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Authors: Morgan Kelly

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BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
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Or so she thought, until the day the solicitor showed up, briefcase in hand, to knock diffidently at her door.

It hadn’t been a particularly good day. Laura was tired. She had a headache. Her normally inquisitive brown eyes had become hazy with the sort of pain that results from too many spirits trying to climb right into her, as though she was some sort of sanctuary. Laura did
not
, as some mediums did, allow the dead to use her body. Fighting them off was a difficult and wearying battle, and some spirits were stronger and more insistent than others. The day of the solicitor’s visit was a very trying one indeed, and she almost cried when she heard the polite but insistent knock on the door just as the kettle was coming to a boil and her bit of soup had started to warm on the stove.

“I’m taking no more clients for the day,” she called through the door, not even bothering to open it. She was so tired she was literally drooping, her blouse untucked and her hair in wild disarray. She wanted no one to see her in such a state. She patted at her hair absently, as though the visitor could somehow see her right through the door. If she wasn’t so tired herself, she could certainly have seen him or her—it was part of her gift, and helped her to feel much more secure about opening the door to perfect strangers, day in and day out. But her mind was clouded, and the door blocked the person from her mind’s eye, as though Laura was any other person with an unwelcome visitor.

The person knocked again, and she sighed in exasperation, closing her eyes. “Please, go away! Come back tomorrow morning, after nine o’clock, and I’ll see you then.”

“Miss Dearborn, I am not a client of yours,” a pleasant, even rather genial voice said clearly and distinctly through the door. “Rather, you are something of a client of mine, and I really think you’d better hear what I have to say. You don’t have to say a word, only listen, though I suspect you will have more than a few questions for me.”

Laura stared at the door, considering. She could insist that the fellow come back the next day; after all, it could be a ruse, a manipulation that would force her to see a client so desperate he could actually force himself to sound quite reasonable. She had met people like that many times before, and at the moment, she had no defense whatsoever against such machinations other than the strong oak door and deadbolt that now stood between her and the man on the other side.

And yet, here was her hand, reaching out.

Before she knew what she was doing, Laura found herself unlocking the door. She squared her shoulders as she opened it a minimal amount, just enough to get a good look at her visitor. She arranged her face into as bland an expression as possible before looking her trespasser in the face.

“Yes?” she said coolly.

The stranger’s expression was equally nondescript, but remained attentive, polite, and entirely benign. He was well dressed, his hair brushed smoothly back from his brow. He had the sort of face belonging to so many well-to-do, middle-class Englishmen that they seemed not so much a demographic of people but a family with so many members that they seemed to populate half of London entirely on their own. He was young enough to have seen some action during the war, but seemed so entirely unscathed that Laura took an instant and uncharitable dislike to him, simply for having made the choice to escape what so many others not only
could
not, but
would
not. When she looked at him, she saw yet another living, breathing, unjustly spared stand-in for her brother, who had drowned in his own blood at Passchendaele.

The man smiled, and there was more of a personality to him than Laura had originally imagined. His face crinkled pleasantly, like the face of someone’s kindly bachelor brother, and Laura relaxed slightly. She knew she had been unkind. She had no right imagining she knew the truth about the living simply because she so clearly understood the dead. Her face softened, and she opened the door a few inches wider, so that her full face and body could be seen.

“What may I do for you, Mr. … ?”

“Tisdale. James Lawrence Tisdale. And it isn’t what you may do for me, Miss Dearborn, but what I am about to do for you.”

“I am not interested in a new carpet sweeper just at present, Mr. Tisdale,” Laura said tolerantly. “One of your colleagues was here just the other day, and as I told him, I’m quite satisfied with the carpet sweeper I’ve got. So if you will please excuse me, my supper is about to boil over.”

“I assure you, dear lady, I am no salesman.” Mr. Tisdale chuckled again good-naturedly, despite the slight, and this time Laura could see the prosperous glint of a gold crown in his easy smile.

She narrowed her eyes, understanding dawning at last. “You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?”

The man raised his hands in mock surrender. “Guilty as charged, Miss. I come from Beckett, Tisdale, and Roe, and we are solicitors—have been for several generations, in point of fact. Which is, in a way, all part of why I stand before you today. With your permission, Miss Dearborn, I would like to step inside and discuss a rather significant and delicate matter with you in the privacy of your flat. This is not at all a frivolous call, I assure you.”

Laura looked at him for a moment longer, and he gazed back at her gravely, waiting for her to decide. She had a feeling he would wait for as long as he must, that she could stand here considering him for an hour, and he would let her. It was this sort of endearing, canine quality that finally decided her. After all, she allowed total strangers into her home all day long between the hours of nine and six o’clock, with a hypothetical break for tea that she rarely took. She spent most of the day tired and ravenous, bombarded by the emotionally needy. What was another hour without her supper, and another stranger at her table? This one at least said he wanted nothing from her, that he wanted to give her something. Or at least,
do
something for her. Which was enough of a rarity in her life that she was intrigued.

She sighed, and opened the door fully, gesturing for him to come in. He did so diffidently, though his eyes darted around her dismal little flat with great interest. She flushed when his gaze lingered on the portrait of Charles in his uniform, which was the sole decoration on her mantel.

“Sweetheart?” he inquired.

“Brother,” Laura replied flatly.

He nodded with true sympathy. “I lost a brother myself. His name was William, but we called him Bill. It was a terrible shock to my poor mother. He was to have come into the firm as well, you see, but …” He shrugged.

Laura stared at him. He went a little pink, as if embarrassed to have told her so much. “It’s quite alright, Mr. Tisdale,” she said, with a deprecating smile. “I have that effect on people. If you will please follow me.”

He did so meekly enough, taking the chair she offered him at the scuffed kitchen table where she did her readings and channelling. She set a cup and saucer down in front of him, and another for herself. “Tea?”

“Please.”

“Cream? I’ve no lemon, I’m afraid.”

“Black will do just fine, Miss Dearborn.”

She nodded, and measured the tea leaves into the pot before adding the water. She set it down on the trivet to steep before finally taking her place across from the preternaturally patient solicitor.

“I suppose you’re wondering what all the mystery is about, Miss Dearborn.”

Laura shrugged, though she was growing rather curious, and not a little apprehensive. She couldn’t read Mr. Tisdale. The living were not at all her speciality, but she had learned a few things during her years nursing the nearly dead and irretrievably wounded—not to mention those who survived them. But Mr. Tisdale was kindly, jovial, and completely locked away inside of himself. He was not a man who displayed his secrets as most people did, although Laura had a feeling he had more than a few. But his secrets were none of her concern. She looked at the surface of him, and decided to deal only with what she could see: a man with something important to tell her. Something that may change her life, whether she wanted it to or not.

“Go on,” she said.

“Miss Dearborn, I am here on behalf of Stonecross Hall.”

Laura Dearborn, consummate stalwart, felt punched in the gut. Her heart started to pound painfully in her chest, and her lungs felt as though they could take only the shallowest of breaths. Her fingertips began to tingle as they did only when she was about to encounter the most powerful of channellings. Her ears rang, flooded with the noise of a hundred wireless stations gone off air.
Stonecross Hall. So that’s what it’s called.

She took hold of herself, firmly and calmly. “I have never heard of it,” she said. She picked up the teapot to pour, and to her great relief, her hands were completely steady.

“Well, I am here to tell you that it has most certainly heard of you.”

Laura emitted a short laugh. “That is utterly preposterous. How can a house hear of anyone?”

He chuckled. “Fair enough. What I meant to say was that the house has very much to do with you. You see, Miss Dearborn, Stonecross Hall is yours.”

Laura’s mind raced, her thoughts forming unbidden.
Of course it is. It always has been mine, and I its …
She struggled to repress the rush of thoughts, her visage unmoved, her brow maintaining the shape of polite skepticism.

“How is that possible?” she said evenly, taking a sip, and not even flinching as the boiling liquid scalded her tongue. She couldn’t feel a thing. She was utterly numb—whether with anticipation or with dread, she couldn’t tell. She was an automaton, a doll, dancing on invisible strings.
Strings that tie me to Stonecross,
she thought, absently. The whole thing was ridiculous.

“This is absurd,” she said. “I’ve never owned anything in my life. I have no family, no connections. Just how is it that I’ve come to own a house?”

“It was left to you by the last person ever to own the house, by the family name of Storm.”

“And are they distant relations of mine? I’ve never heard of them until now.”

“No, Miss Dearborn. In fact, no living member of the family has existed in quite some time.”

“I don’t understand. Then who has made me the beneficiary of the house?”

“A Mr. Alaric Storm the Third.”

A ridiculous name, like something straight out of a penny novel
. “I was not aware of having been known to a Mr. Alaric Storm, of any numeral.”

“You aren’t. In fact, you could not possibly be known to Mr. Storm, Miss Dearborn, as the gentleman in question died thirty-five years ago.”

“I am only twenty-eight.”

“Just so.”

“Therefore, Mr.—Storm, was it?—died nearly ten years before I was born!”

“Precisely.”

“I … I am at a loss. This makes no sense whatsoever.”

“Indeed it does not. And yet, here we are.”

“If Mr. Storm died thirty-five years ago and left his house to me in his will, why is it I am only hearing of it now?”

“You mean, why were you not made aware of the bequest for so many years?”

“Indeed. I should have been very glad of a house at many times in my life. How is it that I am being given one at precisely the time when I need it least?”

Mr. Tisdale didn’t make any reference to the shabby state of their surroundings. He did not even seem to be thinking of it, and Laura was absurdly grateful to him. “The will stipulated that the house should not be bequeathed until the occasion of your twenty-eighth birthday. Which, I am sure you will recall, is in fact today. So here I am.”

Laura was more than a little astounded. Was it really her birthday? Was she really only just twenty-eight? Twenty-eight might not be particularly young, but on her best days, she felt forty-five when her sessions were finished and she turned in for the night. If she was lucky, she would rise feeling only marginally younger—a sprightly
thirty
-eight, most days. At any rate, she hadn’t celebrated her birthday since before the war, when she had been an impossibly naïve young girl.

Mr. Tisdale patted her hand kindly, bringing her back to herself. “Happy Birthday, Miss Dearborn,” he said with a grin. “You, my dear woman, are an heiress of no inconsiderable fortune and property. I must say, this has been a curious undertaking. It isn’t often one must wait for one’s client to be born before bestowing upon her a bequest.”

Laura nodded absently, only half listening as he prattled on. It was a dream. It had to be a dream. She looked at the papers Mr. Tisdale laid before her without seeing them. She took up the pen he offered her without feeling the weight of it in her hand, and signed the places he indicated without consciously remembering her own name. In a trice, it was done. She was a rich woman. She owned a house in the country. She need never work for pay again, and more importantly, she need never speak to another ghost for as long as she lived.

 

C
HAPTER
T
WO

Stonecross Hall

October 1866

A
decade had passed since the war ended, yet Alaric still dreamed of the Crimea. It was his constant ghost, that distant, nebulous peninsula where so many of his friends had died, mostly of disease, more than a few of gunshot or bayonet wounds. Alaric himself had earned a lamed leg to accompany the experience, and for what profit? None that he had ever been able to discern. He had left part of himself behind on the shores of the Baltic Sea, and part of that dark and unfathomable water had come back with him, replacing some part of him that had once been essential. No one remarked much on the change, not after so many years. But they knew he was not the same man and never would be.

Alaric sat before the fire in his bedchamber, allowing its warmth to dry his freshly bathed skin and hair as he sipped moodily at his pre-dinner
aperitif.
It was in moments like these, the silent torture of reflection before he took part in yet another meaningless daily ritual, that his memories of war were strongest. He remembered what it was like to eat then, the ravenous hunger that overtook him when he was a soldier and his meals were scanty. Why had they seemed like such banquets? What was it about rations shared with comrades who would not see the light of dawn that made the food taste so much like ambrosia, while the meals he shared with those nearest and dearest to him often took on the flavor of ashes? Perhaps it was as simple as the fact that none of them had ever truly been hungry. They ate for pleasure, and yet would never know the brutal sensuality of eating a meal likely to be their last.

BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
12.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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