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Where magic has never died...
Lady Philomena Radcliff closed her eyes and called to the spirit of the late Lord Stanhope. She tried to ignore the excited breaths of the ladies within the séance circle, which she could clearly hear over the muted strains of ballroom music coming from behind the closed drawing room door.
"Lord Stanhope," Phil said, with as much theatrical brilliance as a stage performer. She spread her hands flat on the mahogany table. "Your wife wishes to speak with you one last time. Is your spirit still in this house?"
The withdrawing room smelled of candle wax and the clashing perfumes of the assembled ladies: Lady Stanhope, Lady Montreve, and their two daughters. And unfortunately, their daughters' silly young friends, who started to giggle as the silence lengthened.
It appeared that the late Lord Stanhope had chosen not to linger in the physical world.
Which didn't make one whit of difference to Phil. Lady Stanhope had paid her for some peace of mind and she would give it to her regardless. When Phil had been orphaned at a young age, she'd used her magical gift to support herself, quickly discovering that half of her job consisted of her theatrical ability to convince her audience. If the spirit she called made an appearance, she just considered it a bonus.
Her primary concern was to relieve the suffering of those that tragedy had left behind.
She opened her eyes. "We must combine our efforts. Lady Montreve, will you douse the candles? Thank you. Now, clasp your neighbor's hand and concentrate on the late Lord Stanhope. Use your will to call him to us."
Lady Montreve's skirts swished and her hoops crackled as she took her seat again next to Phil. Her gloved hands trembled beneath Philomena's fingers, matching the rhythm of Lady Stanhope's grip on Phil's other hand. She gave both of the ladies a reassuring squeeze.
The ballroom orchestra finished its tune, and despite the multitude of guests in the other room, a quiet descended on the mansion. The fire crackled in the hearth, and the wind made a soft keening noise outside the glass windows. Phil lowered her voice to a husky whisper. "Keep concentrating, ladies. I can feel your will rising, calling out to Lord-"
The drawing room door burst open and the shadow of a large man loomed on the threshold. The circle of hands broke. Lady Stanhope gasped, Lady Montreve stifled a scream, and the other girls collapsed into a fit of giggles.
Philomena suppressed her urge to admonish them like a doddering governess and forced a smile instead. "If you don't mind, sir, we were in the middle of-"
"I'm quite aware of what's going on in this room, madam. If you will excuse the interruption, I would like to join you." He closed the door behind him, shutting out the light from the outer room, allowing the soft glow of the fireplace to highlight his features. The giggles abruptly died, and soft sighs of admiration issued from the mouths of several young girls.
Philomena could hardly blame them. She had never seen such a striking young man. Dark hair liberally streaked with blond fell in waves past broad shoulders that strained his old-fashioned evening coat. The firelight reflected glints of gold in his large dark eyes and played across the angular planes of his face, outlining high cheekbones. Even white teeth flashed as he performed a courtly bow.
Phil's stomach flipped and her hands broke out in a sweat inside her gloves. She struggled to hide her reaction before anyone noticed. Heavens, she was old enough to be his...well, older sister perhaps. But still, too old to be making a fool of herself by gawking at the beautiful young man.
Lady Stanhope recovered first. "I don't remember the pleasure of an introduction, sir."
Again, a flash of those even white teeth. Good heavens, were those dimples?
"I'm Sir Nicodemus Wulfson, Baronet of Grimspell castle."
Soft gasps accompanied his words and several of the younger ladies actually looked frightened. All baronets were shifters and immune to all magic. The aristocracy hated that "the animals" could see through the spells crafted to maintain their superior social status.
"I don't think..." Lady Stanhope began, ready to deny the gentleman's request.
Phil quickly stood. "It would be a pleasure for you to join us, Sir Nicodemus."
He turned those large, glittering eyes on her in surprise, his predatory gaze sweeping over her from head to foot. Phil felt heat rise in her cheeks. As usual, she'd dressed in the artistic style, eschewing the corsets and crinolines of her peers. Most of her friends were followers of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but few of them had the daring to wear their medieval-style dresses out in public.
He surprised her with a sudden smile of approval. "Thank you, Lady...?"
"The ghost-hunter," he acknowledged. "I've heard a great deal about you. It's a pleasure."
The Adonis stepped forward and took her hand, sweeping his lips across the top of her glove. Thank heavens for that layer of material, for he surely would have burnt her skin with the heat of his mouth. Phil quickly snatched back her hand and resumed her seat at the table, trying to ignore the flutter in her stomach. Lady Stanhope's older daughter eyed her with shrewd speculation, her lovely little mouth twisted with disdain.
Phil leveled a gaze on the girl that quickly made her look away. She wished she knew what it was about the young man that made her feel so unusual.
The screech of wooden legs over marble made them all turn to watch Sir Nicodemus drag a chair over to the table and squeeze between Philomena and Lady Stanhope. He sat with stealthy grace.
He looked up and flashed that brilliant smile again, taking in the entire circle of women. "I've always wanted to experience one of these table-turnings. It's gracious of you to allow me to join you." Despite his apparent lack of social standing a few of the youngest girls leaned forward and licked their lips.
Philomena pressed her lips together to prevent the same reaction. It was all well and good for young debutantes to react to him, but she had to be at least ten years his senior and it would only make her look like a complete fool. The man had too much charisma for his own good, but perhaps he needed it, given his nature. Because of her spiritual sensitivity she could sense his animal-self like a dark shadow surrounding him. She really should have allowed Lady Stanhope to reject him, for if she continued in her obvious fascination in him, she was sure to make a complete cake of herself.
But Phil's sense of justice could not allow her to shun him. So when Lady Stanhope hesitated to link her hand with the baronet's, Philomena hid her fear of the way she might react to his touch and slapped her gloved palm over his with forced bravado.
Tiny shivers traveled from his hand through her body. She'd been correct. His touch flustered her more than the caress of his gaze. For a moment Sir Nicodemus stared at their clasped hands, his dark brows raised in surprise. Then he turned and glanced at her, that wolfish grin back on his face.
Phil closed her eyes. Heaven help her if he set his mind on exploring that instant chemistry between them. "Now concentrate, ladies...and gentleman. Lord Stanhope, we summon your spirit, please come to us." A soft tapping sounded at the window, most likely a tree branch in the wind, but Phil grasped at it. "Lord Stanhope! Is that you?"
Sir Nicodemus made a small sound of derision, but she could feel the rest of the circle tense with excitement.
Phil opened her eyes, fully prepared to cast an unfocused gaze at the corner of the room where she would pretend Lord Stanhope stood. His wife only wanted to tell him that she loved him. She hadn't had a chance to do so before he died. Who was she to deny the lady that satisfaction?
But Philomena caught a movement from the fireplace and her gaze met that of Tup. The young boy sat atop the mantel, his bare feet hanging over the edge, the glow of the fire shining through them. His brown hair was a mess as usual, his face so dirty that his hazel eyes stood out in startling contrast. Really, such a ragtag street urchin! Phil's heart squeezed a bit and warmth flowed through her.
"Tup," she whispered, trying to rise but anchored to her chair by the grip of Lady Stanhope and Sir Nicodemus.
"What's a tup?" murmured one of the girls.
"The ghost-hunter's spirit guide," Lady Montreve snapped.
Phil was vaguely aware of the shock that rippled around the table, including that of Sir Nicodemus. She could feel him watching her, like a predator studies his prey, waiting for the perfect moment to leap. But she ignored them all, intent on seeing Tup's ghost again. He wasn't strong enough to stay long in the material world.
The only thing she'd ever regretted about not marrying was that she would never have her own child. And then Tup had followed her home one day.
"I come to tell ye to stop that," he said, his large eyes blinking with sadness.
"What do you mean?" Phil asked.
"Cor, don't ye fathom that the man passed over into hell? And he likes it there."
Oh, dear. That meant that the man was as close to a demon as they came. No wonder using magic to summon a spirit was frowned upon. But since magical power was based on rank, only a royal could do that, or possibly a duke. Granted, ghosts would sometimes answer the call of a loved one... "But then why would he answer Lady Stanhope's call, Tup?"
Lady Stanhope gasped. Was Sir Nicodemus actually growling?
They couldn't hear Tup, of course, just Philomena's part of the conversation. She told herself to be more careful with her words.
"Not her call," the boy answered impatiently. "Hers." And he nodded at Lady Montreve.
Phil turned and stared at the lady, who refused to meet her gaze. But even in the weak glow of the firelight she could see the dark stain of color flooding the pretty woman's cheeks. Was that why Lady Montreve had come this evening? To see her lover one last time? Philomena glanced at Lady Stanhope. Did she know her husband had been having an affair with her friend? Was that the real reason she'd called the séance, to find out the truth of it?
Tup's eyes widened. "Crikey, I'm too late." And he disappeared.
Phil slowly turned her head. Lord Stanhope's specter materialized beside Phil's assistant, Sarah, and floated toward their table.
"Reginald, is that you?" his wife cried.
But Lord Stanhope only had eyes for Lady Montreve. He circled the table until he stood behind the pretty woman. "Did you call me back for one more round, you doxy? Missing me already, eh?" He leaned forward, his face so close to the back of the lady's neck that Phil could see the tiny hairs on her skin move. "Don't think I don't know it's my money you're missing. But I learned some things in hell, my dear. And when I heard your call I decided I shouldn't have to wait to try them on you."
Lady Montreve shuddered. "I shouldn't have come. I didn't think it was possible..." The young girl sitting next to her recoiled.
"Don't break the circle," Philomena warned. "It's her only protection." She felt Sir Nicodemus's grip tighten but the young girl-Phil wished she could remember her name-on the other side of Lady Montreve was trying to twist her hand from the woman's grasp.
Phil saw Lord Stanhope's arm disappear into his lover's skirts. Lady Montreve screamed.
"What's happening?" Lady Stanhope cried.
"Stop it!" Philomena shouted.
Lord Stanhope ignored them all, his black grin twisted into a leer of sadistic pleasure. The young girl pulled her hand free from Lady Montreve's grasp. The circle was broken. Philomena didn't have a choice. "Let go of my hand," she told Sir Nicodemus. Bless him, he didn't ask questions or argue; he just released his grip.
Phil really didn't want to do this-oh, how she didn't want to do this. She took a deep breath and stepped into Lord Stanhope's black shadow and opened her soul to his. For one horrendous moment the man's spirit melded with hers. Shafts of burning cold swept through her veins. His twisted sense of pleasure shook her body with an evil joy that made her squirm with shame.
She tried to send his soul back then, demanding that he return to the other side. He laughed at her. Phil strengthened her will, fighting with everything she had. Convulsions shook her body and then the world went black.
When Philomena opened her eyes she squinted at the glare of light. Every candle in Lady Stanhope's drawing room must have been lit, including the gas and fairylights. Sarah leaned over her, that blunt face and those glossy black eyes reflecting her concern. "You're well, then?"
At a nod, her assistant retreated and Phil sat up, her head swimming for a moment. She clutched her temples, realizing with dismay that her hair had come undone and lay about her shoulders. She must have looked as bad as she felt. How long would it take before the taint of that man's evil left her soul?
"That was quite a performance," Sir Nicodemus drawled.
Philomena winced. "Can you lower your voice, please? My head aches." She glanced around the ostentatious room, with its silk-papered walls and gilt edging. She avoided his gaze. "Where is everyone?"
"Lady Stanhope left your payment on the table," he answered. Phil's eyes went to the thick stack of banknotes. More than enough to keep up her household for the next few months, with some left over for luxuries.
"Lady Montreve has probably retired to the country," he continued. "The gaggle of young girls are likely swooning over the experience to their beaux in the ballroom...and Lady Stanhope asked you to leave as quickly as you are able."
Phil nodded, and winced again. Well, she couldn't exactly blame either lady. They had certainly gotten more than they'd bargained for with this séance.
Sir Nicodemus held out his hand to help her rise. Philomena ignored the appendage and managed to wobble to her feet unaided. "Sarah, will you fetch the coach?"
Her assistant slid from the room, and the baronet raised a brow. "I see you have no prejudice against my kind. You should suit admirably."
"What do you mean?"
"Your maid. She's a were, is she not?"
Bright lights danced in Phil's vision. "How did you know?"
He shrugged those broad shoulders and Phil desperately tried not to admire them. Oh botheration, why hadn't the young man just left with all the others? She felt enough out of sorts without having to hide her attraction to him.
"There's a stillness about my kind," he replied. "Although I can't quite pin what type of were-animal she might-"
Philomena's knees buckled and she would have sprawled to the floor if not for his quick reflexes. Instead she found herself within his arms. She stammered excuses, yet did nothing to escape his embrace. "I'm afraid that the encounter with Lord Stanhope quite did me in. I do try to avoid contact with the spirits. I'm far too sensitive to their presence."
He smelled marvelous. Like country meadows and sweet grass, with a musky undertone that she couldn't quite define. He stood at least a head taller than her and his arms were layered with the thick muscles of a man, not the wiry strength of a young boy. And the heat of him...
"Are you all right, Lady Radcliff?" he murmured.
She looked up to find his face mere inches from her own. He'd bowed his head and his nostrils were flared. Heavens, was he scenting her?
"Quite. I think you can let me go now."
But neither of them moved. Philomena couldn't tear her eyes away from his. Golden flecks in those deep brown irises sparkled and appeared to move, as if to hypnotize her. His mouth moved closer to her own and she had the shocking thought that he might kiss her. Ridiculous. Phil stepped out of his arms, gathered up her shawl, and tried to flee the room.
"Lady Radcliff. Your payment?"
He held out her banknotes, a mocking smile twisting an otherwise extremely attractive mouth. She tried to snatch them from his hand, but he pulled the bills away from her.
"Why don't I carry these for you while I see you home?"
"That's quite unnecessary."
"Oh, but I'm afraid you're wrong. What if you were to swoon again?"
Phil narrowed her eyes. "I assure you, I'm not ordinarily given to fainting. If you hand me my money, sir, we will likely never see each other again."
The cheeky man pocketed her notes and gently clasped her arm. "Ah, but that's where you're wrong, Lady Radcliff." He opened the door to the drawing room, allowing the lights and music to surround them. And exposing them to the witness of a hundred gazes. "I have a business proposition for you. One that will be a hundred times more profitable than what Lady Stanhope has provided you."
Phil's ears pricked up; she couldn't help it. When one had experienced the feeling of an empty belly, the value of money held enormous attraction. When he guided her down the hall she didn't protest, even when he purposely led them past the open double doors of the ballroom. Magic had created a winter wonderland of sparkling snow that swirled beneath the dancers' feet. Huge icicles glittering with rainbow colors hung from the ceiling and crystal statues graced the ballroom floor. Phil sighed with regret at the beauty of it all. She had so looked forward to attending the ball after the séance.
Outside the doors of the mansion the true summer weather enveloped them, the fog of the night making it almost difficult to breathe. Lady Stanhope's coach waited to take her home, the stomping unicorns standing before a pumpkin-shaped carriage.
Sarah hissed and scooted into the corner when Sir Nicodemus entered the coach. Phil leveled a glare at her assistant, then turned her attention on the young man.
"It must be difficult not to experience the illusions of magic, Sir Nicodemus. It's quite a delight for one to ride in a pumpkin." She ended her words with a brilliant smile.
His eyes widened and he stared in silence at her for a moment. Then he blinked. "I can see magic, Lady Radcliff. It's just a bit transparent to me. Like so many other things."
"Ah, like people, I presume?"
The carriage hit a pothole and a streak of white hair fell over his forehead, making him appear even younger. Phil wondered how old he was anyway, then dismissed the thought. It was none of her business and it didn't matter.
"Sir Nicodemus. If you believe I'm a charlatan, why mention a business proposition to me?"
He sighed and lounged back against the velvet padding, his glittering eyes studying her face. "Nico."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I wish you would just call me Nico."
Before Phil had a chance to respond, the coach lurched to a stop in front of her town house. For a moment she wished she lived a bit farther away from Lady Stanhope. "I'm sorry we didn't get an opportunity to discuss your business proposal. Perhaps if you call on me in the morning?" Phil gathered up the drapes of her gown and prepared to exit the carriage, but the heat of his touch on her arm made her freeze.
"I'm afraid my business can't wait until the morning," he said. "I detest the city, and now that I've found what I was looking for, I'd rather make the arrangements and leave."
The man always managed to say the most intriguing things. Despite her reluctance to invite him inside, she found herself doing so. She prayed as they made their way to her front door that it would be a quiet night. The only way she'd managed to afford a home within Mayfairy was to purchase a house no one else wanted-a former brothel haunted by its previous occupants. Of course, the noises and moving objects didn't scare her, but the images of the ghosts had proved to be entirely too enlightening.
"Sarah, will you light some lanterns, please?" Phil asked when they entered the drawing room. Sarah lit every candle and touched on every fairylight in her attempts to banish the shadows in the room, but too many still remained. Sarah took an inconspicuous seat in the corner of the room, silent but always watchful over her mistress. Sir Nicodemus took a seat near the fireplace, the banked coals turning the white in his hair a shade of red. Phil's eyes searched the room, noting how plain it appeared compared to Lady Stanhope's. But it did seem that the ghosts might be quiet tonight. She sat on the settee opposite the young man's chair and smiled with relief.
Sir Nicodemus drew her banknotes from his pocket and set them on the tea tray. He smiled a bit sheepishly. Quite becoming. "Sorry. I just wanted to make sure that you'd talk to me."
"I am most intrigued," Phil replied. "What could be of such importance that you felt the need for such coercion?"
He leaned forward, that dark shadow falling over his features again. "How did you know?"
"Whatever do you mean?"
"Oh, come now, you don't really expect me to believe in ghosts, do you? I'm not as gullible as my bro-well, I believe in what I can see and hear, and I saw nothing. So how did you know Lord Stanhope was having an affair with Lady Montreve? Is that how you mediums manage to convince your clients, by digging up the dirt on them?"
Phil might have been offended if she hadn't sensed the desperation in his manner, as if he wanted to believe in her. A shadow of movement appeared behind his left shoulder, but she ignored it while trying to form her reply. "You do not believe in spirits?"
Her calm response took him aback. Phil smiled, but it quickly faded as she saw what appeared behind him. The ghosts that haunted this house were what she called a memory haunting, meaning that she couldn't interact with them and they never did with her. They just reenacted scenes from their lives over and over. It was Fanny who appeared tonight-and Fanny had a bit more awareness than the others.
"No, I don't believe in ghosts," Sir Nicodemus said. "But my brother does. And therein lies my problem."
Fanny crooked her finger at someone behind Phil, but she refused to turn her head and look. "Yet you believe in magic."
"Of course. Even though it doesn't affect me, I can still see and feel it."
"So why wouldn't you believe that I have the magical gift to see ghosts?"
A young man took Fanny's hand, and she led him over to a mattress that appeared to hover in midair. Usually Fanny's clients were older gentlemen. Phil narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
"Ah, but what I believe doesn't matter. I only need to know that you will be convincing enough to fool, ah, help my brother."
Fanny laughed, low and sultry, pulling her young client into her arms. He kissed her hesitantly, and she ran her fingers through his hair, pulling his mouth closer, practically devouring him.
"Royden thinks Grimspell castle has ghosts, you see. And that they've suddenly become angry and are haunting his dreams."
Phil tore her gaze away from the couple behind Sir Nicodemus and tried to focus her attention on him. Oh botheration, that proved worse. She imagined running her own fingers through his white-brown hair, pulling his mouth toward hers with the same intense hunger that Fanny displayed. What would it be like to feel those youthful lips on hers? To feel such a passion?
Sir Nicodemus's eyes glittered and he leaned forward. "Is something wrong?"
"No, ah, nothing."
Fanny slid the young man's shirt off his shoulders, running ghostly fingers down rippled flesh. She undid his belt, unbuttoned his trousers, and let his clothing fall away. His eagerness for Fanny was plain to see.
Sir Nicodemus pulled something from his coat pocket and handed it to Philomena. She took it but couldn't tear her eyes away from the vision.
"Those are first-class tickets to Norwitch, Norfolk. You'll have to hire a carriage to take you to Trollersby, and from there the locals will direct you to Grimspell castle."
Fanny was doing things with her mouth that had the young man's face twisted with sheer pleasure. Phil watched where and how Fanny moved her tongue to make her client moan the loudest. Whenever the haunting began, Philomena would swear to herself that she wouldn't watch. But she had yet to find the willpower to resist.
"As you can see," Sir Nicodemus said, raising his voice, "if you would be so kind as to look, there are several gems from our vaults-a down payment for your services."
That managed to get Phil's attention. Large emeralds sparkled in her palm. She could only guess at the value, but she imagined it would keep her household for several years. "A down payment?" she whispered.
"Yes. You will get the remainder once you've convinced my brother that you've banished his ghosts. Do we have an agreement?"
Fanny squealed and Phil's traitorous gaze went back to the couple. Good heavens, she sat atop the young man. Phil tilted her head in studied amazement. Fanny rode him hard, up and down, until he cried out with a roar, his groin pushing her high off the bed with his climax.
"Lady Radcliff." Sir Nicodemus reached out and touched her hand. Philomena sprang to her feet, tickets and gems scattering across the polished wooden floor. They bumped heads as they both reached down to pick them up and for a moment faced each other in a crouch. Phil's cheeks felt hot and her body ached with a need that was entirely Fanny's fault.
Sir Nicodemus leaned toward her, as if he sensed her arousal and couldn't help but respond to it. The shadow of his were-self fell away, and tenderness glittered in his eyes. He reached out a hand and stroked her cheek.
Phil snapped her head back and stood. "I think you'd better go."
He rose as well, confusion clouding his features. "But...we have an agreement, then? You'll come to Grimspell castle?"
Philomena was so flustered she would have agreed to anything. "Yes, yes, of course. Just please go." Fanny laughed, and Phil turned to find the ghost eyes staring straight at her. Her heart flipped in her chest with surprise and she opened her mouth to speak, but the vision faded.
Phil spun. "Sir Nicodemus."
He turned stiffly around to look at her from where he stood in the drawing room doorway.
"What are you?"
He didn't ask what she meant. "Surely you've guessed? My were-form is a wolf, Lady Philomena Radcliff. I eat young girls for dinner." And he turned on his heel and left.
Phil shuddered to think of what he did to older women.