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The walls around me flared into view, a foot beyond my fingertips on one side, and two on the other. The low ceiling pushed down on me, and smooth cement stretched out in front.

“Wow.” I dropped my outstretched hands. “That light is incredibly handy, and this is an impressively large hidden passageway.”

“The owners of this house have always been affluent,” the man said, leading the way. “I, myself, increased the size of the passageways in one of the areas. Where I could, you know. You have to tear out walls, and re-size some of the—”

I let the drone of his voice ebb and flow around me as we reached a T junction. He turned left without skipping a beat, but I paused in the middle, trying to get my bearings.

“We’re going up to the third floor, right? Somehow?”

“The third floor…” He glanced back in confusion.

“Keep it together, man. Now is not the time to forget your whereabouts. This is your house, remember? You live here. You know it like the back of your—”

I cut off when a woman with long blonde hair and a glowing blue dress drifted toward us. Her feet stayed perfectly still, sliding against the smooth ground.

“Marlene,” the man spat, his confusion dissolving instantly. Irritation took its place. “She always turns up when I use these hallways. One moment of weakness and she haunts me forever.”

“I heard that,” Marlene said as she drew near. Her liquid brown eyes settled on me. “One moment of weakness…” She laughed, a shrill sound. “Is that what you’re calling it? Weakness?”

“You have to understand,” the man said to me. I grimaced and edged around him. I didn’t want to get involved in a really old domestic dispute. “My wife was away visiting her sister. A man has needs.”

“So does a woman, but we don’t drop our pants whenever a hot guy comes along.” I picked up the pace. “Self-restraint, look it up.”

Maybe I did want to get involved in a domestic dispute, just a little. Honestly, I was not a fan of cheaters.

“You said you were going to run away with me,” the woman said, following us now. “You said we could start a family. Remember all those nights, lying in those sweaty sheets…”

“Good God,” I muttered, wishing her voice would ebb and flow as well.

“You ruined my marriage,” the man said, stopping with me at the next junction.

“You ruined my life,” the woman retorted, unfortunately stopping with us. “You left me without a home. Without a job—”

“Please don’t say pregnant. Please don’t say pregnant,” I muttered, looking at the dead-end up the way. “There are stairs somewhere, right?”

“The ladder is just up this way.” The man continued on, moving slightly faster than before, which was not to say he was fast. Maybe the lady was actually good for the situation. If only she’d stop talking…

“If it wasn’t for Lord Stockbridge, I would’ve died on the streets,” she continued, plaguing our steps. “He was kind and gentle…”

“Ugh.” I turned left when the man did, doing my best to ignore Marlene’s attempt at making the man jealous. Up ahead, a metal ladder clung to a sheer wall.

“Well, that’s clearly too high to go to the third floor,” I muttered, looking up as I got closer. “A fall from that would break a bone or two. Maybe crack a head. Where does this lead—”

“For the last time, you preyed on me,” the man said to Marlene. “I was having my brandy when you sauntered in with that clear negligée. What was I supposed to do?”

“Fire her, is my guess.” I ran a hand in front of his face. “Hey. Where does this—”

With a scoff, his body winked out. I stared at empty space for a beat.

“He always does that, the coward,” Marlene said, before tossing her hair, styled in an old-fashioned cut, and turning back the way she’d come.

I faced the ladder again. “I guess beggars can’t be choosers when it gets you out of a jam.”

Taking a deep breath, I grabbed a rung. Metal was tough. Much tougher than wood. It could stand the test of time. Right?

I shifted my weight and pushed off my foot, bracing myself in case the rung broke. Then I climbed up to the next rung, doing the same thing. The metal didn’t bow. It didn’t give in.

Halfway up, at a height where I’d hurt myself if I fell, I climbed faster, wanting to get this over with. Lord help me if I’d eventually have to go back down.

Nearly there, and a sickening crack made me freeze.

My breath was loud in the thick silence.

Another rung and metal whined. The ladder shook against the wall.

It wasn’t a rung making that sound. It was a brace, the thing attaching the ladder to the freaking wall.

“If I make it out of here, I am going to kill you, Bria,” I said through clenched teeth as I quickly debated going up or down. Up meant a larger fall. Down meant I’d be stuck on the same floor as Valens. Being that I couldn’t permanently hide in the darkness, I’d have to randomly pick a room and hope he wasn’t in it. With his ability to sense magic, how long would it take for him to find me?

“Mother trucker biscuit fucker,” I ground out, grabbing the next rung and hefting myself up. Metal whined again, but I kept going, moving as fast as I could. The brace clattered against the wall. I moved my foot onto the next rung, reaching up, the lip of the floor only five feet away. Another rung and I might be able to reach it.

The right side of the ladder broke away from the wall, sending me careening. I barely held on as my body whipped around. A foot slipped and then I was dangling, pulling harder on the old braces.

“Go, go, go,” I urged myself, scrambling back onto the ladder and climbing like my butt was burning.

Metal screamed now, the left-hand brace ready to go. Pieces of the wall kept dropping away like powder, releasing the screws holding the ladder firm.

Chest tight and breath coming fast, I grabbed the next rung, then the next, keeping my focus on holding on. If I balked now, I might find myself plummeting to the floor with the broken ladder.

Another screw pulled free. My foot hit the next rung. I hefted myself up, reaching over the lip, and found a metal handle in my way. I grabbed it and pulled, lifting my body. Another screw gave away and the left-hand brace quickly followed. The ladder pulled back from the wall.

I held onto that handle for all I was worth. If it gave way, I was done for.

Laboriously, I heaved myself up over the edge, finding another handle on the other side, and dragged my body against the loose ladder. Once up, the ladder tipped backward, the very top hitting the opposite wall with a loud clang. It vibrated, but since the bottom braces were still intact, it didn’t fall.

I wouldn’t be using the tunnels to get back down.

Arms and legs tired, I dusted myself off and looked around, taking in my three options: right, left, or straight ahead. It all looked the same.

Shrugging, I went straight ahead. At the end, I found a horizontal bar affixed to what I hoped was another secret door. The only direction the bar would go was down. I had to use both hands and all my weight, but finally earned a loud clung for my efforts. The door popped out toward me, a rectangle misplaced from the wall, but it didn’t go very far.

“What the hell…” I whispered, pulling on it, feeling a little give. I yanked, then braced my foot against the wall of the tunnel and gave it all I had. Nothing.

“Bugger,” I said through a panting breath, moving to the side and glancing through the crack. Only a small sliver let me view the low-lit space beyond. I could barely make out a couple of sleeves.

I smiled. It was a closet. Maybe not a broom closet, but close enough that I’d followed Bria’s instructions…though I’d never forgive her for landing me in this mess in the first place.

We wouldn’t get caught, my left toe.

Frowning, I looked at the door and pulled it toward me again. When that didn’t help, I leaned against it, thinking.

Old wheels cried out. It was on a track.

“Ah ha. I’ve got your secret, you dirty bastard.” I shoved the door harder. Metal protested as it scraped. Wheels howled.

Without warning, something gave loose, though the horrible racket continued unabated. The door ripped to the side.

A large hand grabbed me by the blouse and roughly yanked me through the doorway.

23

Alexis

I lashed out, first with my fists and then with the strange power I was still learning. I punched a hard cheekbone and burrowed my power into a solid chest, ramming against the metal plate in the middle. Colors burst to life, vibrant and refreshing, as the Line sprang back into view. Power rushed through me. All I had to do was focus my strength, and I would have my attacker’s soul in my unyielding grasp.

Without warning, I was blasted with power so strong it hauled me under the surface and held me down, drowning me with its potency. Pain burned across my skin before boiling in my middle. Agony blistered behind my eyes and within my mind, blotting out thought.

“Yield.” The voice was barrel-deep and raspy, and extreme relief surged through me.

I dropped my hands and closed off the Line, sagging within Kieran’s hold.

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