Haunting Violet Page 55

Dear Lord Thornwood,

It is clear you are my father. I am certain this comes as a surprise to you, as it did me. I wondered if you would call on us or if I might visit? I understood my father to be dead, you see, and I would dearly love to know if I have any brothers or sisters and if I get my love of butter tarts from you? Mother can’t abide the taste. I know this is very untoward but surely, in this matter, family might be more important than etiquette?

Sincerely,

Violet

I read it over three times before signing my name. And then I deliberated over signing Violet Willoughby, which felt natural, or Violet St. Clair, which wasn’t exactly the truth but could have been, had circumstances been different.

I wanted to ask if I might come and stay with him, but I didn’t.

The next morning I was desperate to get out of the house. It wasn’t normal for my mother to be so silent when a crisis was brewing. A long walk in the fresh air seemed a prudent escape; only when I opened the front door, there was a shout and then something sailed past my head. A half-rotted cabbage landed with a splat on the floor of the crooked hall. I blinked at it, utterly confused. Why was it raining salad?

I turned to see a lady with a pram, two men with long whiskers, and a gap-toothed eight-year-old girl. The girl grinned and lobbed another missile, this one apparently a handful of squashed radishes. I slammed the door shut before we had a cold buffet in the front corridor. The shouts grew louder, denied their target. If I had better aim I’d have opened the door and tossed it all right back at them. But with my luck I’d hit the sleeping baby or an innocent old grandmother out for her morning constitutional. And then we’d be dragged through the streets for certain.

Dread uncurled in the pit of my stomach.

“Is that cabbage?” Colin asked, coming out of the dining room. Listening to the raised voices, he reached for the doorknob, frowning. I caught his hand.

“Don’t.”

“Whyever not?”

I raised an eyebrow. “You’ll get a rotted meat tart in the eye for your trouble, that’s why.”

“Miss Willoughby?” Marjorie interrupted timidly.

“Yes, Marjie?”

“I thought you should see this.”

She handed me the daily newspapers, which were still warm as she’d just finished ironing them to dry the ink. She chewed her lower lip as Colin leaned in to read the scandal sheet over my shoulder.

It has come to my attention, dear Reader, that a certain Mrs. W— has been recently exposed as a fraudulent medium. She was discovered in a shocking state of dishabille at an influential country house party. Sources say she fled the scene under cover of darkness, with her disgraced daughter. This is yet another scandal in an increasing blight against the good name of the Spiritualist Society. We must be ever vigilant and on our guard against such trickery. Having been privy to the true talents of our day, this writer, for one, was not taken in by Mrs. W—’s decidedly showy tactics.

Mother, of course, chose that moment to come down the stairs for the first time since we’d arrived back home. She was wearing one of my precious new dresses, yellow with white stripes on the underskirt. Even with her trim figure, the dress did not quite fit right, so she had left off her stays. Her cleavage was rather startling. She raised her brows at my double-take.

“Well, since I can’t go about in half mourning any longer, why shouldn’t I have some fun? I’ve had precious little of it for myself, haven’t I?” She came the rest of the way down the steps, movements graceful and steady, speech precise. Still, the scent of rosewater wasn’t enough to cover the sherry fumes. Her eyes glittered, then narrowed.

“What on earth is going on?” she demanded peevishly when the uproar swelled and pushed through the cracks at the door and window. It sounded a little as if we’d removed to a cottage by the sea. I tried to fold the newspaper away discreetly but the crinkle gave me away.

“That’s today’s paper?” She held out her hand as I winced. “Let me see.”

“Mother …”

She waggled her fingers impatiently. “Now, Violet.”

I handed it over slowly, along with a stack of canceled dinner invitations. Colin and I were frozen as we watched her skim the dark print. Her lips tightened, white lines forming little brackets. When she flung the door open, the light fell over her like a painting of an Amazon warrior. Her hair streamed behind her and rage made her face pale, her cheeks pink. The mob paused for a full moment, baskets of stinking produce temporarily forgotten. The door was smeared with pie crust, moldy cheese, and a single slimy leaf of lettuce trembling in the wind.

“You know nothing!” she yelled at them.

“Liar!” someone shouted, and a tomato landed on the second step, smashing into pulp like a bloodstain. I pushed the door shut with a resounding slam before either side could let loose with another volley. Several more fruits thumped, like the knock of a well-bred visitor.

“Mother, maybe we—” I put a hand on her arm but she shook me off with a snarl. All the other sounds receded, the angry shouts, the carriages passing, the rain of vegetables.

There was only my breath, the push of my blood in my veins, and the crack of my mother’s hand across my face.

Colin swore. My cheek stung, tears scalding my eyes though I determined long ago not to let them fall. She pushed passed me, whirling toward the parlor, pages wrinkling in her hands as they formed trembling fists. We were frozen, watching her come apart.

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