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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

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BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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The young Miss Fyne did not correspond as often as her counterpart, but did keep the family apprised of significant happenings. They, in turn, made sure she had connections when they were required. The younger Miss Fyne, however, never visited the family in their southern manors, nor they her at her northern retreat.

No one could visit her because she was no longer there. Once the elderly Miss Fyne had gently passed from this life, in the year of Our Lord, 1929, Senza took off her veils and, on a whim, headed for London.

It was time to live again.

 

The Age of the Flapper had arrived.

Perpetually in style, Senza had somehow resisted the pixy cut—or rather, it resisted her. So challenging, to fit into 1929 with a body that eternally belonged in 1860.

She’d settled for a wig, jet-black and bobbed, the perfect frame for a powdered face, slender brows darkened to match the hair. Sometimes, she didn’t feel like cutting back her hair to fit under the wig, but the popular cloche hat style made such concealment a snap. The dropped-waist dresses didn’t show off her figure to its best advantage, but that inconvenience was more than made up for with what she wore underneath—or, rather, what she
didn’t
wear. No more dreadful cotton bindings.

Most interesting was the fact that the fan, once the ultimate female weapon, had been replaced by the ever-useful garter belt and the secrets they concealed.

The parties she attended were no longer elegant fetes of propriety and social scaling. Manners were looser, as were inhibitions. Senza remained aloof, unsurrendering to the pressures of completely fitting in. She was not one for gin, or cigarettes, or temptation to the point of regret. However, she had a part to play in this era, and chose to portray herself as temptation divine, rather than playful puppy.

Her cool elegance still acted the undeniable lure, and she never passed an evening without a healthy supply of admirers and their heartbeats in her orbit. The copious flow of alcohol allowed her thefts to go unnoticed. They seemed only too happy to oblige the captivating woman with the eyes that never stopped.

One evening, she came up against a person whose gravitational force matched her own.

Yet another gala at another wealthy home in London—she’d lost track of who was who, really. She had been standing at the far end of the great parlour, surrounded by no less than half a dozen aristocrats. A minister, his eager-faced wife, a handful of young businessmen, a new socialite or two. She’d developed a knack for identifying men and women and their station with rough estimates and stereotypical titles just for the sake of not having to remembering names.

This evening she was engaged in a rather lively debate with the minister who fancied himself a bit of an expert on life after death. Little did he know he was up against someone with an inside track on the subject.

She delighted in confounding him with her vast wealth of knowledge of classic philosophy, her ability to quote streams of poetry and prose from the greatest of literatures. More than once, she’d had to smile away his disbelief at her tender age.

When he seemed ready to pull out his Bible to try and conquer her once and for all, a man called Breckenridge arrived and the Bible was forgotten.

When he walked into the room, he took possession of every living soul within. Even if it were for only a moment, and at the greatest expense of pride on the part of those who did their best to resist turning their heads toward his approach—the moment Richard Breckenridge appeared, every single person in attendance knew it.

He did not draw attention with a boisterous laugh, or a clearing of throat; he did not take up a clattering conversation; rather, it was the act of every other person in the room momentarily holding a breath at his manifestation. A silence rippled outward away from him, a fluid pause that was imperceptible to anyone who did not notice such things.

Senza, on the other hand, noticed such things. Usually, it was she at the epicenter of such phenomena. Curious, to meet another with the ability to make so captivating an entrance.

For the first time in a long while, she showed an interest in someone other than herself and inquired after his name. She needed to know who was it that had stolen her spotlight, even for the length of a held breath, or a tilt of the head, or a sidelong glance.

A moment’s adoration had been purloined. Curiosity consumed her.

Senza’s cool arrogance never wavered, not even as she positioned herself to observe him without suspect of brashness.

She was the center of a web, and the flies were ever drawn to her. No one could as much as tremble that web without her being alerted. He would come to her. They always found their way to her.

“Ah, Breckenridge, old sport,” a man called from nearby.

“A northerner,” the minister said, seeming relieved that the great battle of philosophy had been abandoned, with him entrenched upon the losing side. “He owns factories, now that his father has passed. Successful ones, too. A wonder he tore himself away to come all the way down here.”

“He’s family here, as I understand it,” his wife added.

“A great family man.” The minister picked up with greater enthusiasm for the change in subject. “Respect for family always lends itself to respect for others. His reputation as a decent man is well known.”

“A decent man,” Senza murmured, allowing herself the opportunity to take in the sight of this stranger. Her first impression was that of granite—a flawlessness of profile, a proud smooth angle of nose, a solid jaw and serene smile, a quiet sense of strength that ebbed out like heat from a hearthstone. Granite, clean and simple.

But strength was not necessarily a positive character. Granite may be attractive, but stone was still stone, cold and solid and incapable of feeling. She should know. She’s spent decades seeking the secret of becoming granite.

The others in her party were downright fascinated by Breckenridge, unabashed in their admiration. At the sound of her voice, they came back to her, their expressions changing slightly. The admiration took on a slightly hungry edge, as if she were a boiled sweet.

She smiled and honeyed her voice, giving them the sugar they craved. “I would be curious to know exactly how one defines the term.”

“Only way is to experience it.” The minister called to Breckendridge, introducing himself and his party, leaving Senza for last.

No matter. Judging by the scant eye contact he made with the others during introductions, Senza seemed to be the only one he noticed.

A wave of satisfaction washed over her. There. That was more like it.

He barely left her side the rest of the evening, and together they became the center of the event, the royal couple. Murmurs of admiration declared them an ideal match, most well-suited to one another. It was only natural.

Only natural, as well, was his requesting her company for a carriage ride the next day, then a dinner party later that week. They began attending functions together, each using their mutual charms to their advantage—drawn to the beauty, businessmen had opportunity to seek arrangements in trade with him. Drawn by his handsome charm, socialites of all types sought pleasantries with the maid, each unknowingly donating a heartbeat to Senza’s ever-growing stockpile.

She no longer looked at it as stealing. Rather, she accepted offerings. So much better than calling herself a thief.

Breckenridge was the ideal conversationalist. They shared many of the same interests—or, rather, she had become fluent in so many areas of art, literature, technology, and science that she could contribute to any conversation with the practiced ease of a studied aficionado. After so lengthy and varied an education, Senza would be anyone’s perfect match.

He had the potential to be hers.

Breckenridge had a particular interest in art and offered to show her his private collection. It was an invitation she accepted without hesitation. So attracted to his personality was she that she would have gone with him had he offered a view of his childhood attempts at watercolors.

Senza enjoyed the trip to his home, her first ride in a Bugatti. Sleek black with a red velvet upholstery…she stroked the cushion next to her. Familiar, somehow. Was it? Yes, yes, Knell’s phaeton. She pursed her lips, emphasizing their pretty red cupid’s bow pout, and smoothed her skirt against a breeze, lest her hem be upturned and too much revealed.

How long had it been since she’d seen Chancery Lane? So much had changed, yet the essentials still stood, stately and unchanging. She remembered details no one else could, and pointed out places of interest along the way.

Breckenridge nodded and smiled and agreed with every delectable thing she said, obviously enjoying the resonance of their company.

The car slowed to a standstill in front of a great portico, where a dapper man stepped off the porch to open the door and help her out. The home was old, but very well-kept, and luxuriously appointed. Senza looked around with great interest, her eyes alight with prospect. This was a place she wouldn’t mind spending a decade in.

Breckenridge led her toward a grand hallway, the main concourse through the home. Both sides were decorated with a series of colorful canvases that spanned the length of the home. He paused in front of the first painting and allowed her to view it in silence.

A pastoral in oils, a country manor in all the splendor of summer’s florals. It struck a chord within her, stirring the memories of her childhood. It was so much like her home near Surrey that she was, for a moment, transported back in time.

“I see you have not misrepresented yourself, Richard.” Her voice was faint, so great was the impression. She could almost smell the roses along the gate, as solid a memory as the painting that invoked it. “Your collection is impressive.”

“I suppose you can say that it runs in my blood.”

“You are an artist, too? My how accomplished.”

He laughed and bowed his head, scratching his nose. “No, not in the very least. I have only an appreciation for art. I suppose my bloodline has thinned somewhat through the generations. My great-grandfather had an admirable talent. These were his.”

He stepped nearer to the wall, gesturing with two fingers. “This is part of a series he composed as a young man, summering in the countryside. I’ve always gotten a certain impression from these paintings, as if he tried desperately to capture something he knew he’d never possess, but for the moment he was fortunate to glimpse it.”

Senza rocked back on her heels and nodded. “I know that feeling. Desperate, yes; but…a certain joy, even in the despair. To have loved and lost. One cannot regret loss when the love was so perfect.”

“Yes, yes.” He looked at her in the way she loved to be looked at—shining eyes and parted lips. “I think you are quite right. Love and loss. Well, that would certainly explain his subject matter.”

“Was it a childhood home? A trip back to a place he might never see again?”

“Nothing so shallow,” he said. “See the figure at the edge of the gate?”

She peered along the line of his fingers, spying the shape of a young woman, her face turned away from the artist, her attention far elsewhere.

“Ah.” Senza chuckled, throaty and knowing. “A woman. I should have guessed.”

“Not just any woman. See, this next painting…”

Breckenridge led her along the line of canvases, pointing out the details one could only have learned through years of study, through tutoring.

“My father told me something new about these paintings every time we viewed them together. They are not simple pictures to me; they are stories, captured in strokes of paint. And at the heart of every story is that girl.” He paused and pointed to a figure in one of the pieces, wearing a gentle smile and a musing in his eyes, as if he knew her. “She is always the focus, even when not the center of the composition. See the tiny details captured in her dress, the color of her hair.”

Senza peered more closely. The figure was well detailed, even when her surroundings seemed blurred, out of focus.

“I suppose that is why I wanted you to see these paintings. You somehow remind me of this mysterious girl who’d captured my great-grandsire’s heart so long ago. You seem to be the only thing in a room, perfect and detailed, when all else is a blur of chaos. In fact...”

He peered at her as if seeing her for the first time. The intensity was almost physical.

“In fact,” he said, “I think you may well like to see the last one of the series. He painted it long after that summer, several years later, in fact. My grandfather said he returned from a business trip quite possessed by a notion. He would not speak to my great-grandmother about it, and locked himself away in his conservatory while he painted. Exorcising the spirit, he’d called it. When my great-grandmother saw the painting, she ordered it stowed in the attics.”

He shook his head as if still unable to fathom her opposition to the painting. “She could not bear to look at it, or to allow others to look at it, but neither would she order it to be destroyed. My great-grandfather did not protest her reactions in the least. All he would say was that he needed to purge something from his blood and, the painting completed, he considered it cured. Neither spoke of it as long as they lived. When he passed, my father had this painting and several others brought down from the attics and displayed. Thus, my art education began.”

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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