Authors: A. G. Howard
White molding paneled the lower halves of the wall, and a four poster bed of the same color sat in the corner. Layers of silk draped the bedposts in shades of salmon and turquoise with matching sheets, blankets, and pillows.
The room had little other furniture; a wardrobe, a mirrored dressing bureau with wing-backed chair, and a Secretaire—all painted white like the wall’s panels.
Miss Abbot strode past the fireplace where a tub of steaming water waited for my bath. To the left of the bureau, she opened a door, revealing the adjoining servant’s alcove in which Enya would stay. Enya ducked inside and I used the opportunity to get the housemaid’s attention.
“Did the viscount decorate this room?” I asked.
As if shocked that I could speak, the maid stammered. “Of course. As he did all of them.” She elaborated on her answer while turning her head to see about Enya. I lost my connection to her lips and Hawk turned away from the portrait to help me, to fill in missing words. I asked him stop. The staff of a household often knew more about their master than he wished them to know. For that reason I needed to gain their trust.
I set the flower pot on the bureau and patted Miss Abbot’s wrist to urge her to look at me. “I must see your mouth to read your words.” I pointed at my lips. “Can you repeat what you said?”
Twisting her apron’s hem, she nodded. There was a pinched quality to her cheeks which made her appear to be sucking something bitter. But she made an effort to speak slowly, a compassion contradictory to her sour expression. “His lordship designed this entire estate.” She glanced at the gypsy portrait on the opposite wall beside Hawk. “Also painted the artwork.” An odd expression passed through her face before she continued. “Even as a lad he was creative. A designer of sorts. Had the plans for this estate drawn up many years before he bought this land. Been his dream since childhood.” At the confession, she brought her fingers to her mouth, as if she’d said too much.
So, Lord Thornton was not only an architect, but he shared his brother’s artistic skills.
Hawk’s expression darkened.
The room’s color scheme surprised me. In this case the viscount’s dramatic and slapdash disregard for conventional palettes reaped a reward, for it was beautiful beyond words. Considering how his clothes often clashed, along with the garish berline we had arrived in, I was all the more curious as to what the remaining rooms in the house and castle looked like.
“Personally, I’m most curious about the décor in the dungeon.” Hawk’s growling voice shattered through me. He was obviously done hearing about his brother’s many talents. He waited at the opposite side of the room, tense and alert as he glanced out over the grounds through the salmon, blue, and clear glass blockings of a French door. “You need to bathe, and we need to talk. Get them out. Or I will.”
He purposely brushed his fingertips along the gauzy drapes to swish them. Enya returned in time to see the movement. Her mouth gaped and she backed into her room, closing the door behind her.
Miss Abbot noticed the curtains and rushed over to check the double-doors, assuming one stood ajar. Casting Hawk a scalding glare, I followed the housemaid and pretended to help check the latches.
Pleased with himself, my ghost stepped aside. I looked through the glass to find that I had the room with the rounded balcony I’d earlier admired. “Doesn’t this face east?” I could only imagine how lovely dawn must be, pouring in through the multi-colored panels.
Miss Abbot frowned. “We can order heavier drapes should you wish to sleep in.”
“No. I’ve always liked the dawn.” I shifted my attention to Hawk, imagining him in the morning, gilded by a prismatic spread of light. He arched a brow and smiled.
Miss Abbot drew the thin drapes closed. “All right then. The cooks are preparing browned tomatoes and cheese on toast, on the chance anyone needs sustenance. Ring the bell there,” she motioned to a long cord draped from the ceiling, “and I’ll bring it up.”
Miss Abbot’s attention jerked to the door. She rushed to open it. Two footmen carried in our luggage and left. The head housemaid started to follow, but paused, then came close enough so I could see her face in the firelight.
“Tomorrow you’ll break your fast with His lordship. He wishes to discuss new gowns for you.” Her gaze ran the length of me in obvious disapproval of our courtship. “He’ll be your escort to each party and gala upon the Manor’s opening.” With a curt nod, she offered the room key and closed the door on her way out.
I locked it behind her and faced Hawk.
My ghost leaned against the hearth and grimaced, arms crossed over his chest.
“You are jealous,” I stated.
“I am worried.” A wry frown belied his calculated answer.
“Worrying is fruitless. There is no turning back now.” I sat the key on the Secretaire then rummaged through my baggage, checking for Hawk’s journal within a hidden pocket in the trunk’s lining. Finding it safe in its hiding place, I shut the lid and trailed my fingertips through the bath water, my bones hungry to soak up the steamy warmth. “Beginning tomorrow, we will solve the mystery of what happened to you. Then we will leave. Simple as that.”
After dragging the wingback chair to the French doors, I positioned it to face the glass and opened the drapes a crack so Hawk could look outside. I motioned for him to take the seat.
He refused to budge. “Simple, aye? We’ve no idea how dangerous my brother is. At the very least he’s a randy and volatile spoiled prig. I may remember little about myself. But be sure, given the same opportunity as him, I would bed you within a fortnight and leave you with child to bind you to me forever. We’re twins. So who’s to say he won’t do the same?” Hawk stepped up next to the tub. He bowed in a dramatic sweep, beckoning me to the water.
Face burning, I didn’t budge. “The viscount and I aren’t even acquainted. He won’t have such politics ruling his heart. This entire charade is to earn his way back to society’s good graces. It is enough for him to offer me a pity proposal. When I turn him down, I will be left looking like an idiot, and he a charitable man.”
“He will not
you turn him down.” Hawk clenched a fist next to the edge of the tub.
“Of course he will. I’m beneath him.” I gestured to the chair, more insistent this time.
A muscle jumped in Hawk’s jaw as he tightened his stance … immoveable. “That’s precisely where he wants you. Beneath him and naked. Lord knows what else is on his agenda with his demented pastimes and hobbies. Throughout his life he’s been given everything I haven’t. A kind father … money … power. I refuse to let him desecrate the one thing that can better all of it. I refuse to let him seduce you right under my nose.” He tilted his head toward the tub in a less than subtle command, eyes aglow with mystical light.
I remained rooted to the floor. “You envy every aspect of his life—from his riches to his childhood. Even if I weren’t involved, even if you hadn’t heard the rumors, you would despise him.”
involved. And I did hear the rumors, much too clearly for my liking.”
“You think me a dimwitted country maiden.”
“I said no such thing. You’re too compassionate, and innocent to the ways of a man and a woman. He can use that to his advantage.”
“I have more wisdom than to let a stranger lure me into his bed, or into any sort of danger.”
Hawk frowned. “In a few weeks, he’ll no longer be a stranger.”
“Not so. I’ve known you for over a month, yet at this moment you’re acting as if I’m a stranger to you. As if you know nothing of me.”
A cloud of frustration extinguished the light in his eyes, but quickly passed. “Take your bath my lady, before your water ices over.”
“At your leisure, my lord.” I curtsied and pointed to his waiting chair. “If you’ll but take your place.”
“You can’t keep me from watching. It isn’t as if you can blindfold me.”
“Ah. But I can remove my locket.”
He raised an eyebrow—a dare.
“Or perhaps I shan’t bathe any while I’m here,” I demurred. “All the better. If I stink, the viscount will keep his distance and you won’t have to worry for my inability to resist his charms.”
“Dammit, Juliet!” Hawk slapped his hand atop the water in emphasis. The liquid sprayed across the floor and flecked my forehead. “Is it so much to ask for this one intimacy? I cannot even kiss you, for God’s sake. Yet he can tempt you into his arms any time he deems fit, simply by resembling me.”
I didn’t respond with the sharp-edged response he deserved. I couldn’t. Because where the water trickled from Hawk’s palm, he had become flesh.
We gasped simultaneously as he heard my thoughts.
Brow furrowed, he rolled up his sleeve and dunked his entire hand beneath the surface. He lifted his palm above his head. We both watched as the droplets drizzled from his fingertips to his palm to his wrist, coating him, coloring that part of him to life, making him solid where he was once transparent.
Holding my gaze, he moved toward me, dripping water along the way. Within moments we stood face to face. I propped my shoulders against the chair’s tall back.
“Your hand.” His husky demand prompted me to heed without question.
I held up my palm. His met mine with a warm, firm resistance.
Staring at my face to gauge my reaction, he tugged his hand in a sensuous tour down my inner wrist, glazing me with wetness.
The pull along my skin was substantial and real … a joining of flesh to flesh. Man to woman. … so different from our first kiss. Nothing healing or invigorating like the merging of our spirits. I didn’t have to ask. I knew by the severity of his expression he could feel me as well.
At last, we were touching.
Tears blazed down my cheeks.
We are touching.
In rapt silence, Hawk retraced the watery path, his fingertip following the veins in my wrist, probing the intricate lines in my palm and the delicate skin between my fingers, waking places I never knew were dormant. Taking a deep breath, he laced our fingers.
I squeezed his hand.
Caught so off guard by the sensation, we laughed: the secret laughter of children who have discovered they can fly—despite that every adult swore it impossible.
The water formed a seal between us … a link between our worlds. But it was fleeting, for in each place it dried, Hawk became translucent again and our connection faded. A desperate wrinkle crossed his forehead as he pried our fingers apart to swipe the remainder of water across his lips. The wet glaze sparkled in the moonlight.
In dreamlike astonishment, he leaned over me. A droplet trickled down his chin and plopped on mine—so unexpected and gratifying it burned like steam.
In that glorious moment of suspension, one breath away from a kiss, he jerked back and glared over his shoulder.
Struggling to contain my pounding heartbeat, I shoved myself upright as Enya’s door opened.
She stepped into the firelight, an odd expression on her face. “I thought I heard you laughing.” Her gaze followed the droplets on the floor leading from the tub to me. “Oh, were you testing the water for your bath? I will assist. And when you’re done, I would have a turn.”
She hadn’t offered such help in weeks. This was her way of reaching out, an effort to mend the bridge between us.
“Get rid of her, Juliet.” Hawk’s voice was demanding, but his face full of supplication.
I didn’t know what to do—torn between my estranged friend and this amazing discovery. Now that Hawk and I had found a link to one another, so many more intimacies could be shared between us this night were we submerged together in the tub. The mere thought heated my entire body as if my blood had caught fire.
Enya frowned—either at my hesitation or my flushed skin. “Do you wish me to leave?”
If I told her yes, there would be no salvaging the closeness we once shared. In that moment, the limits of my mortal frailties swallowed me whole. My bones ached, my skin drained of the heat that had consumed it, and my mind thickened with exhaustion. The warm bath looked more inviting by the minute. And I could no longer stave off my stomach’s bid for food. Yet I knew once Enya and I both had a turn, the tub would be taken away … the water emptied.
So the decision would not be mine. In fairness, I couldn’t make it. Instead, I left it for Hawk to decide.
His gaze roved my body before settling on my mouth. He cursed, then, with a pained grimace, rolled down his sleeve. He slipped into the chair—so reluctant, his muscles coiled in resistance beneath his clothes.
He propped his elbows on the arms and stared out the window at the moonlit landscape … my silent, stoic phantom, locked in the chains of a gentleman.
The wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher.
I slept, adrift in dreams filled with light and hope, though strangely devoid of music. When I awoke to the dawn, my ghost still sat by the glass doors, elbows on the chair’s arms, head tilted so I could see his profile. It looked as if he hadn’t budged for hours.