Read Beneath a Waning Moon: A Duo of Gothic Romances Online

Authors: Elizabeth Hunter,Grace Draven

Tags: #Gothic romance

Beneath a Waning Moon: A Duo of Gothic Romances (24 page)

Careful not to cause a scare, or worse, have her fingers bitten for the kindness, Lenore broke off a small bit of cheese from the wedge Constance packed and tossed it to her visitor.
 
The mongrel sniffed before wolfing down the tidbit.
 
It didn’t come any closer, but there was no mistaking the pleading look on its canine features.
 
Just one more bite, please.

Lenore reached further into her basket and pulled out the rest of the cheese, slices of cold, boiled ham, a bun, still warm in its wrapping and a square of moist parkin.
 
“Poor dog,” she crooned to the pathetic creature.
 
“When was the last time you ate?”
 
By the look of it, a long time ago.
 
She tossed more of the cheese along with pieces pinched from the bun.
 
The ham and the cake soon followed until there was nothing left of Constance’s carefully packed meal.

“I’m sorry, friend,” she said in response to the expectant look it gave her, along with a timid tail wag.
 
“You’ve eaten everything.
 
Hopefully, that will last until your next meal.”

She blew on her fingers, frozen even in the mittens she wore.
 
“I’ve sat too long,” she said aloud.
 
“My blood is turning to ice chips.”

She looped her umbrella over her forearm, grabbed the empty basket and rose from the bench.
 
The dog lingered nearby, too shy to approach but unwilling to leave this newly discovered source of food.
 
Lenore shooed it gently away with her umbrella.
 
“I’m sure you’d make a fine companion, but I cannot take you home with me.
 
My mother would get one look at you, and we’d both be on the streets hoping for handouts from strangers.”

The umbrella worked as a deterrent for two seconds at most.
 
The dog simply skittered out of the way, only to return as Lenore’s tail-wagging shadow.

She sighed.
 
For years, she had begged her parents for a pet, specifically a dog.
 
Jane couldn’t abide them, and in this matter, Arthur bent to her wishes.
 
Now, when Lenore was older and far more in control of her life, the timing didn’t suit.
 
She had no doubt that were she to leave a rescued street mongrel with her mother while she went sailing off to Spain, she’d return to find the animal had mysteriously vanished.

Woman and mutt gazed at each other for a moment before Lenore gave in.
 
“Care for a walk among the dead?” she asked.
 
The dog cocked its head to the side as if considering her proposal before trotting a little closer, tail snapping back and forth even faster than before.

The unlikely pair traveled an ordered path through the cemetery, pausing periodically for Lenore to read the various headstones or admire the lavish memorials sculpted in marble and granite commemorating various people wealthy or famous or both.
 
At each pause, she glanced over her shoulder or sought the shadows that played behind penitent angels in the hopes of seeing the white-haired, black-garbed Guardian.
 
She refused to admit her disappointment to herself when he made no appearance.

She gave a start at the sudden rise of voices and clink of metal.
 
The dog, her silent companion, laid back its ears and retreated farther behind her.
 
Alerted by the animal’s wary behavior, Lenore crept softly toward the sounds and peeked around a marble cross.

Two men, dressed in ragged coats and tool belts bent to their work over a small grave.
 
Mangled wreathes of fresh flowers lay strewn in haphazard chaos, pelted by the dirt the men shoveled off the new mound.

Lenore clapped a hand over her mouth, frozen in horror .
 
Resurrectionists!
 
In full daylight.
 
The realization of what they dug for made blood roil in her veins in a red fury.
 
They were defiling a child’s grave.

One of the body snatchers spoke.
 
“I don’t like it.
 
We shoulda done this at night.”

The second thief flung a shovel full of mud at his compatriot.
 
“Shut your gob and dig,” he snarled.
 
“Daylight means the bone keeper won’t be watchin’ for us.”

Lenore’s anger made her careless.
 
“You vile bastards,” she said aloud before freezing in place.

Both thieves spun to face her, shovel handles gripped in dirty fingers—weapons as a last resort to be used on anyone unfortunate enough to witness their crime.

Lenore was the first of the three jolted from their mutual surprise.
 
She opened her mouth, drew a deep breath and screamed for all she was worth.
 
The sound, fueled by sheer terror, exploded from her lungs and carried across the cemetery with the force of an enraged banshee.
 
Both men dropped their shovels to cover their ears, and Lenore used that moment to turn and flee.

Her basket and umbrella lay somewhere in the shrubbery where she dropped them, and she sped down the path, skirt and crinoline hiked up to her knees.
 
A cry went up behind her, much too close.

“Catch that bleedin’ trollop before we both end up ridin’ in the Black Maria!”

Lenore’s breath roared in her ears, even as her feet flew over the ground.
 
Even when she veered from the path to race past headstones and over wild patches of vegetation not yet killed by winter frost, the main gate remained out of reach—as far away as the moon, especially with the resurrectionists hot on her heels.

A snarl sounded behind her followed by a surprised curse.
 
“Stupid mutt!”

Lenore’s eyes filled with tears at the canine yelp of pain.
 
Her erstwhile companion and unexpected protector.
 
She prayed that sound had not been a death cry.

The hard thud of booted feet grew closer along with coarse panting.
 
She didn’t dare look back, and her lungs burned as if she drew fire into her nostrils instead of air.

Fingers touched her shoulder. Lenore screamed and wrenched away.
 
The movement proved her undoing.
 
Her ankle gave, and she fell toward a headstone.
 
She twisted sideways to avoid it, her outstretched hand saving her from splitting her skull open on the unforgiving marble.
 
She hit the ground on her back, pain exploding in both her palm and the back of her head.
 
Black spots burst across her vision, interspersed with colors that blurred and bled together.

A triumphant cackle sounded in her ear, only to be cut short by a gurgle and a snap, as if someone had stepped on a frozen twig.
 
Lenore tried to raise her head only to watch the blurry world turn topsy-turvy.
 
Her stomach heaved in reaction, and she lay still as the sky carouseled madly above her.

Darkness blotted out the anemic sun only to give way to twin stars that blazed white in a black ocean.
 
Someone spoke, and she recognized the voice.
 
Achingly familiar.
 
Oddly hollow.

“Lenore.
 
I have you, my sweet.”

“Nathaniel?”
 
That wasn’t possible.
 
She’d hit the ground a lot harder than she thought.

Icy fingers caressed her face, soothing despite their chill.
 
“All is well, love.
 
You’re safe with me.”

White stars.
 
So distant.
 
So beautiful.
 
Lenore smiled, even as darkness encroached into her whirling vision.
 
“I should make a wish” she said, wondering why the words felt as thick and sticky as treacle in her mouth.
 
“Two wishes.”

She floated above the ground, light as a feather, pressed against velvet woven from night.
 
A steady heartbeat drummed against her ear, and Nathaniel’s voice teased her once more.
 
“What will you wish for, my Lenore?”

Lenore nuzzled her cheek into the soft fabric.
 
“That you come back to me so I can tell you...”The words weighed heavy on her tongue, and a high ringing filled her ears.

The soothing voice rose it above it all.
 
“Tell me what?”

“Tell you yes instead of no.”
 
The white stars disappeared and the voice and ringing with them until she was only the feather, and even that faded to nothing.

She awakened to the pungent scent of cheese mixed with dog breath and the lap of something wet and warm sliding across her cheek.
 
She groaned and covered her face with her arm.
 
“Hello, dog.”
 
The greeting earned her a soft bark and another damp lick, this time near her ear.

Lenore lay still for several moments, resting on her side, and struggled to find her bearings.
 
Someone had removed her bonnet.
 
It rested in the cove of her body, one side misshapen.

The pain in her head had lessened from a tower bell’s clamor to a hand bell’s chime.
 
Her right hand still throbbed, and she raised it for a better look.
 
She’d lost her mitten, and the illumination from an unknown light source revealed the lacerations across her knuckles and the swelling in both her ring and smallest fingers.
 
An experimental wiggle assured her nothing was broken.

She rested on a wooden floor, facing a dark wall of linen fold paneling gone gray with dust and years without a proper oiling.
 
An equally forgotten fireplace interrupted the expanse of wood, the ashes in its grate long cold.
 
Winter sunlight forced its way through the cloudy panes of a nearby window and battled for dominance against the flame of a lit oil lamp on a small table.

Except for the table and two chairs that looked in imminent danger of collapsing if someone dropped so much as a tea cozy on them, the room was bare.
 
Stark and abandoned and colder than a crypt.

The dog pressed against her back and rested its chin on her waist.
 
Lenore welcomed the shared warmth if not the reek of canine exhalations.
 
“Good dog,” she murmured.
 
“Thank you for trying to help.”

She recalled its hurt yelp, the body snatcher’s curses and her sadness that violent death had been the poor creature’s reward for its bravery.
 
She herself might well have perished, not from a thief’s attack but from her own clumsiness.
 
Lenore would have laughed if her head didn’t pain her so much.
 
What a ridiculous eulogy that would be.
 
Lenore Kenward, unfortunate spinster taken far too young by the malevolent machinations of a headstone.
 
She did chuckle then, the sound cut short by the return of the tower bell thrum between her temples.

“Laughter is always a good sign.”

Lenore gasped at the sight of a paler shadow separating itself from the darker ones clotting the chamber’s doorway.

The Highgate Guardian stood in the entrance, holding a basin and pitcher, linen towels draped over one arm.
 
“Don’t be frightened, Miss Kenward.
 
You’re safe.”

“Lenore.
 
I have you, my sweet.”

She blinked.
 
He had called her Lenore, not Miss Kenward and sounded like her beloved Nathaniel.
 
Good God, how hard of a knock to the head did she suffer?
 
“I fell,” she said.

He glided across the room and set his burden on the table by the lamp.
 
“Yes.
 
Fortunately, your quick reflexes saved you from worse injury.
 
Had you struck the headstone, I doubt we’d be having this conversation now.
 
You still managed to strike a tree root when you fell, and you’ve a cut on your scalp.
 
If you will allow me, I’ll tend to your wound.”

“Unfortunately, my clumsiness nearly got me killed in the first place.”
 
She tried sitting up, only to pause as the room swam before her eyes.
 
When her vision cleared, she stared into the Guardian’s porcelain features.

“Peace, Miss Kenward.
 
Let me help you.”
 
He bent and scooped her effortlessly into his arms.

Lenore placed her hands on his shoulders, feeling the flex of muscle as he shifted her weight.
 
Unlike the hard black armor he wore when she first met him, he was garbed in the sober apparel of a vicar, minus the brimmed hat or white collar.

He set her gently down on one of the questionable chairs.
 
Lenore waited a few tense moments for it to collapse under her and send her sprawling in a heap of skirts, petticoats and crinoline.

She offered the Guardian a small relieved smile when the chair held, wondering if his kind not only heard the whispers of the dead but the thoughts of the living when he told her in a wry voice “It’s sturdier than it looks.”

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