Mist lingered above the green lawns of the estate in those early hours of the morning like spirits watching over Waldorf. The sun woke before Anabelle James, but only just. She didn’t usually rouse before Brayden, or before the staff were in uniform quietly enjoying their first espresso of the day together in the kitchens. Ana had a dream about Kathryn James, Brayden’s late mother. The mother-in-law she never knew as such. When Kathryn was alive it was a strictly professional relationship, although the closeness they shared working together on events could easily suggest they were family. That was because of who Kathryn James was, not because of Anabelle. Brayden’s late parents were murdered for ransom the day of his 26th birthday ball. With the expansive manor full of people in their tuxedos and ball gowns, Kathryn and Oliver’s uncharacteristic tardiness at its commencement was assumed to be accidental. They went out for a walk in the freshly laid snow, down the secluded country lane Waldorf faced just hours before more than one hundred guests were to descend on their home to celebrate Brayden. Their gifts hadn’t even been given. There were two. The interesting concept in all of it was that Anabelle had been close with Kathryn James on the planning of several events, including that one. She had been to Waldorf to work through every detail of those events over a period of time that drew them close together. Kathryn had been the kindest wife of a billionaire client Ana had ever worked with, although her former boss at Tweed didn’t allow her exchange her presence at another event she was running to attend the funeral. Anabelle had to grieve privately. No one at Tweed was close with the James’s the way she had been. They always requested her and the request was always honoured. Had Ana known all that time she was spending time with her future mother-in-law perhaps… perhaps nothing. She couldn’t have wished for better quality of time than what she experienced with Kathryn. Anabelle roused before the sun because she had a dream. It was vivid in how it haunted her awake just as it had haunted her in the penetrative layers of sleep. Ana closed her eyes as she recalled it in detail. Kathryn wore a flowing pale grey lace dress, almost as if she were marrying. Her long blond locks were wavey, like a relaxed version of Alice’s ringlet hair. When Kathryn was alive her hair was worn straight and occasionally was it curled or put up, so the blatant difference in hairstyle alerted Ana to a transfiguration of sorts since her death. She was walking through the formal gardens with one hand holding the skirt of her dress and the other gently caressing brightly coloured flowers along the stone paths. Some of the floral and fauna in the dream was exaggerated. Waldorf had beautiful, impeccably landscaped gardens but it was a dream and nothing appeared perfectly accurate. Ana followed at a distance with footsteps that were inaudible even as Kathryn approached the hedge maze where the walkway was exchanged for gravel. Not a sound. Overhead, the formerly blue sky with white, puffy clouds turned the same shade of grey as Kathryn’s dress. After the first turn in the labyrinth, Kathryn took a bigger clutch of the train of her dress and started running, although it appeared in slow motion. Her loose curls galloped over her back and shoulders as her speed increased. Ana had to run to keep up, although now the sound of thunder and rain exploded. In the downpour and running between twelve-foot-high hedge walls she became soaked as Kathryn dashed carelessly around every corner, making all the right turns. The reality was that Anabelle still didn’t know the hedge maze by heart. Alice did. Kathryn would have. In the afterlife, she still knew it by heart was what Ana gathered even in the middle of the dream. “Kathryn!” She didn’t hear. She would have turned or stopped if she had. The rain continued to pour and Ana was soddened in seconds as the unaware Kathryn was chased and completely untouched by the weather. Another turn and her hand lovingly stroked the green shrubbery. With someone who knew the way and pursuing the hidden courtyard at a jog they might have reached it already. Timing was no respecter of persons in dreams. That was good for Ana because she felt a quickening inside, as if it was imperative they speak before reaching the centre of the maze. “Kathryn!” A panic rose up in her as Kathryn ran a little faster and Ana found herself two turns behind. Her feet felt heavy even in flat patent leather ballet shoes over gravel being scattered as she ran. Looking down didn’t dispel the suspicion her feet were strapped to cement blocks. It felt like they were. The more she tried to keep up the further she fell behind. Eventually, she lost sight of Kathryn but still heard her running over the gravel. The sky turned darker and more threatening but Anabelle didn’t turn around. She kept going, making turns that sounded as near to Kathryn as possible. Suddenly, the downpour stopped but the sky remained the same charcoal grey and black with clouds full of rage as they passed over each other. A haunting stillness came over the gardens as if something were pursuing Ana – she felt it. What had begun as her trying to get Kathryn James’ attention had turned to errie weather and the suspicion she was now being chased. Why? Her ears no longer listened for Kathryn as her eyes travelled over her shoulder. Then, the hedge walls disappeared and she stood in the centre of the courtyard. Finally. There was no sign of Kathryn and at the centre of the maze stood a little girl in the same grey lace dress Kathryn had worn, albeit shorter and with sweet, puffed sleeves. She had a head full of ringlets with a large grey satin ribbon keeping some of them out of the way. The girl wore grey knee socks and black patent leather Mary Janes. Both of her hands were behind her back as she hummed innocently a song with no recognisable melody. As her focus shifted once again she was conscious of forgetting how the pursuit began. Why was she in the garden? Where did the hedge walls go? “Alice?” The girl didn’t turn around. “Alice, darling, is that you?” The little girl carried on humming the tune as she swayed left and right with her hands behind her back. “Madam?” Ana breathed inward and opened her eyes, then turned from the windows in the ballroom to see the butler beside her. One hand went to her neckline to recover from being abruptly pulled from recalling the dream. “I beg your pardon, Mrs. James. I didn’t mean to startle you.” “It’s quite all right, Wellesley.” She seemed to be telling herself it was quite all right. In his gloved hands the butler held a tray on which sat a steaming cup of espresso in a white porcelain cup and matching saucer. He offered it toward her. “Perhaps you might like some company at this hour.” The warm smile Anabelle was known for covered her lips. “Thank you.” Wellesley politely bowed his head before leaving Ana’s presence. His formal shoes click-clacked across the ballroom floor, accompanying the lengthy exit. The company to which he referred was the espresso - not him. He had to get the manor ready for the day. Ana stood there in the early hours after the dream because that was where she had stood during the planning of Brayden’s 28th birthday ball and allowed herself a quiet moment to grieve. That was almost two years ago. It was comforting to return to the ballroom and that entire wall of ceiling-high windows where the morning light competed with the surrounding woodland for a view of the manor. Now, she was Brayden's wife, and she stood there mourning the original Mrs. James. She held the cup of espresso in its saucer with steam climbing upward and outward in continuous motion. Her eyes returned to the view of the expansive green lawns and surrounding woodland behind which the surge of yellow and orange was rising. Soon the fullness of life would be exchanged for bare trees and eventually, snow-covered branches. Ana lifted the cup and took a sip of espresso. Warmth travelled down into her chest, and it was then she noticed the protective spirit-like mist was still thick in its presence out of which a stag appeared. Ana’s eyes locked onto the majestic creature and she daren’t even lower the cup into its saucer for fear the movement would scare him away. He wasn’t but one hundred metres from the windows. Despite being warmed by both the atmosphere of that first espresso consumed in the quiet, regal ballroom and the splendour of the sight before her, Ana was frozen in wonder. It was a mollifying view, to be sure. How timely. After waking with a start from that eerie dream the sight was received gratefully. The stag lowered his head and foraged briefly. “Sorry darling, there won’t be any acorns there,” she whispered, ensuring not to move. “Try by the lake.” He couldn’t have heard her voice, but in reaction, the stag’s head raised and those green eyes pierced hers as he looked at the windows. Ana remained still, wondering if he knew she was there. The steam from her espresso slowed its climbing up and out of the cup to more of a crawl. She held it there between her mouth and chest. The moment was intimate, despite a wall of windows separating them. It brought a calming over her body after an eerie dream and disturbed sleep. “Can you see me?” She whispered. Then, as if perhaps he’d heard the previous suggestion, the stag slowly turned and made a noble departure to the right – in the direction of the lake. Ana didn’t realise she’d been holding her breath.
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