Flickers

Flickers

by Kathryn Jordan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781601834997
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 03/29/2016
Pages: 620
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.37(d)

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Flickers


By Kathryn Jordan

KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.

Copyright © 2016 Katharine Kerr
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60183-499-7


CHAPTER 1

Violet Victoria Lewiston Winters woke when she heard her dead baby brother crying. She sat up in the middle of a cloud of bed curtains that drifted and shivered like ghosts. Beyond the canopy over her bed, gray dawn filled her room. From the half-sized chair, her china dolls stared at the rocking horse with frightened eyes. Had they heard him, her dead brother? The wind hit the house again and made it creak. That whine! She'd only heard the wind.

Violet slid out of bed and padded barefoot over to the window. She climbed up to kneel on the velvet cushions of the window seat and look out. Fog lay thick over the encircling California hills, signaling a break in the summer's heat. Mama will feel better, Violet thought. Maybe she'll stop crying. Thinking of her mother's tears reminded her that after morning church, her baby brother was going to Heaven, where it was always sunny but never too hot.

For now, though, Robert Jeremiah Lewiston Winters lay in a box downstairs, waiting for his trip to start. Violet slid down from the window seat and trotted over to the door, then hesitated, listening. In her little room off the nursery, Nanny lay curled up under a blanket and snored like a freight train. Violet opened the door and stepped out, paused until she heard another snore, then took off running down the long hall. Her feet made no noise on the thick red and blue carpets.

A big staircase with curving banisters led down to the main floor of the house, where the front doors stood open to let the fresh air in and the smell of varnish and shellac out. The entire house stank of varnish, fresh paint, floor wax, and furniture polish. Everything was brand-new: house, furniture, gardens, stables, and horses, because Papa had made money on the stock market — whatever that was.

Violet took the stairs with their high risers one careful step at a time, just as Nanny had taught her. When her feet touched the marble floor of the entranceway, she shivered. The open double doors let in a gray light that felt just as cold. Off to her right, a glow of gold candlelight beckoned her toward the front parlor. She could smell roses, strong and sweet in the summer air. On silent, bare feet, she walked to the door, hid behind the edge, and looked in.

Under a pile of red and white roses stood a table, and in the middle, like a cake on a plate, sat a tiny white casket. Dressed in black, Mama sat nearby in her big wooden invalid chair with a pink blanket over her legs and a Bible in her lap. On narrow chairs nearby sat dark-haired Papa in a black suit, and next to him Aunt Eustacia, blond like Mama, her sister, in a black dress. They all sat so still that at first Violet thought they might all be waiting to go to heaven.

"It's dawn now," Papa said. "Lil, I wish you'd take a nap before we go to the church."

Mama shook her head. "My place is here," she said. "What if his little soul is still hovering around his body? He needs to see me."

"Lil, please!" Papa said. "Don't start that damned spiritualist nonsense!" He glanced at Aunt Eustacia. "Sorry about the language."

"For a change, Josiah," Aunt Eu said, "I can't blame you for saying that word. Lily, come now, you're only exhausting yourself. You're still very weak, and you need to rest."

Mama shook her head again. Her face looked pale, and her fine pale hair, piled up on top of her head, was coming down in wisps that stuck to her forehead with sweat. When she leaned her head onto the high back of the invalid chair, Violet could see dark marks like bruises under her green eyes.

"I can feel him near me," Mama said. "I know he's watching us."

"Lil, for —" Papa caught his breath and stopped himself, as he often did when he was trying not to say bad words. "Darn it all."

In the draft from the open doors the candle flames danced and flickered. Shimmery heat and a thin line of black smoke rose over the white box and the roses. A face? Her brother's face? In the pattern of disturbed air Violet saw someone, a baby, perhaps, rising up, watching them. Baby or just smoke? Mama thought the baby was there, and Mama was always right.

Violet backed away from the open door, quietly, slowly, then glanced outside to the misty day. She looked back and thought she saw the baby still dancing above the box. She choked back a scream and ran across the entranceway. She ran down the steps and nearly fell, caught herself, and ran along the strip of lawn between the house and the carriage drive. Beside her the huge house rose like a ghost itself, all white and fierce with bay windows, gables, and Papa's turret, which poked into the gray sky from the peaked roof.

Just as she turned around the corner of the house she heard Aunt Eustacia calling out, "Is that you, Vi? Violet!"

Violet darted into the stand of eucalyptus trees between the house and the stables. Although the newly planted trees stood only some five feet high, the gardeners had put bushes in between them. Trees and shrubbery together were tall enough to hide her as she slowed down, panting for breath. She kept walking, weaving her way around the trees and the bushes. Up in the sky the fog hovered like an army of ghosts.

Violet broke into a run again, ran past the stables and down a long strip of lawn. Behind a big live oak tree stood the brown-shingled cottage that belonged to the head gardener, Tom Sutter, and his family. The front door stood open. Violet ran up the shallow steps, crossed the porch, and stood, panting for breath again, in the doorway.

In the living room Emily Sutter sat in a rocking chair with her youngest child, Richard, sitting up in her lap. She was feeding him oatmeal from a white china bowl one spoonful at a time. The smell made Violet's stomach rumble. Mrs. Sutter looked up and saw her.

"Why, Miss Vi!" Mrs. Sutter said. "What are you doing here?"

"I don't know."

"Well, come in, child. Don't stand out there, and you in your nightgown, it looks like."

Violet sat down on the flowered carpet near Mrs. Sutter's feet. Mrs. Sutter fed the baby a big spoonful and wiped the drool off his chin with his bib.

"Are you hungry?" Mrs. Sutter said. "When I'm done feeding Richie I'll take you back to the big house."

"Thank you." Violet remembered her manners at last. "If it's no trouble."

Mrs. Sutter smiled and scooped more oatmeal into Richie's open mouth. A door on the other side of the room led farther into the bungalow. Violet heard someone's bare feet slapping on the floorboards. Jack came into the room and grinned at the sight of her. He was just her age, five, born two days before her, and Violet considered him her best friend in the whole world. That morning he was wearing a pair of coveralls with a torn gray shirt under them. The shirt had no collar, and his brown hair hung all messy around his face. He trotted over and sat down next to her.

"Vi!" He took her hand in his. "Morning!"

"Morning, Jack," Violet said. "Where's your papa?"

"Working. Helping feed the horses." Jack turned solemn. "The ones going to the church."

Violet heard footsteps coming up the stairs to the porch.

"Mrs. Sutter?" Aunt Eustacia's sharp voice made Violet squirm. "I do hate to bother you, but ..."

"Come in, Mrs. Harrison," Mrs. Sutter called out. "Miss Vi's here, sure enough."

Aunt Eustacia laughed, a little trill of relief, and walked inside. Violet let go of Jack's hand and scrambled up.

"Violet darling," Aunt Eu said, "what was the matter? What woke you up?"

"The wind."

"Ah. Where was Nanny Simon?"

"She had her tonic last night, and when she has her tonic she snores a lot, and she doesn't wake up."

"Tonic?" Aunt Eustacia raised an eyebrow.

"In a big brown bottle. It's kind of flat."

Mrs. Sutter raised an eyebrow, too. The two women exchanged a glance that made Violet feel uneasy.

"I see." Aunt Eu's voice had a touch of the cold wind in it. "So, then, you came downstairs."

"I wanted to see my brother before he went to heaven."

"All right, dear. You must have seen us in the parlor. Why didn't you come in?"

"I saw his soul like Mama said, above the candles, and I got scared."

Aunt Eu sighed, a sharp noise and angry, but she smiled at Violet. "Your mama's very sad, and she says strange things. There wasn't any soul there, just candle smoke. Your brother's soul is safe and sound in heaven with Jesus."

"You're sure?"

"Very sure, darling, very sure."

"He can play with my sister," Jack put in. "She's in heaven, too. She's six, and she can watch him."

"Why, little Jack, what a nice thing to say!" Aunt Eu said, then glanced at Mrs. Sutter. "Mrs. Winters mentioned in one of her letters that you lost your Annie, Mrs. Sutter. I'm so sorry."

"The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. At least He didn't take both of them. Jack was sick, too." Mrs. Sutter tried to smile, but she sounded so sad that Violet was afraid she'd cry.

"Yes, Mrs. Winters mentioned that as well," Aunt Eu said with a sympathetic nod. "I'm so glad Jack recovered. That scarlet fever's an evil thing."

"It turned into the rheumatic, the doctor told us, so yes, we've been blessed even in the midst of loss." Mrs. Sutter sighed. "But about that there nanny ..."

"Don't you worry! I'll see to it." Aunt Eu turned and favored Violet with a smile. "Let's go back to the house and get Cook to give you some breakfast. Your little friend Caroline's coming over to play with you while we go to the church."

"Can I play, too?" Jack said.

"Jack!" Mrs. Sutter waved the spoon at him. "You hush!"

"No, no, it's quite all right." Aunt Eustacia smiled at her. "Of course you may, Jack. Caroline's nanny will be here to watch the children, Mrs. Sutter."

"Well, thank you, Mrs. Harrison. I hope he wasn't too forward —"

"Not at all, not at all. They're so innocent at this age, aren't they? Now, come along, Vi. You may see Jack later."

Mrs. Sutter leaned over and put Richie and the bowl onto the floor.

"Jack, you keep an eye on your brother for me. I'll dish you up some mush."

Violet held her aunt's hand all the way back to the house. She was expecting that they would go up to the nursery to put on her proper clothes, but instead, Eustacia left her in the guest bedroom while she went off to the nursery alone. Violet assumed that she'd fetch Nanny, but instead Eustacia returned with Violet's clothing, a white summer dress, a flowered pinafore to go over it, the long itchy stockings that Violet hated, and her little brown shoes.

"Nanny's still asleep," she said. "I'll get you dressed, and then we can have breakfast."

After breakfast Mr. and Mrs. Crane arrived to help Mama get to the church. They brought with her Violet's friend Caroline, a blond girl a year older than Violet, her little sister Bethie, and their nanny, Mrs. Murphy, who dressed in black because she was a widow. Widowed or not, this nanny was plump and cheerful with a mind full of games to play. Violet had always wished that she could have Carrie's nanny instead of her own.

After the grownups left for the church, Nanny Murphy took the children out to the lawn in front of the house, to get away from the smell of all the paint, she said. She carried a big red book of stories, fairy stories, she called them. Violet was just thinking that she should go and fetch Jack when he came running around the side of the big house. She waved and called to him.

"Aunt Eustacia said he could play, too," Violet told Nanny Murphy.

"That's fine, dear."

For the occasion Mrs. Sutter had changed Jack's clothes to a pair of shorts and a clean white shirt and the long itchy stockings that he hated as much as Violet hated hers. She and Jack always agreed on everything. When they sat down in the grass, Jack sat right next to Violet.

Nanny Murphy had just opened her book when they heard a wagon coming from the stables. The undergroom drove the pony cart around to the driveway, but it didn't stop at the steps. The passenger, dressed in a shabby brown coat and a flowered straw hat, sat up very straight in the back with a big leather trunk beside her. Nanny Simon! Leaving! As the pony cart trotted past the children, Simon raised a fist and shouted something in Violet's direction. Violet didn't understand the words. She could only stare as the groom clucked to the pony to make him move faster. At the trot they went down the drive and turned onto the road.

"What did she say?" Violet asked.

"Never you mind," Nanny Murphy said. "She's not a very nice woman. Now we'll have our stories." She smiled very brightly. "At last!"

While the children sat in the soft grass, and the day turned warm and golden, Nanny Murphy read wonderful stories, about Rapunzel, and the twelve princesses who danced too much, and another princess named Mayblossom. Finally, because Jack was there, she read about another Jack who climbed a magic beanstalk and defeated a giant.

"Did he get to marry a princess?" Jack asked her when she finished.

"Probably so." Nanny Murphy's voice had turned scratchy. "But that's another story."

"When I grow up," Jack said, "I'm going to marry Vi. She's my princess."

"And I'm going to marry you," Violet put in.

Nanny Murphy smiled with a little twist of her mouth. It was the way grownups had of smiling when they doubted what you were saying but didn't think it was worth arguing about.

"Maybe so," Nanny Murphy said. "Now we're going to go inside and all have lemonade."

But Violet always remembered that day, even when, years later, she was making ready to marry someone else.

CHAPTER 2

On a Monday afternoon in 1913, long after the big house no longer smelled of varnish and paint, the dressmaker, Mrs. Pruitt, brought the wedding dress out from town for Violet's final fitting. Violet's mother, her cousins, and her aunt crowded into Violet's pink and white bedroom to watch. Gertie, Rosie, Jane, and May perched on the canopied bed or sat on the pink velvet cushions in the window seat while Aunt Eustacia sat ramrod straight in an armless chair and stifled small yawns. Violet's mother leaned back in her heavy wooden invalid chair. Now and then she dabbed her temples with a handkerchief damp with perfume, but she smiled the entire time.

Violet stood in the middle of the Aubusson carpet while Mrs. Pruitt and her assistant, Maggie, dressed her like a doll. They helped her take off her white afternoon frock and handed it to her maid, Guadalupe Sanchez. The dress came with a white silk and lace chemise, but in the heat of a California afternoon, Violet was sweating.

"If I put that on," Violet said, "I'll ruin it. I'm perspiring."

"Violet!" Aunt Eustacia said. "Ladies merely glow. They never perspire."

"Think cool thoughts, darling," Mama said. "Try to stop."

"We'll leave your cotton chemise on, dear," Mrs. Pruitt said. "Just raise your arms."

Maggie adjusted hot, scratchy dress shields in Violet's armpits to soak up the inevitable glow. With a flourish, Mrs. Pruitt held the dress itself against her ample bosom and stepped back to allow everyone to see.

The dress had a wide collar of handmade Venetian lace, a lace inset over the shoulders, and lace ruffles at the ends of wide lace sleeves that hung to her elbows. The satin bodice was tucked, then beaded with pearls in a floral pattern. From the heavily embroidered waistband, the skirt flowed in yard after yard of lustrous satin in sixteen gores, every seam beaded with pearls. The sweeping train was embroidered with a design of lilies-of-the-valley, Violet's favorite flower. Gertie and May heaved simultaneous sighs.

"You're so lucky, Vi," they said, almost in unison. "Lucky lucky lucky!"

Violet arranged a smile for an answer. She loved the dress, certainly. But the groom ... I guess I'm lucky. Her mind kept threatening to wander Jack's way.

"Is little Warren really going to hold your train. Vi?" said Rosie, who was only thirteen. "He'll get it all dirty."

"I'm sure Aunt Dahlia will make him wash his hands," Eustacia said to her youngest daughter.

Violet knelt to let Mrs. Pruitt put the dress over her head, then stood while the dressmaker helped her place her arms into the sleeves. While Maggie smoothed down the skirt, Mrs. Pruitt buttoned up the long line of pearl buttons in the back.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Flickers by Kathryn Jordan. Copyright © 2016 Katharine Kerr. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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