Authors: Morgan Kelly
Alaric followed him out a moment later, turning left where Jeffries turned right. He descended the staircase just as the bell gonged a second time, signaling the imminence of his dinner. He tried to imagine hunger, but he hadn’t been hungry in years. He had only been fed. He felt like a pet, a lapdog, listless and without use. He had once killed for his keep, and as little as he liked it, he had at least felt entitled to his dinner in the Crimea. That was something every man should feel at the close of the day.
That night, he ate even less at dinner than usual. Ellen chattered away animatedly, and he heard not a word she said. He didn’t even bother making polite noises in his throat or wearing the expression of bemused inquiry that usually did the trick. He could see the irritated, troubled look come over her face again and again, the one she saved for when he was not behaving the way she wished. She wore that expression a lot lately.
“Alaric, have you heard a word I’ve said this whole blessed evening?” she demanded, after the third one of her amusing anecdotes fell flat.
“No,” he said, before he could stop himself.
She stared at him, her expression souring slightly. “I see. I’m terribly sorry to be such a bore.”
He sighed. “It’s not your fault. You can’t help it.”
She gasped as though he had slapped her. “Really, Alaric!” was all she could manage. She never responded in kind when he snapped and bit at her heels. It
rather dull of her. He was spoiling for a good fight, even if it bore a veneer of politesse.
“I am a frightful bore, too,” he said wryly, pushing her a little further. “It’s this bloody house. It sucks all the luster out of life this time of year.”
“Well, why don’t we go away?” Ellen said, brightening, taking the opportunity he had opened for her to argue for yet another of her manias: travelling to fashionable resorts and watering holes, as if they didn’t get quite enough of the sea where they sat, with it moaning through the very walls and windows that contained them. “We could go to Bath, or Brighton. The winters here are far too dull, you are right.”
Alaric shook his head. “Why don’t
go to Bath or Brighton, Ellen?” he said quietly. “Why didn’t you go, years ago? You aren’t growing any younger. Neither of us are.”
Ellen lowered her head, tears standing out in her clear green eyes. “That is very unkind of you, Alaric, after all I’ve done for you.”
“Ellen, I don’t want to you to
for me. Can’t you see that? I just want to be left in peace.”
“I thought I could bring you peace,” she said in a small voice. “I thought I could brighten your life. That is why I am throwing this party, you know. For you. I thought being surrounded by your friends might make you happy.”
Alaric sighed and smiled warily, chagrined by her words. “I know,” he said softly, as the gentleman that still resided somewhere inside of him rose again to the surface and took control. “Thank you, Ellen. It’s very kind of you.”
She reanimated immediately, taking what he said as a far more meaningful encouragement than was his intent. She chattered on through dessert, buoyed by his words, and he pretended to listen with more interest than he really felt.
he thought, with gathering apprehension as he looked at her glowing face.
If I am not careful, I really am going to have to marry the girl.
hy not simply marry the girl?” His father’s voice was hoarse, ragged with pain and the weariness of a death too long postponed. Alaric frowned, looking down at the face he no longer knew, spotted with age and worn away until it was little more than skin stretched over a bone frame. “After all, she cannot live here with you after I am gone, Alaric. You strain the boundaries of propriety as it is.”
Alaric sighed, slumping down in his chair. He massaged his temples. Damn, but he had a headache. “I don’t love her, Father. And I don’t think she loves me. She loves … I don’t know what she loves. But it isn’t me. At best, it is some idea of me, a fantasy that will never come true. I think she believes somehow that if we were only married, the man she actually wants will appear out of the ether and take my place. Sometimes I feel as though when she looks at me, she sees that man’s ghost.”
He thought his father would dismiss his moribund notions with a frail wave of his hand, but to his surprise, the old man stared at him with a penetrating gaze. “If Ellen was capable of so complex a thought—and I am not convinced that she is—she would be right, would she not? As I am myself so close to becoming one, I think I am becoming rather adept at recognizing a ghost when I see one. My son, you’re no more alive than your dear mother, God rest her.”
Alaric stared. He might be sick unto death, but the old fellow was as astute as ever. To be so easily read touched a nerve, and Alaric spoke before he thought. “I do not know what you’re talking of, Father,” he said evenly, his tone light but humorless. “Perhaps the laudanum Doctor Wakefield prescribed is a little stronger than it should be.”
“Don’t condescend to me, boy. I am still your father, even if I am nearly dead.” The old mad coughed, reddening, though whether from the effort of scolding his son or from emotion, it was difficult to say.
Alaric’s heart gave a painful tug, contrition taking a firm grip on him. He leaned forward to take the old man’s hand awkwardly in his own. They weren’t much given to demonstration. “Forgive me, sir—I didn’t mean what I said.”
Alaric Storm the elder, second of his name, maintained his piercing gaze. He looked into his son’s eyes, and the younger man flinched, pulling away to stand at the window. No one looked at him like that anymore—as if they could see straight into his core. He wasn’t sure what resided in that ransacked place where, so he had been taught, his soul resided. He didn’t think much on his soul anymore. He told himself he didn’t believe in it, that when he was finished with his body, everything he was would go out like a snuffed candle. He didn’t know whether the notion terrified or relieved him. This time of year, the spirit world seemed oddly close, as if he could reach out and touch it—or it him. He shouldn’t make light of such things, or so Nanny had always told him, the old terror.
“We should never have let you go,” his father murmured from the bed. “If we had known what it would do to you, we would have tied you to the bedstead until you saw reason.”
Alaric stared out at the sea. The mullioned windows were salt-stained, and he felt as though he looked through a bleary eye that could perceive little more than the shifting of light over the bay. “If I wasn’t so damnably weak, I would have forgotten, and gone on with my life by now,” he replied. “It must shame you to have a son who cannot bear to live with things of which other men are deeply proud.”
“Few men are made for war, Alaric. Those who are made for it are something more or perhaps less than human. Do not desire to be like them.”
Alaric grimaced. “Father, please. Don’t patronize me.”
“It isn’t patronage, it’s good common sense.”
Alaric shrugged noncommittally. He really didn’t want to talk about it any longer. He began sketching a childish tracing on the glass. After a moment, he rubbed it out, and through the scrubbed glass he glanced down into the courtyard, in which the huge and ancient stone cross that lent its name to his ancestral home leaned against the sky in an ominous pose.
It had always frightened him as a child, when he saw its silhouette propped up against the darkness, and he was none too fond of it now. In his more restless moments, he fantasized about having it pulled down, but it was said to be a relic of a tenth-century monastery that had once stood on the site over which Stonecross Hall had been built. He didn’t like the idea of disturbing any further the bones of the long-dead monks who once bent their knees to the cross below.
He shivered, and looked away from the lichen-encrusted monument.
From his periphery, Alaric suddenly saw a flicker of someone moving down below.
There was a person coming up to the great doors laden with parcels, or … was it luggage? He frowned, staring harder. Had one of the guests misread the invitation and come too early? He hadn’t heard a carriage, and none of the servants were scurrying forth to offer assistance.
The figure came into better focus, and he saw … what was it he saw? A strange personage, dressed very oddly. A woman, he thought. The person had a certain gait, an elegant yielding of her figure to motion that could only belong to a female. Her clothing, from what Alaric could espy from his rather awkward vantage point, was more than outlandish—it was decidedly scandalous. Was that … a
he saw, flexing beneath her skirts? Even the thought sent a little thrill, like a small jolt of light, coursing through him. The woman’s head was equally bare, out of doors in broad daylight, with one of the oddest coiffures he had ever seen blowing in the breeze. He had never seen a lady with shorn hair before—though perhaps the woman (for she
be a lady) had recently been ill.
Who was she, and whatever was she doing at his door in such a state of
, carrying what could for all he knew be the entirety of her worldly possessions?
Alaric’s pulse began to pound erratically. There was something very strange about the figure, something nearly uncanny that had little to do with the eccentric state of her dress. He almost felt as though she wasn’t quite there, and it wasn’t the distortion of the ancient window glass that obscured his vision. There was something else between them, like a drapery of transparent gauze distorting the air.
Suddenly, the figure looked up at the window, straight at him, and though he had the distinct impression she could not see him clearly through the distorted glass, he could make out her features fairly well, despite the distance. She resembled a watercolor sketch, a swirl of color and form. He perceived the outlines of her straight black brows, elegant as dashes of calligraphy, and her full red mouth pursed in consternation. She was thin as an exclamation point in her loose, rather plain dress. She grew clearer somehow, as if the gauze that had obscured her from his sight had begun to burn away in the moment she looked up at the window. Her dark eyes registered but seemed to look through him, as though he wasn’t quite there.
It was a terrible feeling, as if he was shimmering into a state of invisibility as her outline grew starker against the flagstones below. He felt as though his organs must be clearly visible, pulsing within him, his blood a surging tide within tangled veins. His heart leapt against his ribs, a mad animal trying to get away.
He was afraid. He hadn’t been afraid in years. He had been far too bored.
Now, he was exhilarated, the inexplicable surge of excitement was headier than any liquor. Who was she, and why was she here? He felt as if he should know her face. He
know it, and yet he knew he had never seen it before.
“Father,” he said calmly, despite the cold sweat that had broken out on his brow and the jangle of his pulse. “There is someone at the door.”
“What?” the old man wheezed, startled awake. He had begun to tire even more easily of late. Alaric was surprised at the number of sensible sentences their conversation had garnered, and though the subject matter was not entirely to his liking, he felt as if he had been given a small and perfectly chosen gift. He strode over to the bed and stroked the old man’s hair—a liberty he took only because his father was barely sensate.
“Never mind, sir,” he said gently. “I’ll make them go away.”
He marched from the room, not bothering to close the door, and took the quicker, narrower route down the servants’ staircase, nearly colliding with a chambermaid encumbered with a pile of fresh linens in his haste. He didn’t know why he was in such a lather to confront a person who made him feel as if he might not exist, a madwoman walking about the countryside in a state of undress. At the back of his mind was the thought that she might need his help. Help that only he could give her. An illogical thought, considering he had helped absolutely no one in many years, least of all himself. He had told his father he would make her go away. He wondered if he would be able—or would even want—to do so.
At the bottom of the stairs, he nearly collided with yet another of the several dozen servants who cluttered up the back stairs of Stonecross—a footman, in this case. He scowled at the young man, who looked suitably cowed by the direct eye contact. “What are you about, Danby?” he demanded. “Do you not know that there is a person at the front door, carrying her own luggage up the walk? I could see her clearly from my father’s window.”
The footman stared, his impeccable livery pulled slightly askew in his effort to avoid crashing into his master. “No, sir, there can’t be! I was only just out there meself. Are you sure it weren’t me you saw?”
“It most certainly was not,” Alaric said firmly. “I distinctly saw a young woman coming up the walk with several heavy valises. I cannot believe that the members of my staff would be so remiss as to ignore a guest’s arrival.”
The young man stared at him in open disbelief. “No, sir, I would never do such a thing,” he protested. “Honest. There is no one outside.”
Alaric strode toward the door, grasping the handle just as he heard the sound of a key fumbling its way into the keyhole. He frowned. What the devil was happening? No one but the upper members of his staff possessed keys to Stonecross. Alaric himself didn’t have a key to the front door. And why would it be locked in broad daylight?
“Allow me, sir,” Danby said humbly, gaze averted as he attempted to open the door for Alaric, who shrugged him off impatiently, tugging at the door. It felt as if it had been soldered shut. The brass handle twisted in his hand, as though someone was attempting to open it from the other side, each of them thwarting the other’s efforts.
“Just wait a blasted moment!” he muttered, muscling the handle as it shuddered, nearly tearing out of his grasp. Whoever she was, she had a firm grip, despite her willowy shape.