“Ah, Sage, there you are! I’ve been searching for you.”
He turned at the sound of his name. Marianne Grey walked toward him, swaying to the music as she deftly avoided contact with the near crush of guests that filled Winfield Park. Once she reached his side, she spun before him, holding her arms out in invitation.
“Won’t you dance with me, Mr. Merriweather?” A twinkle of merriment lit her blue eyes. “It’s been an age since anyone asked me to dance. And I do so love a waltz.”
“Of course, my dear,” Sage spoke through smiling teeth, his lips barely moving. “I can’t imagine why anyone might care to call Bedlam when they see me waltzing with thin air.”
Marianne sighed dramatically. “I’m not simply air. I’m a ghost. A spirit. A phantom. However, I do exist.”
“True,” he said. “And invisible to all but me.”
“And my sister.”
“Yes. Your sister who has sent her husband to introduce me to someone of importance. Someone who might have information to save you from this bodiless existence. So if you please, I have work to do. Why do you not watch the dancers perform? It’s quite lovely and will keep you entertained while I attend to business.”
Marianne’s shoulders sank. “I cannot bear it any longer.”
“You were happy as a lark moments ago.”
“Yes, until you denied me a dance. I’ve never before been set down. Even without a body I find the insult unbearable.”
Sage had the audacity to grin, which annoyed Marianne all the more. She bristled with wrath lifting his sagging spirits at the sight. Of late, she had become more docile and glum, not at all like the feisty Marianne he had known for most of his twenty-eight years. Being neighbors in the small village of Meryton had thrown their families often together, enough so they became more than simply friends. They had become family. It became official after his brother and her sister wed four months ago.
“Are you not pleased to hear we might be at the end of our search for someone with knowledge to assist you?”
“Yes, of course,” Marianne said. “But if I cannot dance then what shall I do while I wait for you? Believe it if you will, but being a ghost is not all excitement. In fact, it's dreadfully dull.”
“Then come with me,” he suggested, still keeping his lips as stiff as possible when a couple nearby darted curious glances in his direction. He experienced difficulty at times when talking with Marianne in public. People took note when he spoke to no one. “You may give your opinion of the man’s character after we leave Winfield and return home.”
Marianne nodded. He marveled again at the lifelike resemblance. If he reached out to touch her, instead of feeling flesh and bone, he’d sense nothing more than frigid air. Yet she stood, looking as real and alive as he, just as solid as anyone currently on this ballroom floor. It was remarkable to know that while her spirit stood in this room speaking, her body remained in one of the upstairs rooms in Merriweather Manor.
“Is that Basil?” Marianne tilted her head in the direction of the open doors leading to the gardens.
Together they pardoned their way through the dancers and wallflowers. At least Sage did so while Marianne did her best to avoid contact with anyone until they reached the edge of the mass of guests. Some rather sensitive people spoke of the cool air surrounding them.
Basil stood by the French doors, waiting until Sage approached.
“Come with me,” he said, without any word of greeting.
Sage spared a glance at Marianne who shrugged. They both proceeded to follow as he led them onto the patio and down the steps leading to the giant fountain in the center of the garden. The sculpture boasted a trio of mermaids, entwined in an ethereal and slightly erotic dance, their faces stretching upward and mouths open in song. Rather than notes, a stream of water gurgled from their mouths. It was a peculiar piece of art, one of which Sage hoped he’d never have the misfortune of seeing again.
Basil strode passed the hideous fountain until he came to the hedge outlining the massive labyrinth where couples wandered, all with smiles of anticipation. Sage took note that most who wandered out busily adjusted their clothes.
“In here,” Basil said, stopping to face them. “I enlisted the help of someone I met while traveling the wilds of India. I’ve spoken to her, and she’s agreed to meet you.”
“India doesn’t seem very wild,” Marianne mumbled as she stepped beside Sage. “Not compared to that fountain, at least.”
Sage suppressed a smirk before turning back to his brother.
“Her name is Desmonda Green,” Basil said. “She will try to help. Marianne…” His gaze darted to either side of Sage. Seeing nothing, he inquired, “Is she here?”
Sage nodded to his left.
“This woman knows people who might have access to spells and other scientific knowledge. Alchemists and the like. She might offer some insight we haven’t explored as of yet.”
“What we need is a necromancer.”
“We had a necromancer,” Basil said, sharply. “It does not bode well for us to continue down that path. Marianne is not dead. She’s merely…sleeping. In a deep, death-like sleep.”
Sage grunted. They had searched every spell book and grimoire in Merriweather Manor and their London house in Mayfair. Sage’s father had been a historian with a penchant for recording details of magic folk cultures and practices. Before his death, Philip Merriweather had taken it upon himself to record the known spells practiced by family, friends and other relations. He had collected such an extensive library the books needed to be hidden for fear they might be used as tools to those with darker intentions, such as Drake when he attempted to steal them last winter.
“What does she look like? This woman.”
“Red hair,” Basil answered. “Like fire. You won’t mistake her.”
“Very well.” Sage attempted to ignore the chill suddenly creeping along his back. He took a step toward the entrance of the maze. Basil remained fixed in place. “Are you not coming?”
“No. I’m eager to return to the manor.”
And to Julia…
His brother’s unspoken words rang loud. Sage nodded, glad Basil had found the love of his life. While they traveled the English countryside searching for clues to aid their quest, Julia remained at Merriweather Manor swollen with Basil’s child. It would not be long before another Merriweather entered this world, and he knew his brother itched to be back before the miraculous event occurred.
“Give Julia and Aunt Petunia my love.”
“I will.” Basil grasped his arm, slapping his back in a brotherly embrace. “Send word as soon as you can. Good luck.”
Sage nodded. His brother walked back up the steps to disappear into the crowded house. Sage felt a momentary desire to follow. It would be so easy to give up this foolhardy quest. They had searched for months with no hope of a spell to help Marianne. She seemed doomed to remain a ghost forever. As for Sage, his difficulties were insurmountable. Nothing he did, not a spell or a plan of action changed the darkness he had fallen into as of late. It became apparent that the demon’s curse affected his very skin and bones. He had little hopes of ever escaping that bond. And his dreams of late had grown worse…
“Shall we?” Marianne’s voice snapped him out of his dark reverie.
“Of course,” he said, then reluctantly took the necessary steps toward the entrance.
“Would you like me to go first?” Marianne asked, no doubt aware of his hesitation. “I can alert you to any danger. After all, no one can harm what they cannot see.”
“Do you sense danger?”
Marianne paused, considering. “Not danger. More like a threat.”
That she possessed any of her witch talents marveled him, but now was not the time to dwell upon it. He sensed the same. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck lifted like a cool breeze had blown passed. Basil would never knowingly send him into danger, so he had nothing to fear. That did not mean he wouldn’t take every precaution to keep Marianne’s spirit safe.
To send a woman, even as a ghost, into the unknown to preserve his own safety simply would not do.
“No need, my dear. I’m certain our trepidation stems from mere excitement at the prospect of finally finding a new avenue for our search.”
“Perhaps you are correct,” Marianne conceded.
Sage nearly reached to take her hand. She needed comfort. Her eyes were wide and her breath quickened, but he could not do anything as human as take her hand to squeeze her fingers in reassurance. She was a ghost. Humans, even witches, were unable to touch ghosts.
“Come along,” he said instead and proceeded to walk into the maze. The walls of the trimmed hedge towered over him, a substantial distance considering his height. Lamps lit at incremental distances illuminated the path in the darkening twilight giving the maze a gothic aura like something he might read in a novel. The murmurs and whispers of the guests reached his ears, but with no sight of people at present, the voices echoed like bodiless apparitions. To anyone else, the belief that monsters may exist might creep into their imagination sending a shiver of fear along their spines. Sage, who knew for a fact that monsters did indeed exist, took the precaution of walking warily along the path. He was well aware that evil lurked in dark corners but that knowledge would not stop him in his search. He had faced evil and survived.
After several misguided attempts at traveling the maze, Sage began to lose his sense of direction. He had taken several turns, of which he lost count, and passed a few couples in as much confusion as he. Some guests had given up solving the puzzle of the labyrinth and decided to partake activities of the more sensual nature. They found hidden alcoves along the way and ensconced themselves there, hoping no one noticed the fornication taking place.
Again, he wished to touch Marianne so he might cover her innocent eyes from such carnal play. Although she was of marriageable age and had been introduced to society shortly before Drake cursed her, he was aware of her youth and innocence, something many a rake and scoundrel preyed upon during a night such as this.
A guilty flush crept along his neck as he realized less than a year ago he himself might have tempted her into a similar alcove for a night of seduction. Of course, this was Marianne, his neighbor and friend. He’d known her since she was in nappies. He could never have feelings of such a nature for her. He regarded her as a sister. And even as a rake, Sage always played the safer game of seducing widows or women unhappily wed to distant husbands. He was quite aware of marriage traps and stepped carefully to avoid them.
“There,” Marianne whispered.
He turned in the direction she indicated. A woman dressed in a long silk gown of greenish hue akin to the color of an emerald stood alone. The vibrant red hair wrapped and braided in intricate design upon her head like curling flame in the dim light. The contrast between hair and gown was striking. He took in the beauty of her classical features as she stared boldly at him with one arched brow.
“Mr. Merriweather, I presume,” she said, her voice husky with intrigue.
“I am,” he answered, stopping a few paces in front of her. “I’m told you possess information I desire.”
She smiled, sliding her hand lower on her hips. “I have many things you may desire.”
Marianne made a distressed choking sound.
Sage didn’t know whether to grin or be embarrassed. Although she was a grown woman, he still thought of Marianne as a child. He should protect her from women such as this, who might lead her into the temptation of baser natures, assisting her down a path best left untraveled for women of Marianne’s status.
Then again, Marianne knew Sage to be a rake and a rogue, his habits of seducing women well known. She often made comments of his conquests, although he never acknowledged if she’d guessed rightly or not. He may behave as a rake, but he was still a gentleman.
“She cannot truly be serious,” Marianne said the disgust evident in the scorn dripping from her words.
“I believe she is.” He did not bother to hide his obvious one-sided conversation. According to Basil, this woman was aware of Marianne’s predicament.
The woman’s chin tilted. Her gaze darted to Sage’s left. “Your friend is here?”
Sage nodded and sighed for dramatic effect to irritate Marianne. “She rarely leaves my side.”
Marianne made another choking sound of disgust which only made Sage smile with amusement.
“May I present Miss Marianne Grey,” Sage introduced with a wave toward Marianne. It seemed rather comical that the woman nodded toward what she could only see as space beside him.
“My name is Desmonda Green,” the woman replied. “I was contacted a fortnight ago by your brother who requested I meet with you. Since I am not fond of being viewed in the company of witches, I arranged this private assignation.”
“If she doesn’t like witches then how does she know your brother?” Marianne inquired, the distrust in her voice evident.
Sage repeated her question, thinking it a competent one. The tingle on the back of his neck intensified since approaching this woman, warning him of danger. He suspected Marianne felt the same.
“Your brother has traveled extensively in the past,” Desmonda explained. “We met during one of his travels. I could go into details if you like, but it is a rather long story. I don’t believe we have time for a lengthy discourse. At any moment someone might turn the corner and discover us.”
“And you don’t wish to be seen with me. I understand.”
“I have no particular reason to avoid you, Mr. Merriweather, but you are not the only being capable of acknowledging the dead. I have enemies. I don’t wish for anyone with that ability to happen upon me while in the company of your little witch friend who stands at your side.”
“I’m not dead,” Marianne muttered.
Sage ignored Marianne’s disgruntled indignation. Instead, he glanced at her, confused by Miss Green’s misidentification of his particular inborn talent.
“Miss Green,” he said. “Perhaps you misunderstand. I am a witch, too.”
“Oh no, Mr. Merriweather, that you are not. Not any longer. You’ve bonded with a demon. You carry demon blood.”
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