparted her wisdom and her hopes for her grand-daughter.

One afternoon, after a particularly fulsome discussion on suitors and marriage and expectations and ambitions, Senza clapped her hands over her ears with a laugh. “Grandmother, slow down!”

“I cannot,” Grandmother replied, her chin trembling. The lamplight glinted off the unshed tears in her eyes, making her gaze seem brighter than it had looked in weeks. “I am running out of time, and there is so much left for me to do.”

Troubled by the ominous words and the despair in Grandmother’s voice, Senza lay awake in bed that night.

I am running out of time
. Her grandmother’s wavering voice tumbled through her head, over and over.

How unfair. Grandmother shouldn’t have to run out of time. Nobody should.

What did she mean, run out of time? Mother said sometimes she took too long to get ready, that she was running out of time. But, no matter how long she dallied, the phaeton was always waiting, and she always arrived where she needed to be. She never actually ran out of time; she simply arrived fashionably late.

And time itself? Clocks went in circles, the hands never stopping. Even if one clock wasn’t wound, the others were. There was no end. So how could grandmother run out?

Fall arrived, with heavy orchard harvests warning of a harsh winter to come. One morning, Senza woke early and, unable to resist the sight of the fruit-ladened trees, sneaked out before breakfast. Returning with her skirts full of plump apples, she bumped open the kitchen door with her backside, earning a smile from Cook.

Today would be a good day, Senza insisted. With apples like these, Grandmother would be unable to resist a trip to the kitchen. Senza could do all the hard work—the peeling, the cutting, the kneading—and Grandmother could supervise, watching her protégé from a warm chair near the fire, only getting up to crimp the pie crusts as only her expert hands could.

It would be splendid fun, and they’d both be rewarded by the scents and flavors of apple and spice and all the goodness of a perfect September day.

Senza dumped the apples into a bowl Cook had held for her, selecting the biggest one. Maybe she’ll place it on a silver tray, just to surprise Grandmother, a hint of what fun awaited…

Her presentation thusly arranged, she hurried to the hallway stairs. Strained voices caught her ear as she passed the parlor. Mother, wringing her hands and speaking with the doctor. The doctor had become a frequent visitor to the family home.

This morning, however, his mouth was set in a line that matched the flatness of his brows.

“It’s just a matter of time, now,” he said, and patted Mrs. Fyne’s shoulder.

Her mother covered her mouth and dipped her head. She spied Senza, clinging to the doorway.

“Your grandmother is waiting, Senza.” Mrs. Fyne waved her kerchief at Senza, unable to look at her. Tears crowded her voice. “Hurry on up.”

Eyes wide, Senza grabbed the apple off the plate, bunched her skirts, and sprinted the stairs. Breathless, she burst into the room.

Grandmother looked tiny against the pile of pillows, frail and weightless. Her voice was a feather of sound. “Ah, Senza. Come.”

Senza rushed to her side, throwing herself upon the edge of the bed and grasping her hand. “Grandmother. The doctor is downstairs and mother is beside herself. What is happening?”

“Oh, child.” Her thin, pale smile was tinged with sadness. “I am dying.”

Senza shook her head. Dying is what flowers did in the fall, what light did at twilight. Dying meant an end after which there was no more.

That couldn’t be what was happening to Grandmother. It could not be.

Grandmother raised her tremulous hand to cup Senza’s cheek, wiping away tears she didn’t even know had spilled. “It seems so unfair to leave you now, dear. You are my brightest joy and I haven’t even begun to tell you a fraction of all that lies within my heart. Never wait, child. Tomorrow may never come, and what you do today will have to be enough to last.”

The morning dragged. Senza was too frightened to leave her Grandmother, worried she would miss a single moment. Desperation settled itself like a shroud around her and she couldn’t breathe without feeling like her throat would close, trapping her in a final breath.

Luncheon passed. Senza refused to come downstairs to dine with the family, choosing instead to nibble an apple while curled up on a chaise near the bed. Grandmother napped. Her breathing had become no more than rapid puffs, a soft
heh-heh-heh
keeping a simple cadence.

She stirred in her sleep, her lace bed cap rustling against the pillow.

“You’ve come, I see.” The words were quiet, but strained.

Grandmother’s voice startled Senza. She looked up from her book, leaning forward, ready to comfort her. But Grandmother was not speaking to her.

She followed the direction of the woman’s gaze to the far corner of the room. An empty chair, where a pale blue dressing gown lay draped over the arm. The tall windows overlooking the garden, the heavy brocade drapes tied back with sheer cobalt scarves. A pastoral painting done by a cousin from the chilly north.

Nothing. Nobody. No one.

And yet…something. A change in the air made the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand, washing a wave of chills down her back. Something was different.

Some
thing
was here.

“Grandmother?” Senza whispered. She rolled her gaze back to her grandmother, afraid to move. The sensation of being watched pinned her in place.

“You’ve been patient, friend. Just a moment more, love, I beg.” Grandmother fluttered her fingers, warding her unseen visitor off. A
shush
sounded as the dressing gown slipped from the chair to the floor, a heap of abandoned silk and lace.

Senza’s tongue suddenly thickened, and swallowing became a task with the pulse booming in her throat. Every muscle had tightened and she snapped up from the chaise, creeping onto the security of the bed. She dislodged the apple that had lain on the bedspread all day, a silent, stubborn insistence that today should have been a good day.

The apple clunked to the floor and wobbled out of sight under the dark bed.

“Senza.” Grandmother tilted her head, finally seeming to notice her. “I love you, child. Know that my love for you is endless. Never miss a moment to live.”

Before Senza could respond, Grandmother’s eyes turned back to the empty chair before falling half-closed. Her jaw sagged, her exhale long and guttural.

Senza leaned closer. “Grandmother?”

She reached out and entwined their fingers, but when she ran her hand over Grandmother’s wrist, there was no pulse.

No pulse.

“No.” A new alarm spread through her. The word became a seamless litany. “No. No.”

“Della!” She lunged for the bell cord, ringing it over and over. Grandmother was unresponsive. The corner was still empty, even though Grandmother’s eyes still watched it.

Senza ran her hands over the woman’s eyes, closing them. The blankness of her stare, as if a light had been extinguished. Those eyes held no more life than a painting, a statue, a graveyard angel.

No more. Don’t look. She stepped back as if the floor had given way beneath her, fleeing to safer ground, away from grandmother’s slackened face.

Those eyes had been so much more than a cold stone gaze could ever be. Better the eyes to close and the memory to live—

Della appeared in the doorway, looking ready with an admonition but one look was all it took to send her running out again, calling for Mrs. Fyne, her voice cracking. Footsteps pounded on the stairs, in the hallway, and a moment later mother swooped into the room with a tearful cry. Her father, a close step behind, wrapped Senza in his burly embrace, trying to shield her from the sight of her grandmother’s body, her mother’s fruitless efforts to prop the woman’s gaping mouth closed. Trying to make her look as if she were merely sleeping.

Senza peered over his arm at the still figure on the bed. Didn’t her father realize? She was past protecting. She was horrified and she was numb and she was very, very angry. Grandmother’s time had run out.

She was dead.

The naked sensation that gripped her could not be banished by her father’s warm embrace. An alien emotion filled her like cold rain. The shadow into which she’d peered all her life now swooped in to close the distance and swallowed her. The end that she had pondered with unease—it had a name, a substance, the singular definition of truth.

Death
.

For the first time in her cosseted and protected and pampered life, Senza knew the taste of absolute fear.

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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