A bleak wind whipped the loose strands of my hair across my cheeks as I stumbled out onto the stone balcony. A furious shout from behind spurred me on. Without thinking, I hiked up one side of my silver sequined ball gown and stepped onto the wrought-iron chair. Bracing my hand against the rough stone exterior, I raised my left foot and placed it on the narrow ledge. My right foot caught in the long length of my dress as I lifted it. My body jerked forward as my nails clawed at the bricks for purchase.
The London street blurred as dark shadows crept along the edges of my vision. Even at this late hour, people and cars streamed below, an army of disinterested ants scurrying from one destination to another. I swallowed the bile in the back of my throat and fought the urge to faint, to give in to the darkness. Clinging to the sharp-edged wall, I gently shook my leg to dislodge the dress. The fabric fell away and I placed my high-heeled foot on the ledge.
Avoiding the urge to use my hand to brush back my hair, I pressed my open left palm against the bricks. I stretched out my other arm to rest my right palm on the head of a grotesque gargoyle. It was a dragon with bat wings and a long, protruding tongue.
The cold damp air turned to piercing icicles in my lungs as I inhaled a shaky breath. The rushing wind scattered the sounds of civilization like rose petals cast into a storm, giving the scene below a strange, otherworldly feel, as if I were staring at a muted television. A sickly gray mist hung low in the atmosphere, obscuring most of the stars. Only a weak stream of moonlight broke through to cast a faint, eerie glow over the dark, churning waters of the Thames nearby.
I should have chosen the Thames.
I’ve heard drowning was a painless, almost peaceful way to die.
It wouldn’t work.
He’d find me too quickly.
I knew just as the chaotic nightmare of my life would start to fade, as I embraced the quiet, underwater darkness, he would reach down and breach the world between the living and the dead to drag me back to his side, like a bedeviled Hades tormented by the flight of Persephone.
Not even death would separate us.
He said that to me once.
He told me I’d never escape him.
Even in death I would be his and his alone.
I risked a glance down. My heart pounded in my chest. How long would it take? Would I have a chance to regret it? What would my final thought be?
I already knew…
It would be of him.
Always of him.
Only of him.
My dress tangled around my ankles as the harsh wind caused my body to sway, as if Mother Nature were trying to save one of her maidens from a fate worse than death by making the choice for me. I tightened my grip on the gargoyle.
I didn’t dare turn at the sound of my name on his lips. The musky scent of his cologne swirled around me with the wind, chasing away the stale earthy odor of the river waters. It would figure he would enforce his dominance over even Mother Nature.
His voice took on the hard, authoritative edge I was so accustomed to. “Kitten, give me your hand.”
I slowly shook my head as I stared at the ground as if mesmerized. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do us. It’s too much.”
“Goddammit, Aurora. Give me your hand!”
Panicked, I risked a glance over my shoulder as my fingernails dug into the stone gargoyle. “Don’t come any closer!” I screeched.
He was standing only a foot away, dressed in his tuxedo, the bow tie hanging loose around his open collar. “I shouldn’t have done that to you. I should have never taken you there. Is that what you want to hear? I admit it. I was wrong. Now baby, please, step back off the ledge.”
He was closer now. Warmth radiated off him, cutting through the chill that racked my body. I wanted to give in. I wanted to bury my head in his neck as I sought refuge in the strength of his arms. I wanted to feel his lips move against my forehead as he promised to chase all the demons away.
I wanted the impossible.
He wasn’t truly sorry.
It would be a cold day in hell when Roman Winterbourne apologized to anyone for his actions.
From before we had even met, every moment, every thought, every deed had been a calculated game of manipulation and deceit.
A hysterical laugh bubbled up from deep inside my chest. “What’s the matter, Roman? Was this not part of your master plan? Am I breaking one of your precious rules?”
His wrath seethed through his clenched teeth. “You’re damn right you are, and I’ll show you just how displeased I am the moment I lay my hands on you.”
A shudder ran down my spine. My skin prickled with awareness from imagining I could already feel the heavy smoothness of his leather belt against my flesh.
The soles of his shoes made grating sounds against the stone balcony floor as he shifted ever closer. “I won’t let you go. Not ever. Jump and I’ll follow you down.”
The tears froze on my cheeks. My voice warbled as I asked, “Why me? Why did it have to be me?”
He answered without hesitation. “It was always going to be you, my love. No matter what, even if I had to become the devil himself, you were always fated to be mine.”
A weight settled in my chest, making it hard to breathe. “This isn’t love.”
“No. It’s something far greater, far more powerful.” He reached out and crushed the hem of my gown in his fist.
Startled, I turned and lost my footing. The soft bottoms of my high heels slipped off the ledge. My arms flailed as my hands grasped at the cold, unforgiving air. A scream tore from my mouth as a gruesome death seemed all but certain. My body was both weightless and heavy. The ground taunted me from below.
As I slipped down into the waiting arms of the dark night, Roman lurched over the railing. His strong hand wrapped around my left wrist, wrenching me back from the clutches of near death. I dangled from his grasp, my life in his hands.
“I’ve got you.”
My eyes pleaded. “Please don’t let me go!”
His mouth lifted in a macabre hint of a knowing smile. “Never.”
As he spoke, the full moon broke free from the fog. It taunted me by settling behind Roman’s head, a twisted halo of unholy light.
A frigid sense of dread settled deep in my belly.
Somehow, someway, even this had all been part of his cruel game.
And once again, I had played straight into his hands.
“Don’t worry, kitten. I’ve got you… and I’ll never let you go.”
That is precisely what I am afraid of.
Several months earlier
I have my father’s eyes.
It was the first thing my mother hated about me.
My mother leaned over and laid her hand on my bare shoulder. I winced as her long red nails dug into my skin. When I was little, I thought they were claws dripping with blood.
“Aren’t you going to open your birthday present?” she asked, a pretense of a smile pasted onto her Botoxed features.
My birthday present that was two and a half months late because my mother scheduled a spa retreat on my actual birthday. The only reason why we were even here celebrating it now was because my mother got annoyed that her friends had eaten at this new restaurant, and she hadn’t yet.
I pushed my dinner plate aside and reached for the small box. Judging by the size, it wasn’t the new metronome I had asked for after my stepfather knocked mine off my piano in a drunken stupor last month. I pulled on the yellow ribbon and picked at the tape on the wrapping paper.
Alfred, my stepfather, let out an exasperated sigh. “Jesus Christ, this is like watching paint dry.” He raised his arm and rattled the ice in his glass to get the server’s attention.
I slid my hand over to the right and captured a small breadcrumb with my fingertip. I dragged it over to a line of two other crumbs. That was three drinks for Alfred.
My mother tapped her lacquered nails against her martini glass. “I need another one, too.”
I slid a grain of sea salt across the white linen tablecloth, marking four for Mother.
I learned at a young age to count.
I opened the box. It was a silver locket. I stared down at the small oval with the image of two intertwined hearts engraved on its smooth surface. Instinctively, my hand went to the locket I wore around my neck. I stroked its familiar warmth, feeling the slight indentation of the engraved treble clef. My father gave it to me the last time I saw him twelve years ago, on my birthday, when I was only six years old. There was no picture inside.
My mother dug inside her purse looking for her compact. Without even glancing up at me, she asked, “Don’t you like it?”
I cleared my throat. “It’s very pretty, but—”
She opened her mirror and twisted the cap off her lipstick. “Well, put it on!”
I closed my hand around my treble clef locket. “Mom, I already have a locket.”
She slammed the compact shut and hissed, “I told you never to call me that out in public!”
I blushed. I tapped out my favorite piano sonata, Beethoven’s No. 14, with my fingertips on the tablecloth, a nervous coping habit. “I’m sorry. Meredith, I already have a locket. The one Dad gave me.”
She rubbed the tip of her index finger over her front teeth. “You wear that piece of crap just to spite me.”
Apparently, everything I did was just to spite her, including existing.
The server brought their drinks.
My mother’s vodka martini sloshed over the lip of the glass as she took a sip. She left behind a crimson crescent of thick, crusty lipstick. I stared at the red stain on the glass. I’d spent half my life scrubbing her lipstick stains off of glasses.
My mother looked up sharply. “Oh, there’s Susan. I need to talk to her about the spring fete next week.” She rose and smoothed her Chanel tweed skirt over her slim hips before heading across the dining room.
My stepfather and I sat in awkward silence.
The ice rattled again in his glass as he lifted it to his mouth and drained the whiskey and soda in one gulp. He stared at me, or more accurately at my boobs, as he licked his lower lip. “So how does it feel to be eighteen?”
I crossed my arms over my chest as I shrugged.
He leaned back in his chair, twirling the empty glass in his hand. He gave me another assessing look. “You’re totally legal now.”
I was legal two years ago, when I turned sixteen, but thankfully Alfred didn’t seem to realize that.
The server returned holding a birthday cake flanked by two other servers.
I stared at the pink and white confection. They’d spelled my name wrong. I’d like to have said this was the worst birthday ever, but it didn’t even make the top ten. Too bad I hadn’t been born on February 29th instead of the 28th. Then I would have only had to put up with this farce once every four years. I’d probably be a more interesting person too. People born on a leap year were automatically fun and interesting just by the circumstances of their birth.
I wasn’t fun or interesting, but I knew I had the potential to be. Right now, I was like a heroine from those rom-coms. I was in the first half of the movie where everything was boring and bleak, but I just knew the second half was coming. Soon, I would graduate from secondary school and head to university in Paris. I would finally start my life.
My mother came scurrying over just as they began to sing “Happy Birthday.” She stood over me with her claws on my shoulders. To everyone in the dining room, it would seem like a protective maternal gesture of love, but I knew better. She hated having the spotlight turned away from her, even for a moment. By standing, she made sure all of the diners around us saw her first.
While the singing continued, my stepfather took a call on his mobile and spoke loudly over the sound of the celebration song.
The servers exchanged uncomfortable glances.
I knew how they felt; at least I was used to it.
The servers scrambled away the moment the song was finished.
I picked up a knife and slid it into the center before pressing down, cutting into the white icing and soft yellow cake. Before I could make a second slice, my mother slapped my hand and grabbed the knife from me. “What do you think you are doing?”
I rubbed the back of my hand. “Cutting the cake.”
“So that I can point to your graduation photos and say ‘that’s my fat daughter on the right?’”
My mother had been on a diet for the last two decades. I was a perfectly normal size. In fact, I liked that I had a bit of a bum and nice hips with a tucked-in waist. Not my mother. She wasn’t happy unless she was stick thin. For my sixteenth birthday she got me several packs of cigarettes and told me to start smoking if I wanted to keep the weight off as I got older.
In retrospect the silver locket wasn’t so bad.
I sighed. “Mom, one piece of cake—”
“Don’t call me Mom!”
Suppressing a sharp retort, I defiantly snatched one of the chocolate-covered cherries that decorated the cake and popped it into my mouth as I gave my mother a smirk.
Alfred stood so abruptly he knocked his chair to the floor. He picked up his used linen napkin and wiped his brow. “We need to leave. Something’s come up.”
My mother put a hand on her hip. “I haven’t finished speaking with Susan and I have another drink coming.”
Alfred’s head swiveled from side to side as he scanned the restaurant like he was expecting someone. He brushed aside the server who scurried to right his fallen chair. “Now, Meredith.”
My mother’s red lips thinned as she raised her chin. She was unhappy, but she wouldn’t cause a scene. The very last thing my mother would do was cause a scene in public and tarnish her perfect socialite wife reputation. She had worked too hard, and burned through too many previous husbands, to let that happen after finally bagging a rich man like Alfred. My mother snatched her purse from the empty fourth seat and followed Alfred, tossing over her shoulder, “Don’t dawdle, Aurora.”
I glanced over the table.
A tipped-over martini glass.
Two empty vodka glasses.
An uneaten cake and an unwanted birthday present.
Happy belated birthday to me.
Our house in Knightsbridge was dark when we pulled up. The house was never dark. There were always some lights on as the house staff bustled about with their work. They definitely wouldn’t have turned off the hall and entry lights, knowing we were out to dinner.
Neither my stepfather nor my mother seemed to notice as they got out of the car.
Alfred slammed his car door shut a little too hard. “Pack a bag, Meredith. We’re taking a trip.”
“A trip? Where?”
He made a dismissive gesture over his head as we followed him up the stone steps to the main entrance. “Someplace. Anywhere. I haven’t decided yet. I just know we need to get away. Now.”
“Well, what about Aurora? She has school tomorrow.”
Alfred turned and stared at me as if he had completely forgotten my existence. A look I was unfortunately familiar with. They both had stopped including me on family vacations back when I was ten.
“She can come later—maybe. Stop asking questions and just do as I say!” he blustered as he unlocked the door and flicked on the hallway light.
Alfred flicked the light switch up and down several times.
Before I could wonder why the electricity was out, something moved in the front parlor.
We all turned to see the dark outline of a man rise from the chair where he had obviously been waiting. The figure took several steps forward toward the entrance hall. The moonlight streaming in from the upper casing windows over the door cast his features into strange shadow.
Alfred’s face lost all color. “Mr. Winterbourne. You’re here.”
I half expected to see smoke curl around his legs, snake up his body, and enclose his head in a demonic halo. That was how demons appeared, right? There was no way the man was human. It was unnatural to look that… perfect.
He was tall, dwarfing my stepfather by at least a foot. The moonlight reflected off his glossy black hair, giving it an unnatural cobalt blue appearance. The shadows gave his face a sinister look with harsh angles under his cheekbones and lowered brow. His suit was so impeccably tailored it appeared almost fake. It was too stiff and smooth, not a single wrinkle in the trousers. As if the person wearing it was a bloodless statue.
Mr. Winterbourne stepped further into the hallway.
No one said a word.
He raised his arm and another shadow detached from the wall. I put a hand to my mouth, stifling a start. This man was dressed entirely in black. Mr. Winterbourne said something to him in hushed tones. The man nodded and then raised his hand to his ear and spoke softly into some kind of hidden earpiece. Moments later the hallway was flooded with light.
I blinked a few times to adjust my eyes to the brightness.
The moment my eyes focused, I realized Mr. Winterbourne was staring straight at me. I turned to look behind me, desperately hoping someone else had somehow entered the house, but no. When I turned my head back, he was still staring.
His dark, hypnotic gaze pulled my soul from my body. There was no other way to describe how cold and empty I felt. As though he were drawing all the life and energy from me and the only way I would get it back was if I followed him into the fiery depths of hell.
I was being dramatic and silly, of course. We were reading Jane Eyre in school right now and the gothic drama of the book clearly had gone to my head. Although damn if I wasn’t feeling like Jane caught in the mesmerizing trap of Rochester’s glare.
I lowered my head, hoping to break his gaze. As I hazarded a peek through the curtain of my hair, I could see he was still staring. My cheeks warmed. I had only ever heard his name mentioned occasionally. I knew Mr. Winterbourne owned the company where my stepfather was the chief executive officer. So whatever this was, it didn’t concern me, which suited me just fine, since I feared if I stayed in his presence much longer, I’d be reduced to a pile of ashes. “I’ll just go to my room.”
Mr. Winterbourne’s voice was like a hot steel blade, sharp and cutting. “Don’t. Move.”
I froze in place.
Alfred mopped his sweating brow with the end of his tie. “Mr. Winterbourne, we weren’t expecting you. We would have been at home to welcome you to our home, but I see you’re already in our home, so welcome to our home.” He made a weak gesture with his hand.
My eyes widened. I had never been fond of my stepfather, but he’d always struck me as a confident man of business. One look from Mr. Winterbourne, and he was reduced to a babbling idiot. Although I couldn’t blame him.
My gaze shifted from Alfred back to Mr. Winterbourne.
He was still staring straight at me.
Was there something wrong with me? I internally rolled my eyes. I probably had food stuck in my teeth. I ran the tip of my tongue over my front teeth to check. Then licked my lips.
Mr. Winterbourne hissed air through his clenched jaw as his dark gaze narrowed.
Somehow the atmosphere had become even more charged with negative tension.
My mother stepped partially in front of me, cutting off his gaze. She placed her hands on either side of her boobs, smashing them together and pushing her cleavage up under the guise of smoothing her open Chanel jacket. “Is there anything I can get you, Mr. Winterbourne?” Her question oozed with illicit suggestion.
Looked like Mommy dearest was angling for husband number four in front of husband number three. Mr. Winterbourne was a little young for her. He looked to be in his thirties. My mother usually went for older men. I was sure his ca-billions had something to do with it. I didn’t know much about the man other than he was a billionaire several times over. The company my stepfather ran was only one of hundreds he owned. Evidently he collected them the way other people collected stamps or coins.
Staring past her as though she didn’t even exist, Mr. Winterbourne kept his stern gaze on me. “You have something of mine.”
Why did it feel like he meant me?
That was insane. Why on earth would he possibly mean me? This was the first time I had even laid eyes on the man. I kept both arms at my sides as I furiously tapped out a Beethoven sonata with my fingertips against my thighs. This whole situation was painfully awkward. All I wanted to do was escape to the safety of my bedroom.
I could almost feel the physical weight of his gaze lift from my shoulders the moment he finally focused his attention on my quaking stepfather. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
My stepfather shifted back, stepping on my toe. I yelped and moved to the side. Now I was standing on my own as my mother shifted closer to Alfred. She placed a warning hand on Alfred’s shoulder and responded, “I am sure we don’t know to what you are referring.”
The hint of a smile lifted the corner of Mr. Winterbourne’s mouth.
It was terrifying.
He flicked a nonexistent piece of lint off the collar of his perfect suit and answered, “And I’m equally sure you know precisely what I’m referring to. Even a man of my considerable wealth would notice ten million pounds missing from my accounts.”
All eyes turned to me. My cheeks flamed as I choked out a whispered, “Sorry.”
Alfred puffed out his chest. “That… that… that money was a… was a… was a…”
“Bonus,” chimed in my mother.
“Yes, yes, yes… a bonus,” finished Alfred. He played with his tie to cover his shaking hands. “Naturally I assumed it was a bonus for all my hard work.”
Mr. Winterbourne raised a single eyebrow. “Cost of labor is up. Revenue is down. The stock lost twelve percent in value during the last fiscal quarter. And yet you want me to believe that ten million pounds just magically appeared in your account one day and you innocently assumed it was a bonus?”
Alfred lurched forward, settling a sweaty palm on the sleeve of Mr. Winterbourne’s suit, crushing it. “You have to believe me, sir. That’s what happened.”
Mr. Winterbourne pulled free of his grasp. He raised an arm and gestured with two fingers. “These men are here to take you into custody for embezzlement and fraud.”
Several men dressed in black with guns on their hips emerged from all corners to surround us.
My mother placed a hand to her forehead. “Oh, my God, the scandal. We’ll be ruined.”
Alfred grabbed Mr. Winterbourne’s arm again. “I’m innocent. I tell you it just appeared in my account out of nowhere.”
“And yet you didn’t return it?”
“I’ll return it now… well… most of it. I… I… spent some of it.”
“You’ve spent over three million of it in the last two weeks.”
What the hell? How in the world had my mother and stepfather managed to blow through three million freaking pounds in two weeks? I guessed that explained the matching his and hers Lamborghinis that showed up a few days ago.
Alfred shook so badly his teeth chattered. “I know. I know! I’ll pay you back.”
“How? Your current bank account and real estate assets equal barely a million and a half.”
“I’ll sell my wife’s jewelry!”
My mother’s hand flew to the garishly large diamond necklace around her neck. “Alfred!”
“Shut up, Meredith. Do you want me to go to prison?”
Mr. Winterbourne silently motioned for the men to stand down.
They moved a few feet away but remained an ominous presence.
He tilted his head as he rubbed his jaw. “I’d need collateral, something of value, as a show of good faith that you intend to pay back the money you stole.”
Alfred ripped the Rolex off his wrist. He then snatched my mother’s wrist and yanked off her diamond-encrusted Rolex as well. He held them out. “Here, take these.”
Mr. Winterbourne barely glanced at his offering. Once again, his gaze locked on mine. “I was thinking something more along the lines of a pound of flesh.”
I took a step back.
As I was taking another, Alfred wrapped his fingers around my upper arm and yanked me forward. “Have you met Aurora? My young, beautiful stepdaughter?”
Horrified, I struggled within his grasp. “Let go of me!”
“Shut up, you ungrateful bitch,” snarled Alfred. Whiskey and stress had given his cheeks and nose a blotchy red rash.
My mother stepped forward. For half a second, I thought she would actually defend me, maybe even slap Alfred for suggesting something so outrageous. I was wrong.
She slipped her hands over Mr. Winterbourne’s suit lapels. “You don’t want some teenager. Wouldn’t you prefer someone with more experience? Someone who knows how to please a man?”
He removed her hands from his body. His cold gaze swept over her. “I said something of value.”
Before my mother could respond, one of his men stepped between her and him. The man held her back as she raged at the insult. Spittle formed in the corner of her lipstick-stained lips as she furiously questioned Mr. Winterbourne’s manhood.
Alfred yanked on my arm again. I stumbled and fell at the feet of Mr. Winterbourne. I looked up to see him staring down at me like some vengeful god, which was fitting since I was being offered up as a virgin sacrifice on my parents’ altar of greed.
He bent down and reached for me.
I scurried back, not wanting him to touch me. I couldn’t explain it, but I knew deep down if he touched me, all would be lost. I would be forever marked.
Alfred reached for my hair, pulling a fistful. “Get up!”
I cried out as I grasped the clump of hair at the roots and tried to pull it from his sweaty grasp.
With no warning, Mr. Winterbourne’s fist lashed out, catching Alfred under the jaw and sending him flying backward to slam into a nearby wall. Despite the flash of violence, his voice was calm and in control. “Don’t fucking touch her.”
Stunned, I forgot to move out of the way as his warm hands closed around my shoulders and lifted me back to my feet. After smoothing my hair back into place, he gently kissed my forehead. “You’re safe now.”
It was something you said to a child to get them to stop crying after skinning their knee.
And the last thing I was feeling in his presence was safe.
Directing his next comment to his men, Mr. Winterbourne ordered, “Keep these two occupied while I assess the… value… of their collateral offering.”
With no further protest from either my own mother or stepfather, Mr. Winterbourne placed a possessive hand at the small of my back and guided me into the shadows at the end of the long hallway and then up the darkened staircase.