Monday, 30 May 2016

Chapter Two

The Dead London Chronicles: Vol I, June 2016 is now available FREE at SmashwordsApple and Kobo!

On with the tale...

What became of that boy who balanced on the cliff edge, Robert Faulkner could not say. Of the fate of the girl who did not return for Christmas nor another summer, nor see Scotland ever again, he could be more certain. Alice Tyhurst, the girl he knew from before he knew anything, the girl he loved and never told, had grown up that very year into Lady Alice Brandenburg, wife to a man far above the society doctor Robert Faulkner had since become. Now, with fifteen years from that kiss to tonight, he had lost that boy and his broken heart somewhere in time, somewhere on his travels, and he hoped never to see him again.

Why he had fallen into memories of the past as he approached Mishael de Chastelaine's country residence, Faulkner had no idea, but the past was not a place he wanted to be. As his carriage rolled to a halt he took a deep breath and composed himself into the dour, respectable man he had become.

It was what they expected, after all.
"I don't like this gown."

Mary Lambert sighed inwardly at the pronouncement that came after an hour of dressing, her mistress regarding herself critically in the glass. "Shall I fetch another?" 

"No," the answer came as she had known it would, the protest voiced only to air a general dissatisfaction with the night ahead and life in general. "No, there is no time. People will be arriving soon."

Mary nodded, carefully patting down a stray strand of her mistress's golden hair, the sound of carriage wheels audible in the distance through the open window. Without further ado she slipped a fine shawl around the other woman's shoulders, aware as she did so just how fragile she had become even in the last few weeks. "I am ready when you are, my Lady."

The eyes that met hers in the mirror were worn and listless, darting away after a moment. "Let us go." 

Mary nodded once more, moving to open the bedroom door. A few hours, she told herself, a few hours and it would all be over.

There was always, Mishael de Chastelaine mused, something. A house party to welcome the Prussian prince of something or other, a hellfire gathering with another fat duke... 

This weekend, though, it wasn’t a house party, it was the house party, the only invitation worth having in the whole of these Isles. This was a house party with the cream of society, where reputations might be made or broken and where Satan himself would welcome the guests, clad in his red silk, his ebony cane held in one elegant hand. 

How terribly dull. 

There was at least, Mary thought as she escorted her mistress down the expansive staircase, more than enough chance that the evening would not be a long one. A fit of the vapours or a headache and she would be relieved of her duties, free to retire once more after the customary tonics and powders were seen to. As if in response to her prediction, her companion paused at the final step, frowning as she brought her hand to her forehead, a frown marring her features. 

Mishael paused at the top of the staircase, unseen by the women below. He allowed himself a smile as he walked away, sure that what the lady really needed was a doctor. Perhaps she might find one at this most particular house party, where the devil held court, the wolves howled and blood and wine would flow as the days passed into night. With that rather pleasing thought he strolled along out of sight, the job of the host never done. After all, there were new arrivals to greet, a party to host and all manner of stories about to begin. 

Something made Mary turn then, perhaps a sound, or a shift in the air, looking upwards to scan the gloom. Finding nothing her eyes narrowed, breath held. The day was suddenly still, the birdsong silenced and then, as quickly as it and changed, normality seemed to be restored. Footsteps sounded along the hallway, a gaggle of guests making their stately way towards the ballroom to begin socialising and, Mary knew, her mistress' husband would not be far behind, the ride he had undertaken with the other men to discuss politics, brandy and the state of the nation surely drawing to a close now the afternoon was darkening into dusk. The evening held gaming and dancing, music and gossip, the days ahead chatter and hunting, needlepoint and improvement and all under the watchful eye of the finest names in London society. 

And Mary would be left to whatever devices she chose in the time that Alice did not need her most trusted retainer, her only trusted retainer. Left to her own devices in this palace in the wilderness, this part of the land where superstition had it that all manner of creatures might be found, even in a world where all manner of creatures were really nothing unusual.

Eventually  they could delay no longer and the party, as parties must, found its feet. With the doctor hidden away in the library with the quieter chaps in attendance and the ballrooms ringing with music and dancing, the night was alive with anticipation and laughter, the sound of swishing silk and the scent of fine perfumes. Not everyone's smile was as genuine as it seemed though and Lord Theodore Brandenburg gave a sigh of annoyance as he finally found his wife hiding herself in a corner of the veranda, as though she would rather be anywhere but here. 

"Here you are," he called lightly. "I thought you had run back to London!"

"I am not fit to run anywhere," came the quiet response, one that was all-too familiar, "I have a headache." 

"Another?" Ted glanced over his shoulder and, spying a member of the royal household, took Alice's elbow, dropping his voice to a hissed whisper. "Sophia tells me you have hidden away all afternoon; you would do well to follow her example, she is the talk of the ballroom."

"I do not wish to be the talk of anywhere," came the pained reply, "I will call for Mary;  it is better if I retire--"

"You will do no such thing!" Ted's hand tightened on her elbow. "How will such a course reflect on me?" He drew her nearer, voice even lower. "We will go inside and you will chaperone your step-daughter, Lady Brandenburg, as any good mother would do at such an occasion!"

With the decision made on his wife's behalf, Ted moved away just lightly enough to affect the appearance that Alice wished to be alongside him. In fact she found she had no choice, his grip towing her firmly towards the noise and candlelight of the ballroom. 

The girl would not, Alice knew, wish to be chaperoned or anything of the sort, but she held her peace, lips pressed together tightly as they made their way into the crowded room. She did not wish to be there and longed for her bed, feeling a wave of resentment at the sound of her step-daughter's distinctive laugh floating across to greet them. At the sight of her stepmother and father, Sophia Brandenburg's Young face broke into a dazzling smile, her beauty never more than by candlelight. As she bobbed a curtsy to the duke who had been her dancing partner the pearls wound in her dark hair glittered, the rubies at her neck likewise.  Graciously accepting his farewell she tripped across the ballroom, dashing a kiss to the cheeks of both Ted and Alice. 

"How are you finding the party?" her stepmother enquired dutifully, wishing again for her room.

"I have barely had a moment to breathe!" The girl’s laughter tinkled musically and she reached out one pale hand to touch Alice's arm, "One less modest than I might find her head quite turned."

"Lady Brandenburg will join the wallflowers no doubt whilst I while away the night on politics," Ted smiled, looking to the assorted mothers and chaperones gathered on the fringes of the room, "Until tomorrow, ladies."

With a low bow he departed, leaving the women alone. Sophia turned her attention to her stepmother, eyes glittering as she said, "Go and sit, mama, I have gentlemen to dance with!"

"I do not doubt it," came the weary response, the girl with all her glittering youth and something else that was just beneath the surface striking a nerve. "Behave yourself, I will be watching."

"Always, mama, always," Sophia kissed her cheek and laughed before she was gone, back into the fray.

The evening stretching out interminably before her, she took her place in the corner, expression one of polite and practised indifference as she watched the couples whirl and spin before her. It had been more years than she could remember since she had last danced, and even if she were so inclined, she had surely forgotten how.

Her stepdaughter, of course, had no such doubts and anxieties. It was she who commanded attention in her scarlet Italian silk, moving with confidence and a lightness of foot that neither father nor daughter ever tired of telling Alice was inherited from her real mother. 

That real mother, as Sophia was so fond of saying, was no mere painter's daughter, as Alice had once been. Her real mother was the daughter of one of the oldest families in Italy, blood so blue it was positively crowned; Alice should think herself lucky for becoming mother to this girl, and she was never allowed to forget it. She should think herself lucky at least, she supposed, that it was only a step-daughter, that her husband's wish for an heir had never been granted.

Yet that stepdaughter could be... Challenging. Hot tempered, spiteful even, though you would not know that now as she fluttered across the floor on the arm of a duke who should know better.  Alice  hoped against hope that she would not have to intervene, the thought of a scene further increasing the pounding in her head. And scene there would be, the young lady, as she knew from painful experience, not one to take well being thwarted.

If it were anyone else she would do nothing, would pretend not to notice, but the thought of Ted learning that his daughter had danced with one of the most notorious rakes in London as his wife looked on... the thought of the punishment that would follow sent a chill up her spine. As Alice looked to the couple, Sophia's dark eyes met her stepmother's gaze, glittering with dark mischief as she took the hand of her rakish companion.

Her own eyes narrowing, she got to her feet, gesturing for the young woman to come to her, knowing even as she did so that the request would go unheeded. It was just as Alice had suspected of course, her gesture ignored and Sophia's lips, full and rouged, quirked into a smile before she spun flamboyantly into the dance, her head thrown back with merriment.

She had no choice now, Sophia had seen to that, and she advanced towards the dancers, feeling eyes on her, far too aware of herself, utterly out of place. Still, painting on what she hoped was a look of confidence she met Sophia's gaze as she approached, the younger woman's expression changing into a subtle warning, a threat that this might not end happily. 

"Might I have a word?"

"After this dance, mama," was the sing-song reply, "The gentleman is telling me of his adventures in Rome!"

"I would like to speak with you now, if you please," her voice hardened slightly, further aggravated by the smirking Duke close by, "I am sure the gentleman will understand." 

"Of course," Sophia's companion's voice was laced with unctuous, ingratiating gentility and as he released the heiress's arm the younger girl's smile, beautiful as ever, froze in place like a glacier. If she felt annoyance she showed no outward sign and inclined her head towards Alice, voice a cool whisper when she finally spoke.

"Think of your nerves, step-mama," was the hushed warning. "Perhaps you should absent yourself before I tell papa you are in need of your medicine."

"I was told to watch you," she kept her own voice level, fighting the feeling of dislike that so often came upon her in Sophia's presence. "Your father would not be pleased if I allowed such behaviour." 

"And he would be even less so," the girl told her with customary sweetness, "Should I tell him how you are embarrassing our family by creating such a scene as this."

"There is no scene--" Alice’s voice rose with the words, eyebrows raised from those nearby.

"Lady Brandenburg," the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough was at Alice's elbow, smoothly plastering over the small cracks that threatened the evening and the days ahead, should they split open, "I shall gladly serve as the young lady's chaperone, if you wish to retire."

"I would not see you put at any inconvenience--" 

"It is none," was the woman's kindly response and she watched Sophia with a smile of unbridled affection as the beauty swirled back into the dance, this time to join a far more salubrious partner. "Our youngsters can be heady sometimes, Lady Brandenburg; please, go and gather your thoughts."

She was, she realised, being dismissed. Perhaps they were right, perhaps she was the one causing a scene after all. With a murmur of thanks she turned for the door, causing further consternation as, turning too quickly, she narrowly avoided walking into a dancing couple. Murmuring apologies she hurried away, certain she could hear whispers as she went.

Don't miss Chapter Three on 6th June.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Chapter One

The Dead London Chronicles: Vol I, June 2016 is now available FREE at SmashwordsApple and Kobo!

On with the tale...

The sky had never seemed so blue, so bright, so full of promise, the evening sun a burnished gem high above a city that basked in its balmy glow. If not for imminent partings, long-dreaded goodbyes, it was a summer evening on which anything could happen, when dreams might come true, loves be confessed. 

It was the sort of night when hearts could break.

From where he stood on the edge of Salisbury Crags, Robert Faulkner was able to push away the thought of tomorrow's departure, of the long months until Christmas when he hoped his own summer might return to Edinburgh. Only then, with the coming of winter, would Hampshire let Alice Tyhurst return to him, the girl of sun and snow.

At the thought of her he turned slightly, knitting his hands behind his back as he leaned out into nothing, one foot on the edge of the cliff, the other precarious as it hung in mid-air.  For a long moment he stood silently, his gaze fixed on Alice as she worked at her sketchpad and then he looked to the valley, tottering buildings of the Old Town stretched out dark and forbidding far below, the New Town where he made his own home polished and pale beside its sibling.  

"One foot," he announced mischievously  feeling immortal as only a seventeen year old boy with the world literally at his feet could, "It feels like flying."  

"I wonder," she looked up to meet his gaze, a strand of golden hair blowing in the slight breeze, "What it would be like. To fly I mean." 

"Magical," he said, voice a gentle breath. "Would you like to?"

She considered a moment, before setting down her pad, getting to her feet to cross to just before where he stood. "It would make coming back here each summer easier for a start -- and it wouldn't have to just be summer either, I could fly back here whenever we wanted....."

"Do you think we might see you," he attempted to sound casual and failed, of course, "For Christmas?"

"I could ask Papa," her response was careful, considered, betrayed by a flicker of excitement in her eyes, "He might be swayed by the thought of painting the crags in the snow...."

Faulkner felt his heart jump in a way that it never did when she wasn't here, the thought of Christmas with Alice finer than any other celebration  could be. Without thinking he took her hand, as he must have hundreds of times in the years they had been friends, yet this time it was somehow different, somehow more.  Perhaps it was the sun in her hair, the warm breeze on his skin, the freedom... Perhaps it was just Alice. 

"Will you promise me something?" she asked softly, gazing up at him in that way that made it feel as if the world consisted only of the two of them.

"Anything," he told her without hesitation, knowing he would deny her nothing. 

"Promise me," she leaned closer, "That you won't fall off any cliffs? I would miss you terribly."

Faulkner returned his foot to solid ground, his heart beating wildly when he raised their joined hands to his chest and said, "I swear it on my life, Miss Tyhurst."

"I hope," she told him solemnly, hand warm and safe within his own, "That it never comes to that." 

The thought of not seeing her, those long months without her smile, their wanderings, hit him then and he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it very softly. She might pull away, he knew, but it was a risk that he was willing to take.

She did not, the gaze in those blue eyes softening as she regarded him, the world narrowing to contain nothing but them. "My boy...."

"That girl..." his voice was as soft as her gaze, the sun in her hair somehow enchanting him. Let him be the medical student tomorrow, the sensible lad, this evening he could be anything.

"Your girl...." she corrected, something in her gaze setting his heart pounding.

"Would my girl mind if her boy kissed her?" 

"Not," her voice was a soft whisper, "One bit."

It felt so natural out here on the edge of the world to slip his free arm around Alice's waist and draw her closer, the friendship that had grown and fostered since as long as he could remember now something else entirely. She was part of him, the other half of him, and whether he was seventeen or seventy, she would be the girl in his arms.

"You will always," she told him then, as if reading his mind, breath soft as she leaned up towards him, "Be my boy...."

"I would want no other girl,” was his whispered reply, his lips meeting hers a moment later. This, he told her silently, was the first of many such kisses, of a lifetime of nothing but happiness. Her free hand came up to rest against his shoulder, lips warm and soft beneath his own, held there for a long moment until something cold and fleeting touched against his skin. Even as another snowflake fell and another after that, Faulkner didn't let the kiss end. Snow in summer was nothing compared to this, to knowing that he loved this remarkable girl. 

"I will make sure," her voice was filled with conviction as they finally broke for air, her soft hand brushing a snowflake from his hair, "That I am here for Christmas...."

"For many more kisses..."

"Many, many?" 

"And then," he smiled, committing her face to memory for the months that were about to come, "Many more than even that."

"It's snowing," she observed belatedly, "You and your Scottish weather..."

"And my girl," he supplied the natural full stop to the observation with another kiss, the glittering jewel of her Christmas return already shining on the horizon.

Don't miss Chapter Two on 30th May.