Woman in the Mirror

Joyce Ellen Armond


Chapter One


That throaty whisper pulled Robert Reavings, third son of the Earl of Danforth, back from sensual oblivion. As his senses reformed and refocused, he registered the relentless sleet blowing in through the open balcony doors, then the equally relentless tick of the long case clock. Blinking away sweat, he focused on its gilt face: already ten past nine. Lillian had taken him so far away from himself he hadn’t heard the chimes.

“You’re already hopelessly late.” Lillian straddled his chest, blocking the time with her body. “Why bother leaving me now?”

Robert’s anger flared. He’d been summoned by The Royal Society tonight. If he wanted them to publish his electro-chemical theories he must bow to the hoary, demanding old stiffs in their Albemarle dungeon.

“I’ve been warning you about this meeting for a week now.” He’d spent every night of their twenty-week affair tangled up in her bed, surviving her nails and biting her skin until he knew the tang of her inside and out—unless, of course, they were at odds, stubborn tension driving them apart until someone, usually him, gave in to lust. Tonight was the first night he planned to desert her for something other than anger.

Lillian glared down at him, a tower of candlelit skin and tangled dark hair. Her unforgettable violet eyes pinned him as if her gaze could grow teeth. She slid further up his chest, and his nostrils flared involuntarily at the wash of her scent.

“Do not leave me.”

Did she order or plead, or perhaps both? Lillian often layered meanings and tones, lies and half-truths, employing any strategy to impose her will. No matter what artifice she used, Robert wouldn’t let her win when scientific pursuits were at stake.

“I will leave you.” He lifted her by the waist, ignoring her flashed look of outrage, and deposited her on her back. “Right now.”

He stood up quickly, even though her narrowed eyes made it clear she wouldn’t stoop to clawing after him. A gust of icy wind billowed the white balcony curtains and raised gooseflesh up and down Robert’s arms. He turned from the temptation of Lillian’s nakedness and the still-warm blankets to find his scattered clothing, but found himself facing Lillian’s reflection in the cherry-wood looking glass she cherished.

She lay curled on her side, staring at him in a moment of assumed privacy. He’d never seen her wear such an expression: eyes glowing with irrational fury, a lift to her upper lip that seemed uncomfortably close to a predator’s snarl. Then she met his gaze in the reflection and the alien look switched immediately to one more familiar, less threatening. She pouted prettily, rolling onto her back to display her body, hanging her head over the bed’s edge, her hair streaming down to the carpet.

“I cannot stand to spend the night without you. Am I so terrible you must run away?”

Her eyes pleaded sincerely, but Robert couldn’t shake the vision of that stranger’s face imposed over the one he knew.

“You think I’m shameful, needing you so.”

Her wide-eyed, frank desire hooked into his most vulnerable, hidden self. He marked his life not through the passing of days but in the accumulation of rejections. His powerful, titled clan expected him to value a wealthy gentleman’s life of ease. He instead pursued the intricate wonders of scientific forces. He chose a scandalous affair with the notorious Lillian Ragget above expedient marriage, unvarnished honesty above the formal lies that passed for communication in his class. Even now to pursue the pure draw of his heart and mind, he had to reshape himself to the expectations of men who held power merely because of their fathers’ names or mothers’ fortunes, men who looked at science not as a doorway to a mysterious world but as a spice to their bland days. The pressures to give in, to be the man they all wanted him to be instead of the man he was, pushed the air from him lungs some days, left him gasping and almost smothered.

“Ro-bert.” Lillian’s singsong whisper seemed substantial enough to slide under his skin and plant hooks in his veins. “I hate it when you go away in your thoughts. You’ve left me already.”

The words fed his rising anger. Anger defined him, kept him constant company, though he couldn’t precisely define what he was angry about. But the wrong word at the right time set him off like dry powder. Boiling inside, he turned to confront Lillian.

She caught his hips and swallowed him.

Anger and lust mixed together like water and acid in his blood. The double-sided conflict between his desire and society’s expectations grew new facets: his mind’s desire and his body’s, society’s expectations and Lillian’s.

Lillian released him, looked up the length of his body. What he saw in her eyes turned him cold. Her fear of rejection should draw him, not push him away. But all he felt was cold when her ravenous gaze fixed him.

“If I could, I would reach up inside you…” The fingers of her right hand feathered across his lower back, grazed the crease of his buttocks. “I would reach right up inside you and hold your muscles and nerves like a horse’s reins, and never let you leave me.”

Robert’s lungs collapsed from a sudden, smothering pressure. He couldn’t draw enough air, even with the breeze blowing from the balcony.

“I’m leaving.” Where did he find breath enough to speak so firmly, so coldly? He turned from the even colder smile spreading across Lillian’s lips, began to dress. His white linen shirt, his breeches and vest covered his skin like armor against the press of conflicting demands: his family’s, the Royal Society’s, Lillian’s. If he gave in to the demands, he’d give up himself. He would die inside, become an empty shell like his father, his brothers, every man he knew. He tugged on his boots and strode to the bedroom threshold.

“If you walk out that door, I may never allow you back in.”

Robert paused, looked over his shoulder. Lillian rolled onto her back again. Her hair slid down around her face until Robert could only see the gleam from her violet eyes and white teeth, bared in a challenging grin.

For Robert, time seemed to pause. The white curtains shivered, held in mid-swell by the force of his anger. His vision swam, then doubled. He saw Lillian, her nude body on the bed, and he saw himself watching Lillian with anger blazing in his face. For some reason, he thought of dog fights: the snarls, the spiked collars, the taut leather leads.

I don’t want to come back. The thought snapped through him, whip-like pain and lightning-pure clarity. A clap of thunder broke time’s spell. The wind sucked the curtains through the leaded French doors as the storm opened up the sky.

“Goodbye, Lillian.” He’d thought she was a refuge from the pressures threatening to strangle him. She’d turned out to be just another knot in his life’s noose.

She turned onto her stomach, laughing, not believing him. Then her smile slowly, uncertainly, faded, as she realized how serious he was.

“I was just joking. Go to your little science party. Enjoy yourself.” She cupped one full breast in her hand, and her smile turned languid. “I know I will enjoy myself while you’re gone.”

Robert forced himself to turn away, imposing his mind’s will on his eager body and his lonely heart. Another rejection, he thought, walking down the stairs, into the foyer, out the front door. When he opened it, Lillian called out his name. When he closed it, he couldn’t hear her anymore.

The end was unavoidable, after all, he told himself sternly. Lillian Ragget, notorious man-eater, could do nothing less than toss away the eccentric misfit Robert Reavings. He’d secretly allowed himself to believe that he might tame her to love, perhaps even save her. How ridiculous he’d been. He hadn’t any friends, but the men he knew from his club, even those acquaintances he didn’t completely despise from the Royal Society—they had all warned him. Lillian Ragget outclassed him, would break his heart, add him to the parade of sucked-dry lovers who mourned her loss for the rest of their unhappy, unfulfilled lives. He took perverse pride in being the only man to reject her first.

Robert caught a flash in his peripheral vision. Something crashed to the sidewalk behind him. Whirling, almost loosing his footing on the icy pavement, he saw the remains of a shattered lantern, the spilled oil burning down quickly in the rain. He looked up, and a flash of lightning illuminated the balcony, the whipping white curtains, and Lillian, still nude, balancing precariously on the railing.

“You can’t leave me, Robert Reavings!” The wind tore at her voice, shredded her angry scream.

Cynicism doused Robert’s anger. As if Lillian Ragget would ever hurt her most valued possession—herself. She played this charade just to keep him from his meeting with the Royal Society.

“Do you really expect me to believe that you’d jump?”

“Come back, Robert, or you’ll be the man who killed me! Is that what you—” The words ended in a scream, then a clap of thunder. In the simultaneous lightning flash, Robert saw Lillian dangling from the railing by one hand, her feet kicking, her hair lifting in the wind.

Robert ran back into the townhouse, his mind already in the bedroom mapping out a strategy to save her. His pounding heart pumped him up the stairs two at a time. Lillian’s scream met him at the bedroom threshold. He lunged to the balcony, hooking his ankle in the curtains and leaning over the railing. He grasped her hand, but the icy wet flesh slipped, and he barely caught her wrist as she began to fall.

“Don’t let go! I don’t want to die! Robert, pleeeeeeeeeeease!”

The thunder and her screams pounded against Robert’s head. Lillian’s body swayed, a terrible weight. His shoulder protested with sharp pain. “Stop kicking, damn it.”

“Don’t you let me die! You want me to die, I know it but—”

“Don’t move!” He folded his torso over the balcony rail, reaching for her with his other hand. The wind and sleet stabbed him. “Raise your other hand to me!”

In a succession of lightning flashes he saw Lillian’s dangling arm reach towards him. He saw his own hand reach out. Lillian’s wrist slipped free of his right hand. His left hand closed on empty air.

She didn’t scream on the way down. A clap of thunder covered the sound of her bones breaking against the sidewalk. A flash of lightning illuminated the spatters of blood.

Still folded over the balcony railing, Robert choked in sleet and wind. Inside his head, a stunned and quiet voice whispered to him. She’s dead. Lillian’s dead.

A second internal voice, cold and clear, said, She’s dead, and you let her fall.

* * * *

“My head aches so very terribly, my lord.”

Charlotte Grand watched her grandfather, the Baron Basil Carstairs, watch the woman lying on the divan. The divan was maroon velvet, and the woman’s skin looked very pale against it. Thirty minutes earlier, Charlotte had watched the woman, Miss Donal, artfully apply rice powder to achieve her sickly look. Charlotte might have revealed the deception to her grandfather, had he loosened the silk handkerchief tied between her teeth.

The third of her trio of captors entered the sitting room. “Leave her, Carstairs, we’ll be late.” Daniel Seville wore a precisely fitted and fashionable cut dove gray jacket. He gave one disdainful look at Miss Donal, then slanted one furtive look at Charlotte. That’s how Charlotte knew he was in on Miss Donal’s scheme. He so hated Charlotte that he never acknowledged her, not even with a look, unless directed by the Baron.

Charlotte felt a twinge of hope, the first one in eleven weeks, three days, four hours and thirty-six minutes.

The Baron sat down on the edge of the divan. Miss Donal flinched away. Charlotte marveled at the Baron’s delicate movements, so in contrast to his overflowing bulk. Her captivity had taught her to focus on minutiae as a distraction from physical pain and fear.

“Poor creature.” The Baron patted Miss Donal’s hand, stroked the woman’s red hair. Three rings glittered on his hand: two rubies flanking a flesh-colored opal in lavish gold settings. The gems glittered in the gas lamplight as his stroking fingers gathered strands of her hair and began to lightly tug. “But you know how delicious I find your suffering. So…”

The Baron transferred his weight from the divan to his feet in a smooth motion, and he pulled Miss Donal up by her hair until she sat straight-backed before him. “You have exactly seven minutes to prepare yourself.”

Slowly, the Baron unclenched his fist. Red hair trailed free, settling in wisps around Miss Donal’s face. Charlotte still couldn’t understand Miss Donal’s expression. She so often wore it when the Baron attended her: a mixture of longing and fear. The Baron seemed to believe that displaying his abuse of Miss Donal would frighten Charlotte into breaking, into abandoning her defiance. The Baron wanted her crouching and afraid.

In actuality, Charlotte kept a mental catalogue of the Baron’s methods of causing pain, both emotional and physical, in the event she might have the opportunity to take revenge on him. Or use them to avoid ever being held prisoner in the future.

The Baron took the divan as Miss Donal scurried to find a suitable dress. He shifted so that he could study Charlotte. Charlotte studied him in return. In eleven weeks, she’d tracked the growth rate of his outrageous mop of hair. A line of brown marked the part down the middle of his skull, making the artificial blonde color even more ridiculous.

“I think it’s time for one more button, don’t you think, Daniel?” The Baron’s eyes never left Charlotte’s. Charlotte stared back. Some physiological advantage allowed her to win each of these staring contests. But the Baron never gave up trying. Each day, each hour, it became harder and harder to look him straight in the eye.

Seville made an impatient sound deep in the back of his throat. He had a repertoire of such revealing noises. Charlotte assumed he grunted and clucked, coughed and hummed, because he was too lazy to form his emotional reactions into actual words. But no matter his true feelings, he always obeyed whatever directive the Baron gave him.

Charlotte’s mother had rarely spoken of her father the Baron, and when she had, it was in clipped tones without eye contact. Prior to eleven months, three days and four hours ago, Charlotte’s most encompassing picture of her grandfather had come from a letter delivered with her mother’s effects after her burial. In an ornate hand, the Baron had reminded his daughter that because he hadn’t approved her marriage, and even after the tragic death of that unapproved husband in the Napoleonic war, he still retained stewardship over Charlotte’s inheritance and would continue to do so until “it pleased her to please him.”

“If you want to save your daughter from the indignities of poverty, you can always submit to the indignities I have planned for you.”

The current indignity he visited on Charlotte was to tether her spread-eagle in front of the mantle, and slowly, over the course of hours, expose her body. Her skirt and petticoats had gone during breakfast. The ever-obedient Daniel pulled away the fourth button of her blouse.

“There’s a lovely picture,” the Baron said as Seville moved away. “I so very much wish I could demonstrate how vulnerable you really are, my dear.”

But he couldn’t do that until after the wedding made her the property of Daniel Seville, which would make her, in reality, the property of her grandfather. Until then, he dared not leave any permanent marks on her body or face. He was “unappreciated,” as he called it, by Society, and they were watching his disposition of Charlotte most closely, waiting for any opportunity to discredit their collective enemy.

The wedding would take place in nine days, six hours and… Charlotte couldn’t break the stare with the Baron to check the clock. The Baron gave her a tight smile, just an upward tweak of his overly full lips, then looked away to check on the progress of Miss Donal’s preparations.

Miss Donal had stepped into a coal-colored dress trimmed in gray that matched Seville’s coat and gloves. She presented her back to the Baron, and Charlotte watched him pull the laces so tight that Miss Donal gasped for air.

Charlotte had encountered men like the Baron during her years living with her uncle in Marseilles: usually men who’d paid for secret passage out of the country to escape justice. Uncle Jory had dispensed advice on how to deal with them, as he’d dispensed advice on every conceivable topic.

“Smile to their face. Pretend to submit. Then, when they aren’t looking, slit their throat and slip them overboard. No one will miss them or mourn them, and the fish will be happy to hide the evidence.”

Had Charlotte followed his advice and pretended to submit, she wouldn’t be hanging from the cold hearth stones, her shoulders aching from the unending stretch, her feet slowly freezing in this country forgotten by the sun. She would have already found her chance, slit the Baron’s throat, and used whatever she stole to finance her return to the sea and her uncle’s shipping business.

“You never listen.” The memory of Jory’s voice whispered inside her head. “Get a ballast weight for that temper, girl, or you’ll go down for sure.”

She hated how right he was. She was gagged now, and bound with chain not rope, because she’d almost gnawed her way free on day twenty of her captivity. At unexpected moments, her mouth filled with the musty taste of that rope.

During the hours of this current torture, Charlotte had discovered that there was a weak link on the chain that circled her right wrist. In the hour or so she’d been left alone, she’d rubbed that link against the iron ring to which the Baron had attached her chain. The metal was thinning, and if her captors lingered at this funeral, she might be able to break it.

When Miss Donal had faked her illness with the rice powder, Charlotte feared that the weak link was part of the Baron’s torture: raise her hopes, then dash them. If Miss Donal remained, her chance of escape diminished.

But Miss Donal and Seville were working together, deceiving the Baron for their own purposes. During her captivity, Charlotte had noticed something the Baron had not. Or if he had noticed, he chose to ignore it: Seville and Miss Donal were desperately in love. Neither of them were happy with the Baron’s plan to marry her to Seville.

Had Miss Donal planned to stay behind and help free Charlotte? If that had been the plan, the Baron had ruined it. Surely they had anticipated that the Baron would choose to cause Miss Donal more pain by insisting she attend. Frustration chewed at Charlotte, and she schooled her expression to hide it. Her chances at escape were running thin, and she held no illusions that once she was safely married to Seville, life would hold types of pain she’d never dared imagine. More than life or death was at stake. If she didn’t escape, Charlotte would spend whatever life was left to her wishing for death.

She pulled her mind away from such thoughts. Better to focus on the Baron’s death than her own. She’d never killed a man before, but Jory had taught her many methods.

“Six minutes, thirty seconds,” Miss Donal said, dropping a curtsey before the Baron.

With a growl of impatience, Seville tapped his fingers against the door frame.

The Baron looked Miss Donal over and smiled a benevolent approval. “Let me just…” he glided on elaborate, out-of-style heels to the window across from the mantle, opened the sash wide. Icy damp air rushed at Charlotte like a pack of wild dogs, biting her exposed skin.

“This way,” he beamed at Charlotte, “it will be easier for you to dream of the sunny skies of France.” He reached out and held one meaty finger above the tip of Charlotte’s nose, then turned away. He’d never touched Charlotte himself, just used Miss Donal and Seville as his proxy arms, hands and mouth. He often made edged references about the wedding night, keeping himself pure for that event.

The ungodly trio left. Charlotte, beginning to shiver, tracked the progress of their footsteps down the stairs, through the foyer. She marked the squeal of the front door as it opened, and the hollow thunk when it closed. Through the open window, she heard the groan of the coach springs as the Baron climbed aboard, then the jingle of the harness, the clomp of the team’s hooves as the coach drove away.

Whatever Miss Donal and Daniel had planned, it hadn’t worked. Charlotte was left to her own ingenuity, her own refusal to accept what destiny clearly planned for her. Driven by equal measures of anger and fear, she centered the weak chain link against the iron ring and, ignoring the pain tearing through her shoulder, moved her arm in small, sawing motions. She concentrated on the scratch of metal against metal, blocked out the cold wind and street noises pouring through the open window. If she could rupture the chain holding her right wrist, she would find a way to free her left. She could chew through enough flesh to wiggle out of her bonds, if nothing else. Surely her own wrist would taste better than that damned rope.

The sound of the front door closing brought Charlotte up short. She looked at the clock. The Baron and his minions had only been gone thirteen minutes. Who was that on the stairs? The footfalls were too light for the Baron, too heavy for Miss Donal. The most frightened part of Charlotte wished that a rescuer would open the sitting room door. The rational part was not surprised when Daniel Seville stepped inside.

With high color, panting for breath, he approached Charlotte. She forced herself not to shy away.

He grabbed Charlotte’s right arm, twisted it painfully, then grunted in satisfaction. “You found the weak link. Veronica thought you’d be clever enough.” From his inside jacket pocket, he took out a pair of wicked looking snips and snapped the chain link in half at its thinnest point.

Charlotte pulled her hand free, the length of her arm tingling painfully. She breathed deeply, suddenly glad of the cold air. It helped her calm the whirling in her head and belly.

Seville backed away and pointed at a round mahogany table with a drawer, a foot away from the hearth. “Toss your chain. Knock the table over.”

So close to freedom, she felt frustration boiled over. “Or you could unlock me and you’ll never see me again.”

Seville growled between gritted teeth. “We haven’t time to argue! Toss the chain!”

Charlotte gathered the broken length of chain in her hand, drew it through the iron ring, and lashed out with it. The flailing end hit the top of the table, marking the smooth red wood. She lashed out again, and the table tilted over towards her. The drawer skittered across the hearth, too far away for Charlotte to reach, but not too far away for her to see the small iron key inside it.

Seville kicked the drawer close enough for Charlotte to reach in with her bare feet, curl her toes around the key and lift it into her free hand.

“He’ll wonder how I knew the key was there,” she said, unlocking her left wrist. “Do you have something to say he’ll believe?”

Seville stared, slack-mouthed.

Charlotte put her back against the mantel, in the same position as she’d been bound. With her right hand, she swept behind her, knocking down a clock, a vase, a statue. They shattered on the hearth stones. A shard of the vase cut a red line down her shin.

“It will look like luck now, as if I were just breaking things and hoping to find it. Blame him for keeping the key so close to where he chained me.”

Charlotte’s blood sang through her veins and her breaths came fast, as if she were already on the run. For good measure, she whirled through the room and knocked over and broke everything she could in a two-minute rage.

Seville made a nasal, questioning whine.

“He’d expect the insult from me.” Which was true, but she also enjoyed the destruction. She felt like laughing, screaming, crying, simultaneously, and there wasn’t time for that. Pain twanged through the muscles of her upper body, and she used its brute force to squash her excitement. She was free, but without a clear, effective plan, she wouldn’t stay that way.

Seville took her arms and shook her. “I very well may pay dearly for this. So make sure you get out of England and stay out of my life.”

Charlotte wrenched herself free of him and glared into his face. “Thank you for finally doing the decent thing.”

Seville shook his head and turned to leave. Charlotte would be perfectly happy never to see his pinched features and too-long nose again, but… “Daniel!”

He paused in the sitting room doorway, looked back over his shoulder.

“What excuse did you make to come back here?”

Seville stared blankly for a moment, then humiliated anger clouded his features. He stomped back into the room, grabbed one of Miss Donal’s shawls from its hanger, and slammed the sitting room door behind him.

Charlotte put his stupidity out of his mind, squelched the whirling giddiness rising inside her throat, and set about ransacking the house. From Seville’s room, she took trousers, shirt, vest, jacket and shoes. Jory had taught her simple tricks of disguise: in ten minutes she would appear as a boy to casual observers. In the Baron’s study, she broke open a desk drawer and found a disappointing sum of notes. She’d need to supplement her stolen income to make it to the Channel. In his bedroom, she found rings and tacks and cufflinks to sell in Paris. Selling the stolen goods in London would be too big a risk.

Charlotte paused as she stuffed the jewelry into her pockets. What would happen when she returned to Jory and the ocean, her friends on the docks and the ships? Marseilles was the first place the Baron would come looking. He’d taken her once from the docks. Could he do it again, even with the entire shipyard on alert? She didn’t try to fool herself: as close to pirates as Jory’s men were, there would always be one among them willing to improve his lot by selling her to the Baron.

Her only safe passage would come with the Baron’s death. And his death would release her inheritance as well. She could live free, with enough to buy a ship of her own, as long as the Baron didn’t live at all.

Jory’s voice whispered through her mind. Slit their throats and throw them overboard.

No accommodatingly hungry schools of fishes, no unending waves of salt water to help hide the deed here in London. But if Miss Donal and Seville willingly backed her testimony of torture, intended rape… Society would happily reward her with her inheritance for ridding them of the inconvenient Baron.

Could she do it? Did she have a choice, if she wanted her life back? The soaring sense of freedom turned to a cold stone around her throat. She visited the kitchen, found a butcher knife, and returned to the Baron’s bedroom. She’d noted every detail about her captors’ habits and preferences. The high excitement of a particularly cruel session with Seville and Miss Donal always drove the Baron into physical exhaustion. Surely the high excitement generated by her escape would do the same. When he began to snore, she would lean across his body, stab her knife just below his ear, then saw towards herself, through the cartilage and delicate bones of his throat. Jory had been specific in telling her where she’d encounter the most resistance, and where her blade would slide like cheese through a man. She crawled under the bed, lay flat on her stomach, and prepared herself to wait.

The Baron was a sadistic bastard, but he insisted on fanatical cleanliness. Charlotte’s hiding place seemed more like a comforting, safe cocoon. In spite of the jolts of anticipation flashing through her nerves, Charlotte’s abused muscles melted against the warm carpet. She dreamed of sun-drenched beaches, salty air perfumed with rosemary, until the Baron’s shouts shattered her internal paradise.

She came to instant alertness, listening to the argument between the Baron and Seville spiral out of control. When Seville took her advice and blamed the Baron for keeping the key too close to his captive, dull sounds of flesh on flesh mixed with Miss Donal’s weeping. The house quieted for a time, presumably during a search of the London streets. Finally, just when she thought her bladder might betray her, the Baron came to bed.

Charlotte checked her grip on the butcher knife as she tracked his bare feet across the carpet. Wiry dark hairs sprouted from the tops of his toes, and his left foot had six toes instead of five. The discovery chilled her unexpectedly.

The mattress sagged as the Baron sat down on the bed. Charlotte found herself staring at his ankles, and the idea to hamstring him came too late. He laid back before she could slash. In less than a minute, the room rumbled with gurgling snores. Just as she’d anticipated, the high emotions caused by her escape, coupled with the beating he’d given Seville, had drained him deeply.

Moving soundlessly on elbows and knees, Charlotte eased herself from under the bed. A thin dribble of watery moonlight bisected the carpet. She rolled onto her side and followed the line of light up the coverlet, over the Baron’s sleeping bulk. She climbed slowly to her feet, took a moment to rise up on her toes, stretch out her muscles. She had to be quick. She had to be certain. One mighty effort, probably a tremendous amount of blood, and she would have her life back.

Charlotte drew in a deep breath, leaned her knees against the mattress, and reached across the Baron’s body. She centered the knife’s point right above that delicate skin below the ear, where the important vessel rose close to the surface. Strike there first, Jory had instructed. The blood loss is fast, and will weaken him quickly. Once you strike, girl, don’t stop. Don’t hesitate. Pull with all you’ve got, and don’t let the crunching bones shock you. He’d made her practice on dinner-bound chickens.

Charlotte gathered her muscles, fixed her eyes on the pulse she could see beating beneath her grandfather’s skin. Strike there first. Don’t hesitate. She brought her arms down…just as the gasping Baron sat up. Her knife plunged into his shoulder. The blade hit bone, and the impact jarred Charlotte away from the bed.

The Baron let loose a feral howl, high and cracking. Charlotte dove for the window, threw up the sash, leaped from the sill. She rolled on impact with the cobblestones, gained her feet and was running before she even registered any pain from the fall.



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