Page 50

His face was round like Sophia’s, his features bold, despite the drag of age. His hooded eyelids hung over icy blue eyes; the corners of his mouth were naturally tipped down, giving him a look of tired apathy, like he could hardly abide their presence. He adjusted the blue silk damask robe he’d tossed over his shirt and breeches.

That single look ripped Etta open faster than any razor.

He turned to Sophia. “You’re dismissed.”

She jumped as if he’d shoved her in the direction of the door. “But—”

“You question me?” he asked calmly.

Sophia sealed her lips and turned to look at Nicholas.

“He stays,” the old man said firmly, with an impatient wave. “My God, child, I’ll die of old age before you ever reach the door.”

Etta saw the way Sophia took in a deep breath, set her shoulders back, and moved with practiced grace on her way out—and she understood something about the other girl, truly understood it for the first time. Sophia wanted in, when she was only ever being sent out.

“Step fully into the light,” the old man ordered when the door was shut. He set the book in his lap on the floor.

Nicholas stood with his hands clasped behind his back, fingers curled into fists. When she stepped forward, so did he, remaining a small step in front of her.

“I’m Etta,” she said, trying to fill the agonizing silence that followed. The longer she went without any sort of response, the more she had to fight the way her feet naturally wanted to turn toward the door. In all of her experiences of stage fright, each crippling attack of performance anxiety, she’d never felt so smothered by pure dread. With the heat of the fire at her back, and hours of travel behind her, she felt a pressure start to build just beneath her lungs.

Why was she just standing here? Why wasn’t she yelling, telling him what she really thought of the way he’d forced her to come here without any explanation? She could have been home, but here she was, because he wanted her, and he wasn’t doing a damn thing other than a passable impression of a gargoyle. And this was the same man who had kept both Nicholas and his mother enslaved—who thought it was fine to sacrifice their freedom in the name of playing a role and blending in.

“You’re late, Samuel.”

Maybe it was only a trick of the light, but Etta could have sworn Nicholas stiffened.

“My name is Nicholas now, as you’ve known for years. And I don’t see how you’ve reached that conclusion.”

“I wanted them here by the twenty-first. And yet here we are, ten past the first hour of the twenty-second. Your pay will be docked accordingly.”

Etta’s blood steamed. “That’s—”

“My man of business is downstairs. I expect you remember him? Of course, he’ll know you by your true name. Nicholas! My word. Perhaps you should have chosen the name Charlemagne when you decided to remake yourself. You certainly strode in here like an emperor.”

Was the old man mocking Nicholas? For choosing a name that he liked and wanted, rather than the one given to him? What a vicious way to remind him of what he had been.

I can handle this. She clung to her mom’s voice, the words, that trace of belief. If nothing else, she wouldn’t flinch under the old man’s steely gaze. She would make her mom proud.

“Tell me why I’m here,” she said coldly.

“Why do you think you’re here?” he asked, cocking one thin silver brow. A lion, staring down a common house cat.

“I think your plan is to hold me hostage,” she said. “To get back at my mom.”

Cyrus let out a deep laugh. “Do you? How would you feel if it was quite the opposite?”

Etta’s gaze shot back toward him, disbelief twining with terror as the old man retrieved a small, glossy photograph from the front pocket of his silk robe. Her dread was so paralyzing, she almost couldn’t lift an arm to take it from him.

Her mother’s face, partially obscured by a gag, glared back at her. If she’d looked frightened, rather than furious, some part of Etta might have been able to believe it was someone else they’d found to impersonate her. But no—Rose was still wearing the dress she’d worn at the Met. The room around her was dark, but Etta recognized their living room all the same. An arm reached into the photo with a copy of the New York Times, dated the day after the concert.

All she could see was Alice’s face as her eyes slid shut that last time.

All she could feel was Alice’s blood as it dried on her hands.

“Because of her, you owe this family—our kind—a debt,” the old man said. “And you will do exactly as I say, or she will take her last breath and you will never, ever leave this godforsaken time.”

THE SHOCK SNAPPED, LEAVING ONLY a pool of anger in the pit of her stomach. Etta lunged toward Cyrus, only to be caught around the waist by Nicholas and hauled backward, still struggling. “You bastard—!”

“Miss Spencer—” Nicholas’s arms tightened, trying to hold her still. “Etta!”

At the pleading note in his tone, she stopped struggling, sagging against the tight band of his arms. Cyrus stood, studying her face more closely as he circled around them.

“I thought, actually, that you might be an Ironwood—that Augustus had made another folly—but I see now I’m wrong. You don’t bear our stamp at all. Who is your father?”

“As if I’d ever tell you,” she snarled back.