Authors: A. G. Howard
Silence wreathed us, all but for his labored breath.
I debated speaking, but what does one say to a hallucination?
“Well, Miss.” He tapped one of the button boots donning his feet, blatant in his appraisal of my body. “You might consider more what you should wear, than what you should say. Not that I’m complaining of your choice thus far.”
I gasped and released the flower. He vanished.
Scrambling from the tub, I covered myself with a woolen throw and slumped next to the planter. I arranged my necklace so the locket fell again between my breasts. My erratic pulse hammered my sternum beneath it.
A man had seen me naked in my bath.
But no. It was merely an apparition.
I studied the corner where he had stood. He’d seemed so real.
He even heard my
, as if I had spoken them directly to him.
That had been wonderful—no straining to read his lips, no struggling to form answers without
deaf to him. I rarely engaged in conversation with anyone other than Uncle, Enya, Mama, or our female clientage. Communication was laborious, and in the past, the effort had yielded painful results. Most especially with men.
I’d inherited Mama’s long, golden hair and soft brown eyes, and lashes uncharacteristically dark for one of my porcelain coloring. Paired with Papa’s shapely lips and a small nose that earned me the nickname of China Rose—the nymph of all blossoms—my appearance garnered more attention than I desired. But I’d learned men could not be trusted once they discovered my “abnormality.” So even had I been eligible for a coming out season to meet a suitable mate, I would have refused it. Something I’d made very clear to Mama and Uncle.
That didn’t mean I was immune to curiosities or loneliness.
I flushed, thinking of how Lord Thornton touched my ankle at the cemetery. Society said it was wrong to have such stirrings. Enya constantly catechized me on proper codes of conduct. Only familial affection and the goal to one day be a mother were acceptable feelings for a lady to have. Heaven forbid we put any intellectual consideration into how those things came about.
Yet earlier, when I saw the viscount mourning at the gate, what I first noticed was his masculinity. I thought him attractive, and wounded. I was drawn to him, beyond my empathy for his loss. I knew better than to reach out. Not only because it would be improper with no chaperone between us … but because I dared not step from the veil of diffidence that had cloaked me for so long. Being vulnerable was far more discomforting than being reprimanded by society.
Yet if there were someone who only I could see … someone who could hear me without my tongue, and that I could hear without my ears, we wouldn’t have those boundaries. We wouldn’t have
And my solitude would be no more.
I glanced down at the flower. My chin trembled. I must indeed have lost my mind. For instead of fearing the implications of the apparition I’d imagined, I was desperate to conjure him again.
Wrapping the woolen throw around me, I touched the petals. On cue, my translucent guest materialized in front of the windows beside my nightingale’s cage, his form aglow with that otherworldly light.
Upon his appearance, Aria bustled behind the wires as if flames lit her tail feathers. The man kept his back to me, distracted by her. I stood with one hand on the flower, the other cradling the pot to help hold the throw where I had knotted it at my chest.
If the bird could see him, and he could see the bird, he wasn’t a hallucination.
Clasping his gloved hands behind him, my visitor turned around. His eyes were soft like grey clouds of winter, though alive with light, as if the sun lingered behind them.
There was a shift as I saw him as an irrefutable entity, connected to me on some level defying all logic.
“Thank you.” His voice curled through the air, warm like a vapor of coffee on a chill morn.
The query formed in my mind. I didn’t even bother moving my lips.
“For showing me the way out of the darkness. I’ve been there since …” He reached into the lapel of his jacket and pulled out a gold pocket watch of unusual shape, square instead of round. Upon gazing at it, my guest’s jaw twitched. “What time is it? My watch is cracked.” He held it up. Behind a crinkled glass face, the hands pointed to half-past twelve.
I appraised the clock on my mantle, and this time I answered aloud. “It’s ten of the clock.” Feeling exposed beneath his unfaltering stare, I averted my eyes to the floor. “Sir Hawk.”
He tucked his watch away. “Hawk?”
I inched backward until I stood in a puddle of tepid bath water, a result of my swift withdrawal from the tub. “Yes. That’s your name, is it not?”
“It does seem familiar.” He ran a gloved palm through glossy, shoulder length waves—either black or a brown as rich as burnt chocolate. With his glowing translucence, it was hard to be sure. “I feel as if I’m expected somewhere. Do you know anything of that?”
I shook my head.
“I’m dressed for an occasion.” His arms stretched out and he studied his clothes. Then he offered a roguish smile—an arresting flash of straight, white teeth. “Perchance I’ve just arrived, and we were to share a bath.”
I tightened the throw around me, disconcerted yet titillated by the implication.
The smile slipped from his face. “Wait. Say something.”
What should I say?
I struggled to think over my heart’s raucous pounding. Surely he could hear it.
“How are you doing that?” He discarded his gloves, revealing long, fine fingers. “Your lips—they don’t move. Yet I still hear you.” His gloves dispersed to dust upon hitting the floor. He didn’t seem to notice, too intent on me. “Is that how you drew me out of the darkness? You are a witch?”
“I assure you.
am human.” I moved my lips with the words this time, though my vocal cords and tongue played no part in this conversation.
His shoulders eased, as if relieved by my efforts. He backed up and glanced again at Aria. She preened her feathers while eyeing him suspiciously.
I dragged the flower’s pot between my breasts to pull the woolen throw higher. My locket wedged beneath it, pinching me.
Such a tragedy, to have no idea the state he was in.
He straightened his posture. “What state? Have I been in an accident? Is that why I’m imagining such queer things? Are you my nurse?” Then his attention dropped to my covering. “What kind of hospital is this?”
Inching toward the windows, the throw trailing behind me through the puddles, I stepped onto the dry rug. Still pinching a flower petal, I sat on the window seat, keeping Aria’s cage between me and my guest. My arm tightened around the flower pot. “I hardly believe it myself. If not for seeing you earlier in the shed, and your appearance now … though you are not exactly
, are you?”
He furrowed his brow and stepped around the cage to sit beside me.
The cushion dented beneath his weight and I wondered upon the strange physical rules binding him. A bucket, when tossed his direction, couldn’t touch him; yet he affected things around him to some degree.
“What do you mean, not here?” His voice lowered, tentative.
I looked him in the eyes, their light shadowed by thick, dusky lashes. “You are dead … a spirit without a form.
Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
“A … ghost.” My guest looked on the verge of either amusement or hysterics. It was obvious he thought me mad.
I glanced at his boots, noticing for the first time that something was clumped and dried upon them. It seemed familiar, though I couldn’t place it. “What is that?” I asked. It looked like blood, but was too thick. “Some sort of mud. Where is it from? Such an odd color.”
He scraped his right heel with his left. “Color?” As if an afterthought, he glanced at the wavering fire. “No. Everything is varying shades of gray. Even the flames.”
I shook my head. “There must be some sort of visual boundary between your realm and mine.”
“My realm and—?” His mouth tensed to a line. “Not this death madness again. I’ve woken up in a bloody sanatorium.”
“I agree it does feel like one. Considering I'm as deaf as the night is dark. Yet here I am conversing with you,” I clamped my lips shut, sealing them tight to prove my point,
with or without using my tongue
He launched himself off the cushion and stumbled backward several steps, staring at me in repulsion. “Stop doing that! It is you that is a ghost. You're haunting me!”
Aria ruffled her feathers and opened her bill on a screech that I couldn’t hear. Worried her tantrums might bring Enya running, I draped her cage with the silken cloth used to settle her to sleep at night while still keeping my finger on the flower’s petal.
“No, Sir Hawk.” This time, I moved my lips. “I can hold and touch things.” I rolled the flower pot at my sternum. “You cannot.”
I stood. The throw’s fringe tickled my toes. “All right. What happened to your gloves?”
He shook his head. “I dropped them.”
“Then find them.”
His gaze jerked around the room, desperate. “But … they fell. Right there.” He gestured to Aria’s cage. “Somewhere beneath.”
I stiffened my chin. “They were only real while you wore them. Once you took them off, they vanished—ceased to exist.”
He glared at me. Unbuttoning his jacket, he shrugged out of the sleeves and draped it over his elbow. Then, holding my gaze, he pulled off the cravat. His shirt lapels folded open to reveal a strong chest with a slight furring of dark hair.
I’d never seen a man’s naked chest before and looking away proved a very difficult task.
“Interesting,” he baited. “It appears my clothes are still here. You're playing me for a fool.” The cravat dangled from his fingers like a white flag of surrender, a stark contrast to the challenge in his voice.
I’d been holding onto the pot and the flower for so long, my hands were falling asleep. “Let the jacket and cravat fall free of your touch.”
He narrowed his eyes and released them. We both watched the clothing vanish the moment it met the floor, all but the pocket watch inside his jacket. It stayed intact and hit the rug with a thump I felt in my feet.
Why didn’t it disappear, too? Perhaps it being made of metal played a role.
He started to tug his shirt from his pants, staring at the place on the floor where his jacket and cravat should have been. He studied my face. “Show me how you did that.” He began to work his wrists free from his ruffled sleeves.
“You would do well not to relinquish the rest of your clothes.” I moved back to the window and sat with the flower pot propped on my lap. My fingertips tingled as blood resumed its natural course. “I suspect if you strip yourself naked, you shall remain that way.”
And your pocket watch has little hope of hiding your most prized attribute
. The wicked thought raced through me, unchecked, as the gleaming glass face caught my eye from the rug.
“You are a bold one,” he said.
Shame burned my cheeks in a hot rush. “You weren’t meant to hear that.”
He eased his wrists back into place within the shirt then bent to pick up the watch. He tucked its chain within his waistband with the square face hanging outside his trousers. “What kind of scheme are you running? Summoning men to your bath and teasing them with visions of milky skin and perfect breasts. Purposely leading them on a nightmare journey into madness.”
A forbidden delight stirred in my chest. “You think my breasts are perfect?”
He grimaced—an expression which on any other man would be off-putting. But framed by his opacity, it made him look like an avenging angel. “I owe you no pretty words. You’re a thief. You’ve drugged me, so you may unhinge my mind and steal my purse.”
“I am no thief.” I steadied my gaze on his, determined to make him face his truth, however tragic it was. “And it would appear you have nothing real enough to steal, other than a most unusual broken watch.”
“Is that so?” His lip twitched. “Why are you holding that blasted plant? Put it down.” A dare laced his words. “Put it down and I’ll give you something worth stealing. First, we start with a kiss. Then I’ll show you how real the rest of my body is.”
My mouth drained of moisture. I never realized a threat could double as an enticement.
Before I could react, he reached for my wrist. His hand dispersed like a rush of dandelion seeds then reappeared. It felt as if the wind had ruffled my skin. He cried out and my legs jerked in reaction, toppling the pot from my lap. Dirt hiccupped onto my bare feet as my guest vanished.
I cursed—a word which would’ve curled my mama’s straight hair. The throw came unwound from my body as I fell to my knees.
Ignoring my nakedness, I scooped the soil back into the pot. I almost didn’t notice the feet settling next to me.
I glanced up into Enya’s horrified face. “What has gotten into you?” She dropped my bed gown to the floor. “Cover up. I’ll clean this mess.”