Authors: A. G. Howard
For my spirit still remembered my secret dream of earlier, and the comfort of company, song, and sound that waited within the realm of death and darkness.
Love enters a man through his eyes, a woman through her ears.
“Enya is hanging laundry by the greenhouse,” Hawk said, looking out my side window. “We should leave before she comes back in.”
I tugged on my riding boots and laced them up to my knees beneath my skirt, tucking in the lacy hems of my drawers. After I shrugged into my pelisse overcoat, I grabbed my black veiled hat and a pair of open-fingered silk-knit mitts and followed Hawk down the winding staircase. Just as we entered the hall, he motioned me back toward the stairs.
“She’s inside again,” he growled. “Industrious, isn’t she?”
I crept back up to my room, softening my footsteps under Hawk’s insistence. Then I eased my door closed.
Hawk’s fists clenched at his sides. “Just tell her you’re leaving. Pull rank. She’s a simple maid.”
“You’re wrong. She is so much more than that.” Mama had not only given Enya a position to work for our family, but she also gave her an education right alongside me. Intellectually, and in every other way, I considered us equals.
“Then ask your uncle to take you to visit your mother’s grave.”
“He’ll never allow me to go off alone to explore some path inside an overgrown thicket. Besides, he can’t even bring himself to walk by her room. It is too soon for him to face her grave again.”
Hawk’s lips pursed. He clasped the square face of his pocket watch and studied the cryptic engraving on the back.
The desperate need for answers settled in every shadow of his agonized face. I pressed my forehead to the east window’s chilled glass. The oak tree Papa had planted upon his and Mama’s nuptials reached up toward me in the fog, massive and sturdy. Withered vines clung to its branches like serpentine hair. I used to be an adept climber. Until the mines—the one time I fell.
“Wait.” Hawk towered behind me, his voice gruff. “Is
the accident you had? A fall?”
I ignored the concern in his voice. This tree was an old friend, with branches so deftly aligned they formed a ladder in places. I could do it, without a doubt. And being at the front of the house, no one would see us leave. Enya and Uncle were preoccupied: her in the kitchen, and Uncle in the greenhouse out back.
“No,” Hawk commanded, though he sounded shaken. “With the bark so wet from the melted frost, you’re tempting fate.”
I threw back the sash and a rush of chill wind lifted strands of my hair. The hat’s lace veil stuck to my lashes, clinging with each blink. Though my heart pounded, I felt a calm—an exhilarating peace. The world in my dream had been beautiful. I wasn’t afraid to face it.
“Juliet … think this through.”
I assured my locket remained tucked safely beneath my corset and chemise then drew up my skirts and swung a leg over the sill.
“Please, you don’t wish to be where I am.” Hawk reached for my arm, a passing sweep of air.
Shoving my other leg out next to my first, I gripped the closest branch and inched forward until one foot wedged in place upon a lower branch. The bark scraped my palms through my gloves. I tightened bare fingers around the narrowest end.
Ignoring Hawk’s shouts, I pushed myself free of the sill and centered my weight on my fixed boot. My other foot found purchase on a separate branch and I started my descent.
I couldn’t stop my smile as Hawk perched next to me, afloat in midair.
“Are you always this stubborn? Watch that branch!”
The juncture cracked apart and I lost my grip. My dress caught on a snag, pinching my midsection. The hem wound around my legs, tangling my feet.
I hung there, heart tapping an uneasy rhythm. Fog swirled in a dizzying whorl around me. My dress ripped and lowered me an inch. The fabric cinched around my lungs and I gasped for breath. I reached for the vines Hawk instructed me to grab with a roaring yell.
They were too far. My dress ripped again. Terror clenched my throat.
I lost sight of my courage, forgot the beauty of my dream.
Just like when I was a child, hanging by a thread.
A scream swelled in my chest but before its release, Hawk—with a look of intense concentration—batted at a vine and made contact with his hand. It swung in my direction and I caught it, wrapping it around my wrist the instant the fabric in my dress gave.
I clung tightly to vines the rest of the way down. Once my feet touched, I wanted to kiss the ground. Though I wanted to kiss my rescuer even more. My cheeks warmed, knowing Hawk had heard the unspoken observation.
He scowled at me. “Why would you attempt something so foolhardy? Climbing an ice-slicked tree from those heights. Do you
to be dead?”
A stunned realization throttled through me, taking precedent over his insightful question. “You touched that vine and made it move.
.” With shaky fingers, I buttoned my coat to cover the gaping tear in my dress.
We both looked over our shoulders at the tree, though our meditation was short lived. Feeling the press of time, we rushed to the stable. In spite of the sorrel’s gentle nature, Chester startled at Hawk’s presence. I offered a chunk of browned apple that I had tucked away from breakfast, settling him.
I patted his glistening chestnut coat, raw fingertips sliding over the satin of his mane as I walked him toward the gig.
After leading me through the steps of harnessing and securing the rigging, Hawk studied my face. “So, you know how to handle one of these?”
I climbed into the cab and perched on the cold, stiff squab. “Uncle taught me when I was twelve. I caught on as quickly as any boy. Until there was a fat toad.” I shook my head. “He came out of nowhere and plopped into the road. I turned the horses sharply … drove the gig into a ditch. The ruined axles were nothing to the damage on Uncle’s lower back.”
Hawk barked a laugh. “Well, at least you saved the toad.”
“Actually, the left rear wheel flattened him.”
Hawk burst into robust chuckles.
I grinned sheepishly. “Stop that. It’s tragic.” I’d never recovered from the guilt of wounding Uncle. I wore it around my neck like an albatross, along with the weight of Papa’s death.
Hawk settled next to me. “You are not a god. Things happen, Juliet. That does not mean you’re the cause of them. You’re merely a thread in the fabric of life.”
His kindness touched me. “All right, if I’m not all powerful, then why would you be concerned about my driving abilities? Nothing can harm you.”
“You are my one connection to the living world. Should
get hurt, I would bleed more than if I severed my own arm.”
The press of his observation made me stop and think. He needed me, as Mama once did. I would not let him down by being careless.
I snapped the lines and Chester trotted along the pebbled road. The misted scenery passed—a hazy glide—as if we skimmed atop clouds. On the climb to Cemetery Hill, bare-branched trees cut through the frothy air like gnarled fingers spinning cotton on a loom.
A damp film coated my face through my netted veil. I shivered. Hawk lifted an arm to draw me close and block the wind—an instinctual move. He couldn’t hide his frustration when he realized we still could not touch, regardless his success with the vine.
My heart dropped heavier than a stone as I wondered how much more upset he’d be once we reached our destination. How could anyone withstand the sight of their own grave, knowing what lay beneath the dirt?
Patches of fog wrapped the tombs and statues like gauze.
I set the brake on the gig and secured Chester’s reins to a tree. Hawk walked at my side, looking out of place in the cold with his thin, opened shirt, dress breeches, and muddied boots. His attention darted from one headstone to the next, anxiously searching for his body’s home.
I paused beside Mama’s grave. Hawk waited next to the angel statues in the distance, his silhouette an untouchable reflection of their physiques of marble and moss.
Kneeling, I swept the veil from my face. “Sweet Mama, how I miss you.” My fingertip traced the engraving on her stone. “But I have a new friend. He’s going to help me keep our estate.” The rose I’d left the day before was gone. A few remaining, withered petals fluttered around my knees, as if to taunt me that my mother was gone, too, and that she would never be here again to offer her wisdom or approval. My eyes stung and I silently promised to bring her a fresh rose on my next visit.
I stood. Mud puckered around my boots as I wove around the hedges, sniffling.
Hawk joined me, focused solely on my face. “Forgive me for asking you to visit so soon.”
“I would’ve come, with or without you,” I assured him.
We arrived at his tomb. Another padlock replaced the one I’d broken the day before. His grave keeper had been by and left muddy prints, too small to be a man’s.
It dawned on me that my ghostly companion might have a wife who missed him. And children that adored him. And I’d earlier wanted to kiss him … more than just to thank him for saving me. I wanted to taste his breath of chicory and mint. To savor the mouth that gave me such beautiful songs and sounds. Shame splashed through me, hot and scalding. Enya would say I was a trollop … that only men should have such carnal thoughts.
“No.” Hawk squinted toward the tomb centered within the fence. “I would remember, had I given my heart to someone. This much I’m sure of.” His eyes—glittering to match the mist-dampened stone that marked his grave—came to rest on mine. “And having desire to be close to another person is natural. Intrinsic, not only to a man, but to any human. Such attraction goes beyond the physical, and reaches into the spiritual, as I know now. For although I’ve no need for food or sleep, those other appetites still beg appeasement.” His gaze ran the length of me and I basked in the huskiness of his voice, remembering the night before when he had tried to touch my necklace. When I had melted beneath a phantom caress.
Hawk offered his hand. And though we could not touch, I removed my glove and hovered my palm over his.
“We’re playing make-believe.” His free hand reached up as if to tuck a wayfaring lock of hair into my hat. I leaned forward, pretending he could. “I am inaccessible. I am safe. You are a perceptive young woman, more attuned to your senses than most, and curious about the intimacies between two people, after having witnessed the great love of your mother and father. We live in a society that stifles emotions. It is no wonder you would allow your thoughts free reign now that you are provided such an outlet. I’m honored, to have inspired such a restricted spirit’s attempt at flight.”
I regarded every exotic angle and turn to his beautiful face, stopping at the bow of his lips. In truth, this was the first time I’d ever longed so much for wings.
Hawk mimed a kiss along my wrist, at first rushing my skin like a tender breeze. Then something changed. His mouth vanished and his spirit became part of my flesh, in much how a droplet of rain on a window merges with another. His lips reappeared with a slight tug as he stepped back, as shocked as I.
A breath burned in my lungs, locked in place. Though not tangible, not in the way of a physical touch, we had connected. So fleeting … so brief … yet purely sensual—as if I were a lake, and he immersed himself in me.
That was not make-believe.
He held my gaze, his jaw twitching in acknowledgment of my unspoken words.
Overwhelmed by the heat of his glowing stare, I glanced toward his tombstone. “Are you ready to see it?” I pulled my glove over the place he had tried to kiss, determined to preserve the invisible impression his phantom mouth had left behind.
His attention never strayed from me as he backed up and slipped through the bars, materializing on the other side.
We stood there, facing one another—he, inside his fenced-in prison, and me outside. The iron separated us, just as it had yesterday when I first saw his flower.
At last, he turned toward his grave. I found a stone and tried to bust the lock free. Yet no matter how hard I chiseled the new padlock, it held. Forced to watch from outside, I clutched the bars much the way Lord Thornton had.