Excerpt: Possession

Book 2 : Emily Chambers Spirit Medium Trilogy

Possession (Emily Chambers) by C.J. Archer


London, Spring 1880

Someone watched us. I don’t know how I knew. I just did. It wasn’t a ghost because I couldn’t sense spirits, only see them. No, someone real and very much alive was following us home.

It wasn’t the first time.

“Do you feel that?” I asked my sister, Celia, as I glanced over my shoulder. An elderly couple strolled arm in arm on the other side of the road, a middle-aged woman struggled with a heavy basket up to the front door of a house, and a man crouched at the feet of a girl to tie up her boot lace, their heads bent against the breeze. A black hansom rattled past and the horse lifted its tail and deposited its business on the street, adding to the smells of soot and dung already clogging the air. All seemed quiet. Nothing was out of place for a spring afternoon in residential Chelsea.

“Feel what?” Celia asked, her gaze set firmly on the way ahead.

“Like we’re being spied upon.”

She laughed. “Who would spy on us?” But her laughter died as soon as the words were out. She stopped and looked at me. “He’s not back is he?”

There was no need to ask who “he” was. She was referring to Jacob Beaufort, eldest son of Lord and Lady Preston, a ghost, and the man I couldn’t stop thinking about. I’d not seen him since we’d returned a shape-shifting demon to the Otherworld a week before. The Administrators in the Waiting Area—the place where spirits reside for as long as they need to before crossing over to the Otherworld—had assigned him to me when Celia accidentally released the demon during one of our séances. After the demon’s return, Jacob had simply vanished. No matter how many times I tried to summon him, he did not reappear.

Perhaps he’d crossed over, but I doubted it. He was a rare ghost. Unlike others, he didn’t know why he couldn’t cross. Something was keeping him in the Waiting Area, something more personal than the temporary demon hunting assignment. It was likely related to his mysterious murder.

“No, it’s not Jacob.” My voice cracked despite my effort to control it.

Her gaze narrowed. She sighed then circled her arm around my shoulders, squeezing gently. “It gets easier in time.”

How would you know? Celia was thirty-three and unwed. She’d had admirers but never accepted their offers of marriage, despite our mother’s encouragements when she was alive. Celia claimed she didn’t love any of those men enough to marry one. It was a decision that resulted in her now being firmly on the shelf. I used to think she was foolish risking spinsterhood by waiting for love. To me, falling in love was like being struck by lightning. You knew it happened to some people, just nobody you’d met.

Or that’s how I used to think before I met Jacob. Almost from the moment I saw him, I knew I loved him. What we shared had been magical, wonderful. All the clichés from every poem I’d ever read didn’t come close to describing the feeling I had when near him. He set my nerves on fire, made my body ache and filled my heart with so many emotions I thought I’d burst.

When he was gone, it was like someone had thrust their fist into my chest and wrenched out my heart. I couldn’t imagine the ache ever lessening, let alone disappearing completely.

As we turned onto Druids Way, the feeling of being watched vanished. Nevertheless, I remained alert the rest of the walk home.

Our house was nestled between identical terrace houses lining the street. Most were in need of painting or fixing here and there to tidy them up. For some reason, Druids Way was the forgotten child of Chelsea. The fashionable no longer lived there and our neighbors were elderly, having moved in before Queen Victoria came to the throne. The wind tugged at our skirts and ribbons and Celia let go of me to hold onto her bonnet. Her other hand clutched the carpet bag that carried our props for the séance we’d just conducted.

We reached our front door without hats or ribbons blowing away and were met by Lucy. The maid’s eyes danced with excitement and her milky complexion flushed a rosy pink.

“Miss Chambers, you’ve got visitors!” she said, taking our bonnets. “Very fine they are too. Her ladyship’s dress is—”

“Her ladyship!” Celia and I said together.

Lucy nodded and hung our bonnets on the hallstand. “I put them in the drawing room and offered them tea. They insisted on waiting, see, and I couldn’t very well say no since she’s a lady and all.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Didn’t I say? Lady Preston and Miss Beaufort, her daughter.”

Celia’s gasp was barely audible over the loud thud of my heart. I pressed a hand to my chest and tried to breathe normally but failed miserably. Lady Preston was Jacob’s mother. Last time I’d seen her she’d hit an assailant over the head with a candelabra, saving my life and—unbeknown to her—the soul of her son who was doing battle with the demon. Prior to that she’d not believed me when I said I could speak to Jacob’s ghost. She’d refused to accept his death, and her husband had put down the events of that evening to trickery and good acting on my part.

So what was she doing in our house?

“She’s so fair and pretty,” Lucy gushed, clutching our coats to her bosom. “The daughter I mean, but her ladyship’s still pretty for her age too, and so elegant.”

“Never mind that,” Celia said with a wave of her hand. “Tell me you used the Wedgewood tea service.”

“I did, Miss Chambers.”

“Good girl.” Lucy beamed. “Come, Emily,” Celia said to me. “Let’s see what Lady Preston wants.” As we started to leave, she caught my arm and held me back. “Do not, under any circumstances, mention that Jacob boy. Mothers don’t like to hear about the…friendships their sons have with girls.”

I nodded and refrained from telling her mothers probably didn’t like hearing about their dead sons at all, particularly Lady Preston. Last time Jacob’s name came up, I thought she’d scratch my eyes out for suggesting he wanted her to move on with her life.

We entered the drawing room and I knew immediately Lady Preston was perhaps, just perhaps, coming to terms with Jacob’s death. She gave me a tentative smile without an ounce of hostility in it. Beside her on the sofa, Adelaide Beaufort grinned and I couldn’t help returning it. It was so nice to see Jacob’s sister again. She was a sweet girl of about my own age and had believed me when I said I spoke to Jacob’s ghost. It would seem she’d talked her mother into believing it too.

I introduced them to Celia then sat on one of the chairs bracketing the hearth. Celia sat on the other. Lucy must have lit a fire in the grate when our guests arrived as there hadn’t been one when we left. Our séance business was not yet successful enough for us to end our economizing and keep a fire burning while we were out in the springtime. Nor had we been able to afford new furniture, much to Celia’s disappointment. I admit it was a little embarrassing having illustrious guests sitting on our faded sofa, the threadbare carpet at their feet. Thankfully we’d both worn our better day dresses to the séance.

“It’s so lovely to see you again,” Adelaide said. Her bright blue eyes, so like her brother’s, danced merrily, making her look even prettier. She was fairer than Jacob with honey-colored hair that curled delicately at her temples and ears. Not at all like my black springy mane that never stayed in place and skin that never paled no matter how much lemon juice I applied. “I do hope you’ve been well.”

We exchanged pleasantries and drank our tea, but it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to their reason for visiting. It was exactly what I thought it would be.

“Miss Chambers,” Lady Preston said, her voice so soft I had to strain to hear her, “I hoped…that is, I wondered…if…” Her voice faded and tears sprang to her eyes.

Adelaide took her mother’s hands in her own. “We wondered if you could…summon Jacob’s ghost for us,” she finished.

I couldn’t actually hear Celia groan, but I could sense it. It’s not that she didn’t like Jacob. It’s just that I couldn’t wed a dead man, and according to her, it was time I began to think about my future.

“Emily?” Adelaide peered at me through those wide eyes. “Is everything all right? He hasn’t…what do you call it when a ghost moves on?”

“Crossed to the Otherworld,” I said. “No, I don’t think so. It’s just that I’m not sure if he’ll come when I summon him. I’ve tried, you see, and he…hasn’t.” I picked up the teapot and refilled my cup, but my hand shook and tea sloshed over the sides.

“Are you sure you want to speak to him, Lady Preston?” Celia asked, all sweetness and understanding. She was as good at the sympathy part as she was at the exuberant theatrics of the séance. Distressed family members often found comfort in her kind words and gentle voice. Lady Preston was no exception. She gave Celia a watery smile. “It won’t be easy for you both,” my sister went on. “Indeed, it might be quite traumatic even though you can’t see him or speak to him.”

“We’ll be all right,” Lady Preston said. “We need to speak to him. You do understand don’t you, Miss Chambers?”

I understood that need very, very well.

“We’ll pay you of course,” Adelaide added.

“No, please, I don’t want payment,” I said. Celia gave a small, exasperated sigh, but I ignored her. “Jacob is a friend and I want to see him too.” He might not want to see me, but hopefully he’d make an exception for his mother and sister. I cleared my throat and drew a deep breath. “Jacob Beaufort, come to us. I summon Jacob Beaufort to appear in this realm.”

A moment passed. Two, three. Lady Preston lowered her head and pressed a dainty gloved hand to her nose. Adelaide nodded, wordlessly imploring me to try again.

I opened my mouth but didn’t get a chance to speak. Jacob appeared near the door, his arms crossed over his chest. My breath hitched at the sight of him, so handsome with his dark hair, strong jaw, and lips I wanted to touch with my own. He wore black trousers and a shirt unbuttoned to his chest, revealing a patch of skin as smooth as polished oak. Like all ghosts, he wore the clothes he’d died in, and his knuckles bore the cuts and bruises incurred during his last violent moments alive.

I gripped the arms of my chair to stop myself from running to him and throwing myself into his arms. From the coolly bland expression on his face as he regarded me, I didn’t think my exuberance would be welcome. We’d not parted on the happiest of terms.

“Emily?” Celia prompted. “Is he here?”

I nodded.

Lady Preston gave a wet gasp. “Jacob?” She glanced around the room, her damp eyes searching the afternoon shadows.

Adelaide shifted forward on the sofa. “Where?” she whispered.

I indicated the doorway, but Jacob had already moved, making his way slowly to his mother and sister. Where before his features were carefully schooled, they were now stripped of the mask. Sadness tugged at his mouth and clouded his eyes as he knelt by his mother. His hand hovered over hers, clasped in her lap, and I was surprised to see her gaze lower to look directly at him as if she could see him there. She couldn’t possibly see him or feel his hand on hers, but somehow she just knew.

“Jacob?” She reached out and her fingers went straight through his cheek. “You’re here.” She spoke with quiet wonder, her eyes wide and unblinking.

Jacob tilted his head slightly as if leaning into her hand, but of course it only sank further into him. Aside from me, he’d not touched another living soul since his death nine months ago. He must have ached for it.

“Perhaps you should hold something,” Celia said in the general direction of Jacob’s ghost. “So we know where you are.”

His chest inflated, but not for an intake of breath as he no longer required air in his lungs. I’d learned there were some things the ghostly body did naturally out of long habit rather than necessity.

“Of course,” he said, rising. He leaned down and kissed the foreheads of his mother and sister, but neither made any sign that they knew it.

If only he would kiss me. I’d even settle for him looking at me, but he didn’t do that either. Was he going to ignore me the entire visit? That might be difficult, as I was the only one who could communicate with him.

We’d parted awkwardly after we’d sent the shape-shifting demon back to the Otherworld. I hadn’t wanted him to go, not until we’d solved the puzzle of his death, but he no longer wanted to be near me. He thought he would put me in danger because he wanted to be with me, always, and my death would secure that.

He stepped around the furniture to the mantelpiece and picked up the framed daguerreotype of Celia’s father as he always did when he was in our drawing room. I say Celia’s father and not “our” father because he wasn’t mine. He’d died a year before I was born. My parentage was a mystery, as my mother hadn’t remarried after her husband’s death and there didn’t seem to have been any lovers.

“Oh, Jacob.” A wide grin split Adelaide’s face. She shook her head and shrugged. “There’s just so much to say…where do we start?”

Lady Preston smiled at the picture frame, blinking rapidly. I didn’t think any questions would be forthcoming from her quite yet.

“Jacob?” I prompted. His gaze flicked to mine then back to his sister. He nodded, understanding he must carry the conversation until they regained their wits.

“Ask them if they are well,” he said.

I did.

“Oh yes,” Adelaide said. “Quite well.” She touched Lady Preston’s hand. “Mother was…out of sorts for quite some time but regains more vitality every day.” There was no need to elaborate. We all knew Lady Preston’s ill health had been caused by her son’s sudden disappearance and her inability to accept his death.

“Father is well too,” Adelaide went on, her enthusiasm spilling out of her as she grew more comfortable. Unlike me, she didn’t sense Jacob’s mood darken at the mention of his father. They’d not been close during Jacob’s lifetime, and the son’s dislike of his father had only increased after he witnessed the cruel way Lord Preston had treated me.

“Ask her if she’s attended many balls,” he said, leaning against the mantelpiece, looking very much like the man of the house. “How many gentlemen have offered for her hand already?”

I asked Adelaide if she’d attended any Society events and she launched into a list of balls, dinners and even breakfasts she’d been invited to since Lady Preston announced the end of their self-imposed seclusion.

“Your sister is going to have a ball for her coming out,” Lady Preston said. She twisted her fingers in her lap and delicately chewed on her bottom lip. “It’s not that we’ve forgotten or have set it behind us…” Her voice trailed off and she pressed her hand to her nose again. “I will wear full mourning of course.”

“I know,” he said quietly. “Emily, assure her this is what I want. It’s time Adelaide enjoyed herself.”

“That makes Jacob very happy,” I said to his mother and was rewarded with a small smile from her. “He wants Miss Beaufort to attend parties.”

“Oh, I shall,” Adelaide said. “But I’ll miss him. It won’t be the same without him there to introduce me to his friends and other people whose names he can’t remember but pretends he does.” She smiled sadly.

“She knows me too well,” he said drily.

It was certainly no laughing matter as Jacob’s inability to notice people outside his immediate social circle may have inadvertently led to his death. We’d connected his murder to a boy from his Oxford year, known only as Frederick. The boy had thought Jacob was avoiding him, when in truth Jacob hadn’t really noticed him. This perceived slight had led Frederick to set upon Jacob, only to come off worse in the fight. Although he’d gotten up and run away, Jacob’s murderer had later made it known that Jacob was “responsible” for his—or her—son’s death. Jacob assumed the killer was speaking of Frederick and the boy must have died some time after the fight.

But it was all speculation. No one really knew why Jacob had died.

“We want to find your body,” Lady Preston blurted out. We all looked at her. She looked at the daguerreotype in Jacob’s hand. “And to do that we must ask your…your…”

Killer. “Yes!” I said, perhaps a little more enthusiastically than was polite considering the circumstances. “I agree, Lady Preston.” I raised an eyebrow at Adelaide.

She nodded. “I told Mother and Father about that Frederick boy and how his parent might be involved. Father said…well, never mind his exact words, but he’s not interested in following that line. He says his detectives are being paid well and will discover who the murderer is without your…our intervention.”

Lady Preston winced. “However, I think you might be right about this Frederick, Miss Chambers.”

“It was Jacob who made the connection. I’m just his voice,” I said.

“Don’t disregard your role, Em,” he said. It was the first time he’d spoken directly to me since his appearance and it caught me off guard. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Do you mean you will hire detectives of your own, Lady Preston?” Celia asked.

Lady Preston shook her head. “I came here to speak to Jacob, to urge him to think very hard about who precisely Frederick is, or was.”

“He has tried,” I said. “He can’t recollect him. Perhaps if we made discreet enquiries, someone at Oxford may know of him.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Adelaide said.

“No.” Celia spread her fingers on her lap, a sign she was trying very hard not to raise her voice. “Absolutely not. You are not to get involved, Emily. This is a matter for others, not young ladies.”

“Agreed,” Jacob said with all the coldness of mid-winter in his voice. I wrenched my gaze from his but shivered nevertheless. I didn’t want to argue with him over the point, but I would if I had to.

“I’m not suggesting your sister be involved at all,” Lady Preston assured Celia. “Just that she communicate with Jacob and learn as much from him as possible. I’ll write to his old friends and see if they know of any Fredericks. If that fails, I’ll write to the university itself and obtain a list of all Fredericks in Jacob’s year.”

“A sound idea,” Celia said, relaxing.

No, it wouldn’t do. Not at all. Letters would not suffice, and I would not be shunned. The investigation was too important. “I’m not sure letters are quite personal enough for this task.” I turned to Jacob. “Is there one friend in particular who might know about this Frederick fellow? Someone popular with a wide circle?”

He narrowed his eyes. “What are you getting at, Emily?”

“Just that a visit to one person might be more appropriate and discreet. In fact, I’d go even further and suggest that you be the one to visit him, not your mother or sister.”

“Ah.” He crossed his arms and his lips tilted in a sardonic smile. “I see now. If I agree then that means you have to attend too as my medium. A good try, but the answer’s no. I’ll not involve you.”

“Because it’s not my business?” I spat.

“Because I don’t want you to get hurt.”

A little late for that. My heart hurt like the devil ever since he’d suddenly appeared in my life then just as suddenly disappeared.

Celia coughed politely and I apologized for my one-sided conversation. “But I do think it’s a good idea,” I added. “And yes, it necessitates that I go too, but it’s just a simple visit and will be one time only.”

“I don’t think it’s wise,” Celia said, but she was wavering. I could tell by the way she studied her teacup and didn’t meet my gaze.

“I’ll chaperone her,” Lady Preston said quickly.

“I’ll go too, of course,” Adelaide added. “It’ll be quite safe. As Emily said, it will be very discreet this way. No one will ever know we’re making enquiries and I do think Jacob’s guidance will be invaluable.”

“Ha!” Jacob barked. “Bloody female logic. I don’t suppose I have any say in this.”

“Jacob agrees to the scheme,” I told them.

Another harsh laugh from Jacob’s direction. I ignored him. It seemed the best course of action while in public. Now if I could get him alone…

“Excellent.” Lady Preston rose and smoothed her black basque jacket over her hips. “Come tomorrow, Miss Chambers. In the mean time, if you could tell her which of your friends will best serve our purposes, Jacob, that would be most helpful.” It seemed our new endeavor had indeed brought Lady Preston back to life, and I found I liked her very much. I could believe this forthright woman was the mother of two charming, remarkable people better than the shadow I’d met over a week ago.

Our guests—the live ones—said their goodbyes. Celia and I walked them to the front door like old friends. Jacob remained behind in the drawing room, or perhaps he’d already vanished back to the Waiting Area. At least he would return to give me the name of someone to contact. It would give us a chance to finally talk. Alone.

I opened the front door and the familiar feeling of being watched returned. I tensed, looked left then right. At the corner of the street, peering back at us from behind the red-brown bricks of the largest house on Druids Way, was a little girl. It was too far to make out much except that she had black hair, a black coat, and couldn’t have been more than about ten. It was the same girl whose bootlace was being retied by the man earlier.

“Excuse me,” I said, moving down the stairs past Adelaide. “I must speak to that girl.”

“Emily!” Celia scolded. “Our guests are just leaving.”

I held my hand up for her to wait and began to run, but before I reached Mrs. Norstrop’s house two doors down I saw the little girl’s mouth move, uttering words I couldn’t hear. An edge of something black—a coat?—flapped beside her, but the rest of it was out of sight around the corner.

Behind me, someone grunted.

“Adelaide!” Lady Preston cried out.

I spun round to see Celia supporting Adelaide and Lady Preston flapping a hand at her daughter’s white face. Jacob hovered anxiously nearby and I knew he wished he could help.

“She almost fainted,” he said, pacing around her.

Adelaide shooed Celia and her mother away, but she swayed unsteadily. “Bloody hell,” she muttered, pressing both hands to her temples. “My bloody head hurts.”

“Adelaide!” Lady Preston gasped. “Language.”

Celia coughed politely and looked away. Jacob stopped pacing and stared at his sister as if she were a creature from another world.

Adelaide put a hand over her mouth. “Oh! Oh, I can’t believe I said that. I’m so sorry, Mother, really. I don’t know what came over me.” She closed her eyes and groaned loudly.

“I think we should go home,” Lady Preston said. “It’s been a draining day.”

“Would Miss Beaufort like to return inside and rest?” Celia asked.

“No.” Adelaide sliced her hand through the air. “Let’s go.”

I suddenly remembered the little girl. I looked up the street, but she was gone. Curses!

“Until tomorrow, Miss Chambers.” Lady Preston took her daughter’s arm. Adelaide’s face screwed up and she regarded her mother with disdain. With a snort and deep laugh that made my spine tingle, she marched down Druids Way with long, purposeful strides. Lady Preston had to trot to keep up.

Jacob watched them go, a frown cutting across his forehead. “Strange,” he muttered. “Very strange.”

“Did you see her?” I asked. “That girl at the corner? Did either of you see her standing there? I think she’s the one who’s been watching me.”

“Someone’s been watching you?” Jacob asked, his full attention on me. “For how long?”

“Ever since…” you left. “For about a week.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

I thrust one hand on my hip and stalked across to him so that we were close enough to touch. Dear God, how I wanted to touch him, but he’d made it clear there would be no more intimacy between us. My frustration made me speak harsher than I meant to. “If you’d come when I summoned you, I might have.”

He had the decency to look away. “Well, I’m here now,” he said softly. “Tell me about the girl watching you.”

“There’s nothing to tell. Today is the first time I’ve seen her. She was just a little girl, only…”

“Only what?”

I shook my head. “Nothing. She was too far away to see clearly.” And I might have imagined the dark, wild curls and the darkish skin, so like my own.