Businessman Cade King has fallen for the wrong woman. She's the daughter of a hitman, and he's the target.
After ten years of living in the shadow of the Irish mob, Gia Callaghan wants nothing more than to escape the darkness of her life. Her burning desire for answers about her past has her constantly plotting new ways to flee. When she comes face-to-face with the one man who might be able to help her, she'll have to decide exactly how much his life is worth.
Cade King's past is littered with questionable choices. He's made more mistakes than he can count, but he vows to be a better man.
When he meets Gia, his structured life turns upside down, and he must decide whether he's truly worthy of redemption. Can he protect a woman whose guard is even higher than his own, or will she end up saving him from himself?
As the tension and chemistry heat up between the two, they'll discover that life isn't always black and white.
A sizzling and suspenseful romance.
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Brandon Cass is not your average teenager. He has a taste for blood—human blood. For sixteen years, he stumbled through life without a hitch until the enigmatic aroma of blood awakened something dark within him. Visions of a beautiful young woman with chocolate brown hair and ocean blue eyes haunt his mind, yet her identity is a puzzling mystery.
His hunger for blood strengthens, and the cravings become too powerful to control. No one is safe, not even his family. To safeguard all he once found dear, Brandon sets out on a quest for answers. In an unfamiliar city, he comes face-to-face with the beautiful young woman, confronts the dark force which controls him, and learns what he must endure to reclaim his soul.
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Nora knows three things: she is a servant, her parents are dead, and she lives in the kitchen house with her adoptive family. But her world is torn apart when she discovers that her birth father has always been right there, living in the house she serves.
This discovery leads Nora to more questions. Why was she thrown in an ash-covered room for asking about her father? Why is a silver-bladed knife the only inheritance from her birth mother? Why is magic forbidden in her household—and throughout the province of the Runes? The answers may not be the ones Nora hoped for, as they threaten a possible romance and her relationship with the adoptive family she loves.
With the announcement of a royal ball, Nora must decide what she is willing to give up in order to claim her stolen birthright, and whether this new life is worth losing her family—and herself.
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I sat at the window with the sun on my face, slicing tomatoes I picked from the vine that climbed the back of the kitchen house. On the other side of the room, Greta hummed an old tune. The words tickled at the fringes of my memory, not quite making their way to my lips. I hadn’t heard them since she used to sing me to sleep almost seven years ago. When I was six, old enough to hold my knife, hearth-lit songs and dreams had been replaced with work.
Tomato juice sluiced across the cutting board as I bore down with my blade. The carvings that covered its handle had practically tattooed themselves on my palm. I imagined it had been the same way for my real mother—the knife had once been hers.
“Nora, Robert stopped by while you were outside,” Greta said, arm-deep in a bowl of dough. “He said there’s a new woman and her son coming sometime this week. They’re going to work here with us.”
“Why?” I said, glancing up from the mess of tomatoes on my board. The kitchen house already felt small with Greta, Peter, and me living there.
Greta shrugged. “Sir Alcander must have thought we needed the help.”
Bright pain burst through my hand. I drew a breath and looked down at where my knife had bitten into my finger.
“Are you okay?” Greta asked.
“I’m fine.” I hid my finger under the table until she turned back to her dough. I didn’t want her to take away my knife.
“Anyway, we’ll need to clear out some space in the loft.”
“Mm-hmm.” I held up my hand and stared at the red teardrop of blood glinting in the sunlight. It was beautiful, I decided. Like a jewel. I wrapped a rag around my finger before Greta could see it.
A chirrup of delight sounded outside. Siobhan and Annabelle had come out to play. Even though they rarely acknowledged me, I swore that the girls, the daughters of Sir Alcander and Lady Portia, played in view of the kitchen house just to remind me that they had the time and leisure to play when I did not.
“Greta!” Siobhan ran up to my window and leaned inside. “Do you have any chocolate?” Her voice was sweet, a voice that tried to please.
Greta knew better. “No dessert before tea.”
Siobhan’s innocent mask fell off. “I said give us some chocolate. I’ll tell mother if you don’t.”
There was a fleeting moment when I thought Greta might say no. Tell them to say please. Make them ask nicely like she would make me do if I ever talked to her like that. Instead she shook her head and went to the shelf to get the chocolate. She never would have given in to me, but my mother wasn’t the lady of the house.
“Ella-Della!” Annabelle peeked her head through the window as she reached for the chocolate.
“Not Ella-Della,” I said. “Nora.” Della was the name of the simple milkmaid in one of Annabelle’s favorite stories. Her stupidity always got her in trouble with the lord of her household. Once I had the misfortune of walking by with a bucket of water while Portia was outside, telling the story to the girls.
“Look, there goes Della now,” Portia said. At the time, I didn’t even know what the name meant, but the way she laughed let me know it wasn’t a compliment. Siobhan and Annabelle echoed her laughter and her words, and the name stuck.
“Ella-Della, we heard a secret,” Annabelle said through a mouthful of chocolate.
Siobhan shushed her. “I said I was going to tell her!”
She picked up a piece of tomato from my cutting board and threw it at my face. Warm, acidy juice trickled down my cheek. I wiped it off with my rag. Annabelle murmured in disgust at the blood that streaked the cloth.
“You’re going to want to hear it,” Siobhan said as I moved the cutting board out of her reach. “It’s about you.” She looked at Greta, who pretended not to pay attention, then back at me. “Meet us by the tree.”
“Race you!” Annabelle shouted and ran into the field. Siobhan followed. I imagined them tripping in their silk slippers and staining their dresses with dirt.
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was curious about what they had to say. But I also knew Greta would not let me leave until my work was done. I picked another tomato out of my basket, cut a slit into the side, and squeezed it so the slit cracked into a mouth.
“I have a secret! It’s about you, Ella-Della. Now give me chocolate!” Pulp lolled out of the tomato-mouth.
I wished Peter were here. His stories full of chivalrous heroes, brave maidens, talking animals, and the occasional fairy always made time go faster. But Peter was up on top of the main house, patching the roof again. I wished I were up there with him, outside and above everything, but Greta had insisted I stay with her.
“What if you fell off the roof?” she said as we ate breakfast.
“Then you’d heal me and make me all better,” I replied.
“Lucky.” Peter grinned as he drank the last of his tea. “She’d leave me for dead.”
“You know that’s true,” Greta said, and we all laughed. She and Peter had been married for so long that she liked to say that their jokes about killing each other were sometimes serious.
I looked out the window at where Siobhan and Annabelle had settled themselves under the hazel tree in the middle of the field.
“Greta?” I said. “Can I go outside?”
Greta tsked and shook her head. “You know those girls don’t have anything worthwhile to say.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. I wanted Greta to be right, but there had been a wicked delight in Siobhan’s eyes that made me think that she really did have a secret to share. There was no way I was going to let her keep it to lord over me later.
Greta waved her hand. “Put the soup on, then go.”
I diced the rest of the tomatoes and carried the cutting board to the pot that hung over the fire in the hearth. The tomatoes went in on top of the carrots, parsnips, and rosemary that I threw in earlier that morning. I poured a pitcher of water on top of the vegetables and wiped my knife on my apron. The tomato pulp left an orange swath across the fabric.
Greta nodded. Her long braid fell over her shoulder as she worked. She pushed it back behind her. “Go. But you’re a glutton for punishment. And I’m not going to stop your soup from boiling over.”
I untied my apron and hung it over my chair by the window. I usually took my knife outside with me so I could use the handle to smash open the skins of the hazelnuts. Greta watched me with a raised eyebrow and the hint of a smile on her face. I left the knife behind.
I could feel Greta watching from the window as I crossed the field behind the kitchen house. Smoke meandered from the chimney, a reminder of the soup that would boil soon. The kitchen house was a squat brown-and-grey stone block compared to the massive size of the main house next to it. I could walk to the main house in minutes, but it felt like it was miles away. I’d never been inside. Greta always murmured something about my being too young when I asked if I could help bring in dinner.
Siobhan and Annabelle sat on the grass under the hazel tree. I bristled at their presence. I claimed the tree for myself long ago. It was close to the rest of the forest but set off by itself, pulsing with a secret, solitary life. I used to climb over its branches, rubbing my feet over the smooth bark and leaning my ear against the trunk to listen for a heartbeat.
It was my tree, alone and proud. I didn’t want them playing near it.
Siobhan sat with her legs tucked under her skirt, pulling up blades of grass, knotting them, and throwing them at Annabelle. She threw a clod of roots and dirt at me. It landed harmlessly an arm’s-length away. I was sure that if I hadn’t already gathered most of the hazelnuts from the ground that morning, Siobhan would be throwing them instead.
“What took you so long?”
“I had work to do.” I put my hands on my hips, trying to look imposing. Siobhan stood up and brushed off her skirt. Even though I was more than a year older, she was taller and always managed to look down on me.
“Of course,” she said, miming forgetfulness. “Ella-Della is our servant.”
“Della, Della, Ella-Della,” Annabelle sang. “Fetched some milk and met a fella.” She was ten, a year younger than Siobhan. Her face screwed up in an expression of intense concentration as she tried to remember the next part of the song.
“What is it?” I asked. “You said you had something to tell me.”
“You need to earn it, Ella-Della.” Siobhan pointed to the top of the tree where the tail end of one of Annabelle’s bird-shaped toys stuck out between the leaves.
“Why don’t you get it yourself?” I said.
Siobhan snorted. “Climbing trees is not ladylike, Ella-Della.”
Annabelle, having given up on the song, fit a chain of clovers on top of her golden curls. As she and Siobhan waited, ladylike, on the ground, I grabbed the lowest branch and swung up into the tree. There was a curved branch halfway up that I liked to sit on. I stopped there, balancing with one hand against the trunk. The toy was stuck between the branches far above my head.
“Just because it’s a bird doesn’t mean it can fly,” I called down.
Cocooned among the dark, jagged leaves, I couldn’t see Siobhan. But the leaves didn’t stop her voice from reaching me.
“Just because you look like a horse doesn’t mean you can run.”
I continued to climb. Greta was right. They didn’t have anything useful to tell me. They just wanted someone to get Annabelle’s bird.
The cloud-dappled sky came into view near the crown of the tree. The toy’s red body stood out from the green around it. I stood on my tiptoes on a thin branch and stretched to reach it. My fingers brushed against the painted wood, and it plummeted out of the tree, hitting branches and smashing to the grass below. I climbed down as slowly as I could.
Annabelle held the bird’s wooden body in one hand and the wing that had broken off in the other. Her cheeks were reddened with anger. She started to speak, but Siobhan brushed her off.
“Father will buy you a new one,” she said. “Tell him that Ella-Della broke it. He’ll take it out of her wages.”
I shuffled my feet, which smarted from landing on the ground. What did they even know about my wages? I’d never seen any of the money due to me—I always assumed Peter and Greta kept it safe for when I was older. What did I need it for, anyway? When he went to the Market, Peter used his own wages to buy me small toys or the charcoals and chalk I used whenever he or Greta had time to give me lessons. Did Sir Alcander take from my wages any time I did something he didn’t like? I’d only ever seen the man from a distance, but he seemed imposing enough that I could imagine him doing it.
“Ella-Della,” Siobhan said, “don’t you want to know the secret?”
“No.” I turned back to the kitchen house.
“I heard Mother and Father talking in the parlor. They thought I was in bed, but I was getting those black biscuits from the servants’ rooms.”
Annabelle dropped her toy back on the ground. “You said I could come with you! I wanted biscuits, too!”
“Those were for the house servants,” I said. Greta and I made the thin bilberry biscuits a week ago. It was my idea to smash up the berries to give the dough its dark color.
Siobhan went on as though she hadn’t heard me. “Mother and Father were talking and Mother said, ‘Someday she’s going to find out, and when she does, she’s going to want to know why, Alcander.’” She did a pitch-perfect impression of her mother, cocking her head just like I’d seen Lady Portia do.
Curiosity won out. “Why what?”
Siobhan opened her mouth to answer, but Annabelle got there first.
“Why you live in the kitchen house when your father is in the main house.” She gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. Siobhan looked around. Her haughty expression was gone, replaced by guilt. She was not good at burying her thoughts. They were telling the truth.
Siobhan’s moment of humility didn’t last long. “I always thought your father lived in the oven,” she said. “That would explain why your arms are all messed up.”
I crossed my arms behind me, trying to hide the pink burns scarred onto my skin.
“You’re lying,” I said. Even if they actually heard Lady Portia say those words, what she said wasn’t possible. Greta and Peter were my parents. My real mother died in childbirth, and my father followed her to the World Apart soon afterwards. That’s what Greta and Peter always said. But the hazel tree brightened behind Siobhan’s head, and my feet felt lighter than before, like they weren’t quite touching the ground. It might have been hope.
“Am not,” Siobhan snapped. “I’m being nice. I just thought you’d want to know that your father threw you away in the kitchen house so he wouldn’t have to see your ugly face every day. See if I ever do anything for you again.”
She turned on her heels and hauled Annabelle back to the main house. I stood there for a moment, letting the colors of my small world return to normal. I couldn’t go back to the kitchen house, not yet, not if what they said was true. Why would Greta and Peter tell me that my father had passed? Was his presence the reason I wasn’t allowed in the main house? He could be there, waiting for me to come find him. Did he know who I was? Did he even want me?
“Nora!” Greta’s voice pierced through the fog of questions swirling around me. “The soup is burning!”
I ran back to the kitchen house and hefted the pot off the fire. I hadn’t put in enough water, and what I did add had boiled away. I poured in two pitchers this time and put the pot back on the hearth, hoping no one would notice the vegetables’ smoky taste. I barely heard Greta’s reprimands as I ran through the list of men who worked in the main house. There were three male servants: Matthew, Sir Alcander’s valet, was married to Sarah, the head maid. They came to work at the Runes when I was eight, so it couldn’t be Matthew. Victor, the footman, was only seventeen. The only one left was Robert, the butler. He began working at the Runes before Greta and Peter, and he was certainly old enough to have a daughter my age. He had only ever been kind to me when he came to deliver messages or get food from the kitchen house.
Someone knocked at the door. Greta opened it, and there he was. Breath caught in my throat.
“Robert.” Greta nodded, and he came inside.
“The new kitchen maid will arrive from the Vale the day after tomorrow.”
“From the Vale?” Greta sounded surprised, but I didn’t understand why. “Is she Kindred?”
“She and Alcander are like-minded when it comes to”—he glanced over at me—“the goings-on at the Vale.”
I held Robert’s gaze for as long as I could, scrutinizing his features. He carried himself with a dignified air, stately even. He took pride in his work, which was probably why he’d been employed at the Runes longer than any of the other servants. His hair was wiry and grey. I ran a hand through the scraggily, dark red tangle on my head. I’d never met anyone else with my thick, ratty hair. Greta’s braid, while heavy, was smooth and dark. Annabelle and Siobhan’s curls were always brushed to perfection. Robert’s hair reminded me of trees I had seen in the woods that had been struck by lightning, an image I often associated with myself when I looked in the mirror. I could imagine his hair being the same color as mine once upon a time. His eyes were grey instead of gold like mine, but I could have gotten my eyes from my mother.
Had Robert ever been married? He wasn’t now. Maybe he had a wife who died in childbirth, and he couldn’t bear to have the child near him because she—I—reminded him too much of her. It was all very romantic. I wanted to rush over to him, but I held back. What if I were wrong? I would just embarrass myself.
Robert and Greta’s conversation ended with the determination that Peter would meet the new servants in the woods west of the Runes proper the next day. Robert brushed past me on his way out.
“Nora.” He nodded at me.
I wanted to follow him back to the main house, but as soon as the door closed behind him, I turned to Greta.
“My parents,” I said. “My real parents—do you know who they were?”
She startled at the abruptness of the question. “Why are you asking this now? Did the girls say something?”
“I just want to know.”
Greta beckoned for me to sit down with her.
“You know the answer. The couple who worked in the kitchen house before us gave you to Peter and me.”
“But those people weren’t my parents,” I said.
“They didn’t say who your parents were,” Greta continued. “Only that they’d passed, and you needed someone to take care of you. We always wanted a child, and—” She stopped talking when it became obvious I wasn’t listening. This was a story I knew by heart, but it wasn’t mine anymore.
Greta narrowed her eyes. “What did the girls say to you?”
I stood up. “Nothing.”
I went back to my seat by the window, put my apron on, and began to mash up a pile of sprigberries that Greta had put on the table while I was outside. If she and Peter knew anything about my real parents, they would have no reason to hide it from me. They gave me my mother’s knife, after all. Sir Alcander and Lady Portia obviously knew, but I couldn’t ask them. Lady Portia’s visits to the kitchen house were rare and always came with demands. Less salt in the soup or an extra dessert tart for Siobhan and Annabelle. She gusted in and out, never staying for longer than her words and never looking in my direction. Sir Alcander never even set foot near the kitchen house. The only times I’d laid eyes on him had been through a window when I brought something to Peter while he was patching the exterior of the main house. I knew Sir Alcander more by his maps. Peter had one in the kitchen house, and he used it to teach me the geography of Colandaria. Sir Alcander’s intricate compass roses were more familiar to me than his face.
No, I would not get answers from either of them. But I would go to the main house. I had to talk to Robert.
“Good morning, early riser. Any chance you made breakfast while we were sleeping?” Peter said as he climbed the ladder down from the loft and joined me in the kitchen, where I’d been trying to quiet the pounding of my heart since before sunup. He put his arm around me and kissed my forehead. The bristles of his short beard tickled my chin. All fathers should feel like this, I thought.
I had to keep myself from trailing behind him when he brought breakfast to the main house. I would have to wait until everyone was doing their work before I could go inside. I’d seen Greta and Peter go in the back door of the main house as often as I’d seen Robert, Sarah, or one of the other servants come out of it on their way across the field. The servants’ quarters were supposed to be right near the entrance. There had to be something there that would tell me about Robert.
I picked at my breakfast. The nervous flutter in my stomach made me too nauseated to eat. I’d occasionally thought about my real parents resting in the World Apart. Their ashes would have been given to the wind somewhere meaningful. Someone would have held me nearby to ensure that their spirits would watch over me. Growing up, though, I had the parents I needed. Greta and Peter gave me a fire burning in the hearth, a garden to pick food from, and stories to fill warm nights in the loft.
Now, with just a few words from Siobhan and Annabelle, I needed more.
No one would be in the main house servants’ quarters after breakfast. I waited until Peter went outside to repair the fence around the chicken coop and Greta began making her daily bread at the counter that faced away from the window.
“I’m going to see if any more tomatoes are ripe,” I said as Greta took out caraway seeds and flour and put them next to the eggs that I gathered from the coop before breakfast.
She nodded, and I headed out, glancing back to make sure that she had started on the dough. While she was busy measuring ingredients, I ran across the field to the main house and went in the back entrance. Once inside, I cracked open the first door I came to. The room I entered was about the size of the floor of the kitchen house, large enough to fit six beds. Some belongings—probably Victor’s, since Peter always complained what a mess Victor was when he came back from bringing in supper—were strewn about the floor, while others sat on shelves or against the wall. The largest bed would belong to Matthew and Sarah. That left only a few beds that could be Robert’s. A green satin vest with gold edging hung on a stand across the room. That had to be his. He would wear it to serve at Sir Alcander’s and Lady Portia’s banquets. Robert’s shelves were bare except for a few books and a tin of my bilberry biscuits. I warmed at the thought that my father had a stash of my cooking. There was something else on the shelf, something flat enough that I couldn’t see what it was. I stood on my tiptoes and retrieved a palm-sized agate cameo. The carving was of a young woman not more than twenty years old. She was lovely, with long, wavy hair tied back with a large bow.
Was this my mother? In profile, it was difficult to make out anything specific about her features. I wished her image were in color so I could see if she had my gold eyes. I had to talk to Robert before I lost my nerve. I went back to the hallway with the cameo clutched in my fist. I didn’t know where to go, but I did know that I would be in trouble if I were caught roaming the halls. I picked a direction, glancing around each corner before proceeding as I looked for a shock of steely grey hair.
Portraits lined the hallway. All of the subjects wore the same shade of dark green that marked them as the noble family of the Runes. I stopped in front of a painting that depicted Sir Alcander and Lady Portia posing with younger versions of Siobhan and Annabelle. The artist captured the girls’ smug expressions well. The paint in Siobhan’s eyes shined with mischief. Lady Portia’s every hair was defined. The painter had arranged his light source to highlight her sharp, elegant cheekbones. Sir Alcander’s eyes were duller than those of Lady Portia or their daughters. Even Annabelle’s eyes twinkled with specks of white that were missing in her father’s.
I wheeled around to face Sarah, the head maid.
“What are you doing here?”
I looked at the floor. The grey and green grain of the marble flowed like the lines on one of Sir Alcander’s maps. I ran the tip of my shoe along one of the paths.
“I’m looking for Robert,” I said. “I need to talk to him. It’s important.”
“He’s taking dictation for Sir Alcander.” Sarah looked past me down the hall. “He’ll be done soon. Come with me.”
She put a hand on my back and ushered me in the direction from which I’d come.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” she said.
“I know.” I tucked the cameo into my pocket. “But it’s important. Don’t tell Greta, please.”
Sarah glanced behind us. The pressure of her hand on my back became more urgent.
“It’s not Greta I’m worried about.” She opened the door to the servants’ quarters and pushed me inside. “Stay here. I’ll get Robert.”
She left the door open a crack and hurried down the hall. I sat on Robert’s bed. A long piece of straw poked out of the mattress. I pulled it out from the fabric and broke a piece off the end. By the time Robert arrived, shutting the door behind him, there was a small pile of straw on my lap. I leapt off the bed, spilling it on the floor.
“Sorry.” I bent down to sweep the straw into my hand. Robert knelt to help me.
“Nora, what are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be—”
“I need to talk to you,” I said. “It’s about my—” The word stuck on my tongue. “Um, Siobhan and Annabelle said that…” I took the cameo out of my pocket. “Who is this?”
Robert snatched it out of my hand. “What are you doing with this?”
My cheeks burned. “I found it on the shelf. Is it your wife?”
The angry lines on Robert’s face softened. “No, it’s my sister. She died a long time ago. Why do you ask?”
I sat on the bed. I felt heavy enough that I might sink into the straw and never come out.
“Siobhan and Annabelle said they heard Lady Portia and Sir Alcander talking, and they said that my—” I choked out the word. “—father was in the main house. I thought that you might be—”
Robert moved away, dropping the straw into a bucket next to the bed. I sank farther into the mattress. Being poked with spindles of straw was preferable to the silence in the room.
“Your father?” Robert said. “Nora, the man who was your father is long gone.”
“But you have to be,” I protested. “Your hair, it’s just like mine.”
“What, this old mess?” Robert ran a hand through his hair and sat down next to me.
My voice dropped to a whisper. “It has to be you.”
“I’m sorry, Nora. I don’t have any children. Peter’s been a good father to you, hasn’t he?”
“Yes.” I could feel each razor of straw jabbing into my skin. “I just thought—”
Wait. What did he say?
“You know who my father was!” It came out as a statement, not a question. Robert jumped up from the bed.
“No, Nora, you misunderstood. I—”
“Yes, you do!” I leapt up after him. “You said he was gone, but you know who he was. Tell me!”
Robert’s eyes darted back and forth as if he were looking for a way to escape the conversation before fixing on a point behind me. Panic tinged his voice.
“She was just bringing a message from the kitchen house.”
I turned to see Lady Portia standing on the other side of the door. I hadn’t heard it open. Waves of anger passed through her cold ocean eyes. I had only ever seen Lady Portia angry, but this was different. This was rage, and it was aimed squarely at me.
Robert put a protective arm around my shoulders.
“I’m sending her back right now.”
“Eleanor.” Lady Portia’s voice was ice cracking. “You are not permitted in here.”
“I'm sorry,” I croaked. “I’ll go back.” This was different from Sarah’s confusion at finding me in the hall or Robert’s initial anger at discovering his cameo in my hands. Different, and infinitely more dangerous.
Before I could move, Lady Portia was in the room, grabbing my arm and wrenching me from Robert’s grasp. I could feel her breath on my cheeks as she pulled me close.
“You are supposed to stay in the kitchen house,” she hissed. She jerked me out of the room and down the hall.
“Ma’am—” Robert started after us.
“Stay where you are,” Portia said without turning to look at him. “This is none of your business.”
I looked back, panicked, as I flailed in my attempt to keep up with Lady Portia’s long stride. I heard the sound of the back door being thrown open. I could only hope Robert was going to get Greta or Peter.
Lady Portia’s fingers burned on my arm as she pulled me behind her, making a series of turns through the hallways. Anytime I opened my mouth to protest, to apologize, to cry, she jerked me forwards, and my words were swallowed in a yelp of pain. She finally stopped in front of a plain, wooden door. It felt out of place next to the other doors in the hallway, which were lacquered and covered in carvings. Its austerity didn’t belong, just like I didn’t.
My wrist glowed red when Lady Portia let me go, and I rubbed my arm to quell the pain. My mouth ran ahead of me, spitting out every apology I could think of. She ignored me as she sorted through the keys on a ring she took from her dress pocket and fit a large iron key into the lock. The door creaked open. I couldn’t make out anything inside—there were no windows to let in the light. The darkness in the room felt different than when the kitchen house darkened after sunset. This darkness was hungry. I turned to run.
Portia caught my wrist and shoved me into the room. I fell on my hands and knees. Small pieces of something—dust? ash?—rose up around me, making their way into my throat. I started to cough.
“Never ask about your father again.” She slammed the door, plunging me into the dark. The door fit so snugly in its frame that there wasn’t even a sliver of light shining at the bottom.
It was a moment before my shock allowed me to react. The room smelled scorched with death, like it hadn’t been opened in ages. I coughed again, trying to get out the pieces of the room that had infiltrated my throat, my nostrils, my eyes. I shuffled forwards until I reached the door and felt for the knob. It was cold to the touch. I pulled as hard as I could, but it would not turn.
“Robert!” I screamed. “Sarah! Peter! Greta!” I kept screaming their names until my throat was raw. The fine powder that covered the floor stuck to me wherever my body touched the damp ground. There were voices down the hall, but they were too far away for me to hear what they were saying.
“Father?” I whispered.
My arm ached where I could feel a bruise blooming around my wrist. I wanted Peter and Greta. I wanted my father and my mother, but I didn’t know their names. Only the darkness held me as I cried.
Life has a way of going awry when you least expect it, and Khalila Skyers learns this lesson the hard way. In one devastating blow after another, she loses her cosy existence. Then Douglas Blythe overtakes her life like a flood, and she's not equipped to deal with an attraction that seems forbidden and overwhelming. But her body and heart want what they want, and leave her wondering if she ever knew herself at all.
Douglas is determined to help Khalila move beyond her obsession with the past and reach for love a second time. No matter how long it takes. No matter the distance. He’s going to prove he's worth the risk.
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Douglas stared me down until I wanted to look away from his gaze that seemed to cut to the deepest part of me. When he lifted my hand off the table, I relaxed despite the tremor snaking up my arm.
Using his thumb, he stroked my skin while he spoke. “Look, we know next to nothing about each other, but don’t presume to tell me what I want. I’m capable of making up my mind on my own.”
I was a little of everything—embarrassed, confused, speechless. How could he be so sure I was what he wanted? No matter what he thought, I had too much going on to be adding a relationship to the list.
“What are you afraid of, Khalila?”
My name on his tongue was a caress that scattered my thoughts.
“It’s not that I’m afraid of anything.” I pulled my hand out of his and drank the rest of the water while gathering my thoughts. “My divorce isn’t final yet and…”
My mind settled on Amir, who I didn’t want to think about now. Softly, I sighed. “It’s too early to be thinking about a relationship with anybody.”
“We’ve gone way past the point of thinking about what’s happening between us. I’m not asking you to marry me, but I’m interested in you.” His voice softened and I had to concentrate to hear his words. “Give me the chance to show you that what we did wasn’t only about sex.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I held my silence.
His gaze was analytical and he didn’t seem to expect a response. The longer he looked at me, the more my heart rate accelerated. It was ridiculous that at my age any man could get this kind of response from me.
“I hope that wasn’t all it was for you,” he said.
It took me a few seconds to catch up with him, but I didn’t answer. I was too busy trying not to squirm at the image of him on top of me in his bed.
After reading his watch, Douglas smiled. Why, I didn’t know, but it was a genuine gesture that made me want to respond in the same way.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
Nodding, I got out of my seat.
Douglas didn’t crowd me, but let me walk ahead of him. As I wove through the tables, I greeted a few members of the working team, who would also be leaving the hotel today.
Once we were out of the restaurant, Douglas touched my arm and directed me toward the elevator.
“Aren’t you leaving today?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m just making sure you get to where you’re going.”
Putting a smile in my voice, I said, “I’m not likely to get lost on my way upstairs.”
“I didn’t think so.” He laughed and eased both hands into the pockets of his shorts. “I’m simply doing what any decent man would do.”
My cheeky grin conveyed gratefulness and understanding. “Carry on, then.”
He nodded and in silence, we walked to the elevator. When it was a few floors away, he faced me. “I want to ask one favor of you.”
“Answer your phone when I call, okay?”
He stepped in close, kissed my cheek and then brushed his lips across mine.
I sucked in my breath and opened my mouth, wanting more of him, but he stepped back.
The elevator opened and he urged me forward with a gentle hand to my back.
I walked inside, asking myself what kind of game Douglas was playing. Why would he start something he couldn’t finish, not to mention leave me hot and bothered?
As the doors closed, our gazes locked and I swore that man knew exactly what he was doing and the state he’d left me in.
A British composer turns outlaw in Los Angeles in Turn On, Tune Out. Angelica Morgan flouts a computer law that cripples creativity. In L.A., Angelica finds an audience, love, and a passion to stop the insidious law from taking hold in Britain. In the near future of California, artists, who steal time off-line, are considered suspect, criminal, and dangerous.
Angelica’s friend, Rosetta, an outspoken painter, cautions the musician about the Stop, Look and Listen law. But Angelica dismisses the warning. . . .
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They say my music makes dogs howl, that it wakes the dead and hates the living. But I don’t hear it that way, and neither do my cohorts.
My music resonates the times. It echoes the world: today’s and tomorrow’s. It’s the year 2033. I don’t shut out reality with the gentle plucking of strings or the harmonic rhapsody of an orchestra. No pastoral symphony for me. The city floods into my art: the tripping of car alarms, the whooshing of cars, the wailing of fire engine sirens, the screeching of trucks, the whirring of police helicopters, and the booming of car stereos. These sounds grow the shell into which I drop those of the hearth: the ringing of the telephone, the droning of the television, the clicking of computer keys. These are my instruments along with the piano, the violin, and the rest of the orchestra.
Like a musical alchemist, I take ugly sounds and transmute them into art. I restore balance into a life from which it had escaped so long ago that there was no realization of its loss, much less desire for its return. Listeners find a way to make artistic sense out of our discordant lives.
I stand guilty of loving humanity, of caring enough for people that I will risk my freedom, of believing that we are the reflection of the Supreme Being so that the risk will not be so great. We have a short time on this earth, the wink of an eye, but life here is not all. We are likely to return again and again before we get it right.
Yet, the laws which threw me here into this cold, steel cell were not faith, hope and charity. They were bizarre codes of a skewed society, rules linked to electronic control of people. I didn’t follow them, not out of a spirit of rebellion, but because I led an alternative way of life. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t turn on and tune out.
Sometimes I listened to the quiet, which is never that. I’d lie on the carpeted floor of my beach town studio apartment, a bedsit, and listen to the seagulls. Or I’d gaze out the window, over the tops of trees. I lived in the penthouse of a two-story wooden shack, two apartments on each floor. Looking out swelled my heart with elation. I pretended to live in the country. Sometimes I read books, nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels, biographies of artists and composers who lived during a time when artists were not prohibitive, and I read travel tales about faraway places.
And always, each morning from four until eight, I wrote music.
I arranged my waking and dreaming hours around music, the heart of my life. I couldn’t squeeze in the daily four hours of screen-watching – television or computer – required by the state, not with the job I needed to pay rent and buy food, and the commuting from Long Beach to Century City on clogged Los Angeles freeways.
It’s my job that landed me here without music, except in my head, and without a view, except in my memory. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame my job. I could just as well blame people for allowing society to become what it has become, or music for seducing me, or my parents for conceiving me in April and giving birth to a free-thinking Aquarian. I could just as well blame myself.
What do you think? You be the judge.
I'm Mark Morrison. I'm originally from a teeny-tiny town in Ohio called Salem. My father used to say that it was the armpit of the country. Peeuuw! I have seven brothers and sisters, a slew of nieces and nephews and a couple dozen great nieces and nephews. I now live in Florida with my loving wife, four children and two beautiful grand-babes. It's hot, but it's just a sticky, obnoxiously wet heat. Hahaha!
My father used to say that I was an uneducated genius. I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that. I suppose it was because I spent most of my time in school more involved in sports and art classes growing up than mathematics, history or science. I did, however, sneak in several elective credits as a librarian's assistant. That was a whole lot of fun and I was able to read a ton of awesome books.
As a boy I grew up reading things like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew mysteries, and the classics, like Huckleberry Finn and Charlotte's Web. I also read some outstanding comics and MAD magazines. But as I got older my taste changed. I was big into Isaac Asimov, George Orwell and Edgar Allen Poe. I didn't just read. I watched a little Television as well. Star Trek, Dark Shadows, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, Andy Griffith, Mary Tyler Moore, the Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island rounded out some dull afternoons.
As most folks with large families know, board games are an inexpensive way to entertain ourselves. We'd always get a batch of new games at Christmas along with a new pair of socks and underwear. On one particular low budget Christmas, my father introduced us to a game he claimed he'd invented called, “Uh!”
We'd all gather in the living room and one of us was elected to start. That person would have to create a totally fictitious story out of thin air. They'd pause mid-sentence and let the next player take over from there. This continued around the room until someone hesitated or said “uh”. That player was out and the game continued until only one person was left. The stories were creative and often incredibly strange, each of us attempting to make the next in line chuckle and fumble. It was an awesome game of improvisation and I credit my love of storytelling to that silly game.
Every night my mind is inundated with a fresh batch of unusual dreams and nightmares, always in outlandish worlds and dimensions fraught with bizarre characters who can do wondrous things. But through my writings I've allowed some of them to escape onto the freedom of the blank pages and into my first novel, Twospells. I'll pardon another batch of weird mind games and characters in future books.
TwoSpells is a magical tale about a set of teenage twins, Sarah and Jon, who find out that they're heirs to an ancient, magical realm containing an enchanted library that can transport a reader to anywhere or anytime the author has written into the story.
They're soon caught up in an inter-dimensional war between good and evil, both sides looking to claim the library's unique magical enchantment. Along the way, the twins meet astonishing and fascinating characters who can do amazing things, but not all are good. Some are of unspeakably horrific creation and are bent on one thing: destroying the two strange intruders who have entered and disrupted their sacred two-dimensional domain.
Sarah and Jon must leave behind their much simpler life as Regulars and embrace their new positions as successors to a very special kingdom designed for their kind only, the Irregulars. I truly believe you'll enjoy every moment of this story.
I've attached a snapshot of me and my daughter Sarah, whom the phenomenal heroine of TwoSpells is based. She's beautiful, tough and clever.
Here's a link to TwoSpells on Amazon:
Thanks for listening,
Sarah and her twin brother Jon are heirs to an ancient magical realm and its most valuable treasure, an enchanted library. The library endows readers with the supernatural means of crossing into the uncharted inner-sanctum of the second dimension, inhabited with peculiar and sometimes perilous creatures.
The children are emboldened with a wondrous mystical gift that no other being has ever possessed. But fate intervenes and triggers a disastrous inter-dimensional war that disrupts the fabric of time and space spanning multiple universes, tearing destiny a new and savage pathway.
The two must rescue their world from a phantom hybrid alien race controlled by a demented dark-wizard, Jeremy Sermack. They will either assimilate or be exterminated.
Will they be the saviors the prophets spoke of, or will they retreat to the perceived safety of their distant homeland?
How many elements of sadness, from the running loose dog, a sad little boy, and a strong mother figure, can instantly come together to change everyones lives for the better?
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Darker Daze: The Storms within is a collection of short stories that explore that darker side of the human condition. Each story pulsates with tragedy and a sense of desperate hope that only the suffering could understand. Ms. Mabry weaves personal experiences into fictional webs in a way that draws the reader in for a hug, then punches them in the gut. While these stories may be too emotionally charged for some readers, they give voices to the voiceless among us.
Do not shrink away, the demons are not yours...or are they?
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Darker Daze originally started as a small collection of stories I wrote as a type of self therapy. Some of the stories featured wish fulfillment, others took a small element of my own experience and branched out, and still a few were pulled right from my own journal and then crafted into a story with a different ending. Darker Daze has now taken on a life of its own and continues to provide me with a source of cathartic writing.
For each of these stories I was forced to reach into my own personal vault and draw forth the emotions that once threatened to destroy me. I have learned how to wrangle and whip them so they no longer have any power beyond that of a dark and twisted muse.
Some of you have seen those darker days, stood on the very precipice of its slippery slope. You have looked your demons in the eyes and backed away, oh so slowly. You didn't cross that line, but the darkness touched you. It settled into the very recesses of your being. It smolders there, ferments, and rots. When I dig down deep, I can still find it. I draw on it, and it spills onto the page as the darkness no one wants to see although many of us have looked for it ….
Within these pages you will discover the secrets of those who could not fight the darkness. A reflection of blood-spilled secrets that fester. Jealousy, morose, and passionate rage paint each page in shades of despair. Do not shrink away, the demons are not yours ... or are they?
***TRIGGER WARNING: All the stories in this collection contain elements of death, abuse, and suicide that may trigger emotional and traumatic reactions in some people. The stories in this collection are mostly fiction, with some based on the personal experience of the author. Names and places have been changed to protect the guilty. All work copyrighted by A.L. Mabry and may not be copied or distributed without written consent.
All marriages are sacred, but not all are safe.
~ Rob Jackson
I always loved New Years. The promise of new beginnings. The taste of potential and hope. I would scrub the house from top to bottom, telling myself, Out with the old, in with the new, as if just saying the words could make them true. I tried. Year after year after year. Not every end means a bright new beginning. This isn’t the beginning of my story, but that’s not what you’re really here for, is it? Sometimes the ending is all you want.
The shrill alarm slices through my cocoon. My serenity shatters, and I open my eyes. Familiar predawn darkness greets me with its promise of just a little more peace. The bedroom curtain was crumpled on the floor beneath the window and beyond the frosted glass red and green lights twinkle, almost in mocking. With the rest of the house eerily quiet, Mark’s breathing sounds amplified. I lie still for just a moment as the first panic attack builds. It swells in my chest, this violent ocean wave containing “what if’s” and “not enoughs.” I ride it out.
What will the trigger be today, what will set him off? I resolve to be preemptive through my routine. As I roll out of bed, careful not to wake him, I force myself to remain calm.
My swollen ankle twinges. When I go to bed, you go to bed.
My wrist aches. Chicken nuggets? Do I look like a fucking four year old?
My back throbs. You should have known I wanted my blue shirt today!
My scalp burns. Say you like it.
I creep through the hall and check on the kids before I head downstairs to start the coffee maker. While I pull out the ingredients for this morning’s breakfast, I relish the comfort of the most mundane actions. I beat a few eggs and put them in a pan to scramble for Randall and Jenny. Then I prepare Alice’s gluten-free pancakes. I pour the batter onto the heated griddle, then turn to stir the eggs before pouring myself a cup of coffee.
The warmth of the coffee and the stillness of the morning wash over me. I stop for just a moment to savor it. I try to shake off the last of sleep’s drowsy grip. With my calendar and to-do lists spread across the counter, I tackle the day. Mark's lunch is next, so I quickly put it together and place it in the fridge. I pull out chicken breasts to thaw for dinner. Then I remember we had chicken yesterday. I swap it for the cube steaks because Mark refuses to eat the same meat two days in a row. Breakfast and dinner. Check and check.
Every action is repetitive, the soul crushing routine that ensures I see another day. I place three plates on the island bar and pile on breakfast that will go mostly uneaten. Anger nips at the back of my conscious; tired of the servitude, of the compliance. Oh stop it, Holly. This nurturing servitude gives you joy. Without humor, I sigh. Liar.
From the den, the Christmas tree beckons with its shiny baubles and handmade ornaments. I wander in with the remnants of my coffee and gingerly brush aside the tinsel to look at this year’s family photo ornament. The photographer touched it up perfectly, not a bruise in sight. I make a note to tear down the tree before dinner. Mark was strict about “bringing” an old tree into a new year.
Routine beckons, and I return to the kitchen to pull the bento boxes from the cabinet and prepare each of the children’s lunches. With another yawn, I pierce each little fruit gummy with a pretzel stick. Randall and his friends are on a wizard kick, and they should love the little wands. For Jenny, I place a piece of turkey on white bread and top it with a slice of mozzarella. Digging through the drawer full of cookie cutters, I pull out one shaped like Hello Kitty’s bulbous head and cut her food into shape.
Alice’s lunch is next; I start by arranging the ham and cheese egg muffins, and then I add two fruit kabobs. Next, I add stalks of celery filled with gluten-free cinnamon peanut butter and finish all three lunches with a small dish of Greek yogurt. The clock chirps seven times, and I realize I have lingered over the lunches too long and will soon regret it.
I head back upstairs and dress in a rush, thankful I remembered to lay out my clothes. Mark rustles the blankets, and I feel my heartbeat speed up. Rifling through my makeup case, I find the tiny nub of concealer, and blend it over the yellowing bruise. I add a new concealer pencil to my mental shopping list, that will be the fourth one this month. With practiced strokes, I apply my eyeshadow. There is a slight tremor in my hand as I stroke the eyeliner pencil deftly across each eye, but I try to ignore it.
In the mirror’s reflection I see my dress for tonight’s New Year’s party. It’s a horrid shade of green, but the only one Mark would approve of. I had held onto a beautiful red slip dress right up to the register and only the threat in his eye convinced me to set it down. Promise, Holly, not threat. Let’s not mince words.
“I don’t know why you bother; no one cares what you look like.” Mark grumbles sleepily from the bed. “Or maybe you’re trying to catch someone’s attention? Whore.”
I take a steadying breath and brush nonexistent lint from my blouse. In the mirror, I notice a new bruise on my forearm so I grab a cardigan from the closet, the blue one, not the red one. Whores wear red, are you a whore, Holly? I reset the alarm clock for him and head down the hall to wake the kids. While Randall takes a shower, I help the girls get dressed and do their hair. Alice requests French braids this morning, Jenny is happy with simple pigtails. Once everyone’s dressed, I usher them downstairs for breakfast.
This monotony keeps me sane. If I keep following the patterns, I will be okay. For years I hated the fact that the children had so few holidays, but lately I have been more than happy to keep them out of the house as often as possible. Even if this was probably the only district in the country open on New Year’s Eve.
As the kids eat, I gather the spreadsheets and graphs for my presentation, hoping that the extra hours I spent perfecting it last night pays off for me. I touch a bruise and decide it was worth it. With this promotion, I’ll finally be able to leave Mark.
I pile everyone into the car and begin the morning rounds. I drop Randall at the middle school first, then Jenny at the elementary school. Last, I pull into Alice’s rainbow colored preschool.
She spills out of the SUV, and I straighten her hair and fix her coat. I hand her the bright pink lunch box and grab the tuition check from my purse.
I plaster my smile on and take her small hand, reluctance fills us as we head into the school. The bulletin boards are still covered with festive artwork, handprint reindeer, and mounds of glitter. Right away I see the “Coffee Moms” huddled in the corner of the lobby having their morning bonding session. They barely glance my way as I continue down the hall with my sweet girl. Their voices follow us and I pretend not to notice.
“… with her artsy little lunches…”
“…. kid looks like a Gap model…”
“…. probably has a nanny…”
With a hug and kiss, I push Alice into her teacher’s waiting embrace. I rush back through the lobby and drop my check in the box on the desk, careful to not make eye contact with the other moms. I climb back into the sanctuary of my SUV, behind the tinted windows, before I let the tears fall.
The judgment from these women is as unnerving as the invisibility I feel at work. This will change though, as I have this latest promotion in the bag. I reach over to pat my briefcase and panic crashes through my senses.
“He’s right. I am a dumbass. I can’t even remember my own briefcase.” Tension fills my limbs. I have to return home. Maybe if I drive slowly enough, he will be gone when I get there. The digital clock on the dashboard flashes, 8:30. I didn’t have the luxury of taking a scenic route if I wanted to get to work on time. And with everything on the line, tardiness was not an option.
The darkness pushes in on me like a palpable entity. Don’t panic yet. Figure out what is going on. I imagine taking a deep breath to re-center myself before I try to remember how I ended up here, alone, in the dark. I let the memories flow over me like ocean waves, surging forward and then lapping at the edge of consciousness as I orient them.
His grip on the back of my neck is painful as he pushes me back towards the mess. The contents of a shattered coffee cup lie strewn across the peeling linoleum, while his face looms in front of mine. Anger contorts his eyes into those of a savage predator. I flinch as his acidic voice crawls across my skin, and he lists my sins for me as if I could ever forget them.
You lie to me.
You think you can steal my kids.
You sleep around.
You’re a slob.
You neglect me for your stupid job.
With one swipe of his arm, my briefcase joins the coffee cup, and my papers settle onto the spill. My graphs, my proposal, my dreams slaughtered in the muck.
“If you only had a brain, you wouldn't be so damn clumsy. I bet your dumb ass won’t even clean it up right, and the floor will stay sticky for the next week. How did I end up with such a stupid, nasty girl?” The stale stench of alcohol invades my nose, gagging me.
Alcohol? It’s not even 9:00 am. And then I see it, my sweet letter to myself, sitting on top of the others. He found my journal, one thing I thought was safe from his prying eyes. The single page was ripped along the margin and sat atop the small leather book. The prophecy meant to seal my fate, but not like this.
You can do this. You will get this promotion. You will leave and start a better life for yourself. He will not control you forever. Stay strong. Don’t give up, don’t back down.
As I sink to my knees and gingerly pluck the shards of glass from the mess, his eyes burn into my body and fear churns in my stomach. I ignore the pricks as tiny pieces of glass stab into my skin, not wanting him to have the satisfaction of my pain. As I wipe up the last of the brown liquid guilt, I feel his large hands shoving me aside.....
Naked and alone, a young girl flees down a highway. Flagging down a passing car, she collapses before she's able to speak. The mystery deepens when an examination reveals she's recently given birth, and it falls to Detective Nick Cross to find the missing infant. But investigations rarely go in directions veteran detectives expect, and so when a K-9 is brought in, an unmarked gravesite is discovered on the abandoned property the young mother ran. It alerts Cross to the fact that a prolific serial killer is in their midst--one who has flown under the radar for many years. With the girl he dubs "Molly" unable to tell the secrets locked in her head, it's going to be impossible to do much of anything, but the impossible is what Cross does best, and he's not giving up without a fight.
A DAUGHTER IS A DAUGHTER is a non-stop thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Matching wits with the psychologically twisted madman behind the rampage, this is the case that threatens Nick Cross' twelve-year career. Becoming personally involved, he'll let nothing stand in his way to help Molly, not even the re-emergence of a surly FBI Field Agent who has already made his life a living hell the last time they locked horns.
The second in the Nick Cross Mysteries, each entry is a standalone and may be read separately and not in chronological order. If you love Richard North Patterson or James Patterson, you'll love Nick Cross.
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Out of the pitch-black night, the sounds of panting and hard-fought breaths drifted up to the boughs of the trees and down the dirt path where the young girl ran.
Naked and alone, her bare feet slapped the ground, the soles bleeding from the rocks encountered along the way. She cocked her head, trying to discern any noises coming from behind, but it was impossible to tell. The only way to know for certain was to stop and listen.
There wasn’t a chance in hell that would happen.
Life could spin around on a dime. She’d learned that the hard way, and it was that realization that made her plunge towards what she prayed was an end to the suffering.
Heat and sweat rose off her body and mingled with the crisp night air, but there was no time to rest. Danger abounded on all sides, and the dark woods made clear how isolated she truly was. Blind faith fueled the relentless pace as labored breaths turned jagged, and then tortuous. She was out of condition, and her lungs burned from overexertion, but everything depended on her.
She was their last hope.
A brilliant burst of lightning lit up the sky and illuminated the surroundings. The brief sputtering glimpse only amplified how lost she truly was. In the middle of nowhere, she was battling for her life.
A wind kicked up, whipping her long blonde hair into her face. Her fingers tore away at the tresses that covered her eyes and clung to the wet open mouth gasping for breath while her other hand remained clenched in a tight fist. The sharp edge of a rock sliced into her flesh as she whimpered in pain, but her will refused to falter and so she pushed on.
Old ghosts revisited her, but she couldn’t allow herself to get caught up in the past. It was rife with land mines that threatened to explode and sabotage her in her tracks. The present was what she needed to deal with and so she focused on accomplishing the impossible.
A skewed fork of lightning blazed across the sky and allowed another brief glimpse of the unfamiliar terrain, including the road ahead. The winding trail veered to the right and gave her no choice but to follow in that direction. Not slowing down, she leaned into the sharp curve, wondering what awaited on the other side.
The seconds flew by.
Hope rose up from a dark place as defeated spirits caged within lifted and shouted, Amen and Hallelujah. An intrusive thought tried to drown out the elation by convincing her she was delusional and that this was only a mirage. The treasured prize seemed too good to be true, but it was there. The cement under her feet was enough to convince her of that, and if this were a road, it meant people … and cars … safety … and …
The bubble of joy dissipated as quickly as it came. There were no cars or people. There were only miles of paved road for as far as the eye could see.
Where was everyone? Where?
Death stared her in the face, taunting her the way it’d done all these years. It asked why she thought she could win. She had no answer. Why had she thought she stood a chance against insurmountable odds? She’d die here … on this road she ran down. It was her fate.
The fate of a victim.
Twin streams of blinding light blasted in her eyes and splashed across her frail body, breaking the stream of negativity clouding her mind. She could win if she tried, and so she waved her arms, frantically trying to flag the driver down.
Please, dear God! Make him stop!
The oncoming car slowed, but was it a trap?
No! The startled male face behind the wheel was one she didn’t recognize. The woman next to him was a stranger too.
It was going to be all right.
The car doors slammed shut—one after the other.
All she had to do was speak and tell the couple approaching what was wrong and the nightmare would be over. Her lips parted, trying to make a sound, but a debilitating numbness spread, making it impossible for her to do anything but stare.
“Are you okay?” the driver asked. Concern etched the face that was starting to blur.
“Child, are you hurt?” the woman with him echoed, but her face was dissipating and bleeding into a fog.
They were still talking, but she couldn’t answer. Why couldn’t she answer? She had so much to say, but her thoughts scattered like a flock of birds frightened by a shotgun’s blast.
She was shutting down.
“Can you tell us your name?” the man asked as he covered her naked body with his coat.
No, but I want to!
It was her last cogent thought. In the blink of an eye, everything she fought for was lost. Her memory wiped clean, there was only the directive beating inside her head and rallying to keep her going, but she weakened anyway. Her strength drained as an incapacitating dizziness caused her to waver and stagger to the side.
Her legs gave way, her emaciated form collapsing into the good Samaritan’s arms. The pale chapped lips twitched as her heart screamed out for justice.
“H-h--elp …” she whispered.
Sinking the rest of the way into the hole dug for her so long ago, her blue eyes closed and shut out the world that had caused her so much pain.
Chance Washington only has a few things on his mind when he embarks on a trip back to his hometown. Completing the assignment for work that’s sending him there in the first place, helping his mom make progress on her fixer-upper home, and catching up with some of his best friends who he doesn’t get to see often enough. What is not a part of those plans is hooking up with one of his best friend’s little sister. But it doesn’t take long for him to realize that just because you walk into a game with a strategy, doesn’t always mean things are going to go as planned.
Londyn Miller isn’t looking for a relationship; a casual fling more her thing after blowing through the limited dating options in her hometown. But when a handsome – familiar - face returns to town for an extended stay, the decision to pursue him for a little fun is an easy one; as long as she’s sure not to let that fun turn into real feelings while also managing to keep it all from her overprotective big brother.
Just like Chance, Londyn quickly learns that plans and strategy can only get you so far before you’re forced to make in-game adjustments. And when those in-game adjustments evolve into something neither expected, it becomes a race for the finish line that Chance nor Londyn saw coming…
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