“Just follow my lead,” I said. Nip’s train was due only a quarter of an hour after Sandra’s, so we decided to make it all a single trip. She betrayed no desire to see Sandra, but was resigned to the fact that the rendezvous would last only a short time. I wanted to see how they regarded each other, to determine whether it was hate or jealousy, or as Charlie put it, disdain.
As Sandra bounced off the train with her cello, I realized she was the opposite of Nips, bouncy, vibrant and flamboyant. My gaydar remained completely silent, whereas with Nips it sung a low hum. Their embrace was cordial – no hate or jealousy evident – but it didn’t last long, as though neither wanted to be seen with the other. Despite my warning, Sandra was under-dressed for the weather, which had again turned cold. Before she could settle in, though, we rushed to the opposite platform just in time to meet Nip’s train.
It was time to play with Sandra’s head. Nips and I embraced, and I leaned in for a kiss – a real one, full on, tongues. I hadn’t planned that last part, but it just seemed natural, a la Britney and Madonna. Nips wanted it, abandoning herself, pulling away just in time to board her train.
How did I feel about it? I was sorry to see her go, very sorry, but kissing a woman like that? I don’t know. My heart fluttered, but my head said, “Hold on.”
“Are you two … ?” asked Sandra as the train rolled out.
I just shrugged, leaving it ambivalent to make her wonder. After a frigid walk back to the castle, I set her up in a guest room. It was slightly larger than Nip’s room, and not as welcoming. It also had more ghosts, including some spirits that even I found disturbing. She saw it right away.
“This place certainly has a history,” she exclaimed, pulling off her coat – floppy dress, Docs, commando, as far as I could guess. It would be true to type.
“The castle has been around a long time,” I replied. “It’s bound to. We were right on the front line of the wars with the English, too.”
“I don’t think I’ve been in a place with so many ghosts.”
“You can see them?”
“No, but I can sense them. They don’t bother you?”
“They’re family, and I’m their living royalty. I’m one of them.”
“I could get rid of them for you,” she offered.
“I’d get lonely without them.” I couldn’t imagine the place completely empty like that.
“You know, you should be careful with Nicole,” she spat out bluntly.
“What do you mean?”
“Did she do the staring thing?”
“Yes, but …”
“The ghosts intervened. They distracted me before I opened myself to her.”
“Those eyes are difficult to resist. I couldn’t.”
“What happened between you?”
“We just fell out of love. There wasn’t even an argument. That’s the way she is. She knows exactly what she wants, and as soon as you don’t fit, she drops you. She will, you know.”
“What about you?”
“I’m not sure it was ever love, just infatuation. Say, are you interested in a Tarot reading? I’d like to learn more about the ghosts.”
Again, true to type, but what could it hurt? These parts were full of magic, soothsayers, witches – I probably would have been one if my mother had allowed it. “Why not?”
“Um …” she stuttered. “I prefer to do them nude. It gives me more contact with the spirit world. It would be better if you were, too.”
“That didn’t take you long,” I laughed.
“They warned me about your tarot readings.”
“What do mean by that?”
“All the women that surround Arlen. You know who they are. They’re all your friends on Facebook. Everyone has an opinion, and it’s hard not to listen. I’m sure they all contacted you as soon as you began your studies with him.”
“What would they know about the tarot anyway? It’s something I do often, with many people. I’m not seducing anybody with it.”
“What about Nicole?”
She chuckled. “She seduced me. Ask her, but I’m not sure she even knew she did it. I don’t think she turns on those moon eyes on purpose.”
This wasn’t starting well. I wished she wasn’t so fake or conniving. In normal clothes she would be pretty, if not beautiful, and there was nothing gay about her. “Do you really expect me to believe that?”
“If you ask Nicole, she’ll tell you. I’ve got nothing to hide. I don’t understand why nobody likes me. I don’t want anything more than anyone else has – someone to love and cherish, someone who fulfils me and inspires me.”
“Aoife fulfils you?”
“She inspires me,” she scowled. “She’s a brilliant poet.”
“Arlen does, too?”
“Arlen inspires all his students.”
“Especially the women.”
She shrugged. “His female students have been more successful than the males. Amelia is amazing, and Laura Liu. We overlapped a few years.”
“She might be the best of all of us. I freely admit that, but she doesn’t promote herself well.”
“Not like you.”
“People think there is a rivalry between us. I win the prizes she doesn’t enter, but she doesn’t enter many, so it looks like I’m winning them all. We had a relationship. It ended. It was sad. The world turns. My feet are firmly planted on the ground. Nicole’s head is in the clouds.”
She was right about that. Despite moments of lucidity, Nipple’s thoughts were always elsewhere, deep in whatever she was writing, soaring the heavens, talking to ghosts, or contemplating the universe. That’s what I found so endearing about her.
After dinner we sat down on the floor in my bedroom. Sandra said she felt more comfortable there, as the ghosts seemed more cordial. “Have you ever had a tarot reading before, she asked, slipping out of her dress, no underwear, as expected. Her body was magnificent, statuesque, what every man dreamt of, and without the façade, she seemed more human. Her ankles weren’t half as “English” as Arlen had implied.
“Why do you do that?” I asked, ignoring her question.
“People never forget me, and it’s comfortable.”
“There are other ways to achieve that,” I said, unbuttoning my blouse.
“I got sick of being a pretty face. People remembered how beautiful I was. Did Nicole tell you I was Miss Devon and runner up for Miss England?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“I was only a couple of votes away from going to Miss World, and I did it all for my parents. After it was over, I didn’t want any of it. This was my way to get people to look at me, not my body. I want people to hear my music, not fantasize about my breasts.” She shuffled her cards.
“I’m not sure this accomplishes the latter. Enough hangs out to get Arlen’s juices flowing, and I can’t see anyone else being any different.”
“What did he tell you?”
“He has fantasies about your breasts, and still insists he’s not a breast man.”
“When did he tell you?”
“We correspond regularly.”
“He confides in you?”
“We share fantasies.” Nothing wrong with being honest.
“He’s never told me anything.” She sounded hurt.
“You are a student. I’m nobody.”
“I wouldn’t say that. He talks about you at every opportunity. He’s in awe of your talent. I think he might be writing a piece for you. He’s certainly encouraging all of us to do the same.”
“It’s because I play new music,” I replied, stepping out of my panties. “That’s not uncommon. Everyone here wants to write for me, too.” After nearly a month with Nipples, I had lost what few inhibitions I had left.
“I think it’s more than that.”
“Whatever. Let’s get started.”
Sandra pulled out a card to represent me, the Princess of Disks. “You seem grounded, but spiritual,” she said, “and quietly beautiful, in possession of hidden knowledge.”
I tried not to react, as she shuffled the deck again and set it down for me to cut.
“Do you have a question, or should we just get a general sense?”
“General.” I wanted to know about Arlen, but couldn’t admit it.
She laid the first card on top of the Princess – the Magician. “I’m not all that surprised. You ooze art and talent. The Magician is an alchemist, fashioning a gold from iron. Many great musicians get it in their readings. She laid the next card across it: The Fool. Here is something working against you, either someone you can’t control through your gifts, or your own failings. The fool may be one who possesses that talent, yet has no knowledge of how they came by it or how to use it.
She set down the next four cards. Lust below, Love behind, The Lovers above, and the Princess of
Cups ahead. “This is a powerful reading,” she mused. “It looks like you are leaving love behind to satisfy your lust, only to find love again, and this woman may be the one who facilitates it, or maybe you will fall in love with her.”
“I’m not like that.”
“Whatever. If there is love, there is love. She’s one who has her head in the clouds, like Nicole, maybe. She lets her heart move her.”
Four more cards, three more women and the King of Wands.
“This is weird,” she remarked. You’ve got a man and a load of possessive, creative women. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Women for you, against you.” She laid down a few more cards. “Hmm, I can’t read this. Maybe it’s the ghosts. How about tea leaves or coins?”
“Coins?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I feel like I need to do something.” Something about that reading frustrated her.
“How about alcohol? That sometimes works.”
“I don’t drink,” she replied.
“No meat, no drink, sleep around. Strange combination.”
“I don’t really sleep around. Everyone wants to say they’ve slept with me. I’m not a virgin, but …”
I picked up my camera and snapped a picture.
“Hey! Why did you do that?”
“I take nude photos of all my visitors.” I laughed, snapping another as she reached for my camera.
“Take one of me!” I said, handing her the camera.
She looked at the two that I had taken. “You can’t use them for anything. I have a contract with the Miss Devon competition. No nude portraits. I could end up in the tabloids, and that’s the last thing I want.”
“I’ll be careful. You can take as many of me as you want. Nobody’s likely to do much with them.”
She shrugged, took a picture, examined it, and handed the camera back to me. “Arlen thinks I should write you a piece. Why should I?”
It was my turn to shrug. “I’ll play it?”
“He says you can play anything.”
“He says you write what you want, and it doesn’t matter if a pianist can play it. He wants me to show you what can’t be played.”
“Fair enough. We’ll play through some stuff tomorrow.”
Sandra decided to make it an early night, so I sat down with my computer, first sending one of the pictures of Sandra to Arlen, with the strict admonishment not to show it to anyone else. Next, I poked Charlie. I couldn’t explain why I was horny, but I found the tarot reading terribly unsatisfying, especially with the beautiful Sandra sitting cross-legged across from me.
Charlotte Weeks: Hey!
She used the normal text chat mode. I wondered if she did that when there were others around.
Eirica Johnstone: Sandra just went to bed, and I’m incredibly horny. She’s fucking beautiful with her clothes off, almost enough to make me consider …
I didn’t really want to finish that. It wasn’t something I wanted to consider.
Charlotte Weeks: Pity about her personality.
Eirica Johnstone: She isn’t so bad, maybe a little stuck on herself. If I was a guy, I would have been all over her.
Charlotte Weeks: You could have been. She swings both ways.
Eirica Johnstone: She doesn’t have the required appendage.
Charlotte Weeks: A dildo can be a wonderful thing.
Eirica Johnstone: I’ve never used one. Are you alone?
Charlotte Weeks: No. My BF’s here studying. He has a tutorial tomorrow.
Eirica Johnstone: I guess sex is out of the question.
Charlotte Weeks: I think we might have some later. It doesn’t take much to get him going.
Eirica Johnstone: I meant US!
Charlotte Weeks: I’m not sure he’d understand.
Eirica Johnstone: I guess not. I’m still not sure I do either. What are you doing now?
Charlotte Weeks: Composing. I’m writing a sexy piano piece for you.
Eirica Johnstone: Sexy?
Charlotte Weeks: It’s all I think about when I think of you. I’m wearing BF out.
Eirica Johnstone: Glad I’m good for something, at least.
I wasn’t going to get anything, and I was quickly losing interest.
Charlotte Weeks: I love what you do to me.
She didn’t say she loved me. That would have been too much.
Eirica Johnstone: I’m glad I …
A piercing scream interrupted me.
Eirica Johnstone: BRB!
I slapped my laptop shut and hopped out of bed. In seconds Sandra came sprinting through my bedroom door in tears, wearing a white cotton nightdress. She threw herself up against me, crying, not caring that I wasn’t dressed.
“What happened?” I asked, holding her in my arms and stroking her hair.
“He touched me,” she cried.
“I don’t know.”
“It was probably just a ghost. They’re harmless.”
“It hurt! His hand was like ice, and he touched me …” she broke off pointing between her legs. “… and he grabbed …” She put a hand on her breast. “He hurt me.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing, just …”
“I burned a candle,” she sobbed.
“An ordinary candle?”
“It was a simple spell for clarity. Nothing really. Just a white candle spell. He might have raped me!”
“He probably wouldn’t have gotten that far,” I reassured her. “They only repeat things from the end of their lives. I suspect he’d died before he re-enacted anything that would damage you. That’s usually how it happens. You’re safe in here.”
“How do you know that?” she sniffled.
“I’ve slept in every room on this floor and some upstairs. I know most of the ghosts intimately. Your spell must have irritated one of them. I’ve never had one become physically violent. Sometimes they might invade my dreams, and that can get sordid, but I know how to cut them off. Make friends with the other ghosts, and they will defend you.”
“How do I do that?”
“I do it through sexual fantasies. It worked with Nicole, too, but all you need to do is open yourself up to them completely. One most compatible with you will tell you their story.”
“They’ll talk to me?”
“It’s more visceral than that,” I explained. “They’ll let you see their memories. They can’t consciously do anything outside of re-enacting their death or significant events, but they can allow an intimate view of their lives.”
“Then he could have raped me!”
“The worse thing they can do is scare you or show you gruesome images. If he touched you, it would have taken extraordinary strength on his part. Few ghosts are that strong. He couldn’t do much more that what he did.”
“Why do you use sexual fantasies?”
“It attracts the gentler ghosts, the ones who attended my conception, the ones …”
“Attended your conception?”
“Mother said the room was full of them, quietly egging on my father, who wasn’t sensitive to them. He died when I was very young, so I don’t know if that ever changed. Those ghosts touch me as they touched their lovers, usually sparing me the last part of their re-enactment – their death.”
“Tell me about them,” she said, her eyes widening with wonder.
“There is one who caresses me with her hair. I can’t see her, but her touch is intimate. A man makes love to me, but stops just after climax, because that was when he died. Another comes as a flicker of light in the corner. I think she burned to death in the fire. She’s a curious one, wanting to watch. She’s a voyeur, and she was probably spying on her parents when her nightdress caught fire. She’s here now.” I pointed to the corner beside the fire.
Sandra searched, but I couldn’t see recognition in her eyes.
“She’s probably curious about you,” I added, “and about what you and I might do, since I’m standing here naked, and you have a history with other women. She’s probably hoping you will share my bed tonight, just to see what it is like. I don’t think she has watched two women before.”
“You are putting me on.”
“It’s just a guess. She was very interested when Nicole was here, although we didn’t do anything. Maybe she had some unnatural urges when she was alive.”
“It’s not unnatural!” Sandra objected. “It’s purely natural, and only vaguely mentioned by one writer in the bible. It’s only love!”
“Even so, it probably wasn’t discussed openly while she was alive. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen when she died, and as far as I can tell that was about a century ago.”
Sandra looked again. “Is she still there? I don’t see her.”
“She is. These ghosts are very particular about who sees, hears or feels what. I can call some of them just by thinking certain things, but they will only reveal themselves to you if they want to, and if you open yourself to them.”
“Unless they decide to terrorize me,” she grumbled.
“You terrorized him first. That sacred candle probably struck a chord with him. Perhaps a loved one died in a fire, or maybe he was exorcised. You’ve got to be careful with candle magick in places this old. I wouldn’t even attempt it here, if I had studied the old ways.”
“You should have warned me.”
“All I knew about was the tarot. If you were Wiccan, I would have expected you to know better how to interact with ghosts.”
“I’m not, really, it was a spell a friend cast for me.”
“But you are sensitive to ghosts.”
“Not as sensitive as you are, apparently.”
“I’ve lived with them all my life. I would be lonely without them. If I came to your home, I don’t know what I would see, although I’m familiar with the ghosts at Uni.”
She sat on the side of my bed. “Do you mind if I stay in here tonight? I’m not sure I can face my room again in the dark. I’ll sleep on the sofa.”
“You can join me in my bed if you want. There is plenty of room.” I missed having Nipples purring next to me already. I slept deeper with her there.
“I won’t do anything,” Sandra promised.
“That’s settled then.”
For a short time, I worried about having cut Charlie off so abruptly. She had her boyfriend there, a boyfriend whose existence had been barely mentioned. She didn’t need me.
Although we fell asleep on opposite edges of the bed, we awoke entwined. “You snore,” she murmured, pulling me closer. Again, I was glad that she wore a nightdress. There was too much beautiful skin pressed against me for my weak sensibilities. Was that what Aoife saw in her? Or Nipples? Was I that shallow, or was there something deeper in this woman?
I could feel my ghost caressing me with her hair. “No!” I whispered.
“What?” Sandra asked, opening her eyes.
“Just talking to a ghost,” I replied. I was saving myself for a man – a certain man.
We lounged about for another hour, and then rose for breakfast, which was my responsibility. Sandra couldn’t cook to save her life, and ate out most meals at Uni. We spent the morning struggling through her cello sonata. Arlen was right. She made the pianist’s task needlessly tiresome. Her music was much more difficult than it sounded, and we discussed several ideas about easing the pianist’s burden. As a cellist, she was quite good, perhaps a better performer than Nipples.
We walked into town for lunch, planning to finish in time to meet her train. “Would you mind terribly if I stayed another night?” she asked.
“Is there a problem?”
“I just wanted to get a better handle on you.”
“A handle on me? What do you mean?”
“Everyone is talking about you, and I want to know why.”
“Who is talking about me?”
“Arlen’s harem, as you called it. They either love you or fear you.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked. I hadn’t noticed that much discussion of me on Facebook. It must have been in private.
“You don’t carry the taboos that we do,” she added. “Arlen is obviously enthralled with you, but none of us can see why, other than you can play rings around any pianist in the country.”
“I don’t know about that. It isn’t a competition. Besides, you know Arlen. He has his limits, no students, and he’s married.”
“I’m not sure how meaningful that is, but yes, he is. You, however, aren’t his student. Besides, you must have heard the rumours by now, that Amelia’s son is his.”
“I’m not sure that’s relevant to me.”
“Still, nobody knows what he sees in you. You aren’t particularly beautiful. You speak your mind, perhaps a little too much. You can’t cook …”
“Better than you, missy, that’s not why he’s interested in you, besides your muffins.”
“Your breasts. I think he’s got a breast fixation, and with you he has a paradigm.”
Sandra blushed. “I still can’t believe he told you that!”
“He tells me lots of things, but he’s completely silent on certain subjects.”
“What he is actually thinking … what he thinks of me. He won’t tell me if he has fantasies about me, in spite of the fact that he’ll tell me in detail about ones of the rest of you. He also won’t say anything about his wife.”
“I think we have every right to fear you,” she said, resting her chin on her palm. “He doesn’t open up like that to anyone else, except maybe Amelia. It’s hard to tell with her. She’s very private. I think Arlen still holds a torch for her.”
“You’re probably right about that. He still has fantasies about her, and they are in regular contact.”
“He is in regular contact with all his former students, regardless of whether they are in the harem. He’s good in that way. He looks after all of us. He may even look after you, if you play your cards right.”
“He’s either a rake, a polygamist, or … a pervert … or just very naïve.” That didn’t change how I felt about him.
“But that’s why we all look after him, too. We, or at least his former students, try to keep him from getting into trouble. His current students don’t really have the opportunity, or the experience, except the postgrads, Nicole and myself. I’m not sure how active Nicole will be in that respect, but I know she cares about him. The others, Charlotte, Dana, and Peri, don’t really know how deep this runs. Since we don’t know you, we can’t gauge your loyalty.”
She paused for a moment, and sat back in her chair. “If you hurt him, we will destroy you.” That was more than a threat. It was a promise.
It was my turn to pause. I took a sip of tea as I tried to figure out how to react. If I seduced him, would that hurt him, or is it what he wanted? Would having his child bring on the jealous wrath of the others or just Amelia. Would he want to leave Aoife? I wouldn’t let him do that. “I think you made your point,” I replied coldly. “I suppose someone had to.” I should have tried to reassure her, but I wouldn’t stoop to that. I had no plans on hurting him, as long as he gave me what I wanted.
Which I knew he would.
“So what did you want to do this afternoon?” I asked, not wanting to continue the interrogation.
“Walk for a while, explore the village, the castle grounds … and maybe the ruins, if you’ll let me.”
“Of course. The grounds are pretty boggy right now. We’ll have to stay on the paved footpaths.”
“That’s fine. I think I’d also like to compose a little later on. I feel the urge.”
“Whatever you want. There’s another piano in the library if you need it. I was hoping to practise some myself on the Steinway. I’ve got a recital to play in a couple of weeks.”
“Do you mind if I come?” she asked. “I’ll come up on the day and leave the following morning.”
“Yeah, but you might have to find yourself a place to stay. Nicole might be sleeping on the floor of the digs, and it will be too late for a train back here.”
“I’ll figure something out.”
I wondered how many more of the harem would choose to come. It didn’t take long to find out. Amelia was the first ask by email later that afternoon, and she wanted to come on Saturday and stay with me in Dunrig. That was the night after Arlen arrived. We wouldn’t have much time alone together. Would she be upset if he slept in my room? Of course, she would. So would the rest of them.
Liz Lamm was coming over from Boston, but Laura was too close to delivery to fly in. I already knew Charlie would come, but I was surprised to hear that Dana and Peri would join her on the train and share a room at McFadden’s (a local guest-house) with her.
“I took your advice,” Sandra announced the next morning, having slept in her own room.
“Did it work?”
“Yes, to a point.”
She smiled. “I got to know one of your ghosts … rather intimately. He captained a ship and came here when he was on-shore. He was quite a man.”
“Did he … you know …?”
Confused, her wheels were turning. “Oh! No!” she laughed as my meaning clicked. “He was in love with a servant girl here. They eventually married. He was a dream though.”
“You could see him?”
“I could feel him inside of me as if we were one. That was quite … um … stimulating. He shared his memories with me … all of them.” She giggled again.
“I’m glad you enjoyed them.”
“I did have an unsettling dream later on, though.”
“That might have been last night’s ghost getting revenge. What happened?”
“I was wandering through a church, maybe a cathedral, looking for you. Some bishop was leading me around. I would pass something, and it would burst into flames. Anything fabric or wood. It was weird.”
“Did you find me?”
“No, but Arlen was there, and Nicole, a few others that I knew … lot’s of people I didn’t know. I wonder what it meant.”
“It was probably just the ghost planting a little fear in you. It’s probably harmless.” I didn’t dare tell her what I thought it mean. I’m glad she didn’t find me in it. I would be one more thing she ruined. She had already hurt Nicole, but how would she hurt Arlen? Coming between him and Aoife? It wasn’t always that obvious. What it did mean was that she hadn’t a clue how many lives she would destroy.
It made me feel sorry for her. She wasn’t really a bad person, just socially clumsy, and unaware what her beauty did to people. People like Aoife, Arlen or Nicole. I was glad to finally put her on the train, so I could get back to Uni. I had a lesson and a couple of seminars during the week before I went back home to prepare for Arlen’s visit.
During all the weeks of becoming intimate with him online, I still didn’t know what I would do when he arrived. Dare I try to mimic one of his fantasies? I didn’t know what he craved about me, or how he pictured me. Naked? I could send him a picture. I certainly had plenty now. That didn’t seem right. Where was the mystery?
Had I destroyed Nicole’s mystery, or Sandra’s? I had to. They were in the way. Amelia was in the way now. How could I have allowed her to come visit while he was here? Changing my mind would be suspicious, and it might make Arlen decide to stay in the city. That would ruin everything.