(Determined by a random story idea generator)
The story features a young widow, who has a knack for drama, and a spinster, who is outspoken.
It’s a historical fiction story about confronting reality. It kicks off in the woods with someone making a misguided promise. (Note that: the flashbacks in this story will become vitally important.) And there’s a twist! (Which I will keep a secret, for now.)
1825, rural Vermont (chosen by me)
Henry Whitelock was only two years old than I. We grew up together. Now, his cold corpse lay in a freshly dug grave and I on the edge of it, staring at his coffin. The sight made me wonder— in the moment after this one, would I, too, be dead?
I dug the gloved fingers of my right hand into the palm of my left. How selfish of you, Theodosia Rose Poole.
I supposed it was only natural to think such things. My heart had been thumping uncomfortably. It was no longer an engine of life but a clock, ticking down the seconds till I would be like Henry. Cold and buried beneath the soil.
He’d been healthy, vigorous, and athletic, or so I thought. But at age forty-two he’d collapsed in his music room nonetheless. Heart attack was assumed, but no one really knew. So young. Then again, maybe not; I wasn’t so young myself anymore. Not old, but too old to turn back. Life wielded greater tragedies than death every day. Regret, for instance.
I shook my head. Where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
I peeled my attention from Henry’s coffin and my own selfish musings, searching for my sister. The pain was hers, not mine. I caught her eye across his grave. She’d found Henry, poor soul, but she bore the shock of that moment and the tragedy of being a thirty-year-old widow well. Her eyes watered prettily—everything Amity did was pretty—but didn’t fall. A subdued Amity was a rare sight and I was pleased. For once, my sister had heeded Mother’s advice.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.
It was a beautiful morning for Henry’s funeral, with a sky of clear blue, a soft breeze that whispered through the trees, and a sun of liquid gold. It seemed fitting—he’d always loved summer. The circle of mourners who’d gathered around his grave murmured silent prayers and wiped their tears with handkerchiefs. A couple glances strayed in my direction, uncensored by grief.
They weren’t accustomed to seeing Amity’s eldest sister out in society. SHe knew what they thought of her: poor Theodosia in her tiny cottage, alone with her needlepoint and gardening and books, sustained by her sister’s charity. Stern instructor of their children and nursemaid to elderly relatives, who never did anything to inspire rumor and so was the subject of cruel speculation instead. The “spinster Poole” was at turns a devil worshipper, a murderess, and a witch.
I could deny all but one of these accusations.
I returned their impolite stares defiantly, locking last on the meanest eyes among them—the beady, coal-black pair owned by Henry’s mother. Mrs. Whitelock stood stiffly beside her daughter-in-law, whom she barely tolerated. And I barely tolerated her. Amity—a mere lawyer’s daughter—wasn’t good enough for Henry. Mrs. Whitelock had chosen a different girl from a more prominent family, but her son only had eyes for my sister.
What a romantic Henry had been. Amity, on the other hand, was a far more practical creature than she seemed.
Across the grave, someone inhaled sharply. It was Amity, struck with a spasm of tears. She stared at me across her husband’s grave. My face was her frequent anchor; I nodded slightly and offered a small, reassuring smile. Amity took a deep breath.
Henry had once described Amity and I as day and night. Halves of the same whole, unable to live with or without each other. I was, of course, night, but he meant it as a compliment. Where Amity was buoyant and bubbly, I was intense and uncompromising. With a wink and in a whisper, Henry said I hid my true self like the darkness hid corners and that made a man’s imagination wander. Until then, it was the most scandalous thing a man had ever said to me.
We looked like day and night as well. Amity was blond and pale like our mother, and I dark-haired and olive-skinned like our father. We shared the pointed nose and thin lips, the bedroom eyes and straight, serious eyebrows. People described our looks as exotic. While I had no interest in marriage—not for a long time—Amity would have no trouble finding another husband, if that’s what she wished. I hoped she did; my sister needed someone to take care of her.
Over her shoulder, I spied a flutter movement—the tail of frock coat— as a figure darted from an open stretch of grass and vanished behind a tree trunk. A dark face peered from behind its hiding place and I narrowed my eyes into focus; the stranger seemed to be staring at me and I stared back, goosebumps prickling across my skin. Something about the man was familiar.
He darted back behind the tree and my attention returned to Amity. Her face was calm once again, her cheeks flushed from crying. The funeral was coming to an end; the words had been said and the prayers given. Henry could now be at rest.
The mourners turned to each other with solemn nods, clasping hands and wiping tears. A few of them would now retire to Henry and Amity’s grand home to keep the widow and each other company, to eat and talk about Henry. One by one, they dispersed, leaving Amity alone by her husband’s grave. I walked around it to stand by her side.
“You did well, dear,” I said, placing a hand on her arm.
Amity sniffled. “It is a terrible thing, to lose someone. Why bother at all, I wonder?”
She said this without looking at me and thus, I couldn’t read her expression.
“Because love is divine,” I said. “It is what separates us from beasts. And I’d like to think that the pain is worth it.”
A long pause, during which movement flickered in the corner of my eye once again. I turned to find the stranger striding across the grass from his hiding tree, toward Henry’s grave. The rhythm of his stride and the scowl across his brow portended bad news.
Finally, Amity whispered, “I suppose.”
“Excuse me, dear,” I said, unwilling to let this man—whomever he was—disturb my sister on this solemn day.
I walked to meet him halfway between the grave and the tree. He was dressed well in a frock coat, deep blue waistcoat, and buckskin breeches, but every element of his ensemble was frayed and his boots splattered with mud.
I called out before we met: “Sir, if you would like to pay your respects, I ask that you wait a moment.” I gestured behind me, at Amity. “That is Mr. Whitelock’s widow, and she would like some time alone with her husband.”
Now standing a foot away from the stranger, I was able to study the rips and stains in his clothing. I regarded his face last.
I gasped rudely and my hand shot to my mouth.
I knew this face, or a younger version of it. This man could’ve been a relative of the man I knew, but it couldn’t be him. The last time I’d seen Gideon Aloways, he was dead.
Or so I thought.
“It’s good to see you, Theo,” he said. “And I have every intention of disturbing your bitch sister.”
I inhaled sharply to chastise his vulgarity and defend my sister, but the sound of his familiar voice pressed the air from my lungs.
Gideon took a step and I thrust a hand against his chest. He could easily have shoved me aside but he didn’t. He stopped and smiled down at me. Amity turned around to watch, roused from her thoughts by the fuss.
My mind choked on questions and I felt dizzy and weak-kneed. I didn’t wonder why he was here, but how. As his lined, whiskered face studied mine—perhaps searching for the younger version of me that he remembered—I thought of our last meeting fifteen years ago.
I’d found him lying on the forest floor, moon shadows like silver stripes across his body. He was unconscious; he’d pulled an overcoat and breeches on over his nightclothes.
Then I saw the blood, oozing from his belly. I didn’t think he was breathing, but I didn’t check.
My sister had told me all I’d needed to know.
“He attacked me!’ A fifteen-year-old Amity had screeched; she was painted in Gideon’s blood and pointed at his wounded belly. “It was an accident, Theo. I promise!”
And I’d taken my sister in my arms and hugged her into silence and peace, while Gideon lay apparently dead. I’d trusted him. I thought I’d known him well, but I hadn’t seen who he really was. My own foolishness angered me more in that moment than his betrayal.
“We have to get rid of him!” Amity had said.
And I was so angry that I agreed and together, we dragged Gideon Aloways for a mile across my father’s land to the ridge that marked the boundary. We tossed the corpse over the edge and he’d landed with a distant thump and that’s when I cried.
“Please, don’t tell anyone, Theo. Please,” Amity cried. “They’ll blame me.”
And I agreed again because Amity had been right and she’d been horribly hurt by a man I’d introduced her to, whom we both had trusted. It was my fault this had happened to her. I agreed to many things that night and afterward, and until this very moment, I hadn’t regretted any of them.
Because we hadn’t dragged a corpse through the forest, like I thought. We’d dragged Gideon, who had still been alive, and left him to die. I had unknowingly cast the sentence for his crimes, but judgment was God’s domain, not mine.
I glared at Gideon’s aged face—the cheeks gaunt and whiskered, the sharp nose, framed by long, wild hair. He looked mad. I shoved my hand hard against his chest with all my weight—which was meager—and he jerked slightly backward.
“How dare you come here!” I whispered.
His lip curled in a smile whose meaning I could easily divine, despite the years since I’d seen him.
“So you do remember me?”
“How could I forget, after what you did?”
Gideon glanced over my shoulder at Amity. “Sounds like your sister has been spinning lies.”
My hand formed a shaking fist. The last time I’d felt hate this vile and potent, my little sister was trembling in the woods, her dress torn to reveal a bare shoulder and her pale thigh.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. I took a deep breath, steadied my thumping heart.
Gideon eyed Amity and took another step.
“Stay right there,” I hissed, turning around to see my sister, still watching. I wondered if she’d recognized Gideon as well. This man who harbored all of their shared secrets, who had hurt her so violently.
“Amity, dear!” I cried out to her. “Go on to the carriage and wait for me. I will join you in a minute.”
Then, to Gideon, I leaned in close enough to smell him. Beneath the odor of earth and sweat, his scent was familiar. More familiar than his voice or face. I shivered.
“Do not follow us,” I said through my teeth. “Whatever hell you came from, I suggest you return. You are not welcome here.”
And I marched away to the carriage, where my sister sat waiting, a gentle scowl tarnishing her angelic face.
Gideon liked to tease me.
He grazed his lips against my neck, just below my ear, and trailed kisses downward to my collarbone. He paused to gaze hungrily down my body
“Theo,” he moaned gruffly in my other ear, then nibbled my neck.
I clutched at his thick, dark hair, and tried to be quiet. I was sure we were alone, but one could never be too careful. Someone could pass by our oak tree—the sight of many impassioned moments—and catch us. After all, we weren’t married yet.
His lips moved to mine and I opened my mouth for him, desperate for the taste of his tongue. But he moved his mouth away and instead clutched at the front of my dress, as if trying to rip the fabric by sheer will alone. When we finally kissed, it was violent and frustrated. We wanted to and yet we couldn’t. We almost had, and yet we’d resisted.
I couldn’t resist any longer.
Gideon pulled away and stared, tracing the lines of my face in worship.
“Theodosia Aloways,” he whispered.
“One more month,” I said.
“I will die with the waiting.”
I chuckled. I knew Gideon was an odd choice for me, the eldest daughter of a respectable lawyer. Though he was wealthy enough, Gideon and his family were eccentric, dark sorts, with a number of scandals attached to their name. I didn’t care. Stern and unfriendly-looking, Gideon Aloways aroused and fascinated me, with his frank language and humor, unexpected passion, and gentle kindness.
“You don’t have to wait for everything,” I whispered huskily, drawing up my skirts and taking his hand, leading it where I wanted it to go.
I shook my head to clear the memory, ashamed at the warmth spreading through my body. I was at a funeral, for heaven’s sake. And I was fool, both then and now. Fifteen years older, with full knowledge now of the man Gideon had truly been, and he still entranced me. I put a hand to my chest and fingered the curve of the engagement ring hidden beneath my dress, which he’d given me all those years ago.
Back then, I hadn’t been a young woman swept away by love, but an ignorant little girl who didn’t know her own mind and let a man touch her in a way only a husband should. And now I was a spinster, both wishing and afraid that Gideon would turn up at Amity’s house. Even if my terror was stronger than my desire, the mere fact that I felt desire at all was a betrayal of my sister.
She who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.
A hand alighted on my shoulder, followed by a soft voice.
“Ms. Poole,” a woman whispered.
I turned to find Amity’s head cook, a round-faced woman of middle age, her expression bright despite the grim occasion. I cleared my throat and smiled up at her.
“Mrs. Trottier, what can I do for you?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I thought you’d like to hear the happy news,” she said.
I clutched my chest, hopeful. “Little Lucy?”
Mrs. Trottier nodded. “She has recovered, ma’am. Ate breakfast this morning and she’s sitting up in bed, dear girl.”
This indeed brightened my spirits. Lucy was the four-year-old daughter of Amity’s groom; she’d been struck down by scarlet fever.
“Mr. Lamore asked me to thank you for tending to her. He credits you with saving her life.”
“No thanks are necessary.”
Mrs. Trottier squeezed my arm gently, then disappeared through a door.
Another mark in defense of my eternal soul. I doubted it would be enough to save myself.
My attention returned to the busyness of the parlor; I stood sentry in a corner, ready in case Amity needed me. But it seemed she didn’t. She laughed softly with her gaze focused on a group of friends and neighbors standing by Henry’s piano. A servant sidled up silently beside her and refilled her glass with wine for the fourth time. Amity readily gulped.
A figure shifted in the corner of my eye, walking toward me. It was Lucas, one of my younger brothers. The only brother, in fact, to attend both Amity’s wedding and her husband’s funeral.
“My dear Theodosia,” he said.
We exchanged kisses and pleasantries, our sadness over Henry’s death and speculations about our sister’s mental state. Amity finished her glass and began another. Lucas inquired after my students, I after his children. After a pause in the conversation, he pointed to a young woman dressed in a rather busy black dress, with dark curls and bright blue eyes.
“Do you see that dazzling creature over there?” he asked.
I nodded. “Dahlia. Charles Dufort’s daughter. She’s engaged to Matthew Leblanc, the doctor.”
Lucas nodded gravely. “For now.”
“Meaning as soon as I entered this parlor I was inundated with details about dear Dahlia that, quite frankly, I do not wish to hear. Crude, malicious rumors, which I dearly hope Mr. Leblanc does not hear. And if he does, he refuses to believe.”
My joy at hearing of little Lucy’s recovery now faded. “What kind of rumors?”
He sighed heavily. “It was in reference to her sanity, or lack thereof, to her intimate relations, and private actions taken thereafter. I shall not repeat the sordid details. You know I abhor gossip.” Lucas shifted his attention to Amity. “I don’t doubt the source of it.”
I watched my sister. The somber expression she presented at the funeral had vanished. Under the effect, perhaps, of drink, her cheeks were pink and her lips curved in a smile.
Sounds like your sister has been spinning lies.
Remembering Gideon’s accusation, I flushed with anger.
“Be gentle with Amity. She’s a delicate creature,” I whispered. “I doubt she means harm. She seeks distraction from her troubles.”
Lucas glanced around the richly decorated room. “What troubles? Our sister is now the wealthiest woman in the county.”
Everything Amity did— from the drinking, to her extensive social circle, her obsession with fashion and decorating, her love of gossip and scandal—served as distraction from her own memories.
“Her troubles are a secret, dear brother. But trust me.”
I left him and walked to a window. Amity’s house sat atop a hillock and the parlor had the best view—of a lazy black river snaking past and the quilt of farmland beyond, with soft mountains in the distance. The afternoon was coming to a close. The greens were deeper, the golden sun casting long shadows across the land, lengthening the trees, silhouetting the house against the grass. Heralding the arrival of another mourner, whose thin shadow appeared among the other shapes, seconds before his form.
My heart twinged in my chest.
The form was Gideon’s.
He vanished from view and I stood frozen by the window, listening intently for the front door to open and for the sounds of greeting from the butler. They came, then footsteps. Gideon’s tall, dark form appeared in the door frame.
I pretended not to see him. I studied the landscape beyond the window, breath quickening in my chest, listening to the murmurs as people wondered who the visitor was or perhaps recognized him. The disappearance of Gideon Aloways been the source of rampant gossip fifteen years ago.
He drew near. I smelled him first and my body betrayed me with a flush of excited nerves. I set my jaw. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
“Theo,” he moaned gruffly in my ear.
“I told you not to come here and disturb my sister’s peace.”
“You needn’t worry about your sister.” His voice was much the same, like his smell. It wound intimately inside my brain, to memory and sensation and feeling. “Look at me, Theo.”
I wanted to and yet I couldn’t. I grabbed a fistful of my skirt to resist, but my neck moved my head and I found myself gazing upon his face.
It was a different face than the one I’d kissed under the oak tree, but not that much different. Gideon’s dark eyes radiated the same hunger, all these years later. They rested on the silver chain around my neck and he touched it, his forefinger tracing the links and my skin beneath it, before coming to rest on the hidden ring.
“What happened to you, my love?”
I ground my teeth. “You broke my heart.”
He stepped an inch closer, enough to send a jolt of electricity through the tips of my fingers. Fool. I forced myself to picture Amity, her dress torn and hysterical. But then I studied him and the lines on his face and I sensed anger that expressed not violence, but desperation.
“Against my will.” He took my arm, his grip tight and demanding. “I will speak with you and your sister, but not here. We’re going to fetch her, and then we’re going to a private room.”
He led me with his iron grip across the room and to Amity, who watched our approach with a pretty scowl. My poor sister, forced to face two tragedies on the same day. I gave her a look that I prayed relayed my apologies.
“Will you come with me my darling?” I asked.
Amity looked up at Gideon; slowly, recognition dawned, but her expression didn’t change. Together, our strange trio thumped out of the parlor, down a hallway, and into a sitting room. Gideon clicked the door shut behind us. I wrenched my arm from his grip and straightened my dress.
“What is the meaning of this? This is a solemn day, and my sister—”
“Stop defending her.” Gideon was looking at Amity, hatred burning where hunger had been moments before. He pointed at her.
“My mother wrote me about Henry’s death. And the moment I read those words, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Amity’s lower lip trembled and she stepped backward, away from Gideon, glancing fearfully at me. I ran to her side and wrapped an arm around her trembling shoulders.
“You’re dead,” Amity whispered.
“You knew what beyond a shadow of a doubt?” I intervened. Amity and I ran out of floor and slammed into a corner, where Gideon towered over us.
“That Amity killed him. I don’t know how, but she did.”
Tears streamed from my sister’s eyes and down her soft cheeks. “How can you say that?” she blubbered.
“Of all days to make such an unfounded accusation!” I hissed, trying to keep my voice at a whisper.
Gideon snorted. “Have you forgotten what she did to me?” And at this, Gideon unbuttoned his waistcoat and the shirt underneath, then thrust it upward to reveal his flat belly, marred by ugly, jagged pink scars. Six of them, haphazardly placed.
“You’ve fooled everyone, Amity, including your poor sister. But you haven’t fooled me.” He thrust a finger an inch from Amity’s and a new flood of tears streamed from her eyes. “I know exactly who you are.”
“Enough of this!” I cried, my anger such that I was no longer able to keep my voice down. I stood in front of Amity and placed my hands on Gideon’s chest, pushing him back. “I know who you are, Gideon Aloways. A man who made empty promises of love to me, when in truth, he only sought to entrap and violate my dearest sister.”
I was crying now, despite myself. Gideon stepped back and looked down at me, wild hair shadowing his gaunt face. “They were not empty promises, Theo,” he said, his voice suddenly soft.
Gideon looked over my shoulder at Amity, his eyes hardening once again.
“I’ll tell you what really happened that night, if you’ll listen. It’s time you learned what kind of a woman your dearest sister truly is.”
The mourners had all gone, leaving Amity’s house stark and silent.
She sent the servants away and we sat at a wooden table in the kitchen, my sister, Gideon, and I. What a strange reunion we made.
A fire crackled in the hearth and it was nearing midnight. Amity poured herself another glass of wine and then filled two cups with tea for Gideon and I. Looking to occupy my hands and my mind, I eagerly grasped the delicate cup and sipped; Gideon did the same.
I’d thought about the night he’d died so many times I no longer knew what was real or what my memory had created afterward, inspired by anger and grief and an all-consuming shame. Was he about to tell me what really happened, or another lie?
I studied them both across the table. One face I knew well, the other I barely recognized. One was the face of the man who loved and betrayed me, the other of the sister I’d spent every moment of the past fifteen years protecting.
Gideon finished his tea with an artless slurp and wiped his mouth. “She made me promise not to get you involved,” he grumbled. “Only I could help her, she said. She feared your judgment.”
The soft line of Amity’s jaw was sharp; a muscle twitching in her cheek hinted she was grinding her teeth. Her eyes sparked with something. What was it? I stared. Amusement, maybe?
Gideon ignored her, speaking only to me. Amity watched him, and I, her.
“She sent me a letter that afternoon. Do you remember Silas Pond, Theo?”
I nodded. He was a couple years older than Amity, darkly handsome and intelligent.
“Amity claimed the two of them had been intimate and he’d grown possessive and violent. She was afraid of him, she said. They were supposed to meet in the woods that night and she wanted me to be there, to scare him off…”
Half past midnight, Gideon marched through the woods to the meeting place Amity had described in her letter. He’d never liked the girl—she was shallow and mischievous, and there was something false about her. But she was the sister of the woman he loved, a little girl who could tarnish her family’s reputation with one secret. Gideon didn’t care about such things, but Theo did, and therefore, so did he.
A half-moon lit the way, skittering occasionally behind the clouds, so Gideon carried an oil lamp to fend off the dark. He spent the journey rehearsing a series of threats to scare the boy, feeling agitated and impatient by the adolescent drama he had been lured into.
Up ahead, a form paced between the trees. It was Amity, wearing only a coat over a thin white dress; she hugged herself against the cold. Her face turned toward the light of Gideon’s oil lamp, bobbing towards her through the shadows. She was alone.
“He’ll be here.” Her young voice quivered.
Gideon raised the oil lamp so its light grazed her face, and he found it pale, her eyes darting nervously. For a moment, he felt sorry for the girl. He was fifteen once, and in truth, he hadn’t been any smarter than she or Silas. He’d been in love at that age, and taken girls to quiet places, and cried in rage when they broke his heart.
“Has he hurt you?” Gideon asked.
Amity nodded, turning her face downward.
Again, she nodded without looking at him. Gideon growled. Silas was over a two heads taller than Amity—a slip of a thing who barely reached Gideon’s chest if she were standing on tip-toes— and strapping for a boy his age. What kind of man imposed himself on a girl who was woefully unable to defend herself?
Gideon placed a comforting hand on Amity’s arm, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“Don’t worry, dear girl. I’ll set him right and he won’t bother you again.”
Amity nodded, her eyes still fixed on the forest floor, and all was silent for a breath. Gideon listened for the boy’s footsteps, but several minutes followed without a sign of him.
Gideon began to suspect he’d been tricked. In answer to the thought, Amity looked up, her eyes finding his in the dark. She was steady now, all trace of anxiety gone. Her cheeks bloomed with color. Reflexively, Gideon took a step back.
“I can see why my sister loves you so, Mr. Aloways,” she said softly, taking one step forward.
He felt an uneasy squirming in his gut and nodded politely.
“What I cannot understand is why in Heaven you love her.”
Gideon took another step back. “Beg your pardon?”
“Why do you love Theo, Mr. Aloways?”
He studied the girl. Was she toying with him? He’d witnessed her manipulations—over her father to get a new dress, or her friends to instigate a silly little fight. Perhaps if he answered her impertinent question, she’d relent.
“She’s a strong, passionate wom—”
“She’s a vile cunt.” Amity’s voice was still soft, pleasant, almost sing-song.
Gideon lowered the oil lamp in shock, heat rising to his cheeks. Though he’d always sensed Amity’s nasty streak, laced in every honeyed word and pout of her lip, this was unexpected, because Theo always defended her sister. Amity still grieved the death of their sister five years before, she was afraid of forming new attachments, and so on. But now the girl Theo had defended made her disloyalty clear.
Excuses be damned, no one insulted Theo in front of him.
“I’ve had enough of your games, girl. I’m going home and I strongly suggest you do the same.”
Amity took two steps toward him so that the oil lamp lit her face from below and cast menacing shadows below her eyes and nose. “You’ve lain with her, haven’t you?
Gideon couldn’t help himself. He gripped Amity’s arm and squeezed until the girl winced. Ashamed, he threw her arm to the side and collected his temper. “What goes on between your sister and I is not your business.”
This ignited a reaction: her nostrils flared and jaw sharpened, teeth grinding. Red blotches burst across her neck.
“I think I have every right to know, since my righteous sister has seen fit to judge me for the same sins she’s committed herself.”
“And what sins are those?”
Amity crooked an eyebrow at him. The look was skeptical, haughty. Her accusation didn’t merit a defense, but Gideon couldn’t stand to have Theo’s morality questioned.
“Whatever you believe your sister has done, you’re mistaken.”
“Did she tell you she called me a whore?”
“Did your behavior merit the title?” he said. “You’re a child.”
Amity narrowed her eyes. “I am no such thing.”
Gideon chuckled. “You’re a foolish, cruel little girl. You’d do well to learn from your sister’s example.”
The trembling stopped. Amity stepped away from him, her face ominously calm. That eyebrow crooked, and was now joined by a menacing grin. Swiftly, she thrust off her coat, so that she stood only in her thin white dress. Staring at him still, she raised a hand and ripped the dress at the neck, so that it hung loosely and exposed her bare shoulder. She did the same at the hem, revealing her thigh.
Gideon shook his head in disgust. “If you think I’m weak enough to be tempted by this, you’re a greater fool than I thought.”
He turned away from her, raising the oil lamp to light his way home through the woods. Behind him, he sensed movement, heard a rustling through the brush and turned back around.
Something sharp stuck him, right above his navel. Warmth spread across his belly.
He gazed down and saw a knife jutting from his body, and Amity’s delicate little hand grasping the hilt, blood staining her pale skin. His blood. The second after he realized this, she jerked the knife out and stuck it in again, harder and deeper this time.
Throughout, Amity’s expression was impassive. Even as his blood sprayed red across her white dress and cheeks.
Weak with shock and blood loss, Gideon fell to the ground and lay there stunned, gazing up at the moon as it peeked out from behind a cloud, letting out streaks of silver. Amity knelt beside him, leaning over his prone body.
“I’ll tell her you raped me and she won’t question it,” she said, her voice distant and growing more distant with every breath.
Amity was right. With horror, he remembered that he was in his nightclothes. The girl’s dress was torn. It would appear she stabbed him not in premeditated murder, but to defend herself from his advances. Theo would be loyal to her sister; the thought brought tears to his eyes.
She had no idea what Amity was capable of.
The girl said more, but she and the dark forest around him were spinning away and he didn’t catch her words. All he could think about, as another jolt of pain cut through his stomach, was Theo.
What would she think of him? He prayed that whatever Amity told her, Theo wouldn’t believe it, even though he knew she would and that she’d defend Amity to the ends of the Earth.
I will die with the waiting…
I shot up from sitting to standing and the chair screeched across the floor, slamming against the wall behind me. Gideon gulped his second cup of tea.
The room was small and warm, the doors and windows shut. I stood in a corner, my back facing the two people I’d loved the most, one of whom had lied to me. I couldn’t breathe.
One of these stories had guided my life for fifteen years. It had stripped me of the capacity to love again. I’d helped Amity rid her body of the baby Gideon had forcefully put inside her. Tears pricked my eyes at the memory—of Amity writing in her bed, vomiting, blood everywhere.
God forgive me.
But what was I guilty of, after all? If Gideon hadn’t raped her, who’s baby had it been? Perhaps Silas—I had caught them all those years ago, in the stables. Or maybe—and I grew sick at the thought—there had been no baby at all.
My head spun. Maybe I had nothing to atone for, except stupidity.
I placed my hands against the wall, scratching my nails across the paint.
“I don’t expect you to believe me, Theo.” Gideon’s voice floated behind me, uncertain and shaking and gruff. “You’ve lived with her story for so long. And she’s family. But I was once almost your family. You loved me, passionately. Try to remember that love, if you can.”
I didn’t know if I could. Love was a muscle I hadn’t used in years and while Gideon was gone, it had atrophied. I didn’t love Amity as much as I’d protected and counseled her. I was fond of friends. I admired my parents. But love? A selfless emotion, as much an act of faith as passion. I searched for it, finding my heart empty.
I turned around and walked to the table. I poured myself another cup of tea and sat, sipping before I looked up at my sister. The soft, round cheeks, the blond curls. Who was this woman? I was instantly ashamed of the disloyal thought. Was my affection for her so weak that the word of this man, as good as a stranger, could dismantle it?
But then I recalled a thousand little scenes and interpreted them differently. Amity’s small acts of cruelty. The gossiping. Her hollow, impregnable personality. The closets full of dresses and the carriages and the paintings that adorned the walls of her grand house.
Henry, dead in the music room, with Amity as the only witness to his demise. And the money, so much money, and all of it hers.
I took another sip of tea, swallowed. Carefully placed the cup back in its saucer.
Amity crooked an eyebrow and pursed her lips. A challenge. I dare you to believe him over me, it said. Gideon stared at the table, awaiting my judgment. One face I barely recognized, the other resurrected long-dead feelings.
Who had betrayed me all those years ago? And who, now, told me the truth?
For fifteen years, I have been in Amity’s service. Supported by her wealth, sheltered on her estate. Held in thrall by a shared secret. Imprisoned by guilt.
I have never begrudged my sister any blessing. Not her kind and wealthy husband. Not her grand house and her beautiful dresses, her travels abroad, or nights at the theater. I wanted none of those things. I didn’t deserve them.
I questioned that logic now. And I felt the ground shaking beneath my feet.
Gideon watched me, waiting for my decision, his pallor weary and gray. I saw in his lips those afternoons under the oak tree. In his face, long-broken promises. In his slumped, aged body, everything I’d lost.
A husband and lover. A father to children I’d never have. Had I deserved those blessings after all? I couldn’t grasp the idea that I did, nor that Amity had deserved none of hers.
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
“Is what he says true, Amity?” I asked, still willing to give her this last scrap of my faith and love.
“I can see that you already do. I can see your disappointment, your disgust with me.” Though her words with self-pitying, her eyes betrayed no sadness. “That’s the role you’ve chosen to play in my life for years—corrector, fixer, always quick with a suggestion for improvement, a word of criticism.”
“That’s not fair,” I spat. “My sole purpose has been to protect you.”
She slapped her open palm on the table and I jumped. “And protecting someone implies what? That you don’t think they are capable of doing it yourself!”
“Are you? This all started because of your beha—”
“And there it is,” Amity hissed. “It’s nice to hear your disdain spoken aloud, after enduring your silent judgment for years.”
My heart skipped. Despite my best intentions, I hadn’t been thoughtful or nurturing, I’d been overbearing and smothered her. If Amity resented me, I only had myself to blame. I squeezed my eyes shut, rubbing the knob at the top of my nose. I saw clearly how it was all my fault, that I had created the woman my sister had beco—
Amity claimed the two of them had been intimate and he’d grown possessive and violent. She was afraid of him…
My train of thought stumbled over this little detail. Silas Pond, the dark and intelligent son from a distinguished family. He was soft-hearted and kind, a boy who cried openly at his father’s funeral, a pacifist who loved animals and doted on his younger siblings. And who, in that brief scene I came upon in the stables fifteen years ago, appeared shocked, even terrified, of Amity’s aggressive advances.
He’d been pushing her away.
That boy had been possessive and violent?
In that moment, I saw the truth. For years, I had created a barrier in my mind between what I wanted to see and what was true, and the latter was flooding through too fast for me to grasp every detail.
My sister had manipulated me like she had done to so many friends, to her family, to Henry. She’d formed me into what she wanted, for her convenience and amusement, the way she’d planted ugly rumors in vulnerable ears, and watched how carefully placed words caught fire and scorched lives.
A few of Amity’s friends, burned by her barbed tongue and malicious imagination, confided in me over the years and I wouldn’t listen. I made excuses and cast Amity’s victims away, angry at the accusations.
These little events were now clues, stacked up to give credit to Gideon’s tale. Though I was sickened to think my sister capable of such cruelty against me, I could see it. I knew it was at least possible.
Amity’s eyes narrowed, the pupils glinting with a sharp edge. It was always there, I realized. But now I truly understood what it was. Hate.
“Why would you do such a thing?” The tremble of threatening tears betrayed my hurt.
Amity haughtily flicked her chin up, straightened her lips, and glared down her nose at me, answering slowly: “to teach you a lesson.”
A flame sparked in my belly, hot and angry, but I felt so cold, my nerves crackling like fissures in ice. Across from me, Gideon leaned forward on the table, holding his head in his hands, his breathing labored. His future with me had been stolen, too, and here was the confirmation that I believed him. Perhaps he imagined our life resuming where it had been interrupted, at long last.
“That you aren’t as righteous as you think you are. That you can’t lord your morals—” she said this word with disdain—”over others and be a sinner yourself.”
I glanced over at Gideon—he was bent over now, his forehead resting on the table. Tears pricked my eyes at the thought of his stolen life, his suffering.
“But why Gideon? He did nothing to you.”
“What else could I take away from you, but the root of your sin and hypocrisy?” Amity spoke viciously in her girlish voice, her arms crossed. “He was a good, true man, and he loved you. Still does, apparently. You didn’t deserve him.”
Gideon cried out, throwing himself back against this chair, both arms now pressed against his stomach. He was sweating, his cheeks a sickly, unnatural shade. It wasn’t sadness and relief that had gripped him, but something else. For a moment, I believed I felt it, too—an uneasiness in my stomach, cold sweat, trickling underneath my dress—but dismissed it as shock and anxiety.
“You didn’t even love Silas.”
“I never said I did. He would’ve done anything for me. Given me anything. I worked on that boy for a year, and you stole him away with one vicious, self-righteous word.” Her lips curved in a smile. “It was five years before I found someone as rich and malleable.”
Henry. Tears broke free and wet my cheeks. The romantic Henry, who followed his heart in every matter.
Gideon shot up from his chair and it tumbled over. He searched the room, his face flushed and panicked, rushed to a window and thrust it open. His shoulders heaved with the sound of violent retching. I rushed to his side, draping my arm over his back, its curve warm and familiar; he was breathing heavily.
“Why kill Henry?” Gideon grumbled, his arms draped over the windowsill. “What could he possibly have done to you?”
I turned to my sister, who sat at the table with her arms crossed. When Gideon retched out the window again, Amity smirked. As chaos and suffering always did, the sight amused her.
“He asked too much of me. He wanted children,” she scrunched her delicate nose, “and a proper wife. He stopped being malleable. And he looked too closely.”
“At what?” The uneasiness in my stomach was surging up my throat and talking made it worse.
“At me. He’d discovered something I’d done to a servant and felt it was his place to criticize me for it.”
So Henry had stopped defending Amity long before I did. If I’d looked outside myself and my guilt to really see my sister’s behavior, if I’d listened to the little clues, perhaps Henry would still be alive. Perhaps I could’ve protected him and others from her cruelties. It was too late now.
A sharp pain sliced across my middle, so strong and swift that I cried out, crumbling to the floor. I drew my knees up to stymie the pain, but it persisted. Now facing the table, I spied the tea service and the two cups, from which Gideon and I had drank.
Gideon grasped my shoulder and groaned as the pain struck me, too. We’d underestimated Amity again, and she always would be—the delicately beautiful, sociable, wealthy widow, with the manners and grace of a lady, but the dark heart of a killer. A killer I had sheltered for fifteen years, whom I allowed to do her work unbidden.
Amity stood and collected the cups and the tea service, and took them to the sink.
“Pennyroyal oil,” she said sweetly. “You remember it, dear sister?”
Of course I did. It was the cure for an unwanted child, which I had administered without a shred of doubt. My sister had needed me, and I had served her.
“Was there ever a baby?”
From the floor, I watched her at the sink, rinsing the cups, disposing of the tea leaves and rinsing the pot. At my question, she snorted.
“Of course not.” She set the cups and teapot in the sink. “I, unlike you, was not a whore.”
My stomach contracted, ordering my body to expel its contents. I rose and leaned my body out the window, vomiting onto the ground outside.
“But I watched you suffer,” I said, directing my question at the soiled grass below the window.
“Mustard in milk. The rest was dramatics.” She snickered. “You would’ve believed anything I told you that day.”
I turned around, back pressed against the windowsill, and found my sister smiling, her hands clasped daintily at her waist.
“I was shocked, and I still am, that my righteous, noble sister would commit such a sin. If you think about it, I’m truly the innocent party. I knew there wasn’t a child, but you didn’t. And you agreed to kill it.”
Another stabbing pain. My stomach cramped in a ferocious, powerful squeeze, and I vomited out the window again. Gideon was now sitting on the floor, holding himself, gaze faraway, his skin clammy and white.
“It was my duty to protect you, sister.” Talking was difficult; I didn’t have the strength. “I would’ve done anything for you.”
Like Silas and Henry.
“I know.” She knelt in front of me and Gideon, gripping his jaw tightly with her small hand. “This isn’t my doing. You were supposed to die. And you shouldn’t have come back here, weaving your tales. Digging up the past. What was done, was done, and what happened to Henry was not your concern.”
“He was a good man,” Gideon managed, his voice weak. I reached out and took his hand.
“He was a fool.” Amity threw Gideon’s face to the side. “He actually threatened to take all this away from me. He should’ve known better.”
Amity stood and crossed the room, slipping a plate from a cupboard. She compiled a small meal—bread, cheese, an apple, cold chicken—then brought this back to the table, her heels thudding softly across the floor.
“We won’t be disturbed. We are alone. I’ve sent the servants away for the weekend, to allow them to grieve their master in private. How they loved him.” She rolled her eyes and took a bite of the apple. She glanced at the clock. “I believe it’ll be a few hours, give or take. That’ll give you both time to ponder your choices.”
Amity chewed and swallowed, as though it were Sunday dinner and they her guests. “It’s liberating, actually, for you to know.” Her eyebrows lifted, eyes widening. “You know little Lucy Trottier, yes? How silly of me, of course you do. You gallantly volunteered your services to save the child.” She laughed. “To save yourself.”
My blood curdled. “What did you do?”
“Well, all I’ll say is it wasn’t scarlet fever.” Incredibly, Amity winked. “But she was never in any danger, you know. And Silas was duly punished for leaving me. He had a string of bad luck—well, more than a string. Last I heard he was in poorhouse…”
Next to me on the floor, Gideon’s eyes closed. His chest still moved slightly with the evidence of life, but just barely. The dream of our reunion faded.
“I’m interested to see how the matter with Dahlia plays out. Naturally, she swears she’s not promiscuous, but I doubt Mr. LeBlanc will forgive her…”
As the corners of my vision faded, Amity sat at the table in vignette. I noted a flush in her cheeks and her chipper tone. She was utterly delighted by what she’d done.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Not this darkness. I feared for those in Amity’s circle—for the servants and her acquaintances—and for those not yet drawn into it. If only I could warn them. As awareness left me, I did what I could: I prayed that someone else would discover Amity’s foul deeds and stop her.
“Would you like to know what I shall do with you when you’re dead?” That inhuman, morbid smile crossed my sister’s face again. “I shall load you both in the wheelbarrow and take you into the woods. When they find you, it will appear as though you killed your former, disgraced lover, and then yourself.”
Amity draped a pale hand against her bosom, feigning grief and innocence, which would be believed. She sat back against her chair, arranged her skirts, and nibbled on her bread.
I took Gideon’s hand—still warm—and closed my eyes, so that my last view of this life would be a memory, of Gideon and I and the oak tree, and his lips on mine.
Lucas Poole rose early and kissed his parents goodbye. He was set to catch an early train back to Boston, but on the way to the station, was struck with a sudden need to see Theo.
She would no doubt be awake—his elder sister was an early riser, like he—and he’d not bid her goodbye the day before. He’d no idea when they’d meet again and she was, after all, his favorite.
He ordered the driver to make a detour, promising a mere ten-minute delay. The carriage swooped up Amity’s grand drive. Lucas would check at the main house first; Theo would likely want to spend the night there, to keep their grieving sister company in her time of need.
Lucas hopped from the carriage at the side of the house; he would walk the rest of the way to the back door, which was usually unlocked. On his way across the dew-sodden grass, he spied—barely a dozen feet from where he stood—a bizarre and unexpected sight.
A woman in a black dress, awkwardly pushing a wheelbarrow across the lawn and towards the woods.
Lucas stopped cold.
“Amity!” he called.
She turned, blond curls rustling, and paused.
He crept forward to meet her, and to learn what Amity was hauling in her dress at six in the morning.
Lucas saw a face, turned blankly to the sky, and dropped to his knees.
Birds sang from the trees in the distant woods, bright and oblivious, but he only heard Theo’s voice, strong and certain.
Be gentle with Amity. She’s a delicate creature.