Haunting Violet Page 11

“Violet,” my mother snapped. “Do stop squirming.”

I wondered what else, exactly, I was expected to do with my petticoats up over my head and my mother and Marjorie crouched at my feet like goblins. Marjorie’s mouth was full of pins. Mother tightened the rope around my thigh.

“Ouch,” I complained.

“It needs to be secure,” she insisted.

I grabbed onto the back of the settee so I wouldn’t topple. “But I also need to be able to feel my legs so I can walk,” I muttered. “It’ll be rather obvious if I limp into the parlor.”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “A little cooperation, if you please.”

“Is this really necessary?” I shifted, trying to ease the chafing of the fireplace bellows now strapped to my leg. It was heavy and cumbersome. At home Marjorie stood outside in the hallway with the bellows, pumping air into a small hole in the wall, positioned just so. We didn’t have that luxury at the moment.

“Yes,” she said, checking the knots. She was beautiful in a black silk gown with white silk orchids along the frilled ruchings. Crystal beads glittered in her hair. I’d stolen those beads from a box outside a shop being fumigated for rats.

I knew from experience that there was a certain kind of beauty that made people shut their eyes to everything else. Mother had it in spades, and she assured me that I had it too; I only needed to learn to use it. I didn’t think dragging my numb leg behind me would be a particularly good start.

“I should think you would be a little more enthusiastic, Violet. I am trying to secure you a good future. Or would you rather sew hats for fine ladies until your fingers bleed? Personally, I don’t think you’d care for it.”

She liked to lecture me that I was too soft, made that way by her hard work. It was virtually unheard of for a pregnant maid to return to London and make a better life for herself, but as it turned out, Mother had quite the talent for telling mourners exactly what they wanted to hear. And being in a state of perpetual half mourning lent her an air of gentility. Most Spiritualists preferred white for funerals; after all, they held it as one of their most important tenets that death, being just another journey, was nothing to be feared.

White, however, did nothing for Mother’s complexion.

She was at her best with her pale skin delicately bordered with black silk. The contrived air of mourning was meant to curtail too many questions since my father wasn’t actually dead. Though I suppose he might well be; I had no way of knowing since I wasn’t exactly sure who he was in the first place. Nevertheless, she wore black silks and velvets and delicate cameos. And the only reason she hadn’t forced me into a fictional half mourning too was because lavender made me look like week-old mutton.

And despite what one might say about her, she was clever and could read people’s mannerisms the way I read novels. There was nothing so useful, as she was fond of saying, as knowing exactly what a man or a rich old lady with more gold than family needed to hear.

Or nothing so useful, apparently, as being able to gracefully glide about the parlor with a pair of bellows tied to your leg. I didn’t think they taught this particular skill at the finishing schools.

These kinds of tricks, along with Miss Hartington’s dying kindness, were the only reason we were able to live nearer to Mayfair than the East End, where we belonged. If we walked from our new house we could see the peerage promenade through Hyde Park on chestnut bays. It was also how we became able to afford gilded mirrors and two new gowns in the most current fashion, with flounces and a matching bonnet trimmed with red roses. I loved those new dresses. I’d never had one before now that wasn’t several years outdated and already worn at the seams.

But I still hated how we took advantage of people sunk so deep into their grief that any natural skepticism was lost. The curiosity seekers didn’t bother me as much. It was the experience they wanted, along with the cachet of having sat hand to hand with a born sensitive. They seemed to care little for evidence of any kind once they saw my mother, all beautiful dark curls and eyes like warm chocolate.

I sincerely hoped these sitters fell into that safe category.

It wasn’t long before Marjorie finished pinning the inside layer of my petticoats so that they wouldn’t catch and bunch around the bellows. Then she shook out my skirts. Mother stepped back, eyeing me carefully.

“Very good,” she approved finally. “Now take a turn about the room.”

The first step sent me sprawling across the carpet. I landed hard on my elbow and knocked the breath from my lungs for a moment.

Mother sighed irritably. “Violet, a little effort, if you please.”

“Are you all right, miss?” Marjorie asked, helping me to my feet.

“She’s fine.” Mother waved her hand dismissively. “Try again.”

By the third time across the sitting room I was walking more like a debutante and less like a wounded hippopotamus. I was feeling rather pleased with my efforts until Colin came in.

“What’s wrong with your leg?”

I sighed. Mother scowled. “Try harder, Violet.”

Colin met my eyes steadily before turning to my mother. “Lord Jasper is asking for you,” he said. “Why doesn’t Violet stay here a little longer and practice?” He was trying to give me some time to myself. He knew how flustered I got before a sitting, never mind one at Rosefield with my mother breathing fire down my neck.

“Very well.” Mother smoothed her already perfect hair back. She paused before sailing out of the room like a glossy ship.

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