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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

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BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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She pressed her kerchief against her lips, trying to hide a grimace that twisted her insides. She should be comforting her friends, murmuring kind, gentle words, urging them toward peace and, yet—all she felt was a growing selfishness.

She could be lying in that beribboned box. She could be stretched out, cold and still, passed the end of her time, with nothing to show for it.

Tomorrow may never come, and what you do today will have to be enough to last.

Echoes of her grandmother’s voice dragged her deeper into the clutches of despair. The thumping of her pulse throbbed in her ears, her heart lobbing against her ribs.

Suddenly, the lace about her neck felt as tight as a noose. She gasped for breath, swaying.

A vaguely familiar young man, who’d been standing with a small group, noticed her distress. Breaking away from his conversation, he rushed to her side and steadied her. “You must sit, Miss Fyne. You look quite pale. I’ll get you a drink.”

He steered her to a settee and set her down with the utmost care, as if she were porcelain. Senza nodded and waved him on with a feigned look of gratitude, watching as he rounded the corner.

Once he was out of sight, she hopped up from her seat and hurried to the door before he could return. She escaped to the open air of the courtyard and paced out her growing anxiety.

Felicity’s casket was visible through the windows. No escape.

She had to get away.

Pushing open the garden gate, she hurried down the steps into the rose garden. Their fragrances hung thickly in the evening air, as cloying as the blooms that had been cut and brought inside to flank the casket.

Suddenly, the air changed, almost imperceptibly, like a shadow slipping in front of the sun. A dip in temperature, a stilling of the breeze. Those subtleties were all that alerted her that she was no longer alone in the garden.

The sun was near to setting, sky still ablaze with the fires of the dying day. Long shadows stretched across the grounds, climbing like spiders up the sides of the house. She saw no one. Senza turned a circle, eyes searching the paths and the veranda. No one at all.

Until she glanced down. Upon the ground stretched out her shadow. A second shadow slid up alongside hers, taller, broader. She froze, her breath snagged in her throat.

His voice was like the tolling of a bell, carried on a sultry wind. “That frightens you, doesn’t it?”

Low and close to her ear the deep, mellow tones seeped into her, tickling her insides. She exhaled and closed her eyes. That voice. She knew it. The stranger from the ball.

She didn’t turn to look at him. His presence was like a dense mist, tenuous yet flowing, something she felt along her skin. She didn’t
need
to look at him—although they did not touch, she knew right where he was. That sense of perpetual nearness was something she recognized even for all his strangeness.

She
knew
him. Didn’t know why, or how. And she didn’t care. It was simply what was.

She pinched her lips together and turned toward the house. Even at this distance, she could see inside. A woman near the body bent in grief, clutching a handkerchief to her mouth, her husband supporting her with an arm around her shoulder.

“Doesn’t it frighten everyone?” It should have made her uncomfortable, speaking to a man to whom she’d never been properly introduced. Protocol and propriety were the legs upon which her mother stood and Senza had been a captive student. Yet, she sensed the rules didn’t apply to him, even if she didn’t understand why. “Dying—in such a sudden way.”

“Ah, it’s not the suddenness, or the surprise, or even the shock.” His voice was dark and smooth, like the creamy caramel sweets her father often brought home from his trips. “It’s the brick wall at the end of the road of life. You don’t like the ending, no matter how it comes.”

She tilted her head, just enough that she could capture his dark silhouette in her periphery. “No. I don’t like the ending.”

He drifted closer, hovering just over her shoulder, like an umbrella. “Why would you, Senza Fyne? Your beauty, faded? Your charms, withered? Your friends and admirers, all gone away? You’ll die alone,
bien-aimé
. Everyone dies alone.”

She tugged her shawl tighter about her shoulders, unable to warm herself against the sudden chill. The woven wool did little to comfort, because the chill came from deep inside. “Don’t say that.”

“But it is truth. Oh, if only there was a way to avoid all that.”

“No one lives forever.” She hugged her ribs, her shawl in a white-knuckled grip.

“Do they not?”

His voice held such a curious tone, a tease in the words that caught her attention. The tease implied a familiarity with her, one that made her feel as if she were doing something wrong. She called up the image of the vicar, his comforting sermon-like words, the beacon of all things good and proper. “In the afterlife, yes.”

“In
this
life.”

She pivoted on her heel, craning her neck and locking her gaze with his. Tall, he was, at least six feet and properly broad-shouldered beneath his somber coat. A thin coal ribbon fastened his collar, a romantic look favored by the young men of society. Felicity’s young man had often sported the same.

Felicity. The quick-fire brush against the girl’s memory stirred the murky depths of her grief. It washed over her, and she blinked back the tears that never altogether went away.

His own dark eyes glittered, stark contrast to his pale skin, and a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. Cocksure. Seductive. Bold.

Senza backed away and turned, wanting to hide from his eyes, lest his sentiments call out sympathetic ones of her own. She rubbed the goose bumps on her arms. “Why would you say such things, here? It’s not proper.”

“Where better to admit the truth than at a funeral?” He stole behind her, trailing his finger along her shoulders. “In this place, life meets death. They stare each other in the face. The only difference between them is that the dead no longer care.”

He drew back, his sudden withdrawal leaving a cold mist on her skin. “The only question that remains is…do you still care,
bien-aimé
?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Of course, I still care.”

“Then,” he said, his voice deepening into a throaty chuckle. “Don’t die.”

Of all the nerve—

She turned to admonish him for his audacity but, when she spun around, he was gone.

 

Bereft of her best friend, Senza felt as if she’d been orphaned.

So many emotions tangled her thoughts that she hardly knew which way to turn. For most of her life, she’d felt safe from the shadows that threatened the sunshine of their lives. When grandmother passed, she somehow convinced herself that age was the cause of death, and her youth was shield enough against it. The denial with which she’d insulated herself had been violently stripped away at Felicity’s funeral.

Now, anger crept in, like a fog that slid through the tall grass in the meadow, coating all she felt with a damp chill. It was an alien emotion for such an agreeable soul, and it quickly found a target.

Her mother’s relentless quest to get her married.

The stone in Senza’s heart turned to granite, her happiness to brittle shale, her wardrobe to obsidian. As long as she wore mourning clothes, her mother could not throw a suitor at her without appearing in poor form. While the ploy was successful, Senza knew it would not last.

She spent many days alone at the parsonage chapel, her presence becoming so familiar a sight that the parson no longer went out of his way to address her. Solitude and silence were her companions when she went to chapel. It was the only time she was alone.

She didn’t go to pray, or to muse God’s great plan. She simply sought to avoid life, because life was constantly fleeing from Death.

A footstep at the door. The gentle creak of the old hinges. Senza didn’t turn to look. The parson would be in soon to arrange his notes for Sunday service.

The candles fluttered once before being extinguished in a single gust. That…was odd.

The air behind her stirred, although she’d heard no approach. Locking her spine, she refused to turn. Who would come in, knowing she was here? Who would sit behind her without the courtesy of a greeting?

Faint scents mingled with the dusty wood smell of the chapel. Trace of smoke. Brush of something floral. Bitter bite of clove. Familiar…

Just as her recollection identified the scent, Mr. No One spoke her name.

She closed her eyes and leaked out her held breath. It did not alarm her or startle her. Somehow, she’d been expecting him.

“Hiding in church, are we?” His deep, smooth voice rubbed over her in a wave of chills. “So dim and dusty in here. No place for the treasure of the county.”

She curled her lip, disliking his sardonic tone. “I’m thinking.”

“What about?”

She turned in her seat so that she could see him, her brows lowered. “I think you know.”

He sat back, unfurling his long, graceful limbs in a careless sprawl. His eyes swept down over her, the corner of his mouth tugging to reveal his interest in her.

Hunger. The only word to describe his expression. A hunger that only she would satisfy. She chewed her lip. That look should have sent her scurrying out the door.

He tilted his head. “I believe I do,
bien-aimé
. You do seem to have a one-track mind.”

“True.” Narrowing her eyes at him, she pursed her lips. “All I can think about…is that I don’t know your name.”

He nodded and glanced away, rubbing the side of his nose with an elegant finger. “My name? That’s what concerns you to the point that you shun the company of others?”

“Absolutely.” She twisted in her seat to face the pulpit again, her skirts rustling against the wooden bench. Taffeta. So noisy. Definitely not the material to wear in quiet places.

“I don’t doubt it. You do seem to dwell over the tiniest details.”

“Well?” She tapped her fingers against the bench.

He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the back of her seat beside her. “I don’t think my name would lend a shred of comfort to your state of melancholy.”

She crossed her arms, wishing the church didn’t feel quite so chilly. “Perhaps not, but the security I would gain from a proper introduction would most certainly bolster my sense of propriety.”

“Funny, how people think names are the be-all and the end-all. I didn’t expect that from you, little Miss Shakespearean scholar. Very well. If a name will urge you to be honest with me and, more importantly, yourself, I’ll give you a name. You can call me…” His voice drifted off, as if he were thinking of something, and he settled back into his own seat.

Overhead, the church bell rang. Nine o’clock.

“Mr. Knell.” He sounded pleased with himself, as if he enjoyed a private joke. “Most fitting,
n’est-ce pas
? Now that we are such intimate friends, I feel perfectly within the realm of propriety to confide that I know something that would distract you from your lonely endeavor.”

Curious. She cocked her head, only to turn an ear toward him. “Which is?”

He leaned over the bench, his face close to her ear. “Have you ever been to Woking?”

She hadn’t. But without hesitation she rose to follow him when he got up to leave, knowing that she’d most likely be visiting Woking, and very soon.

A quiver of worry stirred deep inside, a protest that she would leave decorum and proper behavior behind for the sake of this stranger. She quelled it with a firm resolve. She’d follow Mr. Knell into Hell if he’d been of a mind to go.

That wasn’t a good thing. But it didn’t stop her, either.

 

A high-flyer phaeton, sleek as midnight glass, stood outside the door. The black Arabian hitched to it stood still as stone beneath a sky that threatened rain.

How quickly had this storm brewed! Spring weather often pivoted like a dancer, spinning on a heel, unpredictable and uncertain. The morning had been fair when she’d walked to the chapel, a warm haze that promised to melt into a sunny afternoon. Now, the sky looked too heavy to hold itself up, a low ceiling of cluttered sullen clouds.

The impending weather emphasized the unrest that the phaeton had stirred within her. Phaetons were reckless things, unlike sturdy hansoms or the family carriage. Felicity—

She swallowed a sudden lump that lodged itself in her throat. Felicity had been in a phaeton when she had her accident.

“I don’t know if it would be wise to journey out in an open carriage.” She toyed with her shawl and lingered near the church door. She tried to convince herself she feared rain would spoil her dress. Deep down, she knew the real reason. “We would get drenched.”

“It will not rain. I give you my solemn word.”

She planted her hands on her hips. “You can promise what the clouds will or will not do? I didn’t know you possessed such power.”

“You are perfectly safe with me.” His brows rumpled as if he’d been mildly offended. With a tip of his head, he held out his hand to her.

And she went to him.

He gallantly assisted her into the carriage, his fingers lingering around hers even after she was safely atop. She stroked the velvety red cushion, stealing nervous glances about her, too timid to take all of the scene in at once. A seat on springs, little more, with four extravagant wheels, the whole of it recklessly open. They’d be left to the mercy of the wind. She tugged the woolen carriage blanket across her lap, tucking it in around her. It didn’t make her feel any more secure.

Climbing in next to her, he took up the reins and knickered to the horse. Without so much of a toss of her head, the mare took to the road at an even trot.

The ride was remarkably smooth, considering the rusticity of the roads, and eventually she relaxed her death grip on the edge of her seat. As he’d promised, the sky did hold—the clouds thinned as they travelled, allowing for peeps of sun. The clouds remained dark and churning in the distance, where they had the appearance of waves crashing against a darkling shore. Her father had brought many such drawings home from his many years upon the sea.

They drove quite a while in silence, and Senza was content to admire the scenery as it drifted past them. Simple pleasures such as this had been pushed aside since Felicity’s death. Senza found herself relaxing and allowing a sense of peace to find its way into her core.

From time to time, she stole glances at him, careful not to look too long lest he catch her staring. His profile was a fine cut of chiseled chin and sculpted cheekbone, a strong jaw and pleasant brow. Although pale, his complexion had a pleasing glow that seemed both warm and cool, his skin smooth and unmarred by stubble. His sideburns were long in the fashion, but not bushy or thick. Dark eyes rimmed in darker lashes, his ebony hair swept back from his forehead by the breeze of their travel.

What a statue he would make…

His was a face meant to be duplicated in marble, eternal in its perfection. His face pleased her like no other man’s countenance ever had. She found it difficult to keep her glances to a minimum. The longer they were together, the more she wanted to gaze at him, because the less the world around her mattered.

Although they’d barely spoken during the ride, Senza did not mind. They seemed to share a familiarity, a resonance that hummed through her. Words were not necessary. Simply being with him was all that she needed. One by one she tugged off her hat and veil, her mourning shawl, her gloves, and dropped them onto the seat beside her.

The vestiges of her mourning were stripped away and she felt the sunshine upon her face for the first time since she lost Felicity.

By the time they’d reached the rail station at Woking, she’d realized she’d become quite enamored with him. And she still didn’t even know his first name.

It wasn’t until he’d climbed down and reached up for her that she realized the folly of her impulse. She should never have come here alone with him. But by then, it was too late. Here she was.

Worse yet, she hadn’t a single regret. Briefly, she wondered what her mother would say. Discarding the thought was surprisingly easy. The moment she slipped her bare hand into his, she forgot everything her mother had ever taught her.

The only thing that mattered now…was him.

Mr. Knell tethered the horses to a rail at the rear of the station while Senza gazed about at the large station. Its broad platform straddled the twin tracks, the bridge that spanned them, its broad staircase leading down to the center platform. And the people—all manner of men and women. Well-dressed gentlemen travelling to London on business. The worn-looking workers, the modest young women in parochial hats, the stiff-collared chaperones herding them.

Knell offered his arm and led her up to the platform, pointing down the tracks at an approaching engine, farther beyond toward London. The rails spread off in each direction, passengers coming and going and waiting for the train to arrive.

The railways had been snaking across Surrey for the last ten years, their iron veins scarring the countryside in pursuit of progress. And the engines! Monstrosities of iron and smoke that arrived in booms of thunder. Senza covered her nose and sought refuge in his shoulder.

Travel to London was easier than ever, thanks to these noisy engines. Her father often travelled by train and regaled her with the details of his travels. Seeing it up close was altogether different. What her father saw in train-riding, she’d never know. The man had been born standing on sea legs, not iron wheels.

A train came to a rest with a blast of exhaust. The porters called out, sending people into a scurry across the bridge and down to the center platform. Such determination, such purpose. She tugged at his arm, pulling his attention toward her. “Why here?”

He shrugged. “I like it here. I find it quite…metaphorical. People arriving. People departing. A lot like life,
bien-aimé
, no?”

She frowned. “Did you bring me here just to torture me?”

His gentle laugh sent shivers down the sides of her neck. “I just want to get to know you better.”

She glared at him before turning the corner, bringing the platform into full view.

“Oh, no.” She jerked back and flattened against the wall before stealing a peek around the corner.

Mr. Isling. Her father’s merchant. He would recognize her. Here she was, an unmarried woman in the presence of a young man—people would talk. Her reputation, her prospects—

She stifled a groan. Her mother. She’d be furious.

Knell tilted his head and peered at her. “What’s the matter,
bien-aimé
?”

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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