"About the middle of July," he starts, slowly, as if tasting each word before releasing it to the air, "I received a letter from my father. As you know, that is not an unusual occurrence, and one to which I've developed something of an automatic response."
I remember watching him pick up a letter and burning it with a flick of his fingers, unopened, but I don't interrupt.
"This letter... He'd written on the envelope directly so I'd see it before burning it. 'Hieronymous, I'm dying. Open it.'"
"Oh-I'm sorry-" I say, but he gives an irritated click of his tongue and gestures dismissively.
"For my father to demean himself by sending that through the post... well. Suffice to say, I opened the letter. Apparently he's received an expectancy of a few months, at the most, and has departed his home in the Otherworld in favor of his house in the country in order to make arrangements. He wrote to beg my assistance, not only because he is unable to make the journey into London to see his solicitors in his present state of health, but also because, as the sole heir to his title..." he trails off and sips at his drink. "I believe I mentioned that he's a member of the peerage?"
"The nobility? Uh-yes," I answer.
"To be specific, he is a viscount, and a hereditary peer of the House of Lords, meaning that his title passes to me in the event of his death. And thanks to an ingenious little loophole he managed to worm into the recent reform bill," he continues, with a tinge of creeping sarcasm, "his position in Parliament passes to me as well."
"Oh," I say, "that sounds... important."
"Compounded by the fact that he is the sole representative of the magical community in the House of Lords, yes, important rather covers it. I decided that I ought to witness the full situation myself before making any permanent decisions, so I went to see him."
"And how is he?" I ask, not able to bring myself to say "how did it go?"
He shakes his head slightly. "He's undoubtedly ill... whether the diagnosis is accurate, I don't care to speculate. But." And he stops and rubs his mouth with one hand.
"But something's the matter?" I ask.
"Two things, actually, struck me as unusual," he answers. "For one, he has apparently taken to surrounding himself with a crowd of charlatans."
"Non-magical people who happen to think that they can perform magic. Fortune tellers, psychics, amateur conjurers..." The contempt dripping from his words is so palpable I half expect to see it burning little holes in the carpet at his feet.
"Non-magical-but why would he do that?" I've just spent three months enduring a summer without being able to use or discuss magic, and only by necessity. It's stifling, and I can't imagine that anyone with a choice would subject himself to that, particularly if he were used to living in the Otherworld, where magic is apparently used freely. And if they're people who pretend to be able to use magic-well, it sounds unbearable.
"An apt question, and one which I have yet to determine an answer, although I intend to," he says.
I take a sip of my soda water. Its sharp fizz is irritating at first, but satisfying as the liquid coats my mouth. "And the second thing?"
He doesn't answer at first, just takes another swallow of his drink, eyes fixed ahead. Then he turns to look at me for the first time since starting this explanation.
"He's been tracking you all summer."
"He-why? I haven't done anything this summer, what would be the point?"
"Another question I've repeatedly asked myself to no satisfactory conclusion. Nevertheless, based upon the information that I discovered while attending my father at his house in the country, he has been tracking your every move, as exactly as possible, since you left school in May."
"Working eight hours a day at a stationer's office, having dinner with my parents, that's... it doesn't make sense."
"Yes, well, sensible or not, his inordinate interest is a bit unnerving. I contacted Professor Potsdam and asked her to travel to London so that we could confer about what I'd learned, and determine whether it constituted a threat. And I asked that before she left, would she please ensure that you were delivered to Iris Academy where you would be protected in case of any unforeseen circumstances."
"But she brought me here," I say.
"Oh, did you notice that?"
"Stop it," I mutter. "Why did she do it?"
He sighs. "She is of the opinion that by cutting out the extraneous steps and bringing you to him directly, we'll be able to determine his intentions, if any, more efficiently."
It sounds a lot like being used as bait to me. "I guess it didn't occur to either of you to ask me first?"
He looks at me, startled, and opens his mouth to say something, then closes it again. It's so strange to have caught him off guard like that, I can't help but smile. "I won't hit you if you say no."
"All right, no," he says, petulant, so I smack him lightly on the shoulder. He makes a face. "You said you wouldn't hit me."
I shrug. "I lied."
He smirks, and I smile back. "Right," he says, "I apologize. I should have asked you." He sighs again, and rubs his eyes with one hand. "It seems as though I've been doing everything today in the wrong order."
"I know what you mean," I say. Our entire marriage has been an exercise in doing things in the wrong order.
"Well, if you decide to go home, I will personally see that you are on the first plane back to the United States tomorrow morning," he says. "Just please consider going straight to school, it is much safer."
I consider my options for a moment, looking into my water glass and tapping my fingernails lightly against the sides. "If I go with you," I start, "do you really think I could help?"
He makes a noncommittal gesture. "Professor Potsdam thinks-"
"I'm not asking Professor Potsdam, I'm asking you."
He leans his head back on the sofa and looks at the ceiling for a minute before answering. "Loathe as I am to admit it, I think she is right," he says. "If he seriously desired to see you in person, it would not be a great deal of work for him to have you brought to him as quickly as possible, and without Petunia there, I think he would have the resources to penetrate even Iris Academy's protection if he were truly bent on that object. And your presence might distract him for long enough to allow me to determine his intent unencumbered. In addition, the two of us would be there to ensure you were not harmed. But, as I say, the decision rests in your hands."
It does sound like I'm being used as bait. And it gives me a chill to hear him talk so casually about my being harmed by his own father. On the other hand, the alternative is to return home and conclude my dull summer vacation, or return to school where I may or may not be safe, and make myself sick worrying about when-or if- Professor Grabiner might come back. And if it'll help to have me there...
"All right," I say, "I'll go."
"Very well," he answers, and finishes his drink at one swallow.
Neither of us says anything for several minutes, until I can't stand the silence any more.
"So," I start, "It's a proper English country house, just like-"
"Pemberly?" he interrupts, and there's a nasty edge to his voice. He slurs the word a little too, and I realize that although he's holding himself together very well, he's not nearly as sober as he's pretending to be.
I decide I don't really mind. "I was going to say Thornfield Hall."
To my surprise-and a little bit of relief-he snorts with laughter at this. "Thornfield? What, do you think he has my mother stuffed in an attic?"
"That or your first wife," I say.
"My first wife is..." he reaches out and taps me on the forehead with one finger. "Here. So you ought to watch yourself if you don't want to be the one to get locked up in an attic."
This makes me laugh. "Thanks," I say, "I'll keep it in mind in case you decide to marry the governess without divorcing me first."
"Ah, you're learning." He leans his head back against the top of the sofa again, smiling faintly, and more relaxed than I've seen him all day-if I want to be honest, in the year I've known him. It's nice to see, and, I think, might be worth this entire trip, with its oddities and frustrations.
I put my water glass down on the table and lean my head against the sofa too, suddenly a little tired after all. "I missed you," I say, without thinking.
He drops his smile and turns to look at me sharply. I've said the wrong thing again.
"That's really not necessary," he says.
"Yeah, but it's true," I say. "I was worried when you stopped writing."
"No, I know," I interrupt, "you had other things to think about."
He rolls his head back to look at the ceiling again. "I was thinking about you, actually."
"Right, to get me back to school, yeah." I look at my hands twisting in my lap.
Neither of us says anything for a few minutes. I begin to think that maybe I should go up to bed, when he reaches over and runs his fingers down one side of my face to rest on my neck, then uses his thumb to tilt my chin up.
And I think he's going to kiss me again.
He doesn't kiss me. What he does is touch his mouth to the tip of my chin, then brushes his lips slowly down the edge of my jaw, flicking his tongue into the hollow where my jaw meets my neck. This makes me gasp, and he backs away, just an inch or so.
It feels like all of the hairs on my body are standing on end, and I'm frozen between the intense desire to run straight back to my bedroom, and the urge to clutch at his shoulders and demand that he do that again, immediately.
I don't move.
I'm not sure how long the two of us sit there, both still and barely breathing. If I'd had my eyes closed I couldn't have said whether he was really there at all, but for the featherlight pressure of his fingers on my neck, the heat from his face next to mine, the clean smell of his hair.
Finally, I swallow, throat thick. "Is this the way I get myself locked up in an attic?"
"One of them, I think," he murmurs, mouth close to my ear.
"Then I'll take your advice," I say, "and watch myself."
And I stand and walk out of the room, not trusting myself to look back.