Bound to the Infinite by Caroline Hanson

In my dreams I’m consumed by lava. This is how it starts: there I am sitting on a beach, a soft breeze blowing across my golden skin, my hair loose, the sand hot against my toes, the water so blue it makes me ache…It’s really perfect is what I’m getting at. I’m 
Bound to the Infinite
Bound to the Infinite by Caroline Hanson

minding my own damned business when I see something odd on the horizon. It’s bright, shiny, red with shades of brilliant burnt orange. It glows and glistens, and all I can think is that it’s beautiful. It’s the lava, of course, so hot and deadly that it leaves nothing behind, not even ash. And there I am thinking it’s pretty.

I’m a moron in this dream.

Unfortunately, it’s quite apt for my life and sums me up quite neatly. You could put it on my tombstone. Rebecca Finner: Hypnotized by that which will kill her.

And then I see the smoke, just a curl, and a dense, dark shadow that spirals up from the sluggishly moving mass, a little inkling of what’s to come. Then it expands, this darkness, this all-consuming blackness, like a tumor that devours until it consumes every bit of healthy tissue, growing and growing until it blocks out the sun, casts everything around me in shadow.

I don’t feel the heat of the sun any more, that’s all gone, but I’m not cold exactly because I’m too busy watching—maybe even waiting—as this pouring river of lava moves closer.

“Is there sound?” the psychiatrist asks, snapping me out of my memory. Not memory, I remind myself, just a dream.

I blink. I always get caught up in it, as if I’m almost there. And now he’s talking to me, and I feel like a moron in real life too. Which is a bummer. I don’t like feeling stupid. I already can’t remember anything because of the amnesia, so the last thing I need is to be an idiot on top of that.

I swallow and think back, trying to remember if there is sound in this dream. But the more I try to grab on to that memory, the more elusive it becomes. Like trying to get eggshells out of raw egg. They’re slippery little bastards.

“I’ve never noticed any sound,” I say and feel myself shrugging apologetically. I’ve had the dream almost every night for as long as I can remember. How come I don’t know if there is sound?

I laugh. The therapist appears concerned. “What’s funny, Miss Finner?”

“I was just thinking how silly it is that I don’t know if there is sound when I’ve had the dream every night for as long as I can remember. Even if that is only two months ago.”

My first memory is waking up in a hospital. And then I watched a lot of TV. For two weeks it was all I did. There was a strangeness to it. Seeing all of these things for the first time. Cars, electricity, dishwashers, phones. You get the idea. These people on television used them as though they were normal, and I found myself watching it in fascination and horror. How could I have forgotten all of this? Simple things like working a remote control?

Dr. Brown gives me a smile. I think it’s supposed to be kind, but it seems perfunctory. He can check it off his list now: smiled to put the patient at ease. I’m not at fucking ease. But we’re both puppets in this. I come to his office every few days, we talk about nothing, and all the while there is someone standing behind a one-way mirror. I can’t see who’s watching me. And I really don’t know why anyone would want to. I’m just a nameless girl who is probably in her early twenties and has no family. At least none that can be found. And I go to a shrink.

Brown’s an average guy. Average age, average brown hair, average brown clothes, maybe even browning teeth. His fingers press the tip of his pencil down hard into the yellow pad of paper. That’s a tell. A poker term that means he gives information away by making that gesture. He does it every time he’s heard something he doesn’t like. I repress a smile, feeling proud of myself for figuring that out.

Poker is another thing I’ve learned from television. It’s very important to pay attention to people. Not just what they say, but how they look when they say it; where their hands are, their eyes, if their posture is open or closed. People lie with words. And if I miss that, if I’ve read a situation wrong, it could kill me. My hands are shaking. Why do I think that? Because surely that’s a little extreme.

“And then what?” he says, and he reaches up, touching the earpiece he has in. A psychiatrist with an earpiece, a patient with a microphone, a wall made of glass, and it’s all so ridiculous that I could scream and scream and never stop. I do know that none of this is normal. I know because I’ve seen shrinks on TV, and this is more like a good cop investigating a crime I may have committed rather than a therapeutic experience.

Whoever is on the other end of that earpiece, the person speaking, has said something the doctor doesn’t like. Brown’s brown eyebrows rise a little. He even makes a sound of negation, looks toward the large mirror in the office and gives a small shake of his head.

Even I’m intrigued now. Brown doesn’t usually put up much of a fuss. In fact, he seems quite bored by our appointments. He asks me the same questions every time, fills out his forms, and then asks a few others that seem a bit random. And then there are the questions that the watcher asks. Watcher or watchers? How many people are behind the mirror? How many people are interested in the mundane details of my life? Yesterday was a pasta day, and I broke down and ate a Kit Kat too. King-size.

“What’s he want to know?” I ask, unable to help myself, and now the doctor looks flustered. He doesn’t like it when I acknowledge the person on the other side of the glass. Probably because it undermines his authority. Lets everyone know he’s not the top banana.

Top banana. I like that expression. When I’m not here or watching TV or going to school, I read. Terrible stories of villains and monsters. I read about vampires. In fact, that’s all I read. I discovered them in a bookstore. I think one of the authors uses that phrase. Top banana. Brown doesn’t know about the books I read. Too lurid. I would feel a bit ridiculous explaining that a vampire bite is just another form of penetration.

Ahem.

Brown says, “Let me remind you that the person or persons behind the glass may not be male.” He sounds annoyed. I don’t really know that the person on the other side of the mirror is a man, but in my mind it is. Plus it annoys Dr. Brown, and since I don’t really want to be here talking about my dreams and the blank spots in my head, I try to annoy him whenever the opportunity presents itself.

“You say ‘he’ sometimes,” I say oh, so casually.

A flash of a glance to the mirror and all I can think is, Gotcha!

“As I’ve told you before, it’s easiest to refer to your benefactor as a generic ‘he.’”

“Like God?”

He purses his lips.

“Because God could be a woman, but everyone says he, so we assume it’s a he. What’s God want to know?” Isn’t he my gGod, the man behind the mirror? He pays for me, after all.

Brown clears his throat and presses the pencil into the paper so hard that I see his fingertips turn stark white.

Like a vampire.

“Your benefactor wants to know why you’ve not mentioned this before. You’ve been coming here for weeks, you say you have it every night, and yet this is the first we are hearing of it. There is…skepticism, which is, in my medical opinion, counterproductive,” he says, his tone superior. It’s one thing the doctor and I share—an annoyance at being bossed around by whoever is behind the glass.

I turn my head to the window, away from Brown and the watcher. Beyond the glass is an endless view of buildings and life. What are all those people doing behind those windows? Do they wish they were somewhere else? My gaze drifts to the sky. It could be bluer. It’s slate grey, like it’s going to start pissing buckets of rain.

The back of my neck prickles, and I have the sensation that someone is staring at the back of my head very hard, almost willing me to turn around and look at the mirror. To answer the question. I suppose my looking out the window is my own tell. I do it when I’m annoyed, feeling vulnerable, or when all I want to do is start screaming about how unfair it is that I have no history, no memory, no family, just this appointment like clockwork.

Sometimes they ask me to look at the mirror, and I really don’t like that. Especially because it’s not a request from Brown, but from my benefactor, my watcher. He wants to see me.

I take a deep breath, watching a pigeon strut by the window, looking pleased with himself because he’s two hundred feet up in the air and unafraid. Do I envy a pigeon? A heavy sigh oozes out of me. I do. I do envy a pigeon.

“Miss Finner?” Brown asks, and I realize I’ve done it again, disappeared into my thoughts longer than I should have. Sometimes I think that my head is so empty that my thoughts get lost in there, and that’s why I space out. Because my mind is like an empty warehouse when there should be densely packed boxes of memories.

“Can I have some water?” A stall for time.

He points to the cup beside me with his pencil.

“It’s empty,” I say, not looking at it. Out of the corner of my eye I can see it’s half-full. Whoops.

“I’ll get it while you answer,” he says and stands, heading to the back of the room.

“What’s the question?” I ask, all faux-innocence.

His silence manages to convey how irksome I am. I don’t know how, but it does.

“Why have you not mentioned this dream before now?”

And suddenly I’m tired. Too tired for this bullshit. “The dream scares me,” I confess, feeling blood heat my cheeks. I don’t like confessing fear. It’s weak. It can be dangerous. My fingers dig in to the soft leather of the chair.

He brings me some water, and I take it, drinking a small sip before putting it next to the other cup. He is staring at the other cup, half-filled, and he rolls his eyes before he goes back to his seat. “Let it be noted that Miss Finner’s water cup was not empty when she asked for another one. These diversionary tactics help no one.”

The doctor settles himself back in his chair. He opens his mouth, closes it again and then flashes a look to the mirror. He clears his throat and makes eye contact with me. “I apologize, Miss Finner,” he says and it’s obviously not by choice. Whoever is behind the glass made him say it. They don’t like it when he’s rude to me.

I make my expression bland. “What are you apologizing for, Dr. Brown?”

A glare.

More blank face from me.

“You’re perfectly entitled to fresh water when you want it,” he says begrudgingly. His pencil slaps the pad of paper in a staccato rhythm. “As you were saying, Miss Finner.”

“I wasn’t saying anything. I said it already. The dream scares me, so I didn’t want to talk about it.” I lean back in the chair, aware that I’ve just crossed my arms over my chest. This is what they call a defensive posture. The doctor makes a little note of it, and I’m tempted to give him another gesture. A minimalist, one-fingered gesture.

“It’s quite all right to be scared of our dreams. They can be very powerful and give insight into our most private fears and desires.” He nods, clearly pleased at this doctor-like explanation. In that moment I hate him. It doesn’t last for long though. Hating someone is a lot of work and he isn’t worth it. “All right. So you are at a lake, on the beach, and there is lava in the distance.”

“I didn’t say lake. It’s the ocean. I’m on an island,” I say, correcting him. I like to point it out when he gets it wrong as I think it undermines him to whoever is watching. Wait, did I say island? I let that roll around in my vacant mind. It sounds right. An island. I take a steadying breath and try to sound casual. “The lava reaches me and it’s suddenly around me, like, everywhere, and I know I couldn’t escape it if I tried,” My voice trails off. “Do you know how they cook a frog?”

“Who?” he asks quietly, hoping I remember something or disturbed by the non sequitur, I don’t know which.

“People. French people, I guess.” Because I don’t think anyone else is cooking frogs. “They have to put the frog in cold water because if it’s too hot, she’ll jump out. So they start out with cool water, and it warms up slowly, and the frog doesn’t try to save herself. She cooks to death.”

He frowns. “The frog is a she?”

I meet his gaze, the instant anger making me want to snarl. “Frogs are male and female. It doesn’t mean anything that I describe her as female.”

His eyes nearly twinkle as he leans forward. That damned pencil of his is pointing at me, and I want to grab it, break it in half and kill him with it. Deep breath. Of course I don’t want to kill him. “That’s not quite true, Miss Finner. In our sessions I’ve noticed that your pronoun choices are not random. For example, people in authority are generally ‘he’; victims are generally female. Like the frog.”

“The frog is a victim?” I shouldn’t argue. I never win.

“Don’t you think the frog is a victim?” His tone is soothing, smug. He thinks he knows me now, that he’s revealed something profound.

I hate him.

“I think the frog is food.” But I’m beginning to sweat, my palms damp, my heart picking up speed.

“And you don’t eat meat,” he says, pouncing.

“So?”

“You told me you don’t eat it because the cow is a victim and she doesn’t deserve it. And now we have a female frog.”

“Females, victims, food. You’re reaching, Doctor,” I say, letting him hear how much I despise him. I swallow because my voice is trembling. “It’s an imaginary fucking frog!” and I do snarl at him. “And the hour is over.” And I’m up. I rip off the microphone that’s attached to my sweater, pull off the armband that keeps track of my heart rate, and then I’m out of there before he can say another word.

I don’t take the elevator but the stairs, all five flights of them, the sound of my shoes echoing loudly as I try to escape. I know how to walk quietly. Like oddly quietly, as if, in my previous life, I made sure to never draw attention to myself, and so I always hear it when I’m clumping around loudly like now.

I’m panting as I get to the bottom of the stairwell. I’m still weak from the accident, and I get tired easily, but I’m getting better, faster, stronger, and soon I won’t be panting from the stairs. The receptionist is on her feet, apparently waiting for me because she looks anxious.

“Miss Finner, the doctor called down. You left your drugs upstairs. He wants you to go back up for them.”

Defeat. My shoulders slump and I’m staring at the marble floor. I manage a thank you even though I’m on the verge of tears. He’s won. I have to go back up there and get my pills. I can’t even storm off and make a dramatic exit. I trudge to the bank of elevators, pushing the up button. Five flights up is beyond me.

I wait and my chest feels heavy, weighted, the urge to cry sneaking up on me—not unlike the lava, I think morbidly—and I try to push it back. I don’t want Brown to see me flustered. I can fall apart later at home if I have to, but I won’t do it in front of people who see me as nothing more than a project. An experiment. A frog in a nice warm pot of water?

Was he on to something there? Something even I didn’t realize? That I think of victims as women and men as the abusers? That somehow I’ve reached this opinion and I don’t know why or how or if it has anything to do with my previous life that I may never remember?

And this might be stating the obvious here, but I am female. So doesn’t it stand to reason that I am the original victim who shaped this worldview?

The elevator doors open, and I take a step forward, my eyes glazed with a sheen of tears, my mind a riot. I have to get my drugs. The pills I take in the morning and at night. Won’t I feel better then?

Suddenly I crash into a wall of black. I feel the fabric against my face, soft cashmere, and instantly know it for what it is. Luxurious and expensive. A man’s large hands close around my arms gently and push me back from him. He actually lifts me off the ground and sets me back. At least I think he does. It happens fast. He smells like heaven, like a being who doesn’t belong on earth. Somehow crisp and woodsy, somehow like the sea and the grass, or cologne and darkness, maybe even like sex and death. It fills me and I want to drown myself in that scent, and at the same time, it makes me sick.

My head snaps up and I’m looking into a god’s face. Not the Christian God or a monotheistic god, but an ancient one. One of those gods that seduced virgins and were capricious. One that was prayed to even as the peasants realized that it was just as likely their god would smite them as save them.

His hair is dark brown, matching his eyes and heavy lashes. His lips are pressed into a forbidding flat line, and if he has a flaw at all, it’s his nose, which might be a touch long. He’s tall, my head pressed back into my neck as I stare into his fathomless eyes. He doesn’t speak but stands there, all aristocratic hauteur, his hands still on my arms, the heat of his fingers searing me.

Is this how the rabbit feels when it sees the animal that’s going to eat it? In awe and afraid at once? Stunned by the animal’s magnificence even as it fervently wishes it’d never been noticed at all?

I don’t have anything to say to him.

Still he doesn’t let me go. His eyes travel my face. Carefully, slowly. He watches the tear that I can feel sliding down my cheek. And then his fingers lift away from me, one at a time, oddly slowly, and if I could speak, I would ask him if it was hard to let me go.

I shudder as though I have chills. Stupid, stupid girl. He’s still staring at me, neither of us speaking.

Then the moment is broken. A smile flashes across his beautiful face, and he takes a step back, his head inclining toward the elevator—an invitation to enter. His arms are still up, palms open as if he wants me to know just how non-threatening he is.

It’s the same gesture a thief makes when the cops get him—surrender—which is crap. Or maybe it’s a careful gesture because he’s one moment away from grabbing me back…and so he’s staying very still, very careful. Total restraint. A flutter of awareness twists through me.

“I won’t go in there with you,” I say, shocked I’ve said anything. I wipe the tear from my face and then the other side, finding it wet too.

“I’m not going in the elevator,” he says slowly. His voice is deep, dark, accented, and it makes me want to cry. I haul in a breath, wet and filled with my voice, a small choked sound, and I don’t know why I’m suddenly losing myself, but I am. I need my pills because I am absolutely losing my shit in front of this stranger.

“I’m leaving,” he says quietly, and he takes a step to move past me, taking himself away since I’m frozen in place. I yelp as he moves toward me, stumbling backwards, my back banging into the elevator doors. Instantly he has me again in his grip. How did he move so fast?

“I need my drugs,” I say. Instantly regretting it.

He releases me and I’m in the elevator. He turns his back on me and leaves me there, gawking. He’s over six feet tall, his coat long, black and custom-made. He doesn’t have a briefcase or anything like that. Where is he going at two in the afternoon? A meeting? To meet a lover?

The doors start to close, and I punch the open button and stand there like a fool watching him as he exits the glass doors and emerges onto the New York street. He pauses and I think he’s going to turn, to look back at me, as if he can feel me still there watching him, but he doesn’t, and then he’s gone.

I wish I’d never seen him. Which is, admittedly, a slightly peculiar thought. Who is he? Where is he going? Those would be more appropriate. It’s not every day one sees manly perfection. I want to follow him. With every beat of my heart, I think I should follow him.

The doors close, decision made for me. He’s gone, and in a city this big, I’ll probably never see him again.

A relief, really.

Fifth floor. To get my pills and then I can go home. Or at least I’ll go to the apartment where I live, because if I ever had a home, I sure as hell don’t remember it.





2





My neighbor is named Jessica. She’s a twenty-five-year-old starving actress. (The starving part is intentional.) She always says that she waitresses on the side and that acting (plus the inevitable auditioning) is her living. But from what I can tell, waitressing is her living, she goes to lots of auditions, and occasionally she acts. I feel bitchy just thinking it because she’s the only friend I really have.

We’re both relatively new to the big city, we live across the hall from each other, and we both like to commiserate over wine and chocolate and cheese. She’s more into the wine, and I’m more into the chocolate and cheese. Sometimes I think she likes me just because there is no danger I’ll down more than my ration.

And I suppose I’m a novelty. The girl with no memory. It’s a talking point. Unfortunately.

As I stand outside my door, fumbling for my keys in my purse, she jabs her head out of her apartment and calls my name in a squawk. This is not the only avian similarity. She could be described as flighty. And she has the delicate bone structure of a bird. She also eats like a bird…although she drinks like a fish, so I don’t know where that leaves it. “I was beginning to think you’d gone shopping without me,” she says, her overly plump lower lip in a pout.

I’m still rattled from the therapist’s appointment. “I don’t understand how I can’t find my keys. I know they’re in here.” I begin to mutter obscenities.

“Your purse is too large. You need something smaller.”

Oy. “I can’t. I have too much junk.”

She peers inside my purse, makes a murmur of agreement. “And how old is that apple?” she asks accusingly and fishes it out with two fingers.

“Hey. I might eat that.”

She snorts. “Carrying it in your purse doesn’t make you virtuous. You can’t claim the fiber by osmosis. You have to eat the fruit.”

I give her big, surprised eyes. “Are you serious? Oh my god. I’ve been doing it wrong all along!” I rummage some more. “Here, hold this,” I say and hand her a blue scarf.

She sighs. I find my keys and jingle them at her triumphantly. “Ta da!”

“You could have been mugged and raped in the amount of time it took you to find those keys.”

“There’s round-the-clock armed security on the ground floor. I think I’m safe.” I open my door, and she follows me in, throwing my scarf on the couch along with the beaten-up apple. I consider putting it back in my purse, but it is getting a bit wrinkly. I’ve experienced the horror of rotting fruit in a bag. There’s smell and squish…It’s not good.

One would think I’d learn, but I don’t. It’s like a compulsion: put fruit in handbag and think about eating it. And the most important part— absolutely critical to the whole sick process—don’t actually eat the fruit. Ever.

I do think about eating it all the time, though.

I set the white bag filled with pill bottles on the granite countertop and feel the same zap of pleasure that I always feel when I walk into my apartment. It’s beautiful. I think it’s literally a few pages of a Pottery Barn catalogue come to life. It costs a fortune. I don’t know how much because I don’t pay for it, the foundation does, but with its location, amenities and bizarrely extreme security, it’s more in a month than I may ever make in a year. And that’s assuming I ever finish school and get a job.

“I see you’ve got your pills,” she says, voice light.

“I do. I almost forgot them actually.” I pull out the half-drunk bottle of pinot grigio from yesterday and some soda water. I like a white wine spritzer although Jessica clearly disapproves. Diluting the wine defeats the purpose, apparently. But she tries to keep quiet about it because it means there is more for her.

Mentioning my almost-forgotten pills reminds me of my encounter with tall, dark, and frightening. Not that I’d really stopped thinking about him since it happened. Who was he? The building is a skyscraper, and he could work on any floor for all sorts of important companies…or he could have been there for a meeting. I’ll never see him again. Screw the soda water, I’m going for straight wine.

I’m glad I’ll never see him again. I shiver just remembering the feel of him so close, his smell, his voice. And the feeling isn’t nice, either. It’s fear. I jerk my head toward the thermostat. “It’s cold in here. Can you turn on the heater while I pour?”

“Oh my god, it’s not cold at all. I swear you must be from Hawaii or Fiji or something. I’ve never seen anyone so cold all the time.”

“Yeah, because I really look exotic,” I say, and I know she’s looking me over, like I might have a clue stamped on me and she’s just somehow missed it. I’m pretty average, even if I do say so myself. Dark brown hair, muddy brown eyes, decent lips, not too plump or too thin, need a sports bra if I’m going to run (although I do try to avoid that at all costs). Average height. If there is anything about me that anyone might comment on, it would probably be just how nondescript I am. I can blend and be ignored with the best of them. It’s a skill. Kind of. If this were the 1800s and I were going to a ball, I would be a wallflower.

Jessica takes a gulp of wine and launches into a recitation of the day’s failed audition. At least she assumes it’s failed. She’s becoming a bit disenchanted by the whole New York experience.

I know how she feels. I’m barely paying attention, just nodding and agreeing until it’s time to open a new bottle. My mind is on him. Why was I so scared of him?

“I met someone today and I felt like I knew him,” I blurt out, interrupting her story of some famous actor who was a shitty tipper.

Her eyes widen. “Go on,” she says, all melodramatic.

I feel myself flush. “Well, I’m sure I didn’t know him.”

“How can you be sure?” she asks, voice sharp. “I thought you didn’t remember anything before the accident?”

“Because he was…beautiful and…worldly.” My hand is fluttering in an inane way as I try to describe him. My descriptive abilities are inadequate. Like a child writing an essay in crayon. I set my hand down flat on the marble, the coolness nice against my suddenly hot palm. I turn my hand over, looking at my wrist, at the pulse that beats there and the faintest white lines that cross my skin.

Little scars, ranging in size from one to two inches all along my forearms. They say I was a cutter. When times got rough, I’d slice myself open apparently. Maybe it’s better I don’t remember my past. I clear my throat, get back to the man in the elevator. “Plus, he clearly didn’t know me.” I want to smack myself of the forehead. I should have said that last part first and left out the beauty part.

Beautiful. Who calls a man beautiful anyway? “I was leaving my appointment and I ran into him at the elevator. Like, literally ran into him. It was actually quite mortifying.”

“Do you think he could be one of your pimps?” I frown at her, because I hate it when she says I have a pimp. Mainly because it implies I’m a prostitute. Well, it means I would be a prostitute. No implication about it. And I ain’t.

Obviously.

When she initially coined the term, we were quite tipsy and it seemed funny. But it really isn’t. It’s weird to have some unknown benefactor paying for my apartment, my schooling and meals. I even have a few credit cards and a bank account with a very large balance.

And then there is the therapy. Can’t forget about that. I cost the foundation a bundle. I’ve been told I’m a charity case. Part of a philanthropic mission to help people.

“He doesn’t watch me,” I say, trying to imagine this god of a man watching me through a mirror and asking questions about me to Dr. Brown through an earpiece.

Impossible. Comically improbable even.

“He was coming down when I was in the lobby already.” Not that it’s conclusive. I suppose he could have left right after me and come down in the elevator…maybe…nah. It just didn’t make any sense. There was no way in the world a man like that would have any interest in a girl like me. And he certainly wouldn’t watch me every week while I give boring accounts of my time and answer lots of questions with I don’t remember. Hell, even I know how boring I am!

“Well, I think you shouldn’t rule it out. Far better to think it’s some hot guy watching you rather than the reality.”

“What’s the reality?” I ask, a wave of loneliness washing over me.

“It’s probably the Smoking Man from the X Files.”

Jessica loves TV, and I rack my brain trying to come up with the reference. She spends a lot of time trying to educate me about the last twenty years of music, movies and TV. I guess it’s like a hobby for her or something. I draw a blank for the Smoking Man though. Although I’m willing to hazard a guess she’s talking about a man. Who smokes. “Let’s hope not!” I say, because it seems like a safe response.

She laughs so I think I’m in the clear. I laugh too, because that’s the right response. I try to draw as little attention to my differences and lack of cultural knowledge as possible, and I’m not in the mood for a TV marathon tonight. In fact, I don’t want to think about my life or absolute lack thereof at all. “So how much was the tip?” I ask, and take the opportunity to open my bag of pills and take a few, letting the attention shift back to her, just where we both like it.





3





The next few days pass quickly. Or at least it feels like I’ve only just left this chair in Dr. Brown’s office all too recently. Somehow I imagine that I can smell, ever so faintly, just a trace of the man from the elevator. As if he’s been in this room and I’m so attuned to him that I’d recognize him anywhere. I feel a tremble starting deep inside of me, like a freight train rattling over my bones. How can I be afraid of a man? How can I react like this just from the thought of him?

“So, Rebecca, how was your week?” Dr. Brown asks. He’s got a mug of steaming herbal tea in his hand. On the table next to him is a small box, so small it could fit into the palm of my hand. It’s a slightly dingy white, maybe made of ivory or even bone. It’s certainly old and so out of place in this sterile chrome and glass office that my eyes keep going back to it. I suspect he’s watching me look at it, registering my interest. I’m tempted to ask about it, but I think he wants me to so I won’t.

It’s a petty game we play.

I smile at him, even show him some teeth and try to crinkle my eyes and make it look sincere. “I had a fine week, Dr. Brown.”

“How are your classes?” he asks.

“Good.”

A beat passes, the hamster in his head running frantically on the wheel as he tries to think of how to phrase whatever he’s going to say. “I hate to remind you, Rebecca, but these sessions are very important to your benefactors. It’s their opportunity to check on you, and I would encourage you to make your answers as full as possible.”

He doesn’t hate to remind me. Anger boils inside of me, and I imagine myself screaming at him, throwing myself forward and slapping him across the face in rage. It startles me, the anger, and every muscle inside me locks down tight, keeping me in my seat. When did I last take my pills? An hour ago? This morning? Last night? The days all blend. I’m going to scream. I swallow hard, then again. My hands squeeze into the cushions, keeping me civilized. I would never do such a thing as slap him.

Never.

Ever.

Do such a thing.

He’s waiting. He’s watching. Answer. Who is on the other side of the mirror? I bite it back. Bite it back and swallow again. The question is a little monster with claws that’s scraping up my throat and won’t go down. I should be full inside with all the things I keep down. The rage, the anxiety and the fear. My memories. Interesting. Are they swallowed or are they gone? I fear that I am hollow inside. Swallow. “Can I have some water? I’m sorry, my throat hurts.” I think there is a little alien trying to climb up my esophagus. Even if I said it and laughed, he wouldn’t think it was funny.

He puts his steaming mug down next to the little box and gets up to fetch me water. I want that box. The sudden hunger for it surprises me. Is it the pills? Do they not work well enough? Does the dose need to be adjusted again? Why the fuck can’t I remember if I took them this morning?

Brown brings me the water with one hand, his other hand on the earpiece. It lets me know that what he’s about to say comes from the watcher, not him. “Are you coming down with something? Maybe you should see your doctor? He can make a house call,” he says and then looks surprised. “Your doctor makes house calls? Wow. Lucky you.”

Lucky me? There’s a joke. I manage not to scream although it’s there, building and building. Is it like a wave on the beach? Is it the lava? Burn me up and leave me as ash. Now I want to laugh.

Pretty sure it isn’t funny. Deep breath.

Truthfully, I feel fragile today. Very fragile. Like I might slip and say something unexpected. Something…knowing. I keep my gaze from the box. “I don’t want a doctor.”

“Very well,” he says, because he doesn’t really care, “just something to—“ He looks pained as he listens to the watcher. A grimace. “You may not want a doctor, but maybe you need a doctor.”

My gaze drops to my lap. My black skirt has a thousand pleats, and my fingers are busy pressing them together, worrying the fabric nervously. “I’m fine. Thank you,” I say, and my voice is too quiet. Never. Ever. Never, I think, on repeat. I’m tired.

“I think we should let that go for now.” Brown is talking to the watcher behind the mirror, not me. “Now, your classes?” Brown prompts.

I drag air in until my ribs make a cricking sound that I feel in my body. It’s a lifeline, this banal topic. “I’m hoping to help one of the professors on a project. He’s working on using hemoglobin from hemophiliacs and trying to boost their clotting cells using their own immune systems.”

He hesitates. “And do you like that work?”

“It’s interesting,” I say. And that’s true. I could talk about school all day actually. Keep the attention off me. “It’s an autoimmune thing, meaning the body turns against itself. I find that rather fascinating.”

“What exactly is fascinating?” he asks and takes a sip of his tea. He’s getting more comfortable, and I feel like we’re both in agreement—let’s exhaust this subject today and get this hour out of the way.

“That someone could be so in control, so…powerful and otherwise healthy, and yet his body, his blood is working against him.” I note the pronoun at the same time he does. Please let it go. Miraculously, he does. After making a note. Stockpiling ammunition for later.

“You’ve shown a repeated interest in science,” he says. Is that a question? A car honks from down below and somewhere outside. It’s amazing to me how loud car horns are. Brown nods, clearly getting instructions. The subject changes like musical chairs. “So, in our last session we were talking about your dream. Have you had it again?”

Damn. I want to lie. “I like your box,” I say. “Is it new?”

“It’s an antique.” He picks it up carefully. That box isn’t his, I think, with a flash of knowledge. He’s never touched it before. He’s cautious with it. Ivory is strong.

“I know that. I mean, is it new to you?”

A hesitation. He’s being fed the answer. Why? “It’s from the 1750s. It was a jewelry box.”

“For what? Not a ring.”

His gaze is sharp. “What makes you say that?”

“Because it’s bigger than a ring box.” I feel like that’s two points for me. It seems pretty obvious. He nods, a concession. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”

“I think so.”

His back straightens; he even leans forward. “Where?” His voice is soft. If I didn’t know better, I would think that I’m supposed to know the box.

I shrug. “A museum, I guess. Maybe an antique store. I like antiques.”

“Do you own any?” he asks.

“Antiques? No.”

“You’re never tempted to buy any?”

I hesitate. It’s an odd question…but I do like antiques. I have enough money to buy things for my apartment so why don’t I ever buy one? In fact, it’s never even crossed my mind.

“I like to look at them sometimes. But they’re so… I like having new things. Antiques…they’re not for me. I’m not sure that makes much sense.” I look at the clock and the door. Too much time left. “And yes, I have had the dream again.” Because I’d rather talk about my dream than the box. What do I feel when I look at it? Fear? Revulsion? Desire? Hunger? That feeling of fragility, of being near tears, is close today, fills me up inside like water, like blood. Heavy and sharp, light and intangible.

“Tell me about the dream,” he says.

“I did.”

“Repeat it.”

I hate you. I smile. Make the eyes crinkle. “I’m on a beach and I see lava in the distance. It’s coming closer.” I take a sip of water. Turn to look at the mirrored glass, trying to see beyond my reflection. Who is behind the mirror? Sometimes the need to know fades a bit. But right now I want to know, so much so that I look to the mirror and try to see through it, to the people on the other side, even though I know I can’t.

I just can’t help myself, I guess. I’m still looking at the mirror, and I imagine him, the man from the elevator. Is he sitting in a chair, wearing that cashmere coat and an expensive suit? I can see him there, relaxed, watching, powerful. A man at ease in every situation. And who wouldn’t be when nothing was ever a surprise? He’d have one leg crossed over the other, a gentleman-at-leisure pose. Or was he standing, arms crossed, legs spread, staring at me with a scowl? Annoyed.

I almost feel the weight of his gaze. Go ahead and look at me. Look and don’t touch. Look and let me go. This is all your fault. I blink and jerk my gaze back to Brown. “The lava isn’t hot. Even in my dream, I know that lava burns and this…stuff…doesn’t. This is just…red all around me. Red covering me, swallowing me.” I feel like I can smell the copper. I hate the smell of blood. I hate the feel of blood. I hate the tackiness of it and the way it cakes on skin when it’s dry.

I reach for my cup of water, because it’s something to do, but I can’t drink now that I’ve thought about the lava. I put my hand back in my lap, glide a finger along the soft, black pleats of my skirt. “The blood should burn. And when it doesn’t, then I decide to stay there. I don’t fight it or try to escape. I wait. I’m still…and so it rises and rises and I just wait.” I’m looking back at the mirror and I don’t know when I did that. My heart is pounding, and it’s as though I’m not even me, like I’m watching myself and I can’t even hear my voice clearly. “I’m waiting for you. Like that stupid frog in the blood.” It takes me a moment to catch up with what I’ve said.

Shit. Double shit. Triple shit with a cherry on top.

Brown’s eyes are wide and I can tell I’ve fucked up. I chuckle and it’s not quite right, either. “What is the story with the frog?” I ask, but the sound of my voice is brittle. Brown’s head is cocked to the side. Maybe he’s imagining all the things he’ll buy with the money he’s going to get now that he gets to ask me all about the blood and the frog. The frog. Why did I mention the frog? The monster in my throat is there and wants out. It hurts and so I let it out. “What’s going on with the fucking frog?” I yell.

Oh no. He’s going to change my dosage for sure now. I look at Brown from under my lashes, wanting to seem contrite. I speak softly now, because I’m back inside me, and I know what I’m saying. I laugh nervously and he looks nervous so we match.

I don’t know what to say to convince him that I am sane. I smile and shrug. His expression doesn’t change. That was not the right reaction on my part. I finish the dream quickly. “And then suddenly it’s hot and I feel my skin burning and I scream and then I wake up.” I slump back against the leather, cross my arms over my chest and wait.

“Blood?” he says finally.

“What?” My heart jumps.

He’s frowning, looking down at his notes. “You said blood. Instead of lava. You said it was red and that blood should burn.”

Never, ever, never. It’s getting loud in my head. “I meant lava,” I manage, and it’s hard to get enough breath into my lungs. God, it’s hot.

“Why did you say it?”

Before I can answer, he’s got his finger against the earpiece. He clears his throat. “Let’s move on.” The watcher doesn’t care that I said blood instead of lava. That’s something. It was just a slip of the tongue, obviously. Brown flips the pages back and forth. I’m surprised it’s not just covered with doodles. Imagine being paid to listen to my rambling. “What do you think the dream means?” he asks quietly.

Fuck if I know. I think about saying that. I would never, ever say that though. “I think it means that I don’t recognize danger when it’s around me.”

He nods thoughtfully. “Interesting. And quite…knowing, I would say.”

“Knowing as in…I’m not a total idiot?”

His head jerks back a little like I’ve struck him. “I didn’t say that. You’re a very smart young woman.”

“But?” I laugh and it’s not happy. I feel reckless. And why not? He’s going to mess with my pills anyway. I lean forward and adjust my posture because I’m wearing a low-cut shirt and it squeezes my breasts together and makes them really noticeable. I want to make him uncomfortable. “Be honest with me for a minute. I’m boring. And you think I’m broken, don’t you? Just a boring girl with a benefactor and no memory. Other crazy people are on the street or locked up. I’m in an apartment. I have money and things. Have I gotten what I deserve, Doctor?”

“No, I don’t think you’re broken,” he says firmly. “I think you were hurt and that—”

The clock strikes twelve and I shoot to my feet. “Time’s up!”

“Oh, so it is. Well, umm. Oh, just a minute.” He’s listening. “Are you alone? In the dream?” he asks me.

I turn to look at the mirror, anger rising inside of me, making me want to pick up a chair and throw it through that fucking glass. I let him see how much I hate him. “I’m always alone,” and the bitterness seeps through, like blood soaking cloth. I grab my bag and head to the door. The receptionist hands me my drugs, the bag weighing me down even though it’s only a few ounces. It rattles like a snake as I shove it deep into my purse.

My words are haunting me, and I might need to take a pill earlier than usual. I hear myself: I’m always alone.

Never, ever, never. It’s like a chant inside me. I hear it at night before I go to sleep. I’ve woken up saying it, pulling myself to consciousness. I say it, but now I hear that man’s voice saying it to me. Never, ever, he would say.

Quietly.

Roughly.

A secret.

You left me and I hate you. In the hallway I open the bag, hands shaking, and pop the pill container, taking one dry, feeling it lodge momentarily in my throat.

Soon it will be quiet.





4





I keep thinking about the box. The drug kicks in and makes me stop thinking rage-filled thoughts on loop, which is good. But it makes me sleepy too so I go to Starbucks for coffee. I order the flat-white. Basically a latte but with whole milk. People are amazed at how creamy it is. That’s fat, my friends, I want to say. It’s delicious and makes people happy. Is it that much of a revelation?

As ridiculous as it seems, I do feel like I’ve seen that box somewhere before. And I want it back. I pause mid-sip. Back implies it’s mine. It’s not mine. Obviously. Ownership? I let the thought spin out, practice it: that’s my box. I own that box. That seems…wrong, somehow. And if it was mine…if it was some clue from my past…then that would mean that whoever is behind the glass knows who I was. And they’d tell me. They’d stop paying for me and want their money back from my family. Assuming I had one. They would help someone else in need, which is what foundations do.

An antique box.

And then I know where I’ve seen it or at least something similar. It was on loan to the Museum of Trade, and I went to see the exhibit they were having on eighteenth-century furniture. I realize that seems overly specific and makes me boring, but there you go. I like history and museums.

Before I can question the impulse, I’m heading to the museum, going to the third floor and searching through cases of antique pill boxes, cameos and stickpins that were tucked into the exhibit.

There are museums for everything. Particularly in New York. The Museum of Trade is my favorite. I like to think of ships sailing the world and discovering new lands. One of the display cases, covered in glass, has an empty space where something has been removed, the little card identifying it still there.

Late eighteenth-century or early nineteenth-century jewelry case, carved ivory, with original velvet lining the interior.

That certainly sounds like the box I saw. But why would a one-of-a-kind, priceless jewelry box be removed just so it could sit on Brown’s scuffed-up Pier One coffee table? To see if I recognized it?

Wasn’t that…ridiculous? Crazy. The word I’m looking for is crazy. Batshit level. I can still hear myself screaming about the frog. Next week Brown is going to go nuts with that.

A curator stands at the corner of the room, waiting patiently for someone to ask questions. I always feel a little sorry for these volunteers. All they want is someone to ask a question. His ship just came in, I think. What a dumb pun. “Excuse me, do you know what happened to the box in that case?” I ask, pointing across the room.

The man turns to me slowly. He’s old and sleepy-looking. It’s possible he was actually sleeping with his eyes open. He grunts and shuffles over to the case with me. He squints at the card describing the box. “It’s been removed,” he says, deeply unhelpful. My sympathy wanes.

I smile. “Do you know where it went to or when it was removed? I was here last week and saw it.”

“This exhibit only opened last week.”

“This is true. What can I say, I’m a fan of…history. Trade history.” It sounds so lame. But it’s enough for the volunteer, who is suddenly outrageously loquacious.

“We do not get a lot of young people into the museum. A shame, I think. Trade and discovery is what most countries were founded on.” I let him ramble for a while. It’s not like I have someone to go home to. “Now, if you’ll follow me over here, I can show you a lovely cameo that belonged to Napoleon. It’s of his wife, Josephine, and uses ivory.”

“Oh. I’m really just interested in that particular box rather than the ivory. Is there someone else who might know why it was removed?”

Now he looks put out. “I’m sure the head curator would know. But she’s very busy. You’d have to leave a note or a message.”

“Okay. How do I do that?”

His mouth opens, closes. These are not the questions he wants to be answering. “Ask at the front desk on your way out.” He jabs a finger up in the air, stopping me from backing away. “And while you’re down there, you can stop by and see the painting on loan from the Marchant Estate. A lovely old cityscape.” A last-ditch attempt to gain my interest.

“The Marchants?” It takes me a minute. “Oh! The owners of the box.” Now my smile is genuine. “Thank you. I think I’ll do that.”

The museum is almost empty as it’s late afternoon and close to closing time. The painting is easy to find and takes up an entire wall. It’s stunning and damned familiar. I read the information panel next to it and frown. Painter unknown. 1700-1750. Generously loaned by the Marchant Foundation.

That’s pretty uninformative. The painting has it all, the water, so still and yet shimmering from the noon-day sun, the docks and wharves, even some large boats that have come into harbor, men unloading goods and what could be sacks of flour. A dog is sniffing at the contents. Rather oddly, there are people coming off the boat, and it looks like they’re in chains, but the scale makes it hard to tell. Slaves? Prisoners? Beyond the wharves are people doing laundry, baskets on their heads, a market in full swing selling vegetables. The town is low and close in, but in the rocky hills the houses get bigger, larger, a few even becoming castle-like. Who’s inside the castles? The rich families? Their servants?

One castle, tucked into the left-hand corner of the giant painting, catches my eye. The pebbled path that leads to the front yard, the way part of it is perched on a cliff. But you can reach the beach if you go out the back. I blink. I’ve just made that part up. I can’t tell if there is a beach or not.

Women with parasols are in a courtyard, servants standing at attention, ready to fulfill their every need. Their wealth shines through, their dresses voluminous, their faces shielded from the hot sun. And what I really notice, what makes me back away and not want to see it anymore is how pale they are. So white, their starkness in contrast to those who wait on them. The waiting servants are not particularly dark, it’s just that they’re alive-looking (for lack of a better description), which I guess means that the ladies in their fancy clothes, drinking tea and staying in the shade, look…dead.

Strikingly dead.



As I walk home, in somewhat of a daze, I try to figure out if I’ve actually discovered anything at all. I mean, what do I really know? An antique box was in Brown’s office. It looks like another box that is missing. And I think it’s supposed to mean something to me. Maybe.

But if that were true, then I’d have an identity. I go to therapy because I have no identity and they want me to remember. So it makes no sense.

What if the box is really just a box? Maybe it’s a coincidence that a highly unique and unusual-looking box went missing from the museum and a very similar one has turned up in Brown’s office?

When I get home, I knock on Jessica’s door but she isn’t home. I’d imagined having a conversation with her, wondered what she might make of the situation. Possibly she’d think I was crazy.

I don’t feel well, and it reminds me of Brown’s question, asking me how I feel and if I need a house call from the doctor. But it wasn’t Brown who asked, it was the watcher.

Do I?

My classes start early tomorrow, and I know the best thing to do is go to bed, but I can’t. And I’ve already maxed out on my drugs for the day so I shouldn’t take any more. I’ll just have to deal with the anxiety. The fear.

It’s one of those nights where I’m scared. Where I double-check the locks on my door and am grateful I live in a building with round-the-clock security. The safest building in New York, they say. The security is all ex-military or law-enforcement and armed. Isn’t it odd that I’m here? Odd that my benefactor put me up in this particular building?

I mean, Jessica lives here because her parents insisted on it and are rich. But it’s an odd choice for me when some random foundation is paying for it. Right?

I don’t want to go down this rabbit hole again, but I’m already walking to my dresser, opening it up and moving aside my bras to the folder I keep in there. Underneath my most intimate things. I’m sure that says something about me.

Inside that folder is everything I know about me. My life fits in a manila folder. A very thin one.

I look again at the police report. Everything in it, I know by heart. Caucasian woman…dumped in front of New York General Hospital… Witnesses report sighting a dark, nondescript car, a man over six feet tall with dark hair wearing dark clothing and a blue or black long coat who took me out of the backseat, placed me on the ground, and drove away before the approaching nurses could ask any questions. No relatives found. Prints have no match. No criminal record.

I arrived with a recently broken arm, brain hemorrhage consistent with head trauma, scrapes and wounds on my neck, forearm and thigh.

I stayed in the hospital for weeks, in a medically induced coma as I fought for my life. That’s what the doctors and nurses all said. That I fought to live. But do they really know? Did I fight for my life or did I just not die?

The first emotion I remember feeling when I awoke in that hospital is loneliness. The odd sense that I’d lost something, maybe everything. And then I felt fear. Because wherever this was, it was wrong. It was new and foreign in a way that, memory or no, I knew I had never been in a place like this before. And it still feels that way two months later.

I’d bet my life I didn’t grow up in a city. Brown and I talked about it in the beginning. He said my reaction was normal. Typical of someone with amnesia.

I was and am a missing person. A missing person who was never found. Or maybe an orphan. I’m sitting at the computer and type in Marchant Foundation. Because why not? Better than ruminating on my lack of identity. The results are numerous but unhelpful. Rich family. Owns half of Manhattan and some private islands sprinkled around the world. Who owns an island, let alone a plethora of them?

Their headquarters, rather shockingly, are in the same building as Dr. Brown. I feel almost light-headed, my stomach cramping as I read the name of the man in charge of the Marchant empire. Leander. Odd name. I say it, quietly, make my lips shape it. Have I ever said that name before?

I click on the images tab, and the shock of seeing him is like a tsunami hitting shore. It’s the man from the elevator. His black, fathomless gaze staring at me from the screen, lips curving into a hint of a smile. Very professional. His beauty is still overwhelming. Terrifying, really. Here is a picture of the man who put his hands on me and made me feel better and worse than I have ever felt before. It’s just a picture, and I want to turn away and never see it again.

I scroll down, past the picture, and read about Marchant Enterprises, a company that has specialized in shipping for over two centuries and has numerous side businesses, all around the world, that range from agriculture to finance and even hospitals. New York General is listed as one of the hospitals where they have a donor wing. I had to look it up because I hadn’t heard that term before. It means that Leander Marchant’s company gives so much money to the hospital that he has an entire area reserved just for him and his family. I search the Internet and find no mention of a family or a wife or anything. There is remarkably little information, considering.

I pull up a map of the hospital and find my old room. It overlooked a courtyard with a giant fountain. And there was a sculpture of a flower that I kind of liked. Using them as reference points, I find my old room.

Shocker. I was in the Marchant donor wing. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a letter from the foundation that pays for me. A brief note that reminds me that five thousand dollars has been deposited in my account and the rent paid for the month. L.M. Charitable Foundation, it says. I never thought about what the initials stood for. I never looked. How could I have not wondered where the money came from? I was told it was a charity and I accepted it without question. I’m a fool.

My mind spins with possibilities, a truly fantastical possibility coming to me. What if Leander Marchant was the man who’d taken me to the hospital? The man who was paying for all of this and the man who watched me? What if he knows who I am or…I don’t want to follow the logical conclusion but I have to. What if he is the man who harmed me, dumped me at the hospital and is now keeping tabs on me? Ridiculous. Impossible. It makes no sense. Maybe he feels guilty and he’s making up for it by paying for me.

Would he want me to remember if he was the one who hurt me? Maybe that’s why he sent me to therapy, so he’ll know if I remember, be prepared in case I turned him in to the police for hurting me? Does that even make sense?

I look longingly at my pills.

Is it plausible than an anonymous donor generously gives me a place to live and money? That they require me to go to therapy and school and have no ulterior motive?

Nothing, not a damn thing about my entire fucking life makes any sense. Liquid drips on my hand and I realize I’m crying, tears all over my keyboard.

And that’s it, the last straw and I’m crying in racking sobs, doubled over, snot everywhere, so miserable I just want to die. I crawl into bed and cry myself to sleep.

The next morning I feel terrible. Like the time Jessica and I polished off two bottles of the cheapest, roughest wine. But I huddle in the shower for a while and shuffle my way to class even though I feel like a decaying zombie. I don’t have a lot of routine in my life and part of me craves order. So I go and sit there even though I don’t absorb a thing or take a single note. And on the way out, I get yelled at because I walk too close to the construction site, where the college is busy building a new library.

It takes me a minute to understand what I’m seeing. It’s the plan for what the finished library will look like. The building is all modern chrome and glass. Paid for by the generous donation of the Marchant Foundation. I laugh and people turn and give me a weird look. I’m the strange girl laughing at nothing in the middle of the sidewalk. So I stop.

Jessica thought it was odd that I got into college. I had no grades or any proof of prior education, after all. Hell, I didn’t even have a name or a social security number, and they let me attend. At the last minute. Even though they reject eighty-five percent of applicants. I wonder if they would let someone in if their benefactor, Leander Marchant, asked them to. Probably.

I go home, take my pills, then sleep, the dream coming to me instantly, as if it were waiting, just lurking at the edge of my subconscious, like a memory that’s faded but dear. The beach, the hot sun, and the lava that glides toward me, dark as blood. It’s rising and rising, covering my chest, and yet I wait. I tilt my head up, trying to keep the blood out of my mouth and nose, and still I wait, not swimming or screaming. Heaven forbid I try to survive.

Waiting. And then, just when I know I’m going to die, there is a hand, reaching out to me and offering me help. Help or just a different way to die? I think as he pulls me up and against his hard chest.

I start to wake up, and this time there is a voice, and I know it’s his, this Leander Marchant, echoing through the empty walls in my head. It’s different though. Not cautious like before, but low like a lover or worse. You’ll never escape, he says, and I feel my heart race, a snap of desire go through me, because I don’t want to escape him.

I would never, ever escape him.





5





I wake early and am ready and out the door before it’s light outside, taking a cab to the Marchant headquarters, half-afraid I’ll see Brown in the lobby, on his way into work and starting his day with other patients. I’m rational and I’m just clinging on enough to know it but not stop. Brown would say I was crazy. If I go into his office and tell him that I think Leander Marchant, a well-respected god of a man, might have hurt me, left me to the hospital, and was now keeping tabs on me to make sure I didn’t remember, he’d think I was crazy.

Maybe I am.

You’ll never escape.

And in my dream I didn’t want to. Sadly.

Although I sure as hell did want to escape when I met him at the elevator. He’d scared me. And yet, part of me can’t believe he’s the man who hurt me.

He just isn’t.

Unless he is.

I take the elevator to the top floor. Of course Marchant Enterprises is on the top floor. I’m instantly stopped by a woman in the reception area. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of employees, and lots of meetings. What did I expect? For the elevator to open and he’d just be standing there?

She wears a Bluetooth at her ear, and her lips are pinched as she waits for me to tell her why I’m standing there at eight thirty a.m. when it’s clear I don’t have a meeting with anyone here. She’s very pretty. Much prettier than me. What possible interest would Leander Marchant have in me in the first place when women like this exist?

“Miss, can I help you?” she says, more firmly this time.

“I want to see Mr. Marchant.” It doesn’t occur to me to call him Leander.

“Do you have an appointment?” she asks, looking me up and down quickly, my jeans and my J. Crew top not cutting it apparently.

“I do,” I lie. My eyes flash to the clock. “At eight thirty.”

She frowns. “I believe Mr. Marchant is just leaving the office for an appointment.”

A hard swallow. “Yes, that’s right.”

Her look is skeptical. “His appointment is with Mr. Holland.”

Oh. Think, Rebecca! “I’m his assistant. Mr. Holland’s. I’m supposed to give Mr. Marchant a message,” I say, surprised my voice is confident and that I don’t turn around and run away screaming. Would she call security? She must know I’m lying.

“Just a moment. What’s your name?” she asks, barely concealing her unhappiness with me.

An endless moment. My mind blanks. “Rebecca Finner.” She picks up the phone. My hands are gripped tight behind my back, my breath held, anxiety pouring through me as I wait. Didn’t she say he was leaving? Should I have just waited for him in the lobby and seen him from a distance? Surely, I don’t really mean to speak to him?

Why the hell did I tell her my real name? A perfectly dressed woman, beautiful and lovely, comes out to meet me. “Miss Finner?” She looks me up and down, smile fixed, too polite to let her curiosity show. I can almost hear her thinking—what’s a girl like her doing here to see a man like Mr. Marchant? GQ meets the beast. And I am, unfortunately, the beast.

I follow her down a long, wide hallway. She stops before a closed door, knocks and then opens it, gesturing for me to go in.

At first all I can see is windows. There are too many of them, from floor to ceiling, and I have a touch of vertigo. They have some sort of film over them, tinting them so that the room isn’t overly bright, although that doesn’t lessen the impression that this room is floating high in the air.

And then Leander Marchant catches my attention, and the view and all of its terrifying splendor is replaced by something truly terrifying and splendid. The man from the elevator. My memory wasn’t wrong. His dark hair is tamed, he’s clean-shaven and, if possible, he seems even more autocratic than before. He stands up from his desk and comes toward me. His expression is fairly neutral. Curious, maybe. Mr. Marchant buttons the single button of his suit jacket with a hand as he comes closer. I’m not prepared somehow. The reality of seeing him is not what I expect. Certainly not what I want.

Does he watch me? Did I know him once upon a time? Did he hurt me? The distance between us closes to several feet and he stops.

Waits.

His expression is guarded, no smile on his firm lips, and I understand that he won’t speak until I do. As if it’s some sort of test or a gamble. A buzzing grows in my ears, and suddenly I’m falling, leaving the world in a dead faint.



I wake up on a leather couch, a suit jacket thrown over me, I guess to warm me up, and it smells of him. I want to pull it over me, sink down into the couch and sleep forever. Lord Marchant will keep me safe, I think drowsily. Like a fool. He would never, ever hurt me. I could sleep and he’d watch over me. I could— The reality of where I am and what is happening comes back to me, and I shove the coat off of me, trying to scramble away from it as if it were alive, breathing deeply to clear my lungs of him. Just his scent is overwhelming, making my heart hammer and my eyes fill with tears that make no sense. He’s talking to me. The words make sense. He tells me to take it easy. He tells me I’m safe.

Why wouldn’t I be safe?

“I’ve got some water for you,” he says, and picks up a glass from the table. He holds it toward me, his fingers long, the nails immaculately trimmed and cleaned. His hands are large, and he offers it to me with two fingers, the glass dangling.

“No,” I say, and move away from him, shoving my side into the couch. I don’t want him close enough to touch me. How could I forget, even for a moment, what I suspect him of? He terrifies me. I never want to see him again, never want to speak to him, and he isn’t safe or someone who would protect me, but possibly the person who caused me to lose everything I ever had. If he was in fact my benefactor, my watcher, there wasn’t an altruistic reason for it.

“I’m sorry. This was a mistake. I was confused,” I get to my feet. He puts the glass down and stands, the motion showcasing how much taller he is than me. How broad-shouldered he is, the material pulling just a bit over his muscled arms. His shirt is a crisp white, his tie dark and silk. It is odd seeing him in a suit. Compared to what? I think, somewhat hysterically.

“It’s all right, Rebecca. You probably shouldn’t get up yet. You’re still unsteady. Can I get you some food? There is a wonderful café down the street, best BLTA you’ve ever had.” He smiles as if I were a child on the verge of a tantrum.

“That’s my favorite.”

A pause. “Isn’t it everyone’s?” he says smoothly with a raised brow.

“I don’t know.” I move around him, giving him a wide berth.

His voice is deep, accented, but I don’t know with what. I don’t know that sort of thing. English? French? Australian? “Miss…Finner, is it?” he asks, and I almost think he’s never said it before. Maybe even has no idea who I am.

Bullshit. He called me Rebecca a moment ago, didn’t he?

At the door I stop. Maybe I feel more comfortable because I’m close to escape. My hand is on the knob and I could get out before he could catch me. Not that he would. I mean, how ridiculous. This powerful businessman chasing me down?

He could do it though, if he wanted to.

Leander Marchant is not some guy who spends every day behind his desk and occasionally does some exercise. No, this is one of those regimented guys who probably does something dangerous and manly in his spare time like rock climbing or scuba diving with sharks…maybe on the same day. He’s more like 007. A man who cleans up nice, and yet, there is a lethality there, a raw physical power to him that one can’t overlook.

I think I can see it in those impenetrable black eyes, the distance and cool calculation he’d apply to any given scenario. Everything about him is cold, precise, and if it doesn’t fit into the box he wants it to…well.

I’m not the sort of girl who fits into boxes and meets expectations. My knees almost buckle in terror. Deep breath, Rebecca. Be a big girl.

I face him squarely, even though I’m not letting go of the door. It’s a lifeline, a way to escape, and honestly, I couldn’t let go even if I wanted to. His gaze dips down to my hand that’s cemented to the doorknob. He nods once and takes a step back, then two, until he reaches a leather chair that’s across from the couch I woke up on.

It puts the coffee table between us, gives the impression of even more room to escape. He undoes his jacket again, and I watch his fingers, watch them, the perfection of them that goes so neatly with the rest of him. Could I imagine them covered in blood? Do I believe that he could hurt me so badly that every memory I ever had fell out of my head and left me in a coma?

He knows I’m terrified. He doesn’t look like he’s getting off on it. If anything, he looks grim, almost pained. He sits down, leans back in the chair, crosses one leg over the other, as if he’s waiting for me to hand him a cup of coffee. So calm. So non-threatening, his body language says. Just a businessman who looks like sin and has a body that could kill a man any number of physical and violent ways.

It will take more than this façade and furniture separating us to put me at ease.

He takes a breath, breathing deeply, and I wonder, rather oddly, if I have a scent too. If he’s trying to take me into him as I did on that first occasion at the elevator. Right before I remembered and became afraid.

What did I remember?

“Do you pay for me?” I ask, voice thin and shaking.

His nostrils flare, and then his harsh brows draw together in a look very similar to confusion.

“Don’t lie to me,” I say, firmer.

He uncrosses his legs and leans forward. A sound comes from my throat. Fear given voice. I can see his instant recoil. His hands come up again, the same gesture I saw in the elevator, hands up, non-threatening. “In a manner,” he says quietly.

“Why?”

“Because you have no one.”

“Don’t I?”

His gaze sharpens, eyes narrowing slightly as he watches me.

“How do we know each other?” It hurts me to ask it, the ramifications of what that question means taking a moment to sink in. If I know him…god, what if I have an identity after all?

“You don’t know me,” he says, and his smile is sympathetic. Poor broken girl with no one, the smile says. My hand is going numb from squeezing the handle so hard.

“Then why would you…pay for me? My medical bills, my apartment, my food, it’s thousands of dollars every month.”

“It’s not me but the foundation. The foundation helps people in need. One of the nurses at the hospital told someone on the committee about you.” That hint of an accent is more pronounced, some of the vowels rounder, others a bit harder, nothing one could place or anything too specific, but it makes his voice interesting. Compelling. “I assure you Miss…Finner, I know you only because I signed the approval to help pay for you and your adjustment to this new world.”

That’s an odd way to phrase it. “A new world,” I repeat slowly, and his jaw clenches. I know he wishes he said something different, even if his expression is nothing but polite interest. I suppose his description wasn’t too far off. Most things are new to me. “And the elevator?”

A flash of a smile, a glimpse of white, even teeth. “I’ve been many things, but never a wall. We ran into each other….” He shakes his head a little. “Maybe I don’t understand the question.”

“It was just a coincidence?”

“That two people who have business in the same building would run into each other at the elevator? I’m having a hard time imagining anything nefarious, I’m afraid.”

I don’t return his smile. “And Dr. Brown?”

He hesitates. “Who?”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not,” he says, leaning forward again but making no move to stand. Don’t frighten the food, I think, ridiculously, as if he were a predator.

“I see him every few days. People watch me through a mirror.” I want to say, “You watch me,” but…what if he does? What if he doesn’t? I can’t stand it either way, I realize.

“Ah,” and he drums his fingers once against the chair. “I remember reading this. The hope was that the therapy might help you remember.”

“You don’t want me to remember,” I say, my voice almost a growl.

Something sparks in his dark eyes. “Now why would you think that? I assure you, Miss Finner, it makes no difference to me one way or another beyond human compassion. Now, as much as I’m sure we’re both enjoying this, there are other people who can give you more information than I can. I’m a busy man, and beyond paying your bills, as well as the bills of several other charitable cases around the country, I don’t know anything about you.” His smile is hard, impersonal, dismissive. “I pay the bills, Miss Finner, and that requires I work rather than…” The way he looks at me, from head to toe, is vaguely insulting. He doesn’t like what he sees.

“Rather than what?”

Annoyance. “Rather than whatever you imagine I do—watch you, pay attention to you. I don’t know the doctors assigned to your case, I don’t know you and I—,” He stops speaking, done. Won’t even bother to finish the sentence. I’m not worth the extra four words, apparently.

I open the door and he visibly relaxes at the idea of me leaving. With one foot out the door, I hesitate. My escape route is clear. Which makes no sense because we’re in an office surrounded by people. He wouldn’t harm me here.

Or at all. I have nothing but a gut reaction to make me think he’d harm me. “Why was the box there?” I ask, watching him closely.

His voice is deadly soft. “I don’t know what you refer to.”

He’s lying to me. I think. But I can’t look at him any longer. The overwhelming fear of him is making me shake. I close the door and leave, controlling my pace, counting each step back to the elevator so I don’t break into a dead run.





6





Jessica is waiting for me when I get home, her door opening before I even find my keys, a bottle of Gloria Ferrer in her hand, which she waves at me like a lure.

“Ah, the good stuff,” I manage, my voice sounding flat.

“Where have you been? You’re usually home by three on Thursdays.”

She knows that? Is that normal? Her smile is radiant, so friendly that I feel guilty. She’s my only friend. If I become suspicious of her too…Maybe I am crazy.

“Let’s crack that open,” I say, opening the door. She follows me inside my apartment, and sitting on my counter are more pills.

Who brought them and when? My eyes go to the deadbolt. Who had a key? Was it security who put them here? I’m going to get a chain across my door.

Jessica opens up the bag of drugs, removing pill bottles and stumbling over the names on the labels. “If you run out of money, you could sell these on the black market and make a fortune. At least I assume you can. What are all these?” she asks, holding two bottles in each hand, three more arranged on the counter before her.

“What do you mean?”

She shakes them at me. “Suzanne Sommers doesn’t take this many pills. Why do you take them?”

“Who is Suzanne Sommers?” I ask, but she doesn’t take the bait. “I…need them.” My arms crossing defensively over my chest.

“For what? I mean, I’m not trying to pry, or if I am, it’s only because I care about you, but this can’t be right.” She scrutinizes the labels. “This is an antidepressant, this is for anxiety, but that leaves four bottles, and those are like horse pills.”

“I just…take them,” My mind shies away from thinking about it too closely. I get up and grab glasses for the champagne.

“Do you know what they do? What condition they’re for? Have you looked them up?”

“No,” I say and the bizarreness of that registers. Barely.

“Who’s Dr. Patkar?”

“I get them from Dr. Brown,” I say, suddenly tired. It’s hard to shape the words. Why can’t we talk about something else?

“Well, that’s not the doctor’s name on here.” She turns the bottle. “Your name is on here at least. Take twice a day. You take this shit and you don’t know what it’s for?” Her voice is getting louder as she gets more disgusted with me.

“It’s my medicine,” I say rather weakly, suddenly feeling a headache coming on just above my right eye.

She puts the bottles on the counter and comes toward me, her expression pure sympathy. “Are you sick?” she asks me, and I know she really cares about me. “Focus on me, Rebecca,” she says softly. “We’re talking about the pills you take. Why are you taking them?”

The question seems to come from somewhere else, but it’s important to her, so I try to think about it and give her a proper answer. “I have panic attacks and anxiety, I’m depressed, and I have no idea who I am. These are for my head. Like a brain injury, I guess.”

“So is this doctor a neurologist? Dr. Patkar?”

“I don’t see a neurologist.”

“You have to figure out why you have these drugs. Who the doctor is. What conditions they’re for. If your brain is injured, you’d have a neurologist, right? This is probably really hard on your kidneys and your liver, and we come over here and we drink like fish, and you’re popping all these pills. This is why you’re a basket case!” I rub my temple and walk away from her, opening the bottle of champagne for us and pouring two glasses. She’s glaring at me as she takes the glass. It’s a peace offering.

“What are we celebrating?” At first the conversation is stilted, but by the time I’m pouring us the next glass, I barely remember talking about it at all.





7





I arrive at Brown’s office for my appointment with two minutes to spare. I’m always punctual. I find it stresses me out if I’m late in a way that’s not reasonable. My mind starts spinning on worst-case scenarios, and I work myself into a state where I’m jittery, sad, anxious, and on the verge of a freak-out. I know because it happened once. One of the first meetings I ever had with Brown and I was late because of a traffic jam. He told me my response was atypical and gave me more drugs to take. He seems to think medication is the best way to deal with everything.

My way of dealing with my atypical reactions is to always be a bit early. When I told him my solution, he just stared at me, and I still don’t know if he thought my solution was beyond obvious or a bit profound, but there we go. It’s the general way our sessions go actually. I say something, his reaction is incomprehensible to me, he prescribes more drugs or alters the ones I have, and voila, another session is out of the way.

Brown’s secretary comes out of his office carrying papers and a thick manila folder. Her eyes widen at the sight of me. Is this what people mean when they say someone looks like a chicken in the headlights? “Miss Finner! We left you a message. Dr. Brown had to meet with…had a…meeting so we pushed the appointment back half an hour.”

“Well, no one told me,” I say, and smile although my voice is sharp. No eye crinkle of sincerity.

She licks her lips nervously. Not a lot happens to Dr. Brown’s secretary, I decide. “Umm, well, I have to take these upstairs to Dr. Brown, so why don’t you just go grab a coffee or have a seat or something, and when he gets back, then you can see him?” Her cheeks turn pink and she tries to scoot around me.

My gaze slides to the folder in her hands. R. Finner is typed on a white label. “That’s my folder? How come it’s so thick?”

“I don’t…know,” she says, backing toward the door. Definitely a chicken caught in the headlights.

“Wait. Is his meeting about me?” I’m following her into the hallway.

She keeps backing away, shoulders rising in apology. And then I’m alone, the whir of the air conditioner my only company as she speedwalks down the hallway. They’re talking about me. Right now. Brown is meeting with the people who watch me, maybe even with Mr. Marchant, and they’re talking about what a mess I am, how many drugs I take, my dreams. They’d probably even talk about how often I go to the bathroom if I volunteered the information. It hadn’t occurred to me that they would do this. I just thought…I guess that they observed and left. But they actually talk about me.

That’s wrong, right? Shouldn’t I have confidentiality or know what’s being said? And if not, shouldn’t I at least know who it’s being said to? Why didn’t I grab that folder right out of her hands? Why didn’t I follow her down the hallway and cause a scene? Because then Brown really would shove meds down my throat.

My feet are moving, my teeth clenched tight I’m so angry. I enter Brown’s office, the lights still on, and see my box sitting on the table beside his chair. I don’t even hesitate but take it, holding the cool ivory in my hand, feeling a sense of exultation and fear all at once. I hurry to the door, slip out into the hallway and toward the stairs. I’m not going to wait around for the elevator and get caught. I go one floor down and to the women’s restroom, straight into a stall, looking underneath each one for feet, and am relieved to be alone. The door’s locked, my back pressed hard against it, my breathing uneven.

Let them talk about me. I have my box. I’m so happy that I giggle.

Similar to a crazy person.

I hold it between two palms, as though it’s a baby bird or something precious, something that could vanish and be gone forever. Forgotten.

My eyes are closed, and I can barely stand to open them and look at this thing I’ve stolen.

Put the fucking thing back.

Never. That will never, ever happen. Do you hear me? Never.

In my mind that sounds different, and I wonder if I’ve ever spoken those words aloud. Never, ever. But who would I have said that to? Jessica? A barista at Starbucks? A professor? It’s not like I have a wide range of acquaintances.

Or maybe someone said it to me. I can imagine Marchant’s voice saying that to me, low and urgent.

It’ll never happen and yet here we are….

But the box is more important than an imaginary conversation. The box is everything, and the suspense might just kill me, so I open my hands and look at it. A bird is engraved on top of it, a little sparrow, its body so lifelike that it could have been real. All those centuries ago. Because there is no way this box was made in the last hundred years. On the sides are leaves, vines, all of it woven together like briars, and I think of Sleeping Beauty and the castle she was in, surrounded by walls of thorns so deadly that they kept out everyone except for one.

Except her prince.

But of course that’s where the similarity ends, for I have no prince. Hell, I don’t even have a cat. In all the world, I have a neighbor who drinks my wine, a psychiatrist paid to spend time with me, and professors who also have been paid to interact with me.

And now I have a box. That I’ve stolen. Joy runs through me like water pouring over rocks.

I close my eyes, imagining what it will be like to open said box. What might have been in there nestled against the black velvet lining? It has to be the one from the museum, doesn’t it? Maybe there is a ring inside? For some reason that still seems wrong. A necklace then? The lid is a little stuck, like maybe it’s gotten warped or damaged over time.

I can’t wait anymore but take the lid off and stare at the empty space within. I want to throw up. I want to scream and rip my fucking hair out because it’s red inside. Red velvet lining and it’s supposed to be black. It’s the red of blood and death, a maroon so dark it’s like heart’s blood, like lava in the dark, and it’s not black. Not. Black.

I put the toilet lid down and clunk myself down on top of it. Tears are already streaming down my face. Why am I such a wreck? I don’t even know what this means, haven’t even worked it out yet, and I’m crying.

This isn’t the box from the museum. It can’t be. That box had black lining, didn’t it? I even search the inside to see if it looks like it’s been newly replaced.

The tears are still falling, and I’ve even got a little sound coming from me that’s a cross between a hiccup and a whimper.

I should take the box back. If I keep it, I’m just a thief, right? Maybe I was a thief before this. After all, I have no idea about my past. Or maybe I was just a little dishonest and a bit of a kleptomaniac and that’s why I want to keep it even though I know it’s wrong. Can one be a bit of a kleptomaniac?

I stand up and lift the lid off the toilet tank. I’m not taking the box back. I don’t care what it makes me. So what if it’s red inside? It’s not Brown’s. He didn’t have the faintest clue about the box. As my finger traces the lid, I can almost feel where it came from, feel the heat of the sun on my back, smell the salt in the air from the sea, hear the laughter of the pretty girls, the girls who think they’re more than food while I’m just…

I’m shaking now. I have a Ziploc bag from my unfinished snack in my purse and I dump out the goldfish and put my box in there, sealing it up tightly. I put the box in the toilet tank, resting it carefully in the corner so it won’t get wet if someone uses the stall, and then I replace the lid.

I don’t want to leave it there but I can’t take it with me right now. They’ll suspect me and I imagine Brown searching me for it. I wash my hands and examine my blotchy face in the mirror. I put on some lipstick, a nice plum color that makes me look a bit better. I brush my dark brown hair and put it in a braid over one shoulder, the end of it resting over my heart. My bangs are a wreck too and I brush them, shove them over to the left and give up. It’s hopeless. I’ve been crying and Brown’s going to know it.

He’s waiting for me when I get back to his office. “Miss Finner, I hear there was a bit of confusion on what time we were supposed to meet. My apologies. Why don’t you come in and we’ll get started.”

He’s looking at my blotchy face. I’m not a pretty crier. Although now that I think about it, I’ve never seen anybody look good crying. Except for actresses and maybe that’s just because they’re not really crying but have water dripping down their face. I mean, who really looks better with puffy eyes and a red nose that isn’t a reindeer?

I have a seat on the couch and position myself so that I’m slightly away from the mirror. They’ll have a good view of my shoulder and a smidge of my profile. It’s the petty things in life that get me through.

“Now, Miss Finner, I can’t help but notice you look a little upset. How are you feeling?”

“I feel great. This is what I look like when I’m happy,” I say and regret it. I don’t want the lecture on why sarcasm is counterproductive and how I’m not being open to the process or receptive…blah, blah, bullshit, bullshit. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I guess I was just a little miffed about the time change. I have something after this. Class.”

He looks down at his notes, shuffles his papers. “I don’t see a class on your schedule. I specifically checked it before I bumped you back.”

Oh. “It’s a…study group.”

He gives me a look under his lashes, and if this were poker, he’d be upping the bet to call my bluff. Whatever he’s going to say next, though, gets interrupted. His head tilts to the side as he listens to my watcher speak to him through the headset.

He nods and then stands. His smile is perfunctory. “I’ve got the sun in my eyes here, let me move my chair,” he says, shifting himself about. Which means I have to move too. Have to keep eye contact. I shift my chair and of course I’m now forced to stare at the mirror. And my watcher can see my face. Touché. I throw a glare at the mirror.

“Now why were you crying?” Brown asks.

I’m here, paid for by my watcher. My watcher looks at a folder of my life, and I don’t even know what’s in it. It’s so thick. What’s in there? Why can’t I know my own life? Who does he think he is? And now I’m sad, and I just want to hide a little, and what does he do? He makes me become visible to him. I don’t get to hide. If I’m weak, it’s going to be seen, written about and talked over. Like I’m a monkey in a lab.

I can’t win anything. The slightest rebellion and I’m shoved hard into the dirt. I feel hot, as if the lava is rising inside of me instead of around me. It’s red and it’s angry and it’s this all-consuming need to scream and hurt something. My watcher wants my face, he wants to see my tears and every thought in my head. As if it’s his right.

“Why doesn’t he ask me himself?” My voice is shaking. “You’re just a puppet, you know.” Brown’s image blurs before me. My nose is running, and I need a tissue, and I don’t want to get one because it’s an admission of how damaged I am, how much I’m falling apart. But I don’t want to wipe snot on my sleeve either, so I do it, get up and go over to Brown, getting the box of Kleenex and throwing myself back on the couch grumpily.

He looks down at his pages, probably waiting for instructions, for how to play this. “I sense a lot of hostility today,” he says.

“Well, that’s why they pay you the big bucks. How much do you get paid for this? Is it more than a hundred dollars an hour? More than one hundred fifty dollars? We both know I’m not that interesting. Is it two hundred?” I wipe my nose, pissed beyond belief to be crying and angry at once. I want to be stronger than this…fiercer than this. I want to be angry and not be weak.

“I’ve been informed that you went up to Marchant Enterprises last week. And I assume by your mention of ‘he’ that you mean Mr. Marchant himself. I must tell you, Miss Finner, that I’ve never met him. He’s not in that room, and I’m concerned that perhaps you’re beginning to fixate on him in a rather unhealthy way.” His shoulders square, he’s gaining confidence.

“Prove it.”

“Prove…what?”

I get up and go to the closed door that leads to reception and open it, startling his secretary from the game of solitaire she has up on the computer. There is another door, on the right, that leads to the mirrored room. “That he’s not there. Open the door and let me see who watches me.” I try the handle but it’s locked.

He looks appalled. “I will not condone this fantasy of yours by giving in to your whims.”

I laugh and I can hear that it’s not quite right. My laugh is molten. “Won’t it disabuse me of my fixation if he’s not there? Won’t it prove me wrong?”

He stands up, puts his papers on his chair and says calmly, “No, it won’t. You’ll make an excuse as to why he’s not here today. You’ll think he managed to leave or that he’s on the phone speaking through someone else. This mania of yours, this delusion won’t get disproved by something so simple as him not being there. I’ve seen it a hundred times, and I will not give credence to this behavior.”

I almost believe him. I even feel a moment of doubt. He takes a step closer. “But I’ve seen Mr. Marchant, and I can tell you that he’s a very wealthy and powerful man. Older than you by a decade probably. How would you have met him? What do you imagine?” The twist on his lips is not kind. This amuses him somehow. “Do you think that he was your friend, or maybe even your lover? I’m sorry to say this, Miss Finner, but you are not even in the same—”

He stops speaking, nods sharply, having been cut off by the watcher. But I know what he was going to say. Leander Marchant could have any woman he wanted, and I’ve decided he somehow wanted me? Ridiculous. Should I clarify to him that I don’t think Leander Marchant ever wanted me, but I do suspect he might have hurt me? “Come sit down. I apologize. How often have you cried this last week?” he asks and it’s only then that he looks at the little table next to him, frowns at the empty space where the box should be.

I take a tissue and make a production of blowing my nose, hoping it conceals any guilt that might be on my face. He shuffles papers, speaks softly and into the microphone rather than to me. “Hmm, I was given a few things to ask you about, and one of them was the box, but it’s been removed. Should we still discuss that?” he asks, looking toward the mirror for direction. My stomach flips unpleasantly. What if someone was in there and saw me take it? I have an urge to confess the whole thing. My fingers are twisting the Kleenex, shredding it, and I make myself stop.

“No, I didn’t remove it,” he says, looking around the room like the box might be on the floor or in a corner. His gaze comes back to me. “Miss Finner, please give your coat and bag to the secretary. You can collect it on the way out.”

“What do you mean?”

“The box is missing, and I want to make sure it hasn’t gotten mixed in with your things.”

“Fine.” I shrug angrily out of my teal-blue winter jacket. The secretary comes bustling in, takes it from me as well as my purse, blushing and apologizing for having to go through my things. Dr. Brown reproves her, and she clams up and scurries out of the room. Inside I’m triumphant. I’m a fricking genius for hiding that box. I force myself not to smile.

“The dream and the crying. That’s where we’ll focus with the time we have left,” he says, muttering into his headpiece. “It concerns me that you’ve been crying so much and I got a call from your pharmacy saying you tried to get a refill four days early.”

“I lost them,” I lie. The truth was that I’d been taking more antianxiety medication than I was supposed to. Ever since my meeting with Leander Marchant and the realization that he might have hurt me, I’ve been a bit of a mess.

Brown makes a hmming noise, considering. “Perhaps this particular combination isn’t effective. I’ll write you a replacement prescription for the week and consult with your physician before our next appointment.”

“Why don’t I consult with the doctor?” He looks shocked. He waits a moment and then continues, as if I haven’t spoken. “Now then, the dream.” My lips purse, biting back my instant response. Because I already know what I’m going to say. I’ve been thinking about it, waiting for this moment all week. “Have you had it again?”

“I have. And I don’t know if it’s changed or I just remember more of it, but I’m not alone anymore. I’m about to die and then someone offers me a hand to help me.”

“And who is that?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Is it a man or a woman?”

“A man.”

“Does he say anything to you?”

“Yes.” And then I’m improvising, going on a hunch. “He says it’s all right. That he’ll never, ever let me go.”

“And how do you feel when he says that?”

“I feel like he’s a fucking liar. A coward.” His brows raise and my answer’s really hanging out there, still in the air like too much perfume.

“And is that all?”

“No, actually.” I shift forward in my seat, leaning toward him. “He also tells me I should get a new shrink,” I say and then I’m heading for the door. It takes him a moment to speak, and I’m a little pleased to have shocked him. “Miss Finner, this is not acceptable! You need to come back and finish the session,” he says.

But I don’t care. I’m not doing this now, maybe never again. The secretary squeaks as the door bangs open, my bag on her desk, my coat in her hands. “Find anything?” I ask, grabbing them up. I’m feeling more than a little uncertain now, but the rage is fueling me on, so I need to keep hold of that. I push the down button for the elevator and go to the stairs. Instead of going down them though, I go up a floor and press the elevator button to go up. He thinks I’m delusional? That I have an unhealthy fixation with Leander Marchant? Maybe I do. Brown basically told me I wasn’t good enough for him, that there was no way a man like that would look at someone like me, and I can’t disagree.

And yet it’s his hand and his voice I hear in my dream. It’s him I see in my nightmares, him who gave me the box—or so I thought. It’s him who’s behind the mirror and who wants to see my tears. Isn’t it?

So when the elevator doors open, I go to the top floor, to the Marchant Enterprises reception area, where I take a seat in the corner of the lobby, picking up a copy of The Economist and hiding my face behind it. The receptionist on duty has her back to me and is on the phone, the lobby filled with men and women in business suits, and although I’m not dressed like them, there are enough people around that I should go unnoticed for a little while. And all it takes is five minutes, five minutes for the elevator doors to open and for Leander Marchant to stride out of the elevator, a fearsome scowl on his harsh features.

I find myself standing, walking toward him, and he turns to look at me, a muscle jumping at the corner of his jaw, the only indication that I have surprised him. He jerks his head toward his office, takes another few steps and then stops, his suit jacket opening, displaying the gray silk lining and the impressive flatness of his stomach. He gestures for me to go before him. He means it to be chivalrous, letting the lady go first, an abrupt remembrance of his manners even now.

I come within five feet of him, his hand still extended, urging me to walk in front of him, and I can’t do it. The pressure of my fear increases the closer I get to him. I stop several feet away, my breathing faster. “I can’t. You go first.”

His hand drops flat to his side, and he turns stiffly, facing me directly, and I think that I can feel the anger of him, the restraint it takes for him to have a civil conversation with me.

“You’re so frightened of me that you don’t trust me at your back? And yet you’re here, lying in wait for me? Does that seem like a wise course of action to you?”

“Leander,” I say, trying it out.

“I won’t do this in the lobby, Rebecca.” His voice is low and tight.

I swallow hard, feeling stupid. People are looking at us and it’s none of their business. Their watching, their knowing frightens me even more than he does. I think. It’s pretty close. “You’re right.”

His chin jerks toward a conference room. “That room there, is that safe enough for you? Clear glass, where everyone can see if I make a move to ravish you?” Disgust fills his whispered words.

I blink in confusion. Ravish me? I was afraid he’d kill me. “Better than behind a mirror,” I snap and he shakes his head, annoyed. I shouldn’t have confronted him. I shouldn’t have come up here. All my convictions are gone. Can I turn around and leave?

My hands are fists at my side, and he’s looking at them, his gaze running over me slowly from foot to head, not dwelling too much on anything above the waist. Not that I wanted him to. It’s just noticeable that he skipped that part. “Your fear…” he says, and I can get no read on what he wants to say, how he feels at this moment. He rakes a hand through his dark hair, causing a section of it to rest on his forehead, which is unreasonably attractive.

“All I know is fear,” I whisper. To him and myself. A reminder or a warning. That sets him into motion, and he walks before me, opens the conference room door and waits for just a moment, so I can go first. And I see him realize that I would then have to pass by him and probably won’t do it.

He sighs, the sound dark and unhappy, and stalks into the room, all the way to the far wall, as far away as he can get from me, and stands behind a chair, his hands resting on the top of it, the tightness of his grip more evidence of how much he does not want anything to do with me.

“Now, Miss Finner, what can I do for you today?” His tone conveys that he doesn’t want to do a damned thing for me.

“I was Rebecca a moment ago.”

His expression is inscrutable. But he doesn’t blink. Cold disdain, boredom, those dark eyes trying to see into me, the steady rise and fall of his chest as he breathes and watches, waiting for me to get to it, long moments passing.

Speak. “You watched me.” I wish my voice were more confident.

His lip curls into a sneer. “Are you asking me or telling me?”

I don’t know. I take a step back, reaching for the door handle, instantly feeling safer when my fingers wrap around it. “Just tell me the truth. Please.” My voice cracks, and I cover my mouth with my hand, not wanting him to see my lip wobbling.

“This infernal crying…I don’t know what to do,” he says, and he looks up at the ceiling, revealing the strong column of his neck. “I don’t know what to do, Rebecca.” It sounds like some sort of confession. Brought out under great torture. He breathes deeply. “Will that fix this? My answer?”

“If you’re honest. I hope. I see you in my dreams now, I imagine things you’ve said to me, and maybe Brown is right, it’s a fixation, because I think you’re there and I don’t know. I don’t know anything. Not who I am or where I belong. I’m watched and I don’t even know who watches me. I have no control over anything in my life.” Oh my god, the freedom of saying it, of putting it into words and having it be coherent is enough to make me dizzy.

He’s not looking at me but at the wall to the right. “Turn your head so I can see your face,” I say, throwing it back at him.

His shoulders stiffen but he looks back, meeting my gaze. His eyes are glittering with what I think must be anger. “I’ll leave,” he says. He rubs his hand across his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose. “I can leave New York for a while if that will help.”

A shocked laugh escapes me. “What will help is you telling me the truth. I mean, how bizarre does it sound that you would leave the city because of me? You’ll leave rather than answer a simple question?”

“It’s not a simple question,” he says, and he crosses his arms over his chest, every muscle in his body alert and waiting.

We are watching each other and he’s weighing, considering, deciding. I angrily wipe a tear off my cheek. He looks away, to the ground, lips pressing tight for a moment. More moments pass, and then he drums his fingers against the top of the chair, just once, and I realize it’s a tell too. He’s done that before. He’s made a decision. His gaze is almost defiant. “I was on my way back from a meeting and met Dr. Brown in the lobby. He thinks you stole something. Tell me why you took it.”

I hate him then. How can he ask me a question? What right does he have to ignore what I need and make this about him and his fucking box? “You mean right now? Just before you came back to your office? You just happened to run into him at the elevator? And you got here just now because, what, a meeting ended? Not because you were down there watching me? Stop lying to me!” And I’m moving toward him, fear subsumed under the anger as I get closer to him. He is as still as the dead, doesn’t move an inch as I close the distance between us but waits, gaze narrowing as I get closer.

He’s so confident that I could never do anything that would hurt him. Never, ever, never. “You were there! You watch me. You like to see my face when I’m crying, you like to watch me falling apart.” My voice throbs with conviction, my fist hits his chest, and he backs up a step, raises his hands but doesn’t stop me. If anything, he seems curious, dispassionately interested in what I might do. Like a kitten batting at a pit bull. He can afford to be patient.

“You did this to me and now you’ll leave me here?” I’m screaming at him, and I am sure that the people in the lobby are looking through the glass in shock, but I don’t care. In the heat of the moment, I want them to know, I want witnesses and proof. I want him to get down on his knees and beg for an apology. I want to hurt him, harm him, draw blood so he has some notion of the harm he’s caused me. He’s a monster. He’s sick to be doing this to me.

My hand rises, fingers like claws, ready to scratch his face, his beautiful face that scares the hell out of me and looks at me as if he doesn’t know me. He grabs my hand in his, containing me. “You’re lying to me! I know it! I know you are!” And I collapse against his chest, maybe falling there rather than moving toward him.

“Stop it. People are looking, goddamn it!” He squeezes my hand in his. “You’re right. Christ, Rebecca.” His breathing is harsh against my hair as I sob into his shirt. His free hand settles on the back of my head, keeping me pressed against him. “It’s me. I watch you. It’s me in that room and I—”

The door opens and it’s a security guard who enters. I pull away from him and he lets me go reluctantly. My skin is tingling, heart racing, and the fear is everywhere. Maybe even in the guard’s face as he watches us and decides we’re both nuts. And somewhere inside of me I think this is how it always is. The fight. The push and pull and one of us giving in.

Have I won this round? He’s confessed and I should feel relieved to have my question answered. But it doesn’t actually get me anywhere or tell me anything. It’s like climbing to the top of a hill and realizing there’s a whole damn mountain range to go.

He tells the security guard to leave, his voice a rumble of sound that surrounds me. He takes my wrists in his hands, probably not trusting me, which is undoubtedly wise of him, and the security guard leaves, closes the door, and Leander takes a step back from me but doesn’t let me go. His black brows are slashed together, his expression hard as he looks down at me. “Don’t come at me again. I don’t do well with that. Do you understand?”

I’m ashamed and I try to jerk away from him, but he’s immovable, too strong for me to even make him budge. “It was wrong of me,” I whisper and he releases me, hauls in a breath. My mind is blank.

“This has gone on too long. It isn’t safe. I’ll come to your apartment,” he says, and then he freezes, an eternity passing in that moment as he comes to some realization. He laughs miserably and gives me a look that makes me shiver. “Are you happy now, Rebecca? I’ll come to you.” And then he’s heading for the door.

He’ll come to me. I didn’t want that.

I’d never, ever want that.





8





Note to self—this is a recovered memory. I’ve been told that accuracy is a problem. It’s as though the memories, once disturbed, are never properly reset. This is a stupid analogy but I think of it like nail polish. You put it on, wait for it to set, and then, if you bump it before it dries, it gets all messed up. It might still be there, but it’s wonky and you can’t smooth it out and the only option is to live with it being uneven or take it off and start again.

I don’t want the memories taken off. Removed. They’re mine. But I don’t know if they’re a little bit wonky and off. The color is there at least. But the smudging of it, the jostling when things were not set, means that some things might get put in there that never happened. Maybe that I wanted to happen or maybe that I was afraid of.

Which is unfortunate because fear is my best friend.

And sometimes the real events are never recovered. As if the human brain is so fragile that it just can’t give it back. So maybe none of this happened or half of it did. For all of these recovered memories, I have to go with my gut when determining what really happened. My gut tells me that my memory of this night is true. And yet it’s everything I ever wanted and was scared of, so maybe none of it’s true after all.

There are many things I could have asked Leander after he made that cryptic statement about coming to visit me, but the most pertinent one would have been, “when?” because I go home and don’t know what to do with myself. Should I wait around all day? I have no milk and I’m a cereal junkie. I have no other food and pills on an empty stomach make me feel sick.

What if he comes and I’m not home? The grocery store is literally across the street. After an hour and a half of my stomach growling and the window for taking my pills passing, I decide that I have to carry on with my life like normal because staring at the clock for hours waiting for him to maybe show up is ridiculous. Part of me doesn’t even believe he’ll really come. Maybe it was just a ploy to get me out of his office.

I put on my coat, then head for the lobby. The advantage of having security in the building is that they’ll make sure to give Leander a message. Leander now, is it?

“I’m expecting a visitor. If he comes, will you let him up? And if he gets here and I’m not back, have him wait. I won’t be gone for more than five minutes, eight tops.”

The security guard looks vaguely interested. Probably because I’ve never made any sort of request before. “Name?”

“Who, me? I’m Rebecca Finner on the fifteenth floor.”

He scowls. “Yes, ma’am. I know that, ma’am. I need the name of your visitor.”

I’m an idiot. “His name is Leander Marchant. Do you want me to tell you what he looks like or spell it?”

“No ma’am. We know Mr. Marchant.”

I suddenly want to throw up. “How do you know him?”

“He owns the building, for a start.” He taps something into the computer and then looks back up at me. “And he’s your emergency contact.”

Now I’m speechless. “My what?” I try to peer over the desk but can’t see the monitor.

“If something happens, we are to call Mr. Marchant directly.”

It takes me a moment to process that information. “Where does it say that? No one has ever asked me—like, I’ve never filled out a form or anything saying I want him as an emergency contact!”

Now he looks confused. “Do you want to see your contract?”

“Yes, I do.”

He holds up a finger, the universal sign for just a minute, and goes through a door. I hear the clanging of a metal file cabinet closing with a slight squeak. He returns with a piece of paper. It has my name, my apartment number, the amount of deposit paid, and the emergency contact does, in fact, say Leander Marchant.

I pull out my phone and take a picture of the form front and back. Then I turn it over and the lease is signed by him. And the date… it’s before I went into the hospital

I feel sick. Confused. He knows me. He knew me before I was hurt and got amnesia. Wait. That means I’m not a charity case for his foundation. I’m someone he knew and who he rented an apartment for and paid for even before I was hurt.

What kind of relationship did we have that he pays for me? Why pretend he doesn’t know me? Does this mean that he must have hurt me? Is there any other possibility? And yet, I can feel my uncertainty rising, coupled with a vague sense of confusion and a headache lurking between my temples.

I lean against the counter heavily as all the ramifications of him knowing me try to sink in. I could have a family or friends and he would know who they are. Oh my god, what if he’s hiding them from me?

“Have you…ever seen us together? It would have been several months ago. Probably.” He looks at me like I’m crazy.

“I’ve only been here a month, ma’am. But if you come back later tonight, Eddie will probably know. He’s always saying he’s been here since the building was built. Like it’s a good thing to have no ambition.”

“Good point,” I manage, because I’m not really listening anymore, I’m thinking about me and my lack of a past and this guy who’s keeping things from me.

Besides the mystery, I feel like I’m missing something obvious. Leander Marchant knew me and probably hurt me. I lick my lips. “What do you do if…you know something is not right? Like…danger. Getting hurt. If someone hurts me…” I’m overwhelmingly tired all of a sudden. I need a nap. I push away from the counter.

“Ma’am?” I blink. That’s me. My head turns slowly, like I’m encased in quicksand. “If someone is hurting you…?” he asks me. I want to say Leander’s name, but I’m walking away and then I’m back in my apartment.

Sans milk.

I just wait there, pacing, feeling sick and staring at the number on the contact form. It doesn’t even occur to me that I don’t have any clue what the security guard was going to tell me. That I just wandered away and didn’t get help. Why did I do that?

Leander Marchant. That’s what matters. I keep that with me, next to my heart and at the front of my mind. I will never, ever forget Lord Marchant. Who? I gag and dash to the bathroom in case I throw up.

At seven there is a knock on the door. I check my appearance in the mirror, hands clammy as I fluff my hair. Why am I doing that? My outfit is a bulky turtleneck and jeans. What was I thinking to wear such an unflattering outfit? I confess that part of me now wonders if he planted the idea in my mind. To cover up and not be too enticing or if it was my own sense of self-preservation that kept me from wearing something prettier.

When I open the door, he looks me up and down once. I think he even nods. As though he approves of my form-hiding outfit. “Are you going to invite me in?”

“Do I need to? You’re paying for the place.”

The look on his face gives nothing away. He moves a step closer, and I jerk back, stumbling, my ankle rolling so that I’m falling, about to hit the ground, and he grabs me, hoists me upright and lets me go after a long moment. “All I wanted was for you to move out of the way,” he says, voice low. “But heaven forbid you make anything easy or let any comment pass.”

“You say that like I do this all the time.” He lets me go and dusts his hands as though I’ve left a residue on them. It’s annoying. Insulting even.

He’s inside my apartment, turning slowly, examining the place carefully. I see him pause, looking into my bedroom, and when he meets my gaze again, his cheeks are a bit red. Embarrassed to be caught looking?

He doesn’t belong here. He’s too large, too handsome and powerful. His mere presence is taking up everything. The air, the light, my attention. It’s like every molecule in my body is yearning toward him. Scared and attracted at once. He’s here. He’s real. What would it be like if I went up to him and kissed him? Would he respond? Did he hurt me? Bloody me and dump me at a hospital?

I think he can read my mind. “I don’t have time for this,” he says and he sounds disgusted. “If you have questions, ask them. Quickly.”

That jerks me into motion, and I pick up the copy of my lease the security guard was kind enough to print out. “You signed this. Not your corporation but you. And it’s before the accident. How do we know each other?”

He closes his eyes for a moment. “The devil is in the details,” he mutters. “I can’t answer that question.” He grimaces, perhaps recognizing how ridiculous it is that he can’t answer the very first question I’ve asked. Those dark eyes lock on to mine. “Rebecca, you used to trust me. You don’t now though, do you? There is no…” I can practically see him sorting through words in his vocabulary to find the right one. “Vestige of that.”

“Vestige? That’s the word you came up with? I’m not even sure what that means! I can’t imagine I ever trusted you. You terrify me.” Hysteria is my co-pilot.

“Which is amusing,” he says, laughing unhappily.

“What does that mean?” I feel more confused than I did before.

“This bumbling around in the dark is ridiculous. You don’t need to know how we met or where. It simply doesn’t matter. Here we are, you don’t even remember me, and still”—he hesitates, the anger making each word precise and hard—“you won’t let me go.”

Something in his demeanor changes. His eyes go over me again, from the floor and back up, and he lingers, he’s examining me, and I just know he’s imagining taking off my clothes. “You’re so weak, Rebecca. So deluded and yet you hold on. Why? You’re finally, finally afraid of me after all this time and yet…” His voice is softer now, lower, almost hypnotic, rubbing over me like warm sunlight. “I don’t know if your fear is finally stronger than your desire. And me, maybe I’m even worse than you, because here I am. In your apartment and alone with you. What is fear to you now, Rebecca? Is it finally death that scares you? Because that hasn’t been my fear for a very long time.”

I can’t help but stare at him, at his mouth and his neck, at the way he’s suddenly alive and real before me. The coldness is gone, the pretense that we’ve never met, and somehow he looks different, feels different. Did he hurt me? Could he? He’s standing here talking about death and fear, and somehow I don’t think he put me in a coma.

“Dear Miss Finner,” he says, whisper soft. He’s close now but I’m not sure who moved or when. “Sometimes I think you always knew. That you watched, somehow perceived. Fear is vulnerability and weakness.” He takes a step closer to me, and I back up, maintaining the distance, some slight sense of self-preservation still rattling around inside me. “You are my fear, you know,” he says, like another man might confess love.

But he’s on a roll now and I’m not even sure he’s talking to me. Maybe he’s talking to himself or to us, trying to speak sense into his own mind even though his body is moving toward me. “You are my own personal plague and nightmare made flesh. And you just won’t stop fighting me. Even though you don’t remember, you fight. God help us both if you do,” he says. Those dark eyes are on mine, his voice low and hypnotic. It’s persuasive and I could listen to him until I die.

Until he kills me.

I’ve stopped moving, because I don’t fight him. The real me doesn’t move away from Leander Marchant. That’s not in my blood, my cells, or DNA. If Leander Marchant wants me, then he can have me. Maybe that’s all I am and all I’ll ever be. The totality of my desires and ambitions is this man before me.

I feel his hand on my face but I don’t remember him reaching out to me. It’s just there. Heat and familiarity. His lips are near mine but he doesn’t kiss me. “You have to stop doing this, Rebecca. To us. We can’t do this, and some part of you must know that. I think that’s why you cry, why you struggle. Because you won’t let go and you need to. You won’t let go even though it almost got you killed.” He cups my face in his hands, my head tilted back, and now I know he’ll kiss me, but instead he’s speaking and, even as he’s talking, it’s like I’m losing myself. As if I’m not in my head or my body, but outside of it. He’s taking it over, his voice surrounding me, taking away my fear and rearranging it.

My brain is like a messy drawer or a cupboard, and he’s taken everything out, and he’s trying to put it all back together. Me. He’s organizing my mind. I’m just a wind-up doll waiting to be set down and released as I stare into his eyes.

“You won’t remember me being here. You don’t care about who you were. You want peace and quiet.” His hand is in my hair and I feel his fingers clench on my scalp. My mouth opens, a gasp, and I arch into him. He makes a sound. Rough. Urgent. I know that sound. It reverberates through my body and is a part of who I am. His need and his desire, the way he makes me feel.

“That’s mine,” I say and my hands reach to him, to his waist and the muscles there. His body goes rigid. “You make that sound for me.”

“No, Rebecca.” But he’s flush against me.

Maybe I am his fear.

I can feel him, hard and heavy, pressed against my stomach. This is the truth. The only real thing. This is what we are. And I must have said it out loud because his eyes flash oddly. Like a trick of the light, but somewhere in my body I think hunger. His hands move to my shoulders, and he’s going to push me away from him. My gaze locks on his neck, and I’m purring with desire, aggressive, a fine tremble going through him as I press my face against his neck. He says my name, his hands convulsing on my arms, pulling me closer. Away. Almost instantly he’s letting me go, then gripping me again. I want to bite him, mark him, take his skin in my mouth and taste him. It’s going to happen.

“Do not,” he says, and he’s breathing hard. He means it; his tone is foreboding. My arms go around his neck, my fingers clenching in the silk of his hair. “Damn you, Rebecca.” And I can’t wait any longer, can’t see anything wrong with what I want to do, so I bite him, sink my teeth into his neck, and he cries out, suddenly moving, picking me up, my legs around his waist as he takes me to the back of the couch, his hands on my ass as he sets me down, pressing himself into the ache between my legs, to where I need him more than I’ve ever needed anything in my life.

Even more than I need to remember who I was, I need him inside me. My leg goes around his waist, the hard muscles of his ass flexing against my calf as I try to get him closer to me.

He’s just as urgent as I am, mimicking sex as he rubs his cock against my core through our clothes. His hands clench on my thighs, demanding I open for him as he forces himself closer. His mouth is firm on mine, his lips sliding against mine, his tongue in my mouth, tasting me, claiming me. My hands go to his waist, to his buckle and his zipper.

“Don’t wait,” I say, and anything else I want to say gets taken, stolen from my heart and my lungs into his mouth, consumed by his desire for me. His mouth is on my neck. I feel a hint of teeth and his body shudders. Close, I think, and joy goes through me to think that just this can push him close to the edge. “I need you inside me,” I say, and he stops, panting, his breath warm on my neck, then my temple as he holds me still against his chest. I can feel the beat of his heart against me, and I know he can feel mine, hear mine, even.

“I won’t, Rebecca,” he says, like a vow, and his hand moves down my back, possessively, and with a groan he rocks against me, the thick ridge of him pressing hard to my core, sending jolts of pleasure through me, a gush of desire flooding me. His eyes close as though he’s in pain, nostrils flaring as he moves against me. If he took me now, he’d fuck me. It would be rough and urgent. He’d bite me, pour himself into me, consume me. No affection, no love-making, just desperation.

How many different versions of us are there?

Then he shifts, cool air rushing between our bodies as he leaves me. I don’t try to get him back but wait, legs open as he presses his palm against me, cupping me, rubbing me through my clothes, and I can’t stop myself from crying out, from coming in his arms like he wants. He closes his desire down, locks it away, ever focused on the goal before him. That’s the appeal of one like him. What if, after all this time and his experiences, I can be the one to bring him to his knees?

He’s not looking at me anymore, not really. He’s looking beyond me and my passion, beyond his, into the empty core of my soul, and he takes the tiny scrap that’s left, the hint of him and what we were or might have been, and he demands that too, using his abilities to force me into nothing.

You made me come, made me receptive, and then you took my memories, my suspicions, and you had no right. I didn’t consent. I didn’t give you permission.

Is it a form of rape, Leander? The way you treated me? But I shouldn’t speak to you, should I? How egotistical of me to think you might care enough to read this. And it doesn’t matter. This isn’t for you anyway. It’s for me. So I remember who I was, am, and are, even when I’m supposed to forget.

I like to think he didn’t know. That if he knew what he was to me, that he was everything to me, that maybe he wouldn’t have left me with nothing. But I was never that important. “Forget that I was here,” he says while I’m weak and my body is still reverberating from his touch. This time it’s different. This time when he tells me to forget, there is strength, power, like an electric wave that swamps me, tells me what to say, what to believe as he takes me apart, empties me out and slams the door of my mind closed. I’m repeating it back to him, everything he wants. I can’t fight him.

Not really.

I’m just human.

I only win when he wants to lose.

That’s his secret. He says fear is vulnerability but that’s a smokescreen. Something easy he tosses out to deflect from the truth. The truth is that sometimes Leander Marchant doesn’t want to win. He doesn’t want to be that strong. He’s a coward to do it this way. To kiss me and make me come solely so he can get past my defenses and try again to keep me at bay, fucking with my memory.

“You weren’t here,” I find myself saying. It’s so cold.

“You’ve never heard of Marchant Enterprises.”

“I’ve never…” I hesitate, and he says it again, more firmly, his eyes boring into mine, voice hard, resolute and final. His will is greater than mine. Always has been and always will be. It’s part of my desire for him. Such power and control so tightly contained. And now it’s focused on me and all I can do is give in. “I’ve never heard of Marchant Enterprises,” I whisper.

“You’ve never heard of Leander Marchant,” he demands. I don’t say it but gasp instead, try to pull away from him, but he won’t let me go. I think it surprises him that I’m still fighting, wanting to keep a scrap of my old life, when everything else is gone. I mean, it’s not like I knew the value of it.

He says it again, over and over, until I’m tired, until I don’t know why I won’t say the words he wants me to. I hardly know what they even mean anymore, just an odd jumble of sounds that are supposed to go in a certain order.

By the end, ten seconds, maybe five minutes, who knows how much time passed, but by the end I couldn’t have told you my own name let alone his. I can’t say he broke me. He didn’t.

He wouldn’t.

Leander Marchant would never, ever break me.

I know what that’s like and he’s not capable of it. But he did wear me down, did it for a greater purpose, maybe even for my own good. Leander Marchant tells me what to say, every single thing he wants me to believe, to forget or let go, and so I do.

And then I’m standing in my kitchen alone, with the sense that I’ve just missed something or I was supposed to be somewhere and I’m not. It’s a terrible feeling.

I’ve heard that when a woman has a newborn, she’ll dream she’s forgotten the baby. She’ll go to the grocery store and leave the baby in the cart and, when she wakes up, the relief is so great, the fear so terrible that her heart is pounding and she’s shaking even though it wasn’t real. That’s where I was after he left. Unable to escape the feeling that I’d just lost something or forgotten something precious.

My apartment is horrendously quiet and yet the emptiness is odd. I find myself opening all the doors, even the closets to make sure I’m alone. My front door opens and I’m so startled that I let out a little scream.

Jessica is looking at me like I’m nuts. “Who was that?”

“Who was who?” I ask and my head is killing me. The worst headache ever is pounding in my head.

“The man who was just here. Oh my god, he was sooo hot.”

“There was no one here,” I say, faintly robotic, and I want to tell her to leave, that I have a headache and I need to go to bed. She comes up to me, concern on her lovely face. “If you don’t want to say, then that’s okay. I suppose we’re all entitled to our secrets, but don’t lie to me.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I’m going to tell her that there wasn’t any man here. But my head is on the verge of explosion, so I leave her in the living room and go to the bathroom to find my migraine medication. There’s a box on the counter next to the sink. Small, ivory, and I know that box. That’s my box.

“Who was just here?” I say, filled with panic.

That’s my fucking box.

She’s nervous now. I’ve gone crazy and she’s feeding the crazy gal information. “I don’t know. A man. He came, he was here for a while, maybe twenty minutes, then he left. And he was hot,” she says, as if that piece of information is too important to leave out. I’m out the door before she’s done speaking, heading for the elevator.

The doors open, and Mrs. Sackowitz comes out carrying a bag of groceries, and I’ve never been so happy to see her in my life. The elevator takes ages to get to my floor, and if I’d had to wait for it, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had a chance to catch this mystery man. But now I might. I punch the ground floor button and pace like a trapped animal until the bell dings and the doors open. I burst into the lobby and scan it.

No one there besides the guard.

He sees me and gestures, wanting me to come over to him for some reason or another. I don’t have time. I need to see…something. Someone. He calls out to me as I run past him. “You looking for Mr. Marchant?”

I freeze. “What?”

“He just left. Probably getting a cab down at the corner. Rudy said you wanted to know about your lease.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about, but the name Marchant slams through me, and I run out to the street, to see this man who was just in my apartment. His name is in my head; it’s shaped on my tongue. Marchant. Marchant.

Leander.

There are two people standing at the corner, where it’s easiest to catch a taxi. A couple, I think, but I don’t slow down. The woman is tall, in a fur coat, everything about her screaming glamour and money. The man looks rough, bulky, like he belongs down at the docks. She looks at me and laughs, the sound high and tinkling.

“Leander!” I shout because there are people everywhere, wandering the streets in the dark, and I don’t know which one he is or where he went. A man whirls around to look back, the glamorous woman and the rough man between us.

The woman in the fur is approaching me, obstructing my line of sight, and I move to see this man who turned around. He’s tall, powerful. It exudes from him. In the ruthless set of his mouth and the way his hand fists at his side as he sees me. He’s furious, moving fast to get to me, and I’m scared because I don’t know what a man who looks that ruthless and quietly cold might do to me.

I want to go back, turn around, but suddenly there is a hand on my arm, the brush of fur against my bare skin as the woman who was laughing stands next to me, lightly urging me to stay still.

In a blink he is suddenly there, this Leander Marchant, who I apparently know but have somehow forgotten. He’s not looking at me but the woman beside me. “No,” he says, so much threat in the word that I bite back a whimper even though he’s not talking to me.

Another feminine laugh. “That was practically a growl. How very uncivilized!” Her grip has hardened, and although I try to pull away from her, my arm doesn’t budge.

“You harm her and I will finish you,” Leander growls.

“Isn’t he brave?” she says, leaning toward me, a sotto voice murmur. “It’s his own fault. Here he is dangling you around for anyone to use.” She shudders theatrically. “It’s vulgar of him.” Her attention shifts to Leander. “And I won’t condone it. I’m not going to talk to you on the street, where anyone can see us. You know, I don’t care whether she lives or dies,” she says, so sweetly that it scares the hell out of me. “I just want to talk to you, Lee. Let’s go into the alley,” she says and I feel something hard digging into my side.

“Now that is a gun you feel pressed up against your side,” she says conversationally. “It’s just the sweetest thing. I have no intention of using it…unless I have to.”

“You’re not taking her into that alley,” Leander says. “Leave her here and I’ll go with you.”

“No. You don’t control this. Your money, your scheming and clout, she makes it useless. Pardon the triteness, but she is your Achilles’ heel. You are strong, indestructible almost….” Her gaze rolls to me. Me? I’m this guy’s weakness.

“You must have me confused with someone else.”

She ignores me. “Get into the alley or I’ll put a hole in her. You may be fast, but no one is faster than a bullet. It’s genius, really. Probably wise keeping them off the island.”

Leander takes a step back, his dark eyes never leaving the woman standing next to me. With a nod he moves past us into the alley on my right. It’s dark and the smell of urine is eye-wateringly powerful. I’m calm, I don’t know why. Not calm as in ready to take a nap, but I’m not screaming. I’m not panicking even though this woman has a gun on me and this man scares me. I’m listening to the exchange with a peculiar detachment.

“It’s so much quieter here,” she says conversationally. “Now then, how have you been? How’s Cassandra? All recovered, I take it? I miss her.”

“No games, Diana.”

She pouts, the move practiced and artificial. She’s beautiful, unbelievably attractive. “You love my games. I’ve come up with new ones in the time we’ve been apart. Just imagine…” She lets it trail off, planting the idea in his mind, I guess. He doesn’t even blink, just watches her.

“Why are you here?”

“Stephen sent me. He wanted to reconnect. The world grows smaller every year, you know. Planes, telephones, the Internet especially, we are all so interconnected that it doesn’t make any sense for us all to be apart anymore.”

“So why isn’t he here?”

She sighs with dramatic exaggeration. “Well, you know how it is. Busy, busy, busy. Running an empire is terribly exhausting. All work and no play can make you men very, very dull,” she says, the words flat and dangerous.

“Tell me what you want and leave.”

She smiles, slow and seductive. “Are you saying I can have whatever I want?”

A pause. His voice is rough. “I’m saying I’ll consider it.”

She makes a sound that reminds me of an angry kitten. “Your subjects are unhappy. They want to leave their little paradise and rejoin the world. Apparently, you’ve become quite the dictator.”

“Who reached out to you?” he asks, attention fixed on this fur-clad woman.

A chuckle. “As if I’ll tell you for no reason. Spoil the game. You’re never there; you don’t know what goes on in that little paradise of yours. For example, I saw Helene last week.”

“You’re lying.”

“No.” She raises a pale hand, an obscenely large diamond sliding to the side of her finger. “Cross my heart and hope you die, it’s true. She was in London. And I saw Jeffrey a month or so ago. Why, Lee, you look astonished!” She jabs me in the side with her gun. “Doesn’t he look surprised?”

Frankly, he looks just as quietly murderous as he did a few moments ago, his expression unchanged from an evil scowl, but I’m not stupid enough to argue with a woman pointing a gun at me. “They’ve all been leaving the island. Making their moves, establishing bases in the outside world. And you just assume that they’re all waiting at home quietly until Daddy returns. You’ve become complacent.” This sounds like an insult. As though she said the word fool instead.

“And you’re here to help me?” he says, disbelief in his dark voice.

“Heavens, no. I’m here to keep you occupied. We heard a rumor, you see, that there was a little mortal keeping you distracted, that you’d chosen her over family. Over your own kind! So I came to see. For myself,” she says, and she comes around to face me, sliding the gun along my arm, up my chest and resting it under my chin.

I whimper, the coldness of it, the deadness in her eyes making me terrified. “See where the gun is, my love?” she says, clearly talking to Leander but looking at me. Her brows rise as she studies me closely, enjoying my fear.

“Well, I certainly don’t know what anyone is all concerned about. She’s obviously mortal, bizarrely quiet, and apparently can’t remember a damned thing.”

“You don’t harm her, Diana. This has nothing to do with her,” he says. His attention flickers to me and away. Dismissing me. He hates me, I think.

“You made her a part of this. You stole her away, you brought her here, and you let her wander around, your weakness roaming the city. I won’t kill her,” she says, even as she shoves the barrel of the gun into my throat.

“I’m not here to harm her. I’m here on a mission of peace. Isn’t that funny? Me? Peace? Stephen wanted you to know that she’s being spoken of. That there are others who want her and that if you truly value her, you better keep her close. The whole world knows she isn’t dead. I mean, if you can’t count on defenestration to get the job done, then goodness gracious, what’s left? Stephen didn’t have to tell you, Lee. I wouldn’t have.”

I’m frantically searching for a way to escape, but there is nothing. The alley dead ends. The only way out is to go back the way we came, to get past the woman with the gun, and how would I do that? In the blackness I can see trash, cardboard and paper, sludge that in a previous decade might have been food, but nothing metal or wood, nothing that might be a weapon.

“We can figure this out, Diana,” he says. And he takes a step closer to her.

She rolls her eyes, and because she’s facing me, I can see it when he can’t. “God, I hate you,” she says vehemently. And I don’t know if she means me or him. She moves quickly, too quickly for me to make sense of the noise and the red that’s spreading down his shirt. I think I heard the sound after he was shot, as if the blood came first, the quiet snick of the silencer an afterthought. He jerks backwards as she shoots him again, abruptly falling to his knees before us. I throw my body into her, reaching for the gun with two hands, acting on instinct, screaming loudly, rage and pain making my cry guttural.

With one hand she shoves me back, that small touch so forceful I slam into the wall shoulder first, pain radiating outward through me, a reverberation. Off-balance, I go down to the ground, losing time, too much time. Two steps and she’s standing over him. A heartbeat later and she’s emptied the clip into him. He’s trying to speak, blood pouring from his mouth. Miraculously still alive.

“Voila. There is no ignoring that message.” she says and turns to me, head tilted lightly to the side, lips pursed. “Listen well, girl. When the ambulance comes, you need to go with them. He’ll take you down with him, the selfish bastard. Do you understand me?”

No, I don’t, and I don’t know if I say anything or not. The only thing I can hear is the wet breathing of the man dying a few feet away. She points a finger to the sky. “Hear that?” It’s a siren, shrill and getting louder as it comes closer. “Here they come. And Rebecca, it’s been just lovely to meet you. Best of luck with your new life.” She turns away, heels clicking loudly as she saunters away.

I want to go to him, want to move, but I can’t. I’m shaking, trembling, my body oddly numb. All I can do is sit there, back against the wall, my eyes on this man who’s dying before me. A final gurgle, a sound to haunt my dreams for the rest of my life, and he’s gone. I see it happen. The sudden utter stillness of his body, the absence of him. He’s dead. I don’t even know who he is, and yet I feel like I’ve been ripped open by sharp grief. It’s a poltergeist made manifest, this sense of loss, as though my life and soul is hemorrhaging out of me to him, tied to him by invisible cord. I’m falling into darkness, a black faint as the world goes quiet around the edges.

He’ll take you down with him. That’s what she said and it’s true. I’m dying. Even without a bullet hole, I’m finished.





9





I wake up to the sound of beeping. I’m not in my own bed, but the smell is sterile and the walls are a horrendous blue. Oh god. The hospital again. I flex the fingers of my right hand and feel the IV in my vein. IVs suck.

No breathing tube, which is good. I move my legs and they feel fine. No casts, no pain. Why am I here?

I want to sit up, but that hurts like a son of a bitch. My stomach. My fucking stomach. I hate my body and how soft it is. How weak it is. Everything cuts it. Knives, guns, metal, so many things that can shred flesh. Why are we covered by something so flimsy as skin? Why don’t I have a shell or something harder, made of…calcium? What’s an exo-skeleton made of?

I can’t focus. My mind is sluggish and my eyes heavy. I’ll go back to sleep. That’s all one can do in the hospital—go back to sleep. Fall into it at every opportunity so that at some point you wake up and you’re well enough to get the hell out. My door opens and a nurse comes in, smiling at me. Easy to smile when you’re not in the bed, I think grumpily.

“Miss Finner, so glad you’re awake.”

“That makes two of us. Molly, how are you?” My words are slurred. I hear it but don’t mean to do it. She’s happy I remember her. From the last time. My throat is suddenly tight.

“What happened?” Enunciating properly is hard work.

She’s looking at my chart, reading machines and writing things down, but saying nothing. She pulls the sheet down from my chest, exposing my abdomen and the three small dressings scattered around my stomach.

“We need to stop meeting like this,” she says and lifts the dressings to look at the wounds underneath. “You almost bled to death.”

And then I remember. “He was shot!”

“No, you were not shot,” she says, misunderstanding. “It just happens sometimes, a freak occurrence really, sudden internal hemorrhage. You’re quite lucky you were so close to the hospital. There are only a few hospitals in the US who have the proper imaging equipment. Laparoscopic, you see. That’s why you have these dressings. You’re going to be bruised inside, feel very sore, but it shouldn’t be too bad. The surgery entry points were very small. You’ll be up soon.”

“No, I was with someone who was shot. She shot him!” The name hovers on my tongue, just out of reach.

Her face is lined with concern. “No, dear. That’s not what the paramedics report says. You were found in an alley and transported here on your own.”

“No.” That’s a damned lie. The nurse flicks a glance at the heart rate monitor, which is beeping more frequently as I become more agitated.

“Just relax. Everything is going to be fine,” she says, which we both know is total crap. She goes back to writing on my chart.

“No,” I repeat. “That’s not right. A man was there. I was in an alley….” Why was I there? What sort of moron goes into a dark alley at night? I close my eyes tight and see a flash of a woman in a fur coat, and she’s got a gun. Is that real? “I want to see the report.”

She looks me over, concern sincere. “I’ll get it off the computer. I just have to finish writing you up.”

“How long was I out?”

“Oh, it’s been a good few days.”

The door opens, another nurse poking her head in. “Molly, you’re needed in three.”

She nods. Squeezes my foot through the blanket. “I’ll come check on you later. It’s Thursday. That’s your favorite, right? And I’ll bring you two puddings just like I used to.”

“Turkey,” I mutter, and maybe I smile at her even though I’m dying inside. It’s a reflex. I’m expected to smile, so I smile. I’m expected to be happy about something so I have to show happiness, or else. Or else what?

“You just missed meatloaf, so that’s something.” A soft laugh, because the meatloaf is like poorly-shaped dog food.

I want to scream at her that I don’t care, that she’s wrong or lying and that I need to know what’s going on or else I will tear her the fuck apart. But in my state, I couldn’t terrify a chicken even if I was in the middle of eating a bucket of fried chicken.

She puts my chart back on the end of my bed and leaves me alone in the room.

I go in and out of sleep for some amount of time, and when I next wake, there is someone else in the room with me. The rustling of a newspaper page being turned. I have the strangest thought—I didn’t iron it! And I wake up, feeling almost scared that I’ve screwed up somehow, failed at a task. “I’m sorry, my lord,” I mumble, thinking it must be the remains of a bizarre dream I was having. My throat is dry so I cough.

The man puts down his paper, and I see his face and want to cry or die or scream, I don’t know what. I know that face. But I can’t remember ever meeting him or think of a name, but I feel like I know him. He’s good-looking enough to be on TV. Is that where I’ve seen him? But why would he be here, in my room? I take the opportunity to look at him, analyze every piece of him, from his hair that’s a color between mahogany and black, thick and with a hint of a curl, to his eyes, which are dark, inscrutable; maybe they’re the windows to someone’s soul, but it sure as hell ain’t his. He’s wearing a dark blue suit and pale blue shirt with a silk tie that has small geometric designs on it. He’s perfectly presented and impossibly expensive, everything about him perfect. So perfect. Restrained, even.

There is a flash of silver cufflink as he takes a glass of water from the tray on the wheelie table near my feet. His face becomes more set, almost grim in the few steps it takes to bring him close to me. He’s looking down at me like I’m a problem, as if this is his room and a sick woman has suddenly appeared in it. He offers me the water and I read the initials on his cufflinks. LM engraved in a frilly script. I reach for the water, our hands brushing as I take the glass and have a few sips of it.

LM. The alley. Is that him?

“Not too much at first. It’s been a while since you’ve had food or water,” he says, and I make myself stop drinking even though I want to guzzle the whole thing. “What are you sorry for?” he asks, taking the glass from me and setting it back on the tray.

“What?”

“Just now, when you were waking. You said you were sorry and you called me my lord. Why did you do that?”

A warm wash of color floods over me. “I don’t know. I was waking up. It must have been a dream or something.”

His eyes close briefly and then reopen. Somehow, he looks even more distant than he did a moment ago. He sighs heavily. “Wonderful,” he murmurs.

“You’re dead,” I manage. “I saw it.”

“Hmm, all right,” he says, nodding slowly. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I saw you die.” Tears are filling my eyes. It’s not the grief of a stranger but deeper. I reach out to touch him, extending my hand. His shoulders straighten as he braces himself for something terrible, and I think he’s going to take a step back from me, but then he flashes a smile, and he grasps my hand in his lightly, the warmth of him, the tightly contained strength and power in that grip something I inherently know.

I try to pull him closer to me, and he takes a small step, the bare minimum really, his eyebrows rising in polite inquiry. There is no invitation there, no indication that he wants to come closer to me. Or that I have any right to touch him. He tries to let go of my hand but I won’t release him.

“You’re alive.”

He gives my hand a squeeze, friendly but impersonal, and pulls away, leaving me no alternative but to release him. And then I kind of feel like an idiot for reaching out to a total stranger. Or is he a stranger? He sits back in the chair, crosses his legs and watches me, hawk-like. He doesn’t speak. Did I follow him into that alley?

“What does LM stand for?”

“Leander Marchant,” he says with a small smile. My head sinks back onto the pillows. The name is familiar. I wish I were in my apartment. Jessica must be worried sick. I’ll tell her about this man who’s here in my room, and I know what she’ll say—he sounds hot. A memory squiggles to the surface of my brain, Jessica telling me a hot guy was in my apartment… I went after him.

I open my eyes and see that he’s watching me, waiting, apparently, for me to speak. “She told me you were in my apartment. I followed you and there was a woman with a gun. That’s why I went into the alley.”

“Who told you I was in your apartment?” he asks tonelessly.

Who is he to me? “No. You don’t get to turn everything around. Come in here and…. I know you. How?” A demand.

He covers his face with his hands and rests his elbows on his spread legs, blocking out me and the room. Seconds tick by. I can practically see him thinking very, very hard.

His watch is a Rolex that’s peeking out from his cuff. He blows out a breath, drops his hands and laughs. The sound, even the look on his face makes him seem younger, more approachable. It doesn’t do anything to jog my memory. I may know him, but I don’t know a happy him. Ugh. What a crappy thought.

“I don’t know where we are with this. Really, it’s just so….” He’s searching for words. He stands abruptly, the chair knocking backwards and falling to the ground. He grimaces and rights it, clearly annoyed. “I am fairly certain I’ve not knocked a chair over in years…decades even.” Then he’s pacing. All coiled agitation in my ugly hospital room. He stops, seems to gather himself or make a decision, I don’t know. And he says, “It’s almost two months ago now that you woke up in this hospital with no memory of who you were or where you came from. Do you remember that?”

“Do I remember not remembering?”

His expression isn’t friendly.

“Yes, I remember…not remembering. Although I think there must be a better way to say that.”

“When you woke up, you were going to therapy, and during that time you developed a…fixation on me,” he says and I’m mortified. Is this true? He’s so handsome that I could imagine him having a stalker or two but to think that I’m one of them?

“So why are you here if I stalked you?”

He scrubs a hand over his jaw. “I’m not done yet. You developed a fixation on me and accused me of knowing you before your accident.”

“I don’t remember that.” And it’s all so curiously blank, what he’s telling me, that I don’t know what to think. There are little pieces of conversations or images in my mind. Like someone has taken a film, cut all the images into individual squares and then tossed them into the air and made a big mess. And I have some of those squares as memories and that’s it. I blink, process what he’s just said. “You’re telling me I had amnesia and now I have it again? That sounds medically impossible.”

“You hit your head in the alley. That can cause short-term memory loss.” My hand goes to my head, searching for a bruise or some evidence of what he’s saying. “I don’t have a bump or a cut or stitches. And that wouldn’t cause me to lose two months’ worth of memories.” Maybe it would, I don’t know. But my instincts tell me he’s lying to me.

I just don’t believe him. Something is way off. “And how do I know you?” He stops pacing and turns to face me, leaning against the hospital wall with his arms crossed forbiddingly.

His lips flatten into a hard line. “Because we do have a history.” I almost stop breathing. “We met before your accident. We dated. And when you lost your memory, I was sympathetic to your plight. I’ve been paying for you ever since.”

“You’re my boyfriend?” Because amongst all of this, that explanation stands out as particularly bizarre and unlikely.

“No.”

Ah. “You were my boyfriend?”

His mouth opens, closes. “I suppose…yes, I was,” he says, nodding slowly.

“How long did we date?”

“Not…long.”

“And even though we broke up, you’ve been paying for my apartment, hospital, everything?”

“Yes,” he says, his smile devastating. It doesn’t help me untangle this unusual tale he’s feeding me.

“Wow. What did you do? Cheat on me with a poodle or something?”

He shakes his head, not understanding. “We dated for a while, and you’ve been paying for me ever since? That’s pretty generous. So what did you do that makes you feel so guilty you’d spend that kind of money on someone you dated for a short period of time?”

A flash of a grin. It’s fake as hell. “Oh, I see. No, nothing like that. I’m very wealthy, and since you have no family, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

My heart plummets. I have no family?

“Rebecca, it’s very important you listen to me right now. You’ll be released soon, perhaps as early as tomorrow, and you’ll be coming with me. Just until we can work something else out.”

“With you?” My voice is loud. Disbelieving.

“I can protect you better than anyone else. You’ll come with me, and once things are more settled, you can go your own way.” I feel like that’s a lie but am sure he’d deny it. But why wouldn’t he let me go my own way? I clearly don’t mean anything to him. He wouldn’t even hug me. “The problem is that I have enemies, very powerful enemies who have assumed that you’re important to me.”

I drag in air, feeling like he punched me in the stomach. “How silly of them,” I manage. As if I could be important to him. To anyone apparently. After all, I have no family.

“You seem to remember what happened in the alley. You know that I’m lucky to be alive, and I hope that remembering that situation will impress upon you the seriousness of this. My enemies will come after you.”

I think about the woman in the alley. My memory of the alley is getting clearer and clearer. “You mean Diana? She’s your ex, right?”

“It has been a very long time since we were together.”

“How long?” The answer seems important. It also occurs to me that he seems to have very odd taste in women.

He tilts his head to the side as though he’s genuinely calculating the answer. “Three hundred years? Give or take a decade?”

“Screw you! Your batshit crazy ex tries to kill you in an alley, threatens me with a gun, and you still don’t want to tell me the truth? We never went out, did we?”

“Why not?” he asks, seemingly genuinely curious.

Now it’s my turn to hesitate. “It’s like a cat dating a hamster. I don’t know! You’re too terrifying for me to have gone out with you…and you’re not very nice. This is ridiculous. You died in that alley.” The absurdity of that statement sinks in, but I push on. “Tell me how you’re here, alive and well, and yet I’m the one in the hospital bed?” I say, jabbing a finger toward him, forgetting I’m injured until my stomach seizes in agony and steals my breath. He’s suddenly beside me, his hand on my face, and he’s leaning over me.

“That’s not important,” he says clearly. “It was a scratch. I’m fine. You won’t dwell on my being shot in the alley. You will remember that Diana is dangerous.” He steps back from me, arranging the immaculate knot in his tie.

“Diana is dangerous,” I repeat and she is. Of course she is!

“She’ll hurt you. And if she decides you’d be more helpful as a bargaining chip, then she’ll kidnap you.”

Which makes perfect sense because she’s terrifying and capable of anything. Although… “And if she realizes that I mean nothing to you, maybe she’ll leave me alone?” I try to tamp down the bitterness.

“Or she’ll kill you. Just to make a point. And she’s not the only enemy I have. It was stupid of me to think you were safe. I just—” Another shake of his head. “I just wasn’t thinking.” He sounds weary.

I have nothing to say. I don’t know how to feel. I’m just numb and tired. I feel slow, like my brain is filled with drying cement. I want to go home and be in my own apartment, tucked up in my bed with the soft covers pulled high and a crappy movie on in the background. Maybe Jessica will come over and we can order pizza. I suddenly want that so badly that I can almost feel the cotton sheets against my skin. To have a moment of something normal, some routine.

The door opens and the doctor comes in, voice booming. “Mr. Marchant, what a pleasure. We’ve taken good care of Miss Finner,” he says, barely looking at me. They’re shaking hands, ignoring me.

“Dr. Patkar, nice to see you again. I’m sure you have. How is she?” he asks.

The doctor is a nice-looking man, wears glasses, is the wrong side of fifty and has a bushy mustache. He sits down on the rolling stool and wheels over to me, taking my pulse and asking me questions while Leander Marchant waits and watches, making everything deeply uncomfortable. I imagine saying his name. Leander. Or Mr. Marchant. None of it seems quite right. How about my lord? Is that better?

He makes a note in my chart and clicks his pen closed. “She’s recovering nicely,” he says. “I’ll just get her a few prescriptions and you can take her home.”

“Today?” Leander says, barely concealing his shock.

“Which prescriptions?” I ask, dread going through me. He looks to Marchant instead of me, which enrages me. “Why are you checking with him?” I snap.

“Well, for your panic attacks, of course. Then there is the anxiety, the antidepressants, etc.”

“I don’t want any pills.” And I mean that. In fact, it seems bizarre to me now that I took all those stupid pills without question. Even when Jessica asked me why I was taking them, even though she was worried and there were a ton of them, it simply didn’t occur to me to question it. “Wait. You’re Dr. Patkar? You prescribed all the pills I was taking. Of course you want me to keep taking them!”

The doctor hesitates. “Miss Finner, I can understand you not wanting the drugs, but at this point, I believe they are a necessity. You can’t stop taking them abruptly, certainly not with your history,” he says softly, in the same voice one might use to speak to a petulant child.

“What history is that?” Can he see that it’s taking everything in me to not call him any number of highly obscene names?

“Your history as a cutter. The marks on your arms,” he says, frowning at me. The doctor reopens my chart. I know the marks. I know what they must mean but…that’s not me now and it never was. It just couldn’t have been.

I would never, ever do such a thing.

Doubt is an ocean inside me. “I don’t want the pills. That needs to stop.” My stupid voice wobbles. He looks to Leander Marchant instead of me. “Stop looking at him! I’m your patient. Who the fuck are you to come in here and—”

“Stop,” Leander commands, and he’s back at my side, his hands cupping my face, tilting my head, so I look into his eyes. He says something, his voice like water, a nice arrangement of sounds that means absolutely nothing to me. A flash of light explodes behind my eyes, every muscle locking tight in rigid agony as pain floods me.

The doctor comes forward, pushes Leander out of the way, his expression of wide-eyed terror probably the only genuine expression I’ve seen from him since I woke up to him being in my room all cool and distant.

“Damnit, she’s bleeding,” the doctor says, and uses a corner of the sheet to wipe away the blood. I taste it, feel it as a warm gush running from my nose. The doctor urges me to look back at him, looking into my eyes with a light. He hands me gauze and presses it to my nose firmly while we wait for the bleeding to slow. “That’s it, Mr. Marchant. I don’t know much about your people and your abilities, but you can’t do anything else to her. Whatever effectiveness the drugs had in calming her is apparently gone, and it’s clear that whatever you’re doing to her mind is causing her physical harm—”

“That shouldn’t have happened,” he snarls, close to yelling. The doctor recoils a little, frightened by Leander’s angry response. As if he were a child who suddenly realized the friendly Doberman wasn’t as domesticated as he thought.

“Out. Side,” Leander says, voice low and dangerous. The doctor stands upright, the click of his penlight loud and somehow defiant. Leander goes to the door, jerking it open, waiting for the doctor, who’s telling me to keep the pressure up, promising he’ll be right back. Leander hesitates in the doorway, swallows hard, looks me over, hesitating on the blood that’s on my face and hands. “The sight of you, Rebecca,” he says, and I don’t know what he can possibly mean. Is he disgusted? Does he feel bad? Was that some sort of reprimand? My hands are trembling.

I want to get dressed. I don’t want to talk to people and be in a hospital gown. It puts me at a disadvantage, makes me feel like an invalid. I hate the hospital. I’m going to get dressed, and if that doesn’t kill me, then I might just leave. I want to go home.

It’s agony getting out of bed, torture to shuffle over to the closet and find my clothes. By the time I’ve gotten the pants on, I’m reconsidering my break for freedom. I’m sitting on the bed with my shirt half on, feeling dizzy, when the door opens and Leander comes in, looking me over from head to toe. “I’m leaving,” I say, keeping my voice hard. The mild panting from too much strenuous exertion undermines my credibility. I shift the shirt so it covers most of my exposed bra.

“I’m sure that’s a terrible idea,” he says without a hint of surprise. He tucks his cell phone into the pocket of his jacket, then leans against the door and crosses his arms. I feel like we’re playing chess. Is it my move? Alas, I have no idea how to play chess.

“It would be better if you could wait here one more day. My apartment isn’t set up for guests.” Ah, so it’s his move.

“That’s okay because I’m not going anywhere with you,” I swallow a wince as I raise the shirt in front of me. “I’m going home. Today.”

I feel a fat drop of sweat roll down my forehead.

“We talked about this. You’re going with me. Tomorrow.”

“You talked. I’ve been pretty out of it. You have enemies. I don’t think they’ll come after me. Probably the safest thing for me to do is not be around you. You’re the one people try to attack in dark alleys…I’m the one with constant amnesia.”

“It isn’t safe. I’ve told you what’s next and that’s it,” he says, expecting me to give in.

“I don’t belong to you. You can’t force me to go with you.”

“Do not do this, Rebecca.” His voice is hard as steel.

My eyes narrow. “Or you’ll what?”

He pushes off the wall and saunters toward me, stopping close enough so that I have to look up to him to see his eyes. He leans in close to me, and I suck in a breath, uncertain of what he’s about to do. But he’s taken the other sleeve and is pulling it up my arm, adjusting the collar of it on my neck and starting on the buttons, not lingering on my chest, somehow keeping it as impersonal as it could be, having a beautiful, frightening man towering over me, his hands almost on me and yet…distant.

His voice is quiet, calming even, the rough cadence of it, his slight accent alluring as though he wants to lull me into trusting him. “And where will you go, Miss Finner? The locks on your apartment—my apartment—have been changed. You have no job. Your bank accounts have been frozen. Which was easy to do since it’s my money. How will you support yourself? I’ve given you everything you’ve ever had. You owe me your life, your fealty. You exist not by the grace of god but by the grace of me.” The shirt is buttoned, but he doesn’t step back.

Instead he reaches for my hair, lightly combing his fingers through it, careful not to snag on the knots. “You, my dear heart, don’t remember who you’re dealing with. If you leave, I’ll find you. I can track you, hunt you down if you make me. And I will.” I can hear the anger, the passion in his soft tone. “It won’t be an army of people or the police, not a private detective, but just me.” His gaze meets mine, eyes narrowed with intention. “You don’t remember me, Miss Finner, but I know you. You don’t run from me. You don’t escape me,” he says, deadly serious.

“How very caveman of you. To what end?” It’s hard to swallow, hard to speak, and I have so many things to say, am so flummoxed I don’t know where to start, that I feel stupid, like everything is obvious to everyone else but me.

Abruptly he smiles. “How very caveman of me,” he says as if it’s funny. A cute pet that did a little trick.

“I don’t understand why you want me at all. You clearly hate me.”

“I don’t hate you,” he says, sounding vaguely surprised.

“You’re terrified I’ll remember my past. Why? Just tell me why?” The hysteria is creeping in.

“You’re wrong, Rebecca. Everyone is afraid of something.” He shrugs, breaking eye contact for a moment. A slow and steady breath before continuing. “But you remembering does not scare me. I do not profit from this.” He goes back to the closet, pulls out a pair of grey suede flats and crouches down, slipping them on my feet.

“I thought you wanted me to stay here?”

“I did. You don’t. If I don’t take you with me now, you’ll leave. And I don’t have time to come after you.”

“You’re an arrogant asshole.”

One dark eyebrow rises, then lowers. “You used to find it charming,” he says, a murmur.

“You’re threatening me. I don’t believe I ever found that charming.” God, I hope not, or what does that say about me?

“That’s the way you’ve interpreted this? I’ve supported you and kept you safe. I want you with me so that I can protect you with my body if it comes to it. Here I am with enemies after me and my kingdom falling apart thousands of miles away, and yet I’m here, with you, because your life is the only thing that matters now.” And he actually sounds sincere.

“I never trusted you.”

An unhappy laugh comes from him. “Trust. You loved me. If I told you that I was taking you with me, you would have come without hesitation.”

“You make it sound like I was a dog that obeyed well.”

“You are deliberately being obtuse.”

“Just because you use big words doesn’t make you right. It makes you sound pompous. Maybe you did snap your fingers and I’d come running, but I’m not that girl anymore.”

He blinks, appears totally bewildered. “You didn’t obey me blindly. You believed that I knew what was best.”

That makes me sound like a fucking fifties housewife. “Then why did it end? Why did we break up?”

“Come with me and I’ll tell you.”

Well, hell. “And we’ll go to your apartment? The one that isn’t ready?”

“Maybe I meant me. I’m not ready.” His hand scrapes through his dark hair. “Maybe it’s better this way. Perhaps it was always meant to be this way.”

“Like fate?”

“Fate is so trite. More like…inevitability.” And with that cryptic comment, he checks the drawers, packs up my things, and before I know it, we’re walking out the door.

Someone brought my suitcase to the hospital. Was it him? The idea of him choosing my things and going through my apartment is unsettling. The elevator opens, and he picks up my suitcase, carrying it for me. “B2,” he says, looking at the buttons on my side of the elevator. I push the button, watching as we go down several floors, feeling more nauseous as the moments go by. The doors open, and he walks straight to a black Tesla parked in a reserved spot. He pops the trunk remotely, putting my bag inside and then coming to open my door. It would have been more gentlemanly if he hadn’t looked so impatient and annoyed about the whole thing.

“Thanks,” I mutter, feeling awkward. Fear snakes up my spine as I get closer to him. “You’re very intimidating,” I say as I sit down, the leather butter soft.

A sigh. “And yet, it’s never made a damned bit of difference,” he says, and shuts the door. The interior is immaculate, as though it’s brand new, just detailed, or maybe he’s a neat freak. It doesn’t smell brand new, but the smell of leather is there, the smell of his cologne…It just smells rich. Masculine.

He opens his own door, slides into the seat, buckles up, and soon we’re in the city, streets passing in steady silence.

“Is it far?”

“No.”

“Oh, good, stilted conversation. So how long have we known each other? You said you gave me everything I’ve ever had. That sounds like a lot longer than casual dating. Wait.” I lay the sarcasm on thick. “Does that mean you’ve been lying to me?”

He stops at a light and turns his head to look at me. “You put me in this position, Rebecca. You did this to us.”

His eyes are dark, almost glittering in the darkness, his features cast in harsh shadows. Unaccountably I suddenly feel ashamed, even doubting, and I’m glad he can’t see my hot cheeks. As if he knows or can see me, he says on a sigh, “It’s all right, Rebecca. We do the best we can.” The light changes and we drive the rest of the way in silence.

He parks under the building and we take the elevator up. “I’m surprised you’re not in the penthouse,” I say, although the building is lovely. There is no response as he opens the door. The lights turn on automatically, revealing a spacious interior.

He puts my suitcase down next to the front door, then picks it up again. He’s hesitating and I’m not sure why.

“Where do you want to go?” he asks quietly.

“What do you mean?” I turn to look at him, watching him watch me. With a half smile, he looks away, tilts his head toward the body of the apartment. “One is a bathroom and three are bedrooms. Choose.”

“You sound like it’s a test.”

“I suppose it is. I don’t know why. I do know you don’t remember anything. It just… Sometimes it seems like you know. Hints of things, intuition.” He won’t meet my gaze now.

“Did you think I was lying? About the amnesia?”

A slow nod. “Yes, Rebecca. I did. At one point.”

“But you don’t now?”

“No.”

“And we lived here together?”

“Choose a room,” he says, moving past me, still holding my small suitcase. It doesn’t occur to me that he hasn’t answered my question. “One of them is yours. One is mine and the other is for guests that we must pray to never have.” There is almost a hint of a smile as he says it. Although it’s possible I imagined it.

I don’t bother to hide my skepticism. “You’re saying we lived together?”

A pause. “It does seem that way, doesn’t it?”

I move forward and stop in front of the first door. My hand hovers over the knob. I can feel his tension behind me. God, I want to feel something. I want to recognize it, have it be familiar, but it’s not. He says I’ve been here but I don’t believe it. I open the door and know instantly that it’s his room. A giant bed, plush carpet, and the furniture is modern, which is a little surprising, but I don’t know why. I can see an en suite bathroom, and it’s ridiculous, but this room is almost as large as my entire apartment.

His expression is unreadable. The next door is a bedroom, but it’s quite plain. I frown. “This looks like a guest room if you ask me. But maybe that’s just because it’s so impersonal.”

I open the last door, and there is a desk and a giant closet, one door open. I can see clothes inside, women’s clothes, and a dresser that has a few things on top of it. A snow globe of the New York City skyline, some books. This was my room, I guess. Leander isn’t looking at me. He’s very consciously avoiding looking at me, in fact.

“This was my room?” But it’s not really a question. I pick up the snow globe, feeling a strange pang go through me at the sight of it. Shaking it, I watch the small blizzard swirl around the city.

“These are your things,” he says, which is, of course, a different answer than the question asked, but I don’t notice the difference.

“It’s kind of overwhelming. And it’s… But it looks like it hasn’t been touched.”

All he does is nod.

“You didn’t get rid of my things?” He’s looking at the wall, head away from me, his face in profile. He has the sort of profile that should be stamped on an ancient coin. His features are beautiful, defined, maybe even regal in a Grecian sort of way. He’s still his stern, controlled self, and yet I wonder how much of that is a lie. An act. “It’s been months but you’ve kept this room just like it was when I left?” I put the snow globe down and move into his field of vision.

He shifts, runs a hand through his dark hair. “It sounds rather macabre when you put it like that,” he says, trying to make light of it. “None of it seems familiar?”

I shake my head, trying to imagine myself here and failing. “Wait. You didn’t change this room at all?”

“No, why?”

“There’s no…bed,” and it comes out a whisper.

“Astute as always,” he says and walks out of the room, leaving me open-mouthed. “The other room has a bed, take them both.”

I take one glance around and then I’m following him to the kitchen. There is a bag of groceries on the counter. He’s taking the items out of the bag, setting them in a row on the quartz counters. Eggs, bacon, milk—

“Froot loops! I love Froot Loops!”

He raises a brow and sets down an apple and a Kit Kat. “And I love Kit Kats. But I can’t buy more than one because I’ll just eat them until I feel sick…” My words trail off as he folds the paper bag closed. “Which is fine because you only bought one,” I say, my suspicion growing. He looks around as though he doesn’t know where to put the flattened bag and then throws it in the trash.

“So…those are all my favorite things. It’s actually what I usually buy at the grocery store.” Which is unsettling.

“I suppose that some things don’t change,” he says, a hint of bitterness in his tone.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a stalker.”

He leans against the counter, crossing one foot over the other, his fingers lightly drumming the counter behind him. He looks relaxed, but he’s eyeing me like a hawk eyes a lizard.

I can’t stand it anymore. “We lived together, slept together, knew each other well enough for you to know what groceries to buy—”

“To be fair, I didn’t buy them. But I ordered them quite competently. It’s the thought that counts.” His smile is roguish, disarming, and it affects me just as he wants it to.

I close my eyes, hold out a hand to stop his flippant words. “You kept my clothes and that room like a…shrine to me. All it needs are mourning curtains. It’s like I died or something.” Which is so bizarre because this man is like…he’s like Christian Gray but not dysfunctional or Jerricho Barrons without the demon. Leander Marchant is so out of my league, and yet it really looks like he was my lover or boyfriend. Like this dude really loved me.

What if he still loves me?

His head tilts slightly to the side, bringing me into focus. “Didn’t you die? To me at least?” he says, and I don’t know what to do with that.

“I want to take a shower.” I’m suddenly exhausted, and my stitches are burning, my stomach throbbing.

“I apologize. You’re not well. Let’s get you into bed. I’m sure we will talk more later,” he says, clearly enjoying the prospect as little as I do.

Great.





10





It’s weird to be in a place and have no memory of it when one is supposed to. It’s a nice place. The furniture is tasteful and pleasant, maybe a bit cold, but maybe that’s what I liked, or maybe I didn’t even pick it out but he did, before we got together. I feel like every time I get an answer, I only wind up with more questions. It’s as though I’m fighting a hydra, sealing my doom as I chop off another question and two more sprout in its place.

Nice. Very grim, I think sarcastically.

I take pain-killers and then have a shower, feeling much better and cleaner after that. It’s given me a second wind, and although I’m tired, I don’t want to go to sleep yet. I have too many questions that need answers. I’m just vain enough to put on a splash of makeup and fluff my damp hair before I make an appearance in the kitchen.

I can smell coffee from the living room and that makes me happy. There is a white cream jug and a sugar bowl next to it, along with a matching mug that has been set out for me.

Did I really live here? In this expensive apartment? With this man who has model good looks and now seems to hate me? What happened? And why is he still helping me? Altruism? Who does that? If I was such a bitch to him, wouldn’t he just be happy to get rid of me?

I pour myself a cup of coffee, add in some cream and sugar and start with my first question. “What did you know about me?” I ask, still stirring my coffee. I know he’s behind me, waiting in the kitchen doorway. I turn to face him and I have to blink and look away, he’s so gorgeous. His dark brown hair is still wet from his own shower, his attire more casual in a blue wool sweater and dark, expensive jeans. His feet are bare, and it seems rather pathetic of me, but even his feet look good. Ugh.

He leans against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. “What do you mean?”

“We dated. What did I tell you about myself, my past?”

“Not a lot. You didn’t want to talk about it. You said your family died. You had a mother and sister, and they passed when you were quite young. Five. Your father died too, but I’m uncertain when.”

“I was only five?”

He looks pained. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” I say, feeling dull and brittle around the edges. “They all died together?”

“I believe your father perished first.”

“How?”

A hesitation. “You didn’t say.”

“And you didn’t ask?”

He’s looking at me steadily, and I wonder what he’s thinking, how much of the past he’s hiding. But why would he hide my past from me? I’m being paranoid, right? “We all have secrets, Rebecca. It was our deal from the beginning to respect each other’s privacy. I didn’t pry into your demons, and you didn’t pry into mine. And if there was something I wanted to know that you didn’t want to tell me…” He shrugs.

“What?”

His gaze rakes me from head to foot. “Well, you could be very distracting when you wanted to be.”

“Distracting? You’re telling me that if you asked something and I didn’t like it that I’d, what, jump you?” My heart is beating faster, and lots of debauched scenarios are running through my mind of various ways I could be distracting. I focus on the moment, pushing aside my mortification and the rising tide of desire he’s roused with a few simple words.

“The physical side of our relationship was not an issue.” My gut tells me he’s hiding something, but I can’t imagine what. His comment shuts me up, though. And he’s got to be right because even now I want to climb him like a monkey. Even though he’s a stranger, has been lying to me, spying on me, and I’m still terrified of him, the fact is I would be willing to do all manner of unspeakable, illegal-in-the-Bible-belt sorts of things to and with him.

Wait. Am I terrified of him? He’s taken me in, gotten me medical treatment at great personal cost and expense, he’s watched over me, protected me, and now I’m here. “Was I scared of you?”

“If only,” he says, but it sounds sad.

“So why did our relationship end?”

He rubs a hand over his face. “It was better for both of us.”

“Are you saying it was mutual?”

“I just did.”

He doesn’t answer me but he doesn’t look away either. I’m the one who breaks eye contact, rubbing my arms as I try to make some distance between us. “Your skin looks cold. Paler.”

I don’t know what to say to that. It’s kind of odd that he’s noticed it, right? Have I ever looked at skin and thought it looked cold? “What did I do when you met me? What was my job?”

“Why?”

“No! What does it matter why I want to know? Of course I want to know! It’s my life, my past, and you’re the only person who has any answers. Why do I have to justify every question, explain to you my motives? You don’t own me. In fact, we were not even together anymore, right? When this all happened? Is there any chance it’s because you were too controlling?”

He presses his fingers against the bridge of his nose, eyes squeezed tightly shut, searching for patience. “You didn’t tell me that either. You were new to the city and you were living off something. You had money and you said you were starting over. That you were going to do everything new. But then we moved in together, and you didn’t look for a job anymore.”

Bullshit. I feel like it’s all lies he’s making up on the spot. “I lived with you but you don’t know what my job was? You just started paying for me and let me move in without knowing a single thing about me? Like a whore? And I let you?”

“You may not like what I tell you, but that doesn’t make it less true. Maybe you don’t want to think you were a kept woman, but you were.”

“Until we split up? Why did that happen?”

His cheeks get a wash of pink, and I wish I knew what he was thinking. “Something…unforgivable happened.”

“I don’t believe you.” I don’t know why I said it. It wasn’t like he was trust-worthy or anything. But it just sounded wrong. And damned vague.

A hard laugh. “I don’t care what you believe. You should get some sleep, Rebecca. You’re still weak. ” I need to think, regroup. “I just need a few weeks, and then you can go wherever you want.”

“Back to my apartment?” I cross my arms over my chest and he frowns.

His gaze is penetrating. “Let’s be clear that it’s the apartment I pay for. If I decide it’s not safe, then I just won’t pay for it anymore. I’ll get you a new one elsewhere and you’ll move.”

“I don’t want to stay here.”

“Noted.” His tone implies there is no compromise. It’s unyielding. And I think that’s the real him. This is not a kind man. And then he smiles, as if that should be enough to change my mind about him. Disturbingly, for the briefest moment, it almost is.





11





The next day I have a plan. It consists of trying to function without getting too freaked out about stuff and going back to my apartment to get some of my things. I’d managed to make some decisions in the middle of the night, and I was going to try to stick to them and not get my panties in a twist of indecisiveness.

Firstly, he was right in the fact that I didn’t have anything beyond what he gave me. At least not that I knew of. Whether he did it because it was just so “easy” for him to pay for me or if it was because he still had feelings for me, I don’t know.

He said he was in danger and I believed him. I’d seen it in the alleyway. I can’t really see how his enemies would want anything to do with me, but I since I’d had a gun pointed at me, I had to believe that too. And, I did believe that he wanted me safe.

In fact, I think he’d have done whatever he could to protect me. Although I still couldn’t see how we wound up together. Maybe the sex was good. I mean, sure, he looks like he’d be pretty good at it, and I like to think I’d be pretty good at it (although I can’t remember ever having it, which seems uber-pathetic) but to be so good that I landed a hot billionaire way above my hotness pay grade?

Wow.

I must have done some filthy, filthy things. I must have done circus tricks or backdoor sorts of things. Maybe it wasn’t what I did but what I let him do to me? Which was somehow a much more depressing thought.

“I thought we could go by your apartment and get your things,” Leander says, sneaking up on me and my mental reverie of all the perverted things I probably got up to with Mr. Millions. I can feel myself blushing everywhere, from the tips of my toenails to the ends of my hair. My hand is shaking as I pour myself a cup of coffee.

“I’ll go get my shoes,” I squeak and flee…but I take the coffee with me.



When we get to my place, Mrs. Sackowitz’s door is open, and the superintendent is inside, looking it over with Carlos, the repairman. It’s empty. “Where’s Mrs. Sackowitz?”

The super looks past me, eyes widening at the sight of Leander. “Mr. Marchant, a pleasure to see you again,” he says, totally ignoring me as he moves forward to shake Leander’s hand. Leander greets him, gives a banal compliment about how the building is being kept in good repair, and then repeats my question. Kind of. What he says is, “It looks like Mrs. Sackowitz left abruptly. What prompted her to leave?”

The building manager swallows. “Oh. Her family came and got her. Thought she’d be better off living with her daughter. The city was too much for her.”

“She only has sons.” I think.

“Daughter-in-law then,” he says with a shrug. “My mistake. So many people to keep up with. Anyway, she left last night. The movers finished quite late. But you know how it is; no apartment in New York stays vacant for long. We’ve got a long waiting list and people who want to see it as soon as possible.” This last part is clearly for Leander’s benefit as I could care less.

“Did she leave a forwarding address or anything?” I couldn’t believe she had left so abruptly. She’d been so kind to me over the last few months. Inviting me over for tea and cookies. She was a bit old though, which meant the cookies were sometimes amazing and sometimes inedible depending upon whether or not she got the salt and the sugar mixed up.

“No, afraid not.”

“She was Miss Finner’s friend. Surely there must be some way to figure out where she was going?” Leander asks smoothly.

The super puckers his lips, reminding me of a fish, as he thinks. “Well, she’ll have to get in touch if she wants her deposit back. I can let you know as soon as I hear anything.”

“Good. Thank you,” Leander says, then places a hand on my back, urging me back toward my apartment. I step away from him. It annoys me to have him touch me, makes me disconcerted and distracted, which I don’t want to be. I unlock my door and go inside, having a strange flash of vertigo as I watch Leander enter my apartment after me.

“Have a seat. I’ll be back,” I say and go into my bedroom, closing the door.

I go and sit on the bed, wanting nothing more than to curl up and stay there for, well, possibly forever. I don’t want to deal with who I might or might not have been, with fighting and neighbors disappearing. My pocket vibrates as I get a text message. Considering how few people actually have the number, I grab it. It’s from Jessica. “Saw you come back. Tell me when Mr. Hot Stuff leaves and we’ll have a drink. Rehydrate you after all the dehydrating sex!”

I frown as I text a response, “We’re not having sex.”

She sends me back an emoji with his mouth open in horror. Which is mildly amusing. “It’s not too late to start,” she says.

I tap my phone absently against my forehead. It’s a long explanation that I don’t want to make, and I can’t for the life of me think what an appropriate emoticon response might be. The happy face that makes heart kisses? A thumbs up? Hell, maybe a sad face?

Crap. I have to tell her something since we’re not staying. “Turns out he’s my ex and has been paying for me this entire time. He wants me to stay with him for a while, but I’ll be back ASAP. Maybe we can sneak out for a drink sometime soon?” I contemplate erasing the message. Nah. I send it and start packing.

It doesn’t take me long to pack up my stuff, including the beautiful ivory box that’s sitting in my bathroom.

I frown and stick my head out the door, finding him standing at my window looking out at the view below. “When we were together, did I own an ivory box? Small, antique with birds on it?”

“You mean like the one you stole from Dr. Brown’s office?” he says flatly, not even bothering to look at me.

I stick my tongue out at him, not that he sees it. “Yeah, like that one.”

“I hate that box,” he says, and turns to look at me.

“That’s not the reaction I was expecting. Where did it come from?”

“I gave it to you. Sort of.”

A feeling of triumph goes through me. I don’t know why, but that seems like a score for my side. “So you put it in Brown’s office hoping I’d remember?”

“It looks that way,” he says, sounding tired before giving me his back and staring out the window again. I go to stand near him, trying to see what he’s looking at. He turns and walks away, sits on a barstool and waits.

“Is that your building? In the distance?”

“It is. I was trying to find my window.”

“Your window faces my window?” I have no idea how that makes me feel. Like I’m in an elevator that stopped too fast. But is it a good feeling or a bad one?

A sigh. “And what do you think that means, Miss Finner?”

“Nothing,” but I wonder if he has a telescope pointing at my apartment. “I’m ready to go. Turns out I don’t have much that I need to take with me.”

“You’ve never been particularly materialistic,” he says and picks up my suitcase from outside my bedroom door.

We go down to the lobby in silence, but my butt vibrates when we get to the lobby. It’s Jessica. “I need to talk to you ASAP. What’s the soonest you can get away?” Which is a good question. How the hell could I meet Jessica? Would he let me go if I asked? It was all I could think about as we drove through the congested streets. “So if I wanted to go shopping this afternoon, could I?”

“Maybe. I have a call with Tokyo at five.”

“It’s a Saturday.”

“You’re not wrong. The work ethic of the rest of the world is downright terrifying,” he says, and I think he’s joking, but I don’t really know.

“I meant alone. Can I go shopping on my own?”

“No. It’s not a good idea.”

“But I can go if you go with me?”

A moment of silence. “Probably. It depends on where you want to go.”

“I don’t like being accountable to you,” I say, determined to stay calm and discuss this like an adult.

He pulls into his parking space, turns the car off but sits there, not looking at me. “All you have to do is decide, Rebecca.” His words are soft, compelling. “You either believe that I want to keep you safe, that there really are people who want to hurt me and would hurt you as a substitute, and that’s it. If you believe that, then this works. It’s not forever,” he says and looks at me, the sincerity in his dark eyes enough to make me doubt myself and every fear I have. What have I done to deserve your distrust? I can practically feel the question hanging there in front of me.

“Jessica wants to get a drink. She says it’s important.”

His hand opens and closes on the steering wheel. “Jessica is your friend?”

“Yes.”

“She lives in the building, doesn’t she?”

That question makes me hesitate but I tell him anyway.

He nods. “We will both go then. I’ll change the call.”

Gulp. “You don’t have to. I’d hate to get between you and your job.”

“You’re not going on your own.”

I bite back a swear word and throw open the door, climbing out of the car and restraining myself from shutting the door hard. Back in the apartment, we go our separate ways, me to my room and him to the living room. I text Jessica. “Drink sounds great. But he’s coming too.”

A few minutes pass. “Does he have to?”

“Unfortunately.” She doesn’t complain further, which seems generous of her. I spend the rest of the day going over the room that Leander said was mine. It still seems odd to think of him as Leander, and I keep trying to imagine myself calling him other names. (Not like jerk or ass, although it would have been appropriate) but Lee, which seems like the natural nickname, or even Mr. Marchant, which seems odd. I remembered him saying I owe him everything I had, that I owe him fealty, which is an odd word to use. Like chivalrous or something.

Maybe that’s why I keep thinking ‘my lord’. That maybe that’s what sounds the most natural and comes to mind when I see him. But that would be weird. What kind of whacked relationship would we have had if that was actually how I referred to him? And surely he wouldn’t want to be called my lord, right?

I spend some time in what was apparently my room. The closet is particularly fascinating. There are a lot of clothes in the closet and in different styles. As if I were a schizophrenic shopper. My tastes were not cheap. This wasn’t Old Navy with the occasional Banana Republic dress thrown in but the quirky brights of Kate Spade, the patterns of Tory Burch, and the flashy vacation vibe of Michael Kors all packed into the small space, all with tags still on, and all indicating that I didn’t have a style per se. Are you sure they’re yours? a small voice whispers inside me.

And when the time comes for us to meet Jessica, I’m still confused about the girl I was with him. We drive in silence while I sit there feeling sick. I want to ask questions, want to know and yet I don’t.

The neighborhood, despite Leander’s protestations when I told him where Jessica wanted to meet, is not that bad. I don’t want to set my purse down and wander away or come back in the middle of the night, but it could be worse.

The café, on the other hand, is a shit hole. Not a phrase I use lightly. This place has e.coli-based health code violations crawling all over it.

As I walk in the door, I get a text from Jessica. “In the bathroom, red tide emergency. Tell me you have a tampon?!?” An immediate follow-up text. “Or a quarter.”

“Is she here?” Leander asks, scanning the restaurant like a cop in a movie.

“Get us a table. I’m going to go to the bathroom. Be right back.”

He goes over to the waitress/hostess, who’s only memorable quality is the quantity of mascara that’s puddled under her eyes which gives her a nocturnal animal look. I head to the bathroom located at the back of the café, concerned I’m a total bitch for thinking such a thing.

I push open the sticky bathroom door. “I’m here and I come with feminine products! I have one with a girl playing soccer on the front and a slogan that says, ‘live your dreams.’ Ironically, it’s a regular, but it’s yours if you want it.” The stalls are all open, and for a moment I don’t understand why I don’t see her. The she moves out from behind the door I came in through. I yelp in shock. “You scared the bejesus out of me!” Not for the first time, I wonder what exactly bejesus means.

“Now who’s your friend?” I ask, holding out the tampon to her. She waves it away. “It was just to get you in here. There’s a way out back we can sneak out.”

“Wait. What?”

“The guy you’re with, Leander Marchant? He’s not a good guy. He’s dangerous. Come with me now and I’ll prove it.”

“Wait. What?” My inability to come up with other words is a problem.

“I’m your friend, right?”

“Yes, but—”

Grabbing my hand firmly, she opens the door and peers around the hallway, then heads down to the back of the restaurant, pushing open an emergency door that unsurprisingly has a broken alarm. Considering this place doesn’t even pay for bug spray, it makes perfect sense the electronics don’t work. “Hurry!” she urges, holding the door for me.

I stand there dumbly. Leander is waiting for us. Although, to be fair, I don’t like Leander, and I’m kind of convinced he’s holding me hostage. And she is also my only friend in the entire world….so I go with her.

Her car is parked out back and we hop in, her tires contemplating squealing as she hurtles us into traffic. “Where are we going?”

“I’m going to prove to you that he is not who you think he is.”

I blow out a breath, snapping my seat belt on. “I don’t know who I think he is.”

“What’d he tell you?” she asks, staring at me rather intently.

“Watch the road! You’re really scaring my bejesus away!” That doesn’t sound right. I clear my throat, watching the neighborhood stay seedy as we get farther away from the cafe. “He says he used to be my…” Hmm, is there a better way to describe this? “My sugar daddy. I think I was like Julia Roberts to his Richard Gere. Except he’s better-looking and younger than Richard Gere, and I, alas, am no Julia Roberts. Watch the damned road! It’s like you have a death wish.”

She stops at a light and shoots me a look. It’s a very serious look, like she’s going to memorize me or something. “Don’t worry about me, worry about you.”

“Well, that’s nice and ominous.” I gesture to the road and the green light.

“Leander Marchant is not what he pretends to be. He’s part of a club, like a BDSM/Fifty Shades of Gray thing but with less pouting and more bleeding.”

“Bleeding?” Unconsciously I grip my arm where my cutting scars are. Whether to protect them or deny them I don’t know.

“They’re into pain and violence. Lots of drugs and…it’s really depraved, and you don’t want anything to do with him.”

“How do you know?”

She’s quiet for a moment, and I can’t decide if I want her to continue or if I should jump out of the car because, let’s face it, this conversation wasn’t going to get any better.

She checks her rearview mirror and changes lanes. “I had a boyfriend who took me there a couple of times. A few months back. And when I saw Leander come out of your apartment the other day, I knew he looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. And then Eric sent me a text, and we met up for a drink, and he wanted to go back to this club, swore it would be different this time, and like a moron, I went and there he was.”

“At this club? Leander Marchant was at this blood and violence sex club?” I’m over-clarifying because I need to make sure we’re talking about the same damned thing here.

“Yeah,” she says, and I don’t even register that she’s parked and is watching me like a hawk as she tells me this sordid information.

“When was he there?”

“Two nights ago.”

“When I was in the hospital?”

“Yeah. You were in the hospital almost dead, and he was fucking some girl at a kinky sex club.”

I feel sick. So sick. Because it doesn’t just sound crazy, it sounds…possible. Maybe him cheating was the something unforgivable that happened which caused us to break up. Maybe he paid for me out of guilt. “I don’t believe you,” but even I can hear how weak a denial that is.

“That’s why we’re going to go in and wait for him. He’ll show up and they’ll let him in and you’ll see.”

“Wait, what?”

She reaches over to take my hand, and I instinctively flinch away from her touch. She looks sad. “That’s what I mean,” she says, oozing concern. “You always do that, flinch away from me, get scared someone’s going to jump out at you or something. Normal affection scares you. That’s not normal, honey.” She reaches for my hand again, and I force myself to relax and let her touch me. “This isn’t right,” she says, and she runs a finger along the faint scars on my forearms and wrists. “I asked around once I recognized him, showed your picture that I have on my phone, and the bouncers know you, Rebecca. You were Marchant’s girl. He brought you here and sliced you up, tied you down…you can’t really be considering staying with him?”

I open the car door, feeling sick, a gag trying to roll its way up from my stomach like a fist coming up to lodge in the back of my throat. “No, that’s not true,” I say, and I get out of the car and walk over to where a brick wall meets a chain link fence, throwing up on a half-dead clump of weeds.

I hear Jessica’s heels clacking on the asphalt as she comes over to me. “Here, I have water,” she says and reaches to push my hair back from my face. My arm flies up automatically like I’m blocking a punch, my eyes closing in a flinch. I’m ashamed at my reaction, and she’s smiling at me because I’m pathetic.

Oh, fuck. Yup. It’s time for the big-girl swearing. Dang, damn, hell, even bejesus, those words are for small problems like broken nails or even amnesia. Rich boyfriends who cut and abuse me get the real bad words. And if she’s right, then he’ll hear them from me directly. And there may be some castration thrown in for good measure.

Why don’t I just tell Jessica she’s wrong? At least make a start at denial. But it’s like I’m physically unable to say the words. I have them in my head, No you’re wrong, it’s a mistake, I wouldn’t let someone hurt me like that, and I’ll even laugh when I tell her. Like it’s so silly to think Leander and I are these two weird people she’s saying we are. “You’re sure it’s not some kind of mistake?”

“Come see, Rebecca.”

I laugh and it’s like a half-dead cat is living inside my voice box. It explains so much. Why a beautiful man like that would be with a girl like me. If that’s what he is into, something so terrible and degrading, then one takes anyone they can find who’s willing to be their victim, right?

Maybe the supermodel or actress that he’d naturally be with would have more self-respect. Standards. So he takes a plain girl, showers her with money and attention, and she’s so blinded she’ll do anything for him.

Right? That’s me, isn’t it?

Victim.

Always I come back to this word, have this feeling that just maybe victim is written into my DNA. Fixed in the stars, to be engraved on my tombstone. My core identity = victim. And goddamn, I don’t want it to be true. But maybe it is and that’s why it always resonates inside me, why I feel like someone’s walked across my grave when I hear the word. Because it’s me? Who I was and who I am?

“Do you know why it ended? Between us?” I don’t want to say his name. I love that name. I catch myself thinking it, saying it, like it’s cool water over the blank rocks in my mind, pouring through me and inside me. I think I woke up saying it, a dying echo in my bedroom last night.

Not my bedroom, his guest room.

“Because you came to your senses. The bouncer told me that he heard you broke it off with him. And then there was an accident and you didn’t go back.”

“What do you mean, accident? The amnesia?”

“I think he hurt you and that’s why you don’t remember. I think he made you not remember and now he wants you back. If you don’t remember how awful he was, then he can have you again. You’re like a toy to him.” A toy he drugged and watched as I spilled my guts to a therapist.

And now he has me again. I’m back in his apartment, dependent upon him.

I wish Jessica wasn’t standing there watching me like I’m an animal in the zoo. It makes it hard to think clearly. How does the incident in the alley fit into all this?

Jessica starts talking again, and I open my mouth to tell her to shut up, to stop talking because I can’t take any more when she really goes off the deep end. “So let’s go to the club and prove it.”

“Prove it because they’ll recognize me? They’ll know him when he shows up?”

“Exactly,” she says, pleased I’m on the same page. I’m not really. I’m more in traumatized shock than sensible-course-of-action-mode. A door opens, and I hear a wall of sound coming at me, like a slap of leather against my ears. Jessica has a smile on her face. It’s cold and hard. “Ah, the back door. We left through one and now we’ll go in one. Come on, let’s go wait for your psychopath.”

“I thought we were going to go through the front?” Am I stalling for time?

“They might not let us in. Might call Mr. Marchant and make us wait. He’s a rich man who probably gives them a lot of money. Then you won’t know. Come on!” she says, expecting me to follow her.

The door that’s opened is next to the kitchen. A bus boy wearing a hairnet, gloves and a filthy apron looks at Jessica with wide eyes as she bounces closer. Wide eyes are pretty standard when men see Jessica. It’s the mane of blond hair, the big tits, and slutty heels. Let me tell you, that shit works. As a bystander who’s seen it, I can say it with one hundred percent confidence. And it’s no different now. A little sashay of her hips, a tilt forward so he can see down her top, and we’re inside the building.

It smells horrible. Copper. Is that blood? I gag and start breathing through my mouth. A cold sweat breaks out over my body as we walk down the hallway...I stop and close my eyes because I don’t know anything yet, but I feel like I almost do, my memories are so close, pounding inside of me, separated by a pane of soundproof, one-way glass.

Or is that bullshit and I’m just trying to convince myself. Like some sort of hypochondriac looking for a disease that fits my runny nose. I take another breath, the scents all rolling into one sick mass: hamburger, blood, perfume, alcohol. My mouth fills with saliva and I hold down a retch.

Jessica is waiting for me. I can do this. Big girl. I nod and keep moving. The club is filled with people. Not packed, but most tables have someone sitting at them. I’m relieved to see that everyone is dressed. Maybe she’s wrong. Maybe it’s not that bad. On the right is a bar. Have I really been here before? “You said it’s a sex club. I don’t see anything beyond a fish tank and a bunch of drinking yuppies.” My confidence is a thin veneer. Like a fresh scab over a deep wound. She’s going to pick it off but I’ll be the one bleeding.

She points up. There’s another floor upstairs. Of course there is. I nod. Upstairs. Yeah. There’s a basement too. I’d bet money on it. At the staircase is a rope preventing just anyone from wandering up. A huge, beefy guy is guarding it. I head straight for it, feel Jessica try to grab me again and shrug her off. This is bullshit. If this is me, I want to know. I stop in front of the guard. He looks confused at the sight of us.

“We’re supposed to go up,” Jessica says.

“Just in time,” a man says from above us and his accent is similar to Leander’s. He’s jogging down the stairs toward us, another excruciatingly attractive rich, accented man. He has blond hair and blue eyes, little laugh lines that radiate from his eyes and make him look rugged and flirty.

He’s a fucking monster. That’s what my gut tells me. He’s wearing jeans, a form-fitting black T-shirt and has a beer in one hand. And then he looks me over a little closer, even leans in and puts his nose next to my hair, breathing deep in a way I find intensely terrifying. But I don’t move. Like a deer with a gun trained on it. I’m still. I hope the predator will move on. I wait.

Like meat.

I don’t like that thought. He pulls back and his smile is hard to read. Is it sincere? “I love it when things go according to plan. I’m sure Lee, stuffy bastard that he is, will be here soon enough. Hot on your heels,” he says, and it’s clear he actually can’t imagine why Leander is interested in me at all. That makes two of us.

“Who am I?”

He laughs. “Oh, bless. You still that confused?” He makes a clucking sound under his tongue. “Poor thing. Come on up. Let me give you a tour. Let’s see if you find something you like. Poor, poor girl without a memory. Personally,” he says, putting his hand on his chest, “I don’t like my girls to be so blank. Sure, you don’t remember the bad times, but you don’t remember the good either. All of our experiences build on each other. If you have no memory, then you’re…nobody.” His voice is very quiet. A stiletto in the dark. “You have Lee to thank for that. He’s stolen you from your home, your station in life, even your punishment.”

My mouth is dry and I’m blinking back tears. “You’re saying he’s made me forget everything?” I’m not tackling the punishment comment.

“Come on up,” he says, and extends an arm for me to take so he can escort me up the stairs.

I shake my head. I can’t touch him. I won’t.

“Hard to get. I like that in a girl,” he says, instantly understanding, and heads up the stairs before me. He stops halfway up and looks back at me, somehow knowing, even with the blaring music and conversation, that I’m rooted to the spot. I don’t want to go. Scared to stay. Scared to leave.

At least be brave enough to know who you were. In my confused state that seems pretty damned profound, so I go up the stairs.

There is another bar at the top, the space behind the counter ripped out and replaced by a custom refrigerator that runs the length of the wall. It’s lit from inside, softly, the glass doors see-through, and inside are decanters of all kinds. Different sizes and labels. But the contents, from what I can tell, look thick and impossibly dark.

It must be wine. It’s blood. “How rude of me. I’m Alistair. You can call me Lord Dalmaine if you want but I’m willing to make an exception considering the circumstances. Call me Alley. My friends do.” He pauses, seems to ponder. “My enemies do too.”

“How do you know me?”

“You were just another girl until…Well, then you were the scandal.” He leans closer, a whispered secret. “You were half the scandal anyway. But that’s not what they remember. Why are the men always forgiven?” he asks, barely concealing his amusement at giving me these snippets of information that only confuse me more.

I hate him.

“I have nothing but respect for you, Rebecca Finner. I’d respect you more if you’d done the job properly but…” He shrugs and walks toward some curtains. They’re a dark red. He waves at them airily. “These curtains are a bit theatrical for my taste. Oh, the look on your face! You don’t quite know, do you?” He’s laughing at me. He’s enjoying my terror and fear, that my past is being revealed and it’s fucking awful. “So afraid and yet so curious.” He comes back toward me, wags a finger before my face. “That’s the sort of attitude that will kill you. Never hesitate. It’s a life lesson I’m giving you. Pay attention.” And he grabs my chin, hard, forcing me to look him in the eyes. I look down, instinct and self-preservation, not wanting to get caught. “You shouldn’t be alive. And you certainly shouldn’t be here.” His eyes narrow into slits; his nostrils flare. “I could rip you open right here. Take those entrails of yours and wrap them around you like a fucking bow. You might even still be writhing when he gets here.”

“I’m more valuable alive.” My fingers are clawing into his hands, wanting him to let me go. I whimper and with a snarl he shoves me back, and I stumble, every part of me trembling in fear and anger at being so powerless and ignorant.

“Flirt.” He licks his lips. “Don’t fuck the help, that’s what the people say. Terrible advice really. Always fuck the help. You’re a bit of an expert on that, aren’t you, Lee?” And I know he’s there, can feel him like an almost tangible warmth at my back. I can’t help but feel relief. He’ll save me. I know it.

“I was just going to give her the tour. What do you think?” he says, gesturing around them. “You should see the London club, Lee. Now that it’s all up and running. There’s been a lot of carnage though, which is a pain. It’s all the pent-up blood lust. Finally getting to tear someone open again after all this time…It’s a damned mess…but beautiful in a way.”

I take a step back, away, wanting to keep both of them in my line of sight. Alistair, who is glowing with joy at the drama before him, looking devilish and happy at the ruination of my world, and Leander, who is motionless, calm, as though he’s positively underwhelmed by everything and everyone. Leander’s dark gaze slides over to me. He extends a hand in my direction. “Let’s go, Rebecca. It’s time to leave now.”

Alistair laughs. “You can’t leave already! Stay. I simply must tell you what your sister has been up to. She took your leaving hard, Lee. She always does. This is for you, you know. People are expecting you.”

Leander takes a step forward, the move casual yet threatening as he closes the distance between him and his friend. I notice that he cuts in front of me, a form of protection. “Be very careful, Alley. I will not welcome your intrusion into my personal affairs.”

“Be careful? Is that the veiled threat, Lee? What on earth could you possibly do to me? Send me home?” I turn to the closed curtain, reach out a shaking hand, my fingers hovering over the blood-red fabric. Wasn’t that a tacky choice? Blood-red curtains when what went goes on behind the curtain was blood, blood, blood.

I don’t want to touch it, to pull back the truth. Veil. My hand hovers there momentarily as my mind races. The scar tissue on my arms appears to shimmer in the dim light. I can’t be a coward.

Pull back the curtain and see.

I grip the fabric and a hand settles over mine, staying me. Leander is behind me, around me, his body pressed close.

“Let me go, Leander. I want to see what…” Words fail me. What we were are the words I was going to say and that might not be accurate. What you did to me or what I let you do to me might be more fitting.

“This wasn’t us. Think, Rebecca. I swear to you that we’ve never been here.”

I don’t know if he’s lying. I can barely understand anything, comprehend anything because I’m so terrified and desperate to know what’s behind the curtain. At this point I need answers. I hear him drag in a breath, feel the faint convulsive squeeze of his hand over mine as he keeps me from learning the truth. “This isn’t real. What’s behind the curtain is for desperate people and the monsters who exploit them. Come away with me now, and I swear to you that I’ll tell you everything. You don’t belong here.”

“Don’t you mean ‘we’? Both of us don’t belong here?

Leander doesn’t respond fast enough, and it’s Alistair’s voice I hear instead. “Him? Oh, he’s a reprobate of the first order. He definitely belongs here. A right bastard, aren’t you, my friend?”

“I have to see if I remember.”

“You won’t. You’ll be frightened. You already don’t trust me, and you don’t know it, don’t know how dangerous this is, but I’m all you have,” he says, enunciating each word, wanting to persuade me.

It has the opposite effect. That pisses me off, and I jerk against his grip, determined to see it now. “Did I buy that once? That I just had you? Is that why I let you do those things to me? Do you know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid they’re right, that this was my life. That you’re so beautiful and I was so pathetic that I let you hurt me, abuse me.”

“You did. We all talked about it,” Alistair says, intruding on our conversation.

“Go away, Alley.”

“Oh no. I can’t. It’s all changed, my friend. You shouldn’t have left. The natives got restless…and hungry.”

“Home?” I ask, my attention turning as I drop the curtain, the idea of home more important than whatever is back there. At least for the moment.

The smile on Alistair’s face is not kind. “Oh yes, there will be a big party when you get there. I’ve been sent especially to collect the both of you. Trial, you see. Such an ugly business. And a foregone conclusion where a human is concerned.”

“Trial?” Human?

“Attempted murder. One of our kind. If it had just been a human, Lee could have paid everyone off with a bit of blood money. That was a joke. Anyway, attempted murder, my dear, that gets you dead right quick. Well, not quick as in dying quickly, no, your death will be quite bloody and take a long while…” He looks up, pretending to think. “It should involve at least a bit of disemboweling and quartering. Tell me, Lee. I can’t remember…1800? 1843? When was all that business with the Lady Capor and her poodle?”

“You’re not taking her back,” Leander says, firmly positioned between Alistair and me.

Alistair shakes his head slowly. “If you’re smart, it won’t be me taking her back. You’ll do it. Come to your senses, man. You can still make this right. Probably.”

Leander draws himself up, taking a step closer to Alistair, their heights similar but their builds different. Where Leander is tall, almost aristocratic, Alistair is all bulk. The sort of muscle that can kill a man with a single punch. If anyone can make Leander look like he might lose a fight, it’s this guy. The very air around them crackles with the promise of imminent violence.

“What do you want? Why are you being the council’s puppet?”

Alistair sneers. “You really are a prig. This is all about you and your complacency. No one is above the law. Not even your whore,” he growls.

“I am the law,” Leander says in such a cold, hard voice that I shiver. “I provide everything for them and you. From comfort to food, I can give it and I can take it away. If they force me to, I’ll show them what deprivation is.”

Alistair laughs. “Oh please, no, you won’t. You know exactly what they’ll do. A slaughter. A mass slaughter of every man, woman and child they can find. They’ll pile the harbors with corpses, a fucking decoration to ward off sailors, and then you’ll cave. You always do.” He smiles, pokes a finger at Leander’s chest. “You’re smart. You’ve always been smart. But you’re not ruthless. This proves it,” he says, gesturing at me. “This pathetic attachment to meat. She smells like your blood, you know. She reeks of it. No one else is allowed to drink from the vein, but you are? No, Lee, you’ve gotten a bit too high in the instep, and it’s time you got brought down a peg or two.”

And faster than I can follow, his hand reaches out, grabbing Leander around the neck and squeezing hard as he lifts him off the ground. Leander makes a sound, like a choked growl, his hands going to Alistair’s shoulders as he head-butts him, the crack of breaking cartilage audible. Alistair roars, blood pouring down his nose as he flings Leander away, wiping his face and regrouping.

Leander turns to me, points. “Go!” he says, his eyes a luminous brown as he looks at me. And then Alistair slams into him, both of them flying across the room, slamming into tables, the sound of splintering wood jerking me into motion.

I jerk open the curtain and Jessica is standing there, which is more than a little surprising as I’d completely forgotten about her, so involved in my own personal BS. She just stands there, wide-eyed and useless. I dash past her and hear her following me, begging me to forgive her, swearing she had no idea what was going to happen.

It’s dark and empty, but I can make out the equipment, the odd pieces of furniture and array of knives along the wall.

It’s the sort of room I imagine they used during the Spanish Inquisition. Wooden frames and leather straps, chrome and steel, hooks and manacles with troughs at the base of them. Did I really do these things? An emergency exit looms ahead, and blocking it are rolling carts with gleaming knives and scalpels, but the oddest are the cups, little cups that look specifically designed to collect blood. A flash goes through me, like a memory, Leander’s mouth on my neck, his voice rough. “Easy, easy,” he says, and he’s pressed along my side, the weight of his aroused flesh against my hip, my neck a river of fire.

The alarm blares as Jessica opens the emergency exit, holding it open while I catch up to her.

Suddenly she jerks back and cries out, what looks like a dart lodged in her chest. I jump to the side, my instincts kicking in before I can make a conscious decision. Hide. That’s what I was trained to do. As a victim. As prey. Violence comes and I hide. I run.

That is who I am.

Curtains run the perimeter of the room, and I slip into an opening, hoping I somehow got there before the people coming up the stairs reach the top. But even if they didn’t see me, it may not matter. I don’t know how hidden I am, how much the curtains are bulging out around my body or how intent they are on getting to Leander and Alistair versus looking for me.

I bite my lip, bite down hard so that I don’t scream and cry out in terror. Heavy feet run past, and it’s clear the fight has expanded. It’s grown beyond Leander and his friend. Or former friend, I suppose.

Lord Dalmaine, he called himself. Is that why I thought it was okay to call Leander my lord? Because I was used to it? I imagine all the people from downstairs, the bouncers and security getting involved.

The curtain is ripped away from my hiding place, the light blinding me. Leander stands there, shirt torn, blood running down his chin, smeared across his face. His knuckles are bloody, his breathing harsh. His hair is wild, and he looks deranged, demented, truly a monster out of a nightmare. He holds out a hand to me, and I take it, jerked forward as he hauls me toward the stairs.

“Jessica!” I gasp, because her body is lying there in the doorway. I try to pull away from him, to go to her, but he snarls at me and grabs me around the waist, his grip like iron as he lifts me, holds me a few inches off the ground. It’s effortless, as if I weigh nothing. He goes down the stairs inhumanly fast.

“My friend! We have to help her!”

“She is not your friend,” he says, tone guttural. “She betrayed you. They always do,” he says and then he lets me go with a hard push, and I fall, hitting the ground, pain radiating through my palms at the impact. He’s engaged in another fight, two men attacking him at once as they come in the back door. With a quick move, he’s grabbed one, slammed him into the wall and turned to the other one.

He lunges at him, mouth open. His teeth sink into the man’s neck, a high scream of terror cut off in an abrupt gurgle as Leander’s teeth tear into the man’s neck. Leander is drinking, drinking, blood pouring down the man’s clothing, and I scramble to my feet, to the door, everything confusion and falsity.

Run. Go. Escape. I bolt into the night, wanting to scream at what I’ve seen and how terrified I am, but I know, I know that if I do that, I’ll draw them to me, and then what will happen to me? Who will kill me then?

Everyone, my dear. Don’t you know that everyone wants you dead? And I don’t know if I’ve made up the catty feminine voice that resonates in my mind, if it’s some mad delusion or a hint of my past breaking through.

I run and run, down alleys, across traffic, my feet bleeding in my flats, my hands scraped from the brick walls of buildings that I find myself stumbling into. I’m somewhere in New York City. I don’t know where. But I can’t keep running, the pain eventually becoming larger than my fear. I slow to a walk, because I have to keep moving.

Taxi. That’s what I need. And I’ll go…where? Leander is a monster. They all are.

Real monsters? Is he a real monster? Are there such things? The blood, the speed and the violence. Leander Marchant, the man I lived with, drank that man’s blood and killed him. Right? The look of hunger on Leander’s face as he ripped into that man’s neck, the unleashed evil of him. That’s real.

Right? It kind of has to be.

I think.





12





He catches up to me in a diner. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. Not my apartment. Not his. I don’t have a lot of money, but I do have five bucks crumpled in my pocket and I needed to stop. At least for a little bit and think about what I can do next. A shelter?

Some strange emotion—dark, slithering and horrible—winds through me at the thought. Not slowly but like a car crash, instantaneous and permanent. Life-altering in its all-encompassing span. I might need to go to a women’s shelter.

Wow.

Who goes there? Women who’ve been hurt by men. Women who have nothing and no one and are in desperate straits. I could just imagine what I might say: “I have no memory, but it appears that maybe, just maybe, I let my boyfriend drink my blood and slice me open. You know, for fun. Maybe even for a kinky thrill. Although it’s a bit possible he’s a vampire.” If I’m lucky, it’s domestic violence. That is a very bad sign.

I’m fucked.

What if my lack of memory is a blessing? And what does it mean that, until the very end, he is trying to keep it from me? Is it because he feels guilty? Is he somehow helping me by pretending ignorance? And did I in fact try to kill someone like Lord Dalmaine said? How? When?

Some variation of all of this is going through my mind when he comes in. I don’t know. I really have no idea where I am in terms of being rational or well-adjusted. Somewhere left of center. Maybe off the chart and on the floor squished under someone’s shoe.

The coffee is bitter, burned- tasting from sitting on the hob for too long. The lighting is garish, the light blurry in a way that makes me think I might be in for a monstrous migraine soon. And there are only three of us in this dump besides the waitress. People who are slumped and hollow-eyed. Am I lighter because my mind is a blank?

He’s wearing a clean shirt, crisp and white, a work shirt, open at the throat. He’s even wearing new slacks, which are a bit incongruous with his more casual shoes. He doesn’t have blood on his face or his throat, his hair is immaculately styled, and he looks so ruthlessly perfect and out of place that all I can do is blink at him.

Terror is stuck in traffic behind shock and disbelief, even incomprehension. He instantly finds me, locks eyes with me and saunters over to my booth, casual, confident, and patient. He slides in opposite me, and waits.

I pick up my mug, willing its warmth into my cold fingers, squeezing so hard a lesser cup might have shattered. Tears slide down my cheeks. He frowns at the liquid sliding down my face. His hand makes a fist on the table and I laugh darkly.

“Sad you didn’t cause it?”

He looks taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“The salty discharge leaking from my eyes. Isn’t that what this is about? You want to hurt me? You make me bleed and…drink it? Because you’re….” It’s as if the tension seeps out of him, the stress that I hadn’t even noticed, that had made his jaw hard, his eyes intent. Suddenly he’s just a gorgeous man siting in a crummy diner with a shell of a girl. He spreads his arms along the top of the bench, fingers open, loose, and I think I can see a bit of dark black dried blood, on his watchband. The only indication that what I saw back at the club was actually real.

What’s behind the curtain? It’s for desperate people and hungry monsters, he’d told me.

Hungry monsters.

My mouth shapes the word but I don’t say it. He’s waiting. The waitress comes by. “I’ll have a coffee,” he says, “and she’ll need a refill. I’m sure we’ll be here a while.” He smiles charmingly and the woman blushes. “Do you have anything with chocolate?” he asks.

“Mud pie,” she says, already writing it down on her notepad.

“Perfect. A slice of that.” The waitress looks to me to see if I want something, and he speaks for me. “It’s for her. Just bring two forks.”

She wanders away and I’m the center of his attention again. The tabletop is suddenly the safest place to look, and so I stare intently, refusing to look up even though he wants me to look at him. I know he does. I don’t know how, but I do. It’s like a silent message: Look up, Rebecca. Look at me. See me for who I am, who we were. My hands are trembling under the table and I grip them tight. He rubs his eyes with one hand. Maybe he has a headache too. “Just say it. Nothing happens if you say it.”

“Doesn’t it?” And my voice is raw. How do I tell him that I think he’s a monster? How do I let that become part of my world? “Doesn’t everything change? The danger…” And I don’t want to say it. That he might hurt me, that others will, have done and could again in the future.

He laughs unhappily. “This is the aberration. Us. Here. You with no knowledge of anything. As you’ve probably noticed, you’re already in danger. That’s just a given,” he says, like it’s not a big deal. “Your heritage,” he says. I don’t think he’s joking.

“Wait. I just…” Deep breath. “Am I better off not knowing?”

His dark brows pull together. “I don’t know, Rebecca. I’m not even sure that’s the right question.”

Now it’s my turn to do a brow raise. “What’s the right question then?”

“The question is can you stand not knowing?” There is an odd smile on his lips, and I don’t know what it might mean. “The girl I knew would have to know. That’s who you…were.” I know he stopped himself from saying are. Because he doesn’t feel like he knows me, not this version of me, and maybe that’s something. Maybe it says I’m not the same girl who allowed him to do terrible things to me.

The waitress sets down his coffee and a piece of pie that actually looks good. “You love chocolate,” he says, and sticks a fork into the pie. He takes a small bite and I watch him do it. His mouth. Boy, do I have problems if I can still be so distracted by how hot he is when I’m pretty sure he’s a monster and I’m…

I’m so angry and terrified that my voice is a whisper. “It’s just pie. And everyone likes chocolate. You don’t know me. Stop saying you do.”

He leans closer, words soft. “Baby, I know everything there is to know about you. I know you better than you do.” My heart leaps at the idea. And I don’t know if it’s excitement or terror.

“Is that how you found me tonight?”

“In a way.”

“You thought I’d wander into a crummy diner on the Lower East Side?”

He picks up his coffee cup, and I watch his fingers close on the handle. The strength in them, how well-manicured they are. Artists hands, they say. I feel… Crap, I don’t know how I feel. “You killed those men, you were covered in blood, and now you’re fine. Undamaged and even wearing clean clothes.”

“I had dry cleaning in my car. Besides it helps to be prepared.” He has the nerve to smile at me, going for disarming.

“Are you tracking me? Like, my phone or something? Is that how you found me?”

A sigh. “Let’s go back to before. You were just getting ready to say something. What you thought I was. If we get that out of the way, this will all go a lot faster.” He takes another small bite of pie.

“You eat food,” I say.

His gaze is flat and cold. “I do. It doesn’t have a lot of flavor, but the texture is interesting, I suppose. I’m just eating this to put you at ease.”

“I’m terrified. You’re not doing a very good job.”

He puts the fork down, hands back along the top of the bench seat. All his attention is on me, and I feel my heartbeat pick up speed again. He arches a dark brow like he heard it, as though he liked that little spot of acceleration.

“I think you’re a vampire,” I say, and instantly feel like an idiot.

“Good girl. But you don’t remember anything?”

I look at the pie, pick up my fork, feel my cheeks heat. That tiny hint of memory is there before me, the lust in his voice as he surrounds me. It’s more real and vivid than it would be if it were a fantasy. I can practically hear the cadence of his voice rumbling against my body, feel the muscular solidity of him as he presses against me, wanting me, wanting to be inside me. I’m not going to tell him that. “No, nothing.”

His hand clenches into a fist, then releases. “Do not lie to me, Rebecca. What is it? Just a flash?”

I study his face. “How do you know?”

A small shrug, his biceps flexing in his shirt. “I’ve spent a lot of time looking into amnesia over the last six months. Your memories might return in snippets, maybe all at once.” He looks away from me, out the window to the nearly empty street outside. “Maybe never,” he says with no emotion.

“I meant, how do you know I’m lying?”

A secretive smile. He makes a tsking noise. He won’t tell me. Which is annoying. “Maybe it has,” I say, and he looks back, his eyes roaming my face, my chest, and there is heat there, desire. “Maybe I remember everything.”

“Not a chance.”

“What? You think I’d be all over you, begging you to…drink my blood if I remembered?” It sounds ridiculous saying it aloud.

His laughter is an abrupt bark, quickly silenced. “No, Rebecca. If you remembered who I was and who you were…” It’s as though I asked about something truly fantastical, cats driving cars or something. The ridiculousness of it is what amuses him.

“What would I do? If I remembered?”

His gaze never wavers from mine. “I think you’d be apologizing and crying. You’d take off your clothes and try to rip off mine because you always had a knack for manipulating me and turning me into a fool.”

“I can’t imagine I ever thought you were a fool.”

A bitter smile. “So, see? Proof. You don’t remember. And maybe…just maybe you’d be terrified that I’d make you pay for your betrayal.”

“What betrayal?”

A swift frown. The silence becomes uncomfortable, and instead of screaming, I distract myself by taking a bite of pie and wish I hadn’t. It’s cool and greasy in my mouth, my stomach so tied up in knots that the idea of swallowing seems beyond me. But I do and then shudder in revulsion. “I thought you were lying,” he says, and it takes me a minute to catch up with the subject change.

“About having amnesia?”

He nods, lips tightly sealed.

“Why would I do that?”

“So you wouldn’t have to explain yourself. Maybe you thought I’d forgive you, maybe even doubt your guilt if you never confessed. You tried to kill me.”

Wait. What? “So you’re crazy and a vampire?”

“Family trait,” he murmurs, then takes a sip of coffee and grimaces.

Jesus Christ. Is he really a vampire? Am I really contemplating believing it? “Huh. Do you know that I read vampire books? Like, a lot of them. It’s all I read.”

He makes a dismissive motion with his hand, like a half-chop motion, still lounging on the bench, still relaxed. Still alien. “I’m sure they’re total rubbish. Deeply inaccurate.”

I blush but can’t stop myself from saying, “They’re romances.” Am I baiting him?

His mouth opens, then closes. “Definitely wrong then,” he mutters, but he appears almost flustered by the comment.

“Our relationship wasn’t romantic?” He’s staring at me, and I blink, give in first, blush and look away. I hate silences. “How did you know I was lying just now?”

And now he looks me over, a thorough, heated look from my breasts to my neck and then my lips. His own curve into a smile. It’s actually genuine. And it’s quite stunning to be the object of that sort of attention. He’s looking into my eyes, and I know that the sensible thing to do is to look away. He raises a finger halfway to his ear and tilts his head toward it briefly. “I heard your heartbeat speed up. And the expression on your face at this moment…obsession, Miss Finner.”

“What obsession? I’m sure I was never obsessed with you. Or you with me, for that matter.” And then I’m waiting for him to say something because, really, there is nowhere for me to go after that.

And now he’s leaning forward, ever so slowly toward me as though he’s going to kiss me, and suddenly I want it. More than anything I’ve ever wanted. “It was both of us. A disaster from the very beginning.”

He slides out of the booth in a smooth motion, adjusting his shirt cuffs before he holds out a hand to me. “It’s time to go. I’ll answer your questions along the way, but we have to go.”

“Where?”

He doesn’t even bother to respond but waits, that large hand extended, expectant. And really, what am I going to do? I have no money. He is my past. That’s clear. And I want it. Even if it’s fucked up and wrong, I want to know who I was. I remind myself again that just because it’s who I used to be doesn’t mean it has to be who I still am. I don’t have to be that girl again just because I learn of my previous mistakes. I put my hand in his, the contact electric, and let him pull me up.

He doesn’t let go of my hand but turns it, palm up, and suddenly he’s placing something in it. Metal, slightly cool from being in his pocket. His hand is covering mine lightly, keeping me from seeing it, the width of his hand swallowing mine. “You wanted to know what was in the box,” he says, and he curls my fingers over the object, making me hold it for a moment before I see what it is.

As soon as he releases my hand, he turns away, giving me his back, and I know, just know, that he doesn’t want to see my face when I see what it is. He doesn’t want to see my reaction as I examine whatever it is that was in that box I was so strongly drawn to.

It’s small, silver and old. There is a tiny button, set with a ruby, that, when pushed, releases a blade with a tiny snick of sound. I suck in a shocked breath. That box I thought was mine and I thought held jewelry or something romantic holds a knife. A fucking knife!

Leander is paying the bill, and then he’s finished, and still he won’t turn to look at me, which is good because I don’t have my expression under control, and who knows what I look like. Pale, scared, disturbed. I follow him to the car, get in and buckle my seat belt.

All I know so far is that my ex is a vampire who used to drink my blood. And we had a special blade…like some sort of bizarre commitment knife.

And it’s housed in a little box that, when I saw it, even when I didn’t know my own damned name, age, or where I grew up, I knew that box was mine.

I wonder if he loved me. Or if I loved him. Could I have loved someone who gave me a knife so I could bleed for him? “Wait. Who made this? You or me?”

The tension rises between us. He is not happy to answer my questions. “It was in my family. Knives that are similar to it are made for…humans. But this one was a particularly special one.”

“Because you feed off humans?” That isn’t getting any less weird to contemplate.

“I don’t usually. My kind prefer blood from the vein, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t drink that way.”

“Hence the knife. And you…cut me?”

The silence is heavy, and I can see a muscle ticking at the corner of his jaw. Finally, he says, “It’s typical that the human makes the offering.”

“That’s not how the club is set up.”

A nod. Which doesn’t explain much.

He comes to a stop at a light and turns to look at me. Dark, handsome, totally unfathomable. “Now why don’t you tell me about your friend, Jessica.” And the way he says it indicates that, as far as he’s concerned, she is not my friend.

“She lived across the hall from me. I think…I think she was my friend. She didn’t want me to take the pills I was given. She warned me about you and—”

“She took you to an illegal vampire club and put you in danger. She wasn’t your friend. She was keeping an eye on you until you were needed. You were bait,” he says coolly.

“Because you’ll eat me? I’m bait for you, apparently.”

“Perhaps bait was a poor choice of words. They knew I would go after you. That you are my weakness. That is a completely different thing.”

“Did you… No, that’s not what I want to ask. Did I love you?”

He pulls into the garage under his building, parks and continues to sit there, staring forward. “I don’t know. I know you thought you did. But it wasn’t…fair, I suppose.”

“What do you mean?”

He has a small smile on his face, but the bitterness in his words confuses me. A self-defense mechanism, perhaps? “I saved your life. When you were very young. It…affected you. Biased you.”

I think about that. What he’s not saying. “How old was I?”

“Five.”

“And you…looked like this?” I ask, gesturing at him. Because of course vampires don’t grow old. That’s vampire lore 101.

“We don’t change.” The beauty of him. How amazing must it have seemed to a young girl? Like a fairy-tale prince. And for him to have saved my life?

“Five? Did you kill my family?”

“No. Your father died before you came to my attention. Your mother and sister died in a plague.”

“That’s why I let you cut me? Because you saved my life when I was a little girl?” My voice has gone high and thin.

“In the books, vampires can erase memories, make people believe things or forget things. Is that real?”

“Yes,” he says quietly.

“And yet you’re telling me I have amnesia? I think that’s a lie,” I say, and it’s a very soft statement as I know, on some level, that accusing Leander Marchant of lying to me is a grievous insult.

“I did not do it,” he says, voice low, vowels crisp. I believe him. Put it on my tombstone. I believed him. Moron buried here.

“Okay. Someone else then. Another vampire. Your friend back there. Lord Dalmaine.” I don’t even like saying his name.

“That’s impossible,” and it’s clear he doesn’t even feel the need to entertain the idea. But I do.

“There are other vampires. I don’t understand—”

“Even if another of my kind made you forget, you would have remembered months ago. I compelled you to remember and you didn’t.” He’s beginning to sound annoyed.

“And that’s your proof?”

“It’s a question of power,” he says, as if that’s an obvious and definitive answer.

“What about power?”

“The only way another vampire could have removed your memories and kept them hidden from me was if they were stronger than me.”

“Wow. Is that what this is about? Your ego? You can’t believe some other vampire might be stronger than you? Is it really impossible?”

His eyes become slits, reminding me of a cat contemplating murder of a fat mouse. “Strength comes from drinking from the vein, the essence that’s there. It doesn’t happen on the island.”

“You mean the island that’s trying to overthrow you?”

He looks away from me and out the window, eyes roving restlessly, brow furrowed in thought. “Fine. We will check to see if your blood is tainted by another.”

“You’ve never checked?”

And I have to be missing something because he suddenly looks very aristocratic and distant. “If you knew how much of an honor it is for me to drink your blood, you wouldn’t be quite so blasé.”

“So this wasn’t some sort of on-tap arrangement where you just cut me open and drank when you wanted to?”

His hands are tight fists on the wheel. “No, it was not. That is not how we are.”

The blade is still clenched in my hand, and I push the button, the weapon making a tiny snick as it opens. I’m pretty sure he flinches. Which is funny because that should be my reaction, right? I put the blade to my finger, resting the tip of it against the pad of my index finger. If he’s going to sample my blood, I want to get it over with.

“What are you doing?” he demands, the hostility startling.

“Let’s just get it over with.” My cheeks are hot and my stomach flip-flops.

“I am the prince of House Marchant. If you think I’m just going to slurp up a drop of your blood while sitting in a car, you are mistaken.”

It’s almost funny. “What was your plan?”



* * *



“I was going to take you to my apartment,” he says, hands opening and closing on the steering wheel “There are preparations.”

“Why? How much blood are we talking here?”

“Your blood is currently toxic. When we return to my apartment, you will drink a tonic that makes your blood safe.”

“Oh.”

He turns off the car and gets out, waiting for me impatiently. We’re both silent as we go into his apartment. I follow slowly as he goes directly to the kitchen, opening a cupboard and pulling out a small bottle, the stopper made out of cork, the writing on it done by hand. It looks, rather oddly, like my handwriting. He sets it on the counter and looks at me disapprovingly. “Take a spoonful.”

“You could say please,” I say sarcastically.

I get a spoon from the drawer and pour a spoonful of liquid onto the spoon. It’s thick, syrupy and brown. The smell is woodsy and uninviting. A shudder of revulsion goes through me.

“Oh my god. I feel like I can remember how awful it is. Like even though I don’t remember it, my body does.” I’m grimacing.

He sighs dramatically and goes to the fridge, opening it. He sets a cold Kit Kat on the table next to me. “A chocolate chaser? That’s something, I suppose.” And I do it quickly, before I can second-guess myself. It’s just as awful as I thought it would be, and it takes two sticks of Kit Kat to get the taste out of my mouth. He sets a glass of water down next to me.

“Now what?”

A shrug. “We wait five minutes.”

“That’s not very long.”

“Your blood isn’t very toxic,” he says, sounding bored. “It’s absorbed rather quickly.”

“Where did you get this concoction?” I ask, curious.

He’s looking at me with a curiously blank expression. “No guesses, Miss Finner?”

“You’re telling me I made it?”

“Isn’t that why you’re asking? I saw you looking at the handwriting. It’s yours. You made it.”

“And I took it a lot?”

He raises a brow. I hate his minimalist answers. I hate that I know that was an answer.

“I’m going to take a shower. I’ll be back and then…” Forget it. I’m too tired to finish sentences. I’m going to be minimalist too, let him see how it feels. I close the door and lock it, my body trembling with stress and latent fear as I peel off my clothes.

I kick them to the corner of the bathroom for later. I’m going to throw them away. Not that disposing of them will really do anything to help me, but I don’t want any extra reminders of what all happened today. Big day, I think dumbly and numbly as the hot water pours down on me. I wish I had run a bath. I feel cold and miserable. Eventually I have to get out. I dress in a sweater and comfy pants, padding in to the living room wearing overly fluffy socks.

Leander is standing in the living room, a drink in his hand. It’s amber-colored, and I know it’s whiskey without being told. He likes whiskey. Doesn’t like brandy. I’m not sure why I feel like that’s true, but I do. I think he knows I’m there but he doesn’t turn around to look at me.

“Is that brandy?”

“No. I hate brandy,” he says, sounding tired. He still hasn’t turned around. And I was right. My instincts dead on, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.

“Looking for something to read?” I ask, moving into the room, hair still damp from the shower. He finally turns, focuses on my damp hair and the towel I’m blotting it with. “Why are you looking at me that way?” I’m blushing.

He shakes his head. “You look beautiful. Fresh, I suppose, with the wet hair. I’ve never seen you…” He trails off, sighs and looks back at the books. Is it possible he’s even more maudlin than I am?

“You’ve never seen me just get out of the shower?” The oddness of that, considering our history, leaves me stumped on what to say. And he’s still looking at me. “You stare at me,” I say and wish I hadn’t said it.

“Do I?” It’s not really a question. If anything, I’d say he sounds resigned.

“You don’t…like me.”

Another brow raise, punctuated by a quick swallow of his drink. “How do you know what I feel? You don’t know me, remember?” He closes his eyes for a long moment.

I shrug. “I think I must have known you well. Or spent a lot of time watching you when we were together. Because I look at you and I know, even when your expression gives nothing away, I feel like I know what goes on in your mind. I suppose what I don’t understand is why you stare at me.” Because I’m not glamorous or tough. I’m the girl who puts on baggy clothes and fluffy socks as a form of comfort and protection. I open my hand, showing him the blade.

“Take it. You do it. I don’t know how much blood you need, anyway.”

It’s as though I’ve asked him to take a poisonous spider. He swallows his drink and sets it down. “It’s not a lot. Just a drop or two. A taste, you see.”

“Okay,” and I extend my hand toward him, demanding he take the blade. A slow nod and he takes it gently from my hand. He pushes the button. The blade shines in the light.

He clasps my hand in his, keeping it steady, the contact stealing my breath. He’s so close and yet so distant. The tension between us is like two opposites forced together. A strange pushing and pulling.

He’s not looking at me but the palm of my hand, the blade hovering out of my peripheral vision. “Do you know you were never afraid of me? Not until we got here, with the memory loss. Now when you don’t need to fear me, you do. It’s amusing in a perverse sort of way. Here we are in New York, where I couldn’t hurt you and get away with it, now you’re worried and…” When he looks at me, he blinks, as though suddenly returning to himself, becoming aware of where we are and what he’s saying.

He places the point of the blade against the tip of my finger and holds it there for a moment as he contemplates my skin, my finger. “Do you know you’re not the only one who wonders what the draw is? This person you are now…timid, angry, distrustful of me is so far removed from the girl I knew. Whom I saved.” His gaze is cold, brilliant, as he locks with mine. “Most people fear vampires. Even in our own little world, where humans only know vampires as their masters, they fear us. Because we make mistakes, we are in fact monsters. But you, Miss Finner, my Rebecca, you weren’t scared of me. You looked at me and…”

I want him to say it; I don’t want him to say it. His gaze dips to my mouth. “You wanted me so badly you were willing to die for me. Which is lovely, obviously, but the kicker, the real draw, as far as I can tell, was your utter conviction that I would never kill you. Never make that mistake no matter how much you tempted me to. You made yourself a test, a constant display of my self-control.”

“That doesn’t sound appealing,” I manage, a whisper.

“Maybe it wouldn’t be, for others. But for me….”

“Did I want you to kill me?”

“I don’t know. It wasn’t the sort of question I was inclined to ask.” And then he cuts me. Quick, barely painful, blood welling to the surface. He flicks me a glance, full of self-deprecation, maybe a bit of self-loathing. “And now I don’t have to, do I? This new you wants to live. Is smart enough to be afraid and recognize the monster I am.” His grip on my hand has tightened, making me want to pull away from him. I jerk hard but he’s immobile.

There is a reaction in his eyes, as though that bit of fight has pleased him. The drop of blood is large now, precariously balanced, ready to drip off my finger and to the ground. Now his words are cold, this version of him frightening. “As charming as it was having you desperate to die in my arms, ideally while I fucked your brains out, this is probably better for your longevity,” he says.

Is this the real him? My heartbeat speeds up and I think he growls. My body is screaming at me to run even though nothing has actually changed.

He waits for my reaction, the blush that steals over me at his saying obscenities.

His grip tightens, the bones of my hand grinding together so tears fill my eyes. I make a squeak of pain and he ignores it. And then he leans down, swipes his tongue across my finger, closes his eyes and savors the taste in a way that fills me with desire and terror in equal measure.

“Let go of my hand,” I say, pulling against him, but all he does is smile at me. He’s mocking me, maybe both of us, making me fear him while being perfectly restrained and poised. This is a lesson, I think. His attempt to frighten me.

It’s working.

His voice is a purr. “Do you know this is even sweeter than the taste of your—” And that’s it. Fuck this. I slap him across the face with my free hand. All instinct, pure rage, pain and sadness fuelling me onward.

I jerk again and he releases me. He moves his jaw back and forth, as if I actually hurt him. “Better. You did that before too, you know. Slapped me. Harder this time, though.”

He snaps his fingers and holds out his hand, demanding I give him my hand again. I obey automatically and instantly hate myself. His mouth is warm, his tongue rasping gently across the pad of my finger. There is even a faint pull as he urges more blood from the tiny wound. He drops my hand, and I don’t know what to do, so I make a fist, holding my hand against my chest as though I can protect myself.

He paces away from me. Caged. Violent. “Do you need more blood?” My voice trembles.

He walks to the sideboard, giving me his back, hiding? He pours himself another whiskey and takes a large sip, washing it around in his mouth like mouthwash before swallowing. He seems poised, calm even, but I feel the danger of him, the quiet. He raises the glass again, but it’s hovering halfway to his mouth, and I don’t understand what he’s thinking, where he is as he seems almost lost to me. His arm moves faster than I can see, the glass shattering into a million tiny pieces as he throws it against the wall. “Give me the blade.”

Bizarrely, I do.

“Stay here,” he orders, voice arctic.

“Where are you going?”

His smile is feral. “To get your memory back. By the end of the night, you’ll remember it all.”

“And you’re taking my knife? What does that mean?”

“It means I’ve been an arrogant fool. You were compelled. I can taste it. And I’m not strong enough to take it away. But I will be.”

“You can’t just go out into the night and start slashing people like Jack the Ripper so you can get my memories back! That’s psychotic!”

“No, it’s called eating,” he says, teeth bared.

“I’m going with you!” As soon as I say it, I wish I could unsay it. What the hell do I want to go for?

“All right. Get changed and we’ll go.”

Wait. What? I almost say it out loud but I don’t. I go and get changed, putting on a big coat and something with a hood, shoes I can run in… I feel light-headed. Am I really dressing like I imagine a criminal would? As if I don’t want the police to catch me?

I walk back to the living room and he’s pacing. “Why don’t you drink my blood?”

A laugh. “No.”

“Why not? Isn’t that better than a stranger’s?”

A heavy sigh. “No, actually, it isn’t.”

And then somehow we’re out in the street, walking, and all I can think is that this can’t be real. He can’t really be about to drink someone’s blood. And I can’t really be here ready to watch.

“Will you kill him? Or her?”

His glance is narrow. “Him.”

“I can’t believe that actually makes me feel a bit better. Maybe I’m sexist.”

“Maybe you’re traumatized from your past and would identify too much with the victim,” he says.

“Well, wouldn’t Dr. Brown give you a gold star,” I mutter. But he’s not next to me. He’s turned down a narrow side street, his pace quickening on a solitary man who’s twenty feet ahead. Chills race over my body, and I stop, just stop there, scared by the man in front of me. He’s different in this moment. I can’t hear him walking. He’s somehow blending into the shadows, and without effort, he’s gaining on the man. And then he’s on him and I’m running forward to see or stop him or something.

I don’t see the blade, but the man gives a strangled groan, and Leander’s head goes down to the man’s neck like a cobra striking. I stop ten feet away. I can’t go closer. Can I hear the sound of him swallowing? The man’s knees give out and Leander supports him.

“Stop now,” I say, but it’s not loud enough.

“Leander, stop. Stop or you’ll kill him. Leander!” I run forward and shove at him but he’s immovable. The man gives one last rattling breath and that’s it. I don’t know how I know, but he’s dead, and I’m crying, my fists beating against Leander’s coat. He lifts his head, lowers the man down to the ground surprisingly gently and turns to me. His eyes are dead, there is blood on his mouth, and all of his attention is focused on me, his breathing rapid and his nostrils flared like he’s a stallion and I’m a mare.

I want to back up, but I don’t. A sane person would turn and run, scream for help and call the cops. I close my eyes, a sense of odd peace going through me as I stand there waiting. My palms are up like I’m waiting for someone to put a tray on them. Why am I doing that? Because that’s what I’m trained to do.

Fuck that. I move to run, but he’s grabbed my wrists, and he’s pushing me back against the wall. “Let me go. Please, let me go. I won’t tell anyone, I swear,” I say, babbling, as tears run down my face.

“Look at me,” he says, “and then I’ll let you go.”

I look at him and he’s different too. More attractive, somehow vital and magnetic in a new way. “Remember everything, Rebecca.”

My mind shifts in a rainbow of colors, like a child’s kaleidoscope, resolving into images. Blood, desire, long dresses and the feel of a corset. A woman’s laugh and the heat of the sun. The stench of death and what it was like before. Leander Marchant is holding me in his arms as I sway, things and people coming back to me. I remember screaming at him as he turns his back on me at the end, that he swore he’d never, ever let me go.

I remember Lord Marchant standing with his sword raised as he fought Lord Dalmaine in the courtyard. A display for all of us girls to see how magnificent the Infinite are. Not vampires. We call them the Infinite. His hands convulse on my arms, but I pull free and throw up on a pile of old newspapers.

He’s my better. My Lord and master. And I remember the end. How I lost my memory. Every detail of my life from a young girl to the day that I walked out of a window, ordered to fall to my death. And he wasn’t there to save me.

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