Anna watched as bright light rippled along Clair’s long hair. She reached out and brushed at the dark tresses.
The little lady glanced over her shoulder, and her tiny lips curved upward. “Anna, love, that’s the third time you’ve brushed at my hair. I can wear it down all the time if you like it this way.” She looped a lock behind her ear. “I usually put it in a bun when I help in the kitchen, but since I’ve been assigned as your guide, there’s no need.”
Anna smiled. “It’s so pretty. And soft.”
“Oh, you are a sweet one.”
Rounding the corner onto the second-floor landing, the hound-faced man came to view. Of all the servants Lord Dressen employed, he was amazing. Tall, lanky, slicked hair, and the most emotionless until…
He glanced their way, and his droopy visage came to life. Anna’s heart danced at the change.
“Clair, my sweet,” his soft voice sang.
“Reg, that banister has been polished a million times. The maids do a fine job. There’s no need for your bother.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my bothering. It’s my pleasure to attend to the sire’s house.” Turning to the large stained-glass window, he tugged another rag from his shoulder and dusted at the geometric shapes.
The colorful montage grasped Anna’s attention. Something about them called to her soul, called her home.
“You showing our new girl the…?”
Clair responded with a shush. “It’s a surprise. Now you hush.”
A pause in the conversation allowed Anna to wrap around the shapes again, but Clair’s whisper interrupted.
“I’ve never seen the likes. Just look at her, lost to the world. Reg, that girl is the sweetest thing ever to join the household. But… Something’s not right with her. It’s like she’s not all there. I wonder how deeply she chose to forget her past. Not even recognizing her own reflection?”
“Do you ever regret electing to forget, my little Clair?”
“Only very few times. But, I had to want it or it wouldn’t stay hidden, isn’t that right? I always fall short of searching my mind for the hidden. I’m afraid now to know what it was like. I’m happy here, feel like I belong. We’re family and I wouldn’t change that one bit.”
“And I’m glad.” Fabric rustled behind her, suggesting the two embraced. “A better friend I’ve never had in all my years of service to the sire.”
“Another reason I don’t even try to remember.”
A low sigh accompanied more fabric rustles, and Reg spoke. “It’s a good thing the sire has taken to her so. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him personal with an addition.”
Humor tinted Clair’s quiet voice. “I know of at least six maids under this roof that are jealous beyond civil over it, too. I warned them to just keep their distance or they’d have us to deal with.”
Reg’s deep chuckle tickled Anna’s ears. “The mention of scrapping with you would keep them away, my sweet Clair. Lord Dressen chose right when he assigned you as her personal aide.”
“Ooh, well, she deserves looking after.” Clair stepped to Anna’s side and looked up at the stained-glass. “This is one of Lord Dressen’s favorite works. He had it commissioned. Talented artist. Filled it to his specification. Isn’t it lovely?”
Anna nodded and ran her fingers over the lead that held the intricate shapes together. “It’s beautiful.”
“Well, if you like this, you’ll love what’s down the hall. It’s like a cathedral.”
She reluctantly pulled her gaze away to face her guide. Little eyes sparkled back at her like shiny gems beneath the ceiling’s many pin lights.
Motioning down the hall, Clair took Anna’s hand and led the way. “I wanted to show it to you yesterday, but other duties got in the way. It took months to renovate. Don’t know how he got the people to part with the items. They’ve been kept by the Arylin Colony in the Northern Territory. The only one of its kind. But he got them. He does have his ways.” She winked. “I told you that you were a special one. He said that the woman that filled this post would enjoy it more than any other room in the house.”
Clair turned on the light as they entered. A soft glow haloed the laurel sconces at the center of each gold-trimmed panel lining the walls. Positioned beneath the illuminations, six red velvet divans sat, matching the wide runner that covered the marble floor and led to the end of the room. Amber pillars with deep golden veins stood in the far corners and flanked an ivory statue at center stage. Beams poured from the spotlights in the base, highlighting the eight-foot-tall being, and reflecting off the wall mirror behind it. An ivory-laced prie-dieu humbly sat before the pedestal.
“He’s having stained-glass screens made. It will give you more privacy when you worship.”
Blood drained from Anna’s face as she gazed at the Goddess of Love. The gentle eyes beckoned her from a smooth alabaster visage. Long waves flowed, crowned with a brow band that fanned along the sides of her head. Her arms seem to lift in welcome, her silk robes furling at her sides and down her slender body to brush the plinth.
Time locked in a surreal moment. Anna’s feet moved, carrying her down the long carpet that led to her goddess. Her heart raced, and supplication bloomed across her nerves.
She broke into a run.
Throwing herself onto the stand, she grasped at the white flowing robe. She scrambled up the length of Arylin’s body and reached for the angelic face. Her fingertips merely brushed along the mane of intricate feathers that adorned her shoulders.
Clair’s little shoes tip-tapped toward her until the runner muffled the sound. “Oh, Anna, dear. This is only a statue of Arylin.”
Anna gazed high in adoration. “My goddess.”
Distorted thoughts fluxed through her mind, distant chants, familiar song, then gone. Heat bore into her temples with each ebb, sending pulses down her jaw to circle her neck and chest. Invisible cords snaked through her torso, wrapping tightly around her lungs and abdomen. Tiny spars spangled along the threads singeing her core. She knotted a fist to her bosom as a wail rattled deep in her chest.
Shock squelched from Clair’s voice. “Anna!”
Anna clawed at the bodice of her gown, desperate to reveal the bonds that burned her soul. Dropping to her knees, strained whispers passed her lips.
“Arylin, Goddess of Love, grace forsake me not.
Guile and torment take my heart, cast me not this lot.
Holy be thy name.
Holy be thy name!”
“Reg! Reg, come quick!” Clair brushed Anna’s strewn hair from her face and tried to inch the gown back around her body. “It’s okay, love. It’s all going to be okay.” She gently grasped Anna’s arms, tugging her away from the goddess as tremors rode her words. “We can visit another time. All of this seems a bit much for you.”
Anna lunged for the Arylin’s legs, hooking her fingers around the stony folds.
“What seems to be the problem?”
The deep voice echoed through the room and penetrated Anna’s heart. She threw her gaze to the entrance, and her jaw dropped in awe as Lord Dressen strode in her direction. Pain melted in a heated wash. Her hands dropped from the rock. His dark eyes flashed, heavy brows dipped low, and they were the most majestic things she’d ever seen. Fears disappeared.
“She just went off, sire. Beats all I’ve seen. She screamed and started reciting…a prayer, I think.”
Lord Dressen eased to sit on the platform and then gently framed her face. “Anna,” he said softly.
She rested her cheek in his large palm and a shaky sigh relieved her lungs. Pangs spangled through her veins, but she didn’t care. His touch, his being, caressed her soul with comfort.
Lord Dressen’s hands slowly dropped and wrapped around hers. “Come with me.”
Gazes locked, he guided her to stand and then led the way out of the room and into the hall. Each backward step, she matched in forward motion. He leaned his head. She leaned hers. They followed the long trail, passing the stained-glass window wall. Servants paused on the steps and quietly watched.
Dressen brushed the disheveled hair from Anna’s face. “The shrine was meant as a gift, Anna. I know how you adore your goddess.” His gaze dropped to the torn dress and gashes in her skin. “I didn’t expect you to hurt yourself during worship.”
Anna looked down at the bared proof of her actions.
“Never do that again. I won’t see you hurt.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, tucked it in her palm, and then gently pressed it to her wounds. Her limp grip held it there.
Pushing open her bedroom door, he led her inside and then nudged it shut. He brushed his fingers across her cheek. “I’ve wanted you longer than life, it seems.” He lightly kissed her lips, and Anna leaned into his touch, closing her eyes. “I’d do anything to keep you safe. Keep you mine. Tell me you love me, Anna. Tell me the spells were unnecessary. That you wanted me all along.”
“I love you. The spells were unnecessary. I wanted you all along.”
Her keeper smiled. “Perhaps total compliance was uncalled for then.” He pulled her close, the rumpled fabric of her bodice falling aside. Running his fingers through her hair, he looked deep into her eyes.
Her heart thumped hard, and her breath hitched.
“You’ll enjoy the life I offer. I can give you anything you desire.” He nodded toward the hall. “I wanted the sanctuary to be a place for you to find peace. But it looks like I was mistaken.”
His brows rose, and Anna upped her own, basking in the loving expression. “Would you like an art studio? You could continue creating.” He took her hands in his. “The hands of an artist, a creator of beauty.” He held them to his chest and placed her thumbs and fingers together. “In more ways than one.”
Anna’s lips parted as she stared at the symbol created. Primal heat swirled in her core and faint promises floated just out of her understanding.
He looked at her sideways and cocked a grin. “The symbol arouses you, doesn’t it, Anna? What does it mean? Did the wizards instill an added gift with the bid? They know, don’t they? They have to, considering my requirements.”
He brushed the lining from her shoulders and kissed along her collar. Shivers traveled down to her bosom. “I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t find satisfaction in anything more.”
The warm breath and light touch lifted her to float with the clouds. She wilted, head lulling to the side as a soft cry blew past her lips.
“You are the best thing I’ve ever afforded myself.” He led his lips up to her neck. “The greatest prize I could have won.”