Friday Snippet: Lady Wyre’s Regret

Continuing the free-read prequel to Lady Doctor Wyre .  This snippet is a little long but there was no good place to break.  In this section, Sig (aka Lord Regret) is introduced to a stranger who may be familiar to some of you who’ve read the The Shanhasson books.  If you need to catch up, part 1 and part 2.

If people thought the hardest part of an assassin’s job was the killing, they’d be dead wrong.  For Sig, it was the endless waiting for his next contract. 

Wallowing in grim regrets, he tossed back another shot.  As the years went by, he’d discovered that his memories became harder to dull with mere alcohol.  His numerous killings didn’t torment him.  No, a more dreadful guilt weighed upon his chest, suffocating him more and more each day.  Only killing managed to blot that darkness out for a short while, and not even the most famed assassin in the universe could kill every single day, not if he wanted to be well paid for his work.

So he found himself alone and desperately drunk in the Black Stump Saloon at the edge of what the locals called the Outback, a wasteland of barren, torn ground already raped of its resources to supply the planet’s main port and only—but mega—city, Sydney.  Absolutely nothing on the surface of Terra Australis made the planet worth inhabiting, but the deep, rich veins of gold, diamonds, and ore certainly did.  The wealth of natural resources combined with the depth of those veins and the harsh living conditions made for a most excellent penal colony.

Every port had a place so dark and disreputable that its own inhabitants were afraid they’d get their throats slit if they ever stepped foot in side.  Thieves, rebels, and wanted criminals somehow managed to find their way to these hellholes as effortlessly as homing pigeons flew home to their coop.  On a planet of convicts, their harsh keepers, and a handful of men so desperate to make a pound or two that they’d work side by side with the worst murderers and thieves in the galaxy, the Black Stump Saloon was especially dangerous.

Alien-made rotgut burned like acid down his throat.  Flames crackled through his veins, cramping his muscles, but he still gave a jerk of his head to the shaggy, unkempt barkeeper for another round.  His body might be feeling the nasty affects, but his mind remained wretchedly clear.

If even the foulest whiskey in the most vermin-filled bar in the universe can’t help deaden the memories any longer, then I’d better get busy finding the best way to stop my breathing for good.

“Be wary, my friend.” 

The stranger’s voice drew his attention to his left.  A man slid up to the bar beside him, so silently that even the barkeeper—who carefully kept the entire bar in his line of vision at all times—involuntarily jerked back.

Dark, gleaming eyes met Sig’s and not even a sardonic wink could disguise the man’s silent threat.  Instantly, every cell in his body went on high alert, causing another firestorm of agony to tear through his burning muscles.  That kind of lethal grace and unflinching stare meant only one thing.

This man is as good a killer as I am.

“Dying by Shee ale is a hard way to go.  I’ve seen men tearing their own skin off, trying to make the burning sensation end.  If you really want to die, there are much easier ways to accomplish it.”

The implication that he would certainly be able to accommodate a death wish gave his words a cold, heavy weight.  Sig didn’t allow his body to tense with alarm, but he mentally took a quick inventory of the weapons he had on his person.  Perfect for throwing, thin silver blades were strapped to each wrist beneath his coat.  He had a longer, heavier dirk tucked down his spine in a back harness, and two more throwing blades in each boot.  Not to mention the lazor surely stashed beneath the bar.

Of course an assassin’s body was his best weapon.  While Sig took great pride in his agility and quick-handed strikes, he wouldn’t be able to surprise this man, who undoubtedly outweighed him by at least thirty stone.  The man was solid muscle and topped him by another foot, yet moved with the silent glide of a predator on the hunt.

Why haven’t I ever heard of him before?

Using his best high Society voice which had made him famous, Sig drawled, “If you can recommend another way to dull painful memories, sir, then I would love to hear it.”

The stranger’s dark gaze flickered over him, so sharp and deep that Sig unconsciously held his breath.  “Ah, you have my sympathies.  I know what it’s like to be haunted by a living nightmare.”

He gave the barkeeper a short nod and the man brought two steaming mugs.  Sig smelled the mug suspiciously.  No alcohol.  He took a hesitant sip and shuddered at the dark, bitter taste.  “What is this, witch’s brew?”

The stranger laughed as though he’d made a fine joke.  “Merely a drink to help combat the Shee ale.  If we decide to test each other’s knives, I want you to be at your best instead of dulled by drink.”

Since this man obviously cared little for polite Society, Sig forgot niceties.  “Who the hell are you?”

“No one you’ve heard of.  No one you would or should know.”

“But you know who I am?”

“Of course.  Everyone in the galaxy has heard the tales of your marks.”

At least the man hadn’t said his name aloud.  Sig wouldn’t mind a drunken brawl or a nice, juicy contract so impossible no other assassin would attempt the mark, but he would rather not have to kill his way out of the Australis prisons because this fool talked too much.

I’m the bloody fool who decided to risk a drink at the Black Stump when there are countless dives where I could have indulged without a super-secure prison only paces away.

Pain banded his tight chest.  It hurt to breathe.  Hurt to think.  Killing helped dull the pain and keep the nightmares at bay, but he couldn’t…

A loud thwack jerked his head up.  The stranger had slammed the tip of his knife into the top of the bar.  In size, the blade wasn’t that impressive, only as long as his hand, but that edge gleamed in the light, wicked sharp.  The hilt was smooth, aged ivory, darkened over the years by sweat. 

Or perhaps blood.

“A word of advice, my friend.”  The man’s eyes flickered in the dimness like flames licking red-hot coals.  Sig glanced about quickly but didn’t see any fire that would have reflected in the man’s eyes like that.  “Never accept a contract on the woman you love.”

Sig couldn’t help the smirk twisting his mouth.  “That is something I’ll never have to fret about, for I’ve never met a woman I could ever love more than my work.”

Giving him an equally arrogant grin, the man tugged his blade loose and let the knife roll across his palm, back and forth, effortlessly controlling the knife without even looking at it.  “So I thought.”

A vibration in Sig’s pocket made him draw a quick, hopeful breath.  He drew the device out and scanned the incoming message.  “Excellent.  A new job.  I’ve got to go.”

The man nodded and sheathed the blade on his hip.  “Another time, then.  I’d enjoy testing your blade.”

“You never told me your name,” Sig called after the man, trying to memorize his face and appearance so he could search for history on him later.  Long dark hair, dark eyes, and nasty blade.  That’s all I really know.  His accent is strange, but I can’t place it.

“My name doesn’t matter.”  The man paused at the door and glanced back, giving him another wink.  “I’m Shadow and Death, a killer, like you.  We can’t help but find each other again someday.”

“Thank you,” Sig whispered, but the man was gone.  Shaking his head, he stepped out of the main room, searching along the dark hallway until he found a secluded, quiet spot.  A supply closet.  A quick scan confirmed there were no listening or monitoring devices inside the room.

The sender’s message only included a House sign:  the white dove of Wyre.  Was that his contact…or the mark?  Slipping into Britannia would definitely prove a worthy challenge.  Their shields were tighter and more secure than the Australis prisons, keeping the unwashed masses out instead of locking them into their punishment.

He opened a secure channel to the sender.  Since he’d just received the offer, hopefully his contact would still be waiting.  His curiosity burned, a much better feeling than shortness of breath and desperate panic.

A woman’s face appeared on the screen, and not even the small monitor could diminish her classical grace.  The tilted angle of her chin declared her pride and royal breeding.  He’d never been introduced to the Duchess of Wyre, but he recognized her.  Smooth dark hair, chocolate eyes, in many ways a sister to the man who’d just left.  Impossible.  If that man was from Britannia then I’m a Razari lizard.

“Lord Regret, I presume.  Your reputation precedes you.”

Her voice matched those dark, chocolate eyes.  He inclined his head and allowed his own ancient bloodlines to deepen the pride in his voice.  “Your Grace, it’s my great honor to offer my blade in service to you.  Who’s your target?”

She smiled.  Sig’s eyes flared, his chest aching as though that stranger had buried his blade directly into his heart.  “I am.”

Friday Snippet: Lady Wyre’s Regret

Continuing the first draft of the free read prequel to Lady Doctor Wyre (see last week’s snippet for the beginning, remember first draft, subject to revisions later)

Still studying the awaiting missives, Queen Majel said, “You will of course be attending our Solstice Eclipse ball in a fortnight.”

The strangely absent tone of the queen’s voice sent chills of foreboding creeping up Charlotte’s arms.  Since every House’s attendance at the queen’s ball was required by tradition more binding than any law, she had no reason to emphasize the invitation.  Unless it’s a deliberate message.  A warning, perhaps, that it shall be the last party I ever attend?

Charlotte drew herself up, tipping her chin to a haughty angle.  If the queen thought to intimidate her with subtle threats, then she would be gravely mistaken.  However, a volley of blatant desperately-cast threats in return simply wasn’t Charlotte’s style.  Instead, she put on the role of the bored, privileged lady of Society.

“Oh, I honestly don’t know, Your Majesty.  The endless rounds of balls and parties are so tiring.  I still haven’t recovered from the horrors of Lady Marlborough’s distasteful gown last week.  Besides, so many desperate mamas will be there casting their precious little sons at my feet hoping to catch a rich Duchy.  I think I’d rather retire to Wyreton and hunt instead.” 

Majel raised her head, eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. 

At least she’s looking at me now instead of pretending I’m invisible. 

“If I must order you to attend, then you’ll pick one of those adorable dandies to dangle on your knee for the entire evening.”

Charlotte let out a husky laugh and glided toward the door.  “Might as well order me leg-shackled while you’re at it.”  She paused, looking back over her shoulder with a saucy wink designed to infuriate the queen as much as a slap to the face.  “Just because you’ve endured matrimony doesn’t mean I won’t kick and scream all the way to the altar.”

She shut the door behind her and summoned every inch of pride and confidence she possessed to stride down the hall as the Duchess of Wyre and Queen’s most trusted Physician.  Not someone fearing for her life, especially after she’d drawn such a line in the sand.

Years ago, Majel had selected the purest and most venerable House from which to marry and had produced two heirs on her much younger noble husband.  Although she’d taken great pains to project a fairytale image of love and happiness, there’d been no love on her part, merely the grim duty to secure her royal line with a man no one in the realm could dispute as a handsome, well-bred Britannian. 

Unfortunately, said well-bred young man had conducted himself most poorly.  First, he’d dallied with every maid and servant in the castle, which Majel probably would have allowed as long as he’d kept his escapades at least somewhat discreet.  But the young man had made the dreadful mistake of allowing a Francian ambassador a little too close.  Majel had caught him red-handed, trying to steal documents from her office.

That very evening, an assassin’s blade found its mark in his lithe young body.  So regrettable, so sad, the nation had mourned his sweet face, while Majel had played the part of the grieving yet regal widow perfectly.  The Francian ambassador found a ship that very night and departed for her homeland, only to be blasted from the sky by pirates.

Whose ship, I’ll wager, was hired at none other than the Thames port.

Charlotte passed the last row of Queen’s Ravens standing guard at the South Wing exit and began the long trek down the Long Walk to her carriage.  She allowed herself a deep breath of relief to relax the stiffness in her shoulders, but the battle had only just begun.  Who shall be hired to assassinate me? 

Then she had a thought that made her lips curve into a smile so wickedly pleased that a petitioner disembarking from an unmarked carriage stumbled and nearly tumbled on her nose in the gutter.  Swathed in gray veils that hid her face but did little to disguise her finely tailored gown, the woman recovered her balance and rushed past, but Charlotte recognized her as the Royal Duchess of Lizbonne, Majel’s cousin and heir if anything ever happened to her own children. 

Ridiculous woman.  Does she honestly think a little gauze will keep people from recognizing that red-gold hair that Majel always coveted?    

Smoothing her face, Charlotte took her footman’s hand and allowed him to help her into her carriage.  Open carriages were all the rage this Season with the driver seated high above the engine and the poor footman clinging to the tiny rail installed at the rear, whisking through Town at speeds that would threaten to tear both men off their precarious perches. 

Charlotte preferred the older enclosed model that both lent her some privacy and included a built-in keyboard and uplink to her home network.  Of course she’d worked on the engines long ago and knew without a doubt that she could outrace any carriage which dared challenge her.  The latest engines were based on her design, but she hadn’t released all her secrets.

She’d been concerned for too long about what the queen—or her subjects—would do with that knowledge.

“St. James Square, Your Grace?”

Settling her skirts, she pressed a button and a keyboard slid out.  “I need to go home to Wyreton.”

“As you wish, Your Grace.”  

Majel cleans up her messes most efficiently.  Perhaps I can make a larger mess myself before she has the opportunity to wipe me out.

Friday Snippet: Lady Wyre’s Regret

Since I did make a few minor changes to last week’s snippet, I’m going to repost it here.  That makes today’s snippet fairly long.  There’s a lot of backstory that happens here that I might trim a little in the final draft, but you might find it interesting, so I’ll keep it for now.  (First draft for the most part, subject to heavy changes later.)

Usually only poorly brewed tea managed to shake her composure, but as Charlotte stared at the carnage, she wanted to weep.  A large screen ten paces high and wide covered the wall, rendering disfigured, charred bodies in gruesome detail.  Alien, yes, but no less disturbing. 

As long as I live, I shall never forget the sight of those poor people catching on fire, exploding, torn apart.

Evidently Queen Majel was not encumbered with any such trivial emotions as she sued for a brutal peace with the Razari.  “We won’t permanently station a peacekeeping force on your planet as long as half of your surviving able-bodied males agree to serve a ten-year period of indenture to Britannia.”

The Matriarch of the Razari hissed at the screen, revealing razor-sharp fangs.  A mix of browns and greens, her skin tone spoke of the mostly swampy condition of her home planet.  “You leave only a remnant of my people alive and then you take half of those?  We’ll starve or be overrun by the neighboring planet.  The Shee have always coveted our crystals.”

As do we.  Charlotte hid a wince of recrimination.  It wouldn’t do at all to show any weakness, regret, or hesitation.  Let alone disgust at what my own mighty nation has wrought.

The Matriarch wore a crude necklace bearing one of the coveted crystals.  Approximately the length and breadth of an index finger, the crystal was powerful enough to fuel a Razari ship’s engines for a month.  If the small twin-engine prop hadn’t crashed so conveniently close to a Britannian outpost, and if the border guards hadn’t done such an admirable job and sent the crystal straight through to Queen Majel’s personal scientist…

Then millions of Razari would still be alive and free.

Charlotte’s throat ached from holding back her rage.  She’d researched that damnable crystal, yes, and had found it fascinating.  Who wouldn’t?  But she’d never intended for this to happen.  Dear God, an entire planet practically wiped out, and for what?  A few chunks of rock?

The Matriarch glared with righteous fury.  “One quarter of our males and only seven years.”

Without replying, Queen Majel stretched out her graceful hand toward the electronic panel.  One large red button drew the alien’s attention, her eyes slitting with alarm.  The poor creature probably thought that button would send the final blast through their planet, and it was all Charlotte could do not to blurt out the truth.  Although the button would merely end the transmission, nothing would stop Queen Majel from ordering the destruction with any of the other brutal weapons at her command.

Or perhaps she’d use more subtlety to conquer the Razari.  If she released Charlotte’s latest creation of hungry dissemblers, within a fortnight there wouldn’t be a trace of metallic technology or structure left on the entire planet.

She pressed a hand to her stomach, fighting not to be ill.  I never intended for this atrocity to happen.  Forgive me.

Gripping the intriguing crystal with one scaly paw, the Matriarch gritted out, “Agreed.  On one condition.”

Queen Majel arched a brow at the alien but gave a slight nod for her to continue with her request.

“Any male who signs a contract of indenture must be allowed to keep his deathright, or crystals, as you call them.  They possess a religious meaning for us, Your Majesty.  Taking away a Razari’s crystal is akin to damning his soul but leaving him alive, which is why so many of us are dead instead of surrendering.”  Obviously a respected and powerful leader in her own right, the Matriarch bowed her head, still gripping her crystal.  “Please, Queen.  We’ll abide by your terms, as long as we’re allowed to keep our deathright.”

“As long as you have no reluctance in allowing us to mine your crystals for less holy use.”

“No objection as long as we may keep ours along with our traditions.”

Queen Majel smiled more kindly.  “Then we have reached an agreement, Matriarch.  Expect the treaty to be transmitted within the hour.  Welcome to Britannia’s fold.”

Welcome to hell.  Charlotte held her tongue, waiting until the communication channel was closed.  As Duchess of Wyre and Queen’s Physician, she had more leeway than most nobles when it came to handling their liege, but one must never question Her Majesty’s orders before others, most especially their enemies.  If she’d dared to press Queen Majel’s feet to the fire in front of the alien, Charlotte’s head would have rolled, no matter how justified her argument.

On a whim, Queen Majel left the viewscreen up, displaying the torn, burned bodies on the wall.

She turned to face Charlotte.  “Don’t even begin, Wyre.” 

Most Brittanians would only see her regal manner, the proud tilt of her head, the centuries of breeding, wealth, and command bred into every bone of her body.  However, Charlotte knew the queen better than anyone except possibly Murray, her personal assistant and seneschal of the empire.  Queen Majel revealed a slight tremor in her hand as she absently tucked a wayward strand of raven hair behind her ear.

“There are certain outcomes of this situation that I regret, but I had no a choice.”

“No choice!”  Charlotte paced the floor before the formidable royal desk.  “We could have bartered for the crystals.  We could have bribed officials to allow us an outpost in order to mine our own.  We never tried a peaceful solution at all, Your Majesty!”

“There are reasons and explanations to which you’re not privy.”  Queen Majel sat behind her desk, trying to pretend that the most powerful ruler of the most technologically-advanced nation in the universe was not shaken to her core.  That faintly trembling hand checked her hair again, needlessly smoothing her perfect coiffure.  “Assuredly, I shall be pursing recourse, but I chose to allow the assimilation rather than cause this nation any embarrassment.”

If someone had acted without Queen Majel’s approval…  With narrowed eyes, Charlotte planted her palms on the desk and leaned down, searching the queen’s face for the truth, but her classically beautiful visage revealed nothing.  Changing tactics, she lightly laid her fingers against Queen Majel’s throat.  “Are you well?  Have you experienced any new side effects from my treatment, Your Majesty?”

“I’m quite well.”  Queen Majel jerked back violently, but then tried to disguise her unease.  “Thank you for your concern.  Oh, did you notice?  We owe the success of this assimilation to your wonderful technology.”

Ice trickled down Charlotte’s spine and her stomach flopped in a very uncomfortable roll.  She turned back to the screen, forcing herself to examine the bodies as a scientist and not a horrified humanitarian.  The scene looked like a bomb had torn through the village, tossing bodies and charred limbs about like kindling.  A flash of molten fire, raging to the heavens, and then the explosions, over and over, tearing the Razari apart. 

Gingerly, she stepped closer, her bones aching and fragile as though they might shatter.  It couldn’t be her dissemblers—she’d engineered them to attack only metal, and the discarded weapons lay unaffected on the hard-packed earth.  “I never created any weapon, Your Majesty, certainly no bomb capable of tearing those poor people apart.”

“I’m afraid the fire and explosions were their own creation,” Queen Majel replied in a light voice entirely inappropriate in the face of such carnage, as though she merely shared the latest on dit.  “If you’d shown more interest in cracking open the crystal instead of merely utilizing its power, you’d have experienced the nasty side effect of releasing that glorious energy first hand.”  Which would have saved me the trouble of having you killed myself.

Of course, the queen didn’t utter those last words, but Charlotte felt the threat in that deceptively pleasant voice.  Danger tightened like a noose about her neck.  Don’t be silly, she chided herself, stifling a desperately ragged laugh.  Majel cleans up her messes with assassins, not public executions.

“Evidently, this is the religious power the Matriarch spoke of,” Queen Majel continued.  “They’d rather die in a blaze of glory than bend knee to another nation.”

Charlotte only half listened.  One of the limbs looked rather odd, even for a Razari.  She was quite sure that scales covered the flesh instead of swamp-colored skin.  Had some other hapless animal been included in the carnage?  Surely not in the middle of their village, however rural compared to Londonium.  More, the limb possessed disturbingly humanoid fingers.  Perhaps a genetic mutation?  Caused by…

Her heart thudded slow and heavy, struggling to pump chilled blood through her veins.  If not her latest invention, then the weapon must have been crafted from her older research.

The research which saved the queen’s life by attacking a virus at its molecular level.

No one knew how closely Majel had walked with death, nor how she’d been saved.  Charlotte’s earliest research had been wondrous, truly, but also frightening.  She’d only just begun to experiment with her tiny nanobots, certainly never daring to test on a person.  However, Britannia’s next queen had lain on her deathbed, her mother had tottered on the edge of insanity, and every traditional treatment had failed to stop the merciless march of the engineered virus.  Sent by Francia in one last desperate attempt to end the Hundred Year War, the Black Death had killed millions across their planet and very nearly managed to decimate House Krowe’s royal line.

Charlotte had had no choice but to inject Majel with the warrior-bots and pray they managed to save her.  They’d battled the nasty biotech weapon effortlessly, but instead of ceasing operation as Charlotte had intended, those tiny units still functioned inside the queen.  To this very day.

Majel hadn’t been sick in years, not even the most minor sniffle.  Basic physical examinations proved she possessed increased strength and mental acuity.  Wonderful side effects, assuredly, but undeniably mutations.  The queen wasn’t exactly—merely—human any longer.

Charlotte couldn’t help but wonder and dread what consequences they might one day pay for meddling with the delicate balance of life, especially once a princess and prince were born.  Could Majel’s children carry a trace of lady-made technology?  Had House Krowe been permanently altered?

Unfortunately, Majel had come to the same dreadful conclusion.  Every time the queen looked at Charlotte, she saw an increased wariness and cold reserve edging away the lingering gratitude.  Someday, Majel would decide to silence the one person who knew her secret.

“I hear it was a trivial matter to reprogram your nanobots to attack alien cells instead of viral as you intended.”  Majel gave a careless little laugh that chilled Charlotte’s blood.  “Your creatures managed to make the Razari even more repulsive!  Before they ever knew a Britannian warship had entered their airspace, they began detonating their crystals to save themselves.  From you, dear Wyre.”

It took a lifetime of manners and breeding to keep her face smooth, but Charlotte’s stomach heaved.  They’d twisted her desire to help and heal into a tool for murder unlike any nightmare she could have ever conceived.

Worse, Majel’s secret could not possibly be so very secure if a third party had used and warped that technology.  Even Charlotte possessed only one last prototype and she kept it under lock and key even from herself. 

Moment by moment, the truth became glaringly obvious.  Only one group was close enough to Britannia and Queen Majel to somehow acquire this secret technology, and also possess enough advanced equipment to alter the nanobot’s programming and replicate it into this sort of weapon.  Of course.  No wonder Majel had been shaken yet so determined to pretend this had been her intent all along.

Only the Military Intelligence and Galactic Sciences division would dare challenge Majel’s authority in this way.  Instrumental in the war against Francia, MIGS had gained considerable power over the years.  Lately, they’d been overstepping their bounds—in the queen’s opinion—by keeping their research secret from the Crown.  If such blatant disregard for her authority became public knowledge, her supreme right as ruler of this great nation would be cast into jeopardy. 

Charlotte gazed back at Majel and knew the knowledge must gleam in her eyes.  As the queen had surely intended, else why had she dropped that little fact about Charlotte’s own technology being used?  She’d never have taken a closer look at the body parts otherwise.  Watching the cold political mask harden on the other woman’s face, Charlotte could almost sense the shifting of the ground beneath her feet, the glide of one pawn to another spot on the board.

I’ve always been a threat to her because I knew her weaknesses.  Now, I’m a liability. With my backing, MIGS could denounce House Krowe and set their own queen on the throne.

Majel turned her attention to the stack of official documents and datapads waiting for her attention.  “That will be all, Wyre.”

After a decade and more in service, Charlotte had been dismissed.  Perhaps not publicly, not yet, but Queen Majel had made her decision.  For all Charlotte knew, her death sentence had already been drafted, awaiting the queen’s final stamp of approval in that very stack of documents.  Thousands of Queen’s Ravens were stationed in House Krowe’s stronghold as well as throughout Londonium.

I might not even make it out of Winsor alive.

Friday Snippet: Lady Wyre’s Regret

It’s been entirely too long since I shared a snippet!  Lady Wyre agreed and insisted that she should attend to the matter herself, even though the first draft of her prequel is proceeding at a snail’s pace.  However, those couple of hundred words a day are beginning to add up — I have over 3500 words now and still going strong.

First draft, subject to heavy revisions later.  No one has read this yet, not even my Beloved Sis!  I’m especially pleased to lay down the reference to Deathright, a related book in this world (though regretfully not featuring Charlie and company).

Usually only poorly brewed tea managed to shake her composure, but as Charlotte stared at the carnage, she wanted to weep.  A large screen ten paces high and wide covered the wall, rendering disfigured bodies in gruesome detail.  Alien, yes, but no less disturbing. 

Evidently Queen Majel was not encumbered with any such trivial emotions as she sued for a brutal peace with the Razari.  “We won’t permanently station a peacekeeping force on your planet as long as half of your surviving able-bodied males agree to serve a ten-year period of indenture to Britannia.”

The Matriarch of the Razari hissed at the screen, revealing razor-sharp fangs.  A mix of browns and greens, her skin tone spoke of the mostly swampy condition of her home planet.  “You leave only a remnant of my people alive and then you take half of those?  We’ll starve or be overrun by the neighboring planet.  The Shee have always coveted our crystals.”

As do we.  Charlotte hid a wince of recrimination.  It wouldn’t do at all to show any weakness, regret, or hesitation.  Let alone disgust at what my own mighty nation has wrought.

The Matriarch wore a crude necklace bearing one of the coveted crystals.  Approximately the length and breadth of an index finger, the crystal was powerful enough to fuel a Razari ship’s engines for a month.  If the small twin-engine prop hadn’t crashed so conveniently close to a Britannian outpost, and if the border guards hadn’t done such an admiral job and sent the crystal straight through to Queen Majel’s personal scientist…

Then millions of Razari would still be alive and free.

Charlotte’s throat ached from holding back her rage.  She’d researched that damnable crystal, yes, and had found it fascinating.  Who wouldn’t?  But she’d never intended for this to happen.  Dear God, an entire planet practically wiped out, and for what?  A few chunks of rock?

The Matriarch glared with righteous fury.  “One quarter of our males and only seven years.”

Without replying, Queen Majel stretched out her graceful hand toward the electronic panel.  One large red button drew the alien’s attention, her eyes slitting with alarm.  The poor creature probably thought that button would send the final blast through their planet, and it was all Charlotte could do not to blurt out the truth.  Although the button would merely end the transmission, nothing would stop Queen Majel from ordering the destruction with any of the other brutal weapons at her command.

Or perhaps she’d use more subtlety to conquer the Razari.  If she released Charlotte’s latest creation of hungry dissemblers, within a fortnight there wouldn’t be a trace of metallic technology or structure left on the entire planet.

She pressed a hand to her stomach, fighting not to be ill.  I never intended for this atrocity to happen.  Forgive me.

Gripping the intriguing crystal with one scaly paw, the Matriarch gritted out, “Agreed.  On one condition.”

Queen Majel arched a brow at the alien but gave a slight nod for her to continue with her request.

“Any male who signs a contract of indenture must be allowed to keep his deathright, or crystals, as you call them.  They possess a religious meaning for us, Your Majesty.  Taking away a Razari’s crystal is akin to damning his soul but leaving him alive, which is why so many of us are dead instead of surrendering.”  Obviously a respected and powerful leader in her own right, the Matriarch bowed her head, still gripping her crystal.  “Please, Queen.  We’ll abide by your terms, as long as we’re allowed to keep our deathright.”

“As long as you have no reluctance in allowing us to mine your crystals for less holy use.”

“No objection as long as we may keep ours along with our traditions.”

Queen Majel smiled more kindly.  “Then we have reached an agreement, Matriarch.  Expect the treaty to be transmitted within the hour.  Welcome to Britannia’s fold.”

Welcome to hell.

Friday Snippet

My apologies:  I don’t have a Shadowed snippet this week.  Honestly, I haven’t worked on it since last week — just too busy getting the kids registered for school, etc.  However, I hope that once you see what I *have* been working on this past week, that a few of you will forgive me.

First draft, subject to heavy revision.  Warning for language. 

What the hell is she up to?

Elias shifted on her bed, trying to figure out what was taking her so long in the bathroom. Last night, they’d been too frantic to even make it to the bed for the first three or four times…and now she wanted him to sit here and wait while she primped.

God, I need a drink. A couple of shots of whiskey would take the edge off, mellow him out so he didn’t fall on her like a raving lunatic. That’s the only way he’d survived three whole months without her. That, and of course driving by like a love-sick fool to make sure her place was okay. Sometimes he’d even sat outside in the wee hours of the morning in his truck for hours, just watching, remembering, trying to let go of his damned fool pride.

If he’d used his key and come to her one of those dark nights, would she have forgiven him? If he’d called, just once, instead of sitting in his empty apartment staring at the phone all fucking night?

Or did it take a half-starved homeless kid to bring us back together?

The bathroom door opened, and Elias damned near choked to death because his heart tried to crawl up his throat. He couldn’t breathe as Vicki came near her bed.

She wore a filmy white negligee that tied beneath her breasts and fluttered about her hips, oddly demure but so damned sexy he couldn’t remember his own name. Her dark hair fell loose and soft about her shoulders and her molten chocolate eyes shimmered in the candlelight. She picked up an opened bottle of wine on the bedside table and calmly poured two glasses of red. Still silent, she handed him glass and sipped hers, watching him with those dark, mysterious eyes.

He tipped his head back and drained the whole thing, even though he hated wine.

“What do you think?”

It had to be a trick question. Narrowing his eyes, he tried to make a joke. “Did we get married and I forgot about it?”

Her eyes caught fire and she slammed the fragile wineglass down so hard he feared it might shatter. “I told him this was a stupid idea.”

“Jesse?” Elias fought to keep an even voice. “What the hell does he have to do with…with…” he swept his hand at her negligee, fighting not to fist his fingers in that transparent material and rip it off her.

“He swore you’d like it.”

“So what, now you’re letting your cabana boy pick out sleazy underwear and babydolls? For me?”

“At least I’m not wearing it for him.” She whirled away. “Forget it, Reyes.”

Jumping up, he whipped out his arms and caught her, drawing her back toward the bed so he could sit back down. Snarling, she jerked and fought his grip, but he wrapped his arms around her, trapping her arms with his, and simply held her until her ire faded.

When he saw the tears on her cheeks, he cursed beneath his breath and held her tighter. He’d forgotten that sometimes anger from her hid her true emotion: hurt.

“I never should have worn this thing. I hate it.” She sniffed, a tiny little sigh of her breath, which in another woman would have been full-blown wailing and sobs. He tucked his head close to hers, even if she skull-slammed him. “I told him it was a stupid idea. Just forget it.”

“How could you hate this gown when I’d like nothing better than to rip it off you and ravish you senseless?” She shook her head, so he drew her harder into the cradle of his thighs, making sure she felt his erection.

“That doesn’t mean anything. I bet you had a hard on as soon as you walked into my bedroom.”

“It wasn’t this big, babe, this hard, this painful.” He lowered his voice and nuzzled her neck. “I’d like to think that you might say ‘I do’ to me someday.”

“You’d have to ask me first,” she retorted.

She had him there. He’d thought about it, sure, even when she was still an attorney. Even if she had to stand between the law and the very criminals he was putting away. But then his bigger head started working again and he remembered how quickly a marriage could go down the shitter when he worked his kind of hours. “I can’t stop being a cop.”

“And I can’t give up Jesse.” She whispered, but her voice rang like steel. “If you love me at all, don’t ask me.”

Not even for me? The words thundered in Elias’s head, but he refused to voice them. He did love her, and he’d had his chance. He’d fucked it up and walked out three months ago. That she’d let him back in this far was more than he deserved. He had no right to demand her whole heart for himself.

God forgive him, she’d already given up her career. Maybe not for him, not in so many words, but he couldn’t ask for anything else. It was his turn to sacrifice to be with her, and the only damned thing he had was his own fool pride.

His stomach churned like he’d swallowed a fist-full of razor blades, but he said nothing.

Nothing at all.

Friday Snippet: Shadowed

Some men tremble in the face of death.

Others bare their teeth and fight to the very end.

While I’m the cold Shadow that glides forth from darkness to slit your throat before you even know I’m there. 

My name is Gregar and I’m the deadliest, most honored assassin on the Sha’Kae al’Dan’s Sea of Grass.  They call us Death Riders, for we ride death like the wind across the rolling Plains.  My hair is heavy with red kae’als, each bead a life that I have snuffed out in the Great Wind Stallion’s name.  Vulkar, may He sire many foals.  

My ivory rahke is silent and swift.  When I draw it, I will not sheathe my blade until it is red with blood, whether yours or mine.

Nothing short of death will stop me, but you cannot kill me.

For I am already dead.

~ * ~

Years ago, I died on the jagged slopes of Vulkar’s Mountain.  Shards of obsidian sliced me to ribbons and the rocks glistened with my blood.  Yet I made it to the top.  I crawled into the fiery caldera and gave my broken, crippled body to Him.  Vulkar found my sacrifice acceptable and rewarded me this ivory rahke, a death sentence for any who endangers the Plains. 

Even now, I heard an insistent whisper of rolling thunder in my head, insisting another shadowed soul darkened our hills.  A life that I must claim.  He must die to protect all we hold dear.  I am Vulkar’s right hand of sacrifice.  Let His will be done.

Before I could mount Shaido and ride through the night to claim my prize, Kae’Shaman stopped me.  Older than the hills, his eyes gleamed with the wisdom of Vulkar.  When he spoke, it was Vulkar’s voice on the Plains, so I entered his tent at once.

“You feel the Call.”

“He’s far to the north.”  I nodded with a cocky smirk that I didn’t bother to hide.   “He lives a night longer than most but I wager he’ll be dead on the morrow.”

Even my own people didn’t understand how I could find humor in the face of death.  Why I felt no guilt when I tracked my next mark.  Why I joked and smiled while another life wavered in the shadow of my rahke

They never felt the heartfires of the earth crisp the flesh from their bones in Vulkar’s molten lake.  They never suffered the cold embrace of Death’s Shadow, the insidious creep of darkness into my very soul, which makes me invisible for the kill.  If I could not laugh, then I knew I would at last be wholly dead.

 “He mustn’t live so long.”  Kae’Shaman’s kindly face hardened with grim certainty.  “He plots to allow outlanders access to the Plains.  He must die this very night.”

“Tell me how and I shall make it so.”

“You must enter the Dream.”

I had heard whispered tales of such a feat but had never attempted a mark from inside his own dreams.  The thought made my stomach tighten and my heartbeat quickened.  In the dream realm, the Endless Night could easily reach out and taint any man.

“You are correct to fear.”  I twitched with surprise that he’d read my reluctance so easily, and Kae’Shaman spared a slight smile.  “Walking the Dream will draw heavily on your gift of Shadow, endangering your soul more than ever.  The Endless Night waits, crouched like a starving wolf in the dead of winter, and he hungers for you, Gregar.  You must dance on the rahke’s edge of Shadow and Light, becoming that which you fear in order to save that which you love most of all.”

Why did shamans always speak in riddles and grim prophesies I had no hope of understanding?  Quirking my lips, I shrugged and forced a laugh despite my unease.  “I love nothing so I risk nothing.  Show me the way, Kae’Shaman, and my mark shall be dead before I wake.”

The sympathy on the holy man’s face made my blood freeze in my veins.  “You will, Gregar.  Some day you will love more than life itself.  You will hold that precious heart beneath the weight of your rahke.  May Vulkar guide you in your darkest hour, when the Endless Night will lure you to ravage and destroy the last light of the world.”

Resolve, cold and grim, made my heart feel like an iced boulder in my chest.  “I may be shadowed, but I kill for no one but Vulkar.” 

 

Easter Egg Hunt & Vicki Snippet

Welcome to all the Long & Short of It Scavengers!  My egg should be easy to find (look in the right sidebar) but I hope you stick around awhile and at least check out the Free Reads.

And since I missed the Friday Snippet last week (we were on vacation), and I was generally missing Vicki and the gang something fierce, I decided to post a bit more of Vicki’s story.  This scene is after the last one posted at VCONN Tower and occurs in Victor’s penthouse suite.  Hopefully you remember Mal — e.g. Malindre Kannes, the Mistress of Dallas — from Victor’s book.  She’s not just a side character, because she’s been clamoring for her own book lately.   *headdesk*

Warning:  first draft, subject to heavy revision later.  Genre:  Contemporary erotic (BDSM) romance. 

Mal, on the other hand, took one look at the man hovering at Vicki’s back and a huge smile broke across her face. “I knew it.” She hugged Vicki and gave him a slap on the shoulder. “Good for you, hon. If you need help housebreaking him, you give me a call.”

“I’m not a dog,” Jesse muttered.

With a low, wicked laugh, Mal stepped around Vicki and leaned in close to him. “If I tell you to heel, you will.”

He tipped his chin up and broadened his stance, but he didn’t take his hand off Vicki’s back. “No, I’m won’t. Not for you.”

A sharp thrust of emotion tore through her. Rage, jealousy, she wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she didn’t want Mal touching him, or Jesse doing anything for her. “He’s mine.”

“Of course he is, hon.” Mal drawled, not at all fazed by the sharpness in Vicki’s voice. “But do you know what he likes? Can you take care of his needs, whatever they are?”

She started to open her mouth, but Mal cut her off.

“If he needs you to put a collar on him, strip him naked, and force him to sleep on the floor at your bedside, can you do it? If he needs you to pick up a paddle and whip him until he can’t sit down, will you do it?”

Vicki felt him hovering at her back, nervous, yes, but terribly eager, his muscles tight, his heat rising.

Her stomach churned with anxiety. Her mind felt jammed full of images: Jesse naked, Jesse bound, Jesse begging, helpless, crying, screaming…for me.

A shudder wracked her shoulders and he pressed closer, dropping his forehead against her neck, burying his nose in her hair. “Do you need stuff like that?”

“I don’t know,” he whispered raggedly, but she felt his erection like a steel rod against her ass.

She lifted her gaze to Mal’s face, thoroughly prepared for a smug I-told-you-so look, but the other woman only nodded solemnly. “People think it’s all fun and games being a Dominant, but it’s not. We have a huge responsibility not only to keep the submissive safe but to also learn what they need and then, we have to provide it, no matter what that need requires. It’s your job to help him find out what he needs. You have to push his limits, explore his fears and his desires, and those desires will not always coincide with yours. If you care about him, you’ll make sure he gets those needs met. Your boy claims he doesn’t know what he wants, but I guarantee he’s got a few things in mind that will knock you reeling, and you haven’t even gotten started yet.”

Shaken, Vicki turned her attention to her brother, checking to see his reaction. He nodded as solemnly as his friend, his eyes dark and grim. “When I first met Shiloh, she scared me shitless.”

“Aw, poor baby,” Shiloh purred, turning away from her glowering Master and offering a hand to Jesse. “Let’s all get comfy before we scare the big bad Dominants too much.”

Friday Snippet: Vicki & Elias

This has to be the last snippet, gang, sorry.  To make it up to you, it’s a juicy one.  Sorry it’s late.  This whole week has gotten away from me.  I didn’t get anywhere near the word count I wanted, and our weekend is packed.  Sigh.  Hopefully next week will be better. 

Elias set her down long enough for him to shuck his pants, while she shed her clothes in record time. Then he slammed her up against the wall so hard the whole house shook.

By the quirk of his mouth, he knew damned well how that must have sounded to Jesse downstairs. “Condom?”

Breathless, she narrowed her eyes, tempted to tell him yes just to piss him off. She was on the pill, but they’d been broken up for more months than she cared to count. “Have you been with anyone else?”

“No.” Somehow, he managed to sound insulted. “I’m not the one with the hot cabana boy downstairs listening to our every groan.”

“I’m not the one who walked out on us, and no, if you’re curious, I haven’t been with anyone else either.”

She pushed the shirt the rest of the way off his shoulders, reveling in the sheer strength in his body. He wasn’t a big man, but he carried a wallop of power in his lean, six-foot-tall frame. He’d trained for years, so he knew exactly how to use every muscle. His neck and shoulders corded and flexed, effortlessly shifting her higher on the wall.

“No condom,” she whispered, winding her fingers in the short, dark hair at the base of his neck. “Just you, Spike.”

Half in play but also deadly serious, he snarled and snapped his teeth at her ear. He gripped her shoulder in his jaws, biting just this side of pain, and she couldn’t suppress the delicious shiver that rocked her body against his. With a brutal thrust, he shoved inside her so hard that a cry tore out of her throat and she cracked her skull on the wall.

He knew exactly what she liked; he knew how much she could take; and he certainly already knew how slick and wet she was for him. The only problem: it’d been too long for him, too. After just a few thrusts, he shuddered and poured into her.

Panic made her pulse flutter like a butterfly trapped in a glass. Need pounded inside her as strong as his thrusts, demanding, hammering for attention. Her skin felt raw, like she’d rolled around in glass and sharp rocks, swollen and so damned tight that she wanted to scream at him for finishing so quickly.

“Damn you,” she ground out, clawing his back hard enough he grunted and thudded inside her on another pulse. “You son of a bitch. God, I need you so bad. What am I supposed to do now? I hurt!”

He actually had the audacity to laugh. “You’re insatiable, Vik.”

Furious, desperate tears burned her eyes. He’d said she was like a hungry crocodile. Maybe he was tired of trying to keep her satisfied. Maybe that’s why she suddenly found herself attracted to two men. Fury, need, and shame twisted inside her. She shoved at his chest, threw her elbow at his throat, and the more he tried to contain her struggles, the harder she fought him.

In a smooth move they must teach at the police academy, he flipped her over and used his weight to pin her against the wall. Awkwardly, she flailed back at him with both arms, but he snagged first one wrist and then the other in the small of her back. The more she squirmed, the higher he pushed her arms until her muscles quivered and her shoulders burned with pain.

“I’ve got you, babe,” he whispered in a devilishly relaxed—fully satiated—voice. “You know I’ll take good, long, hard care of you.”

Friday Snippet: Vicki

I’m a little nervous about sharing her already, simply because I’m still revising and layering like mad as I write.  I don’t know how “erotic” this story will really end up being–it’s more about impossibly complex relationships, what home means, and how the characters see each other. 

For now, this is the opening section of Vicki’s story, subject to heavy revision.  Vicki is Conn’s (Dear Sir, I’m Yours) and Victor’s (Hurt Me So Good) sister.  There are still a few minor [notes] that I’ll figure out later (place names).

It didn’t snow very often in Dallas, TX, but when it did, everything came to a halt. Walking carefully on the icy sidewalks, Vicki Connagher paused at the deserted intersection. Shivering, she drew her coat tighter with her free hand. What a stupid idea. She should have just stayed in tonight instead of braving terrible roads and the chilly night for a few groceries, even though the store was only three blocks away.

Just one more block, she told herself, trudging across the slushy road. Snow still fell thick and wet, dulling the usual noises of the city. The hot cocoa was going to taste especially good tonight. She’d bundle up on the couch in her favorite quilt and stay up all night watching cheesy horror movies. It sounded like a blast, if only she wasn’t alone.

But she was alone, miserably alone, and so she knew she’d end up working downstairs all night to avoid the emptiness of her apartment. She still had to come up with one more evening gown design before the gala.

Her foot slid out and she fell with a curse that would have brought Mama with a bar of nasty soap to wash out her mouth. Getting wetter and colder by the minute, she muttered, “Not even chocolate is worth getting out in a freak Texas blizzard.”

“Are you all right?”

The male voice startled her, but she quickly recognized him as a street artist, Jesse.  She’d bought several of his charcoals and dropped a few bucks in his hat every time she was over by the park, which unfortunately, she hadn’t seen in months. Not since she’d quit her job at Wagner & Leeman. “I’m fine. Nothing hurt but my pride. How are you, Jesse?”

Beaming that she remembered him, he helped pick up the canned beans that had escaped her shopping bag. Despite the ragged clothes and general grime, he was a handsome young man. He managed to appear so wholesome and down-to-earth that she’d instantly liked him from the start. “Haven’t seen you around [park] in a while.”

“I quit my job and started my own business. Corporate life got to be too much for me.”

“I’ll say.” Chuckling, he handed her the last can, and then shyly pulled a small square out of his bag. “I made something for you.”

She held the folded paper up to the streetlight. On the front, he’d used watercolors to paint dozens of butterflies, laid on top of each other in carefully detailed layers so the entire page was covered in wings. Inside, he’d written a simple message: Happy birthday, Vicki.

“Sorry, I know your birthday was months ago, but I didn’t know where you’d gone.”

“Oh, Jesse, thank you. How did you know?”

He smiled and shrugged, shifting the strap of his back higher on his shoulder. “I overheard you tell your friend that you were planning a special dinner with your family for your birthday. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop; you were standing behind me while I sketched. Anyway, I’ve got a few new pieces you might like. Come over to the park when you get the chance.”

“I will.” She stared down at the card, thinking about how many weeks he’d carried it in his bag, protecting it from getting torn or dirty, hoping to see her. He’d made her a card, when some of her best friends hadn’t remembered her birthday at all. “Thank you, Jesse. This really means a lot to me.”

He tipped his battered, lopsided straw hat, gave her a another smile, and turned to head down the street. Alone. His skinny shoulders hunched against the cold.

Vicki had built all sorts of reasons that he was on the streets in her mind, but she’d never had the courage to ask him. He only had on a jean jacket, no gloves, and the knapsack tossed over his shoulder, exactly how she’d seen him countless times. Everything he owned in the world was in that bag.

“Jesse?”

Immediately, he turned around and came back, his eyes wide and hopeful. It was too dark and gloomy to make out the remarkable turquoise shade of his eyes, but she remembered. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Do you have someplace to go?”

“Oh, sure.” He nodded, but she didn’t like the way he ducked his head. “Don’t worry about me. Just come over to the park when you get the chance. I miss seeing you.”

She took the last few steps toward her building, her mind screaming all the reasons it would be stupid to ask him inside. She was alone. He was a man, bigger and stronger than her even if she had a few years on him. She had a damned good security system on both the shop and her apartment upstairs, but if he chose to overpower her, she wouldn’t have a chance to call for help.

She didn’t really know him at all. He was homeless, for God’s sake, and had probably seen more crime and violence than she’d even dreamed of despite working all those years as a defense attorney. But there was something undeniable in his eyes, a deep, soul-piercing light that she couldn’t forget. Without saying a word, he managed to reach inside her and tug, hard, amplifying her guilt and worry. It wasn’t her fault that he was homeless, but it would be her fault if he froze to death tonight.

Putting on her best formidable cast-iron face that had intimidated many a shady character into providing better testimony, she turned and faced him squarely. “If you promise to behave yourself, you can come home with me tonight.”

His eyes flared wide with horror, which instantly made her feel better about asking him. His mouth opened, but it took him several times before he could say anything. “Oh, no, ma’am. That wouldn’t be right. I just wanted to make sure you were okay—it didn’t even occur to me that you might… No, please, I couldn’t.”

“I couldn’t sleep a wink if you were freezing out here all night.” She opened the door to the shop, her key immediately disabling the security system, and flipped on the light. He hovered behind her, staring at the warmth and shelter longingly. “I’m making a huge batch of chili and cornbread.”

His shoulders shook, stiff and reluctant, but he didn’t move closer.

“What I really wanted was hot cocoa; that’s why I went out tonight before the weather got too horrible. Not cocoa from a mix or powder—I want the real thing. I’m going to make some first.”

“With real milk?” His voice sounded hoarse. He took a step closer, but kept his shoulders down, hunched, as though he were trying to make himself smaller and less threatening. “And marshmallows?”

“Real milk, real chocolate,” she promised. “But I don’t have marshmallows. I think they’re disgusting. Come on in, Jesse. I’m not the world’s greatest cook, but I can make a mean pot of beans.”

He hung his head, one hand fisted on the strap of his bag so hard his fingers were white. “I’ve been in trouble before, ma’am, but I haven’t been arrested in more than five years, and I’ve been clean since. Call one of your old contacts in the police department and check up on me.”

She was surprised at his willingness to share his unsavory past—and a little disconcerted that he knew so much about her from the few times they’d talked so casually. “I can do that. I should also warn you that my very mean and much bigger older brother could be here in minutes.”

Leading the way through the long tables stacked with fabrics and trim, she flipped on another light. Now I know why my security guy insisted I have a separate system for my upstairs apartment. “I set up this place so that my seamstress could sleep over when we’re on a time crunch. There’s a bed, clean linen, and a full-sized bathroom.”

Jesse risked a quick glance at the room but otherwise kept his head down, his shoulders so tight that he was as short as her, when she knew he was actually several inches taller. Lightly, she touched his arm. He flinched, but at least his head came up. She was struck again by the intensity of his eyes, so clear and innocent despite the harshness of his life.

“Are you sure?” He asked, his voice shaking. “I didn’t mean–”

“I’m sure,” she smiled, gently squeezing his arm. Lord, he was so thin, just bones and tight wiry muscle laid over the top. “Look around on the shelves in the closet—I think I stuck some of my brother’s old clothes in there. Take a shower and come upstairs when you’re done. I’ll have the cocoa ready in no time.”

“My full name is Jesse Dean Inglemarre and I’m twenty five. Check me out. If you’re not comfortable, tell me to leave. I swear on a stack of Bibles that I’ll leave immediately, no questions asked. I won’t ever bother you again.”

He was several years older than she’d guessed, although still five years younger than her. She smiled to put him at ease. It felt right, so very, very right, to help him. “You’re not bothering me.”

Solemnly, he stared into her eyes, searching her face, even though he didn’t ask. Why me? Why are you doing this?

How could she explain it? Sometimes after a particularly bad trial, the only bright spot in her day had been walking through the park to see what new drawing he might be working on. On this cold, lonely night, he was a welcome surprise. “There’s just something about you, Jesse.”