It’s what you’ve been waiting for: the first four chapters of Foxglove! All I’ll say is enjoy!
It had taken Fate a millennia to learn the songs of the threads, and even longer to discover how to weave them.
He sat on the floor of a cellar lit by a waning candle, hunched over a bare tapestry strewn across his lap. Above it, a needle glinted between nimble fingers, the color threaded through it ever-changing as Fate crafted yet another future.
The first color was always the same—a hymn of white that signified new life. He promptly followed it with a calming hum of blue threaded across the canvas, fueled by the music that thrummed in his veins. Passionate riffs of red and a wailing of yellow came next, the colors exploding over the tapestry like a sunburst as Fate allowed himself to be consumed by the life of a wealthy aristocrat who would one day become so devastatingly beautiful that she’d inspire the most wondrous art. Paintings and sculptures, music and poetry—none of which would ever fully capture her devastating beauty. Her life was a series of torrid affairs, each of them spun from gossamer threads as exquisite as they were fragile. With each new lover she took and every twist he foretold, Fate grew more frantic, tearing through her life as he followed a crescendo only he could hear.
Anyone who saw him work would assume Fate was more a musician than an artist—the needle his bow, and the tapestry his violin as he strummed life across a canvas. With every slice of his needle he hurried to capture an entire lifetime that came to him in seconds, spinning songs into colors. He wove with such haste that he did not think. Did not breathe. So lost was his mind to the story that when the strike of a minor chord sounded and the thread of his needle turned black to mark the end of the tapestry, there came a second where Fate did not remember who he was, let alone what he was crafting.
Fate remembered himself eventually though, when he looked about the empty room with its bare gray walls and recalled that such vibrant colors no longer belonged to him, but to those whose stories he foretold. For while Fate’s tapestry had once shone a brilliant and pure gold, the final thread had been marred by a new color for centuries—a quiet, perfect silver that he couldn’t bring himself to look upon, for it signified all that had been taken from him. All that Death had taken from him.
As he blew out the candle, the walls surrounding him morphed into rows of tapestries that hung from moving lines stretched endlessly ahead. The moment a clear space revealed itself, Fate stilled the line long enough to hang the newest addition. He brushed his finger across its whorls of rich crimson—his favorite of all the colors, for love and passion that strong always made the most gripping stories. The tapestry continued onward as he drew back his hand, and onward it would continue until all the threads had unwoven and it returned on the next line, blank and ready to craft a new tale.
Golden eyes slid to his next canvas, when a sound from behind drew his attention. It was a song unlike any he’d heard before, one soft as harp song and yet as arresting as Death’s minor chord. It drowned out all others, and while Fate made it a rule to never revisit the tapestries he’d already hung—for why alter a masterpiece?—this one sang a song he could not resist.
Fate wove between the rows, ducking and side-stepping moving tapestries as he made his way toward it. The line stilled as he approached, and Fate saw that the song did not come from one tapestry, but two.
The first was perhaps the ugliest that Fate had ever woven, for too much of it was gray and purpled like a bruise. And yet it was one that Fate had taken time with, every thread sewed with precision as he crafted this cruel gift for his brother: a woman Death would love but could never have. Only now, Fate frowned as he looked upon the tapestry, for somehow his creation had been altered. The gray shifted into lines of black that merged into red and gold. Yellow. Blue. And then more black—not just a single line of it, but thousands of threads that continued to stitch themselves even as Fate took the marred creation in his fists.
The second tapestry was no better than the first. Swirls of faded rose and icy blues were struck out by thick lines of black and white, over and over like the keys of a piano. He bent to listen to its song—the darkest, quietest hymn where each note struck like a punch—and drew away with a sharp breath. Its beauty was undeniable, and yet it was wrong.
Fetching another needle from where it sat tucked behind his ear, Fate struck it through the second tapestry to see what might happen when he tried to weave in the final black thread of death. To his surprise, the tapestry spit the needle back into his palm. He clenched his fist around it.
Whatever these monstrosities were, he had not created them. The sight of them soured his stomach, and he yanked both tapestries from their lines. Even as Fate hauled them over his shoulder they continued to grow, black and white stitches waterfalling down his back, brushing over the lip of the stairs he stomped up while trying not to trip over them. He hurried to a crackling stone hearth that cast an amber glow across yet another bare room, this one dressed with nothing more than a single leather armchair that faced the roaring flames.
Fate tossed the striped tapestry into the flames and took a seat in his chair, eager to watch it burn. Yet the moment the fire was fed such a creation, the flames sizzled out, bringing an all too familiar chill into the room. It felt like ice sinking through his bones, seizing hold of his body and sending tremors down his spine.
Fate lurched to a stand and yanked the tapestry out, scowling as the devious hearth reignited. Anger stirring, he took the hideously bruised tapestry this time and hauled it into flames that did not still or grow cold, but threw embers up at his face. Fate stumbled back, shielding himself. When he glared down at the fire, it was not red nor orange, but a color he never thought he’d see again.
Blood leeched from his face as he latched trembling fingers around the tapestry, not caring that the heat scorched his palms as he freed it from the flames and pushed the chair to the edge of the room so that he could spread it before him on the floor. He fell to his knees, staring, searching, and there they were, glinting like stars: silver threads. Perfect, impossible silver threads. Until he blinked, and they were no more.
Breath cleaved from his lungs. Likely, what he saw was little more than a product of his loneliness. A delirium brought by too much work. Because after all this time searching . . . could he have found her at last?
Delicate as a lover, Fate brushed his hand across the threads to behold exactly who this tapestry belonged to—a girl he’d crafted out of spite, made to tempt Death just enough to ruin the man when it turned out they could no longer be together. And yet her fate had somehow continued to spiral onward, no longer in his control.
The second tapestry was similar, belonging to a girl who had defied him not once, not twice, but three times over. Death had once warned him that he was too cavalier with the fates he wove; that there was no such thing as a perfect creation and that someday, someone would overcome the future he bestowed them and beat Fate at his own game. Until now, he had never believed that could be true.
He needed to know. Needed to see this girl with threads of silver, this Signa Farrow, for himself. And so Fate grabbed his hat and gloves and he went to crash a party.
It’s said that foxglove is most lethal just before the seeds ripen.
Signa Farrow could not help but think of that alluringly toxic flower, and her family’s manor that shared its namesake, as she stared down at the corpse of the once Duke of Berness.
All her life she’d heard the stories of how her parents had died in that manor, their final breaths reaped by poison. Signa had found wrinkled newspaper clippings detailing the incident buried in her grandmother’s attic when she was a child and remembered thinking what a beautifully tragic evening it must have been. She’d envisioned bodies dancing beneath a buttery haze of lights while satin gowns twirled about the ballroom floor and thought of how lovely it must have been in those final moments before Death arrived. She’d taken comfort knowing that her mother had died in a ballgown, doing what she’d loved most.
Never had Signa allowed herself to imagine the tragedy of such a death or stopped to consider the shattering glasses and earsplitting screams like those that reverberated through Thorn Grove’s ballroom. Until her cousin Blythe stumbled forward as someone shoved past her, Signa hadn’t given any thought to how a person would have to mind their hands and toes to avoid being trampled by those who hurried past the body lying dead at their feet, rushing toward an exit.
This death was not the beautiful, peaceful once that she had dreamed for her parents.
This death was merciless.
Everett Wakefield sank to his knees beside his father. He wilted over the corpse, showing no awareness of the mounting chaos even as his cousin, Eliza Wakefield, gripped him by the shoulder. Her face was green as lichen. Gathering one long look at her dead uncle, she clutched her stomach and heaved her dinner onto the marble floor. Everett didn’t so much as flinch as her sickness spilled onto his boots.
Moments ago, the Duke of Berness had been all smiles as he’d prepared to partner with the Hawthornes on their esteemed business, Grey’s Gentleman’s Club. The arrangement had been the town’s most notable gossip for weeks and a moment that Elijah Hawthorne, Signa’s former guardian, had been preening about for even longer. Yet as he stood behind the corpse of that almost-partner with a flute of water trembling in his hands, Elijah Hawthorne no longer preened. He’d gone so white that his skin was like marble, veins of blue corded beneath his eyes.
“Who did this to me?” Lord Wakefield’s spirit hovered over his body, translucent feet not quite touching the ground as he twisted to face Death and Signa—the only two who could see him.
Signa was asking herself the very same question, though with the restless crowd surrounding them, she couldn’t very well answer Lord Wakefield aloud. She waited to see if more bodies would fall, wondering all the while if this was how it had been at Foxglove the night of her parents’ deaths. If it had felt too bright and too glittery for the sickness that marred the air, and if her mother’s sweat-soiled gown and coiled hair had felt as heavy as Signa’s did now.
So lost in her thoughts and her panic was Signa that she flinched when Death whispered beside her, “Easy, Little Bird. No one else will die tonight.”
If that was meant to reassure her, he’d need to try harder.
Everett held his father’s limp hand, his tears falling in a bone-chilling silence as his father’s spirit sank to his knees before him.
“Is there a way to reverse this?” Lord Wakefield surveyed Signa with such severity—such hope—that her shoulders caved inward. God, what she wouldn’t give to be able to tell him yes.
As it was, she had to pretend not to hear him, for her focus had been stolen by a man who stood on the opposite side of the corpse, watching Signa’s every move. His presence alone had her drawing back, every hair on her body standing on end.
Never had she seen this man, yet she knew who he was the moment his molten stare pressed into her. With his gaze, the haze of lights dimmed and the panicked screams of partygoers dulled, ebbing away until they were little more than a distant hum. While Death’s grip on her tightened, Signa found that she could not turn to look at him. The man who called himself Fate consumed her, and by the slice of a smile on his lips, he knew it.
“It’s a pleasure, Miss Farrow.” His voice was rich as honey, though it held none of its sweetness. “I’ve been searching for you for a very long time.”
He was taller than Death in his human form, but more slender and corded with delicate muscle. Where Death was fair-skinned and sharpened by a cut jawline and hollow cheekbones, Fate sported deceptively charming dimples upon his bronze skin. Where Death was dark intrigue, Fate shimmered as if a beacon for all the world’s light.
“Why are you here?” It was Death who spoke in a tone of bitter ice, for Signa’s lips were numb, useless things.
Fate tipped his head to look at Death’s hand on Signa’s shoulder, a slip of fabric between their touch. “I wanted to meet the young woman who had stolen my brother’s heart.”
Signa’s attention halted. Brother. Death hadn’t mentioned having one, and from the tension in the air, she wasn’t certain whether she should believe it. Never had she felt such lethality from Death, whose shadows pooled beneath him. She yearned to draw back and find solace in their protection, but no matter how much she begged her body to listen, it was as though her feet were nailed to the floor. Signa felt like little more than a bug beneath Fate’s glare, half expecting him to lift his boot to squash her. Instead, he drew two steps forward and took Signa’s cheeks in a hand so startlingly soft that she flinched—a noble’s hand, she thought. He bent to her level, his touch scorching her skin.
“Let her go.” Death’s shadows spiraled forward, halting at the back of Fate’s neck when the man brushed his thumb across Signa’s throat.
“We’ll have none of that.” Fate didn’t so much as look up to acknowledge Death’s threat. “You may have reign over the dead and dying, but let’s not forget that it’s my hand that controls the fates of the living. For as long as she breathes, this one is mine.”
The cold snapped from the room as Death stilled. Signa struggled against Fate’s grasp but the man held tight. He bent, nearly nose to nose as he inspected her. And while no words were spoken, a searching look lurked within his ancient eyes. Something so dark and fevered that she bit her tongue, not daring to make a move against this man who had stilled even Death.
In a whisper, Fate asked, “Miss Farrow, have you any idea who I am?”
Looking at him was like gazing into the sun. The longer Signa stared, the hazier the world became, streaks of sunlight bursting across her vision. His voice was going misty, too, words soft as cream as they clotted together.
Signa’s temples pulsed with a blossoming headache. “Only by name,” she managed, nearly gasping the words. From his touch to his voice, everything about this man was scalding.
Fate’s grip on her face tightened, holding her focus. “Think harder.”
“There’s nothing to think of, sir.” If she didn’t get away from him quickly, her head was going to split open. “I’ve never seen you a day in my life.”
“Is that so?” Fate released his grip. Though his severity was plain, there was something familiar about his rage. Something that reminded Signa of a helpless fledgling she’d held in her hands months ago, or of the wounded animals she’d come across in the woods. As Fate rolled his shoulders back and dusted off his cravat, Death swept in, shadows swathing Signa. He eased her against his chest, curling a hand around her waist.
“What did he say to you?” Death’s shadows were colder than usual, flickering and irate. Signa tried to tell him, to soothe him, but every time she opened her mouth to speak Fate’s question aloud, it snapped back shut. She tried three times before she understood it was not shock or the mellowing headache that prevented her from speaking, and turned to glare at Fate.
Death said nothing as he slipped past her. Darkness seeped from him with every step, leeching color from the gilded walls and splintering across the marble pillars. Signa breathed easier, no longer having to squint as Death stood toe-to-toe with Fate in his human form, his voice that of a reaper found only in the most terrifying of nightmares. “Lay so much as another finger on her, and it will be the last thing you ever do.”
Fate wielded his amusement like a weapon, expertly crafted and honed to perfection. “Look at you, all grown up. What a fierce protector you’ve become.” He snapped his fingers, and the world surged into motion. Muted screams became shrill in Signa’s ears. The press of rushing bodies more intense. The scent of bitter almond wafting from the dead body beneath them more obvious by the second. “You are not the only one who can make threats, brother. Shall I make one of my own?”
It was impossible to say how much time had passed or whether any had at all, but soon Elijah was rushing a constable into the ballroom to inspect the body. Fate no longer stood before them, but amid the small crowd that had remained. Though Signa could not hear the words he spoke as he whispered into a woman’s ear, she didn’t care one bit for the horror that crept over the woman’s face. Fevered, she whispered to the man beside her, who in turn spread whatever was said to his husband, and soon the entire ballroom was ablaze in gossip and heated glances cast toward Elijah and his brother, Byron, who stood beside him, his rosewood walking stick trembling in his hand. The guests kept a wide berth from Blythe as well, as though the Hawthornes were a blight that would infect all those who dared get too close.
Though Elijah faced the crowd’s sudden wariness with his head held high, the roaring whispers had Blythe sinking in on herself. Her narrowed eyes sharpened as they swiveled around a room that must have suddenly felt much too large and far too bright, toward faces that wouldn’t dare hold her stare.
Familiar with this feeling and how deeply it could tear at a person, Signa whirled to those watching. “Have you no shame? A man has just died, and yet you behave like this is a theater. Leave, and let the constable do his work.” Though several of the guests turned up their noses, they made little haste to leave, especially as Fate stepped through the crowd and toward the constable. Signa started toward him to stop whatever the man might be up to, but Death caught her elbow and drew her back.
Not yet, Death warned with words that rang through her head. Until we know what he wants, we shouldn’t make a move. Signa balled her fists at her side and had to do everything in her power not to give into the temptation.
In an act so effortlessly performed that he ought to have sold tickets, Fate made a show of pointing one slender finger toward the Hawthorne brothers.
“It was them,” Fate announced, standing taller amongst the gasps. Signa hadn’t even a moment to react to the fact that, unlike Death, Fate was now fully visible to those in the room. “It was Elijah Hawthorne who handed Lord Wakefield a drink. I saw it with my own eyes!” There were murmurs of agreement. Low, quiet rumblings of people convincing themselves that they too had seen exactly what this man spoke of.
The constable’s face hardened as he stooped beside the body and picked up a shard of the shattered champagne flute. When he lifted it to smell, his nose wrinkled. “Cyanide,” he said flatly, and Signa had to remind herself to look surprised amid the gasps. The constable shared none of the crowd’s astonishment, and Signa wondered if it had to do with what she’d been reading in the papers for the past several months.
Poison—cyanide in particular—was growing unnervingly popular. Nearly undetectable, it was a clever way to commit a murder. Some had gone as far as to call it a woman’s weapon since it required little effort and no brute force, though Signa could have done without that title.
Her eyes fell to Everett and Eliza Wakefield. Eliza was still turned away from the body and clutching her stomach, while silent tremors rattled Everett.
Again, Fate drew a small step forward, this time to rested a hand on Everett’s shoulder. Crouching to Everett’s level, Fate asked him, “You saw Elijah Hawthorne hand that glass to your father, did you not?”
Everett’s head all but snapped up. His eyes had hollowed out, their light sucked away. “Both of them.” He rose to his feet, a fire raging in his voice. “I want both the Hawthorne men taken into custody!”
Signa’s chest burned when she saw a faint shimmer of gold at Fate’s fingertips. He moved them ever so slowly, and when she squinted, she could have sworn that there were threads thin as spider webs glistening between them.
“Listen here, boy,” Byron began, stopping only when Elijah grabbed hold of his brother’s arm and said, “We’d be happy to tell you anything we know. I assure you that we want to find the truth as much as you do.”
Signa was more grateful than ever for Elijah’s newfound sobriety. She didn’t dare imagine how he might have responded months ago, back when he was delirious from heartbreak over the death of his wife and Blythe’s illness. He likely would have found humor in the irony of the situation. Now, though, she was relieved to see that his mouth was set in a grim line.
There was no knowing what game Fate was playing, but surely Elijah and Byron would have no trouble with the constable, who escorted them through the ballroom, allowing them only a moment to stop beside Blythe and Signa.
Elijah took Blythe’s face in both hands and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “This is nothing to fret over, all right? We’ll have everything sorted out by morning.”
He embraced Signa then, and her body warmed from head to foot as Elijah kissed her upon the head just as he did his own daughter. Perhaps it was because both she and Blythe were on the verge of tears, each of the girls holding the other’s hand, that Elijah looked so calm. Like a man on his way to tea, rather than one publicly accused of murder.
“Do not trouble your minds, my girls.” He set one palm on each of their shoulders. “I’ll see you soon.”
And then both he and Byron were gone, escorted out of Thorn Grove like the gentlemen they were. Signa stared down the hall even after they’d disappeared, blinking back her tears so that Fate would not be allowed the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
Elijah would be fine. There would be a few questions, and then the alleged involvement of the Hawthorne brothers would be put to rest before a coroner even arrived to retrieve the body.
Signa squeezed Blythe’s hand to tell her as much, though her cousin wasn’t looking at her, or even at her departing father. Instead, Fate was the sole focus of her rage. Before either Signa or Death could stop her, Blythe slipped her hand from Signa’s and stormed across the ballroom, clutching her skirts so tightly that it seemed she might tear the fabric.
“You saw no such thing tonight, neither from my father or my uncle!” She was a good deal shorter than Fate even in heels, though that didn’t stop Blythe from getting as close as physically possible and stabbing her finger into his stomach like it was a weapon. “I don’t know what you want from my family, but I’ll be damned before I ever allow you to have it.” Blythe shoved past him without concern for who might have been watching and started toward Thorn Grove’s butler, Warwick. Fate scoffed but did not spare her another glance before he turned back toward Death and Signa.
“It’s your move, brother,” he said. “Make it a good one.”
As quickly as he had appeared, Fate was gone again, leaving only chaos in his wake.
An hour later, the halls of Thorn Grove were eerie in their stillness.
Signa kept close to the shadows, her fingers curled into the banister’s gnarled wood as she took her time descending the stairs with slow, cautious footsteps. Now that the iron bolts were locked behind the last of the gossipmongers and Warwick had retired to his quarters, she was overly aware of every groan and creak of the wood that echoed through the foyer.
Her nose tickled from the smoke of too many hastily blown out candles, making the manor dark enough that Signa shouldn’t have been able to see her own two hands before her. Yet she may as well have been in a summer glade, for the glow of a spirit seeped beneath the ballroom’s threshold and illuminated an effortless path toward the double doors. She expected that Death must still be in there preparing the late duke, and was trying to peer discreetly inside when the hairs along the back of her neck rose and a voice sounded behind her.
“He’s asked for a few minutes alone with his son.”
Signa stumbled from the door, having been ready to abandon her own skin before she realized that the low, resonant voice belonged to Death. She checked behind her, ensuring that no one was lurking on the stairwell before she waved him down the hall. The last thing the Hawthornes needed was to find her alone in the darkness, talking to herself moments after a murder.
Death had returned to the form of his shadow self, gliding across the walls behind Signa, who tried not to shiver from his nearness. A million questions plagued her mind, but the first that slipped out as she sealed the parlor doors shut was, “When were you going to tell me that you have a brother?”
Death’s sigh came as a soft brush of wind that blew wisps of hair from Signa’s face as he took her hands into his own. Had she not been gloved, his touch would have been enough to still her heart and bring out the powers of the reaper that lay dormant within her. But because of those gloves, Signa remained entirely human as she curled her fingers around his.
“I’ve not spoken to him in several hundred years,” Death answered at last, his shadows gentle as they tucked a strand of hair behind her ear with great care not to touch her skin. “Were it not impossible for us to die, I wouldn’t even be certain I still had a brother.”
Signa recalled the way he shrank in Fate’s presence and the tension in his grip as he held her. Even now, alone and pressed against the bookcases in the corner of the room, Death kept his voice low. She tried not to let her face sour, hating seeing him so anxious. Death was not meant to cower. He was not meant to fear. Who was Fate, exactly, to sweep in and make his brother respond in such a way?
“He’s toying with us.” Signa’s skin itched, more unnerved than she cared to admit. She eased only when Death pulled her close, heart fluttering as his thumb stroked a soothing line down the length of her glove.
“Of course he is. Fate controls the lives of his creations: what they see, what they say, how they move . . . Their paths and actions are all foretold by his hand. My brother is dangerous, and whatever his reason for being here, we can be assured that it’s not out of any good intentions.”
She didn’t care much for being referred to as one of Fate’s “creations.” After all she’d overcome, boiling her choices down to Fate made success feel unearned. Like he somehow had a hand in all her hardest decisions and her biggest triumphs.
“He certainly didn’t treat you like a brother.” Signa pressed her thumb softly into his palms, wanting little more than to pry her gloves off and feel more of him.
“For the longest time, the two of us had only each other,” Death said. “We came to view ourselves as brothers, though that title means little these days. Fate hates me more than any person in this world ever has.” Signa didn’t have the opportunity to press for more before Death stole his hand away to take hold of her chin, tipping it toward him. As dark as it was in the parlor, Signa could still see the cut of his jaw among the ever-shifting shadows. The tension in her shoulders eased as he truly touched her for the first time that night. Coolness flooded through her body and Signa tipped her head against him, savoring the touch.
“Tell me the truth.” His lips brushed her ear and her knees buckled. “Did he hurt you, Little Bird?”
Signa cursed her traitorous heart. She wanted more information, for only in this moment was she beginning to realize there was still so much left to learn about this man she’d believed she understood. But the longer Death held her, the more Signa felt herself melting beneath his touch as, beat by beat, her heartbeat stilled.
How long had it been since he’d held her like this? Days? Weeks? For them to see each other, someone nearby either needed to be dead or dying, and ever since Blythe had recovered from her belladonna poisoning, such circumstances were increasingly difficult to come by. Signa was glad for it, of course, for she could use some stability and a bit less death in her life. Still, she’d spent too many nights remembering the burn of his lips against hers and how it felt when his shadows glided across her skin. For too long she’d been able to communicate with him only through her thoughts, and now that he was here, her resolve wavered.
“Are you trying to distract me?” she asked as she pried off her gloves and discarded them onto the floor.
The deep rumble of his laugh had a wanting heat stirring in her lower belly, and Signa’s blood burned with desire as he asked, “Is it working?”
“Too well.” She trailed a hand down his arm, watching as the shadows melted beneath her fingertips and gave way to skin. To hair that was white as bone; a frame tall as a willow and broad as an oak. To eyes as dark as galaxies, which shone as they looked upon her with the very same hunger that pulsed deep in her core. “But not enough to keep me from asking what your life was like before I met you. I want to know everything, Death. The good and the bad.”
So stretching was the silence that for a long moment the only response was a branch scraping against the window, sharp and staggered in the gentle spring breeze. Then Death whispered, “What might you think when you discover that the bad outweighs the good?”
Signa tried to commit this feeling of his skin beneath hers to memory, savoring it while she still could. “I will think that everything you’ve gone through has made you the man who stands before me today. And I quite like that man.”
His arm snaked around her waist, fingers curling into the folds of her dress. “How is it that you always know the right thing to say?”
Melting into the contours of his body, she laughed. “I seem to recall you accusing me of the opposite a few months back. Or have you already forgotten?”
“I couldn’t forget that clever tongue of yours even if I wanted to, Little Bird. And I will tell you whatever you want to know about me. But first, I believe we have some catching up to do.”
Death settled his hands on either of her hips as his shadows swept behind her, scattering checker pieces to the floor as he lay her upon the table where she and Elijah had played several months prior. Signa had a fleeting, humorous thought of how she’d hated Death so passionately then. Yet here she was months later with her legs locked around him and her skirts lifted as she kissed him fully. She tasted his lips and thought of nothing but how much she wanted them to consume her. Signa kept herself gripped around him, and when they’d had enough of the table, they moved to the chaise where he came down over her, one knee settled between her legs.
Death’s lips savored her neck, her clavicle, the tender flesh just above her corset. “I have thought of you every day.” His voice was a rushing stream, pulling her into the depths of its current and devouring her whole. “I have thought of this, and all the ways I would make my absence up to you.”
There were not enough words in this world to describe the ways Death’s touch made her feel. One day, when she was old and her human life had run its course, there would come a time where the cold called to her and did not let go. Signa wasn’t eager for that day, but she wasn’t afraid of it, either. She had learned to appreciate the cold that had seized her veins; to revel in its power, for it was part of who she was meant to be. And so she guided Death closer, placing his hands on the laces of her corset.
Except, rather than release his hand, Signa stilled as she recognized the chaise they were on as one that Blythe and Percy had used to watch Signa’s early etiquette lessons at Thorn Grove. Her eyes darted to the thick Persian rug that she’d tripped on when Percy had been helping teach her to dance. Signa pushed away from Death, clutching her chest as she thought of the last time she’d seen her cousin—in a burning garden, made the meal of a hungry hell hound.
“Signa?” Lost in her haze of memories, Signa barely heard the reaper’s call. She didn’t regret her decision; if she’d made any other, Blythe would be dead. Still, she couldn’t stop hearing Percy’s laughter. Couldn’t stop seeing his smile in her mind’s eye, and remembering how red his nose had turned whenever they’d ventured into the snow.
“This is where I learned to dance.” She curled her fingers into the cushions, nails dragging across the fabric. “Percy helped teach me.”
That was all Death needed to understand, adjusting his position so that he could scoop her into his arms. Signa sat between his thighs, cradled against the pleasant coolness of his chest. “You are not responsible for what happened to your cousin.”
She appreciated him saying so, but that didn’t make it true.
“I was given a choice,” she whispered, “and I made it.”
With his chin rested on her head, Signa felt Death’s curious hum before she heard it. “Are you saying that if you were in that position again, you’d choose a different path?”
She wouldn’t, and that’s what terrified her more than anything. What kept her up at night wasn’t that she’d given the command to trade Percy’s life for Blythe’s, but that she’d do it again. She had begun to love Percy, truly. But it’d been almost too easy to let him die. Perhaps she was already more of a reaper than she’d let herself believe.
“I will not lie to you and say that this is an easy existence.” Death’s touch was tender, one hand snaked around her waist as she tipped her head against his shoulder. “Perhaps it was wrong for me to ask you to make that choice, but there was no easy answer. I didn’t want you to lose both of them.”
“You cannot protect me from who I am.” As she said it, the realization of those words sank in. Already Signa had accepted the dark power within her. Still, there would always be that whisper. The one that she had grown up with, that had made her believe everything about her was wrong.
When someone cleared their throat at the doorway, Signa threw herself from Death and spun to look, not having heard it open. Fortunately, the door remained shut; it was Lord Wakefield’s spirit who stared at them from the threshold.
“It’s no wonder you weren’t more interested in my son.” He folded his hands behind his back, not bothering to conceal the judgment in his voice or how the corners of his eyes creased as he assessed Signa, then turned to Death. “No matter how I try to avoid thinking about what might come next, it seems that I’m compelled to you.”
Death extended his hand to the duke.“That’s a good thing. It means you’re ready to leave this place and come with me.”
The duke didn’t draw forward, but instead asked, “Does it hurt to pass on?”
Death’s gentle smile was a brilliant sight. “Not in the slightest.”
It melted Signa’s heart to hear how tenderly he spoke, and she was glad that all these years had not hardened him. The tension in the duke’s fists eased, and he stretched his hand toward Death’s, only to pull away the moment before they touched.
“My son will have to take over my duties,” said Lord Wakefield, the words tumbling out. “I’m not sure I’ve prepared him.”
Again, Death stretched his hand forward. “You’ve done the job you were meant to do. Your son will be fine.”
“The duties are demanding,” he argued. “Perhaps I should stay and watch over him. He won’t rest until my murderer is found, you know.”
“I know,” Signa told him. Given how the last spirit she’d been near had possessed her, she fought every instinct in her body that told her to run when Lord Wakefield’s attention snapped to her. She may not have known Everett well, but she had seen the look he’d worn as he held his father. “I’m sure you’re right about Everett, and I have every intention of helping him find your killer, my lord.” Whether Signa wanted to or not, Fate had ensured that this was her task to deal with.
It took a moment for the duke to bow his head, out of excuses. His eyes fell to Death’s hand, and this time he took it.
“Take care of him.” The duke’s voice cracked as Death’s shadows wound around him. But before they left, Death cast Signa one final look.
I do not know when or how, he told her, the words little more than a whisper in her mind, but I will find my way back to you soon.
Signa forced a smile, wishing she could easily accept those words. Doubt and loneliness were meant to be things of her past. Yet as the shadows consumed Death and the duke whole, she realized that perhaps this was only their beginning.
Breath settled back into her lungs and Signa stumbled, gripping the edge of the tea table to keep herself upright as her heart flared to life once more. Only this time, something was different. Signa choked, coughing into her gloves as a fit overcame her. She dug her nails into the wood; it felt as though she’d swallowed shards of glass that were trying to cut their way through her.
Minutes passed before she was able to catch her breath. And when she peeled her hands away from her mouth, breathless and shaking, Signa’s white gloves shone crimson with blood.
The sky was pale with an arriving dawn, and still Blythe had not heard a word on the status of her father and uncle. She paced the floor of her sitting room, fretting across a thick Persian rug. She’d never paid much mind to the rug before; it had always simply existed, chosen by her mother ages ago. Now, she couldn’t help but to stomp upon it with extra vigor, for its beauty felt noticeably out of place for a night as severe as this one.
Blythe had not yet changed out of her gown, which shimmered as it trailed behind her. How happy she’d been to put it on, finally having an occasion to wear something luxurious. Now, she scowled as it wound around her legs with every twist and turn.
She kept waiting for her doorknob to turn. For Warrick or Signa or someone to arrive with news that her father had returned and that it had all been a misunderstanding. Perhaps it wasn’t cyanide at all, but a heart attack with phenomenally poor timing. She could only pray and hope, because of all the places a man had to drop dead, why on God’s green earth did it have to be Thorn Grove? And why did it have to be a duke? Blythe had only just begun to feel well enough to venture back into society, and already she was exhausted by the stares and the gossip surrounding her home and family. Her mind swirled with the memory of the shocked faces that had watched Lord Wakefield fall; the faces that had turned their attention to her father as the cause.
Blythe’s hands balled into fists. Nothing would please her more than to stuff socks in their mouths and stop such ludicrous gossip. Yes, her family had suffered great tragedies of late. And yes, she supposed Thorn Grove was a little strange with its odd decor and general dreariness, but there was nothing supernatural about any of it.
At least . . . she certainly hoped there wasn’t. Little by little though, Blythe had to admit that a sliver of doubt had begun to fill the darkest crevices of her mind with wild, impossible ideas. Inklings that perhaps there was more to this situation than she could see on the surface, for there had lately been too many nights where she awoke at the witching hour to memories of knocking on death’s door.
She remembered little about those feverish moments months ago when it had felt like a veil had been cast over reality, distancing her from real life. But her dreams did not have the same haze over those memories. In her dreams, she remembered how her father had held her hair back as she lost what little remained in her stomach. She remembered how he’d blamed Marjorie, and how Signa had been speaking with someone—a faceless, shapeless figure that no one else seemed able to see.
In her dreams, Blythe remembered something strange stirring inside her, something light and warm that pulsed every time she’d been meant to die. She’d felt it days before Signa had arrived, and again on the night her brother Percy had disappeared from Thorn Grove. Even now a tight, hot coil sat in the center of her chest, tightening and tightening until it sometimes felt as though she could barely breathe around it. It was nice sometimes—a balmy, pleasant reminder of all she’d overcome. Other times, like tonight, it blazed within her and made settling impossible.
Thinking of the man who’d accused her father only made it worse. Never in her life had Blythe seen the man with golden brown skin and eyes as blinding as the sun, though she supposed that meant little, considering she’d been ill for nearly a full year and hadn’t the faintest clue who a great deal of people were these days.
He had the appearance and self-righteousness of a noble, but whether he was a prince or a duke or God himself come down from the heavens to smite them all, he was a fool to come into her home and accuse her father. For all she knew, he could have been the killer, and she intended to make that point known to anyone who would listen.
Only when the sun had officially ascended did Blythe force herself to try and settle, flitting from the table to the bed, then back out into the sitting room to find whichever chair might best help with that effort. Having refused the help of her maid earlier in the evening, Blythe was left to claw at whatever parts of her corset she could reach, trying to give herself room to breathe before she finally fell upon a chaise and kicked her boots onto the table before her. It felt like hours passed as she stared thoughtlessly up at the ceiling, practically leaping to her feet when a knock sounded at the door. Her hair was certain to be a mess, and surely the bare hint of rouge she’d worn on her lips and face had smudged by now. Yet she made no effort to make herself presentable since there was only one thing that mattered.
“Father?” She tried not to show the severity of her disappointment when it was Elaine Bartley, her lady’s maid, who stood at the threshold.
“There’s no word of him yet, miss.” Elaine made her way into the sitting room, observing Blythe’s state with a solemn frown.
Though Blythe would have preferred news above all else, her longing could not be disguised when she caught sight of the tray of tea and pastries Elaine set on the table.
“I thought you might still be up. Miss Farrow is, too. And Mr. Warwick. Breakfast will be ready in another two hours, though I thought you might be hungry since you’ve likely not slept a wink.”
Blythe was. Ravenously so. But before she could pour herself a cup of tea, Elaine added, “How about we get you into something more comfortable? I don’t imagine a ball gown is ideal for either sleeping nor eating.” Despite the daylight peeking in from behind the curtains, Elaine acquired a nightgown that she helped Blythe change into. Only now, this close to her, could Blythe see that Elaine’s eyes were red-rimmed and squinted as she worked. Elaine pressed a hand to her head as she assessed her work, looking unsteady on her feet.
“Are you ill?” Blythe asked, holding her breath a little just in case. Only having just gotten back on her feet, the last thing she wanted was to catch a sickness and ruin all her progress.
Elaine’s cheeks flushed. “On and off, miss, though I expect it’s nothing more than the ragweed. The pollen gets the best of me every year.” Elaine stepped away so that Blythe could smooth out her nightgown. It was far more comfortable, light as air. She looked toward a freestanding mirror to finally see how horrid a state she was in, yet it was Elaine’s reflection that captured Blythe’s attention.
Cold terror rushed through her, seizing hold of Blythe as she stared at a reflection with purple bags under her eyes and a withering, skeletal frame. The Elaine in the mirror was little more than flesh clinging to bone, and Blythe’s throat thickened around a scream she couldn’t summon. She couldn’t stop shaking, nor could she look away as the gaunt face twisted toward her, every facial bone and the outline of each tooth visible through paper-thin gray skin as Elaine asked, “Have you caught a chill?”
Her voice was the scratch of branches against a windowpane, so abrasive that Blythe fell back as the familiar weight of sickness seized her. Perhaps she had fallen asleep and this was all a dream, for what else was there to explain the wisps of shadows that seeped into Elaine’s skin and spread through her like a blight?
Blythe tore her gaze away at once, breathing so heavily that the maid took Blythe’s hands to steady her. Every inch in Blythe’s body went cold.
“Miss?” Elaine whispered. “Miss Hawthorne, are you all right?”
This time Blythe did scream as she spun away from the woman’s skeletal touch, heart lodged in her throat. Except . . . there was nothing skeletal about it. The Elaine who stood before her was the one Blythe had always known. Even when Blythe glanced from the maid to the mirror once more, the reflected Elaine was full-bodied and, aside from the red-rimmed and glossy eyes, in perfect health.
Blythe swallowed. If she wasn’t dreaming, then perhaps she was delirious from the lack of sleep? She looked pointedly away from the lady’s maid, trying to settle her stomach before her sickness spilled onto the floor and she gave Elaine a reason to remain in her room even a second longer.
“A break would do you some good.” Blythe’s voice trembled with every forced word as she tried to cast away the oddity of what she’d just witnessed. “You ought to take the day off.”
That last time she’d seen hallucinations . . . No. She couldn’t be getting poisoned again. She refused to even consider it.
“That’s kind of you, but I wouldn’t dream of it. What kind of person would I be if I were to leave you and your cousin right now?” Elaine crouched before her as Blythe sat down, reaching out to help work off her long white gloves. It took everything in Blythe not to flinch as Elaine’s fingers grazed her bare skin.
Cold. They were so, so cold.
Elaine, fortunately, made quick work of it and rose to her feet. “I’m not much of a fan of idle time anyways. Especially these days.” She spoke those last words so ominously that Blythe understood at once that she was referring to all that had happened within Thorn Grove as of late. The rumors of spirits or ghosts or whatever one wanted to call them, and the strange string of murders.
Only . . . after what she’d just seen in the mirror, Blythe hesitated to call them rumors. She looked to Elaine once more, squinting. No longer could she see a sickly pallor, or the stirrings of a blight. Elaine’s voice, too, was back to normal. It was as though Blythe had imagined the whole thing.
“Thank you for your help,” Blythe spoke with sharp dismissal, turning away and tapping her fingers against her hip just to have something else to focus on. Surely her mind was playing tricks on her. She’d had champagne at the party, and the day had been long and exhausting. That had to be all it was. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”
Elaine curtsied once before seeing herself out, and the moment the door shut behind her, a deep fatigue settled into Blythe’s bones.
Perhaps this had all been too much too soon after her illness. She couldn’t make it to the bed, but instead reached for her tea and a cranberry scone too sweet for her liking to shove into her mouth. As she chewed, she hoped that by the time she rose for breakfast, her father would be back at Thorn Grove safe, all would be well, and this day and its oddness would forever be a thing of the past.
Signa had little idea how many people were left in Thorn Grove these days. Elijah had culled most of the staff after Blythe’s illness, leaving only those he trusted most and those the girls vouched for personally, like Elaine. A few new staff had been hired, of course, as they still needed someone to tend to the horses and to clean the sprawling manor. But as Signa walked the dreary halls in the still-grey hours of the morning, passing giant portraits of long-deceased Hawthornes, she couldn’t help but think that the manor felt eerily similar to a graveyard with so many memories of its past residents imbued into the walls and not a single living soul in sight. Signa wouldn’t have been surprised if, after Lord Wakefield’s death, the staff had packed their belongings and headed to find new employment.
There was at least one silver lining—whatever illness Signa had succumbed to the night prior seemed to have passed quickly. She’d buried her bloodied gloves in the yard and cast them from her mind. She couldn’t die, after all, and had been under insurmountable stress lately. Perhaps it was a passing illness. Perhaps it was poison. Or perhaps it was something that would require more thought than she was ready to give it.
As Signa made her way down the stairs for breakfast, she was relieved to see that the table had been set for her, meaning that someone else was, in fact, still here. Perhaps alerted by the noise of her chair sliding against the wood as she took her seat, Warwick emerged from the kitchen wearing spectacles low on the bridge of his nose. Behind them were haunted, bloodshot eyes. Signa was certain the only reason her under eyes did not mirror his own heavily shadowed ones was because, for her, none of this felt new or surprising. She might not have anticipated Fate’s arrival, but she should have known her life would never be easy. Perhaps she should change her way of thinking to always anticipate the worst, and to be pleasantly surprised if nothing horrible happened.
“Good morning, Miss Farrow.” When the words came out in a croak, Warwick cleared his throat and tried again. “Shall I fetch your breakfast?”
Signa glanced around the empty chairs, unsettled by the unnerving quiet. “Why don’t you eat with me, Warwick?” she asked despite knowing there were probably more than a hundred silly societal rules about the inappropriateness of such a suggestion. “Has there been any word of Byron or Elijah?”
The black, bushy mustache upon Warwick’s lips straightened over top of what Signa could only assume was a frown. He gave no verbal answer to her request to dine with him, but remained standing. “Not yet, I’m afraid.”
She steadied a hand on her nervous stomach. Nothing good could come from a visit with the constable taking so long. “What of Miss Hawthorne? How is she faring?”
He opened his mouth to speak when a feminine voice from behind swept in. “Obviously she has seen better days.” Blythe all but dragged herself into the dining room, looking worse than any of them. Her icy blond hair hadn’t been brushed and was still dented from where pins had fastened the waves. Fine hairs were strewn about her head, ratted tendrils falling over bony shoulders. The remnants of powder still clung to the creases of her face, rouge smeared across her lips. Like her father had done so many times before, Blythe wore only velvet green slippers and a robe over a loose ivory nightgown. Though Warwick startled at her appearance, Signa didn’t hesitate to embrace her cousin, having needed the reassurance of seeing Blythe unharmed more than she’d realized. Blythe squeezed her back once before she took her seat beside Signa and grabbed the newspaper across from them.
Flopping it open, she skimmed the pages quickly, until, with a relieved breath, she said, “There doesn’t appear to be any mention of Lord Wakefield’s death.”
“Perhaps Everett is paying them off,” Signa said, uncertain whether she should feel worry or relief. “I imagine such news would make every headline otherwise.”
Still reading, Blythe asked, “They’ll be announcing him as the duke now, won’t they?”
“I would expect so.”
Folding the paper shut and tossing it to the side, Blythe turned to Warwick. “Does the offer of breakfast extend to me, as well?”
He pushed up his spectacles, quick to rectify himself. Signa supposed he ought to have been familiar with such oddities, given that he worked directly with Elijah. Seeing Blythe mirror her father’s actions, however, appeared to be a first for him. Those actions were perhaps not the most reassuring sign of the young woman’s state of mind, but Signa still admired Blythe’s complete lack of regard for societal expectations—envied it, too, considering Signa had risen early to get herself dressed for the day. Given all that had happened the night prior, such a thing felt ridiculous.
Warwick disappeared, but returned minutes later to put out porridge, sliced ham, kippers, eggs, and fresh bread on platters before them. Elaine worked beside him, rosy-cheeked and humming as she poured tea into their cups and set the pot on the table.
Blythe took hold of her unsweetened tea, winter-sharp eyes fixed upon the maid who fluttered out of the room with a small curtsy.
“Does Elaine seem ill to you?” Blythe asked, leaning in with a conspiring whisper. “Does she seem feverish? Phlegmy?”
As odd of a question as it was, Signa obliged. “I don’t believe so, though I don’t remember ever hearing her hum before.”
“That’s precisely what I mean!” Blythe drew her steaming cup to her lips. “Today of all days.”
Given her own relationship with the deceased, Signa couldn’t fault any person’s way of mourning or dealing with troubling times. Still, Elaine had always leaned on the side of propriety, and such behavior was most certainly odd. “It’s all very strange. I don’t understand why the constable is taking so long.”
“I don’t understand any of it.” Blythe lifted her feet to sit cross-legged in her chair as she turned fully toward Signa. “What could make them believe that my father would want to kill the duke? He wanted out of Grey’s more than anything.”
That much was true, and though Signa felt no desire to be the one to break this news to her cousin, she felt it her obligation to say in an apologetic voice, “He was the one who offered Lord Wakefield a drink.” Then, before Blythe could tear her head from her neck, Signa grabbed her hand and hurried to add, “I know that doesn’t make him a killer, but it does give the constable reason for suspicion”
“What about that man from last night?” Blythe ripped into her toast. “The one who made the accusation against my father. Have you ever seen him before?”
There was the question, again. The same one that Fate had asked her the night prior.
“I have not.” Signa slathered a mountain of butter onto her scone and tried to ignore the bitterness festering within her. While the words were her truth, Signa couldn’t help but feel that she was lying. She’d come to view Blythe as a sister, and day by day the need to share the truth of what she was and the things she could do was becoming impossible to ignore. But how exactly did you tell someone who had no experience with the paranormal that not only was Death a sentient being who had helped Signa hunt down Blythe’s murderer—who just so happened to be the brother that Blythe still believed was alive—but also that the man responsible for accusing her father was Death’s brother, Fate?
If that wasn’t convoluted enough, there was also the fact that Signa and Death were intimate, and that she had the powers of a reaper. It would be a lot for anyone to take in, surely, and was a conversation Signa wasn’t convinced even could be broached.
And so, rather than say anything more, she filled her plate with ham and eggs and slathered more butter onto another lemon scone. When everything else went to hell, at least she could always count on scones.
“Whoever he is, he certainly has some nerve,” Blythe pressed, sipping her tea with a ferocity Signa had not known possible. “Or perhaps an ulterior motive. I intend to find him and see which it is.”
The very thought had Signa so distracted that she burned her lips on the tea, forgetting to blow on it. “Do not forget that you are a Hawthorne,” she said carefully, stirring a third spoonful of sugar into her tea. “Your family is bound to have enemies, be it for reasons of jealousy or bitterness. Perhaps your father refused someone’s entry into the club. Perhaps it has nothing to do with Elijah at all, but Lord Wakefield. If someone wanted his title, Everett could be the next victim. We can’t dive headfirst into this situation without thinking it through.”
Blythe leaned back in her seat, stabbing her fork into a chunk of ham. “Then what do you propose we do? I cannot be expected to sit idly by.”
Signa hated that such a question made her skin buzz and some tiny part of her spark to life. Uncovering Blythe’s murderer was not something Signa ever wished to relive, but for the Hawthornes, she wouldn’t hesitate. Still, it was unnerving how quickly her mind latched onto the idea of a new puzzle dangling before her. Already she found herself trying to sort out the scattered pieces.
“I think that, for now, we wait and see what happens with Elijah.”
It was not an answer that Blythe appreciated, though some small part of her must have realized it was their best option.
“I must warn you that my patience is limited, cousin,” Blythe said, to which Signa responded, “And I must warn you that, were you to venture out into the world right now, looking as you do and behaving as boorishly as you are, you would only further the belief that there’s something strange about the Hawthornes.” She smiled when Blythe cut her a look, though the jest was short lived as a heavy clunk, clunk, clunking echoed outside the dining room doors. So familiar was the sound that Signa and Blythe shared a look before bolting to their feet as the double doors opened and Byron Hawthorne stepped inside.
His shoulders were bowed and his gaunt cheeks and neck shadowed with dark stubble. Signa looked behind him, to where Warwick stood alone, and clutched the back of her chair to support herself.
Blythe noticed Warwick at the same time, and the smile melted from her face. “Where is my father?”
“I did everything I could.” Byron fisted his cane tight and looked his niece in the eye. “I’m sorry, Blythe, but I’m afraid that Elijah is being detained for the murder of Lord Wakefield.”