Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter Six

Chapter Six


Loading...

The specter of death had invaded Ludlow House once again. The news of Helena Martin's suicide had cast a pall across the entire household, a heavy, gray blanket of grief that seemed even to dim the light that came through the windows, and made the air feel close and oppressive.

The death of her grandfather was still fresh in Tamara's memory, and here she was once again, enduring that uncontrollable part of mourning. Memories erupting into the mind without having been summoned, pictures of life and laughter, all so very bittersweet.

She took a deep, shuddery breath and forced away the mental picture of her dear friend. Helena was gone. Tamara had loved her, but her friend would be poorly served if grief was her only response. Something had to be done, and she wondered if the answers might begin with Frederick. There was something off-kilter there.

Frederick had suffered a terrible emotional blow with the death of his half sister. It made sense that he should seem somehow askew. But it's more than shock, or grief, Tamara thought. She wasn't certain how she knew this, but she was sure of it nevertheless.

There was something Frederick wasn't telling them.

Tamara stood by the tall windows in the sitting room, arms crossed in front of her, still dressed in her nightclothes and robe. The smell of flowers came to her on a breeze from the garden outside and calmed her somewhat. She had to put her thoughts in order.

"Frederick, please accept my condolences," William said gently. "We share your grief, old friend, and hope that you know that if there is anything we can do, any service we can provide, you have only to ask. Meanwhile, I'm afraid that my own duties require my presence at Threadneedle Street. You'll understand, of course-"

"Of course," Frederick replied without hesitation. "Say no more, Will. It was boorish of me to arrive at your doorstep unannounced."

Tamara raised an eyebrow at that, and turned from the window to regard the two men. William had stood to depart, and Sophia was perched like so much decoration upon the edge of a settee. Her expression of sympathy was so much like a mask that Tamara almost laughed at the garishness of it. She wondered if even Sophia could tell which of her emotions were genuine, and which counterfeit.

"Nonsense," William told Frederick, holding up a hand to forestall any argument. "It's only natural that you would come." He tugged at his sleeves, smoothing out his morning coat for his journey to the office. "You're welcome here anytime. And Tamara and I are pleased that you sought us out in this dark hour."

Tamara remained silent. Her focus was on Frederick Martin, for she noticed that his speech seemed oddly stilted. It was as though each word, each turn of phrase, was rehearsed, like dialogue from a play. Perhaps it was a result of his tragedy that he seemed so distant and disoriented. Yet there was something else.

Wasn't there?

Indeed.

Their visitor nodded. "That means a great deal to me." He glanced at Tamara, and a flicker of something in his gaze made her tighten her robe again. "I didn't want you to hear word of her death from anyone else. And to be honest, I think I wanted a few moments in the company of others who loved her."

He lowered his gaze, and for a long moment Tamara felt guilt beginning to creep into her heart.

This was Frederick. Had her experiences with demons and magic made her so thoroughly callous that everything and everyone became suspect, that she could not bring herself to lend comfort to or share her pain with a friend?

Frederick sighed heavily and shook his head. "I ought to be off, as well." But there was a question in the cadence of his voice, leading Tamara to respond.

"Not at all. Stay and talk, if you'd like," she said quickly, hoping that Frederick would take her bait.

He did, nodding as he offered a wan smile of gratitude, first to Tamara and then to her brother. William twitched, brows knitting as he turned to look at his sister.

"Tam, I've just said I'm due at Threadneedle Street. I'm afraid it would be inappropriate-"

"Inappropriate?" she said, challenging him with her gaze. "For me to offer a fresh cup of tea and some biscuits to a man I've known since he was a boy? When he's had the shock he's had today?"

She tried to communicate her intentions with her eyes. She needed her brother to understand. He had to let her continue her subtle observation of Frederick. There was something important to be gleaned from him about the tragedy. She was certain of it.

Then she laughed softly, and shook her head. She crossed the room and took Frederick by the hand. He had been standing, close to William, but now she led him to a high-backed chair by the window.

"If you cannot stand the thought of company just now, Frederick, by all means go along. I shall certainly understand. But otherwise, please do stay, and have another cup. We'll talk of Helena-"

Just saying her friend's name brought images into her mind again, but they were no longer pleasant. She had seen enough blood and death in recent months that she couldn't help but paint a mental picture of the gruesome death Frederick had described. The woman had fallen four stories to her death. Her skull must have been shattered on the stones of the street, and who knew how many bones. There would have been blood, but before that, tears and terrible anguish.

"I do wish she'd have come to me, if she was in distress. If only I could have spoken with her, perhaps-" Tamara whispered, and her own voice quavered such that when she looked at William again, she saw sorrow mirrored in his eyes.

Her brother nodded. "I'll speak to Farris. Martha is engaged at the moment, so I shall have Farris attend you in her stead."

William gnawed his lip for a moment, and then turned to Sophia. "Since your own chaperone has traveled with you this morning, Miss Winchell, would it be possible for your carriage to convey me to my office?"

Throughout the exchange she had remained silent, showing sound judgment for once. She had met Helena perhaps three times, and Frederick only once, so their contact was comprised entirely of social pleasantries. Now, though, she stood up as though tugged by marionette's strings.

"Indeed," Sophia agreed, as though her opinion mattered. "Under the circumstances, William, it's the only sensible thing."

Tamara almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of their charade. Then she realized the subtlety of what William was engineering. Martha was engaged in her household duties and certainly could have been brought to the sitting room. No, William wanted Farris there.

So you did sense something wrong, something unpleasant, Tamara thought. And you're going to let me continue the investigation.

Sophia, of course, only wanted the chance to be as alone with William as she could manage. Tamara saw through that, as well, and the thought turned her stomach.

Just give in, once and for all, dear brother, she thought. Have a scandalous romance, and be done with it. Even marry and have a thousand babies. But put an end to this absurd charade!

"That would be fine," she said aloud.

She glanced at Frederick again, and he replied with a pitiable smile. Once again she was troubled by guilt over her suspicion. But not so much as to make it disappear.

WHEN THE ARRANGEMENTS had been made and William had gone off in Sophia's carriage, Tamara stood in the foyer of Ludlow House and the loss began to sink in.

The news had hit her quite hard when Frederick had first arrived, but as she had tried to understand what had happened and to comfort him, she had pushed her own feelings away. Now that she had a moment to herself, the truth cut her deeply again. Her hand fluttered up to cover her mouth and she took several deep, shuddering breaths. Fresh tears sprang to her eyes and streaked her cheeks.

There was a hollow in her chest, an emptiness that broke her heart. Helena had been her friend, yes, but she had also been Tamara's contemporary. It was as though she, herself, had died, or a part of her.

"Oh, sweet Helena," she whispered.

Then, with a final, deeper breath, she gathered her wits and wiped away her tears. Her eyes were bound to be red, but she could do nothing about that. And it was a silly concern to begin with. Frederick would expect her to grieve. Her tears were the natural response, and nothing to be ashamed about. If she was worried about appearances, she would have retired to her rooms and changed her clothes.

"That's just what you ought to do," she told herself, comforted somewhat by the sound of her own voice. By its realness, the assurance that she, at least, was still alive. Foolish, yes, but necessary.

Farris was standing outside the sitting room when Tamara reached it. Despite her intentions, she hadn't yet dressed.

"Are you all right, miss?" he asked, and though he stood with his hands crossed in front of him, the true gentleman's gentleman, some of the reserve normally required for the job had slipped. There was concern in his eyes, and she appreciated it greatly. With her father inaccessible and her grandfather dead, there was no paternal figure in her life.

"Not by half, Farris," she confessed, patting him on the arm. "But I shall be."

When Tamara entered the sitting room, Frederick was no longer in the high-backed chair by the windows, where she had placed him. He had retreated, instead, to the settee recently vacated by Sophia. That corner of the room was swathed in gray shadows that seemed somehow appropriate for mourning, as though they fed upon the grief left in the wake of Helena's death.

Frederick looked up at her arrival, and in that instant something flickered across his face. A flaring of the nostrils and narrowing of the eyes that caused Tamara to utter a tiny gasp. Was there something else there, as well, a gleam in his eyes that-in those shadows-could not have been the glint of reflected sunlight?

She thought that there was.

For a moment she forgot to speak, forgot even her covert purpose. She had planned to announce that she would go upstairs and dress properly, but now all thoughts ran from her head.

"Is there anything you require, miss?" Farris asked. "I've ordered up a tray of tea and biscuits for Mr. Martin."

Tamara stared at Frederick for a moment longer, before turning to shake her head. "No, thank you, Farris. If I have another cup of tea this morning, I'm afraid I shall float away."

The comment was tossed off without a thought. Her mind was focused entirely on Frederick now. With one glimpse of him in those gray shadows, the conflict was over, and suspicion had won out over grief and guilt.

"Farris, give us a moment, would you?"

The butler arched one eyebrow, but did not question the propriety of her request. The Swift household had functioned, of late, quite differently from an ordinary English home. Certain things took precedence here over decorum.

"Certainly, miss." He excused himself with a nod and left the room.

When Tamara turned back to Frederick, she thought to catch that look upon his face again. But there was only pain there now. She felt the distant echo of it in her own heart, yet for the moment, her grief would have to wait.

"We have known each other a very long time, Frederick," Tamara began, crossing toward him, moving out of the sunlight and into the shadows near the settee.

"Since you and Helena were children."

Tamara crossed her arms. "Indeed. Then you'll forgive me, I hope, for being frank."

He blinked, and there was something odd about it. A hint of something behind his eyelids. Tamara stared at him for a moment, but he did not blink again, and it would have been far too awkward for her to simply gaze at him until he did.

"By all means," he said, gesturing for her to continue.

Still she hesitated. She realized now that something about his face wasn't quite right, but she couldn't determine what it was that was catching her attention. His skin looked dry and pale, and in the shadows there seemed to be a faint green hue, as though he was about to be sick.

"Are you all right?" Tamara asked. "Perhaps the tragedy has taken too great a toll."

Frederick smiled, then, and it was the smile that unsettled her the most. Sickly and far too wide, it lent a madness to his aspect that was more than grief. He seemed to her like a man who was on the verge of a scream.

"I'm as well as can be, pet."

Pet. When had Frederick Martin ever had the audacity to call her that? Never, of course.

Once again Tamara cinched her robe tight. Then she sat on the edge of a chair, only a few feet from the settee. Out of arm's reach, but close enough for her to see him clearly in the shadows, and watch his eyes. Her hair rustled in an unseen wind that did not come through the windows. Unexpectedly, there was the crackle of magic around her, and she let it surge up inside her. If he saw the way the dust motes in the air seemed to swirl in tiny storms around her fingers, sparking from time to time, so be it. Something was wrong here. Very wrong. And Tamara was determined to get to the bottom of it.

"Frederick, for some reason that I can't explain, I cannot help but feel that you haven't been completely honest with us. That there is some detail of Helena's . . . of her death that you've omitted. I can't imagine why. Perhaps you wish to save her"-or yourself-"some embarrassment or other. It occurs to me that there might also be some danger, and perhaps you hope to protect me from it."

There was that smile again, disappearing quickly, as though he had forced it away.

He shifted uncomfortably on the edge of the settee. He seemed on the verge of becoming agitated, as though it was difficult for him to remain seated. Frederick flinched several times in quick succession, and his chin flew up as though out of his control. He recovered, scratching the back of his head, but she felt sure this was an effort to make it appear as if his actions were voluntary. But she wasn't convinced.

Dear Lord, what is wrong with him?

Finally Frederick rested his hands on his knees, gripping them so the knuckles were white. He averted his eyes, as if he could no longer meet her gaze.

"Please," Tamara said. She reached out to lay her hand upon his. "Clearly, you are troubled by more than grief. I can see it. Speak to me, Frederick. What haunts you? Did you see her die, is that it? Was there something . . . unnatural about her end? How did Helena die?"

There it was. The question.

The shadows around Frederick's face deepened as he turned to face her, so that she could barely see his eyes in the pools of darkness. Then he leaned forward, and she saw the pain etched into his face, the weight of it, and her heart broke for him. This was what she had seen in him before. It had to be. The poor soul had witnessed some horror, something his imagination could not bear, and his mind was fraying at the edges.

His hand felt cold in hers. The skin papery. She ran her thumb over it and heard it rasp.

"No," he whispered.

Tamara felt her chest tighten, and a sick knot of realization twisted in her stomach. She glanced down and saw that her thumb was cracking his skin where she touched him. And there was something else.

Patterns.

There were scales on the back of Frederick Martin's hand.

She went to pull her hand away, but he grabbed it, held it, his strength uncanny.

Tamara looked up into his eyes and they were alight now, with a ghastly yellow gleam. She had not imagined it before. His face was no longer papery. A sheen of some sort covered it. He blinked at her and she saw again that second set of lids, the nictitating membranes that covered his eyes.

"Holy God," Tamara cried, and she forced herself to her feet, trying to yank her arm away.

Frederick gave a wet, throaty laugh, and tugged back. His strength was that of a madman. It was so great that he easily pulled her down onto his lap. The greenish tint to his flesh deepened as he grinned, face stretching, and he began to paw at her.

His hand closed upon her left breast and quickly found her nipple through the soft fabric, pinching her hard enough to make her whimper, pain shooting through her. Under normal circumstances Tamara could have destroyed him with a simple spell, but her focus was lost. And her mind was a tumult of conflict. This was Frederick Martin. Freddy, the half brother of her childhood friend. A boy she had teased, hiding her giggles behind a girlish hand.

For all her suspicion, when the reality became clear, her mind wasn't prepared to meet it. This simply could not be.

She gasped as he dropped his hand and grasped her leg. His touch on her bare flesh was moist and cold, almost sticky. He dragged his fingers up her inner thigh toward a more intimate destination.

Nausea roiled in her gut and she tried to force his hand away, kicking out, struggling to escape his grasp. In all her life she had never felt such crippling horror, the chill of the idea, of what those fingers might do.

But that wasn't what drove her over the edge.

It was his tongue.

Frederick shot out a thin tongue that must have been eleven or twelve inches long. Where he licked her face and her mouth, his tongue stuck for a moment, before retracting back into his throat. Pain throbbed where her breast had been bruised and twisted. She felt his fingers forcing her legs apart, but it was this sickening abomination that finally broke her.

Tamara opened her mouth then, and screamed. Her shriek echoed through the sitting room, and she was sure through the entire house, as well.

Heavy footfalls sounded, and Farris burst into the room. She felt a swell of love for the man as she saw his gentlemanly reserve shatter, and the fury that swept like a storm across his face. His big hands clenched into fists, and he ran across the room toward the settee.

Frederick laughed and threw her aside like a sack of rags. Tamara struck the chair in which she'd sat, then tumbled to the floor. She pulled herself up just in time to see Helena's brother-or whatever he was becoming-take two blows in the face without flinching. He only grinned and clouted the butler on the side of the head.

Farris crumpled to the ground, either stunned or unconscious.

Then the hideous man, whose features seemed less and less human with every passing moment, smiled a jagged smile and shot out that toad's tongue. That's what he seemed to her now. A reptile. A toad. The clammy, greenish flesh and those eyes, that tongue . . . this wasn't Frederick Martin anymore.

Tamara felt shame rise up inside her. She was a Protector of Albion, and had faced far more powerful evils than this. With William at her side, she had faced down one of the Lords of Hell. But Helena was dead, and Frederick was ruined somehow, and it was all too close to her. Tamara's heart had been vulnerable, and it had made her weak.

Even as it now made her strong.

An errant wind blew up around her, magic coursing through her body and her hair swirling around her. The gust was so powerful it whipped at her nightdress, but she ignored the salacious gaze of the monster that slinked before her.

Tamara threw both hands up into the air, fingers contorted as though she were conducting a mad symphony.

"Malleus attonitum!" she cried.

A rush of power swept around her and she hurled it across the room. The space that separated them seemed to waver with the force of the magic that went passing through it. The spell struck the twisted man like a cannonball, throwing him across the room and hammering him into the wall. Wooden beams cracked, Frederick's head struck hard, and then he fell to the ground, perhaps eight feet from where Farris lay groaning.

Even as she marched toward her attacker, she wondered what had happened. Had Frederick been possessed, like her father was? Had he killed Helena, or had whatever killed her now decided to torment him in this way? Too many questions. But Tamara Swift would have answers.

"Miss?" Farris rasped, drawing himself up to his knees. Blood trickled down the side of his head, but he seemed clear-eyed enough. He smoothed his gray hair and attempted to comport himself with dignity.

"You're all right?" she asked.

"Not by half, Miss Tamara," the butler said gravely. "But I shall be."

Tamara smiled.

As she moved cautiously toward the unmoving form of Frederick Martin, she heard a familiar sound, like fingers run roughshod over the strings of a violin. She glanced over and saw the ceiling begin to shimmer. The ghost of Queen Bodicea dropped into the room as though she had leaped from the sky. She fell to the floor, crouching instantly into a battle stance, spear at the ready.

"Tamara! Where is the danger, girl?" the specter snarled.

Even in the sunshine, when she was little more than a glimmer of a presence, her appearance was fearsome. Her face and bare breasts and belly were streaked with the war paint of her people, and there was death in her eyes.

"It has passed, Majesty." Tamara gestured to her fallen attacker. "But many questions remain."

Even as she spoke, she heard Frederick stirring. She saw the alarm on Farris's face and the warning on Bodicea's lips even before the long-dead barbarian queen had shouted her name.

"Tamara!"

But the sorceress had already spun, even as the twisted creature that had been Frederick Martin lunged at her from the floor, that long tongue striking at her face as though he meant to suck the eyes from her skull.

Bodicea's phantom spear whistled past her ear, and Tamara watched it impale Frederick Martin, punching through his chest and slamming him back against the cracked wall. Despite all she had seen, she gasped aloud. The weapon itself was a ghost, and useful only against supernatural creatures.

The thing that had been Frederick screamed, shrieking incoherently as he tried to pull himself off the spear. And as he screamed, he changed. Within seconds, where a semblance of a man had once stood, only a beast remained. A monster.

The thing wasn't exactly a reptile, but it bore a resemblance to several. There was something of the lizard in its fingers and scaly, clammy flesh, and the rows of teeth in its mouth, but its bulbous, rheumy, jaundiced eyes and sagging features and that thrusting tongue all spoke of a frog or toad. Hideous.

The thing sprang away from the wall, refusing to be stopped, tearing itself off the end of that spear with such suddenness that Tamara staggered back. The demon toad dropped into a crouch and lunged in a mighty leap across the room, to land in front of the tall windows. Farris was shouting, and Bodicea darted in a spectral wisp toward it, even as it tensed to spring again.

"Malleus attonitum!" Tamara shouted again.

The spell erupted from her hands and struck the creature, knocking it backward with such force that it crashed out through the windows, showering broken glass onto the lawn. But even as it landed upon the grass it sprang up, turned, and fled across the grounds.

Queen Bodicea paused in front of the shattered windows. "Shall I give chase?"

Tamara almost consented, remembering the feel of those terrible hands upon her, and the way that tongue had stuck to her cheek and lips. The monster was wounded. How difficult would it be to run down?

Yet . . .

"No. There's no way to know where the thing might lead us. Or if it serves some greater master. We'll need to see William, first. He ought to know what's happened. Then we'll decide upon our next step." She glanced at the butler, who used a handkerchief to dab at the trail of blood that still ran down his cheek. "Farris, locate Lord Byron and inform him that I've asked him to stand watch over my fath . . . over Oblis, until Bodicea and I return."

With that, the distaff Protector of Albion marched out of the sitting room, with Bodicea close upon her heels. Tamara had stripped off her robe before she had reached the third stair.

"Do you really mean for me to believe that you haven't already decided upon your next step?" the queen inquired.

"There's safety in numbers. Should anything happen to me, I'll want William to know, so we go to him first. We'll translocate. He must be told what's happened here.

"Then, I think, Your Majesty, that no matter how deeply it grieves me, I must visit the scene of Helena's murder."

THE CARRIAGE RUMBLED slowly south along High Street. Too slowly. The windows were curtained, and only a dim light filtered in. William sat stiffly on the cushioned seat, Sophia directly across from him. Her hazel eyes seemed alight with silent, giddy laughter, and the corners of her perfect bow lips were lifted in amusement.

William used one finger to draw the window curtain back. They were passing Cromwell House, and beyond its grand façade he saw that the sky had begun to darken with the promise of rain. This momentary distraction did nothing to slow his racing pulse.

He swallowed, his throat dry and constricted.

"Is it that difficult to look at me?" Sophia asked.

He did as she asked, and found those lips formed into a fetching pout, so that his breath hitched in his chest. Her dress and bodice were a deep gold with a hint of scarlet, and against such rich color the lace frill of her cuffs and the visible hem of her petticoat were a temptation all their own.

"Your lady's maid should be riding in the carriage with us, not up on the high seat with your driver," William chided her. He felt the heat in his face, and knew he was flushed, but couldn't decide if it was the awkwardness of having to admonish her, or the thrill of the intimacy of their situation.

Sophia shook her head. "William, darling." She reached up and pushed tendrils of her hair away from her face, those hazel eyes burning into him. "I've told you before that Elvira can be counted upon for her discretion. And my driver, Mr. Milford, has been with the family for twenty-seven years."

The mischievous gleam in her eyes quickened his pulse even further, and he licked his lips, not realizing he was doing it until it was too late.

As if it were the most natural thing in the world-as if she had only her comfort in mind-Sophia slid down a bit on the cushioned seat, and her skirts rode up toward her knees. Above the tops of her boots lay naked flesh, and William felt his eyes magnetically drawn toward the sight of that pale skin, the curve of her calves.

Sophia uncrossed her legs, moving her knees apart.

William could see nothing but shadow beneath her skirts, but his fertile imagination was enough. The lewdness of her action and the images in his mind ignited wild desire in him. He shifted upon his seat, his trousers suddenly far too confining.

Sophia noticed; she seemed to take great delight in the effect she was having upon him.

"I see we're beginning to understand each other."

His face was aflame now with the heat of embarrassment and yearning.

Sophia curled her fingers around the bottom of her skirts and quite deliberately drew them upward, a curtain all their own. She raised them halfway up her thighs.

William shuddered, his breath coming in short gasps, his erection almost painful. The carriage bumped over a stone in the road and jostled them both, and he thought perhaps it jostled some sense into him, for he forced himself to look away.

Purposefully, trying to get hold of himself, he looked out the window again. They had gained very little ground. He might have gone as fast had he chosen to walk into London, and felt certain that his darling had instructed her driver to maintain this snail's pace until otherwise advised. In the distance he could see Whittington College, and on the breeze he had the scent of London town, the filthy odors of her industry and her offal.

Silently he urged the coachman to snap the reins, to speed the horses on their way.

In the intimate closeness of the carriage's interior, Sophia Winchell sighed. "William Swift, you vex me so."

He let the curtain drop, but steeled himself before he could look at her again. His arousal was still painful, and far too obvious, but he made no effort to disguise it, knowing it would only be more conspicuous.

"I vex you?" he asked, perplexed. "What on Earth are you talking about, Sophia? It seems to me that it should be the other way around. Indeed, it's clear that you understand exactly what sort of effect you have upon me. But for propriety's sake, for your own sake-"

"Propriety be damned." Her breasts rose with the passion of her words, and her eyes narrowed. Her expression was eager, and she shook her head, fingers tracing the curves of her body. "I want your hands on me. That and so much more. Don't you want the same?"

"More than anything in the world, of course. But at the proper time, without a scandal that could sully your name, and your family's. We'll marry, Sophia, and then-"

She laughed. "Of course we'll marry. But don't you see, Will? A wedding is something we do for society, for appearances. We'll have a feast in our honor, music and dancing, and it will be precisely the way it ought to be. And to all outward appearance, I shall be pure when I walk down the aisle. Who's to say otherwise?"

Sophia glided across the carriage to slide onto the cushion beside him. Her hands went to his face, fingers in his hair, caressing his cheeks, tracing his lips. The passion in her eyes was like nothing he had ever seen. His chest ached with the love in his heart, and his lust pained him even more. When she whispered to him, close into his ear, her voice excited him further and he quivered with it. Her fingers slid down his chest, poking playfully between the buttons of his shirt.

"My parents are gone, William. The servants in the Winchell home answer to me, and they shall keep my secrets." She leaned in further, her hot breath upon his cheek. Her fingers danced downward, and he flinched as she began to trace small circles upon his belly.

"You worry so about propriety, and decorum, about appearances, about my virtue. The weight of society's expectation is heavy upon you," Sophia continued. "But here is what I do not understand."

She kissed him, and William could not help himself. He kissed her back with fervor, his hands reaching up to caress her face, to run down her back, to cup the shape of her breasts. Her tongue darted into his mouth and he stiffened, a spasm passing through him, but not the final one.

Sophia put her hands on either side of his face and held him there, staring into his eyes. Her hair had begun to fall loose across her face, and his heart fluttered at the sight.

"You know there is so much more to this world than appearances. Our society basks in the illusion of normalcy every day, and hides away from the truth each night. Horrors abound that most believe to be myths and legends, but you know as much as anyone this is merely a convenient self-deception. You wield magics that no ordinary man would believe, and yet you perpetuate the fiction that all is well. That there is nothing lurking in the shadows."

William swallowed. When he finally spoke, it was with a rasp. His hands continued to move over her body, as if they operated independently of his mind.

"Without that fiction, the illusion of normalcy as you call it, society would fall into chaos. It's necessary to-"

She hushed him with her hand. Then, deliberately, she took his own hand and moved it to her chest, tugging down the front of her bodice so that her breasts pushed up over the top. William gasped aloud at the sight of the pale aureoles and rose-petal-pink nipples. Sophia cupped a hand behind his head and drew him to her, bringing his face down to her breasts.

William kissed her there, soft, gentle brushes of his lips that he first bestowed upon pale, rounded flesh, then upon the soft skin at the undersides of her breasts, and at last upon the small, taut berries that tipped them.

"This," she said, voice hitching, "is no different. The fiction is necessary. But it is a fiction, my love. My heart. We are . . . not alone in this. What society does when the lights are out . . . oh . . . and the doors are closed, and what face it puts on . . . in the daylight are two . . . two different things. Don't you see?"

William was beyond seeing. Beyond thinking. Passion raged in him, though his actions belied everything he believed.

Sophia's right hand strayed farther southward and she ran her fingers over his swollen prick, then gripped it tightly through the fabric of his trousers, and began to stroke him.

In those few moments he would have done anything in the world for her.

As though it came from a different world he heard a muffled rap, a knocking. It took a moment for William to realize that it came from the front of the carriage, and that the coach itself was slowing. The clopping of the horses' hooves became more sparse.

"Milady?" came the voice of Elvira, Sophia's maid.

With a grin, the girl moved back across the carriage to her original seat and quickly arranged her bodice. William felt dull and stupid, as if his brain were soaked in gin, for his arousal had put him in a kind of fugue state. It was only when Sophia replied to Elvira's voice, and that good woman opened the small door in the carriage that allowed driver and passenger to communicate, that William straightened up in his seat.

The maid shot him a disapproving glance as he crossed his legs to hide his condition, then reached up to smooth his hair. He was certain that even in the dim interior of the coach his face must be flaming red.

"We are being hailed from the roadside, miss," the maid said, her lips pinched in their usual sour twist. The woman was stork-thin, her face almost cadaverous, yet she had the bearing of a ruddy schoolmaster.

Sophia might rely on Elvira's discretion, but that didn't mean she had the maid's approval.

"Well, tell Mr. Milford to drive on," Sophia said sharply. "We do not stop for strangers on a street corner."

Nevertheless, the carriage was stopping, despite the commands of its mistress. Even as William wondered what would cause Milford to halt, the driver answered the question for him.

"Ah, but it's no stranger, miss, but Mr. Swift's own sister," the driver said.

Elvira, up on the seat beside Mr. Milford, replied in a low voice William was sure he had not been meant to hear.

"How in the world did she arrive here before we did?"

ON THE ROADSIDE, out of earshot of the carriage, William stared at his sister. "Are we even certain it was Frederick? Could it have been some sort of doppelganger?"

Tamara shook her head. "Perhaps, but I don't think so. I've known the man too long to be taken in by such a masquerade. There is clearly some darkness at work here, Will. Something monstrous. Helena did not take her own life, that much is certain."

William saw the way her face tightened with grief when she mentioned Helena, and heard the intensity in her voice. He glanced away, regretting his harsh response to her arrival. Of course there was trouble. Tamara would not have come to him this way otherwise.

"We'll need to speak about it straightaway. And somewhere more discreet," Tamara added, glancing around at the carriage, where the maid had climbed in with her mistress. Sophia was watching them intently, irritation plain on her face.

"Of course," he said, nodding.

William turned toward the carriage and strode to the window. He reached up to take Sophia's hand. Anger blazed in her eyes, and he thought perhaps there was embarrassment, as well, though she would never have admitted it.

"I'll find my own way from here, darling. I'll call upon you tomorrow afternoon, if you'll receive me."

Sophia hesitated, aware that Elvira was looking on. "I will," she agreed. "But . . . here, William? We're to leave you off here, so far from Swift's?"

"Indeed," he said. A smile spread across his face. "You might carry us both to Threadneedle Street, of course, if you're worried about appearances. Or we might simply rely upon kind Elvira and the good Mr. Milford not to engage in idle speculation."

Sophia seemed to consider both options, but a single unpleasant glance at Tamara made her decision obvious. As William had expected.

"You may rely upon them as you would me."

Brother and sister stood together on the cobbled walk in front of the inn, the soles of their shoes becoming tacky with spilled ale, and watched the carriage rattle on toward London at far greater speed than that with which it had begun the journey.

"You know," William said, arching an eyebrow, "she really doesn't like you."

"Oh, that's brilliant, that is. What was your first indication?"

They smiled at each other, and then all the humor left them. William saw the pain in his sister's eyes. He looped an arm through hers.

"We'll walk, Tam, and you'll tell me all that's happened. Don't leave anything out. And then I have something to tell you, as well, about a conversation I had with Father . . . with Oblis, this morning."

"Oh . . . you, too?" Tamara said.

A chill went through William. The demon had been toying with them both. Of course he had. But to what end?

And what, if anything, did it have to do with the death of Helena Martin?

Prev Next
Loading...