I might be losing my mind.
I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t anymore.
All I knew was if I didn’t escape now, I would truly go mad.
I strained to listen for any sound of movement, but all I could hear was the rush of blood in my ears. Lowering to my hands and knees, I crawled along the floor. My shoulder brushed the wall as I followed the perimeter of the room. For what felt like the hundredth time, my foot got caught in the voluminous fabric of my long nightgown. This time, as I jerked my knee forward to free it, I accidentally knocked into a small table filled with delicate figurines.
For one sickening moment, I could feel all hope drain from my body as I helplessly watched two bride and groom statuettes wobble then topple to the floor. I was saved by the woven Oriental carpet, which muffled the sound. Not taking any chances, I kept still, crouched behind a richly upholstered chair. The gold threads from the elaborate scrollwork pattern gleamed in the low moonlight cast from an opening in the heavy brocade curtains from across the room. That opening was my target.
I could not risk crossing the carpeted portion of the room, so I continued along the edge, where the nails from the hardwood floor pressed painfully into my knees. Just as I reached the far side windows, I heard voices in the hall. I quickly crawled behind the heavy curtain and waited.
“Tell Mrs. Jennings I want new leather restraints ordered,” commanded a deep, authoritative voice.
I covered my mouth with both hands to keep from crying out in fear.
“The leather is becoming worn so the buckles are not tight enough. As you know, Lady Elizabeth must be protected from her own night terrors.”
“Yes, your grace,” answered some faceless servant.
I couldn’t suppress the shudder that racked my body. Squeezing my eyes shut, I wished I could erase the memory of the brutal humiliations I suffered as a consequence. My stomach twisted at the thought of what I had allowed him to do to me… of how I begged for it.
I was brought back to the present as both men entered the parlor where I was hiding. The sharp wooden edge of the windowsill wedged painfully between my shoulder blades as I pressed close to the wall, willing myself invisible.
“Have these windows all been secured for the evening?”
If the servant said no then I would certainly be discovered. I could not even dwell on the possible punishment I would receive for such a blatant disobedient act.
Unable to stop myself, I risked a quick glance from behind the curtain and immediately regretted my rash actions.
He was staring straight at me.
I was caught.
I was sure of it.
I could feel his dark eyes bore through the fabric of the curtain, past my nightgown, to strip me bare.
Once more I was gripped with paralyzing fear and uncertainty.
What if what he said was true?
Are these memories and thoughts I have really just the delusional dreams of a madwoman?
Am I safer with him, under his protection, as his ward?
No, I know I am not safe with him.
This isn’t real.
Again, my mind screamed in desperation. This isn’t real!
It had become my mantra. My only shred of sanity… the last vestige of what was me.
This isn’t real.
I knew the truth.
At any moment, I expected to see the curtain ripped aside, and to face his damning anger. My whole body clenched as I braced for the inevitable pain.
“Yes, your grace.”
“Very good. Do not forget to latch the door before you extinguish the candles,” his clipped voice instructed before turning and leaving the room.
I remained crouched on the cold hard floor for minutes, perhaps hours, unable to even breathe, or to believe how close I had come to being discovered. Finally, I willed myself to move. I must. I was observed at odd times throughout the day, even in sleep. There could be a cry of alarm from my absence at any moment.
Slowly turning, I carefully released the latch and raised the window just high enough for me to slide my body under it. Sucking in a shocked breath from the cold, brittle feel of the icy grass blades beneath my bare feet, I gathered up the fabric of my nightgown and took a few steps along the brick wall before finally making a dash across the manicured lawn for the safety of the woods just past the rising slope.
I had no idea where I was or for how long these woods stretched but they were my only hope. Even though the branches were bare, I felt their protective cover with each step I took deeper into the dark forest. Ignoring the bite of broken sticks and rocks on my feet, I ran steadily on, following the pale blue stream of moonlight like a beacon.
The ground began to slope downward. I strained to hear sounds of life. It was the middle of the night but still I hoped that some other being might be stirring. There must be someone out on this cold, full moon night willing to help me. There had to be, for deep down I knew I wouldn’t get another chance after this.
He’d probably make good on his threat and send me back to the asylum.
Just the thought of the horrors I endured at that terrifying place had me searching the forest floor for a sharp rock to use as a weapon. I picked up several before I settled on what looked to be a thin, shaved piece of rock from a nearby boulder. I tested the edge with the pad of my thumb. I had no idea if it was sharp enough, but I would find out if he tried to take me back to that awful place. My throat closed as I tried to swallow a sob.
I wanted my life back.
My real life.
Not this nightmare of confusion and pain that wouldn’t end.
Just then, I heard a familiar sound. The first truly familiar sound I had heard in months.
Not a carriage or a horse.
An actual car.
I was certain of it.
I fought back a wave of dizziness from the enormity of what I was hearing. I was right. I wasn’t going mad. I was right!
More important… he lied… about all of it.
Stumbling forward, I couldn’t have cared less about the crimson drops of blood on my white nightgown from my scraped knees as I half ran, half tumbled down the ridge, to the road I knew now was just out of sight.
Tears stung my chilled cheeks as I finally saw the smooth black tarmac.
A road. A modern road.
The car was already too far gone to hail but I didn’t care… there would be another. I was saved. Falling to my cut and bruised knees, I inhaled the pungent, petrol scent of tar as if it were the sweetest of perfumes. Despite the winter cold, the road still held some of the warmth from the day’s sun. I rested my cheek against it. Savoring the moment of freedom, I almost didn’t hear the next car approach.
Rising to my feet, I shaded my eyes from the harsh, bright headlights. It was strange how quickly my eyes became accustomed to only the soft glow of candlelight or the hazy flicker of a gas lamp. The artificial light was almost painful as it grew in intensity as the car came closer.
Not wanting to miss my chance, I jumped up and down and desperately waved my arms, moving dangerously close to the middle of the road. I could only hope the white expanse of my nightgown would alert the driver in time to my presence.
The tires screeched as the car swerved to the left to avoid me. The scent of burning sulfur permeated the cold night air.
Racing forward, I dropped both my palms on the warm hood, carelessly scratching the paint with the rock still clutched in my right hand.
“Please! Please help me,” I cried as I threw my body on the car to prevent it from leaving.
I heard the steady beeping of the car’s warning system as the driver opened the door, leaving the engine running.
“What the fuck?”
He was young, probably around my age. Dressed in jeans and some kind of brewery t-shirt, he circled around the open driver’s side door and started to approach me.
There was no doubt in my mind I looked as crazy as I felt. With my stained nightgown, bare feet, and wild, tangled hair, I wouldn’t blame this guy if he got back into his car and drove fast in the other direction. I couldn’t let that happen.
Using all my strength, I pushed myself off the hood of the car and reached for him. Fisting my hands into his t-shirt, I searched his face for some sign of concern or compassion. The headlights shining from below gave his features a shadowed, macabre look. I couldn’t tell if his lips were twisted into a smirk or open in shock.
“Please—” I repeated desperately, my voice breaking. “I need help.”
Gripping my shoulders, the driver steadied my swaying form. It felt strange and almost wrong to have another man’s hands on me. I mentally shook away the feelings of shame and guilt. That was just what he wants you to think. What he has conditioned you to feel.
It’s not real.
“Calm down. Everything is going to be okay,” the man assured me as he started to gently guide me around to the passenger side door. “I’m going to take care of you.”
I closed my eyes and swayed slightly, brushing my forehead against the soft fabric of his sleeve, desperately wanting to believe his words of comfort. Leaning heavily on his arm, I allowed myself to be led to the other side of the car. Reaching around me, he lifted the handle and opened the door.
As I prepared to enter, he said, “I’m going to take you back to where you belong. Don’t you worry.”
His words broke into my exhausted reverie. Raising my head, I once more stared at his face.
Does he look familiar?
I didn’t know. There were so many blurry, silent faces these past few months. Something about his words, his placating tone, warned me. I took a step back, slowly shaking my head.
“My lady, please. You’re hurt. Step into the carriage. Let me get you some help,” he offered, as he took a slow step toward me, his hands outstretched as if he were trying to cage in a wild animal.
“You’re one of them,” I whispered in horror as I took another step back.
“Let’s get into the carriage and sort this all out,” he responded in a soft, dulcet tone.
“It’s not a carriage,” I screamed. “It’s a car. A car!”
His eyes shifted to stare at something over my shoulder, just as I heard the clopping of approaching horse hooves.
Turning too fast, my head spun as I tried to focus on the large form looming over the both of us.
“I caught her trying to escape, your grace,” explained the driver.
I shook my head. “No,” I whimpered as I stared up into a pair of dark, piercing eyes.
All was lost. He had found me. He would always find me and bring me back; I knew that now.
I tried to back away but the driver’s arm closed across my shoulders, holding me tight. I began to kick and scream as I struggled to be free. “No!” I screeched. “It’s not real! It’s not real! You lied! It was all lies!”
It was no use. All he did was stare down at me in that darkly controlled manner of his, with the arrogance of someone who knew, no matter what, he would always get what he wanted… always.
Knowing the crushing feeling of hopeless defeat, I collapsed onto the street. Bile rose in my throat. I was lost. Just as I prayed for the oblivion of madness to finally come and take me for good, to make me forget completely all I knew in my heart to be true, one last spark of fight rose in my belly.
As I laid there, a crumpled heap in the middle of the road, I remembered the rock still clutched in my hand. Using the jagged edge, I pierced the delicate skin of my right palm, relishing the surge of clarity that often came from the sharp bite of pain. One slash, then a second one.
As I felt the arms of my tormentor close around my bruised and chilled body, the rock slipped from my grasp. Barely noticing as the carriage pulled up, my head lolled to the side, taking unwelcomed solace from his warmth and strength. I breathed in deeply his familiar spicy scent and the feel of his lips against my cheek.
He settled me onto his lap as the carriage lurched forward. Stroking my hair, he whispered into my ear over and over again, “Don’t worry, my love. I’ve got you. It’s only a dream. Just a dream.”
His words wrapped around me like a vise. Sucking in a pained hiss through my teeth, I felt the sting from the bleeding cut on my palm.
This is no dream.
Two months earlier
The tube doors opened and I stepped out onto the open-air platform of Barbican Station. Allowing myself to be jostled by the crowd of commuters, I looked up at the hazy winter sky; its cloudless watery grey did nothing to improve the buildings it looked upon.
Many people didn’t like this part of London. With its post-war Brutalist architecture of depressing blocks of poured concrete buildings, it felt more like communist Soviet Union than Britain.
I loved it.
I loved everything about London.
Its buildings and parks. The people. The culture. Even the food. So many people think British food is only about fish and chips and meat pies but there is the wonderful India cuisine influence as well. My favorite was kedgeree. It was the perfect blend of the two cultures, with smocked haddock, rice, and curry.
Although I will never get used to pineapple and ham as a topping on a pizza. Despite living here for six months, I’m still an American after all.
It was hard to believe it had been six months since I lost my parents in that awful car crash. My whole life changed in that moment. It was strange. There was nothing criminal or dramatic or even ironically tragic about the accident. It was just a car accident. On a bright, sunny afternoon for no reason at all, one car simply hit another.
And my whole world ended.
As an only child of two parents with no real family connections, I was immediately left alone. I suppose it would be far more tragic if I were a young kid who would now be forced into foster care or even a bride about to get married. But I was neither.
I was twenty-two and truth be told, a little lost.
Drifting from one odd job to another after high school, I was a source of constant worry and disappointment to my parents. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be an actress. Constantly playing dress-up and putting on small plays and performances for my friends. My entire childhood was an endless round of dance classes, auditions, and recitals.
My parents of course loved it… when I was a child.
It wasn’t as charming when I became an adult and refused to stop playing dress-up. They worried about the stability and even the feasibility of becoming an actress. Countless times, I had been lectured about needing a career or some sort of degree to ‘fall back on.’
I refused to listen. Foolishly believing that I had to stay focused and true to my craft, which meant throwaway jobs that could be ditched at a moment’s notice if I got an audition or even better, an actual part.
It took them dying for me to finally listen.
The moment I had settled all their affairs, I enrolled in the University of the Arts Fashion Design program in London. With no family to hold me back, I needed a change. Learning how to become a costume designer was a pretty good compromise between my desire to be an actress in the theater and their need for me to have something more solid to hold onto.
Too bad I hadn’t thought of it when they were alive.
It was strange to think that my enrolling in school was what led to my biggest acting break. My flat mate Jane had heard of auditions for a Victorian-era play called The Lady Protests. It was about a woman driven mad by her scheming husband so he could get his hands on her fortune. I couldn’t have been more excited about the opportunity. I absolutely adored the Victorian era. It was one of the reasons why I became an actor. I loved the idea of being able to step back in time and feel as though I were actually living in the age.
We both auditioned. She got the role of parlor maid and to the surprise of both of us, I got the lead!
I played Lady Elizabeth Smythe, which was funny because my real name was also Elizabeth, although everyone called me Lizzie. My character was an American heiress forced to marry a cold unfeeling British lord who wanted her only for her oil fortune.
Between rehearsals, performances, and keeping up with my schoolwork, it had been an exhausting few months but tonight it would all end.
It was the final performance.
Swiping at my eyes as they teared up, I made my way down Beech Street.
I don’t want it to end.
None of it.
The camaraderie backstage.
The fantasy of living in the Victorian era with all its beautiful clothes and elegant manners.
Some of the actresses complained about the corsets and heavy skirts but I loved every minute of it. I always hated having to toss on a simple pair of jeans and a t-shirt at the end of a performance after wearing such gorgeous silks and lace.
It was fun having my long, unruly hair arranged each night in dramatic upswept curls, held in place by large combs topped with enameled flowers and jewels.
Unfortunately, it all ended tonight.
With school projects due in a month, I wouldn’t have time to audition for any new roles till at least the new year.
At least my final project was going well. With the help of Mary Parker, the theater’s costume designer, I was working on a gorgeous Victorian tea gown made of woven champagne-colored damask with turquoise glass beads. I only had to complete the stylish Watteau pleat down the center back of the neckline and then finish the waist sash.
The crude shout came from my left. It was the homeless woman who always crouched on this particular corner yelling obscenities at everyone who passed. When I first started commuting here for rehearsals, I felt bad and often gave her money, and even food if I had anything on me, but all she would do was scream at me. When she started spitting as well, I had no choice but to avoid her.
Quickly crossing the street to get away from her continued shouts, I was relieved when the Barbican Center came into view. Just then my cell began to vibrate.
“Where the hell are you?” asked Jane anxiously.
Glancing at the phone’s clock, I saw that it was still only 2:30 p.m. Call time was at 3:00 p.m. like usual so I knew I wasn’t late. “I’m on my way. Why?”
“He’s here,” she whispered in a conspirator tone.
From her emphasis on he, I didn’t have to ask who.
Richard Payne, tech billionaire and an actual duke, like from a romance novel.
Apparently, his company was involved in everything from cell towers to space exploration. The man was worth billions… or probably billions on top of billions. Yet despite all his wealth coming from anticipating the next big breakthrough in technology, he was a bit old school.
His family came from old money and still valued the traditions of the British aristocracy. I heard a rumor he actually went on fox hunting parties with Harry and William and insisted on his guests wearing formal attire for dinners at his home, even if it was just a regular Tuesday.
Mr. Payne also happened to be the executive producer of our play.
And he scares me to death.
Everything about him was just… too much.
He was too rich. Too tall. Too intimidating.
He also happened to be handsome as hell, which didn’t help matters much. It only served to make me more nervous around the man.
So you could add too sexy to that list.
I was just an American girl from a small town in Pennsylvania. I didn’t know how to behave in front of a freaking duke! Let alone a super-rich and incredibly sexy one.
“Hello? Are you there?” asked an impatient Jane.
Snapping back to the present, I stammered, “Yeah… I’m still here. What’s he doing at the theater?”
“He wants to talk to you!” said Jane, her voice going up an octave in her excitement. Jane was petite with curly blonde hair cut into a sassy bob that bounced whenever she became animated over something… which was usually just about everything.
For once, my excitement matched hers, but for way different reasons. “Me?” I squeaked. “Why me?”
“Well, you are his leading lady,” laughed Jane as she emphasized leading lady with a suggestive gravelly voice.
“Stop that,” I snapped.
“He’s been waiting for a half hour.”
“A half hour? Why didn’t you call me?”
“I did, stupid. You must have been on the tube.”
Crap. I had taken a ride halfway across the city to this tiny shop where I found the turquoise glass beads for my final project because I needed more. She was right. I had been underground with no cell service for at least the last half hour.
“I’m coming through the doors now.” Picking up my pace, I sprinted to the theater door. Ignoring the lift, I took the stairs to Level G.
As I reached the top, I saw Jane put down her phone and come running up to me.
“He’s waiting for you in the Hall,” she said as she grabbed my purse and backpack. I took a few steps toward the Hall before turning.
“Wait!” I said, calling Jane back to me. “Take this too.”
I handed her my cellphone. I knew from watching other cast members get their ass handed to them that Mr. Payne hated anyone who kept their cellphone out while talking to him. God forbid the thing rang or you answered a quick text. It was almost as if he actually hated technology, which was, of course, strangely ironic.
“Do you have any idea why he wants to talk to me?”
She just shrugged her shoulders. “Good luck.”
Taking a deep breath, I reached for the heavy door. I actually had to lean back a bit to swing it open. I entered the darkened Hall.
Our production was actually on this same level in a much smaller theater. The Hall was twice the size and way more imposing.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. Finally, I saw a tall figure standing in the middle of the stage with his back turned to me.
After walking down the sloping aisle, I stopped just below the stage, unsure of how to proceed.
“Come up onto the stage, Miss Larkin.”
I couldn’t suppress a small jump. Despite its enormous size, the Hall was eerily quiet, which meant the sudden sound carried all the more. Plus, there was his voice. It was deep and authoritative, giving the impression that each word was carefully measured before being spoken. It suited him.
Everything about the man screamed control, from the impeccable way he dressed, to the way he spoke. This was a man no one dared say no to.
With shaking legs, I slowly walked closer to the stage. The toe of my sneaker slipped off the second step, causing me to stumble slightly. I could feel my cheeks burn even hotter with humiliation.
Nervously clasping my hands together, my own voice came out as a hesitant whisper. “You wished to see me, Mr.… I mean Duke… a… Mr.… um… Payne.”
I’m such a fucking idiot.
I had lived in London for six months and still I had absolutely no idea how you were supposed to address a duke. Although in my defense, it’s not like there were tons of dukes out and about riding the tube and sipping tea in the local cafés introducing themselves to commoners like me so I would learn how to address them. Was it Duke Payne? No, that didn’t sound right. Fuck, I was going to have to fall back on being an American and call him Mr. Payne. God, this was awful.
After a moment, he turned and took a step toward me.
In school, I was always considered one of the tall girls. At five foot eight, I was usually head and shoulders over my friends. Still, he towered over me, making me feel even more like a foolish child being admonished by the school headmaster than I already did.
Looking down at the polished floorboards, I bit my lip, trying to will away the misting of embarrassed tears that threatened.
Then I felt a finger beneath my chin. My head was lifted up to meet his gaze.
Having never been this close to him before, I couldn’t help but stare into his dark eyes. It was probably the low lighting but they appeared almost black to me. I tried to lower my head again, frightened by the intense steadiness of his gaze, but his hand on my jaw prevented it.
“You may call me Richard.”
Not on your life.
There was no freaking way I would ever be comfortable enough around this man to call him Richard.
The tip of my tongue nervously swiped over my slightly open lips. Stunned, I watched his eyes shift and focus on my mouth.
My breath caught for a moment. It wasn’t until he returned his eyes to my own that I felt I could breathe in a shaky gasp.
“I’ve enjoyed your performance as Lady Elizabeth Smythe.”
“Thank you,” I choked out.
Dropping his grip on my chin, he began to slowly walk around me. I couldn’t help but feel like a little mouse being sized up by a predatory cat.
The mirrored security screen was down on the stage. So we both stood in front of a three-story high curtain of fractured mirrors. I tried to read his expression in the thousand smaller images that shimmered and danced before me.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I felt his breath. He was standing close behind me. There was only the faintest rustle of clothing as he leaned in to whisper into my ear from behind.
“Tell me, Miss Larkin. Did you like playing a Victorian woman?”
“Yes, very much.” I wasn’t even sure he heard my softly murmured response.
My body stiffened when I felt his hand slide between my shoulder blades down to the curve of my lower back. “And the tight corset that came with your costume didn’t bother you?”
The thousand images of him reflected in the mirror curtain swayed and moved, making me feel disoriented.
Closing my eyes, I willed myself to breathe. Feeling off-balance and lightheaded, it took me a moment to think of a believable response, since I wasn’t going to tell him the truth about how the whalebone bit into my skin every night. It would make me look ungrateful for the part and opportunity. “No, sir. I was fine.” I’m not sure where the ‘sir’ came from but it seemed better than butchering his title again or trying to call him Richard.
His hand retraced its path up my back, causing what I was sure was a visible shiver to run along my spine. “It didn’t… hurt you?”
What was I supposed to say? Should I pretend as if the tight corset didn’t dig into my sides and ribs each night since he was the executive producer and I didn’t want him to think I was criticizing the costumes he provided? Or be honest?
There was something about this man that told me honesty was the only option, as if something dark and scary waited for the person who tried to deceive him.
“A little but I didn’t mind.”
My answer seemed to please him. He continued his predatory circle around me, once more standing directly in front. Flustered, I again lowered my gaze.
I looked up to see what he was asking.
His handsome face was looking down at me with one eyebrow arched and his hand raised. I looked from his sharp jawline, to his lips, to the way his cheeks were slightly sunken in, giving the rest of his face a chiseled, hard appearance.
I had no idea what he wanted so I could only nod. A gasp escaped my lips as he reached over my shoulder to pull out the clip keeping my hair up in a messy bun. Heavy waves of chestnut brown hair tumbled over my shoulders to land halfway down my back.
The back of his knuckles briefly touched my warm cheek as he reached for one thick curl. Watching in almost fascinated horror, I felt the tug on my hair as he ran his hand down the smooth length. When he got to the end, he gave it a slight tug.
The sting caught me by surprise. Shocked, I looked up at his face. His eyes were staring down at me with an expression of anticipation, as if he were studying my reaction.
“It was a pleasure to learn your hair each evening was your own and not a wig. Few women keep it this long anymore.”
“I like long ponytails.” Seriously, what the hell was wrong with me? I like long ponytails?
Helplessly, I gestured to my hair. “I mean, I like to put my hair in ponytails,” I explained lamely.
Shut up! Shut up!
It was the closest thing to a smile I thought I would ever get from the man.
Taking a step closer, he reached over both of my shoulders and took two fistfuls of hair, mimicking ponytails.
Unable to suppress a soft mewing sound, I tried to focus on what was happening but my mind was too fuzzy from his overwhelming presence… from his touch.
Using his grip on my hair, he tugged me forward. Inhaling the spicy scent of his cologne, I could almost imagine feeling the heat radiating from his body.
“Look at me, Elizabeth,” he commanded. His voice dark and deep.
“Lizzie,” I corrected without thought, completely out of habit. My eyes widened. I couldn’t believe I had just corrected him. Instinctively I felt that was something people just didn’t do around this man. If he said the sky were purple with pink spots, I’m pretty sure everyone would agree wholeheartedly… and worse, actually believe it. He just seemed to exude that kind of authoritative power. The kind that could make you believe just about anything he said.
He gave my hair a painful tug with both hands. “Elizabeth,” he stated emphatically, as if he were a god or a king commanding it be so.
“I left a package in your dressing room. It’s a dress. I want you to wear it tonight.”
Tonight was the cast party. It was taking place right after our final curtain call. I had no idea he was even attending.
Wait, a dress?
“The party is at The Brewery next door. I don’t think the cast party is that formal,” I offered, still trying to process why this man would buy me a dress. Realizing quickly that I might sound ungrateful, I stammered, “Not that I don’t appreciate it… I mean I’m sure it’s lovely and—”
The sharp command of his voice stopped my rambling.
“Wear the dress,” he ordered, not expecting a refusal and not getting one.
“Yes, sir,” I whispered.
Releasing my hair, he stroked the back of his knuckles down my cheek. “Good girl.”
The moment I heard the Hall door close on his retreating back, I sank to my knees in the middle of the stage, feeling shaken and more than a little alarmed.
What the hell had just happened?