Late in the reign of Queen Victoria
“He was such a good man.”
The litany was one that over the last two hours had become as familiar to Nicholas “Nick” Sinclair as the back of his hand. Annoyingly so. Honestly, people were so unoriginal. Couldn’t they say anything else about him? Like the fact that he had been handsome, an accomplished horseback-rider or intelligent. It was as if they’d forgotten everything good about him and could only repeat the same words.
Over and over.
The small steps that led up to the podium where his coffin lay, squeaked under the wait of the next mourner. Nick struggled to slow down his breathing and keep his eyes closed.
Someone cleared their throat.
A loud, booming voice resounded through the cathedral. Nick couldn’t figure out if it belonged to a man or woman.
“He was such a good man…”
And once again Nick prepared himself for what was sure to be a boring, unoriginal speech.
“…It was a pity he never learned to curb his more sinful habits.”
What? What sinful habits, thought Nick…
“He would have been a much better man had he learned to control his gambling.”
Oh, that habit.
Nick agreed his gambling had gotten out of control in the last few years. It was one of the reasons he was in this mess….
One week ago…
“I’m telling you the plan is foolproof.”
“And yet a fool could tell you that this isn’t going to work,” said Nick, pacing the floor of an ornately decorated study room.
Ever since he arrived an hour earlier, Nick had been listening to his twin brother, Jason Sinclair, lament on the brilliance of his plan. However, from Nick’s point of view it was far from brilliant. Something about the entire affair just screamed “disaster!”
“Oh, and I suppose you can come up with something better,” said Jason, giving his brother an irritated look as if he couldn’t imagine why Nick was wasting time arguing with him.
Oh, Nick supposed from his brother’s perspective the whole thing would be highly amusing.
But then again, he wasn’t going to be the one lying in a coffin.
“Need I remind you that you got into this tangle entirely due to your own stupidity. Wasn’t it you who came to me for help?”
Jason glanced at his twin. It was like looking at a reflection of himself in a shallow pool. They had the same aristocratic features. The same chocolate brown hair, kept a bit longer than was considered appropriate these days. The same pale blue eyes. Even the arch of their eyebrows was the same. However, just as a ripple in a pool altered an image, there were a few small differences that stopped Nick from being an exact replica of Jason.
But they were so diminutive as to be insignificant.
Yet, there was one rather large difference, one that had nothing to do with physical appearance, but mental capabilities. The question of intelligence. Jason had always considered himself superior in that aspect—perhaps it came with being the older, albeit by only two minutes—for it was clear to Jason that his younger brother hadn’t inherited even half his own intelligence.
“And maybe that was my first mistake,” snapped Nick, in answer to Jason’s previous question. He plopped himself down on a chair in front of Jason’s desk and ran a hand through his hair, trying to tame the unruly locks. But is was as effective as running one’s hand through a pot of black ink; the ink never changed it’s shape.
“Oh, I can assure you that it wasn’t your first mistake,” said Jason. “Your first mistake was gambling away every last penny you had. And your second mistake was trying to marry a heiress to recoup your finances.”
“That would have worked…”
But Jason interrupted him before he could complete his argument. “Yes, it would have, before you made your third mistake: disclosing your entire plan to your friend in front of said lady.”
“I didn’t know she was there,” said Nick. “It wasn’t as though, I had expected my fiancée to be lurking behind curtains eavesdropping on me.”
Jason looked at him in disbelief.
“Besides that’s all in the past, she’s no longer of any concern. She was quite vocal when she broke off our engagement.” Nick supposed he should feel a little saddened at the thought, after all his fiancée had been a pretty enough girl. But the only thing he could feel at the moment was relief. It had been a close call—he’d almost married a spoiled nag for money.
Not a mistake he was going to make twice.
“One thing you should know about ladies, brother, is that they never behave as you expect of them.”
“And where was this worldly knowledge two days ago, when I could have used it?”
“That was my mistake,” said Jason, with a regretful sigh. “I assumed you were at least half as intelligent as I—an assumption I will be sure never to make again.”
“I would spend less time questioning my intelligence and more time questioning my sanity if I were you, because it’s clear that only a very twisted mind could come up with a plan such as yours.”
“It’s a perfectly acceptable plan.”
“Really, then what do you propose I do when they close the coffin and prepare to bury it?” Nick asked his brother. Ha, let him answer that, he thought.
“Nothing?” Was he serious?
“Nothing,” repeated Jason with an air of confidence, waving away Nick’s concerns as so much ash in the wind. “You won’t have to do anything, because if everything goes the way I’ve planned you won’t even be near the coffin when they bury it.”
Nick’s ears perked up at that and he sat up a little straighter in the chair. Maybe, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to go along with this. His brother sounded as if he had dissected and perfected every detail of his plan.
“I’ve dissected and perfected every detail of this plan,” said Jason. “The whole thing should go off without anyone the wiser…that is if your as good an liar as you claim.”
Damned, if that wasn’t a direct challenge, Nick had ever heard one.
“Brother, dear,” said Nick, standing up and preparing to exit. “You should know by now that lying is one of my greatest talents.”
And so Nick had made his grand exit from his brother’s study. He’d walked out of the townhouse and down the street. He’d made a brief sojourn to his club where he played one hand at the cards table and then made sure that everyone within earshot heard him complain of not feeling “quite the thing.”
It was then that he’d made his second grand exit of the day.
“He was such a good man.”
The words snapped Nick back to the present as effectively as being doused in ice water would have.
He was getting tired of hearing these words. In fact, if he wasn’t supposed to be “dead” he would have walked out on his own funeral after hearing them for what seemed like the hundredth time. Not to mention his body was starting to ache from lying in the same position for so long. Worse, he couldn’t even scratch the itch on his nose.
If only he hadn’t been an arrogant ass, then he wouldn’t be in this mess. If only he hadn’t played over his limit. But there was no point in thinking of that now—it was too late. If his conscious had spoken to him sooner he may have been able to do something about it. Now, however, all he could do was lie in this coffin and pretend to be dead.
I swear if Jason’s plan doesn’t work I’m going to come back from the dead and strangle him, thought Nick savagely.
Although it wasn’t fair to blame Jason for any of this, he hadn’t been the one to gamble away his fortune and thus, been unable to pay his creditors. His brother was trying to help him. It wasn’t Jason’s fault that he and his brother had two different ideas of “help.”
But Nick wouldn’t have been able to do anything on his own either. The creditors would have taken everything, including his house and he would be lying in debtor’s prison making bonnets for old ladies. Moreover, Nick was fairly sure that his father would have disowned him for causing such a scandal.
It was a good thing his father was in Scotland at the moment, because there was no way he would have condoned this.
Nick felt the itch on his nose become more insistent. How much longer would this take?
Jason’s plan had sounded simple enough for him when he heard it a week ago. His brother had explained that he’d organize a “funeral” for him and invite all his creditors. All his creditors would think he’d died and all his debts would be forgiven.
“The lack of family could be explained easily enough,” Jason had said. “It isn’t as though we have any close relatives except for father, and he’s a recluse, so I’m fairly certain your creditors won’t even think of him.”
Moreover, it was an added bonus that his creditors didn’t move in the same circles as him.
Jason had gone on to clarify the rest of the details. He’d stated after the mourners had said their final farewells, the church would be cleared and Nick could get out of the coffin. Then they’d close it up and ready it for burying.
Nick had warmed to the plan after that little nuance had been gotten out of the way. He hadn’t even given thought to how long the “funeral” would go on.
Now he wished he had.
Nick heard what sounded like someone strangling a seagull coming from somewhere on his left. “This is all my fault,” said the voice of his ex-fiancée, her wailing beginning to give him a headache to go along with his itchy nose. “If I hadn’t rejected him so terribly this wouldn’t have happened. He must have been heart-broken.”
Not really, just broke.
“Oh, I’m such a horrible, horrible person. If only I had understood how much he loved me.”
Nick had an urge to roll his eyes at his ex-fiancées dramatics. Why had she even come here? Nick was pretty sure she hadn’t been invited.
“Cassandra, please, you mustn’t blame yourself.” Nick could hear his brother reassure his ex-fiancée.
“I have no one to blame but myself,” said Cassandra. Nick could hear her sobbing. “I hadn’t even realized he would do something like this until I heard of the funeral. Your father was so distraught when I told him.”
She’d told his father? It was a good thing Nick was lying in a coffin, because he was certain his heart stopped when he heard those words. Dear God, they were doomed. He knew this plan had been going too well for it to last. Not with his luck.
“You told our father?” His brother’s voice sounded a faint as Nick felt.
“Of course, what sort of question is that?”
A perfectly good one, thought Nick.
“I met him on the way and thought to offer my condolences when he told me he had no idea what I was talking about. So, naturally, I explained the situation.”
Naturally, you couldn’t mind your own business.
“Yes, yes…of course, what–” His brother broke off abruptly.
Suddenly, the whole cathedral lost its voice. It he didn’t know better he’d have thought he was alone…
“What is going on in here?”
“Father?” Nick heard Jason ask, his voice breathless with astonishment.
“Of course, it’s me,” snapped his father. “I repeat: what’s going on in here?”
“Your son’s funeral, sir,” said Cassandra.
“My son’s–” Nick was pretty sure his father’s face was changing to a molten-red as he spoke.
“What the hell have you done now, Nick?”
“He contracted an illness, father?” His brother’s statements were beginning to sound like questions to Nick in the face of his father’s authority.
“Illness, my left foot, I know full well that he’s in debt up to his neck,” said his father. “But debt or no, no son of mine should shirk from his responsibilities.”
“But, sir, he’s dead…” said Cassandra, but Nick could have told her to save her breath, the charade was up. Even as a recluse, his father usually kept tabs on his sons.
Nick should have known they wouldn’t have been able to keep this from him for too long.
But, why the hell did he have to show up now? Nick swore viciously in his mind. He’d though for sure that with his father miles away in Scotland, they would have to tell him until weeks later, when they’d all be able to sit around and laugh about it. But the way things were progressing it felt as if he’d be laughing all the way to the convict colony in Australia. And his father would personally see him off the at the docks.
“Stop your infernal wailing, girl, he’s not dead,” said his father. “But he is going to be a married man very, very soon…that is, if you’d do him the honour of becoming his bride.”
It took Nick a second to realize that the protest had slipped past his lips. He’d shot upright in his coffin, his hands held before him symbolically warding off the evils of his father’s suggestion.
“God save us,” exclaimed the priest. “The devil has possessed him!” That said the priest promptly fell into a dead faint, hands crossed over his heart.
Everything after that happened so fast that no one in the church had had a chance to register it. In fact, had they been asked later, the only thing they would recall was that they had gone to the church to pray for Nick’s soul and come out offering their congratulations on his marriage. It seemed that the punishment for lying in coffins was marriage to a veritable shrew—one that made a man hope for a very real death indeed.