“I will absolutely not marry you.”
New Year’s Day. The day for resolutions and goal-setting. The day to leave the previous year’s blunders and pitfalls in the past, to look to the future with hope and determination.
My hope for a future filled with anything good was ruined the moment my father demanded I meet him in his office. I entered the room where my parents, Matthew Johanssen, and his son, Daniel, stood. Their sleazy smiles twisted their lips, and an air of arrogance swirled so heavily around them they reeked of it.
Never mind Daniel had been my boyfriend for over a year. There was no way I was marrying him. Hell, I didn’t even want to be dating him.
Anger suffused my pores. My jaw ached from the tension in it, and my nails were digging so harshly into my palms it was a wonder blood wasn’t dripping onto the Persian rug beneath my feet.
Glaring at Daniel, I saw the complete ruination of my future if I went along with this. I’d been the obedient debutante daughter long enough. It was time I finally put my foot down.
Both of them.
They could not make me do this.
Roger Marquess had never been a particularly overly affectionate father, but I did remember a time when he had been kind with a deep laugh that fell easily from his thick lips. His green eyes that matched mine had lost their luster long ago, and that laugh I’d loved so much had vanished around the time I hit puberty. Now he was cold and calculated. He had stress lines etched around his lips and eyes, and deep wrinkles dug into his forehead. His body was his temple, kept in shape through hours of golf and tennis and working out at the country club gym. While I still thought he was one of the most handsome men in Charleston, I hated everything that came from inside of him.
“What did you do?” I asked, glaring at him and wishing arrows could shoot from my eyes straight to his heart. At worst, they could possibly get the broken muscle beating again.
His face, tanned from frequent rounds on the golf course, turned as white as a sheet, and his typically overly confident demeanor wavered.
“What I can to keep you safe—the only thing I can do.” For the first time in years, my dad turned pleading, bloodshot eyes to me. They softened, begging me in his silence in a way that rocked me back on my heels.
He didn’t know. He couldn’t know that being with Daniel was the least safe place I could ever be.
Next to me, my mother’s hand wrapped around my elbow. It shook, and she hadn’t separated from me since our presence in my father’s office was demanded. I fought the strong urge to shake her off even though her touch was unwelcome. It wouldn’t do to cause a scene.
“What does that mean?”
Matthew all but sneered at me and my defiance. To him, women were still meant to be silenced and relegated to the kitchen. His son was no better. If anything, he was worse. He was shrewd and seemed inhuman, and every time he looked my way, hairs prickled on the back of my neck. And his wife? She was barely seen in public, and when she made brief appearances, she appeared to be a shell of a woman. Maybe she was there in body, but her mind and spirit had long since been broken.
“It has been agreed.” He leisurely sipped a glass of Scotch from my dad’s crystal highball set. I would bet that if I were to smash that crystal to his face, seeing blood splatter from his nose as I broke it would be the best thing that happened to me all year.
“I am twenty-eight years old, not twelve, so I suggest you start talking to me like an adult and not a child. As far as I’m aware, we are in the twenty-first century, meaning if I do not want to marry someone, I do not have to.”
He sucked in a breath between his teeth and set down his glass with such a cold, calculated move my back straightened involuntarily. He leaned in almost imperceptibly, but it felt like he was inches from me when his glare pierced me. “Refuse, and it’s your father who will pay with blood. And that’s only minor compared to what will happen to you.”
“What?” I stumbled back, my mom’s firm grip on my arm the only thing keeping me upright.
Next to Matthew, my dad blustered and pleaded, but it all roared in my ears like an incoming hurricane.
I faced Daniel. His arrogant, soulless expression made me want to vomit. I hated him slightly more than the rest of them. “Why? I don’t want this, and I certainly don’t love you.”
“You’ll learn your place.” He said it with the excitement of a man plucking lint off his suit, like I was inconsequential—and to him, I was. I’d learned that long ago. Still carried bruises from it.
My place. My place? Where in the hell had I been transported to, the Victorian era?
I gaped at him, shocked and yet unsurprised. This wasn’t the worst thing Daniel had done to me, but he would never hurt me again.
Matthew turned to my dad, who was still blustering but regaining the natural color in his face.
“Get control of your daughter. You know her fate if you refuse.”
My fate? What in the hell did that mean?
Dad turned to me with regret sparking in his green eyes. He blinked slowly, and his shoulders slumped forward. “Adrianna…”
This fight was worthless. They could try to force me to do anything they wanted, and hell, Daniel had done enough of it. Nothing would come from more verbal sparring.
I was trapped, for now. While my head might have been spinning at the threats issued toward my father, at the way my dad begged, I wasn’t afraid.
For the first time in my miserable, protected life, I was feeling alive. Brave. Strong.
I clung to those thoughts, because it seemed I was going to need this newfound strength.
“Fine.” It wasn’t the four-letter word I wanted to use, but I still spit it out like a curse.
Daniel stepped forward then and curled his hands arounds my shoulders. My spine went rigid as he pulled me from my mom’s hold toward him. Like he knew exactly where they were, his fingertips pressed against the bruises he’d left on my arms only days ago, and I fought against the instinct to flinch and spit in his face. My fight turned him on, made him harder in places that filled my stomach with disgust.
No, I had learned a year before that it was always better to be pliant.
One of his hands, palm cooled probably from the ice that ran in his veins instead of blood, brushed up my throat, stalling on my pulse before cupping my cheek.
“We will marry on February fourteenth. The plans are already in motion.” He raked his eyes down my body, leaving me desperate for a shower and a wool coat. “The day to celebrate love is the perfect day to begin our love story. Don’t you agree?”
Not a love story—a nightmare. Still, I knew how to behave, how to play the part.
All I saw in his lecherous gaze was evil. If Daniel had ever had a soul, he’d sold it long ago.
“Sure, Daniel.” I said it with all the venom coursing through my body. I’d find a way out of this, but it wouldn’t be today. I had six weeks, but if I wanted that time to plan without suspicion, I had to be agreeable.
“Good. Then let’s finalize the details.” Matthew clapped his hands then slapped my dad on the back, turning them back to where files lay open on my dad’s desk.
I stayed silent, dismissed as soon as I agreed, although I knew they didn’t need it.
They were already making plans.
This was a foregone conclusion.
A fire I thought I’d long since quenched rose up from my gut and spread through my veins, making the roots of my hair feel like they were burning.
I would acquiesce on this day to this agreement, but it was the last time I’d do so.
Because I would marry Daniel Johanssen over my dead body.