Lionel had been miserable for so long, there were times he wondered that he’d ever known joy or smiled. Those moments had only existed for the short course of his young living-life and were now so very long ago.
Back when he’d been living; and amongst his best friends, Marcus, the Viscount Wessex and Auric, the Duke of Crawford, there’d been an endless source of amusement.
They’d been carefree gents who’d considered themselves so very worldly; all the while, they’d raced their mounts like boys, and boxed as only lords dabbling in athletic ventures were wantto do.
They’d shucked their clothes and swam freely in the lake at his family’s Leeds estate; soaking in the summer’s warmest suns; and then when the night stars had peppered the country skies of Lionel’s family homes, they’d pass around a bottle of brandy and toss wicked jests; each attempting to outdo the other; and ultimately laughing until they’d had stiches in their sides.
They’d been so very ignorant of the ways of the world—he, Marcus, and Auric. They’d believed themselves invincible. Some of that naivete had been a product of their youth. A greater part of it had come from an arrogance afforded them; powerful sons, to even more powerful peers.
That sense that the world was theirs, and existed for their joys and pleasures, was what had led them to the club where Lionel had been killed. Neither Marcus, nor Auric had thought anything of going to London’s most seedy streets and sliding into a world they didn’t truly know anything of.
For Lionel, however, that night…there’d been a fleeting moment of reservation.
Some…sensation he hadn’t been able to explain, but one that with the ribbing and urging of his friends, had ebbed.
It was also why Lionel had ended up with a blade in his stomach; and a death that had felt equally slow, and eternal. There’d been that gradual throb, which had grown to this odd, pulsing sensation inside; as if he were being pulverized by Gentleman Jackson himself—but on the inside.
Having died young, and stuck in an afterlife with only regrets—regret at having gone to that club. Frustration at having experienced nothing beyond his youth, when his friends and family were experiencing everything Lionel hadn’t even known he wished to—until a living future had been gone. And there’d been so much guilt; for the grief he’d brought to his family.
Yes, there’d been so much sadness, there were times Lionel wondered if he’d only ever imagined smiling and laughing.
Since she’d entered this in-between world with him, he’d done both, more than he had in his entire living existence combined.
At that moment, he stared on as she pressed her back against the thick trunk of a gnarled oak. Her arms tucked close to her chest; with her hands clasped as if in prayer, she ducked her head out; her gaze locked on the lady and lord who’d commandeered this wooded copse as their own private sanctuary. She remained so very focused on the couple she spied upon…and yet, he couldn’t take his eyes…from her.
Her cheeks bloomed with joyful color; and her hair had escaped the loose plait she’d recently made of those dark strands. It’d been a simple earthly joy, that didn’t much make sense in death, but one that made him and her and all of this feel normal and real.
“Evie,” he called. “What are you d–?”
“Shh!” She whispered furiously; shooting him an annoyed glanced. She touched a fingertip to her lips, turning all her focus back to the young couple; both oblivious to he and Evie. “You’re going to give me away.” They wouldn’t. They were oblivious to everything but one another.
His lips twitched, and he spared a cursory look at the couple in question. “They cannot see—”
“Careful, Lionel…” she warned, pointing to the nearby slippers that had been removed by the lady and now sat forgotten. A mischievous glimmer sparkled in Evie’s eyes, and he automatically curled his toes into his boots. “Or I shall commander your shoe, instead of hers. Or his.”
For when she had that naughty look in her eyes, he believed she’d do precisely what she threatened.
And then she pounced.
Evie dashed out, and while the lord and lady quietly conversed; exchanging whatever sweet words it was they uttered in those moments, Evie collected the young woman’s slipper.
Holding it aloft like the Queen had crossed over to bestow the greatest honor upon her, Evie danced over with her prize in hand. “I have it.”
“And now that you do,” he said, as she danced a happy jig before him. “What are your plans for it?”
“We,” she waggled that slipper before him. “Are playing ‘hunt the slipper’.”
That child’s game, he’d always played whenever Daisy had wished it; coercing his friends to join the two of them. Instead of the pain of the past remembrance, he smiled wider at this new memory there to take its place.
“We require more than just two, and,” He nudged his chin in the direction of that couple who’d since moved even closer to one another. “those two are otherwise engaged.”
Evie looked over, and her breath caught noisily as the lord dipped his head. The lady’s shoe slipped from her fingers. “He is going to kiss her,” she whispered.
And then, slapping a hand over her eyes, she grabbed Lionel by the hand, and forced him to turn with her; so their backs were to the couple.
“Evie,” he said, exasperated. “you know how this works. They don’t know—”
“We know,” she cut him off. “And…it isn’t fair to invade…this. This is their special moment, and they think they’re alone.”
“They are alone,” he reminded. Because no matter how real Evie and Lionel were to one another; they were invisible to everyone else.
Evie stiffened; her fingers gripped his harder; and her palm went cold; leaving him chilled as he’d never been before in death.
Evie ripped her fingers from his. “I’m not looking, Lionel,” she said tightly.
“I’m not looking!” she cried; and startled birds in the branches above; took to flight; sending leaves fluttering and falling to the wooded floor. “Because I don’t want to look at something they have. I don’t want to look and be reminded that young ladies fall in love and have first kisses and that I never w—”
Lionel kissed her.
He kissed her as he’d longed to do for longer than he could remember. Long before she was here with him in this place.
He kissed her to drive away her misery and to replace it with the joy he’d come to know from her.
He kissed her with all that was left of him in death; his soul—and he felt more complete; more whole, than he’d ever felt in his living life.
She stilled; her slender body so very warm in his arms; he looped an arm around her waist, drawing her closer, and she went—sighing softly as she did.
“Lionel,” she whispered, between each touch of his lips on hers.
“Evie,” her name emerged from somewhere deep inside him; a guttural prayer.
Cupping a hand about her nape, he angled her, and as a little moan escaped her lips, he slipped his tongue inside and tasted of her. She whimpered, and tasted him in return; they swirled their tongues; dancing an intimate dance.
Desire consumed him; swallowed him up in an eddy of pure feeling and heat and bliss.
There’d never been a kiss before her.
He couldn’t remember anything before Evie Caldecott. He loved her. He loved her as he never thought he’d ever be able to love a woman because he’d left the living earth. He’d fallen a little bit in love with her the first time he heard her endearingly poor playing alongside her sisters. But he’d fallen completely, hopelessly, and helplessly in every way there was to fall for a woman.
He wanted to spend eternity with her; and wanted to feel this joy and desire and—
“You deserve so much more…You deserve to be happy…”
Those whispered words cut across the air, and penetrated the moment, and he wrenched away.
Evie blinked wildly; dazed. “L-Lionel?” she asked; her voice breathless.
Oh, my God. I love her.
His heart hammered, as it had only once again resumed doing when she’d entered his life.
But he should also…set her free…because he loved her.
Lionel’s chest heaved as he looked to the owner of those words that had intruded, and he froze.
And just like that; the playful air died; energized instead by something…electric; like the still before the skies opened and released a deluge upon mankind.
Lionel sucked in a breath. He felt Evie’s eyes upon him.
“Do you know him?” she asked haltingly.
“The Earl of Astor…” Only, he wasn’t the earl, anymore. Time had passed, and Astor’s father had gone, and now the young man whom Lionel had once gone to Eton and Oxford with, was a grown man, and marquess. “He intended to court my sister, Daisy,” he said quietly; more to himself.
Evie studied the couple with a renewed, and different interest.
And this time, Lionel found himself doing so, as well.
In seeing the other man…in seeing him with a woman he so very clearly loved—even if it wasn’t at all clear to the gentleman himself—Lionel found himself confronted with his own truth: he couldn’t keep Evie trapped. Not with him. Not like this. Not in any way.
He had to do this.
The marquess and his sweetheart forgotten once more, Lionel looked to Evie.
“It’s time,” he said.
Her brow furrowed in confusion; she looked around. “Where are we going?”
“You’re going to see your family.”
Her crimson lips still swollen from their kiss parted.
And alternately unable to decipher the expression on her face, and not wanting to linger upon it, lest he make sense of the joy she was surely feeling at reuniting with her family, and at leaving him behind, he took her hand in his.
As they quit their place beside the River Thames, and the young couple, neither Lionel nor Evie spoke.
Not that Lionel could have mustered a single word if he wanted to.
For bringing her back to her family, was the last thing in the whole world, he wanted, and he knew he was a selfish bastardbecause of it.
Helping her find peace, however, was what he needed to do.