Wickedly handsome and shamelessly rich, Tristan Stahl is a villain. A businessman by day and an underground cage fighter by night, he fears no one, and respects one man alone – his adoptive father, Mark Stahl. It’s at Mark’s request that Tristan recruits Isolde Molnar for her “special talents”. He doesn’t expect complications from this “piece of livestock”, but working closely with her turns out challenging in more ways than one. Throw a modern alchemist’s potion in the mix along with Mark Stahl’s growing infatuation with the girl, and there you have it – Tristan and Isolde Reloaded. Enjoy!
Gertrude shoves me from behind, and I stumble over the threshold into Mark Stahl’s room. I refrain from swearing, and step to the side of the door, my eyes skimming over the pillars and vaulted ceiling.
The library downstairs where I met Tristan a few days ago knocked the air from my lungs, but I’m more resilient to the opulence of this old castle now, on second impact. Still, the place gives me an eerie feeling, a chill that makes my skin pucker. It’s like a cold whisper in my ear about things being done onto people within the confines of these walls.
There’s semi-darkness ahead. Curtains are drawn before ceiling-high windows, light only faintly making it through cracks between them here and there, licking the rug. Gertrude either has the eyes of a cat, or she knows her way around the room by heart, because she stalks confidently forward. I can see the sheen of her gloves and her patent leather shoes in the middle of the room, where she stops like a reporting soldier.
“The girl is here, as you requested, milord.”
Something creaks, like old wheels turning. A twisted shape emerges from the shadow, rolling forward. I open my eyes wider as it approaches, to see better, trying to make sense of this crumpled form. The brass spikes of wheels become clear on each side of it, then the rest of the . . . installation. I draw in a sharp breath and take a step back. My back hits the closed door.
Mark Stahl is in a wheelchair, surrounded by tubes, cables and devices. He’s like a mummy on mobile life-support, thick veins visible in his forearms and neck through flesh that looks like fruit left out to dry for far too long. He must be very old. Unnaturally old.
His glassy blue eyes, the liveliest part of him, inspect me up and down with interest. The device at his mouth – seemingly an oxygen mask – is removed with a high-tech buzz, and then he speaks. My nails pierce my palms. He sounds as old as he looks, his voice a scrape that seems to hurt his vocal cords with every word.
“Special, indeed.” His eyes lick over me. My hands claw into the fabric around my body. The whole day I’ve been clutching this darn old coat, but then again, this day has been the scariest of my life.
“Mr. Stahl,” I murmur, trying to keep my voice from jittering. “To what do I owe the honor?”
“The honor is all mine,” Mark Stahl says. Speaking seems to cause him pain, but still, he doesn’t spare words. “If you’re of such value to Marie France Cassel that she personally intervened in your life, then you’re of great value in yourself.”
He rolls closer, and I stiffen by the door. The closeness of this man is like the silent crawl of a viper. His leathery, blotchy hand reaches over, touching the rim of my coat like I’m a holy relic. There’s so much reverence in the way his fingers skim over it that I’m baffled.
“Isolde Molnar,” he whispers, “the girl who got the attention of gods.”
“The first of which was you,” I retort without thinking. A smile like a loose seam appears on his face.
“Tristan said you were a well of smart replies.”
Tristan. My heart starts in a gallop. I want to blurt out the questions, when did you adopt him, and from where, but I bite my lip. Mark Stahl looks at me from under his eyebrows, almost a cunning scowl.
“He also says Marie France wanted the glass that he’d drunk from. But I hear there was more than that involved. It was she who’d fixed his drink, your brother the bartender having been conveniently away from the bar – probably maneuvered by her people. Do you remember the exact alchemy she worked on my son’s scotch?”
Good question. I narrow my eyes, trying to remember. “I haven’t really paid attention, I was –” It hits me. “ – impaired.”
“In what way?”
I’d cut my hand, and Marie France might’ve squeezed my blood into your son’s drink; I might just be part of that alchemy. But I dread to say it. I don’t know what consequences it might have. Tristan is already unfriendly enough, and there’s this permanent thundercloud of violence hovering over him. I wouldn’t want it to explode in my face. “I was worried about the guys I was about to pass by. The ones who’d given Frany – Marie France – a hard time, and then me. I was studying them.”
“I hear my son took care of those pricks after your talk, yes?” He has a gentlemanly, protective tone. As if that’s what he educated Tristan to do, aid damsels in distress.
“Yes,” I whisper and lower my gaze. My chest caves in – I’d hoped Tristan had done it in a fit of jealousy. I’d hoped that he might feel attracted to me. I still hoped even on the hotel corridor less than an hour ago, when his features hardened as if he were made of metal, and his razor sharp blue eyes cut through me. The readiness of violence engraved in his face, his “I got nothing to lose and would stick my teeth in anyone who dares challenge me” expression, it had me chilled to the bones. But his young Scandinavian beauty still compelled me.
Mark puts his thin, dry hands on the wheels and creaks the wheelchair farther away from me. I wonder why the high-tech device makes these sounds, it looks new and powerful like a space ship. But then the entire life-support gear attached to it sways a bit as he rolls around, and I realize it’s too heavy for the chair to sustain.
“I’m going to be straight forward with you, Isolde,” he says heavily, his voice robotic. I notice he holds his hand to his neck, with another device. “You’re special. You drew our attention because you have unique talents that we saw good use for.”
My cheeks burn with embarrassment. I never could take a compliment. “I wouldn’t say –”
“You weren’t aware of these talents before you met Tristan,” he interrupts, and retreats even deeper in the shadow. “Isolde, my son and I, we know exactly why we want you working for us. But we don’t know why Marie France Cassel went through all that trouble to work alchemy between you and Tristan.” So he knows. His glassy blue gaze deepens. “There must be more to you than even we had expected.”
My face is now on fire. I have no idea how to react to this. “Thank you?” I whisper shyly, and put on what must be a dumb smile.
“No need to thank, Isolde. It’s a fact, not a compliment.” He measures me up and down with interest. “But you must beware. My son, Tristan, he’s special, too, and not in a good way. The family he comes from, you see, the genes.” His gaze fills with secretive meaning. His eyes are all I see now in a crack of light between the curtains. The rest of his face is obscured, like he’s wearing a facemask. “What Marie France did might’ve awoken evil feelings in Tristan toward you.”
That punches me in the chest. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell I’m road kill to Tristan. “I won’t lose my head for him, don’t worry,” I whisper.
“Good. I like to see a girl who stands fast even in the face of such painful beauty as my son’s.”
Painful beauty. Yes. I shake my head, open my mouth to say something, then reconsider.
“You know, Isolde,” Mark Stahl says in a subject-changing tone, “I’m sure we stand better chance of catching Marie France if you make your appearance by our side more often. She might come out in the open for you again. We will go visit Boris Podgor, this Russian mobster from the underground who infiltrated her, and I’d like you to come with us.” He turns his head slowly, indeed like an old viper, and scans me up and down. “Tristan will take you shopping. It’ll be a big night when we meet Mr. Podgor, and you’ll want to look your best.”
“I’m sure I can –”
“You need to look expensive. Opulent. I doubt your wardrobe contains anything proper.”
“You don’t have to –”
“Yes, I do. Just as I have to see Mr. Podgor in person, and with you on my arm.” He may be old as a turtle, but he sounds like a boss. I feel the need to lower my head.
“Thank you, Mr. Stahl.”
His tone softens even through that robotic device that helps him speak. “Please. Call me Mark.”
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