Haunting Violet Page 65

I went upstairs only because I didn’t want to be in the same room as her and there was really nowhere else to go to escape. I dragged my feet the entire way, knowing the sullen sound would echo. I still felt dizzy and bone-tired, too much so to have any energy left for a proper rebellion. I would just have to do the best I could for tonight and think of an alternative tomorrow.

I put on my second-best dress. Marjorie ran up to knock on my door, panting and wide-eyed. “Please, miss.”

I gave a rather dramatic sigh before scowling crossly. “Oh, very well.”

It was worse than I’d feared. The parlor was crowded wall to wall with gossipmongers, eager for a scandal. Mrs. Bradley sat in the rose brocade with her dreadful poodle on her wide lap. Mrs. Grey and Miss Wilmington whispered together over tea. The rest were assorted scandal-seekers whose names I didn’t know. I looked for Lord Jasper but he wasn’t in attendance, which wasn’t terribly surprisingly. Lord Marshall was there, however, sitting with one boot crossed over his knee and making calf eyes at Mother that I longed to poke right out of his well-bred head.

Colin stood at his usual position by the door, and I knew he could decipher my thoughts exactly. He was the same old Colin—sardonic, perceptive, honest—but somehow it was all different. I felt safe with him, as always, and yet dangerous too. Alive. But I didn’t have the leisure to enjoy the feeling. Mother nodded to me as I entered.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my daughter, Violet,” she announced. There were murmurs and glasses lifted to curious eyes. I tried not to squirm. I hated being the center of all that attention. I just wanted to go back up to my room, especially when Mrs. Grey sucked in a breath at the bruise flowered over my eye and cheek. The rice powder wasn’t thick enough to hold up against my nervous perspiration.

“My word!”

“The gifting of such psychical talents can be quite sudden,” Mother explained smoothly. “Often the medium becomes very ill. Poor Violet fainted and struck her eye on the table.” She smiled. “Shall we prepare? I know my daughter is eager to read for you all.” I’d barely moved from the doorway. My feet itched to take me somewhere else, anywhere else. “I am, of course, sorry that I cannot sit for you as well. It’s been a most trying and sudden loss, and I am only comforted that my own talents were sacrificed to improve my daughter’s.”

What rot.

I didn’t know what was worse, her bald-faced lies or the way everyone seemed to lap them up, like an alley cat with a bowl of fresh cream. It was a disgrace all around and I was right in the middle of it. I’d have to find some way to contact the spirit world if I was to salvage any part of this wretched night. It was an effort to produce a smile that didn’t resemble the painful grimace of a landed trout. Lord Marshall fawned over Mother’s hand, helping her to her seat. He nodded at my approach.

“Miss St.—Miss Willoughby—we are equally eager to admire your demonstration.”

Colin stiffened. I paused, startled. Miss St. Clair. An obvious flattery for my mother’s sake. I wasn’t entirely sure about the propriety concerning the illegitimate children of the peerage, of which surely there were legions. There were so many lies unraveling and secrets, it was like walking through a murky pond—you never knew if the next step would take you to the steady bottom or give way entirely.

And I really didn’t want to do this.

But I could only stand there lost in thought for so long. I sat down without a word. The rest of the gentlemen followed suit, the other ladies having already made themselves comfortable. Mother led everyone through the usual prayers while my mind tumbled over everything Elizabeth and I had read at Rosefield. Surely I’d learned enough there to get through this with at least a small degree of dignity.

We held hands and the lights were lowered, though not nearly as much as we’d lowered them before Mother’s unfortunate discovery. There were no tricks planned tonight, no clever plots, though I supposed most of the modifications were still attached to the table. Mother would never leave this all to chance, or to me. Still, I vowed I wouldn’t use them. The spirits would just have to cooperate.

I shut my eyes, mostly because I couldn’t bear the scrutiny. Although some of these people were truly curious to contact a dead family member, most just wanted to be part of the kind of scandal that ended with Mother in her undergarments. They wanted me to fail because it would make a better story.

Damned if I’d oblige.

“We welcome our beloved dead.” Determined, I lifted my eyelids and searched the room. The feather in Mrs. Thompson’s white curls bounced in a draft. Mr. Hunt’s whiskers quivered. Lord Marshall sat entirely too near to Mother; his knee must surely be pressed against hers. The candle flickered. Someone cleared their throat. The poodle whined, bored.

No spirits.

They’d been hounding me all week; the least they could do was show themselves when they were needed. It was just rude otherwise. “Spirits,” I snapped. “I said you are welcome here.” Colin coughed once. “As long as you mean us no ill,” I amended, remembering the surge of the angry spirit at the Whitestone Manor pond. The guests exchanged knowing glances. Now, I thought. I am in earnest. Show yourselves.

Mother shifted and I knew she was preparing for a dramatic tilting of the table. Before she could follow through, there was the scent of vinegar and peppermint, a most repulsive combination. And then a man appeared, or most of one, in a faded gray suit and wispy face. A woman sniffed.

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