March 2nd, 1925
The road was narrow and rough as it skimmed over seaside fields of rural England. A frigid, salty wind whipped across the wide swaths of open land, cutting straight to the little beetle of a motorcar that they sat in. Clara wasn’t much of a fan of the motorcar. On this, she and her Aunt Minerva agreed. It was one of the few things they shared these days. Minerva was a hard faced woman. She stared out of the window with her lips pressed into the thin line of disapproval – as if she were scolding the car for its very existence.
Clara smirked to herself, pushing a few stray strands of blond hair behind her ear. Her eyes skipped out to the countryside. It was such a stark difference from the compact bustle of the city where common intimacies were exchanged betwixt strangers. The difficulty with London was the space. Or, rather, the lack there of. It was fine enough if one was of mental soundness. If you could somehow engage with the surrounding crowds, share with them your energy and accept their offerings in return, than you could survive in such a place – thrive, even.
She was no such person.
But out here… Ah, yes, out here there was excess. This was the sort of place one could truly release one’s self without fear of scathing public opinion. And Clara felt as though she could breathe again. She was itching to get out of the confining car. The past few months had fed into the growing beast of her anxiety and here it could finally be released. Never mind the chilling wind or the snow on the ground – Clara needed to open the vents of her heart in the open air.
And as they bounced over the pocked road and the Kernewek manse rose from the rolling hills, Clara knew escape might be a long time in coming. It was a shame, really. She loved the ocean in the winter time. There was something about its loneness that made it so very alluring.
“Now, Clara,” her aunt suddenly started, pulling Clara out of her thoughts.
“Yes, Auntie?” she said dutifully.
The creases in Minerva’s forehead deepened ever so slightly. “Do remember not to call me ‘auntie’ in front of the others, dear,” she admonished. “You’re not a child and I shan’t have you acting as one.”
A longsuffering quirk tipped up the corner of Clara’s mouth. “Of course, Aunt Minerva.”
“As I was saying,” Minerva continued, “we must keep our eyes open this trip.”
Clara was fully aware of what was coming next but she ventured the question anyway. “Open for what exactly?”
Her aunt turned her full attention to Clara, her expression somewhat surprised. “Why, a husband, of course,” she said, as if Clara should have known all along – which she did.
Clara did her best to keep the groan of exasperation from manifesting on her face and she failed spectacularly. “I thought I was marrying Devon Bellfast,” she said with sarcasm edging her voice.
“I thought you rather disliked Devon. Have you changed your mind?”
“Oh no, I think he’s about as interesting as a sack of potatoes—”
“But I wasn’t aware that you were aware that I disliked him,” Clara concluded.
“Oh come now, I’m not as blind as all that,” Minerva huffed. Her face softened a touch. “I do want you to be happy, Clara. Wouldn’t want to end up like me now, would you?” There was a chuckle from the older woman and Clara felt herself smile. This was well worn territory.
“Are you really so unhappy, Auntie?”
Minerva patted her hand with a smile. “Of course not, dear.”
They were pulling up to the house now. It was a massive brick affair – at least, massive compared to the lavish townhouse where Clara and Minerva lived. It was big but only because the countryside could afford the space. It was by no means as large as Buckingham but the house was just big enough to contain nobleman’s confidence. It was proud with deep roots and merely a few shadows of aged duplicity lingering in the foundations. Neither pompous nor humble, the Kernewek manor settled somewhere in between. And it was most certainly steeped in wealth.
Ivy was advancing along east corner of the house, slowly – almost spitefully – taking over the walls. There were a series of barns to the right of the house and a large empty space to the left which Clara assumed was for a garden. She could see a ribbon of gray ocean beyond the grassy knoll that skirted the buildings.
The Kernewek’s were in the fishing business. Mr. Kernewek owned a fleet of boats and spent most of his time in the nearby town. He also owned massive tracks of farmland which he rented to the local farmers. Which was to say, they were wealthy. Even without the successful fishing venture, the Kernewek fortune spanned five generations and was rumored to have been the product of a seedy privateer in his Majesties navy. A pirate if ever there was one. But, of course, that was all conjecture. The important fact was that the Kerneweks were simply rolling in it.
The Rolls came to a stop in front of the house. Their driver, an amiable fellow by the name of James, came round to open their doors. Clara slipped her mystery novel into her bag and stepped out of the car. The wind caught the stray wisps of her hair and, try as she might, she could not wrangle them back into a neat bun.
“Minerva!” came a high pitched squeal from the house.
Clara looked up to see a plump woman come bustling down the icy steps. Her graying hair was flouncing up and down along with her considerable girth as she practically tackled Minerva. Clara chewed her lip to keep from laughing at her aunts vexation. But as soon as the irritation crossed Minerva’s face, a genuine gladness quickly replaced it.
“Come inside! Come inside!” the woman ordered happily. “You’ll catch your death out here in this wind. Please, after you.” She hustled them inside the main hall and the door closed with a heavy bang as the breeze caught it.
The inside of the house was much like the outside – impressive and proud but not ostentatious. Thick drapes covered the walls to better trap the heat which came from dozens of fireplaces. It felt incredibly old though it couldn’t have been much older than Clara was herself.
“Please, come have a seat. You both look as though you need a warm cup of tea,” said the woman as she herded Clara and Minerva into the parlor. Scattered about the room were several couches and great big chairs which looked incredibly comfortable. A piano perched in one corner and a gramophone hovered next to it. A very large fireplace towards the middle let out great swaths of heat.
They sat at a small table after another round of hugs went out and outer coats were shed and properly stashed away by a willowy looking girl in a servants smock. Tea was poured shortly after.
The woman was, of course, Mrs. Kernewek or Charlotte, as she was inclined to be called. Charlotte was an incredibly expressive woman. Her hands flew around as she spoke. If gestures could be called ‘high pitched’ then her hands were certainly that. Her voice trilled up and down seemingly of its own accord and she laughed often. Once she got past the considerable presence, Clara found the woman somewhat endearing. There wasn’t a single thread of spite in her person and while she didn’t seem to be a terribly intelligent creature, she was certainly kind.
“Clara darling,” Charlotte suddenly said to her, “your aunt says that I am to find you a proper husband this weekend.” Her eyes sparkled with excitement.
Clara shot Minerva a scathing look before she turned a careful smile to Charlotte. “I hear that rumor as well,” she said. “It would seem that I’m incapable of finding a husband.”
Charlotte flapped her hand towards Clara. “Don’t worry, pet, Amelia and I have hunted down all the most scrumptious bachelors in the area.”
Minerva’s mouth grew thin and sharp at Charlotte’s wording but the jovial woman wasn’t at all perturbed by her brooding companion. Clara made herself smile. She was determined not to be a sour old maid this weekend. And if she were being totally honest with herself, finding a proper match wouldn’t be unwelcome.
“Who’s this Amelia person?” Clara asked. As far as she knew, the Kernewek’s had no children. It was a topic that Minerva politely avoided.
Charlotte gasped. “Oh you’ll simply adore her!” She snapped her fingers at the same willowy girl who took their things earlier. “Joanna, please inform Miss Whitehouse that our guests have arrived,” she told the girl. Joanna nodded and gave a quick half curtsy before she darted away.
“Have you got a new cohort, Charlotte?” Minerva asked. She had a sly sort of twinkle in her eyes that Clara didn’t get to see very often. It held all the mischief of a younger woman – proof that her aunt had once, in fact, been young. When Clara was a child, she was quite certain that her aunt didn’t age and was perpetually old. Even now, at twenty-four, she wasn’t sure if Auntie aged at all.
Charlotte smirked, sharing an unspoken memory with Minerva. “Not quite so dramatic as that, I’m afraid. My Henry has recently acquired a new business partner from America. It would seem that the fish business is not doing quite as good as usual. Several of our competitors have all but shut down! But Henry found this chap from America who is simply a magician with businesses. The man dragged his poor daughter with him. The dear has only her father. I’ve rescued her for the weekend. We gal’s ought to stick together, eh?”
Clara nodded absentmindedly. Halfway through Charlotte’s explanation, her mind had started to wander. Her eyes found the window. She could see more of the sea from here and it sparked an irresistible longing. Clara wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to have wings. How exciting the sea must be to birds. Instead of looking down to see the hard immovable earth, one would see a writhing mass of water – a living thing in and of itself. Must be thrilling…
“Amelia! There you are! Come and meet my dear friend Minerva Call and her niece Clara,” Charlotte ordered with a very grand smile.
Clara looked over and saw the newcomer. She couldn’t have been much older than twenty and she was, in a word, scandalous. Amelia wore a skirt that only just covered most of her thighs. Her shirt was loose and hung from the shoulders, dipping low over her chest. She wore thick wool stockings to account for the cold and had a knit shawl draped over her shoulders. The gleaming red hair was cropped short, coming down just past her cheekbones. Amelia wore an expression of tolerant indifference but a keen intelligence sparkled in her green eyes.
“How’d you do?” she said politely, shaking first Minerva’s hand and then Clara’s before she settled down at the table.
Before Clara had a chance to respond, Charlotte was talking again. “Amelia, this is the Clara we were discussing earlier. I’d like you to help her this weekend,” she said.
Amelia nodded, giving Clara an apprising glance. “So you’re the canceled stamp,” she said. “I’m not sure I see why you have so much trouble. You’ve got the looks.” She smiled. “I’m sure we can manage something for you.”
Clara regarded Amelia with an eyebrow raised indignantly. “It’s…a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure,” she said in a tightly controlled voice. And, of course, she didn’t at all mean what she’d said. She found the creature rather off-putting.
Charlotte giggled. “Oh won’t this simply be the most exciting party? Honestly, I’ve been dying of boredom! This place is surrounded by apple knockers – oh that’s a term I learned from Amelia. It means country folk. But Clara, I’ve called away to some very fine gentlemen who are just the perfect thing for you. No bumpkins here.”
Clara’s irritation was mounting.
“Thank you, Charlotte,” she managed. A pain was forming at the side of her temple and she absentmindedly rubbed at it. “I don’t mean to be rude but where’s your washroom?” she asked.
“I’ll show you,” Amelia said before Charlotte could draw in a breath to answer.
Charlotte smiled. “Thank you, pet,” she said.
“This way, Clara,” Amelia told her.
Clara followed her out of the parlor. They hadn’t gone three steps down the hall before Amelia produced a small silver case from some pocket in the shawl. She opened it and withdrew a cigarette.
“Charlotte doesn’t approve of my smoking,” she explained when she caught Clara’s dubious stare.
“Ah,” Clara replied, trying not to frown. She didn’t exactly disapprove of smoking but she didn’t enjoy it either. The smoke only made her cough.
Amelia gave her a wry smile. “Washroom is just down that hall there.”
“Just tell them I got lost coming back to the parlor,” Amelia said.
Clara nodded with a small smile. She didn’t blame Amelia. The last place she wanted to be this afternoon was in a parlor with two old gossips who were planning her future. It was rather a mean thought to have but she couldn’t help it. It wasn’t as if she was in a hurry to marry. Her parents had left her quite a substantial fortune and money would not be an issue unless she decided to try and purchase the crown from the Queen herself. And even with the considerable wealth from her past, Clara planned on opening a dress shop within the year. All in all, she wouldn’t be needing any income that a husband could provide. The world was quickly entering a new era – one of feminine independence. War had stolen away the men and quickened the women. They’d been handed heavy burdens and had carried them with heads held high. Those heads would not be so easily lowered now.
But Aunt Minerva was from a different age where women covered their bodies and didn’t cut their hair. Clara knew she felt responsible for ensuring that Clara have a spouse. Out of respect, Clara didn’t often try to stop her matchmaking efforts. And anyway, she couldn’t very well say that she wasn’t interested in the prospect of a husband.
Clara turned down the appointed hallway and found the washroom that was tucked away in what was once likely a broom closet. She splashed some water on her face and re-pinned her hair, pulling back the loose strands which framed her face. She stared at herself in the mirror, studying the reflection of the pretty young girl. Was this a face that attracted men? Was it one that drove them away?
“Stop being silly,” Clara muttered to the reflection. She snapped away from the mirror and stomped out of the washroom, coming to a grinding halt under the contemptuous glare of a man in servant’s clothes.
The man stood at attention, hands tucked neatly behind him. She was so utterly flabbergasted at his presence that she could only stare at him, open mouthed. After an incredibly awkward moment, he bowed.
“I’m at your service, Miss Highsmith,” he said in a droll voice.
“I…I see. And you are?” she asked, her face the picture of mildly horrified confusion.
“I’m called Todd, miss,” he said. His voice was heavy and monotone. He was only as tall as she was with close cropped brown hair and dark brown eyes that had sort of a dead quality to them. He had the sort of body that she imagined was built for fitting into small, secret places.
“Well…Thank you, Todd. I’ll call on you if I need you,” Clara said. “Please, excuse me.”
“You need no excuse, miss,” Todd told her.
“I’ll…just be…uh…You may go now,” she told him, trying to find some semblance of authority.
“Of course, miss.” He turned sharply on his toes and walked back the way she’d come earlier – out towards the main hall.
Clara had no intention of following him. Heart thrashing wildly in her chest, she nearly ran the opposite direction, ducking down the first hallway she could find. It was very narrow and plain. Simple wood paneling covered the walls – no tapestries. Clara didn’t slow down until the hall turned into a steep set of stairs. She clattered down them after only a moment’s hesitation. It wasn’t until she was halfway down that she realized these were the servant’s stairs. They fed into a row of small bedrooms with a large kitchen at the end. The kitchen was alive with staff. Cooks and maids fussed over dishes with butchers bringing in great slabs of meat. Butlers hammered manners into the wait staff who were busy polishing silverware and plates. As a unit, they all turned to stare at Clara the moment she stepped into their realm of awareness.
The room fell into silence, apart from the occasional chorus of clucking and the snapping of burning logs in the fireplace. It would have been less awkward if she’d stumbled onto a secret enclave of elves under the floorboards…
Clara coughed nervously and gave them all an abashed grin. “Oh hello,” she said lightly. “I…suppose I’ve lost my way. If you’ll just point me in the right direction…” She trailed off.
A young man immediately hopped up from his seat only to be roughly shoved back down by an elder gentleman with graying hair but a sure step. “Right this way, m’lady,” he said. He had a country accent but his manners were impeccable.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Stay close now. It can get to be a right maze in here,” he told her. Clara planted herself by his elbow and followed him through the servants’ quarters. He took her up a different way then she had come and they reentered the main house near the ballroom.
“My but this is a large house,” she remarked to fill the quiet space between them.
“Indeed, miss,” he agreed. “Lots of rooms to get lost in. There is a rumor running around that there are secret passages behind the walls.” He had more than a hint of mystery in his voice and a healthy dose of good humor. Clara liked this old man.
“Are there really?” she asked, taking the obvious bait.
“Well now, that’s for the ghosts to say.” He smiled at her.
They walked for a few moments, crossing through the ballroom, across the hall, and into the library. The walls were lined with shelves and the shelves with books. Clara found herself walking much slower here. The elderly butler waited patiently at the other end of the room while she studied some of the titles. Most of the tomes were educational – books on medicine, plants, the human body. She didn’t have much interest in these but she was drawn to a copy of Moby Dick. The spine was worn. This was a much loved book. If it could speak to her, would it tell her stories of the hands that held it? Was it read most by great thinkers or poets? Or perhaps a child with an imagination as big as the ocean…
“Do you read?” she asked the butler.
He looked mildly surprised that she was even asking him such a question but he answered all the same. “No, ma’am. I’ve little time for reading.”
“Shame,” she said with an awkward smile. She ran her finger over the spin of the book and it came away dusty. In fact, most of the books were dusty. “Looks like you aren’t the only one without time for reading,” she remarked.
“Indeed,” the butler replied. “The majority of this library dates back to the original Kerneweks. The current Kerneweks are not overly fond of books.” He had amusement in his eyes.
Clara realized then that she was really just trying to waste time. And why should she bother with that? Amelia simply vanished without any explanation at all and not even a hint of remorse. Furthermore, the thought of going back into the parlor made her chest tighten and her palms sweat. “Is there a path down to the ocean?”
The butler cocked his head to the side slightly. “It’s rather cold—”
“I’m aware. I, uh, need some fresh air,” Clara insisted.
He dipped his head. “I’ll have someone fetch your coat. Please excuse me.” He left her there, in the library. Clara felt a thrill run through her. It was silly, of course, but the taste of rebellion was enchanting.
It wasn’t five minutes before Joanna appeared with her winter things. Clara buttoned up her coat and tied the scarf around her neck.
“Is there a back door?” she asked Joanna.
Joanna nodded silently. She led Clara to the back of the house. With each step, Clara felt more and more like a character in an Agatha Christie novel. She was secretly on the trail of a criminal, stealing away to his secret meeting place where he was to speak with his as-of-yet unknown partner…
“There you are then,” Joanna said, opening the door which was really more of a side door then a back door. Beyond it was a veranda and beyond the veranda, just down a short flight of steps, was a path.
The icy wind whipped in, almost squashing Clara’s enthusiasm. She wrapped her arms around herself and forged ahead, into the openness. The snow had stopped falling and the sun was out. It made the environment deceptive. It looked like it should have been warm and mild outside but the wind made for bone chilling temperatures. Even still, she immediately felt better as she walked away from the house. With each step, she felt the emotional pressure ease its hold on her.
By the time she came to the edge of the beach, a soft smile had crept up onto Clara’s face. She stopped and took a deep breath, filling up her lungs with chilled salty air. As she breathed out, the last of her stress drained away.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a bad weekend after all. If she could keep her head and mind her temper, Clara imagined that she could actually enjoy herself. The other women – her aunt, Mrs. Kernewek, Amelia – were only trying to help. Well, at least she thought Amelia was trying to help. The young flapper might very well be helping only to stave off boredom. But even that was ok. There was something about the plucky girl that Clara found herself starting to like. Perhaps it was her uncompromising attitude toward life. This was not a girl who allowed herself to be boxed in by tradition. She was on the very precipice of modern ideas. That, in and of itself, was exciting.
Clara sighed noisily. She started walking towards the water. The ocean was wild and gray, lashing out at the world. She chided the sea on its temper. This was why it was so lonely in the wintertime. No one liked to be next to a writhing tantrum, especially when cold temperatures were involved. And so the sea was abandoned by all the beach-goers – the surfers, the swimmers, the kite-flyers, the picnickers. Even the gulls had flown away. Everyone was gone except the ones who were just as cantankerous as the sea – the fishermen.
And also Clara.
She walked along the edge of where the water lapped at the sand. The empty vastness of the sea was a welcome sight. It was the space where she could safely put her thoughts and feelings. They could roam here without running into anyone else. The sound of waves lulled her into a sort of peacefulness. It grounded her. It took all of her cramped worries and cares and released them back into the wilds where they belonged.
The beach ended in a massive outcropping of rock. Great big boulders had broken off from the main bit and lay scattered in the sand. Some were as tall as she was. Clara found one that came to her knees and brushed the snow off of it. Then she carefully perched on top, pulling her coat tighter around her to seal in the warmth. Her eyes got lost in the endless stretch of water.
This was a place of safety.
Or rather, it had been.
And then a hand clamped down on her shoulder.
Clara was off the rock like a shot, a half scream frozen in her throat. Sand went flying. She spun around.
“What are you doing here?!” came a harshly accusing voice. It belonged to a tall man with sturdy shoulders and a mop of black hair that whipped around wildly in the wind. His eyes were hard and angry and just a shade or two greener then the gray sea behind her.
“I could very well ask the same of you!” she shot back angrily. Her heart was thumping like a kettle drum, her eyes as big as saucers.
“Don’t try to dodge the question,” he growled. His whole body moved with the stiffness of rage.
Clara’s eyebrow crept up in indignation. She was never one to take such demands from a man – let alone a stranger. She certainly would not begin bowing to orders when she’d been so startled. This man could be anyone! He might’ve been a murderer or a rapist for all she knew. Perhaps she’d been about to stumble onto his latest victim. Was there a fresh corpse behind the boulder?
“My reasons are my own,” she said just as testily, backing up a step or two. She was not keenly aware of the water that reached the very edge of her skirt as her heels sunk into the sand but she did crane her head sideways to look behind him, searching for the telltale signs of a dead body. Drag marks, blood, a pale lifeless hand…
“What are you looking for?” he asked, his eyebrows knit together in confusion. His voice was still hot with accusation.
“Nothing,” Clara snapped.
“Who are you?” the man growled.
“I’m leaving,” she hissed. She turned decisively.
Clara had never been terribly lucky with these sorts of encounters. She wanted to storm off in a fiery display of defiance. It was a show of power and control. It sent the message to this man that she was not under his authority. She would not be questioned like a spy.
That’s not what happened.
In the act of stomping, her ankle twisted sideways in the wet sand.
And then an icy wave crashed over her, drenching her from head to toe.
And then she fell on her bottom.
And also, a very undignified and rather animalistic shriek was wrenched out of her mouth as she went down.
For one dumbfounded moment, Clara could only stare at the sand in shock. And then she looked up at the man who was staring at her – also in shock at the sudden turn of events. He at least had the decency to look a little ashamed and not nearly as angry as before. In fact, he even stepped forward to help her up, hands extended.
“Do not touch me.” Her voice was steeped in venom, chin tilted to the side, eyebrows arched high.
The man backed off.
Clara floundered a little in the water but eventually managed to stand on her own. Her heart still hammering in her chest, she started a proud walk back to the house. She made it halfway there before the cold reduced her to a shriveled shivering mass of half-frozen Londoner.
The walk back to the house wasn’t terribly long but Clara was nearly frozen by the time she fumbled the door open. She walked into the house and closed her eyes as the warmth washed over her.
“Are you alright, miss?” came a timid young voice. It was Joanna. Concern etched the girls face.
Clara gave her a tight embarrassed smile. “I uh…had a bit of an accident. I don’t suppose you could show me to my room? My clothes are a bit…well, drenched, really.”
Joanna nodded quickly. “This way,” she said. She turned and walked away briskly. Clara hurried to keep up. They’d made it to the stairs before she was caught.
Clara made a face to the staircase which only Joanna saw. “I’m fine, Auntie,” she said as she turned to face Minerva.
Charlottes face was a picture of horror. “What on earth happened?” she shrieked as she rushed up to Clara, taking her hand as if Clara was about to fall flat on her face.
“I tripped,” Clara said simply. “Fell in the water. Rather silly, really. But honestly, I’m fine.” She purposefully avoided the topic of her mystery-man-who-might-be-a-murderer. Minerva would be livid at the thought of Clara having conversations with strange men alone and then Charlotte would latch onto the idea of a scandal and then Clara would never hear the end of it. And anyway, it was a silly thing to get worked up over. Her imagination had gotten the better of her and she wouldn’t have that poor man suffer because of it.
“Oh dear, you’re like a block of ice. Come now, let’s draw you a nice hot bath. Hmm? It’ll warm you right up!” Charlotte said.
Clara was about to refuse but then she realized that the idea of a bath sounded like the exact thing that she wanted and she found herself nodding to Charlotte who then started pulling her up the stairs by the hand.
“What were you doing outside?” Minerva asked, close behind.
Clara winced. She’d hoped they’d gloss over that little detail. “I needed some fresh air,” she said lamely. She shot her aunt a pleading look. Minerva’s eyes were narrow in suspicion.
“You should have waited until it was warmer,” Minerva pressed. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you fall ill by tomorrow. That was a foolish thing, Clara.”
“Yes, I’m beginning to agree,” Clara said back. And it was an honest response. Instead of feeling calmer, she felt more anxious then before. And freezing cold to boot. She couldn’t help but wonder why her plans went so horribly wrong. They either went well or they turned catastrophic. There was no midway point. It was terrifically unfair.
The bath was an event in and of itself. Clara had never been so bothered by the simple act of bathing before. Before she was even allowed to settle into the steaming water, Charlotte and Minerva fussed over peeling off her wet things and then Charlotte insisted on picking out just the right dress to wear for dinner.
“We’re having important guests tonight,” Charlotte said with a massive grin. “You’ve simply got to look your best. But, of course, not your very best. We shall save that look for tomorrow night.”
Clara had a considerable fight with herself to keep the grimace from showing. It was a very bloody mental battle. Her sense of decency almost lost. Frustration and pride ganged up on it and started to beat it into a pulp but then manners came in and gave them both a good thrashing. It took a knife in the knee but in the end frustration slunk back into its hole and pride sat and had a good cry, feeling sorry for itself despite repeated reminders that it had already had its moment and that moment had gotten Clara soaked and humiliated. But, in the end, she did not grimace at Charlotte.
After the affair with the bath and the long period of dressing which followed, it was nearly dinnertime. Clara wore a skirt that came down to her calves with a matching blouse that went well past her waist. It was loose fitting and comfortable – another product of wartime that she didn’t mind so much.
Dinner was an interesting event. In addition to Aunt Minerva, Charlotte, and Amelia (who still wore her shapeless shift but now with the addition of a feathered hair band), there were three gentlemen in the dining room, milling around the table. As one, all three turned to greet her.
The first man was considerably older than she was. His hair was nearly white and he had the thick gut of the perpetually wealthy. She assumed, correctly, that this was Mr. Kernewek. He gently took her hand and introduced himself with a good deal of geniality. He had a patient manner. Steady. A perfect match for the flighty Mrs. Kernewek.
The second man wasn’t quite as old as Mr. Kernewek but he had a very stately air about him. His wore an expensive looking suit and carried a gold topped cane. His name was Anthony West and Clara could never fully bring herself to be all that interested in him. And she wished fervently that he’d turn his interest elsewhere. Mr. West had a very oily stare that made you want to scrub it away as soon as it touched you.
The third man, if she had to guess, was near to her age. His dark blond hair was smartly slicked back, parted at the side. His face was cleanly shaven and smooth. His smile came easy and was of the sort that melted hearts and loosened lips. His eyes, a warm deep brown, were welcoming.
“You must be Clara,” he said. His voice was a clear, rich tenor. “I’m George Falkland. It is my genuine pleasure to meet you.” George took her hand and gently caressed it.
Clara blushed. It was such a horrifically girlish thing to do but the delicate-flower part of her personality was titillated by this man. She grinned a tight shy sort of grin that was trying very hard not to be a full-on toothy affair. “I’m uh…It’s nice to meet you,” she managed to say.
Charlotte was beaming and Clara did her best to avoid looking at the other woman. “Why don’t we all sit down?” Charlotte said, clapping her hands.
And they did. Minerva sat on one side of Clara and Amelia was about to sit on the other when Charlotte sent her a scathing glare. The younger girl immediately moved to the opposite side of the table, leaving the seat beside Clara open for George. Pride reared its head to complain at the obvious set up but Clara couldn’t help but be excited when he sat down next to her.
Dinner was served. Clara assumed it was on the lavish end but she wasn’t paying much attention to it. There was some expensive sea food dish and something green and leafy and there were a variety of creams and soups and sauces. She ate automatically, keeping most of her energy focused on not staring at George or sounding like an idiot whenever she spoke to him.
“So what is it you do, Clara?”
“Well, I’m not married.”
“I find that very difficult to believe! Although, I must say, I also find it…well, a relief.”
“Also, you’ve a very wonderful laugh.”
“Oh don’t rag…”
George fixed her with those soul warming eyes of his. “You think I’m ragging?”
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Well…I suppose not.” Clara forced herself to take a bite of food so that she wouldn’t continue to jaw on about laughing.
They continued on like this for several courses until dinner ended and they all retired to the parlor for cream teas and coffee. Charlotte had Amelia put a record on and the gramophone filled the room with music.
“Amelia brought some records with her from America,” Charlotte was saying. “I think they’re simply sensational. Don’t you agree?”
They all agreed.
Mr. Kernewek instigated a game of canasta which Minerva, Anthony and Charlotte joined. Amelia and Clara settled near the fireplace with George. It was all very relaxing until something very startling happened. Somewhere near the end of the record, the parlor doors opened. Joanna stood in the open space.
“Ma’am,” she said to Charlotte, “Mr. Dover and Miss Green have arrived.”
“See them in at once, Joanna,” Charlotte told her.
Moments later, a lanky woman with short brown hair came strutting into the room. Laura Green was a pristine woman – the epitome of the modern day upper crust. She was on the younger side though she carried herself like an older woman. She smiled and greeted everyone with carefully manicured politeness.
“I’m terribly sorry for our lateness, Charlotte,” Laura was telling the older woman. “Charles was late in picking me up and I’m afraid we simply fell behind from there.” She turned to the others as if she felt the need to offer a further explanation. “I live in town, you see, and don’t have a car of my own. Charles was good enough to offer me a ride.”
As per social protocol, Minerva smiled and offered her absolution for her absence. “We’re happy to have you join us, Miss Green.”
“Oh please, call me Laura,” the woman said.
The man, Charles, walked in then.
Clara nearly choked on her tea.
It was her mystery murderer from the beach.
His hair was askew and unkempt. His narrow face was decidedly not friendly. He used his facial expression like a barbed wire fence – keeping everyone far away from any intentional interaction. But when their eyes met, genuine surprise painted over the tetchy expression. Clara matched the surprise and added a little righteous anger to it. It was only a split second of a moment. She’d have been more surprised if anyone caught it. Just as soon as they shared their distress, it was buried deep again.
Well, Clara fancied that she buried her emotions deep. In reality, she’d become stiff and dodgy and George made note of her sudden change.
“Are you alright, Clara?” he asked quietly, keeping the concern between the two of them. She appreciated his discretion.
She put on a smile that was slightly exaggerated. “I’m fine, thank you.”
As the newcomers settled into the room, the conversation picked back up again. George continued to talk to her but her responses were shorter now, shrouded in distraction. As much as she hated herself for it, Clara kept glancing over at Charles. Charles Dover. The man who was late. The man with the gray-green eyes. The man who nearly murdered her.
He was a lot less frightening in the tame environment of the house. His hair was still a disaster but at least it wasn’t trying to migrate off his head. He wasn’t making wild accusations anymore either which was a massive relief. In fact, he hardly seemed to speak at all. The others threw some casual conversation his way which he parried with no-nonsense responses that were more standoffish then anything. Mostly, he gave the impression of stern resentment. He made Aunt Minerva look like a flapper by comparison.
The important thing, she decided, was that he was pointedly ignoring her. He wouldn’t even glance in her direction. Which was just fine. It wasn’t as if she wanted to get his attention anyway. He could rot in hell for all she cared and he probably deserved it anyway. Why else would a man be skulking around if not to do hellish things? He’d probably murder her for catching him on the beach anyway and it wouldn’t do to be seen fraternizing with ones intended victim. Too many witnesses…
“Clara?” George was looking at her expectantly.
She stared at him a moment. “I’m sorry?”
“I asked if you liked Duke Ellington,” George said.
“Oh…I’m afraid I haven’t…Um…Is he a writer?” Clara asked.
George laughed – it was a magical sound. “No, he’s a jazz musician. I take it you don’t listen much to music.”
She winced apologetically. “No, I’m afraid not.”
“You mean to say that you, with all that astounding beauty, no handsome fellow has ever bought you a Gramophone?” he asked lightly, his eyes dancing in amusement.
Clara liked being called beautiful as much as the next girl but after a point, it just became too much. She was a lot more than a pretty face atop fantastic birthing hips. “Oh, my astounding beauty? No, sir. All those handsome fellows at my doorstep were far too interested in my considerable ability to thrash them in chess.”
George looked a little abashed. “Ah. Well,” he said awkwardly, “most women I know would be flattered more by comments on beauty. I’m not very good at complementing intelligence, I suppose. I’m ill equipped, as it were.”
Clara pursed her lips together and nodded slowly. “Look, at the very least you could pretend to be interested in my winning personality,” she told him with a good dose of scathing sarcasm.
Amelia choked out a half laugh that she covered with a cough. Clara ignored her.
George winced. “No, please, I apologize. I didn’t mean to insinuate that I was only interested in your looks.”
“Oh but you are interested,” she pointed out.
He gave a little nervous chuckle. “I won’t lie to you, Clara. I’d be a fool to overlook your outstanding beauty. But it’s certainly not at the forefront of my attention.” He gave her a charming smile. “Please, this is all too shattering.”
Clara’s heart beat a little faster.
“Well aren’t you just the monkey’s eyebrows,” Amelia muttered.
George turned away to face the American with a wry smile. “Amelia, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Good of you to notice my existence,” she snarked. She pulled a cigarette from the silver case and held it out. “Have you got a light?”
George produced a book of matches from his pocket and deftly lit her cigarette in one smooth movement. “There you are, then.”
Amelia gave him an appraising look. “Thanks.”
“You’re quite welcome,” he replied. And then he stood. “Please excuse me, ladies. I’ll return momentarily.” With that, he was walking away.
Clara watched him until he crossed in front of Charles. And then she realized, with a start, that Charles was looking back at her. He stared at her intently, his eyes as cold as ice. He didn’t flinch away when she stared back.
“So what’d you think? Isn’t he just the cat’s particulars?” Amelia asked, her eyes dancing with excitement.
Clara blinked, drawing her attention back to the girl. “I’m sorry?”
“Where is your head tonight? George! He’s one of the local highjohns. Charlotte and I just think he’d be perfect for you.”
Clara allowed herself a bashful smile. “Well, he’s certainly dashing.”
“And charming?” Amelia pressed.
“Alright, yes! He’s very charming and very dashing and I should think our children would be both devastatingly beautiful and wickedly smart,” Clara said, a full smile blooming on her face.
Amelia giggled. “I knew you two would be a hit. But see here, keep him close. Laura seems to have her eye on him too.”
Clara looked over at the other woman who seemed to be very interested in the game of canasta that was happening. She felt a pang of suspicion roll through her, suddenly very unhappy at the thought of someone stealing away her potential husband.
“Bother it,” she muttered. “Who is she?”
Amelia shrugged. “Just some rich cat’s daughter. She’s about as smart as a barrel of pickles, if you ask me – a regular dumbdora. But she’s got a flat chest and a pretty face. A good a catch as any,” Amelia concluded.
“Ah, yes. And we know how much George enjoys a pretty face,” Clara sighed.
“Oh don’t hold that against him, Ritz. You’d be too if you were a man,” Amelia admonished. “Besides, at least he admits it.”
Clara rubbed her temples, feeling her chest tighten up a little. “I just wish these bloody beasts would…oh I don’t know.”
Amelia seemed to sober up considerably. “Treat you like you’re a real person?” she asked. The sudden depth of honesty in her voice caught Clara off guard.
“Yes. I suppose that has something to do with it,” she conceded. “Sometimes I’m glad that my parents left me with the money that they did. I feel as though I can afford to be ugly.”
Amelia has a peculiar look on her face that Clara couldn’t really nail down. “What happened with your parents?” she asked in a subdued voice.
Clara hesitated. “They uh…died. In a bomb raid.”
Amelia nodded. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“So am I.”
The mood had grown somber in the space between Amelia and Clara. The fire cracked and hissed at them and Clara felt herself sink into the mesmerizing flames. She felt like she were being watched. And she felt like Charles was doing the watching. It was incredibly unnerving but pride wasn’t about to let her shrink away – not even if that meant finding the secret passages behind the walls.
“Say, have you ever heard about the secret passages?” Clara asked.
Amelia’s mouth quirked up into a smile. “Been talking to Old Ben?”
“Assuming he’s the delightful old butler, yes.” Clara looked up at Amelia and felt her own smile coming back.
“That’s not even the best story,” Amelia told her. “Ask him sometime about the Kernewek treasure.”
Clara’s eyebrows shot up. “A treasure?”
“Sure thing. Apparently the great great great grandpappy of the Kernewek clan stole a bunch of loot from the royal family. And I mean the royal family. As in ‘your majesty’. He buried it somewhere around the property and passed the secret of its location down through the generations and there’s a map somewhere in the house.”
Clara laughed. “Oh if only it were true. We could go on an actual treasure hunt,” she said with a grin.
“Might even be better than finding you a husband,” Amelia teased.
“Very funny,” Clara said with narrowed eyes but a playful smile.
“What’s funny?” came Georges voice behind her.
Clara craned her head back to look at him. “We’re going to be adventurers,” she said. “It’s infinitely more exciting than being courted by dashing men.”
George smirked. “You think I’m dashing?”
Instantly, Clara realized her mistake. Cheeks flushing, she opened her mouth to say something only to snap it shut again before that something turned into stupid. “You...are courting me?” she finally managed to say.
George winked. “We’ll see,” he said.
She hated the ambiguity but loved him for not dismissing the idea outright. And then she hated herself for loving it. It was like she was a fumbling schoolgirl…
“But I’m afraid I must retire for the evening,” he said, raising his voice to get the attention of the hosts. Charlotte perked up immediately.
“So soon, George?” she asked.
“I’m afraid so, Mrs. Kernewek. But I’ll be back by tomorrow night for this party of yours,” he promised.
She gave him a knowing grin. “I’m sure you won’t be able to stay away.”
George winked at her and then fixed his eyes back on Clara. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said.
“Yes,” she said with a nervous chuckle. “Tomorrow.”
There was a chorus of ‘good-nights’ from everyone except for Charles and then, with a flourish, George was gone. As soon as he’d left, Clara felt like a social vacuum had been created. She suddenly wasn’t at all interested in talking to Amelia or listening to the playful banter at the card table. She didn’t care about the jazz music or the warmth of the fireplace. She didn’t care about Charles—
He was staring at her again.
Clara’s eyes narrowed as she stared back. But this didn’t seem to have any effect. It was almost as if he were staring through her eyes with that angry, distant look of his. Only it wasn’t just angry. She caught something else there – a sort of haunted aspect. Without quite knowing why, Clara felt chilled by this new depth. She found that she didn’t want to look at him. But at the same time, it was like watching a train wreck.
Clara snapped her eyes away, shaking her head. “I think that swim I had in the ocean today has left me more tired than usual,” she told Amelia who was only half paying attention to her. “I think I’ll go to bed now.”
“Alright,” Amelia said with a flippant wave of her hand. “Goodnight.”
Clara left the parlor and made her way upstairs. A dozen thoughts were cycling through her mind, each vying for degrees immediacy and vexation. Chief among them was George and Mr. Dover. One was exciting while the other was upsetting. As Clara shed her dinner clothes and donned a night gown, she puzzled over the two men. When she settled down on the bed, however, Clara was surprised to discover a genuine exhaustion. Very quickly did the first notes of sleep grace her mind.