Ella Harrow fully supported the notion that people with excessive amounts of money should donate large sums of it to worthy causes, and she counted her employer—the Vancouver Museum of Art and History—as among the worthiest. She just wished the donors would hand over the cash without wanting to talk to her first.
Five minutes after the last guest of the Friday evening fund-raising gala had exited the front doors of Georgia House, the historic building that housed the main museum gallery, Ella gave in to the pressure she'd felt building all through the evening. She rolled her eyes, blew a raspberry, and thumbed her nose simultaneously. It was childish of her, but satisfying.
Béatrice Boucher, the only other staff member still present, said, "Now, Ella, tell me how you really feel about these little events."
Ella shot her boss a narrow-eyed glare. "They're my favorites, Bea. Really."
Drinking wine and nibbling canapés might not sound like a year in a Stalinist gulag, but having to do it in the midst of five hundred elegantly dressed strangers while maintaining a polite smile in the face of their inane conversations and pretending to laugh at their lame jokes ranked even worse in Ella's mind. She'd rather volunteer for the hard labor.
"I never would have guessed," Bea said, locking the heavy antique entrance doors. After rattling the knobs once to check the bolts, she turned to Ella and waved her hands in a shooing motion. "Fly. Be free. You've done your penance for this fiscal quarter. I'll hustle the caterers out through the kitchens and lock up that side. You can sneak out the garden gate the way you usually do and lock the terrace doors on your way out."
"Don't look a gift horse, mon amie. Run while you can, before I come up with some new programs to spend all those lovely donations on and put you back to work."
"I'm already halfway home."
Ella listened to her friend and colleague's laughter follow her through the hall and into the historic mansion's stately ballroom, which now housed an impressive collection of paintings, antique furniture, and historic objets d'art. She'd worked for the assistant curator for more than two years now, and Bea knew her well enough to understand that when Ella said she hated crowds and that making small talk with strangers gave her hives, she wasn't kidding.
She scratched absently at her arms beneath her embellished cardigan—her halfhearted nod to the event's formal dress code—and stepped out into the crisp night air. Pausing on the paving stones, she took a moment to savor the silence. The solitude. For the first time in hours, her nerves began to unwind.
For some people, Ella knew, shyness made interacting with strangers an uncomfortable and embarrassing experience, but Ella wasn't shy; she was terrified. Crowds scared her—more than spiders, more than the threat of global war, more than the boogeyman.
With people all around her, she could never predict what might happen, and the constant tension of holding on to her self-control made her head pound and her nerves fray. Being an antisocial hermit just made life easier.
Unfortunately, the hermit gig didn't pay much, and Ella was addicted to living indoors and eating regularly, so she had to work, which meant dealing with people on a daily basis. At the museum at least, most of the people she met were on their best behavior, and being surrounded by the art made the unwelcome company almost bearable. When she gave tours as a docent, she could concentrate on her speech and on the works she pointed out to visitors to the collection; when managing the gift shop, she could smile politely and use professionalism to keep people at bay.
Most days, things went perfectly smoothly. It was only at times like this, when she had to deal with a special event and potential donors, that Ella ended her day feeling as if she'd been dragged behind a car over a field of broken glass.
A few minutes of peace, she told herself. A few minutes of quiet and isolation, and she'd be fine again. The ache in her head would ease. She'd even be able to face the bus ride home; at this hour, it wouldn't be crowded, and in twenty minutes, she could lock the door of her apartment and wallow in her Fortress of Solitude.
Taking a deep breath, Ella drew in the autumnal scent of drying leaves and cool breezes. Her head fell back as she closed her eyes and rolled her shoulders against the tension knotted there. She'd take a minute, just a minute, to herself on the ballroom terrace, her favorite spot in the entire museum, before she locked up and headed home. Just a minute to collect herself, to shore up her defenses for the short trip home.
The lighting out here was dim, especially with the caterer's lamps removed and the museum shut down for the night. A full moon partially obscured by drifting clouds made it possible to see, but somehow the silvery sheen it cast only made the quiet of the gardens deeper and reminded Ella of the lateness of the hour. She enjoyed these hours of the night, enjoyed the play of the moonlight on the artful plantings and graceful sculptures scattered through the museum garden.
She enjoyed that she'd survived the ordeal of the party and wouldn't have to do anything else so annoying for at least another three months. Until, as Bea had hinted, the next fiscal quarter.
"I think this is the first time I've seen you alone all evening, Ella."
Stifling a shriek, she clenched her fists and spun around.
She also jumped, the ankle straps of her black Mary Janes the only things keeping her from literally coming out of her shoes. Adrenaline rushed through her, making her heart pound in her ears and her hands come up defensively. She focused and caught sight of the person whose words had just scared her witless.
She should have recognized the voice. Smooth and slick, it simultaneously sent shivers racing across her skin and raised the hairs on the back of her neck. Stanley was rich, handsome, and sophisticated, one of the most sought after bachelors in British Columbia, and a third-generation patron of the museum. He had a movie star's smile and the kind of charisma that drew people to him like lemmings to a cliff face.
He also creeped Ella the hell out, especially when she caught him repeatedly staring at her the way he'd been doing all evening. She'd thought he left with the other guests. She'd thought she could relax.
"Mr. Stanley. You startled me," she managed after a minute, once her vocal cords had unclenched and restored her power of speech. "I had no idea anyone was still here. The event ended almost an hour ago."
Stanley stood less than ten feet away on the darkened terrace, which was about twenty feet too close for Ella's comfort. Normally, strangers couldn't get that near her without her sensing their presence, especially the ones who made her uncomfortable. She'd gotten very good at being difficult to surprise.
"I'm aware, but I found that there were still some things around here tonight for me to admire." He ambled toward her, his hands buried in the pockets of his tailored trousers and his attention fixed uncomfortably on her neckline.
Ella frowned. She'd worn a simple black sheath with a high neck, a modest hem, and the sparkly cardigan over the top. She'd even paired the outfit with dark hose, which she normally loathed, but she knew there wasn't an inch of exposed skin below her hyoid bone for him to look at. That made the man's fixation on her even more disturbing, somehow.
She had met Stanley for the first time almost two years ago, shortly after she started working at the museum. He'd come out of a meeting with Bea and the director, Bea's boss, just as Ella was ending a tour in the mansion's front hall.
When Ella's guests had scattered, Bea waved her over and introduced her to both Dr. Maurice Lefavreau and one of the museum's greatest benefactors. Even with her mental shields still up from interacting with the tour group, something about Stanley had slipped through Ella's defenses and convinced her that this was a man she'd much prefer to keep at the greatest possible distance in the future.
Until tonight, she thought she'd been doing a pretty good job of it.
Suppressing the slight, irrational discomfort the man's presence always inspired, she lifted her chin and pasted on her best professional smile—the one with no actual warmth anywhere near it.
"We do have a collection to be proud of," she remarked distantly, "and the new exhibit of Légaré landscapes is particularly worth an extended study. You should make it a point to come back on another day. The natural light does make quite a difference to the viewing."
Turning, Ella moved toward the French doors, gesturing for him to join her. "Allow me to walk you to the front, Mr. Stanley. I believe Dr. Boucher has already locked the doors, but I'd be happy to let you out."
She made a concerted effort to keep Stanley in her vision, but the man seemed more amused by her tactics than inclined to play along with her. He stood where he was until she drew even with him; then with a speed she hadn't anticipated, his hand darted out and grabbed her arm. He jerked her to a stop, nearly upsetting her balance.
"Don't be in such a hurry, Ella," he purred, holding her closely enough that she could feel the clammy heat of his breath against her cheek. "It's a beautiful night. Surely you can spare a few minutes to enjoy it. With me."
Her stomach heaved.
At the best of times, Ella avoided touching strangers. Even when she kept her guard up, sometimes she could sense things about them. Right now, she sensed a sickly sort of malevolence that made her want a swift escape and a long, hot shower.
Frozen like a field mouse facing down a hungry fox, she stared into Stanley's handsome features and fought not to let the panic overwhelm her. This was another of the reasons why she worked so hard to keep people at a distance, because she could never tell when the slightest touch would rip open her senses and let the buffeting whirlwinds of the unnatural energy that surrounded her threaten to send her spinning into the eye of the storm.
And when Ella got swept into the eye, very scary things happened.
Dizziness threatened, but Ella ruthlessly pushed it back. She blinked to clear her vision and concentrated hard on seeing only the stark reality of the objects around her—Stanley's intense, predatory stare; the majestic old elm tree that overhung the space between the garden stairs; the protective, crouching presence of the medieval gargoyle statue looming in the background.
A hysterical laugh bubbled up in her throat when Ella realized that if that ancient French sculptor had really wanted to scare people, he would have carved a statue that looked less like a demonic guardian and more like a feckless, morally bankrupt billionaire. No monster had ever scared her the way this human man was doing.
Swallowing hard, Ella forced back the nausea and fought for control. Her head spun and her ears buzzed with the low drone of a thousand bees, signs that she'd let her guard down.
She could tell herself that she couldn't have known she wasn't alone out here, that the museum was closed, and that Patrick Stanley had no business lurking in the shadows when his invitation to Georgia House had expired the minute the fund-raising event ended. None of that, however, did her any good.
Pulses of restless energy battered at her weakened barriers, but she refused to let them overwhelm her. If they did, not only would she be unable to fend off Stanley's advances, but she'd also find herself barely able to function for days, if not weeks, to come.
And that wasn't even considering what other things might happen here in this place full of history and artifacts. Old things, especially old things full of talent and beauty, held power of their own, and they could be destroyed if she was so weak as to lose control. If she couldn't hang on, those same things could feed the madness.
Ella couldn't let that happen.
Frantically, she reinforced her defenses, plugging hole after hole that the black, poisonous energy rolling off Stanley tried to slip through. She could only be grateful that the cardigan she wore had kept his skin from touching hers. If it hadn't, she'd be halfway to comatose by now.
"Mr. Stanley, I'm not sure what you're suggesting, but it's very late, and the museum is closed." Her voice sounded more like a tortured croak than a confident dismissal, but she plunged ahead regardless. "Dr. Boucher and I have each worked a very long day, and I, for one, would like to return home now. Please let me go."
Stanley's eyes, pale blue and cold, hardened along with his grip. His fingers dug into the flesh of her upper arm with enough force to leave bruises. "I'm sure Dr. Boucher would be the first to tell you that alienating one of this museum's largest benefactors is a poor way to do your job, Ella, my sweet. But even if she were shortsighted enough not to, I'm more than happy to correct her oversight."
His other hand shot up and curled around her throat, nearly cutting off her air supply. What his fingers couldn't quite accomplish, his mouth did. It attacked hers with brutal force, crushing her lips back against her teeth until she tasted blood.
Then she tasted fury.
For an instant, her control wavered. The unmuffled touch of this man's tainted skin on hers opened her up to the most intense surge of murky energy, and she could feel the dark, vicious nature of him trying to infiltrate her defenses.
Part of her—that dark, secret part she kept imprisoned behind thick stone walls and heavy steel doors—wanted her to just let go, to stop fighting so hard to control the strange ability she'd always both feared and hated, to just let whatever wanted to happen, happen. No one would blame her. She was only defending herself.
As she felt the familiar, stomach-churning sensation of the energy welling up under her skin, she toyed with letting go, letting it not just bubble to the surface, but explode. The power inside her would stop Stanley in his tracks.
It might also stop him. Permanently.
The temptation of it shook her. Memories of what happened the last time she'd given in to the temptation flooded her. She recalled what it meant to stop fighting, when she'd been just a child and the energy battering at her had left her feeling overwhelmed, alone and hopeless, a freak of nature with a decidedly unnatural talent.
The power crawled over her skin, and she fought to pull it back. She couldn't let that happen again.
Without warning, Stanley jerked away, releasing her mouth and leaving her with the taste of her own blood in her mouth.
His hand shifted on her throat, forcing her head up, angling it to the side until the moonlight caught and illuminated her features. His eyes glittered with lust and fury.
And something else, something that frightened Ella more than even the assault. It twisted his lips and carved lines into the surface handsomeness of his features, transforming them into a macabre mask of evil.
He stared at her for a disconcerting moment, tracing each line and expression on her face. Speculation lit his eyes, along with a dark, flickering flame Ella's instincts immediately identified as madness.
"Well, well, aren't you a surprise, little Ella." His voice hissed in the darkness, soft and sharp and unctuous. "I never would have guessed you might have such … hidden depths, my dear. I see now that I'm going to have to get to know you a great deal better."
Her stomach churned, and her senses rioted in protest.
The sharp bite of bile rising into her throat brought Ella back to reality. The bitter taste reminded her that she had made herself strong enough to fight back the electric energy crawling along her skin. And if she could withstand that siege on her control, she could certainly break free from one lecherous man's clumsy attack.
Without resorting to anything scarier than a little judicious violence.
Stanley gripped her around her left upper arm and her throat, leaving her right hand conveniently free. She knew attempting to break his grip would be impossible; he was a good seven inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than she was, but her maneuver of choice wouldn't require strength, just accuracy and the element of surprise.
She wiggled for effect and tried to scream out a protest from behind her clenched teeth, but that was just a distraction. Her blow, when it came, seemingly out of nowhere, involved the flat of her hand connecting hard with the side of her attacker's head.
She boxed his ear. Viciously.
The shock and pain made him jerk back and curse, and the hand around her throat moved abruptly to cup his ringing, throbbing head. "You bitch!"
"And you're a disgusting creep," she countered, trying to wrench her arm completely out of his grip. "Now, get your hands off me!"
If anything, his fingers tightened, making Ella whimper involuntarily. "Oh, I don't think so, whore. I've got plans for you now. You're going to make a tasty little treat for—"
"Is everything all right out here? I thought I heard someone shout." Bea's voice was like a chorus from the heavens in Ella's ears.
Quickly, she shifted from behind Stanley's taller frame until she could see her boss standing in the doors that led from the back hall onto the terrace. She flashed a smile she knew lacked a certain sincerity and used her free hand to gesture to the man still holding her in place.
"I admit I got a little bit of a scare from Mr. Stanley here," Ella said, her voice tight but determinedly cheerful. The last thing she wanted was some kind of nightmarish scene involving lodging a complaint about the lecher's behavior, or even worse, filing some sort of assault charge with the city police. "I didn't think there was anyone still here but you and me. He startled me."
Bea's dark gaze moved from Ella to Stanley, making note of the tiny details her keen eyes would never miss, like the way the man gripped Ella's arm, the disheveled wrinkles in her cardigan, and the bright red hue of Stanley's left ear.
The assistant museum director raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. "The two of you certainly startled me," she said. "I knew you were out here, of course, Ella, but I was afraid you might have hurt yourself."
"No, no. I haven't been hurt, just shaken up. Actually, I was just offering to show Mr. Stanley to the front doors. I know you locked up when the last of the guests left, and I didn't want him to think he was trapped."
Stanley frowned and released Ella's arm to straighten the lapels of his evening jacket. "Béatrice, I think you should know what really happened here. I—"
Bea lifted a hand and firmed her lips. "And I think you should know that we've been acquainted for more than five years now, Patrick. I understand very well what happened here, and I honestly don't think it would do anyone any good if we discussed it further."
Stepping aside, she gestured toward the ballroom doors. "Now, seeing how late it is, please allow me to walk you out. Tonight was a wonderful success for the museum, and I'm certain Dr. Lefavreau will express his gratitude to you the very next time he sees you. Shall we?"
Ella watched as Patrick Stanley weighed his options. She knew his pride was wounded, not to mention his eardrum—for the sake of her lifelong desire not to be sued, she just hoped she hadn't ruptured it—and any man as arrogant as he was couldn't possibly be happy about having his plans thwarted.
She also didn't doubt he was surprised to have his incipient lie about being the injured party in any circumstances involving her burst like an overinflated party balloon. She could practically see his desire to scratch the itch caused by her refusal to cooperate with him, and Bea's untimely interruption.
If the man hadn't just attacked her, she might even have been moved to sympathy.
Or at least morbid humor.
At the moment, though, she just wanted him gone and a little time alone to get a hold of herself. The aftermath of the adrenaline flood in her system had started her hands shaking, and her mental shields needed a serious tune-up, but there was no way she was taking her eyes off Stanley until she knew the man was locked firmly on the other side of the museum's heavily carved wooden doors.
After a long moment of crackling tension, Stanley admitted defeat. Sort of.
He gave Bea a curt nod and stalked across the terrace, pulling out his cell phone on the way. "I'm suddenly more than ready for this evening to be over. My driver will pick me up out front. Let Lefavreau know I'll be calling him in the morning."
Stanley focused on his phone as he composed some sort of text message, so he missed seeing Bea's eyes narrow at the threat.
By the time he glanced up, the woman had mustered a sharp smile and waved him forward. "I'm sure he'll be more than happy to listen to whatever suggestions you have for the museum's future. Ella, I'll lock this door as well." She glanced back at Ella. "You head on home now. Mr. Stanley and I will leave by the front door."
Ella caught the final hate-filled glare the man shot her way and could just imagine what kind of suggestions Stanley would make tomorrow; first would be firing the museum's gift shop manager, but she'd have plenty of time to worry about that later. After she got a hold of herself.
Left alone, she felt the tension drain from her in an abrupt rush, leaving her dizzy and weak-kneed. She needed to sit for a minute and remind herself how to breathe.
Carefully, she crossed to the far side of the terrace to perch at the feet of her favorite work of art in the museum's entire collection. Its familiarity and looming presence comforted her, made it possible for her to think and be and regain her balance.
Affectionately known by the staff as Sir Arthur Conan Gargoyle, the enormous sculpture crouched atop a pedestal of polished black slate, its furious gaze trained over the rear of the building as if daring any evil spirits to attempt a breach of its domain.
Too bad it hadn't noticed Patrick Stanley.
Technically, the statue was a grotesque, not a true gargoyle. Sir Arthur had been carved from a single block of dark French limestone sometime around the beginning of the eleventh century. Because he was solid through and had never been intended to channel rain water away from the sides of a structure, he couldn't be correctly called a gargoyle, even though his appearance brought the term to mind as soon as anyone laid eyes on him.
Standing erect, he would have easily reached seven feet tall, and the spread of his huge, batlike wings would likely have tripled that. He had horns like a ram curling backwards from his broad forehead, and thick, lethally sharp claws tipped each of his fingers, as well as the eerily prehensile toes on his raptorlike feet. He wore a frozen snarl on his chiseled features, exposing long fangs beneath curled lips.
What had always fascinated Ella about the statue, though, were the contradictions the artist had carved into the fierce predatory beast he had sculpted. His face didn't look like the face of an animal. In spite of the faintly flattened nose and the threatening fangs, Sir Arthur appeared remarkably human, more like a fallen angel than like a devil. That impression drew support from the exquisite detail of the cherubic curls adorning his head, clustered around the base of his horns and even dipping over his forehead. His cheekbones gave him the look of a warrior king, and despite his thickly muscled tail, the bulk of his physical attributes painted him as more man than animal.
Ella liked to think the artist had seen him as she did—a fierce guardian, willing to battle evil on its own terms, determined to protect his charges against any harm.
From what Bea had told her, Ella knew that the sculpture had a long and slightly murky history. Obviously French in origin, it had likely adorned the battlements of some abbey or castle for centuries before making its way to England during the Enlightenment, and subsequently along a convoluted trail that had finally delivered it into Western Canada.
Everyone who caught a glimpse of it marveled at its condition, for nearly a millennium of exposure to the elements had smoothed away remarkably few of the details that made it such an impressive work of art. The museum's director had supposedly gloated for weeks after acquiring it a couple of years ago, and frankly, Ella couldn't blame him.
It was not only her favorite piece in the collection, but also her favorite sculpture in the world. And if there was something almost alive about it, something that made her sixth sense prickle and tested her resolve to remain always in control, she was happy to ignore it for the chance to simply stare at its angles and curves. She never tired of looking at it.
Hence, all the ribbing she took about being in love with Sir Arthur. The comments might have bothered her, if she hadn't dated infinitely worse male specimens.
If Bea hadn't interrupted a few minutes ago, she'd have become way too closely acquainted with another one. Suppressing a shudder, Ella closed her eyes, blocked out the memory, and focused on regaining her composure.
It took a few seconds for the quiet sigh of inhale and exhale to deepen and relax, and another minute before her hands could fully register the cool, smooth texture of the slate at her sides. When she felt normal again, she tilted her head back to gaze up at the underside of the statue's sharply angled jaw.
"You know, that pleasant little scene never would have happened if you'd been doing your duty," she griped half-humorously to the silent guardian. "You're supposed to repel evil. Talk about lying down on the job."
With her chin up and her eyes on Sir Arthur's corded throat, Ella never saw the shadow moving toward her, never heard the footsteps approaching. But she did hear the loud crack of reality fracturing all around her.
Along with the stone shell of a suddenly very animated inanimate gargoyle.
Copyright © 2014 by Christine Warren