For Frank. You are my hero.
The visions of blood and death blazed violently in the mirrors. The terrible scenes, lit by gaslight, reflected endlessly into a dark infinity.
Virginia lay very still for a moment, her heart pounding while she tried to make sense of the nightmare in which she had awakened. Myriad reflections of a woman lying on a tumbled, bloodstained bed surrounded her. The woman was dressed in only a thin linen chemise and white stockings. Her hair cascaded around her shoulders in tangled waves. She looked as though she had recently engaged in a passionate encounter. But her dazed eyes were wide with shock and horror, not fading desire.
It took Virginia a few seconds to realize that the woman in the mirrors was herself. She was not alone in the bed. There was a man beside her. The front of his unfastened shirt was soaked in blood. His head was turned away, but she could see enough of his handsome face to recognize him. Lord Hollister.
She sat up slowly, unconsciously letting go of some unseen object that she had been gripping in one hand. Part of her insisted that she was living through a dreadful dream, but her other senses warned her that she was awake. It took everything she had to touch the side of the dead man's throat. There was no pulse. She had not expected to find one. The chill of death enveloped Hollister.
A fresh surge of panic flared through her. Tiny icicles lanced the nape of her neck and the palms of her hands. She scrambled frantically out of the bed. When she looked down she noticed that a portion of her chemise was stained crimson. She raised her eyes and saw the knife for the first time. It was half hidden by the rumpled sheets. The blade was covered in blood. The hilt lay very close to where her hand had been a moment earlier.
At the edge of her vision she saw disturbing shadows shift deep within the mirrors. Hurriedly she shuttered her psychical senses. She could not deal with a reading just now. Her intuition was flaring wildly. She had to get out of the mirrored room.
She turned quickly, searching for the new bronze-and-black gown that she had worn to the Hollister mansion that evening. She saw the dress and her petticoats. The garments were crumpled carelessly in the corner, as if they had been hastily discarded in the throes of passion. The toes of her high-button walking boots were just visible beneath the folds of the cloak. For some incomprehensible reason, the thought that Hollister had partially undressed her before she had sunk a knife in his chest was more unnerving than awakening next to the body.
Dear heaven, how could one kill a man but have no memory of the violence?she wondered.
Dark energy seethed again in the mirrors. Fear and the need to escape were making it hard for her to control her senses. Once again she managed to suppress her talent. The shadows receded deeper into the looking glasses. She knew she could not banish them entirely. It was no doubt still night outside. Glasslight energy trapped in mirrors was always strongest after dark. There were scenes lurking in the looking glasses that surrounded her that she needed to confront, but she could not read the afterimages now. She had to get out of the room.
She looked around and realized that there was no obvious door. The walls of the small chamber appeared to be entirely covered in mirrors. But that was not possible, she thought. The air in the room was fresh. The gas lamp burned steadily. There had to be some concealed means of ventilation, and somewhere there was a door. And where there was a door, there would be a draft over the threshold.
Forcing herself to focus on one thing at a time, she crossed the chamber and picked up her gown. It took an enormous amount of effort to fasten the petticoats and pull the dress up around herself because she was shivering so violently.
She was struggling with the bodice, trying to get the front hooked, when she heard the soft sigh of concealed hinges. Another wave of panic rattled her nerves. She looked up quickly. In the mirrored wall in front of her she watched a glass panel open behind her.
A man moved into the room, riding an invisible wave of dark power. She recognized him at once even though they had met on only one occasion. But then, she would know him anywhere. A woman did not forget a man whose dark, shadowed eyes held the promise of heaven or hell. For an instant she could not move. She froze, the front of the gown clutched to her breasts.
'Mr. Sweetwater,' she whispered.
He gave her a swift, head-to-toe assessment. His hard, implacable face was sculpted in light and shadow by the glary light of the lamp. His eyes narrowed faintly. In another man, the expression might have indicated concern. But this was Owen Sweetwater. She was certain that he did not possess anything resembling normal human emotions.
There were only two possible explanations for his presence in the death chamber tonight. He was there to kill her or to save her. With Sweetwater there would be no middle ground.
'Are you injured, Miss Dean?' he asked, as if merely inquiring after her health.
The cool formality in his tone triggered a flash of clarifying indignation.
'I'm unhurt, Mr. Sweetwater.' She glanced at the bed. 'But the same cannot be said for Lord Hollister.'
He crossed to the bed and studied Hollister's body for a moment. Virginia sensed energy whisper through the room and knew that Owen had heightened his talent. She did not know the nature of the psychical ability he commanded, but she sensed that it was dangerous.
Owen turned around. 'Excellent work, Miss Dean, although somewhat untidy.'
'It is clear that Hollister will no longer be a problem, but we must get you safely away from here before you are arrested for murder.'
'No,' she managed.
Owen's brows rose. 'You do not wish to leave this chamber?'
She swallowed hard. 'I meant I did not kill him.'
At least I don't think I did.She realized she had no memory of anything after she had read the looking glass in the bedroom of the Hollister mansion. She had no choice but to claim that she was innocent. If she were arrested for the murder of Lord Hollister, she would surely hang.
Owen gave her another swift appraisal. 'Yes, I can see that you did not plant that kitchen knife in his chest.'
She was startled. 'How can you know that I am innocent?'
'We can discuss the details somewhere else at a more convenient time,' Owen said. He came toward her, moving with the purposeful stride of a beast of prey closing in for the kill. 'Here, let me do that.'
She did not comprehend what he intended until he was directly in front of her, fastening the small hooks that closed the front of her gown. He worked with swift, economical movements, his hands steady and sure. If the fine hair on the nape of her neck was not already standing on end, Owen's touch would have electrified it. The energy around him charged the atmosphere and her senses. She was torn between an overpowering urge to run for her life and the equally strong desire to throw herself into his arms.
That settled it, she thought. The events of the night had unhinged her mind. She could no longer trust any of her obviously shattered senses. She sought refuge in the self-mastery that she had spent most of her life perfecting. Mercifully it came to her aid.
'Mr. Sweetwater,' she said coldly. She stepped back quickly.
His hands fell away. He gave the front of her gown a critical onceover. 'That will do for now. It's after midnight, and the fog is quite thick. No one will notice you once we are outside.'
'Midnight?' She reached down to the small chatelaine watch pinned to the waist of her gown. When she saw that he was right about the time, she shuddered. 'I arrived at eight, as instructed. Dear heaven, I have lost four hours.'