Consuelo came to a halt beside a rosebush. I stopped beside her and waited for her to speak. She remained silent, however, staring at the scarlet blossoms but not seeming to see them; her eyes held a faraway, pensive look.
“Is something wrong?” I asked her gently.
“It’s what Lady Amelia just said about her parents separating, and her being taken far from home, from her brother and her father. It’s so sad, Emma. It’s . . . it’s exactly what’s happening to me. If I marry the Duke, I’ll leave this country. I won’t see you or my friends or my brothers anymore. Soon, it'll be as if we don't even know each other. We’ll be strangers.”
I slipped an arm around her waist. “You and I will never be strangers. I can promise you that.”
I reached out and plucked a rosebud, careful not to prick my thumb, and handed it to my cousin. She bowed her head to it, dabbed at a tear with her free hand, and inhaled deeply. Her lips parted as if she were about to say something more, words that never came.
In that instant, a scream ripped across the garden.
Gripping each other’s hands, Consuelo and I set off running down the path. Another scream filled the air and echoed off the rear of the house behind us. Up ahead, Mrs. Stanford and Lady Amelia came to sudden halts in front of the pavilion. Just inside the wide archway, the Misses Spooner stood clutching each other’s hands. Aunt Alva was lost in the shadows under the pavilion roof.
“Oh, good gracious, Emma, what can it be?” Consuelo squeezed my hand as we ran, her fingernails cutting into my flesh. Then we, too, reached the pavilion. My hand flew up to press my bosom. Consuelo cried out.
“Is she . . . is she . . .” Roberta Spooner—or was it Edwina?—craned her neck to see around Aunt Alva.
Aunt Alva didn’t utter a word. I pried Consuelo’s fingers from my hand and then pressed forward, placing a hand on Lady Amelia’s shoulder so I could squeeze between her and Mrs. Stanford and continue up the two steps into the pavilion. The aroma of some pungent incense tickled my nose and stung my eyes. I stepped around the Spooner sisters and came to Aunt Alva’s side. My breath froze in my throat.
I saw Clara first—Clara Parker, the young maid I’d spoken to outside Consuelo’s room that morning, who had fretted over how little Consuelo had eaten and who had hoped I might be able to cheer my cousin up. Clara, her severe black frock contrasting sharply with the white pinafore and starched cap she wore, stood facing us, the whites of her eyes gleaming in the shadows, her head moving side to side in a continual gesture of denial. The already-petite girl seemed further diminished by the fear magnifying her eyes, and by the incongruously cheerful yellows of the sunflowers, daisies, and black-eyed Susans that bedecked the pavilion.
To mirror the happy destinies about to be foretold?
Or to sit in garish contrast to the gruesome image that greeted me as I lowered my gaze.
A figure swathed from head to toe in varying shades of violet sat slumped over a cloth-covered card table, her head angled awkwardly to one side. The jeweled turban had fallen off her head and rolled to the edge of the table, and short, thin wisps of graying brown hair stuck out in all directions from her scalp. I moved farther into the pavilion until I could see her face; her eyes protruded from their sockets, staring unblinkingly at the crystal ball inches away. A colorful deck of cards fanned out from beneath her cheek, several of them scattered on the floor beside the table amid a sprinkling of coins. Her lips were a sickly shade of blue and . . .
A crimson gash scored her throat. My stomach roiled—but no. I looked again and realized there was no blood anywhere. Instead, around her throat a scarf of deep red silk was twined so tightly her neck bulged from around the fabric.
“Dear God.” I circled the table and shoved a stupefied Clara aside. From behind Madame Devereaux’s chair, I grabbed the woman by the shoulders. I hauled her upright, then leaned her limp body against the back of the chair.
In a frenzied blur I dug my fingers around the silk scarf to loosen its grip. Even as the ends slipped free I knew it was too late. Madame Devereaux had breathed her last, and no amount of hoping would coax her lungs to fill again. A trickle of blood spilled from the corner of her mouth. Her lips gaped and her tongue lolled, showing where she had bitten clean through. A bruise was already forming on her temple, where her head had struck the table in front of her. Or . . . perhaps she’d been struck, before being strangled.
A whimper came from one of the ladies grouped in the entrance of the pavilion. I looked up at them to see them gaping, dumbfounded. Then, as one, they lifted their gazes to the person whose presence I’d all but forgotten.
“I didn’t . . . I didn’t . . .” Clara stammered. She stood with her small back plastered to one of the structure’s carved columns, looking like a child called to the headmistress’s office and babbling incoherently.
Aunt Alva’s arm came up, her forefinger aimed at the maid. “Your hands were around her neck. I saw you.”
“I swear . . . I didn’t . . . I swear . . . she was like that . . . I only tried to help . . .”
“Shut up,” Aunt Alva ordered. “Just shut up.”
Her command may have silenced Clara, who clamped her lips tight, but it also released a flurry of cries and exclamations from the other women. Alva whirled about to shush them. Her gaze must have landed on her daughter, because she immediately said, “Go back to the house. Tell Grafton to call for the police. Go, Consuelo, now.”
I don’t know how much my cousin saw. I wanted to go to her, to comfort her, but when I looked up from the sight that held me so horribly entranced, she had gone.
Murder at Marble House releases September 30th! See my Books page to pre-order!