“I won’t kill you.”
As far as reassurances go, that one didn’t do much for me. I doubt it would have done anything for anyone, not when it was uttered in Mr. Ward’s cool, emotionless voice and he was barely looking at me, already turning away.
A few hours ago, before setting foot in his mansion as a guest of Miss Delilah—his sister and my boss—for his birthday bash, all I’d known of Morgan Ward was his voice, which I had heard on the phone a few times, and the gossip I’d read on blogs and in newspapers. Now, I knew a lot more.
I knew how dark his eyes were: darker than endless wells.
I knew something was different about him. Not different like a reclusive millionaire bachelor can be, but different in a not quite natural way. Not quite human maybe, but I had a hard time wrapping my mind around that idea even after seeing him and Miss Delilah move with speed that should have been impossible.
I also knew how soft his skin was, the feel of his lips on mine, and the way he moved when he made love. Except it had all been a fantasy; that was what he’d called it. But no fantasy, daydream, or dream of mine had ever felt that real. I’d almost died on that balcony. I’d also experienced two very intense orgasms. That, at least, was no fantasy.
The most important thing I knew, however, was that none of it made sense.
“I don’t understand,” I said before he could walk away.
He turned the faintest of smiles back at me. “How could you?”
“Explain to me.” It wasn’t the first time I’d asked him to explain, and I suppose, if I’m completely honest, I can say he’d tried. But every word of explanation had only confused me more. Still, I insisted. “What happened here tonight?”
His smile faded. “Which part? The part about you intruding where you weren’t wanted? Or the part about my dearest sister giving you to me as a gift, also very much unwanted?”
“I’m not anyone’s gift,” I started, and Mr. Ward laughed.
This, believe me, was not a happy laugh. It chilled me down to my bones. For a moment, it was like we were back on that balcony where I’d sought refuge from the bustling party. The December night air had been cold, but my host even icier. At least, at first he’d been icy. In my fantasy, not so much.
“Also true,” he said. “But since, as I told you, I am not inclined to kill you, and since you can’t leave, I guess the semantics don’t matter much. I’ll have Stephen show you where you can sleep.”
And with that, he left the room.
I had a dozen, a hundred questions, but when I said his name, he didn’t stop or look back. He just left me alone.
I tried to leave again, to tell my feet to move toward that same door he’d gone through so I could go down the staircase and back to the party. Back to where Mr. Ward’s guests were still celebrating. Back to where a door opened onto the street and beckoned me to freedom.
As hard as I tried, however, I soon had to resign myself to the fact that, like he’d reminded me, I couldn’t leave. Miss Delilah’s words were trapping me in this house.
“Don’t leave without me,” she’d said. “Not tonight. Not ever.”
I didn’t know how that was possible, how simple words could bind me better than ropes. It was another one of these ‘not so natural’ things I wished Mr. Ward had explained better to me. But I couldn’t deny it was true.
A discreet cough drew my eyes away from my unmoving feet and up to the door again. An African-American man stood there, clad in the livery suit of the staff, observing me through eyes that glinted with amusement, although his expression remained perfectly neutral. I’d seen him downstairs: Stephen.
“Mr. Ward asked me to show you to the guest suite,” he said with a small inclination of his head. “If you are ready, Miss?”
“No, I am not ready.” I couldn’t help the hint of hysteria creeping into my words. “I don’t want to go to the guest suite. I want to leave.”
His steps didn’t make a sound as he crossed the room to the liquor cabinet. He poured a generous measure of the same golden drink Mr. Ward had offered me earlier and I’d refused. This time, when Stephen held out the glass to me, I took it gratefully and downed the alcohol in one go. It burned my throat and made my eyes water—better to tear up because of the drink than because I felt so helpless.
“I understand that you are unnerved,” Stephen said in a slow, calm voice. “But it is also my understanding that you are not able to leave the premises. So unless you intend to sleep in an armchair until Mr. Ward can persuade Miss Stanford to release you, a guest suite seems appropriate. Don’t you think?”
When explained like that, it sounded perfectly reasonable for me to accompany him. Call me stubborn, but I still tried to find a reason not to. I didn’t come up with anything. He took the empty glass from me, set it on the cabinet, then went to open a door on the other side of the room.
“If you would, Miss?” he said in that polite voice again, inviting me to follow him.
“You can call me Angelina,” I said as I walked with him into what turned out to be a corridor.
We passed several closed doors and as many paintings, all of them set in elaborate frames. The length of the hallway was covered by a long rectangular carpet that stopped a few inches from the walls, exposing the gleaming wooden floors.
He looked at me, an eyebrow raised questioningly.
“You know what’s going on, don’t you? I mean, you know I can’t leave.”
We’d reached the end of the corridor, or rather, what I’d thought was the end. Instead, a new hallway started on the left, mirrored by another one on the right. Steven turned right, and I followed.
“Mr. Ward informed me of your predicament, yes,” he said.
“How is it possible?” I asked, and the edge of plaintiveness in my voice made me cringe. “No one can just order someone to do things like that. It’s just not possible.”
When he glanced at me again, I could see that the amusement was back in his eyes.
“Not possible,” he repeated, “and yet, here you are. I take it you do not know what Miss Stanford is?”
The turn of phrase startled me. What, not who. What could she possibly be? At that moment, my mind was blank.
“She’s my boss,” I said, confused.
My boss, a woman accustomed to only the best life had to offer, a socialite, an occasional model, the head of a multi-national company, a patron of the arts, the widow of Emmet H. Stanford the Third, the sister of Mr. Ward… What else was she?
“That’s not what I mean. And it’s probably best if Mr. Ward tells you himself. Here we are.”
We’d reached the end of this corridor, and he opened the door in front of us. He walked inside, turning on the lights before moving out of sight. For a few seconds, I remained in the doorway, unable to make myself step forward. If I went inside, that was it. I was admitting to myself, Stephen, and Mr. Ward that I accepted my situation. I accepted my captivity.
And it was captivity. Isn’t that the very definition of being detained against one’s will?
I was a prisoner in Mr. Ward’s mansion.
And yet I wasn’t Mr. Ward’s prisoner.
He’d made it clear that, if it were up to him, I’d be long gone.
If anything, I was Miss Delilah’s prisoner. She was the one who had ordered me to remain in his house. But ‘ordered’ is the wrong word. She had compelled me to stay here. That was what Mr. Ward had called it: compulsion. I could have refused to obey an order. She was my boss, sure, but this, whatever this was, didn’t fall under my duties as her personal assistant. I couldn’t refuse to obey this compulsion. I physically couldn’t, as I proved to myself every time I so much as thought of leaving and found my feet frozen in place.
When it came down to it, though, whether I was Mr. Ward’s prisoner or Miss Delilah’s, it didn’t really matter. I was here, and I didn’t want to be.
“Miss Angelina?” Stephen came back to the door. “Something wrong?” After a beat he added, “Other than the obvious, that is.”
“I want to talk to him,” I heard myself say. “I want to talk to Mr. Ward. I want him to explain… to explain everything.”
“I’m sure he’d be delighted to ignore you,” Stephen said deadpan. “But I’m afraid he left the mansion.”
“Left?” The word felt strangely alien on my tongue, like I didn’t know the meaning of it anymore. “Where to?”
“If I were to venture a guess, I’d say he went to try to talk Miss Stanford into releasing you. Between you and me, I wouldn’t count on him returning with good news. Now, will you come in?”
I didn’t want to, but what else could I do? Spend the rest of the night in the hallway?
He showed me around the suite. Part of me recognized that the furniture and art on the wall were as expensive and classy as the pieces I’d seen in the lower floors of the mansion. Another part only saw the sitting room, bedroom and en-suite bathroom for what they truly were: a cell. The gilding merely hid the bars.
The one thing that reassured me was that the bedroom locked from the inside, and I was quick to turn the key once Stephen had left.
I dropped my shoes on the floor, my clutch purse and Mr. Ward’s jacket on an armchair, and headed for the bathroom. I tried to freshen up a little, but the woman who stared back at me from the mirror looked dazed. Even washing away my raccoon eyes and the mascara trails on my cheeks didn’t help much.
Returning to the bedroom, I climbed onto the plush, queen-sized bed, right on top of the coverlet, and didn’t care one bit about the state the gown would be in if I slept in it. I certainly wasn’t going to sleep naked, and I didn’t have anything else to wear.
I grabbed a corner of the coverlet, pulled it over me like a cocoon, and went to sleep like that, with the bedside lamp still on, curled up like a kid in a strange bed. Even as uncomfortable as the gown and corset were to sleep in, I was mentally exhausted and asleep in just moments.
I slept until almost noon the next day. That was more than ten hours. I might have slept longer if someone hadn’t knocked on my door.
Normally, I don’t need that much sleep. Give me six, seven hours tops and I’m good to go. Seeing how my job with Miss Delilah didn’t usually require me to be at the office before noon and rarely to stay after eight, that left me plenty of time both in the mornings and at night to enjoy everything the city has to offer.
Coming to New York from a small town, I spent my first weeks terrified of getting lost, mugged, kidnapped, or all those things that happen on TV. Then I made a friend, born and raised in the city. She showed me how to get around, be safe, and have fun. She taught me to love New York. These days, getting lost was something I did on purpose to find new places.
Being confined to the mansion was going to put an end to that.
Another round of knocking finished waking me up.
When I recognized Stephen’s voice, it all came back in a flash. Where I was. Why I had slept in a pricey gown. Why I felt like I had a bad hangover even though I hadn’t drunk that much.
“Yes?” I called back.
“Will you be having lunch?”
At the mere idea of food, my stomach rumbled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten more than a couple of canapés the previous night. They’d been delicious, but not particularly filling.
“Lunch sounds good,” I said, loud enough that he’d hear me. I felt a little silly talking through the door, but I didn’t want to open it and let him see that I’d slept in my clothes. Then again, he’d seen me with my raccoon eyes, so did it really matter?
“Would you like anything in particular?”
I had no idea what to reply. I’m not a picky eater, and I’ll try anything at least once, but the whole situation was just so weird that my mind was utterly blank.
“I was going to make myself a chicken breast sandwich,” Stephen said after a few more seconds of silence. “Would that be acceptable for you?”
“That’d be great.”
“Very well. I’ll bring it to you in a little while. There are clothes in front of your door if you would like to change.”
As I sat up in bed, I heard steps outside the room, then a door closing. He was gone. Some part of me was annoyed; I had questions, so many of them, and no one to ask them to. However, when I stood and caught sight of myself in the mirror above the dresser, I was glad no one was there to see me in my bedraggled state. Changing clothes sounded like a terrific idea, although I couldn’t help feeling some trepidation as I wondered what kind of clothes he had brought me. A striped uniform to match my prisoner status, maybe?
When I opened the door, I found two things. Right on the threshold was a suitcase. My first thought was that it looked just like mine, red with black zippers and buckles. Then I realized it was mine. On my trip to New York, the front pocket had been ripped in transit. I’d fixed it with a few uneven stitches and an apple-shaped ‘I love NY’ patch.
It was my suitcase. The same one I kept at the back of my closet in my apartment.
I was still trying to wrap my mind around that when I noticed the other thing in the room. The other person.
Across from the door, against the wall, was a loveseat. And on that loveseat, still wearing his tuxedo minus the tie and jacket, Morgan Ward sat, watching me.
My heart just about stopped.
I don’t know how long we stared at each other. I didn’t even care that I looked like I’d been on an all-night bender. I simply couldn’t turn away from him and those bottomless eyes that had held me captive the night before. It was different now, and yet, there I was, spellbound again.
He blinked first, and somehow that helped me pull back. I grabbed the handle of my suitcase to drag it inside. Never mind all the questions I had; I’d face him once I was presentable. I meant to close the door again, but a few words from him stopped me.
“Lilah is gone.”
…continued in My Reluctant Warden