The gaslight on the wall burned low, leaving only the spectral glow of the astral lamps to illuminate the séance room. Virginia Paley felt her stomach knotting up in both fear and anticipation as the wind rattled the shutters, sounding just like someone—or something—was trying to get in. In the center of the circular oak table, a single red lamp glowed like an all-seeing eye.
Virginia shuddered. Why, oh why, had she allowed her aunt to talk her into this madness?
Six other people sat with her around the table‑—all women save for one lone man who occupied the chair on her left. She studied him for a moment out of the corner of her eye. Just her luck that the only man attending this absurd spectacle was not only handsome but was seated so close to her that she could hear him breathe. As though he sensed her watching him, he suddenly turned to her with a mysterious smile curling his full mouth.
His eyes met hers and Virginia caught her breath. A prickle of apprehension and excitement shot through her insides. The darkness shrouded his face, but his eyes reflected the ruby light within their azure depths, making him appear otherworldly—and disturbingly familiar. He looked like he had stepped out of a dream—her dream.
Was she gazing into the eyes of her secret fantasy lover?
No. She forced herself to turn away. Stop this right now. This was insane. The lover who haunted her midnight fantasies was not a real man. He was only a phantasm that appeared out of nowhere to invade the dreams of a lonely widow. Nothing more.
This man sitting next to her at the séance table was not her fantasy lover, she told herself firmly. She didn’t even know him. Her reaction to him was just one more ridiculous aspect of this silly séance. She abruptly released her hold on the man’s hand, grateful that the darkness prevented him from seeing the flush that burned her cheeks.
She simply mustn’t allow herself to be sucked into the insanity of this place.
Frowning in annoyance, she turned to her aunt sitting on her right. “Really, Aunt Marian.” She kept her voice low. “This whole business is getting absurd. Come. Let’s go home.”
“And miss a message from my beloved Henry?” Behind her pince nez, Marian’s blue eyes widened in alarm. She clutched the lace collar of her high-necked black gown with her gloved hand. “I wouldn’t dream of doing that.”
“Mrs. Salonius got a message from her late husband, too,” Virginia persisted. “And look what happened to her.”
“Now, now, dear.” Marian smiled and gave Virginia’s hand an affectionate pat. “It was just Rachel’s time to depart this life, that’s all. And isn’t it wonderful that she had her adored Hiram waiting for her in the Summerland of Spirit?”
Virginia shuddered at her aunt’s blissful expression. This wasn’t like Aunt Marian at all. And where on earth did the disturbingly vacant look in her eyes come from? Despite her aunt’s beatific smile, Virginia felt in the pit of her stomach that something was very, very wrong.
A man of about sixty years of age, dressed in a frock coat, snow-white waistcoat and white bow tie, strode into the room and took his place behind the enormous armchair at the table. Silver-haired and distinguished-looking, he carried himself with the aloof kindliness usually reserved for a college professor or a tent revivalist.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” He swept the room with his gaze. “I am Professor Arthur Chadwick. It gives me great pleasure to introduce two newcomers to our circle. This is Mr. Jonathan Bradshaw.” He indicated the man sitting beside Virginia, who nodded slightly in acknowledgement. “And Mrs. Virginia Paley. A warm welcome to you, both.”
Virginia started as Chadwick’s ebony eyes met hers for an uncomfortably long moment. Virginia shivered with sudden dread. They were piercing eyes. Calculating eyes. Cold eyes.
Eyes that threatened to penetrate the secret hidden in her soul—a secret she had no intention of revealing to a living soul. Or any other kind of soul for that matter.
Chadwick finally took his penetrating gaze elsewhere, much to Virginia’s relief. “In tonight’s demonstration, you will experience many manifestations of spirit power. The purpose is to convince even the most skeptical person that spirits do, indeed, exist beyond this earthy plane.” He paused for emphasis. “Which means that the spirits of our departed loved ones exist as well and are eager to reveal themselves to us, if we will but heed them.”
He allowed the murmurs and whispers of approval to buzz around the table. Of the four other women in the room, Virginia was the only one not shrouded head to toe in black taffeta.
“You see, this is why I continue to come here,” Marian whispered in Virginia’s ear. “It comforts me so much to know that my beloved Henry awaits me on the Other Side. And when you receive a message from your dear George, you will be comforted, too.”
Virginia’s stomach dropped to her toes. In spite of all her misgivings about the Society for Eternal Love, Virginia had agreed to attend one of Chadwick’s séances. It was, after all, only fair that she see one for herself before passing judgment on them.
She was sincerely glad that her aunt had found comfort for her grief in the notion of love after death. However, this business of conjuring spooks was going much too far. And the last thing Virginia wanted was for Chadwick to conjure up her own late husband. Any message from him wasn’t likely to be particularly comforting.
As far as Virginia was concerned, it was better to let the dead—especially George—rest in peace.
“Let us all join hands.” Chadwick’s voice intruded into Virginia’s reverie. “And rest the toes of our shoes against the shoes of those sitting beside us. This way, you will each reassure yourselves that everyone, including myself, is seated with hands and feet fully accounted for. Thus, you will see that no living person in this room is producing the phenomena that we shall soon experience.”
Aunt Marian took Virginia’s hand, gave it an encouraging squeeze, and nestled her high-buttoned shoe next to Virginia’s slipper. Virginia hesitated for a moment, then nestled the toe of her other slipper against the instep of Mr. Bradshaw’s boot.
He smiled again and offered her his gloved hand with a flourish. Gingerly, she laid her own hand into the center of his palm. His strong fingers enclosed hers with a gentle firmness that she could feel even through the fine white cotton of his glove. The tingle in her stomach turned into an unexpected throb of desire. Even if he was a real man and not a fantasy, he was certainly having an effect on her. What was he doing here? And why was she so stirred by him?
“Don’t be afraid, Mrs. Paley.” His voice, a musical baritone, caressed her ears.
“I’m not afraid,” she whispered.
“Good. And don’t be afraid of the spirits, either.” He winked at her.
She glanced away in annoyance. It was obvious that he had noticed her loss of composure. Now, she was even more nervous.
“Now, again for the sake of our new members, allow me to remind all of you not to break the circle for any reason during the séance.” Chadwick glanced about the table to make sure his instructions were being followed. “A great deal of psychic force is built up when we join together to concentrate upon a common goal. This force enables me to bring through our loved ones in spirit. Breaking the circle of hands short circuits this force and ends our communication with them. I trust we are all clear on this point.”
Everyone around the table nodded in solemn agreement. After another minute or two of shuffling feet, rustling petticoats and wooden chair legs squeaking on the hardwood floor, expectant silence descended upon the room. Virginia sat rigid in her chair.
“Now, take a deep breath and let all the affairs of the mundane world fall away,”—a collective sigh rose from the group at Chadwick’s words. The wind moaned like a soul in torment against the shutters—“while we attune our minds and our hearts to a higher plane of being. Soon, we will be able to welcome our spirit friends as they come through and speak to us.”
Chadwick paused for a moment, then shattered the silence with a loud sneeze. All the women around the table jumped in unison.
“Forgive me,” he murmured. “A slight cold…”
“Maybe we should postpone the séance.” One of the women leaned across the table with concern in her eyes. “If you are ill.”
Chadwick waved the suggestion away. “No need, my dear Mrs. Henderson. I am well enough. Let us continue. Please be so kind as to extinguish the gaslight.”
Mrs. Henderson, a thin, reedy woman in her late fifties, rose to her feet and turned the handle on the gaslight, plunging the room into total darkness. Only the tiny flame in the blood-colored lamp continued to flicker, making the lamp throb like a beating heart.
Chadwick waited patiently until Mrs. Henderson found her chair once more. “Now, if we are ready…” His voice trailed off into another loud sneeze. “Again, forgive me,” he said after a moment. “Please take my hands once more and let us begin.”
He paused again, letting silence engulf the room once more. Virginia held her breath.
“Come, ye spirits,” Chadwick intoned in a sing-song tone. “Blessed denizens of the Summerland, that happy place of peace and contentment. We ask you to reveal yourselves to us. Come and speak…speak to your loved ones here assembled. Comfort them, give them hope, lend them solace from their grief and loneliness.”
A bell rang somewhere in the room. Virginia quickly turned her head to try to determine from which direction the sound came, but it seemed to come from all corners of the room at once. She shuddered at the sudden tingling in her spine. It was only a trick, she told herself sternly. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.
“Ah, the veil between this world and the spirit realms is lifting,” Chadwick said. “One by one, our spirit friends announce their presence to us.”
Virginia gasped. The table in front of her, a piece of solid oak so heavy that she would have thought it almost immovable, rocked and thumped beneath her hands, almost as if it had come to life. Several sharp raps echoed hollowly from somewhere beneath its surface making a pattern that sounded almost like the dit-dah-dahs of Morse code.
Finally, it rose into the air so high that Virginia strained to keep her hands on its surface, as though it were up to her to keep the wayward piece of furniture from escaping altogether.
“Our spirit friends cavort and play as they did in life.” Chadwick chuckled. “They wish us to be very sure that they are here. Look!”
Virginia looked up at the ceiling. There, in the darkness, danced several little bright points of light, darting first this way and now that, now, flying around over her head, now floating down towards her like little wisps of fluff blown about by some spirit breeze. Then, they would vanish abruptly, only to reappear again just as suddenly somewhere else entirely.
Virginia’s eyes widened as a human hand, glowing pasty white in the darkness of the room appeared just above her head. Other gasps echoed in the room as the ghostly hand, opening, closing and wiggling its fingers, fluttered about the room.
Chadwick moaned suddenly, his deep base voice echoing eerily off the walls. A small brass trumpet sitting on the table began to quiver, rattling a staccato pattern on the tabletop. It rose slowly into the air, all by itself, until it was high over Virginia’s head. As she stared up at it, it turned about several times, then halted in mid air.
“It is I, Gentle Fawn.” A small voice floated from the mouth of the trumpet. “I bring you greetings from one of your company who has recently crossed over into the spirit world.”
“Gentle Fawn is Arthur’s spirit guide,” Aunt Marian whispered. “You remember that I told you about her?”
Virginia nodded curtly. Marian had told her all about Chadwick’s various spirit “guides.” But hearing the eerie voice issuing from the trumpet was another thing altogether.
“Rachel gives everyone her love,” the voice continued. “She wants everyone to know how happy she is. Hiram is with her and they’re holding hands. It’s so sweet to see them together again at last.”
The trumpet whirled around again, then pointed to Marian. “I have a message for Marian from her beloved Henry.”
Marian sighed ecstatically, her ample bosom lifting up from her whalebone corset, then falling once more. The voice dropped to a masculine tone. “Marian?”
“Oh yes, Henry. Yes, I’m here.”
“Keep up with your good work, my dearest Marian. You will be given an opportunity to do even more to comfort the bereaved. Watch for that opportunity.”
“I will,” Marian said with a catch in her voice. “Thank you, Henry.”
The trumpet carefully selected its next subject. “This is a message for Ethel.”
“Oh, yes.” Mrs. Henderson scooted forward in her chair, her eyes gleaming in the red light. “Yes, I’m right here.”
“Ethel?” The voice that emerged from the trumpet was a light tenor this time. “Dear Ethel, it is almost time. I am waiting for you, my love. Waiting…yearning…aching for you. Oh, my darling, how I long for you. I cannot wait much longer to hold you, kiss you, love you.”
“Tomorrow.” Ethel’s voice trembled with emotion. “It will be done tomorrow. I promise, Oswald dearest. Then, I will be ready.”
Ethel sat back in her seat and closed her eyes, a look of utter ecstasy on her face. Virginia watched her with growing apprehension. Ethel Henderson had seemed like such a sensible woman when Virginia had spoken with her in the foyer before this sideshow began. Now, she looked as though she had abandoned her sensibilities completely, just like Aunt Marian had.
What on earth was happening to these women?
Startled out of her reverie, Virginia jumped as the trumpet swung around again and halted directly in front of her. “There is a man here,” Gentle Fawn’s voice announced. “He is a portly man, middle-aged with thinning hair. He calls for Virginia. Is she here?”
Virginia stiffened. No! She frowned in sudden anger. Don’t you dare!
Aunt Marian certainly must have informed Chadwick of Virginia’s own widowed status. Now, she was the newest pigeon in the flock.
“I’m here,” she muttered through clenched teeth.
“It is difficult.” The voice lowered to a throaty bass. “So difficult to come through. I have so much to say to you. But I cannot. Not now.”
Virginia’s heart began to hammer painfully. The voice couldn’t be George’s. It was impossible, wasn’t it? If only she could be sure. It had been barely a year since he died. Surely, she had not forgotten the sound of his voice already.
No, Virginia told herself sternly for the third time. This was not real. It was only a confidence trick Chadwick designed to try to dupe her just as he had duped her aunt.
Still, Virginia let her breath out in a heavy sigh of relief as the trumpet turned again—this time to the man sitting beside her with his hand cradling hers with such firm strength.
“Jonathan?” A woman’s voice emerged, sounding on the verge of tears. “Oh, Jonathan, where are you? I can’t see you. I don’t know where I am. I’m so frightened.”
She heard Jonathan Bradshaw suck in his breath in a startled gasp. His gloved hand suddenly squeezed hers.
“Susan?” He called out in a voice that quavered with emotion. “Oh my love, is that really you?”
Virginia turned to him in alarm. He sat still in his chair, his lips pressed tightly together with a look of anguish on his expressive features. He was obviously maintaining his composure with a considerable effort, but Virginia could see the glint of tears at the corners of his eyes. Virginia’s heart went out to him. How disgraceful that Chadwick, with his bogus messages, should take such advantage of this man’s obviously deep and heartfelt grief.
Perhaps after the silly séance was over, she could find some place away from the babbling crowd of women and try to comfort him. Maybe, press his cheek against her breast, stroke his hair, kiss his furrowed brow. Show him in other ways that love was not dead.
Acutely embarrassed at the direction her wayward thoughts were taking her, she turned her gaze back to the ruby lamp. For the second time that evening, she was grateful for the dim light which prevented anyone seeing the flame creeping up into her cheeks.
“You see?” The voice of Gentle Fawn returned. “Souls on both sides of the Veil must learn to accept the reality of love which transcends the change you call death. If only we could tell Susan that her beloved Jonathan is here waiting to talk to her, it would comfort her so much. But she doesn’t hear us. We will have to wait until she is ready.”
Chadwick caught his breath and sneezed a third and final time. “Perhaps we ought to end this séance for now,” he said. “My dear Mrs. Henderson, would you please turn up the light?”
Ethel shoved her chair back with a squeak and rose to her feet. She turned up the gaslight on the nearest wall, then went to the light on the far wall. As Virginia’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, she could clearly see Chadwick seated at the table with both of his hands still firmly held by the women on either side of him.
“I hope this modest demonstration has served to convince even the most doubting mind.” He disengaged his hands from the women’s grip and rose to his feet. “I thank you most sincerely for your attention and cooperation.”
Virginia pushed back her chair and rose to her feet as well. All the women, Aunt Marian included, swarmed around Chadwick like bees on a sunflower. Virginia hung back, not wanting to be drawn into the midst of the adoring throng.
The door opened and a maid came in rolling a cart with a coffee urn, sugar, cream and a stack of china cups. She parked the cart by the far wall and tiptoed back out of the room. Virginia edged backwards towards the cart, grateful for an excuse to leave the laughing group before she said something that would embarrass her aunt.
She noticed that Jonathan Bradshaw already held a steaming cup of coffee in his hands. She took the opportunity to discreetly study him in more detail while he stirred sugar into his cup.
He was certainly more good-looking than a mortal man had any right to be. Tall and lithe like an athlete, his broad shoulders narrowed to a trim waist and slim hips, accentuated by a dove gray waistcoat and tapered silk trousers.
Black hair, longer than the current fashion, curled well past his collar and swept back from his brow in an ebony wave. It gave him a look reminiscent of some bygone romantic era even though his dinner jacket and black bow tie were cut in the latest style.
Not only did she find him attractive, Virginia had also been impressed with how his finely sculpted features and generous mouth had mirrored such strong emotion during the séance. It showed him to be a man capable of deep and tender feelings.
She sighed. What a shame for any woman to have to die and leave such a husband behind.
Professor Chadwick, with Aunt Marian and Mrs. Henderson trailing along in his wake, detached himself from the group and approached them. Virginia shrank back against the wall at their approach, but it soon became clear she was not their quarry.
“Ah, there you are, Mr. Bradshaw,” Chadwick spoke up over the babble of female voices. The target of his inquiry glanced up sharply. “I trust our little demonstration has succeeded and you are satisfied of the veracity of our claims.”
“Absolutely.” Jonathan gave him a wan smile. “I must admit that I was skeptical when I first arrived. It all seemed so, shall we say, theatrical. But now…” He paused for a moment, his sensitive mouth tightening. “I find that there can be no other explanation for what I experienced. None, whatever. It was truly extraordinary.” His voice hoarsened. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Chadwick acknowledged Jonathan’s expression of gratitude with a gracious nod. Satisfied that he had found another true believer, he turned and rejoined his group of disciples.
“There, you see, dear?” Marian turned to Virginia with a triumphant look. “Mr. Bradshaw came here with an open mind about the existence of the spirits, and now he believes. Why on earth, can you not believe as well?”
“Aunt Marian, please.” Virginia twisted the strand of pearls around her neck in annoyance and embarrassment. The last thing she wanted was to argue with her aunt here in Chadwick’s parlor, especially in front of this handsome man. She didn’t want to sound like a shrew. “Mr. Bradshaw can hardly be interested in my opinion of these proceedings.”
“On the contrary, Mrs. Paley.” Jonathan’s smile was polite and proper, but his eyes were not. His gaze caressed her body boldly and appreciatively, making her want to grab her shawl and cover her bare arms and low neckline. “I am very much interested in your opinion of these proceedings. Do tell me.”
“I must say I find this spirit business quite unhealthy.” She lifted her chin, ignoring her aunt’s disapproving glare. After all, he had asked for her opinion and she fully intended to give it to him. “I have lost my husband too, and I know how devastating it can be. But, one mustn’t dwell on the past like this. One must go on with one’s life. And perhaps find someone else to love.”
Virginia broke off suddenly. She hadn’t intended to say those last few words. They tumbled out before she could stop them. Unnerved, she pressed her lips tightly together, lest the other, more suggestive words that filled her mind escape.
“You have a very sensible argument, Mrs. Paley.” Jonathan turned away from her and gazed into the depths of his china cup, as though he were trying to read an oracle from it. “Still, when you lose your one true love, anything— no matter how strange and unorthodox it might be—which offers some kind of hope of finding that love again is worth exploring. If there is one chance in a million that it could be genuine, then one must take that chance, mustn’t one?”
His voice trailed off into a husky whisper. Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out his handkerchief and pressed it to his nose. After a moment, he recovered himself and tucked the handkerchief back into his pocket.
“I had better be going. It’s growing late.” He drained his cup, placed it back onto the tray, then turned to Virginia. “Will I see you here next week, Mrs. Paley?”
Virginia bit her lip. She hadn’t planned on having anything more to do with the Society for Eternal Love. But that was before she gazed into his captivating eyes and felt the pang of longing that those eyes aroused within her. “Are you planning on being here next week?”
“Indeed, I had planned on doing just that. And I urge you to do the same.” His tone grew intense. “It is very important that all of us who have lost loved ones believe that true love endures beyond the grave, or we shall all perish from grief.”
Virginia turned and found Aunt Marian gazing at her with an eager expression. Behind her, Chadwick loomed like a specter, fixing Virginia with another of his piercing looks.
“Well, dear?” Marian demanded. “Will you come back next week?”
Virginia faltered for a moment. Every instinct she had told her to run and not look back at these two people— her beloved aunt and this disturbingly attractive man—who so compelled her to return to this madhouse.
She glanced up at Chadwick, then looked away with a shudder. “I shall consider it.”
Jonathan regarded her with a raised eyebrow for a moment. Wearing that mysterious half-smile she had seen several times during the evening, he bid Chadwick and Aunt Marian goodnight, then retreated into the hallway. He retrieved a silk top hat from a rack in the corner gathered up what looked like a full-length cape which men who frequent the opera often wore and headed for the door.
Virginia waited until her aunt had rejoined the knot of women, then edged her way into the hallway after him, making sure that no one lurked close enough to overhear.
She knew she was taking a terrible risk. No doubt by now, her aunt had informed Chadwick that she was less than impressed by his demonstration. But she couldn’t bring herself to allow this tormented man out of her sight without one final word of warning.
“Mr. Bradshaw.” As he turned around to face her, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “Please forgive me for being so forward. I know I have absolutely no business interfering in your affairs. But I fear that this man and his so-called ‘spirit messages’ is taking dreadful advantage of my aunt’s grief. I should hate to see you taken advantage of as well.”
He made no reply for several moments, his handsome face wearing an expression Virginia couldn’t quite name. He seemed to be choosing his words with care before uttering them.
“I deeply appreciate your concern.” He kept his voice low and conspiratorial. “And I assure you I have no intention of allowing myself to be taken advantage of. But this is something I must investigate—both for my sake and the sake of my adored Susan. You understand, of course.”
“Of course.” Virginia lowered her gaze. In spite of all her best intentions, she had been much too bold and judgmental. Or perhaps she was just jealous of a dead woman. “Good night, Mr. Bradshaw.”
“Good night, Mrs. Paley.” Jonathan took her hand in his and caressed her palm for a long moment before releasing released it. Virginia felt her pulses suddenly throb. His touch held the same sense of intimacy that she had seen in his eyes—eyes that weren’t those of a man in mourning. “Until we meet again.”