Chapter 1: A Fortunate Meeting
A Fortunate Meeting
"Colin, Dennis! Please don't run off!"
Hermione sighed, shaking her head as the Creevey boys bolted through the park. Honestly, it was as though they heard do in the place of every don't.
Chestnut eyes rolling heavenward, she pleaded silently for this day to already be over. Drawing a deep breath, she winced at the strain against the bones of her new corset. She gathered her skirts in her hands and hurried after them.
The boys stopped by the grand fountain in the center of the park. At least they were in her eye-line, she considered, as she halted after only a few meters.
The only thing to keep her from doubling over as she fought to catch her breath was the stiffness of her dress. Tipping her head back, she brushed some loose strands of her typically wild golden-brown hair out of her eyes—it had been all neat and tidy when Mr. Creevey had suggested she escort the boys to the park, as they were too bored at the party.
Now, she was certain chasing after them had turned it into a puffy ball of madness atop her head.
Sparing a moment, she ran the fingers of her lace gloved-hands over her hair. Her shoulders drooped in relief as she found that only those few locks had gone wayward.
She started along the cobblestone path once more, but stopped, mid-stride. There was an odd, fleeting sensation against her back, as though someone stood close behind her.
Brow furrowing, she turned her head to look over her shoulder. The path was entirely empty; the only other visitors were too far from her to have caused the strange feeling.
Frowning, she put the incident out of her head and started back toward the boys as she turned forward. She never saw the gentleman hurrying along in her direction, until they collided.
Hermione lost her footing; stumbling, she gashed her knee against a broken stone in the path. She looked up, trying not to let her eyes water as the pain seared across her skin.
"I'm so sorry," they said at the same time, their voices mingling.
She froze, feeling her cheeks warm a little as she met his blue-eyed gaze. Though, she did wonder what was fascinating him so as he stared back at her, his full lips parting ever so slightly as he drew in a sharp breath.
He blinked a few times in rapid succession, before he shook his head, appearing to regain his bearings. "No, no. I apologize, my lady," he said, offering his leather-gloved hand to her.
Her brows shot up as she slipped her fingers into his. His finely-tailored dark suit and the way he carried himself . . . . She thought for certain he'd be demanding that she watch her step more carefully, next time.
Perhaps her present state of dress had him fooled into thinking she was of higher station than a governess—at this moment, she had all the airs of an aristocrat's daughter. Words of gratitude for his assistance stuck in her throat as she allowed him to pull her to her feet.
Heat lanced her knee as she moved, and she let out a hissing breath. Hermione hobbled a little to one side as she attempted to get a look at the injury, but also tried not to lean on him as she did so.
"Oh, dear," he said, shaking his head. "Come, sit." The mysterious gentleman slipped his free hand around her elbow as he guided her toward the fountain.
She must've been dazed from her tumble, she thought, because before she knew it, she found herself seated on a nearby bench. Though, she could still hear Colin and Dennis playing, which calmed her somewhat—she had feared the clever boys would have taken advantage of her distraction just now and darted off, again—she couldn't seem to stop staring at the man's face.
His hair fell in neat, dark waves, contrasting his bright eyes and fair skin. There was the barest dusting of color in his high-boned cheeks, yet she didn't know if that was from the sun, or perhaps embarrassment at causing her injury.
To her shock, he knelt before her. He appeared to think through what he was doing only after he started, his fingers gently touching the hem of her skirts.
"May I have a look at it?"
A blush flooded her cheeks instantly and she snapped her head around, glancing about the park. It was all fine and well that he wanted to make sure she was all right, but she suddenly feared some passerby misunderstanding the situation.
"I . . . ." She chewed her lip as she shook her head. "I don't think that's—"
"Please?" His dark, perfectly arched brows drew upward as he offered her a charming grin. "I do have some medical knowledge, and I would be ever so grateful if you would let me see to your injury."
Ever so grateful? Her jaw dropped a little as she stared back at him. "All right," she said, her voice lower than she intended, "if you're going to insist so."
That grin melted down to a serene half-smile as he nodded and carefully pushed back her skirts. He held in an endeared chuckle at the way she stiffened as he brushed gentle fingertips over the tear in her stocking around the cut. Such wonderful innocence.
"I am sorry to say that I ruined your hose."
The girl didn't answer. He looked up to see how she eyed her skirts. She sniffled, and there was the faintest glimmer of wetness on her dark, curled lashes.
"I'm sorry," he said again, darting his gaze back to the gash. Surely the wound was a bit impressive for how narrow it was, but he didn't think it enough to bring her to tears. "Does it hurt that badly?"
"No, it's not that." Folding her lips inward, she smoothed her hands over the top layer of her skirts. The butter-yellow fabric was torn and stained with drops of crimson. "I've ruined my dress. My—my uncle bought it for me, and now its ruined."
He spoke as he retrieved a silk handkerchief from inside his jacket to gently dab at her cut. "You should allow me to compensate you for the cost."
"That's very kind, but I couldn't possibly ask that of you." She shrugged as she managed to tear her gaze from him to look toward the boys. They had busied themselves sword fighting with sticks.
"Colin, Dennis! Will you please be careful? You're going to put someone's eye out!"
As she turned back, she couldn't miss how his attention flicked toward the boys, before returning to her. "Aren't those the Creevey boys?"
Hermione nodded, gaze on the horizon a moment as she confessed, "I'm their governess."
He bit his lip but remained silent. How sweet that she thought it an embarrassing revelation to admit her station to him.
"Are you friends with the family?" She didn't know why she asked, perhaps to fill the sudden silence—if he was a friend, wouldn't he be at the party, now?
"No," he said, his expression thoughtful as he tipped his head, presumably examining the cut. "I know of them only by name, really. We travel in the same circles, I suppose you could say."
"I see." She remained polite, a small smile plucking at the corners of her mouth, but she had the feeling he was actually a bit above the Creevey's circles. It was nice to think he didn't want to frighten her with whatever his true standing was.
"I understand they're moving abroad."
Her brows pinched together as she met his gaze, again. He'd seen to her cut, and now knew the discussion was probably not worth his time. Why, then, did it feel as though he was making excuses to carry on their conversation?
"Yes. Today is their farewell party." She hurried on, supplying him more information than was asked to see if he was only curious, or was—as mad as it seemed—simply interested in continuing to speak with her. "They depart in a few days."
He arched a brow. "But you won't be accompanying them?"
Shaking her head, she fussed with her skirts, pushing them back down into place.
"That will leave you unemployed, then?"
My, he certainly was the inquisitive sort. The handsome gentleman's unwavering attention was beginning to make her bashful.
Hermione shrugged, forcing her expression to remain neutral as best she could. "I'm certain the agency will find me something."
"Yes," he said as he nodded. "I'm certain they will."
"We want to go home, now."
Colin's voice at her shoulder gave Hermione a start. She turned, glancing from Colin, to Denis, and back.
"Tuckered yourselves out, have you?"
Denis pouted. "No! We're hungry."
"I suppose I should be on my way, as well."
Hermione looked to the gentleman as he rose to his feet. He held his hand out to her, his gaze on hers, all the while. She slipped he fingers into his, as she had a few minutes earlier, and allowed him to assist her to stand.
"Are you certain you won't allow me to compensate you for the dress?"
"I couldn't." She extracted her hand from his in a delicate gesture—he seemed to have forgotten he was holding her. "My uncle wouldn't want—"
"Can we see Sirius again before we take ship?"
Hermione frowned, her expression stern as she looked to the shorter of the two fair-haired boys. "Dennis! You know it's rude to interrupt adult conversation." When the boy looked abashed, her features softened. "I'm sorry, but you know my uncle is a very busy man. However, I will ask him."
"Your uncle is Sirius Black? The violinist?"
She appreciated that he didn't state Sirius' full moniker. The Mad Violinist was more an affectionate title, than a statement of his demeanor—though she did often think he might be at least a little mad—due to his obvious passion as he played. His long, jet curls swung thing way and that in frenzied motions, so by the end of any performance, he did, indeed, look quite mad.
"Yes. You know of him?"
"I am quite familiar with his work. I went to hear him play last month in Hogsmeade." The man furrowed his brow as his gaze searched her face, but then he shook his head. "I'm sorry. I knew he had a brother; I suppose I'm trying to look for a family resemblance."
"Oh, no," she said, casting her gaze downward before meeting his eyes, once more. "I'm not Regulus' daughter. Sirius was a friend of the family, and when my parents passed, he took me in. I was young at the time, and was raised with his godson, and . . . ."
He was staring at her so intently as she spoke that the words caught in her throat. Why on earth was she babbling at him like this?
Hermione shrugged, shaking her head and forcing a gulp down her throat. "He always called Sirius uncle, so I started to, as well," she finished, her voice small.
"My name is Tom," the gentleman said, smiling as he gently took her hand in his and pressed a kiss to the back, before letting it drop, again. "At the very least, you may tell your uncle you met one of his admirers today."
There was a strange rush of relief and disappointment as she recognized that he was actually taking his leave, now.
"My name is Hermione. It was a pleasure speaking with you, Tom. Thank you for your assistance."
"Miss Granger, c'mon," Colin whined.
Her frame slumped as she took each of the boy's hands in hers. "Yes, yes. We are going, I was only . . . ." Her voice trailed off as she looked up again to find Tom nowhere in sight. ". . . Being polite."
She furrowed her brow as she looked along the path. "Did you boys see where the gentleman disappeared to?"
They both shrugged and shook their heads in response.
Something on the ground snagged her attention. She bent to retrieve the scrap of pale fabric, realizing as she picked it up that the gentleman'd dropped his handkerchief.
Turning it over, she ran a fingertip over the initials embroidered into the white silk. "T.R.?"
Tom watched the girl depart, her young charges in tow.
He truly hadn't intended to carry on the conversation as long as he had. Yet, the longer she spoke, the more he wanted her to keep speaking. The color in her cheeks, the flecks of dark crimson in her chestnut eyes. The sweet line of her cleavage over the top of her dress, and how her breasts shivered as she had fidgeted in place, fussing over her skirts.
Smirking, he looked to the drops of crimson on his finger. Fishing a small vial from his pocket, he uncorked it and carefully scraped some of the steadily-cooling liquid into it. Of course, it would be cold by the time he got it home, but there was little to be done for it.
Replacing the stopper, Tom lapped the remnants from the leather of his glove. He bit hard into his bottom lip as his eyelids drifted downward.
Yes, he'd suspected this the moment he caught the scent of her blood. And she was a ward of the Black family?
That was fortunate, indeed.
"Hermione Granger," he said in a whisper, opening his eyes to watch her, once more—she was nearly out of his eye-line, now. "Yes, you will do perfectly, won't you?"
He inspected the blood inside the glass for a moment. "And I'm certain my sweet boy will think so, too."
Three Weeks Later . . . .
"Still nothing?" Harry asked over lunch.
Hermione looked up from her meal and shrugged. She played with her utensils, but didn't have much of an appetite, just now. "I've checked the post everyday. I don't know. Perhaps the Creeveys gave me a bad reference."
"Rubbish." He shook his head, though he seemed rather absorbed in eating as he spoke. His lack of etiquette made her sigh, despite that it was a somewhat adorable trait to which she was well accustomed. "You're a fantastic teacher, and Ginny says you are amazing with her nieces."
Hermione strained to keep her eyes from rolling. She adored Ginny, but this was not the time for Harry to take yet another opportunity to fawn over his fiancé.
"I don't know," she said again. "Ginny's practically family. She could only be doing me a kindness by saying such things."
"Hermione," Sirius called as he stepped into the dining room. "You have a tele—"
"Oh, thank you!" She was out of her chair and across the room so fast, Harry swore he blinked and missed her movements.
She took the telegram from Sirius hand, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she opened it.
Sirius watched her as she read the message. It didn't escape Harry's notice that his godfather looked . . . nervous, somehow. He couldn't quite put his finger on it.
"It's a position in the country! I'm requested as governess at the Riddle Estate? Where is . . . ?" Her voice trailed off as she noted the name of her prospective employer. "Lord Thomas Riddle?"
T.R.? That charming—if rather intense—gentleman from the park? Well, he had known she would be out of work now, and had her full name, due to Colin's impatient wailing.
Had Tom . . . . Thomas, Lord Thomas Riddle, she corrected herself, requested her, especially?
She didn't know if the giddiness in her stomach was relief after thinking she might not find work any time soon, or something brought on by the thought of seeing him, again. The latter part she ignored, for—as her employer—that was quite an inappropriate reaction for her to have toward him.
Her eyebrows shot up as she looked up from the message. "I'm expected to arrive by this evening! Oh, I must go pack my trunk."
Sirius smiled as she bounced up to plant on a kiss on his cheek. As she whirled on her heel and dashed up the stairs, Harry observed how Sirius' cheerful expression melted, leaving behind a pained grimace.
He opened his mouth to ask, but his godfather was already walking out of the room. After a moment, he heard the grating of metal against stone.
Brow furrowing, he pushed back his seat and stood. "Uncle Sirius?"
By the time he reached the sitting room, Sirius was kneeling before the fireplace. He'd pulled away the screen and was watching something in the flames.
"Uncle? What are you doing?"
Sirius shot to his feet as he jerked his head around to look at Harry. "Nothing," he said, swallowing hard as he shook his head.
"It clearly isn't nothing." Harry stormed across the room to see for himself. There, in the fire, he could make out the blackened curling of paper . . . . Here and there, lettering. He was able to piece together enough words to understand what he was seeing.
"Telegrams from Hermione's agency?" Harry glanced over his shoulder at his godfather, his throat so tight with anger he wasn't certain he could get the words out. "She's been going mad for weeks believing no one wanted to employ her! Why would you do this?"
Sirius only shook his head again, his blue-grey eyes watering as he stared into the fire.
Harry followed the man's gaze. He saw one paper, different from the rest—a letter that had yet to be wholly swallowed by the flames.
"Harry, don't," Sirius said, even as the younger man bent and snatched the letter out of the fire.
Frowning, Harry waved the paper gently to extinguish the burning edges. Ice churned in the pit of his stomach as he read aloud what was left. ". . . Granger. Deliver her and the debt of the Black family shall be paid in full. Yours, T.R.."
His brows drew upward and he shook his head in disbelief. Lord Thomas Riddle, as Hermione'd read from her new employer's request. Forcing a gulp down his throat, Harry looked to the fireplace, the remnants of the telegrams now nothing but ash, and then to Sirius.
"I don't understand." He paused a moment to force a breath, his voice thick. "Uncle, what have you done?"
With a mirthless grin, Sirius took the smoldering paper from his godson's hand and put it back in the flames. Straightening up, he shook his head, a tear escaping to roll down his cheek.
After a moment of attempting to compose himself, he finally said, "I've protected you and your fiancé." And your future children, but he left that unsaid, assuring himself that Lord Riddle, and his ward, would treat Hermione well.
Before Harry could inquire about this last part, Sirius turned sharply and clamped his hands over Harry's shoulders. "Whatever you think, you mustn't say a word. For your own sake, and Hermione's."
Harry didn't know what to think as he looked from his godfather to the ceiling. He could only imagine how excited Hermione was, as she fluttered about on the floor above their heads.
Packing to leave for the Riddle Estate . . . .
But he couldn't stop wondering. Debt? What debt? Since when did the Black family owe anything to anyone? He was even less certain now about what was happening than he'd been a moment ago. Unless . . . .
Exactly how old was this debt the Lord was claiming? And why was Sirius honoring it?
He knew Sirius wouldn't give him an answer, but Harry had a suspicion.
"Will we ever see her again?"
Sirius met his godson's gaze, his voice slipping out in barely audible whisper as he shook his head. "I don't know."
Chapter 2: Her New Employers
Her New Employers
Hermione bit her lip as she watched the landscape drifting past through the window. She'd barely been traveling two hours, yet already she missed her family. This was the first time she'd been offered a position so very far from home.
Harry had trailed her every step so closely as she finished packing, and after taking her trunk down to the carriage for her, that she wouldn't be wholly surprised if she found him hiding in her things when she finally arrived at the Riddle Estate. It broke her heart a little, though, that after a single, quick hug—so tight it stole her breath a moment—Sirius hadn't seen her off.
Her shoulders drooped and she sniffled as she wondered if she'd done something to upset him.
"No, Hermione," she whispered to herself as she shook her head, blinking rapidly to keep any possible tears at bay. "He was simply too upset that you were going so far away to see you off."
Forcing a smile, she looked out the window, once more. The sky was darkening as the sun set in the distance and the trees lining the road had thickened from sparse, but scenic wedges of foliage to true, full woods sooner than she'd noticed.
She swallowed hard as she watched the last bits of pink-tinged clouds sink lower against the horizon. Dear God, why had that telegram arrived so late? She could have made this journey hours earlier, and been safely ensconced within her new employer's home, by now.
With no explanation for the delay, she only hoped Tom—Riddle, she reminded herself, the tone of her inner-voice one of admonishment—Lord Riddle would not count her late arrival as a mark against her.
Fretting as she was, she didn't notice the carriage slowing until she felt the rumbling of its wheels as they rolled to stop beneath her. A sudden chill ran along her skin under the sleeves of her dress and the pit of her stomach twisted into a knot.
Perhaps if she could know he wouldn't hold her responsible for the time of her arrival, she would be far less nervous.
She rolled her eyes at herself and shook her head. Perhaps if she hadn't thought him so handsome when they'd first met—an observation now made wholly inappropriate by her new position as his employee—she would be far less nervous.
After all, he was hiring a governess; she doubted Lady Riddle would take kindly to how Hermione had clearly read too much into his attention during their conversation in that park those weeks ago.
She jumped a little as the driver opened her door. There she went, getting caught up in her own thoughts, again.
Hermione nodded, smiling politely as he held out a hand to help her from the carriage. Climbing down, taking in the main house of the sprawling, foreboding grounds, climbing the curving front steps . . . even watching numbly as the driver pulled the bell, and then returned to the carriage to retrieve her trunk passed in a blur.
Swallowing hard, she squared her shoulders and once more plastered on a sweet grin as the fine, polished double-doors before her creaked open. A mousy-looking little man, in an immaculate butler's uniform, stood inside, eyeing her cautiously.
When he said nothing—no Good evening, no May I help you, unsettling Hermione, quite frankly, with his lack of greeting—she forced her smile brighter and nodded as she said, "Good evening, sir. I am—"
She bit her lip against the giddy rush that zipped through her at the sound of Lord Riddle's well-remembered voice saying her name. Drat it, she would really have to keep that in check.
Lord Riddle swept up behind the smaller man, just as devastatingly handsome as she recalled. "Now, Peter, do not be rude. Miss Granger is here at my invitation."
Peter bowed his head. "My apologies, Lord—"
The Lord wagged a finger at him. "Peter, please. I have asked you not to call me that."
Again, the little man capitulated. "Of course . . . Tom." Though, in Hermione's view, Peter didn't seem quite comfortable addressing their employer so informally.
"Take Miss Granger's trunk up to her room, would you?"
Desperate not to have to address the Lord by anything that would be problematic, again, the girl thought, Peter merely nodded and hurried to take her things. Frowning, she turned to observe him.
"I'm afraid it's actually quite heavy. There were books I couldn't leave behind. Perhaps I should help—"
"It's fine, but your concern is warming," Lord Riddle said with a grin. "I assure you, Peter is stronger than he looks. He'll manage."
Nodding, Hermione watched, her eyes going wide as Peter, indeed, hefted the trunk as though it was filled with feathers. She backpedaled, allowing him to make his way through the door. Without realizing she was moving, she crossed the threshold into the foyer to see the man toddle through the main floor and start up the staircase.
Only when he disappeared beyond her field of vision, did she notice that she'd entered the house. More alarming, still, that she stood close beside Lord Riddle, quite without his invitation!
She turned and backed away until she was a respectable distance from him. She also ignored that he seemed quietly amused by her reaction to his nearness.
"Please forgive my forwardness, Lord Riddle," Hermione said, offering a curtsy.
When she looked up, she found him responding to the formal gesture with a dismissive wave as he shook his head. "Please, Hermione. I shall tell you as you just heard me tell Peter, call me Tom."
She was a bit startled by his improper manner, vehemently ignoring that she liked the way her name sounded rolling off his tongue. "I don't believe such informality is appropriate with one's employer, Sir. After all, what would Lady Riddle think of you addressing your governess so?"
His brow furrowed, seeming as though he had issue untangling her words. After a stammering heartbeat, he let out a surprised chuckle. "Oh, I see. No, no. There are some things concerning your post that must be discussed before I introduce you to your charge. The first . . . there is no Lady Riddle. And before wondering if I'm widowed, no—there never was a Lady Riddle."
Hermione opened her mouth to inquire further on this point, but already he was turning on a heel to start toward the wide staircase that led up to a second level, and at least one more floor beyond. With a sobering shake of her head, she hurried to catch up to his long-legged stride.
"The second, is that we are so very isolated here, as you well realized from your journey to the estate, I'm sure, that a bit of informality is not of consequence." A bemused half-smile curved his lips as he glanced over his shoulder at her. "Indeed, you'll find some days it helps you retain your sanity."
She smiled in spite of herself, there was just something about his presence that overwhelmed her. Unsettling, yes, but not nearly enough to alarm her—just the strange impression of wanting to smile when he smiled, laugh when he laughed.
Perhaps he was simply infectious that way, as some people were.
The sound of thunder rumbling outside the walls drew her attention a moment. She frowned as she looked toward the nearest window. Certainly she'd noticed a few clouds gathering when she'd stepped from the carriage, but nothing to denote imminent rainfall.
When she returned her gaze to Tom, it was to find he'd also allowed himself to be distracted by the change in the weather. His blue eyes narrowed as he shook his head before snapping his attention back to her.
"Thirdly," he said, as though there'd been no interruption to his list, "I must explain some things about your student prior to your meeting him. Augustin is a . . . unique case. As such, there were matters I was unable to disclose in my communication with your agency, for reasons you'll understand once—"
"I take it this is she?"
The rumbling voice from the second floor landing startled her. Hermione looked up, only to realize herself trapped by the gaze of the man she found standing there. She wondered, briefly, if he might not be Tom's brother. They had the same basic features—dark brown hair, blue eyes, strong jawlines, and were of similar height and build. Yet, there was no true resemblance between them.
Rather inappropriately, she found herself prompted to speak. "Who—?"
"Honestly, Augustin," Tom said, his tone short in a way that caused Hermione to jump. "I told you to give me time to explain the situation!"
Augustin? But hadn't he only just said . . . ?
In that instant, she did not care about propriety, or losing the only post she'd been offered in weeks. She only cared that she seemed to be at the heart of some sick joke.
She looked from one man, to the other, and back. "One of you had better explain this, immediately."
Tom's brows drew upward at her feisty tone. He and Augustin exchanged a glance. Well, she was an interesting little thing, now, wasn't she?
Tom held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Of course, of course. I was trying to explain until we were so rudely interrupted," he said.
At the barely-veiled admonishment, Augustin lowered his gaze and set his jaw, but remained silent.
Hermione lifted her brows in expectation as she waited. She tried to ignore another rumble of thunder from outside, followed by the sudden, steady pattering of rain against the windows.
It was night, and now the weather had turned. Whatever he was about to say didn't so much matter, she was trapped in this house with them at least until morning when transportation back to Godric's Hollow could be arranged.
And she could tell from the way each man flicked his gaze toward the windows at the sound that they were equally aware of her predicament. She supposed it was a good sign, then, that Tom continued on with his explanation as though time was of the essence.
"My father was already quite old when I was born, my mother had passed on shortly after my birth from illness." Tom shook his head, his face carefully blank. "Her last wish was that I not be alone. Father, for a near-decade, refused to grant it. Augustin's family, the Selwyns had been father's only friends—he was a very difficult man. But, when Augustin's parents died unexpectedly, father took him in, formally adopting him into our family"
Hermione glanced at Augustin. His attention still on the toes of his own shoes, he'd turned and started down the staircase on slow, measured steps.
That was all very unfortunate, but none of it explained what was happening!
Tom tipped back his head, eyeing the ceiling as he uttered a mirthless chuckle. "Augustin was . . . sickly when we were younger. He couldn't even leave his room, let alone the house. Attempts to bring in tutors failed, as he was often too tired to pay attention for very long, at all. Being a little older, I've always been a bit protective of him. So, when my father died, I took on the responsibility of caring for him."
She refused to let her expression lighten.
Sighing, Tom let his broad shoulders slump. "Only recently did he recover from the toll of his illness. He is quite intelligent, you'll find, but he lacks formal education for obvious reasons. This is where you come in. Whenever I was honest about the position's requirements, my request for a tutor was either denied, or those who accepted left within a matter of days, unable to manage his . . . unpredictable temperament."
"Unpredictable temperament?" Hermione echoed, wide-eyed. That did not sound promising.
"Please understand, these tutors came here to teach a grown man, and thus expected the temperament of a grown man," Tom said, frowning. "As stated, he is quite intelligent, but formal lessons are a concept with which he is unaccustomed, and thus he becomes easily frustrated with them."
"And he especially dislikes being discussed as though he's not in the room."
At Augustin's voice so close behind her, Hermione jumped nearly as much as she had when Tom had snapped at the other man only moments ago. She darted her gaze over her shoulder to see that he'd reached the foot of the stairs and come to stand with them.
She'd not even heard his footfalls.
When she turned her attention back to Tom, he was shaking his head at Augustin, the faintest scowl marring his features. "After so many failings trying to find a suitable tutor to aid him," he said, snapping his gaze back to lock on Hermione's, "I realized that he needs someone capable of handling such behavior. When I recalled seeing you so patient with the Creevey boys, I realized we did not simply need a tutor, we needed a governess. However, had I revealed to your agency that I required a governess to tend a grown man . . . well, I'm certain you can see why such a thing might be problematic."
Her expression softened, then. There was no way not to feel sorry for their predicament.
"We thought if you came here, learned of the situation, firsthand, you might give the offered post more serious consideration. He would need to learn all you can teach him. Etiquette, art, mathematics, history . . . he's literate, and quite a proficient reader, so perhaps that is to your advantage?"
When she was silent for a few heartbeats, and seemed in no hurry to offer a response, Augustin spoke up. "Do you think you can help me?"
Hermione drew a deep breath and let it out slow. She wasn't certain accepting this post was wise, but then she knew if she didn't accept, they might not find anyone willing to even entertain aiding them.
She shook her head as she turned to face the younger man. "I don't know. I need to think this over." Just as she halted, she wobbled in place, the room spinning around her.
Augustin steadied her with a gentle hand on her arm, a worried expression pinching his features. Tom moved up behind her, his fingers curling around her shoulder.
"Are you all right?" Tom asked, a note of concern in his voice.
Giving her head a shake—that only made things worse—she frowned and blinked hard. "Sorry, I just got dizzy a moment."
The men exchanged a glance, before Tom went on. "Probably your long carriage ride here, coupled with the shock we just gave you. Entirely our fault."
Seeming to contribute to the conversation, the rain picked up, hammering the windows fiercely.
Tom shifted to turn Hermione just enough so that she was looking at both him and Augustin. "You should probably lie down. That storm and the late hour are not in your favor. There is already a room set for you, so rest, think over what we're asking of you. If, in the morning, you decline the post, I will make arrangements to see you back to your uncle's home, immediately."
Again, she blinked hard, trying to get her bearings. That sounded quite reasonable, under the circumstances.
She must've nodded, she realized, as before she was really aware she was even moving, Tom had taken one arm, Augustin the other. They guided her up the staircase to the second floor and along the left wing of the house.
She didn't notice much of the décor up here, just now. She was far too focused on trying to keep her feet under her, while also attempting not to notice the press of them on either side of her.
Good Lord, when had her thoughts become so easily wayward?
Hermione was drawn to a halt as Tom stepped around her to push open a door. They each relinquished their hold on her, after a cautious moment of assuring themselves she could manage on her own.
"Should you require anything during the night," Tom said, pointing down the opposite end of the corridor, "our rooms are in that wing, there. Peter's room is adjacent to the kitchen . . . oh, drat. We did not have the chance to give you a tour. All right, well, we are right down there, should you need anything, at all. Sleep well."
Nodding, Hermione stepped into her room. The last thing she glimpsed as she closed the door was the blue eyes of Augustin Selwyn. She didn't know him from Adam, and she could not help but wonder if it made sense that she thought he looked impossibly sad. Some people wore miserable expressions all the time—perhaps that was just his face.
Strangely, she could not stop herself. Pressing a hand to the door, she leaned close, listening. She heard their footfalls retreating to the wing Tom had indicated as containing their rooms.
"She's going to say no." Augustin's voice was a low tumble of sound that she just barely heard—sad to match his expression.
"You don't know that," Tom said, gentle and reassuring, that shortness from earlier vanished entirely.
Augustin said something she could not quite make out, then, but whatever it was tore at her a little, as it somehow sounded even more dejected.
"Don't think that way. Maybe she'll surprise you. Now, you get some rest, as well."
That was the last she heard from either of them before the sound of doors closing reached her.
Hermione drew a steadying breath as she pulled back, allowing her body to sag a little. Now that she was here, she had to admit she was quite tired.
Turning to take in her room, she felt her jaw fall, as though the response was independent of her. It was all so lovely . . . four-post bed, vanity table, writing desk set beneath a large window. There were shelves, thoughtfully empty for books or knick-knacks she'd brought from home—she was certain, as another series of shelves directly across from it looked packed. She could imagine poor Peter, scrambling to neatly place everything from the both sets of shelves in one location.
With a shake of her head, she reprimanded herself for being so taken by the prettiness and perfection of her room. No, if she was going to agree when she awoke in the morning, she was going to have to come to that decision because she wanted to help Augustin, or decline the post if she felt the task impossible, not because she fancied the notion of penning poetry by a window that overlooked the gardens!
"Just rest, Hermione."
Retrieving her nightclothes from her trunk, she washed up in the en-suite bathroom and changed for bed. She hated to admit that there was something sinful and luxurious about laying in that bed, with its plush quilt and fine silk pillows, in her simple cotton nightdress.
But, sooner than she could remind herself—that like the room, itself—not to let anything so frivolous weigh on her decision, she was already drifting to sleep.
Hermione stirred at the sweet, unfamiliar sensation of lips against her throat. Blinking open her eyes, she found herself sitting up on the edge of her bed. Her head was tipped back and she angled her gaze. A dark head was bent over her, blue eyes capturing hers briefly before they drifted closed, focusing on the kisses he was brushing against her pulse.
The dull, slow thud of his heart against her back was strangely calming.
The touch of fingers along her leg drew her attention and she found another man on his knees before her. The night-dark of the room obscured his features just enough that she did not easily recognize him—dark hair, blue eyes, just like the man who cradled her body with his own.
Those blue eyes flicked over her before he moved close. Parting her legs with gentle fingers, he pressed near to her.
Hermione gasped as he captured her mouth in a hungry kiss. But all too soon, it seemed, he broke away. He shifted downward against her, dragging his teeth along her body through the cotton of her nightdress.
The hands of the man holding her slipped upward as the other man lowered. She bit her lip, stifling a moan as he cupped her breasts, circling the tips of his fingers over her nipples.
"Oh, God," she said in a loud whisper, shuddering at the unexpected press of fingers between her thighs. She was certain she heard muffled chuckling in response to her startled cry.
But there was no time for her alarm to take root. The pressure of his fingertips became rhythmic and insistent. She could swear he murmured something soothing just before she felt his lips caressing her inner thigh.
At her throat, too, the kisses became hungrier, more urgent. The raking of his teeth against the soft flesh was delicious, as was the working of his hands as he teased her breasts further, still.
The one before her snapped his gaze up, those blue eyes catching hers as his fingers worked her harder.
Hermione didn't know what had come over her—she knew she should stop this, but didn't want to, and didn't actually understand why she thought she should. Instead, she reached out her hand, curling her fingers into the hair of the man running the tip of his tongue along the inside of her thigh. She draped her other arm back, around the man behind her, mirroring her own action as she sank her hand into his hair.
There was a sweet, throbbing pulse coursing through her, she felt it pushing her to tense between them, to let her muscles go taut as they went on, kissing and stroking her.
It was as she cried out, the blissful warmth nearly too much for her to bear that she felt twins stings. Quick, sharp searing at her throat, between her thighs. The pleasure dancing through her made focusing on the pain impossible—or perhaps the pain even added to it.
As it ebbed, she collapsed back against the man behind her. She thought she must be drifting back to sleep, again, as he folded his arms around her in a possessive embrace while the one before her lifted his head.
He kissed her once more as her eyelids drooped.
She had no idea which one of them spoke, but she felt certain she heard the words, "I told you she would do perfectly."
Hermione awoke the next morning to bright sunshine washing through that window over the desk. She pulled herself to sit up, her thoughts a bit tangled and hazy.
She was quite certain she'd dreamed something rather vivid, but could not recall just now what that might've been.
Climbing out of bed to gather her things so she might wash up and dress, she winced. She felt rested, but also sore . . . . Perhaps she'd slept funny.
Putting the matter out of her mind, she prepared for her day. Or, rather, prepared to locate the master of the house and his so-called ward, and deliver them her answer.
She found them in the dining room, though she'd tried not to get overwhelmed by the sheer size and grandeur of the estate as she bumbled her way around. At the wide, open double doors, she halted, noting that a place had been set for her at the table.
"Good—good morning," she said, forcing a smile.
Tom grinned at the sound of her voice, turning warm blue eyes on her. "I hope you slept well. Please don't think us forward in having a place set for you. We had no way of knowing your decision, and it would be quite rude to send you off without offering you a meal after the night you had."
For a moment, Hermione was transfixed by his gaze. Shaking her head, she focused on his words. "That's actually quite thoughtful, thank you, but . . . ." She nervously darted her tongue out to wet her lips. Augustin had not looked up when she came in, indeed, he seemed rather grumpily fixated on his plate.
Clearing her throat, she started, again. "But I've decided to accept the post."
Tom's grin broadened, and Augustin snapped his gaze up to lock on her. Astonishment shone in his face. "You . . . ?"
Nodding, she smiled, again. She also ignored that those blue eyes set of the strangest winging of warm, giddy butterflies through her stomach. Her decision had nothing to do with the attractiveness of either of her employers, just as it had nothing to do with her perfect and pretty room.
He required her aid, and she'd never had it in her to refuse those so genuinely in need. If she could improve his life, how could she possibly say no?
Answering his question from last night, she said, "I am going to help you."
She ignored another flash—this one of lips against her skin and fingers slipping beneath her clothes, how odd—as a relieved smile broke across Augustin Selwyn's face. It was the first time she'd seen a happy expression on him since meeting him yesterday evening.
And she was just a little afraid of the way her heart skipped a beat at the sight.
Chapter 3: Shadows and Vulnerabilities
Shadows and Vulnerabilities
With an aggravated sigh, Augustin swiped a hand across the table, sending the collection of neatly placed utensils to the floor.
Hermione winced at the sharp, clattering sound of metal against the marble tiles. Inhaling deep through her nostrils, she exhaled slow as she pressed her fingertips to her temples.
Five days had passed at her new post, and it seemed only a few hours into each morning—before they were even served lunch, in fact—her student would decide it the ideal time to throw a tantrum. She could only assume that, despite his request for her assistance, he was so accustomed to his tutors caving to his whims that having a proper fit when he found himself frustrated by his lessons usually saw to the end of said lesson.
She carefully schooled her features as she knelt to retrieve the silverware. "Augustin, I understand this may seem ridiculous, but proper etiquette dictates that one must—"
"Proper etiquette dictates that one must use a different fork for each course of a meal, despite that they all serve exactly the same purpose?" He frowned as he watched her reach around him to replace the utensils with delicate fingers and careful movements.
"I know it's a bit absurd," she said, offering a smile that was both gracious and understanding, "but, as you will learn, proper etiquette calls for a great many things that are rather absurd."
"And so I'm expected to patiently accept this . . . absurdity?" He frowned, shaking his head. "Why?"
"Because everyone does. That's what makes learning it important." She bit back a yawn. Not only were Augustin's antics wearing, but she felt certain each night thus far, she'd had another of those terribly inappropriate dreams she couldn't quite recall—thank Heaven for small favors—which had inevitably caused her to spend half the night tossing and turning.
He sighed, dragging his hands down his face, and then turned his gaze toward the nearest window. "It just feels so bloody pointless."
Her shoulders sloped a bit at his tone. Unlike the previous lessons, he didn't sound agitated, he sounded . . . resigned. She suddenly wondered just how fast it was that her predecessors had abandoned their post.
Changing tactics, she lowered herself once more to kneel beside his chair. "I understand the simplest things can prove the most difficult to retain, but etiquette is part of your education."
His blue eyes flicked down to meet hers for the briefest second, before he returned his attention to the sun-brightened window. "Perhaps if we could move onto another lesson and come back to this?"
Hermione tipped her head to one side as she thought about which of his lessons Augustin might take to with the most ease. Clearly anything that required too much effort on his part was something they would have to work their way up to.
In that moment, she noticed how his gaze was fastened to that window, and the bright world beyond its glass panes. He seemed fascinated by it . . . but then, she supposed that made sense. After all, from what Tom had told her of Augustin's upbringing, he probably hadn't spent very much time outside the estate's walls.
My, she thought, studying him as he studied the window, he certainly is a handsome one.
Why did it seem every time she let herself think on how attractive he was, there was some fleeting image in the back of her mind? Those pretty hands sliding along her bare thighs . . . his perfect lips ghosting over her skin . . . .
The sensation of warmth flooding her cheeks startled her. Giving herself a shake, Hermione stood up before he could notice.
Her sudden movement drew his gaze, and she found him staring at her, again.
"So, may we?"
Furrowing her brow, she only looked back at him in confusion for a moment. "What? Oh!" Shaking her head, she uttered a quiet laugh at herself. "Move onto a different lesson. Certainly, though, I have an idea on that. If you'll excuse me a moment?" In her scramble to answer him, a notion had occurred to her.
She turned and took a step, before Augustin's hand latching around her wrist caused her to halt in place. The touch of his skin against hers was cool, as always; she imagined that was some residual effect of being ill for so long.
The reminder made it difficult for her not to reach out and place her free hand over his as she pivoted back to face him. She'd made that mistake on her second day, and it seemed such comforting gestures only caused him to recoil into himself.
His brows drew together, making for a painfully lost expression that lasted only the briefest second before it was gone, again. "Where are you going?"
She wondered if she imagined that wounded look. "I'm going to ask Tom something. As I said, I've an idea, but it would require his approval."
Holding her gaze, Augustin nodded and let his fingers slip from her wrist.
Nodding back, she turned again, crossing the room. As she stepped through the door, however, she again thought she must be imagining things.
Augustin's whispered assessment that Tom would agree to any suggestion that might fall from her lips could only be flight of whimsy all her own.
As she lifted her hand to knock on the door of Tom's study—well, his favorite study, as there were already three of which Hermione was aware, and she'd only explored a meager portion of the estate, thus far—she felt the oddest prickling on the back of her neck. Frowning, she backpedaled half a step, her gaze sweeping the third floor corridor.
The stretch of doors further along was dark, deeply shadowed by heavy curtains drawn over the windows. Yet, in the center of the corridor . . . .
Swallowing hard, her eyes narrowed as she focused. The air caught in her throat, though she hardly noticed, distracted by the odd silhouette—the lone figure, darker and thicker than the other shadows surrounding it.
Squeezing her eyes closed, she forced herself to breathe as she knocked.
At the sound of Tom's deep, melodic voice, she opened her eyes. The silhouette had vanished.
Inhaling deep through her nostrils, she squared her shoulders and gave her head a shake. Clearly her assessment from a few minutes ago had been correct. Her overwrought state was causing her imagination to run away with her.
Well, then, the fresh air provided by her idea would probably do her some good, as well as Augustin.
Opening the door, she poked her head inside. Of course, Tom looked magnificent in his perfectly ordered suit as he looked over some papers spread out on his desk before him.
"I'm sorry, Tom, do you have a moment?"
His head came up instantly, the delicate skin beneath his blue eyes crinkling as he smiled at her. "For you, Hermione? Always."
Clearing her throat quietly, she pretended her heart didn't flutter a little at his words. He was only being kind, after all, no need to read too much into pleasantries.
Smiling in response, she stepped inside. Shutting the door, she clasped her hands behind her as she crossed the room to stand before his desk.
"Don't you look like a spot of sunlight in the morning?"
She bit the inside of her lip to keep her expression from brightening any further. Though, she liked to think his comment meant he fancied her dress—lemon-yellow, with the simple pattern of delicate, windswept white flower petals.
"Thank you. I need to speak to you about Augustin."
Dark brows shooting up, he glanced at the grandfather clock on the side of the room. "So soon?" he asked, running a hand through his hair. "Here I'd thought he was getting better."
Following his gaze, Hermione glanced at the clock, as well. "Oh, no, no," she said with a breezy laugh.
Each day they discussed how lessons were proceeding over afternoon tea. Augustin usually saw fit to stare off and do his level-best to appear listless, his arms folded across his chest, like a bored child pretending he could not overhear his parents discussing his punishment for misbehavior.
"I was actually wondering if I may be . . . permitted to take Augustin off the estate's grounds."
A serious expression tugging at his handsome features, Tom sat forward in his seat. Propping his elbows on his desk, he clasped his hands in front of his mouth.
Hermione's face fell immediately, fearing she'd overstepped her bounds.
"Augustin," he began, his voice grave, "has not been outside these walls in some time. His vulnerability due to his past circumstances makes me cautious, as I'm certain you can understand. Why do you ask for this?"
Shrugging, she dropped her gaze to the front panel of his finely polished Cherrywood desk. "Augustin is frustrated by his etiquette lessons, probably because of the monotony. He asked that we move onto a different subject, so I thought . . . ." She darted out her tongue, moistening her lips—though her diverted attention kept her from noticing that Tom was not oblivious to the nervous gesture. "I thought perhaps I could take him to a museum to start his art lessons in a way he is not expecting."
When she met Tom's eyes, once more, some of the severity had drained from his expression. His eyebrows were drawn up ever so slightly in surprise.
Elated suddenly that she had his interest, she offered a slip of a grin. "Maybe if he can be there, amongst the art, immersed in it, it might be the spark he needs. You were correct, Augustin is quite intelligent—intelligent enough to argue the necessity of a great many subjects you mean for me to teach him. I think problem is that standard lessons simply don't engage him."
"So a more involved, hands-on approach is what you're suggesting?"
She nodded. "It certainly couldn't hurt."
The look of surprise on Augustin's face was more immensely rewarding to Hermione than she'd predicted it would be as they stepped from the carriage. His blue eyes were wide and his mouth had dropped open a bit as he stared up at the museum's domed edifice.
They'd departed the estate grounds after lunch, Tom insisting that they eat before they spend hours outside the house. Given Augustin's history, Hermione had agreed the delay was probably best.
In the rays of afternoon sunlight, the faint dusting of color his cheeks usually held seemed to vanish. As she reached up to touch his face, she found his skin was slightly chilled. She worried that the lengthy carriage ride had proved too much exertion for him, already.
He started at the press of her fingers on his jaw, but didn't shy away from the gesture. Instead, he merely dropped his gaze to meet hers.
"Are you feeling all right?" she asked, nodding back toward the carriage. "If you can't manage this, we can go back, and maybe another day—"
"No, no." Augustin clasped one of his gloved hands around hers and gently pulled her fingers from his face. "I suspect that given my lack of exposure to the elements, I'm simply more vulnerable to the coolness of the air than one might expect."
There was that word again, vulnerable; she only hoped such excursions would help to strengthen him, rather than harm him. "If you're certain . . . ." She tried not to think too much on how he'd yet to release her hand.
"I am. Why didn't you tell me you were taking me to a museum?"
Hermione couldn't help a grin, then. "Surprise."
"Now," he said, seeming a little surprised as she looped her arm around his elbow, but not pulling away, "would I be correct in guessing this is my first art lesson?"
"Yes and no," she answered as they strolled past gorgeous antique sculptures and paintings that touched on the breathtaking realism of the Renaissance period. "For today, we're only looking."
Nodding, a thoughtful frown tugged at the corners of his mouth as he glanced around.
"Today you're simply going to find which ones strike your interest most." She inhaled deep and let the breath out, slow and measured. "On our next trip here, you'll learn about those specific works."
"We're to do this again?"
Hermione bit her lip, holding in a laugh at the exhilaration in his voice. "Yes. We can make this a weekly outing, if you like. And, of course, if you're feeling up to it."
The grin lighting her features at his response was not lost on him. "What's the look for?"
Hermione shrugged. "I'm simply happy to see you excited about one of your lessons. Makes me think perhaps we should do something really daring . . . like having your etiquette lessons at a café!"
Augustin pulled her to a halt, his surprised look giving way to a feigned scowl. "You're making fun of me."
She felt a little, giddy stirring in the pit of her stomach, but told herself it was on account of how well her idea had played out. Nothing to do with their flirting . . . because they weren't flirting. That would be highly inappropriate.
"Well," she said, only smiling once more, "perhaps if you stop fussing over silly things, I'll stop treating you as though you're the thing that's silly."
Biting his lip, he nodded. Though she couldn't help but notice that his eyes narrowed as they moved over her in a quick, but appraising sweep, before he turned and started them walking, once more.
For a time, they wandered the floors and exhibits in shifting bouts of comfortable silence and lighthearted chatting. She kept a mental note of which pieces seemed to capture his attention longer than the others.
She noticed how dark it was getting as they had almost completed rounding the top floor. The diminished light was a result of the sun through the windows sinking low in the sky, as well as a portion of the floor being curtained off.
"Why is this closed?"
Shaking her head, she glanced about. "Repairs, or possibly a new exhibit is being installed?"
At this, Augustin began thinking aloud. But Hermione didn't quite hear him, she found her gaze trapped by the nearby sculptures. Not in artistic favor currently, but beautiful nonetheless, Greco-Roman style depictions of godlike figures, and lovers in passionate embraces dominated the space, here.
The statues cast elegantly twisted shadows against the walls, and for a moment, she imagined . . . .
The press of a body against hers . . . . The sweet tingling rush of a mouth at her throat, of lips skimming the delicate skin of her inner thigh as hands cupped her breasts and gentle fingers parted—
She tore her gaze from that elegantly twisted shadow and forced a breath, willing her cheeks to stay cool, and her pulse not to race.
After a few heartbeats, she managed to calm enough to return her attention to Augustin. Yet, as she lifted her eyes to his, she found him already watching her face.
His brows drawing upward, he asked in a low voice, "Saw something you fancy, did you?"
Swallowing hard, she gave herself a shake. Clearly, he only meant to ask if she liked the sculptures—there was no way he could know what had just flashed past her mind's eye.
"Actually, I noticed it's getting late," she said, forcing a small smile onto her lips. "We should really return to the estate, now."
Despite what she thought was likely disappointment flicking across his features, Augustin nodded and turned them back toward the staircase.
Augustin retired to his room directly when they arrived home. Not that Hermione could very much blame him, she'd barely been ill a day in her life, and she was tired.
Tom was nowhere to be found, and she thought perhaps he was in his study, again, as she climbed the stairs to the second floor. The night-darkened corridors, sparsely illuminated by intermittent lanterns called to mind the image she'd seen earlier that day.
Sighing, she lifted her gaze to the third floor landing . . . and stopped cold.
There was that silhouette, again. Darker and thicker than the surrounding shadows, just like before, but now it appeared to lean over the upper bannister . . . .
As though it was peering at her.
A shiver danced up her spine as she stared back at it. "Wha—?" As the whispered syllable fell from her lips, the thing pulled back, vanishing into the blackness of the floor above.
In the silhouette's sudden absence, Hermione felt strangely emboldened. She didn't like being frightened. Even less did she like being frightened in a place she was meant to call home, no matter how temporary.
"Oh, no you don't," she said, her voice slipping out in an angry tumble of words. Snatching the lantern from the end table nearest the second floor landing, she gathered her skirts in her free hand and hurried up the steps to the level above.
The massive house was quiet as she climbed; she could hear the creak of the boards beneath her feet, despite the plush carpet that ran the length of the staircase. Everything was so very still, she thought she could feel the weight of the air, itself, pressing down on her.
As she stepped out onto the third floor landing, she drew a deep breath and let it out slow before she turned toward the long end of the corridor.
A wisp of inky blackness flickered against the shadows.
Despite the sensation of ice pooling in the pit of her stomach, Hermione squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. This was a matter of her imagination running away with her, again.
She started down the corridor, toward the wing where she'd seen this afternoon's looming silhouette. She had to prove to herself it was nothing—some trick of the shadows on her tired mind, nothing more.
As she reached the place where that shape had stood earlier, the fine hairs stood on the back of her neck . . . . Just as they had when she'd seen the thing, but now goosebumps prickled her skin, beneath the sleeve of her dress.
But only one on side of her body.
Glancing down her left sleeve, she continued downward with her gaze, along the floor, and then up to a door. Unlike the others, it was open, by a hair's breadth; not enough to be noticeable from further down the corridor . . . . Or to let a breeze pass through.
With a determined frown, she pivoted to face the door directly. Darting her gaze up and down the length of the passage once more, she stepped forward and gripped the knob.
Hermione winced at the whining and creaking that met her ears as she pushed open the door. Shaking off the unnerved feeling left in the wake of that sound, she stepped into the room, lifting the lantern to look about.
Cobwebs wreathed every item and corner, whirls of dust hung in the air within the sphere of illumination cast by the light in her hand. The standing metal cabinets, and glass-doored cupboard, the leather chaise, and stiff, narrow bed made her think . . . .
This was—or had been—a physician's examination room.
She forced a gulp as her gaze tripped along the desk in the corner and its accompanying black-cushioned chair. It made sense that there was such a place within the estate, given Augustin's past, she supposed, but . . . .
This place seemed out of use far too long to have been utilized as recently as only a few years ago.
Something shot through the darkness, and Hermione turned toward it, her free hand rummaging behind her. As her gaze searched the room for whatever had moved, she groped blindly, hoping to find something she could use to defend herself.
Cold, hard fingers scraped against her own. Before she could stop herself, a scream tore from her throat and she ran for the door.
She collided with something immediately in the corridor, but held back her voice this time. A hand steadied hers, keeping her from dropping the lantern.
"My goodness, you're white as a sheet!"
Hermione heard Tom's voice, deep and soothing in her ear as an arm wrapped around her shoulders.
"Hermione, darling, you're shivering," he whispered, holding her against his chest. "Whatever are you doing over here?"
She drew a shaking breath before she could respond. "I—I saw something, I wanted it to be my imagination so . . . I followed it . . . ."
By the tone of his voice, she could tell his brows had shot up and he was smiling as he said, "You're a very brave girl, then . . . or a very stupid one."
"Feeling a bit of both, just now, thanks."
He nodded, feeling her shivers subside and leaned back to catch her gaze. "Let's go have a look, then, shall we?"
Tom slipped his free hand over one of hers, and stepped around her to reenter the room.
"Something touched my hand," she said, so close behind him her voice was nearly muffled by his shoulder. "I was reaching back and something touched my hand."
From her vantage point, she could not see the smirk curving his lips. "Well, then here." Pausing for only a moment, he turned, still holding her hand.
Hermione tried not to breathe too deep as the movement put them face-to-face, due to how close they stood. He pressed the lantern into her free hand.
"There," he said, holding her gaze. "Now both your hands are occupied. That will keep you from grabbing for anything in the dark."
She nodded, and then he turned away, leading her back into the room.
"When my father was young, there was an in-house physician." He tugged her up to stand beside him and slipped his fingers over the hand which held the lantern. "This old house is so far from everything that such an arrangement proved most convenient."
Tom directed Hermione's hand, moving the lantern's light to sweep the room. "Of course, the place was all but forgotten about when it came time to help Augustin. The rooms down this corridor . . . I sometimes forget about them, altogether. Father stopped using this wing when my mother passed, so I never used it, either."
"Perhaps you should examine these rooms, put them to use again," she said, her words soft and thoughtful.
"That's a notion." He sighed, quite apparently not thinking when he relinquished his hold on her empty hand to slip his arm around her shoulders. "I suppose I never considered it. One day, Father caught me playing in here—I think I'd never actually been in this room before that day—and punished me so harshly, I decided I would never come here, again."
"Oh." Her brow furrowed as she risked a glance at his face. Lord Thomas Riddle looked positively lost in his memories. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize."
"How could you?" he asked, a gentle smile curving his lips. "But you are right. Perhaps it would do me some good to let go of the past. Anyway . . . . Whatever had frightened you, do you see it, now?"
Hermione stepped forward, out from beneath the protective weight of his arm and scanned the room. The black thing that had shot across the room was nowhere to be seen.
But whatever had touched her hand had been behind her.
She pivoted in a slow movement, adjusting the height of the lantern—Tom's hand still over hers—to see clearly behind him. Dust clung to the once-white bones, hanging limp from the metal stand behind them.
Her entire frame slumped as she huffed out a sigh of relief. Tom seemed to notice the change in her posture and again circled her shoulders with his arm, steadying her.
"It was only a physician's skeleton. Oh, I feel so silly! I should have realized."
"Not at all. Generally, no one has reason to expect that a skeleton standing behind them is a normal thing."
He was poking fun at her, she knew, but she couldn't help a laugh, in spite of herself. "I suppose you're right. Still." She shook her head, upset with herself for behaving in such a ridiculous manner. "I am so sorry I made such a fuss. I haven't been sleeping well."
"Ah, I understand." He began guiding her toward the door. "Well, then, let's get you to your room. It's a bit early for bed, but I think the extra time to rest might do you well."
Hermione found herself suddenly fighting back a yawn as they left the deserted wing behind and started down the stairs for the second floor. "I'm not sure a few extra hours will make a difference. I've been having, um—" She cut herself off, nervously licking her lips. Tom still had his arm around her, and it was difficult not to wonder what those dreams she couldn't quite recall might be about with him so close. "Odd dreams. They've been causing me trouble sleeping."
He nodded, but fell quiet until they reached her room. Finally, he released her and pushed the door open for her.
Handing the lantern off to him, Hermione stepped across the threshold. Just as quickly, she was stopped by Tom's fingers circling her wrist.
Startled, she looked back at him.
He smiled warmly. "Just rest, Hermione. I promise you, no dreams will visit you tonight. I'll have Peter set a dinner tray beside your door, in case you rouse later."
She nodded, smiling back. And then the door was closed between them.
Letting out a noisy yawn only after she heard his retreating footfalls reach the end of the corridor, she gave a stretch and began undressing.
Somewhere between removing her stockings and slipping on her nightdress, she recalled the sound of Tom's voice as he'd tried to calm her. Hermione, darling, you're shivering.
Tom had called her darling . . . during a moment of duress. During the sort of moment when people didn't guard the things that fell from their lips.
She sat on the edge of her bed somewhat limply. Lord Thomas Riddle had called her darling.
Oh, how was she supposed to sleep now with these ghastly, giddy butterflies zipping about in her stomach?
Chapter 4: Ever-Desired
So we're clear, I'm very particular about my vampire mythos, and in my interpretation, the whole 'has no reflection' bit is nonsense (or, rather, would be if they actually existed, but you get my meaning).
I know you won't believe me, but life has become rather dull in your absence. Please, do make sure you write to Ginny soon—she's driving the rest of us mad. And Uncle, as well. . . . He was relieved to learn that you'd made it to the Riddle Estate safely, I think. He seems rather unhappy to have you so far from the family.
Also, don't tell her I said so, but I think Ginny is worried that you're enjoying country life so much that you'll forget your promise to be her Maid of Honor.
Hermione snickered at that—as though she could ever forget such a thing? She'd received Harry's letter a few days ago, but was only getting to it just this morning, and she was a bit ashamed that she'd not made reading it more of a priority.
A sudden crash of splintering glass made her jump. Setting the missive aside, she stood from her writing desk and hurried to the door.
Muffled voices, rushed and angry, met her ears as she eased the door open and peered out. From her room, she could see clear down the corridor, into the other wing, where Augustin and Tom's bedrooms were.
Yet another week had passed since their trip to the museum. Her sleep had been mostly dreamless in that time—though, she felt certain that on at least two mornings, she had awoken from another of those terribly inappropriate ones—and Augustin had been mostly cooperative in his studies.
Perhaps hoping for that trend to last was too much to ask, she considered as she watched Tom pleading with a rather disgruntled-looking Augustin just in front of Augustin's open bedroom door.
The younger man was gesturing wildly, his perfect mouth turned downward in an expression of severe displeasure. Tom had his hands in the air, his tone low, obviously controlled, giving him the appearance of someone trying to talk down a raging animal.
Then, everything seemed to still around her as Augustin turned his head, those blue eyes locking on hers. She couldn't help the start she gave as she stared back at him.
As he held her attention rapt, she could not stop the untoward image that skittered through her mind. It must be something she'd dreamed, because the impression of Augustin standing so very close to her that he was pressing her body against a wall with his own was not based in anything that had actuallyhappened. That his lips had closed over hers in hungry, but teasing nibbles that just now caused a blush in her cheeks and a tingling warmth to zip through her, was a memory with no basis in reality.
Of course, that had to have been a dream, because no such thing had—or could have—happened! Perhaps it was the seclusion Tom had warned of getting to her.
But then Tom looked over, as well. Dear Lord, she hoped that telltale blush caused by those thoughts she should not be having had faded from her cheeks!
Tom heaved a sigh, pivoting on his heel to stride through the corridor toward her.
Behind him, Augustin tore his gaze from Hermione's, shaking his head as he raked a hand through his unusually disheveled brown hair. She was so acutely aware of everything he did, even as she shifted her attention to Tom.
Tom's face, already closer than she'd expected, was a sweet shock to her system, all its own. As though she constantly forgot how staggeringly handsome he was whenever she wasn't looking directly at him.
She bit her lip to hold in a frown. If she could not get these feelings of hers under control, she might have to resign her post.
The disappointment at even considering leaving them seemed in danger of breaking her heart.
As Tom finally reached her, she forced a smile. "Is everything all right?"
Wincing, he glanced briefly over his shoulder at her student. "I think perhaps, today, he may need a break from his lessons. He's feeling a bit . . . more temperamental than usual."
Hermione's shoulders drooped. "Well, if you think that's best."
"Although, if you don't mind an extra task, then I have something that might occupy your time when you are not overseeing his studies?"
"Oh?" Her brows shot up.
Slipping an arm around her, he turned her and started guiding her along the corridor toward the staircase. Though she kept her gaze on the floor, she was still acutely aware of Augustin watching them from his open bedroom door.
Unable to stop herself, she darted her attention from the beautiful pattern of the carpet beneath her feet, up to Augustin's face, but only for half a heartbeat. Just long enough to glimpse his expression.
He no longer looked as angry as he had a moment ago when he'd been carrying on whatever whispered argument that was with Tom. He looked sad, now. She could never quite understand how it was that he managed to remind her of a lost child, and an old man weary with the world around him, all at once.
Again, she bit her lip, this time at the sensation of the bitter unhappiness in those blue eyes tearing at her heart.
"You recall your . . . little adventure in the doctor's office, last week?"
Clearing her throat, Hermione focused on Tom. She forced an airy little laugh. "Vividly."
"And you recall suggesting I revisit the rooms in that wing? Put them to use, again?"
As they reached the landing, he turned her again, this time to face him. "I will understand if you say no, as this is not at all what you hired on for, but . . . I would like for you to go through those rooms."
She furrowed her brow, uncertain what to think of his request. "Me?"
His broad shoulders drooped a little at the surprise in her tone. He didn't want her to think he expected her to serve as a maid, as well, so he hurried on. "I thought you might familiarize yourself with that wing, and perhaps . . . help me decide what's to be done with those rooms."
Hermione was uncertain, again, her eyes shooting wide. This was certainly not the first time he exhibited a willingness to take her opinion about his home into account. Only a few days ago, she'd commented offhandedly that some flowers in the foyer and parlor would brighten the feel of the house. The very next morning, she'd come downstairs to find a lovely array of blossoms from the garden in both places.
She was touched that he continually tried to make her feel welcome—to think of the Riddle Estate as her home, and not merely her place of employment.
It did give her pause, however, as it made her wonder just how long he expected her to stay on here. More troublingly, it made her aware that part of her hoped that the answer to that question—if she ever dared to ask it—would be forever.
As though reading her thoughts, he smiled gently. "I want you to feel this is your home. So . . . should you even decide you wish to use that wing for yourself, that is what we will do."
Somehow, her eyes grew wider, still. "You're serious?"
Tom let out a surprised laugh. "I didn't realize I was so prone to joking that you would think I'm not."
"Oh, well, um, I . . . ." Frowning thoughtfully, she nodded. More than just the idea of him giving her a wing of the house, if she chose to use it for herself, but her curiosity about those rooms was suddenly quite rabid, indeed. He'd told her those rooms had not been in use since he was a child. She couldn't help imagining what they might contain.
"All right, yes. I accept the task."
Several hours must've passed, easily, she thought, as she sat back on her heels and wiped the back of her wrist across her brow. She'd headed to the unused wing of the third floor nearly the moment she'd finished breakfast. While Tom had told her the rooms he thought the wing contained—a study, a small library, possibly a guest suite, or two, and, of course, that doctor's office—she was more than aware of Augustin's attention on her.
She'd turned to look at him, finding that rather than eating, he was merely pushing his food around his plate with his fork.
With a sigh, she'd reached out, moving slow so he had the opportunity to pull out of her grasp. Even with all the progress they'd made, and how much more comfortable he seemed in her presence now than he had those first few days, she always treated him gingerly, in case he might decide himself uncomfortable around her, again.
But he didn't pull away as she rested her hand over his. Rather, he dropped his gaze to her fingers, as though the gesture puzzled him.
"You really should eat, Augustin," she said, her tone thoughtful.
She tried to keep her features schooled as he answered her touch by rubbing the pad of his thumb along the backs of her knuckles. Such a simple thing, and yet it kicked off a tingling warmth through her.
Hermione chanced a glance at Tom, trying to gauge his reaction to this. He seemed to merely observe the interaction, as though this display of affection—even small, and simple, as it was—was perfectly normal.
Swallowing hard, Augustin chewed at his bottom lip a moment before he spoke. "I'm sorry."
She was taken aback by those two words. "For what?"
"I wanted to go the museum again, today. You said we could go every week, if I was feeling up to it, and I'm simply not today, and I'm sorry."
He sounded so upset, but the way in which he was speaking, she realized he was upset with himself.
Her brow furrowed as she shook her head. "That's what you were so angry about earlier?"
"Seems rather ridiculous when you state is so plainly," he said, shrugging. "But yes. I thought you might be disappointed."
A sad little smile curving her lips, she tightened her grip on his hand. "Oh, no. I mean, yes, I did very much enjoy seeing you take to the idea of having your art lessons there, but I'm not disappointed. Your health is far more important. The museum will still be there when you're feeling better."
"You treat me far too kindly." He mirrored her expression, his blue eyes narrowing so that the delicate skin beneath them crinkled. "Why did we only find you now?"
Hermione's brows shot up as her smile melted. Did he think those other tutors had wasted their time on him that greatly?
"Fate works in mysterious ways," Tom said, his voice faraway. His gaze was on the window across the room as he took a leisurely sip of his breakfast tea.
She kept her focus on Augustin. "While I'm working in the unused wing today, I would like you to do something for me."
His smile reflected in his eyes, then, and she realized how very much that little change affected his entire appearance. The weary old man she swore she glimpsed in him sometimes was gone in that moment. "Anything."
"Spend today in the gardens." When his only response was to arch is brow, she uttered an airy giggle and went on. "Fresh air, sunlight. I want you to relax, but I don't want it to be in the old, stuffy house."
Tom scoffed. "My home is not stuffy!"
She and Augustin looked to the other man, then. Though his gaze was still on the window, a ghost of a smirk plucked one corner of his mouth upward.
They all shared a quick laugh at his feigned indignation.
Then, in a flash, Hermione remembered her hand still over Augustin's. Remembered the gentle stroking of his thumb across her skin . . . which he had been carrying on this entire time.
Returning her attention to their joined hands, she felt her face fall and a flare of warmth in her cheeks. Why? He'd been doing this for minutes, now, but suddenly something had shifted.
Forcing a gulp down her throat, she brought her gaze up to his. His expression was also serious, now. The change made her aware that he'd sensed that shift, as well.
Clearing her throat, she slipped her hand from his and scooted her chair back from the table. "I suppose I had better get to work, then."
As she turned away and crossed the room, she was certain she could feel both men watching her. The moment she was out the double doors, she pressed her back to one and drew a deep, steadying breath.
She was certain, now. She couldn't leave them, but did she have much choice if she couldn't stop these inappropriate feelings?
They were her employers . . . they'd probably be mortified if they knew of her growing affection for them!
"It's happening, isn't it?" Hermione started at Tom's voice, but luckily the motion was not enough to jar the door against which she leaned.
He snickered at Augustin's mystified tone. "You are falling for her."
She clamped a hand over her mouth to hold in a shocked gasp at the accusation.
She expected a denial—she braced herself for a scoffing brush off. Her feelings might be inappropriate, but his objection would still hurt.
"As are you, don't think I haven't noticed."
Hermione dropped her hand, pressing it over her heart. No, no. This wasn't possible. Not only was Augustin not denying it, he was accusing Tom of the very same thing?
There was a forlorn sigh—from Tom, probably. "Well . . . best we keep our feelings in check, then. Don't want to frighten the poor girl away with such . . . inappropriate inclinations."
She reminded herself to breathe. Not only did they feel as she did, but they felt the same way about the situation?
Drawing in a deep breath, she nodded to herself and finally peeled away from the doors.
At the sound of her footfalls drifting away from the door—they could tell from way she moved that she thought she was being quiet—Tom flicked his gaze toward the entryway and grinned.
"All in order," he said, lifting his tea for another lazy sip.
Augustin propped his elbow on the table and braced his chin against the heel of his palm. "I wonder if she knows how important her feelings are in all this."
Tom offered the other man a wink. "As long as we're being genuine, she'll come around, if she's not there, already."
She knew she'd ignored Peter's words as he'd poked his head into the study and informed her it was lunchtime. After overhearing them speak on their feelings, she wasn't certain she was so ready to sit for a meal with them, again.
Maybe at tea.
There were so many interesting things in this room. Books she'd never heard of, old family journals she was simply itching to sit and read through, portraits. She could see Tom's resemblance to his father, and Thomas Riddle, Sr.'s father, before him.
But the place certainly was dusty—she would not be surprised if there were dust bunnies clinging to the mussed strands that had fallen from her pinned-up hair.
Climbing to her feet, she wiped her filthy hands on the borrowed apron she'd tied 'round her waist. Now that she'd paused, she was starting to feel hungry. Oh, well, she'd have a good appetite for dinner, she supposed.
She made her way to the window, breathing deep of the fresh air breezing through. With a sad little laugh at herself, she shook her head.
Honestly, the moment she overhead their words, she should've gone right back into the dining room and resigned her post. Her own feelings, she'd have continued ignoring. But she shouldn't be here, now, knowing that they harbored similar emotions.
This was a breeding ground for scandal!
She sighed, a small, sad sound, and closed her eyes. She didn't actually care, did she? She wanted to be here, even knowing what folly it could be.
Opening then, again, she looked out into the gardens. There was Augustin, just as he'd promised.
Sitting on the lip of one of the grey stone fountains that dotted the property, he had a book open in his lap. He seemed completely absorbed in his reading.
There it was. The reason she couldn't leave. That fluttering sensation in her chest as she observed him simply sitting there, reading . . . .
That fluttering kicked up to a hammering against her ribcage as Tom strolled into view. How could she possibly go anywhere that would leave this feeling behind her?
She found herself drifting closer to the window, her forehead pressing to the glass sooner than she realized.
She watched as he sat down in front of Augustin. Watched as Augustin closed the book and looked up at the other man. She could only imagine what they were chatting about.
Clearly, the topic was troubling, as Augustin unexpectedly slammed down his book and shot to his feet. The suddenness of his movement actually caused Hermione to jump in place.
But Tom was standing just as fast. He shot out his hand, latching his fingers around Augustin's elbow to prevent him from storming away.
Their apparent arguing continued, but then there was another sudden movement and—
Hermione's jaw fell and she thought her heart had stopped in her chest. They'd closed the distance between them, and now they were . . . .
She wanted to pretend that she was not seeing what she was seeing, even as the thought of it set off a pooling warmth low in her body. She wanted to tell herself she was misreading the action, that they were only talking very close together, and she was seeing them from an angle that made the interaction easy to misinterpret.
But she knew that wasn't so . . . . Stranger still, the image sent a dozen fuzzy recollections—already a bit clearer than before—through her head.
She'd seen them kiss before, in one of those sordid dreams she tried to deny having.
She awoke sitting up. Tom stood before her, holding her hand. Before she could even ask, he was gently tugging her to her feet.
Stepping behind her as he placed his hands over her hips, he guided her to stand before her mirror. He caught her gaze over her shoulder in the reflection. How was it possible he was even more striking in the moonlight and shadows cast through the window than he was in daylight?
"I apologize if this makes you shy," he said, brushing back her hair to move his lips along the side of her throat as he spoke, "and may sound far too-bold of me, but I quite fancy the idea of watching us this way."
Hermione couldn't bring herself to answer. She was both entranced by their reflection, and enjoying too much the sweep of his hands over her as he brought one up to cup her breast, and trailed the other beneath her nightdress. She knew she should feel shy, or ashamed, but she simply did not.
Not even as she felt his fingers dip between her thighs. Nor as he pushed his hips forward against hers, causing her to rock against his stroking hand.
Not even as she noticed, in the reflection . . . . Augustin sat on the edge of the bed, lazily reclined on an elbow as he watched them.
He uttered a hungry sound as his gaze traveled over the pair before the mirror. "Not even certain I should help."
Tom chuckled, as though that were a response. The girl shivered as he dragged his teeth along the pulse in her throat and he tightened his arms around her, pressing her closer to him, still.
"There is something to be said for voyeurism, after all, I suppose," the man on the bed said with a grin.
Tom did speak, this time, chuckling, again, as his fingers teased and toyed. "I do so enjoy the little noises that she makes, don't you?"
Biting into his bottom lip, Augustin nodded. "Music to my ears, in fact."
She jumped then, even as the hand between her thighs stroked faster, edging her toward the sweet bliss of release. There'd been that pinch at her throat that she dimly recalled happening before.
Yet . . . somehow the sensation of Tom's mouth working her skin, of the tip of his tongue swirling over her pulse, added to the sweet, tingling ache he was causing with his fingertips.
She was tensing against him, and he helped her, holding her up on her toes to force her muscles to go taut all the quicker.
Hermione found she couldn't help herself, her gaze locked on the reflection of the other man as the orgasm tore through her.
"Bloody hell," he said, his head shaking. He seemed to be laughing at himself as he stood from the bed and crossed to them.
Augustin held her dreamy gaze for a moment. But then Tom lifted his head. In the reflection . . . there seemed to be a splash of crimson on his lips in the darkness. Augustin lapped at Tom's lips, licking them clean before covering the other man's mouth with his own.
The rumbling sounds of satisfaction they each made were right there in her ear as she watched them, still, in the mirror.
As the sweet warmth spiraling through her began to ebb, her body relaxing in response, Tom started rocking her against his hand, once more.
He broke the kiss and tipped his head away, allowing for Augustin to press his lips to Hermione's throat.
The last thing she recalled before drifting off was the press of Augustin's body in front of her, pushing her more tightly against Tom, while he lapped and suckled at her skin, much as Tom had moments earlier.
Hermione snapped back to the moment. Surely, only the space of a few heartbeats had ticked by, but . . . .
There they were, down in the garden, kissing. She had seen it before, but that was not possible!
Her fingers scrambled at the side of her throat, looking for some sign of what that pinching sensation had been. Some scrape or cut to explain the splash of crimson she'd dreamed on Tom's lips.
There was nothing . . . .
Of course there was nothing, she thought, prepared to reprimand herself. The gloominess of the house, the seclusion, they'd combined in her head to make her imagine wild notions about the men who lived here, as though they were creatures out of some dark fairy story! Some chemistry she must've witnessed between them had clearly triggered her to imagine them kissing before the intimate moment she was spying just now.
Yes, she thought, nodding to herself, even as she backpedaled from the window on trembling footsteps.
She was imagining things. Seclusion, gloominess, separation from her family . . . her feelings toward her employers . . . . All these things were combining to give her fits of hysteria.
It was an uncomfortable notion, but, again, she nodded. Uncomfortable, but sensible. She would simply make an appointment with the closest physician straight away so she could have the matter seen to.
As though she could not help herself, she leaned toward the window, again, sneaking one last glance at them. They were just breaking away from that kiss, their breathing heavy as they stood—their foreheads pressed together, Tom's hand curved around the back of Augustin's neck.
Yes, an appointment with a physician, she thought, again. Because if she could not collect herself, there was no way she could continue on here, with them doing such things and having private chats about how they were each falling in love with her.
"Did she see?"
Augustin flicked his gaze up toward the window. He knew from his vantage point, he could see her, but she could not make out the direction in which he was looking. Inhaling deep through his nostrils, he watched as she turned away from the window.
"Yes. She's gone, now."
Lifting his head, Tom nodded. "Good, because I'm not quite finished with you, yet."
Augustin followed along, a smile on his lips, as Tom dragged him by his wrist into the depths of the garden.
Chapter 5: Questions and Contentment
Questions and Contentment
Tom's pen stilled against the document on his desk. Arching a brow, he lifted his attention to Hermione. She stood in the open doorway of his study, her gaze on the hem of her skirts as she twisted her fingers in front of her.
Of all the things he expected she'd ask him after what she'd witnessed from that window in the old wing yesterday afternoon, a request to see a doctor, herself, was not among them.
Setting aside his work, he watched her for a moment. She didn't look feverish, or pale, nor did her respiration seem labored. Nevertheless, the abruptness of her request worried him.
"Are you not feeling well, Hermione?"
The concern in his voice startled her, and she couldn't help but lift her gaze to meet his. As always, his handsome features were a sweet shock to her system that stole her breath for a moment. Dear Lord . . . she'd been here for over two weeks, already, and saw the man literally every bloody day. When would she grow accustomed to him?
"Oh, I'm feeling fine, I just . . . ." God, how could she tell him what was wrong with her?
His brow furrowing, he pushed away from his desk and stood. "You can tell me. You know that, don't you?"
The young woman swallowed hard as she nodded. "I suppose, but it's not really—"
"Don't think of me as your employer right now, not if it's preventing you from being wholly truthful with me." Rounding the desk, he crossed the floor to stand before her. "Think of me as your friend."
Again, she nodded. Though, it turned out to be a struggle to get the words out, the syllables feeling quite stuck in her throat, just now. "I, um . . . I think perhaps I am not adjusting to the country air as well as one would think. Those strange dreams I mentioned to you before have returned, and well . . . ."
Tom's broad shoulders drooped as he looked down at her. In what he knew she'd consider a bold move, he gathered both of her hands into his own, his grip firm but gentle.
"Well?" he echoed, frowning thoughtfully.
His fingers were so warm, wrapped around hers like this. She knew she should not tell him what had been happening in her head, because no matter how he put it, he was her employer. But she wanted to tell him, at least something of it, anyway.
God, if Harry or Ginny knew she was falling in love with her employers and had not resigned her post, they'd have her in a sanitarium for such an un-Hermione-like decision faster than she could blink!
"I feel like I've been imagining things that simply cannot be, and so . . . the only thing I can think might be wrong with me is, well . . . I believe I'm having hysterics."
Tom's eyebrows shot up. "Oh?" He chuckled and shook his head. "I doubt that. You are very level-headed and logical and do not at all seem prone to—"
"Tom? Please." Running the tip of her tongue along her suddenly parched lips in a nervous gesture, she gave a head shake of her own. "I'm imagining things that are . . . unhealthy of a proper young lady."
Somehow, his brows managed to climb higher, still. "I see."
"So, yes. I . . . require an appointment with the nearest local physician."
"No, you don't."
Her eyes shot wide. "What?"
He tightened his hands around hers. "I'll not bore you with my reasons, now, but I will say it is my opinion that a young woman is entitled to imagine a great many things for which society dictates she should be ashamed. However, if my opinion is not enough to assure you, I would like to remind you I do have medical training, and am perfectly aware of the treatment for hysteria."
She felt warmth flood her cheeks as she stared up at him in silence.
"If you like, Hermione," he said, his tone as gentle as his hands around hers, "I could administer it and save on your need to visit some stranger. However . . . ." He let his voice trail off as he bit his lip.
Yes, that's what she'd thought he was suggesting. She could barely think around the idea of Tom handling such a delicate and intimate problem. Forcing a gulp down her throat, the question tumbled breathless from her lips, "However?"
A troubled expression flickered across his features as he held her gaze. "I'm aware that when a physician delivers such treatment, he is expected to maintain a level of clinical detachment."
She knew what she was seeing—she recognized the heat in his blue eyes as he stared down at her. Yet, she told herself that, too, was the work of her imagination. The ruse was necessary for her to keep her composure.
Was her mind actually playing tricks on her now, or had their bodies drifted closer together as they talked?
"I'm afraid," he said, pausing to swallow, "were you to allow me to do this for you, I would not be able to remain clinical or detached."
There was no denying to herself, then, the way her pulse quickened and her body flushed as she thought about Tom reacting to such a thing. Yet, she was uncertain whether she was frightened by such a prospect, or intrigued.
Forcing a gulp down her throat, she managed to get her bearings, somehow. Backpedaling a step, she took a deep breath. "I . . . I need time to think about which option would be preferable, if that's all right?" She didn't mean preferable, of course—she meant wise, she meant safe, neither of which did she consider letting Lord Tom Riddle slip his hand between her thighs, proper procedure, or not—and she knew he understood her true meaning.
To his credit, he did not look regretful or angry with her for her caution. On the contrary, the small, gentle smile that curved his mouth looked understanding.
Nodding, he gave her hands another gentle squeeze before letting her fingers slips from his as he said, "Of course. I would not wish to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, Hermione."
With an unsteady smile, she nodded back. She had another day to herself as Augustin was being moody, and she should really find . . . anywhere else to be right now. Though, some spontaneous fancy took hold of her senses, and she shot forward, brushing her lips against his cheek in a quick, light kiss.
The action had nothing to do with the sudden rush of tingly giddiness through her as she remembered witnessing Augustin and Tom kissing, she insisted to herself.
Just as fast, she pulled back and turned on her heel. She was already striding down the corridor by the time her senses caught up with her and the responding blush filled her face.
She didn't notice the way Tom ducked his head through the open doorway to watch her go. Didn't see the somewhat wicked half-grin that curved his lips, nor the captivated gleam in his eyes as his gaze trailed her movements until she disappeared beyond the curve of the staircase landing.
The gardens of Riddle Estate were gorgeous, but they were also expansive. Hermione thought it was just her luck that she'd gotten herself lost. Sighing, she turned her head and looked about her lush surroundings. It really did serve her right, didn't it? With another day to do as she pleased, perhaps she should've gone back to work in the old wing, yet . . . .
Her shoulders drooped. This had been a poor decision. After what she'd seen out here yesterday, perhaps she shouldn't be out here. What if the gardens were some special place for the two of them?
Swallowing hard, she shook her head at herself and started off in a random direction—each time she set off in what she thought was the correct one, she ended up more turned around than before, so random seemed safer. She still wasn't certain how she felt about that private moment she'd witnessed, about what it must mean.
Well . . . that wasn't wholly true. She knew how it made her feel physically, but emotionally? She was at a loss. A confused, jumbled loss. She'd overheard Tom and Augustin's conversation yesterday morning. She knew what they felt for her . . . .
She was aware of the meaning behind the intensity in Augustin's look when their gazes met lately. She knew what fueled the tone of Tom's voice as he'd spoken to her in his study doorway, she knew what caused that possessive grip of his hands around hers and the flickering warmth in his eyes.
But if the men were a couple, what did that mean for what they felt toward her? Hermione chewed at her lower lip as she walked. This was more confusing than the plot of one of those frivolous romantic novels with which Ginny was so taken. If they'd not been so open as to discuss their feelings for her with one another, if they'd kept things to themselves and she'd found out some other way, she'd understand. But they knew and they carried on, still?
Her footfalls stilled and she drew in a deep breath. What if that was what they were arguing about yesterday? They'd gotten into that heated discussion before they'd kissed . . . . Could it have been about her?
Shaking her head, she let that breath out in an exasperated huff. "Oh, listen to yourself! That could've been about anything—they'd had near their entire lives together before you came along, Hermione. Probably a matter of coincidental timing that had nothing to do with you, at all."
Gathering her skirts in her hands, she picked up her pace. At this rate, she'd be wandering about out here until dark.
Much to her surprise, however, the next turn in the path beneath her feet brought the estate house into view. With a sigh, she nodded as she continued along. She should really have someone take her on a proper tour of the garden grounds in the near future—something that possibly should've happened sooner, but had simply been glossed over, somehow.
As she got close to the house, she spied something so sweetly innocent, she could not help an airy and surprised giggle.
A smile playing on her lips, she approached the white-seated tree swing. She reached out tentatively, pulling on the ropes. They were sturdy, which seemed promising, given their weathered condition, making it even more unexpected that the white lacquer hadn't peeled away. It didn't show more age than some minor bubbling. Perhaps it had been replaced, but the ropes left as they were due to how hearty they turned out?
Good Lord! why must you examine absolutely everything? Her inner voice scolded her as she rounded the swing and seated herself carefully.
With a mildly self-deprecating snicker, she shook her head at her thoughts. As she started swinging, keeping the motions small and gentle, she considered that her life was in a very odd place right now. She'd never had a position in which she was so genuinely unsure of what the day ahead would be like when she awoke each morning.
She couldn't even say if that was a bad thing or a good one, however. Yes, she spent equal amounts of time teaching as she was hired to, and not. Yes, she was slowly but surely falling for both her employer and her student. Yes, she had fleeting and hazy memories of steamy, highly inappropriate, dreams about both of them—memories that had honestly made her wonder if fairy tale monsters could be real for a ridiculous moment. Yes, that she was not more concerned about either of those things had her worrying for her mental state. Yes, there might even be a ghost lurking somewhere in that house.
A wistful sigh escaping her lips, she fixed her gaze on the house. So many things that should've made her leave this place, and yet . . . she was strangely content here.
"I see you found my hiding spot."
Hermione's heart skipped a beat at the sound of Augustin's voice behind her. He wrapped his hands around the ropes just over hers, slowing her swinging.
She didn't look back at him as she spoke. "You sound like you're feeling better."
He hummed a quick, thoughtful sound as he started swinging her gently. "I suppose I am."
"Well, then, it is still early in the afternoon." Despite what she was about to suggest, she was rather certain she already knew what the young man's answer would be. "We could get some lessons in."
"Oh, I don't know that I'm feeling that much better."
She shook her head, laughing. "Somehow I knew you'd say that."
He caught and held her, stopping the swinging rather abruptly. When she tipped back her head to meet his gaze, he answered with a small, suspicious grin on his lips. "Then why make the offer?"
Hermione shrugged, marveling at how hard it was to stay angry with him. She should be furious he was so flippant about this opportunity to gain a proper education, but instead, she found herself sympathizing. She couldn't know what this transition was like for him, but she could imagine that adjusting to formal lessons was not as simple as it seemed.
"Perhaps I was hoping you would surprise me."
Chuckling he shook his head at her. He didn't respond, only starting to push the swing, once more.
With a smirk, she returned her gaze to the building before them. She immediately gasped, giving a little start.
Again, he stopped her motions. "What is it?"
The young woman sighed, pressing her palm over her heart as she willed her jumping pulse to steady. "I . . . saw someone in the window and it frightened me, is all. But I suppose it must've been Tom."
"Oh, so you find him scary, do you? I suppose that makes two of us."
Laughing in spite of herself, Hermione swatted at his fingers around the rope. "That's not what I meant. I didn't expect to see him in the old wing. He gave me the impression he doesn't go in there."
A troubled frown marring his features, Augustin stepped around the swing to stand before her. "He doesn't."
"Oh?" Her chestnut eyes wide, she looked from him to the window in question, and back. "Then Peter, perhaps? Though I could swear the person was dark-haired."
His brows pinched together. "Peter doesn't go in there, either. He only stays in the portions of the house where Tom might have need of him."
Swallowing hard, she shook her head as she held his gaze. "Then who did I just see?"
Augustin squared his shoulders as he held out a hand to her. "Let's go find out, shall we?"
Chapter 6: The Witch's Ghost
The Witch's Ghost
She wanted to think the house felt different as she walked up the stairs to the second floor, Augustin's hand secure around hers. That it felt larger and darker and colder, but she knew better. That was her imagination trying to run away with her, and hadn't she already appeared foolish in front of Tom with that nonsense over the physician's skeleton in the old doctor's office? The last thing she needed was to overreact in front of Augustin. Whatever feelings might be developing between them, she was still his instructor, and could certainly do without anything that might undermine that dynamic.
As they reached the second floor landing, he turned her in the direction of the old wing. She tried not to put too much consideration into the way he walked half a step behind her. It was surely only her imagination, again, that he seemed to want to place his free hand on her waist as he guided her along. Only her imagination that he might want to stop her and pull her back against him.
Oh, dear God, Hermione! There you go again. She halted mid-step, forcing a breath. The very idea of being that close to him set off a flood of warmth in her cheeks.
"Are you all right?" he asked, those usually playful blue eyes of his showing concern. "You look a bit flushed."
Holding his gaze a moment, she nodded. "Yes, I'm sorry. Let's keep moving."
With a nod of his own in return, Augustin started them moving through the old wing, once more. "Now, which room do you think you saw the person?"
"Further along." She jutted her chin toward the very last door before the bend in the corridor. "That one, I think."
"I understand you had an adventure in the doctor's office shortly after you first arrived here."
Hermione glanced at his face, her shoulders drooping. "I was hoping Tom had kept that to himself."
"Well," Augustin began, arching a brow as he shrugged, "I think he could hardly help it. Seemed to find the incident endearing."
Well, Tom did slip and call her darling after that, so she'd imagine that yes, he had found it endearing. Even so . . . . "As I said, I had hoped he'd not passed that along."
As they reached the door, he pulled her to a halt. Sidestepping to stand before her, he deliberately captured her gaze with his own. "I see. So, it's fine for him to witness you having a vulnerable, completely human moment, but not for me?"
His brows shot up.
Shaking her head, she frowned. "I mean, no. That's not what I meant. I am your teacher, Augustin. It matters how you see me, how you think of me." Oh, damn, but that wasn't really what she wanted to say, either.
Sooner than she could attempt to correct herself, Augustin spoke, offering a quizzical half-smile. "So how he sees you doesn't matter?"
Her brown eyes widening as she held his gaze, she seemed to fold in on herself a bit. "You're confusing me on purpose, which I don't very much appreciate, and I'd really like not to discuss this any further, thank you."
Again with that infuriatingly easy shrug of his, he nodded. "As you wish." Turning back toward the door, he tried the knob and pushed it open.
Hermione felt uneasy the instant the hinges let out their first whining creak. She'd not been in this room, yet, so she had no idea what awaited them.
Stepping inside, she looked about the dusty old suite. Possibly a guest room? But then her gaze fell upon the portrait gracing the far wall. An elegant woman with pale features and a mass of dark hair stared back at her. Her equally dark eyes were enormous and somehow unnerving.
This time, Augustin did step up directly behind Hermione. She could feel the weight of his hands resting on her waist and the tickle of his breath against her skin as he breathed.
"I'm not terribly familiar with this portrait, exactly, but I've heard about that woman. Bellatrix Lestrange."
She felt frozen in place, her gaze on stuck on that of the women in the painting. "Bellatrix Lestrange?" she repeated in a whisper. What an unusual name.
"I'm actually surprised there's a likeness of her anywhere."
"Why's that?" Hermione wanted to turn her head and look at him, but she was a bit afraid to with how close his face was to hers.
"Well, for one thing, she's not really called by her name. Instead, poor dear managed to earn the title of 'The Mad Witch.'"
In that moment, she wasn't certain what had her pulse quickening more. There was the ominous tone in which he'd spoken . . . and then there was the feeling of his breath against her neck, of his lips brushing her skin. As though he'd lowered his mouth to the side of her throat, pausing mid-kiss, just long enough to answer.
Her eyes drifted closed and she found herself leaning back against him. "What did she do to earn such a title?" Somehow, she knew, the discussion was part of whatever play was going on here between them. She wanted to pull away, wanted to leave the room, wanted to reprimand Augustin for being so very familiar with her . . . . And yet, at the same time, wanted to do none of those things, at all. Wanted only to stand here like this in his embrace, feeling the warm press of his lips below her ear.
He made a deep, rumbling sound in the back of his throat as he sighed, grinning when his breath against her skin made her shiver in his arms. "Well, aside from—as the story goes—actually being a witch?"
She swallowed hard, tipping back her head to rest against his shoulder. "I mean . . . what did she actually do? What is her story?" This was all so dreadfully inappropriate, she should really stop him . . . .
Augustin grazed her earlobe with his teeth, uttering a wicked snicker at the sigh that escaped her. "Well, it's said that she came to Riddle Estate at the behest of Tom's mother, the Lady Merope Riddle. Merope was apparently fascinated with spirits and the otherworldly—in a way that probably would've seen her hanged or burned at the stake a century ago. It was before Tom was born."
Hermione found herself curling backward to lean tighter against him. She rested her arms over his as he slid his hands around her waist to hold her there. "So Merope knew Bellatrix was a witch already?"
Chuckling, he shrugged, dropping another kiss to her throat. "Well, I'm certain it probably wasn't all that openly advertised, but yes. She summoned Bellatrix to perform a séance. Wanted to speak to her . . . mother, I think? Of course, I'm certain the who is not really important. Itss said that Merope became enamored of Bellatrix and invited her here frequently. For longer and longer stays each time."
Hermione's brows shot up. "Oh? Were they . . . ?"
"Lovers?" Again, he shrugged. "That is the rumor, though it was never confirmed. Does the thought of such a thing—someone taking a lover of the same gender—make you uncomfortable?"
She seemed painfully aware of the rise and fall of his chest against her back as he breathed. Of the warmth of him—unusual, given how chilled he typically felt—wrapped around her. The question prompted her to remember the kiss she'd witnessed between him and Tom in the garden.
And the kiss she'd dreamed seeing them share just before he'd pressed his lips to her throat and—
"No," she said, continuing the conversation in a deliberate bid to distract herself from the impossible thing that same dream had shown her. Sharp teeth and blood, yet her own unmarked flesh told her that was the work of her imagination, alone, even if that kiss had been proven to have a basis in reality. "Should it?"
"I would think opinions on whether or not it should would vary based on the person to whom you're speaking, but I find it refreshing, actually." Again, he caught her earlobe in a delicate bite before going on. "Shall I continue?"
She wasn't certain as to what he was referring. "You . . . you mean with the story?"
His arms tightened around her as he laughed. "Yes. I'll pretend I don't know what else you think I could mean."
Hermione could feel the blush in her cheeks as she realized he'd caught her imagining where this moment between them could lead if it went further than embraces and lips against appropriately bared skin. Yet, she couldn't help herself. She didn't know what had gotten hold of her senses, but as much as she knew this was woefully inappropriate, she also had to battle a troubling impression that this moment would be 'complete', were Tom present.
Damnable dreams of hers!
"As—as you were saying?" she said, forcing out the words.
He smirked, nodding. "Yes. As I was saying . . . . If they were lovers, Bellatrix had a funny way of showing it, as not long after she was visiting with Merope so long the servants whispered the witch had moved in, Merope took ill. This portrait's commissioning, I'd imagine, only served to validate such rumors about their relationship. But, as I said, Merope took ill. And it seemed no matter what the estate physician did, she would not get better, nor could he understand what ailed her enough to even make a proper diagnosis."
Hermione forgot her own refusal to turn her face to his earlier and immediately found his mouth on hers. He traced her lips with the tip of his tongue. Pulling away just enough to meet her gaze, he exhaled sharply, his breath making the soft, damp skin tingle.
"Go on," she prompted in an airy whisper.
His eyes searched her face as he asked, "With the story?"
Swallowing hard, she reminded herself to breathe. "I'll pretend I don't know what else you think I could mean."
A lopsided grin curved his mouth. "You do catch on quick. All right. The only time Merope's health seemed to improve was when Bellatrix was here. Sure enough, every time Bellatrix returned to the city, Merope's health declined. And, given there was still no illness the doctor could find . . . ."
"They called it witchcraft."
"They called it witchcraft," he echoed, his tone thoughtful. "They believed Bellatrix had cursed her, trying to make Merope dependent on her constant companionship. And so, the next time Bellatrix visited, well, we actually have no idea what happened to her. She was never seen again. Merope got healthier, but never truly recovered—either from the heartbreak or the illness is anyone's guess. Shortly after Tom was born, her body just . . . gave out. So 'witch' because, well, she was one, and 'mad' because to inflict that sort of torment on the one you love simply to keep yourself useful is hardly sane, now is it?"
"Clearly not. So . . . did Tom's father kill Bellatrix?"
"No one was ever able to prove anything, but one would assume so."
"I remember Tom telling me," she said, aware how strange it should seem to her that they were having this conversation with their faces so close together, their lips brushed with every word spoken, "that it was after his mother died his father refused to let anyone use this wing. This must've been . . . must've been where Bellatrix stayed."
"I think you might be right. I ask again, are you certain this is the room where you saw the person at the window?"
He nipped at her bottom lip. "Could it be that you glimpsed the portrait?"
Hermione forced her head to turn, looking from the window to the framed likeness of Bellatrix, before returning her attention to Augustin. "Not possible. The angle is all wrong. No . . . ." She tried to imagine she didn't feel a sudden chill up her spine as a corner of her mind wandered.
"This is going to sound completely mad, but the night I found my way into the old doctor's office, I had seen something. Like the shape of a person, but not. That's what led me there. And now this? With Tom and Peter never coming in here, and you and I being the only other two people in the estate besides them . . . ."
"Are you suggesting you think you've seen Bellatrix's ghost?"
Her shoulders drooped as she finally pulled out of his embrace to turn and face him. The moment of near-sinful warmth between them had evaporated in the wake of her confession. But he only stared back at her, his blue eyes narrowed and calculating as he waited for her to answer. "As I said, it sounds completely mad, I know, but—"
"But they never did find her body," Augustin finished for her in a hushed voice, tearing his gaze from hers to dart about the floor as he thought. "It . . . it does sound completely mad, yes. But what if it is true?"
"I . . . I'm not sure what to think, Augustin."
"Maybe we had best to keep this to ourselves, for now. Tom doesn't like discussing Bellatrix Lestrange. He blames her for his mother's death, after all." He frowned, shaking his head. That playful, too-familiar side of him was all but gone, now, even as he caught her hand in his. "Perhaps we should discuss this somewhere a bit less sad and dusty, hmm?"
Nodding, she let him lead her from the depressing guest suite. Out in the corridor with the door to the witch's room closed behind them, she already felt bit better.
Yet, her heart leapt into her throat when they neared the landing, coming face-to-face with Tom as he climbed the stairs.
Hermione and Augustin both halted. They watched as Tom's gaze took in each of them and then their joined hands, in turn, before looking to both of them, again.
"Shall I even ask what you two have been up to?"
Chapter 7: A Fine Day for Hysterics
Okay, for those unfamiliar with Victorian ladies' undergarments, quick explanation before going into this chapter? Ladies' underwear was crotchless. Seriously, long billowy things like you're picturing, but with a slit in the center for practicality.
A Fine Day for Hysterics
Hermione winced, standing in the doorway of the Mad Witch's room beside Augustin. He had yet to relinquish his hold on her hand, his fingers tangled with hers throughout a reluctant explanation to Tom. She'd been at a loss for precisely what to say as she'd stared back at the master of the house, given Augustin's advisement of not mentioning anything about Bellatrix to Tom. Augustin, on the other hand, seemed to take her sudden panic into account, his tone almost dismissive of Tom's anger as he recounted someone seeing the figure of a dark-haired person through the window.
Only . . . he claimed he was the one to have glimpsed the specter.
Tom only seemed more aggravated, not less, by Augustin's reasoning. His broad shoulders slumping, he'd stepped past them and stalked down the corridor of the old wing. Hermione exchanged a quick glance with the younger man, though she could not quite make sense of the look in his eyes, as they hurried after him.
As she watched Tom cross the floor, his gaze roving over the painting as an expression of disgust twisted his handsome features, she couldn't help but remember being so very close with Augustin only moments earlier not at all far from where they stood, now. Watching Tom turn to pace to the window where Augustin had claimed to have seen the figure standing, the remembered sensation of Augustin's body against hers and his lips brushing her throat stole her breath.
Worse, she could feel Augustin's attention on her from the corner of his eye. Though she wouldn't turn her head to look at him just now, she felt sure there was the tiniest smirk tugging at his mouth.
When Tom spun back to face them, Hermione jumped a little at the abruptness of the movement. Only then did she realize the other man's fingers were still locked with hers. And, from the brief downward flicker of Tom's gaze, she knew he'd registered that continued hold, as well.
Swallowing hard, the Lord dropped his eyes from the pair. He shook his head, appearing to collect himself before speaking. "I recall when we were children, Augustin. When you weren't having an episode, you were quite the little prankster." His features pinched in exasperation. "I had hoped you'd outgrown that rather immature trait. Regardless, I never thought you'd try such a thing on Hermione."
Augustin's eyes shot wide at the accusation. "What? Tom, no! I didn't—"
"Of all the things you could do," Tom went on through clenched teeth, fussing to straighten his collar and the cuffs of his jacket—minutia to focus on as he gathered his temper—as though Augustin hadn't said a word, "I never imagined you'd—"
"It wasn't Augustin who saw it," Hermione blurted out, as much to calm Tom's anger as to spare Augustin being blamed for something that wasn't true. "It was me."
The shift in Tom's demeanor was instant. The tense set of his shoulders eased and his fussing fingertips stilled. Those piercing blue eyes of his locked on her face as he let his arms drop to his sides. She could swear the flicker through them then was pain.
The idea that the unwilling deception had hurt him tugged painfully at her heart.
Shrugging, she elaborated before he could ask why she'd allowed Augustin to lie for her. "He was only trying to keep me from appearing foolish in front of you. I hadn't . . . hadn't known what to say, because he told me how much you dislike discussing anything about, well, her."
"And you thought I would not believe you?"
Forcing a gulp down her throat, she dropped her gaze from his. "Given our conversation in your study earlier, I should think it evident that I'm not sure I believe myself. But I did think I saw someone up here, I truly did."
When silence rang through the room, she forced herself to return her attention to his face. He appeared deep in thought over something. After another moment of silence as they stared at one another, he nodded, his expression grave.
"Time to help you sort what's real and what is your imagination, I should think."
Crossing the room, he reached out, sliding his hand around the wrist of Hermione's free hand. He stepped around Augustin and started tugging her along behind him as he made his way back down the corridor.
Strangely, she felt more aware of Augustin's hand on hers only its absence. At the sensation of his fingers disentangling from hers, she looked back at him over her shoulder. Augustin offered her an apologetic look, staying right where she'd left him. Whatever Tom had in mind just now, she knew the other man had somehow sensed it did not involve him.
Swallowing hard, she turned her attention forward. Tom continued guiding her along the corridor, out of the old wing entirely, past the mouth of the staircase. Without so much as a word or a backward glance at her, he opened the door to his study and ushered her inside.
She was distinctly cognizant of him releasing his hold on her wrist. Distinctly cognizant of the sound of the door closing behind them.
Feeling silently prompted, she stepped further into the room. Once she stood at the center, she halted and turned to face him. Somehow, seeing that he'd removed his jacket and was placing it gently aside on his desk caused her breath to catch in her throat.
"Find someplace comfortable, please." He wasn't looking at her as he unclasped his cuff links and set them aside, as well. His expression was entirely blank, nearly cold as he started rolling his sleeves up to his elbows.
Her eyes shot wide as she realized what he meant to do. Even as she moved to follow his command, looking about the room to find a suitable spot before going to the chaise against the far wall, she said, "Just earlier you said you'd let me think about this."
"Yes, well, that was before what you saw in that room."
She swallowed hard once more, trying to get her breathing under control as she seated herself and turned to lay back. Blinking rapidly, she stared up at the ceiling, trying not to think on the idea of his hand slipping under her skirts, or what it was going to feel like to have his fingers stroking against her. Honestly, she only tried to think how fortuitous it was that she wasn't wearing a crinoline dress, or this matter would be a touch more complicated than simply laying back.
"Are you comfortable?" he asked, his voice sounding both unflustered and strained at all once—as though he was trying for that clinical detachment he'd mentioned earlier and struggling to maintain it.
Closing her eyes, she nodded. "I again mention that you said you'd leave this to be my choice."
"I had every intention of doing so," he said as he pulled a chair over and sat beside the chaise. "But this . . . sighting of yours troubles me."
"So you do think my imagination has been running away with me?" She tried for a neutral tone, but still she could hear the hurt in her own voice.
He arched a brow, his gaze snapping up to lock on her face. "I did not say that. But, as I said, this sighting troubles me."
She sank her teeth into her lower lip as she tried to focus her attention on the ceiling above her. Tried and failed, her eyes dropping to meet his while he carefully pushed her skirts out of his way.
Oh, this was nerve wracking!
"I'm troubled, because I was raised to respect superstition. I know that probably seems out of character with how you've come to think of me." The whisper of fabric was audible as he parted her legs, the opening in her undergarment falling wider with the movement. "I have never experienced a sighting, myself, but I will not be wholly dismissive of the possibility, either."
She jumped a little at the first brush of his hand between her thighs. Already she could feel her face flushing, the skin of her cheeks tingling with warmth as his fingertips slid against her.
He went on, that almost-detachment in his voice as he stroked her gently. "As such, we must do this so that your head is clear. But I want you to be alert at all times after this. If you have another sighting, we will know it's not something easily dismissed as some manifestation of hysterics."
Hermione could tell he was working her up slowly. She didn't know if she was grateful that he was not simply hurrying through the treatment, or horrified that he was not being cold and clinical and simply rushing her to climax.
She pressed her lips into a line as she nodded, trembling as he quickened his pace just a bit.
"Tell me, then" he said, as though they were carrying on a conversation over tea. "This was not the first time you experienced something here?"
The young woman shook her head. She found herself fighting not to move against his fingertips. He was trying to remain detached, she should do him the courtesy of not responding to his treatment wantonly.
"Tell me about what you've seen?"
Her breath caught, and she lost the battle with herself. Her head fell back a little as she shivered, her hips rocking of their own volition. "The night . . . . The night I stumbled upon the doctor's office, I believe I was lured there, somehow."
"Oh?" Again, he quickened his pace a bit, his fingertips pressing harder as they rubbed over the slick skin. "Describe what happened?"
"I was . . . ." Her voice trailed off and she struggled a moment to focus on her breathing. "I was walking up the stairs after having returned home from the museum with Augustin. And when I . . . when I looked up, there appeared a figure. It was looking down at me from beyond the railing, but it was all in shadow. The way it leaned down, I should've been able to see who it was clearly, but it was all black."
"Were you not terrified?"
There was another sound of rustling fabric and she looked down. Tom had placed the arm of his free hand out before her. She couldn't seem to care anymore if he thought poorly of her or admonished her later for her movements, pushing herself more tightly against the working of his fingers as she reached out, clamping her hands around his forearm.
Dear Lord, she was so acutely aware of his gaze still on her face.
"I was, but I chose to be logical about it." She forced her mouth shut to keep in a keening moan as she felt her limbs starting to tense. Drawing in a gulp of air, she continued in a breathless whisper. "I followed the shadow to prove to myself that it was nothing at all."
"And yet, it led you to the old wing?"
He moved faster, pressed a bit harder, still, and she gasped her body going taut as he pushed her over the edge. Somehow, she managed a nod even as the orgasm tore through her.
She could sense his continued attention on her face. She thought she could hear some hushed, breathy groan from him as he watched her. Thought she felt the muscles in his forearm strain beneath her hands, as though he was trying to keep himself from reacting too strongly to her aroused state.
She didn't even care that such an observation might be presumptuous of her.
As that sweet tension ebbed, he slowed his fingers. Timing his motions, he met the shivering jerking of her own body as blissful aftershocks of her orgasm rocked through her.
Swallowing hard, she shook her head as she realized how she'd responded to the treatment. Hermione caught her breath as her limbs drooped and her hands slipped from his arm.
After she stilled, he withdrew his fingers, his movements gentle as he closed her legs and pulled her skirts back into place over her. Lifting the hand that was not currently slick from working her, he wiped at her cheeks and forehead. Delicate, still, he pushed a wayward lock of her wild hair behind her ear as he waited for her to open her eyes.
When she did, she was greeted by the sight of that dazzling smile of his. Even as she caught her breath, still, even as she felt a blush flare in her cheeks, she could not seem to stop herself from smiling back at him.
"Based on what you've just told me," he said, his voice low and warm, "I don't believe your imagination is running anywhere, Hermione. Whatever you saw led you to a history of this house you could not have had any idea about."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying I believe you truly saw something." He shrugged, sighing. "I believe you truly glimpsed something in that evil woman's room. And I believe it would do this house a world of good to be rid of such a dark influence."
"You're going to look for the Mad Witch's grave?"
He nodded, his gaze holding hers. "If my father did kill her, if her body is somewhere on these grounds, I shall find it."
There was a sudden churning in Hermione's stomach as she stared back at him. Something unnameable whispered to her that nothing good could come from chasing the ghost of Bellatrix Lestrange.
As she stepped out of the study, pulling the door shut behind her, she smoothed a hand over her dress. And then promptly jumped to find Augustin lingering in the corridor.
Her cheeks flamed as she wondered how much he might've heard.
His gaze flicked over her from head to foot before returning to her face. Breathing out a short, quiet chuckle, he smirked.
"What?" she asked, her brows pinching together.
That smirk widening a little, he shrugged. Turning on his heel, he started down the corridor. "Don't need medical training to administer that particular treatment." He glanced back at her over his shoulder. "I'd have gladly done it, if you'd only asked."
Her eyes widening, she only watched as he disappeared around a bend in the wall. Of all the things she'd expected today, Tom believing her about the sightings hadn't been one of them. Neither had Augustin making bold declarations that had her remembering glimpses from those wicked dreams, that caused her body to heat and tingle all over again.
And he hadn't even touched her this time.
Chapter 8: Dust and Blood
Dust and Blood
Over the days that followed, Hermione, Augustin, and Tom scoured the grounds for any sign of what could potentially be an unmarked grave. Alternating between that and Augustin obligingly—if grousingly—returning to his studies, Hermione did not have the time to focus too greatly on all that had gone on the day she'd glimpsed Bellatrix Lestrange's specter in the window.
Though she was certain that Augustin watched her from the corner of his eye when he thought she wouldn't notice, and Tom seemed even more gentle and doting with her than before—certainly more so than one should expect of someone in his station toward a person in his employ—she was grateful for the pretense that nothing had changed between her and each of them. She was wholly ignoring, of course, that the dreams had only gotten steamier, more vivid, harder to forget with the flood of morning light through her bedroom window. Some mornings, she woke up with a heady moan dying on her lips.
Those mornings, she was sure she sat at breakfast with an uncontrollable blush flaring in her cheeks, certain she might've been overheard. Either she was quieter than she'd thought, or the men with whom she resided were gracious enough to not embarrass her further by alluding to hearing the . . . sinful and inappropriate sounds.
They fell into a pattern over this time. In the afternoons when they weren't working or searching, Augustin often prompted her to join him for walks in the gardens, she pretended she didn't realize how he was trying to tease her with the way his thumb traced over the inside of her wrist in delicate sweeping motions as he held her hand. He pretended he believed her obliviousness. The nights before retiring to bed saw to her sharing a drink with Tom on his study sofa, the two discussing everything and nothing at all as they stared into the dancing flames in the fireplace.
On occasion, Hermione found herself feeling pulled toward the old wing. The sensation was troubling. They were doing all the could to find what happened to Bellatrix—Tom, fearing the ghost might seek to harm Hermione the way it had his mother, was even using his influence to reach out to surrounding villages and towns in an attempt to locate any later mention of the woman. Anything that might indicate that she'd slipped away from the estate grounds unseen, leaving the mystery of what had become of her nearly by accident.
Hermione didn't like the incessant tug trying to lure her back. She had an icy impression in the pit of her stomach that the portrait, itself, was somehow trying to call to her. Trying to draw her to stand before it, once more. Each day she ignored it, for fear it was a work of her own subconscious . . . and perhaps a little for fear that she might find the terrifying apparition of the Mad Witch waiting for her.
Finally, after a near two weeks of fruitless searching, equally fruitless missives, more temper tantrums from Augustin than she felt any grown person should have a right to throw, and those damn dreams that she wondered might not be sapping her strength somehow—God help her, she even rushed to the mirror some mornings to check the places she felt those sweetly painful stings only to find unblemished skin—she decided there must be some resolve. At least to this.
She didn't mention the dreams, again. She was half-convinced they were Bellatrix's work, trying to confuse her. To stay transfixed with her employers enough to keep her there, yet make her question her trust in them . . . perhaps Bellatrix was even using the dreams to syphon Hermione's energy so that the specter could become strong enough to do more than just watch from windows and loom in corridors.
Augustin and Tom were discussing something in hushed tones in his study, the door standing open when Hermione found them. Hovering beyond the threshold, she peered in at them a moment. Dear Lord, they were so beautiful the sight of them in the same space actually caused an ache in her heart.
And an ache in a place that sent a fresh wash of color to tint her cheeks. Swallowing hard, she pushed that notion away—pushed away the memory of the dreamed sensations, Augustin's hands caressing between her thighs, Tom's lips brushing the side of her throat. Oh, even that pinching sting was something she was beginning to find exquisite . . . . She knew it was all fantasy. Some dark, warped part of her own heart letting her find it so very tempting, though she understood how wrong it all was.
Some dark, warped part that found the dreamed memory of her blood on their lips an absolutely enthralling and intoxicating sight to behold.
Starting at the sound of Tom's voice calling her name in question, she darted her gaze into the study, touching on him, and then Augustin. She must look so foolish, standing there with her hand outstretched, her fist close to the door, but frozen there, just before making contact with the wooden surface.
"Oh," she said, collecting herself as she cleared her throat in an awkward fashion. "Um, sorry, I . . . . I didn't mean to interrupt." She didn't bother mentioning that she'd not overheard whatever their discussion might've been, as she could already tell from the concern in Tom's eyes that her face had clearly shown she'd been distracted when he'd called her name, rather than putting in a concerted effort to eavesdrop on their whispered dialogue.
With a shake of her head, the young woman forced herself to continue. "I need to speak with both of you."
In a blink, each of them were out of their seats and crossing the room. "Are you all right?" Augustin asked in the same breath as Tom said, "Has something happened?"
It warmed her heart to see them both show such unabashed concern for her . . . and perhaps it made her skin tingle and her belly quiver a bit, but she ignored those second two responding sensations for fear that saying anything while thinking on them might give away her wildly inappropriate feelings for these men. "No, no. I didn't mean to worry you, I apologize. I just, I don't—don't know how else to say this but to come right out with it."
She was nearly positive a look of something like terror flashed across both their faces when she paused there. Her chestnut eyes widening—did they think she was going to leave? Though she couldn't imagine why they'd look afraid rather than sad, or even angry—she shook her head once more. "It's not . . . I feel as though perhaps we've been looking in the wrong places in this Bellatrix matter."
The men exchanged a questioning glance.
"I didn't want to say anything," she went on, dropping her gaze to the floor—she was far too aware of how close they stood, that strange coolness they each emitted on occasion making her feel warmer, somehow. "I thought at first I was imagining it, but it keeps happening, it keeps feeling more potent."
"Oh, for the sake of . . . ." Tom uttered the words under his breath before gripping her hand in his, the hold firm but delicate, reassuring. "Hermione, please, just say it."
Her brows shot up at his show of impatience, slight though it was. She was completely sure even someone as consistently calm and assured-seeming as Lord Tom Riddle could become flustered and short of temper, she supposed she'd simply never expected to see any sign of that for herself.
Gathering her wits, she nodded. "Right, sorry. I was afraid to say anything because I didn't want to alarm you, but ever since the day we first realized Bellatrix was, well, here, I have been feeling as if I'm being lured back there. To the old wing."
Augustin's eyes narrowed. "I don't much like the sound of that. She might be trying to trick you, for some reason."
Hermione met his gaze and then turned her attention on Tom. He clearly shared Augustin's thoughts on this.
Frowning, she offered a shrug. She couldn't disagree with the possibility, but they couldn't know that for certain, either. "Thus far, nothing actually bad has happened. Oh, certainly I was frightened out of my wits a time or two, but that didn't cause me any true sort of harm. It's been more as though she's . . . I know it sounds like madness on the face of it, but it's felt more as though she's trying to get my attention."
"You want to go back, don't you?"
She nodded in answer to Tom's question. "I think we should all go. If you're with me, you won't worry about something happening to me; I know I'll certainly feel safer. And . . . maybe there's, I don't know for certain, something she wants to show us or wants us to find. Perhaps I'm wrong and imagining it, and we'll find nothing, but please. Please let's at least go look."
Hermione was perfectly cognizant of precisely how much she was asking of Tom. Perfectly cognizant of how much he hated Bellatrix Lestrange's memory; cognizant of how uncomfortable he was in the old rooms used by his mother before her death. But she knew they would all feel more peace of mind about any discoveries as to what had become of the Mad Witch if those discoveries were made together.
In a very un-Tom-like fashion, the man scowled while he thought it over. After a moment, and finding himself under the combined, not necessarily patient, scrutiny of Hermione and Augustin, his expression softened a little.
Uttering a scoffing breath, he arched a brow and offered Hermione his arm. "Well, if you insist. It's hardly as though I should let you go back there unaccompanied."
She glanced at Augustin, who returned her gaze with a smarmy grin—his look echoing something she'd heard him say shortly after she'd first come to stay with them. That Tom was likely to do anything she asked of him. To her own credit, she kept her features schooled as she slipped one hand around Tom's elbow, and the other around Augustin's.
Though she'd spoken with notes of bravery and determination, she was a bit terrified to return to that room. The chilled sensation running rampant in her midsection made her grateful for their reassuring presence on either side of her as they made their way through the house—and thank the Lord above for the wide corridors of Riddle Estate, she thought, only half facetious, or they'd have had quite the trying time attempting to traverse the floor without one of the men slapping himself against the walls.
The levity going on in her head those few moments helped distract her from the other, markedly more unpleasant, sensations crawling around inside her as they passed the mouth of the staircase and crossed into the old wing. She would gladly pretend it was simply her imagination running away with her when it felt as though the closer they got to the door of Bellatrix's guest suite, the harder it became to breathe. Pretend the shadows weren't somehow deeper and darker in this portion of the dusty old mansion than in the other corridors.
Pretend she didn't feel as though her heart was hammering within her ribcage so fiercely, she feared it might actually stop altogether at any moment.
Sooner than she would've liked, they found themselves before the door. Tom stepped away from her side to push it open and walk in ahead of her. She felt Augustin move from her opposite side to stand slightly behind her, curling his arm protectively around her shoulders as they both heard Tom breathe out a shocked sound.
Turning her head, she met Augustin's half-concerned, half-curious gaze before they followed Tom.
Stepping around Tom to place herself beside him, Hermione brought her attention to the portrait of Mad Witch Bellatrix Lestrange. She forced a gulp down her throat, one brow arching high on her forehead as she asked, "Is that . . . ? Is she—is she really . . . ?"
"Crying blood?" Augustin's voice came out so low, she barely heard him. "Certainly looks like it."
Tom, for his part, seemed too shocked to form actual words.
Seeing the two of them so uncertain had an oddly bolstering effect on Hermione. In a blink, her fear was gone, replaced with an odd, simmering anger. Looking from one of them to the other, she determinedly grabbed hold of her skirts and started across the room.
"Well?" she demanded, baring her teeth a bit as she raised her voice. Honestly, she had no idea what had taken hold of her. An overriding desire to act in protection of Tom and Augustin, perhaps? They both seemed so strong and certain all the time, maybe seeing them each taken aback by the peculiar phenomenon was simply more than she could bear. "I'm here! That's what you wanted, isn't it? Was it so you could put on this little show for me?"
No reaction, though she wasn't wholly certain what she'd expected. The lighting in the room to recede, leaving only darkness behind? The warmth to leech from the air? The twisting, unnatural feeling shadows in the corners to deepen and warp further?
She could scarcely hear Tom and Augustin behind her, murmuring warnings, still shocked and quite uncertain of what to do. Her gaze, however, was trapped by the mournful countenance of one long-dead witch.
"I am here, Bellatrix Lestrange, just as you wanted, and you will tell me why you wanted me to come!"
As if in response to Hermione's half-shouted statement, a whining metallic sound rent the air. The noise wrenched Augustin and Tom from their immobilized states, each coming up beside her as all three looked about, searching for the source.
Everything happened fast, then. The enormous painting slipped from its hooks, its heavy gilt frame crashing to the floor with a jarring thud that seemed to shake the entire room and sent up whirling plumes of dust to cloud the air. Tom circled before Hermione, shielding her from the fall as Augustin clasped his hands in front of her and turned with her in his arms, putting his back to the entire mess.
After a few seconds of deafening silence, Tom looked up, waving his hand before his face in an attempt to clear away some of the floating dust. "Are you two all right?"
"Of course," Augustin answered, coughing as he moved Hermione away from him just enough, while still keeping a hold of her, to give her a cursory once-over for any injuries. "I think we're all just shaken up."
"That can't be a coincidence," she said, meeting his gaze and then, squinting in the dust, looking at Tom. "The portrait falls just now? It's been hanging up there for decades, and chooses to fall now? After what we just saw?"
Tom and Augustin shared a glance before all three of them turned to look at the portrait, once more.
"I don't believe it. We all saw it, right?" Though neither of them said a word, Hermione could sense them nodding in reply as they all stared at the painted face of Bellatrix Lestrange.
The painted face that showed no sign of blood . . . no sign of anything. Just the Mad Witch's unblemished skin and deep, impossibly dark eyes staring back at them.
Chapter 9: Secrets Unfolding
Augustin and Hermione watched, wary, as Tom approached the mysteriously-fallen portrait. With a tentative hand he reached out, trailing the tips of his fingers over Bellatrix's cheeks.
Frowning, his pulled his arm back, brushing the pad of his thumb across his fingertips. "Completely dry."
It was on Hermione's lips to suggest the spirit was attempting to get some message across, but no sooner had she thought the words than had Augustin begun to speak. "I don't think scaring us was her intent. Nor harming us—if she could do this, she could've just as easily flung the damn thing and struck us with it. Perhaps she is trying to tell us something. Hermione's right. There's probably some clue in here she's trying to show us."
"Why now, though? She's been here so long. Why has she not made herself known before now?"
Hermione pursed her lips, clasping her fidgeting fingers before her as she answered Tom's question. "Perhaps because she felt she couldn't connect with anyone who wasn't woman?"
"Given what was said of the relationship between Bellatrix and Merope, that would seem to make sense," Augustin agreed, shrugging.
Tom didn't seem particularly pleased about any of this, less so that it would mean spending even more time in the Mad Witch's quarters, but he nodded. "That would seem to make sense, yes. All right," he conceded whilst breathing out a heavy sigh full of resignation. "Let's look about then, shall we?"
Nodding, they—by unspoken mutual agreement—all took separate sections of the suite. Tom began by sorting through the writing desk by the window, Augustin with the wardrobe, and Hermione sifting through the trunk at the foot of the bed.
Even as the looked, taking out items, turning them over, shaking them, whatever was necessary to determine if something might be hidden in the pages of some long-unread book, or within the folds of a blouse never to be worn again, Hermione knew something wasn't right. Whatever they searched for was not in so simple a place.
Not anywhere that it might've been easily disposed of—wholly by accident—had anyone simply thought to do away with the things in this room. The only person who might've left a clue behind would've been the one person who hadn't wanted Bellatrix gone. Tom's mother . . . she'd have seen to it, then, that whatever had been left behind was something that would stay.
Closing the trunk with that notion in mind, she turned her head, raking her gaze over the room. Every item in here was disposable, and if anything like what some people might do to rid their home of a nasty memory had transpired—toss everything out in a pile and set it ablaze—it would be gone forever. There were no suspicious moldings along the walls or lining where the walls met the ceiling or floorboards . . . .
Rising to stand, she glued her gaze to the portrait. Hermione kept her attention fixed on Bellatrix's dark, heavy-lidded eyes as she crossed the room. Though neither man searching the quarters said anything, she was certain she could feel them watching her, curious as to what she might be thinking.
Upon reaching the portrait, she ran the tip of her finger along the inner edge of the gilt frame, looking for any loose seem in the canvas. Surely, yes, this would've been burnt up with everything else had the furnishings been done away with in a pyre, but perhaps it was some clue in the painting, itself? Something that would be revealed had the canvas begun to burn?
Yet, she found nothing amiss there.
Frowning, she looked to Augustin and Tom. The portrait as far too large for her to move on her own. "Help me with this," she said, her tone making it clear that was not a request, station be damned. She would get to the bottom of this!
Though they appeared a touch confused, both of them nodded and came to assist her. Tom and Augustin each grabbed hold of one side of the frame and pulled it away from the wall. Rather than keeping it there, however—if their hands were full, they could not readily respond if this was a trick and the specter did something to Hermione—they laid the painting flat against the floor.
"Thank you," she just about breathed the words in a somewhat distracted manner, her gaze once more on the portrait . . . or, in this case, on the back of the frame.
Much like Bellatrix's face after the blood tears had vanished, the back was perfectly unblemished. She was so sure there might be something there.
Having had enough of this foolishness, but knowing they could not turn their backs on this matter, either, Tom vented his frustration in a way he understood Hermione might not be prepared to see from him, yet. But he supposed it was best she learn now that he was not always gentle.
She jumped, her palm flying up to press over her heart at the sound of Tom's fist smashing into the back of the frame. From the corner of her eye, she could see Augustin wince and shake his head, though she could not know if his reaction to Tom putting his fist through the bloody thing was because he thought it a bad idea, or because he was imagining the impact didn't quite tickle.
Hermione shook her head as well. Forcing a gulp down her throat as she took a step closer, watching over Tom's shoulder as he pulled his fist back and used the hole he'd made to grip his fingers into the backing, she asked, "D' you really think that was wise?"
His shoulders moving in a long, silent exhalation, he glanced up at her as he started to break away the pieces. "Hermione, my darling, I don't imagine I'll be keeping this in the house once we've put her to rest, so I'm certain she won't mind."
Augustin came to stand beside Hermione, folding his arms across his chest and arching a brow. "You're going to give yourself a nasty splinter."
"And then one of you will simply have to play nursemaid and remove it."
His lips tugging to one side, Augustin turned his head to catch Hermione's gaze. "That'll be your department."
Despite the gravity of the matter, his quip brought a snicker out of her.
She tried to be patient as Tom just about tore the back of the frame to smithereens—which, by some miracle, didn't manage to give him a splinter. She did fret that the clue could very well have been in the frame, itself, but as he tossed large fragments of the shattered wood panel aside, she glimpsed nothing on their surface.
After the last jagged piece was yanked free and tossed aside, the three found themselves staring at the glaringly blank back of the canvas. Tom was shaking out his hands and flexing his fingers, Augustin's brows inched up his forehead as he pursed his lips, and Hermione simply gaped at the untouched fabric.
Tom turned to face her, his mouth open to comment on the fruitlessness of their search, but the words died on his lips. Hermione's eyes had taken on a glassy look and her features had gone slack. Alarmed by Tom's expression, Augustin pinned his attention on her, as well.
"What . . . ?"
She didn't seem to hear him, nor even notice their aghast looks. Instead, she moved away from them, her steps plodding and her body moving in an odd, jerking fashion, like a marionette whose puppeteer did not quite have the technique mastered.
Following at a wary distance—yet close enough to stop her if she appeared about to injure herself—they found themselves crossing the floor back to the writing desk. Hermione opened a drawer, not even having to search for which was the correct one, and pulled out a fountain pen and a sheet of fine stationary. Setting the pen to the page, however, the tip made the most unpleasant scratching sound as it scraped, blank, across the surface.
"Dried up," she whispered, her voice utterly empty.
Her next action had both men rushing the few steps to stop her. They moved in the blink of an eye, but so had she—impossibly fast, it seemed—jabbing the fountain pen's sharp point into the tip of her finger. The young woman didn't even flinch.
Turning back to the sheet of paper as though nothing at all had just transpired, she used the blood—dabbing it back into the open wound once or twice while she went, as blood in so limited a quantity did not serve as suitable substitute for ink—to jot something down. Nodding to herself, she set the pen aside, next to the page.
Hermione blinked, giving herself a shake. "Ow! What on earth?" She immediately looked to her injured hand, surprised to see the blood dripping from her finger.
Both Tom and Augustin stared at the wound, appearing to be as much in a state of shock as she.
"What just happened?" she asked, even as Tom took her hand in his own, examining the injury.
Augustin pulled himself from his stupor and reached around her, picking up the page. "You wrote this. I suspect Bellatrix didn't much like that her pen was out of ink."
Scowling, Hermione looked back at the portrait over her shoulder. "I really don't like you." A pleasant sensation drew her attention back to the men before her. Tom had her bleeding finger in his mouth.
For a quick, delicious moment, she was remembering those dreams. Those dreams of sinful acts and blood on lips . . . .
She could feel her cheeks redden as she watched him. Allowing her finger to slip free after having swept along the torn skin with the tip of his tongue, he collected himself.
"My apologies if I caught you off-guard. I think I lost my head a little when I saw you'd injured yourself."
Nodding, she swallowed hard. Then she noticed Augustin, watching Tom as well, but his expression was something that bordered on anger, the page she'd written on clutched in his hand, unread.
Had the intimacy of the gesture upset him? Or, perhaps, made him feel left out?
Finding herself driven to quell Augustin's simmering temper, she held her wounded finger up to his lips in offering. His attention shot from Tom's face to hers. There was something in his blue eyes . . . she dared think the word 'mesmerized' about the expression, as he leaned his mouth a bit closer, allowing her the chance to change her mind and pull away.
When she held perfectly still—seeming a bit breathless, in fact, as she waited—he clasped his hand around hers. Closing his eyes, he guided her finger between his lips. Once again, she could feel a flood of warmth in her cheeks, the heated skin tingling a bit, as he nipped and suckled playfully at the wound a moment.
He extracted her finger, keeping her hand in his as he opened his eyes again and met her gaze. For a few heartbeats, she was sure no one in the room so much as drew a breath.
Giving herself a shake, she tore her attention from Augustin to look over at Tom. "Oh," she started, seeming to remember the issue of their differing stations—of her post as their employee—then. "I'm so sorry."
They both seemed mystified by her abrupt apology. "Sorry for what?" Tom asked.
"For being so incredibly forward!" Her widened eyes made it clear she thought he was mad to not know why she would feel words of contrition were in order. "That, just now, was quite inappropriate of me!"
Tom sighed shaking his head—and Augustin had yet to relinquish his hold on her hand. "Appropriate or inappropriate is a matter of perspective. I noticed you raise no such fuss when I address you with a term of endearment.'"
"Nor when I get perhaps a bit too close," Augustin tacked on, feigning a tone of utter innocence.
Oh, for pity's sake! There went the warmth flooding her face again as she looked from one of them to the other and back. Were they saying they didn't believe what was going on here between them all was inappropriate? Or that the appropriateness of the situation was a matter to be judged by those outside these walls—those who were not here, not involved, and had no say in what went on within Riddle Estate—and not something with which they should concern themselves?
Despite how she wished it could be that simple, Hermione found herself tempted to ask them to elaborate, so she could know for certain what they meant. Instead, for the sake of her own current peace of mind, she opted to get them back on point.
Clearing her throat, she nodded toward forgotten page of bloodied stationary in Augustin's free hand. "What did I write?"
"Oh, of course." Augustin relinquished his grip on her fingers, a sheepish grin curving his lips, and Tom's equally abashed chuckle sounding on the other side of her.
Turning his attention to her looping, crimson script, Augustin's bright expression dimmed. Looking at Hermione and then Tom, he read aloud, "I am where I was."
The three exchanged confused glances as they tried to puzzle out the meaning. Her meaning. Bellatrix . . . . Where she was . . . .
Hermione's gaze shot to the portrait on the floor, and then to the wall against which it had been hanging for so long. Ice prickled in the pit of her stomach and unreasonable tears clogged her throat as she realized were Bellatrix Lestrange was . . . . Where she'd been all this time.
"My God, Tom . . . . I think she's buried in the wall!"
Chapter 10: Vindication
Hermione paced the corridor, her arms crossed and one hand pressed to her mouth. She winced with every strike of tools hitting plaster, her shoulders hunching with maddening frequency to match.
Tom had initially thought to seek the aid of some workers in the nearby townships, but just as quickly realized how foolish that notion was. After his recent missives to authorities about sightings of Bellatrix after her disappearance, there would be no keeping it under wraps if any of the workmen saw what might be behind the wall they were opening up.
No keeping the scandal of his father having murdered a woman and walled up her corpse from becoming local news and the source of filthy idle gossip.
She could feel Augustin's gaze following her rushed, looping strides. Tom had insisted he didn't want her or the other man anywhere near the debris that would get into the air with the destruction of that wall. There was such a heartfelt look in Tom's eyes as he'd pleaded with Augustin to stay away and keep her company out here whilst he dragged poor, subdued Peter—with all the workman's tools he could carry—in to assist in his efforts.
Hermione knew it was an odd thing to take away from the situation, but bearing this terrible secret with them made her feel as though the three of them had grown closer, still.
Pursing his lips and looking about, Augustin offered, "I know this is . . . awful, but in a way, it sort of feels good, too, doesn't it?"
She halted and whipped up her head to pin her attention on his face. "What are you talking about? What about this horrific scenario could possibly feel good?"
With a sigh, he crossed the floor to stand before her. He wrapped his hands delicately around her upper arms as he held her gaze. "I don't mean it in some appalling way, Hermione. I don't even mean good, really, more like . . . vindicating."
She only frowned in response, waiting for him to elaborate. It must be her imagination that just now his touch through the sleeves of her dress felt just a bit warmer than it hard earlier when he'd clasped her hand in his and taken her bleeding finger into his mouth. The notice, alone, had her forcing her mind to ignore the delicious sensations that wracked her with that recollection.
"No matter what Tom or I said, you must've still wondered if perhaps you weren't mad, after all, seeing the things you have since coming here?" He shrugged, an impossibly gentle light filling his typically mischievous blue eyes. "You could've written off anything we've done as merely acting on information we'd already had, but simply hadn't considered doing anything about it—didn't believe there was anything that could be done about it—until now. That everything this morning happened with us right there beside you, that you have proof there was something to what you'd experienced must be quite the vindicating thing."
"Oh." Hermione smiled a bit, nodding. "Yes, I suppose it is. This is just such a terrible situation, I'm bound to think the worst of everything anyone might say about it."
"Perhaps we should go downstairs, or to the gardens, hmm? So you don't have to listen to this racket?"
She crossed her arms, lifting her hands to rest her fingers over his. "The thought is appreciated, but I feel as though I have to be here. I mean, I was the one she reached out to. In a strange way, I owe it to her to see this through. To be sure we've found her and that we can lay her to rest."
For a moment, he watched her, his expression entirely blank.
Her brows pinched together. "What?"
Augustin visibly forced a gulp down his throat before he could bring himself to speak. His gaze searched hers as he said, "Your compassion . . . it's a truly remarkable trait. It's one of the things I adore about you."
She felt utterly captivated by the way he was looking at her. The sounds of metal striking stone from within the room strangely muffled by how Augustin Selwyn had her attention so completely captured right now.
"You adore things about me?"
"So very many." Oh, his nearly-whispering voice had a breathless edge to it that caused her cheeks to warm pleasantly. Seeming caught up, he tacked on, "You do know there is nothing on this earth we would not do for you, don't you?"
Somehow, that Tom was on his mind even in this private moment, even as her gaze flicked over his face and he leaned nearer, was a wonderful thing to her. Wasn't that strange? Or, at least, shouldn't she think it was? But no. In some bizarre way, she couldn't find it strange. It seemed . . . it felt right. Augustin and Tom were linked in a way that made them inextricable from one another in her mind. One simply did not exist for her without the other.
"Yes," she said, nodding, adoring the sweet tingling sensation of his breath dancing across her lips. "I really feel that's true."
Augustin's mouth covered hers in gentle caress as her eyes drifted closed. No him without Tom, no Tom without him. And Lord help her that she loved them both so much, her heart ached for trying to hold it all.
Just as his hands slid down from where he'd held her, trailing along her sides to loop his arms around her waist, the noise stopped. Hermione pulled back, only enough to meet Augustin's gaze. For a few heartbeats, they merely stared at one another in the silence.
Peter's mousy squeak of a voice, trembling a little, interrupted just then from within the room. "Oh, my dear Lord . . . ."
Their eyes shot wide and before Augustin could think to stop her, Hermione slipped from his arms and ran through the door. Aware this could be a very bad thing, Augustin was only a step behind her as she came to a gasping halt in the middle of the floor.
Peter looked positively green, Tom's features were pinched in a wholly apologetic look as he turned his attention to Hermione, and there, staring back at the room from empty eyes sockets within the hole they'd carved out in the wall, was the half-skeletal face of Bellatrix Lestrange.
Hermione covered her mouth with her hands, reflexively pivoting away from the gruesome image to bury her face in the hollow of Augustin's shoulder. She couldn't even feel the way his arms wrapped around her in equal efforts of comfort and protection. The pictures beating at her brain were too much to focus on anything else, even as she tried to push them away. Bellatrix's long, wild mass of dark hair was still attached . . . the sallow flesh clinging to bone as though it had been fighting to remain there all these years, waiting to be seen.
There was some sick twisting in Hermione's gut, making her wonder if that's where the specter's energy had gone all this time between Bellatrix's murder and Hermione's arrival here. If perhaps, somehow, the ghost of the Mad Witch had sought to preserve the body as much as possible so that whenever the corpse was discovered, there would be precious little room to question its identity.
"Take her outside, Augustin. I'd rather her not have to witness anything more than this," Tom said through clenched teeth. As Augustin started to lead Hermione back toward the door, Tom told Peter, "Fetch Father Callahan, Saint Mungo's Church. He's an . . . old friend of the family. He can perform a proper funeral service to put her to rest and keep things quiet."
"Wait!" Hermione called that single word over her shoulder. She didn't turn back, didn't dare cast her gaze upon Bellatrix's marred visage again, keeping her attention fixed on the empty corridor before her, Augustin's guiding arm around her waist.
"Hermione," Tom started, his tone gentle, but with an edge of impatience to it, "it's best if this is all handled quickly. She's been in a state of unrest long enough."
"Oh, I'm not denying that, of course, but . . . ." Swallowing hard, she lifted her hand to shield her eyes and turned, facing into the room. "According to the stories, Bellatrix may have had a different, um, belief system than any to which we are accustomed. That's to say . . . she might not be Christian, at all. As such, Christian burial rites might not put her to rest. They might only antagonize her further."
"Bloody hell, that hadn't even occurred to me," Tom said, a weary sigh spilling out with the words. "Unfortunately, without any further information about her, I'm uncertain how to proceed otherwise."
"She was a spiritualist, wasn't she? A rumored 'witch'?"
Augustin uttered a soft, breathy sound. "I see what you're getting at."
Hermione met his gaze, but didn't drop the hand that was blocking the ghastly sight from her view. She nodded, noting his fairly grim expression. Grim and concerned, and she didn't blame him. When these things were nothing but showy hokum, there was no harm to them—except perhaps that some bereaved loved one's coin purse got a bit lighter. But when an actual specter, capable and unafraid of reaching out to the living, was on hand?
"What are you two going on about?" Tom asked, clearly not getting Hermione's meaning.
Again, she nodded to Augustin. Tearing his gaze from hers, he looked across the room to Tom. "She's talking about conducting a séance."
Hermione couldn't see the way squirrely little Peter's brows pinched together, his mouth dropping into a tiny, shocked O as he looked to his employer, as well, awaiting the lord's reply. Augustin would've found the butler's expression hilarious if not for the grave matter . . . well, that and the half-decomposed body staring back at them all.
"All right. I don't like the idea very much, but you've a point. This woman's been done enough injustice, I will not add to her miseries." Tom heaved a weighted sigh, raking his fingers through his thick brown curls. "However, I'm not certain how to proceed with such a thing."
"I've attended a few. Some of Uncle Sirius' society chums are quite enamored with Spiritualism. I think I can manage." She shrugged, rushing on before anyone could voice a protest. "Bellatrix has already made herself known to me several times. It won't be difficult to make contact with her, I'm sure."
"That surety is what concerns us," Tom said, his tone stern. "We are well aware she will probably respond readily to your attempt to summon her. But she took control of you once, already when no such attempt was even being made, caused you to injure yourself—"
"You know that wasn't her intent!"
"Nevertheless, if that is the power she wields over you when you've not given her providence to speak to or through you, I daresay inviting her to do so could have disastrous implications. For all we know, she could attempt to possess you!"
"Hence why you will be with me the entire time, both of you. If anything at all goes wrong—even a little bit—you interrupt the session. That's all it takes. The interruption will break our connection. We only need her here long enough to answer the question of how she would like us to handle her remains. We thank her, bid her farewell, end the session, and then follow her request."
"It's terrifying how you make it sound like a small thing."
She cut an unhappy look at Augustin, her lips pursed. "Well, it is. Or, at least, it should be. And it is the least we can do for a person who's been stuck a drift between life and death for so many years."
Hermione could hear the sound of Tom slapping his hand against his face. "All right, all right. You make me feel any lower and Peter'll have to scrape me off the floorboards. You two go on, leave Peter and me to get her out, and put her someplace more . . . suitable?" Oh, it had been rough to find a proper word there, but he could hardly leave the poor woman propped up right within a hollowed-out bedroom wall!
"Right. That'll be plenty of time to have the séance this evening, after sundown."
Augustin and Tom shared a look, each nodding reluctantly. "Where?"
Exhaling as she thought it over, she recalled something one of the so-called mediums had said at that dreadful Dolores Umbridge's séance. "It should, if available, be done in a space to which the deceased had some connection in life. So here. Right here in this room." She swallowed hard, crinkling the bridge of her nose. "And we keep the body here, too."
Augustin and Tom both protested, but she held up a silencing hand—shocked when they both simmered down instantly in response. "Not in the wall, but in here. Having a personal object from the person is best, however, I don't feel like anything we've found in this room was something that could be deeply personal. She might have those sort of things on her—a ring that was a family heirloom, or a necklace she cherished since childhood—and it wouldn't feel right to remove those from her for our own purposes. Therefore, as odious a thought as it is, having her here would be the best way to ensure a connection is made."
"If you're going to insist, so be it." Tom shook his head, sighing yet again. "For now, however, leave while we at least remove her from the wall."
Hermione nodded, her limbs somewhat numb as she allowed Augustin to lead her out. What had she just agreed to do?
Dear God, she might be going mad after all!
Chapter 11: Truth Will Out
Truth Will Out
Hermione stared at the table Peter had set in the center of Bellatrix's room. As she'd instructed, it was a small, simple table, a single unlit candle set in the middle. To one side he'd placed a small vesuvian box, to the other—as Bellatrix had chosen to communicate through written word previously—some sheets of the ghost's favored stationary and a working fountain pen. Hermione's bandaged finger still smarted from the unfortunate incident with the dried up implement earlier.
The only illumination in the room, currently, was the lantern Tom held high. Upon her lighting of that candle, the lantern would be extinguished, plunging the room into as complete darkness as possible. Bellatrix had been laid upon the bed, wrapped securely in a white sheet. There seemed some cruel, twisted mockery in settling her so peacefully, as though she were merely at rest. Shrouded as the corpse was, it was simple to imagine that was merely a slumbering, perfectly alive person there in the shadows.
Peter, seeming rather more skittish than usual in regard to the evening's proceedings, had been permitted to retire to his quarters for the night after preparing the room. She could sense Tom and Augustin's wary gazes on her as she stepped from the space where the three of them had been clustered after the butler's departure, just inside the door.
They had to get this started some time, and she was the focal point for Bellatrix's messages. It was a cold, mechanical way to think on the matter, but she held no illusions about the depth of her significance—she was merely part of a relay system without which the specter's words might never be known to the living.
She turned to look back at them. "C'mon," she said, offering an encouraging smile that she only wished she could feel was confident in the slightest. "I need you two close. Just in case."
"Of course," Tom answered with a nod while he crossed the room to follow her. Augustin was silent, but moved at her behest, all the same.
As they approached the table, Hermione indicated each of them to stand on either side of the lone chair. She wanted them near enough that they could interfere, if needed, yet just far enough away that Bellatrix would not feel uncomfortable if she truly did have an issue communicating directly with men.
Squaring her shoulders, Hermione tried to bolster her nerves, reminding herself of the good this would do—the peace it would bring, not only to one restless specter, but to the house, itself. She drew in a rattling breath and forced it back out before withdrawing the chair and seating herself.
She flexed her fingers a few times, trying to lessen some of the sudden nervous energy in her hands. "All right," she said in a whisper, her voice low as she reminded Tom once more, "when the candle is lit, turn down the lantern."
"I've not forgotten, Hermione."
The young woman nodded, focusing as well as she could on her breathing. In . . . out . . . . She reached for the box and withdrew a match. In . . . out . . . . Striking the match, that sound of fiction seemed deafening in the otherwise silent room. In . . . out . . . . Her hand trembled a little as she lifted the match to the wick. In . . . out . . . .
The wick caught, and Tom extinguished the brighter illumination of the lantern. There was a faint metal clatter as he set it aside that seemed to ring in Hermione's ears.
In . . . out . . . .
"I call to the spirit of Bellatrix Lestrange," she said, her voice louder than she'd ever imagined she'd be able to make it with her nerves as wracked as they were just now. Her gaze fixed on the standing flame of that single candle, she forced herself to continue, "I implore you, make your presence known to me that I might help you find peace."
That single lick of fire moved. Dancing on its wick as the wax began to drip along the tapered length of the candle, Hermione felt her breath catch in her throat. So dazzled by the spot of flickering brightness, she thought perhaps she imagined she was seeing things within. Faces. Movements.
The moment the luster had faded from Bellatrix's dark eyes.
The terror of knowing the breath she'd just drawn was her last.
Hermione tried to remain focused, but she wasn't even sure if what she asked next was in her head, or spoken aloud as she said, "Please, Bellatrix, you've languished long enough. Answer this one question I put to you: what would you have us do with your remains so that you might pass on from this place?"
She wasn't certain of any answer. For some time . . . mere heartbeats, full minutes, she couldn't keep account . . . she lost all cognizance of her surroundings. There was only the flame before her, only the dull echo of her own words in her mind.
The fear of uncertainty. The question of what she'd done to meet such a brutal end tied Hermione's stomach in knots and set an icy chill wrapping her shoulders.
The disorientation of her vision going dim . . . . Of sounds ceasing to make sense to her ears.
And then nothing. Complete and utter. Nothingness. Heartbreaking nothingness.
Gone. All gone. Merope. Light. Feeling. Gone.
She choked down a gasp, her eyes snapping open. The flame had been extinguished and Augustin knelt beside her, his arm curled around her shoulders as Tom saw to relighting the lantern. Her entire frame seemed to tremble in Augustin's protective embrace and she looked to her hands. One palm was pressed to a piece of the stationary, the other grasped the pen. That same looping script from earlier had appeared on the page, and Hermione hadn't the faintest recollection of even picking up the pen, let alone writing anything.
The bothersome sensation of tears pinging the corners of her eyes forced her to blink a few times as she tipped her head to one side, letting Augustin press his cheek against the top of her head. She angled her gaze toward Tom as he knelt on her other side.
"I don't remember anything. Why did you end it? Did she try to hurt me after all?"
She was aware of the men exchanging a glance before Tom answered. "We didn't end it. She did. You fell into a trance so fast, we were afraid, but then, after you asked her to come, you picked up the pen and started writing. Yet, when you'd finished writing, you wouldn't wake. And then . . . you screamed."
Tom nodded as Augustin snickered. "Almost startled me into needing a new pair of trousers."
Hermione couldn't help but laugh in return at the younger man's typically inappropriate response.
"But yes, you screamed," Tom reiterated, "and then the candle simply went out."
"I was so caught up in what she was showing me." It frightened Hermione a little that she'd been so very susceptible to such a thing that the ghost, herself, had been the one to break the connection.
"I saw . . . felt the moment she died, I think. She was dying, still, when she was put in there."
Tom's already fair skin drained of color entirely and Augustin shivered in revulsion at her side.
"I don't think finding her would've saved her. She was . . . going. The light in her eyes had left . . . there was nothing anyone could've done, even if they'd kept her from being hidden away." She reached out, clasping both of her hands around Tom's empty one. "Even in that moment, your mother was on her mind. I don't think she was as wicked as the stories held, Tom. I believe Bellatrix truly did love her."
Tom's blue eyes searched Hermione's face as a his mouth pulled into a grim line. "I have suspected since this began that my father was the villain in this story. I had assumed it was only in what he might've done to Bellatrix. But now, I understand it didn't end there. He vilified her. Twisted any tell of her in this house to justify his crime."
If she didn't know any better, Hermione would swear there were unshed tears swimming Tom's eyes, then. None of this could be easy for him. Nodding, she pulled away from Augustin just enough to sit up properly, but did not extract herself from his hold. She would not share any more of what she'd experienced with him. That would be a secret between her and Bellatrix. Nothing helpful to any of them would come from relaying those terrible feelings. Hermione suspected that if she could've, Bellatrix would've stopped her from picking up any of it.
Turning her attention to the sheet of stationary, she motioned for Tom to bring the lantern closer. He set it atop the table, leaning against her other side. She loved the comfort of feeling both of them crowd close around her like this.
"Put me to pyre at the witching hour." Hermione swallowed hard, a sad smile curving her lips. "Well, we have a few hours. That's plenty of time to prepare such a thing. We can actually have her put to rest tonight."
"There's more," Augustin pointed out, tapping some smudged ink at the bottom of the page.
Lifting the paper toward the light, she frowned. The words had been smeared a bit by her palm, and it took her a moment to discern the blurred letters.
The moment she did, however, a sheen of ice coated the pit of her stomach. "Oh."
"What is it?"
Hermione was afraid to say. She'd not told them anything of this. There'd been too much fear. The dreams had been bad enough, but the . . . . The monstrous part of the dreams that she no longer thought so monstrous?
That devilish part that she'd come to find so alluring . . . .
Finding herself unable to answer the question they'd asked in unison, Hermione felt tears gather all over again. She didn't know if they were from fright, or sadness. "I shouldn't say. This part seems a private message to me from Bellatrix."
"I see. If I didn't know any better, I would think she took a liking to you." Tom nodded, closing his hand around Hermione's over the secret message. "I'll fetch Peter to help with this pyre. I expect you'll wish to be there?"
"Of course. As I said, I feel as though I owe it to her to see this through." Pushing back her chair, she stood, clutching the paper to her chest. "But I've had a bit of a trying day. I think I'll get some rest before then, if that's all right?"
Hermione was quiet as they led her out into the corridor. Quiet as they walked with her back across the house to her own room. Quiet, but afraid she might let out some telling sound as Tom brushed a kiss across the back of her hand, as Augustin was a bit bolder, dropping a kiss on her cheek, while they bid her good evening "if only for a few hours."
Closing the door between them, she turned and put her back to it. After a handful of shuddering breaths, she crossed the floor to the lantern on her bedside table, the sparse illumination from the moonlight streaming through the window just enough that she was able to light it, despite her trembling fingers.
Seating herself upon the edge of the mattress, she smoothed out the page against her leg. In the glow of the lantern, she studied the words, once more. Assured, now, that she'd not misread Bellatrix's smudged writing, Hermione felt a wrenching pain in her chest that outweighed her immediate fear of the message.
Believe the blood.
The pinches . . . the crimson stained lips . . . the twin marks that she glimpsed in her dreams, but were always gone by the light of morning.
But how? She'd seen them in daylight. Yet, didn't they always look paler whilst the sun hung in the sky?
She'd seen them eat food. But they never commented on the taste, never made sounds of satisfaction when the meal was exceptional. As though . . . as though the act of eating was . . . mechanical for them.
Hermione crushed the paper against her heart as her eyes drifted closed.
Their touch was always a bit cool. Expect . . . except in the mornings. They seemed to lose some warmth as the day wore on. Just as how Augustin's skin had felt warmer against hers after he'd taken the blood she'd offered him from her wounded finger.
She didn't know what to feel. Didn't know if she could truly believe her own mind, just now. They cared for her, she knew they did, possibly even loved her—adored her, Augustin had admitted just earlier that very day. And she certainly loved them. So then, how . . . ?
How could it be that they were monsters out of some old world myth? Could she pretend they weren't simply because those myths didn't seem to hold against reality?
Hermione understood with a staggering, deep-rooted certainty that she'd known for so long, now. It should affect her feelings for them, but it did not. She should be terrified of them. She knew what they were, yet she still could not bring herself to truly believe.
How could Tom Riddle and Augustin Selwyn be vampires?
Chapter 12: Sounds in the Night
Historical Reference: While they may seem a modern convention,the production of wristwatches dates back to the 1600's. Initially, they were worn exclusively by women (and marketed as bracelets). Though by the late 1800s, it became common for military officers to wear them, as well, men still largely favored pocket watches until the early 20th century.
Sounds in the Night
She'd not slept a wink by the time Tom knocked on her door, shortly before midnight. Hermione had fretted over what to do. In the end, she'd relented to logic. Her trunk was much too heavy for her to lug about easily on her own, so she'd instead nicked a satchel from the servants' quarters and loaded it down with as many of her things as it would hold. She'd simply have to leave the rest behind. The overstuffed bag waited for her as she slipped out into the corridor to join him and Augustin, a forced smile plastered across her face.
So badly she wanted to follow her heart and stay, but how could she, knowing what she did now? Tonight, after this, she'd slip away. Oh, sure, fine picture she'd make, lone young woman traipsing along the road to the nearest town in the wee hours of the morning with naught but the clothes on her back and a sack ready to burst over her shoulder. But she wasn't certain what else to do. There was no arranging for a carriage without Tom and Augustin finding out, and her precious logic—which she'd almost entirely ignored while she'd been here—dictated that she leave as soon, and as inconspicuously, as possible.
While she descended the staircase between them and crossed the parlor floor toward the foyer, she tried to quiet the painful, thundering beat of her heart. She listened to them speaking on the oddity of this entire Bellatrix situation, overwhelmed for a moment by how much she was going to miss the sounds of their voices. Each glance toward either of their faces wrenched another ache from her chest at how much she knew she'd long to look into their eyes, again, after she was gone.
Every gentle touch or fleeting caress of their fingers against hers made her wonder if they could really be monsters when they treated her like such a treasured thing?
Around the back of the main house, Peter had built the up a large bundle of kindling into a rough platform. Bellatrix's body lay atop, still shrouded in that white linen. Hermione stepped away from Tom and Augustin, taking hold of the lit candle Peter held out for her. By some miracle, the night was windless.
She waited, swallowing hard as she stared at Bellatrix's form. Closing her eyes, Hermione whispered a small prayer. Oh, certainly, she thought the witch might not appreciate the thought, but it wasn't even truly a prayer. Hermione's muttered words asked, simply, that Bellatrix Lestrange be permitted to rest peacefully. That she no longer be disturbed by the torments of her last moments alive.
Checking the timepiece upon her wrist, the candlelight glinted off the face as she counted down the seconds. At 11:59, she stepped directly up before the pile of wood. Closing her eyes, Hermione bowed her head, repeating her small not-really-a-prayer beseechment. Opening them, she looked again.
Drawing a deep breath, she let it out slow as she counted backward from ten.
At last, the hands both pointed to 12. Nodding, she whispered as she pressed the flame into the kindling and waited for it to catch, "Rest well, Bellatrix Lestrange."
As the fire built, she stepped back. Her attention fixed upon the pyre as the orange-yellow glow consumed the image before her by increments, she felt the moment Tom and Augustin had moved up on either side of her.
They were all silent as they watched the fire.
Hermione let her eyes drift close as she felt their cool hands wrap around each of hers. She willed herself to remember the sensation of their skin on hers, to remember the feeling of them stationing themselves so close and so protectively beside her.
She wasn't even gone yet, but already she missed them so much she could scarcely breathe.
An hour had passed after returning to her room by the time she worked up the courage to grab the satchel and sling it over her shoulder. But then, it wasn't really a matter of fear, she recognized that. It was the struggle with herself. Her heart told her these men might be monsters, but they were her monsters, and they'd never harm her.
Logic dictated that if she remained with them, harm would come to her, even were in not by their hands or whims.
Lord, did she hate logic, just now.
And, logic felt a bit like madness in this moment. Vampires didn't exist! They didn't! But then, neither did witches or ghosts, yet she'd just burned a witch's body at the behest of that witch's own ghost, so what the bloody hell did she know?
Hermione opened her door and stepped out, pulling it closed as soundlessly as she could behind her. Tears crowded her throat as she turned toward the staircase.
Perhaps she should confront them, instead. Rather than simply vanishing into the night, as they'd wondered if Bellatrix had before they'd found her. Walking away from them was difficult enough, she wasn't sure she could bear the weight of leaving them behind without a word, as well.
But then, perhaps she was mad.
Pivoting on her heel, she instead faced toward the master wing, where their rooms were. Yes, she should at least confront them. If they laughed off her suspicions and it turned out she was, in fact, no longer sane, at least there would be some strange relief there. Oh, certainly, she'd be languishing in an asylum, but she would do so knowing she'd imagined all this and fairy tale monsters were only that. The stuff of fairy tales.
Dropping the satchel beside the staircase landing, she started back along the corridor. Oh, this was probably a terrible idea. They'd try to convince her to stay. And perhaps she wanted them to . . . .
It was hard enough imagining them saddened and confused by her decision as it was, toss sleep-rumpled on there and she wasn't certain of her decision to confront them about her departure and her reasons, at all.
And, then again, she might just be trying to stall her exit from the house. She seemed the very definition of indecisiveness right now.
Reaching Augustin's door—she thought to wake him and then pull him along with her to Tom's room so that she might speak with them both at once—she lifted her hand to knock. Yet, a sound from inside the room halted her, mid-motion.
Licking her lips in an anxious gesture, she gave herself a shake. Preparing to knock once more, she was again stopped by a noise from within. The sort she readily recognized now from those dreams.
Curious in spite of her emotional state, Hermione dropped her hand to her side and quietly shifted her skirts so that she could lower to her knees. Leaning near, she reprimanded herself in a seething internal whisper as she peered through the keyhole.
The sight before her caught her breath in her throat. She brought up her free hand to cover her mouth, but couldn't seem to look away.
Tom knelt on the floor beside Augustin's bed, his entire body bared to her eyes. He was curled forward, over the other man's lap. One arm around Augustin's naked hips, Tom's other hand was assisting his mouth as he—
Oh my Lord, I should not be watching this!
Yet she still could not tear her gaze from the sight. Tom's rhythmic motions, Augustin's head falling back as he gripped his fingers into Tom's hair. She couldn't deny a sweet, flickering warmth that the spectacle sent rippling through her.
"It's not quite enough," Augustin said in near-growling whisper.
Though he uttered what sounded like a chuckle, Tom didn't lift his head from his task. He unwound his arm from Augustin's hips, offering up his wrist.
Clutching his free hand around Tom's, Augustin let out an ecstatic sigh. He bared his teeth, the canines easing out into longer, needle-sharp points. She could actually hear the sound of it as he brought Tom's wrist to his lips and bit down.
That was when a noise she couldn't stifle escaped her. It was true, all along it had been true. All along she'd known on some level, but here it was before her very eyes. Augustin was taking Tom's blood, the way she'd experienced them both doing with her in all those dreams.
She'd drawn a gasp.
The startled sound from outside the door caught both men's attention, and they immediately stopped what they were doing to look in her direction. "Hermione?" they said in unison. Tom shot to his feet and started toward the door, grabbing a dressing gown from the end of the bed on his way.
Panic clogging her throat, Hermione scrambled off the floor and tore across the corridor, back toward the staircase. She could hear the door opening behind her and Tom's footfalls as he followed.
How she made it down the staircase without tripping over her skirts in her hurry was beyond her. She didn't even have the presence of mind to grab the satchel as she went past. They knew she knew, now, and not in some fashion that could be shrugged off and explained away.
She raced across the ground floor, yet somehow Tom managed to get ahead of her, rounding to place himself before the doors as she ran into the foyer. Hermione stumbled to a halt, barely keeping her footing. He caught her around the waist and steadied her.
She hadn't ever before thought they'd have harmed her, but after actually witnessing proof of what they were . . . ? "Please don't hurt me," she said, her voice spilling out in a trembling whisper as she struggled out of his hold, backpedaling a step.
His brows pinched together as he shook his head. "We would never!"
"But I saw it! I saw you and him. I—I know the things I dreamed were real, now." She pressed her hands to the sides of face as she forced herself to go on, bewildered tears welling in her eyes. "You, both of you, you seduced me and took my blood. How is that not hurting me?"
"Because it was you who invited us," Augustin's voice rang out from atop the staircase.
Hermione tore her attention from Tom and pivoted on her heel to peer back into the depths of the house. Unlike Tom, Augustin had not bothered covering himself at all. Gloriously nude, he stood there, staring back at her, his expression strangely open and trusting. What an odd thing to notice in such a moment, she thought.
"Good Lord, man. A dressing gown would've killed you?" Tom asked in a hissing breath.
Augustin shook his head, a thoughtful frown gracing his lips as he started down the staircase. "There would be little point as she's seen everything, already. Besides, I'll hide nothing from her any longer."
All of Hermione's proper sensibilities were screaming at her to look away, to blush and act appropriately abashed by Augustin's behavior and . . . wanton nakedness. Yet, she could not seem to look away from him. More, she didn't want to, and for more reasons than how painfully beautiful he was.
It seemed madness that she was standing here at all. But then, with the way Tom had moved just moments ago—quicker than should've been possible—to reach the front doors ahead of her, Hermione knew she had no hope of outrunning them if she tried to bolt from the house.
Remembering how he'd slipped across the ground floor so fast, there was a sudden, hazy recollection playing before her mind's eye. When the painting of Bellatrix had fallen, Tom and Augustin hadn't simply moved quickly to protect her—they'd moved faster than was humanly possible, she simply had not registered the swiftness at the time, there had been too much going on. When she'd stabbed herself with the pen, they'd been unable to stop her simply because the action had been so very unexpected.
They had tried to protect her. She supposed the least she could do was give them room to explain this madness. "What do you mean, I invited you? I don't understand," she said, her tone pleading. "I don't feel like I understand any of this."
"We'll tell you everything you want to know."
She gave a nod, pouting in a mix of anger and confusion. Gone, now, was the fear. Though, the wild desire to openly stare at Augustin's naked form was rampant and distracting, but she forced herself to ignore that for the time being. "Good, because that's precisely what I want to know. Everything."
Chapter 13: Old Promise, Older Myth
Don't pick on me about my crappy grasp of Latin. I love you all, shush ;p
Old Promise, Older Myth
"I'll start at the beginning, then." Augustin took one of her hands between both of his, she could feel the cold of his skin against hers. As all the other times either of them touched her, she found a strange comfort in it, somehow feeling warmer for the mild chill of his flesh. She could sense it as Tom stepped up closer behind her.
"We were as truthful with you as we could manage while not divulging our secret." He paused, then, exchanging a heartfelt look with Tom over her shoulder. "When I was turned, I was sickly. It's . . . it's nothing like the fanciful old stories. Stories that were started by vampires, by the way. Made it easier for us to hide if how to find us was more or less public knowledge, I think was the idea. It isn't some miracle cure, nor do you even truly die. We simply sort of . . . stop. I didn't know strength, I didn't know a lack of feeling. There was no one to see me through it. I think my maker believed those stories, too, because I was left for dead. I languished as my body tried to heal itself, yet couldn't die. And Tom was the first kind soul I'd met in, oh, it must've been fifty years I'd been a vampire by then?"
"I didn't know what Augustin was, not at first," Tom continued the story, resting his hands gently around her waist, as though holding her while they had this discussion was the most natural thing in the world. "I knew he needed help, that was enough for me. I discovered what he was entirely by accident. And, I knew after the story of what had happened with my mother and Bellatrix, my father'd have killed Augustin if he suspected another 'monster' had come to harm what was left of his family, so I secreted him away in this house. And, as my mother had . . . I love men and women, equally, another thing I knew he would not understand. As I already told you, my father was advanced in age when I was born, so it was not long we had to wait before he passed naturally and we no longer had to hide."
"Funny enough, Bellatrix was not the only witch in this story, but we'll get to that." Augustin lifted her hand, still clasped between his, to brush his lips against the tips of her fingers. "It's been roughly a hundred years since Tom's father passed. I believe you noted how strange it was that everything in the old wing seemed so much longer unused than a mere two and a half decades, hmm?"
Hermione nodded, the motion a bit numb as she remembered thinking exactly that, but now, too, did other things she'd not readily paid attention to make sense. Bellatrix's portrait was rendered in a style that had fallen out of favor early in the Georgian era. So, too, had her wardrobe as well as the very dress and refinements that had still been on her when they'd discovered her body been of Georgian style, rather than Victorian.
Had her drive to not believe been so strong that she'd forced herself not to notice these things?
He went on, using his hands on hers to press her palm over his heart, letting her feel the dull, impossibly slow thudding of it beneath his cool skin. "We were not wholly dishonest about the necessity of your tutoring skills, nor my lack of formal education. I was ill for so long. Tom doted on me, took care of me entirely, I was bedridden for years. I simply didn't have the strength for much of anything. Tom had me turn him so that he could stay by my side. He would go so far as to lure vagabonds to the house for me."
Her brow furrowed, thoroughly engrossed in Augustin's story in spite of herself. "Did you kill them?"
Augustin shook his head. "There was little need for that, and we—Tom and I—were bound from killing for sustenance. Besides, they were happy to exchange a bit of their blood for a hot meal and a handful of crowns for the road, no questions asked. It kept my condition from worsening, but it wasn't enough to truly sustain me."
"What changed?" Her voice sounded hollow, foreign to her own ears.
She had to force herself to ignore the vaguely awestruck look that had overtaken his features as he said that one little word. "What?" She was aware of Tom resting his chin atop her head. For some reason, she pictured him closing his eyes in a serene expression as he listened to his lover's telling of their story.
"After Tom discovered what I was, he insisted on finding a way to cure my unending sickness. So, he located a witch. A true witch, like Bellatrix had been. Yet, after bringing her here to see me for herself, she . . . took pity on me, despite that she could do nothing to help, and shared a secret that could change the very existence of those like me. But there was a price."
"You could never kill anyone?"
The corners of Augustin's mouth plucked upward in a bitter mockery of a smile as he nodded. "She didn't know that I'd not fed to the point of death, but she did understand it's not easy for our kind to control ourselves when we feed, either. The only reason I'd not killed anyone, yet, had been because I simply lacked the strength. I swore that if I ever healed, I would try not to. And Tom, intent on remaining with me, also swore that never would he, either. It is a promise we've kept for a century."
Hermione had an odd feeling there was some part of her that already knew the next bit of the story, but still she asked—she needed to actually hear it. She needed the spoken words to pull the mysteriously begotten knowledge from the recesses of her mind. "What was the witch's secret?"
"We weren't even certain if it was true, but we were willing to believe it could be. Augustin didn't want to die, and I didn't want to lose him. He might not have been able to die from his illness, but with every day that passed of him in such constant misery, I feared he might eventually be tempted to take his own life," Tom said, the faintest hint of tears edging his whispered voice. "Long ago, a pair not unlike ourselves made a plea. Call it God, the Universe, the Powers That Be, but according to the witch, something answered. That something pledged that there would be a way for monsters who went through the torment of abstaining from their brutal natures. That way came in the form of the Aeterna Sanguinem."
"Doesn't . . . ?" She swallowed hard, her gaze locked on Augustin's even as she shook her head beneath the weight of Tom's chin. "Doesn't that mean something like eternal blood?"
Augustin nodded, once more lifting Hermione's hand to kiss the tips of her fingers. "There came to be a bloodline, mixed in amongst humanity, of those who could exist along with us, remaining by our side for eternity. But only those who kept to the promise would be led to finding such people. Their blood is . . . magical, in a sense. It constantly replenishes. But it's not as simple as someone merely taking their blood."
"Forgive me," Tom said, slipping his arms around her to hold her in a gentle embrace against him. "I knew it was you from the time you scraped your knee the day we'd first met. I managed to salvage a bit of your blood and I brought it home to Augustin. The moment it touched his lips, his health improved. It was a miracle, and then we knew."
"I'm one of these people?" This couldn't be true. Witches, ghosts, vampires? Oh, sure. Those she knew now were all real, but humans with unending blood? That seemed a bit much, even with the nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach that it was true. Surely, she'd always been a fast healer, but she'd never attributed that to, well, anything. Never really thought about it before at all.
Frowning she turned her attention to her free hand. Lifting it before her eyes, she stared at the bandage winding her finger for a moment. She knew that if she removed it right now, the split in her skin from Bellatrix's fountain pen would be healed.
"It was by sheer luck that you were a ward of the Black family. Sirius' grandfather had a nasty problem. He was deeply in debt and in danger of losing everything his family had. Their financial holdings, their lands, their social standing. They were literally on the verge of ending up in a debtors prison, utterly disgraced and penniless. But he was one of the few people who'd realized what we are. He tried to blackmail us into giving him money to repay his debts. I did more than that. I made it so it was as though he'd never spent even a hay penny in his entire life. When he realized how generous we'd been when we—being monsters, of course—could've just as easily killed him, he swore his family to repay that excess. One favor, whatever we might ask of them when the time came to call upon their service."
"So you arranged for Uncle Sirius to send me here?" That was why he wouldn't see her off, why he was so miserable now, according to Harry's letters. Uncle Sirius felt guilty for what he'd done, but he likely assumed he was protecting Harry. The sense that she'd never truly been as important to the family as a blood-relation had always weighed on her, but to actually hear it was more awful, still.
"Yes. You should know that he did try to fight for you, but I would not be budged."
Just as fast as her heart had sunk, it felt as though it had snapped back into place. Even though Tom spoke the words in a gentle tone, she couldn't help a flicker of agitation. "Why me, then? Why could you not find another like me? You said yourself there are others with the same blood."
"Because you're not just one of these people. We'd never have crossed paths unless you were meant for us."
"You were born for us to love you," Augustin said, his blue eyes swimming a bit.
"That's what you meant, isn't it?" She would ignore for now that he spoke of love, she had to. Her emotions were all over the place and she was just as likely to give in to them—to give in to whatever they wanted of her—before having her answers. "When you said it's not as simple as merely taking their blood? You have to love them."
"And we do. We have from the moment you heard my story and still agreed to stay and help me. Your compassion and your patience, day after day—I'd never seen anything like it. Except, perhaps, from Tom."
Hermione didn't know if they'd sidetracked from her initial question, or were leading up to it eventually. "Let's circle back to this business about me inviting you?"
"Your first night here," Tom said, shrugging against her, "we awoke, each of us, to you standing outside our doors. You led us back to your room, and then, well, you remember the things which happened next. The following morning, the marks were gone, we knew it was your blood at work. Yet, you seemed oblivious to what had gone on. We thought at first you were ashamed, or that perhaps you were trying to maintain some veneer of professional boundaries during the day to keep up the guise of propriety—to have what you could be to us and what your post in the household was entirely separate. You were so very fixated on station. After the first few times, however, we understood that you were unaware of what you were doing at night. When you spoke to me of the dreams you were having, I knew that your mind was working to shield you from the truth. We abstained for days after that, but then you began coming to us, again."
"We allowed you little peeks at us during private moments. Let you overhear our conversations in hopes it would jog your memory. We thought . . . ." Augustin uttered a chuckle filled with self-derision, then. "We stupidly thought you had loved us as easily and as readily as we loved you."
"But I do love you." The words fell from her lips faster than she could stop them, but the look of reverence in Augustin's eyes as he heard those words made her certain she wouldn't take back her confession even if she could have. "Both of you. I've been so confused. So . . . tormented. I didn't understand how I could love both of you like this."
"You really do?" He stepped closer, slipping one hand from hers to cup her jaw. "You love us?"
Hermione's lower lip trembled as she stared into his eyes. "So much it hurts my heart."
"You've known what we are for some time now, haven't you?" Tom asked.
"Yet, you only tried to run now?"
"I didn't want to leave; for weeks I'd agonized about it. I'd risk thinking my sanity was slipping, I'd risk scandal, I'd risk a mad specter wandering the corridors just to stay here with both of you. But when I actually saw the evidence of what you are with my own eyes, I suddenly feared you would hurt me, after all."
"Oh, Hermione. Don't you know?" Augustin leaned closer, still, so close she could feel the coolness of his bare skin through the coarse fabric of her dress. "Tom said we would never, but what he should've said is that we could never. You're our heart. And you have been since the moment you walked into our lives."
She could feel that there were tears rolling down her cheeks—how had she not noticed sooner? Augustin brushed them away with the backs of his knuckles as Tom hugged her tighter, still.
"Stay, please. You can exist with us always as you are now. All it would take is a taste of our blood, but we won't force you." Augustin's lower lip poked outward in an expression that was almost a pout as his gaze searched hers. "Say you'll be ours forever."