Shadows of Time Duology #2
Shadows of a Living Past
Florence Sterling should be perfectly happy. She’s been given a second chance at life with her beloved husband. But all is not well. She yearns for more children, even though Alex is reluctant. Memories of the day she and her baby were murdered still haunt her. And she can’t shake the feeling she will be separated from Alex again.
As if in confirmation of her premonition, Alex is called on a dangerous mission to enlist America’s aid in WWII. Trying to distract herself, Florence investigates what really happened when her son died. As she searches, she becomes convinced her son is alive, although witnesses say otherwise. And with each clue she discovers, she unwittingly draws closer to her old enemy—the deranged woman who will stop at nothing to destroy her.
When Alex goes missing in action, Florence must reach deeply into her faith as she faces her greatest fears. If Alex is lost to the war, will she allow herself to love another man and fulfill her desire to have a family? Or will she remain alone the rest of her life?
Release Date: October 30, 2018
Genre: Historical / Paranormal
A White Satin Romance
~ Shadows of the Past ~
The New Forest, Hampshire, England, 1939
Amidst the complexities of life, there is one thing I know without a shadow of doubt: the beginning is the end, the end the beginning. Even when the tombs surrounding me at the Breamore cemetery tell a different story, there is one that attests my conviction—my own.
Florence Contini Sterling—Forever My Lady
It’s a strange feeling to look upon your own grave. Standing in front of the granite headstone that guarded my final resting place, I wondered if anyone else could understand how dreamlike this moment was.
Twenty-two years ago, my lifeless body had been laid to rest at this very spot. The small piece of burial ground owned by Alexander Sterling had been a witness to his suffering. It had also provided a mysterious ray of hope when it later proved not to hold my remains any longer. My empty grave revealed an unfathomable truth—I had been released from the bonds of death, this reality signifying my end and my beginning.
Days after I was awakened to my real identity, true to his word, Alex married me again. The ceremony, unlike our first wedding, had been performed at the monastery in Geneva, New York, by Father Thompson, with little notice from the world.
Recalling what the priest had once read aloud from an ancient book brought a smile to my lips. “The souls that are connected by an eternal love live forever, with no beginning or end.” If only he’d known how true that statement was, his world would have turned topsy-turvy. Perhaps it was better he’d remained ignorant.
The setting sun caused a sudden grayness to spread across the cemetery, and my attention returned to the present, my gaze traveling to the inscription on the tiny tomb that faithfully accompanied mine.
Sterlings’ Beloved Baby Boy
Sleep in peace under the nurturing love of your dear mother
My son hadn’t been given a name.
Knowledge linked to love is an advantage, a guiding force to the soul. Nonetheless, in my case it was a wonderful yet dreadful truth to live with. Being with Alex again was heaven on earth but knowing that our son and others whom I loved from my past were dead was a shot to my heart.
Balancing between the world of the living and the world of the dead was a new experience for me. One that even after two years I wasn’t quite sure how to handle. How does one reconcile their grief for those who were gone, knowing they were still alive somewhere in another sphere, with the burning desire to be with them again? How does one suppress the longing for what might have been?
Then, in drastic contrast to those whom I loved was Mrs. White—the woman who’d succeeded in taking my life and that of my child—the cold-blooded murderess still at large.
The woman had hovered over me like a dark shadow during my son’s birth, then snatched him from the room without giving me the opportunity to behold his face. Her pessimism toward my baby’s survival, and her insane obsession with Alex and subsequent murder attempt upon his life made me wonder…
Would my baby have survived if it hadn’t been for Mrs. White’s interference? Had she ended his short life to annihilate the ties between Alex and me? To entertain such an idea was madness. That she was an iniquitous woman was a given, but would she have gone that far? Perhaps the feelings of frustration magnified by the sight of the gravestone arose from a lack of information. I didn’t know much about the events that had transpired after Mrs. White had taken the baby from me. Once or twice I had almost gathered the courage to make it the subject of conversation with Alex, but fearing the effect it would have on him, I’d promptly abandoned my quest. There was no reason for me to wander back in the years that were gone, no reason for me to search for something that wasn’t meant to be.
Still, it was easier said than done. The memory of my son continually haunted me, and I felt a strong influence urging me in an unknown direction. But I recoiled at the thought that these feelings, if left unchecked, had the power to send my soul back to the grave.
“I’m sorry, miss—” I jumped at the unexpected, raspy voice of the cemetery keeper. “I don’t mean to intrude, but…” He looked at his wristwatch.
At first impression, the old man frightened me. Pale as he was and dressed in black, with a thick set of keys hanging from his belt, he looked as if he had just risen from the tomb itself. I supposed he could have said the same about me, since I hadn’t bothered to change out of my white dress into riding clothes before coming here. As I stood in the graveyard’s paralyzing silence, I realized that my clothing, highlighted by the diffused light of sunset, likely made my presence peculiar.
“The cemetery is now closed,” the man informed.
“Please, do excuse me, Mr....?”
“Morris, miss. Morris is the name.”
“Mr. Morris, do forgive me. I lost track of time. I must’ve been here longer than I thought.”
“A very long time, miss.” He signaled toward a cluster of trees not too far away and added, “See, I have been observing you from those trees over there.”
I felt uneasy. “You have?”
“Well, yes. Goodness, I thought you were a haunt at first.”
Had he really thought so? I supposed I wasn’t the first he had seen on these grounds.
Taking a step toward me, he declared, “I should’ve locked the gates twenty minutes ago.”
“I understand. I’ll leave at once.”
He stopped my departure with a swift question. “You aren’t from these parts, are you?”
I shook my head, not sure how to proceed with the encounter, or even if I should.
He must have seen the confusion on my face. “Your accent, miss. Your accent is not from these parts.” He gave a weak smile.
“Oh, I see. No, I’m afraid not. I’m from America.” I turned away, but apparently Mr. Morris had taken an interest in me, and he planted himself between me and the main path.
A curious change came over his voice. “Are they your family?” He glanced at the gravestones I had come to visit.
I wished I had left earlier. For the first time since returning to England, I comprehended in full force my circumstances. I couldn’t connect myself with my previous life in the eyes of the people here. I was now an American. Ironic as it was, I was a ghost of my former self. Like the nickname people had given Alex in New York, I was The Shadow now.
“No, not really,” I prevaricated.
He looked hard at me and then at the graves. “I’ll say, miss, I’d have sworn they are your family. The way you were looking at them, you know. This place is well acquainted with sorrow—I recognize it whenever I see it.”
I hesitated. His words were full of truth, mine of guile—but then again, what choice did I have? I opted for a half-truth. “I married Mr. Alexander Sterling. They are his family.”
“Oh, yes, yes, the general. It was but yesterday I heard about his return to the New Forest—so it’s true, after all.” Lowering his tone, he pondered aloud, “He remarried after so many years…”
Reading the doubt in his tone, I ventured, “Does that surprise you?”
“Umm, a little, miss, a little.” It was his turn to hesitate. I noted he still addressed me as miss, but I didn’t think much of it. “Who would have thought he would ever marry again?”
“Why, Mr. Morris? The general is still young. It’s never too late, is it?”
“No, no, miss. Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s just that I thought it would never happen. You know...after she died,” he explained, looking at my headstone. “I always knew when he was in town because he came to see her every day, come rain or shine. He spent hours kneeling by her side. It was a sad sight to behold, very sad. Their love story was well-known around here.”
I appreciated the brutal honesty of country folk. Yet if I weren’t the same person as the deceased, his words would have made me feel jealous and concerned that I would never be able to measure up to her. As it was, the groundskeeper’s frank words reminded me of the wonder of my current existence, and they brought a profound gratitude to be alive. I had been given a second chance to love and to be loved. Since the first time I had seen Alex in the green fields of Forte Radici, my heart had belonged to him. All through my childish behavior, my sporadic outbursts, my insecurities, my grief, and my stubbornness when my mind was set on something, he’d stood beside me with undying affection. He was an honorable, well-centered, devilishly attractive, endlessly passionate man. He was my anchor, and I was grateful he thought of me as his.
“You know the general, then.”
“Just by seeing him around, that’s all. He moved to America after he retired.” Realization dawned in his face. “Well, you knew that already.”
“Yes, that’s where we met.”
“Indeed. Yet he visited not too long ago. Merely a few years back—terrible business that was.” His countenance seemed to turn a shade whiter, if that were possible. “Even now I’m not sure what really took place that day.”
“Mr. Morris, I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you.” I saw the debate in his eyes; he wasn’t sure if he should disclose the memories that surfaced in his mind. I encouraged him to do so. “What are you referring to? What took place?”
He cleared his throat. “It was early morning...winter it was. The ground was frozen. There was ice, even around its solid cover.”
I followed the direction of his gaze to the beautiful stone grave—my grave—emerging from the ground. Instantly I understood what he alluded to. I waited for him to continue.
“A few chaps and I were ordered by Scotland Yard to dig up her coffin.”
I quivered at the thought of my body having been buried in the coldness of the earth. True, it had been there temporarily, yet it had taken place. “I see.”
“Nasty business I thought it was.”
“I’m sorry you had to see that.”
“No, miss. We didn’t see anything.”
Didn’t see anything? Had he seen the empty coffin? If he had, inevitably he would have his assumptions of why that was the case. And there would be no way to explain why she wasn’t dead and why I was married to her husband. “What do you mean?”
To my relief, he answered, “We were dismissed after the coffin was unearthed. Two men from Scotland Yard, some from the local police, and the general were the only ones allowed to see inside it. Not sure what they were looking for. Some presumed it was valuables buried with her. As for me, I’m not convinced. He loved her too much to disturb her rest for valuables, you know. At any rate, I think he does well as far as money goes.”
I reached instinctively for the bracelet on my left wrist. The very same bracelet that had been buried with me. Since the piece of jewelry had accompanied me to my current life, they hadn’t found it in my coffin. “I agree. It must have been something else. Otherwise the general would’ve never done something so drastic,” I said honestly, for I knew it had been my unexplainable reappearance in his life that had driven him to undertake such an endeavor. He needed to know whether my remains indeed slumbered in the dark tomb.
Mr. Morris observed me as if he could read the truth in my eyes. Or perhaps he believed that as the general’s new wife, I would know more about the incident. “I just don’t see why Scotland Yard didn’t offer us an explanation—the cemetery workers, you know. It was the decent thing to do. But no one can question them. We were told it was a family matter, and the case was sealed. In other words, it was hushed up.”
The more he spoke, the more uneasy I became. He knew too much about the Sterling family. I racked my brain, trying to remember the groundskeeper’s face. I didn’t think I had ever seen him when I’d lived in the New Forest. I didn’t visit the cemetery much, not even after my brother Lucca passed away. The fact that Lucca was gone had been too grievous to contemplate. And after Father’s death, it wasn’t long before death had sought me. Yet, if Mr. Morris had worked here so long, I must have encountered him at some point. I worried that if he noticed my resemblance to the deceased, he’d harass me with endless questions to appease his curiosity. To settle my uncertainty and to prevent him from making the connection between the old Florence and me, I asked, “Did you know her?”
“Saw her once or twice from a distance. Very refined lady, she was.”
From a distance. I released an inward sigh of relief. It was a far-fetched probability that he would connect me with the Florence he knew so long ago. “So I’ve heard.” Daylight had vanished altogether now, urging me to end the conversation. “I’m sorry to have kept you this long, Mr. Morris. I must be on my way.”
“I’ll walk you to the entrance,” he offered. “It can get spooky out here after nightfall.”
“Please don’t bother yourself. I know the way.”
“Nonsense. I need to lock the front entrance anyway.”
Since I couldn’t shake him off, I started down the pebbled path through the silent graveyard without another word. The only audible noise—that of Mr. Morris’s oversized keys jangling against his hip—was unnerving. I stole a sideways glance to see he appeared lost in thought, as if a new idea had just invaded his mind and he was struggling to make sense of it. When the front gates came into view, I inhaled deeply, and my body relaxed a little.
“Thank you, Mr. Morris. My horse is just outside the gates.”
“Your horse?” He scanned my dress questioningly. “You didn’t drive here?”
“No, I prefer to ride my horse.”
“A young woman, such as yourself, shouldn’t be riding alone through the forest at this hour.”
Since I couldn’t say I knew the area well, I settled for, “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.”
Our steps halted near the lamppost guarding the entrance. Mr. Morris’s eyes widened as he observed me under the glow of the lantern. “No wonder,” he muttered under his breath. “Most extraordinary.”
“You, miss. You.”
“Me? Why do you say that?” I held my breath, fearing his answer.
“I could be mistaken, but your resemblance to the general’s late wife is most remarkable.”
I pursed my lips. He remembered, after all.
“Remarkable indeed,” he reiterated, certainty accentuating his voice.
“Good night, Mr. Morris.” I gave him a constricted but polite smile, then stepped through the ancient iron gates and headed in the direction of my horse.
The groundskeeper proceeded to close the gates from the inside, when in a gruff tone of voice, he called out, “Wait, miss, you haven’t told me your name. How rude of me. I didn’t even ask.”
I turned to look at him through the black bars of the gate. “Florence, Mr. Morris. Florence Sterling is my name.” There was no denying the look of shock that crossed his face. Well, the gossip was sure to run wild through town now that not only did the general’s new wife look suspiciously like his first, she also shared the same name. I could see the gears turning in the groundskeeper’s mind. Let them think what they wanted—no doubt people would feel sorry for me, convinced the general had only married me for my resemblance to his deceased wife. If they only knew. Yet how was such a phenomenal truth ever to be believed?