(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.”