Chapter 1

My breath fogs up the icy air. I rub my numb hands together, blowing on them, and wish that it wasn't so cold. It is a beautiful winter day, the trees coated with shiny ice and snow gently falling from the hazy gray sky. The sun peeks out over the skyline, its feeble rays doing little to warm the frigid atmosphere.

My stomach flutters a little in anticipation, even though I know it's daft. I imagine her smile, her ebony hair flowing down her shoulders and her dancing blue eyes. It's hopeless. She is such a beauty, so out of reach. Once again I am the unfortunate one, the one who lost at the game of life. The cards are played against me.

Father comes out of the house, the wood door creaking on its rusty hinges. He has his faded crimson scarf wrapped around his neck and his leather jacket buttoned up. When he shuts the door and latches it, it shakes the structure and dislodges some icicles hanging off the window sill. "Are you ready, Thomas?" Father's deep bass voice hints that he is nervous, too.

"Yes, Father."

"I don't know why you insist on coming with me, son. I never knew you had an aspiration for business."

I nodded, staring at the snow on the ground. She was my secret. When Father asked why I wanted to come to the landlord's, I told him that I was interested in business. I felt guilty about lying to the man who had never once lied to me, but it was nessescary.

Father set off at a brisk pace, his hands shoved in his pockets. The roads were busy nearing the holidays, with the sounds of horns honking and the clip of horses' hooves on the cobblestone. The wagons and automobiles had paved a path through the slush and snow in the street, dirty water splashing the otherwise impeccable piles of snow on the walks.

We passed by the church, its enormous copper bell glinting in the golden sunlight and ringing with monotonous rolls. Father quickened his pace, crossing the street and narrowly avoiding a carriage. I kept up my pace as best as I could, with thoughts swirling in my mind like a blizzard of snowflakes and the cold wind whistling past.

The big, dark manor loomed in the distance. My heart skipped a beat, the eerie tolling of the bell in the distance making this whole thing seem like a bad idea. I clenched my fists inside my pockets.

My heart is in my throat as we approach the manor. The busy noises of the city fade into the empty sky. Now everything seems all too real- the dark shadows of the statues that line the path, the eerie stained glass windows.

Father walks up to the door and picks up the brass knocker. It is a lion's head, mouth open and fangs bared. He drops it with a dull thud.

I stand there in the cold air, silence filling the night. "Remember Thomas, be seen and not heard." I nod and clench my hands into fists in anticipation. Then the door slowly opens.

At first I think it is her, but it is just a maid. They both have the same hair, as black as obsidian, but the maid is younger and has wide, brown doe-like eyes that take us in curiously.

She stands there for a moment, her fingers smoothing out her worn beige apron, then says, "Come in!"

Father and I step into the parlor. The air is noticeably warmer, and I can see a crackling fire filling the room with heat and golden light. As we are led throug the hallways, I barely take in the rich tapestries and gilded mirrors. Where is she?

The maid leads us into the landlord's study, then bows and rushes away. The landlord is sitting at his desk, hands clasped in his lap. He has the same blue eyes as his daughter, but his carry wisdom and age.

"Good evening, Mr. Phillips," says Father, bowing slightly. The landlord nods and gestures toward two chairs near his desk.

We sit, and I admire the view of the delicate snowflakes falling outside of the window, illuminated by the soft light of the city.

"Mr. Lynafor," says the landlord, giving Father a serious look. "It has come to my attention that your rent is overdue."

"Yes." Father fumbled with the bag at his waist. He finally got it untied and placed it on the dark wood of his desk with a gentle clink.

"This should be enough to cover most of it, but I will compensate for the rest." Father's hand shook as he drew back, and then steadied it on the arm of the chair.

"And how will you earn the rest?" He looked skeptically at Father, eyeing his tattered scarf and rough, calloused hands.

"I am hoping to get some new clients this time of year," Father started, stroking his beard. "Need me to make horseshoes for travel."

My thoughts drifted elsewhere as I eye the intricate brass telescope sitting next to me. I'm not going to see her, I thought. My fingers nimbly traced the etchings of the moon and stars, feeling the cool metal. Father gave me a warning glance and I pulled back.

Mr. Phillips was putting a document on the desk for Father to sign, his pen poised in midair- And then the door to the study burst open.

She was standing there, hurriedly taking off her scarf and placing it on the coat hanger. Her cheeks had color from the cold, and her sapphire eyes were lit up with excitement.

"Daddy, daddy! You'll never guess what Rose said!" I took a deep breath, my insides melting like chocolate. I turned my gaze to the edge of the carpet, and then to Mr. Phillips. He looked irritated, but I spied a small smile playing at his lips.

"Maria, dear-" She glanced at him, confused, then took us in, Father with the pen and me sitting beside him.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" she said, smiling. My heart did a skip. "Rose said she can come to my party! She was traveling to Herefordshire, but then her plans got canceled. Isn't that wonderful?" She shook the snow out of her hair, and I felt my palms get warm.

"Yes, dear. Could you let me attend to my tenant?"

She nodded, distracted, obviously something else on her mind. Her gaze flickered over Father and me, her eyes connecting with mine in a split second, her biting her lip in an adorable way. Then, with a quick, practiced move, she spun the telescope, turned around, and breezed out of the room.

I could still feel her prescence, like smoke trailing from a blazing fire. I ran my fingers through my hair, agitated. What had been in her eyes in that moment when our gazes met? What about her was so perfect, and so intriguing? Even though I couldn't have her, she was the only one I wanted.

Father's gaze drilled into me, and that brought me to attention. He had signed the document in the crude, messy script harbored from only an elementary education, and the bag of coins- our savings- lay in the hands of the landlord.

Mr. Phillips and Father rose from their seat, and I quickly followed.

"Mr. Lynafor," he said, extending a hand. Father took it in his firm grasp.

"Mr. Phillips."

"Must get home to your family then, hm?" Father nodded solemnly, his jaw firm. From the look in his eyes, I knew he was thinking about Mother.

"Ah, as you might have heard my daughter mention, we are hosting a party on Christmas Eve here at the manor." He cleared his throat, unsure of his words. "Would you and your son-" He looked in my direction- "like to come?"

"We would be delighted to attend," Father said brusquely. My mind spun, not wanting to believe this new information.

"Come on, Thomas," he said, nodding to Mr. Phillips in farewell. As we headed out of the study, I saw Mr. Phillip's eyes trailing after me. For some reason, they seemed as icy and penetrating as the world of swirling snow outside.

I walk along the street, the lights casting shafts of light into the air and illuminating the rain and flurries of snow. The air is filled with voices, wind, and the cozy smell of baking bread wafting like heaven, carried by the breeze. I grin at all of London, unable to think of another city I would rather call home.

The night sky is filled with twinkling stars. How could a sky so black produce snow so finely white? I catch one on my hand, and watch as it quickly dissolves away.

I stare into each window, curious even though I know these shops by heart. We passed the Miller's bakery, which was filled with firey ovens and dough, the workers scampering about with flour dusting their aprons like snow. The air coming through the door when it opens is warm and savory, and is accompanied by a soft tinkle of a bell.

The next one I pause at, never have gotten the chance to look into. Inside is dim, and the glass is distorted, giving the effect of a foggy, mysterious interior. There was a great stone fireplace in the corner, from which sparks were flying and smoke was trailing with a faint wisp. Tables and shelves are full of strange objects, like an old, rusty music box and a hat that was covered in pearly white feathers. Just at the corner of my eye, I see a golden glint in the shadows.

Father sees me looking and says, "That's a secondhand shop. Not for the likes of a present, though. Come along, Thomas. It is not a time for dreaming." As if to prove his point, thunder rumbles in the distance. The sky opens up onto the city, pounding on the cobblestone, its attack barely missing me because I am shielded by the overhang of the roof. I look at Father with a sigh and start sprinting home, my boots splashing in the pools of water and slush.