Euphoria (The Thornfield Affair #1) by Amity Cross

The sky had darkened by the time I reached the lane.

The ground was hard underfoot, the air was still, and the road was lonely. I walked fast along the broken asphalt, my boots slipping on the occasional patch of black ice, increasing my pace until warmth seeped through my bones. Then I slowed my footsteps to enjoy the freedom and nature, which I now found myself in.
Euphoria (The Thornfield Affair #1)
Euphoria (The Thornfield Affair #1) by Amity Cross
It had been a long two months locked within the walls of Thornfield. The old manor was falling down around itself, and though it was a fine place, it was dreary in the midst of winter’s chill. The grand house had been turned into a hotel some fifty years before, but it scarcely saw any guests in summer, let alone in the icy months of the year. I was wanting for adventure, for conversation and action, my situation calling for a change of scenery lest my anguish devour my soul. That was how I found myself on my way to the village, an escapee of the confines of Thornfield, no matter how terrible the weather outside was. The lane inclined uphill to the village. Having reached halfway, I leaned against an old bluestone fence that bordered an ancient farmer’s field to catch my breath. The moor stretched out around me, the copse of trees I took shelter in making every sound feel closer than it actually was. Fog had begun to descend, and below, the battlements of Thornfield sliced through the mist marking just how far I’d come. On the hilltop above my perch, the moon was rising, pale and low in the sky, and beyond that, the lights of the tiny village appeared hazy through the weather. I had about a twenty-minute walk until I reached the limits of civilization and the pub, which was my ultimate destination. The longer I sat and listened, the more I could piece together the sounds of life ahead. The rumbling of a lorry on the motorway beyond, the bark of a dog, the slam of a door…all carried farther afield by the dense air. Then, as if out of nowhere, a harsh noise broke through the beautiful stillness. The roar of an engine farther down the lane whipped me out of my state of calmness, and I leaned back against the fence lest I be flattened by the approaching vehicle. The windings of the narrow road hid it from view for quite some time even though the noise increased the farther it came along, and I stilled to allow it to flash past. It was so dark and unsettling, and my mind mulled over the ghost stories Alice had been regaling me with while at the lonely hotel bar the last few nights. She’d taken great delight in telling me about the black hound, which prowled the lonely roads and would catch unwary travelers by surprise. Much like the approaching vehicle. But it was silly of me to be afraid since Jane Doe was afraid of nothing, especially not a walk through the moor in the dark! A light flashed around the corner, and I was illuminated and blinded all at once, then there was a cry. It was a big chrome and black motorcycle approaching and as the rider saw me and swerved, the rear wheel hit a patch of ice and slid. The whole thing veered to the side of the road, barely scraping past me. The wheel spun in the gravel, turning the entire motorcycle on its end, and the rider lost the last ounce of control they had over the beast. The machine fell, landing heavily on the road, the clang echoing across the lonely moor. I pressed back against the bluestone fence, my heart pounding wildly, and for a moment, I was fixed in place, shock setting in. I’d almost been squashed! The rider scrambled away from the motorcycle and pulled off their helmet with an audible curse. The word was spoken with so much vitriol that I recoiled lest it be turned on me. I now saw the rider was a man, his broad shoulders encased in black leather, his dark hair askew, and his jaw covered in the shadow of a beard that had grown in his neglect to clean shave. He was as wild as the look in his eyes, and when he turned to me, so came his anger. I was rooted to the spot, partly due to the black motorcycle that had almost run me down and partly to the vehemence, which was now fixed upon me. My usual no-nonsense attitude had been dulled in the aftermath of such excitement, and I was rendered mute. The man pushed himself to his feet, moving unsteadily on his left foot, the same foot that had been underneath the motorcycle. “Dammit!” he exclaimed, hopping unsteadily. He leaned over and poked at his ankle, but the leather of his boot hindered him. Finally, as the shock wore off and my heartbeat returned to normal, I found my voice and stepped forward to offer my assistance. “Are you injured, sir?” He shooed me away, not even taking care to look at me, deciding insults were due punishment. “Are you a roadside bandit lying in wait to rob unsuspecting travelers? Or are you a modern-day gunslinger with a penchant for feminism?” “Pardon?” I asked, my eyebrows rising in surprise, not expecting the words that gushed from his mouth. “I am no such thing.” “Then you are a spirit sent to slit my throat,” he said with a snarl, limping over to his motorcycle. “I am no such thing!” I exclaimed again. “I’m only walking to the village, which any person, living or dead, is free to do so.” “The spirit has spirit,” the man drawled, brushing mud from his jacket. “From whence do you come?” I pointed down the road toward the hotel. “Thornfield.” “Thornfield? And pray, spirit, what do you do there?” He spread his arms wide, mocking my tone of voice. “Many things,” I stated, my ire rising to match his. “None of which are your concern.” “Do you work there?” I nodded. “Who owns it? Thornfield?” “Mr. Rochester,” I replied. “Do you know him?” “No, I have never met him,” I said, curious at to the reason behind his questioning. “You’ve never seen a picture, then? Googled to see who he is, perhaps?” I shook my head. “I have no need.” “No need?” The man seemed surprised. “Is he not in residence?” “No, sir.” He regarded me for a long moment, finally seeing that which was before him. His eyes were full of a quiet storm as he took in my attire and state of wildness. Whatever he thought, he kept it to himself, gesturing for me to step forward, instead. “Help me right my bike,” he commanded. “It is the least you could do since my ankle is twisted, spirit.” I nodded and pushed off the fence. As I approached, I took his appearance in as he had mine, finding him rugged and wild. He was not much taller than I, his shoulders wide and his attire plain but well suited for a motorcycle ride in the dark. Enclosed helmet, thick black jeans, black leather jacket and gloves, and big, black boots on his feet. He seemed past his youth, though he wasn’t old at all. Perhaps thirty to thirty-five though I was never a good judge of anyone’s age. The man grasped the handlebars, his gloved hands curling around the grips, and I took the rear, pushing as he applied weight on the front. We righted the beast with little effort between us, and he threw his leg over with a grimace. Fetching his helmet, I held it out, my gaze lowering to his ankle. “Do not bother yourself,” he said briskly, snatching the helmet from my hands. “What are you doing out in the dark?” “I’m going to the village,” I replied, glancing down the road. “You came from Thornfield?” he inquired again like he had already forgotten, and I nodded. “It is a hotel, yes? Do they not have a well-equipped bar?” “It’s very well equipped,” I said, returning my hands to my jacket pockets. “I merely wished a change of scenery.” His stormy eyes narrowed as he pondered my words like they were a riddle, and he grunted. “Then be quick about you,” he said. “It’s cold and dark out here. This lonely road is no place for a woman to walk alone.” I would have scolded him for thinking me a weak-willed woman—I could fight as well as any—but he put on his helmet and kick started the motorcycle to life, the roar of the engine drowning out even my own thoughts. Then in a whirlwind, he took off down the lane toward Thornfield, his destination most likely the motorway and then to London beyond. No one ever stopped at Thornfield. Turning back toward the village, I hurried off, my mind swirling over the events that had just passed. It was an incident of no consequence, no romance or interest at all, but it was a moment. In a life that had become monotonous and empty in its unchanged routine, it was a mark of something, at least. A new face had been installed in my mental gallery, and it stood out because it was stern, masculine, and dark. All other faces had blurred in its wake. I’d left Thornfield for a breath of fresh air and a dose of excitement, and I’d gotten it…no matter how small. 2 It all began the day my parents died. I was too young to remember them, but later, I was told they’d died in a car accident. A lonely road, a sharp turn, and a disaster for all but one. When a local farmer happened upon the scene, he found a swaddled baby in the back seat with not a single scratch on her fragile skin. When help could be found and the wreckage taken away, she’d been left in the care of the hospital for the evening until the next of kin could be contacted. If my family had a name, I was unaware what it was. For as long as I could remember, my name was Jane Doe. The name the law gave to those who had no identity or no discernible way of finding one. I was no one. My uncle Reed cared for me at first and doted perhaps a little too much. When I was three years old, he passed away from a heart attack, and I was left to endure with my aunt Sarah and my cousins, John and Georgiana. From that moment forth, my aunt constantly told me I was the worst thing that had ever happened to her. My parents and her ungrateful husband had the audacity to die and leave their demon child in her care. I was a burden who sucked the soul from her life, and in its place, her dalliance in substance abuse couldn’t sooth the blow. Reed was not my name and never would it be. My mother was my uncle’s sister and had married what Aunt Sarah described as a vagrant, and that was all I knew. My past was withheld from me, my despicable adoptee mother the gatekeeper and she made it her mission to belittle the memory of my parents. Not that I had any memory aside from daydreams and fantasies I dared to experience whilst hiding from my cousins. The Reeds were rich enough that their fine manor house had room for a family three times the size of what we were, but I was prescribed the smallest room in the house, the castoff clothes of my cousin Georgiana, and a list of chores a mile long. My education suffered, I did not go to school, all ignored me, and when there was need of a scapegoat, I was blamed for every mistake that happened within the confines of the house. Compared side by side with my cousins, I was plain, undersized for my age, my skin was pale, and I always looked sickly. I had no talents to speak of and no prospects outside of the house, and I was reminded of it every day without fail. Little Jane Doe was the runt of the litter. Useless, unwanted, despised, a blight on the house of Reed. Some souls start to believe what others say they are if they’re told it often enough. Was it because their mind was weak? Or was it because the pressure of despair was so great they crumbled under the weight of it? I didn’t know. All I was certain of was my story. And how did the tale of poor, plain, unwanted, Jane Doe end? Well, I suppose I resorted to extremes just to spite Aunt Sarah and her bully son. Simply put, I fought. Tooth and nail, hammer and tong. One day, when I was eight-years-old, I had reached my limit of pinches, slaps, and brutish thuggery John delighted in exacting upon me, and I put my plain, little fist straight into his piggy, little nose so hard it bled all over Aunt Sarah’s best rug. He ran off crying like the little squealer he was, and of course, all of it was my fault. I was locked in a closet for three days as punishment for my misdemeanor. When the door finally opened, I was dragged away to yet another miserable existence. Being a eight years old, I didn’t have much choice in the matter, so off I went. That’s how I found myself enrolled at Lowood, the school designed to teach problem children how to walk on the straight and narrow and be upstanding citizens of the world. They took me kicking and screaming from that closet, and it was in that moment of total abandonment that I realized I was in this life alone. The love and care I’d craved all my life was not in the cards for a child such as me, so I let go of such foolish notions and embraced the harsh nature of real life. From there on out, I didn’t count on anyone but myself. I never saw the Reeds again, and as the days passed into years and hardships came and went, I began to think less and less of them until I had little regard for their memory. I’d been mistreated, beaten, and scorned by those who should have been family, so perhaps I had every right to rue the day my parents were taken from this world and my name was withheld from me, but I saw Lowood as a chance to make something of myself. If only I had known what trials the next ten years would contain, I might’ve run away, but I felt spirit within me. Spirit which bade me to endure, so endure I did. Lowood was brutal, and the stench of misery had forced a callous to grow over all the softness and wonder my parents had passed on when they made me. I grew into a hardened woman, intelligent and determined yet closed and cold, and the moment I could leave that place, I did. I imagined a world bigger than all I had experienced and believed with all my heart there was a place for a nameless woman like me. I was keen to find adventure outside of the halls of Lowood, and adventure I found. Five years I traveled the country, seeking meager work that paid enough for me to skip to the next city, and then to the next. I experienced life, lust, and sinful desires, and still, I floated aimlessly in the waters of life, not knowing where I belonged—if I did at all. And that, reader, was how I found myself quite literally at a crossroads. The total darkness of the moor shrouding my presence as I made the trek from a tiny English village to yet another beginning. The wind tore at my hair as I pulled my hoodie up over my head to keep warm, the duffel bag that held all of my earthly belongings thrown carelessly across my back. The sky was dotted with a million stars, the desolate landscape only serving to make me feel small and alone in a world that was bigger than I could ever imagine. The lone light that winked in the distance—a beacon in an otherwise bleak future—was from a grand, dilapidated manor turned hotel, which I was told was in need of some tender loving care. They hired me upon my application, and the wage was acceptable, so I came. It was to be the place of my beginning and end. Thornfield. 3 Two months ago… * * * The manor was a menacing presence as I approached on foot. Lights shone from windows above, tiny pinpricks of warmth in the chill of night. All was still and close as frost began to settle on the lawn beside the long drive. My boots crunched on the gravel, making quite a racket as I advanced, and I fancied it was loud enough to wake the dead from their graves. I never liked making a spectacle of myself or drawing unnecessary attention, leaving it to more outward folks, so my noisy path had my nerves on edge. I was one of those rare women who went about life quietly, indulging where she may but as a mostly solitary figure among the crowd. It had caused many people to think of me as a standoffish kind of soul, so I was mostly left alone. I was plain enough that I was overlooked more times than not, but it did mean my personal relationships had been few…and very brief. It was a lonely life, but I was used to it, so it didn’t bother me as much as it did when I was a child. The main entrance was closed, a large oak door barring my way. Unsure as to how to proceed, I lingered on the step, questioning my next course of action. Finally, I decided to go inside without announcing myself. I opened the door and stepped over the threshold, wondering what I would find inside. Thornfield was a hotel, after all. I was entirely expecting to come face to face with hotel staff and guests as I entered, but all was quiet and still, much like it had been outside. Curious, I ventured farther into the manor, inspecting my new surroundings as I went. The air had a chill to it despite the modern radiator set against the far wall. Perhaps it was the ancient house and the spirits that lingered in its dark corners, or it could just be the fact it was simply winter. One could never tell in places such as these. “Hello?” I called out as I stepped into the main gallery. I was rather late in arriving due to a fiasco with a taxi driver at the train station, and I was to make myself known to Alice Fairfax. I assumed she was the owner of the hotel from the short conversation we’d had on the phone. She’d seemed to know a great deal about the comings and goings of Thornfield and had spoken with much authority on my hiring. I already liked her, even without having met in person. My gaze roamed the large room, absorbing as much detail as I could in the low lighting. The oak staircase was grand, rising toward the second level—and above to the third and fourth levels—with a wide bannister and glossy finish. Paintings dotted the paneled walls, their gilded frames containing desolate landscapes and portraits, which stared down at me with empty eyes. The floor was carpeted with long, ornate rugs and runners over polished oak boards, the pile worn in the center from years of footsteps. Once, it had been a well-loved place, but now it seemed forgotten. “Hello?” I called again, beginning to wonder if anyone was here at all. There was a clatter and a bang from an adjoining room, and in a whirlwind of activity, a woman appeared in the doorway. “Please tell me you are Jane?” she asked, sounding breathless. I nodded, startled at her appearance. “You’re late,” she said, but not in an unkind way. “We were beginning to worry you had become lost on the moor!” “Are you Alice Fairfax?” I inquired, taking in her delicate features and short, spiky chestnut hair. She couldn’t be a day older than I, and she looked more like a pixie from a fairy tale than the owner of Thornfield. “That’s me,” she said cheerfully. “And you are Jane Doe.” I nodded once more. “Did you walk from the village? I didn’t hear a car.” “Yes.” Her eyes widened at my revelation. “Oh my! We should have arranged you a taxi! Are you hungry? You must be chilled to the bone after walking all that way in the dark.” “Thank you, but it cost far too much,” I replied. “I have legs that work, and I don’t fear the darkness of the moor.” The hour and a half walk was a sight cheaper than the twenty-minute, sixty-five-pound taxi. The driver informed me I had to pay both ways to make the trip worth his while because there were never any fares on the way back. We’d argued, and I’d parted ways with the man, rather irate. The walk had sufficed to calm me down, so all was well in the end. Alice began to laugh at this and wiped a tear that had escaped from her eye. “You are a delight, Jane. You shall get along here just fine with a no nonsense attitude like that.” I smiled, and I felt the color returning to my cheeks as the warmth of the manor and the welcome heated me from the inside out. “Come. Let me show you to your room.” She glanced at the duffel bag in my hands. “Is that all you brought with you?” “Yes,” I replied, hoisting the bag over my shoulder. “Well, you travel light,” she declared with a huff and waved me forward. “That’s not a bad thing. I’m envious! I’m a woman who loves her creature comforts, indeed.” I followed her up the stairs and over the landing, all the while Alice telling me about the rooms and renovations that had changed Thornfield over the years. It had been built in the early eighteenth century by a noble family and had been their ancestral home for generations before finally becoming a hotel in the nineteen sixties. In recent years, the manor had been renovated and shaped to fit the trappings of the modern world. Larger rooms had become smaller, and electricity and plumbing had been installed with great care to preserve the heritage of the building, but everywhere my eyes dared to look, the edges seemed worn and tired, almost as if the house itself had given up all hope of the hotel becoming a successful venture for its owner. “Is the hotel yours?” I asked as Alice led me down the hall to the employee’s lodgings located in the east wing. “Oh my, no!” she exclaimed with a hearty laugh. “What a thing to say! Thornfield belongs to Mr. Rochester. We are related, quite distantly, but I never assume to think he cares for the connection. I’m just the same as anyone around here.” Who is Mr. Rochester? I wondered as my boots hardly made a sound on the plush crimson carpet. He sounded as if he were an older man who was so rich he had no regard to maintaining all of his holdings and had let the staff and guests at Thornfield run amok in his absence. “Is Mr. Rochester here?” I asked, curious to know more of the man who let his grand hotel slide into disrepair. “No, he’s off in Europe somewhere,” Alice informed me. “He comes and goes as he pleases. He’s quite a good employer, he pays well, but he can be unpredictable at best.” Unpredictable? I didn’t like the sound of a flighty rich middle-aged man, but as long as I performed my duties and did nothing to ire him, then it shouldn’t worry me. Deciding to leave the identity of Mr. Rochester be, I turned my attention to where I was walking, memorizing the lay of Thornfield. “We are all very pleased you have come, Jane,” Alice said as she came to a halt in front of a closed door. “It’s been so long since we’ve had a new face around here.” “I must admit, I am as well,” I replied. “It’s not a position I would have normally agreed to, but I’m never one to back down from a challenge.” “Thornfield is a challenge, for sure! But don’t let that sway you. We have a great deal of fun here, don’t you worry about that.” I smiled, her extroverted energy beginning to tire me after my walk from the village. “It’s past midnight, and you must be exhausted,” Alice declared as if she sensed the fatigue in my limbs. “Here is your room. It’s quite small, but it has its own bathroom, as many of the rooms here do. It is yours to do what you wish with, short of painting and putting holes in the walls, of course.” I waited patiently as she unlocked the door and turned on the light within. As the little light bulb illuminated the interior, I found her description quite apt. The space was compact without much room to be had around the bed. It was a double mattress squashed into the place of a single, and I was thankful for the extra room I would have to stretch out at night. The bathroom was in much the same state, the basin was installed over the toilet, and the shower took up three quarters of the remaining area. It was much like the budget hotels in London with their single room shoeboxes. I didn’t intend to stay in here if I could help it, and with my meager belongings, it was quite fine for me. “It’s not as grand as the guests’ rooms,” Alice said, trying to make light of its smallness. “But it does fine enough.” “It’s perfectly adequate,” I replied kindly. “Tomorrow, come and find me in the reception room beside the main gallery,” Alice said, handing me the key to the room. “Then I will show you the whole of Thornfield and introduce you around. We have a lot of work to do!” Her enthusiasm, although at such a late hour, was infectious, and I found myself smiling in return. She had not once scolded or made me feel inadequate for my attire nor my proper speech, not like the teachers at Lowood had. Ruffian, thief, and charlatan they’d called me, simply for my choice of wild hair, boots, jeans, and leather jacket. Not once had they looked into my heart to see my true intent. They saw the surface, took judgment upon it, and that was that. Alice was overtly pleased at my reaction to the room and left me to become acquainted with it. I placed my duffel on the trunk at the foot of the bed and surveyed the space now that I was in it alone. Peeking out the window, I could see nothing but darkness beyond, the surrounding grounds disappearing in the reflection of the light behind me. I was sure it would all look different in the morning. Peeling off my travel-stained clothes, I slipped into bed and found it quite comfortable, and in no time, I fell into a deep sleep. My room looked to be a bright, cheery place as night became day. The sun shone through a crack between the curtains, showing the space in a much better light than the washed-out bulb had previously. The walls were papered with an old-fashioned green design, which was adequate for a home of its period, and the matching carpeted floors were in need of a shampoo, but the bed and furnishings were a sight better than those I’d endured at Lowood. My lodgings were as compact as I’d expected, but I’d already climbed a step higher in the hierarchy of the world. I was by no means at the top or even the middle, but I had a roof over my head, paid work, and the promise of three meals a day. It was more than someone from my situation could hope for. Pulling aside the curtains, I leaned my forehead against the windowpane, studying the florets of early morning frost that clung to the outside. Rubbing the side of my closed fist against the coldness, I was able to catch a glimpse of the manor grounds through the ice. There wasn’t much to see besides an acre of grass, a long winding trail leading into a small forest, and then the fog-laden moor stretching far off to the horizon and most likely farther still where my eye could not follow. A smile found its way onto my lips, and all at once, I allowed myself to believe this was the beginning of a better era. Life, adventure, and the promise of more was finally beginning to rise in earnest for me, Jane Doe, the girl, who was now a woman, with no name. Maybe this time. 4 I found Alice in the main gallery. “Did you sleep well?” she asked as I made myself familiar with the small office that served as the operational hub of the hotel. “Very, thank you.” The room was small, though a large window opened up onto the main drive of the manor letting in a great deal of natural light. Every surface was covered in papers, folders, and an assortment of coffee cups in various states of use. An ancient looking computer adorned the surface of a desk looking like it was on its last legs. “You are aware of the position?” Alice asked, offering me the chair beside her. “Yes,” I replied as I sat. “I’m to be an all-rounder, helping where I can but primarily assisting in the rejuvenation of Thornfield.” Alice beamed at me. “You are very well-spoken, Jane.” “I don’t know about that,” I said with a smile. “I’m polite when it’s called for and rash when it’s due, I suppose.” “Rocky is going to get a kick out of you,” she said, finding something rather amusing. “Who is Rocky?” “Mr. Rochester,” she said. “Mr. Edward Rochester. But don’t call him Rocky to his face. Only his rich friends are able to call him something other than sir!” She giggled at some memory and turned her chair to face me. “You will learn soon enough, Jane. His friends stay occasionally in the summer, and they’re a sight. They fawn all over him because of his status, and the women call him Rocky. It’s all a ploy to crawl into bed with him and into his pockets. I’m sure he encourages it because all men like to be bowed down to, especially by a naked woman.” I frowned, getting the impression this Edward Rochester was the clichéd embodiment of a playboy. It must be something to behold, indeed. “What kind of man is he?” I asked. “When he is not lording around his friends?” Alice thought for a moment. “He is a fair and kind employer. He pays well and rewards good work. He is trusting where it’s due since he’s not here often. Professionally, he is a good man. Personally, he has a mean temper and an arrogant streak.” I neither liked nor disliked the sound of that, so I turned back to the desk where the conversation flowed easily through the day-to-day operations of the hotel. I was assigned a budget and a schedule for works to be completed on the interior of the building. Small changes were preapproved, but anything of significant cost was to be submitted to Mr. Rochester for approval. I then made some suggestions for updating the computer and its software and proceeded to make myself at home. Organization was my forte, and Lowood and the correspondence course I had completed thereafter had taught me well in the aspects of business management and cost to profit ratios. When it came to work, I was neither small nor plain. I took ownership and shone, finding much purpose in the tasks set for me. “Is there a stable Internet connection?” I asked, spying the router hidden under a pile of paperwork. “We have Wi-Fi, but it’s patchy at best,” Alice replied like it was the bane of her existence. “We’d like to have it up to scratch, but it’s not possible. At least, not without a lot of fuss. It’s one of the drawbacks of being so far out in the country. We’re surrounded by miles of moor on all sides. The company said something about bedrock, but what do I know about engineering?” “I’m not fussed myself,” I said. “I don’t keep a Facebook profile and only have a neglected email account, but it would be worth looking into satellite for the guests’ sake.” Alice’s mouth dropped open like she was about to catch a fly. “You don’t have Facebook?” “Don’t look so aghast,” I said with a laugh. “I have no need for it, and past experience has taught me life is far less complicated without being contactable twenty-four seven.” “Then you don’t know what its like to be stuck out here all winter with no Netflix to entertain you!” I glanced out the window to the yard beyond, the sky a deep shade of stormy gray. She was right, but I was sure I was going to find out one way or another. “Do you have many guests?” Alice shook her head. “Not in winter. We have the odd artist or writer who comes to stay for a few weeks at a time, but other than that, it’s quite empty.” “Perhaps offering packages for artist retreats could get some more rooms filled,” I mused, my mind humming pleasantly at the thought of being surrounded by painters, writers, poets, and all manner of creative types. I had no skill in any of those things, but I was an avid consumer of the written word, and my eye drank in the beauty of art whenever it could. “You know,” Alice said, looking excited. “That’s a great idea!” “Then I shall put together a proposal for Mr. Rochester. A package deal with accommodation, meals, workshops, and the use of the grounds.” She waved her hand at me as I looked around for a pen and some paper. “Leave that for now. It’s your first day, and I promised you a tour of the hotel.” “It’s no bother,” I said. “I’m excited to begin work.” Alice thought this was outrageous and demanded I traverse about the house with her. “Come. Let me give you the grand tour.” Through the main gallery was a grand sitting room with fine upholstered chairs and lounges reminiscent of the seventeenth century. A large mirror hung over the fireplace, its tiled hearth matching the era perfectly, and I wondered if all the fittings were original. Alice gave me a rundown of things as we went, giving me a thorough history of the hotel. The dining room was next, and it had been stripped of its traditional long table in favor of two dozen smaller ones, which seated six quite comfortably. White linen was placed over each with grand centerpieces, made up of what I supposed were artificial flowers—crimson roses, baby’s breath, and assorted greenery—and place settings. “Surely, you don’t keep the dining room set up like this with no guests in residence?” I inquired, thinking of the work involved. “We like to keep the common areas in a constant state of readiness,” Alice informed me. “It keeps the resident staff occupied, and if Mr. Rochester decides to come unexpectedly, then all is as it should be.” As we left the dining room, I was shown through to the kitchen, which was made in a modern galley style, and introduced to the chef, kitchen hands, and wait staff. The bartender was also in attendance having naught to do until later in the day. Once we were done with the introductions, Alice guided me upstairs. “Are there any guests here currently?” I asked as we walked down the hall past closed and numbered doors. The walls were adorned with many original oil paintings, English style portraits and landscapes, and the hardwood floors were topped with long carpets that hushed our footsteps. “We have one long-term guest who tends to stay for a few weeks over winter and the odd couple or two passing through on their way to London and back,” she said. “We have some bookings coming up, but for now, three rooms are occupied. No one wants to come this time of year, which is why it’s so quiet. Summer is our busiest time.” “Are you ever at capacity?” Alice laughed and shook her head. “Never. Not even when Rocky brings his friends.” That must change, I thought. Mr. Rochester may have a great deal of money, but a business was a failure if it could not turn a profit after so many years in operation. I wondered why he kept it if he had to keep putting funds into the kitty. The front rooms Alice showed me through were quite grand. Their windows overlooked the best parts of the grounds and were very accessible to the dining room and bar downstairs. Some of the third story rooms, though a little darker with slightly lower ceilings, were almost as fine as their predecessors. The linens, carpets, and furnishings were a little tired and could do with some tender loving care, but they were not as bad as I was led to believe. Perhaps a man or woman skilled in furniture restoration could be called in to assess repairs on the older pieces, which looked to be worth quite a bit of money. The bed frames looked to be made of an assortment of oak and walnut, the furnishings much the same. Leather and velvet chaise lounges were placed where there was room, paired with low tables of matching style. Along with the usual amenities found in hotels, the rooms had everything their guests would require for a comfortable stay. Finally, Alice led me to the topmost floor and told me it had been used as servants’ quarters in Victorian times when the manor was inhabited by an earlier generation of the Rochester family. They were small and dark, the floor uncarpeted apart from plain rugs, and the windows mere slits on the walls. Mostly, the rooms looked like they were used more for storage than for sleep. An antiquity or a page out of history, perhaps. “No one sleeps up here,” Alice explained. “The rooms are too old for guests and the staff think it’s haunted.” “Is it?” I inquired. “The house is quite old, so maybe there has been a sighting or two over the years.” “None that I know of. It’s cold up here, and the chill tends to make one feel as if spirits walk among us even if they don’t.” I had to agree with her on that. “You must come up and see the view from the leads,” Alice declared, tired of pondering ghosts, which may or may not walk the halls. “Leads?” She took my hand and pulled me toward the end of the hall. “Yes! We can walk out onto the roof and do a lap of the entire hotel. You can see for miles and miles up there. It’s quite a sight.” “Is there a path?” I asked as she let me go and pulled down a trapdoor, revealing a ladder that disappeared into the attic. “Yes, that’s what I mean by leads. There’s a rail you can hold so you won’t fall, but watch your feet.” I followed her upward again, then through another hatch in the roof, and we emerged from the darkness into the light. I was quite sure I gasped as I beheld the view beyond. Alice was right. It was a sight. Leaning over the battlement, I looked out over the land surrounding Thornfield and realized how small we were compared to the moor. It stretched farther than I had seen on my way here and even farther than the view from my bedroom window that morning. My eye moved closer to home, taking in the lawn, which looked like it had been covered with green velvet from this height, then to the field with its wild forest, and the winding path that the road took from the hotel all the way up to the village. The sky had cleared some, blue against the haze of the horizon, and I could see the smoke coming from the chimney stacks. When I’d taken my fill, I climbed back down into the attic, and I could hardly see where I was going. The brightness of the day had made the darkness within even more profound than it had been before I emerged. Alice stayed behind to fasten the trapdoor, and I moved back into the top floor, the one inhabited by ghosts of servants long past. Having lost my way already, I waited patiently below for my guide, my boots treading softly on the boards. I was here but silent, so I could fancy myself a spirit as well if I stood still enough. I was studying the lines of an old landscape painting when the sound of laughter cut through the still air. It was a curious sound, quite distinct and mirthless. I stopped, listening as it faded into silence. The sound came again, this time, louder but still at the edges of my hearing. It came from the same floor on which I stood, and I became curious to its origin. Alice had said this part of the house was unoccupied. Peering out into the hall, I found it empty, the rooms we’d walked through devoid of life. Perhaps it was a ghost? At this thought, a shiver went down my spine, and the air became close, like a thousand pairs of eyes were fixed upon me. The laugh sounded again, a madness clinging to its edges, and I called out for Alice. “Alice! Did you hear that?” “Hear what?” she asked, appearing at the door. Dusting off her hands, she glanced up and down the hall. “Laughter,” I said, feeling an odd chill creep into my bones. “It could be Grace and Harry,” she said, glancing up and down the hall. “They’re forever sneaking off for a quickie. I wouldn’t put it past them to come up here for a little action.” I wrinkled my nose at the thought of overhearing strangers having sex in an old musty room and hastened down the hall. Alice followed without so much as a word, and I had no trouble finding my way back downstairs to the main gallery. I was given a turn around the yard, and then we retired to the office where I set about putting together my first proposal for the mysterious Mr. Rochester. There was a lot of work to do and no time to waste. I ate dinner with the kitchen staff that night. They were a lively bunch of people, and I had a great time, but all too soon, my energy was depleted, and I found myself wandering the halls, inspecting every little treasure I found along the way. That was how I found the library. Easing the door open, I ventured into the darkness, my hand fumbling along the wall for a light switch. When I found it, I flicked it on, and the room was illuminated all at once. I gasped as the depth of the space was revealed to me. Shelves of books lined each wall, from floor to ceiling on rows of fine chestnut wood, their spines bound in leather and stamped with gold gilt. Most were locked up behind glass doors, protecting them from the sticky fingers of hotel guests, but one shelf remained open. As I walked the rows, my gaze was drawn to that which I could not touch, the leather bound tomes taunting me from their protected placement. As my gaze skimmed each title, I wondered why Alice hadn’t shown me this place. The further I explored, the more I fancied I was trespassing, and my skin began to tingle with a rare excitement. There was something thrilling being in a place where one was not welcome, hidden in plain sight. At the far end of the room were a grand piano, a long leather couch, and a pair of globes of Earth that looked to be antique. When I ran my fingertips across their surfaces, I found their pictures of the world to be quite outdated. Heavy red curtains framed the large windows, the rich light of the fading sun filtering through the gaps and shimmering across the carpet. It was a picture of tranquility, and I found myself enthralled as I picked a book from the shelves that were open to me. Settling onto one of the window seats, I drew the curtain shut, enclosing myself in the space that had become my own private reading room. It was cozy, the vent below the seat blowing warm air from the boiler in the basement, and the window beside me gave a pleasant view of the rear gardens and moors beyond as the sun dipped below the horizon. Thankful I had found something familiar, I allowed myself to fall into the story on the pages before me. When I was a girl, pages such as these kept me from falling into a deep despair, first under the wrath of my aunt Sarah, and then the hardships endured at Lowood. Imagination, it seemed, may be my savior yet again. It had become apparent to me quite quickly that life at Thornfield was to be a quiet affair, with little to occupy oneself outside the operations of the hotel, and I wasn’t sure how to handle it yet. Though I liked to be alone, the comings and goings of the world had kept my mind sharp and engaged, and the odd affair with a handsome man had kept my body satisfied. Thornfield didn’t seem to contain much of those things at all. I wasn’t sure what to make of the place given my short tour and single morning under its roof. The old house seemed to be full of secrets and whispers hidden by the ages, and I was sure the darkened corners of Thornfield would reveal themselves to the light soon enough. I just had to give the old girl a little time. * * * And here, on the road to the manor ensnarled by rose thorns, I was almost mown down by the black stallion, the motorcycle of the man with the stormy eyes and mean temper. 5 I didn’t like reentering Thornfield. My escape to the local pub did nothing to rouse me from my stupor, nor did it excite my mind. My return to the hotel was to embrace the dreary loneliness from which I wanted to free myself, yet I had no other place to go. My little room and its perfectly adequate bed awaited me though it was only ten p.m. Hardly time for a young woman to turn in. After such a nomadic life moving from place to place and only having as much money as I was paid the week before, the sedentary lifestyle with a regular amount of savings should’ve placated me, but it didn’t. I’d longed for calm among the storm I was used to, and now that I had it, I found it didn’t suit me at all. I lingered on the lane, slowing my pace as the lights of Thornfield approached. I took my time at the gate, dawdled in the yard, and slowed outside the main entrance. My eyes seemed to be drawn from the gloomy old house to the world beyond, even though it was dark and full of dangers of its own. The moon had ascended into the sky, casting a silver hue over the grounds, and everything sparkled under her light. It was a kind of magic that was just out of my reach. I could feel it all around, yet I was apart from it, and once I crossed the threshold of Thornfield, it would dissipate until it was no more. I did not want to go inside, yet coldness bade me to enter. “Jane!” Alice exclaimed the moment I opened the heavy door. She was frayed at the edges, her usually cheerful exterior frazzled. “Where have you been?” “I went to the village,” I replied, shutting out the night and turning to the electric glow of the main gallery. “What’s the matter?” “He’s back!” she exclaimed, darting to and fro without any discernible reason. “Who?” “Rocky!” she cried, then covered her mouth with her hand. “I mean, Mr. Rochester. He’s having dinner in his rooms. I need a dessert… Fruit and cream. No, cake! He likes the chef’s cake!” “Mr. Rochester? Back from where?” I inquired, following her through the gallery to the kitchen. “Europe, of course!” she exclaimed, directing the chef to prepare a dessert for their master. Of course! I refrained from rolling my eyes. Instead, I inquired as to what I could do to assist. “No, no,” she said. “It’s all under control. No doubt, he’ll want to see you tomorrow.” No doubt. I’d sent him my proposal for the artist’s retreat a month ago and had yet to hear a reply. I had tried not to take it to heart, but I was proud of what I’d put together. Every piece had been carefully constructed to show exactly how much revenue it would raise for the failing hotel. There was merit in my sums. I was sure of it. “Then if you don’t need me, I’ll turn in for the night,” I said. Alice waved me off, so I retreated to the main gallery. Instead of rising to the second floor and the employee lodgings beyond in the east end of the manor, I turned to the west wing, far too awake to even comprehend sleep. By all means, I should be exhausted from my turn to the village, but my mind was alive with all kinds of musings—Mr. Rochester returning as if he’d been spirited in by supernatural means, and the man on the motorcycle causing my blood to pump more furiously. Sleep was beyond me. The only thing that seemed to soothe me when I found myself in such a passionate mood was reading a little until my mind would calm itself into a lull. Thornfield’s library had become my refuge, and as no one seemed to pay it a visit, I pretended it was all mine. It was merely a silly fantasy, but I’d never had such a grand space feel comforting before. Upon entering the room, the air felt different from what I was used to. At first, I thought it was because the chilled corners of Thornfield were alive for a change, but as I crossed the room, I saw one of the glass doors, which housed one of the many shelves off limits to me, was open. Standing before it, I stared at the books, uncertain as to how to proceed. Another excitement! What was I to do with this one? Running my fingers along the spines, I felt a thrill roll through my body. The forbidden was now obtainable but at what cost? Who had opened the doors that had always been closed to me? Surely not Mr. Rochester? He was in his rooms having dinner. He was the only change to happen to Thornfield since I arrived, so it must be he who had the key. I was alone for the moment, no sound echoed outside or within the library, so I picked a tome that appeared beautiful to my eyes and plucked it from the shelf. Opening the cover, I glanced over the title page—Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austin. “Who are you?” I shrank back at the booming voice, startled by the ferocity of it, and almost dropped the book on the floor. Turning, I saw a man standing several paces behind me, and my heart leapt at how close he’d come without alerting me to his presence. He was tall and broad shouldered, his slate gray sweater clinging to his chest, dark jeans hanging from his hips just so…and his face. It was nothing like I’d ever seen. His jaw was sharp and covered in stubble, his brow creased with a deep-set scowl, and his eyes matched, making his features a perfect set of arrogance and temper. His stature was so imposing I could scarcely look at him for seconds at a time without lowering my gaze under his intensity. The man was a predatory figure, indeed. “I’m sorry, am I not meant to be in here?” I asked, glancing at the book in my hands like I was a child who’d been caught stealing sweets. “Who are you?” he asked again, this time with more authority. “I’m Jane Doe,” I declared, jutting my chin out. The man’s nose wrinkled. “Jane Doe? What kind of name is that?” I clutched the book against my chest, affronted by his lack of sensitivity. “You might think it is strange, sir, but it is the only name I’ve ever had.” “What kind of beast gives a girl a name like that?” My gaze dropped, disappointed he thought me nothing but a silly girl. I was a woman, and this was the twenty-first century. The world had turned a million times, and yet here in this backwater wild country, the laws of time and space—and progress—had ceased to exist. Gathering my nerves, my gaze pierced his, and I said, “I had no name as a child, and that is what they called me.” “They?” the man asked, taking a deliberate step forward. “And who are these mysterious ‘they’ who lack so much imagination?” “The state,” I said simply. It was my tale of woe, just the same as all the other orphans and wayward souls who inhabited the world. Then as if he recognized a familiar face, he grabbed my arm and pulled me to the light so he could see me clearly. “You are the woman from the road,” he stated, his nostrils flaring. I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I was caught in his web, unable to move to save myself. The man from the road! “You made me fall from my bike,” he went on, looking me over. “I did not!” I exclaimed, finally gathering my wits and pulling out of his iron grip. “The back wheel slipped on the ice.” He ignored me, going on as if I hadn’t spoken at all. “You look different in the light.” I scowled, looking him over as bluntly as he had me on the road. “So do you.” “Just as defiant,” he mused, and I wasn’t sure if he was speaking to me or merely voicing his private thoughts. “You have a keen mind, I think. Your eyes say more than your words.” “I’m not a puzzle, sir,” I said stubbornly. “If you have a question, ask it, and I will answer if it pleases me.” “I have many questions for you, Jane Doe,” he said, my name rolling off his tongue like a rich dessert. “And I shall ask them in due course.” So he was to stay a while at the hotel. Too shocked at the course of our conversation, I didn’t dare consider the ramifications. I’d wanted excitement and action when I left Thornfield to venture up to the village for a drink, and I’d gotten exactly what I wished for and more. That was the trouble with whimsy. The wanting was more powerful than the achievement itself. Staring at him now, I couldn’t decide whether I found him handsome or terrifying. My body trembled under the weight of his gaze, but I couldn’t discern if it was pleasurable. If his attitude was anything to go by, he seemed to see me as a thorn in his side. I’d been likened to one of the choking brambles encasing the west wing of the manor, and he did not even stop to inquire who I was underneath the surface. Despite how handsome the man appeared, now he was free of his leather jacket and motorcycle, his disposition left a lot to be desired. When I didn’t move, the man glowered. “It’s late, is it not?” Eyebrows raised, I backed away, circling him until the door was at my back. He seemed to want to be alone, much like I had, so I nodded. My secret oasis was now compromised. “Yes,” I said, gathering myself. “You’re right. Goodnight, sir.” I fled, my boots thumping on the carpet as I strode down the hall away from the man and the library. Now that I was torn from his presence, a weight seemed to have lifted from on top of my chest, and I could breathe again, my eyes pulling away from the floor and to the world around me with renewed confidence. How a man I’d only spoken a few words to could make me feel so small with a simple glance was beyond comprehension. The farther my legs carried me from him, the more I realized there was nothing simple about him. Whoever he was, darkness lurked inside, twisting and pulling, shaping his outward appearance without restraint. It wasn’t until I returned to my room that I realized the forbidden book was still under my arm. 6 Mr. Rochester didn’t send for me straight away. Perhaps it was his way of making me stew in my own juices while I waited for his axe to fall. All day, I wondered where I would go once I left Thornfield and where I would find work. It seemed a harsh change of mind from the previous day’s depression. I’d wanted excitement, but ultimately, not to leave this place. For the first time in my twenty-seven years, I’d found real friends among the staff here, despite the quiet solitude the hotel exuded. My wandering soul had stilled and was floating calmly in the sea of existence. Mr. Rochester’s stormy eyes haunted me the entire day, through the afternoon, and early evening. I’d been hoping he’d forgotten me when Alice informed me I’d been summoned to appear before the master. For that was how he’d conducted himself. He was absolute. Alice guided me upstairs to the third floor and opened a door just past the library. Inside revealed a grand study, its decor matching that of the refuge I’d found next door. Well, a refuge that seemed to be mine no more. A grand fireplace sat to one side, its hearth full with a roaring fire, and a leather couch and armchairs sat before it. Paintings and tapestries adorned the walls while rugs covered the floor. More bookshelves lined the other wall, and a large chestnut desk with a green leather top stood in the center of it all. Large windows with forest green curtains completed the picture of seventeenth century masculinity, and I felt entirely out of place. Alice offered me a reassuring smile as she closed the door behind me, and I was left alone with the master. Mr. Rochester sat half reclined on a couch, his foot supported by a footstool. He was looking at a folder of papers in his hands, the firelight shining full on his face, and my heart twisted at the sight if him. Not because he was young and handsome but because I’d seen his face before. The man from the road and the library was Mr. Rochester! I knew him without a doubt, his broad shoulders, rough jaw, and harsh brow etched into my mind as clear and crisp as Waterford Crystal. Knowing how I’d argued with him without shame, I felt as if the ground would swallow me whole. He must have been aware of my entrance, but his gaze didn’t move from the papers in his hands. Perhaps he was not in the mood for civilities knowing it was me who would stand at his feet. After all, he had summoned me by name. Finally, he shifted his eyes to me, and they were full of a grimness that made me pale. Though I had lamented at the stagnation I’d found at Thornfield, I was not yet ready to move on. “Come,” Mr. Rochester said, staring at me with his otherworldly eyes. “You look ill. Sit before you faint.” I hadn’t noticed if he had a limp the night before, and my eye lingered on his ankle. “Miss Doe,” he said, the command clear in his rough voice. I lowered myself onto the armchair opposite, folding my hands into my lap. My eyes fell to the carpet, studying the pile with intensity. I would look anywhere but at Mr. Rochester. “This is your work?” he asked, throwing the papers on the table. Seeing it was a copy of my proposal for the artist retreat, I was offended at the callousness of his dismissal, but I didn’t show it. “Yes, sir.” “You have a keen mind, Miss Doe?” He posed it as a question, and I hesitated. “Speak, Miss. You have a tongue in that head of yours. The viper lashed me without any hindrance last night, or were you possessed by some spirit which has hence departed?” “I was not,” I declared, my gaze meeting his. “There,” he said with a condescending smirk. “She has eyes.” He remained silent, sitting as if he were a statue, and I was unsure if it was my turn to speak. The teachers at Lowood had drilled into my very soul that I was not to speak until directed to do so, and it was a habit that had lingered in my later years, so I remained tight lipped. After an awkward amount of time, he finally deigned to ask me a question. “You have been at Thornfield for two months?” “Yes.” “And where did you come from?” “Prior to Thornfield, I worked in various hotels, restaurants, and bars across the country.” “Lowly work,” he said with distaste. “Where did you come from before that? Where were you educated?” “I studied business by correspondence,” I explained, giving the man what he wished. “Before that, I was a student at Lowood.” “Lowood? The reform school?” He said this with an air of surprise, for I hardly acted like I’d been a problem child, though I looked like one, and truthfully I hadn’t been as such. I was more a burden my aunt did not want to deal with, and Lowood was a cruelty she could bestow upon me in lieu of effort on her behalf. “How long were you there?” “Ten years.” “Ten years.” He seemed aghast. “I can only imagine, but perhaps it explains a great deal about this.” He waved a hand at me, and I frowned, not wanting to be told a harsh truth about what I already knew. “Don’t look so sour, Miss Doe,” Mr. Rochester went on. “When I almost ran you down on the road last night, I thought I’d come across some otherworldly being. You have a rigidness about you, but your face says there is more. Your eyes…” He snorted, turning his gaze to the fireplace. What a curious man… “And who were your parents?” he asked. “Where are they now?” “They died when I was a baby,” I replied. “I have no family.” “No brothers or sisters?” “None.” “Any family at all? Distant relatives?” “Some but they don’t wish to know me, and I don’t wish to know them. They are family only by marriage. If I have any other living blood relation, I was never told.” “Then who sent you to Lowood?” he asked. “Was it the state?” “No, sir. My aunt sent me when I was eight years old.” “Why?” “Because she disliked me. I was forced upon her, and she held me in contempt.” “And what did you do to deserve it?” he asked, looking me over with a keen eye. “You look the part.” “The part of what? A degenerate?” I challenged him. “Outward appearance doesn’t always match the inner.” He narrowed his eyes at my story, neither relaying compassion nor contempt. “With a name like Jane Doe…” “A name means nothing,” I said simply. It was of no consequence where I came from, not to me. All that mattered was the path into the future. Mr. Rochester didn’t like this revelation, and his disapproval was written all over his face. He had a very expressive way about him. Passionate and angry. I began to understand the things Alice had told me about him now that I had experienced some of it. “Who were you waiting for on the road last night?” he asked, turning the conversation on its head. He was very abrupt, and his changefulness threw me off balance. “Who would I wait for?” “Your people,” he said. “Fairies, elves, or perhaps, thieves, and con artists. You laid a trap with your ice and woeful eyes.” He was mad! “I have told you nothing but the truth, sir. I have no people. I’m alone.” He leaned back on the couch and grunted. I assumed he had a little too much to drink, scattering his mind. There was a knock at the door, and he called out for them to enter, his gaze never leaving mine. Alice entered, carrying a tray with a crystal decanter full of brown liquor and a single glass to match. “Who hired you?” he asked me as she set the tray down on the table beside my discarded proposal. “I suppose it was Alice.” “Yes, I did,” Alice said as she began unloading the burden from the tray. “Jane has been a breath of fresh air around here. Her insights have been invaluable to the hotel.” “Did I ask you for your opinion?” he barked at the poor woman, and she almost dropped the decanter as she placed it on the table. “Don’t bother to give the girl a character. I can decide for myself.” Alice glanced at me, her cheeks turning pink. “I have Miss Doe to thank for this sprain,” he went on, gesturing to his ankle. Her embarrassment turned to bewilderment. “Jane?” “I didn’t think to mention it,” I said hastily. “I didn’t know it was him.” “No, you did not,” he said. “I doubt you would have spoken to me as you did if you understood.” His unlikable manner gave me a rush of confidence. Feeling like I could regard him now, I decided his words marked him as a kind of tortured soul who was not yet experienced enough to come to terms with their past, much like I was. Perhaps he wasn’t a day over thirty-five. Neither a young man or old or middle-aged but mature. He wasn’t always angry, but he’d faced his own hardships. As hard as the life of a rich man could be, I supposed. Perhaps he squandered his fortune and was sour about it. Regardless, I felt drawn to him. Not because he was handsome and powerful, or from my need to bring his pompous temper down a peg or two, but because of the emotion I saw in his eyes. There was sadness about him I was tempted to unravel, but no matter how I dwelt upon it now, I couldn’t make sense of it. Perhaps in time, I would see more of the man underneath the mask. “You may go,” he said to me as he reached for his glass of whiskey. I rose to my feet, and before I could take a step, he added, “Are you satisfied here, Jane?” I stilled as the sound of my name rolled from his sharp tongue. I glanced at Alice before answering, “As satisfied as I can be.” He didn’t answer as he raised the glass to his lips, and taking it as his signal for ultimate dismissal, Alice and I retired from the room while the going was good. “You were right,” I said as we walked down the hall. “He is very…changeful.” “Arrogant, more like it,” she replied harshly, her cheery demeanor dulled. “I’m embarrassed.” “You shouldn’t be. It was his choice to talk to you as he did.” “You truly caused him to fall from his motorcycle?” I nodded and relayed the basic elements of the story. “Why, it must have been funny to see him fall flat on his ass,” she said as we returned to the employee quarters. “I’m used to his whims and fancies, so I can see why he seems so strange to you, Jane. I do think he needs some allowances for it, though.” “Allowances for being mean?” I asked, my mouth falling open. “How so?” “Well, partly because of his nature—no one can help who they are to a certain point—and partly because of his past troubles. Painful thoughts drive people to do terrible things, especially if they are constantly reminded of them.” “What kind of things?” I felt the sinful rise of curiosity and wished to hear more of this gossip. “Family troubles. Rocky is very rich, but they say he never wanted the responsibility. It was forced upon him when his older brother died. His father has since passed, but apparently, he used the death of Rocky’s brother to pressure him into taking on the family business, among other things. The Rochester’s were famously arrogant in their wealth, or so it was said.” “And Mr. Rochester didn’t want the responsibility?” I asked, thinking about the man we’d just left. “He was forced?” “Yes, though I don’t know much more about it. There was a plot against him, and his family forced him into an unforgivable position against his will. Things turned sour soon after, but when his brother died, his hand was forced yet again.” I thought this over and wasn’t sure any of it made sense. There were a great deal of events unknown to me, but perhaps it explained his present state. I doubted I could give him any allowances for it, my consciousness wouldn’t partake in it, but at least it was a little understanding for my own piece of mind. “Was Thornfield a part of it?” I wondered aloud as we lingered outside my room. “Maybe it’s why he doesn’t come here often and has neglected it so.” “Perhaps,” Alice replied. “Thornfield is the ancestral home of the Rochester’s and was to be his brother’s holding.” The answer was evasive, but I pinned it down to her not being privy to the finer details and thought nothing more of it. “Did he say anything about your proposal?” she asked before we parted. “No,” I replied, realizing he’d said nothing at all about it. I suspected the meeting was merely a ruse for him to gauge what kind of soul I was. “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll grant you your money. It’s a fine idea.” I didn’t like my chances, but I accepted her commiserations with grace. All I could do was ask and ask I had. When I slid between the covers later that night, I couldn’t help my mind drifting to the stormy eyes of Mr. Edward Rochester. He slipped into my dreams as easily as the wheel of his motorcycle slipped on the patch of black ice. Perhaps it was an omen, or perhaps it was just misfortune. I was powerless to change the fate of my soul if it was already destined. The feeling I’d had when I first beheld Thornfield was solidifying, my path becoming clear. However, the destination was still just beyond my grasp. My beginning and end. 7 For several days, I saw little of the master of Thornfield. Occasionally, he’d pass me in the hall, his eye hardly acknowledging I was present before he strode away to whatever meeting or delight he had planned for the day. Sometimes, he’d mutter a greeting to go with his cool stare and other times, a curt nod. I began to realize his changes in mood had nothing to do with me, so I didn’t allow it to offend. I just let it wash over me as I went about my work. One day, he had guests for lunch in the dining room, and he sent for my detailed sums on the artist retreat—hopefully, to exhibit its contents for appraisal. But other than this one occurrence, I never heard a word about what he thought or if he’d approved my scheme. There was nothing I could do to press for action lest I annoy him to the point of tossing it out completely. Still, Mr. Rochester presented a puzzle I couldn’t stop myself dwelling on. I thought upon his handsomeness every time he brushed past, and I wondered at his tenseness. Truthfully, it was hard to ignore how pleasing he was to the eye with his powerful stature and hypnotizing eyes. It didn’t help that the housekeeping and dining room staff flirted non-stop and chattered about him when he was not present. Mr. Rochester was a keen sort of man, and I was positively certain he was aware of his outward appearance and the spell it wove over every female in his vicinity. I wasn’t one to dwell on a fantasy or harbor schoolgirl crushes, so I let the notion of Mr. Rochester looking at me as more than a paid subordinate disappear before it even became a solid thought in my mind. It was also several days before I gained the courage to slip into the library to return the mistakenly stolen copy of Pride & Prejudice. In my natural curiosity, I’d read the whole thing from cover to cover, only to realize once I was done that it was a very old and very expensive piece of literature, so not wanting to be accused of taking it, I ghosted through Thornfield to steal it back in before it was missed. The hallway was empty as I approached, the night having drawn the few guests and staff downstairs for dinner or into the solitary warmth of their rooms. No one saw my path as I lingered outside the door. Opening it, I peered inside. A fire was lit in the hearth, the electric lights turned off in favor of the natural glow of flame. I paused, listening and watching for movement within in case I was discovered by the last man who should find me here. Being caught trespassing once was more than enough. Satisfied the room was empty, I slipped inside and darted to the shelf where I’d found the book. The glass panel was still unlocked, so I opened it hastily and found the empty slot. The book slid back into place like it’d never been gone, and I released a relieved sigh. There. “Here is Jane Doe and her standard tale of woe.” I almost leapt out of my skin at the sound of Mr. Rochester’s booming voice and pressed my back against the shelf, my hand flying to my heart. He stood behind me, a crystal glass in his hand, likely full of the same whiskey he’d had the other night. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes were dark, and he seemed in the mood to spar once more. “Yes, my tale is standard, I suppose,” I said. “I don’t think I’m special because of it, nor do I require concessions.” I declared the last part with special care to emphasize the point Alice had made to me the night after my first meeting with the man. Mr. Rochester tensed, and I swore he was going to burst forth like a tightened spring, and I steeled myself. “I was wondering when you would appear. For it was when, not if,” he said, holding his glass up at me like he was toasting his own cleverness. “If you insist on stealing into my library uninvited, you must remain. Sit.” He nodded to the chair beside the fireplace. He moved away from me and took the other seat, leaving the couch unattended. Knowing I was caught, I didn’t dare defy his whimsy, so I sat where he directed. Instead of shifting toward the fire, I turned to the darkness, edging away as if to protect myself. “Don’t move away from me,” he said, peering at me with his strange eyes. “Come closer.” He had such a direct way of giving orders that I found I could not disobey when he gave them to me. His voice echoed through my flesh and reverberated through my bones, bewitching my limbs to follow his command. “There,” he said as I moved back into the light. The fire was rich and bright, the red curtains hanging heavily behind him, framing his stature so he looked quite regal sitting there. If it weren’t for his modern clothing, I would’ve been forgiven for mistaking I’d been transported back to the sixteenth century. The silence was broken up by the crackle of the fire and the swirling rain as the wind threw it against the windowpane outside. Mr. Rochester didn’t seem so gloomy tonight, even though he’d caught me trespassing again. His eyes had a spark in them, which had been absent the scant few times I’d been in his presence. There was a smile on his lips, changing his entire outward appearance for the better, though he still had an air of danger about him. Best to be on my guard lest he trick me. He had been staring into the fire the entire time I studied his features, and when he finally turned to look at me, I glanced away. “Were you examining me, Miss Doe?” he asked. “Do you like what you see? Many women do.” I should’ve replied with something vague, but my temper at his arrogance allowed something else to slip forth. “No.” “There is something strange about you,” he said. “You’re a well-spoken, polite, and meek little thing, but other times, you allow your ire to burst forth, and a little of the real Jane Doe presents herself. What do you mean by it?” “I was too abrupt,” I said, beginning to apologize. “I should have said that tastes differ and that beauty is of little consequence…or something like it.” “You think nothing of beauty?” “No, sir.” “Then you value intelligence?” “I suppose I do.” He stared at me, his gaze intensifying, and I turned mine to my hands. “Tell me, Miss Doe,” he began, his tone turning sharp. “What fault do you find with me? All my limbs are intact, and I have strength and endowment.” I understood what he meant entirely. “Mr. Rochester, pardon my earlier answer. It was only a slip of the tongue.” He laughed, a peculiar sound I was sure he was incapable of until then, and said, “No, you shall be answerable for it. Am I a fool?” “Far from it,” I replied. “Would you think me rude if I asked if you were vain? If you required the attentions of beautiful women to feel complete, sir?” “There,” he exclaimed, pointing at me. “Another thrust with your barbed knife.” He reached for his glass and lifted it to his lips, taking a draft of liquor. “No, I would disagree with your question and say I enjoy the company of beautiful women. They are pleasing in the physical sense, but mentally? Not at all.” I began to tremble slightly, and I shifted to a more comfortable position. Talking about casual sex with my arrogant yet attractive employer! I’d never been so forward in my life, but it was as he’d implied. Pleasure and mental stimulation had always been exclusive concepts for me. “You’ve never experienced both at the same time?” I asked, daring to keep the conversation going on its dangerous path. “I once had tenderness,” he replied, nursing his glass. “Though I was beaten down by it, and now I’m a hard man, Miss Doe.” I inclined my head. “A common tale of woe?” Mr. Rochester laughed again, a full sound, which had me inching closer. “Yes, there is something underneath that mask, Miss Doe.” “I would say the same to you.” “Do you think I have hope, then?” I tilted my head to the side. “Hope of what, sir?” “That I can be transformed from stone back into flesh?” He’s drunk, I thought to myself. The conversation was becoming quite inappropriate, and I hardly dared to think he was interested in me for more than the duel of words we’d enjoyed thus far. I was attracted to him, there was no doubt, but I was plain little Jane Doe. I had no name, no family, and no wealth. I was no match for Edward Rochester. “You look distraught,” he said. “Your changing emotions are not so different from mine, yes? On that can we agree?” “I haven’t disagreed with you, sir. I merely don’t know how to reply to make you feel better.” At this, he rose quite abruptly and leaned against the mantle over the fire. The light shone upon his face, and he did not try to hide it from me as he deliberated. “I like it when you call me sir,” he murmured, his voice holding a cryptic note to it. “But please, do not refer to me as Mr. Rochester. It suits me not. The term makes me feel like an old man. Like my father, perhaps.” “What would you have me call you, then?” I inquired. “Edward,” he said. “That is my name.” “But you are my employer…” “Miss Doe, you misunderstand me,” he said, turning to face me. “I would not treat you as an inferior. You have been good enough to sit here and talk with me, and I do not want you to think that here, right now, I am your employer and you are my subordinate.” I was struck dumb at his declaration. He held his cards very close to his chest, and I still didn’t know how to proceed. “What is it?” he asked, lowering his head and peering at me. “Are you dumb? No, I’m quite certain you are not. Is it stubbornness, then?” “Not at all,” I replied. “If I’d known I was free to leave at any time, I would’ve left you once I returned the book.” I glanced at the carpet, hiding the flush that had risen in my cheeks. “But…” “But?” he pressed. “I fear I’m no match for you.” “She answers plainly, yet everything about it is evasive,” he said to himself, his voice lowering to a husky rasp. “You hide, Miss Doe.” Yes, I suppose I did hide on occasion, but only when I was out of my depth as I was now. Here was a man of the world with no hindrance to his exploration. He had the looks and the wealth to do as he pleased, and I had all sorts of barriers forbidding me from taking what I desired. In all honestly, I wasn’t sure exactly what it was I wanted in the grand scheme of things. I hid lest I drown. “You forget you pay me to be here,” I said. “Most people would submit to anything for money,” he returned. “Then they are not decent people, for anything comes with a terrible price. Money is not everything.” “Don’t people have the right to get pleasure out of life?” he asked, looming over me. “I will get it, cost what it may.” “Then the cost is too great,” I said sharply. “I could not be bought.” “How moral of you. Do you have the right to preach to me?” “You were the one who said you did not want to treat me as a mere employee, sir,” I said, turning his words back onto him. “I may not have the same wealth or experience as you, but I’m entitled to my free opinion. It is my truth, and as an equal, I’m allowed to give it.” Edward glowered, his power and tantalization seeming to grow the more I stirred his anger. “Then, equal, what shall we speak of?” “My name is Jane,” I said, taking his words and using them for my own. “Ask me a question, and I will do my best to answer it, but I don’t like talking in riddles. You say I’m fond of my mask, yet yours is stuck to your face with no sign of removing itself. Speak plainly, sir.” He returned to his seat, and upon settling, he poured himself another glass of whiskey, which he devoured just as quickly. “Yours is the most stimulating presence I have felt for a long time, Jane,” he said mysteriously. “You anger me, yet you calm me. How am I to take that?” I watched him pour another glass. “I don’t know, sir.” “And you? How do you take me?” I glanced at him, feeling confident enough to match his gaze. “Truthfully?” “Yes, truthfully. I won’t hold it against you or your employment here.” Very well. “I don’t understand you at all,” I replied. “You speak in riddles and are very arrogant, and I should, by all means, find you extremely unlikable.” He sipped at his liquor, his eyes shining. “You do not tell me much of what I don’t already know, Jane. But if I’m not unlikeable to you, then what am I?” I was struck dumb once more, the conversation back to paving the road to hell with erotic suggestions, and I didn’t know how to handle it. I’d asked him to speak plainly, but it seemed plain was beyond his grasp. “I’m trying to draw you out,” he explained. “To decide on your intentions.” “What intentions would I have?” “Pleasurable ones.” My heart leapt, and my body began to hum in a way I’d never felt before. I was experienced. I was far from a virgin, but at this moment, I was renewed. I was drawn to his anger and his arrogance, knowing it was a mask for some past pain, and he’d not yet allowed himself to heal. I imagined his touch, his lips, mouth, and body consuming mine, and I felt as if I would melt under the intensity of his stare. “You think I come here to…” I was aghast because it had not crossed my mind once. He leaned forward. “Do you?” I shook my head no. “I see I have offended you. You shouldn’t be offended for presuming I think you want pleasure, Jane.” “From you?” I asked, the words slipping from my tongue before I could hold them in. “Why not? I’m capable.” Why not? “You seem to doubt me, Jane.” I turned my gaze to my hands. “I do, sir.” “You are right to do so,” he said, turning away and forever using mystery to mask his true intent. The fire within began to die, knowing there was little hope of the man before me quenching it. I rose to my feet, closing off the disappointment and schooling myself into a picture of coolness. “Then I shall leave you to doubt in silence. Goodnight.” “You are afraid of me,” he said, studying the fire instead of me. “I’m not.” “Then why do you leave me so abruptly?” “It is late,” I said hastily. “And the conversation is going around in circles. I have no more desire to talk nonsense.” “You are very controlled,” he muttered. “Your upbringing at that school has tainted you. One day, you will learn to feel true pleasure, Jane, and what a day it will be.” He waved a hand, dismissing me from his presence. “Go, et j’y tiens.” As I left the library, the sound of those three little French words lingering in the air behind me, I took deep breaths to try to calm my quivering self. He was a complex book, and I’d only scraped the surface of the introduction. I’d better be careful lest he lead me down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Truthfully, I was more confused than anything. When I finally closed myself in my room, the darkness my only friend and confidant, he still would not leave me. I was embarrassed and thrilled that his words had triggered need inside of me—a physical yearning for the harsh touch of Edward Rochester. Closing my eyes, I allowed my fingers to trace where I wished he’d placed his own. Between my legs and within. Then I experienced a dangerous force as I came. One day, you will learn true pleasure, Jane Doe. 8 I didn’t dare return to the library. I wasn’t sure if it was embarrassment or disappointment that drove me to separate myself from Edward, but I didn’t return, and he didn’t send for me. To think the master of Thornfield would lower himself for me! It was absurd. Poor plain Jane Doe. Still, I held our encounter close and had begun to think of it fondly. I wasn’t rash enough to call him Edward in front of Alice or the other staff, so I was careful when mention of him came up in the general gossiping of the hotel. Our conversation in the library had been perplexing at best and had a sacredness about it I wanted to hold close. He bade me to call him by his given name at that time and in that place, so only then he would be Edward, and outside of my own mind and that room, he would remain Mr. Rochester. For three nights since, I have fallen asleep in the aftermath of self-relief, my body coming apart like it had never been uncoiled before. All because of— A knock at the door saved me from my inappropriate daydream. Looking up, I saw a man wearing a yellow high visibility vest lingering at the door. “I’ve got a delivery for…Jane Doe?” He raised an eyebrow at the name but didn’t say anything about it, just held out a clunky PDA and waited for me to sign my name with the stylus. Once he had my signature, he went outside to a small lorry that was parked in the driveway. When he returned, he wheeled in two large boxes on a trolley, both emblazoned with the Apple logo, and placed them in the center of the room. There wasn’t anywhere else to leave them, but he didn’t seem to mind. Once he’d unloaded, he went back out and brought in two more boxes. Lastly, he gave me a large orange envelope, and I took it blindly, my head still spinning. Weeks ago, I’d asked for a few things I thought would be instrumental in rounding out the operations of Thornfield, but I had expected some refurbished equipment or at least a budget allocated so I could arrange delivery myself. I’d resigned myself to thinking we’d been overlooked when Edward had dismissed my proposal for the artist’s retreat, but here was the best of the best sitting in the middle of the chaos of the front office. Just like that. This was… It was too grand. More money sat in front of me than I could ever imagine. The most I’d ever had at one time was a thousand pounds, and saving it had been a stretch, indeed. “What did you do, Jane?” Alice asked, looking just as startled as I felt. Staring at the boxes as the deliveryman left us to our surprised gaping, I was dumbfounded. “I don’t know.” “There’s got to be thousands of pounds worth of computer equipment here.” She lifted the smallest box onto the desk and picked at the tape holding it closed. “This is… Wow. We’ve never gotten anything like this for the hotel, and I’ve been asking for years. You must’ve done something.” “Why me?” I muttered, more to myself than her, but she answered anyway. “You’re the only new person who’s been hired for a long time,” she said, opening the box. “And you’ve thrown yourself into this place like it were your own. Rocky likes that, I think.” She gasped and began pulling out white packages from within the brown shipping box. “There are like five iPads in here! One for the dining room staff, one for the office, one for the chef, one for housekeeping…here. This one has your name on it.” “My name?” I reached out for the box Alice offered me and found it had a sticker with my name printed on it. For Jane Doe. She peered at me curiously and asked, “Has no one ever given you a gift before?” A gift? Surely this was for work, not… No, no one had ever given me a gift. Not that I could remember. Birthdays were nonevents, and forget about Christmas. It was an opportunity for penalty wages waitressing fancy dinners. “Jane, open it, and turn it on!” Alice laughed at my expression, finding great pleasure in my shocked state. Feeling uncomfortable at the thought Edward bought me something for personal use, I set the box aside and said, “Later. I think we should sort this lot out first.” Alice nodded in agreement. “What’s in the envelope?” Realizing I was still holding it, I quickly broke the seal and pulled out a swath of papers. “Warranty information,” I said, flipping through the stack. “A manual and directions for included software. There’s a program which should help us with our bookings.” “Amazing!” Alice declared. “Maybe we can get the hotel up on more online booking sites now we have all this.” “That would make visibility a great deal easier.” Setting the envelope aside with the elephant in the room, the mysterious iPad, we set about unboxing the computers and clearing space for them on the desks. We chattered happily, turning on the radio and listening to some rock music as we worked. I was so engrossed in our task I didn’t see him at first. Not until he had to declare his presence. “Jane.” Even though I’d only spoken with him twice at length, I would know his voice anywhere, and I stilled. I was sitting among a pile of Styrofoam and cardboard on the floor, hardly looking the picture of professionalism for my position, and I rose to my feet so fast my head began to spin. “Sir,” I declared as Alice quickly switched off the radio. He was dressed in a fine slate gray suit, the fabric fitting his broad shoulders just so, and his white shirt and black herringbone tie matched accordingly. He was a perfect picture of refinement, apart from his hastily shaven beard, while I was the exact opposite. Chaos surrounded me, my hair was wild and thrown over my shoulder, my shirt was slightly crumpled, and my trousers were dirty at the knees from kneeling on the floor. For the first time since childhood, I felt ashamed of my appearance. Edward glowered at me, no doubt making up his own mind as to my state, and finally offered me a folder. When I hesitated, he shook it at me, his brow creasing deeper in annoyance. Reaching out, I plucked it from his fingers. “For your venture,” he said. “My…” The artist retreat! I glanced down at the contents, and when I saw the check he’d slipped among the papers, my heart did a turn in my chest. “But this is too much.” “Your budget was too modest,” he said, glancing briefly over my shoulder at Alice. “You need to readjust your expectations.” Higher? Usually, I had to cut them to a quarter of what they were or at most half. Edward had just doubled them with a flick of his wrist. “Thank you,” I said quickly, in case he changed his mind. “Your proposal has merit, Jane,” he said. “Good luck with it.” As he turned and began walking away, I stepped forward to watch his departure across the main gallery. Realizing I hadn’t thanked him for the computers he’d caught us unpacking, I called out to him, surprised at my confidence. Something had shifted inside me since his arrival, awakening a part of my soul I never knew existed. It was a curious thing not to censor oneself before acting. I wasn’t sure what exactly had triggered the metamorphosis, and a transformation it was, no matter how small it appeared. “Thank you for the computers,” I called out, the words sounding larger than life in the empty gallery. I expected him to keep walking and not acknowledge me at all since his temper seemed to be raised, but he paused and glanced over his shoulder. He nodded once, then disappeared outside. My hand curled around the doorjamb as I listened to the sound of a car coming to life, and I sighed as the sound of tires crunching over gravel signaled his departure. Wherever he was going, I hoped he was coming back afterward. Returning to the office, I scolded myself for the rash thought. Mr. Rochester was interested in the rejuvenation of Thornfield as one of his most valuable holdings, not because he had a romantic interest in one of his paid subordinates. When I looked at him, I did not see a man who was interested in such whimsy. I saw a powerful man who took what he desired with little regard for wooing his conquest. He did not make concessions or pause to reflect on their feelings. His command had empowered me to follow blindly before, so he had no need to shower me or anyone else with gifts. Truthfully, I did not want them. Possessions did not fill me with the satisfaction conversation and understanding did. Helping Alice lift one of the iMacs onto the desk, I listened politely as she chattered about Edward and the computers, adding a thought here and there to placate her. She seemed to think he thought of me as a favorite and that I had won his respect, but I wasn’t brave enough to believe her. Later that night, when Thornfield had finally lulled into a deep silence, I curled up in bed and opened the iPad, scarcely believing it was for me. The first thing I found was the iBooks app. Connecting to the hotel’s patchy Wi-Fi, I downloaded all the classics—Vanity Fair, Sense and Sensibility, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, and more still—and each filled the memory like a welcome friend. It was a generous gift indeed, but with all these books at my disposal, I didn’t have any need to go to the library. The more my mind mulled over this revelation, the more I began to believe Edward was trying to discourage me from his presence. It didn’t make sense to give me everything I could ask for and then replace the one thing I cherished the most. An electronic book was a poor replacement for the chance of seeing Edward Rochester. The puzzle had become more complex the more pieces I slotted together, hindering any progress I’d already made toward finding out who the man was at his core. Perhaps I’d never know, and that was a sad thought. Humans wanted to understand the world and each other, but they also wanted to be understood themselves. Why should he hide? I was not at all comfortable with not knowing. It was past one a.m. by the time I fell asleep, my eyes sore from reading and the tablet underneath the pillow beside me. Why should he hide, indeed. 9 When I descended to the office the next morning, I found the gallery in chaos. Lingering on the stairs, I began to fret I’d missed an important appointment. “What’s going on?” I asked anyone who would listen. Alice glanced up at my arrival and replied, “Rocky has left. You have just missed him.” I stilled on the bottom step, the words coming as a blow. “Left?” “It’s usual for him,” she explained as silence took Thornfield once more. “He comes and goes with little notice. Once, he didn’t come back for almost a year.” A year! My heart slowed a little at the thought of not sparring with the enigmatic Edward Rochester for another twelve months. I couldn’t believe I was allowing myself to experience a sick sense of disappointment. I’d never needed the extended company of any man before, so why now? There was absolutely no reason why I should take his movements into consideration. Alice didn’t seem to notice my anguish and went on, “I don’t know where he’s gone this time, but he goes to Paris quite a bit. He speaks French, you know.” I did, but I kept it a secret close to my heart. Go, et j’y tiens…if you must. Only knowing those few little words seemed fitting for his abrupt departure. Besides, I should be grateful to him for allowing work to proceed on the retreat and the free reign he’d given me to revive the hotel. I had my duty and my orders, and I had no right to expect his hands as well. The only tie he seriously acknowledged between us was the one of employer and employee. Do not be so selfish to desire the heart and mind of the one man you are not worthy of matching, and hold back on giving a gift, which is no doubt unwanted and despised. “Well, then we have a calm hotel to welcome us for the present,” I said, turning away from my despair. “And I have a chance to make preparations for the retreat without a devil on my shoulder.” “You’re right, Jane,” Alice said, following me into the office. “We have our freedom from oppression! Tonight we shall party!” Work resumed its usual pace going forth, but my mind was otherwise occupied to the point of blind obsession. I was enraptured with Edward, and despite all my efforts to cease the behavior, nothing had slowed its growth. Much like the roses that climbed over the west wing of Thornfield, the mystery of his soul had ensnared me, and I was trapped in a desire of my own making. It was entirely one-sided and was a very slippery slope, akin to a patch of black ice. Never was there a greater fool than Jane Doe! Had I never breathed a breath of air so fantastic that it filled my life and soul with its magic? I’d made myself sick on sweet lies and fantasies, like a child sickened itself on chocolates. Jane Doe, you plain, little degenerate. I threw myself into my work as it was the only thing I could control. When I finally closed the computer and put away the phone for the evening, I was exhausted—mentally and physically. I’d hardly moved away from the office for a bite to eat. That was why I wasn’t sure if I was seeing clearly when I returned to my room. Hanging on the doorknob was a red ribbon with an old brass key threaded through the silk. It wasn’t there when I’d emerged that morning, and I wondered if I’d missed it in my haste. I reached down and picked it up. It was the same brass key I’d seen sitting in the locks of the glass cabinets in the library. The exact one! The tablet had not been a deterrent at all, then? I’d been granted use of the library in Edward’s absence? The master himself had given me this treasure? I mulled over what I knew at great length as my fingertips studied the shape of the key. He’d given me everything I’d wanted, which was more than had been bestowed on me in my entire life. I wasn’t sure what I’d done to deserve any of it or why he cared to give it to me. Our few conversations had been abrupt, challenging, and mostly frustrating. None of it warranted generosity. This tale was getting curiouser and curiouser as the days went by. I was too inexperienced to decipher this move on his behalf, and I decided not to think too much of it. I was already a fool in my own mind but to declare myself so to Edward? I couldn’t bare it if he looked at me with distain. Retiring to my room, I hid the key with the tablet and decided I would try to find a new hideaway tomorrow. Sleep was beyond me that night. I tried to put my weary mind to rest, but I was unable to reconcile the thoughts that plagued me. I was too inexperienced in the feelings that threatened to overwhelm me and was unsure how to proceed. Deep longing and physical need were two things I’d never felt all at the same time, and my insides felt as if they were being beaten like the cook beat a piece of dough in the kitchens. A scratching sound at my door roused me from my agony, and I sat up, listening. I frowned as I heard a heavy sigh rattle the air outside. What a curious sound! “Hello?” I called out, reluctant to place my bare feet on the cold floor to investigate. No reply came, and I stilled, listening to the silence, but the sound didn’t come again. Perhaps I should investigate to make sure. I was never afraid of the dark as a child and hadn’t batted a eyelid as an adult, so I slipped out of bed, opened the door without fear, and peered out into the hall. The space beyond was empty, and not a soul disturbed the peace. Then what had been at my door? My imagination? No, I’d heard it clearly enough in my wakefulness—a scratching and a heavy breath. Someone had been at my door. It was unmistakable. Deciding to explore further, I slipped into a pair of jeans and donned my boots, closing my bedroom door firmly behind me. As the mechanism clicked into place, a soft peal of laughter echoed down the hall. I recognized it immediately. It had the same aura of madness I’d heard on the first day I’d been in residence when Alice had shown me the upper floors of Thornfield. I paused, listening to the silence as hard as I could, blood whooshing in my ears like static. The sound echoed again. I turned toward it and took a step forward. Then quick footsteps from someone unknown and another peal of laughter. Feeling like I was being taunted, I followed the sound, determined to put an end to whatever game was being played upon me. I was quiet and little and kept to myself, which might be strange to some, but I was not easily made a fool of. I was strong willed enough and would not settle for bullying, if bullying this was. “Hello?” I called out to the empty hall as I advanced, but no call was returned. Rising to the third floor, I passed the door to the library and found it ajar. I didn’t dare peer inside, so I closed it and kept walking, investigating the far end of the hall. I’d never been this far into the west wing before. Knowing Edward kept his rooms in this part of Thornfield, I had kept my distance, even though I’d been tempted to walk this way on occasion. That was a different mystery than the one now luring me out into the darkness, so I pushed all thought of the man from my mind and concentrated on the silent hotel around me. I enjoyed stories about phantoms and spirits, and I’d never really believed in them as such, but as the moon’s light played across the carpet in front of me, the old glass panes in the windows distorting the light, I almost began to think they were real. The lengthening shadows made everything feel otherworldly, like I’d stepped through my bedroom door into a dream world full of tricksters and nymphs, all of them delighting in leading me on a wild chase. Turning the corner, I came upon a shadowy figure, and I stumbled, my heart racing. The person—for it was a human being—turned, and the light of the moon through the windows illuminated her face. All at once, I recognized Grace Poole, the ghostly housekeeper who lingered in the dark corners of Thornfield, scarcely emerging from her hidey-hole to engage with the world. I wasn’t sure who I was expecting to find at the end of the trail of laughter, but it wasn’t her. “Grace!” I exclaimed as she beheld me. “Sorry to startle you, Miss,” she said, looking just as bewildered to find me as I was her. “What are you doing out so late?” “I may ask you the same,” she replied. “I couldn’t sleep. Sometimes, I walk to clear my mind, but it’s too cold to go outside.” My heart still beat furiously, my skin tingling with a sinister sensation. “I thought you were a ghost.” “No, I’m no ghost, I assure you. The shadows are long, though. Sometimes, the halls give me a strange chill in the dark.” “Were you laughing just now?” I asked, not sure I believed her explanation. I knew what I’d heard. Grace’s eyebrows rose in surprise at my question. “Laughing, Miss? No.” I couldn’t say more without revealing myself to be quite mad, so I edged away from the woman. “Well, goodnight then, Grace.” “Goodnight,” she returned politely and walked away, her shoes shuffling along the carpet like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I watched her until she disappeared around the corner, and then I lingered for a long moment, listening to the silence. Whatever sound I had heard had long disappeared into the night, and I was left feeling like I had chased a dream through the halls. Still, as I hastened back to my room, I had an otherworldly sense that eyes were watching my progress. Whose eyes, I didn’t know, but they were there. When I returned to my room, I made sure my door was locked tightly. I hardly heard anything Alice had to say in the office when I went down the next morning. I pondered Grace’s position at Thornfield and came to realize no one had explained what she did and why she seemed to be paid more than the other staff for whatever it was she was expert in. Her behavior seemed rather odd, too. Laughing to herself in the halls in the dead of night was in the realm of madness. “Alice,” I said, not able to take it anymore. “Yes?” the woman asked, glancing up from her work. “What exactly does Grace Poole do at Thornfield?” “She’s in charge of cleaning the out-of-the-way places,” Alice said absently. “This old place gets infested with mold and spores if we don’t keep on top of it. All those paintings and tapestries are quite delicate.” “So Grace is a specialty cleaner?” I inquired. “Hmm,” she replied, typing something into the computer. “It’s very strange,” I went on. At this, Alice glanced at me, signaling I was successful in raising her curiosity. “How so?” “She only appears at dinner, and then she disappears, not to be seen again until the next night,” I explained, deliberately leaving out my encounter with her in the darkened halls. Alice shrugged at my declaration as if she was used to the strange comings and goings of the woman. “But why doesn’t anybody mention it?” I asked. “It’s odd the way she creeps about.” “Grace is a bit of a loner, but she’s harmless,” Alice assured me. “She performs her duties well and isn’t a hindrance.” “I suppose not,” I murmured, still feeling uneasy about the woman, but it wasn’t my place to keep pestering Alice about it. I would keep an eye on the mysterious Grace Poole and take notes. If she was up to something sinister, then I would catch her eventually. What I didn’t understand was why no one seemed to mind her mannerisms. She wasn’t the only strange occurrence to have crossed my path while walking the halls of the hotel. There was some gossip I was excluded from, and several times, I’d overheard curious conversations that ceased abruptly when I entered a room. There was a mystery at Thornfield, and I was purposely kept from it. Perhaps it was because I was still new to the surroundings, but with time, I’d be privy to all the comings and goings of the hotel. Country folk were known to be more distrusting of newcomers than most. Whatever it was, it certainly mustn’t be anything sinister. Otherwise, something would have been done about it long ago. I wasn’t living in the confines of a novel or film, and real life scarcely held the same fantastical qualities of a good story. No good would come from my digging for clues. I had come to value my position at Thornfield, so I allowed Alice to go on believing I’d been placated by her vague explanation. There were too many phantoms in this old house in the absence of life. 10 The last breath of winter turned into spring, and the grounds of Thornfield came alive with color. All shades of green reappeared across the field and moor, the heather dotted the landscape with tiny purple flowers, and the roses, which clung to the whole west wing of the manor, erupted in bloom. It rained quite often, the sound pattering softly against the windowpanes, and when it cleared, the garden was brightened, and the sky saw shades of blue I’d forgotten existed. The earth was renewed after its long slumber, but I felt as if my world had shrunk to include only a single lonely soul. My time was much in demand. The organization of the artist retreat was coming along and would go ahead in the autumn months. The office had undergone its technological renovations and had changed greatly. I floated among the excitement, unable to enjoy my part in bringing it about. I had underestimated the way the master of the manor had twisted himself into my being, and his absence left a void I had not known was wanting in the first place. I never found a replacement for my hideaway, so I passed long hours in the library, listening for footsteps which never came. Now the weather permitted it, I spent much of my free time in the grounds straining to hear the thunderous approach of the black stallion. None of these things happened, so I began to drown in the same feeling of stagnation that had driven me to be on the road the night Edward first appeared to me. Spring faded into the first days of summer, and coats and sweaters were discarded for cooler sleeveless shirts and sunglasses. The sun showed its face more and more, and then something unexpected happened. One morning, after rising early due to the brightness of the sun through my bedroom window, I came down to the gallery and found quite a commotion. Kitchen staff were running through the dining room setting tables, housekeeping were unloading linens from a truck outside, Alice was darting to and fro, her eyes wild with panic, and I stared at the uncharacteristic view of the hotel wondering if something had been set on fire. This must be what it would look like when all the rooms were full at the same time, if they would ever be again. “Alice,” I cried, catching her arm as she flew past. “What’s the matter?” “I got a call late last night,” she replied, looking quite ready to tear her hair out. “There are to be fifteen guests arriving this afternoon! Fifteen! Damn that man and his whims!” “Fifteen?” I exclaimed. “Do they all want separate rooms? That’s half the hotel!” “Everyone’s in an uproar,” she went on, hardly hearing me. “We need linen on the beds, towels in the rooms, food in the kitchen!” “Who is coming?” I began to tremble, hardly daring to hope. “Rocky and his friends, of course!” Alice said, grasping my forearms. “Everything must be perfect!” He was coming back? Not just Edward, but his rich friends would be following. Beautiful men and women of wealth. Women who were his complete match in every way. After four months of not hearing a word, here he came with his darkness and anger and with all the things I could never hope to be. Still, I felt a spark at the thought of him being in the same house as I once more. “Is there anything I can do to assist, Alice?” I asked, knowing I was about to get a healthy dose of reality when the guests began arriving. Best I distance myself from my attraction to the master and leave it be. There was no better time to begin my new course than now. “Yes, oh yes!” she replied, her shoulders sagging. “I need someone to go to the village and pick up some things from the grocer. No one has time to leave, and we have so little time and not many hands.” “Alice, it’s what I’m here for.” I smiled, feeling calm in my choice to distance myself from my unwanted feelings. “Of course, I’ll go.” “Can you drive?” She reached into her pockets and thrust a set of keys at me. I nodded, thankful for something with which to occupy myself. Once I’d been given my task completely, I emerged outside as a new Jane Doe, impervious to the lust of the flesh and mind. Still, I felt the looming cloud on the horizon and was unable to shake the trembling in my veins. Edward Rochester was returning to Thornfield. By the time I returned from the village, the noise had dampened to a dull roar. I’d volunteered to be the messenger so that I did not have to be present when Edward arrived, but it turned out I didn’t need to anguish myself so. Alice was sitting on the stairs in the gallery, her tablet in her lap, looking lost and forlorn. “Their flight has been delayed,” she lamented as I sat beside her. “They won’t be here until tomorrow. All that fuss for nothing!” “Never mind,” I commiserated. “There was no way of knowing. Everything is prepared well ahead of schedule now, so there is time to rest before everyone arrives.” “You’re so right, Jane. Thank you. I don’t know where I’d be without you.” “Still running around, I suppose,” I said with a smile. Alice sighed, allowing her head to rest upon my shoulder, and my heart swelled. She had become quite like a sister to me in the few months I’d been in residence at Thornfield. It was very welcoming to think she thought nothing of my want for solitude and my quiet manner. She respected me for who I chose to be and in turn, I her. Family was something I’d never had even though I’d lived with my cousins, John and Georgiana, and my aunt Sarah. They’d never wanted me, so I’d always been apart. Despite the strange occupation of Grace Poole and the mystery surrounding the maid I was so blatantly kept from, the residents of this grand hotel were the closest thing I had to brothers and sisters. That was why I chose to invest myself in Alice, no matter how much I wanted to keep myself from Edward and his perfect life. “Tell me, who are the guests?” I asked. “You said Mr. Rochester likes to bring his friends in the summer and that they’re a sight. Perhaps you should help me mentally prepare. Will you?” Alice’s eyes brightened at the chance to indulge in her favorite pastime, gossiping, and she sat straight and faced me, ready to impart her wisdom. “There are several who are Rocky’s friends, and then they invite some of theirs in turn,” Alice explained. “The core group never changes, but their other guests seem to rotate as they fall in and out of favor.” “Who are the regulars?” “There’s Marcus and his wife, Fiona. He’s an air force colonel, you know. Colonel Dent. Then there is Amy, Louisa, and Lynn. They are nothing if not annoying in their wealth. Rich bitches if I ever saw them.” She paused and had a good laugh at this. I gathered her reaction meant they were the superficial type and mere followers to the others. “There’s Henry and Frederick. They are very handsome but typical playboys and horrible flirts. I don’t care to think about where they’ve been! Probably with half of continental Europe! The last two are Blanche and Mary Ingram. They’re sisters and certainly the richest and most beautiful of the group.” “Blanche?” I asked. “That’s quite an old-fashioned name.” Alice waved her hand and rolled her eyes. “Very posh and English, though. They all call her Bee. Like the queen bee in the hive. Their family is the only one to rival the Rochester’s for their influence.” I decided this meant the beautiful Blanche Ingram was the center of this little group and would be formidable, indeed. If Alice’s description of her was anything to go by, this woman’s beauty and accomplishments far outweighed my own. I hadn’t seen her yet, and already I felt I’d been right to douse the impure thoughts and actions I’d had toward Edward. “I suppose she is admired by all manner of people?” I inquired. “Yes, she’s like a supermodel, Jane. I always feel so inadequate looking at her. Rich, beautiful, powerful. The trifecta!” “Is she attached?” I knew I shouldn’t ask, but I was unable to stop my curiosity from taking control of my tongue. “No. She’s not married, nor does she have a boyfriend that I know of.” “Surely a woman like you’ve described has someone?” “If you ask me, I’m sure she has her eye on Rocky,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he were to make a move on her. They surely match each other’s temperament. Their families certainly wouldn’t dispute it. In fact, it would be greatly encouraged!” I didn’t want to ponder why my hand shook at this revelation. Why shouldn’t Edward want to consider a future with a beautiful woman who was a perfect choice for a man like him? In business, physicality, and all manner of wanton satisfaction. Still, I couldn’t help feeling much smaller than I already was, hoping the ground would open up and swallow me whole. Everything—life, the universe, and my pursuit of belonging—began to feel futile. I had nothing to offer. “Well, you have given me a lot to think about,” I said. “A fair warning for what to expect tomorrow.” “They’ve been known to treat the staff horribly,” Alice said, giving me one last piece of information. “But don’t let it worry you. They’re as shallow as they come, and their uninformed words mean nothing about you or the staff, Jane. People like that say things to turn scrutiny away from their own shortcomings.” “Very well said,” I declared. Now, only if I could find it within myself to believe her. We passed the remainder of the day by amusing ourselves. With no guests to welcome and assist to their rooms, we were left with not much else to do. Deciding I had one more night where I could steal myself into the library before it became forbidden for the summer, I waited until nine p.m. and ghosted through the empty halls until I reached its familiar embrace. The sky was still a patchwork of deep blue, orange, and pink through the windows as the last of the sun dipped below the horizon. The days were quite long now that the season had changed, which was a sight better for everyone’s mood. In the depths of winter, daylight had faded entirely by four o’clock in the afternoon. Very dreary on the soul, indeed. Lingering by the window, I watched the changing colors as I allowed my mind to fly freely. Well, freely away from Thornfield and its male tempest. “Jane.” The sound of my name sliced directly through my body, and I turned, my heart beating furiously as my gaze caught that of the enigmatical Edward Rochester. The sight of him frightened and excited me all at the same time, and in that moment, I knew I’d been unsuccessful in forgetting my growing feelings. Now he had returned after months of absence, and the sight of him was a stronger drug than ever before. “I’ve startled you,” he said, his stormy eyes watching me closely. I waited a moment until my heart had slowed some. “It’s just… We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow.” “I had business in London, so I traveled ahead,” he explained, seeming pleased at my fumbled reaction. “I see,” I muttered, lowering my gaze. “Are you well?” he asked, his footsteps thudding softly on the carpet as he approached. “Yes, sir.” “Are you sure? You look paler than when I saw you last.” “I assure you, I am well.” Edward grunted, my statement not placating him in the slightest. “Could it be…” he mused. “Did you miss me, Jane? We hardly know one another, yet you seemed to fret.” I closed my eyes for a moment, wishing he would not flirt with me so. He was baiting me for his own amusement, I was sure of it. Once I’d caught his lure, then what? Would he cast me right back with the others he’d rejected before me? I believed he would. “You are afraid of me,” he stated, his tone changing from amusement to annoyance. He’d said it once before, but he couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps I should be afraid of the man who stood before me. He exuded a great deal of power and control over me with little effort, and for someone who valued their freedom, I should be cowering before him. Yet all I did was rebel against it. It was a sick form of self-preservation. I returned my gaze to his, my spirit now fully armored against him. “I’m not afraid of you,” I said firmly. “Then you are afraid of yourself.” The truth hit home, and I scowled. “Is the truth of what you want and feel so abhorrent to you?” he went on. “Or are you afraid you will be ridiculed by others for it?” “Not at all, sir,” I said, jutting my chin out in defiance. “I merely know the difference between obtainment and futility.” His strong brow creased as he thought over my words, his shoulders seeming to tense as he loomed over me. “I suppose you think you’re clever in your evasion?” he inquired. “Not at all. I feel I’m being realistic on my behalf.” “You accused me of speaking in riddles, yet you speak like a sphinx. I think you are a hypocrite, Jane.” His words stung, but it was for the best we should dislike one another. We were merely substituting one lesser hurt in lieu of a much larger one. I stood tall as I delivered my next barb. “Then we are more alike than I dare admit.” Edward took another step toward me, like the alpha male of a wild wolf pack closing in on its prey. Whatever happened next, it was going to hurt. It wasn’t until he was an inch away from where I stood trapped against the wall that I realized he’d never touched me before. Never had his hand slipped and brushed against my own. Never had his gait wavered and moved toward mine. His eyes had done all the work in lieu of his hands, caressing, kneading, and unraveling. He was so controlled in all his words and actions, and I realized I did fear him. I was afraid of what would be unleashed the moment his grasp on his spirit slipped and everything burst forth. “You’re trembling,” he murmured, his gaze lowering to my lips. “You were right,” I admitted. “I’m afraid.” “Of me?” “Of what you could do to me,” I whispered, my mouth feeling dry. “Of what you have already done without your knowing.” As the words spilled from my lips, I regretted them. My knees felt weak, as though I might crumple to the floor in a heap, and my heart began to wither. I must leave before… I edged along the wall, taking a step to prepare to flee, but like a bolt of lightning, Edward raised his arm, and his palm connected with the wall, closing off my escape route. “I should let you go,” he muttered, and I wasn’t sure if he spoke to himself or me. “But something stops me, Jane. You say you are afraid of me? Well, I’m afraid of you.” “Me?” I said, my voice sounding harsh next to the sweet baritone of his. He didn’t reply, and when his body pressed against mine, pinning me in place, a moan escaped from between my lips, causing my face to heat with embarrassment. I had not declared the things I felt, but it seemed I’d betrayed myself to him with my actions a long time ago. When his hands came to rest on my flushed cheeks, I shuddered violently, all control leaving my mind and limbs. I was putty in his hands, and from the way his gaze penetrated mine, he knew it. “I should leave,” he murmured, but he lingered. “What if you stayed?” I asked. “What would happen then?” His hands lowered, pulling me away from the wall, and traced the curve of my spine, lighting a fire underneath the surface of my skin, until his fingers curled into my hair. He tugged, forcing my head to the side just so…then his lips pressed against my ear as if he was about to tell me a wicked secret. “If I remained, I would tear your clothes from your body and have you mercilessly, Jane. I would tear you apart.” I shivered as the tip of his tongue grazed my neck, his words speaking to my being on a level no man had reached before. Deeper than lust or primal instinct, his words were like a prayer from scripture itself. “I should like to be torn,” I whispered, completely and utterly under his spell. “Jane…” He seemed to be struggling with his mind, violently wrestling with some silent demon even though I was perfectly willing to destroy myself despite my better judgment. “Edward.” It was the first time I’d spoken his name, and it sounded heavy on the air. Like I’d woven a spell, he broke with his demon and struck. His lips were rough as he took me, and when he kissed me again, he forced his way inside until his taste—which was of the Irish whiskey he favored—overwhelmed me. I lost control of myself and thrust my tongue against his, my arms winding around his waist. I felt the tight muscles in his back ripple as my palms rubbed along them, enticing his kiss to deepen further. I began to throb between my legs as my desire grew, and when his hands moved from my face to explore my body, I pressed harder against him. I could feel how much he wanted to indulge in pleasure, and the rumble in his chest when I rubbed against his firmness, confirmed it. His mouth barely broke away from mine for what felt like an age as I allowed my palms to raise and stroke the rough stubble on his jaw. My fingertips delighted in the harshness of it, and when I buried them in his hair and tugged, he made the most delightful sound. I would have let Edward Rochester tear me into tiny little pieces if he’d wanted—and do whatever he wished, no matter how depraved—but as our movements became heavier and more passionate, he drew back suddenly, severing our connection. Immediately, I was cold. His chest heaved with labored breaths, and his eyes sparkled, but he did not look at me directly. He was closed off to me, perhaps more than he’d been before, and I knew he regretted the intimacy that had just occurred. I’d been right to turn away from my feelings, but his pull had been too strong. I was weak-willed. I felt a tear slip from my eye as I cowered against the wall, a million pinpricks of pain shooting directly into my heart without remorse. Never had I experienced such anguish and rejection! Not even the harsh treatment from my aunt came close to the tear that was opening up in my chest at that very moment. Without a single word, Edward retreated, turning his back on me and disappearing as abruptly as he’d appeared. The door slammed, closing me in the library as a solitary figure of heartache, and the sound signaled a finality that broke me in two. Stupid little Jane Doe! His absence after such euphoria was so brutal I felt it in my very soul. When I could gather myself, I fled, vowing never to return to the library. 11 There was a somber lineup in the main gallery the next morning. I stood beside Alice, ready to greet the guests and hand out keys, and housekeeping were poised to begin ferrying luggage to their assigned rooms. My stomach rolled with sickness, and I was sure I carried around the mortal wound I’d been given like a blinking neon sign. I was all nerves and not much else standing there, and I wasn’t sure what I dreaded the most. Laying eyes on the beautiful Blanche Ingram and finding myself a pale subject in comparison or seeing her draped on the arm of Mr. Rochester, the man who had stolen my soul and discarded it with so little effort. His name had returned to the nom de plume his station required, and it eased my mind to refer to him as something other than Edward. I would deal with it at some point, but there was no time for it now with fifteen guests arriving en masse on the doorstep of Thornfield…in no less than five minutes. “They’re coming!” Alice declared, stepping through the front door. “Look lively, people! This isn’t a funeral!” “She jests,” said one of the housekeepers beside me. “I should’ve worn black!” “And prepared a eulogy,” another replied. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought as laughter erupted around me, but when the cars began arriving outside, all was hushed and professional. Thornfield began to fill to the brim with guests, luggage, and excited chatter, and life was breathed into his old bones. I didn’t care to inspect the other guests closely as they came, for it was Blanche I was most keen to see. Whether it was self-depreciating or mere curiosity, I didn’t know, but I wanted to lay eyes on the woman everyone was certain Mr. Rochester would someday marry. When she finally appeared, my heart sank like a stone, and the tiny shred of light I had left, began to dull. Alice was right, as usual. The Queen Bee was perfect. She had the form of a catwalk model, which was tall and slim, and the gait to match. She glided across the threshold in her high heels, removing her sunglasses as she came. Her bright blue eyes stood out in the heavy darkness of the gallery as she looked over it, and she shook her full head of glossy black curls as her opinion was formed. “It’s very beautiful, but it’s dark, don’t you think?” she said to the woman next to her. “Indeed,” the woman replied. She had a similar look to Blanche though not as striking, and I assumed this was her sister Mary. “It’s rather masculine still.” “I thought there was going to be some improvements?” Blanche went on. “It looks as if nothing has been done at all! Rocky must review his staff at once!” Alice nudged me with her elbow and whispered into my ear, “Told you so!” So this was the infamous Blanche Ingram? I could see why Mr. Rochester would be drawn to her over me. She was beautiful, and her dismissive tone I put down to an unexpectedly long flight delay. Surely she wasn’t so…haughty? I could ponder it all I liked, but it wasn’t any of my concern. Plastering a smile on my face, I handed out each party a room key, passing unnoticed among the chaos. I suppose I was just another paid subordinate to order around, and I didn’t think much of it. It was my job, so I performed it without complaint. Once the keys were given out and the bags were on their way, Alice pulled me aside, locking us in the office. “That was a chore,” she said, sinking down into her usual chair. “I need five minutes before I go back out there.” She fanned her face with a piece of printer paper and gestured for me to sit. “Your descriptions were accurate,” I said, forcing a smile for her sake. “I was well prepared.” “They’re having a dinner and party tonight in the main sitting room,” she went on. “Before I forget, I’m to tell you it’s at eight o’clock.” “Do I have duties?” I asked, already dreading the rest of the summer months. “No, you are to attend.” “Attend? When was this agreed upon?” I asked a little too harshly. “This morning at breakfast,” she said. “Rocky said you’re expected to be in the sitting room after dinner. You poor thing! I don’t know why he thinks to command you. The hotel staff has always been apart from their company.” “I wouldn’t know,” I murmured, beginning to panic. “He seems to have taken a liking to you,” she mused, oblivious to my discomfort. “I think he appreciates the things you’ve done for Thornfield and wishes to show you off. I told you when you first started he likes to reward hard work, Jane.” “This is a reward?” I asked, tilting my head to the side. “It feels more like waterboarding.” Alice laughed as if I’d told the most hilarious joke in the entire world. “And here I thought I was being dramatic! It’ll be a laugh at least.” She’d spun the party as a comedic affair, but I couldn’t think of anything worse. I didn’t want to see Edward after our liaison in the library the night before, and nor did I want to see him fawn over the stunning creature who was Blanche Ingram. If it was agreed upon that morning, then it was only an invitation to serve as a deterrent from pressing the matter of his hasty kiss, or it was for pure torture. He needn’t bother subjecting me to either. I was torn in two already. “Do you have anything to wear?” Alice asked, pulling me back from my downward trajectory. I shook my head. I’d never had cause to dress up, and I wouldn’t know how or what was appropriate anyway. Invitations to fine parties had never crossed my path, nor had shopping trips to high-end boutiques, either. “Well, you can’t go in your usual jeans and blouse. Especially not in those big boots!” She looked me over and nodded when she was done. “I think I have just the thing for you. Come with me.” She grasped my hand and tugged me from the office, through the main gallery that was still half-full of luggage, up the stairs, and into the east wing. She must’ve been certain I’d run in the other direction because she didn’t let me go until we were in her room. Her lodgings were similar to mine though she’d managed to squeeze a larger wardrobe into the corner, and when she threw open the door, I understood why she needed the space. Clothing was squashed inside, and underneath, there was a line of high heels, shoes, and boots. The entire contents were practically bursting out, and I wondered how she ever got the door closed! The whole scene was comical as she dived into the pile of fabric and began rummaging. I had visions of a door opening up to Narnia in the back or at least to another realm where closet space was infinite. “How can you find anything in there?” I asked, sitting on the corner of her bed. “I have a system,” she threw back over her shoulder. “It’s infallible!” I laughed to myself, feeling a sight lighter than I had moments before. “I know it’s in here somewhere,” Alice went on, her voice muffled from inside the closet. “Ah! Here it is!” Pulling on a clothes hanger, she emerged with a black dress that had a dark navy blue design weaved through the fabric. Setting it on the bed next to me, I ran my fingertips over it while she dove back into the closet. It was beautiful in its simplicity. The hem was short, the skirt flared just a little, the sleeves were capped just over the shoulders, and the neckline dipped low. If I’d been in a shop, I would’ve picked it up and placed it right back, not having anywhere to go to be able to wear something so fine. Could I wear something like this? What would… Finally, Alice set a pair of black ankle boots next to me, breaking my thoughts before they wandered into dangerous territory. It wouldn’t matter how I looked to Mr. Rochester’s eyes. The boots looked Western inspired with elastic sides and a wraparound buckle. Fortunately, there was a zipper at the side, or it’d take an age to get into them. The heel was small, perhaps two inches, and wide, so I would be able to walk in them without looking awkward. They suited the dress beautifully. “There,” Alice declared, looking rather pleased with herself. “It’s in the usual colors you like to wear, black with blue embellishments, and the shoes are like your big combat boots while still looking feminine.” I ran my fingers over the material of the dress once more and had to agree with her. It wasn’t Gucci, but it was a sight nicer than my usual attire. Alice waved her hands at me. “Well, what are you waiting for? Try it on!” “Now?” “Stop stalling, Jane. It’s just a dress.” She picked it up and thrust it into my hands, pushing me ungracefully toward the bathroom. “Go in there, and hurry up about it. We’re still on call.” Slinking into the bathroom, I changed into the outfit, my elbows hitting the walls as I struggled with ridding myself of my skinny jeans. When I emerged transformed, Alice clapped her hands together in glee. “You look beautiful, Jane!” she gushed. “I feel rather naked,” I replied, smoothing down the skirt. She shooed me away. “That’s just because you’re not used to wearing dresses. It’s the bare legs.” I shrugged as a feeling of despair rose within my heart. Why get dressed up to have the last of my soul destroyed? Alice’s expression fell, and she asked, “What’s the matter? You’re upset!” “I’m entirely out of my comfort zone,” I replied. It was the truth, though it came with a very large omission. Alice being Alice attempted to cheer me up with kind words. “You’ll have a good time tonight. I know it.” I hoped she was right because I felt like a fish out of water. That night, I stood outside the sitting room, my palms feeling sweaty. I was early, and I could still hear Mr. Rochester and his guests being served dessert in the dining room. Perhaps I could go in and find a quiet corner, and no one would notice me. They certainly hadn’t paid me any mind that morning, and it would be a fortunate thing to continue to pass my presence in obscurity. Settling into the window seat, I folded my hands on my lap and waited. My eye kept flickering to the door as I waited for the party to appear, my heart fluttering in anticipation. I’d done well to push away the memory of Mr. Rochester’s kiss the night before, but now sitting here, waiting for his imminent arrival, it was all I could see in my mind’s eye. The way his hands had grasped my body and traced its lines with a mastery I couldn’t fathom. The taste of his lips and the rasp of his stubble against my soft skin. The passion that had overwhelmed me even before he’d laid a finger on my body. I’d never experienced the like of it before, and I probably never would again. Activity at the door pulled me away from my indulgent thoughts, and I steeled myself to bear the brunt of the incoming storm. Fiona, Amy, Louisa, and Lynn were first. All were wearing barely-there dresses, and their male company seemed to appreciate it as they followed them into the room. Two of the men I knew to be Henry and Frederick, but the others I hadn’t seen before. They must be the current favorites Alice told me about. Lastly, after all the guests were present save for Mr. Rochester, Blanche and Mary entered, arm in arm and looking thick as thieves in their fine dresses. It was just a dinner at the hotel, but knowing it had been silver service, their dress was appropriate. The entire room paused to watch their entrance like they were royalty, even the women. Blanche was the Queen Bee, indeed! They all settled into various groups, some overtaking the billiards table, others the couches, and a group lingered by the open fireplace, then lively discussion and laughter filled the room. I sat back in the window seat and regarded it all. I was lonely but glad for it. Listening to their words, I didn’t understand a thing they were talking about. They talked of international holidays, people I didn’t know, and all manner of fine things rich people indulged in. Even if I were outgoing, I feared I wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation with any of them. “Who is that?” I glanced up at the sound of Blanche’s voice and found her staring at me, her lip curled in distaste. My skin prickled at the unwanted attention, but I did not open my mouth to inform her of my status at Thornfield. She’d seen me that morning, but she obviously hadn’t really opened her eyes. “That’s one of the managers,” Fiona informed her. “She greeted us this morning.” “Well, I don’t know what she’s doing here. Do you see her dress?” She laughed and the others followed. “The poor thing. She thinks she’s one of us!” Upon this, they all turned around in fits of laughter and promptly ignored me, but the damage had been done. I’d been expecting it, but sitting there and taking their disgust was another thing entirely. The hurt piled upon the rejection on my heart, smothering the last of my meager confidence. I should’ve ignored Mr. Rochester’s command and remained in my room, no matter the consequence. I was beginning to wonder if he was going to appear at all—so he could bear witness to my humiliation—when the dining room door opened, and he emerged. My gaze was instantly drawn to him, and the sight of him sent odd feelings ricocheting through my body—arousal, awareness, and longing. The sensations were so keen that I began to flush. Fortunately, I’d already been forgotten so I could easily hide it. He crossed the room, his eye never wandering, and joined the Ingram sisters. I’m sure Queen Bee greeted him warmly, but all I could see was Mr. Rochester. His back was to me, but it didn’t matter in the slightest. He was dressed like the others—his strong shoulders clad in a light gray suit with the collar of his white shirt peeking out at the top. With his fitted slacks and shiny black dress shoes, he looked the part of a wealthy businessman except for the stubble he refused to shave from his jaw. I fancied it was a slight rebellion against all the pomp and ceremony his family name held him to, and I smiled to myself. I hadn’t intended to fall for him, as I was want to keep reminding myself as if it were a mantra, and I had done whatever was in my power to squash the poisonous thoughts, but as I laid eyes on his body, the spark was renewed hotter than before. What a terrible merry-go-round to be trapped upon. The night wore on, and I remained unnoticed. Mr. Rochester’s attention didn’t turn to me. Not once did he cast his gaze around the room to look for me, nor did he utter my name. I’d had a secret hope he wanted to see me again, but it was as I’d come to expect. He must want to prove the point I didn’t belong and that his body and his heart were off limits to a woman like me. That was closed for business! I needed to smother my hopes and remember that he didn’t care much for me. I was a curiosity, nothing more. I’d been tasted and found wanting, so now I needed to take my leave of him. All eyes were focused on Blanche in the far corner as she regaled the guests with an outrageous story of her recent holiday in the Mediterranean where she was certain she was going to be swept off her feet by the Prince of Monaco in her own Cinderella story—which was laughable at best—so I had my chance. No one was paying attention and would not see the movement. I took a deep breath, slipped from my sheltered corner, and escaped via the side door, which was fortunately near. The sound of the guests enjoying their outrageous gossiping session followed me out into the empty gallery, the dull clack of the balls as they collided on the billiards table echoing through the stillness. No amount of alcohol would be enough to dampen the pain at having to endure their company for one moment longer. Fortunately, I wasn’t a drunk, nor was I besotted enough with the master to sit through another mean-spirited barb. The whole evening was pure torture. I was being harsh in my judgment, and maybe I was just as bad as they were, but it was human nature to return that which was given. I’d seen enough. “Jane.” I stilled, the gallery seeming to shrink as I turned and beheld the man who had discarded me so wantonly. It had to be true. He was torturing me! “Why did you leave?” Mr. Rochester asked, his eyes darkening as he regarded me. He cannot be serious! “I’m tired,” I replied cordially. “Are you…” He held his breath, stopping himself from saying more, but he needn’t bother himself. “It wasn’t my place to disturb you,” I said. “Truthfully, I don’t know why you insisted I attend your little party.” “I needed you to be there,” he said, donning his sphinx mask, the one that irritated me more than anything in the world. “You do not need me, Mr. Rochester.” I lowered my gaze, attempting to protect what little of my heart I had left intact. “Goodnight.” I promptly left him there, returning to my meager lodgings and ridding myself of the dress Alice had loaned me. It didn’t feel right. None of it did. My feelings, my desires, my position at Thornfield, and my attempt at slipping into a character with which I was wholly unfamiliar. I didn’t belong. I never had, and I probably never would. I was a solitary being, singular and whole, and I had thought no man would be able to crack my shell. Well, once I had repaired my outer defenses from the damage Mr. Rochester’s sledgehammer had wrought, it would be impenetrable once more. No matter how I spun the tale in my own mind, I couldn’t help falling into the grizzly maw of depression. I’d been treated to one tiny shred of passion, a sliver that I now saw had been given by mistake, and I was obliterated. All the strength my life had served to build up inside me had been destroyed by one kiss. One kiss and I was a slave. 12 Thornfield was overrun. As the days turned into a week, all sense of stillness had ceased its hold over the hotel. The kitchen, the concierge desk, housekeeping, and even Alice and I, were run off our feet. The main gallery and entrance were bustling as people went out to enjoy the sunshine or the close company of the sitting room with its projector screen and billiards table. Couples had begun to pair off, groups had formed, and the walls were alive with gossip. The staff had begun to show signs of wear and tear, not just from the extra work but also from the particular treatment at the hands of the guests. It harkened back to the days of lords and commoners, the rich and the poor, and the class lines that were not to be crossed. Equality was in short supply. Thornfield was aiming to be a five-star hotel, so the extra attention was warranted, but no one was used to such demands in quick succession. Long days with empty rooms had lulled everyone into a sleepy way of life, and with a full house, it was bedlam. Every soul, which was employed, was exhausted. Once all the guests and the master had retired for the evening, everyone remained in the kitchen and gossiped about their day. Their words were all as bad as the treatment they had been given, and I suppose I couldn’t blame them for wanting to blow off some steam, but it felt toxic to me. Hate was such a strong word to use in mere passing. I disliked the way we were spoken to and the things we were ordered to carry out just as much as the others, but the ire that was so present once the lights were dimmed was extraordinary. So I sat in a corner of the kitchen—next to Alice, the bartender, and the concierge but still apart—eating leftover cake, macaroons, and fruit from yet another fancy dinner and keeping my thoughts on the rabble upstairs to myself. And what do you suppose I secretly thought about most, reader? It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out the complexities or nature of my greatest torment. Mr. Rochester was a grand host when he decided to turn on the charm, but there were times when he’d glance away, and his mask would slip, and his exhaustion was apparent. Like his treatment of me, it was yet another game, and in my depression, I began to wonder if I’d ever glimpsed anything of the real man at all. What did it matter? After the first night I was commanded to attend the after-dinner festivities, I’d become a ghost. I wasn’t commanded to appear again, so I’d gladly remained apart, but it didn’t mean I was free of his presence. He was still my employer, and he still had control over my movements, along with Alice and the rest of Thornfield’s staff. Arrange this hunting excursion, arrange this meal, arrange a cocktail party in the gardens. I could be in his presence for hours and he would not turn to notice me, nor had he acknowledged my work, not once inquiring after the progress of the retreat. I’d devoted so much time to it, and he’d invested quite a considerable sum of money, so I was confused at his indifference. He didn’t care much about Thornfield at all. Only impressing his fancy friends and wooing Blanche Ingram seemed to command his whims. I suppose things were going well for them, in the romantic sense. They were glued together at the hip—and I assumed in other ways also—and spent a great deal of time together, whispering and smiling. Smiling. I’d never seen such a carefree look pass across his features, and so the jealousy and rejection grew inside me, tangling around my heart like the roses that clung to the facade of Thornfield, cracking the mortar under their oppressive nature. The vines of my anguish strangled me until I was nothing but blackness in a sea of color. The waters crashed around me, pulling me down into its depths, and I went on with my duties as if they were a punishment. I was drowning, and nobody saw me struggle. But at least I had macaroons to soften the blow. “Isn’t it just beautiful, Jane?” Alice clapped her hands together as we stood at the top of the stone stairs looking down over Thornfield’s rear garden. The sun was bright in the sky, its heat blistering on my pale shoulders, and not a trace of cloud broke up the vast blue that stretched along the horizon. The garden was awash with color—blue, yellow, red, and white—the grass a rich emerald green, and upon it sat jewels that sparkled even more now that daylight was showering down upon them. All morning we’d toiled setting up the afternoon party that now sat upon the lawn. Ten tables with white linens, fine bone china, silver cutlery, and elegant centerpieces were arranged just so, the food and cocktails perfect in their construction. Sandwiches, fresh fruits, and pastries sat in generous helpings atop each table while waiters moved to and fro from the bar, delivering drinks to the guests. It was decadent, as were the people feasting upon our handiwork. Diamonds set in gold, each one of them, but the many facets of a diamond shone differently depending on the light, impurities and all. It was a page out of one of the novels I’d been devouring, The Great Gatsby, and the only thing missing was a sparkling champagne fountain. Blanche sat apart from the main bulk of the group at a private little table with Mr. Rochester. They were sipping on champagne, ignoring the plates of fresh strawberries and sandwiches in front of them. They were talking earnestly about something, and their closeness drove a hot needle into my heart, just precisely enough to cause the most amount of pain. Having suffered through many harsh realities from an early age, unrequited love was not something I was accustomed to. I was content with my solitary existence, for it kept the wolf from my door and my walls intact. It was what I wanted to return to, was it not? Mr. Rochester leaned close and whispered something into Blanche’s ear, and she laughed loudly, placing her delicate hand over her mouth. “Rocky!” she cried, swatting him when she’d recovered enough. “You’re positively wicked!” Despite my resolve to put him out of my heart and mind, I wondered if he kissed her like he’d kissed me. With passionate longing. Had I imagined it? It felt like a specter in my memory the more time and space was placed between that night and my current position. Perhaps he kissed her with a larger helping of passion since their match was more acceptable. At least I was sure he wouldn’t stop just as things were progressing and would take it all the way to his bedroom. My stomach twisted, and I felt a wave of nausea at the thought. “I suppose they’ll announce their engagement soon,” Alice said dreamily. No doubt she was imagining the wedding would take place on the back lawn before summer was over. Archways of red roses, rows of chairs with ribbons and sashes, a fine red carpet for Queen Bee to walk upon in her immaculate white dress, a thousand guests in fine suits and dresses, a twenty-piece string orchestra, and a ten-tiered wedding cake dusted with gold and Swiss chocolate. “She has connections, wealth, and strong family ties with the Rochester family,” she went on. “And just look at them! Aren’t they perfect together?” I didn’t answer her question, knowing anything I said would taste like razor blades. I could just leave, I thought. If the sight of them is causing me so much pain, I could tender my resignation and find a new position far away from here. But what would that achieve? I’d spent so much time and effort on the hotel, regardless of any praise I might have hoped to receive from Mr. Rochester. I couldn’t throw it all way. Turning my attention back to Blanche, I disregarded the master of Thornfield and mulled over what I knew about her. I’d been privy to her whims as a member of the staff and had observed her in her natural habitat. She was very showy, using her beauty and fine taste to set herself apart as Queen Bee of the pack, but she was not very genuine. She spoke about her dear friends like they were desperate hangers-on when their backs were turned, she belittled the staff, treating them like second-class citizens, and I had not once heard her pay a compliment which was not for her own benefit. Her mind was poor, her heart cold, and she was not original in the slightest. With the way she pranced about, I wondered if a free thought had appeared in her mind at all. She repeated phrases and opinions like a parrot but had never once formed a complete judgment on any topic that was entirely her own. No wonder Mr. Rochester was as unhappy as he seemed the night I first met him if this was the caliber of people he surrounded himself with. Perhaps it was arrogant of me to judge Blanche so harshly, but she hadn’t granted me any concessions in the slightest. What goes around comes around, or so they say. Turning away from the party, I took a step toward the house, but Alice called out to me, halting my stride. “Where are you going?” she asked. “To the office,” I replied, facing her. “I have work to do.” She cast an inquisitive eye over me. “Are you feeling okay? You look a little pale.” “The sun and my pale skin are at odds, I fear,” I lied. “I dare not stay out too long. Besides, while I have a spare moment, I have some work to complete on the retreat.” “Good thinking,” she said, not picking up on my heartsickness. “Go while you have a moment to breathe!” Knowing Alice loved to watch these fancy parties unfold and hear the gossip about who was on the outs with whom, I left her to gaze longingly at the finery and escaped into the office where I was at peace once more. The guests were only staying for another fortnight, and then they would disperse and go their separate ways until summer came around again. Perhaps next year, they’d spend the entirety of their downtime in Morocco or Spain. Even Greece was a favorite with the rich and famous. Once he was rid of them, I figured Mr. Rochester would go back to Europe—or wherever he spent his time tending to his business affairs—with Blanche on his arm and an impending wedding to plan. Then I would be left in blessed peace! As you know, reader, it was a blow every time I saw them together, but if they were gone, then I could begin the rebuilding of my heart and the walls that housed it. Please let them be married elsewhere. “Jane, there you are.” I glanced up from my work and trembled at the sight of Mr. Rochester, the sound of my name on his tongue reviving old wounds. He was addressing me? He brought the sweet scent of summer with him, and I raised my eyes as I drew in a breath. I studied the lines of his chest through the white fabric of his shirt before turning away. “Am I needed, sir?” I asked formally. “I needed a reprieve,” he admitted, lingering in the doorway. I didn’t reply, not that I knew what he wanted to hear, anyway. He looked over his shoulder into the gallery before moving into the room. “May I ask you a question, Jane?” “Yes, sir,” I replied, not willing to deny my employer. “I would ask your opinion of Blanche.” He may as well have slapped me around the face. I hid my hands underneath my legs as they began to tremble violently. If I had the nerve, I would scold him with all the vulgar worlds I could think of and throw his fickle attentions right back at him the way he’d thrown mine. “Why would my opinion matter?” I managed to ask. “I see your disdain, Jane. You are not so clever in hiding it. Not from me.” He leaned against the desk and crossed his arms over his chest. “I would have you tell me. Only you would dare say what I do not wish to see.” I ground my teeth together, turning away from him. “I have no opinion to impart on you, sir.” “Jane.” His tone was clear. He knew how to control my movements and loosen my tongue. He knew I was helpless under the will of his strength. How dare he assert his command over me! If it was my opinion he wished to hear, then hear it he would. Steeling my nerves, I glanced up at him and declared, “She is false.” It was the nicest and least offensive thing I could think of saying. Mr. Rochester’s lips pulled up at the side, a cunning smile overtaking his usual gloomy expression. I had no idea what it meant, which was nothing new at all. Had I told him exactly what he wished to hear or what he expected me to say? What was the use of it if he already presumed to know all the thoughts and opinions in my head? I had neither the confidence nor conviction to ask him, and he didn’t offer. And then just as abruptly as he appeared, he left me. 13 As the first week passed and the second began, Thornfield and its staff fell into a well-oiled rhythm. The guests went about their holiday, just as demanding as always. They delighted in outdoor activities and traditional English life that harkened back to the Victorian era—not the provincial lifestyle but the pursuits of the nobility. Hunting, walking, playing games of badminton on the lawn, sitting for fancy portraits or the modern instances of photography, sunbathing, swimming, and reading on tablets in the sunshine. Even when the weather changed and rain set in for days, no one seemed disappointed. Everyone moved indoors, much to Alice’s distress, and their activities became livelier because of it. Cocktail parties, movie nights, billiards tournaments, and high-roller card games, all played among a plume of cigar smoke from the men. Even though I disliked most of the guests for their haughty view of the world, it was not my place to voice it but to do my job and make them happy. I served their orders on a silver platter and organized their whims and fancies with no complaint even though my patience was wearing thin under the surface. They’d be gone soon enough, and things would return to their usual pace with enough time to recuperate for the artist retreat in autumn. Among all of this sat Mr. Rochester. I found myself studying him most of all when no one was looking, such was his presence to me. He was with them—betting the most money on the latest game of poker and winning it all back tenfold—but he was apart. I wasn’t sure how to describe the feeling that overcame me when I was beckoned close, only to fetch another drink or provide some information to settle whatever argument he was having at that precise moment. I watched him and thought I could unravel the meaning behind his actions. One thing I’d fast learned was when one fell for another, it was nigh on impossible to un-fall and find your own two feet. I had lost my control over my disposition toward Mr. Rochester a long time ago. I stood to one side of the sitting room, watching the rich amuse themselves, a silver tray in my hand. When I was beckoned, I circled the room and gathered empty glasses until it was full. I had nothing else that warranted my attention, so I was tasked with waitressing. For some reason, they felt larger when someone of importance among the staff cared for their whims. An on point person to direct all their grievances to, and today it was my turn. Once my tray was full, I slipped into the dining room. The air was clearer out here, the weight of my desire waning the further I removed myself from his presence. Turning to close the door behind me, I was startled to find Blanche Ingram glaring at me through the opening. She stepped forward, forcing me to retreat backward. I could see the look of annoyance in her blue eyes, and I began to quake as she directed it upon me. With a flourish, she closed the door. Then we were alone, away from prying eyes and ears. She had something to say, that much was clear, and I was going to hear it whether I wanted to or not. “What is your game?” she demanded. “Do you think you’re so important that you can love that which is mine?” I blinked, not knowing what else to do. I was shocked into a stupor. She thought I was going to attempt to steal Mr. Rochester from under her nose? What an absurd notion! I only wanted love if it was freely given because anything less was not worth the pain, which was probably why I kept my suffering in silence, willing my attraction to disappear. “You think I cannot see the way you look at him?” Blanche asked, her lip curling. “It’s detestable!” I kept my lips closed, and her perfect face contorted in annoyance. She was looking for a fight, which would give her ammunition to use in defaming me with Mr. Rochester. Either she was insecure in her standing with him or she simply delighted in tormenting those who were deemed easy targets in her eyes. It didn’t matter which was true. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction at all. When I didn’t reply, she gave her own account of my person. “You have no confidence, and you’re ordinary looking at best.” She reached out and lifted a strand of my wild, brown hair, and curled her nose. “Do you own a hairbrush, or do you like looking like that?” There was nothing wrong with my hair at all. It was wavy and long and saw a brush every morning and night. I just didn’t spend an hour each morning taming it with a straightening iron, sprays, and creams when I had work to attend. There was no crime being committed. Now if my occupation were gold digging the young and wealthy, then I suppose I’d douse myself in sweet-smelling tonics. “What are your accomplishments?” she demanded. I frowned. “My accomplishments?” “What can you offer him?” She rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue in annoyance. “A man like Edward needs more than just a woman.” I thought love was enough, but obviously it wasn’t. Not in this world. “Do you really think he would look at someone like you and prevail himself to marry? You are nothing.” Blanche laughed and shook her head, her black curls bouncing up and down with the movement. “Oh, darling. You’re a train wreck.” Her gaze dropped to the tray in my hands, and she smiled to herself. Moving closer, she raised her hand and deliberately knocked it from my grasp, the silver crashing to the floor. The sound of glass breaking echoed through the dining room, and her lips curved into a fake look of surprise. “Oops! You’d better clean that up. You servants are so clumsy. I think I shall have a word with your employer about this.” I narrowed my eyes but didn’t fall for her line. She was fake, vindictive, and just plain mean. She didn’t deserve Mr. Rochester’s hand or anybody’s for that matter. “If you’ll excuse me,” I said, once she had finished proclaiming her judgment. “I have duties to attend to.” I glanced at the floor, then back to her, my expression smooth and clear of the tears I knew would burst forth the moment I was alone. Her mouth fell open in surprise as I turned away. Not biting when she poked was a small victory, but underneath my mask, I was a wreck. What I wouldn’t do to show her how I really felt about her petty attack, but what would it solve? I would be turned out of Thornfield—alone and adrift once more—so there was nothing to gain but a momentary feeling of victory that would soon fade. I knew an empty fight when I saw one, so I turned my back and went into the kitchen to search for a cloth and dustpan, my nerves on edge. I shied away from confrontation on the best of days, and I’d usually feel sick after an event like that, and I’d expect it, but this felt much worse. My feelings, which I thought I’d kept under tight control, were on show for all to see. Blanche Ingram knew of my secret love, and the thought made me sick with worry. Queen Bee herself would go straight to Mr. Rochester, and how they’d laugh. “What was that noise?” one of the maids asked as I entered the kitchen totally flummoxed. “I dropped a tray,” I explained as I began haphazardly opening drawers looking for something to clean up the mess with. Finally, I found a new packet of dishcloths, and I ripped open the bag, my hands shaking. “You dropped a tray?” she inquired, looking confused. My head cleared enough that I recognized Bessie before me. “I dropped a tray,” I said, air-quoting and rolling my eyes. “I see,” she said thinly, gesturing for the cloth. “Let me handle that. You go and get some fresh air.” “It’s fine,” I said thinly. “I can do it.” It was fine. Blanche had told me nothing I didn’t already know. Poor little plain Jane Doe. Bessie didn’t want to hear my excuses, so I acquiesced as she forced the cloth from my hands. “Don’t let that piece of work get you down, Jane. We’re all in this together. Take a break, and I’ll cover for you.” My shoulders sank, and I nodded. “Thank you, Bessie.” “Here.” She fished around in her apron pocket and pulled out a little bottle of brown spirits. With a good-natured wink, she forced it into my hand. “Get that into you.” With that, I was ushered out the back door and into the wild outdoors beyond. Crossing the graveled driveway, I lingered in the garden, working my way around the rear of the house. Everyone was inside, so I was left well enough alone, my footsteps quiet on the path through the manicured flowerbeds. The garden was quiet under the shadow of the west wing. The facade crumbled behind me, ensnarled by many years of torment from the climbing roses, which looked as wild as I felt. Above, the sky was gray, threatening more rain in its wake. The grass glistened with thousands of tiny droplets from the early morning showers that had doused the land around me. Finding a quiet corner, I sat on a stone bench, relishing the silence. The air was cool against my skin, and I could feel the lingering moisture as I drew in breath after breath. Unscrewing the cap from the tiny bottle of whiskey Bessie had given me, I sipped at the liquid. While it warmed me from the inside out and calmed my nerves a little, all I could think about was the fateful kiss that had triggered all of this pain and longing. Studying the label, I read all of the information presented and then proceeded to run my thumbnail over the edges of the sticker, peeling it away from the glass. It did nothing to soothe my spiraling mind, so I watched a tiny robin sift through the garden bed before me, scattering dirt and debris over the path. What a simple life that tiny bird must have! I felt envious of the little creature, which was absurd! Perhaps in my next life I could request to come back as a house cat, for I was not cut out to be a human in the traditional sense of the word. I wondered over my existence then as I was known to do when life had given me a blow. I’d been knocked on my backside, my tender heart reeling once more. If I should die and still be as solitary as I am now, I should hope that I’ve lived a full life. Love wasn’t the be all of human existence, was it? If I could stand on my own two feet, be of sound mind and heart, and haven’t squandered the life that had been given to me on selfish pursuits, then was that enough to satisfy? Certainly, it was to some people, but was it enough for me? In my old age, would I miss the things I never had at all? Would I fear never having another to love, or would I just be disappointed when all chances had passed unfruitful? I guess I wouldn’t know until I was standing on the threshold of the next life, and by then, it would be too late. A house cat it was. I knew one thing, and if it was a comfort, at that moment, when my heart was delicate from its many rejections in as many weeks, I wasn’t sure. But it was something, and I held onto it like a raft in a stormy ocean. I have lived too near the coldness of the living to be afraid of the icy fingers of death. 14 Mr. Rochester summoned me the following evening. After almost two weeks of being rendered invisible by his eyes, I was shocked to say the least. Then as the events of the previous afternoon swirled into the forefront of my mind once more, I began to feel ill. I was going to be cast out of Thornfield, and all because of the fickle whims of Blanche Ingram. How easily a life as little as mine could be upturned and broken. Standing outside his study, my heart beat painfully against my rib cage, and my nerves were shattered. My fear had returned stronger than ever, and the unknown stretched before me, dark and bleak. Knowing I couldn’t avoid his wrath, I knocked lightly on the door, my mind already pondering which direction I would turn once I reached the road in the morning. Would I go as far south as London? Or north to Scotland and Edinburgh? Or even more north to the wild solitude of the Isle of Skye? “Enter.” I trembled at the sound of Mr. Rochester’s voice and opened the door. His back was to me, and the curtains were open, letting in the last of the summer sun as it disappeared over the horizon. The fading colors haloed his formidable form, and I took a deep breath before continuing. “Sir?” I asked, stepping into the room. “I’ve been made aware of the incident with you and Blanche,” he said directly, not turning to face me. I closed the door behind me, and the study felt like it was shrinking in on itself. Strength, Jane. “You have nothing to say about it?” I remained silent, unsure how to proceed. Was I being reprimanded? I didn’t understand why he’d bothered to summon me if I wasn’t. “Jane,” he said harshly, and this time, he turned his gaze upon me. I faltered, beginning to feel like I’d been called to the principal’s office at Lowood and was about to be punished. His stare was guarded, but I imagined I could see a little anger in the swirls of his irises, though at whom it was directed, I couldn’t tell. “I’m asking for your explanation,” he said, prompting me to action. “I’m deserving of it given my birth, social status, and lack of wealth. It is the way of things.” The words ate away at my tongue like I’d dipped it in acid. I couldn’t hold his gaze, so I lowered it to the floor. “I never spoke out of turn. I took all her words as gracefully as I could.” Once, I would’ve fought tooth and nail for my liberties, but the longer I was subjected to the presence of the rich and beautiful in this house, the more I realized my fight was futile. I would never be seen as their equal. I was smaller and more powerless than I could have ever imagined. “Do you seek her approval?” he asked, taking a single step toward me. I frowned at his question. I hadn’t considered looking at it that way before. “Well?” Mr. Rochester prodded. “You are too silent for my liking, Jane. What have you done with your spirit?” “I don’t need anyone’s approval,” I declared, returning my gaze to his. Least of all yours! I was too afraid to utter the last part. “Then why do you care what Blanche, or any one of those people downstairs, think of you?” “It’s the way of things,” I replied, avoiding the question. “Why do you give in so easily?” “Yes, their words hurt, but it’s only a temporary thing. I don’t care because it’s the way the world works. They are rich, and I am poor.” I shrugged, becoming uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken. “Why should I try to be seen as anything more than their slave when they’ll be gone in a fortnight? I’ll be forgotten one minute after they drive away. I am plain, little, and poor. I know this.” Mr. Rochester snorted. “Therein lies the world’s greatest dilemma. Class lines. Who dares cross them?” The way he proclaimed it, I wondered if it was his dilemma. “It’s not my place to debate the way the rich live their lives. I’ve never experienced it, so I have nothing to compare it to. I’m happy with what I have. It’s when you get more than you need that the problems seem to begin.” “So you don’t mind being treated poorly?” “No.” It was a lie, and at its root was the man before me. He threw his hands into the air. “So why do you hide your tears, Jane?” I blinked hard. “Hide my…” “You are cold, sick, and silly, Miss Doe,” he proclaimed. My mouth fell open. “Excuse me?” He prowled closer. “You are cold because you are alone despite being surrounded by people. You are sick because the thing you want the most keeps far away from you. And you are silly because you don’t fight for it. When will you wake up, Jane?” He was right. I knew exactly how I’d been acting since the night he returned, but I didn’t like being told so. Somehow, I believed I had to be accepted by his rich friends to be considered worthy of his hand. I believed he’d pulled away because I wasn’t socially acceptable. It was an easier reason to hold onto than the thought I wasn’t good enough on a physical and mental level. Mr. Rochester sank down onto the chair by the dark fireplace, a look of exhaustion about his eyes. “If I were to suddenly become abhorrent to them and they scorned me as they scorned the poor with what little heart they have, what would you do, Jane?” “What would I do?” I didn’t understand what had prompted his line of questioning. “Would you turn your back on me and treat me as you have been treated?” His gaze was almost desperate as he sought my answer. I shook my head, completely bewildered. “I would not turn my back on any friend who was in genuine need, no matter their station.” His shoulders sank, and he lowered his gaze. “I owe you an apology, it seems.” “What for?” His lips quirked into the ghost of a smile, but he didn’t explain. “I have been heartbroken before, Jane,” he said instead. “I’m not as easily led as I was when I was a young man. I cannot give myself freely, not without certainty. I cannot leap on faith alone. In truth, I’m not sure I’m able to love again. Would companionship of mind and body be enough without the heart?” I stilled as I considered this. He exuded a presence of strength and certainty, but in the matter of his heart and happiness, he was almost fearful. If he’d been wronged in the past, then he had reason to be as closed as he was. He watched me closely as I thought over this, but he was too impatient to hear my thoughts. “Do you think the one I would entrust my closely guarded heart with has passed all my tests?” It was none of my concern who he gave his word of marriage to. If Blanche was who he wanted, then she wouldn’t decline. Who was I to think I was in the running? Still, he waited to hear my opinion. I considered each word carefully as I spoke them. “If she is noble in her intent, is of similar rank and wealth, and there is no barrier to the union, then I don’t see an issue.” “Who do you think I speak of, Jane?” he asked, looking perplexed. “Why, Blanche of course,” I replied haughtily. “It is quite clear you make a fine match. In looks, temperament, and wealth.” He stood, the chair almost falling over at the abruptness of his movement. His stern features were full of his familiar brand of swirling rage, and I began to shrink underneath the pressure of his gaze. I had angered him, but he had been torturing me for weeks. He deserved it! “If only you knew,” he said cryptically. “Then you would not say those things to me.” “But I don’t know, Mr. Rochester. So what is the point of this?” “Do not think yourself clever, Jane,” he snapped. “You call me that to separate yourself from me.” I was no longer afraid of revealing my hurt at his rejection, nor did I care about jeopardizing my position. I would not be toyed with. “And what of it?” I asked harshly. “You cast me aside, and so it was done.” “You have such little regard for yourself?” he asked, towering over me, his broad shoulders casting an arrow of doubt into my resolve. “You, Jane, who has so much spirit would back down and wither away inside yourself? What for?” My mouth flapped uselessly as I attempted to solve his riddle. “I’m asking… What would Jane Doe do to secure my happiness?” “Me?” His eyes fixed upon me and held, his aura pulling at mine like a magnet. “You.” “I wouldn’t know,” I said, my eyes misting with tears. “You walked away from me with no explanation. All that I am wasn’t enough, and you and your friends have delighted in reminding me every single day since. I tire of your games and riddles. I cannot take it anymore!” His expression softened, and it was a curious thing to behold. “Are you so fixed upon your own dire conclusions you don’t see how I long for you?” My heart twisted as I fought the sudden desire to fling myself into his arms. “You mock me!” “I’m beholden to the burden of my name, and it is a terrible weight that I cannot leave behind, not for want of trying, but I struggle, Jane. Then came the spirit who knocked me off my motorcycle and breathed air into my starved lungs, and through her sharp tongue, she brought life back into my cold body.” “But you despise me!” “You argue and war with yourself, so you can’t see,” he went on. “You challenge me like no other, Jane. Do you understand how much you ire me?” “That is longing for you?” I asked incredulously. “Annoyance and anger?” “You challenge me,” he said again. “Do you think any of those women are anything but followers? They say whatever it takes to placate and earn my favor. That, to me, is stagnation, Jane.” “But…” I shook my head. “You… I’m not…” “I understand.” His brow furrowed. “I cannot have you, not on the surface, but I want you nonetheless.” My knees buckled, and I fell onto the couch, feeling faint. If this was a ruse, it was elaborate indeed! “You transfix me,” he murmured, sitting beside me. His hand found mine, the connection sending a bolt of lightning through my body and into my heart, jump-starting the failing organ. “You…” I began, but I couldn’t finish. “I have seen the soul that lingers behind your eyes, and I want to possess it.” His voice was a whisper, a promise, a threat. “I must protect myself,” I muttered. “You accuse me of bewitching you on the road, but you are the master.” He seemed rather pleased with my answer, and he smiled. Not a smile full of joy and pleasure but one of triumph and longing. “Don’t fight me, Jane,” he said, tightening his grip on my hand. “I must have you.” “Mercilessly?” I asked as he edged closer. His answer wasn’t words, it was a kiss, his lips meeting mine in a soft embrace. The same desire that had overcome my body the first night he’d laid his hands on me flowed through my veins and overloaded my nerves, and I melted into his touch. Parting my lips, his tongue dove against mine and delight shifted into pure passion. Easing me backward, I lay flat on the couch as he lowered his body over mine, propping up his bulk with his elbow. My legs parted, one foot falling to the floor as I felt him harden against me. “Jane,” he murmured, his gaze searching mine. “I am yours,” I replied. “I couldn’t fight you now even if I wished.” His lips curved into a smile as his fingers began undoing the buttons of my blouse. “Good. I couldn’t stop myself now. The beast has been unleashed, and he must taste you…” I shuddered against him, his wicked words speaking deeper to me than anything he’d ever murmured before. He reached behind his neck and pulled his T-shirt over his head, discarding it onto the floor, and then resumed work on my blouse. Boldly, I ran my palms over his torso, feeling his muscles beneath my palms. His body was magnificent. He was rough and wild, chiseled out of stone, and made of flesh before me. The last button came undone, and my blouse opened, revealing me to his greedy eyes. He stared at me for a long moment, his fingers tracing the edges of my bra and brushing against the swell of my breasts. This felt different to last time. Then, he’d been wild and passionate, hardly containing himself, and now he relished and savored each touch, knowing I wasn’t going to flee his tyranny. This time, he was sure of himself and his intent. I was at his mercy as he tugged the cups of my bra down and exposed me, his thumbs rubbing against my taught nipples. The sensation of his hands, the master’s hands, against my naked skin was exquisite. Forgetting myself, I arched my back and urged his touch to deepen just as his kiss had. Instead of his hands taking me, he lowered his lips and pulled me into his mouth, his teeth dragging against my skin. The sharp burst of pain was nothing compared to the pleasure that coursed through my body and splintered between my legs, and when his tongue soothed the hurt, the euphoria only rose. He moved to the other breast, repeating his torturous dance, and then his mouth moved between where he placed a soft kiss. Then his trail moved lower and lower until he reached my stomach. His gaze flickered up to mine as his fingers tugged at the hem of my skirt, and I was pleased I’d chosen it that morning over a pair of jeans. The weather had called for it, and as luck would have it, it provided splendid access. My eyes fluttered closed as his fingers hooked around my underwear and tugged, removing the last barrier between him and what he desired the most in that moment. Edward moaned as he palmed my thighs, opening my legs farther, and my eyes opened. I was shocked to see the expression on his face, for it wasn’t wild desire, anger, or a will to dominate. No, it was pure longing, and my heart twisted. His hands moved closer, my skin heating under his touch, then he lightly traced over me, pleasure fluttering through me, but it wasn’t enough. Lost in my own version of longing, I pushed against him, begging for the relief only he could give me. These long months, my own hand was a poor substitute, my fantasies empty without the real man before me. Relief had been fleeting. Kneeling on the floor, Edward tugged me closer, forcing my legs apart, and then… His tongue laved along me and settled, sending lightning bolts ricocheting through my body. From head to toe, I was alight, then burning brightly without end as his fingers entered me and began stroking. My hands found my breasts and began kneading, my mind lost in the storm of sensation that was of Edward’s making. Was I moaning? Crying his name? Pleading and begging for more? I didn’t know, and I scarcely cared that my facade had crumbled under his onslaught. All that mattered, and existed, was feeling. His movements quickened, and I thrust against his touch, the wildness inside me breaking free and running rampant. My blood thrummed through my veins, my heart beating a tattoo in my ears I was sure he could hear. It was his doing. All of it. The moment I’d risen to unbearable heights, I fell, coming against his tongue and over his fingers while he delighted in his triumph. I fisted my hands in his hair, holding him in place as his teeth bit down, and I shuddered violently. Never had my pleasure lasted so long. Never had a man worshiped my body with his mouth like Edward. When he appeared over me, I pulled him down, relishing his weight against my body after such euphoric sensation. “Exquisite,” he murmured, his lips claiming mine. He kissed me deeply, his palm rubbing my cleft softly as his tongue wrapped around mine. It was not in my nature to receive and not give, so my hands found the hem of his jeans and fumbled for his zipper. “Jane,” he said against my lips, and I stilled underneath him. He didn’t want… “But…” I began, my fingers curling around the belt loops of his jeans and tugging him closer. “Shh,” he murmured, removing his hand from me and wrapping it around my wrist. “That is satisfying enough for now. I just wanted to see you…” “And you have seen it all,” I replied, my eyelids feeling heavy. “Do I still transfix you?” “Quite,” was his reply. 15 The next morning, I awoke in my own bed. My skin thrummed from Edward’s touch, my thighs feeling tender. Rolling over, I slid out of bed and wandered into the bathroom, turning on the shower. Removing the battered singlet I slept in, I studied my nakedness in the mirror as the water heated. The space was usually oppressive in its smallness, but this morning, everything seemed to glow. I’d entirely forgotten about Blanche Ingram’s haughty claim over the man who’d worshiped my body and had not forced me to pleasure in return. Edward Rochester was a gloomy sort of man, but underneath, he was a being of light. He hid as much of himself from the world as I did, and I suppose we had that in common at least. That and our bodies delighted in one another’s like none before them. My pleasure had dictated his. It was a strange concept and so were his parting words. “Jane, you must keep this a secret.” “This?” I’d inquired, attempting to be flippant and not at all as needy as I felt. I remembered how his hand had felt against my cheek as we’d lingered by the study door, and I could still feel his lips against mine. He’d said in parting, “One taste and already I thirst for more.” I was listless as I’d gathered myself, and any word he spoke to me was taken without complaint. I didn’t like keeping our newfound status secret, but I was desperate to keep him close. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure what to label our relationship. Liaison, affair, those were all fairly accurate words if I was to be a secret. Still, his words hinted there would be more, and I clung to the hope of feeling his touch once more. I was addicted in the best, and worst, possible way. I was a slave to Edward Rochester. Staring at my reflection, I ran my fingertips over my lips and studied my eyes. Then I lowered my touch to my breasts, reliving the moment he’d drawn my nipple into his mouth and bit. He’d been aroused by my body. Mine. Jane Doe was poor and little, but she didn’t feel so plain anymore. Then as I turned away from myself and stepped under the stream of water, I decided upon something scandalous. A new leaf, a new challenge, a new chapter, a new beginning. All my life I’d collected wounds. I’d carried around those marks as a sign of my strength as if I’d created them myself. It was my doing, so I must bear the weight of their consequences, never to cast blame on another. But all of it was a lie I told myself to justify the person I’d become because it was easier to walk through life solitary and alone, than to make lasting connections. Life came with all kinds of emotions…happiness, sorrow, love, anguish, loss. They worked in symbiosis with the universe. You couldn’t have light without the darkness. It was scientifically impossible. To shut out one of these celestial ingredients meant to close oneself to life’s beauty entirely. Today would be the day I shed my skin and stepped out of the lie. Today would be the day I made peace with my wounds and wore them with pride, for they had made me who I was today. Today would be my true beginning. I walked around Thornfield in a haze of happiness that morning. I was born anew, my shower time affirmation and the relief my body had sustained breathing new life into the dreary place my heart had become. Even Blanche’s withering glares as she’d passed me in the main gallery on her way to breakfast, bounced off my back leaving me unharmed. A secret was all Edward was able to give me, and for now, it was enough. It was more than I’d ever had, so I was placated for the time being. I didn’t want to know what lay in wait beyond it, so I ignored the misgivings, which had already begun to pull at the corners of my mind. Summer would be over soon, then he would go back to Paris, or wherever he went when he was away, and I would be alone once more. Would he still want me then? Would he go off and find someone else to replace me in my absence? Shaking my head, I continued on my path down the lonely halls of the hotel, scolding myself for letting my thoughts turn so quickly. Everyone was outside in the garden for lunch, so I took the time to assist housekeeping in checking on the rooms while they lay empty. Third floor, east wing, was my domain until the early afternoon, and I was content to absorb the silence while the chance was upon me. I could let my mind wander a little and daydream about the night before like a wicked lovesick mistress. That was why I was oblivious when I was set upon. An arm wrapped around my stomach, and I was flung behind the heavy crimson curtain, which covered one set of the hall windows, and tumbled onto the cushioned seat in a heap. Righting myself, my heart beat wildly as I saw Edward kneeling before me. A smile was on his face, a smile like none I’d ever seen, and I marveled at the change in his features. Before I could scold him for frightening me half to death, he leaned over and caught my mouth in a blistering kiss. We were hidden by swaths of crimson, and the window was high enough that it only revealed the blue sky beyond, though if we rose any higher, any soul who happened to glance up would see our embrace. It made our liaison even more thrilling. “Rocky!” I exclaimed, forgetting myself as my heart began to calm. His body was hard against mine as he chuckled. Another curiosity brought to life! “Rocky?” he asked. “I like it when you call me sir or Edward, but Rocky shall suffice.” I slapped my hand over my mouth, my cheeks beginning to heat. “Don’t worry yourself, Jane,” he said, his eyes sparkling. “I know Alice calls me that behind my back. I don’t care for it, but you…” He glanced at my lips, his brow furrowing and a little of his darkness returning. “You are free to call me what you wish when I am to kiss you.” “Is that so, master?” I asked, my mask slipping just for him. Wrapping his arms around me, his mouth was against mine, his tongue forcing its way inside. Just as his touch became too much to bear in such a tiny space, he tore his lips away and pressed his cheek against mine. “Mon chèr maître,” he whispered into my ear. “Jane!” We stilled as the sound of Alice’s voice echoed down the hall. “Jane, are you up here?” Edward placed his palm over my mouth and shook his head. “Be quiet, Jane,” he whispered into my ear as he pulled me onto his lap, and there we sat, hidden in the window seat, caught in each other’s embrace as Alice Fairfax searched the entire third floor for me. I could feel his hardening crotch against my rear as we sat in silence, my body trembling at the thought of being discovered. His lips brushed against my neck, the tip of his tongue teasing my skin. I gasped as his touch firmed, and when his index finger found my lips in an attempt to silence me, I sucked it into my mouth and laved my tongue along his length. This time, it was his turn to moan, his chest rumbling against my arm. “Tonight,” he muttered into my ear as he removed his finger from where I’d captured it, much to my disappointment. “When all is quiet, come to the library. I’ll be waiting for you.” I wriggled in his lap, aching at the thought of another liaison after dark, and his expression twisted in agony. He was hard and wanting, but there was nothing we could do about it now, not when Alice was probably tearing apart Thornfield searching for me. Fisting his hand into the hair at the nape of my neck, he forced my mouth to his. His lips were hard against mine with a promise of more to come. My fingers danced a trail across his jaw, memorizing the line of it, and delighted in the harsh stubble. It was a strange sensation touching him like this after feeling as if my affections were unrequited. His mask was fixed in place. So well, he’d hidden his true intentions without tipping off anyone. “Tonight?” he asked again, his eyes full of hope and desire. I nodded, unable to do anything else. He’d stolen my breath. Slipping off his lap, I peered through the curtains. Finding the hallway empty, I emerged from our hiding place, but instead of continuing my earlier path, I diverted to go find Alice. With every step, I felt the distance open between Edward and I. My body tingled with a coldness I’d never felt before as if separating from him had severed all ability to function. Still, I could feel a tugging at the corners of my heart, urging me toward his gravitational field, and wherever he was in Thornfield, I was sure I would find him if I followed the thread. As I searched for the illusive Alice, I heard the sounds of the luncheon outside and began to falter. When Edward and I were alone, the world didn’t matter. It fell away until we were the only two people who inhabited its surface, then… Then there were judgments, expectations, money, and power—all things I couldn’t live up to, let alone comprehend. Descending the stairs, I couldn’t help letting in the twinge of doubt that prickled at the back of my mind. The doubt that said I’d just become Edward Rochester’s secret mistress. Dear reader, I had to go to Edward. I was powerless against his word and the spell his touch had woven over my mind and body, and the promise of more had me wishing away the minutes until I could steal myself into his embrace. The day was spent in agony, and my nerves were on edge as I wiled away the hours at dinner. Alice shot me curious glances whenever I fidgeted, but she never asked what the matter was. The staff was too embroiled in recounting the scandalous gossip from the luncheon. Mr. Rochester had disappeared and had not returned until later that afternoon. I knew where he’d been, of course, but that was a secret too hallowed to repeat, even to myself in the privacy of my own room. I smiled to myself as they threw about theories and evidence. His driver hadn’t taken him anywhere. He hadn’t gone out to the moors to shoot. He hadn’t been in his rooms. He hadn’t been in a business meeting. It was if he’d hidden away someplace so he could spy on the unsuspecting staff. What a scandal! Bessie had said Queen Bee had her nose all out of joint because her handsome and powerful boyfriend was nowhere to be seen and had caused quite the scene. At this revelation, I’d almost choked on my roast beef. Boyfriend. They all expected Blanche and Edward to marry within the year. They were a terrible match, and I couldn’t see him being happy with her at all, but their union was to be expected. Not just from the staff of Thornfield but both their families and society at large. Blanche Ingram would be Blanche Rochester before long, and where did that leave me? As darkness descended on Thornfield and the halls quieted as its staff and guests went to bed, I developed an ulcer on my heart. I crept through the halls, silent as a whisper as I forged a path toward the study. I felt the pull of the invisible string tethering me to the master of Thornfield drawing me ever closer, and dread mingled with the longing his touch earlier that day had ignited. I lingered outside the door, taking a moment to gather myself, but when I entered, it all came crashing down. Edward was alone and waiting, just as he’d promised, but my resolve had turned and fled the moment it needed to be called upon. It was my turn to feel gloomy and morose as I entered the room, closing the door behind me. His being had cleared of all darkness, but his cloud had moved on to me, blocking out the radiance I should be feeling in his presence. His gaze met mine, and all at once, I began to melt. “Jane, what is the matter?” he asked, rising to his feet. “You wish for me to be with you?” I asked directly, leaning my back against the door. His gaze fixed on mine, burning a hole through my flesh and exposing my soul. He crossed the room, standing before me with all the power he had mustered, and reached past my waist. There was a click as he turned the key in the lock, and I was caged. “I do not play games, Jane,” he murmured, remaining firm in his stance. “I would not have touched you if it were. I can be a sour man, I know this, but I wouldn’t treat you so.” “You regard this…” “Sacred.” “And what of Blanche?” I asked cordially. His eyes narrowed, giving away his annoyance. “What of her?” “Everyone expects you to marry before the year is out,” I replied, disliking myself immediately for my jealousy. “Jealousy becomes you, Jane,” he said, pressing against me. “But don’t worry yourself over her.” My back flattened against the door as his body melded against mine. “I cannot help it. She singles me out for torment. She knows I…” “Even if I were destitute, I would not stoop to marry Blanche. Not even if she were the richest woman in the world.” I stilled at his words, trying to formulate a response, but he wasn’t done yet. “You said to me that money was of little consequence, Jane. You said many things that surprised me and took me off guard. Someone of your position… You value thoughts and feelings. Enrichment of the soul. Blanche values vanity and greed and delights in tormenting those she deems as below her. How could I give myself to someone like her?” “I…” “Jane, you hesitate still,” he said. “You must tell me what you’re thinking. All your thoughts and dreams. Every last shred, no matter how wild and inconceivable, I must know them.” I was uncertain, lost in a heaving ocean of overwhelming desire. “You want me and only me?” “Yes.” It was a simple answer, but it didn’t tell me the whole story. Trusting another human being, a man I’d given the greatest gift of all to—my love—was not a simple task. Not for I, who had been alone and solitary all my life. Opening my heart and soul to this man was the greatest battle I’d ever fought with myself. “I still don’t understand,” I muttered as his lips brushed against my neck. “You were so abrupt that night in the library.” “I was at war with myself,” he stated like it was a given. “And who has won?” “You are not plain,” he said, avoiding my question with the skill of a master. “You are little, but I wouldn’t use that word. You are delicate…” A shudder flowed through my body as his teeth grazed the crook of my neck. “Edward…” He fisted his hands in my hair and urged my head to the side. “And wild.” “Men who are attracted to wildness usually want to tame it,” I retorted, curling his shirt in my fingers and tugging it from his trousers. His teeth bit softly into my skin, and his lips soothed the flesh—pain, then pleasure. Tiny amounts. “Why would I tame you, Jane?” he asked, his breath hot against my neck. “I would cherish your spirit and allow it to grow unhindered.” “So I’m not a trophy?” “No, you are not. You’re a treasure. My treasure.” So he desired to own me and exert his power. “But I am a secret?” I argued, attempting to stay afloat before the raging current of our desire dragged me under. He stilled, his breath hot against my cheek and his crotch hard against my thigh. “I am not a simple man, Jane. I can only give what I have to offer. This is what I have. It is all I have. I will not force you to take it, but I hope you will. I desire you above all else. In this, I am certain.” “You offer me pleasure, enrichment, challenge…” “I offer you my soul, Jane. All the parts of it I can give.” I softened, my uncertainty fading. Be strong, Jane. Step out of the lie, and wear your wounds with pride. “So we are clear,” I began slowly, my hands coming to rest on his shoulders. “This is a secret affair of the body and soul? And while this affair transpires, you and I shall have no other?” “Yes,” he replied. “To all accounts. So, what say you, Jane?” I already knew my answer. Knowing the parameters our liaison would take hadn’t done much to please me, but I was enamored with him. I was so deeply entangled that there was no way out. If I removed myself from his arms, it would be akin to death, but to remain… I might not have the entirety of his love, but it was better than the bleak horizon of nothing at all. Foolishly, I dove into the ocean and drowned. “Yes,” I said, bewitched, entranced, beguiled. “I agree.” We kissed then, our tongues hungry as they twined around one another, our hands grasping for flesh. When he pulled away and carried me to the couch, his smile was a fine reward for my agreement. His lips set my body on fire once more, causing my wetness to grow, and I gave in to his expert ministrations. As I reveled in his touch, I cast away my fears and settled. A bargain had been struck, the contract signed, and where before had been a mere dalliance, now the affair had truly begun. After his hands had stripped me of my clothes, his tongue dipped between my legs, and I was delivered to the same heights as the night before. His fingers inside me, my taste on his lips, his desire plain to see. I was his to do with as he wished. His slave. Edward gave me all the pleasure he was able to summon, and again, he took none for himself. “You won’t let me please you?” I asked as he lay on the couch with me afterward. “You won’t take it from me?” He shook his head, his hands roaming over my nakedness. His chest was bare, and the feel of his skin against my sensitive breasts was heaven. “Why?” “Shh,” he crooned. “Let me look at you.” “But…” “Jane, you fret too much,” he muttered, his jaw brushing against the swell of my breast. “Your mind is keen, and sometimes, it is too sharp. Be still.” “Who will relieve your agony?” I asked. “You will,” he whispered. “Soon. When I am inside you, it will be better than this. Away from them. Away from…” He stilled, his brow darkening, a storm cloud beginning to assemble on the horizon. “You said some words in French to me today,” I murmured, attempting to turn the tide of conversation to smoother waters. “What did they mean?” “Mon chèr maître,” he said. “The only master I’ve ever known.” “And who is your master?” I asked, trembling against his chest. His eyes drooped, some of his power seeming to fade. “I scarcely know.” My heart swelled, and I buried my body closer to him, my hands wrapping around his waist. He was tormented by some demon, which was far beyond my understanding. I knew he would react badly if I pressed, such was his unpredictable nature, and I was too fearful to do a single thing that would alienate me from him, so I let him be. Perhaps my closeness would soothe some of the sting his thoughts caused. If he needed help taming this unknown beast, he would come to me in time. Who was I to claim ownership over his sorrow after two passionate nights in his arms? If I was a balm for his soul, then I was glad to apply myself. “Rocky?” I asked, lifting my head so I could see him. He mumbled something, his eyelids heavy with sleep. “When you want me… Mercilessly…” I swallowed hard, my heart beginning to thrum wildly at my bold gesture. “I will be waiting.” His hand slipped between my legs, his finger finding its way inside. “I will have you, Jane. I will.” 16 I’d always liked Thornfield in a way. It was a dreary place in winter, but it still held many adventures in its halls and grounds despite the quiet among the gloomy ice. In summer, it had come alive with color and life and was pleasant enough, but it was nothing compared to the secret affair I held with Edward Rochester. I liked Thornfield very much now I’d found companionship, no matter how unorthodox. “Oh, Jane, there you are,” Alice said, flittering into the office. “Am I wanted?” I asked, looking up from my work. We were working through getting Thornfield listed on some online booking sites, and I was organizing a photographer to come and take professional shots for the listings. The screen before me had several tabs open displaying the portfolios of several local artists who would be fine choices for the job. It was quite a chore, and we would have to dress and stage several rooms once our current round of guests had departed. “Rocky has commanded you to attend dinner this evening,” Alice declared, sitting beside me. Her gaze burned a hole in the side of my face as she scrutinized my reaction. “What?” I asked, turning to face her. “Why?” Sitting through a dinner stiff with pomp and ceremony was definitely not part of our agreement. It was certainly not working in favor of secrecy. I wondered what his game was, but who was I to question it? He was the master. Alice shrugged. “He just told me to tell you that you were expected.” I sighed heavily, not liking it one bit. I hadn’t been summoned like this since that horrible evening in the sitting room. I thought I’d been exempted from such frivolity. “He’s very much changed these last few days,” she went on, fishing for some gossip. “He is?” I asked, sinking back into my chair. “I’ve hardly had any time to notice.” “Something has changed his demeanor for the better. He is less angry than he usually is. The gloom and doom seems to have been removed from his shoulders somewhat. I’m not sure what it is. Have you noticed the way he ignores Blanche?” I forced a frown onto my face lest I get up and cheer in triumph. “Really?” “I’m not sure why,” she went on. “All of a sudden, they seem quite removed from one another.” “Perhaps he’s realized he doesn’t love her and is happy for the clear mind,” I offered. Edward had told me as much a few nights ago when he’d told me of his feelings. She was a poor match even though society told them they were compatible in every way. Well, society, with its strict rules of bloodlines and wealth, had it wrong. Alice gave me a curious look. “I suppose…” “If they aren’t to marry, then I would think she’d be done with him after this summer,” I went on. “She wouldn’t be visiting Thornfield as his wife, either.” She stared at me, her expression changing. “No more fanciful orders.” She laughed, her expression changing to one of pure joy. “Oh, I surely hope so, Jane!” “And we would have a great deal more rooms to fill, and that means more profit.” I clicked through the portfolios on the computer. “Thornfield is such a grand hotel. It’s a shame it sits empty most of the year.” Alice looked at me, then at the computer and frowned. “Have you anything to wear?” My fingers froze mid-click as I began to contemplate the event I’d been commanded to attend. Formal, silver service, four courses of artfully arranged food with names I scarcely remembered, one-hundred-year-old wines, conversation, showing off… What was Edward up to? “Work will keep,” Alice said, turning my chair away from the computer. “Have you something to wear?” I shook my head. Of course, I didn’t have anything appropriate. My staple was boots, jeans or the odd skirt, and a blouse or T-shirt. It was only thanks to Alice’s influence that the skirt had come out of my bag at all. “Then come,” she commanded, pulling me up. “My closet awaits.” “Were you a fairy godmother in a past life?” I asked as she led me up the stairs. “Don’t worry, Jane,” she declared with a twirl. “I’ve got your back.” Alice had my back in the fashion department, but when it came to the actual attendance, I was on my own. Standing in the dining room as waiters hurried back and forth, I wished with all my might that the floor would open up and swallow me whole. Running my damp palms across my waist, I began to fret my outfit wasn’t right. The mauve dress Alice loaned me that afternoon—bless her Narnia-like closet—was nice enough even though it wasn’t something I’d choose to wear. It was cinched at the waist, the skirt flared out in a soft ruffle, the shoulders capped delicately, and the neckline was modest, just low enough to show off my collarbone. A small silver necklace finished off the ensemble, a dainty little faux-diamond sitting in the hollow of my throat. There’d been so much fanfare over my wild mess of hair that in the end, Alice had drawn a comb through it and made an artful yet messy braid that fell forward over my shoulder. The lipstick that coated my lips felt alien, and I resisted the urge to lift my hand and wipe it off. My gaze caught Bessie’s across the table, and she smiled reassuringly. It was only dinner… My hands began to shake as the full reality of the evening to come was set before me. Silver service with all of Edward’s friends and their hangers-on staring at me as if I were a curiosity on exhibition. Most of all, I’d have to endure dinner in Blanche Ingram’s presence. “I wonder why he asked for you,” Bessie said, not noticing my rising hysteria as she set the silverware out. She picked up a fork, polished it, and then set it in its rightful place before moving on to the next. “It’s very curious.” “It’s a mystery to me,” I replied, staring at the place settings. “I’d rather be eating in the kitchen as I usually do.” Where was I to sit? Would I have to converse with the guests? It was the proper thing to do. I’d never been to a silver service dinner before. I knew what all the forks and spoons were for after having worked on the bottom rungs in a kitchen or two soon after leaving Lowood, but I’d never been a guest. It was madness. “Breathe, Jane,” Bessie said kindly. “It’s an odd night indeed, but you will do just fine. These people will be gone by next weekend, and they’ll forget all of us the moment they walk through that front door with their bags packed. They’re a flighty bunch. Pay their shallow words no mind.” My stomach rolled. “You say it as if you are expecting a spectacle, Bessie.” “Every day is a spectacle,” she replied with a good-natured wink. “We’ve been given instructions that tonight is to be as casual as possible. You can sit anywhere, but if I can make a suggestion…” She finished polishing the knife in her hands and placed it on the table before ushering me forward. “Everyone has their chosen places. Their familiar spots and they’ve stuck to them, but here…” She guided me to a place at the foot of the table, directly downwind from the head where I knew Edward would sit, and pulled the chair out. “This is the perfect place. Devon and Greta usually sit either side. They’re friends with the Dents and are the least haughty of the lot.” She smiled and gestured for me to sit. “You’ll be fine here.” “Thank you, Bessie,” I said, sinking into the seat. “You’re welcome,” she murmured, returning to finish the last place setting before returning to the kitchen to prepare for service. I sat awkwardly, reaching again and again for the glass of water before me for something to occupy my hands as I waited for the other guests to arrive and my torture to begin. A few people began to arrive, seating themselves as though they were familiar with their places in the room. Just as Bessie had said. I’d always kept myself apart at dinner, but lunches, afternoon teas, and cocktail parties were things I couldn’t excuse myself away from, so I wasn’t aware of the inner workings of this time of night. I watched as more people came in, filling the room with voices, and when two people sat either side of my place at the end of the table, I studied them closely. The woman to my right looked at me curiously, and I offered a polite smile. The man to my left was oblivious to all but his wineglass. “I’m Greta,” the woman said, smiling in return. Her hair sat around her shoulders in russet waves, her skin pale and freckled, her eyes colored like honey. She was delicate and just as waifish as Alice. Her bright red top hung just so on her slender frame, complimenting her coloring perfectly. “And that’s Devon,” she added, nodding across the table at the man. I glanced over to him, and he smiled. He was handsome enough with a clean-shaven jaw, chocolate-colored eyes, and a short back and sides haircut. He inclined his head and asked, “And you are?” “Jane,” I replied politely. “Oh, yes!” Greta exclaimed. “You’re the woman who has spearheaded this artist retreat we have been hearing so much about!” “It sounds fantastic,” Devon added. “Thank you.” I blinked furiously, turning my gaze to my lap as I felt my cheeks heat. Edward had been talking to his guests about me? No wonder Blanche had been so spiteful. My curiosity was raised, wanting to know exactly what he’d said and to whom, but with it came the heavy load of doubt that had plagued me all my life. The wounds I’d been so determined to wear with pride were stinging as they opened once more. Why should I be fearful of attention? Not all of it was intended to be bad. “Oh, here we go,” Greta muttered, flicking her russet waves back over her shoulder. I glanced up just as Blanche sashayed into the room, her head held high as if she believed herself to be a regal princess. She did look the part with her tailored black skirt and cream silk blouse with gold buttons. Her hair was out, her ringlet curls arranged perfectly, and her makeup was just as artful. Her plump lips were crimson, and her blue eyes shimmered against the darkness of her eyeliner and mascara. Her stature was imposing, her perfection a stark contrast against my frayed edges, and when her gaze fell upon me, her lip curled in unmasked distaste. I stilled, waiting for the moment she opened her mouth and cast me out of the room, but Edward strode in, and her attention was pulled away. Casting me one more look before she went to capture his attention, I could see the warning plain in her eyes. Keep your hands off. In my own mind, I would stand up to her and proclaim my union with Edward, but I was far too meek to do so even if I wasn’t confined by the agreement we’d shared the other night. He had chosen me, albeit not in a way I fully liked, so that should be enough of a triumph without rubbing another’s face in it. Service began, and the salad course was served followed by the soup. As I picked at the food before me, I was keenly aware of Edward’s presence, the string binding us together taut in our close proximity. If I was bold, I would raise my eyes, find his, and share a secret smile. If I was bold, which I was not. I continued to sit rigidly among the rich guests, attempting to play a part I didn’t understand. Greta and Devon chattered aimlessly about one thing or another—their family’s yachts and how they compared and whose was better, their work, their current stay at Thornfield, and the excursion they’d taken to a neighboring manor some twenty miles south. From time to time, they asked me a question or attempted to include me in their meanderings, but I knew nothing of boats and multi-million-pound businesses, so my attempts to include myself were paltry at best. It wasn’t until the main course arrived that I glanced up. Edward was staring at me intently, his brow furrowed. I’d come to know when he was deep in thought, and he had that look about him now. He was puzzling me out. His lips curved as my gaze lingered, and every part of my body began to hum. After several nights of pleasure at his hands, I was yet to return it, and that’s where my mind went. I imagined the look on his rugged face as he came undone, my body screaming to fall to its knees before his and unravel his longing. Laughter beside me broke Edward’s spell, and I blinked. I was so bewildered by what had passed between us, my eyes clashed with Blanche’s. She scowled, then turned to Edward. Instantly, she followed his intent stare, and as it led straight back to me, her annoyance rose even more. Lowering my gaze, I fixed it on my plate, my mind too scrambled to concentrate on the conversation around me. I let myself draw away, and soon, it was as if I wasn’t there at all. Greta and Devon talked to their other tablemates, not troubling to include me, and I felt the familiar maw of depression open up inside me. I could pretend all I liked, but it was painfully clear I didn’t belong in this world. I longed for the simplicity of the kitchen and the staff who had become my friends. I desired something entirely different than what was laid on this table before me. As with the first night Edward had commanded me, I should have denied him. Was I so eager to please lest he leave me behind again? Excusing myself as the last of the plates from the main course were cleared, I slipped from the dining room, my chest feeling lighter as the oppressive stare of Blanche Ingram was removed from my body. “You’re going to miss dessert.” I turned at the sound of Edward’s voice and scowled. “I care not for cake.” He knew I was unhappy, and he took a step toward me. “Jane…” “I would please you but to command me to sit there and be ignored? I would think you cared little for me.” “You were at the other end of the table,” he said, reaching for my hand and grasping it in his own. “I asked you to come because I needed you there, Jane.” “I am not a lucky charm,” I said. “I am a person with heart and feelings.” “Did you try, Jane?” he asked. I hesitated. “I…” He lowered his gaze. “I see.” “I would make you happy,” I muttered. “But I feel as if I’m a disappointment. I could have tried harder, but I fear I have not much in common with your friends. They are so far above me I flounder.” His gloomy cloud began to rain down on us both as he said, “I see I’ve done you wrong yet again.” “No,” I declared, tightening my grasp on his hand. “I’m not suited for fine dinners and light conversation. What do I know of sailing through the Greek islands? I’ve never been out of England.” Edward didn’t reply, just raised his hand and plucked the tiny piece of glass that posed as a diamond from my throat and turned it around in his fingers. “I feel like that stone,” I murmured. “Pretending to be more than she is worth.” “Don’t,” he said, his voice rasping. “Don’t compare yourself. Physical wealth cannot be compared for spiritual fulfillment. We share something that cannot be held in comparison to anything on this earth. I need you close, Jane.” “I can be close in the kitchen,” I offered. There was a crash behind us from the dining room, followed by laughter, and we pulled apart like lightning. My heart beat wildly at the thought we could have been discovered standing so familiar with one another. Edward sighed and ran his hand over his face, his eyes showing signs of exhaustion. “Jane, could you humor me for one more week?” “Why? If it’s only one more week, surely…” “Please?” It was not in his nature to plead, so I acquiesced. “Of course.” For a moment, I was sure his mask slipped and revealed a little more of the secret demon he was harboring. I fancied I could see the toll it was taking on his spirit, and what was revealed alarmed me. “Is everything all right?” I asked, beginning to worry. “Yes,” he said, waving me off. “Rest tonight, Jane. Tomorrow…” He glanced over his shoulder toward the dining room, and seeing the door still closed, he leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on my lips before hastily withdrawing. A daring move indeed! “Tomorrow,” I replied. “Rest well, sir.” And there we parted, two secret lovers adrift in two storms of their own, both unwilling to share the burden. 17 That night, I couldn’t sleep for thinking of Edward’s look when he stood before me in the sitting room. What was it about Thornfield and his life that troubled him so? When I first arrived, Alice said he rarely remained at the hotel for longer than a few days, a week at the most, outside of summer. Would he remain and linger with me after all the guests had gone? If he did intend to leave, then the change would be too bleak to comprehend. I hardly knew whether I slept after this as my thoughts were on a constant rotation, but at any rate, I started wide awake as a chilling moan sounded outside in the hall. I sat up in bed, clutching the blanket to my chest, and listened, attempting to still my beating heart. What in the world? I tried to shake off the strange sensation that someone unknown was lingering outside, but the tranquility of sleep was broken. I knew I wouldn’t settle until I’d investigated, so I slipped from my bed and unlocked the door. Peering out into the darkened hall, there was no movement or person to be seen. “Who’s there?” I called out, but no one presented themselves. Thinking it must’ve been the odd Grace Poole on one of her midnight walks, I sighed and returned to my room, but as I went to close the door, a sound came again. This time, it was a laugh—low sounding, demonic, and deep—and it came from the other end of the hall. Knowing I might look back on this moment and think my next actions foolish, I cast my fear aside and replaced it with ire. I put my feet into my boots, and since I was wearing a pair of cotton shorts and a singlet, I didn’t bother to dress any further. Marching out into the hall, I turned to follow the sound. If someone was playing a game with me, indeed if it was Grace Poole, then she would be sorry. Since the night I first came across her wandering the halls and denying her strange laughter, she’d been hiding away unseen. She’d been attending her duties, that much was clear, but had not slipped once in my presence. Tonight she had woken me, and I would see for myself! “Who’s there?” I called out to the darkness once more. “Is that you, Grace?” No reply came as I’d suspected, so I walked down the hall, my boots treading softly on the carpet. When I reached the end, I turned and surveyed the next hallway, but it was empty, too. Laughter sounded again, much farther away this time, so I marched in pursuit of it, my annoyance rising with every step. This had better not be some wild goose chase, I thought to myself. It was much too late for this kind of excitement, especially when Thornfield was full of important guests. I followed the trail upstairs to the third floor, past the library, and then Edward’s study. Soon, I was in uncharted water. This part of Thornfield had been undiscovered by my ramblings, and the feel was different here. The air was quite dim as if it were filled with the haze of smoke. As I hastened forward looking for the source, I became aware of the strong and unmistakable scent of burning. A floorboard creaked, and I turned the corner, arriving into a hall of Thornfield I scarcely knew. Ahead, a door was ajar, and there came the source of the smoke, blue plumes rushing out from the crack. I thought nothing more of the strange sounds that had led me here. I thought nothing of the odd Grace Poole or Alice and the staff. Indeed, I thought nothing at all of Blanche Ingram and her haughty friends who slept a floor below me. Striding forward, I pushed through the door. It was then I realized I was standing in Edward’s bedroom, a place where I hadn’t been invited, the inner sanctum of the moody and complicated man I deigned to care for. But it wasn’t him I looked for, not at first. My gaze fixed upon the bright flickering of flame as it burned the foot of the bed, its fingers licking the edges of the quilt. Smoke was filling the room, and I covered my mouth with the back of my arm in an attempt to filter it out. Why weren’t the fire alarms working? Rushing forward, I gasped in panic as I beheld a sleeping Edward. I flung myself against the edge of the mattress, grasped his shoulders, and shook. “Edward!” I cried. “Edward! Wake!” He didn’t move, groaning in his sleep, and my gaze turned back to the fire, which had grown quickly. If I didn’t do something now, he’d burn alive! Rushing forward, I dragged the quilt off his bed and tossed it out into the middle of the room. The flames flickered wildly as I attempted to smother the burning fabric, desperately calling out for him to wake. “What…” His voice was groggy—in part from sleep, and in part from the smoke—as he crawled from his bed. The room plunged into darkness as the last of the flame was extinguished. Then a lamp came on, and I blinked furiously at the sudden light. Edward stood beside the bed, and when he saw me, he came forward, a look of astonishment on his face. “Jane, what are you…” “There’s been a fire, but it’s out now,” I said, moving across the room where I flung the curtains open. “We must open a window to let the smoke out.” “Jane, how did you come to be here?” he asked as I opened the window. I turned, the cold air blowing around my shoulders, dragging its fingers through my hair. Edward looked as bewildered as I felt, his eyes clouded and his chest bare. My gaze dipped as I realized he wore nothing but a pair of tight boxer briefs. I was thankful for the darkness as my cheeks heated, and I returned my stare to his. “A sound roused me from my sleep,” I explained lest he thought I was mad enough to try to burn him alive. “Strange laughter. It led me on such a chase through the halls, then… I don’t know what it was or who, but I was led here and found your bed ablaze.” I lowered my gaze, the thick scent of smoke clinging to the air. “I had to do something.” A look of anguish passed across his face. “Oh, Jane…” “Somebody did this,” I said, not understanding his reaction. He rubbed his eyes and didn’t answer. Either he was in shock or he was avoiding answering. “Shall I call for help?” I went on. “No,” he replied quickly. “Don’t say a thing, Jane. We must keep this quiet lest we alarm the guests.” “Who was it?” All at once, I thought of Grace Poole. Surely there was something strange about the way she skulked around Thornfield, but was she capable of attempting to harm Edward? If so, why? What reason did she have to hate him so? He closed the space between us, but he didn’t pull me into his arms, he only stared at me gravely. There was something strange happening in the darkened corners of the hotel, I was sure of it now, and it had everything to do with the demon that sat upon the master’s shoulder. “Please, stay here,” he said. “I shall be gone only a few minutes. Don’t move or call anyone. I shall deal with this.” “But—” “If there is a plot, I will investigate it now,” he said, the command clear in his voice. This was his word, his law, and I shouldn’t trifle with it. “Are you cold?” he asked, turning to his closet. Retrieving a woolen jumper, he stood before me and tugged it over my head. It was much too large for my slender frame, but it was warm and smelled exactly like him—spicy with a homely tinge of whiskey. “Thank you,” I said, burying into the fabric. He dressed hastily as I stood awkwardly, the events of the evening coming to rest full on my mind. “Don’t worry, Jane,” Edward murmured as he beheld my trembling form. “You are quite safe here.” He left me then, alone in his bedroom with nothing but my own mind and curiosity to serve me. I sank into a chair, too tired to pry—not that I’d have the heart to—and I dozed off despite my lingering fear of the spirit who’d led me to the fire. The same spirit who had most likely lit the blaze, which could have claimed Edward’s life if not for my following it. The thought of it being a very real human being with malicious intent made me tremble even more. To think I’d followed it blindly! He was gone a long time, though it was hard to tell exactly how long since I’d slipped into a fitful sleep, and when a sound outside startled me awake, I sat up, my eyes fixed firmly on the door. I hoped it was Edward and not the spirit come to finish its work. When the door opened and he emerged from the house beyond, tension bled from my body, and I rose, looking to him eagerly. What a strange relationship we now had! When we first met, he frightened me so, but now I spoke to him as a lover and confidant as though he had been a part of my life all this time. I feared for him out there in the dark halls doing God knows what in pursuit of the spirit. “All is well,” he said, crossing to me. His hands reached out for me and came to rest on my arms, rubbing up and down as if to spread reassurance with warmth. “Why weren’t the fire alarms working?” I said, emotion rushing to the surface. “The sprinkler system should have engaged when the smoke came into contact with the sensors. Hasn’t it been serviced? I will call someone to come and fix it first thing in the morning. Thornfield will be closed if it’s inspected. I can’t believe—” Edward grasped my shoulders and shook me. “Jane, stop.” “I agreed to it, but it bothers me still,” I muttered. “Jane, are you ill?” I shook my head, alarmed at the words my addled mind had blurted in my fear. “I must go,” I murmured. “You would leave me?” he asked, his brow darkening. Outside, the sky was turning gray, and my gaze was drawn to the lightening horizon. Soon, Thornfield would be alive as its staff rose and prepared for the day ahead. If I remained, I would be caught in the halls, and in my current state of dress, it would be suspicious, indeed. “I’m cold,” I replied. “Jane… Stay a moment. I have the pleasure of owing you my life.” A strange energy like none I’d ever heard before was in his voice, and when I returned my gaze to his, he was alight with another kind of fire. It danced across me, and the wool of his jumper scratched against my skin as I shivered. Sighing, he drew me close, wrapping his arms around me. My cheek settled against his chest, my ear over his heart that was thrumming a wild beat. It calmed me, and soon, I was putty in his hands. “It’s a curious thing, is it not?” Edward murmured into my hair. “What, sir?” He paused a moment, the sound of birds singing at the rising sun flowing through the open window. “You and I.” I pulled in a deep breath, his scent tinged with the reminder of what had transpired that night. Smoke. “I would’ve had you by now,” he went on, lost in deep thought. “But I find myself caring more for…” He sighed. “Standing here like this feels just as satisfying. What curse have you spun over me, Jane Doe?” A curse? What could he mean by it? I stood with him just so and allowed him to take comfort in our nearness. I was glad he was unharmed, but something wasn’t right, and I feared to ask more. “Curse?” I inquired, my heart spinning. “I would think it more of an awakening.” Edward tensed, then his embrace deepened. What convoluted punishment was this? Where two lovers balance the magical strangeness of here and what may. Haunting one another with words and endearing glances, double meanings and misadventures only the aroused eye could see. The tether that forced two souls together—the rope that binds—constantly pulled asunder by outside forces. All you have to do is reach out and tug, Jane Doe. Wrap your scarred hands around the line, and pull with all your might. “I must go,” I murmured. “So you will leave me?” I nodded and drew away from him, but he couldn’t let me go. Not straight away. “Then let me taste your lips,” he whispered. “One thing before you take your leave, spirit.” Raising my hands, I cupped his face, stroking my thumbs back and forth over his skin. He leaned down, and closing his eyes, took my mouth with his. All at once, I felt my desire grow at his touch and wished I could stay and never leave his embrace, but it wasn’t to be. My kiss was the balm that soothed his ragged soul. I could feel it in his desperate touch and taste it upon his tongue. He was reluctant to let me go, but let me go he did. “Goodnight,” he whispered as we parted. “I think it’s more like good morning,” I replied with a tiny flicker of a smile. He smiled, but the emotion didn’t reach his eyes. “As always, you are right.” Returning to my room, I sat on the edge of my bed and peered through the curtains. Watching the sunrise, I buried deeper into Edward’s jumper and replayed the strange evening over and over in my head. Fire, passion, it was all a queer tale among the drama of the past weeks. I couldn’t make sense of it. I remained by the window until the full morning had dawned, casting new light over Thornfield. When the hour crept toward seven, I undressed for my shower and folded the jumper. I slid it underneath my pillow to join the library key, another treasure to add to my collection. Then I washed away all trace of what had been borne in the night and prepared for the day. 18 Word of the fire in Edward’s room was kept so quiet it was as if it hadn’t happened at all. No one spoke of it or hinted they knew of the chaos, not even Alice. It went like this for two days, and as my anxiousness grew, so did my annoyance at the mysterious Grace Poole and the feeling I was being kept in the dark about all the goings-on at Thornfield. I spent this time apart from Edward, but not for want of separation on my behalf. He didn’t call for me once, and his playful side was all but gone. He didn’t capture me in the middle of my duties and hide me behind a curtain so we could kiss like teenagers. He didn’t tempt fate by stealing touches under the noses of others. He didn’t call me to the study to indulge in his special brand of euphoria. He didn’t do anything. It was troubling, and I began to doubt he wanted me at all. Then there was the matter of the fire. Such an event could have had disastrous consequences, yet I was forbidden to talk about it. His reasoning was apt given the circumstances, but not to mention it to Alice? Madness. I was in the garden when he finally came to me. The day was bright, the sun shining high in the sky and warming my shoulders as I sat on a bench deep in the greenery. My lunch had been devoured, and I was determined to spend the rest of my break in complete silence, but still, my thoughts rambled. The crunch of gravel under a heavy foot drew my attention down the path, and I stilled as Edward emerged. I felt the rope that bound our spirits together spring taut as he approached, and I straightened up, my gaze clinging to his movements. He seemed grave, his brooding presence drawing light from the surrounding garden. Something was bothering him, but there always was. He stood before me, neither speaking nor moving to sit. Little sparrows flittered through the trees, landing on the side of the fountain, splashing and dipping their beaks into the water. Birdcalls echoed from the forest past the lawn, and the muted sounds of the goings-on at the hotel behind us echoed through the stillness. An insect flew past my eye, and as I shooed it away with my hand, the movement brought Edward to life. “Will you walk with me, Jane?” I nodded. “If you desire it.” He turned as I rose and led me down the path away from the house and toward the little forest. It was a secluded place and was rarely occupied by humans, so I thought nothing of his choice considering our entanglement. “Has there been any word on the fire?” I asked as we approached the tree line. “It was a fault with the electric blanket,” Edward explained. “I had maintenance look at it, and they confirmed my suspicions.” “But what of the sounds I heard?” I inquired. “Grace Poole…” “Alice tells me she is want to wander the halls at night. She is an insomniac, the staff tells me, and is well known to be up at all hours.” “I’m not convinced,” I said, my bones still chilled by the strange trail I’d been led on through Thornfield. “Edward, if someone intends you harm…” “I am well and safe, Jane.” Lifting his eye to the facade, he cast a glare over Thornfield. I’d never seen him so angry before, which was a feat considering his temper. “You don’t like Thornfield?” I asked. “It holds many things I wish to escape,” he replied. “Many things bind me to this place I have no care for.” “I see.” “I must not include you among it,” he went on. “You have been the light in the dark.” “Though what we are must be kept secret?” “I would tell you it all, Jane, but I cannot put you in that position. You have a mind for secrets, yet I cannot allow it.” He hesitated as if he was deliberating telling me more of what troubled him, then he stilled. “The air is sweeter out here, yes?” We’d found our way into the forest now. The air was denser here and much cooler. Leaf litter crunched underfoot, the scent of earth and greenery thick on the air. It was a magical place, and I fancied that if I closed my eyes, we might be on another planet entirely. Here, we were entirely alone. “If you don’t like it, why do you return?” I asked, not willing to let him change the subject yet again. For all the things I knew about him, there were a hundred I didn’t. I didn’t know if his mother and father were still alive or where they were, I didn’t know what happened to his brother who’d passed away, I didn’t know what kind of business he owned, I didn’t know where he went when he wasn’t at Thornfield. His constant evasion was wearing away at my very being. I wanted to connect with him so much it hurt. “It’s my family’s ancestral home,” he said simply. “It is my duty to maintain it.” “And that’s why you keep it up just enough that is doesn’t fall entirely into disrepair?” I glanced over my shoulder, but the house was hidden from view. “It could be a grand destination with a little more work.” “I don’t want to talk about Thornfield,” he murmured, a strange look passing through his eyes. “Alice told me of your family,” I said, attempting to open him further. “Before you came, that is.” “Did she now?” he muttered, kicking a loose stone with the toe of his boot. “I suppose she painted me as a monster.” His direct evasion of my question didn’t pass unnoticed. “Not at all. The mental picture I had was of a moody middle-aged bachelor who cared little for his holdings.” “Then I understand your surprise. I’m sure you delighted in it.” “Hardly. I was certain you would fire me on the spot!” He smiled, and it was such a rare occurrence I hardly recognized the man beside me. The light behind his eyes was magnificent, and I lamented at the unknown circumstances that doused it. Now that we were finally out of view from prying eyes, he grasped my hand in his. It didn’t matter how much I wanted to protest and press him for more answers—one touch silenced me completely. He sighed, his chest rising and falling with the effort. “I wish I could take you to an island, just you and me, away from fear and danger, and forget all that has happened before I met you on that road.” He was so forlorn in his declaration that I stepped closer. “Can I help you?” He grasped my hand and pulled me close, his lips brushing against mine. “Yes, you can help, Jane. You have already been chasing away the demons with your superior spirit.” “I don’t think I’m superior,” I murmured. “I am who I am, and I do what I am able. We all have our faults, sir.” His stormy gaze searched mine, looking for something unknown. “You are a rare bird, Jane. I would capture you, but I don’t have the heart for it.” I shook my head, my lips moving against his just so. “I wouldn’t mind being captured by you.” “It’s a cage, Jane,” he said solemnly. I smiled, melting into his embrace. “Then you don’t see what I see.” “And that is?” His gaze lowered, and his head tilted to the side, poised to claim me. “You say you are chained, but I see the power within you to break them,” I whispered, my body trembling against his. “I would have you now,” he growled, pinning me against the trunk of a grand oak. “I need your flesh, Jane. I need to… I need to…” “Then take me, Edward,” I replied, wrapping my leg around his waist and moving my core against him. “I fear I cannot be gentle,” he rasped, wrapping his large hand around my thigh. “I’ve waited too long…” “I promised you,” I declared through a moan as he latched his lips onto my neck. “I would be waiting and ready when you needed me. And here I am.” “Here you are.” “Mercilessly, Edward.” “Mercilessly.” The refined millionaire shed his skin, and standing before me was the alpha wolf, his mask gone and his desire on show. I knew he hadn’t been lying to me the night we first kissed when he implied he was just as harsh in bed as he was out of it, but I never really understood. Not until I was presented with it. Edward devoured me, never slowing as he bunched my skirt around my waist and tore at my underwear. All of his controlled exterior was removed, and the beast he kept under tight restraint was free. I was not afraid of the passion that had been unleashed. No, I relished it. In this, he and I were the same. Controlled, secret, solitary… Together, with our real faces exposed to one another, we could calm the storm and experience a passion like no other. One day, you will learn to feel true pleasure, Jane, and what a day it will be. His touch was firm, his fingers biting into my skin, his mouth hard against mine, and I returned it all in kind. I tore at his shirt, tugged his hair, and raked my fingernails over his skin, all in my desperate desire to please my master. He needed to be soothed, and by allowing him to take, I would join in his desire. He pulled my shirt apart and trussed up my breasts, latching onto one, then the other, sucking and biting, delighting in the tremors that took my body. My hands wandered, scarcely knowing where to touch him first as he worked his zipper in a hasty attempt to free his manhood. Assisting him, I pushed his jeans down and thrust my hands underneath the hem of his boxers. Then he was exposed, and the reality of what we were about to do settled into my heart and wouldn’t let go. Edward was before me, unraveled and wild, the refined gentleman with the temper all but gone, and in his place was a being of pure sexual power. With a moan of delight, I grasped him in my palm, and he was glorious. Hard, silky, and beautiful, every bit the man I’d fantasized about, and all of this was for me. Ignoring all of my protests, he pulled my hand away and lowered me onto the soft grass, his gaze never leaving mine. Spreading my legs wide, he lowered his weight and pinned me in place. Moving his body just so, he massaged himself along my wetness, his breathing becoming labored as his pleasure grew alongside mine. I opened to him farther, coaxing him to take. My body was his to do with what he would, and the anticipation was driving me to the brink of insanity. I’d never wanted a man to take me as much as I wanted him to now. I wanted nothing more than to feel him inside my body, pulsing and stroking, taking the entirety of his strength. I wished to be torn. Answering my silent plea, he entered me, thrusting deep within. I rose to meet him, taking every last inch until he was buried deep, filling me. The euphoria of our joining almost took me, but I stilled, my lips brushing lightly against his. “Jane,” he muttered, breathless. “Have me as you will,” I pleaded, clinging to his shoulders, my legs wide. He drew back, then thrust once more, his body connecting hard with mine, and the pleasure and pain that ripped through my body was exquisite. He never stopped as he took me again and again, and each time, I rose to meet him, matching his strength and desire. I wouldn’t allow this moment to be just his. It wasn’t in me to submit fully—my strong will wouldn’t sanction it—so I made it ours as we writhed, lost in the sensations of our lovemaking. Out in the forest, we were alone, our cries mingling with the earth, our souls returning to their primal state as we joined. I didn’t know how long we were entangled, but I came all too soon, erupting under his relentless onslaught of pleasure. As I was taken away, I cried out, then his mouth covered mine, muffling my voice and drawing it within his body. His tongue swirled with mine as he quickened, spurred on by my tight core. Abruptly, he spilled inside me in hot bursts, grunting with each erratic thrust, and the sensation caused me to rise again. Quivering around his length, my body urged his to continue. He buried his face into the crook of my neck, his skin red with exertion, his breathing ragged and hot against my skin as the last of his desire filled my body. “Jane,” he muttered between breaths. “Jane…” He cursed softly, unable to say anything more, but I was in much the same state. Everything was one big sensation, my skin was alive with it, my mind overloaded, and all I cared about was Edward and how he’d touched me and how I wanted him to do it again. Never in my entire life had I experienced such euphoria. It was all his doing. I was his now and forever. His slave. I craved his touch, his words, and his very soul. I never wished to be parted from him. He withdrew from my body and fell to the earth beside me. “Come,” he murmured, laying his arm out. I curled up against his body, and he held me close as my being hummed. What little clothing remained on our bodies was tangled around our limbs, but neither of us moved to cover our nakedness. “You are truly a wild spirit, Jane,” he murmured. I stroked my palm across his stomach, delighting in the rise and fall of his muscles. “Am I?” “You shouldn’t try to tame it,” he said. “You should let go of those antiquated notions, and find the wild freedom in your soul and cherish it. Many rarely get to possess a freedom such as that.” I didn’t reply. Instead, I allowed my fingers to roam to places I’d been forbidden to touch until now. I desired to taste him as he’d tasted me. Edward moaned softly, indicating my touch pleased him, then said. “It is within your grasp. I felt it as you came.” My muscles clenched, and I smiled, feeling like I could do anything. It didn’t matter how plain and small I felt, for this powerful man, who lay exposed beside me, thought I was capable of my wildest dreams. Never had someone spoken to me the way he’d just uttered those words. Never had someone believed so strongly in my potential. If it was the only gift he was to give me, then it was a fine one. Belief in another when their own soul was asunder was a special endearment, indeed. All too soon, our oasis had dried up, and it was time to return to Thornfield lest we were missed. Righting our dress and smoothing out the wrinkles, we returned our outward appearances to the decorum that was required of us. Edward combed the tangles out of my hair with his fingers, plucking leaves and twigs from the mess, a secret smile on his lips. We walked back to the hotel in silence, both of us lost in thought. When the stone facade towered over us, and we were unable to delay our journey back into reality anymore, he finally beheld me. “Till next time, my beautiful spirit,” he murmured, then turned and walked away, his shoulders looking as if they carried a little less weight than when he’d appeared. With the promise of next time, I returned to the darkness of Thornfield, my own soul shining much more brightly than before. 19 A week after the fire, Queen Bee and her hive departed Thornfield. Alice and I stood by the reception desk, collecting keys and bidding the guests farewell, while Edward was poised by the foot of the stairs, looking fine in a crisp white shirt and light gray trousers. As each of his friends departed, he spoke a few words in parting and thanked them for staying at Thornfield. No matter what anyone said about his arrogance and sour attitude, he knew when to display his airs and graces. I suppose it had much to do with how he conducted his business dealings, of which I still knew little. Knowing he would hedge around the subject as he did with most things, I made a mental note to ask Alice later. My gaze was drawn to Edward again and again, marveling at the power he exuded over the rich and beautiful with nothing but a look and a few well-spoken words. He was akin to a wizard casting spells on the unsuspecting, winning them over with his strange charm. Knowing it was only a matter of time before Queen Bee made her exit, my gaze alternated from the master to the departing faces. After Edward’s and my interlude in the forest, I was sure her reaction would be icy at best, but how cold? I suspected the chill would put the Arctic Circle to shame. Alice stirred next to me, and her elbow dug into my side. “Steel yourself, Jane,” she murmured. Blanche appeared on the staircase arm in arm with her sister Mary, and my gaze flickered to Edward. I’d believed every word he’d said when it came to the other woman, but I still wanted to bear witness to it firsthand as a sort of confirmation. There were still a great number of unknowns in play, and being certain in this would still my swirling mind some. Edward smiled at the sisters as they descended the staircase—ever the proper gentleman for their benefit. To my surprise, she cast such a glare I thought she might boil his bones. Mary turned her nose up at him and let out a tiny humph as they passed, then they disappeared out the main entrance and climbed into their waiting limousine. “Did you see that?” Alice whispered into my ear as I watched their driver close them into the car. “If looks could kill.” I glanced at Edward, who was stoic as ever. If he felt at all slighted by the Ingram sisters’ snub, he did not show it, though I would think he was glad they’d removed him from their circle of influence. I knew I would sleep more soundly because of it. “Then I suppose it’s as we thought the other day,” I whispered back. So he’d told Blanche he didn’t care for her, and they wouldn’t be wed. But how had he done it? What were his words? They would have been chosen carefully, each precise in their meaning when delivered to Queen Bee to avoid misunderstanding. I assumed, given Blanche’s complete disregard for my presence, Edward had kept my name and our dalliance a secret as promised. For this, I was glad. “Good riddance,” Alice declared smugly, then smiled brightly as the last of the guests bid their farewells to the master of the house. Edward cast me a knowing glance, betraying he’d overheard her declaration though he didn’t reprimand her for it. Pretending to have not heard was as nice a gesture as he was able to extend as her employer. As the front doors closed with a dull boom, which echoed through the main gallery, he smoothed down his shirt and sighed in a rare show of relief. I didn’t expect him to speak to us, so I wasn’t surprised when he remained silent, his gaze never reaching Alice or me. “Thornfield is sleepy once more,” I murmured as he turned and ascended the grand staircase. Just like that. Bessie was in charge of the turndown service. Since our duties had been reduced to next to nothing, I attempted to busy myself by helping strip the beds of their linen and clean the vacated rooms, but she shooed me away. “Keep your hands off, Jane,” she cursed me with good humor. “This is the last thing we have to do for this summer, and then we can be at peace. You should join Alice in reception.” “You don’t want my help?” I asked. “I don’t mind, and it keeps my mind from wandering.” “What in the devil could be on your mind?” she asked with a laugh. “A young thing like you?” “You’d be surprised,” I replied. “Nonsense!” She tugged the folded sheet from my hands and pushed me toward the door. “Don’t forget tonight.” “Tonight?” “After every summer, once the guests have gone, we have a little going away party,” she said with a wide smile on her lips. From her tone, it must be wild, indeed. “It sounds like a noisy affair,” I said. “Does Mr. Rochester know you celebrate?” “Truthfully, he usually departs with them, so he’ll soon find out.” I frowned, hoping there wouldn’t be trouble because of it. Perhaps I could use my entanglement with him to smooth the waters. The staff needed to let off steam after being so tightly strung for the past month. It was good for morale. Bessie laughed at my blank stare and shooed me away. “Off with you, Jane. Make sure you come tonight.” Slipping into the hall, I passed the piles of laundry that sat precariously outside each room, housekeeping staff a flurry of activity within. Descending to the first floor, I left the chaos behind and was alone once more. It was a strange quirk of the old hotel that each section seemed to be quite removed from the next. One could turn a corner and be alone or among a hive of activity and be none the wiser for what was happening next door. All summer, every corner—save for the darkest—had been alive, but now that Thornfield had emptied, it was as if a switch had been thrown, and all the light and noise that had filled it was stilled just like that. I was headed toward the main staircase, the same one that descended into the main gallery, when I heard my name. It was a mere whisper, but its tone was unmistakable. Turning, I found Edward standing at the opposite end of the hall. His eyes were dark, his chin lowered, and I knew a command was imminent. My body prickled with the promise of his harsh touch, and I approached as if I was hypnotized. “Sir,” I murmured as I stood before him, the string that tethered our spirits becoming taut. “What a queer sensation,” he said, his gaze drinking in mine. “How Thornfield stills…” I smiled softly as his thoughts echoed those that had flowed through my mind only moments before. It was if our tether shared more than just physical awareness, and he could now read my mind. Taking my hand, he tugged me into an alcove where we were hidden from sight. My back was pressed against the oak paneling, our position cloaked by a grand marble bust of a sour-looking old man—a Rochester of days past—which sat on a pedestal fashioned into a Roman column. We weren’t completely hidden, and the threat of discovery had my body shivering at the scandal of our closeness. “Jane,” Edward whispered into my ear. I swallowed hard, attempting to calm my racing pulse. “Sir?” “Tonight, you must come to my room.” His command struck me dumb, and I almost couldn’t bring myself to answer. “Your room?” “I would repeat our interlude in the forest, but this time, in the softness of a bed.” His lips moved against my ear as he spoke, the memory of our passion in the seclusion of the forest still fresh in my mind. My muscles still ached with the force of his thrusts, and they began to throb upon hearing his intent. “Tonight…” I began, too scattered to mention the staff’s prearranged party. I would drop all commitments when he called, I was well aware of that, but I had come to care for the mismatched group that tended to the hotel. “I cannot stop thinking about it,” he went on. “Your softness under my palm. Your wild spirit unleashed…” “There is a party tonight,” I said, the words erupting from my mouth like an explosion. His lips quirked as he processed this information, and his hand took mine. “A celebration for a recent departure, I suppose.” “You are not angry?” I asked, perplexed. He shook his head softly. “Not at all. Perhaps once, I would’ve seen it as a slight against me and all I stood for, but no longer. I feel as if I’ve softened in these last weeks. I needn’t control all things so tightly.” “All things?” I inquired. “Only some?” “Yes. I need only control things which warrant it.” He drew in a deep breath, his fingers stroking mine. “These past weeks have been trying, like walking on eggshells. The staff deserve to loosen their muscles, so to speak.” “Where has the terrifying Mr. Rochester gone?” I asked breathlessly. Edward smiled, and I beheld the change in him so clearly I could scarcely believe it had come to pass. The gloomy, arrogant man had all but disappeared and in his place… “He has been spirited away,” he replied. Casting a glance over his shoulder into the hall behind the marble bust, he decided we were alone and drew me in for a kiss. His lips were soft against mine, and when his tongue delved, I felt him steal the last of my breath, but all too soon we parted. “Tonight,” he whispered. “Come after your party, or steal away during if you can manage it. I’ll be waiting for you, Jane.” His fingers disengaged from mine, and he stepped around the bust, continuing on his path through Thornfield, leaving me to tremble in his wake, such was his effect on my very being. When I had gathered my wits, and my heart had calmed, I emerged and descended the stairs, crossed the gallery, and entered reception where I found Alice tapping away at her computer. I saw the unmistakable blue menu bar and knew she’d been wiling away her newfound freedom on Facebook. Smiling, I announced myself by opening the door all the way, so it thudded against the wall. “Jane,” Alice said as she glanced up. “You look feverish. Are you well?” I nodded, sinking into my chair. “I’m fine. Bessie just dismissed me!” She laughed and shook her head. “You got out of housekeeping duties. Count yourself lucky!” “She told me there’s going to be a party tonight.” “Oh, yes,” she replied with a bright smile. “Nothing formal or anything. Just the usual dinnertime but with more booze and an elevated noise level.” “Sounds nice.” I glanced at the ceiling where I knew a few floors above the library sat. “Rocky won’t mind,” Alice declared, sensing what I wanted to say. “We’re not costing him any money since it’s all just leftover food, and the alcohol is BYO. Besides, Thornfield is empty, and his rooms are on the other side of the house. He won’t hear a thing.” “Then I’m looking forward to it,” I said, already knowing we’d have no trouble from the master of the house. The ruse was still alive and well. I busied myself with cleaning out the chaos on my usually ordered desk, tossing papers that weren’t needed and bringing out the file on the artist retreat, which was Thornfield’s next major event. I knew I’d work more efficiently with a little more structure and simplicity. “You and Rocky seem to get along well,” Alice said, fishing for some gossip now that her main source had departed. I stilled slightly before wondering what she’d noticed. We’d been so careful. I shrugged. “I suppose we do now.” “You seem to be a favorite of his,” she mused. “Truthfully, I do not know much about him,” I said in an attempt to turn the conversation around so I could learn more about the elusive Edward Rochester. “We talk some when it takes his fancy, but I never learn a thing about him. It’s quite frustrating.” “It’s odd, you know,” Alice commented. “That he talks to you. He rarely talks to anyone, and when he does, it’s to bark an order.” “I suppose it is. I’ve come to tolerate his whims,” I replied. “I have you to thank for preparing me!” She sat up in her chair, her eyes lighting up. “Perhaps it was the night he came off his motorcycle on the road. You stood up to him—in ignorance of his person—and you didn’t hold back.” I’d all but forgotten that lonely night on the road to the village. I’d been escaping the oppressive gloom of Thornfield for a little excitement, and as it turned out, I’d gotten a great deal more than I’d bargained for. What a strange trigger to all of the things that had happened since. “Maybe you’re right,” I said. “We had a strange introduction.” “I think so.” I ran my fingers over the keyboard in front of me, my mind going over the things I wished I knew about Edward and sieved through them to find the simplest lest I raise Alice’s suspicions. Considering the things I did know about him, it was a wonder my cheeks didn’t heat! “Alice?” I asked. “What kind of business does Mr. Rochester do? Is it all properties like Thornfield?” She raised her eyebrows. “Why?” I shrugged. “I don’t mind talking to him, but he’s fond of riddles, and that’s all he seems to have time for. I’ve realized I don’t know the simplest things about him.” Alice thought for a moment, then said, “He keeps himself hidden, that’s for sure. In all the years I’ve known him, he’s been closed. Next to his brother, he would easily be passed over. He is quiet and thoughtful whereas his brother was loud and charismatic.” She sighed and shook her head as if she was clearing away a memory. “As for his business, it’s mostly property and finance. Investing in primary industries and technology, those kinds of things. I don’t know too much about it to be honest.” “It sounds rather complicated,” I mused. Complicated was a very Edward trait. “My brain hurts just thinking about it,” Alice replied with a laugh. “So his business is located in Europe? Is that why he goes away so much?” She nodded, her eyes beginning to glaze over as she lost interest in the conversation. I suppose it wasn’t scandalous enough, but I’d learned a great deal about the mysterious Edward Rochester. He’d always been brooding and secret—most likely a pale second to his charismatic brother in his family’s eyes—and had a mind as sharp as a diamond. To conduct business on the scale he did, in property and startups, he’d have to have quite a refined skill in analytics. I pondered this as the day wore on, my body humming in anticipation of the night to come. I fidgeted at dinner, but the party the staff threw in celebration of their newfound freedom was a welcome distraction, and no one noticed how on edge I’d become. Alice took it upon herself to pile drinks on me—bourbon, scotch, and an assortment of cocktails she declared I needed to experience—and I fell under the spell of the frivolity before long. It was a strange sensation for me to be included so fully. I was so accustomed to my solitary ramblings that this family around me was alien at best. I didn’t know how to act or feel, or even what to say. Remembering the first night I approached Thornfield on foot, I’d hoped this place would be my true beginning, that it would hold something more for my wandering soul. A place to call home. It was the very least I wanted, but it was also a formidable thing to ask of an unknown local. Still, without my knowing, that is what it had become. Mysteries, affairs, skulking maids, pompous guests, and all! When the alcohol ran dry and the hour crept toward midnight, the staff parted—leaving the kitchen in chaos until the morning—each soul sufficiently drunk enough that they’d sleep soundly that night. As darkness fell completely, Thornfield slept like a stone, and I stole through the halls, my night only just beginning. 20 “Enter.” My hand slipped around the doorknob, and I opened the last barrier between Edward and me. It had been almost a fortnight since the fire, and all trace of it had been extinguished. No smoke lingered in the air. No charred quilt lay in the center of the room. Only warm light and the spicy male scent that marked this as Edward’s domain filled the space. Taking a deep breath, I willingly slipped into the lion’s den and closed us inside. I didn’t see him at first. I glanced around the room, which looked completely different from the place I’d spent curled up in an armchair with the window open. The room itself was rather large, its walls clad with the same oak paneling of the adjoining study and library. Landscape paintings and portraits of grand men with their hounds and horses dotted where they may, and a large tapestry hung to the right of the king-sized bed. The furniture was a mix of modern and antique—a flat-screen television was mounted over the fireplace, and a laptop sat on the gilded coffee table—and it made the air feel homely. I gasped as a strong arm wrapped around my waist and turned me around, my cry swallowed by the force of a set of very male lips on mine. Edward held me close, devouring me as if he’d been starving for my touch, barely breaking from me to take a breath. “You taste like bourbon,” he murmured, licking his lips. “Did you have fun, Jane?” “Yes.” I nodded. “Though I couldn’t still knowing I was to come to you.” “That pleases me.” “Does it?” “Your delicate body pleases me, Jane. To have tasted your arousal and felt it as I entered you gives me great satisfaction.” His grasp tightened. “To have your wild spirit around my manhood is one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.” I shivered, his wicked words delighting me. I moved against him, and feeling how hard he was through his linen trousers, I sighed. “Do you want me, Jane?” he asked, his voice tight with restraint. “Yes.” “Do you want to feel me inside your body? Do you want me to give you pleasure?” “I would take you whole, Edward,” I replied. His stormy eyes darkened into a typhoon, and his palms rubbed my breasts through my blouse, his forefinger and thumb pinching my hardened nipples. “I would do wicked things to you, Jane,” he said, his voice low and husky. “Such wicked depravities of the flesh, but I’m afraid you would fly away.” “I think about all the ways I could take you,” I murmured, arching into his touch. Edward stilled and ran his palm over my breast and curled his fingers around my neck. He didn’t tighten his grip, but knowing he could snap me in two if he desired, had my heart beating wildly. “Stand there,” he commanded, letting me go as suddenly as he’d taken me. “Let me see you.” He undressed me with dexterous hands, ridding me of my clothing, then cast his aside until we stood naked before one another. It was the first time I’d seen him completely exposed before me, and I wasn’t disappointed. My attraction to him only grew as I placed my hands on him, and he placed his on me. Our caresses deepened as he laid me on his bed. My wetness grew, and his hardness pressed against me, demanding to be let inside. Opening my legs to him, he entered me just as roughly as he had in the forest, our bodies joining with a slap. “Jane,” he said with a moan. “You feel so tight, do you know that? It feels so good to me…” Pleasure rolled through my body at his words, and I tightened my muscles, extracting another moan from his lips. He moved above me, stroking in and out, his mouth brushing against mine and our breath mingling. “You…” he muttered. “I need you, Jane.” “I’m here,” I replied, thrusting to meet him. “Edward…” His touch became fevered, his desperation apparent as he took solace in my body. There was nothing at this moment to suggest it came from love or caring, but I felt his pleasure so completely that I didn’t care why he sought me out so, only that he did. Rolling onto his back, he grasped my waist and moved me astride his magnificent body, then impaled me once more. Sliding up and down his length, I followed the guidance his hands provided, his fingers biting into my hips as he thrust into me from below. Raising his back off the mattress, he sat tall, holding me close as I writhed, his lips sucking at my breast and his teeth biting at my nipples. I could hardly hold onto my pleasure as his body took mine on every front, our limbs tangled around one another. As if he sensed my body was on the precipice, he flipped me onto my back as if I weighed nothing at all, and thrust deep, pounding into my body relentlessly. All at once, I let go, and my body screamed in pleasure under his rough ministrations. My passion grasped his with greedy hands and tore his release from his body, his seed spilling into me again and again, his deep moans of satisfaction mingling with my own. We lay together for a moment, his length still deep within me, our chests heaving with exertion, the air thick with the scent of what we’d just shared. When he took his body from mine, I felt his absence keenly and wanted nothing more than for him to return. From behind, or above, or from wherever he desired, I did not care. “You must go,” he said abruptly, signaling his rough and quick touch had been enough. Certainly, we’d both come as we’d desired, but…in this, I didn’t think he’d be so changeful. Edward glared up at the ceiling as if he heard a noise or a demon that commanded him to cut me loose. He didn’t speak or glance at me. I’d been thoroughly dismissed. I hesitated, but only slightly, then I turned from him, looking for my discarded clothing, my entire being confused. He’d made love to me so completely, and not a minute after he’d spilled inside me, I was commanded to leave. What had happened? I felt every parting keenly, as if a strip had been torn from my very soul, and for him to dismiss me so easily, it had me reeling. I felt dizzy as I dressed, my stomach rolling and my heart twisting. What kind of pain was this? The morose realization that I was now suffering a broken heart. For it was true, wasn’t it? If this twisted feeling of sickness was love, as I suspected it to be, then I did not want it. There was no other explanation for my sudden change, especially knowing we had been clear on the parameters of our relationship. I was a secret, simply one of many in his life. I should have expected to crawl back to my own bed, a shadow in the darkness of Thornfield, and not remain by his side. This house and its master were cursed. I was sure of it. I didn’t acknowledge him as I slipped on my clothes. I didn’t utter a word as I donned my boots and moved away. I didn’t bid him goodnight as I closed the door behind me. A single sound didn’t pass my lips as I took my leave, my body aching in the afterglow of what we’d just done. As my heart ached, so did my body, and it was hollow. I no longer felt like a person. I felt like a thing to be used and twisted, for what good could come of loving when it wasn’t returned? 21 The halls were empty as I stumbled back to my room. I scarcely knew if I was going the right way, I was so distraught at my revelation. I was falling in love with Edward Rochester, and what a terrible thing it was. It was frightening but euphoric all at the same time, and the world spun around me as I wandered. Where was true north? Where was the moon? Which way would the sun rise in the morning? My reality had become twisted, and my soul had become a victim of the dark corners of Thornfield. He didn’t feel the same. How could he when I was still a secret and a thing to be summoned and dismissed when it suited him? Him, not me. “Jane?” I fell against the wall in fright as I heard Alice’s voice and clutched my hand over my heart. I’d been caught. What was I to say? I must appear a mess to her eyes. The only thing that placated my tenderness was the fact it wasn’t the odd Grace Poole who had discovered me. “Jane, are you okay?” Alice asked, appearing before me. Her hands grasped my shoulders, her soft eyes full of concern. I was distraught and feeling quite dizzy, so when I told her I felt ill, it wasn’t a lie at all. I felt positively sick to my stomach. “Come,” she said with a grimace. “Let me help you back to your room.” Before long, I was in familiar territory, and I sank onto my bed, kicking off my boots. They fell to the floor with a thud, and I rolled onto my side, no longer caring what I looked like. The maw of depression I’d come to call friend appeared inside me, and I willed it to swallow me whole. Alice draped my blanket over my shivering form and sat on the mattress beside me, a grave look on her face. “I’m worried, Jane,” she murmured. “It’s just a stomach upset,” I lied miserably. “Is something going on between you and Rocky?” she asked with a shake of her head. “I know you have become a favorite of his, but is it more?” I shook my head. “We talk,” I said after a moment. “We argue some…” “Is that what has upset you?” she asked, prodding for more. “You do look feverish, but…” I swallowed hard. “I’m used to his arrogance.” “Jane, please be careful,” she pleaded. “Rocky is more than he seems.” I stilled, my blood feeling like it was mixing with ice water. “What do you mean?” “The Rochester’s are well known for looking out for themselves. They take what they want with no regard for others.” “You think he is using me?” I asked breathlessly. “But…we only talk.” The lie slipped out so easily, which only added to my sickness. It hadn’t felt like he was merely using my company, but perhaps there was a shred of truth in her words. There was a great deal of evidence to support it. The way he avoided personal questions, the way he twisted his words, the way he used pleasure as a balm. I was so embroiled in the dealings of my own heart, I was blinded. Did he truly see me as a human being and his spiritual equal or merely as a toy to be played with? Alice opened her mouth, then closed it, whatever she wanted to say lost. I grimaced and took this moment to tell her a little of my upbringing—enduring Aunt Sarah and her constant belittling of my presence and coming to terms with the harsh blows of being abandoned at Lowood. It was all training in a way. I was well aware of the selfish potential of the human race and their harsh capabilities, and I had developed measures to protect myself. Words like cold, solitary, and emptiness all came to mind. I wanted to live, but living had become a puzzle too complicated to unravel. Upon hearing this, Alice’s expression crumpled and moved from concern to pity, and I wasn’t sure which one was worse. “I came to terms with my past a long time ago,” I said. “I need neither apologies or pity because of it.” “Your aunt took your name!” she exclaimed. “Don’t you ever wonder about it?” “Sometimes,” I replied. “But no one has ever come looking, so I believe no one remains but me. I am a Doe, first of her name. I can go anywhere and do anything.” Even as I said it, I knew I was now tied to Edward Rochester and Thornfield. Despite his treatment, I couldn’t find it within my means to leave. I had no place else to go. Alice frowned and lay the back of her hand on my forehead once more. “You have cooled some,” she said. “You must get some rest, Jane.” I nodded, feeling glad for her company. “Can you promise me something?” she asked, and I nodded once more. “Be careful with Rocky. Remember the things you’ve just told me. You can go anywhere, Jane, but please, be wary of his temper. He’s still a slave to his whims and has a spiteful streak, no matter how calm he seems to be now.” I didn’t have it in me to reply. As I allowed her to leave, her words hung heavily in the air around me. Burying into my blankets, my body ached from Edward’s lovemaking, and my heart throbbed with the revelations the night had wrought. Soon, I fell into a fitful sleep, my dreams plagued with demons of my own. Come morning, I felt quite a bit better. The sun was bright outside my window, and I sat up with a start, realizing Alice had turned my alarm off. Her intentions came from a good place, but my chaotic mind was soothed by work, not relaxation. When I managed to drag my heavy limbs downstairs, it was almost lunchtime. Alice didn’t say a word as I slid into my chair, and I was thankful. I didn’t want to hear any more about the wicked potential of my secret lover. As I knew I would, I worked to forget the night before, focusing my mind on the timetable of events for the upcoming artist retreat. Guests were beginning to confirm, speakers and workshop teachers were submitting their requests for space and materials, and there was plenty to do. I was so lost in my own desperation for escape, I didn’t hear the front door open in the main gallery. Finally, I turned at the sound of footsteps and started as I beheld a man standing in the doorway to the office. My heart thrummed at the sudden appearance, and I took stock of him. He was looking for a room, I suppose. “Hello, Miss,” he said, inclining his head, a shock of dark hair falling into his eyes. Rising to my feet, I scolded myself internally for allowing my mind to wander. “Pardon me,” I said hastily. “I didn’t hear you come in.” “That’s quite all right,” he replied, smiling at my frazzled state. His speech and presentation were polite and refined, not at all like the swathes of guests who had departed the week before. His accent was peculiar, not quite European but not quite English, and I couldn’t place it to any locale I could think of. He looked to be of a similar age to Edward, around thirty to thirty-five, and his complexion was sallow and drawn as though he shied away from sunlight. In saying all of that, he was handsome enough, but nothing could compare him to the master of Thornfield. “I’m here to see Edward Rochester,” the man declared. “Is he here?” “Mr. Rochester is out today on business,” I replied. “I’m not sure when he will return.” His gaze held nothing. It was if a vacant man stared back at me, and I wasn’t sure if my words had registered with him until he spoke. “I will wait until he returns if you don’t mind.” “Not at all,” I replied. “Are you hungry? Dinner is not far off, and I can have the chef prepare you a meal if you like.” He smiled, some of the tiredness shedding from his person. “That would be brilliant,” he said. “I’ve come a long way, and I’m near starving.” “This way, sir,” I said, gesturing for him to follow me through to the dining room. “I’m Richard Mason,” he said. “Everyone calls me Mason. I’m not fond of all that sir and Mr. business. I’m just a man.” “Well then, Mason,” I said, opening the doors and ushering him to sit where he liked. “I’m Jane, one of the hotel managers. If there is anything I can assist you with while you are here, please let me know.” He smiled widely and nodded. “I’ll be sure to.” “Take a seat anywhere you like,” I went on, holding out my hand toward the empty dining room. “There are menus on the tables with a vast selection.” “Wonderful,” Mason exclaimed, choosing a table in the center of the room. “You’ll be sure to let Edward know I’m here when he returns? I have urgent business with him, though I’m sure he won’t see it that way. We’re old friends, he and I.” “Of course.” I frowned slightly at his words but didn’t question them. It wasn’t my place. Leaving Mason be, I let the kitchen know we had a guest to attend to, then ventured back to reception to finish my tasks for the day before I too sought out dinner. “Who was that?” Alice asked as soon as I entered. “You don’t recognize him?” I asked in surprise. “He seemed so familiar with Mr. Rochester that I assumed you knew him.” “No, I’ve never seen him before. Did he tell you his name?” “Richard Mason,” I replied. “Mason?” Her cheeks paled, and her eyes widened slightly, but it was so brief I wasn’t sure I’d witnessed the change. “Do you know him after all?” I prodded, hoping for some scrap of information. She shrugged and waved her hand. “The name sounds familiar somehow. I’m sure he’s just one of Rocky’s business partners.” “He mentioned they were old friends,” I offered. “Old friends?” She contemplated this, then shrugged. “Perhaps they went to school together. Or they know one another from his travels around Europe. What a mystery!” Gathering herself, she closed down the computer and turned the telephone onto the answering machine. “Now how about dinner, Jane? I’m starving like you wouldn’t believe. I forgot lunch today!” Making a note of Alice’s hasty dismissal, I turned off my own computer and followed her toward the dining room. Now that all the guests had departed, the room was reopened to host our nightly staff dinnertime. Sitting in my usual corner, I looked at Mason as he devoured his plate of food and attempted to decipher a little of the mysterious stranger’s being. His eye wandered, and there was no meaning to it at all. It gave him a very odd look. There was no power in his stature, no firmness in his expression, and no command in his blank brown eyes. He’d mentioned he and Edward were old friends, and it struck me as a curious relationship. They seemed to be cut from two very different pieces of cloth—two extremes meeting in the middle. It was often said that opposites attract, but in this case, it was outrageous to my mind. The sound of a car outside demanded my attention, and I stood. “Where are you off to?” Alice asked. “Your plate is still three-quarters full!” “There is a car outside,” I replied. “If it’s Mr. Rochester, he will want to know Mr. Mason is here. I shan’t be long.” “Don’t be too long, then. The roast beef is particularly delicious this evening. Shame to have some go missing from your plate.” Smiling at Alice’s humor, I went out into the main gallery just as the grand oak door was opening. When it let in Edward and a gust of cold air, I shivered. “Jane,” he said. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your greeting?” “There is a man here to see you,” I replied, keeping my tone formal even though I wished to smooth down his hair and kiss his lips. “A Mr. Richard Mason. I’ve set him down to dinner in the dining room…” I trailed off as Edward’s expression began to change, the fearful man I’d first met rushing unhindered to the surface. “Has he spoken to anyone?” he asked harshly. “Has he spoken to you?” Confusion washed over me, and I shook my head. “No, not much. He mentioned you were old friends, and he wished to wait for your return. He seemed to have some urgent business.” I gestured to the dining room. “He’s at dinner and very much preoccupied with the roast beef, sir.” His expression twisted even further, and a sharp jolt of fear flowed through my veins. His ire had risen to heights I’d never witnessed before, and as he strode past me, I followed hastily as he burst into the dining room. The staff glanced up at his sudden appearance, the air stilling as if it perched on a precipice of a cliff. Such a look of anger passed across Edward’s face as he beheld Mason, and it startled me, my blood beginning to run cold thinking I’d done wrong to offer the man hospitality. Glancing at Alice, she looked just as dumbfounded as I felt and came to stand beside me. “A storm is brewing, Jane,” she murmured as Edward practically manhandled Mason out of the dining room. “The good times were never meant to last around here. Not at Thornfield.” “What do you mean?” I asked, glancing at her. What a strange thing to say. “You’ve not seen Rocky in a temper,” she replied. “Not a real one. The waters have been calm these past months. It’s unusual, but now things seem to be returning to the status quo.” My stomach churned as I contemplated what appeared to be the true nature of the man who’d stolen my heart. Was it a kindness when he’d removed me from his bed the previous night, then? I had not once seen the face of the man who had just now all but dragged another from the room by the scruff of his neck. I’d seen a great number of masks in his collection, but this one had been hidden carefully. Anger was an ugly emotion. It was fearful and unstable. I didn’t like it at all. At that moment, I felt the string that bound Edward and I together begin to fray, its strands spinning as it unfurled. I thought I’d seen all the parts of him that mattered, but in truth, he was a labyrinth full of unexplored corners. I feared I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did…and to my fragile heart, it was dangerous. What was I supposed to do? Even as I asked myself the question, I knew the answer to my dilemma. Nothing. I was to do nothing unless commanded to. It was none of my concern, but how I wished to help him! I’d always felt things more keenly than others, and in this, I was no different. Every hurt that passed across Edward’s face I bore with him, even if he knew it or not. Every sorrow I wished to share in an attempt to remove some of his pain, but he wouldn’t allow me. There wasn’t even any interest in the things that made me who I was, either. Perhaps I was just his secret mistress after all. 22 That night, I received no word from Edward. I suspected he was busy with Mason, dealing with whatever business had brought his old friend to Thornfield, and I tried not to let it hurt my already wavering emotions. He would call for me when he was ready, and then I’d attempt to discuss the meaning of our relationship. It was dangerous as it could go either way, but I could no longer sit by and become a plaything. Curling up in bed, I closed my eyes and attempted to fall asleep—because everything seemed better when rested—but as per my usual routine, my thoughts tumbled around and around. I wanted to belong more than anything, and this affair with Edward… Well, it did nothing but set me apart in the worst possible way. I thought I could handle it because in the beginning, having him a little was more satisfying than not having him at all, but now it was not. I was just dozing off when laughter drew me back to the surface, and I slapped my palms over my ears. Hush, Thornfield! Not tonight, I beg you! Dismissing it as another of Grace Poole’s weird midnight walks, I dozed and fell into a deep sleep, my thoughts finally lulled to a murmur. “Jane.” I heard my name being whispered as if spoken in a dream. “Jane, wake up.” My eyes opened a crack, and light illuminated my face. Blinking, I realized I’d left the lamp on, and as my wits returned, I saw Edward kneeling beside me. “What…” “Jane, wake,” he murmured again, his hand gently untangling my hair. “I heard a scream in my dream,” I muttered, pieces of what my mind had wrought whilst sleeping brought to the surface by his words. “Such a scream…” Edward cupped my face and stroked his thumb across my cheek. “Wake, Jane,” he murmured. “I am not an apparition.” Realizing I was indeed awake, I sat upright, forcing his hand to fall from my face. “What’s the matter? It’s past midnight.” “I need your assistance quite urgently, and there is no one else to ask,” he replied gravely. “Surely—” “Jane,” Edward barked, his black eyes shooting sparks, and I was silenced. “You can resume your argumentative spirit another time. Right now, I need you to come without complaint and a still tongue. Can you abide?” I nodded, reaching for a cardigan draped over the chair beside my bed. I was hardly dressed for midnight emergencies, but people rarely were. My cotton shorts, worn singlet, and cardigan would have to do. Once I’d slipped my boots on my feet, Edward took my hand and peered out into the hall as if we were on some secret mission. Perhaps we were, but this didn’t seem all that strange to me in the grand scheme of odd things that had happened within Thornfield’s walls these past months. He ushered me forward. “Take your time. Make no sound.” Trembling, I followed his path through the silent hotel even though his hand slipped from mine. I wanted to ask him so many questions, but his harsh command had me frightened. Something terrible had happened, and all at once, my mind went to Mason. Had Edward done something to the man whilst in a rage? The thought had me torn between two courses of action. Should I follow and help? Or should I turn tail and run? Knowing someone could be hurt had my conscience up in arms, so I stayed my path. I couldn’t turn away now. We stopped outside of Edward’s bedroom, and he turned, casting me a pointed look. “Can you stand the sight of blood, Jane?” he asked, causing a shudder to flow through my body. It was as I thought, then. “What have you done?” I whispered, shaking my head. “Give me your hand,” he said, ignoring my reaction. “It will do neither of us any good if you faint.” “I am stronger than I look,” I replied, though I threaded my fingers through his. “Strong and steady.” He opened the door then, and I was pulled into the room whether I was ready or not. My resolve stuttered and almost failed as I beheld what lay within. Mason lay upon Edward’s bed, curled on his side in the fetal position. The sheets were spotted with red, his face twisted in agony. My mind raced to catch up, weaving together the images before me. Blood. He was hurt. “Who did this to him?” I asked, turning on Edward. “Did—” “I did not, Jane,” he said, his brow darkening. “Why would you think such a thing?” “I don’t know what to think of you anymore, sir,” I replied, glancing fretfully at Mason. “I’m going to fetch the doctor,” Edward said coolly. “I need you to care for him until I return.” “But we should call an ambulance,” I protested, but he held up a hand to silence me. His eyes warned me not to argue. “I will go to the village and fetch the doctor.” Turning to Mason, he leaned over and murmured into his ear, “You must not talk to her on pain of death, Richard. Do you hear me?” The man nodded, his expression tight and his eyes screwed shut. I was struck dumb, and my mouth fell open. It was blatant now. I was purposely kept from the mysteries locked away within this house and in Edward’s cold heart. The realization stung as if I were the one wounded on that bed. Edward glanced at me, his expression closed, and said, “Remember. No conversation.” Then he strode from the room, leaving me alone with Mason. Why he should think I had the skill to care for a wounded man was beyond me. Considering our secret entanglement, perhaps I was the only one he could place this burden upon. This event, this violence, was meant to be kept as secret as our affair. Glancing at Mason, I frowned, but he was too out of it to say much of anything, even without Edward’s command. Filling a basin with cold water from the bathroom, I set it on the bedside table and doused a face washer. Wringing out the material, I folded it up into one long strip and placed it across Mason’s forehead. He moaned as the material came into contact with his skin, but his eyes didn’t open. I urged him onto his back, and he rolled over without complaint, revealing the severity of his wounds to me. Beholding the blood that coated his skin and the bed below, I paled. He wasn’t just hurt. This was… Who had done this violence to him if not Edward? Lifting the torn pieces of Mason’s shirt away from the wound on his arm, I dabbed gently at the blood with a clean cloth, cleaning as much of it away as I could. Glancing at his face, he was still unconscious or asleep—I didn’t know which—so I moved onto cleaning the gash as best I could to help promote clotting lest he bled to death. The more worrying violence was the deep gouge in his side. Rolling up his shirt, I repeated the same process. Here, his flesh had been torn viciously, and now that it was clear of blood, I could see something had stabbed into his side. It was worrying indeed, but at least the bleeding seemed to have slowed to a mere trickle. That bode well. Deciding to leave the wounds uncovered and open to the air, I drew a chair to the side of the bed so I could keep close watch over Mason. I curled up in it and watched the rise and fall of his chest as he slept. The night twisted around me, a pale and bloody spectacle lay within reach, and my thoughts wandered to ghosts and murderers let loose in the halls of Thornfield. I’d heard the same manic laughter that had led me through the halls of Thornfield to the fire that almost took Edward’s life. I’d heard a scream in my dream as if it was born above my very room, and I began to suspect it hadn’t been in my mind after all. Was it Grace Poole who had wrought this harm? If she was capable of such treachery, then why was she allowed to roam the halls as freely as she did? I wanted to see the good in all things, so I began to formulate excuses and alibis for the strange maid. Surely, it wasn’t her? And what of Edward’s anger at the sight of his old friend? I couldn’t forget the rage that had passed through his eyes and the way he dragged the man from the dining room. The mystery was only deepening, and not one of these clues led me to solve the riddle. I was going around in circles. I had to have faith Edward would reveal the events of this night to me once he returned, although I knew the chances of it were slim. I still had to try for my own peace of mind. Outside, the wind had picked up and was blowing a gale across the moor. It rattled the windows every now and then, and I could feel it tickle my skin. Glancing around the room, my eye settled on the tapestry to the right of the bed. It was medieval in appearance and hung from the ceiling to the floor as was the style in those days. Most grand manors and houses held such treasures, and so did Thornfield, but beholding its beauty wasn’t why my gaze was drawn. Rising to my feet, I stepped around the foot of the bed and stood before it, watching the fabric as it was sucked into a hollow space and then blown outward as the wind’s fingers let it go. I hardly took stock of the image portrayed before me as I curled back one side of the heavy tapestry. To my surprise, I found a hollow recess in the stone wall behind with a door set into it. It was crude, and I realized this must be an older part of the mansion. Thornfield had many renovations over the past decades as it was turned into a hotel, and all sorts of nooks and crannies were uncovered. It must be an old servant’s entrance, and I fancied it opened onto stairs that would lead to the upper floors. In centuries past, the staff used to live and work up in the eaves of great houses, using doorways such as these to quicken their path around their abodes. Remembering the upper floor Alice had shown me on my first day here, I knew it would lead me to those dusty, unused sections of the manor. I wasn’t afraid, not at first, so I raised my hand and curled my fingers around the doorknob. “Don’t!” I turned in fright, my heart racing at the sudden burst of sound from behind me. Mason held his hand out, his expression twisted in panic. “Don’t, Miss,” he said with a gasp. I glanced uneasily at the door, then allowed the heavy tapestry to fall back into place. Coldness settled on my chest, and I glanced uneasily at the secret door. “Shh,” I soothed, moving back toward the bed. “It’s okay. I won’t leave.” “You care for Rochester, don’t you?” Mason asked as I sat beside him. I hesitated, not knowing what I should say. He’d been forbidden to speak to me, and if Edward found out… “I saw it in your eyes when you came in,” he went on. “I know I threaten myself with more harm by speaking to you, but you strike me as a sweet soul. You are a good person. I see that.” “Hush,” I said, reaching for the face washer. Dipping it into the basin of clear water, I wrung it out, folded it carefully, and placed it on his forehead. “Be careful,” he said desperately. “He is not who he seems. He has secrets, Miss. Dark secrets…” His words chilled my very soul, but I didn’t allow it to show on my face. He was hurt, in pain, and feverish. It would do neither of us any good if I attempted to question him further even though I wished to tear the secrets from his mind and put this awful feeling of neglect to rest. “Miss, please,” he pleaded. “You must listen to me.” “I am listening,” I assured him. “You must rest, Mason. Mr. Rochester will return with the doctor soon, and all will be well.” He sighed as if he struggled with a heavy weight, and then closed his eyes. His breathing was ragged and his forehead hot, so I doused the face washer once more to cool it. Checking the gash on his shoulder, I saw it had bled more, the small clot that had formed loosened with his desperate pleading. Casting out my hearing, I hoped Edward wasn’t too far away. 23 The sound of boots in the hallway beyond roused me from my fitful nap. Casting my gaze over Mason, I rose and inspected his wounds before placing another face washer over his forehead. My patient slept soundly. His fever had steadied, and no bleeding had resumed. Mason started awake as the door burst open, and my heart galloped. Thankfully, it wasn’t an axe-wielding murderer but Edward Rochester and an unknown man. It must be the doctor from the village. “You have ten minutes, Carter,” Edward hissed at the man. “After that, I expect you to be on your way with your patient in tow.” The doctor nodded and placed his bag at the foot of the bed. Moving back, I vacated my place for him. He began inspecting Mason’s wounds as Edward turned on the overhead light so he could see. “Did you clean these wounds, Miss?” Dr. Carter—for that was what I assumed his name to be—asked me. I nodded, my gaze flickering to Edward’s, but he didn’t regard me at all. His eyes were firmly fixed on Mason, his expression unreadable. “It will need to be sutured,” the doctor muttered, looking over the torn flesh. Moving to the side, he inspected the stab wound in Mason’s side. “This one doesn’t look deep enough to have punctured any internal organs though I would like to have a scan done at the hospital.” “Can he be moved?” Edward inquired. The doctor nodded. “The bleeding has stopped, and the flesh is clean thanks to the ministrations of this young woman. He can be moved with little bother of worsening his symptoms.” “I’m sorry, Rochester,” Mason said through a moan, his eyes going in and out of focus. “I should’ve listened to you.” “Be still, Mason,” Edward replied, seeming to have forgotten I was still present. “You are in good hands, my friend.” “She is done for me,” was his faint reply. “Nonsense. You’ll have a scar, for sure, but in a week or two, you’ll hardly remember the pain of it. You are not dying, Mason. You are far from it, I assure you.” Edward gestured for the doctor, who assisted in righting Mason. Each man took an arm over their shoulder and hauled the wounded to his feet. “Come,” Edward said. “Let’s get you away.” Outside, it was dawn. Edward and I stood side by side, watching the doctor’s car disappear down the drive and turn onto the lane. The air was still, not a whisper of wind disturbed it, and we could hear the purr of the engine fade as Mason was born to the village above. The storm that had risen during the night had all but departed, and the horizon was clear. “You have borne a strange night, Jane,” Edward murmured. “You look pale. Are you well?” “I was afraid,” I admitted. “Of what? Mason?” “I was afraid of the inner door,” I replied with a shake of my head. Edward ground his teeth together and didn’t reply. I’d struck a nerve, and whatever haunted him had to do with what lay beyond that barrier. No doubt, now that I knew of its existence, it would be moved and hidden from me yet again. “Laughter echoes through the halls at night,” I said, unwilling to let the events of the night go. “It has a madness to it that chills my bones. I heard it tonight before you brought me to Mason.” “The house is full of strange sounds,” he said, brushing off my fears as if they were a mere annoyance. “It’s an old place. Floorboards creak, windows rattle with the wind, and ghosts most likely haunt dark corners. I’ve never heard such a thing, and I’m awake until late at night.” “It was Grace Poole!” I exclaimed desperately. “I hear her laughter often, and it was the same sound I followed the night I found your room on fire. It was the same tonight. Why do you shrug it off? She almost killed you both!” “Leave it be, Jane,” he said, his brow creasing in anger. “The matter is settled.” “You would keep a murderess under the roof of a hotel? We have guests and a reputation—” “Who has been murdered, Jane?” he asked, grasping my shoulders. “Everyone is intact and very much alive. Did you see her? Did those eyes, which now stare into my soul and mark me a fool, see her cause these grievances?” He’d backed me into a corner, and he knew it. I had no evidence save for a sound I’d heard in the darkness. I’d not once seen Grace laugh or cross paths with me on the nights I heard it echo through the halls. Nor did I lay eyes on her the night of the fire. I had no proof. Edward loosened his grip, but the firm look in his eyes didn’t dull. “Leave this matter to me. I will not ask you again.” I cowered slightly and nodded. “Come,” he said. “Let us walk a little before returning. The air will do both of us good.” He strayed down a path to our left, and I followed at his side. A fine dew covered the grass and plants, the air cool on my exposed legs. The walk was bordered with box hedges on the left, which rose taller than his looming stature, their leaves shielding us from Thornfield. To our right was a mixture of cherry trees and beds of old-fashioned flowers such as primroses and pansies, all of them in bloom. The light was still low, the sun just now rising over the horizon, but I could make out their colors just fine. Edward stilled and knelt, picking a pale pink peony. “Do you like the sunrise, Jane?” he asked, rising and offering me the flower. Taking his little offering, I nodded. “I like it just fine.” “The colors will be brilliant this morning,” he murmured, casting his eye across the lawn to the moor where the first rays of the sun were staining the sky all manner of orange, pink, and blues. “But it always is after such an escape.” “I fear I cannot stay silent,” I said, drawing his attention. “You must, Jane,” he pleaded. “You are mine, are you not?” I nodded, unsure of his intent. I was not completely his, but part of me was still tethered to his soul. “Jane Doe,” he said, turning to face me completely. “With you, I trusted this strange night. Only you. I plead with you now to keep it a secret from all but myself. You now have some of my carefully guarded power. How will you wield it?” He grasped my shoulders, his eyes swirling with emotion. “How, Jane?” “I wish to please you,” I said haltingly. “I wish to do what is right…” “This is right, Jane.” I lowered my gaze, studying the delicate petals of the peony. “Then a secret it will remain.” He sighed in relief, his grasp on my shoulders loosening until he let me go entirely. “And Mason?” I asked. “What of him?” “Will he be bound by the same pact of silence? He seems to be a man easily led.” “That he is,” Edward replied. “We needn’t worry about Richard, Jane. He knows not to defy me.” Glancing through the cherry trees to the moor beyond, I watched the changing colors in the sky as he studied the wavering emotions moving across my features. Neither of us spoke for a long time as we stood just so, our minds wandering where they would. “You are a rare one, Jane,” Edward murmured, breaking the spell the wild countryside had cast over us. “Am I?” I hardly dared to look at him for fear he’d see right through me and know what my heart held for him. “Such beauty and strength defies words,” he went on. “I scarcely know how to describe what I see before me.” “Then don’t,” I replied, finally working up the nerve to meet his gaze. His brow furrowed, and this time, I was the one who had puzzled him. A door banged, the sound echoing through the silence, and we were drawn apart. “I must go,” I said, turning from him. “Jane,” Edward exclaimed. “You would leave me without the pleasure of your lips?” Hastening down the path, I replied, “I am cold.” And there I left him. 24 For three days, I roamed the halls of Thornfield in silence. I went about my duties, I gossiped with Alice, I went to dinner with the staff, and I assisted Bessie where I could. During all of these events, no one said a word about the screams in the night or the sudden departure of Mason. I didn’t see Edward either, and I began to worry. It was foolish of me to think I should be made aware of his movements given my status and his tendency to change his mind entirely on a whim. Despite this, I still craved to be more to him than a dalliance behind closed doors. Of course, I’d received no word on Mason’s health and no explanation of his wounds, so I became fearful of what could be lingering in the house. No one else seemed to care. The staff were as happy as they usually were, no laughter echoed at night, and all had become still. Whatever trouble had been stirred now slumbered. I’d never let fear rule me, not even in the first days of my residence at Lowood, nor at the hands of Aunt Sarah, so I resumed the wanderings I’d taken to when I first arrived at the hotel. My master did not want me, so I would entertain myself as I’d done all my life. Before I left my room, I’d retrieved the key from underneath my pillow, the same key I’d completely forgotten about possessing. It was my invitation to the walls upon walls of books, each one of them an escape from my chaotic life. It was time for an adventure within the pages, for fretting on things I couldn’t control would do me no good at all. I hadn’t visited the library since before summer, and when I entered, it was dark and cold. Crossing the room, I opened the curtains, letting in the last rays of the sunset that was flung across the sky. Tiny pinpricks of light glittered above, heralding the first stars of the night coming out to shine. Darkness was a burden on Thornfield, but outside its walls, it was beautiful. It uncovered such spectacles that usually lay hidden under the sun’s light. A host of nocturnal creatures emerged from their burrows and nests—owls, mice, foxes, and even badgers—and then there were the stars. How they lit up the sky above in their thousands, hanging like a magical backdrop for the moon, which was but a sliver as its final quarter waned. On a clear night, it was as if one could see the entire universe stretching out across the moor. “I see you’ve finally remembered where the library is,” said a dark voice from behind me. Turning as Edward’s presence broke the spell nature had woven over me, I cast my gaze over him. He looked askew somehow, as if these past days had done nothing but haunt him with ferocity. “How you love your books, Jane,” he went on. “I have not needed to come since I received my tablet,” I replied warily. “Nor did I dare when your friends were in residence.” “Now you dare,” he stated, watching me with stormy eyes. I nodded, sliding my hand into my jacket pocket, my fingers tracing the outline of the key hidden within. He stared at me with such hunger I wasn’t sure which way to turn. I was so angry with him for keeping himself closed to me, but my body was screaming to bend to his will. I was trapped by his gaze, neither able to move forward or turn tail and run. “What do you wish to say to me, Jane?” he asked, his voice taking on a dangerous quality. “I can see it in your eyes. You think and think until you are sick, and yet you say nothing.” I swallowed hard, knowing I wouldn’t be leaving this room until something changed. We were on the precipice of a blistering argument of the mind and body. The air had a strange charge to it, almost like we stood inside an electrified cage, and if either one of us turned away, we’d be struck down. I suppose this moment was the climax of our story, like those written in the books around us. “Speak, Jane,” Edward commanded, his voice grating against my soul. “You say darkness resides in you, but I cannot see it being more than a shade paler than gray,” I exclaimed. “You once called me silly because I hid. Well, you, sir, are hidden, indeed. What word is worse than silly, because you are it!” Edward snarled, prowling forward. “Do you really wish to witness the things I desire, Jane? The things that drive me to dominate?” He grasped my arm and tugged me against his chest, his fingers biting painfully into my skin. “Do you want me to shed my final mask and show you the beast within?” I was caught, my gaze trapped within his even as my mind screamed at me to turn away. “It is not your desire I wish to see,” I said. “It’s your demon.” His eyes widened, and he shook his head. “Poor little plain Jane Doe,” he muttered. “They are one and the same.” “I don’t understand…” “No, you wouldn’t,” he murmured, his grip loosening and his lips lowering toward mine. “You have suffered your own hardships, have you not?” I nodded, my chest rising and falling with ragged breaths. “And how have you overcome them?” “By coming to terms with the fact I cannot change the past,” I replied, my strength beginning to return. “Those hurts are a part of me, but they are not who I am. Just as they are to you, Edward.” “Do you really believe that?” he asked. “I believe because I am living it,” I replied. “I do the best I can, which is all anyone can ask of others and themselves. We are all human, and humans falter.” He closed his eyes as his lips brushed against mine, but he didn’t take me. We were perched on the edge of a narrow path, and neither of us seemed to know which way we were going to fall. “Will you let me have you as I will, Jane? Will you let me show you how my pain has twisted me?” I trembled, my body picking up on the dangerous undercurrent in his voice. He was warning me with words that asked for my consent. Finally, I nodded my acceptance. “If I am to move forward and decide if being with you like this is what I desire, then I must.” Edward’s chest rose and fell with sharp breaths, and his nostrils flared as he warred with himself. His expression changed so many times I couldn’t keep up, and when I slacked in his grasp, he struck. His mouth came down on mine hard, his lips bruising as his tongue dove into my mouth hot and wet. Everything about his touch was abrasive as he moved me across the room. His fingers tugged at my jeans, undoing the button and lowering the zipper. Then he pushed them down, exposing me. There was no slowing his pace for pleasure or to rid me of any other clothing. He just let his base instincts take control, wanting to join with and to dominate my body, no matter the cost. Turning me around, he forced my body across a table, and my face pressed against the cool surface with my rear open to him. I was completely helpless in this position. Every ounce of his strength was used against me, and I was at his mercy. I’d consented, so I remained silent, allowing him to take what he pleased from my body. He was to show how his demon had twisted the very fabric of his being, and perhaps I was about to receive the answers to questions I longed to understand, or perhaps I was going to be torn so completely I’d never understand what drove him. I couldn’t see, but I could hear just fine as he freed his manhood. I trembled under his touch as anticipation rose, and when his palm connected with my skin with a sharp crack, I cried out in surprise. Pain bloomed, and in my aroused state, I wasn’t sure if it hurt or if I wanted more. It was a curious sensation, and when he slapped me again, I moaned loudly, quivering against his crotch. He entered me roughly, much more forcibly than before, and twisted a hand into my hair. My cheek pressed painfully into the hard surface of the table, and I couldn’t move as he thrust, his body setting a punishing pace. He took solace in my body, digging his hands into my scalp and slapping my exposed skin. When he was close to erupting, his hands closed around my neck and squeezed. I began to panic as I felt my windpipe crushing, desperately gasping for air as he took pleasure in my struggle. He didn’t let me go until I felt his seed leave his body. Then his touch turned from pain to pleasure as he soothed the hurts he’d caused. I didn’t find pleasure in it at all. Leaving my body, he lifted me onto the table, my tender flesh aching as he positioned himself between my legs. We were still naked where it mattered the most, but I couldn’t take him again. I was too shocked, too hurt, and too proud to allow him. I pressed my palm against his chest and shook my head, ignoring the moment where his shoulders tensed. “You have seen how deep my darkness runs,” he murmured. “What say you, Jane, now that you have been completely torn?” My mouth opened uselessly, waiting for my mind to catch up. Finally, I managed a few words. “Who did this to you?” His brow furrowed, his eyes never changing from the blackness they’d turned into. He seemed at war with himself yet again, as if he were trying to decide which parts of his tale of woe to impart on me. No doubt, they’d be pieces that would give away the least amount of information while still placating me. “And what gives you pause to ask me this, Jane Doe?” “I can see the tenderness in you even while you wish to cause pain,” I said, my body threatening to crumble. “You lash out… During… Who—” “Silence,” Edward growled and slapped his palm over my mouth, tugging me onto my trembling feet. “You speak of things you do not know.” I twisted my face to the side, freeing my mouth. “Not for want of trying!” Edward stared at me, his expression turning to stone. I wouldn’t let him run from this, not after what he’d done to my body. He’d shown me a great deal more than he realized, and I would use it to pry him apart. “You wanted to take the life from me,” I whispered, my fingers touching my neck. “You do not think I understand what that feels like? My name was stripped from me as a child,” I went on, my gaze never lowering from his. “I have no ancestral home, no identity, and no story.” “Your story is different from mine,” he mumbled. “Perhaps, but I can see your desires come from a place—” “Get out,” he hissed, pulling away from me. I’d expected his dismissal after hearing my words. Sliding off the table, I winced as pain shot through my skin. Someone had caused him so much despair it had scarred his soul, and now he manifested it during a moment that should be precious and tender between two lovers. All his outward mechanisms—his gloom, annoyance, and changeful ways—were there to hide him from the world. He favored power and ire so others wouldn’t add to his hurts, but…he craved tenderness, and it could only be achieved by letting down his guard and casting off his mask. The only honest piece of the man I’d seen tonight was the demon on his shoulder. The rest of his true self still lay hidden, and it caused my own heart to hurt. I wasn’t enough, but I couldn’t submit knowing I was kept at arm’s length. There were too many secrets to continue ignoring for the sake of pleasure. I pulled my jeans back up and buttoned them in place, my hands trembling. I ached all over, and it wasn’t just my body, my heart throbbed just as much as the flesh he’d slapped and the life he’d choked from me. No one—not even the enigmatical Edward Rochester—could heal without letting someone in. 25 I was torn quite completely. When I ventured downstairs the next morning, I was unsteady on my feet, sleep having done nothing but tighten my muscles and harden my heart. I’d asked for Edward to show me, and he’d done nothing but comply with my demands. What I’d thought was abrasive on his behalf was gentle. He’d been holding himself back in more ways than I’d understood. He’d let his mask slip, and I’d seen the beast within, but I couldn’t help but feel there was yet another layer he was purposely keeping from me. What should I do now? Should I stay and fight a bloody war for what may be my only chance at true happiness? Should I stand up for what was right and just—trust, honesty, and love—or leave to save my soul? Neither was an easy road, and neither guaranteed a happy ending. Both paths required great concessions on my behalf, and each fork represented a loss that would be a blow to my very being. Was I prepared to lose Edward and leave him to his darkness…or tarnish my soul forever? My agitation grew with every step, and my heart throbbed as if I were overcome with a sickness, my breath short. I was a tightly coiled spring ready to burst forth and attack the world. It was the most un-Jane-like thing of all. When I finally reached the office, I was a tornado. Alice rose to her feet, looking panicked at the sight of me. “Jane?” she asked, stepping forward to grasp my arm. “Are you ill?” I shook her away, anger rising to the surface of my heart. It was strange for me to feel so passionately irate, but I couldn’t stop it. “I cannot take it anymore,” I spat. “I cannot stand here and pretend I’m wanted.” “What are you talking about?” “All I ever wanted was to belong,” I said, my throat tightening. “All I ever wanted was to have a family.” “And you have it, Jane,” Alice said, looking pale. “You belong here with us. Can’t you see?” I shook my head. “The fire, the awful screams the other night…” “Fire? What fire?” I scowled, my control finally slipping out of my grasp. “Do you know that Mason was attacked? He was slashed and stabbed by some blunt object. He was spirited away in the night like a filthy secret long before anyone could see.” Alice’s mouth dropped open. “Mason was attacked?” “Edward swore me to secrecy and forbade Mason to talk to me about it. Forbade him, Alice! I’m being purposely kept from some big secret. Something terrible haunts him. No matter what I do or say, he keeps me apart.” “A secret at Thornfield?” she asked, looking aghast. “That’s madness!” “You know the reason behind this,” I said. “Why won’t you tell me? Why do you brush me off?” “I don’t know what you mean, Jane,” she replied, looking uneasy as she lied through her teeth. “I would help him! Don’t you see?” “Jane… I can’t tell you—” “I can’t take this anymore,” I snapped, gathering up my tablet. “You all claim to care for me, yet you don’t trust me. What is love without trust?” “When did Rocky become Edward, Jane?” Alice asked, throwing my own secret back in my face. “The moment I started sleeping with him,” I replied, turning on her, my fury now fully released. “How does that compare to attempted murder? It doesn’t!” “Oh, Jane,” she said with a moan. “I warned you not to get too close.” My fingers trembled around the tablet. “It was too late. Much too late…” Alice’s expression faltered, and she looked at me like I was a sad little puppy that had been led astray. “You love him, don’t you?” All the secrets and lies, the hidden liaisons and whispers…they took their toll so completely, I snapped in two. I’d finally reached my limit, and I didn’t have the strength to continue sacrificing myself for Edward. He’d always said or done just enough to placate and keep me interested, and it wasn’t enough. I was worth more than the mistress I’d become. And so my decision was made. “How could I?” I cried. “I can’t trust him, and I can’t trust you! Who was I to think that a nobody like me would be more than a glorified whore to him! Poor little plain Jane Doe!” Passion overcame me, and I threw the tablet against the wall, tears beginning to fall. There was a sharp crack as the screen shattered and a loud crash as it fell to the floor. Alice stared at me, open mouthed with shock, but I couldn’t bear the weight of her gaze. Spinning on my heel, I strode from the office, and once I entered the main gallery, I broke into a run. I pushed against the great oak door and burst out into the lingering summer sunshine, then I ran. “Jane, come back!” Alice’s voice echoed after me, but I didn’t slow my frantic pace. I kept on the path, threading my way across the grounds and into the forest. I didn’t know where I was going, but I had to get as far away from Thornfield as I could manage. The ground was hard underfoot as my boots crunched on gravel, pounded on earth, and kicked through leaf litter. The sun hid itself above the trees of the forest, cooling my skin, but I wasn’t done walking. This place held just as many memories as the house behind me. Breaking through to the other side, I came upon a low bluestone fence. It was in disrepair with pieces having fallen off creating an uneven surface. It was easy to scale, and I dropped down to the other side, my boots making divots in the soft earth. Standing there, I surveyed the land before me. The moor stretched ahead, the land rocky and wild, shrubbery, heather, and grass growing close to the ground, beaten back by the force of the wind. I was sure there was a metaphor for my current dilemma within its craggy surface, but I wasn’t inclined to think upon it further. My heart ached, and here, within the untamed wildness of nature, things had the simplicity I craved. There were no secrets or mysteries, no carefully spoken words or whispers. No, out here, a rock was a rock. The wind was the wind. A bird was a bird. A mouse was a mouse. There was nothing complicated about the harmony of nature. Everything had its place, and no piece of the picture before me was confused as to the part it played. Marching forward, I set out across the moor, wishing I were a bird so I could fly far, far away. I scrambled over rock, slid down embankments, wove a wild path, and finally, I stilled, collapsing on a high rock. It was warm from the sun, and I placed my palms on the rough surface, allowing the heat to seep into my flesh. My throat burned with restrained tears, and even though no one was around to see them fall, I kept a tight hold over them. Never would I shed a tear over Edward Rochester! How could I miss that which I’d never known? Behind me, Thornfield was a blight on the countryside, and I knew no matter how far I walked across the moor, I’d see its black smudge there to guide me. Ahead, I knew there was human life someplace, but the moor was vast, so I couldn’t see anything but gray rock, the earthy greens of grass and bushes, and the purple smudge of heather. My trifles of the heart seemed small compared to the space laid bare before me. “Jane!” A cool wind stirred, causing strands of hair to flicker across my face. My braid loosened in my flight, and now it was as wild as the land around me. The land that was casting whispers like a lost spirit was haunting my sanctuary. “Jane!” I turned at the sound of my name, which came louder this time, and my body trembled as it recognized the tone and desperation that lingered within its tenor. Edward. I saw him then, a dark smudge working his way through the rock, and when he saw me atop my perch, he hurried forward. He’d come after me. Was there no escape? 26 Edward found me perched high on my rock. He didn’t rush toward me, nor did he take me in his arms. Alice likely called him the moment I ran from Thornfield, and here he was coming to mend the wound before I spilled our secret to anymore ears. “Jane,” he said, sitting beside me. “If you have come to make sure my lips have not whispered in more ears, you needn’t worry,” I said dryly. “I couldn’t bear to disclose it or the pain you caused me last night. The words feel… They don’t feel right anymore.” “Jane,” he murmured, the longing clear in his voice. “I shouldn’t have touched you the way I did.” “I asked you to,” I replied harshly. “It is who you are. It is what you want. I’m not upset.” “I can see the effort in your features,” he murmured. “You are holding back tears.” “If the pleasure and pain you wrought last night caused anything, it was understanding.” I paused, attempting to formulate what I’d come to know. “Understanding?” he prodded. “Of who you are.” I swallowed my tears and delivered my final judgment. “Anger drives you, nothing else. What that anger is, I don’t know. I’m sure I never will.” Silence stretched between us. The string I’d always felt tethering us together had all but disappeared, and I could sense the last of his light drifting away. It was so solemn, I was sure I’d never smile again. “I would have you,” he said after a long moment. “As you are now. As we are. You would want for nothing. Your every need would be cared for, and you would travel and see the world. How I long to see your happiness at the sight of Paris. You would flourish, Jane. Flourish.” It was a fine dream, to see the world, but I wasn’t a fool. It wouldn’t be on Edward Rochester’s arm as his one and only. I would travel separate and creep in the darkness, coming to him when all eyes were distracted. I would have a carefully construed alias. Perhaps I would be his personal assistant or some kind of secretary or associate. I wouldn’t be Jane Doe, girlfriend, fiancée, wife. I would never be any of those things, and they were the only ones I wanted. I didn’t care one iota about the rest. A name, a purpose, belonging… Someone who wanted me. Those were more valuable to me than money. Jane Doe could not be bought. How hadn’t he realized this by now? I’d told him a long time ago I cared not for material wealth. He’d been spiritually starved, and I could fill him up… It was a fine dream, and a dream it was. “What was it you said to me?” I asked. “Not long after we met?” I could feel his uncertainty on the air. “I don’t follow…” “Would companionship of mind and body be enough without the heart?” I quoted him, the words forming in my mind as if he’d spoken them only moments before. “I can already see they are not,” he replied, his voice strained. “I thought it would since I never understood the meaning of love,” I said. “But I cannot abide as we are, knowing you hold so many secrets from me. Knowing you are in such pain.” “Secrets are secrets for a reason, Jane. You don’t understand now, but if you knew…” “No,” I said. “You don’t understand. How can I go on knowing there is someone or something that intends you and others harm? How can I go on knowing you purposely distrust me?” “I trust you, Jane,” he began, but I didn’t want to hear another excuse. “That is a lie. I was your dirty secret, not good enough to be more than a plaything. A balm for your weary soul. That was proven when you kept commanding me to skulk around Thornfield like a rat and refusing to trust me with your secrets.” “And there it is in full,” he said, his lip curling into a sneer. “How you must hate me for toying with you!” “I would love you, Edward Rochester,” I declared, turning my gaze upon him. “I would love you no matter the darkness or the truth behind your precious secrets. I would help you without question, but the love of a woman as little as I was never going to be enough for you, was it? I was not powerful enough in your eyes.” “Who am I to argue,” he said, averting his gaze. “You have made up your mind and delivered the final blow with such accuracy. I suppose I’m stone once more.” I curled my lip. “If you are stone, it is only of your own doing.” “Who knew the sacrifice would be so great?” he murmured to himself, reverting to his sphinxlike tendencies. I disregarded his words, turning from him. He and I were no more, and his demon could have all of him! I was numb now, but I knew the moment he removed himself from my presence I would feel it more keenly than any pain I’d ever felt. Already, I trembled at the growing anguish. “I suppose you will leave Thornfield now,” he said. “I have no place to go,” I replied. “Not yet.” Silence stretched between us as I watched a lonely hawk coast through the air. It glided with such otherworldly grace I wondered how it kept itself aloft. I wished I could fly away with such strength. Edward moved beside me. “Then I shall be the one to leave. Who am I to deny you a roof and a bed.” “Once I find a new position, I will take my leave,” I went on. “Thornfield will be rid of my presence.” “The retreat?” he inquired. “After.” I’d put too much work into it to allow someone else to take it over at the eleventh hour. I would see it through—my pride wouldn’t allow me to abandon it. “Come September I shall depart.” “And so it is done,” he murmured, rising to his feet. I listened to the sound of his footsteps scraping across the rocks as he departed, my gaze fixed firmly on the horizon. The world stretched before me, full of possibilities and endless adventure, but I couldn’t feel any spark knowing I was soon to be cast within its ever-changing waters. I could go anywhere and be anyone, but Edward’s words and touch still blistered my skin, and the scar ran deep…so deep, I knew I’d never be rid of it. Love was nothing compared to the power he held. Turning, I stared at the house, finally understanding the anger in which he’d stared up at it the day we first made love in the forest. When I arrived, I saw it as a beacon of hope, a fresh start and a promise of home, but now I only saw darkness. It was cursed, utterly and completely. Thornfield was my beginning… And it had ended me. This is not the end…. Paradox (The Thornfield Affair #2) is now available! Other Books in The Thornfield Affair **The series is complete!** Orphaned as an infant, Jane Doe has nothing, but desires everything life has to offer. When she’s offered work at Thornfield, a grand English manor turned hotel, she meets her match in the dark and brooding proprietor, Edward Rochester. Soon enough, tensions rise to breaking point, and they become embroiled in an illicit affair of the mind and body. Welcome to Thornfield where two lost souls are destined to love…no matter the cost. * * * The Thornfield Affair is a modern reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre. Euphoria #1 Paradox #2 Zenith #3 Keep reading for a sneak peek at PARADOX, the second installment of The Thornfield Affair. JOIN AMITY’S VIP NEWSLETTER * * * If you would like to keep up with all the news from Amity Cross, including new book releases, sales, cover reveals, pre-orders and all the exciting things you can possibly think of, please signup with your email address by tapping the link below. Never miss a new release again! Sign up for Amity Cross’ VIP Newsletter. * * * #GritGloryLove *Or Visit: http://www.amitycrosswrites.com/newsletter-2/ ABOUT THE AUTHOR AMITY CROSS is the USA Today Bestselling author of wicked stories about rock stars looking for redemption, gritty romances featuring MMA fighters and dark tales of forbidden romance. She loves to write about alpha males and the strong women who challenge them to fall in love. Amity lives in a leafy country town near Melbourne, Australia and can be found chained to her desk, held at ransom by her characters. Don’t send help. She likes it. * * * Follow Amity Online: Website: http://www.amitycrosswrites.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theamitycross Twitter: https://twitter.com/amitycross Newsletter: http://bit.ly/AmityCrossNews * * * Give a new hero a try! Grab the FREE Amity Cross Starter Library today: http://www.amitycrosswrites.com/free Paradox (The Thornfield Affair #2) A Sneak Peek… CHAPTER ONE I was alone. The moor stretched out before me, its landscape covered in protruding rock, cotton grass, mosses, bracken, and shrubs laden with tiny black crowberries. My throat burned with unshed tears, the tether that connected my soul to my love, severed. I felt Edward’s absence keenly as if he’d been gone years, not the mere minutes since he’d retreated to Thornfield. The sky was endless above me, the universe vast and devoid of the happiness and belonging I’d sought all my life. The love of poor little plain Jane Doe wasn’t enough. I remained on my rock, attempting to find solace in nature and to calm my fractured soul for as long as I was able, but the light was fleeting, and I was cold. Considering I had nowhere to go and no money to take me away, I had to return to the scene of my greatest heartbreak and go on. There was nothing else I could do, and my pride wouldn’t allow me to hide for long. By the time I crossed Thornfield’s border, the sun was lowering in the sky, and a breeze had lifted, stirring the grand old trees as I ventured back through the forest. I lingered in the grounds, knowing I’d have to face Alice and the staff, convinced word had spread of my uncharacteristic outburst like wildfire. Summer was at an end. I could feel the chill of autumn in the air, and the turning of the seasons was already beginning to show in the garden. Here and there, a spot of gold shone through endless green, and soon, branches would be barren and leaves would coat the ground, causing endless annoyance for the groundskeeper. Soon after the explosion of color, winter would come with its bland flurries of wind and snow, but I would be long departed before I could see another season pass the landscape. Thornfield seemed emptier than usual when I finally crossed the threshold. When I lingered in the doorway to reception, not a word was spoken about my temper and the rage in which I’d broken the screen of my tablet, and I was thankful for it. Alice hugged me in an attempt to console, but by this time, I’d already closed myself off. From the look on her face, she hadn’t been the only one to hear the things I’d said, and with Edward giving chase, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the secret was out. How would the staff see me now? Such a scandal! And how was I to react when I laid eyes on Edward? I feared to see him, my longing was so great, but as it turned out, I didn’t have the time to worry about it. He left Thornfield the day after our confrontation on the moor as promised, and he wouldn’t return until I had departed on the next stage of my life. He was gone in all senses of the word. My love had been cast aside, not enough to soothe the pain of the man I would give everything to. Nothing meant more to me than my soul, and it would’ve been freely given in exchange for his, but he could not trust, and I could not go on knowing his very being was hidden from mine. So what could I do? Give myself to him knowing I’d never be entirely happy, or sever all ties and retain my dignity? I didn’t care one iota about the riches he’d offered. Material wealth was nothing but a hindrance and a barrier to true and complete togetherness. Society drove a wedge between us, but in the end, it was the man who’d become a pale specter. I chose to preserve my soul, and so he’d departed and taken my heart and happiness instead. A day turned into two, and the void that had opened up inside me did nothing but shoot a terrible pain through my heart. If I could not have Edward, then I was determined to find the secrets Thornfield was hiding from me. I would have answers, be what they may. I spent hours gathering the things I knew and attempted to piece them together like a puzzle. Laughter echoed through the halls in the dead of night. The strange Grace Poole wandered here and there like a skulking ghost. An unknown assailant had attacked Edward’s friend Richard Mason—an attack I was never given an explanation for—and a fire had almost taken the master’s life. If it weren’t for the haunting laughter leading me through the hotel, I’d never have been there to save him from the flames. He’d brushed it off as a faulty electric blanket, but I’d come to believe it was a lie. How could I not? Something dark and twisted lurked within these walls, something I was purposely kept from and was so terrible it haunted Edward to the point of poisoning his heart. I was determined to find it before it caused someone else harm. The hotel was currently empty, so no one hindered my search as I hunted for clues. I flung open doors and checked every cupboard and drawer, lifted tapestries and paintings, and jumped up and down on loose floorboards. I scoured the upper levels, sorted through storage, and found nothing but the dust of the ages. I lingered long hours in the library, opening every glass cabinet and paging through the books held within. I was covered in soot when I checked the inside of the fireplace and caused Bessie to have a heart attack at the state of the rug on the hearth. In the study, I checked for false panels in the walls and the desk, but no papers or files were kept within. Edward had taken his computer with him, and when I found a safe behind a row of books on a shelf, I found I wasn’t cut out for a heist of any kind. The combination was impossible to crack. The only place I didn’t dare go was Edward’s bedroom. Perhaps it was the only place that held the answers I so desperately desired, but it was also the scene of so many hurts. I’d cared for Mason as he lay injured in Edward’s bed, a fire had erupted and almost burned him alive, and his hands had wrapped around my throat in an odd display of euphoria not three days prior. What was so terrible that a man felt he could only manifest his pain in such a way? And during an act of pleasure, no less. That was what I was searching for, but like Edward’s vast collection of masks, he kept his secrets well hidden. The last place I hadn’t traversed were the battlements. I greatly doubted I would find anything on the roof of Thornfield, but I ventured up to the attic nonetheless, as I had to complete the circuit before I could fully rest. I pulled down the ladder and climbed out into the clear air, the cobwebs seeming to clear from my mind. Hoping it wasn’t an illusion, I began to walk the leads, studying the grounds below with a keen eye. “Why could he not trust me?” I asked the sky. “Why could he not love me?” I couldn’t tell, and nothing answered me. I ordered my brain to quiet and find a response itself, but it worked and worked and couldn’t find respite for my anguish. My temples pulsed with an oncoming headache, fever rising in my cheeks. Maybe if I were beautiful, rich, and held more power, he would tremble at my feet. Maybe he would see me as an equal and worthy of sharing the burdens that troubled him so. Maybe if I had a name… “Jane, what are you doing up here?” I turned to find Alice standing behind me on the leads, a concerned look on her face. Truthfully, I was beginning to become worried myself. Never had I turned to such desperate tendencies at the end of a relationship, not that I’d had any of significance until now, and never had I acted so erratically. I was driving myself mad with despair…over a man. “Bessie says you have been tearing the hotel apart,” she went on. I didn’t know what to say. Every answer I could’ve given was laced with a startling insanity. “This isn’t like you, Jane,” she continued. “Please, come back inside.” “I am not going to fling myself off the edge, Alice,” I replied. “I am not so slighted by the changeful affection of a man that I might attempt to take my own life. For that is what he is. Just a man. Not a god. Just a man…” A man I’d fallen in love with despite my better judgment. Love wasn’t easy to give, and I’d never understood it, but I’d given it freely knowing I may never receive it in return. Would companionship of mind and body be enough without the heart? Deep inside, I’d known it could come to this, and perhaps if I’d known… Was I so desperate to belong? Who was I? Who was Jane Doe if not strong and resilient? Who was Jane Doe? I grasped the simple iron balustrade, my head spinning. “Jane!” Alice cried, clutching my arm. “I don’t feel so good.” I took heaving breaths, my stomach rolling and my head throbbing. “You’ve worked yourself up so much you’ve made yourself sick,” she murmured. “Please, come back into the house.” I nodded, my fingers clutching her arm, and allowed her to lead me from the battlements and down the ladder into the attic. Now on more stable ground, I leaned against the wall as my bearings returned while Alice closed the hatch to the roof. “You should take the next couple of days to rest,” she said. “I’ll make sure the preparations for the artist retreat come along, and I’ll have Bessie and the others bring you something to eat when you desire it.” “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m… I’ve never acted like this before. I don’t know where it came from. You must think I’m mad.” “I understand,” she replied. “It takes a great deal of conviction to care for a man like Rocky. Everyone I’ve ever known has given up before they’ve even tried.” I closed my eyes. “What of the Queen Bee, Blanche Ingram?” “She would settle for anything with a deep wallet,” she replied with a snort. “Most people have hearts, Jane. She does not. You love for the right reasons.” I sighed as she threaded her arm through mine and led me down through the house. “How do you know?” “I’ve seen you, Jane. We all have. You are quiet and guarded, that’s no secret, but you dare to take a chance on someone who others consider a hopeless case. That is admirable. You shouldn’t feel terrible about it. Rocky leaving was his choice.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her the extent of it—that I’d been the one to cast him away and not submit to a pale imitation of love—so I remained silent. Alice ordered me to my room, and she took me there herself, making sure I was installed completely in bed with no hope of further wanderings. She said my health depended on it, and I was needed to oversee the artist retreat I’d so carefully organized. It was to commence in three weeks’ time, and no one knew the details like I did. “What were you looking for?” Alice asked, tucking the blanket around my shoulders. “Answers,” I replied, closing my eyes. Whatever Alice thought about this she didn’t say. I felt the mattress rise as she stood, and then the door closed as she left me to rest. I was quite literally heartsick.

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