Last call for KND free Thriller excerpt:
by Lisa M. Lilly
THE AWAKENING: “a…gem of a thriller with a huge concept that rivals Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code”
Tara Spencer’s mysterious pregnancy causes her family and fiancé to turn against her and sidetracks her plans for medical school. Only a stranger, Cyril Woods, believes her claim that she’s still a virgin. The religious order that Cyril belongs to thinks Tara’s child may be a new messiah. But when Tara discovers the baby will be a girl, the order sees her as the mother of the anti-Christ who must be destroyed before she triggers the first stage of the Apocalypse. Tara fights for her life, seeking a safe place to give birth, and the answer to whether she and her child are meant to save the world or destroy it.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Tara folded and unfolded the pink referral slip. Her fingers made sweat marks on the paper. “I can’t be pregnant. I haven’t had sex.”
But her first pregnancy test had been positive, too, and now instead of telling Tara it was a mistake, her family doctor had gotten the same result.
Dr. Lei closed Tara’s chart. Vivaldi played softly from the Bose Wave system on the credenza behind her. “You’re still with Jeremy?”
“Still planning to get married?” Dr. Lei said.
“We haven’t set the date, but eventually. After college, before med school.”
Tara had over a year of college left, then med school, then an internship. That’s why she’d insisted on waiting. So she would never have a conversation like this. She understood Dr. Lei needed to ask these questions, but it wouldn’t lead to anything useful.
“And you’re not sexually active?” Dr. Lei asked.
“We haven’t had intercourse.”
“It’s possible to be a virgin and become pregnant,” Dr. Lei said. “It’s rare, but it can happen if there’s contact and sperm travel to an ovum.”
“We’re careful. We’re always careful.”
Dr. Lei’s cinnamon scented potpourri highlighted rather than masked the office’s alcohol-peroxide smell, making Tara slightly nauseated and adding to her unease about what might be happening in her body. But this was better than the University’s medical services unit, where the nurse practitioner talked to Tara while Tara sat wrapped in a paper gown, her bare legs dangling over the exam table’s edge.
“Have you engaged in mutual masturbation?” Dr. Lei asked.
“Has there been any time when, as a result of any activity, Jeremy’s sperm came anywhere near your vulvar area?”
Long ago, Tara had promised herself she’d never repeat her mother’s life. Her parents never complained about having five kids, but they hadn’t planned it, either, and Tara felt sure her mother would feel less angry and frustrated, and be happier all around, if she hadn’t gotten pregnant at nineteen.
“Some young women feel it’s not really intercourse if the man penetrates her but doesn’t ejaculate. Have you and Jeremy ever tried that?”
Tara shook her head.
“Is there anyone else you’ve engaged in any sexual activity with?”
The miniature grandfather clock on the wall ticked. Tara tried not to let her thoughts race ahead of her. You don’t know what’s going on yet. Dr. Lei tapped her fingers on her desk. “None of what you’ve described could lead to pregnancy. Still, it’s unlikely you’d get two false positives in a row.”
“But both labs could have made mistakes, couldn’t they?”
Already knowing the answer, Tara twisted the referral slip into a pink string. It was possible, but unlikely, that both labs erred in the same way for the same patient.
Leaning back in her chair, Dr. Lei folded her hands across her diaphragm and stared at the ceiling. Tara started to speak, then stopped, pressing her hands against the chair arms. Dr. Lei was a thorough physician, she asked a lot of questions before proposing courses of action. Just answer her questions, let her think it through. Unlike Tara, Dr. Lei hadn’t spent the last two weeks turning over all these points in her head.
Dr. Lei looked at Tara again. “I’m sure you’ve considered this, but could something have occurred you’re unaware of? A night you drank too much and someone, not necessarily Jeremy, forced himself on you?”
“No. I drink, but I’ve never passed out or had a blackout.”
Dr. Lei pursed her lips. “I don’t know what to tell you. Let’s schedule an ultrasound and go from there.”
“What do you think you might see?”
“I don’t know,” Dr. Lei said. “But whatever we see or don’t see, that will tell us what to do next.”
“Is it –” Tara’s throat tightened, but she had to talk about what weighed on her most. She took a breath. “Could it be a tumor? I mean, with Megan—”
Dr. Lei reached across her desk to touch Tara’s hand. “Tara. Nothing in the medical literature suggests your sister’s brain tumor is hereditary. You don’t have a predisposition to cancer.”
“But you need to rule it out.”
“I need to rule out all potential causes, even remote ones. But remember, there are many reasons your cycle may be off, including something as simple as stress.” Turning to her laptop, Dr. Lei accessed her schedule, something she normally left to her assistant. “Let’s get you in as soon as possible. Thursday morning at ten?”
Hands shaking, Tara almost dropped her backpack as she fished out her planner to check the date. “I’m still hoping it’s all just a mistake. Two mistakes.”
“It may be,” Dr. Lei said. “But we need to find out.”
* * *
The red-haired man scanned the student lounge from his corner armchair, deliberately slumping despite the tension coursing through him. He fingered the photo in his pocket, then took it out and cupped it in his hand to shield it from anyone else’s view. He’d cut it from a Webster Groves High yearbook, so it was a few years old.
In the photo, Tara Spencer’s blonde hair hung straight past her shoulders. Her blue-green eyes, wide and almond shaped, were the focal point of her face. He saw no mark in the photograph, but it could be anywhere on Tara’s body.
Unlike the other students, Tara looked as if she were having fun, as if she and the photographer had just discovered they both loved the same type of music or played the same sport. The man guessed most other students thought Tara friendly and kind. A good person.
Appearances could deceive.
Three girls walked in. He peered at them, looking for a match, reminding himself Tara’s hair color or cut could be different now. A brunette leaning against a vending machine bragged to her friends about last Friday’s beer bash, and how much she would drink this Friday, and how devastated she felt that this was only Wednesday. Two boys flipped a mini-Frisbee near the back of the lounge while they complained about a professor who refused to let them use notes in their open-book exams.
The man doubted anyone serious about studying came to this place. But he’d been told he’d find her here. And he had to see her in person.
Then he’d decide what to do to her.
* * *
At eight-thirty Wednesday night, Tara pulled into the driveway. She planned to run in, grab her laptop, and head back to school to finish her ancient history paper. She could work at home, but she focused better with noise and activity around her, the effect of growing up with four younger siblings. All morning during Advanced Physics, which she loved, and all afternoon during work, all Tara could think about was what Dr. Lei would see on the ultrasound tomorrow. Tara pressed her fingers into her abdomen, searching for masses. Then she thought of Megan, hooked up to IVs for chemo, vomiting for hours in the middle of the night, thinning to a near skeleton, then ballooning months later from the steroids.
Please don’t let it be cancer, Tara thought, then felt guilty for thinking it. If Megan, who was nine, had to face radiation and chemo without flinching, who was Tara to demand a reprieve? But if it wasn’t cancer, what could it be? A benign cyst maybe. Which still didn’t explain the positive pregnancy tests.
It’s nothing, don’t think about it. It’s all a mistake.
Tara climbed the outside back stairs to the attic, fumbled for her keys in the dark.
Her brother Bailey’s piping voice came before Tara had pushed her door all the way open.
Tara dropped her backpack on the floor and hung her parka on the coat rack. She’d fixed up the attic into a studio apartment with her grandfather’s help, and neither had thought to build a coat closet. “What’s up?”
Bailey sat cross-legged on Tara’s futon, a Batman comic book open on his lap. One of Dad’s Buddy Holly CDs played in the background.
“Hospital. Megan’s white count is low.” Bailey was only eleven but, like the rest of the family, had gained an encyclopedic knowledge of medicine in the last five years.
“Really bad?” Tara said, and thought, what if I’m in the hospital next? What will that do to Bailey?
“It’s just for an IV. She might come home tomorrow. Want to play a game?”
Tara plopped down at her tiny kitchen table and flipped on her laptop to check e-mail before she headed out again. “I’ve got to finish a paper. And don’t you have school tomorrow?”
“A quick one?” He grinned at her, crinkling his nose.
Bailey was blonde, like Tara, with light freckles barely visible across his cheeks, and blue eyes. Already he had a bunch of little girls calling him, but he was true to SueLyn, the trumpet player he’d had a crush on since kindergarten. Tara caught herself wondering whether, if she really were pregnant, the baby would look like Bailey, and how she could keep taking care of Bailey and the other kids if she became a mother herself.
But that’s crazy. I’m not pregnant.
Thoughts about pregnancy kept jumping into Tara’s mind. She couldn’t understand it. Her friend Vicki told Tara she worried if she was only a day late because her birth control pills might have failed. That made sense to Tara, birth control pills did fail. So did condoms and diaphragms and everything else. But not abstinence.
“No one’s been home at all,” Bailey said, giving Tara his sad eyes. “Mom left me a note for when I got back from school, and Kelly’s at rehearsal.”
He was hamming it up, but he really did get lonely when everyone was out. Sometimes even when everyone was around. Bailey was healthy and mostly happy, and Megan needed so much. It was why Bailey came to Tara’s, even if she wasn’t there.
Tara ran her fingers through her hair. She needed to get up early and wash and dry it, and her doctor’s appointment was at ten, which didn’t leave much time for writing. Still, she could barely think about anything except the ultrasound anyway. And she felt superstitious about disappointing Bailey, as if it somehow would be bad luck for Megan. “What d’you want to play?”
“That’s not short, buddy.”
But she closed the laptop. She’d set her alarm two hours early and finish her paper in the morning.
* * *
The piano played in the living room – The Bread of Life for the third time. A door slammed somewhere upstairs and Tara’s mother’s yelled, “I don’t care whose turn it is. You know how the dryer works.”
She’s in a good mood. Tara’s stomach tightened. She hadn’t done anything wrong, yet it felt like she had. Sliding the ultrasound photo back into her anatomy text, Tara looked at the clock on the microwave. She’d told her mother and stepdad at breakfast she needed to talk to them about something important, and it was already almost eleven. Her shift at Dirty Things Laundry started in an hour, and she still needed to change out of her sweats and T-shirt. Probably just into jeans and a T-shirt, but she’d like time to get calm again, too, after the way she expected this conversation to go.
Bailey wandered into the kitchen, trailing a Wiffle Ball bat behind him. He pressed his nose to the sliding glass doors, peered out at the snow and sleet, and sighed.
“Are you just passing through?” Tara said.
He turned around. “Should I be?”
Bailey frowned. “Jeez. Everyone’s crabby today. Some Saturday.”
He left as Tara’s mother, Lynette Spencer, walked into the kitchen. Already wearing her trench coat over corduroys and a blazer, she ran a comb through her short, bobbed hair, a bottle of Clinique’s palest foundation shade in her other hand. Lynette stood nearly a half a foot shorter than Tara, but about twenty-five pounds heavier. Her figure was round and curvy, while Tara’s was angular, and she always looked polished.
“So what’s all the drama?” Lynette said. “I’ve got Weight Watchers in twenty minutes.”
Tara tried to slide her chair back, but the kitchen table was so large, and the room so small, she had nowhere to go. “Sorry. I forgot.”
“Of course you did. It’s not like you need to go.” Lynette peered at herself in the microwave’s glass window, touching up her foundation. “So?”
“Can we wait for Dad?”
Lynette turned toward the doorway to the living room. “Pete!”
The piano cut off. A moment later, Tara’s stepfather came in and sat down next to Tara. He smelled like the dark-roasted coffee he always drank, and he sat perfectly straight, shoulders back, a holdover from being raised by an Army colonel. “What’s going on, honey?” Pete and Lynette had married when Tara was three. He was the only father Tara remembered.
“It’s complicated.” Tara crinkled the corner of a page in her book, then made a conscious effort to stop and look at her dad. He smiled, deepening the faint lines around his eyes she’d noticed only recently. His hair had gone gray years before, he was fifteen years older than Lynette, but somehow he hadn’t seemed to be aging to Tara until recently. “I don’t know how to explain it, but Dr. Lei thinks I’m pregnant.”
“What?” Pete’s smile disappeared.
“That figures.” Lynette dropped the foundation bottle on the counter with a thunk. “Though I really thought Jeremy was more responsible than that.”
“Jeremy? You thought Jeremy was more responsible?”
After all the times Jeremy had tried to persuade Tara to have sex, with or without a condom, she couldn’t believe her mother thought he was the one who was more responsible.
“You must have known this could happen. What do you expect me to say?” Lynette crossed her arms and stared at Tara.
Tara glared back. “I just thought you’d want to know.”
Pete touched Tara’s arm. “Of course we want to know.” To Tara’s relief, though her dad looked a little pale, he didn’t seem angry.
“You and Jeremy were planning to get married anyway, right?” Lynette said.
“So it’ll be a little sooner than you planned. You’re better off than I was.” Lynette fluffed her hair with her fingers. “You can even finish college if that’s what you want.”
Lynette started buttoning her coat, but Pete shook his head at her. She stayed put, but picked up her car keys.
“If that’s what I want?” Her mother’s deliberate blindness to Tara’s ambitions was not the point, but it sidetracked Tara all the same. “Have you not noticed me studying my eyes out for the MCAT?”
“Of course I have. But that’s not for sure, is it?”
“Where I go is not for sure. That I’m going is.”
“Not anymore, apparently.”
Lynette didn’t smile, but her words had a lilting, sing-song quality that made Tara feel her mother was happy, or at least pleased, on some level, at the idea that Tara had stumbled. Sometimes Tara thought it was her resemblance to her biological father, who was olive-skinned and wiry like Tara, that set her mother on edge. Other times Tara figured it was what Jeremy’s mom had told her. It was hard for mothers when their daughters surpassed them professionally, and Tara was on the way. Lynette had never graduated college. Despite a 4.0 GPA, she’d dropped out after her third semester when she met Tara’s biological father, and he persuaded her to chuck everything and travel the country with him and his rock band. Then she’d gotten pregnant with Tara, and that had ended the relationship.
Pete Spencer cleared his throat, glancing between Lynette and Tara. “We’re getting off track. Tara, you’re sure you’re pregnant?”
“That’s what I was about to say when Mom interrupted.” Tara glared at Lynette. “Dr. Lei says I am, but Jeremy and I never had sex.”
“Define sex,” Lynette said. “Because you wouldn’t have to actually have intercourse, as you should remember.”
In her senior year of high school, Tara, who’d been seeing the same boy for three years, had missed a period. Worried because her friend Vicki told her it was possible to get pregnant without intercourse, she’d asked her parents detailed questions. Her mother answered matter-of-factly. Her dad, on the other hand, turned a pasty shade and had never really liked Tara’s high school boyfriend after that.
“I remember. And I’ve been over that with Dr. Lei.”
“Then which is it, Tara? Pregnant or not?” Lynette said.
Tara swallowed hard. “The ultrasound shows I’m pregnant, but I can’t be. Dr. Lei can’t explain how this happened.”
Lynette put her hands on her hips, her keys still folded in one fist. “I think we’re all pretty clear how these things happen.”
Pete shot Lynette a look. “Lyn.”
“What? It’s not some big mystery. You’re acting like I’m the one being irrational.”
“Dr. Lei says there must be something I don’t remember, like at a party, or something I’m repressing, but there’s nothing like that.”
“Or maybe you were a little more intimate with someone than you’re willing to admit, even to yourself,” Lynette said. “That seems more likely.”
“It might be more likely, but I’m telling you it didn’t happen.”
“I don’t know, Tara. I’d come up with a better story for Jeremy, if I were you.”
Tara stood, bumping the kitchen table with her thighs so it screeched forward. “Story? A better story? I’m telling the truth and you want me to come up with a better story?”
Pete put a hand on Tara’s arm. “Tara.”
Tara pulled away. “No. She’s fucking accusing me of lying.”
“Language,” Pete said.
“All I’m suggesting is maybe you’re having a little trouble taking responsibility for your actions,” Lynette said.
“I can’t believe you. I’ve always been up front with you, especially about Jeremy. You’re the one always saying I tell you too much.” Tara put her hands to her ears, mimicking her mother. “‘Too much information, Tara.’ So why do you think I’m lying now?”
“Because what you’re saying is absolutely ridiculous.”
He crept from the elevator. His dark hair and clothing helped him blend into the shadows between the hallway emergency lights. Yesterday, he’d seen Dr. Lei under a false name, claiming a history of migraines. It gave him a chance to see the office layout. And steal a building keycard.
When he reached the door to the office suite, he put on his gloves, struggling when the latex stuck to his sweating hands. When he fished out his lock-picking tools, the pick dropped on the carpet with a thunk. He snatched it, started again. Pushed away thoughts of the years he’d waited, the disappointment that could lie beyond the heavy glass door. He was right about this time, this girl.
At last the lock released. On entering the waiting room, the smell of rubbing alcohol assaulted him. His body stiffened.
Moving away from the frosted glass door, he flicked on his flashlight. Charts from previous days’ visits stood in wire racks on the desk corner, ready for filing. He flipped through any chart with a patient name that might be female, checking age and marital status, then glancing through the notes.
The tenth chart must be it, but he skimmed the others before he read that one more closely. The office notes were practically hieroglyphic, between the doctor’s rushed handwriting and the medical abbreviations. But he’d studied enough to pick out what he needed – twenty-one year old white female…two positive pregnancy tests…denies sexual activity…return for ultrasound. He made his way to the back hall, read more as he waited for the copier to warm up. So much information.
Tara Spencer would be easy to find.
* * *
Field Report 1.2: Tara Spencer
Since initial report and review of medical records, the following has been determined:
Subject’s mother (Lynette Spencer) and stepfather (Peter Spencer) devote their time primarily to subject’s youngest half-sibling, Megan, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor five years ago. Subject often attends half-siblings’ school and sporting events, supervises their homework, and collects half-brother Bailey from school. Subject attends classes at St. Louis University (“SLU”) and works evenings and Saturdays at Dirty Things Laundromat one half block from campus.
Boyfriend, Jeremy Turano, 22, manages family-owned restaurant, Trattoria Alleata, in Rock Hill. Subject sees Turano one to two times per week, speaks to him often by phone, and appears unaware of his sexual relationship with Suzanne Freeman, a hostess at Trattoria Aleata. It is unknown whether Turano’s sister, Vicki, who is also subject’s friend, is aware of the Turano–Freeman relationship.
Subject drives to school and work through populated neighborhoods, parks in lighted areas, and carries cell phone. Subject jogs occasionally, but always with friends. Subject is frequently accompanied by other students while on campus. She plays intramural basketball and Frisbee.
At night, subject is isolated, as she sleeps in what appears to be a partially finished attic apartment in her mother and stepfather’s home. Apartment can be accessed through exterior or interior stairway. The latter poses a danger, as family members might be alerted if subject were approached or might be inside apartment without this investigator’s knowledge.
Most promising venue appears to be Dirty Things Laundromat from eleven p.m. to midnight, as few patrons enter establishment during that time period.
Having determined subject’s schedule, this investigator will act as soon as opportunity presents, unless otherwise advised.
Tara’s best friend Vicki reached across the coffee table and tapped Tara’s arm. “Cute guy at eleven o’clock totally checking you out.” Vicki nodded toward the coffee bar in the far left corner of Common Grounds.
A wiry man wearing new-looking blue jeans and a stark white T-shirt averted his eyes when Tara looked. His dark hair stood straight in a long crew cut that sharpened the angles of his face.
“Sure, ‘cause I’m gorgeous today.” Tara ran her hand through her hair, pulling out a few tangles in back. Her olive skin tended toward dark circles under her eyes even when she was sleeping well, and lately she barely slept at all.
“Yeah, you look a little dragged out.” Vicki sipped her latte. “And thinner. You’re not dieting, are you? That would be nuts.”
Tara and Vicki met every Wednesday evening at the Common Grounds coffeehouse/Internet cafe to study and catch up. Flute music played over the speakers and incense scented the air, but tonight neither made Tara feel relaxed.
“No. But I have to tell you something.” Tara shut her laptop. “I didn’t before because I haven’t said anything to Jeremy yet, but I’m talking to him tonight.”
Vicki was Jeremy’s sister, and much as Tara had wanted to spill everything to Vicki, she’d felt it wasn’t right to ask Vicki to keep secrets from her brother.
“You’re breaking up with him, aren’t you?” Vicki said.
“What? Of course not.”
“Because the whole medical school thing, you know I could never see that working.”
Tara frowned. She’d never guessed Vicki felt that way about how Tara’s school plans fit or didn’t fit with Jeremy, and she thought she and Vicki talked about everything. “I’m not breaking up with him.”
“Then what – Oh my God. It’s that pregnancy test, isn’t it?” Vicki leaned forward, almost tipping her latte onto her interior design workbook. “It wasn’t a mistake.”
A girl reading by the windows looked over at them, apparently finding the conversation more intriguing than A Tale of Two Cities. For the first time, Tara wished Common Grounds played hard rock. Loud. She didn’t care what strangers thought, but that didn’t mean she wanted to announce her private life to the world at large. And she was pretty sure she knew the girl from Calculus last year.
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” Tara said.
“I’m thinking you finally did it with Jeremy and didn’t even tell me. I’m your best friend – how could you not tell me?” Vicki wagged her finger at Tara.
“No, we didn’t. We haven’t.”
“You did it with Roger and didn’t tell me?”
Roger, Tara’s lab partner, had asked Tara out once and she’d said no.
“Of course not. Not with anyone.”
“So, what, you got artificially inseminated and didn’t tell me?”
“No. I can’t be pregnant. There’s some mix-up. I’m seeing a specialist tomorrow.” But Tara’s face flushed and her hands shook. The oncologist she’d seen had confirmed all Dr. Lei’s findings and ruled out a tumor. Which was a relief, yet Tara didn’t feel as relieved as she’d thought she would.
If I am pregnant, Tara thought, how can I take care of a baby and finish college? And forget med school. But this is insane. I’m not pregnant.
Tara had spent every waking moment since she’d seen the oncologist searching her memory for unaccounted-for time, or for some place where she could have been drugged and assaulted, for any way she could have gotten pregnant without knowing what was happening.
There was nothing.
“What’d your parents say?” Vicki asked.
“They made me talk to Father Saur, then insisted I see a shrink. The shrink interviewed me and gave me all these personality tests. He couldn’t find anything suggesting I suffered any sexual abuse or was repressing, so he decided I must be lying.”
“Nice.” Vicki sat straighter and set her drink on the coffee table. “So what are you going to – that guy is really staring. It’s not him, is it? Is he the other guy?”
“There is no other guy.” Tara clenched her fists in her lap. “And I don’t know who that is.”
Tara glanced again at the man with the crew cut, who still sat reading his newspaper. Something about him looked familiar, the rigid, squared way he held his shoulders, maybe. She guessed him in his late twenties, possibly a grad student.
“How’d you find the specialist?” Vicki said.
“He wrote an article on conditions that appear as pregnancy but aren’t. It’s more focused on psychosomatic issues, like hysterical pregnancy, but I figure he’s the best person to see.”
The wind chimes over the front door jangled, but it wasn’t Jeremy, just a couple teenage boys in baggy jeans and backwards baseball caps, snow coating their jackets.
Tara had no idea what to say to Jeremy when he did arrive. Gosh, honey, my doctor thinks I’m pregnant, but I can’t be. You believe me, don’t you?
Because that had worked so well with her parents.
Jeremy got there about 8:30. He stopped at the coffee bar just inside the door to brush the snow from his dark hair and take off his leather jacket. Tara wanted to tell him not to order anything, that she’d rather talk somewhere else, but she felt frozen in place on the couch.
“You’re up.” Vicki stuffed her books into her backpack.
Tara looked at her friend. “Hang out, will you? Not right here, but around?”
Vicki squeezed Tara’s hand. “Sure, I’ll go sit with soldier boy.”
The man at the coffee bar did have something of a military look, though Tara couldn’t put her finger on why. It might be his neatness, or his ramrod posture. Maybe Vicki would talk to him, find out he had nothing to do with Tara, and believe Tara about the pregnancy. Or lack of pregnancy.
Jeremy crossed the room and hugged Tara. His jacket chilled her cheek. She shivered, but leaned into him anyway. He smelled of winter air and white Dial soap. Her eyes burned. What if it’s the last time he ever hugs me?
“Hey. What’s wrong? Is it Megan?”
Tara sat on the sofa. Jeremy sat next to her, keeping his arm around her.
“No, she’s better,” Tara said. “We just brought her home from the hospital.”
“So what did you want to talk about?” Jeremy glanced at the clock over the windows. Outside, the wind whipped snowflakes sideways and in circles. “I promised Mom I’d come back for closing tonight, we’re short-handed.”
“Maybe we should talk another time. Somewhere private.” Even as she suggested it, Tara knew she couldn’t wait to talk to Jeremy. If only the temperature were less arctic, they could have at least taken a walk.
Jeremy shook his head. “I’ve got the trade show this weekend. We won’t see each other ‘til next Saturday.”
Tara picked up a granola bar she’d bought earlier but hadn’t opened yet. She pulled the brown tab at the back. It caught under her fingernail. She didn’t want to talk to Jeremy in the middle of Common Grounds, but she couldn’t wait another week and a half. And she couldn’t do it on the phone.
Tara took a deep breath. She wasn’t pregnant, but something very bad was happening, and if she ever wanted a decent night’s sleep again, she had to tell Jeremy.
It’s not like I did anything wrong.
She shifted a little to face him.
“Okay. I missed a couple periods and figured it was all the stress from the extra classes and my work schedule this semester. But I was kind of concerned, so I went to my doctor.”
“Are you all right?”
Tara ran her hand through her hair. “I don’t know. See, Dr. Lei thinks I’m pregnant, which of course I can’t be, but she can’t find anything else wrong.”
She felt Jeremy’s body tense, but he didn’t pull away. “But she knows you’re not pregnant. You had a pregnancy test, right?”
“Well, yeah. But it was positive.” Tara still held the granola bar, and she squeezed it. “Two tests were, actually, and I just don’t know what’s happening and I’m really scared.”
Jeremy pulled away and stood, glaring down at Tara. “Who was it?”
“I knew the second you said you missed your period. Who was it? Roger? I’ll fucking kill him.”
“Not Roger. No one. It’s a mistake.”
“So your doctor’s just wrong.”
“She must be.”
Past Jeremy, Tara saw a guy she knew from SLU join the girl with A Tale of Two Cities. They held hands across the table, smiling.
Tara longed to be that girl, wished she could sit at that table and drink chai tea and talk with Jeremy about her chem class and his day at the restaurant and whether he wanted to pursue an MBA while she went to med school. She ought to be that girl. She had been that girl. And yet instead she was telling Jeremy she’d had a positive pregnancy test when she couldn’t be pregnant.
Someone opened the front door, and icy air swept through the room.
“What about other doctors?” Jeremy said.
“They said the same thing.” Tara slid to the end of the couch and shifted so she sat on its arm, closer to eye-level with Jeremy.
“And they’re all wrong.” Jeremy’s voice grew louder, and the SLU couple peered at him.
“Can we talk about this somewhere else?” Tara set the granola bar on the coffee table and reached for Jeremy’s hand. “Please?”
Jeremy jammed his hands in his jeans pockets. “Talk about what? You tell me sex is too risky and we need to wait, then you fucking do it with someone else. What’s to talk about?”
“I’m telling you I never had sex with anyone.” Tara stood, clenching her fists, her eyes filling with tears. “This is a mistake. Just because no doctor’s figured it out yet doesn’t make it not a mistake. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, or how this could be happening, and I’m scared –”
“Stop it. Stop lying.” Jeremy turned away, then pivoted back. “It was never going to work anyway. You’ll be off to medical school, at least you would have been. You didn’t have any place for me. Now you have to find a place for a baby. Good luck.”
Tara grabbed his arm, even as she thought that Vicki had been right about medical school and Jeremy. “I’m telling you the truth.”
Jeremy jerked away. “Right.” He stalked across the room and out the door, not even glancing at Vicki, who still sat at the counter.
When Tara looked around, most people appeared intent on reading, clicking laptop keys, or listening to their iPods, but she felt sure they’d all been staring a second before.
She kicked the coffee table, making it shake. “Show’s over.” Tara sank down onto the couch and bent forward, elbows on her knees, head on her arms. “It’s over.”
Vicki sat and put her arm around Tara. “That didn’t go well.”
“He didn’t believe me,” Tara said. “He didn’t care how I feel, or how this happened, or anything.”
“That sucks. Look, why don’t we get out of here? I’ve got an early class tomorrow, but I’ve got time for a beer.”
“Yeah, okay.” Tara wiped her eyes. Then it hit her. If she were pregnant, she couldn’t have a beer. It was only one of many things that would change. If she were pregnant. But I’m not.
Vicki zipped her jacket. “What?”
Tara shook her head. “Nothing. I just, it hit me that if I were pregnant, I wouldn’t drink.”
“But you don’t think you are.”
“I can’t be. But Jeremy’s definitely assuming the worst.”
“Try to see it from his point of view.” As they crossed the room, Vicki’s boot heels clunked on the coffee house’s hardwood floor. “It must look like you strung him along, telling him you didn’t want to have sex until you at least finished college, because you might get pregnant, then you go off with someone else.”
“Is that what you think?”
“I don’t know what I think, really. It’s all so weird. I mean, you said you’ve already had confirming tests and seen specialists. What else could it be?”
“Have you ever known me to lie to Jeremy? Or you for that matter?”
Tara paused at the door. “I don’t know what’s going on any more than Jeremy does. Or you do.”
“You can see where it would be hard for him to believe that, though, can’t you?”
The door chimes clanked as they stepped outside. The wind smacked Tara’s face. “Yeah. I can see that.”
* * *
At eleven that night, once she was home, Tara tried Jeremy on his cell phone. He hung up on her. Answered the phone just to hang up, apparently, because he had Caller I.D. The whole night, Tara lay awake, imagining what else she could have said to explain things, and what she might say when they talked again. In the morning, exhausted, she stumbled through a shower and grabbed a granola bar and banana for her drive. She left her knapsack on the kitchen table.
The heavy outside door slammed shut behind her, and Tara started down the stairs. It was only when she remembered the knapsack and turned back that she saw the blood.
It dripped from the doorknob onto the landing’s chipped gray paint. Clutching the railing, Tara scanned the door, the side of the house, the steps, but couldn’t see any source for the blood. No wounded or dead animal. Nothing. Zigzag heel prints behind her on the landing reproached her. She’d stepped in the blood without even realizing. More of it trailed down the stairs and pooled on the second-floor landing. Tara hurried down.
A lump half the size of Tara’s fist lay in the reddish-brown puddle, a reed-like black stick jabbed into it. Tara sank to a sitting position on the stair just above the landing, arms crossed over her stomach. She leaned forward for a closer look, and the twin smells of formaldehyde and latex paint hit her. Tara jerked back.
Not blood. Which she would have realized sooner, if she’d been thinking clearly. Blood would have clotted and smeared, not dripped, unless it was still flowing from a living being.
The lump lay still. Though she knew what it must be, Tara fumbled through her knapsack for a pencil to slough some of the paint away. Her efforts revealed a head twice the size of the body. The skin, under the paint, was grayish and dull. A nub of a hand poked up. Stringy legs curled inward toward the bulging stomach. The knitting needle pierced where the right eye would have grown.
Based on what she’d learned in Anatomy, Tara guessed the age about sixteen weeks in utero. She pressed her palms together and struggled not to vomit.
Who could do this? The only people who knew were Jeremy, Vicki, Tara’s parents, the doctors, and the parish pastor.
Then there was the question of why.
A screeching sound behind her nearly stopped her heart.
It was just her dad opening the window. Tara’s parents’ room looked out onto the lower landing.
“Tara? Oh my God.”
* * *
“Mom, seriously, it’s okay. Go,” Tara said.
Lynette stood fast in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, eyeing the police detective, who sat at the kitchen table, arms crossed over his chest.
“Harold can get someone else to finalize his brief.” Lynette was a legal secretary, and because of Megan’s illness, she was allowed to be on flex-time. The partners she worked for were understanding, but Tara knew her mom worried one day they’d decide they couldn’t deal with her absences and odd hours. And she’d long since used all her paid time off for the year, so every day she missed cost the family money.
“No, really. You were out all last week already. I’ll be fine.”
“Honey, I know I was hard on you about this whole pregnancy thing, but I want to be here for you. I’ll call in.”
“Mom, you go. I’ll let you know what happens. It’s okay.”
Gripping the back of a kitchen chair, Tara watched her mom head down the stairs, then turned toward Detective Mallard. She wished she’d asked one of her parents to stay, she knew either would have. But Tara’s dad’s job was even more demanding, and if he lost it, the family lost its health insurance.
The detective flipped a page on his notebook. He was a big man, and he perched precariously on one of the wooden chairs, his legs jammed under the kitchen table, his neck nearly bursting from his collar.
“You were about to give me your boyfriend’s full name.”
“Jeremy Robert Turano. But I told you, he wouldn’t do something like this. No matter how mad he is.”
The detective hadn’t said so, but Tara felt sure he must know Jeremy. Fewer than four thousand people lived in Rock Hill, and Trattoria Alleata, the Turanos’ restaurant, was the closest, and best, Italian restaurant around.
“And his address?”
“58 Plant Court, Webster Groves.”
Mallard nodded. “Two and a half miles away.”
“But he had no idea I was pregnant before last night around 9 p.m. Where would he even get a fetus between then and this morning? It’s not like they sell them at the grocery store.”
Mallard drummed his pencil on the table while Tara spoke, then said, “His sister lives at the same address?”
“No, she lives with their parents.” Tara gave him Vicki’s address. “But she’d – ”
“I know. Never do anything like this.”
“She wasn’t even mad at me.”
Mallard peered at Tara, his eyes flat ovals. “She didn’t believe it, though. Your story about not knowing how you got pregnant.”
“My story – no, she probably didn’t believe me.”
Tara pressed her lips together. She needed the police to figure out who did this, so the least she could do was be polite, even if Detective Mallard wasn’t showing her the same courtesy. And she couldn’t entirely blame him for being skeptical. If her own mother and friends didn’t take her at her word, she couldn’t expect a stranger, and a police detective at that, would. But, somehow, she did expect it.
From outside came the sound of a garbage truck rumbling to a halt at the driveway, then cans scraping the asphalt.
“Shouldn’t we be looking at motive?” Tara said. “At who would want to scare or threaten me?”
“You see this as a threat?”
“What else?” Tara shivered, picturing the needle through the fetus’ eye space. “I mean, I’m supposedly pregnant, and someone leaves a fetus with a knitting needle and what looks like blood on my porch. What is that but a threat?”
Mallard leaned back and crossed his arms over his sloping belly. “Yet you refuse to tell me about the potential fathers.”
“Because there are none. When I said I can’t be pregnant, I meant it. It’s not that I can’t pick one guy out of all the guys I’ve been with. There are no guys. That’s the whole problem.”
“When did you tell Vicki Turano you were getting a pregnancy test?”
“Weeks ago. So, what, you think she ran out and got a fetus and some paint just in case it turned out I was pregnant, and it wasn’t Jeremy’s?”
Mallard slapped the notebook on the table. “Look, Miss Spencer, I don’t know what you expect. Something like this, the most likely perpetrator is the father, but you won’t tell me who it is. The next most likely are your boyfriend and his sister, and you say it can’t be them. The remaining people who know you’re pregnant – excuse me, supposedly pregnant – I’m sure you’ll tell me didn’t do it. Your mother, your dad, your doctor, your shrink and your pastor.” He ticked them off on his fingers as he spoke. “Am I right?”
“Yes. But maybe someone at my school. I am PreMed. The students would know where to get fetuses.”
Mallard raised his eyebrows. “Anyone at school know you’re pregnant?”
“Only if they overheard last night.”
“Other than random overhearers, did I miss anyone who knows you’re pregnant?”
“No.” Tara clenched and unclenched her jaw. “I know this sounds crazy. I’m not trying to be obstructionist, I just can’t think of anyone who could have done this.”
“I did miss someone.”
Silently, Tara ran through the people she’d told. “I don’t think so.”
Pointing at Tara, Mallard stood. His head nearly touched the light shades on the ceiling fan above him. “You know you’re pregnant. And what do I know about you? You’re pregnant and you don’t know who the father is. You’re trying to sell your parents on a bullcrap story about never having sex. You announced your pregnancy in the middle of a crowded coffeehouse. Your sister’s been ill for years and, as I saw today, everything revolves around her. Your parents probably never have time to spend with you, never make you a priority. Well, welcome to real life.” Mallard snapped his notebook shut. “Here’s some free advice. You want attention, go back to the shrink.”
Tara stood, too. “So you’re not going to do anything.”
Mallard shoved the notebook in his pocket and walked around the table. “I’ll file a report. In triplicate. I’ll interview the ‘suspects.’ I’ll find out if any fetuses were stolen from the medical schools at SLU or Washington University or anywhere else. I’ll fill out a supplemental report. In triplicate. I’ll update you and my supervisors regularly. I’m sure it’ll be a grand use of the taxpayers’ money.”
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When you play the game, stretching the borders, you can get lost and forget the rules.
Naomi leads a so-called peaceful life. She lives in a lovely apartment in the center of Tel Aviv with her loving, supporting husband and their two teenage children, works for a daily newspaper, and in her free time concentrates on art. But all this isn’t enough when her entire world is turned upside down one evening after which she’s drawn into a maelstrom of emotions and urges, lies and enigmas. Secrets from the past surface and merge with new ones, and Naomi discovers she’s living a complex life with parallels in several worlds: the people closest to her are also hiding from her their secrets and abusing her trust.
˃˃˃ Forgiveness, absolution, and feelings of guilt
Stretching the Borders raises questions about the essence of forgiveness, absolution, and feelings of guilt, as they face secrets and lies, some less white than others. The threads wrap around each other in a conflict solved only through a process of an agonizing journey, which doesn’t always achieve its desired comfort.
˃˃˃ Painstaking exposing of feelings
With a sharp scalpel and piercing sensitivity, Yael Shachnai invades her protagonist’s soul, painstakingly exposing the feelings and thoughts hiding behind the pretty clothes and carefully applied makeup, while also bravely and honestly scrutinizing concepts such as happy families, relationships, family dinners, protective motherhood, loyalty, and love.
Stretching the Borders: Contemporary Romance
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by M. Louisa Locke
In this sequel to Maids of Misfortune, it is the fall of 1879 and Annie Fuller, a young San Francisco widow, has a problem. Despite her growing financial success as the clairvoyant Madam Sibyl, Annie doesn’t believe in the astrology and palmistry her clients think are the basis for her advice.
* * *
by Chuck Rose
Successful Park Avenue psychiatrist Dr. Jonah Hoffman leads a fairly normal life–a good practice, a loving wife and children–until he takes on a dangerous new patient. At first Robert Kolfax, CEO of a Blackwater-like private security firm with secret ops all over the world, seems like a powerful but troubled man in need of Jonah’s help. But Jonah soon discovers that Kolfax is a sociopath. A mass murderer.
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by Maria McCartan
Fall under the spell of Maria McCartan in her tantalising debut Little Dark Pieces, the first volume of the Dark Pieces vampire series. Provocatively sensual, edgy and compelling, Little Dark Pieces is a romance with a difference.
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by Rachael S. Damar
When Prince Ivan’s older brother Petar gives up his rightful inheritance as the next King of Assyria to be with the one he loves, Ivan is left in a compromising position. He has served in the temple all his life to undertake priesthood and is now thrust into the role of ‘future King’ without the training, knowledge or experience to undertake such a task.
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by Bradley Convissar
by Julia Kent
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She dressed professionally, wearing a plum-colored fuzzy v-neck sweater that contoured to the swell of a rack I remembered so well, legs encased in a slim pencil skirt that embellished those creamy hips I could imagine naked with a flicker of memory, lips painted fire-engine red and that maniac-inducing fifties pin-up girl look that I’d dismissed as silly when the girls in college wore it – but that made her smoking hot.
God damn Charlotte, my ex-girlfriend, had to be here, of all places. At a bachelorette party where I was a stripper, dressed in a cop uniform with pants that suddenly got way too tight.And she had to be so fine.
Random Acts of Hope is the fourth book in the romantic comedy Random series, and features guitar player Liam McCarthy from the band, Random Acts of Crazy. Five years ago, Liam and his girlfriend, Charlotte Greyson, were deeply in love. When a betrayal eviscerates them both, each clings to their separate truths as an anchor to navigate the perfect storm.But when the biggest ego in the band reconnects with the only woman who stole his heart, sparks fly in this sequel that asks whether you can believe in the impossible without sacrificing every ideal you hold – in order to find a love bigger than you ever imagined.
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by Lauren Smith
The League of Rogues takes what they want—but have they taken on too much?
For too long Miss Emily Parr has been subject to the whims of her indebted uncle and the lecherous advances of his repulsive business partner. Her plan to be done with dominating men forever is simple—find herself a kind husband who will leave her to her books.
It seems an easy enough plan, until she is unexpectedly abducted by an incorrigible duke who hides a wounded spirit behind flashing green eyes.
Godric St. Laurent, Duke of Essex, spends countless nights at the club with his four best friends, and relishes the rakish reputation society has branded him with. He has no plans to marry anytime soon—if ever. But when he kidnaps an embezzler’s niece, the difficult debutante’s blend of sweetness and sharp tongue make him desperate for the one thing he swears he never wanted: love.
Yet as they surrender to passion, danger lurks in Godric’s shadowed past, waiting for him to drop his guard—and rob him of the woman he can’t live without.
Warning: This novel includes a lady who refuses to stay kidnapped, a devilish duke with a dark past, and an assortment of charming rogues who have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:
London, September 1820
Something wasn’t right. Emily Parr allowed the elderly coachman to help her into the town coach, and the queer look he gave her made her skin crawl. Peering into the dark interior of the vehicle, she was surprised to find it empty. Uncle Albert was supposed to accompany her to social engagements and if not him, certainly a chaperone. Why then was the coach empty?
She settled into the back seat, her hands clutching her reticule tight enough that the beadwork dug into her palms through her gloves. Perhaps her uncle was meeting with his business partner, Mr. Blankenship. She’d seen Blankenship arrive just before she’d gone upstairs to prepare for the ball. A shudder rippled through her. The man was a lecherous creature with beetle-black eyes and hands that tended to wander too freely whenever he was near her. Emily was not worldly, having only just turned eighteen a few months earlier, but this last year with her uncle had enlightened her to a new side of life and none of it had been good.
Her first London Little Season should have been a wonderful experience. Instead it had begun with the death of her parents at sea and ended with her new life in the dusty tomb of her uncle’s townhouse. With an insubstantial library, no pianoforte and no friends, Emily had started to slide into a melancholy haze. It was crucial she make a good match and fast. She had to escape Uncle Albert’s world, and the only way she could do that was to legally obtain her father’s fortune.
A distant cousin of her mother’s held the money in trust. It was a frustrating thing to have a man she’d never met hold the purse strings on her life. Uncle Albert despised the situation as well. As her guardian he was forced to give an accounting to her mother’s cousin, which thankfully kept him from delving too deeply into her accounts for his own needs. The small fortune was the best bargaining chip she had to entice potential suitors. Though the money would go to her husband, she hoped to find a man who would respect her enough not to squander what was rightfully hers. But arriving at the ball without a chaperone would damage her chances in husband hunting, it simply wasn’t done to show up alone. It spoke lowly of her uncle as well as their financial situation.
As relieved as she was to not have her uncle or Mr. Blankenship escorting her, her stomach still clenched. She recalled the cold way the elderly driver smiled at her just before she’d climbed inside. The slickness of that grin made her feel a little uneasy, like he knew something she didn’t and it amused him. It was silly—the old man wasn’t a threat. But she couldn’t shake the wariness that rippled through her. She would have been thankful for Uncle Albert’s presence, even if it meant another lecture on how costly she was to provide for and how kind he’d been in taking her in after her parents’ ship was lost.
The driver was engaged to bring her to Chessley House for the ball, and nothing would go wrong. If she kept saying it over and over, she might believe it. Emily focused her thoughts on what tonight would bring, hoping to ease her worry. She would join her new friend, Anne Chessley, as well as Mrs. Judith Pratchet, an old friend of Anne’s mother, who’d kindly agreed to sponsor Emily for the Little Season. There was every possibility she would meet a man and catch his interest enough that he would approach her uncle for permission to court her.
Emily almost smiled. Perhaps tonight she would dance with the Earl of Pembroke.
Last night, the handsome earl had smiled at her during their introduction and asked her to dance. Emily had nearly wept with disappointment when she informed him that Mrs. Pratchet had already filled her dance card.
The earl had replied, “Another time, then?” and Emily nodded eagerly, hoping he would remember her.
Perhaps tonight I shall have a spot of luck. She desperately hoped so. Emily wasn’t so foolish as to believe she had any real chance of marrying a man like the Earl of Pembroke, but it was nice to be noticed by a man of his standing. Sometimes that attention was noticed by others.
The coach halted sharply a moment later, and she nearly toppled out of her seat, her thoughts interrupted, her daydreams fleeing.
“Ho there, my good man!” a man shouted from nearby.
Emily moved toward the door, but the vehicle rocked as someone climbed onto the driver’s seat, and she fell back in her seat again.
“Twenty pounds is yours if you follow those two riders ahead and do as we ask,” the newly-arrived man said.
Having regained control of her balance, she flung the coach curtains back. Two riders occupied the darkened street, their backs to her. What was going on? A sense of ill-ease settled deep in her stomach. The coach jerked and moved again. As she had feared, the driver didn’t stop at Chessley House. He followed the riders ahead.
What was this? A kidnapping? A robbery? Should she stick her head out of the window and ask them to stop? If robbing her was their intent, asking them what they were doing might be a bad idea… Why would they take her when there were so many other heiresses, ones more lovely than her, having their first come out this year? Surely this wasn’t an abduction. Her mind reeled as she struggled to cope with the situation. What would her father have done in this situation? Load a pistol and fight them off. Having no pistol, she’d have to think of something clever. Could these men be reasoned with? Unlikely.
Emily worried her bottom lip as she debated her options. She could scream for help, but such a reaction could worsen matters. She could open the door and throw herself out onto the street, but the clatter of hooves behind the coach erased that idea. She’d be lucky to survive the fall if she tried, and the horses behind were too close. She’d likely be killed. Emily fell back against the seat with a shaky sigh, her heart racing. She’d have to wait until the driver stopped.
For what seemed like an hour she kept nervously glancing out the windows to assess what direction the coach was going. By now London was far behind her. Only open country stretched on both sides of the road. A rumble of hooves heralded an approaching rider, and a man astride a sleek black gelding galloped past the window. He was too close and the horse too tall for her to get a good view of him. The moonlight rippled off the horse’s shiny coat as it rode past.
She knew by the close proximity of the rider and the determined way he rode in the saddle that he was involved with this business. Who in their right mind, except perhaps that foul old man, Blankenship, would kidnap her? He’d be the sort to engage in such a nefarious activity.
The other evening he’d come to dinner at her uncle’s house and when her uncle had turned away for only a second, Blankenship had twined one of this thick, stubby fingers around a lock of her hair, tugging it hard until she’d nearly cried out. He’d whispered horrible things in her ear, nasty things that made her sick as he told her he planned to marry her as soon as her uncle had approved. Emily had stared back at him, stating she’d never marry him. He’d only laughed and said, “We’ll see, my sweet. We shall see.”
Well, she wouldn’t back down. She wasn’t some pawn to be captured and held at someone’s mercy. They’d have to fight to take her.
Emily looked out the window on the other side to count the riders. Two led the party at the front, mere yards ahead. Another two flanked the coach on either side. One of them rode with a second horse roped to his saddle, likely for the man who rode now with the driver. Not the best of odds. Perhaps she could outsmart them.
The coach slowed, then gently creaked to a stop. Emily took stock of her situation. She fought for composure, each breath slower than the one before. If she panicked, she might not survive. She had to hide. But she could not physically escape five men.
Her eyes fell to the seat across from her.
Godric St. Laurent, the twelfth Duke of Essex, leaned back in his saddle watching the abduction he’d orchestrated unfold. Covering his mouth with a gloved hand, he stifled a yawn. Things were going smoothly. In fact, this entire kidnapping bordered on the point of tedious. They’d intercepted the coach ten minutes before it reached Chessley House. No one witnessed the escort of riders or the driver changing his route. Oddly enough, the young woman hadn’t shown any signs of resistance or concern from inside the coach. Wouldn’t she have made some protestations when she realized what was happening? A thought stopped him dead. Had she somehow slipped out of the coach when they’d slowed on a corner before they’d left town? Surely not, they would have seen her. Most likely she was too terrified to do anything, hence the silence from inside. Not that she had anything to fear, she would not be harmed.
He nodded to his friend Charles who was perched next to the driver. A bag of coins jingled as Charles dropped it into the jarvey’s waiting hands.
They had reached the halfway point between London and Godric’s ancestral estate. They would go the rest of the way on horseback, with the girl sharing a horse with either him or one of his friends. The driver would return to London with a message for Albert Parr and a wild story that exonerated himself from blame.
“Ashton, stay here with me.” Godric waved his friend over while the others rode the horses a good distance away to wait for his signal. Abductions were tricky things, and having only himself and one other man take hold of the girl would be better. She might have a fit of hysterics if she saw the other three men too close.
He rode up to the coach, curious to see whether the woman inside matched his memory. He’d seen her once before from a window overlooking the gardens when he’d visited her uncle. She’d been kneeling in the flowerbeds, her dress soiled as she weeded. A job more suited to a servant than a lady of quality. He’d been ready to dismiss her from his mind when she’d turned and glanced about the garden, a smudge of dirt on the tip of her upturned nose. A butterfly from a nearby flower had fluttered above her head. She hadn’t noticed it, even as it settled on her long, coiling auburn hair. Something in his chest gave a funny little flip, and his body had stirred with desire. Any other woman so innocent would not have caught his interest, but he’d glimpsed a keenness in her eyes, a hidden intelligence as she dug into the soil. Miss Emily Parr was different. And different was intriguing.
Ashton handed the driver the ransom letter for Parr and took up a position near the front of the coach. Taking hold of the door, Godric opened it up, waiting for the screaming to start.
“My deepest apologies, Miss Parr—” Still no screaming. “Miss Parr?” Godric thrust his head into the coach.
It was empty. Not even a fire-breathing dragon of a chaperone, not that he’d expected one. His sources had assured him she would be alone tonight.
Godric looked over his shoulder. “Ash? You’re sure this is Parr’s coach?”
“Of course. Why?” Ashton jumped off his horse, marched over and thrust his head into the empty coach. He was silent a long moment before he withdrew. Ashton put his finger against his lips and motioned to the inside. A tuft of pink muslin peeped out from the wooden seat. He gestured for Godric to step away from the coach.
Ashton lowered his voice. “It seems that our little rabbit chase has turned into a fox hunt. She’s hidden in the hollow space of the seat, clever girl.”
“Hiding under the seat?” Godric shook his head, bewildered. He didn’t know one woman of his acquaintance who would do something so clever. Perhaps Evangeline, but then if anything could be said of that woman, it was that she was far from ordinary. A prickling of excitement coursed through his veins, into his chest. He loved a challenge.
“Let’s wait a few minutes and see if she emerges.”
Godric looked back at the coach, impatience prickling inside him. “I don’t want to wait here all night.”
“She’ll come out soon enough. Allow me.” Ashton walked back to the coach and called out to Godric in a carrying voice. “Blast and damnation! She must have slipped out before we took charge of the coach. Just leave it. We’ll take the driver back to London tomorrow.” Ashton shut the door with a loud slam and motioned for Godric to join him.
“Now we wait,” Ashton whispered. He indicated that he would guard the left coach door while Godric stationed himself at the right.
Emily listened to the drum of retreating hooves and silently counted to one hundred. Her heart jolted in her chest as she considered what the men would do if they caught her. Highwaymen could be cruel and murderous, especially if their quarry offered little. She had no access to her father’s fortune, which left only her body.
Icy dread gripped Emily’s spine, paralyzing her limbs. She drew a breath as anxiety spiraled through her.
I must be brave. Fight them until I can fight no more. With trembling hands, she pushed at the roof of the seat, wincing as it popped open. Once she climbed out, she brushed dirt from her gown, noticing some tears from the rough wood on the inside of the seat. But the tears held no importance. All that mattered was survival.
Emily looked out the coach window. Nothing stood out in the darkness. Only the faint glimmer of moonlight touched the road with milky tendrils. Stars winked and flickered overhead, pale lights, distant and cold. A shudder wracked her frame, and Emily hugged herself, wanting so much to be at home. She missed her warm bed and her parents’ murmurs from down the hall. It was a comfort she’d taken for granted. But she couldn’t afford to think about them, not when she was in danger.
Were the men truly gone? Could it really be this easy?
She opened the coach door, and stepped down onto the dirt road. Strong arms locked about her waist and yanked her backward. The collision with a hard body knocked the breath from her lungs. Terror spiked her blood as she struggled against the arms that held her.
“Good evening, my darling,” a low voice murmured.
Emily screamed once, before she bit down on the hand that covered her mouth. She tasted the smooth leather of fine riding gloves.
The man roared and nearly dropped her. “Damn!”
Emily rammed an elbow backwards into her attacker’s stomach and began to wrestle free until he grabbed her arm. She swung about, striking him across the face with a balled fist. The man staggered back, leaving her free to dive inside the coach.
If she could get to the other side and run, she might stand a chance. She scrabbled towards the door, but never made it. The devil surged into the coach after her. Turning to face him, she was knocked flat onto her back.
She screamed again as his body settled over hers.
The dim moonlight revealed his bright eyes and strong features.
He caught her flailing wrists, pinning them above her head. “Quiet!”
Emily wanted to rake his eyes out, but the man was relentless. His hips ground against hers and panic drove her to a new level of terror. Her fears of being forcibly taken surfaced as his warm breath fanned over her face and neck. She shrieked, and he reared back away from her, as though the sound confused him.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” His voice vibrated with a low growl, ruining any promise his words might carry.
“You’re hurting me now!” She yanked her arms uselessly against his hold.
The man eased off her somewhat, and Emily took her chance. She tucked her knees up, and with all the power she could summon, she kicked. Her attacker stumbled out the open door and fell onto his back. Emily barely registered that he was winded before she turned and exited the other side of the coach.
The moment she emerged, another man lunged for her. To escape him, Emily fell back against the side of the coach. Rather than grab her, he held his arms wide to keep her from slipping by him, like he was corralling livestock.
“Easy, easy,” he purred.
Emily whipped her head to the left and pleaded with her mind to think, but the man she’d bitten rounded the corner and pounced, pinning her against the coach, his arms caging her in. His solid muscular body towered over her. His jaw clenched as though one move from her would trigger something dark and wild. Emily’s breath caught, and her heart pounded violently against her ribs.
The man was panting and angry. The intensity of his eyes mesmerized her, but the second he blinked, the spell broke and she fought with every bit of strength she could muster.
“Cedric, I need you!” The man shouted over his shoulder.
One of the riders trotted over holding a silver flask in one hand. Emily redoubled her efforts to escape and stamped on the instep of her captor’s boot. But it was too late. The man held the flask to her lips and, when she didn’t open her mouth, he pinched her nose, and she was forced to part her lips for breath. Vile, bitter liquid streamed down her throat. She gagged but swallowed.
The bitter taste in her mouth made her shudder violently, and a wave of dizziness swept through her, blurring her vision. The ground beneath her feet seemed to spin. A frightening deadness stole through her arms and legs, and she weakened against the man who still held her. Perhaps if she feigned unconsciousness here for a moment, got her breath back and cleared her head she could fight…
The man with the flask stepped back and Emily let her body go limp. Her captor kept his arms around her waist and shoulder, locking her to his body. Emily drew a breath, slow and shallow so as to not attract attention. The man who held her waited as someone dropped a cloak onto the grass before he gently set her down on it. Then he stepped away to talk to his companions. She had counted five all together before she’d had to shut her eyes.
Emily did her best to lay still and breathe shallowly as she listened, but it was hard to fight the panic that rioted within her and the fog that slowly descended on her vision. Every instinct screamed for her to flee, but she remained still, praying they’d turn their attention away from her just long enough for her to rise and run.
She heard a man’s voice above her. “Well, that wasn’t too hard.”
“I say, is that a gypsy child? I thought we were abducting a fine young lady of the ton?” Another laughed.
Emily fought the urge to snarl, despite the lethargy of her body. Bloody, arrogant popinjays! The anger felt better than the fear and it gave her a little more energy.
What had been in that flask she’d drunk from? A poison? No…that made no sense. She’d read of this bitter taste before… Laudanum! New anger sparked inside her. She let it flow from her head to her toes, and the illusion of strength built in her bones.
Yet another voice spoke up. “Charles, pay the driver an extra fee for his silence, and Lucien and I will see to the girl.” This voice she recognized. It was the man she’d bitten. He and the others appeared to be gentlemen, if you could call them that at all.
After moving in with her uncle, she learned never to trust a man’s appearance again. A fine set of clothes did not make someone a good man.
What confused her more was what these rogues wanted with her. Certainly Blankenship hadn’t hired them to take her. He would have chosen men of lower standing. The riding glove she’d bitten had been of a fine quality, too fine for common henchmen.
“How long will she be out?” one of the men asked.
“Hard to say…probably a good hour.” She recognized the voice as the one called Cedric. “One of us will carry her back to the manor.”
A gentle hand swept Emily’s hair back from her face. That same hand drifted down to her neck, caressing her skin before it touched her arm then slid along her waist. Tingles of fear traveled beneath her skin. She fought to keep her breath from quickening, but her heart fluttered wildly. When the hand brushed along her waist, Emily’s breath sped up. She was highly sensitive in that particular area, and the feather light dance of fingertips along her body, through the muslin, made her stifle a giggle. She cursed her ticklishness.
The hand withdrew. Then just as suddenly the hand was back, brushing along her waist, still as gently, until she burst into fit of gasping hysterics.
“She’s awake!” the captor who had just touched her called out, his voice breathless as though he was fighting off his own laughter.
Emily scrambled to her hands and knees. She’d barely moved when a body tackled her from behind, knocking her back to the ground. What little strength she had left deserted her. His knees trapped her hips, pinning her to the ground. Emily cried out as his weight settled on her. He loosened his grasp enough to let her breathe but not to allow her any freedom.
“Have you got hold of her, Godric?”
Emily lashed out, legs flailing, back arching. “Please! Don’t do this, I beg you!” She hated begging, but it was her last chance.
“We won’t hurt you, darling.” The man on top of her, Godric, ran a large palm along her side, stroking soothingly.
He tightened his hold as Emily kicked and fought. “I’ve got her, but be quick, Cedric! She’s bucking pretty madly.”
Cedric knelt by her head and tilted the flask against her lips, forcing laudanum down her throat. Emily tried to whip her head to the side, but Cedric’s other hand covered her mouth, preventing her from spitting out the vile liquid. It was useless to battle against her fate. She let her eyes plead where her mouth could not.
“Sorry, my dear. Truly, I am.” The sincerity in Cedric’s voice surprised her.
How could sincerity follow such brutality?
He kept the flask at her lips. She swallowed hard and then coughed as it the liquid burned a path through her insides.
Her last sight was of Cedric, his brows creased above his eyes. Her fingers left tracts in the gritty earth of the dark, empty road as she struggled to stay conscious. The musty aroma of soil clouded her nose, mixing with the heavy warmth of the masculine body that pinned her down. Her limbs were heavy. Her eyelids fluttered and she knew she couldn’t hold out much longer. Godric gently caressed her body, as though to comfort her, but only confusion and fear followed her into the encompassing blackness.
Cedric, Viscount Sheridan, cupped the girl’s chin and tilted her face to examine her. “Is she really out?”
The moonlight bathed her body, affording the men a decent look at their victim. Long, dark lashes lay against porcelain cheeks, which were tinted with a rosy blush.
“There’s one way to find out.” Godric’s hands swept over her body, returning several times to her waist where he’d discovered she was ticklish.
She remained limp and unresponsive to his exploration. “She is definitely out.” He climbed off her.
Charles and Lucien sauntered over on their horses.
Charles chuckled. “How many lords did you say it would take to subdue this little hellion?”
Lucien Russell, the Marquess of Rochester, bit back a grin.
“More than we guessed,” Ashton replied in amusement, gazing down at Emily.
Godric took in the dirty, but stunning little captive at his feet. “She’s not at all like her uncle.”
Heat pooled deep inside him. His brief memory of her had not done justice to the puzzle of Miss Emily Parr. He could not forget the way she’d fought him, even in fear. But knowing he’d scared her left a hollowness in his chest. He had expected to ignore her protestations and carry her off. What he hadn’t expected was for Emily to fight valiantly against him and leave him feeling every inch the villain.
Cedric stuffed the bottle of laudanum back into his waistcoat pocket. “Having second thoughts?”
Godric barked out a laugh and shrugged off his guilt. “Lord, no. You know me better than that, Cedric. She’s mine now.” He glanced at Emily again.
He felt oddly possessive of Emily, not that he had any right to. Still, the sudden urge to deposit the girl in a walled garden appealed greatly. Trap her in a tower like a princess from a fairy tale.
“The girl’s intrigued him,” Lucien said to his friends.
Godric gathered Emily into his arms.
He knew he must look a strange sight to his friends, taking such care with Emily. But something about her called to him. He ached for sensual touches, the slide of satin sheets against his skin, her silky body beneath his own. He hadn’t planned to seduce her, but the little hellion’s bravery had aroused him. She’d make for a wild bed partner. His lips curved into a smile at the thought.
“She can ride with me,” Charles offered hopefully.
“I’d sooner trust her with a drunken sailor.” With reluctance, his hands lingering, Godric handed Emily to Ashton instead.
Godric mounted his horse, then leaned down to retrieve her.
He cradled Emily sideways across his lap, one arm tightly about her waist, tucking her head under his chin to keep her steady.
The mere memory that Emily had almost outwitted him twice left Godric smiling. He’d not had such fun in ages. If he hadn’t given in to his urge to touch her, he’d never have found that ticklish spot at her waist, and she might have crept off while he and the others talked. Ashton was right; she was cunning—a trait she must have inherited from that uncle of hers. But her beauty? It amazed him. She bore not a single resemblance to the reedy Albert Parr.
The ride back to Godric’s country estate took an hour. They stopped once to dose Emily again with laudanum when she stirred like a sleepy kitten. The rub of her curled fists against his chest and her face burrowed against his throat, sent a thrill of pleasure through him.
He tried not to think about Emily or whether her lips tasted as sweet as they looked. He focused on the road ahead of them and his home, which lay just beyond.
The St. Laurent estate consisted of an extensive Georgian manor that rivaled the beauty of Chiswick House. His father and the Duke of Devonshire once had a friendly rivalry on the matter.
He studied the estate with new eyes, trying to imagine how Emily would perceive it.
The architect had styled the house, with six ivory columns in the front, like many of the greater Palladian homes in England. Godric’s ancestors built the upper parts of the manor with lovely ashlar stone, while the lower was rusticated, lending a lacing of texture to the manor, like a woman’s dress embroidered at the hem. Godric was surprised to find he was eager for Emily’s approval. If she was going to stay here for a while, he wanted her to find pleasure in her surroundings.
As soon as Godric rode up to his manor’s steps, a weary footman appeared and called for a groom. The elderly butler, Simkins, came to the door a moment later, escorting all the men into the hall once he assured care of their horses.
“Your Grace, we were not expecting visitors.” Simkins eyed Godric’s sleeping captive with open curiosity.
“Simkins, this is Miss Emily Parr. She will be my guest here for a while. Have Mrs. Downing assign her an upstairs maid to help her dress. See to her every need, but do not allow her to leave.”
“Of course, Your Grace. She shall be treated like a princess.”
“Don’t spoil her, Simkins,” Godric said, reconsidering. She was to be kept in a cage, so to speak, and it would be wise not to gild that cage, at least until she understood he was in control.
A sudden thought occurred to him. His valet, Jonathan Helprin, would need to be kept away from Emily. She was a temptation to any man, and young Helprin was not a typical valet. Having been born and raised under Godric’s roof, the younger man had a keen eye for the ladies, rather than clothes, where a good valet’s interests should be. “Oh, and Simkins,” Godric caught the butler’s attention. “Reassign Mr. Helprin to duties that keep him far away from my chambers. The house, if possible. Have one of the footman see to my needs in the interim.”
The older man hesitated, clearly confused. “Uh…yes, Your Grace. I will see Mr. Helprin is occupied elsewhere while your guest is in residence.”
Simkins then greeted the other four men who had followed Godric into the main hall. “My lords.”
“Simkins, you devil, how are you?” Charles laughed. “Miss me?”
Simkins almost smiled, but kept his controlled demeanor. “I am fine, Lord Lonsdale. The house has been much quieter since your last visit and I have slept well knowing that I did not need a fleet of footmen to scrub port stains out of the carpet in the drawing room.”
“Hmm, port sounds delightful. Bring me a glass when you have a chance?” Charles grinned at Simkins, who shook his head, muttering as he took his leave of the gentlemen.
Cedric pointed the way down the hall with the silver lion’s head of his cane. “Come on, Lucien. Let’s go warm ourselves by the fire.” They left, Charles tramping along after them.
Ashton followed Godric up the staircase, Emily still in his arms. Godric chose the room next to his, the one most often inhabited by a mistress. Unlike other gentlemen, he brazenly kept his mistresses at his estate, heedless of the gossip that might result.
Godric nodded his head to the door, indicating for Ashton to open it.
“Er…you mean to keep her so close to you?” Ashton politely inquired.
“Yes. She’ll likely keep trying to run off. I’ll be able to hear her better if she’s this close.”
Ashton swung the door open to reveal a four-poster bed adorned with a blue coverlet and lilac curtains. He set Emily down, lifted her head and placed a pillow under the gleaming coils of her hair. The pins from her coiffure had come loose during the struggle and he found he liked the wild disarray.
Ashton eyed the small door disguised as part of the wall, and Godric grinned.
“I know what you’re thinking, Ash…” The door led directly to his bedchamber.
“What you do with her is none of my business.” Despite his constant attempts to keep his close-knit group of friends under control, Ashton was no saint.
With a nod, Ashton excused himself and Godric remained behind. His eyes drifted over the helpless young woman on the bed. Mud and grit had stained the muslin of her gown. Smudges of dust colored her nose and cheeks. At first glance, she looked like a wild little orphan but the curves of her body left Godric painfully aware she was a woman. Unable to resist, he cupped her face in his hands, running the pads of his thumbs across her cheeks to rub the dirt away. Her skin was soft, and Emily stirred slightly at his touch, her body shifting against his right hip where he’d sat down next to her.
Emotions he’d long buried welled up, tightening his throat and burning in his chest. He was a lad again, mesmerized by the allure of a young woman. A time he could never reclaim, an innocence ripped from his bleeding soul years ago.
Standing up, he retreated to the doorway. He lingered there, his eyes tracing the shape of her body. An acute sense of longing struck him. He wanted to bind her to him, but she would slip through his fingers like grains of sand.
How would she react to him come morning? With resentment and disgust, no doubt. He’d dragged her from the coach, manhandled her and drugged her. He was no hero, and a woman like her deserved a knight astride a white charger.
He ruined everything he touched.
Godric’s head dropped as he closed the door and went to join his friends below.
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