The shrieks and cries grew louder as the choking green mist twisted and swirled around the princess.
“Seize the evil queen!”
They were all fools.
Fools to think their little slings and arrows would have any power over me. These fragile mortal beings with their weak flesh were as wisps of air to me. I ruled over the ethereal realm, deep in the forest where magic and mysticism still reigned. How dare they think they could capture me, Queen Zelladine, ruler of the creatures and fairies of the forest? As if their human laws had any hold over me?
Plates of delicate china crashed to the ground as heavily laden tables were overturned. Platters of roast beasts, bowls of sugared fruits and cups of fragrant wine spilled and splattered onto the pristine white marble floor, staining it a gruesome mottled red. The screech of instrument strings and discordant chords could be heard above the din as the orchestra musicians stumbled over one another in their haste to escape. The tinny clatter of metal could be heard as the king’s guard took up position, circling me.
“Oh my,” I exclaimed, raising one black wing eyebrow. “Have I interrupted the feast?”
“Release my daughter, Zelladine,” ordered King Basil.
Curling my lip in a sneer, I pointed one long red fingernail at him. “That is Queen Zelladine to you.”
I watched as his face swelled, the skin turning an ashen purple in his anger. “Seize her,” he screamed as foamy spittle sprayed from his mouth.
The guards stepped closer. Bayonets drawn. With a flick of my wrist, the fire-forged steel of the bayonets, curled and withered as the metal melted. With frightened cries of alarm, the guards took a step back.
“Where are my kingsmen? Send for the kingsmen!” ordered King Basil.
“My, my. You must be positively petrified of little ol me if you are calling for your elite guards. Should I be flattered?” I asked, my lips twisting in mockery.
King Basil took a lumbering step forward. The obnoxious bulk of his body, belying the threat of his movements. Raising his fist, each finger clad in gold and jewels, he sputtered and tripped over his words.
“Tut, tut, Basil,” I warned, my gaze flicking to the center of the great hall. “Careful.”
A whirling tunnel of green mist towered to the vaulted ceiling with veins of black smoke creeping along the sides and across the floor. In its center was the King’s precious only daughter, Briar Rose. All that could be seen were flashes of her blue gown and bright, tawny hair.
“How dare you invade the sanctity of my kingdom,” thundered King Basil.
“Your kingdom. Your kingdom!” Pacing away from his odious presence, I circled the green column imprisoning the princess. “How dare you claim this land for your own? We were here long before your silly stone castles, before you restrained and crippled the wilds of nature about you. As if you had any right!” My hands fisted into the fine silken folds of my cloak as I tried to curb my anger.
The women of my clan had been ruling over the forest and its inhabitants since time immortal. Then the humans came with their weapons of destruction. Ripping the stones from the earth, cleaving them into rigid little boxes to make their castles and ramparts, walling in what used to be open and free. Tearing down trees and ruining the homes of my beloved fairies to plant their vanity crops of tobacco and hops for the further debasement of their kind. With every season, I saw more and more torn from my grasp. With the death of every tree, every flower, every sweet breath of air choked by the smoke from their hearths…my power weakened. Several generations ago, I’d summoned the dark force to at least keep these wretched humans at heel. Yet, the dark force can only contain and restrain, it cannot recapture what I have lost.
Only the light of understanding will heal my realm and offer a chance of peace between my kind and the humans, a light that will never come from the likes of King Basil. Only interested in the tangible displays of wealth—gold, silver, jewels—he was incapable of understanding the true riches of existence, and if left to his disgusting devices, he would stifle and strangle my only hope.
I couldn’t allow him to succeed in his plans. It would be the final ruination of my realm.
I must stop him at all costs. Even if it meant sacrificing the innocent.
Raising my arms high, my head thrown back, I called to the ancients. “Let a curse be upon the House of Basil. No child of his loins will further his withered and impotent lineage.”
A deep howling wind spun into the great hall, whipping the green mist into a tempest. The column rose higher and higher.
“Hear me now, oh ancients. Obey my command!” I called forth, my voice rising.
The green column spun faster as it closed in on itself. Squeezing tighter and tighter.
“You evil witch. You will pay for this,” spat King Basil. “I will see you punished.”
“You? Punish me? I’d like to see you try,” I said, chuckling at the man’s impudence.
I had yet to see an impressive human. They were all weak of mind and limb, more eager to engage in drink and sloth than anything of meaningful purpose. In my world, strength and power, the emotional embodiment of nature herself, were valued. Even this King’s guards hid behind their armor and weapons of tin and wood. Pathetic.
Curling my fingers into claws, I slowly brought my hands together. By my command, the green column of mist began to compress. As my hands were brought closer and closer together, the column became shorter.
“No!” cried out the king as he fell to his knees.
The green mist was now a spinning ball of dark light.
Clapping my hands together with a resounding snap…the green mist disappeared.
Along with the princess.
Glaring up at me from his prone position, the king growled, “You will pay for ruining my plans.”
Scraping my nails down his cheek, I laughed. “Do your worst.”
With a flick of my wrist, I was gone. Leaving the shattered remains of the feast in my wake.
From the time I was a little girl I was told the story of the wolves. How they were to be both feared and revered.
Generations ago our village was attacked by a dark force. An army so evil that to this very day, no one dared utter their name. The dark force was the nightmare which tortured sleep. The foreboding chill down your spine. A shadow swallowing the light. Knowing that no weapon forged on earth could defeat them, the elders of the village made the terrible decision to fight darkness with darkness. Reaching back to the wisdom of the ancients, to a time before religion or society…to a time when man was more beast than sentient being…the elders drew upon primeval magic.
Five men were chosen.
They thought they were chosen to fight.
They thought the elders were only blessing them before battle.
They thought wrong.
I’d always been taught the elders did what was best for the village as a whole, still, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the men. Did they know what was happening to them as the elders circled them chanting in a strange language? Did it cause them pain when they transitioned from man to beast? Did some spark of their souls remain, or was it extinguished? Devoured by the dark beast which took over their bodies.
The five men were turned into wolves. Enchanted animals. Ferocious beasts capable of fighting off the dark force.
Darkness fighting darkness.
The beasts prevailed but paid a horrible price. The enchantment was truly a curse. Trapping the men in the bodies of the beasts. Forever damning them.
They were cursed.
Cursed to protect the village they now reviled.
Cursed to live as immortal beasts in the forest which loomed near our village.
Now, over a hundred years later, they still drove back the dark force, keeping my village safe. But they demanded a price…a sacrifice.
When the moon is eclipsed four times in two seasons, there is said to be blood on the moon. It happened once a generation. On that night, the wolves entered the clearing, a forbidden, desolate stretch of land between the village and the forest which separates us from both the dark force and the vengeful wrath of the beasts we created.
As the blood moon rises, the wolves entered the clearing to claim their sacrifice.
Whomever the village chose, was never seen or heard from again.
“Red! Red! Where are you?”
Closing my eyes, I hunched my shoulders forward as I nestled further into the soft pile of leaves. I was hiding from…well…everyone. Hoping the wide, gnarled trunk of the tree I was leaning against would shelter me, I held my breath.
“There you are! Your grandmother has been looking for you. Honestly, Red, you act like you don’t know The Selection is about to happen.”
Groaning, I lay my forehead against the cool pages of the book I was reading. My name was Raina but from the time I was a babe, everyone had called me Red. As a bright scarlet lock slipped from my loose bun and tumbled onto the page, I was reminded why. Out of a cloistered village of several thousand, I was the only one with red hair. So everyone called me Red…everyone except for my grandmother.
Hildegarde Reithaube had raised me from the moment I was born…and hated me long before I took my first breath.
As an elder of the village, my grandmother had special plans for my mother, plans that did not include her falling in love with a lowly blacksmith’s son. My mother died giving birth to me. In her rage, my grandmother had my father put to death. His punishment was swift and merciless. Mine was equally merciless but painfully slow. My grandmother never missed an opportunity to remind me that my own life had cost the life of my mother. That I was a useless, unwanted burden. As a child, my only notion of love and protection was what I read in books—fairytales. There, tucked between worn pages, was the love and feeling of belonging I craved.
Nessa grabbed the book from my hand. “Come on, Red. You know what she is like when you make her wait.”
Rising I brushed the blades of grass and flecks of dirt from my dress. Nessa, a servant in my grandmother’s household, was my only friend. The other villagers, taking their cue from my grandmother, looked upon me with cold indifference. It was why, though past marrying age, no one had ever offered for my hand. Despite my family’s wealth and position, the men of the village knew there would be no benefit to marrying the Elder Reithaube’s outcast granddaughter. Since there was no life beyond the walls of the village, it seemed I was destined to find my happiness in books and daydreams only.
Nessa took hold of my hand and dragged me along. “The Selection is about to begin.”
“I don’t understand why we have to be there,” I protested. “This barbaric custom is for the elders and the men of the village to decide.”
“You know it is decreed that everyone in the village must bare witness to The Selection,” tossed Nessa over her shoulder, her eagerness shown in her quick step toward the town square.
I found the entire spectacle abhorrent. The elders should be trying to find a way to free those men from the curse, not giving in to it. Once many years ago, I accused my grandmother and the other elders of glorifying in the curse of the wolves because even hundreds of years later, it gave them power over the villagers. The power of fear…of life and death. My punishment had been cruel and severe. I learned never to speak on it again.
The town square was paved with gray flagstones and flanked on all sides by large, dark gray stone buildings. I hated it. The ominous unrelenting stone made me feel trapped as if I couldn’t breathe. I much preferred the grotto with its fresh water spring, wild flowers and old oak trees. Preferring the sweet, musty smell of the soil to the stale, perfumed scents of town.
A dais had been erected in the center under the watchful gaze of a large bronze statue commemorating the bravery of our ancestral elders who fought back the dark force. Seeing the stern visage and dramatic flowing robes frozen in bronze, I wondered…where was the statue thanking the men who had been turned into wolves?
“All must settle. The Selection is about to begin.”
This from my grandmother, looking regal in her purple robes laden with brocade and gold badges. She was in her element, I thought with a sneer. The Selection was supposed to be destined by the fates, but that did not stop the villagers from assuming her and the other elders had a hand in the final decision.
“As the sun sets, the eldest, unmarried child from each household must step forward.”
A ripple of unease swept over the crowd. While it had been a hundred years since the last Selection, we had all been taught the ancient texts. The text clearly states that it is the duty of the eldest, unmarried male of each household to step forward, never a female. In all the generations since the curse began, they had never sent a female.
“With all respect, Elder Reithaube, you mean for the males to step forward, do you not?” asked one brave man from the crowd.
“Do not question me!” shouted my grandmother.
I could feel Nessa let go of my hand. Turning, I watched as she lowered her eyes and took a step back, distancing herself from me.
I was the eldest, unmarried child of my grandmother’s household.
Swaying, I tried to hear past the pounding rush in my ears. Rough hands pulled on the sleeves of my dress as others pushed me from behind. Their touch became more insistent as my feet refused to move. Harsh hands gave me a shove. I stumbled forward. The crowd slowly parted. All I could see were hideously distorted faces as they swirled and danced before my eyes. Still, the hands pushed and pulled me forward. Finally, I was at the dais steps. I looked up to see my grandmother standing over me, a knowing smile on her thin lips.
A cold certainty fell over me.
She had finally found a way to truly punish me for my innocent sin.
Refusing to give her the pleasure of seeing me cower, I straightened my shoulders and held my head high as I ascended the staircase.
Several men with anxious faces joined me before I realized I was the only female to be judged for The Selection.
I watched in stunned silence as each man, one by one, was called upon by name to step forward and be judged.
Placed in the center of the dais was a massive white marble disk with the carved image of a fierce wolf with open jaws and polished pieces of amber for eyes. The chosen few must place their hand within the mouth of the wolf. If you felt the bite, then you were the selected one.
Several of the men had to be dragged in front of the selection disk as one of the elders forced their hand into the jaws of the wolf. Every last one broke down into relieved sobs upon learning he was not chosen.
“Raina. Step forward,” intoned one of the elders.
Standing before the effigy, I met my grandmother’s unfeeling gaze from across the dais. Sucking in a deep breath, I defiantly raised my chin and, without taking my eyes off her, placed my hand inside the wolf’s mouth.
Wincing from the sharp bite of pain as cold stone broke through my skin, I tried to wrench my hand free from the enchanted wolf’s mouth. The jaw stayed clenched. In a panic, I looked to my grandmother. Her visage seemed warped and distorted. Her thin lips pulled back in a taunting sneer displaying sharp teeth as her large eyes glistened with triumphant hatred. In a rage, I pulled back and swung my trapped arm sharply. The heavy marble disk tottered on its pedestal and tipped backward, releasing my hand moments before it crashed to the dais floor, shattering. There was a collective horrified gasp from the crowd. Their shock turned to fear as I raised my arm. The back of my hand glistened with bright crimson blood as it dripped down my sleeve. It flowed from two small puncture wounds. The mark of the stone beast.
The sky itself burned a bright orange and red as the sun descended.
On the horizon was the faint outline of the moon.
The blood moon was rising.
The village had made their selection.
Once again, I was pulled and dragged through the crowd. Their sympathetic glances could not hide their own relief that their own loved one had not been chosen. Better it be the red-headed outcast. The unwanted granddaughter of an elder. Than a son of a prominent family.
Led to the top of the square, I was pushed over the threshold of the sanctuary. The heavy wooden doors silencing the harried noise of the crowd outside. The air was cool and musty smelling inside the enclosed chamber. Like the square, it was made entirely of stone. The floor, ceiling and walls, all hard unrelenting stone. There were no furnishings or art work, save for a large, water-filled, stone basin decorated with a mirror image of the wolf from the selection disk. My chest constricted as I found it hard to breathe. I hated confined spaces such as this.
I turned to flee but my path was blocked by two large women. Refusing to meet my gaze, they nodded their heads forward. Turning to once again face the chamber, I watched as three women dressed in heavy hooded robes of white entered from a hidden door tucked somewhere in the shadows.
“Disrobe,” came the stern command.
“Why?” I asked, clutching the front of my dress close to my body, heedless of the blood which now stained my bodice.
“The sacrifice must be prepared. Disrobe.”
I recognized the voice of one of the women. It was Marla, the kind lady who owned a bakery near my home. Yet, in this chamber, she was acting as if she didn’t know me…didn’t care.
“Marla, please. I don’t understand all this. You must know my grandmother planned—”
“The sacrifice must not speak. Disrobe,” came her even response.
“Stop calming me the sacrifice!” I screamed. “My name is Raina. Raina. Say it!” The shock was beginning to wear off as the gravity of my situation bore down on me.
“Place hands on the sacrifice. We must prepare her,” intoned Marla, her face obscured by the large hood of her robes.
The two women from behind snatched me by my upper arms, propelling me forward. My slippered feet kicked and dragged against the smooth stone floor.
“This is madness! Stop! Stop!”
My pleas and cries went unheeded as determined hands tore at my clothing. Soon I was naked and shivering inside the cold chamber. Furtively shifting my gaze from woman to woman, I tried to back away. Harsh hands grabbed me from behind. Pushing me forward, I felt the sharp edge of the stone basin scrape against my bare stomach before my head was forced under the water. Bubbles caressed my face and neck as I screamed in surprise. A strong hand gripped my hair and wrenched my backwards. I had only a moment to choke on some air before my head was forced into the water again. My hands flailed as I tried to dislodge the grip on my hair. The cool water cascaded down my front to pool at my bare feet. I was forced under the water five times. I could hear the muffled sound of eerie chanting as it echoed around the chamber.
Two of the robed women stepped forward to place two poles with stretched canvas between over the basin.
Exhausted from my struggles, I did not protest when I was lifted and forced to lay upon the make-shift bed. The women forced my legs open and stretched my arms above my head. Ruthlessly, they began to painfully pluck all the hair from my body from the neck down. Groaning, I tried to shift my hips, to protect my hidden core, but their grip was too strong. My water-chilled skin began to warm from the agony of the hundreds of tiny pricks and pulls. When it was over, they began to chant once more. Through half-closed eyes, I saw one of the robed women approach me with a large flagon. Raising the clay pitcher over her heard, she called out to the ancient gods before pouring the heavily scented oil over my body. It felt warm and soft. The earthy scent brought me strange comfort.
Looking down, I cried out and tried to rise before hands pressing down on my shoulders forced me back down.
The oil was a sick crimson red. My pale skin looked as if it were drenched in blood.
It was an omen of my fate.
My fate with the wolves.
“The sacrifice will rise,” came the monotone command.
Offering no assistance, I was forced to awkwardly shift my hips to the edge of the basin and stretch my legs till my toes could feel the cold stone floor. Grimacing as the stone lightly scraped my bottom, I stood before the robed women.
Grabbing me by the shoulders, I was turned to face the South wall. One of the women pulled on a heavy braided cord. From high above the chamber, a thick curtain opened to reveal a large window showing the dark night sky and the glowing red visage of the moon.
The slow chanting began again. The oil was rinsed from my body. Raising my arms, I allowed them to drape me in a soft, shimmering white dress. Unlike my usual garb, this flowed unrestricted down my body. I felt a heavy weight as they placed a hooded robe on my shoulders. I looked down to see the red brocade fabric. The red hooded robe of the sacrifice. I had seen it many times in the illustrations of my school books as I was taught to fear the wolves who protected my village.
A frail elderly woman appeared before me. Leaning up, she kissed my cheek, whispering in my ear, “You are more in control of your destiny than you realize, my child.” Her cryptic yet kind words startled me. Before I could respond, I felt her place something in my hand and hurry away. Looking down I realized I held the handle of a large basket.
“It is wine and cakes to help appease the wolves,” said one of the robed women, answering my unspoken question.
Obeying their command, I followed them out of the chamber down a narrow corridor which opened into a wide ante-chamber. Two massive iron doors dominated the space.
“This sanctuary shares a wall with the wall which surrounds the village. The sacrifice will move directly into the clearing. Never to step foot in our village again.”
“Please—” I whispered in fear as I watched the women pull on the iron rings which opened the heavy doors. My whole life I had been taught to fear the clearing, to never venture beyond the safety of the village walls, and now I was to be cast out as if I didn’t matter, as if I were not a human being…as if I were only a sacrificial animal to be slaughtered and forgotten.
The doors made a horrific screeching noise as they opened. Outside all was still and quiet. If I had not been taught otherwise, I would have thought it was nothing more than a placid pasture bathed in moonlight.
A hand placed between my shoulder blades, gave me a shove.
Stumbling, I gripped the handle of the basket before sliding my foot forward. I could feel the soft squish of the earth, a sharp contrast to the stone floor, the moment the thin leather slippers they had given me touched upon it. I took another step forward. Despite my fear, my deep longing for the freshness of the open space, for the rich smell of grass coupled with the crisp clean scent of the night air compelled me forward. Leaving the oppressive chamber behind, I felt as if I were being bewitched….pulled forward by the moon and the call of the forest.
The stillness of the night was broken by the reverberating sound of the iron doors slamming shut.
The spell was broken. Dropping the basket, I turned to bang my small fists on the door.
“Have mercy! Please! Don’t do this! Please! Open the door!”
Cold silence greeted my impassioned pleas.
I banged on the door and screamed till my voice was hoarse. Pressing my back against the cold metal, I slowly slipped to the ground. Scalding tears fell down my cheeks as I tried to figure out what to do next.
As I stared across the clearing, I could see the outline of the forest shift and move.
Shadows detaching themselves from the darkness.
Breathing heavily, I pushed myself upright as I strained to see past the trees. Was it fear or my imagination? No. The shapes were taking form.
Stepping into the clearing from the edge of the forest, I could see five distinct outlines.
They were men. Men!
I knew from my lessons that the dark force, although never named, was like a black creeping cloud. An evil rising smoke. Never the shape of a man.
The five men stalked further. As they walked more fully into the clearing, I could see them in the bright moonlight.
Five large beastly men. Their brawny bodies barely covered with fur pelts. Their amber eyes glowing in the dim evening light.
Not wolves. Men.
Completely confused and frightened, for some strange reason being faced with five beastly men seemed far worse than a pack of wolves.
Turning, I desperately banged on the door. “Help me! Help! You must open the door. These aren’t wolves.”
Through my cries, I could hear a low collective growl.
Knowing my salvation was my own, I gave up all hope of rescue and did the only thing I could.
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.