It was barely a sound.
The soft scrape of a boot on the floor. The rub of a shoulder against the stone wall. A muffled cough.
I was awake in an instant. Something was different. There was a tension in the air.
Throwing my covers aside, I shivered when my feet touched the icy flagstone floor. Creeping over to the high-arched windows, I parted the brocade curtains just enough to peek out. All was quiet and still. The newly fallen snow lay undisturbed, glistening and sparkling in the moonlight.
Perhaps I had imagined it?
This one just beyond my bedroom door.
A horrible calm settled over me, as if a long anticipated storm had finally broken. I had been waiting for this day. Dreading it.
My stepmother had finally sent someone to kill me.
With my only escape route now blocked to me, I had to think fast. Using both hands, I pushed open the heavy curtains. Placing my hand on the black ebony frame, I once again looked over the winter scene below. The peace of a winter’s eve now shattered. My bedroom was far too high to risk a jump, but perhaps I could climb out onto the ledge and make my way to the stone balustrade of the room next door.
There was the screech of metal against metal. The scrape of a key. They were unlocking my door.
Running across the room, I picked up the small wooden spindle chair by the perpetually cold fireplace. It was one of the few pieces of furniture I was allowed in my sparse, would-be prison. Hefting it high, I raced back to the window. I hesitated. The moment I shattered the window, there would be no turning back. I would have to run and keep running. I squeezed my eyes shut and smashed the chair against the glass with all my might. It shattered, sending sharp shards skittering across the floor. Grabbing the blanket off my bed, I placed it over the jagged pieces. Stepping up to the window, I tossed the remnants of the bedcovers over the sill, cutting my finger in the process. I watched in horrid fascination as three warm, crimson spots of blood fell upon the snow on the ledge, melting it.
As I gingerly stepped onto the sill, the bedroom door opened. Looking over my shoulder, I saw three men enter. The brawn and bulk of their size belied their almost silent entry.
With a cry, I stepped onto the ledge, quickly turning to grasp the chilled stone. A bitter wind cut through the threadbare fabric of my nightgown as remnants of the broken window cut into my bare feet.
Morbid curiosity getting the better of me, I peered back into the pitch black interior of my room. The three men approached. So similar they could be brothers, each was tall with broad shoulders and a harsh angular face. They wore animal skins and furs. Trophies of their past kills.
Spurned on by their fearsome look, I dug my fingernails into the stone façade and tried to slide my foot to the right. It slipped on the ice-covered ledge. My cry of alarm echoed across the still forest sending sleeping birds into flight.
“Well, the lass has spirit. I will give her that,” said one of the men happily, a note of appreciation in his dark voice.
“Good. This would be no fun if she didn’t have some fight to her,” said another while clapping the first on the shoulder.
“There is no point in running. We will only hunt you down,” said the third to me.
“Why have you come?” I asked.
“You know why.”
I could feel all three men assessing me. No doubt, the bright moonlight was shining through my gown, leaving little to their lascvious imaginations. Was I to be used for their pleasure before they killed me? I cast a look over my shoulder to the drifts below. I could hear new voices outside, their conversation carrying across the hushed midnight landscape. More men.
“Are you going to be a good girl and come along quietly?” asked the first. With his feet planted and his arms crossed over his massive chest, he made for a foreboding sight.
“I could scream,” I warned. The words came out weak and trembling as my teeth had begun to chatter from the cold.
“And no one would come to your aid.”
The truth of their words sent the air rushing from my lungs. I was completely alone. The wretched irony was this conversation with my killers was the first a human being had spoken to me in years. My stepmother had ordered the servants and villagers to ignore my presence and never to speak to me almost from the moment my father had drawn his last breath. I had been wrapped in a blanket of silence and solitude for as long as I could remember.
I could feel the tears pool in my eyes. As they dropped, they froze on my chilled cheek. “You could let me go,” I whispered.
“No. We can’t. You are a prize we have fought long and hard to claim. You belong to us now,” explained the third man.
My brow wrinkled at his words. “You’re not here to kill me?”
A bark of laughter came from all three men.
The first one answered for the group. “You may trust us in this, lass. The very last thing we plan to do is kill you.”
“Enough talk,” ground out the second grumpily. “The others are waiting below.”
He stepped before me. Laying a hand on my chest, he pushed.
Flailing, my outstretched hands scrambled for some kind of purchase but only met with air. The sound of rushing wind tormented me as I fell backwards into nothingness. My scream lost. What was only an instant felt like an eternity.
Then…instead of the cold embrace of death, I felt warmth.
I was held in a pair of strong arms. The feel of soft fur caressed my cheek. He smelled of pine and whiskey. I looked up into his bearded face, surprised when he gave me a wink.
“Well, men. It looks like I have caught some falling Snow.”
I was surrounded by hearty laughter.
With a start, I craned my neck around. Three large burly men stared back at me with interest. Another four men.
Seven in total.
With a screech, I twisted and turned my body, trying to break free. The man who held me, easily tossed me over his shoulder. I felt the heat of his large hand on the underside curve of my ass.
“You bastard!” I yelled. “Get your hands off me!”
I had a brief moment of satisfaction when I felt his hand move away. Then there was a burst of raw pain. His open palm had struck my right buttock, prickling hot needles raced over my chilled skin.
Shock kept me immobile.
One of the other men circled round my captor’s back. Grabbing my dark, ebony hair, he forced my head up. I winced at the twinge of pain.
Addressing the assembled men, he said, “Let’s get our new prize home so we can really begin her punishment.”
I opened my mouth to scream, but he shoved a gag between my red lips, tying it tightly behind my head.
Once upon a time, I was a princess named Snow White…now, I am the captive prize of seven huntsmen.
Hush now, Phoebe, do not you fear
Never mind, Phoebe, the Mad Monk is near
The sickly sweet sing-song voice echoed around her empty bedchamber. Phoebe’s mouth opened, the lower lip trembling in a macabre pantomime of a silent scream. Fear kept her immobile. A fear so intense it struck straight through, making her very bones feel brittle and weak. A cold sweat broke out over her brow as she searched the darkness in vain, trying to peer past the moving shadows. Every outline was suspect. Every hint of sound, real or imagined, a cry of alarm, but there was nothing. Through the distorted glass of her window, she could see the burnt orange and crimson glow from the dance of fire as black cloaked figures ran about with torches, the earlier torrential rain doing nothing to dampen the morbid celebration.
Casting a glance to her left, she could see a faint halo of light surrounding the cracks of the door. Through it was the dark outline of a heavy bolt. The door was locked tight. Of course, someone had managed to get into her locked rooms before this.
It had been a warning.
A warning to stay away, to leave this place.
A warning she was putting herself in danger.
A warning she had ignored.
It was a small, single room chamber with just enough space for a bed, desk and cozy chair in the corner. Barely larger than a student’s dorm room. Surely she would know if someone had entered the chamber.
Leaning over, she flicked the switch to the dome ceiling light. Phoebe both craved the security the brightness would bring and dreaded what it might show.
Darkness still reigned.
She felt a fresh wave of terror. It took Phoebe a moment to recall she had removed the light bulb herself earlier in case he had tried to search her room looking for her. She wanted the darkness to shield her, to hide her from his prying, intense gaze but now she wondered what else the darkness was hiding. Had someone else learned of her true purpose for being there? Learned about the lies she told to get to the truth?
Again she scanned the darkness. The chamber was silent and still save for the distant shouts and cries from those outside.
Maybe she just imagined it?
Her nerves were already strung tight from hiding from him…from lying to him. It only made sense her imagination would lean towards the dark and forbidding, that her mind would conjure up monsters under the bed and a mad monk specter to go bump in the night.
Hush now, Phoebe, do not you fear
Never mind, Phoebe, the Mad Monk is near
The raspy voice was definitely coming from inside her bedchamber.
Phoebe launched herself at the door and throwing the bolt, she ran into the hallway. She was halfway down the long corridor before the chill of the flagstone seeped through her thin socks. In her haste, she had not even grabbed her boots. Throwing a nervous look over her shoulder, the corridor remained empty. The darkness was broken by shafts of weak, blood-stained light. Its source a row of tall, cathedral windows along one wall, in the center of each, a ruby Red Cross of Saint John, a remnant from the school’s monastic past. A luminous full moon shown through each cross, bathing the space in an eerie red glow.
Keeping an eye on the empty corridor, Phoebe reached into her back pocket for her phone. Needing a meager sense of safety, she leaned against the cold stone wall, protecting her back. She pressed the power button and waited for the screen to come to life.
The earlier storm must have knocked out what passed for cell service in this remote area. Phoebe didn’t even know who she would call. The police? Would they even dare to cross the gates onto the property? Probably not. Worse. They would probably just call him and expect him to handle the situation. At that very moment, she wasn’t certain what she was more afraid of…the possible murderer haunting her…or his wrath when he found out she had disobeyed him.
One thing was for certain, she needed to keep moving. Needed to find someplace to hide. Someplace no one would think to look for her.
For a brief moment, she wondered if she dared to return to her chamber for her boots but then thought better of it. She would go to the gymnasium. The locker room would be a bright open space and perhaps she could borrow a pair of shoes from one of the open lockers.
With at least an immediate plan in place, Phoebe headed off down the corridor, feeling more confident the further she got away from the twisted rhyme and whoever was singing it. Stopping before a somber looking portrait of some old man in a white wig who seemed to be staring down at her in disapproval, Phoebe tried to remember where the gym was in the labyrinth of old hallways and buildings.
The moment’s distraction cost her dear.
A strong arm wrapped around her middle as a large hand covered her mouth, stifling any hope of a scream for help. The hard, unrelenting form pressed along her back radiated masculine strength. Phoebe kicked out as her nails clawed at the hand pressing against her lips. Desperate to escape, she tried twisting and turning her body. The band of muscle wrapped tightly across her stomach squeezed harder, pressing painfully into her ribs, cutting off her air. Wrenching her head to one side, Phoebe tried to break his grasp. Her stockinged toes scraped along the flagstone for purchase as, with his superior height, he easily lifted her off her feet.
Still she fought.
Then she heard a deep, throated chuckle.
Warm lips skimmed the shell of her left ear. She could feel the faint touch of his breath along the exposed delicate skin of her neck. Inhaling precious air through her nose, she caught the spicy scent of his cologne.
“I warned you what would happen if you defied me, princess.”
Phoebe’s bright green eyes grew wide at the darkly whispered threat cloaked in an endearment. Her pleas were muffled nonsense from beneath his hand.
Already lightheaded from her fevered gasps for breath, she failed to fight when he shifted his grasp to effortlessly lift her over one powerful shoulder.
“You need to learn that no one…no one…defies my command.”
She could feel him pivot. Just as he crossed a threshold and slammed the door shut behind them, she reclaimed her voice.
The faint echo of her cry was swallowed by the dark shadows of the cold, uncaring stone corridor.
She had been a thief most of her life, tonight she would become a killer.
The night was still and peaceful.
Surveying the quiet city street, she was careful to stay within the shadows.
He had chosen his safe house well. They were just on the edge of Potomac Park in D.C. The small, unassuming brick house was moments away from Independence Avenue which would allow a quick getaway to the highways. Plus it skirted the edge of the Yards, a low-rent, high crime area. The perfect place to score equipment, a quick smash and grab crew or fake I.D.s from people who didn’t ask allot of bothersome questions. Of course that was why he was considered the best.
They called him Paine. Doubtful it was his real name. None of them used their real names. Reals names were for people with families, memories, normals jobs…a real life. In her world, there was only the moment. The adrenaline rush of a heist. The pride in a good score. Living for the day because tomorrows are not a promise. In her world, trust was a fantasy of the foolish and love was a weakness. Too bad she had forgotten all that, allowed herself to trust and fall in love, to actually believe she could have a chance at a normal life.
Then Paine took it all away from her. Killed the man she loved.
And now he would pay.
First, she took away the only thing of real value any criminal had…their reputation…but it was not enough. It should have been. Watching him get burned, not knowing who had set him up. Watching him twist and spin as her web closed tighter and tighter around him.
It had all been perfect. The perfect setup. The perfect deception. The perfect revenge.
She could feel the warm stone between her breasts. The Raj Pink Diamond. The thirty-seven carat diamond he was hired to steal.
She got there first.
Stealing the diamond and letting The Syndicate, the crime outfit they both worked for, believe Paine had double-crossed them. She had been thorough, posting on the dark web to make it look like Paine was searching for a buyer, or worse, to cut the diamond down for a quick sale. Then she started dropping hints among the dirty dealers that he had sold them fake jewels and artwork over the years, that Paine’s reputation as a master thief was a sham. The final piece was retuning a Vermeer he had stolen and sold two years ago back to the museum in Brussels. The Vermeer was an exceptionally well done fraud, not that the museum cared. They primly ignored the signs and announced the triumphant return of their masterpiece. While Paine’s underworld and very influential buyer seethed. Assuming he had been deceived by Paine, he was demanding his fifteen million back. The best part was, assuming it was of no value, the underworld buyer had practically tossed the original Vermeer aside, placing it in storage on one of his estates. She had snatched it up with no problem. It now graced her walls in London. A reminder of her perfect revenge on Paine.
It really had all been perfect. The perfect setup. The perfect deception. The perfect revenge.
She waited for the final climax. The final act.
She had hoped The Syndicate would put out a on contract on him. Hoped they would do her dirty work for her, to finish the job she started and kill him for his betrayal. A fitting end.
Impatiently she watched and waited. Listening for rumors or even a hint, someone had been hired to kill Paine. Nothing.
Criminals had short memories, especially when a big score was involved. Instead of a kill contract, she began hearing murmurings that Paine was returning. A man of his special kills was hard to find. A trained fighter, thief and hacker. A criminal renaissance man. The Syndicate was beginning to doubt Paine had betrayed them.
Now her perfect plan was unraveling.
With Paine back in The Syndicate’s good graces, he would have the resources to learn it was she who betrayed him. He was a dangerous man to cross. Their brief past connection would mean nothing to him. He would kill her for certain. Slowly and painfully for her deception, that is if The Syndicate didn’t get to her first. They would not take too kindly to learning she had set up one of their best operatives. Despite her skills as a master thief and almost cult-like reputation, Paine was worth more to them.
She needed to act fast. She would kill Paine and plant the diamond on him. The Syndicate would be assured of his betrayal and move on.
She would be safe and her final revenge realized, by her own hand.
It had taken her months to track him down to this safe house. Another month of careful surveillance, each day worrying he would pick up and leave.
Now her time was up. The Syndicate has ordered her to London to perform a job for them. No one told The Syndicate no.
She would have to put her plan into action tonight.
It will be perfect. The perfect setup. The perfect deception. The perfect revenge.
The perfect murder.
Keeping to the dark, she swept along to the back of the house. Placing her knapsack on the ground, she pulled out her CPM-700. The counter-surveillance probe would let her know if Paine had installed any new cameras or audio devises other than the ones she had already mapped out on a floor plan of his house. Crouching low, she turned on the small black box, waving the handheld wand over the house and surrounding area. All the electronic noise was coming from the lower level. Paine was either careless or arrogant, leaving the upstairs unprotected with any kind of electronic eavesdropping devises. Opening up the four flukes on her foldable, steel grappling hook, she drew out the slack on the rope and chain. Throwing back her arm, she swung the hook in a circle, picking up speed. Finally she let it fly, watching through the darkness as it arced before hitting its mark. The balcony under the second-story window. She winced at the slight screeching noise the hook made is it connected with the balcony, followed by the hollow clang of the chain as it wrapped around the stone balustrade. The chain was loud but necessary. It would withstand the rough rubbing along the rock better than the rope which may fray and break.
Creeping under the cover of a low-branched tree, she waited. Holding her breath to see if the subtle, yet unmistakable sound of the grappling hook had alerted her quarry. She knew better than to watch for a sudden light in the window. A trained criminal like Paine would know not to give away his position or the fact that he was alert. No, her first warning would be a shot fired at close range or perhaps the thrust of a knife between her ribs to pierce her lungs and prevent her from screaming for help. He wasn’t called Paine by accident.
Feeling her legs tingle and cramp from her crouching position, still she waited. Searching the stillness for any sign of movement.
Finally she was satisfied it was safe to proceed.
Placing the knapsack on her back, she grabbed the rope and placed her toe in the first foothold. She had created a bowline with a bight knot every foot and half to make her climb easy and quick. In a matter of seconds she was tossing a leg over the balustrade. Peering through the glass into the darkness, she saw the faint outlines of a bed, dresser and chair. This was the spare bedroom. She knew from her surveillance that Paine slept in the front bedroom. It was easier to monitor the street that way. Cops came through the front. Only criminals came through the back.
Even currently being on the outs with The Syndicate, Paine had a fearsome reputation. Any criminal would have to be mad…or determined…or both…to try to harm him. It was no wonder he didn’t bother with any extreme security measures for the safe house, that and it would draw the attention of curious neighbors to see the blinking red lights of cameras and a satellite dish on what should be a lower income, ramshackle house.
This was a narrow balcony meant more for show and leisure so there was not a patio door where she could easily pick the lock. Only three large windows, side by side, overlooking the garden. Once again reaching into her knapsack, she took out her roll of butcher paper. Unrolling a large sheet, she placed it against the window for measurement, using a razor to cut it to size. Reaching in to her knapsack, she grabbed the small, brown glass bottle. Cringing at the smell when she unscrewed the metal cap, she pulled free the small brush, careful to watch the gooey streams of glue. Gingerly brushing the paper with the rubber cement, she lifted it up and adhered it to the window. Using her watch, since the glow from a phone may alert someone to her presence, she waited several minutes for the glue to dry. Unlike what the movies showed, successful breaking and entering was about stealth and patience. The faster you worked the louder you were likely to be.
Testing a corner of the paper, she was satisfied it was fully adhered to the glass window. Taking out her pocket-sized brass hammer, she gave the window a strong tap right in the center. It shattered. Moving quickly, she caught the now heavy piece of butcher paper before it fell to the ground. A window breaking did not actually make much sound. It was the sound of glass shards hitting the floor which made all the noise. With the large pieces stuck to the butcher paper, there was only the slightest tinkling sound from the falling remnants. Cautious not to cut herself or worse, disturb the jagged pieces that still lined the sill, she reached in to unlock the window. Slowly she raised the window. The sound of metal scraping stone from the grappling hook was far worse then then muted sound of wood sliding along wood but still, it was noise. Any noise could alert him to her presence.
Again, she waited. Holding her breath. Training her ear for the slightest shuffle that wound indicate movement inside. At the slightest sign of trouble she would be over the balcony, down the rope and a mist among the shadows before anyone got close enough to see her face.
All was still.
It was time.
Reaching once more into her bag of tools, she pulled out the one thing she usually never carried on a heist. A gun.
She was a thief, not a murderer. Her tools of the trade were flush cutters, cone steel bits and lock pick sets. If there was danger, she fled.
Except for tonight.
Everything was different tonight.
Instead of fleeing danger, she was walking headlong into it. Six feet and two inches of hard muscle danger. It was a wonder he was so successful as a thief with all that brawn. Thieves were usually small and wiry like her. It was probably why he developed a reputation for…other things. He didn’t flee when caught. He stood his ground and fought it way out. Whereas she got her information through research and observance when on a job, Paine was known for the more direct approach, extracting it from unwilling participants. Once again she was reminded, he wasn’t called Paine by accident.
Ruthlessly stifling a shutter and shaking off dreadful premonitions, she continued with her plan. This was for Dev, she thought.
Taking out her Ruger .22, she screwed on the barrel extender, the suppressor. This was a quiet neighborhood. She didn’t want to alert the police any sooner than necessary. The silencer would buy her time.
Leery of falling glass, she made sure not to jostle the frame as she stepped through the window into the dark interior.
Deftly circling around the furniture, she crept out of the room into the hallway.
Pausing for a moment, she tried to slow her racing heart. She needed to stay calm and focused.
Despite wanting to rush and get it over with, she had to proceed slowly. Now that she was inside the home there were several unknowns. There was a hardwood floor. Any board could let out a telltale squeak. Giving both her position and presence away. It was why she always wore dance sneakers. With their split sole and soft rubber sole meant for sliding across dance floors they were ideal.
Sliding her foot along the boards, testing each before placing her full weight into the step, she made a slow and steady progress down the hallway to his ajar bedroom door.
Holding her breath, she stopped when she was at the threshold. All was silent and still.
Bracing the gun with both hands, she stretched out her arms and crossed the threshold.
The glow from the street lamp outside through the gossamer curtains allowed her to just make out the shape of the bed and the long form under the covers.
The tip of her finger caressed the trigger. Her hand started to shake. She tightened her grip under the butt to steady her shooting hand.
Tears briefly clouded her vision but she blinked them away. Knowing at any moment he could wake and find her standing over his bed with a gun, she had reached the point of no return.
Sucking in a steadying breath, she pulled the trigger.
There was a faint thwap sound before a spray of tiny white feathers flew into the air. Dismayed she stepped towards the bed and threw back the covers. It was empty, save for a pile of strategically placed pillows.
From the corner of the room came a low, mirthless chuckle.
She turned gun raised, peering into the shadows. The dark outline of a tall form stepped forward.
“I honestly didn’t think you would have the balls to do it.”
Her jaw clenched. Her lips felt stiff and unresponsive as she forced them to form that one single word. “Paine.” She uttered it like a curse.
“Hello, Mirage. Welcome to my home,” he intoned with a mock bow.
With a cry she fired the gun again but not before he swung right, knocking her outstretched arm with his hand. Plaster dust rained down on them both as the bullet glanced across the ceiling. Placing his large hand over her smaller ones, he wrenched the gun from her grasp, tossing it on the bed as he spun her around. Her back connecting with his front. His free arm forcing her own down, pinning them against her body.
He whispered darkly into her ear, “I knew if I waited and made myself enough of a target the person who set me up would strike again.”
Mirage felt sick with fear. Her knees buckled but his restraining arm kept her upright.
“I’m going to make you pay.” His sharp teeth nipped at the delicate curve of her ear as Paine hissed his malicious threat.
Mirage closed her eyes.
Clasped in Paine’s strong, unrelenting grasp, she knew…she was a dead woman.
How deep does a grave have to be?
Wasn’t there something about animals?
Chloe gripped the small, metal heart charm which hung about her neck, taking solace as the metal warmed beneath her hand. The blue-white beam of her flashlight bounced off dark tree trunks and the thick bed of wet leaves and twigs which covered the ground.
Would the rain make digging easier or harder she wondered?
The sound of crunching gravel alerted her to a car traveling up the long driveway even before she saw the headlights. Turning off her flashlight, she ran back towards the cabin, tripping over a half-buried log in her haste. Throwing open the rough wooden gate that separated the forest from the clearing, she raced across the yard, ignoring the ice cold water that seeped into her sneakers as her feet sunk into the rain-soaked grass. Cringing at the loud squeak the back screen door made as she carefully opened it, Chloe crouched low as she crossed the study into the kitchen. Keeping her head down, she reached up and turned off the small lamp she always kept lit on her kitchen table. Without the soft warm glow, the cabin felt cold and still.
Chloe held her breath, straining to hear the sound of any movement outside. A car door. The sound of an engine turning off. If there was a god, the sound of gravel as the car turned around and left.
The anxiety of not knowing was too much. Chloe crawled across the linoleum, around the kitchen island. She paused and listened.
Trying to calm her beating heart, she crept closer to the front door. Her knees ached from crawling on the hard floor. Her damp jeans chafed and clung to her hips with every movement. She could feel mud squishing between her toes inside her sneakers. All she wanted was to take a hot shower and forget this night ever happened. But that wasn’t possible…she would never wash away the horror of this night.
Grimacing as small pebbles, tracked inside from the driveway, cut into the palms of her hands, Chloe slowly crept into the mud room. The front door was straight ahead. It had an open window pane so she kept low and to the shadows. Just beyond was the small porch and the gravel drive. Leaning against the wall to the right of the door, Chloe tilted her head and listened.
Her heartbeat finally slowed.
It must have been a neighbor driving by.
“Chloe. Open the door.”
Throwing her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream, Chloe scurried further back along the wall, staring at the closed door with wild eyes.
There was another long, excruciating pause.
“I know you are in there. I need you to open the door.”
The dark command of his voice almost had her obeying. How did he know her name? Who was he? The police? She would have welcomed the police. An hour ago. But not now. Now it was too late. Maybe he was a friend of his. Just another reason why she couldn’t open the door. The cabin was dark. The doors locked. Her car was parked in the garage with the door closed. There was no real way for him to know she was inside. Maybe if she stayed quiet he would give up and leave?
“Baby, I’m losing my patience. Trust me. You don’t want that.”
The deep tone of the stranger’s voice was getting harsher. Did she dare continue to defy him?
She moved her hand over the low shelf that ran along the wall at her back, encountering bug candles, rubber boots, and fishing tackle. Nothing that could be used as a weapon. There were her late uncle’s hunting rifles in the gun cabinet in the living room, but she would have to crawl back through the kitchen. The cabin was dark, but there was no way he would not see the outline of her movements through the front door window now that he was standing just on the other side. The door wasn’t even secured with a deadbolt, just a simple key lock. She lived in a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere in upstate Michigan where all the neighbors knew one another. There wasn’t a need for extraneous locks and deadbolts.
“I’m giving you one last chance to open this door, baby girl,” the stranger growled.
Chloe knew the old door with its old lock would not hold. She needed to make a decision.
The door handle rattled violently.
She was out of time.
Rising up, Chloe bolted back through the kitchen.
The sickening sound of splintering wood and shattering glass reverberated throughout the cabin.
Chloe’s wet soles skidded along the floor as she sharply turned right down the narrow hallway to the living room. The gun cabinet was just over the threshold. Her trembling hand closed over the brass handle. The guns weren’t loaded, but hopefully the stranger wouldn’t get close enough to notice. Wrenching the handle upwards, Chloe threw open the cabinet door and blindly reached in, feeling for the cold barrel of the rifle she knew was there.
A hand closed over her shoulder, spinning her about and slamming her against the wall. She had no chance to even scream. That same hand wrapped around her throat, the long fingers easily encircling the slender column, till her jaw was pushed upwards, her head crushed painfully against the wall.
The sharp angles of the stranger’s face came into focus. His angry, lowered brow. Dark, unreadable eyes.
His full lips lifted in a sneer. “I warned you, baby.”
Chloe tried to rise up on her toes to ease the pressure on her throat. Desperately, she clawed at the man’s t-shirt. A garbled scream escaped her lips.
“Shhh…all that will do is piss me off more than I already am, and we don’t want that do we?” He’d leaned in close to whisper the ominous threat, his lips skimming along her jaw. The scrape of his stubble rubbed against the soft skin of her cheek.
She tried to shake her head no, but his grip on her throat would not allow it.
He spread his legs wide before leaning his hips forward, pressing into her body. He was a large beast of a man. Both his size and voice were frightening…intimidating.
He ran the back of his knuckles down her cheek. “Now, you are going to be a good girl and obey me.”
Chloe tried to convey her willingness with her eyes.
He seemed to understand because he released his grip on her throat, but he shifted his hips as if to remind her he still held a portion of her body prisoner. As if she needed reminding.
With a warning look in her direction, he flicked on the light switch by her shoulder.
Chloe blinked as the room flooded with light. The moment her eyes adjusted, she caught her first real look at the stranger who had forced his way into her cabin. If he had not been holding her against the wall, her knees would have given out in sheer fright. Jesus Christ! The man looked like the type of prison thug you only saw in the movies…or mug shots on the news. Impossibly tall, his chest and arms were thick with muscles. He had a neck tattoo. A goddamn neck tattoo. Piercing blue eyes watched her with amusement.
“You like what you see, baby girl.”
Oh god, thought Chloe. She had survived one horror this night only to be raped and murdered by this man.
Maybe it was what she deserved.
He ran a finger over her collarbone and then traced the V-neck edge of her pink t-shirt.
Chloe bit her lip to keep from crying out. Her palms hurt from where her fingernails bit into them, her fists were clenched so hard.
Still he taunted her. His finger slowly ran up and down the edge of her neckline, till it dipped into the low vee. Hooking his finger into the flimsy fabric, he pulled it towards him.
Chloe cried out in alarm and started to defensively raise her arms.
“Don’t,” he ordered.
She had no choice but to lower her limbs helplessly to her sides.
Her t-shirt gaped open, exposing her to his intense gaze.
Chloe closed her eyes in mortification. The generous top curves of her breasts encased in delicate white lace were clearly on display. Embroidered onto the bra, right in the center, nestled in her cleavage was a small pink design.
The stranger raised one dark eyebrow. “Hello Kitty?”
Chloe slowly nodded her head yes.
“Later I’m going to want a closer look at this cute bra, but for now we have some business to attend to.”
A warm tear escaped the corner of her eye. Later? Her stomach twisted.
Her cabin was isolated and hard to reach during the day let alone during a torrential storm in the middle of the night. Even if she were willing to call the police, they would never reach her in time. It would take the small force of Glennie at least an hour to respond to her call for help. She shuddered to think what this dangerous man could do to her in the space of an hour.
“Please,” she choked out. “The stones are in the garage. In my workshop.”
“The diamonds. Just take them.”
The man chuckled. The sinister sound was devoid of any mirth.
“I don’t give a fuck about any diamonds.”
“Then what do you want?”
The moment the question left her lips, she knew it was a mistake.
The man leaned in with his hips. The hard ridge of his arousal pressed against her stomach.
Chloe whimpered as she shifted her body to the side, desperately trying to break his hold.
What kind of man turned down diamonds? A crazy fuck, that’s who.
Chloe didn’t trust anyone who claimed to not be interested in money. Money was cold, unfeeling. Straightforward. Every horrible moment in her fucked up, twisted life could be traced back to someone else’s need for money. At least it made things uncomplicated. There was no wondering why or any deep self-reflection or even a need for that elusive idea of closure or meaning. She knew why…money.
There was only one other thing besides money that could influence a person’s actions…sex.
She could feel the ominous power of his intention as he used his body to cage her own.
She would not give in without a fight. Clenching her small hand into a fist, she lashed out. The fifteen carat, vintage amethyst ring she always wore, caught him on the cheekbone. A droplet of blood trickled from the scratch caused by one of the diamond accents.
He raised two fingertips to swipe at the blood. Keeping his eyes trained on hers, his tongue flicked out to taste the crimson drop.
Watching him, she could almost taste the metallic tang on her own tongue.
“I was hoping you would fight me. It will make this all so much easier.”
Her scream was lost in the deep, dark woods.
Shifting confused eyes from one face to the other, Corinne tried to make sense of their words. Was he the reason why she had no longer been permitted to walk to the village after her six and tenth birthday? Why she had been kept to only the abbey grounds and surrounding moors while the other girls housed under their protection had been allowed far more freedom?
The duke’s large, tanned hand covered her slight, pale one. She was led to stand before the altar. The cardinal’s words were only a murmur in the background of her mind. Corinne could only stare at their joined hands. His engulfed her own, dominated it. Only the tips of her fingertips could be seen past the strong sinew of his fist. On his ring finger there was a heavy, gold signet ring. It had a large, smooth black stone. Embedded in its hard depths was the image of a golden bird with its massive wings outstretched. Clutched in its vicious talons was a crushed rose. The family crest of Ebonhurst. An omen.
“In the presence of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are here this night to witness the marriage of Lord Lucian Talon, Duke of Ebonhurst to Corinne, orphan,” droned the cardinal.
Corinne’s mind snapped to attention. The horror of her situation crashing into her conscience mind. This could not possibly be happening. Upon her life! She couldn’t marry this man. He was too rich. Too powerful. Too frightening. There was a dark, seductiveness about him that would swallow her whole; body and soul. This was madness!
Shaking her head, her slippered feet slid backward.
His hand tightened on her own.
“Please! You cannot mean it. It cannot be me you want,” begged Corinne as her body leaned backward, foolishly trying to break his grasp.
Lucian turned hard eyes on her.
Only the sound of her own harsh breathing broke the silence in the small chapel as she waited. A trapped bird hoping for release.
His grip slackened. Corinne slipped from his grip and took a relieved step backward, pressing her hands to her pounding heart. Mother Superior would be furious, but she would rather face her wrath than a lifetime bound to this overwhelming man.
Lucian shrugged out of his frock coat, tossing it carelessly over the nearest pew. The thin lawn of his shirt stretched over heavily muscled arms. Nonchalantly releasing a cuff, Lucian began to slowly roll up one sleeve.
“Leave us,” he ordered through clenched teeth.
Both the cardinal and Mother Superior scurried out of the chapel without so much as a sympathetic glance toward Corinne. Lifting the long skirts of her nightgown, she moved to follow them.
“Not you,” he barked.
“Your grace?” she asked timidly.
Lucian rolled up his other sleeve, exposing darkly tanned forearms touched with dark hair. “Your defiance merits a punishment.”
“Punishment?” Corinne choked out, more frightened then she had ever been in her entire young life.
No sooner had Chance released her bonds, then she flew off the bed and across the room, desperately searching for a weapon to grab. Luckily there was a small dagger resting on this desk top. Isabelle held it in front of her with both fists.
“You stay back,” she warned.
“You disappoint me,” said Chance with a sigh. “Now I shall have to punish you for your disobedience. I was hoping my first view of your delectable ass would have been under more amiable circumstances after we had come to an understanding, but so be it.”
Isabelle let out a nervous laugh. “You are mad if you think you will be seeing my… my bottom or any other part of my body.” She refused to say the word ass.
“We’ll see,” said Chance calmly as Isabelle watched him slowly undo his belt for the second time that day.
“Stay back,” she warned as he took a step closer. Isabelle waved the dagger in front of her as she tried to think of a plan. It was to no avail.
Chance flipped the leather tongue end of the belt in her direction, effortlessly whipping it around both her wrists. With a sharp tug, she was flung against his chest, the dagger falling uselessly to the floor.
Releasing his belt, he secured both her wrists with one hand. “And now to your punishment.”
Isabelle struggled as he dragged her across the room to a small wooden stool. Sitting down, Chance pulled her squirming body over his lap. Isabelle screeched and cursed.
“I must say I am impressed,” commented an amused Chance. “I had no idea a lady of your caliber knew such low language.”
Ignoring her further outbursts, he gripped the edge of her almost sheer, white pantalettes and pulled downward, exposing her creamy, caramel skin. Running an appreciative hand over the exposed curve of her bottom, Chance said, “Luscious. Just as I thought it would be.”
Bending the thick, leather belt in half, he pushed one strong forearm down between her shoulder blades to keep her steady. Raising his arm, he brought the belt down sharply across both her bottom cheeks.
Isabelle was so startled from the impact, it didn’t even hurt, at first. Then a sharp, stinging pain spread across her backside. Before she could fully register the pain, the strap fell a second time.
Chance watched as her beautiful ass jiggled slightly from the impact of his leather belt before blossoming into a pretty pink blush with just the faintest red outline from the belt. He directed the next two blows to the tops of her thighs and the sensitive skin just below the curve of her bottom.
Isabelle fisted her hands as she tried not to cry out and beg the scoundrel to stop. She had never been physically punished in her life. She was completely unprepared for the humiliating heated pain. Her bottom felt like it was on fire, the skin becoming more sensitive and swollen with each blow. Throwing pride and principle aside, she begged.
“Please stop. I can’t take any more. Please,” she cried.
Chance gave her two more straps across the center of her bottom for good measure before putting the belt aside. Once again, he ran his hand over her smooth ass, appreciating the heat rising from her pinkened skin.
The throbbing pain made his touch feel all the more invasive to Isabelle. Not realizing he had set the belt aside, she pleaded, “Please don’t punish me anymore. I’ll behave.”
Covering her bottom once more with her pantalettes, Chance set her on her feet before rising to his full height. His over six-foot frame dwarfing her tiny but curvy five-foot-three. Grabbing her by the chin, he warned, “See that you do, or you will get my belt again.”
Isabelle reluctantly nodded. Satisfied, Chance took a step back before issuing his next command. “Now undress me.”
A lone rider scanned the horizon. The fiery orange sunset bathed the desert valley in a rosy glow. Blotches of desert scrub and tiny bursts of honey yellow flowers from the greasewood plant the only other hint of color across the brown barren stretch of stone, sand and jagged rock. In the far distance, just to the south, were the low mudbrick and wooden structures of Fort McIntosh. The stranger’s destination.
Easing the horse forward, the stranger kept a wary eye on the surroundings. The distinctive grayish-brown coat and black-tipped ears of a bobcat appeared from behind a mesquite bush only a few arm’s lengths away. The stranger pulled on the reins. Although not its natural prey, it didn’t pay to take chances. The bobcat darted east after a black-tailed jackrabbit.
As the fort neared, so did the wide expanse of the Rio Grande as it cut through the valley like a blue ribbon. The dirty canvas tents, tumbledown shacks and brightly, painted clapboard buildings of the rowdy town which sprung up between the banks of the river and the wooden spiked picket fence of the fort also came into view. Shouts of drunken laughter, the tinny sound of a saloon piano and the occasional crack of a gun harshly replacing the calming sound of rushing wind and the call of a mockingbird from the trail.
Wrapping the leather reins around a wooden hitching post, the stranger sucked in a bracing breath before pushing open the frosted glass doors of the Imperial Saloon.
The acrid scent of tobacco smoke and warm, unwashed bodies blended with the cadence of low conversation, clinking glasses and the discordant shrieks of a saloon girl on stage attempting a rendition of When This Cruel War Is Over. The gaudy oil paintings, polished brass lamps, felt tables and mahogany bar of the interior gave an air of tawdry luxury to the saloon that ran counter to the run-down appearance of the town itself.
Eyes averted, the stranger stepped up to the bar. Tossing a bright, double-eagle, gold coin on its grubby surface, their voice scratched out, “I’ll take a flip and some information.”
The barkeep cast a disparaging glance over the floppy, black-felt hat which obscured the stranger’s face. With a shrug of shoulders, the barkeep pocketed the coin and grabbed a bottle of champagne and one fresh, farm egg.
Cracking the egg into a tin cup, the barkeep asked, “What do you want to know?” The town was a popular trade route and the last stop before the Mexican Territories. Folks came and went all the time. Some respectable, most not. It wasn’t uncommon for lawmen, gunfighters, jilted lovers and the like to pass through asking for information. It made for some extra coin in his pocket.
“Looking for a man who goes by the name Black Jack Doolin who might have passed through with a woman not too long ago.”
The caterwauling stopped. The piano music ended with a crash on one long chord. In the sudden silence, the scraping of several chairs along the unpolished, wood-planked floor rent the air.
“Can’t say we like some Johnny Reb strolling into town asking questions,” groused one man as he wiped chewed tobacco spittle from his beard.
After the Northern Aggression, many Southerners abandoned their burnt out farms and headed west for a fresh start. Large swaths of western territory were filled with former Southern belles and Confederate soldiers looking to cash in on the skills they learned during the war.
“I’m talkin to you, Gray Back!”
Apparently this wasn’t one of those territories.
The once bluish-gray shell jacket was now faded to a ragged, brown butternut complete with tarnished brass buttons and frayed black piping. But even through the years of war, the dust of the trail and the ravages of castile soap and the scrub board, the Confederate Cavalry uniform coat was unmistakable.
Resting a hand on the butt of an army-issued Colt, the stranger refused to turn around. “I’m not looking for any trouble. Just trying to track someone down.” The voice was a low, gruff whisper.
“Yeah, well you just found trouble, Johnny Reb. Apparently we didn’t whup your ass enough in the war,” cackled the man. “You still need to learn your place.”
The stranger took a slow sip of the recently poured drink, fingers flexing over the warm, smooth butt of the Colt resting against a hip. In a lot of respects, the war would never be over. “If I’m not mistaken. We’re near Laredo. Didn’t a couple of Rebs fight back over two-hundred Yanks three times at the Battle of Laredo before the Yanks finally left, tails tucked between their legs, crying for their mamas?”
There was a cry of outrage and the shuffling of feet before one beefy hand fell on the shoulder of the stranger, spinning them about. “You’re going to pay for that,” spat out the furious Yankee.
The polished Colt cleared the holster before the Yank had even finished his threat. Taking a step back, the stranger aimed left handed as the edge of their right palm slashed down on the greased trigger. Firing off three shots in rapid succession. Effortlessly turning one man’s shot of whiskey into bits of wet glass, another’s hand of cards into an ace in the hole, and shooting clear through the disagreeable Yank’s kepi cap, knocking it off his damn fool head.
There was the distinctive shrill shout of the Confederate Rebel Yell, an infamous battle cry, before all hell broke loose.
Apparently there were actually a few Southerners in the saloon after all.
The stranger adroitly swung both legs over the bar, taking up a secure position behind its solid wooden base. Grabbing an earthenware jug in each hand, the figure swung out at anyone who dared come within an arm’s length.
The sounds of rough men enjoying rough entertainment was replaced by a cacophony of splintering wood, shattering glass, grunts and groans and high-pitched screams…from both the men and saloon girls as the entire room broke into fisticuffs.
It didn’t take long, before the piercing screech of whistles could be heard as men in blue cavalry uniforms burst into the saloon. It was a patrol from Fort McIntosh. The commanding officer viewed keeping the peace in the nearby town as an extension of the fort’s responsibilities.
The federal soldiers quickly subdued the drunk and unruly crowd. Lining them up against a far wall to assess the situation. The stranger included, whose head never lifted, hidden beneath the wide-brim, felt hat.
“Each of you will be fined twenty-five cents for breaking the lord’s peace,” shouted the corporal in charge.
“Attention!” called a nearby private raising a flat hand to his forehead in salute.
All the soldiers clicked their heels, threw back their shoulders and pushed their chests out.
The stranger listened as a heavy boot trod across the boards.
Major John Thomas Brice, commanding officer of Fort McIntosh had arrived.
An imposing man of six feet four inches, he wasn’t just an officer in the United States Cavalry…he was the cavalry.
His family had been serving in the cavalry back since they were called the dragoons. In The War of Southern Aggression, he served under Union Major General Pleasonton, who commanded the Cavalry Corp of the Army of the Potomac. Major Brice was the key strategist behind the Battle of Brandy Station. The largest cavalry engagement during the war, right at the beginning of the Gettysburg campaign. Major Brice launched a dawn attack against the Rebel General Stuart. It was the first time the Union Cavalry managed to beat the superior Confederate Cavalry. The Johnny Reb cavalry never recovered.
Many considered him a hero of the war…others a legend.
No one questioned his authority.
Brice surveyed the room. The damage was minimal. This time. A few broken chairs. A smashed bottle or two. More bruised egos than blackened eyes. At least the expensive saloon mirror and front windows were spared. He scrutinized the ragtag bunch slouching against the wall.
Similar to the army, society out in the west had its own hierarchy and accompanying uniform. There were the homesteaders, easily recognizable in their blue flannel shirts and woolen pants. The hide hunters, covered head to toe in buckskin, always smelling faintly of sweat and death. The prospectors who pitched widely between threadbare, dusty overalls and oil-soaked hats to ruffled shirts and tailored suits depending on their fortunes.
Each stratagem was represented in equal measure as they stood, hunched shouldered and long-faced, shuffling their feet as they avoided eye contact with the imposing commanding officer.
Of course, there were also the soldiers, former and current.
“Report, corporal.” The command was given in a crisp, clipped tone.
“Bar fight, sir.”
Brice spared an annoyed glance for the young corporal.
“What I meant to say, sir, was mostly civilians. One sergeant and two privates of ours.”
“Men,” barked Brice.
It was only one word…that was all Major Brice needed.
Three men stepped forward out of the rag tag bunch. The stranger recognized one of them as the man who started the trouble and stiffened.
“Sergeant Cleave Stinger, Private Gene Covey and Private Reuben Warnock, sir,” offered the corporal.
“It weren’t our fault, Major!” whined Sergeant Stinger as he worried the brim of his hat in his hand. “That dirty Johnny Reb came in shootin his mouth and his gun off!”
Brice’s hard gaze landed on the slight figure of the former Confederate soldier. Back pressed against the wall, one foot propped up, head bowed, the figure looked tired and uninterested. Brice knew better. He could see the tightening in the shoulders. The subtle twitch of the left hand over the Colt.
Something was not right.
The former soldier presented a slight figure. Narrow shoulders and hips. Shorter than the average man. Young. Malnourished. That wasn’t especially surprising; Brice had heard rumors of a desperate Confederacy taking boys as young as twelve to fight for their lost cause toward the end.
Still, something pricked at his instincts about the man.
Brice scrutinized the man’s worn uniform. The patch was faded and dirty but still visible, he was cavalry. No rank. A horse man was a horse man no matter what side you fought on. His gaze fell on the boots. The boots. The boots were all wrong. Too slim and narrow. They certainly were not cavalry boots. Despite the dirt and mud, they looked almost…elegant.
His gaze flew to the lowered head. I’ll be damned, he thought.
“Corporal, take the men to the Guardhouse. Thirty days fatigue duty,” he ordered.
The sergeant and two privates were escorted out of the saloon. It was a harsh punishment but they knew Major Brice did not tolerate his soldiers setting a bad example in town.
“The town marshal has finally arrived. I will turn the rest over to him.” The corporal did little to keep the disdain from his voice. The town marshal was a dissipated, corrupt drunkard with no discipline or morals. He was the very reason why the soldiers were forced to patrol the town, breaking up fights and keeping the peace.
“All but him,” ordered Brice, motioning to the Confederate with a jut of his chin.
“Him, but he started….” The corporal immediately stopped, knowing better than to question his commanding officer.
Keeping their head lowered, the stranger listened to the sounds of grunts, protests and dragging feet as the men to either side were pulled away one by one.
A moment passed.
Then he stepped close.
A pair of polished cavalry boots. A glimpse of bright, blue wool pants with a canary yellow stripe. The clean smell of soap.
Brice crossed his arms over his wide chest and stared down at the black, felt hat. The brim so wide it almost spanned the width of the slight figure’s shoulders. Even at full height, he doubted if the top of their head would reach his shoulder.
“Time to sound the recall. You’re beaten.” Even through the harsh command, his voice held a hint of amusement.
The stranger didn’t move.
Brice whipped the black felt hat off the Confederate’s head. Even having his suspicions affirmed, nothing prepared him for the sight of the startlingly, beautiful, violet eyes which rose in shock to clash with his curious gaze.
Michaela Armistead pulled her Colt.
Baring her teeth, she threated the imposing man, “Stay away from me.”
There was a slight Southern lilt to her voice. He would guess Georgia. What was once, he was sure, a proper head of waist-length hair, had been chopped to the shoulders. What would have looked like a scandalous mess on any other well-bred woman gave this feisty baggage an irresistible appeal, as if she had just emerged from bed after being good and tumbled by a man. The golden honey locks only highlighted the unusual purple color of her eyes, which at this moment flashed brimstone and fire at him.
The corner of Brice’s lips rose on a seductive smile, “Not a chance.”
For a man who had a gun drawn on him, he seemed remarkably unaffected.
He didn’t know what had brought the little beauty to the far corner of the country, alone and unprotected, but he would be damned if he was going to let her just stroll out those saloon doors.
“You have no right to keep me here. Those men started the fight. I didn’t hurt anyone,” rattled off Michaela.
He made her nervous. She had spent the last several years surrounded by men in the cavalry. Men of all shapes and sizes. Of all temperament. Some good. Some bad. But none like him. There was something about him. The way he held himself. A reined energy, like a powerful horse only barely held in check.
“You just violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice by drawing a weapon on a superior officer,” quipped Brice. His voice a low, dark threat.
Michaela lowered her brow in confusion. “But…I’m not even in the army!”
“That is a matter for the commanding officer to sort out. Till then, you’re my prisoner,” said Brice as he took one step forward. The barrel of her Colt pressing into the tight muscle of his stomach.
“You’re the commanding officer!” accused an exasperated Michaela.
“I know,” grinned Brice.
Without thought, Michaela squeezed the trigger. The hammer fell with a hollow empty click.
Brice wrapped one large hand around her slight wrist and snatched her close. “Dammit woman,” he growled.
Just because he had seen the glint of light through the empty bullet chamber didn’t mean he would excuse her trying to fill his gut with lead. If ever there was a woman who needed to be taken in hand, it was this little, feral spitfire.
Tearing the gun from her grasp, he put a shoulder to Michaela’s middle and easily lifted her slight weight high. Ignoring her indignant screams and shouts, Brice walked with a determined step out of the saloon, tossing a final command to the corporal over his shoulder.
“See that her horse and things are sent to the fort.”
“Yes, sir. Where should I have them brought?” asked the somewhat stunned corporal.
“My quarters,” answered Major Brice without hesitation as he carried an angry Michaela out into the night.
Dragging her by the banked fire, he sat down on the empty dynamite crate. Placing her in front of his outstretched knees, he took in her tousled, ragged appearance. Damn, she was till a beautiful woman.
“You rotten scalawag! I can’t wait till the law catches up to you and hangs you from the nearest tree for how you’ve treated me!”
A beautiful woman with a mouth on her.
“Take off your pantalets and ask for your punishment.”
Annabelle shot him an incredulous stare. Had he taken leave of the sense god gave him?
“You must be jesting!”
“Do I look like I am?”
She took in his hardened jaw, narrowed eyes which had darkened to the color of gunmetal and the tense, restrained set of his shoulders. He wasn’t funning her. He actually expected her to bare her bottom and ask to be spanked!
Annabelle shook her head as she took one tentative step backwards.
“Take another step and I’ll shove my cock so far down your throat you’ll taste me for weeks…then I’ll still tan your hide,” he growled.
His dark threat stopped her in her tracks. “This isn’t fair!” she cried.
“Life isn’t fair. Drop your pantalets. I won’t tell you again.”
With tears filling her azure eyes, Annabelle lifted the hem of his large navy blue shirt and fingered the ribboned bow holding her pantalets around her narrow waist.
“Please,” she whispered.
With shaking hands, Annabelle pulled on the ribbon, releasing the bow and allowing the linen under-drawers to slip down to her ankles. Her modesty was sparsely saved by the tails of his shirt which reached to her mid-thigh.
“Kick away the pantalets and turn around.”
Choking back a sob, Annabelle stepped out of her pantalets. She stood still.
“Turn around, Annabelle,” his voice dark and low with lust.
She started at the sound of her name on her lips. Biting her lip to keep back the sobs, she slowly turned her back to him.
“Lift up my shirt.”
“Don’t. Please, leave me that dignity,” she begged.
“Lift. The. Shirt. Up.”
Annabelle grasped the hem of the shirt. As slow as molasses, trying to delay the inevitable, she pulled the shirt up.
Mason held his breath as more of her creamy thighs were exposed. The rough-spun dark blue fabric of his shirt made her thighs appear that more smooth and creamy. After what felt like an eternity, he saw the soft, rounded curve of her bottom cheeks.
The shirt skimmed over her bottom, touching her skin with fabric as he longed to with skin. The lush fullness of her bottom was revealed. Pale, perfect skin.
“Turn back around,” he ordered. “Keep the shirt high,” he instructed as he saw her about to lower the fabric and cover her charms.
Lowering head in humiliation, Annabelle turned around. She refused to look up knowing he was looking at her…at her naughty place.
Mason took in the soft, light brown curls which barely covered the sweet curves of her cunny. Mine.
The sharp claws of possession tugged at his middle.
Annabelle watched in horror as he unbuckled his gun belt. Pulling the holster and bullet flap free, he placed the Colt far out of her reach. Then fisting the thick, black leather belt into a large loop, he raised his eyes to challenge her own.
“Place yourself over my lap and ask for your punishment.”
Annabelle opened her mouth to try and object but one look from him cowered her. With reluctant steps she walked to his side, taking a deep breath for courage, she placed herself over his lap.
Annabelle jumped, clutching her bottom cheeks tight when she felt the caress of the leather against her exposed skin.
Mason traced the curve of her ass with his belt. Liking the contrast between the dark, worn leather and her pale skin.
“Ask for your punishment.”
Annabelle covered her face with her hands. Shaking her head, no, she couldn’t.
Mason grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. Placing his thumb along her bottom lip, he pushed until the tip was forced into her unwilling mouth. “Ask or I’ll use your mouth first.”
Annabelle’s eyes closed, unwilling to remember the feel of his cock as it pushed into her mouth. “Please…please punish me,” she whispered.
“Punish me,” she choked out.
Adjusting his grip on the belt, Mason raised his hand bringing it down swiftly on her exposed bottom. The leather cracked loudly. Annabelle’s whole body jerked. He raised his hand to deliver a second spank before her skin even showed a mark from the first. The canyon rang with the sounds of snapping leather and Annabelle’s cries.
“You owe me a punishment,” his voice pitched dark and low.
“A…punishment?” she squeaked.
“Yes, you were a very naughty girl. You need to be punished. By me.” He smiled.
Winnie occupied herself by straightening a display of ribbons. “Come here, Winnie.”
She thought about pretending not to hear him. “I wouldn’t,” he stated flatly.
Winnie started. It was like he read her mind. With slow determined steps, she approached him but stopped a few feet away. “Closer,” Archer ordered as he uncrossed his legs and opened his knees wide.
Winnie took another step so the hem of her flimsy dress brushed the tops of his polished boots.
Archer steepled his fingers in front of his chest. “Closer.”
“There’s no room,” Winnie said hesitantly, blushing as she glimpsed the unmistakable ridge outlined along his thigh. The light buff trousers concealing nothing.
Ignoring her objection, Archer merely raised an eyebrow as his gaze remained fixed on her face. Chewing her bottom lip in indecision, Winnie finally slid her slippered right foot along the carpeted floor before slowly joining it with her left. She was now standing between his outstretched legs.
Winnie closed her arms tight about her as if she could make her body smaller, lowering her head, refusing to meet his intense gaze. Amused, Archer pressed his legs together till his inner thighs brushed against her skirts. Winnie’s mouth fell open in shock. Her dress was so thin, she could feel the heat from his skin through her dress and petticoats. She tried to back away but his legs tightened, trapping her.
“Please, my lord. Madame could return at any moment,” she pleaded.
“Then you had better do as I say without prevarication,” he warned darkly. “Did you touch that sweet, little cunny of yours dreaming of me forcing my cock on you?”
Winnie felt lightheaded with shame and guilt. Should she even try to deny it? It seemed pointless since this enigmatic man seemed to have the power to read her innermost, wicked thoughts!
Winnie covered her face in mortification. “Please don’t, my lord,” she muttered.
Archer rubbed his thigh against her own. Winnie could feel the press of his arousal. “Answer me, Winnie.”
All she could muster was a small shake of her head…yes.
Archer smiled. She was the perfect combination of seductive innocence. Her existence in the East End ensured she was not completely sheltered as to the ways between a man and a woman. Yet, her blushes confirmed she was undoubtedly still untouched.
“Unbutton your dress.”
All Winnie could do was stare at him over the tips of her fingers.
“Unbutton. Your. Dress.”
Her mind spun. He couldn’t possibly mean to…to…not…here…in the salon…during the day…with her…um…ah…
“My dear, there will be time for that later, after your punishment. For now, I want you to unbutton the front of your dress.”
Once again, he knew her thoughts before she had even fully formed them. Not feeling as if she had a choice and trusting in the safety of the daylight and open setting, Winnie forced her numb fingers to unhook the tiny buttons that ran down the front of her dress. Slowly the threadbare, white chemise and top of her whalebone corset were revealed as the flaps of her dress fell open.
She was so tiny, her beautiful breasts were at his eye level. Archer leaned forward. Placing his index finger between her generous cleavage, he pressed on the top of the corset till it shifted down a few inches, just enough for her breasts to peek out over the top. He could see the cute, pink nipples through the practically sheer chemise.
Tearing his gaze from the stunning vision before him, Archer glanced up to see Winnie’s eyes tightly close, her mouth slightly open, her cheeks flushed, her breaths coming in short gasps. He smiled. He breathed deeply, taking in the warm, fresh scent of her skin. No perfume. Just the clean scent of lemon verbena soap and her. Knowing his time was short. Knowing if he gave into the impulse to taste her flesh he would not be able to stop there, Archer decided to test Winnie’s pleasure impulses.
He gently flicked her right nipple, watching as it became even more erect. She started but kept her eyes closed. Archer then lightly rolled both nipples between his index finger and thumb. Winnie shifted on her feet, a soft moan escaping her open lips. Instinctively, her body leaned in closer to his.
Without warning, he clamped down hard on her nipples. Pinching and twisting the delicate bunch of nerves. Archer tightened his thighs around Winnie as she bucked, trying to escape the pain. Locking her against him. Pressing her harder against his erection. “Keep quiet, my dove. You don’t want Madame to hear and come running,” he whispered harshly as he kept up the pressure on her nipples, oblivious to her distress.
Winnie bit down on her lower lip till she tasted blood. Quelling her own cries.
The moment he released her tortured flesh, there was this euphoric rush. As if the pain turned the absence of pain into pleasure. Her whole body felt warm and sensitive, especially the secret place between her legs. Without thought, she collapsed onto his lap. Archer kissed her forehead, as he gingerly re-buttoned her dress.
“Was that my punishment, my lord?” she asked, still in a daze.
Her gray eyes still dark and stormy with confused desire. “No, my dear. That was just a test. Your punishment is still to come.”
“One punishment at a time, little one,” he said, gripping the folded leather strap harder.
“I will correct that impertinent mouth of yours later.” Alex leaned down on his haunches so he was eye level with her. “Right now, we need to correct your dangerous decision to run from me.”
Penelope wisely kept quiet, struck numb from his intense words and stare. Alex rose and stepped behind her. A shiver of awareness coursed through Penelope, knowing that behind her, he was staring at her bare bottom. After several tense moments, she jumped when cool, smooth leather softly touched the heated skin between her shoulder blades. He traced the length of her back with the strap, running it over the curve of one globe.
Penelope felt of rush of moisture between her thighs. She was lightheaded with fear, and something else she feared to name. “My lord…”
“Tsk…tsk…tsk, naughty girl,” crooned Alex, lightly tapping her bottom with the strap on each word. “That is not what you’re supposed to call me.”
Penelope wet her lips and tried again, “Papa…I’ve…I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to do this.”
Alex leaned close to her ear and whispered, “You have no choice.”
She shrieked and pulled wildly at her wrist binds. “Let me go, you bugger…you…you…wanker!”
Alex placed a restraining hand on her lower back. “Cease!” he ordered. Penelope instantly stilled. “It is this wild, rash behavior we need to correct. You act with no thought to your safety. You open your mouth with no care to the consequences. You need this punishment more than you know.”
Penelope shook her head as tears coursed down her cheek, still denying what she knew deep down to be true.
“Ask for your punishment, Penelope.”
She shook her head, stubbornly pressing her lips into a tight line.
“Ask for your punishment or face a much harsher one,” he said with more menace.
Still she remained mute. She would be damned if she asked him to punish her!
“Very well,” said a resigned Alex. “Your punishment was to be ten straps to your bare bottom. You will now receive those in addition to a more exacting punishment.”
Penelope opened her mouth to release another stream of colorful, guttural language. Alex closed his open hand over her mouth and once again leaned in close to her ear. “You have already opened yourself up to a more painful discipline than I had intended this eve. I suggest you hold your tongue before you truly anger me and make your situation even worse.”
Her eyes widened in horror but she remained silent.
“Let us begin.” Alex slowly wrapped one end of the well-oiled strap around his right hand, leaving two feet excess. Anchoring one foot behind him, he leaned over and placed his left hand on her lower back. Arching his arm, the strap swung through the air with a hiss before landing with a loud crack in the center of her pale, vulnerable buttocks.
Penelope’s surprised shriek was cut short as she ruthlessly clenched her jaw, determined to show no reaction or pain. Alex smiled…that would change. He aimed the second swat lower, over her sit spot. She was so tiny that the three inch wide strap easily covered large areas of her delicate skin with every contact. By the third smack, Penelope could no longer contain her pain.
She howled in agony as the fourth hit her sit spot again. Her bottom, already warmed by the heat from the flames, now felt as if it were truly on fire. The pricking, stinging sensation was almost too much to bear. She went up on her toes and braced for another hit. She did not have to wait long. Alex continued the assault on her unprotected bottom till it glowed a harsh angry red. By the time it was over, Penelope was choking on her own sobs.
“What am I looking at Kitten?” he demanded as he caressed her heated bottom.
Penelope did not even think to ignore his question. “My…my punished bottom.”