As promised, here’s more of my new paranormal romance with sci-fi icing, folks.
So what’s the story about?
Reporter Juliet Jochs travels to the Carpathians. Her job—investigating a mysterious and unnaturally beautiful Carpathian prince. Pretending to work a public profile for him, she actually wants to uncover his shady dealings and later expose them in the international press. If the prince discovers Juliet’s hidden agenda, she knows it may cost her life. But as she finds herself trapped in his fortress and his masks begin to peel off, she fears she may lose her sanity.
Prince Radek Matthayus has dark powers that suck Juliet into a whirl of hypnotic desire. He attracts her from the shadow, but he never seems to put his body on hers. She comes to crave his touch more than air, falling under his spell like in a dark dungeon. She must keep her head above the water if she is to save herself, run away and not look back. But can she resist opening the last door to his most terrible secret?
Read chapter I here.
Two days later, Herald invites me into his office. I’m nervous as I close the door behind me, ruffling the curls that make a yellow halo around my head. I cross my legs awkwardly on the chair, pulling at the rim of my skirt to cover my knees—I wouldn’t want him to think that I’m trying to seduce him in some cheap way, right?
“One moment, Juliet.” He holds up a finger without looking up from the paper he’s reviewing with a frown before signing. It takes a while until he acknowledges me again. This might seem condescending to others, but look at it this way: Herald Gruff is the boss at a highly reputable magazine, one could go deaf on the bustling in the cubicles room just outside his office alone. That’s a lot of responsibility, not to mention it requires a fuckload of authority, sure he seems an asshole.
“So,” he says, pulling out a drawer and pushing a file under my nose. “Because technology isn’t to be trusted nowadays, I’ll approach this sensitive subject in paper form.”
I glance from the file to him, trying to process “don’t trust technology” and “approach subject in paper form.”
“But our work is entirely technology-based. We’re an e-zine, we don’t even sell printed issues. Actually, we loathe all things ‘printed’, don’t we?”
“Just open it,” he prompts, his greying hair quivering at the sudden jerk of his hand towards the file. He’s a bit older than me—okay, a whole chunk older—but he’s got a good body, since he swims daily, and intelligent if not pretty eyes. There’s something of a skinny bulldog to his face, but he was once obviously attractive. Not that it matters. Nothing is more attractive than a man who exudes self-control, power and authority.
As I leaf through the file, he says, “Radek Matthayus, the prince you picked on a few days ago at the press conference.”
“This isn’t much more than what I’ve covered on him,” I note as I go through the file rapidly. “It doesn’t say a whole lot, either, the guy is very private about everything.”
Herald leans back, pushing his hands through his ashen hair. It’s good to see him a little relaxed.
“I believe this guy is blocking foreign investment in infrastructure in his country from the shadow. He’s influential enough to do that and more. I want you to discover his reasons and then help me expose them.”
I blink at him like an idiot. This opportunity isn’t only huge, it’s a career-making turning point. A you-almost-got-me smile stretches on my face, while I wave a finger at him.
“Come on, what’s the catch?”
He looks at me sternly. “Catch?”
“You’re not offering me this job just like this, are you? I mean, this is huge, and probably for someone with far more experience. Why me?”
There’s a pause and steady eye contact before Herald replies. “Because you’re the only person the dark prince has shown interest in in a very long time.”
There’s a zinging in my ears, and my stomach twists. Shown interest. This feels surreal.
“What did you just say?” I whisper.
“We don’t have time for stupid dialogue, Juliet, I’m sure you heard me the first time.” Herald points to the file like an unhappy teacher at sloppy homework. “Everything here is merely a tenth of what we need to discover about this dark prince.” He leans in, gaze pointed like a gun to the center of my forehead. “Read it, and you’ll understand why I say ‘dark.’”
“But, Herald.” My voice cracks on his name, and I clear my throat. “In wha, er, in what way did he show interest in me?”
He smirks, giving me a once over. “I was surprised at first, too.” He leans back in his chair, more relaxed this way, motioning with a hand towards me from head to toe. “I mean, it’s not like you’re not cute and all, but compared to the kind of women who must surround him….” He purses his lips and whistles, waving his hand like he just touched something hot—which he obviously doesn’t consider me to be. It’s as if he’d forgotten all about the night two weeks ago, the office party, when he crammed me in a corner of this very office and kissed me, confessing under his breath that he secretly wanted me.
I still vividly remember his eager tongue, tasting of vinegar from the wine he’d been drinking. Even though I wanted him, I wanted him sober, smelling and tasting nicely. I felt his desire rock hard pressing urgently against my mound, and pushed him away on an impulse, saying, “Not like this.”
“You have nice natural blond hair, curly and all, but face it—it’s too short, barely even reaching your shoulders, it’s a mess on top of your head. With your pale eyebrows and eyelashes and snow-white skin, you look like a pretty corpse,” Herald continues cruelly, analyzing me with sharp eyes. “You could use some contrast, like dye your hair and your eyebrows or something.”
Jesus, what comes next, pump up your lips, get a nose job—God knows I could use one? I push myself off the chair, swiping the file off his table.
“Why are you doing this, Herald?” I demand, pacing slowly around and pretending to leaf through the file. It’s easier for me to stand up for myself when I’m not looking at him, he’s too intimidating and easily angered. “Is it because I ran out of here two weeks ago? Because, if that’s the case, you could make a move on me now, sober, and I wouldn’t say no.” I glance at him. He’s smirking, dark eyes glinting at me from under ashen eyebrows, the corners of his mouth pushing his cheeks aside into a wrinkly smile that speaks of experience, resilience and authority.
“Get this job done properly, and you’ll have that and more, Juliet.”
My heart gives me a pang of outrage. Is he offering himself as a prize? No offense, I might not be the prettiest, or the smartest, but I am like a lifetime younger… Then I want to slap myself. How can I be so conceited? He’s far more valuable than me in so many ways. If I can prove myself to him, then I might assume some of all that value for myself. I raise my chin, closing the file and holding it against my chest. I’m looking at him from higher ground, since I’m standing up, feeling grand, even if for only a moment.
“You can rely on me for this job.”
“I hope you appreciate that I trust you with it, considering your lack of experience and your young age overall. You are only twenty-two, in the end.”
I squint at him. “There’s a reason why you trust me with it, which reminds me. In what way has the prince shown interest?”
Herald purses his lips, pondering before he answers. “His people called the e-zine to inquire about you. They wanted to hire you, and offered to purchase you from us if it must be. I figured his interest must be serious, since he can have anyone he wants, you know.”
My ears start buzzing.
“Purchase,” I repeat quietly. “But what could he possibly use me for?”
“You’ll find out.” He gets up from his chair, pacing to me. I barely register the time lapsing until he reaches me, placing a hand on my shoulder. I tilt a bit under it. Looking straight into my eyes, he says, “I agreed, Juliet. I agreed to trade you, but I have my own agenda.”
“You traded me like I’m a thing?”
“No. I traded you like you’re Ronaldo.”
I have this overwhelming urge of hurting him. As I begin to realize what’s happening here, rage heats up my face. “How can you be sure I won’t betray your agenda to the prince?”
He smiles, which makes his cheeks look like a wrinkly bulldog’s again. “I’m sure, because the prince can’t offer you what I can. You see, while he can pay a thousand times better, his headquarters is deep in some obscure, impossible to penetrate mountain forest. Money won’t be of much use there, not to mention that the social environment… Well, I imagine it’s not what your half German half American upbringing has taught you to strive for and adjust to. I, on the other hand, offer you money and position when you’re back here in Berlin.” He brings his face closer to mine to look even deeper into my eyes, and I realize I’m pushed against the wall, clutching the file as the only shield between me and the intimidating power house that’s Herald Gruff. “Because I will have you back. And when that happens, with what you gather on the prince, we’ll go huge. You’ll have fame in the entire national press, all doors will be open for you, and you’ll be made editor-in-chief immediately.” He shrugs, taking distance and letting his hand drop off my shoulder. “Many will offer you career choices, though. If you’ll want to go for a position at one of the 5 best journals in the country, you’ll be free to do so. We can set that in stone through contract right now, if you like.”
I must admit, career advancement baits me. It makes me salivate. When I’m alone I fantasize about power—me in a black Armani suit to starkly contrast with my blond hair, pale face and pale eyes, looking striking if not attractive to whoever walks into my sky rise office.
Soon I’ve signed two contracts—one that transfers me to the prince’s company, and one stating my liberty of choice when I’m back with Herald. The job description I have with the prince’s firm is still drawn in general lines, but it includes my writing reports on what he intends to do with the real estate he keeps acquiring all over Europe, and about the work he does back home. Pretty much creating a better defined public persona that he can then display for himself outside his country of origin.
The whole contract thing has kept me at the office for two straight days. Been going through papers all night and all of today with Herald and the company lawyer. The train now lulls me to sleep with its swaying as it takes me to the periphery of Berlin, where I’ve lived with my sister Runia since the pictures business—told myself all those reasonable things about the hacker and all, but I still can’t be alone at night.
Runia is a caregiver for the elderly and people with disabilities, so she has a keen eye for signs of sickness and the like, which means she’s on my case as soon as I kick off my shoes.
“Jesus, Juliet, you look like you just broke out from the morgue.”
“Just another day in Paradise.”
On my way to the only bedroom I pass by a blur of her lean shape that resembles mine—basically a stripe in the landscape, firm bumps at the level of the breasts and butt. Her hair is much longer though, so it flows down her body in bouncy waves that are as beautiful as a doll’s. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to secure her a guy’s long-term attention in cold Berlin.
I hit the bed face down and only open my eyes again twenty-four hours later, when I’m left with five more hours until I’m to embark on a plane that’ll take me from the Berlin airport down to what I’ve heard is no man’s land. Runia has swapped her usual night shift with a colleague in order to assist me with my luggage and ask me a ton of questions, making me face stuff I really don’t want to deal with right now. Stuff I’d rather stay blind to.
“Have you considered that Herald could have dark reasons to put all of this on your shoulders? I mean, come on, it’s a huge deal, top secret, and if you screw up it can mean serious trouble,” she says while she stuffs thick sweaters over my rather flimsy stuff. I told her as much as I could tell her because, indeed, if something happens to me Herald would probably try to bury the whole thing, so someone should know where to have the Interpol start looking.
“I hear the Balkans are warmer than Germany, Runia, you can go easy on the winter stuff.”
“It’s autumn, and I’ve heard their winters are even more vicious than ours. I mean, have you read Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’? They have serious blizzards. Anyways, what if Herald has—”
“Listen, Runia,” I interrupt, holding up my hand. “This is a huge opportunity for me, all right? I don’t know who else would have trusted me with it at my age, and especially after less than six months experience in the media.”
“But that’s exactly my point. I know you’re ambitious Juliet, I admire that about you and I wish I was made of the same stuff, but don’t let the rush of a fast career blind you to—”
“Honey.” I walk around the bed and take her pretty face between my hands. “If I get what Herald needs on the prince, I’ll have all doors open. This will be the hardest, most vicious, most dangerous fight of my life, but it will also be the last, Runia.” I square my shoulders, reassessing my situation and feeling good about it. “And I’m ready for it.”
She looks at me, pressing her lips together, unwillingly accepting that I’m doing this. “What about your feelings for Herald? Are you sure they aren’t playing a role in this decision? The main role?”
“Of course they play a role. He wants me, Runia, he’s shown me that more than once. The way he looks at me and the way he came on to me that night…” I’m sure that stuff will feel a lot better when he’s sober. “But I have to prove myself to him. He’s not some desperate sugar daddy who’ll take the first model who’ll call him ‘lover,’ he wants substance, he wants a woman with real power to her.”
Runia shakes her head slightly. “As I said, I always admired your ambition and your brains, big sister, but when you’re in love, you’re downright stupid.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
But Runia has already pushed my hands down from her face and gone on to pick more clothes from the wardrobe.
“Tell me more about the prince. What’s in the file you brought the other night? You fell asleep on it,” she explains, sorting clothes. “I would have looked inside if you hadn’t been sprawled all over it.”
“A good thing you didn’t.” I check my briefcase for the file. It’s there, tucked safely between other papers I’ll need. “This is literally the kind of business you don’t want to know too much about.”
“Uuuuuu, I’m scared.” She pretends to be bracing herself and tremble. “You sound like Corleone.”
“I’m not joking, Runia.”
“At least do this for me.” She walks over, holding out her hand with a small gadget that I have to frown at to identify. “I know Herald said no technology because it’s easily hacked, especially by people as powerful as the prince.” She glances down to the small gadget. “But I’m pretty sure no one will take this seriously. Keep in touch.”
I take it and turn it in my hand, amused. “How did you even get the idea?”
She shrugs with a clever smile on her face. “There’s this thing about people with disabilities, especially the mentally challenged ones, that no one considers—They think outside the box by default, and disregard all rules. They have the most innovative minds.”
I’m deliciously surprised. This is one of those moments when I wish I were a selfless, people-loving caregiver like Runia, and marvel at the human genius where the entire world least expects it.
Turbulence has shaken the plane often enough to make me pray for my life. I haven’t prayed since I was six. Just as I thought the worst part was over, dragging my luggage from luggage claim, I bumped into a boisterous family of gypsies that tried to steal my purse. Hadn’t the cab driver the prince had sent for me intervened, I’d be stranded in No Man’s Land Romania without papers or money.
“Better watch it, miss,” he says in a thick accent as he picks up my luggage and leads me to the car. He’s a middle-aged man with a big gut, dark eyes, and a very friendly attitude. “You have better chance of surviving here without papers than without cash.”
This is another world, that much is certain. Everything seems old, the buildings withered and erratic, the people tired and angry, and the roads—don’t get me started on the roads. My organs shake inside of me from all the holes and ditches in the ground. After driving in a busy, emissions-smothered ring around Bucharest, we emerge into the plains, the road a meager streak cutting through, industry buildings on each side.
“It looks like business is picking up in your country,” I say, watching the halls glide by through the window.
“Picks up, yes, but not in interest of the common man,” the driver says, and continues praising his country’s natural resources and beauties, which he’s been doing continuously since we left the airport. He keeps checking the expression on my face in the rear-view mirror, so I have a causal smile in place at all times, though he doesn’t persuade me. This place is exotic, yes, but in that way.
I feel my jaw drop as we first pass a rickety cart trailing in the cloud of dust left behind by a racing Porsche. It’s almost disintegrating under a load of hay and wood, pulled by two runt horses and a drunken peasant with a lopsided hat and a long mustache.
“What in the world is this?”
“Get used to it, miss. Plenty more picturesque items where this came from.” The driver laughs hard.
The next thing I know, we come to a stop, waiting for a shepherd as drunk as the man in the cart to steer his herd of sheep across the road. They’re slow and curious, some of them stopping and watching us leisurely with grass between their teeth, chewing slowly.
I’m shocked and thinking about Herald’s words—for all the money in the world that the prince would pay me, staying here isn’t an option. When I think that we’re still inside the European Union, I could burst into laughter, but I refrain, especially because I find the context to ask the driver about Prince Radek.
“You say the prince sent you for me. Do you know him personally?”
“Prince Radek is a very private person. Very few people in town know him personally, but we all saw him on occasion.”
I tilt my head to the side, meeting his eyes in the rear-view mirror. “You’re a local from the prince’s town?”
“I live in Bran, the resort at the foot of his castle.”
My brain swells as it wraps around the information. I grab his seat. “You mean to tell me we’re going to the Bran castle? Like the one from Bram Stoker’s novel? Like the one from the Dracula movies?”
“Yes, yes,” the driver confirms, his big gut jumping up and down as he laughs hard. “Excuse my amusement, miss, but you’re sweet.”
“But he can’t be living there, that’s one of your major tourist attractions?”
“That’s right, but there are deeper layers to that story, miss. The prince has secretly bought the castle from the government years ago, yet has agreed to keep it as a tourist attraction and let the government cash in the proceeds.”
“So hand in hand with the government indeed,” I whisper, eyes darting left and right as I make connections in my head. Sure he manipulates the right people in the right places, he probably also bribes them with money from all the prosperous business around Dracula’s castle. The driver doesn’t dispute the theory either.
“It’s not impossible, miss. The prince’s family has always been well connected.”
In my enthusiasm I grab even tighter to his seat, pressing myself to it. I’m greedy for information, and this opportunity is gold. “What else can you tell me about him? I mean, I’m sure there’s a lot to say, but—”
“You have a crush on him, miss?”
The blood rushes to my cheeks. “Where would you get that idea?” I squeak.
He shrugs. “Everyone who meets him in person falls for him. It’s almost like a curse. All the girls in town, maybe some of the men, too.”
I remember the prince’s exceedingly attractive face, then the moving pictures of him as a ghost that he’s had the hacker manipulate into my phone.
“To be honest, I think he’s a terrible person.” I lean back and cross my arms, looking outside. It’s almost evening and we’ve reached the hills, the higher mountains shrouded in fog in the distance.
“This is indeed breathtaking.” I gawk at the sight.
“Wait until we’re reach the Carpathian heart,” the driver says like an eager accomplice. “It’s out of this world.”
“Out of this world is pretty much everything I’ve seen so far,” I mutter, but when he throws a, “What?” over his shoulder, I’m grateful he didn’t catch it.
What I get to see of the forests until the night falls is dense and uniquely wild. So much unlike the woods with man-made feel from my travels. I let down the window and peer into what turns out to be a precipice so deep that I can’t see the bottom, all black and hollow, draught messing up my hair.
“Pull back,” the driver calls. Startled, I draw my head back into the car.
“Why? It’s not like—”
“Don’t put parts of your body out there, miss,” he admonishes. “You don’t expose yourself to the Carpathians like that at night. They’re ancient and dangerous.”
I can’t hold back a laugh. “Oh, come on. We’re not in some Dracula movie.”
His gaze stays fixed on me in the mirror, and I wonder if he shouldn’t be watching the darkening road instead. My heart shrinks in my chest, I feel uneasy. Some strange power seems to have taken over, the car seemingly driving itself and floating as if the holes in the ground have disappeared miraculously, replaced by the smoothest asphalt.
“You’re not here as a tourist, miss. If you were, you’d be seeing a backward region with nothing to hold your modern interests, and none of this would be happening. But you’re here as a guest of Prince Radek.”
None of this would be happening echoes in my head as the car slams into something front-on, the impact throwing me between the front seats. I manage to catch myself with hands against the dashboard and keep my head safe, so there’s no reason to doubt what I’m seeing through the slowly cracking windshield as I raise my eyes. I feel them widen in dread, my fingers gripping to the dashboard.
Stay tuned fro more next week, folks 🙂 Subscribe with your e-mail address and make sure you’re notified as soon as a new chapter is out. Looking forward to hearing from you.