This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, any place, events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Wishing Well: Copyright © 2018 by Lily White
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced, scanned, distributed in any printed or electronic form or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
A Romantic Suspense by Lily White
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Other Books by Lily White
Her Master’s Courtesan
(Book 1 of the Masters Series)
(Available on Smashwords and www.lilywhitebooks.com)
Her Master’s Teacher
(Book 2 of the Masters Series)
Her Master’s Christmas
(Novella in the Masters Series)
Her Master’s Redemption
(Book 3 of the Masters Series)
Illusions of Evil (Illusions Duet, Book One)
Fear the Wicked (Illusions Duet, Book Two)
The Director (A Dark Exclusive
only available on Smashwords
Rules of Engagement
Crazy Madly Deeply
They are far too bleak, these places with their metal bars and razor wire, these holes where doomed men are tossed, awaiting the day when their numbers would be pulled and they would be walked down long halls to a room that would forever remember their last breath.
Even the sun couldn’t penetrate the low hanging dark clouds, the sky a grey haze welcoming Meadow Graham to Faiville Prison, the hole that held a criminal who had taken everything she had left.
Seeing him would shred what remained of her barely beating heart, but she made her way up the long winding sidewalk regardless. In the distance she could hear the muted shouts of men, both criminal and security. She could see the rigid, cement buildings, could smell the taint of violence and fear that doused the grounds in misery.
How long had this man - this monster - been chained? Three days remained for him, seventy-two hours that he’d set aside for one interview, one meeting where he would explain the reasons for his crimes. Approaching the outermost gates of the high security institution, Meadow was unsure why Vincent Mercier had allowed this last conversation, why he’d chosen her out of numerous investigators, journalists and rabid fans, to hear his tale of a life lived in luxury, elegance and decay. If anybody would hate him most, it would be her, yet one month prior, she’d received a note inviting her to the prison to record his last confession.
Smiling at the guard, she withdrew her identification and journalist credentials, allowing him to inspect the materials she’d brought to record the interview that many had requested but been denied.
Apologetically, the guard explained, “Given Vincent’s antics while in the facility, we can’t allow you to take much inside the interview room. Only a tape recorder, your tapes, and that’s it. Even these pens can be used as weapons. You’ll have to leave them with me until the day’s end.”
She wasn’t surprised. From what she knew of Vincent, he could create havoc in any place he roamed. “I understand,” she answered, forcing another smile, even though she felt like screaming. A month hadn’t been enough time for her to prepare her heart for this meeting, had been too little time for her to adequately steel her spine.
After flitting his fingers over an electronic keypad, the guard used a physical key to unlock the large, iron gate, the pneumonic hiss that of a serpent welcoming Meadow to Hell. Ignoring the chill that coursed down her spine, she brushed her long, brown hair away from her face, wondering why she’d chosen to wear it down rather than up and out of the way. It wasn’t that she wanted to impress Vincent with her appearance, it was that she wanted him to remember her face - to remember the face of his last victim before his incarceration.
The guard led her down a maze of halls, his steps regular, yet lethargic, his shoulders squared and his head balding at the top. Meadow would have aged him at least in his late forties, but she surmised he could be younger and that a life around violent men had stolen his youthful appearance, replacing it with a menacing resolve.
Approaching another set of ominous gates, two guards stood at the ready, their expressions hardened, their hair clipped close to their heads. They wore the standard slate grey uniform, their belts heavy with the tools of their dreary trade.
Snatching a set of keys from his belt, the older guard unlocked the gate, the younger entering a small booth to tap in the electric key, the gate opening with the same hiss as the first.
Meadow’s escort approached the men. “Ms. Graham is here for her interview with Vincent Mercier. Is he secured already?”
“Interview room three,” the older guard answered, confusion riding his tone. His eyes lifted to hers. “Although I have no idea what you would want with him. He’s worthless. A no good sadist that deserves the needle. Why give him the time to brag?”
Understanding filtered through Meadow’s bones. It was true that a man like Vincent would enjoy the theatrics of such an interview. His crimes weren’t solely physical, his cruelty wasn’t restrained to death of the body alone. He enjoyed imparting his control over the psyche of those around him. Knowing this, Meadow had attempted to prepare, but how does one ready themself for a man as refined in his games as Vincent? However, knowing he would enjoy this time wasn’t enough to deter her. She wanted answers, and she was willing to play whatever games Vincent demanded to get them.
“Perhaps the information I obtain in the next three days will give solace to his victims’ families,” Meadow mused aloud.
The guard huffed while stepping aside to let Meadow and her escort through. “The only solace those families will have is watching him die. He’s drawn a full crowd. There won’t be one empty seat in the viewing room.”
Meadow’s heart lurched, her mind warring with her soul. It wasn’t that Vincent didn’t deserve to die for his crimes. It wasn’t that she didn’t hate him for killing her sister. But there was more to him that she knew, secrets that had been revealed to her by a gift she’d received following her sister’s death. There was more to this monster than most understood, and for that small part of him, she mourned.
“Thank you for letting us through,” she responded in order to appear polite. The guard’s disgust was not without merit, not after what Vincent had so callously done in his life, but to celebrate his death was almost as bad. Refusing to meet the older guard’s eyes as they passed, she was thankful to turn a corner into a long hall marked by equally spaced steel doors.
Small numbers were indicated above the door, Meadow’s steps coming to a stop outside room three.
“Here we are. Are you sure you want to talk to him?” Her escort attempted to smile, but the expression was lost within the concern written over his face. “He’s not the nicest of people.”
Unable to stop the burst of laughter, Meadow tucked her tape recorder beneath her arm. “I assume none of the men currently on death row are.”
Nodding, the guard rubbed at the back of his neck. “Yeah, but some are worse than others.”
Meadow inclined her head, sucking in a steadying breath as the guard opened the door and led her into the room. The moment her eyes met Vincent’s her heart screeched to a stop, one heavy beat bringing it back to life as the room spun around her.
“Good luck,” the guard whispered on his way out. Casting a glare in Vincent’s direction, he warned, “Best behavior, Mercier. We’re watching.”
With a smile that could only be accomplished by the most devious of lovers, Vincent responded, “Bien sûr.”
The guard hadn’t closed the door before warning Meadow, “He tends to mix his native language with English. I hope you understand French.”
With that, the door slammed closed and Meadow was left to stare at a devil with the face of an avenging angel. Prison had done nothing to strip him of his masculine, feral beauty.
With dark brown hair swept back and dusting his collar, Vincent leaned back in his chair, his shackles jangling against the table. Green eyes studied her, the emerald color glimmering beneath the lights above their heads. His cheekbones were aristocratic, his jaw square and dusted with stubble, and his lips as sultry as she remembered them.
“Meadow Graham, how lovely of you to accept my invitation. I’ll enjoy my last days of life with a woman as beautiful as you to gaze upon.”
“Cut the shit, Vincent. I’m not here for your benefit.”
He laughed. The deep, smooth sound tugging at Meadow’s resolve. “And here I thought you’d be more elegant than your sister, especially with the benefit of your European education.”
Meadow didn’t have to look beneath the table to know his long legs were stretched straight, a lazy pose that masked the predator staring her down. “We were identical twins, our personalities as alike as our appearance. And you’re not exactly the type of person I would consider worthy of my most polished of behaviors.”
Vincent’s eyes locked on her, but Meadow couldn’t shake the feeling he was looking straight through her. “I have no doubt you’re as delicate as Penelope, despite your lack of savoir-faire .” His deep voice held a hint of his French accent, still a rolling lilt despite the brusque tone of his American English.
“Penny,” Meadow said, stressing the name her sister preferred, “was anything but delicate.”
He grinned, the cruelty of the expression bleeding into the room. “Inside, she was as delicate as a flower. Even if she attempted to disguise it with her rebellion.” Regarding his fingernails, the superficial gesture at odds with the shackles cuffing his wrists, he murmured, “A rebellion that didn’t last long.”
Meadow’s blood boiled. Vincent glanced up and grinned. “You should sit so we can begin. Only seventy-two hours remain of my life, and this story is quite long. Why come if you only intend to glare at me like a cat with her fur stroked the wrong way?”
Ignoring his attempt to manipulate her emotions, Meadow slowly prepared her recorder, setting the tape and closing the lid before hitting record. Turning, she eyed the beautiful man chained to a table, fought against the pull she had towards him. “I’d like to discuss what I already know about you first. Although I didn’t bring it today, I want to begin this interview with a question. Specifically, why did you feel the need to have someone deliver to me my sister’s diary?”
He didn’t need to answer for Meadow to know exactly why Vincent had the gift delivered shortly after his arrest, but she wanted the confession on tape, wanted to ensure she did, in fact, know him as well as she believed. As far as Vincent knew, her only knowledge of him came from that journal, but there were other communications, other means for her to understand the nature of the man staring back at her. Vincent Mercier held his secrets close to his chest, but in that, so did Meadow. The next three days would be a game on both their ends.
His responsive grin confirmed her beliefs before his words broke the stiff silence in the room. “Ah, ma chèrie , but I think you already know the answer.”
Leaning against the table at her back, Meadow’s palms were planted against its surface. “You can stop there with the pet names. Thanks to my European education as you so deemed it, I understand enough to know what you’re saying to me. And I’m not your anything.”
“Pas vrai , you are my interrogator, are you not? By standing where you are, you have a relationship with me already. Not only that, but you are my last victim, the woman who will forever mourn the last life I took. I will die in three days, but you will live on in your grief...and your hatred. And for that, I will also live on, until the day you take your final breath. It’s poetic, is it not?”
“It’s too bad I never liked poetry.” Meadow said in bitter retort. “Let’s just get this started and stop playing around. The seventy two hours you have left are winding down.” She grinned. “Tick tock.”
Returning her caustic smile with a look that you would expect a lover to give in bed, Vincent relaxed his shoulders, unaffected by her anger. “Will you be there when I take my last breath? Will you escort me into the afterlife? I would love to look at you through the viewing glass.”
Refusing to answer, Meadow dropped the subject of her sister’s diary, choosing instead to begin his story at the beginning. “Let’s go back to the night you met Penny. Why did you approach her on the street? What value did she have to a man like you?”
Seconds passed before, “If you will take a seat, I’ll talk. A conversation should be had between people at equal comfort. And you, at the moment, appear to ready to take off.”
Knowing he wouldn’t begin until she sat, Meadow grudgingly took her seat.
“Thank you,” Vincent said, his fingers braiding together over the surface of the table. “If we are to begin on the night I met your sister, then I can tell you that you won’t be pleased with why I decided to take her under my wing. Romance is lost in those details.”
Staring, Meadow crossed her arms over her chest, knowing fully that the body language wouldn’t be lost on Vincent. His eyes darted to her arms and back to her face, a small smile stretching his lips. Ignoring her behavior, he fanned his fingers out to the sides. “As is true with many stories, mine starts with a conversation with a friend, and I must confess that the only interest I had in Penny, the only reason I approached her on that lonely, rain drenched street, was because of a bet.”
Eyes widening, fury coursed through Meadow’s veins. “A bet! My sister is dead because of a bet?”
Puckering his lips, Vincent tsked. “Perhaps this interview should end. You seem to have a problem already.”
“No,” she answered quickly. “I want to know.”
His lips stretched wide. “Then I’ll begin as any good story should begin.”
Vincent settled into his seat, his shackles rattling.
“Once upon a time, there was a dirty girl on the streets and the man who would make her his...”
I’ve never loved America. The country was missing something, a certain joie de vivre was absent, the history lacking, the soul having been torn from a body of people who rushed about from place to place, never stopping to experience the moments of their day. On every sidewalk I watched them bustle, refusing to slow down, not even to eat. With bagel in hand, or some other portable lunch that tasted like cardboard or week old starch, they hurried. Occasionally I’d call out Bonne Appétit , a Frenchman’s pointed admonishment of those who couldn’t even slow down long enough to take pleasure from food.
It was never like this in Paris, and often I found myself staring out cafe windows longing for the city where I was raised, hating my father for dragging me to a country of cement and steel, of dying and leaving me tethered to the business he’d created in a foreign state.
Yet, here I was, staring out another random window, reclining in my seat as my friend and business acquaintance rattled on about some deal he’d made that afternoon. The sun had long ago set, the sky lit not by stars but by glittering lights dotting the tall buildings of the city skyline. Inside, the cafe smelled of coffee and baked goods, and outside I knew the stench of dank alleys and smog awaited me, its path winding between cars and sweaty bodies. There was nothing of interest here, not on this street, not outside the walls of The Wishing Well, the only hotel I owned that I had designed to remind me of home.
“Are you listening to me, Vincent? I’ve finished with my story and have been reciting nonsense for the last five minutes. Yet, you’ve said nothing.”
Barron laughed, his blond hair swept back and styled professionally, his grey eyes sharp despite the humor behind them. Even while relaxed, the man was a shark any intelligent person would fear. “What’s on your mind?” he asked, his hands folded around his ceramic mug. “Has something happened I should know and use against you later?”
The corners of my lips curled. “I’m bored of this city. Bored of these hotels and of these people.”
Suspicion arched his brow. “Even all the women you enjoy. You can’t be bored of them.”
A sigh rolled over my lips. “Even them. They’re all the same. Their personalities leave much to be desired, their bodies plastic and far too perfect. Not one of them holds my interest for long, and once I walk away, they screech and cry, begging me to give it another chance only so that they can cry even more when I introduce my desires into the mix.” Throwing out my hand, I brushed my frustration aside. “I haven’t found a woman yet that can endure me.”
Flippantly, Barron suggested, “Then make one.”
My brow crooked. “Should I fashion her from clay? A golem I’ll bring to life through some extraordinary power? You’re insane.”
“And you give up too easily.”
Setting aside his words to consider later, I watched a woman walk down the sidewalk, her hands tucked into the pockets of a tattered hoodie, her head ducked down, her shoulders rolled forward. Even in the cold, she wore jeans with holes in the knees, rain coming down harder as the minutes passed. Rather than moving inside like the rest of the crowd, she continued on, her face peering up so I could see the dirt that smudged her cheek. She’d be pretty if not so filthy, her youth shining through the grime.
“I mean it, Vincent. Perhaps I can make my suggestion more palatable for a man like you. A wager?”
I stripped my eyes from the dirty girl to meet his gaze. “And what is it you’d like to wager?”
Craning his neck from side to side, the muscles stretching as he tipped his gaze up in thought, he answered, “The Castle versus the Wishing Well. I would love to get my hands on your home.”
A bark of laughter burst from my lips. “You’re offering your club? How is that supposed to interest me when I’m not in the business of managing those types of establishments? It would only be more work on my part.”
“Fine,” he grinned, “the profits from each for a full year. We keep ownership. We do the work, but whoever wins the bet keeps the money the businesses make for a year following the end of the agreed upon time period for you to complete your mission.”
Eyes drifting back outside, I saw the rain now pouring in sheets, Dirty Girl turning a corner into an alleyway with a small overhang for cover. Crouching down, she wrapped her arms over her shins and laid her head atop her knees. Her soaked hoodie concealed her face. “And what is my mission?” I asked.
“To create the perfect woman, tailored precisely to your specific tastes.”
Dirty Girl huddled closer to herself, the winds sending the rain sideways. “Not many women are willing to be a slave, Barron. Not for a man like me. My tastes are cruel.”
His laughter flowed across the table. “I never said it would be easy. Especially with the pampered women you date.”
My perception shifted, the reflection of my face in the glass superimposed over the young girl crouched and huddled. Her fear, her obvious lack of class, her narrowed stare on the businessman that whipped past her with their briefcases held over their heads to block the rain, the allure of her je ne sais quoi calling to me. Always up for a challenge, my lips twitched, the muscles in my body tightening as I considered Barron’s bet. “Do I choose the woman?”
“Of course, but I have to meet her before and after to ensure you’ve adequately changed her.”
“Meet her how?”
“An introduction at first, a taste in the end.” He paused. “How else will I know if she’s as well behaved as I’m sure you’ll claim she is?”
When my eyes shot to him, he shrugged. “We’re talking millions here, Vincent. I won’t simply take your word for it.”
“Any adequate businessman wouldn’t, or else I’d tell you now that I’ve completed the task and steal the money from your pocket.” Eyes darting to Dirty Girl, I asked, “What’s my time limit?”
“Three months. By the end, she will crawl if you tell her to. She’ll eat dirt if you demand it. She’ll thank you for letting me taste while you watch. Regardless of how I use her. Those are the terms.”
“Done,” I agreed, tossing the napkin from my lap to the table. I didn’t bother finishing my coffee before standing from my seat. Barron’s eyebrows shot up.
“Where are you going? It’s pouring outside.”
“To begin. I only have three months, might as well make the most of it.” Might as well steal a girl from the streets before she’s out of sight.
“You’ll get soaked,” he argued.
A smile curved my mouth. “That’s precisely the point.” Without bothering to button my jacket, I tossed cash on the table and bolted for the door, but stopped to turn to Barron at the table. “Come by the hotel tomorrow. I’ll let you meet her so you can gauge her behavior prior to my training.”
His expression was one of bemused confusion. “Have fun in the shower, my friend.”
With laughter on my voice, I called, “Au revoir ,” before stepping out into the storm, my steps hurried regardless of the fact I wouldn’t be seeking shelter until I’d secured my catch. I hated to admit that Barron’s wager added a spring to my step, a lightness about my shoulders I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Crossing the street, I winced in response to the dampness of my shoes, my suit sticking to my skin, the fabric drenched and possibly destroyed. However, the suit was a small sacrifice to this mission, a non-issue in contrast to the girl I approached on hurried steps. She flicked a glance at me as I slowed to a walk, my heels barely audible against the concrete beneath the drumbeat of rain.
Reaching her, I glanced down, my expression amused as she peered up at me from beneath her waterlogged hoodie. “Can I help you?” she practically grunted. Perhaps she would be too much of a challenge, her demeanor was sorely lacking.
Stepping beneath the overhang, I rolled my eyes at the sideways rain from which the small top did little to shelter us. “I was wondering if you enjoy sleeping on the streets.”
“Fuck off, old man. I’m not a hooker. Go get your thrills elsewhere.”
Taken aback by the comment, I focused on the one word that struck deep. “I’m not old.”
“The grey hairs say differently,” she retorted, satisfaction gleaming in her glare.
“Mademoiselle , perhaps you-“
Her head tilted up, brown eyes pinning mine. “What did you just call me?”
Stinging rain assaulted my skin, the fierce wind like ice. “I apologize, my native language tends to bleed out when I’m in shock. But, back to what you said to me, I’m not old, Dirty Girl, I’m only-“
“Dirty Girl? Are you serious right now?” Ire coated her voice, her eyes narrowing into slits as her mouth pulled into a line to match her fury. “Take off, jerk. I’m not into whatever it is you’re offering.”
Grinning despite her growing rage, I crouched in front of her, bringing my eyes level to her twisted expression. “How about a warm, dry place to sleep -“
“In your bed, I’m assuming. No thanks,” she interrupted, kicking her foot out as if to knock me over. I caught her ankle easily, giving it a firm squeeze with my fingers until she yelped and pulled away. I regretted having to cause pain, but a man like me would only tolerate so much before losing his patience.
Fear widened her eyes. “You hurt me!”
“I did,” I responded, my amusement fading as frustration took hold. “Only because you so rudely interrupted. Had you not accused me of taking you home to fuck you, I could have finished my sentence. I’m offering you room and board, as well as a job.” Reaching out, I traced my finger along the smudge of dirt on her cheek. “When’s the last time you’ve met a shower?”
Flinching in response to the curt tone of my voice, Dirty Girl glared again, her fear lost to the rain that slashed against us. “When’s the last time you met a person who gave a damn about your opinion or anything you have to offer?”
“Just this morning, actually.” A quick grin and I raised my voice to be heard over the pounding rain. “You can take my offer or leave it. But I’m not waiting out in this storm for you to answer. If you want a decent job, and to get out of this alley, you can follow me. Otherwise, Bonne soirée . Perhaps the rain can clean the filth from your body.”
Standing, I refused to look back at the uncouth girl huddled over herself in a pathetic effort to keep dry. She’d accept the offer. She had no reason not to, she just needed to convince herself that she was tougher than she appeared. I’d made it a block without glancing back, was about to turn a corner when a small voice called out to me from behind. The wind almost snatched the sound away from me, but I’d caught enough to peek at her from over my shoulder, to stand tall in a downpour that had chased the residents of the city from the streets.
Holding my hand to my ear, I yelled back. “What was that? You’ll need to come closer so I can hear you. We’re in the middle of a storm if you haven’t noticed.”
The corner of my mouth quirked. Thunder rolled overhead that threatened to shake the buildings from their foundations. She shuffled her feet, unsure whether to approach.
Smart girl. If I were her, I’d turn and run from a man like me. But money is always the ultimate lure.
Finally taking measured steps forward, she tilted her chin, crossing her arms over her soaked chest. “What’s the catch?” she yelled over the pouring rain.
You are, ma trésor…
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I answered, stepping toward her, heel to toe, so slowly as if she would fly off should I move too quickly. “My offer is as I said. A job and a warm place to sleep.”
Consternation wrinkled her brow, drops of rain dripping from her eyelashes. “Why would you approach a stranger and offer her something like that? There has to be some reason. Men don’t just approach homeless women and give them jobs. It doesn’t work like that.”
Her voice barely audible over the violent storm, she jumped when lightning cracked across the sky. Carefully, she stepped away from me, her muscles tense as if she remained primed to run.
Smiling despite the water stinging my skin, I shoved my hands into my pockets. The sodden material struggling to remain plastered to my legs. “There’s no catch. Not yet anyway. But isn’t this a conversation we can have inside and out of the rain? I really must get back.”
Lacking trust in my honesty, she began to turn, but I moved quickly to grab her shoulder and hold her in place. Jerking away, she narrowed her eyes on me, her chin tilting higher. I was a good six inches taller, which didn’t make her short, not when compared to most women. Standing at six foot five, most people were shorter than me. “There is no catch to which you won’t agree,” I explained hastily. “At any point, if you decide to leave, the door is open for you to go. My hotel is a public place. It would be impossible to trap you, if that’s your concern.”
My lips tugged wider, my eyes scanning her face, finding that the blistering cold wind had deepened the color of her lips, the pink becoming purple, threatening to turn blue. “Yes, I own several. But I’d planned to take you to Wishing Well, my favorite. It’s just around the block. I promise you it’s safe.”
Laughing, she said, “Yeah, I’m sure that’s what H. H. Holmes said to his victims as well.”
Genuinely confused, I arched a brow. “Who?”
Dirty Girl shook her head, water droplets flying from the ends of her hair. “Nothing, Just...never mind.”
I wasn’t the type to beg. “Have a good night then. I hope the rain suits you.”
I hadn’t finished my turn before she yelled, “Wait!” Pausing, I watched her run in my direction. “Is food included in this deal? I’m starving.”
And there it was, the moment I knew she was mine for the taking. The moment her cloak of rebellion faltered just enough for me to reach inside and take hold of the desperation within.
“I can arrange it. But only if we hurry.” Lightning cracked the sky, the timing almost too perfect.
Reluctantly, she nodded. “Yeah, let’s go.”
It wasn’t the level of enthusiasm I’d hoped for, but it would do. It appeared Dirty Girl had accepted the challenge of trusting me, while I had accepted the challenge of transforming and owning her.
“I don’t even know your name.”
It was the first time she’d spoken since accepting my offer, her voice weak and unsure. With my hand locked over the handle of the gate leading into the private entrance wall of Wishing Well, I turned and peeked at a face that was tinged pink with embarrassment...or something else.
The rain continued to beat down on our heads, the winds ripping past to dot our skin with icy needles. Releasing the handle, I turned fully to gaze upon her, tucked my arm beneath my ribs and bowed shallowly before reaching for her hand to place a kiss on her knuckles. She snatched it away before my lips could touch her skin.
Grinning at her continued rebellion, I answered, “My name is Vincent Mercier. And yours?”
“Penny,” she answered, not offering me a last name to go with the first. As I straightened my posture, she wrapped her arms around her abdomen, her shoulders shaking in response to the wind that snatched at our hair. I could only see the long ends that hung out from the opening of her hoodie, my eyes tracing the deep mahogany color.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Penny. Shall we go inside?”
Lifting her gaze, she stared at the top of the six story hotel. All that stared back were windows. I’d made sure that the discreet gardens and small private niches were out of plain sight in the design. “I’m not dressed for a place like this,” she admitted.
“I agree, which is why we’re entering through a private entrance, one used by the staff and myself. I can give you the grand tour once you’re...respectable.”
Her eyes locked on mine. “These are the only clothes I have. I’m not sure how I can be respectable.”
Nodding, I responded, “We have some small boutiques in the lobby. I can buy you some clothes.”
Opening her mouth to argue, I raised my hand to silence her. When whatever words she’d wanted to say became trapped in her throat, I spoke as softly as possible, yet loud enough to be heard over the rain. “You can repay me from your first several checks. That is, if you accept the job I’m offering.”
“What kind of job is it?”
Laughter shook my chest. “Can we talk inside? Any more time out in these conditions and we’ll both be sick by tomorrow.”
Begrudgingly, she nodded, following me inside once I’d unlocked and opened the gate. It took all my will power not to glance back and gauge her reaction to the interior gardens, not to stare at the reflection of twinkling lights in her eyes. During the tour I planned to give her once the weather improved, I would memorize each reaction, every subtle change in her expression as she discovered the wonderland I’d created in memory of my first home.
For now, I would get her inside, I would assign her a room and I would enjoy dressing her for dinner. “This way,” I directed, opening a side entrance door and running into Émilie as she rounded a corner into the hall.
“Monsieur Mercier!” Running toward me in the black and white maid uniform that was popular in the kitsch lounge on the first floor, Émilie ran her hands over the lapel of my sodden suit. “You’re soaked,” she complained, her accent thick because she hadn’t been in the States for longer than a year. I’d hired her directly, imported her as I liked to think, only because the businessman enjoyed listening to her voice and looking at all her assets while winding down for the night.
Gently pushing her away with my hands on her shoulders, I smiled. “It’s fine, Émilie. I have dry clothes upstairs. You should hurry back to the lounge. Theresa will be furious with you if you’re late again.”
She stepped toward me, her ruby glossed lip caught between her teeth. Unsure what to do, she flicked a glance behind me to see Penny standing silently. Disgust wrinkled Émilie’s brow. Jealousy colored her cheeks. I knew better than to sleep with my employees, but sometimes a man enjoys a taste of home.
“I should go,” she finally agreed, her words clipped and hasty. I waited until she was out of sight before turning to Penny.
“There are rooms available on the fifth floor. I’ll grab a key from the lobby and escort you up.”
Penny didn’t answer immediately, instead choosing to shrug, the mannerism ineloquent. “Should I just stay here or whatever?”
Arching a brow, I answered, “Whatever works. Just stand there and ... drip ... or whatever.”
She glared at me, obviously not pleased with my mocking tone. Molding her would be an amusing task, although I wanted to kick myself for choosing a gem not yet hewn. Someone like Émilie would have been far more simple a project, but simplicity is never as much fun. Making quick work of the halls, I approached the lobby desk and drew the same reaction from the staff as I had from Émilie. Waving it off, I explained, “It seems I forgot an umbrella.”
John, the hotel’s manager approached the counter. “What can I do for you Mr. Mercier?”
“I need a key for one of the rooms on the fifth floor. I’ve brought in a new employee.”
His gaze flicked past my shoulder, and finding nobody standing close by, he returned his confused stare to me. Shaking my head, I explained, “She was caught in the rain as well. I left her in the employee hall since it didn’t seem safe to have both of us dripping through the lobby.”
John’s face was carved from stone. Rarely did he smile, his professionalism a constant mask. “Yes, I’ve already called housekeeping to clean up your trail. We wouldn’t want our guests slipping and injuring themselves.”
Inclining my head in agreement, I drummed my fingers on the counter as he keyed in a code to select a room for Penny. Glancing at me, he asked, “What is the new employee’s name? I’ll assign her a room now.”
“Ah, well, I don’t have that information just yet.”
Eyes widening, John opened his mouth to complain, but I spoke before he had the chance. “Just put it under my name for now. After she settles and has a bite to eat, I’ll be sure to give you all the information you’ll need.”
John finalized the room assignment quickly, handing me a key card before marching off to inspect housekeeping’s job of cleaning up my mess. Laughing to think they would have another mess to tend once I’d gone to the boutique, I made my way into the store, ignoring the sales woman’s surprise at seeing me in such a dreary state of attire.
“Mr. Mercier, how nice to see you.”
I didn’t know the woman, but her hair was grey and her hand bore a plain gold wedding band. “Madame, I’m hoping you can help me select some clothes for a friend I’d like to take to dinner this evening. As you can see, we were caught in the rain and she needs to change so that her current outfit can be laundered.”
“Of course, Mr. Mercier. Do you know her size?”
“Unfortunately, no,” I admitted, “although, I’d guess she’s at least five foot, ten inches, thin, but curvy. I wish I had more to offer in description, but...”
...but her baggy hoodie hadn’t given me an adequate peek to guess much more...
The woman smiled. “In that case, why don’t we look at a few sheath dresses? As long as we get the length correct, the fit is loose enough to work for many bodies. We won’t need exact measurements to select one.”
It took less than thirty minutes to select an emerald green dress that would compliment Penny’s hair. Purchase made, I returned to the employee hall to find her crouched against a wall, much like she’d been in the alley when I saw her from the cafe window.
“Are you ready to go to your room?”
Shrugging again, she stood to her full height. “Yeah, I guess. What’s in the bag?”
Resisting the need to roll my eyes at her tone of voice, I held the bag out for her to take. “I bought you something to wear to dinner. The saleswoman told me it should fit.”
Quickly glancing in the bag, Penny’s eyes rounded, a sneer curling her mouth. “This isn’t exactly something I would normally wear. Didn’t they have anything less...slutty?”
Patience is a virtue. My mother had always reminded me of that before she passed away when I was seven. I repeated the phrase now in an attempt not to snap at Penny’s lack of gratitude.
“I’m sure we could have found something to your tastes, but I don’t have your size. This should work for now.”
“Okay,” she mumbled, obviously unconvinced.
Ignoring her, I led her to a service elevator and pressed the button for her floor. We were at her door within a minute. “Here is your keycard. I’ll give you time to shower and get dressed. Will a half hour be sufficient?”
Penny shifted her weight from one foot to the other, the shopping bag swinging beneath her elbow where it was hooked. “I guess so.”
Forcing another smile, I had to fight not to correct her behavior. Understanding she was young, reminding myself I’d plucked her from the streets specifically for this challenge, I forced a smile. “Very well. Enjoy your shower.”
I walked way before could respond, and as I stood at the elevator waiting for the doors to open, I glanced back to find her staring at me. Without bothering to say a word, I walked into the elevator, desperate to take the car up to my suite on the sixth floor and change into clean, dry clothes. It wasn’t until the doors had closed that I released a sigh and wondered what it would take to train this particular girl to behave properly.
Faiville Prison, 10:08 a.m.
“You’re lying already.”
Meadow shifted her position in the chair to lean forward and fold her arms over the surface of the table, her eyes locking to Vincent’s, daring him to argue. Instead, a wolfish grin split his lips. Imitating her posture, he slipped forward, his shackles rattling as he placed his arms on the table.
“And what makes you so sure of that, Meadow?” The rolling lilt of his voice was heavier, his intention to seduce plain on every syllable, in the depth of his tone.
Refusing to respond to the challenge he’d presented, Meadow answered, “Penny told the story differently. I’ve read her diary, memorized every word, in fact. I’ve practically slept with it under my pillow. I know your games, Vincent, and I won’t be played by them.”
“Is that so?” Like a serpent lingering in the sunlit grass, he wrapped his soothing voice around her, his legs stretching further beneath the table until his foot brushed hers. Meadow pulled her legs tighter to her chair, ignoring the wider grin that graced his features.
“Let’s start with what you did to her in that alleyway,” she argued, “when you grabbed her ankle. When you hurt her, and laughed about it.”
Slowly, he blinked, his bedroom eyes heavy, his stare unwavering. “Did she write that? Did she remember the first time I took pleasure in her pain? It was just a small test, so tiny that I wasn’t sure she’d noticed it at all. In fact,” he proposed, his fingers flaring out in a dramatic sweep, “I would have assumed she didn’t notice.”
Leaning closer, he lowered his voice impossibly deeper, “What kind of woman would be hurt by a stranger and still follow him to his home?”
When Meadow didn’t answer, when her anger was so thick that she couldn’t formulate one word in defense, he leaned away, making himself comfortable before guessing, “A woman who enjoys torment. That’s who. Penelope had a secret she kept hidden. I would say not even you knew of her need for pain, but then you’ve already admitted your twin and yourself are one in the same.”
The teasing hint of wicked pleasure laced his words. “Tell me, Meadow, would you have followed me as well?”
“No,” she answered succinctly, “but Penny was desperate wasn’t she? She was homeless, starving, stuck outside in the cold rain with no clothes but those she wore, and no hope of escape from the life she’d fallen into. She was the perfect target for a viper like you, a girl who couldn’t say no.”
His lips curled. “They can always say no, Chérie . The difference in this case is that she didn’t want to.”
Matching his grin, Meadow said, “My name is Meadow. You can refer to me as such.”
“Is it?” He retorted, the question rolling from his lips with affection. “You’ll have to excuse me, sometimes terms of endearment tend to slip. You remind me so much of Penelope - like a mirror, really, only without the pain I remember in her eyes.”
Her gaze traced the line of his lips, her hands clenching into fists over the surface of the table. Pulling them into her lap so as to keep Vincent from easily spotting the visible signs of what she was feeling, she relaxed in her seat, made it appear as if she were unaffected, even while her heart hammered and her pulse fluttered just beneath her skin. “Let’s talk about the second lie you’ve told. Specifically, Émilie.”
Vincent’s brows arched just enough for her to know she’d regained his attention.
“You claimed that she merely approached you in the hall when you first walked Penny into the building, but Penny wrote that it occurred differently. What she saw in the greeting between the two of you led her to believe you were involved romantically, that she had nothing to worry about because your sights were set on somebody else. At the time, I’m sure Penny believed the encounter meant nothing, but knowing what I now know, having dissected this story every day of my life since I received her diary, I believe that encounter was calculated, that your behavior with Émilie was intentional. From the beginning, you were attempting to delude my sister into believing you were safe, that you were merely a benevolent employer who wished to help a stray girl off the streets.”
He was regal, this man, truly intoxicating, regardless of whether he made the effort. Even at that moment, Meadow found herself looking away as if to break some secretive spell he’d weaved around her, needed to distance herself in order not to feel like she was a moon orbiting his space. She knew women flocked to him, knew that even some men had been unable to deny the lure Vincent cast. Memories like film reels played in her head, the words of the diary whispering across her thoughts.
Taking his time, Vincent ran his eyes along the line of her jaw, dropped them lower to follow the length of her neck, to sweep them over the curve of her shoulder. Tender and provocative, just his gaze was a lover’s touch, fingertips teasing the skin, a warm breath drawing goosebumps from her body.
“Émilie was too easy, you see? I’d hired her straight from the Parisian streets, had taken pity on her desire to travel despite her mother’s illicit choice of profession and dreary lack of funds. She told me her mother had died and left her nothing except the knowledge of how to seduce a man. I believed she’d be a perfect asset in the lounge, a touch of home that would appeal to the patrons who adored Wishing Well for its flavor.”
“As I recall reading, Émilie didn’t fair too well either. At least, not for long. What happened to her, Vincent? What became of the buxom blonde that could pull all the money from a man’s pocket and have him thank her for the theft?”
His gaze never faltered. “How should I know? As far as I’m aware, she took off once I had a new interest. Jealousy is such an ugly affair. It makes people crazy, does it not?”
“Weren’t you convicted of Émilie’s murder?”
Vincent grinned, “We’ll get to that. You’re skipping ahead.”
Crooking a brow, Meadow grinned. “So you hire this woman, bring her all the way to your hotel, and what? Sample her before tossing her to the wolves?”
Seconds passed silently between them. “I believe I need to remind you of what little time we have together. While you discuss women of little importance, the clock ticks. We should return to my story with Penelope. I’m curious as to what she wrote of our first encounter. Will you tell me?”
Confused, Meadow scrunched her brow, hated that she’d made the error of dropping her mask of superiority, of having lost being the person with a foot one step farther ahead. Now he knew that he’d surprised her, that he’d caught her off guard. “You didn’t read the diary?”
His fingers flared again, a common symptom of his thoughts. “Alas, I was already in jail by the time it was found. I requested it be sent to you immediately. My staff are loyal, Meadow. I doubt even they turned its pages.”
It didn’t make sense. Vincent was too much of a control freak not to ask what Penny had written about him. He was too much of a collector to allow even one of her thoughts to escape his grasp. If anything, he would want to bask in the confusion he’d created in her head, would want to luxuriate in the spoils of his psychological games. If it were true, if the diary wasn’t discovered until after he was arrested, then perhaps he’d neglected to ask about its contents, had feared the recorded calls and conversations in jail would capture some detail in the diary that would ensure his conviction. There was always the possibility, but Meadow doubted it.
“Do we have time to even discuss it?” she asked, “What with your impending death approaching so quickly?”
His grin widened, his perfect, white, straight teeth gleaming like that of a jackal about to bite. “Any good story is well rounded. Perhaps something in her memory will jar something in mine, knock it loose so that I can deliver it to you as a present wrapped in the finest of paper.”
Sardonically, she countered, “Or perhaps you simply want to enjoy knowing what you did to her on every level imaginable. Especially now that there is no escape from the executioner.”
“Perhaps,” he agreed. “But that is your decision to make.”
Wondering how he would react to what she knew, from what the diary contained, Meadow relented. “Fine, I’ll tell you her side. I’ll speak in place of the woman who can not.” Leaning closer, she added, “I’ll be happy to divulge just how much she hated you in the end.”
Life started and ended with Blake Jameson, my boyfriend, my best friend, the soul mate I ate mudpies with in kindergarten and gave my virginity to in the tenth grade. With his wild blond hair, always long and windswept like a surfer, and tan skin that brought out the blue in his eyes, Blake was a constant for me, a puzzle piece that fit, an extension of who I’d always been.
He hung the moon and scattered the stars. He was the sun and I was the Earth absorbing his warmth.
Blake was there when people had attempted to bully me. He’d protected me and knocked a few heads together. He’d loved me even more than my own family. Closer to me than my own identical twin, Blake was the peaceful center in my chaotic storm. He was the island in my turbulent sea, the oasis within my desert. He was my life and my protector, my every dream, and my shelter.
He’d been at my side when my father died, had held me and rocked me when I screamed. His presence soothed me at the funeral when my father was laid to rest, his words had reassured me when my mother met a man across the Atlantic who she believed could replace the man who’d raised me.
And when the time came for my mother to uproot and live in a foreign land, it was Blake who convinced me to stay. Both my mother and Meadow had hated my decision, but they couldn’t understand who Blake had been for me.
That’s how I’d stayed in the States when my mother and sister left, it’s why I’d let my family fly away while I remained rooted. I truly believed Blake would be the man I married, believed I’d have his children, and we’d grow old together, our hair turning silver as the different parts of our bodies shriveled into decay.
It was only a year after my family left me that Blake decided to leave me as well.
He’d met someone else. He’d apologized and cried. But even my tears, my hurtful words, my begging and pleading hadn’t been enough to convince him that he was ruining my entire life.
Simple as that.
Blake was the reason I’d stayed in the States in one year. And Blake was the reason I became homeless in the next.
Too ashamed, too hurt, too destroyed, to call my family and beg for help, I’d convinced myself I could make it on my own. But with no job experience, only a high school education and no permanent address I could call my own, finding employment had been impossible. Not that I could have managed much of a job. I was too heartbroken to be anything more than a useless shell, a ghost walking down the sidewalk, a woman who hadn’t just lost the love of her life, she’d also lost everything she owned.
The street isn’t exactly a welcoming place, and the minute you close your eyes, what little you do have is plucked by the vultures, stolen away and gone.
It’s how I’d ended up walking down Stratford Avenue in the pouring rain. It’s why I didn’t have two dimes to rub together, didn’t have a phone, didn’t have a hope for salvation beyond the small tattered overhang I found that did nothing to protect me from the storm.
At nineteen years old, I was a failure already.
I’d been so busy freezing my ass off and scowling at well-dressed assholes looking at me like I was the scum that scuffed their pretty, leather loafers, that I hadn’t even noticed Vincent Mercier when he’d first approached. It wasn’t until his shadow fell over me, blocking the one street light that lit the needles of rain that I glanced up to spy one of the most beautiful examples of the masculine form I’d ever seen in my life. If not for the rain dripping from his thick brown hair and the charcoal grey suit glued to every hard, broad surface of his body, I would have believed he’d walked off the set of some popular television show or perhaps stepped straight from the pages of a fashion magazine.
And when he first spoke - when I first noticed the soft, rolling hint of a foreign tongue - it was music to my ears.
To say I was confused why he was staring down at me was an understatement. It wasn’t until he’d propositioned me like a back alley hooker that my anger flared to the surface. I won’t lie and say I didn’t take pleasure in calling him an old man. I had a gift for pinpointing a person’s weak spot, and vanity was his.
I must have struck a nerve because he went from calling me a name straight out of a seventeenth century French romance to calling me a Dirty Girl , as if the implied meaning would be lost within the rain.
I’d called him out on it, had accused him of only wanting to get me in bed, and then he’d done something so out of character that I’d vacillated between whether to knock out his teeth or accept the offer he’d quickly rattled off instead.
I won’t lie, there’s no point when the only audience for this confession is myself. Vincent had startled me from the minute my eyes first met his handsome face. His eyes were the color of glimmering emeralds, a treasure stumbled upon in the depths of some hidden cave, a solitary beam of stubborn sunlight finding its way along the wall to touch those enormous gems and divulge their beauty and secrets.
Framing his face was dark hair I was sure was careless when dry. Although plastered to his head by the unforgiving rain, I could still see the choppy layers, could still imagine a woman wrapping the soft, silken strands between her fingers. And the rain, oh how I’d felt jealous of the drops that were able to touch his cheeks and trace the contours that were carved from stone, the one brave droplet that tracked the curve of his mocking lips to become one with the salt of his copper skin. If ever temptation were to walk this earthly plane, it was in Vincent’s shoes...which made it a shame he was the biggest jerk I’d had the displeasure to encounter.
Choosing to kick out at him, I’d understood my mistake the instant he caught my ankle with his hands, the few seconds he’d enjoyed punishing the bones with the strength of his cruel fingers. Fuck, it hurt, the crushing pain enough to send an electric current shooting up my leg to my hip. I’d looked into his eyes at the moment he’d caused that pain and they were hungry, hard, yet laughing. I should have known then what kind of man he was.
But I was starving. I was cold. I was wet, and not in the good sense of the word. Desperation is such a putrid scent, yet it oozed from my every pore.
He offered me a job. He hurt me. He walked away. And I was the silly girl that followed him.
I should mention the hotel.
The Wishing Well was one of the most famous hotels in the area. Not as large as the skyscrapers that were steel and glass fingers reaching for the sky, the modest, private, somewhat exclusive property demanded far more coin that even the Hiltons could ask for. Luxury wasn’t lost on this walled-in paradise and if ever a castle existed in a city, it was this hotel.
At six stories, I’d only viewed the top floors above the walls that circled it, could only imagine what would be found behind the ivy that clung to stone. It was a small block all on its own with lights that twinkled from the branches of tall trees, soft music often escaping its hold on the weekends when businessman flocked in for some convention at the ridiculously large center down the road.
I didn’t even know his name when we approached the hotel, and I’d almost forgotten it when he opened the gate and allowed me inside to see what he’d made of the place after tearing down what was once was here to construct his ‘home away from home.’
It was as if I’d stepped out of the States directly into a French garden hidden away from the Paris streets, the lights, the wisteria, the cobblestone walkways all at my fingertips without need for a plane or a boat. Although, we ran to avoid the rain, I still caught a glimpse of the well, a large stone circle set among flowers, beckoning me to look inside.
I never had the opportunity to explore before we’d entered the building and I stood frozen and wet, watching as Vincent’s girlfriend came rushing forward. They both spoke French and I couldn’t understand any of what they said, but it must have been words of adoration, love perhaps, or longing, because Vincent backed her against a far wall, their husky voices dropping to whispers, his lips tracing the line of her jaw as his fingers gripped her hip.
Awkward, I wrapped my arms around myself, unsure whether I should turn away to give them privacy. Neither seemed to mind the audience and it made me wonder. Yet, for as out of place as I felt, for as confused, scared and alone, I stood staring as his hand trailed up the side of her body to palm her breast from over the skimpy French maid outfit she wore. At first, I made myself a promise to refuse the job if that’s what I’d be required to wear, but the thought dissolved as the woman’s hips pressed closer to Vincent.
Blake had never made me move like that.
Oh, to be a fly on this man’s wall when he made a woman moan. I was dry mouthed just from imagining it.
Laughter filtered from the woman’s lips, a few more husky words I couldn’t understand whispering out until Vincent abruptly backed away and the woman ran off down a corridor, her shapely legs moving fluidly despite the four inch heels she wore.
When he turned to me, I physically flinched in reaction to the hypnotic heat blazing behind his green eyes.
Straightening his soaked jacket (not that it helped), he grinned, the same type of expression you’d assume a fox would wear while stepping away from henhouse.
Stepping toward me, his voice was a deep vibration against my frozen bones when he explained, “You’ll have to excuse the interruption, Émilie is quite...passionate.”
Unsure how to respond, I practically mumbled my response. “So it seems.”
A glimmer of something flickered behind his eyes. “I’ll show you to your room, but first I’ll need a key. You can wait here while I go to the lobby.”
Merely nodding because I was still in too much shock to think, I waited for what felt like forever, my tired legs finally getting to me as I crouched and huddled against a wall. At first, I’d believed he’d forgotten me, but then he returned with a bag in one hand and a keycard in the other.
“Shall we go up?”
“What’s in the bag?” I asked, fearful that he’d chosen a maid outfit for me to wear, much like Émilie’s.
“Clothes I purchased from the boutique. We can have what you’re wearing now laundered and dried in the meantime.”
Vincent held the bag out to me and I clenched my teeth to look inside and discover a mass of green silky material that didn’t appear as if it would cover much.
I should have known this man would find something for me to wear that was more akin to a negligee than actual clothes.
As he led me to a service elevator, I grew quiet, unsure. We were silent all the way to room 504 where he deposited me so that I could get a shower and get dressed. I couldn’t help but stare as he sauntered off, his soaked clothes, his messy hair, his unkempt state doing nothing to disrupt his seductive swagger.
He peeked back at me once before entering the elevator again, the expression on his handsome face making it all too obvious that my new boss - the stranger who’d hurt me before luring me from the streets - was more trouble than I’d understood I was taking on.
The room Vincent gave me wasn’t merely some dumpy five hundred square foot space with a questionable bed, scratchy sheets and a corner kitchenette complete with dirty microwave and a small refrigerator set in a counter. This place was a full suite, a paradise to a girl who’d slept on the streets, a bastion of hope that I wasn’t sure how to interpret.
Staring out at a living room with white carpets, white sofas, and white gossamer curtains that hung to the sides of floor to ceiling windows, I felt like I’d stepped into heaven, as if I’d died and Vincent had been the angel to whisk me from this life and deliver me into paradise without mentioning I was now a ghost. The confusion I felt mixed with elation, my light feet creeping to an open door, a gasp escaping my lungs as I stared wide-eyed at a bed that could comfortably fit three people or more. Much like the living room, the bedroom was all white with touches of pastel colors, the wallpaper a tasteful pattern touched with silver. Remembering my wet clothes, I panicked and glanced behind me, thankful to find I hadn’t tracked mud across the pristine floors.
Kicking off my shoes, I hopped on one foot then the other as I peeled the sodden socks from my feet, running again to peek inside a bathroom that would make the designers of Roman baths jealous.
In a matching theme of white and silver, the fixtures gleamed beneath a small crystal chandelier hanging delicately from the ceiling, the large bath and glass encased shower beckoning me forth with the promise of warmth for my frozen bones. Soft rugs covered the tiled floors, thick towels perfectly folded and hung for my use. A vanity with a large mirror and huge bulbs like those in an actor’s dressing room sat off to the right, the bathroom itself larger than the small apartment I’d shared with Blake before he left me.
I would have believed I was dreaming if not for the way my body shook from the rain and cold. Outside the windows, the storm raged on, but in here - in this paradise - I was safe from the thunder and rain, from the lightning that cut across the sky.
Dropping the shopping bag on a plush chair as I passed, I struggled out of my soaked clothes, letting them fall in place as I made my way to the shower. Water and steam billowed out of multiple heads, my muscles relaxing the instant I stepped inside. I would have remained beneath the spray if not for my time limit before Vincent returned, and with a promise to take a long bath before falling asleep that night, I reluctantly climbed from the shower, wrapped a large towel around my body and discovered a slight problem I hadn’t considered until that moment.
Everything I owned was soaking wet, including my underwear, my bra and shoes. I had nothing but a slinky dress to cover my body, and just the thought of slipping on anything I’d worn prior made my lip curl in disgust.
Pulling the dress over my head, I glanced in the mirror, my breasts bulging against the soft material, the length of the green silk falling to my knees. This was not the impression I wanted to give to a man I barely knew. When I heard a light knock at the door, I knew I had no other choice.
Opening the door, I held an arm across my chest, my knees clinging together for fear Vincent would be able to see I wore nothing underneath. “Hey,” I said, my voice soft, my cheeks heated with embarrassment.
His eyes traced down my body, goosebumps erupting over my flesh. “Hello,” Vincent answered, his words dark...gritty. “I see the dress fits.”
Unlike me, Vincent’s appearance was impressive, his hair brushed back, the ends dusting the collar of his black suit jacket. Beneath his suit, he wore a black shirt, the top buttons loose, revealing a triangle of tan skin, a hint of the strong pecs across his broad chest. He appeared larger somehow, the intimidation I felt pervasive and elusive, the tremor of nervousness foreign after having survived several weeks on the streets with nothing but my wit to protect me.
“I have a problem,” I confessed sheepishly, unable to raise my voice above a whisper.
Taking the opportunity to lean closer, as if he couldn’t hear my teeny tiny voice, his eyes swept down the neckline of my dress, my arm tightening over my breasts in response. I hated that my body reacted, my thighs clenching together as a chill coursed down my spine.
“Perhaps I have a solution,” he whispered back. Somehow he sounded even more dangerous when his voice was barely a breath.
My cheeks flamed more. “I don’t have anything to wear with the dress, as in anything ...” Eyes widening, I tried to convey what I meant without actually saying it.
Vincent’s eyes scanned down my legs to land on my bare feet.
“I see,” he commented, a sly grin stretching his mouth. “Normally, I would find the information alluring, an invitation to find out more, but seeing as we’ve just met...”
“Stop being a perv,” I blurted out, censure thick in my tone.
His grin widened, his hand splaying over his chest as if he’d actually been offended by my words. “I am but a man, ma chérie . You can’t hold it against me.”
Not knowing how to respond to the charm that was like a second skin wrapping this man, I muttered, “Maybe I should order room service and stay in.”
“Or,” he countered, “you can give me your wet clothes, I can send them to be cleaned, and we can return to the boutique where we can purchase whatever else you need to complete your outfit. Shoes, perhaps.”
My eyebrows pulled together. “I’m not as concerned with shoes as the other things.”
“And I’m not as concerned with the other things as you are.”
Rolling my eyes, I opened the door and waved my hand for him to walk in. “I need to grab my other clothes.”
Soft laughter filtered through the room. “Take your time. Our table in the dining room has already been reserved.”
Taking a seat on the sofa, his arms spread out over the backrest, his posture that of a man who owned the place. I quickly ran into the bathroom, hating how my breasts shook beneath the dress, grimacing at the tell tale draft whispering between my legs. I’d always been a modest girl, the jeans and T-shirt type that spent more time hiding her figure than showing it off. My twin sister had always been the fashionable one, had enjoyed the attention she received for her looks that were identical to mine. In contrast, I’d felt exposed if my shirt was too tight or if my jeans weren’t baggy enough to hide the curve of my hips, the weight of my bottom when I walked within a crowd.
Blowing out a breath in an effort to steady the beat of my racing heart, I shoved my wet clothes into the shopping bag that once held my dress and returned to the living room where Vincent remained seated, his head tilting back, his eyes closed. It was ridiculous to think that he looked like a man receiving a lazy blowjob on a warm, sunlit afternoon.
“I’m ready to go, I guess.”
Without bothering to open those stunning green eyes, he spoke slowly, his accent a film coating his words. “You guess? Or you know?”
Despite the laziness of those words, they sounded like an admonishment, a ruler against the knuckles, a reminder that I wasn’t as classy or educated as him. I’d only known Vincent for two hours and already I wanted to avoid him as much as possible. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seemed better balanced in comparison.
Hot and then cold. Gracious and then cruel. Friendly and then unnerving. Vincent Mercier was a puzzle of opposites, the type of person that constantly kept you on guard. “If it’s an issue, we could just call this off for tonight.”
His eyes opened, the fan of his dark lashes framing observant green orbs. “Why would you suggest that? I was only asking a question.”
“It just seems like...” My voice trailed off.
Canting his head to the side, he stared at me. “Seems like what?”
Like you’re judging me...
Like I’m worthless to a man like you...
Like I’m some stupid mouse caught in a maze you built with a deck of cards...
“Like you’re tired,” I lied.
Sitting up, he stretched his long legs out over the floor in front of him. “I assure you, I have much more endurance than a man needs. Endurance that is often complimented. I won’t be tired until late into the evening.”
Why did everything he say sound like a reference to the bedroom? Vincent was a natural flirt, and I didn’t want to see too much into it. “Okay,” was my simple response.
At some point in the conversation, I’d forgotten I wore nothing beneath my dress. Vincent’s eyes found the evidence of that slip of mind, appreciation rolling behind the green glimmer before he crooned, “You wear the dress well.”
I may as well have been naked for as uncovered as I felt. Glancing down, I realized it was slightly cold in the room, two peaks poking at the material of my dress. Quickly, I attempted to shield my breasts with my arms. If I weren’t so desperate for food, shelter and cash, I would call off this agreement I’d made with him. Even now, it felt like I’d sold my soul to the devil.
Thankfully, my stomach grumbled, two days without food causing the complaint to be clearly heard across the room.
“We should go,” Vincent said, the heat behind his gaze dying off as he stood from the couch and stepped toward me. Instinctively, I backed away, but he grinned and reached out a hand. “I was only going to offer to carry your bag for you. Chivalry isn’t entirely dead.”
“I can manage,” I answered, hating the squeak in my voice as my fingers tightened over the plastic handle. Shaking myself of the nervousness I felt in Vincent’s presence, I rolled my shoulders back (as much as I could while still guarding my breasts) and remembered that I wasn’t the type to be intimidated. Maybe he had enough energy to last the night, but I was exhausted. That had to be why I felt so small. After a good night of deep sleep, I’d be back in prime form, ready and willing to cut this man off at the knees if it was necessary.
Without arguing, Vincent moved to the door, opened it and paused in the hall to hold it for me. I approached and was about to walk through when he let it slip from his fingers to close in my face. My nose almost collided against its surface.
Slamming my palm down on the handle, I wrenched the door from its frame and glared at the gorgeous man on the other side.
“You’ll have to forgive me. I’d forgotten that you didn’t want a man’s assistance.” His expression was a blank page upon which I could scrawl any emotion or meaning. I could have allowed his taunt to anger me, could have stalked off to the elevator, left the building and returned to the rainy streets, but I wanted the food I knew he would give me. I was desperate for a soft bed and warm sheets. If the job he offered wasn’t something I could stomach, I’d at least take his kindness for tonight and leave in the morning.
“It’s fine,” I answered, turning right to head toward the elevator and leave him standing behind me.
Reaching the doors, I noticed the lack of footsteps at my back and glanced over my shoulder to see Vincent’s eyes planted firmly on my butt. With a snappish tone, I asked, “See something you like?”
His responsive grin was deviant. “Oui. J’ai envie de te croquer, ma belle .”
Annoyed by his use of French, I resisted asking him what he’d said. I was sure it didn’t matter...or that I didn’t want to know.
If I did accept his job offer, I was positive that working for a man like Vincent would be a lesson in patience.
(Faiville Prison, 11:15 a.m.)
Vincent locked his eyes on Meadow, his stare unwavering, his lips crooked at the corners as if he harbored some secret he would never tell. “Why would you do that, Meadow? And just as we were beginning this dance?”
Humor edged his voice, silk and fur a caress against Meadows skin in the indolent pace of his tone. Unsurprised at how this man used every tool at his disposal to lure her in, she resisted the natural temptation, brushed aside the desire she couldn’t help but feel.
Vincent was a gold medalist in attraction, temptation personified, a weapon of cruel seduction that had been honed until wickedly sharp. It was through desire that he distracted and addled the mind, unrepentant for the cheap use of human instinct.
“Why would I do what?” She finally managed to utter.
“Give away a portion of the story I hadn’t yet told,” he answered, his brows rising ever so slightly in challenge. “I assumed you came here to learn what I believed happened, to dissect the details you didn’t discover in your sister’s private thoughts.”
Letting out a breath over barely parted lips, Meadow noted how his gaze traced the line of her mouth. Two could play at seduction, the truth of Vincent’s longings recorded within the hastily written diary. Penny had become his obsession as much as he had become hers.
Purposely rolling back her shoulders, Meadow allowed her eyes to become heavy, enjoyed they way he couldn’t resist studying the hint of her breasts where they peeked above the neckline of her shirt. “I didn’t think the part I told was of much importance. You picked her up from her room, challenged her independence by showing her how a man could choose to be gracious or rude.”
His eyes never left her chest, the tip of his tongue peeking out ever so slightly from between his full lips. How long had it been since he’d sat in the same room as a woman? Meadow would use that to her advantage.
Distracted, he asked, “She remembered what I said to her in the hall?” His gaze lifted. “Enough to write it down? She never did learn to speak my language.” A bark of soft laughter shook his shoulders. “Well, at least that particular language of mine. She was a better student in others later on.”
“So I read,” Meadow answered as she leaned forward, her voice soft, her shoulders dropping forward, intentionally allowing the material of her shirt to fall lower and give Vincent a better view. “Penny wrote all about that particular language in her diary.”
Masculine pride flashed behind his eyes. “Did she?”
Rounding her lips, pulling her arms tighter together to force her cleavage higher, she answered, “Oh, yeah. In exquisite detail.”
Tense seconds passed, his eyes sweeping down to accept the visual offer Meadow had made him. By the time he met her stare again, he was practically laughing. “Nice try, Meadow, but you’ll have to be far more convincing than that.”
She straightened her posture. “Fine. It was worth a shot. And no, in answer to your question, Penny never did learn French while living at Wishing Well. Anything she recorded in her diary, she spelled out phonetically. I was able to interpret what the words meant after pouring over the pages in the past few months. It wasn’t easy.”
“I’d assume not,” he agreed, his response uncommitted, his thoughts elsewhere. “It amuses me that Penelope fought so hard at first. No,” he said, reconsidering, “Perhaps fought is the wrong word. Penelope didn’t fight, she dodged. She hopped around, making so much racket that it disguised what she was feeling. In one second she’d accuse me of being a pervert - a word she used liberally, I might add - and within the next, she’d smile, almost to the point where I suspected she genuinely appreciated and believed the offer I’d made to her. By the time I’d picked her up from the hotel room, I’d assumed she’d forgotten about the catch , assumed that I could lead her down whatever path I chose without her being suspicious. Penelope was good at hiding her thoughts, at first at least. But she wasn’t a dumb girl, was she? From what you just told me, she knew what type of man I was from the beginning, the degree of danger she’d been in since the moment I’d approached her in the rain.”
Surprised by his rare honesty, Meadow admitted, “No, Penny wasn’t dumb in the slightest. Naive maybe. Young and inexperienced. But not dumb.”
Vincent grinned. “And yet, she still followed me home.”
“A mistake that cost Penny her life,” Meadow reminded him.
“I regret that. Beauty such as hers should never be so carelessly lost,” he mused, a hint of emotion playing across his softly spoken words. Of course, he ruined it with what he said next. “I guess it’s a good thing for this world that there is an exact duplicate...you.”
Anger was a tidal wave crashing through her. “That doesn’t minimize my loss. I still lost my sister. I still feel the pain of her no longer being in this world.”
He leaned toward her. “And you will carry that pain for a lifetime. My name, my face, etched within the memory of it, alive and well, even if I’m no longer breathing.” It was a stab straight to the heart, his words twisting the knife to force the full impact of agony.
Meadow refused to release the tears that threatened her eyes. “Is that truly all she was to you? A game? A chess piece you tossed aside like garbage?”
A negligent shrug was his answer, a wave of his hand as if that would brush away the memory of a human life. “Life has no meaning without death. And although Penelope lived a short one, she burned bright. Not many people can claim that. She was like fire, that one.”
“And you were the water that doused her,” Meadow chided, “That’s nothing to be proud of. But then again, in a way, she was the water that doused you. In three days, you’ll take a needle in the arm for killing her. It’s a pity the person sticking you can’t wear a mask that looks just like her.”
His eyes tipped up to capture hers. “But you are an exact copy. Perhaps they’ll allow you to prick me in the vein. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Clearing her throat of the ball of emotion she didn’t want to admit choked her, Meadow suggested, “We should move on Vincent. Already three hours have passed and we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
His face was an inscrutable mask, regal, godlike, wistful as he remembered back to the pawn he’d made of Meadow’s sister. “Shall I begin where you left off?”
Weaving his fingers together over the surface of the table, he blinked slowly, the fan of his lashes dusting his skin, the curve of his mouth drawing Meadow’s attention. She knew he was fighting a smile, knew he enjoyed tormenting her with the slow crawl of his memory. He wasn’t just telling a story, he was reliving it, experiencing it again in order to claw at the superiority he’d gained while playing Penny.
As much as that bothered Meadow, her curiosity was too much. There were still so many questions left unanswered, too many layers that needed to be peeled away so she fully understood what had been done.
She refused to believe he felt nothing for the woman he’d so callously destroyed.
“No,” Meadow answered, “from what I know, nothing more happened that night beyond you buying her buy some additional clothes, getting her personal information for the job and taking her to dinner. I’m not sure that’s important. We should move on to the next morning, when you introduced her to Barron for the first time.”
Lifting her eyes to Vincent, Meadow noticed his smile stretch, saw the flicker of humor in a green gaze that missed nothing.
“What?” she asked, knowing that when his mouth took that curve, there was something he’d buried coming to the surface, some secret, some joke that nobody but him had known. Everything about this man was recorded in the diary, almost as if Penny, by writing it, had attempted to decipher all the peculiarities, all the body language, expressions and rolling words of Vincent Mercier in order to pin him down and reveal that he wasn’t as elusive as everyone believed.
For as many times as she’d read the pages of the diary, for as tattered as those pages had become, Meadow still couldn’t shake the mystery that hovered around this man like a cloud.
Speaking slowly so that each syllable of his words could be caught and examined as they fell effortlessly from his lips, Vincent mused, “Perhaps the diary is not as complete as you believe.” Pausing, he toyed with the cuff that locked his wrist, ran the tip of his finger along the edge. “Something did happen that night, but you would need my perspective to discover it.”
Her heart lurched with a painful, powerful beat, the click of the recorder stopping adding the perfectly timed sound to her physical reaction. Her eyes blinked once before she regained the ability to think, to act, to push up from her seat and turn to switch the tape.
Pressing record, she wondered why Vincent was so silent behind her. Balancing herself with her palms against the surface of the table, she took a moment where he couldn’t see her face to get her emotions under control. What had he done that hadn’t been recorded in the diary? What detail had been lost?
“Fine,” she breathed, feeling his gaze trace the contours of her bottom, knowing he stared at every asset he could find in a woman that was the same as the one he’d destroyed. “Tell me what happened that night.”
Seconds passed silently, the clock ticking, time moving forward toward the ultimate of endings, and then, “Are you sure you want to know? We’ve barely begun and already you can’t look at me, ma belle .”
The gritty quality of his voice didn’t help, the loss of fluidity of language, the ease of the endearments that would normally roll from his hot tongue gone as he asked his question.
“I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t want to know,” she answered, struggling, fighting desperately to keep from sounding affected.
“Then I will tell you,” he paused, “but only if you retake your seat, only if I can watch your face as you hear the truth, the intimate details, the mastery of a game designed to transform a girl into a woman.”
Gritting her teeth, Meadow’s fingers clenched into fists, her posture straightening, her head turning just enough that she could see Vincent in her peripheral vision. “She wasn’t a girl. She was already an adult when you met her.”
“Oui , you are correct...but she was not a woman. In that one word lies the distinction.”
Icy fingers traced her spine, the chill spreading like that of a spider’s web wrapping her, capturing her, making her regret ever agreeing to this interview in the first place.
Meadow wondered if she was strong enough to continue forward, if she could handle the intricate details...if she could swallow the truth and not choke on the thickness of his lies.
Clenching her eyes shut, she fought the desire to run, to leave, to flee the room and board a plane to return to Germany and never look back. She had her career, her home, her life that didn’t include Vincent Mercier.
But then, the story would be incomplete, wouldn’t it? The reasons lost, the death without meaning.
Meadow couldn’t allow that. She needed to know. Turning, she refused to meet his gaze as she took her seat, refused to relinquish the small amount of control, of independence, she had. He’d told her to sit, and she would comply, but not because she was a woman following his demands. She was here to dissect him, to tear him apart, to make him feel the same pain she had felt since the day her sister died.
She would play his games, and she would walk away the victor.
“Tell me, Vincent,” her gaze finally locked to his. “Tell me what happened that night that you think I don’t already know.”
Every so often, fate has a hand in opportunity. With a flourish of delicate fingers, it swirls the air around your existence, creating temptations that are too great, challenges that appear to be insurmountable. But within those moments when you doubt how simple coincidence could have led you to clear waters when you are thirsty, to a banquet when you starve, to the heat of fire when your bones scream for warmth and your heart beats weakly beneath the ice that encases it, you understand that certain events were meant to be, were written in the stars, were deemed by the Gods to be worthy for your life even before you were a twinkle amongst mankind.
I was experiencing that moment as I watched Penny walk down the hall, her bare legs strong and shapely, her heart shaped ass bouncing with each step, teasing me and inviting me to touch. My fingers curled into my palm, the inside of my cheek caught between my teeth, my body tensing as she glanced back with anger in her gaze to ask me if I’d appreciated the view as she’d walked away.
And I’d answered her in a language I knew she couldn’t understand, because if she’d been able to interpret the words for what they were, she would have entered that elevator, left the building on rushed steps, and permanently stepped out of my life.
Desire is a slippery thing, easing inside a person’s skin to capture, to taunt, to strengthen and spread out until your mind becomes mud and your heart races in an effort to escape your chest. From one moment to the next, I was man and I was beast, this rude, inelegant girl that I’d pulled from the streets revealing to me her full potential.
How had I known from one simple glance out a cafe window that a lonely girl walking in the rain would be exactly the woman who would fulfill my every need? Her face had been covered, her hair had been disguised, her body had been hidden beneath clothes that gave no hint of what was to be discovered, yet now, in this moment, I understood that instinct, that fate, had led me to the woman I most desired.
Thrill whispered in to mix with the heat pouring through my veins.
Her head peeked out of the elevator. “Are we going or what?”
Smiling at her question, I tucked my hands into the pockets of my slacks and approached her, taking pleasure in the way she backed to the far left of the elevator while I stood to the right. It wasn’t just my instinct screaming at this moment, it was hers, but she was barely listening.
Reaching the first floor, I led her through the lobby, ignoring the pointed glances people made at her lack of shoes or much else. Their eyes had drifted to me as we passed, questions remaining silent as to why the owner of the hotel was with a woman who hadn’t bothered to put on shoes.
Knowing Penny felt insecure, exposed, naked to the eyes of the hotel’s guests as we walked toward the boutique, I slowed my pace to stretch out the seconds, took pleasure in the way she groaned to realize she wouldn’t hurry me along. Disgrace has its advantages, and humiliation can wear down even the most forceful of rebellions.
Penny must have believed I was simply tired or preferred a lazy stride, but in that assumption she was mistaken. The catch , as she had so hastily phrased it, began the second she agreed to follow me home, its name that of domination .
Every decision, every expression, every word, gesture and deliberate aberration were only tiny pieces of a skilled contraption, one action triggering the next, one result and reaction determining what would be the following step, the choice of direction. The catch had already begun, but Penny was none the wiser.
While she tried to hurry me along, I lingered. Her discontent was obvious.
Finally reaching the boutique, she scuttled inside, casting one last look into the lobby before hiding herself behind a rack of clothing. The woman who’d helped me earlier missed the barely dressed girl who’d run in, but lifted her head when I strolled through the doors.
“Mr. Mercier, you’ve returned!” Hurrying out from behind the checkout desk, she approached me. “Did the dress not fit your lady friend? Perhaps it wasn’t to her taste?”
Graciously, I smiled. “That’s not the case, at all. The dress fit perfectly and was to her taste. In fact, it looks much better on her than the hanger. But, she has another problem which needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, the dress was all she had to wear, and it left her feeling far more exposed than she liked.”
Understanding my meaning, the woman’s eyes flared wide, a small smile gracing her thin lips before she could hide it behind a hand. “Well,” she finally answered, “I guess we hadn’t considered modesty while picking out a dress. Did she tell you her size? I can find some underthings that may suit her.”
“I brought her along, actually.” Turning, I could barely contain my laughter to see Penny’s eyes peeking over the rack of clothes. The sales woman had hit the nail on the head by mentioning modesty. Apparently, Penny preferred to hide. Which meant I would challenge that insecurity every chance I got, just for the fun of it.
“Come over here, Penny,” I called out, my voice amused and vindictive. “There’s no need to be shy.”
If looks could kill, I’d just died three times over. Without moving for fear of chasing her off into the storm that continued to blister the night, I waited for her to make up her mind and come out from behind the rack. The saleswoman gasped from where she stood beside me, no doubt noticing that Penny’s assets were far too noticeable in the dress we’d chosen. The material left nothing to the imagination.
“Oh dear,” the woman said, “it seems we did forget a few things.” Approaching Penny, she touched her shoulder and turned her in the direction of the back room, “We’ll get you some underthings, and some shoes. Mr. Mercier hadn’t mentioned how...shapely...you are.”
I hadn’t known at the time I’d bought the dress. Penny’s figure had been a welcome surprise. “I’ll just wait out here,” I called before selecting a seat that was conveniently positioned to give me an unobstructed view of the mirrors in the back room.
The two women hurried back and I watched from my chair, choosing not to turn my head when the woman handed Penny some underwear. Penny hesitated to put them on, the other woman chuckling before turning to give Penny the privacy she believed she had.
As soon as she moved to pull the underwear up her thighs, her fingers dragging the dress up her skin to reveal more of her body to my eyes, a breath hissed over my lips, my pants becoming uncomfortably tight. Her skin was pale, but unmarked in its perfection, the cheeks of her ass firm, yet round. Clenching my hands, I could imagine what they would feel like against my palms, could taste the salt of her skin on my tongue if I were to bite, could see the pink outline of my hand if I were to punish.
Glancing over her shoulder to ensure the sales woman still had her back turned, Penny slipped the straps of the dress from her shoulders, and I wondered how many times could one man die and come back to life. Stifling a growl that threatened to rattle my chest, I watched as she held the dress in place with her elbows, as she bent over to catch the weight of her breasts with the bra, as she straightened to clasp it behind her back, the fullness of her breasts pushed up and into place...not that they needed the help. There is something to be said about youth, especially in the female body. My tongue traced over my teeth, the sharp edges welcome against the soft muscle.
After replacing the straps of the dress over her shoulders, Penny spoke to the saleswomen, and together they moved out of the dressing area and into the back portion of the store. I was quick to turn my head, to make it appear as if something outside the boutique doors held my interest. In truth, I was biting my tongue not to demand an encore.
Selecting shoes took little time, and Penny returned to me with more color gracing her cheeks, her body exquisite beneath the dress, her confidence boosted. “I feel better now,” she admitted.
Inclining my head, I cleared my throat. “It’s a pleasure to do you the favor.”
A crooked smile graced her lips, there and then gone. “You say that like I’ll have to return the favor some day.”
Oh, you will...
“I already told you that you could pay me back from your checks. Why would you assume any differently?”
She shrugged. “It was just the tone of your voice, I guess.”
I didn’t bother to answer. “Shall we go get dinner? Our table awaits, and I’m sure we’ll want to get there before the kitchen runs out of certain selections. The dining room is open not only to the hotel, but also to any person who passes by. It’s quite popular in the city.”
Penny nodded, her hair still damp from the shower, the length trailing down her back. “Definitely. After the evening I’ve had, I’m actually starving.”
My eyes closed and opened again. “Then we are one in the same, ma belle , because after the evening I’ve had, so am I.”
Her responsive laugh was unsure. “I guess getting caught in a massive thunderstorm has that effect on a person, huh?”
My laughter was anything but unsure. “We can blame the rain,” I answered standing from my seat.
But, it’s not exactly food I’m starving for...
Walking into the dining hall, I chanced placing my hand on the small of Penny’s back, my efforts to appear the gentleman as I escorted her to hostess desk thwarted when she silently stepped to the side, allowing my fingertips to graze her hip until my hand fell away entirely. She didn’t complain openly or bother to glance in my direction, but I didn’t fail to notice the distance she kept, the refusal on her part to allow even that small part of a physical connection.
Penny didn’t just have walls that closed her in, she’d constructed a moat as well. My thoughts drifted over the possible reasons why.
“Mr. Mercier, you’re just in time. We have your table ready for you.”
Genevieve was a sweet woman, if not a little slow in the thoughts department. I knew for a fact my table had been ready for over two hours, but still the blond woman with a button nose and blue eyes that were far too round for her face had used a greeting on me that was intended for patrons to the restaurant that didn’t actually own the establishment.
The first several times she’d greeted me in such a way, I assumed she was practicing the expected behavior, ensuring she made it a habit to greet the other guests in such a way, but after months of the continued use of the polite phrase, I’d determined she truly didn’t understand it was a ruse we used with our patrons, a formality that was lost on an employer who had agreed to the custom with the Maître D’.
Breathing out, I grinned politely, inclining my head as she plucked two menus from the desk and walked both Penny and me to our seats.
Like the gentleman I wanted Penny to believe I was, I pulled her seat out for her, refusing to take mine until she was settled and comfortable. Most women would have thanked me, perhaps batted a lash, or given me some demure grin that told me exactly how she’d show me her appreciation later. Penny merely scowled.
If I had to beat some manners into this young woman to drag her into compliance, I would do so with the utmost of pleasure and enthusiasm.
Stepping away from the chair, I ignored how Penny took her seat as soon as I was outside of reaching distance. Genevieve watched the scene with barely hidden dismay, her eyes darting to me in question as I settled into my chair and slipped the cloth napkin from the table to settle over my lap.
“Matthew himself will be serving you this evening. I’ll let him know you’ve arrived,” Genevieve explained before scurrying off, no doubt to tell whoever would listen that I was dining with a woman who had all but told me to take a hike.
“I’m sorry about the chair thing,” Penny muttered as she retrieved her menu from where Genevieve had left them on the table. I didn’t bother grabbing mine, I knew by memory what the restaurant offered. “It’s just weird. I’m not used to all this fancy stuff.”
“Fancy stuff,” I repeated, disbelief coating my voice. She stared at me sheepishly, shrugged, and hid her face behind her menu. I couldn’t help my curiosity.
“How long, exactly, have you lived on the streets?”
“Two weeks,” she answered without bothering to lower her menu.
My theory that it had been the streets that raised her went flying out the window. What had caused this girl to be so ill-mannered? Before I could consider the question further, Matthew approached the table, his uniform perfectly pressed, his apron a blinding white.
“Bonsoir , Monsieur Mercier,” his eyes darted to Penny. “And to you Mademoiselle .”
Penny ignored him and he returned his attention to me. I simply cocked a brow and skipped the typical formalities. “I’ll take my usual evening drink, Matthew, and Penny here would like a -“
Allowing my voice to trail off, I waited for her response. Dropping her menu to the table, she eyed Matthew and answered, “I’ll have a coke, and do you all have regular cheeseburgers here? I can’t read anything on this menu.”
Poor Matthew had to cough just to regain the ability to breathe. My shoulders shook with barely restrained laughter. When he looked to me in question, I waved my hand in the air and said, “You heard the lady. A Coke and a cheeseburger. I’ll have my usual meal as well.”
His professionalism not lost on the odd scene, Matthew turned and walked away. Penny stared at me expectantly. I waited for her to say whatever was on her mind.
“So what is the job you’re offering?”
Straight and to the point. I couldn’t blame her there. “That depends,” I answered, “on your education and skills.” Intentionally lowering my voice to a sultry tone, I asked, “What is it you enjoy doing? Do you have any special talents of which I should be aware?”
Grinning in response to my question, she leaned forward and answered, “I can tie a cherry stem into a bow with my tongue, and I’m a pretty decent pole dancer.”
My throat worked to swallow the blistering censure I wanted to deliver to this rebellious girl. Reminding myself that all good things come with time, I asked, “Are you lying to me?”
“Yes,” she answered, but I wanted to make sure you didn’t get too excited, because if you did, I’d be out of here faster than they could cook the burger you’re buying me.”
Message delivered and received. It was too bad for her I was a lot more discreet in my plans. “Any real skills?” I asked.
Her expression fell. “No. Does that mean the deal is off?”
I almost felt sorry for her ... almost. “Not at all. There are two jobs that don’t require experience, and Theresa is ready and willing to train you on whatever requirements accompany the job. “I believe you can work in the lounge, or as a maid.”
Eyes rounded, she shook her head. “Nope. I’m not wearing that skimpy little maid outfit and walking around this place with a feather duster. You can forget we ever had this deal. I’ll just take my clothes, go in the bathroom and change, and I’ll be on my way.”
Penny moved to stand, but I was faster, my hand gripping down on her wrist, a squeal of pained protest bursting from her lips when I squeezed a touch too hard. Her attempt to jerk away was feeble at best, the dinner setting jostling on the table. And although we’d drawn attention, I wouldn’t back down. She’d reached the end of the line on my patience. “Sit down,” I bit out, the razor edge to my command cutting, “and behave like a respectable woman for once in your miserable young life.”
What the hell had I been thinking to choose a girl from the streets? I’d wanted a challenge. I understood that, but Penny was proving to be a touch too rebellious, which only drew the ire of a man like me.
Surprisingly, she sat as I’d demanded, her shoulders folding in over themselves as her eyes scanned the tables nearest ours. Embarrassment colored her cheeks, and once more I saw beneath her bullshit facade to witness the fragility of who she was inside.
Ignoring the stares and whispers of the patrons seated near us, I snapped my fingers to draw her attention to me, my personality leaking out despite my desire to keep it hidden. “Are you trying to destroy your own life? Is that your game? What is it about having a job, food, a place to sleep and some damn class that aggravates you so much? Where were you before the streets? In some dysfunctional home that taught you nothing about how to behave?”
Although I’d kept my voice low enough to be a hiss across the table, tears stung her eyes, the gold flecked brown glimmering beneath the low lighting of the room. Our stares were locked as her lips parted slightly, as her fingers clenched over the napkin she hadn’t yet placed on her lap like any decent woman would. Slowly, her brows pulled together, her cheeks deepening in color, a line being drawn between her eyes by the anger boiling inside her, and just as I thought she would attempt to bolt from me once more, Matthew appeared, setting our drinks on the table.
“A Coke for the lady and a red wine for Monsieur Mercier.”
Neither of us bothered to glance up toward Matthew, and my hand twitched with the need to slap the rebellious rage from Penny’s insolent face. Matthew left without another word, leaving us alone to continue this ridiculous battle.
“You know nothing about me or my life,” Penny spat between clenched teeth. “Not a damn thing. And it’s obvious you just want me to prance around here dressed like a damn slut for the purpose of putting on a show for your guests. That’s beneath me. I won’t be amusement for perverts like you.”
“You were sleeping on the streets just last night, I’m not sure anything at this point is beneath you.”
My smile was finely honed, the line sharp. It was all I could do to keep from reaching across the table to wrap my fingers over her face and hold her in place while I explained, “It was never my intention to make you prance around. I recall offering you a choice of jobs. One inside the lounge where, yes, the clothing choices are risqué, but also in our housekeeping department.”
“Where I’ll have to wear that stupid black and white dress with sky high heels and fish-nets? No thanks!”
The tension was making it difficult to understand where her refusal was coming from. Thankfully, she reminded me. Canting her head to the side, she gave me a feral smile while saying, “Like the woman you molested in the hall when we first got here? Is that a requirement of the staff? To be ready and available to you?”
My shoulders relaxed. “You mean Émilie.”
“Yes,” she admitted, Émilie.”
Shaking my head, I answered, “You’re confused, Penny. Émilie is not a maid, she was wearing one the lounge costumes. And nobody is required to be at my disposal (except you ). Émilie and I...well...”
“More like fucking, but if you prefer a term that’s more polite-“ My voice trailed off as I gave her a wan grin.
“Oh,” she mumbled, her full lips rounding with her eyes.
“Oh,” I repeated, happy that she appeared to be backing down from whatever assumption she’d made.
“Sorry, I thought -“ Pausing mid-sentence, she settled in her seat, her cheeks flaring with color. On a softer voice, she explained, “I just couldn’t understand why a man like you would approach some random homeless girl in the rain. I assumed it was for reasons like what I saw with Émilie.”
She wasn’t wrong to assume that was my intent, but her adamancy, her anger, at the thought of a man using her that way piqued my interest. I knew nothing about her, knew nothing of her experiences, but I would leave those questions alone for tonight. “The housekeeping uniform is a grey dress, if I’m not mistaken, one that falls to the knees and comes with a white apron. It’s in keeping with the theme of this hotel, but I believe most of the female staff wear shorts beneath them, given their duties. What you saw Émilie wearing is one of the costumes used in the lounge, and if you’re uncomfortable dressing as such, then you don’t have to.”
Her expression was apologetic. “I’m sure housekeeping will be fine for me. I don’t mind vacuuming, emptying trash cans or stripping sheets.”
“Very well. I’ll need some information from you before you can begin work.”
“Your full name. Your age.”
Pulling the cloth napkin from the table, she settled it over her lap. “Penelope Graham. Nineteen.”
This beautiful girl was fifteen years younger than me. “Why did you tell me your name is Penny?”
Shrugging, she refused to look at me. “It’s short for Penelope, and I prefer it.”
“I prefer Penelope,” I confessed as Matthew approached the table to set our meals in front of us. Once he left, I let the conversation go, watching with interest as she practically devoured the food in front of her. Uncaring that ketchup was slipping down her chin or that grease dribbled down her fingers, Penelope had cleaned her plate before I’d taken three bites of my food. Rather than using her napkin, she licked the grease from her fingers, the sight both disturbing for its lack of etiquette and appealing in a way that only a pervert such as myself could appreciate.
Rather than calling her out on the faux pas, I stared with keen interest. After barely managing to tidy her hands, she looked up, eyed my food and asked, “Are you going to eat that?”
Without answering, I slid my plate across the table, genuinely amused by this child I’d pulled from the streets.
(Faiville Prison, 11:57 am)
“She wasn’t that bad.”
“She was,” Vincent answered, disregarding the trivial defense Meadow had made for her sister while laughter whispered on his breath. “Had I not already made plans for Penelope, I would have tossed her from the hotel back out into the storm the instant she first demonstrated just how bad she really was. The girl had no manners.” His eyes lifted to pin Meadow. “Is that how the two of you were raised?”
Insulted by the question, she countered, “Because watching a woman get dressed while she has no knowledge of your attention is the best of manners? You don’t have a lot of room to talk, Vincent.”
His grin was malicious, and inviting. A man with no qualms for the pain he caused, for the games he played, for the lives he manipulated, Vincent took pride in his achievements - if they could be called that. Other people would refer to him as a sadist, a plague, a scourge that should be eradicated from the world for having so thoroughly polluted the men and women he ran across, but he was simply a scoundrel, one who could tantalize with a secretive smile, one who knew how to stroke and kiss, to mold and shape those who had the misfortune of knowing him.
Penny had cared for this man...eventually. And now Meadow watched him with critical eyes, looking for any hint of his humanity. She opened her mouth to ask him a question, but before the words could tumble from her lips, the door to the interview room popped open, a female guard walking in, her eyes drifting to Vincent for only a second before locking on Meadow. “It’s noon, which means it’s shift change. You’ll need to leave the room while we secure Mr. Mercier in an alternate location for the next half hour.”
“Am I really that dangerous?” he asked, his voice insidious and flirtatious. “Come now, Lisa, I’ve never done anything for you to worry about my behavior for the next half hour while you all abandon your posts.”
Meadow couldn’t believe it when the guard’s cheeks tinged pink, her eyes softening. Dear God, had this man managed to seduce the very people who were supposed to keep him locked away and imprisoned from the rest of the world?
“You know the rules, Mercier. I’m not willing to lose my job when you’ll be nothing but a memory in three days.”
“That’s not what you said last-“
“Not funny.” Panic edged the guard’s voice, her blue eyes darting between Vincent and Meadow as her lips pulled into a razor sharp line. “I’ll escort you from the room myself...both of you.”
Studying the guard, Meadow took note of her short stature, her figure more akin to a man than a woman, her short hair clipped close to her skull and the lines of age that marred her face. Standing as if to ready herself to leave, Meadow leaned across the table, lowering her voice so that only Vincent could hear, “She’s not your usual type.”
He grinned. “You do what you can with the selection you’re offered.” His gaze slid sideways to trap her in his peripheral vision. “I’ll see you in a half hour, Meadow.”
She chanced another look at the guard to find the woman staring directly at her. Smiling while turning to retrieve her recorder, she was stopped short by the guard. “You can leave your things. We’ll be bringing him back here when we’re done.”
Nodding, Meadow hated having to leave her tapes behind. This was her last opportunity to record his confession, the words he’d already spoken potentially lost if something were to happen to the recordings. Biting her lip, she released a breath, casting one last look in Vincent’s direction to realize he was studying her. Did he know how important these interviews were?
Forcing one foot in front of the other, she passed the guard on her way out of the room, flinched when she heard the door shut behind her, and walked in the direction of the hall she remembered from when she’d been led in.
“We’ll leave you just outside the first set of gates. There are bathrooms if you need to use one and a vending machine if you’re thirsty or hungry.”
The guard moved as if to leave, but turned around again, searching Meadow’s face. “How can you sit in there and listen to him? Didn’t he kill your sister? You should hate him.”
“I do,” Meadow answered, crossing her arms over her chest.
Scoffing, the guard shook her head. “Doesn’t look like it. If you were to ask me, I’d say you have a thing for him.”
“I guess it’s a good thing I’m not asking you,” Meadow snapped. “Perhaps you’re just projecting your own feelings onto me?”
The guard chuckled. “Can’t blame me. It’s not often we get the pretty ones in here.”
With that, the guard left and Meadow choose a seat on an utilitarian bench, pulling up her feet so she could wrap her arms over her shins and lay her head on her knees. Skull throbbing with anger, excitement, agony, and questions, she let go of her disgust with the guard to focus on what Vincent had implied about her family home.
He was wrong in his assumption that Meadow and Penny had been raised without etiquette, without having been taught right from wrong, without having it drilled into their heads the merits of gracious manners and proper behavior. But unlike the lives some led when money was never an issue, or when constantly in the public eye, their childhood home had been comfortable, an environment built on a modest income where love had been more valuable than diamonds.
Penny knew how to behave, but whereas she had taken on more of the personality traits of their father - a stern man that still knew how to deliver a well-timed joke and who would often let loose to shirk the stress of responsibility - Meadow had been more like their mother. Refined. Educated. Demure.
They had been identical twins in looks, in strength, in fortitude, but in personality, there were some subtle differences. Penny was the more relaxed of the twins, the one who believed that life could be lived on the cuff, decisions not always carrying permanent results, that fun and relaxation were more important than constantly worrying what the future would hold. She was fun, while Meadow was responsible. She was brash, while Meadow was reserved.
Had Meadow been the one to end up on the streets, she would have suffocated beneath the pressure rather than enduring it long enough to discover a new home.
If Wishing Well could have been considered a home. According to the diary, it was more like a prison. But unlike the one in which Meadow now found herself sitting, Wishing Well had been built with the simple idea of opulence and excessive luxury. In that, Vincent’s hotel had been a lie intended to settle the mind of its guests, a dream intended to deceive the mind of a wayward and rebellious girl.
How would Meadow fair against a man that not even Penny had been able to see through?
She didn’t know, but she would try. She would bite her tongue each time she wanted to compliment him, would dig her nails into her skin each time she felt herself sliding into his orbit.
Lost in her thoughts, the half hour passed quickly, and Meadow was escorted back to interview room three, and back to a man that followed her with his observant eyes, his posture relaxed, his aura even more alluring now that his hunger had been sated by a female guard.
Meadow didn’t have to ask to know what he’d done in the short time he’d been held in an alternate location, his teasing smile and bedroom eyes said it all. She could clearly see him stretched lazily over the white linens of a large, comfortable bed, his tan skin striking against the soft sheets.
Shaking herself of the image, she pressed record on her machine and took her seat. “I want to discuss the following morning, the first time you introduced Penny to your friend, Barron.”
Vincent’s lazy grin stretched wider. “I knew you would ask about that morning next. That day. That...encounter.”
Meadow bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. “Encounter isn’t exactly the word I would use. From what I know, it was more like an attack. A lie. A test that Penny didn’t know she was taking.”
“It was a taste,” he said, correcting her. His shackles rattled when he moved just a fraction to stretch the breadth of his strong shoulders. “How is a man to know how far a woman has come along if he doesn’t determine who she was before the training?”
Planting her palms on the surface of the table, Meadow had to fight not to stand so that she could be bigger than him as she argued, “You intentionally deceived her into believing you were innocent. That you gave a damn what happened to her. That you would protect her from men just like you!”
A simple shrug, a grin that revealed nothing. “I fail to understand why it upsets you so much, Meadow.” Stressing her name, he met her eyes, daring her to reach across for him with shaking arms and fingers that wanted to strangle. “You weren’t the woman who was led astray, were you? You hadn’t been the one to be deceived.”
“She was my sister -“
“That you hadn’t spoken to in over a year by the time I found her. When she had her heart broken by her boyfriend, where were you? When she was sleeping on the streets, when she was cold, scared and alone, what had you done to save her?”
Knowing he’d cornered her easily, he folded his hands together over the table, and straightened his posture. “Perhaps you’re here to accuse me alone of her death because you’re attempting to rid yourself of the role you played in her destruction.”
The words stung, a barb settled deeply in her heart as easily as a warm knife slicing through butter. Swallowing down the knot this man so frequently conjured in her throat, she took a breath, willing her pulse to slow down, her muscles to loosen. “I didn’t know Blake had left her. I wasn’t made aware that Penny was on the streets. As far as I knew-“
“You were happy in the new life you’d created in a foreign country,” Vincent said, interrupting her train of thought. “Why threaten that happiness with despair?”
Pausing, he let the words linger, gave her a few quiet moments to gather her composure. “I agree we should discuss what happened that following morning because it’s the point where the story becomes more interesting, more unsettling, more divine. Penelope had one night of safety, one night to sleep, and eat, and believe she wasn’t being chased through a maze of my design. But when the sun rose the next morning, all semblance of peace was lost to my cravings. The game I set in place had begun.”
By seven the next morning, I was sitting behind the large, dark cherry wood desk that took up a sizeable portion of my office. A fire blazed, gently licking at the air in the fireplace with a hand carved oak mantel. Through the windows behind me, the gardens were in full view, the winter blooming flowers still holding court while those that regained life in spring were just budding, their bright green leaves tasting the warmth of the sun-drenched winds, testing and learning whether they could burst forth into full view.
The branch of a small tree tapped against my window with every soft breeze that blew past, classical music lightly playing over my speakers to add a sense of calm and wonder to my morning. And while I was bent over paperwork, scratching my signature onto several pages, I waited for the appearance of a beautiful girl through my door.
The knock came at five after eight, the morning becoming more intriguing when I called for her to come in. Lifting my eyes without straightening in my seat, I bit my lip to keep from complimenting her state of dress.
“I see you received my note,” I casually commented, my pen still working ink over the last of my papers.
She took a seat in one of the leather chairs facing my desk, her demeanor quiet and unsure. “Yep. I met with Theresa after I woke up and she gave me the uniform I’m supposed to wear. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” she admitted, shy laughter teasing her voice.
The shapeless frock didn’t do much to show off her figure, but I still knew what could be discovered, still craved what was hidden beneath the grey material and white apron that had bunched around her knees when she sat down.
Leaning back in my chair, I toyed the pen through my fingers, watching her with cryptic eyes. “I guess this means you chose to work in housekeeping?”
More soft laughter shook her thin shoulders. “You guess right. Theresa showed me the other costumes used in the lounge, and even though she told me I would make more money working there, I couldn’t imagine myself wearing any them. Not in public.”
In private, perhaps?
The pen dropped to the surface of my desk. “I’m glad we found something that worked for you. Housekeeping isn’t the easiest of occupations, but it will keep you busy.”
As will I...
“When does your first shift start?” I asked, wanting to ensure Theresa had followed my instructions and kept Penelope available to me in the morning.
“At noon. I don’t need to be in uniform already, but my only other choice in clothing was what you bought me last night. My outfit is still in laundry. I have nothing else to wear.”
Cocking a curious brow, I asked, “You have no other clothes besides what you were wearing last night in the rain?”
Shaking her head, her eyes glanced out the windows at my back. “No. I had a bag of clothes when I became homeless, but it was stolen the first night I fell asleep. I guess that’s why I saw other homeless people sleeping practically on top of their stuff. Lesson learned.”
Tsking my tongue, I flipped the corner of one page with my finger. “That won’t do. I can give you some money.”
Her eyes darted to mine. “I already owe you too much.”
“I have it to give, and I don’t mind. You can use it on whatever you need. I’m sure it will stretch further at a store outside of the hotel, the boutique is quite expensive.”
“I saw that,” she admitted. “While I was hiding behind the rack, I peeked at a few of the price tags. What you spent on the dress, underwear and shoes would have paid a month of rent at my old place. Thank you, by the way. I’m not sure I said that last night.”
An errant breeze bustled through an open window, the cool air lifting the papers on my desk until I was forced to slap my palm down on them to keep them from flying away. Penelope laughed.
“A paperweight would help to keep that from happening.”
My gaze lifted to hers, noting the easy smile she wore. “I don’t happen to have one at the moment.”
“Anything heavy would do,” she suggested.
Even your ass? While I take the time to spread your legs and explore every nook and cranny?
“Or I could just close the window,” I mentioned, standing from my seat to do so, while taking a breath to keep the heat of my excitement from coloring my face. It irked me to realize how husky my voice had been.
Barron was due to arrive at any minute, and following his introduction to Penelope, I would know exactly what type of girl she was. How far she could be pushed. Whether it was a hellcat that lay beneath her skin or a damsel unable to handle the distress.
As I retook my seat, Penelope admitted, “Theresa told me you needed me to fill out some paperwork before I started working. I can give you all my information, but I don’t have identification or anything else. It was all stolen with my clothes.”
I caught her brown eyes with mine, admired the wisps of gold and green streaked through the light brown. Her dark lashes framed the almond shape, her cheekbones set high and wide. Now that her hair was dry, I could see the natural waves that were soft, the length cascading over her shoulders and down her back. “We’ll make due with what we have for now. I’ll give you five hundred in cash. That should help you buy some more clothes and have your identification replaced. You can use the hotel’s address, if you need to.”
“Thank you,” she answered softly. Fidgeting in her seat, she added, “I still don’t understand why you’re doing this for me. It almost feels like you’re my father, taking me under your wing and all that.”
Her words cut deeper than I was sure she understood. “I’m not old enough to be your father.” And I don’t have the same intentions of a man who would look out for what’s best...
Laughter curled her lips, but before she could respond, a knock at the door drew our attention. I rolled my eyes as if I hadn’t expected the interruption. “Come in.”
Barron walked through the door, his suit perfectly tailored, his blond hair styled back and out of place. Allowing his eyes to land on Penelope for only a short second, he shifted his attention to me, playing his part perfectly without need for my instruction.
“I apologize for interrupting. I didn’t know you had someone with you already.”
Standing, I extended my hand to shake his. “It’s no problem, Barron. I was just going over some information with a new employee.”
Releasing his hand, I waited for him to take a seat next to Penelope. “Barron, this is Penelope Graham. Penelope, this is my friend and business associate, Barron Billings.”
“Hey,” she said, her simple greeting pulling a curious glance from Barron. It didn’t take longer than a minute for him to glean that Penelope wasn’t the standard type of woman I would endeavor to entertain. A smile tilted his lips.
For the next few minutes we made small talk, discussing subjects as ridiculous as the weather and as boring as our businesses and financial holdings. Penelope shifted in her seat every so often, quiet and obviously wanting an excuse to leave the two of us alone, but that had never been my intention. When she appeared ready to make an excuse to leave the room, I pressed a button on the keypad of my computer and pretended to have noticed a message that never really come through. “It looks like I’m needed elsewhere for a moment. If you two will excuse me, I’ll make my departure brief.”
I never gave Penelope the chance to complain. I simply slipped from the room and took a stroll through the hotel. It bothered me not to know how Barron would test her. I wouldn’t see the attempt, wouldn’t know what he said or did to sample her flavor, but he had ten minutes to lay his hands on her, which meant if I timed my arrival just right, I’d witness the results of his game.
Smiling and nodding at the people I passed, I made it appear as if I were simply checking on the ongoings of the hotel, and finding nothing that required my attention or intervention, I returned to my office in time to hear a muted shriek, a few swear words being lobbed from the throat of an angry woman and the unmistakable slap of a hand against skin. Throwing open the door, I narrowed my eyes in anger to see Penelope backed against my desk, Barron’s hand wrapping over her shoulder as he cocked an arm to return the slap that left a noticeable mark over his cheek.
“What the hell is going on in here?” I demanded, my voice rising above the commotion, my reaction of surprised anger played well.
Without giving either of them time to answer, I jerked Barron away from Penelope, my anger clear as I shoved him toward the door of my office and growled, “Never return to my hotel again. Do you understand me? My employees aren’t here for you to manhandle.”
“I didn’t do anything,” he argued. “She’s a fucking tease who got pissed off that I called her out on offering to fuck me and then -“
“Liar!” Penelope yelled from behind me. I turned to see her shifting her skirt back into place, tears leaking from her eyes to drip down her cheeks. “He asked me to hand him a pen and then tried to hold me against the desk and reach beneath my skirt.”
Clenching my jaw, I took hold of Barron’s arm and made a show of forcing him through my office door. Continuing the display should Penelope peek out to watch me walk him through the lobby, I didn’t ease off until we were outside of Wishing Well and fully out of view.
Releasing him, I grinned. “Well, what did you think?”
Rubbing at his cheek that was blistering pink, he shook his head. “Where did you find that girl? She’s practically feral.”
“The streets. I figured if this were to be an actual challenge, I should make it impressive by starting from scratch.”
“Good luck with her. I have a feeling I’ll be a richer man by the time you fail with that particular challenge.”
Inclining my head, I said, “You’ve had your first taste. You’ll see her again in three months. I fully expect you’ll be unpleasantly surprised to discover that you owe me a year’s profits from The Castle. Be sure to ice your cheek. We wouldn’t want it to swell.”
I had to make a concerted effort to erase my smile when I stepped back inside the hotel, had to feign continued anger when I entered my office to find Penelope in her seat, her arms wrapped around her body as she softly cried.
Kneeling in front of her, I rested a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay? For all the years I’ve known Barron, he’s never acted that way before. I wouldn’t have left him alone with you if I’d known.”
Swiping at a tear, she sniffled. “It’s okay. It’s not the first time some asshole thought he could treat me that way. Being homeless tends to make people believe you’re less than human.”
“I told him he’s no longer welcome in Wishing Well. If you see him or if he ever bothers you again, be sure to let me know. I won’t tolerate a man treating any woman that way.”
Reaching up, I brushed my thumb over a tear that slipped along her jaw, and for the first time since I’d met her, Penelope didn’t immediately pull away from my touch.
It was apparent I was on the path of earning her trust, on the path of teaching her why I was the last man she should have let close to her.
“Why don’t you wash your face in my adjacent bathroom, and then I’ll take you on a tour of the hotel and surrounding gardens before you start your shift? It’ll give you time to collect yourself before returning to Theresa.”
Flashing me a small smile, Penelope nodded her head and stood to walk to the bathroom. Before stepping through the door, she turned back to me. “Hey, Vincent,” she practically whispered.
My eyes locked with hers, but I said nothing.
“Thank you,” she breathed out, “for everything.”
“It’s been my pleasure.”
She quietly closed the door of the bathroom, and I stood in place knowing full well that in three months, she wouldn’t be thanking me any longer.
The bright sun fought to warm the breeze that blew through the gardens of the hotel, Penelope’s hair a waterfall of soft waves that revealed notes of red within the brown, gold hints that matched her eyes where they caught the brilliant light. Strolling beneath a sky that was a breathtaking stretch of clear blue, I folded my hands together behind my back while allowing her to silently discover the different seating areas and fountains, the secretive spaces that allowed privacy to those who desired to be outside but not in plain view.
“The gardens are beautiful, Vincent. Did you design them?”
Smiling, I answered, “I wish I could take credit, but I’m afraid I don’t have a green thumb. I hired professionals to create and tend the gardens, showing them pictures from my former home, hoping the climate was right to recreate what I remembered from my childhood.”
Her eyes met mine, the sunlight glimmering against the brown, teasing me with what those eyes would look like when filled with passion, with lust, with devotion. “You grew up in a place like this? Was it this peaceful?”
Not always, I thought as I remembered back to my family, to the problems I’d had at home growing up, to my mother’s death, to the problems that followed. Choosing to keep those secrets to myself, I decided on a far simpler answer. “Yes. Paris, like many cities, is a busy place full of people, activity, noise. But there are places where one can get away, private havens like the home where I was raised.”
“It must have been nice,” she mused, her eyes brightening when she saw the well set in the center of the gardens, the feature from which the hotel had gained its name. “Is that real?” Her gaze tipped up to me, “an actual well?”
Nodding, I mentioned, “It’s only ten feet deep, the city wouldn’t allow it to be dug any lower, and it’s supplied by city water rather than a natural aquifer or spring, but it’s as close as I could have it. We had a well just like it on a farm my family owned. I used to toss coins inside much to my mother’s dismay. She would always tell me that the well was intended as a water source for drinking, and that I shouldn’t pollute it, but how else was I supposed to make a wish?”
Her laughter was snatched away by the wind, the current of air as greedy for a part of her as I was. “What would you wish for?” she asked as she moved on hurried steps to the well, peering down once she reached it to see the myriad of glimmering coins other guests had tossed inside. I crept up to stand beside her, my eyes locked on her profile as she watched the dancing display of light over water. There was something far too innocent about this girl despite the time she’d spent on her own. Something so simple and youthful that it wouldn’t be difficult to grasp it with skilled hands and rearrange it to suit what I wanted.
“I wished to control my life. To own everything I could ever imagine. To have the world at my fingertips and an existence that was never boring.”
Glancing up, she grinned. “Looks like your wish came true.”
“Not entirely,” I answered, studying her. “There is still one area that has yet to come true. Perhaps I could toss you in the well and make that final wish happen.”
Her brows pulled together in confusion. Stepping closer, I leaned over to bring my mouth dangerously close to her ear. “I’m talking about your name. It is traditionally pennies that get tossed in, isn’t it?”
“Oh!” Her laughter was like a siren’s song. “Yeah,” she said, placing distance between us again. I didn’t miss the goosebumps that dotted her flesh. She was affected by me already, even if she, herself, didn’t recognize it. “Very funny. For a second there, I thought you were going to snatch me up and dunk me just for the fun of it.”
Right on time...
Penelope’s head turned toward the sound, a woman’s voice thick with a French accent. Calling out again, Émilie was drawing closer with each second, giving me just enough time to snatch Penelope at the hips, ignoring her surprised squeal as I dragged her backwards into a small, private niche that was bordered by tall camellia hedges, their red flowers still in full bloom. A small swing hung just inside, the chain rattling softly against the breeze, and just before Penelope could ask why I’d stolen her away, I pressed my hand over her mouth, brought my lips to her ear, and whispered, “Shush. I don’t want her to find me.”
Penelope attempted to turn her head to look in my direction, but I gripped my free hand over her hip, tugging her back against my chest and squeezing just hard enough to force a tiny sound in protest from her lips. My fingers tightened over her cheeks, and before she could panic and struggle, I explained on a voice only she could hear. “Émilie and I had a small falling out last night. I would appreciate it greatly if you’d endure hiding just long enough for her to go away.”
I allowed her head to turn just enough so our eyes could meet, one word falling from my mouth that helped her relax against me. “Please.”
A single tense second led to some decision in her head. Her body relaxed more in response to my one word of placation. It would be the last time she would hear that particular syllable fall from my lips. But for this moment it was a means to an end, a moment I briefly wondered if Penelope would remember as the beginning of her fall.
From a life lived with her own thoughts and desires leading her way.
A moment when the heat of our bodies was in opposition to the cold wind. A moment when our shared silence cemented us together, letting her believe that we could be one unbreakable union at odds against the world.
I’d planted a seed that would one day flower, the roots driving deep into the soil as we stared at one another, listening and silently laughing as Émilie continued calling, her voice carrying over the distance as Penelope pressed tighter to my chest. My fingers gripped down on her hip, our shared breath mingling as this interlude took a turn toward the type of heat I was sure she’d never encountered.
The flower budded, Penelope’s trust its scent. It was too bad the stem was firmly rooted in a soil of dishonesty and ill-intent.
Where she touched me, I’d become stone, and as my fingers brushed over the curve of her hip, she trembled. Émilie’s voice was lost and forgotten, her search for me over, but still I stood in the private space holding a girl I wouldn’t allow to run from me much longer.
“Thank you,” I breathed out, my breath hot against her skin, the tip of my nose trailing against her hair as I breathed in the scent. Amused by the way she didn’t immediately move away, I slipped my hand from her mouth after taking one last second to feel her rasps of breath against my skin. “That was a meeting I wasn’t quite prepared for. You saved me.”
“That makes us even,” she answered, her voice husky with a hint of sex. “You saved me. I saved you.” Unmoving, we stood back to chest, a delicate blossom wrapped within the cruel hand that would pluck it from its stem.
When I didn’t move, she finally stepped forward, disappointment seeping in to caress the places were her body no longer touched mine. Turning, she asked, “What was the falling out? From what I saw yesterday, Émilie was more than happy to see you.”
“It seems I didn’t share the same enthusiasm, at least not to her liking. I had quite the evening yesterday and I was tired.”
Penelope chuckled. “What happened to that endurance you’d bragged about? A man like you should be able to go all night.”
Sucking in a breath, I had to grip the leg of my pants to keep from reaching out and dragging her back to me. Kicking and screaming, if need be. “Perhaps it takes the right woman to draw the endurance out of me. And Émilie has lost my interest.”
Penelope’s eyes rounded, my comment too close. “I should go,” she said quickly, her walls erecting once again in an effort to shove me out. It didn’t matter whether she used cement or stone, iron or titanium, I would find the weakness to breach her stronghold, one way or another.
“It’s getting late,” I agreed. “Your shift will begin soon.”
I watched her run off, un papillon dans le vent. A smile tugged at my lips as she turned right, taking a path that would lead her farther into the gardens. Noticing her mistake, she paused, turned left and ran off in the opposite direction toward the hotel’s entrance.
Her mind was addled, that much was obvious. And I had been the one to swirl my fingers through her calm waters to create that confusion, to disturb the surface just enough that truth was disguised beneath the ripples.
It would have been nice to focus on her entirely, but other matters required my attention, a certain problem that had followed me from home and remained hidden from easy view. Tucking my hands in my pockets, I both loved and regretted that problem. It was my burden to bear.
C’est la vie , I muttered to myself.
Taking the first steps toward a life that chained me, I tilted my face into the sun before pulling a coin from my pocket to toss into the well, a penny that sank as it jostled and turned to land among hundreds of others.
Only time would tell if that wish would come true.
Faiville Prison, 1:27 pm
Unable to meet Vincent’s cold, cruel eyes, Meadow watched her fingertips tap slowly against the surface of the table. She knew he studied her, knew that behind his brilliant green gaze, satisfaction lurked, the truth of his games bubbling to the surface, the victory of surrender he’d so easily pulled from Penny on a beautiful spring day.
Meadow wanted to believe that Penny had known all the moments that had been staged, that she’d somehow intuited the manipulation Vincent had so easily mastered. But the diary contained no question of his intent, no nascent thought that, perhaps, her encounter with Barron had been intended, that Émilie’s arrival in the garden had been planned rather than just mere coincidence. The diary made it clear that Penny had, in truth, been deceived into believing that a man such as Vincent Mercier could see the value of a dirty girl when the grime had been wiped away.
“What if Barron had hurt her?” Meadow asked after clearing her throat. “What if you hadn’t returned in time?”
“There was no concern of that.” He answered, his voice careful, soft in a way that was unlike him.
“But he was going to hurt her eventually, wasn’t he? You shouldn’t have believed he could restrain himself then.”
Silence, and then, “You’re skipping ahead, Ma belle . We are not at that point yet. I am simply pointing out what it was in the beginning. Time begins to move quickly now, a few weeks wherein I allowed the seed to germinate, allowed the beginning of her love to push up from the soil.” Vincent paused, considering. His voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, he asked, “Will you not look at me as we talk?”
“I’m angry with you,” Meadow admitted. “So angry I can barely remain sitting across this table from you, can barely remain in the room.”
“I have done nothing to you. Not in that sense, at least. Why do you take on the anger, the betrayal, of your sister? It is not worth your time.”
Lifting her eyes, she glared across the table. “Maybe because she’s not here to feel those emotions. She died before knowing the truth.”
“Did she?” he asked, a curious grin tilting the corners of his perfect lips.
“According to her diary, she did. But you’re right. We’re skipping ahead.” Gathering her thoughts, Meadow leaned back in her chair, her gaze dodging about the room, Vincent’s presence too much for her to bear. She wouldn’t leave. She’d return for the next two days to complete the interview.
And she’d return one day after that to watch this man die for his crimes. A piece of her dying with him to watch the spectacle.
“Let’s talk about Émilie. You mentioned her appearance was perfect timing, so you’d intended to have an excuse to drag Penny into that alcove. You’d wanted the excuse to touch her in that way. Was Émilie aware of what you were doing? How many people knew of the game you were playing?”
Mirroring her posture, Vincent relaxed in his seat, his long legs stretching out beneath the table until his foot tapped hers. She pulled her legs tighter to her chair, knowing that even that minimal touch was meant to distract her.
“Émilie did not know what I was doing. Nobody except Barron knew. Every day around that time, Émilie had a habit of coming to my office, sneaking an hour or two with me while I took my time with her on my desk. She’d fallen hard despite my warnings, had believed she could bring to life the heart of a man that had turned cold. Most women want to believe they can change a man, that there is some magic inside them, some trait, that will make him alter his ways. But people don’t change, not unless they want to.”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
Vincent blinked. “I hadn’t finished speaking. You should exercise patience. All good things come with time.”
Meadow had a visceral reaction to the words. He’d said them many times. Perhaps such a phrase should be chiseled onto his tombstone.
“Knowing that Émilie would arrive around the same time I was giving Penelope the tour of the grounds, I’d emailed my assistant prior to leaving my office asking her to send Émilie to the gardens when she arrived. Her presence was an excuse to drag Penelope into that alcove, but it was also a catalyst to something else. Women, despite their objections and statements to the contrary, enjoy winning what they perceive to be competition. It makes them feel special, preferred, if you will. And by my rejection of Émilie, a woman Penelope had seen and knew was quite beautiful, it made Penelope feel uniquely desirable. It was a boost to her self-esteem.”
Leaning forward, he asked, “If something makes you feel good about yourself, especially in a moment where you had been doubting, wouldn’t you want to gravitate close to its orbit so you could continue feeling good?”
“What made you think she was doubting herself? You hardly knew anything about her by that point.”
He grinned, contentment written into the lazy curve of full lips. “I’ve spent a lifetime studying women. Their behaviors and mannerisms. Their body language that reveals their secrets without ever having to say a word. Penelope didn’t need to tell me why she felt insecure for me to know she did.” Flaring his fingers as if this were simple knowledge any person should have, he said, “I gave her a reason to find pride within herself. It was her fault for her inability to let go of the need to continue experiencing the feeling.”
When Meadow didn’t respond, Vincent canted his head. “Oh, come now, you can’t tell me you don’t know that men have been doing this for centuries? It’s all part of the game.”
Clenching her teeth, Meadow asked, “What happened to Émilie?”
His brow wrinkled. “How should I know?”
Proud that she’d cornered him with the question, Meadow thought back on the diary, on the night Penny had first seen the dangers that lurked around Wishing Well. For once, Meadow felt like she had the upper hand. “You were there the night she died, weren’t you? According to the diary you were. In addition, you were charged with her death. How do you not know?”
His teasing grin stretched wider, his eyebrows rising in surprise. “Now that, I did not know. Did Penny witness that night?”
Not yet ready to reveal what she knew, Meadow asked, “Is that the reason you had the diary sent to me? For fear that having it sent to you or even read to you over the phone would give the police more charges to pin on you? To give them more evidence to support your crimes?”
Vincent hesitated, drawing a grin from Meadow’s lips. “Oh, come now,” she said, repeating his words, “you’re already scheduled to die. What’s one more lie to admit to? It’s not like they can kill you twice.”
His shackles rattled, his movement minimal. “I’m beginning to like you. It’s a shame I never had the chance to have both you and Penelope at the same time.”
“Oh, please. As if that could ever happen. I’m a little too smart for your games.”
He laughed, the sound dark, deceptive. “Are you calling Penny stupid?” Tsking, he said, “Your own sister. It’s in bad taste to speak ill of the dead.”
“Tell me, Vincent, what happened the night Émilie died?”
Breathing out, he stretched his neck from side to side, his eyelids heavy. Meadow knew he wasn’t tired, it was simply an illusion he wanted to portray.
“We both have information on that night, apparently. And I’m curious as to what Penelope saw. If you’ll tell me what she believed she saw, I’ll tell you what actually happened. Quid pro quo , Meadow.”
“That’s Latin,” Meadow commented, “has the surprise of what I know forced you to change languages?”
A slow shake of his head. “French may be my first language and English my second, but they are not the only ones I know. Would you like me to tell you what I just said?”
“Something for something,” she answered. “You can save your breath, I already know. Fine, I’ll tell you what Penny saw, but once I’m done, it’s your turn. And I want the truth, Vincent. No painting of pretty pictures to disguise your demons. This is your last chance to confess the truth of your crimes so that the world can know just how cunning and monstrous you were.”
His expression was blank, unreadable. “Be careful with the words you choose, Meadow. You may just have to eat them later.” Rolling his shoulders, he resettled in his seat. “Now, please, tell me what Penny remembered of that night, and I will tell you what actually happened.”
Housekeeping wasn’t so bad, if you didn’t mind the monotonous tasks. Vacuuming, sweeping, emptying every tiny trash can, trying not to think what was on the sheets as you pulled them from the beds. One would think businessmen would be a tidy bunch, but judging by the mess they left behind in their rooms, you’d be mistaken to believe it. Every room was the same, papers bunched and tossed haphazardly about, some in the trashcan and others on the floor near it, as if they’d been shooting baskets and their aim became worse as the night wore on. It probably had something to do with the alcohol they were drinking, because that was the other trash you found scattered throughout: tiny bottles of various liquors that I was sure cost a fortune to pull from the mini-bars.
But whereas housekeeping was a strenuous labor, especially as you climbed over the beds to tuck in the sheets and ensure the corners were just right, it didn’t do much to occupy the mind. No, that job had been solely Vincent’s, my brain running through everything that had occurred that morning both in his office and garden, every expression he’d given me and every word he’d said.
Lying to myself was a waste of time. Every attempt I’d made to convince myself I wasn’t attracted to him was met with a skip in the beat of my heart, a breath that it took a fraction more effort to inhale when I remembered how it felt to have his hand wrapped over my mouth and the other gripped possessively on my hip. I was a stupid girl to think that he’d meant anything by it, but I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘but what if he had?’
He was the total opposite of what I knew in life, a perfect contrast to Blake. Where Blake had lacked in experience, Vincent was an expert in life. And where Blake had been a light in the darkness, Vincent was a shadow that could consume me whole. Just thinking of him thrilled me, and reacting as I did made me feel like the most ridiculous girl around.
I wasn’t his type. I was just a pathetic wretch who’d ended up on the streets and had somehow managed to gain the attention of a man who wanted to help. I felt bad for assuming he had bad intentions when first he brought me to Wishing Well. If anything, Vincent had been a perfect gentleman, unlike that asshole friend of his. That slimy leech had wasted no time trying to take advantage as soon as Vincent wasn’t around to stop him.
But Vincent had stopped him, hadn’t he? An act that earned him brownie points in my book. After giving me time to calm down, and before taking me to the gardens, he’d also given me enough cash to buy myself some new clothes and have my license replaced. I’d offered to pay him back eventually, but he flat out refused and said, say gra-tees , whatever that meant. I was going to have to buy a French to English dictionary soon, just so I could understand him. For all I knew, he could be calling me a filthy whore and I would smile like an idiot because it sounded pretty.
My shift ended around six that night and I hurried to my hotel room to find my only set of clothes hanging in a bag on the door, freshly cleaned, dried and folded. I could get used to other people doing my laundry for me, but I assumed that would eventually be my job as well since I was technically an employee instead of a guest.
I showered quickly and got dressed, choosing to twist my hair up in a knot rather than dry it, and within minutes I was heading through the lobby on my way to department stores where I could buy more than just one outfit with the cash that Vincent had given me. I’d practically made it to the doors when a certain deep voice caught my attention, my head spinning to the right to see Vincent standing near the front counter speaking to a group of women who must have been guests.
My heart fluttered like it had tiny wings, and while I cursed at myself for the instant reaction, I watched with interest as Vincent wooed the women, his attitude, his dark looks, his voice that was so smooth it melted on the tongue like the finest of chocolate, easily dragging smiles and soft laughter from the women’s lips, two of them daring to reach out and touch him.
I wondered if I was developing a mental problem when jealousy reared its ugly green head, my fingers curling into my palms to see those women flirt so obnoxiously. I wasn’t sure what drew Vincent’s attention my direction, but as soon as he saw me, he winked and turned his attention back to the women he was escorting from the lobby to the elevators in the back hallway.
Briefly wondering whether he would leave them at the doors, or if he’d follow them to their room to take part in some orgy, I grit my teeth. I knew he’d have no trouble luring them to strip off their expensive clothes, one by one.
There was just something about him that had snuck inside me as easily as I assumed it snuck inside all of his female admirers.
A heavy sigh blew over my lips. I forced myself out the door, and farther out the gate of the large circular wall that guarded the grounds of the hotel from easy view.
Shopping took no time at all, and I’d been careful to save enough for my identification that I’d have to get on a day I had off from work. I bought some toiletries and other odds and ends to hold me over until I would receive my next paycheck, splurging on a leather bound journal I could use to record my thoughts. I had no one I could talk to anymore, so I chose to talk to myself. I made it back to the hotel around ten that night. Picking up another cheeseburger and fries from the dining room (much to the dismay of the chef), I took my dinner up to my room, pigged out and fell asleep by eleven.
It surprised me to wake up that night before the sun was a glow on the horizon, my alarm clock flashing three fifteen when a noise outside caught my attention. At first I’d thought some guests had gotten too rowdy, but then a high pitched voice with a recognizable accent set my eyes wide and my heart racing.
Curiosity dragged me out of my bed, holding my hand as I walked barefoot over the soft white carpet to pull the curtain aside and look down at the wishing well I’d seen that morning when Vincent was giving me the tour. Just as I suspected, I saw Émilie sitting on one of the circular benches, her mouth wide as she spoke to Vincent in French. I couldn’t understand a damn word she was saying, but by her tone I knew her words weren’t friendly.
Vincent had removed the suit jacket he’d worn earlier that day, and was dressed only in a white button up shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, and dark slacks. He paced angrily in front of her, stopping when she said something else, a smile stretching his face. Feeling like a voyeur, I shifted my weight from foot to foot, not knowing if I should keep watching. But I couldn’t help staring down wondering if he was breaking up with her for me. A small smile split my lips, not for the pain she was experiencing, but for the small bit of confidence his attention gave me.
The scene ended as quickly as it had begun when Vincent marched off, leaving Émilie crying on the bench. Seconds passed as I waited for Vincent to return. When he came back into view, he glanced up at the hotel, my heart jumping into my throat for fear I’d been caught spying. Quickly closing the curtain, I pressed myself flat to the wall, my breath heavy in my chest. More soft noises filtered up to my window, and although I fought not to look, I found myself peeking down again from behind a curtain I’d moved just a fraction of an inch.
Confusion filtered in when I noticed that Vincent had changed shirts, the white he’d worn earlier, now blue. It had to be him, I thought. The hair was the same, the build, the color of his skin, but yet there was something different I couldn’t put my finger on.
While I narrowed my eyes trying to see his face in the shadows, Émilie wiped the tears from her eyes before standing from the bench. Slowly, she turned around, her shaky hands hiking up her skirt as she presented herself to the man at her back, her skirt pulled up to her waist as her hands moved to brace herself on the bench as he approached her.
My jaw dropped when Vincent, or whoever the man was, opened his pants, grabbed her hips and thrust inside her.
Fighting the urge to scream, or cry, or yell at myself for even caring, I tried, but failed miserably, to ignore the way my body reacted. Moans poured from Émilie’s lips, her eyes squeezing tight as Vincent’s hand slapped her ass, each hard thrust of his hips knocking her forward while she held on to the bench to keep steady.
I’d been so fucking stupid to believe he would actually leave her for me. I deserved this awkward pain for even wanting a man that would jump from one woman to another. What kind of bitch did that make me?
Letting go of the curtain, I ran to my bed, threw myself on the mattress and gripped the sheets while burying my head in a pillow. I didn’t need to see anymore, didn’t want to admit to myself that just watching him fuck her was enough to hurt me.
Fuck, I was being stupid. I was being naive. I was being -
A muffled scream from outside drew my attention, a splash forcing me back to my feet. My fingers pulled aside the curtain again. I peered out from behind the partition to see Vincent looking down into the well.
What the fuck was going on?
Leaning over the stone rim, he pulled at something, an arm finally appearing from the water, Émilie’s body slowly emerging. After tugging her over the side, he laid her on the ground beside the well, allowing seconds to pass before picking her up and carrying her toward the path leading back to the hotel. Her head was limp against his shoulder and I couldn’t tell if she was breathing. But before I could even make a guess, Vincent shot a look up toward my window, his eyes just barely missing mine. I allowed the curtain to fall back into place.
She couldn’t be dead.
Maybe she’d just tripped and fallen in?
Vincent was walking far too slowly for anything else. It made sense that it had been an accident because if Émilie had died, Vincent would have been running or screaming for help.
My heart raced like it would tear from my chest, my breath coming so fast and hard that I stood frozen in one place not knowing whether to crawl back in bed or call the police.
Taking deep breaths, I attempted to calm my heart, forcing myself to crawl back in bed for fear I’d hear a knock at my door within minutes. Had he seen me watching? Had Émilie just drowned? I didn’t fucking know and I slept horribly the rest of the night, every small noise forcing me awake, terrified that he’d known I was spying and would fire me.
The sun had just started rising when I finally gave up on sleep and sat on the edge of the bed, my head cradled in my hands. Within an hour, I’d convinced myself that my imagination was getting the best of me, that maybe the entire thing had been some bad dream. And with those thoughts in mind, I got up and got dressed, not wanting to be late for my second shift.
After taking the elevator down to the first floor employee hall, I weaved through the mazelike corridors, letting myself into the housekeeping department where Theresa stood folding sheets. Glancing at me, she smiled. “You’re right on time. It’s good to have an employee that cares about her job.”
Panic shot through my heart, my pulse like a trapped insect beneath my skin. Walking to the older woman with greying hair and a trim figure, I met her tired blue eyes with my own. “Is there a problem with another employee?”
Maybe Émilie had never shown, not that the lounge opened earlier than six that night. I was being ridiculous, I kept insisting to myself.
“It’s Émilie,” she breathed out, “one of my cocktail waitresses in the lounge. I guess the love affair she was having with another...” she paused, searching for a word, “...employee didn’t work out. She quit early this morning.”
Setting the sheet aside, she missed the way my body practically melted with relief. A dead person doesn’t quit, they just fail to show up, and if Theresa had heard from Émilie already, it meant she was very much alive. While silently thanking God I hadn’t witnessed anything I shouldn’t, I leaned against a wall for support.
Turning to me, Theresa asked, “You don’t happen to know anybody who needs a job, do you? I need to fill Émilie’s position quickly. We’re short staffed as it is.”
My hand was still over my chest when her inquisitive gaze met mine. Pushing myself up on unsteady legs, I shook my head, attempting not to sound as out of breath as I was. “No. Sorry. But if I run into anybody looking, I’ll be sure to send them your way.”
Theresa gave me an odd look, but decided against asking a question. “Okay, well, we’re waiting on the rest of today’s housekeeping staff to arrive. Once they get here, I’ll pass out room assignments and we can move forward with our day.”
“Sounds good,” I answered, studying my feet as I worked to get myself under control. After that particular night, I wondered if I’d be able to look Vincent in the eyes if I saw him, and if he’d seen me watching from behind the curtain.
The best bet, I told myself, was to avoid Vincent altogether, not just because I wanted to avoid getting in trouble for spying, but because my heart skipped a beat to learn that Émilie had been kicked to the curb.
After leaving the garden, I walked my normal rounds of the hotel, greeting guests as they meandered about, met with the manager to help with any problems that needed to be addressed, and then made my way to the elevators to take the car down to the basement I’d designed to be a practical cage when the hotel was built.
It wasn’t a bleak environment by any stretch of the imagination, but for the occupant that lived within its walls, I wanted to ensure there was no chance of an accidental escape at an inopportune time. Wishing Well was built with the idea of luxury and a sense of peace, opulence and a elegant ambience. And if a certain issue were to find his way out of the basement to run loose through the halls, I was fairly certain I would be made to answer numerous questions I never wanted asked.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love Maurice, in fact, the opposite was true. I loved him too much, which was why I spared no expense to see to his comfort, left no stone unturned when it came to providing him with the best doctors, nurses and counselors the world had to offer, but as I’d known since growing up with a boy of his peculiar problems, there would never be an actual cure.
He’d been normal until age two, except for the temper tantrums that were blamed on age and the inability to communicate. By the time he should have made certain milestones, a problem surfaced that set him apart. The doctors claimed he was slow, at first, some even suggesting he was spoiled. After my mother’s constant phone calls, my father’s rage, and time spent wherein Maurice could be observed, my baby brother was diagnosed with severe autism.
The signs were there, an inability to communicate, the refusal to meet your eye, the desperate need for a constant routine where just one small change could set him into an explosive panic that was far more violent than my dear Maman could endure. My father was often away, his hotels and other businesses keeping him busy, so it was Maman and I who tended to a boy that, while intelligent, was unable to behave as any normal child would.
It wasn’t until he was older that the diagnosis changed.
Slipping a key into the elevator panel and typing in a code that would take me to the basement used only for Maurice, I leaned against the back wall and closed my eyes. My thoughts drifted to my childhood home, to the screaming, the crying, the shattering glass, the whispers of a mother that was losing her own grip on the world. Maman was as delicate as a hollowed eggshell, so easily crushed within the strict grip of panic for her son that not even the nurses and teachers could relieve her pain.
In the end, she’d died of cancer, but I always assumed it was from a broken heart. To say I felt bitter would be an understatement. In all the time she gave to Maurice, she could never spare a moment for me. I would have made her proud had she given me that attention, I would have read to her, behaved for her, showed her that not all young boys were untamed. I could have saved her, I’d believed, as her casket was lowered into the ground, could have provided her sunlight on even her darkest days.
I hated her for dying when I hadn’t given her permission, I resented Maurice for wrestling her from my control. I understood that women were just simple flowers that could be cultivated to bloom, or have their petals pulled.
By the time my father moved both Maurice and me to America, I had no respect for a woman’s strength, because my mother had none of her own.
The elevator slowed to a stop, the doors slid open as quietly as an exhalation of breath, a large entry room stood open to me as dark and elegant as Maurice had preferred. The walls were painted a deep black with borders of pristine white.
Dark wood furnishings complimented the leather seating, crystal vases shimmering beneath light, a wash of blood red color in the roses that filled them. Breathing in the rich scent, I stepped from the car, made a left and casually strolled to a sitting room I knew Maurice often used. It had been designed to resemble the salón from our childhood home, the color palette bright, just how our mother had wanted it.
Lingering in the doorway, I watched Maurice tap away on his computer, his eyes moving quickly as his fractured mind absorbed whatever information he was studying.
“I thought you had a counseling session today.”
This was one of the issues my hotel manager had brought to my attention, a certain counselor racing away, vowing she would never again return to this hotel. Although John knew that something had frightened her, she refused to reveal what, exactly, had occurred.
“The counselor left,” Maurice explained, his fingers moving quickly over his keyboard.
In the twenty-seven years since Maman had died, it was discovered that Maurice’s affliction was not actually autism, but a severe case of schizophrenia. He’d gained the ability to communicate, he could look any person in the eye, but behind that green eyed gaze that was much like mine, sanity was noticeably absent. The medications kept him partially contained, but only when he was compliant.
“Why did she leave?” I asked, struggling to keep my voice patient.
“I told her I wanted to eat her.”
Closing my eyes and opening them again, I remembered telling Penelope the same thing, but in a language that wouldn’t send her running. “And did you attempt to eat her?”
His gaze shot up, locking to mine. “I would have if she would have spread her legs. It’s been a month.”
“You have many,” he said, interrupting. “Give me one. It’s not exactly like I can hunt them down when stuck in this cage.”
Sighing, I answered, “It’s not exactly like I can steal one away and keep her trapped down here with you. I’m sure your nurses will ask questions about the screaming.”
His eyes studied my face, his intelligence so clear while his chaos was pervasive. “One,” he barked, “Tonight. Or I’ll chase the nurses away.”
“We can always keep you chained,” I crooned.
“I’m chained already,” he retorted, his attention returning to the screen of his computer. Without looking at me again, he demanded, “One, Vincent. Tonight.”
Blowing out a breath, I relented. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do when I bring you out for your walk through the gardens, but you must promise to behave.”
He gave me a clipped nod of agreement and I knew it would be the end of the conversation. Maurice wasn’t the type for small talk.
Leaving his space, I made my way back to the elevator while deciding who I would toss to the wolf. By the time I’d reached the lobby floor, my decision was made, a pretty face flashing in my thoughts that I hoped would be amenable to my brother’s demands.
The day passed quickly thereafter, the monotonous task of seeing to a hotel that ran like a finely oiled machine within my world. As the sun set behind a glowing horizon, I greeted a group of women who had recently checked in, flirting with them and endearing them to my brand. It was as I turned to escort them to the elevator that would take them to their floor, my attention was drawn to a unique face, my head turning to see Penelope watching me from where she stood near the entrance doors. She was wearing the clothes she wore the night I’d discovered her on the streets, jealousy flashing behind her gold-flecked brown eyes.
Our time in the garden had been well spent, it seemed, the seed I’d planted growing strong. Winking at her, I forced myself to return my attention to the guests because it would be a few days at least before I tested the waters of Penelope’s mind to discover if my absence had made her heart beat harder.
I enjoyed dinner alone that night as the guests went about their routine, and after gorging myself on appértifs and fine cuisine, I skipped dessert to stroll to the lounge. As usual at that time of night, the lounge was filled with inebriated men, their eyes tracking the different cocktail waitresses in various costumes and states of dress.
Émilie, however, was the woman who caught my eye. Upon seeing me sitting at a back table only lit by the candle that sat in its center, she smiled wickedly and added a sway to her hips as she approached to discover what I wanted. “Bonsoir , Vincent. Are you still tired?”
My eyes lifted to hers. “I’d like to see you tonight. In the gardens, but it will be rather late. I have engagements beforehand and was hoping you’d keep from going to bed early after the lounge closes.”
“What time?” she asked, her voice sultry, her lips shining within the candlelight from the liberal gloss she wore.
“Will you meet me at the well around three?”
Her smile stretched, sex written into the passionate curve. “Anything for you, Vincent.”
There have never been more unfortunate words spoken. I knew my brother’s tastes ran the same line as mine, but whereas I was able to restrain my instincts, Maurice hadn’t yet learned self-control.
When I bit down, a drop of blood would spill, but when Maurice did so, skin would rip, tears would run red, women would lose their lives. Unless, of course, the woman knew how to play the game, as long as she was perfectly ready and able. Following instructions to the letter was a necessity when it came to our shared games, but Maurice’s form of punishment could be far more permanent.
I hoped that Émilie’s training by her whore of a mother would make it easier for my brother to rut with no harm done.
Leaving shortly after she’d agreed, I slipped up to my penthouse on the top floor, settling myself at the keys of a piano I enjoyed playing on nights that stress was a constant pressure in my head. And while the intricate notes floated on air like fireflies on a warm summer night, I allowed my thoughts to escape to a girl whose room was situated below mine.
Émilie had been a distraction for a man like me, a pretty face, a healthy body, a bit of warmth to ease the chill of lonely nights, but Penelope, that dirty, rebellious, hard headed girl, had become a siren’s song, une idée fixe , an obsession.
The bet meant nothing, the money but a garnish on the meal I would make of her. I imagined my fingertips exploring her body, finding all the right notes, the flats and sharps, that would make her sing like the piano. My body was all tension and crudely cut stone when I remembered her reflection in the boutique’s mirror. The day would come when I could resist her no more, my teeth aching to sink into her modest flesh.
Would molding her into the lady I craved chase away the rebellion that drew me like a moth to flame? Could I fashion her to be both hellion and slave?
I hoped so as I became lost between one note and another, the hours ticking past as I planned how to win her heart while watching her grow. I would pluck her beauty from the life of her stem just so that I alone could know her fire.
Émilie was expendable while Penelope was the prize.
Three o’clock came quickly that night, and leaving my suit jacket draped over the back of my couch, I left my room, took the elevator down and retrieved Maurice from the basement.
As we rode up, I mentioned, “I’ll need you to remain hidden in the employee hall while I explain to Émilie what she’ll be allowing. She’ll serve your needs, Maurice, on a regular basis as long as you keep from hurting her too much.”
“What does she look like?” he asked, anticipation carved into his tone.
“She’s beautiful. Blond hair. Blue eyes -“
A hiss burst from his lips. “Who cares? Her tits?”
“Large,” I answered.
“You’ve tasted her,” he said, a statement but still a question.
Glancing his direction, I nodded, “I can’t toss you a fledgling. We must do this in absolute silence.”
“Why not just bring her to my cage?”
Sighing, I admitted. “She doesn’t yet know it will be you she’s entertaining. That’s why I need you to stay in the employee hall until I’ve had a chance to explain it to her. If it works out, if she’s agreeable, we can make alternate arrangements for next time.”
“I’ll behave,” he promised. It was the best that he could say. I should have known better than to set up this meeting in such a public place, but my mind was distracted by a brunette girl that I hadn’t had the opportunity to play.
Stepping out of the elevator once the doors pulled apart, I left Maurice in the abandoned hall while I stepped out into the night. Wind tugged at my shirt as I moved down my path, as if nature itself was attempting to stop me. Finding Émilie sitting on a curved bench near the well, I took my place in front of her, moving back when she reached for my pants.
“I have a duty I must assign you,” I said, my voice soft within the twinkling night stars, just loud for enough for her to hear me. Blue eyes tipped up to find mine.
“A duty?” she asked in French, the language she preferred when it was just the two of us.
Tucking my hands in my pockets, I reminded her, “When I agreed to hire you and bring you here from France, I told you there would be conditions. You agreed to anything ,” I stressed the word, “a promise you repeated to me tonight.”
Her eyes rounded. When she didn’t contest, I continued, “Not many people know that my brother lives in the basement of the hotel. It is a secret I keep quiet for many reasons and one I’m trusting with you. If information regarding Maurice’s existence were to leak from this point forward, I would know you were the one to leak it, so I suggest you keep in mind that you should always hold your tongue.”
“What does this brother have to do with me?”
Pausing before answering, I confessed, “He has needs much like me, and I would like for you to see to them.”
Angry tears leaked from her eyes, her voice gaining in volume. “You will share me with other men?”
Locking my narrowed gaze on her face, I demanded, “Whisper, Émilie. Or the guests will hear you. I have no qualms sending you back where you came from.”
“You would do that to me?” she hissed, her voice low, her rage heightened.
Inclining my head, I answered, “The arrangements have always been made. All it would take is a push of a button.”
More tears leaked, a steady stream over her cheeks. On measured steps, I approached her to lift her chin and tilt her head to mine. Softly, I asked, “What have you always told me, Émilie? Since the moment I first took you to my bed?”
Her shoulders quaked with sobs. “Je suis ta petite pute. ”
“Oui ,” I agreed. “You are my little whore, so be that for me now. Maurice is not much different from me. He will satisfy you, if you’re perfectly compliant. But you must be careful with him, Émilie. He has a short fuse, he takes even the smallest of insults to heart. He can strike out before you understand you’ve injured his heart.”
“Tu me fends le cœur !”
Kneeling in front of her, I caught her red-rimmed eyes with mine. “I have not broken your heart, ma belle . I am simply demanding a favor. Never have I told you we would be exclusive, and I know you’ve slept with men other than me since living at Wishing Well. I know you accept payment. You are more like your mother than you have led me to believe.”
Her gaze darted from mine, her cheeks reddening with anger and shame. “Fine. I will make love to your brother is that’s what you want from me, but you will pay me like everyone else. It was only for you that my love was free.”
A smile tugged at my lips. “Payment can be arranged. Perhaps if you are to Maurice’s liking, we can make this a weekly thing. I’ll reward you greatly for your time.”
She continued to sob, but the agreement had been made. “Stay here. I’ll send Maurice out to you, and I’ll stand nearby should any issues occur. Stroke his ego, Émilie, he likes that. And for safety reasons, just behave and pretend like you’re fucking a starving, feral dog, and you should get through this just fine. Understand?”
Ignoring the way her eyes rounded with apprehension, I retrieved Maurice from where he stood chomping at the bit and reminded him on a soft voice that we are to play nicely with our toys. One wrong move on Émilie’s part, one wrong word or facial expression, and it would take a crow bar to pry my brother’s violent hands from her throat.
“Play nice, Maurice,” I warned one last time as I released his arm to approach Émilie. She was still wiping her tears away when he drew near her, her body tensing from where it was revealed by her skimpy frock. Barely looking at my brother, she stood from the bench, turned around, lifted her skirt and offered herself to his desires.
I wasn’t polite enough to turn and not watch, and if I were to be completely honest, it was fascination to see a woman submit so thoroughly. He took no time thrusting inside her, his lips pulled back on a snarl, his huffs of hot breath like white plumes against the cold night air. For a brief moment, I believed Émilie was enjoying herself, but then...
It seemed Maurice was a bit too excited. After taking her in either her cunt or her ass, I wasn’t quite sure, he leaned over to taste her flesh. His teeth must have sunk down a bit too hard because she pulled away from him with a scream on her lips and pulled back her hand readying a slap.
Even though I ran from where I stood witnessing the tryst, I wasn’t fast enough for my brother. By the time I neared where they had been, Maurice had already lifted Émilie from her feet, walked her the short distance to the well and tossed her in. He stalked away as I ran to the well, his low growls a whisper against the wind as I looked inside the well to see Émilie sinking beneath the water. Reaching, I was barely able to take her hand and pull her up, a wash of red sweeping down into the depths to settle amongst the pennies.
Laying her on the grass beside the well, I felt for a pulse and didn’t find one. Blood leaked from her head where it had struck the stone rim of the well from how she’d been tossed inside.
No response to anything I said.
Maurice had claimed his latest victim and I was left to clean up his mess.
Picking up Émilie’s body, I carried her from the well, my mind racing and my eyes narrowed on my brother who shrugged as if he’d done nothing wrong.
Holding the door open for me, he waited until we were inside before saying, “She called me a dog. She was going to hit me, like Papa.”
The breath I’d been holding fell from my lips on a rush. “It’s fine, Maurice,” I answered, knowing that any harsh words could set him off. “We’ll deal with this situation, and perhaps next week, we can find a woman you’ll like.”
Faiville Prison, 2:17 p.m.
“You’re not saying anything. I’ve been silent for a few minutes now.”
Meadow attempted to uncurl her fingers from the edge of the table, attempted to silence her thoughts, slow her heart, take a full breath after listening to his sordid confession. “I’m not sure what to say,” she admitted on a rushed exhalation.
Vincent was quiet for a short moment before whispering, “Would you like some salt to season those ridiculous words you’ll now have to eat?”
Her gaze tipped up and their eyes met. “Ridiculous words?”
The green of his beautiful, mesmerizing eyes glimmered. Softly, he explained, “You accused me of killing Émilie, but as you can now see, it wasn’t my hands that led to her death. It was an accident, an unfortunate one at that. I believe she could have fulfilled my brother if she’d just learned to behave.”
Without arguing that he had, in fact, been responsible, she chose to instead ask a question that screamed in her head. “Was Penny intended for Maurice? Had that been your ultimate plan for her?”
Seconds ticked past, the quiet hum of the air conditioning the only noise in the room. “There you go skipping ahead again.” Vincent’s shackles rattled as he sat back in his seat. “We should tell this story in the order that it occurred, and I haven’t reached the training of Penelope just yet.”
“Training,” Meadow repeated, the one sickening word echoing in her head. “Training for what?”
“To be the ultimate lady, a woman of such high esteem that even a man like me could never forget her. She was so brash when I found her, wet clay ready for a skilled hand as she was spun around and around on a potter’s wheel and given shape.”
“She was a human being, Vincent!” Meadow’s voice rose in volume, her crushing anger barely contained. “You keep referring to her as a flower, as clay, as a puzzle or some fucked up game, but never what she actually was! She wept tears, she was able to feel love, she could express herself through laughter or smiles or words, but never in this entire interview have you admitted as much.”
Cruelty stretched his full lips, the corners lifting with amusement. “She was mine to play with as I wished, Meadow. Penelope gave me that permission eventually. She admitted that without me, she could no longer continue living. She begged to be transformed into what I helped her become.” Pausing, he studied her face. “And she did become something truly special, a rarity in a world of facsimiles and replicas, of people who don’t have the balls to be who they are. I was, and I’m still, proud of her.”
Her heart skipped in rhythm to hear the compliment, rage a tenuous thing. Meadow’s recorder clicked loudly behind her in warning to change her tape. After doing so, she retook her seat and stared at a man who watched her far too closely. Could he taste all the feelings she harbored inside? Did he know more than he let on?
“We only have another two hours today, and we’ve been sidetracked.”
Nodding his head once, he commented, “Heightened emotions will do that sometimes.”
Clearing her throat, Meadow rolled back her shoulders. “Despite your reluctance to admit as much, Émilie’s death was your fault. You knew that Maurice was a danger to any person that got too close to him.”
“And I warned her of that,” he argued. “It’s not my fault she didn’t listen. Although, after hearing what you told me of Penelope’s recollection of that night, what Maurice said to me when I returned from disposing of her body now has meaning. I couldn’t figure it out while sending off the email to Theresa to make it appear as if Émilie herself had quit.”
“And that was?”
“That he’d already discovered another toy he wanted to play with. I was so angry with him at the time that I didn’t bother to ask what he meant, but if he had spied her watching from the window that night, his words now make sense.”
“Would you have given her to him if you’d asked him at that time and found out it was Penny that he’d seen?”
“Stop skipping ahead,” he reminded her. “The next part of this story is quite lovely, actually, a fairy tale for both Penelope and me. It was within the next few weeks that her love for me blossomed and I chased her through a maze of deceit.” Leaning forward, he added, “I had feelings for her beyond the ordinary, Meadow. The desire wasn’t one sided.”
Blinking, Meadow fought against the tears that threatened. “Why do you think that matters to me?”
He laughed. “It’s just a hunch.” Waiting for Meadow to meet his stark gaze, he asked, “Wouldn’t any person want to know that their family member was loved?”
“Fine, we’ll go in order of events. But first, I want to know why you kept Maurice hidden. There are many people in the world with psychiatric problems, some of which are able to adjust and live perfectly normal lives. Why keep him locked up?”
A shadow darkened Vincent’s expression. Meadow knew Maurice was a subject that affected Vincent more than he wanted to admit. It was rare for any person to say something that made Vincent Mercier squirm. “Maurice would never live a normal life. We knew that by the time he was twelve. It wasn’t just his disruptive fits, his hallucinations or delusions. There was something else inside him that was never officially diagnosed. I believe my father had a strong hand in that. Whether it was because he didn’t want his son to carry another label, or if he believed he could cure the problem himself, my father was the person who first kept Maurice locked down. He was educated like any normal child, given tutors and books and everything else, but he was never allowed to leave the premises of whatever hotel we happened to be living in at the time.”
Meadow caught the catch in Vincent’s voice, the subtle sneer of his mouth when he mentioned his father. “Was your dad abusive to you and your brother?”
The shadow was gone, there and then no longer an obvious mask over his skin. “Not to me. Possibly to Maurice, but with his fits being as violent as they were, there was never any telling where he got the bruises. He wasn’t an easy person to handle. But we loved him. We cared for him and we kept him as comfortable as possible.”
Not wanting to drop the subject, Meadow asked, “Where is Maurice now?”
His jaw ticked. “Shouldn’t we be talking about Penelope? That is what you came to discuss, is it not? I’d hate to run out of time over trivial things so that you never discover the full story.”
Expertly, Vincent deflected the question, changing the subject as smoothly as night becomes dawn.
“Yes. I guess you’re right. What happened next?”
Satisfied that they’d turned back to the story of the wicked game played against Penny, Vincent answered, “For the next two weeks, it was business as usual. I made it a point to remain busy, while managing to always be within sight of Penelope. She’d acted strangely at first, but as the days wore on, she warmed to me again, smiling when she saw me, her cheeks heating with color if our bodies brushed too close. I guess you could say I’d played a game of hard to get until she was chasing me down. It wasn’t until that beautiful day in the garden that I finally made a move.”
Running the tip of his finger down a scar on the table’s surface, he asked, “Did she talk about those weeks in her diary? Did she record what my lack of attention made her feel?” Lifting his gaze, he transfixed Meadow in her place, something raw and naked lingering behind those eyes of startling emerald green.
“Penny did,” she managed to say. “While reading the diary for the first time, it was during those pages that I wanted to scream for her to run away. I knew that once you sunk your claws inside her, there would no longer be a chance for escape. I hate those pages most of all.”
“Will you tell me about them?”
In truth, Meadow hated giving Vincent Penny’s private thoughts, but she couldn’t deny she didn’t take pleasure in watching his changing expressions as she did so. Some parts obviously touched him, some words surprising him because they revealed the humanity in Penny that Vincent had so obviously avoided or ignored.
When she didn’t immediately answer, he offered, “If you’ll tell me what was written about that time, I promise to tell you exactly what happened in the days that followed. You should know by now that I am a man that keeps his promises.”
Nodding, Meadow worked to swallow the knot in her throat. “Quid pro quo, Vincent?”
His grin was lazy and sincere. “Yes, Meadow, quid pro quo.”