actually slept in almost three years.

So what was her mind trying to tease out of this memory? Ash moved closer to the bed, attempting to follow the tenuous association formed between now and Before. She didn’t care about the man who’d been sleeping here. He wasn’t in this room now, but a connection to her past was . . . somewhere.

What was the rest of that story? Who’s been eating my porridge? That wasn’t her, either. Though she’d eaten whenever they placed a meal in front of her, Ash hadn’t been hungry. Since her escape from Nightingale House, four weeks had gone by without food passing her lips.

Perhaps her mind wasn’t trying to remember an association with the story itself; perhaps the connection lay in the circumstances in which she’d heard it. But she couldn’t remember that. She couldn’t remember who’d told the story to her—or even whether she’d read it, instead. She couldn’t remember where she’d been, or when. She tried to, but came head up on the memory she didn’t want, a memory of a memory, her first memory and it was of regret and terror—

Burning cold, her body gone, she’d heard screaming and she’d been screaming but she didn’t have to return to the cold, that endless frozen agony, because she’d made a bargain and the dark figure said her name, Ash—and the rest of her ripped apart, was gone, gone

Her stomach heaved. Doubling over, Ash braced her hands against the edge of the bed. She sucked in air that her lungs didn’t need, but the motion of her chest felt familiar. It felt right.

But why didn’t she need air?

Someone had to know. Someone had to know who she was. What she was.


The man’s voice came from behind her, full of shock and disbelief. Ash whipped around. Nicholas St. Croix stood at the doorway, holding a crossbow aimed at her heart.

Instinctively, Ash raised her hands to show him that she was unarmed. She didn’t know if Nicholas had killed Rachel, but she wouldn’t give him a reason to fire now. She doubted he would, anyway. Instead of aggression, she sensed faint hope in him, combined with ragged uncertainty.

He couldn’t see her clearly in the dark, Ash realized, whereas she could see him perfectly. Shirtless, he wore only a pair of black trousers that hung low on his hips—zipped, but not buttoned. He must have yanked them on when she’d broken in. Had she woken him, or had he simply been lying in the bed?

Lying in wait.

As soon as Ash thought it, she couldn’t shake that impression. Nicholas St. Croix’s photos suggested he was a dangerous man, hard and emotionless—but the most recent picture had been taken more than three years ago. Instead of cold elegance, he appeared pared down and roughened. His dark hair had been cut brutally short. A few days’ worth of scruff shadowed his jaw, and his body . . .

Ash’s gaze fell to his chest. In the photos, he’d obviously been well acquainted with a gym. But the taut, wiry muscles on display hadn’t come from a single hour’s workout followed by a rich man’s meal. His body reflected an obsession of some kind, one that ate away at him no matter how much he fed it—and Ash didn’t think that obsession had anything to do with his looks.

Perhaps that obsession explained why he’d lain in wait at his mother’s house with a crossbow.

Ash didn’t lower her hands. “I’m not her. But if you look at me, can you tell me who I am?”

His aim didn’t waver as he flipped a switch on the wall. Light flooded the room. Ash blinked rapidly, adjusting to the glare. His eyes narrowed. Their icy blue focus shifted to the symbols tattooed over the left side of her face.

The warm hope she’d sensed in him burst into a hot, swelling pressure. But even as she recognized the change, he began hiding it from her, somehow. The pressure didn’t vanish, yet he closed his emotions away, as if shutting them behind a door.

Strange. No one had done that before. Everyone she’d met in London kept their emotions wide open, and had no clue Ash could sense them.

“You’re Rachel Boyle,” he said flatly.

“No.” Disappointment touched her, swift and light, but it couldn’t gain any traction and slid away. “I look like her, but that’s not my name.”


Now his voice softened, and though he lowered his crossbow, Ash’s wariness sharpened. He approached her on silent feet, and his movements reminded her of the predators she’d seen—not the agile cheetah or the majestic, powerful lion. Not any animal driven by hunger or a need to protect its territory, but the human variety driven by deadly intent. She’d seen many of them prowling the dark London streets, had sensed the malevolence they’d felt toward others. Often, they hid it behind bland pleasantries and smiles, but she’d recognized what they were.

Ash couldn’t sense anything from Nicholas, but she recognized the same malevolence. A quick step back— not fear, but survival instinct—brought her up against the bed. Trapped. Escape would be easy, but now that she’d touched the bed, her mind began its desperate search again, reaching for the connection —

Someone’s been sleeping in my bed.

Had her memory been searching for him? Obviously, he’d been lying there—but on some level, had she known exactly who had been in that bed before he’d appeared with his crossbow? Had she been reminded of something from Before—something about Nicholas St. Croix?

If she had a connection to him, then he must know her. Not Rachel, but Ash. That realization kept her in place, despite the urge to flee.

Nicholas stalked close, halting less than an arm’s length away. He stood several inches taller than Ash; she had to tilt her face up to watch his eyes. Slowly, he examined her every feature. Did she look any different from Rachel? Ash waited, listening to the steady beat of his heart. Her own heart hammered, constructing unfamiliar emotions in her chest. Hope, trepidation? She couldn’t distinguish them amid the racket of her pulse. Ash wished she knew what he felt, but his expression gave nothing away.

She had to try again. “Who am I?”

“Who else could you be but Rachel?” With a sudden, thin smile, he tugged a pale lock of hair forward over her shoulder, rubbing the long strands between his fingers as if considering their texture. “Who else but the woman I love?”

Love? No, that wasn’t what she’d tasted in that swelling burst of emotion before he’d closed himself away from her. Disappointment, grief, and rage—she’d sensed all of those. But not love.

His head lowered, his gaze holding hers on the way down. Would he kiss her? Curious, Ash let him. Firm and cool, his lips settled against hers.

Emotion burst from him, blasting through the door he’d shut—a feeling that wasn’t hot but bitter withering cold, and Ash recognized the hate behind it before he hid that from her, too. She should have moved then. The hate felt like a warning, and she disliked the cold, but when he opened his lips over hers, his taste was fascinating—mint, because he’d readied for bed, and there was something else that was familiar, so familiar here. She knew the touch of his mouth, the heat that slipped through her like a warm drink when his tongue sought hers. So she remained still, searching for the connection sparked by the kiss and lurking in her ruined memory.

She didn’t find it before Nicholas lifted his head. Ash wanted to follow him up to prolong the contact, but she remembered— don’t break the Rules, respect their free will—and waited, panting, not needing the oxygen but relishing the sweep of air over her lips, wet from his kiss.

She’d felt all of this before. She’d felt—

A cold prod against her throat. Ash’s eyes widened—this was surprise!—and she heard a click. Pain stabbed her neck. White-hot, it yanked her muscles taut and raced up behind her eyes.

Then, for the first time in three years, darkness fell over her mind, and she felt absolutely nothing at all.


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