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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

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BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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“But, I barely know him. I do not love him—”

“You will get to know him. Love doesn’t simply bloom upon the first meeting. He and his parents have graciously accepted our invitation that they stay here for an extended visit. The city is so dreadful in summer, the heat so oppressive. Mr. Thomas’s work prevents them from travelling to Brighton, so a stay in the countryside provides an excellent tonic for Mrs. Thomas’s health.”

Senza’s eyes felt like they’d pop. “They are staying here? With us?”

“Of course! Winnie and Henry get on splendidly, and Mr. Thomas can make the trip to the city by train. Oh, it does remind me of my own courtship. Your father made his commission at an age earlier than any of his peers. He was destined for a life on the sea. So dashing, in his uniform. To be an officer’s wife—I cannot begin to explain the distinction.”

Senza glared at her mother. Her voice was like iron. “Winston Thomas is no Bertram Fyne.”

“No. He isn’t. But he is educated, and has a stable future, and he seems to have a special consideration for you. He isn’t in need of your inheritance. Means he is interested in you, and not your money.”

“Other men might feel the same, Mother. You can’t sell me off to the first one that knocks.”

“He isn’t the first, Senza. But he is the most promising. And the way you’ve been hiding yourself, you’ll be lucky if anyone even remembers you. Think on that when you’re putting on your veils tomorrow.”

Her mother hitched up her skirts and stormed out of the room, leaving Senza alone.

Alone had been preferable for so long. Now, it just seemed like a punishment.

 

The very next morning, Senza packed up every scrap of black clothing she owned and had Della stuff them into a trunk in the attic. She refused to become a captive audience, left to the mercy of a suitor.

Especially a suitor that was not of her own choosing.

Mrs. Fyne’s approval of Senza’s recovery from her melancholy was quite evident. Although she never forthrightly accused her daughter, surely Mrs. Fyne did not actually believe an elevation of spirits had thrust her daughter back into the sunlight.

As her mother had promised, Mr. Thomas brought his family to stay at the Fyne home. Senza remained aloof, insisting that Aggie spend the summer with them, as well. Winston Thomas strolled about with quite a puffed chest, one step behind Senza, one step ahead of Aggie. Flanked by two eligible ladies, he must have fancied himself quite a fortunate man.

Fancied himself an artist, too. He spent a portion of every day behind his easel and canvas, painting every inch of the Fyne manor. It was the only time Senza was free to go about without her Thomas-shaped shadow. Aggie was content to sit with him, reading and chatting as he painted, always bathed in the glow of happiness.

Despite the wellspring of cheer that seemed to have moved into Fyne manor, there was no such lightening of the shadows that encased Senza’s spirits still. A peculiar agitation had settled itself into her chest and she only found relief when maintaining a state of constant distraction and perpetual movement.

If she sat still, or allowed her mind to rest, her thoughts turned straight to Mr. Knell like a compass needle finds magnetic north. A mantra would burn in her mind:
he is not here, he knows how to avoid death, I am alone, without
. If anyone knew the thoughts that pursued her, she would be hauled off to a sanitarium and locked away.

Not thinking of him allowed her to not think about worse things. Better not to think.

Carriage rides to town were no longer relaxing, the act of sitting idly by an impossible task to perform with grace. She insisted on walking, much to Aggie’s dismay. The strenuous exertion took the edge off the buzzing of Senza’s fretfulness, made use of the excess energy, allowing her to appear calm and composed, a pleasing disposition.

Even more dismaying was the pace to which Senza set their walks to town, and Aggie invariably arrived out of breath and near exhaustion.

“Please, Senza, I beg you.” Aggie leaned against the fence rail and set her fan into frantic motion. “Let us find someplace to sit. My feet are positively on fire. Why didn’t you allow Winston to drive us in?”

“He’d only be bored by ribbons and hats, Aggie, and I need something new for the dance on the weekend.” She craned her head, peering down the street. “Let’s go to the milliner’s. He has a lovely bench out front.”

While they strolled through town, now at a pace more befitting to ladies of means, they greeted familiar faces, chatting and waving. Aggie’s face beamed at the attention. Senza was less enamored. Many of these people frequented the same parties to which Senza was invited, and while they behaved most friendly now, Senza remembered their evaluating stares, their not-so-discreet whispers.

To them, she was a topic of speculation, a social barrier. As long as she was single, every other girl of a marriageable age would remain single, too. And every single one of them noticed she no longer wore black. She was once again a threat.

Their friendly overtures were thin veils, just enough to conceal their true feelings toward her. They didn’t know her, didn’t know her personality or her dispositions. They knew her only for her outsides, and from a distance at best.

Senza was keener than they gave her credit, yet never allowed them to see the wounds their ignorant barbs rent within her. Her smiles were dazzling, even if they never reached her eyes. Such were the trappings of decorum. In all appearances, Senza was the ideal of feminine beauty and charm.

And inside, she cringed. She was competition. They had every reason to feel as they did, because they had no idea Senza would never seek marriage with one of the county’s eligible bachelors. Her heart had been stolen.

Thankfully, Aggie never noticed the stiff way Senza pulled up when they encountered the first group of young ladies. Aggie was the recipient of warmer smiles and gentler assessment, as she was genuinely liked. Sweet and charming, loved all the more for her unfortunate position within the shadow of Senza’s brilliance.

By the time they’d reached the milliner’s shop, Aggie looked quite rejuvenated, her cheeks flushed with a happy glow. Senza chewed her lip, listening to her excited chatter.

Her cousin was very fond of Winston, it seemed, and found endless tidbits and anecdotes to share about him. Aggie couldn’t know the thoughts that swarmed in Senza’s head, or know the depth of her sincere regrets.

Had she been unfair toward her cousin, even though she’d never consciously tried to be the center of attention? If her cousin truly did like Winston, she could at least try to repair the slight by encouraging Winston in her direction.

Senza pointed to the bench but Aggie tugged at her hand. “I’m feeling quite refreshed, Senza. Let’s go inside and look at the ribbons.”

The breeze turned, bringing with it the scents of cloves from the bakery nearby, the roses from the park across the street. “You go, Aggie. I’ll just sit awhile.”

“Are you sure—”

“Yes.” Senza sat on the bench. “Please, go in. I’ll just be a moment.”

Aggie nodded, turning to greet a pair of young ladies who had followed them to the shop and called her name. They swept her up along with them and disappeared inside, leaving Senza alone at last.

She was up from the bench and off the porch between one heartbeat and the next, hurrying across the street in a flurry of footsteps and swishing skirts. Her body raced to keep up with her anxiety-driven heart. Without Aggie’s voice to distract, she was once more at the mercy of her thoughts.

Her merciless thoughts, which took to battering her weary soul once more. Even with the idea of an escape, she still had to find a way to pair Winston with Aggie. She lacked her mother’s strategic talents and had no idea how to surmount the impossible obstacle of Mrs. Fyne’s granite-carved intentions.

The row of shops faced a broad, grassy park, its smooth verdant spreads flanking a small but pleasant lake. Walking paths provided a beautiful vantage to admire the resident swans that paddled their lazy circles. Most prominent was the large white gazebo that overlooked the pond. It provided the perfect spot of shade on warm days and was a popular place for couples seeking a picture-perfect romantic interlude.

Senza sought refuge. The gazebo was empty. That was all that mattered.

A light breeze played upon the water, bending the reeds and stirring the pond flowers floating along the edges. Sweet spring fragrances were a balm, a promise of youth eternal. She spent several minutes admiring the view. The swans seemed oblivious to anything but each other, skimming the warm water in slow strokes, pausing to brush their necks against each other from time to time. For a moment, she imagined what peace could be like.

A chill brushed against her. Had the wind turned? She drew her shawl upon her shoulders, turning her eyes as she did so. Her breath caught when she saw Mr. Knell, leaning like a rake against the rail behind her.

He cocked his head and pushed away from the post. “I thought I might run into you today.”

Her heart lightened far more than it should have. Maybe not appropriate, but wonderful all the same. She tugged her skirt straight, fretting over her hair. No use; her outsides were surely as disheveled as her insides. “You did?”

He made an affirming sound deep in his throat, slipping his hands into his pockets and pacing his way slowly toward her. His eyes trained upon hers, he pinned her down like a predator does its prey.

She was already pressed against the rail farthest from him. There was no room to back away from him, unless she wanted a swim. “And why did you think that?”

He closed the last steps between them and captured her hand, drawing it to his lips. “I’ve been following you.”

Her pulse fluttered in the base of her throat. “Why would you follow me?”

“Because.” He searched her face, his voice raw at the edges. “I missed you.”

The way he said it tugged at her heart. The same rawness echoed from inside her and she knew the only way to ease that pain was to speak her own heart, give him comfort in knowing the sentiment was shared. If only she knew how to say it—

Before she could speak, he squeezed her shoulders once before releasing her and stepping away as if he’d been burned. She bit her lips together. The moment was lost.

Standing before her was the only solution to the Thomas problem. If she could somehow just speak the words that wrapped like lace around her heart, he’d know exactly what to do. She was so sure of it. He’d missed her. Surely, he would not want to see her parceled off to Winston Thomas.

But seeing him again brought every fear into full focus. Every nuance of every doubt now seemed compounded by her unnatural attraction to him. If she could love him…then she could lose him. Just like everything else.

If only she could take assurance that some things were forever…

She blinked away sudden tears. He’d said he knew of a way to avoid death. If only that were true…

She’d give anything.

“Would you?” he murmured. “Give anything?”

He’d done it again. He’d plucked the thoughts from her mind as if she’d spoken them aloud. It unnerved her, but then, much of what he said had that effect on her. She was beginning to expect it.

“Yes.” She set her jaw in defiance. “Because if I die, then all my possessions are worthless. They mean nothing.”

“Oh, I am not talking about possessions. I don’t want money or jewels or palaces. My price is much more…personal.” His voice took on an oily feel, insinuating a dark intimacy.

“Your price?” A dread poured down over her, washing her in cold panic. “What do you want?”

“A trifle, only.” He took her hand, rubbing her fingers between his. The touch of his thumb sliding against her palm elicited a gasp but he did not release her. Clasping her captive hand to his chest, he trailed his fingers down the sensitive skin inside her wrist, her bare forearm. “Your life.”

“But—”

He lifted her hand to his mouth, his lips lingering over her skin. “Life is a constant movement, an eternal flow from beginnings to ends. You cannot go on forever…but you can stop.”

“How do you mean?”

“Stop. Freeze this moment and extend it as long as you wish. Stay just as you are, in this very breath, with all your exquisite glances and terrible beauty and devastating darkness. You have it within you, the strength to harness this power.”

“But if I pay with my life—”

“You won’t die.”

“You speak in riddles, Mr. Knell.”

“Look at them.” He drew her into his arms and urged her to the side of the gazebo overlooking the park proper, sweeping his hand to indicate the crowds beyond. The genteel, the workers, the children in their handed-down coats darting between. “They are full of life, no? And isn’t life a kind of magic? What spell enslaves each of them, sparking life and growth and spirit in their flesh until the spell burns off? Isn’t each heartbeat fueled by the touch of magic?”

She shuddered to stand within his embrace, the touch of his cool skin upon hers, but did not try to escape him. “You have more than a simple conceit, sir, if you can succeed where centuries of philosophers have failed. How can you define life so easily?”

“Everything has an explanation. Scientists make new discoveries every day. Why haven’t they bothered to explain what it is that gives rise to their own existence?”


Magic
isn’t a scientific explanation.”

“No, it’s not. It’s magic,
bien-aimé
, an entity to itself.” He leaned against the rail, facing only her. “And it’s as real as I am, standing here before you.”

Truthfully, he wasn’t standing so much as hovering. His legs and cloak ended in an inky haze that didn’t appear to be feet on solid ground. He played the part of a spectre and she wondered if his resemblance to the Reaper was intentional.

She smirked, trying to conceal her racing heartbeat. “How?”

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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