Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton
One day, they lounged in the grass, at the edge of the shade under a maple tree, the horse grazing nearby. Gehring gnawed absent-mindedly on an apple before tossing the core in the horse’s direction. “What do you dream about?”
Senza looked up from the chain of wildflowers she’d been braiding. “An odd question.”
“Not really,” he said. “My mother used to say you could tell a lot about a person just by what they dreamed. You, well, you’re such a mystery. Thought I’d save the inquest and get right to the good stuff. So?”
“So what did you dream about last night?”
She snorted and secured the ends of the flower braid with a piece of ribbon from her pocket. “Me? I don’t dream.”
“Everybody dreams. Maybe you just don’t remember.”
“No. I don’t dream.” For once, she spoke the truth, stretching in the freedom of unhindered words. “I close my eyes and wake up a moment later and it’s a brand new day all over again.”
“That seems so…lonely.” He dipped his head, allowing his hair to tumble down over his eyes, hiding them. “Sometimes, dreaming is the only way I get to be with the ones I miss the most.”
She knew that tone. It was the sound of quiet grief, of separation and loss. It was the sound of cobwebbed corners and echoey hallways, where once stood warmth and bright cheer. She knew that tone because it was the sound of her deepest thoughts.
She adjusted several of the blossoms, careful not to look at him. “I used to dream. A long time ago. About nonsense, really. About carriage rides and grand parties and picking flowers in my mother’s garden. But not now. Now, when I sleep, I just—stop. I stop and wait for life to start up again. I never really thought about it. Funny that I could forget about something I used to do every night of my life.”
She blinked away the dry sting in her eyes, suddenly missing so simple a thing. “What about you? What do you dream about? Horses?”
He laughed. “Sometimes. Sometimes I dream about fishing, or
’s berry pies. I’m just a simple country boy. But there is one thing I dream about every night, even if it’s just for a quick flash. Sometimes, it’s so sweet I feel like there’s a hand around my heart, squeezing it, because it’s so wonderful. And every morning I wake up smiling, thinking that the day will be the longest of my life if I have to wait until bedtime just so I can dream again.”
“That sounds…really nice. I wouldn’t mind a dream like that. Tell me more about it, so maybe I can dream about it, too.”
He squinted into the sunlight. “I don’t know why you’d want to.”
“Try me. What do you dream about that’s so wonderful that you’re grinning like a fool, just thinking about it?”
He smiled wider and chewed his bottom lip and looked up at her through his copper lashes. “You.”
That look stole her breath and made her heart thump. She’d never felt so special, not in any of her lifetimes.
Her locket warmed, a subtle sting against her skin when it gave up a beat. A different emotion filled in around the brief happy one, muffling it the way a chill wind would silence the forest birds in winter.
A familiar emptiness. It had been her constant companion since her father had passed. And just as she had for decades and decades, she surrendered to it. Until she looked at Gehring. His smile, as if the sun never lived in the sky—it lived somewhere inside him and his smiles was the way it shone on the world, and it poured every bit of light it had up and out through that smile.
Senza sat and basked in the glow of that smile, and allowed herself, for the first time in a long while, to feel the sun again. And for the first time in a long while, she smiled, and appreciated life, and the glorious chance to be living it here. Now. With him.
Never once during all that time had she touched him, not even accidentally.
Even when they rode horse together, and she sat flush against him, her hands never came close to him. She held the saddle, or toyed with the horse’s mane. But she never laid a hand on him. She swore she never would.
She allowed herself to sink back against his chest. He shifted his arm to a more comfortable position around her back and nickered to the horse to keep going.
Closing her eyes, surrounded by the strength of his arms, the loveliness of the embrace, Senza clenched her fingers in her skirts.
Just as the chill of late spring melted into summer, the chilly insulation she’d worn in London because to thaw under his warm smiles. She began to remember the girl she’d been at seventeen, ready to debut into society, eagerly smiling at the handsome young men, wondering which one would become hers. Gehring seemed to know that an eager girl hid inside her, and each of his glances coaxed her out of hiding.
He was careful with her vulnerability, treating her like a treasure. Layer by layer, her vanity melted away, and her arrogance deserted her, because she needed it no longer.
She was safe.
Gehring’s smiles were always so open, his gazes eager and honest. Sunlight caught in his unruly curls, framing his tanned face in angelic light. Looking up into his face, she felt surrounded by a simple grace, a redemption, a benediction that burned the sins of her long dark life away.
Gehring renewed the sense of life she’d been missing since her Unbirthing. True, she could not die, but Gehring made her feel truly alive. She had to draw heartbeats from the patrons on a daily basis, so often did her heart stir. A simple glance, a tiny glimpse of his teeth on his lower lip—these things stirred a flurry of sensation inside her, thumping her heart and making her insides squeeze with delight.
Delight, and desire.
Apparently, desire required a healthy supply of heartbeats. The sensation was delicious and bewildering, often making her head spin. More than once, she had to remember to breathe, because she’d simply forget to do it.
Alive. Alive at long last and ready to live out these wondrous sensations with the boy who revived her.
By and by, his admiration became noticeable by those around them. Men clapped him on the back, broadly smiling and making good-natured, almost congratulatory jibes. Often a patron would release an exasperated sigh, lamenting their love for her was doomed to be unrequited now that her heart belonged to someone else.
She’d blush and duck her head, not daring to peek in Gehring’s direction, although every fiber of her being wanted to do so.
One night, after they’d closed the pub, Senza went out to the barn to help him bed the horses for the night. As they finished pitching the hay, she busied herself taking extra blankets up to the loft. Spreading them over the racks, she smoothed the last one with a lingering hand as she heard him coming up the ladder.
“You didn’t have to go through the trouble,” he said. Striking a match to a hanging lantern, he waved the glow out and dropped the stick into a jar. “It’s dark up here, and not fit for company.”
“I don’t mind,” she said. “Not at all. I think it’s lovely up here.”
“Now it is,” he said. He shyly reached for her hand. “It needed the right decoration. I can’t think of anything more beautiful.”
“Oh, Gehring.” She grinned and nibbled her lower lip. “I must be a positive mess—”
“Never. I can’t imagine you ever looking less than perfect.”
She dropped her gaze. She couldn’t imagine it, either.
“I don’t deserve to be here, so close to you.” He lifted her chin with a soft touch of his fingers, peering into her eyes. “But all I can think to say is...I would love you forever, if only you’d let me.”
The earnest in his voice caught her off guard. So many years since she’d heard a warmth of tone, a timbre of emotion meant for her alone. This wasn’t another expectant courtier or hopeful suitor. Gehring’s voice held a far more personal note, one she hadn’t heard since her Unbirthing.
He loved her. She believed it.
She turned her head and raised her gaze to his. Gehring’s eyes were wide, his lips parted in a sweet smile. He grasped her hand and tugged it toward him, reining her in like a yearling.
And she could do nothing to stop him.
His flesh was so warm, so solid. The mere touch of his hand around hers gave her a pleasure unto itself—as if he’d surrounded her entirely. For decades, she’d lived a scanty life, only touching another when it was time to steal a heartbeat. Now, he caressed her and it made her eyes glaze over in ecstasy.
Gehring must have taken it as a sign of reciprocity because he pulled her closer.
Before she realized it, he placed her hand on his chest. Instinct took over and she seized a beat. It was ferocious, full of lust for life. The beat sizzled up her arm and slammed into her, melting her knees out from under her.
A beat like that could not go unmissed.
She saw the shock in his eyes when she’d severed the beat from him and, to hide her crime, she bounced up onto her toes and kissed him, reaching up to pull his head closer, stroking the back of his neck.
Gehring did not remain shocked for long. He returned the kiss. Quite expertly, she noted. He was a delicious kisser.
She broke away with a gasp, feigning shyness, and covered her mouth. Best to play it up. Fan her throat, steal a glance, anything to distract him from her crime.
“You take my breath away,” he murmured. He reached for her again.
She coyly let him draw her up into his embrace, licking her lips. If only he knew what she’d really taken from him. He might not be in such a kissing mood.
Gehring ran his palms up her arms, around to her back, pressing her against him. This embrace was like being wrapped in heated velvet, a bone-soaking sensation that mulled her senses. She twined her fingers through his hair, those pretty blonde locks, and drew his face down to hers. His breath, she could taste it. His heart beat savagely in his chest, thumping against his ribs, against her own. So close, so close. His blue eyes glittered in the moonlight, heavy lidded with desire.
She’d tripped through so many decades, always on the other side of an invisible wall. A shell, a cage. Alone. Apart. Even her mentor, that seducer, had abandoned her. She had been completely solitary. Until Gehring.
Gehring, who saw her when no one else did. Looked at her, not through her. And his beat had been unlike any other because it had her name all over it. That beat had been born in passion, had bloomed against her skin, had leapt to her touch. That was a beat etched in love.
She knew it with a dead certainty. He loved her, she that should not love: Despair’s Mistress. Death’s Estranged. Gehring was of the living and he died, moment by moment, while she watched. He would age and wither, crack and fade, and she would remain as porcelain-perfect as the day Knell had seduced her life away. Gehring would die.
But now, at this moment, he was flush and full of life. And she loved him.
Live in the moment.
She’d heard it said so many times over the years.
She could pretend. Just stay in this
. Just this once. Just with him.
She inhaled against his mouth, her lips brushing his. His arms tensed as if she’d touched a livewire to his flesh, and he trembled against her, pulling her tighter. It couldn’t be tight enough. She wanted to feel every inch of her flesh against his, to immerse herself in the sensation of his touch. His heat. His kiss. His ever-pounding heart.
He kissed her, slow and deep, exploring her with his mouth and with his hands. She wriggled against him, closer, noting the urgency in his response. It awakened a desire within her she’d only felt once before, the first time she’d stolen a beat.
This kiss was nothing like Knell’s had been. This kiss wound its way through her, seeking the deepest corners of her being, stitching their bodies tightly together. It left a trail of slow burn in its wake. So real. So alive.
She ducked her hands under his shirt, sliding up his chest. A hammer against her palm, was his heart. She didn’t dare take a beat. She feared it would be too much. He tugged off his shirt, the moonlight sliding its silver fingers over the contours of his shoulders, his chest. Years of heavy farm work had sculpted him like a work of fine art. The shirt had left his hair tousled, and the moonlight scattered itself about his head like a halo.
. The call was too great to ignore. Closing her eyes, she lowered her mouth to his chest and pressed her lips against the flesh above his heart. He moaned softly when she kissed him.
Swallowing hard, she lifted a beat, savoring it upon her tongue, drowning in the tidal surge of it. She cried out when it hit, her knees buckling under her. The sudden shift in weight caused him to tumble onto her and they landed in the hay, a heap of wanting, tangled limbs. She could not resist his urges.
She didn’t want to.
Her fingers fumbled over the buttons on her shirt and he gently chased her fingers out of the way. Button by button, he deftly unfastened her blouse, running his hand over her bare skin. His eyes were dark, the brilliant blue of his irises all but swallowed up by the desire that consumed him.
When she shifted beneath him, tilted her hips against him, he smiled. “Love me,” he said. “Love me the way I love you.”
She gazed up into his heart-shaped face, the Cupid that struck her where she was weakest.
“I love you with all my soul,” she said.
She meant it. And she knew it was the worst thing she could do.
Morning crept in like a housecat, stealthy sunshine slinking over the window sill to pounce weightlessly onto the blankets. She stirred beneath the rough weave that covered them, pulled hastily down over them before he fell into exhausted sleep.
She rubbed her nose, the straw dust causing a relentless tickle. Imagine. Her, sleeping in a barn—and nude, it would appear, except for a horse blanket. How absurd.
And how wonderful.
“Gehring, wake up. We’ll be found.” She nudged him but he didn’t wake.
She grinned. She did wear him out. Never suspected she had it in herself. But still. She didn’t think it wise for his master to find them
, as it were.
“Gehring. I must start the kitchen fire. Come on—”
She reached under the blankets and shook him. His shoulder rolled, heavy.
She snatched her hand away. A buzz of panic muffled her thoughts as it sped downwards through her, lighting up every nerve and seizing her breath.
His flesh was cool.
She knew all she had to do was take his wrist. Face the truth.
No. Not like this. She pulled his shoulder toward her and his head wobbled, tumbling against the hay, his neck flopping to a sharp angle that matched the vacancy in his half-lidded eyes, milky blue and blank.
“No, Gehring.” Her voice shook. She squeezed his hand, rubbing his cool flesh beneath her palm, trying to warm him. “Not you. Not you—”
She scrabbled at the chain, suddenly too heavy about her throat. The pendant hung down her back, its clunky weight choking her. Yanking it around, she opened the lid of the locket.
A glow so bright it rivalled the innocent sun, making her squint. Blood-red and pulsing full.
Full of heartbeats.
His heartbeats. She’d stolen every last one.
Horrified she scrambled backwards, scraping her bare hind end against the rough floorboards. Gehring stared at nothing, seeing nothing.
She’d killed him. All he’d done was love her and she stole his life, leeching every beat away in his sleep while she’d lain dead beside him, unaware that she was killing him. Had he felt it? Did he awaken in pain, in fear, to see her still as a corpse by his side? Did he gasp her name on her last breath before she snuffed him out like a used candle?
Did he simple fall asleep, satisfied and sated and full of hope, thinking about how sweet she’d look in the morning light, when she would open her eyes and smile at him and kiss him again, full of thoughts of love and a life together? And did it hurt when she drained the last beat, ending his life?
Her clothes. She snatched up her scattered clothing, pulling them on. Her shirt, inside out. Her stockings, too complicated. She yanked on her boots over bare feet. Frantically pushing through the hay, she found her underthings and a bracelet that had come off in the tousle. She needed to escape before they were found.
Through a glimmer of tears, she looked down at the one who had been so full of life, full of passion and joy, only a few hours before. He now looked like an orphan, abandoned in a hay pile. He couldn’t be left like this—