Eight Months Later
Elle’s kiss that morning was hot and cold, swinging between rushes of passion and indifference. She had been leaning against the white marble counter, scrolling through email messages on her mobile smartphone, when I pulled her out of the bathroom and into my arms.
She allowed her lips to fall away from mine and then looked at the floor, her silence making me wonder which of my sins she had unearthed.
The detachment in her kiss might have had nothing to do with me. I hated the idea. I wanted everything about her to be about me. Even if it hurt. Because if the fault was mine, I could correct my missteps and make her happy again.
I pulled up her chin with my forefinger and forced her to reconnect with me. “Tell me what you need, Elle.”
Elle, instead of Ellie, was the version of her name that was mine alone. It had come to me the moment I knew that I truly loved her.
“Nothing. I’m fine, really.” She forced a small smile to her mouth that didn’t reach her eyes. “I just can’t seem to push that dream from the other night out of my thoughts, you know?”
Elle called them dreams, but they were relentless fucking nightmares and one of the few things that I couldn’t fix. I had taken the only action I could to help her. I’d hired a tenured professor from Cambridge, who specialized in cognitive behavioral studies, to counsel her in post-traumatic anxiety.
One exercise Elle embraced was sending email messages to her dead sister, Isobel, to express her unresolved feelings. She wrote to her sister, sharing private thoughts whenever she needed to. Eight months earlier, Isobel had lost her life to hit men dispatched to find and kill Elle.
I released her chin and nodded. “I do know.”
“You do, don’t you?” she said, lifting her fingertips to my face. “We have so much to be thankful for, Will. So much opportunity before us.”
“Yes, we do,” I said. “How about dinner out tonight, just you and me?”
“We’ll get mobbed. The press never misses our date nights. But yes, I would like that. Let your assistant choose the place. Sean’s recommendations are always spot on.” A genuine smile hit her lips, touching her cheeks and those eyes. “You have another busy day, I’m sure, so why don’t I come to the office at seven?” She whispered her next words in a teasing tone, “I’ll be the girl in the red dress.”
Red was my favorite color on her.
“You keep that up, and I’ll skip my first meeting and tie you to the bed.”
I’d never done that, never tied her up for sexual satisfaction. Elle submitted to me in a way that was perfect for us. Submission wasn’t something she had known before me, and she was rather inexperienced in bed on the whole—thank Christ—but she had caught on quickly, realizing how well it soothed us both. She’d whispered to me on more than one occasion, her soft words meant to assure me, that when she gave herself over to me, it was like finding her way home.
Still, I had drawn an important line not to be crossed with my angel.
I needed only for her to be submissive, not to be a submissive. Her sensual surrender was all it took for me to find a genuine sense of ecstasy because she was the true source of my desire. From the moment I had first touched her, sex had become about loving her and feeling her rather than dominating her, as I had with other women in the past. But in order for me to feel all of her and not miss the euphoric vibrations she was capable of sending deep into my soul, control and submission needed to exist between us.
Possessing her body and her soul when I was inside her was that control.
“Hold that thought,” she said. “I promise it’ll be worth your wait. I don’t want to be late for my first visit to the academies this morning, and I still need to get dressed.”
Our first business project as a couple was the development of a charitable foundation. It was the perfect corporate venture in which Elle could get her feet wet, and my company would benefit a great deal from the tax relief.
The mission for the Hastings Group Children’s Foundation was to provide disadvantaged and at-risk children a refuge in the arts, although the board had smartly positioned the nonprofit for future expansion into other areas of support.
We’d announced our investment in the foundation as the Earl and Countess of Sussex—a title that had belonged to my grandfathers and was now mine—to demonstrate commitment to our pact with the Crown to let all things past pass.
All things past meaning how the Crown looked the other way when assassins were activated, and on my end, it was the financial coercion I used to gain the queen’s protection from prosecution when I killed them.
“You want me to wait?” I grabbed her arse, pulled her against my erection, and winked. “How well is that working out for you these days, wife?”
“I married you sooner than later because I love you madly, Will.” She ran her hands up my jacket lapels, pushed her fingers into the back of my shirt collar, lifted onto her toes, and kissed my lips. “Making you wait any longer for vows would have added nothing to who we already had been together by that time.”
Just as Elle finished her sentence, Joe Turner knocked on our open bedroom door, signaling that he’d prepared her Bentley sedan, my wedding gift, and that it was time for them to leave.
Turner had been an infantry lieutenant for the Royal Army before becoming the lead personal protection officer on my security team. Six former soldiers were on my payroll. Two of them were part of the London Metropolitan Police ranks as authorized firearms officers, so they could legally carry guns. We often referred to the whole team as the Six.
Even though the Order was dormant again, Elle’s new title as a British countess and our financial status created everyday security needs.
Elle and Turner got along well, and I hoped like hell that he never left our service. It would crush my wife. He was like a brother to her. I wasn’t certain she could handle another loss.
As we had prepared for our marriage in the weeks before our late December wedding, Elle had asked me for a solid commitment to family first. She longed for a large family, one that was safe and secure, that she could fall into, with truths that she could never doubt.
Soon after Isobel’s death, Elle had learned the two weren’t biological sisters. Since then, blood no longer defined family for her. She had insisted we choose our extended family based on love and loyalty. Whenever Elle made a connection with someone, she anticipated the bond would last for as long as she lived.
I directed a dismissive nod at Turner and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear as he retreated down the stairs.
Her head was small compared to mine, her face classically beautiful, and those green eyes of hers were mesmerizing. She rarely closed them when we kissed. Long layers of her chestnut-brown hair, which was streaked with shades of blonde, fanned over the sleeve of my jacket. Her natural beach scent overwhelmed my senses.
My blood vibrated, and the ever-present craving for her intensified. I needed her. I needed to absorb her into my soul to soothe the madness that lived in me.
I let my hand drop to her silk dressing gown and glide along the curves of her body, caressing the soft beauty that I would never deserve. I’d tried to walk away in the beginning, but in the end, I had been too fucking weak to do it, so instead I had taken everything from her.
I cursed beneath my breath.
“Don’t,” she whispered. “I know what you’re doing.”
I nodded and, shoving away the darkness of self-reproach, drew her bottom lip between both of mine. Her body responded to my tender kiss, and she melted into my arms the way she always did when we found the strength to let go of the past.
“You’re amazing, Elle. I’ll soon have everything in order, and then we can leave for Paris. I want you to understand that this trip isn’t only about business—it’s for us. It’s time we commemorate and nurture our marriage, time that I promised you, so I’m making it happen.”
She smiled again, and pure sunshine radiated from her. “That’s beautiful, Will. I’m looking forward to it. Would you allow me to sit in on a few of the start-up meetings? Oh, and I would love to do some painting. I can’t imagine a more inspiring place than Paris.”
After opening up partnership stakes for my younger brother Thomas, I was moving forward with the company expansion plan that Ethan had written before his death. Ethan and I had dreamed about global offices, but we had never anticipated how Thomas’s mathematical genius was the key to getting it done.
Ethan and I also had never anticipated that he would die in my place, protecting Elle.
Thomas and I were in the process of settling details for formal operations in Paris, New York City, and Madrid. Elle and I planned to hit the European cities while Thomas handled New York as well as transitioning the London office into company headquarters.
“Of course. You should come and go as you please,” I said, pressing my lips to hers again. “I’ll see that you have materials to paint whenever you desire. But right now, I’d better go to work before you think to remove this dressing gown in front of me.”
“Go then, savage,” my wife told me as she twisted out of my arms and giggled.
I rushed down the staircase, gripping my side, when a spasm reminded me of the gunshot wound that had caused permanent damage there. The bullet had annihilated the muscle mass as it passed through, and a secondary infection had set in. It didn’t matter how hard I worked in the gym; that part of my body would never again be the same.
Turner and three other men were waiting in the foyer for Elle.
“No reporting back to you, sir?” he asked.
I’d promised Elle her freedom. I needed her to know that my word was good, that she wasn’t a prisoner in this marriage. I would lose her if that were the case.
“It’s not necessary, Turner. Take two cars. Give her the autonomy to do as she chooses, but you do not leave her alone for a minute.” I cuffed him on the shoulder on my way out the door. “She trusts you. Don’t fuck that up,” I added.
SHE BEGAN TO FLY
From: Ellie Hastings
To: Isobel James
I’m compelled to touch my neck as I write this message to you. I drag my fingers along my throat and allow the tips to rest near my birthmark for a moment.
Dreams continue to haunt me. You haunt me, Isobel.
Last night, your image briefly faded, but as you disappeared this time, I heard a faint rushing sound, like the rhythmic fluttering of a butterfly’s soft wings. I could see you again when you finally broke free from your chrysalis prison.
We were both free. You took flight, your new wings soaring gracefully, and my spirit drifted on a calm sea, bathing in its peace. I was wrapped in a blanket of light, free of fear and pain. I saw my father then. His smile was gentle and familiar, and his arms opened wide to receive me, but your watery image—your abruptly dark and expressionless face—materialized behind him. You were not love in this vision, though you and I always loved each other. My father was not safe. I was not safe.
You both disappeared at once.
Another presence overwhelmed me, a soul extending itself, reaching out to anchor mine. I no longer wanted to be free, no longer wanted to drift through the sea alone. I opened my eyes, and Will’s name touched my lips.
You see, Isobel, my mind paints you as a villain while I sleep, but in my waking hours, I won’t allow my anger to take me there. You were protecting me. Even after all the lies, you were a good person, a good mother to Lissie.
I’m confused now more than ever, but I will find your truth.
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