Richard's Story: The Third Part

Richard’s dreams, however, were turbulent, and he woke early; he sat on his bed after bathing and wished desperately that he could forget the night’s illusion of tangled legs and husky laughs.

He went to Lord Simon’s without Philipp(a). He needed time to get back into his work-self, that could almost, nearly, treat Phillip(a) as a companion. Not to mention, he didn’t want her near Lord Simon.

There were rumors that Lord Simon once killed a woman. Richard didn’t usually listen to rumors, but even his sanguine brother-in-law, Charles Stowe, considered Lord Simon dangerous.

Richard had already taken measurements of the open hall on the ground floor and the (empty) cellar (no bodies). Now, watched by the expressionless butler, Richard went up the stairs to the long banistered landing.

The house was old, built on the south side of Palisades district when kings and queens still ruled Roesia in full vigor and authority—before the royal family, degenerating into pointless dilettantism, was politely exiled in favor of the current government. The house had its good points, including elaborate carvings around the newel posts and over the doors: original Mergian. But it was shabby, not worth the upkeep and restoration, not when there were better examples scattered throughout Kingston.

Richard jotted down the condition of the banister (good) and stairs (less good) and paced out the landing’s approximate width and length (more precise measurement would be made should the house be submitted for landmark approval).

“A sarcophagus of desperation,” a woman’s voice whispered; coughing against the damp air, Richard turned, expecting Phillip(a).

He saw only the dimly lit landing—the house was dark despite the sun outside—and the lifted face of the butler in the hall below.

“Is there anything you need, Sir?”

“No. Are the rooms up here open?”

“Yes, Sir. Lord Simon wishes you to have access to the entire house.”

There were three rooms off the landing. Richard ducked into each: a dank unused office holding a heavy hunched desk; a surprisingly clean bedroom sparsely furnished and a chilly parlor of shabby decadent elegance: red curtains and carpet and velvet-covered armchairs of burgundy. The hearth was cold. At night, firelight would set the room aglow.

And all the time he felt haunted by a female presence, as if Phillip(a) had guessed his schedule and was playing hide and seek with him in Lord Simon’s rambling mausoleum.

If thoughts of her were beginning to distract him at work—perhaps he should have her transferred to another department.

He couldn’t bear the idea. I have enough morality to behave—and still keep her close.

* * *

Back at the ministry, Richard found Phillip(a) in her vest pulling moldy artifacts out of a box.

“Gifts from Jan Carlisle. He dug them up from his North Pasture.”

Jan Carlisle was enamored with Richard’s department. He had no intention of allowing government spies on his property, but it was about time (hurumph hurumph) that the government showed interest in Roesia’s past.

“At least he stopped sending us his family portraits.”

“I’ll donate them to the museum,” Phillip(a) said.

He passed behind her and the world shifted.

He was aware of his hands on her shoulders, then one cupping her face while the other brought her against his own tall length, front to front, his fingers curving into the dip of her tailbone. She matched him, fitted him, and he was kissing her lips and neck, heat pressed to cool skin.

He didn’t think Stop or No or Mustn’t. He processed only sensation, like her rushed breath against his cheek, the subtle arching of her neck against his mouth. Her eyes were pools of green light. He knew Phillipa’s eyes were green. And his hands were moving, settling on her hips, then pressing upwards to where the short vest inadequately masked the curve of her breasts.

He thought she gasped. Some fear or reluctance tunneled through his mind. He wasn’t aware of moving, but he found himself on one of the office’s worn couches next to a dirty crate of Carlisle’s heirlooms. He stared across the room at Phillipa who crouched against the cabinet, arms curled around her chest, eyes wide and dark—shocked, of course.

“I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely. “I’m sorry, Phillipa.”

“Phillipa. You know—”

He supposed he might feel amusement at her surprise but all he could think was What have I done? Oh, Phillipa.

“I’m sorry. I would never—I must have—I was bespelled.”

He cringed at the pleading tone as much as at the excuse except—

Except it must be true. He had endured his attraction to Phillipa for over two months. There was no reason for him to break now and in such a way: unthinkingly, without reason. He was neither a drunk nor a child.

He shivered, hands falling loosely between his knees.

“Bespelled?” Phillipa said, and he peered at her, unable to read her tone—alarm, anger, fear?

“It took over.” He hated the helplessness locked in that statement and clenched his jaw. She said, “Are you alright?”

He moved then, knelt across from her.

“Are you?”

“Yes.” Again that tone he couldn’t read and cold despair touched his heart. If she should hate him now—

He wanted to touch her, not mindlessly but as himself. He kept his palms pressed against the floor. Her eyes dropped, rose, and she smiled, a wry half-smile, not at all like her usual open grin, and Richard didn’t know how he could bear the pain.

He would kill whomever did this to him. To him and Phillipa.

“I’m sorry,” he said again as gently as he could.

“If you were bespelled—you don’t need to apologize.”

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Could a spell work on an unwilling subject?

Richard had no idea. He usually ignored magical news, pamphlets and treatises that attempted to educate the public on potions (“You might be next!”). Even when his sister Aubrey had been bespelled, he’d concentrated on getting her back to normal, returning her to everyday life with its settled routines.

Richard liked routine.

So did his sister—only, her routine now included arrests; Richard didn’t like to think how directly she was involved in her husband’s business.

And, too, Aubrey still retained effects of her bespelling.

Damn.

Richard stood abruptly.

“Perhaps you should go home,” he said.

Again Phillipa gave him at that look, so much at variance with her usual easy insouciance. Please don’t despise me. Please, Phillipa, please don’t hate me.

But she had to leave—or Richard did—in case he attacked her again. Richard should go, but he could hardly leave her with all the work, not after being mauled.

She used one hand on the table to maneuver upright. Richard didn’t reach out, didn’t cup her elbow, take her hands. He didn’t help her into her frock coat.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said as she neared the door, hoping it was true, and he earned a near-normal smile.