Authors: Morgan Kelly
He looked into his own eyes, mesmerized by the way the light reflected there seemed to eat them up, obscuring his face so that he began to look like quite another person entirely. Alaric squinted, pushing the illusion further. It was the strangest impression, born entirely of light and shadow. Or so he thought. Until the hair he saw in the mirror began to change. It grew shorter, fuller, curling just beneath earlobes that were far too delicate to be his own. And they were pierced with tiny pearls!
His eyes widened.
He was not looking at himself at all.
This was no trick of the candlelight.
He was seeing some other person entirely. It looked very much like the same woman he had imagined earlier, only now he could see her so much more clearly. And she was barely dressed. She wore only an unusual sort of lacy shift, which displayed the soft swell of her breasts to rather fine effect. Her eyes were large and so deeply brown they were nearly black, fringed with thick lashes. Her mouth was full and ripe, like early cherries drooping from a stem. Was that lip rouge she was wearing? Scandalous. He had always rather liked the effect of lip rouge, though no lady he knew would ever wear it. Clearly, she wasn’t a lady.
“Who are you?” he said to the woman in the mirror, indulging the fancy as far as it would take him. To his astonishment, her lips mouthed the same words back to him, perfectly synchronized. “What do you want?”
What on earth was he doing? He must have had far more wine with his dinner than he realized. He was hallucinating. Clearly this was a hallucination. Alaric shook his head briskly, as though to shake the image from his mind’s eye, and the woman in the mirror did the same. He squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them, blinking, she was gone.
She was gone, but he could smell her perfume. It clung to the darkness like wet silk, and suddenly he was aware that he was
—painfully erect beneath his dressing gown.
He wanted her, badly, and she didn’t even exist.
She was built entirely from his own disturbingly potent fantasy.
Was she the sort of woman he craved, instead of one like Ellen Wright, who was any other man’s idea of perfection? He tried to think of Ellen now, in all of her flawless grandeur. Her porcelain complexion and rosebud mouth. Her artfully arranged coils of hair the color of summer wheat. Her impossibly tiny waist swathed in layers of silk made up in the latest Parisian
. Her guileless green eyes staring up at him. Then he imagined taking her into his arms, and crushing all of that perfection against him until it was a ruin of silk and linen as he kissed the breath from her body, as he loosened her gown …
And he shuddered, the tension in his loins slackening.
He didn’t want her.
Not the way he wanted the woman in the mirror with the fascinating face, who could be nothing more than some hallucinatory projection of his own darkest self.
Alaric flung himself on the bed. He stared up at the ceiling, where the light of his guttering candle still wavered, as though taunting him. He tried not to think of her. There
no her—she wasn’t real. She was no one, a phantom he had conjured because phantoms were the only company he could enjoy. A ghost girl. Where had he even come up with her costume? Was it as simple as wish fulfillment? Ladies
damnably overdressed, in his opinion. And that hair, like a secret tangled thicket, the wildness of which was normally only to be found somewhere much lower down…
He was hard again.
This time he didn’t fight it. He loosened the tie on his dressing gown, beneath which he was naked. He took hold of himself, stroking the length of his cock. He could feel his own pulse throbbing. His whole body pulsed, quivering like horseflesh as Alaric closed his eyes and imagined her in the bed with him.
Her body was like a length of silken ribbon, shimmering in the candlelight, the dark tumble of her sleep-tousled hair falling across her brow. He imagined her in more detail than he had seen in his earlier vision. Her dark eyes drinking him in, her deep red lower lip caught between teeth that were slightly crooked. She smiled at him, slow and sensuous, and a dimple appeared in one soft cheek. The chemise he conjured for her barely covered any of her—she was
a demure Victorian debutante. The pale yellow silk clung to her bosom and left her shoulders tantalizingly bare, her flesh the color of fine bisque dappled here and there with freckles. He wanted to taste each and every one of them, run his tongue over ever dip and valley of her lean and supple frame.
As if she really was beside him, he gave into his fantasy completely, swiftly divesting himself of his dressing gown so that he could be naked with her, so that she could see him as he was, stripped of all pretense. He slipped between the sheets, and took the image of her with him.
His fantasy was so real that he let go of himself and reached for her instead.
Alaric slid his hand up the taut length of one sleek thigh, the curve of her flank swelling into surprisingly full hips. She was both lean and lush, her limbs slender and long and her curves well proportioned. Her breasts pooled over a prominent ribcage, and when he gathered her up against him, he could feel her spine like a string of pearls sliding between his fingers.
It had been a long time since he had been with a woman in this way, and it surprised him that he could imagine a type of body he had never encountered in any of his experiences in the well-heeled bawdy houses of Continental Europe and West London. There was a strength to her, a vitality he didn’t usually discover beneath tightly laced stays and frothy feminine linens. When he kissed her, she melted against him yieldingly enough, but her arms and legs seized him in a grip he didn’t think he could easily escape, even had he wanted to do so.
And he didn’t.
He wanted the fantasy to last—forever, if possible. Was that all she was? Or was she some kind of ghost, coming to life in his arms? No woman had ever felt so real.
had never felt so real. In her arms, he was alive for the first time in years.
aura would never be sure later if it was a dream, though it didn’t feel like one at the time. Dreams never did, except in the cheerful, reassuring light of day. And anyway, it wasn’t exactly a bad dream. It was pleasant, and uncanny, and extremely sensuous. It was the best dream of Laura’s life.
She dreamed she was in the big bed in the blue room, just as she actually was. She lay spread out in the bed, her arms and legs tangled in the rich bedding that smelled like lavender and moss, which was a pleasanter smell than she would have thought. She had the sense that she was just on the cusp of waking, that she drifted lazily beneath the surface of the deep water of sleep and could hear everything around her, all of the delicate night sounds. She could sense the looming edifice of the house cradling her. She was alone. Deliciously alone, and she wasn’t a bit afraid.
And then, she wasn’t. Alone.
Suddenly, there was the sensation of another person, a presence. A tactile heaviness slid into the bed beside her. She could feel the weight of it pressing down, the whisper of the sheets slithering over naked skin. She felt a hand, touching her, sliding up her body, slowly. Her heart began to hammer, and she tried to cry out, but she was paralyzed. Not with fright. No. She was paralyzed with desire. It was an ache inside her body that seemed to bloom outward, encompassing her, taking hold of her from the inside out. Laura had never felt anything like it before. She tried to open her eyes but she couldn’t. She felt the person, the being, whatever it was, touching her all over. He felt fully real, like an actual man made of bone and blood. She could feel his lips at her neck, the silk of his hair falling across her face as he trailed his mouth from her earlobe to her cheek. She opened her mouth as his lips found hers, hot and warm and tasting faintly of cinnamon.
All at once, she could move.
Crying out, she clung to him, wrapping her arms and legs around her ghostly lover. She opened her eyes, but she couldn’t see him in the dark. The fire had gone out. The candles she had left burning had been extinguished by the wind from the open window. She slid her hands up his naked back, and cupped his face in her hands, feeling the scrape of stubble on her palms, the sharp relief of his features describing themselves perfectly to her deft fingertips. She knew him. She recognized him as if he was standing before her in a well-lit room.
“Alaric,” she said, breathing his name wonderingly.
Who are you?
she thought she could hear him say.
How do you know my name?
His voice was like a distant whisper, a child’s trick with tin cans and string. When she opened her eyes, she couldn’t see him. She closed them again, and he was as solid as she was.
“Laura,” she said. “I’m Laura.”
Are you a ghost?
She shook her head, laughing shakily. “I haven’t even been born.”
She felt his unease, and pulled him against her, kissing him, breathing his imaginary breath. She didn’t want to tell him that he was the ghost. He was long dead, and yet, here he was in her arms. She was making him real. With her, he would live again.
uch later, when she woke, Laura still felt him there. He felt like a warm, heavy weight on her chest, a penetrating presence holding her down, pinning her in place. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t open her eyes. When she finally wrestled her eyelids to half-mast, she screamed. There was a pair of eyes glinting at her in the gloom, staring as if they could see into her soul. She laughed. She knew those eyes well.
“You bloody feline!” Laura cursed, shoving him off of her. “Are you trying to crush the life out of me?” He really could stand to lose a pound or two.
Rolling over onto her side, Laura, still smiling, allowed her eyes to come to rest on the vanity at which she had sat the night before, during the first of her strange visions. Well, the first one had been a vision, the second was merely a dream brought on by too much loneliness, a rather heavy feline, and Laura’s own hyperactive imagination.
But then, she looked closer. Laura saw that the dress she had draped over the mirror had been flung aside. In the half-light of the imminent dawn, she could see, not her own room, but that
room, the perfectly appointed apartment in which her mirror friend had appeared.
Laura blinked her eyes, and the illusion slipped away, but the feeling that something had really happened to her in the night remained. She thought back with mounting unease to her dream, to the bodiless paramour that visited her in the night. Surely it was only psychic noise from her brain, working out some of the leftover impressions the people who once inhabited Stonecross had left behind. Not everything was something. Was it? She didn’t know. Usually, she could tell the difference between her imagination and the paranormal. But now, she suddenly wasn’t so sure.
She had been so tired lately. She didn’t really know what was going on in her subconscious. It was entirely possible she herself had gotten up in the night and pulled her dress from the mirror. Laura often walked in her sleep, and did strange things. More likely it had just slid down to the floor—a simple exercise in gravity. It meant nothing. But more had gone on in the night than the simple removal of her dress from the place she had left it. There had been a presence in her bed that felt much too real to be a dream.
It was all too bizarre, even for Laura, who made her living on the bizarre.
She sighed, flopping back on the pillows. A comical little poof of dust sprung up around her, and she sneezed. And then her belly grumbled. She was
. She hadn’t eaten anything at all since the train, and the poor cat must be beside himself as well, after his adventures prowling about Stonecross the day before. She would just creep down and rummage for a bite from her valise. She would really have to think of a way to get some supplies in. She hadn’t thought this through at all. She didn’t think there was a telephone in the house—or electricity for that matter—or else she could call a grocer in the village and have someone deliver an order of food. Really, she was ridiculous.
Laura threw back the bedclothes and clambered out of bed, careful to avert her eyes from the mirror. Who knew what she might see next. She crept down the back stairs, even though there was no one to hear her. She thought it might be a quicker route. Weren’t servants always scampering about great houses like this, using only the back stairs? It must be much more efficient. She really would have to learn her way around.
Halfway down, the oddest thing happened.
Laura smelled the most tantalizing aroma. It was the compounded bouquet of a full English breakfast, including coffee. She sniffed appreciatively, before reminding herself that there was no such possibility. “It’s tinned beef and cold tea for you, hen,” she told herself. “You’ve just conjured that smell from pure wishful thinking.”
She kept on creeping, and eventually found herself with no more stairs. It must be the main floor. All she needed do was pass through some door or other and she would find herself back in the foyer, where she had left her bags.
That was the plan, at any rate.
Instead, she found herself standing in the doorway of a huge country kitchen.
A huge country kitchen from which wafted the delicious smells that had been driving her to distraction. Not only were there smells drifting out, there were
sayin’, Mrs. Henderson, love, is that I don’t know what that girl is
of, throwing the master a party,” someone said in a huge, booming voice that was only just discernible as female. “He won’t thank her for it.”
Laura peeked around the corner, her mouth hanging open. She could
them, too—a gaggle of women of varying shapes, sizes, and ages, all wearing old-fashioned scullery uniforms with white starched caps and aprons to match. They reminded her of nurses. They had the same sort of brute competency she had seen so often in the more experienced women on the Front.