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Authors: Morgan Kelly

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BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
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She shivered a little, rubbing her arms. It was cold in the house. She could hear the wind keening through the broken windows, could feel its fingernails pressing into her flesh through her dress. She could hear the sea throwing itself against the cliffs, and smell its pungent, bitter perfume. It was the smell both of life and of death, swirling together—a morbid scent. She liked it. Why had no one ever thought to bottle it? It was a scent she would wear for the rest of her life. Though she liked her posh French perfume well enough for a lark, she didn’t really like the idea that any woman could smell just like her for the price of a bottle.

Laura took her candle, and wandered back up the stairs to the third story, where the family bedrooms were situated. She had seen one to which she had taken an instant liking, and decided it would be her own. After getting turned around several times, she found it again. She hadn’t bothered bringing up her luggage; she would do that in the morning. For now, she would sleep in her slip.

She put the candle on the bedside table, on which she found a quaint brass candlestick of the sort she imagined Ebenezer Scrooge might carry while trying to fend off Marley’s ghost. She knew how the old fellow felt, though Laura had long ago given up fending off ghosts. She simply lived with them, and found them much better company than a lot of people she could name. Stonecross lent itself particularly well to Dickensian references; all day long she had been expecting to bump into Miss Havisham in her moldy wedding gown, or stumble upon her loamy feast in one of the dining halls.

The bedroom Laura chose for herself was in much better condition than many of the others. It was spacious, with high ceilings and heavy mahogany furniture that looked like it had been constructed in the days of the Virgin Queen. The bed was so high she would need to take a running leap to get into it. The bedclothes, though musty, were at least intact—a rich and beautiful blue brocade embroidered with gold. Laura had always preferred blue in a bedroom. Blue made dreams deeper, she found, rest richer and more satisfying. She lit a few more candles and saw to her satisfaction that there was in fact a fire laid, by some long-dead chambermaid, no doubt. In fact, the whole room had the hushed air of readiness about it that felt, so many years later, like a mausoleum. It felt as though it had been made over in loving tribute to someone who would never return.

It was a deliciously unnerving feeling, and Laura’s skin began to prickle as she lit a spill and touched the flame to the kindling. The wood was very dry, and the flames sprang up almost instantly. She added more wood to the fire, and soon it was crackling merrily. She would soon be warmer than she needed to be, so she took the opportunity to throw back the draperies—carefully, as the silk was quite fragile—and open the windows. The panes in this part of the house were not broken, only crazed all over like old porcelain. The hinges screeched in protest, but Laura managed to muscle them open. She leaned out, her elbows propped on the windowsill, and caught her breath in wonder at the sight that spread itself before her. The vast expanse of the roiling sea glimmered in the moonlight, and the stars had come out in all of their glory, shimmering in the deep blue night like spilt sugar. This was not a sight one ever saw in Piccadilly. It wasn’t a sight one saw anywhere. It was unique to Stonecross. No wonder the Storms of the past had chosen to build their ancestral home here, on this seemingly inhospitable crag of Devon rock. Laura would have done the same, had she needed an ancestral home of her own.

She decided to leave the windows open while she slept. The air was magnificent. She felt like she was breathing, really
breathing
, for the very first time. Unbuttoning her dress, Laura slid it down her shoulders, letting it fall to a pile at her feet. She didn’t bother folding it. She could wear a fresh frock tomorrow, though heaven only knew how she would clean them after she had worn them all. She hadn’t thought very practically about that sort of thing, since she had come from London, where she had done all her own washing. She supposed she could do it again, if it came to it. She wasn’t fussy about what sort of work she did. After all, she wasn’t a lady, despite her surroundings. She snorted. She would
never
be a lady.

Sitting before the mirror at the dressing table, Laura picked up the brush, which sat in a layer of dust. After blowing it clean, she began absently to brush her hair, which was unruly and tangled from the road and her many hours of exploration. She hadn’t looked at herself properly in a long time. She tended to avoid a lengthy toilette—an old habit left over from her nursing days, when she barely had time to do more than wash the worst of the blood from her hands and face before donning a fresh cap and apron. She had become very stalwart, all of her vanity burned away in the heat and mess of the battle hospital. She hadn’t felt much like a woman in a very long time—and certainly, there had been no one to treat her as such. She hadn’t been out with a fellow in years. It was sad, really. And it was not an uncommon lament. She really had no right to complain. At least she had not lost a lover.

Though in a way, she had. She had lost whatever lover she might have had in the war, as surely as she had lost her brother Charles.

Laura had long felt as though the man she was destined to marry was dead, had died before she had the chance to meet him. That was what war did. It killed life’s possibilities, until one was left with the dregs. Rather than live that way, Laura had decided to live alone. She was lonely, though. That was the hardest part. She often thought she should find some decent man, some wounded soldier, perhaps, and make him a kind wife. But she didn’t really want to be some man’s sweet and silent wife. She wanted passion. She wanted love. She wanted a man who
wanted
her. So few of the men who had returned seemed to want anything, and she certainly could not see herself with a man who had not fought. It seemed to her that there would be something essential missing, a sort of joint, generational understanding. No one who hadn’t been on the front line could fully understand her. She needed a man who knew what it was to live with ghosts.

Laura looked at herself critically for the first time in years. Usually she simply focused on one portion of her face at a time—at her lips, say, while she slicked on a layer of lip rouge before going down to the dance hall beneath her flat. Or her brow, as she plucked a stray eyebrow. She never looked long into her own eyes. They were far too penetrating, even for her. They were large, deep and dark like pools of liquid ink, and there were always deep shadows beneath them, not to mention the telltale lines of the careworn creasing the corners. Her lashes were thick and full, however, and she had a certain mysterious something that men had responded to, once upon a time.

She smiled at herself, and her cheek dimpled, just as it did when she was a girl and had smiled more easily. She ran her fingers lightly over her face and smoothed the skin of her throat, beneath which the jut of her collarbones was extremely prominent. She was too thin. She had never really gained back her full weight after the war. At the time, emaciation was inevitable. Now, it seemed as though her body didn’t truly believe that she had come through, that it could come out of hiding and reinflate itself. She would have to try harder, eat richer foods. She could certainly afford it.

She laughed suddenly. Food. She hadn’t even thought to eat any, though she had stashed a few things in her train case, including some tinned fish for the cat, who was still nowhere to be seen. No doubt he would slink into her room sometime in the small hours, his belly rumbling and his fur sleeked back down. Laura wasn’t really hungry, and it was too much of a nuisance to go down into the dark house and find her way back again. She wouldn’t bother. She would stay right here. Though she wished she had an apple, at the very least. Then she could play one of the games she had when she was a girl.

A laundress’s daughter who had lived on her street had told her how, if an unmarried girl cut an apple across its equator so that the seeds made a five-pointed star, and then ate while gazing into a candle set before a mirror on Halloween night, it would show her the face of the man who was to be her husband. There were a lot of folk superstitions to do with that time of year. Laura had never put much store in them, but it was fun to do silly things like that when the moon was full, or All Hallows Eve was approaching, as it was now. Sleeping with an apple under the pillow was said to have the same effect. Such things were best done near midnight, and it was nearing that mysterious hour.

Though she knew she should go to bed, Laura was restless. Despite having no apple, she felt like playing parlor tricks like the ones her grandmother discouraged, perhaps because she knew all too well what Laura was and what she might conjure from the beyond, if given any encouragement at all. There was one other trick she could try, something very similar to the apple trick, except that one only needed to brush one’s hair while staring into a candle flame reflected in a mirror. She was in just the right sort of mood to try it. Dreamily, Laura picked up the brush again and began to run it through her hair. The first time she had done it as a child, she had fallen asleep. The second time, during the war, she had seen only a horrible nothingness, dark and palpable, as though the man who might have loved her had never been born, or had died before they could meet.

After the war, she never tried the mirror game again. By then she understood all too well the answer to that particular riddle.

I
t wasn’t that she dozed off, exactly. It was more that she went into a sort of trance. Laura began to stare fixedly into her own deep black eyes, in which the twin flames leapt and wavered, drawing her in. Suddenly, it wasn’t her own eyes she saw anymore, or her own face. It was his—pale in the firelight, the room around him the same, but clean, neat as a pin, inhabited.

He was as fascinating as his portrait, his face a series of strong, patrician lines. His eyes were deep-set, with a sweep of darkly golden lashes that contrasted with his slightly coppery hair. There was an understated cleft in the chin, and the stubble that darkened his jaw was the same golden copper as his lashes, though his finely shaped brows were dark auburn, like his hair. The man was dressed in a dark silk dressing gown tied at the waist, beneath which he was naked, his smooth chest strong and rippling. His skin gleamed in the candlelight, lightly burnished. Laura raised her hand to touch her face, and in the mirror, he did the same, his expression giving way steadily to an astonishment she could feel reflected in her own expression.

“Who are you?” she said, though she knew. And his lips mouthed the same words back to her. “What do you want?”

The man in the mirror shook his head sharply, and Laura felt her own head jarred. The impact drew her back to herself abruptly. She was alone in the room, her own familiar face staring dazedly back at her from the age-spotted mirror.

She whirled about, her eyes darting around the room, but it was the same musty, dust-ridden apartment it had been only moments before.

“It was a dream,” she said aloud, her voice echoing slightly. “It must have been.”

Shaking her head again to clear the cobwebs as she had done in the dream, Laura came away from the mirror. She hesitated, then picked up her frock, and draped it over the glass, so that the mirror was nearly obscured. “There,” she said, with satisfaction. “That should keep you on your own side.” And then she laughed. It
had
been a dream. She knew that. There were no presences in the room. She would have felt them. In fact, the whole house seemed rather emptier than she had expected. She remembered the strange shadowy impression she had seen earlier, and the strong male presence as she had unlocked the door. She remembered the way the cat had become so hysterical. And then, nothing. Until now.

Perhaps there
was
something here, something residual that she fancied was Alaric Storm, simply because she felt a sort of fascination with him because he was handsome and young in his portrait, and she was young, too—and lonely. So she played the mirror game, and saw his face. But perhaps that was only her fancy. It was a very old house. No doubt there were all sorts of human echoes wandering about the place. Spirits had to have somewhere to go, after all, and not all of them made it to the afterlife. A great many of them preferred to stay right where they were.

Perhaps Laura would do the same, someday.

Perhaps she, too, would take up residence as a ghost of Stonecross, and join Alaric Storm in his midnight rambles.

She shuddered deliciously, like a child with an electric torch pressed beneath its chin, and leapt into the great bedstead. She scrambled beneath the counterpane, and the sheets were cold and clammy. Laura lay awake for a long time in the dimness of the room, listening to the sea crashing and the wind gusting, watching the fire bank itself to embers that glowed in the dark shadows like a hundred leering eyes. She really was the most morbid creature, she thought to herself as she drifted off. She really needed to find some new hobbies. Ghosts were all well and good, but they did make one rather odd. And yet, she thought of Alaric Storm as she drifted off, and his face seemed to brand itself on her eyelids.

 

C
HAPTER
F
OUR

I
t only happened because he was tired, had too much to drink at dinner, and couldn’t stop thinking about the woman he had seen at the door. The woman he thought he had seen, that was. No one else saw her. She was clearly a figment of his imagination. And as such, it was only natural that he would imagine her again.

He was sitting at the mirror, combing the snarls out of his own hair after having waved Jeffries off to bed. And he was thinking about her. The woman in the strange dress, with the hairstyle that was stranger still. And those
eyes.
She had eyes that had seen too much, more than a human being should. Alaric knew the signs all too well—he saw them now, in his own face. The candlelight flickered over his features, and he seemed both infinitely old and impossibly young, as if every version of himself through every stage of his life were all present at once. And that was when it happened.

BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
12.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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