Claudia stepped into her new home. It was a large estate owned by her new husband. The whole situation felt like a fairy tale and she was the princess.
She looked down at the dark marble flooring as she walked into the large foyer. Then looking around, she noticed the drab décor. She would definitely have to brighten the place up. It needed a woman’s touch. Ahead of her was a wide staircase that led to a hallway on either side. A young woman picked up the suitcase next to her and offered to show Claudia to her new bedroom.
“I’ve got it,” a deep voice came from behind her and Claudia turned to see her husband. Dante Romano was the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome. In the lighting, the hint of blue in his dark beard stood out.
Claudia’s husband took her by the hand and led her up the stairs, following the hallway to the left. Antique paintings decorated the light red walls that offset the gold carpet. She wasn’t a fan of his atrocious color choices. The entire interior would need to change if this was going to be her home.
When they reached the bedroom, Claudia stood at the door in awe. The room was the size of the one bedroom apartment she recently moved out of. A large bed was centered against the wall with a nightstand on each side. An armoire stood against the wall, near a doorway that led to the bathroom, which was almost the size of their bedroom. She was relieved to see that her bedroom was brighter than the rest of the house.
“You can make any changes you want around here,” her husband said. Claudia nodded, hoping her earlier disgust was not that obvious. “Except for one room. It’s at the end of the east wing. Do not go in there under any circumstances.” A darkness replaced his loving gaze, setting a chill through her.
“Okay,” Claudia squeaked.
Dante smiled and placed his palm against the side of her cheek, then leaned down to gently touch her lips with his. Claudia wrapped her arms around his neck as he swiftly scooped her up and moved her to the bed.
“I’m leaving for a few days.” Dante was at the door with two suitcases. “The house is yours. All but that one room, of course. Ellie can show you around some more.”
“I’ve been here less than a week and you’re already leaving me.” Claudia frowned.
“I know, my love, but I have to tend to business. You don’t think I acquired all this by sitting at home all day.” He raised an eyebrow.
Claudia shook her head and groaned. “Hurry back. I love you.” She gave him a quick kiss and watched him walk to his car. Once he was out of sight, Claudia shut the door and turned to look around the large house. There was so much work to be done. Her first task was to brighten up the downstairs room where they would entertain guests.
All of that would have to wait until she changed out of her pajamas and had breakfast. Claudia reached the top of the staircase and stared down the hall that led to the forbidden room. What was he hiding? Walking down the hall, she found herself drawn to the door like a moth to a flame. As the door came into view, she studied the elaborate design.
A hand touched her arm, startling her. It was Ellie. “Come, Mrs. Romano. I’ll show you around the rest of the house.”
Claudia followed Ellie, who pointed out each room while giving a detailed history of the place and her employment with Dante. “Mr. Romano’s last wife loved to paint in this room.”
They entered a room furnished with a chair and a small easel that held an oil painting. Claudia stepped closer to the painting. “Wife? He never mentioned being married before,” she murmured. When Ellie shifted uncomfortably with her jaw dropped, Claudia added, “I won’t say anything.”
Ellie relaxed and a smile touched the corners of her lips.
“What happened to his wife?” Claudia asked as they walked down the hall again.
“She disappeared last winter,” Ellie said, but she was no longer glancing at Claudia as they spoke. Ellie kept her gaze to the floor in front of her, then snuck a peek back at the door when she thought Claudia wasn’t paying attention.
Claudia furrowed her brow and tilted her head. Everyone knew something wasn’t right, yet didn’t bother to ask questions. The staff in the house accepted that a woman just disappeared without investigating the reason. There were too many unknowns at this point. Where did his wife go? Why was that room off limits? What secrets did her husband keep?
“Ellie, I’m getting hungry. Could you go down and see if breakfast is ready? I’m going to change clothes,” Claudia said, rubbing the woman’s arm.
“Yes, Mrs. Romano.” Ellie gave a single nod and hurried down the stairs.
Claudia turned around and took long hurried strides back to the door. Her heart was pounding and her stomach was in a knot as she reached a shaky hand to the doorknob. The door was locked. In her set of keys, she didn’t remember seeing one that fit the keyhole.
“I have a key.” Ellie’s voice startled her. “But I wouldn’t go in there if I were you. Mr. Romano specifically said-”
“What’s in there?” Claudia snapped.
Ellie shrugged. “I’m not allowed to go in there either. Mrs. Romano,” Ellie cleared her throat. “The late Mrs. Romano went in there. I haven’t seen her since. Mr. Romano was angry and they had a fight. He said she left without a word after that, but no one actually saw her leave.”
Claudia found that information a bit odd, but it sparked her curiosity more. “You’ve never wondered what’s in there?”
“Sure, but I was told I wasn’t allowed,” Ellie said.
“Obedient little maid, aren’t you? Where’s the key?” Claudia demanded.
“I really don’t think you want to-”
Claudia stuck out her hand and raised her eyebrows impatiently. The young woman handed her a set of keys and showed her which one opened the door. Claudia pushed the key into the door, then closed her eyes, and sucked in a breath.
“Mrs. Romano, please,” Ellie pleaded. When Claudia turned the doorknob, she felt Ellie’s presence leave her. She was completely alone by the time she pushed the door open.
Cold air touched her skin and she peered into the dark room. The walls were made of gray stone and reminded her of a medieval dungeon. Claudia took a step in, feeling around for a light. Her toe kicked a blunt object on the floor and she squinted to see what it was. When she couldn’t make out the object, she bent down to touch it with her hand. A set of fingertips met with hers and Claudia yanked her hand back, losing her balance.
She let out a gasp and scooted herself out of the door with her heels. As the dark room came into focus a little more, she could make out the shapes of an arm and a foot. Claudia pushed herself onto her feet and pulled the door shut.
“I haven’t even been gone two hours and you’ve already betrayed my trust. Just like Eliza.” Her husband’s voice sent a chill through her body. When Claudia’s gaze moved to the ax in his hand, her heart pounding faster, and her breaths were more labored.
“I-I’m sorry,” she whimpered.
Dante took steady steps toward her. “I’m sure you are.”