Then his face hardens and he points at me. “That’s what I get for trying to help your mute arse? Have fun making a fool of yourself.”

I don’t blink until he’s down the stairs and gone.

Willard slow-claps as he walks down the hall to me.

“Swamp donkey?”

I shrug. “It just came to me.”

“Impressive.” Then he bows and kisses the back of my hand. “You were magnificent.”

“Not half bad, right? It felt good.”

“And you didn’t blush once.”

I push my dark hair out of my face, laughing self-consciously. “Seems like I forget all about being nervous when I’m defending someone else.”

Willard nods. “Good. And though I hate to be the twat who points it out, there’s something else you should probably start thinking about straight away.”

“What’s that?”

“The presentation in front of hundreds of people.”

And just like that, the tight, sickly feeling washes back over me.

So this is what doomed feels like.

I lean against the wall. “Oh, broccoli balls.”

AFTER I GET OFF WORK, I walk to my flat, about half a mile away. My building is plain but well-kept, with a garden and sitting area on the roof. There’s a newly married couple with an even newer baby in the unit above me—David, Jessica, and little Barnaby—and an elderly couple, Felix and Belinda, together forty years, in the unit below.

I put my keys in the crystal bowl by the door, like always. Then I slip out of my coat and shoes and put both in the closet. Also, like always.

I don’t have a roommate or a pet, so my sitting room is just how I left it this morning, neat and spotless, with its beige sofa and burnt-orange throw pillows, matching drapes, pictures of my mother and sister on the end table and my favorite book covers framed on the walls.

The crowning glory of my sitting room isn’t the flat-screen television or the wood-burning stove in the corner. It’s the bookcase, poised between the two windows.

Six shelves, as high as the ceiling, made of driftwood. I found it at a Christmas market a few years back. It was a shabby piece then, plain and dull—sort of like me—but I could tell the planks were made of sturdy stuff, and they would not buckle. So I brought it home, sanded and polished it, and placed my dearest and most prized possessions upon it—my collection of first-edition classic novels. The full Jane Austen collection, the Brontë sisters, Dickens—they’re all here. Although I enjoy good contemporary romance or chick lit as much as the next woman, these are the ones I come back to—stories that no matter how often I reread them are every bit as moving every time.

The flat is small, with only a sliver of ocean view from the bedroom window, but I pay for it myself—not from the family trust fund.

There’s satisfaction in earning one’s own money. Self-sufficiency—like knowing how to rub sticks together to start a fire. A survival skill. I could make it in the wilderness if I had to.

Well . . . if the wilderness were Castlebrook, anyway.

The thing is, when you’re dependent on others, they hold a part of your happiness in their hands. They can nurture it or crush it at any moment. Your fate doesn’t belong to you. I’ve seen how that works—it’s not pretty. My life may be small and simple, but it’s all mine.

In the kitchen, I fill the pot for tea. Normally, I’d start dinner now, but it’s Wednesday—

Wednesdays and Sundays are dinner days with Mother and Penelope.

I have an hour before I need to leave, so it’ll be tea and . . . Sense and Sensibility for a bit. It’s the perfect read. Just enough drama and angst to be interesting, but mostly light and entertaining, with the happiest ending. Colonel Brandon is my favorite—the ultimate book husband. He made good and upstanding look sexy as all get-out. Someday, I’ll meet a man just like him—romantic, steady, and reliable—and I don’t give a damn how silly that sounds. How immature or fanciful.

Because I have a theory.

If nightmares can come true, and sometimes they do . . . then so can our happiest dreams.

Once my peppermint tea is ready, I sink into the chaise lounge in my bedroom, throw a soft, velour blanket over my legs, open my book—and block out the world.

Some people look at their family and wonder if they’re adopted. Others hope they are.

I never wonder. Because my mother is so clearly the combination of my and my sister’s personalities. Or maybe we’re each half of hers. She’s reclusive—she hates cities, shuns parties, rarely leaves the estate, and doesn’t entertain friends—at least not human ones. She’s most content in the greenhouse tending and talking to her flowers. But here, within the confines of her own personal fiefdom, she runs the show. She’s colorful and exuberant—just like Penelope. In the last few years she’s taken to wearing bright, paisley silk housedresses handmade in China and dyeing her hair a sunrise red—melding into a crossbreed of Sense and Sensibility’s Mrs. Dashwood and Shirley MacLaine in her prime.

Some in our social circle call her eccentric. Others call her the Crazy Countess. Penny likes “off her rocker.” But I don’t think Mother’s nutty at all. It’s just that she tried living life by other people’s rules and it didn’t work out. So now, she lives as she likes . . . and everyone else can go to hell.

“Hello, my darling,” she greets me in a quiet voice.

Tags: Emma Chase Royally Erotic