Moonlight filtered through the windows, sending a pool of gray light over Beau Arson in his bed.
Something had woken him, beyond the door, the sound of footsteps, in the hallway, rapping down the marble tiles, past the oil portraits, to the grand staircase and foyer below.
The back entrance. Had he heard those grand double doors opening, allowing a swell of cold air in from the terrace?
The fire in the stone hearth had gone out hours ago, the flames dying with the sound of drunken revelers two stories below. And the woman. She was gone too. He never let them stay, never shared his bed or the parts of himself that meant something.
In the darkness, the smooth weight of leather-bound pages rested on his chest. He’d fallen asleep reading Great Expectations again. Pip had been in the graveyard, he remembered, searching among the headstones for the family he’d lost, the parents he’d never known.
He thought of his own parents, James and Marian Sutcliffe, buried beyond the doors of his ancestral mansion, parents he’d never known either, and of a past revealed only recently.
He held Great Expectations in his hands, marking the open page with a bookmark, one given to him on a fateful summer day long ago, by a little girl with dark brown braids.
You are Loved.
He ran his finger down the length then pressed it into the book’s spine.
He rose, not reaching for his robe. Though it was the third week of December and the winter wind howled beyond Briarcliffe’s limestone walls, he was not cold. Not here.
Los Angeles had been cold. He remembered the harshness of the streetlights, the gray expanse of asphalt stretching across the endless desert, of camera flashes, of being surrounded by worshipful, beautiful people yet feeling entirely alone.
There was warmth to be found here, in this place, tucked in the folds of these ancient mountains, the blanketing silence of old growth forest quieting his soul. The Smokies seemed to embrace him like an old father, welcoming their prodigal son back into the fold.
Long hair fell in waves down his bare back as he lowered his feet to the Persian rug, his body rising from the immense bed, one made of ancient walnut, by men of an ancient craft, slept in by twenty-five generations of timber barons, the sheets and pillows caressed by waves of their golden hair.
A path of moonlight led to the tall windows, and he flinched as his bare feet transitioned from plush rug to marble tile.
Snow crystals rattled against the panes, peppering the night sky and the expanse of lawn as it rolled toward the pinewood forest and the snow-capped Smokies beyond. Nestled in the valley below lay the sleeping town of Notchey Creek, the little houses dark, traces of smoke rising from the chimneys.
A brood of dark clouds eclipsed the moon, darkening the night sky, the lawn, the forest. Like a little match being ignited among the trees, a light appeared in the woods, flickering, disappearing, then reappearing once more with the sweep of the pines. It grew brighter, swelling like a heartbeat, as it approached the edge of the forest and the tree line.
He readjusted his eyes, wondering if his imagination was conjuring images, the remnants of a lingering dream, the spectral aftermath of late-night pleasures.
But the light breached the forest and entered the grounds, floating across the grass, making its way toward Briarcliffe, toward him, as if it knew he was standing there, watching it from the window.
He shivered, and a prick of dread crawled up his back, bringing the tattoo there to life, the angel’s wings expanding, retracting with a tremble.
He thought to look away, to return to his bed, to bury the ghost with sleep. But he found he couldn’t turn away, couldn’t bury it. The vision had transfixed him, paralyzing his attention to the window, to the spirit that beckoned beyond the paned glass.
Hair of raven black fell past her shoulders, like a dark stain against the prism as it carried her across the lawn. A length of rope hung about her neck and draped down her chest, the pale flesh indecipherable from her white dress as it flowed down her body, swallowed by the light.
She opened her mouth to speak, and the winter wind howled, and the trees quaked, rattling the window glass, seizing him from his terror, returning the clarity to his mind.
He grabbed the heavy drapes and pulled them to a close, welcoming the quiet dark of the bedroom. His heart pounded in his chest as shallow breaths escaped from his lungs.
A sense of foreboding fell over him, settling his breaths, the terror in his mind anesthetized by a new reality, a diminishment of hope.
He’d left Los Angeles, left the metaphorical ghosts there behind, only to find a new one here, in this place of promise and innocence.
Evil existed in this Camelot, and it had found him, and he realized she would not leave him, would not cease her whisperings until he found out what she wanted.
Until he revealed her untold story to the world.