The Longest Night
Isabella watched her father’s coffin being lowered into the grave with not a hint of sadness. As the sleek walnut box with its brass fittings gleaming in the rare winter sun sunk beneath the frozen earth, what she felt was not grief, but guilt instead. She looked to the mourners gathered grave-side, most of whom did not come out of respect for the dead but for duty of his station instead, and wondered who among them might suspect.
The memory was still so clear, so fresh, a nightmare from which she could not wake. It replayed itself again and again against the screen of her mind…
She slipped her hand into his pocket, a zing of a current passing between them, an icy cool breath, as she brushed against him. She took the dagger from his coat, held it heavily in her hand.
She lifted her chin to meet Lucien’s dark gaze, the tip of the dagger between them. “His fate is in my hands.”
She turned to her father, his gaze pleading. “Isabella, my dear, my daughter. Please, please. You know I didn’t mean it. I don’t mean these things.”
She rested the tip of the blade against his throat, enjoyed the lump rising beneath it. She pressed gently, enjoying the feel of it biting into his skin. Then drew it down his neck, letting it settle against his chest.
She drove the dagger deep into her father’s heart. For a moment he held her, his gaze locked on hers.
Lucien’s words rang true; she would never be the same, for tonight she had held death in her hands.
Under the light of the full moon, Isabella had dragged her father’s lumbersome body to the window and shoved him from the second story. He toppled, landing like a broken toy in the blanket of the softly falling snow.
Drenched in her own sweat and blowing a wayward lock of dark hair from her eyes, she had scrubbed until the wood floors gleamed and no trace of her misdeeds could be found. She cleaned the blade, Lucien’s blade, and tucked into the darkest corner of her armoire.
She had padded quickly down the stairs, not bothering with her overcoat as she slipped silently out the door. The winter wind tore at her nightgown, sending icy tendrils to crawl across her skin. Her breath came in ragged puffs that made little clouds on every exhale. She rounded the manor, snow falling lightly around her.
She repositioned his body, straightening an arm that had bent unnaturally during his tumble. Then she back-stepped, brushing away her footprints in the snow. What made her think to do all this, she couldn’t have said. A thought, a nudge, a whisper in her ear told her to cover her tracks. Chilled to the bone, her nightgown soaked through with melting snow, she snuck back into the manor. For that night, through to this day, Isabelle was a murderer.
Even now, as she watched her mother sprinkle the first handful of wet dirt ceremoniously over her father’s coffin, she wondered if somewhere Lucien watched. Had he watched that night? Was his voice the whisper in her ear? She couldn’t be certain. When she had finally stripped from her wet nightgown that fateful night, donned dry bed clothes and slipped beneath the blanket, she laid awake for hours wondering. Worrying. Would her ruse be enough to turn suspicion away from her? Would Lucien return to claim his blade? To claim her?
Just days ago it had been, and still Isabella had slept little. She prayed each night, to the darkness, to Lucien, for a sign, a whisper, a glimpse. Each night she heard only silence.
Her mother placed a hand on the crook of Isabella’s elbow. She tipped her chin gracefully, poised and dignified as ever. No one except those standing very near to her would know the silent suffering of Eliza Whitney. What would her mother do now? Eliza’s entire adult life, her complete identity, had been consumed by her husband. Did her mother even know who she was without her father’s commanding presence dictating her every move?
Isabella glanced at her mother, so opposite in feature and coloring, no one should ever take them for mother and daughter. Her mother, a tall and slender beauty of a woman, wore sun-kissed hair and soft blues eyes, like her sisters. She was light where Isabella was dark, a startling a contrast as day to night.
She placed a hand over her mother’s, relishing in the tender moment. Isabella could scarcely remember the last time her mother embraced her, embraced any of them. Even at her sister’s weddings, they were offered nothing more than a peck on the cheek as they left their childhood home to begin families of their own.
Yet, today, in this moment, they walked together, leaving the undertaker to finish his laborious work. Behind them the procession of mourners followed to the manor where a feast had been laid out on the banquet table. Isabella escorted her mother to the head of the table, deposited her into her seat. Eliza reached out, took her by the arm, her fingertips digging softly into Isabella’s skin. “Make yourself available to Lord Merrick.”
Heat flushed Isabella’s cheeks. Only days free from her father’s grasp, and yet she was still being pawned off on the first prick willing to take her. Perhaps she had fooled herself, thinking anything would change, that her life might be different now. She might have been free from her father’s unwarranted lashings, but not free from the bonds of society. From being a woman of marital age. “I think it best,” Isabella whispered, “that I remain here for a while. To help you tend to things now that father is gone.”
Her mother shook her head. “If you aim to be helpful, child, find yourself a husband. This, above all, would ease the greatest worry on my mind.”
Isabella jerked away, righting herself and tugging the hem of her sleeve riding up her arm. “As you wish, mother.”