Henry opened his mouth to cry out, but no sound issued forth. He gripped the iron rail, peering down into the dimness below him. Someone was having a prank at his expense, nothing more. Or they’d closed the door accidentally, not realizing anyone was inside.
The sound of footsteps ascending the stair came from below.
Every hair on his body stood up, bristling against the fabric of his shirtsleeves, his trousers. The turn of the stair kept him from seeing whoever it was, but the tread was heavy. A man’s.
Just Gladfield. Or Bamforth, come to make some inquiry about dinner preferences. Or even Night himself, returning to continue his exploration of the tower after some brief errand.
The footsteps drew closer. They were right at the bend. In a moment, he’d be able to see who it was.
Closer. They were in front of him now, just a few steps below.
No one was there. But the footsteps kept coming.
Henry flung himself up the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. The thunder of his shoes on the iron now rang throughout the tower, muffling the sound of any pursuing steps. His breath ached in his lungs, and a wave of cold washed over him. At any moment now, he’d feel a hand grasp his collar and wrench him backward.
He came around a turn and collided with a dark shape.
The cry locked behind Henry’s teeth burst forth, and he shoved wildly at the figure, trying to free himself from its grasp.
“Strauss! It’s me. Calm down,” Night exclaimed.
Henry clutched at the solidity of Night’s arms. “There’s something on the stairs—the door slammed—I heard footsteps, but no one was there.”
Night frowned slightly, tilting his head to listen. Henry did the same, although he could barely make anything out over the pounding of his heart and the raggedness of his breath. The winter wind moaned across the parapet above them, but otherwise there was nothing. Silence.
“Whatever it was is gone now,” Night murmured. But he didn’t move away.
The scent of citrus and musk rose from warm skin, and Henry breathed it in deep. Had he been cold only moments ago? Now his skin burned, drawing fire from the heat of the man next to him. His prick stirred, and his treacherous heart sped once again, this time with excitement rather than fear.
“I-I came to apologize,” he said, but his voice shook. “For earlier.”
A speculative look came into those dark eyes. “Did you?”
“Yes.” He swallowed against a dryness in his throat. “It’s my duty to be protective of Jo, and...well. Men seem to often think the color of her skin means she’s available to them for...things.”
Night arched a brow, but he still didn’t move away. “And all the lurid dime-novel tales of Indians carrying off hapless women surely didn’t help.”
Embarrassed heat flooded Henry’s face. “No! I know you might think so, given how I spoke to you on our first meeting. Please, accept my apology.”
Night seemed taken aback. “I don’t think I’ve ever had an apology from a white man.”
Now Henry felt even more wretched. “Living with Jo has made me consider things in a way I had no cause to before.”
“I see. Then I accept your apology.” Night moved nearer, forcing Henry back until his shoulders met the stone of the wall. The man was far too close, his lithe legs pressing lightly against Henry’s, his hands still on Henry’s arms. Henry realized dimly that he still clutched Night in return, but he couldn’t quite seem to make himself let go.
“And did you only come to say you were sorry?” Night murmured, his voice gone deep and husky.
“Yes.” He had to be firm about this. Had to. “I...I should go. I w-wouldn’t want to deprive Miss Prandle of your company any longer.”
Night bent his head. “But I don’t want to do this with Miss Prandle,” he said. And before Henry did more than part his lips to ask what he referred to, Night kissed him.
His full lips moved sensuously against Henry’s even as their bodies pressed tight. The hard line of Night’s erection pushed against Henry’s hip, and Henry moaned involuntarily, rubbing them together. Night took advantage of the moan, slipping his tongue into Henry’s mouth, and oh God, he’d missed this. He never kissed any of the men he met in the back alleyways, and Night’s lips on his were like the fall of rain on drought-stricken soil. The medium tasted of cinnamon and warmth, his tongue exploring Henry’s mouth with a thoroughness which turned his knees to water.
Night drew back, his breathing uneven. He let go of Henry’s arm with one hand, running his thumb lightly over Henry’s lips. Henry bit at the tip, sucked it, but he couldn’t look away from Night’s dark eyes. This was madness—foolishness—it was Isaac all over again.
Yet he couldn’t seem to make himself stop.
There came a loud squeal of hinges from below, and they both froze. In the heat of the moment, Henry had forgotten about whatever had come up the stair behind him, forgotten everything except for the man whose prick still pressed against his through their trousers.
“Henry?” Jo called. “Are you up there?”
Night released him and stepped back. Henry cleared his throat, fighting past the bands of lust tightening his chest. “Y-yes?” Night grinned at his discomposure, and Henry shot him a scowl. “I’m here!”
“Come down quick, and bring Mr. Night with you! The bells are ringing!”
~ * ~
Vincent stood back with Miss Prandle, Gladfield, and Miss Strauss while Henry—he couldn’t help but think of Strauss as such—inspected the thread and the line of starch across the doorway leading to what had been Mr. Reyer’s bedroom. The Franklin bells had ceased ringing by the time they’d arrived, but it didn’t seem to dampen Henry’s excitement in the slightest.
“Everything here is intact,” he verified, and Miss Strauss scribbled something in their notebook. “No one entered the room to tamper with the equipment, at least through this doorway. I’m removing the thread now in order to enter.”
The gleam of genuine excitement in his eyes made Vincent suppress a somewhat rueful grin. Whatever Henry might think of mediums, there was no denying he enjoyed using his science to achieve similar ends.
No denying either the way he’d returned Vincent’s kiss in the tower, like a man dying of thirst finding an oasis in the desert.
Vincent shifted his stance and took a deep breath to calm his pulse. He’d never intended to kiss Henry, hadn’t meant to do more than flirt. But once he’d had Henry in his arms, he hadn’t been able to resist. Neither, it seemed, had Henry. If Miss Strauss hadn’t interrupted, things would have gone a great deal further.
The mental image of Henry kneeling in front of him had his prick hardening again. He had to think of something else—anything else.
Fortunately, the rustle of skirts sounded behind him as Lizzie approached. Glad for the distraction, he stepped away from the gathering to greet her.
The cold air outside had reddened her nose and ears, and the hem of her skirt was damp. Her gaze went past him to the bedroom. “Has Mr. Strauss made some sort of discovery?” she asked. “Or is he just showing off his instrument?”
Night snickered. “The former, actually. Maybe. His spirit-detecting bells went off, and he’s making certain no one else had access to the room.”
“And does it actually prove anything we didn’t already know?” she asked, folding her arms over her chest.
Oddly, he found he wanted to defend Henry to her. “I think it does. Whatever his intentions, Mr. Strauss’s methods are ingenious. The bells alerted us to the presence of a spirit, without needing a medium to be on hand. In a case such as this, where there are only two of us and multiple spirits...”
“Hmm.” Lizzie didn’t seem so convinced.
“The spirit here was the weakest before,” Vincent added. “I hesitate to suggest it, but could the fact its presence stirred the bells mean it’s growing stronger?”
“Hardly a comforting thought,” she muttered.
“I know.” He glanced over his shoulder to make certain everyone else was still occupied. “Did you find anything?”
“No. I tramped around in the snow for nothing.” Her lips turned up into a wicked grin. “Perhaps I should tell Mr. Strauss I sensed something in the pond. Let him freeze his fingers off trying to measure a cold spot on the ice.”
“He’d do it,” Vincent agreed ruefully.
“I’ll keep the thought in mind in case we need entertainment later.”
“Don’t be cruel, Lizzie.”
She gave him an odd look. “He’s our competition, Vincent. No matter what else you might get up to with him, he’s not your friend, or mine.”
The thought was dispiriting. Henry’s kindness to his cousin, his willingness to apologize to Vincent for a slight, suggested Vincent’s original assessment of Henry had been wrong. He wanted to get Henry alone again, not to kiss—although he’d certainly relish the opportunity—but to talk. To find out more about that clever mind and unexpectedly warm heart.
But Lizzie was right. “There’s something else you should know,” he said and told her of the apparition Jo had glimpsed in the mirror. “Henry and I exchanged words, and I went to investigate the tower.”
“Henry?” she asked sharply.
Damn it. “Strauss,” he said hastily. “He came to find me, and the tower door slammed behind him. Then he reported hearing disembodied footsteps coming up the stairs.”
“Did you hear these steps?”
“No,” he admitted. “And I didn’t sense anything. But something frightened Strauss. I suppose it might have been his imagination.”
“Hmm.” She continued to look at him askance. “I’ve known you for a long time, Vincent Night. There’s something you aren’t telling me.”
“The tower...I think it bears closer inspection.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Regardless of whatever Mr. Strauss heard on the stair, the small room at the top of the tower is a locus of spirit activity of some sort.” The taste of rusty iron nails had been so strong in his mouth he’d almost gagged.
Until the kiss washed it away with the sweetness of another’s lips. Then he hadn’t tasted anything but Henry.
~ * ~
A short time later, everyone drifted into the dining room for lunch. It was less formal than their earlier meals, and at the moment only Henry, Jo, and Night were present; the others’ footsteps and voices sounded on the stairs and in the hall.
Henry scarcely believed the Franklin bells had worked. Of course theory said they should, and he’d been confident in it...but there had always been a little seed of doubt.
Not now. He’d create his own model of the bells and patent it as a “ghost detector.” Strauss’s Sure-Fire Spirit Finder—that sounded good, didn’t it? Sleep peacefully, without fear of unseen spirits, the ad might say. Of course, he’d have to find some way of insulating it from lightning storms, or else legions of customers would end up convinced that they were haunted every time the weather turned foul.
But those were just details, to be figured out later. For now, the point was that the device had worked.
Bamforth laid out a selection of cold meats, cheeses, and bread for them on the long side table. Henry assembled a sandwich from them and dropped into one of the chairs at the table.
Vincent Night sat down directly beside him.
Bands tightened around Henry’s chest, and his hunger dissolved. Or rather, his hunger for the food. Even not looking directly at Night, he was keenly aware of the medium’s body inches from his, just as he would have been the heat from a fire. He reached hurriedly for his coffee with his right hand even as Night reached with his left. Their elbows bumped, and Henry felt in his groin the shock of the casual touch.
“Pardon me,” Night said, giving no indication that Henry’s presence had any effect on him at all.
“Of course,” Henry replied, striving to sound cool. Which was impossible, considering all he could think of was the heat of Night’s lips on his, the press of his erection through their trousers.
No. He had to fight this. The man was a fraud and a liar at worst, an archaic purveyor of superstition at best. How many widows had Night tricked out of their inheritances, leaving them destitute? How many young men had he taken advantage of, claiming to care for them?
Except he’d gone out of his way to reassure Henry last night in the bedroom. Offered to make him tea. And this morning, he’d tried to help Jo, at least until Henry had intervened. Those seemed less like the actions of a fraud, and more like the actions of someone concerned about those around him.
“Are you quite all right, Mr. Strauss?” Miss Prandle asked as she entered the room.
Henry blinked back to the here and now and realized he’d been clutching his coffee and glaring at his plate without either taking a sip or eating a bite. “Quite fine, thank you,” he said and brought the coffee cup to his lips.
“I’m sure Mr. Strauss is merely excited by the morning’s events,” Night said blandly.
Henry choked on the coffee in his mouth, succeeding in bringing it up his nose. Jo helpfully pounded him on the back.
“Indeed,” he said, mopping his face with his napkin. “Science is always thrilling. Far more so than most other activities one might undertake.”
“Of course,” Night replied, pausing to take a bite of bread. “There is nothing quite so rousing for a man as to have his bells played with.”
Jo giggled, and Miss Prandle covered an unladylike snort behind her hand. Thank heavens Gladfield had only just come in and hadn’t overheard. Even given the loosened boundaries allowed mediums, he might have objected to Night’s talk.
Henry’s neck and cheeks flushed hot. He bit savagely into his sandwich, imagining it was...well, he wouldn’t want to really bite Night. Although...
Bamforth reemerged from the kitchen with an offering of fresh coffee, distracting the company. Miss Devereaux entered the room, making their gathering complete. Night turned his attention to Miss Prandle, asking something about a misplaced will. Too flustered to follow the conversation, Henry concentrated on his meal, glad to be left in peace for a few minutes.
Once finished, he tossed down his napkin and drained the rest of his coffee. “Come along, Jo. As we’ve gotten results in the bedroom, I wish to set up the barometer inside. We’ll monitor it throughout the afternoon.”
They climbed the stairs to the second floor. Henry’s mind was already half on the experiments he intended to run, when Jo grabbed his arm and let out a gasp. “Henry, look!”
Startled, he raised his head. They’d come up the easternmost of the double staircases, which let out directly facing the wall of Mrs. Reyer’s bedroom. High up on the wall—higher than any human could easily reach, at least without a ladder—someone had scrawled “Kill the whores.”