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Authors: Morgan Kelly

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BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
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One of them was kneading a huge slab of dough, picking it up and slapping it down again as if to teach it a sorely needed lesson. She sighed audibly, shaking her head. “You don’t need to tell
me
, dearie. I knows what she’s like, right enough. And she will have her way, you mark my words. She always does.”

“I feel
sorry
for her,” piped up another one, a small, scrawny little character, no more than fourteen years old, with a pair of heavy dark brows that nearly met in the middle and a sharply jutting nose far too big for her face. She turned round from her soapy sink to put her tuppence in, spattering the floor with greasy water. “She don’t know he won’t
never
marry her. She just keeps hoping and hoping, and getting older ’n older …”

Mrs. Henderson of the beefy, befloured arms aimed a slap at the girl’s rump that knocked her sideways. “Who asked
you
, I’d very much like to know?”

“Tess is right, though,” chimed the other, who was cutting sausages from a long string of them. “The master won’t never marry, and if he did, it wouldn’t be Miss Ellen Wright, for all her beauty and fortune.”

“I know she’s right, Mrs. Fischer,” Mrs. Henderson said in an injured tone. “I just said no one never asked her what she thought! She’s a right uppity bit of calico, that one.”

Mrs. Fischer nodded judiciously, which seemed to smooth the formidable Mrs. Henderson’s feathers somewhat. They kept on gossiping as they worked, while Laura looked on, amazed. “You mark my words,” Mrs. Fischer said. “Miss Wright is going to do a
desperate outrage
to herself one of these days. No girl can go on that long, spurned and unloved, and take it like an extra lump of sugar in her tea.”

Laura didn’t know what to do. The scene before her was utterly bizarre. She had never experienced anything like it. Clearly, she was looking through some sort of … doorway. A doorway into Stonecross’s past. These ladies were no ghosts. They were more real, much more alive, than she was. She could smell their good, honest sweat mingling with the odors of their cooking. She could taste the silt of flour flying on the air from their workspace to her mouth. It coated her skin in a fine dust. If she wasn’t careful, she would—

Sneeze!

It was the biggest sneeze of her life. It was more like an explosion than a sneeze. The three women in the kitchen looked up, staring at her. She could see them through her bleary, watering eyes as she tried to pat her nose dry on the back of her hand. She stared back at them, wide-eyed. Her outburst had arrested both their movements and their talk. It was so quiet, all Laura could hear was the sizzling of the sausages in the big cast-iron skillet on the stove.

She quickly smoothed her hands over the hurricane sleep had made of her once–carefully marcelled curls in an attempt to look respectable. She was sure she only made it worse, drawing attention to the oddness of her hairstyle. Yesterday’s mascara didn’t help her case any, either. She resorted to standing very, very still, as though they were a trio of deer she didn’t wish to frighten. To their credit, they didn’t
look
frightened, only curious and slightly bemused.

“Are you lost, dearie?” Mrs. Henderson barked, not unkindly. Laura blushed as the big woman’s eyes moved over her person with interest, taking in the scantiness of her clothing.

“The poor child is near naked!” Tess, the little dish skivvy squeaked, though she was many years younger than Laura, a veritable child herself.

“Did you need something, Miss?” Mrs. Fischer inquired decorously, with an awkward curtsy. “Only, guests usually wait in the dining room for breakfast, see.”

“And they usually have more clothes on,” Mrs. Henderson muttered.

“I … I’m dreadfully sorry,” Laura stuttered. “I couldn’t wait.”

“The poor child is
famished
!” the skinny little maid said.

“I am, rather,” Laura said lamely.

“Well, hurry up, and get her a tray!” Mrs. Henderson bellowed, taking another swipe at the girl. “What, were you born yesterday? I’m dreadfully sorry, Miss! If we had known, Tess here would have brought you a tray.”

“Oh, no! Not at all,” Laura said humbly. “I’m so sorry to have bothered you.”

“Not at all, not at all. Tess! Look lively, girl, before it goes stone cold!”

Tess hopped to it, putting a cup and saucer filled with hot tea on a tray with several sausages, a boiled egg, and an elegant silver rack full of buttered toast. She danced nimbly over to the doorway with her burden.

And then she gave Laura a look that was so utterly penetrating that it seemed to reach past her heart to grip her spine. The girl’s eyes narrowed, her thick black brows crashing together in consternation. Gone was the little skivvy shrieking meaningless commentary as she hopped about the kitchen like a scalded hen. In her place was a girl as uncanny as Laura herself, with eyes as old as any she had ever seen. Tess had knowing eyes, eyes that
saw
. Laura stared back at her, utterly paralyzed.
She knew.
She knew Laura didn’t belong.

“If you’ll just tell me which room you’re in, miss, I’ll meet you there right quick,” Tess said, in a normal voice. But her face told a different story.
I see you,
her eyes seemed to say.
You have no business here.

“Oh, no!” Laura said quickly, trying to remain calm. “You mustn’t dream of it.” She held out her hands, her heart hammering as Tess laid the tray carefully in her hands.

There was a faint tingling sensation that was oddly unpleasant as Tess’s fingers brushed hers. The girl continued to gaze at her in that unnerving way, and Laura trembled as she took the tray. Her eyes dropped for a moment, to make sure the dishes she held were steady before she trusted her grip.

“Thank you, ladies,” she said with as much brightness as she could muster, looking up again. “You have been most kind—”

She nearly dropped the tray when she saw that the kitchen was completely deserted.

It had been for some time. Decades. There was a thick carpet of dust over everything. The few pots that remained hanging in place had dulled to a deep verdigris. Broken crockery was scattered everywhere, and there was a fusty smell that reminded Laura of the loamy perfume of graves. She looked down to the tray she held in her hands, and though the silverware and dishes she had been given were all there, they were cracked and crazed with age—and completely empty.

Laura dropped the tray with a crash, and fled back up the stairs.

She wasn’t afraid. She was
not
afraid.

She was terrified.

 

C
HAPTER
F
IVE

L
aura roamed through the corridors of Stonecross, purposefully getting lost in an attempt to calm her mind and return herself to a state of reason. The rest of the house seemed perfectly normal—that was to say, a complete ruin, the way she had left it before her expedition downstairs. Though the kitchen was a little worse for wear after Laura added her own personal touch to the detritus when she dropped the tray of dishes to the floor. Now there were shards everywhere, and some of them happened to be pieces of Laura’s own mind. She had never felt crazy before, not during any of her séances. Not even on the Front, when her hands and gown were drenched in the bloody gore of some poor boy’s insides. She had always been calm, utterly detached, until she went to sleep at night, and the dreams came to lay their horrible hands on her.

Now, it was the opposite. At night, her dreams were sweet, sensual—heavenly. Stonecross was still a part of them, but the war was not. The trouble was, when she woke, the visions went on. And she didn’t understand where they were coming from. She had seen ghosts before, it was true. But these ghosts were different. The kitchen women weren’t sad spirits straying into Laura’s realm, reaching out to her with beseeching hands. They were complete beings, busy living their lives, completely unaware that anything more than moderately unusual was happening. Except for the little one. Tess. Though she played the part of the frazzled underling before her superiors, she had looked at Laura with such wise and knowing eyes. She looked at her and knew she didn’t belong. Not in Tess’s world. And perhaps not in her own.

And it was true; she didn’t belong in her time anymore. It had been destroyed. Laura and every member of her generation were orphans in time. Part of the reason she longed for Stonecross so much was because of the visions it had shown her of another time and place, a gracious, opulent era that dazzled her senses. Perhaps some part of her believed that living there would bring that feeling into her life. With enough money, she could restore Stonecross to its former time and glory, and then live as a guest in the mausoleum she had made. No doubt her psychic sensitivities had been amplified by actually being in the house, and somehow she was seeing more than she usually was able to see when in contact with the dead. After all, Stonecross belonged to them. From inside of it, she was able to see into their lives, to the point where she had been half-convinced the morning before that Alaric Storm himself had being trying to open the front door for her.

And then she had seen him in the mirror.

And then, had somehow lured him, bodiless, into her bed.

But was it his ghost she had seen and felt, or was it something else altogether, something outside of her experience? Her mind reeled, turning over and in on itself, until she felt seasick. She raked her hand through her unruly hair, which hadn’t seen the business end of a brush since the night before and badly wanted a wash and set.

She had paced all the way through the third and fourth floors, and the glint of a dressing-table mirror in one of the bedrooms brought her up short as she walked by. She stood and stared at herself, eyes widening. She started to laugh, throwing back her head and leaning against the door frame.

She looked like an utter and complete harpy. No wonder Tess and her colleagues had given Laura strange looks. It wasn’t only that she was barely dressed; she looked like a hurricane had carried her off during the night. Her hair was a tangle of whorls and ringlets, standing straight up on her head in places. Her eyes were rimmed in shadow, thanks to her failure to wash her face properly before going to bed. Her lipstick had stained her lips in a fairly pleasing manner, but she didn’t think the staff of Stonecross in whichever era Tess lived were used to ladies who wore cosmetics. Laura had little doubt that she had resembled, to their shrewd eyes, someone approaching the status of a streetwalker, or an equally disreputable woman of the stage.

Her mind strayed to the activities in which she had been engaged during her sleep, and she blushed, though there was no one watching, and no one who knew the things she had dreamed. Or about whom she dreamed them. It was just like her, to dream about a dead man with desire. Laura laughed again, and shrugged defiantly, as if in answer to some invisible detractor. She had long been ravaged by ghosts. Perhaps it was time she was ravished by one. She replayed every delicious sensation her unseen lover had teased from her skin. The silken heat of his mouth in such thrilling contrast with the rasp of his jawline. The memory of the way he had clasped and caressed her gave Laura gooseflesh, as though he was with her now, about to touch her again. She imagined him kissing her, his tongue teasing the sensitive seam of her lips until they opened like the heart of a rose. Laura could almost taste his breath, laced with cinnamon and fine whiskey …

She gasped, and shook her head. She was becoming brain-addled again. She would come to her senses once she had freshened up. It was, after all, her own room she had stopped at without realizing it. It was more than time she tidied herself and got dressed, in case she startled an unsuspecting ghostly chambermaid. Though whatever clothing she chose was sure to raise a Victorian eyebrow or two, at least she would have decently combed hair and a scrubbed face.

She didn’t realize straightaway that anything was different about the room when she entered it. If she registered the oddly pleasant tingle that crept over her bare skin as she crossed the threshold, Laura was too distracted to blame it on anything more paranormal than a chilly draft. She walked over to the washstand, upon which stood a very convenient ewer of water, and splashed some water into the basin. She leaned over and began scrubbing her face with the bracing liquid, and had begun to pat it dry with a fresh flannel before she understood what had happened.

She hadn’t brought any water up to her room. She was going to get some when she went down to the kitchen for breakfast, but then she had fled before she could.

Laura looked into the mirror in front of her, and saw that it was not in the least marred by the years it had sat unused. It shone as brightly as if it had only been polished an hour before. She stared into her own wide eyes, her face stripped clean and pink, her freckles showing like they had when she was a schoolgirl and had yet to apply her very first dusting of powder.

Behind her, the bedroom in which she had slept had taken on the aspect of a previous incarnation. The wallpaper was fresh and bright, the carpet free of the destruction moths would wreak in decades to come. The windows sparkled where they peeked through the beautifully arranged drapes, open just enough so that a single shaft of light illumined the bed. It was made up in the same linens and spread beneath which Laura had dreamed the night before.

Beneath which, in Laura’s place, there now slept a man.

Alaric. It could be no other.

Laura’s breath caught in her throat. Her heart began a painful timpani—it felt like an animal scrabbling to get out. She swallowed it back down and crept across the carpet to the bed, her bare toes curling in anticipation. She touched the bed with the tips of her fingers, trailing them over the lush blue brocade that felt fully solid beneath her hand. The man beneath it stirred, and her heart leapt back into her mouth, but he didn’t wake. He lay on his back with one long arm flung out and the other cradled behind his head, the smooth muscles flowing into a rippling expanse of shoulder.

BOOK: Midnight in Your Arms
7.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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