About the book
Stars are mapped out in her scars and he loves her most with a mask...
Every time she looks in a mirror, her scars stare back at her. Yet Lady Elizabeth Harrison is determined to see her mission to its end. Armed with the will to discover what truly happened to her family and an intricate, lacy mask, she turns to the only person she knows can help her.
Jonathan MacKenzie, the Duke of Hurlton, doesn’t believe that his father’s death was an accident. Vowing to get to the bottom of this despite the obvious disadvantage he's in, he chooses to walk the lonely path of vengeance. What he never expected was to find a very willing ally in his best friend’s sister who is no longer as little as he remembered her.
Their worlds collide in an explosion of powerful feelings and newfound fears. Elizabeth's father took a secret to his grave that some people appear willing to kill for. Sinking in a decades-old conspiracy that Jonathan's parents seem to have had a hand in, their only lifeline is a dusty old box. There is only one problem: it has no lock, no keyhole, and no way of being opened.
Seven years prior…
The cry ripped her from her slumber, and momentarily, Elizabeth Harrison didn’t know quite where she was. Her chamber lay in darkness, the fire in the fireplace had long since gone out, and the candle on her bedside table remained unlit. It wasn’t until the door swung open and Mrs. Beards, the housekeeper appeared that Elizabeth came to.
“Miss Elizabeth, there’s no need to panic. There’s a fire in the stable yard; we’re quite safe here in the house. Your father has already gone to see to it.”
The stable? Elizabeth jumped out of bed that instance. Her feet hit the floor, and her toes curled up when the frigid cold crept into her feet.
“The kittens! Someone must get the kittens,” Elizabeth cried. Mrs. Beard entered the room, a frown on her forehead.
“What kittens? What’s this nonsense?”
“My kittens. They’re in the harness room; they’re only little. I must get them.”
The housekeeper planted her hands on her hips and shook her head.
“I should think not. I’m sure the fire will be under control soon, and someone will see to the animals. Now, you may stay awake; there’s no sleeping with this ruckus anyhow, but please put on your dressing gown and slippers before you catch cold.”
“Fire!” Another voice called out from somewhere in the hall, and Mrs. Beard stepped out.
“Must they alarm everyone?” she mumbled and then raised her voice.
“The fire is in the stable yard; send the men to help.” The heavy chain of keys clattered around her waist as they swung from her chatelaine as she walked away.
Elizabeth swallowed and stepped to the window when her jaw grew slack. There, just beyond the garden, she saw orange flames shooting into the star-sprinkled sky. The entire right-hand side of the stable yard appeared on fire. She clambered up on the windowsill with some strain. At twelve years old, she was short for her age and had to stretch to undo the catch and push up the window. The brisk February air whipped into her face, and the smell of the fire had tinged the air despite the wind.
Shouts of the men fighting the blaze came to her ears as footmen and servants hurried toward the fire to help. Then, down below, a cart rumbled up the path. She peered down as the footsteps of Mrs. Beard announced her return to the room.
“Miss Elizabeth, close the window; it is freezing outside.” Mrs. Beard hurried to her and was about to push her out of the way when Elizabeth realized there was a man on the back of the cart. It was Hastings, the stable master and one of the people dearest to her heart.
“Hastings!” She shouted and then jumped off the windowsill. She put on her slippers, grabbed her dressing gown from the back of the chair, and then reached down the stairs, with Mrs. Beard in hot pursuit. She leaped down the remaining few steps and landed on the marble floor.
“Miss Elizabeth, come back at once,” the housekeeper called as she dashed out of the front door where the cart had come to a stop. She climbed up the back to the stable master whose face was covered in soot.
“Hastings. Are you hurt?”
The older man blinked, and his blue eyes stared up at her as if he wasn’t sure where he was.
“Nothing a good cup of ale won’t fix, Miss.”
Alas, a coughing fit told her this wasn’t quite true.
“You ought to go back to your bed, Miss Elizabeth.”
She bit her bottom lip when she remembered her original worry.
“Did you get the kittens from the harness room?”
The man’s mouth turned down, and he let out a deep sigh.
“I’m afraid there wasn’t time. We got the horses, most of them anyway, but the fire is spreading quickly.”
“It hadn’t spread to the left-hand side of the stable. I saw it. The kittens are still in there,” Elizabeth shouted in a panic. She’d found a pregnant mother cat six weeks prior and taken it to Hastings, who sheltered the cat in the harness room until it gave birth. Since then, Elizabeth had visited the cat – a lovely calico – and her three kittens every day. She adored the kittens and had resolved to keep them. There was no way she’d let them perish.
“Miss Elizabeth, come inside now,” Mrs. Beard insisted. “Mr. Hastings needs the physician.”
Elizabeth slipped off the cart and turned to face the fire. Flames shot out high into the sky as more men arrived. She recognized servants and masters from the surrounding estates – the young Duke of Hurlton among them – as they dashed to aid her father. Her feet twitched. The fire hadn’t spread, and there was so much help; surely, she had time to get the cat and her babies.
I must. I can’t let them die.
Before Mrs. Beard had time to react, Elizabeth raced forth, her deep brown hair whipped behind her as she ran toward the inferno.
Elizabeth stood in front of the stable yard and realized with horror that the fire had cut off her entrance to the area where the harness room was located on the far left of the structure. The fire hadn’t reached there yet, and she was sure the kittens and their mother were alive, but how to get there?
Blood pumped through her as she pictured the three little black and white kittens trapped in the room, unaware of the doom that was about to befall them.
Then, it came to her. She ran past the men who hurried with sand buckets toward the fire – a losing battle, even she could see. Right now, she didn’t care. She had to get the kittens.
Elizabeth stopped outside the outer wall of the harness room and saw through the window high above her that the orange of the flames licked the roof. Above the harness room lay the hayloft, which stretched the length of the left side of the stable. Once it caught on fire, the flames would spread rapidly. There was no time to waste.
She climbed atop one of the barrels that held fresh carrots for the horses and slipped into the harness room through the open window. The smoke promptly robbed her of her sight, and she couldn’t detect the table beneath the window upon which she’d planned to step when -
“Oh!” She howled as she lost her grip and fell hard onto the ground. Her ankle snapped as she landed. The smoke was thick already in the room, and the roaring of the flames drowned out any noise. She attempted to stand, but a searing pain shot up her leg, and she fell again; a stifled cry escaped her throat.
Faith, how am I going to climb out with my foot turned like this?
Her heart pounded as she looked at the window. She could hardly see it but knew it rose midway between the floor and the roof. She’d planned to climb the low table but didn’t think she could make it.
A distant rumble turned into an almighty crashing sound as somewhere, the roof caved in.
Elizabeth crawled on her feet toward the table and attempted to pull herself up when a faint meow made her turn. One of the kittens, a fluffy black one she’d named Jack, rubbed against her leg, and for a moment, hope ignited again in her heart. She had to get the cats. Elizabeth wrapped her hand around the kitten’s tiny body and pulled herself up with clenched teeth.
“Come, little one. I don’t want to throw you, but I have no choice. You can make it.” She heaved the kitten’s body up and then, with bated breath, dropped him out of the window. Almost right away, another fluffy body brushed against her, and she bent down to get the second and third kitten who’d been crowded under the table.
She crouched down again, ignoring the throbbing pain in her ankle as she searched for the mother cat. She’d get her out – then worry about herself. However, her efforts were hindered by the thick smoke that robbed her of her breath.
“Kitty, please,” she pleaded by the mother cat was nowhere to be seen. Then, above her, a whooshing sounded, and when she glanced up, her heart almost stopped. The hayloft had caught alight.
The fire spread much quicker than she ever thought possible, and the hay acted as the perfect fuel. She had to get out. Somehow.
“Kitty!” she shouted once more, unwilling to abandon the mother cat. Alas, she had no choice. She had to save herself as burning hay fell from the loft down onto the stone floor. She crawled back to the table and felt for its heavy legs that had aided her in getting up before but –
Where was the table? Her hand reached through the thick, black smoke, and she realized it wasn’t there. Instead, her hand wrapped around the bottom end of one of the whips that were kept on two of the walls within the harness room.
She’d gotten lost in the smoke!
“No, no… please….”
Panicked tears sprang into her eyes as she crawled across the floor, her hands her only guides as her eyes no longer saw anything. She pulled her nightgown over her face with her right hand while with her left, she searched for the table.
Elizabeth’s entire body trembled with sheer panic as she realized – she was trapped and lost. There was no way out. The door to the harness room was always kept shut because her father’s favorite saddle – a gift from the King – had been stolen not long ago.
“Help!” She called out even though she knew the sound of the fire drowned out her voice. “Please! Mama?”
Her mother had died giving birth to her twelve years prior, but she’d always spoken to the woman she never met. Whenever fear or joy overcame her, she thought of her mother, or what she imagined her mother had been like – and she’d never been more fearful than she was in this moment.
“Mama… Save me. I don’t want to die.” Hot tears spilled down her face as her throat closed when suddenly, out of the darkness, the soft fur of the mother cat brushed against her arm. “Kitty?” she whispered and felt the cat move past her toward the right, and then, as the cat’s tail swished against her forearm, she felt the animal leap up.
As more and more burning hay rained down around her and set fire to the ropes and reins all around her, she found the leg of the table and pulled herself up. Her ankle screamed in agony as she heaved herself up. Creaking and cracking from above told her she had but seconds to make it through the window before the hayloft gave way and rained pounds upon pounds of burning hay and wood down on her.
She reached the window and wrapped her hands around the frame as she pulled herself forward and then turned on her stomach. The cold winter air was a shock to her exposed legs, but she scrambled backward out of the window when suddenly, she could move no further.
With horror, she realized her nightgown caught on a nail as she dangled out of the window. Elizabeth wiggled and yanked to free herself when above her, the sound of the hay loft’s wooden floor giving way filled her with a mortifying dread. She turned her face upward, and as the burning hay rained down on her like grotesque, orange snowflakes, she was overcome with a clarity she’d never had before – she was going to die.
“Ahhh!” She screamed out as the fiery straw fell upon her face and ignited her long hair. Her left eye stung as though a dagger had been stabbed into it, but just as she was about to pass out, the sensation of two strong hands around her ankles ripped her out of her trance.
She fell backward out of the window, her burning hair fluttered through the darkness outside, and then, as she landed on her back, she sensed her father nearby as he extinguished the flames.
“My daughter – first my friend, and now, my daughter. What have I done?” His grief-stricken voice cried. She had no time to consider his words as the agony of her ankle, eyes, and burnt skin overcame her – and merciful darkness swallowed her up.
Jonathan McKenzie stood in the corner of the room that used to be the Harrison family’s parlor. At present, the space was unrecognizable for it had been draped with black baize. The large windows that on most days gave a view of the magnificent gardens were covered with black curtains cloaking the room in darkness. Only the flicker of strategically placed candles illuminated the area with their gentle flames.
At the center stood a table with the heavy mahogany casket containing the late Viscount Merckworth. Jonathan’s eyes settled on his best friend, the viscount’s son and heir, Gregory who bade his father farewell.
The two had stood vigil through the night and one might be forgiven to think that was plenty of time to say whatever needed to be said, but Jonathan knew from painful experience that there never was enough time.
He knew that in a few minutes, when the funeral furnisher came with his men to take the late Lord Merckworth, Gregory would still have things he wanted to tell his father, aloud or in silence. He knew that as their carriage followed the undertakers to the Harrison’s private graveyard, Gregory would wish he had more time yet. And as the coffin was lowered into the ground, there would be more unanswered questions, more declarations of affection, and more things that had been left unsaid that bubble to the surface.
He knew this because not ten years ago, he’d been the one to lean on his best friend for support as he stood vigil, he’d been the one with an endless list of questions, mournful days of wondering, and sleepless nights filled with all the things he’d never told his father.
He knew how Gregory felt. Confused. Angry. Overwhelmed.
Gregory hadn’t expected to take the title of Viscount Merckworth so soon, at only seven-and-twenty, just like Jonathan hadn’t expected to become Duke of Hurlton at age seven-and-ten. At least Jonathan hadn’t been left without support. Gregory’s father and his had been best friends, and as such, Lord Merckworth had stood vigil with him and Gregory – a tremendous source of support, even though he knew the viscount had been broken by the loss of his best friend as well. It had been Jonathan’s hope that Lord Merckworth would live a long, healthy life to spare Gregory his father’s loss – it wasn’t to be.
Now they were both forced to succeed their fathers as head of the family, and peer of the realm due to unforeseen circumstances. While an accidental arrow fired during a hunt took Jonathan’s father, Gregory’s was felled by a carriage accident. Although in the very pit of his stomach, Jonathan couldn’t help but feel the old, familiar doubt.
An accidental arrow – it always seemed too strange. To this day I can’t help but feel that the arrow that pierced my father’s eye wasn’t fired in quite so accidental a manner. And I can’t help but wonder – what about Gregory’s father? An accident as well?
Two men, both known to ask too many questions, both determined to find answers, both keen and taken by accidents before their time. Jonathan couldn’t help but wonder.
His father had been the sort to ruffle feathers, to ask questions, and as such, he’d often uncovered deeds done in the dark. An affair exposed, a tax avoider brought to light, a thieving nobleman embarrassed in front of his peers – these were among the activities Jonathan’s father had engaged in before his death. Was it any wonder he’d questioned the manner of his father’s death?
And what of Gregory’s father? He too had shone a light in corners that were meant to remain cloaked in darkness. Although he’d done so in a way that had earned him a reputation for being strange and odd and thus, he’d become isolated from the rest of society in the last few years. In fact, now that he thought about it. Jonathan couldn’t deny that the change in Gregory’s father from affable to peculiar coincided with the passing of Jonathan’s father, not the fire.
From the corner of his eye, Jonathan spotted the funeral furnisher, Mr. Hensley quietly entered the room. He stepped toward him.
“Excuse me, Your Grace, the black jobbers are here with the carriage.”
Jonathan nodded and stepped out of the parlor and peered outside. There stood four beautiful, black Friesian horses. On their heads they each wore tall black ostrich plume head-dresses. Hitched to them was a black carriage designed to carry the coffin to the graveyard, while behind the lead coffin, five more followed for the family of Gregory and his sister, Elizabeth.
In accordance with the late viscount’s wishes, the funeral was to be small, with only his brothers, their wives, his son, and Jonathan in attendance. There was no to be no church service and he didn’t want the vicar giving a sermon – Gregory was to speak instead. Following the ceremony, he’d wished for the party to disburse and continue on with their lives.
It was an awkward request but one that had been made multiple times, and thus his son fulfilled his father’s wish. He’d speak as the coffin as lowered into the ground, even though he disliked speaking in front of crowds.
His younger sister, Elizabeth would not attend the funeral. It wasn’t customary for ladies to do so, given their delicate nature. And Elizabeth was especially delicate due to her condition.
He sighed as he thought of the young girl. She’d been through so much…
“Your Grace, the funeral party is already in the carriages. It is time,” Mr. Hensley said, and Jonathan gave a nod.
“I shall let Lord Merckworth know.” As he turned, it occurred to him just how strange it was to be speaking of his friend by his new title.
He stepped back into the dark room and placed a hand on Gregory’s shoulder. His friend jerked backward and looked at him out of wild, grief-stricken eyes.
“Jonathan?” It was as though he cast his eyes on him for the first time.
“They are ready. Everyone is in the carriages. The procession can begin.” Gregory looked up and in his green eyes Jonathan saw all the ache and pain he knew so well. He took a gulp of air. “When you’re ready. Take your time.”
“I won’t ever be ready. But I suppose I must be.” Gregory tucked on his black jacket and straightened his matching cravat before fiddling with the black band he and their entire household wore around their arms in a sign of mourning for the late viscount. “Please tell them to take him,” he said quietly. As he and Jonathan exited together, Jonathan turned to the right to alert the funeral furnisher but from the corner of his eyes, he saw his friend wasn’t making the same turn.
“Gregory?” he called out over his shoulder. Something in his friend’s countenance had shifted and when he looked up, he saw something in Gregory’s face he hadn’t seen in some time.
“I must let my sister know we’re leaving. I wish she’d come. I wish she’d speak in my stead. She…. She’s much better at saying what she thinks,” he sighed and proceeded up.
Jonathan knew his friend wanted his sister to accompany them, but she couldn’t. No. She could. While it wasn’t considered proper for ladies to attend funerals, they could present themselves and nobody would send them away.
Miss Elizabeth on the other hand would not attend for her own reasons – she hardly ever ventured outside, not since the terrible fire seven years that ago robbed her of half her face.
He shuddered as the sounds of her screaming in agony bubbled to the surface of his mind. He’d been there that night, roused by the ringing of the bell that announced trouble in the area. He’d seen the flames and run to them along with his most loyal servants, looking to salvage what could be salvaged.
The stable yard had been beyond help and remained in ruins for years afterwards with the viscount’s horses stabled at Jonathan’s estate instead.
As for Elizabeth – he’d heard the viscount’s calls for help and run to aid her and the sight before him… the horrible redness of her exposed flesh where the skin no longer covered muscle and tendons … it remained with him for a long time.
I always wonder what it is like for her, to live with the scars. To live with the realities of the accident. To know the life that could have been burnt away that night, along with the stable yard.
His heart ached for her as it ached for Gregory. Now, there was nobody but the two of them to help them through whatever storms lay ahead of them. Now, they had only one another. Which was more than Jonathan could say for himself.
For as he stood and felt badly for his friends, he realized that they had something he didn’t – a family.
Elizabeth glanced at herself in the mirror. She looked almost like a typical lady in mourning. If it weren’t for the angry red marks that spread across the right side of her face in a grotesque yet fascinating pattern and the milky clear eye, she’d have appeared like any other young lady who’d lost her father.
Her good eye bore the red bloodshot appearance that came from spending hours upon hours in tears, her skin looked ashen, and her collarbones poked out more than usual due to her inability to eat.
The heavy black bombazine gown made her look slenderer than she was, or perhaps it too was from lack of eating.
And yet, there was something strange about the attire. As her lady’s maid, Mrs. Morton, wrapped her black wool shawl around Elizabeth’s shoulders, she realized what it was.
I feel as though I am donning armor. But instead of heading into battle, I am going downstairs to see my father for the last time.
“The funeral procession is ready,” the maid said after glancing down.
Elizabeth nodded and stepped to the dresser for her half-mask. She’d sewn one for herself years ago after it became apparent her face would forever be a source of shock for those who encountered her for the first time – and even those who knew her well. Thus, she’d resolved to hide the offending scars with an intricate mask.
It covered the entire right side of her face, held in place by simple silver chains. One wrapped around her neck and was visible along her jawline, while the other came around the back of her head. Over the years, she’d made a great many masks with distinct designs and accessories like gemstone and even dried flowers. However, this one was the first all-black mask she’d been forced to make. The soft velvet felt comforting as she placed it on her face and –
“Oh no, Jack!” She called out as her cat leaped for the dangling chains as he so often did. He sat on the dresser on his hind legs and pushed himself up to grab for the mask, but she quickly dropped it and then wrapped both her arms around the cat and heaved him to the bed.
“A heavy boy he is,” Mrs. Morton said with a chuckle.
“Almost twenty pounds,” Elizabeth replied without looking up. Jack rolled onto his back and extended all four legs, exposing his large, soft stomach where the thick black fur mingled with shades of brown and grey. She rubbed his stomach while his green eyes slowly turned black.
“I don’t have time to play now, little one,” she said.
“How do you know he wants to play?” the maid asked. She’d only been in her employ for a little more than nine months and hadn’t been around cats before.
“When his pupils turn black, he usually wants to play, and he can get a little while,” she explained while Jack charged off the bed toward something in her dressing room.
“He has a lot of energy,” Mrs. Morton commented and went for the masks. “Shall I?”
When Elizabeth nodded, the maid placed the mask and connected the chains.
“Especially for an older cat. He’s already seven.”
“Seven?” The maid’s voice gave away the other question she had without stating it. Elizabeth hoped she’d keep it to herself, alas she wasn’t so lucky. “Is he one of the cats you saved that night in the stable?”
Elizabeth stepped to the mirror again. She looked like a lady attending a masquerade ball dressed as the Queen of Death.
“Yes, Mrs. Morton. He is. He’s the last one. The mother cat didn’t survive the night – too much smoke, I think. The other kittens found homes elsewhere, but Jack stayed at my side. He sat beside me after my father dragged me out of the fire and then stayed until I was better. He came to see me every day and slept with me at my feet.” She smiled. “He stayed for a very long time. And he’s still with me now.”
She glanced at the cat who darted out of the dressing room and leaped onto the windowsill.
Her maid nodded but said nothing further. It was well known that Elizabeth didn’t want to talk about the night her life changed forever. She’d spent many years doing just that, talking and thinking about it.
She’d struggled with the outcome of her decisions that day. The scars that prevented her from ever finding a husband, the memories that kept her awake at night. The fear that gripped her whenever she was near a flame larger than a candle.
These days, the less she thought about it, the better.
It’s curious how few people remain who remember that night, and what I looked like. Hastings is dead, the stable hands were laid off and even Mrs. Beards is retired. With father gone that leaves only me – and Jonathan.
“Your earrings? The opal?” The maid handed them to her.
“Thank you, Mrs. Morton,” she said.
“Letty, please. I feel so old when you call me Mrs. Morton,” the maid said. She was a young woman of four-and-twenty with a heavy northern accent and a shock of auburn hair that reminded her of Jonathan, the Duke of Hurlton, Gregory’s good friend.
“Very well, I shall call you Letty,” she assented. It wasn’t customary to call a lady’s maid by her first name, but she wasn’t a customary lady either.
“Would you like the crepe veil to go along with your attire?”
She peered at herself in the mirror. She’d have worn the veil if she’d planned to attend the funeral, but she wasn’t going to go. She’d considered it given that her father requested a quiet graveside service, there wouldn’t be a great many people she knew, and yet, the idea of being out in public troubled her.
“I won’t need it. I’m only going to the parlor, after all.”
Letty nodded and was about to open the door when a thunderous knock made them both flinch.
Before Letty could make her way to the door to see who’d knocked with such energy, the door flew open, and she brother appeared red-faced and panicked.
“I can’t do it, Lizzy. I can’t.” he clasped one hand in front of his face and shook his head. “I just can’t.”
To her shock, her brother, who’d always been strong and courageous, who’d stood up for her so many times when others ridiculed her for her appearance, broke down into violent sobs. She rushed to him and wrapped her arms around him. As his cheek pressed against the velvet mask, she rubbed his back.
“You can’t what?” She spoke soothingly, softly, but it did little to provide him comfort. And when he drew back, she saw the wild panic in his eyes.
Gregory grabbed her by the shoulders; his fingers dug into her skin.
“I can’t speak. You must. I will make a cake of myself. I can hardly bring myself to leave his casket.”
“Gregory, I can’t… I’m a woman. It’s not proper for me to go to the funeral, let alone speak at it. You know that. What will they think?”
Her brother shook his head. “They’ll think unkind thoughts about our father no matter what you say, or I say. They will think him a kook, a nutter, someone who’d lost the plot long ago and I can’t handle it. I can’t stand in front of them knowing what they think of my father.”
She swallowed as she knew her brother’s words were true. Their father had a reputation for being difficult and even bizarre. He’d been all too aware of this as well. It was one of the reasons why he’d chosen to have a small funeral instead of a large one befitting to a Peer of the Realm. It was also why he’d requested that news of his death not be made public until after the funeral.
“Gregory, if they will think it anyway, then why not just speak? You can keep it a short speech, he’d understand.”
Her brother let go of her and paced the room. “I can’t. It’s hard enough for me to know that out father was not in his right mind toward the end. Or really … for years. We both know it.”
She shook her head. While her father was an eccentric man, she’d never thought him as unstable as her brother did.
“He was a little more scatterbrained and obsessed these past few days, I’ll admit…”
Her brother shook his head. “He was downright paranoid. Worse than I’ve ever seen him.”
She licked her lips and tilted her head to the side. She agreed with her brother’s statement fully, except…
“Do you think he had a reason?”
He snapped around. “A reason? For being paranoid? For thinking anyone and everyone was out to get him?
“For thinking someone meant him harm,” she said quietly.
“Faith, Lizzy. No. I never have. But ever since the fire… You know this all started when Jonathan’s father died. He never got over his death. Jove, he took it harder than Jonathan and it was his father who died. I think between that and the fire so few years after it robbed him of a portion of his mind. And toward the end, it grew worse and worse, I’m afraid.”
Elizabeth didn’t agree. She didn’t think her father was as addle-brained as her brother made him out to be. But she also knew there was no point in arguing with him.
“You are sure you don’t want to speak?” She said instead, in as tender a tone as she could muster.
“I’m sure. I can’t speak about him in the way he deserves while looking at people who think that we’re better off without him.”
Elizabeth stared at her brother as his words settled in her mind. He wanted her to come to the funeral and speak in his stead? She didn’t want to. She didn’t care for people, didn’t wish to show herself in public too much if she didn’t have to. Besides, she had things to think about, ideas to ponder.
And yet, when she saw the panic in his green eyes, she knew she couldn’t deny him. She’d go. And she’d speak.
She owed it to her father. There was only one problem. She’d have to bemoan the terrible collision that robbed them of his company, talk about the carriage crash that came upon them so unexpectedly. They’d have to lament the accident that ended his life so prematurely. While she felt certain that her brother was wrong. That her father’s paranoia was justified. For the truth was – she didn’t think his death had been an accident at all.
“...a truly wonderful man. Much beloved by all,” Elizabeth said without facing the group before her. She knew who was there. She’d spotted two of her father’s younger brothers, along with some of their neighbors and the few friends who remained loyal to her father when she exited the carriage.
They’d all stared at her, not just because her presence at the funeral was unusual but also because of her mask. She knew it. It drew stares even from those who didn’t know what horror she hid beneath. It didn’t matter. Everyone here knew her; everyone here knew what she looked like. Besides, she wasn’t here for them. She was here for Gregory – and their father.
She cleared her throat as she raised her eyes at her brother. Gregory stood at the front beside Jonathan, who continued to glance up at her as she spoke. She’d felt his stares, although he wasn’t the kind of soul-piercing, unkind looks she got from others. His were gentler, kinder.
But then, unlike most, Jonathan knew the agony she’d been in that night, he’d heard. He’d seen. He’d been there. She sucked in the cold air, grateful that at least her brother had been away the day of the fire and hadn’t been forced to see her as she had been, a withering ball of anguish. Would it have changed him like it had their father? Perhaps.
Elizabeth shivered and drew the scarf closer around herself.
It was freezing at the cemetery, and the exposed side of her face ached as she stood at her father’s coffin. The wind blew through the trees, announcing the change of season from fall to winter.
“My father was a kind man. He didn’t live the life he’d expected. The life most of us expect or hope to have. A wife, children, prosperity – he didn’t get to have it all. While never aching for material needs, he suffered an inner torment for the love of his life was taken from him at a young age. And then, as you know, his life was changed again some years ago when a fire robbed him of the tranquility, he’d managed to carve out for himself after the loss of my mother. When that too was gone, he changed. He never lost the depth of compassion; he remained a devoted, loving father. But he changed. We know the reasons our numbers here are few. And we know that it was the night of the fire that changed the man he once was – he became fearful and suspect of the world. Nevertheless, all who are gathered here loved him; all who traveled here from near and far held him, dear. And none more so than my brother and me. For us, he was father and mother. He was a caregiver, friend, champion, and protector. And without him, we stand in the cold alone, without the shield of his love and the cloak of his adoration of us.
But we will persevere. He taught us to be strong. To be united. And that, we shall be. With the help of our family and friends, all of whom are gathered here with us.
It was a regular day, last Wednesday when my father boarded his carriage. He expected to return home to us, to dine with us as we always did. He couldn’t have known he would never return – and yet, he bade us farewell as though it was the last time. The same way he always did. Father never left without assuring my brother and me of his love. He never departed without an I love you. And he didn’t that day. And for that, I am grateful, as is my brother. For the last words we heard from our father…”
Her voice broke and she dabbed a handkerchief against her eye. The other, her damaged milky eye remained inaccessible under the mask. One of the disadvantages of her design. If she cried, or her if her skin beneath the mask itched as it so often did, she could not access it. It was impossible, and so she had to allow the tears the soak the mask – another reminder that she was no longer the same girl she’d been before the fire. Another reminder she’d always be different.
She glanced up, hoping to draw strength from her brother’s kind gaze but didn’t find it. Gregory stared at the ground that would soon be frozen, unable to face her. Instead, it was Jonathan who encouraged her with a gentle smile and a nod of the head.
Elizabeth wasn’t sure why, but his kind gesture warmed her heart, and she took courage from it. She cleared her throat again and clutched the handkerchief between her fingers.
“For my father’s last words where I love you, and for that, I shall always be grateful.”
She wetted her lips and then returned to stand beside her brother. He took her hand and squeezed it gently before letting go. When she looked up, she met Jonathan’s eyes again.
“A beautiful speech,” he whispered as up ahead the coffin was lowered into the ground.
She nodded her head in recognition of his remark but didn’t reply. Instead, she stared at the mahogany box that was her father’s final resting place. The speech had come to her quite naturally, and yet she knew it wasn’t a truthful speech.
While all the kind things she’d said about her father were true, elements were embellished for the comfort of those near them – Gregory among them. For Elizabeth had seen the look in her father’s eyes. The fear. And she’d heard the way he bade her farewell, with an undertone of doom. He’d squeezed her hand a little tighter than usual, kissed her cheek for longer – as if he’d known.
Yes, he’d expected that he might not return. Why? She wasn’t sure, but she recalled vividly the moment Gregory told her their father had died. It hadn’t surprised her.
She’d been devastated, stricken with grief – but surprised? No.
Suddenly, a memory came to her. It was unclear, made hazy by the many years that passed since then. But it was there. She recalled her father standing in the drawing room of their Brixton estate. He’d just returned from the House of Lords. Their steward had come to tell his father that his best friend, the Duke of Hurlton, had been killed in a hunting accident.
She remembered her father’s visage as he took in the news. Pain. Devastation. Grief. They’d all marked his face as the news of his death marked hers. But surprise. No? He hadn’t been surprised either.
It was almost as if he too had expected the death of his dearest friend, just as she’d expected her father’s.
Elizabeth looked up and glanced at Jonathan as he stood beside her. His auburn-colored hair sparkled in the sunrays that broke through the clouds, and his sculpted jaw was set as he stared at the coffin.
Had he suspected his father might die just as she had? Had he been surprised? Had Jonathan ever suspected his father’s death might have been something other than an accident, just as she suspected her father’s carriage hadn’t simply crashed?
For, how could it? Ever since the fire, her father’s chief concern had been the safety of his family. He never went to sleep without inspecting the house. He checked that candles were blown out, doors and windows locked, and he never employed anyone without an intensive interview and investigation into their character.
And he inspected his carriages personally every single day. He’d done so the morning of the accident.
So how could it have crashed?
It made no sense.
Not unless his death hadn’t been an accident at all.
Jonathan suddenly looked up at her and his blue eyes narrowed when they met hers. He cocked his head to one side and for a moment, she felt as though there was a strange understanding between them. As if they shared a secret, some knowledge – or was it all in her head?
She opened her mouth, unsure of what she wanted to say to him when suddenly, she felt a snap at the back of her head. She’d felt it before, and with horror she knew what would happen if she didn’t react quickly. Her hand flew back toward the top chain that held her mask in place, but it was too late. The silver chain slipped down and landed in her collarbone and her mask peeled forward.
The cold air caressed her scar, drying the tears that remained on her hardened skin. She gasped just as Gregory looked up, but it wasn’t her brother’s look she feared. It was Jonathan’s. Her right hand reached for the chain while with her left she attempted to pull the mask up, but it was too late.
He’d seen it. She knew he had by the way his eyes grew wide and his lips parted. She expected to see disgust, shock. The same things she’d always seen in people’s eyes. She didn’t. For Jonathan looked at her with something much worse. Something much more devastating.
She spun around, eager to hide her ruined visage from him when she realized by doing so, she’d exposed her face to the attendees. She looked up, her mask clutched between her gloved fingers when from the second row, a woman’s mortified voice drifted to her ear.
“Hideous, how hideous. They should have let her die in the fire. How cruel to make her live like this,” a woman exclaimed in a horrified tone. The voice belonged to her aunt, a woman she hadn’t laid eyes upon in years.
“Be quiet, Maribel,” the man beside her, Elizabeth’s uncle, hissed.
It was too late. The eyes of everyone in the crowd turned toward Elizabeth and her face grew hotter and hotter while her heart raced.
“Lizzy,” Gregory called out and came toward her. She raised a hand and shook her head.
The true horror of her grotesque face was written clearly on the visages of those around her. She shouldn’t have come here; she shouldn’t have dared speak.
Hot tears sprang into her eyes, and she turned away from those who saw nothing but a pitiful creature in her. She broke into a run and sprinted out of the graveyard behind their house, across the garden and toward the house. Her breathing increased as did the violence of her tears that spilled out of her eyes like fountains.
She didn’t stop running, not when she reached the front door, not when she took the stairs, two steps at a time, and not when she got to the second-floor landing.
She only stopped after she’d burst through her chamber door and slammed it shut behind her.
Then, she paused in front of her dresser. With her hands pressed on the smooth wood she stood and attempted to catch her breath when she realized she was standing in front of the mirror once more. Elizabeth swallowed and then, as she raised her eyes, she looked at her reflection again.
Her hair stood up wildly around her head and the smooth skin on her face was red from the running – but her scar, her hideous scar remained the same horrid color and shape it always was. She removed her glove and ran her fingers over the ridges of her hardened skin. She was ugly. And she always would be.
Perhaps they should have let me die in the fire…
A wave of self-hatred overcame her as she looked at her pitiful reflection. Her hand flew forward and grabbed the patch box containing the cream for her scar and with all her strength she hurled it toward the glass. As the mirror shattered, sending shards tumbling onto the floor, she collapsed in a heap of tears and cried – for her dead father, for her ruined face – and for the future she would never have.
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