Corpses, Carriages, and Corsets!

K.E. O'Connor

It's first chapter Friday! And I have something fun to share. A cozy mystery with a difference.

Not only is Silvaria (book 14 in the Witch Haven series) set in a quaint past with carriages, corsets, and balls (think Bridgerton but without the sauce!) but it also features a magic-user with the power to control corpses! While wearing a bustle and a cute dress.

Fun, right?

Enjoy this sneak peek at the upcoming new book. Silvaria's story was a joy to write. The book is on preorder or you can wait until release day on June 6 and borrow a copy if you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

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Chapter 1

“I hope we won’t talk about dead bodies all night.” My tall, broad-shouldered, classically handsome fiancé, Emory Farr, adjusted his high-starched collar, inching a finger in between the fabric and his neck.

“Aunt Ruby will expect some discussion about corpses. It’s only polite.” I smoothed the pale pink silk of my new corseted dress over my knees. It had a charming sweetheart neckline, long lace sleeves, and the hem brushed the floor as I walked. Aunt Ruby was old-fashioned in every sense. Too much flesh on display, and she wouldn’t talk to you.

“Not all of us find the dead as fascinating as your family.” Emory stopped tugging at his collar and settled into the plush red velvet cushions in the carriage as it trundled toward my aunt’s estate on the edge of Briar Pass.

“Marry me, marry into the Digby’s world of the undead.” I tried to make light of my family’s long history as cemetery guardians, but it wasn’t for everyone. Including me. Many found our work morbid, and controlling corpses wasn’t an ability I’d ever wanted. But some things in life couldn’t be chosen. They just were.

Emory’s sigh sounded like he was in pain. “Silvaria, darling, I do understand. And I’ll fake an interest and talk to the old girl about dead things, but change the subject as soon as you think it’s polite.”

“Of course.” I reached over and adjusted his pink silk cravat. It matched my dress.

He gently pulled my hand away but kept hold of it. “Stop fussing. I’ve handled worse dragons than your aunt Ruby.”

“She can be difficult, and this is the first time you’ve visited her estate. Aunt Ruby is old and set in her ways. And we mustn’t be late. Dinner is on the table at six sharp.”

“We won’t be late. I don’t know why you’re so intent on impressing her. It’s not as if you need her money.”

“Emory! That’s not why we’re visiting. She’s my only living aunt. I like to check in on her and make sure she’s well. She’s become isolated as she’s gotten older and spends more time with the corpses than anyone else.”

“Isn’t that your family’s motto? You prefer the dead to the living. Vivos praeferre mortuos?”

I swatted his arm. “Don’t tease. And it’s not that. It’s Memento mori. Remember, we all die, so we treat the corpses with respect because we’ll become one eventually.”

He placed an arm around my shoulders, sending a small thrill down my spine. “I’ll be on my best behavior. Even your frosty old aunt will be enchanted by me by the end of the evening.”

“She said she won’t come to our wedding.” I leaned into his embrace. I felt so lucky to have such a handsome, clever man to marry. It wasn’t easy to find someone who accepted my unusual, and unwanted, ability to control the dead. Many people found my family’s talent as cemetery guardians creepy. Some actively avoided them. But we were an essential part of the magical community. If the dead weren’t cared for, they rose and rioted.

Emory had seen past all of that. Of course, he’d been wary when we started dating, but he was comfortable with my heritage. Me, not so much.

“If your aunt doesn’t want to come to the wedding, she can stay in her manor house and dance with the corpses if she likes. Nothing will spoil our big day,” Emory said.

“I would love her to be there, though. Perhaps that’s what she needs, a break from the morbid life she’s built. Well, it’s more like a morbid half-life. She talks about the bodies more than she does her family.”

“If your aunt Ruby causes problems for us, we’ll distance ourselves from her. We’ll both be ridiculously wealthy soon enough, so we can do whatever we want. You already have your trust fund, and my business plans are on the up, so it’s not as if we need to fake charm the old lady out of her fortune.”

I sat up straight and glared at him. “I hope that was a joke. Aunt Ruby may be rich, but that’s not the reason I keep in touch.”

He arched a thick eyebrow. “Then you’re better than most. What do you get out of this relationship? She browbeats you every time you visit, and her default position is to complain.”

I clasped my gloved hands in my lap. “Aunt Ruby was different when she was younger. I even remember her playing with me when I was a child. I can’t imagine her doing that now. It’s the power, you see. It drains you.”

Emory chuckled. “She’d probably feed you to one of her pet corpses if you were still small.”

“She does not have pet corpses in the house.” He got another smack on the arm for that comment.

“Darling, I’m teasing. All I meant was, even if your aunt doesn’t approve of what we’re doing, we’ll still be blissfully happy. We have the world at our feet. We could move to another country, build our own enormous manor house in the countryside, or buy a home somewhere warmer.”

“And fill those homes with children?” I’d always wanted a big family, and Emory was the same. We’d talked for hours about how we’d create a household full of laughter and brimming with life. It was something I’d never experienced when growing up.

“Of course. Whatever your heart desires.”

I sighed and rested against him, smiling at the future within reach. My childhood had been surrounded by groaning corpses and the restless dead. It wasn’t something I’d recommend to anybody.

All I’d wanted when I was younger was to be loved and included, but my parents were as obsessed with corpses as Aunt Ruby. They definitely lived by the family motto of preferring the dead to the living and were quick to remind me of my own mortality.

When we started our family, I’d make sure none of my children ever felt unloved or uncertain about their place in the household.

“We’re almost there.” Emory looked out the window as the carriage turned and the horses passed between two large, open black gates.

“Aunt Ruby will grow to adore you almost as much as I do. Just give her a few hours to thaw. She won’t be able to resist you for long, especially since you look so handsome in your new suit.”

“It is an excellent cut. You spoil me, darling. I didn’t need another suit. You bought me two last month.”

“You said you liked the tailoring when we stopped to look in the Saville’s storefront. And you had to look your best. Aunt Ruby would expect nothing less. Besides, I enjoy treating you.” I smoothed his cravat again.

He pressed a soft kiss against one of my powdered cheeks. “You’re a sweetheart. I’m so happy we have each other.”

So was I, and I still had to pinch myself to be certain this was real. Emory could have had his pick of the ladies, but he’d chosen me. When we’d met at the Countess of Eden’s winter ball six months ago, everything had fallen into place. He’d only danced with two other ladies that evening and spent the rest of it with me. I’d left the ball giddy and hopelessly in love. Our relationship had only gotten better from there, and our future together would be amazing.

The carriage pulled up after a slow meander along my aunt’s gravel driveway. Despite living alone, she maintained one of the three family manor houses as her private residence. The house was a pale sandstone detached building with a dark roof, elaborate chimney stacks, and twelve bedrooms.

I’d suggested she downsize, but she’d dismissed my comment. Family values had to be maintained, and everyone knew the estate belonged to the Digbys. That would never change.

I’d learned to keep quiet with my aunt and my parents over matters of propriety. They were sticklers for formality and reputation. Nothing was more important. Not even the happiness of their only daughter.

Emory climbed out of the carriage and held out his hand to allow me to disembark. My silk dress was stunning but difficult to move in. There was a large bustle on the back, and the fitted long shift under the dress meant I could only take tiny steps to avoid toppling, so I was grateful for Emory’s arm as we headed to the black front door with its brass knocker.

The door opened on its own, and we stepped inside. The entrance hall had a cold marble floor, and several urns containing former cemetery guardian ashes stood on either side of the door.

Emory’s gaze was full of interest as he looked around the high-ceilinged hallway. “It must cost a fortune to keep this place warm.”

“It does, but my aunt prefers it chilly.” I coughed delicately into my hand. “She often has undead visitors, and they decay slower if it’s cold. It’s why I told you to wear a thermal layer underneath your suit.”

“Does she often have corpses visit?” Horror flickered in his eyes for a second.

“More often than she should.” Approaching footsteps had me looking up, and Aunt Ruby strode toward us.

Despite her advanced years, having survived three hundred and fifty of them, she had a firm, steady pace, and her back was straight. Her skin was paled and lined and her purple eyes watery, but the power radiating off her tingled against my skin.

She stepped forward to greet me first with two light air kisses on either cheek, making sure not to smudge my makeup or disrupt my elaborate dark curls. “You have stayed away too long, niece. I barely recognize you.” Her gaze ran over me several times. “You look thin.”

“I want to look my best at the wedding.”

She glared at me as if I’d said something stupid and then did a thorough visual inspection of Emory. “He’s too handsome for a plain Jane like you. I never trust a face so perfectly symmetrical.”

Emory softly cleared his throat. “It’s a great honor to meet you again. I’ve heard so much about your incredible work from Silvaria. She treasures your talent with the… dead.”

My aunt harrumphed. “I doubt that very much. My niece has yet to take to her role as a cemetery guardian, but time will mature her, and she’ll see this is the only path. This way. Dinner is about to be served.”

I raised my eyebrows at Emory, my cheeks hot with embarrassment at being talked about as if I wasn’t present, but his smile was calm, and it reassured me as we headed into the dining room.

The room was an austere work of art, with a mosaic floor that had been removed piece by piece from a Roman amphitheater and reconstructed inside the manor house. Original tapestries from the reign of Queen Hilda covered most of the walls, depicting countryside scenes and the occasional bloody battle. A large black dining table dominated the center of the room. There were twenty chairs around it, but my aunt always sat at the head of the table and her guests in the seats closest to her.

She stood by her seat and waited for her butler to pull out the chair. Once we were settled, three servers came in with plates covered in silver domes.

They presented my aunt with her food. She glared at it as if it had done something wrong to her then cut off a small piece of chicken and tasted it. “It’s dry. Tell Cook to be more careful.”

“Shall I take it back?” The serving girl’s hand shook slightly.

“It’s fine. Leave us.” My aunt glared at the servers until they’d left the room. “Emory, pour the wine.”

He hopped from his seat and filled our glasses.

My aunt took a sip and winced. “Sharp. I need to clear the wine cellar and start again. I’m sure it’s not being stored appropriately. The servants don’t know what they’re doing.”

I took a small sip from my glass. “It’s good, and dinner looks lovely.”

My aunt ignored my comments, took several small bites, and then pushed her plate away. “I have no appetite for bland fare. I should get someone who knows what they’re doing in my kitchen.”

“It’s excellent food,” Emory said.

My aunt turned an acerbic look on him. “Silvaria tells me you’re in trade.”

“No! Not trade. Emory is an entrepreneur. He has many business ideas. Wonderful ideas,” I said.

“Ideas? Do you have any form of employment?” My aunt peered down her long, thin nose at him.

Emory carefully set down his knife and fork as a gentle pink flush spread up his neck and onto his cheeks. “I’ve tried several businesses over the years but have recently settled on property development. There will always be a need for people to have safe, warm places to live. Just today, my new business partner and I visited a potential site for future development.”

“I didn’t know about that. How exciting,” I said.

Aunt Ruby didn’t look impressed. “That’s an occupation of sorts. Of course, when you marry Silvaria, you will assist her. My first husband was my assistant. He gathered the grave dirt, met with the families who were having troubles, and dealt with the paperwork.”

“Oh, no. That won’t work!”

Aunt Ruby silenced me with a sharp look. “And my last husband, Yanez, had an affinity with the dead. That was useful. Do you have any natural ability with our clients, Mr. Farr?”

Emory shuffled in his seat. “My magic is more a secondary concern of mine.”

Alarm flickered in my aunt’s eyes. “You have power, though?”

“He does. Emory is incredible with people and makes everyone feel comfortable in all situations. It’s a real talent,” I said.

Aunt Ruby pushed her food around the plate with her fork. “Silvaria’s always been socially awkward. Having a natural charmer by her side should smooth over her stiffness.”

My cheeks flushed again, and I busied myself with cutting into some tender stem broccoli. I struggled in the company of others but tried hard to fit in. People gossiped about my ability with the dead, and I’d even had a few individuals ask if I could provide them with a corpse for entertainment. What a dreadful thought.

“Have your parents chosen you a cemetery yet?” Aunt Ruby said. “I have several suggestions if they’re struggling to settle on one.”

I almost choked on my broccoli and took several sips of wine to help regain my composure. “Not yet. They’re still considering my options.”

“They’ve kept you coddled. You must take up the mantel of guardian. I was eighteen when I took on my first cemetery. If you don’t have a placement soon, you’ll forget how to look after the dead.”

“We were planning on finding a situation close to my first development project,” Emory said. “That way, Silvaria can tend to her cemetery guardian duties while I work.”

“Putting your future husband’s needs before the dead is unwise,” Aunt Ruby said. “I married three times and picked my partners because of their affinity with the dead. You should marry a half-vampire, Silvaria. They like the quiet of the night and would enjoy their time in the cemeteries you tend to.”

I gulped down my panic. I hadn’t yet had the courage to tell my family I didn’t want to be a cemetery guardian. The dead left me cold in every sense. I hated everything about being born into a guardian family. I hated the headstones, the eerie silence as I walked among the crypts and sarcophagi, the stench of rot and decay, the dirt, and the ever present feeling of something stirring beneath my feet, waiting for a command.

Being a cemetery guardian was a dismal life, and having parents who were guardians had ruined my childhood. I was only awkward because we kept to ourselves, and when another child found out what I could do, they ran away and didn’t want to be friends with a corpse tender.

Aunt Ruby clicked her fingers. “I’ve always loved the power and control. When a corpse misbehaves, I’m there to take them in hand. Show me what you’ve got.”

“I’m sorry?” I said.

She clicked her fingers again, and the door leading out to the herb garden opened.

Emory lurched from his seat with a yelp as a bedraggled corpse missing an arm appeared.

“Calm yourself, boy. You’ll have to get used to this if you’re marrying into the family.”

“Aunt! No corpses in the dining room. We’re eating.” I jumped up too, alarmed at Emory’s panic. He’d seen plenty of corpses when he was with me, so he shouldn’t be so startled.

“If you want the corpse gone, you deal with him,” Aunt Ruby said, a sly smile on her face.

Emory backed away. “Silvaria, do something. It’s looking at me strangely.”

I pleaded silently with my aunt, staring at her and clasping my hands, but she wouldn’t acknowledge me. She sipped her wine and gave me another cold smile.

I held out my hands, grimacing as the cold flood of power ran through me. “Return to where you came from. Your presence is not wanted.”

The corpse groaned, turned, and ambled back into the herb garden.

I rushed over and slammed the door shut. I whirled toward my aunt. “What are you doing with bodies in your backyard? He had fresh dirt on him. Does he sleep here?”

She gave a small shrug. “It’s always good to keep your hand in, and I like to have subjects close by. The walking dead are a valuable asset.”

I shook my head at her. My family was unbelievable. No wonder everyone gossiped about us.

“Don’t look so scandalized.” Aunt Ruby gestured at my chair. “This is your destiny. Marry a tradesman if you must, but your cemetery guardian duties will always come first.”

I returned to my seat after checking Emory wasn’t about to collapse in shock.

Aunt Ruby was wrong. I made my own destiny. And it didn’t involve dead bodies at the dining table.

Don't forget, you can preorder this fun paranormal mystery today!

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