It’s been a while since I’ve posted an excerpt from my 2012 Spur Award winning novel, Double Crossing. I’ll post the “aftermath” of Lily’s father’s murder from Chapter Two. Here goes!
I spent the night in a haze of grief. Etta told me later that she stopped all the clocks to the moment we walked into the library. She’d assisted the undertaker the next morning to wash, shave and then dress Father’s body in his freshly pressed uniform, polished the ceremonial sword and laid it with the leather scabbard by his side. After placing huge black wreaths on the front and side doors, she draped dull black crepe over paintings, windows curtains and mirrors throughout the house. Etta even sent notices to the local newspapers and telegrams to California and New York. I did nothing but weep.
In bed, in the bath until my skin shriveled, curled on the window seat, or in Father’s parlor armchair. Guilt oppressed me like a monolith crushing my chest. I blamed myself during that long crying jag. At last I slept, exhausted, grateful for the oblivion in darkness.
The following day, I crept from my room and helped Etta place two tall floor lamps on either side of the mahogany coffin. She had mended and sponged the dull black mourning dress I’d worn for Mother’s funeral, but the fabric itched in the heat. My chest ached, my eyes burned. Another stab of guilt brought fresh tears that wouldn’t end. Etta petted and fussed over me, but nothing she said helped.
“It’s all my fault! All my fault—I want to die!”
“And what would the Colonel say about that?”
I pushed away from her comforting embrace. “I quarreled with Father. I never apologized before he died, and all because of that toad! I saw him leaving the house with another man, right after I heard the gunshot.”
“Who, Miss Lily?”
“Mr. Todaro. They killed Father and stole the deed to the gold mine. The safe was open, and I searched everywhere. It’s missing. The police refused to believe me yesterday.”
“They didn’t have a whit of patience, for you or me or Cook.” Etta clucked her tongue. “Well, the visitation begins soon. Neighbors have filled the house with food, so you must eat something. Come along to the dining room.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Pinching myself for the hundredth time, I knew this was no nightmare. Was God punishing me for some sin? I shook that off. Father’s murder was cold-blooded and unjust. Emil Todaro and his colleague had arranged the scene to look like a suicide. The police ruled it as such and sent a message today to verify that the lawyer was nowhere to be found in Evanston or Chicago. I knew then for certain that Emil Todaro had stolen the deed to claim the Early Bird mine.
My thoughts tumbled in my mind like water churning through a rocky streambed. If only I’d stayed by Father’s side in the library. If only I’d waited to deliver Uncle Harrison’s telegram in private. Todaro wouldn’t have known that Father had the deed. He and his colleague must have used the side door to gain admission. Father was alone, vulnerable and unsuspecting. If only I’d stayed in the house. I knew that Todaro was a liar and a thief.
But I never thought he was capable of murder.
The black bombazine dress cinched me so tight I panted for breath. The skirt fell short of covering my shoes, despite Etta’s quick work of letting down the hem. I cared nothing about my reddened eyes or my ill-fitting dress. One thought ruled me.
I’d been taught that revenge was the Lord’s, but that smug look I saw on Emil Todaro’s face the other day was too much to bear. If nothing else, I would see him hang.
“What a shame we can’t have a proper funeral,” Etta said. “This miserable heat won’t allow that. People are already gossiping that the Colonel shot himself.”
“We know the truth. I don’t care what people think.”
Despite my bravado, I did care. Deeply. I followed Etta into the garden, stripping all the red flowers from their stems. Cook had filled half a dozen vases with water by the time we carried in armfuls of roses, zinnias and salvia. The crimson arrangements helped to mask the scent of death, of decay, of finality. By the time visitors arrived, my stomach jitters increased. Drained of energy, numb from the preparations, my voice cracked while I stood beside the coffin and received neighbors, friends and Father’s business associates. Visitation required strict etiquette, and I couldn’t fail my father. Not after I’d failed him two nights ago.
People greeted me with subdued sympathy. I thought long and hard to recall the tall, thin man I’d seen with Emil Todaro, in case he’d come to pay his respects. I had not caught sight of his features or heard his voice.
One image had burned all else out of my mind—seeing Father slumped over the desk, the blood-soaked papers beneath his head, the silver gun cradled in his hand.
“Mr. Mason is here, Miss Lily,” Etta whispered in my ear, “with his sister.”
I whirled to see Charles escorting Adele through the crush of people. She reached me first, eyes properly moist, her dove gray suit matching her gloves and a veiled hat. I accepted her murmured words of comfort and then turned to Charles. His boyish plump cheeks flushed red below his thinning fair hair, and his brown eyes reflected kindness and compassion. A black armband encased his suit’s sleeve. I didn’t expect him to embrace me, however, in full sight of everyone. Shocked, I pulled away in embarrassment.
“Please accept my condolences, Lily—Miss Granville. I wanted to call yesterday,” he said in earnest. “I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, Mr. Mason.”
“Perhaps it is God’s will. We can marry and go to China without any ties to this place.” His eyes flickered to Adele when she hissed a warning. Charles shifted from one foot to the other. “I’ve raised half of the money we need. Say you’ll marry me, Lily.”
Speechless, I swallowed hard. This was the last thing I needed—to be railroaded into making a hasty decision. “I’m sorry, Charles, but I believe my father’s lawyer murdered the Colonel. You must understand that I want him brought to justice.”
Charles stepped back in surprise. “What about the police? Have they arrested him?”
“Mr. Todaro fled to California from what I heard. I’m leaving as soon as possible to follow him. I must recover what he stole.”
“Then I’ll chaperone you across the country. Adele could accompany us,” he amended, his cheeks reddening, “to keep propriety, of course.”
I stifled a laugh at his sister’s horrified expression. “Let’s discuss the matter later.” Etta tugged at my elbow, clearly flustered, her eyes wide and cheeks pink. “What is it?”
“Miss Lily, your aunt has arrived.”
Stunned, I blinked twice. “Aunt Miranda, Mother’s sister? She sent a telegram from Boston with her condolences.”
“No, miss,” Etta said, her mouth near my ear. “The lady said to give you this.”
I took the ivory-colored calling card Etta held out and read the words ‘Lady Sylvia Stanhope’ printed in simple script. My mouth went dry. Aunt Sylvia? Father’s sister—whose name Father had forbid
den me to speak. I froze, unable to prevent a sudden invasion when a woman swathed in black swept into the parlor. A veil shrouded her features. Booming yet melodious, her voice stopped the crowd’s hushed conversation.
“My dear niece, what a horrible tragedy!”
With that, she embraced me. I fought against her overpowering scent of gardenias and stiff bodice. A runaway horse wouldn’t stand a chance if Aunt Sylvia caught the reins.