Authors: Lillian Stewart Carl
Amanda went through her music collection and inserted a CD of James Galway playing Debussy's “Reverie.” The melody was high, sweet, and clear, like wine. It tightened the hairs on the back of her neck. She strolled into her bedroom without bothering to turn on the light. Lafayette was a statue on the windowsill, his unblinking gaze typically inscrutable. The draft from the open window was downright cold.
She pulled her flannel nightgown from a dresser drawer. There was no reason she couldn't sit around in her pajamas, she wasn't putting on a fashion show.
Just as she took off her T-shirt and shorts, Lafayette leaped down from the windowsill. Every hair on his body bristled. He hissed. Amanda glared at him. Some critic, he wasn't even her own species!
The cat dived beneath the bed and crouched there, grumbling and muttering like a tea kettle almost at the boil. She pulled off her underwear and tugged the nightgown over her head. The flute music vibrated in the air. With an almost audible pop the chill dissipated. A shape moved in the mirror hanging above the dresser.
Amanda spun around. Her jaw dropped. Her heart splatted against her rib cage.
James Grant stood in the bedroom doorway. He was illuminated perfectly clearly by the light in the living room, light that not only outlined his body but glowed through it. His scabbard dangled empty at his side. His kilt rippled and his hair fluttered in the humid breeze from the window. His scarlet coat gleamed. He was smiling.
I saw his reflection in the mirror ...
So he was a ghost, not a vampire.
He was a man. And he'd been standing there, enjoying the view, while she changed her clothes.
That smile was devastating, charming, sophisticated, mischievous. “My apologies, Miss Witham,” he said. “I should have acquainted you with my presence, but your beauty rendered me mute. A veritable Aphrodite you were, stepping from your garments as though sharing your comeliness with the gods of Olympus."
What a line,
Amanda thought. She closed her mouth. Little pieces of her heart pattered in her throat, her wrists, her stomach.
James walked toward her. His blue-gray eyes were lamps lit with tiny sparks. He extended his hand. “May I play Ares to your Aphrodite?"
This is not happening....
Yes, it was. Amanda lifted her hand. He clasped it tightly, his fingers firm and strong—no, he wasn't touching her, he had no body to touch her with, her hand was enclosed by a warm pressure, a cool tingle, no more substantial than air and yet of incredible substance.
He bent. His incorporeal lips touched her living skin. Hot and cold chills surged up her arm. Her stomach melted. Her eyes crossed. She heard her voice make the shaky gasp that had always before acknowledged a considerably more intimate gesture.
He was gone. Amanda was standing in the center of her bedroom, her hand extended into whiskey-scented thin air. From the living room came the delicate melody of “Reverie.” But James had been no reverie. Amanda could still feel his kiss on her only too solid flesh.
The face that looked back at Amanda from her bathroom mirror was hollow-eyed. She dusted her cheeks with blusher, hoping to make herself look more like blooming Sally Armstrong and less like wilting Amanda Witham.
She might have dozed for a minute or two last night. One of those minutes was the one Lafayette had chosen to jump onto her bed. She'd jerked awake and cussed him out. The cat had given her one of his patented “what's your problem?” glances and settled down for a long summer's nap.
He wouldn't make any better a witness this time out, Amanda told herself. But Lafayette had seen James Grant just as much as she had, even though the cat was hardly as thrilled about the encounter.
Not that she normally got her jollies by performing strip teases for casual bystanders. It's just that James wasn't casual, wasn't a bystander, and sure as hell wasn't the same old been there done that.
Yeah, and he wasn't alive, either.
She smoothed the bedspread around Lafayette's sleeping body and went about her business, turning on, turning off, unlocking, opening up. She saved the lights over the display in the entrance hall for last, and spent a few minutes contemplating the painting and the scraps of bone. Her questions of yesterday were no longer academic. Wayne and his childlike love of the spooky had come closer to answers than she had. With the return of James's bones to the house, James himself had come back.
Although his ghostly presence seemed only partially connected to his physical one. Otherwise he'd still be at the lab with the majority of his bones. Whether he'd been at the lab, Amanda couldn't say and didn't know how to ask. The bottom line was that James was imprinted on Melrose Hall, where he'd spent his last days, and to Melrose Hall he'd returned.
Maybe her presence
attracting his. If the legends were true, his image of Melrose included that of a young woman. But he didn't think Amanda was Sally. He'd remembered her name from their first meeting, and called her by it at their second—"My apologies, Miss Witham."
So much for conventional horror movie wisdom. This ghost wasn't horrible. He was charming, if thoroughly unnerving. So much for assuming any original source had to be inaccessible and/or deadly dull. No pun intended.
She offered the portrait a wry smile. She'd be feeling eyes on the back of her neck from now on, even if James never appeared again. But she hoped he would. Unlike Alice, she was ready, willing, and eager to believe this one impossible thing.
Amanda walked out onto the front steps and surveyed the lawns, the trees, the river, the sunlight. Already the day was sultry, promising another blast furnace afternoon. She visualized last winter in Chicago, ice floes piled against the shores of the lake. She visualized ditto at Cornell, snowdrifts up to the windowsills. Still she was hot.
Here came Wayne. He sure wasn't your stereotypical rich kid, she thought. When it came to his job, he was dependable as they came.
Wayne stopped at the foot of the steps and made a courtly bow. “Good morning, Miss Witham."
It sounded stilted when he said it. Amanda curtsied. “Good morning, Mister Chancellor. I trust your evening passed pleasantly?"
"I fear it did not. I would have preferred your company to that of the television.” He shrugged away the antique language. “I'm sorry if I offended you yesterday. I didn't mean to imply that you're scared or anything out here. It just came out that way."
"I wasn't offended. Anyone would be a bit nervous alone in a big old house. Well, not all alone. The cat's here."
Wayne nodded earnestly.
"It's just that I have work to do,” Amanda went on. “And after sharing an apartment with three other women my last two years of college, it's a treat to have all this room to myself."
From the entrance hall came a familiar slithering, pattering sound. Amanda ducked back inside and blinked the sunlight out of her eyes. Yes, the leaflets lay fanned across several feet of carpet, Sally's, Page's, and James's shiny faces repeated again and again. But Amanda had checked the leaflets only moments before. They'd been neatly stacked at the foot of a blue-and-white Chinese vase nowhere near the edge of the sideboard. A breeze might have messed them up, but it would have taken a gale to spread them so far across the floor. And not the least breath of air stirred through the open door.
"Rats,” she said mildly and noncommittally as Wayne loomed beside her.
"They must have been right on the edge.” He knelt down, his large hands gathering and stacking the leaflets before she could ease herself to her knees to help. “Here you go. Let's put them next to the vase.” Voices and footsteps approached the steps outside. “Oops. Off we go, Sally. Ready?” Wayne turned back to the door.
Amanda looked from the sideboard to James's portrait and back again. Maybe last week the leaflets had fallen all by themselves. Maybe yesterday the decanter and the pen had been moved by tourists. And there'd been a hairbrush misplaced, too—she couldn't remember when.
The morning after she'd first seen James she'd found both his picture and Sally's out of place. Today the leaflets had been tossed across the floor. When James kissed her hand last night she'd sensed—well, call it a force field. James could move objects. Whether he was aware of what he was doing when he wasn't visible, or was just a formless impulse like a poltergeist, she couldn't say. Whatever. James had once again, however unwittingly, put her in an awkward situation. Just like a man.
Outside, Wayne was saying loudly, “Welcome to Melrose Hall. I am Page Armstrong. My daughter, Sally, will be joining us..."
Amanda stepped out into the sunlight. She delivered her lines and with Wayne led the first tour of the day into the house.
She was showing the second tour out the door when she spotted Cynthia bustling along the gravel walk, immaculately turned out in skirt and blazer. Behind her came a group of similarly suited men and women. Helen Medina brought up the rear, in her shapeless khaki looking like a chicken pecking along behind a party of penguins.
Wayne, leading a fresh group of sightseers into the house, said to Amanda from the corner of his mouth, “Donors and other VIPs. Mother may have no official standing with CW, but she works hard."
Promoting the program and herself equally. Amanda stood aside with a curtsey as Cynthia started up the steps. “Good morning, welcome to Melrose Hall."
"Good morning, Amanda,” Cynthia returned, bestowing her brightest smile. She turned to her entourage. “This is one of our character interpreters, playing Sally Armstrong. Isn't she just the sweetest thing?"
Everyone nodded and smiled, except for Helen, who pointed her forefinger at her mouth, stuck out her tongue, and crossed her eyes. Amanda winked in agreement and intercepted the next clump of tourists.
As she led them through the hall and up the stairs she heard a few words of Cynthia's lecture, “...up the staircase with his sword—touching love affair with Sally brought to an untimely end—Hewitt—museum quality reconstruction..."
Amanda herded her group through the bedrooms, down the back stairs, and through the rooms on the first floor, returning at last to the entrance hall. The collection of dignitaries was just moving into the library, Helen's flashbulbs popping at their heels.
"...genetic fingerprinting,” Cynthia was saying, “like obtaining a blood sample from Prince Phillip in order to identify the remains of the Czar and his family. Or from the people claiming to be descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings!” She tut-tutted. “Of course we're almost certain who our body was, but it makes a nice exercise for the students—oh yes, the family is still extant, I'm a close friend of Lady Norah Grant—I called her Tuesday night—very gracious, very interested, as you can imagine, in her late husband's ancestor—and her ancestor, too, she tells me—her son the Honorable Malcolm will send a blood sample—aristocrats, you know—I'm sending them the excavation reports, it seems only courteous."
Amanda said to herself. Hewitt had muttered something about DNA sampling on Monday. So they were going for it. The Grants must be wondering what all the fuss was about. But no, James had been, if not Malcolm Grant's multiple-great grandfather, at least his multiple-great uncle. The modern family understood that James deserved his identity.
Amanda circled her sightseers in front of the display in the hall. “How shocking to discover the poor wretch buried in the garden. He was a young man, we believe, a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice. But such are the fortunes of war. As the great historian Herodotus wrote, ‘In peace, children inter their parents; war violates the order of nature and causes parents to inter their children.’”
Some of the tourists looked thoughtful. Others didn't react. Amanda suspected she was making Sally more of an intellectual than she'd really been, but what the heck, as a widower's only child, Sally could well have been allowed the run of Page's library. No one knew much about Sally, after all. Thomas Mason's papers were about himself and his property, not his mother. The first suggestion of any relationship between Sally and James Grant occurred in a breathless 1847 letter from one of Thomas's daughters, several years after Sally's death.
In her capacity as Sally's clone, Amanda saw those sightseers out, picked up some more, and dispensed her lines again. She made an effort to keep her voice from becoming monotonous, varying her spiel from group to group, but even so she came close to falling asleep on her feet before the afternoon was over. Fortunately the last couple of tours included several visitors with intelligent questions, so that by the time closing time arrived she was still conscious.
She locked the door and leaned against it. Its wood was cool against her sweaty skin. She thought at first a faint hum in the air was the silence in her ears, then identified it as coming from the lights above the display. She plodded across the hall and turned them off. James's thumbnail-sized face disappeared into shadow.
"We're leaving now,” Roy called from the back hallway. “See you tomorrow."
"Bye,” Amanda returned.
The slam of the kitchen door echoed through the house. She walked toward it, waiting for Wayne to pounce from a dark corner. But she reached the back door just in time to see him disappear with the others into the parking lot. She could feel sorry for him, she thought, and a little guilty about rejecting him. But pity and guilt did not make a relationship.
She bolted the kitchen door and trudged back to her apartment. Lafayette wasn't there.
Amanda gathered up her shorts and T-shirt and took them into the bathroom with her, making sure the door was shut before she took off her dress. Big deal—James probably had X-ray vision. If he couldn't walk through locked doors, he could sure materialize inside locked rooms.
Her vocabulary was stretched too thin, she thought as she climbed into the shower. How to define a ghost? All the ghost stories that had come down through eons of human history and literature were variations on a theme, not a set of cut-and-dried rules. The theme being that of a restless spirit who didn't realize it was dead, or had left some kind of unfinished business, or needed something from the living.