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Authors: Beatrice Donahue

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BOOK: The Blue Hour
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My laugh is painfully faint.

“It’s beautiful,” I venture after a moment. “Like a room from a dream, or a story. This whole house is like something from a storybook.” I trail off, looking past her shoulder. “You have a gramophone in your bedroom?”

She bounds towards it. I eye her champagne and fear for the exquisite rug.

“Isn’t it marvellous? I have three, you know. One here, one in the kitchen and one in my studio upstairs. Listen.” She lowers the stylus with a delicacy at odds with her enthusiasm, and winds the handle. “Electrically recorded. All the rage in New York—jazz.” Her voice melds with the faintly scratchy music in the air and a delighted laugh bubbles up from my chest. “Isn’t that just the cat’s meow?” She closes her eyes, a picture of rapture.

I nod, still laughing, and hum under my breath, woven into the champagne’s golden spell. The nightstand bears several photographs, grouped together—a grainy picture of Eve and a young man, both on camels; one of the Eiffel Tower, and what looks like a family portrait. On the wall above the bed, the redhead’s eyes smoulder from three more paintings. My smile falters as a jolt of realisation courses through me.

This girl... She
knew
her. Knew her skin, angles, curves. Painted her nude. I feel a momentary flash of something—jealousy, perhaps. Not because this beautiful girl has been painted by Eve, and many times over, but rather that she was
known
,
seen
by Eve.

Still, whoever she is, or was, she is not here now.

I am.

I watch her uncoil from the floor by the gramophone and focus on my heart, every beat now ending in a curious, undefined ache. The petals shift and stir inside. I don’t know quite what I want to happen, but that doesn’t stop me wanting.

Eve smiles, tracing the edge of her champagne flute with a polished fingertip.

“‘An Englishman’s home is his castle.’ Did I say that right?” She gives a soft laugh. “I’m no Englishman, but it seems I’ve lured a King to my castle.” Her head tips in scrutiny. “Actually, I think rather a queen. Or princess.”
 
She motions to the mirrored dressing table under the window. “Will you sit?”

My pent muscles thrill with relief to be given a task. I cross to the dresser, pull out the matching oak stool and take a seat on its white cushion. I’m apprehensive, but despite a night with no sleep, I’ve rarely felt so awake.

Reflections of the Tiffany lamp on her bedside table repeat to infinity in the huge triple mirror. It shows her slow drift across the room until she stands behind me, yet I still start when her hands touch the back of my head.

A brief pause. “May I?”

I nod, barely breathing. Her fingertips brush my scalp, the nape of my neck, behind my ears, before I comprehend that they are seeking out the pins there. She takes each one, laying them down on the oak before gently lifting my hair and arranging it over my shoulders. She teases the tresses so delicately; the intimacy makes my shallow breath catch. With a small, approving hum in her throat, she leans over me and my pulse flares.

“Here,” she murmurs, picking up a brush from the dresser and begins to pull it through my unpinned hair with slow, deliberate strokes.

“It’s getting far too long. Desperately needs a cut. Not at all fashionable, like yours.”

I’m babbling, staring at the bottle of scent on the dresser and resolving to buy some. Charles doesn’t like me to wear perfume, but I would keep the irises and roses safe, somewhere he’d never find them. I strive to consign its name—
L’Heure Bleue
—to memory, while the feel of her hands working rhythmically through my hair makes the task impossible.

“Don’t you dare cut it, it’s glorious.” She’s full of reproach, but her voice slides again towards dreaminess. “Pre-Raphaelite... like a Collier.”

The brush stills. I close my eyes against the rapid swish of blood beneath my skin. When I look through my lashes, she is seated next to me on the oblong stool. Although her face is angled towards my own, she watches me in the mirror. Her breath is warm on my cheek. She’s so close.

With considerable effort, I keep my eyes on hers in the looking-glass. The feel of scrutiny without judgement is alien and intoxicating. My chest constricts; the ache intensifies.

“Definitely a Collier. Godiva.” Her voice is a whisper. The stannic stare holds mine. “Or maybe...”

Her hands lift my hair, making my scalp tingle and my insides clench. She arranges it to fall forward, over my breasts. I can’t do anything but watch her as she surveys me. I flinch slightly as she takes my spectacles, but the glass is close enough for me to see us perfectly well.

“Lilith.” She sounds satisfied, and something more. “Tell me, have you seen... oh, but of course you haven’t. The paintings you put me in mind of are considered part of the “Indecent Images” collection by these damned philistines. I’ll show you some time.”

Her thigh is burning against my own. I want her to show me so much I can’t speak, I can’t do anything but helplessly stare. The record has ended. I don’t know when. For what seems an age, we look at each other in the glass while the impression I had the night before:
truly being seen
, threatens to engulf me. Beyond the window, the faint lap of the waves continues beneath the sky, turned navy blue.

“Look at yourself, Rosina,” Eve breathes, and her voice makes me yearn to see what she does. The tumble of gold over my shoulders is longer than I remember; my eyes are still unusually bright. I hardly recognise the woman who stares back from the mirror.

A queen, I think. Or princess.

I turn my head to face her. I’m warmed, aroused, by her regard, and I finally exhale amid the fall of petals.

“I think,” she says quietly, “I had better get you home.”

I study the dark flecks of charcoal in her irises and nod uncertainly.

In the same way I don’t know exactly what I wanted or expected, I can’t quite identify the curious mix of exhilaration and disappointment which takes hold as Eve’s Silver Ghost speeds back along the winding twilit lanes to the village. It’s already nearly dark, but it isn’t until the car slows and I see the light on in the bedroom of the house that I feel a light brush of fear. By the time I step down from the motorcar, anxiety is fizzing in my stomach.

Eve’s voice calls me back, saying formally, “Thank you so much for visiting with me, Mrs. King. I hope to have the pleasure again, very soon.”

I briefly close my eyes at the sound of something unspoken beneath the very proper words. I glance around, seeking any evidence of prying eyes that might explain her tone. Finding none, I walk around to her side of the car and answer her in kind.

“I’d like that very much, Miss Soames.”

Her smile gleams in the gathering dark. She leans forward—
roses, iris, champagne
—and my heart turns over. Her lips land firmly on mine for the briefest of moments as the engine roars into life. Then I am alone in the road with my crashing pulse, standing still while searing heat travels from my mouth to my chest and radiates through my veins.

CHAPTER THREE

I stay out in the quiet of the street until the car’s thunder fades into the dusk. Even after my heart finally steadies, my lips feel scorched. I touch my fingers to them, disbelieving, when the lamp going out in the front bedroom of the house behind makes me turn in fear and hasten up the path.

Scant remnants of evening light show through the undrawn hall window when I let myself inside. In the gloom, there is no sound but the hallway clock,
ticking, ticking, ticking
. I dimly make out the time: nearing half past nine.

Perhaps it will be all right.
I silently remove my shoes and place my foot on the first stair.

Perhaps he has drunk too much brandy with his friends.
The second board is loose. I miss it to avoid the creak.

Perhaps if I listen, I’ll hear his snoring. Perhaps...

“Why is your hair down?” His voice fills the darkness above.

My heart seems to empty, and I stop on the fourth stair. I have totally forgotten my hair; now my hands fly up, horrified, as if I might somehow will it back into its customary twist.

Before I can answer, another question descends.

“Who drove you here?”

“Ev... Miss Soames did.”

“I will not tolerate being made a fool of, Rosina.”

Always appearances. Such a fine, upstanding member of the community.
His voice is like a membrane, stretched taut over the pressing anger I hear behind it. It makes my bones cold.
Cold bones, fevered lips.

“I would never—”

“She’s a slut.” The interruption is crisp, and makes me wince. “I know one when I see one. I didn’t go through the Great War to let Yank sluts like her come over here and bring about the demoralisation of the country I fought for, least of all aided and abetted by my wife.”

I stay still, vainly hoping he’ll tire of the lecture. I don’t want to climb the remaining stairs. I want to run. Turn and run out of this house, and never return. But I can’t do that, and the sudden urge for the next best alternative is nearly overwhelming: I want to be asleep.

“Come here, Rosina.”

My feet are heavy, bound by invisible thorn. I climb slowly, then turn warily onto the landing. A dark shape looms a few feet ahead.

“You’ve been drinking,” he accuses as I draw near. “She’s a bad influence.”

I advance, desperately hopeful I can skirt around him and go directly to my bedroom, but his hand shoots out and I jump in spite of myself. Fear flashes through me, real fear. He hasn’t tried to—I don’t even know what to call it, because it was never making love with him—copulate, perhaps? Anyway, he hasn’t tried to do
that
with me since Dr Cross informed him of my infertility. I know enough of his appetites to be certain he is taking his satisfaction elsewhere, and I am grateful. But now, with his hand circling my arm so hard I believe it will bruise, I know a moment of dread that he might seek it from me. I close my eyes in the dark and try not to show I am afraid, but I’m genuinely terrified that if he comes any closer to my face, he’ll somehow sense her kiss.

A long pause. His stomach gurgles in the quiet blackness of the landing.
Brandy, and contempt.

“Who else did you see?”

“No one, Charles, I swear. It was just me and Eve.” I hold my breath through another pause.

“I’ll let you off this time, Rosina.”

I begin to exhale, but the hand tightens and drags me closer still, close enough for him to shove his lips next to my ear.

“But you are not to see that woman again. Do I make myself clear? She’s trouble; I can smell it on her. I won’t have you cavorting about, doing God knows what with whatever American ruffians she has sniffing around her like a bitch in heat.” His grip tightens. “Don’t think I don’t know your game. You’re barren, so doubtless inclined to act like a whore with whichever Tom, Dick or Harry will have you with no fear of repercussions. Well, I’m wise to it, see? It’s bad enough I married you and you can’t even keep your end of the bargain. So if you ever think to shame me, I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.”

* * *

All week, my lips burn. Several times, I think I notice people staring at me more intently than is customary, and wonder if it might somehow be visible, branded onto my mouth. I wouldn’t care, but Charles’s warning rings on, and the memory of the kiss becomes both comfort and torture. At home, I tiptoe around him, but the persistent sting from his words means I sleep even more than usual. And waking or sleeping... all I can think of is her.

On Wednesday, I take tea with Grace and Annie at Tinley’s. Thankfully Grace’s usual indifference is intact; it tells me she noticed nothing of my encounter with Eve at the dance, only bothering to look for me in time to have seen Charles lead me away, which is nothing new. I wouldn’t expect her to show any concern: like my marriage, my uneasy friendship with Grace has always hinged on convenience. Since our mutual friend Clara became pregnant and had a baby, Grace has appropriated me as partner at the women’s table for the interminable dances and functions we both attend by virtue of our husbands’ overlapping social circles. Annie has friendly brown eyes and I think I might like her a little better, although she is ostensibly Grace’s friend. Without explicit statement, Grace has made it abundantly clear to both of us we should not meet or socialise without her.

My teaspoon clinks on the saucer as I set it down and select an anaemic-looking sandwich. I have no appetite, but take a bite to dodge a question about the American spinster. I had resolved to avoid any mention of Eve or the big white house, but that has proved near impossible as their conversation has revolved around nothing but wild speculation over both.

I put down the limp bread and worry the inside of my lip against the urge to put them right.

No.
She’s my secret.

As we shrug into our coats, Grace mentions she thinks James is planning to ask Charles to yet another Saturday dinner-dance this weekend. Instead of its customary sinking, my heart leaps.

* * *

In the depths of Friday night, I wake from a dream I can’t remember, breath ragged, a desperate tension low in my belly. I put my fingers to my mouth.
Eve.
Unbidden, my hand slides down between my legs. It hovers there while I lie unmoving in the dark, my mind a swirl of confused possibility. I’ve never contemplated that women might... much less that...
I
might.

But I’ve certainly never met any one person as vibrant and fascinating and sensuous as Eve, nor even imagined one might exist. Thinking her name brings a heated swell of pressure that makes me squeeze my thighs together around the heel of my hand. Mindful not to disturb Charles, I rock minutely back and forth, gaining little relief and even more frustration.

Her eyes, with their singular shade; the way they seem to see straight past my careful barriers and directly into me. The sinuous gleam of her back as she leaned to the bar. The set of her mouth. Her scent. How I feel inside when I am with her.

You’re worse than a schoolgirl, Rose. Giddy, foolish.
I chastise myself, but I was never like that, as a schoolgirl.
Good, dependable Rose.
Turning my pillow in agitation, an unsettling thought arrives with the feel of cooler cotton against my cheek.

BOOK: The Blue Hour
13.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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