Mysteries of the Asylum – Ep. 21 of “The Marquis”

The car stops, ending the magic moment Kieran and I share. Zed Stone Mask opens the door to the sight of the lunatic asylum, a grey desolate castle guarded by a black gate made of wrought iron. Its spires rise high and seem to pierce the clouds, thunder adding the final touch to a creepy landscape. After only a few steps my high heels slump into a puddle of mud, but Kieran catches me before I sprawl full-body onto the ground.

The yard is huge and barren but for the patches of yellowish grass, some of the lunatics strolling like ghosts here and there, accompanied by bulky nurses – their physique must be a hiring requirement for security reasons, surely.

At the grand entrance we realize the place is even heavier guarded. Men in “Security” jackets line the walls beyond the imposing entrance doors. I can see them when they open automatically to let out two policemen in uniforms. One of them places a hand on Zed’s chest to stop him.

“This is as far as you come, sir,” he tells Zed, who looks him up and down with his cold blue eyes. Then, as if asking for permission to break the guy’s bones, he looks at Kieran, whose arm is around me, more men in black – members of his staff – backing us.

“We’re here to see Mrs Grant,” Kieran addresses the man who stopped Zed, since he seems to be the one in charge.

“Ronald Lord Barkley would have to approve the visit,” the policeman says.

“Then let me see him and request approval.”

The policeman cranes his neck theatrically, making a show of what bothers him as his gaze sweeps over the men behind us.

“Mrs Grant is in both hospital and police custody, Monsieur le Marquis. She might be a target for whoever set fire to her house –” he stresses “whoever” to mark his suspicion of Kieran himself. “So we’ll allow only one or maximum two people at a time to see her, such as you and Miss Lothar. But we won’t allow a whole bunch of action heroes like your men by any means.” He looks at me, and for a moment I feel he wants to silently transmit me something.

“It’s quite generous of you to allow the Marquis and me to go in at the same time,” I respond. “But I think it would be best if I requested approval to see Mrs Grant alone.”

Kieran squeezes my arm, and whispers through his teeth, “What are you doing?”

“Excuse us,” I tell the policeman with a polite smile and draw Kieran aside. With well-rehearsed moves his men make a wall between the policemen and us, creating the necessary private sphere.

“There’s no way Mrs Grant will talk to anybody but a person she knows closely and trusts,” I whisper under my breath. “Plus that so much police and security could be a trap for you.”

“There’s no way I’m letting you inside this place on your own.”

“Why not? Mrs Grant knows me, she’ll open up to me much faster than if you’re there to monitor our conversation. Lord Barkley has also known me since I was a kid, he’ll take less time to give his approval.”

“Once they separate us on this threshold they might take you away from me.” He pulls me to his chest and locks me in his arms. “I don’t want a day to pass without knowing exactly where you are, Saphira, who’s around you and how they might influence you. I don’t want to lose you before I’ve even had a chance to make things right between us.”

My heart jumps as I realize just how important I am to Kieran. His insecurity is sexy, and it makes me feel powerful in a way I’m not entirely proud of, but I’ll deal with that later. I nod.

“All right.”

His men step aside to allow us to face the policeman again, who now pushes his chest forward, hands in his pockets, forbidding frown on his brow.

“We’d like to request approval from Lord Barkley to see Mrs Grant,” I say, drawing closer to Kieran with my arm around his, my chin up and my attitude worthy of a Marquis’ fiancé. “Together.”

“Wonderful,” the man responds without hesitation and leads us inside the asylum.

I’ve never been in here before, and the place gives me the creeps. When doors fall shut behind us with a thud, I wish at least Zed had come with us. I’ve grown to trust him in a strange way.

The two policemen lead us down a tiled corridor lined by security men to Ronald Lord Barkley’s office. By the moment the door opens to his secretary’s narrow antechamber I’ve got goose skin for all the bad reasons – the screams from the upper levels which probably come from people being subjected to electroshocks, the occasional door ajar allowing glimpses into greenish rooms with iron beds and chipped bathtubs. This is a place of shudder and gloom despite all the money that flows into it, and I can’t help increasing pace. I thank God with all I have that Kieran didn’t let me enter alone. His reliable presence and the warmth of his body help me act halfway decent, but when Lord Barkley’s full-moon-faced and red-lipped secretary opens the door to his office I’m about to lose composure.

The man sits at his desk, his livid cheeks slack and his mouth a hatched curve with the ends downward. He has drooping eyes and thinning hair, and his frame is long and skinny. He holds a cigarette between his knotty fingers that scream out his arthritis, and when the Marquis enters the room behind me, his face seems to draw even longer. But what strikes me most is something else.

Two people sit on either side of his desk. One of them – to his right – is my mother, also long and skinny, her face gaunt and haunted, her greying hair up in her usual bun. She too has a cigarette between her fingers, and tears well in her eyes as she sees me. She puts out the cigarette and stands up. My eyes fly to the other side of the desk.

Inspector Jeremy Simmons fixes me with his small dark eyes, but nothing in his expression betrays surprise. I realize immediately he’s here because he expected me. Or us. His bulky muscles fill the armchair he sits sprawled in, and his square jaw is covered by a three-day-beard that adds to his bad-boy demeanour. Tension is heavy in the room, the silence oppressive. Jeremy is the first to break it and speak.

“Isn’t this a pleasant surprise,” he says, making himself even broader by putting a big hand on the desk and resting an ankle over his knee. “Miss Saphira Lothar and Monsieur le Marquis de Vandenesse.”

Jealousy lurks in his words. My eyes fly from one person to the other. The Marquis is close behind me, but I can’t bring myself to look at him, as if taking my eyes off the three characters before me would somehow trigger their doing something terrible to us.

“This is exactly why I didn’t want to leave you alone,” the Marquis tells me loud enough for everybody else to hear it.

Jeremy stands up as if electroshocked himself and stomps to us. “Take your hands off her, you bastard!”

“Back off.” Kieran grows menacing, and I can’t help turning to look into his face. He resembles a marble statue, but the life in his black eyes is searing. I place a hand on his arm.

“Kieran, we’re here for approval to see Mrs Grant, that’s the only reason for our visit.” I bend to the side to look at Lord Barkley past Jeremy. “Lord Barkley, please. Allow us just a few minutes with Mrs Grant, it’s urgent.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Saphira,” the man croaks.

“But, Lord Barkley –”

“Save it, Saphira,” the Marquis stops me. My head snaps to him, and I find his eyes still fixed on Jeremy. They watch each other like hawks. “Any information Mrs Grant had to give, these three people here already have it. And they surely don’t want us to know it too, otherwise they wouldn’t take all this trouble to block access to her.”

Mum steps forward, crying. “That’s not true! Lynn Grant refused to talk to anybody, even the police. We’re here because we expected Saphira would want to see Lynn, and you wouldn’t by any means let her come alone. You’ve been keeping Saphira locked in for weeks, and you didn’t allow her to see even us, her family. You sequestrated her, you’re sick!”

“That’s not the reason I didn’t come to see you,” I step in. “I didn’t return home because I don’t want to have anything to do with that monster you call my father anymore.”

Mum blinks as if slapped. She babbles until she finds back to herself and her words. “Where did that come from, Saphira?”

I walk towards my mother, pointing a finger at her. “Enough you’ve pretended, a whole lifetime. You always knew something was wrong with him, which is why you abandoned yourself to booze and cigarettes. You thought substances would numb you, but all they did was throw you deeper into depression. And that man I used to call ‘Father’ is not the only criminal. This town crawls with sick bastards like him, so don’t take out your frustration and fury on the Marquis, because he’s not the one you truly want to choke.”

“What on Earth do you mean?” Mum whispers, her hands shaking.

***

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Secrets by the Fireplace – Ep. 17 of “The Marquis”

The study is warm and cosy, the firelight casting a beautiful glow on Kieran’s face. We sit facing each other on the couch.

“But still, I wouldn’t thank me,” he says. “It’s my fault the serpent-men are here in the first place.”

I shake my head. “No, that’s not true. This place was a nest of vipers all along, with my father and his group having raped and killed Catherine. It’s their fault you are here.” I grab his hand with both of mine. “Kieran, this town was a place of morbid mystery until you came along and brought that crime to light. My mother and I, we always sensed something was wrong. To silence that nagging inner voice, she lost herself to liquor, and I – to avoid the same fate – turned to watercolours, oil and canvas. Through painting I searched for something I sensed but couldn’t identify no matter how hard I tried.”

“Is that what you did?” He probes softly.

I bite my lower lip, searching for an example that would best help him understand.

“Remember the painting of the Dark Castle? The one you walked straight to when you first entered my parents’ attic? You said it mirrored my soul. You were right. I’ve been digging in it, portraying it in detail hoping to find something that I now realize didn’t even lie within but without. I was trying to uncover what it was that I sensed.”

“You do have special insight into souls,” he says, his voice low and creamy. “That’s why I had the portrait you made of me brought here and locked in the tower. It made me feel bared.”

I search the depths of his eyes. “You said that portrait was a confession.”

“And that it was. A confession that there was a battered stable boy behind the powerful Marquis. That I wasn’t invincible.”

Scenes of him in his huge serpent form slashing and biting his attackers fill my mind’s eye.

“Not invincible, but incredibly strong. You fought all those creatures by yourself.”

He makes a bitter grimace. “The reason why my makers held me in special regard. And why the mighty Slayer avoids direct confrontation.”

“Speaking of the Slayer,” I latch on the topic, trying to mask the shudder that goes through me as I realize how powerful he actually is. “Ivan Basarab. My best bet is Ronald Lord Barkley, especially since he and Vivien used to meet around the asylum. Vivien’s mother knows for a fact who it is – she told me, but an explosion muffled the sound. All we have to do is ask her to get confirmation. I would’ve told you before, when you came to my room, but I was too scared.”

He smiles a gentle smile, putting his hand over mine. “You’re not scared anymore, I hope. I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”

I smile back. My cheeks prickle with emotion, which I identify as infatuation and a trace of fear. “It’s getting better.”

“Good, because I want us to become real, Saphira. I want . . . I want a true relationship.”

I drop my gaze like a maiden from the past century, embarrassed by my blush. I fight the girlish stupidity with all I have. “You’ve hurt me, Kieran, badly. You used me in terrible ways.”

The couch dips as he changes position and bends to me. My heart races, and I watch my own chest rising and falling as I try to control my breathing. He touches my chin with a soft finger, lifting my gaze to meet his again.

“Is that a no?”

“It is.”

His face draws. Desolation falls over his features, giving me an impulse to allow hope.

“At least for now,” I add quickly. “I need time.”

“And will time help?” He slurs.

I desperately need to change the subject. I take to washing the blood off his muscular thigh, the rhythm of my heart alert. He’s completely naked right in front of me. “What do you think about Ronald Lord Barkley being the true Ivan Basarab? Ivan Basarab sounds East European to me, and I remember he used to help couples adopt children from that area, so this speaks in favour of this theory too.”

“Hm.”

I look up at him. “You don’t think so?”

“If Vivien had anything going with Lord Barkley, she wouldn’t have needed to sneak at night into the lunatic asylum, would she? Basarab wanted access to the sewers so he could get to this manor underground. So it can’t be Barkley, he has access to the sewers anytime. But another person who’s manifested interest in the asylum and its sewers was your father, Gunnar Lothar, right after I bought the manor from him – he argued to Lord Barkley that the place needed expensive restorations anyway, and maybe it would be better to sell. He said that the old building had historical value, and the sewers could be turned into a tourist attraction. He wanted to explore the catacombs, allegedly to assess their potential, but Barkley hated the idea, and the relationship with Gunnar turned cold. So Basarab must’ve turned to threats to force Vivien Grant to help him, especially since she seemed to be on to him.”

I swallow hard. “You’re saying your suspect is my father?”

“He’s my best bet.”

I’m stunned, and I don’t even know what to feel. I look around, gathering my memories of my conversation with Mrs Grant. “Vivien’s mother said the mysterious man had everyone fooled except Vivien. That Vivien ‘discovered his true rot.’ These were her exact words. But my father, we know already how rotten he is.”

“I know, his so-called ‘friends’ know, and now you, but not the rest of Northville. To them, he’s the respectable family and business man.” He lies down on the couch with a grimace of pain, one leg curled in front of me, the other one on the floor.

I can’t help admiring the marble sinews of his naked body. His wounds are now disinfected and clean, but they still need tending to. The sight of them makes me cringe.

“Is there anywhere I can get bandages?” I ask.

“Not in this room, and you can’t go out. The serpents are calmer, but still. They’re wounded and furious.”

“Then we’ll have to improvise.”

I get up from the couch, walk to his desk and open drawers until one object builds team with my imagination – duct tape. I grab a few clean starched napkins from the liquor cabinet and go back to Kieran, who watches me with an amused expression.

“What’s so funny?” I inquire, drawing tape from the roll. It makes a pitchy sound that rips through the rustle of the fire.

“You’re inventive,” he says. “A life-saver in hardship.”

But the moment I bend to place a folded napkin on his shoulder wound, I notice it’s closing. Slowly like a snail, but visibly. I shriek and jump back. When I look into Kieran’s face, he’s smiling.

“There’s something about my kind of reptile,” he says. “Unless you cut off our head, we tend to regenerate.”

***

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Enjoyed this? Please let me know your thoughts in a comment. Stay tuned for a new episode on Friday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here and, if you’re in for a whole novel in the same genre, help yourself to The Executioner (Part I).

 

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Confessions – Ep. 16 of “The Marquis”

We make it to the study, the Marquis leaning on the pillar by the entrance as I push the doors shut. I help him to the couch, and hurry to the outline of the fireplace.

“Where’s the firewood?” I spin in place, the semi-obscurity making it hard on my eyes.

“No wood. A lever in the centre of the mantelpiece, it looks like a candle. Feels like one too if you can’t see well.”

I grope, find it and pull. What must be wood logs rolls into the fireplace from somewhere inside it, the sound followed by a splash and a sizzle. Fire bounces to life, making me take a few steps back. I’m amazed the Marquis should use technology in so vintage a place as this study. The warmth hits my numb cheeks, making blood prickle through them again.

I turn to look at the Marquis’ naked figure, his arms spread on the rest of the leather couch, displaying the marble beauty of his body. He resembles a work of art in the firelight, marred by trails of blood that trickle from his shoulder down his chest and from his hip down his sculpted thigh.

I rip my eyes from him and scan the place for anything I can use for his wounds. I identify the corner liquor cabinet, grab the vodka and soak a starched white napkin with it. I hurry to the couch with the napkin in one hand and the bottle in the other, and curl one leg under me as I sit facing the Marquis and pressing the napkin on the wound on his shoulder. He winces and squeezes his eyelids.

My gaze glides over his profile. His eyes are hooded as he relaxes his head back on the rest of the couch, now that the sting of alcohol is more bearable.

“You saved me,” I whisper.

He squints at me, as if he only just remembered. “Why did you run, Saphira?”

My eyes wandering all over his face, I realize the pain he goes through in his transformation. A revelation hits me – The Marquis may be a monster, but Kieran Slate is a victim. Emotion swells in my chest as my gaze lingers on his white, bloodless lips, then on his tormented black eyes.

“You weren’t exactly nice to me,” I whisper.

He looks sad at me, maybe hurt. “But why try to elope with Inspector Boy?”

“I . . .”

I move the soaked napkin to the wound on his hip. He winces and hisses, the sinews in his body tightening.

“I wasn’t eloping with him. He offered an alternative. But I’d like you to leave him alone, please,” I dare.

“You still have feelings for him?” He grimaces again at the touch of more alcohol on his wound.

“No, not like that, not anymore. He and I go way back though, he’s . . . say a childhood friend to me.”

Uncomfortable silence settles between us. The fire rustle fills the room, but I’m not sure the burn in my cheeks is because of the heat or because of the awkwardness.

I walk to the corner liquor cabinet again and grab more starched napkins and a bottle of water. My ears perk up, scanning the silence for serpent slither outside. My skin crawls at the memory of it, sending a shudder all through me.

“Are you sure they can’t get in?” I inquire after I’ve returned by the Marquis. Despite his exhaustion, this spot right by his side feels safe.

“Positive. This room is as good as a vault. But returning to the subject of Jeremy Simmons. How come you trusted him, Saphira? He cheated on you in the past, and you’re not one to forgive easily, as far as I know.”

“Uhm, er –” I busy myself soaking another napkin – with water this time – as a pretext to keep my eyes down to what I’m doing and not look into the Marquis’ face. “My situation was desperate, and I’ve known Jeremy all my life. I needed someone, and he was the next best thing.”

“Next best thing to what? Or to whom?”

My heart clenches as I remember that my father, the man I should trust most, is a deranged killer, and my mother a poor soul who keeps her intuition numb with liquor and too many cigarettes.

I force my mind away from the subject and shrug. “Jeanie and Vivien, my best friends, I guess. But I didn’t want to drag them into this horror. Jeremy was already in it.”

“How about your mother? Why isn’t she the one who enjoys your trust most?” The Marquis asks softly. My eyes shoot up at his, and the truth stumbles out of my mouth.

“She’s distant. She always did what she thought was best for me, but somehow she was actually never . . . there.” I look down again to hide the tears that start to well in my eyes. “I now understand why. She always sensed something was mighty off with Dad, and it consumed her emotionally. It still does.”

This is hardly the time for confessions, and thoughts of the serpents remind me of that. I fire a glance to the door. “Are you sure they can’t come in here? It seems so still out there it gives me the creeps.”

“Relax, this room is completely safe. Besides, it’s past midnight. The effect of the moon on the inner serpent is lessening, we’re more controlled now.”

The kindness in his voice sends warmth through me, and I’m wondering if he’s using his powers on me again. If he is, he does it in a wholly different way than before. We search each other’s faces for moments until I kick the conversation back on track, starting to dab the blood off his chest.

“How come this place is crawling with serpent-men? I thought you were the only one.”

“They are my staff.”

My hand freezes mid-dab. “Say what?”

“When I decided to stop working as a hit man for my makers, many of my peers decided to follow,” he explains. “I couldn’t trust people who didn’t share my curse or my secret, I’m sure you understand. As for tonight, full moon lends unbound power to the serpent inside the man. It’s next to impossible to fight the inner monster under the shine of full moon, and we can’t resist transformation.”

Now I understand why Zed left the door to my tower chamber unlocked – the inner demon tormented him, and he needed to get out fast, which unbalanced his otherwise steely focus.

“But they are your men. How come they attacked you?”

“I protected what would’ve been their prey – you –, so I stood their enemy. Tonight they’re slaves to their instincts and don’t acknowledge any other master.”

He protected me. At the risk of his own life. Gratitude fills my heart.

“Thank you so much, Kieran. So much.” I squeeze his hand, searching his beautiful face and hoping to convey the feeling that overwhelms me. A tired smile draws the corner of his sweet mouth, his eyes closing as if to let him take in a pleasant sensation.

“It’s been a while since I’ve heard that name. I cherish it, you know? It’s my only bridge to the human I once was.”

“I cherish it too,” I whisper. “And I won’t use it without your permission.”

“Oh, you have all permission in the world. I like the way it sounds from your mouth.”

He sets his dark eyes on me, soft and kind and intimate. He was cold and even cruel to me before, but somehow I always sensed the good in him. The way he looks at me fills me with affection, and my heart beats in my throat.

***

Next episode.

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Enjoyed this? Please let me know your thoughts in a comment. Stay tuned for a new episode on Tuesday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here and, if you’re in for a whole novel in the same genre, help yourself to The Executioner (Part I).

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The Fight – Ep. 15 of “The Marquis”

The Marquis shields me from the other serpents. I can’t bring myself to stand, tasting mud in my mouth, my fingers clawing the pasty earth, the rain battering my back.

I try to tell myself this isn’t real, but every bit of my body feels the reality. Serpents squirm, some tangling with each other and building a slimy circle around the Marquis and me. They look like him, the torsos of men with monster faces, and serpent tails.

Suddenly, one of them launches toward the Marquis, whose long claws shoot out from his fingertips and slash the creature while it’s still in the air. It falls to the ground, writhing and whistling, but only a second later another one swings forward.

The Marquis’ tail coils around my body, his dragon scales wet and slippery as it slides on my skin, tightening until it immobilizes my arms along my torso. He lifts me in the air, away from the snakes. I close my eyes tightly to reduce the vertigo as the tail’s jerks scramble my brains.

When I manage to open them again the Marquis is high on the curve of his tail, holding me even higher. I panic as I watch his claws slash at incoming offensives. Snakes fall left and right, and the ground begins to spin away from me as the Marquis pirouettes and drives me higher up in the air. Gravity seems to pull at my stomach, it feels like a falling rock.

The Marquis turns his face to me from beneath, his blister-like eyes apparently bleeding, as well as his black lips. One of the attackers takes advantage of this break in the Marquis’ focus and jumps at him, thrusting its teeth in the muscle between his neck and his shoulder.

His whistle stabs my eardrums, but even though his pain is obvious his tail doesn’t slacken off me. His sways are jerky as he retreats with me towards the manor that I’ve tried so hard to escape, while his torso dashes forward. He bites the snakes again and again, swift like a huge cobra. He’s stronger and faster than them, so fast that his attacks add to my vertigo.

Once we’re inside the chilly manor, the doors thud closed. The Marquis sets me gently on the cold floor, his tail unwinding from my body, but my skin still crawls after its touch. I remain lying on my back on the granite, my eyes open and my head spinning with the vaulted ceiling above.

“Why, Saphira?” The Marquis heaves. “Why did you do something so reckless?”

I roll on the side to look at him. He’s on the floor too, supporting his weight on his palms, his flesh now transparent and his veins visible through it. He’s becoming a man again, his body gaining heat, and his face morphing from a monster to a beautiful human.

“I couldn’t resist the temptation,” I murmur. The sight of him transforming fascinates me, and my mouth remains open after I’ve spoken.

“Temptation?” He looks at me with a frown, blood dripping from his shoulder.

“You’re hurt.”

“No, don’t change the subject.” He shakes his head slowly, strands of damp hair falling over his forehead. “What were you tempted by?”

“Freedom.”

He bends his head and hunches, baring his teeth in pain while his tail begins to split like a snake tongue. With a cry he throws his head back and spans like a bow. My breath catches. His tail splits into legs, ripping and bleeding until human sinews replace the serpent muscle. In a matter of seconds, the wounds close as thighs and calves take shape.

“Oh my God,” I whisper, staring in awe.

Panting hard, the Marquis drops naked on the floor, looking like a marble sculpture. His flawless skin, his lean muscles and his youthful profile stand in contrast with the monster from only moments before, but they also prove he’s not a simple man. No human can be this beautiful. The wound between his head and his shoulder now yawns wider, bloody, looking painful. My heart clenches.

“We need to get that cleaned up ASAP,” I say. “And drain the venom out.”

“The venom won’t do anything to me.” He breathes with difficulty and tries to stand, but he drops right back on his palms. He spits blood, and I panic.

“It doesn’t look like it. It looks like you’re going to die.”

“If I died, would you care?” With his head still hanging he turns his face to me, revealing the ghost of a grin. His pitch black eyes show exhaustion and pain.

I scramble up, grab his arm and swing it around my neck, winding my other arm around his waist. He puts a foot down, the muscles in his thigh flexing strong as he stands, which is great help, because he seems to weigh a ton. But that’s the last display of strength the Marquis can offer.

Blood drips on the floor as we begin to move down the hall. The Marquis limps, and I notice a wound in his hip. The corridor turns darker with every step, and a glance through the windows lining the outer wall shows heavy clouds placing the moon in shadow. The storm roars outside, and for a moment I visualize all those snakes from before flooding the manor.

“They’ll eventually crawl their way inside.” Panic’s sharp in my words.

“My study,” the Marquis mutters. “We’ll be safe there, no cracks, no openings. We’ll start the fire to block the chimney.”

We increase our pace toward the high double doors as the slimy sound of serpent slither begins to close in on us.

***

Next episode.

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

Enjoyed this? Stay tuned for a new episode on Friday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here and, if you’re in for a whole novel in the same genre, help yourself to The Executioner (Part I).

 

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The Serpent-Man – Ep. 14 of “The Marquis”

The Marquis is naked, with his back at me. I recognize him immediately, even though he looks nothing like the man I know. My heart hammers inside my chest as I watch this creature with spiked spinal cord writhe, his flesh transparent and slippery. My eyes pop out of their sockets as his muscular serpent tail spans and throws up his torso – the only part of him that still resembles anything human.

My heart drums in my ears, mixing with the whistling sound the monster makes, his bitter-sweet scent strong as varnish, giving me a headache. His tail is curved on the floor, now sustaining him in a standing position, the tip of it slashing the air left and right. It swings until it hits a cell gate, bending one of the iron bars with a bang. The muscles in his torso swell from under the transparent skin that turns opaque here and there into patches of leather. He squirms and hisses as he shreds his skin, driving me to press my hands to my ears.

For a moment I catch his profile, and fail to keep back a shriek. He turns to me full-face, and I burst out in a long row of screams that I don’t hear. His black eyes protrude like blisters from his eye-sockets, his nose is sunken in and his nostrils diagonal slits, truly like a snake’s. Only the bone-structure of his face is recognizable, and his lips that looked so beautiful in their human form are black and wet like moving leeches.

My hands drop from my ears and I hear myself scream. The creature bares vampire-like fangs in a whistle, the muscles swelling in his arms as he raises them, his hands taking the shape of claws, and his nails shooting out from the tips of his fingers, turning long and sharp as blades. He’s a huge monster perched on his dragon tail.

Horror runs through my limbs, and so does adrenaline. I turn and run as fast as I can back the way I came – or so I think. The monster is chasing me, I can hear his tail slashing the floor as he slithers his way after me, his calls splintery.

“There’s no escape, Saphira.”

I heave in panic, but manage to go on, taking curve after curve and by some miracle managing not to skid or stumble.

“Don’t run. The place is packed.” He sounds closer. I cry out in a surging effort of putting distance between us, and at the next turn I see a round black opening, a tunnel.

I plunge into what I discover is a dry sewer, but dread courses down my spine as I realize there’s a long way to a real way out. Left and right there’s no option but further tunnels, and above my head there’s a rusty grate. My hands reach for it, and I hoist myself up with more strength than I ever thought possible for me. Blood still races through my veins, which can only mean that I’m yet alive, so either adrenaline has turned me into Cat woman, or the snake has desisted from the chase. Keeping to the grate with my head upside-down like a bat rather than a cat, I look behind. Indeed, he’s not there.

I let go of the grate and drop back to the floor, keeping on one knee and listening to my own breath. My brain refuses to ask itself questions, but decides to keep looking for an exit. Turning back isn’t an option. The fright seems to have reduced my intellect to the most basic functions – search for safety first, think later.

I reel through the tunnels, feeling dizzy and trailing the wall with my palm. The lack of ventilation makes breathing difficult, and the less oxygen I receive, the less reliable my senses. Soon the place begins to spin with me, but then I see it. Right before me, a grate that leads outside, to the moonlight shining on rocks covered with moss – the fields. The bars seem to have enough distance from each other that I could slip through them, however difficultly.

I hurry to them, but bump into a glass pane that I failed to see. Of course. No ventilation in the old sewers to prevent infiltration by enemies. I reach for the crumbled wall bits on the floor, grab a bigger stone and swing it at the pane. But what the darn thing does is drop at my feet, and I realize that the lack of air has rendered me a zombie that can’t even throw a stone.

I pick the stone up again and bang it on the pane – me leaning on it with my mouth open and slobbering – until it cracks. I manage to take a few steps back and launch the stone at it again. The glass splinters and falls from my path. Shards remain around the frame, irregular and menacing like the teeth of a shark, but I manage to slip between two central bars without a scratch.

Whether the chance at real freedom lifts the curtain of stupidity off my brain or if it’s just the oxygen that I now breathe in like a junkie, I don’t know. But I begin to reason again and realize that this exit must be guarded by the Marquis’ men, so I keep to the wall at first, waiting for any sign of sentinels. It seems no one’s there, and I decide to venture in the open fields, but the full moon doesn’t make it exactly easy to keep inconspicuous.

The cold bites into my flesh, the wind hitting me hard in the face. It’s so strong that I’m quickly reminded of the train rides where I used to stick my head out the window, and gasp at the gush. The dress is dirty and glued to my body, feeling icy from the sweat, and my ankles crackle and hurt as I slip on the mossy stones.

To my horror the Marquis emerges from behind a group of big rocks. I stop in place, my heart beating in my throat as I watch the man I’m running from walk to me, dressed in jeans and what looks like a crumpled suit jacket over an open white shirt that reveals his torso. As if he put on whatever he could find first. His face seems a statue sculpted in marble, and his pitch black eyes send voltage through me. Their intensity is the only reminder of the terrible beast I’d seen in the catacombs, the difference between that and this beautiful young man mind-blowing.

As he approaches, drops of rain begin to hit my face and shoulders. The Marquis stretches his hand to me.

“Saphira, come,” he says.

My tongue is frozen, I can’t say a word.

“Saphira, it’s full moon, the Serpents’ Night. They’re uncontrollable, dangerous.”

I walk backwards out of instinct, and he increases pace toward me. “Listen to me, woman! I don’t know how long I can keep myself under control, let alone the others. Let me take you to safety.”

I understand he’d desisted the chase in order to get a grip on himself and approach me as a man. I stop and decide to let him talk, but it’s too late. A slimy tail coils around my ankle and pulls, making me fall flat with my face in the mud. Another tail punches my jaw as I raise my head, causing me to see stars for a few moments, and when vision settles again I cry out loud.

Right before my eyes a huge snakemouth opens, its jaws big enough to swallow me in a snap. My eyes widen as the four fangs and rosy flesh beyond them dart close, but the instant before it can bite my face off a huge dragon tail punches the snake so hard that the hit thunders in my ear. The Marquis now stands with his back at me again in his serpent form, his dragon tail coiling protectively in a circle around me as I lay on the ground. Hisses and slimy crawls fill my ears, and then we stand surrounded.

***

Next Episode.

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

Enjoyed this? Stay tuned for a new episode on Tuesday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here and, if you’re in for a whole novel in the same genre, help yourself to The Executioner (Part I).

Also please don’t forget about the weekly Meet and Greet day tomorrow. If you have blogs you admire and consider relevant for the world (or run such a blog yourself), please leave a few words about it and a link in a comment. I’ll be very happy to read from you, and know that I always, always, always check out the recommended blogs and followers’ blogs. Can’t wait to read from you!

Pic source.

Escape from the Dark Tower – Ep. 13 of “The Marquis”

The head of security closes the door, leaving me gawking and blinking. His words soon sink in, and my heart rejoices – Vivien might yet be alive, and the Marquis might indeed requite my passion, like Lauren said. With the duvet wrapped around me I pace around the room, chewing on my fingernails and struggling to switch on my wits to silence the guilty desires that attack me.

My best bet regarding Basarab’s identity is Ronald Lord Barkley, the head of the lunatic asylum. He’s despicable enough. I need to talk to Vivien’s mother very soon, and for that I need to see the Marquis right away.

I take a quick shower to get rid of the soot, wash my hair –to save time I apply no conditioner – so when I bang on the door my hair resembles messy straw that goes perfectly with the aerial dress, making me seem a lunatic myself. I’m aware of the effect golden eyes have without make-up when staring out of a thin and pale face with rather delicate bone structure, so I expect the security guard to back away a couple of steps at the mere sight of me.

Only that no one answers my knocks. I realize that after Zed left I didn’t hear the locks. I pull the door and find it indeed open. Standing on the landing before the stairs spiralling downward, I close my eyes and take a deep breath – my first breath of freedom in what feels like an eternity. There’s no trace of the men usually guarding me. Remembering Zed’s tense demeanour, what’s happening with the Marquis tonight must have the whole staff tending to him.

A crazy idea leaks into my mind – all are busy with the Marquis; there must be little to no security down in the catacombs that I now know lead to the lunatic asylum, so I can use them as a way out too.

With a candle in my hand – the only portable illumination item I found in my chamber – I descend the spiral stairs, at first watching my every step. But soon I panic under the delusion that insects crawl from their cracks towards me. I’m aware it’s only paranoia, but I’m unable to control it and increase pace until I take two stairs at a time, stumbling and bumping between wall and banister. I spin out of the small exit into the corridor on the ground floor, relieved at the haze of moonlight that seeps in through the high arched windows, revealing the contours of baroque-framed mirrors.

The corridor is empty and obscure, the sound of my steps rebounding against stone and glass. The many mirrors make it creepy, but anything’s better than the dark tower – the place I’m coming from – and the catacombs – the place I’m going to.

The candle drips hot on my hand and will soon burn out, making me desperate for an alternative. There’s no way I’ll make it through the catacombs without sustained illumination, so I venture to the Marquis’ study at the end of the main corridor.

The double doors are the tallest I’ve ever seen – double my height – as well as heavy and creaky. Still, I feel no fear – should anybody discover me, I’ll just say with my chin up I’m searching for the Marquis, my fiancé. But when I find the study empty as well, only a faint beam of silver from the moon seeping between the heavy drawn curtains, my heart picks up a crazy pace. This is indeed a fantastic chance at escape. I don’t even know if it’s the right decision, but the temptation is too great. I’ve never thought freedom was of such importance to me until I lost it.

I decide not to run to Jeremy. I’ll go to my parents’ house, enter through the back, get money from Father’s safe in a few minutes and take the next train to London. I’m sure that, as soon as he’ll discover my escape, the Marquis will search for me at Jeremy’s, and only afterwards at my parents’. London will be last on his list.

With wobbling legs and trembling hands I grope through the Marquis’ study and find a hand lantern in the upper drawer of his mahogany desk. My imagination hits with a scene of Pretty Lauren’s skinny backside on it, her high-heeled legs wrapped around his hips.

I shake it violently out of my head. I know it never happened, but jealousy stings my heart, and the next thought is even more unpleasant – if I do pull out the escape, I’ll never see him again. I stand still, exploring the feeling – the Marquis’ beautiful face, his warm lips on mine, his velvety fingers sliding down my back, giving me goose bumps; it will never happen again.

I slap myself twice, cursing the monster’s power over me. If I stay, it will only grow until I become his slave body and soul. With a jolt of will I decide in favour of freedom and hurry out the doors, the round stain of light from the lantern darting its way before my feet that run seemingly of their own accord.

The opening in the wall that leads down to the catacombs is hidden behind a foyer – where I ran into Virgin Vivien at the engagement banquet – and then down another corridor, chilly, very narrow and smelling of wet stone.

Down in the catacombs cells roll by me like rusty landscape by a lazy train, and I wish I were faster, much faster. I take a turn, my legs flexing in a desperate attempt to pick up yet more pace, but after the second turn I slow down, my eyes widening. My heart stops.

Dry snakeskin stretches before me, thick and crumpled and trailing around the next elbow-shaped corner like a dead mega-python. I understand where it’s coming from, and dread makes my skin crawl. Still, compelled by a hypnotic pull I walk slowly along the dry serpent coating around the curve, where a mind-blowing scene unfolds.

***

Next episode.

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

Enjoyed this? Stay tuned for a new episode on Friday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here and, if you’re in for a whole novel in the same genre, help yourself to The Executioner (Part I).

Also please don’t forget about the weekly Meet and Greet day. If you have blogs you admire and consider relevant for the world (or run such a blog yourself), please leave a few words about it and a link in a comment. I’ll be very happy to read from you, and know that I always, always, always check out the recommended blogs and followers’ blogs. Can’t wait to read from you!

Pic source.

Full Moon and the Serpent – Ep. 12 of The Marquis

Saphira doesn’t fully trust the Marquis, yet she can’t resist his pull. She finds herself giving in to his advances, but this is no ordinary night in which they can just be together. Full moon sheds light on another one of the Marquis’ secrets, which proves perilous for the young woman.

***

The Marquis’ mouth closes on mine, soft and warm, while his arm curls around my waist, pressing me gently to him. His body feels stone hard under his shirt, and he smells young and manly and alluring. I turn to jelly in his arms, allowing him to stretch me on the bed under him with no resistance. His kiss makes me dizzy, and small stars seem to circle my head.

This feels very different from what happened last night, even though his passion grows in the same possessive way. His hands explore my body greedily as his tongue consumes me in deep kisses. My mind empties and I part my legs, ready to accept him, but he breaks the intimacy, bridging to distance with thirsty pecks on my lips.

He pulls away and stands, yet the expression in his face shows it’s not easy. His neckline is open, his hair a bit ruffled and his face so youthful and handsome that it hurts. He retreats as I scramble out of bed and advance toward him, wanting him so badly that I lose control and all sense of shame.

“Please,” I beg, losing my bra and letting my panties fall to the floor. I now stand completely naked before him, smeared with soot, my hair a messy blonde broom, hoping that I look depraved enough to stir the animal in him. I want him inside of me so much I barely refrain from touching myself.

His dark, hypnotic eyes wander all over me with a hunger that makes me moisten and lose a sigh.

“Please,” I repeat, but manage to keep in place.

“It can’t be, Saphira, not now,” he says, his voice low and husky. “Not tonight.”

“Why?”

“I can’t explain.” He retreats further, his white hand now on the doorknob. I see the skin patching into alligator leather, then fading into white human flesh, then pulsing into faint spots of leather again, and I realize he’s fighting to keep back the serpent.

My eyes find his just in time to see them narrowing, his black irises turning to slits. He makes a pained grimace and pulls the door open. The fight between human and serpent makes him bare his teeth, a pointy tongue slithering out and licking his upper lip. When he speaks, his slivery voice makes my hair stand on end.

“Trust me, Saphira. Please, trust me,” he hisses and throws the door open, lunging into the obscurity.

For moments I stand there, naked, stunned and with my heart pounding until Zed appears in the doorframe. His stony features are locked in urgency. He can’t help looking me up and down –I’m a naked person dirty with soot. I snatch the duvet from the bed and wrap it fast around me.

“What’s with the Marquis?” I inquire.

“It’s a bad night,” Zed says and throws a glance out the window. I do the same.

“Full moon? But, is that –”

“It has nothing to do with the occult or cheesy magic,” Zed explains in an even tone. “The moon has power on the inner workings of the Serpent as it does over the tide.”

He turns to leave, but then turns to me again on a second thought. “We have strong reason to believe your friend Vivien Grant is alive. The Marquis ordered us to find her and protect her. For your sake. Believe it or not, you’re high up on his list of priorities, and in a good way. You have every reason to trust him.”

“Have you been eavesdropping?” I breathe, getting the goosebumps at his words.

He looks me up and down coldly, but not without interest – more like curiosity – and he leaves without replying.

***

Next episode.

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

Enjoyed this? Stay tuned for a new episode on Tuesday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here.

Also please don’t forget tomorrow is the Meet and Greet day. If you have blogs you admire and consider relevant for the world (or run such a blog yourself), please leave a few words about it and a link in a comment. I’ll be very happy to read from you, and know that I always, always, always check out the recommended blogs and followers’ blogs. Can’t wait to read from you!

Pic source.

The Mysterious Man – Ep. 11 of The Marquis

Forced to face the dangerous Marquis in the dark tower, fear took hold of Saphira. But it turned out the Marquis wasn’t there to hurt her, but to disclaim any fault in her best friend’s supposed death. And he doesn’t stop there. He has truths for Saphira that will shake everything she thought she knew, including information about a mysterious enemy.

***

 

I measure him up and down. Tall and strong, dark eyes intense and sovereign in his ivory face, he looks honest and confident, and even a shade respectable. I decide to at least assume he’s telling the truth.

“Say I take that for a fact. What do you suppose the ‘mysterious man’ was after? Why did he need to get inside the asylum?”

“The sewers underneath the asylum link to the catacombs under this manor. He wanted access to those sewers and therefore to me. He wants my head.”

A revelation hits me. “You think the mysterious man is Ivan Basarab. The Slayer.”

The Marquis snorts as if insulted. “The Slayer. Undeserved distinction for a coward who fights from the shadow. He’s afraid to face me for real.”

“You think he succeeded in breaching the sewers?”

“If he did, it’s irrelevant. I secured them from halfway to here. But I do have something more on Basarab’s true identity. I think he’s a Northville local.”

A shock. “Say what?”

The Marquis continues. “Your friend Vivien Grant clearly knew him. Her mother too. I also think that he was a member of the group that raped and killed Catherine, and that gave me over to the people who turned me into what I am today.”

The pathos with which he speaks the words, the fearlessness in “rape” and “kill” and “what I am today” emphasize his entitlement to revenge. I surprise myself indulging him. And accepting his theory. Tension dissolves from my body as I begin to understand things. I let go of my knees.

“When you proved to be stronger and deadlier than the other serpents, you became dangerous to your makers,” I draw the conclusion. “Then you went independent. That’s when they must’ve activated Basarab, the Slayer. He’s always been one of them.”

The Marquis smiles a disturbingly charming smile. “You’re very bright, Saphira.”

“So Ivan Basarab is a false name for a man we already know.” I attempt to ignore how his praise makes me feel.

“That’s right.”

He looks hard at me with those impossibly black eyes that seem to hypnotize me, only that this time I’m sure he’s not trying. Silence settles between us for moments in which I just stare, unable to rip my eyes from him.

“What are you thinking?” He whispers, lowering himself so close that his bitter-sweet breath touches my face, the mattress and the pillows giving in under his weight as he leans on his hands. I feel lost.

“I’m wondering why I find it so easy to take your word for everything,” I whisper.

His expression deepens, his eyes now flooding mine. It’s hard to breathe, they seem to weigh on me.

“Because I may be a villain, but I’m the only person without a reason to lie to you. All you ever got from me was the truth. You’re beginning to trust me.”

I let my gaze wander all over his marble face.

“I must be really stupid.”

“By no means. You’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, actually. And I wish to win  your complete trust.”

“What use do you have for it?”

“It’s the key to your affection.”

My heart flutters. “You desire my affection?”

“Ardently,” he says, his eyes lowering to my lips.

 

***

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Enjoyed this? Stay tuned for a new episode on Friday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here.

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Truth – Ep. 10 of The Marquis

Engaged with the Marquis against her will, Saphira tried to escape, but has been intercepted and witnessed her best friend’s house burning. After a talk with the girl’s mother she’s drawn the conclusion that her best friend’s fate was the Marquis’ work – as a warning to her, among other things – and now, once again in the Marquis’ power, she must face him. But this meeting will reveal another side to the story that Saphira didn’t expect.

***

From fire-fighter to cop to nurse I get transferred back to Zed’s hands, who drives me back to the Marquis’ manor in silence. I’m dizzy and coughing and convinced that the man Mrs Grant referred to is the Marquis, and that Vivien had discovered his secrets, which put her in death’s way.

I’m shaking as Zed escorts me to my chamber in the tower and seals the door behind me, pulling three heavy locks from the outside. In a fit I take off my soot-smeared clothes and brace myself, rubbing my arms up and down nervously and chewing on my lower lip until I taste blood with ash. Curling between the cold pillows on the bed, feeling dirty and drained, I stare at the ragged canopy hanging over me as my mind spins around Vivien. My head snaps to the door the moment it creaks open, and the Marquis enters the chamber.

I retreat to the bedhead and brace my knees, but lose control of my shaking as he approaches. My lips are dry and cracked, yet the tip of my nose drips sweat. Those black eyes, demonic in his pale face, scare me to death, but for the first time he doesn’t try to numb me with his hypnotic powers. His neckline is open, revealing part of his marble-like pectorals, lean but strong and smooth like serpent muscle.

“You really believed you could elude me, Saphira?” His voice is calm and slithery. I can’t bring myself to speak. My vocal cords seem stuck, and my arms lock painfully around my knees. I wouldn’t be able to let go if I wanted to, I’m so afraid.

“There’s no way out of this for you but the one I provide,” he says and stops still, staring hard at me. For moments he looks a statue of marble with eyes of coal, a deceivingly handsome monster.

“What will you do with me?” The question comes out of my throat in a hoarse whisper. I think I recognize a shade of hurt in his eyes.

“Why Jeremy Simmons of all people?” He demands.

“He –” I cough and lock my fingers into my wrists. The marks left by the cuffs hurt, distracting my attention from the fear and restoring my ability to speak. “He was the only one who offered an alternative.”

“And did you consider the consequences in case his alternative went wrong?”

I ponder. “I didn’t.”

“You didn’t.”

He walks around the bed and stops by my side. I sink my fingers deeper into my wrists, but can’t keep down the fear anymore. He’s too close now. I expect him to grab my hair and pull my head back, then push his serpent tongue deep through my mouth to my inner organs and rip out my stomach like he did Pukov’s, but what he does is sit by me, a humid coldness emanating from his body. I know he’s warm in his human form, so he must be in an intermediary state between man and serpent. I shudder with horror.

“A few weeks ago, your friend Vivien Grant began seeing a myserious man,” he says, his voice dazzling my senses. “They met only at night. Always around the lunatic asylum, according to what the police discovered by now, but he kept cloaked and hooded, and no one other than Vivien ever saw his face. Last time they saw each other they also entered the asylum. The place is as fortified as a high-security prison, as you sure know, so Vivien must’ve used her good relations to some of the personnel – which is what the mysterious man needed her for. After he got what he wanted he tried to dispose of her and any proof of their relationship, and caused the fire. The girl’s mother was probably supposed to die in it as well, but managed to escape.”

He looks into my eyes, the blackness of his gaze chilling. I can’t imagine how I could ever accept his closeness while “sober” of his hypnotic powers, he’s such a perfect blend between man and beast, so unnatural. His beauty is of a rather fantastic than human nature, and it’s hard to put up with for a normal person. “He has you mesmerized,”He has you all fooled,” Mrs Grant’s words come back to me. He must wield immense power over the psyche.

“Mrs Grant says Vivien didn’t trust the ‘mysterious man’. So she couldn’t have helped him,” I manage.

“He must’ve found some way to persuade her. Blackmail maybe?”

“No way. Vivien is – was – as clean as an angel.”

“Then maybe threats? Against her family, her friends?”

“You should know,” I hiss between my teeth.

“Saphira, I never lied to you. I don’t have to, you see, because I’m in a position of power. So believe me when I tell you – I’m not the mysterious man.”

***

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Enjoyed this? Stay tuned for a new episode on Tuesday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here.

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Blood Trails – Ep. 9 of The Marquis

Forced by the dark and dangerous Marquis into an engagement that serves his purposes of revenge, young artist Saphira finds herself at a crossroads of emotions – dread and attraction, which she blames on the Marquis’ mysterious hypnotic powers. She yet decided to try and escape him. She left with Inspector Jeremy Simmons, but the Marquis’ head of security, Zed, intercepted them. Behind Zed Saphira saw something burning, and when she identified what it was despair packed her.

***

Jeremy throws open the door on his side, pulls out his gun and points it at Zed over the upper frame.

“Stop right there,” he calls out, and Zed does as told. Yet nothing in the security guard’s face changes. His eyes remain steely, as if Jeremy’s action doesn’t catch him off guard, but he chooses not to react. I know how fast and deadly Zed can be, I’ve seen him on the night the Marquis killed Pukov. I know that, if he decides to, he’s quicker with that gun than Jeremy can imagine. But right now nothing of all this matters.

I throw my door open, scramble out of the car and start running, stumbling and falling and getting back up, losing my shoes and calling out Vivien’s name. Her house is burning a few streets up, and the smoke grows thicker as I approach. People run in all directions, yelling and coughing in scarves and handkerchiefs they hold at their mouths. I’m dirty and coughing by the time I reach the corner closest to Vivien’s house, where I’m forced to stop.

Through thick smoke I see fire fighters in red-and-white jackets and helmets hold bulky hoses, calling out urgent commands at each other. The tension sends a clear message – they’re doing everything they can, but they’re not optimistic. Flames surge with a roar from the window on the first floor where I know Vivien’s room is, and a woman yells somewhere close.

Even though I can’t see her right, by some mysterious mechanism in my brain I recognize her as Vivien’s Mum, and feel my way to her, keeping contact with a wall through the thickening smoke. The woman is being held back by two people, one a fire fighter by the jacket and helmet, the other civilian. I wrap my arms around her waist, making her turn around and burst into even more violent crying. Noticing she knows and accepts me, the fire fighter and the other man let go.

“Saphira!” Her arms now go around my neck and squeeze me so hard it adds to the clogging of the smoke. Despair and adrenaline feed her strength, and she doesn’t even attempt to control it until she decides she needs to face me. By what I can guess through my teary eyes her own are red, her dark hair messy like a witch’s and her voice that of a woman gone mad with pain.

“That monster –” she coughs – “He wanted to destroy all proof and he destroyed my girl in stride. He destroyed her, Saphira!”

It takes a few moments of her coughing and hysterically repeating, “He destroyed her,” until I gather myself enough to make sense of what she’s saying.

“Who? Who destroyed her, what are you talking about?”

“She wanted to unmask him, and he disposed of her. I warned her to stop the chase, I knew he was dangerous. I’ve been married to a monster like him for decades.”

That Mrs Grant would think of her husband and Vivien’s father in those terms is completely new to me, and I’m taken aback. The memory of Vivien opening her arms to stop me as I hurried to the stairs that led to the dungeons last night flashes in my mind as my lungs constrict and spit out the soot in violent coughs of my own. “Saph, we need to talk.”

“Who are you talking about, Mrs Grant?” I manage in a bruised voice.

Mrs Grant’s lips move, but a burst of flames from the house covers the sound. I wince and stagger, yet find balance again and repeat the, “who,” which for some reason Mrs Grant takes as a refusal to believe the name from my part rather than a genuine question.

“He has you mesmerized,” she admonishes. “He has you all fooled. But her he couldn’t charm, she discovered his true rot.”

“Everyone clear the street,” a fire-fighter calls, running toward us with arms spread wide as if to protect us.

“Run!” another one calls in the distance just before a huge explosion deafens me and sends my head spinning. I can’t hear anything but the buzz in my ears, and see people moving in slow motion as Mrs Grant pulls me to the ground and glass shards fly over us.

***

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Enjoyed this? Check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here. Stay tuned for a further episode on Friday and, until then, enjoy all the quizzes, stories and goodies available here especially for you.

READ THE STORY FROM THE BEGINNING: PREQUEL – Saphira in the Christmas Story Book for Adults.

Stay tuned for a nee chapter of The Executioner Part I on Thursday.

The Executioner – Episode I

Blurb:

When English student Alice Preda meets campus heartthrob Damian Novac, she develops the heaviest crush ever. She joins him and friends on a winter trip in the Carpathian Mountains, hoping to get close to him, but this choice will change her life abruptly. 
When the train derails in high snow, the group of students seeks refuge at a cottage deep in the woods, but soon they start losing their minds and dying. Alice and Damian are among the survivors and return home, but the nightmare is far from over. She discovers that a shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which had engineered Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail. 
A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, Alice can’t fight the obsession that draws her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?

See Prologue here.

CHAPTER I

Every breath hurt as if my sternum had been smashed with a rock. The blur cleared to Ruxandra’s face, her dark chocolate eyes wide and worried above mine.

“She’s awake!” She called. More faces popped into the picture, looming above her head.

I tried to get up on my elbows, but the pain punched full force into my chest. With a groan that hurt too, I fell back on something soft that smelled of piss.

“Don’t strain yourself.”

“It hurts,” I whispered.

“It’s the CPR. Damian might’ve pressed too hard on your chest.”

“Damian?”

Ruxandra smiled. “He launched after you when you fell. He carried you here, too.” There was a glint of do-you-realize-what-this-means in her eyes.

Carried me . . . an open-mouthed, blue and cold almost-corpse. Shame sent another stab through my chest. I looked down at myself, and saw I was wrapped in two coats – my own and a new fat one, my scalp itching under what could’ve been a busby, yet none of it helped much. I still shivered as she tucked me under a blanket, leaving my arms out.

Muttering and shadows twirled around, only Ruxandra’s fine-boned, olive-skinned face constant in the picture. I registered a friendly, “Water by the bed,” and George’s, “Bug off, here’s the vodka.” Someone placed a candle on a nightstand by my head, as if I were dying. Still, candles were the only source of light in the room as far as I could tell – causing the eerie shadow play.

One by one the shadows cleared and left me in my best friend’s care, now that I was out of danger and required no more of their attention. It was then that my chest felt a bit lighter and I tried for breathed words again.

“Damian … CPR?”

Ruxandra threw me a glance, her hands rubbing mine.

“Med school, remember?”

This was turning overkill – breaking down the train door, jumping after me, cradling me to shelter, and now it turned out he’d brought me back to life, too. As far as I knew, cheesy Superman days were over and I suspected Ruxandra made fun of me, adding fuel to my crush.

“Playing hero,” I whispered.

Her head turned in the opposite direction – maybe the door. My socks got hitched off, and something hot pressed to the naked soles of my icy feet. The feeling was beyond unpleasant, like needles stinging in my flesh.

“Rux, wha – ?” I managed and lifted my head. My very tongue froze.

Damian held a bottle of warm water at my feet, his hand covering both of them. He didn’t wear his coat, only the gray pullover that complimented his athletic body and those dark jeans that hinted at his strong legs. While I looked a mess. I scrunched my eyes shut as he began kneading my toes. I’m not seeing this! I’m not seeing this!

“A train off track and frozen mountains are no playground,” he scolded in that deep voice of his. So he’d heard my mockery. I wanted back in my snow grave.

“Will you take over from here?” Ruxandra addressed him – agile on the first opportunity to give us some time alone, I figured. “I’m afraid George will drown in all that vodka he saved, if he misses me for too long.”

I kept my eyes shut as they probably exchanged nods or rather headshakes. I didn’t want to roger Damian’s affronted refusal to watch over an ungrateful wreck. It was only when I heard the door creak shut that I opened one eye, as if peeking at an incoming blow.

Damian flipped the blanket aside and sat on the bed, diving into the mattress.

“May I lay with you? You’ll warm up faster,” he said softly, his tone yet amused.

Lay with me? Speechless, I nodded.

He stretched by my side, lifting my head with a huge hand and slipping an arm under the nape of my neck. Our eyes locked and my mind stuck on how rare the color of his was. Special, weirdly so. Every morning I saw a dull, washed-out nuance of blue in the mirror, I saw brown, green and every combination thereof often around, but I’d never seen that pale green as if looked at through crystal, creating an irresistible contrast to . . . I couldn’t quite identify what. I imagined his eyes flash with some kind of madness, like a demon’s. Maybe they did so when he was angry. And I could make him angry right now. I could jolt up and press my lips on his, taking him by surprise.

But I made it only as far as resting my head on his arm that felt like concrete under a layer of fluffy pullover, and putting a hand on his chest – broad and a bit too bulky. My neck soon hurt. He had the physique of a bodybuilder, but I doubted as a med student and working for a living he had much time on his hands to hit the gym often enough for that. So he must’ve been practicing some hardcore sport for a long time, but I didn’t dare ask. He smelled of wood and warmth and Christmas fairy tales coming true.

“Where are we?” My sternum hurt with every word, but I had to derail his attention before my bold growing thoughts showed somehow.

“A cottage in restoration. The train fell off track too far from Predeal and this is the first lodging we found. There’s no phone signal so deep in the mountains to call for help, so we had to make do.”

Yes, off track, this was the second time he mentioned it.

“No earthquake?”

“That was my first thought, but I was wrong. Earthquakes aren’t common in these parts of the Carpathians. They tried to pull the train forward through the snow and it slipped off.” There was a pensive touch in his words. It suited that deep, velvety voice of his.

I looked down at the shape of our legs under the blanket, thinking of what to say next to keep the conversation going. Damian began stroking the side of my torso over the coat, his hand close to my breast. It made the blood race through my veins.

“So, did you only punch me or . . . mouth to mouth, too?” I couldn’t believe the pain I put my ribcage through only to say the stupidest thing ever.

“Didn’t come to that, don’t worry. You spat out snow turned to water during the chest compressions.”

“Oh . . . Sorry.”

“For what?”

“Spitting.”

He laughed. “You sure didn’t get the finest education at home.”

“No. I did not.”

I searched for something else to say, but my mind was stuck in the awareness of him, of his breath on my forehead.

“Try to get some rest,” he said, as if he sensed my inner struggle. “Talking might be difficult for some hours, maybe even days.”

Now that was bad news. Ruxandra would surely hunger for every detail of what happened in this room and I wouldn’t be able to deliver, which counted as high treason regardless of excuse.

Guitar tones slowly filled the silence. They were just as out of tune as the hoarse male voice that accompanied them, but it made not speaking more comfortable and I thought it relaxed Damian too. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, but his body so close to mine made it impossible. His chest rose and fell as he breathed, and I wondered relentlessly what he felt, what he thought of. What he thought of me.

He still stroked me, so maybe he’d give in to easy sex. In the end, he’d saved my life and maybe he even expected such as a sign of gratitude. Maybe he waited for me to make the first move, yet I needed a cover in case it went wrong.

Faking sporadic sighs from the world of dreams, I let my body snake on Damian’s. Since I was supposed to be asleep I couldn’t be held accountable for it, but the feel of his muscles under the pullover made my breath intensify, which may have exposed me. His rhythm quickened a little too, but, as I risked a glance through my lashes, his jaw rippled. He was angry.

I stopped moving, but it seemed he’d already made a decision. Though he withdrew his arm carefully from under my head, as soon as that was done he jumped off the bed like a gazelle and closed the door behind him. I opened my eyes, tears of shame dripping on the pillow.

With only the drunken version of “Dust in the Wind to keep me company, more dark thoughts crept into my head. What if he was into Svetlana after all? Or maybe into another? He could surely pick and choose with as good as the entire campus drooling over him. And what if he only wanted to be friends with me? Greedy for the shaft in his pants I’d probably lost that now too, which made my chest hurt as much as sniveling did.

Unable to put up with my own company anymore I threw the blanket aside, groped for my socks and boots and followed the music down a narrow corridor. It led to what looked like the main chamber of an old rustic lodge with wooden furniture, carpets on the walls and a terracotta stove.

With power out, candles were the only source of light here too, making the snow clinging to the windows glitter like in fairy tales. More drunken voices now joined the bearded singer’s and people chained together with hands on each other’s shoulders swayed left and right.

I spotted Damian across the room. He sat on a windowsill, his booted feet on the back of a wooden bench. With elbows on his knees, he planted me a steel scowl from under knitted eyebrows.

My severely bruised ego screamed, Hide! and I hurried to mingle in, trying to find Ruxandra. She danced in a lush embrace with George, who hurried to get rid of me by introducing me to Svetlana “Beauty-Queen” properly. My lips sucked lemon as I saw Damian’s coat hanging on her bony shoulders – so I wasn’t the only lady whom he aided in distress.

Maneuvered into it by George, I sat with her by the stove. She returned to a conversation with her friends and made a show of how she ignored me, meaning that every time I opened my mouth, she’d go ahead and ask one of the others about the parties at the dorms that she’d missed – probably ‘cause of her sugar daddy – or introduce some cheap gossip with, “Oh yeah, did you hear that . . .”

I tried talking to an older guy with wiry curls and a dirty coat he wouldn’t take off, but he soon switched to the other side of the human circle. After about an hour, when everybody else sprang to their feet and cheered at the first tantalizing tunes of a bouncing round dance, Svetlana and I were left alone for some awkward moments.

The tension pressed hard on me, so I decided to try for small talk. I managed to bring a cheesy, “So, not exactly what we had in mind for lodging, huh?” and, “Are you originally from Constanta or only studying there?” about my lips. Though Svetlana was as popular as anyone ever got, I hadn’t been particularly interested in her background until now.

Looking away from me and with disdain in her voice, she said her dad was from Serbia and I instinctively mentioned my mother’s American heritage.

“You’re American?” the older guy with wiry curls bounced in, his voice too loud. His drunken eyes sparked at me as if I’d suddenly turned into an exotic dancer – a remarkable shift.

Heads turned, Hector’s fingers tangled in the guitar cords, and I immediately regretted having touched on the subject.

“That would be an overstatement,” I muttered.

“How can you overstate origin?” Svetlana sneered. She looked daggers at me, so it wasn’t hard to tell she hated my stealing the spotlight, especially for one of her own reasons to be special.

“My dad studied in the States. Met my mom. She followed back to Romania. I’m a half-breed.” I glared at her and then at Mr. Nosy.

“So your mom’s the American maiden and your dad the knight from Draculean lands?” He gave me a deep-lined, unshaven grin that failed to be charming.

I nodded, eager to get the subject behind me and to gag his big mouth.

“The States, huh? In those times?” Svetlana tried harder to splash me with mud. “How did he pass Ceausescu’s dogs?”

I hadn’t seen that coming. I was cornered, and forging lies would’ve eventually put me in even worse light – it had before.

“It was Ceausescu’s dogs who sent him there.”

Complete silence. My eyes flew over to Damian. He watched with arms folded across his chest, his eyes narrow. For a moment there I hoped he’d jump to my rescue again, but he remained as immovable as stone.

“Tiberius Preda? He is your father?” The older guy whispered.

Shit . . .

I nodded and the guy’s mouth popped open. My dad’s name was notorious enough to mean heavy moneybags to everyone there.

“So, you’re rich daddy’s girl,” Svetlana confirmed my hunch, laughing like in kindergarten. I wanted to slap her, but she was taller and stronger, so I feared the aftershock. Not my hot-blooded friend’s case, though.

“Listen, hottie,” Ruxandra placed herself before Svetlana, her tone cutting, all signs of fun and liquor-conditioned euphoria gone from her face. “Alice didn’t make the sacrifice she made for anybody to still treat her like a social mutant.”

Svetlana glowered back at Ruxandra, more pissed off by the intervention than taken aback. Seeing them face each other felt like a slap on the back of my head – they couldn’t be more different and yet more alike. Both what society would doubtlessly label “Beauty-Queens”, head-turners, one of them blonde and coltish, made for the catwalk, the other brunette, fiery and well-toned. While I was a bad joke.

Driven by the pressure that built up in my head I didn’t wait for the outcome of their confrontation. I dragged myself out the door with face in my palms, fighting to keep back tears and unable to fathom how I could’ve been so stupid to mention my roots so easily, especially to someone who so obviously resented me. The cool air on the porch dried my eyes, but also painted a sharp picture of my situation – lame and hopeless.

The lodge stood somewhere high and close to the woods, countless fir branches warped with snow marking the contours of endless hills, a full moon hanging low in the sky. A beautiful place. A setting for Beauty and the Beast. For fairy tales Mom used to read to me on cozy winter nights by an adorned tree. I’d fall asleep in my pink pajamas, clutching Judy the Monkey to my chest and dreaming of a prince in a fairy tale of my own. Yet my story turned out to be so much different.

I sank my hands in the snow on the porch and splashed it like water on my face, hoping the sting would cast both Damian’s rejection and Svetlana’s laughter to the back of my mind. It did for but a second.

“So, daddy issues?” Damian’s voice made me jump to my feet.

He’d popped out of nowhere by my side. I refused to let my surprise show with clueless blinking or gaping, but gave the first answer that crossed my mind.

“Heavy loads.”

“I’m sorry I startled you.”

“Do I appear startled?” I attempted to sheath it.

He looked down at me, those eyes so pale and striking a shiver coursed down my spine. “More like a kid playing ostrich in the snow.”

A kid. That’s what I am to you, too, then. I clenched my teeth and didn’t reply.

“Ruxandra said something about sacrifices,” he mused after a short pause. He sounded as interested as anyone ever got.

“Ruxandra spoke without thinking.”

“And without your consent. Still, I think she acted out of admiration.”

“And that puzzles you, I gather?”

“It intrigues me.”

“Of course it does.” I snorted, bitterness on the tip of my tongue. “I didn’t discover insulin or appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, so you don’t think I deserve admiration.”

“Is that a statement or a question?” His eyes glinted like pale emerald. I turned away, gazing in the distance and faking cold indifference to his looks.

“All right then, here it is,” I said. The mountainous landscape with its winter charm made for a confessional state of mind, and I’d already made a fool of myself, so it couldn’t get any worse than that. “My dad is a man of wealth and influence, but I guess his name already told you that. A parent’s success can weigh heavy on the kid’s shoulders, you know? Everybody expects so much of you. I could live with it up to a certain point but then, on a drinking night with his friends, my ex bragged about intending to marry me for my dowry. I heard about that, but refused to believe it. So I decided to have myself removed from my father’s will as well as from his list of heirs, just to prove everybody that Tony wasn’t a jackass. The only thing I kept was my last name, certain it would soon change anyway. But Tony left me a short while later, of course.” I coughed out the last words and grimaced at the pain in my chest.

“So you gave up your inheritance to clear his honor?”

“You make it sound as if I were a hero.”

“I’m sure Ruxandra shares my point of view.”

“Ruxandra and I have known each other for some years now. She’d taken me under her wing before this stunt.”

“So she didn’t need reasons to like you.”

“No. She didn’t.” I turned and stared at him, surprised at his finesse and drawn ever deeper into his scrutinizing gaze. Just yesterday I would’ve done anything for such an opportunity to spend time alone with my crush, but now was the worst moment to be exposed to him. I must’ve looked a complete mess huddled in two dirty coats, with crazy hair, knotting my skeletal fingers like some underage witch. Plus that, taken with an inexplicable sense of trust, I’d just admitted how lame I was. I hurried to derail his focus.

“How about you?”

“What about me?”

“What’s your story? I mean . . . Truth be told, you’re quite popular, yet few people know anything about you.”

He smiled that weird, animal smile of his. “Have you inquired and been left wanting?”

“Oh, you have a way of putting things . . .”

“I merely adjust to my interlocutor.”

“And a strong memory, master Novac.”

“Did anybody tell you that or did you draw your own conclusion?”

“I thought it was my turn to ask questions.” I tried to sound cool, waving a finger at him. He took a step closer, his stare steady on my face.

“I’m not done,” he said. “This Tony guy, you must’ve loved him to sacrifice everything you did.”

“Is that a statement or a question?” I muttered, my eyes locked on his sculptured lips, craving to raise my hand and touch them.

“And if it were a question?” he continued softly, as if he wanted to seduce the answer out of me.

“I’d withhold answer.” Don’t ask where the words came from, for I do not know. All I knew was that I had to resist him.

“You don’t want to go there?” he whispered.

“Is this an interrogation?”

“Does it feel like such?”

“It feels shrinky.”

“Oh, that’s by no means what I intended.”

“Do you have a problem with shrinking?”

“Are we changing parts, with you as the inquisitor?”

“We are.” Boy, am I tough. I felt suddenly proud of myself. But something told me Damian Novac would by no means put up with my inversing poles, therefore I waited for him to crush my will. The prospect was thrilling, but the blow never came. He indulged me.

“As long as it satisfies you.”

Satisfies . . . “So? Is it contempt for doctors I sensed there?”

“I’m a step away from the Hippocratic Oath, Alice, so no. It just wasn’t my intention to go shrinky on you. You probably don’t need that.”

“What do you think I need?”

“I don’t presume to know. That’s why I’m asking questions.”

My heart skipped a beat. The handsome barbarian who’d followed me to the porch turned out to be a shrewd scholar who messed with my head – an irresistible combination that shouldn’t exist. I prayed to God the map of my desires – that had everything to do with this refined beast – didn’t display on my face. Intensity oozed from his focused gaze, something that predicted danger.

“Asking questions is a shrink’s job. Why take on it with me?” I whispered, trying to lose the foreboding feeling. His towering closeness heated up my blood so much that the winter night had no effect anymore. I felt hot and cornered by a wild beast. But the spell scattered to the four winds when the front door burst open as if thrown off by draft.

Svetlana appeared in the frame, wrapped in a shabby quilt that didn’t succeed in reducing her attractiveness. Her hair flowed dyed platinum down her chest, her golden catlike eyes glimmering under thick lashes. Truly a beauty queen by any standard. She extended her arm to offer Damian the piece of brown clothing that hung on it.

“I thought I’d bring your coat,” she addressed him without even throwing me a look. “You’ll need it, if you plan on staying out here long.” There was a drop of scorn in her voice. Maybe she did have a claim on Damian after all. I swallowed the lump that formed in my throat at the idea.

“Thank you,” Damian said, relieving the weight of his coat off her arm. “You shouldn’t have, though. I was just bringing the girl back in.”

The girl.

“You go ahead,” I said. Damian had already turned his tall, V-shaped back at me and taken a few steps to the door, making anger and defiance fire up in my stomach. I wouldn’t follow this handsome master like an insignificant, nameless slave, especially not after he’d turned his attention away. “I’ll stay here a while, enjoy the quiet.”

Purpose achieved. Damian made a half-spin and looked down at me, a glint of surprise in his eyes. I couldn’t believe he thought me completely under his spell just after sharing an overly platonic hour in bed and exchanging not thirty minutes worth of dialogue. Maybe he thought I’d follow him like a tail-wriggling dog now, hoping that he’d throw me another bone.

“The wind’s taking up. A blizzard coming, maybe,” he insisted.

A defiant grin curled my mouth. “The door’s not that far away. I’ll make it through before anything sweeps me off my feet.”

Damian seemed to get the hint. He frowned and shook his head, just slightly like at an errant child as he held the door for Svetlana and followed in.

I stood again alone on the porch. The wind blew sharply through my hair indeed, the cold penetrating to my bones. Maybe it had moments before too, but Damian’s presence had kept me from perceiving it. I looked out in the distance, shivering at the void that built up inside me as strings of white fell from the sky faster and faster, hatching the dark horizon. As the wheezing intensified, announcing the blizzard racing closer, I had this sudden feeling that something was terribly wrong. The finest hairs stood all along my arms as a winter gush flapped through my hair. I braced myself and hurried inside.

It was difficult to keep my head up when I walked back into the candlelit, lukewarm main room. Damian stood with his group of boisterous friends, keeping a reserved smile on as they laughed and tempted him with liquor. He seemed relieved to see me, but maybe it was just in my head – he looked at me just once. Hardly a surprise, considering my competition. Svetlana danced like a sexy snake around the bearded singer and in Damian’s field of vision, probably spurred by vodka and scotch.

I spotted Ruxandra and George on a sheepskin and sat by them. They offered me a plastic cup of white wine thinned with snow – maybe Cotnari, but the label had been peeled off the bottle, so I couldn’t tell for sure. They insisted I accepted a refill and ignored the palm I held up to stop them. Same drill for another refill, as George kept laughing and asking uncomfortable questions like whom I planned to “bed” tonight if Damian wasn’t available, despite Ruxandra’s constantly admonishing him. I dodged him off as well as I could, my eyes darting from Damian to Svetlana.

The wine didn’t manage to get me drunk, but caused an ugly headache as her dance took ever more sensual turns. Other girls accompanied her, their lids heavy from drinking and their moves erratic and ridiculous. But Svetlana . . . she danced like a professional ballerina in elastic jeans and tight wool top, throwing her platinum hair back with lascivious moves, spinning and stretching to the bearded singer’s guitar and voice. You can leave your hat on, Joe Cocker. Couldn’t be better. All that training with the mobster sure gave results.

Probably too controlled to watch with a hanging tongue like the others, Damian resorted to throwing her glances once in a while, sipping from his own plastic cup. She kept looking at him, smiling and winking every time she caught his eye, but he knitted his brows, as if something grew heavier on his mind with every minute. Soon, as the blizzard began raging, he made his way to the window, looking as if his mind left the lodge, focused on some disturbing stream of thought. His jaw hardened, making his profile seem carved in stone. Good God, was he handsome . . .

Redirecting my eyes and mind somewhere else almost hurt. I drank cup after cup of oily wine, switching my attention to the bets George and Ruxandra placed on who was going to crack and touch Svetlana first.

“Bet ya five cups on Biker,” George babbled.

It took only a glance in the direction of his not too discretely pointed finger to realize he talked about the older guy with wiry curls who’d brought up my dad’s name earlier, and who now sat drinking and grinning a lecherous grin too close to Svetlana’s dancing legs.

“A whole bottle it’ll be Hector,” Ruxandra said, gesturing to the bearded singer with her cup.

“You’ll fall in a coma only if you think of drinking that much,” George mocked, slipping a skinny arm around her shoulders.

I couldn’t help a smile. They looked like a freckled frog and a fiery princess in love. Ruxandra was tall and sinewy, her olive skin healthy and smooth. The firm buns and boobs, the high cheekbones and bad girl eyebrows made her crazy sexy, while her long-lashed, bitter chocolate eyes exuded mysterious wit. I often compared her to the fiery gypsy Carmen, enhanced with the brains of Virginia Wolf.

“You’re underestimating me, Georgey,” she retorted in a seductive mock-tone, “I’m afraid it’ll be you singing naked in the snow if you take just another sip.”

Truth be told, George did already have some difficulty rounding his words and his gaze was foggy, his eyes deep-set in his long, narrow face. The sandy hair looked like a mop on top of his head, disheveled as if he hadn’t combed it in weeks. Welcome to the club.

“We’re both too impaired for activities as extreme as betting,” he said with a peace-making wave of his hand. “Let’s stick to black runs.”

Joke aside he kissed her, taking her lips between his thirstily. I tried to look away, but it’d been almost a year since my own lips had been touched and longing kept me staring and feeling like a pervert. I cleared my voice, sick with myself. George drew away with a crooked grin and an apologetic shrug.

“Besides,” he turned to Ruxandra again, “Svetlana only has eyes for Novac.”

No shit.

“You promised to teach me poker, George,” Ruxandra interrupted before he could add more damage to my jealous blush, and motioned with her chin to a smoking and cards playing group well over their thirties. “Let’s join.”

I didn’t get the rules and George’s tongue-knotting explanations weren’t any help. None of us had much money, so the loser had to take off a piece of clothing each lost round. After I got stripped to my jersey, which got me shivering, I decided to call it a night and made for the small chamber we called bedroom, straining not to glance at Damian.

The leftovers of some candles lay around in pooled wax. Only now did I notice the beds – four of them – were mere bunks, probably with straw under the grey, dirty sheets. Maybe they’d served for construction workers until late autumn. But since the place had been abandoned over the winter, humidity had infested it with the smell of mold. The cinder was weak in the terracotta stove.

I dropped on the same bunk I’d lay on with Damian, sniffing for his scent and wishing for the “Crime and Punishment” that I’d lost on the train. The good old Russian novel could transport me now in another dimension even more pitiful than ours, where the hero would take another face but Novac’s. He’d be battered by fate, cracked and not as handsome, but he’d do. I closed my eyes and relied on my imagination to picture him, but that only sent my head spinning like a carousel. Sleep came in spurts and then fled completely as people began trickling into the room. I counted eight from under half-closed eyelids – still better than counting sheep. Then more followed.

Some sticky woman cuddled behind me, stepping on my legs when I resisted her siege and stiffly held on to my position by the edge. She stank of alcohol and I eventually recognized her as one of the “intruders” – people from the train who’d come to the same shelter, but weren’t part of our group, like the Biker who’d exposed my connection to Tiberius Preda.

The other bunks were quickly taken, and the rest huddled on jackets and sheepskins on the floor. None of them thought of feeding the fire, relying on the body heat of their partners or friends to keep warm, as I relied on the lady’s who now snored charmingly by my side. The blizzard intensified, whipping against the window, draught tugging at my forehead. It was a steady roar that mingled with drunken moaning – a couple sure did it on the floor.

“Stop!” the girl said, loud enough for me and everyone else in the room to hear if they were awake. She sounded familiar, but not familiar enough for me to identify her.

“Aw, you like it rough, then?” The man’s voice was not only too thick, but also feverish, matching his snogging on her skin.

“Get off me, you fuckin’ dog!”

My eyes snapped wide open, searching for the scene. All I could see were the girl’s white wool arms and long denim legs moving, my brain editing the meaning of it – she was trying to protect herself. A few others sprang from their sleeping places, while some mumbled groggy-headed.

A guy managed to light a candle after repeated attempts – I could tell by the lighter sparks and cusses – and, as he brought it close to the screaming girl, I gaped in smitten disbelief.

Svetlana’s face was drawn with fear. The rings around her now bulb-like eyes were deep trenches and her top was torn, revealing small, white breasts with pointy nipples.

Others from the main room burst in. I took a few shy steps toward the scene when a man ripped from the bundle, using the confusion to walk casually to the door. His contour was big – maybe a fleshy person, yet not exactly fat – and I knew on the spot it was the Biker who’d watched Svetlana dance. The same man who’d spoken up my father’s name. As I knew he was her aggressor. With a cry I drew attention and pointed at him, but what followed left me stunned and sweating.

***

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Stay tuned for the next episode tomorrow evening, and many more goodies to come.

Old Loves – Ep. 8 of The Marquis

Used by the powerful Marquis in his revenge, Saphira is desperate for a way out. But there is more to the Marquis than his lust for revenge, dark secrets buried deep in his past. Saphira found an excuse to leave the manor where he kept her prisoner, and made a plan to meet Jeremy Simmons, an Inspector who’s been after the Marquis for a long time. Jeremy is her only chance at information and rescue, but the end of this meeting holds a big surprise for Saphira.

***

Jeremy emerges into the Notary’s small office. Wearing a tight black turtleneck and trousers, a black cap concealing his hair, he casts a dark, bulky shadow over the entire place. Square-faced and with a grave mien, he looks as much a security agent as Zed, only that Jeremy’s a licensed Inspector, approved by the law, the letter and society. He inspires trust, which is strengthened by memories of our shared childhood, but dimmed by the night when I caught him in bed with Pretty Lauren and ended our engagement in tears, pointed fingers and cusses. I stand still, uncertain how to react as his muscular arms close around me.

“You’re so thin, Saph,” he whispers, a bit rueful.

Indeed, I feel like Popeye’s Olive in the arms of a troll.

“My appetite took quite a few blows lately,” I say with a bitter attempt at a laugh.

“I imagine being forced into prostitution is not an easy bite to swallow,” he says, and presses his lips on the top of my head. I try to struggle from his arms, but he won’t let me, and all I manage is to raise my head to look into his eyes.

“It’s not like that, Jeremy. The Marquis had me lure a man in a place where he could take him down without witnesses, but it never came to –”

“You don’t have to go there, Saph. I saw what happened in the dungeons, what he did to you, and I swear I’ll rip his heart out for it. I wish you knew how much it hurt,” he says, his eyes now hooded as he leans in to inhale my scent. “I missed this so much.”

“Jeremy, I didn’t take the chance to come here for an amorous rendezvous. I did it because you promised me something important.” I try to put distance between us with palms on his overly pumped chest. I’m uncomfortable with his arms holding me prisoner, since his closeness infringes my sick loyalty to the Marquis. A henchman, terrible and dark, the Marquis might yet have feelings for me according to Lauren, and I have without a doubt a crush on him, no matter how much I resent it.

“Nothing is more important than this, Saph.” Jeremy grabs my shoulders and looks me straight in the face. “I still love you. And I will do everything in my power to save you from Kieran Slate.”

His declaration of love is good for my ego, but nothing more. For months after the incident with Lauren I dreamed of Jeremy crawling at my feet asking for forgiveness. Had he done it, we’d be together now. But he was too proud, and decided to ask his superiors to transfer him to London instead, burying his pain or whatever he felt in obsessive weightlifting, and explaining how men will be men only in e-mails. At my turn, I’ve been too proud to ask Lauren if they still saw each other when she went to London, which was often.

“I thought you and Lauren had some kind of clandestine affair going.” I raise my chin and square my shoulders in an I’m-entitled-to-know attitude.

“Of course we don’t.”

I snort bitterly. “’Of course’? How come ‘Of course’? You did her a month before our set wedding day.”

“It was a one-time thing, Saphira. I was weak and stupid, I –”

I hold up my palm to stop him talking. “It’s all right. No need to dig out the dead. But I assumed you’d be seeing someone anyway, it’s been two years since we broke up.”

“Those haunting golden eyes of yours are impossible to forget, Saphira. I tried, but I couldn’t get serious with anyone, I never got over you,” he says, the confessional tone of his voice making it hard to doubt his words. In the end, I’ve known him for a lifetime, I know how to read him. But then again, he’s known me for just as long, and he’s skilled at fooling me.

The sour part of me wants to retort something accordingly sour, such as, “what you can’t forget is how I let you do everything you wanted with me.” Young and inexperienced, I never refused Jeremy for fear of losing him. I doubt he’s found another such sex slave again. But I refrain from spitting out the line, and go for a curt and to-the-point response.

“Please don’t waste time, Jeremy. Lauren might be back any second. Why did you call me here?”

“You still ask?” He frowns, making me feel like an idiot missing some obvious point. Which is, indeed, a fact. “Kieran Slate, a.k.a. the Marquis. He’s a terrible danger to you. You need to break away from him and run. Run away with me.”

I freeze at the idea and realize one more disturbing truth – I do not want to break away from the Marquis.

“I don’t . . . I’m not prepared. If I disappear, he can make that recording of me reach everybody in Northville.”

Jeremy pulls me close again, his face now inches from mine. I can feel the smell of mint as he speaks.

“So freaking what? Does that even matter under the circumstances? Look. I initially wanted to spare you these details, but it seems you need the truth held naked and ugly in your face.” But he’s hesitant to speak out whatever truth he means.

“Go ahead, Jeremy, I’m not a child.”

He tightens his jaw, his brow furrowing.

“Kieran Slate was engineered into a serpent-man, that you know,” he says. “You also know how it came to that. You also understood from our talk yesterday that his makers used him as a hit man. But you don’t know the horrendous details of it all. He killed on command and in terrible ways, Saphira. He dragged his victims in the tunnels underneath London and maimed them. Soon he began accepting other clients besides his makers, and made a fortune as a contract killer. That’s how he became filthy rich. The Marquis of Vandenesse was one of his targets, whose identity Kieran Slate assumed. After that he not only cashed in from his clients, but also took over his victims’ wealth.” His eyes drill into mine. “Kieran Slate made a flourishing business out of death, Saphira.”

Jeremy’s words slither under my skin, making the blood draw from my face. Again I remember the Night of Venice, and how I’ve learned that, before dying, his victims had signed cession of all their wealth to the Marquis.

“After he’s done with his revenge, after he has no more use for you, he’ll leave you a physical and psychological wreck, Saph,” Jeremy continues. “And if by any chance his hypnotic grip on your senses makes you not care about yourself, think about your mother. Your dad may be a monster who deserves his fate, but that poor woman who loves you above all else? Come with me, Saphira. I’ll take you to a safehouse, and bring your mother to you.”

Muffled voices come from the stairs, and I recognize Billy the Notary’s flattering tone directed to Lauren, as well as a blur of her bitchy responses. The stairs creak under their steps. I look straight into Jeremy’s eyes. He has me persuaded.

He grabs my hand, pulling me after him down a dark set of stairs. The bookcase that conceals the secret exit closes the very second the front door opens, and Billy and Lauren walk into Billy’s dirty office. Lauren will surely think I left while she was at the ladies’ room, and Billy will support that.

Jeremy and I hurry to a car at the back of the building, right by the fire escape. He opens the door for me and I lunge in, my heart beating hard.

The Marquis is evil and dangerous, and this affair can only end badly for me – I tell myself as Jeremy drives away. I strengthen myself in the conviction that it was his hypnotic powers alone that made me fall for him, that I can’t have been so stupid to do so of my own accord, and I pray to all saints that distance will cure the sick crush.

But only a few streets down a black car speeds by us and blocks our way. It brakes with a loud, sharp screech, making Jeremy come to a violent halt that almost throws me through the windshield. I stop myself with forearms on the top of the glove compartment, knocking hard into it. My heart smashes my chest as Zed “Stone Mask,” the Marquis’ head of security, emerges from the driver’s seat, walking towards us and pulling out his gun, his steely eyes fixed on me through the windshield. Behind him black and grey smoke rises in the air, billowing in one heavy cloud, and when I realize where it comes from I let out a scream.

To be continued . . .

***

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Jealousy – Ep. 7 of The Marquis

Used by the Marquis for vengeance and for physical pleasures, young artist Saphira struggles to escape his power. She has come up with a plan to persuade him to let her leave his grand manor, so that she can secretly meet Inspector Jeremy Simmons – the one man who knows more about the Marquis’ dark powers and his past than Saphira. But her plans are dangerous, and discovery may cost Saphira her life. The Marquis allows her to leave only in the company of his spy, Pretty Lauren, a woman who was once Saphira’s best friend, and who today is her worst enemy. Will Saphira’s plan succeed, or will the Marquis catch her?

***

Lauren and I descend the manor stairs side by side, each with her chin up and a sour attitude. I feel slightly superior because of my elegant two-piece outfit of a creamy white and the respect-inspiring golden bun that I managed to restrain my hair in, while Lauren looks a hooker in her short red dress and pumps too high for her skinny legs.

By the last step my stomach turns and twists as I think what must be happening in the Marquis’ men’s heads while they flank and tail us like a squad of bodyguards. They must be convinced the Marquis has cheated on me with her. Maybe he has. My heart shrinks with jealousy, but I manage to keep control.

We get into the black car waiting in front of the manor, the fountain with gargoyles that spit water in warmer seasons looming beyond it in the fog. The Marquis is a monster, a murderer, and I must break away from him, I tell myself. I must help Jeremy to bring him down, and free myself from his blackmail and his cruelty. I won’t be swayed by his inebriating power on my senses, or by his charm when I’m “sober.”

A short clapping sound rips me from my thoughts. I look to my side to see Lauren redoing her lipstick in a small round pocket-mirror, and I forget my determination, now replaced by hot jealousy again. In the flash of a second I want to jump over our bags that occupy the seat between us, straddle her and tear her reddish hair, but instead clamp my hands together on my lap, hurting under the gloves that conceal the marks of last night’s cuffs.

“Repairing your mouth after a blow job?” I spit, glaring at her.

“How I’d love to let you believe that,” she says, puckering her lips while still looking in the mirror, then smacking them. She claps the pocket mirror back shut and places it in her bag, in which she rummages as she speaks. “I could let you boil in your own juice over it for at least a few hours, but I won’t risk the Marquis’ good feelings about me for short-lived satisfaction. He’d tell you the truth when you asked, and that would kill my chances.”

The Marquis’ good feelings. Her chances. Jealousy chokes me, and I pray my cheeks haven’t turned red.

“You hope to get him between your legs. But I doubt your satisfaction will last any longer than it did with Jeremy.”

“Who says the satisfaction with Jeremy didn’t last?” She grins, lights a long slim cigarette and cracks the window. The draught pulls out most of the smoke, but it still reaches me and stings my eyes. She knows I’m sensitive to it, the bitch. By the time we come to our destination I’ll be looking like a poltergeist with red-rimmed golden eyes.

“Are you still seeing him?” I inquire.

“Jealous?”

“Curios.”

She takes a drag of her cigarette, her cheeks hollowing, the skin stretching on her thin but sharp jaw line.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” she says.

“That it did.” I look away through the window. It’s foggy and grey outside. The seeming indifference sets Lauren on fire, as I expected.

“I saw you leaving after him last night. Vivien tried to keep your fiancé’s men off your heels, but Zed here –” she throws one curt knock on the black glass that separates us from the driver’s side of the car where Zed and the driver sit – “is hard to fool.”

I bite my lower lip and refrain from responding. I know she wants to know what happened, so I decide to let her boil in her own juice.

“Why would you still want Jeremy, Saphira?” She inquires, annoyed by my silence. “He’s no match for the Marquis in looks or assets. Is the power of the first love that great?” She mocks, but beyond that she’s dying to know. I take the opportunity to hurt her, hoping it will cause at least a tenth of the pain she once caused me.

“I don’t give a shit about Jeremy, Lauren, you can have him. Catching him in bed with you installed automatic nausea at the thought of sex with him. I didn’t follow Jeremy out of the hall, I went down to the dungeons. Remember the catacombs you used to play in with the boys back when we were kids? I always wanted to do it in there. Well, the Marquis fulfilled my fantasy last night, he cuffed me to the wall and banged me. He made me come so hard –”

“He’s in love with you, Saphira, there’s no arguing that,” she interrupts and throws me a killer glare. The statement stuns me into dumbness.

“I can’t say I didn’t try to seduce him,” she continues. “I think you can tell. But he has the resilience of a man with a fresh crush. Still, infatuation doesn’t last an eternity, Saphira, and when it fades, I’ll be there to take advantage.”

That last sentence is a declaration of war, but I’m so stunned by her words that I can’t speak, and almost miss the turn where I can ask for a stop at Billy the Notary’s. In the last moment I jerk to the separating black glass and knock hard, my mouth still open and my eyes blinking, trying to gather myself. The glass lowers and Zed’s profile appears, as stony and expressionless as ever, offering me his ear to speak in like in an intercom. I can see the small headphone and the curled transparent wire that links it to whatever bodyguard gadgets are hidden under his black suit.

“Please stop at Billy the Notary’s,” I say the line I’ve prepared. “It’s on our route, and I might as well set in motion the formalities for the upcoming change of my name.”

I can only hope he buys it. My heart beats hard in my chest, not only with anxiety that Zed might refuse, but also because of what Lauren just said. I can barely believe it when Zed gives a curt nod and motions the driver to pull over. Relishing in the idea that the Marquis might be in love with me, I forget to expect that Lauren would want to come along, so I’m surprised when she expresses this desire, grabbing her purse.

I fall behind and let Lauren lead the way up the creaky stairs to Billy’s office. The building is old and mouldy, but its Victorian charm nonetheless intact. I watch Lauren’s bottom move under her red silk dress, and realize she must be freezing with only a leather jacket over her torso. It’s January, in the end. Girls go to unimaginable lengths to be attractive, but Lauren has always been a sexy cat-girl, so her reasons for acting desperate escape me.

We’ve known each other since childhood, she and I and Vivien used to be best friends. Jeanie, Jeremy’s little sister, was yet a toddler watching with her small hands and nose pressed to the window while the rest of us played in the yard, and ventured at the cliffs and in the forest beyond the Manor with the Fields. Catching Lauren in bed with Jeremy two years ago, a month before he and I were supposed to get married, broke me in quite a number of ways. So Lauren’s manifesting more hatred and grudge than me has been a challenge to common sense and to my logic, but now that it becomes clear she’d have a go at any man who shows interest in me makes me wonder if there’s not more to it than plain meanness.

The door to Billy’s office opens to reveal the mouse-faced man in a crumpled suit, the glasses large and round on his narrow, grey face. The office is cluttered with shelves and books and papers, his desk a mess, the small sofa patched and greasy, and the window closed. A catastrophe, since cigarette smoke fills the place, making me cough hard.

“Oh, Lauren, Lauren Morris, wow,” he exclaims as he recognizes Lauren, straightening his back like a soldier on command. He seems unsure and shaky in his greeting to me. “Saphira, what a pleasant surprise.”

He hurries to the window, pulls a few times until it unsticks and cracks, and then motions us to take a seat on the gross looking sofa.

“That’s all right, I prefer to stand,” I say, my eyes darting from him to Lauren, who lights a cigarette and stomps about the room like an undercover spy. She seems to be looking for something – or someone. Maybe the Marquis instructed her to. I’m now relieved that Jeremy isn’t waiting here, that he’s either late or already gone. Still, I’m anxious, afraid he might pop in any second and expose our plans to Lauren.

“To what do I owe the honour?” Billy says, clearing his desk with fast and clumsy hands, then emptying an ashtray in the paper bin and offering it to Lauren.

“I need to see to some formalities for the change of my name. I’ll soon be married to the Marquis of Vandenesse, and I –”

“I know, I attended the engagement ball yesterday,” he interrupts, and in his eagerness stumbles and spills the cup of coffee he intended to offer Lauren all over her.

“Oh, God, oh, oh, that’s terrible, I’m so sorry,” he says, eyes wide, hands all over Lauren, who he clearly has a thing for. I remember he was pretty obvious about it the night at my parents’ house, when my father announced my engagement to the Marquis.

“You complete idiot,” she cusses.

“Oh, please, let me –”

“Just take your hands off me. I know where the bathroom is,” she spews and stalks to the door, then up the creaking stairs. When I turn my eyes back to Billy, he’s so composed I’m staggered.

“I’ll keep her out for as long as I can. I’ll knock three times when she’s on her way back,” he says, and follows Lauren.

I stare, amazed by his presence of mind. Soon after they leave the cluttered bookcase behind his desk opens heavily like a hidden door, as if pushed by a ghost.

***

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Enjoyed this? Check out episodes of the prequel, Saphira, here, or the whole prequel in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here. Stay tuned for a further episode on Tuesday and, until then, enjoy all the quizzes, stories and goodies available here especially for you.

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Dangerous Plans – Ep. 6 of The Marquis

Forced into intimacy with a man who seeks revenge, Saphira finds herself falling in love with her abuser, the Marquis. The Marquis’ own feelings for her seem to heat up, but would he give up his revenge for a true love affair? Saphira needs to know more about him and therefore wants to meet with the one man who knows more about the mysterious Marquis than she does – Inspector Jeremy Simmons. The Marquis keeps her locked in a tower and under permanent surveillance, but Saphira manages to come up with a plan, which is not without danger. The stake is high if the Marquis discovers her intention, since he’s threatened that her betrayal would unleash a new measure of his wrath. Will Saphira be able to carry out her plan, or will the Marquis catch her?

***

“Zed and the boys” keep lurking outside the door to my chamber. After at least twelve hours locked in the tower I recognize each of them by the way they stomp the vestibule. They must be around five.

By noon I’m chewing on my fingernails, desperate for a way to get out and meet Jeremy. I sit on the end of the bed under the ragged canopy, patting my foot on a loose floor tile and fraying my own nerves. They say Necessity is the best teacher, so a minute before the clock on the wall strikes twelve, a solution lights up in my head.

I hurry to the wardrobe, throw the doors open and pick an outfit worthy of a lady – two-piece suit with fitted jacket and pencil skirt, a creamy white. There’s hardly anything casual in the old creaking thing, and I suspect the choice of clothes is customized to suit my future husband’s tastes. My future husband. My heart flares at the thought.

The outfit enhances the difference between my middle and the hips. The skirt combined with varnished stilettos make my legs seem long, and the golden bun I’ve learned from Mum to pull out fast makes me look even taller, but after I bang on the door and Zed answers I lose the illusion of being a grand presence. Zed is as tall as the Marquis, which places his face half a head above mine despite my stilettos, the steel look in his eyes making me shift from one leg to the other and seek my words in my purse.

“Uhm. Kieran said I should tell you if there was anything I needed. I need to see him.”

I’m still pretending to rummage inside the designer purse hanging from my forearm when I hear Zed speak for the first time.

“That name. You shouldn’t say it.” He sounds like the big, overly broad-shouldered Frankenstein-looking servant from the Adams family. Deep voice, no inflections. I look up at him, but keep my eyes on his cheek, not the steel bullets his irises seem to be.

“Why not?”

“Here he’s known as the Marquis of Vandenesse. And it should stay that way.”

“I’m not the only one who knows his name.”

“You’re the only one I hear use it.”

I nod at Zed and look down.

“Very well then. Please take me to him.”

I expect more resistance, so I’m surprised when Zed doesn’t pose any. He removes himself from my way, motioning for me to walk ahead of him. His men, at their turn, walk before me without needing to be told, guiding me down the narrow spiral stairs that have yet to be cleared of cobweb and humidity. This place has once been Catherine Lancaster’s home, it’s older than the Queen’s jewels, and its walls seem to be crawling with insects and mould. I shudder when we finally reach the ground floor and emerge into the wide reception hall.

The men keep around me, marching down the corridors and halls like a badass squad escorting a V.I.P., which annoys me more with each step. Truly “encumbering,” like the Marquis had put it, suffocating and strenuous, since not for one second can I forget myself and act normal. I have to keep the film of dignity I retained after they saw me hanging from chains in the dungeons, subject to the Marquis’ lust. I keep my back straighter than ever, my chin up and my attitude contained.

But when one of the men pushes the heavy double doors to the Marquis’ study, revealing my fiancé in conversation with Pretty Lauren, I can no longer keep back. Fury shows in my face for sure, and I can’t even remember if the man knocked first or not.

“Well, well, well,” I say and stalk to them in an aggressive catwalk prance that escapes my control. “Isn’t this an interesting visit?”

I stop by the Marquis, looking straight into his black eyes that make my legs feel weak. Still, the anger gives me a weird kind of nerve. I curl an arm around his lower back, the fabric of his suit caressing my palm as I brush over it, and raise my chin to invite him for a kiss. This can end badly, very badly, I realize. He doesn’t look like he intends to lower his handsome face and kiss me, which would make me stand a fool in Lauren’s eyes, but after a few seconds’ hesitation I realize it was just the stun. His lips press warm and soft on mine, making a buzz start in my lower belly, his bittersweet scent acting on me like a drug.

A bit dizzy and really nervous I peel my lips off his, staring up into his hypnotic black eyes, hoping to read his feelings and having forgotten why I just did what I did. Lauren clears her throat, thus reminding of her presence and my reasons. With narrowed eyes I look at her sitting with her legs crossed and arms on the chair arms. She glares a misty green glare at me, her make-up flawless, the dark red dress that matches her hair too short. A pair of high designer shoes seem to dangle from her white feet. Her skinny legs are naked to mid-thigh, her silk dress draped over her pointy-boned hips. She’s always been skinny but sexy nonetheless, and jealousy would eat at my jugular in a mighty way for finding her with the Marquis if it weren’t busy eating at Lauren’s. The jealousy in her pretty greenish eyes is the exact kind of balm I need right now. I give her an almost involuntary satisfied smile.

“And to what do we owe the pleasure?” I inquire sweetly, nestling my cheek at my fiancé’s chest. My fiancé. The idea and the feel of him make my heart flutter, and I must admit this situation has just turned into something rather pleasant.

“Miss Lauren was just telling me about a property her father has for sale,” the Marquis answers in her place, his voice a ripple of chocolate to my senses. My lids feel a bit heavy, and I know he’s unleashing his opium-like powers on me, but I make every effort to resist.

“Oh, and he sent his daughter to discuss the deal. I didn’t know you were real estate savvy, Lauren,” I address her.

The Marquis’ hand goes around my middle, and now we’re standing cradling each other’s lower backs, leaning on his desk. He doesn’t intervene to save Lauren from replying despite her glancing at him repeatedly before doing so, and seems to enjoy my defending his position as my man.

“Nice banquet yesterday. Hopefully the wedding turns out just as good,” Lauren changes the subject and stands in one rather jerky move. She pulls nervously at the rim of her dress as if she’s embarrassed, and grabs her purse form the corner of the desk. For a moment there I think she acts like a mistress who’d just been caught by the wife. I remember her envious stares last night while the Marquis took me on exhibiting rounds among the crowd to save his image in front of the guests after I’d been seen leaving with Jeremy. Speaking of Jeremy . . .

“You seem to have a weakness for my fiancés, but not all of them fall for red.” I measure her with a despising attitude, and feel like a bitchy idiot only a moment later.

“Saphira,” the Marquis pulls the brakes in a serious tone, but I try my best not to let it intimidate me. My body wants to keep glued to his hard torso, but my mind tells me to act, and I do, even if only to prove that I still have a will of my own.

“I need to go to town,” I say in a breath, turning to him as if Lauren weren’t even there. He shouldn’t have any reason to refuse the brilliant lie that I came up with. “I need to see Vivien for some floral arrangements for the wedding. Zed and his boys can escort me, if you feel more in control that way.” – I intend to make the visit to Billy the Notary only a “convenient stop on the way.”

The Marquis must like my thinking so seriously of the wedding, since his beautiful marble lips draw in a smile like none I’ve seen on his face before.

“Wonderful then,” he says, and looks at Lauren with a sharpness that stands in contrast with the warm smile he’s given me. “Miss Vivien’s house is exactly where Miss Lauren was going right now too.”

I freeze. I glance repeatedly from the Marquis to Lauren, and I realize this was a command she knows she has to follow. She is to act as his spy and, unlike the Marquis’ men, she can follow me even to the toilet. Whether she’s bound to him because they’re sleeping together or because he agreed to buy her father’s property, I don’t know. But I know that jealousy is showing its big ugly snout again, and this time darn close.

***

Enjoyed this? Check out episodes of the prequel, Saphira, here, or the whole prequel in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here. Stay tuned for a further episode on Friday and, until then, enjoy all the quizzes (NEW QUIZ COMING UP TOMORROW!), stories and goodies available here especially for you.

NEXT EPISODEJealousy – Ep. 7 of The Marquis

PREQUELSaphira in the Christmas Story Book for Adults

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A Dark Love – Ep. 5 of The Marquis

The young and powerful Marquis seeks revenge for the death of his former lover, and he uses his main target’s daughter to get it. He forced the girl into an engagement and a dirty arrangement, but things have taken new turns. Saphira is falling in love with him despite her fight to hate him, and in the last episode the passion between them broke loose from its hinges. But the Marquis is a mysterious creature, and his plans are dark, taking Saphira down perilous roads.

(Previous episodes)

***

“Who told you?” the Marquis demands to know.

“It was . . .” I wish I could brace myself and hide. I stand naked and with my hands cuffed to the sides before the Marquis, the stockings and high heels making me feel like a prostitute. He shuffles his shirt back on, buttons up his pants and tightens his belt, his pitch black eyes striking on his ivory face. He’s taken me like a master his slave, and now he interrogates me like an inquisitor.

“It was Jeremy Simmons, wasn’t it?”

“Up in the ballroom,” I attempt a lie, but the grin crooking on his face tells me he’s not buying it. He pulls me hard to him. The chains holding my hands rattle, and my breasts crush into his chest, him being dressed and me naked making me feel vulnerable and worthless. His eyes are now close, defiant and even angrier than before.

“You were down here with him, weren’t you, Saphira? Did he give you my name along with the sob story of Catherine Lancaster and the stable boy?”

“Is that sob story not why you seek revenge?” I whisper.

He bares his white teeth in a grin that’s as threatening as the split serpent tongue that now moves between them.

“If you ever see Jeremy Simmons alone again,” he hisses, “I’ll make his head a trophy on my wall.”

I hear the jealousy in his words, and my heart flutters. I know this is sick, but I’m no less jealous of Catherine Lancaster.

“Jeremy is an Inspector. His murder would have the police all over you.”

“The police are already all over me, Saphira. But they have nothing except stories, like your ex, the Inspector boy.”

His serpent tongue slithers out of his mouth, making the finest hairs stand on my arms as it licks my cheek in a cold, wet stroke. He takes distance again, his black eyes nailing me in place. A patch of skin on his face seems to peel off like burning paper, revealing thick serpent scales the colour of ash as he lifts my chin with two fingers.

“Don’t betray me, Saphira,” he warns, his voice now deep but silvery, like a monster’s. “Or you’ll know a new measure of my wrath.”

I’m afraid of antagonizing him. He presses me harder to his body and lets out a sharp, piping sound that makes my ears buzz and my eyes scrunch, reverberating through the dungeons. In  response many steps march down the catacombs.

The Marquis holds me crushed to his chest, covering my nakedness but not our intimacy as his men appear, wearing dark suits and grim attitudes. It’s clear to everyone what happened between us, and it’s especially humiliating since my arms are still spread open, and in cuffs.

“A new dress,” he orders. “A comfortable one.”

One of his men hurries to carry out the command, while the Marquis frees my hands. I fall in his arms, my legs weak and my will numb. The hard sinews beneath his shirt feel like steel on my flesh, his glinting black gaze making me all too aware of the power he has over me. I’m stripped of clothes and of options.

A mighty awkward while later the man who went away returns with a simple dark-red strap dress, which the Marquis takes from him, then dismisses the entire team. I hear them whisper and murmur at the end of the aisle while I get dressed, the Marquis watching me from the gate of the cell. For a brief moment I think I read something more than jealousy in his gaze.

His white hand covers mine in a possessive gesture as I hook it around his elbow – at his invitation. Some of his men look puzzled when they see us, one of them raising a questioning eyebrow, as if he’s never expected such display despite our engagement. I recognize him as Stone Mask, one of the Marquis’ personal bodyguards. I still wonder why he needs security; it’s not like anyone in Northville stands a chance against him, and I doubt even Jeremy with his steroid-pumped muscles would really pose a challenge. Then I think of Ivan Basarab, the Slayer. But then again, Basarab doesn’t dare take on the Marquis head-on either . . .

We ascend back to the ground floor and soon we’re in front of the ballroom. The Marquis makes a show of our entrance, the pool of men in black suits behind us, our slow walk among the crowd attracting stares and whispers. The golden locks I managed to arrange my hair in before the party are now dishevelled, and my make-up surely patched and smeared, which makes me want to crawl away from sight, but the Marquis presents me like the trophy most worthy of having.

I identify Jeremy looking hard at us from amidst a group, his eyes furious, his overdone muscles clearly tense under his suit. I glance at the Marquis and notice the two have locked glares. I realize Jeremy has been hidden in the dungeons all along, heard and maybe witnessed what happened between the Marquis and me. The challenging grin on the Marquis’ face confirms, and I wish the earth would split and swallow me.

Nevertheless, what the Marquis does as he becomes ever more aware of my embarrassment is take me on a slow round of small talk with respectable families, one possessive hand on the small of my back, and pressing his cheek to mine all too often. His displays of affection – if fake or not – make me feel halfway good, but the measuring of the men from head to toes and the envious daggers the women shoot me add to my unease. Some of the men even prove unable to refrain from remarks such as,

“Yours is sure a fiery love story,” – accompanied by lecherous ogling when they think the Marquis and I are not looking – or, “Now, here’s a couple that can’t keep their hands off each other.”

I don’t believe there’s anyone at the engagement ball that can’t tell the Marquis and I have unleashed our passion recently, and probably also picture us ravishing each other in some hidden corner behind heavy velvet curtains. Luckily for me, the Marquis soon decides he’s shown off enough and ends my mandatory attendance.

“This was necessary,” he explains, and I almost take it as an apology until he reprimands through his teeth, “because they saw you follow Simmons out earlier, which made me look bad. Real bad. But the show just now should’ve made matters right.”

He leads me up the spiralling stairs to my chamber in the tower, and my heart drums wondering if he’ll take me again.

The heavy black door that starkly resembles the door to a medieval jail opens into the tower chamber with its few and rather gothic amenities. I walk in but the Marquis doesn’t follow me inside. When I realize this I turn to see him standing in the door, hand on the knob, looking at me as if he wants to eat me alive. We stare at each other for moments until he resolves to speak.

“Change of plans,” he says. “You’re no longer required to do . . . any of the things you’ve been required to do before.”

“You’ll no longer use me in your revenge?”

“I don’t know yet. But if I do, it’ll be in a different way.”

“Does this mean the engagement is off?”

“Wouldn’t you like that? But I’m afraid the engagement is still on –” an uncertain pause “– I still need you.”

“For what?”

“For now all you need to know is this – I won’t hear of you being alone with a man again, or I’ll have him skinned and roasted like a rabbit.” He stares hard at me to make his point. I catch roots in the ground.

“And you will not leave this place unencumbered,” he concludes. “Anything you need, Zed and his boys are at your disposal.” He motions at Stone Mask, and for a moment there I’m actually glad the Marquis has finally attached a name to the expressionless, steely-eyed face. I don’t know what to say, my heart beating like a rock in my chest, but soon after the heavy door falls shut my wit springs to life with a shot of despair – How am I supposed to meet Jeremy tomorrow?

***

Enjoyed this? Check out episodes of the prequel, Saphira, here, or the whole prequel in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here. Stay tuned for a further episode on Tuesday and, until then, enjoy all the quizzes, stories and goodies available here especially for you.

(Previous episodes of “The Marquis”)

Oh, and Big Announcement: Stay tuned for a new book presentation on Monday, elegant COMEDY, perfect for the fans of Sherlock Holmes and parodies. Especially if you’re a guy with a thing for engines, no fear of rats (no matter how giant) or dangerous sensual women (meet Vittoria Donna Gina), you’ll totally love Mr. Christopher Milner’s, “The Giant Rat of Sumatra.” Details and goodies coming up Monday 🙂

NEXT EPISODE Dangerous Plans – Ep. 6 of The Marquis

PREQUELSaphira in the Christmas Story Book for Adults

Pic source.