Isabel Aediles was in a lot of pain. Her throat ached and burned and her head throbbed. She raised a hand and touched her throat—the skin felt hot and swollen beneath her fingers. She pushed gently and a sharp pain seized her. Her hand fell down to her side and she groaned.
For a moment, she wondered if she was dead. She was sure she'd been on the brink of death. A hazy, glimmering light had appeared in the corner of the dark prison cell, filling her body with burning pain. The light got brighter and brighter and she shut her eyes.
But if she was dead, why was she in such pain? Had the prison director decided to save her at the last minute? She groaned and tried to move her body. Besides the pain in her throat and the aching in her head, she felt okay. The burning fever was gone and her heart thumped a steady rhythm in her chest.
"You should have let me die," she moaned.
"Die?" a deep voice asked. "Never."
She blinked, trying to see the speaker. The voice sounded a lot like Howard Denmark but that was impossible. What would he be doing in prison? She closed her eyes. Maybe she was still hallucinating, maybe death took longer than she'd realized.
"Open your eyes, Isabel," the deep voice said. "You're not dying, and you're certainly not in prison."
She groaned—without realizing it she'd been talking aloud again. The prison was lonely and too quiet. Talking to herself filled the dark emptiness and kept her from losing her mind in the silence.
Her eyes flickered open. A handsome face hovered just inches from hers and she found herself staring up at Howard Denmark. Though it had been years, he looked exactly the same as the last time she'd seen him: powerful jawline, smooth and shaven skin with icy blue eyes.
His face was severe and angry, but a sudden warmth flooded her. She raised a trembling hand and stroked his cheek—touched by his presence. She hadn't gotten a single visitor since arriving in prison. Howard hated her more than most but had somehow decided to visit her.
A hot flood of embarrassment rushed through her body. She knew she looked terrible. During her weekly trips to the prison showers, she managed to catch her reflection in the polished metal mirror bolted to the wall. Though she was six years younger than Howard, she knew she could pass as his mother.
"Thank you for coming to see me, Howard," she whispered. Her throat ached with each word but she continued, "I'm so happy to see you—it means so much to me."
The icy blue eyes narrowed and Howard asked, "What are you talking about?"
"Sorry," she whispered. "The ramblings of a dying woman filled with regret."
"What are you talking about?" he asked. "Why do you keep saying that you are dying? "
"I am," she whispered. "I know I don't deserve your forgiveness, but please, would you hold my hand a moment?"
A large, warm hand closed around hers and she smiled and drifted into blackness.
Howard stared down at Isabel's face. Her eyes were closed, and her long eyelashes brushed against the tops of her cheeks. Though her skin was pale, she still looked lovely and beautiful. Her delicate features looked peaceful when she slept—when she was awake they were usually twisted in anger and disdain.
"Get me a doctor," he hissed.
Within minutes the house doctor stood by the bedside checking Isabel's vitals, took her pulse, and listened to her heart while Howard kept her hand in his.
"She's not dying," the doctor said. "Her neck is injured, but she'll recover."
"She thinks she's dying," Howard said. "She's hallucinating and keeps talking about prison."
"She's just exhausted," the doctor said. "She's been through a lot today. Let her rest."
Howard looked down at her face. There were deep, purple circles beneath her eyes and a hideous blue bruise spread across her delicate neck. He sighed and released her small hand from his.
He stroked the soft skin on her cheek and her eyes flickered open. Her pupils widened with surprise.
"Oh, you're really here," she whispered. "I thought I was dreaming."
Howard's heart thudded in his chest—she was happy to see him. He closed his eyes and willed the strange, hopeful feeling to go away. She was confused and hallucinating. The gentle smile on her lips was not shown for him.
"What do you want, Isabel?" he asked. "Is this place really a prison for you? Do you still want to escape?"
"Escape?" she laughed bitterly. "What hope do I have to escape? I'm dying, Howard. I've paid for my mistakes and I just want it to end."
"You want to die?" Howard asked.
"I do," she groaned. "Everyone lied to me, Howard. The people I trusted betrayed me and I have nothing left to hope for. Death would be merciful. You should have finished the job."
He pulled his hand away from her face and leaped up from his seat. His chest ached. She'd rather die than be with him. She wished he'd killed her. He was a fool for even letting himself hope.
"Keep an eye on her," he ordered a servant as he strode out of the room.
Isabel jerked upright as the door slammed shut. She rubbed her eyes and looked around. The room was dark but not as black as her prison cell. A thin beam of golden sunlight filtered through a gap in the curtains. Curtains? There weren't curtains in prison—just a thin slit of a window, three feet tall and one foot wide. She blinked, willing her eyes to focus.
She wasn't in her prison cell. Instead of damp concrete walls, she saw golden fleur de lis wallpaper. Her narrow prison bed had disappeared and she found herself in a soft king-size bed wrapped in a down duvet. She looked around the room and found surprisingly that it was familiar—it was one of the guest rooms in Howard Denmark's family estate. She'd spent fifteen days in here many years ago.
She raised her hands above her head, surprised by how easily and lightly they moved. Moving slowly, she swung her legs out from the bed and padded barefoot across the soft, silk carpet. She crossed the dim room to the antique vanity and stared into the mirror.
She couldn't believe what she saw—she was beautiful and young again. The fine lines around her eyes and mouth had vanished and her skin was smooth and plump. She touched her own face, amazed at how soft it felt beneath her fingers. Hardly daring to believe her eyes, she leaned closer to the mirror and looked again. There were dark circles under her eyes, but her lips were full and round. Most miraculous of all, her hair was long and dark and full again—not graying and brittle and short.
She was distracted by her young face, she almost didn't notice the horrible purpling bruise on her neck. She slid her fingers down from her face to the bruise and gasped—the bruise was shaped like a hand. Someone had tried to strangle her.
"Hello?" she asked, sure there was a servant somewhere in the large room.
"Yes, Mrs. Denmark?" a servant replied from the corner of the room.
Isabel froze—Mrs. Denmark? She must have heard wrong.
"What day is it?" she asked.
"Now, really, Mrs. Denmark, you should know that," the servant scolded. "It's your wedding day—though you've done a fine job ruining that."
"My wedding day?" she stammered.
"I think you should lie down to rest," the servant said. "Or I'll have to tell Mr. Denmark you've been up and out of bed."
Isabel nodded and padded back to the large bed. She sank down onto the soft surface and wrapped herself in the warm duvet. Her head spun. The last thing she could remember was burning with a fever in her small prison bed. How was she in Howard Denmark's house? And why did she look young again?
"Are you sure it's my wedding day?" she called across the room.
"Positive," the servant said. "Are you sure you're well, Mrs. Denmark?"
"I don't know," she said.
She closed her eyes and tried to make sense of it all. Her wedding day had happened ten years ago—what was the servant talking about? And why had the servant called her Mrs. Denmark? She had never married Howard.
Though it had happened ten years ago, she remembered it all so clearly: preparing to escape with Noah Cameron and Janet Hanover, running across the wooded estate, the dogs chasing after her. She shuddered and ran through the rest of her memories, wondering if she'd made them all up. She shook her head—she could never have made up that much pain and suffering.
In the corner of the room, she heard the servant whisper, "Yes, Mr. Denmark is awake."
A few minutes later, the door crashed open and Howard Denmark stalked into the room.
"I hope you're well enough to have a talk now," he said. "Because we need to get a few things straight."