This story has been sitting in my drafts for far too long. With Halloween approaching, I thought it was time to get it finished already. And since I haven’t posted a Monster story in a while, it seemed as good an occasion as any. 🙂
Once again, the credit for this plot bunny goes to Kim Iverson for sharing a quote that made me want to destroy romance for all time: “Make her fall in love with you over and over again.” No idea who to attribute it to, but thank you kindly for inspiring this tale of horror.
Over and Over Again
Cyrena was the luckiest woman alive. Few would argue that when viewing her contortion act. Blessed with a nimble body, Cyrena had gained renown worldwide as the mysterious snake woman, and people came from all over Europe just to see her perform. Even now, with her leg still in a splint, healing from a recent break, her home was inundated daily with passionate love notes from secret admirers, boxes of chocolates from her adoring fans, and so many bouquets of flowers she hardly knew where to put them anymore.
Yet all that paled in comparison to a single smile from the love of her life: Mr. Ian Gallagher, owner and curator of Mr. Gallagher’s Carnival and Freak Show, and her employer. Merely hearing his voice call her name sent butterflies through her belly. His beloved face was her window to God, and his lightest touch on her bare skin was ecstasy.
Despite the scandalous nature of their relationship, Cyrena wouldn’t give it up for the world. The ton expected people like Cyrena to behave in scandalous ways; they craved stories of depravity and sin, especially if they came from one of the freaks. Why not give it to them and enjoy herself in the process? As Ian always said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”
“Have you missed me, darling?”
Cyrena turned toward the door to see her beloved standing there, his hat in hand, his cheeks were red from the cold, and his coat unbuttoned. He must have driven his phaeton all the way. “Ian!” she cried, reaching out for him.
Ian grinned and crossed the sitting room to swoop her out of her chair. Cyrena barely felt a twinge in her leg anymore. “I did not expect you until tonight!”
“I thought I’d surprise you. I had my cook prepare a luncheon for us. Shall we take some air in the garden?”
Her heart skipped a beat. For a moment, his eyes flashed so…cold.
She blinked and there was the familiar adoration shining out of him like a star once again. It must have been a trick of the light.
Feeling like a fool, Cyrena shook off her unease and smiled. “Yes, that would be wonderful.” She allowed him to carry her out to the garden chaise, where servants had already prepared a table for the two of them but, as Ian took his seat, an odd sense of unease wormed its way through her happiness. Something in the way he tossed his hat to the side. The set of his smile, a little too forced, perhaps? No, that wasn’t it.
“I’ve been looking forward to this all day,” Ian said, drawing a delighted smile out of her. How she loved this man; loved how he made her feel so cherished and adored. To the rest of the world, she was a circus performer, a freak, an oddity. But to Ian, she was a treasure. She closed her eyes, turned her face up to the sun, and basked in the beauty of this moment, committing every detail to memory.
Ian’s warm hand covered hers and she almost flinched, startled, though not unpleasantly. “Darling, is everything all right?”
She smiled at him, her heart fluttering excitedly until she felt almost out of breath. “Oh, yes,” she replied, fanning herself a little. “It’s only that I’ve missed you.”
I could never let you go. I’d miss you far too much, my love.
Ian’s words. A memory of them–one she’d always hugged to her chest on those cold nights when her nightmares kept her imprisoned in the terror of her own mind. They’d been her solace from the monster hunting her, tearing at her, hurting her in her dreams. Now, the fervent declaration made her spine tense. She pulled her hand free of his hold to pour tea and felt a strange relief to have relinquished his touch.
She poured for Ian first. “Mr. Elder stopped by earlier,” she said.
The teapot’s lid rattled as she poured and she steadied it with her free hand. “Yes, we had a lovely chat. But he seemed so nervous. He wouldn’t talk about the show, and when I told him I would be returning to my act soon he seemed almost…frightened.” In truth, as soon as those words had left her mouth, Mr. Elder had all but run for the door. He’d only met her gaze for a moment as he’d bowed away, and the look in his eyes had been so final. A last good-bye.
Ian’s smile turned brittle. “Isn’t it too soon? You were hurt quite badly. Perhaps we ought to speak to the doctor before making any decisions.”
“I already did.” She spooned three lumps of sugar into Ian’s cup and handed it to him. “I was feeling so much better so I called the doctor myself. He visited only yesterday and said I could remove the splint as early as next week. If I’m careful, I could be back to full health and up to my old routine in a month.” The news had been so very welcome. Cyrena was not an idle person. Being confined to this house, as beautiful as it was, had begun to feel like being locked in a gilded cage of late. Today’s odd flare of nerves with Ian was not the first time. Her episodes were becoming more frequent. She was anxious here, restless, and almost desperate for an escape.
“Hmm.” Ian frowned as he took a sip of his tea.
Cyrena poured her own cup and brought it to her lips. Her hand was shaking. She’d expected Ian to be excited at the news, happy for her to be returning to her old self. Instead, he seemed almost angry. But how could that be?
It couldn’t. It was merely the confinement playing tricks on her mind.
Even so, she heard herself say, almost tauntingly, “Yes, he’s quite impressed with how the bone is healing.” A partial truth. What the doctor had really said was that she was doing remarkably well this time around. For the life of her, Cyrena could not comprehend his meaning. This time around? She’d never broken a bone in her entire life before this! In fact, she couldn’t quite recall how she’d done it at all. It must have been a training accident.
Ian smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You have a remarkable constitution my dear.”
The tea cup slipped from her hand as she placed it on the table, sloshing its contents over the rim. You have a remarkable constitution, my dear. It’ll take a great deal to bring it to heel. “G-goodness! My apologies.” She blotted the stain with her napkin. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.” She suddenly couldn’t catch her breath. Those words had been Ian’s, as well. But she’d never heard him speak to her with such cold malice.
“Perhaps this was a bad idea,” he said, studying her. His intent gaze, before so loving and solicitous, now felt invasive. “Come, let’s get you inside.”
When he came around for her, Cyrena shook her head. “No, I can do it. The doctor said I need to start putting weight on my leg, anyway.” Holding on to the table, she slowly stood up, keeping her weight on her good leg. Ian took hold of her arm to steady her and it was all she could do not to recoil from his touch. My God, I must be losing my mind!
The sense of dread intensified as they came back indoors. “Let me take you to bed,” Ian suggested. “Perhaps you need to lie down for a while.” Without waiting for her answer, he pulled her along to the staircase.
Cyrena’s throat closed up at the sight of it. She caught the banister and pulled him to a stop. “No,” she managed to say. “No, I don’t want to go up there.” It made no sense, but she couldn’t bring herself to go up even one single stair. Every instinct inside her screamed at her to avoid the upstairs–and for what? No reason at all! Cyrena shook her head, dislodging the coiffure her lady’s maid had spent an hour arranging that morning. Ian was looking at her with such an odd expression. “Perhaps the drawing room?” she suggested.
Yes, the drawing room was on the ground floor and overlooked the garden. She could go out there with ease if she needed fresh air.
“I’d much prefer to get you into bed,” Ian insisted.
She forced a giggle while her heart hammered inside her chest. “In the middle of the day? I don’t think even I could be that scandalous.”
Morning, noon, and night, he’d used to tell her, pulling her skirts up to her waist wherever they happened to be. Even when there’d been servants around. Even when she’d resisted. Any time, anywhere, and any way I can have you. I love you so much, he’d say, and she’d melt for him. She needed him to say those things to her now.
But instead of playing along with her naughty joke, Ian dug his fingers harder into her arm. “You’re not well, Cyrena. You need to lie down.”
“No, please. I want to stay here.”
He said nothing as he pried her fingers loose from the banister.
With a hard yank, he pulled her off balance and she fell against the stairs. “This is for your own good, my dear.”
For your own good. You’ll thank me soon enough. So sweet… Could it really have been his gentle hands closing around her throat? His beautiful eyes staring at her with such fervid greed? His arms shoving her against the wall?
Cyrena cried out, fighting his hold as he dragged her up the stairs. Yes, it had been him. The nightmares, the nameless, faceless monster of a man tormenting her dreams… How could she have forgotten?
At the top of the stairs, she curled her fingers around the corner, holding on for dear life. “Stop! Please I can’t do it again! You’re killing me!” She hardly understood her own words, but felt the truth of each wretched plea. Felt as if she’d screamed them before, many times. A maid poked her head out of one of the rooms. “Help me!” Cyrena cried, eyes wide with desperate hope. The maid crossed herself and slammed the door shut once more, abandoning Cyrena to her fate.
“Bloody hell,” Ian snapped. “Enough with the theatrics already!” He let go of her arm and she scrambled to get to her feet, but before she could get them untangled from her skirts, he’d already scooped her up over his shoulder and carried her to the bedroom. When he dropped her to the floor, her bad leg carried the brunt of the impact, screaming with strain. But it did not break again. Not from the fall, at least.
Cyrena turned to all fours, crawling to the vanity where she kept her scissors. She was almost there, just one more step. She reached for the drawer–
A heavy weight slammed down on her right ankle, ground into it, snapped bones and thrust joints out of alignment.
Cyrena screamed, dropped to the ground and curled in on herself, shaking, fighting for breath. Praying for God to help her, even as she knew He would not.
Ian’s fingers dug into her coiffure and yanked her head back. His free hand curled around her throat, fingers digging into her jaws, forcing her mouth open. He was kneeling over her, pinning her arms to her sides with his thighs. His face was unrecognizable, red and savage, framed by a halo of disheveled dark hair. His nostrils flared as he breathed in deep puffs of breath like a crazed animal in a rut. He produced a small glass bottle from his coat pocket, pulled the stopper out with his teeth and held it there, snarling at her as he forced the mouth of the bottle between her lips and poured the liquid down her throat.
Cyrena choked on it, his hand on her throat ensuring she’d have no other choice but to swallow. The liquid was a vile thing, bitter and sour at the same time, like bile burning all the way down. Her stomach clenched painfully, but by then Ian had released her to suffer on her own, writhing in agony as the poison ate away at her insides. Not just her body, but her mind as well. The face of her tormentor became the most beautiful sight in the world. His smile was her sunshine; his words her prayers. She hurt so much… But he was with her now. All would be well.
“Sleep,” he told her, his hand smoothing her hair away from her face. She floated up as he lifted her in his strong arms and laid her on the softest of beds. “You’ve had a bad fall. I’ve already called for the doctor. Just keep still and sleep. All will be well.”
Cyrena sighed, quietly weeping as she floated in and out of consciousness. “Stay with me,” she whispered. “I don’t want to be apart from you.”
“I will never leave you,” he promised. “You’re mine, my darling. Nothing will ever keep us apart.”
The chill of his words melted beneath the swell of love she felt for this man. Her hero, her soul. What would she ever do without him?
She smiled, opened her eyes to tell him how much he meant to her, but she felt too drunk to speak the words. Her mind was playing tricks on her–the shaman was standing beside Ian, dressed in a smart coat one moment, and animal skins the next. He looked down at her with black eyes devoid of any emotion, a ghost inside her mind, inside the bedroom that had always been her final resting place. Before she awoke again.
Please, God. I don’t want to wake again. Let me sleep… Let me die…
The thought seemed so strange, so out of place. Of course she wanted to wake up. She wanted to see Ian’s face on the pillow next to her, smiling at her. She wanted to feel his kiss when she opened her eyes and know she was loved more than any other woman in the world.
Please, make it stop…
As if he’d heard her, the shaman slowly shook his head, and the bothersome thought faded on a sigh as Ian pulled the covers up to her shoulders, tucking her in.
The last thing she saw before her eyes closed was Ian pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket to mop his brow. “She wakes from the potion sooner and sooner,” he was saying, his voice lulling her into an abyss where nothing mattered but that he was with her. “Only two weeks this time. I need you to brew it stronger.”
Such a beautiful voice he had. She could listen to him forever…