Ballgowns & Butterflies by Kelley Armstrong

1

When the car-hire driver slows in the village of High Thornesbury, I direct her to the hill instead, where a house looms at the top, barely visible through the falling snow.

“Wait,” the woman says. “You’re going to Thorne Manor?”

“I am.”

“You know them, then? The couple who live there?”

“You . . . could say that.”

She cranes to look back at me, and I resist the urge to nicely ask her to keep her eyes on the road . . . the impossibly narrow North Yorkshire road, now covered in slick December snow.

“Is it true what they say?” she asks.

I’m tempted to make some noncommittal noise, quite certain that I don’t want to know what “they” say. But curiosity wins out, and I venture a cautious, “What do they say?”

“That she owns the house—the wife. She inherited it from her aunt. She’s a professor in Toronto—the wife, not the aunt.”

“I have heard—”

The driver steamrolls over my response, her accent sharpening as she warms to her subject. “They say she used to come here as a girl. To Thorne Manor. Then a terrible tragedy claimed the life of her uncle. But the best part is . . .” Her voice lowers to a delicious whisper. “The ghosts. The manor house is haunted, and the girl saw the ghosts. Her uncle did, too, the night he died.”

My throat closes, swallowing any reply I could make.

The driver continues, “Then the woman inherited Thorne Manor and came back after over twenty years away. She must not have seen any ghosts that time because she stayed the summer, and she met a man. A Thorne.”

“Yes, I have heard—”

“It’s like a story out of one of those romantic movies, isn’t it? The American—well, Canadian in this case—inherits a house in the English countryside, and then along comes a British lord, claiming it’s his rightful family home. They start off fighting about it, only to fall madly in love.”

I sigh inwardly. I should just let her have her version of the story and keep my mouth shut. But I am a history professor after all—I cannot allow rumor to stand as historical fact. Of course, nor can I tell the actual truth, which would probably have the poor woman turning around to whisk me to the nearest psychiatric hospital. Still, I should repeat the narrative we’ve constructed, the part of our story that is completely true.

“I’m familiar with the couple in question,” I say. “The woman knew him when she was a girl. They were old friends, and he has never laid any claim to the house.”

“Hasn’t he?” She frowns through the mirror at me. “Isn’t that suspicious?” Her eyes round. “Oh! It’s that other sort of story, then. The one where he pretends to fall in love with her to get his hands on the house, which he thinks is his by right.”

“No,” I say.

“How would you know?”

Because the man was the rightful owner of Thorne Manor . . . two hundred years ago. Because as a child, that girl stepped through time and met a boy. Returned as a teenager, and fell in love. Returned as an adult, and won him again and was able to bring him back, both of them now moving from his time—where he is Lord William Thorne of Thorne Manor—to her time, where he is Mr. William Thorne, husband of the current owner. How do I know all this? Because I’m the current owner, the girl, the woman, the wife: Bronwyn Dale Thorne.

Of course, I can hardly say any of that, so I only gaze out at the lights of High Thornesbury as we pass through the tiny village. I know every street of it, in this time and in William’s, and my pulse quickens, a smile growing as my hands clasp atop my protruding stomach.

Home. I am home.

When I was a little girl, this was my favorite place in the world. Even after I lost it, first when my parents divorced and later after my uncle died, I would dream of North Yorkshire the way others dream of a childhood home. So many happy memories here. Summers spent exploring these moors, picking brambleberries and picnicking with my dad and my Aunt Judith and Uncle Stan. So many even happier times, crossing over to William’s world, secret visits to my most cherished friend and, later, my first love.

I grew up and found love again. Married a wonderful man and lost him, widowed at thirty. I’d had a home with Michael, but Toronto never felt like home the way this place does. Now I’m back. Back for good, I hope. I had to return to Toronto to teach the fall term, but I’ve started my maternity leave, expecting a baby in March. After that . . . Well, if all goes well after that, this will be my home. I have a lead on a teaching position in York and a few other possibilities tucked in my back pocket.

I’ll miss Canada, but I’m ready to make this move. I think I’ve been ready since the day I first visited my aunt and uncle at Thorne Manor, certainly since the day I stepped through time and met William. Now, seeing the village lit up for the holidays, I feel as if I’ve come home. My first Christmas at home.

The lights fade quickly as the hired car begins the long climb to Thorne Manor. I’m struggling not to press my nose against the cold glass, straining to see the manor house through the falling snow. I think I can make out a faint glow and then—

The driver curses and jams on the brakes just as the headlamps illuminate a coal-black horse, racing around a curve and coming straight for the car. Or so it seems, but when the car follows the turn in the winding road, it becomes obvious that the horse is actually off to the side, galloping down the hill.

“Bloody fool,” the driver grumbles.

“True,” I murmur.

The rider wheels the stallion around and begins running alongside us.

“Is he mad?” the driver says.

“Possibly. Just don’t let him beat us to the house, please, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Now I do press my nose to the icy window, breath fogging the glass as I squint out. William lifts gloved fingers in greeting, but I don’t think he can see me. He’s bent over the horse, and with his black jacket, he nearly melds into the beast. Only his red scarf makes him truly visible, flapping behind him, an obvious concession to my warnings that car drivers aren’t accustomed to sharing the road with horses.

The horse seems to have adapted well to his new master’s riding habits. After much consideration, William bought him late this past summer. The first horse for his new stable on this side of the stitch. A black stallion, the mirror image of his stallion on the other side. Xanthus and Balios, named after Achilles’s immortal steeds.

We continue to the end of the drive, where William swings off Xanthus and lifts an imperious hand for the driver to stop.

Then, before the driver can do more than squawk an objection, William is throwing open the rear door and shoving his head and shoulders inside.

“Finally,” he says. “I have been waiting hours. You really should have let me meet you at the station.” He peers at me. “You aren’t dressed for the weather at all. It’s a wonder you didn’t freeze on the way.”

“Hello, William. So lovely to see you.”

He grumbles and shoves a thick car blanket into the rear seat, bundles me into it and then glances at the driver.

“That will be all.” He hands her a bill. A large one, given the way her eyes saucer. “I appreciate you conveying my wife safely from the station. Please deposit her bags at the end of the drive, and I will retrieve them later.”

“I can carry—” I begin.

“I’ve got it, miss,” the driver says. “You ought not to be carrying anything in your condition anyway.”

I’m not even halfway out of the car before I’m scooped up, the blanket wrapped around me.

“I’m pregnant, William,” I say, “not an invalid. I can walk—”

“Yes, you can. No, you will not. It’s cold, and it’s slippery, and you’ve come halfway around the world in a single day while six-months pregnant. You must be exhausted.”

Exhausted is one way of putting it. Bone dead and beat down is another. I’ve spent the last two weeks cranked up to double speed, frantically finishing my end-of-term work so I could catch the first possible plane to William.

I’d told myself I’d sleep on the flight. I didn’t, even though someone found a way to secretly upgrade me to first class, and I had no excuse for not stretching out in my little pod and spending the seven-hour flight sound asleep. No excuse beyond the fact that I was on my way to see William for the first time in two months, and I was so excited I could barely stay in my seat.

No sleep on the flight. No sleep on the train. Definitely no sleep in the car, and I can blame my chatty driver, but by that point, as William and Thorne Manor drew ever closer, it’d taken Herculean effort not to leap out of the car and run the rest of the way.

Now I’m here, and it’s as if my strings have been cut, every bit of energy evaporating. So yes, I’m tired. Exhausted. But my journey is at an end, and I’ll now crawl into bed and not leave for three days straight. Okay, maybe there won’t be much rest tonight—I’ll definitely find the energy for a proper reunion—but afterward, I’m zonking out.

William fusses with my blanket, making sure I’m swaddled like an infant. I don’t argue. I’m in the mood for a little coddling. Also it gives me time to look at him, just look at him, a sight even more welcome than the lights of High Thornesbury.

It’s always disconcerting to see William in twenty-first-century clothes. That’s my hang-up. He had no such concerns. He’d been more than happy to shed his suits and ties for jeans and sweaters. This is a man who’s never more comfortable than when working in his stable or riding out on his land. Modern clothes suit his lifestyle much better, even if he does look very fine in an old-fashioned suit.

Today, he’s wearing a cable-knit sweater under his jacket. I roll my eyes at that, wondering which local knit him the sweater. When he’d first “arrived” as my fiancé, the villagers had been skeptical. Yes, he was obviously a Thorne—his face bears the strong features that grace a dozen portraits in town—but they didn’t know him. They’d taken me in—that wee thing who used to trot about town, that poor girl who saw her uncle die, that quiet widow who came to reopen Thorne Manor at last.

William might be a Thorne, but clearly, he was up to no good. Wooing me in hopes of regaining Thorne Manor. Their suspicion lasted about five minutes, and the next thing I know, he’s bringing home the best scones from the bakery and the finest cuts from the butcher.

High Thornesbury is very proud of its history, with a million tales of the eccentric and good-hearted family who once inhabited the manor house. The Thornes were a rare example of popular landowners, and William carries the mantle of that legacy with ease. He is as popular in modern High Thornesbury as he is in his own version of it, and I have no doubt someone knitted him that sweater . . . and no doubt that he has already found a way to repay their kindness.

The sweater does look very good on him. Even by modern standards, William is a big man, over six feet tall and broad shouldered. Like me, he’s thirty-nine, our birthdays being a mere month—well, a month and a hundred-and-fifty-odd years—apart. His tousled black hair is unfashionably long in his own time but suits him well here. He has a square face, bright blue eyes and a solid jaw without even a hint of five-o’clock shadow, meaning he shaved for me this evening. Not that I care—he looks very nice with beard shadow, too—but he will always be the Victorian gentleman who must show his lady that she’s worth the effort of a late-day shave.

I take off one glove and run a finger along his clean-shaven jaw. His gaze slants toward the road, being sure the driver is gone. Then his hand goes behind my head as he pulls me into a deep and hungry kiss.

“Now that’s a far better hello,” I say as he lifts his head.

“It seemed rather improper to deliver it while you were in the back seat of a cab, shivering to death in the cold.”

I roll my eyes. “I wasn’t shivering, William. But yes, it wasn’t the best place for a welcome-home kiss.”

I snuggle into his arms and let him continue carrying me up the walk. As we reach the porch, I twist, wanting to see Thorne Manor lit up in her holiday finest . . .

The only lights are ones illuminating the porch. The yard is snow covered and otherwise empty.

William pushes open the door, which lacks so much as a wreath. Once we’re through, I discreetly try to look about for a tree or maybe a sprig of mistletoe, even cards on the fireplace mantle.

Nothing. There’s nothing.