By Annabel Joseph
"Of course. Let's read now, in the dusk, before Hanover lights the lamps. It will be wonderfully spooky. I hear this book is the most terrifying volume in the shops just now."
She pretended a shiver and they began the first story. She read aloud as he listened. The ghost tale began in a couple's parlor. Wind was dashing rain against the windowpane and a black fog was driving in from the wood.
"Every moment," she read, "the view without grew more and more de-so-la--"
"Desolate. Do you know what that means?"
"Yes, in a way. Deserted. Forbidding."
She nodded and continued. The young husband of the ghost tale bade his wife come away from the glass, but she refused. When finally she turned away, her face was pale, her nerves unstrung.
"Darling," said the wife of the tale. "Isn't there a superstition--of course it's only a superstition--that when somebody is walking over your grave, you shudder invo-lun--"
"Tonight," Lily read on, "somebody is walking over my grave--and somehow, somehow, I feel as if it will not be long before I fill it."
James chuckled softly. How charming she was, getting into the spirit of the reading, voicing the disquieted wife with perfect drama.
"Nonsense," the husband replied on the page. She did the husband's voice with a hilariously gruff tone he sincerely hoped was not based on him. "Your nerves are unstrung, dearest. Come away now."
At that point in the story, the wife began to stagger around and tremble in quite the most frightening way. The husband rushed from the room and the possessed wife gave a shriek and cry. James could feel Lily's own nerves draw up tight as she read the chilling prose. She was fully engrossed in the story when some imp inside him decided to use a dangling ribbon from her hair to tickle the back of her arm. Lily gave her own shriek, one that no doubt rivaled the shriek of the unfortunate woman in the story, and leaped headlong into James' lap. He caught her, quaking with laughter, as Hanover came running in ready to take arms. He took one look at the entangled pair and his expression changed from alarm to embarrassment.
"Er…pardon me, sir and miss, I'll just be--"
"No, Hanover," James said with a grin. "Come in and light the lamps, please. All of them. We have been reading ghost stories and I'm afraid Lily is quite spooked."
She pushed away from his lap with a frown. "I was not at all spooked until you played that silly trick on me. I thought it was a ghoul come to breathe down my neck."
"A ghoul? You wound me."
A giggle finally escaped as she smoothed the skirts of her gown. "You are a rascal, James. You pretend you are not, but you are through and through, and it's a true farce to put forward your stern, serious face when you are nothing but a lark underneath."
James looked at her thoughtfully in the new lamplight, barely noticing as Hanover left and closed the door behind him. He was captured by the glow of her skin, the twinkle in her eye. She flirted with him. More than that, she had figured him true. The sober man who was a secret rogue and profligate.
He pretended pique. "My stern, serious face is supposed to impress you."
She snorted inelegantly. "Each day it impresses me less. You are not the hard man you pretend to be." She slid a look at him. "I mean, well…I do not mean to speak disrespectfully."
He knew he was staring, unnerving her, probably. He couldn't help it. She spoke so candidly for once, it completely undid his reserve. He wanted to do the same before the moment passed, before the walls went up again between them. "I want you to speak openly, even disrespectfully if you wish, Lily. Tell me what type of man I am, if you know it."
She swallowed and looked away, blushing.
"I…I do not know. I do not pretend to know. I was just teasing. I'm sorry."
"No." He took her bare hand in his, an impulsive gesture that he could see shocked her, but she didn't pull away. "No, I am not chastising you. It is only that you are right. I am not a hard man. There is a lot in my--my heart--" He stopped. Would he start spouting poetry now? He felt wildly out of control. At any moment he feared she would pull away and bolt, but she didn't.
"I know," she said instead, quietly. "I can tell there is a lot in your heart. There is a lot in my heart too. I only wish…"
She looked down, biting her lip. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to pull her close and embrace her. Her hand tightened in his.
"What do you wish, Lily?"
"I cannot say. I cannot."
"Tell me, please."
"I only wish… I wish truly, in my heart, that she--that she would never come back. And that her unfortunate sister will take years and years to marry." She looked up at him, tears welling in her eyes. "I know it is a terrible thing to say. I wish you happiness and a resolution to this snarl you're in, but I can't stop feeling that way, I just can't--"
Her words cut off, smothered by his impulsive kiss. He tasted salty tears as he pressed his lips to hers with the intensity of desire too long denied. He held her close, slanting his head over hers, kissing her and then parting her lips gently to tease her. She melted against him, so sweet and trusting. He drank in her soft gasps and felt the small tremble before she pulled away. She looked down at her lap in silence. He still held her hand, finding it too difficult to let go.
He leaned away with a regretful sigh. "I am terribly sorry. To force myself on you that way--it was grossly inappropriate. Forgive me."
She touched her lips. He swallowed hard. "Please what?"
"Please, would you…would you kiss me again?