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Prologue

The walls paled with the loss of her mother. Ana could feel the death in their house still lingering and clinging to the framed portraits of happier times. One week. She couldn't believe one week had passed without the presence of her mother. Even though the last couple weeks her mother spent mostly unconscious with only brief periods of lucidity, Ana always felt her. She reveled in the comfort that her mother was still there, that if she wanted she could go to her bedside and hold her hand or lie next to her. The loss of that security was excruciating.

Everyone had left. They wore black and carried trays and bowls of food. She never understood why people always resorted to bringing frozen dinners and deserts but now she knew. With an entire baking pan of brownies in her lap, she definitely understood. There was comfort in feeding your depression, or the fallacy that you're feeding that void you now have. She felt semi-productive until she started crying and the salty taste of her tears dampened her appetite.

She had yet to truly cry for all of her pain. For some, they believed it to be expectation. Her mother's death wasn't sudden or unexpected. It came and it happened with no urgency. She could only be grateful she was there for it. With extreme detail, she could remember it. Lying next to her, Ana read to her mother as she took her last breath.

Inhale.

"It goes on, you know, the Hatter continued, in this way:-" Ana read waiting for her mother to release the air from her lungs. The story of Alice's adventures in Wonderland held a special place for them both. It was Ana's first favorite story and ironically the last her mother ever heard.

"Up above the world you fly,

Like a tea-tray in the sky."

Exhale.

That was it.

The moment held no real dramatic change, just silence. She exhaled and then stopped. Time continued its count and despite her dramatic effort, Ana still breathed. She had never known a greater weight than that of silence next to her mother. Her hospice nurse checked her nonexistent vitals and Ana just lay there next to her with tears falling in rivers down her cheeks.

Before she could reminisce more, she stuffed another brownie into her mouth and abandoned her art studio. Her capped paint bottles sat still and unused and her paint brushes dry with even worse neglect. The halls were too quiet besides the faint sound of Ruth, their housekeeper, in the kitchen probably trying to make room in the refrigerator and freezer for all that food.

Everything felt different. The house lacked the warmth she once always related with home but it was warmer than outside or anywhere else. Her memories kept her firmly and restlessly contained within the walls of her estate. She truly had no idea what to do now without the purpose of caring for her mother. Lord knows she could always paint and although she still managed to receive her Bachelors degree in Fine Arts from Cornish, she still needed to do something. Painting eluded her right now and her client list for her feminine portraits dwindled within the past year. They were too high maintenance and demanding in a time period where she just couldn't accommodate. It's hard to paint for women whose only efforts as friends of her mother's were to send flowers and run charities on her behalf more for their damn status than her mother or the organizations themselves. Rage bubbled quickly to the surface and she killed it with yet another brownie. She could feel her sugar coma swiftly approaching.

Padding down the hall still dressed in her black dress from the funeral, she could hear the distant sounds of a conversation drifting from her father's office. As she moved towards the staircase, she stopped when she heard her name escape the slightly ajar door. Quieting her footsteps, she softly set down the pan of brownies as she listened. It was her father's voice she heard first.

"I need to sell but I can't. I can't lose this house. I need your help Carrick." Her father's voice shook as he asked for help the same way her hands trembled as she listened. Always nosy and too protective of a father who'd completely wandered into the woods and tied himself to a tree so life could beat him to a pulp, she inched closer to the door.

"What kind of help?" She heard the sounds of them both sitting down and she leaned in closer. On the verge of tears that they ran the possibility of losing their estate, she covered her mouth with her hand to try to keep her emotions at bay. She truly had no idea of the financial strain. Of course she knew her mother's medical expenses had grown especially with private hospice care at home but her father never once hinted that they needed to sell their home. Her father quit his job five years ago when Carla entered her first round of chemo unaware that it was only the first round of many.

"I need money Carrick." Her father replied with a sigh of resignation. Ana could feel the burn of her lungs as she with all her heart couldn't handle another loss. Hell, her father couldn't either.

"Raymond, I have a proposition for you." Carrick spoke listlessly. Her hands twined viciously as she waited. "I'll loan you what you need free of monetary charge."

"What is it that you want if not monetary payment." She could hear the suspicion laced with her father's words like a vine growing with every moment of silence. Once again, the soundless space weighed heavy on her.

"I want Ana."

"What?" Her eyes grew wide as Carrick's request finally registered. Her? What about her?

"I want Ana to marry Christian."

"What the fuck for? Your son can find himself a wife."

"My son can do many things but finding an appropriate wife doesn't seem to be one of them. Your family still holds some influence in this city."

"I will not involve my daughter in your ridiculous games! Get out!"

Ana scanned the halls, the mahogany wainscoting and floral wall paper all handpicked by her mother. Her father built this home specifically for her from the décor to amenities. This was his most precious gift to her, his greatest measure of his love. And the memories… This was her first home and her mother's last. More tears welled as she had a vision of herself as a child dragging her tired parents down the hall with all the excitement of a child and that her parents lacked. With both of her hands secured by them both, it was perfect. They were all happy.

"I'll do it." She uttered as she stormed into the office.

"Ana, no!" Her father interjected but she couldn't face him now. She wasn't above doing whatever it took to save their estate, to save the walls that housed every memory first and last that she had of her mother. And she wasn't above doing whatever necessary to save her father because losing this house so close to losing their mother would kill him. Her heart pounded against her rib cage intimidating her bones with menacing speed.

"Dad, I can't allow us to lose this house. It's all we have left." She argued with every ounce of restraint of her tears. Carrick stood before her with neither a smile nor pity. He simply looked like a man with a plan bound and determined to get his way.

"On one condition." She countered and Carrick's lips thinned into what could easily maneuver itself to a smile but he retained more control than that.

"And that is?"

"No one knows about this, about our financial problems. This information stays between us. I don't want your son to know about my father. Tell him I want status as his wife, tell him I want him to further my aritstry, I don't care just do not mention anything about this estate or my father."

"I will not allow you to do this honey."

"No one shall know." She nodded still ignoring her father. Hearing him having to beg for help in the first place stole all the breath from her lungs and she'd be damned if he lost anymore of his reputation. She'd save what was left of it and hold onto it for dear life because it was all she had, it was all her motivation and without it she could physically feel her own being stripped from her.

"What makes you think Christian will even agree to this?" She asked and studied Carrick in the process. He had the smile to fool men and win women but the hint of devilish intent when she mentioned Christian's name reminded her of Goya's painting Saturn Devouring His Son. A father who couldn't bear his children to surpass him in success so he devoured them. It was in that moment, the situation terrifyingly began to sink in. She just sold her soul to the devil.

"Don't worry your pretty little head about that."

"Pleasure doing business with you both. I certainly hope this…" Carrick motioned to the walls of the office. "Is worth it."

"Considering you're taking advantage of a newly widowed man and motherless woman, I hope that losing a piece of your soul is worth what you're doing here today."

"Ana, your innocence is enchanting. Your parents both did such a wonderful job in sheltering you but you'll soon learn that no one is innocent in this office and now not even you my dear." Carrick eyed his father before leaving.

"I'll have your money this week." As soon as the door closed she turned to her father.

"What the hell is wrong with you? I can't believe you just did that!" He yelled as he shook her. The heat of his breath attacked her face as tears finally found their release.

"I won't change my mind." She spoke already nostalgic for the wallowing grief of moments before. At least then she was free.

"You are too much like your damn mother sometimes!" He shouted as he stormed out into the hallway.

She stared at the empty space and tried desperately to catch her breath. What the hell did she just agree to?