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Authors: Morgan Kelly

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BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
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Just as she was about to approach the front door, Laura felt absolutely compelled to look up to the second story, where she saw the vague, watery outline of someone in the window, seeming to peer down at her. A ghost in the daylight. She shivered, and took hold of herself. She should be used to such things. Ghosts followed her wherever she went, after all. But this ghost seemed to have been waiting for her. Waiting for who knew how long, biding its time as the walls and windowpanes of Stonecross Hall fell in around it. She saw it as though through a shimmering fog, and her apprehension wavered. She couldn’t see it clearly, but it seemed to have a human shape, and human curiosity to go with it. It seemed … 
alive
. Which it couldn’t be. Unless there was someone in the house—which there
couldn’t
be. Mr. Tisdale had assured her that no one had been in the house for years.

Laura blinked a few times rapidly, and the apparition melted away, as if stepping back from the glass. It was very possible that her nerves had got the better of her, though they rarely—if ever—had done so before. She had always been steady and levelheaded, even after the ghosts had come to stake their claim on her. Stonecross had already been a part of her life back then, before she and Charles had become orphans and had been sent to live with their grandmother in Cheapside.

Their lives with Grandmother Dearborn were so cheerless that even Stonecross was a sort of haven. Her dreams would take her there, and she would run through its sunlit, eerie halls as free as a little deer in the wood. It was the first time she understood that sunlight did not dispel terror, any more than terror was wholly unenjoyable. Rather, she found she
liked
being terrified. It was a feeling so pure, so deep, that everything else quite paled in comparison. Stonecross was both her worst nightmare and her deepest wish fulfilled. It was with her in every season, at any time of day or night. She need only close her eyes, and step into her dreams, like Alice through the looking glass.

Reaching to unlock the massive double doors, Laura held her breath as she fumbled with the heavy key, the cat beginning to growl in an undertone from the depths of his basket. She ignored him as she tried to wrench the handle, but it was stuck fast.

Almost as if someone on the other side was holding it closed.

Or trying to open it, too.

Laura cleared her mind, checking to see if anyone was there—just in case—and she had a fleeting sense that there
was
someone on the other side of the door. She sensed only someone tall, a man with obscured features. There was still a sense that something diaphanous was between them, through which she could not see in the way she ought to be able to. The man was pulling at the handle. She could feel his presence, a deep vibration surging through the brass to which they both held fast. He was pulling as hard on the door as she was. But what right had he to be pulling on her door in the first place? She felt nothing sinister from him, and there was a flash of a face. Handsome, quite young—seriously annoyed. She sensed his feeling that she had no business there, and yet, he was deeply curious about her. She laughed. What a preposterous life she led. It was just her luck to have the lingering spirit of a long-deceased butler as a welcoming party. She would have to send him on his way, unless he was prepared to be useful. He was, after all, her only staff member at present.

In all likelihood, it was not actually a spirit. It didn’t
feel
like one. This intruder felt very much alive, and completely intent on keeping her out. Steeling herself, Laura put her shoulder against the door and pushed with all her might until it finally gave way, no doubt sending her unwelcome visitor flying. She hadn’t thought about what she would do when she finally confronted him, a woman alone with nothing but a set of luggage and a trussed-up alley cat to protect her from who knew what sort of ruffian. She drew herself up with every available scrap of hauteur, brandishing her iron key like a blunderbuss and giving her best impression of a barbaric war cry in case the invader’s ears were sensitive to shrieking. Her voice rang out like a cracked bell.

Except there was no one there at whom to shriek. Laura could see that much before the door slammed shut behind her with an enormous
boom
. The cat yowled piteously, sensing himself abandoned. Laura struggled with the door again, and dragged her belongings into the foyer. The cat wrestled with his wicker prison as Laura bent to untie the latch.

“Alright, you silly old thing,” she said, releasing him. “Go see what you make of the place. And catch whatever mice you find about the premises. You’re a working cat now.”

The cat sprang free, all of his hair standing on end, his luxuriant tail as big as a bottlebrush. He landed on the very tips of his feet, back arched, his eyes huge as saucers. He stood arrested a moment in an impressive feline pose before tearing off down the length of the darkened foyer, hissing and spitting all the way. He disappeared from sight, and Laura laughed, jumping a little as her voice echoed around her.

Laura sat down a moment, to gather her wits after the strange performance on the stoop. She perched on the edge of her valise, her feet, in their brown leather peep-toed shoes, crossed at the ankles, which were dainty, pretty things the color of good bisque porcelain. Laura was distinctly conscious of them as she admired the straps of her shoes in an effort to distract herself from the racing of her heart. It really was so pleasant to have nice things again. She hadn’t in so long. She hadn’t bothered. For some reason, she felt like bothering about such things now. As if in confirmation, she caught a faint and delicious whiff of her perfume wafting up from her new frock as she smoothed down the rumples. She felt rather pretty today. It was a good feeling, though there was no one to see her but the ghost, if that was what it was—though it behaved as no ghost Laura had ever known. It was so strong, so real. Perhaps the ghosts of Stonecross were simply more virile than common phantoms.

Laura stood and walked into the bright shafts of autumn sunlight that streamed in through the many broken panes of glass, illuminating the black-and-white checkered marble floor of the foyer. Every surface was covered in the detritus of countless autumns. The skeletal remains of the leaves crinkled beneath her feet, turning into dust, their loamy fragrance drifting up to Laura’s nostrils. It was so beautiful, her house, even in the throes of its decay.

The enormous double staircase loomed, and the crystal chandelier swayed and glimmered in the light, though it badly wanted a good cleaning. She would have to get a troupe of maids in, just to take the grime off of everything. There was a statue dominating the center of the foyer, but Laura couldn’t see what it depicted, swathed as it was in layers of voluminous sheeting, which had long grayed and had begun to rot. Here and there, hints of a pale limb showed through: a buttock, the curve of a shoulder, a mottled breast. She amused herself with trying to guess its identity, but Laura didn’t uncover it. She didn’t really like marble statuary. She found it unsettling, the way the sightless eyes always seemed to follow her mournfully about as she moved. She even felt they were looking at her when she was out of sight. She would leave the statue covered, she thought. And then perhaps she would have it taken away.

Laura walked up one side of the staircase and down the other, looking with interest at the faded ancestral portraits staring with stately gravitas from their chipped gilt frames. She didn’t mind portraits so much. At least they depicted people who had lived and died, people who had once been real. She was much more comfortable with them than with marble statues, which were so far beyond anything human. She felt, looking at the portraits, that they could, in time, become old friends of hers, despite their smug expressions. She wondered, as she looked, which of the illustrious gentlemen was her benefactor, Alaric Storm III. None of them looked particularly benevolent.

Perhaps Alaric Storm was nothing of the sort. No doubt he had reasons of his own for what he had done for her. It still didn’t sit quite right. It made no sense, an inheritance bequeathed to her before she had even been born. She was of no consequence, her family decently middle class but of no account. She had no relatives, close or distant, and yet, she had inherited an estate and all the wealth needed to see it returned to its former magnificence. The only thing that made her feel as though it was in any way a reality was Stonecross itself. It was hard to ignore now that she was standing in it, despite the supernatural way it had come to her night after night, taking over most of her dreams since she was born. Was that a premonition, or was it something more? She wished she knew.

When she came to the end of the portraits, at the bottom of the second stair, she knew she had found him. Something inside of her, the part of her that always knew things it couldn’t possibly know, recognized her long-dead benefactor. What surprised her most was how young he was, how handsome. He had the sort of face that fascinated—Laura was mesmerized. The waves of auburn hair of old-fashioned length clinging to his turned-up collar, the fine, well-shaped brow and long, prominent nose with its equivalent jaw and chin. The full, sensuous mouth that seemed to be frowning even as it smiled. The deep, piercing eyes that were as bright and warmly amber-hued as they must have been on the day the portrait was painted—as they must, no doubt, have been in life.

She felt an overwhelming sense of having
known
him. His face seemed as familiar to her as her own—more so, even. It was odd. A silly fancy. After all, since the ownership of the house had come to her, she had spent so much time imagining him that he had been real to her long before she’d arrived. And his house was even more familiar than he was. Perhaps she had dreamed of him once, without remembering it. It was possible. Everything
was
, after all. Laura had long understood that.

The interesting thing about him was that, unlike the subjects of the other portraits, he was painted in regimentals. He must have been a soldier. Laura felt an immediate deepening of sympathy for him. He knew what it was like, then, to have been caught up in a war. She thought hard for a moment, trying to remember her schoolroom history lessons. Which war would it have been? Not the Boer War … the Crimean, perhaps. Unless he was simply a soldier with no war to fight, as so many fortunate people had been, for whom soldiering was a profession, or even a lark, a commission bought for them and then sold when the shine was off of the scabbard.

But Laura thought not. She looked at the young man for a long time, and she could see in his face an expression all too familiar. It was the expression of one for whom life had lost much of its luster in the aftermath of terrible conflict. No one who hadn’t experienced something similar could ever understand. Laura did—more than she wished to. She wondered what he would think of her own experiences as one whose business it had been to sew back together what a bayonet had rendered asunder. Would he think her a fellow comrade, or just a hanger-on, as some people thought of the women who served on the Front, driving ambulances and pushing men’s guts back into their abdomens? There were no medals for those like her, no monuments. There never had been.

Transfixed by the portrait, Laura thought again of the man she had sensed pulling at the door. Had it perhaps been the ghost of Alaric Storm himself? She hadn’t seen him clearly. She had been, if not afraid of him, then alarmed. And surely a house this large and this old was home to an entire regiment of ghosts. If it
was
Alaric Storm, the question had to be asked: was he trying to keep her out, or invite her in? The peculiar thing was that Laura had been nearly convinced that the man who struggled with her at the door was no ghost. She had really thought him alive, an intruder in her house. She did not get the sense that he was dead. She knew the smell of the dead, the touch of their hands. The man at the door had seemed more alive than many men she had met since the war ended, but that was not really saying very much. Most of the men she had met were ghosts in all ways but one.

Laura walked slowly through the rest of the house as though enjoying a pleasure garden. As the day moved on, the light failed by degrees until she was left with only shadows for company as she explored the labyrinthine corridors. She came across room after room, gallery after gallery. A library, a billiards room, more bathrooms than she could count—only a few of them fitted up with running water, and not a lick of electricity in the whole of the mansion. She found a supply of candles and some matches along the way, and filled her pockets, lighting each candle from the dying wick of the last, as if chain-smoking.

She never seemed to find the same room twice. Each one was eerier and more antiquated than its predecessor. Laura had never seen such opulence, except in her dreams. That was the strangest part. The rooms were exactly as she had dreamed them, time and again—rooms enough to house each of her dreams, it seemed. Some attempt had been made to protect the furniture, but the elements had still penetrated. The lavish silk draperies, bed hangings, and wall coverings had, in many cases, simply rotted to shreds. The sea air was stealthy. It crept in with fingers sleek and damp, leaving nothing but moldering decay. It seemed almost vindictive, like it had some ancient blood feud with the very stones and rafters of the once-great house.

Finding her way back to the foyer at last, Laura stood again beneath the portrait she believed in her soul to be Alaric Storm.

“Who were you?” she whispered to him, staring into the eyes, which seemed to see her, as though some part of the dead man’s soul was still contained within the impression of paint. It was the only image of him she had found in the house so far, and she wondered how closely it resembled the actual living man. “What have you to do with me? Why did you leave me this house? And what do you expect me to do with it?”

Alaric Storm III did not reply, though the way the candlelight wavered across his face gave him a certain wry look of amusement that seemed to say,
Why don’t you try finding out for yourself?

BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
6.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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