The security system activated when Ash broke the lock on the front door. No alarm sounded, but Ash knew where to look for the security panel, positioned discreetly behind a framed oval mirror that opened like a medicine cabinet. Inside, the status light blinked red. Ash couldn’t have recited the numbers that she tapped into the pad; her fingers simply moved in a pattern, as if she were typing an oft-repeated word into a keyboard.

The status light changed to solid green.

Should she have been astonished that her code was correct? Ash pondered her lack of surprise. Inputting the number hadn’t seemed any different than walking the route here. Obviously, she’d done it many times before—and her procedural memory was still intact.

So she didn’t feel surprised, but she did wonder why the code hadn’t been changed in six years. After Madelyn St. Croix’s disappearance, why hadn’t the security company updated the entry codes?

Perhaps they’d been instructed not to. Perhaps they expected Madelyn to return—or perhaps someone else did. A dedicated employee?

Ash couldn’t guess, but obviously someone had cared for the house in the past six years. No dust collected on the carved mirror frame or in the corners of the foyer. The wainscoting and staircase banisters gleamed. The faint scent of cleaning wax lingered, but the air itself smelled stale, as if the house had been shut up for a while. No live-in caretaker, then—or the housekeeper had taken off for the holidays and left it empty.

Good. Ash wouldn’t have to be quiet when she searched the rooms.

She started in the parlor. The decor could have filled a checklist for expensive and tasteful. The requisite antique vase reigned over an ebony-inlaid table. A thick Oriental rug anchored a seating arrangement upholstered in cream silk. Two large, modern paintings featuring slashes of bold oranges and gold bookended the open entrance to the dining room.

Had Ash eaten at that table? She didn’t know. Nothing familiar stood out to her—and she saw nothing unexpected, either. Ash wanted to spark a memory, or at least a sense of deja vu, but she only had the vague feeling that fewer fresh flowers decorated the sideboard than should be.

Flowers didn’t offer any answers. Perhaps the library would.

As she stepped into the hallway, a faint noise sounded from upstairs. Footsteps?

Ash paused with her head cocked, but didn’t hear anything more—nothing that she could pinpoint, at least. When she listened closely, noises from every home in the square sounded as clear as from within this house. Usually, she ignored background noise, and perhaps this was just that: a sound from another home that had leaked through her mental filters.

Perhaps. She’d listen more carefully, in any case.

She stepped into the library—and forgot about listening. Terror coated her stomach like ice, threatening to crack.

Madelyn’s portrait hung above the mantel. The artist had captured her beautiful, warm smile and the keen intelligence in her blue eyes. But those eyes had once been mad, and the smile a twisted grimace. She remembered Madelyn’s hands—not folded demurely, as in the painting, but holding Ash’s shoulders in an unbreakable, painful grip, shaking her, and Madelyn telling her—

Do everything they ask you to do. I’m not ready yet. I have to find the Gate, I have to prepare. So listen to them. But above all else, follow the Rules. Don’t kill them, don’t hurt them. Don’t prevent them from exercising their free will. If you do, you’re dead—and I’ll be in that frozen waste. So don’t break the Rules. Don’t!

—telling her how to stay safe.

Ash’s heart pounded. She closed her eyes, shutting out the image of the woman’s face.

This was a memory. Not from Before, which she couldn’t remember at all, but from almost three years ago, before Ash and Madelyn had arrived at Nightingale House . . . and after they’d left the dark figure behind. A memory ravaged by terror and buoyed by relief—and Ash recalled that she’d been so sorry.

Regretting the bargain already.

Ash shook her head. What bargain? What had she agreed to do? Though she tried to recall, that hole in her memory remained.

But she had felt regret. Ash remembered that clearly now. Regret and relief, which meant that terror wasn’t the only strong emotion to hold her in its grip after . . . whatever had happened to her. Why hadn’t she felt regret or relief since then?

A shiver raced over Ash’s skin when she looked at the painting again. Madelyn didn’t appear dangerous, yet Ash’s instincts screamed at her to run. Perhaps she hadn’t felt regret or relief after being admitted to Nightingale House because she’d had no reason to feel them—but Ash apparently had reason to fear this woman.

If only she could remember why.

A quick search of the library didn’t tell her. Ash returned to the foyer and took the stairs. The snap of her boot heels echoed on each wooden step. That seemed odd. Shouldn’t a stair runner muffle the sound? Perhaps one had, once. When she reached the second-floor landing, the door to Madelyn’s office already stood ajar, as if inviting her in.

Unlike the timeless elegance of the first-floor decor, the office told the story of its owner’s long absence. A heavy, outdated computer screen took up a fourth of the desktop. A fax transmission from the day of Madelyn’s disappearance still sat beside the keyboard, listing the current values of several oil company stocks.

Six years ago, Nicholas St. Croix had succeeded in taking over his mother’s company and tearing it down. But if Madelyn still owned those shares, she didn’t need to worry about cash when—if—she returned.

A second, smaller room lay beyond a connecting door—Rachel Boyle’s office. Unlike Madelyn’s office, all of the tables and cabinet surfaces had been cleared of papers. Ash opened the drawers and looked through the shelves, hoping to find a personal item of Rachel’s. Anything. A single object to touch, to hold—and to see if it felt familiar.

She finished the search and came up empty. Nothing of Rachel remained here, and Rachel’s own apartment had been let to someone else shortly after her disappearance. She’d been survived by her parents in America; her belongings had probably been shipped to their home. Which meant Ash had nowhere left to look for answers—at least not in London.

So her next step would be finding Nicholas St. Croix.

Was it odd that no evidence of Madelyn’s son existed in this house? Ash thought it must be. No pictures of Nicholas as a boy graced the tables; no family photos depicted happier times. Did Madelyn order them removed from her sight—out of spite or pain—or had they simply never been a part of the decor?

Curious, Ash followed the hallway to the master bedroom. Maybe Madelyn hadn’t expunged Nicholas’s presence from her house; perhaps she’d simply kept the evidence somewhere more private.

Or perhaps not. Ash opened the door to another expensively appointed room devoid of any personality other than “tasteful.” Aside from Madelyn’s painting in the library, the entire house could have been anyone’s home— except that anyone else would have left more of an impression on their surroundings.

Unless, of course, this house did reflect Madelyn’s personality: sophisticated, disinterested . . . perfect.

But not everything was perfect. Something seemed wrong. Ash studied the room, trying to determine what didn’t fit—and for the first time, not searching for something familiar, but just looking. Her gaze landed on the bed. The blankets stretched unevenly over the mattress. A pillow lay askew and dented at its center.

Someone had been sleeping in that bed. How long ago? A housekeeper wouldn’t have left it like that. Breathing in through her nose, Ash detected a recent scent that she’d begun to associate with male—and a connection suddenly lurked at the back of her mind, that half-seen lightning, that forgotten word.

Like Cinderella, a memory—another story. Who’s been sleeping in my bed?

Ash knew the answer to this one: Goldilocks, who’d broken into the bears’ house. Although Ash had broken into this home, that wasn’t the connection that teased her. She didn’t sleep in anyone’s bed, not even her own.

Every night, she’d lain motionless beneath her blankets when the nurses had ordered her to, but she hadn’t

Вы читаете Demon Marked
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату