Finn was in great spirits for the rest of the afternoon. He had delivered his message, and thought it had been fairly well received. He didn’t know Hope as well as he thought. She was depressed and angry all day, and stayed busy scrubbing and polishing several bathrooms on the second floor to keep distracted from the agonizing situation she was in. And Finn was affectionate with her. She wondered if that was what life would be like if she paid his price, which she was not inclined to do. But if so, would he always be sweet to her? Warm and loving as he had been in the beginning? Or would he still be jealous, threaten her if he felt like it, and ask for more when he blew the five or ten million dollars and needed the account filled again, no questions asked? It was hard to know what she’d be getting, if she decided to pay him what he wanted. If anyone had told her she’d be thinking about giving him the money, she would have told them they were insane. All she wanted was the old Finn back, the first one, but even she knew you couldn’t buy that.
The whole conversation saddened her, and she went for a walk alone that afternoon to clear her head. Finn saw her go out, and decided that it was better to let her come to her own conclusions, on her own. She really didn’t have much choice, as far as he was concerned. He was very sure of himself, and believed that she was firmly hooked. He had all the grandiosity and sense of entitlement of sociopaths, as Robert had said to her. Finn was certain that if Hope loved him, she’d pay up. She didn’t want to be alone. He knew she loved him, and didn’t want to lose him. To him the answer was clear. And he was sure it would be to her too. He was feeling increasingly secure and had made himself clear. He thought she might need to be pushed a little, and be reminded of the alternative again. But ultimately, unless she was willing to risk being a lonely old lady in a nursing home, Finn knew he was the better deal and she had no choice. And with him, she could have more kids. He had almost called it “stud service” when he talked to her, but decided that might put her off. The rest seemed okay to him. And as far as he was concerned he was worth every penny he was asking. Hope knew he believed that too. It all made sense to him, and he was sure she’d be sensible about it, and too scared not to. He looked jubilant as he sat at his desk and watched her back from the window, as she walked toward the hills. He didn’t see the rivers of tears rolling down her face.
As Hope sat in a warm bath before dinner, she was seriously depressed. He had planted the seeds of some really melancholy observations, about what her future would look like without him. He was right. She didn’t have a soul in the world, except him. If she left him, there might be someone else. But that was beside the point. She loved him, and had for a year, enough to want to marry him at one point and have a child. She wanted neither of these now. She just wanted to feel sane again and for things to calm down.
She had no one in her life except Finn. And saddest of all was that she had truly loved him, even if it was turning out that she was only a piggy bank to him. It was a lot to pay for a guy who was demonstrating that he only wanted her for her money, and was fabulous in bed. All she really wanted from him was his heart. And Hope no longer believed that Finn had that particular piece of equipment. It just wasn’t there. Her eyes filled with tears as she thought about it. She had loved him so much. Why did it have to be so damn complicated and turn out like this? She knew she’d have to deal with it soon. She couldn’t stall him forever.
She decided to put a good face on it, and dressed in a nice dress for dinner. She put on high heels, brushed her hair back, added earrings and makeup, and when she got downstairs to the pantry where Katherine had left a tea tray for them, Finn looked at her and whistled. And when he pulled her into his arms and kissed her, he looked as though he loved her, but who knew now? She no longer believed anything. It was a sad place to be in.
They decided to make do with Katherine’s sandwiches and a pot of tea, instead of dinner. And Finn looked animated as he started telling her about a new book he’d been thinking about that afternoon. It was for the second book due in his contract. He said he had almost finished the first one, but she wasn’t sure she believed him, since his relationship to the truth had proved flimsy at best.
As they ate Katherine’s sandwiches, Hope listened to him tell the story. It was about two newly married people who had bought a château in France. The woman was American, and the hero of the story was French, a very handsome older man. Finn said he was a dark character who had already had two wives who had mysteriously died. And what the hero wanted more than anything was a child. It was beginning to have a familiar ring to it, as Hope listened, but she figured he would spin it off eventually into one of his typically scary tales with ghosts, murderers, people imprisoned in basements, and bodies hidden in the woods. It always intrigued her how he came up with the stories, which, for years, critics had said were the product of a troubled, brilliant mind. Initially he had seemed surprisingly normal, considering the twisted tales that he told. Now she was no longer so sure.
“Okay, so then what happens?” she said, listening with interest, trying to concentrate on this book. It was something to talk about, other than money, and as a result, it was a relief.
“She gets pregnant, so her future is assured, at least until she has the child. She’s an heiress, and her father gets kidnapped later in the book.” Hope smiled. It already sounded complicated to her. “As it turns out, she and her brother have been stealing money from their father for years. Her husband finds out and blackmails her, and asks her for ten million dollars. She talks to her brother, and they decide to call his bluff. They don’t give him the money,” he said, with a small evil smile at Hope, and then he kissed her neck.
“Then what?” she asked, with an odd chill running down her spine from his kiss.
“He kills her,” Finn says with a look of pleasure. “First he kills her. Then the baby.” She shivered as he said it.
“That’s awful. How can you write that?” She gave him a disapproving look, and Finn seemed amused. “How does he kill her, or do I want to know?” Some of his books had been gory and perverted beyond belief. They were strong stories, but some of the details made her sick. They were always thoroughly researched.
“It’s pretty clean. He uses an undetectable poison. And he inherits the entire fortune. Or her half anyway, then he kills the brother. And when their father is kidnapped later, the hero doesn’t pay the ransom, because he’s been a shit to him. So he lets the kidnappers kill him. One by one, he kills the entire family, and winds up with all their money. Pretty cool for a poor boy from Marseilles, don’t you think? He even buys himself a title that comes with the château.” It sounded like Finn’s fantasy to her, and some of his earlier lies about the house.
“And he winds up alone?” Hope asked innocently. The plot sounded pretty sick to her, but very Finn.
“Of course not. He marries a young girl from the village, who he was in love with in the first place. She’s twenty-one, and he’s fifty at the end of the story. So what do you think?” He looked pleased with himself.
“Pretty scary.” She smiled, thinking of the twists and turns he described. “I think killing the pregnant wife is a little much and may upset your readers. Most people have sensibilities about those things.”
“She didn’t pay him the money,” Finn said, looking straight at her, deep into her eyes. “The brother would have, but she convinced him not to. And in the end, he got the money anyway, all of it, not just her share, and far more than he originally asked for. The moral of the story is that they should have paid him when they could, before he killed them all.” He was good at complicated, layered stories of psychological terror, and frightening murders of retribution.
Hope asked, looking him in the eye, “And that seems fair to you?”
“Completely. She had all the money, why should she get everything and he has nothing? And in the end, he’s avenged, and the poor boy gets everything.”
“And a lot of dead bodies in the basement.”
“Oh no,” he said, looking offended. “They all had proper burials. Even the police never figure out they were murdered. They suspect it, but they can never prove it. There’s a very clever French inspector, and in the end, François kills him too. François is my hero. The inspector’s name is Robert. He buries him in the woods, and no one ever finds him.” And as he said the inspector’s name, the story clicked for Hope. It was no accident that the rich wife was killed, the poor boy wins, and the inspector had the name of the lawyer Finn had found on the piece of paper in her purse when she first came from Dublin. All the puzzle parts fit together seamlessly, and the threat to her was clear.
She looked straight at Finn then. “Is there a message there for me?” She didn’t flinch as their eyes met, nor did he. He shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
“Why would you say a thing like that?”
“Some of the story seems a little close to home.”
“All writers inspire themselves somewhat from real life, even if they don’t admit it. And there are differences. The wife he kills is pregnant. You’re not. You don’t have a brother. Or a father. You’re all alone. That would be a lot more scary. But very boring for the reader. You need layers, subplots, and more people to make a story work. I just found it interesting what happens to her when she won’t give him the money. It proves that trying to hang on to it doesn’t pay. You can’t take your money to the grave.” What he was saying to her was frightening, given their situation, but he said it with a smile, and he was clearly mocking her. But his message to her was clear. Pay up or die.
He didn’t mention it further, and she put their dishes in the pantry sink, trying to act normal. They started talking about Christmas, which was two weeks away. Hope said she wanted to go to Russborough to get a tree the next day, and Finn said he would rather chop one down himself. He had an ax in the stable, which sounded ominous to her too. His story had unnerved her, and she suspected that was the point. Finn knew exactly what he was doing. The night before he had reminded her of how alone she was. And now he had told her a story he had created about a man who kills his wife when she doesn’t give up her fortune to him. The message was extremely clear. And the hair stood up on her arms when she thought about it. They read side by side in bed that night, clinging to the appearance of normalcy, and Hope said nothing to him. She was thinking of his story and couldn’t concentrate on the book in her hands. For an odd moment, she began to wonder if she should run like hell, as Robert had said, or just pay Finn, and give in. If she didn’t, he was right, she would be alone forever. And if she paid him, then what would happen? Would he be nice again, and calm down? Maybe if she gave him the money, things would go back to the way they were in the beginning and they would stop fighting. And Finn was right. He was all she had in the world. She didn’t like the idea, but maybe she had no other choice. She felt cornered, beaten, and trapped. She was tired of trying to swim against the tides. She felt like she was drowning. Finn was too powerful for her. He was trying to destroy her mind. He almost had. She could feel it. He was winning.
“So what do you think about my story?” Finn asked her when she put down her book and stopped pretending to read it. She looked at Finn then, with a dead look in her eyes.
“To be honest, I’m not sure I like it. And I get the message. I’d like it a lot better if they all kill the poor boy from Marseilles. Then I wouldn’t feel so threatened.” She looked right at him as she said it.
“It doesn’t work that way,” he said cleverly. “He’s much smarter than they are.” And more willing to take risks, and cross lines.
“I’ll give you the money, if that’s what you want to know,” she said bluntly. She had no illusions anymore. This was about survival. He had defeated her. She felt dead inside.
“I thought you would,” he said, smiling at her. “I think it’s a good decision.” And then he moved toward her and kissed her ever so gently on the lips. She didn’t respond. For the first time since she’d known him, she hated his touch. “I’ll make you happy, Hope. I promise.” She no longer believed it, or even cared. She was selling her soul, and she knew it. But being alone in the world seemed worse. “I love you,” he said gently, looking pleased. She no longer believed that either. She knew exactly what he had done. He had terrorized her. And it had worked. “Don’t you love me?” He had on his little-boy voice, and for a moment, she hated him, and she wished he would kill her. It would be so much simpler in the end.
“Yes, I love you,” she said in a dead voice. He didn’t know the meaning of the word. There was no coming back from what she knew now, or what he had implied that night at dinner. “We can get married next week if you want, if the embassy can get the papers ready. I’ll call the lawyer in Dublin about the prenup.” She sounded like a robot and felt like a corpse.
“Don’t put too many teeth in it,” he warned. She nodded. He had the upper hand now. And she was alone with him at the house. There was a stiff wind outside, and there was a snowstorm expected that night. She didn’t care. About anything right now. He had killed something inside of her that night. Any hope she had of being loved. All she was buying was his presence, not his heart. The only heart involved was her own. And it was broken beyond repair. “We’ll have beautiful babies, I promise. We can spend our honeymoon in London and see the doctor.”
“We don’t need the doctor,” she objected.
“If you let her give you the shots, you could have twins or triplets.” His electric-blue eyes lit up at the thought. It sounded frightening to Hope. It had been hard enough for her to have one baby when she had Mimi. She was a tiny woman. The thought of twins or triplets was terrifying, and then she looked at Finn. He owned her now. She had sold her soul to the devil, and he was it.
“Does he kill her if she has twins?” she asked him with wide, frightened eyes. And Finn grinned.
“Never. Not if she gives him the money.” Hope nodded in response and said nothing, and a little while later, Finn wanted to make love to her, and she let him. The wind was howling outside, and this time, she just lay there, letting him do whatever he wanted, even the things she had never let him do before, and some of them she enjoyed. He was excited by everything that had happened between them that night, his bloodlust had been satisfied, and his need to own her. She had finally surrendered, and it heightened his sexual desire for her. He took her again and again. He owned her in every way now. And just the way he wanted, Hope was his.
Hope woke up at five A.M. when the wind smashed a tree limb against the house. The storm was in full swing. Finn had heard nothing, and as Hope awoke she felt as though her heart had been ripped out through her lungs. She was instantly awake and remembered everything that had happened the night before. Everything. Every word. Every sound. Every innuendo. Every nuance of Finn’s story about the young wife the poor boy killed. She understood all its implications, what she’d done, and what he’d done to her the night before, to her head, not just her body. He had brainwashed her. And every fiber of her being was screaming. She had sold her soul to the devil, or planned to, and he was asleep beside her in the bed. He was worn out from their sexual acrobatics that had only ended two hours before. Hope was still sore and knew she would be for days. And suddenly as she thought of all of it, she knew that as bad as being alone might be one day, this was infinitely worse. What she had just signed on for, and had been living for the past few months, was worse than death. She had bought her ticket to hell the night before, and as she thought of it, she remembered everything Robert Bartlett had said too… trust your instincts… when you know… run, Hope, run… run like hell…
Hope slipped out of the bed by millimeters. She had to go to the bathroom, but didn’t dare. She found her underwear on the floor, the dress she had worn the night before, a sweater of Finn’s, she couldn’t find her shoes, but she grabbed her purse, and slipped through the crack in the barely open door on bare feet. She ran quickly down the stairs, praying they wouldn’t creak, but the wind and the sounds of the storm were so loud that it covered everything else, and she never looked back, fearing he would be standing in the doorway, watching, but no one stopped her. He was sound asleep and would be for hours. She found a coat on a peg next to the back door, and the boots she wore in the garden. She unlocked the door, and ran out into the night, taking big deep gulps of the icy air. She was freezing and it was hard to run in the boots, but she didn’t care. She was doing just what Robert had told her, she was running for her life… to freedom… She had known the minute she woke up that if she didn’t, he would kill her. He had made that clear the night before. And she didn’t doubt it for a minute. Two women were dead because of him, she was certain of it, and she didn’t want to be the third. Even if she was alone forever. She no longer cared. About anything. Except getting out.
She walked for miles in the storm, with snow blanketing her shoulders; her legs were freezing in the thin dress, but she didn’t mind. Her hair was matted to her head. She passed houses and churches, farms and stables, a dog barked when she ran past. She ran and walked, and stumbled in the dark. But no one followed her. She didn’t know what time it was, and it was still dark when she got to a pub outside Blessington. It was closed, but there was a woodshed behind it. She walked into it, and closed the door. She hadn’t seen another human on her route, but she kept expecting Finn to yank open the doors of the shed, drag her home, and kill her. She was shaking violently, and not just from the cold and the storm. She knew she had been snatched back from the jaws of death by the hand of Providence and the memory of Robert’s words. She dug in her bag, and opened the door of the shed a crack so she could see by the light of a streetlamp. She found the tiny scrap of paper she was looking for. Finn had torn the one with Robert’s numbers to shreds, but Mark had written them on a notepad in New York and given her the same numbers. She forgot she had it until that moment, and with trembling, frozen hands, she found her cell phone. His cell phone number was on the paper; she pressed the buttons and listened while it rang. He answered in a deep sleep-filled voice, and her teeth were chattering so hard he didn’t recognize her when she said hello.
“Who is it?” he shouted into the phone. There was a terrible shrieking from the wind, and he was afraid it was one of his children. It was just after six in the morning in Ireland, and after one in the morning on the East Coast of the United States where his daughters were.
“It’s Hope,” she said, shaking violently. She had had trouble saying her own name, and she could hardly speak above a whisper… “I’m out…” she said in a shaken voice, and instantly Robert was awake and knew who was calling. She sounded like she was in shock.
“Where are you? Just tell me. I’ll come as fast as I can.” He was praying that Finn didn’t find her first.
“Thhe Whhhite Horse Pubbbb in BBBllesssington, south edge of town. I’m in the wwwoooddshedd,” she said, starting to cry.
“Just hang on, Hope. You’re all right. You’re going to be fine. I’m coming.” He jumped out of bed, raced into his clothes, and five minutes later, he was in his car, speeding south out of Dublin on slippery, deserted roads. All he could think of was that she sounded the way he had the night Nuala had stabbed him. It was over then, and he never went back, although he knew others did in similar conditions, and worse. He just prayed that Hope wasn’t hurt. At least Robert knew she was alive.
The roads were icy, and it took him fifty minutes to get there. It was seven in the morning by then, and there was the faintest gray light coming through the sky. The snow was still falling, but he reached the southern edges of Blessington, and drove around looking for the White Horse Pub, and then he saw it. He got out of his car, walked around it, and saw the shed in the back. He hoped she was still there, and Finn hadn’t found her. He walked to the doors of the woodshed, pulled the doors slowly open, and saw no one, and then he looked down and saw her crouched on the ground, soaking wet, with her thin dress plastered to her legs, and eyes full of terror. She didn’t get up when she saw him, she just crouched there, staring at him. He leaned down gently and pulled her slowly upright, and as she stood up, she started to sob. She couldn’t even speak to him as he put his own coat around her and led her to his car. She was frozen to the bone.
She was still sobbing when they got to Dublin an hour later. He had driven more slowly on the way back. He was debating about taking her to the hospital to have her checked out, or take her to his home and sit her in front of the fire in a warm blanket. She still looked terrified and she hadn’t said a word. He had no idea what had happened, or what Finn had done to her, but she had no obvious injuries or bruises, except to her soul and mind. He knew it would be a long time before she felt whole again, but he knew from talking to her before that she would survive, and even recover, no matter how long it took. It had taken Robert several years.
He asked Hope if she wanted to go to the hospital, and she shook her head. So he took her home with him, and when they got there, he gently undressed her as he would have one of his daughters when she was a child. He rubbed her down with towels as she stood there and cried, handed her a pair of his pajamas, wrapped her in a blanket, and then put her in his bed. He had a doctor come by to look at her later that morning. And she was still looking wild-eyed, but she had stopped crying. All she said to Robert when the doctor left was “Don’t let him find me.”
“I won’t,” he promised. She had left everything there, and she had done what Robert had said. She ran like hell for her life, and she knew with total certainty that if she hadn’t, sooner or later, she would have died.
Robert waited until the next day to talk to her, and she told him everything that had happened. Every word that Finn had said. His pressure for the money. The outline of the story he had described to her, and the implications of it weren’t lost on Robert either. Finn had almost succeeded in getting everything he wanted, but the golden goose had run away during the night. Finn had started calling on her cell phone within hours of her escape. He woke up early in the storm and couldn’t find her, and when she didn’t answer her phone, he started sending text messages. He kept telling her he’d find her, that he wanted her to come home, at first that he loved her, and later when she didn’t respond, his messages were full of thinly veiled threats. Hope didn’t answer, and Robert finally took her phone so she didn’t have to see them. She shook violently every time one of them came in. Robert gave her his bedroom, and he slept on the couch.
And on the second day of her escape, he asked her where she wanted to go, what she wanted to do, and what her plans were for the house. She thought about it for a long moment. In some part of her she still loved the way Finn had been at the beginning, and knew she would for a long time. It wasn’t over yet. She would never forget or stop loving the man she had loved for the first nine months, but the demon he had become after that had nearly cost her her soul, and would have cost her life. She had no doubt of it now.
“I’m not sure what to do about the house,” she said sadly. Making major decisions about anything was too hard for her right now. She was still too shaken by everything that had happened.
Robert looked at her quietly. She needed a guide to get through the dark forest of what she was going through. “The man threatened to kill you. That was not a story for a book, it was a message to you.” She had told Robert all about it.
“I know,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “He killed the woman’s baby too, so he could get all her money.” She spoke about them as though they were real people, which they had become to her, instead of an allegory for her, which she understood clearly in the end.
“I’d like to give him thirty days to pack up and get out. People like him always land on their feet again. They tell enough lies and screw over enough people, and the next thing you know, they turn up somewhere else,” Robert said. He was sure that Finn would too. “Can you live with that? Thirty days for him to figure out his plans and pack up.” Robert would have preferred to kick him out in twenty-four hours, but he knew that it would be too stressful for Hope to contemplate doing that.
“Okay,” she agreed.
“I’ll go out there and pack up your things sometime this week.”
“What if he follows you back here?” Hope asked, looking terrified again, and Robert thought about it. Hope knew he didn’t have Robert’s name or numbers, because he had torn up the piece of paper and thrown it away, and he was still text-messaging her to no avail. Robert still had her phone. He handed it to her later that day, and saw her reading all the frantic text messages from Finn, and when she turned it off, she cried. It was awful what loving a man like that did to another human being. He had gone through the same thing when he finally walked away from his wife. There was no other choice. They were people who had been stolen by aliens sometime in their youth, destroyed, turned into twisted machines, returned, and then walked the planet destroying other lives. They had virtually no conscience and no heart, and very sick minds.
Hope was afraid that Finn was combing Dublin for her, and Robert knew it was possible. There was no limit to what a sociopath would do to reclaim his prey. So she sent Robert shopping for her, and she gave him all her sizes. He came back with enough clothes to keep her going for a few days. She hadn’t decided where to go yet, but she knew that Finn might look for her in New York or Cape Cod. He would think nothing of getting on a plane to find her. And his text messages were getting increasingly desperate, alternating between threatening and loving. When a sociopath lost his prey, or any perpetrator, they went insane looking for them so they could torture them again. Robert had seen it all before. His wife had been similarly desperate, and the last time he had left her, he never went back. He wanted this to be the last time for Hope and she said it was. Whatever she still felt for him, she knew there was no other choice. She had barely come out alive. If he hadn’t killed her, she would have killed herself. She was certain of that. She remembered thinking about it on the last night, and knowing she had surrendered her soul to him, she would have welcomed death, or sought it herself.
Robert was bringing in food for her, and she was too afraid to leave the house. They were sitting in his kitchen eating dinner, when he gently asked her where she thought she might like to go. She’d had an idea all day, and since she didn’t want to go back to New York or Cape Cod yet, it seemed like it might be the right choice. She didn’t want to go to a strange city and hide. And there was no telling how long Finn would look for her or how desperate he would get. And she didn’t want to give herself the temptation of seeing him again. Every time she read his loving text messages to lure her back, her heart ached and she cried. But she knew that whoever was writing them was not the same man she would find if she went back. The mask was off for good, and as everyone who knew him had said, he was a dangerous man. He was everything they had described and worse.
She had Robert’s secretary make a reservation for her to New Delhi. It was the only place she wanted to go, and she knew she would find her soul again there, just as she had before. She wanted to hide, but she also needed to put herself back together again. She still shook violently every time she heard the phone ring, and her heart stopped every time Robert let himself into his home. She was terrified it would be Finn.
Her reservation to New Delhi was for the following night, two days after she had walked to Blessington in the early-morning snow. And listening to Hope tell him about the ashram over dinner, Robert thought it was a good idea. He wanted her as far away as possible from Finn. He was planning to go to Blaxton House himself after she left, and serve Finn with eviction papers. They were giving him thirty days to get out, and after thinking about it, Hope told him to sell the house. She never wanted to see the place again. It was too intimately linked to Finn. She knew she had to close that chapter of her life for good.