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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

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BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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That fear never left her.

The days that followed, the mourning rituals and the church service and the burial in the family crypt—it was all secondary to the dread that lurked in every passing footstep, a shadow on her very heels.

A frost had dropped overnight, crisping the leaves and drooping the gardens. Senza’s nerves were taut with frustration. People were so shallow. All the fuss over the manner of dress and the wording of the eulogies and the menu for the funeral luncheon... Senza wanted to slap them, to shake each of the aunts and the cousins and the well-meaning family friends and scream at them.

She is dead. She’s not coming back!

She felt trapped within her silent grief, unable to speak the words upon her heart. Why couldn’t they see none of this mattered? None of the flowers or pretty words. None of the family that came in from far outside town. They’d always been too busy to visit in the summer or at Christmas. Too involved with their lives to drive up for a birthday or a picnic.

Nothing mattered because it was too late. Grandmother was dead and she wasn’t here to enjoy any of this. Everything was just a show and none of it mattered.

Aggie was desolate in her own grief, unable to look at Senza without a renewal of tears. Only Senza’s dear friend, Felicity Keating, seemed to understand. If it hadn’t been for her, Senza would have felt very lost, indeed. Throughout the long day, the somber wake, the echoing of the vicar’s service against the high stone walls of the church, Felicity remained at Senza’s side, holding her hand, providing a simple but sustaining comfort to her bereaved companion.

“Stay with me, Senza.” Felicity used a low, soothing tone and stroked her friend’s listless hand. “You’re here, with me, and we will get through this together.”

Senza was vaguely aware of the proceedings about her, entombed within her own tortured thoughts. She felt persistently haunted—not by the ghost of her grandmother, but by the spectre of Death who had stolen her. If Death came for Grandmother, stealing her away a piece at a time, then Death could take anyone.

Including her.

She didn’t think they would meet on such pleasant terms. She would not greet Death the way Grandmother had, with a smile and a gentle scolding to wait just a moment more. Death would not be a friend. It would be a demon, teeth bared in cruel delight, ready to snatch away everything she’d ever held dear.

And everywhere, she saw the grin of the death’s head, in every mirror, in every shadow. Haunted and hounded. Death lurked everywhere, waiting for his chance to purloin her spirit. The fear that quickened every step and kept her wide awake long into the night made her feel as if she’d go mad in her grief.

Felicity would reach out for her, drag her from the mire of her somber thoughts, anchor her in the living once more. Felicity became a lifeline, keeping Senza tethered to the real world, preventing her from withdrawing into a deep melancholy. Mother couldn’t comfort her; she was deep in mourning of her own.

Aggie tried her best to be a comfort, but she was too timid to persist and became easily defeated by Senza’s lack of response. Only Felicity’s voice could break through the echoes of the fear that threatened madness, and Senza held onto her hand, her voice, the light and the comfort of her nearness.

The weeks that followed the funeral were a constant struggle with a fear that threatened to consume her in a black void. Felicity, darling Felicity with her squinchy accent and her buoyancy and her voracious appetite for life—Felicity was Senza’s path out of the dark.

Gradually, life in the Fyne household returned to normal, albeit it a new kind of normal that didn’t involve Grandmother. As the holidays approached, Mrs. Fyne informed her daughter that she had no choice but to resume the activities she’d put off with Grandmother’s illness.

“A tonic,” her mother said. “It will do wonders for your spirit, the distractions of daily life. You mustn’t be coddled.”

“I would hardly say I’m coddled, Mother.”

“I would. You don’t need slow walks or time for crying spells. You need to be out in society because what you need, grandmother or no, is an engagement.”

Senza blinked, unable to respond to such a bald statement.

There was no sense in arguing, period. Mrs. Fyne was in possession of a single occupation—to see that her daughter won an advantageous marriage. As long as she breathed, she’d try for Senza, and by God Himself, Senza would try for her.

This was the life into which she’d been born. This was destiny, signed, sealed, and thusly decreed. Once more, Senza donned her gowns and pinned her hair, as beautiful as ever before, although with a spirit muted. She accompanied Aggie and Felicity to balls and luncheons, giving full attention to society and her duties as a young available woman.

As she re-emerged into society, she was awarded a place of honor within her new social circles. Her beauty and her charm were beyond compare, and her kind nature and quick wit could not even inspire jealousy. Everyone wanted to know her name. Who was the young woman with the ruby curls, the glittering green eyes, the smile that made the strongest men hold their breath?

Senza was everyone’s darling, now, and everyone she met let her know exactly that.

Her mother was envied, of course, by the other ladies. Her daughter would find an excellent match, would want for nothing. And even though Senza had no official suitors as yet, already the other mothers jockeyed for position within Mrs. Fyne’s favor, so as to ensure invitation to her daughter’s inevitable wedding. No one could bear the thought of missing such a premier event.

Senza’s life became a cycle of social gatherings, of dancing and cultured conversation, of open sleigh rides after a heavy snow. For her, it was diversion, distraction, duty.

For her mother, it was marketing.

Undaunted by the futility, Senza protested her mother’s untiring efforts to set a match.

“You are not getting younger, Senza.” Mrs. Fyne selected a sapphire comb from the vanity table and held it against her daughter’s coif. “You are charming and confident and kind. You have a gentle hand with animals and children adore you. And, I dare say, you have your father’s intelligence, which would give any young man a run for his money.”

Mrs. Fyne lay the comb down and picked up a sprig of wrapped-ribbon forget-me-nots. “Those things will never leave you. But beauty, Senza, is fleeting. You are in the full bloom of your youth, dear, a blossom at its prime. But petals will wilt. They will curl at the edges, lose their vibrancy, their delicate fragrance. No one shops for wilted flowers. Only the freshest are taken. Only the freshest are wanted.”

She leaned down and found her daughter’s eyes in the vanity mirror. “Spring doesn’t last forever. Best to market while the market is full.”

“Honestly, mother.” Senza grimaced. “I am not ignorant of my responsibilities but I can’t say you make me look forward to these parties.”

“You’d do best to take a page from Felicity Keating’s book, dear. There’s a girl who understands the importance of gaining a marriage. Watch her tonight, dear, and do your best to imitate her.”

Mrs. Fyne pinned the flowers in Senza’s hair and kissed her daughter’s head before leaving the girl alone.

Senza turned her head to look at the blue petals. Contrived blossoms, trapped in the semblance of eternal spring. When she looked into her reflection, when she looked deep into her own eyes, she saw no such season.

Only a growing distance between her presence and her happiness, measured in paces, each step marked in fear.

Fear of the approaching season’s end.

 

The Fyne carriage arrived at the Yuletide ball an hour after the first waltz had commenced. Mr. Fyne saw no reason his wife’s wishes for fashionable lateness could not be indulged. He also apparently saw no reason for Senza to shred her kerchief, and told her exactly that. It was just a ball, after all.

But Senza fretted, her nerves taut like willow switches. It was never
just
a ball.

Senza passed through the archway into the great hall, where the gathering was in full uproar. Everywhere hung garlands of holly and ribbon, great fir boughs dotted with paper ornaments, the very best candelabras ablaze with light. A nicely-tuned orchestra had struck up a Polonaise and the dance floor was full to capacity. Senza preferred to enter mid-dance, when guests were thus pre-occupied; it made the oppression of the first glances much more tolerable.

But a Polonaise? The procession, unfortunately, stepped toward the entrance, giving each and every dancer a look at the newest arrival. Eyes widened and mouths disappeared behind fans, one couple at a time.

Those who were not dancing turned to mark her entrance. Faces turned in waves, like a crack spreading on a frozen pond. Senza saw the quiet exchange of comments and even though she could not hear them above the sounds of dancing, she could imagine what they said.

She forced a smile to manifest, her cheeks flushing with heat. She knew it only enhanced the fairness of her complexion, a rosy glow on the apples of her cheeks. Her discomfort was a beauty balm.

Everything about her would be fodder for discussion. The mothers would murmur praises for her fine hand, her needlework and her gardening. Young ladies would whisper exaggerated praise for her proficiency at dancing and selecting the perfect gown, the most fashionable ornaments. Men of all ages would nudge each other, sharing significant glances because saying anything at all would not be proper.

And all who knew of her circumstances would invariably finish with her father’s promise that, upon her marriage, she would have five thousand.

Self-made men would be lucky to claim five thousand a year, and would be hunted down like rabbits by the fox-driving mothers in society. But for a woman—and a remarkably beautiful one, at that—five thousand would make her the only woman worth pursuing. It did little to encourage friendship amongst the other young ladies of her circle.

Except for one.

Felicity was already in attendance, engaged in what looked like a lively discussion with her partner. Her partner didn’t seem to mind her impropriety in the least; by the looks of it, he seemed quite intent on monopolizing her company for the entirety of the evening. Little did he know, Felicity preferred her dance card full of variety, an unfortunate side-effect of growing up in such a savage, untamed country like Australia.

The dance concluded, and a barely-restrained Felicity was escorted by her partner to where Senza stood with her parents. Felicity would have charged straight off the dance floor without second thought for an escort. Senza doubted her scandal would have even raised an eyebrow. Felicity’s partner looked convinced that she could walk on water if she chose, escorted or no. Senza and Felicity curtseyed to him as one, dismissing him, before turning and weaving into the crowd.

“There must be at least three hundred here,” Senza said.

“Anything less would be too intimate for polite company.” The youngest daughter of a Melbourne gold-trader, her voice had the smack of an Australian colonist. Felicity spread her fan, keeping her comments private, and fluttered her wide, innocent-looking eyes. “Although intimacy wouldn’t be such a terrible thing.”

“Felicity!” Senza feigned a gasp. Her friend’s boldness no longer shocked her, but she did her best to appear as such, should anyone have overheard.

“Can’t help it, Senza.” Felicity sighed and fanned herself. “He was the most interesting partner I’ve had all month. Reminds me of Jane’s Wylie. Wouldn’t be a hardship to dance with him again.”

Well-acquainted with Felicity’s older sister and her dashing brother-in-law, Senza found herself nodding in agreement. “The way he looked at you, I dare say he’d like to be the only partner you’ll ever have again.”

“Well, he’ll be disappointed. Mr. Pembroke requested the next dance. A quadrille.”

“Miss Fyne.” A gentleman’s voice claimed their attention and the girls curtseyed. Senza was acquainted with Mr. Thomas, the son of a London barrister who did frequent business with her father. “I had wondered if you would be attending. Shall I have the honor of dancing with you?”

Senza gave him a perfunctory smile as she remembered their interactions from previous dances. Thomas tended to smile extra hard when he looked at her, and he emanated heat like a fireplace. But he was polite, and considerate of her comfort, and didn’t press conversation. Overall, dancing with Mr. Thomas was not a terrible thing, as he had a certain deftness of foot that survived most exercises. Thankfully, the quadrille involved more stepping than skipping. “Mr. Thomas. You may.”

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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