Charlotte had barely ventured out in days. She spent long mornings touring the barren gardens that were to be built, avoiding the gaze of the house workers and her damned brother. During the afternoon, she would retreat to her room and continue to pace, thinking again of the last things that she’d found and what they could mean to her quest. She needed to sort her thoughts. On this morning, it seemed particularly elusive. She had paced around in the dirt for nearly an hour now, her feet feeling too numb to the cold but her thoughts were racing too much for her to care. Her mind was swimming as it normally did when she had been consumed with an idea but for once her mind was venturing to things other than murder. Such thoughts were difficult to keep track of if she was not careful so she had to work in private as she sorted them. While she was just as excellent a scheming wench as her beloved mother, Charlotte found that she was not her equal when it came to certain talents. She was particularly bad with the art of patience, particularly when she couldn’t immediately see the pay off. She was every bit the wicked temptress and had all the intelligence to pull off the means to snuff out anyone who presented an obstacle but her mother had a gift for being able wait and find ways to pull the world as though it were on puppet strings that only she knew how to control. Charlotte had been young when she saw her do such things but she knew this to be true. She’d watched her do it. Seen, with a kind of worship in her eyes, how her mother could tell, as though by magic, exactly how to create situations where fortune simply smiled upon her and follow them to their conclusion with the calm that would shame a monk. If she decided that Charlotte simply had to have a particular breed of thoroughbred for her daily rides, it was as though her mother could shape the world in a certain way and it would bend if it knew what was good for it. It took a kind of fortitude that Charlotte was sorely lacking but did her best to emulate.

When her first husband had met his unfortunate fate at the end of the wrong cup of coffee, she’d had her first taste of this raw talent. It had increased her adoration for her mother ten fold and that sense of pride and idolization only grew when she watched the bastard’s coffin lower beneath the dirt. For the first time in her whole miserable life, Charlotte knew what it was to be in control. She knew what it was to have the same wicked sense of power like her beloved mother did. It was the ability to make the world behave properly and she now understood what it was that she’d seen in the woman that she had so admired. Her mother could take that kind of cruel logic and create magic with it. Make the world see her as more than just the wife of that Fevrier monster. She had been called many things, her mother, but they never could tarnish her legacy in Charlotte’s mind. She had tamed the world and if not for that abomination that she’d been married to, she would still have it wrapped around her finger, ready to give to the only two children that she truly cared about.

Charlotte found herself thinking more and more about this as she wondered about where Caroline could be hiding. What she could be hiding. It was more than just the money, but that in and of itself was frustrating beyond measure. It bothered her constantly that her least interesting sibling had managed to find a way to siphon the remains of that hidden fortune into her clutches somehow. Caroline was neither clever nor was she particularly good at keeping secrets. Even though she was over a decade older than Charlotte, she still behaved more like a small child well into the age when she should have known better. It had always made her seem more stupid and gullible. Maybe that was why she seemed always to be the perfect target for a good scheme. She just seemed to believe anything if Charlotte could phrase it right. Thinking on this, for years, Charlotte had been under the impression that this half sibling of her that she hated so much was completely lacking in their mother’s grace and cunning. In fact, as a child, her only real talent had been to get angry and throw fits. She got her way when she was insufferable but that was a trait that she’d gotten from her father. Oh yes, there was no doubt as to who’s child she was in that regard. But could she have really come from the same mother who had gifted Charlotte with her ability to grasp and hold on to power? This woman who had been able to make her whole world her plaything could truly give birth to someone who was so devoid of any hint of intelligence? For years, Charlotte could only assume not. She secretly believed with all her heart that this woman was not even half her blood but rather that she was simply a dirty secret. Someone who had been taken in for lack of any other choice.

Then this happened. She had come here with her father’s dirty money locked in her plans to take Victor to the estate. To bury her brother into a role that he had sworn to escape at all cost, even if it meant dying penniless in the gutters for it. She should have realized that the Fevrier monster would never let his only male heir escape him really but his ego had to let the boy be punished. It was the only revenge that he would ever get for knowing that it wasn’t his son. But then there was that wretched Caroline. Coming with her invitation and expecting somehow that their mother’s brilliance wouldn’t have been passed on to the only male member of the house. Oh Charlotte could only imagine what the simpering git had expected. Prowling cat houses, she might find their brother looking ragged and too thin. He would be proud but desperate and with her mothering ways, she could entice him to leave his sinful life of fast women and low morals behind and return the reborn son to take the role of the father of the household. It was a perfectly stupid plan that was so very Caroline. Idealistic, if she was being kind but it was far too crude to really be even that realistic. An idealistic plan had to have at least some form of planning involved. Too spoiled by her years of getting by on tantrums and delusion, Caroline had come thinking that she would arrive to a scenario set to gift her with the brother that she had no right to. A brother that even she had to admit bore no resemblance to that wicked creature that she called Papa. And that brother would make everything the way it used to be in their dingy, ruined estate of a home, bringing back the life and the color that had been dashed from their lives the day that they sent their mother into the ground.

Ah but it galled her that there might be some of that wicked goddess in Caroline’s veins after all. Charlotte took a little comfort to know that, just like everything else that she did, her wretched half sibling was less a testimony of her mother’s prowess and more of a crude insult to her talents. The pathetic murderess that she was, she’d killed off a man for no discernible reason, other than he was fairly useless as it was. But anyone other than Caroline would have been able to see that at first glance of him. Even the photographs that they used in the paper where he was at his best dressed, he was clearly no one of any worth. A perfect reason to send Caroline to the gallows. She had no sense of cunning or even any concept of what made a good mark. It was downright offensive! Why, Charlotte’s own first clumsier attempts still didn’t lack that kind of finesse and grace. She had been far more elegant in how she’d managed to clean up and move about in society.

And just like that, Charlotte realized her error. A wicked smile traced upon her lips as she realized that she was standing before the rose bushes at the edge of the property where the forest started its creep onto the land. Funny that she should find herself here. So obscene, the color of those roses, blotting red in a world insisting on turning grey around her. The end of autumn upon them and still their ruddy complexion would not fade. She liked it, the belligerence of it. She liked the feeling they inspired in her as she allowed her thoughts to revolve around her new epiphany. Her giddy revelation.

Oh, she knew that there was no way that Caroline would be trying to blend in with the women of society in town. There was a reason that she’d left her would-be chic room in the fancy hotel after Vivian Kent had taken her tragic down turn. Though she had no evidence to prove it yet, she knew, with every breath that fanned the fire of her greedy soul, that Caroline was to blame for that. She didn’t know how yet but she knew that the bumbling murderess was at the heart of that scandal. And naturally, she had found her way to a much smaller hotel in much less reputable company. Still, the snob in her had sought out things that she felt were her right to have. No poverty-stricken inn where the proprietors might not have her beloved wine. Why, could she really deny herself such a thing with her meals? Charlotte wondered how she managed to choke down such food without the aid of the alcohol. And that had been her mistake all along. She’d been looking for a woman who had been desperate but still a society woman. A wretch trying to hide her beggar’s clothing amid the finery around her but her pathetic attempt would be so obvious. Alas, that was not what she had done at all. Charlotte almost felt foolish for not having understood what would happen sooner. Why, Caroline had so few options, she was bound to have found herself courting one of them by now. It was simply a matter now of figuring out which option she’d chosen.

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