Robert Nathaniel Parker, merchant and prospective thief, made the first cut in the soil with his spade. The rose bush started to scream.
Few men planning villainy believe they will be caught. However, if Mr. Parker had had any doubts over his plan’s advisability, they would not have deterred him. He was a man obsessed, senseless to reason.
His shovel took a second bite of the soil. The rose named Mab’s Perfection shrieked louder.
Mr. Parker had stumbled upon the rose bush last summer. After losing his way on a country walk, he emerged from the darkness of an ancient wood. Shading his eyes from the blinding sunshine, Parker instinctively looked down and spied the blushing pink of an exceptional rose.
He dropped to his knees, not only to worship his discovery but to examine every inch of this astonishing find. Feeling dizzy and elated, Mr. Parker hesitantly touched his fingertip to the edge of a voluptuous bloom.
Rose and man both trembled, but for different reasons.
This was no wild find. The rose bush was located in the crumbling garden of Thorn Hill, the property of Sir Griffin Garrick, Baronet. Recluse, eccentric, and monster.
Groping in his pocket, Mr. Parker brought out a handkerchief and tied it around the plant’s stem. In his haste to mark his find and leave before Sir Griffin noticed his trespass, Robert Nathaniel was oblivious to the thorn that scratched him. Its prick drew a bead of blood that shimmered on his hand like a jewel before splattering onto a tiny, maidenly rosebud.
Mr. Parker hurried home, his head full of plans on how he would bring his new find to his garden. Winter would be the best season for transplanting it.
Sir Griffin didn’t deserve such a prize.
Four months later, under a full moon, the rose bush didn’t agree with his plan. It protested.
“Hush, hush, now,” Mr. Parker crooned frantically to it as if soothing a colicky baby. The ground was hard and unyielding. More stone than dirt.
“Don’t worry, my dear. I have the perfect spot for you at my home.”
“Ye do, do ye?” asked a guttural raspy voice behind him. The blunt end of a walking stick poked the rose thief in his back. Mr. Parker swung around, gripping his shovel in front of him as if holding a weapon.
The creature before him was smaller than Mr. Parker and hunched as if carrying a burden. Under his cap was the shine of small black eyes. The bright moon showed him to be a filthy person and his musky animal scent made Robert Nathaniel grimace.
“Who are you, sir?” Mr. Parker blustered. After all, he was a gentleman, this ruffian had no right to question him.
“I serve Thorn Hall,” the man said. “I’m a part of it as much as that rose bush. So drop that spade before I do ye some harm.”
The stranger clapped a hand on Parker’s shoulder, giving him a close view of a broad, flat hand, marked by callouses. The pointed nails were claw-like in shape and length. Mr. Parker did not consider himself a man easily frightened, but he shuddered under the weight of such a hand.
Thus Mr. Robert Nathaniel Parker, merchant and businessman, was brought to the manor house. It was not an easy trip, for brambles tore at his clothes and he tripped over tree roots that were concealed by lumps of turf and dead leaves. If he hesitated or fell, a jab of the walking stick was quick to motivate him. A portly man, he was puffing by the time they reached the gravel drive of the house.
Thorn Hall had been built in 1628, its architecture inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Moonlight revealed the stately facade and its symmetrical balance, so appealing in Jacobean structures. It frowned down upon Mr. Parker.
Only one light, in a front downstairs room, was bright against the dark facade of the building. Mr. Parker had never met Sir Griffin, although he had heard the rumors. He found himself sweating even though it was January.
They entered a room on the ground floor. It seemed to be a parlor. Most of the room was cast into shadows that shifted about in the corners like a restless dog. The room’s only illumination was a candelabra resting on a table.
The candles guttered, illuminating a monster sitting at the table. It was idly playing with a deck of cards as it said, “Surprising poachers again, Brock?”
“Found him in the garden, Sir Griffin. Mab alerted me. Shrieking to wake the dead.”
The deck was carefully placed down on the table. Sir Griffin stood, growing taller and broader. With the candles behind him, his figure was only a silhouette to Mr. Parker, his face obscured in darkness.
“Not stealing carrots or cabbages, but a rose bush? How original.” Sir Griffin’s voice was dry, like tinder that would easily catch a flame. “Mab’s Perfection took a blue ribbon at the Great Exhibition. The perfect blend of magic and nature, or so the judge told my father.”
Mr. Parker managed to say in a small voice, “It produces pink roses as large as my hand. They are as delicate as lace, and smell like heaven.” Such was his passion for Mab’s Perfection that his voice only trembled a little.
“Bring refreshment for our visitor,” Sir Griffin commanded his servant. The sound of the door closing echoed in the room. “Come, sit down so we can discuss this like gentlemen. For I assume, despite your actions, that you are one?”
Mr. Parker gave a sharp nod of assent and took the chair at the round table his host indicated. Sir Griffin returned to his own, placing himself opposite. This close to his host, Robert turned his gaze away from the beastly visage and studied his fingernails instead. They were now dirty, some of his manicured nails broken.
He felt the heaviness of Sir Griffin’s attention upon him as they sat in silence. When Brock returned, he set down a tray with glasses and a bottle. Sir Griffin dismissed him.
The owner of Thorn Hall poured a deep red wine into a crystal goblet and put it before his guest. At the sight of the clawed hand, Mr. Parker couldn’t repress a shudder. In one gulp he downed the contents of his glass.
Sir Griffin sipped more slowly, the red of the wine staining the tusks at the corners of his mouth a pink hue. Mr. Parker hastily downed the second glass which his host had poured for him.
“Stealing Mab’s Perfection? It bewitches many.” Sir Griffin toyed with his glass, by drawing swirling circles with its base upon the tablecloth.
Half-drowned with wine, his tongue gained courage. Parker said, “Bewitching.”
“You seem to have the advantage of me, sir, for I do not know whom I address?”
“Robert Nathaniel Parker, of Wisteria Lodge.”
“Ah. That estate sold a few years back, I understand.” Despite being rumored to be a rude, violent monster, Sir Griffin acted almost like a reasonable man. It surprised Robert and made him speak with more confidence. “Yes, I bought it ten years ago, soon after my wife’s death. My three daughters required country air after losing their mother.”
“Daughters?” The circles of the glass stopped for a moment. “Quite young, are they?”
“My eldest will be married this summer. To Captain Davies. I employ him in my business. He is currently in the Indies. Do you know Captain Davies?”
“I’m afraid I cannot claim the acquaintance.”
“Silly of me. Of course, you would not.”
“Of course not,” agreed Sir Griffin, in such a pleasant tone that Mr. Parker hoped his host forgave his unfortunate reference to his lack of familiarity with the village society.
“He’s a bit older than Lily, but only by a few years. He will be able to support a household—”
Sir Griffin cut him off, clearly uninterested in Captain Davies and his domestic concerns. “What about your other daughters? Are they engaged? Married?”
“Poppy, my youngest is fourteen, sir.”
“And your middle daughter? Is she a schoolroom miss?”
“Rose? Oh no. She’s twenty-one. Loves my garden.”
Mr. Parker, embarrassed by bringing up another touchy subject, hid his embarrassment with another drink.
Sir Griffin abandoned his glass. He returned to the deck of cards. His long claws delicately turned one of them like the pages of a book.
“I’ve been playing against myself this evening. Why not join me in a hand?”
“Oh, certainly, sir,” said Mr. Parker, eager to recover from his latest social stumble.
“Five Card Stud. Do you know it? It is a game that has come over recently from America.”
Mr. Parker said he didn’t know it.
“We shall play a hand or two. You will soon grasp the rules.”
As his host had stated, Mr. Parker quickly comprehended the rules and scored a winning hand. He repeated this triumph several times, receiving his host’s congratulations.
As the cards were dealt again, Sir Griffin observed, “I see your hand is injured, Mr. Parker.”
“Oh, tis nothing. A scratch from last summer that refuses to heal.”
“Sometimes the smallest cuts give us the deepest sorrows.”
Not a poetic or fanciful man, Robert was at a loss as to how to respond. His host poured out from a second bottle and suggested they play for stakes. “It always adds spice to a game, do you not agree?”
Eager to be treated as an equal to the largest landowner in the county, Mr. Parker readily assented. Sir Griffin might be a rude beast, but he was a baronet, after all.
They began with the silverware as stakes, matchsticks, and the two rings that Mr. Parker wore. After winning not only Sir Griffin’s signet ring and his cuff links, Parker grew elated and reckless.
“I have a suggestion,” said Sir Griffin. “Put down your Lily, Rose, or Poppy for your stake. In return, I shall wager Mab’s Perfection.”
“I don’t know —” Mr. Parker wavered, trying to clear the alcoholic haze from his brain.
“Mab’s Perfection was created by my father, a Learned Magician. Her form and fragrance are exceptional. She is well worth the value of one daughter.”
“Oh, yes,” gasped the merchant. He closed his eyes briefly in remembrance of that enchanting smell from last summer, which had spawned his unhealthy obsession.
“Which girl? Do you have a preference?”
“Any of them. All of them,” jested Sir Griffin.
“Let us play,” exclaimed Mr. Parker recklessly.