Authors: A. G. Howard
The pressure became too much and the boards snapped, dragging me down into the lower level. Muddy water slithered into my throat, gagging me. The torrent twisted me to my back. Something sharp pressed against my side.
I tried to escape, but my braid snagged around his ribs. I tugged free by loosening the plaits so my hair floated in the water all around me. Blindly, I searched for his pocket watch and tucked it in my skirt’s waist before another rush of water spun me around. The raging fire inside my shoulder ignited again.
The ceiling overhead began to buckle. Wave after wave sloughed over me. I tried to clamber to higher ground, but the lack of my right arm, my gouged shin, and the water’s momentum proved too great a challenge.
Gasping for air, I drifted helpless in the surge. It carried me to the furthest dirt wall, slammed me against the barrier. In spite of my body’s reluctance to move, I paddled my feet to stay afloat. The space between ceiling and water diminished bit by bit. I closed my eyes as warm water enveloped my head. Debris tangled in my swirling hair. I immerged to steal another breath.
I knew I faced death, yet I could think only of Chaine—a man more multi-faceted than any diamond.
A murderer. What other explanation could there be? It explained why Bitti pushed me in, so I wouldn’t learn the truth and expose him. Protecting her beloved nephew … his new way of life—so hard earned. She was repaying her debt for betraying his mother all those years ago.
I gulped another breath.
Even were I to live, I could never betray him. Yet I would never be with him. I loved him despite his evil—for his tenderness toward his father; for his fondness of nature; for his rare and extraordinary admiration for all things broken. His horrendous childhood had crippled an otherwise benevolent heart, rendering him deaf to his conscience. Could not I, of all people, understand deafness?
Now Chaine’s past would haunt him always, for he would be alone without me; therein would be his punishment.
The water cocooned me again. Remorse slashed my slowing heart. Uncle would be grief stricken once they found my drowned corpse, so close to losing Mama. I prayed Enya could console him, strengthen their bond through the tragedy.
In a final, desperate plea for life, I thrashed my legs. My nose surfaced for an instant in the tiny space that remained. I sipped one breath before a wave slapped over me. My frantic movements expended the tiny taste of oxygen instantly. Cramps gouged beneath my ribs as I fought the urge to inhale water. My lungs curled and withered, like so many petals of Hawk’s flower.
Serenity surged upon his name. Death waited, along with the strains of my ghost’s sensuous baritone. A familiar and comforting retreat. He would be there when I arrived.
The water swayed my body. My pain subsided, nerves numbing. My mind clouded. Something butted against my right palm—a tiny heart-shaped thing, suspended in the water. I stretched out my fingers and clenched it tightly—strangely unafraid.
A man need never avenge himself;
The body of his enemy will be brought to his door.
I awoke to someone carrying me over their shoulder. Muddied walls passed by in a sickening, dizzy haze. I thought myself dead, until my lungs jerked and heaved, forcing up a mix of bile and foul-tasting water.
I clenched the locket in my hand, my wet hair hanging over my face. Bits of wood and mud had knotted in the tangles, making it difficult to see. Being placed gently on the ground, I sat, cold and disoriented. With my good arm, I supported myself, trying not to aggravate the angry throbs in my right shoulder. I couldn’t be dead, since I still felt pain.
Steady fingers coaxed hair off my face, dragging out the debris from my tangles, opening my line of sight.
I watched him as he moved, in utter disbelief. My ghost—now flesh and bone with clothes dripping wet—burrowed his nose into my hair before tucking the strands behind my ears.
His eyes studied me, the striking gray of granite with a hint of sunlight. His jaw clenched, so serious and quiet, sharing in my awe.
Without a word between us, he lowered me to my back in the shallow warm water, and propped my head on a large rock sticking out from the stream. The liquid covered my body and swirled my hair on the currents, its warmth easing away my shivers and the ache in my shoulder and shin.
I held my breath as his hands, with the masterful strokes of an architect, brushed over me beneath the water, checking for other wounds from my legs to my shoulders. My body responded to his touch. For it knew him, long before this moment.
My tongue had tasted his chicory scent, my breath had savored his minty flavor—during dreams of death, dancing, and song.
We were settled at the highest point of the mineshaft where I’d first fallen through. The broken platform invited sunlight to slant in. I blinked at the brightness, at Hawk’s solid form blocking the sun.
On his knees, he straddled me, tending my injuries while the water lapped around his thighs.
He had yet to speak—this man who had filled my head with glorious words and sounds over the past months, now speechless and stirring my heart all the more with his silence.
I reached for him with my left hand, arched my body toward him as he submersed himself atop me all the way up to his shoulders. The contact hurt my shoulder, but the wonder of his realness negated any pain. My fingers ran circles along his back, savoring the reality of muscles beneath his shirt.
Water sloshed around us. Sunlight reflected off the waves onto his face and hair—a flash of brilliance along golden skin and sable spikes.
“China Rose …” His voice wavered, as if it hurt him to say it. With one hand he cushioned my nape from the rock, the other skimmed my wounded shoulder inside the water. “If I weren’t wet … our spirits could merge. I could heal you.”
“No. I’d rather hold you.”
His fingertip traced my jaw. Flesh to flesh. He tilted my chin up. My right fist tightened around the locket.
His drizzling fingers coated my forehead, nose, and cheeks with a mask of wetness. He chased the water with his lips, keeping his mouth against my skin, until he came to my lips. He paused there—as if fearing to step across, to make it real—then our lips met on a kiss so gentle and chaste … the slightest palpitation as if he might break me.
His fingers tangled in my drifting hair. “You
taste like snow.”
I tightened my clasp on his arm. “You’re
He pressed his forehead to mine—eyes shut. “But for how long?”
His words gushed through me like cold mountain springs, icing my veins. So captivated by our connection, I hadn’t even considered the flower at the Manor, or the seven remaining petals that must be withering even as we spoke.
My fist curled around the locket, fingernails biting my palm. If this were true, I held the last one in my hand.
He stared into me, and for once, I read his thoughts, his desires:
I’ve waited forever to touch you … all of you.
His eyes spoke the plea, not his mouth.
To think I’d watched this moment unfold in slumber for weeks. But now, I was awake. Awake and fervent, but for another man.
Hawk rose to a crouched position, still straddling me, yet putting distance between us. “You’re in love with my brother.”
It wouldn’t do any good to lie; I was more transparent to Hawk than any ghost.
He swore beneath his breath. “Were it any other man …” His hand wrenched from my grasp. I tried to catch him again, to comfort him, but his wet wrist slid out of my fingers. “All along, you’ve been falling for him; as we read the journal; as we discovered ‘our’ pasts were entwined. I was wearing his shoes. What I wouldn’t give to put them on again.”
His agony pierced me through. I sat up and cringed when my shoulder moved. Still, I managed to clasp his fingers.
“I love you both. So many of the reasons I found myself admiring Chaine are yours. Your gift with architecture; your eye for design; your wholeness in spite of a damaged foot. Besides all of this, you have empathy, tenderness, humor—and songs that soothe my soul. My feelings for Chaine no longer matter if he killed you. How could I ever be with him if he’s a murderer?”
“Yet how can you be with me, a ghost, trapped within one last flower petal?” Hawk gazed at the water surrounding us.
Hot pinpricks flushed my cheeks, a rush of self-disdain. “I’m unworthy of you Hawk. To fall for two men, what quality of lady does such a thing? You’re too good for me.”
?” He laughed, a tortured sound which stung my ears and prickled my spine. He stood, water cascading from his clothes in shimmery streams. A thousand emotions played across his face, illuminated by the sun’s bouncing reflections. “I remembered everything—my past, my death—the moment you revived me with the locket and I dragged you from the water. Being in the place of my death brought it all back.” A muscle in his jaw clamped. “But when I realized we could touch, I decided not to tell you the truth so I could make love to you just once, so I could have you for myself. My brother’s innocence be damned.”
His confession froze the air in my lungs.
He wouldn’t meet my gaze. “Yes, let us bask in my goodness. Once a rogue … always a rogue, aye?”
Silent, I studied him, teetering between injury and empathy.
“Let there be no mistake, Juliet. My brother’s the good one. Always has been.” He turned his back, his shoulders rising on a shrug. “When we first met, Chaine and I kept our knowledge of one another a secret. We never let on to anyone but Father there were two of us. And he … as you know … never believed it. For twelve months, Chaine and I took turns trading places. At times, he played Lord Thornton. Borrowed my clothes. Learned to talk like me, move like me. Damndest thing. His gentle spirit enabled him to see past my deformity. The one weakness that had shamed me my whole life. The imperfection that drove me to seek validation in bourbon and strange women’s arms, that made me rely on empty rage to verify my manhood. Yet Chaine took pride in emulating that very flaw. That’s why I made him the pocket watch. It was my way of honoring his shame … his broken past.”
Hawk’s hand fumbled for the watch that once hung upon his waist. “I lost it when I dove into the water after you.”
Absently, I searched the waist of my riding skirt. Was it he or me who had lost the watch in the chaos? I supposed we would never know.
“Only one thing Chaine could not master.” My ghost angled a glance over his shoulder, a half-smile dimpling his cheek. “How to sing. My brother is blasted tone deaf.” Snorting softly, he turned away again and towed his boot through the water to leave ripples in its wake. “I had never met anyone like him. How can a man who cannot hear the tonality of a note, have such an affinity for the songs of birds and the aura of the wind? How can a man who was never blessed with color or beauty throughout his childhood have more appreciation for a rose’s bleeding heart or a butterfly’s fractured wing than a man who has had beauty and light cast at his feet all his life?”
My heart bruised upon the profound admiration in his voice … for a brother he hardly had a chance to know.
Hawk trudged through the water then leaned against the dirt wall, facing me. “I was intrigued by my Romani blood. So each time Chaine walked in my shoes, I visited Aunt Bitti. She taught me the language of the gypsies … their symbols and folklore. Their songs. I suppose it was her way of making up for her mistakes. I coaxed her into moving to Claringwell, to keep her close to Chaine and me. Father had purchased a plot in the graveyard years earlier when he’d learned of Gitana’s death. He couldn’t bury her memory in his family plot in Worthington. His cousin’s family was buried in Claringwell, and he’d always thought the graveyard peaceful and lovely. To honor Gitana, he fenced in a small parcel of his land and erected a tombstone. Left it blank out of respect. In the gypsy culture, to etch the name of the dead on a stone … their given name … is an insult.”
I frowned as the puzzle started to fit together; I had to have been wrong about Bitti throwing me in. Perhaps someone else had done it, and she saw the aftermath. “Is this why Bitti buried your caul there years later … and the flower? Why they engraved ‘Hawk’ upon the stone, in lieu of your name?”
“I assume.” Hawk looked toward the darkness of the tunnel. “I was already dead by then.”
“But Chaine played no part in your death?”
Hawk smoothed the wrinkles in his shirt, already fading to translucent in places where he had started to dry. “No. Only Tobar and Larson are to blame. From the beginning, Chaine and I had different reasons for tricking Larson out of his deed for this estate. We both wanted to save our father from debtor’s prison. It was my responsibility, as my drinking and gambling were what put him in debt to begin with. My brother joined the cause for a second reason. He wanted access to the mine’s records. He hoped to find you through them.”
As Hawk spoke, my shoulder throbbed, the pain grinding beneath my flesh. I resituated my arm with the other hand, propping my lower back against a rock to quell the nausea in my stomach.