In 1903, Quintus Midnight rescues Catriona from a brothel after her relatives sell her. He offers her sanctuary at Midnight Manor, and more than that, he offers her his heart. For him, Catriona’s blindness is a blessing, because she can’t see the scars that mar his face. But when she learns what Quintus is and wants to be like him, he’s faced with a difficult decision: Keep her as she is and risk losing her forever, or heal her and risk losing her forever.
Catriona shifted in the coach’s seat, feeling the strain on her buttocks from the long ride since they got off the train in Munich. “Are we nearly there, Miss Otto?”
“Cease your prattle.”
Her mouth dropped open at the sharp rebuke from the older woman. Catriona frowned, wondering what she had done to stir Miss Otto’s ire. The companion had seemed like charm itself from the moment she arrived at her relatives’ home in London to see Catriona to the special school. As the journey wore on, she had become less pleasant.
Perhaps she had asked too many questions. Her curiosity might have grated on the other woman’s nerves. She bit her tongue, forcing back the sharp comment about Miss Otto acting as her eyes. Instead, Catriona smoothed her woolen skirt and shifted yet again, seeking a comfortable spot on the hard seat. The horses traversed the terrain at a brisk pace, rocking the carriage from side to side. She would be relieved when they arrived in the capitol, Stossburg, and her companion left her at the school.
She sighed and gave up trying to find a comfortable way to sit. Her thoughts wandered from the unpleasant journey to what awaited her at the small school in the heart of Lasënbourg. Aunt Victoria had assured her she would relearn everything she had so easily known before the accident claimed her vision. Uncle Frederick hadn’t said much of anything, but she was used to that.
During the year circumstances had forced her to live with them, the only time he spoke to her was to remind her to be grateful to them for taking her in and to tell her how expensive she was to maintain. Her mouth twisted as she mused she must be, considering her relatives had already frittered away a large sum of her inheritance, mostly on her spoiled cousin Prudence.
Catriona was under no illusion that they were sending her to the school because it was in her best interests. They simply wanted her out of the way.
She stiffened as the horses stepped onto a different texture. It sounded like their shoes now rang out against cobblestone, rather than hard earth. She could also hear the bustle of a crowd and smell the underlying stench always present in a city. She risked incurring Miss Otto’s wrath again. “Have we arrived in Stossburg, Miss Otto?”
“Yes,” she said, and didn’t bother to expand on her answer.
She hid a grimace at the woman’s abruptness. During their ride through London and traveling via ship from England to Germany, Miss Otto had occasionally provided a visual commentary. Again, she wondered what had caused the woman to change so drastically in the last few hours.
The carriage ride lasted another ten or fifteen minutes, during which time Catriona repositioned her hat by touch and tried to banish the case of nerves twisting her stomach into knots. Her aunt had assured her of the school’s fine reputation, letting her know it only accepted young women from the best families. Aunt Victoria had hinted there was trouble getting them to take her, but Catriona had ignored her aunt’s implied insult.
She had grown a thick skin to their derogatory comments, having heard them so plentifully in the past thirteen months. Catriona knew a great deal of their bitterness sprang from the fact she was still more beautiful than their plain daughter could ever be, even without her sight. Part of it she attributed to sourness that she had survived the accident when her parents hadn’t. If she had only had the good grace to perish along with her parents, their burdens would have eased.
Catriona sighed, reminding herself of her vow not to think of the Bonners again. This school was a new start for her. She had to focus on the positive, for she had dwelled in the dark pit of her memories long enough. She might go mad if she continued to live in darkness. She wanted to return to the self-assured woman she had been before the accident.
However, it was difficult to escape when darkness would be her companion for the rest of her life. It was impossible to forget when the knowledge pressed on her from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning—and saw nothing—until she eventually fell into a restless sleep at night.
The carriage drew to a stop near a noisy crowd, rich with bawdy singing, raised voices, and angry words. She lifted the curtain covering the window and smelled alcohol fumes, although she didn’t know if she could have done so before losing her sight. Her other senses had sharpened to compensate, but it was little compensation. “Where are we, Miss Otto?”
“I don’t want any fuss from you, Fräulein.” The sound of the door opening accompanied her words, before Miss Otto slid her wide girth across the seat. Seconds later, the heels of her boots struck the cobblestone with a dull thud.
Catriona shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s best you just accept things as they are,” the woman said. “Come along now.”
Fear paralyzed Catriona, making it impossible for her to slide across the seat. “Please, Miss Otto, what’s happening?”
“Come out of there now,” Miss Otto barked.
She shook her head. “I should prefer to go straight to the school.” Catriona didn’t know where they were, but she knew it wasn’t any refined school for blind young women. Panic clawed at her throat as she began to wonder if there even was a school. Miss Otto’s cold laugh answered her internal question, even before she spoke. “You daft cow, there is no school. Your family wanted you out of the way. Seems the young man your cousin set her heart on has the eye for you.”
She shuddered, imagining a life as Barnus Townsend’s wife. She almost thanked her aunt and uncle from saving her from the fate of spending the next fifty years with that small-minded prig. Almost. “I still don’t understand, Miss Otto.”
“They sold you to me, Fräulein.” There was a rustle of papers. “It’s all legal and binding.”
Catriona gasped, clutching her hand to her heart. “Sold me? Fo…for what purpose?” The sounds coming from the building increased in pitch, and she swallowed thickly. She had never ventured inside such places as this one sounded to be, but she knew of men’s clubs and worse, where young men frittered away their purses. This seemed like that sort of establishment, judging from what she heard.
“To please the gentlemen. You’ll adjust soon enough,” Miss Otto said pragmatically. “You might even come to enjoy it, Fräulein.”
Catriona shook her head. “I can’t. Please, you can’t make me do that.”
The woman’s voice was hard. “I paid good money for you. I’ve wasted enough time on this foolishness. Remove yourself from the carriage, or I’ll have someone carry you in.”
She dug her fingers into the bench, sitting tensely. Tears streaked down her cheeks, and she held her breath, listening for any sounds that might herald a way out. Instead, all she heard were heavy footsteps, followed by the coach dipping sideways as someone stepped inside. Catriona screamed when large hands fastened on her arms and dragged her forward. Her fingers slipped from their death grip on the seat, and she was soon out of the carriage.
The man holding her smelled of spirits and sweat. He had a large frame, and his unwashed hair brushed against her cheek as he slung her over his shoulder. Catriona kicked against him, but he seemed not to notice as he walked forward. The sounds from the tavern grew louder, then the fresh air disappeared, and the pitch of the sounds changed.
She choked on her first lungful of smoky air. The piano played a jaunty tune as two women sang a song she never would have heard in the salons of London. Whistles and catcalls intermingled with angry words and a lewd comment. She struggled to hide her fear as the man carried her through the room.
When he started climbing the stairs, she dared to hope she would receive a temporary reprieve. Surely, she could reason with Miss Otto. There must be some other duty she could perform instead of whoring.
The sound of his footfalls changed when they emerged onto the landing. She heard the sound of giggles and drunken male voices as the man’s boots clomped down the wooden hallway, landing with a heavy thud with each step. He stopped walking, and a door opened. When he entered, she gagged at the odor in the room.
It smelled of unwashed bodies and something indefinable. She could smell cheap perfume, probably used in an attempt to mask the other scents, and the acrid smell of cigar smoke. It seemed to be a stale layer in the air.
“Please, sir,” she said, trying to keep the tears from her voice. “Don’t let Miss Otto do this.”
His only answer was a grunt as he dropped her.