"Well, now you're back," she said to her father, "we will make sure you are well looked after."
"Frances, I am fine." He waved his hand, suddenly impatient. "And you must go to bed. I am overworked, that is all, and I called for the doctor to give me something to help me sleep."
She looked at him for a moment longer. He raised his glass as if to saythat's enough concern, leave mebut his hand tremored as he brought it to his lips. He hadn't mentioned a collapse. Perhaps Lotta was exaggerating. Either way, she wouldn't push him on the subject, not now. She bent down, kissed him again, and went upstairs.
She paused on the landing outside her father's room. Lotta was turning down the bedcovers. "I would like a few words with the doctor once my father has gone to bed. Would you ask him to wait?"
The window in her bedroom gleamed pale and cold behind the curtains. She drew her shawl from the back of the chair, stepped be hind the red damask folds, and stood looking into the street below. The rain had stopped. It was perfectly quiet. Too early yet for the butcher boys in their blue aprons. The lamp at the end of the street throbbed a dull yellow through the milky fog, and she watched a lamplighter appear out of the shining gloom, lean his ladder against the crosspiece, and turn off the dial. The flame shrank to an orange ball, guttered, and went out. He paused, one hand on the post, and gazed along the street behind him as if waiting for the city to stir itself and shake off sleep.
The candle wax had sealed itself in a smooth, hard film over the back of her hand. When she flexed her palm it cracked in shards onto the carpet. She trailed her fingers across the burnt skin, to the soft inside of her wrist. Her pulse came in a quick, restless beat, echoing the dull thud which knocked against her stomach. What if he was seriously ill? This was the terror that had kept her awake as a child, when his booming voice and unruffled calm had been the only thing to puncture the gloom and silence of the house after her mother had died.
After a moment she stepped out from behind the curtain and lit the lamp at the dressing table, illuminating an assortment of brushes and combs, bottles of perfume, scented oils, and china powder boxes. She brushed out her hair until it became a crackling, fiery mass of copper curls, then dampened it with lavender water and wove it into a long plait. Her reflection looked back at her from the small mirror on the table. At nineteen years old she had the sense that her life ought to be full of opportunity, but instead she felt as if she were suffocating. She shook her head slightly, running her hand over her plait, and saw, in the reflection, the two porcelain dolls her father had given her as a child sitting on a chair by the bed. They stared back at her with glassy eyes, silence breathing from between their half-opened lips.
There was a knock at the door. "The doctor is waiting for you, Miss."
He had been shown into the morning room on the ground floor, and she found him standing at the window with his hat already in his hands, ready to leave.
"How is my father?"
"Sleeping." Then, walking a little way towards her: "I have looked forward to seeing you again, Miss Irvine, though I might have hoped it would be under better circumstances." His warmth disconcerted her, and though she couldn't have said why, she found it threatening. His eyes, she noticed, were very pale, almost gray in the half- light that warmed the green glass at the garden window. They were intent and watchful, and very bright: without them his face would have been a mask. She didn't think he was a handsome manperhaps he looked too serious to be handsomebut he had a certain intensity which demanded your attention.
"Should I be concerned?" she asked, and when he didn't reply: "Dr. Matthews, tell meis something wrong with him?"
Reprinted by arrangement with Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, a member of Penguin Group(USA) Inc., from The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer McVeigh.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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