Saturday, May 31, 2008
Only the barkeep dared to even look at him. "What can I be getting for ya?"
Several others around the bar scurried away, tankards in hand. Huddling together, they sipped at their drinks, taking great care not to look too long at him.
"Ale." Tossing a coin to the scratched wooden counter, Jeremy ignored the others.
As the tender poured him a tankard, he asked, "So what's your business in these parts, stranger?"
With a short bark of laughter, Jeremy answered, "God's business."
When the mug was pushed toward him, he lifted it and drank it quickly down.
"God is not welcome here." The growled proclamation was accentuated by a tankard slamming down on one of the wooden tables. Half the tavern crowd moved to the other side of the room, and several left altogether.
"Watch that one," the barkeep whispered, nodding toward the back table. "He's got a mean temper, he does. Don't like that word."
"Another ale." With a smirk of amusement, Jeremy turned toward the potential troublemaker. "And this should concern me how?"
The man stood, knocking his chair backward onto the floor. Judging by the way he glared and swayed slightly, it was clear he was well into his cups. "You're here on…God's business," the man snarled, stepping around the table. "I'll give you to the count of three to get out of my sight." His hand went to the pistol shoved into his belt.
"Master Grey…" the bartender pleaded.
With a sharp warning glare from Grey, the barkeeper snapped his mouth shut.
Setting his mug on the counter, Jeremy stood and walked toward Grey. His gaze steadily held the slightly unfocused stormy one. "So quick to pull a pistol and ask no questions." Not at all afraid, he continued, "If you can shoot and actually hit me, I will be most impressed."
"I own this land!" Grey drew his pistol and, in the blink of an eye, he shot.
It didn't require any great feat of speed or skill to avoid getting hit by the bullet, as it flew wildly off the mark. Before his aggressor could even react, Jeremy was on him. With no more than a hard yank of his hand on Grey's, the gun dropped. The next moment, Jeremy spun Grey around and imprisoned him in an implacable grip.
"Whatever you own, you desperately need a bath and a good sleep, sir."
"I order you to release me!" Grey struggled and kicked, though the fight was slowly going out of him.
The barkeep gave Jeremy a grateful look and a nod. "He's the lord of the keep up the hill, but you'll be hard pressed to get him there. He's not been up there since Lord Rhys' passing 'bout a week ago."
Addressing the bartender, Jeremy asked, "And where has he been staying? The gutter?"
"Here mostly," the barkeep replied. He tilted his head, motioning toward the staircase leading up. "He has a room, but most of his time's been here, drinkin' a fortune in ale."
"Let. Me. Go." Grey renewed his struggle, jabbing an elbow back into Jeremy's ribs.
Jeremy whispered in his captive's ear, "Are you finished shooting complete strangers?"
Too drunk to control it, Grey shivered. "Unhand me or I will rip you to shreds with my bare hands."
Smiling knowingly, Jeremy loosened his grip enough to turn Grey around. Jeremy lowered his voice, keeping what he said between him and Grey. "And what would you do if I enjoyed it?"
For a moment, those stormy eyes stared into Jeremy's, his challenge answered without a word. To the side, the barkeep backed away, discreetly crossing himself.
"Beautiful amongst your own kind." Jeremy never looked away, showing not an ounce of fear but only an understanding of what he held in his arms. "So angry."
Slowly releasing him, Jeremy bent down to pick up the discarded gun and handed it back to Grey. "Know who your enemy truly is before you attack."
Grey took the pistol, his arm hanging limply at his side. The fight had gone out of him. "Who are you?"
After bowing with an elegant flair, Jeremy answered, "The name is Jeremy Waters. And yours?"
"Grey Constantine." Grey glanced over at the barkeep, then tossed a small bag onto the bar. "To pay for the damages." Looking back to Jeremy, he studied the man in silence for a moment. "What are you doing here?"
"I am here to retrieve a friend of mine." Jeremy returned to the bar and picked up his mug of ale.
"Who? I know everyone."
"It is doubtful you know him since he isn't from this village, and he doesn't belong here, either." Settling back on his stool, Jeremy drank his ale before he turned to the barkeep. "I'll need a room if you have one to spare."
"Give him mine," Grey told the barkeep. "I'll be returning to the keep."
"That isn't necessary, Constantine. I won't be here that long."
"Suit yourself." Grey turned and started for the door. Just before walking out, he gave Jeremy a lingering look.
When the door shut, the barkeep let out a long sigh of relief. "He's a mean one. Never was that bad before Lord Rhys' death."
"They were close then? You seem to know quite a bit about him."
"Lovers, some said," the barkeep whispered, looking around, though the other patrons were long gone. "No one knows the truth, but many s'pect that was the case."
"So what sets him off about God?"
"Lord Rhys was a man of God," the barkeep explained. "They grew up together, but then he left, wantin' to join the men of the cloth. Lord Grey, he was ragin' mad. Well, Lord Rhys, he came back, said it wasn't for him. That was five years ago. 'Bout a month ago, Lord Rhys went on a boat to Spain then returned. The ship wrecked and washed up on the shore. We could hear Lord Grey's screams down here in the village, cursing God for taking Rhys from him."
"A man with a mistaken notion of how God uses his power." Drawing a few gold coins from his waistcoat pocket, Jeremy placed them on the counter, smiling. "For the room and the information."
"Yessir. Third door, up the stairs." The barkeep pocketed the coins and handed Jeremy a rusty key. "Lord Grey will be up in the keep, sober if yer lucky. I s'pect you'll be wantin' to pay him a visit at some point."
"Not likely since I will only be here for one day." Pushing from the counter, Jeremy made his way up the narrow stairs to his room. Freeing his cousin from the clutches of the Church shouldn't prove to be hard. Yet Jeremy wanted to be prepared for all contingencies. Unlocking the door to his room, he glanced quickly down the hall before stepping inside.
Thankfully, it was clean, though the rickety furniture had seen better days. The bed was freshly made with clean linen, and the small desk had writing materials laid out. As he sat on the edge of the bed, pulling off his boots, the image of the angry man who had attacked him plagued Jeremy. Eyes the color of storm-tossed seas were hard to forget, as was the surge of anger he'd felt from Grey. Lord Constantine was a man haunted by his own ghosts, but Jeremy needed to focus on getting his cousin to safety. Perhaps once he'd achieved that, he could return to this place.
Never one to question his own intuition on anything, Jeremy knew he would come back to this town. He'd never been able to deny a soul in distress, and Grey was indeed in dire need. Stretching out on the bed, Jeremy contemplated what he needed to do. It would be a few hours before he could free his cousin, so there was no hurry at this point.
The layout of the monastery had been described to him by Atrius, one of the tribe's elders, who had scouted the area in preparation for Jeremy's arrival. There were no guards and the Church's men wouldn't arrive until the following day. He planned to enter the monastery by a little-used gateway and be free and clear before dawn. It was common knowledge where the prisoners of the Church were kept. One of the smaller wings, separated from the living quarters of the monks, housed the inmates being held for transport to London.
Staring up at the ceiling, Jeremy watched the play of firelight from the fireplace as he folded his hands behind his head. The plan to rescue his cousin had fallen to him because he had once been Alex's mentor. Though Jeremy wasn't a member of the tribe, all of them were aware of his reputation and power. Normally his refusal to affiliate himself with any tribe would have branded him an outcast, but he'd proven too useful in training the younger members. So all turned a blind eye to Jeremy's deviation from their customs.
He thought he would encounter relatively few problems getting his cousin out of the monastery and back to his tribe, yet instinct had him planning for all possibilities. Before he headed to the monastery, he planned on doing a little exploring of his own to find more than one escape route from the town.
Once the inn settled in silence and Jeremy could detect no sounds of movements, he sat back up and slipped on his boots. Careful to make no noise, he opened the door and paused, listening intently. Satisfied, he made his way to the back stairs and outside to the stables. Shadow whinnied softly in recognition as he slipped into the stable. Jeremy quickly saddled his horse and led him from the stall out to the dirt section in back. In the distance, he could see the dark outline of Constantine's keep. The enormous building sprawled across the top of one of the hills surrounding the town, and not too far from it, the smaller, squat building of the monastery. Its grim, forbidding lines were nowhere near as welcoming.
Two roads led from town. One went to the monastery, then continued further down the road to Lord Constantine's. Between the two, another road veered off in a south-eastern direction. The last road in town led north and south to numerous other villages dotting the landscape. Jeremy knew another village lay just over the second rise to the south, and to the north, it was five miles to the next town.
The moon had already risen well past its peak and now dipped low toward the trees lining one of the roads. Even without the light of the full moon, Jeremy had no problem finding his way. Once outside the earshot of any in the small village, he mounted Shadow and headed down the lane toward the monastery. The woods flanking the path were alive with the sounds of the nocturnal creatures inhabiting them. He passed by the monastery and continued a short distance down the road until he gained a clearer view of Constantine's home. The old castle was surrounded by an enormous gray wall lined with guard turrets. Beyond that, the forest continued unbroken toward the rise and the second wall closer to the castle.
Man and horse became equally still and with no effort, Jeremy sensed the spirits that lived within the land. Sadly, they were as fractured as their master. Nonetheless, he felt the distinct tug of the man who had earlier attacked him. Lost, alone, and afraid.
"I will return for you. I promise," Jeremy whispered into the night.
A small tug on the reins turned the horse back in the direction of the monastery. First, he had to take care of his cousin.
With the open road came the freedom she craved, allowing her to leave all her troubles behind. At least, until they caught up with her again. No matter how hard she ran it would only be a matter of time before her past caught her.
Without warning a dark, powerful force slammed into her, taking her breath away. With its intensity her bike wavered, losing control. She white-knuckled the handgrips, forcing the bike to her own will to save herself from a high-speed crash. Her foot slid on the peg before her boots dug in, saving her from slipping loose. Her limbs started to heat, an instinctive reaction, even giving off a slight glow.
What the fuck?
Using every ounce of strength in her body, she fought to keep the bike up as it leaned closer to the ground. The rough asphalt loomed in her vision. The muscles in her arms and shoulders stretched and burned with the extra effort. Damn, this is going to hurt.
As her body inched closer to the highway she felt the loose rocks bouncing against her helmet. She couldn't stop it now, the bike was sliding to the ground in an irreversible slow motion as she continued to race down the highway.
A flash of light to her left side startled her as she bumped against a soft but invisible barrier, which stopped her fall. Someone—or something—was holding her up from the pavement.
"Take my hand."
The command startled her as she turned her head away from the pavement and saw a hand reaching out to her through something, a bubble of sorts, that surrounded his arm with a crackle of blue energy. Unable to stop and think about what the hell was going on around her, other than she was about to become a lump of road rash, she grasped the offered hand. More than anything, she didn't want to eat pavement tonight.
When her hand connected with his skin, the darkness she'd felt slammed into her, stronger than before, consuming her. She looked past the hand pulling her up into the most intense brown eyes she'd ever seen. No, not brown, a dark amber. Mesmerized, she held his gaze as her body heated in defense pushing back against the darkness threatening her.
As he pulled her and the bike upright again, their forward motion on their bikes helped them come came sliding to a stop. She let go of his hand and tumbled to the ground, rolling away in time to prevent her bike from falling on top of her.
The heat built in her fast, whipping up and out of control as she fought to rein it in. It was too late. She jerked her helmet off, struggling for deep, cleansing breaths. Control. Have to stop it. Flames erupted from the ground around her, circling her.
"What the hell?" The stranger ripped off his own helmet, revealing dark, wavy hair that curled around his head at the edges. His face looked like he hadn't shaved in a few days, and when he turned his killer eyes back towards her she felt the full effect of his good looks. He was devastating in that dark bad boy way she managed to fall for every damn time. But this time dark took on a whole new meaning as the flames leapt higher and he rushed forward to pull her free.
"Stop!" She motioned for him to stay away. "Give me a few minutes and I will get this shit under control." She closed her eyes, not doubting that he would listen to her. As the darkness crept through her system she fought the pain and anger that came with it. The rage transferred from him to her stormed inside her. Pooling all her energy against the darkness, she pushed it up and out, directing it away from them.
"Holy fuck! Not my bike!" She opened her eyes to see his Harley on fire across the clearing from them. She watched in horror as he ran to it, and the bike exploded before them, knocking them both on their asses.
Her skin instantly began to cool as all the emotions behind the episode were directed outward. She hadn't intended to blow up his damn bike, but at least hers had not been close and they wouldn't be stranded here—together. For some reason that one word had her whole body tingling. Crazy, that's what that is.
She scrambled off the ground with a quick glance around to ensure all the flames had extinguished, and ran over to the sexy stranger. "Are you okay?"
He lay there on the ground staring into the night sky scrubbing his hands over his face. "That was a vintage bike, you know."
"Yeah, I do know." She watched his bike burn, wondering what the hell had just happened. How had she lost control of her power? That hadn't happened since she was an angry teenager. Suspicion curled in her mind, threading through her and filling her with doubt. "Who are you? And why the hell were you so pissed when you touched me?"
"Who am I? Are you freaking kidding me? Who the hell are you? And what just happened here?" He sat up, motioning to his now charred and smoking bike.
"The name is Selene, and I'm sorry about your bike. I'll buy you a new one if I have to."
He stood, unfolding his tall muscular body, at least, from what she could tell under the leather he wore. The dark look he threw her sent a tiny shiver down her spine.
"Well, Selene, I don't think that'll be necessary, but you can, however, start with an explanation of what happened." He watched and waited as she thought about how to explain it.
"Pretty simple, really. I rode a little too fast, lost control, and you came along and saved me from becoming roadkill." She doubted he would understand that a force of dark power slammed into her and nearly incapacitated her. Unless, of course, he was the one responsible. He had to be. The source had radiated from him in an angry wave.
"That simple, huh? His voice vibrated in anger as he waited for the rest of the story. But he would be waiting till hell froze over before she told her secrets to a stranger who obviously had some pretty big secrets himself. "No explanation for the fire that surrounded you or the fact that my bike just got blown to bits?"
She bristled at his tone. Damn smartass.
"What about you? How did you stop my fall and then pull me and my bike back up, all at a high speed?" She looked him straight in the eye. "Don't get me wrong. I'm extremely grateful, but I can't even begin to understand what happened out there." Well, that wasn't exactly true. At the institute she had seen some pretty freaky shit. Nothing surprised her these days.
He stared at her for several long moments as they squared off with each other like two rivals over the same prize.
"Well, Selene, it seems we have a bit of a standoff here. How about a truce for now?" His deep throaty voice rolled over her like smooth brandy on a cold night. He held out his hand in offering. Afraid to touch him again, she strode over to her bike and picked it up.
"I'll take that truce—I don't even know your name."
"Well, Cash, it looks like I owe you a ride. We aren't that far from Boston, why don't we hit it together on my bike? The least I can do is get you someplace that can provide you with a new ride." Although the thought of him leaning against her on the bike frightened as well as excited her, she really had no other option here. He'd saved her and she wasn't about to leave him stranded here. And if he was someone after her, what better way to keep an eye on him? After all, this wasn't the first time she'd run from her prison and she wouldn't put it past them to get creative with her recapture or death this time.
Now if she could just get the tingling in her body to stop every time she imagined him touching her…
* * * *
Friday, May 30, 2008
David Shaw threw another log on the fire and stared into the flames, his features bathed in flickering light and shadow.
I wish I had something other than a fire to keep me warm tonight.
He rose from the rustic stone hearth and switched on the sound system. The opening notes of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker burst from the speakers and filled the air of the cozy cabin, fitting perfectly with the dancing snowflakes outside. Smiling wistfully, he watched them fall before returning to the dining room, where his meal waited. He sat and ate, enjoying the food that he always loved to prepare when he visited the cabin: angel hair pasta with a creamy herb sauce, lean beef, and salad. The last time he cooked that meal, he'd had someone to share it with.
David reached for his glass of red wine. It had been over two years since the divorce was final, and it was his first weekend at the country retreat since his marriage ended. As he sipped, his thoughts journeyed to a place that he had sworn never to visit again. He remembered his ex-wife's face and her laughter echoing through the rooms as he chased her to the bed. She had smelled like exotic flowers as she gave him sweet kisses and whispered lies.
She had told him she loved him, and he had believed her.
But then, back in the city, he returned from work early one day to find her and another man rolling around in their bed. When David confronted her and the stranger, the woman he adored instantly became a malicious, spiteful bitch who had no remorse for what she'd done or the pain she had caused.
Their divorce was brutal. When it was over, David felt like the walking wounded. The acidic anger that had burned in his gut eventually faded, but the loneliness remained. Tired of being alone, he felt it was time to move forward. Although he had dated a bit after splitting with Laura, none of the relationships had lasted for long. The women he had known were nice enough, but there had been no real attraction on his end. There were no sparks.
Shaking his head to drive away the unwanted thoughts, he looked down at his remaining food. The memories had stolen his appetite. David rose, took his wine, and returned to the living room. The soothing music continued as he settled into his easy chair facing the fireplace, and he closed his eyes and let the strains of the violins carry him away.
Her skin felt perfect on his. She rode his erection; her movements like silk. Soft, feminine moans of pleasure reached his ears. The long cascade of dark hair obscured her face, teasing him. More than anything, David wanted to pull it away so he could finally see her. He had to know who she was, the seductive angel who filled his nights and left him aching for more when he woke up in the morning.
She was the woman he reached across the bed for each morning, only to find an empty space.
A hoarse plea escaped his lips. "Please..."
The mystery woman leaned forward then, delicately tracing his lips with the tip of her tongue as she ground against him harder. He grit his teeth at the exquisite feel of her and arched his hips to meet her halfway, surrendering to her tender assault on his senses. He wanted her--all of her. He wanted to see her, know her.
"Who are you?"
She stiffened in his arms, and David almost regretted his words. He had to know. He repeated the question, bringing his hands to her narrow waist. The woman silently withdrew from his embrace, and he mourned the loss of her warmth. She walked away, and he watched her go until she vanished into the mist. His chest swelling with feelings of longing, he wished he could join her.
It doesn't matter that I don't know his name; I'll not be calling him again. I'm just going to ride this cock till I'm satisfied. It doesn't matter that I don't know the colour of his eyes, because I'm not interested in staring into them. I just want his hardness slamming into my soft, willing cunt. It doesn't matter who he is. All that matters is revenge: revenge on Jack.
Jack said he loved me. Jack said I meant the world to him. Jack said I was his soul mate. I believed him. I thought he was the one, you know, the one in the romance novels. Actually, our eyes did meet across a crowded ballroom. It was the office party one Christmas. We'd broken some sales record or other so they pushed the boat out, hired the swankiest room in the town hall and we had a ball, an actual masquerade ball.
I was in an old, Marie Antoinette get-up: a glorious scarlet ball gown with this very delicate black embroidery around the low décolletage and enough volume in the skirt to deafen a metal head. I felt somewhat like the Michelin man, with big balloon sleeves over my less than delicate arms and skirts that ballooned out like inflated airbags that draped to the floor making me resemble a hovercraft.
I was standing in a corner, cradling a half-glass of warm rum and Coke and thinking about the buffet when, for some reason I still can't grasp, I looked up. I looked into the brightest, most intense gaze I had ever experienced, and I was instantly smitten. My heart leapt--literally leapt--in my chest, and my nipples tightened as my pussy throbbed. Our eyes stayed locked as he walked towards me. He walked over, and I took nothing else in but the intensity of his stare, the soft sweep of his cheek bones, and the sensual wave of his lips.
He took me by the hand, and it was as if an electric circuit had been completed. I was charged up, my body prickling with arousal. He never spoke, just led me to the dance floor. We waltzed, spun, and reeled and, without a word as one song melted away into another, his lips touched mine.
In fact, we didn't talk to each other very much at all on our first meeting. He slipped a card into my hand as he left with his friends, and on it was scrawled his name and phone number. I felt like such a wanton hussy as I realised I'd been with a nameless man with whom I'd never even made polite conversation. It excited me.
I should have known it was too good to be true.
Georgie Porgy, Puddin' and Pie
Kissed the girls and made them cry.
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgy ran away.
George Beauregard Bradford spied on the group on the porch below. In a moment, the boys would go in and Becca would be alone.
She'd signal him today. He felt sure she would. Becca hadn't motioned to him in five long days, though she knew Georgie was watching every night. If he didn't know better, he'd swear she was punishing him for something, though he had no idea what Becca would want to punish him for.
He held his breath as the boys filed inside: Abe, Billy, Danny, Joel, Lewis and Nathan. Becca's six older brothers were stricter than her parents had ever been, and they were Georgie's adversaries. They were a rough bunch that few messed with, and most people in town simply called them the Shuster boys.
For a moment, Becca didn't move, and his heart sank. She was going to make him wait another day? Was she heartless?
She stirred, rising from the porch swing and ambling across the yard to the fence. Her dark hair was bound into a tight braid. He wished it was loose and blowing around her face in the wind. He wished he was close enough to see her eyes.
His breathing was harsh in his own ears. Please. Just give me the signal. Georgie gripped the tree bark beside his cheek until his fingers ached.
Becca smiled, but her hands remained still.
He cursed under his breath. She knew she was driving him insane. She was doing it on purpose.
Her hand crept up, a languid slide over her bare leg, then the front of her shorts.
He bit back a laugh. She wasn't going to make him wait.
She continued up her abdomen to the hollow between her breasts, teasing him now with what he'd have to wait hours to have, for the body he'd picture vividly until he could touch it.
His cock ached--but it wouldn't have to for long. A wicked smile curved his lips. So, she wanted to tease him? Two could play that game. Maybe she'd forgotten how he'd earned his nickname, but he hadn't.
Georgie charged at her, and she gaped in surprise. He grasped her cheeks and sealed his mouth to hers, taking advantage of her parted lips to make the quick kiss he'd steal count. For one glorious moment, she responded favorably.
Then common sense kicked in, and she pushed him away, her eyes wild. Georgie grinned at her and blew a kiss, turning and sprinting toward the woods as the back door burst open and the boys stumbled out after him.
"Georgie Porgy," Becca shouted, "you'll pay for that!"
He laughed heartily. The thrill of the chase and pure joy fueled his burners. Whatever 'payment' Becca had in mind was worth it. He sobered. Unless she changed her mind about tonight.
"No. She wouldn't do that," he argued miserably. She couldn't possibly make him wait another night--or five.
He'd wanted to be above board. He'd tried to ask permission to date Becca in a respectable fashion. He still wanted to; but Abe, Billy, and Nathan had threatened Georgie's early departure from life if he dared darken their doorway again--all for one stolen kiss when he and Becca were twelve that had earned him his nickname of Georgie Porgy.
Georgie had been miserable when they'd refused. He'd moped around at the old cabin for days--until Becca had sauntered up and informed him that he'd been asking the wrong person for permission. Thus started their game.
He hadn't slept with her for the first few months, but eventually their touching led to more. Dishonorable or not, he couldn't regret a minute of it--even if the boys caught and killed him for it.
Well, she was tired of playing with her toy. She wanted a warm mouth and a hot man. She was young, full of sexual energy. Sure, he worked outside and only a few feet away from the house, but he was always too busy for her. He crawled in bed at midnight and woke before her to get to his real occupation, only to come home and labor in the garage.
Don't tell her to go out there, pay him some attention, strip for him, or anything to get his attention. Be nice even. She'd tried that. It either made him angry or just flat out didn't work.
She jammed the car in park and tore the key out of the ignition. She couldn't even park in the garage because of his big mess. She slammed the door to her beat up Hondaùyou didn't seem him fixing her thingsùand stalked pass him.
He wore his cap on backwards. His jeans were torn and scruffy. He never looked better when he was like that, sporting his black t-shirt promoting oil she'd never heard of, arms banded in ropy muscle, chewing on a toothpick while he concentrated.
He never concentrated on her like that.
If he noticed her anger, he didn't comment on it.
She shut the door without greeting him.
He didn't follow her inside. Had she expected him to? Hoped that he would? She threw her car keys across the kitchen counter. They slid and crashed to the floor. She'd regret that later when she couldn't find her keys. It'd be in the morning, when she was hurrying and already running late.
She dropped her purse alongside her keys and huffed to the bathroom. She glanced in the mirror, fingering the split ends of her hair. In desperate need of a trim, her highlights were fading, and she could stand to lose about five pounds, ten if she really looked.
"What's the matter with you?"
Shannon jumped. Cameron stood behind her, his reflection staring at hers through a mirror littered with remnants of toothpaste. She really needed to clean house, but right now she was tired. Tired of her job, tired of cleaning. Tired of being a wife, eating by herself, going to bed alone.
She wanted to be something else for a while. Somebody else.
Maybe she could put on a maid costume and clean. Yeah right, as if that would get his attention. He'd have to be inside to even notice.
She spun around and stepped past him. "Nothing is the matter with me."
He shot out his arm and captured her, heaving her towards him.
Edging his face closer, he scowled. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead. She tasted cinnamon on his breath from the gum he liked to chew. Gum and toothpicks, he was always chewing on something except her.
He dropped his grip on her hand, but his face remained inches from hers.
She avoided his eyes. She always got lost in that big bowl of molten chocolate, and she couldn't afford to right now. She'd be lost if she did. Her mind wouldn't be able to function.
Her hands stayed in a straight line against her body. Rigid and unmoving. She inched her chin up. His lips came to her ear. Warmth sizzled out of his mouth and into her, trailing down her spine, buzzing her skin.
"Don't start this," she said, trying not to beg. They hadn't made love in so long. How could she stop him?
Bare Minimum. It doesn't look so terribly intimidating, does it? Nice storefront, nothing weird in the front window, no whips, chains or red lights hanging above the doorway. And right next to that cute little bookstore, too. Okay, so it's a book store with a section for erotica. Oh ... all right--it's a bookstore that only sells erotica. But so what? The flower boxes out in front are pretty--so really, how bad can it be? If they take such good care of the flower boxes they must be just plain, ordinary people, right? Right.
So why am I still standing here?
It took her an additional ten minutes of staring at Bare Minimum from behind a tall potted tree across the street before Jenn found the courage to walk toward the store. She found courage but forgot basic traffic etiquette and when a horn blared right beside her she jumped.
A red convertible, its driver scowling, was stopped in the middle of the street. Jenn's bare legs were a scant twelve inches from the chrome bumper.
"Sorry!" she called as she scanned for traffic before she crossed the other lane. Waving from the safety of the sidewalk she received a second scowl as the car drove off.
Shit. Not a great way to begin this shopping trip. Maybe this isn't such a good idea after all. Maybe I should just go home and think of some other way to get things hot with Ray. Maybe this isn't the way to turn him on, maybe--No. I nearly got run over getting here, and I'm going in. That's it.
When Jenn went inside the shop she didn't know what to expect. But what she found was so much more interesting than anything she could have imagined that she was glad she hadn't had any expectations. They could never have matched the reality of Bare Minimum.
She didn't find anything plain. She didn't find anything ordinary. But she did find a lot that made her very, very hot.
"Hey there," said the muscular blond who was standing behind the counter. He had flashing blue eyes and a dazzling smile and looked like he spent all of his free time on a surfboard. "Anything I can help you find today?"
"Uh, no thanks," Jenn said, feeling her face warm but powerless to stop it. "I'm just looking."
With a grin, he nodded and said, "Great. Take your time and give a holler if you need any help, okay?"
Jenn swallowed. "Okay."
Help? That'll be the day--I think I'd die before I'd ask for any help. Or God forbid, any instructions on how to use any of this stuff. Besides, I'm just here to look around. Get ideas. That's all. Nothing more. So really, how hard can this be?
As she began to walk through the tidy, well-lit shop she realized that there was nothing seedy or smarmy about the store or its products. Everything was arranged attractively in displays that would do any New York boutique owner proud and there were even discreet little placards explaining the use of some of the less-obvious items.
After nearly an hour in the place Jenn knew that what she had assumed was a basic ramp-up-the-heat maneuver with her tepid-in-bed boyfriend was much more involved than she'd originally thought. And she realized that she wasn't nearly as well equipped in the art of making love as she'd thought.
With a smile, she paid for her purchases and headed for the door. Out on the sidewalk she stood in the warmth of the midday sun, contemplating her next move.
Time to break out the heavy-duty sex expert. It was time to talk to Glory.
I was then, and am now, a creature of sin.
I am greedy and hateful, and take pride in these things. As a boy, I would steal food from the animals and hoard it. I would tease and tempt those reverend brothers whose tastes ran to their young charges. And I would use their affections to garner simple prizes to bribe other boys into doing my work. As I grew, I seduced the village maids and matrons, and picked their husbands' pockets. In my life there have only been two things at which I excelled: farming and finding trouble. You must agree with me that dodging the lash is far more exhilarating than breaking your back pulling a plough. It is also infinitely more rewarding.
That day, my sinful self was sitting on a crate, in an alley, off the docks of Calais, my usual station at that hour. As had often happened during my life, I was on the street, hungry and with less than a Pence in my pocket. I had never been more content. Adversity made my life interesting, the peace and routine of my boyhood years had almost driven me mad. An abbey is no place for one such as me. Now, I felt, it was time to create a little disorder and see if I might find the funds for dinner, and perhaps a bed for the night.
A likely mark passed me. A clerkish sort of man, he wore the clothes of an English sailor, good enough quality to possibly be the pilot or mate. Either would be lucrative. I slipped from my perch and began to stalk. As he wound his way through the confusion of the wharf, he paid far more attention to the small book he carried than to his surroundings. Not wise, not wise at all. Apparently his position was gained by birth rather than merit.
Most cut purses work in pairs: one to distract, one to pinch. I never found anyone I cared to work with. So, I worked the docks. The marks were more streetwise, but the commotion at the wharf--what with ships docking, goods and travelers being offloaded, whores, brothels, taverns and fights--acted as my unpaid partner. I would normally have to look for an opportune distraction before I moved, but his book would divert his attention sufficiently without any effort on my part.
My fingers itched and unconsciously I massaged their tips with my thumb as I fell into the rhythm of his steps. We wound our way through the swarms of men. He bumped into several along his route and scarcely noticed ... a good sign. I was wary for a change in his steps indicating that he realized I followed or that he was nearing his destination. I had to chance both until I was ready to strike.
I paused, took two breaths, and moved in.
He looked up.
I stopped and glanced to see what caught his attention, whether it would help or hinder my work.
Lesser poets would describe her as a vision, a creature from a dream. But no vision, no dream, could be that painfully beautiful. If Helen of Troy could send men to war with a word, this woman could have called those ships back with a sigh. Her hair was a deep, rich sable, and she wore it as a maiden might, straight down to her waist, but with a small feathering of hair cut short to brush her lightly freckled cheeks. That, with her small widow's peak, exaggerated the heart shape of her face. She seemed made of porcelain, so fine and flawless was her skin.
I had once seen a face like that. It had been made of porcelain. A very rare and valuable treasure brought back from the crusades by an errant knight. It had come by way of the silk-road to Judea, and from there to his family estates, and thence as tithe to the Abbaye.
She wore a satin sea-green gown reaching to her feet, boned lightly and slashed with a revealing bodice. It was most becoming to her, or, perhaps, she to it. Over her frock, she wore a full cloak of heavier material to ward off the chill of early spring. At her throat, the material was clasped by a broach of bronze in the style of a small cat sejant, guardant and erect, and it pooled to form a small cape about her shoulders.
Standing alone, adrift in a small sea of baggage, I could tell from how she held her body that she was looking for someone who was long overdue. She was unaccompanied by servants, but her air and dress indicated she should have had at least one by her side. She was a lost and scared little maid. And if she were a day over eighteen then I was full-blooded human.
Then, I cursed myself. My little man had gone, disappeared into the crowd. I had let myself lose focus and he'd gotten away from me. I could be absolutely idiotic on occasion.
I licked my lips. The Lord never closes one door before he opens another. Opportunities like this were few. The porcelain maid could be far more beneficial than the quarry I'd just lost.
Removing my broad brimmed hat and holding it in my hands in front of my body, as non-threatening as I could manage, I approached her and asked quietly, "Quel ennuis, Mademoiselle?" Dressed simply, but in clothes which were fairly new and well made, I presented as lower merchant class in dress and generally upper in manners. It had taken me a time to acquire the various articles from clotheslines and drunks, but I turned out well despite the randomness of the couture. And I always wore shoes. They could be old and scuffed and broken, but only peasants went unshod. It was the one true mark of class. A young man, for I looked only slightly older than she, from a good family on hard times. It bought respect from those lower in station, and sympathy and trust from those above.
Mostly it brought anonymity.
She turned to me, "Excuse me?" Her eyes were the color of the forest, and her English, even in those two words, carried a strange musical lilt, the origins of which I couldn't place. Her gaze passed over me and as designed I met her expectations of someone who was not terribly threatening. She offered me a vague smile of dismissal.
"I asked whether you needed assistance."
Her smile became slightly more curt. "I speak French, I understood ye."
I spread my hands, hat in my left, the right empty. "Pardon, I thought you might need some help. You seemed to be distressed. Like someone was supposed to meet you here." I shrugged. "I must have been mistaken." Bowing slightly, I returned my hat to my head and began to turn away.
She looked around her, one hand raised unconsciously towards me. I was the only anchor she had in this rough sea, the only person in the clamor of foreign voices who'd reached out to her. Even if she didn't know it, she didn't want to lose me. "It's just that..." Her voice trailed off uncertain.
"Just what?" I prompted. I needed to keep her talking, talking to me.
Worry tugged at her mouth. "He is nae here."
"Who is not here?"
"My clansman, he should be here." She looked about again as though the man might appear at any moment. I nodded, making a sympathetic sound, but said nothing. "He came before me, to arrange things." Her nervousness was making her less cautious with her speech then she should have been. She looked back at me, this time there was a slightly startled cast to her gaze. "Ye speak English very well."
An interesting subject switch, but I would ride it. "Merci. It is the law. Not that it be spoken well, just that it be spoken. And my tutors were good." I smiled at her. She smiled back. Her smile was incredible, that one expression changed her entire body. I earned it as I had just proved I was educated; may I never live to regret having this hated language beaten into my stubborn hide. I cocked my head slightly and closed the distance between us. "What does your man look like, maybe I have seen him."
She described him to me: tall, near my height but bulkier, dark haired with a beard, most likely wearing a Feileadh Mor--a belted plaid. "He is a Scotsman?" I now knew why I couldn't place her accent. I'd never met anyone from that region. "You are Scots?" I earned another brilliant smile. I stepped closer yet again, my hands held from my body palm up. "A man like that should not be too hard to find, especially in France. Why do we not find someone to look after your things, and then we can see if we can find him." I held out my hand. She hesitated for a minute, then took it.
This was going to be a good day after all.
Then I heard laughter from the direction of the water. It came from a dark youth--dark hair, dark eyes, dark countenance--leaning against a mooring cleat. He was garbed as a soldier and supported a musket against one leg.
Applauding, he stood and approached us. "Well done lad, well done. Just a few moments an' yer have her eating from yer hand like a pet deer." He was not long into manhood, possibly a little older than she. He, however, had the look of one had been taught harder lessons in life. From his cracked and patched buffcoat to the brimmed, iron birnhelm harvested in an unnamed battle, every inch of his frame screamed mercenary. He carried himself with the air of one so used to fighting that even men of rank unconsciously stepped aside to allow his passing.
Pas bon, I had no doubt that he had made me as easily as I had marked her. I did not want to lose twice today. If played right, there might be more than just a meal in this prey.
She glared at him. Good, she trusted me more than him. "And what would an uncouth Irishman such as yourself know?" One has to love the nobility, so sure in their own ability to judge a man's character, and so often wrong. I would guess him hard, bitter, hungry but reasonably honest. She saw him as poor, unlettered, and thus unworthy of trust.
He leaned in over her shoulder. "I am an uncouth Irishman and that is," pointing at me, "if I ain't mistaken, a French varlet, and should yer go with himself, miss, yer can pogue yer virtue good-by."
I stole her glare and threw it at him. "I believe I should take offense to that."
"Only if it weren't God's honest truth."
"Curran," she put her hand on his chest. "Dinnae, he's only trying to help."
Pest! She was familiar enough with him to use his name and to touch him. I couldn't place him as her servant--unless my senses were truly off--but there was something there. He couldn't be her servant. She was waiting for her servant. This was not right.
She smiled at me again, it was apologetic this time. "Curran has been looking out for me on the crossing, since Mary died..."
The Irishman stopped her with a gentle touch on her hand. Suddenly I understood the relationship. I'd moved in on his territory. He had chosen her when chance presented itself, as most opportune men would, as, indeed, I had. Maybe not for the same reasons, but when you're poor a meal is a meal no matter how it's obtained. Well, what chance had given him, I was about take away.
This was my profession. I had no delusions about my life, I accepted what I was. That said, I know what played and what did not. It was time to take the ground of the poor nobility, the lesser son. I let my face fall into a proper expression of disgust. "You would push yourself on this woman and take advantage of her in such time, how dare you." My voice hinted at punishments for such trespasses as I'd implied. Stepping around her, I placed my hand on his chest and pushed him back and away from her.
She plucked at my sleeve, trying to pull me back, sensing what was about to happen. Leaving one hand on Curran's chest, I chanced looking away from him and gently seized her arm in my other. "Mademoiselle, he has insulted me I can not let that pass." The mere extension of that arm carried her backwards and created more distance between my opponent and my prize. I had to get us farther from her. I didn't want her to get in the middle of this. Returning my attention to the Irishman, I used the not-so-subtle pressure from my palm to walk us farther along the dock.
My voice was low and wouldn't carry much beyond us. "Do not interfere with my work ... boy." I left the threat hanging in my tone.
He slapped my hand away. "Yer don't know what yer doin'." Apparently, Curran wasn't going to let her go without a fight. I would have thought less of him if he had. I grabbed his wrist and twisted down; pulling us together. He was a bit taller than I, and I had to look up to meet his gaze. The hard set of his features, his blue-black eyes and hair, the hate building behind his stare, it was exciting, charged. The Irishman was a good looking boy. If there wasn't work to be done, I could have been quite distracted by him.
He saw it in my face, read it in the touch of my body against his. It threatened him in a completely unexpected way and he stiffened. Momentary terror drifted across his features. He retreated.
Laughing at his plight, I threw a punch and caught him on the jaw, knocking him back slightly. He recovered quickly, grabbed my fist as I pulled back and wrenched it down, landing a blow to my gut with his other hand. Winded, I dropped to my knees. I took a few gulping breaths, grabbed his leg, and pulled it out from under him.
He twisted as he fell, landing on all fours. Launching from his position, he caught me across my chest and sent us both sprawling across the docks. He was heavier than I, and a better brawler, but I was quicker and I rolled away.
Not quick enough. He caught my ankle and drug me back. Turning, I kicked at his face, missed and hit his shoulder. He wouldn't let go and I couldn't shake him off. Curran crawled on top of me, pinning my arms under his knees. Pressing my chin to the boards with one hand, he slammed the other fist into the side of my head. I sensed the thinly veiled retribution for the unease I'd created as he held me down, pummeling my face with repeated blows. Mon Dieu, but it hurt.
I was vaguely aware of the crowd we had attracted. He was pulled off me, and I was yanked to my feet and thrown back into the small press of onlookers. The Irishman shook off the men holding him back and came back at me. Then Curran stopped his advance--we saw why we'd been separated. I hurriedly tried to hide the blood oozing from where he had split open my cheek as the dock-master came trotting up, demanding to know what was going on; and why were we all standing about; and who started what. A low mumble of discontent rolled through the crowd--the man had interrupted a minor brawl turned into a good beating.
Curran stepped forward, spreading his hands, the classic we-weren't-doing-anything grin tearing his features. "To be sure we were just havin' a wee discussion. We'll be gettin' off yer docks as soon as we find a place to put our mistress's bags." He grabbed my hat from the boards, and began making an overt show of dusting it off before he handed it to me. His tense smile said he didn't trust me, but that he didn't want to end up in the stocks, either.
"I don't understand, are you for me or against me?" I whispered as I took it.
Sliding his look sideways, in the direction of the interfering bureaucrat, he spoke between bared teeth. "It depends, yer ever gonna touch me again?"
I thought a moment, mostly to make him uncomfortable, "What are you proposing?" I smacked the hat against my leg, smiled at the dock-master, and set it back on my head. It didn't quite sit right. It probably had been stepped on.
"The lady has naw one, her maid got away on the channel crossin', not that she wasn't sick before. And this," he made a small wave with just his fingers, just out of view of the prying official, "is not my country. I wouldn't know where to find what the lady might require."
My laugh came up as a snort. "After the beating you gave me, you want me to help you? Vous êtes aliéné!"
"To be sure scon I am. And I'll take that as aye." He turned back to the dock-master. "It's just a wee matter between lads. We didn't mean any harm."
Not mollified in the least, the minor official did what les noblesse de cloche do, he lectured us. Even as we turned away and headed back to where we'd abandoned a rather stunned jeune dame, he lectured us. Even as Mademoiselle fussed over my not as-damaged-as-I-pretended-it-was face, he lectured. Even as Curran explained to the Lady how there had been a small misunderstanding, he lectured us. The man might have lectured forever, except that the Lady pulled rank on him, informing the flustered dock-master that she would send someone to collect her things as she had business to attend to--and her tone made it clear that her most trifling business was more important then anything he would be doing that day--and walked away from him as though that settled the matter. Curran and I both shrugged and trotted after her.
When we had gone a distance in no particular direction, she turned on the both of us and began yelling, without actually yelling, in a bizarre tongue, probably whatever people spoke in Scotland; although, I was fairly certain they spoke English as a rule. I looked at Curran. He shook his head. Apparently neither one of us had a clue what she was going on about.
We stood there while she berated us. I assumed we were being berated--the tone was right, her demeanor was right. Neither one of us wanted to look at her. I considered a small rivulet of filth snaking down the middle of the rue. The Irishman developed a sudden interest in chewing on his fingernails. I'm ashamed to admit that I could not overcome the years of conditioning that she was better than I and thus it was my place to take the abuse without protest. Of course neither could he.
Finally she just stood there, sniffling--a little girl who wanted to cry but didn't want anyone to see her do it.
I looked up from under the brim of my hat. "Shouldn't we be trying to find your man?" She nodded in response but said nothing. "Do you have any idea where we might start?" Again she nodded silently. "Oui? And that is?" I coaxed, stepping in and patting her arm to comfort her.
She wiped her eyes with her fingers, then drew a small slip of paper from her purse. Robert Mark, Solicitor was written in elegant script and an address, or what sufficed in Calais for an address, was inked below it. An English attorney, it was a place to start.
She went in a few times, and I just stood there spying, smoking a cigarette and trying to work up the nerve. New York was blustery--April, and still choked by winter. I'd been there a week by now, gawking and rubbing my shoulders against the cold. She came again and I didn't think, stubbed my cigarette and followed her. She let me in, but only because I told her I had money. Said she didn't do walk-ins, called me an asshole.
"Hurry up," she said. "I have a client in an hour. Did Rita send you?"
I told her I didn't know any Rita. Her apartment was spare and cold. The floor groaned the way she paced on it. She didn't stop moving once while I stood there. I was nervous. She could tell. She seemed to respond by being nervous herself. She told me to wash my hands.
"They're the dirtiest place on the body," she said.
"I don't want to have sex with you," I said.
She lit a cigarette. "Fine. Blow, hand job, touching?"
"Nothing like that," I answered.
She picked something from her mouth, a piece of tobacco. Took another drag and looked at me through the bottom of her eyes while she blew smoke. "Look," she said. "I don't have time for games and bullshit. I don't do kink."
"Sorry," I said. It was a bad idea. I turned to go.
She looked after me. I was opening the door when she expelled an annoyed sigh, like a radiator on pressure release. "The fuck do you want!" Her voice was raw, frayed.
I froze. "I'm a student."
She took another drag and blew gray air. "Yeah, so?"
I stared at the floor. "I'm a drawing and sculpture major at Embry Rice. I was wondering--"
"Aren't you artist types supposed to be poor?"
"I can pay," I said.
She went to the kitchen and ashed in a tray on the counter, then leaned against the stove. She was chewing her lips. They were red and chapped. "You really a student?"
"Yes," I said and dug into my pocket for the slip of paper. "This is my phone number and student number." I held it out. She looked away so I placed the scrap on a table covered in burnt down candles and bobby pins.
She stared at me a while. "Fine," she said. "I'll charge it like a blow job. One-fifty." She crossed through the kitchen, stubbed her cigarette, and entered the living room. She took off her coat and started to unbutton her pants. "You want some kind of pose?" she said.
"Uh," I stuttered. "I was hoping to draw you with a man."
Her pants were over her hips. She stopped there and looked at me. "What? Like watch me fuck?"
She immediately grabbed her belt loops and pulled her pants up. "I don't need this shit," she said. "Get the fuck out of here."
She stomped toward me, her voice pitched. "Fuck you. I said, get out!"
I turned quickly, jerked the door open, and got out.
"So, what are your exciting plans for the long weekend?"
David Argeld heard Ox Edmundson's hopeful question as he came out of his office. He paused. Bad idea, Ox, old boy. You'll put her on the defensive. If you're going to make your move, you want to come off smoother than that.
Then he saw whose back was to Ox at the fax machine and frowned. I take that back. If you're going to make your move on Jeannie Lin, you need the perseverance of a bloodhound, the meekness of a mouse, and the conservatism of a Yale B-schooler. A seven-foot intern that calls everyone, women included, "dude," hasn't a chance in hell.
"Not much," Jeannie's quiet voice responded.
"Ever been to a freestyle monster truck rally?"
A quick shake of her head, a grab for a small pile of paper, and Jeannie was slipping past Ox and sidling into her office.
David nodded at Ox. He glanced through the cracked doorway of Jeannie's office, spotting her long-fingered hand moving deftly over the mouse, her gaze fixed to the monitor screen.
The unfortunate Ox sighed, waved to David, hitched his laptop case over his shoulder, and left.
Oh, buddy, I feel for you, I really do.
This wasn't the first time he'd watched a victim of unrequited J-lust hang his head in defeat. Nearly every single guy at the Minneapolis Legal Advocacy Group had given her their best moves, and all had come away dateless. About eight months ago, shortly after Jeannie had been hired into the small public interest organization, he himself had succumbed and asked her out. To dinner at Goodfellow's, no less. Goodfellow's was really too upscale for a first date, especially on a civil lawyer's salary, but Jeannie was worth it. Despite her reputation, David was sure he'd hooked the lure that would get her.
He hadn't even gotten a direct answer. Not even so much as an acknowledgement. Instead, she'd smiled strangely, ducked her head, swerved around him, and avoided him ever since. That's what he assumed, anyway, since after that he only caught sight of her at meetings or on her way somewhere.
"I can't believe she dissed you," John Bakers, in for his monthly pro-bono, gibed after word reached him of David's rejection, witnessed by the gossipy secretary. "Here you are, Asian too, not to mention the suavest stud in these parts."
"Me, suave?" David drawled with faint sarcasm. He let the "stud," and the "Asian too" go unchallenged, though both irritated him. He supposed John couldn't help being a blue-blood Pilgrim descendent raised in a sheltered New England family--unlike David, whose mother was South Korean and whose Scottish father had lived in England and Canada before coming to the States. It would serve no purpose to try to explain that David's bloodline would mean little to a second-generation Taiwanese woman. John saw people in black, white, yellow, and little green aliens.
"Oh, yeah," John said. "You're the slickest talker this side of the bar, and I'm not talking about your professional life. Everyone knows, pal."
"Knows what?" He hadn't been able to disguise his annoyance then, but John just laughed and slapped him on the back.
"That you're a genius with women. Just ask Quadruple Orgasm Linda."
David had restrained himself--again. It was true he'd been with the executive from a neighboring office, and in the course of their time together she'd experienced a quadruple orgasm, several of them, actually. But he didn't blab about women, even women who knew the score--or in Linda's case, broadcast it. It was she who'd told tales of their Olympic-class romps, perhaps hoping to turn on future bed partners. In doing so, she'd managed to turn him off. The sex was good, but discretion and privacy were better.
He also hadn't responded to John's crudeness because Jeannie Lin happened to be passing at that exact moment.
There were only a few places that allowed pets to enter without being accompanied by their owners. Shaun could shop in the market if he had Ashley's permission. The owner of the store knew Ashley, so Shaun had been allowed to do their grocery shopping. Tonight he wanted to prepare a special dinner for his master.
He didn't exactly have Ashley's approval for this idea, but then it wouldn't be a surprise if he did. Since his master trusted him in all things, Shaun felt no qualms as he pushed the cart down the aisles, searching for what he wanted. He selected the lobster tails and the ingredients for the seafood salad he planned on making. As he passed by the candles, he hesitated. He definitely wanted something romantic for Ashley, and he paused for a long moment, eyeing row after row of candles. Finally, he settled on two slender red ones with ruby-colored crystal holders.
After picking out a good wine, Shaun took his purchases to the checkout. He put everything on the counter and patiently waited his turn. He knew the clerk by name and gave her a smile as she began ringing up his things.
"Something special tonight, Shaun?" Tina asked as she scanned his items. Most of the clerks knew him quite well and were generally friendly to him.
"Master's birthday." Shaun grinned at her. Spying a small box of Ashley's favorite chocolates, he picked it up and quickly added it to the pile. Most of the time Ashley always bought Shaun's favorite, and Shaun wanted to return the favor.
"Tell Ashley I said Happy Birthday."
"I will, Miss Tina." After he bagged everything, he took the receipt from her. In a good mood, he left the store and headed back to the house.
As he walked across the park, he spotted two enforcers walking toward him. Instead of passing him by, one of them stepped abruptly in front of Shaun. Forced to stop, Shaun stared down at the ground, waiting for one of them to speak.
"Your mark, were," the older man demanded as he grabbed Shaun's arm with bruising pressure.
Not daring to struggle or argue, Shaun bowed his head as the other man pulled back his hair. Shaun felt the press of the recorder to his neck as it scanned his tattoo.
"He belongs to Ashley Winters. He's clear."
"Pity. He'd be worth ten years' salary on the market." Disgruntled, the man raised his hand and gripped Shaun's chin, forcing Shaun to look at him.
Dread nearly made Shaun tremble as he saw the gleam of avarice in the man's eyes. With a shrug, the other man said, "He's legit. Nothing you can do."
Reminded of that fact, the enforcer released Shaun and moved to the side. "Get out of here, were."
Shaun didn't need to be told twice. He hurriedly walked away from them and maintained the pace until he safely reached home. Closing the door behind him, he leaned against it, trying to still the racing beat of his heart. After a few moments, he'd calmed enough to take the groceries into the kitchen.
Pulling out one of Ashley's cookbooks, Shaun followed the recipe to prepare the lobster tails. Once he finished that, he started making the seafood salad. It kept his mind from dwelling on the terrifying encounter in the park.
After he finished preparing the food, Shaun set the candles on the table, along with the vase of flowers he'd picked earlier. Wanting everything to be perfect, he carefully set their best cutlery and plates on the table. Then, glancing up at the clock, he knew Ashley would be home soon.
Heading back to the bedroom, Shaun figured he'd have just enough time to get a shower. Knowing Ashley sometimes preferred him in his fully human state, Shaun shifted as he took off his loincloth. In the bathroom, he turned the hot water on and stepped in. The warmth eased away the last of his tension over the encounter with the enforcers. It had fed on his worst nightmare of being taken away from Ashley. That had already happened once, and Shaun remained on his best behavior, praying it wouldn't happen again.
As he lathered up the washcloth, his thoughts drifted to his master. It wasn't only Ashley's birthday, but also their first anniversary together. When Ashley had first forced Shaun to come home with him, Shaun couldn't have imagined the contentment he felt now. Ashley was something Shaun had never dared to dream of, yet his master gave everything of himself.
As he washed, Shaun smiled. Ashley spoiled him outrageously with chocolates and love. The truth of their relationship could never be known on the outside, but Shaun didn't care. He'd come to deeply love his master in a way he couldn't describe, even if his life depended on it.
Quickly washing his hair and rinsing off, Shaun finished his shower, then turned off the water. He grabbed for a towel hanging from the rack near the tub and dried off. Knowing it would please his master, Shaun returned to the bedroom and chose a pair of jeans and the black sweater Ashley had bought him for his birthday.
Quite often, Ashley wanted Shaun in his human form, something that could only be done in the privacy of their home. To the outside world, Shaun was nothing more than a pet, but it was something that no longer bothered him as it once did. He had found complete acceptance with Ashley. His master loved everything he was.
Combing through his white-and-black streaked hair, Shaun looked at himself in the mirror. Being an extremely rare breed of tiger, his looks were noticed wherever he went. The attention rarely bothered him unless somebody wanted to buy him from Ashley. His master had received many offers, but Ashley had refused every one of them. Even in his human form, nobody could mistake Shaun for anything other than a were creature. The odd coloring of his hair betrayed what he was.
Setting the comb aside, he padded silently toward the kitchen. He took the pans out of the oven and placed lids on them before carrying them out to the dining room table. After lighting the candles, Shaun returned to the kitchen and got the chocolates and wine he'd bought. As he placed the box and bottle of wine next to Ashley's plate, he heard the front door opening.
Heart racing, he sprinted into the living room and waited for his master. Clasping his hands behind his back, he stood off to the side, waiting for Ashley to notice him as his master set his briefcase and keys down.
"Kitten, I'm..." Ashley's words trailed off as he caught sight of the dining room table. Then he spotted Shaun. The smile was immediate.
Bouncing on his heels, Shaun could barely restrain himself. The moment Ashley looked at him, he launched himself at his master. "Happy Birthday, and we've been together for a year."
"I know you're there. Who are you?"
The rustling leaves sounded loud to Shaun as he tried to hide further in the bushes. Holding his breath, he flattened himself as close to the ground as possible. When the man who had spoken moved slightly, Shaun scrambled backward. Unable to stop the sound, a low, warning pulse erupted from his throat and he stilled completely.
The man, who had been lying on his back, rolled slowly onto his stomach and peered into the brush. "You are a were. I won't hurt you. My name is Ashley." He got up and held out his hand. When Shaun didn't respond, the man named Ashley straightened his back. "Come," he said, using the authoritative inflection of a Master; although in his case, apparently one without a pet to control.
An enraged snarl filled the air but was quickly bitten back as the command almost shocked Shaun into obedience. Crawling forward, he slowly left his hiding place.
"I thought so." For a moment, Ashley stilled, looking Shaun over.
Muscular and sleek, Shaun knew he was a rare find even when only half-shifted, especially with his black-and-white striped fur.
"What is your name? If you know the command, then I know you can speak."
"Shaun." Clad only in a black loincloth, very little of him was covered. With fluid motion, he moved to his hands and knees in front of Ashley.
"You don't belong out here."
Ashley reached out and hummed softly. It was a technique used by Masters to calm their pets. He traced the outline of the tattoo etched into Shaun's skin, just at the nape of his neck. It was a procedure done when a were was captured. Once a Master took possession, the star would take on the form of the Master's initial, signifying ownership. Shaun's tattoo was still that of a perfect star, showing that he was unclaimed. The soft trill brought a visible relaxation to Shaun's tense body, though he tried to fight against the effect. Biting at his lip, his head lowered, allowing Ashley to touch him.
"I won't hurt you," Ashley murmured. "How long have you been free?"
The words might have been meant as some form of comfort, but Shaun didn't take them that way. Lifting his head and raising his chin higher in a defiant manner, he said, "For more than two months. I've lived out here on my own."
"You need proper bedding and a bath," Ashley said matter-of-factly. He picked up a cigarette butt from the grass beside him and stood slowly, pushing the butt into one of his jeans pockets. "Come."
Because he was given no choice in the matter, Shaun hissed angrily; but, nonetheless, he followed slowly behind the man. It would do no good to beg to be left out here. He already knew what a prize he'd be viewed as.
Home was no more than a few minutes away. Ashley was grateful that he'd found a place so far outside of the city, but close enough for work. Five minutes later, he held his front door open, standing to the side to let Shaun go in first. Shaun seemed apprehensive as he stepped past him. Once inside, Ashley watched as Shaun took several deep breaths. Apprehension, it seemed, gave way to curiosity, and Shaun slowly prowled around the perimeter of the room, poking into everything.
Closing the front door and locking it, Ashley smiled. He'd had chances in the past to take in a pet, but he'd never found the right one to replace the emptiness within him. Then this beauty had practically fallen into his life. Ashley wasn't surprised that a part of him was already working out the possibility of keeping Shaun with him, of claiming him.
"Would you like something to drink?" He went into the small kitchen, watching Shaun over the bar.
Pausing as he tried to pry open one of the small jars he'd picked up, Shaun looked over at him with a touch of suspicion. "Water."
"Water it is." Ashley took out two glasses and filled them both with ice cold water from the pitcher in the refrigerator. Then he went into the living room and held out one of the glasses to Shaun. "Drink. I will get your bath ready." With that, Ashley walked out, heading down the short hallway to the bathroom.
As Ashley walked away, Shaun shook his head in confusion, staring at the glass in his hand. Aware he needed a bath, he set the jar down and padded silently behind Ashley as he drank.
Setting his glass on the sink counter, Ashley got down on his knees and started the bathwater. Watching from his position, Shaun hadn't expected Ashley to join him. Chiding himself, he should have realized it, though. A Master expected nothing more than a well-behaved pet at his heel, to show off to his contemporaries, and to be a warm body in his bed. If Shaun had any form of luck, cruelty wouldn't be the order of the day. That's about all he could hope for. After finishing the water, he set the glass on the sink.
When the water was deep enough, Ashley turned it off and stood. As he turned around, he looked surprised to see Shaun in the doorway. "I was going to come tell you that your bath is ready. If you don't mind, I'd like to sit and talk while you bathe. If you wish for me to, I'd be happy to wash your hair." Sitting down on the toilet lid, he made no move to take off his clothes.
Just as a well-trained pet would, Shaun took off the small loin cloth and laid it on the edge of the sink. Stepping into the tub, he sank down into the water. The heat felt damn good as he leaned back against the porcelain edge.
"Why?" Shaking his head, Shaun frowned, repeating his question more fully. "Why would you want to wash my hair?"
Ashley just shrugged. "Why not? It would take a fool to not see that you're beautiful. If you don't wish me to, then I won't."
Even though it was part of his nature to adore being touched and petted, Shaun wasn't sure he wanted this stranger to touch him. Yet controlling his own natural instincts while being petted was an impossible task. Leaning slightly towards Ashley, he drew in a slow breath. The earthy scent reached him, a mixture of sunshine and grass underneath the faint smell of tobacco.
"I don't like strong scents," Ashley said with a smile, "and I hate cologne. The best smells in the world are chocolate, nature, and a man's arousal."
"You don't stink." Small favors to be grateful for. As he looked over Ashley, curiosity began to get the better of Shaun. He actually liked the smell, but the man was too far away to do anything more than catch his scent from the air.
"I should hope not," Ashley chuckled. "I took a shower this morning." He slid off the toilet lid and to the floor, kneeling close to the bathtub. "Is that better?"
As Shaun leaned over slightly and turned his head, Ashley was no more than a few inches away from his face. A small chuffing sound came from him before his nostrils flared with the deep breath he took. Inching slowly forward, he got a bit closer. "Yes, you like chocolate." The scent itself came from the direction of Ashley's hands and made Shaun lower his head as he leaned as far over the edge of the tub as he could. "Sweet."
Darius' change had begun the turn for humanity. It had taken another two thousand years for humans to learn to live with each other, not against. Progress began slowly this time. Travel became easier as animals and technology were carefully blended. Nature allowed the skies to once again shine, and rain poured as the ground flourished with activity.
Not only did people travel on foot or with animals, they could move above the ground with crystal powered skimmers which was mainly used when long distances were required. Most surprising was that space travel had become possible. It had been a great milestone for Earth and her people, but not something Darius had planned on doing anytime soon. He kept the skies above his majestic city spaceship free. It was a no fly zone. He considered the mortals to be lucky that he allowed skimmers in the city.
As Roman droned on, Darius stood, aggravated by his need to look out the windows. His vision dimmed again, enclosing more of the room this time. He tried to make it to the window and almost fell to his knees with the depth of sadness and anger being indirectly thrown at him.
He made it to the couch and curled himself tight. "Get out, Roman!" he bellowed into the silence. No one has witnessed him in this condition since it began six years ago.
Roman, though never witnessing the actual ordeal, knew the toll it took on his friend. "Darius, you can cut the Link you created with her." He also knew the reason for it.
"I won't do that to her, Roman." Darius breathed deeply, then released throughout the pain. He knew from experience that Rosalind would cry herself into oblivion. Until then all he could do was help her with the pain.
Roman couldn't understand his friend's actions. "Your obligation to the woman was finished the day she left your home."
"Obligation is not why I help her."
"You aren't helping her, damn it! She is slowly killing you." Roman voiced his fear for the first time.
Darius didn't deny the accusation.
"Why, my King?" Roman stood straight. "Why do you let this human hurt you in this way?"
"Rosalind doesn't know about our Link. She doesn't know she is projecting her pain to me."
"This is what her pain does to you?" Roman was shocked. Never had he seen a connection like this, except with Chosen Mates during the beginning of the mating ritual. Voicing the question aloud, Roman knew, was crossing the line. Some things men still did not share. Their women were number one on that list.
"It is compassion for her that I help Rosalind through these episodes. I owe it to her." The first was a lie. The second, true. Just because Darius denied his Chosen did not mean she should suffer the consequences.
"As you wish, my King." Roman sighed with relief as Darius was able to bring himself up into a sitting position.
Darius smoothed his hair back in guilty frustration. "That wasn't right."
"What do you mean?"
"The link snapped, as if she was moving out of my immediate range."
"She is already living on the borders of Vampire City. Any further and she will be surrounded by mortals."
Memories of the last time Rosalind accidentally ventured near mortals flashed through his mind. The destruction of benches, trees, trash spread throughout a ten block radius. The mortals had fled the scene in terror while vampires tried to protect themselves within the elements.
It had taken Darius hours to calm Rosalind enough to bring her telekinesis under control. It hadn't helped Darius' peace of mind that he had to forcefully hold her body to the ground.
Rosalind had been out of her head with other's emotions and scenes of future deaths crashing through her mind. Her screams still echoed through Roman's mind. Finally Darius had had to reinforce their Link and send her into a deep sleep.
"Oh, shit." Roman could only imagine the consequences of Rosalind stumbling into a mortal borough.
"Damn it, baby." Darius spoke almost to himself as he rummaged through his desk drawer. "I gave you the meadows so that you could be at peace."
"Darius?" Roman was starting to piece together twenty years of puzzles. Anger the older she became. The protectiveness despite the sudden bouts of jealousy. Sudden trips outside Vampire City.
"You fed outside of V.C. to keep her from knowing."
"To keep her from hurting!" Darius spoke without thought.
There was no way around it, Angela was an attention slut. Shaking her tits in guys faces, and letting them slip money into her g-string got her hotter than Nevada in July. The loud, throbbing music always got her going, as it washed over and through her. She selected her music carefully, knowing just what will allow her to show off her body in the best light.
As she watched Bethany, a new girl, stumble up the steps behind the stage to observe her act, Angela tossed her a knowing smile. "Relax, kid. You'll knock them dead."
Bethany smiled shyly in response. She was kind of cute. "I'm not sure that I can do this."
Unfortunately, she was definitely too timid. "You know ballet, right?" Angela continued at Bethany's nod. "Then you already know how to captivate an audience. That'll give you an edge. Just remember, they're here to watch you, not the other way around. They're paying to see your body, so you own them. Use them and walk away. Make them want more. It's what I do."
"...And now, here's our luscious Chantal, for her last set of the night." The voice of the DJ echoed throughout the back room.
"That's my cue." With a flirtatious wave, Angela pushed through the curtains and stepped onto the stage.
As it always did, the light blinded her for a moment. It was the perfect time for a dramatic pause. She could feel the gaze of the audience as if it were a living entity, caressing all over her body; they would be admiring her assets, their minds comparing her to the girls who had gone on before.
She knew the picture she posed: long blonde hair, slim waist and very ample breasts. As her eyes adjusted to the lights, she strutted out onto the stage. With each step her peek-a-boo lace corset tightened against her torso, her skirt brushing against her thighs. A line from Pretty Woman always ran through her mind: "Work it, girl. Work it, work it." That's what she always tried to do.
Across the room, Darren stood waiting, as he did every night she danced. Their gazes met, and she tossed him a smile before looking away. A shiver raced down her spine, as she moved across the stage. She could feel his gaze following her as he leaned up against the wall, his muscular arms folded across his broad chest.
Looking out at the audience, she focused her attention on a spot just above their heads as she danced around the stage. Dropping to her knees, she occasionally spread her legs, a special treat for those who were seated close to the stage.
There was an art to stripping that many never seemed to master. It wasn't about flawless movements and all the fancy shit that you see in the movies. Although she loved Flashdance, she knew what a disservice it did to many strippers. The audience for the most part doesn't care about the theatrics. They want to see tits and ass. And it's the strippers' job to give it to them.
The song ended and another began, flowing almost seamlessly together. The DJ and Angela had worked together long enough to get the music for her set perfected. As the beat slowed slightly, she lifted her hands to the waist of her skirt, pausing seductively. Hoots and hollers came from the audience. Egged on, she untied the ribbon that held it closed and on her. Grabbing the edges as it started to fall free; she pulled it open and turned her back, looking coyly over her shoulder. They were eating it up. Tonight was definitely going to be a lucrative night.