A bleak wind whipped the loose strands of my hair across my cheeks as I stumbled out onto the stone balcony. A furious shout from behind spurred me on. Without thinking, I hiked up one side of my silver sequined ball gown and stepped onto the wrought iron chair. Bracing my hand against the rough stone exterior, I raised my left foot and placed it on the narrow ledge. My right foot caught in the long length of my dress as I lifted it. My body jerked forward as my nails clawed at the bricks for purchase.
The London street blurred as dark shadows crept along the edges of my vision. Even at this late hour, people and cars streamed below, an army of disinterested ants scurrying from one destination to another. I swallowed the bile in the back of my throat and fought the urge to faint, to give in to the darkness. Clinging to the sharp-edged wall, I gently shook my leg to dislodge the dress. The fabric fell away and I placed my high-heeled foot on the ledge.
Avoiding the urge to use my hand to brush back my hair, I pressed my open left palm against the bricks. I stretched out my other arm to rest my right palm on the head of a grotesque gargoyle. It was a dragon with bat wings and a long, protruding tongue.
The cold damp air turned to piercing icicles in my lungs as I inhaled a shaky breath. The rushing wind scattered the sounds of civilization like rose petals cast into a storm, giving the scene below a strange, otherworldly feel, as if I were staring at a muted television. A sickly gray mist hung low in the atmosphere, obscuring most of the stars. Only a weak stream of moonlight broke through to cast a faint, eerie glow over the dark, churning waters of the Thames nearby.
I should have chosen the Thames.
I’ve heard drowning was a painless, almost peaceful way to die.
It wouldn’t work.
He’d find me too quickly.
I knew just as the chaotic nightmare of my life would start to fade, as I embraced the quiet, underwater darkness, he would reach down and breach the world between the living and the dead to drag me back to his side, like a bedeviled Hades tormented by the flight of Persephone.
Not even death would separate us.
He said that to me once.
He told me I’d never escape him.
Even in death I would be his and his alone.
I risked a glance down. My heart pounded in my chest. How long would it take? Would I have a chance to regret it? What would my final thought be?
I already knew…
It would be of HIM.
Always of him.
Only of him.
My dress tangled around my ankles as the harsh wind caused my body to sway, as if Mother Nature were trying to save one of her maidens from a fate worse than death by making the choice for me. I tightened my grip on the gargoyle.
I didn’t dare turn at the sound of my name on his lips. The musky scent of his cologne swirled around me with the wind, chasing away the stale earthy odor of the river waters. It would figure he would enforce his dominance over even Mother Nature.
His voice took on the hard, authoritative edge I was so accustomed to. “Kitten, give me your hand.”
I slowly shook my head as I stared at the ground as if mesmerized. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do us. It’s too much.”
“Goddammit, Aurora. Give me your hand!”
Panicked, I risked a glance over my shoulder as my fingernails dug into the stone gargoyle. “Don’t come any closer!” I screeched.
He was standing only a foot away, dressed in his tuxedo, the bow tie hanging loose around his open collar. “I shouldn’t have done that to you. I should have never taken you there. Is that what you want to hear? I admit it. I was wrong. Now baby, please, step back off the ledge.”
He was closer now. Warmth radiated off him, cutting through the chill which wracked my body. I wanted to give in. I wanted to bury my head in his neck as I sought refuge in the strength of his arms. I wanted to feel his lips move against my forehead as he promised to chase all the demons away.
I wanted the impossible.
He wasn’t truly sorry.
It would be a cold day in hell when Roman Winterbourne apologized to anyone for his actions.
From before we had even met, every moment, every thought, every deed had been a calculated game of manipulation and deceit.
An hysterical laugh bubbled up from deep inside my chest. “What’s the matter, Roman? Was this not part of your master plan? Am I breaking one of your precious rules?”
His wrath seethed through his clenched teeth. “You're damn right you are, and I’ll show you just how displeased I am the moment I lay my hands on you.”
A shudder ran down my spine. My skin prickled with awareness from imagining I could already feel the heavy smoothness of his leather belt against my flesh.
The soles of his shoes made grating sounds against the stone balcony floor as he shifted ever closer. “I won’t let you go. Not ever. Jump and I’ll follow you down.”
The tears froze on my cheeks. My voice warbled as I asked, “Why me? Why did it have to be me?”
He answered without hesitation. “It was always going to be you, my love. No matter what, even if I had to become the devil himself, you were always fated to be mine.”
A weight settled in my chest, making it hard to breathe. “This isn’t love.”
“No. It’s something far greater, far more powerful.” He reached out and crushed the hem of my gown in his fist.
Startled, I turned and lost my footing. The soft bottoms of my high heels slipped off the ledge. My arms flailed as my hands grasped at the cold, unforgiving air. A scream tore from my mouth as a gruesome death seemed all but certain. My body was both weightless and heavy. The ground taunted me from below.
As I slipped down into the waiting arms of the dark night, Roman lurched over the railing. His strong hand wrapped around my left wrist, wrenching me back from the clutches of near death. I dangled from his grasp, my life in his hands.
“I’ve got you.”
My eyes pleaded. “Please don’t let me go!”
His mouth lifted in a macabre hint of a knowing smile. “Never.”
As he spoke, the full moon broke free from the fog. It taunted me by settling behind Roman’s head, a twisted halo of unholy light.
A frigid sense of dread settled deep in my belly.
Somehow, someway, even this had all been part of his cruel game.
And once again, I had played straight into his hands.
“Don’t worry, kitten. I’ve got you… and I’ll never let you go.”
That is precisely what I am afraid of.