I’d like to take a minute to thank everyone who felt this book was a worthy investment. It is going to be printed because of YOU, not me. As a small token of my appreciation, I have posted the next two chapters of The Mirrors at Barnard Hall.
New to the story? Click HERE to start from Chapter 1.
Don’t want to read this online? Click to view these two chapters in .pdf format: Chapter 14 and Chapter 15 __________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Chapter 14: Cleaning
When my alarm buzzed Nick was gone. By some miracle I had been given the luxury of a dreamless sleep. Despite being well rested I dressed unenthusiastically, keeping one eye on the mirror in case he decided to appear. The outfit I had chosen was the closest to the bed. It was an internal struggle for me to make myself leave the room long enough to change. If I missed him I would never forgive myself.
Before I left, I stared at my reflection for too long. When he did not show up, I made myself go down for breakfast. If I wasn’t careful, Nick Dalton was going to become an unhealthy obsession. The last thing I needed was to fixate on someone who was the very definition of unattainable.
My way to the kitchen was impeded by a tower of brown cardboard boxes. The empty cubes were stacked outside the first bedroom on the right, the master suite. Megan and Rosa came into view, carrying more empty containers. My maid sat her burden down and left Rosa and I alone to talk.
“Miss Callista,” Rosa said quietly. “It is time.” She didn’t need to supply any more details; I had been subconsciously aware of the task she was referring to since I had arrived in England.
“I don’t think I can do it today.” Or any other day.
“It is time,” she repeated.
“You need to put this behind you.”
“Let the girls do it.”
She shook her head. “This is something that you need to do, Miss Callista.”
Rosa was right. I had put off the task for long enough and needed to move past it. My hunger subsided—all feelings had dissipated—so I headed straight for my mother’s room.
“Do you want me to help you? We could get it done in half the time if there are two of us working,” she said from behind me.
“No, thank you, Rosa. I need to deal with this by myself.” If I had a nervous breakdown I wanted no witnesses to the event.
“I will be downstairs if you need me.”
The master suite was the largest of the bedrooms at Barnard Hall. The quilt covering the four-poster bed was a soft cream that matched the bold swirls on the patterned wallpaper. The atmosphere in the room was worse than lonely; it was lifeless.
The room smelled like her, like my mother. Her perfume still lingered in the now-stale air, lacing the space with femininity. The adjoining bathroom was cluttered with makeup, shampoo, and other cosmetic items. Her personal products were left waiting for her to return, ready to make her beautiful again. Sylvia Franklyn Burns had left that day, thinking it would be no different than any other day. She had not known that she would never return to Barnard Hall.
I attempted to distance myself from the task at hand. The project would be finished soon enough, and I would be able to leave the room to collect dust. It was important to fill each box and not think about what I was giving away or why it was no longer needed. Out of foolish sentiment I allowed myself one box for jewelry and other personal affects I wanted to keep. Rosa could decide the fate of everything else.
Two hours later, I had miraculously completed the bulk of the work. All but one drawer of clothes were in boxes, ready to leave Barnard Hall. I pulled the decorative metal knob and the drawer jerked open. The dresser had belonged to Jim; keeping a mental distance was effortless. I had never been more removed from another human being as I was from my stepfather. His sweaters filling the space made my stomach roll. I threw the garments into the box as quickly as possible in case they spontaneously combusted in my hands.
Just as I was about to shut the drawer, light glinted off of something shiny near the back. My fingers grasped the thin key; the metal’s cool weight sent a current zinging through my hand. I knew the exact lock the key would fit into.
The drawer remained open, forgotten as I ran to my old bedroom. I raised my hand to the door and closed my eyes. In my mind’s eye I remembered how it had looked ten years earlier—my private sanctuary, a child’s escape. With the bed shoved to the corner, the spacious room had been mostly bare. The area had allowed for more games contrived by the imaginations of two little girls.
My hand shook as I put the key into the lock. I inhaled a steadying breath, composed my face into an impassive mask, and turned the key. With a bit of force the mechanism clicked, admitting me into my bedroom. Musty air drifted around my body like a heavy fog and assaulted my senses with memories. The cloying atmosphere seeped through the open doorway and penetrated my soul as it crept past.
For months I had played here with my best friend. I had dreamed of the place for the last ten years and yet what was left of my bedroom reflected the nightmare. Those ten minutes of terror in my final hour at Barnard Hall would forever taint the space.
Distorted shadows claimed the walls, snarling at me as I stepped inside. The windows were shuttered by thick curtains, allowing only slivers of light to filter through the crack in the center. My old room was covered in a film of dust from disuse, and cobwebs clung to the eaves. The unmade bed glittered with shards of glass from the broken mirror in the corner. I took a second step into the space and crunched some forgotten remains beneath my shoe.
The mirror itself looked like something out of a horror movie. The edges of the glass were still there, jagged and slicing at the thick air. A large hole was missing from the heart of the piece. The menacing, razor-like edges were stained black with my stepfather’s blood.
My cheeks grew damp as I drank in what was left of my childhood. This couldn’t be the last memory I had in my old room. This was a place for possibilities and dreams, not the set of a Stephen King film.
I ran to the curtains and flung them open, allowing the white sunlight to coat the pale walls. The glass on my bed glittered like a million diamonds. I pulled the small iron-handled broom from its stand beside the fireplace and fell to my knees to sweep away the precious jewels. When there was a small pile, I dropped the glass into the ash bucket. Next, I pulled the covers from the bed and rolled them into a ball, careful to collect the diamonds in the middle and keep the sharp edges from cutting my soul.
With all my strength, I heaved the heavy mirror frame to the edge of the room with the other trash. The vines carved into the metal branded my hand, leaving an imprint of the design on my palm.
As I surveyed my handy work, pride filled some of the void that had been created ten years earlier; I had completed two of the tasks I had been dreading since I had returned to Barnard Hall.
As I turned to leave, a dainty white hand reached toward me from beneath the bed. I picked up Tilly’s favorite doll, and brushed the reflective glass from her dark curls. Her porcelain skin was still smooth and her serene smile remained in place. I sat her proudly against the feather pillow atop my blank bed, where she belonged.
My former sanctuary was now an empty space; empty of dreams but also free of nightmares. The room was ready for someone else. I wasn’t sad when I left the room. I’d found what I had been craving all these years: closure.
“Haven’t you seen her?”
I waited at the top of the steps when I heard Beth’s voice in the hallway below. Something about the way she whispered kept me from revealing my presence. The maid beside her, Amanda, shrugged.
Beth scoffed. “She’s happy. Her parents were killed only weeks ago and she walks around here with a constant smile on her face.” The hatred in her voice made me bristle. I had never done anything to this girl to deserve her vicious slander. My apparent happiness was no one’s business. If anything, she should be happy that I was happy. The longer I was happy, the longer I would stay here. And, the longer I stayed here, the longer she had a job.
Wait. Was I happy? There really were no words to describe how I had been feeling of late. I was interested in life—more interested than I had ever been. But I wouldn’t use the word happy. How could I be happy when I knew how this story ended?
“You can’t expect a person to mourn the dead forever,” Amanda said. The girl’s face was on the homely side, but her kindness shined through. I would have to give her a raise in her next paycheck as a reward for her sympathy.
“But that’s just it. She never mourned at all. She didn’t even cry at the funeral.”
“Maybe she mourned in private.”
“Regardless, I’ve heard she’s mad.”
“How can you know that?” Amanda asked in a hushed whisper, looking around her for eavesdroppers. I stepped back, becoming one with the shadows. Both Amanda and I waited for Beth’s response.
“Her stepfather made sure her aunt put her in therapy after she left Barnard Hall. He had thought she was possessed. She saw people who weren’t there and all sorts of eerie things. That’s why they kept her away all those years.”
Amanda took a minute to process the malicious details. “I had not heard that before.”
It hurt more than I would ever admit that Jim had shared such personal information with strangers. A lot of other children had imaginary friends, how was I any different? That thought made me chuckle. My situation had been very different; my imaginary friend had been real, only she had died in 1912.
“Haven’t you walked by her room in the evenings? She’s in there talking to herself, holding full conversations.”
“Well, what does she say? I talk to myself sometimes too but I don’t expect to be committed anytime soon.”
Beth must have overheard me talking to Nick. Getting caught wasn’t something I had previously considered; as a rule, my staff gave me a wide berth. Having someone discover Nick could only end in tragedy. If I was smart I would change rooms and stop seeing him. But I knew that wouldn’t happen. No matter how much time I spent with him, I would crave more until the end.
“I don’t know. The doors in this house are thick, but these conversations are more than just thinking aloud. I’m sure of it.”
Amanda straightened. “So what if she’s a bit mad? Barnard Hall has had that effect on some others through the years. You’ve heard the stories, same as me. Even I sometimes think I see things when I clean the bedrooms. Old homes hold ghosts. Miss Franklyn is a good employer. She has no need for a most of the staff, yet she keeps us on. For that, I am in her debt—crazy or not.”
I would have to get to know Amanda better. She seemed to be a worthy ally in a place where allies were scarce.
The fury on Beth’s face left me smiling. Anger radiated from her body; I could taste the bitterness in the air. Stepping out of the shadows, I resumed descending the stairs. On the outside I remained calm but inside I was boiling over. It would do no good to provide the entire community with more gossip about me. It was obvious that Beth had been a main source of the rumors, and I had to stop them from growing more vicious.
My maid saw me come around the corner and she stiffened, wondering if I had overheard her conversation. I smiled to set her at ease; she visibly relaxed.
“Beth, may I have a word with you?” I said with a friendliness I did not feel.
She moved a step closer and offered me a tentative smile; the look did not reach her eyes.
“I just wanted to remind you that your place here at Barnard Hall is in no way set in stone. I would appreciate it if you kept your personal opinions to yourself and remained professional while you’re on the clock.”
“Miss Franklyn, I assure you I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“And I can assure you that you are lying.”
There was something cold about Beth’s eyes that I had not noticed before. They were not like my mother’s; Sylvia’s green eyes had been lifeless. Beth’s were cold and sharp, like switchblades. At that moment I knew Beth would like nothing more than to slap me… or worse.
Instead of letting loose with her true feelings, Beth nodded stiffly and turned on her heel. The fury emanating from her was electrifying. I inhaled deeply and took the long route to my room in order to shake off the confrontation.
“What happened to you?”
I looked at the gorgeous man in the mirror and his words got lost in my muddled brain. The concern on his face was foreign to me; when was the last time someone was worried about me? “What do you mean?”
“Callista, you are bleeding—and quite profusely at that.”
“What?” Sure enough, the broken glass from the mirror had cut my knees and hands. If my staff hadn’t thought I was nuts before, they would now. How could I have let Beth see me in such a state? The next thing the village would hear was that I had turned suicidal.
Tiny specks of glass had been embedded in my palms. With the acknowledgement of their existence, the tiny scrapes ignited and began to burn my tender skin.
“Huh,” was all I could manage. Each slice felt like it had its own heartbeat; the throbbing was unbearable.
“What were you doing all day that would inflict such wounds?” Nick asked, curious about my battle scars.
“Cleaning what? A war zone?”
“My old bedroom and my mother’s room,” I confessed.
“Why were you doing it?”
“Because it needed done.” Why else would someone clean? It wasn’t exactly the type of task people enjoyed.
“I meant, don’t you have a household staff for that sort of chore?”
“So why were you doing it?”
When my eyes made contact with Nick’s, I forgot to breathe. He was sitting in his chair, looking beautiful in a tailored white shirt and black pants. He had shaved and looked more rested than he had the entirety of the past week. His dark eyes pulled the truth from my lips.
“Because I had to get rid of my mother’s clothes,” I confessed, knowing what he would ask next.
“Because she and her husband died a few weeks ago, and I needed to get rid of their personal things. I spent most of the morning boxing up clothes.”
For a moment he didn’t respond. I wasn’t sure he had heard me but then he whispered, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
I shrugged away the sentiment. I had been sorry too—ten years ago.
“Why had you not told me this before?”
“It never came up.”
“If I may make an observation without offending you,” Nick began as I walked into the bathroom to clean and disinfect my cuts. He did not wait for my permission to continue. “You seem to be handling the situation quite well for losing your mother.”
“It’s complicated,” I hedged, unprepared to relate the details of the trauma that had made up my childhood.
“Too complicated to share?”
Too complicated to face. “For now.”
Nick nodded. “Did you cut yourself on the clothes or with a broom?”
“Neither. I had to clean the glass from my old bedroom.”
“From the broken mirror.”
“Too complicated?” he predicted.
“Not really. My stepfather saw Tilly ten years ago and broke the mirror as a result.”
Nick smiled and my heart broke. “I cannot say I am surprised. My sister tends to have that sort of damaging effect on people.”
Chapter 15: Motive
“I know why you’re here.”
Nick’s startling declaration cleared my brain of all coherent thought. I had been trying to understand what had been going on for ten years; he had needed less than ten days to figure it out.
He nodded. “And I now know that I am dreaming.”
“Are you?” I smiled at the seriousness in his tone.
“But you’re awake.”
“You know that makes no sense.”
“Precisely. Does any part of our relationship make sense?”
I ignored his question and offered one of my own, curious where he was going with his theory. “Do you often dream while you’re awake?”
“Not until recently.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Stress,” he answered quickly.
“Yes. My dreams conjured you because of the stress I have been subjected to of late. It appears as though you are a combination of my conscious and subconscious desires. You are everything I did not know I wanted. ”
“I… I am?” The confession was not what I had been expecting. His tone had lost the playful edge it usually held.
“Yes, and you were sent to torture me. To let me know what I will never have.”
“It sounds like I’m more of a nightmare than a dream.”
“No, you are most definitely a dream.” He let out a heavy sigh. “In light of the impending tragedy, it really is quite ironic.”
Nick knew he was going to die? My head was spinning out of control. How had he found out? I had to make a conscious effort to keep from hyperventilating. Had I unknowingly spilled those secrets in my sleep?
“You know what’s coming?” He was calm—too calm.
“My father alluded to this morning.”
So, Nicholas Dalton Sr. knew his family was going to die? Maybe he knew who the killer was and had overheard his murderous plans. But surely if Nick’s father knew about the tragedy he would want to stop the fire. Had he known the first time around and failed to put an end to the event?
“And I must be honest, if this were ten days ago, before you started haunting me, I would not have cared.”
I had to say something to distract him and give me time to think. In a moment the entire dynamic between us had changed. “Now I’m back to being a ghost?” My tone was light, playful.
“Dreams can haunt a man too.”
“So can nightmares,” I whispered.
“Callista, if you were a nightmare I would want you to go away. But I don’t. So, you’re a dream. Please, take my word on this.”
“You are amazingly composed for finding out this morning.” I would be completely freaking out—I was completely freaking out.
“I’m resigned. She’s just not the one I would have chosen.”
She? “Wait. What are you talking about?”
“Marriage. What were you talking about?”
We had gone from dreams/nightmares, to death, then marriage in the span of five minutes. I needed to resume taking notes in order to follow our conversations.
“It doesn’t matter,” I murmured. At least we weren’t talking about his impending death.
Even as I signed with relief I was not relieved. My steady breath sounded more like the final gasp of air from a drowning victim before she succumbed to her watery grave. I had thought he was okay with dying and that the burden of knowledge I possessed would be lifted. The mystery had been solved, and I could leave Barnard Hall guilt-free. Instead, the mystery had compounded.
“How did you find out?”
“This is the first I’m hearing about it, Nick. I can’t believe you’re getting married…” I squeaked. This news seemed more final than death. After all, Nick had already died. Everyone dies. But if he was getting married… A few silent moments passed before the full force of the subject hit me.
“I’m not getting married.”
“You’re not?” Now I was more confused than before.
“Not exactly,” he hedged.
How could one not exactly get married? He was either getting married or he wasn’t. “Who are you supposed to be marrying?”
“I am not entirely sure, but I have an awful premonition.”
“What does that even mean?” How could he not know the name of his fiancé? Perhaps it was pity I was feeling for the woman, not jealousy.
No, it was definitely jealousy. Envy clouded my vision as a wave of rage paralyzed me. I simply couldn’t share this man with some other woman for the next few weeks.
“It means my father threatened me with a formal betrothal this morning and very few women are willing to have someone like me as their husband. I have until the twenty fourth of August to find a wife.”
The date hit me like a sledgehammer to the skull, rendering me lifeless. “The twenty fourth?”
“The day after my mother’s birthday celebration.”
“Your mother’s birthday…” Everything was falling into place, and I was no closer to finding the truth than I had been ten years earlier. The events were already in motion, the fuse lit. The clock on the wall ticked like an armed explosive.
“Are you going to repeat everything I say?”
I graciously ignored the jibe. “How can your father expect you to get married? You’re only twenty-three.” Things were different back then; Tilly had married at eighteen. Was Nick ready to get married? Did he want to get married?
“I know. And he did not marry until he was nearly twenty seven.”
“That hardly seems fair.” The word hypocrite swirled on my tongue, but I bit it back. I didn’t know Nick’s father and could not claim to know his family’s circumstances. Besides, I lived in the twenty-first century; it would be presumptuous of me to make such rash judgments.
“My mother insists my father was not serious in his threat, that he only wishes to see me as happy as he is. His was a love match with my mother.”
“All the more reason to wait,” I rushed.
“Try and convince him of that fact.”
“How did your parents meet?” I had always been curious, but the subject had never come up when I had been around Tilly. Plus, I did not want to think about, let alone discuss Nick getting married. As far as I was concerned he was unavailable.
“My father was betrothed to Lady Regina Smyth, Lord Smyth’s daughter. A month before their wedding, my father caught her in the arms of another man. He had been devastated, but my mother had appeared a week later, seemingly out of nowhere, and they instantly fell in love.”
One detail in the romantic story made my stomach tighten. “The same family who had lost their home to your grandfather?”
“The very same. I don’t believe she ever forgave my father for catching her, which makes no sense really.”
“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed. An unfaithful daughter, a broken engagement, and a lost house; the combination of all three sounded a lot like motive for a fire that would eradicate the source of the Smyth’s apparent problems.
“And now I fear I may be tied to the same fate my father once was.”
“I’m sure she’s a bit old for you, Nick,” I said sarcastically. For him to marry a woman old enough to be his mother was ludicrous at any point in history—wasn’t it?
“Her daughter isn’t.”
“Another Lady Smyth?” How many Smyths were there?
“Lady Emily Smyth.”
Hearing her name made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Again, it felt oddly like jealousy. My vision blurred when my mind pictured Nick with the faceless woman. She would be beautiful; he deserved someone beautiful.
“Surely someone else would be willing to marry you.” Nick was handsome and charming and strong and…
“Willing to marry me? You say it as if it is a horrible punishment for a woman. Would marriage to me really be such a sentence?”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
Nick shook his head and smiled sadly. “At present, I have prospects for relationships, but none would be likely to end in marriage.”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you asking what I meant about the relationships or the results of said affairs?”
My blush made it clear that I knew what he was inappropriately implying. “Why won’t they marry you?”
“I have no title.”
He looked at me as though those two letters had been a curse. Apparently my statement was almost as unacceptable. “Equality is something we find ourselves striving toward here in 1902. Granted, a title does not mean as much as it once did, but status still matters to most people. My family has made our living through hard work and sweat; it has not traveled through our bloodlines. The Daltons are considered new money.”
“I think your way is more admirable than the other.”
He smiled sadly. “Unfortunately, the majority does not agree.”
“Have you no prospects at all?” Not that I wanted him to have options. If he did get married I had a feeling his wife would have a problem with me staying in his bedroom or spending every waking moment with him.
Nick’s grin widened. “How can I think of another woman when I look forward to spending all of my free time with you?”
My stomach fluttered. I prayed he did not notice the flush creeping up my neck or the shortness of my breath. A response escaped me.
“Which brings us back to the reason you are here. Until I met you, I did not think of marriage or of women in terms of something that would last. And now my father has issued an ultimatum. It matters not how contrived it may be. In you, I have finally met someone with whom I have a connection and yet you don’t exist. I’m obsessed with a woman who is not here. How can I be expected to find someone in my own time that can outshine you? But you will never be with me and I could never be with you. The thought is maddening. You’re here to remind me of what I will never have.”
“What is that?”
“Nick, you don’t even know me.”
Our acquaintance had been brief, yet his words mimicked my thoughts. Men had never interested me before Nick Dalton. Even when he wasn’t around he was on my mind. If I could imagine someone for myself, a partner who would return my love, I would have imagined the man in front of me. Yet the being in front of me was even better than my wildest dreams could conjure; he was perfect.
We had an otherworldly connection beyond the magical circumstances of our unattainable relationship. There was a supernatural magnetism between us, drawing us toward one another. However, the reflective barrier kept us a century apart
“But I do know you. You are my sister’s best friend. You have a vivid imagination and you always come up with the best games to play. You don’t eat sweets and you cry a lot.”
“Those are Tilly’s opinions and memories.” And they were true of the seven-year-old I had been, not the woman I had become.
“Alright. You’re brilliant although you think too much. You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen and it matters little to you that my family has made their own way in this world.”
He thought I was beautiful?
All my life my mother had been my standard for beauty. I wasn’t sure if other people had found me attractive; they had always seemed mildly disappointed to find out that Sylvia Franklyn Burns was my mother. There really was no comparison with the legendary model. On my own though… I suppose I was passably attractive when I was done up—a rare occurrence. It was high time I started putting some effort toward my appearance.
When I didn’t say anything, Nick continued. “You haunt me, Callista. Yet I find myself welcoming the torture.”
The welcomed part took the sting out of being referred to as torture for the second time tonight. When he finished I couldn’t find pretty words to explain my own feelings. So I whispered what was on my mind, confessed what I felt in my heart. “I know how you feel.”