The darkness was absolute, the interior of the chest smelling rank and damp. Their bodies were pressed together, crammed in an unnatural position, limbs stiff after hours of immobility. At first, there was still hope, but it had run out, as had the air, as the tight-fitting lid prevented even the smallest amount from seeping in. His arms felt like lead, but he gathered what was left of his waning strength and lifted his hand to her face. He didn’t need to see it; her features were burned into his brain, as were those of their child. Please God, keep the babe safe.
Her skin was still warm, but she was already gone, as surely as he would be in the next few minutes. His lungs were already burning, a sheen of sweat covering his face. He pressed his lips against her unresponsive mouth in a final kiss as a last thought flashed through his dying brain:
It had all been worth it.
Sean Adams leaped from the cab of his digger and pushed his way through the crowd of men gathered around a large opening. c The ceiling of the chamber had caved in, having been nothing more than a thin layer of rotted wooden beams, revealing a narrow space beneath, the walls of which were solid stone. The men peered into the hole, curious to see what it held.
“Step aside, step aside,” foreman Milne bellowed. He stood at the edge of the opening and shone a torch into the dark recess of the chamber. “What have we here?” he asked no one in particular, as he removed his hardhat and scratched his egg-shaped head. Foreman Milne was a good-natured man most of the time, not averse to joining his crew for a pint and singing loudly and off-key once he’d had a few, but at this moment he was vibrating with irritation. He had no time for delays; he was on a schedule, and the management was breathing down his neck.
“What is it, boss?” someone called out. “A buried treasure?” The men chuckled. They found all kinds of rubbish at every new site: bits of furniture, rusted prams, sometimes even old cellars which had been used as air raid shelters during the last war, complete with tin cups, wooden benches, and old newspapers. But this looked different. The chamber was completely empty, except for one large rectangular object.
“Bring me a ladder, lads. A long one,” the foreman called. “Adams, you’re with me, since we have you to thank for this ‘fortuitous’ find.”
Sean Adams reluctantly followed his boss into the dank hole. The roof had rotted away, but the walls were still intact, built of rough-hewn stone nearly a foot thick. They were cold to the touch, even on a pleasant day like today. The opening looked like it might have been a large well in its day, but there was no indication that it ever contained any water. The walls were not covered with mildew, and the packed earth at the bottom was dry as bone.
“Toss me down a pair of cutters,” the foreman called out to the men gathered at the top. “This thing appears to have a lock on it.”
The two men stood awkwardly next to what appeared to be an oversized sea chest. It took up most of the space, leaving barely any room for Milne and Adams to stand. The chest looked sturdy and was secured with a chain and an old-fashioned padlock, which was rusted with age and neglect. Foreman Milne gently kicked the chest with his foot and the two men heard something rattle within. He then ran a finger along the lid. It came away dusty, but the wood beneath appeared to be in good condition. The chest was elaborately carved and painted, the colors still vibrant despite the layers of grime.
Sean was vibrating with curiosity and wished Milne would just get on with it. His brother Joe worked on a site where they found a leather pouch full of antique coins. The story had been in all the major newspapers and even on the telly. Joe had been interviewed, and the segment appeared on the news. The coins were now part of an exhibition at the British Museum, and Joe still told the story of his historic find every time he had a captive audience.
“Shall I do it, boss?” Sean asked the foreman, his voice quivering with excitement. The older man shrugged and moved aside as much as the small space would allow, his face creased with displeasure. He handed Sean the cutters and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed, his posture indicative of the impatience that he was trying to keep in check. Foreman Milne wasn’t the type of man who suffered from acute curiosity or an overactive imagination. He assumed they’d found some rubbish which would need to be cleared away, resulting in wasting several hours of their time. To him, it made no difference who opened the chest.
Sean cut the rusty chain and kicked away the lock that had clattered to the stone floor. He took a shaky breath before lifting the lid and peering inside.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he breathed out as he quickly crossed himself. Sean stepped back, nearly colliding with Foreman Milne who’d taken a step forward to shine a light into the chest. It was full of bones, the skulls grinning eerily out of the gloom.
The men above were craning their necks for a better look, blocking nearly all the light in the process. Someone already had his mobile out and was snapping pictures of the find, the flash blinding in the dark space.
“No photos,” Milne bellowed as he stood in front of the open chest. “Get away with you.”
“Sean, call the police. Now!”
Quinn threw another log on the fire and went to pour herself a cup of tea. A steady rain had been falling since the night before, bringing with it a howling wind and a bone-chilling damp which seemed to seep into the stones. The room was lost in shadow, the lowering sky and pouring rain having leached all light out of the October afternoon. But the fire glowed in the hearth, casting shifting shadows onto the stone walls and filling the room with a welcome warmth, the crackling of the logs momentarily blocking out the moaning of the wind.
Quinn sat down on the sofa and wrapped her hands around the hot mug. The heat felt good, so she held the mug for a few minutes without drinking, absorbing the pleasant warmth which brought her a welcome sense of comfort. Despite the cold and the rain, it felt good to be home, even if that home wasn’t quite as she had left it. She’d returned to England only a few days ago, landing in Heathrow on a golden October morning. She’d collected her cases from the carousel and made her way out the door toward the queue of taxis waiting at the curb.
Quinn filled her lungs with crisp air and smiled at the brilliant foliage which stood out in jarring contrast to the cobalt-blue of the autumn sky. After months of relentless heat and merciless sun of the Middle East, it was lovely to feel a cool breeze on her face and the nip of the coming winter already in the air. Quinn looked as if she’d just come back from a tropical holiday, her face and arms tanned to a golden glow. Still, the six months she’d spent on a dig in Jerusalem had left their mark, both physical and emotional, and she was relieved to be home at last. No one paid her any attention as she waited patiently in line for her turn at a taxi. To anyone who bothered to notice her, she was just an average young woman, casually dressed in jeans, t-shirt, and a worn leather jacket. Her dark hair was pulled into a messy bun atop her head, and her face was devoid of any make-up, except for some lip balm she’d put on before disembarking the plane. She looked like any other tourist, but in archeological circles she was a star, at least until the next big find.
Unearthing the Roman sword dating back to the Great Revolt of 66 CE was a tremendous coup. The sword had been discovered lodged in the drainage system running between the City of David and the Archeological Garden and was found only feet away from an ancient stone depicting a Menorah. The Menorah had been etched into the stone with something crude and sharp, like an old nail or a chisel, but it was close enough to Temple Mount to be of tremendous interest, and confirm what the original Menorah might have looked like. Researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority put forth various theories on the significance of the find.
Quinn had to admit that she had been more interested in the sword. It was still in its leather scabbard, which was miraculously well preserved. The scabbard kept some of the decorations from being obliterated by time and the elements, allowing a glimpse into Roman craftsmanship of the period. The sword likely belonged to a simple infantryman, but it was so much more than a sharp hunk of metal. It was not only a tool, but a work of art, a lovingly-crafted weapon which would have been treasured and well-maintained by its bearer. The sword would remain in Jerusalem, but Quinn had published her findings and had agreed to interviews with CNN, the British Archeology Magazine, and the Archeological Journal, scheduled back-to-back for the day after her arrival. The sword might be thousands of years old, but the news of its discovery would fade fast, and the interviews had to be published while public interest was still at its peak.
And now she was finally at home, having fulfilled her obligations and free until the spring semester began just after the New Year. She’d intended to pick up a few classes at the Institute, devote time to research, and apply for new grants which would fund the next dig when they came through; and spend time with Luke. At least that had been the plan while she was still in Jerusalem, but things had changed.
It felt strange to walk into the house and face all the empty spaces. They glared at her like empty eye-sockets, eerie and blank. Luke had cleared out before she returned, partially to avoid awkwardness, and partially because he’d been in a rush to leave. He hadn’t even given her the courtesy of breaking up with her in person. He’d dumped her via text, telling her that he had accepted a teaching position in Boston and would be gone by the time she returned. This was no longer their house, their little love nest, but it was her home, and despite the sadness that filled the quiet rooms, she still loved it.
Quinn snuggled deeper into the sofa and gazed with affection at the familiar room. The house had once been a private chapel, built by some devoted husband for his devout Catholic wife, but it had been confiscated by the Crown during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and allowed to fall into disrepair once everything of value had been stripped, sold off, or melted down. It stood empty for centuries, forgotten and desolate, before being offered to Captain Lewis Granger, a distant cousin of the family that still owned the estate at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The young captain had been embroiled in a scandal involving the young wife of a well-respected general, dishonorably discharged from the army just before Waterloo, and sent home to England. He had disgraced himself to the point where he could no longer show his face in London, at least for a time, and so he appealed to his cousin, begging for sanctuary, which Squire Granger reluctantly offered. Lewis Granger might have been a libertine and a gambler, but he had a penchant for architecture and history and had turned the ruin into a home, rebuilding the crumbling structure with his own two hands and the help of a few lads from the village, who were more than happy to earn a few quid during a time when well-paying jobs were scarce and returning soldiers tried to pick up the pieces of their lives and find any employment going.
Squire Granger had been so impressed with Lewis’s efforts, that he bequeathed the chapel to Lewis in his will, and it had remained in the family until the last descendant sold the house to Quinn three years ago. Niles Granger was a young man who was thoroughly at odds with Lewis’s legacy. His spiky hair was dyed platinum blond, he wore unbearably-narrow trousers and horn-rimmed spectacles, proclaiming himself to be a hipster and an artist. Niles had no interest in history or architecture, and wanted nothing more than to get away from all that “old shite,” as he so eloquently described it. He unloaded it gleefully and never looked back, using the profits to buy a dilapidated loft with space for a studio where he created works of unfathomable modernity using splashes of bright colors, bits of trash, and phallic symbols strategically displayed for maximum shock value.
The rest of the estate had been bought years earlier by an eccentric millionaire who converted the huge manor house into Lingfield Park Resort. Despite its proximity to the resort, Quinn’s house felt completely private. The chapel was nestled in the woods at the edge of the property, and none of the guests ever ventured in that direction, warned off by the “Private Property” sign nailed to a tree and lack of a walkable path. There was a narrow lane, just wide enough for one car to pass on the other side of the house, which led into the village, but the lane saw so little traffic that Quinn felt as if she were living alone in the woods.
Now, three years later, Quinn was still charmed by the stained-glass windows set high in the stone walls, and vaulted ceilings painted with an image of the heavens. Not much had remained of the original chapel, but there was something about it that always made Quinn feel welcome and at home. She supposed it was all the hopes, dreams, and prayers which had been absorbed by the stones over the years. Prayers didn’t just dissipate into thin air, they soaked into the walls, buttressing the structure with their strength and healing energy. As an archeologist, she found it immensely appealing to live in a place that was imbued with so much character and steeped in history.
When originally built, the chapel had been one large open space, but Lewis Granger had divided it into two rooms, the back room serving as a bedroom and furnished with an antique four-poster bed and carved dresser, which Niles had been only too happy to throw in as part of the deal. The dark wood was polished to a shine, the bed-hangings made of embroidered damask in mauve and gold. Once that bed had been the center of Quinn’s universe, the place where she spent lazy afternoons with Luke as they made love, shared their dreams, and made plans for the future. Now, the bed was used only for sleeping and reading when sleep wouldn’t come.
Quinn still felt fragile and bruised by Luke’s sudden desertion, but now being on her own didn’t seem as frightening as it had two months ago when she suddenly found herself single. She’d felt adrift for a while, remembering several times a day that she no longer had anyone to return to, but like all shocks to the system, the knowledge eventually became part of her new reality, and Quinn threw herself into her work, eager to feel like her old self again. There had been a few offers and casual flirtations at the dig, but nothing that blossomed into anything real; she supposed she hadn’t allowed it to. She hadn’t been ready to move on.
At first, Quinn managed to forget about Luke for a few hours at a time, then whole days, but now she was back home, and her loneliness was suddenly sharper and so much more oppressive than it had been in Jerusalem where she was surrounded by people. The silence of the chapel, which she normally found soothing, weighed heavily on her, its density disturbed only by the sound of the falling rain and the ticking of the clock.
Quinn took a sip of tea and closed her eyes. She hated rainy days; they forced her to stay indoors. On fine days, she went for long country walks, walking until she exhausted herself enough to enjoy a few hours of dreamless sleep. But on a day like today, there was nothing to do but brood. She didn’t even have a dog. Her job demanded frequent absences, and it wouldn’t be fair to leave a puppy behind to be looked after by someone else for months on end. She did wish for a companion though. Perhaps she could get a little dog and leave it with her parents when she went overseas. The thought cheered her up as she imagined a furry little ball of affection snuggled in her lap, making her feel less alone.
Quinn nearly spilled her tea when there was a loud knock at the door. She wasn’t expecting any visitors, not so soon after arriving at home, and there was no one she could think of who’d just drop by unannounced. Quinn set her mug down and went to answer the door. Perhaps it was one of the guests from the resort who’d ventured too far off the path and got lost. Quinn opened the door, surprised to find an actual visitor.
“May I come in, or do I have to stand here in the rain?” Gabriel Russell asked as he smiled down at her.
“Of course. Sorry, Gabe. Come on in. May I offer you some tea?”
“You sure can. And add a dollop of whisky, for medicinal purposes,” he joked as he took off his wet coat and hung it on a coat rack before taking a seat on the sofa in front of the roaring fire.
Quinn held out the mug to Gabe and reclaimed her spot on the sofa. The melancholy that crept up on her earlier was gone, and she was suddenly grateful for the unexpected visit. Gabriel Russell wasn’t just her boss, but one of her closest friends. They’d met years ago on a dig in Ireland when she was just a student and he was the dig supervisor, and had remained close ever since, always staying in touch even during the most tumultuous moments of their lives. Gabe invited her to join the faculty at UCL Institute of Archeology when he accepted the position as Head of the Archeology Department, and they shared a nice, comfortable relationship unmarred by stodgy professionalism or academic rivalry. They wanted different things, and Gabe, who preferred a desk job to digging in the dirt, supported Quinn and rejoiced in her success. Luke had taught several classes as the Institute as well, using Quinn’s friendship with Gabe as a way in.
Gabe was in his late thirties, with shaggy dark hair worn just a little too long, and dark-blue eyes fringed with ridiculously long lashes. His nose was a trifle long, and his eyebrows curved like wings above his hooded eyes, making him look stern and unapproachable at times, but that was only until he smiled. Gabe had a radiant smile which made him look sheepish and endearing at the same time. He could probably charm the nickers off Her Majesty, if they ever had occasion to be in the same room, which was why he was as popular with the faculty as he was with the students.
Few people knew this, but Gabe could trace his roots back to the Norman invasion, having descended from Hugh de Rosel who’d accompanied William the Conqueror to the shores of England and had been rewarded for his loyalty with estates in Dorset. Gabe’s family still lived in Berwick, although Gabe was the only male left of the noble line. It was Gabe’s grandfather’s obsession with history that influenced young Gabe and led to a degree in History and Archeology.
Quinn folded her slim legs beneath her and turned her gaze to Gabe as she took a sip of her own tea, eager to hear what brought Gabe to her door on such a filthy night. He’d never been one for unannounced visits, so whatever it was had to be important.
“It’s really coming down out there. I nearly missed the turn; didn’t see the sign for the village. Are you over the worst of the jet-lag?” Gabe asked as he studied her features. Gabe had always detested small talk, but after several years of interdepartmental politics, he learned not to blurt out what was on his mind, as he had done when he was younger. Quinn smiled into her mug. She found this newfound political correctness somewhat amusing, but went along with it nonetheless. Gabe would get to the point eventually, and she was in no rush for him to leave.
“It took about two days to adjust, but I’m back to my usual routine. It’s nice to be home.”
“Oh? Looking forward to a nice, long winter, are you?” he joked.
“After roasting in the desert for six months, a nice cold winter sounds like a dream come true. I won’t even complain about snow.”
“We’ll see about that. I wouldn’t say no to a couple of weeks in a nice, sunny place. Haven’t had a holiday in longer than I can remember. Ibiza would do me very nicely right about now.”
“Maybe you can take Eve over the Christmas hols,” Quinn suggested. Gabe didn’t have much in the way of family, so he always went on holiday during the last week of the year to diffuse some of the loneliness he felt during the most family-oriented time of the year.
“Actually, Eve and I are no longer, but that’s not why I’m here,” Gabe said, but didn’t elaborate. Eve had been the latest in a string of women in Gabe’s life, an editor at a fashion magazine who was glamorous, vivacious, and dangerously independent. She was the type of woman who had lovers, not partners, and Quinn strongly suspected that she’d moved on to someone else while Gabe wasn’t looking. Quinn never could understand why a man as intelligent and warm as Gabe always went for women who could never quite give him their full attention and bailed at the first sign of trouble. She had never known Gabe to be truly in love with any of his amours and wondered what kept him from finding someone who could really touch his heart.
Perhaps he feared commitment, or was wary of getting hurt. After her experience with Luke, Quinn could commiserate. She’d always craved a relationship that could sustain her, but her choice of partners hadn’t been any wiser than Gabe’s. There had been a few men who professed to love her, but sadly, she’d never become their number-one priority and was discarded as soon as something better came along, as it had with Luke. The future she offered him couldn’t compete with a professorship at Harvard University.
Quinn was actually surprised that Gabe made no mention of Luke’s departure. Luke would have informed him since he’d been on the faculty and would have had to give notice. Perhaps Gabe even warranted a phone call or an email, and not just a text, Quinn thought bitterly.
“So, why are you here on a rainy Friday night?” Quinn asked, her expression coy. The last thing she wanted to do was discuss Luke or Eve, but she was too curious to remain silent any longer.
“Have you seen the news?” Gabe asked as he took a sip of his whisky-laced tea and sighed with pleasure as the alcohol hit his bloodstream.
“Human remains were discovered yesterday at a construction site in Mayfair. They’d just broken ground a few days ago for another luxury building of flats few of us can afford. It seems there was a hidden chamber below ground that never figured in the plans.”
“And they called you?” Quinn asked, unsure of why exactly Gabe was involved. “Hardly your area of expertise.”
“The foreman called in the Met and the coroner, but they quickly ruled it out as a recent crime.”
“So, why’s it on the news? Don’t skeletal remains normally get reburied or left where they were found?” Quinn asked.
This wasn’t the first case of human remains being found during excavation. The ground beneath London was full of surprises. Workers routinely came across remains of plague victims who’d been carelessly thrown into pits and buried en masse. At times, they even dug up what used to be whole cemeteries and reburied the dead in another part of town. Unless the remains belonged to someone of historical interest, like Richard III, whose remains had been resting under a parking lot for centuries, they didn’t get much press. These were nameless, faceless relics of another time, a time when people were buried in pauper’s graves and plague pits and forgotten about. There wasn’t much to be learned from these remains, historically speaking, so they were usually just left in their final resting place as a sign of respect or moved somewhere safe.
“This find was special,” Gabe replied with a sigh. “The remains were in a large chest of some kind, padlocked and chained. The two skeletons inside were lying face-to-face, as if sharing a final kiss as they lay dying. Clearly, they didn’t die of natural causes, especially since there are scratch marks on the inside of the lid. Those two were murdered, their bodies hidden and denied proper burial.”
“Do you think they were someone of historical significance?” Quinn asked, her interest piqued.
“I have no idea, but some tosser took pictures with his mobile and sent them to the media. The Globe picked up the story and it went from there. The skeletons are now being referred to as “The Lovers,” and it’s become a real human-interest story. The public want to know who they were and what happened to them,” Gabe said with a faint lift of his eyebrows. “If the media runs with this, we’ll have another Romeo and Juliet on our hands.”
“They’ll lose interest in a few days,” Quinn replied. She was very familiar with the fickle nature of the public. Unless the find was significant, people’s attention very quickly strayed to something more current.
“I don’t think so. I’ve actually had a call from someone at the BBC just this morning. They’re thinking of doing a program based on various finds of historic interest that have cropped up all over the country these past few years. Think of them as historical scavenger hunts, if you will, like Time Team. Interest is high since Richard’s remains were found earlier this year. People are intrigued by the notion that they are going about their daily lives and not suspecting for a second that they might be walking over the mortal remains of a royal.”
“In all probability, those poor people in the chest were as far from royalty as one can get,” Quinn said. Modern people didn’t invent crime; murder had been around as long as humans themselves, and many a murder had gone unsolved, especially in times before the creation of a police force or forensic science.
“It’s still good publicity for the Institute, and might result in some generous grants from the powers-that-be.”
“Why do I have the feeling there’s more to this?” Quinn asked with a smile. She could see the sheepish look on Gabe’s face as he met her gaze. He was getting to the good part.
“I want you to take on this project, Quinn. You are the best forensic archeologist I’ve ever worked with, and you can use your gift to learn about the victims,” he added softly.
Quinn’s eyes flew to Gabe’s face in alarm. They never discussed her “gift.” She’d told him about it a long time ago, in a bout of alcohol-infused self-pity in a pub in Ireland, and now she couldn’t take the revelation back. Gabe had respected her confidence and never brought it up again, allowing her to forget that there was one other person out there in the world who knew of her uncanny ability to see into the past. She’d never told anyone else, not even Luke, frightened of the implications the knowledge might have on her life and her work. It was her ability to see into the past that had influenced Quinn’s choice of career, and a desperate need to tell the stories of people who could no longer speak for themselves, but she could hardly use the information she’d gleaned as scientific research. Every bit of information had to be documented and supported by fact, so Quinn kept a lot of what she saw to herself, using her secret knowledge as a road map to finding out more about the people whose possessions she came across and dressing the information up as scientific discovery.
Quinn had been able to learn quite a lot about a twenty-two year-old boy called Atticus who came to Judea from a province of Rome in search of glory; a dark-eyed handsome youth who died far from home and left behind a child born to a Jewess who’d been married off in haste to hide her disgrace at having lain with a Roman soldier. The sword that belonged to Atticus had been rescued from the clutches of history, but not his story; it would die with Quinn since there was no one she could share it with without betraying her ability, no one except Gabe.
Gabe came to her because he was fully aware of the limitations of this particular assignment. In all probability, historians might never be able to put a name or a face to the two skeletons in the chest, and his only hope of making this project appealing to the BBC was to truly dig deep and find out who the victims were. He was using her most treasured secret against her, knowing that she was likely the only one who could find out the truth about the two people locked in an eternal embrace in that dark chest.
“Why are you doing this to me, Gabe?” she asked warily, her voice devoid of any hint of accusation. She knew why. Gabe would give anything to possess her gift, if only for his own academic ends. He genuinely loved history, and to see into the past as it had really been rather than as it had been imagined was something that as an historian would send him into raptures.
“Quinn, your ability is nothing to be ashamed of. You’ve been given an amazing gift, one that’s invaluable in your chosen profession. You can not only use physical evidence to find out more about your subjects, but actually see into their lives, hear their thoughts. Why are you so reluctant to use it?”
“Because publicly admitting to it would make me look like a quack and destroy my credibility as a scientist. Can you just imagine me discussing my “visions” on BBC? People would go from calling me an historian to calling me a psychic, a label I don’t really care for.”
“But you are psychic, and you are the real deal.”
Quinn shook her head. She’d fought her ability ever since she was a child, resentful of the responsibility it placed squarely on her skinny shoulders. She didn’t want to see people who were long dead going about their business, nor did she want to hear their thoughts or feel their joy and pain. She just wanted to be a normal kid, if such a thing were even possible. Her life could never be normal anyway, given the way it had begun.
“I’ll think about it,” she replied with a grudging half-smile.
“All right, do. I’ll be going now. I’ll wait for your call. If I don’t hear from you by Sunday night, I’ll give the case to someone else, like Monica Fielding, for instance.”
“Like hell you will,” Quinn retorted, suddenly furious. Gabe knew offering this find to Monica would shake her out of her complacency. Quinn supposed that every person eventually came across someone who got under their skin for reasons they couldn’t quite explain. It wasn’t just professional rivalry that pitted the two women against each other, it was a personal one as well. Monica genuinely disliked Quinn and made no secret of it, actually going as far as to question Quinn’s credibility in television interviews and periodicals. She had some sort of personal score to settle with Quinn, and wouldn’t be satisfied until Quinn became a laughing stock and a pariah in the scientific community.
“I’ll do it,” Quinn blurted out without thinking. “I’ll take it on.”
“I thought you might.” Gabe’s smile of victory said it all. “I’ll give BBC a call and tell them you’re on board.”
Elise de Lesseps smoothed down the skirt of her gown and patted her hair into place, suddenly reluctant to enter the room. She’d been in her father’s study countless times, to tidy up mostly, but this morning she felt strangely nervous. This summons felt different, more official somehow. She wasn’t here to restore order, but to be spoken to on a matter of some importance; she was sure of it.
“Oh, stop being such a ninny,” she said to herself sternly under her breath. “There’s absolutely no reason to be frightened.”
But the brave words did nothing to dispel her sense of foreboding. She’d seen the young man come and leave this morning, had heard the thunder of hooves on frozen earth, and knew that something of significance had occurred. She just couldn’t imagine what. Elise refused to entertain the notion that it was bad news. They’d had more than enough of that lately. The anxiety of not knowing made her hand shake as she finally raised it and knocked on the solid oak door.
“Come,” her father called out. He stood with his back to the room, gazing out the window. The diamond-shaped panes glittered in the morning light, bright winter sunshine filling the room. The room was freezing cold, the fire having been laid but not lit per her father’s instructions. Hugh de Lesseps conserved firewood whenever possible; his own comfort was of little importance to him these days.
Elise stood just inside the room, waiting for her father to speak. He finally turned around, his expression unreadable. Elise couldn’t help noticing the stooped shoulders or the stern set of his lips. Her father had aged drastically during the past year. His once-dark hair and beard were now streaked with gray, and his powerful frame shrunk, making him appear older than his forty-seven years. Hugh de Lesseps’s deep-set eyes studied his daughter, his head cocked to the side as if he were listening to some inner voice.
“What is it, Father?” Elise asked, now even more worried than before. “Are you ill?”
“Sit down, child,” Hugh said. “I would speak with you.”
Hugh lowered himself into the carved hard-back chair behind the massive desk and clasped his hands, his fingers intertwined. Normally, her father leaned back, but today he was hunched forward, his shoulders stiff with strain. His eyes slid away from Elise toward the cold fireplace, as if he were reluctant to speak, and he remained silent for a few moments before finally facing her again.