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The tall column of grey shimmered, moon-lit, in the centre of the narrow stone bridge. Long dark hair lifted and stirred in the night breeze: a woman. Impossible. Now he was seeing things.
Will strained every sense. Silence. And then the night was pierced again by the three long-held notes that signalled the start of the nightingale’s torrent of liquid music, so beautiful, so painful, that he closed his eyes
When he opened them again he expected to find himself alone. But the figure was still there. A very persistent hallucination then. As he watched, it turned, its face a pale oval. A ghost? Ridiculous to feel that superstitious shudder when he was edging so close to the spirit world himself. I do not believe in ghosts. I refuse to. Things were bad enough without fearing that he would come back to haunt this place himself, forced to watch its disintegration in Henry’s careless, spendthrift hands.
No, it was a real woman of course, a flesh and blood woman, the paleness of her face thrown into strong relief by the dark hair that crowned her uncovered head. Will moved into the deeper shadows that bordered the Lake Walk and eased closer. What was she doing, this trespasser far into the parkland that surrounded King’s Acre? She must be almost a mile from the back road that led to the turnpike between Thame and Aylesbury.
Her long grey cloak swung back from her shoulders and he saw that she was tall. She leaned over the parapet of the bridge, staring down as though the dark waters beneath held some secret. Everything in the way she moved spoke of weariness, he thought, then stiffened as she shifted to hitch one hip onto the edge of the stonework.
‘No!’ Cursing his uncooperative, traitorous body Will forced his legs to move, stumbled to the foot of the bridge and clutched the finial at the end of the balustrade. ‘No…. don’t jump! Don’t give up... whatever it is…’ His legs gave way and he fell to his knees, coughing.
For a moment he thought he had so startled her that she would jump, then the ghost-woman slid down from the parapet and ran to kneel at his side.
‘Sir, you are hurt!’
Her arm went around his shoulders and she caught him against herself in a firm embrace. Will closed his eyes for a moment. The temptation to surrender to the simple comfort of a human touch was almost too much.
‘Not hurt. Sick. Not contagious,’ he added as she gave a little gasp. ‘Don’t… worry.’
‘I am not worried for myself,’ she said with a briskness that bordered on impatience. She shifted her position so he fell back on her shoulder and then laid a cool palm on his forehead. Will bit back a sigh of pure pleasure. ‘You have a fever.’
‘Always do, this time of night.’ He fought to control his breathing. ‘I feared you were about to jump.’
‘Oh no.’ He felt the vehement shake of her head. ‘I cannot imagine ever being desperate enough to do that. Drowning must be such a terror. Besides, there is always some hope. Always.’ Her voice was low and slightly husky, as if she had perhaps been weeping recently, but he sensed that it would always be mellow, despite its certainty. ‘I was resting, looking at the moonlight on the water. It is beautiful and calm and the nightingale was singing so exquisitely. I felt some need for calm and beauty,’ she added, with a brave attempt at a rueful laugh that cracked badly.
Something was wrong. He could feel the tension and the exhaustion coming off her in waves. If he was not careful she would bolt. Or perhaps not, she seemed determined to look after him. As if he was dealing with a wounded animal he made himself relax and follow her lead. ‘That is why I come down here when the moon is full,’ he confessed. ‘And Midsummer’s Eve adds a certain enchantment. You could believe almost anything in the moonlight.’ Believe that I am whole again… ‘I thought you a ghost at first sight.’
‘Oh no,’ she repeated, this time with a faint edge of genuine amusement that appeared to surprise her. ‘I am far too solid for a ghost.’
Every fibre in his body, a body that he believed had given up its interest in the opposite sex long months ago, stirred in protest. She felt wonderful: soft and curved and yet firm where she still held him cradled against her shoulder. He managed not to grumble in protest as she released him and got to her feet.
‘What am I thinking about, lingering here talking of ghosts and nightingales? I must get help for you. Which direction would be quickest?’
‘No need. House is just – ‘ His breath gave out and Will waved a hand in the general direction. ‘If you can help me up.’ It was humiliating to have to ask, but he had learned to hide the damage to his pride after long months discovering the hard way that fighting got him nowhere. She needed help but he couldn’t give it to her sprawled here.
‘Stay there then. I will go and get help.’
‘No.’ He could still command when he had to: she turned back to him with obvious reluctance, but she turned. Will held up his right hand. ‘If you will just steady me.’
She wanted to ague, he could sense it, but she closed her lips tight – he fantasized that they were lush, framing a wide, generous mouth, although he could not be certain in that light – and took his hand in a capable grip.
‘I suppose,’ she said, as he got to his feet, ‘that you would say you are old enough to know what is good for you, but I have to tell you plainly, sir, that wandering about in the moonlight when you have a fever is the height of foolishness. You will catch your death.’
‘Do not concern yourself.’ Will got a grip on the stone ledge and made himself stand steady and straight. She was tall, his ghost-lady, she only had to tilt her head back a little to look him in the face. Now he could see the frown on a countenance that the moonlight had bleached into ivory and shadow. He could not judge her age or see detail but yes, her mouth was generous and curved, although just now it was pursed with disapproval. It seemed she liked being argued with as little as he did. ‘I have caught my death already.’