The bed was quivering beneath him, but the shake was slight, as if he were imagining it. The darkness all around, save the courting candle, was soft and almost soothing, and Barnabas was long gone. Gone, but not in spirit. The back of Willie's neck twitched as if he could still feel the hiss of breath there. Sense the switch raised in anger, even though none had been. Close, it had been so close, he'd almost gotten a whipping, but had somehow avoided it. Not through any cleverness of his own, though. No, it should have happened. Barnabas had been standing over him in the hallway, fists clenched, only that far away from demanding that Willie go into the yard for one of the switches of wood from the lilac tree he'd trimmed that day. Fetch it for his master's use, to teach his erring servant the enormity of his mistake. Teach him why treading through wild clover on a bright spring morning to trim a rouge lilac tree that no one had planted nor anyone cared for was not the wisest of choices.
Wise, no. But desirable, yes. Especially on a day when the wind had been only slight, and what there was of it smelling of greengrowth and new spiderwebs spun in the sunshine. Entirely too much for him to resist. So he'd gone and done it. Trimmed the tree and cut away the old dead wood, leaving behind room for the tree to grow and bringing the brush and scraps to his truck to haul into town on the morrow. Bringing along with them Barnabas' wrath.
It hadn’t been his fault. The ghosts of winter had long been chased away and with them the shadows; the sunlight had pulled him into the yard. Away from the drawn curtains and the soaking dampness that not even the height of summer would cure. Through the doorway, past the unused stone well, past the spring house, and out into the wildness that, since the spring rains had come, had taken over the expanse of meadow behind the Old House. Up the path, that, if he kept going, would take him to Widow's Hill. But he wasn't going that far. Clippers and saw in hand, his arms aching to be exposed to the sunlight, he turned off the path and strode through the shade of a grouping of firs.
A lilac tree. Tangled in its own growth like a long-legged thing, too gangly to know where to step. Too choked to grow any more or spread its blossoms past the top branches. And smelling ever so faintly...like lilacs.
He smiled, tucking his chin down. Yes, chores awaited him, a houseful of them, always waiting and never ending, and all of them in the shadows. In a house so dark that candles had to be lit to show the interior walls, even in mid-day. A sign of wealth in days gone by, the days only a memory and now a constant trial of keeping up with the wax and the webs. Willie sighed. Wouldn't take long, this tree. An hour or so. Perhaps a bit more. In the spring sunshine, on the first warm day that he'd seen since he'd come here with Jason too many months ago.
Giving himself a shake, he tucked the memories away. Back in the dark, back where his brain would really have to work at getting them. With the sun pouring through the branches and the faint perfume of flowers just coming to bud mixing, the heat intensified just as he stepped into the arms of the tree. Putting the tools down, he slipped off his flannel shirt, feeling a faint bite of chill through his T-shirt, but ignoring it, knowing it would fade with the work. Brushing his hair out of his eyes, he picked up the clippers and set to work.
He started with the tiny branches, brown dead from winter's frost, and then clipped away anything that didn't already have a bud or a flower or a leaf on it. His arms were pale against the brown and the green, as the leaves brushed against him, raising the tiny hairs along his wrists. Twigs broke off as he knocked against them, and soon he was snapping them off with his fingers, using the clippers for the thicker ones, sending a rain of dry wood clattering past his ears. Then the saw, using it on the harder wood at the base, making himself slow down as the sun poured through, streaming like lace all around, and bringing the scent with it. Sweet, and then sweeter, an undercurrent of something bitter and new as he took a deep breath and he bent his weight into a branch to snap it clean.
A spray of wind tore through the tree, just for an instant, bringing a flurry of dusty violet petals and a sprinkle of damp from above as if from an imagined rain.
Pausing to wipe away the dust from his eyes, he ran his hand along the back of his neck. Sweat pleasantly cooled him down. It was going to really rain soon, no doubt about that. But a spring rain, not the torrent of ice that had bogged his roof patching job, nor the blustery nor'easters that brought with it lightning and wind to howl the trees down. No, this was going to be a growing rain. He could smell it.
Looking up through the tree to the blue sky beyond, he laid down his saw. Could feel the lightness of the branches as they seemed to sigh and expand with relief. Silly to think that a tree could feel but there it was. A job well done, and a pile of brush to show for it. Brush that he'd hauled neatly to stack in a pile next to his truck, scratching up his arms in the process, but leaving the area around the tree nice and tidy. As if no one had ever been there.
Unfortunately, no one should have been there. Not in Barnabas' mind. Lilacs had not been planted on the Collinwood Estate, he'd been informed in no uncertain terms, nor would they ever be. Lilacs were for commoners and what the hell had he been playing at, leaving his chores to trim an ugly tree?
Which, of course, was not exactly what Barnabas had said.
He could hear that voice, even now, in the almost silent air of his room.
What do you mean by assuming that your own desires were more important than your duty to this house?
And that in response to his explanation of where he'd been all day. Why he'd not started his chores until the afternoon, not even coming close to getting them done. And why he was covered in sweat and the tiny purple petals of a lilac tree.
Which, of course, was not what Barnabas had called it.
You attended to that? A worthless scrub tree?
He'd made it sound like a curse, as if the tree had made its way onto the estate entirely by mistake and the only reason it hadn't been escorted off the premises was through some subversive means known only to trees.
The master of the house had been on his way to an appointment that, Willie assumed, was of the utmost importance. But then it always was. By the look of the vampire's suit and his choice of linen shirt, a date with one, Miss Victoria Winters. He was bringing her yet another book, and his encounter with her, if Willie's stop yesterday at the flower shop had been successful, would include a dozen roses being delivered to their table at the Collinsport Inn during dinner. Barnabas liked to see the expression on Miss Winter's face, Willie knew, so there was never a delivery of roses during the day for her to enjoy them on her own, oh no. They came to the table when he was with her, or in company, so the vampire could watch her like a hungry thing, every nuance of her surprise as meat and drink to the starving. Willie had seen him do this at the Old House. Books, and secretaries, and other gifts, presented with ceremony, and Barnabas watching her. Until he caught Willie watching him, at which point he would suggest that Willie had more important things to do and send him out of the room.
But that evening, a glance at the parlor and the stone cold fireplace as Barnabas hurried down the hall, and at the candles Willie was only starting to light, had alerted the master to the fact that his servant had not been attending to the house as he should. And then came the first few questions. And Willie's answers. All fine so far. Until Barnabas next question.
Why on earth would you consider doing such a thing?
And himself, in response, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to say to a vampire.
Because it was a beautiful day, Barnabas. The sun was shining, an—
No. Wrong. Stop.
Barnabas had latched onto him, gripping his throat with one icy fist, draining away the warmth of the day inside of a second, and sending Willie to slam against a pillar. The marble, cold, soaked into him, replacing his blood with something else, a caustic soda, spriting through him, making his bones brittle and his head ache.
A beautiful day? And the sun, shining? Barnabas had brought Willie's face close to his own until they were inches apart. The glint in Barnabas' eyes like black darts pinning him there, and Willie sucked back his breath and Barnabas hissed out his own. And so you decided to enjoy yourself?
Y-yeah. It was all he had been able to manage, trying not to notice the fangs that pressed against the vampire's lips, nor the cold surge of air that enveloped him. It was the truth, after all, and he'd learned that lying would not help. I just thought—
But it was not his place to think, and the master reminded him of this with a backhanded smack that whacked his head against the marble, leaving him to shrink against the hand that now slid down to grip his shirt, gathering handfuls of cloth to bind him tight, as if he were a runaway hound being brought to heel. Teeth and eyes right in his face. And a voice, firm and hard as an iron bolt being slid into place.
You will not think. You will fetch a switch from this tree you have so late been tending to and I will teach you—
Then Barnabas stopped. Pushed his fist into Willie's throat, just once, and then loosened his grip. Eyes narrow. Still in his face, but the voice lowered to a whisper, a grate of iron against rock, Willie shivering as it vibrated through his bones.
You will never mention this to me again or you will regret the consequences. Nor will you repeat this unwanted labor.
And then he'd shoved Willie away, his gaze falling from his servant like so much unwanted business, and walked away, picking up his book from the console with one hand and his coat and cane with another, all in one motion. Slammed the door behind him, leaving only the echo of wood against wood, and the house to settle around Willie with his master's absence.
And now, as Willie lay in bed, the echoes of a ghostly whipping, the reason for which long forgotten, throbbed in almost gentle waves across the back of his thighs. He was face down, as if the beating had actually been delivered this night. Arms encircling the pillow, his chin propped up so he could breathe, his ribs shuddering a bit as he tried to relax.
But it was hard to relax, for some reason. It was as if Barnabas had actually sent him for the switch and ordered him over the table. Ordered him to take off his shirt, or even his trousers, perhaps, depending on how severe the master had determined the whipping would be. Some invisible scale in the vampire's mind always decided this, and Willie had never been able to predict it. Not that he'd spent a great deal of time pursuing the matter, not that his mind had worked itself around the problem ever. Never, well, this is worth a belt beating, or if I do this, it will be the switch on bare skin for sure. No. He preferred not to think about it.
Difficult not to this time, though, when the event had been so close. This transgression had been worth a whipping with a switch on bare skin, definitely. In this case, for his remark more than for his choice of which chores to tend to.
The skin along his back throbbed, knowing what it had barely missed, and his brain, echoed it, though it could not possibly understand why.
You pissed him off with that remark about the sunshine.
He understood that part. The one thing Barnabas could never have. That his lowly servant could. Any day. Every day, nearly. That his lowly servant had taken advantage of it, thrown it in his master's face was beyond endurance for a man used to having his own way in everything.
He asked, didn't he? I just told him what he wanted to know.
Could have told the vampire something else, he knew that. Something like, I just got caught up, Barnabas, I didn't notice the time.
Yeah, something vague like that.
But the vampire had been at him, right in his face, and the truth had come, like it always did, in unvarnished gulps tearing right through Willie’s mien of resistance.
But why no beating? Why no demand for his belt or the switch, no visit to the kitchen, why no, as Barnabas like to say, consequences for his actions?
What had stopped it? In Barnabas' mind, a beating for a remark like that would have been well deserved. Even Willie knew enough to predict that. But there had been nothing specific in Barnabas' eyes, no spark to tell Willie that the vampire's reticence in beating him had been because of something from his past. Some memory of his mother perhaps? No, if Naomi had ever liked lilacs, Willie would have heard about it. At length. Or if anyone, anyone at all related to the Collins clan, had planted, adored, harvested, or wore lilacs in any way, the master of the house would have bored him to tears with stories about it. Anything a Collins had done, did, or thought about doing was worthy of note, and therefore worthy of comment. So, no connection with lilacs.
Willie did not know. Would never know. Wasn't going to ask. Why bother digging up graves like that? The one he had dug up had been trouble enough.
He wanted to turn on his side and slide into sleep, but his ribs were still twitching, his backside almost aching with an imagined beating.
If things had gone as they might have, he would have been up all night, layered in sweat and shaking from it. On his front, unable to sleep until dawn stole into the room. By then he'd be tired enough to drop off, but his chores would have been waiting, with another beating at the end of the day if he did not finish them. The phantom pain was keeping him awake now anyway, like traces of the stroke of a lover's hand.
The night drew to quiet as his brain worked around it, Barnabas in his face, hands at his throat, the threat imminent, and, then, nothing. Nothing from a man who considered Willie his to do with as he pleased, when he pleased, for whatever reason.
It was almost spooky, even as it was a relief. Even as his eyes dropped heavy and he felt himself curl under the blankets, his back relaxing at last, the faint, hideaway murmurs of a switch across his thighs did not fade all that much.
There was another shoe, out there in the proverbial wherever, waiting to drop. If he could be alert enough to witness it.
During the night, the rain fell, sending him to sleep, and in the morning, when he awoke and went downstairs for his coffee, there was a carpet of moisture and tiny sparks on every branch and tree and blade of grass that he could see through the window. He stepped out into the yard, shivering with the damp, but enjoying the smell of warm things growing and the pleasant prospect of going into town later. Town meant, of course, a stop at the diner for a meal not cooked at the expense of building a fire or singeing his hands on a coal-hot cast iron skillet. Rubbing his hands on his arms, he stepped back inside, pant legs already soaked through.
By the time he stepped back outside to load up the truck with the brush pile, the dew had burned off and the sun was high. The yard had a lush, hot feel, as if everything were about to burst through the ground. He knew the signs; his gran's yard had been like that in the springtime. The memory was fleet and went by fast, her standing there, hands on hips, nodding to him. Saying something about heat cooking the seeds. Willie smiled, and shook his head, sending the memory away. Time to load the brush before he got on with his other chores, and certainly before Barnabas got up. No sense of leaving around a reminder of the fact that he'd not beaten Willie for something.
It took over an hour to load it all, and sweating, arms scratched, he pulled on his T-shirt just as he heard the step on the walk along the side of the house. A light step, but not hesitant, as it might have been were it David sneaking about. His mental bet that it was either Carolyn or Vicki was proven right. A second later, Vicki strode into view, her hair tucked beneath a scarf that she'd tied under her chin. Her rain jacket was buttoned firmly in place, as if a sudden gale were expected. She would weather it just fine, he figured, noting her sensible shoes a moment later. If it had been Carolyn, she'd have worn sandals on a sunny day like this one, and complained when the muddy path ruined them. Not so Vicki.
"Hello, Willie," she said, a smile breaking through her serious expression. "I figured you might be working outside today."
"Sure, Vicki," he said in reply. "Plenty of fresh air out here."
For a second she frowned, and he realized that what he'd said made it sound like there was no fresh air to be had inside the Old House. Which might be taken as a slight against Barnabas. Not good.
"I mean, you can smell the rain coming better when you're outside, you know?"
That was better. She smiled again, nodding a bit, and then held out a book in her hand.
"I wanted to return this. Mr. Collins had loaned it to me, and I wanted to give it back before something happened to it."
"What would happen to it, eh?"
A tiny pout now. "David," she said. Then she shook her head, and the firmly tied scarf slipped backwards a bit, revealing her chestnut dark hair.
"Ah," he said, not wanting to comment any more than that.
"Yes, exactly." She looked at the book for a long minute, and then looked up at Willie. He was struck by her ability to be silent when she was thinking, not like Carolyn, who opened her mouth and just let the words come out.
"I wanted to return it because I know it's expensive. Mr. Collins was telling me about his book collection, and how much he's invested in it and that made me think—
well, I don't want to be the one to ruin any of his personal belongings."
"Sure," he said, not knowing if Vicki realized just how furious Barnabas could get when something happened to something he valued or if she was just being polite. Probably the latter was true. "I understand."
"So...could we take it inside now, before something happens to it?"
"Well, ah, sure, Vicki. Give it to me, huh? An' I'll take it in."
Her eyes glanced over at the pile of brush in the back of the truck as she placed the book in his outstretched hand. As the weight of the book settled against his grip, he followed her gaze.
"What have you been trimming, then, Willie?"
She would ask. Anyone else would have commented on what a large pile it was or said nothing at all. Trust Vicki to know what he'd been doing, just by the remains of his efforts. He slid his fingers along the spine of the book, noting the title, and recalling the price.
"Um," he said, wanting to stall, "just trimmin' a lilac tree."
"Really?" Her eyes lit up in a way he was not used to seeing. It was like a candle suddenly revealed inside of her. "I didn't know there were any on the estate."
"Yeah," he said, beginning to walk toward the house. Vicki trailed after him, hands in her jacket pockets, her footsteps clicking in echo with his own on the flagstones. "Well, I'll just put this away then."
He opened the door and placed the book carefully on the kitchen table. It would be safe there until he came back from town. Then he would hand it over to Barnabas, who would then decide the proper place for it to go in the library. Far be it from Willie to even attempt to decide such a thing. He came back out, shaking off the darkness of the Old House, to see Vicki still standing there, an expectant expression making her face bright.
"Willie, may I ask you a favor?"
"Sure, what is it Vicki."
"Could you show me the lilac tree you were trimming?"
A ride into town, or a special message for Mr. Collins, that's what he'd been expecting. Not this.
"Uh…." He stopped, feeling a crick in his neck spring suddenly to life. "Uh, it's up the hill a ways, an', ah, it's, you know—"
"I would love to see it," she said. "Lilacs are my favorite. The founding home where I grew up is overflowing with them this time of year, the street leading up to the gate especially, but I've not seen one since coming to Collinwood."
A freshet of wind blew into the yard, carrying with it the salt of the sea, and beneath that, of green things growing. She was like a kid, wanting something so desperately and not realizing she wanted it. How bad she wanted it. He simply could not resist the look on her face, and knew she could wander around for hours and never find it. She only had a little bit of time, after all, on a break from teaching David and expected back up at the Great House in short order. Besides, since he’d started working for Barnabas, she’d always been kind to him.
A gasp of pleasure, and he had to turn away lest she see him smiling and not understand why.
"It's up the hill," he said. "I'll show ya."
He led the way, striding through the clover, which seemed inches deeper than it had even yesterday, and looked back only once to make sure she was okay. Her scarf was coming off now, and he saw her reach for her jacket as if to unbutton it. Sure, in the growing heat as the sun resisted the threat of rain, that would make sense. She followed him without a word, keeping up with his longer strides and not needing any help at all.
Self-reliant, not like Carolyn.
But Carolyn wouldn't have wanted to come up in the first place.
At the height of the hill, he took a right and walked at an angle across a small field, through the stand of firs, and held the branches back for her so she could pass through with ease. The branches managed to grab her scarf all the way off, sending her hair spilling like a dance of leaves across her shoulders. The wind picked up the edges of her skirt to flutter across her knees, and Willie realized he was on the verge of staring. Turning away, he let the branch go, and made a gesture with his hand to present the lilac tree. With the trimming he'd done the day before and the constant rain through the night, the tree had burst forth with hundreds of blooms of lilac flowers. As the wind was carried to them, he realized the air was permeated with their scent
"Oh," she said, her mouth remaining open as she walked toward the tree. "It's beautiful."
It was. An explosion of purple and violet and lilac colored flowers. All bright and crisp and new in the late morning sunshine. With another stiff wind, some of the petals were torn to rain down, fluttering in the air like spreading snow, and Willie felt them landing on his face like soft kisses. Only they didn't melt. They stayed and scented the air around his face. And Vicki. He looked over at her; her eyes were closed and the petals were landing on her eyelids and weaving their way through her hair. Lacing her skin and drifting down the front of her dress as she held up her hands to catch the velvet fall. Now he was staring and only realized it too late, as she opened her eyes and looked at him. Frank and direct, in that way she had as if she could see into his heart, even if only for a moment.
"Thank you, Willie," she said, softly, dipping her head. Violet snow fell from her hair and then she looked up through her lashes at him. "This means a lot to me. Only—"
She stopped, turning her head to one side, lips thinning.
"Only what, Vicki? What is it?" He stepped closer, where he could smell the lilac's scent blending in with the sweat of her walk up the hill. The sweetness of her hair warmed in the sunshine. Swallowing, he tried to concentrate. And remind himself exactly whose ladylove he was now panting after.
"Only...only I was wondering if I could pick some of them. Do you think Mr. Collins would mind?"
"Mind?" He was on the verge of telling her exactly what Barnabas thought about this particular brand of flower and the tree it grew on, but he stopped himself. It wouldn't do any good or make any difference. "No, sure, hey, he won't mind."
"What could I carry them in, I wonder."
He realized after a quick second that she wasn't really asking him, she was asking herself. Out loud. That if nothing else would have told him how excited she was, because even as she spoke, she was taking off her rainjacket. "We'll put them in here, and I'll bundle them back with me to Collinwood. I'm sure Mrs. Johnson will have an extra vase I could use."
She reached up and began plucking the stems off, which snapped easily in her hand. She was picking enough to fill at least two vases, and Willie joined her, making the pile grow in to a mass of flowers that brimmed with scent.
"Oh, this is lovely," she said, again to herself, bending to scoop up the flowers in her hands to let them fall back down again in a soft patter. "I'll sleep like a baby with these in my room."
Willie had to smile outright at this. An almost laugh bubbled in his throat. "Sure, Vicki."
"Here, help me tie up the sleeves."
He bent to catch the edges of her coat and hold them up while she tied the sleeves around them. Then he lifted up the bundle and nodded to her. "I'll carry it for ya, okay? It's kinda bulky."
"Thank you, Willie," she said, and her smile was brilliant and deep. "I'll walk ahead and lead the way."
He tried not to stare at her as they walked down the hill and along the path to the Great House. But it was hard. The sun glinted off her hair, a living pelt of glossy brown, and once, when she looked back at him, she flicked it over her shoulders. He always did have it bad for girls who flipped their hair like that, and with her eyelashes cast half down as she smiled, he felt for a moment that she knew this. That she knew exactly what it did to him. Could even feel the electric current that raced through his gut and sense the sweat breaking out along the back of his neck. It was thoughts like these that would land him in trouble.
Blinking, he shifted his gaze but that was even worse. She had good legs, this one, smooth like silk and flashing under the modest length of her skirt. But there was enough there to know she had legs that went all the way up, sweet as sugar, and—
He stopped himself.
Just walk blind, okay, boy-o? Safer that way.
He'd rather trip and break his neck than face the wrath of Barnabas. Which is what would happen if the vampire found out that, by the time they'd walked through the woods together, and along the winding path that led from the Old House to Collinwood, Willie was humming with desire and that he would just as soon draw her into the copse beyond the main drive and lay her down in the tall grass that was beginning to shoot up as he would escort her to the front door of the Great House. Lay her down and ease off whatever sensible undergarments she was so charmingly hiding beneath her just-that-side-of-too-long skirt.
I'll help you sleep like a baby, Vicki.
By God, Willie, you're asking for it. Knock it off. Now.
Letting go of the air he'd clenched in his lungs, he continued to troop behind her, obedient and silent, watching the twitch of her skirt and trying to ignore the tightness of his jeans. It was the springtime, of course. That's what was doing it to him. In the middle of winter he'd not be having thoughts like these. But in the middle of winter, he'd not be walking right behind Vicki, who was stopping to open the front door of the Great House, turning amidst the scent of sweet lilac while the bright sunshine streamed through the trees, soaking them both through with the warmth of the day.
"Thank you, Willie," she said, reaching for the bundle he clenched in his arms. Making him realize how tight he'd been holding it, and he hoped he'd not crushed the petals too much.
Behind Vicki, in the shadows of the doorway, he saw Mrs. Johnson pass through the foyer. Willie gave Vicki the bundle and then stepped back in a shower of errant petals, shaking them off his body with a shiver, just as he as he tried to shed the illicit thoughts of Vicki Winters, laying in the sweet grass, hair spread out like dark silk ribbons. Wearing a blanket of lilacs and nothing else.
"You're welcome, Vicki," he said, keeping his voice steady. It was, he was pleased to note; she would never know. And Barnabas would never find out. "Anytime, okay?"
With a nod, she closed the door, and he waited a moment while her crisp footsteps faded away and he was left in silence in the archway of the front door.
Walk it off. Walk it off before you get back to the Old House, smelling like a stallion in heat.
He started down the front walk, cutting across the path into the woods with purposeful strides. It would be ages before Barnabas was up; time aplenty to simmer down and tend to his chores. Time enough to make like today had never happened.