It had been nearly three days since Charlotte found her delightfully terrible secret but keeping it had been difficult at best. She was at first very excited to know that Victor, by his own design no less, had no interest in the politics of the town below and his very few interactions there were limited to those who worked with or for him. The buildings changed hands as need be and he found himself not caring for the company of those who lived in that rotten little dirt pile down there. She could hardly blame him. They were a petty lot and they had nothing in the way of challenge or anything to offer her. Well, perhaps he was less interested in such things but she knew her brother well enough that he could not be pestered by those who bored him and Courtland County was nothing if not a complete bore to the point of being almost fatal. At least that was what she’d thought before this thorn of information came her way and tempted her to see this whole situation explode. Now wouldn’t that liven up this dead little town and its pathetic inhabitants?
A temptation that would cost her far too much and she was well aware of that. Curse this name she’d been saddled with this time. Oh Richard was so very stupid but his name, for all its worth in money, was sadly as tarnished as her own maiden name. For all that she’d known about him from the infamy of his exploits, she’d been surprised that her former husband had been capable of keeping the other side of his reputation hidden from even her before their marriage. It was a sour discovery afterwards and one that she had not been prepared for nor had she anticipated inheriting. For now, she’d managed to get along with a previous husband’s name and gone with the excuse that it was only proper to return to the name of her true love who was also very conveniently dead. It would work for now but Richard had some dealings that she had not been aware of before she’d taken his name and they were impatiently awaiting a man from New York who’d found a wife in England. Charlotte had been well aware that his wealth was nothing but dirty money when she’d seduced him from the hapless girl that he’d set his eyes on but in the end, she’d done him far more of a favor when she’d watched him drunkenly stumble to that railing on the ocean liner. He’d have been punished far more greatly if he were left alive but then again, he would have insisted on bringing her down with him. No, she had no choice but to send him sailing over the rail. She felt no sense of sentimentality or even pity when she looked over and saw the blood pooling beneath him. The perfect end to a greedy man who had his sights on something bigger than himself. It had been this sense of ambition that Charlotte had been interested in until she realized that she was to be a pawn in that ambition. Well, poor Richard didn’t quite know who he was dealing with and once she rid herself of this terribly awkward name for good, she would leave it to rot along with him. To do that, she needed the money that her snivelling sister was hoarding for her fool’s errand.
Still, it was torture waiting this long to proceed. Victor, for all that he was not nearly interested or aware of what was happening with her, would be getting suspicious soon if she didn’t keep him focused on Caroline’s deception. As tempting as it would be to keep him under her thumb for a while with what she could do, there was only so much that her brother would allow her to get away with before he would turn on her. Considering that most of this plan required him alive, it would not be a good idea to tempt fate as of yet. There was yet another difficulty to consider and that was the men whom Richard had been swindling. They would come and though it was far too early for anyone in New York or England to know about his untimely demise, they would come to call soon. She’d been very quiet upon coming to land, staying places for no more than a day or two and socializing very little, though that part was killing her inside. The house here was safe because Victor was overly protective of his home and allowed no one to speak to her. Even the staff were to have as little to do with her as possible. The walls echoed the cold silence and there were times that she truly believed that she could hear the wood and the plaster seemed to whisper. The wind bellowing a change of season on the way would chatter endlessly in the mornings. The rattling of the windows seemed only to provoke her imagination more. All of these things seemed like madness in the afternoon’s cold sun but in the middle of the night when the staff were all but gone and she was left with only the house to provide her with its voice, she swore that it would speak. That the sound would form words and sometimes, Charlotte was positive she knew what those words were. The moment that she bent her ear to listen, they would fade and by morning it was like trying to remember a dream that was too quickly escaping her grasp.
It had been worse so since Victor had disappeared on yet another dreary drive somewhere. His driver had not taken him this time and he had only told her about five minutes before he was to leave. She had to admit that her darling sibling was nothing if not cunning enough to live with her. Still, for all that she granted that he was smart enough to avoid her barbs, she was left irritated that she could not extract more information about where he went. Even the house staff weren’t aware. She could tell by the way that they answered that there was nothing to scout through and no one who seemed the least bit interested in where he went. Only that he returned usually shortly after he left and profit was made soon after. He never talked about business under his own roof and he would never entertain anyone who might be related to his work. The men under his employ even who toiled upon that house for the staff outside were daily escorted to comfortable lodgings in town. They were well paid already from what she could tell and given the speed and dedication of their work, she could only guess that they were getting extra on top of it. And yet even they did not know where this man who employed them made his money or from whom. Had she been able to find out he was leaving this afternoon, she might have been able to arrange to follow him or even just so far as to track which road out of town he might have taken. After he left, she dared not bother going into town for want to guess where he might have scampered off to. She truly wished that her sibling had been the playing sort and that she could just chalk this up to his dalliances with some tart who loved his money. Sadly, she knew Victor was too in love with his sadness to bother with women and that left her with only a few guesses on what he might be up to. It was so hard being away from the good gossip and harder still when her brother insisted on having some that he was so very stingy with.
Rattling around in the house had taken her into a terrible mood and she found herself wandering aimlessly. A part of her was feeling rather pouty about all of this. Dare say, like a child who had been denied something sweet. Selfish Victor running away and getting to have some mind numbing meeting or some such and here she was, left alone to ponder her wicked plans but with nothing fun to do about them. At least his mind numbing meeting might have a suitable suitor that would allow her to return to Europe in time to see what next season’s fashions would be. She did so hope because she knew for certain that this dreary little county would be seeing none of them in the months to come and if the postal service was as tardy as she had seen so far, there would be no catalogues to enjoy either.
Charlotte looked to the sky and saw the blue choked out by the darker grey of the clouds. The air was terribly cold and she knew that she should have a jacket but at that moment, she felt belligerent about it. That coat was last season’s and though she knew it was a perfectly lovely coat, it was getting too old for it. No, she wanted something new. She refused to put it on today. She was in no mood to be reminded of how far away from everything she was from everything she actually loved. Let her wander out in this dirt pile that would be a garden and feel miserably cold, she thought to herself. It seemed fitting. Her plans were so very slow and this garden, for all that she could see the potential carved in the earth around her, was still very much just dirt slabs waiting for life to grow. Waiting for the structures to be built. She sneered as she walked slowly along the one path that had been laid through the centre. Oh it would be lovely when it was finished. There was space for a pond and archways to hang ivy on. There were pedestals for statues, waiting for vines to decorate the marble. There were gates at the edges to keep out the encroaching wilds of the woods, though she didn’t know why. After all, her brother had taken to wandering in them in search of new things to mourn or perhaps it was still just the old.
Without noticing, Charlotte had wandered off the path and though she knew now that her shoes were getting soiled, it seemed so unimportant. Last year’s shoes. Not important, she thought wistfully, though somewhere under it all, she cringed at the thought of the mud caking on the fabric. Still she moved forward, stepping lightly over the iron fencing and pausing at the edge of where the forest started. From here, she could smell the vibrant pine and the undertones of cedar but there was more. A kind of rot that had begun to get more pungent. She’d been able to smell it on the way here but it was not important then. Not important now, her mind seemed to soothe in a voice that didn’t sound like her own. No, it wasn’t important to notice the way the leaves had started to fall and the stench coming from the pooling waters in the gutter ponds that formed between the trees. The only thing that mattered was the bushes in front of her. The roses before her.
Charlotte had wondered how she missed them. How she had been focused at all on the smell of decay from the forest when standing before these giant blooms. Why, they were gorgeous and so full. Even a young bush like this was already producing such lovely flowers and they were larger than any she’d seen even back home. And the fragrance of them was better than even the most lush perfumes that she’d bought in Paris. So very beautiful they were and that rich coral color that seemed to simply bleed out from the centre and crest outward towards the peachy outer petals. She couldn’t resist touching them. The blossom was so large and the petals so soft. Charlotte felt as though she were entranced as she reached down to pluck the rose before her. In one clumsy motion, she felt as though she’d woken up from a dream. She looked down to see small drops of blood on two of her fingers and the rose in her hand. Why, she’d pricked herself on the thorns. How careless she’d been, she thought slowly. Looking at the bloom again, she was alarmed to see drops of crimson from her fingers smeared on those outer petals.
Charlotte looked up and back at the door to see the child maid that Victor forbade her to speak to staring at her with a forlorn look upon her face. The young face with such old eyes seemed so filled with despair but she said nothing as she walked away.