“You need my help,” Vincent told Henry.
They stood in the schoolroom, where Henry, Jo, and Bamforth had brought the broken equipment from Reyer’s bedroom. Jo and Bamforth had departed, leaving Henry standing alone, his back to the door, his arms folded and his gaze fixed on the jumble of wires and rods. How badly the devices had been damaged, Vincent couldn’t tell, but the breakage certainly looked severe to his untrained eye.
At Vincent’s words, Henry turned to face him. Like Vincent, he’d washed the blood from his face, and only a small bit of plaster, decorating a cut on his pale cheek, betrayed the danger they’d faced an hour ago. “Do I?” he asked waspishly.
Curse the man. Couldn’t he see Vincent only wanted to help?
Vincent shut the door behind him and stalked across the room. Henry’s eyes widened slightly, and he backed up until his shoulders met the wall.
“Yes. You do.” Vincent crowded him, not quite touching, but close enough to feel the heat of Henry’s body through the inch of air separating them. “If you won’t do the sensible thing and get the hell out of this house, you need all the help you can get.”
Henry lifted his chin, lip jutting slightly. “I’ve made a mess of things. It’s up to me to fix them. I’m not going to beg for your assistance now after I spurned it earlier.”
Of course he wanted to stay. Henry cared—about other families who might be ruined by frauds, about his cousin, even about Vincent. Just like Dunne had cared.
Dunne would have stayed to help the dead as well as the living. And he certainly wouldn’t have abandoned anyone to face Reyer’s ghost alone. Even if it got him killed. Even though it had killed him.
“You seem to have mistaken my statement for a request.” Vincent leaned in further, thighs brushing together now. Henry’s breath caught softly. “It wasn’t.”
He kissed Henry, and that, too, wasn’t a request. For a moment, Henry held out against his insistent probing—then his lips parted, and he sucked on Vincent’s intruding tongue. Vincent pinned him tight against the wall, sliding his thigh between Henry’s, his hands braced against Henry’s shoulders. Henry shifted against him, his growing erection hard against Vincent’s thigh. One hand clutched at Vincent’s hair while the other encircled his waist, pulling him even closer.
Vincent ached. He wanted to get this man in bed, feel their skin together, learn all the things that would make Henry whimper and beg for more.
Vincent drew back just far enough to break the kiss, bodies still locked together from the chest down. Henry’s breath came raggedly, his eyes wide with lust behind smudged spectacles. “Why did you save me earlier?” he asked, breath soft against Vincent’s cheek. “You might have run with the others. Left me in the room to deal with Reyer’s ghost by myself.”
“Because I wouldn’t have been able to fuck you later.” It was a lie, but it sounded good and brought a scarlet flush to Henry’s face.
“You seem awfully sure I’ll let you.”
Vincent rocked his thigh against Henry’s erection and received a gasp of pleasure in return. “I think my confidence is not without reason.”
Henry slid a hand between them, pushing against Vincent’s chest. “It’s not why you didn’t leave me. Gladfield thinks I wouldn’t have been seriously injured, but...I’m not so sure.”
“Gladfield is blinded by his vision of what this house could be,” Vincent said flatly. “Of the money it would make as a resort hotel. If he was the only person to worry about, I’d have left already.”
Henry glanced down to where his hand rested on Vincent’s chest, directly above his heart. “You were right earlier—I was too confident,” he admitted. “Although I don’t think I’m quite the fool you take me for. Yet now you refuse to leave me, and demand in fact to help. Why?”
“Because I’m an idiot?” Vincent suggested.
Henry shook his head. “Not a good enough answer.”
Vincent sighed. His glibness had served him well in the past, but Henry wasn’t the sort of man to take it for an answer. He had to get at the heart of things and find out what made them work. “You’re brilliant. Your fence and grounder might have worked, under other circumstances. But your very cleverness makes you foolhardy, because you aren’t used to being wrong.”
He laid his palm against Henry’s jaw, thumb lightly tracing the other man’s bottom lip. “You mean well, though. You accepted your error and are trying to correct it.” Vincent smiled ruefully. “You care about people. You’re a good man, even though I want to strangle you at times.”
“You wish to strangle me?” Henry exclaimed. “When you are the one who—”
There came the click of the door latch. Vincent dropped his hand and stepped back in a flash, composing his expression as he turned to the door. A moment later, Miss Strauss stuck her head tentatively around the edge. “Is everything all right in here?”
“Yes, of course,” Henry said, sounding flustered. “Mr. Night and I were just discussing our next course of action.”
Miss Strauss brightened. “Oh—are you going to help us, Mr. Night? I rather thought you wanted to kick Henry down the stairs.”
“I haven’t yet ruled it out,” Vincent replied mildly.
Henry shot him a glare. “Come inside, Jo—we need to repair the phantom fence and other devices as quickly as possible.”
“The fence didn’t work in this case,” Vincent pointed out. “I said it might have in other circumstances, because I thought it was rather obvious it didn’t in these.”
“It did work,” Henry corrected, seeming unperturbed by the note of exasperation in Vincent’s voice. “At least until the ghost drained the batteries. If we can find a way to keep the batteries away from the ghost, it will function as intended.”
“I’ll start working,” Jo offered. “Mr. Bamforth laid out a buffet in the dining hall, since we missed lunch. He didn’t think you’d want to take the time for a sit-down supper.”
“Very thoughtful of him.” Henry straightened his spectacles, which had gotten slightly askew when Vincent had kissed him. “Would you like to come with me? We can lay our plans over a quick bite.”
Vincent nodded. They left the schoolroom behind and went out onto the balcony. The cold spot above the bloodstain hadn’t returned after Henry drained it. Further evidence there might be something to all the technology Henry seemed determined to force onto the spirit world.
On the opposite balcony, Lizzie stood in front of the door to Reyer’s room, putting down lines of salt and scribbling protective signs in chalk while Miss Prandle watched. Henry nodded in Lizzie’s direction. “Do you think it will do any good?”
“Probably not.” Vincent shrugged when Henry gave him a surprised look. “I didn’t sense Reyer when you went back into the bedroom to get your equipment. He’s already slipped free and gone elsewhere.”
Henry’s expression fell. “Oh. I was so relieved not to be attacked, it didn’t occur to me to wonder where he’d gone.”
“It won’t hurt, though,” Vincent added. “If nothing else, it will be yet another room we can keep Reyer out of, as long as the salt line holds. If we can box him in, perhaps...”
He let the words die. Perhaps what? What did he truly imagine happening? Was it really possible to force a spirit to the other side of the veil and seal it there without using a medium as a gateway?
In the bedroom earlier, it had been everything Vincent could do not to bolt out the door when the ghost manifested. The darkness, the malevolence, emanating from it had turned his stomach and sapped the strength from his arms and legs until he’d thought he might faint.
His soul recoiled at the idea of being touched by something so inhuman. Whatever Reyer had been in life, death had stripped away what little humanity and sanity he may have retained. Reyer was nothing more than an entity of hate and rage...and far too reminiscent of the poltergeist that had killed Dunne.
And when the fence had failed and Reyer’s spirit burst free, the only thing Vincent had been able to think was that it was all happening again.
It was why he’d gone in after Henry. To keep history from repeating.
No other reason. Certainly not because of how much Henry obviously cared for his cousin, or because he wanted to make the world a better place, or any of the other things about him that tugged at Vincent’s heart.
Henry cheered up at his words. “We can trap the ghost? Good thinking,” he said as they stepped into the brightly lit dining room. The savory smell of bread and cheese wafted out, making Vincent’s stomach growl with anticipation and reminding him that he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.
Henry heard the sound and cast him a grin. “Am I to dine with a wild beast?”
“Perhaps. As you know, I’m a man of voracious appetites.”
Henry flushed and shook his head. “You’re a scoundrel.” But he didn’t sound at all as if he meant it.
A selection of meats, breads, and cheeses lay spread the length of the table. Thick towels covered the warm items, and Henry peered beneath one as Vincent went to pour coffee from the urn on the sideboard.
“Oh, look!” Henry leaned forward and took a deep breath. “Apple pie—shall I cut you a slice as well?”
As Vincent turned to answer, a loud creak and groan sounded from above. He glanced up automatically and saw the chandelier shift. He had only an instant to shout a warning before it tore loose from its moorings and plummeted directly to where Henry had been standing.
~ * ~
“Henry!” Vincent shouted just as the lights went out.
There came a strange crack followed by a groan as something above Henry’s head let go. Acting on instinct, he scrambled back in the sudden dimness. A rush of air washed over him as something passed just inches from his face.
The sound of the iron chandelier smashing into the table was tremendous—wood cracking, iron twisting, plates shattering. It drowned out Henry’s cry of terror as he fell backward over one of the chairs, his body striking the floor.
Strong arms caught him. “Shit!” Vincent gathered Henry to his chest. “Fucking hell! Are you all right?”
Henry’s whole body trembled, reaction setting in as he realized just how close he’d come to dying a second time in one afternoon. “I-I—” He swallowed hard. “I think so.”
The sound of running footsteps came from the direction of the hall. Henry pulled free from Vincent’s embrace. Still, he left one hand on Vincent’s arm to brace himself as he stood.
“What happened?” Gladfield boomed from the doorway. A moment later, Bamforth, wearing an apron over his suit, appeared behind him.
“It was the ghost!” Bamforth cried, eyes going wide with fear. “The ghost tried to kill Mr. Strauss!”
More footsteps, and Miss Prandle joined them, followed by Jo and Lizzie. “Is anyone injured?” Miss Prandle asked, surveying the wreckage in dismay by the dim light filtering through the windows.
“No—I’m fine. Shaken, but fine,” Henry said. His voice trembled slightly, then steadied. “Although I fear there’s little left of the feast Bamforth prepared.”
“The ghost is trying to finish what it started in the bedroom.” Bamforth moved to shut off the gas valve that had fed the chandelier.
Jo’s eyes widened. “Oh no!”
“I warned you,” Miss Devereaux began.
“No.” Vincent stepped away from Henry and toward the iron chandelier, his eyes narrowed as if it contained some message for him. “It wasn’t the ghost.”
“Not the ghost?” Gladfield asked, perplexed.
“I’m a medium, sir. I can sense the presence of spirits. There wasn’t one in this room when the chandelier fell.” Vincent’s dark eyes met Henry’s briefly, as if trying to pass along some message. “The house has stood empty for thirty years. It’s truly amazing it’s as solid as it is. Rats and mice must have worked over the beam above, or else some leak let in just enough dampness to rust the bolt. As startling as the accident might have been, it was still only an accident.”
“Ah.” Gladfield beamed. “Good work, Mr. Night. I see now why Miss Devereaux brought you.”
Henry wanted to protest that Vincent was certainly as good a medium as his partner. But Vincent merely bowed elegantly to Gladfield. “Thank you.” He straightened. “Now, if Bamforth would be so good as to return to the kitchen and put together a small dinner for Mr. Strauss and me, we’ll clean up this mess.”
Bamforth wavered. “But sir, you have other matters to attend. Let me find you something to eat, then I’ll see to it.”
“We’ll make a start while you’re getting our plates.”
“Yes, sir,” Bamforth said, a bit dubiously. Henry shared his confusion.
“Are you certain you’re all right?” Jo asked as Bamforth and the others left.
“I’m sure.” Henry patted her shoulder. “Finish what repairs you can, and I’ll rejoin you soon.”
Once she was gone, Vincent hurried to the twisted iron of the chandelier. He inspected the central column before going to the walls and feeling about the baseboards.
“What on earth are you doing?” Henry asked, perplexed. “I thought you wanted to clean up this mess for some mad reason.”
“Shh.” Vincent continued to search for a few moments before letting out a small sound of triumph. When he turned back to Henry, he held up a length of broken steel wire.
“What the—” At Vincent’s glare, Henry lowered his voice to a whisper. “What the devil is that?”
Vincent rolled his eyes, but instead of answering, he merely let the wire drop. Hurrying to the ruin of table and chandelier, he began to pick up shards of broken ceramic. Now thoroughly confused, Henry joined him.
Vincent reached for a shard of crockery, the movement bringing his mouth close to Henry’s ear. “As I said earlier,” he murmured, “there was no spirit in here with us. But no accident of mice and bad timing caused the chandelier to nearly crush you.”
Henry picked a pile of cheese slices from the carpet. “What are you implying?”
“There’s no damage to the bolt, and it’s still attached to the loop of the chandelier. I think someone rigged it to fall. They waited until you were almost underneath, then released the wires holding it up.”
“You...you can’t be serious.” Henry set aside the cheese with trembling fingers. “I might have been killed. Why would someone do such a thing?”
“To drive us from the house?” Vincent shook his head. “I don’t know, and perhaps I’m mistaken. But this isn’t the first incident which has struck me as wrong.”
“What are you talking about?”
Vincent’s eyes narrowed, and he bent to scoop up the remains of the apple pie. “The writing on the wall. There was no sense of a spirit lingering nearby, but I thought perhaps it had moved on. Yet the graffiti doesn’t really fit with any of the other spectral occurrences.”
“Reyer was obsessed with the idea his wife had been unfaithful,” Henry pointed out.
“I know. But the writing Lizzie channeled suggested Reyer hadn’t yet fully become aware of our presence in the house. And Martha Reyer or the dead maid or the children certainly wouldn’t have scrawled such a phrase on the wall.” Vincent gave the tiniest of shrugs, under cover of picking up more broken crockery. “It doesn’t feel right.”
There’d been no unusual measurement at the wall, either. No fluctuations of temperature or charge, such as might have been expected. “A simple pole with a piece of chalk affixed to the end could have allowed someone to write near the ceiling,” Henry mused. “But it doesn’t explain why we’re whispering to each other.”
“Because if I’m right about the chandelier, whoever orchestrated its fall must have had some means of observing the room, to know when someone stood beneath it.” Vincent glanced up at him. “As there was no one else here but us, there must be a secret room or passage. They could be watching even now.”
Secret passages? Some unknown assassin? It sounded like nonsense. Vincent must be mad or just paranoid or even trying to play some sort of game.
But Henry believed him.
“I see,” he said. “What do you suggest?”
A tiny smile flashed over Vincent’s mouth as if he understood that Henry had decided to trust him. “I think a stroll outside in the snow, to confer and clear our heads, will be most instructive.”