Excerpt from A Bride Unveiled
Miss Violet Knowlton had suspected for years that something was wrong with her. It wasn’t until her thirteenth summer, however, that the hidden flaw in her nature came to light. Before then she had considered herself to be an obedient girl, a fortunate one, even though she had lost her parents so long ago she had no memories of them to mourn their loss.
Her aunt and uncle, Baron and Lady Ashfield, had cocooned her and raised her as their own. They had moved from bustling Falmouth to the obscure hamlet of Monk’s Huntley to shelter her from the wickedness that she had been warned waited outside the door to snatch up an unwary girl.
As Violet grew older she would stare out her bedchamber window and wonder what form this wicked threat would take. Would it be a man? A beast? She had lived under the impression that all girls were in danger of this unknown menace. If only her guardians had explained why they would sometimes stop talking when she entered a room unannounced. If only they had confessed that they meant to protect her from herself -- she might have understood that she could never let her guard down.
It was a cause destined to fail.
It was two months before her thirteenth birthday when she looked from her window and first noticed the boy in the abandoned graveyard that lay between her uncle’s manor house and the woods. Twilight had fallen, and the boy seemed to be engaged in an energetic duel, although for the life of her, Violet could not see his opponent.
Three days went by before she spotted him again. This time it wasn’t quite dusk and she realized that he was fighting alone. After that she began to keep a vigil, propped on a stool, hoping for a glimpse of his intriguing figure.
She couldn’t have described him in any detail to anyone. He looked tall from her vantage point, furtive and full of energy. He wasn’t a ghost. She saw him once in the daylight, charging past the crypts with a sword over his head. He ran as if his life were something out of an adventure novel, as if he had dragons to slay or that meant to slay him.
Sometimes he appeared and disappeared like a wizard before her eyes. She wondered who he was and where he lived and why he was not afraid to play in the churchyard that everyone else in Monk’s Huntley knew to avoid. She spent hours wondering about him, because she was lonely and despaired of making friends with the other young ladies in the village. The girls who’d grown up in the parish refused to allow a newcomer like Violet into their circle. The harder she tried to impress them, the more they drew away from her, until she gave up trying.
Her closest female companion, in fact her only one, was Miss Winifred Higgins, the governess Violet’s uncle had hired at the spring fair. She was a comely redhead with a beguiling warmth, and just as Violet was starting to feel close to her, Miss Higgins revealed a startling confidence of her own—she had lied to Baron Ashfield about her credentials. She was not a twenty-year-old etiquette school graduate experienced in the moral guidance of young girls.
As it turned out, Miss Higgins had never attended school and had run away from home. While Violet sat on the garden wall sketching dragonflies, her governess was being led astray by the bricklayer’s son in the hedgerow. She swore to Violet that this was true love.
“How old are you really, Miss Higgins?”
She stared at Violet. “Nineteen.”
“I shouldn’t have told you anything,” Winifred said, her eyes scornful.
“I told you about the boy.”
“Don’t go near him,” Winifred warned her. “At least not by yourself.” She frowned. “I’m almost eighteen. I suppose you’re going to tell your uncle that I lied.”
“No.” Violet couldn’t imagine losing her only female friend. “Are you going to tell him about the boy?”
“I haven’t seen any boy yet.”
“But you do believe he exists?”
Miss Higgins shrugged. “Why not?”
There were advantages, Violet learned that summer, to having a governess who was not only negligent in her duty but in one’s debt. Soon Winifred granted Violet the small freedoms that had previously been forbidden her. She did not complain when Violet walked barefoot in the garden. She allowed her ward to wander farther from the manor grounds to sketch, until the day they walked to the slope that overlooked the church ruins.
They stood in silence, staring down at the rows of moss-stained graves that had looked oddly romantic from Violet’s window. They stood in the shade of the tall yew trees that by tradition guarded the deceased, and Winifred whispered, “Why would anyone choose to frequent a place like this?”
“To find buried treasure,” a cheerful voice answered from behind them.
Winifred gave a scream that was shrill enough to awaken an army of ghosts from their eternal slumber. She swayed in the ankle-high ferns that covered the slope. Violet caught her by the arm. She might have screamed herself had she not recognized the stout young gentleman standing behind her, a shovel balanced on the shoulder of his brass-buttoned coat.
It was only her neighbor Eldie—Eldbert Tomkinson—the son of the parish surgeon. He talked to her every Sunday after church and often came to the manor to play chess with her uncle. He could repeat entire poems backward. He had drawn a historical map of Monk’s Huntley on his bedsheet.
Violet thought that he was too clever for his own good. Although, to his credit, he said he believed that she had seen a boy sword fighting in the churchyard. But he wasn’t that boy, and for a moment she could not help feeling disappointed that he was only unexciting Eldbert.
“What is he doing here?” Winifred whispered, studying Eldbert’s shovel in suspicion.
“He’s convinced that there’s buried treasure in the graves, but he’s afraid to look by himself.”
“I am not afraid,” Eldbert said. “I need another person to hold my map and read my compass while I dig, if you want to know the truth.”
None of them had ever ventured this close to the ruins.
It was only a matter of days before Violet and Eldbert met again and combined their courage to slide down the embankment into the churchyard. Violet landed against a grave with her pencils and sketching book intact, Eldbert, his shovel, and his small map beside her.
It was also only a matter of time before their mutual neighbor and nemesis, the Honorable Ambrose Tilton, realized he had not seen them lately and set out to learn why. As the heir to his father’s viscountcy, Ambrose would soon be regarded as a prize catch among the unmarried maidens of Monk’s Huntley. In Violet’s opinion, however, he was a mean-spirited spoilsport.
Violet tolerated Ambrose for Eldbert’s sake. She never understood why Eldbert put up with Ambrose’s taunts and condescending smugness, until finally Eldie let it slip that Ambrose took regular thrashings from the older boys at school and was too ashamed to tell his father or the schoolmaster.
“But he’s big,” Violet said in disbelief.
“He’s afraid,” Eldbert said. “Some boys just are, and you ought to feel sorry for him, Violet.”
So Violet did, except when Ambrose made a point of being the most obnoxious person in England. “Are you looking for that boy with the sword again?” he shouted down the slope. “He doesn’t exist, you know! Neither does that buried treasure! I hope you realize how stupid you look!”
The boy did exist, and Violet was determined to find out who he was, although she wasn’t sure she would have been courageous enough to explore the church ruins without Miss Higgins standing guard on the slope, and Eldbert beside her. She certainly would not have ventured into the sunken remains of the private mausoleum where the earl and his household had been laid to rest over a century ago.
“Do you want to go in the catacombs?” Eldbert asked her.
“No. Isn’t that where the plague victims are buried?”
“Yes,” he said, brushing a lock of his cropped black hair from his spectacles. “The grave diggers piled them one on top of another.”
They moved as one, stealing between clumps of grass and cracked gravestones. Violet read only a few of the names and epitaphs on the tombs that she passed. She refused to believe that death ended like this, in decay and abandonment. She was glad that Eldie’s mother had been laid to rest in the burial grounds on the other side of the village.
His voice startled her. “This would be the River Styx,” he said, poking his shovel at the stream that meandered into the skeletal remains of the roofless chapel and down the steps that led into the subterranean vaults. An enormous stone pillar had been positioned across the entrance. She gazed down into the black airless crypts and felt a shiver go down her back. It wasn’t a shiver of fear. It was of excitement.
“Well, if this is the River Styx, then we are standing at the gate of the underworld, and I hope that nobody is home.”
He turned his head. “What is that noise?”
She listened to the sounds of the trickling stream and her heart beating and then ever so faintly heard the scraping of metal against stone. “I think something is living in there, Eldbert,” she whispered.
“A fox, probably. Or restless spirits. Maybe something worse. Let’s explore another day.”
“We’re not supposed to be here, anyway.”
“No,” he agreed, and pulled her up the stairs by the hand. They had made it to the top and stumbled into the yard when a grinding echo rose from the depths of the sunken vault. Eldbert started for the embankment. Something compelled Violet to turn.
“Eldbert,” she whispered. “Look. It’s him.”
The boy’s head was lowered when he emerged from the vaults. But as he climbed the steps he grew tall and straight. He swaggered through the tufts of grass toward her.
She was too stunned to move. His blond elf locks hung below a strong chin. From where she stood it seemed that his eyes caught the light like crystals. He was dressed oddly, in elegant nankeen trousers, a striped shirt, and a ragged yellow jacket that he wore with such panache it could have been an ermine-lined cloak.
Eldbert bumped up against her, his voice low with panic. “He’s from the pauper palace.”
“The palace,” he said. “Let’s get away as fast as we can.”
She felt her sketchbook slipping to her side as Eldbert nudged her again. Eldbert was right. He was always right. The boy might be intriguing, but that didn’t mean he was polite, and as for being from the palace, well, she couldn’t hold that against him.
“I’m sorry if we disturbed you,” she said quickly. “We only hoped to make friends. I’ve seen you sword fighting and I was so impressed that . . . that . . . My name’s Violet Knowlton, and this is my neighbor, Eldbert Tomkinson. We shouldn’t be here at all.”
The boy said nothing. In fact, he appeared so unmoved that she wondered whether he had understood her. She waited a moment. She wanted to run, but her instincts warned her it was too late. She had hoped to make a friend. It was obvious that he did not return the feeling.
But then his eyes changed. Color flickered behind the cold silver. His thin lips curved into a smile. “My name is Kit,” he said in a courteous enough voice, but before she could let out her breath, he drew the sword that had been concealed beneath his tunic and leveled it at her shoulder. “I think I’ll have to take you hostage.”
Eldbert dropped his shovel. “What has she ever done to you?”
He glanced up briefly. “Mind your business.”
“Run, Violet,” Eldbert urged her. “Fetch my father and the servants while I hold him here. Fetch Miss Higgins if you can find her.”
The boy gave a mocking laugh that indicated he wasn’t intimidated in the least by Eldbert. “Well, go on,” he said to Violet. “Why don’t you take your sister’s advice and run home?”
“You don’t need to be unpleasant,” Violet said without considering the consequences. “I said that we only came here to make friends.”
“And I said that I was taking you hostage, in the vaults, and there isn’t a thing that Guts and Garbage can do to stop me.”
At that insult to Eldbert, Violet finally came to her senses, leaping into action before she could consider the consequences. She snapped off her shawl and flung it in her would-be abductor’s face. “I’m sorry that I ever watched you. I don’t wonder that you’re alone in this awful place. What good is it to ply a sword against invisible enemies?”
Kit lifted his sword to disentangle the shawl, but the fringe had wrapped itself around the hilt. No matter how deftly he plied the weapon, the bits of wool refused to detach, until in the end the girl, who had no understanding of what a dangerous person she was dealing with, snatched it free and gave him a withering glare.
She wrapped the shawl back around her shoulders with a dignity that made him feel dirty and ashamed. He recognized her as the girl who watched him from her window, and knew that she would have reported him to the workhouse by now if she meant to. She served as an audience of sorts for his sword practice. She was better company than the dead rivals Kit summoned from the vaults for frequent fencing matches. The ghosts wouldn’t hurt him. The parish overseers would if they caught him wasting work hours.
The overseers liked flogging boys to the bone, or hanging them upside down for a night, or putting them in solitary incarceration. Kit hated that punishment the most, especially when the warden sneaked a few rats into the cell to make the offender less lonely.
Kit had lived in the workhouse ever since he was taken from the foundling orphanage almost twelve years ago, when he was two. It was recorded in the workhouse registry that an orphanage nurse had found him when he was a bundle of squalls, abandoned and wrapped in a fox-lined cloak outside the orphanage door.
Now he was allowed out three hours every other day to gather stones and serve as a scarecrow in the old farmer’s fields. He came to the churchyard for peace. He wasn’t sure why the catacombs and lopsided tombs attracted him, aside from the fact that they concealed a drainage tunnel that led to the workhouse.
A century and a half ago plague had swept through Monk’s Huntley, sparing only a few families. The cemetery lay under a curse. Nothing but grass and toadstools grew beyond the shade of the encircling yew trees, and these fungi Kit beheaded with a vengeance as soon as they cropped up.
Sometimes he staged a great sword fight for the girl’s benefit. She was far enough away that she might not be able to tell he was a fourteen-year-old pauper. Or that the sword hidden in the crypt was really a farmer’s hoe and not a Toledo steel blade.
She was pretty enough, with dark hair, sparkling eyes, and a clear voice. Her face reminded him of one of those brooches worn by the nice old charity ladies who visited the pauper palace.
The inmates never got a chance to eat any of the custard tarts and meat pasties that the old ladies baked for them, though. The wardens confiscated the food baskets, and that was that. So let the girl at the window look. Looks cost nothing. It was the touching Kit couldn’t tolerate. He’d learned how to defend himself at an early age against the calloused hands that stole under his blanket. The day would come soon when he’d either rise up and fight or he would run away. He’d given himself until October. It was run or be sold to a stranger as an apprentice when he turned fifteen. The workhouse didn’t give a pauper the luxury of choosing his future.
He frowned at the girl. “I wasn’t serious about taking you hostage. Not with this.” He threw the farmer’s hoe over his shoulder. “It was a game. Sword fighting is a game. I wouldn’t have hurt you. Go home.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She bit her lip. “For ruining your secret.”
Kit was certain that he would never see her again.
The first time he’d seen her in the window he had thought she was an invalid. Then he’d speculated that she was an heiress from London being held for ransom. No one in his right head would look for a missing girl in Monk’s Huntley.
After a few weeks he concluded that she was being locked up as punishment for disobeying her parents. He had felt sorry for her. He had come to a lot of conclusions about her before the moment she became his friend.
And not a single one of them turned out to be true.
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