‘It certainly wouldn’t be easy,’ Winter agreed. He swung his backpack off his shoulder and stuffed the bilberry inside it before reaching for my hand. ‘Come on. I’ve got something with me that’s going to make you squeal.’
I grinned. ‘Sounds kinky.’
‘Oh,’ Winter purred, ‘this is better than kinky.’ He delved inside the bag and withdrew a flask.
I gasped. ‘Is that…?’
He winked at me. ‘Hot chocolate.’
Winter was right; I did squeal. ‘That’s not all,’ he said. He reached into his bag of tricks again and pulled out a plastic box. With a flourish, he lifted the lid to reveal two sandwiches, clingfilm-wrapped to within an inch of their lives.
I wrapped my arms round his neck. ‘You’re brilliant.’ And he was. I’d stayed in bed an extra ten minutes and Winter had got up to make snacks.
‘Careful!’ he warned. ‘You’ll squash them.’
‘I’m sure they’ll taste just as good.’ All the same I pulled back. There was something suspicious about the sandwiches. I frowned and looked a little closer. ‘Winter,’ I said, slowly. ‘Did you, uh, use a ruler to cut the bread?’ It looked oddly perfect.
‘Don’t be silly,’ he said. ‘It was a set square.’
His expression was so deadpan that I decided he was serious. Rather than look a gift horse in the mouth – my stomach was rumbling, after all – I gratefully took one of the sandwiches.
‘There’s a more sheltered spot over there,’ I suggested. It wasn’t exactly warm or dry, even in the shadow of the great gnarled oak, but there was less wind and the worst of the rain was shielded by the twisted branches overhead.
Winter nodded and we traipsed over. I plonked my bottom on some damp moss and wriggled around to get comfortable. Amused, Winter sat beside me and poured two small cups of steaming hot chocolate. I carefully laid my half-unwrapped sandwich to one side then took the cup from him, curling my fingers round it to get the full benefit of its heat. Then I dipped my head, took a sip and groaned.
‘Raphael Winter,’ I breathed. ‘You might be the best man in the entire world.’
He glanced at me, obviously pleased. ‘There’s no “might” about it, Ivy Wilde.’ He smiled. ‘Nice moustache, by the way.’
I ran my tongue round my lips before smacking them loudly. ‘Mmm.’ I reached for the sandwich again. ‘If I ever start taking you for granted, bring me back here and throw me in that puddle again.’ Then I took a bite and choked.
The surface of the bread was coated in something dry and dusty which tasted highly unpleasant. ‘What are you trying to do?’ I asked. ‘Poison me?’
He blinked. ‘Huh?’
There was a loud tut. I didn’t need to look up to know that one of Grenville’s ghostly buddies had finally decided to show. Where there was a tut, there was bound to be a spirit waiting to castigate me. It was about time.
‘It’s not his fault,’ a woman said. She was wearing a high-necked white robe with frills that seemed at odds with the barbed-wire tattoo snaking up her neck. ‘You’re the one who put your lunch in the middle of my remains.’
My mouth stopped working as I looked at where I’d laid the sandwich. There wasn’t a large pile of ash but there was enough. I sprang to my feet and spat out what was left. Dead people. I was eating dead people.
I flung the sandwich away from me. Unsurprisingly, Winter was disturbed. ‘What is it? What’s wrong?’
‘Goodness,’ the ghost said, ‘he’s really rather charming, isn’t he? It’s been a long time since I had a man of that calibre jumping to my defence.’ She pursed her lips. ‘Actually, I’m not sure it’s ever happened.’ She walked over and peered into Winter’s face. He, of course, was blithely unaware of her presence.
‘Get away from him,’ I snarled with more venom than was probably necessary.
Winter jumped. The ghost ignored me. ‘Are those contact lenses? He can’t possibly have eyes that blue. They’re quite extraordinary.’ She leaned into him and raised her hand, trailing her fingernails down his chest as if in a caress.
A strange sound emitted from deep in my throat. It took a moment or two for me to realise that I was growling. ‘Look,’ I said through gritted teeth, ‘get away from him or we are walking out of here and leaving you to this place.’
She turned round. ‘My, you’re a bit touchy, aren’t you?’ She looked at me more closely. ‘It must be a new relationship,’ she decided. ‘He’s not had the chance to let you down yet. Don’t worry. He will.’
That was where she was wrong: Winter had already had every chance to let me down and he hadn’t taken any of them. I wasn’t here to get into a discussion about him though; all I wanted was to ensure that she left him alone and to find out what the hell was going on here. I hadn’t met any ghosts yet who were able to touch anyone or anything living – but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist. I wasn’t going to permit even the faintest whisper of danger brush against my Winter.
Winter waved his hands curiously in front of him. His fingertips barely grazed the apparition’s back. ‘Is there a ghost here now?’
She wriggled. ‘That tickles.’
I narrowed my eyes. ‘You can feel him touch you?’ I stepped forward, itching to take a swing at her to find out.
She grinned. ‘Nah. Not really.’
Winter tilted his head. ‘Is everything okay, Ivy?’ he asked softly. ‘You look … fierce.’
The ghost laughed. ‘He has your measure, hasn’t he?’
I glared at her but answered Winter. ‘There is a woman here,’ I said. ‘But I’m not sure she wants our help. She seems more interested in passing judgment on us.’
The ghost held up her hands. ‘Hey, there’s no need to get upset. I do want your help but you can’t blame me for having a little fun. I’ve been stuck here for ages and the others aren’t exactly a laugh a minute. They were bad enough when they were alive. Now they’re dead…’ She dropped her voice. ‘They’re mean to me. You wouldn’t think a ghost could be bullied but that’s what’s happening to me.’ Her eyes went round. ‘It’s awful.’
Without warning a man appeared, hovering up the slope behind her. There was a large bloodstain across his chest, although it was clear his pained expression was more to do with his ghostly companion than any lingering physical hurt. ‘It’s your fault, Karen. Don’t start laying the blame on us.’
‘How is it my fault? I didn’t know what would happen! Besides, would you really be content if that bastard had killed us and got away with it? What about your family? They’d think you’d just run off. They’d never learn the truth. Now we have her,’ she said, flinging a hand out towards me, ‘we have a chance of justice and our families will know what really happened.’
I flicked my gaze from her to him and back again.
‘You shouldn’t worry about them,’ murmured a voice at my back. ‘They were even worse when they were alive. I always thought they had the hots for each other and it was suppressed sexual tension but I’m not so sure now. Maybe they just hate each other.’ She sighed. ‘I do wish they’d give it a rest.’
I spun round, my eyes landing on a young woman. Unlike the other two, she had several painful-looking bruises and open wounds on her body. She caught me staring and explained. ‘I woke up and fought back. It would have been easier if I’d been asleep like the rest of them. Although at least I didn’t do what Karen did. She woke up at the last moment with no time to do anything except curse our entire coven with her dying breath.’
I must have looked confused because Karen piped up to explain. ‘I wasn’t cursing us, I was cursing him! I didn’t know we’d end up trapped here, did I?’ She glanced at me. ‘I told him we wouldn’t rest until he got what he deserved.’
‘And here we are,’ the male ghost muttered. ‘Not resting.’
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