The afterlife really isn’t what she’d planned for. She supposes, if asked what she thought came after the basic state of living, she’d have answered fluffy white clouds or some shite. Gates intended to keep people like her on the other side, maybe. Harps and robes and hymnals, maybe.
She’d be lying about all of it. Fact is, Jamie Taylor doesn’t believe in an afterlife—didn’t then, and doesn’t even now she’s moved on beyond the mortal coil. She believes in things she can touch, things that possess scent and texture and logic. She always figured death was just another word for letting all the lights go out.
She’d have been fine with that.
This is something else entirely.
“I think you’ve missed my point.” She’s been arguing with this woman for going on ten minutes. Or maybe a full fucking eternity; Jamie was always good at losing track of time, back when she had a mortal woman’s brevity of the stuff. Now that all watches are stopped, all sunsets are eternal, and everything that’s meant to grow holds aloft in perfect blossoms of forever, she’s not sure there is such a thing as losing track.
All there is, it seems, is the woman at the front door. Prettier than Jamie imagines Death’s Doorwoman ought to be: tall, with dark skin and red painted lips and the flashiest jewelry this side of breathing. She’s got the bearing of a queen and the smile of a mother, and Jamie’s honestly not sure what to do with either.
“You don’t understand.” She’s leaning in, baffled by the weight of concrete beneath her trainers. Nothing ought to have substance, not according to all the ghost stories she’s ever heard, but this world feels as tangible as the one she left behind. “I don’t belong here.”
“Everyone belongs,” the woman replies for the fourth time. “As I’ve tried to explain.”
“But I don’t believe in this place,” Jamie says sharply. The woman opens her mouth, and she raises a hand. “And don’t go spouting any bullshit about it believes in you. I know how this shite works, all right? You die.”
“Yes,” the woman agrees.
“I died,” Jamie says.
“And then you—” She gestures helplessly. “Move on! I dunno, return to the ashes of the fuckin’ universe or some such. You go.”
“You go,” the woman agrees placidly. “And you went. And now you are here.”
“But I don’t want to be here.” It’s absurd; spend a lifetime scrounging and scraping for time, and when all’s told, a person simply doesn’t need more than they’ve got. Jamie’s not sure she’d have believed that back in her mortal life, but now she can’t imagine anything more honest. “I did my time. I’m done. I’m—”
“Free?” the woman says, almost too polite to be stomached. Jamie winces.
“Now—didn’t say that, did I, it’s not…” Not like that. It’s simply that the world was a huge, complicated, weary machine, and she’d lived within its bounds as best she could. Kind to strangers and dogs, tolerant as she could cope with small children. Good with her hands, steady as a sunrise. She’d done the thing properly—as properly as anyone can—and now she’s…
“I’m tired,” she says at last. “All right? Thought this would be about rest.”
“In a manner of speaking,” the woman says, “it is.”
“What manner of speaking?” Woman doesn’t even have the decency to go speaking in riddles. She just keeps…talking at Jamie like Jamie’s meant to understand a lick of this. Talking to her like Jamie ought to be comfortable in her presence.
Which, Jamie is irritated to note, she is. Automatically. Like walking through the invisible wall between the old world and this new, too-similar one opened up something inside her she’d never felt comfortable wrenching into in life. Like the only thing that’s changed up here (down here? out here? Jamie has no sodding idea, and doesn’t much think it matters) is her capacity to trust another living—so to speak—soul.
“In your life,” the woman says patiently. “Did you feel fulfilled? Accomplished everything on your to-do list?”
“Well.” Jamie bites her cheek. “No. Wouldn’t put it that way—”
“There are, then, things you’d change? Adjust? Try out, now the pressure’s off?” If this woman were a shred less regal, she’d look smug. Jamie rolls her eyes skyward.
“S’ppose. But who wouldn’t say—”
“Then,” the woman says, gesturing behind herself toward the door again, “you belong. In you get, now, it’s looking like rain.”
“Does it rain here?” Jamie glances over her shoulder, scowling. No rest, and the bloody rain follows you into the afterlife? What does a person need to do to catch a break?
“Not unless a patron wills it,” the woman says happily. “Off you pop, there you go.”
“Hang on.” Jamie hesitates, one foot through the expansive wooden doors. “How do you know so much, anyway? Are you…” She lowers her voice to a hush, an uncomfortable heat blossoming in her chest. “Are you God?”
“Oh, no, dear.” The woman laughs. “I’m simply the housekeeper. Mind your feet on the mat, please, and remember—the pressure’s off. Do something kind for yourself, mm?”
Jamie opens her mouth to answer, but the doorway is expanding—expanding—swallowing her whole. When she glances back over her shoulder, the doors have shut tight without a swing or a sound, a single unbroken wall of ornate oak.
The housekeeper is nowhere to be found.
“Fuck,” she mumbles. “No rest for the bloody wicked.”
Rebecca Jessel has been dead for three hundred eighty-four days, sixteen hours, forty-two minutes, and ten seconds.
It has grown no less aggravating since the moment she arrived.
“I haven’t seen him, dear.” Hannah sounds slightly exasperated. Well, Rebecca thinks wearily, she would. She’s been asked the same question three hundred eighty-four times, after all.
“But you’ll tell me? When he arrives?”
“I didn’t say he hadn’t arrived,” Hannah says. “I said I hadn’t seen him. And rightly so. You’re worth ten of that man, Rebecca, I don’t know how many times I’ve said it—”
Three hundred eighty-four, Rebecca thinks. No point saying it. Every day in this place is exactly the same, after all. Fetid water in her lungs, black dress hugging her frame, the phantom sense of leeches clinging to her thighs no matter how often she scratches. It’s no bloody paradise, though Hannah touts the idea of a second chance whenever someone offers her room for philosophy.
“You can do better,” Hannah says now, and Rebecca suspects she means it on more levels than one. You can do better than Peter Quint, surely, is the meat of the thing. You can do better than dwelling, the other half of the idea.
Rebecca’s uncertain which lands closer to the truth. Neither, perhaps. Hannah believes in both hard enough for Rebecca to feel she doesn’t have to put in the energy, which is less a relief. More a reminder of the world she left behind.
When she was murdered.
“He killed me.” This much is true. Truest statement Rebecca’s been able to form in mind or mouth since arriving at the Manor’s sprawling estate upon drowning. “Told me to trust him.”
Never trust a man who smiles with his back teeth. Where’d she hear that one? Hannah Grose? Her own father? Impossible to recall now. All she remembers is Peter Quint’s pinstriped suits, his cuffed shirts, his neatly-coiffed hair.
And other things. The heat of his hands on her thighs. The bite of his kiss when jealousy burned black in his blood. The way he’d laugh in bed, boyish and sweet, like the sting of his insults didn’t still lurk beneath the music of his kindness.
Peter Quint. She remembers every beat of him, in death. Every word. Every promise. Every slant of his walk, every caress of his fingers.
The way he’d told her they’d go together.
The way he’d left her beneath the waves to die alone.
It was never meant to go that way, she recognizes now. His plan had been foolish at best: steal a boat under cover of darkness, make their way to a new land, start fresh. Never mind he couldn’t sail. Never mind she couldn’t swim. Never mind an unexpected storm, a ship gone over, a man choosing to grip to its hull rather than plunge under to pull her to safety.
He was never going to follow her down. Not on purpose. That he is here means the waves took him in the end all the same—or he’d starved to death—or the men he’d stolen from caught up with him before he could properly vanish. So many ways for a man like Peter to go.
Only one, for a woman like Rebecca Jessel.
“It’s always a man,” Hannah is saying. An old song. The oldest poem. “All the world’s vices in disguise of its graces—”
“If you see him.” She’s tired of this conversation, of Hannah trying to mother her. Means well, Hannah does, but Rebecca doesn’t need well-meaning. Rebecca needs to feel it. Rebecca needs to feel it, and fester in it, until they meet again.
And when they do—
When Peter Quint finds himself unfortunate enough to set foot in whatever room Rebecca is haunting—
Three hundred eighty-four, she thinks grimly. It is hellfire in her breast.
He’s been following her for longer than she’s been dead.
Wasn’t supposed to go this way, Dani knows. The story was written before she even knew how to pick up the pen, and it wasn’t meant for this. She was supposed to see the world. Love with her whole soul. Make a difference, even if on the smallest scale living had to offer. She was meant to be brave.
Instead, Dani Clayton stayed put.
She’s pushing through the crowd now, her head bent, wishing she could tap into some of the magic fairy-tales are made of. Just enough to change her hair color on a whim, or grow four inches, or fade into the wallpaper. Just enough to—
She grits her teeth, pivoting through the first doorway on her left. Some days, the Manor is shut tight to the world, as though she—and he—were the first two people ever to populate in this odd after-world. A horrible trick floorboard, those days seem to her, like the universe itself is slotting her into the role of Eve against her every screaming wish.
These days are better: with the Manor overflowing, people bustling into and out of every one of its innumerable rooms. They scatter along the staircase, drift from kitchen to den to foyer in a crush of conversation. She catches bits and pieces of story as she navigates around them—“How’d you die?” is a common one; “How’d you live?”, even more so—but never stops. Not for longer than a smile or a glance. If she stops, out here in the open, in the party of it all, he’ll catch up.
She’s so tired of running.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Hannah tells her gently. She has, as she is so prone to doing, materialized beside Dani without a sound. Dani stopped shrieking with surprise days (weeks? decades?) ago, but can’t prevent the instinctive clasp of one hand to her thundering heart.
“This isn’t Hell,” Hannah says. A step ahead of the conversation, as always, like she can read Dani’s mind. Like she can see exactly what Dani’s been thinking all along: I couldn’t make myself leave him in life, and then he died. And, even then, I couldn’t stop seeing him. And then I died, and I thought—as I was going, as the plane was tumbling from the sky—at least that’ll be it. I’ll be done with it, now.
She’d grown up with battling ideologies—her own mother’s Catholic roots doing a confusing waltz with Eddie’s Jewish upbringing—but she’d never known what came next. It hadn’t really seemed a productive use of her time, worrying about it. Not when there was so much else to be concerned with in life.
Still. Privately, in her darkest moments, she supposes the ghost stories always rang most true. There was a certain nightmarish appeal to the idea, wasn’t there, that unfinished business could build its own heartbeat and keep on going against common sense.
And then she’d died, and she’d turned up here, and: there he was. Waiting for her with open arms and the band he’d never lived to see on his finger.
The horror in her chest had nearly cracked her open, her eyes darting to her own left hand—but, no. The third finger sat mercifully bare. Dani Clayton, a widow without a husband, never entirely shackled, in the end.
“You can stop this,” Hannah says in that half-exasperated, half-teasing way Dani has grown to love. “You just have to—”
“Be right back,” Dani tells her, though they both know she’s lying. Be right back is code for not now, Hannah. Code for he’s nearly here, Hannah. Code for in an hour or six years, he’ll vanish for a little bit again, and we can have a nice chat in the kitchen, but for now, I have to keep going, I have to keep going, I have to keep—
Her throat cinches, her chest acid-hot. She was never a meandering sort of person in life, but the Manor seems to be made solely of tracks set into the floor, increasing in velocity all the time. She sometimes wonders if a person could move fast enough to break the sound barrier. To break the death barrier. To break through the wall of after and skid headlong back into before to start it all again.
Hasn’t happened yet. But there’s no telling, is there?
So long as she keeps running, anything’s possible.
It’s almost like a nightclub, Jamie thinks ruefully. Like the world’s most popular pub. Like a fever dream of her teenage years, mashed into underground circuits while punks raged and girls kissed her blind.
She misses those days, sometimes—but not nearly as much as she’s already missing the quiet comfort of her little flat.
“Easy!” A dark-haired woman has spilled into her, all cinched corset and sweeping coat. Looks like something out of the cinema, Jamie thinks, like she’s stepped off the deck of a pirate ship into this seemingly-endless house.
She’d be beautiful, if she weren’t looking down her nose like Jamie’s some particularly-dull piece of chewing gum affixed to her boot.
“All right,” Jamie adds uneasily, “go on, then.” The woman’s lips tilt up at the corners, and for a split second, she seems to waver—a grayscale vision with black curls and ivory skin.
Then she’s tipping a little curtsy in Jamie’s direction, a move that honestly would feel less hostile if she’d simply flipped Jamie the bird. Jamie shakes her head.
“Do something kind,” she mutters. “Sure. This place reeks of kind.”
It’s altogether too much. She’d like to take it slowly, stroll the halls with hands in the pockets of her jeans. Inspect the art on the walls and the intricacy of the statues, track the endless paths of garden outside. Instead, every step drives her straight into a fresh cluster of jabbering souls. There seems to be no limit to the people who can fit inside this mansion, nor to the variety she’s running across. She overhears snatches of French and Portuguese, spots some hands moving at lightning speed in sign language, notes a number of people have given up on words altogether in favor of physical contact. Old people, young people, even children mill underfoot, most of whom seem not to see her at all.
That bit, at least, is a relief. There are more people in this place than she’d interacted with in her whole mortal life, and the idea of developing a sense of extroversion now is simply ludicrous. She doesn’t particularly want to be noticed, and—for the most part—she finds the crowd leaves her alone.
Good. Alone is best, really. Safe, certainly, and simple. Simple had been her entire creed in life: small flat, hard-working jobs, minimal contact with the outside world. No danger of backsliding into bad habits. No risk of crashing into another prison cell, or the kind of woman who’d put her there the first time.
No risk at all, if she’s honest with herself. It had been nice and boring in the best way, and she’d do it all again—if only she could leave.
“Can’t,” Owen says. He’s one of the only souls apart from the housekeeper she’s bothered talking to, and only because he spoke to her first. A tall, rangy man with a mustache and a glimmer of good humor permanently set about his eyes, he greeted her with a spoonful of cake batter and a smile. She hasn’t quite found a good enough reason to ignore him since.
Though this conversation is tempting. “Can’t what?” Christ, she’s sick of the dancing everyone in this place seems to do. At least the fuckin’ stories on Earth were straightforward. Here, there seem to be no rules at all. The world is solid, except for when a small girl called Flora decides to phase through the sink into Owen’s legs. The world is technicolor, except when bitchy pirate queens drift toward black-and-white. The world is lively, except that it’s dead, and Jamie is here, even though she ought to be—
“Free,” she says coolly. “Just lookin’ to be free. Not so much to ask.”
“This is free,” Owen says, sliding a platter of brownies her way. She raises an eyebrow, unable to resist lifting one to her lips. “In a manner of speaking.”
“See—that.” She’s spraying crumbs, she can feel it, but when she looks down, the countertop is spotless. “That is the shit I am uninterested in. Free is free, or it isn’t at all. Can’t go putting up bars without defeating the whole bloody purpose.”
“Don’t think of them as bars,” he suggests. He reaches down, hoisting Flora onto the counter and offering her the brownies. She takes three. “Think of them like…rules to a game that’s just been invented.”
“So this is new.” She leans her elbows on the counter, watching Flora take monstrous bites out of a brownie the size of her hand. “This place. It wasn’t always here.”
“Oh, it was,” Owen says cheerfully. She narrows her eyes.
“You’ve met the housekeeper lady, have you? Only, think you’d get on well.”
“Hannah,” Owen supplies. His smile goes a little dopey around the edges. “She’s—”
“Owen’s girlfriend,” Flora says in a stage whisper. Owen swats her with a dish towel.
“Now, Flora, lies are terribly unbecoming of your fine heart.”
Jamie doesn’t care. “So I can’t leave.”
“Why would you want to?” He gestures around the kitchen. “Look at this place. You can be anyone you want here.”
“And what if I want to be me?” Frustration is mounting in her chest, that old slow-boil sensation of racing toward an edge she won’t be able to stop herself leaping from. “What if I don’t want to change just ‘cause I’m—just ‘cause I happen to be—”
“Dead,” Flora supplies, helpful to the last. The pep in her tiny voice deflates some of Jamie’s ire, sending her sagging against the counter with a groan. Flora, misreading this as simple existential misery, pats her on the back. “Dead, but not gone. That’s all right, isn’t it?”
Jamie favors her with a tiny smile. It’s impossible not to be charmed by this unlikely pair—Owen dusting flour from his hands, Flora offering Jamie a brownie with a child’s easy grace. It could be worse.
But then, could be worse pumped life into her entire credo for living. Could be worse even, she is unashamed to admit, held her back in places.
“I wanted to rest,” she says stubbornly. “Not dance with ghosts for an eternity.”
Owen shrugs. “This place has a way of giving a person exactly what they’re looking for. Look around long enough, maybe you’ll find a nice soft bed to land in.”
“There’s a room upstairs,” Flora adds, “with a whole dollhouse.”
Jamie fails to see how this might be immediately helpful, but she supposes it’s the thought that counts.
Three hundred eighty-five.
Three hundred ninety-seven.
Four hundred sixty-one.
Anyone else, Rebecca is told, would lose track. Anyone else would let the days bleed, one into the next, an endless blur of minute-to-hour with no differentiation. Anyone else would give up looking at the past and throw themselves into whatever comes next.
“Aren’t you tired?” Hannah asks gently. “Grudges can only burn so long before they consume a person, Rebecca.”
“Have you seen him?” Rebecca replies. It’s more than simple stubbornness. She simply can’t think of any other answer. He killed me. He murdered me. He lied to me, and stripped away all my escape hatches, and he brought me to the water. He as good as held me under. How could I not be consumed?
“No, dear.” Hannah looks disappointed. It pulls at Rebecca in an uncomfortable fashion; she can’t shake the sense of being talked down to, of being scolded for some childish indiscretion. As if she, Rebecca, has committed a great wrong despite knowing better.
“You’d understand,” she says grimly. “If you were there. If you’d been through it. You’d understand—”
The anger. The betrayal. The loss of it, Hannah, you can’t imagine—
“I was married once.” Hannah’s voice is light. Weightless. She does not fidget with her large gold rings, does not tug upon the ornate baubles at her lobes. She simply presses one hand to the base of her neck, as though holding herself steady against a wash of memory. “Did you know that?”
Rebecca shakes her head. The housekeeper is a fixture of the Manor, a figurehead for the lost and confused. She is kind. She is well-meaning. She does not often speak of herself, of the person she’d been before reaching this place.
“His name was Sam.” There is a light in her eyes, but no fondness in her voice. Something of Hannah is burnished steel, telling this story. Something of her was forged in fire. “I thought we understood each other. Loved each other. Respected one another above all else. He disagreed.”
But he didn’t— “It isn’t the same.” The words scrape from her throat. “I’m sorry, Hannah, truly, but I was mur—”
“Yes.” Hannah is excellent at interjecting without, somehow, feeling as though she’s cutting the legs out from under a person. “I recognize it was quite different. It always is. And yet…so much of your story is familiar. A woman trusting her own heart above good sense. A man twisting the knife in retaliation for that trust. A heartache one cannot easily come back from.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I see him,” Hannah says. “Walking the halls of this great, good place. I see him in the kitchen, in the dining room. I see him dance with young ladies on the lawn and drink with his mates upstairs. Not a day goes by where I do not see Samuel Grose.”
“You’ve forgiven him, then.” Rebecca can’t imagine it, but then, Hannah possesses a kinder heart than her own. And, she thinks darkly, that heart was not cut by his hand.
“Oh, heavens, no.” Hannah laughs. It’s a sharper sound than Rebecca’s accustomed to from her lips, like broken glass tearing through a paper bag. “Not for a second. I suppose I ought to, after all this time, but every time the thought crosses my mind…there he is. Handsome and beguiling and foolhardy as ever.”
Rebecca blinks. “But, then—”
“I haven’t forgiven,” Hannah says. “And I haven’t forgotten. But it impacts him not at all. Do you see? Who is it, upon sipping that poison, who suffers?”
There’s a sadness to her smile. A softness to her eyes. The steel is out of her once more, leaving behind the motherly figure Rebecca wants so badly to hear.
Four hundred sixty-one.
“If you see Peter,” she says in a stiff tone she barely recognizes, “please. Please, Hannah.”
She turns on her heel before she can watch that disappointment flare again. Before she can see Hannah’s shoulders fold and her lips purse in a sigh. It is, Rebecca thinks, the nature of madness—to do a thing over and over and hope for change. It is madness, hating him this way.
And yet, she can’t forget. The crash of the waves. The scream of adrenaline propelling her limbs. The desperate, horrible awareness that she was sinking under—under—under—and he was not coming to save her.
She jolts, her chin rising—a part of her prepared, as she has been for four hundred days, to let the fight pour from her. How different she’d be now, if she’d allowed herself that grace in life, to explode fury when warranted.
The stranger, however, does not resemble Peter Quint. Does not resemble any person Rebecca has allowed a room to rent in her heart. The woman is gorgeous, and somehow old-fashioned, almost grayscale until Rebecca blinks. Her eyes are not kind. Her smile is charming and terrible.
“I could not help but overhear,” the woman says. “There is a man you seek? One who has done you a great harm?”
“He killed me,” Rebecca can’t stop herself saying. It’s like a tic, like a sore in her mouth she can’t stop tonguing. It’s awful. It’s necessary. The woman’s smile tightens.
“Well. That simply will not do.”
“I need to find him,” Rebecca says. “I need to—he killed me.”
“Yes,” the woman says. “Yes, I believe I can be of assistance.”
There is a little boy Dani has been playing hide and seek with. Well—not with so much as alongside. He seems to come to it with a solemn joy, a ten-year-old capable of tucking himself away in small spaces. She comes to it with desperation.
It’s the least lonely she’s felt in too long, setting up with Miles in the Forbidden Wing.
“Why do they call it that, anyway?” Her voice never rises above a whisper. Miles, matching her, never questions this decision. He never shrieks, either, or calls attention to himself. There’s a lot about him that reminds her of Eddie when they were kids, when hiding was intended to be a two-man operation to put off bedtime or Eddie’s little brother’s attention.
The Eddie she misses, she thinks sometimes, was that boy. The one whose glasses slipped, who always fell for it when she tapped his shoulder and mashed snow into his face, who giggled so hard he got the hiccups.
The man pursuing her through the Manor isn’t her Eddie. Or maybe she’s not his Danielle. Either way, it’s wrong, and it shouldn’t be so hard to say so, but each time she opens her mouth…
It’s easier to run, is all. Run, and ask questions that have nothing at all to do with the living woman she’d been.
“What’s so forbidden about it?” They’re wedged together on the little balcony, the perpetual twilight air teasing Miles’ hair into his eyes. He wraps his arms around his knees and shrugs.
“Ghosts, I suppose.”
“We’re ghosts,” Dani points out with a grin. He laughs.
“Maybe they were here first. Flora thinks so. She says there’s a little boy without a face who knows the stories, but can’t remember how they go.”
“That’s eerie.” How bizarre, that talking of faceless boys and lost stories is almost relaxing compared to how she normally spends her time. How absolutely strange, that she feels more at home chatting with Miles about ghosts than she has with Eddie O’Mara in years.
“I think she made it up,” Miles confides. “Flora loves Storytime. I think—”
“Shh.” Dani glances over her shoulder, into the wing’s main bedroom. Footsteps, heading this way. Eddie’s? She doesn’t think so, but it’s hard to be sure. Hannah says it’s all a matter of willpower, that a person’s wanting shapes the Manor--and if that’s so, Dani resides in a terminal game of whose craving is stronger? The man who needs her? The woman who needs to be free of him?
Hard to tell. Hard to face. Better to stay quiet.
Miles holds perfectly still, perfectly silent until the footfalls fade away and Dani releases her breath. He tips his head to the side, considering her.
“Who are you hiding from, anyway?”
“An…old friend.” He’s too young for the rest of it. For how hard Eddie pushed for her to date him—to marry him—to stay even when everything in her said to run. He’s too young to understand that she’s been building to this for a lifetime.
“You don’t like him?”
“It’s not…like that.” Not nearly so simple. But Miles is sweet and young and doesn’t need this story. Not right now. “We’re just going to have a very hard conversation, one day. And I’m…not ready.”
He nods. “I understand.”
“Sure.” He rubs his nose, glances down at the lawn below. “Uncle Henry says sometimes you’re not ready to jump until you’re in the air.”
Truer words, thinks Dani with dark good humor. “What about you? What are you hiding from?”
“Flora.” Miles grins. There’s a sheepish mischief to it that pulls at her heart. “It’s still my turn.”
“It’s been your turn for—” There’s no sense of time in this place. Dani can feel her eyes crossing, trying to count up the days since she first ran into Miles in one of these rooms. She’s grateful when he takes pity on her with a shrug.
“She gets distracted.”
Dani sort of hates how badly she wishes Eddie would take a leaf from Flora Wingrave’s book.
Some people have a remarkable amount of control over the Manor, she’s noticed. Owen, for example, has a knack for snapping his fingers and clearing his kitchen in a split second, the patrons only wandering back in when he’s finished fussing over a cake or stew. Flora, too, has a preternatural awareness of who might be in a given room before she enters it. To Jamie, watching them feels like magic.
She has no control at all, and consequently winds up in situations like this one far more often than she’d like.
It’s sort of a nightclub, and sort of a mindless flailing of chaos, this room. Jamie’s fairly certain these walls were much closer together the last time she stepped in to inspect the fireplace—but now, those flames are bonfire-high, the ceiling so far above her head, she’s given up trying to make out its detail. What once served as a cozy den now feels like a cathedral—and it’s packed to the gills.
This is Hell, she thinks firmly. I’ve landed in the world’s most posh fucking Hell.
Made all the worse by the fact that no one else seems to be feeling the same. Not a single soul, gyrating to some nameless and—to Jamie’s ears—discordant beat, seems to think they’ve died and gone to burn below the way Jamie has.
Was I that bad? she wonders distantly, slouched on the sofa in a desperate effort to ward off seatmates. In life, was I really so tragic as to have earned this? Sure, she’d been a complex kid, fresh off an unpleasant youth, but to have found herself in Hell itself seems a bit dire. A bit theatrical. A bit—
The woman settling herself in Jamie’s lap isn’t heavy, exactly, but nor is she made of air. Jamie hears herself make a baffled oof as knees land astride her hips, hands winding behind her neck.
A very specific kind of Hell, she decides, staring up into blue eyes with no small amount of surprise. Designed precisely for me.
“I’m sorry,” the woman whispers. She looks horrified at her own audacity, which is doing nothing to shake Jamie’s sense of eternal punishment for some perceived universal slight. If a beautiful woman is to climb aboard her lap, after all, she’d like her to look cheerful about it.
This woman—small, blonde, beautiful even in the glow of the enormous crackling fire—does not seem cheerful. She looks absolutely mortified, her cheeks nearly as pink as her jumper.
“I’m so sorry,” she repeats. "Would you mind—I mean—I hate to impose, but I’m sort of—”
“Showing off for someone?” Jamie struggles to inject a healthy dose of boredom into her voice. Wouldn’t be the first time a woman has tried to use her to make someone—usually a too-invested male counterpart—jealous. Even if she weren’t dead, Jamie would be too old for this shit.
She’s surprised when—rather than curling coy fingers into her hair and smiling secretively—the woman nearly recoils straight back onto the floor. Her left hand moves on instinct, settling at the base of the woman’s spine to prevent her taking a tumble.
“That’s a no, then,” she guesses. The woman grimaces.
“I’m—it’s sort of a game of hide and seek.”
“And does the other party know we’re playing?” The woman is running feverish beneath her palm; her fingers, still rooted to the back of Jamie’s neck for support, are twitching. Jamie sighs.
“Don’t have anywhere to be. Go mad.”
The woman wilts against her, a hot breath exhaled against Jamie’s shoulder. “Thank you. Again: so. So sorry. I’ll make it up to you.”
“How?” Jamie’s genuinely curious. “You know a place that’ll take gift certificates from the dead?”
The woman using her as a chair winces. “I don’t--”
“All good,” Jamie says hastily. She’d meant it as a joke anyway, an off-the-cuff survival technique. Watching the woman clench her teeth in response only makes her feel guilty. “Really. Only having a laugh.”
The woman lets her eyes roll heavenward, her jaw clenched. She seems to be working incredibly hard to keep herself in check, which—all things considered—is admirable. After all, if Jamie’s personal Hell is a room brimming over with socializing, dancing strangers, this woman’s might well be the need to climb into a stranger’s lap to escape…
“Bad breakup?” She glances over the woman’s shoulder, searching for the likeliest culprit. That man skulking in the corner in a trenchcoat and scowl? The woman in the old-fashioned gown and pearls? Impossible to guess.
“He died,” the woman says stiffly. Jamie’s hand reflexively skids across her back, the soft fabric riding up to reveal the tiniest sliver of skin to her palm. The woman goes rigid atop her, and Jamie hurriedly shifts to safer ground higher up her spine.
“Sorry. Ah—far be it from me to point this out, but you’re also, um—”
“Dead,” the woman says. “Yes. But he died first.”
“And you’re…holdin’ that against him?” Curiouser and curiouser, as the saying goes. Jamie should probably hoist this odd person off her lap and excuse herself from the whole deal. She doesn’t know the first thing about the blonde American aside from the too-comfortable weight of her, but she has the sneaking sense this is the absolute opposite of nice and boring.
“I broke up with him.” Every line of this story is like a thread yanked, unraveling mere inches at a time. The woman might as well be carved of marble, a parody of the statue gardens out beyond the Manor walls, with what little give she offers. “Before. I mean. Right before.”
“Jesus. Same day?” At least, Jamie reasons, the quiet life kept her free of this sort of mess. Tragedies have a way of compounding, of stacking one atop the next like latching blocks. Her life might have been lonely, but it certainly didn’t resemble this woman’s world.
She feels the hand behind her neck tighten slightly as the woman sucks in a deep breath. “It didn’t…um. Didn’t take. I guess.”
“Not sure what kind of ending’s more complete than dyin’.” Is that insensitive? Christ, she can’t tell anymore. Does it count as insensitive when all parties are beyond the grave?
She’s relieved when the woman almost laughs. It’s a strange, choked sound, like she’s grown used to tempering her own amusement in public, but for the first time since straddling Jamie, their eyes meet and hold firm.
“He forgot,” she says with a tiny shrug. “I got here, and he was waiting like…like the last conversation never happened. I don’t think he…entirely realizes where we are. Still thinks our wedding is next month. Or maybe that it already…”
“Awkward,” says Jamie conversationally. “So, rather than go through it all again, you just…amble onto the first warm body in the room?”
Another joke—another bad one; she’s spent too much time in that kitchen, she suspects, her sense of humor warped by awful puns and eight-year-old giggles—and this time, the woman really does laugh.
“It takes him longer to find me when I do things he doesn’t expect. Go places I wouldn’t usually, or, uh…step out of character.”
Jamie raises her eyebrows. “A woman’s lap is out of character?”
She isn’t entirely comfortable with how much she likes the way this woman smiles—a furtive, embarrassed expression that nonetheless lights her up from the inside. It’s the sort of smile that feels like the first snowfall in a new city: fresh, and foreign, and more than a little magical.
“Like I said. He forgot some things.”
Crucial things, Jamie suspects—at least as crucial as a broken engagement. She opens her mouth to ask more questions, or to make another Owen-worthy joke, or to simply suggest there are easier ways to cope with a bad ex than hiding in plain sight…but, before she can say anything at all, the woman is pushing back against her hand in a silent let me up. She acquiesces immediately, unexpected heat rising in her chest.
“He’ll have moved on to another room,” the woman says, like she does this every day. Jamie wonders how long she’s been here—how long she’s been hiding from this man who once knew her well enough to place a ring on that finger.
A ring which is not, she notes when the woman’s left hand drifts in a dreamy haze to Jamie’s jawline, present now.
“Thank you,” the woman says, and it’s the magic of the place, certainly, allowing Jamie to make out the soft words under the thump and bleat of the music. She makes to answer, but the woman is leaning in—hesitating—brushing her lips against Jamie’s cheek.
It’s shorter-lived than a snowflake melting on warm skin, and she’s gone before Jamie can so much as blink.
Not Hell, then, she decides dazedly, slumping back against the cushions. Who the hell knew?
If she’d been so fortunate as to know Viola Lloyd in life, Rebecca doubts she’d ever have found herself wrapped up in Peter Quint at all.
Pity, that Viola was dead a good three hundred years before Rebecca ever drew breath.
“You’ve been here for three centuries?” It’s incredible to imagine. Four hundred days—four hundred seventy-three, to be exact—is a reasonable number to hold inside her head. The product of a stubborn will paired with an inquiring mind, a woman with a fire lit deep within her soul. Four hundred days in this timeless circuit of too-much house, she can fathom.
Viola’s experience couldn’t be more different.
“That’s…how many days is that?” She’s trying to do the math in her head, carrying numbers even as she sidesteps two middle-aged white men engaged in argument near the staircase. Viola sends a smile over her shoulder.
“I would not know. Time is irrelevant.”
But that’s how you keep it going, Rebecca thinks. That’s how you keep yourself going. By letting it feed the fire. By never forgetting a second of what you’ve endured. By—
“It does not improve your situation,” Viola says shrewdly, “to tally days. A woman’s pain is alleviated by recompense.”
“You mean revenge.” They both know there is no difference between the two. Punishment—that’s what Peter Quint deserves. What he deserved long before watching her drown from a safe distance, really. As Viola told her, A man need not close hands ‘round a woman’s throat to throttle the life from her.
Peter’s hands were quick, but his words were quicker. Sharper. Honed to perfection, be they honey-dipped or barbed. Peter’s hands moved fast, but it was his voice that did the most damage.
You think I can’t see what you’re doin’ with him? You think I’ll just wait and watch?
Now Becs, come on—I didn’t mean it, you know I didn’t. I forgot we even had that little tiff—
Christ, woman, there you go again. It’s like you don’t care what I go through to be here. It’s like you don’t want me here at all!
Viola’s hand is smooth around her wrist, the gentlest part of her by far. Her eyes search Rebecca’s face, waiting silently for the memories to fade to gossamer thread, the Manor pulling back into focus. Rebecca shakes her head.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. He—”
“Has earned so much.” Viola’s voice is soft, her smile cold. “We will find him for you. You will show him what you’ve become. He will know no peace.”
If she’d known Viola while she’d lived—if Viola had been born into the 1940s, rather than the 1640s—Rebecca might be someone else. Not the woman who’d tried so hard to please her father, the one who’d been desperate to go into law to prove her intellect in a sea of groping men. Not the woman who had fallen in love with a clever wit, a cool arrogance, a thief who walked like a prince. Not the woman who’d died alone, panicked and weeping, eyes open in cold black water.
It’s sort of fun, imagining Viola Lloyd on the receiving end of Peter’s easy smile. He’d have walked away with, at best, a bruised ego. At worst, he might have found himself skewered on the tip of her sword.
Rebecca rather likes that mental image. Peter Quint, coming up against Viola Lloyd, the softer party for the first time in his adult life. She’d have eviscerated him on the spot.
It would have been more satisfying in life, but Rebecca finds she isn’t picky these days. There are some things worth settling for.
She watches the woman as they move through the Manor’s packed halls, calculating. Viola, in the time they’ve spent together, has proven herself a formidable companion to say the least. Not kind—Rebecca senses this would be the wrong word for her in any capacity—but resilient. Steady as a shoreline. She will find no coddling where Viola is concerned, only the unrelenting belief that Rebecca deserves authority over her own life.
“Why are you helping me?” It could, she supposes, be a simple vigilante desire for justice. And yet, when she’d explained Peter—the veneer of him, the attempts to make her small, to break into disposable pieces the work she’d spent a lifetime performing on herself—she’d seen unmistakable fury flash in Viola’s eyes.
Something’s happened to her, too. Something no one has volunteered to take from her shoulders. A man, maybe—or perhaps just your garden-variety injustice. Rebecca imagines the seventeenth century was rife with such daily tragedies.
Viola, now, tightens her jaw. Her pace is unrelenting; Rebecca has to nearly jog to keep up, despite the more lightweight nature of her own dress.
“You don’t have to tell me,” she continues as the silence deepens. Viola has a way of lowering the volume on the world at large; it reminds Rebecca uncomfortably of being underwater, of feeling her grip on consciousness fade to black. She much prefers Viola’s mercenary moods to these smoothed-over reserves. “I was only curious.”
Viola’s eyes slide to her, one brow arched. “Curiosity has served you well in the past?”
Rebecca smiles. “Curiosity is rarely the problem. Setting aside my gut instincts, on the other hand…”
“And what,” Viola asks in a low voice, “do your instincts say of our interactions?”
Rebecca doesn’t know. Rebecca, who prides herself on an awareness of people—or did, before Peter Quint slipped past her defenses in ways she’s ashamed of now—can’t read this woman at all. Part of it is Viola’s cool demeanor, the regal fashion of her stance as she holds herself apart from the Manor. She moves through each room as though she owns it, never interacting with another soul against her own will. Rebecca is constantly shifting aside to avoid contact with strangers, pressing through crowds in a futile effort to find her quarry; Viola seems hardly to care that there’s anyone else at this posthumous party at all.
The rest of the confusion, Rebecca senses, has to do with time slips. The way she sometimes will blink and find her mental tally has jumped forward an hour—or three days—or a week. One moment, she’s standing in the Manor, holding a conversation with Hannah, or stalking toward a tall shadow with the furious hope that it will finally, finally resolve into Peter—and the next, she’s dancing through a dream. Memories pour over her like hailstones, leaving invisible bruises in their wake: the day she met Peter, the particular arc of his smile; the day she left home, her father’s muttered displeasure following her like a stormcloud; the day she turned up on that dock, trusting man and boat alike with a fool’s confidence.
“Does it happen to you?” she asked Viola when first Rebecca had blinked out in her company. “The slips?”
Viola shook her head slowly. “I am awake,” was all she’d said, and the certainty of the words—the smile Viola wore while speaking them—had dragged shivers down Rebecca’s spine. To be that assured must be transcendent.
To be that present must be horrifying.
“Miss Jessel,” Viola says. Rebecca sways, blinking; Viola’s hand is once more on her wrist, her thumb tracing abstract designs on the soft skin. Rebecca is startled to recognize her own heartbeat, rising to a gallop beneath the pressure.
A dead woman, she thinks dazedly, should possess no heart.
“I was doing it again,” she says. “Wasn’t I? Slipping.”
“We will find him,” Viola promises. “It will help.”
Rebecca, smiling weakly, believes her.
The woman helps.
Dani doesn’t entirely understand. She’s been here a long time, the sort of endlessness you simply have to accept stretching out behind her, before her, all around her at every turn. She was alive, once; she remembers that woman as though through a shroud, the details present and blurry at the same time. She remembers Danielle, and all her many accoutrements—recalls bland friendships, uncomfortable parent figures, a Great Love that had never felt much like either. She remembers living with Eddie, and grieving his loss. She remembers boarding a plane to get away from the horror of lost potential, of forgiveness never granted.
She remembers the plane shuddering around her, breaking apart. She remembers thinking, But I only just found Dani. I only just found her. I only just—
And then: here. Hannah’s warm smile. Eddie’s open arms. The ring on his finger.
The bare skin of her own.
She’d thought the words with such miserable certainty—I only just found Dani—but they hadn’t rung entirely true. She hadn’t just found her. She’d just unleashed her. Let her out of the cage. Thrown the bars wide, shoved a passport into Dani Clayton’s hand, given her room to run.
She’s always known Dani, is the thing. She’d always carried her, deep down, thrashing against the restraints of a Midwestern, heterosexual life. And now that Dani Clayton has learned how to run at last…she’s grown a bit worried she’ll never stop.
Until the woman.
The woman makes her want to stand still.
Among other things.
“Fancy meeting you here,” the woman says, an amused good cheer shining in her eyes. Dani glances over her shoulder, half-expecting round glasses and gold ring to follow her into the room.
Nothing. She’s noticed this happening more and more—if she’s truly engaged with another human being, Eddie seems less likely to find her. Less likely to emerge from a crowd if she’s speaking with Hannah about something true; less likely to stagger into the kitchen if she’s really listening to one of little Flora’s stories; less likely to reach for her hand if she’s speaking to…
She doesn’t know the woman’s name. This is not a matter of wanting; Dani finds she desperately hungers for that information, as much as she craves the woman’s company when she isn’t around. Still, she can’t quite make herself ask. There is a difference, she thinks, between choosing someone to inch closer to, and having that someone choose you in return. She knows that much all too well. She knows what it’s like not to choose a person back.
It hurt in ways death couldn’t erase, being that person for—to—Eddie.
She finds herself unable to pry open the same door with this woman.
“Hide and seek again?” She has such pretty eyes, a shifting gray-green in the manor’s warm light. Pretty eyes, and a pretty smile—her lips untouched by paint, her skin relatively clear of makeup, as though this woman finds no solace in a protective coat between herself and the world. Her hair is a tousle, though Dani’s yet to see her hands creep up to fuss with it; her clothes are gently wrinkled, as though the jeans and faded Blondie shirt are incidental. She looks not as though she doesn’t care about her appearance, but rather like she has much bigger concerns on her mind.
Dani’s hungry to understand that, too.
“Probably a good place for it,” the woman goes on when Dani, distracted by the slouch of her on the edge of the elaborately-detailed bathtub, can only smile sheepishly. “Better than your last.”
The memory flashes—Dani hunched behind a shrubbery out front, heaving for breath as panic rattled her frame—and she winces. Her first experience with this woman had been mortifying in its own way, of course; straddling her lap, daring to grab hold of her neck for balance, begging the universe to slide right past her. That had been someone Danielle Clayton would never have risked letting out of the cage.
The woman gripped by too-shallow breaths and violently-clutching sobs had been very unlike Danielle in another fashion altogether. Danielle had been rigidly held together, careful to keep her breakdowns constrained to private moments. Danielle would never have lost her nerve so dramatically in a public setting, souls drifting past with wary eyes, drinking her in.
This woman hadn’t drifted or drunk. This woman had stayed put just on the other side of the shrubs—her voice imminently recognizable, soft and kind and rounded with an accent Dani had been hoping to hear again for days—and gently talked Dani back to steadiness. And then, when she was sure Dani was all right, she’d simply excused herself. No fanfare. No waiting for Dani to return the favor, ask how death was treating her. She’d simply said goodbye and been gone.
Dani would be lying if she said she hasn’t been looking for her again ever since.
“Well,” the woman says now. “You’re welcome to share the space. If you don’t mind, ah…”
She gestures with the cigarette smoldering between two fingers. Dani raises her eyebrows.
“Where did you find that?”
The woman taps her hip pocket with her free hand. “Right here. Dunno how—wasn’t there before, I’m sure of it—but I was thinkin’ about bein’ younger. Sneaking away from bad conversation to have a smoke. And there they were.”
“Is that how you…?” Dani pulls up short, flushing. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, that’s so personal.” Won’t ask a woman’s name, but you’ll dig into her cause of death without blinking?
If it bothers her, the woman doesn’t let it show. She takes a long drag, shaking her head.
“Nah. Old age.” She tips her head back and forth, considering, as smoke jets from her nostrils. “Mm, and I maybe had a bit of a cold.”
“A cold,” Dani repeats, entranced despite herself by the purse of the woman’s lips around the cigarette. She’s smoked herself, a number of times—always in secret, with Eddie while drunk—but it had always felt like something she’d had to outgrow. After all, when they’d left the age of teenage parties and sneaking out of the house behind, Eddie had stopped procuring them with a flourish from his jacket pocket. He was done with the not-quite-habit, and so Danielle had put it aside as well.
She’s shocked at how badly she wants to do it now. Not for the nicotine or even the memory of the act, but simply because it might bring her closer to this woman in a surprisingly-small bathroom.
“Yeah.” The woman is smiling fondly. “Slept outside more’n I should’ve, I guess. Liked it better that way. Camping out in my garden. Guess it, ah, caught up to me in the end.”
Dani can imagine the scene all too well: this woman stretched out on her back amidst pops of color muted by moonlight, exhaling cool breath toward the stars. How many constellations could a person fall asleep beneath, in rural England? How much sky could keep watch over a person, if they were only willing to let it all in?
“You?” The woman brushes a column of ash from the end of her cigarette. She’s not quite watching Dani—her eyes are fixed on the bathroom window, cracked open to let the perpetual almost-night air wash in—but Dani gets the sense she’s treading carefully. I’ve shown you mine does not seem to occur to this person. She seems instead to be giving Dani an easy map back to the door with little more than her smile.
“Jesus.” She shakes her head, brow knitting. “Haven’t had an easy time of it, have you? Fiancé dyin’ same day you break up with him, and then you just…fall out of the fuckin’ sky?”
Dani laughs. “Sounds silly, doesn’t it? How can one person have that much bad luck?”
“No such thing.” The woman leans back her head, giving Dani an extended view of her neck. A silver chain tucked beneath her collar winks, bright against soft skin. Dani swallows. “Luck is just superstition. Universe doesn’t care what you do with yourself. Sure as shit doesn’t punish you for doin’ it. World’s just a messy goddamned place, s’all.”
It’s a better philosophy than Dani usually stumbles across. Far better than Eddie, who had been so kind, so lovely, and so grating whenever things went wrong. Why’s this always happening to us? Not fair, is it?
“Well,” Dani says, “I’m sorry all the same. About your cold.”
The woman grins. “Gone now. All of it—aches and pains, old bones, old joints. Feel like myself again for the first time in forever. Guess that’s one good thing ‘bout this fuckin’ place.”
Two things, Dani thinks. She’s not sure how she feels about the reality of afterlife—an eternity spent dodging a man she’s already broken once sounds an awful lot like punishment to her—but she can’t deny it’s felt warmer since meeting this woman. Warmer, and safer, a gorgeous kind of infinite.
“Do you—do you mind if I join you?” She straightens her shoulders, lifts her chin, tries to look unsurprised by her own question. The woman’s smile doesn’t so much as tremble.
“On the tub or in my unhealthy endeavor?”
“Both.” She’s already been in this woman’s lap and shown her the business end of a panic attack. How much else does Dani really have to lose?
Relief washes over her as the woman tips her head, pats the side of the tub with the heel of her palm. She does not, Dani notes, scoot over to make room, and it’s thrilling to find herself perched with one thigh pressed firmly to a stranger’s.
“One of your own?”
Dani shakes her head. It’s brazen, she knows, but the allure of the cigarette is between this woman’s fingers—in knowing the filter has been between this woman’s lips—in watching the woman’s eyes darken ever so slightly in understanding as she extends that hand and lets Dani lean in.
There’s a satisfactory pleasure in not thinking about it, not deconstructing the moment. She simply inhales, eyes locked on this strange, beautiful woman. Simply lets the smoke fill her lungs, relishing the hot tangle of it in her chest combined with the searing weight of the woman’s gaze. She’s aware of every inch of the scene, thrown into the stark relief of a spotlight: the sweet scent of clean air warring with the pungent smoke; the taste of tobacco on her tongue; the heat of the woman’s thigh burning against her skirt.
The door, locked carefully behind her.
It is not lost on Dani, that her eyes never stray to that door. Never zero in on the knob, waiting for it to rattle. That would mean looking away from the curve of the woman’s smile, the soft pink tip of her tongue skirting out across her bottom lip as she watches Dani take her fill of smoke—and then, slowly, without breaking eye contact, raises the cigarette back to her own lips.
It’s better than sex, Dani thinks with cataclysmic hunger, just watching this woman smoke. A greater adrenaline rush than any backseat fumble, holding her gaze as she inhales while wearing that smile.
When she holds the cigarette out again, inviting, Dani closes her hand around the curve of her wrist. The woman’s throat bobs with the force of her swallow, and Dani thinks, She feels it. She’s never been so confident about a moment of suspension in her life—except, perhaps, for Eddie’s proposal. It had been cut into the stride of his walk, the hang of his arms, the twist of his mouth. He’d picked her up for dinner, and she’d thought with mounting dread, Tonight. It’s happening tonight.
There is no dread in this bathroom. The woman, shoulders pressed back against the wall, one boot heel wedged against tile for balance, looks from Dani’s eyes to the fingers wrapped like a bracelet around her slim wrist. Her smile has shifted slightly—less easy confidence, more startled grace. Dani has taken her aback by the mere rise and curl of one hand.
Imagine how easily she could surprise them both with a little more.
The thought drags heat down her back, pools in the base of her stomach as though waiting. Be brave, Dani Clayton. Just a little braver than you were yesterday. Than you were an hour ago. You’re dead, after all; what else is there to fear?
No such thing as luck, the woman said, and maybe she’s right. Maybe luck had no part to play in Dani’s life—or her death—or her waking on the grounds of the Manor. Maybe it wasn’t luck in the least, guiding her to this house, this room, this bathtub.
She traces the pad of her thumb along the rise of veins, testing the quickening of this woman’s pulse with light pressure, and she tastes smoke and menthol and the barest hint of this woman’s lips, and she thinks, Not luck, then. Fate.
With these eyes watching her, with this woman tilting in toward her, fate is something she absolutely can believe in.
The woman did not kiss her in the bathroom.
The woman did not kiss her, though she wanted to. Jamie’s certain of it. Jamie’s never been so sure of anything, in life or otherwise.
The woman did not kiss her, and Jamie badly needs to understand why.
There is a version of the scene that could have been. Should have been, even; Jamie doesn’t believe things happen for a reason, that the world rotates on a single prearranged path. Jamie doesn’t even fully believe in this place, though it shifts around her with such tangible force, she can’t quite discount it, either. It shouldn’t be, this place, but it is—she feels the shoulders knock against her own when strangers press past, tastes the chocolate and rum in Owen’s latest concoction, feels the tempo of music echoing in her bones as she hastens past a party.
Jamie doesn’t believe in predetermination, doesn’t believe in blind faith, doesn’t even believe there ought to be something beyond death except for dark and quiet and rest—but she knows there is another version of that scene. Knows the woman’s fingertips tracing her wrist as her lips closed around Jamie’s nearly-spent cigarette could have led to more. To blue eyes flickering closed as Jamie leaned in. To that hand pinning Jamie’s wrist to the wall above her head. To those lips parting under Jamie’s kiss.
She knows it. She can feel it pressing in around her like a memory. Like a play she’s already performed more times than she can recall.
It should have been that way—and yet, here Jamie sits at the kitchen table. Alone. Unkissed. The woman’s gentle grasp scorched into her skin like a tattoo.
“Not,” she grumbles, “fuckin’ poutin’.”
“Then what do you call all this?” Owen spatters the table with crumbs, his half-sliced baguette cleaving the air. She ducks away with a scowl.
“I call it lookin’ for some bloody peace and goddamn quiet.”
“You,” he says sagely, “aren’t. Or you’d have it.”
“That doesn’t make any fuckin’—” She clamps her teeth around the curse as a small head pops up from beneath the table cloth. Flora waves a fabric-wrapped something in greeting.
“Look what I found!”
“I told you already,” Owen says patiently, abandoning his bread to hoist Flora up and settle her on the table’s edge. “This place has a way of giving a soul exactly what they need. What they were missing in life.”
“I was missing quiet,” Jamie insists. “Missed it so fuc—damned hard, it’s all I wanted for the afters.”
“Maybe,” he concedes. “Or maybe that just would’ve been easier.”
Jamie doesn’t much care for games. Doesn’t much care for being given the run-around, either, and as much as she likes Owen—and Hannah, when she turns up; busy woman like that isn’t often available, but every so often she appears armed with a teacup and a smile—the games are endless. No one in this fuckin’ secondary shot at living seems capable of giving her a straight answer.
Except for her. It’s an unbidden thought, like every time that woman strides back into Jamie’s head. Unbidden, like the memory of her fingers pressing firmly into Jamie’s skin. Like the black of her pupil set against a blue ring. Like the filthy-sweet way she’d smiled around Jamie’s cigarette.
She’s running, Jamie reminds herself, from a bloke. Man doesn’t seem to know it’s over, and that’s a right shame, but it isn’t Jamie’s business to complete. That woman—with her perfect face and her perfect smile and her fingers a perfect fit around Jamie’s wrist—isn’t Jamie’s at all.
She doesn’t need to be thinking about her. She doesn’t need any of this, no matter what Owen has to not-quite say about it.
“What’s this?” she asks Flora, turning deliberately away from Owen’s frown. Her hand reaches instinctively, palm up, for Flora to deposit the little object into its cup.
“A dolly,” Flora says. “It’s you, look!”
Maybe, Jamie thinks, if she squints. The doll—evidently handmade, which is not a feature she wants to look at too closely—does sport curly brown yarn hair and a navy t-shirt. She turns it over, studying it carefully.
“Where’d you find that?”
“In the dollhouse. Everyone’s got one!” Flora sounds absolutely delighted. Jamie winces.
“And who makes ‘em, do we think?”
Flora shrugs. “Maybe the little boy without a face.”
Right, thinks Jamie. Enough of this particular horror story, thanks.
“I’ve found so many,” Flora goes on. “There’s Owen, of course, and me. And Miles, and Mrs. Grose, and Miss Jessel—”
“Who?” Jamie asks, more to cut the tracks out from under Flora’s runaway train than because she really cares.
“—and the man in the long coat, and the man in the glasses, and Miss Clayton in her favorite jumper—”
“Who?” Jamie repeats, sitting up straight. The urge to close hands around Flora’s shoulders and give her a gentle shake is shamefully powerful; she clenches her fingers around the Jamie-doll, feeling thin wood and scratchy fabric dig into her skin.
“Oh, you must have seen her. She’s ever so pretty. Isn’t she, Owen?”
“Pretty,” Owen repeats distractedly. His attention seems to have vacated the conversation completely, his eyes on the kitchen window. When Jamie cranes to follow, she thinks she can make out the dim outline of Hannah Grose through the ever-encroaching shadows.
“You said her name was—” Not as important. Not as important as who she is. “I mean, how do you know her?”
“Miss Clayton?” Flora is reaching for the doll; Jamie hands it wordlessly back, nodding. “Oh, she’s always coming ‘round for Storytime. Or to play with Miles upstairs. She’s perfectly splendid, isn’t she, Owen?”
“Splendid,” Owen agrees. He gives his head a little shake, smiling sheepishly. “Really pleasant woman, excellent with kids. And never fails to let me know exactly what’s missing from a cake.”
“I never fail to tell you that,” Jamie points out.
“Yeah, but with her, it’s more impressive. Never met someone so invested in making you feel heard while also--”
“Running away,” Flora interjects with a laugh. “She’s fast! I tried keeping up once, but I remembered Mrs. Grose telling me to be careful on the stairs, and I lost her.”
“Yeah.” It’s too easy to recall how they’d last parted: the elusive Miss Clayton leaning in, smoke still ringing her beautiful face, lips nearly brushing Jamie’s—and then, the knock. A fist, rapping twice in succession, shattering the moment.
Jamie’d assumed the intruder to be nameless, faceless, like so many of the souls who crash into her on a daily basis. She’d leaned back, ready to shout that the room was occupied, thanks—and had stopped dead at the look on the woman’s face.
“Think it’s him?” She’d tacked the question mark on the end as a kind of courtesy. Those eyes said it all, wide and guilty.
“I should go.”
Shouldn’t, Jamie’d thought then, and wishes she’d had the gall to say aloud. Shouldn’t do anything you don’t want to do, that’s no fuckin’ way to live.
She’s one to talk. If Owen’s to be believed, isn’t that why she’s here in the first place? Didn’t live properly back when she’d had the chance. Didn’t give herself room to take chances, to find out what she really needed.
Bullshit. Bullshit drummed up by a pun-happy cook whose best friend isn’t even tall enough to ride an amusement park coaster—but there’s something about this woman. Something Jamie’s not allowed herself to feel since she was seventeen years old. Something Jamie still shouldn’t be feeling—she’s dead, she’s earned the respite that comes with the label—and can’t entirely shake.
“What’s her name?” she hears herself ask, feeling terribly out-of-body. “The woman. Miss Clayton. What’s her first name?”
“Dani,” says Owen, and it’s like someone lighting a coal in the pit of her chest. Jamie closes her eyes.
“Fuckin’ suits her, doesn’t it?”
Four hundred eighty-three days, nine hours, twenty-seven minutes, four seconds. She keeps count to keep sane. Keeps count to keep her head. Keeps count so as not to forget the most critical detail.
She is dead.
This is Peter Quint’s fault.
Nothing else matters the way her anger does.
Nothing else is allowed to matter this way.
“You seem sad.”
Viola’s head turns only just barely—her raven hair drifts down her back like something out of an old film, where the stars looked like gods and the pictures ran away with Rebecca’s childish imagination. Viola is something out of one of those films, like cinema made flesh. Viola is too real to be real.
She barely turns her head, but Rebecca gets the sense she has Viola’s full attention. She’s had it for days—weeks—in all the moments she’s counted, and all the ones she’s blinked between without choosing to go.
She’s not sure what she’s done to earn it; she still can’t explain why Viola has chosen to help her at all. She isn’t a talkative woman, even after all this time, never having met a question she couldn’t better answer with a smile than words. She isn’t the sort of person who will explain herself simply because someone else demands it, and Rebecca is growing less and less inclined to force the issue. Viola doesn’t need to answer. She doesn’t need to do anything at all, except walk by her side, holding her arm gently whenever Rebecca slips between the moments she tallies in her head and the ones that vanish without warning.
She doesn’t need to—and yet, when the words slip past Rebecca’s lips in the silence of the chapel, Viola replies.
“I do not know this word anymore. Sad. Can a person be sad, when that is all they have left?”
A terrible thought—and a wonderful one, in some awful, miserable way. Does sorrow vanish when joy is gone? Is it possible, in the absence of happiness, to feel nothing at all?
Would that be better?
“What happened to you?” Rebecca can’t help asking. The world goes a little colder around her, a sharp wind tucking itself under her clothes. Viola’s jaw tightens.
“I trusted the wrong sort of person.”
“I know what that’s like.”
“Mm.” The candles across the chapel wicker, stubbornly refusing to go out even as Viola stares them down. Rebecca resists the urge to reach over, take one of her cool hands.
“Did they…was it like with Peter?”
“Yes,” Viola says smoothly. Her head, contrary to the syllable, shakes slowly. “And no. Not my lover who betrayed my tether to the world, not for a start. My sister.”
“You were murdered by your sister?” Rebecca is aghast. A man like Peter Quint is bad enough—nearly five hundred days later, she isn’t over it, can’t fathom ever being over it—but a sister! A trusted confidant, a best friend—she always craved a sister of her own as a child, wincing from her father’s heavy expectations. Always thought the burden might be that much lighter, hoisted upon two sets of shoulders.
“Mm,” says Viola again in that same silken, disconnected voice. It’s odd, the way she answers—not lacking in truth, but in attachment. As though telling the tale of someone else’s misfortune, as though she’s abandoned any relation to her own pain.
Or as though she’s forgotten. Awake, Viola said she was—always awake, always present—but there is only so much a person can bear without going mad. If Viola is sane, perhaps she has only remained so because she has lost something of the human woman who bore the trauma in the first place.
She forgets, and stays. I remember, and slip. What a pair they make, sitting side by side in a chapel meant for a god who has forsaken brilliant women.
“I’m sorry.” Empty words, she knows, but she means them as much as anyone can. “That’s awful. I’m sorry it happened to you.”
Viola brushes invisible lint from her skirts. She seems so tall, her back rigid against the pew. So tall, and strong, and no less sorrowful for it.
“Is she here?” Rebecca wonders. “Your sister. Have you seen her?”
“Oh, yes.” Viola’s lips are nearly plum in the shadowlight, curving into the most dangerous smile Rebecca’s ever seen. “Yes, many times. She keeps to the attic in perpetuity.”
“I imagine,” says Viola with silky calculation, “she is afraid.”
A shiver works down Rebecca’s spine. There is no glee in Viola’s face, only that cold, sharp impartiality. It makes her all the more beautiful, all the more terrifying, the way that smile fails to meet ice-blue eyes.
“And your lover? Is—are they—?”
“He,” says Viola, “is not. My husband has gone on to some other after—and he has taken her with him.”
“Her.” Rebecca frowns. “But you just said your sister—”
“Not Perdita. My daughter.” And here, Rebecca notes, is the woman behind the ghost. The woman who has walked the halls of the Manor for three hundred years, tucked away behind her own pain, looking ahead at the wall with hollow eyes. “My beloved. I have looked, and I have looked—”
“Maybe you’ve only missed her,” Rebecca suggests. “This place is enormous, there’s no telling—”
“I have looked,” Viola repeats in a voice of broken scorn. “I have looked until I forgot anything else, and still, nothing. Not a scrap or sign of her. My child is gone, and my husband with her, and all that is left to me is her.”
Rebecca can think of nothing to say, no way to lessen Viola’s loss. She can’t imagine what it must be to lose husband and child, to be destroyed by family, not even granted the kindness of seeing them once again in the afterlife. She can’t fathom any of it, looking at the bow of Viola’s head, the clench of her fists in her lap.
“You deserve better,” Rebecca says. She aches to reach for Viola’s hand, to smooth out the knobs of her knuckles, the clawlike curl of her fingers. To pull the woman from the monster’s skin. “You don’t deserve what happened to you.”
Viola laughs. It is, unlike the colorless nature of her voice, a lively sound. Authentic in ways Rebecca suspects Viola Lloyd has forgotten in most other regards.
“I was murdered,” she says, “in cold blood by the sister I once would have sacrificed the world for. I was murdered in a show of supposed mercy. I was murdered, and Death—which I had so resolutely turned from my doorstep for years and years—did not even have the grace to forgive me my indiscretions. Deserve. Imagine. Imagine what it is to get what you deserve.”
“Did you—did you at least get your…your recompense? For what your sister did?” Rebecca feels unpleasant even asking. It’s one thing to imagine Peter Quint getting his just desserts; coaxing another woman toward the same toothy urges feels wrong, somehow. As though a part of her understands simple vengeance could never be enough to soothe what ails Viola.
“She fears me,” is all Viola says. “Enough to never set foot outside that attic again. It is enough.”
“Is it?” Can anything be enough, to remove the weight of such tragedy?
Viola bares her teeth. “She is not why I am here.”
The conversation, Rebecca knows, is at its end.
Viola Lloyd, after all, does nothing against her own will.
She normally steers clear of bedrooms. Seems safer. Seems wiser. Bedrooms are lockboxes, promises with open-ended questions following like loose threads. Bedrooms come with expectations. Hopes. Horrors.
She steers clear of bedrooms, most of the time.
And yet, here is her hand on the knob.
It’s like magnetism, she’s been feeling more and more—like the pull of gravity urging bodies together. Science where science does not belong, in this world beyond physics and reason and consequence.
Perhaps not consequence.
Perhaps not entirely.
She’s standing at the door to a room that feels hungry, matching the pit which has been growing in her stomach for days. Pits, she’s always felt, are ravenous things to begin with. They swallow a person whole. They bury a person alive.
This one, however, she does not fear. She does not cringe from its edge, terrified to peer over into the black. The darkness waiting down there for her feels…welcoming. Warm. Like the night wrapped around a bonfire, lit only by spark and starlight. It feels like, if she is to push this door open, she will find herself on the other side of a chasm she’s been trying to jump for years.
“I swear, I’m not following you.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” the woman says lightly. Perched on the little trunk at the foot of the bed, she’s just as comfortably-rumpled as Dani remembers. No cigarettes this time, as though the Manor has decided there is a time and a place for illicit smoking ventures, and bedrooms have other purposes.
“I don’t even know your name,” she blurts—more a snappish retort to the heat pooling in her stomach than anything else. The woman arches an eyebrow.
“No? I know yours.”
“You do?” She’s almost irritated to hear it—bothered that someone else beat her to the punch in delivering this gift. Names are big things, important things. You don’t grant them lightly, and she’s been looking for a reason to offer hers to this woman since…
Be honest—since you saw her out of the corner of your eye in that party. Since you decided to stop running for five seconds and see what staying put could serve.
“Mmhmm.” The woman shifts herself, sliding her hands beneath her thighs. “Little birdie told me.”
“Flora,” the woman clarifies. “And Owen. Don’t go gettin’ cross with them, either, I did ask.”
“You did?” That warmth is drifting higher, filling her belly, her chest, her throat. She worries, if she dares pry open her mouth, flame might engulf her entirely. “Why?”
The woman shrugs. “How else was I meant to find you? Big fuckin’ place like this, all a person’s got is a name.”
“It seems to be working out anyway.” She meant what she’d said—she isn’t actually following this woman. Not on purpose. It’s just that she seems to have a sense about her, like knowing in your bones when a storm is coming in; sometimes, prying open a door will reveal danger. Sometimes, it will reveal brown curls and bright smiles.
More and more often, it seems. Dani can’t help thinking she must be getting something about this afterlife thing right.
“Does seem a bit unbalanced,” the woman says. She’s still sitting on her own hands, watching Dani like she half-expects her to turn tail. Dani can’t fault her the doubt—she’d feel exactly the same, if the majority of her interactions with a woman led to that woman bolting for the door.
“I know your name,” the woman repeats. She has not, Dani notes, used it. “You don’t know mine.”
“I’d like to,” Dani offers. She takes another step, feeling her shoes sink into soft carpet. Every inch of gap closed between herself and the woman’s sprawled legs feels a little like working open a complex lock. It’s more than just not wanting to run, being close to her—it’s letting herself lean into the Dani Clayton she was meant to be from the start.
Leaning in to that hungry pit in the core of her, the one which has so desperately wanted to be fed for so long.
“How about,” the woman says, leaning back to look up at her, “we make a trade. You give me your name. I’ll give mine.”
Dani smiles. “Unfair trade. You already have mine. I’m getting something for nothing.”
“I’ll be getting it from you,” the woman says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. The world sways dangerously around Dani, her cheeks going fever-pink.
The woman holds up a hand. “One.”
Dani raises a second finger. “Two.”
They speak in perfect unison, a jumble of American and English accents wrapped around similar syllables. Dani laughs.
“Got that?” the woman asks, grinning. Dani shakes her head. “Thought not. Once more, then, with feeling. Jamie. Jamie Taylor.”
“Dani,” Jamie repeats. “I was right.”
“About my name? Don’t you mean Flora was right?” It’s so easy to be cheeky with this woman. So easy to tease and smile like they’ve known each other forever. That, even more than the attraction, is the thing pulling Dani irresistibly toward whatever room Jamie is in. She’s never felt so comfortable so fast before.
Jamie is shaking her head now. Leaning forward, she looks up into Dani’s face with a shocking earnestness. “Just sounds better, comin’ from you. Dani.” She grins a little, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Tastes better, too. When you know you’re allowed to say it.”
“Very smooth,” Dani notes. “For a dead woman.”
“Cleverer than ever I was in life.” Jamie tips her head, squints one eye. “Was always a slow learner.”
Dani smiles. There’s more sorrow in it than she’d like in such a moment of banter. “Not half as slow as me, I’ll bet.”
“Be surprised.” Jamie glances over Dani’s shoulder, nods toward the door. “Still haven’t talked to him?”
“No.” She takes another step. She could reach out and bump Jamie’s knee with her hand if she so wished. Could let that hand do more than bump. “Think I’m a coward?”
Jamie shakes her head. She is still, Dani notes, sitting on her hands; her fingers flex around the underside of her own thighs as if holding on for dear life. “Nah. I ever ran into my first love, I’d be screamin’ for the hills.”
“I just…don’t want to have that conversation,” Dani says. “Again. I know I can’t escape it forever, but I just…don’t want to. I figure, I’m dead. If ever there’s a time to stop doing what I don’t want—”
Jamie’s nodding. “What is it you do want?” she asks, and she isn’t flirting—or isn’t only flirting. There’s a genuine curiosity in her face, making her, Dani realizes with a jolt, maybe the first person in Dani’s entire existence to look for an honest answer to the question.
“I want,” she says, her voice tight as a drum, “to take that plane ride. To travel. To meet new people. To fall in love. I want to be happy. I want to be—” She swallows. Her hand rises to Jamie’s face, just as it had the first night, thumb pressing lightly to the corner of her lips. “I want to be brave.”
“No one stopping you here,” Jamie breathes. That sincerity is still all over her face—tilting her eyes toward gray, tilting her body toward Dani—and it’s all at once too much to look at. Too much to take in with eyes alone. Dani shuts hers tight, grounding herself as best she can.
Better this way. Better to take in the texture of Jamie’s skin against her fingertips—the sound of Jamie’s breath dragging in—the faint scent of flowers that seems always to cling to Jamie, regardless of the environment. Better to take it all in with every piece of Dani she can spare, to relish the simple humanity of each fraction of this puzzle she’d never let herself open in life.
“Did you always?” she asks breathlessly. Jamie makes a puzzled little sound, turning her face until her lips press lightly to the cup of Dani’s palm.
“Smell like roses?”
Jamie laughs against her lifeline like she was made to do it. “Doubt it, Dani Clayton. Think it’s just the magic of this place. Did you always?”
“Always what?” The heat of her is maddening, just there, so within reach Dani almost can’t stand it. She can’t bring herself to move, can’t bring herself to bridge those final steps between the life she’d lived and the drop she so craves.
Long way down, she thinks. What if you break something?
What if, something so like the part of her which had broken an engagement, bought a plane ticket, resolved to start anew replies, you find yourself at home?
“Did you always,” Jamie asks softly, “want this?”
Not trusting herself—not quite able to look another soul in the eye while speaking truth—Dani inhales. Jamie kisses her palm again, a little harder this time. Her hands are still restrained. Her body is steady on the trunk. She seems to be waiting, more patient than anything Dani’s ever been gifted before.
“Always,” Dani says, like some great fissure in the earth splitting open to admit her. “Since I can remember.”
She wants Jamie to kiss her. To pull her down into something messy and tangled, something she’s craved since the first time she saw the woman across a crowded room. She wants Jamie’s hands in her hair, Jamie’s breath on her lips, Jamie pushing up into her with abandon.
Jamie only presses slow kisses to her palm—and then to each finger in turn—with soft lips, sitting there with legs asprawl and breath coming easy. Jamie, who knew her name, and still wanted Dani to give it freely anyway, will not take.
Not until Dani asks her to.
Oh, Dani. I think you know your own mind well enough. I think you were always brave enough, deep down. You just needed a reason.
She opens her eyes as she descends. Jamie’s surprise blooms into pleasure as Dani drops into her lap, knees on either side of her hips. It’s already a more comfortable position than it has any right to be. She can’t help grinning.
“Hide and seek?” Jamie wonders with a crooked little smile of her own. She shakes her head.
“Not hiding from anything.”
It’s the kind of kiss a person could wait a lifetime for—and, Dani knows, she has. It wasn’t the plan, waiting; wasn’t how she’d have hoped for Jamie to come along, in this bizarre funhouse after. She’d have loved to step off that plane properly, to run into Jamie in some organic, human setting: a pub, or a shop, or a new job. A new stage of life, is what someone like Jamie was meant for.
But there’s something about the finding of a person who grins into her kiss this way, a person whose hands slide up her spine like they’re memorizing every curve and crook of her. There’s something about the way Jamie kisses that whispers that word again, the one Dani didn’t know she even believed in: fate. And maybe sometimes fate comes at you hard off a passport and a plane ride, and maybe sometimes you have to wait a little longer. Does it matter how they’ve found one another?
Maybe Jamie was meant for life, but Jamie certainly feels alive enough beneath her. There is nothing spectral to her wandering hands, to the gasp she releases when Dani digs insistent fingers into the back of her neck. Nothing ghostly to how her weight shifts beneath Dani, her hips instinctively jumping when Dani bites into her lip. She feels alive, and when Dani weaves a hand into her curls and pulls her closer, she makes a sound like perfect bliss.
Dani has been running for too long. Running, and hiding, and ducking away from panes of glass, lest he see her reflection from across the room and come to her side. She’s been running—but Jamie’s kiss feels like stability. Hot and searching, Jamie’s lips press, slide, part; warm and steady, Jamie’s hands trail, grasp, clutch. She’s been running for so long—and Jamie kisses her like she knows it. Like she wants nothing more than for Dani to channel it.
Feel it all, Dani instructs herself, responding with glee when Jamie’s tongue lightly caresses the swell of her lower lip. Jamie is patient and kind, she senses—but her hands are roughening as Dani deepens the kiss with a low groan, her fingers gripping Dani’s hips hard. Her skirt is a rumple, her sweater pushed higher, and suddenly she is aware of how hot the room has grown. Suddenly, she can see herself from outside herself: sweat running down her back, hair hanging loose, lips gone rosy from the pressure of Jamie’s mouth.
She grinds her hips down, feels Jamie’s hands tighten in surprise—feels Jamie’s palm slide to the small of her back, a guiding sort of gravity as Dani lets her hips roll in time with the messy, open heat of a kiss gone desperate. There’s an organic quality to letting herself move without first thinking it through, without wondering what comes next—and, when Jamie’s free hand loosens from her hip, slides beneath her skirt, traces the hot bud of her clit through thin cotton, she thinks, Of course. Of course, and thank fuck, and good.
Jamie watches with lidded eyes, curls falling into her face as Dani bows her head and bites her lip. Her fingers are unexpectedly gentle, drawing around and around; the room is hot, and the door is locked, and Dani hears the ragged pulse of her own breath, the ragged rhythm of her own heartbeat, the slick pull of cloth against wet skin. There’s a bed right there, but Jamie doesn’t seem to mind—Jamie seems perfectly happy right here, with Dani on her lap, with Dani reaching down to pull her skirt to her waist to offer more room to explore.
Jamie doesn’t seem to notice the bed at all, not with her fingers rubbing hot friction between Dani’s legs, which seem suddenly unable to spread far enough apart. Her knees dig into the wood of the trunk, her hips finding a stuttering rhythm as her nails drive hard into the base of Jamie’s neck for support. She wants to watch Jamie work—wants to follow the somehow-familiar stroke of her right hand, wants to memorize exactly what Jamie’s doing so she’ll never, ever forget this moment of absolute courage. She wants to watch Jamie’s face—wants to zero in on lips flushed and parted, eyes gone slate gray with desire, smile soft and just the slightest bit proud.
Proud. Not of what she’ll get out of it—but of the soft, high sounds Dani can’t suppress. Proud of the swollen wet of her, the reckless push of her down against Jamie’s hand. Proud of how Dani raises her eyes, wide, and the graceless nod Dani gives when one of those fingers traces the flex of thigh where it meets pelvis, just beneath the barrier of underwear.
“Only if you—” Jamie’s words muffle; Dani’s given up on words entirely, given up on anything except what it feels like to kiss this woman. What it feels like to have this woman reading her body language—kissing her back, kissing her hard, careless of anything except the sensation itself. What it feels like to have this woman in a locked room, knowing she’d never have let herself risk it in life, knowing that version of Dani Clayton had never been out of the cage long enough to let it all ride this way.
Jamie’s skin on her own sharpens the breath in her lungs, tugs a shameless sound from her lips; she pushes harder into the kiss, harder into the fingers circling her. There’s not enough room, not with all her clothes on and Jamie seated so casually beneath her. There’s not enough room, even when she hitches up on her knees and fumbles the underwear down her legs.
Jamie helps. Jamie helps with hands that are as soft as they are eager, and it tightens the heat between her legs to recognize that Jamie likes helping. Likes the simple trust of being allowed to remove an article of clothing—of being allowed to touch without obstacle—of being allowed to look at her own hand, following the pace Dani is setting.
Jamie, touching her like she’s wanted it since the first time they met—and like it’s an added gift, like Dani’s name was a gift, like every conversation they’ve had is a gift. Something Dani has given her of her own free will.
The door is locked, and the room is fire, and Dani’s back is arching. Her hand fumbles for Jamie’s wrist—her mind flashing briefly to the bathroom, to the cigarette Jamie held between her lips—and urges her up. Clumsy, she knows; clumsy, and reckless, and still she has never felt pleasure like two of Jamie’s fingers obediently curling into the core of her.
Jamie, pumping those fingers slowly in and out, wincing slightly at the awkward angle of her wrist—but when Dani whispers, “Sorry” and tries to shift her weight, the hand still braced at the small of her back tightens. Jamie shakes her head, tongue wetting her lips.
“Stay,” she says in a low voice, “right there.”
Dani whimpers. Jamie leans in to kiss her again—slow, deliberate, tongue brushing Dani’s once before retreating—letting the heel of her hand grind against the shock-sensitive swell of clit. Pleasure is building fast—faster than Dani has experienced, faster than she wants, because if it’s coming on this quickly, won’t it end? Won’t she break, won’t Jamie withdraw, won’t she have to leave this room and go back to—
“Stay,” Jamie repeats in that low, guiding voice. “Nobody’s goin’ anywhere.”
She curls her fingers with the words, drags her lips down the curve of Dani’s jaw. Her teeth catch on the soft skin of Dani’s neck, biting in as Dani cries out, clenching her thighs tight to ride the cresting heat as it snaps.
She gasps for air, legs trembling, twitching around the fingers still buried inside. Her hands fist in Jamie’s hair, pulling until bright eyes meet her own.
Jamie makes a soft sound of amusement—something just a little too aroused to be simple laughter—and carefully eases her hand free. There’s a quiet, senseless beat of grief to the sensation of loss, replaced instantly when Jamie raises glistening fingers for Dani to inspect.
“Seemed all right, for a first go.”
Life, Dani thinks, would be harder. Life comes with consequences, with constant change, with errors in judgment creeping back to haunt a person under cover of darkness. Dani Clayton, in life, was prone to worry—to analyzing decisions, save for in moments of stress or stupor. Dani Clayton, in life, would flush at the look on Jamie’s face, the sticky proof of what they’ve just done strung between her fingers.
Dani Clayton grins, wraps a hand around Jamie’s wrist, and says, “Still want more.”
She’d thought Jamie couldn’t get more attractive than in the confident way she’d coaxed Dani to the brink—the way she’d kissed Dani’s neck and thrust her fingers just so, her thumb digging into the joint of Dani’s thigh, her breath coasting hot down the collar of Dani’s too-heavy sweater. She’d thought that was the sexiest anyone could be, tongue laving relief over a gently-placed bite. She’d been sure of it, as the orgasm yanked coherent thought from her world.
Jamie now, eyes wide, mouth dropping open, is sexier. Jamie now, watching her fingers vanish into Dani’s mouth, watching Dani suck them slowly, purposefully clean, is beyond anything Dani could have imagined.
“I think,” Dani goes on, primly running her thumb along her lower lip to remove any trace of her own taste, “it’s your turn to stay.”
Genuinely, Rebecca does not believe Viola Lloyd is capable of lying. Violence and hostility, subjecting others to pain and scrutiny—certainly. By her own admission, Viola is not a kind, soft, good woman.
Lying, however. Lying is not Viola’s purview. Rebecca is fairly certain, based on what little she’ll say of the sister who murdered her, this has much more to do with Perdita than Viola herself. Perdita, Viola has made clear, was conniving. Careful. She’d waited, and watched, and made her moves around the chess board of their world only when Viola’s back was turned. Viola had not, in fact, even realized her sister’s heart had grown so black until it was too late to take action. Perdita was quieter. Perdita was softer. Perdita know how to manipulate the world around her.
Viola is many things—many of them truly awful—but a liar, she is not.
Still: Rebecca has grown uncertain about Viola’s first and grandest promise. Not how much she meantit—she absolutely trusts that Viola meant what she’d said about finding Peter, about making him suffer. She believes Viola believes it, if nothing else.
It’s merely that Rebecca has begun to lose hope that he’s even here.
“You,” Viola says, her voice clipped with familiar impatience, “will know.”
“I’ve looked,” Rebecca replies. She’s growing fed up with the house and its many shifting walls; no matter where she steps, she can’t shake the idea that she’s been here before. The gardens twist about her like a maze from deepest myth, a labyrinth she simply cannot escape. The kitchen and den seem forever doomed to dance, a waltz where each is constantly handing the lead back to the other. The bedrooms are a carousel, tangling around and around. Sometimes, they stand as silent as a tomb; others, she swears she can hear muffled moans within, voices interweaving like music. She flings the doors open, stares blankly in at empty beds, dustless vanities, shuttered mirrors.
The Manor has a life of its own, she’s sure of it. A life within its walls, and endless death within its halls, and all these souls pressing toward a second chance at something. And still, no matter how the days pass—five hundred six of them, at last count—Peter Quint remains stubbornly elusive.
In a strange way, some part of her is glad of it. It isn’t that she can forget—the man lives in all the tiny moments of slip, the little blinks she can’t escape—but there is a difference between a craving and honest hunger. She craves the sight of him the way she craved a cigarette in school: knowing it was awful for her, that it didn’t even taste pleasant, that she was ashamed of herself for tiptoeing toward the habit. She craves the image of Peter Quint’s smile like she once craved a stiff drink, a terrible takeout meal, a fight with her father.
Hungry, though—maybe she is not so much hungry for it anymore. Not as she once was, storming the halls of the Manor, demanding at every turn if Hannah Grose had seen him. The idea of him itches at her, tucked beneath her skin, but she derives no sustenance from the thought of finding him in the shadows. There is nothing filling about the idea in the least.
If anything, she’s come to flinch from shadows of an appropriate height, from jackets just a little too like his—because, she knows, if she succeeds, this will come to an end.
This, her time counting the days.
This, her purpose within the Manor’s walls.
And, maybe, this—
Viola’s hand brushing the back of her own.
Viola’s eyes, sharp as a hawk’s, on her face.
Viola’s certainty pushing her forward.
“It is not,” Viola says irritably, “about looking. It is about feeling him. You will know one way or the other—you cannot avoid it. He has, in murdering you, formed an unbreakable bond.”
Splendid, thinks Rebecca mournfully. The last thing she could possibly want from her afterlife is the idea that she is still bound to Peter Quint.
A hand cups beneath her chin, cool fingers firm. Viola, bold as ever, gazing at her with mingled pity and amusement.
“Do not mistake my meaning. When I say he has formed a bond—this is not to say he has power.”
“He doesn’t?” It has never felt that way to Rebecca, no matter how many times Peter raved on about the ceiling I, too, cannot break through. I am, quite simply, not part of the fuckin’ club, he’d always said, but she’d looked at him—a tall, striking white man wreathed in fine suits and clever manner—and thought, What would you know of it? Of clubs, of being left out? What would you know?
Power is a complex organism, she understands—and that, even if he did not have all he thought he was owed, Peter did have it. In the world, at parties, and in private moments with her. He’d had power she could only dream of.
Viola has that power, too, though less of it. There is power in skin, in sex, in wealth. There is power in a name. Viola was given some measure of it merely by being born into her family crest.
She has power—it’s in the strut of her walk, in the sway of her hips, in the cut of her vowels. She has power of a kind Rebecca has no knowledge.
But she’s never used it. Not against me. Not once. Viola is not a kind woman, not a warm woman, not even a good woman, but her hands on Rebecca’s arm or chin or cheek are soft. Clever fingers curl lightly around, breaking hold should Rebecca so much as flinch. Her hands have never risen as Peter’s did without thought; her voice has never lashed out with whip-like precision, as Peter’s was so inclined at a moment’s notice.
She is not a good woman, but she does right by Rebecca, in her own way. And that, Rebecca thinks, is a kind of power in itself. Convincing an unkind woman to be soft, if only with a singular soul.
Would she keep it up, if they were to find Peter?
“Rebecca,” she says. Viola’s brows rise, her nostrils flaring in surprise; Rebecca’s not sure anyone’s ever dared correct her, in life or death, before this moment. Her head inclines.
“Rebecca. Do you wish to take him back?”
Rebecca recoils; misunderstanding, Viola’s hand drops instantly from her chin. It’s almost impossible to keep the conflicting emotions in her chest afloat at the same time. “No,” she sputters, seizing upon the easier of the two. “Of—of course I don’t—”
“You have no desire to forgive his indiscretions?” Viola goes on breezily. “Wish him well? Carry on as though he has done you no harm?”
“No,” Rebecca repeats. “Why would you even—”
“Then,” Viola says, her voice prim though her eyes gleam with arrogant pleasure, “he possesses no power at all. Not over you. Not over this place. Whatever strength he might have held in life does not apply in this world. When I lived, heaving blood from my lungs, I was a wretched, wasted thing. My sister, conversely, was beautiful and strong. And now?” She leans into Rebecca, faux modesty wrapped about her like a cloak. “Do I appear wretched any longer?”
“No.” The word is airy, weak. Viola’s lips curve into a serpentine smile.
“We are in death what we must be. We find the will we need within these walls. Strength. Courage.” Her eyes flick over Rebecca’s face, hovering for the briefest of instances around her mouth. “Power.”
And what do you need? Rebecca wonders. What hunger propels you, Viola Lloyd?
She is not why I am here, Viola had said of her sister. Rebecca hasn’t quite had the nerve to press further, to bring it up again. She doubts Viola would tell her. Lies, Viola does not tell, but she guards the truth most jealously.
“Find him,” Viola urges. “You are strong enough. He has bound himself to you—use that. Use it against him.” She leans close, her voice soft as a hiss. “Make him pay for his choices.”
It isn’t the first—or third—or twentieth time she’s given similar instruction, but suddenly, Rebecca feels as though she can truly hear the words. Truly taste them in her own mouth, as though the thought was born of her own desires from the start. She shuts her eyes, relishing the warmth of Viola’s frame so near her own, the hush of Viola’s breath brushing her skin. Find him. Find him, and end this once and for all.
She takes a step. Eyes still closed, she lets the pound of her own heart—which stopped, she remembershow it had stopped, how it had frozen in her chest amidst all that cold, choppy water—lead the way. Her sight hasn’t yet served her in the quest for Peter; she feels no drive at all to search for him that way now. The definition of madness, she thinks with a small smile. The definition of madness is trying it all hundreds of times without change.
She couldn’t see him in life, anyway. Not the way she needed to. Not enough. She’d brushed the truth aside time and again, turned her head resolutely away, pretended not to notice all the red flags. She’d told herself it would be all right, because she loved him—he loved her—and love is enough to conquer even the worst of the demons.
Not love, she thinks now in a voice much more like Viola’s than her own. Not love at all. Trust. All the love in the world is irrelevant without trust.
Trust, like the step of a sightless woman in a crowded room.
Trust, like the hand of another braced around her elbow for balance.
Trust, like believing in the muting of the chatter, in the sudden emptiness of the hall.
Five hundred six days. Nearly two years. Nearly two years in living time spent pinballing around this ever-shifting, ever-elongating place, looking for a man she does not in truth want to find. Not if it means finding out if his strength remains undiminished by death. Not if it means finding her own still runs thin.
She couldn’t see him in life. Couldn’t trust her own gut to speak over the tremble of her heart. She’d meant so well for her life, but she had never once put herself first, as a living woman.
With Viola’s hand on her arm, she walks.
With eyes closed, she walks.
With heart steady, she walks.
“Hello, Rebecca Jessel,” says the voice from a thousand waking dreams, a thousand little slips, five hundred days’ worth of fury. She grinds her teeth.
“Hello, Peter Quint.”
Dani Clayton does not run from her again, and a not-inconsiderable amount of Jamie understands she’s stopped expecting her to. She’s stopped expecting to find herself mid-conversation—mid-kiss—mid-time given to the only woman she’s ever wanted in her adult life—left on her own. It started, she thinks, in that bedroom, with Dani sliding from her lap with that half-shy, half-audacious look on her face. It started with the way Dani held her wrist, tongue dipping between her fingers. It started with the way Dani had breathed her name as she’d shuddered.
It started there, and Jamie’s not sure it’ll ever stop.
“I didn’t think I belonged,” she confides. Dani’s skin is smooth beneath her fingertips, real in the way a person can’t help being—even in this place, which is so imbued with the absurdity of after. Out there, she knows, people are walking through walls and finding little boys without faces and building dolls of them all.
In here, she can almost forget the unreality of death. In here, this bedroom—what she’s come to think of as their room, as though by taking up space together, they’ve earned rights of ownership—everything feels so much more solid. Not just Dani, who is always right here in the best way, but the floors, the walls, the bed. Nothing shifts out from under her. Nothing performs in abstract, bizarre ways. Everything is exactly as it should be.
Nice and simple. Boring, maybe not—she’s reasonably certain she’s falling in love with a dead woman, after all—but as close to restful as a person can find in the Manor.
“Why didn’t you belong?” Dani, quite apart from fleeing from these gorgeous moments together, seems to be steadying the longer she stays put. She’s stretched out on the mattress, sheets kicked to the floor, her arms folded beneath her chest. Jamie, seated naked at her hip, continues tracing abstract sigils into the bare span of her back.
“Dunno. Never really belonged anywhere, I guess.”
Most people would take the opportunity to speak here—to filter in some well-meaning, empty kindness like I’m sure that isn’t true—but Dani only looks back over her shoulder. Dani only waits. Jamie’s not sure she’s ever met someone as good at waiting as she was forced to be—in childhood, in prison, in an adult life surrounded not by human contact but by leaf and blossom—but Dani comes incandescently close.
“Rough life.” She follows the trail of her own fingertips, alternating mindless shapes. Dani shivers. “Parents should never’ve been, if you could plan it. There were foster homes. Jail cells. Bad choices all ‘round—everywhere I turned, seemed like. People never made much sense to me. Plants, though. Fuckin’ loved plants.”
The corners of Dani’s lips turn up, as they do every time Jamie offers a small piece of herself. She’d smiled just the same way when Jamie had given over her own name. Just the same when Jamie had given over to that first kiss. Just the same, kneeling between Jamie’s splayed legs, looking up at her with big blue eyes.
Dani’s smile makes her wish she’d done more with her life. Makes her wish she’d found this smile, this woman, while she still had the organic forward momentum of mortality. What stories they could have told, if only they’d had the luck and the time.
Nothin’ like the present. It’s different, she knows—not life, not even death, but this strange in-between she didn’t even want upon arrival. It’s different, not quite the cycle of break-down, rise-up, recycle-and-renew she’d built her worldview around. It’s so different, and she can’t fathom for all the souls in the Manor what comes next.
But she is here. So is Dani. The skin beneath her palms is supple and warm; when she shifts a leg over to rest against the swell of Dani’s backside, she can feel Dani draw a deep breath. When she presses herself flush to Dani’s skin, she can feel Dani melt into the mattress. When her hand slips between bedsheet and wet, slick want, she can feel Dani solidifying just a little more.
A little more, with Jamie kissing along the curve of her shoulder, the back of her neck beneath a tangle of sweaty hair. A little more, with Jamie grinding against her, holding her to the bed with gentle assurance. A little more, as her fingers trace swollen clit, as Dani’s hips rock greedily to meet her. Dani becomes a little more solid, a little more entrancing in her reality, every time they meet in this room.
And Jamie, if she’s honest with herself, is having trouble wanting to venture anywhere else in the house. Why would she? Dani’s hand is groping along the sheets, white-knuckled, and Jamie covers it with her own—squeezes gently even as she feels her own arousal smear across warm skin. Dani is pressing sharp gasps into the sheets, trying to spread her legs to coax Jamie in, and Jamie thinks this is what an afterlife should be. Dani squirming beneath her, laughing when Jamie’s eyelashes tickle her skin. Dani, turning her head to keep from suffocating into the pillow, twisting at the shoulders so she can kiss Jamie with clumsy, needy want.
Dani, who fits against her perfectly, like they were intended for one another all along. It was the world that got in the way—the inconvenience of birth tucking them into opposite sides of the globe, the inconsiderate nature of time holding them apart. They were meant, Jamie thinks, as she drags her fingers in slick, feverish circles, for this the whole goddamn time.
Her breath is hitching in her chest, sweat trickling down the small of her back. She presses herself down as Dani raises her hips, arching up into her. Her fingers dip, sinking obligingly deep, and Dani makes such a sound of relief it nearly undoes her. This is what living should have been all along—the heat of Dani clenching around her fingers, the eager curl of Dani’s tongue past her teeth, the flex of Dani’s whole body rushing to meet her.
The friction of her grinding rhythm, the slick slide of her own heat against Dani’s skin, is hunger; the precise way Dani lets her head fall forward, her lips breaking contact with a wet reluctance so she can cry out instead, is satiation.
And the way Dani rolls over to kiss her properly, hands in Jamie’s hair, nails raking down Jamie’s scalp, is a promise. That even if she walks away, she’ll be back again. She’ll always be back.
“This room,” Jamie pants; she hasn’t come yet, and she likes it—likes holding the release just at bay, until Dani’s impatient hand finds her once more. Likes the heady buzz of it burning under her skin, her thighs taut, her heartbeat pounding between her legs. “This room is fuckin’ magic.”
Dani’s eyes meet hers. “I don’t think it’s the room.”
He can’t find you here, Jamie thinks. He never has, and he never will, and that makes it the closest to magic I’ll ever believe in. Dani smiles like she can hear the words, like she can understand. Embarrassed, Jamie shuts her eyes.
Lips brush her neck, teeth nipping at her collarbone. Dani’s tongue is soft, tracing her clavicle, rolling gently over the silver chain she’s worn as long as she can remember. “It’s not the room, Jamie,” she repeats, and it’s fascinating how husky Dani can make her voice when it’s just the two of them. The control she has over pitch, over volume, turning simple statements into revolutionary promises.
“We’re safe here,” she can’t help saying. “You’re safe here.”
She expects Dani to pause—to look toward the door, at least. Instead, Dani leans up into her, until they’re forehead to forehead. Her fingers are clumsy with exhaustion, trembling against the back of Jamie’s neck.
“Safety,” she says, “is a person. Not a room. You choose the people who help you burn away the shadows, Jamie.”
It makes her want to cry, the sincerity of it. Dani is not the sort of woman—at least not in death—who speaks without meaning it. She is not the sort of woman to whom pretty lies appeal. When she kisses Jamie softly, leaving the words out of it, Jamie thinks it means as much as any proposal.
“I’m not running,” Dani says, as those shaky fingers sink between Jamie’s legs. Her eyes are open, drinking in Jamie’s face as her mouth falls open, as her head bows, as her hips angle sharply down. “I’m not running from anything anymore.”
They dress with the sheepish indolence of a first-time relationship, giggling whenever eyes meet over the collar of a shirt, as Jamie wrestles into her boots. The sex is familiar as coming home—didn’t take long at all to get that way, either—but this part is fresh. It is, she recognizes, the first time they’ve decided to leave that bed together. Every time before, it’s simply been the way things are, like finding another page on the other side of a chapter. One moment, they’re naked between the sheets; the next, she’s awake somewhere else in the house, waiting for Dani to meet her upstairs again.
This time, there is no change in scenery, no rush to go careening up those stairs. This time, she watches Dani dress from the edge of the dresser—arms folded across her t-shirt, head tipped to the side, amused when Dani turns her back in a show of faux-modesty.
“I could get used to this.”
“But then how will I keep my secrets?” Dani’s smile is unbridled, almost goofy. She retrieves her jumper from the pillows stacked on a chair beside the wall, and Jamie thinks, Don’t remember doing that, but it’s always there. The bed is always ours. The room wants us to be happy.
“You can,” she says with a shrug. “Keep ‘em. If you want. Everyone’s got secrets.”
Dani’s smile softens. She moves across the room, arms in the jumper, hands poking through the sleeves. Her skin is soft and pale, warm as Jamie coasts a hand around her middle to root along her spine.
“I don’t think I need them. Not the big ones, anyway. You make me want to tell all the stories.”
It’s a thunderbolt of a thing to say, and Jamie can’t find the words to suit it. Better to kiss Dani—a slow, idle sort of kiss, the kind that serves as a gently humming motor to propel them across the room. Better to kiss Dani, angling her head to deepen, enjoying the ease with which Dani leans into her.
It’s not the room, Dani says, but Jamie wonders if this same shameless joy will follow them into the hall. She’s inclined to fear it—the bursting of this bubble the Manor has built for them—and to in turn push that fear into this kiss. It’s hard to be afraid of anything, with Dani’s lips parting for her. Hard to imagine shadows, with Dani swiveling to push her against the solid oak of the door.
Hard to fear, when Dani leans back and throws her half-donned jumper aside—it will, Jamie knows, bounce back to that chair with a reliability she’s come to adore—and pulls at Jamie’s belt buckle instead.
“We could stay,” she breathes, letting her head thump back against the wood as Dani presses a knee between her legs. “Right here—right here, just like—just like this—”
“Like this?” Dani muses against the underside of her jaw. Two fingers are bracketing either side of Jamie’s clit, and she’s just a little sore, soaking wet, trembling at the idea of reaching that brilliant shatterpoint yet again. How long have they been in this room? How long has the door been locked?
“Just like,” she repeats hoarsely. Dani keeping a slow tempo to match the roll of her hips, riding Jamie’s bent thigh. Her cheeks are rosy, her free hand fisted in the shoulder of Jamie’s shirt. “Fuck, I’m—again—I’m so—”
Unprepared, she thinks, as Dani whimpers. Unprepared for any of it. I wasn’t supposed to be here. I didn’t think I deserved it.
And maybe she doesn’t. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe deserve isn’t the fucking point—in life, or in death, or whatever middle ground they may have tread into by mistake. Maybe the point is simply Dani abandoning ruined underwear somewhere beneath the bed, painting herself across the faded blue denim of Jamie’s jeans. Maybe the point is simply Dani’s fingers stroking her, Dani’s tongue flicking hot against her racing pulse. Maybe the point is the thump of the door in its frame as Jamie bucks, the creak of floorboards outside as ghosts drift unwittingly past while her eyes snap shut, her teeth sinking into her own lip to keep quiet.
Or maybe the point is after. After she wrenches Dani’s hand from her still-unbuttoned jeans—after she spins Dani against the door—after her knees strike the concrete-solid floor, her tongue pressing deep into Dani’s core. After, with Dani dripping down her chin, with Dani’s leg hauled over her shoulder and her voice reaching for the rafters. After, with Dani’s hand smoothing back her hair and her eyes shining.
After, when that jumper is once again retrieved, and the underwear is left behind, and those sheepish grins are exchanged over hands flattening hair back into place. After.
With Dani’s hand firmly in her own.
With the door opening at last.
Maybe that is the point of all of it.
Revenge looks different on everyone, Viola Willoughby—as she once considered herself, and privately has never entirely relinquished despite the marriage and husband and expectation—believes. For some, revenge is a quiet, petty thing: the theft of that husband, of a child, of jewels and breath. For others, it is harsh and violent: hands closed around a lean throat, clenching until the anger melts into something survivable.
For Rebecca Jessel, revenge cannot be understated. Cannot be planned out by another’s hand. The suffering was Rebecca’s alone, and the comeuppance must also belong to her.
Viola is merely here to bear witness.
As has become her lot in so many ways.
“You look well,” the man—Quint—says. His voice is light, careless; he wants her to believe he does not mind she’s found him at last. He wants her to believe he is in control of the situation.
Viola knows better. She can read the fear in his eyes, as plain as the perpetually-dying sun outside the window. As plain as the dollhouse set up just behind him, littered with shapes.
She can make out a trenchcoat much like the one standing before them now. A black dress, identical to Rebecca’s. A white shift—not the corset and gown she’s dreamed into being after so much endlessness, but the nightdress in which Viola had last drawn breath. She flexes her fists, displeased.
“Ah,” she says under her breath. “So that is how you’ve done it.”
Rebecca darts her a quick glance, her eyes snapping back to Quint as though she believes he’ll vanish the second she’s not looking. His jaw tenses.
“Dollhouse,” Rebecca says coldly. “Really?”
“It keeps a measure,” Viola explains, “of everyone in the Manor at any given time. Look.” Here, in the attic—a shape in a glorious pink dress matching her sister’s. Here, in the kitchen, the cook and his youthful ward. Here, by the front door, Hannah Grose’s welcoming committee.
“That’s how you avoided us,” Rebecca says. “You just…what? Steered clear of any room I was in?”
He thumbs at his cheek, tracing an old scar. “Didn’t imagine you’d want to see me, after all…”
“After all?” Rebecca sneers. She’s made herself remarkably tall, her shoulders square. There is no fear in her, no sign his power persists. She is a force akin to a hurricane just now; if she rose from the floor by the strength of her own will and rushed him, Viola would not be surprised.
His fear is delicious. It reminds her of Perdita—the shadow her sister has become since the misery of their parting, anyway. Two souls made weak by their own avarice, forced to face a jury of their own making.
“Peter Quint,” Rebecca interrupts. “Do you know how long I have been looking for you? Have you any idea?”
“Can’t imagine what you’ve—”
“Five hundred,” Rebecca seethes, “six days. Two hours. Fifteen minutes. Eleven seconds. Twelve. Thirteen.”
He tenses, and for a moment, Viola wonders if this is the punishment Rebecca has opted to enact. Counting out his sins in the most literal sense. Staring into his eyes with unrepentant fury, refusing him even a moment of dignity—even a scrap of escape—from what he’s made of her.
Her mind flashes again to the woman in the attic who once was her sister. Who once knew her like no one else, loved her from birth. She’d been everything to Viola, once. They’d been everything. Before father and husband and envy and violence.
Men are ruinous creatures. Men, and the laws they draft, and the sicknesses they foster. Men, like this coward, who flinches back with every step forward Rebecca marches.
“Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three.” She pauses. Her lips twist. “This could be your eternity, Peter. Now that I’ve found you.”
He winces as she steps nearer—close enough to grab, close enough to kiss—but Rebecca does not lay hands upon him. She pivots at the last second, reaching behind him toward the dollhouse. The little man in his little trenchcoat has appeared in her hand, pale wood standing out against brown skin.
“Now that I’ll always know how to find you,” she adds softly. “You’ll never be able to hide from me again, Peter Quint. And do you know something?”
He opens his mouth. Her eyes flash. Viola makes no effort to restrain her smirk.
“I do not care.”
Viola blinks. Excuse me?
Rebecca, she is astonished to see, is smiling. Not even just smiling—beaming. She is squeezing the little figure hard enough for the wood to creak, but her expression is just shy of jubilant.
Peter, once so clearly frightened, looks utterly terrified now.
“I do not care,” she repeats. “About you. About where you hide. Imagining you scuttling within the walls of this place like a rat means nothing to me. Five hundred six days, I’ve searched for you, and now that you’re here?”
She leans close, stretching up into him as though seeking an embrace. His hands fidget as she reaches out—and, almost tenderly, replaces the doll in its room.
“You murdered me, Peter Quint,” she says, as though commenting on the rain. “You murdered me, and even that will not be enough to commit you to memory. I forget you, Peter. I forget you, as will everyone who has ever crossed your path. I forget you, and I am happy.”
What happens, Viola wonders, when a person is forgotten? Truly forgotten—not held in the grip of a still-living memory, or in the arms of one already dead? What happens, when a person is utterly and perfectly erased?
She may never know. After all, Perdita rots up in that attic room, clutched around her trunk. Even if her husband and child—all the leeches could not compare with the agony of this thought—have wiped her clean of their afterlife, Perdita will remember. Perdita might recall nothing else.
Peter Quint will be forgotten. Viola Willoughby never will.
And Rebecca Jessel…
It has been so long since someone dared take her hand. So long, Viola does not recall the last person to do it—but Rebecca shows no sign of flinching, no wariness of Viola’s class, of Viola’s temper, of Viola.
Rebecca Jessel does not fear her. Rebecca, holding her hand, throws her head back and laughs as she bursts into a run, and Viola has little choice but to pick up speed with her. Silk slippers do not slide; she never so much as stumbles over the swathes of fabric around her legs. Viola has been awake too long to let the Manor shape even her distracted mind.
She runs, a full-tilt, breathless scattering of poise. She runs, arms pumping, hand sweaty in Rebecca’s grip—and she is startled to find herself smiling. The hall empties, spirits poured out of place as they pass with the ease of a parting sea. This world is Viola’s. There is so much she can’t remember, but power fills that void now: the power to move where she will, to shift pieces around the board, to dress herself in finery and glitter as she was always accustomed.
She is power, Viola Willoughby, and that power is nothing in the face of Rebecca’s freedom. She is towed along behind that abject glee, Rebecca’s smooth fingers warm and sweet around her own as they pelt down the hall, down the stairs, down through the Manor walls. They burst briefly into the kitchen—stumbling upon the astonished faces of cook, housekeeper, children, and a pair of women sitting so close, they might as well be sharing one chair. Rebecca waves like a queen making her swift procession, and Viola is amused to see one of the women—blonde, blue-eyed, baffled—raise a hand to wave in return.
Then they’re gone—out of the kitchen, out of the house, spilling out onto the grounds with a reckless joy Viola hardly remembers even from her own childhood. She never ran with Perdita this way, leaping over short hedges, laughing as her skirts caught on rosebush thorns. She never ran with Arthur, with her own daughter, alone, the way she runs with Rebecca Jessel.
“Stop, stop,” she cries at last, amazed at the brisk pull of breath in her lungs. Three hundred years, and never has she felt so alive as she does bending in the statue garden with hands on her knees. Never has she felt so joyful as she does with the cool twilight air kissing her cheeks and Rebecca’s eyes shining in the near-dark, a stitch burning in her side.
Rebecca is not gasping for air. Rebecca is effervescent, spinning in circles with arms outstretched like a girl. In the dying light, she is beauty of a kind Viola has craved her whole life, striving to build with silk and gemstone and gold embroidery.
This woman, in her simple black dress and her loose curls, needs none of that, and Viola is unsurprised to feel the pull toward her. Beauty has always pulled, a gravity she has been unable—unwilling—to resist for all the time she’s existed.
“This is my favorite,” Rebecca tells her. There’s a bashful quality to her smile, to the hushed tone of her voice. “This garden. Always told myself he might be out here, but I think I knew from the start I was coming here for me. It’s lovely, isn’t it?”
Viola nods. She remembers these statues as though recalling them being built—as though she might have carved them with her own hand. The Manor feels this way from its boards to its bones, as though it belongs to Viola. As though it has always belonged to her, and she to it.
She’s never thought of sharing it with anyone. She’s never much seen the point in sharing.
She’s touching Rebecca’s cheek, the soft curve of skin still warm from their run. “You found him,” she says. You found him, and you let him go, and you ran with me, instead. Why?
Rebecca’s eyes are dark, flicking from her gaze to her lips. “I did.”
“You let him go.” There’s accusation in her voice, Viola knows. She can’t help it. The mere thought of finding a man like Quint and walking away is beyond astounding. It is foolhardy.
And yet she does not think Rebecca Jessel a fool.
“When I first arrived,” Rebecca says. “The first person I met was Hannah Grose. You’re familiar?”
Viola nods. Her palm slides against Rebecca’s cheek, her fingers tucking behind Rebecca’s ear. Rebecca shifts her weight, closing the meager gap between them by half an inch.
“She told me the pressure was off. All the things I prevented myself doing in life, for one reason or another—didn’t matter here. Pressure’s off, she said. Do something kind for yourself.”
“And did you?” She knows the answer. Of course she knows the answer. One may keep vigil over one’s vengeance, or one may be kind; the two do not bleed. Viola knows better than anyone that to be awake is to abandon kindness for gaping need.
She’s startled when Rebecca says, “I did. I think I did, anyway. Didn’t know it until I was staring him in the face, but—”
She kisses like a thunderstorm, Rebecca Jessel. It isn’t what Viola expects of her—Rebecca is small-boned, soft-skinned, a woman of careful poise and delicate precision. Rebecca, for all her fury, is neatly-contained.
It’s only into the kiss that Viola tastes all of it—the fight Rebecca’s entire life demanded of her, the rubble of her relationship dropping her off that boat, the pure rage of her sustained through the kind of desperation Viola associates with staying alive. It’s only now, with Rebecca gripping her by the shoulders, kissing with bruising desire, that Viola truly sees beneath the pretty face.
Rebecca Jessel is a warrior. Her armor is black lace; her wits are spur-sharp. This is the woman who counted every minute of every day simply to remind herself she did not deserve her miserable end. This is a woman from whom Peter Quint deserved not so much as a passing glance.
This is a woman who is clawing her way toward happiness, toward freedom, simply by letting herself forget. Letting herself erase all the woes and wars that brought her to Viola’s door in the first place. Letting herself shunt aside all of that back-breaking rage in favor of—
Viola ought not kiss back, she knows. Viola is not Rebecca—kind, if not soft, warm despite all her splintered fragments. Viola is not willing to let go. Forget. Erase.
Viola is not willing to give in, not to anything or anyone—and she should not give in to this. Rebecca needs something she cannot offer. Rebecca needs.
Rebecca is hungry, and Viola is no feast. Viola is hollowed out. Viola is—
She twists a hand into Rebecca’s hair, grasping at the back of her skull with a near-violent desperation. The kiss has become something of a struggle in the best way—Rebecca pushing with slide of lips, trace of tongue, Viola responding in harsh kind. She feels Rebecca’s lip between her teeth, feels the soft round curve of it dimple, and expects Rebecca to shove at her. Think twice, she commands. Think twice, for I do not bend.
Rebecca’s moan is as ravening as the rest of her. Her fingers clutch at Viola’s neck, frantic not to be forsaken, and Viola pulls her closer. This is not, a part of her wants to insist, befitting of the woman she was—or the ghost she has become—but it has been so long since someone has taken her hand. So long, since someone looked at her and saw not the grayscale Lady of the Manor, but a full-color, flesh-and-blood woman.
Not kind. Not warm. Not soft. All the things Rebecca is, even beneath the travesty of her ending at the hands of Peter Quint. All the things Rebecca cannot help being, Viola has never needed to resist. She is simply not cut of that cloth. She could not afford it.
Afford means nothing under the pressure of Rebecca’s body against her own, the rut of her hips, the grasp of her hands. She seems powerless to stop herself, to push away and smooth out her dress, clear up her makeup. This is not the Lady. This is not the behavior of the Lady.
This is the hunger of Viola Willoughby, who lives on only in her own mind. Viola Willoughby, who had a sister who loved her, who was not pinned to the butterfly mat by a man named Lloyd and all the misfortune that follows in love’s stead.
Viola Willoughby, pressed back against a statue so hard, the stone drives the air from her lungs. Viola Willoughby, burying her teeth in the soft throat of a woman who tenses a hand in her hair and sighs her name with relish.
Viola Willoughby is not kind, warm, soft, but hungry—Viola understands hunger. Understands what it is to starve. Understands what it is to grow so used to striding the halls with an empty belly, she almost does not know what to do with herself with Rebecca in her hands.
The sun never quite sets, never quite rises; the shades never quite find purchase. Here in the marble garden, her hands rove over Rebecca’s shoulders, down her back, digging into her hips until Rebecca hisses pleasure into her mouth. Here, with the ever-dying light pulling blue shadows from the stone, she allows Rebecca to cup a hand against the bodice of her dress, to knead restlessly against layers of cloth until Viola can’t help but imagine what it would be to lead her upstairs to bed. Rebecca is kind. Rebecca is patient. Rebecca would undo her, lace by lace, stitch by stitch, and spread her upon the bed as Viola has not thought to crave for centuries.
Rebecca would want to see her—and maybe one day, Viola will be possessed of the space to allow it. Not yet. Not here. Here, she yanks Rebecca’s head back by the hair, taking note of her impish smile, of the youth of her beneath all that expectation. Rebecca, who spoke of a displeased father. Of lecherous teachers. Of men who took and took and took until she was well beyond her years in rage, in weariness, in loss.
Rebecca wants to see her, though Viola is not kind or soft or anything befitting of a good woman. Viola is not good.
But from this woman, Viola can be good enough not to take.
She has never before been on her knees in dewy grass. Never bowed before another human being, not even on her own wedding night. Lowering herself now, she reasons, is not an act of supplication—it is simply just. Rebecca has yearned for hundreds of days for her share of the pie. Rebecca has walked away without taking her due. Rebecca is starving.
Viola knows starvation.
The dress is thin, spidersilk compared with her own voluminous gowns. She guides the skirt up Rebecca’s legs, biting the soft flesh of her inner thighs, soothing those bites with kisses that tug surprised sighs from Rebecca’s lips. The air around them is heavy, a storm always on the horizon, and Viola feels it mirrored in her own self—pounding steadily away, a dizzying life to the heartbeat in her ears.
Rebecca is looking at her with apprehensive excitement. Viola tries for a moment to imagine that man—that cowardly rat in his long coat—going down on his knees in the grass before her.
Rebecca’s hand slides, deceptively strong, into her hair. Rebecca touches her like she does not care if Viola lacks kindness. Rebecca dares all the same.
Rebecca dares, lips parted, eyes heavy, and there is barely anything to this dress. Viola hears it tear as she pulls it aside, hears lace give as she presses her face to the juncture of Rebecca’s thighs and meets wet heat with the flat of her tongue.
The sky splits, because it must, because Viola cannot imagine it remaining whole as she offers Rebecca what she would not take for herself in that room. It is just, she reminds herself. It is just, that Rebecca should take something from this day to prove her worth.
A woman deserves that. A woman like Rebecca, especially.
She finds the bundle of nerves, slick and hot and throbbing against the flick of her tongue. Finds the angle of her head that best serves the work, her nose pressed to Rebecca’s curls. Finds a slow rhythm, matched by the tug of Rebecca’s hand in her hair—she dares, Viola thinks again with a molten pleasure, she dares grasp Viola this way, pull her closer, treat her without any fear at all. She dares.
There’s a not-inconsiderable gratification in refusing. In pushing when Rebecca pulls; in slowing when Rebecca begs her to speed up. There is, in fact, a hedonistic joy in rebelling against Rebecca’s wishes as her legs go soft, as she sinks back into the statue’s embrace to remain upright.
Viola drives her nails into the soft muscle of Rebecca’s taut thighs, rolling her tongue until the thrusts of Rebecca’s hips against her mouth are almost painful. The water comes down in sheets around them, muddying her fine dress, sinking Rebecca’s flats into the sopping grass. Viola closes her eyes, moving in time with the bell-bright cries Rebecca releases above her. She makes no sound at all, preferring the control—the power—the justice of building Rebecca to a thunderclap climax.
There, she thinks, as Rebecca goes limp in the statue’s arms. There. She is heaving for breath, the wet between her own thighs aching. She will not give in to that, either. It is not her freedom to take. She walks, and she wakes, and she—
Rebecca, rather than attempt to pull her upright, drops into the grass. Her hands find the sides of Viola’s face, her lips descending to swallow the surprised moan before it can truly find life. She pushes back and down, straddling Viola’s hips, her care for the world around them unmistakably absent.
“What,” Viola asks into the kiss, “are you—”
“How the hell did anyone enjoy themselves, in a getup like this?” Rebecca, she is bemused to note, is pawing at the laces of her dress. “Not so much as a zipper, I mean—”
Her eyes are feverish, her lips swollen. It is not ladylike, Viola knows—Ladylike, she corrects herself—to want to seize another kiss from lips like those. That is not why she is here.
Three hundred years. Three hundred years, and every day so much the same, it might as well be a single sprawl. Three hundred years, and her sister rots in an attic, and her child is not here, and her world is—is—
“Why,” she asks helplessly—hating herself a little for it, as her hands close around Rebecca’s hips, “are you looking for a…”
“Because you,” Rebecca says, kissing her again (dares! she dares claim Viola’s mouth this way, dares take and give in equal measure as though she fears nothing of Viola at all!), “are gorgeous, and I want—I want—”
She stops, looking down at Viola, splayed out in the wet grass. Her hair is a tangle, her hips rolling restlessly, and Viola is aghast to find her own body rocking up in return. Her thighs are slick. Rainwater seeps into her back. She is not the Lady of the Manor at all.
Rebecca is looking at her, hands resting on Viola’s shoulders, like she’s never seen a more beautiful sunrise.
It reminds her of Viola Lloyd.
It reminds her of the dream Viola Willoughby could have become without her.
“Don’t you?” Rebecca sounds timid for the first time. “Don’t you want to?”
“In the mud?” Viola asks. “In the rain?”
“That,” Rebecca says, “wasn’t me.”
She’s still looking at Viola, this woman who still glistens upon her lips, smearing ruby across her skin. She’s just looking at her, waiting for an answer.
“It was cleansing,” Viola says, more stiffly than she means. “The rain. It was—a fresh slate.”
Do something kind for yourself, the housekeeper had said. Do something kind.
Viola Lloyd is not kind. Viola Willoughby was never allowed the freedom.
Whichever she is—Viola, the Lady, the person whose hand Rebecca Jessel dared take without so much as a blink—is perhaps not the point. Whoever she is, whoever she might have forgotten, or made up, or failed to forgive, she is stretched out beneath a darkening sky amid a garden of statues. Witnessed only by stone and shadow and Rebecca Jessel’s smile.
Why is she here? Truly. Truly, beneath it all, what is her purpose now that everything else has gone dark?
Turn it, she thinks as she drags Rebecca down against her once more, into something survivable. See what comes out the other side.
The Manor wills it, and—for once in over three hundred years—Viola submits.
Jamie thinks it’s the room. She doesn’t say so again—Jamie is very much a say it once kind of person, Dani understands; she’s never found someone so fixated on the power of listening to others as Jamie is—but Dani can feel it in the uncharacteristic anxiety of her. In the way her eyes rove from face to face, her hand never so much as twitching from Dani’s.
Jamie thinks it’s the room keeping them sheltered. Keeping Dani’s legs on the ground—or in the air, as the case may be. She thinks it’s that bed, those walls, that lock.
What Jamie doesn’t yet understand, Dani figured out the first time: it is not place or time that matters, but person.
The thing that matters most in this equation is Jamie.
Jamie is the only reason she stopped running that first night, and it had been foolish to do it. To stop in a crowd, as though crowds have ever protected her; crowds only make demands, only press her more firmly into a box. She shouldn’t have stopped there. She should have gone to hide with Miles.
But she’d spotted Jamie on that couch, and something had pulled so tight in her chest, she’d nearly lost breath. Jamie, looking bored and irritable, completely uninterested in human contact of any kind, had felt like a lantern in a cave.
No locked door could ever do what Jamie does. Open or shut, it wouldn’t matter. The door is simply an obstacle, like the walls the Manor moves around and around in parody of a street vendor’s card game. The door might as well be smoke.
The lantern never dims.
Any room Jamie is in, Dani has come to understand, is safe. By virtue of Jamie being in it, Dani could hide there all day. He’d never find her. She’s almost certain he’d never so much as think to knock.
Some might call it reckless, this hypothesis. Some might call it reckless, how she’s chosen to act upon it.
Dani prefers to think of it as science.
“Science?” Jamie repeats. There’s a dazed quality to her voice, and no wonder—she’s sitting in the chapel pew with her head tilted back, her legs spread, her jeans pooled around her ankles. Dani, focused very much on the candlelight jumping over her face, drawing the line of her nose, her cheekbones, her jaw into sharp relief, hums.
“Testing a theory.”
“Testing,” Jamie says in that same strangled voice. Dani’s hand is tracing the waistband of her underwear, nails delicate as she scrapes gently down the thin cotton to encircle the wet patch between Jamie’s legs. “You’ve got me half-bloody-naked in a bloody church.”
“Kind of dangerous,” Dani agrees. “More so than the greenhouse?”
“More than the greenhouse.” Jamie swallows hard. Her eyes flicker, and Dani feels time slide seamlessly around them—another of the Manor’s little gifts, reminding her in body and mind of how Jamie had pinned her hands above her head on a lumpy little loveseat, her thigh a relentless press between Dani’s legs until she’d thought she’d combust from the rough grind through her clothes. “Less than the truck.”
“Mm.” The truck—in the bed of which Dani had sat with her back against the window, her knees bent, urging Jamie’s tongue deeper. Jamie’s shins had been speckled with bruises, hanging off the edge as she’d worked. They’re gone now, of course; nothing in the Manor seems to last unless willed by a patron, save for the weather, and even that seems to shift if someone really works at it. She wonders who had been out in the statue garden, the sole recipient of a thunderstorm last night.
“Didn’t know—” Jamie seems to be working exceptionally hard at keeping her head, even with Dani pressing a thumb to the front of her underwear and rubbing. “—you had a thing for—getting caught—”
She doesn’t, Dani will inform her later, when the experiment is complete. She doesn’t have a thing for getting caught at all; the very concept fills her with terror. She’d started them off in easier locations for that exact reason, as the Manor is only too eager to remind her:
Dragging Jamie back to the bathroom where they’d nearly kissed had seemed an essential starting block. Kissing her hard, seated on the rim of the bathtub, palming her breast beneath the threadbare texture of her t-shirt, Dani had felt her heart careening violently against her ribs. She’d tried to push it aside, ducking her head, sucking an erect nipple into her mouth through the cup of Jamie’s bra, and even as Jamie threaded expert fingers into her hair and arched, she’d been sure the door would announce him. She’d been sure—but the flick of her tongue had made Jamie groan, and it had been so pleasantly distracting, memorizing the shape of that nipple, testing her own prowess with the clasp of Jamie’s bra so she could taste the salt of her skin. By the time she’d thought of the door again, locked carefully against the world, Jamie’s hands were hooked beneath her thighs and her head was vanishing beneath Dani’s skirt.
She’d tried the office next, a little library-adjacent room with double doors and an enormously solid desk. These doors, she was wary of noting, did not lock. If someone were to test the structure of them, they wouldn’t have to work very hard.
And still, that was hard to fixate on with Jamie seated on that desk, one foot planted squarely on the leather office chair, the other dangling off the floor. Dani, pressed between her legs, gripped the back of her t-shirt nearly hard enough to tear it, kissed her neck until Jamie’s hand fisted in her hair and urged her down. Who, Dani thought dimly, teasing Jamie open with two fingers until the desk was marked with her arousal, could care about doors with Jamie begging her this way?
The kitchen had been truly beyond the scope of her courage, she’d thought—until Jamie was pitching dishware onto the floor with single sharp motion, gesturing for Dani to lay down. It had felt obscene in the best way, Jamie kneeling above her with shirt off, jeans unbuckled, bowing her head to mouth roughly at Dani’s breast. It had felt illegal, the way Jamie had grinned with Dani’s nipple painfully hard between her teeth, her left hand working down the front of her own jeans as her right filled Dani almost too full to bear.
Owen would have had a heart attack and died a second time, if he’d walked in—but no one had interrupted. No ghosts waltzed through the walls. Dani had come once—built again with rough pumping thrusts of Jamie’s fingers—watched with hazy fascination as Jamie only then rocked into her own hand with a moan that nearly drove Dani to her all over again. All as though in the comfort of their own home.
Nearly half an hour later—with all parties clothed, hands washed, and dishes replaced as though they’d never met the floor at all—Owen had wandered in with Hannah and Flora in tow. “Strangest thing,” he’d said cheerfully. “Fireworks, just outside. Watched from the Forbidden balcony. Can’t recommend it enough.”
“Flora named them,” Hannah added, and even her smile hadn’t possessed a knowing edge. Jamie’d looked as though she might pass out from relief.
They haven’t been caught—not rucking against the shrubbery (awkwardly plucking twigs from Dani’s rumpled sweater, Jamie’d added, “Maybe not so involved with the plants, next time?”), or in the greenhouse, or the truck parked down the driveway. It’s not even that they haven’t been caught—Dani’s starting to believe they can’t be.
“It’s the Manor,” she explains now, nibbling Jamie’s earlobe. There’s a freckle just behind the left one she’s developed a fascination with licking; Jamie shivers deliciously every time. “I think it’s powered by our wants. Or needs. If just one person wants the rain, it rains for them—and no one else. See?”
Jamie is breathing through her teeth, her hands clenching on the bench either side of her thighs. Dani likes her this way, pretending as though she’s level-headed. She gives a particularly hard stroke, regretting only the darkness and the barrier of cloth preventing her seeing how wet and flushed she’s made Jamie yet again.
Jamie’s not the only one who could get used to this.
“But he.” Jamie seems pained, bringing him into the situation with Dani beginning to gently press dripping cloth up into the heat of her. She spreads her legs further, hissing out an exhalation when Dani raises her fingers to her lips and gives an experimental lick. “Christ, you can’t—just—fuck, Dani, we’re going to Hell.”
“You don’t believe in Hell,” Dani reminds her gently, tracing the tip of her own finger with her tongue. “Also, already dead.”
“Gonna kill me again, you don’t get back down there,” Jamie mutters. “Anyway, as I was sayin’—thank fuck—he’s looking for you. Doesn’t the—the—”
“Manor help him,” Dani supplies. She’s dipped her hand back down, beneath the waistband this time; Jamie’s almost too wet to find an easy rhythm. For her protests, Dani wonders if perhaps the fear of getting caught doesn’t do something for her, after all. “Yes, I think it does. But I don’t want to be found. And you don’t want me to be found. Two against one, you see?”
“Wins every time.” The cords are standing out in Jamie’s neck, her necklace glinting in the firelight. Dani presses snug against her side, drawing tight friction around her clit until her eyes flicker. There’s a relaxation beneath Jamie’s sex drive she can’t get enough of; passionate, wild, even rough, Jamie’s always got this undercurrent beneath it all. A steadiness. A certainty.
Dani’s privately sure that is what does the trick, more than the simple math of two wills against one. Jamie is devoted to the things she cares about—loyal to the last. Jamie wants nothing more than to keep Dani safe, to make Dani happy, to be happy with Dani. The Manor responds in kind.
“So,” Jamie says, when her clothes are back in place and her breath has steadied once more. “You’re safe, then. Never gonna have to deal with him again.”
“No.” Dani smiles sadly. Jamie’s brows rise, then dip in puzzlement.
“No? Seems an easy fix.”
“Endless sex in any room of that house we want for all eternity?” Dani teases. Jamie links her hands behind her head, grinning.
“Woman at the door said to be kind to myself. Can’t think of anything kinder, can you?”
“I want that,” Dani assures her. “You. This. Not just the sex, but the—you.” Jamie brightens, a gentle astonishment layered beneath her smile. It more than earns another long, luxuriant kiss. And then: “But he was my best friend. I have to do it right, I think. To really be happy, to really be the most me I can be. I think I have to face him.”
Eddie, she knows, would push back on this statement. Eddie, she knows, would turn it into a discussion—never an argument, never a debate, just what he called a meeting of the minds. He meant well, but they’d never had a discussion in their adult lives she hadn’t felt somewhat shoehorned into, even by his good intentions. Especially then.
Jamie doesn’t push at all. Merely shrugs her shoulders.
“You want company? While you…d’you want company?”
It’s tempting to say yes. More tempting than Jamie will ever know. Dani cups her face in both hands, kisses her once—twice—lets herself linger in the brush of Jamie’s thumb across her cheek, the splay of her fingers against Dani’s hair.
“This one,” she says, forehead bent against Jamie’s, “has to be mine, I think. But I’ll meet you upstairs? After?”
“Deal,” Jamie says, shifting to kiss her cheek. “I’ll leave the door open.”
There is a part of her, Jamie thinks, settled in a chair in their room, that can’t help worrying. A part of her that knows, no matter how long she’s alive—or not alive—or some mad blend of alive-and-dead-and-figuring-it-all-out—she’ll never quite believe she’s good enough for Dani Clayton. For Owen Sharma’s friendship. For the Manor and its second-chance offerings. There’s a part of her, she knows, that will forever and a day think it might have been easier, simply to rest. To let the song fade from the airwaves. To embrace the dark.
Easier, maybe. Less frightening, certainly. Oblivion was all she’d been able to believe in for so long. You live. You die. You leave more life behind to take your place. That’s the story, and it’s never once varied in human history.
Except the Manor is here. Has always been, maybe. The housekeeper certainly believes it—dropping Jamie a wink as she passes, hands in her pockets, on her way to the staircase. Owen believes it, too. Flora. All of them. They’re at home here.
Jamie’s not had a sterling track record with home. Hunger, yes. She knows hunger like she knows the sift of soil between her fingers, like she knows the flex and arch of Dani Clayton’s kiss. But home is new. Frightening in its novelty.
She didn’t believe in home any more than an afterlife—and yet, here she sits. Legs sprawled. Arms folded. Watching the door, cracked open in welcome.
Pressure’s off. Do something kind for yourself.
Dani is a kindness. Dani is more than kind. Dani is everything she’d never dreamed she’d brush, starlight shining on the darkest night. She’d have loved Dani in life, she’s sure—with every piece of her, with every minute they were granted. She loves her now, in the timeless drift that is life after life.
She loves her desperately. Enough to watch her go. Enough to stand vigil, waiting for her return.
And if she doesn’t? If in facing this man she nearly married, something in her shifts—her will coming up against his, bowing to the life they never got the opportunity to live together? What then, Jamie?
Well, she thinks firmly, she’ll have loved me while she could. Every story ends, doesn’t it?
She always thought so. Always thought it must be so. Sitting here, waiting, she knows the belief of the thing hasn’t changed. Fact changed. Reality shifted. The world is a solid place, built of rules—even the insane, unfathomable kind.
She doesn’t belong here. Never did. But with Dani Clayton, she finds reality shifting once more. Belief notching into places it had never before fit. Belonging springing up, blooming into the home she never let herself build in life.
Even if she doesn’t come back—even if that’s all we had—she makes me want to tell stories, too. Makes me want to write new ones. Makes me want to—
The hand pushing open the door is pale, a deep pink sleeve falling over the wrist. Dani Clayton, blue-eyed and glorious, leans against the frame with hair tumbling into her face.
“You and me, then. Where to next?”
No rest for the wicked, Jamie thinks, and laughs as Dani bounds across the room into her lap.