The bag sat where Henry had left it beside the bed. As he leaned over and reached for it, Vincent bit him sharply on one buttock, drawing a surprised yelp from him.
“Sorry,” Vincent said unrepentantly. “The view was just too tempting.”
“Hmph,” Henry said, but it warmed him. He wasn’t the sort of man who caused anyone to look twice. It was surprisingly nice to hear that someone like Vincent found him tempting. “How would you like to...?”
Vincent stretched out on his back and shoved a pillow beneath his hips. “The dimness of the séance kept me from seeing your face when you came. I don’t intend to deprive myself of the view a second time.”
Heat crept up Henry’s neck. He scooped out a generous dollop of petroleum jelly, warming it on his hands. Vincent drew up his legs, lips parted and eyes bright with anticipation.
Henry touched a slick finger to Vincent’s hole, caressing and probing around the edges, drawing a shiver of pleasure out of his lover before pressing gently. Vincent’s cock jutted against his belly, flushed dark and leaking with need. Everything about him, from his form to his scent, made Henry ache with a desire that a quick fumble couldn’t possibly satisfy.
But surely this would be enough. It would have to be.
Soon Vincent all but writhed around his buried fingers. “I’m ready, Henry. Ready for your cock.”
Henry slowly pumped his fingers in and out, feeling the clench and relax as Vincent wriggled. “Are you sure?” he teased. “I could keep this up for a while.”
It earned him a glare and a curse. “Damn it. This is payback for bringing you off at the séance, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps a little.” He might have continued, but the urgent ache of his own cock had grown too powerful to ignore. Sitting back, he retrieved more lubricant from the jar, slicking it generously over his prick.
Vincent watched hungrily. “God, I want you in me.”
Henry’s cock twitched, desire spiking at the words, the husky tone. It was strange and powerfully arousing to have someone be so open about what he wanted. So different from the veiled invitations and shamefaced mutterings of his alleyway encounters.
Henry shifted into position between Vincent’s legs, gripping his cock by the base and pressing the tip lightly against his lover. “Take it,” he growled and pushed in.
Vincent opened for him, and oh God, it felt good, head sliding in past the ring of muscle into slick heat. Henry bit his lip hard, letting the pain distract him from the primal desire to just shove in and start thrusting. He gripped Vincent’s hips with his hands, easing slowly deeper.
“Yes,” Vincent babbled, back arching. At least the only adjoining room was now empty; there was no one to overhear them but ghosts. “Yes, more, please, more!”
Henry gave him more, every inch. The legs draped loosely around him tightened, and Vincent’s cock bobbed against his stomach. “Fuck,” Vincent swore. “It feels good—don’t stop, please!”
Henry rode him, no longer conscious of the cold or the house or anything except for the man beneath him, the hot, tight body gripping his prick. Vincent grasped Henry’s shoulder with one hand while the other wrapped around his own shaft, stroking in time to Henry’s movements. They rocked together, the soft slap of skin on skin and the gasp of their breathing the only sounds in the room. Vincent stared into his eyes, black gaze glassy with lust, the connection somehow even more intimate than that of their bodies. Henry stared back, reveling in the expressions of pleasure chasing each other across Vincent’s face, until the other man arched again, thighs tensing and teeth clenching in an effort not to cry aloud. He tightened sharply around Henry’s prick even as white semen spilled from his cock across the dark skin of his belly.
Henry stopped trying to hold back, gripped Vincent’s hips, and pumped into him hard: once, twice, before white hot pleasure seared his vision and wrung a low groan out of him as he spent himself deep inside.
~ * ~
Henry blinked, his mind slowly reordering itself. He braced himself above Vincent, their cocks going soft, their breathing slowly evening out. He freed himself gently and slipped out of bed to pad to the washbasin. The air was icy and the water frigid. Having attended himself, he returned to the bed with the cloth. “It’s cold,” he said apologetically as he handed it to Vincent.
“But you let me stay in the warmth of the bed. Quite the gentleman.” Vincent’s smile was gentle, though. “Thank you.”
Vincent tossed the cloth in the direction of the washstand. Henry slid back beneath the covers and immediately had an arm and leg thrown about him, Vincent snuggling in close. “You’re freezing—let me warm you up.”
It was strange to lie in bed together. Isaac had always left as soon as he was done, to keep Henry’s mother from suspecting. Vincent behaved as if cuddling together were natural, however. Doubtless he had more experience in these matters.
“Thank you,” Henry murmured.
Vincent chuckled. “You’re very welcome. Thank you.”
Henry didn’t want to move or speak. Wanted to let the silence continue and pretend neither of them had checked the clock to see how few minutes they had left until midnight. But he couldn’t.
“I know you’re fond of Miss Devereaux,” he said quietly. “But the fact she refused to share a room with Jo and Miss Prandle has convinced me she’s the one who has been using the secret passages.”
Vincent sighed. “I understand why it might seem thus. But I assure you, Lizzie has very good reasons to remain apart tonight.”
“Oh?” Henry frowned. “Such as?”
The languid, mocking smile was back. “Surely you don’t think I’d ever give away a lady’s secrets, sir.”
Henry’s frown turned into a scowl. “This is important, Vincent. If she tried to kill me—”
“She didn’t.” The smile slipped away, leaving Vincent’s expression vulnerable. “It’s a delicate matter. I can’t speak of it to anyone without her permission. Please, Henry. Trust me.”
Henry wavered...then nodded. “I do.”
“Thank you.” Vincent’s long fingers brushed Henry’s hair. “There is something I’d like to tell you, though.”
A heavy blow slammed into the wall.
~ * ~
Shock seized Henry’s heart in his chest. Beside him, Vincent swore. “Damn it—midnight. Sometimes I hate being right.”
They both jumped again as something struck the other side of the wall with inhuman force, nearer the door this time. Vincent moved first, eeling out of bed and snatching up his nightshirt in a single, sinuous move.
The overwhelming sense of being a hunted animal washed over Henry. There was something just outside his den, and it wanted nothing less than his death.
No. No, he had to think rationally. Not let the malevolent presence affect him. Not panic.
Vincent pressed cloth against his skin. Startled, Henry looked down and found Vincent had taken his nightshirt from his bag.
“Thank you.” Somehow Henry’s voice didn’t shake, although he didn’t dare do more than whisper. He hauled the shirt over his head, then fumbled on his spectacles.
He jumped. “Vincent?”
Vincent’s hand curled around his amulet. “Yes?” His voice was a whisper as well.
“Is it a spirit? Not a-a trick, to scare us?”
Vincent nodded slowly. “It’s Reyer.” He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand as if wanting to scrub away the taste.
“Oh.” Henry slid off the bed. His hand found Vincent’s just in time for another blow to strike the wall, just beside the door.
The light of their candle flickered, the flame guttering in a sea of melted wax, making the shadows shift and dance. His gaze was drawn to the line of salt across the doorway, searching for any break. Or for a shadow sliding in, heedless of their feeble defense. But the salt line was solid—Vincent had done his work well.
The door latch rattled.
Henry’s breath caught in his throat, and he took an instinctive step back. The floor felt like ice beneath his bare feet.
Another try at the door.
All the hairs along the back of Henry’s neck stood up straight. What if the ghost managed to force open the door? Would it disrupt the line of salt? Or did the salt somehow keep it from opening the door in the first place?
Silence. Henry breathed in the cold air—was the chill caused by the spirit, or the natural consequence of a winter night? He should have brought his thermometer, taken readings.
Still quiet. Had it given up?
“Do you think—” he began.
There came a pounding on the door, over and over, a rain of blows shaking it in its frame. Henry cried out in shock at the suddenness of it. Vincent’s arms slid around him, pulling him close. They clung to one another, shivering from the intense cold, barefoot and in their nightshirts, while the door shook and rattled and quaked.
The blows ended as abruptly as they’d begun. Henry took a deep breath and braced himself for them to begin again.
Another strike against the wall—but not outside their room.
A series of knocks sounded. Moving away, growing fainter as the spirit stalked the balcony.
“Thank God,” Henry whispered, and some of the tension eased from his muscles.
There came another storm of pounding, the spirit trying another door. If everyone just did as he and Vincent had, stayed put, surely everything would be all right.
A feminine scream cut through the air even as the ghost’s assault intensified.
Oh God. Jo.
“No!” Henry shouted and lunged for the door.
Vincent grabbed his arm, pulling him back before he grasped the latch. “Henry, stop! If they stay inside the room, if they put the salt down, they’ll be fine.”
Both women screamed now. Their cries seemed to incite more pounding, as if Reyer’s ghost delighted in their terror.
“You don’t understand!” Henry pulled free of Vincent’s grasp. “I have to help her!”
“She’s safe, and if you go out—damn it, Henry!”
Henry flung open the door and ran into the hall.
The only light on the balcony came from a single gas lamp, its flame gone cold blue in the presence of the ghost. A dark shape roiled like thick smoke in front of the door leading to Miss Prandle’s room. As Henry stepped out into the hall, he felt its attention turn to him.
He staggered, as if at a physical blow, a sense of utter malevolence washing over him. Sickly spots of greenish-white glowed amidst the darkness, like hateful eyes. They transfixed him—he stood in place, swaying weakly. As if sensing it had him pinned, the spirit abandoned its assault on the door and moved toward him. Henry’s breath turned to frost, and his legs refused to respond even though he knew he had to run, to hide, to get away...
A hot brand in the shape of a hand wrapped around his arm. “Run!” Vincent snarled. “Run, now!”
~ * ~
The taste of rusty nails and old blood filled Vincent’s mouth. Anger beat at him like a physical force, and the amulet around his neck flashed cold.
Henry at least started moving again, broken from the paralysis of terror. His skin felt like ice, even through the cloth of his nightshirt, and their breath steamed in the air.
“Back to the room—we have to get the salt down again before it’s too late,” Vincent said through chattering teeth.
A painting depicting a hunting scene flew off the wall. Vincent barely had time to duck; the wooden frame caught his temple with its edge, sending a spark of pain through him. An instant later, a trickle of blood made its way down his face, hot against his chilled skin.
“Vincent!” Henry cried. In the ghastly blue light, his pale skin took on the unnatural hue of a corpse.
“I’m all right—keep going.”
They’d only ventured a few feet from their door, and yet the distance back to the bedroom seemed to elongate. Was the ghost warping their perception of reality? Or doing something to the house itself? Reyer had built the place, had laid out the plans, had died here. Did he have an element of control over his environment far past that of an ordinary ghost?
Vincent gritted his teeth. Reyer might be able to play tricks on someone like Henry, but Vincent was a medium. Dunne hadn’t spent years training him to hone his will against ghostly influence just for him to die a few inches from a door he couldn’t quite reach.
The air had grown thick, a tangible wall of hate and blind rage, underlaid by something far worse. A sort of possessiveness, almost, as if the thing chasing them wanted far more than their lives.
It wanted their very souls.
No. He couldn’t succumb to the ghost’s influence. Vincent breathed deep, centering himself, pushing back against the pressure squeezing his mind. The tang of old iron flooded his mouth, and he spat.
Reality snapped back into place, and he lunged for the door, dragging Henry behind him. The salt was helplessly scattered. “Henry—grab the bag of salt!”
Henry snatched the bag up, but it was already too late.
A low growl sounded from inside the wardrobe an instant before the contents exploded out. A loud rip announced the shredding of Vincent’s velvet coat. The bed curtains tore free an instant later, a violent wind blowing out the candle and leaving the two men in darkness, save for the bluish glow from the balcony lights.
If it slammed the door and trapped them in here, in the dark—
“Henry, get out!” Vincent ordered. “I’ll stay and try to keep it from following you.”
The room erupted in a whirlwind, furniture hurled about, the blankets ripped from the bed. The pitcher on the washstand exploded, and chunks of either glass or ice peppered Vincent’s skin.
“I’m not leaving you,” Henry said.
Their refuge had become a trap. There had to be some way of getting out without them both dying here, torn apart by wood and metal and glass.
Lavender, sweet and just a touch astringent, joined the sour tang of rusted iron on his tongue.
Vincent’s heart clenched. They were well and truly done for now. Just one spirit had enough energy to kill them, but a second...he didn’t know how to even begin to fight back against both at once.
The crashing sounds died away, and the growls rose in pitch. Bedding crumpled to the floor, and the whirlwind keeping the fragments of pitcher aloft died abruptly. The taste of lavender grew stronger.
“Vincent?” Henry’s hands tugged on his arms now. “Hurry—we have to get out—something is happening.”
“Martha Reyer.” It must be her.
There was no time to wonder. They ran, plunging out the door and onto the balcony. Vincent slammed the door behind them. Despite all the crashes and shouts, no one else had come out onto the balcony to help them.
Even if everyone else cowered in terror, Lizzie wouldn’t leave him to face the ghost alone. Reyer must be muffling the sounds somehow. Cutting them off from one another. The whole performance in front of Miss Prandle’s door had been nothing more than a trap to lure one set of victims out where Reyer could reach them.
“Where can we go?” Henry asked, his voice trembling. “One of the other rooms? Or—”
Martha Reyer had tried to warn them. Perhaps had even come to their assistance just now. “The schoolroom.”
“Of course—my equipment—do you think we have time to put up the fence?”
“That isn’t why.” Vincent wrapped his cold fingers around Henry’s, tugging him along the balcony. “I’ll explain in a minute, just—”
The bedroom door crashed against the wall, and the flavor of iron sharpened, overriding lavender. They bolted, making for the stairs, which would take them to the second floor and the schoolroom.
The spirit howled after them, all glowing eyes and rage. They reached the second floor ahead of it, bare feet drumming on the rat-chewed carpet. As they ran past the mirror hanging near the servants’ stair, it exploded in a shower of glass.
Henry cried out and began to limp. “Curse it—I’ve got glass in my foot—”
Vincent hauled Henry’s arm over his shoulders, all but carrying the other man along. His heart pounded madly in his chest, and the freezing air seemed to strip both throat and lungs, but he kept going. The schoolroom door waited open for them, darkness and silence on the other side.
A hard blow struck Vincent in the center of the back, sending them both sprawling. He rolled over, clutching at his amulet, swearing furiously. The spirit loomed over him, all churning hate and corrupted ectoplasm, its greenish-white eyes fixed on his.
“No!” Henry exclaimed, and he flung the bag of salt he still clutched directly at the ghost.
The writhing mass of darkness came apart at the impact, falling into misty tatters. The pungency of iron told Vincent it was still there, but for the moment the ghost’s energy had been dissipated.
He stumbled to his feet. Henry stood on one leg, blood dripping onto the boards from his other foot. “Lean on me,” Vincent ordered.
Behind them, the darkness started to thicken once more.
Vincent wrapped his arm around Henry’s waist, practically dragging him the final few feet to the schoolroom doors. The instant they were inside, he slammed them shut.
The room was utterly black. Rather than let go of Henry, Vincent wrapped his other arm around him, holding him close. Henry clung to him in return, and they both stood frozen. Listening.
A low growl came from the other side of the doors. A soft scratching followed, accompanied by a louder growl, this one sounding almost frustrated.
Then nothing. Vincent swallowed and realized only the faint essence of lavender remained.
“Reyer’s gone,” he said, although he kept his voice at a whisper. It was foolish, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that speaking too loudly might draw the spirit back.
Henry began to shiver in his arms. “What happened? Why did it stop attacking us in the bedroom? And why did you say to come here, if not for my equipment?”
Henry drew back slightly, as if to look at him, but without either candle or moonlight, it was a futile gesture. “Martha Reyer? The wife he murdered?”
Vincent nodded. “I sensed her in the bedroom. It would seem she bears no love for the husband who killed her and their children.”
“Hardly a surprise.” Henry rested his head against Vincent’s shoulder. “You’re saying she fought him?”
“It’s the day of her death as well. He might be stronger than usual...but so is she.”
“And the schoolroom?”
Vincent pressed his lips against Henry’s hair. “She gave her life trying to keep him out of here. The atmosphere has always been lighter than anywhere else in the house. I thought her influence here might be strong enough to overcome him.”
“Well. It seems you were right.” Henry shifted. “Can we sit down? My foot hurts.”
Vincent winced. “Of course. If we had some light—”
“I think there might be some matches with the tools.”
“Good.” He gave Henry a quick squeeze. “Just don’t move until I get some light. I’ll tend to your foot, and we’ll spend the rest of the night here. Not as comfortable as a bed, but I for one don’t want to venture out onto the balcony again until dawn.”