Something was wrong.
As my brain clawed its way back to consciousness, my body stiffened, a primal reaction to danger. I could feel it, sense it. I stilled. I just knew… something was wrong.
I tried to open my eyes, but groaned when the bright sunlight sent a stab of pain straight to my temples. I threw my elbow over my eyes as I focused on taking a deep breath to quell the nausea that rose against the back of my throat.
My lungs tried to expand, but a clinging pressure restricted them. I flattened my hand on the center of my chest. Intricate beading and what felt like stiffened lace scratched my palm.
What the hell?
The dress I’d had on earlier was fashioned of soft silk.
I rose on my elbows and stared down the length of my body.
Is that blood?
I tried to swing my legs over the side of the bed, but my feet got caught in the voluminous skirts of the dress I now wore. I tumbled over the edge of the mattress, landing painfully on my hands and knees. Flecks of crimson marred the pale back of my right hand. Scrambling to my feet, I ignored the twinge of pain in my knee as I hobbled across Roman’s bedroom to the dressing room. I swung the door open and crossed to the floor-length mirror at the other end.
My mouth dropped open in shocked horror.
I raised my fingertips to the dress bodice as if I needed to feel it to know this was real. My gaze traveled over my body, taking in each unfamiliar detail of the dress I wore. The top was a tightly laced silk corset with cream lace and crystal beads in an elaborate floral pattern. I swiveled my hips to stare at the back in the mirror. There were reams of gathered silk where a large bustle would go, ending in a small train.
It was a beautiful Victorian-looking wedding gown.
The problem was it wasn’t my dress. This one was the same color as the one I last remembered wearing, but it was different. I had never seen it before in my life.
It was also covered in blood splatter along the right side.
As I tried to come to grips with my mounting terror, I stared at my haunted reflection. My cheeks looked pale and sunken in. My eyes were rimmed with red, as if I had been crying. Red lipstick was smeared across my lips, which mirrored, in a macabre way, the mascara stains under my eyes.
My breath rising in panic, I shoved my fingers into my tangled hair. I hissed as a sharp sting had me wrenching my hand back. There was a thin cut down the center of my right palm, and a small droplet of blood clung to the skin. Furrowing my brow, I gingerly dug into my wild nest of hair and yanked free the remnants of what had probably been a floral head wreath. The delicate white orange blossom petals were crushed and bruised. A sharp wire poked out from behind the ivory ribbon that had been wrapped around the head wreath. Its end was stained with my blood.
With a cry, I hurled the crushed flower wreath across the room.
I grabbed at the bodice, trying to wrench it off me. It was too tightly secured. Reaching behind my back, I desperately searched for a clasp, a button, a corset string, anything to loosen the dress. After several minutes of trying, I sank to my knees in front of the mirror. My chest was covered in scratches from where I’d tried to claw the bodice off.
Why couldn’t I remember putting on this dress?
Why couldn’t I remember anything?
And whose blood was this?
I could already tell it wasn’t mine. I had no visible injuries.
There wasn’t a lot of blood. It was just hundreds of tiny drops, as if someone had flicked a paintbrush full of red paint at me. Except it wasn’t paint. I knew the smell of blood. I had smelled the coppery harbinger of death right before finding my mother and stepfather dead. The memory of that scent never left you.
The only sound in the dressing room was my labored and erratic breathing.
There was, of course, one question I hadn’t asked yet… Where was Roman?
I wrapped my arms around my waist and rocked back and forth.
Why couldn’t I remember?
What the hell had happened to me?
What had I done?
I placed my hands over my face. Think. I had to think. I had no complete memory of the last twenty-four hours, just flashes of color and unknown faces. Fear. I remembered feeling afraid and confused. Then nothing. As if someone had wiped my mind blank. What if it wasn’t that I couldn’t remember but that my mind didn’t want me to remember? I’d read about the mind protecting itself from traumatic memories by refusing to recall them.
What had I done?
I stared at the wrinkled and bloodied wedding dress. It seemed oddly familiar, and yet I couldn’t imagine why. I’d think I would remember willingly wearing a freaking Victorian wedding gown.
Nothing was going to come to me kneeling on the floor. I needed to get out of this awful dress and wash the blood off. Maybe then it would all come back to me. I ran my hands over my upper arms as a shiver racked my body. That was, if I wanted to remember.
I wrapped my left hand around a drawer handle and used it to pull myself upright. I then searched the other drawers for a pair of scissors. My only option was to somehow cut my way out of the dress. I found a pair of large, lethal-looking silver shears.
Just as I was about to thrust the opened blades between my breasts to cut the silk corset, I heard a sound behind me.
I turned, gripping the shears like a weapon and raising them high.
Roman stood in the doorway. His chest was bare. He was holding what looked like a wadded-up white dress shirt soaked in blood over his shoulder.
I gasped. “What happened?”
His eyes narrowed. “You shot me. And on our wedding day, no less.”
Several weeks earlier
My fingertips caressed the piano keys. I could feel the energy from the hundreds of musicians who had come before me radiating from their smoothness.
Sometime ago, Roman had rescued my ugly zebra piano from my parents’ house. We came home from dinner one night and it was just sitting there in the living room. Even now I was surprised by how affected I was by its presence. Roman had never asked me to move in with him. He had simply taken away my home and all other options. My one attempt to escape from under his control before it was too late had ended in disaster. Even after he had dragged me back to his home, or his lair as I privately thought of it, I still hadn’t considered it my new home.
Not until my ugly zebra piano had arrived.
I knew at that moment, it was too late.
Buying me new clothes and expensive jewelry while making me warm his bed at night did not mean I lived in his home. Moving my piano there did. I could no longer secretly deny I lived there when the one possession I cared about most in the world was sitting in the living room.
Then, a few days ago, after that infamous masquerade ball at his brother’s estate, my piano disappeared. At first, I figured Roman was punishing me for my moment of madness.
I doubted I would have actually jumped off the balcony.
At least, I didn’t think I would have.
I wasn’t sure.
I knew that night haunted Roman. I often caught him staring at me with a mixture of fear and wariness… and anger. The anger was definitely there, simmering under the surface like a banked but not fully extinguished fire, which was why I had assumed he had taken my piano to punish me. I found it later that day, placed in the library’s corner.
Today, I learned why. Roman had purchased a fully restored one-hundred-twenty-year-old Victorian Steinway & Sons concert grand piano for me. It was an exorbitant gift. Again, I ran my fingers over the keys. They were warm to the touch, the ivory seeming to have absorbed the feel of all those talented musicians who had come before me. I let out the breath I had been holding.
This gift was too much.
Fancy expensive dinners were fleeting.
Couture clothes meant nothing to me.
Diamonds were cold.
But this piano… was different. It vibrated with energy, life, and heat.
His home was a converted gothic church. The piano was positioned in an area where the pews had once been, directly in front of a rather graphic stained-glass window depicting a macabre version of the Sacred Heart. The crimson heart, bound by golden thorns and consumed by fire, cast an eerie, bloody glow over the piano keys. It did not help my already wild imagination.
I closed my eyes and pressed down on the keys.
I should be practicing my finger pedaling method.
I should be playing something from the Baroque period.
There were plenty of things I should be doing, starting with how I should be running as far away from Roman as possible.
Instead, I started the quiet melody of The Cure’s ’There Is No If.’
The somnolent piano notes washed over me like a frigid rain.
The lyrics crashed against my own dark memories as I played. “If you die,” you said, “So do I,” you said.
That terrible night.
The masquerade ball.
The horrible laughter.
The sight of that poor woman, Elizabeth, who looked so eerily similar to me, trapped in that gilded cage as it tumbled to the floor. Me ripping the diamonds Roman had given me off my throat as I ran past the bed where he had taken me too many times to count, straight to the balcony’s edge. The feel of Roman’s tight grip on my wrist as I dangled in mid-air, moments away from cold nothingness. The piercing knowledge that not even death would spare me from his obsession.
“I won’t let you go. Not ever. Jump and I’ll follow you down,” threatened Roman.
“Why me? Why did it have to be me?”
“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.”
“This isn’t love.”
Even though the music didn’t call for it, I pressed the toes of my right foot down on the sustain pedal, enjoying the haunting echo it gave the music as it rose in pitch. I pounded on the ivory keys, increasing the tempo. It was sacrilege to treat a treasure of a piano this way, but at that moment I didn’t care. I leaned over the keys, playing faster and faster. My fingers hurt, but still I played.
My eyes flew open.
Roman was standing over me. As always, his darkly handsome features struck me. He was like a fallen angel, or better yet, a demon. I knew by his smirk that he was teasing me. It was still early. He hadn’t left for the office yet and was still wearing a pair of black silk pajama bottoms. His matching black silk robe was open at the waist and displayed his criminally taut stomach and muscled chest. The faint outline of red scratches was the only thing that marred his skin. Taboo memories of my fingernails raking down his chest only to grab onto his dark chest hair while I screamed my release last night made my cheeks heat.
I lowered my gaze, flustered at the memory of last night and being caught playing a pop song instead of the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor by Bach he had requested over breakfast. I swallowed. “It’s just a finger warm-up.”
Roman placed his fingers under my chin and pulled my face up to his gaze. “I pursued you after hearing you play piano in the park. Please do not sully that memory by squandering your talent on nonsense.”
My stomach twisted at the backhanded compliment. It was hard to speak past my dry mouth. “Yes, Roman.”
He winked. “Good girl.”
My eyes fluttered closed for a moment. I hated how much I loved hearing him call me a good girl. It was patronizing and demeaning. It served constantly to remind me of our age difference and how he held all the power in our relationship. Which he also reminded me of by only saying it after I had capitulated to one of his many demands. The problem was his demands had given me the best, most all-consuming pleasure of my life. It was as if each time he fucked me, he drained my body of every drop of blood and replaced it with his own.
After those moments, his deep voice would pour ’good girl’ over me like dark honey, and I would dissolve into the dark sweetness of it all. The man was dangerous to both my life and my sanity.
I lifted my chin away from his grasp and focused my attention back on the piano keys.
Soon, I would no longer be caught in his twisted web. My first attempt to escape him had been half-assed and poorly planned. I wouldn’t make that mistake twice.
In secret, I had been planning a second attempt for weeks. I had finally heard from the director of classical instrumental disciplines at the Conservatoire de Bourgogne-Franche-Comte. He had been thrilled at my interest in his school. Before Roman had forced his way into my life, I had only been looking at Parisian universities. This time, I searched further into the French countryside. I hoped it would be harder to find me that way. The Conservatoire was in Dijon, as far away from Roman as I could manage while still pursuing my music career in France, which had always been my dream.
Everything was all set. Mr. Rochefort, the director, had offered me a full scholarship as well as room and board. When I responded that I also needed assistance with a train ticket, he immediately obliged and even offered me a small stipend from his personal finances. At first, I objected, stating that I would find a job, but he insisted. He wanted me focused purely on my music.
I left in a fortnight.
Just fourteen days to go before I disappeared from Roman’s life.
I should be elated.
I ached at the thought of never seeing him again. It was insane, of course. I was probably suffering from a strange form of Stockholm syndrome. He was a sadistic crush, that was all. The very embodiment of the trauma I had been through since my mother’s murder and the upheaval of my entire life. All I needed was space and time away from him. Yes, space would heal my wounded soul from all the proverbial cuts and blows it had sustained at his hand.
And in time, I would forget him.
My heart physically hurt at the thought. It was foolish, even for an unspoken thought.
I would never forget Roman. Never.
A sick, twisted part of me almost wished he would find out about my plans and stop me.
Since the man was part demon and always seemed to know what I was thinking, I returned my focus to the piano, not wanting him to guess at my thoughts. In a show of cheeky defiance, I played ’Where I Stood’ by Missy Higgins, another song that reminded me of Roman.
Before I had finished the first few chords, a sheet of paper floated down on top of the slick black surface of the piano.
One of the papers slipped over the edge and covered my fingers. It was a color printout of a real estate listing for a massive luxury house.
The air froze in my lungs.
No. No. No. No.
In horror, I scanned the paper until I saw the address.
The house was in Dijon, France.
I swallowed, grimacing at the bitter bile that rose in my throat.
Roman’s large hands settled over my shoulders from behind. The stubble on his jaw scraped my cheek as he leaned over to growl in my ear, “If you wanted to move to France, you only had to say so, baby girl. Pick a house and I will buy it for us.”
No. No. No. No.
He knows. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. He knows.
I clasped my trembling hands and placed them in my lap. “What makes you think I want to move to Dijon?”
Roman caged me in with his arms as he placed his hands on the keys. I had recently discovered I wasn’t the only one who had musical talent. He was actually an extremely gifted musician, although he preferred playing the violin. He told me once it was so he could control the music better. His fingers danced over the ivory keys. At first, I was confused. I was listening for the early strains of a familiar classical piece, but didn’t recognize what he was playing. Then it hit me. He was playing the creepy opening strains from Eminem’s ’Love the Way You Lie.’
Had I actually wished only a few moments earlier he would learn of my escape plan and stop me?
Roman continued to play while he whispered against my cheek, “You’ve angered me, kitten, and we both know what happens when I’m angry.”
Be careful what you wish for…