Gillian Foster stabbed the poker into the logs and sparks rose like fairy dust to dance up the chimney. Heat from the fire pinked her cheeks. She reached up to refasten a chestnut curl that had come loose from the Psyche knot. Her eyes swung to her bedroom window and in the gathering darkness, she could make out the crenelated roofline of Maynard Hall, country seat of the eighth earl of Elmore, Lord Chadwicke Kendale.
The vision of dark, piercing eyes appeared in Gillian’s mind and her heart beat faster. The very vividness of her reaction to the apparition was daunting. To break the spell, she cast her eyes on the travelling cape lying across the green velvet chaise longue. Picking up her candle, she headed for the door. The black skirt of her mourning dress swirled around her with the gentle hiss of silk. She left the bulging portmanteau leaning against the oak wardrobe and, without a backward glance, went out into the hall.
Even after two months, the emptiness of her father’s room jolted her; each day she awoke with the expectation that it had all been a nightmare. But, when she passed the open doorway she was reminded anew that her father was gone forever and she tried to take comfort from her memories of the scholarly, absent-minded man who had raised her. Some days the pain was less intense. She set the candle on the table beside the bed. Stroking the soft nap of the brown velvet edging on the comforter for the last time, she blew out the candle and left the room, closing the door firmly behind her.
She tried not to think about the evening ahead but as, she stood at the top of the stairs, her eyes were drawn to the kissing bough suspended in the center of the foyer. Apples tied to the red satin ribbons dangled from the circle of rosemary. The candle she had left on the hall table flickered and the shiny apples swayed, caught in the errant draughts of the hallway. Her hand tightened on the walnut handrail as she stared at the mistletoe nestled in the heart of the greenery.
The kissing bough and apples and Chad. She had fought all day not to think about him but he was wound up so inexorably with all her memories. The tall case clock in the drawing room chimed six. If he were coming tonight, he would not arrive until much later. Gillian sat down on the top step, tucking her skirts around her for warmth. Perhaps she needed to think about the past before she took the fateful step that inevitably would seal her future.
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