Evie missed her family.
The moment she’d awakened into her eternal slumber, and realized she’d ceased to exist as her family knew her, Evie had stood in her family’s foyer, screaming for all she was worth. She’d cried out, in a desperate, futile hope that her parents and sister would at last look her way; that they would see her and laugh. She’d prayed they’d been playing the cruelest of games; one where they tricked her into believing she was invisible.
And she’d imagined the moment they at last looked at her and laughed; pulling her close into their familiar embraces. She’d be so very angry at them for playing that meanest trick, but she’d forgive them because they’d never been unkind before, and she’d be so very relieved to be alive and that they were part of her life as she was part of theirs.
But that had never come.
Eventually, she’d stopped screaming into a white void where only she could hear her pain filled cry.
She hadn’t stopped missing her family. The ache of losing them had left a hole within her very soul.
Since her passing, there’d never been a distraction from her loneliness. Instead, there’d been an unceasing reminder of the fact she was alone, which had made the solitariness so much bigger and so much more painful. Hers was a never-ending tortured existence.
Or that was what she’d believed. For there’d never been anything to divert her thoughts from her miseries—until Lionel.
Mayhap that was why she’d not pressed him to help her visit her family.
“You really are quite bad at this, you know,” he remarked, just as she drew her arm back.
Standing on the edge of the placid Thames in Hyde Park, Evie shot him a cross look. “It is only because you are distracting me. You always do that.”
Skipping stones. It was one of her favorite things to do with him. It had always been one of her favorite things to do. She had always loved skipping stones; watching them skim across the water, once, twice even sometimes three times if she was very lucky. Then, she’d envied the pebbles for their ability to glide so very gracefully upon the river.
Evie again got herself into a position; raising her arm to launch her latest pebble.
“I saw you before,” he drawled. “You were always this bad.”
Wrinkling her nose, Evie brought her arm back, and sent the smooth stone in her fingers sailing through the air. The small projectile hopped once, twice, and then sank.
Lounging against a gnarled oak tree, Lionel folded his arms at his chest; his lips quirked in a pointed grin.
“Oh, hush,” she chided, swatting at the air. “That was only because…” Evie’s words trailed off.
Lionel winged a dark eyebrow up. “Because I distracted you?” he supplied for her.
She stared at him. “You saw me.”
“I’m just a pace away and looking right at you,” he pointed out. “Rather hard not to—”
“You said…before,” she interrupted him. Hers hadn’t been a question; rather a statement. He’d noted her while she’d been living.
Lionel stilled; his high, noble brow creased in an endearing befuddlement.
Quitting her place at the river, Evie started over to him. “You saw me before,” she repeated.
He grunted. “I told you that. I heard you and your sisters playing your instruments—”
“But you joined me here, too,” she said softly.
Lionel didn’t deny it. Rather, he looked away, confirming the truth of that.
Which meant…she’d not simply been someone whose window he’d passed and never again thought of. It meant…he’d been a greater part of her life. And she had remained so very oblivious to him being there, all along. She briefly closed her eyes; recalling the times she’d come with her sisters to this very place, and all the time that a light breeze had stirred the trees and caressed her skin; only to now wonder…had it been Lionel?
Evie opened her eyes, locking her gaze upon him.
He kicked the tip of his gleaming boot along the earthen floor; stirring up the slightest cloud of dust. His was an endearingly boy-like reaction, and something in that hint of vulnerability from such a powerful man did strange things to her heart. A heart that had only found its way to beating again in this afterworld…because of him.
Evie took a step towards him. “Why?” she asked; needing to know.
At last, he ceased that distracted movement with his foot, and looked her way. “I was curious, at first,” he said quietly. “About The Sisters. That’s how I thought of you. The ones who played so poorly, but who did so, often…as if they enjoyed it. At first, I assumed you were no different than any ladies being forced into lessons you didn’t want to take, needlepoint, pianoforte, watercolors. But then, I listened as you laughed, and watched on and realized you obviously did love the music. I was so…” His eyes drifted to the point past her head, to the lake beyond Evie; and he was a man lost in a vision—one that only he saw, but also one that included the two of them in it, existing together.
“Yes,” she said softly, urging him on; needing to know what he’d thought…about her.
“You were so enraptured by your world.” He looked her way, once more; and her breathing hitched; stirring the leaves around them. “You were so happy, and the family I’d left behind, they were just so damned miserable. My sister, Daisy used to be so happy…happy as you, all were, and then she ceased to smile. She became so very quiet…and my mother,” His face spasmed. “carried herself like the specter I’d actually become. But you, Evie,” He took a step closer. “you were always smiling, and laughing, even as you played. I felt more part of your family than I did my own.”
He had a sister named Daisy. It was the first he’d spoken of the lady…or any of the family he’d left behind. Through the years, he’d ceased visiting his family and come to Evie’s instead. He’d found a place with them.
Something wet touched her cheek; warm and real, and she realized…it was a tear.
Lionel stretched a hand out, and caught those drops with the pad of his thumb, and she leaned into his caress, and that heat; wanting to lose herself in this greatest sensation of simply feeling.
“You can touch them,” he murmured.
She cocked her head.
“If you are there…and they feel you…you will know it. They will be thinking of you, and look around, and you can brush their hand, or caress their cheek,” He paused. “Like this.” He palmed her face, and her lashes fluttered.
He thought her tears came in missing her family, and yet, this time, those drops fell because of a depth of closeness that had developed between she and Lionel. This intimate bond she’d never known when she’d been alive and had only discovered in death.
“And when you see them and they see you, Evie,” he went on in that quiet murmur. “Then you will find peace…and you’ll be free.”
“Free,” she whispered.
Free from this frozen in-between she existed within.
She waited for the rush of relief and joy at the prospect he spoke of.
But…it did not come.
There wasn’t the thought of a final shared moment with her sisters; one that reunited Evie for even just a last sliver of time with her sisters. Since her death, that moment was something Evie had desperately longed for.
There wasn’t a feeling of warmth or happiness at the thought of being held in her siblings’ arms. Nor in imagining her parents folding her close. Or even in the memory of her mother placing a kiss upon her brow, as she’d done since longer than Evie could recall.
Instead, there came a gaping hole; one that slowed her heartbeat and left her cold as she’d only been in death.
For the future Lionel spoke of, the only future that existed for her was one without him in it.
“What of you?” she whispered. What was this afterworld even without him?
He blinked slowly; his dark lashes drifting down, and then up, and then he looked at her quizzically. “What…of me?” he asked haltingly.
And she curled her toes and wished for the first time since her passing that she didn’t feel that telltale heat of a blush; one that revealed so very much to this man who’d come to be…her everything.
“It’s just…you speak of that shared moment; that one where you connect with your family, so you must have experienced it.”
Just then, a couple came forward—a handsome gentleman, trailing close to his sweetheart—the pair laughing.
“And yet, you’re…here?” she turned her palms up. “Why weren’t you freed? Did they not let you go?” Were they the reason he was trapped here, still?
“They did.” His gaze grew wistful. “They learned to laugh and smile again. They…moved on. My failure to move on, Evie…isn’t anything to do with my family. I realized that. It’s about moving forward and letting go…and I…I haven’t figured out what it is I need to let go of…and because of that, I can never move forward.” He lowered his head, until their brows touched. “Whereas, you, Evie? The moment you find closure with your family, then…you’ll have peace.”
And he, would remain here, left behind—alone.
She heard that truth there in unspoken words; born of her thoughts and his which were so much in harmony, now.
“Here now,” he murmured; raising a hand between them, he brushed the pad of his thumb along her lower lip. “You’re sad.”
And how in tune he was to how she felt.
She didn’t want these moments with him to be marred by sadness.
Evie forced a smile she didn’t feel.
He snorted. “Evie Caldecott, I don’t know if that’s a grimace or sneer.”
“Why would I be sneering at you?”
“Why would you be grimacing, either?” He lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “And yet, here we are.”
Lionel tweaked her nose. “Better.”
That light brush of his touch again stirred that glorious warmth she could contentedly wrap herself into for the rest of eternity.