XV the first Chapters!

Prologue

“You’re going to die,” my sister Briar tells me around a yawn while tucked beneath her embroidered blankets. “I saw it in a dream. You die. But everyone thinks you’re me—hey! Why did you stop?” She tilts her blond head toward me expectantly. 

I’m holding her brush. It’s heavy and silver, so different from the cheap, wooden comb I use. Jealousy is a constant itch I have to smother. It’s like Mother says: Briar may have more material things, but things aren’t everything. You have gifts too, Ellen, my Rose. 

My “gifts” aren’t as obvious as the shelves of dolls and finery lining the walls of Briar’s massive bedroom. Pink walls and buttery-soft carpet form a suite ten times as big as my room downstairs. Her bed alone is big enough for the two of us to lie outstretched on the center of it beneath a lacy canopy. 

“Ellen?” Briar tugs on my arm. “Keep going.” 

Swallowing hard, I finger one of her golden curls and then ease the tangles from it. “No one would ever think I’m you,” I reply, knowing exactly what she wants me to say.

“Of course.” She giggles, wiggling her nose. “Because I’m prettier.” And she is. Just nine years old—two years older than I am—and she already looks more like our mother than I could ever dream to. At least until, her pretty smile fades. “But everyone still likes you more.”

“Nuh uh.” My stomach drops. I hate when Briar gets this way, like when we play board games and I make the mistake of winning too many times. Everything becomes a contest.

And I always have to lose. 

“You’re so much better than me,” I insist. “I have to be nice. That’s all.” 

Because I’m not like her—not an heiress. If I pout, or scream, or throw a tantrum, I’ll be punished and Mother won’t be able to see me. Even the thought of it makes my heart ache, and I maneuver the brush more gently through Briar’s curls. “Everyone loves you.”

Her pink lips quirk into a lovely smile, and she shrugs me off to sit back against a wall of pillows. “I know that,” she insists. “Even Robert is nicer to you though.” 

Robert. Her older brother who visits the manor sometimes. He’s back now. Occasionally, I pass him in the hallway. Would I say he’s nice to me? Maybe. But sometimes I think he looks at me the way Briar does her dolls once they’re broken. Like I’m tiny, and plastic, and hollow.

“Ugh.” Briar rolls her eyes. “Speak of the devil.”

My cheeks grow hot. We aren’t allowed to talk like that, not that it matters. Mother isn’t the figure standing in the doorway, and Robert doesn’t seem to care. Only Briar would ever dare call him unholy anyway; he looks like an angel. His hair is a brighter gold than his sister’s, his eyes a deep shade of brown.

“It’s late,” he says, running his fingers along the collar of a pressed suit. He looks grown up wearing it. Like Briar’s father, the master of the house, does. Like a businessman. “Shouldn’t you be in bed? Both of you?” His eyes cut in my direction. 

I cringe, jumping to my feet. “S-sorry—” 

“She was getting me a glass of milk,” Briar says over me. “That’s why she’s here. Don’t you dare tell.” 

“It’s dangerous to sneak around at night,” Robert says, his voice soft. “Don’t you know that’s when the monsters come out?” 

“There’s no such thing as monsters,” Briar declares, squaring her jaw. 

But she’s wrong. Monsters live right here in the manor. Sometimes I hear them if I stay up too late: faint scuffling noises from down below… Screaming. 

It’s why I’m never supposed to leave my room at night. Mother makes me promise I won’t—but Briar is the only one worth breaking that promise for. 

“Fine, then. If you insist on being a lazy brat, come, Elle.” Robert waves his hand, summoning me closer. “I’ll go with you.” 

A part of me wants to stay here with Briar—hide behind her if I have to. But Robert is sixteen, practically an adult. I have no choice but to shuffle after him into the hall. 

Briar has a whole wing to herself. Even the walls are decorated in soft shades of pink to match the cream carpeted floors. We pass her playroom and the closet where she keeps her winter clothes. There’s a servant’s stairway back here too. Accompanied by the regal boy beside me, I notice all the flaws here that aren’t visible in the grand hallway his family uses. The walls are painted white with cracks in the corners that draw his gaze. 

“The kitchens are this way,” I gather up the nerve to point toward a door at the base of the steps. 

Robert shoots me an odd look. “I know. Your room is down here, isn’t it?” 

I force myself to nod, my eyes wide. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in this part of the house before. 

Chuckling, Robert nudges my chin with the tips of his fingers and I shiver. He’s smiling, one of the few times I’ve ever seen him do so. “Don’t look so surprised,” he gently scolds. “You aren’t like Briar, are you? You don’t act like a child. How old are you?” 

Something squirms in my belly as I say, “S-seven.” 

“Seven.” He nods like I’ve shared some powerful secret. “You seem older sometimes. Older than my sister, anyway.” 

I look over my shoulder just in case Briar snuck out of her room after us. My heart is pounding harder. My toes curl against the carpet, slick with sweat. 

“That’s a good thing,” he insists. “You aren’t naïve like her.”

My tongue struggles to copy the strange word. “N-naï—”

“Silly,” he says sternly. He leans down, bringing his face close to mine. “You aren’t silly. I think you know what a real monster is. Don’t you?” 

I shake my head. 

“Don’t lie.” Robert brushes my cheek again, forcing me to face him. “Tell me.” 

All the things Mother always warned me about gnaw at the back of my mind. Never stay out late. Never come upstairs without permission. She never told me not to talk to Robert, but… 

“Sometimes I hear noises at night,” I admit. 

When he cocks his head, I realize I was whispering. 

“What kind of noises?” he prods, his voice louder than mine. 

“Shouting. Yelling. Screaming—” 

“Shh!” 

I jump as Robert presses his thumb against my lips. Noise echoes at the top of the staircase. Someone’s coming. 

Before they appear, Robert grabs my arm and steers me into the kitchen. “Here.” Upon letting me go, the older boy rummages through a cupboard for a glass and fills it with water from the tap. When he hands it to me, I frown in confusion. 

“I think she wanted milk—”

“Wait.” 

I stiffen at his playful tone, alarmed when he draws the cup beyond my reach. Robert is too serious for games. He doesn’t even like to play checkers with Briar. He must be mocking me. Though why? 

“You’re smarter than Briar,” he declares. “Aren’t you?” 

“I-I—”

“I’m going to show you a real monster,” he says over me, leaning in close. “They aren’t like they seem in fairytales. Are you brave enough?” He grabs my arm before I can decide and presses the cup of water against my palm, forcing me to take it. “Come on.”

He leads me past the kitchen and down a narrow hallway, but my steps falter over the icy concrete floor. I’m not allowed this far, this deep into the basement. My stomach starts to hurt, like it does when Briar makes me bend the rules—such as staying in her room too late. If someone catches me, I might never be allowed upstairs again.

“In here.” 

Up ahead, Robert stops beside a door. Another man is already standing there and my heart sinks. 

“Relax,” Robert says, dragging me closer. He eyes the man, his head held high. “You won’t tell anyone we were here.” His voice rings with authority and the man nods. Then he opens the door and nudges me closer, his hand on my shoulder. “Look…”

My heart pounds as my eyes adjust to the darkness. Monsters have teeth and sharp claws. They thrive in the dark. They growl and prowl and…

They aren’t small. Monsters aren’t supposed to be hunched on the floor, with delicate limbs and pale skin. 

I always thought Briar was the prettiest person I’ve ever seen, but the girl huddled in a dark room is beautiful. Long, dark hair falls over her like a cape, obscuring most of her tattered, gray shirt and jeans. She’s young, maybe even the same age as Robert. 

“Go on,” Robert goads, pushing me closer. 

My hand trembles and most of the water in the cup has spilled down the front of my nightgown by the time I reach her. Her face is bruised, and shiny ropes are wrapped around her arms—like the kind used to tie up the Rottweilers Briar’s father owns: chains. 

“Closer,” Robert insists.

I have no choice but to take another step. Then another… 

I jump as the girl lifts her head, her eyes huge in the darkness. “What’s your name?” Her voice is so soft that I barely hear her. 

“Don’t answer,” Robert snaps, but it’s too late. 

My lips are already moving. “E-Ellen,” I croak. 

The girl smiles. “My…my name is Anna-Natalia.” She stares past me to Robert, meeting his gaze directly. But she doesn’t tremble like everyone else does around the Winthorp heirs. She doesn’t even flinch. “My name is Anna-Natalia.” 

“Go back upstairs, Elle,” Robert says, shoving me toward the door. “Now, you know what real monsters look like. They look just like us.” 

Turning on my heel, I run, escaping the basement and sprinting back upstairs. I return to Briar’s room panting, and she observes me from her bed, pouting. 

“Where’s my milk?” 

I can’t even speak. Instead, I grab the brush from the edge of her mattress and return it to her vanity. “I should go. Goodnight—”

“Stay with me tonight.” She reaches out, and I marvel at her slim fingers. They look just like mine but softer. Cleaner. Prettier, like she said. “I don’t want to be alone.”

“But…” My eyes dart toward her bedroom door. I want to run to my room and crawl beneath my plain covers. I want to forget what Robert showed me. “If anyone else catches me—”

“They won’t,” Briar insists. “Come!” She pats the space beside her, and I reluctantly crawl onto the mattress, slipping beneath her silk sheets. “You see?” She runs her fingers along my stomach, tickling me. “We’re just like real sisters.” 

“Real sisters,” I echo, snuggling as close to her as I dare. Sometimes I forget that’s exactly what we are: sisters. 

“Ellen?” she whispers. 

“Yes?” 

“If monsters did really come for me… If I were going to die, you wouldn’t let it happen. Would you?” 

“No.” I shake my head, my heart swelling with protectiveness. “I’d fight them for you. Always.” 

“Good.” She closes her eyes and gestures for me to switch the light off. “Night.” 

* * *

Something is wrong. I know it the second my eyes open to darkness. Just a sliver of moonlight slips in between the curtains shrouding the windows but it’s enough to illuminate the empty space beside me. Briar’s gone. 

As soon as I register that fact I catch a shadow drifting across the wall, ghosting over a shelf of porcelain dolls. Briar? No. It’s too massive and terror descends like ice water. This figure is bulky. Someone big. Too big to be Mother or one of the servants.

Too big to be Robert. 

Their footsteps are heavy. Cautious. Paralyzed by fear, I crane my neck and find a figure hunched over the foot of the bed. The monster Briar feared. Just as Robert taught me, he looks human

Blond hair peeks from the edges of a black woolen cap. That color makes my heart stop—he’s wearing it from head to toe. Black slacks and a dark sweatshirt meant to disguise him in the shadows. 

The second he meets my gaze, I know. He’s dangerous, just like the men my mother warned me about. What he’s holding proves it: something silver glinting in the dark, a forbidden object I’m not allowed to touch. 

A knife. 

He points it at me, his jaw clenched. “Get up. I said get up,” he hisses. His voice sounds strange, with emphasis placed on odd syllables. “Now!” He adjusts the knife, but his hand wavers. His eyes are too wide. Fearful?

Suddenly, he stiffens, his head cocked. Behind him, the door is partially opened, and he cuts his gaze to it. When he turns back to me, he points the knife again, jabbing the edge toward the bed. 

“Get under it,” he commands. “Now! Don’t think. Don’t move. Just breathe. You hear me? All you do is fucking breathe.”

Chapter 1

Noise…

Chaos…

Briar…

The first thing I’m aware of is that I’m blindfolded—a fact that could be a blessing in disguise as my thoughts blur and jumble together. Only one coherent question escapes the fray: Where am I? 

No answer comes to me immediately. My straining ears can make out only a few words muttered nearby in unfamiliar voices. Deep, masculine voices. 

Various smells irritate my nostrils as well: sweat, body odor, male. All male. God, where am I? 

I try flexing my shoulders only to wince. My hands are impossible to move, tied behind my back with something rough. Rope?

Oh, God. 

Familiar terror gnaws at my belly as moisture gathers in my armpits and sweeps across my palms. At least, now, I have an inkling of my fate. I’m trapped in another one of his games. My nostrils flare with renewed purpose: seeking out his scent. 

He must have hired lackeys this time; foreign body odor drowns out the stench of his cologne. I can’t smell him.

But you can survive this. I fall back on the mantra that has gotten me through every day for sixteen years. You can survive, Ellen. Focus, Ellen. Breathe, Ellen.

Ten hours—that’s how long I endured last time. My resolve had nearly splintered by the end. I’d almost given in. Almost.

But even psychological wounds eventually heal and leave tougher scar tissue behind. I can last another ten hours withRobert. My brain makes that distinction as the barrage of scents dissipates, revealing one that overpowers the rest: a man’s. I taste the nuances in his stench rather than smell them—he’s that potent, composed of a multitude of different things. 

Cigar smoke. 

Vodka. 

One scent in particular makes my heart stop. Salty and sweet, it’s almost as familiar as the flowery perfume wafting from my skin now. Blood?

Robert never smokes. He doesn’t drink. Whenever he hurts me, he always washes his hands before and after. It is our routine, and he is nothing if not predictable.

No. This is someone new. Someone taller, whose shadow completely blots out what little detail plays across my blindfold. His footsteps are steady. Heavy. 

“This her?” 

I sense the outline of his fingers before the callused edge of one grazes my forehead. 

“You made sure?” 

His voice is deep. Almost too deep to be intelligible: a series of grated, rumbling notes. There’s an accent tucked among them—something thick. Eastern European? Briar had a maid from there once. Sonja.

Sonja liked to read Jane Eyre. She liked scribbling love notes to Robert Sr.’s men before fucking them in the broom closet late at night when she thought no one was looking. Sonja liked a lot of things before Robert took a liking to her.

But another figure from my memory possessed this accent as well. Even though his words were hissed in a whisper, I still remember. Breathe! 

“Bring her.” 

Those two words snap me back to the present. Unfamiliar hands grab my shoulders, cinching the soft silk of my blouse. Briar’s blouse. She dressed me in it lovingly, remarking on how the color complemented my eyes. Our eyes, the same shade of light blue.

“Move!” 

A tug on my shoulders hauls me upright and unseen hands shove me forward. Every sound echoes. Four footsteps, including mine. The biggest man takes the lead, I suspect, his gait rhythmic against creaking floorboards.

In contrast, the men holding me dig their nails into my skin and scurry toward an unknown destination. A rusty squeal seconds later conjures the image of an old door opening, and the footsteps trail off. 

“Move!” 

Something rams into my side and I stagger for balance until my cheek strikes a hard surface. It’s warm. Human.

“Get her on the bed.” 

Those harsh hands return to my shoulders to fulfill the command. 

“Sit her on the edge…like that. Cut her hands free.”

A metallic hiss sends a shiver down my spine—then pain! Fire courses through my fingertips as circulation returns to them. I long to flex each one, but I know better. Instead, I keep them close, settling them onto my lap. 

These men kept my skirt on, at least. Her skirt. The hem comes down past my knees, and I’ve never been so grateful for four inches of satin. It will buy me more time.

Ten hours. I’ve already lasted ten minutes. You can do this, the courageous part of my soul whispers. But then that voice dies in the wake of two more words uttered in that guttural cadence. 

“Leave us.”

The two smaller men scatter in the direction we entered—but it’s all wrong. No. No. I don’t smell Robert, and he’d never leave me alone with another man. Not his lackey. Not even his own father.

Most alarming of all, this man certainly is no Winthorp. His voice isn’t familiar and this house doesn’t smell like any property on the familial grounds.

They took me from the motorcade…

Fire sears through my skull as memories return in snatches. The clearest one is of her face. Briar. So beautiful, dominated by that pure, sweet smile. “I want you there,” she insisted. “We’re sisters, after all.”

Sisters. I cherished how that word sounded in her soft cadence, tucking that moment inside myself like one of the trinkets hidden in my secret cache. Love was more precious than a button or rock I’d stolen away. Those four words meant everything. I want you there.

But the memory of that moment serves as a weak antidote to the terror paralyzing me now. More bits and pieces come back. 

I was in the car—the beautiful limousine for once, instead of one of the servant vans that took up the rear. For part of the way, I was even sitting beside her while she braided my hair. “We look alike now,” she wistfully remarked, beaming at our reflections in the polished windows.

We look alike. The phrase haunts me. As if I could ever look like Briar, with her lighter ringlets and her creamy skin. The only feature we truly share is our eyes. Our mother’s eyes. Large, round, and blue. In every other respect, she takes after her father, with a beautiful aristocratic nose and a graceful neck. Every Winthorp possesses the same subtle characteristics—markings of the blood, they like to claim. Good blood. Blue blood.

I take after my father, whoever he is.

Briar loves to tout our tentative resemblance anyway—especially to her benefit. I am the one the maid saw sneaking out back two summers ago. I am the one who scurried out of the room of that visiting businessman one winter.

And now…

We look alike.

“Take off the blindfold.” That voice… 

I swallow hard, uneasy. Robert has found a new monster to play with. Someone who shares his flair for the dramatic. But where is he? My tormentor always relishes this part of the game. How he enjoys savoring my fear as I try to piece together where I am. Admittedly, it wasn’t this hard before; he never strays too far from the property. 

His favorite lairs are the boathouse, or the deserted crypt, or the east wing. I could always hear the bluebirds chirping throughout the grounds, no matter which corner of the estate he deemed my chosen cell.

My ears strain, searching for that faint, familiar song. This time of year, they’re nearly deafening, able to be heard in even the farthest reaches of Winthorp Manor.

Two seconds. Three.

I hear nothing. 

“Take off the blindfold.” 

The harsh rasp of syllables steals my breath away. I know anger on Robert. On Robert Sr. Even on Briar. They stutter. They shout. They scream.

None of them ever exude their impatience to the point where I can sense it in the air. Or taste it: copper on my tongue. This man isn’t a Winthorp.

The realization coaxes my body into action. My sore fingers finally contort, trembling after what must have been hours of captivity. Whoever tied my blindfold snagged bits of my hair in the process and every tug on the knot at the base of my neck rips tiny strands loose from my scalp—comparable to my pathetic hopes being ripped from underneath me one by one.

I don’t hear the bluebirds.

I can’t smell Robert’s favorite cologne.

When I finally get the knot loosened enough to uncover my eyes…

I see hell. 

Mother used to say it was beautiful, forsaking the teachings of the local priest. “Hell is a rose,” she used to murmur, her gaze turned inward, wistful and distant. “A flawless one, with all the life sucked out of it. The thorns have become knives. Its leaves have swallowed up the stalk. It’s grotesque. It’s deadly. But never forget that, underneath the violence, it’s still beautiful.”

He is beautiful. Or he was once. Blond hair draws my attention first—a sun-kissed gold in places, darkened with age in others. It’s been clawed back from his face into a ponytail longer than mine was before Briar trimmed it. His eyes are that dangerous color between blood and brown. Like a flame, they catch the light filtering in through a sloppily boarded-up window beside him. His face is angular. Chiseled. Stone. Every feature is sculpted to convey just one emotion: determination. The way an owl might watch the mice scurrying underfoot in the stables. Or the way Robert used to look at me.

The way the devil looks, I presume, as if he has all the time in the world. More than ten hours. 

An eternity to torture me.

Read the Series!

Kidnapped, Ellen must do whatever it takes to survive her cruel mafia captor, Mischa. Will he break her— or will she outsmart him?

WHEN HATE BECOMES OBSESSION…
Mistaken for her beautiful half-sister, Ellen Winthorp is taken captive by a madman who declares that she will be his “fifteen”: the fifteenth victim of a vicious mafia blood feud. Armed with only her instincts, Ellen must resist her captor for as long as she can—which is easier said than done the more she’s exposed to the complex man beneath the beast.

Because Mischa Stepanov isn’t a mindless monster—he’s a wolf, and she’s the unwitting doe caught in his midst. 

Unraveling the torment of his past may be her only hope of salvation…

Or the secrets uncovered may destroy them both. 

WHEN OBSESSION BECOMES DESIRE…

Ellen Winthorp has no choice but to rely on the protection of Mischa Stepanov—the vicious mafia leader who captured and disfigured her. But the more she learns about him, the deeper she falls into a world of violence, deception and intrigue where danger lurks around every corner. 

As long as she plays by his rules, Mischa seems content to drip-feed her information about her family and the secrets shrouding her past. 

But her innocent questions may lead to devastating answers…

WHEN DESIRE BECOMES DEVOTION…

As the secrets surrounding the Winthorp and Mafiya war come to light, Ellen and Mischa are forced to trust each other or risk losing themselves to the turmoil. 

But war comes with a terrible cost… 

And as new enemies and old lies begin to crawl from the wreckage, they must find a way to break the cycle… 

Or let the violence consume them, once and for all.