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Authors: Morgan Kelly

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BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
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Alaric poured another glass. He drank whiskey greedily enough. He better endured the company of civilians when he had a few drams in him.

They thought they understood war, his friends and relations who had stayed at home, eagerly devouring every word in the press, goggling at all of the photographs plastered across the pages of
The Times
. No war had ever been so accurately documented in every gruesome particular. No citizenry had ever been so close to a war while remaining comfortably at home, playing the pianoforte in their parlors, smoking and sipping brandy in their drawing rooms after partaking of plentiful dinners, and laughing raucously over billiards while Alaric and his friends were shot to pieces for no reason whatsoever. Parts of them froze and fell off into the bleakness of the Russian winter while less patriotic (and perhaps less idiotic) Englishmen nodded off during church, exasperating their wives into fresh throes of domestic despair. Alaric had never been so cold in his life as he was when he was eighteen, practically a boy soldier. He had never been fully warm since, no matter how the fires of Stonecross Hall blazed and the chandeliers glittered. They were nothing but marsh-lights toward which he wandered, without ever finding their warmth. They taunted him, and still he stumbled after them in the dark.

His dreams were not all gruesome. Many of them were beautiful, full of a peculiar purple light: dawn breaking over the drifted snow, the sun pulling threads of light from the trees and weaving from them fairy stories. In his dreams, he walked between the snow-blanketed bodies of the dead and felt a peace he did not feel in his waking hours. When he dreamed, for one thing, he did not limp. He was as whole as he had been as a child, and just as quick. It was true that the limp was far less pronounced than it had been when he first came home, an invalid, full of fever and rage. He could even dance a quadrille now, if he so chose—but he rarely did. He had quite lost his taste for it now that he spent his life dancing around and between the outstretched arms of the dead, begging for a partner to drag them from their listlessness. He was afraid of how willing he was to oblige them.

He knew it was past time he recovered and moved on with his life. It was more than time that he should be married, a father to the children who would inherit Stonecross after he had gone to his rest. The problem was that he didn’t much like the idea of saddling a defenseless child with the considerable tonnage of his ancestral home. It did not sit easy on his shoulders, and never had, even before the war. Now, it was well-nigh intolerable. It was worse than a ghost, this house of his. Inside of it, Alaric had the uncanny feeling that
he himself
was the ghost, that he was haunting his house, and it was just biding its time until his life should be done. The house no longer liked him—it only tolerated him. Stonecross knew he was not the same. His dearest wish was to get away, for good. The only time he had ever managed to do so, other than his time away at school—which was only ever temporary—he had come back maimed for his trouble. He had stayed home ever since. He didn’t have much left to lose, and he wanted to keep to himself what little remained.

Alaric rose, and fumbled with his glass, shoving it back in place next to the cut crystal decanter that always seemed to sparkle so alluringly on his mantel. He had long left off the pretense of keeping liquor solely in the drawing room for guests and after-dinner relaxation. Everyone knew the master of Stonecross liked his liquor.

He crossed the room, and stood at the window he liked to keep thrown open, though he knew the housemaids clucked and said he would catch his death. Girls like that, plain and good-hearted, would never understand how a man like him could half want something like that, half hope for the kind of death a cold breeze could bring in from the sea that glimmered in the night like an eye that saw all, and cared little. Sometimes he wished he had been born into a simpler life, like the people who took care of his every comfort.

Of course, it was a foolish fancy. He knew nothing of the lives of others. He was rich. He was privileged. He was handsome and well respected, though it was a wary sort of respect. People did not feel about him the way they had when he was a boy, golden and gleaming, but they, too, managed to tolerate him admirably. Any unmarried daughter of
bon ton
would be more than happy to take him if he asked.

But if he was a ghost, the girls he knew were waifs. They had no substance. No experience. No sense of the great wonder and pain of what it was to be a human animal. They weren’t animals at all; that was by and large the problem with the pampered and ornamented lot of them. None of them had
Alaric had grown to respect the results of suffering on the human soul, if one could suffer sensibly, learn from it, and gain a little wisdom. He wasn’t sure he had managed to do so, but he had an idea that if he was acquainted with a woman who had also suffered, they might, together, learn what to make of it. The girls with whom he was daily surrounded, herded by their ambitious mamas and indulgent papas, draped in jewels, silks, and suitors, were like so many automatons. They were clever marionettes, equipped with all the elegant gestures of well-bred womanhood, the correct demeanors bred into their very bones, but they had no true life-spark of their own. They were only wind-up girls.

He lived with a woman of that sort, if someone who was still so much a girl could properly be called a woman. Ellen Wright was a distant cousin and his family’s ward. They had been famous friends in childhood, and before he went away to war, he had made a fervent declaration to the little chit that he had almost immediately regretted. Even then, she had changed, morphed from a jolly playmate into an ambitious young debutante. To her credit, she had never married anyone else, and Ellen had a fortune of her own. She could have married a dozen times over, but she hadn’t. Instead, she had remained installed in Stonecross, taking her place as the woman of the house after Alaric’s mother died, as though it was quite within her rights. And perhaps it was. He had said as much, once, when he was young and foolish, and hadn’t known yet what life really meant. Then, it was all a splendid parlor game, and he a prince at play. Ellen had always thought to be his princess.

That was quite impossible now, of course, but she had never quite understood that particular message. Perhaps she thought to wear him down. And maybe he should just let her. There were worse things than a pretty, vapid wife who would see to all the entertainments and make sure all the appropriate seasonal sentiments were expressed. She would make certain they went to Town in the correct week, and returned to the country when it was most fashionable to do so. Except that Alaric had no mind ever to go to London again. He was finished with balls and dinner parties, with forays to the opera and the pleasure gardens. He didn’t care to visit the club, or have himself fitted by an exclusive tailor for suits of clothes he would discard after the Season ended. He hadn’t even been bothering to have his hair cut lately—it hung long and thick to his shoulders. It was enough that he remembered to have himself shaved and dressed in a fresh shirt and clean cravat in time for dinner. He better remembered to refill his glass while he moped by the fire, and turn the pages as he read his book. He would be happy to malinger at Stonecross forever if everyone would just leave him in bloody peace.

They wouldn’t, of course. It was about to be his birthday. He would be thirty. There was to be a party. He didn’t
a bloody party, but what
wanted had very little to do with it. Ellen had her heart set on a party, and an engagement announcement, no doubt. Alaric wondered if he would oblige her. He hadn’t made up his mind yet. Everything would be simpler if he did, in many ways. After all, he couldn’t go on living at Stonecross with him with only his father to chaperone, an ailing man who paid little attention to what was happening around him. It simply wasn’t done.

Alaric turned from the window, impatient with the view, which never changed. It was always the same black liquid shimmering in moonlight, with the clouds moving too fast over the sky for him to find any recognizable shape. He was impatient, too, thinking about Ellen. She was not the sort of person who took up much space in a well-stocked mind. She was pretty, and intelligible enough. But Alaric’s mind slipped so easily away from her. She would do much better to marry someone else, someone for whom beauty and wealth were more alluring.

Alaric kept hoping that if he bored her to death on a daily basis, Ellen would decide to leave, and make her own way with the fortune she had come into on her twenty-first birthday. That had been a damnably long time ago. What was she now—twenty-eight or nine? She was getting dangerously close to being left on the shelf. Only her beauty and her fortune stopped people’s tongues wagging—much. An unmarried woman her age with a perfectly eligible bachelor in her daily midst would always set people talking. No doubt people thought them secret lovers, and that he refused to marry her and she had nowhere else to turn, or some scandalous rubbish of that sort. Such things did go on, he knew. Which was why he should perhaps just marry her and have done with it. A gentleman would have done so years ago. She had certainly earned it, living with him as he was for so long, putting her best face on while the ladies of the
whispered behind their fans.

Another reason he ought to marry her was that perhaps she actually loved him. Stranger things did happen. She made all the pretty little gestures and unspoken declarations that maidens in love affected. Could it be real?

He didn’t think so.

There was a coolness to Ellen, something he thought of as innocence and virtue when they were children. He thought she would warm up when womanhood came upon her, but she never did. There was something calculating about her. She was slightly … serpentine. That was the bare truth of it, and he was repelled by her manner, which was unnatural. He didn’t love her. He couldn’t. And he still harbored a childish fancy that he would like to marry a woman he loved.

Certainly he didn’t
to marry. No gentleman did, except for the getting of progeny, which concerned him not at all. His nephew Freddy would inherit Stonecross, though the child had more than enough estate and fortune of his own. Alaric’s sister, Lizzie, had married very well indeed. They would be coming to Stonecross for the party, of course, even though he had written Lizzie not to.
Why not, darling?
she had written back gaily.
I’ve nothing better to do, after all. London is frightfully dull this time of year.
Alaric was of the opinion that the sooty city was frightfully dull at
time of year, but he hadn’t bothered arguing. Like Ellen, Lizzie would do as she liked.

Alaric sighed as the bell gonged to signal the family to dress for dinner, though it would be a dismal affair, with only himself and Ellen. His father didn’t eat in company any longer, but took his meals on a tray in his bedchamber. Alaric wished he could get away with doing the same. He didn’t feel like eating but he would not do Ellen the discourtesy of failing to appear. He was still something of a gentleman, if only a paltry one, and she had done nothing to deserve rudeness. It wasn’t her fault that she had become so tiresome. No doubt he had, too. Staying too long buried away at Stonecross would transform even the most sparkling personality into that of a complete dullard. No wonder Ellen wanted a party. He would let her have it and be as gracious about it as he could.

Jeffries, his valet, came silently into the room with the shaving set he kept in perfect order. Alaric allowed him to scrape away the prickling stubble, evidence of one more day spent in aristocratic indolence. He was shaved daily because Ellen liked to see him clean and smooth. Alaric wouldn’t bother if it wasn’t for her scrutinizing gaze, any more than he would bother putting on the dark blue dressing gown she had given him for Christmas. He knew how much it would hurt her feelings if he didn’t wear it, even though she never saw him in it.

He sat down before the glass to allow Jeffries to brush his damp hair, ignoring the man’s disapproving throat noise as he handled its unfashionable length. Alaric gazed at himself by the light of the lamp that had been turned high on the dressing table, noticing how little shadow it managed to dispel. October really was the gloomiest month. He wondered why he had had the perversity to have been born in it. He much preferred May. Had he been born in May, no doubt he would have had a much more delightful personality.

When he was a child, his nanny had told him the most appalling stories about children who were born on All Hallows, as he had been. “They ain’t like other children at all, Master Alaric,” she liked to tell him, with an ominous tone in her voice. Certainly, he didn’t
like an ordinary person with ordinary cares, and he always felt strangely restless in October, his skin creeping and crawling beneath his clothes. The world seemed suddenly uncanny, and watchful. He felt as though he was walking between worlds, which was how one was meant to feel, if one put any stock at all in the folk superstitions of people like Nanny, who was the granddaughter of a Devon hedge witch, if she was to be believed. As a child, Alaric had always believed her. In October, he believed her even now.

He tolerated being dressed with his customary indifference, allowing Jeffries to move him about like a child deploying a toy soldier. When he was perfectly presentable according to Jeffries’s impeccable eye, the valet stood back and allowed Alaric to survey himself in the mirror. He did so as though it meant something to him, his face and his physique, the perfectly starched collar and beautifully tailored tailcoat that enclosed his body. He took in his reflection, noting that his jawline and hair were equally smooth, his clothing elegant and perfectly brushed. He looked as he always looked in the evenings, and that was all he asked. He nodded. “That will do, Jeffries. Thank you.”

BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
5.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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