ALH Anna Lee Huber - USA Today Bestselling Author

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A Grave Matter
Chapter 1

Remember, friends, as you pass by,
As you are now so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare yourself to follow me.

-Eighteenth-century grave epitaph

    Clintmains Hall
    Border region of England and Scotland

    December 31, 1830

    The flames leaped high into the starry sky. Revelers clapped and reeled about each other in the golden flickering light, there and then gone, swallowed by the darkness and the whirling mass of their fellow merrymakers. As the orchestra behind me paused between songs, I could just make out the feverish pitches of a fiddle and the low thump of a drum playing a Scottish jig. It floated on the crisp night air through the open French doors. What the players lacked in skill, they certainly made up for in exuberance.
    The professional musicians playing in the ballroom behind me had also gotten into the festive spirit. Our hosts, my aunt and uncle, the Lord and Lady Rutherford, never would have stood for anything less. Most of the assemblage of local nobility and gentry were dancing, just like their servants and the villagers outside, and those who were not were either too old or too infirm to join in.
    Or perhaps they'd simply wished for a quiet moment to themselves.
    Unfortunately my brother, who'd been hovering about me all night, failed to understand this.
    "Kiera, stop sulking," Trevor chastised, appearing at my side.
    "I'm not," I protested.
    He arched an eyebrow in skepticism. "Then why are you off in this corner by yourself?"
    I nodded toward the scene outside. "I'm watching the antics of the servants at the bonfire. It's quite diverting." Once or twice I thought I saw the silhouette of one of our servants from Blakelaw House dance across the light, but they were too far away to be certain.
    "That may be, but you're supposed to be diverted by our antics in here," he teased. Though his tone was light, I didn't miss the glint of annoyance in his bright blue eyes.
    We had argued over my coming to the Hogmanay Ball. I had not wanted to attend, while Trevor had insisted I must. Ultimately he had his way only because he had pointed out that many of our loyal servants would feel they couldn't attend the accompanying bonfire if I remained behind, no matter how strongly I protested otherwise. But even my reluctant attendance still wasn't enough for him. He had to linger about me all evening to ensure I was enjoying myself, which was irritating in the extreme, even as it was also endearing.
    He gripped my elbow below the fashionably puffed sleeve of my midnight blue gown and tugged me toward the dance floor, where the orchestra played the first strains of a waltz. He pulled me effortlessly into the swirl of couples circling the gleaming wooden floor. The women were dressed in bright full-skirted gowns and the men in austere black coats and colorful tartan kilts.
    I considered arguing with Trevor about his high-handedness, but then decided it would be silly. I did want to dance, and my brother was as skilled a partner as any. When he swung me into a tight turn, surprising a smile out of me, I suddenly realized how long it had been since we faced each other so. Certainly, I had danced with Trevor far more than any other gentleman of my acquaintance, for he had been forced to partner me by our childhood dancing master. We had stepped on each other's toes and smacked one another in the face with an errant hand too many times to count. Once I had even bloodied his nose.
    But that had been a long time ago. Sometimes it even seemed to me that it had been in another life. One I had lived before my disastrous marriage to Sir Anthony. Before his death and the resulting scandal from the charges brought against me because of my involvement with his gruesome work.
    I shook away the troubling memories and tried to concentrate on the room before me. Trevor and I glided expertly across the floor to the Schubert waltz, proving that neither of us had forgotten how, though I suspected it had been far longer since I had done so than my brother. Trevor had always been a popular dance partner, and I doubted that had changed in the years since I had attended a ball in his company. Though even at my most awkward, he always had time for a dance or two with his little sister. That may have only been a small matter to him, but it had meant a great deal to me.
    "Where have your thoughts gone?" His voice was flippant, but he couldn't hide the concern I saw reflected in his eyes. "From the way you're frowning, I expect my toes to be strategically crushed at any moment."
    I tilted my head. "As if my feet in these dainty slippers could cause you much discomfort."
    "You think not, but I seem to remember that the bone in your heel has always been remarkably sharp."
    I smiled sweetly. "Only when I'm grinding it into your instep."
    On the next dance step, he shifted his foot back as if to avoid my encroaching foot, and I laughed.
    He grinned at my amusement and spun me in a faster circle, making the skirts of my gown bell out.
    My cheeks flushed as the heat of ballroom and the exertion of the dance began to warm me. I suspected Trevor and the other gentlemen might be sweating beneath their snowy white cravats, but he gave no indication of unease. Aunt Sarah had confided in me earlier that she worried the large ballroom would not hold the heat generated by the fireplaces on each end on this cold winter's eve, but her concern proved unnecessary. Even though the gathering was not as large as I'd expected, being mostly extended family of my mother's brother, Lord Rutherford, and his wife, and nobles and gentry from the nearby Border villages, the four score of people present still warmed the space quickly.
    The Rutherford Hogmanay Ball and the accompanying bonfire and ceilidh dance for their tenants, the local tradesman, and the servants of all who attended were an annual tradition. It had been many years since I last took part, but I had not forgotten the festive air, or the spirited ratafia punch so heavily brandied it burned the back of your throat. Great bowls of it stood on tables at one end of the ballroom next to bottles of whiskey, brandy, champagne, and a lavish spread of food-all within easy reach so that fewer servants were needed to attend to the guests of the ball, allowing them to enjoy their own gathering.
    As a child, I remembered watching my mother ready herself for the Hogmanay Ball. Though I had been less fascinated than my older sister, Alana, who couldn't wait to grow old enough to attend, I was nonetheless still enchanted by the sight of my parents together, descending the curving stair at Blakelaw House, dressed in full evening apparel. My father and mother certainly made a handsome couple, but it was the eager gleam I saw in each of their eyes, the joy and anticipation that arced between them that intrigued me. They kissed each of us children good night at the top of the stairs, and by the time they reached the bottom, it was as if they'd forgotten us entirely, so lost were they in each other and whatever mischief they anticipated that night.
    I wished I could say that some of that enchantment remained. Perhaps had my father chosen differently, selecting a husband more like himself for me, someone steady and honorable, and without nefarious intentions kept hidden from us all until after the vows were spoken. Perhaps then I would feel more excitement at attending the Hogmanay Ball.
    An image of Sebastian Gage swam to the forefront of my mind, as it inevitably did whenever I contemplated such matters. It had been almost two months since I had seen the golden-haired gentleman inquiry agent I had partnered with during two previous investigations, and somehow entangled myself with romantically, but the memory of his face, his voice, his lips pressed against mine had not lessened. The manner in which we had left things after I departed Edinburgh had not been satisfactory, but neither of us had been ready to discuss the tangled web of emotions that stretched between us. I had been raw with grief over my friend's death during our most recent investigation, and he still had secrets he hadn't reconciled with sharing.
    As Trevor spun me through another set of turns, I couldn't help wondering if Gage was still in Edinburgh. Was he attending another Hogmanay Ball, much like this one? Was he dancing with a lovely young lady?
    I glanced up at my brother. "What?"
    "Stop contemplating whatever it is you're thinking about," he clarified and then shook his head. "It's not making you happy. And I refuse to allow you to have any more gloomy thoughts. Not this night." He leaned closer toward me, a twinkle in his eyes. "If need be, I shall force you to drink two, no three glasses of that vile ratafia punch, and then proceed to push you into every available male's arms one after the other and order them to dance with you."
    "You wouldn't," I replied, feeling less confident than I sounded.
    He narrowed his eyes. "Try me."
    I searched his face for any sign of weakness. "You know you would be risking your coach's leather seats. I cannot always handle such strong spirits."
    "Oh, I know," he chuckled ruefully. "Remember Dottie Pringle's card party? You vomited down the front of my jacket."
    Our cousin Jock laughed loudly at Trevor's words, clearly having overheard at least part of our conversation from where he danced with a pretty brunette next to us.
    I turned to scowl at him as a blush burned its way up into my cheeks. "I didn't know their wassail was mostly spirits," I replied defensively.
    Trevor's stern expression cracked at that. "Well, regardless, I'm willing to risk my coach seats to keep that stark expression from returning to your eyes."
    "How do you know the punch won't make me maudlin?"
    He arched an eyebrow. "I've seen you foxed, Kiera."
    "Wish I had," Jock called out from over my shoulder.
    I turned to glare at my annoying cousin, but his wide unrepentant grin had me smiling instead. "Fine," I declared with a melodramatic sigh. "I shall endeavor to be joyful."
    "That's my Kiera," Trevor declared, swinging me around so sharply that my legs were lifted momentarily from the ground.
    At a normal gathering, such behavior would be highly inappropriate, but at the Rutherford Hogmanay Ball it was a matter of course. I estimated that half the assemblage was already well on its way to being sotted, if the giggles and raucous laughter were anything to go by. Mr. Trumble and his dance partner were barely able to stay on their feet as they twirled drunkenly through the assembly, narrowly missing the other couples. It was impossible not to join in the good cheer.
    As the waltz entered its last stanza, a cry went up from across the room. Trevor and I turned toward the sound, but were distracted as Uncle Andrew leaped up in front of the orchestra, where they were positioned on a dais in the corner of the room. The strains of the waltz slowly died away, and a murmur of excitement swept over the crowd.
    "It's nearly midnight," he declared, lifting a small glass of whiskey. "Let's toast the Old Year, and welcome the New Year in."
    Everyone scrambled to find their own glasses of the preferred Scots toasting beverage. Trevor reached out to grab two glasses from the tray of a passing servant and handed one to me. Jock and his dance partner joined us, along with our cousin Andy-Uncle Andrew's oldest son and heir-and his fiancee, the aptly named Miss Witherington.
    "What are you still doing here?" Andy asked our tall, dark-haired cousin. "Aren't you our first-footer?"
    "Nay. Not this year. Yer mam asked Rye," Jock informed us in his Scots brogue, naming one of our other cousins, who had recently been widowed. Though educated as a gentleman, Jock refused to soften his accent. A fact that none of the rest of us had ever minded, but that aggravated his mother and older sister. "She thought he could use the good luck it might bring to him."
    We all nodded in agreement.
    "First-footer?" the very English Miss Witherington asked in confusion.
    "Aye. It's an old Scottish tradition," Andy explained. "The first person to cross the threshold of a home after the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay is the first-footer, and they can either bring good or ill fortune to the house. The luckiest are tall, dark-haired men bearing gifts."
    Her brow furrowed. "And the unluckiest?"
    "Well, women, fair-haired men, and redheads are all regarded to be unlucky in varying degrees." Andy grinned. "So it's best to simply plan who your first-footer will be ahead of time to avoid any unhappy surprises."
    Miss Witherington scrunched her nose in a manner which I suspected she thought was endearing. "But isn't that . . . well . . . silly?"
    The rest of us shared the look of the long-suffering Scot faced with English ignorance.
    "Nay," Jock protested. "Ole Mrs. Heron in the village tells of the year she fell ill with the ague, her home flooded, and she lost two of her sons, all because she had an unlucky first-footer."
    Miss Witherington's eyes narrowed skeptically.
    "In any case, it's a tradition," Andy told her with a pacifying smile. "Much like your mistletoe and greenery, and the Yule log at Christmas. There's no harm in following it."
    "I suppose not," she hedged, returning his smile with one that didn't reach all the way to her eyes. I suspected she was merely placating him. I wondered how much these Hogmanay gatherings would change once she was mistress of Clintmains Hall.
    "Ten seconds to midnight," Uncle Andrew announced, and then began to count us down as we all joined in. "Eight, seven . . ."
    I couldn't help but smile, feeling an unbidden surge of hope and anticipation in my chest that this new year would be better than the last. After all, last year I had celebrated Hogmanay quietly with my sister and her husband in their Highland castle, afraid to face the world following the scandal. And now I was welcoming in 1831 at a ball of all places, surrounded by family who loved me, despite my quirks, and facing down those acquaintances who still eyed me with suspicion. I found myself wondering where I would be a year from now.
    ". . . three, two, one!"
    A shout went up as everyone raised their glass and wished one another a Good New Year. I downed my tot of whiskey, feeling the warm, smoky liquid burn its way down my throat and into my stomach.
    Trevor leaned over to kiss me on both cheeks. "Good New Year, sis." His eyes shone with the force of his affection, and I returned the sentiment, blinking back a sudden wash of tears that stung my eyes.
    Jock reached out to wrap an arm around my waist, and I laughed as he pulled me into a hug. Then the whole party broke into song, as was the tradition, singing Robert Burns folk tune, "Auld Lang Syne." Miss Witherington, of course, did not know the words, and she looked around at us in bewilderment, likely having difficulty understanding as we all sang it in the heavy Scots dialect as it was intended. I smiled at her in commiseration, but she either didn't want my sympathy or, more likely, simply wanted another chance to demonstrate her dislike of me, for she shot me one of her withering glares.
    When the song finished, everyone hurried out into the large two-story entry hall, crowding down the steps, and peering over the railing to see below. The front door was opened with great ceremony by the Rutherford butler, letting the old year out, and welcoming in the new. This was swiftly followed by the arrival of our cousin Rye, standing before the door with gifts tucked under his arms. A cheer went up at the sight of him, and he smiled rather shyly, unused to the attention. It was a nice change, as their usual first-footer, Jock, was quite the braggart, playing up the part for all it was worth.
    Uncle Andrew and Aunt Sarah stepped forward to invite Rye into their home, but as they did so, another figure appeared beyond Rye's shoulder. A hush fell over the assembly as the figure stepped forward into the light, showing us his bright red hair and coarse clothing splattered in mud and a dark red substance I knew from experience must be blood. It was a young man, and his eyes were wide and very white in his grubby face.
    He moved forward, forcing Rye to shift to the side. Several people gasped as the redhead crossed the threshold of Clintmains Hall at the same time or just a little before Rye's foot touched the marble floor of the entry.
    The hall began to buzz with murmurs of shock and dismay. A harmless tradition first-footing might be, but most Scots were superstitious enough that they had no wish to test its validity. At least, not if they were given a choice. But it was too late. What was done was done. The suspicion was laid. Perhaps Rye's foot had crossed the threshold first, but perhaps it had not.
    "But what if they crossed at the same exact time?" the woman behind me wondered. "What happens then?"
    No one seemed to have an answer for her, but from the tense atmosphere that had suddenly spread over the hall, I knew no one believed the outcome could be good.
    "I mun' speak wi' Lord Buchan," the young man gasped to Uncle Andrew. His chest rose and fell rapidly as he tried to catch his breath. He was less than twenty years of age, his body still awkward and coltish, and extremely self-conscious. When he glanced up and realized the entrance hall was filled with people staring down at him, he flushed a fiery red that almost matched the hair on his head and the blood splashed across his linen shirt.
    Worried the lad needed serious medical attention, I pushed past several of the people standing in front of me on the stairs still flustered by the man's appearance. But as I got closer, I could see that most of the blood was dried, and from the quantity it was clearly not his own, or else he would not still be standing.
    Just as I was about to say something, Lord Buchan appeared out of the crowd to the left of the front door. "Willie, what is the meaning of this?" His eyes flicked up and down the young man's form. "What has happened?"
    The young manservant's name startled me for a moment, for I couldn't help but think of another Will-a friend who had died so recently, and so horrifically. But this Willie's words swiftly recalled me to the present.
    "It's Dodd," he replied with wide haunted eyes. "He's dead."

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