Henry froze. His breath plumed in air suddenly gone painfully cold. The eerie blue light of the lantern flame leeched color from the world and turned Vincent’s skin gray. The shadows around them grew bigger, thicker, more like solid objects than the mere absence of light.
In the darkness of the landing, something growled.
“Run!” Vincent shouted.
Henry’s paralysis broke. He flung himself back up the stairs, not caring who might hear the clatter of feet behind the wall. His body blocked the pallid illumination of the lantern, turning the stairs in front of him into a black slot. He stumbled, hands and shins colliding with the risers. The air turned even colder, and the slickness of frost met his fingers as he groped blindly up the stairs.
The growl came again. A sense of being watched by something malevolent, something that wanted him the way a lion wants an antelope, washed over him. Vincent let out a hiss.
Then there were no more stairs, and Henry toppled out onto the tiny landing. The catch—there had to be a catch to let them out into the guest parlor. He groped along the edge of the door until his fingers encountered the latch. It clicked, and he flung himself against it.
It started to open—then stopped. Some piece of furniture left by the last tenants, a table or sideboard too short to block the spy hole, must have been keeping it from opening.
“Henry,” Vincent cried urgently.
“It won’t open! It’s blocked.” Henry glanced over his shoulder.
Something came up the stair behind them. The sickly blue light of the lantern failed to penetrate the shadow surrounding it—or perhaps it was the shadow. It had a man’s shape, huge and hulking, but a rabid dog’s growl issued from it.
“Together,” Vincent said and put his shoulder against the door.
Henry joined in, trying to concentrate on shoving the door open. Not thinking about the footsteps approaching behind them, closer and closer. The freezing shadow hand reaching out to touch him—
With a loud scrape of wood against the floor, the door swung open. They tumbled out into murky daylight. A final growl sounded, and Henry glimpsed the shadow dangerously near the door as he slammed it shut behind them.
“Is the sunlight bright enough to hold it at bay?” he asked, backing away from the door.
“Any sunlight will do, even given this gloom. At least until tomorrow—then he might be strong enough to come out if it remains cloudy.” Vincent dropped down onto the small couch that had kept the door from opening. Henry wanted to join him but wasn’t sure if he could resist the temptation to collapse into the other man’s arms. Instead, he lowered himself shakily into a nearby chair.
“Well, at least no one seems to have heard us,” Vincent said after a few moments.
“Yes.” Henry swallowed hard and wondered when his hands would stop shaking. “And if there is someone hiding from us in the passages...well, I don’t expect they’ll remain so for long now.”
“True enough.” Vincent took out his tin of cachous and popped one into his mouth. “Even if the culprit is one of us, I daresay we don’t have to worry about them using the passages to spring any more nasty surprises on us.”
Henry’s legs seemed to be working well enough again to try standing, so he rose to his feet. “Well. As the passages led nowhere—metaphorically, at least—I suppose I should see what progress Jo has made in fixing our equipment.”
Vincent glanced at the window. “Be quick about it,” he said.
Henry frowned. “Why?”
“Because nightfall is coming.” Vincent rose as well. “Right now, he can’t manifest in any rooms with windows to let in the sunlight. After sundown, Reyer will be free to prowl anywhere he likes. I think we should all be safely tucked away behind lines of salt as soon as possible.”
~ * ~
Still unsettled from the ghostly encounter in the passage, Henry went to the schoolroom to find Jo. In his absence, she had done wonders with the repairs. The phantom fence was untangled, the snapped copper wires spliced back together. The fragile galvanometer had miraculously survived any damage from flying debris, although the Wimshurst machine was in sad shape and the dispeller utterly destroyed.
“I don’t think we’ll need the Wimshurst machine, at any rate,” Henry said. “We’ve already given this ghost far too much energy as it is.”
“Agreed,” Jo said ruefully. She shifted from one foot to the other, her skirts rustling. “Henry...I’m sorry the Electro-Séance didn’t work the way you planned.”
“It’s quite all right. Every new invention is plagued with setbacks.”
She had a streak of grease on her forehead. Tsking softly, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began to scrub at it. “Don’t worry yourself, Jo. We’re still in the running for the prize.”
“Stop it,” she muttered, shoving him away and wiping at her forehead with the back of her hand. “You’ve been working with Mr. Night all afternoon, haven’t you? Won’t you have to split the prize?”
Of course he and Vincent had actually been searching out secret passages, not looking for ways to stop Reyer. But they’d agreed not to tell anyone else, and if he made an exception for Jo, Vincent would no doubt feel justified in making an exception for Miss Devereaux. “We haven’t discussed it,” he hedged. “I suppose splitting it would only be fair. Two hundred and fifty dollars is nothing to scoff at. It will still be enough to start production on the Electro-Séance.”
Jo began to put the tools away. “And you think you can do it? Get rid of the ghosts?” she asked.
“I believe so. I just have to work out a few small issues.” Such as how to keep a spirit from draining the phantom fence’s batteries. “Perhaps Vincent will have some suggestions.”
Her mouth curved into a smirk. “‘Vincent,’ is it?”
Curse it. “I’m allowed to be friends with a medium,” Henry said a bit stiffly.
“I didn’t say otherwise.” She gave him a look of wide-eyed innocence, which didn’t fool him for a moment. Was it possible she had somehow heard about the scandal with Isaac? Or had Henry said or done something to give himself away otherwise?
He put the final tools away in their chest and closed it. “We’d best join the rest of the company—Vincent said he wished to speak with everyone.”
She bounded along behind him like an energetic gazelle. It made him feel even more tired; after the day they’d had, he wanted nothing more than to curl up under the covers and sleep.
The rest of the group waited near the fireplace in the grand hall. Bamforth had laid out a small table with coffee and sandwiches, and Henry took one of each before settling in a chair near the fire. Gazing about at his companions, Henry found himself acutely aware of the fact that one of them had probably tried to kill him.
“Well, what has the afternoon brought us?” Gladfield asked when everyone had settled.
Vincent exchanged a glance with Henry. The medium ate standing up, plate in hand, his back propped against the stones of the hearth. “Very little, I’m afraid,” he said lightly. “Mr. Strauss and I scoured the house and grounds, but saw no sign of any spectral activity.”
“Reyer may be biding his time, conserving his energy until nightfall frees him to move about the house,” Miss Devereaux said.
“Can spirits reason?” Miss Prandle asked, sipping her coffee.
“Some of them.” Miss Devereaux looked toward the great bay. The snow still drifted past the windowpanes, leaving the grounds blanketed in pristine white. “Some seem more mindless forces, reenacting the scenes of their life—or death. But others, such as the ones in this house, possess intelligence. Awareness. In the case of a violent haunting such as this one, I suspect whatever remains of Reyer means to try us tonight.”
“Midnight,” Vincent said. “The anniversary of Reyer’s death is tomorrow, meaning he’ll be strongest between midnight tonight and midnight tomorrow. He may lie in wait until then.”
Miss Prandle shifted uneasily. “That sounds a bit frightening.”
“I’ve placed protective wards on all of the bedroom doors,” Miss Devereaux said. “I suggest everyone lock themselves in and put down lines of salt in front of all the doors and windows.”
“Perhaps we should double up in the rooms, just to make certain no one has to lie alone in the dark, waiting for something to happen,” Miss Prandle suggested. “I’ve plenty of space, between the main bedroom and the maid’s room. Miss Devereaux and Jo can stay with me.”
“Capital idea,” Gladfield agreed, clasping his hands together. “Bamforth will room with me, and Mr. Night and Mr. Strauss can share, if they’ve no objection.”
Henry’s heart beat faster. Share a bed? With Vincent?
“I’m perfectly happy to share my chamber, if Mr. Strauss wishes to,” Vincent said.
“I...y-yes.” Henry cleared his throat. “An excellent suggestion.”
Vincent gave him a quick, small smile.
“Thank you for the offer, Miss Prandle,” Miss Devereaux said, “but I shall remain alone in my room.”
“Are you certain?” Miss Prandle asked, looking surprised. “I know you’re a medium, but surely it would be best for us to stay together.”
“I’m quite certain. But I think the suggestion is a good one,” Miss Devereaux added with a nod in Jo’s direction.
Politeness required Miss Prandle to let the matter drop. But as Bamforth moved through the gathering, taking up dishes and pouring more coffee, Henry watched Miss Devereaux closely. There seemed no logical reason for her to refuse Miss Prandle’s offer.
Unless she was their would-be murderer and meant to use their fear of Reyer as cover to strike again.
~ * ~
Henry stood outside Vincent’s room, holding a small bag containing his necessary articles in a trembling hand. Perhaps it had been quite a while since he’d had anything more than a quick encounter in an alley, but he was no blushing virgin. Why was he nervous now? Because Vincent was a medium like Isaac?
But Vincent was nothing like Isaac. Isaac would have abandoned them all at the first sign of trouble. Vincent stayed even when he thought them fools, because he wouldn’t leave anyone to face danger alone. He might play the rogue, as Miss Prandle had said, but past the languid smile and easy banter, there beat the heart of a brave man. A good man. Someone Henry could imagine being friends with—someone he wanted to be friends with.
Once the ghost was gone and Henry busy refining and producing the Electro-Séance, there would be no reason to ever see Vincent again. And if the thought made him feel lonely now, what they were about to do certainly wasn’t going to help.
Assuming Vincent even wanted to take things further. Given his previous behavior, it seemed likely, but perhaps it had all just been outrageous flirtation.
He rapped lightly on Vincent’s door. It opened almost instantly, revealing Vincent in the same oriental robe he’d worn the night he’d come to Henry’s room. The soft illumination of a lone candle gilded his dark skin and emphasized his high cheekbones and full lips.
Vincent stepped back, gesturing for him to enter. “Come in. Make yourself comfortable.”
As soon as Henry entered, Vincent shut the door and set about laying down a line of salt in front of it. Salt already gleamed on the windowsills and in front of the small fireplace.
Henry put his bag on the floor near the bed, then stood awkwardly, not certain what to do. What Vincent expected from him. He liked Vincent too much to want to disappoint him now, either by assuming too much or too little.
Apparently Vincent felt the same. He finished with the salt before joining Henry. Long-fingered hands closed lightly on Henry’s upper arms, and he sensed the heat of Vincent’s body through the air between them.
“I’m sure my previous behavior has given you the impression I want to do more than sleep tonight,” Vincent murmured. “And I do, don’t mistake me. But we don’t have to do anything. If you don’t wish to take things further, I’ll sit in the chair and wait for midnight.”
Henry’s throat had gone tight. “Why wouldn’t I want to take things further with someone like you?”
“Someone like me?”
Perhaps that had been a poor way to put it. “Someone brave enough to come to this house, even after what happened to you last summer. Someone kind enough to offer to make his competition tea in the middle of the night. Someone honest enough to admit said competitor may occasionally be right about something.”
“Occasionally,” Vincent teased. “But nothing about my physical charms? Perhaps you’d prefer to sit and talk chastely?”
Henry snorted. “You’re blasted handsome, and you know it.” His fingers slipped over Vincent’s narrow hips until he reached the sash keeping the robe closed. “I admire you, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want you, too.”
Vincent gave him a lazy smile, but his eyes flashed with heat. “I’m glad to hear it.” Cupping Henry’s face in his hands, he leaned in and offered a kiss, surprising in its tenderness. Henry closed his eyes and gave himself over to the soft caress of lips, the lightest nip of teeth. He caught the sash firmly in his hands and untied the knot, shoving the robe open.
His fingers encountered bare skin, and he let out a gasp of surprise. Vincent chuckled and let him go, stepping back to let the robe fall open entirely. The plum silk complimented Vincent’s bronze complexion, enhancing his lean muscles and dark nipples. His prick stood half-erect already, and Henry’s mouth watered at the sight. God, he’d wanted this, wanted it since the first moment he’d laid eyes on Vincent. Their kisses, the firm stroke of Vincent’s hand bringing him off at the séance, every touch and word had served to sharpen his desire rather than blunt it.
Henry went to his knees almost without thought, wrapping his fingers around the base of Vincent’s cock. His touch brought the other man to full hardness. Vincent’s fingers slid through Henry’s hair, snagging on the frame of his spectacles before deftly plucking them away.
Henry stroked slowly up Vincent’s prick, then down again. Vincent’s fingers curled in Henry’s hair, not pulling or tugging, just caressing. Henry slid his other hand beneath the open robe, palm gliding over the smooth skin of Vincent’s hip and around, to cup one firm buttock and urge him forward.
Moisture gathered in the slit of Vincent’s cock, and Henry deliberately rubbed it over his lips, delighting in the feel of velvety skin against his mouth. Vincent’s breath caught, and a soft moan of frustration escaped him. Henry refused to be rushed, licking lightly at the glans before tracing the edge of the hood with his tongue.
“Henry, please,” Vincent gasped.
“Please what?” Henry teased. He watched Vincent’s face, waited for the moment some tart remark was about to issue forth—then slid his mouth around Vincent’s cock and took him all the way to the root.
Whatever words Vincent meant to say turned into a garbled curse. His hips jerked involuntarily, prick hitting the back of Henry’s throat. Henry swallowed to keep from gagging, wringing another strangled curse from Vincent. Henry pulled back gradually, and when the tip had almost slipped from his lips, he repeated the action, though more slowly. He savored the salty flavor of Vincent’s skin, the musk and citrus of his scent, the flex of his tight buttock beneath Henry’s fingers.
“God,” Vincent swore, pulling away. “Stop, please.”
“Oh, first it’s Henry, please, and now it’s stop, please,” Henry said. “Someone can’t make up his mind.”
“I’ve made up my mind, all right.” Vincent grasped Henry’s arms, urging him to his feet. “I’m determined not to let this end until I’ve felt every inch of your skin against mine and heard you beg for more.”
He kissed Henry fiercely even as his hands gripped Henry’s coat, shoving it from his shoulders. Henry pulled away to undo the buttons of his vest with shaking fingers. Vincent let the silken robe slide to the floor with a whisper of slick cloth, leaving him naked and vulnerable in the cool air.
Henry didn’t think he’d ever undressed so fast in his life.
Vincent tumbled back against the sheets, the pale linens making his skin look darker by contrast. The silver amulet gleamed on his chest. God, he was beautiful, from his lithe figure to his burning black eyes. Henry slid in beside Vincent, threading his fingers through thick, raven-wing hair. The delicious heat of skin on skin further inflamed his senses, and he rocked against Vincent, rubbing his cock wantonly against the other man’s hip.
Vincent pulled the covers up over them—and vanished beneath. He bit at Henry’s nipple, sending a bolt of pleasure straight to his groin. Henry gasped and clutched at Vincent’s broad shoulders.
Suitably encouraged, Vincent turned his attentions to the other nipple until both were tight with pleasure. The warm pressure of his lips slid further down, across Henry’s belly, making him jump when Vincent found a ticklish spot.
The heat of Vincent’s mouth closed around Henry’s cock. Henry closed his eyes and bit his lip, fighting for control as soft, wet lips slid down to the base of his shaft while Vincent’s tongue massaged and caressed the underside. A part of him wanted to let it continue until he spent—but that would deprive him of whatever else Vincent might have in mind.
He tugged on Vincent’s hair, and the other man slid back up, emerging from beneath the covers to kiss him. “What do you want?” Henry asked breathlessly once their mouths had parted again.
Vincent’s fingers traced his chest, finding one pink nipple and pinching hard enough to make Henry writhe against him. “Whatever you’d like,” Vincent murmured in his ear. The brush of breath against Henry’s earlobe made him squirm even more.
“I have petroleum jelly,” Henry managed to say. “In my kit. I brought it, in case...”
Vincent propped himself up on one elbow, grinning slyly down at Henry. “Would you like to bugger me?”
Henry’s mouth went dry. “Y-yes.”
Vincent kissed him. “Why don’t you get it out?”