Seven Forbidden Arts #6
Alice Jones has loved one man only–the man who stripped her from her clothes and defenses to leave her vulnerable and cold, the man who took her virginity and went downstairs for ‘a glass of water’ never to return. After nine years the once poor and shamed Ivan Kray is back in London, now a world-famous rock star. He is wealthy, adored by fans, and built like a machine while she is struggling, single, overweight, and has to borrow affection from her neighbor’s cat. To make matters worse, he blames her for driving him away. This time round, he doesn’t come to her with gentle caresses and roses. He comes with vengeance and thorns that will either purge or destroy her.
A malnourished toddler barely kept from starving by a nursing dog, Ivan Kray grows into a hard and emotionally scarred man with a golden voice and a cursed art. Suffering from visions and voices in his head, he finds peace in Alice Jones’ heart and naked arms, only to be knocked down once again. When she chooses her upper-class family over him, he slaves for nine long years to climb to the top of the ladder with one purpose only–to take revenge. He swore he’d be her first and last, and he’s not a man who breaks his promises. His plans of submitting Alice to his will are hampered when someone tries to kill him. When his hunter uses Alice to achieve his ominous goal, Ivan must put his skill as necromancist to the ultimate test.
With the letter from the London Academy of Performing Arts in her pocket, Alice Jones ran home as fast as her eighteen-year-old legs could carry her. The news was exactly what she needed in her life. Now she could move a whole continent away from dumbass Ivan.
Throwing open the door of their Manhattan townhouse on Fifty-fourth Avenue, she called for her mom. “Where are you?” She dropped her backpack in the entrance and hurried to the kitchen. “You’re not going to believe this!”
The glow from the late afternoon sun caught a day’s layer of dust on the clutter-free black marble surfaces. There were no cooking utensils or rinsed veggies on the central island counter, not even the habitual glass of wine.
She took the stairs two by two and skidded to a halt in front of her parents’ bedroom. “Mom! I’ve been chosen for the exchange program.” She yanked the door open with a squeal. “I’m going to London! I’ve—”
The scene in front of her cut her short. The room was dark with all the curtains drawn. None of her mother’s recorded arias played on the sound system. Clara sat in front of the dressing table with her head in her hands.
Alice’s gut twisted. The only things that helped when her mom was like this were sympathy and distraction. She’d go for the latter. The constant reassurance was too draining.
“Mom? Look.” She held out the letter. “They chose me. I won.”
When Clara lifted her head and pushed back her hair, Alice sucked in a breath. A clown’s face stared at her from the mirror. Red circles marked Clara’s cheeks and the tip of her nose while blue eclipses around her eyes formed a stark contrast with her white-painted skin.
“Mom?” She couldn’t hide the tremor in her voice. “What happened?”
Clara pushed a newspaper over the vanity top, knocking down bottles of perfume and face creams. Alice went down on her knees to collect the cosmetics, but Clara’s shrill voice halted her.
She straightened to study the paper. When her eyes skimmed over the unflattering critique of a theatre review, she understood the cause of today’s drama.
“I’m the clown of the music world.” Clara quoted the print by heart. “A fading diva who’ll be wise to quit when she’s at a high. Better placed in supporting roles, her leading days are over.”
She patted her mom’s shoulder. “It’s just one review.”
“Just one review?” Clara uttered a hysterical laugh. “Just one review? Are you listening to yourself? Don’t you dare patronize me. Do you think I’m a child? I’ve been in this business for longer than you’ve lived. I know when a nail is being hit into a coffin and that,” she pointed at the article, “is a fucking nine-inch nail.”
“Mom...” What was she supposed to say?
“Clara?” a deep male voice said from the door.
Alice spun around to face her dad. Thank God he was home from the office today and not at a meeting or dinner.
He crossed the floor slowly, as if he concentrated on each step. “What’s going on?”
With a sweep of her arm Clara cleared the dressing table, sending brushes and jewelry flying.
Her dad turned to her, his expression closed. “Alice, give your mom and I a moment, please.”
She retracted her steps to the hallway and stood trembling on the landing. By now, she should be used to the outbursts, but she couldn’t help how they affected her. She clutched her stomach with one hand and gripped the balustrade with the other.
“What’s wrong?” her dad repeated.
“See for yourself.”
After a moment’s silence, her dad said, “It’s one person’s opinion.”
“It’s the one opinion in the world that matters most! This is what everyone thinks. They don’t say it, but they all believe it. Everyone thinks I’m a failure. All those years of sacrifice, of practicing hour after hour, of eating nothing but lettuce and apples to fit into those goddamn costumes, all of it for nothing!”
“Darling, calm down. You’re upset about one bad write-up, but you forget about all the good ones.”
“It’s over. My life’s over.”
“There are other things in life than singing. You can teach. The opera will gladly have you.”
Her laugh sounded hollow. “They’ll be happy to have me where? Backstage, a shriveling star hidden from view like they’re ashamed of me? Am I to be discarded, too old for them or you? Is that it? Are you going to stick around, or will you throw me away, too?”
“What in God’s name are you carrying on about? I love you. You’re my wife.”
“You love me? You loved me when I was pretty and young. Admit it. You’re going to leave me for someone younger, a girl with a tight body and smooth face. Who wants to be with a fading diva?”
“Stop this madness, right now. I’ve never loved you for your voice. I love you.”
“Who is she? Where do you go at night when you don’t come home?”
“There’s no one else. You know what my job involves.”
Alice’s stomach churned at her mom’s cold snigger.
“That sinister business of yours is not a job,” Clara continued. “You work with deranged people, these so-called agents of yours. Do you think I don’t know of your demonic activities? People who manipulate the weather and fire and the earth… I want you to quit.”
“We’ve spoken about this.” Her dad’s voice held a note of warning. “I can’t have you advertise this to the world.”
“I’m sick of secrets. I don’t care anymore. If you don’t quit, I’ll tell.”
“You’ll put yourself—our family—at risk. Besides, no one will believe you.”
“I hate you!”
“You can’t carry on like this. Let me get you help, please.”
“You want to lock me up in an institution. You want to declare me insane so you can spend my money and divorce me.”
“The money’s ours, Clara, but I’ve earned it. You squandered your inheritance within the first year.” There was a pause and then his address softened. “You’re setting yourself up for failure by not accepting the inevitable. We’re all growing older.”
Her mother’s voice turned hard. “What are you saying? That I’m not desirable any longer?”
“I’m saying you have to let it go.”
“Well, I have news for you. Men still find me irresistible. Why look so shocked? It’s the truth. Want to know something else? I slept with Fabian Davis. That weekend in Miami, I wasn’t rehearsing. I was with him on his yacht.”
Alice bit down on the back of her hand to silence a sob. It couldn’t be true. Her parents were happy. She loved her dad. Fabian Davis was the most hateful man on the face of the earth. Everyone knew the tycoon slept his way around the city.
“How long?” her dad asked, his tone flat.
“The better part of a year.”
A long silence followed. She needed to get away, to process what had just happened. She didn’t want her parents to divorce. She didn’t want them to fight. If only her mom had waited for the next review. Maybe the next one would be good.
“Where are you going?” her mom shouted.
“I can take a lot, but this…” Her dad sounded so broken.
“Come back here! Don’t you dare walk out on me!”
“I need time alone.”
“Where are you going?”
“Don’t wait for me to have dinner. I’ll be home later.”
“I swear to God, if you walk out that door, I won’t be here when you get back.”
“I love you, Clara, but I can’t do this anymore. If you don’t want to be a mother to your daughter and a wife to me, I set you free. I’ll give you a divorce if that’s what you want, but if you decide to stay, we’ll talk about finding you help when I get back.”
“I’ll kill myself! When you come back, there’ll be nothing to talk about because I’ll be dead.”
Her father’s footsteps approached the door.
“I’ll do it, damn you! You’ll be happy to be free of me, won’t you?”
Alice jumped into the spare room and shuffled behind the door. Her dad’s shoes echoed on the marble floor as he made his way downstairs. From the crack between the door and the wall, she watched him go. His suit jacket stretched over his hunched shoulders. It was the first time she saw him with anything but a straight and proud back.
When the front door closed, she took a breath, trying to calm her shaking. Tears ran hot over her cheeks. What if her father left them? What if he never came back? Shame for her mom’s behavior and sadness for her dad grew to anger. How dare her mother destroy their family? She only cared for herself and her stupid voice. Alice wiped her face on her sleeve and pushed her ear against the wall. Next door, her mom was quiet. The next step would be a bottle of wine and sleeping pills followed by a massive hangover the next morning and a day at the spa. Clara would come home with some crazy anti-ageing treatment of snail spit or snake shit that cost a fortune.
Alice sniffed her tears away and ran to her room. She called Becca and went over to her friend’s house for dinner. Not able to face her mom just yet, she spent the evening at Becca’s doing homework. When she got home three hours later, her dad’s car wasn’t parked in the driveway, but all the lights were on up and downstairs.
Steeling herself in case her mom was still awake, she opened the door and listened. The house was quiet except for the ticking of the cuckoo clock. She tiptoed into the entrance, careful not to make any noise. About to flip off the lights, her hand froze in midair as she noticed one red shoe, like a lost Cinderella slipper, in the middle of the floor. She squinted behind her glasses. The velvet stiletto had diamante detail on the bridge. It could only be the shoes her mother had worn for her part in La Traviata, Clara’s favorite and most acclaimed performance. Clara may throw many things around the house, but never her sacred shoes. Alice lifted her gaze to the top of the stairs, almost expecting her mom to be standing there, ready to hurl the other shoe.
It took a moment for her brain to process the sight that greeted her. Her body turned to fire and then to ice, a cold burn creeping up from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head.
Clara’s body hung from the second floor balustrade on a rope tied around her neck. Bulging eyes and a swollen tongue peeking through her lips distorted her beautiful features. On the toes of her left foot dangled a red shoe.
Nine years later
“I-van! I-van! I-van!”
The audience in the Madison Square Garden concert hall was nothing but segments of raised arms and groping fingers freeze-framed in the surfing spotlights. Slowly, Ivan Kray came out of the trance of the final song, his attention once more anchoring in reality. From his advantage point on stage, he glimpsed flickering expressions in the teeming faces as the light caught them. It was like fanning a deck of cards too fast, seeing the clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds, but not the numbers. The concert goers remained nameless while their emotions took on palpable shapes of adoration, awe, jealousy, and the worst of all, the needy ones that said ‘pick me’.
Without warning, the darkness in the hall exploded with color that wasn’t part of tonight’s lighting choreography. The intensity drove him a step back. The radiance was enough to bring the whole hall to their knees, but he was the only one seeing it. The ability to distinguish a human soul as a spectrum of light was his gift and curse.
Involuntarily, his brain searched for a rainbow, a unique mélange associated with one person, but as always there were only red, blue, yellow, and the hues in between. Why he still hoped she’d show up he didn’t know. Maybe because he wanted her to see he was everything her family said he’d never be. Maybe because he missed her so much it still ripped his heart out every day.
“En-core! En-core! En-core!”
The euphoria of the performance was wearing off. He felt flat, like taking a nosedive after a rocket climb into space. The only way after going up was coming down, and he was coming down big time. The screaming girls in the golden circle only reminded him how the person he sang for wasn’t here.
Spreading his arms and hanging his head, he took his bow. A glance from under his lashes at Locke told him the drummer was wary. Fleet on guitar shuffled like he was nervous. They should be wary and nervous. He wasn’t known as a nutcase for nothing. Unpredictable. Wouldn’t be the first time he made a scene on stage because he couldn’t handle the light.
“En-core! En-core! En-core!”
Fleet lifted his brow in a questioning gesture. Tonight, his fans weren’t getting more. There was nothing left to give. He ignored the protest that swelled through the hall as he walked offstage.
Sweat dripped from his body. A stagehand took his guitar. He made his way to his dressing room, peeling off his leather jacket as he went. Underneath the jacket, his chest was bare. Cool air raised goose bumps on his wet skin. Someone took the jacket and replaced it with a towel. He wiped his face and hair. The cheering of the crowd chased after him down the tungsten lit corridor.
His boots slammed the concrete as he hurried to the privacy he craved.
A fist punched the air in front of his face. “Good job, man!”
“Yeah! Fucking rocking, Iv.”
He threw the towel at no one in particular. Someone always caught it. Fingers ruffled his hair. He ducked the onslaught and covered his ears to block out the high-pitched fan-hollering that filtered through the walls.
He had to get away from the noise and light pollution. When he rounded the corner, Kate, his sixty-year-old agent, waited in front of his dressing room. Good, reliable Kate. Immediately, he breathed easier.
“Good job.” She patted his shoulder and yanked her hand away. “Yuk. I forget how much you sweat.”
He grinned. “I need a shower.”
One of the dark-eyed brunettes from the groupies ran up to them. Her big bosom spilled over the low cut of her top like white bread dough.
“Iv—” She stood on tiptoe and kissed his ear just above the silver hoop ring. “Can I give you a hand, baby?”
He tried to be gentle but the words came out gritty with a detectable bite. “Not now, girl.”
The light in her eyes dimmed. “Crim. My name’s Crimson.”
He didn’t remember her name, even if he’d fucked her into a semi-coma last night. He never did. He never asked.
Feeling like a shitbag, he touched her hair. “Later, all right?” To Kate, he said under his breath, “Get her out of here.”
The girl was a newbie, but everyone knew he needed to be alone after a concert.
Crim reached for him. “Iv, I—”
Her fingers felt like an insult on his skin, marring the thought he still had in his head of the one woman who wasn’t at his show. He pulled away. “Out of my space.” He added in a softer tone, “Please.”
She flinched, making him feel like an even bigger asshole. That was why he never made promises. He gave them the truth before sleeping with them. They all said it didn’t matter that he didn’t give a flying fuck, but it always did.
He went inside and shut the door in both women’s faces, leaving Kate to deal with the pale-faced Crim. Facing the vanity mirror, he took a deep breath and held it until his lungs burned. This was the moment he’d been breaking his back for, the high after the performance he was supposed to celebrate. A party would follow with booze and girls. Journalists would line up for interviews. Everyone would look at him with envy and desire. Anything he wanted he could have with the simple act of signing a check. Success couldn’t get sweeter. Then why the hell did he have this void inside of him? He pushed his palms on the makeup counter and hung his head.
“I made it.”
He said the mantra after every show. No matter how many times he repeated the words, how much money he made, or how many new fans he gained with each passing day, it was never enough.
“I made it.”
From nothing. He got himself out of the gutter, out of poverty and abuse, and out from under the condemning stares of people who were born someone, people with money and good surnames, not scum like him. Why did he still feel like he’d achieved nothing?
The face staring back at him was both familiar and strange, as if he didn’t belong in his own skin. His kohl-lined eyes—his most shocking feature with one being blue and the other brown—appeared lively, but behind them lay the hidden doubt and unbearable pain he didn’t show the world. His black hair was shaved short on the sides and left longer on top. With a beard and sideburns trimmed close to the skin, he was thrown into the footballer fashion category as far as women were concerned. To the female species he was hot and sexy—some even described him as handsome—but all he saw was the empty mold of a body that missed a heart.
“Damn you, Ivan Kray. You made it, do you hear me?”
No matter what he said, he’d always be the malnourished two-year-old boy who’d barely been kept alive by a neighbor’s nursing dog. If not for the generous bitch’s milk, he wouldn’t be standing here, right now.
He slammed his fist into the mirror. It cracked from the center into a cobweb of fractured glass. A sharp pain pierced his knuckle where a splinter lodged into the skin. Drops of blood splattered on the shelf.
He shook his aching fist but welcomed the pain. It looked like he was replacing another mirror. Broken mirrors had become his world tour trademark.
With a wry chuckle, he pulled the shard from his hand and looked around for something to use as a bandage. He settled for his bandana, twisting it around his knuckles.
He pulled a hand over his beard, staring at the damage he’d done, and then jerked. The distorted image of a man sitting on the sofa met him in the broken reflection of the mirror. He flung around. Automatically, light streamed into his vision. It was his mind’s way of conceptualizing data in order to put it into a frame of reference. Objects bounced colors back to him, except for the figure on the sofa. His shape was a solid black amidst the shine.
Ivan went cold. It had been a while since he’d seen a dead person. He forced his eyes to focus and bring the room back into perspective. “What do you want?”
The man had gentle blue eyes and full lips. Thick blond hair fell over his forehead. The posture of his muscular body, clad in black slacks and a white shirt, was relaxed.
“Hello, Ivan,” the man said in a deep and warm voice.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Nicolas.”
“How did you get in?”
Nicolas smiled. “Not through the door.”
He was in no mood for jokes. “You know what I mean.”
Spirits could only be brought back to earth by a medium or someone like himself. The dead always sought out the most powerful necromancist they could find, as it was the only way for them to communicate with the living.
“A medium,” Nicolas said.
Whoever had brought him back shouldn’t have done it. The dead were best left exactly that—dead.
“Before you judge her,” Nicolas continued, “she didn’t do it voluntarily. I used her body.” He titled his head. “She’s not a very kind person, and I didn’t enjoy the experience.”
“What?” Spirits couldn’t do that. They had to be invited.
“I know what you’re thinking. I have a special ability, but I promise not to use it again. I had to break the rules, only this once.”
A dull ache set into his hand as the adrenalin started to wear off. “Why?”
“I’m going to do you a favor.”
Ivan laughed. “That’ll be a first.”
“They’ll be coming for you soon,” Nicolas said, unaffected by his sarcasm.
“Spirits, hundreds of them, thousands.”
He’d had visits from time to time, a lost soul who’d been let in by a medium and needed closure to find their eternal rest, but hundreds? “How’s that possible?”
“You’ll know soon enough. When they come, the only way to save yourself is to find Alice.”
The name made him freeze. The sound of it was sacred, so off-limits he didn’t dare say it out loud. His fighting mode kicked in. “What the fuck do you know about her?”
“Find her if you want to be saved.”
He curled his hands into fists, ignoring the burn under his bandanna. “Have you been near her?”
“I’ve seen her.”
Envy washed over him, followed by fury. “If you did anything to her...”
“You know I can’t touch a human.” Nicolas’ eyes filled with compassion. “I couldn’t help it. When I found you a minute ago, your head was so filled with her it took me straight there.”
“Shut the fuck up! Who sent you? Why are you doing this to me?”
“You have little time. If you don’t play your cards right, her life will be in danger.”
If he could’ve grabbed the ghost by his neck and shook him, he would’ve. “Tell me what’s going on, or I’ll damn you to walk the earth for the rest of your pathetic existence.”
“No, you won’t. Don’t forget I can see into your soul.”
“What do you want?” They all wanted something.
“When the time comes, I’ll let you know.”
Just as he’d thought. There was always a price. Ivan shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”
“You do,” Nicolas said with certainty.
Damn, he hated encounters with spirits. He couldn’t hide the truth from them, not like with humans.
“Why will her life be in danger?” Ivan said, but Nicolas’ body was already dispersing into nothingness.
“Talk to me!”
Nicolas offered him a last smile before he vanished.
Ivan’s very soul trembled. Her name. He hadn’t spoken it in nine years, yet she was the first thing on his mind when he woke and the last before he fell asleep. Each nameless girl he fucked, he pretended was her. He’d promised himself he’d prove to the world he was good enough for her after how her family had treated him. He’d told himself he’d find her when he’d made his name. A person couldn’t achieve much more than he had. Yet, he’d put it off never feeling ready. Looked like the moment had arrived.
He stared at the shattered mirror and uttered the one word he hadn’t granted himself the pleasure of tasting on his lips for a very long time.