Monday, February 22, 2010

Life Without Raine by Riley Ashford

Connor had to wait...had to stay coherent enough to say the words that would make her hate him.

As his hands memorized her body, he drank in these last moments of enjoyment with his wife. God knew he loved her. But if she stayed, she would fight by his side. Last night, he’d sought the witch’s counsel; the old woman had given him little hope he could untangle himself from Solomon’s wicked plot.

Her hands slid up his chest, her firm body writhing under his touch. He could not lose his beloved to death. This was the only way to be sure she would leave—and live. She’d find another husband, another lover. The thought of her giving her body, her soul, to another man pained him so much that he stopped stroking her clit and cupped her sweet pussy. She moaned and rubbed her slick flesh against his palm. She knew only ecstasy—not his anguish. Never would she know the truth. Though their love could not be saved in this lifetime, there was still hope. True love binds the souls, said the witch. True love requires sacrifice.

And the first sacrifice was the trust of his wife.

He trailed soft, slow kisses down the curve of her stomach; he paused at the thought she might carry his child. He pressed his lips against her belly and prayed to God that his wife—and any child born from their love—would live long, happy lives.

Sweat dewed her pale skin; he licked the tiny droplets, drawing patterns in her pale flesh with his tongue. His worship of her flesh led him to the nirvana of her sweet cunny. His hands shook as he parted her thighs.

“Connor...” His name on her lips was the only permission he needed to taste her. Her swollen clit was as succulent as a ripe berry, and just as delicious. He tugged the morsel between his lips and suckled, flicking the tiny nub to the rhythm of her moans.

“Please, my love,” she begged, her restless hands plundered his hair.

He slid his hands under her buttocks and pulled her close, breathing in her feminine scent. It was as earthy and intoxicating as the scent of the forest after a long rain.

He smiled. This was the scent of his Raine.

He stroked her to a higher peak, torturing her clit with flicks of his tongue. She moved against his mouth, taking her pleasure with the same innocence and wonder as the first time she lay with him.

Was it only a fortnight ago they had wed?

She stilled, arched, and cried out. Her cunt sucked at his chin, releasing the creamy evidence of her orgasm. He soothed her tormented pussy with long strokes of his tongue, drinking her woman’s honey.

Raine’s hands were wrapped in his hair and she held him hostage as she rode the waves of bliss. Finally, she collapsed to the bed, sighing contentedly.

He reluctantly rubbed his face against the coverlet. He loved her juices, loved the smell, the taste...but ’twas unseemly to kiss her with a pussy-wet chin.

She pulled at his shoulders, her smile one of wifely satisfaction.

“I am not done yet, my lord,” she purred, drawing him up her body. He positioned himself above her and slowly entered. She was wet and ready and tight...he closed his eyes and moaned. He had no power to utter a word. Another stroke sent more pleasure rippling through him. She pulled him close, grasping with hungry little hands; he thrust harder and faster, her breathy moans battered at his control.

One last gift for his wife.

One...last...gift...

“Connor!”

The pulsations of her second orgasm tugged at his cock and he savored every one. He slowed his movements. He did not deserve the enjoyment he wanted. Mayhap she was not with child, and, if not, he did not deserve to sow his seed.

She moved her hips, her hands sliding to grasp his buttocks. “More,” she whispered in his ear, her breath feathering his lobe. “More.”

It was time.

Despair knotted his throat, but he managed to whisper, “Loralee.”

She stilled underneath him, then her small hands pushed against his chest. He rolled off of her and, though it killed him to see the betrayal and hurt glittering in her blue eyes, he gave her a lazy smile. “Something wrong, my love?”

“Who is—who is Loralee?”

“An...acquaintance.”

“Of the past?” Hope lit the sheen of tears in her eyes.

“If you call the last two nights the past,” he replied, looking down at the coverlet. His jaw clenched at her gasp. Raine, his soul cried out, forgive me.

“You were hunting with Solomon.”

“I was hunting Loralee. I visit her quite a bit, my love,” he drawled. “Surely you did not expect me to end other liaisons after our marriage?”

She pulled the coverlet up to her breasts. “I am lacking, I know, my lord. Yet I hoped I would be enough for you.”

“You are not lacking.” How could she think such a thing? He went up in flames every time he touched her. “But I am a man with a wide and varied appetite. I cannot eat at the same table every night and remain satisfied.” He hoped she did not notice how his voice cracked on the lie.

She scrambled off the bed and hurriedly donned a shift. Candlelight flickered and he saw drops of light in the deep night of her hair. Like a raven’s wing.

“I honor my marriage vows, my lord. I neither wished to marry you, nor wanted to love you. However, I have done both. I will no longer warm your bed. Your mistresses will have to do.”

“We will bed together, wife. It is your duty to bear my sons. In time, you will learn to accept my other women.”

“I will not.” Her expression tightened with anger.

Relief at the return of her spirit flooded through him. He had feared she would accept him sleeping with other women. No, the Raine that stood before him now was the proud, defiant beauty he had found in the woods a lifetime ago, willing to fight him with a dull knife and her wits. Pain clenched his heart.

He had the comfort of knowing she would live—though she would believe him a liar and an adulterer for the rest of her days.

“Connor, know that I have loved you. Know that you have hurt me deeply. I cannot stop loving you, but I will not sleep with you again.”

“You will be mother to my children.” He ran a hand through his hair. “T’would be nothing to hold you prisoner long enough to do what ’twas necessary.”

“I do not know you.” Tears spilled down her cheeks and Connor wanted to take back all that he had said. He pressed his lips together and sent her an indifferent look.

“I am tired of your clinging ways, woman.” He forced himself to yawn. “Our love play was fun, but now I am bored.”

“And I am a fool.”

Through hooded eyes he watched her leave. As the door shut behind her, he knew he had driven away his only happiness forever.

Michael Connors bolted awake, sweat beading his skin as his heart tried to pound out of his chest. Goddamn it. Would the torment never end? Eight-hundred years he’d searched for Raine. In eight lifetimes, he’d never found her. Not once.

Until now.

He slept in the nude—a habit he’d acquired in every life. He ignored the chill as he got out of the four-poster bed. His bare feet slapped against the stone floor as he walked to the window. His bedroom was on the upper floor of the castle—the same room from which he could view the lands once granted to him by a loving father. The same room he’d once shared, oh so briefly, with Raine. All that had changed was the furniture...and his countenance. But his outside was only the vessel. The vessel could be damaged or destroyed, but what it held was eternal.

Michael never remembered the journeys after death, or where he went while he waited to be born again. When he was old enough to think, to remember, his identity of Connor Williams was reaffirmed and his purpose renewed. He was one of the wealthiest men in the world, though no one knew it. He kept his wealth in various banks around the world under different identities. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d had to pretend to be his own son or grandson or great-grandson. It was simple, really. The witch’s spell had been so effective that he remembered all his lifetimes. He kept relevant information and bank account numbers in a secret spot. Unfortunately, he’d had to re-acquire the castle by fair means and foul.

She would remember this place and she would remember them.

Connor, know that I have loved you. I cannot stop loving you...

Michael pressed his fingertips against the cold glass. Please, God, let her love shine as brightly for me as mine does for her. Let all that I have sacrificed in the name of love be rewarded.

“Today, she arrives,” he murmured to the storm-laden skies. “Today, she is finally mine.”

Claiming Ariadne by Laura Gill

Chapter One

One at a time, the ornaments came out of the ivory trinket box: golden hoops, glass paste beads in shades of turquoise and indigo, rosettes on delicate chains, carnelians and amethysts the size of lentils, agate bangles, and diadems. “Which ones will you have today, Mistress?”

Ariadne selected a gold signet ring and allowed the novice priestess to choose the rest. Amaja had much better taste than she did. Today of all days, it was essential she wear just the right jewels.

Another novice painted her face, laying down a chalky foundation of white lead oxide before outlining her brown eyes with smoky galena and kohl. Carmine stained her lips pomegranate red, and with the rounded end of a stick, Sopata painted suns on the High Priestess’s cheeks, brow, and chin: scarlet circles haloed by dots.

Seeing her wavering reflection in the mirror Sasi held for her, Ariadne thought she looked like a goddess in a shrine and nothing at all like the nineteen-year-old woman she was.

A third novice combed and coiled Ariadne’s long black hair into ringlets and fixed a golden diadem across her brow before tying the ends. Sopata dabbed her throat and wrists with costly oil of iris. Amaja looped strands of gold rosettes and carnelians about her neck; they felt cool against skin bared by her ritual open bodice. For this occasion, Ariadne would walk among the worshippers, naked breasts glistening with olive oil and still firm even after four pregnancies.

Sasi held up the polished bronze mirror again. “How do you like it, Mistress?”

Ariadne gave the wavering image of herself a long, careful glance before rising from her chair. Her blue and yellow flounced skirts flowed around her. She sucked in a breath at how tightly Sopata had cinched her girdle while dressing her. At least this year she wasn’t recovering from childbirth. “Tell the priestesses I am ready.”

From her chamber in the House of the Great Mother, she and her most senior priestesses made the short walk north to Poseidon’s sanctuary. Assembled by the altar, all sixteen priests wore full regalia: blue fringed cloth wrapped around pristine white gowns. Circular polos hats crowned the two most senior priests.

Kitanetos, the High Priest of Poseidon, bowed deeply to the High Priestess and her attendants before yielding the right of precedence. As she took her place at the head of the procession, Ariadne sensed the weight of the sacred double-headed axe the man carried. Today, the labrys would bite into human flesh. Today, the horned altar would drink deeply of a year-king’s blood.

Today, she must give her blessing. Tonight, she would give her body.

Almond blossoms and ribbons garlanded the porch where she and the High Priest would watch the ritual combat. All around, on verandas and steps surrounding the vast Central Court, every resident of Knossos who could attend gathered to mark the vernal equinox and watch the drama of the year-king’s death and rebirth play out.

Two men stood alone in the sacred space. Floored with sand brought up from Katsambas six miles away, this was the Bull Court, where the lithe young bull-leapers honored Poseidon with their blood sport. Yet it was also used for other rites, including the contest to become the year-consort, the Sacred King.

Ariadne avoided looking at them, Sacred King and sacred challenger. Their faces, their bodies, their names meant nothing to her; the Sacred King was an ideal, an embodiment of the Great Mother’s young lover, not a real man, not her legal husband. Ariadne never had time enough to get to know the young men who won the right to bed her. And, knowing they were all doomed to die, she never experienced any desire to do so.

An early spring chill clung to the air. In her open bodice, Ariadne shivered and marked how her nipples hardened into reddened pebbles. It still felt like winter.

At last, she had to acknowledge the two men. Pelinos was willowy and fair, his first beard fuzzing his cheeks. For two years he’d held the title of Sacred King. He’d spent two years at the High Priestess’s side and fathered a child with her, but from the moment Ariadne stepped onto the porch, she knew there wouldn’t be a third year or a second child with him.

For the moment Ariadne set eyes on his opponent, she knew Pelinos was going to die. She wished she had liked him better.

Tall and dark-haired, with a closely trimmed beard and broad shoulders, the sacred challenger was much older than she expected. Most men who challenged the Sacred King for the right to bed the High Priestess were young. Pelinos was now eighteen—a mere boy compared with the man facing him. Ariadne couldn’t judge his age, except to guess he must be at least thirty. She could only mark the pink scars standing out against the sun-browned flesh of his arms and torso and know this was a man who’d been in battle many, many times.

So what did a warrior want with the title of Sacred King? The privilege of spilling one’s seed inside the Great Mother’s designated priestess brought no political power. It was an ephemeral honor that inevitably ended in his death.

Ariadne glimpsed her mother among the other high-ranking priestesses. Fine spidery lines fanned out from the corners of Potinia’s eyes and painted mouth. She hadn’t been young when she bore Ariadne. She’d been born ageless, as some women were, so when others stooped and became gray at forty-eight, Potinia still stood proudly erect, formidable, and unreadable.

Even when Potinia smiled, her eyes remained cold. Ariadne glanced away, toward the opposite platform where the king sat with his queen and eldest children.

All Knossos awaited her with an anticipatory hush.

Lifting her arms, she spoke, and her words echoed throughout the courtyard. “Great Mother Rea, gaze upon these two men who come to compete for your favor. This day, one shall spill his seed in your hallowed womb, and the other shall spill the blood with which you gave him life.”

Beside her, silver-haired Kitanetos raised the labrys so it glinted in the sunlight, a signal to the combatants to begin.

There were no rules, except that one man must die. Each was armed with a dagger and his fists, but the method of death didn’t matter.

Pelinos made the first move, lunging in and sweeping with his dagger through the empty air where his opponent’s belly had been. Seeming hardly to move, the man inched back; his abdominal muscles rippled as he sucked them in.

At this, Pelinos hesitated, then paced a wary circle around the man, who circled with him. Pelinos waited, and then lunged in as the man appeared to move to the right. A clever feint. Instead, the man jerked to the left and kicked Pelinos to the ground with a sudden leg sweep. Pelinos landed heavily on his right side. The dagger went flying.

A perfect moment to tackle an opponent and stab him, but the man didn’t oblige. As a dusty Pelinos scrambled for the dagger and struggled to his feet, the man watched with his hands firmly planted on his hips.

Ariadne narrowed her eyes. She’d never seen a man show off during sacred combat as thoroughly as this one did. Why did he just stand there and let Pelinos retrieve his weapon? Why didn’t he just end it? Laughter, mingled with a slight undercurrent of impatience, erupted from the audience. A few catcalls, directed at both Pelinos and his reticent opponent, swiftly subsided.

“He’s getting angry,” Kitanetos quietly observed.

Ariadne had no doubt whom the High Priest meant. Pelinos, red-faced and breathing hard, began shouting curses at the other man who merely stood his ground and smiled. His bovine indifference reminded Ariadne of the idiots who sometimes performed menial tasks in the temple workshops, and for a moment, she experienced a twinge of fear that the priests had chosen just such a man for the ritual.

When he saw the man wouldn’t fight him, Pelinos dipped, scooped up a handful of sand, and flung it toward his face. The man sidestepped the throw at the last second so that the grains showered off his elbow. The mild disinterest melted from his strong, square-jawed face like a mask. Hardness narrowed his gaze, his jaw clenched, and his lips curled back in a feral grin: the mask of a warrior who’d been toying with his younger, inexperienced opponent and was now about to end the game.

Ariadne swallowed convulsively at the change, for she knew in her heart, as she had known from the moment she first set eyes upon the man, that come twilight he’d be in her bed, where he would deal with her as brutally as he was about to settle with Pelinos.

In his fury, Pelinos couldn’t see the game his challenger was playing. When he dove in again, the man grasped him about the shoulders and pulled him into a macabre embrace. Fingers clamped tight around the wrist holding the dagger. Ariadne heard bones crunch, a sharp cry of pain, and saw the weapon tremble in a loosened grip. But no, the man shifted his hold and clamped down on his opponent’s knuckles so Pelinos didn’t drop the dagger. A deft twist and Pelinos wobbled. As his knees gave way, he slowly sank to the ground.

Ariadne didn’t see what had occurred until Pelinos pitched backward onto the sand. Eyes open, staring skyward in frozen shock. His own dagger, buried to the shaft in his breast, which rose and fell with his ragged breaths. A few seconds later, blood began trickling from his mouth.

It was over.

Ariadne, beating her breasts with both fists, sucked in a great breath and screamed. So did her attendants. From the surrounding tiers, hundreds of keening female voices added to the High Priestess’s ritual grief. Echoes carried their mourning cries throughout the Central Court long after the women themselves stopped screaming.

The High Priest waited for absolute silence. Murmuring from the tiers replaced the last doleful reverberations, then even those ceased. Holding the labrys in both hands, Kitanetos descended the side stairs to the courtyard floor, where the victor awaited him. A second collective hush fell over the audience as the new Sacred King raised the double axe and, without a moment’s hesitation, brought it down on the dead man’s exposed neck. At the crucial second, Ariadne glanced away.

Priests scurried to collect the blood in bronze vessels to scatter in the fields and anoint the horns of consecration throughout Knossos. Within the knot of their bodies, Ariadne saw very little. Pelinos would be taken to the cemetery south of Knossos and interred with all honors. She would never set eyes on him again.

But when the priests parted ranks, and she saw the victorious new year-king and the grisly trophy he dangled by the hair, her stomach turned. Most of the young men who won this combat never touched the corpse, much less picked up the severed head; they were too busy retching into the sand after ritually dispatching the victim.

This one, however, had no fear of death.

And then, to her horror, his gaze traveled upward and for the first time he acknowledged her. In his dark eyes, she perceived his bloodlust and naked desire. Trembling, knowing she couldn’t abandon the porch prematurely, Ariadne forced herself to complete the ritual.

“I am Rea, the Great Mother.” She lifted her arms, palms facing outward to channel the divinity’s presence. Her voice carried throughout the Central Court. “Who claims the title of the Sacred King, the Priest-King, the Year-King? Who claims the Goddess as his consort?”

Handing the head off to a reluctant priest so he could wipe his bloody, sweaty hands on his kilt, the man answered. “I am Taranos, son of Kretheus, prince of Tiryns.”

Ariadne caught her breath at his next gesture. Sweet Goddess, did he just wink at me?

So he was an Achaean, an insolent foreigner from the mainland. Ariadne’s gorge rose, her throat convulsing around the rejection she wanted to utter, yet she dared not. Any man found worthy enough to fight the Sacred King had already passed the other ritual tests. This man was now her consort. Whether she liked it or not, she must welcome him.

Velocity by K.D. Tracey and Anya Lynn Rhine

“Come on! Come on.” Rebecca urged. She had been at the stoplight forever. Hundreds of cars must have zoomed past. Taking off her sunglasses, she tucked them into her blonde hair and flipped the visor down before putting on her wire framed prescriptions. Next to her on the seat, her cell-phone rang. With a glance at the light she grabbed it up and flipped it open.


“Allie?”

“Girl, where have you been? I’ve been waiting on your call all day.”

The light changed and Rebecca proceeded through the intersection with the other cars on the street. On the phone Allie still chattered. Rebecca checked behind her before changing lanes.

“No, I’ve not seen it yet. I am actually working on a new script for daddy’s next commercial.” She paused and rolled her eyes. “What do you mean can’t you be in it? You were in the last one. Damn it,” she said, glancing at the time. “I’m gonna be late. I have five minutes to get to work.”

She hit the gas and picked up speed as she pulled onto the freeway. The sound of asphalt crunching under her flying tires made her feel better. Blue lights flashed in her rear-view mirror, alerting her to the cop following her car. “Great...” she said.

Pulling off to the side of the road, she announced, “Allie, I got to go.” Rebecca stopped the car, closed the phone, and threw it down as a stick of an officer walked up to her window and leaned in.

“Can I see your license and registration please?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she replied. Rebecca grabbed her purse and started dumping the contents out—makeup, wadded up balls of paper, and her eyeglasses case all fell into the seat beside her. Her wallet appeared last. She opened it up and held it out to the officer.

“Can you remove it from the cover for me, please?” he inquired instead of taking it from her hands.

The officer didn’t look amused and Rebecca quickly took the license from her wallet. She handed it to him, and while he looked at it she quickly dug through the glove box for the registration to her silver sedan.

“Here you go,” she said, but he merely took the registration and glanced at it.

“Please remain in the vehicle. I will be right back,” he spoke finally. He then turned and walked to his car. Rebecca slammed her head back into the headrest.

Just what I need.

Her last car had been built for speed and was a veritable police magnet. She could swear they looked for a reason to stop her when she had that car. She was once pulled over just for driving the car. His excuse had been that they were looking for a car with a description that matched hers. She had let the suggestion go as she was quite sure that her car was the only one like it in the city. She had finally sold the car back to a dealer the past winter but she still missed it. Rebecca liked speed.

There was nothing wrong with that, was there?

Besides, she really didn’t think her car type was her entire problem. It didn’t help the situation any, but she was not that naive.

Rebecca checked her mirror to see the officer coming back and this time and looked a bit friendlier.

“Rebecca Lindsey,” he said, leaning in. “You were pretty fast in coming off that light back there, and you sped up more crossing over Waterhouse Avenue and were at seventy before you hit the freeway.” He motioned toward the direction they had come from. The officer smiled and handed her license and registration back, along with a yellow slip of paper.

“We are going to have to give you this ticket. Good news is we haven’t stopped you yet this year so we won’t be sending you to traffic school again.” He tipped his hat at her. “Have a nice day and slow down, okay?”

“Sure.” She nodded. “And thanks.”

He tapped the side of the car as he turned to go back to his. That was her dismissal. With a slight grumble Rebecca started her car again and pulled out onto the freeway.

What a creep.

She glanced back at the cop fading away in the rearview mirror. Rebecca glanced at the clock. She was already ten minutes late. She took her exit and moved up 47th Avenue. The library where she worked was on the corner. She pulled up into the side parking lot near the glass windowed, two-story stone building and got out of the car.

Adjusting her white blouse and black skirt, she started toward the building. Rebecca tripped on the sidewalk but managed to make it inside without breaking a bone. She took the stairs and made it up to the top floor and pulled open the glass door.

“Ms. Becky!” The children’s laughter met her ears. She heard running feet and three of the kids latched onto her, two boys and a girl all about five or six years old. They were part of an after school program from East Side Elementary that came in every day. The program was supposed to create a little extra one on one time for some of the children. Rebecca returned the hugs.

“Hi kids,” she greeted them. She looked to where their teachers Ms. Emerson and Ms. Raul stood to see them smiling at her. Rebecca touched her hands to the children’s backs and directed them to the rest of the group. “What are we reading today?” she asked them, dropping to her knees to speak with them.

“Amelia Lee Builds a Tree House,” a girl name Anna said while holding up a colorful, hard covered book.

“Yeah,” Annie’s classmate Sammy announced. “She has to do it before her mom calls her to dinner.”

“Yesterday we read the book where Amelia visited her grandpa’s farm,” one of the girls told her in a slightly hurt tone. The child, Marigold, stared at her with her hands on her hips. “We missed you, Ms. Becky.”

Rebecca had been off the day before, and with her mother being sick she had been busy dropping off and picking up her brother Andrew from his preschool. While driving home with him she had received a call from her dad. He wanted her help in writing a commercial for Cranberry Carnival, the newest flavor of Ellipse Energy Drink. She was the writer in the family, he had said, and they needed something catchy. So she had spent the day with him.

Slowly she noticed that the children were staring at her. Rebecca blinked and brought herself back to the present. “I missed you, too,” she told them. She nodded toward the book the boy was still holding up and asked, “So, do any of you think Amelia will get the tree house done before dinner?”

The kids shrugged and laughed. Rebecca grinned and got up. “Let me know if she does, okay?” A chorus of yeses and nodding heads followed after her as she waved goodbye to them. She still had to check in. Her co-workers Robert and Elisa were crowding the desk and she nodded at them politely as she made her way to the back.

“You’re late!” Elisa called to her, but not in an angry tone.

“I know!” Rebecca called back. She found her time card and punched in.

“Again!”

“I know!”

“Callista won’t like it!”

“I know,” Rebecca said for a third time. “I got stopped by a cop.” She walked back out to the front and found that both Robert and Elisa had wandered off like they usually did when she came in, and as usual they had stopped in the middle of what they were doing and had left a stack of returned books on the countertop. Her co-workers were likely in the break room, doing what she probably didn’t want to know. Choosing to ignore their whereabouts, Rebecca decided to get the books checked in and to their proper places on the shelves.