Vincent took a deep breath and felt as if his lungs were fully able to expand for the first time since he’d set foot in the house. The big room had little furniture remaining in it, but the desk and chairs seemed made for a child. Bright paint still clung to the walls, along with the faint outline of marks in a childish hand, no doubt scrawled in pencil and never quite scrubbed away.
A sweet taste of lavender competed with the fading cinnamon of the cachou, tinged with the unmistakable tang of blood. He’d sensed this spirit on the balcony, at the location of the bloodstain.
“Some sort of schoolroom,” Strauss observed. “No cold spots over here.”
The flavor vanished. Interesting.
“The atmosphere does seem a bit different,” Strauss lectured on. “I’ll take pressure readings later in addition to the others I’d planned. Good thing I thought to pack a barometer.”
Of course he had. The man had probably brought a catalog’s worth of scientific instruments.
Gladfield waited patiently by the door as they wandered about, but there was nothing more to be discovered. Still, Vincent felt regret when he shut the doors behind them as they left, and the oppressive air of the rest of the house closed in again. Perhaps if the gloomy atmosphere grew too much, he could retreat into the schoolroom for a rest.
Then he remembered the taste of lavender and decided against it.
The westernmost portion of the building was given over to servants’ quarters and storage. Past the servants’ stair—which thankfully remained spirit free as he stepped past—laid the tutor’s room and the nurseries. Once again, they reached the front of the house, above the vestibule.
“The third floor you’ve already seen,” Gladfield said as they gathered at the stairs leading down to the grand hall. “Above your rooms is nothing more than attic space. There is also a basement, with a wine cellar linked to a root cellar. I think the first two floors offer more than enough to investigate at the moment. Let us retire to freshen up for dinner, and reconvene downstairs in the dining room in half an hour. The contest can begin in earnest tomorrow morning.”
Miss Strauss brightened visibly at the mention of food. Gladfield left them and went to check on Bamforth in the kitchen, and the rest of them trooped up the stairs to the third floor. Since his room was directly beside Strauss’s, Vincent dawdled at the door until the other man approached.
“Let me know if you need any help with your...collar,” he said.
A pink flush instantly appeared on Strauss’s neck and face. “I don’t need any help,” he hissed in a low voice as he yanked open his door. “What I need is for you to stop.”
“Stop what?” Night asked with feigned innocence.
Strauss growled at him and slammed the door. Grinning to himself, Night crossed to the rooms on the opposite side of the balcony and knocked on Lizzie’s door. When she called for him to enter, he slipped inside.
She’d taken off her shoes and removed a fresh dress from the wardrobe. “What didn’t you want to say in front of the others?” she asked, laying the dress aside and sitting.
“There are three spirits in the house.” He leaned back against the door, arms folded over his chest. “One at the bottom of the stairs. A different one on the balcony and in the schoolroom. And a third in Reyer’s bedroom.”
A smile lit up Lizzie’s face. “Ha! Let’s see Mr. Strauss measure that with his stupid thermometer.” She cocked her head. “You aren’t smiling.”
“Two of the spirits seemed...ordinary, as spirits go.” God, it was hard to explain this to anyone, even another medium. “The one near the stairs tasted like lemons and vinegar, and the one on the balcony like lavender with a little bit of blood.”
Lizzie made a face. “I’m reminded yet again why I’m glad I don’t have your talent. And the third?”
“It was fainter than the other two. For which I’m profoundly grateful.” Vincent shivered. “It was like I’d licked a rusty iron nail. And there was a sense of...of malice. I think it might be angry.”
“Interesting.” Lizzie laced her fingers together and leaned forward. “But you said it was fainter than the others?”
“For now.” But the longer living people were emitting energy in the house, the stronger all of the spirits would grow.
“Keep me informed.” She rose decisively to her feet. “And you were right not to hint to Mr. Strauss about the multiple spirits. If his devices fail to detect the differences...well, his Electro-Séance won’t get very far if the users are trying to contact dear old Aunt Hetty and find themselves with Uncle Bob spewing profanities at them instead.”
Vincent smiled reluctantly at the mental image. “A good point. Mr. Strauss certainly is enthusiastic, isn’t he?”
Lizzie snorted. “Not the word I would have used. You don’t admire him, do you?”
“No, of course not,” Vincent said hastily. “I just meant to comment.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Please don’t tell me you have designs on the man.”
“I’m insulted you should even suggest such a thing!” He tried to look deeply affronted, but failed miserably. “Not as such, anyway.”
Lizzie shook her head. “I won’t bother telling you what a horrible idea it would be, since you won’t listen anyway. Instead I’ll bid you farewell so we can both change for dinner. Try to find something suitable to distract our dear Mr. Strauss, won’t you?”
Vincent laughed and let himself back out into the hall.
~ * ~
Dinner was simple fare, consisting of three courses: potato soup, roast chicken with turnips and carrots, and chocolate cake. Henry tucked in with relish; given the erratic hours he spent in the shop, most of the meals he shared with Jo consisted of sandwiches or a quick bite from a lunch wagon.
“Delicious—my compliments to you Mr. Bamforth,” he said.
Bamforth served more wine to Mr. Gladfield. “Thank you, Mr. Strauss. Just doing my job, though.”
“Don’t be so modest,” exclaimed Miss Prandle. Bamforth blushed, and Henry winced. If Bamforth had feelings for the girl...well, falling in love with his employer’s niece could only end in dismissal. “This cake is truly divine.”
“May I have another piece?” Jo asked, blinking her big eyes at Bamforth.
“Of course, miss.” He served another slice, and she beamed at him. Well, the fellow was rather attractive, although he couldn’t hold a candle to Night.
Curse it. Henry shouldn’t think such things.
As if his thought had loosed an ill genie in the room, Miss Prandle said, “I wanted to compliment you, Mr. Night. You speak English very well. Where did you learn it?”
Was it Henry’s imagination, or had Night’s expression become somewhat fixed? He’d changed into a sober coat for dinner, but his scarlet vest more than made up for the charcoal gray velvet. Unfortunately for Henry, the color suited Vincent, contrasting wonderfully with his dark skin and eyes.
“Thank you, Miss Prandle,” he said. “To answer your question, my father was a white trader who fell in love with a Mohican princess. At first her tribe didn’t wish her to marry an outsider. But her grandfather was a great medicine man, and spoke with the spirits, who told him they should wed. They were very happy together for a time, but alas died when I was still quite young. Fortunately, a pair of missionaries happened to be visiting the tribe at the time and took pity on me. They adopted me as their own son and brought me to live with them in New York.”
“Your grandfather was a medium as well?” Jo asked.
Henry shot her a reproving glance, which she either didn’t see or—more likely—ignored.
“In his own way,” Night said.
“How fascinating!” Miss Prandle exclaimed.
Jo chewed thoughtfully on her cake. “Most mediums are women, aren’t they?”
“Jo, I’m sure Mr. Night doesn’t wish to answer your questions,” Henry snapped.
“I don’t mind,” Night said. Of course he’d be contrary. “It’s true the fairer sex commune most easily with the spirits. Supposedly because they are more...”—his dark eyes met Henry’s gaze—“receptive to their intercourse.”
Henry gripped his fork hard and struggled to ignore the swelling in his breeches. Bad enough the man had somehow divined Henry’s interests, but to flirt with him at the very table courted disaster. True, mediums were given more leniency in their conduct. Night must know he and Miss Devereaux had no chance in this contest, and hoped to either distract Henry or to charm him into relinquishing the prize.
Well, he’d soon learn Henry Strauss couldn’t be charmed. Not by any medium.
~ * ~
That night, Henry opened his eyes and discovered he couldn’t move.
His groggy mind flailed—where was he? Through a gap in the bed curtains, he just glimpsed the room beyond. The shapes of the furniture, the position of the window letting in dim moonlight, didn’t match the configuration of his small bedroom above the shop.
He was somewhere else. Reyhome Castle. The haunted house.
And he couldn’t move.
He tried to take a deep breath, but some force pressed down on his chest. The same pressure kept his limbs pinned to the bed. Not so much as a finger would obey his frantic command to move.
He’d been tired when he’d fallen asleep—this must be a dream. A horrible nightmare. He’d wake up any moment now.
There was someone else in the room.
He’d drawn the bed curtains against the winter night, but he felt a presence on the other side. The air against his face grew colder, and the curtains billowed gently. It looked as if someone was running a hand along them while pacing closer and closer to the head of the bed.
He struggled to breathe, to call for help. But no sound escaped his straining lungs.
A figure appeared in the gap between curtains. The shape of a woman, clad in a dress thirty years out of fashion. She leaned in, closer and closer. Like the mouse-chewed portrait in the bedroom, she had no face.
“Leave this place,” she whispered. “Before it’s too late.”
And she was gone.
The force holding him to the bed vanished instantly. He shot upright, a wild cry escaping him. Hurling back the curtains, he staggered out of bed. The room lay silent and still around him, with no sign of any intruder.
A sharp knock sounded on the door, sending his heart lurching against his ribs. “Strauss?” Night called, his voice gravelly with sleep. “Are you all right in there?”
“I...I think so.” Henry sank down on the edge of the bed. His spectacles lay on the night table, and he fumbled them on, bringing the room into focus.
The door opened, and Night stuck his head in, his sleep-tousled hair illuminated by the light of the candle in his hand. “I thought I heard you cry out.”
God, the room was cold. Henry wrapped his arms about himself, shivering. “I did. I thought...I thought there was a woman here in the room with me. She said to leave.”
Night frowned, and the sleep left his eyes. He strode into the room, holding the candle aloft, sending the shadows retreating. Without asking permission, he went to the door connecting to a maid’s room—the chamber had originally been meant for female guests—and Henry cursed himself for not thinking of it sooner. “Locked,” he murmured.
Meaning nothing, if an accomplice had shot the bolt from the other side. Miss Devereaux, perhaps. But some force had held Henry to the bed, and whatever tricks mediums might employ, they couldn’t exert control over his body. Certainly not without mesmerizing him first, and there was no way to accomplish such a thing without his knowledge.
The only logical conclusions were that he’d had a very detailed nightmare...or an otherworldly visitation.
Shivers took him, and he pulled his legs onto the bed, seeking warmth. Footsteps padded rapidly across the room, and a moment later the mattress bowed slightly under Night’s weight.
“Are you all right?” the medium asked, leaning forward as if to get a clear look at Henry’s face. Dark fingers touched the back of Henry’s hand, hot against his skin. “You’re freezing—I can go to the kitchen and make some tea, if you’d like.”
The note of concern in his voice caught Henry off guard. In the soft light of the candle, Night looked somehow different than when Henry had first seen him in the daylight of the grand hall. His features softer, perhaps, or maybe it was the way his raven-black hair tumbled loosely over his forehead. He wore an oriental-style robe of plum silk, decorated with embroidered dragons and birds, a glimpse of white nightshirt beneath it. The scent of some citrusy cologne rose from his skin: oranges and musk.
Henry was suddenly acutely aware of the heaviness of Night’s weight on the mattress beside him. What would it feel like stretched out on top of him in this bed? Were Night’s nipples much darker than the rest of his skin? His prick?
Heat flushed Henry’s body; he no longer felt at all cold. Quite the opposite, in fact. “N-no. You’re kind to offer, but I’m feeling much better already.”
Night’s fingers lingered for a moment on the back of his hand. Then they withdrew, Henry’s skin going cold where their warmth had been. “I’ll leave you to your rest.”
Henry laughed ruefully. “Not much chance of that. I’ll spend the hours until dawn wondering if every sound is the work of some otherworldly visitor.”
The bed creaked as Night rose to his feet. “I don’t think you’ll have another visitation. Our presence is slowly charging the atmosphere of the house, but we haven’t been here long enough for the energy to truly build up. An apparition like the one you saw takes power. Likely it exhausted what it had gathered from us already and won’t have the strength to trouble you again. At least not tonight.”
The words were spoken kindly, lacking the hidden laughter Night had directed toward him earlier. The man could have taken the chance to fluster Henry further by claiming the room haunted and Henry unlikely to sleep another wink. Either he was a very poor fraud, or...
“Thank you,” Henry said.
Night paused at the door. “You’re welcome. May I ask if you’ve ever been visited by a spirit before?”
Henry swallowed against the tightness in his throat. “Yes. I don’t wish to speak of it.”
“Of course.” Night started out, then turned back. A slow, hot grin curved his full lips. “I’ll be right next door if you have further...need...of me.”
Before Henry thought of a response, Night slipped out, taking his candle with him and leaving Henry sitting alone in the dark.
~ * ~
Vincent sat up for an hour after he’d left Strauss, sipping from his flask. He’d relaid the line of salt he’d disturbed in rushing out the door. No spirit would be visiting him in his sleep, not tonight or ever.
The more he saw of the house, the less he liked it. They hadn’t even been here for twenty-four hours, and already a spirit had appeared to Strauss, of all people. Telling him to leave.
Although it had lost the energy to manifest, Vincent caught the last of its presence when he’d entered the room. The taste of lavender had matched the spirit he’d sensed near the schoolroom. This one moved about the house. And, according to Strauss, seemed to be a woman.
Why had she appeared to Strauss? Had his room contained some special significance to her, or had it been a random choice? Did he possess a touch of clairvoyance, not quite enough to make him a medium but enough to allow spirits to contact him more easily than everyone else?
Strauss. Either sleep improved his disposition or he wasn’t quite as much of an ass as Night had first supposed. Sitting on the bed with him had been a mistake, though; Vincent had wanted nothing more than to shove the man back into the blankets and warm him up the old-fashioned way. Strip away the stuffy exterior and make him moan and writhe.
Vincent shifted and ran a hand over his swelling cock. Strauss thought he was a fraud, was determined to destroy the livelihood on which Lizzie and he both depended. Determined to replace them with some soulless “Electro-Séance,” as if spirits were nothing more than the voices recorded on a phonograph, to be called up on demand and dismissed when the listener grew tired.
But they weren’t. They were people, or had been.
Had the ghostly woman meant her words to Strauss as a threat—or a warning?
They ought to demand the history of the house from Gladfield. But Gladfield wouldn’t budge, certainly not before they’d had time to investigate tomorrow.
He knew already what Lizzie would say. They could afford to wait. Whatever was happening here wasn’t dangerous.