The Mountain Man’s Brat

Bree Phillips was delighted when she saw the glacier pond and lush meadow in the distance. The people, the music, the food, and the regular beer at the guest event set up by the mountain resort she was visiting were boring. She decided to trek to the top of a ridge opposite the activity to observe the scenery from a different perspective. The hike across the wide meadow to the base of the rocky ridge where she began climbing took longer than she anticipated. She was panting as she topped the rise and wished she’d brought along a water bottle. Bree turned back to evaluate her progress and congratulated herself for hiking so far on her own. From her new vantage point, the dually pickups, SUVs, and all-terrain vehicles looked like beetles and flies on the landscape. The people appeared as pinheads and the music was completely out of earshot.

The Dallas debutante stood on the ridge top and believed by standing there, she had proof of her ability to navigate the great outdoors and take care of herself. She wondered why people made such a big deal about the difficulties and dangers of spending time in the wilderness. Bree had her phone in her back pocket, so what could possibly go wrong? Upon catching her breath, she began threading her way down and through a boulder field that sloped in the opposite direction of the ridgeline where she had been standing. Bree worked her way around one rock, then another and another until she cleared the boulder field and was now well over an hour’s climb away from the resort’s staff and the festivities. It never occurred to her to notice or make a note of any landmarks she could use to find her way back to the group.

Topping the next rise, Bree was parched and feeling overheated from her exertion even though she wore light athletic shoes, short shorts, tank top and a light cotton long sleeve shirt tied around her middle. Her stubbornness won out over her discomfort, and she continued to press on toward the top of another ridge. Bree wasn’t going to be easily deterred from experiencing the adventure she was creating for herself. She was eager to see what lay before her and kept moving. She came to the top of another slope where she carefully stepped over a felled barbed wire fence and briefly wondered why someone would put sharp, rusty wire in the road for her to step on. She continued walking. Bree Phillips was so engrossed in her climb, she failed to notice the dark clouds gathering behind her.

***

Newton Meyers followed the tracks of the rabbit he was hunting and was easily closing the gap between him and his quarry. Newt loved his life and his solitude and believed people really had little to offer him other than aggravation. He both observed and despised their complete lack of awareness and how their actions often ended up destroying the very things they purported to love. As a former park ranger and game warden, Newt struggled not to seethe whenever he saw people just ruining everything. He cherished the land, all of it, and he especially loved the Rocky Mountains. The more Newt saw the land being torn up, the more he believed former park ranger and writer Edward Abbey had it right: Leave wild places the hell alone if you genuinely love them.

Colorado’s recreational tourism campaign created even more overuse in what he called a ‘come live here and destroy everything’ campaign. Newt thought a backwoods literacy class should be mandatory before folks were ever allowed on the trails. People had to take hunter’s safety classes to shoot a gun, and he was convinced that people easily did more damage by their brainless wanderings than they would have if they were shooting at actual things.

He continued tracking the rabbit for his dinner and was looking for a clue as to the animal’s whereabouts. Newt gazed at the sun to get an idea of the time. It was past its zenith, so it had to be nearing three o’clock in the afternoon. He looked around and noticed the clouds were building overhead and were unusually dark, forecasting a gully washer. When rain dropped from the sky like that, the trails filled with water and could become treacherous. Newt wanted to be back to his cabin with dinner in tow by the time the rain cut loose. He knew the rabbit would be looking for a place to rest while the storm moved in, and Newt wanted to do the same. He hoped to find the animal soon, and as he approached a small copse of Aspens, his quarry burst forth from the underbrush. Newt quickly dispatched the animal with his .22 and walked over to the crumpled form. He congratulated himself on the clean kill and the fine dinner he’d enjoy once the rabbit was dressed and roasted.

Bending over to pick up his prey, he noticed the gray color of the storm clouds had deepened to a greenish black. Newt could see lightning flickering within them and decided not to hang around to see how much rain was waiting to drop. He turned in the direction of his small homestead and kicked his gait into a trot before the rain began to fall in pelting drops. The first wet blotches bounced off his body, and Newt crossed the threshold into his modest space and set the rabbit near the backdoor. He always left his doors open when the storms came through since he loved listening to the rain even though he hated being in it. Newt turned to walk back into the main room of the cabin when a brilliant flash of light showed every detail in the space. The illumination was followed immediately by a crack and boom loud enough to make his teeth rattle.

“Well, my friend, we made it just in time,” Newt said to the rabbit as he walked back to stand by the door where he watched the sheets of rain score the ground and the winds shake the evergreen trees.

***

Bree became aware of the change in the light when she found it was more difficult to follow the delightful forest trail she had discovered. When Bree first entered the woods, she found the forest enchanting and imagined that fairies and gnomes lived among the rocks and bushes. Bree could see herself as Snow White waiting for her prince to find her, rescue her, and love her forever. Deep down inside, Bree entertained the fantasy of being a princess. She wanted a strong and handsome man who chose to spend lots of time with her. Bree played out fantasies about how he would dote on her and provide for her every wish and keep her safe from the threats and troubles in the world.

Bree lacked nothing in the material realm. Her father always gave her whatever she wanted as far as material things were concerned. He also handed her lots of things she didn’t want, especially because she felt nothing he ever gave was without his attaching a considerable obligation. And stuff wasn’t what Bree wanted anyway. She wanted to have a loving connection to her father, but his business ventures were his mistresses and demanded all of his time. His lack of attention toward her always left Bree feeling empty and alone.

She knew she wanted something more for herself but hadn’t yet decided exactly what “something more” entailed. All Bree knew was the life she was currently living wasn’t it. She continued to walk through the enchanted glen, caught up in her daydream and began to wonder if maybe the mountains held the key to what she wanted. After all, here she was ‘roughing it’ and the freedom she experienced as her new adventure unfolded was a heady experience.

Bree continued walking deeper into the trees when a frigid wind suddenly kicked up as the sun slid behind the dark clouds. She untied her cotton shirt and quickly pulled it over her arms and shoulders, but the gusts cut right through it. She’d no sooner gotten the shirt over her bare skin when a blinding flash of light, followed immediately by a deafening boom, caused her to scream. She had no idea what to do next. Were trees safe in a thunderstorm? Should she get out into the open? Should she find rocks to hide behind? Bree panicked. She didn’t know how to be safe. Before she could decide what to do next, the rain fell all at once, just like it had been poured out of a bucket in the sky. She ran toward the cover of the trees, but as she sprinted across the uneven terrain, her foot hooked into a tree root, and she fell flat, not even having a chance to catch herself. The rain continued to drop in sheets as the trail flooded and water ran over her twisted ankle, soaking her shoes. The deluge drenched the rest of her. She fumbled for her smartphone and pulled it from her back pocket, only to find she had no signal. Bree was desperate now and did what any urban princess in distress would do: she sat up and screamed as loudly as she possibly could, hoping someone would come to her rescue.

***

Newt was enjoying Nature’s show as he watched the rain wash the forest. He was glad to see the late summer moisture since it was sure to inhibit the wildfire danger which was an endless worry to him and a constant threat to his property. He served as a volunteer firefighter and was glad the rain might save him some long days of working a front line.

He listened to the rain fall and let the chill of the wind blow over him. The pounding downpour hit the side of the cabin, but in the distance, he thought he heard another rabbit screaming close by. The eerie sound, like a child screeching, indicated the animal was in trouble. Newt looked down at the rabbit he’d dispatched earlier and decided that having two for dinner would be better than having just one. He was a big guy, and he was famished. If he could get an extra entrée for an easy catch, it might be worth getting a little wet for. Stripping off his shirt and slipping on an old pair of muck boots he used for chores on his property, Newt grabbed his .22 and headed toward the noise emanating from the trees.

He came through the wooded area and found the trail becoming a river as water coursed over it. The screaming continued. Newt’s vision followed the sound, but he didn’t find an injured rabbit; instead, he found the very last thing he wanted. A drenched and frightened woman was sitting in the gushing stream that had been a trail just moments ago. She was dressed scantily, and the few clothes she had on were pasted to her body. The sky kept lighting up and the thunderclaps were right on the lightning’s heels. Each time it flashed, she screamed. Clearly, she was terrified, and Newt was moved to help her. Without thinking a moment longer, Newt started running in his battered muck boots on the uneven surface. It was no easy feat for him to continue lumbering toward her. When Bree saw the strange form staggering in her direction, she screamed even louder. The thing looked like a Neanderthal.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Newt shouted.

Bree shouted back to him. “Help! I’m hurt! Oh, please don’t harm me!” she cried as the stranger came closer.

Newt reached down and carefully lay a comforting hand on her shoulder as he appraised the situation. “It’s okay. I’m here to assist, so don’t worry. I need to know what’s hurt before I try to move you.” He could see she was a bit scraped up, and her ankle was starting to swell, but her injuries didn’t look life threatening.

Another flash followed by a crash of thunder sounded. She shrieked again as her panic took over. Her responses became hysterical.

“Breathe and tell me what hurts,” Newt said, gently trying to coax the answer from her as the rain poured around them.

Bree finally caught her breath and articulated an answer in between her sobs. “I fell. I hurt my ankle.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got you now and I’m here to help you. Come on, I’ll get you back to my cabin where you’ll be safe and can dry off, and I can tend to your wounds.” Newt bent down and picked up the mud-covered woman, turned, and walked in long strides back toward his cabin. The poor thing was terrified and chilled to the bone, and Newt wanted to protect her. Pulling her closer to him to share his body warmth, he briefly wondered if the isolation was getting to him. Why would he want to shield a stranger, especially when he didn’t want people around to begin with? He pushed those thoughts aside and carried her to his cabin. The thing to do now was put first things first.

***

Bree was stunned at how the man just reached down and picked her up like she was a stuffed toy. He was so big and so powerful! She closed her eyes and leaned her head into his chest, marveling at the comfort she felt from the warmth of his body. He held her close and carried her away from the muddy trail, and she didn’t have a care in the world just then. He smelled like pine and musk. She looked up to see the face of her champion. His sable hair was tied into a man bun and scruff along his angular face reminded her of a disheveled GQ model. His eyes were so dark they looked like they were made of obsidian. Bree unexpectedly found his wild earthiness appealing; he was exotic and interesting. The man carried her out of the trees, and she saw a cabin that looked not much bigger than a shipping container. Bree hoped that was where he was heading since it had to be dry and warm. She couldn’t wait to be inside since the rain was intensifying if that was even possible. The wind was still howling, and the man pulled her in more closely before he vaulted over three steps that led to the screen door at the back of the house. He pulled the door open with one of the hands supporting her and soon brought her into a little kitchen space where he settled her onto a chair.

“Stay here,” he told her.

Bree nodded. She was shivering uncontrollably with the cold and the wet trapped in her clothes. She watched him walk across the room and down a little hallway to an area that must have been his bedroom. He returned with a heavy Pendleton blanket and brought it over to her.

“Stand up so I can put this around you,” he said in a no-nonsense manner as he approached her.

“Okay,” Bree said trying to control her chattering teeth. She couldn’t remember ever having been so cold! And she couldn’t recall feeling so compelled to respond immediately to someone’s demands.

“You just sit there and warm up while I get some water heated. I’ll make you some nettle tea, and then you can tell me all about what happened. I’m Newt, by the way.”

“Bree.” She nodded and pulled the blanket closer while he set a blue, porcelain-coated metal coffee pot atop a burner on the small stove.

“I don’t think you have more than a sprain. I imagine this tea I’m making will take the edge off unless you are in tremendous pain. If you need more relief, I can give you some willow bark.” He turned to regard her and was surprised to be taken by her beautiful deep brown doe-like eyes. She was a filthy, soaked mudball, but she was looking at him with those long lashes and a pitiful expression, and his heart did a little flip in his chest. She was an adorable little train wreck!

“Thank you for helping me. It’s a good thing you came along when you did. My stupid phone didn’t have any signal,” Bree managed to blurt out now that her teeth were no longer rattling her jaw.

“Yeah, you don’t usually get signals up here. I like that about living here and being off the grid.”

“Why?”

“I don’t like people being able to find me unless it’s on my terms.”

“Why?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“And you don’t answer them, so what?” Bree snipped. She didn’t like how he was so direct and assuming. “How did you find me anyway?”

“I was anticipating I’d find a wounded animal and not a wounded woman. I thought you were an injured rabbit and was coming to get you for my supper.”

“Oh!” Bree looked stricken. “You mean you were going to kill a bunny and eat it?”

Newt noticed her horrified expression. “Don’t eat rabbit, huh?”

“Eww! I’m vegan. But I do like to have bacon with my pancakes.”

Newt held her eyes with a stern expression and said, “Bacon is cured pig.”

“Yuck! What do you mean by ‘cured’?”

“I mean they soak it in salt and sugar or maple syrup after the hog is butchered.”

“Are you some kind of barbarian?”

“You just said you’re vegan but eat bacon,” Newt stated as he carried steaming tea in a metal camping cup over to her.

“I know what I said,” Bree lifted her chin, daring him to challenge her.

Newt lifted his eyebrow in response to her attitude. “Anyway, here’s your tea.” He set the cup on the table in front of her and then moved to stand against the wall since his other chair was outside on the porch.

Bree tasted it and screwed up her face into a grimace. “It’s bitter!” she complained.

“Yeah, it probably is. I think I still have some honey.” Newt walked over to a cupboard and returned with a pint canning jar filled with honeycomb. He grabbed a metal spoon from a drawer and stuck it in with the honey before setting it in front of her.

“What’s that?” This time she curled her lip.

Newt again noted her response and could clearly see she was spoiled. “It’s honeycomb,” he patiently explained. “Dip the spoon along the edges to get the honey, and don’t beat up the wax while you’re doing it. I use the comb for other things like candles once the honey is gone.”

“You’re a strange person.” Bree gave him a look like he’d just grown horns.

“And you’re just like most of the other clueless people I’ve met,” he said, except he knew that wasn’t quite true. “So, what are you doing up here and why are you so poorly prepared for the conditions?”

“Well, I was at a cookout and decided to go for a hike,” she answered breezily.

Newt gave her a stern look. His voice sounded flinty. “Without a jacket, sturdy shoes, a hat, trail map, whistle, or even a water bottle?”

“I guess I didn’t know I needed all of that.” Bree looked down at her hands which she had folded in her lap. She felt embarrassed.

“A cookout you say?”

“Yes, I’m staying at the Mount Goliath Resort. The staffers drove us up to a meadow where we played games and had a cookout. The people were boring, so I decided to take in the sights instead.”

“The resort. If you were involved with the activities, I am sure the staff members are missing you by now. I’ll bet they started looking for you and had to pull everyone back because of the storm. Did anyone see you leave?”

“No. Why?”

“They don’t have any way to know which direction you went and where to look for you. Don’t you know you need to tell people where you’re headed in case you can’t get back?”

“Oh, they said something about that, but I thought I could manage.” She waved her hand dismissively.

“Clearly, you did just fine. That’s why you’re here with a strange man in a strange cabin.” Newt’s statement dripped with sarcasm. “Where are you from?”

“Dallas.”

“Texas? Nothing in the Rockies is anything like Texas! You’re lucky I heard you and that you aren’t hurt any worse than you are. Where’s your accent?”

“I don’t really have a strong one, and it usually only comes out when I’m around other people from home.”

A strong wind gust buffeted the side of the cabin and rain pelted against the windows with renewed force. Bree looked around wide-eyed.

“Well, Bree from Dallas, I need to get you back to the resort. I’m sure they’ll send out a search party in the morning since it’s too dangerous for them to look for you tonight. It’s also too dangerous for me to escort you back right now. I’ll guide you to where you belong in the morning.”

“Why can’t we go back now? Don’t you have a car?” she asked, her voice twinged with annoyance.

“No. Even if I did, I just said it’s too dangerous to go out tonight. The streams will be swollen and possibly impassible. You don’t just go out in weather like this without being able to determine what hazards might be present.”

“So, you’re saying I have to stay here until morning?” Bree said in a higher pitch than she intended.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“Oh, are you now?” Bree tipped her chin toward the ceiling and crossed her arms in front of her.

“I am.”

Bree’s eyes narrowed. “I want to go home now!”

“And I just told you that it’s not safe to go back tonight. You are lucky you aren’t my girl. I’d have you over my knee, warming up your sweet behind right about now. Consider yourself lucky. Since you’re a guest, I won’t.”

“You wouldn’t dare do that to someone.”

“I would if I cared about her, and she acted like you just did. I’d have her beet-red bare bottom facing me while she stood in the corner and reconsidered her behavior.”

“You can’t treat women like that!”

“I don’t tolerate childish attitudes. Act like a brat with me, missy, and you get disciplined.”

“You really are a barbarian.”

“No. I would be demonstrating a measure of my care and concern.” Newt exhaled deeply. “I am not going to spank you. I will, however, fix you some dinner and give you my bed for the night so you can sleep comfortably. Go down the hall to the bathroom and wash up for supper. I’ll get you set up for a proper shower after we eat.”

Bree stood up, watching him with a wary expression. Newt steadily met her gaze and watched her turn slowly and start walking down the short hallway. The hem of the blanket was dragging across the floor, and she looked like a little girl as she moved out of sight.

***

Dinner was nothing fancy, but Bree was famished and didn’t care when he placed a simple scrambled egg sandwich and some canned peaches in front of her. Newt excused himself to bring in the other chair from the front porch and go dress out the rabbit he’d planned to have for his own supper. He wanted to get them into his small fridge, so when he returned home tomorrow, it’d be ready for roasting.

Bree ravenously downed the sandwich and then began scooping the sweet peaches into her hungry maw. She’d never had something so simple and yet so delicious. Newt returned to the kitchen and was amused when he saw Bree’s empty plate and her sheepish expression.

“I guess I was hungry,” she said as she looked up at him. “That was really yummy. Thank you.”

“I’m going to make a sandwich for myself. Would you like me to fix another one for you?”

“Oh, yes, please!” Bree happily bounced on her chair.

Newt smiled, swished her plate off the table and got to work. Shortly he brought back full plates and set them on the table. He was delighted to see Bree’s eyes light up before she resumed eating with gusto.

The conversation ebbed as they finished their meal. Once both plates were empty, Newt stood up, looked at Bree and said, “I promised you a chance to clean up, so let me get you started with a shower. You can sleep in one of my shirts and a pair of my drawstring pants if that’s okay, you’ll swim in them, and it’s not the high fashion you’re probably used to. I’ll give you some wool socks to keep your feet warm. The clothes are clean, cozy and dry, and good enough to sleep in.”

Bree smiled as she thought about washing off the day’s adventure and willingly followed him to the tiny bedroom where he pulled clothes from a dresser and handed them to her. Then he gave her a folded beach towel and washcloth. A large tooth comb sat on top of the stack he gave her. Newt led her to the bathroom and leaned into the tiny shower stall to begin running the water to warm it. He pointed out what bath products he had available for her to use. “You’ll have to make this a quick as possible. I store most of my water. Once the tank is used up, I have to bring in more or purify it myself. You have ten minutes, so don’t goof around in there or else you’ll have shampoo in your hair until I get you back to the resort. I consider wasting water a serious offense.”

Bree could see from his stern expression that he meant business, and once he pulled the door closed behind him, she quickly shed her muddy clothes and got underneath the water. The pressure and the temperature weren’t as high as she was used to, but she was glad to see the dirty water flowing down the drain. She was dried off, dressed, and combing her hair when Newt knocked on the door indicating that time was up. When she came out of the steamy room, he handed her a new toothbrush. Bree noticed he, too, was freshly washed.

“How did you get so wet?” she asked.

“I washed up outside while you took your shower in here.”

“Wasn’t it cold?”

“Of course it was, but why use stored water when Mother Nature is providing what I need? That rain is still falling steadily.” Newt moved past her and started toward the kitchen. He picked up the heavy blanket he’d wrapped her in earlier. “I put some water to boil on the stove. We can have one of my herbal tea blends before we turn in. A bit catmint tea should do nicely.”

Bree cast him a doubtful look.

“Trust me,” he said as he approached her with the blanket and wrapped it around her. “It tastes fine, and it will relax you. Go sit down on the loveseat, and I will bring it to you.” He gave her a reassuring nod.

Not long after Bree got comfortable, Newt showed up carrying two camping cups and the honey jar in a shallow baking pan he used as a tray which he set on the roughhewn coffee table. The loveseat faced a stone fireplace, and Newt began stacking kindling on the grate before he added a couple of split logs and lit the paper at the bottom of the pile. Once he was certain the flames were strong, he joined Bree and handed her one of the steaming cups.

Bree hesitantly tasted the hot tea and found it satisfactory, even without honey.

“Want it sweeter?” he asked. “I’ll add some honey for you.”

Bree nodded, and he dipped up the golden honey and stirred it into her cup.

“So, now that you are dry, warm, fed, clean and safe, tell me why you left the resort.”

“You can’t imagine how boring it was. I couldn’t stand it any longer and decided to make my own adventure.”

“Which, as I told you, was a foolish thing to do. Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to be safe in the mountains?”

“Well, you know I’m from Dallas, so I never really had occasion to learn. I just didn’t think about it.”

“Are you staying at the resort alone?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“My father sent me up here for my college graduation and to get rid of me. He owns that resort and several others, so it wasn’t like he took time to plan anything for me. His employees put everything together, but it was still lame.”

“I’m getting the sense that you and your father don’t have the best relationship.”

“Well, after my mom died, he married his mistress, which is his work. I think he was relieved when Mom was gone because he didn’t have to divide his attention any longer. He left me with the household staff to figure things out for myself. That is until he needed to brand his empire and entertain clients; then, he wants me around since my image is on most of the advertising for his company. He says I’m the face of Exclusive Retreats.” Bree’s voice took on a sardonic edge.

“Are you?”

“Yes, but not by choice. He could have hired someone else to do it, but this way he can control me and make me be his corporate poster child or make me host his stupid parties. Mind you, he only has anything to do with me when he needs me to do something for his business.”

Newt’s voice was soft and sympathetic when he asked, “How long ago did your mom die.”

“I was eight. Like I said, he left me with the house staff. I had a nanny for the first year, but since I didn’t get into any trouble, my father started leaving me with the housekeepers and grounds’ crew. They were always nice to me. I think they may have felt a little bit sorry for me because he was gone for long stretches. I spent most holidays with the staff.” Bree’s lower lip was trembling as she looked down at her hands.

“But it still sounds like you had everything you needed, especially if the staff was good to you.”

Bree lowered her head so he couldn’t see her eyes cloud over. “Yes, I had everything I could ever want—except his attention. That’s what I really wanted. I still hope for it even though I am grown up now.” She choked back her tears, and once she was sure she wasn’t going to cry, she looked up at Newt. “So, what’s your story? Why do you hang out here in the middle of nowhere all by yourself?” She took a sip of her tea and looked at him expectantly and then had to look away. His direct gaze pinned her to where she was sitting, and her body flushed with unexpected heat. Now that she was safe and comfortable, she couldn’t help but notice how handsome and commanding he was.

“I told you earlier, I’m out here in the middle of nowhere because I like it.”

“Don’t you have a job or something?”

“I used to work for the Colorado Division of Wildlife as a Game Warden, but any job in law enforcement wears on a person after a while. I busted up a big poaching ring and helped send a few guys to jail for a long while. At first, I was hoping to promote. Instead, I decided to move to a new area before they get done with their sentences, which is coming up before too long. I decided I didn’t want to be around to meet them again. My uncle, on my mother’s side, made it possible for me to relocate as he left me a nice and unexpected financial gift. It affords me the freedom to do whatever I want to keep a modest revenue stream going to pay taxes on the property and buy new equipment for making my custom furniture. It also funds the improvements here. My needs are met, and I am happy taking care of myself.”

“Do you know how to build furniture because you’re from around here?”

“No. I learned to build furniture on my own when I was younger. It started out as a hobby and has become a side business. I started specializing with the beetle-kill pine after my friend Owen, who is a native of the area, talked me into moving up her. Owen worked with me to get the poaching ring busted, so we’ve known each other a while. When I ended up with the money from my uncle, Owen suggested I buy some property here. I like the area and thought it would be nice to know at least one person if I went to a new place. I took him up on his offer five years ago. When I first got the property, there was nothing but old ranch buildings to work with. I’ve been slowly restoring the original structures and making improvements to the place. So far, I am happy with what I’ve done and look forward to getting my next batch of projects completed.”

Bree pretended to be interested in his plans, but there was something else that popped into her mind when he began talking. She shifted her position to face him directly and looked into his eyes. “But don’t you get lonely? I mean, I have the staff at home, and I still feel empty because my father isn’t there like I want him to be.”

Newt heard the kind concern in her voice. “I rarely find people I like well enough to have around for more than an occasional meal or maybe a couple of beers.”

Bree squirmed as she tried to build up the nerve to ask him what she really wanted to know. “I just met you, but I can’t help but be curious about something you said earlier.”

Newt lifted an eyebrow as he invited her to share. “Yes?”

“You weren’t serious about that spanking thing, were you?”

“Of course, I was. You can bet I am determined that any girl I am serious about will behave herself. I believe a genuine and lasting relationship needs not only lots of nurturing, but also clear boundaries. If those boundaries, which I lay down for her safety and well-being, are not obeyed, then it is my responsibility to discipline her.”

“So, you are a barbarian.”

“Look, a disciplinary spanking demonstrates my measure of care and concern for her. If she deserves it, I will spank the woman I love because I cherish her. The swats I administer to her sweet bottom and the resulting sting serves to remind her how much I care.”

Bree’s brow furrowed with confusion. Newt reached over and covered her tiny hands with his large, strong ones. His voice softened when he said, “If I spank, it’s because I care.”

“I guess I would have never looked at it that way. I’ve only been threatened with a licking and was always terrified of it.” Bree shifted uncomfortably. His idea of genuine concern and clear governance titillated her, and she hoped he couldn’t see her blushing in the firelight.

Newt sensed the change in her demeanor and was beguiled. She was so damn adorable, and it was everything he could do not to pull her into his lap and kiss her. He tried to divert his thinking and noticed the rain was beginning to lighten up. “Hear that? The rain is moving out, so I’ll be able to take you back to the resort in the morning. But right now, my girl, you need to get some rest. Tomorrow, we have a long hike back.” Newt stood up, offered her his hand, and lifted her to her feet. “I insist you take my bed tonight.”

Bree looked at him with her wide and beautiful eyes. “But I want to stay up and talk some more. I’m not tired yet.”

“Yes, you are. You’ve had a big day and need your rest. I’m certain you don’t even know how tired you are. Right now, you need someone to make sure you are taken care of.”

Bree pouted as he led her down the short hallway and into his bedroom. He pulled the covers down and patted the bed. “Come on. I’ll tuck you in.”

“Tuck me in? Like a little girl?”

“Yes and wish you sweet dreams until morning.” His voice was calm and reassuring.

Bree crawled into the bed and lay down. Newt pulled the covers up to her chin and then tucked the blankets snugly around her form before looking down at her and brushing a stray tendril of hair from her face. “Sweet dreams,” he said before he left the room and pulled the door closed behind him.

Bree wanted to call him back, but the steady drumming of the rain on the roof and the comforting weight of the blankets lulled her into closing her eyes. She was soon breathing softly and fast asleep.

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Love by Design

Monet stood backstage, her hands were pressed against her lips in the praying position, her heart pounded against her chest with nervousness that echoed in her ears. Two of her best friends, Khyrs and Jaidyn, did final touches on the models’ hair and makeup to make sure they were ready to walk the runway. She watched her partner in crime and business, Shay, adjusting belts and hems to make sure they were flawless and fierce. Monet felt dizzy and faint as the models scrambled to their positions and lined up for the fashion show, the fashion show to launch her and Shay’s new clothing line, the fashion show that was going to change her and Shay’s lives forever. This was it!

She peeked out of the side of the curtain, and her heart surged with love when she saw her family, all of them in the front row. The entire crew of lethal ladies were there to support and represent for her and Shay.

They were all dressed in a Monet and Shay original, tailor made to each of their tastes. Even Asia and Butchie’s baby girl, Anisa, and Tayana and Jazz’s son, Jihad were wearing one-of-a-kind originals at nine months old.

Monet felt, with everyone still so tense about Whisper’s brother Man lurking around causing trouble and the suspicion that her other brother Calvin might be joining forces with him, this clothing launch couldn’t have come at a better time.

It gave them a reason to celebrate, it was not just a win for her and Shay but the entire crew as a whole. Tayana always told them, “When one of us falls, the rest of us bend down to catch and uplift our sister; when one of us shines, we all catch the glow.”

The lights backstage flickered on and off three times to alert the stage hands the show was about to begin. As the lights dimmed in the auditorium and the first model prepared to walk down the runway, he stepped up behind her.

Monet didn’t have to look back to know he was there, the scent of cinnamon always followed him or at least she thought so.

Shay told her on several occasions that she was straight out of her right mind, that he smelled like any other man they worked with and maybe the reason she always smelled cinnamon when he was around was because of her attraction to him. A fact she continued to vehemently deny.

“Are you ready for this, Monet?” he asked, leaning in and whispering in her left ear just as the music dropped and the first model strutted out.

Monet closed her eyes for a second and prayed for the show to be a success, and that she didn’t say anything stupid like she always did, before she turned to face him.

Damien ‘Diamond’ Padam smiled at her, his deep-set dark eyes twinkled in the lights, he was just as excited as Monet and Shay were for the launch. He was the first person in her adult life who caused her to react as strongly as she did. In fact, he was the first person she was truly attracted to since a bad relationship when she was in high school, years ago. Yes, she had her needs and from time to time she would hook up with one of her standbys to have them met, but for the most part she had been content being unattached and single until she met Diamond. Now far too often she found herself actually craving more of a connection with someone and that someone was Diamond.

Just like always, the minute she looked at him she longed to run her hands through his beautiful, thick, black hair that gave away his Indian heritage from his mother’s side, while kissing his luscious full lips that were 100% from his African father’s roots.

In her opinion, he had the most handsome face she had ever seen with his high cheekbones and a pointed chin and the slightest hint of a mustache. He was tall but not towering over her, he stood at 6’ foot even, so tall enough to look down at her with those dark eyes and make her weak in the knees.

He took her by the hand and stepped back to admire the outfit Shay designed for her especially for tonight, she had returned the favor and designed Shay’s outfit as well.

“You look stunning, Monet, maybe we should have you out there walking the runway too,” Diamond said, his eyes moved up the dark blue velvet and lace, high waisted jumpsuit with full sleeves, which molded to Monet’s thick and curvy body perfectly.

With her six-inch matching stilettos, she came up a little past his shoulders.

“Thank you for the compliment but you and I both want this evening to be a success not a reason to call 911.” Monet dropped her eyes as she felt her face grow hot as she blushed. “You look pretty good your damn self, but of course that is always a given, you always look like you just walked off of the cover of GQ,” Monet informed Diamond while admiring him in his black suit, black silk shirt and tie.

Since she didn’t immediately know who the designer was, she assumed this was another Diamond original he commissioned someone to make for him like he did most of his clothes.

Her eyes had a mind of their own as she stared at him, the smell of his cologne and the faint smell of cinnamon had racy thoughts and images beginning to dance in her head. When she caught herself biting her bottom lip, as desire pulsated in her middle, she forced herself to look away, to look anywhere except at her own personal brand of forbidden fruit and focus her attention back on the fashion show.

Monet could feel his eyes on her as she peeked out at the show again but she refused to turn back around. She wasn’t about to put herself out there and look stupid as hell when he shot her down again, it was crazy how the tables had turned.

Six months ago, when the crew noticed her and Diamond’s attraction to each other, they started to tease her mercilessly about how bad he wanted her and she wanted him, which she, of course, denied over and over again. So when Diamond made it known in no uncertain terms that he was attracted to Monet and would stop at nothing to have her, Monet freaked.

She ignored his advances, sidestepped his invitations to dinners, plays and movies. She even respectfully declined flowers and little trinkets he bought for her too. When he showed up at her or Shay’s house for meetings, she went out of her way to appear indifferent and uninterested in anything but business.

And when he asked her why her answer was always ‘no’, she told him she didn’t want to jeopardize their working relationship with something based solely on physical attraction without substance. Monet would never forget how wounded he looked when she told him that, but from that moment, all his advances stopped.

She convinced herself that was the way she wanted things, until the day she walked into his office for a meeting, and it was like she was looking at him for the first time. His handsome face and solid frame had her damn near drooling as he went through his presentation. By the end of the meeting all Monet knew was she had a craving for cinnamon candy and wanted to get to know Diamond better.

When she approached him and told him she had been thinking about things and maybe they should go out on a date. Diamond’s eyes flashed a bit, measuring surprise before he smiled at her and told her ‘no’. He wanted to respect and support her original stance, and he had to agree their working relationship was far too important to ever cross that line again.

Now, here she was with egg on her face, pining for a man she had been stupid enough to convince herself and everyone else she didn’t want in the first place. To add insult to injury, since his rejection, she had become like a nervous, skittish little mouse around him all the time. She stumbled over her words, tripped over her feet and twice in the last week alone, she spilled water in his lap. Monet dreaded the day he actually started dating someone else because, truth be told, she might not survive that kind of heartbreak.

“Why do you look so serious? Relax, Mo, everything is being well received. Do you hear the applause out there? That is not just Whisper and them, girl, we are a hit!” Shay said, walking over to her and throwing her arms around her after she had the models changed for the finale. It had been decided earlier in the day that Monet couldn’t help the models dress because she was driving everyone crazy with her nervous energy, and kept trying to change things on the clothes that were already perfect.

Diamond walked up behind Shay, taking in the crisscross back of the multicolored handkerchief dress Monet had designed for Shay to wear for the show. It fit her thin, dancer-like torso beautifully, the red, strappy Jimmy Choo’s she chose to wear with the dress made her look classy and regal.

Their eyes met over Shay’s shoulder, and for one brief moment Monet saw a flicker of the way he used to look at her, when she blinked and let Shay go his face was back to being emotionless. He looked so stoic that she was actually doubting what she just saw.

“I hope both of these outfits will be added to the line as well,” Diamond said about forty minutes later, just as the last of the models walked backstage.

He offered both of them his arms, as his assistant Tammy gave their brief bio and called them out on stage. He escorted them down the runaway, Monet’s eyes were blurry with tears of happiness as the entire auditorium echoed with applause and cheers as they stood at the end of the runway with Diamond.

Diamond kissed them both on the cheek and took a few steps back, people screamed their names and camera flashes were going off all around them. Their models strutted back out on stage giving the audience one last look at the fashions. Shay was right, they were a hit!

***

“Congratulations to my fashionistas, Mo and Shay! I already know I’m going to be looking fierce with my new outfits after I have these babies!” Yolan, who was seven months pregnant with twins, shouted holding up her glass of ginger ale later on the same night at the private room at ‘Sweets’ where they went to celebrate.

The entire crew was there including Yolan’s fiancé Ryan, aka Reaper, who was on the other side of the room with all the other men Jazz, Butchie, Butter, Diamond, Goon and Pain but unlike the others who were all engrossed in the basketball game on the giant TV screen in the corner, Ryan only had eyes for Yolan in her slip style maternity dress.

Monet prayed that she would know love like theirs or Whisper and Jazz’s one day. Her eyes drifted in Diamond’s direction, his eyes were on her until his eyes met hers and he looked away quickly.

“Yass! Slay, slay, slay, Mo and Shay! Two of the baddest divas in the fashion game!” Khyrs shouted, snapping her fingers in the air as Monet and Shay moved to the center of the room, still beaming from their successful show.

“Thank you guys, so much for supporting us tonight and always. We couldn’t have done this without our lethal ladies in our corner, I checked our website and we have already sold out of a lot of our inventory!” Shay stated beaming with pride, happy tears filled her eyes. Monet put her arm around Shay’s waist and clinked her glass against Shay’s, wiping away her own tears of happiness.

“I didn’t have much of a family life growing up and it wasn’t until I met all of you, my sisters in sin, that I knew what family was really like. In a world where women are quick to shatter the next female’s dream because she’s afraid to pursue her own, we are blessed to have all of you successful, amazing, talented women in our corner. To the crew, tonight is about all of us,” Monet said, voice cracking with emotion as she lifted her glass.

“To the crew!” they all said in unison, clinking glasses and hugging each other before breaking apart at the sound of guns being cocked and readied.

Joy and Rini immediately set down their glasses and pulled their guns rushing to the door of the private room to join their security. Seconds later Calvin Bradley, Tayana’s youngest, older brother walked in surrounded by security, looking unfazed.

“Ay, yo Tayana sorry to crash the party, but I think we need to talk.”

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Arsenic

Lilly stretched as she awoke in the predawn hours. Hopping from the bed she tugged on a pair of sweats, grabbed a hoodie and tied it around her waist. She ran a hand through her short blonde hair. She’d chopped it off because it was easier to take care of this way. She’d always loved her long hair. Maybe she’d grow it back now that she had secure accommodations again.

She crept toward the door, she didn’t sleep well, she hadn’t in a long time but she’d had enough of this room. She didn’t have a beef with any of these bikers except that they treated women like they were porcelain. She didn’t consider herself fragile and didn’t like being kept under lock and key even if it was for her protection. Were they all so degenerate they couldn’t be trusted with a woman? She wasn’t worried. If they stepped out of line, she’d put them in their place. But she made sure the handle on the door was locked before she closed it. She could fend for herself but she wouldn’t leave Sparrow vulnerable, that girl had been through enough.

The hall and rec room of the club were deserted as she quietly made her way to the front door. She knew there would be a guard on the porch. Even though she’d spent most of her time in her room, she was observant. Almost certainly Arsenic was on duty. He liked the early morning quiet. She didn’t analyze why her heart quickened at the thought of seeing him. The club was dimly lit so when she opened the door and stepped into the night it only took her eyes a moment to adjust.

“What the fuck you doing?” a familiar voice asked.

She zeroed in on the tip of a lit cigarette. “I’m tired of being caged like an animal.”

The poor swing creaked as he stood. “It’s for your protection.”

“What? You going to attack me because I flash a little arm?” She did an exaggerated wave in front of him.

Arsenic snickered. “I’m good, but not everybody has my control. Women are scarce, an arm might do it for some.” He gestured to the space next to him on the swing as he took his seat.

“Then they are the ones who should be locked up.” Ignoring his offer, she slid into a rocker next to the swing and held out her hand. “You going to share?”

“Share?” The low timbre of his voice shimmied down her spine.

“A cig please.”

“Oh, you trying to be a little rebel.” He handed over a cigarette and lighter. “Don’t choke.” Their hands touched and she jumped. Even in the low light, she saw him grimace and knew he thought it was fear that had her on edge but she didn’t fear him.

Lilly snorted. “Not likely.” She flipped the lighter and drew deeply on the cig. A mini high rushed through her body as she blew the smoke out her nose. She stared into the darkness enjoying the quiet. Some people thought monsters came out at night. Lilly knew that monsters were always out, they were just braver in the dark.

“Why are you up so early?” he asked.

Lilly shrugged. She wasn’t in the mood to explain that since the virus took her mother and grandfather, she’d been unable to sleep through the night so she blamed it on her roommate. “Sparrow tosses and turns a lot.”

He nodded. “Reliving the trauma.”

“Everyone has trauma nowadays. Some deal with it better than others.” Everyone had family and friends who had died from the virus. Then there was the vaccine, it was more deadly than the virus. But it didn’t just kill you, it turned you into a crazed, bloodthirsty monster before it slowly sucked the life from you. If you were one of the few fortunate enough to survive it all you had to navigate a world controlled by the dregs of society. Survival had even turned good people into monsters. Sparrow had found that out firsthand. She’d been captured by some nasty club and suffered horrible abuse. Compared to Sparrow, Lilly had been lucky. Now, they were both lucky to have found a group of decent people. The crew of the Southern Quest Motorcycle Club were protective, a bit controlling but they genuinely seemed to care about people and their community.

“How are you?” Arsenic asked. Everyone asked that and she was kinda tired of it but she understood their concern.

“Been better.” She chuckled. “Been a lot worse though.” He didn’t comment but she could feel his gaze studying her. “Killing Nick threw me for a minute. Not because he didn’t deserve it but because I took a life. I’ve come to terms with it now. In this world, sometimes you have to kill. My only regret is that I didn’t kill him sooner.” Nick had drugged and kidnapped her. He had forced her to accompany him to his uncle’s farm and pretend to be his wife in every sense of the word. Worst of all, she suspected he’d killed her brother but she couldn’t prove it. Nick had deserved a worse death than he received. Sometimes, she still felt her knife sinking into his flesh and his warm blood pouring out onto her but she’d saved herself and Amelia. Amelia, who was now Jawbone’s ol’ lady, had spent a short time at that farm too. Nick had harassed Amelia and when she tried to leave, he’d accosted her and intended to rape her. Even through the haze of a sedative, Lilly couldn’t allow Nick to hurt anyone else.

“True. The asswipe deserved it and a lot more. Wish we would have gotten there sooner. Me and Jawbone would have made a wishbone outta him.”

She frowned and nodded. “He did deserve worse. I don’t regret it but I’ve never killed a human before not unless you count the rabid people. I had to kill them.”

Arsenic arched a brow. “You shot some Crazies?”

“Crazies? Is that what you all call ‘em?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He snorted. “They were crazy mf’ers,” he said as he scanned their surroundings with his night vision binoculars.

She nodded. “Shot, stabbed or beat to death. Whatever got the job done,” she said with a shrug.

“Okay, Princess,” Arsenic replied in a mocking tone.

She bristled. Just because she was thin everyone always assumed she needed protection. “I’m not helpless. Far from it actually.”

He snorted then blew smoke in her direction. “Where is that mousey little girl I rescued?”

Lilly tapped the ash on her cig before taking a long drag. “I woke up out of that nightmare. But you didn’t rescue me. I killed the big bad.”

Arsenic lit a small candle, which bathed them in a soft glow. “You did indeed. Then you collapsed and I rode in.”

A wide grin split Arsenic’s face reminding her how gorgeous he was. Thankfully, it was dark enough her reaction to the alpha male wasn’t obvious. She glanced away before muttering, “I would have been fine.”

“Yeah. Until that next group rode in and slaughtered Nick’s uncle and the rest of that group,” Arsenic reminded her.

Lilly gasped as those words slammed into her. In her head, she knew she couldn’t have made any difference if she’d been there. Without weapons, she couldn’t have saved them. Hell! She had failed to save her own brother. She remembered the people she left behind and their horrible fate at the hands of those ruthless thugs. At least Arsenic’s club eliminated the murdering bastards.

“Sorry.” His big, warm hand grasped her bare arm. “That was low.”

A shiver raced down her spine straight to her core as his rough thumb traced the underside of her arm. His touch was electric until his grip tightened.

He lifted the candle and his head bowed over her arm. “Track marks?” he asked incredulously.

Lilly tugged her arm but his grip tightened. She’d made the mistake of not wearing the hoodie. She thought the darkness would be her cover.

“You’re an addict?” he accused.

“No!” she denied vehemently.

His thumb ran along her arm. “Don’t lie to me.”

Yanking her arm free she huddled in her seat. “It’s not what you think.”

Arsenic’s lips thinned as he studied her. “Then what is it?”

Lilly sighed. “Nick used some kind of sedative to keep me compliant. He knew he couldn’t control me without it.”

“He was a good-sized dude and you’re a lightweight. I doubt he needed drugs,” Arsenic scoffed skeptically.

“I’m stronger than I look.” Lilly lunged to her feet and tugged the hoodie over her head. She wasn’t lying but she couldn’t expect him to believe her.

Standing, Arsenic grabbed her by the back of the hood. “We aren’t done yet.”

Lilly spun to the side and kicked him in the stomach putting him back in his seat. “I think we are.” She turned and managed two steps before he was on her. His large body pressed her to the wall. Arms, legs, and head all pinned. She didn’t have any options to free herself. Her heart pounded and she shivered, uncertain if she wanted to be free of his powerful embrace.

His fingers laced in her short hair and he angled her head until she met his fiery gaze. “Do you have a drug problem?”

“No. Until he captured me, I’d never touched any drug,” she replied honestly.

His eyes narrowed as he considered her words. “Good!” He shifted his hard, muscled body against her and she stiffened in his arms. Part of her wanted to thrust her hips back into his groin, the other part wanted to rack him and break his controlling hold. “Now, obviously by that kick you delivered to my stomach, you’ve had some training but most of the guys here would take you out in a heartbeat. We’re bigger, stronger and all trained.” His groin pressed against her backside. “If you hadn’t been terrorized by that loser, I’d have you over my knee right now.”

She rolled her eyes. She knew she couldn’t handle a trained man in hand to hand but her skills could buy her some time. “Am I supposed to be scared?” she asked in a breathy voice.

“No.” His warm breath caressed her cheek playing havoc with her nerves. “Just show some respect. We’re here to protect you and the others.”

“How am I supposed to do that? On my knees?” She batted her eyes. A shiver raced down her spine but it wasn’t from fear. “Are you going to force me?” She lowered her head feigning submission.

Immediately Arsenic loosened his grip. “Fuck no. I don’t force—”

Moving quickly, she worked her arm loose and grabbed him by the balls. She didn’t squeeze she just wanted him to know, she had him. Their gazes locked and she felt his shaft lengthen against her wrist but she didn’t flinch. “I appreciate your help but I’m not a damsel in distress. I can handle myself.” Lilly unlocked her fingers and inched away from him unsure of his reaction.

With a deep chuckle, Arsenic stepped back but not far enough for her to get around him. His hazel eyes gleamed with amusement. “The young lady I helped out a few days ago was sweet.” A sexy grin tugged at his lips as his gaze raked her form. “This fiery chick is even better. You want to play games then I’m all in.”

Lilly held his gaze refusing to budge. Grabbing him like that had set off a myriad of emotions inside her and she struggled not to let them show. A light switched on in the club rec room and Arsenic stepped back. Hastily she moved to the door.

“Round one to you but in round two, I might just put you on your back, little girl.”

She swallowed hard as her pussy pulsed with a need she knew Arsenic could sate. Lilly realized she shouldn’t rush into anything but her body had other ideas. She hesitated and looked over her shoulder. “Give it your best shot,” she taunted then scurried inside. She saw Ryatt, the club President, out of the corner of her eye but kept moving before he could say anything.

Back at her room, she unlocked the door and snuck inside. Sparrow was still asleep. Lilly pulled the hoodie off, threw it on the floor and curled up in a ball on the couch. She managed to arouse something in the reserved, Arsenic. There was fire under that calm exterior. He wasn’t immune to her. That should probably scare her because she definitely wasn’t immune to him.

Nibbling her lip, she closed her eyes as images of the big biker as he hovered over her filled her head. Tall with lean muscle coiled tight like a panther ready to pounce, he exuded strength. Pressed against him she’d felt the leashed power and she’d wanted to provoke him. Something about the big man had appealed to her from the moment she saw him. He was gorgeous, but it was more than that. He had a calm, gentle and controlled demeanor which appealed to something in her. His short, dark hair screamed military but his goatee wasn’t regulation. Most of the bikers wore jeans but he usually wore tactical pants which she knew were more useful and flexible. She wasn’t sure how long he’d been out of the military but he hadn’t totally left it behind. In retrospect, it was probably a good thing. The military training was what kept them alive. It was the bond that kept them together and loyal to the cause and their leader.

She inhaled deeply and the lingering scent of cigarettes reminded her of him and the way he let a cig dangle from his full, sensual lips. She traced her own lips with a finger as she imagined kissing him, tasting him. Ordinarily, he was guarded, unreadable. But at the end, his hazel eyes had changed colors and danced with merriment. She wasn’t stupid, she knew he could have broken her hold and hurt her if he wanted but he didn’t. He didn’t want to hurt her. Nope. Those eyes said he wanted to possess her. Goosebumps pebbled her arms as she wondered what it would be like to surrender to such a man. She swallowed hard. She wasn’t an innocent. Before all this went down, she’d had a couple lovers but they hadn’t rocked her world by any stretch. It hadn’t been love, it had been curiosity more than anything. Then when Nick had captured her and her brother, she’d willingly endured sex with him to try to gain their freedom. That hadn’t worked and when she’d tried to escape, he began drugging her. The bastard had probably always drugged women because his sex game had been subpar at best.

She’d bet Arsenic was in a class of his own. Fierce urges twisted her gut whenever he was in her vicinity. She moaned as she mentally dissected the enigmatic biker. He was public relations and head of security for the club. She’d been told he earned the name Arsenic in the military because he was deadly. Now that she’d felt his strength and witnessed his calm resolve, she knew he was deadly. Which didn’t scare her because deadly was a requirement in this world.

From what she understood, the club officers were ex-military and formed the club to clean up their hometown. It had worked until hell on earth became a real thing. This community they had here with clean, running water, electricity and weaponry was formidable. She’d have to study it closer to check for weaknesses. There were always weaknesses. Weaknesses got people killed.

“Lilly?” Sparrow called out.

Startled, Lilly jumped. “Yeah?”

“Everything okay? You disappeared for a while,” Sparrow whispered from the darkness.

“I just needed some air.”

“Eden said we shouldn’t leave the room alone,” Sparrow reminded her of one of the club rules.

Eden was the Prez’s ol’ lady and seemed nice enough. Eden was friends with Amelia, whom she knew better. The only other ol’ lady at the club was Lola. She was a little older and kinda reminded Lilly of her mother. She was blunt without being mean. Lilly liked that about her. “I wasn’t alone. Arsenic was on guard.”

“Are you sure you’re safe with him?” Lilly didn’t miss the fear in Sparrow’s voice. After her ordeal Sparrow had trouble trusting men. Lilly couldn’t blame her. She had endured abuse at Nick’s hands but she’d ended any control he had over her when she killed him. Now, she controlled her own destiny.

Lilly flashed back to the feel of Arsenic’s thickly muscled body pinning her to the wall. She still tingled from the close contact. A grin curled her lip when she remembered grabbing his junk. It hadn’t felt junky at all. He had remained calm even amused throughout the encounter. “Yeah. I’m sure.”

“This place seems okay. They are bikers but…”

“Yeah. The officers at least seem legit. I don’t think they’d tolerate anyone abusing women.” Eden and Amelia had total faith in the club and she trusted them.

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Endless Paradise

The illness had started ten years ago, like most illnesses which had plagued human society it had had a proper name, but it had simply become known as the “feminine illness.” It had become known as the feminine illness because the surprised and unknown infection developed in the majority of grown women. It first attacked the woman’s reproductive system and then settled into other parts of the body before slowly killing them. This caused the female population to dwindle.

When the news spread of the feminine illness, mass hysteria began, arguments over cures, endless funerals, and literal fights to the death over the few precious females left. Two years later, scientists had found a cure for the mysterious feminine illness, but things had changed forever. There were now roughly two females for every ten males and women were seen as rare and practically worth gold. With the loss of more than half of the female population, the majority of children were raised in government houses if they didn’t have a living relative or parents. Women in these government houses were married off to rich clientele the second they turned eighteen and these women knew marriage was a better option than the alternative. Female children who still resided with their families often met the same fate and were married off when they turned eighteen years old, to partners who could cherish and provide for them.

The rights women had once possessed had been stripped, it seemed, almost overnight. Women were under the strict care of their closest male relative; they couldn’t own property or their children, and having a career was out of the question. Their only focus was to be loyal wives and to produce children in order to return the population to normal. Even though a cure had been discovered, in some parts of the country, mass hysteria remained. Men who feared they would never find a mate would resort to stealing any available female they could find. It was essentially a dangerous world for women who now, more than ever, relied on strong male protection.

Thirty-two-year-old Grayson Baker seemed almost oblivious to what was happening in the outside world. To him, he only had one world, his small farm on the outskirts of a small town in Colorado. He owned a modest property which he couldn’t really call a farm since he only had a couple of goats and chickens, but the animals kept him company at least.

Grayson was a tall man, towering over the majority of men at six foot four. He had a deep tan from working in the sun, wavy black hair, and dark blue eyes. Grayson had been working as the local mechanic since he had been eighteen and had taken over his late father’s business. People said he could fix “anything”, but he was too modest to agree, and he would protest that he was just good with his hands.

Grayson had been working on fixing the engine of a police car when he saw a familiar blue car pull into the driveway. He immediately recognized the car belonging to his old childhood friend, Mason Peterson. Mason and Grayson had been friends since childhood, but while Grayson had decided to take over the family business, Mason had decided to go a different route. Mason worked for one of the government homes; he was specifically in charge of the marriage department. He paired up young women with their new partners, who had often paid a large amount of money for them.

He thought it was weird that Mason was visiting him in the middle of the week before lunch. Mason smiled at him and waved as Grayson pulled back from the engine he was fixing. He was covered in oil and dirt, but after working as a mechanic for years, it hardly fazed him. Grayson nodded at Mason as he wiped his hands with a nearby towel. “Hey, Mace, did we have plans for today?”

“No,” Mason responded slowly. “I actually came to tell you something. I found you a wife.”

Mason laughed awkwardly, but Grayson was not laughing. Instead, he raised an eyebrow, not amused at all. Knowing Mason, he was about to drag him into something he did not want to be involved in.

“Funny,” Grayson said dryly as he walked back to his cabin with Mason quickly following behind. “I don’t remember asking you to find me a bride, let alone buying one. If this is your idea of a joke, then it’s a bad one, Mason.”

“It’s not a joke,” Mason admitted as both men entered through the door which led to the kitchen. Grayson opened the fridge and grabbed two beers. He handed one to Mason and took a sip, indicating he was listening. “We have a girl who is perfect for you. She’s a cutie pie, she’s intelligent, she is of breeding age—”

“What’s wrong with her?” Grayson blurted out.

“There is nothing wrong with her. Do you always have to be so pessimistic?”

“I am being realistic.” Grayson laughed as he finished his beer. “Do you seriously expect me to believe that you have this gorgeous girl who could bring you thousands of dollars in profits and I was your first choice? I can’t even afford to make an appointment at one of your government houses. I’ll ask again, what’s wrong with her?”

Mason rolled his eyes as he threw his beer bottle in the trash. “Fine, Lorelai has a bit of a temper which can sometimes make her hard to handle. She just needs a little discipline and love. I promise you she can be very sweet. I can get you a really good price for her because you’re my friend. Please tell me you’ll do it. Lorelai being on her third husband doesn’t exactly attract eligible prospects—”

“Excuse me, her third husband?” Grayson interrupted. “Are you offering me a black widow?”

“Her first husband was an older gentleman and he died of a heart attack two weeks after they married.” Mason looked defensive. “And her second husband, Kieran Olson, was an abusive asshole who mistreated her. Kieran returned Lorelai to us when she nearly bit off his manhood when he try to force himself on her. The state wants me to send her to the streets. They have a pretty strict one strike policy, but you know what will happen to her if we let her out on the streets with no husband or guardian.”

Grayson nodded. If a female were seen by herself, she would either be a kidnapped bride, sold to a brothel, or worse. He shuddered and even though he had never met the girl, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She had limited options; either she had to fend for herself in the streets, or she had to marry for a third time.

“Do you want to be a bachelor for the rest of your life?” Mason pounced when he saw his hesitation. “Lorelai is a pretty girl. She will make a lovely wife and she will give you plenty of children. She will make living in the middle of nowhere bearable.”

Grayson rolled his eyes at his exaggeration. “It’s not the middle of nowhere, the town is twenty minutes away. You’re right about one thing, I do want children and having a wife might not be the worst thing in the world.” The words slipped out of his mouth before he could help himself. “All right, I accept your offer. Bring me my wife and I’ll give her the discipline she needs.”

***

Lorelai Johnson Olson, apparently now Lorelai Baker, was looking out the window as Mason drove the car to what felt like the deep country. She had never lived in the country before, only in government houses. She had only been ten when her mother had died from the feminine illness. Mason assured her she was only twenty minutes away from town, but who really knew. Mason had also told her Kieran Olson would make a fine second husband, and here she was, badly bruised after being married and divorced in under two years.

Lorelai ran her fingers down the side of her knee where a purple bruise was slowly healing on her olive skin. The problem of living in the country was it would be so much harder to escape what felt to her like indentured servitude. What if this Grayson tried to hurt her as well? The only reason Kieran hadn’t managed to kill her was because he had started screaming like a maniac when she had bitten his cock.

She wrinkled her nose, remembering the bitter taste of his cock in her mouth. When Mason stopped the car, she looked up and saw a cabin with a porch. There were a couple of farm animals roaming around and many trees and bushes. It was a bit sad looking and desperately needed a woman’s touch, but it was much better than Kieran’s cold house.

Her green eyes landed on a very tall man with wavy dark hair who was dressed in jeans, boots, and a tucked in light blue button-down shirt. Her pussy throbbed when she saw him as she held her breath. She couldn’t deny that he was attractive. He had a curious look on his face as Mason opened the door for her. She had only been wearing a thin nightgown when she had left Kieran’s home and Mason had given her a blanket to wrap around her shoulders on the car ride.

They both had black hair, she noticed as she stood next to the car, the only difference was that her black hair reached her butt. Mason pushed her gently forward. “Lorelai, this is Grayson Baker, your new husband. Grayson, this is Lorelai, your new wife.”

Unless you were wealthy and liked to show off, people hardly had weddings anymore. Usually, the appropriate signatures and money were collected and sent to the state which Mason had already done for Grayson.

“Hi,” Grayson greeted her, his blue eyes never leaving her even though Lorelai was avoiding his glance. “Welcome, Lorelai.”

“Lorelai,” Mason scolded as he placed his hands on her shoulders and practically forced her to stare at her new husband. “Don’t be a brat and say hello.”

Lorelai hesitated as she saw Grayson offer his hand towards her in an attempt to shake it. Without thinking twice, she slapped his hand out of the way and ran back to the car. Mason was too fast for her, and within seconds, he wrapped his arms around her slim waist and placed her over his thick knee. She hissed at him when she felt him pulling up her nightgown, showing her new husband her bare bottom.

Mason slapped his hand harshly on her upturned rear. Lorelai yelped as his hand landed in the middle of her cheeks. They wobbled as the slaps continued to rain down, turning them pink. She fussed over his knee, trying to get away from him, but he had a tight grip on her waist. Mason’s slaps fell hard and fast, determined to turn every part of her bottom pink. When he started spanking her lower thighs in quick succession, she let out a low whine as she inadvertently spread her legs, giving Grayson and Mason a good look at her pussy.

“I’m sorry,” Mason said sheepishly as he helped her up and pulled down her nightgown. Lorelai hissed as the cloth touched her sore flesh. She glared at Mason, but she refused to cry. There was no way she was going to embarrass herself even more. “She’s just a little jumpy. Behave for Grayson, Lorelai, or I’ll take off my belt and really make you sorry.”

Lorelai pouted at him. This was not the first time she had been spanked, but she hated the belt with a passion. The idea of being spanked again in front of her new husband irritated her. All of her bravado would disappear if he saw her getting spanked and crying like a baby.

Mason seemed to feel a bit sorry for her because he quickly petted her cheek. “I’m leaving, Lorelai. Be a good girl, okay? You’re running out of chances.” He looked back at Grayson. “Call me if she’s too much trouble.”

“Don’t worry.” Grayson chuckled. “I am more than capable of handling this form of trouble.”

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Out of Bounds

Another one. Ava stared at the note she had received, re-reading the lines, written in red, gothic script. This time a shiver went down her spine. She’d certainly had her share of weird fan messages via Twitter and Instagram over the years, but the content of this message was a little darker, more personal. But the reason Ava felt more than a smidgeon uneasy, or even a bit freaked out if she was honest, was the fact that these notes were being hand delivered. Someone was leaving them in her office for her to find after her weekly act, which meant that someone had access to the restricted area of the nightclub.

“Who would have the sheer balls to do this to me?” Ava muttered. It was grief she didn’t need at the moment, what with managing her club and investing in a luxury resort. She didn’t want to be wasting her time playing mind games with someone. She tapped a finger on the note, while she glanced around her office to check if anything had been moved. “Nope. Nothing. Yet something isn’t right about this.” She huffed out a breath, fingers drumming on her desk. The single, weird messages, sent anonymously from a social media account she could deal with because they didn’t mean anything. The senders of such messages did it spontaneously after her Friday night act. They hid behind their keyboards, never to bother Ava again.

She glared at the note. “Besides, these are clearly from the same person, who is invading my personal space to deliver them.” And suddenly it didn’t feel like someone was messing about. The author of her notes meant what they said. “I’ve got myself a fucking stalker.”

Ava let that fact sink in for a moment, then clenched her fists. What she needed to do, was to catch the culprit. Then the sicko was going to have his balls clamped in a vise while she taught him it was really not okay to mess with her. Whoever it was, he had picked on the wrong woman. In fact, he had picked on the wrong damn family because Ava had one hell of a tough brother, whom she could use if needed. So before she considered the consequences of her actions, she picked up her cell and rang her brother.

“Josh?”

“Hi, Ava. How’s it going? How’s the club?”

Ava’s hand gripped her cell tighter, as she focused on the offending note in front of her. “I’ve got a problem.”

Her brother laughed. “I stopped interfering in your love life a while ago, li’l sis. After I taught you how to fight.”

Ava’s hand relaxed as fond memories of her big, kick ass, special forces brother teaching her how to fight came to the fore. He’d certainly been thorough. But her smile slipped when she remembered why she’d called in the first place. “My love life isn’t the problem here, Josh.” Especially when it was practically non-existent at the moment. A vibrator was indeed a girl’s best friend. Not that her brother needed to hear that. “I might well need those self defense lessons of yours.”

“What was that, Ava? You broke up on me there.”

Frustrated, Ava stood up to pace her office. “I said. I might need your self defense lessons after all. I think I have a stalker.”

“You think, or you do?”

Ava huffed out an angry breath. “I do. I’m positive, Josh. Some fucker has sneaked a note into my office twice now. It’s written in some red, gothic script, like it’s supposed to be blood or something overly dramatic like that. I didn’t think too much of the first one, but this one I received tonight was a bit darker in content. I have to admit it spooked me, but I’ve gotten over that. Now, I’m fucking livid.”

“When did you receive the first note?”

Ava stopped pacing. “A week ago. I do this act once a week. After I had finished my act, I returned to my office to change. The note was here on my desk. Same as it was tonight. Whoever it is, has access to my office and knows my routine. They know I only do the act on Fridays.”

“Your Lady Godiva act?”

Ava immediately felt her cheeks flame, even though her brother couldn’t see her. “How the hell did you know about that? I’ve never told you.”

A chuckle came down the line. “I’ve heard about it, that’s all. Come on, remember who I am. I’m your big, protective brother, who checks you’re all right every now and then by asking friends in the area.” Then his light tone changed. “Don’t worry. I’m proud of you, Ava. I’m proud of everything you’ve achieved with your club. Legends has really become something.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“Now then. What do the notes say?”

Ava squirmed. Josh may not actually be in the room with her, but it didn’t make it any less excruciating.

“Come on,” Josh said after a long pause. “You can tell me, sis. You need to tell me.”

She sighed. “Well. The first one only told me how gorgeous I was, how alluring. Blah blah. The person merely wished that we could be together. I dismissed it. I get that all the time, which I know sounds incredibly big headed of me. However, I do have a large following on social media. I get lots of messages online, as well as people shouting out things to me during the act in my club. It’s all in the heat of the moment. They don’t mean it. Therefore, I didn’t think anything of this guy’s first note.”

“A guy?”

“Well, yeah.” Ava frowned at her brother’s question. “I assumed my stalker was male.”

“Don’t assume anything. Nutjobs can be male or female.”

“I suppose,” she began. Damn. That made things more difficult if they had to consider both sexes.

Josh’s voice broke into her thoughts. “Did you keep the note?”

Shit. “No. As I say, I thought nothing of it. I get similar messages all the time online, but they are one offs. Those simply get deleted, whereas the note got put in the trash.”

Half expecting her brother to be cross about it, Ava was relieved when he simply said, “I understand. I had to ask, that’s all, as it’s evidence. Make sure you handle this second one as little as possible. Pick it up with some tweezers, as well as put it into a sealed plastic bag. My advice would be to keep it in your safe.”

Ava’s throat tightened. “I don’t want to involve the police unless absolutely necessary, Josh. I want to handle this quietly.”

“I appreciate how this could ruin you if word spread, so I’m with you. We’ll only involve the police if it gets out of hand.”

Ava bit her lip. Her brother had no idea. She hadn’t been entirely honest with him over the years. He didn’t know about her quarter share in the luxury resort. She could lose everything she’d worked so hard for.

“What did the second note say?”

Oh god. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but as you know about my act now, it’s not so bad.” Ava paused, then huffed out a breath. “The creep says—I refuse to share you with everyone. Soon you will be mine alone. You will ride naked for me whenever I desire it. My own Lady Godiva.”

“Fucking hell!”

“Exactly. Now can you see why I want this prick found.”

“Leave it with me, Ava. I’ll send someone.”

What! “No, I didn’t call you because I want a damn babysitter.”

“Too late. You’re getting one.”

Ava could have kicked herself. She shouldn’t have vented to her brother like this. Josh was still going through intense physiotherapy after his injuries on his last mission. He didn’t need her problem to deal with. But, of course, in typical big brother fashion, he was willing to assist in any way he could.

“Josh?”

“Yeah?”

“Give me a week, okay? I’ll take precautions this end.”

Silence met her request for a few agonising seconds. Then her brother’s gruff voice was back in her ear. “I’ll let you have your week, Ava. But you call me immediately if you get any more damn messages, or god forbid something happens. Okay?”

“Yes, of course. Thanks, Josh. You take care. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Ava briefly closed her eyes. That had been close. Her big damn mouth had nearly spoilt her resolving this with as little drama as possible. But at least her brother had given her some time. No babysitter in the form of some burly, ex-forces mate of his just yet. Ava was grateful for the reprieve. She didn’t want any unnecessary attention on her club. She would handle this quickly and quietly on her own. Ava would also ignore the second part of the letter—the part she’d failed to mention to Josh. Because nobody told Ava Young what she could or couldn’t do. Lady Godiva would still ride next Friday, despite the threat not to.

* * *

With a grin, Kace finished his call. Life was good at the moment. That had been another client praising the service Kace had provided him with. Satisfied clients usually meant the all-important word of mouth recommendation, which in turn meant he’d have to employ more people for the expanding company. Private protection was popular at the moment.

“First, though, I need that well-earned break,” he muttered, rolling his neck to ease the crick in it. How many weeks had he worked ridiculous hours to get this business off the ground, build a reputation and recruit an excellent team around him? Too many without a break, that was for sure. He stopped rolling his neck. “Fuck. It’s been a whole year.” A year with no weekends off. No wonder he was knackered. But at least Kace had achieved everything he’d wanted to. His brand was out there now. Respected.

About to pick up his cell, ready to call one of his employees to arrange cover, Kace was surprised by someone calling him. He looked down at the screen. Josh Young. His gut tightened with guilt like it did every time he saw or spoke to his best friend. Yet he pressed the button to answer because he would never ignore a call from a brother in arms. “Hi, Josh.”

“Kace, I need your special skills for something. You’re the only one I can trust with this.”

Kace mentally kissed goodbye to his leave. But it was a small price to pay to help Josh. “Anything, mate. You know that.” After all, he owed Josh his life. Three years ago, the man had pushed him to safety on their last black operations mission for the SAS, taking the brunt of the explosion, which had left his friend without his right leg in addition to severe burns on his body. The poor bastard was still going through reconstructive surgery and physiotherapy.

“Kace?”

“Yeah. I’m here.”

“Thank fuck for that. Thought I’d lost you there. Damn signal is crap around here. Listen. My sister has got herself into some sort of trouble. I need you to go to her. Find out what’s going on, as well as protect her.”

Kace frowned. He really didn’t want to get involved in someone’s love life. Yet, he did owe Josh. “Is it an abusive boyfriend? I can show him what for.” Scare the sack of shit into treating women right. Hang around for a day or so to ensure everything was all right, then he could still take his break.

A chuckle came down the phone. “Hell no. You haven’t met Ava. She’s more than capable of kicking someone’s ass if he gives her shit. I taught her all she knows.”

Kace couldn’t help being a little more intrigued. It was true; he’d never met Josh’s sister, for the two men had only known one another in the SAS. When Josh had been invalided out, Kace’s path had somehow never crossed with Ava’s at the hospital, even though Kace had visited his friend often. He knew she’d been there frequently to help her brother. Suddenly, he was curious to know more. “What’s up then, Josh?”

“Don’t know for sure, which bothers me. Ava called me. Informed me she’d been receiving some handwritten notes—stalker type stuff. It’s not like her to get shaken up by something, Kace. Worse, when I said I’d send someone, she regretted telling me. She asked me to give her a week to resolve it herself.”

Kace rubbed his brow. “I take it she can’t go to the police with this?”

“Ideally not. She owns the club, Legends, in town. She’s concerned that if word got out, it could affect business.”

Kace gave a low whistle. He’d never been to the exclusive London nightclub but he’d certainly heard of it. Membership didn’t come cheap. No wonder Ava didn’t want to upset her rich clientele. “Okay. What do you want me to do?”

“Can you discreetly look into the members, employees, contractors—anyone who has something to do with the club? Then please, can you go to her to set up personal security? She’ll kick off about it, but I want my sister safe.”

A groan nearly escaped Kace. This was all he needed. A sassy, kick ass female, who didn’t want to be protected. His worst nightmare. To top it off, the female involved was his best mate’s sister. He could feel a headache coming on. Yet, Kace knew that Josh wouldn’t have asked for help unless he was genuinely concerned about Ava. If he sensed something wrong about this, then that was good enough for Kace. A soldier trusted his instincts. It’s what kept him alive. “It sounds like there’s something she’s not telling you.” And Kace needed to know everything. Dodgy intelligence was not tolerated.

“That’s exactly what I think, mate. Why I need you to go. I think it’s worse than Ava’s letting on. Like I said, she knows some lethal moves to protect herself if need be, but this has her spooked.”

“What do the notes say?” As soon as he asked, Kace knew he was definitely going to do this. Hell, was there any doubt? The SAS was a brotherhood. They always helped one another, no matter what. Besides, this was for Josh.

There was a heavy sigh down the line. “According to my sister, the first one merely stated how gorgeous she was. That the person wished they were together.”

“Nothing wrong in that.”

“No. Hence, she dismissed it. Even threw the note into the trash.”

“Well. That’s frustrating from an evidence point of view but understandable when your sister didn’t think anything of it.”

“Yeah. Although she described it as written in a red, gothic script, kind of like blood. Personally, I would have kept it. But then I don’t get weird fan messages all the time, either.”

“Fan messages?” Now they were getting somewhere.

“Yeah. This is why I need someone I can trust going in there, Kace. I don’t need some asshole judging my sister for what she does.”

Jesus. What was she? A stripper?

“In keeping with the name of her club, she’s started doing an act once a week, with her own spin on a legend. Her members love it. As a result, she gets all kinds of tweets and messages about it. Some weird. Some not.”

Kace’s headache was getting worse. That meant a lot of people to investigate as well as eliminate from his enquiries. “Dare I ask what this act is?”

“She does a Lady Godiva.”

Fucking hell. Without meaning to, a vision of a beautiful, naked blonde riding a horse came to mind. He coughed. “Erm, does she actually ride a horse for this act?”

“Yeah, Through the club. It’s all cordoned off, though. No one can touch her or actually see anything. It’s all titillation. She teases them to drive them wild, then rewards them with free drinks for an hour.”

“Hm.” Kace could see the potential nightmare of security with such an act. Josh’s sister was going to have to postpone it while they worked on catching the stalker. There was too much opportunity for her to be hurt. But he needed to know more about the notes. “Where are the notes being left?”

“They’re hand delivered to her office. Whoever the delivery boy or girl is, they have access to private areas of the club.”

Kace huffed out a sigh of relief. “Presumably, no members have access to this area.”

“They don’t.”

Things were looking up. “What did the second note say?

“It was darker, worse than Ava let on, I think, because it made her so cross that she phoned me without meaning to. The second one said the bastard wanted her to himself, in addition to her only riding for him. His very own Lady Godiva.”

Kace’s jaw clenched. From flirty to extremely possessive in two notes, beside the blood-like ink. The stalker certainly needed catching as soon as possible. “I’ll get onto this immediately, Josh. Did she keep the second note?”

“Hopefully. I told her to pick it up with tweezers and put it in a plastic bag.”

“Good job. Now. Is there anything else about this you want to add?”

“I think she left something out. I can’t help feeling there was more to the note. Which you’ll see once you’re there.”

“Absolutely. Don’t worry. I’ll get this bastard, Josh.”

“Thanks, Kace.”

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Love Cares Not

Prologue

 1831

She was running from someone—or something, her mind suggested—that she was more terrified of than anything she’d ever encountered in her life. It lurked in the background of the nightmare, haunting her, hunting her, taunting her with its nearness. She knew it was playing with her, as a predator plays with his prey, letting her get a ways away from him and begin to feel the slightest bit safe, only to chuckle loudly in a sound that seemed to come to her on the wind, touching her here and there as she ran but remaining—at the same time—unseen and unknown, and all the more terrifying for it. What’s more, she knew that whatever it was—whoever it was—would not be happy that she was defying him, running away from him, and she knew that it would make her pay for having done so in the most intimate and humiliating way.

A twig snapped loudly behind her, and her head automatically turned towards the sound, even as she continued to run mindlessly, headlong through the dense woods.

Or, she would have, if she had not run straight into his waiting arms instead, feeling the breath being knocked violently from her body as if she’d run into a wall.

As they closed around her, her hands fell to his thick, sinewy forearms and she could feel the hair that grew there, such that she couldn’t feel his skin, only hair. She also became startlingly aware that there was no doubt that he was very fully male.

In the dream, she knew she didn’t want to do what she did next, but, of course, she inevitably did it anyway, although she fought it every second.

Her eyes trailed very slowly—and to her great embarrassment, with nakedly obscene intent—up him, past that enormously broad, heaving chest, catching the breadth of his shoulders as she encountered the imposing column of his neck, growing more terrified by the second. But when her eyes would have reached his face, she found that they were no longer in the forest, but in a bedroom, instead, and she was lying beneath him—completely naked.

And when her eyes finally did find his face, there was nothing there but a blank blackness.

She drew in a breath to scream, but before she could get a sound out, he merely reached down and flipped her onto her stomach, lifting her loins up to greet his as he shoved his way into her, very much in the same way as a stallion mounts a mare.

And when she screamed against that fate, even after he’d taken her innocence, she could hear him chuckling from behind her as he held her still for his possession.

Chapter 1

 

“I now pronounce you man and wife.” There was a terrible, telling pause, and yet he still said, “You may kiss, well, never mind.”

The delicate young woman in the white wedding dress couldn’t suppress a soft sob while she stared dedicatedly down at her flowers, rather than lovingly up at the man who was supposed to be her equally loving groom.

No one had taken her hand when she’d walked down the aisle, no one reached out to lift her veil, and she wasn’t kissed at the end of her wedding ceremony—as pretty much every bride was—because the man standing in front of her wasn’t her groom. He was a proxy—a stand in—a man who was easily old enough to be her grandfather, who looked nearly as stricken at what was happening as she did.

He was her groom’s great-uncle—a dedicated, irascible, unapologetic recluse who was nearly as uncomfortable in a normal social situation as his nephew would have been. But as Asher rarely asked him for any kind of a favor, certainly not one that he knew his uncle would detest almost equally as much as he would, the old man couldn’t help but agree.

And he had done what was required of him. He knew that he should have done much more than that. He should have done the right thing as a representative of his nephew and the family, to have met with the girl’s parents—or parent, in this case—and then the bride herself, before the ceremony, so that this wouldn’t have been the first time they’d met, but he was such a hermit that he couldn’t convince himself to do that. As it was, his knocking knees were nearly louder than the bride’s were.

And as soon as those words—those expected, traditional, mundane words—were out of the priest’s mouth, the unexpected proxy executed a perfect about face and stalked away, without saying or doing anything further, leaving the bride suddenly alone at the altar. Seeing that she was standing there looking lost, head down, bouquet gripped forlornly at her side, the man who had been her brother’s closest friend went to her and gallantly offered her his arm, which she took with a heart-tightening look of gratitude as he guided her back down the aisle she’d just walked up.

Russel brought her all the way to the awaiting coach that should have been taking her and her new husband to the wedding feast at her mother’s house, handing her in then hesitating for the slightest second before deciding to join her there.

That was a move that was certain to set some tongues wagging, but he didn’t care.

Russel cared about Cecilia, and he didn’t really care who knew it. He felt a deep sense of obligation to take care of her as best he could, and he wished he could have prevented her from this fate, but her mother was adamant about the marriage and would not be talked out of it.

When he sat opposite her in the coach, she didn’t move a muscle, still staring downwards as she warned in such an uncharacteristic monotone that he wanted to pull her into his arms purely to comfort her, “I-I don’t think that you should be here, Lord Clarendon.”

“I know. I just can’t bear the idea of you being alone in your wedding carriage—although I guess everyone should have realized that this was not going to be a,” he was close to allowing his temper to run away with him, but then he squelched it as best he could, in consideration of her and her alone, “usual wedding.”

That was an understatement. It was supposed to be a relatively small affair, but a hundred or more people had gathered around the church, hoping for a glimpse of the man many, ironically or not, called Hephaestus—behind his back, of course.

Even before the tragedy befell him, Lord Cromwell was no one to be trifled with. Since then, he had found—and reveled in—a temper he’d only displayed rarely before, but now it was the trait he led with in all situations he encountered.

When she remained quiet and cowed—so different from how he’d always known her—Russel offered, “Do you want me to leave?” already knowing what her answer was going to be.

Cecilia nodded slowly, still not meeting his gaze.

Russel sighed heavily. “You’re sure you wouldn’t like some company?”

“No, thank you,” she replied stiffly.

Lord Clarendon rose and opened the door with a nearly imperceptible sigh, then turned back to her. “You don’t have to do this, you know. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself like this.” Russel could feel the anger he felt towards her mother returning.

“Stop saying that, Russel,” she said with daunting neutrality. “The heinous deed is done. I am sold. I am already his.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her that this would likely, in no way, be the worst of it for her, but he knew he couldn’t say that to her, either.

“Promise me that if you need anything, at any time, you’ll get a message to me. Send it through my mother—she’ll pass it on to me wherever I am.” He closed the door a bit and bent down to murmur quietly, “And please don’t hesitate to contact her, either—even if for just someone to write to. She considers you a dear friend and would love to be a source of guidance and feminine wisdom for you.” As everyone knows, your own mother is most definitely not, he thought to himself.

“Thank you, Lord Clarendon,” she said gravely.

With one last look back at the tiny, frail-looking figure in the coach, Russel reluctantly shut the carriage door and nodded to the coachmen to take off.

***

The wedding breakfast her mother threw them—now just her—at their family home, Wonder House, was also extremely well attended, but the bride was quite aware of the reason why her reception was so popular, and frankly, she was one of the people who would have loved to have seen him. Frankly, she should have been the only one to see him.

But he hadn’t bothered to show up. She wasn’t sure whether she should take that as insult, or whether it was just another reason to pity him.

Honestly, it didn’t feel like any kind of special day to her, despite the fact that she was now sporting not only the largest diamond engagement ring that she—or anyone she knew—had ever seen, but an equally gem encrusted wedding ring, too. She was just going through the motions, smiling and acquiescing to whatever her mother wanted, entirely without rancor or her usual sharp wit. That alone would have let even just a slightly attentive parent know that there was something very wrong with her child, but the duchess was rather famously self-centered, and her daughter knew that the only thing that mattered to Lady De Haven was appearances.

No, today was merely the culmination of her sad fate, the day she was forever tied to a man who everyone—even she, to her deep shame—thought of as a monster.

Her older brother, who would have become the tenth Earl of Stanley, had died suddenly, after having spent his useless life incurring enormous debts to pretty much everyone. Having been widowed before her profligate son had taken over the already ailing family finances, her mother didn’t have anywhere near the funds necessary to pay his largest creditor—who was coincidentally Cecilia’s new husband—off and was facing destitution if she even attempted to do so.

Instead, her mother had immediately accepted his quite unexpected offer of marriage to her only daughter in exchange for the forgiveness of that debt, and, now, here she was, married to an absentee, if the rumors could be believed, horrifically maimed husband.

Considering what she’d heard about his deformities, she thought she should probably consider herself lucky that he had declined to attend his own wedding. As Cecilia moved about the room, receiving the subdued congratulations of the guests, she saw the abrupt changes of expression whenever she came near anyone—from gleeful gossip to over-blown, false concern for her. And she could hear them whispering about her once she’d moved on, too, with the pitiful phrase, “poor girl” reaching her ears multiple times as she dutifully did exactly what she knew was expected of her but absolutely nothing more than that.

What a terrible difference a month made.

It no longer mattered in the least that she had just come out not long ago and became an immediate sensation, called an “original” by the Princess Alice herself. But what would have been her triumphant season in London was abruptly cancelled when George had died in that carriage accident, and although a number of highly eligible, intelligent, and good-looking lords had already offered for her, she knew that her mother wasn’t able to provide her with much of a dowry now, which resulted in the loss of those lords’ interest in an instant. The English aristocracy was always in need of funds, and those were often procured by marrying the daughters of rich, aristocratic families.

Apparently, though, Lord Westfield, Duke of Cromwell, was one of the few who had no such need. He had proven himself to be an extremely brave and cunning soldier, having been awarded the Victoria Cross for his determination to get all of his men out of a very tight spot—a goal in which he succeeded, but for which he had paid a very dear price at a relatively young age.

What exactly had happened had been blown up and enhanced and gossiped about and repeated ad nauseum by all of the wagging tongues in the nation—rich and poor, male and female—until it was entirely out of proportion, and it was absolutely impossible for any of the few who really would have liked to know—one of whom was definitely Cecilia—to discern truth from embellishment.

The only thing that was certain was that he had gone to war as a handsomely dashing, physically imposing figure with a quick wit and a ready smile, but he had returned—however triumphant—a broken, badly injured man whose countenance was said to be upsetting to women, in particular, to encounter, not to mention some men, too.

There were rumors that women who had known him prior to the battle that had so changed him had arrived at Willow Hall to help “nurse” his wounds—which, as none of them had anything even slightly resembling nursing skills, in most cases surely meant to sit in his morning room or lounge, eating his food, and spending as little actual time with the recuperating man as was possible—had run from the room with screams and tears upon first encountering him.

Apparently, that was such a frequent occurrence within the first few weeks of his recovery that Asher—Lord Westfield himself—had let it be known through his great uncle that the duke would not be receiving company until further notice, essentially.

And there had never been any further notice. The duke, as he slowly gained back his health, failed to regain any of his former handsomeness, and thus he remained withdrawn from polite society.

The problem was that society wasn’t particularly eager to allow him to do that. He was an extremely eligible bachelor, after all, and despite his… challenges, he received invitations to balls and soirees for years afterwards, and, even still, occasionally, there was a note from some peer—inevitably the mother of some poor, desperate young woman for whom her family did not want to fund a fourth season—asking him to attend something or other, all of which he firmly refused.

He wouldn’t even allow his friends to come round. Most of them had been in the Army or the Navy themselves, and yet they couldn’t hide the loathing on their faces when they saw what had become of him, so he cut them all off, quite ruthlessly, leaving his great-uncle and his staff to care for him. It had surprised and humbled him when he’d realized to what extent the people he employed about the house had gone to take care of him, the female staff members and some of the younger hall or stable boys setting up round the clock shifts to sit with him and help nurse him back to health as best they could, while following his doctor’s rather vague instructions.

They were loyal to a fault and quite protective of him, never allowing anyone access to him whom they didn’t think he would want to see—which was very few people beyond, eventually, his lawyer and his accountant.

One friend remained, entirely out of sheer determination and stubbornness.  Sir Robin Kelly, the youngest son of Lord Southwold, occasionally appeared, unannounced and unashamed, on their doorstep. Asher had ordered that he be allowed in only long enough to make arrangements to get the hell out of his house—a command that had been heard being given from the second-floor master suite.

As he’d been staying at Lark’s Song since he was a little boy, he knew where Asher’s bedroom was, and like the talented forward he had been in the football program at every school he’d attended, he dodged the butler, the housekeeper, several footmen and a gang of hall boys, practically dragging all of them into his friend’s bedroom as he burst in unannounced.

Asher had stood facing away from him in the dimly lit room, as soon as the other man had stormed the room—servants apologizing profusely the entire time they were there—until he dismissed them. Robin refused to go with them and leave him in peace, no matter how much he threatened.

He could see how clumsily the once graceful man moved as he lumbered around, trying not to be caught in any kind of light. Robin noted the distinct limp caused by whatever remained of his left leg. His left arm was in a sling, and there were bandages around a large portion of his head, but they didn’t cover him entirely by any means. And there was a bandage patch on one of his eyes, while the other stared out at him angrily.

“For the love of God, Robin, get the hell out of here!” he yelled, the younger man standing about ten feet behind him as he reached out a ruined but clenched right hand and punched the wall with it, nonetheless.

“No. I’m not going to let you dismiss me like you’ve dismissed everyone else in your life. I’m not going anywhere.”

Suddenly, Asher seemed to have a spark of his former self as he grabbed the first set of heavy, floor to ceiling curtains and ripped them open, doing the same to all three sets. Then he strode to Robin and ripped the bandages off his face and head.

“Is this what you’ve come to see? You want to see the goblin I’ve become, Robin? Well, take a good look, because it isn’t getting any better than this.”

Although the sight of him was shocking, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as his mind had made it.

Within only a few beats, Robin gave him a wry smile. “Well, you never were going to win any beauty contests even before the war, Westfield.”

That dampened Asher’s anger more than he wanted it to, really. No one joked with him anymore. Conversations with acquaintances were excruciatingly boring and depressing, with them holding up false hopes of some sort of miraculous recovery while desperately trying not to look at him.

But Robin wasn’t cringing from him, wasn’t scared of him as many women had been, and his eyes had found his unruined one and held it steadily.

“If you need money,” he continued, “you could always hire yourself out on All Hallows Eve to scare children.”

There was a stretch of silence, and Robin wondered if he’d gone too far in teasing his friend—although they considered themselves masters at taking the mickey out of each other in a manner that was just like that, and he couldn’t see that coddling him or acting any differently from his friend than he always had would do him any good.

Eventually, Asher responded with severe reluctance, “You’re a bastard, Kelly.”

“Quite possibly,” the younger man answered with a mischievous grin.

He was literally the only friend with whom he kept in contact, and he found that having Robin around was a very good thing—not that he was going to let him know that. The man’s head would swell to epic proportions if he found that out. But he let him visit whenever he could, and he always enjoyed his time with his friend, who forced him more out of his shell than he might ever have been.

Still, Asher was acutely aware of the effect his looks could have on people, and he was extremely guarded even with the few professionals he allowed to be in his presence. In those cases, he always made his appointments with them for the evening, after dinner, when he could remain in shadows. As the servants always kept their eyes politely averted from him, the only person alive—besides the various useless doctors he’d allowed to treat him at first—he remained in contact with was his uncle. He’d seen him from the moment he’d arrived at his secluded Scottish estate, and had never seemed to be particularly phased, but then, his great uncle had been a doctor on the battlefield during the Stone Age, and he kept reassuring his nephew that he’d seen much worse than him. Asher had come to take that as something of a wry compliment.

Because of the surprisingly vast medical knowledge he had accumulated from his travels all over the world —and the fact that he disagreed with nearly everything the other doctors said, even those who were well paid supposed experts in their fields, as did Asher—he had left his medical recovery largely to his grandfather’s youngest brother, Cefus Broadwell.

As a result of his uncle’s efforts, Asher had far exceeded the doctors’ dire predictions about how well he would recover and had regained almost all of his mobility, despite the unsightly burns and resulting scars that covered his body. Luckily, other than the cosmetic results, he had few problems beyond a badly wounded, twisted leg that acted up occasionally, forcing him to use a cane, especially during bad weather, as the cold and wet always caused it to play up.

Having no social life whatsoever, Asher had thrown himself into expanding what had already been a formidable financial empire, and he had come to own several casinos all over the world as a result, one of which was the entity to which the young Earl of Stanley had owed so much money.

He might not have left his home for several years and had eschewed any and all in-person social contact with most people, but he still received letters from several people he considered friends, none of whom would he allow to visit him. He was more informed about what went on in society than he might have been, but he just considered that to be good for business. Not everyone with whom he corresponded was a member of the ton. He wrote to an old professor of his at Oxford, a wonderful lady who ran a high-class house of ill repute who often had the most interesting tidbits of gossip about her high-born clients, as well as some very impressively sound business insights.

Asher also kept in touch with some of the quite ordinary men whose lives he had saved, who gave him an altogether different perspective on the news of the times, all of which not only helped him enrich himself further but hearing about the young men who had been under his command marrying and having children and making their way in the world was a definite balm to him overall.

So, while she had barely heard of him—only on her periphery when other women seemed to take great delight in describing to each other how gross and disgusting he was, when she knew they had never actually met him—he knew almost everything about her.

He knew that she was the younger of Lady de Haven’s two children, and that despite her incomparable beauty and originality, for which she’d become such an instant hit in society, some people considered her intellect and her outspokenness to be a distinct drawback. Despite that—or perhaps because of it—she’s had some absolutely absurd amount of offers within the short tenure of her brightly glowing star. He’d also known that as soon as she and her mother had been informed of her brother’s demise, they had cancelled the rest of what might well have proven to be a stellar season for her and high tailed it back to their country home, closing down every other house the family maintained, putting all of them but their country home up for sale, and streamlining even the functioning of that house in order to save funds that they would need to pay the earl’s staggering debts.

He’d been interested in her from the moment she’d made her debut, wearing a daring, bright red dress to her first ball that had immediately set her apart from the rest of the maidens there who were dressed much more mutedly, and knew that she’d never had anything but a full dance card at every single ball she attended from that point on.

Robin, who himself was in the market for a rich wife, made an excellent surrogate for him, sending him wonderfully detailed letters about every social event he attended—garden parties, wedding breakfasts, and balls, not knowing that he had inadvertently sparked a desire in Asher to find a bride of his own.

Although Robin had never formally met her—he preferred to remain incognito as he gathered information about her from others, none of whom had a bad word to say about her, which was highly unusual for someone who was being hailed by the ton. Everyone seemed to agree that she was a very pleasant person if a bit headstrong. Considering what he already knew about her and giving quite a bit of credence to Robin’s gushing epistles, Asher had even gone so far as to commission an artist friend of his to paint her for him, after impressing on him the fact that he was never to mention who it was who was paying him. He knew her mother would assume that it was one of her many suitors and wouldn’t necessarily believe their denials, even though it was certainly unusual to have a painter simply arrive on one’s doorstep, asking to paint a small portrait of one’s daughter.

Still, Lady Audra de Haven wasn’t about to say no and risk offending whoever was funding the artist. She was sure that someone would let it slip who it was, eventually.

As soon as the painting had arrived in his office and he had opened it alone, he’d known that he had to have her, while acknowledging the fact to himself that if he did that, he would be perpetrating a gross disservice to her. She deserved to have a truly extraordinary mate who would love and appreciate and adore her for who she was, rather than hoping or, more likely, expecting that she would change, who would make her scream in ecstasy but—in his own fevered imagination—also hold her to account by pulling her over his knee when he decided she had overstepped her bounds, doing her the honor of providing her strict discipline when she needed it.

Her chosen husband should be handsome, loving but firm, kind and generous, and should keep her belly full of his children. And he knew that he was anything but any of those things, except perhaps the last one. Luckily for him—and perhaps not so lucky for her—his privates were spared any kind of damage and functioned as well as they had before tragedy befell him.

It didn’t help that Uncle’s constant nattering in his ear that he needed to produce an heir before he died always echoed in the back of his mind when he thought about the beautiful de Haven girl, even though he wasn’t absolutely certain that he could, although, surprisingly, none of his equipment had suffered any kind of damage. That was one thing to be thankful for, he supposed.

The least he could have done—in his condition—was to pick someone bland and boring, who was less likely to object to his horrific visage, or a poor one whose parents were less likely to do so, and who liked the color and amount of his money.

The loss of her brother—while distinctly unfortunate for her—worked out well for him, in that, with the loss of every other offer for her, when his arrived to the widowed, penniless, dowager countess, who was likely to find herself and her daughter living on the streets any moment now, she was, understandably, desperate to prevent that from happening. Asher had a feeling that she was much more concerned that she stop that from happening to herself than her daughter—or she wouldn’t have been as eager to sell her daughter to him—but he had, deliberately, made the offer incredibly hard for her to turn down, even if she did truly love her child.

Not only would he cancel the enormous debt her son owed, but he would provide her with an extremely generous yearly income, as well as assuming the upkeep of the rest of the properties in the de Haven’s possession if she wanted to retain them—and she did—while allowing her to occupy them any time she liked—even the house on Eton Place in London.

Asher had experienced no small amount of guilt after having his rather unusual proposal written up between himself, his accountant and his lawyer one evening. Neither of the two of them had said what they had to be thinking—that he was out to ruin this very promising young woman’s life by binding her forever to the horror that was him—which had surprised him. Neither of those men had ever been in the least cowed by him, before or after his misfortune.

But perhaps they sided with his Uncle, believing that it was high time for him to procreate, and felt it wasn’t their place to try to get him to reconsider his choice of bride.

They weren’t necessarily wrong in that assumption, either, but he’d caught the sidelong looks they had been giving each other that he’d never before seen them do in his presence.

Not that he was going to confess it to them, but the fact was he had more than enough regrets for all three of them and that as soon as he sent the messenger on his way to bring the letter and documents to Lady de Haven, he had stridden from his study and out the front door with every intention of calling the lad back.

But he hadn’t. He didn’t have the guts. He wanted her, and he would have her. Asher didn’t know what that said about him—certainly nothing good. Apparently, he’d become quite a bit crueler than he used to be. Perhaps looking like a troll translated to acting like one. He hardly considered himself a gentleman anymore. Indeed, he had realized while involved in the war that he had only really worn his thin veneer of civilization when absolutely necessary and that the results of that war that affected him had changed his entire demeanor for the worse, making him even less likely to want to conform to societal niceties and standards than he was before, less willing to assume the mantle of civilization and conformity.

Since he’d gotten home, he’d wanted little else but to recover as best he could, and now that he had largely done that, his mind—and his wreck of a body—had turned to much less savory thoughts. His sex drive had always been prodigious, and he had always reveled in the female form, but he found himself reluctant to impose his ugly self on any woman, even someone hired for that express purpose.

Thus, he was frustrated in the extreme, and the self-abuse he had been indulging in nearly non-stop since he’d recovered enough to become interested in such things again wasn’t getting him anywhere. Someone was going to inherit his wealth, and he’d realized with a start one night that he wanted that person to be his legitimate, legal heir.

So he resigned himself to the idea that he would choose to subject a young, innocent, gently raised woman to his off-putting self. He didn’t think he could feel any less noble or more selfish, even as he plotted and planned to have her.

Asher had waited on tenterhooks for a response from Lady de Haven, and when it arrived nearly ten days later, his hand literally shook when he took it from Insbrook, the butler.

Sitting back down in the chair behind his desk, he looked at the envelope with such dread and anticipation that he experienced yet another wave of severe self-loathing at what he’d done. Still, he had to know what she’d said, so he slit it open with a letter opener that he wasn’t sure he wasn’t going to turn on himself, no matter what it said.

When he read that she had accepted his “kind and gracious offer”, he dropped the letter and buried his face in his hand, having trained himself to use his right hand so exclusively that he now did so by habit, so as not to show the melted looking scars on the back of his left hand.

What had he done? Should he write and tell her that he was withdrawing his offer?

Then his eyes flickered to the portrait of her that now hung above the mantle in his study, and he knew that—regardless of whether it damned him to eternal hell—he was going to marry the beautiful, vibrant Lady Cecilia de Haven.

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Lord Tristram’s Love Match

England 1174

 

From the ramparts, Judith could already see the enemy steadily approaching, and right beside the symbol of Henry’s rule, she glimpsed the azure banner which displayed a nimbly black eagle soaring with spread wings.

“My lady,” Sir Roderick said in astonishment. “The banner… It’s…”

Sir Roderick was in charge of the castle’s defence, and there was now a look of deep worry in his eyes.

“I know what the banner is,” Judith cut him off with an impatient wave of her hand. “How long can we last if there’s a siege?”

“We’re well prepared, my lady, and it could be perchance months. Redmore has strong defences and it is one of the few stone keeps in England. But–”

Sir Roderick paused, but Judith already knew what he meant to say. She nodded to herself, coming to see there was no other course. She had pledged her allegiance to the cause of Queen Eleanor and of her son, Young Henry, who had rebelled against their king together with two of his younger brothers. Nevertheless now Eleanor lay vanquished, and Redmore was one of the last places King Henry’s loyal followers hadn’t taken. Eleanor’s cause was lost, so a siege would be pointless. The enemy would call for reinforcements and the castle would be eventually lost. And many lives would be wasted on both sides. Judith didn’t think it fair that her people should die for her choices. They must not perish pointlessly just because their lady had chosen the side which had been vanquished in this war. Henry’s victory had been arduous, because Eleanor and her sons had gathered many followers. Still, it was Henry who was victorious and not Eleanor’s party.

“They will be upon us in less than an hour,” Sir Roderick said, now casting expectant eyes upon his lady.

“You shall raise a white flag and open the gates,” Judith answered in a steady voice.

She pulled her shoulders back, knowing too well there was no other course left. She prayed the enemy would prove merciful. Her fervent hope was that mercy would be given to her people. As for herself, she expected no mercy.

Sir Roderick looked relieved and nodded in acknowledgment of his lady’s decision.

“I shall be there to meet them at the gates,” Judith went on. “But I will need to speak to my lady mother. She does not know what I’ve resolved, and she needs to be told.”

Sir Roderick bowed his head.

“Aye, my lady.”

It was with a heavy heart that Judith made her way to the solar which her mother had turned into her chambers. Lady Fenice met her with an anguished look in her fine blue eyes.

“They’re at our gates already? Our enemies?” she inquired.

Judith nodded.

“It’s just as well then,” her mother said, attempting to plaster a brave smile upon her face. “We shall withstand them. Redmore is strong and it will bear the siege. We’ve months and months ahead. And even if the castle’s taken, we shall be able to take the secret escape tunnel your father built.”

Judith knew the next words she would utter would be hard upon her mother. Yet her mother needed to be told the truth at once.

“I have decided to surrender,” she said loud and clear.

“Surrender? Why? The castle stands strong.”

“Yet our cause is lost. And the siege will end only with our defeat. They will send for more men. Redmore is one of the last castles King Henry hasn’t taken. No one will aid us. Eleanor and her sons are vanquished. So there’s no choice but to surrender.”

“Are you so cowardly? It will be noble to fight to the end!” Lady Fenice countered with a regal tilt of her head.

“Noble, aye! Yet I cannot ask my people to sacrifice their lives over a noble cause. I cannot look them in the eye and tell them it’s nobler to die for the sake of my honour,” Judith countered in determined tones. “Father would not have wanted this, and you know it. He cared for his own, and, as his heir, I cannot do otherwise.”

“They’re only commoners,” Lady Fenice muttered with a sigh.

Judith stared at her amazed, as she’d often been in these past months, she’d not been able to see before that her mother did not, in truth, care for the people put under their care. Yet it was so, and Judith tried to tell herself it was mainly the melancholy which had become lodged into her mother’s soul which was causing this. Her mother had always been gentle and kind, and only of late had she started speaking so disparagingly of others.

“Mother, for all our sakes there is no choice but to surrender. We’ll put ourselves at the mercy of our enemies, hoping they will prove gracious in their victory and spare our people.”

Lady Fenice started to shake her head, but Judith halted her with a gesture.

“My mind is set and it is my decision to make, not yours.”

At last, her mother bowed her head, clutching her heart.

“Perchance it is as you say. I am too frail of body. I cannot aid you in this.”

“Take heart! No lord who holds his honour dear would dare harm a lady such as yourself!” Judith said, clasping her mother’s hand.

Lady Fenice nodded with a tremulous smile on her beautiful face.

“Whose banner is the enemy under?” she asked at last, right before Judith could let herself out of the chamber.

Judith breathed in deep as she turned to face her mother yet again.

“De Brunne,” she answered in a voice which only strived to seem steady.

“Ah,” Lady Fenice muttered, and there was a long silence before she spoke again. “Daughter, I fear De Brunne will show you no mercy.”

Judith summoned all the strength she could muster, telling herself not to dwell upon the past any longer.

“Yet he may show you mercy. And he will show my people mercy. It’s all I ask,” she said, and then hurried out of her mother’s chamber, knowing time was growing short and that she needed to be at the gates when the enemy reached them.

It was not long before Redmore’s gates were tossed open, to let in the conquering army of men who carried the azure banner with the eagle displayed. Judith stood there straight as an arrow, trying to still her thumping heart, as those who led the army rode in. There were two lord knights on horseback in their hauberks and helmets, accompanied by a man of the Church and the banner men. The lords dismounted, and they were both tall and broad of shoulders, yet one was leaner and slighter of form than the other. He walked to where she was with feline grace, as if the hauberk and helmet did not weigh heavy upon him. He spoke to her in a voice which sounded melodious, even in spite of its harsh tone. She knew that voice. She had no need of seeing the knight’s face to know who he was. He was Tristram de Brunne, and both his face and voice had long haunted her dreams.

“It seems surrendering the castle is the only wise thing you ever did, wife,” the voice uttered.

Wife. Judith straightened her spine even further, aware of the knights and soldiers now surrounding her and casting her looks of grim displeasure.

Sire, if you recall, we are no longer wed,” she said, striving to keep her dignity.

The lord knight didn’t answer, but took the time to remove his helmet. He was, Judith noted when she looked better upon him, every bit as beautiful as she recalled him to be, even if his face was grimy with road dust and weary.

“You do not recall?” he flung at her in a bitter voice. “The Church did not agree to the annulment.”

Judith stared at him, stunned. She had not known. Surely – the letter which had reached her more than one year ago had plainly stated that the Church had agreed on the annulment for which she’d petitioned. She’d read it herself. Many times. Then how had this come to be?

“Nay,” she uttered shaking her head, but by the way Tristram was now looking upon her, it seemed he didn’t believe she had not known of this.

The tall, wispy man of the Church came to stand by Tristram’s side. He was not much older than Tristram, yet he wore a stern, disapproving expression upon his face, which nearly matched Lord de Brunne’s hardened countenance. He spoke disdainfully to Judith, “The Church’s word is law. You are still Lord Tristram’s wife, my lady, and you’re to receive heavy chastisement for the sins against your lord husband!”

Tristram halted the priest with a gesture.

“Cousin, we have decided it is upon me, and not upon the Church, to chastise my wife.”

Wife. So she was still married to Tristram, although she’d been certain the annulment had been granted. But Judith was too distraught to care about what they were talking. It did not truly matter if she was still De Brunne’s wife. She had already expected her fate would be dire, yet she had surrendered the castle so her people would be safe.

“The men and the women here, they surrendered freely. And they are not to be harmed!” she uttered, fighting hard to keep her voice from trembling.

“No one will harm them,” Tristram replied tersely, beckoning his soldiers.

The way things unfolded then took place in a daze, as Judith watched the men who’d prepared to besiege her home make themselves masters of it. Yet, true to Lord Tristram’s word, his soldiers behaved peacefully, as Sir Roderick and her own people met them with no opposition. Judith watched upon all this with relief, not caring what her own fate would be, and hoping her mother was still safely in the chambers where she’d closeted herself.

“Where is the lady Fenice?” Tristram asked, as if in echo of her thoughts, after his squires had helped him out of his hauberk.

“Please, do not harm my mother!” Judith pleaded, casting anguished glances at the grim priest and at the other man, a tall, broad-shouldered lord with brown hair about Tristram’s own age.

The priest gave her a look of sheer disdain, and wanted to speak, but Tristram silenced him.

“She’s ailing,” Judith added, knowing she was not stating the full truth, however clinging to the hope her mother would escape the besiegers’ wrath.

The priest scoffed, yet the other lord, whom Tristram had earlier addressed as FitzRolf, said with a gracious bow of his head. “No honourable knight would harm an ailing woman. Besides, my lady, it is only you who has betrayed your allegiance to your husband. Lady Fenice is guilty only of standing against King Henry. And Henry has decided to show himself magnanimous to his foes, even if they erred against him. It is known to him that your mother is already ailing, so the lady shall be forgiven for her deeds.”

Judith nodded in sheer relief. Her mother and her people were then safe. As for her own fate… She looked upon Tristram’s hard, handsome face, and at once knew he would not be inclined to show her any mercy.

They were now in the inner bailey, and many eyes were upon them, when the priest spoke in a thundering voice for everyone to hear, “You’ve disobeyed your wedding vows! You have betrayed your husband!”

Tristram swiftly cut off the rest of the words the priest had meant to say, “‘Tis best I deal with it. Here and now,” he uttered grimly.

Judith had no time to understand what he meant by it. With widened eyes, she watched him beckon a squire and hand him the sword he’d refastened earlier on his hip after he’d shed his hauberk. With widened eyes still, she watched him as he calmly unbuckled his sword belt to the approving exclamations of his men. It took a while to understand why the men had begun to clamour in approval. She was still stunned when she felt Tristram’s strong hand grab her by the arm. And then she shouted in more outrage than pain when Tristram’s sword belt landed upon her bottom with a loud crack, although the outrage soon melted, overshadowed by the unexpected sting of the belt which began to fall upon her bottom again, and then again. And again. Judith tried to run away from the sheer sting of the belt, but her captor had a strong hold of her arm, as he was dragging her towards one of the wooden benches in the inner bailey. The belt kept landing with unfailing precision upon her behind and thighs, which soon began to burn as if stung by angry bees.

“Wait! I–” Judith tried to speak, but her punisher didn’t heed any of her words.

The doubled sword belt he held in his hand was still busy sizzling her behind, and when they reached the bench, Judith was already feeling scalding tears of pain falling upon her cheeks. She’d never been given to easy tears, yet she couldn’t help but succumb to them. Tristram forcefully dragged her across his lap, after seating himself on the bench, and Judith gritted her teeth to prevent herself from starting to sob. She tried to brace herself against the infernal sting of the accursed belt which she was certain would now land even more harshly upon her, and she vowed to herself she would be valiant until it was all over. However she’d not expected the sheer humiliation which followed. Her captor hoisted her skirts to expose her bare bottom to the approving cheers of the soldiers who were rejoicing in the punishment.

“Wait!” Judith found herself wailing, as she blushed in sheer mortification at the thought that not only Tristram’s men, but her own people could now see her bare bottom and thighs which the belt must have already striped with angry red.

Soon she forgot to even feel humiliated as the doubled belt landed across her bare behind with a mightily loud crack. It hurt ten thousand times more to feel the belt upon her bare skin, and Judith no longer cared to hold back her tears. She cried. And then, when the belt cruelly caught the sensitive part of her sit spots, again and again, she simply started sobbing. As the accursed belt did its work, her whole bottom and upper thighs began to feel as if a blazing fire was burning there.

She was now weeping so hard, she only belatedly understood the demon who’d delivered her punishment had stopped at last, resting a battle-calloused hand on her scorched behind. Strangely, she felt a fire not only inside her bottom, but an unbearable heat inside her sex when he deigned to speak, in a hard, dispassionate voice, “Do you think you’ve learnt your lesson, wife?”

When she didn’t swiftly answer, the accursed belt landed across the spot where her bottom met her thighs, and she could do nothing but sob, “Aye, husband!”

Blissfully, the demon seemed satisfied with her answer, but Judith’s knees felt far too weak as he let her off his lap, after he’d straightened her skirts. He had to stand up and help support her, as she painfully tried to keep her balance. She’d never been spanked in her life, but now she understood why some of her childhood friends had feared their parents’ punishment so much. The sting in her bottom was simply infernal, and she had to bite her lip hard, nearly tasting blood, in order to prevent herself from hopping from one foot to another. Instead, she just shifted her weight, trying to alleviate the sheer sting she now felt. The belting had mercifully stopped, yet she could still feel the fierce fire of it across her skin.

The jeers and laughter from Tristram’s men stung nearly as much as her bottom, and through the haze of her tears, she could now perceive that even some of her own people had started smirking somewhat, callously finding amusement in her misery.

“‘Tis done,” Tristram tossed out, letting go of her arm, as it was obvious she could at last stand up by herself.

“Mild punishment,” the priest scoffed, and Judith nearly shook her head in incredulity.

Mild? It didn’t feel at all like mild punishment to her. In truth, she’d never felt as wretched in her life. Uncaring her gesture was unladylike, she simply wiped her teary face with the sleeve of her gown. She glowered at the demon who’d punished her, who, she noted, looked, as usual, nothing like a demon, but rather like an angel, with hair the colour of dark honey and long-lashed, brooding eyes. She felt disgusted with herself for noting his beauty at this very time. Her mother had been right then. Tristram de Brunne was indeed a fiend in spite of his angelic appearance.

“The punishment will suffice,” Tristram flung grimly in his cousin’s direction.

The priest glared and looked displeased, while the other knight gave a grave nod.

“It was a fair punishment,” FitzRolf said.

Judith had a hard time holding her tongue, and she opened her mouth to protest, but a pointed look from Tristram made her clamp it shut. He was still holding the doubled belt in one hand, and she had no doubt he would make renewed use of it if she didn’t hold her peace.

“Aye,” Tristram tossed out at FitzRolf with a grim nod of his own. “Now that it’s done and over with, we’ll rest and break our fast.”

He cast a telling glance in her direction, and she stared at him.

“Our men are hungry and weary,” Tristram went on in that hard voice he employed of late. “You’re still the lady of this house, aren’t you?” he added pointedly.

She widened her eyes at him, barely able to comprehend. She’d already surrendered her home to him, which meant she now no longer held any status here. Unless he meant to keep her on as his wife. But this seemed incomprehensible to her. She’d spurned him and had sought an annulment of their marriage. And she’d chosen Eleanor’s cause over Henry’s. Surely, she could no longer be Tristram’s wife or the lady of this house. She was now just a vanquished foe he meant to swiftly remove. Yet Tristram’s dark eyes bored into her, making her focus on his words.

“Give orders, wife, and ready things for our rest and repast,” Tristram called out sharply.

Judith breathed in deeply and decided to gather her thoughts later. It was now better to hurry to do her punisher’s bidding. Her tarrying or nursing her sore bottom would be to no avail. She was soon to learn what fate he had in store for her anyway, and at this time it seemed better to behave sensibly. Her pointless defiance would not help her people or her mother or, for that matter, herself. Striving hard to regain her composure and not to rub her blazing bottom, Judith proceeded to do her duty as the lady of the house, going to instruct the servants on what needed to be readied.

It was good to dwell upon menial chores, rather than on the sting in her behind and on the humiliation Tristram had bestowed upon her. Dame Berthe, who’d been responsible for most of the household duties, had passed away this winter due to a fever, and now these duties fell mainly upon Judith, since her mother’s health and disposition were far too frail. In the past years, Judith had sought to learn these duties as well as she’d been able to, so now they came naturally to her. She now conferred with her people regarding the lodging and feeding of the men who’d come upon them. To Judith’s relief, none of her people chose to ask how she fared after the punishment she’d received, and she felt grateful for it, finding it easier to forgive those who’d seemed to find a measure of entertainment in her spanking.

It was perhaps an hour later that things were ready for a meal, with benches and tables set in the Hall to accommodate each and every new man. Judith was loath to share the meal at the lord’s table which she’d readied for Tristram and his peers, yet she had no choice but to comply when her husband beckoned her by his side, making it all too plain he was still her lord.

“Sit, wife,” he bid, not even deigning to look at her.

Judith tried to sit down, but jolted upright due to the fierce sting in her behind. It seemed Sir Tristram’s belt had done an even more thorough job than she’d thought.

“I’d rather stand, my lord,” she said with a heartfelt glower.

The laughter which reverberated around her made her blush crimson, as Tristram’s men began to make merry over the chastisement the lady of the house had received. Even the dour priest gave a malicious grin, but Tristram didn’t laugh or smile.

“Was that defiance I saw in your eyes, wife?” Tristram asked, his voice was steely.

Judith straightened her shoulders.

“What do you wish me to say?” she countered, feeling truly weary of what had gone on today.

“She’s still defiant,” the priest cut in, with a look of sheer disdain. “‘Tis obvious you should cast her away and send her to a convent for her treachery. It is the only course left.”

Judith simply shuddered at the words, imagining harsh scissors cutting away her long hair, which she’d always thought her one glory. She imagined grey walls, stifling silence, and joyless prayer. Was this the fate Tristram had in store for her? She stared at him with undisguised anger in her eyes. Tristram didn’t miss her look.

“Perchance you wish me to teach you another lesson here and now, wife,” he said as their gazes locked.

She now openly glared at him, no longer caring what would happen to her. It was the other knight’s voice, the one called FitzRolf, which cut in pointedly, “My Lord De Brunne, perhaps you and your wife should settle this in private.”

Judith could only feel grateful this lord would spare her the humiliation of another public spanking. But her heart started thumping in anguish when Tristram took his friend’s advice and grabbed her by the arm, leading her to the stairs, and then to her bedchamber. He knew very well where her bedchamber was. After all, they’d shared it for the brief time he’d resided in her home. Judith recalled those times, and she recalled a Tristram who had behaved very differently from the grim, forceful knight he’d now proven himself to be. When they reached her chamber, he swiftly closed the door behind them, and Judith fully expected him to take her over his knee again. She cast him a defiant look, vowing to bite her tongue rather than succumb to new tears when he spanked her.

Nevertheless, Tristram made no gesture after he sat himself in a chair. Instead he talked, in that hard voice he’d used all day, “We both know you’ve betrayed me, but we are still wed, in spite of your endeavours to undo our match. The Church and the King urge me to cast you aside and force you to join a convent. Your home and lands will be mine by rights, since you’ve no kin on your father’s side they could revert to. Besides, you have surrendered them yourself. Now Redmore will be secure and will become a stronghold against Henry’s enemies.”

Judith closed her eyes in weariness. She should have expected this, since there seemed to be no other course open to her. She’d not thought herself married to Tristram any longer, but the Church’s ruling had made her into both a sinner and a traitor. Since they were still wed, she was formally guilty of standing not only against the King, but also against her husband.

“However,” Tristram added, “no law in this world forbids a husband from seeking reconciliation with an estranged wife. Since we are still wed, no man, even a king or a priest, can overrule my word in this. You could remain here, as the lady of this house and as my lady.”

Judith opened her eyes in sheer surprise.

“In spite of everything, you would be willing to keep me as your wife?” she asked with raised eyebrows.

“Aye. As my chastened, repentant wife,” Tristram said stressing words which made Judith purse her lips in sheer anger.

She had spurned him by seeking to end their marriage—that was true. Yet she’d not betrayed him in any way. She had not meant to stand against him. It was just the decision of supporting Eleanor’s cause against Henry’s which she’d made. It was a decision several other noble families had made, and that Judith understood she would make again, because she believed Eleanor’s cause to be right. Nevertheless, Eleanor’s supporters had been defeated and Henry now kept her imprisoned. Judith assumed most of Eleanor’s vanquished followers had been punished with exile or even death. So she supposed Tristram’s offer was gracious, but she couldn’t help feeling anger at the disdainful way he spat the word chastened. The fierce sting in her behind made her go over the hard spanking she’d received in front of all to see.

Tristram must have perceived the anger in her eyes, because he laughed mirthlessly. “A bleak choice for you, my lady, is it not? Joining a convent or staying on as my wife. As I recall, being my wife seemed to you a fate worse than death, did it not?”

Judith avoided looking at him, because she fully recalled how it had been between them. And she did not want to think upon what had been. She strived to look only upon the present time. Two choices then. Both bleak.

Tristram went on savagely, with a disdainful wave of his hand, “Not that you deserve it, but I’ll give you a third choice. You and your mother could escape in the deep of the night, and I’ll bid my men tell they haven’t seen you. Your mother has kin in Aquitaine. So you could head for Dover and find a ship. And you’ll be free of me, just as you’ve always wished.”

Judith thought of her mother, and of how her mother had always hated this cold land.

“What of our vows? You said we are still wed.”

Tristram shook his head with a mocking smile on his lips.

“I’ll ask for an annulment. And something tells me the Church will be inclined to grant it this time.”

The sunny picture of Aquitaine was however replaced by the image of her home in Judith’s mind. Redmore was her home. And she’d always loved it fiercely.

“So you’ll have me leave my home in the dead of the night as if I were a thief. This is my home! And you’re the thief!” she cried in a high voice, not caring he’ll make good on his threat and give her another spanking right here and now.

“It was your home, which you lost through your own treachery. You’ve just surrendered it and it is rightfully and honourably mine. And you…”

He paused with a twist of those sinfully beautiful lips.

“You are mightily lucky I’m still willing to suffer you as my wife,” he added at last, staring away from her in sheer disdain.

Judith hated the word suffer just as much as she’d hated it when he’d spoken of her as chastened. Yet she raked a hand through her hair understanding the choices before her were clear. Life entombed in a convent. Escape to a new land, leaving behind everything she’d known. Or a life of bleak servitude in her former home, on Tristram’s sufferance. All were hard choices.

“Your wife…” she found herself repeating with a shake of her head.

“Aye. Mine. To share my bed as a proper wife should. To do as I see fit, and be chastened for disobedience whenever I see fit.”

Judith had the urge of instantly rubbing her scorched bottom. The manner in which Tristram had chastened her today left no room for doubt he had sound punishments in store for her. It was hard to reconcile the picture of the hard, grim warrior who’d spanked her with his sword belt with that of the gentle, courteous knight who had slept chastely by her side in those first days of their marriage. She had not allowed him to bed her, even if he had been within his rights to do so, and he had not pressed for it. He had not forced her to lie with him. But things had changed, and she had no doubt now he’d demand what he had graciously refrained from taking. She thought of sharing her body with Tristram, and blushed fiercely, understanding, like so many times before, that this was a part of their marriage she’d have no difficulty complying with. As always, she lusted after him, even after the hard spanking he’d given her today.

“Your wife,” she repeated, dumbly, striving to hate this man for what he’d done to her.

Tristram said nothing, and Judith frantically wondered, like so many times before, if she’d ever managed to fully hide from him the scorching lust she felt whenever she glanced upon his beautiful form.

She reasoned there was no helping it. A convent was the last place where she wanted to spend her life, and Aquitaine was an uncertain choice and an arduous journey for her mother. Most of all, she could never leave her people. With her father gone, they depended upon her. She just couldn’t leave them at the mercy of the man who’d nearly set siege to her castle.

“I-I choose to stay,” she muttered almost inaudibly.

Tristram raised his dark eyebrows, which were, just like his eyes, in such strange yet pleasing contrast with his fair hair.

“I would have you state it loud and clear,” he uttered in a tone which left no doubt who held the advantage in this arrangement.

Judith suppressed a sigh. It was, she tried to tell herself, the only choice she had left.

“I shall be your wife,” she said resolutely, knowing this was a bond she would no longer be able to undo.

“There’s no return from it. And I will have no more false pledges or treachery from you,” Tristram told her in a hard voice.

In silence, they returned to the Hall, to join the table, and Judith tried to hold her head high and her back straight, knowing all eyes were upon her and recalling they’d witnessed her deep humiliation.

“Strive to look repentant!” Tristram hissed to her between his teeth right before they reached the high table.

“Whatever for?” Judith couldn’t help saying venomously. “Besides I am certain you already plan to teach me repentance later.”

“That I do,” Tristram retorted softly, taking hold of her arm and leading her to the table.

Judith began to fear he would truly spank her anew, right there at the table in front of all to see, just as callously as he’d done before, but he only made her sit by his side, on the hard wooden bench. Judith winced at the pain in her rear as she did so, but the pain seemed somewhat lesser than earlier. It was uncomfortable to sit down, yet she could bear it. So she bore it, resolving not to give Tristram or any of the men at the table the chance to see her eyes fill with tears.

Tristram’s cousin, the churchman who was called Isidore, instantly perceived she meant to defy them.

“Your wife doesn’t look chastened to me.”

“Desist. She has already been punished today,” Tristram said quietly, taking a sip of wine from the goblet which lay in front of him.

There were displeased mutters from several of the men in the Hall, who, Judith thought in rancour, were without doubt keen on witnessing her further humiliation.

“Her eyes are dry of tears, and she stares upon us haughtily,” Isidore persisted, casting Judith a glance meant to thwart her.

“I have already vowed to school her to obedience. And I shall certainly make it my purpose. Now can I eat in peace?” Tristram flung out.

Isidore frowned in return.

“Her head’s uncovered. She looks like a loose woman!”

Judith’s long black hair was fashioned in a simple long plait which she wore upon one shoulder. Of late she had become used to wearing it like this again, since she’d considered herself an unmarried woman and it had been simpler not to wear a wimple. But Isidore plainly took her uncovered hair as a sign of her sinful behaviour and of the way he thought she’d spurned her marriage vows. In churchmen’s eyes it was shameful for married women not to cover their hair.

Tristram shrugged, as if he was not greatly concerned by the priest’s words, and Judith painfully recalled him telling her once that her black hair looked wondrous and that it was a shame to cover it. She gritted her teeth, striving not to dwell upon the past, but only on the present moment. At present, Tristram was speaking in a level voice.

“Rest assured, cousin. My lady wife is bound to learn only too well what is expected of her.”

Isidore arched an eyebrow, but under Tristram’s steady gaze, he reluctantly refocused his attention on his own meal. Judith stared at the trencher in front of her, recalling she hadn’t had a morsel to eat today, but knowing she wouldn’t be able to force a single bite down her throat. Yet her husband wouldn’t let her be.

“Eat. Now. I say,” he commanded her in a terse voice which left no room to wonder what he would do if she didn’t comply with his command right now.

Was this what her life with her husband would always be from now on? This life with this new and different Tristram? But perchance Tristram had always been like this – willing to completely rule over her – and she’d not been able to see it before. Judith stifled a sigh and she willed herself to chew on a chunk of bread. However it was not for fear of Tristram’s punishment that she was forcing herself to eat, but rather because she knew she would feel ill and faint later this evening if she didn’t. She forced herself to take the morsel of meat on Tristram’s knife, which he had cut for her.

“Thank you, my lord,” she muttered in a sullen voice, making her ungracious tone at odds with her gracious words.

His dark eyes looked daggers at her.

“I’ve given you a kind reprieve, but soon I shall cure you of your defiant ways,” he said grimly, and his words rang loud, for all to hear.

Judith strived to make herself ignore the deep feeling of shame she still harboured about the way he’d chastened her.

 

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Michael

 

I’m not a mobster but I am in the Russian mob, specifically the Valesky crime family. I’ll owe them my allegiance until I die. For me, my death can’t come soon enough.

Frustration tightens my chest, making it hard to breathe. My shoulders and neck burn from anger I have to suppress. It’s either that or walk away from what I’m expected to do for the ‘family’ then have the unthinkable happen to my mother and siblings.

Unwilling to consider that shit, I enter Cyrus Davenport’s office on orders from my stepfather Dimitri Valesky.

Despite Cyrus’s assistant announcing my presence, he doesn’t acknowledge me, his reading glasses perched on the edge of his fleshy nose, his gaze on whatever he’s reading. For no other reason than to make me cool my heels. I quickly learned US Senators are legends in their own minds. The dumb fools believe they have power and the law on their sides. I know better.

It’s not graft that makes the government run. It’s who has the biggest balls. The lawmakers or those who expect favors from them, especially lobbyists like me.

In a battle between us, I’m not betting on Cyrus.

At last, he looks up and blinks slowly, his green eyes bloodshot, which betrays his five-martini lunch. “Michael. I haven’t had a chance to read the portions of the bill you’ve—”

“Reading it isn’t necessary, as you well know. Vote ‘yes’ on the thing and we’ll call it a day.”

Red patches blossom on his puffy face. He draws his eyebrows together. “I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.”

“Do whatever you want as long as you vote for this bill.” I keep my voice down, but do step closer to his desk, my youth, size, and determination meant to intimidate. “It’s expected, and you damn well know it.”

He presses back in his chair. “Other considerations have come up.”

To say I don’t care is the understatement of the century. In my world, you do what Dimitri wants. For the moment, it’s getting this bill passed for one of his legitimate businesses. With it, he receives millions in tax write-offs and even greater subsidies. This, while most Americans struggle to feed their families or face homelessness.

When I don’t comment, Cyrus sighs loudly. “When I initially agreed with what was in the bill, I didn’t realize the repercussions involved.”

“You mean a better offer for your vote you’d now like to take.”

At my observation, he squeezes his pen, his knuckles blanching. However, his faint smile betrays his thoughts. “You are aware I have the deciding vote in this matter. It’s up to me, no one else, to make it law.”

If he’s expecting praise from me, he’d better not hold his breath.

As the silence grows uncomfortable between us, he looks away. “My constituents sent me here to do a job.”

“I don’t need a lesson in civics. You’re here to grift as much as possible from the system. If that weren’t your goal, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Now just hold on.” His complexion flushes a deeper red. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I always vote my conscience.”

“Bought and paid for by CEOs, tech giants, and people like Dimitri. He was your mistake. Unlike the others, who’ll get you primaried or fail to fund your next campaign, his kind never take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Cyrus lifts his chin. “He may have to in this case. As I’ve said, I am the lone senator this law depends upon. Do you have any idea how powerful that makes me?”

“In what world?” I offer a sympathetic smile. “You’re from what could charitably be called a flyover state. One of those places where there are more livestock than people, especially those who couldn’t care less about this bill. They’ll never live in the luxury condos Dimitri intends to build. If you lose your seat in the next election, you won’t be able to buy any of those units either.”

His intercom buzzes. “Sir,” his assistant says, “you have a meeting in ten minutes.”

I put up my hand to keep him from responding. “Tell her you need to cancel.”

His eyes widen. “I can’t do that. I won’t.” He frowns. “I have important work to do with—”

“Another lobbyist whose client is funding your reelection?”

Sweat breaks out on his temples. His kind can bluster with the best until someone calls them on it. Then they’re as pliable as clay, molded into whatever their current owner wants.

His offense at what I’ve said evaporates. He lifts his hands in supplication. “Look, I’m being primaried, as you stated earlier, by those idiots on the other side.”

In other words, good people who are tired of the cesspool this country has become, which they’re forced to pay for through their taxes.

He slumps. “My donors are having trouble keeping up with the money those fools are raising.”

“Aren’t they doing it twenty dollars at a time? Doesn’t sound like much until you have millions of people pitching in because they hate what you stand for. Looks like your turn for blowback has come.”

“Which is why I’d like some assistance here.” He grips his desk. “I’m running behind in campaign funds. I need another—”

“When it comes to my stepfather’s generosity, the well, as they say, has run dry. This particular vote has been bought and paid for. It’s time for you to do as you’re told.”

A vein pulses on his temple. “Are you threatening me?” He sniffs. “What are you going to do if I vote this bill down? Break my legs? Shoot me in the head?” He barks a laugh. “That’ll be the day. You goons can’t do anything to me. I’m a fucking US senator.”

“That doesn’t make you immortal.” I finger an ornate letter opener on his desk. He stares at the pointed end that resembles a knife blade. I rap the desk to get his attention. “If push comes to shove…”

His intercom buzzes again, his assistant’s voice following. “Sir, you should get ready for the meeting.”

He eyes the opener. “Cancel it and reschedule.”

“Yes, sir.”

What do you know? Even without breaking his legs, shooting him in the head, or stabbing him, he’s doing precisely what I want. Not that I would have used physical force. I’m not a mob enforcer. I prefer strategy learned during my days at Georgetown Law. Being an attorney is far more effective than wielding fists or weapons. Not that I’m opposed to intimidation when it comes to pricks like Cyrus. In that, I guess I am the typical mobster.

“Glad you’re seeing things as you should, Senator.” I smile briefly. “But enough work talk. How are your kids? Boys, correct? They’re teenagers now, aren’t they?”

He squirms. “What’s it to you if they are?”

“Teenage boys can get into all sorts of trouble. Say underage drinking, driving under the influence, fucking with girls—or boys—they shouldn’t mess with. In the case of girls, there’s always the worry about pregnancy. Problems like that.”

He speaks through his teeth. “My sons are good kids. They don’t do shit like that. Stay away from them.”

“I’m simply pointing out reality to you. No parent knows everything his kid’s doing. Then, again, some are purposefully blind. You should take a look at this.” I pull out my smartphone. “I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.”

He won’t take the phone from me. I place it on his desk and hit the video play button. His angelic oldest son is boozing with his friends then driving, or rather swerving, away.

I gesture to the video. “Your boy nearly sideswiped a parked car. Lucky for him he didn’t. However, he hasn’t been so fortunate in the past.”

I bring up a news story on a hit-and-run, the victims are a mother and her two pre-school age children. They were walking home from Grandma’s apartment but never made it to their house.

Cyrus’s features go slack.

If I were strongarming anyone but him, I’d feel bad. He doesn’t deserve sympathy. Nor does his kid. The boy’s a budding psychopath, precisely like dear old dad. At least Cyrus knows to temper his baser impulses so he can screw the American people via his government job. Sonny boy hasn’t learned to use finesse when he’s destroying lives. The kid’s been bragging about the attorney and fixers daddy hired to make sure no one knew who caused the crime. Eventually, the boy will be a perfect candidate for the Valesky mob. Someday he may be an integral part of the gang.

Cyrus pushes the smartphone toward me. “As long as your stepfather keeps this information quiet, I’ll vote whatever way he tells me to.”

“He’ll be happy to hear it. A little advice though. You’d better get your kid psychiatric help before it’s too late.”

Cyrus’s homely face gets uglier. “He’s a good boy.”

“Good kids don’t kill mothers and babies then brag about getting away with it.”

Honest words but ultimately empty. If I were a better man, I’d tell the cops what I know about the hit-and-run, but I have Mama and my brothers to protect. I don’t want to consider what Dimitri would do to them if I were to spill anything to ruin his hold on Cyrus.

On my way out, I nod to the assistant, an older woman wearing a cross affixed to an American flag pin. She has the crazed look of a true believer who knows God called her boss to government service so he’d do righteous work for the people. If I were to bring up how Cyrus sells his votes or that he likes to sleep with guys when he’s not with the wife, she’d never believe me. Not even if I offered photographic evidence, which I also have.

It was my Plan B if threatening him with his kid’s crime didn’t work.

Once outside the capitol, my phone buzzes. The display shows my mother’s picture and name. Worried, I answer. “Mama, are you all right?”

“It’s me,” Dimitri says.

I squeeze the phone, wishing it were his throat. If Mama hadn’t married him… If she hadn’t been desperate about feeding and housing her boys when we were little…

Too late now for regrets. The bastard’s tentacles surround each of us. Unless, or until, I kill him, nothing will change. Before I speak, I make certain to mask my disgust. If I piss him off, he’ll take out his rage on my mother, his nearest and weakest target. “He’s voting your way. This time, he won’t change his mind.”

Khorosho.” Russian for good. “I knew you’d come through for me, Mikhail.”

Only because he has the proverbial gun to my head. There isn’t one thing I don’t detest about Dimitri, including his guttural voice. Despite having lived in the States since he was fifteen, he still has a thick accent.

Wanting to end this as quickly as possible, I lie. “I have another appointment. When I’m through with it, I’ll send you details of what Cyrus and I discussed.”

“That’s not why I’m calling.”

Despite the warmish spring weather, my skin goes clammy. “Is Mama all—”

“She’s fine, and will stay that way, as long you do what you’re told.”

I long to call him every vile thing imaginable but keep my tongue. Something I learned as a kid. His beatings were always worse if I cried or cursed him. If I was silent, that enraged him further, but he wore himself out faster. A win for me.

He clears his throat, but still coughs, thanks to his three-pack a day cigarette habit. Innocent kids get cancer, but not him. What a fucking world.

“I have another project for you, Mikhail.”

Shit. “What bill is it this time?”

“Not a bill. A woman. Toni Flores.”

I’m crossing the street when he says the name. My step pauses. Someone from behind bumps into me.

“She’s causing trouble,” Dimitri says. “You need to get rid of her.”

“What?”

A different person bumps into me. I cross to the other side. “What are you talking about?”

“She’s causing problems for Stowe.”

Lucian Stowe is another senator Dimitri owns. “What kind of problems?”

“She’s been claiming to the police and anyone else she can that he raped her. It’s not true, but she won’t stop lying about it and she never shuts her mouth.”

I hurry down the street to a less crowded area. “How do you know she’s lying?”

“Because I said so!”

In Dimitri’s world that makes perfect sense. “That’s no damn proof.”

“Even if she is telling the truth, it doesn’t matter!” He’s shouting louder than I did. “I need Stowe in my pocket! She has to be eliminated! I want you to do it.”

My stomach falls. “No. I don’t do that kind of work. Ever. Especially to a woman who’s—”

“I don’t care what she is or how you found out about her. I want it done. No arguments.”

Before I can speak, he ends the call.

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Bewitching the Wolf

Leo Tyler could think of a lot of things he would rather do than represent his pack of werewolves at this government meeting as his Alpha had ordered him to do. Walking on nails. Being kicked in the nuts. Swallowing wolfsbane. He disagreed with his Alpha, James, about a lot of things, and had been relatively vocal about that since becoming Beta after the death of his father some three years previously. But the Local Government Area was apparently insisting that their pack, as the largest group of werewolves in the city, send a representative to their meeting about council activities—something to do with afterschool programs, interspecies integration and helping children stay the course in educational pathways—and James had been insistent that as Beta, Leo go to represent the pack, as he himself was busy. As far as Leo was concerned, it was more than likely that the Alpha just didn’t want to go himself and was fabricating some prior commitment to avoid sitting through several hours of government finagling. It sure wouldn’t be the first time that James had taken advantage of Leo’s obligation to follow his Alpha’s instructions to avoid doing something he didn’t want to do himself.

James had been Alpha for roughly fifteen years—more than half of Leo’s life—and the older wolf, in Leo’s opinion, had stopped proving himself worthy of the role some five to ten years prior—around the time Leo, a freshly minted eighteen-year-old, had taken off to see some of the world before the requirement upon him as heir to the role of Beta trapped him in Mystic City. He’d returned when his father became seriously ill, but Daniel Tyler had held on far longer than anyone had expected, leaving Leo in limbo as the almost-Beta of the pack for more than nine months.

Some of their packmates had had doubts about obeying the instructions of a Beta who had spent so many years away, which was ironic, considering they seemed to have no issue following the leadership of James, who in the time Leo had been out of Mystic City had seemed to completely abandon any effort to deserve the mantle of Alpha. He no longer trained to keep up with the strongest wolves in the pack, no longer joined them in their fight practice or the teaching sessions for the younger wolves about controlling their transformations or avoiding substances like silver and wolfsbane. Leo would hesitate to say out loud that James had gone soft, but it was hard not to think it in the privacy of his own mind. A Beta was supposed to be the second-best in the pack, not the enforcer for a wolf who had allowed his body and resolve both to sink into disuse. James commanded respect by virtue of leading the largest pack in the city, if not the state, but as Leo had settled into the role of Beta, as time went on and James began asking more of him, Leo was coming to believe the older wolf deeply unworthy of his own position. For starters, he should have had the balls to come to this stupid meeting himself, instead of making Leo do it.

Leo took a deep breath to steady his temper and climbed out of his car. The sun was just starting to go down, the intense heat of the day finally beginning to fade. Warmth radiated up from the asphalt of the parking garage, and the city-centre smells along with that of hot tar were ripe in his nose. Underscored by… something. Something else.

He paused for a minute on his walk to the building where the meeting was being held, breathing deeply. Most werewolves had an excellent sense of smell, but Leo’s was even better than most. He tried to separate out the scents of the city… cooking meat from the kebab store down the block, sweat from the gym on the upper level of the building where the meeting was being held, the overriding odour of hot tarmac. And that mysterious something, just on the edge of what he could detect. It smelled like… Christmas. Like cinnamon and nutmeg and warmth, and at the same time, like heat and seduction and a kind of frantic physical need he’d never felt before. He felt his wolf stirring beneath his skin, his body readying itself to fight, or maybe to fuck as though even his physical response to the something couldn’t make up its mind what it was supposed to be.

Part of him was desperate to track down the source of this scent, but a glance at his watch told him he had three minutes to get into the LGA meeting or he’d be neglecting his duties as Beta.

Afterwards, he promised the wolf stirring beneath his skin. Afterwards, we’ll track it down. Just sit through a few hours of political posturing, and we can work out what the hell this is.

The wolf was unsatisfied with this response, but Leo ignored it and made his way into the multistorey building where the local council representatives were gathering, forcing himself to stop paying attention to the information his nose was feeding him, which was specifically telling him that the scent was growing stronger. Stronger.

He wasn’t the only supernatural representative at the meeting, he realised when he entered the room. It was set up with rows of chairs facing a lectern with an aisle down the centre, the windows open to the dense city air. Even though they were facing away from him, he could recognise the scent of the two vampires sitting in the third row, the representatives of several covens of witches in the fifth, and the one other werewolf present, who was sitting on the other side of the aisle in the row front of the almost-empty back row where Leo slid into a seat. The other wolf seemed to sense his arrival at the same time and turned around to greet him with a friendly smile. Petra, if he was remembering her name correctly from the one or two times they’d met before, wasn’t someone he knew well, but he made a note to say hello properly once the meeting was over. It couldn’t hurt to foster some other werewolf connections, especially when their territories abutted that of his own pack, as Petra’s pack’s did.

The full room quieted suddenly, and Leo realised someone had stepped up to the lectern. And with the incredible scent dragging his attention forwards, he focused closely on the something, fixing on its source, on the path it took to reach him. And somehow, somehow, he had no doubt in his mind that it was coming from… her.

It would fit. She was… something. She was a witch; even in his altered state he could appreciate that. Magic hummed over her skin like static electricity. It wound through the gentle curls at the ends of her thick black hair, sparked in her eyes. To his frustration, at this distance, he couldn’t tell if they were blue or green, and that lack of knowledge ground at his nerves. He wanted to know everything about her. Wanted to know what those perfect bow lips looked like when they curved into a real smile, not the practiced one she was maintaining as she spoke to the crowd. Wanted to know how they looked opened in a gasp of pleasure. In a scream. Wanted to know how her face changed when he made her call out his name.

“Good evening, everyone, and thank you for coming.” She took a deep breath and looked down at her hands. “As most of you know, my name is Delphinia Greenbranch, and it really means a lot to us that you’ve all made the effort to attend. You may be aware that our coven, in partnership with the Department of Youth and Community, has been putting a lot of effort into the programs we’re here tonight to discuss, and it is very satisfying for us to see that some of you are interested in what we’ve put together. I’d like to say a special thank you to the representatives of the supernatural communities who have made the effort to attend tonight. Valerie and Beau,” she sent a smile to the vampires, “Lisa, Rupert, Alex, and Simone,” another to the witches. “And in particular, our werewolf guests. It means a lot to us that you would consider being involved in something so far from your packs’ usual methods.” She made eye contact with the wolf in the row in front of Leo, sent her a grateful look, and then suddenly her eyes were on his, and the foundations of his world fucking crumbled.

He saw her eyes widen, was vaguely aware of the way her lips parted on an intake of breath, but he couldn’t look away, couldn’t take his eyes off the witch at the front of the room. Need swelled in his body, sudden as a lightning strike and potent as if he’d been starving for weeks and had just had a buffet of all his favourite dishes displayed in front of him. In his jeans, his flesh swelled irresistibly. Need her. Need her. He felt his canines elongating into fangs in his mouth as the wolf in him made its presence known. It was as focused on the witch behind the lectern as if he’d waved a blood-dripping steak in front of it. The look that Delphinia Greenbranch gave him—initially a kind of practiced appreciation that quickly morphed into what looked like dazed confusion—drew him in like a magnet. He wanted to fix anything that made her look uncertain—especially if it were related to him—wanted to change anything that made her even the least bit unsure of anything. Wanted to fix her entire life so it not only included nothing that ever made her worry even the tiniest bit, but also so that a large fucking chunk of it included him.

He suddenly wanted—needed—access to her. He wanted to touch every inch of her body, to take in the unbelievably perfect scent that was growing stronger the longer they spent in the same room, to weave his fingers into her thick black hair, to trace his hands over the curves that were all too visible under the dress she wore. Surely, she couldn’t have thought that was appropriate attire for a meeting covering local government issues. Sure, it had a high neckline, but his position at the side of the room meant he could see past the lectern to register that it only reached partway down legs that her sensible high heels made look positively endless. Would those heels put her at eye height to him? She was clearly already tall, which was fantastic because it provided more skin for him to memorise with his touch, with his tongue. Werewolves were usually tall, but Leo had always been at the upper end of the spectrum, which had been frustrating with many of the women he’d been with before, who had been too small, too fragile, to match him in any way, even those who were werewolves themselves. He shoved the thought of them out of his mind; for some reason, he suddenly didn’t want to think about anyone he’d been with before. He didn’t want to think about the very idea of letting any woman close to his body other than the one whose gaze had finally broken away from his own.

“As you may be aware,” Delphinia was saying, continuing as though she hadn’t just paused for several silent seconds, “there are a number of local government districts within Mystic City. However, ours, consisting of the territories of two werewolf packs, the vampire coven and those of three witch covens, and the human territories, have the lowest level of continuing education of young people, both human and supernatural, of the entire city. So, one of the things that our program aims to address is the issue of keeping our youths in school. Obviously, there are various issues specific to individual races, such as the sunshine issue for vampires, but what we aim to do is to support young people to complete high school and potentially encourage them to consider further education.”

She continued talking about the ways the programs were planning on keeping young people in school, but Leo barely heard her. His eyes kept fixing on tiny parts of her, like the prominence of her collarbone against her skin, or the curve where her ribs became her waist. The way she spoke with her hands made him imagine her touch on his skin. She was animated, clearly intensely passionate about the afterschool projects she was outlining, talking about ways to incorporate young vampires, who obviously couldn’t be out in daylight, as well as witches, the supernatural race most historically integrated with the humans, and the werewolves, who were the least. Typically, the werewolves kept to themselves, keeping separate from many of the “normal” human ways of life. His own pack, Blue Crescent, existed as an entity in and of itself, taking care of its members as they worked to maintain it and provide for one another. Just the fact that James had sent him to this meeting was strange, given the way that the pack normally functioned as a purposely separate entity, uninvolved in the way the rest of the city ran. Was there something James was considering that he hadn’t shared with Leo? Was he working towards integrating the pack into the wider society of Mystic City without even thinking to run the concept past Leo?

“The other part of this project that’s important to discuss,” Delphinia was saying from the front of the room, “is the fact that we’re not talking about having separate programs for each of our different races. We’re working to include not only humans but also all the supernatural races in all our plans. Obviously, everyone has their own specific challenges when it comes to being included in these programs,” she gestured specifically to the vampires with a sweet smile that sent heat shooting through Leo’s body, concentrating in his groin. “But we think it’s important to try to raise our young people more inclusively than we were brought up. The separations between our various races are important to our identities, we don’t deny that, but we think it would be a positive move if we started bringing young humans, witches, vampires, and werewolves together to learn and grow together. We all live together here in Mystic City. We might as well start learning to exist collectively in a way that brings us all closer together.”

There was a muffled hum in the room as people began speaking to one another, and he wanted to introduce his fist to the face of anyone who dared to interrupt Delphinia. She seemed prepared for it, though, smiling indulgently from behind the lectern.

“I know this is a fairly contentious suggestion,” she said, and thankfully the room fell silent once more to listen to her, or else Leo might have had to do something drastic. “And for that reason, later tonight, we’re going to open the floor to anyone who has any particular issues they want the opportunity for us to address as a group. In the meantime, we have a couple more people we’re planning to have speak this evening, but after that, if anyone else wants to get up and have their say, we look forward to hearing your opinions. For now, I’d like to welcome Marcus Heath to the stage.”

She stepped back from the lectern and someone else stepped forwards, some human with too much gel in his hair. Leo hardly even registered that he was present; his eyes were fixed on Delphinia, taking her seat at the back of the room behind the lectern. The man sitting next to her put a hand on hers and, when she looked his way, gave her an encouraging smile, and Leo almost blew up. Another man, touching the exposed skin of this woman? He’d never been a jealous man before, had always been content to fill a minor role in the lives of the women with whom he had… well, maybe you could call them relationships, at a stretch. When they found men who could give them more than he was able, he had never minded stepping back from that role. But suddenly, there was nothing minor about the role Leo wanted to fill in Delphinia’s life. He wanted to leave his mark all over her skin until any other man in her life thought twice about laying a fucking hand on her.

Maybe the problem was partly the absolute tease of a dress she was wearing. It was almost as black as her hair, high-necked, but tight enough that it clung to her perfectly curvaceous body, ending at her knees in a way that meant when she sat down, it rode up enough that he could see the skin of her legs almost to mid-thigh.

Leo wanted to be the only person who touched her bare skin. He wanted to see and touch and cherish every single facet of her body and memorise them with his lips and tongue. He wanted to learn her so intimately that nothing about her was unfamiliar to him. He wanted to leave his scent all over her so no one else ever got close to Delphinia Greenbranch without knowing that Leo had been there first.

It was this thought that took Leo aback. He was thinking about having her around other wolves, wolves who judged people partly on scent before they’d even met them. She was a witch, for heaven’s sake. Why would she be around enough wolves that it mattered that he’d put his scent all over her?

Unless…

Unless some part of him was considering introducing her to the pack.

Unless he was planning on bringing her into it.

At the very thought of bringing the witch now sitting at the back of the stage into the pack as his partner, something in Leo that he had never known was tense immediately relaxed. Something in him… eased. As though it had always been waiting for Delphinia Greenbranch, been waiting for the concept of bringing her into his life as the kind of a partner the pack’s pseudo-marital system recognised as absolute, been waiting for the option of making her his in the most unquestionable of ways.

Her scent filled his consciousness, even though she was no longer at the lectern, Christmas spices and sex and heat and woman. How had he lived this long without taking in this utterly addictive scent? How had he lived so long without having her?

Before he knew what was happening, the meeting was drawing to a close, having cycled through everyone from humans to vampires discussing the options that would make Delphinia’s afterschool program plan feasible, and the room was emptying. Leo found himself rising to his feet, ignoring the friendly smile of the wolf in the row in front of him as he strode forwards to make the acquaintance of the woman who, in his head, he had already claimed as his own.

***

He was… big. That was the first thing Della thought when the werewolf representative stood in front of her. He was so tall. Broad. His shoulders seemed to be bunching and unbunching as he stood before her, hands making fists and relaxing over and over. She cast her eyes over him slowly, taking in every inch of the man who had looked so disapproving during her meeting. His scowls from the back row, the constant drawing down of his eyebrows, had had her biting her lips with unexpected nerves every time she paused in speaking.

He was bigger than any human—or inhuman—had the right to be. His shoulders were so broad, she had to stop herself from imagining running her hands over the breadth of them. His hair was the colour of melting chocolate, and his eyes were a strange silvery green that, once she looked into them, seemed to almost trap her own gaze, like falling into a mountainside lake. Deep and warm and all-encompassing and somehow both safe and… exciting?

“Who are you?”

The words were out of her mouth before her brain had a chance to catch up. Her voice came out deeper than usual, husky, like she had just finished an extended session of screaming. I’d let him make me scream, a voice in her head said, tone as salacious as the content of the thought.

“Leo,” he growled, then cleared his throat and tried again. “Leo Tyler.” He still sounded angry, the frustration in his voice and face at odds with the anxious tension in his stance.

The name rang a bell, and Della took an involuntary step backwards. “The Beta from the Blue Crescent pack?”

“I… yes.” She seemed to have taken him off guard by knowing who he was.

“We’d kind of hoped your Alpha might join us tonight,” she managed, trying not to get lost again in the silver-green of his eyes. Had they become more silver? Her tone still sounded strangled. What was it about this man that had her so off-balance?

Her statement seemed to startle a laugh out of the man. He ran a hand over his short beard and her fingers tingled at the imagined sensation of hair scratching over her skin. His laugh was like glass mixing with gravel, but somehow… pleasant? Something in her got the sense that he didn’t laugh often and immediately wanted to make him make that deep gravel-glass laugh whenever she could.

“You’d be lucky to get our Alpha off pack territory on a full moon night in midsummer, let alone for an evening of governmental discussion.” He bit his lip, as though he’d said more than he intended. “It’s Delphinia, isn’t it?”

“Just Della is fine,” she managed, trying not to let her perusal of his brick-shithouse body be too obvious. For once in her life, she felt… small. Petite. Her, who had been the tallest woman in her coven since she was fourteen. She let her hair slide out from behind her ear, appreciating the sense of distance, of protection, that the slight barrier gave her.

His hand rose as though he had no control over it, pausing before the sheet of her hair partly covering her eyes. Was that… a growl that came from him? In a move almost swifter than she could follow, he tucked her hair back behind her ear, then dropped his hand back to cross his arms across his impossibly broad chest. Della had to fight to regain her voice. For some reason, she was suddenly breathless, her eyes feeling as wide as silver dollars.

“Leo.” His name slipped from her lips, then she bit her tongue, searching for something they could talk about. Some way to break this silence between them, when it grew more heated with every second that passed. “Um. What did you think of our proposals tonight? The idea of integrating the humans and the supernaturals? I know the humans in Blue Crescent territory tend to keep to themselves.”

He blinked at her as though this was the first he’d heard of the idea, as if she and two other program advisors, as well as one of the other witches, and both the vampires, hadn’t all weighed in on the topic for a good hour and a half.

“The way you were scowling the whole meeting, I presumed you didn’t approve of the suggestion.” She bit her lip suddenly when she realised the statement made it clear just how much attention she’d been paying to him when she should have been completely focused on the meeting she was supposed to be running. His quirked eyebrow seemed to say the same thing.

“Much as I appreciate that you noticed,” he said, and was it just her imagination, or was his voice suddenly a degree more flirtatious? “It wasn’t about your proposal. I was… thinking of something else.”

“What’s so important you couldn’t pay attention to the meeting?” Della demanded and immediately regretted the question, because his deep-set eyes were suddenly fixed on hers with a kind of intensity she’d never seen before, and it was… hot. Surface-of-the-sun kind of hot. A soft throb in the pit of her stomach that was quickly migrating to the juncture of her thighs kind of hot.

What the hell was this? Della had never, as in never, responded this way, to anyone. Even the few men, both warlock and human, she’d allowed to take her on dates, even those with whom the date had gone further than the original drinks or dinner or whatever, had failed to elicit even a fraction of this kind of immediate response in her.

“I’m not sure you really want to know,” Leo muttered, dragging her focus away from her suddenly tightening nipples.

If he’d known her, he would have known that that was exactly the wrong thing to say. Della had been known for her never-ending curiosity within her coven for years, and it had gotten her in trouble more than once.

Why did something in her tell her this was going to be another one of those times?

Why did the throb that had taken up residence between her thighs insist that it would be worth it?

“I think I do,” she heard herself say, her voice again taking on that just-been-screaming husky timbre. She tilted her head sideways and her hair again slid free from behind her ear, but before she could tuck it away again, Leo had stepped close to where she stood behind the lectern—impossibly close, indecently close—and done it for her. Only this time, his hand didn’t disappear after that briefest of touches. This time, his hand sunk into the thickness of her hair and his grip tightened until he’d tugged her head upright again, leaving his mouth so close to her exposed ear that she felt the rush of his hot breath on her skin when he spoke.

“All right, little witch, you want to know what I was thinking about? What was distracting me so I couldn’t pay attention to your meeting?”

With the microscopic amount of movement permitted by his grip in her hair, Della managed a semblance of a nod. Her own breath was loud in her ears.

“I wasn’t thinking about afterschool programs, that’s for goddamn sure,” Leo growled, “because you smell like pure sex, and I can’t get my damn mind off what you taste like underneath this tease of a dress. How long it’s been since you were properly satisfied. How long it’ll be before you let me get my mouth between your thighs and redefine whatever you used to think ‘satisfied’ meant.”

“Delphinia?”

In a flash, Leo’s grip had left her hair and Della was left reeling in something of an aroused fugue state as he stepped back from her, to stand to one side of the lectern as though he’d been leaning on it all along, moving so quickly it was like he was trying to hide that they’d been doing something wrong.

Had they? Was it wrong, the filth he’d just growled in her ear? Was it wrong that the words were humming through her body and, gods above all help her, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever in her life been so aroused?

She didn’t have time to consider it. Valerie, one of the two vampires they’d managed, with some effort, to convince to attend, rounded the corner into the meeting room, a smile stretching over her pale face when she spotted Della.

“There you are! Oh, and Leo, is it? You’re from the Blue Crescent pack, aren’t you? I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“Not at all,” Della said, hoping she didn’t sound as off-balance as she felt. She smoothed her dress down her legs, suddenly hyperaware of where the hem sat just above her knees. It had felt perfectly suitable when she’d been wearing it in the office, but now she was aware of every inch of exposed skin. I can’t get my damn mind off what you taste like underneath this tease of a dress. “We were just talking about how to go about integrating afterschool programs in Blue Crescent territory,” she invented on the fly.

“Oh, you’re keen to join with the programs, are you, Leo?” Valerie asked, the hyper-friendly vampire not seeming to find it odd that the werewolf had yet to move out from his position behind the lectern. Was he trying to hide that he was as aroused as she was?

“Very much looking forward to joining,” Leo said, his voice as rough as sandpaper and deeper than the ocean. His eyes flitted over her just once more, but Della felt it down to her bones.

“Isn’t that interesting?” Valerie said conversationally, leaning on the other side of the lectern. “I was under the impression most of the werewolf packs preferred to keep things very insular, very isolated from the rest of the supernaturals.”

“Blue Crescent prides itself on becoming more open to new ideas,” Leo replied, not missing a beat. “I’d love to hear more about Della’s… ideas.”

“Well, if you don’t mind doing that another time, might I steal her for a moment? Beau and I need to be back at the nest shortly, and I wanted to have a quick chat about the logistics of including young vampires in programs during times when the sunlight hours are long.”

“Sure,” Della said, her breathing finally steadying. She darted back behind the lectern long enough to collect her notes, carefully not making eye contact with the massive werewolf still standing there and tried not to gulp audibly as she moved past him. When she heard his own harsh intake of breath when the skirt of her dress brushed his legs, she risked a glance up at his face and almost swallowed her tongue. His eyes were fixed on her like she was the finest work of art he’d ever seen, his irises flashing to a far deeper silver that told her the wolf in him was fighting not to make itself known.

“We’re having another meeting,” she managed, just barely. “In two weeks. Same place, same time. Maybe I’ll see you there?”

“Count on it,” Leo said, that sandpaper tone back in his voice, the intensity in his eyes enough to set her absurdly aroused body aflame all over again.

“That’s… good,” she managed weakly, before Valerie was slipping a stone-cold arm through hers and leading her from the room.

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