A scene from an early chapter:
Rehearsal had finally ended and Penny lay in her room, sprawled on the threadbare quilt with Leon curled against the curve of her waist. She’d escaped another trip to the library with Maria, claiming she needed to rest. But dinner was only an hour away and a nap seemed out of reach.
She changed into a long skirt and sweater and slipped down the hall to the servant exit. Dense clouds filled the sky, sagging and ready to drop buckets of rain. The entire landscape seemed drenched in gray. At least the gala meant spring was on the horizon with all its pastel colors and fragrant blossoms. That was one thing she could look forward to.
Holding her skirt so it skimmed the tops of her boots, Penny dashed down the cobbled path to the lake. The water was a seamless echo of the sky, disorienting in its perfect reflection as if she could fall into the clouds. She squatted at the edge, peering further into the depths to watch as minnows chased each other in a never-ending game of tag. With a deep breath, she closed her eyes, concentrating on the cool air, feather soft against her forehead. A breeze carried the smell of the spruce and pine trees, reminding her of Christmas, when garland draped the staircase and ribbon-draped trees brushed the ceiling in nearly every room. At night the girls would spend hours singing carols around the fire and peeking at wrapped presents piled high in the drawing room. This year Master had gotten Penny a Michaux bicycle from Paris. She had very little time to ride, especially in this weather, but it was a grand gesture.
It wasn’t always terrible at the estate. The girls had everything they needed; beds to sleep in, decadent food, friends, and schooling in the arts.
So why did she always want to run away?
A screech tore through the air and Penny’s eyes squinted open against the sudden brightness. A black-winged stilt landed on the lake and stared at her, its beady eyes and parted beak seeming to tell her to return to her room.
The temperature dropped and shivers raced down her skin. The supper bell echoed a distant gong, calling her back to the safety of home. With a last glance at the bird, she hastened back up the path and indoors.
An extended scene when Penny wakes up in her grandfather’s quarters:
“Want to play a quick game of backgammon?” he suggested.
Penny pinched her lips together tight for a moment. “Are you certain? I know you’d rather go home.” As much as she wanted to stay comfortably ensconced on the sofa in his quarters, as it was far warmer and more comfortable than her own barren bedroom, she didn’t want to keep her grandfather at the manor any longer than necessary. He hated the spectacle and grandiosity of the estate even more than she did. Plus, he’d been looking exhausted the past week, his hair wilder and his expression more pinched than normal.
But he smiled; his eyes brightening like pale aquamarines. “I offered. You needn’t worry about me.”
He opened the game on the low table in front of Penny and pulled up a chair so he sat on the opposite side.
Penny adjusted the blanket across her lap and leaned in to arrange her white checkers on their proper points. “I’ll try not to beat you too badly,” she said nonchalantly. Grandfather chuckled. He won nearly every time.
They played in silence, rolling the dice and moving their checkers. Penny frowned when she captured one of her grandfather’s pieces and placed it on the bar. “Is everything okay? You normally wouldn’t have left that open.” She could tell he was distracted.
He rolled the dice. “It’s been a rather trying few weeks, but I think everything is under control. A . . . client of mine has been under duress and I’ve needed to visit her more frequently.”
“Just like me and my headaches.” Penny watched as he moved his pieces. “It must be the weather or something.”
Grandfather sighed. “I wish it were only the change of seasons, however, I fear it’s something else entirely.” He paused, fingers clasping a checker. “How are you feeling? I’ve missed talking to you. It seems we only have time to chat when you need medication for your headaches.” He motioned for her to roll.
She shrugged. There wasn’t much to tell. Her life was all dancing and the gala and her studies, really. “Everything’s fine.”
“Good.” Except he sounded more doubtful than positive. “Please remember, you to know you can come to me for anything.”
Penny thanked him and moved her checkers. They finished in record time and Penny did manage a victory, although she wondered if her grandfather had let her keep her marginal lead.
She stretched her arms above her head. “Loser puts everything away.”
He snorted and stacked the checkers. With a snap, he closed the board and tucked it into the cabinet.
“I should probably get back to my room.” Penny fought a yawn. “Thanks for letting me stay.”
“Here.” He opened his cracked leather bag and handed her a stoppered vial. “One last dose, so you can get a good night’s rest.”
She took the glass container and kissed his cheek. “I feel fine.”
“I know.” He turned his back and walked over to place the bag on the dark maple sideboard running the length of the wall.
A scene from a much earlier draft when Cricket could also see the wolves:
Before she could ask, her focus was yanked toward a glint of yellow buried in the tree line to her right. “Cricket,” she whispered. “What’s that?”
With a flick of his fingers, he hooded the lantern and they stood frozen. The only sound was their breathing, each exhale ending with a pale puff of fog that rose to dissipate in the net of branches above.
“An animal, I think,” he whispered, lips a mere inch from her ear. “But it appears to be tracking us.”
With that, another pair of eyes appeared, a few feet away. A howl curled around them, raising the hairs on Penny’s arms and the back of her neck. Another howl echoed it, this time from behind them. They whirled around, spotting more eyes. The snap of a branch threw them into action and they took off at a sprint. Cricket lifted the lantern hood as far as he could, casting a huge spotlight on their path. “I’m hoping the light will keep them at bay,” he said as they ran a snaking path.
“Or lead them straight to us.”
Twigs cracked beneath their feet, branches snagged at Penny’s face and got caught in her curls. Her pulse pounded, the sound echoing in her ears, masking the yips and howls as the pack moved in behind them.
“What are they?” Penny called to Cricket.
“I’m not sure. Some sort of wolf or wild dog, I think. It’s hard to tell.”
Cricket kept the lantern held high, so they could see as far into the forest as possible. With the army of trees in front of us, that wasn’t very far.
Without warning, she tripped. The forward momentum, and the weight of the bag on her back, pitched her forward. An ungraceful “oomph” escaped her chest as she hit the ground. Her ankle twisted and her palms skidded along the ground, scattering fallen leaves before she slid to a stop and pushed herself into a crouch.
She fought to ignore the new pain radiating from her ankle, biting back a shriek when she put weight on it to stand. Cricket bent over, his hand outstretched. She wanted to grab his fingers if only she could get over her fear of his touch.
Another howl sounded – as if in warning. “We have to go,” Cricket said, urging her up. She ground her teeth together and stood, putting most of her weight on the good leg. Two steps forward and her ankle twisted underneath her again.
“You’re going to have to hold onto me,” Cricket said, the light bouncing off the concerned shadows of his face. “We’ll have to find a shelter, or get to higher ground soon. It will be impossible to outpace these animals.”
He ducked his head under her left arm, carrying the weight on that side. Penny’s fingers gripped his shoulder tight and they shuffled along as fast as they could, the light swaying at his side.
The canines had gone eerily silent.
“I think they’re moving ahead,” Cricket muttered. “They may try to surround us.”
Her chest pounded with exertion and fear. Even in the frigid air, a bead of sweat dripped between her shoulder blades.
We are going to die.
These animals were going to corner them and rip them to shreds. Cricket’s attempt to save her life was going to end with both of them dead.
She couldn’t have that. Wouldn’t. Her eyes darted side to side, trying to find somewhere, anywhere they could hide.
“Over there.” She pointed through the trees. It wasn’t so much that she saw something; it was that she saw nothing. Nothing but black. A large rectangular shape blocked out the jagged knot of tree branches barely discernable in the light from the stars.
They turned, moving faster now that they’d gotten in a sort of three-legged rhythm. The howling resumed, much closer this time. The animals must have been surprised when Penny and Cricket veered off their path.
She could feel the rush of the animals as they closed in, nipping at their heels. The building took shape in front of them. It was some sort of barn, paint peeling off the exterior walls. A door hung off its hinges and they darted through. Cricket tried to slam it shut, but the latch had long been eaten away by rust.
“There. We need to climb.” Out of breath, he nodded at a rickety ladder leading into a hay loft. “Go! I’ll fend them off.”
Penny shuffled over to the ladder while Cricket stayed by the door, swaying the lantern and yelling at the wolves. They squealed and barked outside the door, nudging up against it, only to have Cricket slam it back on their muzzles.
With every last bit of strength, every movement tearing her wounds back open, Penny hoisted herself onto the dry hay lining the floor of the loft.
“Cricket come on,” she called over the edge, twisting so she’d be out of his way.
He grunted and slammed the door hard one last time, before grabbing the lantern from where he’d dropped it and racing to the ladder.
The animals burst through and tore after him, teeth bared. Light bounced off the walls, illuminating the large space enough that she could now make out the details of their predators.
With a yelp of her own, she scooted away from the loft’s edge. They were huge, bigger than any animal she’d ever seen. Dark fur matted down over the well-defined muscles on their flanks. Their chartreuse eyes glowed.
What was with the freak show menagerie of animals surrounding the estate?
Cricket barely made it to the loft before they were jumping at the ladder, gnashing teeth at his calves. One of the wolves cracked through a ladder rung and fell back snarling.
Cricket handed her the lantern and then grabbed the ladder with both hands, shoving it hard, sending it toppling on the pack. The dogs clamored out of harm’s way, growling, snarling. The larger one nipped at the two smallest, growling deep in its throat. They ducked their heads and scuffled their way out the door. The leader of the pack stared at Penny for a brief second. It’s gaze seemed strong enough to pierce her brain. Then it left the building too.
They could hear the animals circle the building, the crack of branches, the shuffle of dried leaves. Once. Twice. And then no more noise.
Penny stared at Cricket. “Where do you think they went?” she asked in a whisper.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. But we can’t risk traveling any further at night. We’re safe here. Let’s try to get some rest. Hopefully, they’ll still be gone at dawn.”
Penny nodded and stared at the lumpy canvas bag, wondering if she should use it to elevate her ankle or tuck it beneath her head. She needed sleep in a desperate, rudimental sort of way.
As if her brain agreed, the piercing headache returned, shoving nails into every ridge of her skull. She whimpered, sobs wracking her chest as she curled into a ball and mercifully fainted.