Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton
A NEW ADULT NOVEL
Cover art: Red Fist Fiction
Interior design/formatting: Red Fist Fiction
First edition published 2015
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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The Heartbeat Thief by AJ Krafton
Haunted by a crushing fear of death, a young Victorian woman discovers the secret of eternal youth—but she must surrender her life to attain it, and steal heartbeats to keep it.
Copyright © 2015 by Ash Krafton
“There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made…”
Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death
It had been many years since Edgar Allan Poe had published
The Masque of the Red Death
, and it would be many, many more before Senza Fyne would even learn of the ghastly tale, despite her coming into the world the same year as did the story. On this particular night—a brilliant spring evening in 1859—for the first time in a long while, death was the farthest thing from her mind.
Death had lurked like a spectre, dimming the sunshine of her ease, since her grandmother had fallen ill. Now, on the evening of her debut into society, the seventeen-year-old found a sweet respite. Excitement hummed through her veins as her family’s carriage travelled through the warm spring dusk, sounds of crickets and night birds chattering their last calls from the trees. Even had she been inclined toward the dark art of the penny dreadful, knowledge of Poe’s macabre masque would not have curbed her anticipation of this life-changing event.
Tonight was to be a perfectly unmolested evening in Surrey, without shadow, without blight, without threat of the masked Death stalking her through the halls of the manor house, waiting for His chance to claim her hand and dance with her.
Perhaps Death did attend the ball that evening; if he had, however, he hadn’t pursued an introduction.
Not quite yet.
Moonlight spilled down its silvery veil upon the passengers in the Fyne family carriage, adding another sheen of splendor to their finery. Spring had arrived early, affording everyone a temperate Easter. Now, in the midst of May, the evening maintained much of the afternoon’s pleasant warmth, so much so that Mr. Fyne had ordered the carriage roof removed for this particular ride. The team, a quad of dark chestnut Welsh cobs, pulled the bright yellow Landau around the fountain circle, drawing to a stop at the front door of the largest estate in Surrey.
Senza bit her lower lip and giggled. Her cousin Aggie pushed the lacey curtain aside to peer out at the grand manor house, her expression a mix of astonishment and bashfulness. The air was laced with the fragrance of new roses atop a base of sweet lilacs and lilies-of-the-valley. No doubt, the manor’s gardens were every bit as splendid as Lord Carter’s country home.
Mr. and Mrs. Fyne looked on the pair of young women, smiling indulgently. More than once along the ride, Senza had seen her father reach for mother’s hand, giving it an affectionate squeeze. Perhaps they spent the ride in a reverie, remembering their first meeting, at a ball quite like this one. They’d been trading knowing glances at each other the entire ride over, only adding to her anticipation.
One of the drivers hopped down from the front seat of the carriage, jogging back to open the door. Aggie twisted in a swish of crinoline and lace and clambered out, dancing in eagerness to be inside. She turned and snapped her fan. “Oh, do hurry, Senza.”
“Yes, Aggie.” Senza reached for the hand of the driver who stood ready to assist her, and carefully stepped down. She didn’t want to rush, not one moment. All was to be savored and memorized, preserved so that she may forever look upon this night and remember every detail.
This wasn’t an every-day event. A debut only happened once in a lifetime.
Senza looked up at the well-lit home, three stories of windows ablaze with golden opalescence. Until now, she’d only seen this manor from the distance, spotty glances through the trees that lined the road at the edge of the estate. On rare occasions, she’d accompanied her father when he drove into town on business.
But now, here, on this night, she wasn’t merely passing by. Senza had
Her blood hummed, her head swam, her feet tingled in new kid boots. Imagine, she a guest of Lord Carter, at the grandest ball to be held outside London, upon the official start of the Season.
The cultured gardens lining the façade, the tripping fountain behind her, the rows of smartly-dressed pages lined up at the door. Muted music and the hum of voices from within. Everything, every last shimmering drop of splendor…so beautiful, like a sun ray striking the last drop of rain, shattering into shimmering brilliance.
She inhaled and held her breath. So perfect. If only this moment could last forever.
A breeze stirred, rustling the tops of the trees, branches clicking and leaves whispering a wordless secret. For the briefest moment, Senza felt strange eyes upon her, different than the admiring gazes of the house staff. This sensation was personal and knowing and alarming.
With a dart of a glance, she searched the driveway behind her, the fountain circle beyond, searching for the intrusive owner.
No one at all. She shivered, a streak of chill that danced down her back like a brush of icy fingers.
The wind. She nodded to convince herself. Nothing but the wind and a healthy dose of anticipation and a handful of nameless wishes, the fancies of a young woman at the mercy of a life-changing moment.
“What’s wrong, dear?” Her mother drew up alongside her and pressed her hand against Senza’s back.
“Oh, it’s just…” Senza drew as deep a breath as her corset would allow and held it a moment, waiting for an odd tightness in her throat to release. “I wish Grandmother were here.”
“I’m sure she will be up waiting to hear all about it when we get home.” Mrs. Fyne smoothed the lace along Senza’s neckline. Soft sadness dimmed the light in her eyes. Grandmother’s frailty was a bruise upon each of their hearts. “All you need to do is enjoy tonight, and give her plenty to look forward to.”
Senza glanced up at her father, who smiled at her over her mother’s shoulder. Mother dipped her head, doing her best to hide her sorrow from him, not wishing to add to his substantial burdens.
It was an example she herself should do well to follow. She nodded, too breathless to respond.
The sounds of a large string ensemble spilled out into the night as the Carter household pages pulled open the double doors to admit the guests. Laughter and chatter floated atop the music. From the sounds of it, the ball was in full swing. Aggie’s parents had arrived before them, and they joined them in the foyer, hugs and handshakes all around.
Senza smiled, a wry cat-like grin, and reached for Aggie’s wrist.
Armed with her older cousin in one hand and a new fan in the other, she followed her parents into the foyer. Had she ever been in a more extravagant home? All chandelier and vase and artwork and marble tile. The ballroom took up the entire left wing, the far end lined in great curved stained-glass turrets.
A line of guests threaded its way to the entrance of the ballroom, each pausing to be announced before joining the others. Aggie squeezed her hand as they waited their turn and leaned close to her ear. “Are you ready?”
“Of course.” Senza grinned. “But are
Aggie covered her laugh with her hand, seeming to forget the very purpose of her new fan. Her delight seemed too big a feeling for her to contain, spilling over. “I’m so glad Mamma waited until your birthday for me. I dreamed of this since we were children…you and I, making our debut together.”
“Why ever did you want to wait?” This, the most wonderful night in a young lady’s life, the moment she finally came out. It signaled the end of her childhood and the beginning of her marriageable age—and all the fun that accompanied it. “To think, you put yours off a year—”
“Oh, you know.” Aggie dropped her gaze and fussed with her fan. “The dresses weren’t right last season. They didn’t suit me at all.”
Senza nodded, eying her cousin’s fidgeting fingers. “Of course.”
She was simply too polite to call up her cousin’s more unfortunate circumstances. Her money, her connections, her family, all good. Aggie was well-bred, of course. Just a little—plain.
Uncle William’s brown hair, Aunt Lissa’s face and freckles. Aggie’s athletic build afforded her much grace on horseback but required a great deal of corseting and petticoating to flatter the dress. With proper powdering and tinting, she made a handsome debutante. Such a natural beauty as she possessed simply required a fair deal of effort to bring it to its fullest potential.
Such efforts would be wasted on the younger cousin. On Senza, there could be no improvement.
Her hair fell waist-deep in a tumble of ringlets, red as a winter fire. Skin like alabaster, clear as a snowy afternoon, the apples of her cheeks a rosy blush. Large eyes, sparkling like emeralds in the sun, rimmed in lush lashes. Her fresh beauty was a portrait to be captured, simply waiting for a worthy-enough artist.
A beautiful baby, she’d grown into a darling child before becoming a ravishing maiden. Her parents had endured many bids for her hand long before she was of an age to marry.
No girl wanted to be put up against her, set out for comparison. But this ball had been contrived for the sole purpose of Senza’s debut, and planned well in advance—the honor had been coveted by many and endured a mostly-discreet auction, of sorts, with the wealthy lord finally playing the trump card of his position.
Aggie’s parents had faced a choice: give their daughter an average debut, or wait the year and let her share in the event of the decade. In the end, it seemed no choice at all.
Opportunities were often like that.
Aggie didn’t seem to mind in the least. She would endure plenty of attention tonight, even if some of it was meant as a stepping stone to gaining introduction to her cousin. Senza had always looked out for Aggie, sharing the best of anything that came her way. They were sisters, at heart, and the love Senza bore for her had no equal. Aggie would always come first. Senza, who knew no boundaries to the bounties of good fortune, could afford to ensure her cousin’s happiness. Senza would never be left wanting.
At the doorway to the hall, the herald’s eyes grew wide as saucers when he saw her, and he seemed to not notice Aggie, who had her card ready. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he reached out toward Senza.
Aggie’s fingers trembled when he’d passed her over, and a splotchy blush seeped into her complexion. All the confidence she’d bolstered for this important night seemed threatened by his involuntary disregard.
Well, this night belonged to both of them. It would appear that it would be up to Senza to keep things going smoothly. Delicately, she smiled and tilted her head knowingly toward Aggie. Taking a step back, she put Aggie firmly between them. His eyes had been locked upon Senza’s face and, at her direction, he seemed to take notice of the other girl. After a moment, he appeared to regain his composure, and let his gaze rest fully on Aggie.
His protocol remembered, his manners returned, the herald took Aggie’s proffered card. He nodded her into position and waited for the current number to end before stepping into the ballroom. Aggie glanced over her shoulder for a last look at Senza, her face beaming.
“Miss Agnes Thornton,” the herald called.
A polite applause sounded and the girl stepped forward, disappearing into the hall. Senza fanned her throat, whispering a tiny prayer of relief. Disaster averted.
Still, the band remained quiet. A murmur rippled through the guests. Senza closed her eyes and exhaled through pursed lips. Expectation built, moment by moment, much the same as a storm travelled on swift summer winds.
The herald returned to the hall and extended his hand for Senza’s card, stumbling a half-step when his gaze reached her face. She rescued him with a graceful lift of her gloved hand and an accommodating smile. Sight of her calling card aided his recovery and, clearing his throat, he once more recovered his role.
Father murmured to an acquaintance, bantering a good-natured jibe of his apparent age, to have so mature a daughter. Mother, who had always been a great deal more proprietary when it came to her only daughter, smiled and urged her progeny forward, a hand upon her shoulder.
This was not only a key point in Senza’s life—this was monumental for her mother, as well. All must go as meticulously rehearsed or neither would be satisfied. Senza handed her card to the herald, holding her breath.
“Wait here for my cue, Miss Fyne.” He whispered before stepping once more to the center of the doorway.
She folded her hands in front of her, her heart tapping against her lungs.
The name of an adult. The days of
or—worse yet, her given name of
— were firmly behind her. This was it, the moment was come. One last backward glance toward her parents, their happy expectations etched into each of their expressions—