Aether Psychics, Book 2
Everyone wears a mask. But the deadliest secrets hide in plain sight.
Marie St. Jean’s supreme acting talent comes with a price: Every spellbinding performance extracts a piece of her soul. When she reluctantly steps into a role abandoned by another leading lady, she encounters the reason the other woman fled in terror—a ghostly spirit who promises to fix her affliction.
Violinist Johann Bledsoe pulls her heart in a direction she dares not go, but with the Prussians surrounding Paris, she is well and truly trapped.
Johann thought he’s left disgrace and his gambling debt behind in England, but a murder outside the Théâtre Bohème makes him fear he’s been exposed. Though his heart resonates for the ravishing daughter of Madame St. Jean, he knows that once the siege is over, he’ll have to keep running.
Under the baleful eye of steam-powered ravens, more murders drive Marie and Johann closer to the truth of what really lurks below the stage, and what dangers hang over their heads. Their only hope could lie in exposing their darkest secrets—and surrendering to the Eros Element in a way that could push them irretrievably close to the edge of madness.
Warning: Main ingredients include copious amounts of wine and decadent desserts. And drama. Mon dieu, lots of drama. May result in the uncontrollable urge to applaud even if you’re reading this in a public place.
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“This deftly woven adventure is cast with well-developed characters that round out an entertaining mystery…a complex tale of murder, mayhem, and romance.” – Romantic Times
“Light Fantastique gets a ‘highly recommended’ from me! It is complex and magical, mysterious and romantic. If you like steampunk that is powered by romance and mystery, you too will appreciate Light Fantastique.” – Smart Girls Love Sci Fi Romance
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Sometimes the wanderlust in Johann subsided just enough for him to feel a twinge of homesickness. The snow outside made him think of how his family home would look now at the beginning of the holiday season. Perhaps a light dusting would give the peaks and sharp-angled roofs a glittering edge, or a heavier fall would make the old hall look like a dowager trimmed in white fur—dignified and elegant, but also potentially deadly.
His mouth twisted into an almost-grin at the association. One never escaped a conversation with his grandmother, the dowager Marchioness, without some sort of scar. Typically for him it included a hint or direct statement of what a disappointment he was to the family, a dreamer rather than a doer like his older brother.
A fluttering movement caught the corner of his eye, and he looked up to see Marie standing in the back of the theatre, something clutched in her hand. Whatever it was disappeared into her cloak pocket, and her expression distracted him from curiosity about what she’d caught, if anything. Longing warred with confusion on her face.
“Mademoiselle?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
“That music,” she said and put a hand to her middle between her heart and her stomach. “It made me homesick for something, but it doesn’t make sense. This is my home, such as it is, but now I miss…something. What were you playing?”
Johann had spoken with hundreds and played before thousands, but he’d never told his secret. His gut said he could trust her even if he wasn’t trustworthy himself. What would it be like if he was, if he could bear open his heart to someone else? He’d never wanted to, and the idea struck him as strange, but accustomed to going with his impulses, he stepped into that space between fear and trust.
“It’s my own composition. I call it Winter.”
She moved closer, and the amused lift of her cheeks became apparent when she stepped into the light cast by the lamps in the orchestra pit. “Original title.”
He put his violin on its stand. “You mock me, Mademoiselle?”
Her smile vanished, and now her cheeks reddened. “Oh, no! It was lovely, but it needs a name that’s less bleak and more poetic, maybe Blossoms Under Snow?”
He liked seeing her blush and wondered if she was one of those women whose flush covered her entire torso if it was deep enough. He sent a desist thought to his groin, but it bounced the notion back with the urge to keep her talking and blushing. “I can’t use a word like Blossoms in a composition title. I’m far too manly for that—it would make me appear weak.”
“Then how about icy shards? That shouldn’t challenge your masculinity.” The temperature in her tone matched that of the hypothetical ice.
What had he said? It figured he would get himself in trouble before long. What did she want?
The answer came to him, then—to be respected for who she was. And he saw her as a very strong woman. But he didn’t know what to say to get himself out of this mess. He only knew one thing—he didn’t want her to leave angry.
“Forgive me,” he said and took her hand. That was always a safe bet, much safer than the ones that had ended him up in this mess, the ones he’d taken to escape his father’s influence.
“For…?” She wouldn’t look at him, and she snatched her hand away.
“For being an ass. I’m too good at it. I didn’t mean to imply that womanliness was the opposite of strength. In truth, you and Iris are two of the strongest people I know.”
“Iris? You are on such intimate terms with her?”
“Miss McTavish, then. Yes, we’ve been working together to help Edward, and no, nothing improper has occurred between us. We’re…friends.”
“You’re not accustomed to being friends with women.” Her statement was almost a question.
“Not typically. I’ve not treated them well in the past, I fear.”
What was she doing to him to make him want to confess and clear his conscience to make room for… For what? He certainly had no desire to be tied down to anyone. As soon as he got this little problem with the Clockwork Guild worked out, he planned to continue the adventure they’d started, perhaps even to the Ottoman Empire and beyond, and he wasn’t afraid to go on alone.
She drew back, but she didn’t leave. “Why the sudden burst of honesty?”
“It was the music. It is a piece about my home, and I play it when I miss it.”
She took a seat on the front row, and he joined her but sat with a proper seat between them.
“Where is home for you?” she asked. “I know you’re from England, from near that little village where Cobb’s train picked you up, but not much else about you.”
The sentiment hung between them—other than that he had an apparent gambling problem.
“Ossfield Manor,” he said. “It’s one of the noble estates in the countryside, beside Edward’s family estate. We grew up together.”
“So your father is…”
“So you’re a noble son?” Her face expressed amused disbelief. “I should have guessed.”
“A second son. And how so?” He looked at his hands, his fingers calloused from his long years playing music. “These don’t look like a nobleman’s.”
“No, but you have the air of a spoiled brat about you sometimes, although you have a good balance of loyalty, at least to your friends.”
Now he was truly offended. “Mademoiselle, you wound me. I’m not a spoiled brat by any means. In fact, the money I lost was completely my own, not my father’s.”
“But couldn’t he have helped you?”
That was the point, for him to refuse. But all he said was, “He didn’t want to. In fact, he sent me away in disgrace and told me he didn’t want to ever see me again.”
“So why did you do it, gamble so much away you’ve made trouble for yourself?”
He’d never been able to explain to Edward, who did what he wanted and whose family had long given up on trying to push him into any sort of role he didn’t care for, but Johann recognized that Marie seemed to struggle with a reluctance similar to his. He took a deep breath and pushed his father’s disapproving face out of his mind.
“It’s family tradition for second and third sons to go into some sort of trade or role that would help the running of the estate, whether it’s a magistrate, some other local office, or even a businessman who can help broker the estate’s goods. No useless army commissions or clergy vocations for the Bledsoes, especially since those require an investment of some sort.”
“So they pressured you?”
“It wasn’t pressure so much as lifelong training. ‘Make yourself useful’ was my parents’ refrain from my childhood, and art and music are the most useless trades of all.”
“Even though you’re disciplined enough to have made it work for you. I heard of you long before I met you.”
He jumped on the chance to distract her from her line of questioning so he wouldn’t have to tell her about the stupidest thing he’d done. “Was I what you expected?”
“Not at all.”
“Oh?” He moved to the seat next to her. “And what did you expect?”
She shrugged and pulled her cloak around her. He took the hand that was on her lap and kissed the back of it.
“Monsieur, you presume. And you haven’t said how your family drove you to gamble.”
But she didn’t draw her hand back, and he trailed kisses from the delicate soft skin between her index and middle knuckles down to her wrist. Now he was close enough to see the blush did extend down her neck, and he wished she wasn’t wearing a cloak, that he could see more of her chest and the delicate pink she would turn when she thought of him kissing other things, for that particular maneuver hadn’t failed him yet. When he reached her wrist, he allowed one tooth to lightly graze her skin before the final kiss. She shifted, her breath quickened, and he wondered what unladylike sensations he made her feel.
“Marie!” Lucille’s call drew them both to their feet like marionettes jerked to attention.
“I have to go.” Marie drew her hood over her head and disappeared through the door beside the stage.
He sat to allow the evidence of his ungentlemanly feelings toward her subside and smiled. He might have told her more than he had any other woman, but he still hadn’t revealed the extent of his juvenile stupidity even if she did make him fuzzy in the head like a young buck. He’d always liked actresses and hadn’t hesitated to bed them, but he promised himself he would be careful with her.
It’s always best to not bite or sleep with the hand that feeds you…or her daughter.
He returned to the orchestra pit and picked up his violin. He hadn’t seen anyone in there, but he found a note when he opened his case.
You may think Mademoiselle St. Jean is another of your games, but she is not for you. Stay away from her, or your true nature shall be revealed.