Enzo Cavalieri’s glare was like a hand wrapped around my throat.
His strong fingers slowly forcing the air from my lungs.
I tilted my chin to the side, hiding my face behind the wide brim of my hat.
It didn’t help.
I hadn’t seen Enzo in close to seven months… not since that awful night.
The night that changed—everything.
He was still as handsome as the devil himself, and if the rumors were to be believed about my sister, just as evil.
I clawed at the sheer black veil draped over the black pearl wheel hat brim and secured around my neck, obscuring my face. Loosening the folds, I inhaled a shaking breath, grateful no one could see the hot flush on my cheeks.
As a uniformed server passed, I plucked at his sleeve, halting him. His tray carried a small crystal plate of amaretti cookies surrounded by delicate bone china cups of espresso. I lifted one of the espressos by the saucer. Raising my veil as high as my nose, I tried to take a sip of espresso, but my stomach turned at its bitterness. The cup clattered against the saucer as my hand trembled putting it back in place. Several heads turned in my direction. I pulled the veil down over my face again and set the cup and saucer onto the nearest table.
Risking another glance under the brim, the blood in my veins crystallized into tiny sharp icicles which pierced every nerve ending as I froze in place under Enzo’s continued intense, icy scrutiny.
What had I been thinking?
Slapping him like that in front of all those people… and in church, no less.
Everyone knew the Cavalieris were practically a force of nature in Italy.
Their name was synonymous with power and wealth.
It was no coincidence their name meant knight. Their family legacy stretched back to the time of feudal lords, probably even further. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were ancient papyrus scrolls buried in the caves of the nearby Apennine mountains with the Cavalieri name attached to some Roman general or forgotten emperor.
They owned half of western Italy, including the village I grew up in which was named after them.
There wasn’t a family I knew that didn’t somehow owe their livelihoods to the beneficence of the Cavalieris, including my own.
So to freaking slap Enzo, the eldest son, the heir to the Cavalieri throne? In church?
In the middle of my sister’s funeral?
Never mind he was my brother-in-law.
Never mind, half the village believed he murdered my sister.
Never mind he had been the man I desperately loved before my sister stole him from me.
Never mind, he was the reason why I fled to America.
Never mind the very sight of him brought all those bitter memories flooding back. Weighing down my heart until I thought it would become unmoored from within my body, sending it crashing into my bones, breaking them like a loose anchor splintering weathered wood.
I clenched my jaw and stared straight ahead, willing the threatening tears not to fall. My nose itched. My eyes stung. My eyelids fluttered, the alternating flashes of bright sunlight and pitch-black darkness disorienting me. Swaying, I dug my fingernails into the edge of the table for stability.
I had the dizzying urge to faint.
Dark oblivion would be a blessed relief right now. A salvation from this living hell.
The cloying scent of carnation, bergamot, and amber preceded my mother’s approach. My earliest memory of her was the stench of Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume, which clung to her like a moth-eaten fur wrap. It was why I hated the scent, or even the sight, of carnations.
She dug her claws into the soft flesh of my upper arm, holding me in place to hiss, “Stop making a spectacle of yourself, Bianca,” in my ear.
I bit the inside of my cheek, the pain centering me. “My apologies, Claudia.” I hadn’t been allowed to call her “Mother” in public since I was six years old. “Exactly how should one behave when attending a murdered sister’s funeral?”
She tightened her grip.
I winced but resisted the urge to pull away. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.
“For starters, you don’t slap the grieving husband in front of the priest and Don Cavalieri like some common trollop,” she snapped, her hot breath wreaking of menthol cigarettes and Amaro liquor. “And stop using that vulgar word.”
I lifted one eyebrow. “Trollop?”
“No,” she seethed through clenched teeth slightly smeared with crimson lipstick. “You know very well I mean murdered,” she gritted out. “Your sister’s death was a tragic accident.”
Yes, she tragically accidentally tripped into a man’s fists several times over until she died, and then shetragically accidentally fell over a cliff. The whole damn village, including my parents, knew who that man was, but no one was brave enough to utter his name out loud… including me.
I lifted my veil, tucking it up on the brim to better survey the sallow pallor of her complexion underneath the layers of contouring makeup, but avoiding her glassy eyes trying to focus on me. “A bit early for Mother’s Little Helper, isn’t it, Mommy dearest?”
“It’s a shame you weren’t charming enough to keep a man like Enzo Cavalieri’s attention. Then it would be you moldering in the ground”—she pressed a wrinkled handkerchief to her nose— “instead of my beautiful Renata.”
After twenty-three years, knife strikes straight to the heart like that should have stopped hurting. They didn’t.
I inhaled deeply through my nose in a vain attempt to control my emotions before responding.
It didn’t work.
The corner of my mouth lifted in a smirk. “I’m sorry, Claudia. I don’t think he found Renata charming as much as he enjoyed my sister’s charms.”
Her eyes widened. With a huff, she opened her clutch and fumbled for her cigarette case. Tucking a cigarette in her mouth, she let it dangle from her obscenely red lips, vainly trying several times to spark her lighter. “How dare you say such things about your dead sister. And at her funeral!”
I yanked the lighter from her hands and lit the cigarette.
It annoyed me that she was right. It was in poor taste.
There was no love lost between me and Renata. A lifetime of her cruel behavior toward me, capped off by her ultimate betrayal, put an end to any sisterly affection I may at one time have foolishly harbored. But she was still family and I owed her at least that much respect.
I tossed the lighter back into my mother’s purse. “Why are we even here? That man”—I still couldn’t say his name— “killed her. Why did you and Father agree to let him and his family host the funeral? Talk about disrespecting Renata. How can you let him play the grieving husband like this?”
My mother blew a cloud of smoke in my face. “Shut your mouth. Someone will hear you.”
“Are you serious? Mother—”
I let out a frustrated sigh. “Claudia, the entire fucking—”
“Don’t curse. Only trollops curse.”
I looked heavenward and prayed for patience. Taking a deep breath, I started again, speaking slowly. “Claudia, the entire fu—the entire village is here gossiping about how he’s the one who probably killed Renata. Everyone knows it’s always the husband. Anyone who watches Dateline knows that.”
“What is Dateline?”
“It’s an American true crime show, but that’s not the point. The point is, he killed your daughter and you’re here fawning all over him like he’s the suffering son-in-law.”
She picked a nonexistent piece of tobacco off her lip before responding. It was a gesture she’d seen an Italian sex symbol do in an old black-and-white movie once. Everything about my mother was affectation. Same with my sister, or at least it had been the same with my sister.
“We never should have agreed to let you study in America. It has given you a smart mouth.” After an overly dramatic sigh, she continued. “Bianca, there are sensitive business matters at play here that don’t concern you.”
Translation—my parents’ greed couldn’t afford to make an enemy of the Cavalieri billions.
I lowered my veil to cover my face once again. “Well I, for one, want no part in this farce. I’m going home.”
I had only taken a few steps when I was wrenched back by my hair.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
I turned to face my furious father, Bruno Moretti. His bloated face was a mottled purple.
I pulled my long curls out of his grasp and lowered my voice as I responded. “Home.”
“The hell you are. You’re going to march up there and pay your respects to Don Cavalieri and offer your brother-in-law a groveling apology for your disgraceful behavior earlier. I have already told them it was a side effect of some tranquilizers an American doctor gave you to handle your grief over your sister’s tragic passing.”
I wrenched my veil back up to face him. “I will do no such thing.”
His beefy fist shot out and grabbed the collar of my dress. “Listen, you spoiled little bitch—”
Before I could respond, an iron band wrapped around my waist and pulled me backward against a solid wall of muscle, breaking my father’s hold.
A dark, commanding voice ground out, “Get your hands off her.”
I looked up past the brim of my hat to see Enzo Cavalieri’s cold, emerald eyes glaring down at me.
I stared with growing alarm as Cesare Cavalieri stalked toward me, his jealous anger palpable.
Before I could escape, his firm hand wrapped around my upper arm and wrenched my body behind him. He then stepped up to his cousin, Matteo. “Walk away.”
Matteo’s questioning gaze moved to me, then back to Cesare. “I didn’t know.”
Cesare ground out, “Now you do.”
The moment Matteo left, Cesare turned his wrath on me. “Stay away from Matteo. Trust me. He’s interested in just one thing.”
I cocked my head to one side as I raised an eyebrow. “You would know.”
Cesare stepped closer, the primal threat of his superior height and strength unmistakable. He had been working the grapevines all day alongside his father and brother. The heady masculine scent of leather, soil, and sweat still clung to his body. I stared at the steady pulse at the base of his neck and wondered if his skin would taste salty if I licked it.
As if sensing my illicit thoughts, Cesare moved even closer, his thigh brushing mine as he raised his arm to wrap his hand around my waist.
My eyes widened. With a gasp, I stepped back, breaking the spell.
He curled his fingers into a fist as he lowered his arm. His dark gaze moved from my eyes to my mouth. When he spoke, his voice was a low, sensual growl. “I’m tiring of this game you’re playing, Milana. Either tell me what the fuck I did wrong so I can apologize or get over it.”
I took a long sip from my wineglass as I glared at him over the rim before raising it high in the air and smashing it violently at his feet. “It will be a cold day in hell before I ever… ever… forgive you, Cesare Cavalieri.”
I stomped up the limestone gravel path to the cottage on the Cavalieri estate.
Technically, as far as prisons went, it was pretty posh.
The bedroom alone was bigger than my entire apartment, but that was not the point. I stamped my foot for emphasis, even though I was venting to no one but myself.
My foot landed on a stone the wrong way. My ankle collapsed to the side as the heel on my favorite pair of knockoff Dolce midnight black pumps snapped. I wrenched off my shoes and picked up the broken heel. If I ever laid eyes on Cesare Cavalieri again, I would throw these shoes at his head.
God! Why had I let him back into my life?
Oh, right, I didn’t! He’d forced his way back into my life when he kidnapped me from my apartment and got me fired.
Although that was not really true, was it?
He was not a bastard.
That was part of the problem.
He was one of the exalted sons and heirs of the great Cavalieri fortune, practically a living god as far as most of Italy was concerned.
Tall, handsome, and rich, the man could probably get away with murder in this town and everyone would turn a blind eye because he was a Cavalieri.
Hell, he’d dragged me out of my apartment kicking and screaming, and not one person had rushed to my aid, the moment they saw whose shoulder I was slung over. Because in the village of Cavalieri, the Cavalieri men were kings.
Damn, damn, damn him.
Limping up to the cottage door, I rummaged for my key.
Not finding it, I dumped the contents of my purse out on the courtyard bench. Pushing aside shiny tubes of various shades of red lipstick, my compact, my mascara, the gold earrings I wore yesterday, the silver ones I wore last Monday, the onyx resin bangle I’d been looking for—which I slipped on my wrist—and a purple silk change purse filled with perfume samples, I finally found the cottage keys.
I unlocked the door and slipped my arm inside. My palm slid along the interior plaster wall, searching for the light switch. I couldn’t enter until the light was on. Once the main room was flooded with a warm, welcoming glow, I opened the door wide and crossed the threshold. I rushed from room to room, turning on all the lights. Only then did the tightness in my chest ease.
Returning to the courtyard, I swept my arm over the bench and scooped all the items back into my purse which I tossed, along with my ruined heels, on the seat of a nearby chair before securing the door.
I sank to the floor and hugged my legs to my chest as I rested my chin on my knees.
What did I do now?
My best friend Amara was practically engaged to Barone Cavalieri, Cesare’s father, and moving on with her life. Soon she would be married and starting a family. Not that I worried she would push me aside. We were ride or die girlfriends and always would be, but things were changing in our lives. It was time I made some changes as well.
Changes that didn’t include being under the influence of the Cavalieris.
I’d only stayed for Amara’s sake.
Now that she was happy with Barone, I could leave.
Cesare had made his intentions clear.
Especially after that kiss a few weeks ago.
And the kiss we almost shared tonight.
He not only wanted me… he wanted answers.
And no would not be one of them.
I tightened my arms around my legs as I tried to control the shiver that wracked my body at the terrible memories. As always, I silently berated myself for being so foolish. That was the messed-up thing about trauma. It didn’t really respond to rational thought. I knew rationally that things could have been much worse. That because I fought them off, they didn’t finish their intended attack, but still… the memories… the trauma… haunted me.
Being trapped in the darkness like that for hours and hours on end.
Screaming for help until I was hoarse.
Not knowing if they would return to finish what they’d started.
And it was all Cesare’s fault. He was my friend back then.
He should have protected me.
But he didn’t.
I didn’t care if the rest of Italy’s women thought he was God’s gift.
I hated him and would always hate him.
Anger gave me renewed vigor and purpose.
I got up off the floor.
I hurried down the hallway, passing Amara’s old bedroom.
The second I did, I backtracked.
I threw open the oak wardrobe’s paneled doors. There were still several Gucci, Valentino, and Dolce outfits she hadn’t moved over to the villa yet. Without a second’s hesitation, I swept them all off their padded, pale pink silk hangers, then reached down and grabbed the matching shoes. I stretched my arm up to the top of the wardrobe and slung the purse straps to two purses over my neck and hustled out of the room.
She’d have wanted me to have them.
After depositing my new wardrobe items on my bed, I got on my knees and pulled my suitcases out from under the bed. I could stay at Amara’s old house and leave at first light. When I didn’t show up for work, Cesare would come looking for me. Of that, I had no doubt. I needed to be long gone by then.
After I placed the suitcases by the door I went in search of a piece of paper and pen.
I knew if I called or texted Amara, she would race over and try to change my mind.
Worse, Barone would find out, which meant Cesare would find out.
And then they’d both get all over-the-top bossy about how staying in Cavalieri under their protection was for my own good, and how I was like a sister to Amara and therefore family now, blah, blah, blah.
Nope. No way. Not buying it.
I had vowed long ago never to let a man in my life, and I freaking meant it.
And that vow especially applied to Cesare Cavalieri.
I scrawled a quick note telling Amara not to worry, that I was fine, and that I would call her when I settled somewhere.
Snatching a handled basket from under the sink, I filled it with some fresh figs, a loaf of bread, some cheese, three bottles of wine, a bottle opener, a jar of plum preserves, and a bottle of sparking water.
After one last look around the cottage, I grabbed my purse and opened the front door.
Cesare was standing on the threshold.
His dark gaze swept from my face to the suitcases and back.
His brow lowered as his eyes narrowed. “Going somewhere?”
No good came from attracting the attention of a man like Barone Cavalieri.
The prosecco flutes on my tray rattled as I caught sight of his glare.
The Barone Cavalieri, powerful patriarch of the Cavalieri family, was staring at me. No, not staring, glaring.
Shifting my gaze away, I tried to swallow past the dry fear which had turned my throat to dust. The flutes clattered again. I pressed my hand over their tops, stilling them. I inhaled a shaky breath and held it, trying to calm my racing heart. A piece of hair escaped my loose bun and tickled the side of my neck. I desperately wanted to flick it aside but was afraid to release my grip on my passing tray.
Despite it being late autumn, the sultry Italian sun would not release its hot grip on our little mountain valley in Abruzzo. A bead of sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. I shrugged one shoulder, trying to relieve the icky, itching sensation on my skin. Then froze. Had my motion drawn more of his unwanted attention? I was afraid to look.
What had I done wrong to warrant his glare?
Internally, I rolled my eyes.
Dammit, why had I agreed to work this awful wedding?
Everyone in the village knew it was doomed from the start.
The answer was simple.
Money, of course.
Stupid, completely necessary for survival money.
I dared a glance out of the corner of my eye. Barone had turned away, his attention drawn by a handful of disreputable looking guests.
I let out the breath I was holding.
Maybe it had all been in my imagination?
After all, why on earth would Barone Cavalieri be glaring at me, one of the village catering servants, at his eldest son’s wedding? I mean sure, I had been friends with his youngest son at school, but that was years ago. It wasn’t like our families hung out in the same circles.
There were the rich as hell Cavalieris.
There was everyone else below them.
And at the very top was Barone Cavalieri.
The man was practically a legend in his own time.
Known as much for his kindness as his temper, he watched over our village like a feudal lord, harkening back to the power of his ancestors. I guessed it made sense, they even named our village after his family, who owned literally millions of acres of land across Italy and countless businesses, besides the ancestral winery that was the Cavalieri legacy.
It didn’t hurt that the man was also tall, imposing, and handsome as sin.
Still, with that kind of power and wealth, there was always an undercurrent of treachery and fear.
It was this that had me shivering in the afternoon sun.
I headed inside to get more prosecco.
Later, I would be expected to pass glasses of the famous, and insanely expensive, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano d’Abruzzo dei Cavalieri made from old vines dating back to the thirteenth century, but for now the guests were supposed to be drinking prosecco to celebrate the happy couple.
Except nobody wanted any.
Irritated, I pulled out the band holding my hair back, relieved when the tight tension eased.
My best friend approached, carrying a full tray of uneaten appetizers. She lifted one poached pear half filled with creamy ricotta and drizzled with local sideritis honey and took a bite. “These are really quite tasty. A total waste on that boring crowd out there,” she said after swallowing and licking her lips. “Have you ever seen a more somber and tense wedding? You’d think it was a funeral. Although it serves Enzo right for marrying such a bitc—”
I gestured with my head toward Signora Rossi, our supervisor who was standing nearby, as I whispered harshly through tightly closed teeth, “Milana!”
Milana’s eyes widened. She tossed her tray aside so haphazardly, the contents slid over the tray lip and toppled onto the Carrara marble table surface. She swallowed a laugh. “Oops.”
Milana used the flat of her hand to sweep the pear halves back onto the silver passing tray. The once elegant display was now a jumbled mess of overturned pears and smeared ricotta. She turned to face me, leaning her hip against the table. She licked a drop of honey off the tip of her finger as she raised one elegantly arched eyebrow. “You think the rumors are true?”
I finished wiping my tray and reached for several clean glasses. Distracted, I asked, “What rumors?” as I arranged the flutes on the tray.
“You know the rumors!” She leaned in close and in a hushed, conspiratorial tone whispered, “About the father and the scandal.”
I lifted the green glass bottle of prosecco and carefully poured one hundred and eighty milliliters in the first flute.
Warmth crept up my cheeks.
Barone Cavalieri’s late wife, the mother of his sons Enzo and Cesare, died under mysterious circumstances over fifteen years ago. It caused a huge scandal. The topic tore the I pettegolezzi del villaggio in different directions. Some said she killed herself because she was a religious woman and could no longer bear to satisfy her husband’s ungodly tastes in the bedroom. Others said he accidentally killed her in the middle of some rather vigorous, to put it mildly, lovemaking. Still others said he straight up murdered her.
The image of Barone’s tall, powerful body looming over me as his dark, piercing glare held me in thrall clashed with all the salacious stories I had heard about his sexual kinks and appetites over the years.
The flute I had been filling bubbled over with crisp, white foam as I overfilled the glass, toppling it. I stepped out of the way as fizzing prosecco covered the white marble tabletop and dripped onto the floor. “Che due palle!”
Milana helped me lift the flutes off the tray. “I, for one, don’t think he’s a murderer. I’m sure it was just rumors started by a bunch of jealous bitches who were angry, because they couldn’t tempt Barone and his legendary coc—”
“Milana!” I hissed again, furiously turning my head to make sure we weren’t being overheard. I swept the spilled prosecco into the nearby porcelain sink with a towel.
“—to their beds,” she finished in a rush before stuffing another pear in her mouth to stop herself from saying anything more.
I used the towel to cover my mouth as I laughed. “You’re a terrible influence.”
She laughed as she unabashedly talked around the appetizer in her mouth. “The worst.”
The sound of voices coming closer echoed down the carved stone corridor to our left.
Milana scurried to finish righting as many of the pear halves as she could. “We better hurry or Signora Rossi will have our heads for not doing our jobs.”
I splashed the bare minimum amount of prosecco in the flutes and lifted the tray. It wasn’t like it mattered, no one was interested in drinking it anyway.
I headed toward the stone corridor to the right, away from the incoming voices. The lower level of the villa was a labyrinth of narrow corridors and small, cave-like rooms radiating from the center of the vast catering kitchen reserved for special events, like spokes on a wheel.
As I neared an intersecting corridor, voices raised in anger reached me.
“I will not stand for it, Renata!”
I started. It was Enzo Cavalieri, the groom, yelling at his bride. Hissing air through my teeth, I covered my mouth and looked around, hoping they had not heard me.
Renata cackled in return. “There’s nothing you can do about it now, husband.”
I peeked around the corner and watched as Enzo snatched her around the upper arm and dragged her into one of the cave rooms. Its heavy oak door, hung with ancient wrought iron hinges, slammed shut behind them.
I tightened my grip on the tray as I was forced to walk past the door to get back outside, where I was supposed to be passing out drinks.
Even though I knew I shouldn’t… I couldn’t resist pausing just outside the door to see if I could hear anything more.
The thickness of the door muffled much of what they were saying, or technically, shouting.
“—if it’s even mine.”
“—ruin my name—”
I was so caught up in the drama, I didn’t hear the heavy footsteps behind me until it was too late.
Forcing my eyes open, I blinked against the bright sunlight filtering through my lace bedroom curtains. I stared at the delicate pattern of twisting, turning shadows the light cast through the lace as my mind tried to focus.
A dull pain in my shoulder once again had me trying to lower my arm, to no avail.
A chain rattled against the bedpost.
This time, the sound jolted me fully awake. I stretched my neck to gaze at my shackled wrist.
Flashes from last night bounced around my brain.
A nightmarish kaleidoscope.
Cruel scenes of sex, violence, and fear.
With my heart clawing to escape my chest, I looked around my bedroom. It appeared to be empty. My gaze fixated on the closed bathroom door. Was he inside? My lower lip trembled as I waited, straining to hear even the slightest sound.
Fear closed my throat when I thought I heard the scuff of a boot heel on tile.
I could barely hear over the pounding of my heart and my own erratic breathing.
Several more seconds passed by.
My eyes watered as I stared at the bathroom doorknob without blinking, waiting to see even the slightest turn.
I sucked air into my lungs as a lightheaded rush made the room blur and swim before my eyes.
Without thinking, I pulled on my wrist in an attempt to rub my forehead.
The chain rattled again as my wrist remained shackled to the bedpost.
I cast a glance over to where the bedroom door had been. It was now hanging by only a few screws from its last remaining hinge, a pile of splinters scattered on the floor nearby. I waited to hear heavy footfalls on the steps beyond.
I lived in a small two-story flat in London. My bedroom and the attached bathroom were the only rooms on the second floor, with just a tiny landing at the top of the stairs. If he was still here, he must be downstairs where he wouldn’t hear the grate of the metal chain against the wooden bedpost. Hopefully.
Locked around my wrist was one end of a pair of handcuffs. It had a longer-than-usual chain in the middle and the other bracelet was attached to the bedpost.
A hiss escaped through my teeth as I tried to turn my body and rise up on my knees. Every muscle screamed in protest. I glanced down at my naked form. My vintage-inspired nightgown with the pretty pink flowers was gone. On the top of my left breast was the faint red outline of a bite mark. Finger-shaped marks marred my inner thighs. Never in my life had I been taken so brutally. It was as if I had let a wild animal into my bedroom.
There wasn’t an inch of my body he hadn’t touched, kissed… bruised.
And how he had pushed himself inside my…
No, I wouldn’t think about that now. I needed to get these handcuffs off. I desperately wanted a long, hot shower. I needed to wash the depraved, lust-filled night off my skin. If only it could have been so easy to also erase it from my mind.
Clenching my jaw against the pain, I shifted my hips and rose up onto my knees. I gripped the bedpost for purchase as I looked down at my wrist. Thankfully, there weren’t any red marks from the handcuffs. No visible ones at least.
I lifted my left hand to my throat as I glanced at my reflection in the glass covering the peony print hanging over my bed. There were several round marks encircling my neck where his mouth had sucked and bitten at the soft skin of my throat. Never mind that now. A scarf would cover it. I needed to focus on getting free.
I gripped the handcuff chain and yanked it upward, intending to pull it up and over the end of the bedpost. It didn’t budge. The handcuff bracelet was tightly secured around a decorative indentation in the bedpost. I yanked again. The chain rattled but didn’t move.
With a frustrated whimper, I pulled on my wrist. Scrunching my fingers tightly together, I tried to twist and pull my hand free. The handcuff bracelet dug into the skin below my thumb but wouldn’t slip off my hand.
I swiped at the tears clouding my vision as I tried again and again. The skin around my wrist was scratched and red before I finally gave up. I looked around the tiny bedroom for anything I could use as a tool, but there was nothing.
The room only allowed for a four-drawer bureau and a bed. Despite my embarrassment at being found this way, I could try screaming for help, but I doubted anyone would hear me.
My love of all things vintage and gothic had prompted me to rent a flat in an eighteenth-century building located in Whitechapel. Yes, that Whitechapel, of Jack the Ripper fame. The walls were impossibly thick. It was one of the things I loved about the place. I looked at the lattice window to the left of my bed. The window frame had long ago been sealed shut from countless coats of thick white paint. Maybe I could break it? But with what?
I turned my attention back to the four-poster bed. My only hope was to break the post. Shuffling closer to the headboard, I leaned my shoulder against the post and pushed with all my might.
I heard a crack.
It was working!
I pushed harder, ignoring the pain in my shoulder and wrist.
There was another crack as the post gave under my weight. Unfortunately, it didn’t crack near the indentation as I had planned. My efforts had dislodged the post from the headboard and frame. I cried out as the bed collapsed. The footboard with two posts attached fell forward, slamming against the floor. The post not connected to my wrist leaned precariously to one side. The post connected to my wrist lurched to the other side. The mattress and box spring dropped to the floor with a loud thump.
I lay sprawled on the bed, momentarily stunned.
Just then, the bedroom door swung open, violently hitting the wall behind it.
I took one look at the man storming over the threshold toward me and let out a bloodcurdling scream.
I did. I truly hated him in that moment. I hated every controlling, manipulative, toxic thing he had done to me. More than that, I hated that I loved him. Despite everything, I still loved the man.
I would never forgive myself for that fact.
Reaching for a crystal decanter, Richard poured himself a glass of brandy, turning toward me as he raised it to his lips. It was still early in the morning, but I had just tried to shoot him less than an hour earlier, so I guess he was entitled to a stiff drink.
Unable to hold back, I let out a primal scream and threw his phone at him.
Richard smoothly ducked out of the way. The iPhone crashed through an antique glass window, sending shards of glass showering down onto his shoulders then the thick, Persian carpet at his feet.
Pointing to the now shattered window, I raged. “The phone proves it. It was all lies. All of it!”
The man had me so turned around I didn’t know what was real anymore. If he had told me the sky was purple and unicorns exist, I probably would have believed him.
Somehow he had slowly and methodically taken over my whole life. Everything revolved around him. He had become my sun, the only source of light and energy in my world. Without him, I was certain I would wither and die. I knew this deep in my bones, just as surely as I knew that same light had burned away all that remained of my own identity… had burned away my very soul.
It was true what they say, anything could be poisonous… it just depended on the dose.
Richard was toxic for me, but there was no denying I willingly drank his poison.
But this time he went too far… him and his games. I was done.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I challenged, “Are you going to try and deny it?”
Richard reached into his glass and pulled out a jagged piece of glass. Keeping his cold sapphire eyes on me, he placed it between his lips and licked the amber liquid off its slick sharp surface before tossing it aside.
The man’s unassailable arrogance and confidence was maddening.
Was it any wonder I was now mad as a hatter?
Was it any wonder I just tried to kill him?
Careful to keep the desk and two heavy upholstered chairs between us, I frenetically paced the length of the room, forced to grab fistfuls of fabric and lift my skirts high as I did so. Having no other choice, I was wearing one of the Victorian gowns Richard had provided. With no petticoat, my heavy skirts dragged on the floor; that this dress was one of my own creations just rankled me more. I remember loving how the cobalt blue taffeta matched his eyes.
All of this. The dress. The estate. The servants. Me.
We were all just pawns on a board. Players in a game only he knew the rules.
To think he almost had me believing his lies! If it hadn’t been for his disdain for modern technology, I might never have come across his phone, abandoned and silent, in his desk drawer. Proof the modern world, which had haunted my dreams, existed.
It was then I also found the revolver.
I may never know if I missed on purpose or accidentally. Yet, I did know, the second before I pulled the trigger, I wanted him dead with every fiber of my being.
How I felt the moment after?
When the bullet left the chamber?
That I couldn’t say, and yes, I hated myself for it.
Gripping the back of the chair, my nails dug into the paisley tapestry as I bravely met his hard gaze. “Say something.”
One sharp eyebrow raised. The only hint of emotion on his chiseled, handsome face. His voice was deceptively casual as he asked, “Does this mean our little game is over?”
My mouth fell open in shock at his cavalier attitude.
Once more he brought the brandy glass close to his lips, then paused to muse, “I wonder who won?” Taking a sip, he then smirked. “Me, of course.”
Claws bared; I flew at him.
Richard threw his glass aside and latched on to my wrists before they could scratch long red marks down his perfect cheeks.
“It’s over! Over! We’re done!” I screeched as I struggled in his grasp. My cumbersome skirts tangled between my legs.
Spearing his fingers into my long, loose hair, he twisted, securing a handful in his tight fist. Wrenching my head back, he leaned over me to threaten. “It’s over when I say it’s over.”
Swallowing back a sickening rush of nausea as my stomach twisted in knots, I marshaled my courage and choked out through clenched teeth, “I’m leaving you, Richard, for good this time.”
Every limb in my body went cold at my own pronouncement. I had willingly killed the sun in my universe and now felt a creeping, clawing chill run over my body, as if all my warm blood, all the passion and desire he had brought to my life, had drained away.
His eyes harden as his large hand enclosed around my exposed throat. Like a rabbit caught in a snare, I stilled, my eyes wide with fright. The only sound in the room was the incessant ticking of the mantel clock and the sound of his harsh breathing. The minutes, or were they seconds, dragged on.
My eyes closed as his fingers squeezed. Welcoming death at his hands, my last macabre thought was how warm his fingers felt wrapped around my throat.
His lips crashed down on mine. Whimpering, I willingly opened my mouth for his assault. Taking possession, his tongue swept in. He tasted of blood and brandy. Releasing his grip on my throat and hair, his hands tore at my dress as he pressed me backwards. The edge of the desk dug into my hips before he lifted me high and placed me on its smooth mahogany surface. Wrenching my knees open, he stepped between them, his hands fisting the yards of skirt fabric in his frenzied effort to touch the skin of my inner thighs and higher.
Giving in to the power of his embrace, my fingers dug into his hair as I pulled him closer, wanting to feel the rough scrape of his stubbled jaw against my lips, needing to feel the hard press of him between my thighs. Craving his touch like an addict who needs a fix of the very poison they knew was slowly killing them.
My mouth opened on a plaintive keen as he ruthlessly pushed two fingers into my already aroused body.
“You’re mine, my little bird. There is no escape,” he roughly whispered against the curve of my ear before sinking his teeth into the soft lobe.
Unwanted reality crashed down on me. Damn me to hell for my sins, it was true I desperately longed to return to a time where I believed his lies, where I was a willing participant in his games. Where I allowed him to dominate my actions and very thoughts, but I couldn’t. It was as if he had placed me, his prized possession, in a glass display case high on a pedestal, and the awful truth had shattered the case into a million pieces. There was no going back.
Once more, I struggled in his embrace. This time he shocked me by letting go and taking a few steps back. Running a hand over his tousled hair, he picked up his glass and spilled another two fingers of brandy into it before draining the contents. Swiping the back of his hand over his mouth, as if to erase the taste of our final kiss, his hands clenched into fists as he turned on his heel and approached me.
Crying out, I raised my arms protectively, as I turned my head to the side.
Richard stormed past me.
Confused, I gathered my skirts into my hands and scrambled off the top of the desk. Keeping my eyes on him, I slowly backed away toward the door. Frantically scanning the room, I snatched up an ornate, old-looking letter opener which was displayed on a nearby bookshelf.
Richard’s mouth curved up in one corner. “A gun didn’t stop me, my love. Do you really think a dull letter opener would prevent me from fucking you right here, right now, if I wanted to?”
I knew what I must look like in that moment. My tangled curls a wild mess around my shoulders and down my back.
My dress half hanging off my body and dragging on the floor as I clutched a tarnished make-shift knife to my breast.
My gaze, wide with fright, shifting from left to right as I tried to anticipate his next pounce.
I looked as crazy as I felt… as crazy as he had made me.
Richard reached for the brass, candlestick phone on his desk. Lifting the trumpet shaped receiver to his ear, he pressed down on the switch hook a few times before speaking into the mouth receiver. I knew that phone connected to the Butler’s pantry in the servant’s quarters.
Keeping his dark sapphire eyes trained on me, he said, “Good morning, Hutley. Please have the driver bring round the car. Ms. Larkin wishes to be taken to her home in London,” instructed Richard calmly, as if he were ordering extra toast with his breakfast tray.
Just like that? He was going to let me go? It didn’t seem possible, not after the lengths he went to entrap me.
Neither of us said a word, just stared into the void between us.
Then, we heard the crunch of gravel as the car pulled up to the entrance, which was just outside to the right of the study.
Glancing over my shoulder, I backed up to the door, reaching behind me for the knob as I tried to keep my wary gaze trained on Richard, somehow feeling this was a test, a trap that was going to snap closed on me the moment I crossed over the threshold.
Placing his hands in his pockets, as if trying to appear nonchalant and unthreatening, Richard slowly followed me out of the study and into the large entrance hall.
Keeping my eyes trained on Richard and one arm stretched behind me, I stumbled my way to the front double doors.
Two footman appeared out of nowhere to swing the heavy wooden doors open. Neither expressed the slightest shock at seeing their master stalk a half-dressed woman brandishing a letter opener like a weapon out of the house, although after what they had witnessed and been paid to ignore these last few months, it was small wonder.
The driver held the back passenger side door open. Refusing to drop the letter opener, I climbed awkwardly into the spacious backseat. The car door slammed shut. Then the driver hustled around to the right side and climbed in. The engine roared to life as the car pulled out of the drive.
Twisting around, I looked through the back window to see puffs of dust and little bits of gravel kicked up by the tires scatter over Richard’s polished knee-high riding boots.
The aristocratic Duke of Winterbourne stood unnaturally still as the car took me further and further away from him.
I was finally free.
Waiting till I could no longer see her pale, gamine face through the back window of the car, I crossed over to the bushes just below the study windows and retrieved my phone. Dusting off the bits of dirt and shattered glass, thankful the screen had not cracked, I brought up the contact I sought and pressed send.
Without preamble, I spoke the moment the phone was answered. “She’s heading your way. I don’t have to remind you what is at stake if you don’t obey me.” Without waiting for a reply, knowing my point was made, I hung up.
You know that feeling you’d get when you’d start to run down a steep hill?
As you ran faster, there was this single moment… just a moment… of pure joy.
You would stretch your arms out wide as you embraced the sensation that you were almost flying. You believed, truly believed, if you ran just a little bit faster, if you allowed yourself to dare just a little bit more… maybe you would actually fly. Maybe your toes would lift off the ground and you would touch the sky.
So, you dared
You ran faster.
You swore you could no longer feel the ground beneath your feet.
All you could see was the bright, beckoning azure sky.
And then it happened… you glanced down, back to reality.
It was just the barest of seconds, but it was enough.
Suddenly you realized, you weren’t flying.
You were falling.
I could feel Richard’s even breathing against the sensitive skin along my neck. His chest hair tickled my bare shoulder as I laid within the circle of his arms.
A lover’s embrace.
Except we weren’t lovers.
I didn’t know what we were, but this wasn’t love. It couldn’t be.
His arm wrapped possessively around my waist controlled as much as it protected. There was nothing in my life which Richard did not reign over; how I dressed, what I ate, where I went, who I talked too. But really, those were just artificial things. His control went much deeper. My thoughts were no longer my own; my desires, my wishes, my dreams.
All were of Richard.
All were focused on pleasing him.
I could feel the final vestiges of my soul slipping away.
Every day a little death.
Every time he bent me over a table, or forced my legs open wide, or commanded me to fall to my knees and open my mouth… the person I once was died a little, only to be reborn as his ideal fantasy woman.
I was Richard’s living doll, to be played with or punished at his will. Soon there would be nothing left of the person I once was, nothing left of my former life. It would all be a distant, fragmented memory.
My life could be divided into two distinct phases, the time before Richard and after. The time before was already a hazy blur of faces, mundane routines and the basic motions of life.
After… was everything.
After was blindingly clear. Full of bright colors, intense emotions, pleasures and pain. After, was living a life so extreme you feel the heat of the flame as it gets fed by your own desires. It unfurls and stretches towards the sky, burning hotter and brighter. Soon it will consume you… and you don’t care.
Richard had become as much my obsession as I was his.
An unholy fusing of two damaged souls.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this… it had all started out so innocently, with a chance encounter and a stolen kiss. Even now, I wondered how I could have been so naive? As if Richard ever left anything up to chance. He had planned this… every moment of our mutual destruction, from the very beginning.
These violent delights have violent ends and, in their triumph, die like fire and powder which as they kiss consume. If ever there was a quote to fit this fucked up, twisted obsession we had for one another, that was it. Except we couldn’t claim the innocent infatuation of Romeo and Juliet. No, this was something far darker and more all-consuming. We did have one thing in common with Romeo and Juliet—this would end violently. There was no other way.
An obsession this extreme does not just fade away. We were not the type of couple to randomly have an argument over frozen pizza and then split up, only talking again to exchange small boxes of meaningless trifles like toothbrushes and unread books. That was what happened to normal couples. There was nothing normal about our relationship.
Pain, punishment, and manipulation – all to chase the high of an ever more intense, ever more consuming pleasure.
We had each drawn blood in the frenzy of our own desires and yet instead of it becoming a sobering talisman it only spurred us on more.
Where would it end? In madness or death, I had no doubt. I was already half mad myself.
I could no longer tell what was real and what was part of our game. If I didn’t do something soon, to save both of us, we would be lost. Yet I knew, deep in my bones, Richard would never let me go, never allow me to simply walk away.
If I were honest with myself, I didn’t think I could now if I tried. I was bound to him with chains of my own making.
These violent delights have violent ends…
Shifting my body slightly away from his oppressive warmth, I reached under my pillow, moving my fingers beneath the silk till they touched cold metal.
At that moment, Richard’s arm tightened, his fingers stretched out over the narrow curve of my waist, pressing deep into my skin. I choked on a frightened gasp. The sickening taste of blood trickled into my mouth as I bit down on my bottom lip to keep from crying out. My heart hammered in my ears, as I my body became rigid in an effort to stop my limbs from trembling.
My eyes closed as I braced for his rage at my betrayal.
Holding my breath so long I felt dizzy, the rush of adrenaline made my stomach cramp. Still, I waited in the darkness.
An eternity later, his fingers once more relaxed, resting heavily on my hip.
Willing myself to move, I carefully shifted to the side. My overheated bare skin sliding easily along the silk sheets. I placed one foot on the hardwood floor and paused, listening for the even sounds of his breathing. I then swung my other foot over the edge and crouched by the bed. For a brief moment, I thought of covering my nakedness with my discarded nightgown, whose champagne satin shown bright in the moonlight. I abandoned the idea when I remembered how Richard had torn the delicate garment from my body only hours earlier. Its tattered remains would provide no protection for me now.
My eyes adjusted to the dim light as I scanned the bedroom, before my gaze rested on Richard.
Even in sleep, he looked intimidating. Nothing could soften the harsh angles of his jaw and sharp cheekbones or the heavy slope of his brow. He had the handsome looks and charm of the devil himself, with the same moral code. Half expecting to see his piercing blue eyes trained on me in anger, I let the breath I had been holding escape through my lips when I observed him still sleeping.
Refusing to take my gaze off him, I wrapped my stiff fingers around the smooth wooden handle of the gun, stifling a hiss as it pressed against the cut on my palm, and slowly pulled it free from under my pillow.
The Smith & Wesson .38 Special was heavier than I thought it would be. I’d never really held a gun before but for some strange reason I didn’t think it would feel so heavy. Its polished metal looked dark and sinister against the pale skin of my hand.
Tremors racked my body as I willed myself to take one step, then another, away from the bed.
This was it. There was no turning back.
Circling around, I turned to once more face his sleeping form.
Except he wasn’t sleeping anymore.
Those dark, intense eyes were trained on me.
My mouth opened on a silent scream as my stomach twisted in stark, terrorizing fear.
Had he been awake the whole time?
Had he found the gun earlier and guessed my plan?
Was this just another one of his games?
He the puppet master and me the helpless doll, dancing with every pull of my strings.
Was I once again a helpless player in a sick, macabre fantasy of his choosing?
This game… his game… our game… had gone too far.
It needed to end.
These violent delights have violent ends…
Desperately trying not to drop it, I switched the gun to my right hand and raised it chest high. It felt as if the blood had drained from my body. A chill crept over my skin as I watched him, feeling like trapped prey just waiting for its predator’s pounce.
Without saying a word, Richard kept his eyes trained on me as he carefully rose from the bed. I watched in horrified fascination as the sheet slid across his muscled abdomen only to drop away, exposing his thick hard shaft, unmistakable evidence the arrogantly confident man who stood before me wasn’t the least bit cowed by the sight of the gun.
He knew all along. I was now sure of it. My secret deadly plan had never been a secret from him. My heart felt heavy as I realized there wasn’t a corner of my mind he didn’t know intimately. He saw me too completely, knew me too well.
Stretching his arm out, he said calmly, “Give me the gun, Elizabeth.”
Hating myself for it, I took a hesitant step backward as I shook my head no.
“Baby, you don’t want to do this.”
My vision blurred as hot tears filled my eyes. My voice warbled as I whispered, “I have no choice.”
Not giving a damn about his nakedness, Richard took a determined step toward me.
“Stop! Please, don’t come any closer,” I cried out desperately. I could now taste my own salty tears as they slid down my cheeks and over my lips.
“Trust me, Elizabeth. You don’t want to start this game with me,” he growled in warning as he took another menacing step in my direction.
Once more I backed up, I could feel the plush edge of the chaise press against the back of my knees. The gun began to shake as my arms tired. I tried to steady it with my other hand. “I never wanted this game! Any of this!”
“Liar,” he snapped back. “You needed this, us, as much as I. Your soul is just as dark and twisted as my own. Don’t insult us both by pretending otherwise. Stop playing the innocent. It doesn’t suit you.” As always, his hard voice reverberated with calm authority.
Raising my hands up to cover my ears, the cold metal of the gun pressed against my hot cheek as I tried to block out the truth of his words. “No! I don’t believe you! You forced me to play this game!”
His hands curled into fists. “Forced you?” He bit out through clenched teeth. “Did I force those moans of pleasure that slipped past your lips earlier? Did I force you to wrap your legs around my shoulders drawing my mouth closer to your heat? Tell me. Was it I who forced you to scream ‘harder make it hurt’ tonight?”
My whole body shook with the impact of his words. I began to plead with him. “Stop! Please, stop! Can’t you see we have to end this? It’s too much! Too toxic. Too dangerous for us both. You have to let me go!” I screamed as I once more trained the gun on him.
His obsidian eyes shone with dark fire. His jaw clenched so hard there was a small throbbing tick on his upper right cheek. I watched him fight to maintain control, knowing how badly he wanted to just rip the gun from my hand and teach me a brutal lesson at the end of his leather belt for even daring to threaten him like this.
The silence shredded my nerves.
Would he let me go?
A traitorous voice in my head asked, do you truly want him to?
“Never,” he finally ground out. “You’re mine. Mine in life. Mine even in death. You will never be free of me,
Elizabeth. I own you; mind, body and soul and I will never give you up.”
He took another step toward me. Our naked bodies now so close, I could feel the angry heat radiating off him.
Lifting the gun with a determination I didn’t feel, I pulled back the hammer.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Richard.” My voice sounding high and unnatural to my strained ears. The keen edge of desperation gave me false courage.
His eyes narrowed. For the first time, he looked down at the gun in my hand before returning his intense glare to mine. “You better shoot to kill, because when I get my hands on you, there… will… be… no… mercy.”
His words were slow and methodical. Like with everything else, he wanted to make sure I felt the painful impact of every syllable.
Trapped by his gaze, I couldn’t move.
Then, peeking through a small slit in the closed curtains, a delicate shaft of golden light stretched between us. Dawn was approaching.
A new day.
A new little death.
The high-pitched light tone of a nightingale pierced the silence. A bird who symbolized love… and freedom.
He was right. He would show me no mercy. This was the only way. My right finger began to curl.
Richard’s eyes widened. I watched as the sharply defined muscles in his chest and abdomen tensed then shifted as his toned body pushed forward in a lunge.
He was too late.
I closed my eyes and pulled the trigger.
The roar of the gun drowned out the nightingale’s soft song.