“We need to leave,” Vincent said before Lizzie could vanish into her room.
They’d retreated from the schoolroom to dress for dinner. Rather than go to his own quarters, Vincent had hurried after the other medium, desperate to talk to her as soon as he could get her alone.
“Because of the spirit writing?” she asked.
“That’s part of it. The house is Gothic Revival, so it can’t be any more than fifty years old. Nonetheless, it’s haunted by multiple spirits, one of whom is warning us to get out before ‘he’ comes for us.” Vincent shook his head. “We need to get out of here. And quickly.”
Pity flashed in Lizzie’s green eyes. “Vincent,” she said, her tone far too gentle, “have you considered that your reaction to the house might be...compromised...by your experience of last summer?”
“You’re starting to sound like Strauss,” he shot back. “Next you’ll be saying machines are more reliable than people.”
“But you haven’t been reliable, have you?” Lizzie scowled, although at least the pity was gone from her expression. “You refused to channel the ghost of a little girl for her parents. I thought bringing you here might help you remember the medium you used to be, but it’s only made you more paranoid.”
Vincent ground his teeth together. “The spirit told us to get out. The same spirit as came to Strauss last night.”
“Not an unusual thing for a ghost to tell the living,” she countered. “How many hauntings occur because the old inhabitants of a house are confused by new owners living there? Intruding on what they see as their home?”
“And the part about leaving before ‘he’ comes?” Vincent demanded.
Lizzie’s confident mask slipped. “That does concern me,” she admitted. “But we knew this might be a difficult exorcism. There’s no compelling reason for us to leave yet.”
She hadn’t been in the house with Dunne and him. Hadn’t felt the malevolence first hand, beating down on her.
Hadn’t opened her eyes, cold and drained almost to the point of death, only to find she’d killed the one person who’d ever really given a damn about her.
He touched the amulet through the layers of his clothes, pressing the circle of metal against his skin. Maybe she was right. Maybe he was paranoid. The long nights of hiding behind lines of salt, wondering if—when—the dark ghost that had killed Dunne would come back for him, had taken their toll. All of his instincts were off.
If their positions were reversed, would he give serious credence to the fears of someone too frightened to channel even the most docile of spirits, or read cards, or interact with the spirit world in any way? Or would he dismiss them and press on, reaching for the gleaming dream of the five-hundred-dollar prize held out before him?
“Perhaps you’re right,” he said at last.
She touched him lightly on the shoulder. “Go and dress for dinner, Vincent. We’ll discuss things further.”
Not certain whether he should feel foolish or alarmed, he slunk across the balcony to the door of his chamber. But before he could open it, Henry Strauss emerged from the next room. Catching sight of Vincent, his eyes narrowed sharply. “How dare you!”
Vincent glanced about automatically, but Henry was no fool, and no one else stirred on the third floor at the moment. Well, if nothing else, sparring with Henry might provide him with a diversion from his fears. He leaned his shoulder casually against the frame of Henry’s door, looking down at Henry with only inches separating them.
Henry retreated, but only a little. His blue eyes flashed fire from behind the protective shield of his spectacles. Vincent had the sudden urge to pull them off, lean down, and kiss the frown off of Henry’s mouth.
“How dare I?” he asked instead. “You’ll have to be far more specific, as I’ve done so many things to offend you.”
Rather to his surprise, Henry grasped his arm and pulled him inside the room, shutting the door behind them. “You know what I’m talking about,” he said in a voice no less angry for its low pitch. “At the séance. When you...”
Vincent grinned at Henry’s reticence to speak the words aloud. “When I what? Put my hand on your cock?”
Henry’s nostrils flared. “Y-yes. Are you insane? What did you think to gain from—from manhandling me?”
“I’m insulted.” Vincent folded his arms over his chest. “My technique was far better than ‘manhandling,’ don’t you think?”
“Devil take you, Night. What are you about?”
Vincent sighed and ran his hand tiredly back through his thick hair. It needed trimming again. “Spirits utilize the energy of the circle to manifest. Sexual energy works very well, and you seemed receptive. And I confess I found the possibility of touching you difficult to resist. Did I truly force something you didn’t want?”
Henry’s anger seemed to drain away. “No,” he muttered, eyes on Vincent’s shoes.
“As I thought.” Vincent caught his chin lightly, tipping his head back. Henry’s lips were slightly parted, his breath warm and smelling of mint dentifrice. “Do you want me to kiss you?”
“Why are you doing this?” Henry’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed convulsively. “What do you want?”
“I find you handsome. And I like you.”
Henry looked skeptical. “Why do I have trouble believing that?”
“You’re clever, and I admire that.” Vincent slowly traced the line of Henry’s jaw, feeling the lightest scratch of stubble. “You’ve a fascinating mind. You don’t think the way everyone else does, and I find you intriguing. More, it’s obvious you genuinely care for your cousin.” Vincent smiled wryly. “I think you truly do mean well, even if I can’t agree with your methods.” Then he let his hand fall. “But I’ll keep my distance if you wish.”
“No,” Henry protested, his body swaying forward at the loss of contact.
The gong sounded from below, signaling dinner. Vincent expected Henry to use it as an excuse to usher them both out of the bedroom as quickly as possible.
Instead, Henry caught hold of Vincent’s tie and pulled him closer, down, until their lips met. He tasted of the dentifrice, of warmth and maleness. Closing his eyes, Vincent returned the kiss, parting his lips and letting Henry’s tongue dart in, a quick swirl against the roof of his mouth. His pulse leapt in his throat, echoed below his waist as his cock grew heavy.
Henry pulled back, seeming a bit dazed. “We should go downstairs,” he said, voice husky with desire. “Before anyone comes to find us.”
Vincent didn’t want to go down to dinner. He wanted to shove Henry back on the bed, unbutton his trousers, and feast on his prick. But the other man was right. “Very well,” he said and dipped his head for another quick kiss. “We’ll continue this later.”
~ * ~
Once at dinner, Henry made certain to seat himself between Miss Prandle and Jo, in case Vincent—Night, damn it—got any more creative ideas. Or in case he found himself tempted by ideas of his own.
What was wrong with him? He hadn’t kissed a man since Isaac, certainly hadn’t pursued anything more than an anonymous tug in a back alley. He’d shared those alley encounters with all sorts of men, from handsome clerks with soft hands to scarred longshoremen with fingers callused and chapped from their work. A few awkward moments punctuated by the sharp pleasure of release, before carefully departing in the opposite directions. He’d certainly never wanted to drag any of them back to his workshop and the bed inside.
Vincent entered the room, and Henry found it impossible not to watch. The medium was built like a dancer, all long limbs and lean muscle, his movements infused with unconscious grace. Flexible as a cat and just as hard to pin down.
Vincent’s gaze met his, and the corner of his full mouth turned up into the familiar, insufferable grin. Henry looked away quickly. The nerve of the fellow...but Henry had been the one to seize Vincent’s tie and drag him in for a kiss not half an hour ago, rather than the other way around.
God. Henry had known it was insane. Known he should hold firm, make it clear there were to be no more intimacies of any kind between them. But confronted with the warmth of those dark eyes, the roguish curve of that smile, he’d crumbled. Vincent had even offered him the chance to walk away, and yet he hadn’t been able to force himself to take it. To deny what he wanted one more time.
Miss Devereaux sat across from Miss Prandle, with Gladfield between them. Vincent, predictably by now, chose to settle in the chair directly opposite Henry. He lounged back, watching Henry from under lowered lids while Bamforth served the soup. Henry pretended not to notice, and doubted he was at all successful at doing so.
“Quite an exciting day!” Gladfield declared as he tucked into the soup.
“I wouldn’t put it quite in those terms,” Vincent murmured. The quiet tone surprised Henry, and he glanced across the table to find the medium frowning down at his dish. He hadn’t sounded at all his normal, cocky self. Rather, he’d seemed worried. Afraid, even.
No one else seemed to have noticed. Certainly their host hadn’t. “Does anyone have any theories they would like to share?” Gladfield asked, casting his gaze first at Miss Devereaux, then at Henry.
Blast, he’d been so absorbed by Vincent, he hadn’t even considered his report. Henry took a sip of his coffee to buy time. “It seems clear the house is genuinely haunted, and it is possible the spirit wishes to make contact,” he said.
“Possible?” Miss Prandle asked. “I’d say after the séance this afternoon, it is indisputable.”
Henry’s grip tightened on his cup. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t feel odd about saying this aloud, but the woman was Vincent’s partner...
And the fact he’d even had the thought spoke to his questionable judgment more damningly than anything else. “I did monitor a change in temperature within the room, which Jo didn’t record just outside,” Henry said. “However, we have only Miss Devereaux’s word the sentences she wrote came from a spirit.”
Miss Prandle’s eyes widened slightly, as if she were shocked at his boldness. Across from him, Vincent’s dark gaze flicked up. “And mine.”
Damn it. This was the sort of game Isaac had played. “Trust me. Take my word. Don’t question.”
“I understand,” Henry said levelly. “Nonetheless, I cannot consider it to be indisputable evidence in my investigation. It’s nothing against you or Miss Devereaux. I can’t consider my own visitation as evidence, either, as there were no measurements to corroborate it.”
“What do you suggest for our next move?” Gladfield asked with a smile that said he rather enjoyed their sparring.
“Another séance,” Henry said. “Using the Electro-Séance, of course. We’ll attempt to speak to the ghost and get actual data.”
“Which one?” Vincent asked, his voice pitched to sound innocent.
“What do you mean, ‘which one?’” Henry’s gut tightened—Vincent was up to something, he was certain of it. Did he mean to imply the spirit Jo had glimpsed in the mirror was a different ghost than the one that had visited his bedroom?
Vincent raised a brow. Taking a flask from his pocket, he deliberately poured a measure of liquor into his coffee. “How many spirits would you say are in this house, Mr. Strauss?”
The formality sent a foolish little pang through him. “What are you suggesting, Mr. Night?” he replied, refusing to be put on the defensive.
Vincent sipped his coffee. “There are at least three spirits present,” he said. He spoke to the room as a whole, but his dark gaze flicked over the rim of his cup, pinning Henry in place. “It seems like something one would need to know if one meant to thoroughly exorcise the house.”
All the blood seemed to drain to Henry’s feet. Was Vincent speaking truthfully? Because if he was right...the instruments had no practical way to differentiate. The oversight could be great enough to cost him to the contest.
“Three spirits,” Vincent repeated. “In a house not fifty years old. Not impossible, but it does make me wonder if some larger tragedy happened here and is responsible for the haunting.”
Gladfield clapped his hands. “Well done, well done! I think you’ve scored a point against our Mr. Strauss.”
Henry shot a glare at Vincent, but to his surprise, the medium didn’t look at all triumphant. “I’ll question the spirit I raise using the Electro-Séance,” Henry said, trying desperately to make up some of the ground he’d just lost. “I’m sure it will be able to tell us of any other spirits in the house, including the one it seems to be attempting to warn us against.”
“About that,” Miss Devereaux said. “Mr. Gladfield, although I appreciate why you withheld the history of the house, I think the time has come to share it with the rest of us. After the automatic writing this afternoon, it seems likely the spirit in Mr. Strauss’s bedroom was attempting to warn rather than threaten him. Between these warnings and the fact there are multiple spirits on the premises, Mr. Night and I are concerned.”
“Concerned about what?” Miss Prandle asked as Bamforth refilled her coffee.
“Some spirits are dangerous.” Vincent stared at his coffee cup, but not as if he really saw it, instead seeming to gaze into some other place and time. “They can become violent. Throwing objects. Hitting or pinching. Sometimes they even kill.”
Pain underlaid his voice, barely perceptible, like a current through a wire. Had one of his previous séances gone wrong?
Unless he was only trying to scare the rest of them. It was possible. Isaac had been a good actor, too.
Somehow, though, Henry didn’t believe Vincent was acting. Maybe it was the shadows in Vincent’s eyes, or the way his fingers trembled as he lifted the coffee to his lips. Or the memory of how he’d tried to comfort Henry last night, instead of trying to frighten him further.
“The warnings of the spirit to get out before ‘he’ comes for us seems to suggest a dark force in the house.” Miss Devereaux glanced briefly at Vincent, then back to Gladfield. “The longer we’re here, the more our energy will seep into the house, making it easier for any spirits to manifest.”
“Hmm.” Gladfield considered for a long moment. “But surely, in order to rid the house of the spirit, you’ll have to confront it.”
“Perhaps,” Miss Devereaux said, her tone carefully neutral.
“And what do you say, Mr. Strauss?” Gladfield challenged.
Henry would have preferred more time to think things over. But he’d already been made to look like a fool once during this meal. “Technology doesn’t care about the provenance of a ghost,” he said. “Or whether it desires to be helpful or harmful. I believe I can rid the house of the various spirits whether I know anything about its history or not.”
Vincent shook his head. “You’re rushing headlong into danger.”
“Perhaps we should compromise,” Gladfield said, lifting his hands in a gesture for peace. “You will all have tonight to conduct whatever further experiments or investigations you wish. Tomorrow morning, after breakfast, I’ll reveal the house’s history, and each group can decide what to do from there. How does that sound?”
Henry immediately nodded. “Most fair, Mr. Gladfield.” Across the table, Vincent rolled his eyes, but Gladfield didn’t seem to notice.
“Very well,” Miss Devereaux said, sounding rather unhappy about it.
“I wish to set up the Franklin bells again, including in my room,” Henry said quickly. “In case the spirit reappears there.”
“It won’t, without you inside,” Vincent said.
“You don’t know for certain.”
“It’s trying to warn us. Why warn an empty room?”
Henry glared. “If it’s trying to warn us, why appear to me and not you?”
Vincent’s smile was thin, just a fragile mask which might have cracked at any moment to reveal darkness beneath. “Because I take certain precautions when I sleep, Mr. Strauss.”
“Afraid for your virtue?” The words were out before Henry could stop them.
“Of course.” Vincent’s smile shifted, became less pained and more like his usual lazy grin. “I’m but an innocent lamb lost in the woods.”
“More like a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Henry muttered.
“Enough sparring, gentlemen,” Gladfield cut in. “We don’t want bad blood, after all.” He dabbed at his lips with his napkin, then pushed back his chair. “I intend to retire to my room for the evening, so allow me to bid you all goodnight. You have until dawn.”