"I'm leaving at dawn," was all he said.

Nothing could change his mind.


Chapter Thirteen

Beatrix, whose imagination had been captured by the magic lantern, could hardly wait for evening to come so she could view the selection of glass slides again. Many of the images were quite amusing, featuring animals wearing human clothes as they played piano or sat at writing desks or stirred soup in a pot.

Other slides were more sentimental; a train passing through a village square, winter scenes, children at play. There were even a few scenes of exotic animals in the jungle. One of them, a tiger half-hidden in leaves, was particularly striking. Beatrix had experimented with the lantern, moving it closer to the wall then farther away, trying to make the tiger's image as distinct as possible.

Now Beatrix had taken to the idea of writing a story, recruiting Poppy to paint some accompanying slides. It was decided they would put on a show someday, with Beatrix narrating while Poppy operated the magic lantern.

As her younger sisters lounged by the hearth and discussed their ideas, Amelia sat with Win on the settee. She watched Win's slender, graceful hands as she embroidered a delicate floral pattern, the needle flashing as it dove through the cloth.

At the moment, her brother was lolling on the carpet near the girls, slouched and half-drunk, his long legs crossed native-fashion. Once he had been a kind and caring older brother, sympathetically bandaging one of the children's hurt fingers, or helping to look for a lost doll. Now he treated his younger sisters with the polite indifference of a stranger.

Absently Amelia reached up to rub the pinched muscles at the back of her neck. She glanced at Merripen as he sat in the corner of the room, every line of his body lax with the exhaustion of heavy labor. His gaze was distant as if he, too, were consumed with private thoughts. It troubled her to look at him. The rich hue of his skin, the shiny appleseed-darkness of his hair, reminded her too much of Cam Rohan.

She couldn't seem to stop thinking about him this evening, and also Christopher Frost, the images forming ajarring contrast in her mind. Cam offered no commitment, no future, only the pleasures of the moment. He was not a gentleman, but he possessed a ruthless honesty that she appreciated far more than smooth manners.

And then there was fair-haired, civilized, reasonable, handsome Christopher. He had professed a desire to renew their relationship. She had no idea if he was sincere, or how she would respond if it turned out he was. How many women would have been grateful for a second chance with their first love? If she chose to overlook his past mistake and forgive him, encourage him, it might not be too late for the two of them. But she wasn't certain she wanted to resume all those abandoned dreams. And she wondered if it was possible to be happy with a man one loved but didn't trust.

-- Advertisement --

Beatrix pulled a glass slide from the front of the lamp casing, laid it aside carefully, and reached for another. "This one's my favorite? she was saying to Poppy, as she slid the next image in place.

Having lost interest in the succession of pictures on the wall, Amelia did not look up. Her attention remained on Win's embroidering. But Win made an uncharacteristic slip, the needle jabbing into the soft flesh of her forefinger. A scarlet drop of blood welled.

"Oh, Win? Amelia murmured.

Win, however, didn't react to the pinprick. She didn't even seem to have noticed it. Frowning, Amelia glanced at her sister's still face and followed her gaze to the opposite wall.

The image cast by the magic lantern was a winter scene, with a snow-blurred sky and the dark cache of forest beneath. It would have been an unremarkable scene, except for the delicate outline of a woman's face that seemed to emerge from the shadows.

A familiar face.

As Amelia stared, transfixed, the spectral features seemed to gain dimension and substance until it seemed almost as if she could reach out and shape her fingers against the waxing contours.

"Laura," she heard Win breathe.

It was the girl Leo had loved. The face was unmistakable. Amelia's first coherent thought was that Beatrix and Poppy must be playing some horrid joke. But as she looked at the pair on the floor, chatting together innocently, she perceived at once that they didn't even see the dead girl's image. Nor did Merripen, who was watching Win with a questioning frown.

By the time Amelia's gaze shot once more to the projection, the face had disappeared.

Beatrix pulled the slide from the magic lantern. She fell back with a little cry as Leo charged toward her and made a grab for the slide.

"Give it to me," Leo said, more an animal growl than a human voice. His face was blanched and contorted, his body knotted with panic. He hunched over the little piece of painted glass and stared through it as if it were a tiny window into hell. Fumbling with the magic lantern, Leo nearly overset it as he tried to jam the slide back in.

"Don't, you'll break it!" Beatrix cried in bewilderment. "Leo, what are you doing?"

"Leo," Amelia managed to say, "you'll cause a fire. Careful."

"What is it?" Poppy demanded, looking bewildered. "What's happening?"

The glass fell into place, and the winter scene flickered on the wall once more.

Snow, sky, forest.

Nothing else.

"Come back," Leo muttered feverishly, rattling the lantern. "Come back. Come back."

"You're frightening me, Leo," Beatrix accused, hopping up and speeding to Amelia. "What's the matter with him?"

"Leo's foxed, that's all." Amelia said distractedly. "You know how he is when he's had too much to drink."

-- Advertisement --