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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

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BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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She didn’t fear for her safety as much as she craved his presence. She
wanted
him more than she
needed
him. Not having him near caused an entirely different kind of fear to take root.

She’d get home, she was confident, even if it meant walking for hours. But if he’d left forever—what kind of life could she look forward to? An empty shell that she’d have to fill with socials and suitors and the mind-dulling prospect of settling for a match with a man who could never compare to
him
.

He’d called her his beloved. She couldn’t go back to an average life after hearing that, after feeling the things he’d made her feel. He’d tripped across nerves deep inside her that would never stir under another’s touch. She knew it with dread certainty, with sharp clarity, and with absolute desperation.

Utter and complete desperation nearly suffocated her. She pressed her hand to her chest.
Breathe. Just breathe. Don’t think—

“Are you feeling well, miss?” A porter stood near her, and reached for her elbow. “Is there someone I should find for you?”

Swallowing hard, she lifted her chin.

“I’m—I’m fine. I’m just looking for—” She daren’t say
her father
. She had no idea when he had taken up that particular illusion, or who had seen him wearing that particular visage. “My carriage.”

“I can help you, miss. Sometimes personal carriages have to make way for the larger. What’s it look like?”

“A—a black phaeton, with red cushions, drawn by a black mare.” She forced a smile. “I do appreciate your help.”

Her smile, as thin as it had been, had the same effect on him as it did nearly everyone else.

“You wait here, miss. I’ll be back once I find it.” The porter bobbed his head and nearly tripped over his feet when he ran off, her champion.

She paced along the side of the station, head wagging in every direction, eyes searching without cease.
Wait here
, the porter had said. Where else could she possibly go?

The minutes dragged by, each an agony in itself. The initial rush of fear having subsided, a sink hole opened inside her, draining her energy and her resolve. He wouldn’t find the phaeton. The porter would not return, unable to bear the unfortunate news of his failure back to the pretty woman.

She was on her own. Nothing to do but begin the journey home. Alone.

The walk would be a long, lonely one. A glance at the sky, showed the sun climbing on toward noon. Best start walking while she had the light.

The rail station stood at the edge of town. It wasn’t long before the road had become completely rural, flanked by pastures and groves of thickly-canopied trees. At least she didn’t have to endure the eyes of passersby. A girl with her countenance always got noticed, always inspired a rash of gentility and an eagerness to assist in even the most contrived of ways.

Right now, she just wanted to disappear.

Just as he had.

The brooding clouds had blown through, revealing the unfettered sun. It seemed intent on shining with a vengeance, striving to make up for the iron-gray morning. She had no umbrella, and she’d left her hat and shawl in his carriage. The glaring sun beat down on her and her dress weighed three times the normal. Although determination and a fair amount of adrenaline had hastened her steps, it wasn’t long before her pace slowed to a listless trudge, weary in the oppressive heat.

A large shady tree stood ahead at the bend in the road. Relief. Rest.

The shade provided immediate relief from the heat. She crumpled to the ground and leaned up against the trunk. At this rate, it would take her a week, if she survived the trek. Stupid girl, for chasing after him to town, for trusting—

“Of course, you can trust me,” came Knell’s reply.

The sound of his voice made her jump, her bare skin scraping against the tree bark. She rolled onto her knees and peered around the wide trunk. He sat against the opposite side, cutting a wedge out of an apple.

He held out his knife, offering the apple slice that balanced on the end. “I would never abandon you.”

Her ability to speak returned, as did a great deal of the frustration that drove her most of the way. “You did! You left me at the train station and you were gone and I had to walk—”

“It was a difficult lesson, but a necessary one.” He leaned away from her and reached for something near his legs.

Senza peered over him and saw a blanket spread out with picnic fare. Fruit, a bottle and glasses, bread. He picked up the bottle and poured a full glass before handing it to her. Lemonade, by the look of it. Moisture began to collect on the glass. Cold, too.

The sight of the refreshment made her swallow hard. She was terribly thirsty, but she hesitated, eying him with considerable suspicion.

“Take it,” he said. “I won’t bite.”

His smirk made her wonder, but only a moment before she reached for the glass.

“Not so fast,” he warned. “You’re overheated. Too much too soon will make you ill.”

She sat back on her heels and sipped. Sour and sweet, just the way grandmother used to make it. Her nape and arms prickled with uncomfortable heat. She gingerly patted the back of her neck, snatching her fingers away with a swift inhale. “I fear I was overexposed.”

“You’re burned, is what you are.” He set down the apple and brushed his hand off on his trousers. “Come here.”

She crept closer on her knees and twisted, sitting with her back toward him so that he could examine her.

He clucked his tongue. “You don’t get outside much, do you?”

“Tramping about like an animal, without a parasol? Certainly not. Ouch, watch that.” She squirmed away but he tugged her back.

“Sit still, already. I cannot return you in this condition.” He placed his hands directly over the sting on her neck, wrapping his hands across her nape, over her collarbones.

His hands were icy cold. The chill permeated her skin, sank into her, and spread with a numbing creep that dulled the twinging nerves. The pain, faded into discomfort and the discomfort melted into a memory beneath his fingers.

Her neck thusly ministered to, he slid his hands to each of her arms with the same careful touch, the same chilly treatment.

She examined her left arm when he had finished and gone on to the right. The redness had faded along with the pain. She lowered her brows as she scrutinized her arm. She’d gotten sunburns as a child, and all the cold compresses in the world hadn’t done more than provide temporary comfort.

Who was he?

He kept his gaze on her arm, stroking it gently, a long slow sweep. He looked very reluctant to let her go. “There. That should do, I think. How does it feel?”

“Better,” she whispered. “But, how…”

His only reply was a tightening of lips, an ironic smile, a quick shake of his head, and a huff through his nose. When he raised his eyes to meet hers, they held a strange mixture of challenge and sadness, the emotion so plainly etched into his eyes that she had no words.

“I told you already.” He began packing the basket, stowing the fruit and recapping the bottle. “Come. I’ll see you home. You can eat on the way.”

He whistled to the horse, which had been cropping the grass nearby and answered dutifully to his call. Once he’d hitched the beast, he stowed her carefully once more into his phaeton, the hot sun blazing overhead in its tower of blue. They did not speak on the journey back. She only nibbled the plump apple he’d handed her, as well as a large portion of food for thought.

The latter kept her quite sustained long after he dropped her at the gate.

 

An unfamiliar carriage stood in the stable yard. Through the trees that lined the driveway, Senza spied the coach, as well as the man who’d presumably driven it.

Hmm. They had company. Important company, if the quality of the carriage was any indication. The driver was finely dressed, too, and didn’t even water the horses himself. He stood to the side, speaking to the horse master, while the stable boy tended to the team.

Must be business for Father. A frown darkened Senza’s expression when she remembered meeting Mr. Isling at the train station. How would she explain being there with her “father” if her father were home meeting with an associate?

She bit her lip, her cheeks warming when she thought of Mr. Knell. Oh, that man. Why did he seem intent on turning her life upside down?

One thing was certain. He was within their circle of society, and he was a man of means. Certainly her mother would approve of such a match. And all that talk of magic—why, it was nonsense. Simply a fantasy.

She shook out her skirts, dusty from the walk up the dry lane. Too much had happened to fool herself into believing that lie. It did little to dissuade her.

A proper introduction with her parents. She’d decided. Magic or no, if she had to be married off to someone, it should be the man who called her
bien-aimé
. It should be the man who haunted her every thought. It should be Mr. Knell.

For the first time in her life, she locked eyes with destiny, stared it down, and did not cringe. If her fate lay in the arms of Mr. Knell, she’d charge headlong into it.

Hoping to avoid any uncomfortable interrogation, she slipped inside and closed the door quietly behind her, heading straight for the steps.

Her mother appeared like a lightning flash in the parlor doorway, her whisper as harsh as her expression. “Where have you been? We have a caller! Upstairs and change. You have five minutes, and that is five minutes longer than any of us should have had to wait.”

Mrs. Fyne took a deep breath and put on a more pleasant tone. “Senza, dear, do join us in the parlor.”

With a swish of skirt, she disappeared into the parlor again. “Out in the garden, as usual. Only needs a moment to freshen up…”

Murmurs of replies, unintelligible but for their owners’ genders. Senza crept up the stairs. Whatever the business, it had her mother in rare form. That couldn’t be good.

Della met her at the top of the stair and whirled her into her chamber, wash basin full, fresh dress laid out. Senza eyed the gown as Della got to work on her with a wash cloth. Not just any dress, either. It was one of her new tea gowns. Robin’s egg blue, trimmed in a complex braid of ribbons, flutters of silk that dripped from the capped shoulders and the waist.

Important company, for sure. Della worked swiftly, combing out her hair and repinning it, adding a small cluster of primrose blooms and matching pink hair pin. Senza was transformed and down the stairs, hastily snatching up her black shawl from where it had been dropped on the bannister. Della deposited her, flush-faced and out of breath, at the parlor door with thirty seconds to spare.

Mother turned and beamed, a picture-perfect smile. “Oh, Senza, there you are. So glad you can join us.”

Senza curtsied to her mother and turned her attention to her guests.

And promptly forgot how to breathe.

Her mother’s voice came to her as if she stood far away, hollow like a voice in a tunnel. “You remember Mr. and Mrs. Thomas.”

Father was not here. It meant only one thing. If they were visiting with Mother—

Senza’s heart thumped in her throat and she lowered her eyes when she curtsied. The model of feigned shyness, the perfect disguise for terror.

“And you remember their son, Winston,” Mrs. Fyne continued.

Senza forced a smile, aiming it at the floor at his feet.

“Call me Winnie,” he said, and stepped over to her, seizing her hand and pulling it to his mouth. His fingers were warm and damp like over-cooked dumplings. “Wonderful to see you looking so well, Miss Fyne.”

She hadn’t realized he was the perspiring type. Thank goodness for decorum and the call for wearing gloves at the dances. Unfortunate that she wasn’t wearing them now.

“Your, ah, mother said you were in the garden.” He looked over his shoulder to his father, who nodded encouragingly, quite like a barrister would prompt a witness in court. “I should very much like to see your roses, although I daresay they would pale in comparison to the—the lovely blush of your cheeks.”

Senza gaped a moment, at a complete loss for words. If roses could be half as flustered as she, they’d redefine the color red.

When she remained silent, her mother supplied a response. “Of course, she would be delighted. Wouldn’t you, Senza?”

“Of course,” Senza echoed. Best to fall back on the habits of proper protocol. The rigidity of her social training provided a certain backbone she was suddenly lacking. “Absolutely delighted. If you would come this way, Mr. Thomas?”

“Winnie,” he said with a smile that split his face. He trapped her captive hand under his arm, which was as warm as his hands had been.

Senza didn’t look at her mother as they exited the parlor through the rear door.

The conservatory in the next room had a corner that was floor to ceiling windows and a door that led directly to the rose garden. She turned and spared her mother a scathing look once out of the line of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas’ sight before going outside.

She tugged her hand loose from his to close the door, making a bigger deal out of fixing the latch than was necessary. Clasping her hands to her chest, she led him down the path to the garden gate. He hurried ahead of her to push it open.

He had manners, she’d give him that. However, he lacked a certain element of grace. She scowled. Mr. Knell wouldn’t have had to hurry ahead to awkwardly open the gate. He simply would have arrived at the gesture as if it had been rehearsed to the point of perfection.

“I’m sorry to hear you are still mourning,” he said. “I know it’s not customary to take callers while in this state.”

She didn’t want to discuss her current state, whether it was the one in which she still drowned or the one in which he supposed her to be. “Your father, he has business with my father, does he not?”

Winnie clasped his hands behind his back and pretended to admire a climbing vine, loaded with scarlet blooms. “You mean today, or in general?”

“Today.” She had to push the word past the fist in her throat.

“Yes, especially today.”

“And…” Her voice faded when her heartbeat broke into a gallop again. “Why especially today?”

“Oh, well, you see, I passed my examination into the Law Society.” He poked at one of the flowers, watching it quiver on its delicate stem. “My clerkship is going splendidly well at my father’s practice.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“Yes. Father says I’m sure of a place in his firm.”

Senza waited patiently while he teased the roses. When he said nothing further, she prompted him. “And?”

“Oh, yes, well, then I suppose after I take on my appointment, I shall take up residence of my own in London. Several promising locations close to our home near Chancery Lane, beautiful houses.”

“London. How exciting.”

“Yes. I’m sure you would truly enjoy the city. So much diversion to keep a lady busy.”

“I imagine there is.” She eyed him. What was he playing at? Was this how he was going to spring it on her—innocuous chatter about London before launching the inquest? He was a law clerk, after all, son of a prosperous barrister. The inquest was bound to be brutal.

He ceased his prodding of the rosebush and turned to face her. “Not while one is in mourning, of course. It wouldn’t be seemly. I think it uncommon good luck that our parents have found so much in common.”

He stood a tentative step closer to her. “We’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other better.”

“Mr. Thomas—”

“Winnie. Please.” His face was alight with eagerness. “No need to stand on formality, Miss Senza. Not when we will be seeing so much more of each other.”

Her eyes slid sideways and she resisted turning toward him. “How much more, exactly?”

He only smiled.

And his smile was nothing at all like Knell’s. Senza re-wrapped her shawl, covering as much of herself as she could. A twist of nausea snaked up her throat. There was only one reason the Thomases would be here in private discussion, allowing Senza unsupervised in the garden with their son.

Suddenly, being called out for her deceit at the train station would have been much preferable.

“Are you cold, my dear?”

“Oh, yes, Mister—Winnie. There’s a terrible chill. I’d like to go inside, if you don’t mind. I’ve been outside most of the day and I’m feeling quite overexposed.”

“You have taken on a bit of a pall, my dear. You mustn’t exhaust yourself. Let me help you.”

But Senza was already passing him, striding for the door and going inside without waiting for him. He followed behind, chatting amiably, oblivious to her disposition.

The visit lasted nearly an hour longer, and Senza endured the polite conversation and happy glances with a frozen smile. Inside, her mind had crystalized into needles of panicked thoughts, each one bearing the name and the essence of Mr. Knell. She struggled to feign interest in the conversation, constantly pushing up her eyebrows to mimic delighted engagement.

Her mother seemed as if she’d fallen head over heels for Winnie. Although the word engagement wasn’t spoken, she knew it perched on the tips of their tongues. And if she were to continue her melancholy seclusion, she was certain Winnie Thomas would be a frequent caller, a companion to lift her spirits.

She kept her thoughts to herself for the remainder of the visit, enduring Winnie’s hearty well-wishes for her solace. Mrs. Fyne saw the Thomases outside to their carriage. When the door closed behind them, she took a deep breath and beamed at her daughter. “Well, that went quite well for a first meeting.”

“Why do I suspect there is more going on than you are telling me?

“I’ve never made a secret about my intentions, Senza. Our first and foremost task was to find you an advantageous suitor. Winston Thomas rather fits the bill.”

A suitor? All suspicions confirmed, she swallowed hard as her stomach clenched. “He is a nice fellow, mother, I would not deny that. But he isn’t my type.”

“And you do know your type, then?”

“Yes. I think I do.” Tall, but not lanky. Strong shoulders, since he lifted her from the phaeton without so much as bracing himself. Nice arms that made walking beside him a pleasure. A stubborn lock of hair that tumbled over his eyes, both boyish and secretive. The smile that squeezed her from the insides, making her want to pop.

And who was capable of performing magic.

Biting her bottom lip to keep the impossible perfection of his being from escaping, Senza wrung her hands. How on earth were she to describe him? Even if he wasn’t perfectly other-worldly, there was no way to tell her mother she was interested in a man her parents did not know.

If only they’d had more time—just a ball, even a small one, so he could have made himself known to her father.

Instead, she’d given herself to selfish isolation, allowing her fear and her feelings to make her a prisoner. She’d never been self-indulgent before but it was all too clear now. She’d doomed herself.

She steadied her breath. “I don’t think we should be hasty, mother.”

“You don’t? You have not been out since Felicity died, Senza. The world can’t wait forever, dear. Life goes on and everyone has been going on without you. At least Winston Thomas has not forgotten you—”

“Mother, please! Don’t do this to me. I beg you. Do you not love me at all?”

“I do this because I love you. I want to see you in a happy, prosperous marriage. This is why we are made women; because a man is just a man. A woman is the embodiment of strength, and passion, and fury, and above all things, she is adaptable. We alone can bear this burden, to be the one who makes success of a marriage. You will have a prosperous husband who cares for you, a beautiful home, a chance to be part of the London society. This is all we’ve been working toward, daughter.”

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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