She’s here, gazing at me with an unnerving blank expression, holding a gun. My subconscious swoons into a dead faint, and I don’t think even smelling salts will bring her back.
I blink repeatedly at Leila as my mind goes into overdrive. How did she get in? Where’s Ethan? Holy shit! Where is Ethan?
A creeping cold fear grips my heart, and my scalp prickles as each and every follicle on my head tightens with terror. What if she’s harmed him? I start breathing rapidly as adrenaline and bone-numbing dread course through my body. Keep calm, keep calm—I repeat the mantra over and over in my head.
She tilts her head to one side, regarding me as if I’m an exhibit in a freak show. Jeez, I’m not the freak here.
It feels like an eon has passed while I process all this, though in reality it is only a split second. Leila’s expression remains blank, and her appearance is as scruffy and ill-kempt as ever. She’s still wearing that grubby trench coat, and she looks desperately in need of a wash. Her hair is greasy and lank, plastered against her head, and her eyes are a dull brown, cloudy, and vaguely confused.
Despite the fact that my mouth has no moisture in it whatsoever, I attempt to speak.
“Hi. Leila, isn’t it?” I rasp. She smiles, but it’s a disturbing curl of her lip rather than a true smile.
“She speaks,” she whispers, and her voice is soft and hoarse at the same time, an eerie sound.
“Yes, I speak,” I say gently as if to a child. “Are you here alone?” Where is Ethan? My heart pounds at the thought that he might have come to some harm.
Her face falls, so much so that I think she’s about to burst into tears—she looks so forlorn.
“Alone,” she whispers. “Alone.” And the depth of sadness in that one word is heart wrenching. What does she mean? I am alone? She’s alone? She’s alone because she’s harmed Ethan? Oh . . . no . . . I have to fight the choking fear clawing at my throat as tears threaten.
“What are you doing here? Can I help you?” My words are a calm, gentle interrogation despite the suffocating fear in my throat. Her brow furrows as if she’s completely befuddled by my questions. But she makes no violent move against me. Her hand is still relaxed around her gun. I take a different tack, trying to ignore my tightening scalp.
“Would you like some tea?” Why am I asking her if she wants tea? It’s Ray’s answer to any emotional situation, resurfacing inappropriately. Jeez, he’d have a fit if he saw me right this minute. His army training would have kicked in, and he’d have disarmed her by now. She’s not actually pointing that gun at me. Perhaps I can move. She shakes her head and tilts it from side to side as if stretching her neck.
I take a deep precious lungful of air, trying to calm my panicked breathing, and move toward the kitchen island. She frowns as if she can’t quite understand what I am doing and shifts a little so she is still facing me. I reach the kettle and with a shaking hand fill it from the faucet. As I move, my breathing eases. Yes, if she wanted me dead, surely she would have shot me by now. She watches me with an absent, bemused curiosity. As I switch on the kettle, I’m plagued by the thought of Ethan. Is he hurt? Tied up?
“Is there anyone else in the apartment?” I ask tentatively.
She inclines her head the other way, and with her right hand—the hand not holding the revolver—she grabs a strand of her long greasy hair and starts twirling and fiddling with it, pulling and twisting. It’s obviously a nervous habit, and while I am distracted by this, I am struck once again by how much she resembles me. I hold my breath, waiting for her answer, the anxiety building to an almost unbearable pitch.
“Alone. All alone,” she murmurs. I find this comforting. Maybe Ethan isn’t here. The relief is empowering.
“Are you sure you don’t want tea or coffee?”
“Not thirsty,” she answers softly, and she takes a cautious step toward me. My feeling of empowerment evaporates. Fuck! I start panting with fear again, feeling it surge thick and rough through my veins. In spite of this and feeling beyond brave, I turn and fetch a couple of cups from the cupboard.
“What do you have that I don’t?” she asks, her voice assuming the singsong intonation of a child.
“What do you mean, Leila?” I ask as gently as I can.
“Master—Mr. Grey—he lets you call him by his given name.”
“I’m not his submissive, Leila. Er . . . Master understands that I am unable, inadequate to fulfill that role.”
She tilts her head to the other side. It’s wholly unnerving and unnatural as a gesture.
“In-ad-e-quate.” She tests the word, sounding it out, seeing how it feels on her tongue.
“But Master is happy. I have seen him. He laughs and smiles. These reactions are rare . . .
very rare for him.”
“You look like me.” Leila changes tack, surprising me, her eyes seeming to focus on me properly for the first time. “Master likes obedient ones who look like you and me. The others, all the same . . . all the same . . . and yet you sleep in his bed. I saw you.” Shit! She was in the room. I didn’t imagine it.
“You saw me in his bed?” I whisper.
“I never slept in Master’s bed,” she murmurs. She’s like a fallen ethereal wraith. Half a person. She looks so slight, and in spite of the fact that she’s holding a gun, I suddenly feel overwhelmed with sympathy for her. Her hands flex around the weapon, and my eyes widen, threatening to pop from my head.