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When Nora came to she was fifteen years old again. She had to be. What else could explain the cold, industrial chair she sat in, the unforgiving metal of the handcuffs on her wrists and the terror in her heart?
Inside her aching and addled mind, Eleanor Schreiber opened her eyes and raised her head. Across from her in the interrogation room at the police station sat the new priest at Sacred Heart3:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning and here he was before her, a mere twenty-nine years old in the face but with eyes ancient enough they'd probably seen Christ in the flesh. She kind of hoped he had. She'd always wondered how tall Jesus was.
The priestFather Stearns to the church but Soren to hersaid nothing. He merely stared at her with a little smile lurking on his lips. At least someone was enjoying her misery. Where was her father? Her dad should be here now. She needed her father, not her Father. Her dad was the reason she'd ended up arrested in Manhattan in the hours before dawn. But no, she only had her priest and the desire to wipe the smile off that perfect face of his.
"So I've been meaning to ask you
" She decided to take control of the moment and be the first to break the silence. "Are you one of those priests who fucks the kids in the congregation?"
Whatever reaction she'd hoped for from her priest, she didn't get it.
Eleanor took a deep breath and exhaled heavily through her nose. "Too bad."
"Eleanor, perhaps we should discuss the predicament you're in at the moment."
"I'm in a real pickle." She nodded, hoping to annoy him. A useless plan. They'd met twice before tonight and she'd done her damnedest to get under his skin both times. No dice. He'd treated her with kindness and respect both times. She wasn't used to that.
"You were arrested on suspicion of grand theft auto. Supposedly five luxury vehicles with a combined value of over a quarter of a million dollars have disappeared from Manhattan tonight. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"I take the fifth. That's what I'm supposed to say, right?"
"To the court, yes. To me, you will tell the truth always."
"I don't think you want to know the truth about me, Soren," she said, her voice not much more than a whisper. She wasn't stupid. She only had to look at him to know that he and she had nothing in common. He looked liked money, talked like money. He had the whitest fingernails she'd ever seen and hands that belonged on a statue or something. All of him looked like a work of arthis hands, his face and lips, his height and beauty
. And here she was, chipped black nail polish, wet from the rain she'd been arrested in, hair falling in lank waves into her face, her school uniform a sodden mess, no money, no hope, and her whole life a fucking train wreck.
"There is nothing I don't want to know about you," Soren said, and seemed to mean it. "And I assure you, nothing you tell me will shock or disgust me. Nothing will make me change my mind about you."
"Change your mind? You've already made up your mind about me? What's the verdict?"
"The verdict is simply thisI am willing and capable of helping you out of this mess you've gotten yourself into."
"Can we call it a 'pickle'? Pickle sounds less scary than mess."
"It's a disaster, young lady. You could easily spend years in juvenile detention for what you did tonight. One of the cars you stole belonged to someone important and influential, and he's apparently determined that you don't see sunlight until age twenty-one. Keeping you out of juvenile detention will take a great deal of doing on my part. Blessedly, I have some connections. Or, more accurately, I have someone who has connections. The time and expense will be considerable," he said in a tone that seemed to imply he relished the time and expense, which made no sense. But nothing about the man or his interest in her made any sense at all.
"And you'll go to all this trouble for me
why?" Eleanor lifted her head a little higher and stared straight into his eyes.
"Because there is nothing I wouldn't do to protect you, Eleanor. Nothing I wouldn't do to help you. And nothing I wouldn't do to save you. Nothing."
A chill passed through Eleanor's whole body. Someone walked over her grave, as her grandmother would say. She never understood that phrase, that feeling before. Now she did.
"But my assistance doesn't come without a price."
"Right." Eleanor smirked at him. "So this is when we get back to my first question and the fucking of the kids at church. Oh, well, if you insist."
"Do you value your worth as a child of God so little that you think the only thing I could possibly want from you is sex?"
The question hit Eleanor so hard she almost flinched. But she wouldn't let him see he'd gotten to her. Her mom would disown her for this. Her dad was probably eight states away by now. Her grandparents were seven minutes from death. Her entire future was about six feet under. Still she wasn't about to let anyone take away her pride. She at least had that. For now, anyway.
"So that's a no?"
Soren raised his eyebrow at her and she almost giggled. She was beginning to like this guy. She'd fallen in love with him alreadyutterly, completely and until the end of the world or even after. Never guessed she'd end up liking him, too.
"That would be a no. I will require something of you, however, in exchange for my assistance."
"Do you always talk like this?"
"You mean articulately?"
"Weird. So what price am I paying? Hope it's not my firstborn child. Don't want kids."
"My price is simply thisin exchange for my assistance, I only ask that you do what I tell you to do from now on."
"Do what you tell me to do?"
"Yes. I want you to obey me."
"From now on? Like
And he smiled then and she knew she should have been afraid but something in that smile. It was the first time that night she felt safe. "Forever."
"Wake up, Sleeping Beauty."
She heard a voice tinged with a French accent and tried to ignore it as she always tried to ignore French-accented voices. The last thing Nora wanted to do was wake up. In her dream she was with Soren and he was twenty-nine and she fifteen and their story had only begun. And she knew if she opened her eyes, she could very well be facing the end of their story. She wanted to stay in her dream and would have stayed in it forever but for the cold, delicate fingers dancing across her face like spider legs.
Nora opened her eyes.
The Kingsley Edge stood in front of the mirror in his large walk-in closet studying his wounds as he changed from his torn shirt into another. The layers of marble-colored bruises Soren had left on him after their one night together had already turned from red to black. He could have hated the priest for the reminders upon his body of a night he feared would never be repeated. Still, he cherished the bruises now as much as he did when they were boys at school. Far more than the scars on his chest, gifts from enemies with guns, he wore them as badges of honor.
He raised his hand to the worst of his old woundsa scar on the left side of his chest a few inches below his heart. A strange injury that looked more like he'd been stabbed than shot. Who knows? Maybe he had been.
The mission that had left him with that scar, with two of his four bullet wounds, he remembered almost nothing of. His mind had buried the memory, and he had no desire to dig it back up. Waking up in the hospital in Paris. That moment he would never forget. He would probably think of it on his deathbed. That hospital bed
it should have been his deathbed, could have been. But for the visitor.
He had come to consciousness slowly, arduously, crawling through the deep dark on his way back into the light. He had dragged himself up through the trench of drugs and pain, bitter pain and the failure of the mission. Sensing white light in the room, he'd kept his eyes closed, unable yet to confront the sun.
From over his shoulder he'd heard low voicesone female, crisp and careful, and one male, authoritative and unyielding.
"He will live," the man's voice said in French. It wasn't a question he asked the woman, but an order given.
"We'll do what we can for him, of course." Of course, she said. Bien sut. But Kingsley had heard the lie in her voice.
"You will do everything for him. Everything. From this moment on he is your only patient. He is your only concern."
"Oui, mon pete. Mais
Her voice betrayed her fear. Mon pete? Kingsley's muddled mind had tried to wrap itself around the words. His father had been dead for years. Who was the father she spoke to?
"Consider his life as precious as your own. Do you understand that?"
There it was. Kingsley would have smiled in his half sleep were it not for the tubes down his throat. He knew a death threat when he heard it. Consider his life as precious as yout own
. That was French anyone could translate. He lives and you live. He dies and
But who cared enough about him anymore to make even an idle threat? When joining le Legion he'd put one name down on his next-of-kin line. One name. The only family he had left. And yet, he wasn't family, not at all. Why would he of all people come to him now?
"He will live," the woman had promised, and this time she spoke no "mais."
"Good. Spare no expense for his comfort and health. All will be accounted for."
The nurse, or perhaps she was a doctor, had sworn again she would do everything. She'd pledged that the patient would walk out whole and healthy. She'd promised she would do all she could and then some. Smart woman.
Kingsley heard her high heels retreating on the tile, the sound of her shoes as crisp and efficient as her voice. The sound died and Kingsley knew he and the visitor were now alone in the room. He struggled to open his eyes but couldn't find the strength.
"Rest, Kingsley," came the voice again. And he felt a hand on his forehead, gentle as a lover's, tender as a father's.
" The voice sighed and Kingsley heard frustration mixed with amusement. Amusement or something like it. "Forgive me for saying this, but I think it's time you find a new hobby."
And even with the tubes in his throat, Kingsley had managed a smile.
The hand left his face and he felt something against his fingers. The dark came upon him again, but it wasn't the deep dark this time, merely sleep, and when he awoke again the tube was gone and he could see and speak and breathe again. And the thing that had touched his fingers was an envelope containing paperwork for a Swiss bank account someone had opened in his namea Swiss bank account that contained roughly thirty-three million American dollars.
He took the money and he took the advice of his one and only hospital visitor. He returned to America, to the country where he'd once experienced true happiness.
And in America he did as he'd been ordered.
He found a new hobby.
Kingsley finished dressing. He tucked his shirt in and pulled on and buttoned his embroidered black-and-silver vest. Once more he looked dashing and roguish all at the same time. The household knew something had happened and for their sake he would act the part of their fearless leader as always if only to comfort their minds. In truth, he'd never been so scared in his life, not even that day in the hospital.
He yanked on his jacket as he stepped away from the mirror. Never before had he dealt with a crisis of this magnitude in his world. As soon as he'd built his Underground, his Empire of S&M clubs that catered to the wealthy and the powerful as well as the scared and the shamed, he'd begun stockpiling blackmail fodder on all the police chiefs and politicians, on the media and the Mafia, anyone who could potentially threaten his borders. Now the thing he'd feared most, harmreal harm to a citizen of his kingdomhad befallen them. And he had only himself to blame.
As soon as he left his bedroom, his night secretary, Sophie, met him in the hallway. She rattled off half a dozen messages and meetings.
"Cancel all the meetings," he ordered as they reached the stairs. "Ignore the messages."
"Oui, monsieut. Master Fiske is in your office." Good. Griffin was on time today.
He dismissed Sophie and headed to his private office on the third floor. When he reached it, he found Griffin standing by the window talking in hushed tones to the young man with him. Kingsley watched them a moment, waiting for them to notice him. But they had been afflicted with the tunnel vision of new love. Griffin raised his hand and cupped the face of Michael, his new lover. One kiss turned into a second one followed by a whisper. Michael nodded and leaned into Griffin, and when Michael's silver eyes finally looked at something other than Griffin, Kingsley saw the terror in them. He could sympathize.
"You should have left your pet at home," Kingsley said, unable to resist goading Griffin.