Sunday snippet, 6.30.19 – FIRST CHAPTER SNEAK PEEK!

BANNER_sm_3-TheHauntingofHeatherhurstHall

The Haunting of Heatherhurst Hall comes out tomorrow! As a special preview, here is the first chapter. Enjoy!

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Newport, Rhode Island
June 3rd, 1892

Lucinda Coffin strode down the aisle of the church like a princess about to be crowned queen. A white lace veil hid her visage, but allowed a glimpse of her swanlike throat, and in no way hid the golden cast of her shining curls. Her wedding gown was likewise worthy of a coronation—gleaming white silk, hand-stitched and embroidered with thousands of perfect pearls. The glorious train trailed behind the bride, the princess-style waistline flattered her figure, and its voluminous shoulders descended into fitted sleeves ending in lace cuffs extending over the back of Lucy’s slender, feminine hands.

From her position in the pews amongst the other guests, Kit Morgan recalled the graceful way those slender fingers had held a watercolor brush—and worse yet, the soft clasp of Lucy’s hands in hers. Tears pricked her eyes. She forced them down to look at her own stubby fingers and meaty palms. But the sight only brought to mind how it had felt to touch Lucy’s golden curls, gently untangling and brushing and braiding hair as fine as silk and shining as the sun. Hair so unlike Kit’s own limp, dishwater-blonde locks.

“House of Worth gown,” a society matron whispered to her neighbor in the pew ahead of Kit. “The cuffs alone! It’s a wonder Coffin could bear to part with the funds.”

“He’s parting with his daughter,” the neighbor whispered back. “Though I suppose he feels the loss of the money more keenly. Quakers, you know.”

Kit, who sat between strangers, recalled how she and Lucy had whispered to each other under the covers of a shared bed in the dark of night. Pushing such painful memories from her mind, she lifted her gaze to the altar, where Lucy’s soon-to-be husband waited.

John Cabot, a plain-faced man in his mid-thirties, seemed unaffected by the sight of his beautiful young bride. Perhaps her lace veil blocked his view of Lucy’s soft lips, button nose, and dancing blue eyes. Kit had gazed deeply into those eyes in the course of a hundred heartfelt conversations in the years she and Lucy had shared at finishing school. No veil could suppress her memories of Lucy’s brilliant smile, and the light blush that would come to her cheeks as she laughed her merry little laugh—like silver sleigh-bells, ringing easy and free.

He doesn’t deserve her.

The uncharitable thought startled Kit, and she pushed it to the back of her mind even as she felt her own strong chin trembling. John Cabot, of the Boston Cabots, had breeding and money besides. He was an excellent prospect for a girl such as Lucinda Coffin of the New Bedford Coffins, herself the inheritor of no small pedigree and a fortune of her own. John Cabot was a perfectly respectable man. Even if he had no hobbies, no humor, and no conversation. Even if Kit could only pick him out of a crowd by his mustache. He made Lucy happy, or so she claimed.

That was enough. To see Lucy happy. It was all Kit ever wanted.

She repeated this lie to herself over and over as Lucy climbed the steps to the altar.

Lucy, having alighted the stairs with her aged father’s assistance, turned to face her groom. Her father lifted her veil. Kit caught a glimpse of Lucy’s beautiful face breaking into resplendent glory with the force of her beaming smile. Then Kit’s vision blurred with tears, and she screwed her eyes shut to force them back. It took a strong will to prevent herself from covering her ears against the minister’s droning voice reminding the assembled company of their solemn duty to witness the union of two souls in the eyes of the Almighty Lord.

“Should anyone here present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Kit’s heart leapt into her throat. There was every reason not to join Lucinda Coffin in holy matrimony with John Cabot.

Because I love her.

Kit could feel the impossible words drawing together in her lungs and shooting up to escape her lips, blocked only by the lump in her throat, more painful than any she’d suffered in illness. No matter how strong her love, it was nothing compared to that which flowed between the bride and groom. Supposedly. Kit’s love was only a schoolgirl crush, the love of bosom friends. Such a love was superseded by the love of a wife for her husband. Such a love would fade as a girl became a woman and entertained the attention of male suitors. Such a love was supposed to become a distant, if treasured, memory.

So why did the resulting heartbreak feel like a knife through Kit’s chest?

Kit bit her tongue to keep both words and tears at bay. A true friend wouldn’t ruin a bride’s special day. Even if it killed her to keep her silence. And Kit was nothing if not a true friend.

It wasn’t as though Lucy didn’t appreciate her. She did. That only made it worse. Kit had politely turned down countless opportunities to involve herself in the wedding. Lucy had asked her to be the maid-of-honor. Then, when Kit refused, Lucy offered her the position of bridesmaid. Even when Kit declined that, Lucy took no offense, and went on to invite Kit on the cross-Atlantic trip to Paris to see Lucy fitted for her wedding dress. No American heiress worth her father’s millions would ever turn down an opportunity to visit the House of Worth. And yet, Kit had. At the time, she thought keeping her distance would help her forget how dearly she loved her friend. Alas, absence only made her heart grow fonder.

The ceremony rolled on, the four-hundred-strong crowd oblivious to Kit’s internal struggles. Echoes of the vows reached Kit’s ears, warped and vague, as if she were underwater. The burning ache in her chest and throat certainly felt like drowning. Hot tears poured freely down her cheeks, obscuring all sight of the bride and groom as the fateful words, “I do,” were repeated by each in turn. And then—

“I now pronounce you man and wife.”

A joyous ripple ran through the crowd. Kit clutched her handkerchief over her nose and mouth to suppress her own howl of agony. Through her tears, she caught the barest glimpse of Lucy and her husband coming together and returning down the aisle. A flash of white from Lucy’s dress was all she saw. Then her vision swam, and only the stiff whalebone of her corset kept her from collapsing in grief.

“I beg your pardon, Miss…”

The voice, to Kit’s left, gave her pause. It was not often she heard an English accent on this side of the Atlantic. She blinked the tears from her eyes as best she could and turned to face the speaker.

Beside her sat a thin man with raven-black hair. Her remaining tears blurred any further detail.

“Are you unwell?” he asked.

Kit gulped down her hysteria to reply, but the moment she withdrew her handkerchief from her mouth, a wail surged up from her throat, and she just barely clamped her hand back over her lips in time to block it. Her shoulders heaved with a single sob as she shook her head violently—the best answer she could manage.

“Here, now,” said the man, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s find you some fresh air, shall we?”

Kit overcame her bewilderment at his forward nature and nodded her assent. She’d do anything to be out of this wretched church.

Without another word, a strong grip descended on her upper arms, lifting her from her seat and guiding her gently down the pew, away from the center aisle. She overheard guests around them bustling with the business of gathering themselves up to follow the bride and groom out of the church to what would no doubt be a glorious reception at Marble House. A few murmurs of “Pardon me,” and “Excuse us, please,” from the gentleman, and then the oppressive heat of the church dissipated in the face of a crisp breeze off the bay.

Kit took in a few deep breaths of fortifying ocean air, tipping her face to the sun to let gravity stop her tears. Only then did she turn to her rescuer.
Now, with the aid of bright June sunshine, Kit beheld a thin gentleman of no more than five-and-twenty years. From a standing position, she realized he was tall, much taller than she’d expected. She’d grown used to towering over gentlemen ever since she’d shot up like a sapling in her sixteenth year, but this fellow had to be well over six foot, for she had to look up to meet his green-eyed gaze. His crooked nose curved to a point like a beak, as sharp as his cheekbones. And yet, his concerned expression softened his features considerably.

He gazed down upon her for a moment, then his look softened even further into a shy smile. “Better, I hope?”

“Much,” Kit gasped. She clenched her jaw against any remaining trembles and forced a smile of her own. “Thank you, Mr. …?”

“Sir Vivian Cranbrook,” he finished with a very smart bow. “I beg your pardon for not introducing myself earlier.”

“The pardon is all mine to beg,” Kit blurted, then winced at her own jumbled phrasing. “Do forgive me, Sir Vivian. Miss Morgan, at your service.”

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Morgan. Is there anything further I might do to assist? I believe my sister has some smelling-salts in her reticule…”

Kit opened her mouth to demur, but a call from the church cut her off.

“Sir Vivian! There you are! Whatever caused you to run off like that?”

The inquiry was accompanied by a familiar giggle. Kit’s stomach turned even before she saw the flounce of daffodil-colored skirts bedecked with ribbons.

“Miss Wheeler!” said Sir Vivian, turning to face the lady in question with a friendly smile.

Miss Patience Wheeler trotted out of the church’s side door and across the lawn, her auburn ringlets bouncing with every step. She came to a stop beside Sir Vivian and threaded her arm through his with astonishing familiarity. The top of her curls barely crested his shoulder as she looked up at him with an expression probably intended as adoring. Kit thought it looked hungry.

“You dashed out on us all of a sudden!” Patience chided him playfully. “Whatever will you do to make it up to me?”

“A thousand apologies, my dear Miss Wheeler,” Sir Vivian began. “May I introduce—?”

“Oh!” Patience laughed. “But we are already acquainted! How wonderful to see you again, Miss Morgan!”

Kit struggled to formulate a socially-appropriate response. She knew she looked a wreck—she’d always been an ugly crier, with puffy eyes, snotty nose, and a crumpled chin. Any fool could tell she was distraught, but Patience especially so, for it was Patience who had caused most of Kit’s tears at finishing school. Indecorous comments about clumsy beanpoles in their ballroom dancing classes, or remarks on Kit’s square jaw and thick brows in portrait-drawing, or whispers in the dormitory about Kit’s supposed monstrous nature at night. Nothing of Kit’s was safe from Patience’s forked tongue. But Kit had been able to keep her strong chin high, thanks to the soothing nature of Lucy beside her. Lucy, who on many a night had held a sobbing Kit in her arms and told her she was as beautiful and clever as any Athena or Artemis.

Now, with Lucy gone from her forever, Kit felt dangerously close to bursting into tears again.

“Sir Vivian and his sister are here as my guests,” Patience chattered on to Kit, squeezing Sir Vivian’s arm. To him, she continued, “And Miss Morgan is of the New Bedford Morgans. We’re old schoolfriends, she and Miss Coffin and I. Oh, but Miss Coffin is Mrs. Cabot now! I must endeavor to remember that.”

“One would suppose attending the wedding would’ve reminded you,” Kit heard herself say in a low, dull tone. “Perhaps the reception will help fix it in your memory.”

For an instant, the society smile froze on Patience’s face. Ferocity glimmered behind cold blue eyes. Then she laughed it away. “You must be wondering how I know Sir Vivian! My mother and I made his acquaintance on our tour of Italy—his and his sister’s acquaintance, that is. They showed us all the finest sights in Rome!”

Kit sincerely doubted it. Rome’s finest would be wasted on the girl who considered artistic nudes gauche if not outright grotesque. Still, Kit forced out, “How wonderful for you.”

“Yes, it certainly was.” Patience’s smirk widened. “Have you ever toured the Continent, Miss Morgan?”

“Not yet,” said Kit. But of course, Patience already knew that. Just as surely as she knew Kit and Lucy had planned to visit Europe together after they’d finished school. And how those plans were dashed the moment Lucy’s mother introduced her to John Cabot, who didn’t want his bride-to-be picking up any unsavory Continental notions.

“No?” said Patience, her eyes widening theatrically. “But surely a trip across the sea is the most natural thing for one with such nautical blood in her veins!”

Patience was of course referring to the Morgan family’s famous whaling origins. Kit’s great-grandfather had made a frankly embarrassing fortune in the industry. The end result, even several generations later, was more than enough to send a young orphan to boarding school. The remainder of her portion was managed by Mr. Enoch Mudge, Esq. All perfectly respectable for an American heiress. But Kit supposed Patience thought an allusion to an ancestry that included sailors and sea-cooks would put off a proper English baronet such as Sir Vivian.

“True enough,” Kit replied, her voice dull from her efforts to keep any trace of malice from her tone. “We can’t all sail upon oceans of tapioca, after all.”

Patience, whose family owned a tapioca plant in western Massachusetts, bristled. With a strained trill, she asked, “A beautiful ceremony, wouldn’t you agree? It’s funny, isn’t it? Marrying a Bostonian to prevent a Boston marriage!”

Kit, her eyes darting wildly about for an escape, caught a flicker of movement by the church door. Patience had left it open behind her, and in her wake came a sharp-featured, raven-haired young woman in a gown of deep maroon. The woman looked about as Kit watched. Then she turned to where Sir Vivian, Patience, and Kit had gathered. A pair of steel-gray eyes met Kit’s curious look with a glance so severe it stopped her breath.

Sir Vivian frowned and turned over his shoulder to follow Kit’s line of sight. “Ah, Alexandra! Do come meet Miss Morgan!”

The woman, Alexandra, strode towards them with smooth, sure steps. Kit couldn’t take her eyes off her as she approached. Her face was no less sharp than Sir Vivian’s, with a hawkish nose and pointed chin. Her porcelain-pale complexion created a striking contrast against her raven-black hair and rose-red lips. When she came at last to stand beside Sir Vivian’s free arm, Kit saw she was of a like height to Patience. This surprised Kit—from the way Alexandra carried herself, she would’ve sworn she stood eye-to-eye with Sir Vivian. When Alexandra’s steel-gray eyes looked upon Kit, Kit felt as if she faced the judgment of an ancient empress—and might be found wanting.

“Miss Morgan,” said Sir Vivian, “may I introduce my sister, Miss Cranbrook. Alexandra, this is Miss Morgan.”

Kit curtsied, keenly feeling how her overgrown frame would loom over Alexandra no matter how low she bowed her head. But when she lifted her gaze again, she found the beginnings of a smile flickering at the corner of Alexandra’s rose-red lips.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” said Alexandra, her voice cool and crisp, utterly devoid of artifice. She held out her hand for Kit to clasp.

Kit did so, confused. Her pulse quickened as Alexandra gave her fingers a brief squeeze and released her.

Patience looked no less confused than Kit. Her thin eyebrows knit together tightly enough to push a single wrinkle into her otherwise flawless forehead. “Miss Morgan is of the New Bedford Morgans, you know.”

“I had surmised,” said Alexandra, gazing into Kit’s eyes rather than so much as glancing in Patience’s direction. “As Mrs. Cabot is of the New Bedford Coffins. You must be very close friends.”

Kit swallowed around the lump returning to her throat. “Indeed.”

“And may you remain so for many years more,” said Alexandra. “Is your family in attendance, Miss Morgan?”

“Distant relations,” said Kit. Though she’d been raised in the household of her aunt and uncle, the only family she felt truly close to was her cousin, Phoebe. They were of a like age, and had been raised together by the same nursemaid. But though Phoebe had been invited to the wedding—and indeed, should have occupied a seat in the pews beside Kit—she had sent a polite refusal, with the excuse that she needed to focus upon her studies. For Phoebe Morgan, much to her parents’ chagrin, was studying to become a surgeon at Boston University School of Medicine. Kit didn’t begrudge her cousin’s well-earned ambitions, no matter how lonely it left her at present. “I’ve come alone.”

“A pity,” said Alexandra. “In that case, may we accompany you to the reception, Miss Morgan?”

Kit, who had all the while been spinning wheels in the back of her mind to try and invent an excuse to skip the reception, found her train of thought stuttering to a halt. For, as Alexandra had extended her invitation, she had also stepped forward to thread her arm through Kit’s as if they’d known each other from the cradle, and looked up at her with a gentle smile curling her rose-red lips.

“I…” said Kit, blinking stupidly down at her. “I would be delighted, Miss Cranbrook.”

“Excellent,” said Miss Cranbrook, and squeezed Kit’s arm.

Kit looked back to Sir Vivian in confusion, and found Patience had dropped her cheerful facade in favor of a full-blown scowl. Sir Vivian appeared oblivious.

“Shall we?” he asked, holding out his free hand to Kit.

Kit took it, bewildered. Sir Vivian led the three ladies to a waiting carriage.

Marble House, the Vanderbilt’s new summer cottage, had been finished just last year. It was aptly named; the front of the house was faced in Westchester marble, while the dining room featured pink Numidian marble, and the front hall’s two-story walls and staircase were all of yellow Siena marble, with a gilt bronze railing. Inside, the wedding guests funneled piecemeal into the Grand Salon, which would serve as the evening’s ballroom. The Grand Salon boasted walls of gold panels decorated in scenes from ancient Hellenic mythology. Alva Vanderbilt had graciously granted use of the house to the Coffins for the wedding reception. Patience Wheeler blurted all these facts in rapid succession as their bizarre party passed through the massive French Baroque-style doors and entered the crowded front hall. Kit largely ignored her, distracted by the warmth of Alexandra’s firm yet gentle grip upon her elbow.

“Refreshments?” asked Sir Vivian.

Kit nodded dumbly. Though Marble House had been specifically constructed to cool the blood on a warm summer night such as this, the heat of hundreds of wedding guests strained its architectural limits.

“Champagne would be divine,” gushed Patience.

“Thank you, brother,” said Alexandra with a nod.

Sir Vivian smiled and slipped away through the crowd, leaving the three ladies to fend for themselves. Patience turned immediately to Alexandra.

“I was just telling Miss Morgan,” she said, “about our holiday in Rome. Wasn’t it magnificent?”

“I rather thought so,” said Alexandra, again turning to direct her words towards Kit. “Though now that I consider it, it would’ve been improved by Miss Morgan’s presence. Have you ever been?”

“She hasn’t,” Patience said over Kit’s reply.

But Alexandra’s gaze never left Kit’s face. “A pity. You shall simply have to accompany us when next we visit. Do you enjoy art, Miss Morgan?”

“Very much so,” said Kit, ignoring Patience rolling her eyes behind Alexandra’s back. While her favorite works were Lucy’s watercolor seascapes, she had an appreciative eye for all forms of fine art, from the marble masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance to the modern portraiture of John Singer Sargent. “Do you paint, Miss Cranbrook?”

Alexandra appeared to give the idle inquiry a great deal of thought. “I’ve been known to produce tolerable watercolors. But I believe my true talents lie nearer to sculpture. And you, Miss Morgan?”

“I sketch from time to time,” Kit admitted, not yet bold enough to tell of the hundred-odd sketchbooks she’d filled in her years at school. Still, she found courage enough to add, “Photography is my passion.”

A spark of interest flashed through Alexandra’s steel-gray eyes. “Indeed?”

Kit, used to people’s patience rapidly draining whenever she spoke of her hobby, felt too mystified by Alexandra’s attentions to muster more than a confirming nod.

Alexandra’s lips twitched into a devilish little smile. “Perhaps you might be so kind as to take my portrait someday.”

“Perhaps,” Kit echoed, just as Sir Vivian reappeared over his sister’s shoulder and saved her from her own clumsy tongue.

“Miss Morgan was just telling us about her passion for photography,” Alexandra told her brother.

“Really?” Sir Vivian appeared delighted by the notion. He handed a glass of champagne to Kit, having dispensed two others to his sister and Patience and kept a fourth for his own consumption. Kit thought he deserved a place in the circus for all his skill at juggling. “How marvelous. Shall we join the throng?”

Under Sir Vivian’s direction, the ladies wove their way through the crowd to the Grand Salon, to Patience’s apparent relief. As Patience rattled off the cost of each of the room’s furnishings to the dollar, Kit took advantage of the Cranbrook’s distraction to toss back her flute of champagne in an unsophisticated gulp. The evening might go easier if her mind couldn’t focus quite so sharply on where she was and why. Yet no amount of drink could deafen her. Even now, she overheard countless society dames around her chittering about the wedding.

“—about time she married. Another year and she’d be an old maid—”

“—surprised the Cabots could bear to lower themselves to bring a Quaker into their ranks, though no doubt the money helps—”

“—happy enough, I suppose. She must be used to boredom by now, growing up in New Bedford—”

“May I have this dance, Miss Morgan?”

Kit blinked to rid her eyes of visions of the past, and found Sir Vivian before her, holding out his hand.

Kit stared at him. It was the first time in her life any gentleman had ever asked the question. All her previous experience dancing with men had been prompted by matrons, whose definition of a perfect ball made no allowances for wallflowers, hissing into the ears of those bachelors not lucky enough to fill the dance card of more becoming girls. Even if she weren’t the clumsiest creature on two legs, she towered over most gentlemen, none of whom enjoyed looking up. No one had ever danced with Kit of their own volition—besides Lucy. Lucy had always picked Kit first in their ballroom dancing classes, had gracefully tip-toed around Kit’s heavy tread, had smiled through when Kit inevitably trod on her skirt and tore its hem, had let Kit’s palm settle on her slender waist and clasped hands with her in rapturous harmony.

But Kit wasn’t drunk enough to try to dance with the bride on her wedding day.

As Kit struggled to come to terms with the latest unprecedented development in an already turbulent day, she caught sight of Patience over Sir Vivian’s shoulder.

Patience’s rosy cheeks had gone white with rage—and not entirely without cause. After all, Sir Vivian was her guest, here at her behest to act as her escort. From what Kit recalled of her lessons from finishing school, she felt fairly certain it was a breach of etiquette for him to ask anyone but Patience to the first dance.

However, with her life torn asunder before her very eyes, and love forever flown from her broken heart, Kit didn’t have much respect left for the rules of polite society, and still less fortitude to resist the urge for petty vengeance. She put her hand in Sir Vivian’s. “I’d be delighted.”

Patience looked fit to spit as Sir Vivian gracefully led Kit out to join the rest of the dancers.

“You’ve danced the waltz before, Miss Morgan?” Sir Vivian asked as they assumed their respective positions.

“Yes.” Kit rather liked waltzes. Their steps were simple enough—even a child could manage counting to three—and she felt confident she could execute them competently, if not well. She didn’t see fit to impart more information than this to Sir Vivian. He didn’t need to know that she was more accustomed to leading the waltz rather than following, and preferred to have her hand upon a girl’s waist rather than feel a man’s upon her own.

Still, the weight of Sir Vivian’s spidery fingers was not so much to bear. He kept his touch light, well within the bounds of propriety, and taking none of the liberties many other gentleman might dare under the excuse of executing the dance.

Kit met his gaze and realized she was, for once, looking up at her dance partner. An anxious weight dropped away. She straightened her neck and shoulders from the slouch she typically assumed to spare the pride of men. She could stand as tall as she liked, and Sir Vivian would continue smiling his friendly smile down upon her. She dared a smile of her own in return.

As Sir Vivian twirled her around the dance floor, Kit caught a glimpse of Patience, puce in the face, arms crossed over her bodice, ignoring the attentions of a suitor inferior to the one she’d lost to Kit. A spark of vengeful satisfaction brought a smirk to Kit’s lips. She continued to spin, and saw Alexandra standing near Patience—with her steel-gray eyes fixed upon Kit.

The smirk dropped from Kit’s face in confusion. She held Alexandra’s gaze for a mere instant, yet it felt as though the world had frozen in place around them, allowing them the luxury of eons. Alexandra’s eyes seemed to pierce through her facade, to see past the happy mask she put up to hide the sad little girl within. And more curious still, the wrinkle between her brows seemed to bespeak sympathy for that sad little girl.

Then Kit’s range of vision shifted with the spin of the dance and she lost sight of Alexandra entirely. She tried to put that curious sympathy from her mind and focus on Sir Vivian’s smiling visage, but as she considered him, she couldn’t help noticing the strong resemblance to his sister. The longer she looked, the more similarities she found, from their dark eyebrows to their sharp cheekbones and their beaked noses. Like a pair of ravens, they were.

Then, as if in a dream, Sir Vivian’s face transposed entirely with Alexandra’s, and Kit imagined she was dancing not with the baronet, but with his sister.

And for the first time in months, Kit felt a flutter of happiness.

The moment she realized what had occurred, she shook her head to clear her confused senses, but the damage was done. She couldn’t look upon Sir Vivian without seeing Alexandra. Worse still, she wasn’t sure she minded.

Sir Vivian didn’t seem to notice. All throughout the waltz, his easy smile and cheerful chatter never abated. Best of all, he only ever required a nod from Kit to continue his conversation—and unlike most blathering men, he bothered to wait for a response in the first place. Of all the young gentlemen she’d ever encountered, Kit thought Sir Vivian might be the least loathsome. He might even be likable. Kit didn’t think it such a chore to agree to a second dance with such a fellow. Or a third. Or a fourth.

By the start of the fifth dance, even Kit’s long legs struggled to keep up. The moment she flagged, Sir Vivian took her by the elbow and gently steered her to a chair in the balustrade, where the marble walls opened to the shore and its refreshing sea breeze.

“Thank you,” Kit gasped.

“You’re more than welcome,” said Sir Vivian, standing beside her chair. “I must say, Miss Morgan, you’re a very energetic dancer. It’s a wonderful change from the company in London.”

Kit had overheard society matrons in the past discussing the differences between American and English girls—their talk typically concluding that Americans made for superior brides. But she knew no reply to the compliment but a nod.

Sir Vivian seemed to take it in stride. He smiled out over the crowd. “I wonder where my sister has—ah! There she is! Alexandra!”

Kit jolted upright, her weariness forgotten at the promise of Alexandra’s approach. In the space of a blink, she spotted Alexandra approaching from the front hall, a glass of punch in her hand, Patience at her heels.

“Here,” said Alexandra, passing the punch to Kit. “I thought you could use some refreshment.”

“Small wonder that you do!” said Patience before Kit could thank her. “Four waltzes in a row is no small feat for a lady!”

It didn’t take a particularly conniving mind to pick up on Patience’s undertones. But Kit found that, for once, she didn’t care what Patience thought or said. It was enough to nod her thanks to Alexandra and sip the punch she’d so kindly provided. It took very little effort to keep her chin high and her eyes upon the Cranbrook siblings—never mind the blazing heat of Patience’s pointed glare.

Patience spent another moment glaring at Kit, then rounded upon Sir Vivian and swapped out her indignant tone for a pleading one. “I do hope you’re not done dancing this evening, Sir Vivian?”

Kit didn’t need to look at her to see the babyish pout she knew accompanied that tone. She’d witnessed the combination a thousand times at finishing school. And yet, for once her heart held no heavy vexation. If she felt anything regarding Patience’s behavior, it was admittedly-vindictive amusement. She smiled to herself and took another sip of her punch. It tasted quite good.

All the sweeter for having been delivered by Alexandra’s hands.

The thought startled her. She blinked down at the punch in confusion, as if it were responsible for her disturbed mind. Dimly, she heard her companions’ conversation continuing around her.

“…would be honored, of course,” Sir Vivian was saying, “if you would grant me the favor of a dance, Miss Wheeler.”

The thought of the simpering look Patience was no doubt serving him in response gave Kit a giggle. In her peripheral vision, she caught another glare from Patience, which only made her giggle more.

A hand alighted on her shoulder. Kit gave a little jump and turned to find a glove of maroon silk, and followed it up to its end upon a lady’s pale elbow, and from there the smooth curve of the lady’s bare arm to the shoulder of a maroon gown, giving way to a pale neck with raven-dark curls gathered at the nape, and a sharp jaw ending in a pointed chin. Alexandra. It was Alexandra’s hand upon Kit’s shoulder. Kit didn’t know whether to laugh or faint.

“I’ll look after our guest,” Alexandra said to her brother. “Go on dancing.”

Sir Vivian bowed to his sister and took up Patience’s hand. They disappeared back into the house, with Patience casting a triumphant smirk over her shoulder at Kit.

Kit didn’t care. Kit had Alexandra’s hand upon her, and had half a mind to swoon from it.

Then suddenly the hand was gone. Kit hardly had time to mourn its loss before Alexandra had pulled up a chair to sit beside her, the hems of their skirts mingling in a swirl of color.

“Are you feeling quite the thing, Miss Morgan?” Alexandra said, reaching out to clasp Kit’s knuckles. “Forgive me for saying so, but you seem a bit flushed.”

Kit stifled a bark of laughter. She never looked a “bit” flushed. Her blushes took the form of a splotchy strawberry rash all over her face and neck. And she could feel herself blushing now. “I’m fine, but—thank you.”

She hoped Alexandra could hear how very much she meant it. The Cranbrook siblings had taken her under their corvid wings when she would have otherwise been bereft and alone. To say nothing of how Alexandra’s silk glove now held her hand in a warm embrace.

“I know today must have been a trial for you,” said Alexandra. “It can’t be easy to watch your friend given away.”

And just like that, the warm, bubbly feelings of champagne, dancing, and holding hands with a beautiful lady all fell away with Alexandra’s gentle reminder of why Kit was here in this moment. Lucy’s wedding. John Cabot. The end of a friendship. Unbidden tears pricked at Kit’s eyes once more. She dropped her gaze to her lap and steeled herself against the incoming tide of misery.

“I’m sorry to mention it,” Alexandra continued, clenching Kit’s hand in hers. “Only—I’ve some experience in losing a bosom friend. And I wanted you to know you weren’t alone.”

Kit looked up suddenly. Something in Alexandra’s phrasing, in her tone, led her to believe she might know the true meaning behind the word “friend,” and what Lucy had been to her.

Alexandra’s expression, her dark eyebrows angled inward, softening the gaze of her steel-gray eyes, confirmed it.

Kit swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thank you, Miss Cranbrook.”

Alexandra smiled, her Cupid’s-bow lips spreading into a fond expression. “I do hope you’ll forgive my shocking familiarity. But as you’ve no doubt heard my Christian name on my brother’s lips, I wondered if I might ask you yours?”

Kit’s mouth went suddenly dry. “Catherine.”

Alexandra smiled. “I’ve had a wonderful evening with you, Catherine.”

“My friends call me Kit,” Kit blurted. If she’d had a hand free, she’d have clapped it over her own mouth in horror. Until now, the only people to call her Kit were her childhood nursemaid, her cousin Phoebe, and Lucy. It was absurd to think an aristocrat such as Miss Cranbrook would ever want to use such a childish nickname. Though nothing Kit said could take her presumptive comment back, she couldn’t stop herself from adding, as if it would help matters, “Close friends do.”

Alexandra’s smile widened. “Then I hope I may someday earn the privilege.”

~

The Haunting of Heatherhurst Hall is a Gothic romance rife with horror and heartache, wherein an American heiress makes an ill-advised marriage to bring herself closer the woman who’s stolen her heart.

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