A Spirited Engagement, an excerpt
Marylebone, London, July 1887
In which the medium arrives
Miss Tessa Preston dropped her travel-worn satchel, dismayed by the ghosts sailing about the stately London townhouse intended to be her new home. Already out-of-sorts from the Marylebone Spiritualist Association’s rude rejection letter burning a hole in her purse, Tessa found herself at a loss. That letter was supposed to have been her entrée to Society as a pre-eminent medium. That letter was supposed to have set her up for life. Her warm brown complexion took on an olive tone, reflecting the nausea roiling in her stomach.
Tessa pondered the comfortable and modestly upscale townhouse while twirling the errant black curl above her ear that always defied coiffure. Once upon a time, too many years ago, she had left this house and had been glad of it. To now return as the resident medium, and with so very many ghosts to seize her attention, wasn’t exactly how she had imagined events resolving.
“A happy facade, don’t you think?” Uncle Preston said. His dark travel suit, well-tailored and well-patched, hid that it was a couple of seasons out of date. Still, he cut a fine figure despite or because of his healthy, tan, and entirely bald head, and drew the attention of admiring eyes as servants rushed along with their morning duties. “I must admit I hadn’t noticed last night, but I daresay this shall be a fine stop for us.”
They stood perilously close to the curb, along with their trunks. Their hansom driver had dispatched everything with great speed, muttering how he wanted nothing to do with this house and couldn’t afford his horses getting spooked for the third time this week.
Tessa made a non-committal noise, too distracted to engage her uncle’s small-talk. A spirit brushed past her, rustling her skirts and tickling the tiny black curls at her nape. “Well,” she huffed.
“Given how you’re staring, I can only imagine Dame Hartwell didn’t exaggerate, and she does indeed have an overwhelming influx of ghosts calling?” Uncle Preston said.
“She didn’t exaggerate,” Tessa confirmed, “and while I know she’s providing us room and board, I can’t help but think we’re being underpaid.”
Uncle Preston shushed her with an annoyed click of his tongue. “You know I dislike such blatant talk of business.”
Tessa gave him an amused sidelong glance. “An unfortunate truth, since you’re supposed to be my guardian and manager.”
Uncle Preston smiled. He brought forward an intricately carved walking stick, his nonchalance belying his intense study of the house. The stick itself was rather mundane in the hands of someone like Uncle Preston, who hadn’t the Sense to see or hear ghosts. It was for this reason he wielded it.
“I don’t think we need that quite yet, but thank you,” Tessa murmured, not taking her dark brown eyes off the house, yet knowing her uncle would yield the stick at the flick of her wrist.
She counted ten distinct ghosts entering and exiting the home. They seemed a rather benign looking group. But after last night’s excitement, which had ended with Tessa exorcizing two ghosts and Dame Hartwell extending an offer of employment, she didn’t intend to let her guard down.
None of the ghosts seemed violent or emotional. Had they not been translucent, one might have thought they were simply visiting Dame Hartwell for a rather early cup of tea and a bit of gossip. They did not pretend to rely on gravity, however, and floated in and out of the residence with a peculiar sort of glee. A woman in full Elizabethan court dress caught Tessa’s eye, mostly because a ghost of that age should have seemed... softer around the edges, faded with time.
Recalling how Dame Hartwell had begged them to stay to protect her family from the increasing number of spirits insomuch as she could discern for herself, Tessa realized a half-truth informed them.
She straightened her shoulders and tapped the little hat perched atop her artfully piled braids and curls. She tugged the short peplum of her once-smart traveling suit, and out of a dismaying habit, brushed the backside of her bustle for good measure. “We’ve spent quite enough time cooling our heels. We’re expected inside.”
“Are we?” Uncle Preston said. He removed his hat, ran a handkerchief along his bald head, and replaced the hat in a smooth, practiced move. “No one’s come to get our things, and the curtains remain shut.”
Tessa’s frown deepened, her thin upper lip tucking into her full lower one as both flattened with displeasure. “I’m certain Dame Hartwell said to come early in the morning to avoid disrupting the family.”
“Hm, yes. And who did she mean, exactly? She is the matriarch, is she not? Who could she possibly wish to avoid by our early arrival?”
Tessa immediately pictured Dame Hartwell’s handsome son, Alexander Hartwell. He had deplored of this “sensationalist ghost talk” all those years ago. Seeing how his mother had only furthered her interest in spiritualism to the point of hosting seances and hiring mediums-in-residence, Tessa could only imagine the reaction Dame Hartwell was avoiding.
“I’ve no idea,” she lied. Sometimes it was best to not share every detail with her uncle.
Uncle Preston harrumphed. “Even so. Someone should collect our things. We’re gaining too much attention standing out here.”
Just as he was about to ascend the short stair to the front door, a woman in an elegant, dark lavender dress with a dainty bustle and black trim slipped outside. She was careful to close the door with both hands to reduce the noise of the latch catching.
“Hello! You must be our welcoming committee,” Uncle Preston said, deceptively cheerful.
The woman spun around, clutching the bit of lace at her throat. Her violet-gray eyes, already wide with surprise, widened as she looked them over. She touched the little hat, similar in style to Tessa’s, atop her dark hair. “Oh! Good morning. I didn’t realize Dame Hartwell was expecting guests.”
Tessa appreciated how the woman assumed they were Dame Hartwell’s guests rather than employees. She wondered belatedly whether they should have arrived at the back entrance. Habit from a lifetime ago had landed her on the front stoop, instead.
“We don’t mean to be a burden, my dear,” Uncle Preston said, taking a fatherly air, grating Tessa’s already strained nerves, “but we’re supposed to be moving in, only no one’s come for us or our things despite our prompt arrival. Could you send word to the lady of the house on our behalf?”
“Moving in?” the woman echoed. “You must be the new medium.”
Tessa and Uncle Preston glanced at one another. “New medium?”
“I suppose it’s better to meet this way, on our own terms. My name is Mary Trentwood.” She pried her gloves off, slapping them into her fringed purse as she descended the steps. “Dame Hartwell goes through a medium every couple of days, it seems. She’s seeking someone to teach me.”
“Teach you?” Tessa said. She accepted Mary’s hand, annoyed at having taken so long to figure out Dame Hartwell’s scheme. “Dame Hartwell said she wanted me to protect her son and his fiancée by ridding the house of ghosts.”
Things were far worse than Tessa feared. She winked one eye shut, allowing her Sense to shift the sight of her open eye. The world wavered before snapping into place. The ghosts moving about the townhouse took on a startling sense of solidity, while Uncle Preston faded and seemed ghostlike himself. Mary, however, glowed with all the cool beauty of blue-black flame.
It was no wonder the house attracted ghosts. Mary was a beacon of the brightest sort, surpassed only by Tessa herself, it seemed.
Mary’s pinched smile hinted at her displeasure. “I’m certain she means to explain everything, but in short, I’m the fiancée of which she spoke.”
Uncle Preston harrumphed, shifting his weight.
Tessa resisted the urge to rub her forehead. She really, really ought to have known better.
Mary pulled a key from her purse. “Let’s head inside for some tea. I’ll send Pomeroy for your things.”
“We daren’t disturb you, you looked to be on an errand.” Uncle Preston said.
Mary shook her head. “Only a morning walk to clear my head.”
“Alone?” Uncle Preston said, scandalized.
Tessa coughed. Her uncle was always so easily surprised by any form of independence in other women, despite having seen and even aided her in some rather physical battles with unwieldy spirits.
Mary searched for a response. “I’m accustomed to my morning walks in the country. But I must admit, the morning air here isn’t half so fine.”
Tessa noted how Mary flinched as the suspiciously well-defined Elizabethan ghost sailed past her into the house. With a Sense that strong, it was only natural Mary Trentwood saw ghosts. Clearly, she wasn’t adept at pretending otherwise. “Are you well, Miss Trentwood?” she asked, glancing at Uncle Preston with a knowing expression.
“Oh, yes, thank you. Merely a headache.” Mary’s eyes flitted nervously to the sight of the Elizabethan ghost sticking her head through the front door, wondering aloud what kept them remaining outside. “Headaches that, on occasion, make me see things.”
Tessa let the silence hang between them. “Is that so?”
Mary shoved the key into the lock, opening the door as she said, “A trifling matter. Join me in the library, won’t you?”
Tessa couldn’t help rubbing her hands together as soon as Mary turned her back. This was exactly what she needed to distract her from the narrow-minded Marylebone Spiritualist Association. If she could help Mary control her Sense, she would finally have a case study on English soil to present as evidence of her right to be a member of the venerated association.
“You must wipe that smirk from your face,” Uncle Preston said as he took her arm to lead her in the house. “You’ll reveal your mercenary nature too early in the game,”
“Is it mercenary to make the most of an unexpected and unfortunate situation? I prefer pragmatic,” she quipped.
“Whatever you need to tell yourself,” he said. “Just be careful. Dame Hartwell is a well-connected Spiritualist, and this is her house and future daughter-in-law you’re playing with. Don’t forget, the Spirit World has its own warnings for you.”
Tessa touched the high neck of her dress, uncomfortable in the summer morning heat. She had decided on the dress because it hid the deep bruises left by the angry ghosts she exorcized from Dame Hartwell’s parlor last night. “They’re coming for you,” had been the warning. Who was coming, and why, Tessa didn’t know.
She smiled sweetly at her uncle. “One crisis at a time, if you please.”
In which one discovers
The Elizabethan ghost hovered in the foyer, clearly waiting for Mary.
Mary cleared her throat, trying to appear as though she wasn’t avoiding the ghost as she inched past the entry table.
Ghosts couldn’t help but gather near mediums who couldn’t control their Sense out of denial, ignorance, or inability. After all, a hesitant medium is to a ghost what a moth is to a flame. There are certain bragging rights that come along with breaking in, or breaking down, a new medium.
Tessa shook her head at the ghost, letting a bit of her Sense to flare out in warning.
“Thou should’st mind thine betters,” the ghost said, advancing on Tessa. “Shakespeare may have written of a Moorish king, it doth raises thou naught.”
Mary stopped, looking as though she wanted to ask a question, but didn’t dare. Instead, she said, “The library is this way.” She moved down the square-shaped hall to the door on the right. As with most townhouses in the area, the library sat on the ground floor just beyond the hall, with the dining room beyond that to entertain guests. Tessa let Mary guide them as if she hadn’t lived a year under this roof.
Everything was as it had been. The same wallpaper, rugs, drapes, and family portraits. Hartwell house felt lived in, but not shabbily so. The wear and tear over the years imbued a sense of familial comfort rather than destitution. Tessa wondered at Sir Hartwell’s fortune that he could leave such a comfortable living for his widow, Dame Hartwell, even after all these years.
Mary stopped abruptly when the Elizabethan ghost stood in the library’s doorway, blocking her entry. Uncle Preston, having placed his hat on the table in the absence of a butler, frowned at Tessa.
Tessa took her uncle’s arm, whispering, “She has the Sense, badly managed. One minute she’s bright as the sun, another dark as night. I’m exhausted watching her. And we have a friend teasing her, knowing she doesn’t want to admit anything to us.”
“Why ever not, if she knows Dame Hartwell hired you to help her?” he whispered back.
“Perhaps she doesn’t want someone else to know,” Tessa mused, more to herself than to her uncle.
“You don’t think she would keep such a thing from her future husband, surely?”
Tessa shrugged, taking the walking stick from her uncle. The moment she touched it, the energy in the room shifted such that the Elizabethan ghost focused solely on her. Whatever it was about Tessa holding the cane, it seemed to make her an immediate threat to any and all spirits nearby. The ghost moved out of Mary’s way, her narrow gaze speaking volumes.
“Whether he knows,” Tessa whispered as Mary entered the library, “I agree Miss Trentwood could use my help.”
“So Dame Hartwell wasn’t exaggerating when she said her son’s fiancée required protection?” Uncle Preston replied, his tone suggesting Tessa could find a conspiracy in an empty corner.
The sight of a familiar face in the library stopped Tessa’s retort.
A low voice, achingly familiar and reminding Tessa of simpler, if heartbreaking, days, greeted Mary from the worn settee. “London air not suit you this morning, my dear?”
“I hadn’t the opportunity to find out,” Mary said. “It seems your mother invited yet another medium to stay with us.” Her calm demeanor dropped as she settled her hands to her waist and said with some acidity, “When I came to London, I never thought I’d have such a rotation of roommates.”
“The devil she has!” Alexander Hartwell sat up from his lounged position to engage Mary on the topic. Upon noticing Tessa and her uncle, he leapt to his feet, dropping his book. “Tessa!”
“Hello, Alex, it’s been an age.” Tessa kept her eyes on Mary and Hartwell, mostly to avoid the knowing grin she knew was spreading across her uncle’s face.
Hartwell was a man of moderate height, with dark hair and eyes. His distinguishing feature was the scar that ran from his left eye and down his chin. It was what could have made him dashing, but honestly, made him seem a questionable gothic hero. Tessa had often, in her girlish days, imagined Hartwell as a Mr. Rochester to her Jane Eyre, silly as it was.
It was supremely unfortunate that, clearly, Uncle Preston remembered Tessa’s former tendre.
Hartwell moved to stand beside Mary. “I’d no idea you’d returned to London, though!”
Mary looked from Hartwell to Tessa, brows raised. “I see I’ve no need to make introductions?”
“No indeed,” Hartwell said, a smile breaking across his scarred face as he offered his hand to Tessa’s uncle. “So Mother finally got you back. I never thought I’d see the day.”
“Nor I,” Tessa said, hoping no one could tell how her heart beat against her stays. She should have assumed Hartwell would be in the home when Dame Hartwell invited them to stay. Her son and his fiancée, indeed. Were they all to stay in the house until Tessa removed the ghosts, or simply until Hartwell and Mary married?
“And you, Sir Hubert,” Hartwell said as he wrapped an arm around Mary’s waist. She looked embarrassed, yet pleased. “I suppose you’re staying with us as well?”
Uncle Preston nodded. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.” He motioned to the scar running down Hartwell’s face. “Damn shame that didn’t heal.”
Tessa pinched Uncle Preston’s arm, making him flinch. “What my uncle means to say is we’re glad to be among friends again.”
“Quite,” Uncle Preston agreed, rubbing where Tessa pinched him. “We may let down our hair, as it were.” He chuckled with Hartwell at his joke, touching his bald head only somewhat self-consciously.
Tessa noted how Mary kept glancing in the corner, where the Elizabethan ghost now hovered, glaring at Tessa. Rolling her eyes ever so slightly, Tessa handed the walking stick back to her uncle. “It’s easier if you acknowledge, rather than ignore, the benign ones.”
“Much that you know,” the Elizabethan ghost said, dropping her affected tones. “I’ve been haunting this one for nigh onto two weeks, and as masterful an actress as I’ve ever seen, with how well she ignored me!”
Mary spun on her heel. Hartwell jumped back, startled. “You’re not Elizabethan!” she accused the ghost.
The ghost crowed, bending as she laughed. “So now she pays attention! I’m but a poor actress myself, miss, with the bad luck of dying in my costume between sets.”
Mary covered her face, half-laughing, half-groaning. “This is so much worse than being haunted at home.”
“You swore last night the ghosts had stopped bothering you,” Hartwell said.
Tessa exchanged a look with her uncle. Something indeed must have happened, for the Alexander Hartwell of old did not believe in ghosts.
“Your dearest doesn’t wish to alarm you,” came Dame Hartwell from behind them. She was a slight woman, persistently dressed in gray fabrics that complemented her silver hair, ivory complexion, and cool blue eyes. “But as I keep telling you, not only does Mary see them, she’s attracting them to the house. Tessa, my dear, so glad you came early. You must join us for breakfast. We must debrief about last night’s séance.”
Hartwell’s expression turned stormy. “You mean Tessa was here last night, and you didn’t tell me?”
“Well, who else do you think could exorcize three ghosts in a sitting? Madam Sylvia? I should think not.” Dame Hartwell took both Mary and Tessa’s arms, pulling them from Hartwell and Uncle Preston. “Stay in the library and stew if you must. We shall be in the dining room. Coming, Sir Hubert?”
“I’ve never missed the promise of breakfast before. Seems foolhardy to start now,” was Uncle Preston’s jovial response.
Tessa felt her cheeks and neck grow warm. With all the excitement after their visit to the association that morning, she had put aside last night’s excursion. “I should correct you, ma’am. I only sent two spirits Beyond. The third left of his own accord,” she said as Dame Hartwell dragged her and Mary to the dining room, with Uncle Preston and Hartwell following close behind.
“Oh, no one cares of such details,” Dame Hartwell replied. “Only think, you made such quick work, we shall be rid of these spirits in no time at all.”
Tessa doubted that very much indeed. She kept the thought to herself, however, for she could see how dispelling a house of ghosts was certainly one way to impress the Marylebone Spiritualist Association to gain entry to their membership.
Tessa pressed her lips together, noting Mary do the same. A roof over her head, and an opportunity to prove herself, Tessa reminded herself. This was why she subjected herself to Dame Hartwell’s incessant managing.
However, teaching someone to control their Sense, now that was an entirely different matter. Though her ears still burned with the derision and laughter that someone like her, of mixed heritage, would dare sully the hallowed halls of the Marylebone Spiritualist Association, Tessa still wanted, no, needed, their acceptance. With their sponsorship, she could work anywhere in England, and for top rates. She wouldn’t have to rely on her uncle for a roof over her head or food on her plate.
This truly couldn’t have been a more convenient opportunity. Tessa would get the Marylebone Spiritualist Association to award her membership by the week’s end if Mary proved to be a clever student, by month’s end if not.
Still, as the Elizabethan ghost followed them into the dining room, Tessa couldn’t help but wonder whether there was an easier way to legitimize herself to society. She did have the most terrible habit of doing things the hard way.
In which one arranges
The dining room was much like the rest of the house, well-loved, and unchanged since she last dined here. Tessa squared her shoulders, noting the door at the other end leading to the kitchen and scullery. The large bay window centered on the right wall faced a private courtyard, while the left wall featured family portraits. It was a well-appointed room, and well-suited for a quick escape if needed. She turned her attention to Uncle Preston, who held onto the cane that allowed her to perform the feats to which Dame Hartwell alluded.
Tessa felt exposed without it. That cane had saved her from quite the attack last night, one she hadn’t expected in such a grand home. She resolved to retrieve it once everyone disbanded for the day.
Uncle Preston, having already piled his plate with breakfast notions, plopped into a chair beside Hartwell, whose plate was empty and his coffee cup at risk of spilling over. “Did I read in the papers that you’re to marry this lovely woman? I am all agog. We all thought dear Alex would never walk the aisle after his accident.”
Mary’s mouth sagged open. Tessa rolled her eyes.
“Good to see you, too, Sir Hubert,” Hartwell said affably. “I suppose Tessa never told you my accident was nothing more than Florence tossing a teapot my way because I teased her too much in front of her new husband.”
Uncle Preston blinked. “Certainly not. And how is Sir Kirkham?”
“As complacent as he ever was,” Hartwell said. “Having died rather unexpectedly in his sleep last year.”
“I’m sorry,” Mary interrupted, clearly objecting to all this untoward familiarity from Uncle Preston, “but have we met?”
Uncle Preston chuckled. “We danced once upon a time during your Season, back when your father was trying to prevent you from attaching to another gentleman… Steele, I think it was? It’s been years, and of course, I’m certain I was too old for you even then. I was sorry to hear of your father’s passing.”
It was Tessa’s turn to be confused. “You know each other? You knew her father?” She bit her lip before asking anything further.
“When we were younger, we frequented the same clubs,” Uncle Preston affirmed.
Tessa studied the glow around Mary, which grew brighter as they discussed Mary’s father while growing visibly distressed. “He haunted you, didn’t he?”
Both Mary and Hartwell caught their breath as one. For the first time in weeks, Mary wished for the incessant chattiness of her father’s spirit. He was now at rest, but earlier in the summer before all the excitement that ultimately led to Mary now being in London and engaged to Hartwell, Trentwood’s ghost had been her constant companion, and rarely let anything go unremarked.
“Miss Preston has a very strong Sense,” Dame Hartwell explained. “And she amplifies those with their own Sense.”
“We don’t know that for certain, my lady,” Tessa said. “There is something special that happens to individuals haunted by close family. It opens doors, sometimes doors that should have stayed shut. Did you know of his presence?”
“Almost constantly,” Mary said.
Tessa nodded. “It’s clear that I need to stay. This house is too active with spirits. Pardon my directness, but you must be why. We must teach you how to control your Sense.” She bit back a gasp when Dame Hartwell, unable to contain her delight, patted her hand until it ached from the attention.
“I haven’t any Sense,” Mary said, her tone brooking no arguments.
“Of course you do. You’re the most sensible person I know,” Hartwell teased.
“Oh, yes, you do,” Tessa said, ignoring Hartwell. “And if we don’t teach you how to control it, you will put yourself in great danger. You are an open honey pot to the fruit flies of Beyond. It simply won’t do to hide your head beneath a pillow about this.”
“Both an eloquent and disturbing metaphor, Tessa,” Hartwell said.
“Well.” Mary folded her napkin neatly on the table. “Is there anything you need to do to prepare the house, any… protections you need to put up?”
“I’m not a witch,” Tessa said, more than a little affronted. “I’m a medium. It’s not like I can say some magic words and put a bowl over the house to keep the flies out.”
Uncle Preston made a small noise, holding out the cane.
Tessa blinked. “Right, well, I only know one magical phrase and it only seems to work with this cane and only when spirits are attacking someone. So no, I cannot put up ‘protections’ in the room.”
Mary rubbed her temple, shaking her head.
“So, Mater finally wore you down,” Hartwell said to Tessa, “and she’s hired you on.”
“Don’t be rude,” Dame Hartwell said. “It’s for Mary’s benefit. Tessa’s come home. You ought to be glad for her help.”
Hartwell's expression turned mulish, but he said nothing as Mary squeezed his arm.
“I assume Miss Preston and I will share a room, Dame Hartwell, as I have with your other mediums?” Mary said.
Tessa cleared her throat. “We have yet to discuss the particulars of my employment. I hardly think I should live with the family when I’m only here to clear the house of lingering souls before the wedding.”
“Don’t be silly. You shared the room with dearest Florence when you were younger. Why wouldn’t you share it with Mary now?” Dame Hartwell said.
“Surely you see some impropriety,” Hartwell said. “Mary is to be your daughter-in-law and my wife. Surely she doesn’t need to share a room for your entertainment. No offense, Tessa.”
Tessa’s jaw tightened, and she gulped her tea.
“I insist Miss Preston stays with me,” Mary said, saving Tessa from further embarrassment. “I believe she might actually know what she’s talking about. It will be quite refreshing, and perhaps even a bit fun, to give these spirits a bit of their own back.”
Dame Hartwell clapped her hands, delighted. “Oh, that’s quite excellent, my dear! What a lovely attitude to have about it, finally.”
Tessa caught how Mary’s eyes narrowed, ever so slightly, in annoyance. She saved Mary from having to respond to the gentle jibe. “One cannot overstate how difficult it is to accept the constant presence of ghosts, my lady.”
“I accept them just fine, I think,” Dame Hartwell said, delicately slathering jam on her toast.
“Indeed, my lady, for you only have to hear them, and I think they must often sound like whispers to you.”
Tessa poured a cup of coffee from the sideboard and held it with both hands. Her stomach, while no longer queasy from last night’s exertions, recoiled at the sight of the breakfast spread. There were multiple meat options, with which Uncle Preston rewarded himself handsomely with soft-boiled eggs, buttered toast, and a variety of jams. Tessa missed the lighter fare of the Mediterranean and ultimately settled on toast. She took her time selecting a slice, using the moment to assess the Sense in the room.
Dame Hartwell had a faint glow, as expected. Just enough to know paranormal activities happened around her, perhaps even hear or suffer physical effects by the stronger spirits, but certainly not strong enough to influence anything. In the morning light, Tessa could now see Hartwell had a similar glow, something she had never noticed before. Or perhaps it was his exposure to Mary Trentwood that had increased his Sense? For Mary glowed as brightly as Tessa herself, but the glow flickered as though a stiff wind worked to stifle a kerosene lamp. It could only be Mary herself attempting to control her access to spirits, or perhaps the spirits’ access to her. Either way, it explained Mary’s strained expression. It would take an immense amount of concentration to dampen a Sense that strong without practice.
Dame Hartwell frowned at Tessa, but thought better of whatever she intended to say. “It is most curious. My dear Alex and I only seem able to hear the spirits. Mary, though she will not admit it, I’m certain can both hear and see the spirits… like yourself.”
Tessa glanced at Uncle Preston, unsure whether Dame Hartwell thought she was being subtle. Uncle Preston focused on his plate, as did Hartwell. “Yes, I both hear and see the spirits. My uncle does not.”
“Fascinating,” Dame Hartwell said. “And is that why he carries your mystical stick?”
Mary frowned. “Mystical stick? Do you have mystical artifacts hidden in your luggage, Miss Preston?”
Tessa appreciated Mary for having the ability to say such a sentence without sarcasm. “Hardly.” She pretended to sip her coffee, taking a moment to breathe deeply and calm the pressure rising in her chest. “My uncle carries the cane because he indeed lacks Sense, of the paranormal kind, of course, and doesn’t attract spirits the way I might. Or I Miss Trentwood, for that matter.”
“Thank you for the mention, m’dear,” Uncle Preston said, raising his coffee with a chuckle. “We received the cane from a lovely Roma who insisted we take it for our protection, and for others.”
“You wielded it masterfully last night,” Dame Hartwell said, having forgotten her breakfast entirely.
“What did happen last night?” Mary asked. “The drawing room was in shambles.”
“We tried to pick up,” Tessa said, staring at Uncle Preston, “but one can only do so much in a short amount of time and a single set of hands.”
Uncle Preston dabbed the corners of his mouth with his napkin, unperturbed at the implication, however accurate, that he chose not to soil his hands with righting the drawing room.
“It was extraordinary,” Dame Hartwell said. She leaned forward, startling Mary as she grabbed her hand. “Miss Preston here identified there were malevolent spirits—three, in fact!—in the house and banished them in quick succession. I’ve never seen such acrobatics in a bustle before.”
“Acrobatics?” Hartwell said. “Were they circus ghosts?”
“Don’t be patronizing,” Tessa said, unable to stop herself. “I may have been your sister’s playmate once upon a time, but I assure you, not only were there three spirits, but they came with a warning I’ve been puzzling over.”
“A warning?” Mary said, gently extracting her hand from Dame Hartwell.
Dame Hartwell nodded. “Poor Madam Sylvia. I don’t think the spirits have ever possessed her before. ‘Tessa, they’re coming for you,’ the spirit said through her. It rather startled all of us.”
Tessa held back her questions, her suspicion growing that Dame Hartwell had known all along Madam Sylvia lacked the Sense. Instead, she mused, “Madam Sylvia was a victim. Even if she were practiced with possessions, I’ve never seen what I saw last night. And I’ve only once before come to physical blows with a spirit before.”
“Madrid,” Uncle Preston chimed in, as if that explained everything.
Mary’s eyes grew wide. “Possession? Blows? Surely you tease us.”
Hartwell cleared his throat. “However, we are not entirely unaccustomed to such talk.” Mary glared at him, but when Tessa turned, curious, he continued, “I believe ever since Mary’s father returned to… Beyond, was it? I think his departure opened a gate and now Mary can see and hear other ghosts.”
Ah, so easy to confirm Miss Trentwood’s secret. “Your father haunted you,” Tessa said.
“And possessed me,” Hartwell said, “but it was always to protect Mary. In fact, he used me to give a friend a right walloping for some untoward comments. That was rather enjoyable, actually.”
Tessa studied Mary, who, after a moment’s hesitation, met her gaze with a defiant expression, which made Tessa like her immensely. If there were ever a woman worth Alex Hartwell’s salt, it was one who could meet the challenge of her father haunting and possessing people, and still keep her wits. “And you’ve seen ghosts ever since?”
Mary shook her head. “Only since sleeping under this roof have I had the misfortune of seeing spirits.”
Dame Hartwell slapped the table in triumph. “I knew you could see the spirits, though I hardly know why you wouldn’t admit it.”
“Don’t you, mother?” Hartwell said. “She’s meant to be my wife, not your evening entertainment for your spiritualist friends. And don’t give me that look, Mary. I promised I’d wait until morning, and now it’s morning, so I shall address it with my mother.”
Mary raised her hands, glancing at Tessa. “I asked to not make a scene.”
“He can hardly make a scene in front of Tessa,” Dame Hartwell said. “She’s practically a second sister, aren’t you, dearest? Though perhaps you’re a bit more level-headed than my own dear daughter. You’re unlikely to toss a teapot at anyone’s head.”
“No ma’am,” Uncle Preston interjected, “you may depend on Tessa starting nothing, but she shall almost certainly always finish it.”
Dame Hartwell smiled. “That is exactly why I hired her. Now that she is here, we can finally have your ball,” she said to Mary, who jumped in her seat.
Dame Hartwell laughed. “Well, we must have a ball in honor of your wedding. You are marrying my son. Let’s not forget.”
“Mother, we talked about this,” Hartwell said. “Mary dislikes the attention.”
“Then this will be just the thing to disable her of her fear.”
Hartwell sat back, his jaw tightening. “She’s not afraid.”
Tessa watched Mary turn different colors, annoyed and frustrated. “Miss Trentwood, would you mind giving me a tour of the home? Since we are roommates, I would like to hear what’s changed since I last lived here.”
When Dame Hartwell made to join them, Tessa said, “Ma’am, if I’m to succeed in my purpose under your roof, I must spend some time with Miss Trentwood alone. How else will I build her Sense?”
“Oh very well,” Dame Hartwell said, sounding cross. “I expect to receive regular reports on your progress!”
“Depend upon it, my dear madam,” Uncle Preston said as Tessa beckoned Mary out of the room, “Tessa will let you know precisely what she wants you to know.”
In which one seeks help
Haggard was too gentle a word for the exhaustion plaguing Jasper Steele. He reclined in his mother’s morning room, an arm draped over his blue eyes against the perky sunlight. Didn’t the sun know they were in London, of all places? Surely there was some dark cloud somewhere to wink that light out. He had slept in his clothes, mussing his nice brown suit. His blond hair, now a little long because he’d missed his hair cut because of his unfortunate circumstances, flopped over his forehead. Remnants of breakfast flecked his mustache.
One would never know it, but Steele usually took great care with his appearance. But who cared about appearances if one was determined to never enter society again? How could he show his face without others suspecting insanity?
His mother sat pursed-lipped across the room, pretending her needlepoint took all her attention. She no doubt thought he had wasted yet another opportunity the other night. Steele had come home with no news of a certain (or any) young woman having caught his eye again. And he smelled like brandy.
What Mrs. Steele had no way of knowing was Jasper Steele had indeed succeeded in one unexpected thing: getting himself engaged… of a kind. To a ghost. Who, while fashionable in every sense of the word, was a bit of a light skirt while alive.
Eloise Carterprice, said affianced and floating spirit, continued her abuse of Mrs. Steele’s choice of decor.
“Doesn’t she know antimacassars are no longer in style?” Eloise said. “No wonder you weren’t catching the eye of anyone’s mama until I latched onto you. We shall do wonders in this space, darling Jasper-poo.”
Steele swallowed a groan. Latched was the operative and appropriate word. He’d had a foreboding feeling before entering the Carterprice home. This was what came of him trying to keep his mother happy… Forever shackled to an obstinate, judgmental, martyr of a girl, whose vices seemed to have only gotten worse in death, and already had him wondering who he might hire to get rid of her.
The fact was, Steele knew who he had to entreat to help. He didn’t relish the idea. In fact, Steele had walked over to the Hartwell house three times in three days, only to back away in a cold sweat upon seeing Mary Trentwood entering and leaving, preparing for her wedding with Alexander Hartwell.
Mary rejecting him in favor of Hartwell wasn’t the cause of his retreats, per se. That was all done and gone, no matter what his mother suspected. Steele put all resentment aside once Hartwell hired him on, with a salary increase, as an assistant in his law office.
No, it was how Steele’s head ached with phantom pains from an altercation with Mary’s now deceased aunt. He had this bad habit of hearing voices since his head wound had healed. He was rather certain these voices were real. Now that he had this ghostly fiancée, he was all but convinced the voices humming in the back of his head were spirits. The voices got louder in Mary Trentwood’s presence, something he had never mentioned to either her or Hartwell.
Now he would have to admit that much, and more.
He eyed Eloise and her statuesque frame, pale blonde locks pulled up into delicate chignons that trailed from her crown to her nape. She wore lavender, the dress they had buried her in. Her skin was an unseemly white, but being a ghost and rather transparent, Steele supposed that was to be expected.
Eloise turned to smile at him. He froze beneath her steady gaze. An opaque whiteness clouded her eyes, and she lacked any hint of a pupil. He would need to ask Mary if ghostliness had also afflicted her father with such a horrific attribute.
“My dear,” his mother said, interrupting his spiraling thoughts. “Was there no one who stole your attention?”
Steele wrenched his attention back to his mother, focusing on her presence as if she were a buoy at sea. She wore her salt and pepper hair pulled back in simple, elegant style. Her nimble fingers flew, not needing to check where the needle would go next. Her dark eyes studied him from beneath frowning brows.
“No,” Steele said, “no one stole my attention.” His gaze drifted back to the fireplace where Eloise floated, grimacing at a little shepherdess figurine his father had given his mother. The room was full of such romantic little gestures. They disgusted Eloise to no end.
“I beg to differ,” Eloise said with a sniff. “I did exactly that, I daresay. To anchor myself to you, I grabbed you with all the strength I had to give you that kiss. Could you imagine how dull it would be if I’d anchored to my bluestocking sister?” She shuddered.
“Edith Carterprice is a good sort of girl,” Steele snapped. He clapped his hand over his mouth at the sight of his mother’s delighted expression.
“Edith Carterprice is an excellent young lady,” Mrs. Steele agreed, dropping her needlepoint and joining him on the sofa. She prodded his leg so he would give her more room. She kept her skirts slim and functional in the current style, but age had softened her middle and there was the bustle to think of. “Her nose is in a book more often than not. I wouldn’t have thought she interested you. But perhaps you need something a little different after that Trentwood girl.”
Steele sighed at the sour note Mary’s name held on his mother’s tongue. “Mary is a good friend, Mother.”
“You don’t need a friend, you need a wife,” she snapped.
“Don’t upset mother, Jasper-poo,” Eloise warned, “I want her in a good mood when we tell her about me.”
Steele’s eyes widened, horrified at the thought. He jumped from his seat, startling his mother. Eloise hadn’t mentioned introductions to his mother yet. She’d kept him awake all night with her incessant prattling on about how maligned she was in death, and how she wanted him to print defenses and retractions against all the rumors that had surfaced in the newspapers after her passing a few months back.
“And don’t you say drink,” his mother said, “for you positively reek of brandy. Just what happened at the Carterprice’s, if it wasn’t an attachment between you and Edith?”
Steele almost let it slip that she’d named the wrong Carterprice twin, but clenched his jaw against turning his own mother against him. For she would think her only child had gone insane, out of jealousy or mourning or lack of love. He doubted she would send him away, but these days, one couldn’t be too careful.
“I need to seek counsel with Hartwell on an important case, that’s all, Mother. It’s so troubling that I’ve lost all ability to sleep.”
Eloise cracked a grin at this masterful falsehood.
Mrs. Steele rose with him, resigned but still concerned. “Well, seek his counsel and come home to rest. You need to be focusing on building your future family. I won’t let you throw away your dreams just because of how that Trent—” she paused at Steele’s darkening expression. “I just want you to be happy.”
He kissed her cheek, slapping his hat atop his head. “Don’t stay up. I’ll be home late or not at all. You know how these cases can get.”
Eloise sailed from the room ahead of him, chortling all the way.