Ash warned her not to open the closet.
It was built underneath the stairs on the first floor of left wing and sealed shut with a heavy mahogany door. A brass keyhole winked back at her in the bright sun. It looked like every other closet in the manor, plain and ordinary.
Still every time she passed by it, Claudia couldn't help but stop and stare at the door for a moment or two before continuing on her way. The door became a frequent visitor in her dreams, though, not as reoccurring of a nightmare as the fire that burned the manor to the ground when she was twelve and Ash was thirteen.
They were never the same after the accidental fire. The mansion was rebuilt, the stylized Lord and Lady Nightray interred in the mausoleum, and the company stocks skyrocketed. Ash withdrew into his father's study, distracting himself with the daily affairs of the family-owned toy and confectionary company. Claudia visited the manor less frequently after experiencing fainting spells from drinking the same tea that was served that day or watching someone build a fire in the parlor room hearth. She couldn't stand cigarette smoke and immediately disliked people with curly blond hair. Claudia refused to remember anything whereas Ash refused to forget a single detail about the day his parents died.
After his parents died, both Ash and Claudia felt obligated to carry out his mother's dream. On her eighteenth birthday, Ash asked her to be his girlfriend. Two years later, they were engaged. It was a marriage of convenience but Claudia was comfortable with that. She would rather marry Ash than someone else who only saw her as a pretty doll to hang off his arm.
As his fiancée, Claudia was expected to learn the ways of the household before she took over as its head. The date for their wedding was set within the upcoming year and Claudia spent four days of her week at the side of Ash's butler, Sebastian.
This week's lesson was an extremely important one. Sebastian put her in charge of organizing tonight's business affair as a test of her knowledge. Claudia was nervous but she refused to let it show. A display of hysterics was unbecoming of a woman marrying into the prestigious Nightray family.
The menu was quickly decided upon—a marinated dish of filet mignon grilled with fresh dark cherries for the main entree. A serving of baked red potatoes sprinkled with herbs would accompany the meat. Claudia chose a chilled tomato soup as the appetizer and for dessert, an apricot and green tea mille-feuille. Two red wines were pulled from the cellar.
Food was everything, Sebastian often reminded her. The quality of the dish and its presentation impressed the Nightray manor's guests and kept the family in high esteem. At first, Claudia thought the idea was silly but after reflecting on it, she supposed the butler was right. Her mother often scorned a family who served her less-than-quality food.
Her mother also scorned a family who did not keep a tidy home. Claudia had the maids dusting and polishing the furniture for the last two days. Portraits were straightened, light bulbs changed, and the sheets of the guest rooms were freshly laundered. Outside, the gardeners weeded the grounds, fertilized the soil, and Ash's favorite rose bushes were in full bloom.
Everything was perfect—she nodded in satisfaction. With three hours to waste before their guest's arrival, Claudia settled into the divan in the study for a nap. Ash would scold her for sleeping in such a place but she didn't care about propriety anymore. She deserved this one transgression.
The fire consumed everything in its path.
She ran down the winding hallways, desperate to find the exit. “Ash! Ash!” Claudia yelled over the sound of buckling glass and falling timber. “Ash, where are you?”
The study door was open. Inside, Claudia knew there was a pair of French doors leading to Lady Nightray's private garden. She entered the room, suffocating on the ash floating through the air.
The girl turned around, happy to hear the voice of her childhood friend. “Oh, I'm so glad I found-”
A burnt hand gripped her arm tightly. “What did you do to me?” Ash demanded weakly before the flames took over and his body exploded into pieces. Claudia shrieked, shaking off the severed hand still clinging to her.
The ash was falling thicker through the air. Claudia took a step back and tripped over the mutilated corpses of Ash's parents. Bright blue eyes, the same sapphire color as the jewel on her left ring finger, gazed back at her from the head of Lady Nightray.
“Open the closet,” Lady Nightray's severed head said. “Open the closet, Dia.”
The wood floor gave way beneath her and Claudia fell into the waiting arms of a pack of screaming ogres.
The sun fell behind the treetops as the car pulled up to the front door. One of the valets took Mr. Evans's coat and hat as Sebastian bowed and greeted the guest with his usual plastic smile.
“Welcome to the Nightray Manor, Mr. Evans. I hope you enjoy your stay here.”
Evans returned the greeting with a curt nod. “Thank you.”
Smiling, Sebastian bowed again. “The Young Master apologizes for not being able to greet you personally when you arrived. He had a teleconference call that ran late.”
“I understand. Business must be good.”
“Business will be better if you sign the agreement between our companies, Mr. Evans.”
Startled, the older man jerked his head to face the staircase. At the foot of the stairs, a young man dressed in a dark three-piece suit with deep blue eyes strode quickly towards them. Behind him, a young woman clad in a simple blue dress with her dark hair pulled back in a complicated twist followed his lead.
Sebastian introduced the man. “Mr. Evans, may I introduce the master of this house, Ash Nightray.”
Ash shook Evans's hand. “My fiancée,” he gestured to the young woman. “Claudia Walker. She will be joining us for dinner tonight.”
Claudia smiled in greeting. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Evans.”
Evans seized her hand and kissed it. “The same to you, Miss Walker,” the man said, refusing to let go of her.
Perturbed, Claudia glanced backwards at Ash. He met her gaze before stepping forward and taking hold of her arm.
“To dinner, Mr. Evans?” Her fiancé flashed his business partner an enigmatic smile as he pulled her closer to his side. “I hear the chef has outdone himself and prepared us a feast.”
Evans narrowed his eyes at the warning glare. “This must be the famed hospitality of the Nightray home,” the man replied. “What a privilege to experience it.”
“Indeed,” Claudia spoke up, hoping to diffuse the tension. “My fiancé is a social recluse but he honors his mother's memory by playing the gracious host when called upon. Mr. Evans, you are lucky to set foot inside the manor. It's usually closed to the public.”
“Don't you know, Miss Walker?” Evans leaned closer to her. “Money extends her hand to anyone willing to reach out for her. I am simply taking advantage of the opportunities she presents me with. Especially-”
Claudia willed herself not to visibly cringe.
“-if Lady Wealth allows me to converse with a beautiful woman like yourself.”
Ash's grip on her arm tightened. “Are you married, Mr. Evans?” He asked.
The man sighed. “Unfortunately, I have not found someone suited to my tastes.”
“A pity.” Claudia bit her lip to keep herself from laughing at Ash's obvious sarcasm. “I guess some women know what they're looking for.”
"Unless you're Ash and you never bothered looking in the first place," Claudia smartly replied.
"Or that," Ash agreed. "Why bother looking when I have you?"
She felt uncomfortable with the sudden display of affection. How uncharacteristic of her childhood friend.
"Gentlemen, Miss Walker,” Sebastian interrupted. “Dinner awaits.”
The dining room was well-lit in a splash of red and orange. As Ash assumed his place at the head of the table, Claudia seated herself at his right. Across from her, Evans loudly remarked on the china setting. Once seated, the chef brought out the soup. The cool liquid glowed in the twilight sun and Claudia had to force herself to swallow the bloody dish.
“You have prepared an excellent menu, butler,” Evans commented as he sliced through his steak.
Sebastian bowed. “I am honored by your praise but I cannot accept it, as Miss Walker was in charge of tonight's dinner preparations.”
Ash disguised a pleased smile behind a sip of wine. “Well done, Dia,” he murmured to Claudia. She flushed at the praise.
Evans glanced at the woman seated across from him. “You give your family credit, Miss Walker. Mr. Nightray is fortunate to have you as his wife.”
Something about the way Evans said those words sent shivers up her spine. “I am the fortunate one,” Claudia replied, her previous elation gone. “Ash is a kind man. But Sebastian is being modest—he is an excellent teacher in the ways of this household. Without his instruction, I think I would have failed and embarrassed my mother terribly.”
Laughing, the man addressed Ash, “You, my boy, are lucky indeed! Miss Walker is well-mannered and beautiful. Any man would seek her hand.”
“Then I am blessed to have known Claudia from a young age, as our mothers were particular friends. It seems I have been given an advantage over the other suitors in the city,” Ash answered softly, his voice like steel.
Claudia bit her lip. She could tell Ash did not like where this conversation was heading. He hated mixing his personal and business worlds together.
“Mr. Evans,” she abruptly changed the subject. “I heard from Ash you travel abroad often. Tell me, where have you been?”
Claudia knocked on the upstairs parlor door.
“Enter,” she heard Ash say.
Shutting the door behind her, Claudia apologized for interrupting their meeting. “It's fine,” Ash waved her apology away. “We were just finishing up.”
“Good. May I speak to you in private?”
Moving to a corner away from their guest, Claudia leaned forward and said, “Sebastian says there is a storm watch in effect. The weather reports advise against traveling,” she informed him in a quiet voice so that Evans would not overhear. “I had the maids prepare the guest room just in case.”
Ash frowned. “It can't be helped,” he sighed. “I wanted to be rid of him as soon as possible. Every time he opens his mouth to talk about something other than business, my hand starts twitching.”
“My fingers want to strangle him so he'll shut up,” he clarified with a lopsided smile. “And to think the Nightrays will be doing business with him for an indefinite amount of time...”
“Too ambitious!” Claudia groaned. “That's going to haunt you, Ash. Well, that's all I wanted to tell you before I went to bed.”
“You're going to sleep now?”
“It's eleven. Sebastian wants me up early to oversee breakfast,” she explained. “Anyways, I'm off to bed.”
He grabbed her hand to prevent her from leaving. “Wait a moment.” Dragging her back to their guest, Ash smiled and addressed their visitor, “Mr. Evans, Claudia tells me there's a storm coming. Won't you stay the night? I'd hate for you to be traveling in such weather.”
A pleased smile crept up on Evans's face. “If you insist, Mr. Nightray. You are generous indeed.”
“Good,” Ash nodded. “Would you excuse me for a few minutes? We can sign the agreement when I return.”
Blinking, Evans's gaze darted to the woman at Ash's side. After a moment, Evans nodded in consent. “It wouldn't do to leave an unmarried woman wandering the halls in a house full of men at night,” he added.
The smile slipped for a fraction of a second. “No, it wouldn't,” Ash agreed softly before leaving the room with Claudia.
The walk to her room was silent. Claudia fidgeted with her hands, suppressing the urge to interrogate Ash about their unnerving guest. Ash made it a point not to involve her in the family business, believing it would protect her from the manipulations of the overly-ambitious.
“Is everything alright?” Claudia gave into impulse.
“Fine,” came the clipped response.
She stiffened. How like Ash to leave her ignorant.
“Listen Ash,” Claudia snapped. “I need to know what's going on. In a less than a year, we'll be married and everything will be shared between us, including business problems.” She scowled. “You can't leave me out of the loop forever—how am I supposed to protect myself when you're not around? Tonight is the perfect time to start being honest.”
“Tonight,” Ash reminded her. “We are still only engaged. This has nothing to do with you-”
“Don't tell me it has nothing to do with me!” She raised her voice. “You've kept me at your side every time Mr. Evans is in the room. You never do that.”
They stopped in front of her door, exchanging angry stares.
“I knew I shouldn't have asked. You never change,” Claudia shook her head as she opened the door. “Good night.”
Ash made a grab for her before she slammed the door in his face. “I'm sorry,” he said, “But I can't explain things now. Dia, promise me you will not leave your room tonight. I don't trust Evans.”
“You trust him enough to do business with him,” she pointed out.
“That's different,” he argued. “A man can be a honest businessman but his personal life could be in shambles. Just-”
“Just what, Ash?”
“Just promise me you'll lock your door and stay in your room.” The man sighed, tired of arguing with his headstrong fiancée.
Something about the raw concern in his words made Claudia pause. “I promise,” she uttered softly, reaching out to touch his face. “If it's so important to you, then I promise.”
Ash let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
A tapping sound roused Claudia from sleep. Rolling over in her bed, she buried her ears under the thick comforter to block out the noise.
“Valerie, let me sleep for half an hour more,” Claudia grumbled to her usual attendant in the manor.
The reprimand died in Claudia's throat. Now fully awake, the woman realized something about her room seemed different. It was still dark outside; she placed the time at about one-fifteen in the morning. Shafts of blue moonlight filtered through the glass window panes, illuminating the immense floor rug lying before the fireplace.
Frowning, Claudia threw off the covers and stepped out of bed. Moving towards the clock on the mantle, she checked the time. One-fifteen, just as she predicted.
“Hello?” The woman called. “Is anybody there?”
She checked the door. It was still locked.
Startled by the loud noise, Claudia held her breath and waited for another sound. A pair of feet thundered past her door a few times before the doorknob rattled. Someone outside was trying to enter. Shaken, Claudia padded back to her bed, her fingers closing around the letter opener in her bedside drawer. She had a weapon should the intruder successfully open her door—all she needed was a hiding place. Feigning sleep was her best option at the moment. With that thought in mind, she slipped underneath the covers and waited. At one point, Claudia swore she heard the doorknob turn and a pair of footsteps approach her bed. The intruder loomed over her for a few minutes before turning around and walking out the door.
The hallway clock chimed twice. She had been hiding for forty-five minutes. Cautiously, Claudia poked her head out. The room was empty.
Screaming, the woman flew out of bed. Her fingers, moving on autopilot, unlocked the door and she sprinted down the hall towards Ash's room. Claudia heard a second set of footsteps behind her but she didn't dare look over her shoulder to confirm her suspicions. It must be Mr. Evans, Claudia immediately thought as she ran. Why else would Ash caution her against him? Every so often, she would cut through rooms, emerging in various parts of the house. Not once did her pursuer slow down behind her, keeping pace. She paused in one room—a storage room of some kind—to grab something to defend herself with. A series of keys hung inside a cabinet and Claudia grabbed the first one she saw before taking off again.
The voice was much closer this time. She closed her eyes and continued to run blind.
The clock chimed once.
Evans must have gotten lost in the maze of interconnecting doors; all she could hear was the sound of her harsh breathing. Halting her mad dash, Claudia looked down both directions of the hallway. Did she run past Ash's room? Her fiancé slept in the same room since infancy; there was no way Claudia could have ran by it, even with her constant weaving. She knew the manor well enough to navigate it with her eyes closed.
The clock rang the half hour tone. She spotted the large timepiece up ahead. Quickly, she strode towards it, intending to examine its face. The details on the clock would tell Claudia if she was headed in the right direction. Claudia exhaled in relief when she saw the spiraling gold leaves on its face; she wasn't far from her destination. Sinking to the floor, Claudia closed her eyes to rest momentarily.
A clap of thunder shook her awake, the blinding flash of lightning filling the hallway. A vine-like pattern decorated the carpet. She didn't remember there being vines on the floor. Another bolt of lightning struck the earth and Claudia watched the floor. The vines were absent; the floor was its usual soft gray. Her eye caught a movement on the wall behind her. Turning her head, Claudia watched, mesmerized, the same vine pattern dance and weave themselves together into a point on the wall. The vines stopped moving once they formed a series of tight stakes, like the teeth of a pitchfork. Blinking, Claudia wondered why the shadows formed such an ominous shape but an ogre appeared on the wall, seized the pitchfork, and hurled it at her. Claudia screamed again, scooting backwards to dodge the weapon since her key was only good for stabbing. Her back collided with the clock as the pitchfork sank into the carpet.
The clock rang twelve times. Perhaps the gears were out of sync again. It wouldn't be the first time the ancient clock had to be re-calibrated at odd hours of the day. Frowning, the woman opened up the glass cover to wind the gears. Her hand stopped in midair, dropping to her side as Claudia watched time run backwards.
“My God,” she whispered, scrambling away from the clock.
Her back hit the wall opposite. The ogre reached for her, wanting to crush Claudia between his meaty palms.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
A set of heavy footsteps echoed down the hall from where she came, distracting her from the strange clock and the monster ready to flatten her. At the same time, thunder cracked outside. A bolt of lightning lit up the hallway, revealing the location of their guest. Evans was closing in fast.
Renewed terror filled her as Claudia bolted down the hall. Skidding to a stop in front of Ash's door, she pulled it open and dashed towards his bedside.
“Oh my God, Ash, I know you said not to leave my room but he was there, inside. I locked it just as you said, but Ash-! There's something strange going on—the clock is running backwards and it seems like everything in the house is moving, closing in on me...”
He remained silent.
Claudia frowned. “Ash?”
Reaching out to shake him by the shoulder, Claudia tried to wake him but failed. A flash of lightning momentarily illuminated the room, showing Claudia the mutilated face of her childhood friend. Her nostrils flared and she could finally smell the sweet copper tang of blood in the air.
A wordless scream erupted from her throat. Covering her mouth with her hands, Claudia tried to hold the tears back but the saline drops continued to fall.
She froze at the sound of her name. “Who's there?”
Someone grabbed her from behind, covering her screaming mouth with wet hands. Claudia panicked, elbowed her assailant in the gut, and threw his arms off her. She tore down the hallway, down the flight of stairs, and pulled at the first door she saw. When it refused to open, Claudia jammed the key, her pathetic defense, into the keyhole and turned. Ash's murderer made his way down the stairs. Panicking, Claudia slammed the door behind her, fumbling with the lock. The smell of mothballs assaulted her nose and Claudia felt the soft brush of fur on her back.
She was in the closet.
Outside the door, someone was calling her name. Claudia held her breath, pressing herself into the coats. She kept moving backwards, waiting to collide with the closet's back wall but she never did.
The floor under her feet changed. Instead of the polished cherry oak she was used to, rough hewn stone scratched her bare skin.
“Claudia!” The voice echoed through the keyhole.
As long as Evans couldn't find her, she was safe. What better place to hide than this tunnel in a faux closet?
There was no light in the tunnel but Claudia rationalized it was better that way. If she couldn't see, there was nothing to be afraid of. The darkness was her ally.
Above her head, the sound of running feet and undistinguished screams filtered through the floorboards. Claudia squeezed her eyes shut, thinking it would stop the macabre images from flooding her head. Ash's bloody room came to mind first, followed by Sebastian's severed head rolling down the main staircase.
The tang of burning cedar filled her nose—the mansion was on fire again. She would never forget the scent. Claudia heard a maid scream as the fire ate away at her flesh.
The rhythmic sound of falling water bounced off the walls and erased the noises of the massacre above. The tunnel must have ended in a cave of some kind. If this was a cave somewhere on the property, then there must also be an exit leading off the grounds. If Claudia could escape the manor, then she could summon a policeman or a firefighter or an ambulance to the house. Perhaps someone would still be alive and could be saved.
She placed her hand on the wall and started walking. Claudia tripped over fallen timbers and broken crates every few feet, swearing at every new nick in her skin. Following the walls, she reached the fourth wall before her hand fell through a gap.
“Claudia, where are you?” Ash's voice bounced off the walls of the tunnel she came through.
“Miss Walker?” A second male voice called.
Terror seized her. What a terrible ploy, using Ash to lure her back into the manor. It must be a recording of some sort as Ash was dead, murdered by Evans. If she returned to the manor, Claudia would be dead the moment she emerged from the closet.
A light shone through the tunnel. "Claudia!" She heard Ash yell.
Two figures entered the cave and one of them directed a beam of light at her face. Claudia shrank back, immediately retreating into the far corner of the room.
"Stop running!" One of the figures gave chase.
“Stay away from me! Stay away, I tell you!” Claudia pushed away the hands reaching out for her. She kicked a flashlight out of someone's hand; a beam of light bounced off a shattered mirror, momentarily illuminating the faces of her assailants. Claudia screamed at the sight of Ash's mutilated face and Sebastian's headless body. A herd of ogres, all with Evans's cruel features, pounded on their chests, belting out a bloodthirsty cry.
Drip, drip—the blood ran off their bodies and fell to the floor.
“Found you,” her fiancé said as the flashlight rolled away, dimming the room.
Her breath caught in her throat. "Stay away," Claudia repeated weakly.
Then, the monsters swarmed.
A bright light shining on her face woke her. Claudia blinked a few times, checking her surroundings. She was in the manor again.
“You really are a stubborn one,” Ash sighed above her in exasperation. “I tell you not to take your naps on the study couch and you sleep there. I tell you not to open the closet but you do so anyways. You just have to have a reason for everything, don't you?”
Stunned, Claudia jerked. “You're alive...”
“Stop moving,” Ash told her severely, “Or I'm going to drop you. And what do you mean I'm alive? Of course I'm alive.”
“I thought... I thought Evans murdered you.”
“Evans? Do you mean our guest tonight?”
Her head spun. Their guest tonight? Evans hadn't even arrived at the manor yet? Breathless, Claudia recounted the experience—about the tapping in her room, the clock, finding Ash dead, and the tunnel in the closet. “Was it all a dream?” She asked. “It felt so real...”
“Probably,” Ash grunted as he carried her up the stairs. “We found you in the tunnels screaming hysterically a few moments ago.”
“Sebastian and myself. How did you end up there anyways? I thought I had Sebastian lock the closet. It's dangerous down there.”
“What is that place anyways? Why does the manor have something like that in the first place?”
One of the maids opened the door to her room for them. Setting her down on the bed, Ash took a seat beside her. “The tunnels used to be escape routes during the Revolution,” he explained. “The Nightrays also used them as hiding places during various wars and terror campaigns. But they haven't been used in years and are falling into disrepair. That's why I told you not to open the closet—you could easily get in and hurt yourself.”
“But I saw-”
“How could you see anything? It was pitch-dark down there. Claudia, are you sure you're okay? Maybe I should send you home-”
“No!” Her head snapped up. “I'm fine. I need to prove to Sebastian I can manage this household on my own.”
Ash studied her for a moment.
“If you say so.”
“Welcome back to the Nightray Manor, Mr. Evans. I hope you find everything to your liking during your stay,” Sebastian took the man's coat and hat.
In the upstairs corridor, Claudia tensed. She hid behind a pillar, watching the scene taking place in the foyer below.
Their guest looked the same as he did in her nightmare, with curls of sandy blond hair kept at a boyish length and hazel eyes scanning the manor in curiosity. Evans laughed deep from his stomach. “Your master is as strict as ever, butler. Where is that little brat?”
“Master Ash had a teleconference that ran late,” Sebastian's words floated to her ears. “He-”
“-apologizes for not being able to greet you personally when you arrived,” Claudia mouthed along with the butler.
It's almost the same... Her heart rate sped up.
“What are you doing, lurking around like that?”
Claudia jumped when Ash appeared behind her. “Nothing. I didn't want to go down without you. Say Ash, has Mr. Evans visited the manor before?”
He frowned. “Why do you ask?”
“Just... answer the question.”
He studied her for a moment longer. “A few times,” Ash finally answered. “Though the first time was right before my parents died and he was sixteen, already learning the family business at his father's side. I didn't think you'd remember him since all you remember from that time is the fire.”
“Business must be good,” Evans's voice floated up the stairway.
“We'll talk later, Dia,” her fiancé assured her hastily before announcing, “Business will be better if you sign the agreement between our companies.”
Her feet moved after Ash automatically. Claudia heard him introduce her to Evans, curled her lips into a mannequin's smile, and felt her hand be kissed. She jerked her fingers away from their guest.
“You've grown up, Miss Walker. The last time we met, you were still a child,” Evans commented with an awkward smile, trying to lighten up the tension.
“I'm afraid I don't remember our meeting,” Claudia answered stiffly. “My fiancé tells me our first meeting was before Lord Nightray died.”
Evans froze at the mention of the previous family head. “Yes—we met the day he died.”
Ash took hold of her arm. “To dinner, Mr. Evans?” He flashed the man an enigmatic smile. “I hear the chef has outdone himself and prepared us a feast.”
The repeated line sent shivers down Claudia's spine. It was like they were in a play, reciting a script that everyone but Claudia knew.
“The famed hospitality of the Nightray home,” Evans mused. “What a privilege to experience it again.”
She knew what to say next. “You are lucky indeed,” Claudia replied with shaky confidence. “My fiancé does not usually play host to guests.”
“Gentlemen, Miss Walker,” Sebastian interrupted. “Dinner awaits.”
The play skipped forward.
Claudia raised her hand to knock on the study door.
“Enter,” Ash allowed.
Closing the door softly behind her, Claudia apologized for interrupting their meeting. Ash waved her apology aside. “It's fine. We were just finishing up,” he said.
“Good. May I speak to you in private?”
Her feet led them to the opposite corner of the room, away from their guest. “Sebastian says there is a storm watch in effect and traveling is ill-advised. The maids have prepared the guest room just in case,” Claudia whispered.
Ash sighed. “Damn. I wanted to be rid of him soon. He never shuts up about Lord Nightray this or Lord Nightray used to do that. It's driving me crazy.”
Frowning, Claudia scrunched her face in confusion. “I thought he'd only met your father once.”
“That's what I thought.” Ash tugged at his tie, loosening its hold around his neck. “But according to our guest,” he rolled his eyes. “He accompanied his father to several business meetings with my father. Lord Nightray is, and I quote, the greatest man alive.”
Claudia winced. Ash hated being compared to his father.
“Not only that,” he continued with his tirade. “But Evans won't stop talking about you and how you're perfect in every way possible. He's too interested in you, Dia, and I don't like it.”
She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I'll leave you to decide what to do with our guest,” Claudia said. “I'm going to bed.”
Just as she dreamed earlier, Ash escorted her to her room before returning to the parlor to finish his business. Claudia wondered as she shut the door if tonight she would dream of ogres and burning closets.
She woke at one-fifteen.
The letter opener she pulled out as a weapon bit into her palm but Claudia ignored the shallow cuts, concentrating instead on the noise that pulled her from fiery nightmares. The soft footsteps walking down the carpeted hallway were headed towards the northern part of the house where Ash's bedroom was located.
Eyes wide, Claudia threw off her blankets and ran into the hallway. She cut through the old service corridors between the rooms, emerging from a door beside her fiancé's bedroom. Throwing open Ash's door, Claudia hurried to his bedside. Ash was already awake and furiously glaring at her from his bed.
“I was sleeping,” he reminded her frostily.
“Evans is going to kill you,” Claudia told him bluntly.
He scoffed. “Don't be ridiculous,” Ash snapped. “I know you don't like him, Claudia, but this little game you're playing has gone too far. Are you trying to sabotage the financial future of our children?”
“This isn't about the company!” Claudia screamed. “This is about you and how you're going to die tonight!”
Her outburst shocked him. “How do you know?”
The question caught her off-guard. Faltering, Claudia chewed on her lip. “I... I dreamed about it.”
“You dreamed about it,” Ash repeated in a flat voice. “You have such... credible sources. What is going on, Dia? First, you're wandering through the most dangerous part of the manor, then you're being aloof towards our visitor, and now you think Evans is going to kill me. I'll ask you again: are you sure you're alright?”
Frustrated, Claudia fisted her dress at her sides. “I'm fine. Sorry for waking you. I think I'll visit the library for a book to read. Maybe it'll help me sleep.”
“Claudia,” Ash stopped her before she exited through the door. “Are you still having nightmares about the fire?”
She paused before answering.
She didn't go to the library like she said she would. Instead, Claudia detoured to the study. Evans's contract was sitting on the desk, not to Claudia's surprise. She turned on the desk lamp, read through the agreement, and found nothing out of the ordinary. Evans had much to gain from partnering with the Nightrays.
Frustrated, Claudia threw the papers back on the desk. The contract hit a cup of pens, knocking it and the pile of folders beside it askew. A worn and slightly charred edge caught the woman's attention and she picked up the old folder. It was labeled in Lord Nightray's neat handwriting: Evans Textile Partnership.
The scent of burning cedar filled her nose and someone lit up a cigarette in the dark corner of the study. Claudia broke out into a cold sweat. Her throat closed up and it hurt to breathe. Hyperventilating, Claudia clutched the desk's edge to stay upright.
“Do you remember now?” Evans's soft baritone reverberated from the cigarette-lit corner.
“Remember what?” The woman asked, taking deep breaths to regain her composure.
Evans took a seat on the divan. “Let me tell you a story: one day, an over-controlling bastard dragged his delinquent son to a series of business meetings between his company and his proposed partner's. While working out the specifics of the contract at the partner's home, his son was left to wander the opulent manor. He set about his usual routine of wrecking his father's deals through acts of vandalism and scandal. First, he-”
“I don't want to hear about it,” Claudia told him in a strong voice.
“The son,” Evans continued with a patient smile. “Lit a cigarette—harmless really—to start the day. He cut the phone wires and smashed the circuit breaker. One by one, he dismantled each security and safety feature of the house. In the middle of taking apart the fire alarm, a little girl playing hide-and-go-seek came barreling around the corner.”
Claudia froze. The memories she repressed came back detail by detail.
“She knocked the cigarette out of the son's mouth and apologized for running into him before taking off again. He could never find that little nicotine stick.”
“No...” Claudia whispered in horror. “You're lying to me.”
Evans gave her patronizing smile. “The son and his father left soon after, agreeing to return in a few days to sign the contract. The trip never happened—the manor burned to the ground ten minutes after their departure. Official reports claimed it started because of 'faulty electrical wiring,' but the son knew... he knew the fire had to do with a certain cigarette and one stupid little girl.”
“You killed them,” Claudia realized.
“Not quite.” Evans stood up and advanced towards her. “You killed them, Claudia. After all, if you hadn't-”
“STOP IT! YOU'RE A MONSTER!”
“Who's the monster here?” He asked her coldly. “Do you have any idea what I had to go through after the fire? I was placed under house arrest for five years and treated as the prime suspect in the following arson investigation. No girl wanted to be around a murder suspect.”
“It's not my fault,” Claudia protested.
“Of course it's your fault,” the man reasoned. “My father had a stroke and died right before the Nightray fire was labeled as a tragic accident. If only he had lived, then I wouldn't be spending the best years of my life behind a desk, taking care of a company I want to burn to the ground.”
Evans squashed the cigarette butt into a decorative dish. Reaching into his pocket, Evans pulled out a book of matches and a slim whiskey flask.
“Drinking at a time like this? Have you lost your mind?” Claudia couldn't help but make the sarcastic remark.
“Maybe I have,” Evans answered her pleasantly as he lit a match.
The striking sound made Claudia jump. “What are you doing with that match?” She asked in alarm.
Unscrewing the cap of the flask, Evans tossed the open bottle at her. Whiskey splashed onto her nightdress despite Claudia's efforts to dodge the projectile. She tripped over a lamp cord and Evans pressed a foot onto her stomach to keep her in place.
“Let me go! Stay away from me, you ogre!” Claudia spat as she struggled to remove his foot from her torso.
“How fitting,” Evans commented softly. “A woman full of fire dies by fire.”
He dropped the match and something exploded.
The bright lights blinded her as Claudia regained consciousness.
“Water,” her dry throat croaked out.
Ash helped her sit up and handed her a glass. Drinking deeply, Claudia asked for another. He gave it to her.
“You scared me half to death,” her fiancé said. “How do you feel?”
Glancing around, Claudia realized she was in the hospital. Touching her side, she felt a thick layer of bandages wrapped around her abdomen.
“Like I slept for too long. What happened?” Claudia eased back into her pillow.
Ash told her what happened that night. After she left his room, Ash decided to sleep with the pistol he kept in his bedside table drawer in case her fears were realized. He sent Sebastian to find out the whereabouts of their visitor, but the butler returned with the news that Evans was in the study with his fiancée. Alarmed, Ash rushed downstairs in case Evans tried to rape Claudia. The study door was locked and by the time Sebastian opened the lock with the master key, Ash saw Evans standing over Claudia with a match falling from his hand.
“I didn't think—I pulled the trigger and shot him in the heart,” Ash confessed. “You passed out when the alcohol on your skin came in contact with the flame. Sebastian doused you with cold water and one of the maids called the police. We took you to the hospital soon after.”
Claudia sat in silence. “Ash,” she called tentatively. “Do you remember what we were doing before the fire started?”
He regarded her with a curious stare. “We were playing hide-and-go-seek. It was your turn to hide,” Ash answered after a moment.
Eyes wide, Claudia remembered what Evans told her.
The son knew the fire had to do with a certain cigarette and one stupid little girl.
She started to scream.