Authors: Emma Nichols
For Sam, who let me tame his beast.
Together we’ve broken your curse and grown your treasure.
You’re my everything, always.
Copyright © 2015 by emma nichols
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover by Marisa Shor of Cover Me, Darling
Formatting by: Affordable Formatting
Staring out the window, I wanted to be anywhere but here. It was a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky, which made no sense. Shouldn’t it be dark, like my mood? It shouldn’t be so nice out when inside I was falling apart.
“Did you hear what I said?” The lawyer stared at me and waited for a response.
With a scowl, my uncle reached over and jabbed me in the ribs hard enough to make me wince. “Pay attention.”
I turned in my seat, focusing my cold dead eyes on the man and felt a hint of satisfaction when my uncle, who was a complete stranger, couldn’t maintain eye contact. My parents had once told me there was a falling out in the family, but never explained it. Now all of a sudden, Uncle Luc was my guardian and would be the executor of the estate until my twenty-fifth birthday.
“So, I will make the decisions regarding the gallery, but I won’t be the sole owner until I’m twenty-five?” I addressed the lawyer, Mr. Lefevre.
“Not exactly. You have to marry by twenty-five.” Mr. Lefevre had a severe look on his face, as if he wasn’t pleased with what he’d read.
“And if I don’t?” I frowned. At fourteen, it felt like I had a lifetime to worry about it.
Mr. Lefevre leaned back in his seat and folded his hands as he glanced back and forth between my uncle and me. “If you don’t, then your uncle will get the gallery and the remainder of the family fortune.”
“The remainder?” I leaned forward as I tried to understand the legalese I’d barely listened to.
After a sigh, the lawyer explained. “You have a hefty inheritance. It can’t even be touched until you turn twenty-five. In the meantime, the expenses will be paid through the accountant your father hired.” Mr. Lefevre looked down his nose at Uncle Luc before continuing. “There will be a monthly stipend for household expenses like groceries, clothing, estate maintenance, and other necessities.
be personally watching the expense report.” Though I couldn’t be certain, the way he spoke seemed like a warning. Then he focused on me once more. “If you don’t marry by twenty-five, you’ll have your inheritance, but you’ll lose the gallery, the condo above the gallery, the mansion, and the rest of your parents’ estate.”
I cocked my head in confusion. “So I just forfeit it. Where will it go?”
He licked his lips. “Your uncle will legally own it all.”
Whipping my head around, I narrowed my eyes on my uncle, who had a hand over his mouth, no doubt to cover his smile. His eyes were averted, probably to hide his excitement. “But
not married.” My eyebrows rose.
“He doesn’t have to be. It says nothing about that in here.” Mr. Lefevre tapped on the will he had been reading.
“Well.” It was all I could say out loud. The rest of the thoughts racing through my head were completely inappropriate. This wasn’t the place for me to shout how it was complete bullshit. I couldn’t proclaim it crap and contest the will. I knew I’d lose anyway. “I suppose they wanted me to prove I was mature and responsible by marrying.”
A half smile appeared on Mr. Lefevre’s face. “Actually, no.” He inhaled deeply. “When we made the will out, it was very important to your father that you find true love, that you marry and be happy.” The man swiped at his eyes. “They wanted you to have balance. Your father once explained that without a wife, without you, he’d have spent all his time growing his fortune and never truly living. A life without love can be a very lonely existence.”
Leaning back in the chair, I considered everything he’d said. It was too much too process, so I focused on what I felt comfortable with. “Okay. In the meantime, I get to run the gallery?”
“As long as it remains profitable. We’ll watch closely, then we may call in an advisor.”
“I can help!” Uncle Luc jumped in and offered his services.
Shaking his head, Mr. Lefevre turned the page on the will. “It specifically says here in the codicil that you aren’t allowed to have any interest in the gallery unless Sebastian forfeits his claim by failing to marry.”
Uncle Luc’s face clouded over. “Fine.”
“So now what?” I hadn’t meant to speak the words aloud. Inside, I was struggling with living in the mansion, knowing my parents would never return.
“Now you make the best of the situation, I’m afraid.” Mr. Lefevre folded his hands on the desk. “The servants will still be there, of course.”
“And I’ll be there.” Uncle Luc could scarcely contain his excitement.
“You don’t have to. I have the servants.” I swallowed hard, trying to imagine sharing my home with this man, a complete stranger. After all, he’d never been welcome there before. It seemed wrong for him to be there now.
“Of course I do. I’m your guardian.” He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled.
In response, I blinked a few times. The frustration was building. If I didn’t get away from here, I’d lose my temper for sure. Looking down at my hands, I spoke as quietly and controlled as I could. “Is this true, Mr. Lefevre? Does he have to live with me? Can’t Mathilde watch over me? She has my whole life.” Then I blew out a breath, trying to keep my mood in check.
“I’m afraid he must stay with you until you turn eighteen.” The frown above his brow deepened.
Sitting up abruptly I, snapped. “That’s all well and good, but then how do I get him out?”
My question was met with silence from the lawyer and laughter from my uncle. Four years later, I had my answer. On my eighteenth birthday, after three years, eight months, twelve days, sixteen hours and several minutes of sharing the mansion, I moved out. Uncle Luc was going nowhere.
During that time, the place had fallen into disrepair. Part of it was my fault. I’d never truly learned how to control my temper, as evidenced by the broken furniture and relics. Ah, but my uncle had been a significant contributor. He’d cut the staff in half, keeping on only one maid, not Mathilde, and the chef. The grounds were overgrown because he fired the gardener and pocketed the money meant as his salary. Of course, he let the driver go first, no doubt afraid I would take off. Routine maintenance was ignored. What had once been a magnificent mansion now had taken on the look of abandoned architecture.
If I’d have run off and married then, I might’ve been able to rescue myself from the hell I’d endured. Unfortunately, there were no prospects as far as I was concerned. Truth be told, it had little to do with how particular I was and more to do with my damaged psyche. Years of being called a spoiled little beast and being reminded of how hideous I looked had truly taken a toll. I hid it well enough from my friends, but in the back of my mind it was always there, gnawing at me. Uncle Luc had become the voice in my head. In my mind echoed his most hateful words:
who could ever love a monster like you?
Rubbing my temples, I sighed. This was a phone call I didn’t want to make. Picking up my cell, I called my long time friend and waited for him to answer.
“So, Gabriel, any chance Isabella has some photos she’d like to display in the gallery?” I leaned back in my chair and gazed out the window onto St. Catherine Street.
A chuckle wafted through the phone. “Well, hello to you, too, Sebastian. I’ll have to ask. I guess you were impressed with her show last week.”
“As much as I hate to admit it, I had to be. You know this is a mutually beneficial arrangement, right? She helps me, I help grow her.” I tapped the end of the pen on my desk calendar while he spoke. “I have a list of collectors right now who would snatch up anything she placed here.”
There was a sigh. “Sebastian, you must know money is not an issue here.”
“Not for you, but I know Isabella.” I paused a moment, already regretting my words. I didn’t know Isabella, not really. She’d taken a few trips with our group. I’d seen her with Gabriel a few times. None of this meant I really knew her at all. Still, I shared what I understood to be true. “She likes to have her own money, earn her own way. It’s a very admirable quality. I’d love to help her grow.”
“I’ll talk to her. You know I will. Right now, however, she’s working on a photo shoot. Something new.”
“Really. Something I could get…exclusively?” I sat up in my chair and wheeled closer to study the gallery schedule.
“I’ll have her call you. I have a meeting in fifteen minutes I must prepare for. Good talking to you!”
“You too. Bye.”
Before I could get too lost in thoughts of some Isabella exclusives, Sylvie rushed into my office. “Your uncle.” She looked like a frightened blonde bunny, all twitchy as she danced around.
“What about my uncle?” Immediately, my mood darkened.
“He’s here.” She kept glancing behind her as though he might walk through the door any moment.
Sure enough, Uncle Luc strode in, planted his dragonhead cane on the floor and leaned on it. He was wearing a fedora, which he removed and tossed on the couch across from the desk. It exposed a bald shiny head. His coat had been around his shoulders like some cape and now he draped it over the back of the couch. “Good to see you.” He gave a curt nod, then addressed Sylvie. “You may go.”
She started to scamper from the room, but I stopped her with a simple shake of my head. “Last I checked, I’m still running things around here, uncle.”
“Only for another thirty days.” He sneered.
“Yes, well, still I am
. Sylvie, you may stay.”
Her eyes darted back and forth between the door and us. “But the gallery.” Her voice was barely louder than a whisper.
Rolling my eyes, I sighed. “Fine. You may go.” Leaning back in my chair, I didn’t even bother trying to cover my emotions as I glared at my uncle. It pleased me to see the man shrink back in response. “What can I do for you, uncle?”
“It’s what I can do for you, actually.” Uncle Luc beamed as he sat in the chair nearest the desk. “I came to offer you a job.”
Laughter burst forth from my mouth. “I have a job. And since I’m rich, I don’t need two. Thank you for the kind offer.” To show we were done speaking, I pulled at the first file on my desk and started to flip through the pictures inside of pieces I needed to consider for the gallery and ignored his continued presence.
“Yes, you have a job. Oh, and you’re good at it. Still, in thirty days, the gallery will be mine.” He leaned forward as he spoke in a low menacing voice.
Without even glancing at him, I responded. “I know. I believe you mentioned it already. And thirty days is plenty of time.”
Uncle Luc snickered. “Is it? Because you’ve had nearly eleven years since the will was read and you haven’t even dated.”
Slowly, I closed the folder. I could feel the anger slowly beginning to burn in my belly. My hands flexed some, eager to form fists and lash out. Closing my eyes, I rubbed them while I focused on controlling my breathing and my heart rate. I was well aware of the looming time constraint. For the last two years, I’d had an app on my phone with a running countdown, which sent me periodic notifications of my impending doom. When I bought the new desk calendar, I made sure to circle my birthday in bright red, as if I needed the visual reminder. I could run a gallery and woo artists, but I couldn’t manage my life and woo the right woman. Knowing my uncle still sat across from me gloating; a moment later I opened my eyes and stared at him. “Say what you need to say. Then leave.” As I spoke, I enunciated each syllable carefully so as to eliminate any confusion.
“You can work for me. Keep running the gallery. I’ll pay you a hefty salary. I’ll even let you rent your condo from me.” His hand shook slightly and I could see where a sweat had broken above his brow. Uncle Luc must’ve felt it too. A second later he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his forehead.
“That’s a fine offer, Uncle Luc.” I rolled my chair back and stood before slowly walking around the side of the desk until I was less than six inches from where he sat. “I’m going to decline. I’ll either marry, or I’ll walk away, but I’ll never work for you.” I leaned low and looked him in the eye. “I’ll never pay you another penny. You have taken enough from me. Now go. And I don’t want to see you in here again.”
The man bolted from his chair, stumbled over to the couch to grab his coat and hat, then tripped across the room toward the door. “You’ll regret this.” His voice was hoarse.
Without hesitating, I picked up a marble miniature of David from the corner of my desk and moved as though to launch it toward the door. Instantly, the man disappeared. Setting it down hard, I bent over the desk. The nerve. Settling back down in my chair, I considered everything that had transpired. In all honesty, I hadn’t given it much thought, what I’d do after I failed to marry. In some ways, the job and renting my condo would’ve been a blessing. I could’ve kept up appearances. No one would have to know I no longer owned the gallery. Then I shook my head. No doubt, Uncle Luc would be announcing it from the rooftops. Of course everyone would know.
“He’ll ruin this like he has everything else,” I muttered.
“I missed that. What did you say?”
When I looked up, I found Sylvie standing in the doorway with a rather bedraggled looking man. “Who’s your friend?” Without thinking, I rubbed my hands down my pants at the very idea of having to touch him.
“He says he’s an artist.”
The man stepped forward. His hands were shaking slightly. His hair had a slightly greasy appearance as though he hadn’t showered in days. What looked to be three-days growth of stubble seemed to support that.
“What brings you here?” I remained seated. The run in with my uncle had left me feeling more bitter than usual.
Taking a few more uncertain steps closer, the man met my stare. “I’m Gilles. I sculpt.” He raised his hands as if to provide proof.
“Well, you’re more than welcome to submit photos of your work and contact information. This is how I decide which pieces to exhibit.” Then I turned my attention back to the photos I’d been studying earlier.
“I’m desperate.” The man now stood before my desk.
“Without pictures and your contact information, I can’t help you.” I meant for the man to leave, but he hadn’t moved. Looking up at him, I frowned. This guy wouldn’t take a hint. I tried the direct approach. “Good day.”
Sylvie understood. She moved to the man’s side, looped her hand through the crook of his arm and began tugging him toward the door. He started mumbling under his breath. Finally, he yanked away from her and stormed back to the desk.
“You won’t help me? You’re a monster! A beast! That’s what you are.” His arms flailed about as he gestured wildly.
“Sylvie, call the police.” My words were spoken calmly, but inside I was more than rattled. Instinctively, my hands covered my ears. The man finally disappeared with Sylvie, slamming the door behind them, but it was too late. In my head I could still hear his words echoing, playing on all my worst fears. Maybe I was a beast. Maybe I was a monster. My hand shook as I pulled open the top right desk drawer. Reaching inside, I felt around for it, the mirror, the special one, which had belonged to my mother. It had a silver frame and a unique feature in that it could be used as a hand mirror, or the handle could fold under and it would stand upright on a solid surface.
Through the years, I’d had a love/hate relationship with this mirror. Unlike all the other ones I’d shattered since their deaths, this one I could never break. It was one of the few items I’d managed to sneak out of the master bedroom before my uncle swooped in and took it over, despite having six other empty suites in the mansion. Over time, I’d come to hate my reflection. Some days I’d catch a glimpse and think myself almost passable. Other days, I’d stare and find nothing but flaws, see that I truly was horribly disfigured.
I’d tried everything money could buy. I’d visited numerous plastic surgeons that had attempted many procedures. My chin implant lasted two weeks before I begged for it to be removed. The cheek implants only lasted three days. Finally, the surgeon insulted me by suggesting I needed mental help.
Ben was the only one who knew. Ben was the one who drove me to the procedures and stayed with me after. He was the one person I trusted to see me in a weakened state and not take advantage of me, not hurt me. Most of the time, Ben said nothing. The last time, however, his words had cut to the quick. I vividly recalled the conversation.
“Can you believe he thinks I need mental help?” At the time, I could barely talk, given the gauze wrapped around my head.
“You just had your second nose job in six months. I don’t think it would hurt.” As soon as our eyes met, Ben clamped his mouth shut. “I’m sorry.”
“I had a lump. A huge, grotesque lump in the middle of my nose.” I’d stared out the window the rest of the ride, but thanks to the drugs, I inadvertently shared my worst fear. “Who could ever love a guy like that?”
Ben had laid a hand on my shoulder. “It would help if you could love yourself first.”
I’d tried to open my mouth to object, but it was true. I was filled with self-loathing.
Lifting the mirror, I took a deep breath, bracing for the reflection. Who would I see today? Would it be the flawed man or the hideous monster? Cautiously, I took a peek then shoved it back in the drawer. Whew. That was close. I nearly came face to face with the beast.
Shortly after six in the evening, the bell on the shop door jingled while I was sanding down a table in the back room. Grabbing the nearest rag, I wiped my hands down as I walked, ready to tell whoever had popped in that the place wasn’t open yet. As I entered the big open room, however, I saw my father pacing. He looked rough, as if he hadn’t showered or shaved in days. His behavior seemed completely erratic. Pulling off my apron, I wrapped an arm around his waist. “Let’s go get dinner.” Before he could protest, I’d grabbed my purse from behind the counter, turned off the lights, and ushered him out the door, locking it behind us.
My father was wringing his hands and muttering. “He’s a monster. I’ll kill the beast.”
“Who, dad?” My heart pounded in fear. It was rough when he worked himself up like this. There was no way to talk sense to him, to calm him down. Through the years I’d learned to simply listen and hope I could sober him up so I could reason with him.
“The gallery owner.” He shook his fist furiously. “Wouldn’t show my work.”
I sighed. “Did you bring the postcards I made you or the portfolio I created for you?” Given his hands were empty, I knew he didn’t have them on him at the moment.
“No. I need a drink.” He started to turn the corner to the nearby bar.
“Not today. Let’s eat food. You can drink your dinner some other time.” Gently, but firmly, I pushed him toward the diner. Inside we were quickly seated.
“Getcha something to drink?” The frizzy red haired waitress had her pen poised on the pad.
“Coffee for him. Tea for me. Lots of sugar. And waters, please.” While I spoke, my eyes never left my father. I struggled to keep his attention, keep his hands contained. After all, as frail as he seemed, I knew if he worked himself into a drunken rage, he could destroy whatever he managed to get those hands on. It seemed strange. Really, he had been gifted the ability to create with them, but more often than not chose to do the opposite.
The waitress delivered the drinks then took our food order. “Nothing for me, but he’ll have a burger and fries.”
As soon as he had his first drink with both hands wrapped around the mug, I felt better. “Good.” He murmured the words against the mug.
“What happened today, Dad?” I stared it him, not bothering to hide my concern.
He shrugged. “I needed a drink. To drink I need money. To get money, I sell art. Only the guy wouldn’t help me.” He took another healthy swallow.
“You have to try to work with people. No one is just going to give you a handout.” I felt like I was talking to a child instead of my father.
“I could’ve wrecked the place if I wanted to.” He stared at me sadly.