I slid my feet into a pair of flip flops before sneaking out the side door, leaving the screaming voices behind as I quietly clicked the door shut. I could still hear Hailey’s shrill voice following as I quietly escaped the house. I swear, that woman’s voice would wake the dead.
Hitching my bag over my shoulder, I took a moment to inhale the fresh country air complete with early spring chill before making my way across the yard and down toward the trees bordering the property. I knew exactly where I wanted to escape to and planned on being gone long enough for Hailey to stop screaming and for Thomas to leave. He would probably disappear for a few days, hiding out in their small apartment in London, returning once Hailey calmed down.
I climbed over the low, crumbling set of stones that had once acted as a fence and headed toward the trees along the edge of the property and the creek separating Hailey and Thomas’ residence from the one next door. Glancing back over my shoulder, I shook my head as I took in the opulence of their house, or rather mansion. Tall and red bricked, it was built during the early 1900s and had once belonged to a duke or lord or something. I wasn’t quite sure—we didn’t have people of title in Australia, so I was a little rusty on my knowledge of nobility. But Hailey had assured me it had once belonged to someone important but now belonged to them and was, by default, my home too.
Not only was the house magnificent, but the property it was situated on in southeast England was beautiful. Everything was green and fresh and just gorgeous. The village nearby was like something out of a postcard with its quaint little shops and English pub, and the beach was as harsh, windy, and isolated as I expected a beach in England to be. It was nothing like the crystalline white sands and warm blue ocean we had back in Australia. But, I reminded myself, that was back in Australia, a long way from my new home here in England.
Finding a flat rock by the bank of the creek, I paused to tuck a stray hair behind my ear before pulling my sketchbook from my bag and rooting around for a pencil. I had dozens in there, as well as pastels and colored pencils. I even had a set of watercolors, although now was not the time to pull them out. I opened the notebook and flicked through the pages, pausing to examine some of my previous works before finding a smooth, clear page and writing the date in the bottom corner. It was something my high school art teacher had taught me, and something I did by habit now whenever I started a new piece. Then I looked up, tucked that damn loose hair behind my ear again, and took a moment to examine my surroundings.
Trees. Lots of trees, some of them blossoming with white flowers. Ferns with long fronds framing mossy rocks and reaching out over the creek. Flowers, different shades of pinks, purples, and yellows growing in clumps on the creek bed opposite. Rocks acted as stepping stones across the water, which ran clear along the well-worn path. It was serene, peaceful, a far cry from the screams back at the mansion or the chaos of my own life over the past few months. I inhaled deeply, trying to draw some of the peace into my soul, before I started sketching.
I remember the first picture I ever drew. It was an elephant, a big gray elephant with its trunk twisted upward, its ears overlarge. My mother had admired the elephant and praised my efforts so much that my chest had literally swelled, and I’m sure I’d glowed with pride. She told me how clever I was for drawing the elephant with its trunk up and that it meant good luck. She said me that for the rest of my life I’d have good luck, that I was her good luck charm. Then she’d stuck the picture to the fridge, secured by a fridge magnet that said “I’ve been to Paris,” even though she’d never been to Paris. It stayed on the fridge, that elephant, until one morning I got up and came out, rubbing my eyes still heavy with sleep, to find the elephant drawing gone.
And my mother with it.
I hadn’t understood at the time exactly what had happened. My mother had left. She’d left me, Hailey and Dad. It didn’t make sense and it didn’t seem like something she had a choice in. At first, being only five years old, I’d thought someone must have taken her, had made her leave us behind, leave me behind. But that someone had also packed all her things and taken a few photographs of Hailey and me, as well as the elephant picture. That someone had made her write a note to my dad that simply read “I have to go. I’m sorry. Tell Hailey and Aria I love them.” It had taken me years to fully understand that not only had she gone, but that she wasn’t coming back and that, despite her words, she probably didn’t really love Hailey and me at all. Or at least not enough.
The sun rose higher in the sky as I continued to draw, taking in the shape of the trees, the way the brook curved and bent, the way the rocks seemed to cluster close together in certain spots. The morning grew and I soon became aware of a gnawing sensation in my stomach. I glanced up at the warm sun overhead, wondering what the time was. Hailey and Thomas had been arguing first thing this morning, so I’d quickly grabbed a banana for breakfast before heading out, not wanting to linger in the house. But judging by the rumbling in my stomach, it must be near midday. I wondered if it was safe to go back yet. I was too far away from the house to tell and I couldn’t see the garage from where I was to tell if Thomas’ car had left.
Rummaging through my bag, I found a snack bar I must have thrown in there at some stage, then ate it. It was nutty and salty, and while it appeased my hunger for the moment, I was left feeling thirsty. Plus, I was hot; the sun was warmer in England than I’d anticipated. I began packing away, fully intending to head back to the house, when I glanced down at the babbling brook. Hailey had told me it was fresh water, so it must be okay to drink, wasn’t it? I mean, if I was lost in a forest and starving and thirsty, I’d drink from it, wouldn’t I? Of course, right at this moment I wasn’t starving and lost in a forest, but I had an active imagination and could imagine for a moment that I was.
After slipping off my flip-flops, I made my way down the embankment to the water’s edge and carefully stepped onto a few stones, making sure to secure my footing before I kneeled down. I’d never drunk from a brook or a stream before and I felt kind of silly and awkward, but the saltiness in my throat spurred me on, and I leaned forward to scoop up some of the water.
The water ran down my throat and was just as cool and refreshing as I’d hoped. I closed my eyes and scooped up some more, savoring the coolness of the liquid. The water ran down my chin and onto my shirt, so I leaned forward a little more to get into a better position. That’s when a noise from behind startled me and I lost my balance. Crying out, I had just enough time to put my hands out and brace myself as I tumbled into the creek. Cold water hit me, knocking the breath from my lungs, before sharp pain shot up through my hands. The creek was full of rocks and my landing had not been gentle.
Gasping, I struggled to sit up, wiping the water and wet hair from my face as I looked around to see what had surprised me so.
A man, dressed entirely in black, stood on the embankment on the other side, his arms folded across his chest and a definitely unamused expression on his face. He was huge, built like a brick wall. I suspected he spent most of his time pumping iron when he wasn’t wandering around frightening innocent girls.
“Let’s go, honey,” he said, his voice bored and drawn. “Move along.”
I stared at him, still sitting very unladylike in the water. “Excuse me?”
“Get out of the water and let’s get going.”
Annoyance surged through me. First he’d frightened the life out of me, and now he was just standing there, demanding I move along?
“Who the hell are you?” I demanded.
“Someone paid very well to get rid of girls like you,” he replied gruffly before moving toward me. He waded into the water, which was only ankle deep, and before I had time to react I found my forearm gripped in his vicelike hands and was yanked to my feet. The cold air hit me, and my teeth immediately began chattering. I tried to struggle out of his grip but he kept his hand locked around my arm, his fingers digging into me as he lifted me out of the water and dragged me to the other side. I had to almost run to keep up with him, and if he didn’t have such a firm grip on me, I would have tripped several times. Some of the rocks cut into my toes and I winced.
“Wait!” I called out to seemingly deaf ears. “Get your hands off me.”
I struggled and pushed against him as it became clear he had no intention of letting go, and worse, he was dragging me farther into the sparse trees that shrouded the brook and away from the house. Oh God, this was not good. Panic rose inside me and I struggled even harder to no avail. The black-clad giant didn’t even seem to notice my struggling as he hauled me through the dense trees and out to the clearing on the other side. Then he continued to drag me up the expansive lawn toward the house belonging to Hailey and Thomas’ neighbors. Dread ran cold through my veins. Hailey hadn’t mentioned her neighbors; I’d only been here a week and we had more important things to discuss, like Dad, the house in Australia, my future here in England. But now I wished I’d asked her about them—at least then I’d have some understanding of what I was in for. Maybe he was a serial killer. That made perfect sense. If I were a serial killer, I’d hide out at a secluded English estate and kidnap neighborhood girls for my victims.
I was becoming hysterical, I knew, but the panic and fear were getting the better of me, and I had a tendency to jump to worst-case scenarios.
In front of me loomed a massive house, far bigger than Hailey and Thomas’ next door, and a few centuries older too, I suspected. It was set up high on the crest of a hill, overlooking the lawns, the trees, and the creek from where we emerged. It had been built in a completely different style to Hailey and Thomas’, with more Gothic architecture, and actually made of stone. The word “castle” immediately sprang to mind as a way to describe the house.
Who was this guy who lived in a castle, dressed all in black, and abducted girls from streams?
“Let me go,” I spat out for the hundredth time, tugging my arm and digging my heels into the lawn.
“I’m sick of this,” he said gruffly in a thick British accent. “You girls are taking up way too much of my time, and I’ve had enough.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was sure whatever he said made perfect sense to him. Suddenly he leaned down and scooped me up, throwing me over his shoulder as he continued his path toward the castle. I screamed then, something I should have thought to do earlier when I was still in sight of Hailey and Thomas’ house. I screamed loudly as I banged my fists against his back. My ribs began to hurt as they bounced against his hard shoulders until I heard a door open and I was abruptly set on my feet.
“Stay here,” he commanded and then disappeared into another room, leaving me alone.
It didn’t take me long to act and I spun around, reaching for the door we had just entered through. It was locked and even though I fiddled with the handle, it didn’t seem to want to unlock. I needed a key. Frantically I looked around the room, which was some sort of indoor patio, a sunroom or parlor I think they called them, fitted out with cane furniture and lots of green plants. The black-clad giant had gone through a door to my left, but there was another door along the right wall that I wasted no time fleeing to. It opened, thank goodness, but I found myself in another room, which I paid little attention to. I quickly raced through it, out another door and into a long corridor that was dark, a few lamps along one wall offering the only light. I shivered. It felt wrong to have a room, even just a hallway that had no windows, with no natural light at all. Tentatively, I walked along the corridor and opened the first door I came to, hoping it led outside.
Instantly I was assailed by music. It was loud, incredibly loud, and I wondered how I could have not heard it before I opened the door. Then I noticed how thick the door was and the cushioned fabric lining along the walls. The room was soundproof.
Pictures of bands lined the walls, most of which I recognized, some I didn’t. Bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Led Zeppelin, Wolfmother, Coldplay, U2, Foo Fighters. A huge red leather sofa sat in the middle of the room, and along another wall was a bar, a real bar, like the kind you find in a nightclub, only this one was more impressive with an array of alcohol bottles stacked high on glass shelves behind it. I took a step into the room, so busy searching for a door that it took me a few moments to realize I wasn’t alone.
The music continued to blare through the speakers as my vision slowly adjusted to the two men who were looking at me.
They were beautiful. Both of them. So beautiful that for a moment I forgot to breathe, as pathetic as that sounds. They were like fine artwork, a magnificent sculpture that knocked the wind from my lungs.
One of them sat on the red leather lounge, a guitar splayed across his lap. He had dark blond hair that brushed against his shoulders, and startling blue eyes. The other leaned against the bar, a drink in hand, and he too was blond with blue eyes, although his hair was cropped short. They must be brothers, I thought stupidly and irrelevantly.
The music stopped.
“What the fuck,” the one on the sofa said, and I snapped my attention back to him. He was beautiful, but he was also furious, as I was only now realizing. His eyes glittered darkly at me and his jaw was set. Instinctively I took a step back as he spat out, “Another one? And how the fuck did she get in here?”
“Settle down, Jag,” the one by the bar said. “I’ll call Randall.” He made his way over to the end of the bar and picked up a phone. I watched as he moved, as graceful as a panther, transfixed by the scene before me.
“Can you call the police?” I said quickly, stepping farther into the room and snapping back to myself. “There was this man, and he grabbed me and dragged me in here.”
“You want us to call the police?” the one on the sofa said, his voice disbelieving.
“Yes, please,” I begged. “I don’t know who that guy was, or where he has gone, but he was really rough and I just want to go home.” Suddenly the situation hit me and I choked on a sob, although I didn’t let any of the rising tears escape.
“What the fuck,” the one on the sofa said again, getting to his feet. He placed the guitar by the seat before he made his way over to me. I backed away and he stopped walking. “What guy?”
“A guy in black,” I rushed to explain. “I was down by the stream, just drawing, I had to get out of the house. Hailey and Thomas were fighting and I wanted to draw, but then I ate a salty snack bar and was thirsty so I had a drink from the stream but I fell in. No, I didn’t mean to fall in, it wasn’t my fault. It was this guy who crept up behind me and scared me but then he grabbed me and I tried to get away but he wouldn’t let me go and he carried me back to this house.” I glanced around the room. “Or castle or whatever, and then he disappeared.”
I was rambling, and I was sure I didn’t make any sense, but I just wanted to call the police or call Hailey or Thomas or someone and get out of here. I shivered, still wet and cold from my tumble into the water.
The guy in front of me stared, his eyes boring into mine. They were blue and furious, dark and glittery, his pupils large and dilated. Everything about him seemed to vibrate, like there was this incredible energy just rolling in waves off him. He wasn’t smiling but he didn’t look as annoyed as he had a few moments ago, the hardness in his jaw having softened a little. It was only then that I noticed his chest was bare, his shoulders broad, and around his neck hung a black cord with a stone pendant. Just the faintest trace of hair disappeared below his jeans, the top button of which was undone. He was incredibly sexy, and the sexual charisma that oozed from him actually sent a shiver down my spine.
“You’re cold,” he said after a moment, and he smirked as if he knew the real reason why I trembled.
He turned, scooped up a shirt from the red lounge, and walked toward me. I stiffened but didn’t flee as he handed me the shirt. Our fingers touched for the briefest second, and I felt that touch shoot through me to my very core. It didn’t help with the trembling.
“Thank you,” I mumbled before I quickly pulled the shirt over my head. It was way too big for me and hung down almost to my knees. And it smelled like him, I was sure of it. Masculine, musky, dark.
“What’s your name?” he asked. He was English, his voice deep.
“Aria,” I replied, and his eyes immediately narrowed suspiciously at me as if he didn’t believe me.
“You like Nirvana, Aria?” the guy from the back called out, his voice sharp.
The guy who’d handed me the T-shirt swore and shot a filthy look over his shoulder at his friend.
The question threw me. Nirvana hadn’t been playing when I opened the door, and I suspected, as I took in the amused expression on his face, that he was actually asking me something else. I frowned. “Um, sure, I guess.”
He grinned as though I’d delighted him thoroughly. “Perfect!”
The tension in the room thickened, and I had a feeling there was something going on that I was oblivious to. I backed away, but then I realized I had nowhere to go.
“Can you tell me how to get home?” I asked, my gaze flickering back to the guy in front of me. “How to get out of this house?”
“You don’t want us to call the police now?” he asked.
“Well, I’d prefer to just go home…”
Suddenly the door behind me opened and the guy who had abducted me loomed in the doorway. Instinctively I screamed and lurched toward the topless guy, who caught me with surprise, his solid arms locking around me.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the black giant said. “I put her in the parlor when I went to call the police and didn’t lock the doors.”
“It’s okay, Randall,” the guy said. “We’ll take care of her now.”
The black giant frowned. “I found her down by the creek.”
“It’s fine, Randall,” the guy insisted once more. Randall’s frown deepened before he nodded and left, closing the door behind him.
Strong arms encircled me still, and I’d wrapped my arms around his neck, clinging to him as if he was my savior. Our faces were mere inches apart, his mouth twitching. I could feel the warmth of his breath tickling my cheek, and for a moment I wanted to stay there, in the arms of this man who I hadn’t even met and who somehow felt distinctly familiar. His mouth quirked a little, and heat flooded my cheeks as I unwound myself and took a step back. My head still struggled to make sense of the situation, and despite the warmth of his T-shirt, I was still cold and wet.
“Thank you,” I said, although I wasn’t sure why. “If you can just show me how to get out…” I glanced around the room, looking for a door or an escape hatch or a time traveling portal, anything that would just get me out of here.
“I’m Jag”—the shirtless guy held out his hand—“and that’s Ash.” He gestured to the guy behind us, who was leaning against the bar and drinking some dark liquid, watching us quietly.
I offered a small smile. “Nice to meet you.”
“You live nearby,” he continued, his gaze boring into mine, “is that what you said?”
I nodded. “Yes. Next door. I just moved in with my sister and her husband. Wait…” It took me a moment, and then I realized what had just happened. “Wait. Do you live here? In this castle?” They seemed too young and too energetic to be the type of people who lived in castles. I imagined stuffy royalty, all prim and proper and old, to live in castles.
Jag grinned, and it made his eyes glitter even darker. “I do indeed.”
“Oh, and that guy, the giant, he’s a guard?”
Jag nodded again and relief flooded through me. The situation made more sense now. The guy—Randall—was a bodyguard for whoever these two were, and he thought I was trespassing. I wasn’t being abducted at all. It was simply a misunderstanding.
I started to laugh.
Jag raised an eyebrow. “Something funny?”
I shook my head. It wasn’t really funny. It was just a huge misunderstanding, and I was suddenly relieved it was over. I turned to go, planning to head out through the only door I could see.
“Don’t go,” Jag said suddenly, and my heart skipped a beat at those simple words and the way he delivered them. I glanced over my shoulder at him, and the sight broke me further.
My mind whirled. It was as if I’d done this before, been in this exact position before, and had this exact moment. A moment where I did leave and I did break Jag’s heart, but I also broke mine. The moment was fleeting and over in a second, but the images, this same scene was burned into me. I shivered. That déjà vu was way more intense than any other I’d ever had.
“Yes,” Ash called from the back of the room, “don’t go yet. Let us give you a tour of the castle before you leave.”
“I don’t know,” I replied slowly. “I should get back to my sister. She’ll be wondering where I am.” They must have stopped fighting by now surely. It had been hours.
Ash walked across the room to me and handed me a phone. “Here,” he said, “call her.”
After a few moments of deliberation, I took the phone and quickly dialed Hailey’s number. She answered on the first ring.
“Hi, Hails,” I whispered. “It’s me.”
“Aria? Where are you?”
“I’m at the next door neighbor’s house. There was a misunderstanding but it’s okay now. I’m just going to have a tour of the castle and then I’ll be home, okay?”
“Aria, you’re telling me you’re next door? Who are you with?”
“Our neighbors. Ash and Jag,” I explained, my gaze lingering too long on the latter. I glanced away quickly as heat colored my cheeks. He chuckled softly, obviously enjoying my discomfit.
“Aria, you should come home now,” she said coolly.
“Sure,” I replied smoothly. “I will. See you soon.”
I hung up and handed the phone back to Ash. They both grinned delightedly, and I suddenly felt like a mouse with two cats about to tease and play with me. I would just have a quick tour of this mansion, find an exit, and leave.
Ash held out his arm to me, but not before I saw him cast a smug smile in Jag’s direction. “Come, let the tour begin, our lovely Miss Aria.”
I glanced at Jag, who scowled darkly in Ash’s direction, before I looped my arm through his, seeing no other way around it without being incredibly rude.
There was something though, something that made me turn and offer a comforting smile in Jag’s direction.