Lorelai’s lantern trembled, turning midnight shadows into sinister wraiths as she crept through the hall, as best her foot would allow. Her heartbeats echoed off the walls of Southbourne Grove’s east wing. Her breaths like rapid-fire pistol shots in the consuming silence. Loud enough for the ghosts to hear, surely.
When the horrible sounds had first roused her, she’d thought maybe Cyrus and Joan d’Arc were at it again. Howling and scuffling. The two hounds boasted only seven legs, three eyes, and one tail between them, but still they played like puppies. And sometimes their play turned serious.
They were not, however, nocturnal animals.
The raw, animalistic cries beckoned her to his room. She paused at the door, pressing her ear against the cool wood.
No animal she knew made a sound like that.
No man, either.
The torment expelled upon such a cry was almost otherworldly in its macabre timbre. A whimper. A plea. And then a long lament, too hoarse to be a call, but lower than a scream.
Something about the noise caused her to hesitate with her fingertips on the door handle. What if he wasn’t alone in there? Could someone be hurting him? It certainly sounded that way. Should she go for help?
What if Mortimer was disturbing him?
Urgently, she pressed the door open, hurling herself into his room.
Lorelai didn’t know whether to be more relieved or distressed that his great body battled naught but the darkness.
And whatever demons haunted his dreams.
Dr. Holcomb had relieved him of his sling some two days past, and his long, powerful arms fought off invisible assailants with alarming desperation.
“You’ll not have me,” he growled. “Not tonight.”
Who would not have him? Have him what?
She abandoned her lantern on a sideboard by the door, convinced it wasn’t safe anywhere close to his flailing limbs. Venturing closer, she noted the damp sheets tangled about his lean, restless hips. His nightshirt lay crumpled on the floor, as though he’d rent it from his body for some imagined offense.
His face remained in the shadows, surging side to side on a neck corded with strain.
“Touch me with that and you’ll regret it,” he warned.
“Me?” she squeaked, lacing her hands together.
“I’ll gut you with a dull blade… see if I don’t!”
“Pardon?” she gasped.
His voice sounded younger than it did when he was awake. A note of terror thrummed beneath the bravado.
“Let me go,” he threatened.
“Let me … go.” This time, he begged.
Begged. And thrashed. Fighting a battle that became more and more evident he was about to lose in some horrific way.
Dear God. Let this be a nightmare and not … a memory.
She had to stop this. Somehow.
Fists as large as his became hammers. This she knew. But what other choice did she have but to approach?
She wasted precious seconds strategizing. Where did one touch a man in the throes of a violent nightmare to avoid injury? A skittish horse, you touched his withers. A snake, you held behind his skull. A rabbit, you turned upside down by both feet until the blood rushing to his head calmed him. A dog, you dug your fingers against his throat, like an alpha would with his teeth.
Then you stroked them, comforted them. Let them come to trust you.
But first, the animal must be subdued for the safety of all involved.
A good rule, with creatures great and small, was to avoid the face at all costs.
But a man? What sort of animal was he, really? She’d learned no tricks to calm such a violent soul but avoidance.
And that wouldn’t do in this case.
A low groan decided it for her as she neared the bedside. His cheeks were wet with tears. His ebony hair matted with sweat.
Someone was hurting him. She couldn’t bear it.
His knuckles narrowly missed her throat as she ducked around them, and tentatively splayed the fingers of one hand over his chest above his bandaged ribs. “Wake up,” she admonished him, jostling him a little. “Come back.”
Two monstrous hands shackled her arms like iron cuffs as he gasped awake, his entire body seizing, convulsing. He wrenched her hands away from his skin.
Fearing he might snap her bones in two, she couldn’t contain her own sob of pain as it cut through her.
To her astonishment, he didn’t let go.
He stared up at her, his eyes two volcanic voids of unfocused wrath. His teeth were bared, sharp and menacing. His breaths sawed in and out of him, as though he’d run a league at full tilt.
This was not the man to whom she’d fed soup only two days prior.
This man … might just be a monster.
“It’s me,” she whimpered. “It’s Lorelai.”
As quickly as she’d been seized, she was released.
A low groan tore from him as he regarded his hands like they’d betrayed him. Like he would rip them from their wrists.
Ignoring her smarting arms, she ran tentative fingers over his fevered brow. It twitched with little shocks where they connected.
“It was just a dream,” she crooned. “You’re safe.”
Though he said nothing, tears leaked from the corners of his eyes in an endless river, running down his temple and joining the beads of sweat glistening at his hairline.
His breath hitched and gasped. Deep grooves appeared between his brows, and his entire visage tightened.
“You are in pain,” she realized aloud. Had he reinjured something? The bandages about his ribs were secure, as were the ones over his shoulder, neck, and right torso covering his rapidly healing burns. Oh no. Should she call the doctor? Did she dare check beneath the blanket twisted around his lean hips and tangled about his legs?
“What can I do?” she asked frantically.
He’d not wept the entire, agonizing time they’d treated him. Not once.
If he did so now, he must be in absolute anguish.
“Where does it hurt the most?”
Black eyes rimmed in red searched her face, as though he might find answers to a question he didn’t know how to ask. The air shifted as threads of trust weaved through the space between them, adding a soft color to their tapestry.
Silently, cautiously, he took her hand, and placed it over his heart.
His skin was warmer than she’d expected. Harder. His pulse kicked beneath her palm, the rhythm unsteady and frenzied, still waging the battle he’d carefully schooled out of his expression.
He was as stoic as ever, except for the moisture still gathering his sooty lashes into wet spikes.
She understood then.
His body, strong, young, and virile, healed with incredible alacrity. But what remedy was there for a lonely and broken heart?
She could think of none.
His eyes fluttered closed, forcing more tears from between the lids. She had the sense that he hid whatever … whoever would stare out from the darkness at her. His hands were clenched tightly, burrowing into the sheets. Shadows played across his jaw as he worked it to the side, battling to regain control of himself.
Instinct whispered that she must walk the line between compassion and pity most carefully here.
Struck by impulsive sentiment, she lifted her hand, bent over him, and pressed her lips to his chest, just above his heart.
He tensed. Froze. Not so much as drawing a breath until she pulled away.
“I’ll heal that too,” she promised. If it was the last thing she did, she’d figure out how to stitch his broken heart back together.
His eyes snapped open, regarding her as if she’d taken his soul just then, or maybe returned it to him.
Nervously, she licked her lips. They tasted of soap and salt and … him.
The air shifted again, dangerously this time, becoming heavy with the promise of something she couldn’t identify and didn’t understand.
Lorelai did her best to ignore it. “Someone was hurting you … in your dream … did you recognize who it was?”
He shook his head. “Men … they were …” His breath sped again, his features twisting with revulsion.
“They were what?”
He shuddered. “Never mind what.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Driven to touch him again, she bent to place a hand back on his chest. The cold night air prickled dangerously through her thin nightshift, reminding her of the untied ribbons hanging loose at the collar.
His tears had dried quite suddenly. His sweat had turned to salt. And the way he looked at her now …
Lorelai swallowed, thinking how she had always considered black a cold color, until this very moment.
Banked obsidian fire danced in the meager light of her lantern.
“Go.” The word seemed to strangle him as he plucked her hands away from him by her wrists, giving them back to her roughly.
“Pardon?” She hugged her hands to her body.
“Never visit me at night. Never again.”
She didn’t understand. Wasn’t she helping him? Hadn’t she saved him from the assailants who hurt him in his sleep?’
“What if you have another nightmare?” she contended. “I can’t just let you—”
“Leave me to it. Let it take me.” A feral, primitive warning lurked beneath the bleakness in his eyes.
“You can’t control them!” he snarled. “And I can’t control my—” His hands lifted toward her, then plunged into his hair, grabbing great handfuls of it. For some reason she couldn’t look at the parts still covered by the sheets. She feared him like this, because he feared himself. But … she ached for him, too. Ached in ways she didn’t yet comprehend.
“Just get out. Please.”
The plaintive note in his plea brooked no argument. Warned her away as surely as the hiss of a cornered cat.
Perplexed, dejected, Lorelai limped to the sideboard as slowly as she could, waiting for him to call her back. To change his mind and realize he needed her company after all.
When he didn’t, she lifted her lantern and shut the door behind her. Wishing with everything she had that she could forget the bewitching taste of him lingering on her lips.
Copyright © 2018 by Ke.rrigan Byrne in The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Paperbacks