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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

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BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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He flashed a smile that looked borne in relief. “I’ll await you in the ballroom. Miss Fyne. Miss Keating.”

With a belated nod to Felicity, he hurried away, face beaming with conquest, presumably to await the arrival of his prize.

“That poor man.” Felicity clucked her tongue. “He just doesn’t understand, does he? He scampered off as if you’d promised to marry him.”

“As if I’d—wait. Who…?” The words died in her throat and Senza gaped, distracted by someone on the other side of the room.

Felicity craned her head to see who had stolen her friend’s attention.

The room faded around Senza, the noise of the guests thinning, the press of the crowd easing. A lone figure stepped into the doorway. The world just fell away, tatters and pieces that faded around her. The only real, tangible thing in the room was that stranger.

For a moment, Senza forgot how to breathe. Who was
he
?

Tall, but not towering. Nice shoulders, a handsome coat. The cut of the jacket hinted at a pleasant physique, the material gleaming darkly with a hint of silk. His hair was longer than the others wore, dark and smooth and drawn back in a ribbon, although a fringe had fallen loose. The strands hung down in a boyish tumble to frame his eyes, large and black and shimmering like obsidian.

Those eyes were fixed upon hers.

When he noticed her looking at him, he flashed a sharp, secret smile. Nothing boyish about it. That look made something inside her flutter, high up between her ribs. She struggled to draw a breath, her corset suddenly too tight—

And then, he was gone. Disappeared into the crowd. Vanished like a ghost.

She started after him without hesitation. She had to speak to him. The need was overwhelming and desperate.

There. That doorway. He must have gone through there.

Beyond, the wide corridor turned sharply around the perimeter of the cross-shaped ballroom. She scanned each direction, catching a glimpse of long black coattails flashing around the corner to the left. A throaty chuckle tickled the edge of her hearing. She bunched her gown and pattered after the voice, always a step behind.

Rounding the corner, out of breath, her disappointment blossomed. Still nowhere to be seen. Another snatch of soft laughter. She ran after it, turning corner after evergreen-trimmed corner. No open doors. No sign of him. Midway through the corridor stood wide the doorway to the ballroom within and she lunged to the mistletoe-clad archway, searching the crowd.

A hand reached out and pulled her back into the hallway.

“Senza.” Felicity held her arm fast and hissed her name. “What are you doing?”

Senza faltered, disoriented. She felt as if she emerged from a fog. What
had
she been doing?

“Are you well?” Felicity whispered, nodding and smiling to those around them. “What were you doing?”

“I…I don’t know.” Senza struggled to regain her composure. “There was a…a stranger. He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen in my life.”

“If a stranger was visiting someone here, surely, we would have heard something. Someone that handsome wouldn’t remain unannounced for very long. Not with Miss Senza Fyne available for the marrying.”

“Oh, Felicity.” Senza stifled a groan, the desperate chase all but forgotten. “If you only knew how I dread these parties. I feel like I’m up for sale.”

Felicity grinned and snapped her fan with a coy giggle. “It only happens once, Senza, so you’d better learn to shop around yourself. You’ll have the pick of the lot and we less fair folk will have to settle for what is left. Be kind, and set aside a good one for me.”

An announcement from the far side of the room caught their attention. Senza scanned the crowd, the faces, hoping for another glimpse of the mysterious gentleman.

But he was nowhere to be seen.

Felicity linked arms with Senza and tugged her back into to the ballroom. Obediently, she followed, half her mind still focused on that handsome face. Half her mind, and half her heart.

By then, hopeful young men all but lined up for a chance to claim her hand, even if for a single dance. Senza was very obliging. After all, her husband would likely come from this clutch of eager bachelors and, despite her dislike for being treated like an object, she tried to keep an open mind.

After all, she had a job to do. She grimaced as she recalled her mother’s frequent words.

Being open-minded didn’t prevent her mind from wandering, however. Throughout the evening, she danced and smiled and laughed, all the while snatching peeks of the crowd, hoping to see that stranger.

The orchestra finished with a flourish as another dance ended, and she curtseyed to her partner. Mister…Bradley, was it? Charming man, strong hands. A bit quiet. Senza liked that. A quiet man wouldn’t be busy making ardent proclamations. She preferred a suitor to woo with action, not words, especially when a marriage was contract first and love match second.

If she were fortunate.

She reached to take Bradley’s arm, preparing to be handed off to yet another partner, when a gentleman spoke up from behind them. “May I?”

Shivers cascaded like a river of sparks down her back. That voice. Deep, hypnotic, the question curling itself through her. Bradley looked like he swallowed a feather and choked out a pleasantry, handing Senza off to the man who had appeared at their side.

Him. The stranger.

He took her captive hand and raised it to his lips, his dark eyes glittering.

A flush warmed her throat, spilling up into her cheeks. Who was he? They hadn’t been properly introduced. He shouldn’t be speaking to her, let alone pressing a kiss to her hand. It simply wasn’t done—

“Will I have the honor this evening?” He released her hand, but held her still with his gaze. That smile again, like he had a secret. Like he knew something about her and would love to tease her with it.

She couldn’t look away. For a moment, she was connected to him in a way she’d never felt before or would ever understand.

“Um—” She stammered, her cheeks on fire. “I’m sorry, I’ve promised the next several numbers.”

“Serves me right for waiting so long,
bien-aimé
. I will be content to wait for you.” He bowed low, sweeping out a slender hand in an eloquent gesture. “I would wait for you forever.”

A flash of that smile, deeper this time, deep enough to send flutters through her entire body. A smile and he was gone, like smoke on a breeze, like a shadow retreating from the sun.

“Miss Fyne.” Mr. Pembroke stepped through the crowd. “I believe I have the honor. Shall we?”

She nodded, quite at a loss for words, still in thrall of that brief interlude with the man who had no name. His voice echoed through her head, drowning out Pembroke’s polite chatter and frequent admirations for her friend, the darling Miss Keating.

One word repeated, over and over, a heartbeat in her head.

Bien-aimé
.

French, for
beloved
.

Although the stranger was not to be seen again for the remainder of the evening, Senza danced every last dance with him, even if only in spirit.

 

Felicity, it turned out, didn’t have to worry about left-overs.

By February, there was a proposal from Mr. Pembroke. By March, there was a gown. By April, Senza’s ears were decidedly exhausted listening to her mother’s endless lamentations that her daughter was doomed to spinsterhood.

Every complaint only made Senza’s heart stonier.

The stranger had remained exactly that—few had actually admitted to seeing him at the ball, and those who did had no idea who he was or from whence he came. They couldn’t even agree what he actually looked like, either, and the half-dozen people who had seen him had offered a half-dozen descriptions.

He was No One. She felt as if a piece of her had been stolen and would never be returned.

With Felicity engaged and her June wedding fast approaching, there was a general air of expectation that she, too, must be married, as well. She tried to endure the exercises as best she could and attempted more than once to envision her future. With Heaven’s grace, her life would turn out much like that of her parents, but a worry haunted her, never lifting itself from her heart.

That haunting feeling invariably left her with the memories of her widowed grandmother. While Grandmother had been well-loved and deeply admired, she had always seemed incomplete without a grandfather to stand beside her.

Was that a more accurate picture of what lie ahead? Wistful stories and frequent glances at old portraits, a whispered
I miss you
when she thought she was alone? Senza couldn’t picture the idyllic happiness of a long, successful marriage.

She could only see how it ended:
‘til death do we part, and then I must be forever alone.

People treated her like a delicate piece of art, a thing to be admired and discussed, not engaged. She did try, for her mother’s sake, to be amiable to the young men but they simply did not connect with her. They saw an exquisite face and assumed that her copious beauty could only be skin deep.

None of them even considered the possibility that a mind dwelled inside that pretty head.

At first, the insult made her furious. She was as well-read as her father, as quick-witted as her grandmother had been. But in the end, she was worth no more interest than a purebred racer.

And she had no interest in being sold off, ridden for sport, or put out for stud. Senza would be doomed to live a complete lie, a shell wrapped around a withered soul, dying from lack of proper stimulation.

Or—and she didn’t know what would be worse—to be married off to the likes of Mr. Thomas, who prattled endlessly about his father’s great accomplishments yet had none of his own? She’d be auctioned off to the highest bidder, sent to live in a strange house, forced to drag herself through her remaining days birthing children and arranging flowers and hosting supper parties for her husband’s insufferable clients and their wives.

A lifetime of triviality, only to end up the same as everyone else in the parsonage graveyard.

What could she possibly do to avoid such a dreary future? Avoid marriage altogether? Seemed a good way to ensure she’d remain completely alone, instead of merely alone at the end.

Trapped. Senza spent long hours staring into her bedroom mirror, tripping and falling into the shadows haunting her eyes. No matter which way she turned, things would always turn out the same.

No. She smoothed her bodice over her corset and pinched her cheeks, forcing cheer into them. She’d never entirely be alone. God had been kind enough to send her Aggie and Felicity, the dearest friends for whom one could ever wish. They would stave off any fear of dying alone. It was the only comfort Senza had.

But even that would not last.

 

By the last week of May, a routine had emerged, a pattern of dances and dinners meticulously planned by Mrs. Fyne. She oversaw the calendar and schemed over guest lists like a general standing over his maps, pushing his tokens into place across the battlefields, planning victories and relishing future conquests.

To her great consolation, Mr. No One re-manifested. At every party, every dance, every ball, the stranger would make his appearance, stealing Senza’s attention for a handful of moments, bending near her ear for a whispered greeting, a heady compliment, a murmured joke. They never touched, never danced, never spoke for very long, but those moments were enough to fuel her and keep her spirits buoyant.

In between the public events, Mrs. Fyne had gatherings of her own at the manor, furthering her maneuvers among the mothers, feeling out the competition. Senza could only endure these teas for so long before she’d find her smile slipping. This business of getting a husband, especially one she did not want, was utterly dehumanizing.

Sounds in the cook’s garden woke her especially early one morning. A good day to read on the stool next to the hearth, surrounded by warmth and the bustle of a busy staff. She stowed a book in the pocket of her skirt and crept down the servants’ staircase to the kitchen. Fresh pasties and fruit jams led her by the nose enticing her with fragrant promises.

Cook and her helpers were already in top form, kneading bread and checking ovens.

“There she is, the girl of the day,” Cook called. Flour sprinkled her broad forehead and she brushed it away with the back of one hand. “Lord Carter himself must be coming today, from the looks of it. Your good mother really had her specifications planned out for today’s luncheon.”

The younger girls smiled at Senza, chattering their speculations and well-wishes. Their excitement, however, was not contagious. So, another round of teacake-disguised negotiations. Appetite squelched by the heavy lump that had fallen to the pit of her stomach, Senza nodded half-heartedly and slipped to the open door. Not even a glance at the strawberry tarts that cooled on the tabletop as she passed.

Outside, she broke into a dead run, worried mother might see her from a window and call her back. She didn’t slow down until she had put the stables between her and the house. Once safe from view, she picked her way along a narrow but well-trod path along the meadow, through to the other side of the wood.

There, the oaks and laurels broke ranks at the edge of a great and steep slope, affording a view of the town below. Over the years, she’d worn a comfortable spot amongst the wildflowers and had often come here to enjoy the splendid view in solitude.

As of late, she came here to disappear, even if only for an hour, to escape the oppressiveness of her destiny weighing so heavily before her.

Here in this tiny haven nestled against the wood, she could breathe, and simply be. The trees sheltered her from the stiffest wind and the harshest sun, creating a comfortable sanctuary where she could read her favorite books without interruption.

Today, however, her mind was not content to muse upon the memorized lines of
Hamlet
. The worn tome lay forgotten upon her lap while she stared out at the horizon, unfocused, letting her mind wander.

Where her mind wandered, so did her darkling stranger. Misty daydreams of dances and darting smiles and secretive whispers surrounded her heart like a bouquet of fresh-picked roses. She was, for a moment, truly content.

Footfalls behind her in the brush startled her from her daydream, but she didn’t need to turn around to see the intruder. There was only one person who knew her fondness for this secluded spot.

Her brother, Henry.

Four years younger and two inches taller, he was her greatest champion and her most ardent admirer. Henry knew all her secret hideouts and wasn’t afraid to seek her out when she insisted on solitude.

His voice had recently passed the strained awkward stage of adolescence and was taking on a hint of the man’s voice he’d one day have. “Thought you might be here, Bess.”

It warmed her to hear his pet name for her. Bess, he called her. Her red hair reminded him of the legendary monarch, and he worshipped her like a queen.

“You’re holding up well,” he said, his grin holding all the tease he’d managed to keep from his tone. He leaned up against the tree beside her. “I daresay, you’d make a fierce captain. Once you set your mind, you stick to it, ship sinking or no.”

Senza shredded a nearby daisy and pelted him with the petals. “I don’t know where you ever got the impression you were funny.”

“I’m only teasing. A little. I heard you and mother earlier. She’s really intent on getting you engaged by summer’s end.”

A scowl was her only reply.

“What’s the problem, anyway?” Henry shook the flower bits from his clothing and knelt down next to her. “At least if you cooperated, you’d stand a chance at a match you liked. Look at John and Edwina.”

Their older brother had married several years earlier in an arrangement that was declared a love match. It was Edwina’s triumph over their parent’s negotiations; no one had expected them to actually love each other, especially not with the youthful exuberance they shared. Every day since was a continuation of their courtship.

Senza smiled as she remembered them, her wistful thoughts tugging at her resolution. Yes, she had to admit—it was theoretically possible that she would actually like her mate. But there were two rather looming obstacles that kept her from cooperating with her mother’s demands.

Firstly, it was her mother. Senza loved her, undoubtedly so—but the endless priming and lecturing and prodding did nothing but sway her in the alternate direction. The more her mother liked a particular man, the less Senza liked him. There appeared every chance of despising the man her mother would declare the winner of her daughter’s affections.

Senza could admit this reason to her brother no more than she could the second—and that was that she had already been smitten by someone.

That someone was a man she’d seen only a precious handful of times, shared only a scattering of stolen moments, and had not the vaguest idea of his name. That mysterious stranger she’d chased after like a reckless child chasing a rabbit.

It had been the way he looked at her, smiled at her, called her
bien-aimé
. Those few stolen moments had branded themselves on the tender most places of her heart, had played themselves out night after night, in her dreams, in her wakings, in the slow moments of the day when her mind would wander. Unfailingly, her thoughts always found their way back to him.

An obsession. She knew it, and was ashamed, although shame did nothing to dampen the obsession. If Henry knew, he’d laugh. Worse yet, he’d give her secret away, tell their mother, and oh, the trouble there would be—

“Edwina was very lucky. John is sweet and charming, almost as much as you.” She squeezed his hand. “Your wife will be lucky, too, although I hope you haven’t found her just yet. I’d like to keep you just a while longer.”

“You know you will always be first in my heart, Bessy. I just hope that I won’t always be first in yours. You should be happy. Just—give Mother a chance. She wants the best for you, you know that.”

“I do. I just wish I knew what was best for me.”

And I wish I knew how to see him again.
Those words, she kept unspoken.

“It’ll work out, Bess. There’s more to you than your pretty face. You’ve got a strong heart. A strong heart doesn’t succumb to anything. It triumphs. You’ll see.”

Distantly from behind them, a bell rang and they turned at once. Mother had the bell rung to call her wayward children home. Lately, the bell had been getting regular use.

“We better go back.” Henry stood and helped her to her feet. “Maybe you’ll get some good news today, and this anxiety will all be over.”

Senza smiled thinly and swallowed hard against the knot in her stomach. A frequent discomfort, it preceded every such soiree her mother held. The accompanying lack of appetite was the reason she hadn’t grown overly plump, what with the delicate cakes and rich treats her mother put out at every tea.

That, and the vigorous physical exercise of constant dancing, both in the ballrooms and out, especially these woodland escapes from her mother’s agenda. Hand in hand, they began the long trek home, listening to the tolling grow louder and more impatient every time it sounded.

The stable yard was filled with carriages. Senza chewed her lip. The largest gathering yet. She gulped to clear her tight throat and hurried up the road toward the back of the house.

As they entered the kitchen garden, Della was on her tiptoes at the back door, reaching for the bell rope, ready to launch another sounding of the bell. The older woman spied the pair and ran out to meet them on the brick path.

“Oh, miss, where have you been?” Della was in vapors. Her face was blotched red, her eyes swollen. “Miss Keating, she’s—”

“Oh, did she come today?” Senza brightened. If Felicity had come, she wouldn’t feel like a prized poodle on a pillow. They could stare down the suitor’s mother as one, perhaps discourage her from pushing forth yet another ill-suited prospect. Felicity was like armor to her resolve. Were she to come today, Senza wouldn’t feel so alone.

“Inside, Miss Senza. We have to get you inside.” Della fluttered a handkerchief at her throat, mopping agitatedly. Her voice fell to a conspirator’s tones. “She’s deceased, miss. Deceased.”

“Deceased, Della?” Senza wrinkled her nose, positive she’d heard wrong. “Who is deceased?”

“Her carriage, miss. There was an accident and it overturned. She was thrown, miss. She perished, right there in the lane.” The maid snatched up a dark shawl from the counter and draped it over Senza’s shoulders. “So tragic, miss, and so soon after the news of her engagement, too.”

Senza’s stomach fell away, as if a gaping pit had opened up inside, tumbling everything away. She grasped the girl’s forearms, steadying herself. “Della, say it isn’t so.”

Tears washed down Della’s scalded-pink cheeks. “Your mother wants you in the parlor, miss. You better hurry.”

Downstairs, her mother sat in the formal side parlor, surrounded by her closest friends. Only Mrs. Keating was absent.

“A dear girl, she was.” The quiet voice came from one of the women. Mrs. Thomas, plump cheeks and severe bun, had become a frequent visitor to the Fyne house. Doubtlessly, she was vying for a chance to get her son into play on mother’s list of eligible young men.

“Oh, this is simply inconceivable.” Mother’s voice cracked, her grief evident in the lines of her brow, the down-turn of her mouth. She reached for Mrs. Thomas’s hand. “So happy one moment, only to have it snatched away in the next.”

“Mother?” Senza pressed against the doorway, hesitant to encroach their undesirable circle of gloom, lest it might infect her.

“Child, come to your mother.” Mrs. Fyne lifted her black-gloved hands, entreating Senza to her side. “I’m afraid your dear friend, Felicity, is—”

Her voice broke, composure crumbling beneath her like an unsteady foundation.

“Dead.” Senza supplied the word her mother could not bear to say. The word fell like a stone from her lips, the familiar dread rising up through her like a wretched fog. She knew that dread. It was the same phantom that had enshrouded her when grandmother passed, and it had never quite left.

“Oh, my dearest,” Mrs. Fyne said. “I don’t know what I would do if I ever lost you. Please, please.” She wrapped her arms around Senza’s shoulder and clutched her. “Don’t ever die. I couldn’t bear it.”

“No, mother.” Senza’s voice was muffled by the heaps of taffeta upon Mrs. Fyne’s shoulders. “I couldn’t bear it, either.”

 

At the wake, Senza was disconsolate.

Felicity Keating looked like a sleeping angel. Not a hair out of place. A snapped neck left little outward damage to distract mourners. Senza had taken her obligatory turn casket-side before retreating to the far corner of the opposite parlor.

Most of the family remained in the formal room where poor Felicity had been displayed, while her friends found solace in small, hushed circles. The engagement had been widely reported upon, and had become a matter of public ownership. With Felicity lost, all felt as though they had been widowed.

Senza stood apart from them. She saw their faces, heard their muted voices, but had withdrawn deep into her memories of her Grandmother’s passing. Slowly, like seeping flood waters filling the lowlands, a coldness pooled within her, rising inch by dreadful inch, closer and closer to her ever-sinking heart. That coldness was fear.

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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