Nicholas St. Croix knows the evil of demons intimately-he was raised by one. Now the woman he loves has disappeared, and he knows his "mother" is responsible. But Nicholas swears he'll find her, even if he has to go to Hell and back.
Ash hadn’t meant to frighten the girl. She hadn’t even noticed the little blonde until after the subway train pulled away. The disembarking crowd quickly dispersed, leaving the underground platform empty but for Ash and a few other waiting passengers. In a blue princess’s costume and a plastic tiara, the girl stood next to her mother, clutching a bag of party favors to her small chest. Though her face was turned away and Ash couldn’t see the girl’s smile, she could taste the happiness emanating from her, unsurprisingly sweet.
Had Ash ever felt that much joy as a girl? She couldn’t remember. Emotions must have touched her deeply at some point in her life, because she recognized how little they touched her now—as if her ruined memory hid enough data to compare an After to a Before that she couldn’t recall. And though she knew those emotions were missing, Ash didn’t feel their loss like a hacked-off limb. Even her sense of emptiness remained on the surface, no different from noticing a bruise on her knee and idly wondering when she’d gotten it.
With the same idle interest, Ash observed the girl, who lifted the side of her hem and twirled around her mother as if circling a ballroom. The tiara’s paste jewels flashed beneath the fluorescent lights, and a name leapt into Ash’s mind—Cinderella—but there was something else, an impression just beyond it, like lightning seen from the corner of her eye, like a word at the tip of her tongue.
Her name? No longer idly curious, Ash stared at the girl, mentally replaying that twirl and the flash of light, willing the impression to strengthen into a solid connection, so that she could trace the memory to its source. Was Ash’s full name at the end of it?
Cinderella wasn’t right. Reminded by the girl’s dance, Ash could suddenly recall images from the animated movie, the gliding waltz around the ballroom with the prince, but the connection she sought wasn’t there. Ash was looking for something a step aside from Cinderella. The girl in the cinders and ashes . . . ?
That wasn’t right, either. Not quite.
Why couldn’t she remember? Frustration skimmed over the surface of her mind like a blade over ice, leaving little evidence of its passing. What had happened to separate Before from an After that contained memories, but was still so empty?
Dimly, she became aware that the girl had dropped her bag of party favors to the train platform. Treats and noisemakers forgotten, she tugged insistently on her mother’s hand, her widened eyes never leaving Ash’s. Happiness had changed to sour fear, far stronger than the unease children usually projected when they glimpsed the vermillion symbols tattooed over the left side of Ash’s face. The girl’s distress intruded on Ash’s focus, and the impression of the name she’d been seeking faded.
It disappeared altogether when the mother’s gaze followed her daughter’s. Unlike the girl’s sour fear, the mother’s tasted of bitter cold, like icy sweat against Ash’s tongue.
Dread and terror.
From the tunnel came the clatter of an approaching train. The woman gathered up the girl and set off for the far end of the platform at a stiff-legged trot. The look she threw over her shoulder included bared teeth—the mother protecting her young.
Fear wasn’t just an emotion. Sometimes, it was a survival instinct.
But why consider Ash a threat? Not just the tattoos, obviously. In this part of London, heavy ink sometimes provoked fascination or disgust, but was common enough that it didn’t incite terror.
Ash glanced down, where more symbols marked her hands. Around the tattoos, the skin was tan, not the crimson it sometimes became. Her jeans and leather jacket hadn’t disappeared—and when her clothes vanished, she knew very well that titters and gasps followed. Not fear.
Brakes screeched as the train stopped. Ash’s image reflected faintly in the car windows. Beneath the sweep of blond hair across her forehead, Ash’s eyes shone as brilliantly red as two small stoplights.
Ah. So that was the cause of their fear. Ash wasn’t surprised; when she’d lived at Nightingale House, the same glow had come a few times, and she’d only noticed when the lights in her room were out—and because she’d once terrified a ward nurse making the night rounds.
The hysterical nurse had returned less than a minute later with an orderly in tow, but Ash’s eyes had looked like any other person’s eyes by then.
Glowing eyes, red skin—the changes always faded within moments of Ash noticing them. In the train window’s reflection, her irises had already returned to a more human blue, her pupils were black, the whites white. She glanced toward the girl again, but the mother had hustled past the disembarking passengers and taken a seat. The woman held her daughter, staring at Ash through the window—likely praying that she wouldn’t board the train with them. The girl huddled on her lap, her blue dress twisted around her legs, and Ash’s earlier impression suddenly solidified into a word: Aschenputtel.
Ash’s disappointment was a soft weight, barely felt. Though the first syllable of Ash’s name sounded similar, Aschenputtel was Cinderella’s name, not hers. So she would have to keep searching.
The train began to move. Not so frightened now, the little blonde peeked beneath her mother’s arm and met Ash’s gaze. Brave girl. Ash smiled faintly and lifted her hand in acknowledgment.
Hello, little princess. You’ve escaped a monster who can’t remember her name, or even what sort of monster she is. But don’t worry that I’ll crawl under your bed . . . unless, of course, you have answers there.
The train clattered down the tunnel, taking the girl with it. To avoid further notice, Ash drew up the hood of the sweatshirt layered beneath her jacket, then settled in to wait for another ten minutes. That had been her train, but she didn’t feel impatience any more than she did frustration or disappointment.
Curiosity wasn’t an emotion, however, but a state of being—and so Ash did wonder why she hadn’t boarded despite their fear. After all, frightening a little girl was the least of her sins. She’d also jumped the high gates at the subway entrance instead of paying her fare. Later that evening, she planned on breaking into a dead woman’s home.
Disregarding the girl’s terror hadn’t felt right, however—and Ash spent the next ten minutes trying to decide whether “feeling right” was an emotion, or something else.
A month ago, shortly before had Ash escaped from Nightingale House, she’d slipped into Dr. Cawthorne’s office after midnight and read through every file and notebook that referred to her. Cawthorne knew nothing of Before, not even her name. She’d been committed as a Jane Doe, and in the computers and on the file labels she was called “Mary Bloggs,” a placeholder designation often followed by the date of her admission. That day, during one of Ash’s therapy sessions, he’d written into his notebook: Schizoid personality disorder?
He’d underlined the question mark twice.
After almost three years in the care of his private mental hospital, the psychiatrist still hadn’t known how to classify her. Not that Ash had helped him along. Two years had passed before she’d spoken aloud, and nine more months had gone by before she’d cared enough to wonder who she was and what had happened to her.
Though he’d speculated, Dr. Cawthorne hadn’t figured that out, either.
In his earliest notes, he’d attributed her lack of verbal response to brain damage caused by her persistent febrile temperature—a fever hot enough that Ash should have been hospitalized. Cawthorne’s records didn’t indicate why she hadn’t been given emergency care; he only indicated that her fever didn’t respond to medications or external remedies. Finally, when it became apparent that neither weakness nor delirium accompanied the fever, Dr. Cawthorne had stopped trying to lower it.
Ash had clear memories from those days. She remembered nothing from before Nightingale House, and everything after. She could recall how she hadn’t spoken, but had automatically obeyed every instruction given to her: to get up in the morning, to shower, to dress, to eat breakfast, to sit and watch television, to eat dinner, and then to lie in bed until she was told to get up again. At the end of the first year, Cawthorne had noted in his spidery scrawl:
Mary-052007 will not respond to any name, but displays clear comprehension of verbal and written instructions when they are spoken directly to or placed in front of her. She performs both menial tasks and more complex operations, such as solving mathematical equations, tending the garden, or typing and sending an e-mail (dictated).
They’d instructed; she’d performed. When they asked to her to accomplish tasks that were impossible to carry out, such as urinating into a cup, they never tried to force her. The nurses simply noted “Mary’s” lack of response in her chart, and Dr. Cawthorne would write the name of another disorder in his notes, followed by another question mark.
The second year had passed in the same way. A few weeks into the third year, the doctor had been thumbing through the calendar on his desk and making his usual, halfhearted attempts to draw out a response—
How are you today? Pause. The rain has let up. You’ll be able to take your afternoon walk through the garden, though it will be too wet for planting. What sort of flowers should we add this year? Pause. Peonies would be lovely, wouldn’t they?
—when he’d cut his thumb on the edge of the calendar paper. Another pause had followed the peonies as he’d stuck his thumb into his mouth, and Ash had remembered that she’d once drunk her own blood, too. She’d remembered the blade carving symbols into her face, her torso and arms. She’d remembered the knife at her chest, and the dark figure pronouncing her name—but she’d only heard the first syllable before his terrible voice had torn everything apart.
Sitting in Dr. Cawthorne’s office, that memory had quickly faded—or she’d stifled it, just as she stifled the tremors that shook her body when she thought of that dark figure. Just enough of the memory remained, however, to remind her that she had to tell Cawthorne something.
“My name isn’t Mary,” she’d said.
Dr. Cawthorne’s hand dropped away from his mouth. He’d stared at her, his jaw agape. Whenever someone on the television wore that expression, a faceless crowd laughed on the soundtrack. No one in Cawthorne’s office laughed in the background. The only reaction that Ash could detect was the sudden shift of Cawthorne’s emotions: from frustration and resignation to surprise and excitement.
But through she could sense his exhilaration, he didn’t show it. Evenly, he’d asked, “What is your name, then?”
“Ash . . . something. I don’t know the rest.”
“No.” She was certain.
He’d nodded in that same slow, calm way, but to her ears, his heart pounded almost as loud as his voice. “Until we know, may we call you ‘Ash’?”
Smiling, he leaned back in his chair and studied her. “And you’re an American? Canadian?”
“I don’t know.”
“But your accent is . . .” He’d shaken his head. “No matter. You’re here now, and it’s wonderful to hear your voice after all this time. Is there something you’d like to tell me?”
“No.” She’d already told him that her name wasn’t Mary. That was all she’d had to say.
His excitement dimmed, followed by his relief when he’d continued talking and she’d continued answering him. But by the time he’d ended the session—an hour later than usual—unease threaded through his curiosity. He’d already been jotting notes when she rose from her chair to leave.
She’d stopped long enough to ask, “What does ‘complete lack of affect’ mean?”
His pencil lead snapped. He’d looked up from his notebook, his face carefully blank and his emotions an indistinguishable riot. “Why do you ask?”
“Because you’ve written it about me in your notes.”
It was one of the few phrases he’d scribbled that hadn’t been followed by a question mark. Another had been “source amnesia,” but he’d explained that while they’d been talking: It meant her procedural memory and factual knowledge remained, though she’d no recollection of how or when she’d learned them.
“Ah.” His gray eyebrows had lifted into an open expression. A friendly smile shaped his mouth. “A lack of affect simply means that someone doesn’t display a marked emotional reaction . . . or empathy for others.”
His conflicting feelings and facial expressions suggested that he assumed Ash would be disturbed by that explanation, and that he was trying to soften its delivery.
She wasn’t disturbed. She’d already known that she didn’t feel anything like the emotions she regularly sensed in other people. Nodding, she’d turned to go.
“Ash . . .” When she’d glanced back at Dr. Cawthorne, he wore a puzzled frown. “How did you know what I’d written? My notepad was angled away from you.”
“Yes. But it reflected in the glass.”
She’d pointed to the framed diplomas hanging on the wall behind him. He’d looked around; when he’d turned back to Ash, his smile had been bright. He’d said something about her cleverness, but she’d tasted his sour fear.
The reaction of the nurses and caregivers had echoed his: excitement followed by unease, and punctuated with spurts of fear. They began calling her Ash, but when they spoke together in other rooms and thought she couldn’t hear them, they referred to her as “the American,” as if trying to put distance between themselves and her. Ash paid closer attention to the actors on television after that, particularly the never-ending soap operas. Mimicking those accents upset the nurses more, however. Only after she’d overheard two of them discussing how unsettling they found her tendency to watch everyone without evincing any emotion, Ash had finally understood that her American origin had never been the issue. It was her lack of affect that disturbed them.
“Even psychopaths learn to fake it,” one of them had said.
But Ash didn’t care enough to fake her emotions, and by the time she’d decided to leave Nightingale House, the nurses didn’t even refer to her as “the American” anymore. She’d become “that one.”
That one, who’d caused an uproar of hilarity and shock when her clothes had vanished during a group therapy session—followed by greater shock and fear when, after Ash had noticed her nudity, jeans and a T-shirt that the nurses hadn’t seen before simply appeared on her body. That one, whose blond hair—which the nurses had kept short for easy care—had grown to the middle of her back during a walk through the garden one August afternoon. That one, who’d pulled a prank with glowing eyes, and terrified one of the nurses so badly that she’d quit her position the next day. That one, whom the nurses had found crouching atop the roof of Nightingale House one morning, and who’d given no believable explanation of how she’d climbed the turrets. That one, who’d dropped from the roof to the ground as easily as another person stepped out of her bed, despite their pleas for her to stop.
They’d shrieked when she’d jumped—but Ash hadn’t detected any relief from them when she’d landed on her feet, uninjured. There’d only been fear, followed by hot anger.
Another nurse had quit after that, screaming to her supervisor that she’d expected Nightingale House to treat only drug-addicted celebrities and depressed aristos, and that she’d left the government-run hospitals for a posh situation to avoid the psychos. Ash had decided to leave, too, albeit for a different reason. The answer to the one question that interested her—Who am I?—hadn’t been at Nightingale House. No answers were there—except for one, and she’d asked Dr. Cawthorne for that information during her final therapy session.
“A posh hospital must be expensive,” she’d said. “So who is paying for my treatment?”
He’d paled. In the months since she’d begun speaking, the wrinkles around Cawthorne’s eyes and mouth had become more pronounced. His skin had loosened as if he’d dropped weight. But although she’d frightened him at times, he’d never lost color in his face or broken out with a sheen of sweat, as he had then.
His gaze had skidded away from hers. “The money comes from a numbered account. The donor wishes to remain anonymous.”
“But you know who it is.”
His hands trembled. “Yes.”
“And she knows who I am.”
“Probably,” he’d answered, before looking at Ash with surprise. “How did you know it was a she?”
Because a woman had brought her to Nightingale House. Ash avoided the memory of her almost as fiercely as the memory of the dark figure, but she could recall the woman’s face, surrounded by dark hair—and the eyes containing a madness that went deeper than anyone else’s at that hospital. Yet despite her obvious insanity, the woman hadn’t remained here; she’d left Ash behind instead.
Dr. Cawthorne leaned forward, his urgency and panic rushing his words. “I cannot tell you, do you understand? It was part of the deal. If you woke up, I wasn’t to tell you anything. I wasn’t to tell anyone. But no one thought you would wake up. She said the weak halflings rarely did.”
“Halflings? What is that?” And was Ash one of them?
He only shook his head. “I made a bargain. So I can’t tell you, do you understand?”
Ash had understood, though she couldn’t remember how or why she did. She knew that bargains should be avoided, but if they had to be made, they should never be broken. At the very thought of it, ice seemed to form the length of her spine, similar to the cold fear she sensed from Cawthorne.
Similar to his, but so much stronger. A survival instinct.
With effort, she’d suppressed the tremors threatening to shake her body, her voice. “You can’t tell me who I am or anything about her,” Ash had said. “But what do you get out of this?”
“She knows that I once made an . . . error during the treatment of a patient. I keep you here in exchange for her silence.” He’d brought a handkerchief to his brow and mopped away the sweat. “And eventually, I’ll publish a series of papers about you. You’re a fascinating study, Ash.”
So he was saving his own ass, and using her for his professional advancement. Ash had watched enough television to know that the appropriate response to his confession was a sense of betrayal and outrage. She didn’t feel either emotion, but she had no intention of letting him continue to use her—and if he couldn’t give her answers, she’d find someone who would.
His relief had been palpable when she dropped the subject and they’d continued the session as usual. She’d waited until after he’d gone home for the evening before entering his office a final time, hoping to find a hint of information in that session’s notes. There hadn’t been anything useful, only a single, self-indulgent rumination that he probably intended to use for a journal article:
The name she’s chosen for herself is appropriate—as if the fires have left nothing human, only a faint ash.
He truly knew nothing, Ash had realized. She hadn’t chosen her own name. And whatever had happened between Before and After, Ash was certain she hadn’t burned.
The temperature had dropped below freezing by the time she emerged from the subway station at Sloane Square. Ash tilted her face down to let her hood take the brunt of the wind and shoved her hands into her jacket pockets. The cold couldn’t hurt her—a month of walking outside during London’s wintry nights without so much as a shiver had taught her that—but she didn’t like the feel of icy air against her skin.
Though Ash couldn’t recall taking this route before, she didn’t need to verify the directions during the six-minute walk to the St. Croix town house. A left turn into a garden square was taken without hesitation. Although the buildings in this exclusive neighborhood looked similar to one another, all constructed of red brick and accented by wrought iron, she found the correct home without consulting the house numbers.
So she’d been here before. Ash didn’t recognize the place, but she knew that beyond the red front door lay a marble-tiled foyer and a staircase leading to the upper floors. To the right lay the entertaining salon, which opened into the dining room. Farther down the hall, a library overlooked the small garden. Upstairs, the second level had been divided between two bedroom suites, one of which had been renovated into a modern office.
An American woman with a face identical to Ash’s had allegedly been murdered in that office.
After Ash had left Nightingale House, finding information had been easy. Access to that information had been her primary obstacle—but as soon as Ash had learned to memorize the numbers on the credit cards that people flashed so casually when they made their purchases, she used those numbers at Internet cafes. From there, it was a simple matter of searching for American women who’d disappeared in London. Her earliest parameters were too narrow—she’d set them to search for missing persons from three or four years ago—but when Ash had widened the search to ten years, she’d found Rachel Anne Boyle.
The blonde in Rachel’s photo didn’t have symbols tattooed down the side of her face, but their features had been the same. So Ash had looked deeper.
Six years ago, Rachel Boyle had worked as personal assistant to one of England’s most successful independent financiers, Madelyn St. Croix. Both Rachel and her employer had disappeared not long after Madelyn’s estranged son, Nicholas St. Croix, had returned from America and began a hostile takeover of Wells-Down Investments, Madelyn’s company.
According to reports, Rachel had quickly become Nicholas St. Croix’s lover. Probably for his wealth, Ash thought. Ash had few needs, but after a month on London’s streets, even she recognized the appeal of a ready source of money . . . and she could see little else in him that might be appealing. Though undeniably handsome, with short dark hair and magazine-perfect features, neither warmth nor humor was apparent in his pictures—and after the women had vanished, she couldn’t detect any emotion in those press photos, either.
Surely, when a man’s lover died in his arms, he’d feel something. Wouldn’t he?
Unless he’d lied.
The night they’d disappeared, Nicholas had told police that he and his mother had argued over business matters. During the fight, Madelyn had fired a gun at him—but Rachel Boyle had jumped into the bullet’s path, and the slug had ripped through her chest. Nicholas had claimed he’d been holding Rachel when she’d died, but the police hadn’t located her body or any blood at the site or on his clothing. Madelyn had vanished, too, and Nicholas became the primary suspect in their disappearances. But although the police were certain of foul play, they’d never been able to pin Rachel and Madelyn’s murders on him.
Ash didn’t know if Nicholas St. Croix had killed Rachel or if he’d told the truth about that night . . . but she knew that his mother had still been alive. Ash had recognized the woman from the photos in the news reports, and terror had scraped like ice in her chest.
Only three years ago, Madelyn St. Croix had left Ash in Dr. Cawthorne’s care.
Ash wasn’t Rachel Boyle; of that she was certain, just as she knew “Rachel” wasn’t her name. But a connection between Ash and the American woman clearly existed, and Ash hoped to find answers in the house where Rachel Boyle had worked and—perhaps—died.
She watched the darkened windows for movement, listened for any sounds from within. All was quiet. Though six years had passed since Madelyn’s disappearance, the property was still listed under her name. Most likely, she had an arrangement with a housekeeping service and an estate that handled such necessities in her absence. A security system probably protected the house, but if an alarm sounded, Ash would run before the police arrived.
And if Ash couldn’t find answers here, she’d seek out Nicholas St. Croix . . . and hope that looking for him before trying to find Madelyn wouldn’t be a horrible mistake. Perhaps Madelyn had a reason for what she’d done; perhaps she was hiding from her son, and she’d stowed Ash away at Nightingale House for her protection.
But although the man in Nicholas St. Croix’s picture appeared capable of fewer emotions than Ash, his image didn’t terrify her. So Ash hoped she wasn’t wrong.
And she hoped that he knew her.
The security system activated when Ash broke the lock on the front door. No alarm sounded, but Ash knew where to look for the security panel, positioned discreetly behind a framed oval mirror that opened like a medicine cabinet. Inside, the status light blinked red. Ash couldn’t have recited the numbers that she tapped into the pad; her fingers simply moved in a pattern, as if she were typing an oft-repeated word into a keyboard.
The status light changed to solid green.
Should she have been astonished that her code was correct? Ash pondered her lack of surprise. Inputting the number hadn’t seemed any different than walking the route here. Obviously, she’d done it many times before—and her procedural memory was still intact.
So she didn’t feel surprised, but she did wonder why the code hadn’t been changed in six years. After Madelyn St. Croix’s disappearance, why hadn’t the security company updated the entry codes?
Perhaps they’d been instructed not to. Perhaps they expected Madelyn to return—or perhaps someone else did. A dedicated employee?
Ash couldn’t guess, but obviously someone had cared for the house in the past six years. No dust collected on the carved mirror frame or in the corners of the foyer. The wainscoting and staircase banisters gleamed. The faint scent of cleaning wax lingered, but the air itself smelled stale, as if the house had been shut up for a while. No live-in caretaker, then—or the housekeeper had taken off for the holidays and left it empty.
Good. Ash wouldn’t have to be quiet when she searched the rooms.
She started in the parlor. The décor could have filled a checklist for expensive and tasteful. The requisite antique vase reigned over an ebony-inlaid table. A thick Oriental rug anchored a seating arrangement upholstered in cream silk. Two large, modern paintings featuring slashes of bold oranges and gold bookended the open entrance to the dining room.
Had Ash eaten at that table? She didn’t know. Nothing familiar stood out to her—and she saw nothing unexpected, either. Ash wanted to spark a memory, or at least a sense of déjà vu, but she only had the vague feeling that fewer fresh flowers decorated the sideboard than should be.
Flowers didn’t offer any answers. Perhaps the library would.
As she stepped into the hallway, a faint noise sounded from upstairs. Footsteps?
Ash paused with her head cocked, but didn’t hear anything more—nothing that she could pinpoint, at least. When she listened closely, noises from every home in the square sounded as clear as from within this house. Usually, she ignored background noise, and perhaps this was just that: a sound from another home that had leaked through her mental filters.
Perhaps. She’d listen more carefully, in any case.
She stepped into the library—and forgot about listening. Terror coated her stomach like ice, threatening to crack.
Madelyn’s portrait hung above the mantel. The artist had captured her beautiful, warm smile and the keen intelligence in her blue eyes. But those eyes had once been mad, and the smile a twisted grimace. She remembered Madelyn’s hands—not folded demurely, as in the painting, but holding Ash’s shoulders in an unbreakable, painful grip, shaking her, and Madelyn telling her—
Do everything they ask you to do. I’m not ready yet. I have to find the Gate, I have to prepare. So listen to them. But above all else, follow the Rules. Don’t kill them, don’t hurt them. Don’t prevent them from exercising their free will. If you do, you’re dead—and I’ll be in that frozen waste. So don’t break the Rules. Don’t!
—telling her how to stay safe.
Ash’s heart pounded. She closed her eyes, shutting out the image of the woman’s face.
This was a memory. Not from Before, which she couldn’t remember at all, but from almost three years ago, before Ash and Madelyn had arrived at Nightingale House . . . and after they’d left the dark figure behind. A memory ravaged by terror and buoyed by relief—and Ash recalled that she’d been so sorry.
Regretting the bargain already.
Ash shook her head. What bargain? What had she agreed to do? Though she tried to recall, that hole in her memory remained.
But she had felt regret. Ash remembered that clearly now. Regret and relief, which meant that terror wasn’t the only strong emotion to hold her in its grip after . . . whatever had happened to her. Why hadn’t she felt regret or relief since then?
A shiver raced over Ash’s skin when she looked at the painting again. Madelyn didn’t appear dangerous, yet Ash’s instincts screamed at her to run. Perhaps she hadn’t felt regret or relief after being admitted to Nightingale House because she’d had no reason to feel them—but Ash apparently had reason to fear this woman.
If only she could remember why.
A quick search of the library didn’t tell her. Ash returned to the foyer and took the stairs. The snap of her boot heels echoed on each wooden step. That seemed odd. Shouldn’t a stair runner muffle the sound? Perhaps one had, once. When she reached the second-floor landing, the door to Madelyn’s office already stood ajar, as if inviting her in.
Unlike the timeless elegance of the first-floor décor, the office told the story of its owner’s long absence. A heavy, outdated computer screen took up a fourth of the desktop. A fax transmission from the day of Madelyn’s disappearance still sat beside the keyboard, listing the current values of several oil company stocks.
Six years ago, Nicholas St. Croix had succeeded in taking over his mother’s company and tearing it down. But if Madelyn still owned those shares, she didn’t need to worry about cash when—if—she returned.
A second, smaller room lay beyond a connecting door—Rachel Boyle’s office. Unlike Madelyn’s office, all of the tables and cabinet surfaces had been cleared of papers. Ash opened the drawers and looked through the shelves, hoping to find a personal item of Rachel’s. Anything. A single object to touch, to hold—and to see if it felt familiar.
She finished the search and came up empty. Nothing of Rachel remained here, and Rachel’s own apartment had been let to someone else shortly after her disappearance. She’d been survived by her parents in America; her belongings had probably been shipped to their home. Which meant Ash had nowhere left to look for answers—at least not in London.
So her next step would be finding Nicholas St. Croix.
Was it odd that no evidence of Madelyn’s son existed in this house? Ash thought it must be. No pictures of Nicholas as a boy graced the tables; no family photos depicted happier times. Did Madelyn order them removed from her sight—out of spite or pain—or had they simply never been a part of the décor?
Curious, Ash followed the hallway to the master bedroom. Maybe Madelyn hadn’t expunged Nicholas’s presence from her house; perhaps she’d simply kept the evidence somewhere more private.
Or perhaps not. Ash opened the door to another expensively appointed room devoid of any personality other than “tasteful.” Aside from Madelyn’s painting in the library, the entire house could have been anyone’s home—except that anyone else would have left more of an impression on their surroundings.
Unless, of course, this house did reflect Madelyn’s personality: sophisticated, disinterested . . . perfect.
But not everything was perfect. Something seemed wrong. Ash studied the room, trying to determine what didn’t fit—and for the first time, not searching for something familiar, but just looking. Her gaze landed on the bed. The blankets stretched unevenly over the mattress. A pillow lay askew and dented at its center.
Someone had been sleeping in that bed. How long ago? A housekeeper wouldn’t have left it like that. Breathing in through her nose, Ash detected a recent scent that she’d begun to associate with male—and a connection suddenly lurked at the back of her mind, that half-seen lightning, that forgotten word.
Like Cinderella, a memory—another story. Who’s been sleeping in my bed?
Ash knew the answer to this one: Goldilocks, who’d broken into the bears’ house. Although Ash had broken into this home, that wasn’t the connection that teased her. She didn’t sleep in anyone’s bed, not even her own.
Every night, she’d lain motionless beneath her blankets when the nurses had ordered her to, but she hadn’t actually slept in almost three years.
So what was her mind trying to tease out of this memory? Ash moved closer to the bed, attempting to follow the tenuous association formed between now and Before. She didn’t care about the man who’d been sleeping here. He wasn’t in this room now, but a connection to her past was . . . somewhere.
What was the rest of that story? Who’s been eating my porridge? That wasn’t her, either. Though she’d eaten whenever they placed a meal in front of her, Ash hadn’t been hungry. Since her escape from Nightingale House, four weeks had gone by without food passing her lips.
Perhaps her mind wasn’t trying to remember an association with the story itself; perhaps the connection lay in the circumstances in which she’d heard it. But she couldn’t remember that. She couldn’t remember who’d told the story to her—or even whether she’d read it, instead. She couldn’t remember where she’d been, or when. She tried to, but came head up on the memory she didn’t want, a memory of a memory, her first memory and it was of regret and terror—
burning cold, her body gone, she’d heard screaming and she’d been screaming but she didn’t have to return to the cold, that endless frozen agony, because she’d made a bargain and the dark figure said her name, Ash— and the rest of her ripped apart, was gone, gone
Her stomach heaved. Doubling over, Ash braced her hands against the edge of the bed. She sucked in air that her lungs didn’t need, but the motion of her chest felt familiar. It felt right.
But why didn’t she need air?
Someone had to know. Someone had to know who she was. What she was.
The man’s voice came from behind her, full of shock and disbelief. Ash whipped around. Nicholas St. Croix stood at the doorway, holding a crossbow aimed at her heart.
Instinctively, Ash raised her hands to show him that she was unarmed. She didn’t know if Nicholas had killed Rachel, but she wouldn’t give him a reason to fire now. She doubted he would, anyway. Instead of aggression, she sensed faint hope in him, combined with ragged uncertainty.
He couldn’t see her clearly in the dark, Ash realized, whereas she could see him perfectly. Shirtless, he wore only a pair of black trousers that hung low on his hips—zipped, but not buttoned. He must have yanked them on when she’d broken in. Had she woken him, or had he simply been lying in the bed?
Lying in wait.
As soon as Ash thought it, she couldn’t shake that impression. Nicholas St. Croix’s photos suggested he was a dangerous man, hard and emotionless—but the most recent picture had been taken more than three years ago. Instead of cold elegance, he appeared pared down and roughened. His dark hair had been cut brutally short. A few days’ worth of scruff shadowed his jaw, and his body . . .
Ash’s gaze fell to his chest. In the photos, he’d obviously been well acquainted with a gym. But the taut, wiry muscles on display hadn’t come from a single hour’s workout followed by a rich man’s meal. His body reflected an obsession of some kind, one that ate away at him no matter how much he fed it—and Ash didn’t think that obsession had anything to do with his looks.
Perhaps that obsession explained why he’d lain in wait at his mother’s house with a crossbow.
Ash didn’t lower her hands. “I’m not her. But if you look at me, can you tell me who I am?”
His aim didn’t waver as he flipped a switch on the wall. Light flooded the room. Ash blinked rapidly, adjusting to the glare. His eyes narrowed. Their icy blue focus shifted to the symbols tattooed over the left side of her face.
The warm hope she’d sensed in him burst into a hot, swelling pressure. But even as she recognized the change, he began hiding it from her, somehow. The pressure didn’t vanish, yet he closed his emotions away, as if shutting them behind a door.
Strange. No one had done that before. Everyone she’d met in London kept their emotions wide open, and had no clue Ash could sense them.
“You’re Rachel Boyle,” he said flatly.
“No.” Disappointment touched her, swift and light, but it couldn’t gain any traction and slid away. “I look like her, but that’s not my name.”
Now his voice softened, and though he lowered his crossbow, Ash’s wariness sharpened. He approached her on silent feet, and his movements reminded her of the predators she’d seen—not the agile cheetah or the majestic, powerful lion. Not any animal driven by hunger or a need to protect its territory, but the human variety driven by deadly intent. She’d seen many of them prowling the dark London streets, had sensed the malevolence they’d felt toward others. Often, they hid it behind bland pleasantries and smiles, but she’d recognized what they were.
Ash couldn’t sense anything from Nicholas, but she recognized the same malevolence. A quick step back—not fear, but survival instinct—brought her up against the bed. Trapped. Escape would be easy, but now that she’d touched the bed, her mind began its desperate search again, reaching for the connection—
Someone’s been sleeping in my bed.
Had her memory been searching for him? Obviously, he’d been lying there—but on some level, had she known exactly who had been in that bed before he’d appeared with his crossbow? Had she been reminded of something from Before—something about Nicholas St. Croix?
If she had a connection to him, then he must know her. Not Rachel, but Ash. That realization kept her in place, despite the urge to flee.
Nicholas stalked close, halting less than an arm’s length away. He stood several inches taller than Ash; she had to tilt her face up to watch his eyes. Slowly, he examined her every feature. Did she look any different from Rachel? Ash waited, listening to the steady beat of his heart. Her own heart hammered, constructing unfamiliar emotions in her chest. Hope, trepidation? She couldn’t distinguish them amid the racket of her pulse. Ash wished she knew what he felt, but his expression gave nothing away.
She had to try again. “Who am I?”
“Who else could you be but Rachel?” With a sudden, thin smile, he tugged a pale lock of hair forward over her shoulder, rubbing the long strands between his fingers as if considering their texture. “Who else but the woman I love?”
Love? No, that wasn’t what she’d tasted in that swelling burst of emotion before he’d closed himself away from her. Disappointment, grief, and rage—she’d sensed all of those. But not love.
His head lowered, his gaze holding hers on the way down. Would he kiss her? Curious, Ash let him. Firm and cool, his lips settled against hers.
Emotion burst from him, blasting through the door he’d shut—a feeling that wasn’t hot but bitter withering cold, and Ash recognized the hate behind it before he hid that from her, too. She should have moved then. The hate felt like a warning, and she disliked the cold, but when he opened his lips over hers, his taste was fascinating—mint, because he’d readied for bed, and there was something else that was familiar, so familiar here. She knew the touch of his mouth, the heat that slipped through her like a warm drink when his tongue sought hers. So she remained still, searching for the connection sparked by the kiss and lurking in her ruined memory.
She didn’t find it before Nicholas lifted his head. Ash wanted to follow him up to prolong the contact, but she remembered—don’t break the Rules, respect their free will—and waited, panting, not needing the oxygen but relishing the sweep of air over her lips, wet from his kiss.
She’d felt all of this before. She’d felt—
A cold prod against her throat. Ash’s eyes widened—this was surprise!—and she heard a click. Pain stabbed her neck. White-hot, it yanked her muscles taut and raced up behind her eyes.
Then, for the first time in three years, darkness fell over her mind, and she felt absolutely nothing at all.
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