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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

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BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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“My father’s acquaintance.” More than acquaintance—Mr. Isling was a clerk in Thomas’s law firm, and knew his father’s business well. Her breath was high in her throat. “He must have gotten off the train. I think he saw me.”

“Where are your manners? We must say hello.”

She shook her head. “No, no—”

But he’d captured her hand beneath his arm and dragged her around the corner, marching straight up to Mr. Isling.

“Isling,” he boomed. “Just arrived from London, are you?”

Mr. Isling nodded, beaming broadly, his abundant cheeks plumping. “Ah, I thought I recognized your daughter. Didn’t expect to see you here, Fyne. I thought you were at the port this week.”

Senza stared up at her companion, mouth agape. What was happening? Why did Mr. Isling call Knell by her father’s name?

She looked around, wondering if anyone else looked familiar. When her gaze flitted across their reflections in the glass ticket window, she froze.

Herself, standing next to Bertram Fyne. Her father. Speech utterly failed her and she twisted back to Knell, searching his face, her entire being a question.

He winked down at her. “Back early. I promised my daughter a ride to London. It’s a rather special day for her.”

“Indeed.” Mr. Isling bowed his head toward her. “Enjoy the city, Miss Fyne. It’s an entirely different world than the one you’ve known.”

She hastened a smile into place, no longer able to feel her feet. Her companion tightened his hand over hers.

“Good day, Fyne.” Mr. Isling made his way off the platform, leaving Senza alone with a very smug-looking Knell.

“How did you do that—my father—I saw—”

“Finally, you understand.” He straightened his collar. “You see one thing, they see another.”

“I see nothing that makes any sense.”

“Not now, perhaps. But it will, one day. Think. Think back to the day we met.” He pointed to a staircase and the balcony above, passengers waiting in the shade for the next train to arrive. Offering his arm, they walked upstairs. “We met at a funeral, did we not?”

“No.” Senza struggled with reconciling sense with what had just happened with Mr. Isling, but only for a few moments. A magician’s illusion. That had to be all it was. A hypnotic suggestion, perhaps. When no logical explanation presented itself, she abandoned pursuit and settled for the first flimsy excuse that fit.

He had a way about him, a certain manipulation of all within his reach, and his reach seemed to extend far beyond them, or even their surroundings. His influence completely commandeered her, made up her mind for her, and held her in thrall. That he could appear to be her father and fool even the closest of his acquaintances seemed secondary to the way he pulled her entire attention.

All she knew was that she was safe with him, safe from gossip and safe from harm. She reveled in that safety the same way a child enjoyed the security of a parent’s care. Many an admiring glance came their way but she barely noticed. He was all that she saw, all that she heard. “No, it was a ball. We met at a ball and I would not dance with you.”

“And even that is not accurate, but I will not argue…with a lady.” He added the last bit with a bow of his head. Patting her hand, he led her to the balcony from which the bridge spanned, tipping his head at the view beyond the trees and the tracks. “But for now, let us talk about the thing you fear most.”

A prickly sense of unease crept up between her shoulder blades. Senza smoothed her expression into one of practiced pleasantness. “I’d rather not. Wouldn’t you rather talk about your fascination with the railway?”

“No. I wouldn’t. This isn’t the only reason I visit Woking. There is a tremendous cemetery nearby, did you know? London is practically spilling over with all the dead it produces and they’ve found a new place to hide the bodies. Mmm.” He smiled, a pleasant look that flashed over his face as if he’d just been served dessert. “Brookwood…ah, now there’s a lovely garden if ever I saw one. The London Necropolis. Even has its own rail direct from the city. They just box you up and stick you on the train like cargo and off you go, chugging along to Brookwood, where the worms await.”

Senza planted her feet and wrenched her hand from his arm, not caring who saw.

“Mr. Knell!” She stamped her foot. “Must we talk about bodies and death and cemeteries?”

“And crematoriums.” Again, that smile. It slid across his mouth as if he could not wait to share a seductive secret.

His leering pleasure was almost too much to bear. “And
what
?”

“Crematoriums,” he repeated, as if she’d only misheard. “Great ovens that reduce corpses to ash and stone. There will soon be one nearby. They haven’t built it yet, but they will. The earth isn’t deep enough for all the coffins man generates.”

She clamped her hands over her ears, closing her eyes. Her pulse throbbed in her ears and she swayed on legs that were fading out from beneath her. This awful talk—

He steadied her, tugging her hands down and shaking his head. “You cannot avoid it. The only way to conquer your fear is to face it. Accept it. Accept all of it.”

Senza took her breaths in shallow sips, her stomach in a fist. His eyes, dark and fathomless, bore intently into her own. It felt almost as if he could see inside her—her secrets, her fears, her soul all bared to him. There was no way to escape his gaze or the invisible touch of his essence against her deepest places.

She could not lie, either, even though the panic she felt at his nearness was almost enough to say anything he wanted to hear, just so that he might relent. Her voice strained against the growing tightness in her throat, a fear that threatened to claw its way free. “I cannot.”

A deep rumble sounded in the distance. Thunder? Would the sky open and rudely break his promise? The sound carried with it a vibration that traveled through the floors, the balcony railing, ominous and massive. It jarred the waiting passengers into motion, sending them in streams down to the platform.

She inhaled stiffly through her nose. The train. It was only the next train.

“Oh,
mon bien-aimé
.” He stroked her cheek, eyes shadowed with sympathy. “How you make yourself suffer. If only you could see that death is not the horror you think it to be.”

The train slowed to a stop alongside the platform in a plume of smoke and a whistle shriek. The porters shouted to be heard over the enormous engine. Carriage doors popped open and lines of people disembarked, tugging children or hefting travel bags.

“See those people?” He swept his hand around, drawing her gaze down toward the emptying train. “Death, all around you. Just waiting to happen. Here, they go on with their lives, oblivious to the shadow waiting for them at the end of their days.”

Without waiting for her response, he tugged her away from the balcony, crossing under the archway to the smaller balcony in back. This one looked over the town, which had boomed since the railway came through. An infant city was swelling where once stood farmhouses.

He leaned over the railing, gesturing to the street with a wave of his finger. “What awaits them all in London? There, the gutters are filled with the lecherous mortals, each breath taking them closer and closer to inevitability.”

Senza turned her back on him, regretting the impulse that brought her here with him. What had she expected, based on her limited experience with him? “Stop saying these things. You make it sound so horrible.”

“Isn’t it?” He did not disguise the smile that had crept into his voice.

She shook her head, ruby curls tumbling over her shoulders. “I have to maintain hope that there will be a peaceful end waiting for me.”

“Do you really believe that?”

She hugged her waist and didn’t reply.

Insistence would be a thin visage for the doubt she harbored, the fear that trailed in every step. Although she had no intentions of becoming poorhouse fodder, she knew that when the end came, her last breath would taste the same, whether she be lying in state or lying in the street.

She reached up to cup her cheeks, rosy now, glowing and desirable now. But time would be her enemy, even as she counted each moment that passed. How could she be free to enjoy the present, to live in the moment, knowing with certainty that it will end?

“Your pain—I can taste it.” He hummed, seeming to savor her inner turmoil. “Heavy with despair, like over-ripe fruit. Sticky, like wine.”

His lips grazed the back of her neck and he palmed her arms in sweep from shoulder to wrist. Grasping her hands, he drew them down to cross her chest, wrapping her in a joined embrace. Burying his face inside her collar, he let his breath out, down against the side of her throat.

She should have protested. This closeness was not appropriate—

But she closed her eyes and melted against him. God help her. She couldn’t resist him. She’d never been this close to anyone, not even at a ball, but she couldn’t fight against him.

She didn’t want to.

His mouth, close to her ear. His throaty chuckle sent the blood crashing through her body.

“Delicious as you may be, I have no desire to see you suffer.” He drew away from her and leaned back against the railing. “I will tell you a secret. I know a way to avoid death.”

“Oh, is this where you tell me sage advice?” She nervously rearranged her curls, straightened her collar, glancing around at the now-empty balcony. No one had seen them embrace, had they? “Do not live recklessly, avoid too much wine, be careful when walking in the road.”

“That, too.” He tapped his mouth with a finger. “But I was thinking more along the lines of magic.”

Senza gaped at him before walking away. The stairs were nearly empty, now that the train was boarding. The remaining travelers milled about the platform. She paused at the rail, wrinkling her nose at the smells of smoke and engine oil permeating the air. This conversation was becoming more and more delusional. All this talk about life and death and now—magic?

“Yes, magic.”

His words echoed around her, a mist of sound. With an angry toss of her head, she spun around, her hand ready with a slap.

Nowhere. He was gone. Vanished.

But how?

She lifted her skirts and hurried down the staircase, charging through the archway onto the loading platform. People came and went
en masse
, with their luggage and their children in tow. People from every possible walk of life. Everyone in the world, but him.

From one end of the platform to the other, searching around the corners, spinning to look behind her. Gone. Breathless, she leaned against a pillar, her restless gaze still seeking him.

Only his voice manifested. “Magic. I am entirely entwined within the hold of magic. Think,
bien-aimé
. You know it to be true.”

The last several weeks flashed by. She relived each moment of their courtship—that’s what it was, wasn’t it? Every minute they’d stolen in the crowded ballrooms, every hush as they parted, every shared glance. He had courted her, turned her heart entirely to his, and stole her devotion.

That in itself was magic, worked long before he pulled the illusion and masqueraded as her father. That he could turn her heart was magic. She never even realized it until now.

“How?” She had been groomed to be courted and dowered off to a worthy suitor but now, this man—

“Man?” He stepped around from behind her, materializing before her eyes. “Is that all I am to you?”

Eyes wide, she struggled to make sense of what she was seeing. Her feet tingled as the adrenaline jolted through her and she swayed on rubbery legs.

Knell grasped her arms, a deceivingly firm hold disguised as a tender embrace. His eyes, huge and dark and fathomless, reflected her face within. His skin had the sheen of porcelain, finely sculpted into proud cheekbones, a cleft chin, pale lips. He swiveled his head until he was nose to nose with her. His smile was icy, no warmth or humor in that thin stretch of lips.

Those lips hovered over her own, nothing but her breath stirring between them.

Would he do such a thing, here in full view of the travelers and the passengers on the train? Would he cause such a scandal? She reached up to put her hands against his chest and pushed—

And her hands went right through him.

He melted into fog and dissolved from sight, leaving her alone on the platform.

She stilted on rigid legs, to and fro, searching for him. Where? He couldn’t leave her, not now!

Abandoned. He’d abandoned her, far away from the safety of her home. She’d never walked this far, not even as an adventurous child tagging along after her brothers.

She spun and cut through the thinning crowds, searching the platform. Nowhere. Her last resort was to run down the steps to the back of the station and hope the phaeton was still there.

She rounded the corner, breathless.

Gone.

Fear turned into a solid mass within her, filling her, snuffing her thoughts and squashing her breath. He’d left her in Woking and she had no money, no contacts, no idea how to get home—

But that wasn’t the worst of it. He’d left
her
.

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
3.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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