Authors: Elizabeth Hunter,Grace Draven
Tags: #Gothic romance
For while Josephine had long known she would not live to old age, she thought she had resigned herself to it. She made a point of fighting the melancholy that threatened her. If she had any regret, it was that she would not live long enough to write all the stories she wanted. Sometimes she felt a longing to shout them into the night, offering them up to any wandering soul that they might be heard so they could live.
So many voices beating in her chest. So many tales to write and whisper and shout. Her eyes fell to the book she’d slammed shut.
‘“You are afraid to die?”
“Yes, everyone is.”
Josephine stood and pushed her way out of the glass house, into the garden where the mist enveloped her. She lifted her face to the moon and felt the tears cold on her cheeks.
“‘Girls are caterpillars,” she whispered, “‘when they live in the world, to be finally butterflies when the summer comes; but in the meantime there are grubs and larvae, don’t you see?’”
But the summer would never come for Josephine. She beat back the despair that threatened to envelop her.
You are afraid to die?
Yes, everyone is.
She lifted her face and opened her eyes to the starry night, speaking her secret longing into the night. “‘But to die as lovers may—to die together, so that they may live together.’”
How she longed for love! For passion. How she ached to be seen. To be cherished. To be
She could pour her soul onto the page and still find loneliness in the dark. She strangled her heart to keep it alive, knowing it was only a matter of time until the palest lover took her to his bosom. Already, she could feel the tightness in her chest.
Tomorrow would not be a good day.
Nevertheless, she lifted her arms like an offering to a pagan god. “‘Thus fortified I might take my rest in peace,’” she said, lifting her voice in defiance of the darkness. “‘But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please…’” She smiled. “‘And laugh at locksmiths…’ because they are clever dreams.”
The sound of quiet laughter drifted through the garden.
She spun and glared into the darkness. “Who is there?” Josephine gathered her dressing gown, wrapping it closer around her body. “Who are you?”
Surely only a neighbor’s servant, gawking at her foolishness. She should have been embarrassed, but she wasn’t. She knew the neighbors considered her eccentric. It was the privilege of the dying.
“If you’re going to spy on me”—Josephine stepped toward the bushes—“you will only see folly.”
“I saw no folly tonight,” a quiet voice replied. “Only perhaps a bit of fancy.”
The voice was low and rough, coming from the edge of the garden. A man’s voice, not a boy’s. Coming from the other side of the wall? She couldn’t tell for certain. But whoever was watching her, she didn’t sense him moving away.
“Are you planning to kidnap me?” She cocked her head, stepping closer to the edge of darkness. “I’ll warn you, I’m consumptive. I’ll probably make you sick if you try.”
“My kind don’t fall ill easily.”
She froze. “Your kind?”
“Who were you talking to? The moon? God? Perhaps the fairies?”
“None of them, I think. Death, maybe.”
He sounded amused when he said, “’Tis a foolish woman who courts Death. He is the most jealous lover.”
Josephine stopped at the edge of the grass, not wanting to discover his secret. Whoever he was—servant or tramp, beggar or gentleman—she didn’t feel fear. He had
her, and she was grateful.
Josephine offered a sad smile into the shadows. “As I don’t have any other lover, I suppose Death can have me.”
She thought he came closer, though she had no idea why.
“Are you afraid to die?” her shadowed friend asked.
“Yes,” she whispered into his silence. “Everyone is.”
A silent pause, then a murmur so close she felt his breath on her neck.
But when she spun around, he was gone.
GIRLS ARE CATERPILLARS when they live in the world…
Tom tried not to fidget in the carriage on the way to Shaw’s town house. Girls might be caterpillars according to Miss Shaw, but Tom felt like he was the one wrapped in a cocoon. The amount of clothing he’d been forced to don was verging on torture.
Normally he’d be able to get by with a more casual suit, even when socializing among Murphy’s cronies. Tom Dargin hardly spoke. He was known as the stern older brother with dubious connections and a noted air of violence. Gentlemen respected him, greeted him properly if they met at clubs, but kept their distance.
Unfortunately, his sire’s mate and valet had gotten ahold of him and forced Tom into his most formal attire.
He was miserable.
“You look very handsome,” Anne said, leaning forward. “Please stop fidgeting.”
“I’m a league off of handsome, Annie. And I’m not fidgeting.”
“You’ve nearly torn the hem of that waistcoat. And if you cross your arms again, you’re liable to tear the seams of that coat across the shoulders. Relax.”
Relax? Tom had faced monsters in the boxing ring that unnerved him
less than the thought of meeting a proper lady like Josephine Shaw. Especially when he already knew what the woman looked like in her dressing gown.
Did it bother him that his possible betrothed might be slightly insane? He hadn’t quite decided yet. He thought probably not. Some of the most interesting people he’d known were a bit gone in the head, and he’d hardly be bored with her should she decide on him.
What he didn’t like was that the decision was entirely in Josephine Shaw’s hands. He’d promised to offer for the woman
if she wanted him
. Oddly enough, the thought that she might not was what made him worry his waistcoat. Because—and this had kept him pacing for three nights—Miss Shaw had surprised him by being entirely more desirable than anticipated.
Murphy’s words pulled him from his mental dithering. The carriage jerked to a halt and the door opened. Tom had to stop himself from exiting first and looking around for threats. This wasn’t a meeting with Beecham where vampires might be waiting with swords. This was a civilized dinner party with Murphy’s mate, his new business partner, and a woman who ran around in her garden in the middle of the night quoting morbid poetry.
“Feck me,” Tom muttered as he disembarked from the carriage. Murphy and Anne were waiting at the foot of the stairs. Declan—the sorry little ninny—had begged off.
Anne scowled. “You absolutely must not use language like that in front of Miss Shaw.”
“She might like it,” Tom said. “You’d be surprised at the ladies who do.”
Murphy covered a smile with cough and put his arm out for Anne. “Come now, Anne. Tom knows how to speak with a lady.”
“No, I don’t.”
“And he’ll even use a knife and fork when it’s necessary,” Murphy said.
“I promise not to stab anyone unless they try to steal my food,” Tom added.
Anne shook her head. “I don’t know why I put up with you scoundrels.”
Murphy leaned closer to his mate and whispered something that would have made Tom blush if he could.
“Oh,” Anne said in a slightly higher voice. “Yes, that’s why. Well, God help Miss Shaw anyway if she likes you, Tom. I know you’re as bad as this one, if not worse.”
“Not our Tom,” Murphy said. “He’s the boring, responsible brother.”
“I’d punch you, boss, but I might bust my seams,” Tom said. “Come on now. Let’s stop stalling.” He could already see the butler waiting at the door.
They walked up the ruthlessly neat steps to the redbrick town house with tall glowing windows. Thank heaven the sun was setting earlier this time of year, otherwise they’d have to make excuses about the dinner hour.
The butler took Tom’s hat and overcoat at the door before he led him, Murphy, and Anne back to the drawing room and announced them.
A rush of voices surrounded them, but Tom’s eyes found his target immediately. She was standing awkwardly near the bookcases, next to an older woman who looked like a companion. He could see a hastily set-aside book on the small table next to the lamp. Josephine Shaw was brushing at her skirts and slouching slightly, as if trying to conceal her height.
“And Mr. Murphy”—Tom blinked when he realized Shaw was speaking to him—“allow me to introduce you to my only daughter, Miss Josephine Shaw.”
Tom stepped toward her.
Girls are caterpillars…
No girl here, but Tom thought he saw the caterpillar. Miss Shaw was… not pretty, though he thought she might be what some would call handsome. What had suited the darkness and moonlight appeared awkward in the artificial light of the drawing room. Her skin was pale, not luminous. Her hair was mouse-brown and tied back in a complicated, heavy knot. Her height and dramatic features were not flattered by the fashions she’d been buttoned into. But her eyes…
Too big for her face. Too dark. Too wide. Too… much.
Far too much for a very proper drawing room.
Tom thought her eyes might trap him if he wasn’t careful.
“Miss Shaw.” He bowed respectfully. “A pleasure to meet you.”
Wake up, caterpillar.
She smiled politely and inclined her head, her shoulders still bent. Tom watched her ink-stained hand as he straightened, imagining what the skin would feel like in his rough palm. He stretched his shoulders back. Those large, dark eyes that had been hovering somewhere around his cravat rose and kept rising to meet his own gaze.
“I find,” he said quietly, “that it’s quite useless to apologize for how tall the good Lord made me.”
She blinked. “Pardon me, sir?”
He liked her voice even more when it wasn’t whispered in a garden. And Anne would probably thrash him for it, but he’d say it anyway. “No need to slouch, Miss Shaw. In my opinion, there’s nothing grander than a tall woman.”
Miss Shaw blinked again. Then her face lit with a smile, she threw back her shoulders and let out a laugh as improper as dancing in the garden at midnight.
The laugh transformed her.
The older woman behind Miss Shaw met his eyes with an approving look, and Shaw clapped him on the shoulder as Miss Shaw continued to laugh.
“You young people,” Shaw said. “Mr. Murphy, I have a good whiskey I’ve opened for the evening. May I get you a glass?”
“Please,” Tom said. “And what are you drinking tonight, Miss Shaw?”
An attractive flush lent a little color to her face. “I rarely drink spirits, sir. I only take a bit of wine as my doctor recommends.”
He liked that she made no pretense of hiding her disease.
Tom led Miss Shaw away from the bookcases and toward the fireplace where he found a seat for her near the cheerful hearth. She introduced Mrs. Porter, her companion, and asked him all the proper questions a young lady asks a young man of trade. Tom answered, even though he was far from a young man of trade.
It was very, very awkward.
“Tell me, Mr. Murphy, do you enjoy working with your brothers?”
He’d been watching the fire and thinking about how long it would be before dinner, so the answer slipped out before he thought. “Better than a team of asses, but not by much.”
He heard Miss Shaw stifle a snort and barely contain a spit of wine that would have sprayed over her lovely green frock. Mrs. Porter’s mouth hung open a little, though her eyes were alight in amusement.
“Bollocks,” Tom muttered before he pressed a knuckle to his lips and tried not to growl.
Language, man. Watch your language.
“My sincerest apologies, Miss Shaw. I am too accustomed to the company of men. Please forgive my vulgarity.”
Her voice was low and conspiratorial as she leaned toward him slightly. “I accept your apology. I hate dinner parties. Would you like to know why?”
“Because it takes five times as long to say something in polite language as it does by being forward. And all the really good jokes are forbidden.”
“Don’t you believe in manners, Miss Shaw?” He let the corner of his mouth turn up. “Are you trying to shock me?”
“I have a strong inclination that it would take quite a lot to shock you, Mr. Murphy.”
“You might be correct.”
If their self-appointed matchmakers were watching, Tom thought they would probably be cackling with glee. Miss Shaw leaned toward him and he toward her. He couldn’t help it. Something about her nature spoke to him. She was, despite her proper upbringing, an outsider by nature and circumstance. A caterpillar in a world that was not ready to see the butterfly she might become.
Tom wanted to see it.
He could smell the scent of gardenia in her hair and india ink on her fingers. And layered beneath that, he realized with an unexpected pang of sorrow, was the smell of her sickness. Of tonics and herbs she probably took to let her breathe easier.