"A great and chilling read. You'll be left hanging till the end. A very romantic book that's like a mini roller-coaster ride with well-formed characters. Hieber is an author to look out for!" - RT Book Reviews
Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewartby Leanna Renee Hieber
I'm coming for you.
The whispers haunt her dreams and fill her waking hours with dread. Something odd is happening. Something...unnatural.
Possession of the living. Resurrection of the dead. And Natalie Stewart is caught right in the middle. Jonathon, the one person she thought she could trust, has become a double agent for the dark side. But he plays/b>… See more details below
I'm coming for you.
The whispers haunt her dreams and fill her waking hours with dread. Something odd is happening. Something...unnatural.
Possession of the living. Resurrection of the dead. And Natalie Stewart is caught right in the middle. Jonathon, the one person she thought she could trust, has become a double agent for the dark side. But he plays the part so well, Natalie has to wonder just how much he's really acting.
She can't even see what it is she's fighting. But the cost of losing her heart, her sanity...her soul.
Praise for Darker Still, an Indie Next Selection:
"Original, haunting, and romantic." —YA Bound
"This chilling tale will draw you in and keep you guessing until the very last page." —Seventeen.com
Read an Excerpt
Isn't that the man wanted for those murders in New York City?"
I tried not to let my face betray the panic flooding through my body. I'd thought once we made it out of New York City and onto the train we'd be safe.
A man in a dusty suit and cap had a conductor by the elbow, pointing at the cushioned benches where I sat with Jonathon. The wide-brimmed felt hat he'd been keeping low over his head had fallen back, revealing his face. It was a face hard not to notice. I nudged Jonathon awake, trying not to be too obvious about it. He blinked sleepily. If he hadn't been wanted for murder, I might have thought he looked adorable.
"Hello there, beautiful," he murmured in his refined London accent.
"Look sharp," I whispered. My anxious tone doused his smile. "Someone recognized you. Whatever I say, just...nod in agreement."
I could feel my voice fumble in my throat. Oh no. Words, do not fail me now.
"Miss? Sir?" The conductor approached, swaying slightly as the train curved around a bend and plunged into a tunnel cutting through the mountains of Pennsylvania. Jonathon's accuser hung back, his haggard face scared. I wondered if I looked scared too.
"Yes? Hello," I said softly. Just focus on one word at a time.
"You...and this gentleman here," the conductor said carefully. "Are you acquainted?"
"Oh, yes," I said with a sad smile. "Cousins. We're off to see our uncle on his deathbed. We hope we make it in time..." I turned ruefully to Jonathon, who nodded, squeezing my gloved hand in comfort. The conductor glanced back at the man who was gesturing toward Jonathon. A few other heads, men in top hats and ladies in feathers and ribbons, turned our way.
"Is there a problem, sir? Do you need to see our tickets again?" I rummaged in my bag. Jonathon reached into his coat pocket and held his out.
"No, no, it's just...there were murders in the papers, in New York-"
"Oh! That madness in the Five Points?" I shuddered. "Horrifying, isn't it? What about it?"
"He looks just like the man in the sketch!" the man hanging back shouted. There was a murmur of shock from the compartment. That would teach us to not pay the extra dollars for a private compartment. But runaways have limited spending cash. Jonathon assured me of finances secure in England that demons could not have seized, but those were of little use at the moment. Mrs. Northe had been generous to us both, but we'd played things safe. A tired-looking woman reached a hand up, begging the man to sit and leave things to the authorities.
"I know the likeness is unmistakable," Jonathon broke in. "That's what I thought, too. I promise you, the last thing a man wants to look like is a murderer."
I stared at him. Jonathon Whitby, Lord Denbury, had just spoken in an uncannily perfect American accent. Impressive.
"But," Jonathon shrugged casually, "I'm not British. I'm from New York. And my eyes aren't dark like his. See? It's a difference one really can't mistake." He widened his ice-blue eyes for effect. He was right to bring it up. In that respect he was a far cry from the rough portrait that sensation-driven papers had been eager to publish. The conductor looked embarrassed.
"Don't worry," Jonathon added. "I'm used to it. I've been stopped a few times since the sketch. But if you could just let me and my cousin go in peace to our family, we'd sure be grateful."
That was no lie. All we wanted was to be left alone.
Nor was it a lie to say that Jonathon wasn't the murderer. But telling a train car full of people that a demon had possessed his body wouldn't have helped. It's why we were fleeing. We couldn't trust the police to believe us either.
"Sorry to trouble you both," the conductor said, tipping his hat. The man who had caused the disruption looked at Jonathon warily and finally heeded his wife's urging to sit down again and drink a beer. Awkward silence descended. There is nothing more unnerving than a train car full of people staring at you. And I've stared down a demon, full in the face. The decision of whether we would stay in that car was mitigated by the announcement that we would soon be arriving in Chicago.
Thank you, Chicago, for your kindness.
While I'd risked my life to save his, Jonathon Whitby, Lord Denbury, could yet be the death of me. But here I am, at his side. What is wrong with me?
Well, look at him.
A girl would be kidding herself if she wouldn't attempt the impossible for a face like his. The gas-lit sconces of the train cast him in a golden light. His black hair, slightly wavy, framed features carved in classic lines. Shocking blue eyes could cut the breath out of a person as if his gaze were a surgeon's knife. The train's whistle blew as it pulled onto tracks in a crowded station.
"We've got to mail your diary back to your father," Jonathon murmured in my ear, regaining his delicious accent again. "A telegram cannot possibly explain everything, and otherwise he won't know what's happened to you. I'd rather he not kill me when I ask to court you properly."
I bit my lip at the word "court" and blushed to the tips of my ears.
We disembarked onto a platform that was too small for the crowds. Signs promised that a new Union Depot would be opening next year. Chicago clearly needed it.
Jonathon helped me down the train stairs, and my blush heightened as I thought of all the kissing parts in my diary that I hadn't thought to redact. It was too late. We only had twenty minutes before the next train.
No matter the contents, the diary was the only way to explain what really had happened. Even if Father couldn't believe the account, we needed to try to make things right with him. Unless Mrs. Evelyn Northe, our benefactor and all-around guardian angel, could make him believe in what sounded impossible. She'd thought of most everything, so perhaps she'd even solve the crimes in our absence.
The station was hectic, but the postal counter was clearly marked and we eased our way to the ornate brass counter. As we bought an envelope and postage, the clerk gave us such an odd look that even Jonathon noticed.
"Is there a problem, sir?" he asked, again in an American accent.
"No, sir, it's just that..."
"She's very pretty, I know, but you needn't make it so obvious that you think so too, sir," Jonathon chided. My blush returned.
"No, sir, I mean no offense. It's just..." The poor man, who was now as red as I was, slid a note across the counter. "This came in earlier, so you see I'm just..."
I glanced at the note, transcribed from a telegraph onto Western Union labeled paper.
New York City Police Department reports missing girl. Natalie Stewart. Age 17. Auburn hair. Green eyes. Pretty. Presumed traveling alone? Mute.
Jonathon read over my shoulder and didn't miss a beat. "Sarah here, while I agree she fits the description, isn't traveling alone but with me-her cousin."
Father must have reported me missing before Mrs. Northe could get to him. But Father didn't know I could speak, that saving Jonathon had cured my voice. Speech still wasn't always easy, but talking would further disprove the cable.
Words. Come on, Natalie. I took a deep, long breath.
"And I'm hardly mute now, am I?" I replied, sliding the paper back to the clerk. The man still looked wary but didn't immediately call for the police. I tried to steady my shaking hand as I addressed the envelope and handed him the package.
"But whoever she is, I hope you find her," Jonathon offered with a winning smile. He sounded as if he'd grown up here. He was so aware of his details and yet so unruffled that the man would make an excellent spy.
"Have a lovely day," I offered.
"And you, miss. Sir. Travel safely." The clerk nodded to us, throwing the package in a bin.
As we turned away, Jonathon grabbed my elbow. "What if he sees the Stewart name on the package? Won't he-"
"I sent it to Mrs. Northe. Without a return address," I replied.
"I could kiss you for your cleverness," he replied near my ear, smirking at me and dropping the American accent for his tantalizing British one.
"No, no, none of that," I giggled. "We're family, remember?"
"Kissing cousins?" he grinned. "I thought you loved Edgar Allan Poe. He married his cousin."
"True. And she died a tragic, early death. Stay sharp. We're hardly out of the woods," I said, trying to stay serious and on task. But it was hard to remain focused with that half-dimpled smirk of his and the heat of his hand on my elbow.
"No, there are no woods here," Jonathon said, looking around him and up at the soot coating the station beams. "The woods are ahead of us in the wilds of Minnesota. Wait, what are you-" he cut short as I dragged him suddenly in the opposite direction toward something I saw across the station foyer.
"I've an idea," I declared, stepping into the light of a general store selling everything a traveler might need, have forgotten, or have lost. I went to a rack of eyeglasses on display.
"I told you, you oughtn't have dozed off on the train with your glasses on, Humphrey dear. Slid right off and underfoot," I crowed for the shop-girl's benefit, plucking a wide-rimmed, clunky pair of glasses from a display and sliding them onto Jonathon's face.
"Oh, those look nice," the lady said, bored, as if that's what she said to everyone who put something on their nose. And no they didn't; they looked hideous.
Jonathon thought so too. I could tell from the clench of his jaw and the flash of his blue eyes beneath the thick, fishbowl glass. I wanted to roar a laugh but held it back admirably.
"We'll take them," I said, rummaging in my reticule for one of the larger bills Mrs. Northe had sent me off with. The bored clerk took it.
Walking away, Jonathon fumbled for me, his case and my knapsack on one of his arms, reaching for me with the other.
"I can't see," he hissed, his British accent particularly sharp in annoyance. "These things are for a blind man. I have perfect vision-"
"Yes, but they entirely distract from your handsome face, my dear Lord Denbury, and that is a distinct advantage," I replied, steadying him toward the westbound platforms.
"You'll have to guide me closely," he declared.
"And is that so bad?" I teased. He offered a rakish grin that even the glasses couldn't make unattractive.
"I'll suffer the fashion if it means you'll cling to me."
I giggled and slid my arm around his, entwining our fingertips. My blush returned.
"Humphrey, though? Really?" Jonathon scoffed. "At least I gave you a normal name with Sarah. I could've gone for Irma or Wilhelmina, something stuffy and matronly." He stumbled as we took a step up onto the platforms, the bags swaying.
"Oh, but I love the name Mina," I replied airily, guiding him toward our train.
"Wilhelmina. I didn't say Mina. Wilhelmina Irma Persnickety and her blind cousin, Humphrey Fitzwilliam Persnickety," he said, reaching out as if he were falling and finding my face and petting it. I let loose the laugh I'd held back earlier.
"Fitzwilliam? Oh, no, you're not allowed to allude to Mr. Darcy. Darcy would not be caught dead in those glasses," I teased and jumped aside as Jonathon crowed in protest. I ran a few steps ahead, thinking of the most random name I could come up with. "You're helpless without me, Humphrey...Pindarus Persnickety."
Pained by the name I'd plucked from Julius Caesar, he shook his fist in the air quoting, "Pindarus? Where art thou, Pindarus?" He slid his glasses down his nose to look at me. "If you dare match wits with me about Shakespeare, I'll rename you one of Lear's daughters. How about Goneril?"
"That sounds like some horrid disease." I tried to shush our laughter, afraid we'd attract unwanted attention, as I moved to Jonathon's side to guide him up the train stairs. "Where are we going again, coz?" I asked, checking our printed schedule.
"St. Paul, Minnesota, to throw ourselves at the mercy of my friend Samuel Neumann," Jonathon replied.
My smile faded. Passengers jostled around us. More trains pulled in, making the air wet with steam and smelling thickly of coal. Jonathon set his case and my bag down, and removed his glasses to adjust their thick bridge. A train whistle screamed.
"Jonathon," I murmured. "I'll be at the mercy of two men. One I don't know. You, I barely know. And...I have to ask. Am I a reminder of terrible things? In the light of day, in a world free of magic-"
His gloved finger lifted my chin gently. The lamp post above us cast his elegant features partly into shadow, but his eyes blazed into me and stopped my breath as they so often did. "Here in the light of day I care about you more than ever. You're the angel that freed me from a curse, not a reminder of it." He smiled, putting on the ridiculous glasses again. "If you're worried about me falling further for you-"
I laughed, giving him a swift kiss on the mouth. "I'm not. Just...keep falling for me." With a look I hoped was flirtatious and alluring-I was still practicing my feminine wiles-I picked up my skirts and darted up the train steps.
"I will most certainly keep falling if you don't help me up these stairs," Jonathon called. With a giggle, I aided him up and into the aisle between the compartments. "A private compartment, if you please, Miss Persnickety," he said pointedly. "Let's avoid another incident like we had on our last train."
"A private compartment?" I breathed. A thrill raced up my spine at the prospect.
A conductor with the logo of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway prominent on his vest and hat came to collect our tickets.
"We'd like a private compartment, please," Jonathon stated.
"Of course, sir." The man eyed us. "Newlyweds?"
Jonathon and I scoffed at the same time. "Cousins," I replied. The conductor just eyed us some more and showed us to a small compartment with frosted glass doors.
"Where to?" the conductor asked as we entered the narrow compartment, which had two small beds and a long bench.
"St. Paul," Jonathon replied. The conductor stamped our tickets and slid them into a clip by the compartment doors. I bobbed my head at him as he closed the doors, and we were alone for the first time since our hasty flight out of Manhattan.
"Think he believed us?" I asked.
"Not for a second." Jonathon took off his hat, threw his glasses onto one of the beds, and pulled me into a deep kiss.
Next thing I knew, we were in a mess of entangled fabric, my skirts around his legs and the bones of my corset pressing hard against the bones of my rib cage.
I was afire with the dangerous thrill of something that we shouldn't be doing, wondering just how far I'd dare go. Before I'd rescued Jonathon, he'd been trapped in a portrait. The demon might have had Jonathon's body, but his soul was free. We had met in the world of the portrait. Sometimes in dreams. There, we had first tasted passion. But flesh-and-blood was far sweeter. It was so scorchingly real that I almost couldn't breathe. Well, perhaps my corset was laced a bit too tightly...
Jonathon, balancing on one hand, nearly had his cravat free when the train rolled out with a lurch. He lost his balance, tumbling away from me and onto the floor of the car.
My cry of concern joined his laughter as he lay splayed on the floor, the silk of his neckwear pushed aside and revealing the hollow of his throat and a few undone buttons of his vest. I shifted on my elbow to look down at him.
"I could kiss you forever," he said, gazing up at me hungrily. "But I'd want more."
My nerves fluttered, my voice failing. "I...can't...not that I don't-"
He sat up, face to face with me, pressing a bare fingertip to my lips. "I know what a woman's virtue is worth. I'll wait as long as it takes. I know what you're worth-"
I turned away. While his gentlemanly words were indeed comforting, another boundary worried me more. Worth.
"Worth has a whole new meaning with you, Jonathon. You're from generations of nobility. I'm the daughter of a museum curator. I have nothing to offer you. You could ruin me, and no one would-"
"I'd never ruin you, Natalie. And what, saving my life isn't dowry enough? To hell with class, society, and expectations. I'd have wanted you no matter how I met you."
"Our paths would never have crossed if not for the painting and the dark magic."
"And if I had to, I'd suffer everything I went through again just to meet you," he declared. "My soul split from my body, the curse, the prison, the scars, the sleepless nights-I'd suffer it all again for you."
I stopped him with another kiss, slow and passionate, running my fingers through his black locks, but careful. Tender. These sorts of kisses were generally reserved only for the engaged or married, but kissing Lord Denbury was its own point of no return.
Finally breaking away, he stared again into my eyes. "Do you trust me?"
"Why do you ask?"
Jonathon furrowed his brow, sliding away to lean against one of the beds.
"With everything that's been assumed of me, I just...don't want you to be frightened of me." An awkward discomfort I'd rarely seen from him now surfaced.
"I do...trust you." There were times when words came so easily. Other times not. Selective Mutism meant that for most of my life, I hadn't spoken. I was four when I stopped speaking. Words, out loud, are still quite new to me. And evidently they fail most often when I'm self-conscious. But believing in him steadied me. "I wouldn't have risked what I did if I didn't believe in you."
Jonathon grimaced. "Am I a reminder of terrible things? When you look at me, do you think of the demon?"
"He looked like you. But wasn't you. His eyes were the reflective eyes of an animal. When I look at you, I see..." I blushed. "Wonderful."
Jonathon smiled a moment before his expression turned calculating. "That's what gave him away to you? The eyes? What else?"
"His voice was lower, his cadence uneven. He was rude. But his eyes were yours, until I looked straight at them. That's when the difference was clear. Looking into his eyes, I saw the abyss. Why?"
"I may need to become him." Jonathon looked at me as I swallowed hard. "I may need to act the part." I started shaking. That might do my head in, watching Jonathon play his evil half. "Trust is the only thing that's going to get us through the coming months," he added, collapsing upon the uppermost bed. "So that's all I'm going to ask of you."
"You have my trust," I said quietly, even if the last thing on earth I wanted to see was him playing the part of a fiend.
The reply must have soothed him, for several moments later I could hear the even breaths of his slumber. The poor thing hadn't had much chance to sleep in recent days.
I watched him for a long time, the gaslight of the compartment flickering across his fine features, his long black lashes hiding his oceanic eyes from me, hiding the dreams we might share if we both were asleep. It was true about trust and the future. So many terrible loose ends. Too many. But we'll sort them out. Together. We've no choice.
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