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Excerpt from The Coward’s Way Out

I read all morning, stopping only for a quick lunch before returning to the library. I could have read elsewhere, I suppose, but I felt less lonely with Morgan nearby, even if we weren’t actually speaking. I was so engrossed in what I was reading that I barely realized what he meant when he stood in the doorway and said he was going out for a while. By the time I tore my eyes off the page to look up at him, he’d left. For a second, I almost felt guilty at having been rude, but it wasn’t like he needed my acknowledgment, let alone my permission, before going out.

I went back to the book and its sassy heroine; she, too, had been thrust into a world she hadn’t known existed, but at least one of the two men caring for her returned her feelings. Lucky her.

Once again, I lost myself in the story to the point that, when a voice rose from the doorway, I didn’t immediately react but instead finished the paragraph I was reading. When that voice repeated the same command in a much colder tone, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. And I knew, without looking up, who was there.

“Get your shoes off my chair, Angelina,” Irene had said.

Twice.

With my stomach flipping upside down and my heart caught between stopping entirely and beating much too fast, I did as she demanded. I sat up so fast that I came very close to slipping right off the chair and joining on the floor the book I’d dropped in my fright.

Clinging to the edge of the chair, I could do nothing but watch her walk into the room. My heart had decided that a gallop was the right pace at the moment, and running did seem like a wonderful idea. Too bad she was standing between me and the way out. And anyway, it wasn’t like I could outrun her. Or hide from her in a mansion she had to know much better than I did.

Was I a coward for wanting to run? I don’t think I was. The last time I’d come across her, I’d been half an inch away from death at her hands. I still wore the marks from that encounter, like a necklace of fading bruises around my neck.

The only reason I had survived our first encounter was that Morgan had been there. And all right, maybe she had threatened me because he was there in the first place, but he had pleaded for my safety until she released me.

What would I do, what would become of me if she threatened me now that Morgan was gone?

Had he said how long he’d be away? I couldn’t remember.

Her feet, encased in knee-high leather boots with thick heels at least four inches high, did not make a sound as she crossed the room and approached slowly. She wore tight black jeans tucked into the boots and a light blue blouse that seemed to be silk. I don’t know why I noticed that it was silk. Maybe I was trying to distract myself from the ‘oh shit’ moment.

She bent down to pick up the book and gave the cover a cursory look before holding it out to me.

“You’re lucky,” she said. “If you’d manhandled one of my books this way, we’d have needed to have a serious discussion about the proper way to treat what’s mine.”

My hand shook horribly when I took the book from her. I clutched it in front of me; not exactly a foolproof shield, but what else did I have? I hated that I was so damn scared of her, yet however hard I tried to calm down, I couldn’t, and it wasn’t just about what she’d done to me a couple days ago, either. She was small and she looked young, eighteen or nineteen maybe, but there was… a strength coming from her. I almost wanted to call it an aura.

Miss Delilah radiated something like that, sometimes; usually when she was surrounded by people who, according to their demeanor, considered themselves her equal or even superior to her. I’d watched her turn on that strength, that little something that seemed to make her a little taller than anyone in the room, her voice a little louder than any other voice, even when she spoke quietly. I’d always thought it was some businesswoman trick, a confidence born from money and power. I knew better now. It was a vampire thing. It had to be, even if I’d never seen Morgan do it.

“Lilah never mentioned you were such a scaredy cat,” Irene said with a roll of her eyes. “Get a grip, Angelina. You and I are going to share a cup of tea.”

She looked around and shook her head. When she turned her gaze back to me, a shiver ran down my spine.

“And Morgan redecorated in here too,” she muttered. “Oh well. The music room will do. Off you go, then. Go find the butler and tell him we’ll take tea, then join me.”

I was already at the door before I realized I had moved at all. Had she used compulsion on me? Her voice always sounded the same, like she expected to be heard and obeyed, so I couldn’t really tell the difference, the way I could with Miss Delilah. Still, I didn’t stop to wonder if I was free in my actions or if she’d just compelled me. Either way, an excuse to get away from her was fine by me. I hurried out into the hallway. My heart pounded so loudly, it was all I could hear. My mouth was bone dry. I didn’t run, but it was a close thing. In just seconds, I was in the kitchen.

Stephen, on the other hand, was not.

That was the point when I realized that, yes, she had indeed compelled me, because the mere thought of not being able to find Stephen filled me with dread, and cold beads of sweat were already sliding down my back.

I would find him, I told myself as forcefully as I could. There was no reason to panic, because I would find him, like I’d been told to do. My fear abated a little, just enough that I could start thinking again. Where could he be? Just about anywhere, really. For all I knew, he’d left the mansion with Morgan. Or maybe he was taking a nap in his suite—and I had no idea where that was. Or maybe he was doing whatever his job entailed other than cooking for me. Cleaning? Shopping? Watering the plants in the sun room?

Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he wasn’t doing it in the kitchen, so the first order of business was to get out. Which I did. Knocking on every single door would have been a prodigious waste of time and effort, so instead I stood in the hallway and called out his name twice. When there was no answer, I walked a few steps down and did it again. I called his name through the entire floor, to no avail. That only meant he wasn’t on this floor, I told myself when the fear started to creep back in. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t find him at all.

I went down to the second floor, and my voice sounded a lot shriller—a lot more scared—when I called his name again.

Watching him appear at the bottom of the staircase, a duster in hand and a look of alarm on his face, flooded me with relief.

“Is something wrong?” he asked, already stepping up toward me. “Miss Angelina? You look—”

What did I look like? Like I’d just seen a ghost? A monster from my worst nightmares? I’d never believed in ghosts and only started being scared of monsters after setting foot in the mansion. Or rather, one monster. The same one waiting for me and for her tea.

“I… Irene,” I interrupted him. “She’s here. She wants tea. She wants you to serve us tea. In the music room. I don’t know where the music room is. And I don’t want to have tea with her but I can’t… the way she said it…”

“She compelled you,” Stephen said, stroking my arm. “Don’t fight it. You know better than to try. It’ll be all right. Let’s go up, okay?”

When I nodded, he curled his arm around my shoulders and guided me back upstairs. The gesture surprised me a little, but I welcomed it. I certainly could use some support right then. With his free hand, he pulled a phone from his pocket and dialed. I didn’t have to ask who was on the other end.

“I’m terribly sorry to bother you, sir, but I think your presence is needed back at the mansion. A guest has come in to see Miss Angelina. I believe her name is Irene.”

I wished I could have heard what Morgan replied. I glanced at Stephen when he pocketed the phone, and he gave me a reassuring smile.

“He won’t be long.”

Which was a good thing, but not particularly reassuring. If Irene decided to kill me, she wouldn’t need more than a couple seconds.

 

…continued in The Coward’s Way Out

 

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