CHASING DAMIAN – Full first 50 pages

Young Aurelia is more wits than looks. When she meets handsome and mysterious Damian Novac, she knows her only chance of getting his attention is to develop a strategy. She joins him and friends on a winter trip in the Carpathian Mountains – a choice that will change her life abruptly. When the train derails in high snow, they seek refuge at an abandoned cottage, but soon people of their group start losing their minds and dying. Ambushed by a herd of crazed villagers on the second dawn, Aura barely escapes with Damian and a clutch of their friends, only to realize they’re far from safe even back home. While trying to stay alive, she starts an investigation of her own, which leads back to Damian’s very shady past. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian will introduce her to a world where everything she thought she knew proves wrong, and where every day could be her last. A mystery sewn with twists and turns that dives into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance. 

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

Sixteen years ago I met a young man who turned me into a creepy stalker. Smitten by those moss green eyes full of mystery – or maybe misery – my sanity seared away like ice on a stove.

I was twenty at the time, studying English Language and Literature at the Universitatea Ovidius in Constanta. For four years I destroyed the soles of my shoes going to the same white building on an open campus, close to the deserted beaches of our ghostly town.

My first relationship had been a draining and torturing one, with my ex finally admitting – or simply alleging, as I hoped – that his interest had never been in me, but in the wealth of my father and the future that might have resulted from a union with me. Being the daughter of Tiberius Preda turned out to be a stigma rather than an advantage, and as a consequence I resorted to keeping the connection secret and my lifestyle modest.

So I proceeded carefully with my new love interest. The only problem was that I didn’t really possess any other means of standing out beside my father’s name, not among the tart up beauties with silky hair and perfect eyebrows who looked like J. Lo at her best. On my dry skin foundation always ended up looking like unevenly distributed flour and my hair galvanized like copper wire no matter what I did. Sidonia helped sometimes and spent hours on my styling, trying to cheer me up.

“You’ll learn, no worries,” she’d say.

She was wrong. I never did. And she finally gave up with a hopeless shake of her head. “God, Aura, you do have two left hands.”

I first saw him in the cafeteria, surrounded by a group of loud laughing, overconfident boys with iron pumped chests. But it was him who drew my attention like a magnet, and a glance around the cafeteria was enough to realize I wasn’t the only one interested in him.

He was tall and athletic, with waves of dark hair brushing his broad shoulders. Well muscled under a white knit sweater that his body molded, he made for quite a view, and as good as all wenches around drank it in.

“Damian Novac,” Sidonia whispered in my ear, noticing my dropped jaw. She tossed a strand of straw blond hair off her shoulder with a graceful move. “Civil Engineering, final year.”

She smiled in his direction. I didn’t dare do the same, but looked around like a fox watching for hunters, making up strategies before dodging out of the bushes. The last thing I needed was getting another bullet through my heart.

Damian didn’t see me that day, or the day after. Being small and skinny had its advantages in matter of stealth, so I could observe him from afar for weeks. He was aloof, yet his eyes always intent, as if his thoughts were fixed on something way beyond those walls and his cares way more serious than the infatuations of wannabe divas. He wasn’t oblivious to their advances, just utterly unimpressed.

His group of friends, nevertheless, always surrounded him, as if searching for his approval for everything they did. Even a manly laugh and a tap on the shoulder were always accompanied by a furtive ‘was that all right’ glance. So an alpha, I thought.

“No wonder we’re all leaving wet traces like snails when he’s around,” I once whispered to Sidonia. She laughed her wide, sensual laugh.

“I just love your dirty mouth, Aura.”

“I speak but the truth.” I smiled back at my best friend.

We left the university giggling. At that age we were still able to speak the naked truth, no matter how ugly or dirty it was. We couldn’t care less about ‘social acceptability’.

We sat in the confinements of Montana, a nearby wooden pub that served as a haven for furious bikers on Saturday nights when it reeked of beer and pot. But during the day it was nice and quiet. We had our peace drinking bad filtered coffee, smoking cigarettes and making plans.

Sidonia wanted me to get over the disaster with my ex as soon as possible. She took her role as image consultant very seriously while I came up with ways of manipulating destiny into ‘casual’ bumping into Damian at another, ‘cleaner’ pub – the Bourbon, deep in the heart of the city – or at parties organized by fellow students.

It was at one of those parties at the dorms that I finally arranged to stumble into his arms with a glass of red wine. Sidonia had forced me into a push-up bra, a red sleeveless top and tight jeans, but I still looked like a malnourished, rusty-furred poodle.

The room was hot and crowded, so I hopped over legs and bottles in my way, faking a fall against Damian’s chest. It was hard and the hands steadying me were big like shovels.

“S … sorry,” I mumbled.

He looked down at his ruined shirt.

“It’s all right.” His voice sounded like black velvet – deep, soft, giving me goose bumps.

I dared a look straight at his face and my heart leaped into my mouth. Up close he was so handsome with his dark green eyes, perfectly chiseled features and strong jaw that he should’ve been as illegal as heroin. My nose was at the level of his chest, breathing in the scent of freshly cut wood – maybe fir. Jeez, he’s huge.

With a slightly pissed frown but gentle hands he made sure I could stand on my own feet and turned to walk away. No, no, no!

“Let me take out the stain,” I croaked over the pounding music and clasped his arm. “There’s some detergent in the bathroom.”

He turned to me, the frown lingering on his brow, his tone polite and detached.

“I’ll do that myself, thank you.”

I panicked, thinking that he saw through my plot. I searched desperately for a way to keep contact and gave him an awkward smile. Reciting the words Sidonia had made me learn by heart seemed like the only option.

“You need to wash out the wine within the next two minutes, if you want to save your shirt. I’m a woman and I have some dexterity with that, that’s all.”

He glanced around as if assessing who paid us attention and then looked at me again. Dancing and drinking people – Sidonia, Raluca and Gino included – stared at us. Then a possibility hit me – maybe he’d scouted the area for his girlfriend or something.

At that thought, my stomach clenched. Though I hadn’t seen him with anyone during the weeks I’d observed him, a girlfriend wasn’t completely out of the question. Maybe she wasn’t from the campus. But then again, Sidonia would’ve come upon that anyway in her subversive, shrewd investigations.

“Two minutes,” I reminded him of the time ticking until the stain would be forever imprinted in his white shirt. “Let me save the situation and then you won’t see me again.”

He gave me a reserved smile and motioned me to lead the way. The gesture was infused with elegance and strength at the same time, coming from a stud like him. Oh, how I’d ride you, boy!

We waited in front of the bathroom until a drunken blonde reeled out. Luckily it didn’t take longer than two minutes, otherwise I would’ve risked him changing his mind. Girls around us fidgeted and swayed, eyeing Damian. Boys already mistook the hallway and some corners for toilets as they staggered and cursed.

Damian and I didn’t speak to each other, but I was sharply aware of his presence behind me, of his breath above my head. He stood real close, his upper thigh brushing against my backside as sweaty bodies squeezed us together. My heart raced and I struggled with my burning cheeks and wild imagination as we closed the door behind us. Jeez, I’m alone with him! Alone with him in a messy bathroom . . .

To my jaw dropping surprise, Damian began unbuttoning his shirt. I swallowed hard. Still, to make my indifference to him credible, I refused the sight.

“Keep it on. Unless, of course, you have a change of clothes within reach.”

“I don’t.” Again that deep voice that I couldn’t believe I was finally hearing, spoken only for my ears.

I snatched the detergent from a pile of tubes and boxes on the washer and rinsed the stain – half his shirt, that is. After spraying some water on it from the tips of my fingers, I began rubbing the wine into instead of out of the fabric with one hand, keeping it stretched and away from his body with the other. The large spot soon turned transparent, I could see a blur of his flat abdomen and his happy tail through it.

“I’m Damian, by the way,” he said.

“Aurelia,” I replied in a trembling voice. “Preda, Aurelia Preda.”

“I must say, you’re quite observant, Miss Preda.”

“What do you mean?” I babbled, shivering a little.

“I’m impressed you should notice the stain remover and think about it as soon as you ruined my shirt.”

Shoot, he knows what I’m doing . . .

“Impressive?” I looked up at him and tried for a smile.

“It requires some presence of mind.”

“I … I brought it, actually. Today. Gino is in constant need of such,” I lied with a staggering nonchalance. Anything to save the appearances. I knew Gino would support my allegation, he was ‘my people’ and deep in this with me. He’d organized the party and we were in his dorm.

“I understand.” Damian’s eyes glittered with some kind of cunning. “Have I seen you before, Aurelia?”

I shrugged and faked lack of interest. I dropped my eyes to the stain, though.

“Maybe. In the cafeteria, or at the Bourbon. That’s where I seek refuge from my persecutors.”

“Persecutors?”

“The Inquisition, isn’t is obvious?” I said, pointing at the haycock on my head.

His sculptured lips drew in a dashing smile.

“You claim yourself a witch?”

“I claim nothing without my lawyer.”

“And Gino? Is he one of your allies?” He sounded interested and hope sparked in my chest.

“You could say that. He’s dating a dear friend of mine, Raluca,” I hurried to block any doubts that might arise. I’m available and all for you, mister.

“Now I remember,” he said as if he truly just realized, “I saw you at the Bourbon with him and some others. You never miss some fun.”

He saw me? “I’m forever in search of it. As are you, I notice.”

“Hardly. I supply food and beverages.”

Say what? “What do you mean?”

He shrugged, making it clear that he didn’t want to dwell on the matter.

“It’s just an activity that pays bills. And what brings me to the Bourbon and parties.”

“So you’re no real friend of Bacchus’?” I realized I’d never seen him with a beer in his hand, or any kind of alcohol for that matter.

He laughed – another velvety sound.

“You find me entertaining?” I asked.

“I like the way you speak. It’s very, how shall I put it? Unusual.”

“You think?”

He nodded, green eyes intent and fixed on mine. I alone had his attention now, the whole world was shut out.

“I merely adjust to my interlocutor,” I whispered.

He laughed again as I tried to sheath my crush on him with the veil of further jokes and friendship. He acted like he bought it, opened up to me, laughed more, and soon our groups mingled in the cafeteria.

A few weeks later Gino came up with another of his plans that both our gang and Damian’s appreciated. It had begun to snow and he organized a trip to the mountains, so it wasn’t long until we got on a train with heavy backpacks and furred boots, but my hopes of finding a place by Damian’s side shattered as soon as I set foot in the compartment.

He was flanked by one of his friends and a blue-eyed and brown-haired J. Lo who I didn’t stand a chance against. She was tall, loud and bold, her grin white and large, but that wasn’t the first time I saw her and I knew she wasn’t his girlfriend – at least not yet. I ducked in my coat and scarf up to my nose and watched frustrated how she drew closer to him, acting like an easygoing friend.

“Come on, Novac,” she said, her pitch too high, “I won’t bite, I’m just freezing.”

He rested one arm loosely on her shoulder and turned his eyes to the window. She leeched on to him but he kept distant, which made me feel not all was lost. I wanted to slap myself for clinging to the faintest hope and for the way I ogled him, but I couldn’t help it. He looked fantastic in his brown coat, dark jeans and what seemed like army boots. His hair spilled in raven waves to his shoulders and the stubble gave his beautifully chiseled face the air of a young barbarian.

J. Lo caught me staring. She pulled her knees up and cuddled to his chest. I doubted she did it because she saw any kind of competition in me – that was out of the question – but because she felt powerful and probably enjoyed my suffering, knowing I would’ve done anything to be in her place. She closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep with a relaxed smile on her face.

Cottages glided by as the train – barely more than an old cart from communist times – moved lazily, its whistles lost in the night as we advanced to the middle of nowhere. A few times I thought Damian glanced at me and my heart jumped, but I dismissed it as wishful thinking until the train got stuck in what looked like Siberian snow, ice flowers spreading visibly over the pane. Everybody breathed out steam and I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, shaking violently. That’s when Damian gazed long at me with a worried frown.

“Gino,” he said, lifting his arm and waking J. Lo, “Where’s the Vodka I gave you?”

Gino’s sleepy eyelids fluttered open. He brushed sandy tendrils off his forehead and removed his own arm from around Raluca, who shivered at his chest, her eyes hooded and her thick lips white. He reached to the overhead rack and dropped a bag on Sidonia’s head, who grunted and stirred from the more or less comfortable place she’d found in the arms of an iron pumped boy from Damian’s group.

“Sorry, Sid,” Gino mumbled and took down a ragged backpack. Something clanked inside. He staggered on his skinny, Spiderman legs to Damian, who stood up to support him.

“Jesus, you look like you might break into ice shards,” Damian said.

“I’m afraid my brain’s already splintered. I should’ve been the first to think of the liquor,” Gino replied with a stiff grin that meant to be friendly but rather gave the impression of a frozen fossil.

Damian opened the backpack and took out three small bottles like the ones Russians keep in the inside pockets of their sheepskin coats. He handed one to J. Lo and one to Gino.

“Pass that around,” he told them, then he took a seat by my side with the third bottle.

I blinked and barely refrained from rubbing my eyes. I couldn’t believe he was so close to me, by his own choosing this time.

“Drink this,” he said softly, holding the open bottle to my mouth. A sharp smell made me crease my nose and push his hand away.

“Vodka. It’ll help warm up,” he insisted.

I sniffed at it a couple of times and finally took a sip that went like a flash of fire to my stomach. I grimaced, but Damian chuckled and looked at me like you would at a playing puppy. It was the strangest expression I’d ever imagined on his face, like a predator smiling clumsily at a shivering deer. I smiled back, my heart drumming.

It wasn’t until my eyes fell on the open mouthed J. Lo that I realized why he must’ve switched to my side: I was the only one without a pair of arms around me. Damian was just looking after the less fortunate. My chest deflated.

“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I grumbled and drew away, pulling my knees up. I didn’t look at him to see his reaction.

Suddenly, the car began to wobble like a ship on a stormy sea. The girls shrieked and boys glanced around with wide eyes. As for me, I didn’t realize what was happening until the lights flickered and finally went out, making me burst into a fit of screaming too. A hand wrapped around my arm and pulled me to a broad chest, my nose sinking in a fluffy pullover.

“Earthquake,” Damian’s voice sounded above my head. At the next jerk, he dropped back in the seat with me in his lap.

“Maybe they’re just, just, just taking us out of the snow,” J. Lo babbled.

“It ain’t no shovels moving this train, Lindy!” I recognized the voice of Sidonia’s  new conquest. He sounded frantic.

The train came to a brusque halt in its swaying, and Damian jumped to his feet with me in his arms, sheltering me with the sides of his open coat. I pushed my face deeper in his pullover as he slid the compartment door open with his elbow.

“What are you doing?” Gino squealed.

“We need to get out of here,” Damian replied. His tone was calm, but not devoid of stress.

“What if it starts again?” His bodybuilder friend croaked. “We’re deep in the mountains, we could get killed in an avalanche or something!”

“And you think we stand a better chance if an avalanche traps us in this rusty box, Marius?” Damian raised his voice over his friend’s but didn’t wait for a reply.

He rushed with me down the aisle and only put me down as we reached a growing clutch of shrieking people by the exit. Fear gripped me, my heart punched hard against my ribcage as I stretched my arm to keep him close. To no avail, I lost him as he made his way through.

In the chaos of screams and bodies squashing me between them I freaked out, but I was unable to make a sound. The door snapped open and a winter gush wheezed through, lashing my face numb as people poured out of the train and drifted me forward with them. I sank to my knees in the glistening snow and waved my arms to keep from falling into the forested abyss that gaped before my eyes.

A huge, warm hand clasped mine, steadying me, and the instant I looked into Damian’s focused face I understood he’d only left my side to break down the door. I forgave him on the spot.

He turned to help the others out of the train but missed one, who bumped hard against me and sent me like a ball down the slope. I rolled and rolled, my mind frozen as snow infiltrated to my skin from under my scarf and sleeves. A front clash with a tree trunk knocked the air from my lungs and the last thing I saw was a shower of white that filled my mouth and nostrils. I choked under the mountain of cold that gagged me, desperate to breathe in.

My head began to cloud with lack of air and I felt my pulse give up. That moment I knew the sense of safety was a mirage, as if some tiny fairy at the back of my mind urged me to keep fighting.

I saw a bright sphere, but I knew it wasn’t the moon. It was light at the end of a black tunnel, a light that sucked me toward it with the force a vacuum cleaner would a fly. However hopelessly, I fought against the pull, which stopped by miracle as I came really close to the now huge moon. Weight started to press rhythmically on what I now identified as my chest and I started to spin backwards, as if something drew me with the same force farther and farther from the bright sphere. As it became smaller, it warped into the shape of a child-like face with bright, caramel eyes piercing at me through the darkness. A crystalline voice like tinkling icicles filled my head. “You need me . . .”

CHAPTER 1

Every breath hurt as if my sternum had been smashed with a rock. The blur before my eyes cleared to Sidonia’s pixie face framed by a white and stylish fur hat, her pale blue 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,” Sidonia said, putting a warm hand on my cheek.

“It hurts,” I whispered, taking a hand to my chest.

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

Damian?

Sidonia smiled, probably reading the surprise in my face.

“He launched after you after 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 slicker one, my scalp itching under what could’ve been a busby, yet none of it helped much. I still shivered as Sidonia tucked me under a blanket, leaving my arms out.

Muttering and shadows twirled around, only Sidonia’s face constant in the picture. I registered a friendly, “Water by the bed,” Gino’s “Bug off, here’s the Vodka,” and Raluca’s “Call if you need me, sis,” addressing Sidonia. 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?”

Sidonia threw me a glance, her hands rubbing mine.

“Military, Marius says. Damian served his time. He must’ve learned how to do this kind of stuff.”

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

“Playing hero,” I whispered.

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

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

Damian held a bottle of water at my feet, his honey-skinned 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 that looked like wax. 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?” Sidonia addressed him – agile on the first opportunity to give us some time alone, I figured. “I’m afraid Marius will get distracted if he misses me for too long, you know what I mean?”

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?” he said softly, his tone yet amused.

Lay with me? The implications left me breathless. 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 his eye color was. I’d seen pale green, I’d seen blue often, brown and every combination thereof, but not that pure moss as if looked at through crystal. His eyes had the potential of shining bright like emerald, I thought. Maybe when he was mad. And I could make him mad 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 and putting a hand on his chest – very broad, well-shaped, yet not bulky.

“You should let me open those coats. You’ll warm up faster.”

Say what? My face burned, my fingers and toes tingled, my head spinning. He unzipped the slicker, then unbuttoned the wool and slid his free arm under it, making my heart beat so fast that heat rushed from it to my arms and legs.

“Where are we?” My chest hurt with every word, but I had to derail his attention before my less than orthodox thoughts showed in my face.

“A cottage in restoration. The train fell off track too far from Predeal and this is the first lodging we found.”

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

“No earthquake?” I managed.

Damian shook his head.

“That was my first thought, but I was wrong. Earthquakes are not common in these parts of the Carpathians. They tried to pull the train forward through the snow and it slipped off.” There was a ghost of disbelief, maybe even a pensive touch in his words. It suited that deep, velvety voice of his that inebriated me, though it sounded as if he were hiding something – but I didn’t care right now.

I looked down at the shape of our legs under the blanket, thinking of what to say next to keep the conversation going. Damian’s fingers began stroking the side of my torso over the jersey, close to my breast.

“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.”

His chest vibrated with a laugh that seemed to scatter his worries. “You sure didn’t get the finest education at home.”

“No. I did not,” I muttered.

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. Sidonia 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 calmly 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 for it, but the feel of his muscles under the pullover made my breath intensify, which may have exposed me. His rhythm didn’t change and, 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 soundlessly 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 Lindy after all? Or maybe into another? What if he only wanted to be friends? Greedy for the shaft in his pants I’d probably lost that now too, which made my chest hurt as much sniveling did.

Unable to put up with myself 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 fairly tales. More drunken voices now joined the bearded singer’s and people chained together with hands on each other’s shoulders, swaying 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 green scowl from under knitted eyebrows.

My severely bruised ego screamed, ‘Hide!’ and I hurried to mingle in, trying to find Sidonia. She danced in a lush embrace with Marius, who hurried to get rid of me by grabbing my wrist and introducing me to Lindy ‘J. Lo’ 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 Marius, I sat with her by the stove. She returned to her conversation with her friends and made a show of how she ignored me – meaning 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, or introduce some cheap gossip with, “Oh yeah, did you hear that . . .” I tried talking to a guy with a blond mane, but after a short while he got bored and looked for entertainment elsewhere. After about an hour, Lindy and I were left alone for long, awkward moments.

The silence pressed harder on me than trying for small talk, so I managed to bring, “Lindy – that’s a rare name” and, “Where are you from?” about my lips. Looking away from me and with disdain in her voice, she said her parents were Americans and I instinctively mentioned my mother’s same heritage, but our connection was interrupted there.

“You’re American, too?” a boy with limbs even looser than Gino’s 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, since he’d actively aided Lindy in ignoring me just shortly before.

Heads turned, the guitar player’s fingers tangled in the cords. Blood shot in my cheeks.

“That would be an overstatement,” I muttered.

“How can you overstate origin?” Lindy sneered. She threw cat-eyed 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 and your dad the cowboy from Draculean lands?” He gave me a stupid grin, meant and failing to be charming.

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

“The States, huh? In those times?” Lindy 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 have 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 nerd whispered.

Shit . . .

I nodded and the nerd’s mouth popped open. Still, I had a feeling he was the only one in our young group with enough real information to know what my dad’s name stood for in the right context. For the others it should’ve meant only heavy moneybags.

“So, you’re rich daddy’s girl,” Lindy confirmed my hunch, laughing like in kindergarten. I wanted to slap her, but she was taller and stronger, so I feared the aftershock.

“Listen, hottie!” Sidonia placed herself before Lindy, her blue eyes turning into ice. All signs of fun and liquor-conditioned euphoria were gone from her face.  “Aura didn’t make the sacrifice she did for anybody to still treat her like a social mutant!”

Raluca squared her shoulders behind her sister, trying to intimidate ‘Hottie’, but missed her aim. Lindy glowered back, more pissed off by the intervention than taken aback.

Driven by the pressure that built up in my head I didn’t wait for the outcome of this confrontation. I ran out the door with my face in my palms, fighting to keep back tears. The cool air on the porch dried my eyes instantly but also painted a sharp picture of my situation – lame, hopeless.

The lodge was somewhere high and close to the forest, countless fir branches warped with snow marking the contours of endless hills, a full moon hanging low in the sky. A beautiful place it was. 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 was the Beast. The taste in my mouth was bitter.

I sank my hands in the slicker pockets and groped on something square and a piece of frozen plastic – a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, which I rubbed between my palms to warm the gas, feeling lucky. Lucky that most of my companions smoked and kept cigarettes in their jackets – I know, it sounds dreadful.

Without much thought, I put the poison in my mouth, lit it with some difficulty and pulled in smoke, which got me coughing and the pain back in my chest. Still, the purpose was achieved – both Damian’s rejection and Lindy’s laughter were at the back of my mind. For but a second.

“So, daddy issues?” Damian’s voice made me turn briskly. He stood tall by my side, his eyes searching mine.

“Heavy loads.” I sounded more composed than I would’ve expected – an effect I ascribed to the cigarette.

“Sidonia said something about sacrifices,” he mused after a short pause. He sounded not only interested, but also eager, which came as a complete surprise. I tried to coat it over.

“Sidonia 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?” The green in his eyes sparked emerald – unique, more beautiful than I’d imagined. Maybe he was still angry for my undercover hitting on him. I turned away, gazing in the distance and faking cold indifference to his looks.

“All right then, here it is,” I said. The cigarette 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. But a parent’s success can weigh heavy on the kid’s shoulders, you know? Everybody expects so much of you. I could live with that 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 Alex wasn’t a jackass. The only thing I kept was my last name, certain it would soon change anyway. But Alex 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’m a hero.”

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

“Sidonia 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 stared at him, drawn ever deeper into his scrutinizing gaze. Just yesterday I would’ve done anything for a situation and an opportunity like this, but now was the worst moment to be exposed to my love interest. I must’ve looked a complete mess huddled in two dirty coats, with crazy hair and tired eyes, holding a cigarette between skeletal fingers like some old witch. 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 dashing smile of his.

“Have you inquired and been left wanting?”

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

“I merely adjust to my interlocutor.” He winked.

“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 swallowed hard.

“I’m not done,” he said. “This Alex 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.  I yet didn’t move.

“Are you going to answer it?” he continued softly, as if he wanted to seduce the answer out of me.

“No.” Don’t ask where the word came from, for I do not know. All I knew was that I had to resist him.

“You don’t want to go there?”

“Is this an interrogation?”

“Does it feel like such?”

I pondered and drew from the cigarette, ignoring the chest pain. “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.

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.

“As long as it satisfies you.”

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

“Not doctors. Shrinks. But you don’t need either.”

“What do you think I need?”

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

“Then how do you know what I don’t?”

“You sound resentful, which is fine and healthy.”

My heart skipped a beat. The irresistible barbarian who’d followed me to the porch had turned into a scholar who messed with my head. I prayed to God the map of my desires – that had everything to do with this surprisingly refined beast – didn’t display on my face.

“Are you that familiar with the sound of resentment, as to be sure that’s what you hear?”

He knitted his eyebrows and pressed his beautiful lips together in a hard expression. Still, my sixth sense told me it wasn’t because I had him locked, but because he was reluctant to reply.

The thought trailed off soon though, his towering closeness heating up my blood so much that the winter night had no effect anymore. I felt as if in a furnace and I breathed too fast, but the spell scattered to the four winds when the front door burst open as if thrown off by draft.

Lindy appeared in the frame, wrapped in a shabby quilt that didn’t succeed in reducing her beauty by as much as I wished. Her hair flowed straight and slippery like smooth coffee down her chest, her translucent face well tended and her cat-like eyes glimmering under thick lashes – gorgeous eyes, despite the dark rings tiredness drew around them. She extended her arm to offer Damian the piece of brown clothing that hung around 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 bold voice. Maybe she did have a claim on Damian after all. I swallowed the sudden 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 turned his tall, V-shaped back at me and already taken a few steps to the door, making anger and defiance fire up in me. 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 tonight. Maybe he thought I’d follow him like a tail-wriggling dog now, hoping for him to 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 the blizzard hits me. I have a way of protecting myself of anything intent to sweep me off my feet.”

Damian seemed to get the hint. He frowned and shook his head, just slightly. He seemed hesitant to leave, looking at me like you would at an errant child.

“Watch out for wolves.” He held the door for Lindy and followed in.

I was left 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 into 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.

I tried to light another cigarette but it proved impossible. The lighter gave nothing but small sparks and the few times a flame came to life it was blown off by harsh gusts. Though it was truly high time I went in, the fist of pride kept firm around my heart. I wouldn’t give Damian satisfaction.

Just another minute and I wasn’t sure of that last thought anymore. In the end, he’d saved my life and carried me to safety – however fictional that might sound. This was real life. Fiction is inspired by reality after all, so I guessed heartbreakingly handsome heroes, lifesavers and unrequited passions weren’t that rare.

I scrunched my eyes shut as I realized I’d looked like a complete idiot by refusing to follow back into our shelter and by implying that he’d tried to dazzle me. He’d made his lack of interest crystal clear by leaving when I’d hit on him. Maybe he’d sensed how worthless I was from the very beginning – a loser some big-bellied alcoholic refused to marry. Now, after my stupid, tobacco-influenced confession, he knew it for a fact.

It was difficult to keep my head up when I walked back in. Damian stood with his group of boisterous friends in the center of the candlelit room, keeping a reserved smile on as they slapped his back 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, the last time that night. Hardly a surprise, considering my competition – Lindy danced like a sexy snake around the bearded singer and in Damian’s field of vision, probably spurred by the reek of Vodka and Scotch.

I spotted Raluca and Gino on a sheepskin and sat by them. They offered a 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 they kept laughing and asking uncomfortable questions like whom I planned to “bed” tonight. I dodged them off as well I could, my eyes darting from Damian, to Lindy, to the fair, sporty Sidonia and the short but iron-pumped Marius, who kissed passionately by the stove.

The wine didn’t manage to get me drunk but caused an ugly headache as Lindy’s dance took ever more sensual turns. Other girls accompanied her, their lids heavy from drinking and their moves erratic and ridiculous. But Lindy . . . She danced like a professional ballerina in elastic jeans and tight wool top, throwing her 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.

Probably too controlled to watch with a hanging tongue like the others, Damian resorted to throwing her glances once in a while, then returning to his friends and sipping from the plastic cup. She kept her eyes on him, smiling and winking sexily every time she caught his eye. I knew she had his attention, no matter how he hid it under knitted eyebrows, as if something grew heavier on his mind with every minute. Soon, as the blizzard began wheezing and raging, he made his way to the window, looking as if his mind left the lodge, focused on some disturbing memory. His jaw hardened, making his profile seem carved in stone.

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

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

I knew instantly he was talking about the rough, hairy guy who sat drinking and grinning lecherously too close to Lindy’s dancing legs.

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

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

I couldn’t help a smile. They looked like a stick and a balloon in love, although Raluca made for a quite attractive balloon with her voluptuous breasts, soft skin and almond shaped, chocolate eyes. The pug nose and full lips were pretty much everything she and Sidonia had in common, but she was also a head-turner.

“You’re underestimating me, Ginny. I’m afraid it’ll be you squeezed in a bottle, if you take just another gulp,” she mocked back.

Truth be told, Gino 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 trail skiing.”

He gave her a long kiss, taking her big lips between his thirstily, one at a time. I tried to look away, but it’d been over 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. Gino drew away with a crooked grin and an apologetic shrug.

“Besides,” he turned to Raluca again, “Big Daddy will have their heads, if any of these losers do as much as stroke her.”

I didn’t need another word to understand he referred to Damian. My heart stung and prompted me to change the subject, desperate to keep its ignorance. I wasn’t ready to be fully aware of what they had yet.

“You promised to teach me poker, Gino,” I cut in and motioned with my chin to a smoking and cards playing group well over their thirties. “Let’s join.”

I didn’t get the rules and Gino’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 blue jersey, I decided to call it a night and made for the small chamber we called a “bedroom”, straining not to glance at Damian.

The leftovers of some candles lay around in pooled wax. Only now did I notice the beds – two 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 wet dog. The cinder was weak in the stove.

I dropped on the same bunk I’d lay on with Damian, wishing for the “Crime and Punishment” that had stayed on the train. A good, old Russian novel that could transport me now in another dimension, where the hero would take another face but Novac’s. He would be battered and cracked and not as handsome, but he’d do. I closed my eyes and relied on my imagination to picture him, but the blackness 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.

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. This particular one was of the card players. Quite a looker, but definitely too old for the kind of crap we did here.

A couple took the other bunk 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. It was a steady roar that mingled with drunken moaning – a couple were surely doing it on the floor.

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

“Deal struck, sweetheart.” The man’s voice was not only too thick, but also feverish, matching his snogging on her skin and the shuffle of jackets under and over them. “Pay time.”

“Get off me, you fuckin’ dog!”

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

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

Lindy’s face was pale and drawn with fear. The rings around her now wide eyes were deep trenches and her top was torn, revealing small, white breasts with pointy nipples. People moved around in chaos.

Others from the main room burst in. I stood and took a few shy steps toward them, not knowing how I could help, 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 fat – and I knew on the spot it was the Biker who’d watched Lindy dance, as I knew he was her aggressor. With a cry I drew attention and pointed at him. What followed left me stunned and sweating.

Two boys rushed after him, head first like angry bulls, but the man spun around unexpectedly and slammed his fists into their faces – right first, left second. I flinched, expecting booms, bangs or cracks, yet there was no sound except for the victims’ growls. One of the boys desisted and retreated like a beaten dog, but the thinner one attacked again, hands outstretched, giving out a cry of anger. I imagined him with exploded blood vessels in his eyes and bared teeth, but his zeal was abruptly put to rest when another punch sent him flat on his back.

Before the others could react, Biker tried to make for a sprint through the door, bumping hard into a tall, athletic frame like a ball against a mound. Damian. He glared emerald daggers at Biker, blocking his way out. With his face framed by dark, wavy hair, he looked like a beautiful animal about to bite.

After only a few seconds of hesitation, Biker bent from his waist and thrust himself at Damian, who moved out of the way and caught the rapist by his jacket. He pulled him up straight and slammed his head into the doorframe. Hard. Really hard. I heard bones crack. The man groaned in pain and his body turned to jelly. Damian jerked him to his feet and faced him, keeping a grip on his throat.

“Going somewhere?” His voice was low, impassible.

A streak of blood trickled from Biker’s temple down his cheek and he was clearly dizzy. He grinned like a man on crack. Damian’s muscles snaked under the pullover as he slammed the rapist’s back into the doorframe. Biker groaned again.

“I see you’re big on brawling,” Damian hissed, glancing at the two boys who were now supported by their friends. “Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?”

Biker’s mouth drew in the grin of a nutcase enjoying pain. “I might ask you the same.” The line was unfair. Biker was nearly as broad as Damian, if not as tall.

Another slam against the doorframe. “Why do you pick up fights, Rocky?”

The man didn’t reply, so other voices rose in chaotic explanations that said everything and yet nothing. “Attempted rape” and “Lindy” made it to my ears, though, and certainly also Damian’s. But, to my surprise, it didn’t seem to anger him. On the contrary, his arms fell off Biker and his glare softened a little, even though he didn’t take it off the man’s eyes for one instant.

“You’ve had too much to drink. We’ll deal with this when you’re sober.”

That I didn’t like Lindy must be obvious until now, but Damian’s reaction angered me. I raised my voice and stepped in.

“That’s no justification! This guy is a potential rapist! I’m certain this wasn’t his first time and it won’t be the last, especially if we let him off the hook about it on the wishy-washy grounds that he was impaired.”

Damian’s clear green eyes fell on me. Taken aback by the flash of sharp focus in his gaze, I retreated a step.

“You’re quick to judge, Aurelia.”

I shook my head in disbelief. He couldn’t be so thick. “Quick to judge? Look at that woman, Damian!” I pointed at the group behind me, assuming by the calming whispers that Lindy was still among them. “She’s been abused, whether this asshole went the whole way or not! That usually leaves scars, regardless of the offender’s reasons or state of mind at the time he inflicted pain on his victim. Is this basis strong enough for you to deem the offense grave?”

He didn’t follow the direction I pointed in, but kept looking at me. The shade of a smile touched his lips.

“I wasn’t talking about Rocky Balboa here,” he said, “I was talking about me. You’re quick to judge me.”

Complete silence.

“I wouldn’t let this asshole off the hook in a million years. But I won’t smash his face while he’s under the heavy influence of alcohol either.”

Blood flooded my cheeks. The faint, bitter smile told me he saw past my words and actions. I realized it wasn’t only Lindy’s situation that had driven my anger, but I’d also jumped at the first opportunity to label Damian a worthless scum, no better than Biker. I couldn’t live with him being a golden guy and me not good enough for him, so my mind had tried to switch into a comfortable position. The worst part was – Damian knew it before I did.

“If you’d given me the chance, I would’ve said Hector and I would take our friend to the attic and tie him up until his mind clears. When this happens, we’ll talk again. And when we get out of here, we’ll turn him in.”

Biker laughed. There was a spark of excitement in his eyes as he spoke.

“Turn me in . . . And to whom, Stoian?”

Who?

“To the cops, or your friends at BioDhrome, along with all of these ants?”

At what?

Damian blinked twice, as if recovering from a blow he hadn’t seen coming. He turned to the man and stared at him for seconds, while the others behind me shuffled and whispered. My eyes darted from Damian to Biker, seeking sense.

“What is this bullshit?” Damian hissed, his eyes fixed on the man with poisonous stress.

“You shoved the past under a carpet, Stoian. But sooner or later, it was bound to crawl out and choke you.”

“That’s not my name.”

The man gave another tired laugh. “Of course not.”

Before he could speak again, Damian grabbed Biker’s left arm and Hector his right. I looked at the latter, hoping something in his face, his reaction, would betray some meaning to all this.

The bearded singer’s features were now clear in the light of the oil lamp he carried in the other hand. He was robust, his small eyes shadowed by bushy eyebrows and he had the nose of an eagle. His skin was the color of ripe olives, which made me think of a gypsy, and the rich beard made him appear older than he must’ve actually been, adding to the ominous air. But there was no trace of emotion in his face, he looked like a robot. There was nothing I could read or interpret.

Biker tried to jerk from their grasp, but he didn’t stand a chance. I heard muffled bumps and curses as they took him up the creaky stairs to the attic. Though I wanted to follow, my feet wouldn’t take a step.

Talking took up pace and volume and soon there was a fuss about everything: How Lindy was feeling – she got most of the attention again – the two heroes’ injuries, Biker’s words. A few hours later, when dawn drew a bloody horizon along the mountainous contour, a consensus was reached – the man and his companions were complete strangers to us until yesterday, they’d gotten on the train in Bucharest, so there was no way Biker could know Damian or any of us. He was completely drunk, he talked nonsense.

It was easy for my tired mind to accept their conclusion. It made sense. The one question running around in my head right now was another, anyway – how come Damian didn’t lose his temper when he learned Biker had tried to force himself on Lindy? As much as I loathed myself for it, hope bloomed in my chest. Hope that he didn’t care for her enough, even that there was yet nothing between them.

The sleep I got tormented by daylight, snoring from at least a dozen sources and bad breath from just as many mouths ended about noon, with a headache and a sensation of weakness all through my body. I barely carried myself to the kitchen, my mind numb and my lids swollen. I must’ve been a delight to look at.

The voices in the kitchen were painfully cheerful. They stabbed my brain and I was tempted to skirt around the overpopulated room, but I soon found it contained the only sink where I could wash my face and teeth. My toothbrush and every item for personal hygiene had been abandoned on the train, so I used my finger, bent over the rusty, enamel-peeled sink. The water was freezing, smacking me to sharp awareness.

Chattering suddenly gained meaning. People were gossiping incessantly about last night and the story took thrilling turns for those who’d been too drunk to experience it live. There were versions where Lindy kicked Biker in the balls and Damian punched him senseless. The reason why he and Hector hadn’t barged in along with the others was because they had been in the attic, looking for lamps and other useful objects that might help us survive several days of isolation, or the road to the nearest village or town. I didn’t know if it was any truer than the kick in the balls, but it was plausible.

Tired and with a throbbing head, I looked for my Sidonia and eventually found her arranging food – chips! – on a clay plate – a rarity.

“Wow, I didn’t know people still used these things,” I said looking over her shoulder and reaching for a bite. She slapped my hand off.

“This ain’t for you, sweetheart. Make your own.” She was stiff and frowning. If I knew anything about her – and I knew her well – she was either preoccupied or nervous.

“Breakfast or clay plate?” I cocked an eyebrow, expecting the truth behind her stiffness. She glanced around, making sure no one was listening. Yes, something was up.

“I’m taking this to the attic,” she whispered.

I stopped breathing. “You’re most certainly not! If anyone feeds that monster it should be someone who can tame him.”

“You mean Damian or Hector? Neither are here, and this is my chance.”

“Why should you need a chance?”

“They won’t allow anyone to come into contact with the guy. They say he’s too dangerous. This is my chance to talk to him, and I don’t know how much time I have until they’re back.”

“Where are they?”

“Damian went with Marius to the next village, if they find one within a few miles. They’re looking for help and food. Hector’s cutting wood in the barn.”

I paused, pondering. “I’m coming with you.”

She shook her head. “No you’re not. Stay here, make sure no one comes up.”

“Why are you doing this, Sid? What can you possibly want with the guy?”

She looked aside through the window, thinking. It was the first time Sidonia formulated sentences in her head before she spoke them to me. I became instantly alert.

“Don’t think, Sidonia, talk! Do you know him?”

“I don’t, but Lindy surely does.”

“Really? Then why don’t you talk to her? She’s safer than him.”

“She’s still asleep and her friends guard her like hawks.”

“Okay . . . Is there anything you know about the guy, at least something?”

“Look, Aura,” she said, looking me straight in the face. “I may be on to crap here, so I prefer not to spread panic unnecessarily. But, if I’m right, his name is Raul Iordache and he’s a reporter with Adevarul.”

I tilted my head back, inspecting her. “Panic? Unnecessarily?”

She shuffled from one leg to the other, eager to go. The others were still busy gossiping and eating, but they would soon burn off their material and eavesdrop for ours.

“Look, Aura, I don’t have much time. Damian and Marius might take a while until they walk through that door, but Hector will be back any minute now. Just call I need a quilt at the base of the stairs if he comes back.”

Before I could reply she rushed to the attic. I followed, determined to ignore her request and have her back, but I bumped into Gino and Raluca on the corridor, who were interested in just that – Sidonia’s whereabouts. I was tempted to tell them and get them up there too, but I knew she would never forgive me. This was on our “treason” list.

I told them she was out for some fresh air and baited them to the kitchen, saying that food was already scarce. This wasn’t far from the truth, since the little that had been saved from the train was quickly vanishing in grumbling bellies, ravaged by last night’s drinking.

Raluca walked to the short, exfoliated fridge and grabbed three small bags of chips. Only eating did I realize how hungry I was. The chips tasted like freaking caviar and the cool water like the finest champagne. That was the first time I realized how privileged I was with my little university life back in Constanta, sipping steaming coffee every morning and eating two meals a day.

Soon, Lindy emerged from the bedroom. She looked tired and sick, her face still white from shock. I got up and asked her if there was anything I could do to help, but she sneered me away and soon forced herself to laugh and act jovially with the others. By the time Sidonia came back, lifting a stone off my heart, Lindy was already the center of attention again, keeping all eyes and ears off us.

“What did he say?” I whispered, grabbing Sidonia’s arm.

“Nothing much. He’s sober now and won’t talk easily. You have to buy me more time.”

“Forget it. I won’t aid you in exposing yourself to a potential rapist like that.”

“He’s wound in rope, Aura, from neck to toes. He’s lying on hay and needs to be baby-fed. He’s harmless.”

A bulb lit in my head.

“And you think he’ll give you what you want without something in return, Sid? He’ll sure have you do him favors in exchange for information you’re not even sure he has.”

“Oh, I’m sure he has it, Aura. And I won’t do him any favors.”

The door creaked open and Hector walked in, carrying firewood on a shoulder like a strong peasant, and for a moment Sidonia’s eyes glinted. Yes, he was much more a man than Marius, even though he didn’t make a show of his muscles. I elbowed her and gave her the Moon-this-is-Houston-do-you-copy line. She caught herself in a second.

“Just keep him off my trail. If he goes out again, keep an eye on him. If he comes back in, keep him talking. From the second he leaves the house I’ll need half an hour,” she said, and turned on her heels.

In the afternoon the others went back to drinking and playing cards and Sidonia mingled with them, fixed on gathering info. I got close to the lady I’d shared a bunk with last night. From time to time I asked her questions about Biker, since she was part of his group. But the woman and her companions had only known Raul Iordache a few months. He was a good, respected journalist and been divorced for a year. To them, he’d been the nice guy next door until last night. She seemed desperate to convince me that she knew nothing of his “practices” and “inner demons” and told me that she’d assured my “blond friend” of her full cooperation with the police when the time came, too. She even gave me a worn book she said Raul had been clutching to his chest when he jumped off the derailed train. It was an exquisitely boring report written by a Dr. Angelo Crawford about the benefits of blood transfusions even without necessity. I only managed the first five pages, frustrated and dreaming of “Crime and Punishment”.

When evening greyed the windows, the moment came. Hector walked out the door and Sidonia and I fired glances at each other. I darted after him, right into the sharp wind outside that nailed me on the porch, while Hector hurried to a barn blurred by snowfall.

Night descended fast over the hills and our shelter was so lonely in the wilderness, so cut off from the world, that only the thought of war felt more threatening. There was no sign of Damian and Marius and fear punched a void into my chest. Anything could’ve happened to them. No, something must’ve happened to them. They were gone at least eight hours.

As I made out Hector’s frame walking heavily toward me, carrying wood on his shoulder, I held out the door.

“What are you doing here, babe?” he said hoarsely.

Babe? I pulled a curtain in front of the offended face my inner self made.

“I . . . I was thinking about Marius and Damian. Weren’t they supposed to be back by now?”

He dropped the pile of wood in the small vestibule and put his hands on his waist, moving it in circles to relieve pain. He grimaced as he spoke, looking down at the pile.

“They shouldn’t have left in the first place. Damian knew the blizzard had only taken a short break.”

My heart jumped.

“Shouldn’t we go searching for them or something?”

Hector stretched and looked up, to the ceiling.

“I admire your courage, babe, but you wouldn’t last an hour out there.”

“I wouldn’t be alone. I’d be with you,” I pushed.

Hector snorted and started toward the main room.

“If it’s Damian you’re worried about, don’t,” he threw over his shoulder.

Shit, he knows I’m into him. Everyone does. I felt exposed, I could see them all watching my midnight fantasies alone in my room, laughing at me. Shame burned in my cheeks and I wanted to hide, but for some reason I grabbed his elbow. He turned and scowled at me.

“I’m worried about both of them. Why would I think especially of Damian?” I jeered.

“Well, maybe because he saved your life?”

Yes, of course. Anyone would inquire about their rescuer and feel obliged to return the favor. My secret was still safe and my lips glued together to avoid another stupid remark.

Hector continued slowly. “For your peace of mind, if they don’t come back tonight, it’s because they found refuge elsewhere. Damian can take care of himself and others too. Marius is safe with him.”

His words were comforting, but his moving toward the stairs drew another signal of alarm.

“I need a quilt!” I yelped. Hector stared at me as if I were a mad cow.

“And you expect me to bring you one?”

I blinked and chuckled like a dolly, certain I didn’t look good doing that. But his eagle eye turned away from me when sudden turbulence and screaming in the main room made his head snap in that direction.

We rushed into the dim chamber where Lindy acted “all epileptic,” according to Gino’s wide-eyed, clueless explanation. As Hector worked our way close to her through a mass of gathered people, the sight hit me – eyes rolling, body convulsing, her hair clinging to her sweaty forehead.

“Shit, man, the woman’s possessed!” a boy called, jerking away from Lindy as Hector fell to his knees beside her and snatched something from the boy’s shaking hand.

I couldn’t identify the object until he fit it in Lindy’s mouth – a wooden spoon, maybe to ensure she didn’t swallow her tongue. My skin creased and my mind locked on this isn’t happening like a scratched record, while the sight of her limbs slowly relaxing in twisted positions burned into my memory. It never really left me.

Sidonia plunged in through the crowd and dropped by Lindy’s side. After short attempts at slapping her back to reality, she yelled, “She’s not coming back to her senses!”

Hector stretched an arm to keep her away. “Stop that!”

“Why isn’t she reacting?”

“I don’t know, I’m not a fuckin’ doctor!”

“CPR, mouth to mouth, do something!”

“There’s nothing I can do!”

As if she’d heard Hector’s hopeless statement, Lindy began moving her head from side to side, giving out feeble sighs.

“She could use some rest. She had a harsh night. Let’s take her to bed, I’ll stay with her,” I suggested to Hector.

He scooped her up and followed me to the bedroom. The others trailed like a flock of curious hens, but Sidonia’s pitchy yet confident voice stopped them at the door. “This ain’t the Big Brother house, the woman needs to rest.”

Hector laid Lindy on the bed and shuffled the blanket over her.

“Milk and bananas.” My tone was more assertive and matter-of-fact than I’d ever thought myself capable of. He looked at me puzzled.

“Calcium and magnesium,” I offered a brief explanation, taking a seat by Lindy’s side. Her lips were cracked, but it might as well have been from the harsh wind she’d fought against as she’d walked here, or from the shock last night.

Hector didn’t move. I realized he had nowhere to get milk and bananas from, so I added, “Talk to Sidonia, she’ll figure out what to do. Just tell her we need calmatives.”

“Where will she get them?” Lindy said in a faint voice after Hector left the room.

“She’ll find something in the kitchen or improvise. She’s quite ingenious.”

Few people knew, but Sidonia had been labeled a genius a year ago, when she’d applied for college. People of her heritage required previous examining and testing before they went to the “higher” circles, which were reserved for those of nobler – “whiter” – descent. Her looks had fooled everybody during high school, keeping her origin hidden. But her papers screamed out the truth when she filed her college application.

“I doubt Sidonia will be able to conjure calcium from thin air. There’s nothing healthy to eat or drink in this place.” Just as faint. And disinterested.

“She must get it somewhere. You need that.” I lit the leftovers of two candles.

“All I need is to get out of here,” Lindy whispered.

She looked aside, the small flames casting eerie light on her face and sending a strange feeling up my throat. The circles around her eyes were black and deeper than yesterday, and her cheeks were sucked in, as if the person who’d laughed at me just yesterday had fallen heavily ill. I stroked the sweaty tendrils off her face with an automatic impulse. They felt like mine when I had nightmares.

“We all do. Just hang in there, we’ll find help in the morning.”

“In the morning . . .” A tired smile curled her mouth. “None of us will make it till morning.” She trembled, her lips white and her eyes foggy as if she went delirious.

“Try to get some rest. Fatigue and paranoia go hand in hand,” I said and stood up, intent to bring some water and lower her fever back to normal. Otherwise I feared she’d be beyond repair before help came.

Lindy clasped my hand. “Don’t take me for a lunatic, Aurelia. We won’t survive this, not unless we break them, all of us.”

“Break what?” I grimaced to keep her calm. It failed.

She took her hands to her face, her polished fingernails scratching the skin down her throat as if she wanted to escape her own body. “The confinements of our flesh . . .”

She’s mad . . . I jolted to her, pushing her hands down in panic. “Lindy, for Christ’s sake!”

Her grin stretched to her ears like the sneer of a skull. The blizzard now whistled beyond the walls as if aligning to Lindy’s growing intensity, making the window chatter from its hinges and a chill course down my spine.

Lindy’s voice caught guttural, low stress. “What miracle do you expect by invoking him, that usurper? This isn’t the work of god or devil, but the work of man alone.”

“What are you, a philosophy major?” I tried for a joke to ease the ill temper that seemed to build up in her. But before I could blink, her hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing so tightly that I panicked again, sure I’d swallow my throat bones.

“Draw it out of me, maggot, suck it out!” She bellowed.

My tongue pushed out of my mouth, I choked on every attempt to pull in air and this isn’t happening turned on fast forward.

“Suck it out!” She piped, her bloodshot eyes framed by those dark circles glowering into mine like a maniac’s.

I grabbed her wrists, but whatever was going on with this woman gave her the strength of wood, as if she’d merged with the walls. Even her skin seemed to turn brownish, but it could’ve been just the oxygen leaving my brain.

It wasn’t until my ears stopped buzzing, making way for the outraged voices around me, that I was again aware of where I was and what had just happened. After a severe fit of coughing that abused my still sensitive ribcage, anger slowly replaced shock. Still, I didn’t get up from the floor. An ugly truth hit me – I was so darn weak, Skeleton-J. Lo could’ve easily disposed of me. I raised my eyes to her.

Sidonia – probably my savior this time – restrained Lindy, whose sweat-damp hair flew in every direction around her head as she struggled.

“You’re guinea pigs for the strong!” She cried over and over again. Guinea pigs was especially frequent and accompanied by spittle as Sidonia and Gino tied her to the bed with wound sheets and some old rope Hector brought from the attic.

Two soft hands clasped my shoulders and led me away from the group that had gathered by the bed. I didn’t make it far down the corridor until my knees gave in and I dropped on a chest that creaked even under my insignificant weight.

“Are you all right?” I recognized Raluca’s calm voice.

I nodded.

“What happened here?”

I didn’t answer, but kept staring at the herd that pooled by the door, separating us from the muffled curses of my Nemesis and her restrainers.

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” I spat. “It’s Lindy you should worry about. She’s a danger to herself and talks gibberish.”

“Don’t be bitter, Aura, she’s ill.”

“My point exactly. She needs immediate help and none of us has the training to provide it.” I kept my tone free of inflections this time. It was always tricky with Raluca, she was only sweet to both her sister and me when we were in trouble – when we needed it most. But her usual, very serious self frowned at us every chance she got and I’d grown cautious with my words around her. She always kept out of the childish plots Sidonia and I wasted our time with. Which is why her words caught me by surprise now.

“She needs to get back home as soon as possible. Her boyfriend will surely take it from there,” she whispered in my ear.

A stupefied glance at her was enough to catch the spark of mischief in her eyes. ‘Big Daddy would have their heads,’ Gino’s words from last night echoed in my head.

“B-boyfriend?” I babbled.

“Rumor has it she’s seeing a rich guy – bald and fat some people here speculate, though they’ve never seen him. New mafia, they said. What they know for sure is that Lindy dances for him in a private booth at the Marquette. He buys her Prada and whatever western designers, pays for college and gives her money for her kid, too.”

My ears buzzed again.

“Kid?”

“A three-year-old daughter. Lindy’s mamma raises her.”

“Lindy’s a mother?” I whispered, not sure how to take this or what to think of next. “Jeez. I mean, what is she, barely twenty-one?”

“Barely. But strongly into Novac. I heard gossip they’ve been seeing each other for a few weeks now. They must be still keeping it a secret because of the mobster, but the bubble will explode soon,” she whispered close to my ear, as if to get it inside my head and put me in my place.

I gave Raluca a twitchy smile, but that’s all I managed. I was afraid of what she’d say next – maybe that Lindy was a superwoman who’d achieved more in twenty-one years than I would in a century. I sprang up and stumbled to the main room, hopping over drunkard sleepers – few of them, people too wasted to realize anything of what happened around them. Raluca didn’t follow, letting me boil in my own juice over this.

Tripping over bottles lying on the floor, I fell by the terracotta stove, feeling miserable and breaking out in tears. Lindy was better than me in each and every way. She was beautiful and screwed up. All in all, she was interesting, definitely into Damian, and I was no match for her. I was just a maggot indeed, reaching out for much more than I deserved – the heart of a man out of my league – and for that I now paid a bitter price. I decided to look for someone bald and fat like Lindy’s sugar daddy, but broke.

A cluster of people soon walked in, led by Hector, the bearded singer.

“I’ve seen this before,” one of them said, his voice too loud. “A cousin of mine, last year. They took her to a hospice, labeled her nuts.”

“Did your cousin mention guinea pigs?” Gino laughed and slapped his back.

“I wonder if you’d still talk shit, if it were your mamma in her place,” Hector croaked.

“My mamma doesn’t strip for mobsters who beat her into madness,” Gino reacted with a scowl.

“Hey, I hear neither did Lindy,” another one chimed in, although he also sounded amused, “She used to go to the club as a client, and her dances were meant for the delivery boy, namely Novac.”

“I guess it caught the wrong guy’s attention.” That was Gino again. “By the way, Hector, is it true that temptress and muscle tank are having an affair behind the mobster’s back?”

Now that’s direct. I perked up my ears.

“You ask dangerous questions, Gino,” Hector said.

Great. Just what I needed to glaze over my failure – Damian and Lindy as protagonists in a forbidden love story. My heart ached, but I used the moment to strengthen the decision of letting go. Trying to apply the optimist’s creed, I focused on the good part in all this – going unnoticed makes it easy to gather information, no matter how poisonous it proves for one’s heart.

Hector’s thick fingers slid over the cords in a lilt melody, as if to block further inquiries. But his tactics had its downside. The group changed the subject but kept on chattering and opening one too many bottles – impressive how much they’d saved from the train and carried through the snowstorm like veritable addicts.

Soon the talking turned loud and chaotic. I could only make out isolated words but no sentences, while the sharp smell of alcohol gave me a headache again. Luckily, just as the party went wild again, Sidonia dropped by my side with an exhausted groan, resting her arms on her knees. Judging by her tucked up sleeves she must’ve had some work to do.

“Lindy got tired of struggling and fell asleep. No amount of calcium and magnesium could’ve stilled her, so I put a bag over her head, let her inhale her own CO2 until her pulse slowed. I know, it sounds horrible, but it was for a noble cause. How’re you feeling?”

“Fine,” I lied. “Thanks for getting her off me.”

“Oh, Gino helped.” She waved a hand, being modest again.

“Listen . . .” I paused, unsure how to put my thoughts into words. “Did you know that . . . Well, that Lindy and Damian have something going?”

“Now hold on.” She put up her palm and knitted her sandy eyebrows in a serious expression. “We don’t know that they have anything going. We just know that she’s been chasing him around, popping up wherever he happened to be – just like you. Later on, her chase became aggressive. She used pretexts to get him to meet her.”

“Allow me to correct you, Sid. You knew all this. I didn’t.”

“Had I told you, you would’ve backed off. And I honestly thought you had a chance there.”

“Just look at me, Sidonia! I’m a bad a joke! Do you think me so dumb as to really compare myself to Lindy or others in her league? Are you dumb enough to do that?”

Sidonia pulled me to my feet, keeping a tight grip on my shoulders – she was slim but a sports freak, with palms that could force me into obedience.

“It’s that bastard Alex you have to thank for this arsenal of complexes,” she spat through her teeth. “I can’t wait to get back home so I can seek him out and kick his ass.”

“I’m just looking truth in the face.”

“You’re not ugly, Aura! You’re a very pretty woman.”

“Complexes or not, Damian’s not interested in me. I tried to turn him on in the bedroom yesterday, and I failed.” Shame burned in my cheeks as I confessed.

“It might have been for the best,” Sidonia whispered.

“Wow. Why this change at heart? I thought you wanted us to come together?”

She shuffled from one leg to the other, nervous. “Yeah, well . . . I still think it would repair your self-esteem.”

“Just drop it, Sid,” I blocked with a headshake. “I might as well strive to plant a flag on the moon. He just doesn’t want me, why seek more proof?”

A huge frame passing the threshold drew my attention and my resolve to quit the chase for the unattainable barbarian threatened to tumble. Damian stopped in place, his tresses, eyebrows and stubble adorned with snow, a heavy sheepskin cladding his shoulders. I recognized Marius limping and hanging on him like a cloth on a tree, ravaged by the blizzard, but the acknowledgement was marginal. Sidonia ran to him.

The others raised their bottles and plastic cups as if toasting for the return of their brothers.

“Hey, look who’s back,” Gino stuttered.

Damian gave him a cold scowl. His voice was deep and controlled, but I could instantly tell something was wrong. “Gather all bottles in a pile.”

Gino took a shot at poetry. “Has the road battered you so, or has your thirst been spurred by snow, Novac?”

He hardly finished his sentence when an ugly growl drew all eyes to Marius. He crouched from his waist in spasms, throwing up as if all his organs constricted. Hector dropped the guitar and jumped to his feet, hollow wood and cords resounding against the floor.

“What happened?”

“Dragged, man!” Marius rattled, “Slick with blood, his head cracked, they dragged and dragged him!” He convulsed again, the foul smell of his vomit reaching my nose. It didn’t seem to bother Hector though, who grabbed his shoulders, straightening him up.

“Speak!”

Damian intervened, his arm mowing Hector’s hands off Marius. “Just gather all sharp objects you can find in this place.”

“Don’t be scarce of words now!” Hector urged.

“There’s no time for this,” Damian said with a serious frown, fixing his bearded friend as if transmitting some coded message. He looked tense, terribly tense.

“They dragged him into the shadows, man!” Marius squeaked. “His clothes and flesh ripped off in bundles!” Another spasm and another violent throw-up – the only sound in the room. I forgot to breathe.

For quite a few moments I was convinced this was some sick joke, not feeling anything, not reacting, not moving, but seeing every line on Marius’ bent profile, every fold on his leather-patched coat, as if my senses had sharpened in a split second.

Marius didn’t reply to the low, puzzled “Who?” coming from a few guys with some presence of spirit, and it wasn’t until Hector asked Damian a direct, “What the hell is he talking about?” that a direct, however reluctant answer came.

“We went looking for supplies.” He threw me a green glance here, his jaw rippling. He looked angry now. Maybe anger was his mechanism to keep fear at bay, or at least that’s the first thing that crossed my mind. He continued slowly, while settling Marius on a rickety chair in the corner, assisted by Sidonia.

“The snow was high and the wind strong, it was hard to move forward. The blizzard had started again by the time we reached the village in the valley. The streets were blocked with snow and the police station was deserted. Our knocks on doors were left unanswered, but then we saw a big snowplow slowly making its way toward us. It had Brasov plates. One of the guys said he’d inform the authorities back in the city. The other one . . . he started back with us. He didn’t make it.”

“Eyes watched us from behind ragged curtains, man! They didn’t even look like people, but fuckin’ hungry animals stalking a prey. I told Novac, but he wouldn’t listen!” Marius cut him off, trying to get on his feet again, but Damian’s hand kept firm on his shoulder.

“Calm down. There’s a fair number of us, we’ll be fine,” Damian said close to Marius’ ear. I shouldn’t have been able to catch it since I was too far from them, but shock had turned my hearing so sharp, that every breath and every rumbling stomach echoed deep in my head, each sound distinct and yet all simultaneous. It felt as if my ears had been trenched.

After Marius rested his head back against the carpeted wall, Damian crouched down. I couldn’t see him anymore among the people, but by the slivering sound I could tell he gathered scattered bottles. Gino and some others hurried to help him, while Hector kept on his feet by the door.

“Talking makes little sense now,” Damian said, “Fact is, we’re not alone in this white hell. Marius is right, someone’s stalking us. Don’t just stand there, Hector, gather all sharp objects you can find. Those from the kitchen too.”

“We’re fuckin’ dead.” Marius breathed slower now, his lids falling heavy. Warmth made exhaustion show in his square face, his whole body mellow in the chair, his chest stained with greenish vomit. I couldn’t keep this isn’t happening from starting another solo in my head as the meaning of all this slowly dawned on me – they’d witnessed someone dying. Violently.

It took a while until everybody processed the two men’s words and reality kicked in – some came to their senses with headshakes, some with rapid blinking and a few with hysteria. As for me – I felt rooted in the ground.

The place crowded as the others joined from the bedroom where they’d left Lindy, and an avalanche of questions started, ranging from, “What’s this all about?” to painfully insesitive, “What’s that got to do with the booze?”

“Broken bottles can be used as weapons,” I heard Damian’s bass voice reply to the last one. His forehead was now higher above all heads that separated me from him. “Like screwdrivers, cutlery and pens.”

“Why this mobilization?” Gino said.

“They followed us back here, man,” Marius said, his voice low and void of hope. “They wheezed and growled in the dark, always hidden but always close.”

“Maybe they were wolves!” Gino returned, his pitch high with panic.

Damian cut in with a grave certainty that made my skin crease, “Those were no wolves.”

CHAPTER 2

Everybody went crazy. Voices and people whirled around, while Damian and Hector struggled to restore order.

I didn’t realize I slowly walked backwards, out of everybody’s way, until something bumped in my lower back. By the wide, hard edge I knew it was the windowsill, which is why I didn’t turn. I kept pressing against it, keeping my arms across my chest and my fingers hooked in the slicker sleeves. Damian’s explanations to panicked questions flew by me – my nerves were close to snapping, which made it impossible for me to grasp them.

For a moment there I had no doubt this was all his fault. It was his affair with a mobster’s woman that had surely brought this upon us. Defending his honor or whatever, the cheated man must’ve sent his thugs to settle accounts with Damian, while the rest of us were just collateral damage.

But then again, would even a mobster go to such lengths for an unfaithful lover? Would even a mobster go as far as to derail a train full of neutral people in snowy mountains, forcing them to take refuge in a remote cottage, only to get back at a rival? Why, when he could’ve staged anything in Constanta?

My eyes rested on Marius, who still sat in the corner chair and in my field of vision. Sidonia was bent over his chest and rubbed it with a cloth, but he didn’t seem aware of her. He had the sickening pallor and lost stare of a dead man.

I hoped he would react somehow and come out of his shell at least a little bit, but not a muscle moved on his face. He stared as if through me. Maybe he didn’t even acknowledge my presence there and I misinterpreted the direction of his gaze. I followed it and turned to look behind me, expecting four small windowpanes separated by wooden lines in the shape of a cross.

Suddenly, two glowing circles like eyes in a black picture flashed into mine and made me give out a sharp scream. I rushed backward again, waving my hands in a desperate attempt to cling to something, anything, and soon a wall of bodies replaced the gleam that had sent me frantic.

My brain banged against my skull for moments until I realized someone was shaking me, their bony fingers pushing into my arms through the slicker and wool. The physical sensation brought me back to awareness.

Gino’s long, thin face was an intermittent vision as I blinked fast, trying to gather myself. His words were muffled and the first thing I clearly heard was, “Are you going mad, too, Aura?”

“The window! I saw someone!” I squealed.

Marius moaned in his corner. My head snapped to him. His eyes were wide with fear, fixed on the pane, while his body struggled with invisible enemies, the chair screaming under him.

A commotion started and before long people claimed, “There’s nothing here.” I pushed Gino aside but still hung on him for support as I craned my neck to see the panes. My legs were soft like jelly and barely kept me standing.

Indeed, darkness spread over the window, only the snow in its corners glistening like the veil of a ghost.

“I saw someone,” I whispered. Someone, I was sure of it. And that someone was indeed no wolf. The eyes had been at the level of mine, which meant whoever was out there was a tall person. Outside the ground was much lower than inside the lodge, I’d realized that when I’d been out on the porch. No animal standing on its back legs could have as much as reached the sill.

“Are you sure?” Gino asked.

I already had second thoughts – not as to the glowing eyes, but to whether or not I should insist on it. Bottom line was: we were all in deep shit, but panic was a bad advisor.

“No. I started when I bumped against the window, the rest could’ve been just in my head.”

“For fuck’s sake, Aura, you almost gave me a heart attack.” Gino scorned.

“We have enough pressure already,” another one called, his face hidden in the group.

I shut out all reproaches and welcomed Sidonia’s arms taking me away. It was a mystery where she got all that energy to be a tireless Mother Theresa, jumping between those of us who needed help one after the other – Lindy, Marius, even Biker, and now I leaned on her again. I didn’t deserve her.

“This whole thing is getting to us all,” she said in a sweet voice, stroking my hair.

Her warmth tempted me to spill the entire sack of anxiety that weighed on my chest, but people surrounded us and I didn’t want to risk being overheard. Besides, talking would’ve decompressed me and burdened her even more, which would’ve been unfair and selfish.

“I’m okay,” I lied again, the sight of the silver eyes flashing in my memory.  Maybe that shocking pair of eyes was just very bright of color. Like crystals. Maybe some anomaly. Maybe special glasses or lenses.

“Shock is a natural protection against pain,” were Sidonia’s words as I returned to reality, leaving the realm of my own mind.

“What did Novac say?” I cut her off.

She blinked, taken by surprise. “About what?”

“The things that followed him and Marius. He said they weren’t wolves and he sounded sure of it. Did he say what they were?”

Sidonia raised her eyebrows. “You weren’t hanging on his every word?”

“Marius’ despair knocked me off my feet. I wasn’t myself for a few minutes.” For the first time since I’d laid eyes on him, Damian Novac didn’t come first on my list of priorities.

“For an hour or so is more like it. That’s when he told us we have criminals on our trail, probably friends of Raul’s. That man might be in throat-deep with crooks, he said.”

“So is Novac, whether directly or indirectly.” I stood up, whisking my jacket and looking around for him. “Where is he now?”

Sidonia came to her feet too, placing herself before me with hands on her hips. She looked straight into my eyes. “I might just agree with you. But let’s make this concrete. What do you mean, so is Novac?”

“I need to talk to him, Sid. What did you get out of Raul?”

“An ugly truth or some bed-time story. I haven’t made up my mind yet. If this is another strategy, Aura, let us talk about it first.”

The idea alone made me puff with anger. “Do you honestly think I’d concern myself with strategies now? I’ve just put two and two together, Sid. This is a vendetta against Damian Novac, who’s drawing us all in with him.”

“Tell me your thoughts before you tell anyone else.”

I drew her by the stove. Leaning so close that our heads joined together like gossiping sparrows’, the story shot out of my mouth in whispers. I started with the moment I’d been left alone with Lindy and took her through all the connections I made in my head about the mobster and his rage at Damian, mentioning the one thing that made me doubt my theory – Why harm a whole group, when he could’ve staged Damian anything back home? I didn’t mention the apparition in the window.

Sidonia scratched the back of her head while she listened, and by the time I was done her eyes were deep blue with concentration and alarm. She took a few moments before she spoke, as if making connections of her own in her head.

“So an ugly truth. Come with me.”

Before I could blink, Sidonia started toward the door, snaking her way to the kitchen. I hurried to catch up with her down the narrow hallway, the floor crackling under my feet as I bumped into people who talked feverishly about what was to be done and how we could escape this frozen prison – at least those were the bits I caught.

We found Damian and Hector forging the same kind of plans with a few others – including Gino, to my surprise, who listened with a serious look on his face, nodding. He seemed proud to be a part of their closest gang, regardless of the extreme occasion.

As soon as my eyes fell on Damian, my heart skipped a beat. He stood with his back at the counter, knives and other metallic, rusty objects lined on it. The sheepskin coat was folded on a chair by his side.

“ . . . not before Hector and I have scouted the area,” he concluded as we came in.

I wanted to punch myself for how I allowed a handsome stud to play with me. I’d already waved a finger at my inner self and decided that Damian Novac was a no-no. I reminded myself that, if we survived this mess he’d put us in, he would only have me toss and turn at night, obsessing about the smallest gestures he made and the most meaningless of glances – like I had until now. The man was big trouble, no matter from what angle I’d look at him.

Sick of myself, I kept a low profile by the door, but Sidonia went straight to the men, stopping in their midst.

“You’ve seen this before,” she interrupted Damian, dropping the accusation on him. He looked at her from under his eyebrows, but didn’t react.

“Shouldn’t you be attending to your boyfriend?” Hector grumbled.

Sidonia turned to him. “Marius doesn’t appear to see or hear me. I washed the vomit off his coat and made sure he’s warm, but that’s pretty much all I can do for the moment.”

“Feel the need to justify yourself?” Hector’s teeth showed like a splash of white on his beard. It was a bullying grin.

“You asked, smartass,” Sidonia bit back.

“Just go back to him, woman.”

I should step in for her. Yet I didn’t, too much of a coward to draw attention to myself, even in order to save this heroine who’d done more in two nights than was humanly reasonable.

“Cut it out,” Damian said, “Now’s not the time for this.”

Sidonia pirouetted again to look him in the face. “Damn right – not for this. Now’s the perfect time for you to spit it all out.”

“Excuse me?” Damian’s deep, forbidding tone shattered Sidonia’s determination, but she picked herself up soon enough.

“Damian, you’re keeping things from us and– ”

“I thought you wanted to ask, not impute something,” he interrupted.

Sidonia brought a fist to her mouth and cleared her voice, probably buying time to rephrase once more. As she spoke, she sounded defiant. “I see, this is a game. Okay. Let’s play. Why did you have us gather all objects that can be used as weapons?”

“So we know exactly where to reach if we need to protect ourselves, and not grope around,” he replied as if he were prepared for the question and all others that followed.

“Why not simply arm everybody?”

“Because I don’t want you panicking at the slightest sound and hurting each other before somebody actually bursts in.”

“You expect people to barge in on us?”

Damian’s eyes flashed angrily as he spoke the next words.

People,” he stressed, as if saying a name, “kept their distance, but they followed us here. They killed a man – possibly a father and a husband – without even showing a face. A metal chain whipped out from the darkness and wound around his ankles. They dragged him, his body hit against trees and rocks until he disappeared into a dark precipice. We ran after him, but all we could do was watch, never reach. Yes, I think People will eventually barge in on us, and they’ll have some hellish killing techniques ready.” His voice was steady, but frustration and anger lurked deep in it.

“So, you see, Sidonia, this isn’t about me and my secrets. This is about all of us, staying alive.”

“You make it sound like People are pretty good at what they do. And yet here you are, Damian, without a scratch. Why do you think you and Marius made it back?”

“We were fast.” He leaned against the counter and folded his long, muscled arms across his chest. His eyes gleamed angry emerald.

“Faster than their chains?”

“Lighter than their chains.”

“But you ran after their victim, you tried to help him. How come People didn’t seize the moment and end you, too?”

“What are you implying, Sidonia?”

“I’m implying People need us all in one place,” she said, raising her chin and taking a step closer to him. “I’m implying they were after us from the beginning. They were after a large, young group, whom they want to take down in one blow. I’m implying they can take us down in one blow. I don’t think they need guerilla tactics, but just got rid of an unwanted outsider. As I think you made it back because People let you. They chased you back to your cage.” Sidonia’s voice pinched here, as if she’d caught him with something.

Damian’s face was expressionless. “And your question for me is?”

“Am I right?”

“You might be.”

“Have you met People before, Damian?”

His face hardened as if he were made of stone. “I have.”

I stiffened.

Sidonia raised her eyebrows as if a fairy tale just came true. “Why didn’t you say so from the start?”

“You didn’t ask,” Damian said just as evenly, but didn’t give her the chance to continue the interrogation. While she stared at him with an open mouth, he grabbed the sheepskin and dashed to the door. Toward me. I melted on my feet.

He motioned with his chin for Hector to follow him and Gino scurried after them like a pet. Those of us who clustered in their way drew aside. My heart smote me as he passed by, leaving a trail of cool air and fir scent behind. He granted me a glance that I would’ve missed if my eyes weren’t stuck to him, but I refused to go into the frenzy of interpreting and re-interpreting it.

The others soon cleared off too, leaving Sidonia and me gawking at each other.

“What was that?” I mumbled, walking slowly to her.

She shook her head and dropped on her buttocks by the fridge.

“I hoped it were a loser’s fairy tale. Turns out it’s a fucking nightmare.”

I sat by her side, my brain buzzing with curiosity. I needed to know what she knew, and I needed it now. Still, I refrained from pressuring her and resorted to watching her intently. She looked stricken and took a while of eye darting and head scratching before she spoke, measuring her words.

“Getting Raul Iordache talking wasn’t easy, you know? He looked at me like a beaten prisoner at a rough guard, he was suspicious even about the food. I had to resort to flirting, persuade him it wasn’t poisoned, and asked him about his interest in Lindy. That’s how I baited him to confirm that he did, indeed, know her. But the rest of the story . . . I didn’t know what to make of it until now. I thought – or hoped – it was bullshit.”

“His presence here isn’t coincidence, is it?”

“Not at all.”

I drew a deep breath, reaching my own conclusion. “He is one of the mobster’s thugs.”

“No, not so fast, Aura. Things go deeper than that.”

“In what way?”

“You know . . .” she scratched her cheek, looking for the way to put it. This was – again – something she hadn’t told me. “A few weeks ago, I saw Damian and Lindy at the Portofino, talking closely over coffee. I was staggered by her sudden success in getting time alone with him, she was pretty much the only girl I ever saw him with. I was soon sure there was nothing intimate going on, he seemed focused but distant, they never touched each other.

“After I saw them together again on the train, I asked Marius about them. He laughed and said the woman was obsessed with Damian and used some article she supposedly discovered about him to force closer communication. The article was six years old, but she went as far as digging out the reporter’s real name: Raul Iordache, with Adevarul. She’d been fluttering the subject around so often and so aggressively to get Damian’s attention, that it had reached his friends’ ears too. When Marius asked Damian what the article was about, he dismissed the whole thing and said Lindy mistook him for someone else.” She stopped, lost in thought.

“Go on,” I whispered.

She wiped her forehead with her palm, refocusing.

“It’s pretty nasty, Aura. And I’m sure there’s much more to it that Raul didn’t touch on. It’s difficult to let words fly.”

“There’s much you’ve kept from me so far, you control freak. But that’s okay, as long as you tell me now.” Expectation made me fidget already. My stomach gave a long, loud rumble and the sheepish look of guilt on Sidonia’s face was replaced by worry.

“You should eat something. It’s been what? Ten hours since your last meal?”

Now that she mentioned it my belly began to hurt, too. Still, I ignored it.

“This isn’t a freakin’ tell tale evening, Sid, don’t keep me on needles here.”

My words hit deaf years. She jumped up and pulled me to my feet, moving me out of the way to open the fridge.

“Here’s what we’ll do – I tell you while we eat.”

“Too bad there’s no popcorn.” I rolled my eyes and snatched one of the last three bags of chips – amazing, these new things from the Western World. I opened it and began nibbling like a rodent, more to get Sidonia talking than to calm my hunger, which I didn’t actually feel.

“Raul swears he identified Damian correctly. He’d taken the picture for the article himself six years ago, even though he and Damian never met personally. He got all his information for the story from cops and investigators,” Sidonia continued. “He doesn’t know how Lindy got to the article, but it must’ve been pretty tedious research work in itself, or someone gave it to her. She recognized a sixteen-year-old Damian in the photograph, although the article referred to him as Cezare. Cheh-zuh-reh Sto-yan,” she stressed the pronunciation, as if to make a point.

Stoian . . . My brain buzzed as if invaded by bees. “Go on.”

“One year after the Revolution, in 1990, sixteen-year-old Cezare Stoian got on a train. His purpose: seasonal work abroad, although there were legal issues. He was too young. But a shipping manager he’d illegally worked for as a loader had mediated a summer job.

“The train broke down in a village close to the border – somewhere around Oradea, but still the middle of nowhere – and he checked in at an old inn, which strangely offered free lodging for him and eleven other youths who travelled from different places and for various reasons. What they had in common? – They’d all transferred to that train in Bucharest, left home at a young age and had almost no contact to their families.

“A few days later, a farmer found the place empty and messed up, there were stains of blood on the floor and on pieces of torn fabric, and the windows were broken. It looked as if a massacre had taken place there, save for bodies.

“Two weeks from that, Cezare and one other boy burst into a hunting lodge in the Apuseni Mountains, surprising a ranger, who luckily stopped to think before he reached for his rifle. Their clothes were torn, smeared with mud and blood. They’d eaten only roots and kill for days and their hands were callous from scrambling through dirt and stone. The ranger contacted the authorities in Constanta and gave them both in, since Cezare’s companion was unable to speak from shock, so his hometown or village remained mysterious.”

“The article says all this?” I asked, my voice crisper than intended.

Sidonia shrugged, giving me some time to chew this. “It’s what Raul says. And he wrote it.”

“And what else? What had happened at the inn?”

“Apparently there was an ambush on the inn the night Damian – or Cezare – spent there. None of the other youths besides him and his mute companion were ever found, dead or alive. The most important part was actually in the headline, which I saved until now, because it only makes sense in the context: Two boys escape the hands of organ dealers.”

I froze. “What?”

“Yes. The article concludes the operation had been orchestrated by a criminal organisation and the police investigation led to the BioDhrome, a medical research group. They allegedly dissolved soon after the article came out, but Raul thinks that’s bullshit.”

En electric wire seemed to shoot through my heart, briefly but sharply, leaving me now just baffled.

“And . . . What the hell is Raul doing here? It can’t be mere coincidence, someone put him among us, Sid.”

“He says Lindy contacted him weeks ago but then went suddenly cold. I guess he started an investigation of his own.

“And you believe that brute, a potential rapist?” 

“And why not, Aura? His account is the only thing that makes sense since we got off that train! Lindy’s acting all crazy, Marius almost loses his mind, a man is dead and Damian’s acting all mysterious. I feel like I’ve died and woke up in hell!”

I stared blankly at her, flipping the story on all sides in my head, while she went for a bag of snacks. Her nibbling was loud and she looked as if she chewed on her own nerves.

“History is repeating itself now, with us,” she said among furious bites, her eyes focused on one point in front of her.

“It can’t be, Sid.” I shook my head. “It can’t be happening.”

“You’re in denial, Aura,” she sneered through her teeth, “You’ve had your share of harsh events since we left Constanta, and theories of organ dealers having them meticulously planned might be too much for you.”

I took another long pause, facts that still didn’t fit in this puzzle popping in my mind.

“Cezare . . . Is that his real name?” It sounded so out-of-this world, even coming from my own mouth.

Sidonia shrugged and waved a hand. “Could be. The police might’ve put him in a witness protection program and changed it.”

I couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Witness protection program? You’ve seen too many American movies. Plus, publishing his photo in the paper along with a name doesn’t seem a very good protection strategy. It sounds more like they put him on display.” My intuition pointed a finger at that last thought, but didn’t take it beyond that. I squinted as if to peer deeper into it, but Sidonia’s annoyed reaction pulled me out.

“Listen, Aura, we have a serious problem here and I don’t think Damian Novac’s hurts or names are of any importance. Only his experience is. If he managed to escape BioDhrome at sixteen, he’ll sure be able to help us now.”

“We still don’t know for a fact Raul’s story is real. He might’ve twisted everything. It’s winter, the train simply went off track–”

“The train got hit!” Sidonia broke me off. “That’s what really happened, I’m sure! Think about it, Aura. It first got stuck in snow and then, suddenly, it went off track – that’s weird. You’d blacked out and the rest of us didn’t linger for explanations in the middle of the night. We relied on what that fat, pumpkin-cheeked train driver told us, and maybe that’s why nobody gave it a second thought until now. But now a man is dead, Aura! Somebody followed Marius and Damian from the darkness of the woods. You must realize how fucked up this situation is.”

Her words came like a cracking blow and the sight of those silver eyes flashed in my head again. I tried to blink the memory away, and focused on the train.

“Did you see folds in the metal?” I mumbled.

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Your crash theory. It would’ve left marks.”

“It was dark, but as far as I could tell, our car and all those up to the locomotive were okay. The hit might’ve been farther down along the train. What’s your point?”

Our car began to wobble, Sid, I remember that quite sharply. It did for a while. A hit farther down would only have caused a jerk, no more.”

“What are you saying, that Zeus descended and shook it?” she mocked, her face red with tension.

The grip of shock on my brain started to loosen – against my struggles to remain under its anesthetic effect – and my mind began to wrap around the hideous reality bit by bit. A paralyzing fear gripped me.

“This is some mind-blowing shit, Sid . . . Some serious shit.”

“You bet your ass.”

I was pretty hard to surprise when it came to crime, since burglars, armed gangsters, pimps and hookers were an issue in Constanta as they were in all large towns in Romania. I was used to walking among such people every day in the streets. I’d gone to school and played hopscotch with their kids until they’d gone rogue, like their parents.

Despite her fair skin and pale blue eyes, Sidonia herself was the daughter of a gypsy shylock with the stomach like a balloon and a threatening dark frown, who’d insisted that both she and Raluca remain illiterate and planned their marriage for the age of twelve. Luckily, their mom had run away with them and fought for their education. Whenever Sidonia disclosed her roots – which happened as often as a solar eclipse – jaws dropped and eyes popped. I guess we both strived to bury our origins and that had welded our bond.

But organ dealers were a completely different level. Derailing trains and making people disappear without a trace meant power – a whole lot of power. Something we couldn’t fight against. A huge organization, a hydra, its claws drilling deep in the Romanian underground.

To be continued

***

Copyright by Ana Calin, February 2014

***

Hope you enjoyed this! Stay tuned for the following chapters during the following months. Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts with me and other readers. We’re looking forward to them!

Love,

Ana

CHASING DAMIAN – Part Three

Mystery pic

Pic source.

Everybody went crazy. Voices and people whirled around, while Damian and Hector struggled to restore order.

I didn’t realize I slowly walked backwards, out of everybody’s way, until something bumped in my lower back. By the wide, hard edge I knew it was the windowsill, which is why I didn’t turn. I kept pressing against it, keeping my arms across my chest and my fingers hooked in the slicker sleeves. Damian’s explanations to panicked questions flew by me – my nerves were close to snapping, which made it impossible for me to grasp them.

For a moment there I had no doubt this was all his fault. It was his affair with a mobster’s woman that had surely brought this upon us. Defending his honor or whatever, the cheated man must’ve sent his thugs to settle accounts with Damian, while the landlord and the woman, Sidonia, Raluca, Gino, all of us, we were just collateral damage.

But then again, would even a mobster go to such lengths for an unfaithful lover? Would even a mobster go as far as to derail a train full of neutral people in snowy mountains, forcing them to take refuge in a remote cottage, only to get back at a rival? Why, when he could’ve staged anything in Constanta?

That someone might’ve set up the episode with the train was already a hypothesis that wandered from mouth to mouth in the lodge. Everyone who mentioned it claimed it had originated from Damian or Hector, but it might as well have been a simple rumor – impressive how fast these things work.

Lindy was the missing link that no one took into account here, since no one knew what she’d said to me while we were alone. She’d known this would happen, she’d told me none of us would survive this, but I’d taken her for a paranoid brat.

And still, she’d also said things that made as good as no sense. My intuition kept poking at me for some reason, telling me there was yet another missing link, just one more. But no matter how hard I tried and searched my memories of all that had happened, I couldn’t put my finger on it.

My eyes rested on Marius, who still sat in the corner chair and in my field of vision. Sidonia was bent over his chest and rubbed it with a cloth, but he didn’t seem aware of her. He had the sickening pallor and lost stare of a dead man.

A shiver went down my spine as I looked at him, trying to picture what he’d seen, as if it could all mirror in his eyes like in lenses – the bloody woman with a cracked head, the man whose flesh had been ripped off his bones, the animals or people that had followed him and Damian, their shapes and identity confined by the woods.

But Marius’ eyes stayed blank and his body inert, as if shock or terror had put him out of service. I felt guilty for this fleeting thought, but the sight was as tragic as it was ridiculous – a man with features roughened by testosterone and iron pumping, scared stiff. I couldn’t hold back a smile as my mind found the jest in tragedy, probably to let out some of the tension.

I hoped Marius would react somehow and come out of his shell at least a little bit, but not a muscle moved on his face. He stared as if through me. Maybe he didn’t even acknowledge my presence there and I misinterpreted the direction of his gaze. I followed it and turned to look behind me, expecting four small windowpanes separated by wooden lines in the shape of a cross.

Suddenly, two glowing circles like eyes in a black picture flashed into mine and made me give out a sharp scream. I rushed backwards again, waving my hands in a desperate attempt to cling to something, anything, and soon a wall of bodies replaced the gleam that had sent me frantic.

My brain banged against my skull for moments until I realized someone was shaking me, their bony fingers pushing into my arms through the slicker and wool. The physical sensation brought me back to awareness.

Gino’s long, thin face was an intermittent vision as I blinked fast, trying to gather myself. His words were muffled and the first thing I clearly heard was, “Are you going mad, too, Aura?”

“The window! I saw someone!” I squealed.

Marius moaned in his corner. My head snapped to him. His eyes were wide with fear, fixed on the pane, while his body struggled with invisible enemies, the chair screaming under him.

A commotion started and before long people claimed, “There’s nothing here.” I pushed Gino aside but still hung on him for support as I craned my neck to see the panes. My legs were soft like jelly and barely kept me standing.

Indeed, darkness spread over the window, only the snow in its corners glistening like the veil of a ghost.

“I saw someone,” I whispered. Someone, I was sure of it. And that someone was indeed no wolf. The eyes had been at the level of mine, which meant whoever was out there was a tall person. Outside the ground was much lower than inside the lodge, I’d realized that when I’d been out on the porch. No animal standing on its back legs could have as much as reached the sill.

“Are you sure?” Gino asked.

I already had second thoughts – not as to the glowing eyes, but to whether or not I should insist on it. Bottom line was: we were all in deep shit, but panic was a bad advisor.

“No. I started when I bumped against the window, the rest could’ve been just in my head.”

“For fuck’s sake, Aura, you almost gave me a heart attack.” Gino scorned.

“We have enough pressure already,” another one called, his face hidden in the group.

I shut out all reproaches and welcomed Sidonia’s arms taking me away. It was a mystery where she got all that energy to be a tireless Mother Theresa, jumping between those of us who needed help one after the other –Lindy, Marius, and now I leaned on her again. I didn’t deserve her.

“This whole thing is getting to us all,” she said in a sweet voice, stroking my hair.

Her warmth tempted me to spill the entire sack of anxiety that weighed on my chest, but people surrounded us and I didn’t want to risk being overheard. Besides, talking would’ve decompressed me and burdened her, which would’ve been unfair and selfish.

“I’m okay,” I lied again, the sight of the silver eyes flashing in my memory.

They were unnatural for a person, I knew that, and yet I had no doubt they belonged to a man or a woman. To someone made of flesh and blood. The scene had been too short for my mind to understand on the spot, but memory luckily retained it.

I didn’t focus on remembering but rather let the scene replay itself in my head over and over again, while relishing in the comforting sound of Sidonia’s voice, though I didn’t listen to what she said.

The glowing circles took shape before me again, their edges sending rays to their center as well as to their outer layers. Maybe that shocking pair of eyes was just very bright of color. Like crystals. Maybe some anomaly. A person with the eyes of a wild animal, watching us. Spying on us. Intending to split our flesh as if we were just hunks of meat. I shuddered, revolted.

“Shock is a natural protection against pain,” were Sidonia’s words as I returned to reality, leaving the realm of my own mind.

“What did Novac say?” I cut her off.

She blinked, taken by surprise. “About what?”

“The things that followed him and Marius. He said they weren’t wolves and he sounded sure of it. Did he say what they were?”

Sidonia chuckled, raising her eyebrows. “You weren’t hanging on his every word?”

“The news of blood and lacerated people knocked me off my feet. I wasn’t myself for a few minutes.” For the first time since I’d laid eyes on him, Damian Novac didn’t come first on my list of priorities.

“For an hour or so is more like it. That’s when he told us we might’ve landed in the middle of a vendetta against the landlord and his wife or . . . simply have nutcases on our trail.”

“He lied.” I stood up, whisking my jacket and looking around for him. “Where is he now?”

Sidonia came to her feet too, placing herself before me with hands on her hips. She looked straight into my eyes. “What do you mean, he lied?”

“I need to talk to him, Sid.”

“If this is another strategy, let us talk about it first.”

The idea alone made me puff with anger. “Do you honestly think I’d concern myself with strategies now? I’ve just put two and two together, Sid. This is indeed a vendetta, but one against Damian Novac, who’s drawing us all in with him.”

“Tell me your thoughts before you tell anyone else. You might be wrong.”

“I seriously doubt that.” I puffed again and drew her by the stove. Leaning so close that our heads joined together like gossiping sparrows’, the story shot out of my mouth in whispers. I started with the moment I’d been left alone with Lindy and took her through all the connections I made in my head. I didn’t mention the apparition in the window.

Sidonia scratched the back of her head while she listened and by the time I was done her eyes were deep blue with concentration. She took a few moments before she spoke and I could already tell she’d contradict me.

“This still doesn’t add up, Aura,” she said. “First of all, I’m still sure there’s nothing between Lindy and Damian. But even if they had something, look at it this way. Lindy saw this coming, yes, but why would she go on and on about guinea pigs? That can’t be related to the cheated mobster. The attackers went against the landlord and his wife, not us – that can’t be related to the cheated mobster. Messing with a large group like ours is risky, unless you have everything planned, because you intended it from the very beginning – that can’t be related to the cheated mobster. As to derailing trains, you’d only do it if you needed to trap a considerable number of people . . .” Her final words trailed off, her eyebrows scrunched as she chewed her own idea. “It can’t be . . .”

“What?”

“You gotta be shittin’ me . . .” Her eyes darted around. I instantly knew she scanned the info in her ruffled blond head, stricken by what she found. Curiosity fired up my neurons.

“What are you talking about, Sidonia?”

She looked me straight in the face again. She spoke fast, like every time something dawned on her. “Come with me.”

Before I could blink, Sidonia started toward the door, snaking her way to the kitchen. I hurried to catch up with her down the narrow hallway, the floor crackling under my feet as I bumped into people who talked feverishly about what was to be done and how we could escape this frozen prison – at least those were the bits I caught.

We found Damian and Hector forging the same kind of plans with a few others – including Gino, to my surprise, who listened with a serious look on his face, nodding. He seemed proud to be a part of their closest gang, regardless of the extreme occasion.

A candle still burned on a short, exfoliated fridge, though it was no longer needed. The room bathed in the natural light of a pale sunrise, the window steamed from warm breath that blurred the wavy snow and trees outside.

As soon as my eyes fell on Damian, my heart skipped a beat. He stood with his back at the counter, knives and other metallic, rusty objects lined on it. The sheepskin coat was folded on a chair by his side.

“ . . . not before Hector and I have scouted the area,” he concluded as we came in.

I wanted to punch myself for how I allowed a handsome stud to play with me. I’d already waved a finger at my inner self and decided that Damian Novac was a no-no. I reminded myself that, if we survived being trapped in the mountains with a handful of psychopaths on our tracks, he would only have me toss and turn at night, obsessing about the smallest gestures he made and the most meaningless of glances – like I had until now.

Sick of myself, I kept a low profile by the door, but Sidonia went straight to the men, stopping in their midst.

“You’ve seen this before,” she interrupted Damian, dropping the accusation on him. He looked at her from under his eyebrows, but didn’t react.

“Shouldn’t you be attending to your boyfriend?” Hector grumbled.

Sidonia turned to him. “Marius doesn’t appear to see or hear me. I washed the vomit off his coat and made sure he’s warm, but that’s pretty much all I can do for the moment.”

“Feel the need to justify yourself?” Hector’s teeth showed like a splash of gray on his beard. It was a mischievous, if not even bullying grin.

“You asked, smartass,” Sidonia bit back.

“Just go back to him, woman.”

I should step in for her. Yet I didn’t, too much of a coward to draw attention to myself, even in order to save this heroine who’d done more tonight than was humanly reasonable.

“Cut it out, you two,” Damian said, “Now’s not the time for this.”

Sidonia pirouetted again to look him in the face. “Damn right – not for this. Now’s the perfect time for you to spit it all out.”

“Excuse me?” Damian’s deep, forbidding tone shattered Sidonia’s determination, but she picked herself up soon enough.

“Damian, you’re keeping things from us and– ”

“I thought you wanted to ask and not impute something,” he interrupted.

Sidonia brought a fist to her mouth and cleared her voice, probably buying time to rephrase once more. As she spoke, she sounded defiant. “I see, this is a game. Okay. Let’s play. Why did you have us gather all objects that can be used as weapons?”

“So we know exactly where to reach if we need to protect ourselves, and not grope around,” he replied as if he were prepared for the question and all others that followed.

“Why not simply arm everybody?”

“Because I don’t want you panicking at the slightest sound and hurting each other before somebody actually bursts in.”

“You expect people to barge in on us?”

“They did on the landlord.”

“Who was home only with his wife. What makes you think their attackers would take a risk with a large group?”

“Probably to make sure we won’t report with the authorities before they clean up the scene,” he said, leaning against the counter and folding his long, muscled arms across his chest. His raven locks caressed his shoulders and his eyes gleamed emerald. He must’ve been angry again, but nothing else in his face showed it.

“I think it’s because they were after us from the beginning. They were after a large, young group.” Sidonia’s voice pinched here, as if she’d caught him with something.

Damian’s face was expressionless. “That’s not a question.”

“Am I right?”

“You might be.” I realized he had a talent for drawing anyone into sleek, straight-to-the-point conversations, not just me.

“Is this the Bathory’s signature?” she said after a short hesitation, that I was sure only I perceived.

Damian’s face hardened as if he were made of stone, pausing for moments. Bathory made me freeze, too.

“Anything’s possible.” His tone was cold and even, there wasn’t the faintest drop of emotion in it. He sounded so staggeringly calculating, like a freakin’ assassin.  Sidonia raised her eyebrows as if a fairy tale just came true.

“So you’ve seen this before?”

“I have.”

“Why didn’t you say so from the start?” She yelped, throwing her hands in the air.

“You didn’t ask,” Damian said just as evenly, but didn’t give her the chance to continue the interrogation. While she stared at him with an open mouth, he grabbed the sheepskin and started to the door. Toward me. I melted on my feet.

He motioned with his chin for Hector to follow him and Gino scurried after them like a pet. Those of us who clustered in their way drew aside. My heart smote me as he passed by, leaving a trail of cool air and fir scent behind. He granted me a glance that I would’ve missed if my eyes weren’t stuck to him, but I refused to go into the frenzy of interpreting and re-interpreting it.

The others soon cleared off too, leaving Sidonia and me gawking at each other.

“What was that?” I mumbled, walking slowly to her.

“I’m just relieved I didn’t look like a complete idiot,” she whispered, still bewildered. “I bluffed with a tale Lindy spread about him.”

“Involving the Countess of Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins?”

“Nothing as esoteric, I’m afraid. Rather one of those things you sometimes hear about on the news and brace yourself that they’re even possible. Lindy silenced the rumor when she and Damian, er, befriended each other. It all sounded like a freakin’ script back then, made up by a woman who hardly knew anything about him, but now . . . ” She shook her head and dropped on her buttocks by the fridge.

I sat by her side, my brain buzzing with curiosity. I needed to know what she knew, and I needed it now. Still, I refrained from pressuring her and resorted to watching her intently. She looked seriously stricken and took a while of eye darting and head scratching before she continued, measuring her words.

“There’s little real info on this man. The short story goes like this: his parents live in a village close to Constanta – nobody knows which one exactly. His dad’s a truck driver and his mom a housewife.”

“I know, he left home at fourteen, supported himself through high-school and now college. No siblings.” I rubbed my hands with impatience.

She nodded and smacked her lips. “And that’s pretty much it. But, in the absence of solid data, people tend to make up rumors. There is quite a number of them about Novac.”

“I heard some myself.” It wasn’t like I hadn’t done my homework. But I hadn’t been as penetrating as my friend, not close. She was the Sherlock no figure of interest on campus was safe from, especially not my crush. Again I felt I didn’t deserve her dedication.

“This one you haven’t. Few people took it seriously and, as I said, Lindy dropped it a while ago herself.”

“I see there’s much you’ve kept from me, you control freak. But that’s okay, as long as you tell me now.” Expectation made me fidget already. My stomach gave a long, loud rumble and the sheepish look of guilt on Sidonia’s face was replaced by worry.

“You should eat something. It’s been what? Over fifteen hours since your last meal?”

Now that she mentioned it, my belly began to hurt, too. Still, I ignored it.

“What are you doing, Sid, playing with my nerves? This isn’t a freakin’ tell tale evening, don’t keep me on needles here.”

She got up and pulled me to my feet, moving me out of the way to open the fridge. The thing didn’t actually work and we didn’t need it anyway, we could keep anything frozen just by putting it outside the front door. As I saw it stuffed with chips and snacks, I realized we used it as a cupboard and was pleasantly surprised the others hadn’t saved only booze from the train.

“Here’s what we’ll do – I tell you while we eat.”

“Too bad there’s no popcorn.” I rolled my eyes and snatched a bag of chips – amazing, these new things from the Western World. I opened it and began nibbling like a rodent, more to get Sidonia talking than to calm my hunger, which I didn’t actually feel.

***

To be continued

Copyright by Ana Calin, 01. February 2014

***

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CHASING DAMIAN – Part Two

forest winter

Pic source.

Back in the dim party room Lindy acted “all epileptic,” according to Gino’s wide-eyed, clueless explanation. As I worked my way close to her through a mass of gathered people, the sight hit me – eyes rolling, body convulsing, her hair clinging to her sweaty forehead.

“Shit, man, the woman’s possessed!” Marius called, jerking away from Lindy as Damian fell to his knees beside her and snatched something from Marius’ shaking hand.

I couldn’t identify the object until he fit it in Lindy’s mouth – a wooden spoon, maybe to ensure she didn’t swallow her tongue. My skin creased and my mind locked on this isn’t happening like a scratched record, while the sight of her limbs slowly relaxing in twisted positions burned into my memory. It never really left me.

“She’s not coming back to her senses!” Sidonia yelled, trying to slap Lindy.

Damian stretched an arm to keep her away. “Stop that!”

“Why isn’t she reacting?”

“I don’t know, I’m not a fuckin’ doctor!”

“You brought Aura back, now bring her!”

“That was first aid, but this is different. There’s nothing I can do.”

As if she’d heard Damian’s hopeless statement, Lindy began to move her head from side to side, giving out feeble sighs that sounded pain-free to me. That instant I was sure she’d staged the whole thing to get Damian’s attention, since it had been the distress I’d found myself in that got him in bed with me – however fruitless the event remained – and out on the porch, leaving her and the party behind. Now she was sure using strategies of her own, customized to hit Damian’s protective instinct spot on.

“Maybe it’s just low calcium. We should call an ambulance, they’ll shoot it in her vein.” See if the prospect of needles and scrubs shake her back to her feet.

Against my expectations, Lindy’s half closed eyelids didn’t even twitch at my words and not even as Gino gave reality clear voice. “You can forget ambulances, doctors and even priests. There’s no one coming up here tonight, the snowstorm cut off all roads and communications.”

“Does she know this?”

“Really, Aura?” That was Raluca. It was too dark to see the familiar chocolate in her eyes, but her tone bore the rare bitterness of scorn, which sent a stab of guilt to my heart. Indeed, that was not for me to judge. Not now. I punched off all second thoughts – though they kept rioting in the back of my head.

“She could use the amenities I had,” I suggested to Damian.

He scooped her up and followed me to the room we’d shared not so long ago. The others trailed like a flock of curious hens, but Sidonia’s pitchy yet confident voice stopped them at the door. “This ain’t the Big Brother house, the woman needs to rest.”

Damian laid Lindy on the bed and shuffled the blanket over her.

“Milk and bananas.” My tone was more assertive and matter-of-fact than I’d ever thought myself capable of. He looked at me puzzled and I instantly looked away, pretending he didn’t have an effect on me.

“Calcium and magnesium,” I offered a brief explanation, taking a seat by Lindy’s side. Her lips were cracked, but it might as well have been from the harsh wind she’d fought against as she’d walked here. Damian didn’t wait for another word and rushed out the door.

“Where is he supposed to get that?” Lindy said in a faint voice. Maybe she already felt better.

“The owners of this place. Or the village.”

“I doubt farmers have bananas in winter.” Just as faint. And disinterested.

“He must get it somewhere. You need that.” I lit the leftovers of two candles.

“All I need is to get out of here,” Lindy whispered.

She looked aside, the small flames casting eerie light on her face and sending a strange feeling up my throat. There were black circles around her eyes and her cheeks were sucked in, as if the person who’d laughed at me not half an hour ago had fallen ill within minutes. I stroked the sweaty tendrils off her face with an automatic impulse. They felt like mine when I had nightmares.

“We all do. Just hang in there, we’ll find help in the morning.”

“In the morning . . .” A tired smile curled her mouth. “None of us will make it till morning.” She trembled, her lips white and her eyes foggy as if she went delirious.

“Try to get some rest. Fatigue and paranoia go hand in hand,” I said and stood up, intent to bring some water and lower her fever back to normal. Otherwise I feared she’d be beyond repair before help came – which I doubted would happen before two or three days. After all, this was Romania of the ‘90s.

Lindy clasped my hand. “Don’t take me for a lunatic, Aurelia. We won’t survive this, not unless we break them, all of us.”

“Break what?” I grimaced to keep her calm. It failed.

She took her hands to her face, her polished fingernails scratching the skin down her throat as if she wanted to escape her own body. “The confinements of our flesh . . .”

She’s mad . . . I jolted to her, pushing her hands down in panic. “Lindy, for Christ’s sake!”

Her grin stretched almost to her ears like the sneer of a skull. The blizzard now whistled beyond the wooden walls as if aligning to Lindy’s growing intensity, making the window chatter from its hinges and a chill course down my spine.

Lindy’s voice caught guttural, low stress. “What miracle do you expect by invoking him, that usurper? This isn’t the work of god or devil, but the work of man alone.”

“What are you, a philosophy major?” I tried for a joke to ease the ill temper that seemed to build up in her. But before I could blink, her hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing so tightly that I panicked again, sure I’d swallow my throat bones.

“Draw it out of me, maggot, suck it out!” She bellowed.

My tongue pushed out of my mouth, I choked on every attempt to pull in air and this isn’t happening turned on fast forward.

“Suck it out!” She piped, her bloodshot eyes framed by those dark circles glowering into mine like a maniac’s.

I grabbed her wrists, but whatever was going on with this woman gave her the strength of wood, as if she’d merged with the walls. Even her skin seemed to turn brownish, but it could’ve been just the oxygen leaving my brain.

It wasn’t until my ears stopped buzzing, making way for the outraged voices around me, that I was again aware of where I was and what had just happened. After a severe fit of coughing that abused my still sensitive ribcage, anger slowly replaced shock. Still, I didn’t get up from the floor. An ugly truth hit me – I was so darn weak, Skeleton-J. Lo could’ve easily disposed of me. I raised my eyes to her.

Sidonia – probably my savior this time – restrained Lindy, whose sweat-damp hair flew in every direction around her head as she struggled.

“You’re guinea pigs for the strong!” She cried over and over again. Guinea pigs was especially frequent and accompanied by spittle as Sidonia, Gino and another guy tied her to the bed with wound sheets and some old rope the latter said he’d found in the attic.

Two soft hands clasped my shoulders and led me away from the group that had gathered by the bed. My knees gave in and I dropped on a chest that creaked even under my insignificant weight.

“Are you all right?” I recognized Raluca’s calm voice.

I nodded.

“What happened here?”

I didn’t answer, but kept staring at the others attending my Nemesis.

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” I spat. “It’s Lindy you should worry about. She’s a danger to herself and talks gibberish.”

“Don’t be bitter, Aura, she’s ill.”

“My point exactly. She needs immediate help and none of us has the training to provide it.” I kept my tone free of inflections this time. It was always tricky with Raluca, she was only sweet to both her sister and me when we were in trouble – when we needed it most. Her usual, very serious self frowned at us every chance she got and I’d grown cautious with my words around her. She always kept out of the childish plots Sidonia and I wasted our time with. Which is why her words caught me by surprise now.

“She needs to get back home as soon as possible. Her boyfriend will surely take it from there,” she whispered in my ear.

I caught the spark of mischief in her eyes. I couldn’t believe she’d actually used the party to gather info on my competition for Damian, which she now introduced with a cocked eyebrow.

“B-boyfriend?” I babbled.

“Rumor has it she’s seeing a rich guy – bald and fat some people here speculate, though they’ve never seen him. New mafia, they said. What they know for sure is that Lindy dances for him in a private booth at the Marquette. He buys her Prada and whatever western designers, pays for college and gives her money for her kid, too.”

My ears buzzed again.

“Kid?”

“A three-year-old daughter. Lindy’s mamma raises her.”

I blinked rapidly, trying to make sense of this.

“Lindy is a mother?” I whispered. “Wha– What’s her daughter’s name?”

Raluca shrugged. “I didn’t ask. But I asked about her and Damian Novac and apparently Lindy’s obsessed with him. She must miss a young body.”

I gave her a twitchy smile, but that’s all I managed. I sprang up and ran out to the main room, tripping over bottles lying on the floor and falling on a pile of jackets by the terracotta stove, feeling miserable and breaking out in tears. The chase after Damian had gotten me injured, attacked and looking like a complete idiot.

Lindy was better than me in each and every way. She was beautiful, she was profounder than she let on and she was screwed up. All in all, she was interesting and I was no match for her. I was just a maggot indeed, reaching out for much more than I deserved – the heart of a man out of my league – and for that I now paid a bitter price. I decided to look for someone bald and fat like Lindy’s sugar daddy, but broke.

A cluster of people soon walked in, led by the bearded singer, his features now clear in the light of an oil lamp he carried – another item they’d found in the attic, I imagined. He was robust, his small eyes shadowed by bushy eyebrows and his nose like an eagle’s. The rich beard made him look older than he must’ve actually been, adding to the air of wisdom.

“I’ve seen this before,” one of his companions said, his voice too loud. “A cousin of mine, last year. They took her to a hospice, labeled her nuts.”

“Did your cousin mention guinea pigs?” Gino laughed and slapped his back.

“I wonder if you’d still talk shit, if it were your mamma in her place,” the bearded singer croaked. My mouth popped open at his ghetto rather than scholastic choice of words. So much for judging a book by its cover.

“My mamma doesn’t strip for mobsters who beat her into madness,” Gino reacted with a scowl.

“Hey, I hear neither did Lindy,” another one chimed in, though he also sounded amused, “She went to the club as a client, and her dances were meant for the delivery boy, namely Novac.”

“I guess it caught the wrong guy’s attention.” That was Gino again. “By the way, Hector, is it true that temptress and muscle tank are having an affair behind the mobster’s back?”

Now that’s direct. I perked up my ears.

This time the bearded singer’s answer suited his guru appearance. “You ask dangerous questions, Gino.”

Great. Just what I needed to glaze over my failure – Damian and Lindy as protagonists in a forbidden love story. My heart ached, but I used the moment to strengthen the decision of letting go. Trying to apply the optimist’s creed, I focused on the good part in all this – going unnoticed makes it easy to gather information, no matter how poisonous it proves for one’s heart.

Hector’s thick fingers slid over the cords in a lilt melody, as if to block further inquiries. I imagined he and Damian were close friends, since people turned to him for intelligence. But his tactics had its downside. The group changed the subject but kept on chattering and opening one too many bottles – impressive how much they’d saved from the train and carried through the snowstorm like veritable addicts.

Soon the talking turned loud and chaotic. I could only make out isolated words but no sentences, while the sharp smell of alcohol gave me a headache. Luckily, just as the party went wild again, Sidonia dropped by my side with an exhausted groan, resting her arms on her knees. Judging by her tucked up sleeves she must’ve had some work to do.

“Lindy eventually got tired of struggling and fell asleep. How’re you feeling?”

“Fine,” I lied. “Thanks for getting her off me.”

“Oh, Gino helped.” She waved a hand, being modest again.

“Listen . . .” I paused, unsure how to put my thoughts into words without offending her. But I desperately needed to talk to someone about my new wound. “Did you know that . . . Well, that Lindy and Damian have something going?”

“Now hold on.” She put up her palm and knitted her sandy eyebrows in a serious expression. “We don’t know that they have anything going. We just know that she’s been chasing him around, popping up wherever he happened to be – just like you. Only that her chase is aggressive. She infiltrated his circle of friends, called him up late at night, asking him to meet her so she could play the friend in need, crying on his shoulder.”

“Allow me to correct you, Sid. You knew all this. I didn’t.”

“Look, Aura. We may not know much about Damian Novac, but one thing’s certain – he’s a very clever guy. Mediocre strategies won’t work with him and that’s why we needed a premium one. Had I told you, you would’ve backed off. And I honestly think you have a chance there.”

“Just look at me, Sidonia! I’m a bad a joke! Do you think me so dumb as to really compare myself to Lindy or others in her league? Are you dumb enough to do that?”

Sidonia pulled me to my feet, keeping a tight grip on my shoulders – she was slim but a fitness freak, with palms that could force me into obedience.

“It’s that bastard Alex you have to thank for this arsenal of complexes,” she spat through her teeth. “I can’t wait to get back home so I can seek him out and kick his ass.”

“I’m just looking truth in the face.”

“You’re not ugly, Aura! You’re a very pretty woman.”

“Complexes or not, Damian’s not interested in me. I tried to turn him on in the bedroom and I failed.” Shame burned in my cheeks as I confessed and the news may have bombed Sidonia’s theories. She narrowed her eyes and glanced at the bearded singer.

“I’ll have to get under Hector’s skin to find out more. He’s Damian’s best friend I gather, so he must know all there is to know about him. But it won’t be easy, he’s grumpy.”

“Just drop it, Sid,” I blocked with a headshake. “I might as well strive to plant a flag on the moon. He just doesn’t want me, why seek more proof?”

A huge frame passing the threshold drew my attention and my resolve to quit the chase for the unattainable barbarian threatened to tumble. Damian stopped in place, his tresses, eyebrows and stubble adorned with snow, a heavy sheepskin cladding his shoulders. I recognized Marius limping and hanging on him like a cloth on a tree, ravaged by the blizzard, but the acknowledgement was marginal. Sidonia ran to him.

The others were already wasted, raising their bottles and plastic cups as if toasting for the return of their brothers.

“Hey, look who’s back,” Gino stuttered.

Damian gave him a cold scowl. His voice was deep and controlled, but I could instantly tell something was wrong. “Gather all bottles in a pile.”

The boys laughed and one of them – maybe some failed poet – tried to go witty. “Has the road battered you so, or has your thirst been spurred by snow, Novac?”

He hardly finished his sentence when an ugly growl drew all eyes to Marius. He crouched from his waist in spasms, throwing up as if all his organs constricted. Hector dropped the guitar and jumped to his feet, hollow wood and cords resounding against the floor.

“What happened?”

“She still stood, man!” Marius rattled, “Her clothes, slick with blood, her head cracked, but she still stood!” He convulsed again, the foul smell of his vomit reaching my nose. It didn’t seem to bother Hector though, who grabbed his shoulders, straightening him up.

“Speak!”

“Just gather all sharp objects you can find in this place,” Damian intervened, his arm mowing Hector’s hands off Marius.

“Don’t be scarce of words now!” Hector urged.

“There’s no time for this,” Damian said with a serious frown, fixing his bearded friend as if transmitting some coded message.

“She threw herself in her own grave, man!” Marius squeaked. “And the guy, dragged until his clothes and flesh ripped off in bundles!” Another spasm and another violent throw-up – the only sound in the room. I forgot to breathe.

For quite a few moments I was convinced this was some sick joke, not feeling anything, not reacting, not moving, but seeing every line on Marius’ bent profile, every fold on his leather-patched coat, as if my senses had sharpened in a split second.

Marius didn’t reply to the low, puzzled “Who?” coming from a few guys with some presence of spirit, and it wasn’t until Hector asked Damian a direct, “What the hell is he talking about?” that a direct, however reluctant answer came.

“We went looking for supplies.” He threw me a green glance here, his jaw rippling. He looked tense and angry, very angry. Maybe anger was his mechanism to keep fear at bay, or at least that’s the first thing that crossed my mind. He continued slowly, while settling Marius on a rickety chair in the corner, assisted by Sidonia.

“The snow is high and the wind strong, it was hard to move forward. The blizzard was already frantic by the time we reached the landlord’s house. The front door was open, flapping in the storm, and the fire was dying. ”

“There were stains of blood marking the way out to the back yard, man!” Marius surged, trying to get on his feet again, but Damian’s hand kept firm on his shoulder. Judging by his worried frown and hard jaw he didn’t welcome Marius’ skipping the introduction, threatening to raise panic.

“Calm down. There’s a fair number of us, we’ll be fine,” Damian whispered close to Marius’ ear. I shouldn’t have been able to catch it since I was too far from them, but shock had turned my hearing so sharp that every breath and every rumbling stomach echoed deep in my head, each sound distinct and yet all simultaneous. It felt as if my ears had been trenched.

After Marius rested his head back against the carpeted wall, Damian crouched down. I couldn’t see him anymore among the people, but by the slivering sound I could tell he gathered scattered bottles. Gino and some others hurried to help him, while Hector kept on his feet by the door.

“Talking makes little sense now,” Damian said, “Fact is, we’re not alone in this white hell. Don’t just stand there, Hector, gather all sharp objects you can find. Those from the kitchen too.”

“We’re fuckin’ dead.” Marius breathed slower now, his lids falling heavy. Warmth made exhaustion show in his square face, his whole body mellow in the chair, his chest stained with greenish vomit. I couldn’t keep this isn’t happening from starting another solo in my head as the meaning of all this slowly dawned on me – they’d witnessed someone dying. In pain.

It took a while until everybody processed the two men’s words and reality kicked in – some came to their senses with headshakes, some with rapid blinking and a few with hysteria. As for me – I felt rooted in the ground.

The place crowded as the others joined from the bedroom where they’d left Lindy, and an avalanche of questions started, ranging from, “What’s this all about?” to, “What’s that got to do with the booze?”

“Broken bottles can be used as weapons,” I heard Damian’s bass voice reply to the last one. His forehead was now higher above all heads that separated me from him. “Like screwdrivers, cutlery and pens.”

“Why this mobilization?” Gino said.

“They followed us back here, man,” Marius said, his voice low and void of hope. “Kept their distance in the dark, but they wheezed and growled.”

“Maybe they were wolves!” Gino returned, his pitch high with panic.

Damian cut in with a grave certainty that made my skin crease, “Those were no wolves.”

***

To be continued . . .

Copyright by Ana Calin, January 2014

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t be shy and leave a comment, allowing other readers to know your thoughts and stay tuned for Part Three, coming up on Saturday.

Love,

Ana

CHASING DAMIAN – Part One

Happy New Year’s! May all your wishes and wildest expectations come true in 2014!

As promised, here is the Prologue part One to the The Blacksmith, Aura’s and Damian’s story. Enjoy!

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

Sixteen years ago I met a young man who turned me into a creepy stalker. Smitten by those moss green eyes full of mystery – or maybe misery – my sanity seared away like ice on a stove.

I was twenty at the time, studying English Language and Literature at the Universitatea Ovidius in Constanta. For four years I destroyed the soles of my shoes going to the same white building on an open campus, close to the deserted beaches of our ghostly town.

My last relationship had been a draining and torturing one, with my ex finally admitting – or simply alleging, as I hoped – that his interest had never been in me, but in the wealth of my father and the future that might have resulted from a union with me. Being the daughter of Tiberius Preda turned out to be a stigma rather than an advantage, and as a consequence I resorted to keeping the connection secret and my lifestyle modest.

So I proceeded carefully with my new love interest. The only problem was that I didn’t really possess any other means of standing out beside my father’s name, not among the tart up beauties with silky hair and perfect eyebrows who looked like J. Lo at her best. On my dry skin foundation always ended up looking like unevenly distributed flour and my hair galvanized like copper wire no matter what I did. Sidonia helped sometimes and spent hours on my styling, trying to cheer me up.

“You’ll learn, no worries,” she’d say.

She was wrong. I never did. And she finally gave up with a hopeless shake of her head. “God, Aura, you do have two left hands.”

I first saw him in the cafeteria, surrounded by a group of loud laughing, overconfident boys with iron pumped chests. But it was him who drew my attention like a magnet and a glance around the cafeteria was enough to realize I wasn’t the only one interested in him.

He was tall and athletic, with waves of dark hair brushing his broad shoulders. Well muscled under a white knit sweater that his body molded, he made for quite a view, and as good as all wenches around drank it in.

“Damian Novac,” Sidonia whispered in my ear, noticing my dropped jaw. She tossed a strand of dyed blond hair off her shoulder with a graceful move. “Civil Engineering, final year.”

She smiled in his direction. I didn’t dare do the same, but looked around like a fox watching for hunters, making up strategies before dodging out of the bushes. The last thing I needed was getting another bullet through my heart.

Damian didn’t see me that day, or the day after. Being small and flimsy had its advantages, so I could observe him from afar for weeks. He was aloof, yet his eyes always intent, as if his thoughts were fixed on something way beyond those walls and his cares way more serious than the infatuations of wannabe divas. He wasn’t oblivious to their advances, just utterly unimpressed.

His group of friends, nevertheless, always surrounded him, as if searching for his approval for everything they did. Even a manly laugh and a tap on the shoulder were always accompanied by a furtive ‘was that all right’ glance. So an alpha, I thought.

“No wonder we’re all leaving wet traces like snails when he’s around,” I once whispered to Sidonia. She laughed her wide, sensual laugh.

“I just love your dirty mouth, Aura.”

“I speak but the truth.” I smiled back at my best friend.

We left the university giggling. At that age we were still able to speak the naked truth, no matter how ugly or dirty it was. We could care less about ‘social acceptability’.

We sat in the confinements of Montana, a nearby wooden pub that served as a haven for furious bikers on Saturday nights when it reeked of beer and pot. But during the day it was nice and quiet, we had our peace drinking bad filtered coffee, smoking cigarettes and making plans.

Sidonia wanted me to get over the disaster with my ex as soon as possible. She took her role as image consultant very seriously while I came up with ways of manipulating destiny into ‘casual’ bumping into Damian at another, ‘cleaner’ pub – the Bourbon, deep in the heart of the city – or at parties organized by fellow students.

It was at one of those parties at the dorms that I finally arranged to stumble into his arms with a glass of red wine. Sidonia had forced me into a push-up bra, a red sleeveless top and tight jeans, but I still looked like a malnourished, rusty-furred poodle.

The room was hot and crowded, so I hopped over legs and bottles in my way, faking a fall against Damian’s chest. It was hard and the hands steadying me were big like shovels.

“S … sorry,” I mumbled.

He looked down at his ruined shirt.

“It’s all right.” His voice sounded like black velvet – deep, soft, giving me goose bumps.

I dared a look straight at his face and my heart leaped into my mouth. Up close he was so handsome with his dark green eyes, perfectly chiseled features and strong jaw that he should’ve been as illegal as heroin. My nose was at the level of his chest, breathing in the scent of freshly cut wood – maybe fir. Jeez, he’s huge.

With a slightly pissed frown but gentle hands he made sure I could stand on my own feet and turned to walk away. No, no, no!

“Let me take out the stain,” I croaked over the pounding music and clasped his arm. “There’s some detergent in the bathroom.”

He turned to me, the frown lingering on his brow, his tone polite and detached.

“I’ll do that myself, thank you.”

I panicked, thinking that he saw through my plot. I searched desperately for a way to keep contact and gave him an awkward smile. Reciting the words Sidonia had made me learn by heart seemed like the only option.

“You need to wash out the wine within the next two minutes, if you want to save your shirt. I’m a woman and I have some dexterity with that, that’s all.”

He glanced around as if assessing who paid us attention and then looked at me again. Dancing and drinking people – Sidonia, Raluca and Gino included – stared at us. Then a possibility hit me – maybe he’d scouted the area for his girlfriend or something.

At that thought, my stomach clenched. Though I hadn’t seen him with anyone during the weeks I’d observed him, a girlfriend wasn’t completely out of the question. Maybe she wasn’t from the campus. But then again, Sidonia would’ve come upon that anyway in her subversive, shrewd investigations.

“Two minutes,” I reminded him of the time ticking until the stain would be forever imprinted in his white shirt. “Let me save the situation and then you won’t see me again.”

He gave me a reserved smile and motioned me to lead the way. The gesture was infused with elegance and strength at the same time, coming from a stud like him. Oh, how I’d ride you, boy!

We waited in front of the bathroom until a drunken blonde reeled out. Luckily, it didn’t take longer than two minutes, otherwise I would’ve risked him changing his mind. Girls around us fidgeted and swayed, eyeing Damian. Boys already mistook the hallway and some corners for toilets as they staggered and cursed.

Damian and I didn’t speak to each other but I was sharply aware of his presence behind me, of his breath above my head. He stood real close, his upper thigh brushing against my backside as sweaty bodies squeezed us together. My heart raced and I struggled with my burning cheeks and wild imagination as we closed the door behind us. Jeez, I’m alone with him! Alone with him in a messy bathroom . . .

To my jaw dropping surprise, Damian began unbuttoning his shirt. I swallowed hard. Still, to make my indifference to him credible, I refused the sight.

“Keep it on. Unless, of course, you have a change of clothes within reach.”

“I don’t.” Again that deep voice that I couldn’t believe I was finally hearing, spoken only for my ears.

I snatched the detergent from a pile of tubes and boxes on the washer and rinsed the stain – half his shirt, that is. After spraying some water on it from the tips of my fingers, I began rubbing the wine into instead of out of the fabric with one hand, keeping it stretched and away from his body with the other. The large spot soon turned transparent, I could see a blur of his flat abdomen and his happy tail through it.

“I’m Damian, by the way,” he said.

“Aurelia,” I replied in a trembling voice. “Preda, Aurelia Preda.”

“I must say, you’re quite observant, Miss Preda.”

“A– Am I?” I babbled, shivering a little.

“I’m impressed you should notice the stain remover and think about it as soon as you ruined my shirt.”

Shoot, he knows what I’m doing . . .

“Impressive?” I looked up at him and tried for a smile.

“It requires some presence of mind.” His sculptured lips drew in a smile.

“I … I brought it, actually. Today. Gino is in constant need of such,” I lied with a nonchalance that I had trouble believing myself. Anything to save the appearances. I knew Gino would support my allegation, he was ‘my people’ and deep in this with me. He’d organized the party and we were in his dorm.

“I understand.” Damian’s eyes glittered with some kind of cunning. “Have I seen you before, Aurelia?”

I shrugged and faked lack of interest. I dropped my eyes to the stain, though.

“Maybe. In the cafeteria, or at the Bourbon. That’s where I seek refuge from my persecutors.”

“Persecutors?”

“The Inquisition, isn’t is obvious?” I said, pointing at the haycock on my head.

Again, that dashing smile on his face.

“You claim yourself a witch?”

“I claim nothing without my lawyer.”

“And Gino? Is he one of your allies?” He sounded interested and hope sparked in my chest.

“You could say that. He’s dating a dear friend of mine, Raluca,” I hurried to block any doubts that might arise. I’m available and all for you, mister.

“Now I remember,” he said as if he truly just realized, “I saw you at the Bourbon with him and some others. You never miss some fun.”

He saw me? “I’m forever in search of it. As are you, I notice.”

“Hardly. I supply food and beverages.”

Say what? “What do you mean?”

He shrugged, making it clear that he didn’t want to dwell on the matter.

“It’s just an activity that pays bills. And what brings me to the Bourbon and parties.”

“So you’re no real friend of Bacchus’?” I realized I’d never seen him with a beer in his hand, or any kind of alcohol for that matter.

He laughed – another velvety sound.

“You find me entertaining?” I asked.

“I like the way you speak. It’s very, how shall I put it? Unusual.”

“You think?”

He nodded, green eyes intent and fixed on mine. I alone had his attention now, the whole world was shut out.

“I merely adjust to my interlocutor,” I whispered.

He laughed again as I tried to sheath my crush on him with the veil of further jokes and friendship. He acted like he bought it, opened up to me, laughed more, and soon our groups mingled in the cafeteria.

A few weeks later Gino came up with another of his plans that both our gang and Damian’s appreciated. It had begun to snow and he organized a trip to the mountains, so it wasn’t long until we got on a train with heavy backpacks and furred boots, but my hopes of finding a place by Damian’s side shattered as soon as I set foot in the compartment.

He was flanked by one of his friends and a blue-eyed and brown-haired J. Lo who I didn’t stand a chance against. She was tall, loud and bold, her grin white and large, but that wasn’t the first time I saw her and I knew she wasn’t his girlfriend – at least not yet. I ducked in my coat and scarf up to my nose and watched frustrated how she drew closer to him, acting like an easygoing friend.

“Come on, Novac,” she said, her pitch too high, “I won’t bite, I’m just freezing.”

He rested one arm loosely on her shoulder and turned his eyes to the window. She leeched on to him but he kept distant, which made me feel not all was lost. I wanted to slap myself for clinging to the faintest hope and for the way I ogled him, but I couldn’t help it. He looked fantastic in his brown coat, dark jeans and what seemed like army boots. His hair spilled in raven waves to his shoulders and the stubble gave his beautifully chiseled face the air of a young barbarian.

J. Lo caught me staring. She pulled her knees up and cuddled to his chest. I doubted she did it because she saw any kind of competition in me – that was out of the question – but because she felt powerful and probably enjoyed my suffering, knowing I would’ve done anything to be in her place. She closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep with a relaxed smile on her face.

Cottages glided by as the train – barely more than an old cart from communist times – moved lazily, its whistles lost in the night as we advanced to the middle of nowhere. A few times I thought Damian glanced at me and my heart jumped, but I dismissed it as wishful thinking until the train got stuck in what looked like Siberian snow, ice flowers spreading visibly over the pane. Everybody breathed out steam and I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, shaking violently. That’s when Damian gazed long at me with a worried frown.

“Gino,” he said, lifting his arm and waking J. Lo, “Where’s the Vodka I gave you?”

Gino’s sleepy eyelids fluttered open. He brushed sandy tendrils off his forehead and removed his own arm from around Raluca, who shivered at his chest, her eyes hooded and her thick lips white. He reached to the overhead rack and dropped a bag on Sidonia’s head, who grunted and stirred from the more or less comfortable place she’d found in the arms of an iron pumped boy from Damian’s group.

“Sorry, Sid,” Gino mumbled and took down a ragged backpack. Something clanked inside. He staggered on his skinny, Spiderman legs to Damian, who stood up to support him.

“Jesus, you look like you might break into ice shards,” Damian said.

“I’m afraid my brain’s already splintered. I should’ve been the first to think of the liquor,” Gino replied with a stiff grin that meant to be friendly but rather gave the impression of a frozen fossil.

Damian opened the backpack and took out three small bottles like the ones Russians keep in the inside pockets of their sheepskin coats. He handed one to J. Lo and one to Gino.

“Pass that around,” he told them, then he took a seat by my side with the third bottle.

I blinked and barely refrained from rubbing my eyes. I couldn’t believe he was so close to me, by his own choosing this time.

“Drink this,” he said softly, holding the open bottle to my mouth. A sharp smell made me crease my nose and push his hand away.

“Vodka. It’ll help warm up,” he insisted.

I sniffed at it a couple of times and finally took a sip that went like a flash of fire to my stomach. I grimaced, but Damian chuckled and looked at me like you would at a playing puppy. It was the strangest expression I’d ever imagined on his face, like a predator smiling clumsily at a shivering deer. I smiled back, my heart drumming.

It wasn’t until my eyes fell on the open mouthed J. Lo that I realized why he must’ve switched to my side: I was the only one without a pair of arms around me. Damian was just looking after the less fortunate. My chest deflated.

“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I grumbled and drew away, pulling my knees up. I didn’t look at him to see his reaction.

Suddenly, the car began to wobble like a ship on a stormy sea. The girls shrieked and boys glanced around with wide eyes. As for me, I didn’t realize what was happening until the lights flickered and finally went out, making me burst into a fit of screaming too. A hand wrapped around my arm and pulled me to a broad chest, my nose sinking in a fluffy pullover.

“Earthquake,” Damian’s bass voice sounded above my head. At the next jerk, he dropped back in the seat with me in his lap.

“Maybe they’re just, just, just taking us out of the snow,” J. Lo babbled.

“It ain’t no shovels moving this train, Lindy!” I recognized the voice of Sidonia’s  new conquest. He sounded frantic.

The train came to a brusque halt in its swaying and Damian jumped to his feet with me in his arms, sheltering me with the sides of his open coat. I pushed my face deeper in his pullover as he slid the compartment door open with his elbow.

“What are you doing?” Gino squealed.

“We need to get out of here,” Damian replied. His tone was calm, but not devoid of stress.

“What if it starts again?” His bodybuilder friend croaked. “We’re deep in the mountains, we could get killed in an avalanche.”

“And you think we stand a better chance if an avalanche traps us in this rusty box, Marius?” Damian raised his voice over his friend’s but didn’t wait for a reply.

He rushed with me down the aisle and only put me down as we reached a growing clutch of shrieking people by the exit. Fear gripped me, my heart punched hard against my ribcage as I stretched my arm to keep him close. To no avail, I lost him as he made his way through.

In the chaos of screams and bodies squashing me between them I freaked out, but I was unable to make a sound. The door snapped open and a winter gush wheezed through, lashing my face numb as people poured out of the train and drifted me forward with them. I sank to my knees in the glistening snow and waved my arms to keep from falling into the forested abyss that gaped before my eyes.

A huge, warm hand clasped mine, steadying me, and the instant I looked into Damian’s focused face I understood he’d left my side to break down the door. I forgave him on the spot.

He turned to help the others out of the train but missed one, who bumped hard against me and sent me like a ball down the slope. I rolled and rolled, my mind frozen as snow infiltrated to my skin from under my scarf and sleeves. A front clash with a tree trunk knocked the air from my lungs and the last thing I saw was a shower of white that filled my mouth and nostrils. I choked under the mountain of cold that gagged me, desperate to breathe in.

My head began to cloud with lack of air and I felt my pulse give up. That moment I knew the sense of safety was a mirage, as if some tiny fairy at the back of my mind urged me to keep fighting.

I saw a bright sphere, but I knew it wasn’t the moon. It was light at the end of a black tunnel, a light that sucked me toward it with the force a vacuum cleaner would a fly. However hopelessly, I fought against the pull, which stopped by miracle as I came really close to the now huge moon. Weight started to press rhythmically on what I now identified as my chest and I started to spin backwards, as if something drew me with the same force farther and farther from the bright sphere. As it became smaller, it warped into the shape of a child-like face with bright, caramel eyes piercing at me through the darkness. A crystalline voice like tinkling icicles filled my head. “You need me . . .”

CHAPTER 1

Every breath hurt as if my sternum had been smashed with a rock. The blur before my eyes cleared to Sidonia’s pixie face framed by a white and stylish fur hat, her pale blue 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,” Sidonia said, putting a warm hand on my cheek.

“It hurts,” I whispered.

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

Damian?

Sidonia smiled, probably reading the surprise in my face.

“He launched after you as soon as you fell. He carried you here, too.” There was a glint of ‘do you realize what this means?’ in her eyes.

I was wrapped in two coats – my own and a new slicker one, my scalp itching under what could’ve been a busby, yet none of it helped much. I still shivered as Sidonia tucked me under a blanket, leaving my arms out.

Muttering and shadows twirled around, only Sidonia’s face constant in the picture. I registered a friendly, “Water by the bed,” Gino’s “Bug off, here’s the Vodka,” and Raluca’s “Call if you need me, sis,” addressing Sidonia. 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?”

Sidonia threw me a glance, her hands rubbing mine.

“Military, Marius says. Damian served his time. He must’ve learned how to do this kind of stuff.”

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

“Playing hero,” I whispered.

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

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

Damian held a bottle of water at my feet, his honey-skinned 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 must’ve been a mess. I scrunched my eyes shut as he began kneading my toes that looked like wax. 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?” Sidonia addressed him – agile on the first opportunity to give us some time alone, I figured. “I’m afraid Marius will get distracted if he misses me for too long, you know what I mean?”

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?” he said softly, his tone yet amused.

Lay with me? The implications left me breathless. 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 his eye color was. I’d seen pale green, I’d seen blue often, brown and every combination thereof, but not that pure moss as if looked at through crystal. His eyes had the potential of shining bright like emerald, I thought. Maybe when he was mad. And I could make him mad 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 and putting a hand on his chest – very broad, well-shaped, yet not bulky.

“You should probably let me open those coats. You’ll warm up faster.”

Say what? My face burned, my fingers and toes tingled, my head spinning. He unzipped the slicker, then unbuttoned the wool and slid his free arm under it, making my heart beat so fast that heat rushed from it to my arms and legs.

“Where are we?” My chest hurt with every word, but I had to derail his attention before my less than orthodox thoughts showed in my face.

“A tourist cottage. The train fell off track, but we were close to Predeal and within walking distance to a few inns. This is the first lodging we found.”

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

“No earthquake?” I managed.

Damian shook his head.

“That was my first thought, but I was wrong. Earthquakes are not common in these parts of the Carpathians. They tried to pull the train forward through the snow and it slipped off.”

I nodded again – though I had no idea how this whole train thing worked, nor did I care – and looked down at the shape of our legs under the blanket, thinking of what to say next to keep the conversation going. Damian’s fingers began stroking the side of my torso over the jersey, close to my breast, making me alert.

“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.”

His chest vibrated with a laugh. “You sure didn’t get the finest education at home.”

“No. I did not,” I muttered.

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. Sidonia 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 calmly 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 for it, but the feel of his muscles under the pullover made my breath intensify, which may have exposed me. His rhythm didn’t change and, 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 soundlessly 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 Lindy after all? Or maybe into another? What if he only wanted to be friends? Greedy for the shaft in his pants I’d probably lost that now too, which made my chest hurt as much sniveling did.

Unable to put up with myself 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 fairly tales. More drunken voices now joined the bearded singer’s and people chained together with hands on each other’s shoulders, swaying 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 green scowl from under knitted eyebrows.

My severely bruised ego screamed, ‘Hide!’ and I hurried to mingle in, trying to find Sidonia. She danced in a lush embrace with Marius, who hurried to get rid of me by grabbing my wrist and introducing me to Lindy ‘J. Lo’ 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 Marius, I sat with her by the stove.

After long, awkward moments I tried for conversation, but I could barely bring more than, “Lindy – that’s a rare name” and, “Where are you from?” about my lips, and not because of chest pain now. She said her parents were Americans and I instinctively mentioned my mother’s same heritage, but our connection was interrupted there.

“You’re American, too?” a boy with limbs even looser than Gino’s bounced in, his voice too loud. His drunken eyes sparked at me as if I’d suddenly turned into an exotic dancer.

Heads turned, the guitar player’s fingers tangled in the cords. Blood shot in my cheeks.

“That would be an overstatement,” I muttered.

“How can you overstate origin?” Lindy sneered. She threw cat-eyed 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 and your dad the cowboy from Draculean lands?” He gave me a stupid grin, meant and failing to be charming.

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

“The States, huh? In those times?” Lindy 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 have 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?” A nerd with a blond mane and round glasses whispered.

Shit . . .

I nodded and the nerd’s mouth popped open. Still, I had a feeling he was the only one in our young group with enough real information to know what my dad’s name stood for in the right context. For the others it should’ve meant only heavy moneybags.

“So, you’re rich daddy’s girl,” Lindy confirmed my hunch, laughing and pointing a finger at me like in kindergarten. I wanted to slap her, but she was taller and stronger, so I feared the aftershock.

“Listen, hottie!” Sidonia placed herself before Lindy and fixed her with blue ice in her eyes. All signs of fun and liquor-conditioned euphoria were gone from her face.

“Aura didn’t make the sacrifice she did for anybody to still treat her like a social mutant!”

Raluca squared her shoulders behind her sister, trying to intimidate ‘Hottie’, but missed her aim. Lindy glowered back, more pissed off by the intervention than taken aback.

Driven by the pressure that built up in my head I didn’t wait for the outcome of this confrontation. I ran out the door with my face in my palms, fighting to keep back tears. The cool air on the porch dried my eyes instantly but also painted a sharp picture of my situation – lame, hopeless.

The lodge was somewhere high and close to the forest, countless fir branches warped with snow marking the contours of endless hills, a full moon hanging low in the sky. A beautiful place it was. 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 was the Beast. The taste in my mouth was bitter.

I sank my hands in the slicker pockets and groped on something square and a piece of frozen plastic – a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, which I rubbed between my palms to warm the gas. Without much thought, I put the poison in my mouth, lit it with some difficulty and pulled in smoke, which got me coughing and the pain back in my chest. Still, the purpose was achieved – both Damian’s rejection and Lindy’s laughter were at the back of my mind. For but a second.

“So, daddy issues?” Damian’s voice made me turn briskly. He stood tall by my side, his eyes searching mine.

“Heavy loads.” I sounded more composed than I would’ve expected – an effect I ascribed to the cigarette.

“Sidonia said something about sacrifices,” he mused after a short pause.

“Sidonia 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 question?” The green in his eyes sparked emerald – unique, more beautiful than I’d imagined. Maybe he was still angry for my undercover hitting on him. I turned away, gazing in the distance and faking cold indifference to his looks.

“All right then, here it is,” I said. The cigarette 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. But a parent’s success can weigh heavy on the kid’s shoulders, you know? Everybody expects so much of you. I could live with that 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 Alex wasn’t a jackass. The only thing I kept was my last name, certain it would soon change anyway. But Alex left me a short while later, of course.” I coughed out the last words and grimaced at the pain.

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

“You make it sound as if I’m a hero.” It was almost as if he chose to see me in the best possible light, which made me stare.

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

“Sidonia 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 kept on staring at him, drawn ever deeper into his scrutinizing gaze. It felt as if he dived into me, discovering things I wasn’t yet aware of myself. Things I hadn’t checked before revealing. 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 dashing smile of his.

“Have you inquired and been left wanting?”

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

“I merely adjust to my interlocutor.” He winked and I was surprised he should remember our exchange in the bathroom.

“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 swallowed hard.

“I’m not done,” he said. “This Alex 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.  I yet didn’t move.

“Are you going to answer it?” he continued softly, as if he wanted to seduce the answer out of me.

“No.” Don’t ask where the word came from, for I do not know. All I knew was that I had to resist him.

“You don’t want to go there?”

“Is this an interrogation?”

“Does it feel like such?”

I pondered. “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.

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 and my chest fired up with the promise of . . . Jeez, am I looking forward to having my mind raped? But he turned my defiance to his advantage in an instant.

“As long as it satisfies you.”

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

“Not doctors. Shrinks. But you don’t need either.”

“What do you think I need?”

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

“Then how do you know what I don’t?”

“You sound resentful, which is fine and healthy.”

My heart skipped a beat. In a matter of minutes, the irresistible barbarian who’d followed me to the porch had turned into a scholar who messed with my head. I prayed to God the map of my desires – that had everything to do with this surprisingly refined beast – didn’t display on my face.

“Are you that familiar with the sound of resentment, as to be sure that’s what you hear?”

He knitted his eyebrows and pressed his beautiful lips together in a hard expression. Still, my sixth sense told me it wasn’t because I had him locked, but because he was reluctant to reply.

The thought trailed off soon though, his towering closeness heating up my blood so much that the winter night had no effect anymore. I felt as if in a furnace and I breathed too fast, but the spell scattered to the four winds when the front door burst open as if thrown off by draft.

Sidonia appeared in the frame, her eyes ready to pop out of their sockets, her blond hair so disheveled that it could’ve easily competed with my morning coiffure. Yet the fear imprinted on her face spoke of someone who’d just been struck by lightning or seen a ghost.

“We need you inside! Now!”

***********************************

To be continued

Copyright by Ana Calin, 2013

***

Enjoyed this? Stay tuned for Part Two on Saturday.

Wish you a happy New Year’s from the heart! All the best in the world for you and all those you love!

The Blacksmith – Chapter 3 – BEYOND THE RUINS

Old Casino

The Old Casino, Constanta. Pic source.

***

The bell rang again. I put out my cigarette and headed for the next class, which seemed completely undemanding, like all that followed.

I can’t state the same about the rest of the week. Probably because I was again as relaxed as usual without the kick of first contact with 12 C, so the lack of focus, the hidden smart phones under the desks, the whispers, the savage responses to any sign of friendliness became challenging again.

Trevor’s mother didn’t come to see me on Thursday as I’d demanded, but called the principal saying she had an appointment – probably at the hairdresser’s – and would try to make it sometime before Christmas.

Mr. Gheorghe advised me not to cause the boy any trouble, his gypsy father had ‘powerful connections to the police and everybody at the Local Court’ so he could make my life difficult, since I tutored as well. Same old, same old.

I insisted on seeing the mother, wrote her a polite e-mail in which I emphasized the importance of a meeting for the proper development of her son. Again, same old, same old.

The funniest part always came when I got home and checked my Facebook account.

There were students who’d been posting during class. Saw comments from Trevor on some pictures: ‘wet pussy’ he’d commented on the photo of a 10th grader girl with childish features, who was searching for her Venusian powers gazing lasciviously into the camera, and a ‘do her hard, bro’ on the picture of two kissing lovebirds from the 11 C.

“Why does it bother you?” Damian asked while changing a bulb. “At least they don’t write anything bad about you.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“I think they really like you, you know,” he continued frowning at the fitting. “Compared to what they do to other teachers . . .”

“Yeah, I can’t complain.”

I stirred as an upsetting thought crossed my mind. “Maybe I’m not worth the effort.”

I glanced at the bronze shape of his arm as he screwed in the new bulb. But a shadow of the man he used to be. I imagined it slowly mutate into a long, ropy arm, smooth as marble.

My throat tightened again and drew all focus from my mind. I gotta do something about this. I pressed my lips together and lowered my head, so Damian wouldn’t see. I could already hear his harsh voice telling me I was messing with my own head and I didn’t feel up to it.

With temperatures plunging more and more the heating didn’t keep up. I wrapped the fluffy gown tighter around me, cuddled on the sofa – not with my husband, of course, but with the laptop.

“Did you meet that trouble-boy you were telling me about?”

I smiled. This was one of Damian’s qualities. He remembered everything I told him.

“Yes, as a matter of fact I did. This week.”

“And?”

I leaned my head back and took a deep breath, preparing to tell him all about it. I opened my mouth to speak but got knocked in the head by Damian’s forbidding tone.

“Oh, no. If you’re gonna tell me all about the traumatic evolution of his whole family tree from monkey to Macintosh, you better leave it.”

And that was one of Damian’s defects. I must have made a face since he scowled at me.

“A couple of shelves are broken ‘cause you stapled too many books on them. I’m going to fix’em,” he announced and walked to the study, leaving me frustrated on the couch, choking and sweating a cold, reptilian sweat.

When I went to bed Damian said he’d be watching TV a little longer. I made myself a jasmine tea, swallowed my vitamins and managed to fall asleep within an hour. Damian still wasn’t there.

Around four o’clock my own racing pulse woke me up. There was coldness in my chest, as if some cruel fear spread all over my body even though I didn’t feel the fear itself. Only the polluting coldness.

Damian’s dark shape lay beside me. Sight was blurred from the water in my eyes, pressed out from the contracted throat muscles. I patted his back as hard as I could.

“What is it?” He mumbled, still sleepy.

“I’m not feeling well, Damian . . .” My pulse was drummed in my ears, I could barely hear my fading voice.

In an instant Damian’s jade eyes were above my face, focused and sharp.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, his voice deep, a full, tense awareness in his face.

“Call an ambulance,” I whispered.

“No, they’ll be too slow.”

He must have gotten dressed as fast as the Tasmanian devil because in a few minutes he was ready, scooped me up from bed, rushed with me down the stairs and put me in the car.

The leather seat froze me into a shivering icicle.

He ran the red lights and pulled up with a screech of tires right in front of the entrance to the hospital. As if from a distant dream, I could hear the taxi drivers cursing and yelling. Damian’s ‘go screw yourselves’ vibrated in my skull.

He put me on an aluminum bench in the waiting room that looked more like a morgue. I bent forward and touched my toes, instinctively. I felt somewhat better, pulse slowing down. A female voice sounded gently in my ear.

“That’s good, now push from your belly as you would on the toilet.”

I did as told. As I raised my head I saw a nametag on the right side of pink scrubs – nurse Iancu.

She asked me questions – short ones that allowed for short answers on what exactly it was that I felt. She measured my blood pressure, tightened a tourniquet around my arm, put a needle in my vein and drew an almost black liquid.

“You’re going in to the doctor’s any minute now.”

The waiting room was full of people, some with bandages around their heads, some around their legs and arms. Some crouched in pain, some already rested on gurneys, IV lines snaking around their arms. The sounds were damped. I couldn’t see Damian anywhere but as long as my condition was bearable, I might as well have stayed there for a week.

My husband’s figure finally appeared, towering behind a small, fat and bald doctor with big, round glasses. He talked to me, told me I’d be all right.

“Just hyperventilation, probably deficit of vitamins.”

“She’s been taking vitamins for over a week now.” I heard Damian’s commanding voice.

“The results look good, there’s nothing wrong with her. It may be an anxiety attack.”

I knew it . . .

“Right, anxiety attacks.” There was Damian again. Disapprovingly, dismissively. “So she’s doing this to herself?”

“That’s one way to put it,” the doctor replied meekly. “I suggest she sees a specialist.”

“She’ll get over it,” my husband said like a judge overruling an objection. “If it’s from her head then it’s in her power.”

“Sir, if I may.” There was the familiar female voice again. I recognized the pink scrubs, the nametag, the round, full-moon face – nurse Iancu.

“You can say the same about cancer. Still, treatment is the safest way to go,” she said in a warm, appeasing tone.

“All right,” Damian cut in dryly. That translated ‘save the crap’.

The doctor put me on beta-blockers again, which he said I shouldn’t have stopped taking abruptly. My pulse sank to 66 beats per minute but my blood pressure went considerably down as well, giving me icy hands and feet. So in two days I gave them up again.

I slept through the whole Saturday and woke up at six in the evening. Damian made me tea and tucked me under a warm blanket on the couch.

As I reached for Dr. Barbu’s ‘Subconscious Heritage – The Seed of Personality Formation’ from the nearest shelf above the sofa, Damian knocked the book from my hand and replaced it with a novel.

“There was a time when you were into this kind of stuff too.”

His tone was severe, his voice deep. I swallowed my frustration, opened the book and read the first pages with my mind wandering from the white lighting in our living room to candles and hooded monks, into an old castle by the Thames. I fell asleep shortly after the abbot killed some lord because he was obsessively in love with his wife.

On Sunday Damian took me out to the promenade by the Old Casino. It was chilly, humidity permeating to my bones, even though I wore two sweaters, warm boots and a long, thick coat with a fur-lined hood.

He stood beside me like a detached guardian as I stared into the endless, grey horizon, the smell of salt and freedom flooding my senses.

Waves broke against the pedestal of the majestic building – Art Nouveau, with many huge, arched doors and windows, cloisters adorned with beautiful stone carvings, an imposing shell-shaped glass façade that presided over an immense, corroded terrace on the first floor.

There it stood, a mighty shadow of its past, blackened by time and ruin, waiting for the foamy tentacles of the Black Sea to pull it crumbling into its depth.

“How long, Damian?” I whispered. “How long until it’s swallowed by the waters?”

“It’ll take a while,” he replied dryly. “If they don’t renovate it they might as well tear it down, build something new.”

The image created in my mind was unpleasant. I shook it out of my head.

“And what would you imagine in its place?” I inquired as soon as I could master my tone.

The answer came immediately, as if he’d already thought about it. “Something tall and cubic, with stone walls and glass façade facing the sea, spacious.”

His hawk eye observed the building keenly, probably measuring and imagining how he’d tear it down and replace it with something that bore nothing of its mystic air, laden with stories and secrets. It angered me.

“It’s a historic symbol Damian, symbols are important to people.”

“Symbols need renewal. Clinging to the old doesn’t bring progress.”

I held my tongue, although it itched with protest. Polemic was as imminent as it was pointless. Damian rarely changed his mind and never his core beliefs.

“Who says we need progress,” I eventually mumbled, to spit out at least some of the bitterness.

“You would prefer going back to caves, perhaps?” he sneered, his eyes cold, piercing. “What would you have done ten thousand years ago with your fits of mental instability? Thrown yourself off a cliff?”

I wanted to sting him back with the same poison but I knew it wouldn’t work. So I walked to the parched balustrade, gripped it tightly until the biting iron numbed my palms. I took in a deep breath, closed my eyes.

“Come on,” Damian said in a softer tone, perhaps regretting his abrasive manner again. “You’ll freeze here.”

We drove back home where I prepared my schedule and papers for the next day.

That week I’d take over all English classes at the 12th C, one on Monday, two on Tuesday and one on Thursday.

It took me over an hour to come up with something that would draw and keep their attention so I decided on clothing and fashion, loaded an USB stick with pictures of threads, Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen.

That night I dreamt of a girl in a frameless mirror, her face obscured behind a curtain of pouring rain. I peered, craning and shifting to find the right position, brought my face an inch from it to get at least one clear glimpse of her. Without success.

Suddenly, her palms blasted flat against the mirror, causing a loud crack in its center that went coiling all over the pane into thin, glassy snakes. Through them a shrill, urging voice oozed in, surrounding me like the warning of a ghost ‘You need me…’

**************************************************************

To be continued

Copyright by Ana Calin, 2013

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself, leave a comment and share your feelings with other readers.The Blacksmith is a finished novel, the story unfolding sixteen years after Aurelia and Damian met. The next episode from The Blacksmith follows on Saturday, so stay tuned. On NEW YEAR’S EVE I’ll publish the entire prequel, Chasing Damian, which will be available as free read – check out the beginning here. If you wish to receive e-mail notification when new episodes and stories are posted, press the follow button (up by the header, right).

Wish you a wonderful weekend!

The Blacksmith – Chapter 2 – TEMPTATION

Ho!Ho!Ho! Merry Christmas all over the world! Allow me to play a small Santa role today and offer a humble gift, for the enjoyment of you out there who like a cozy Christmas surrounded by books, be they made of paper or pixels, travelling in the world of fiction. Enjoy!

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Pic source.

I walked to class wearing my don’t-mess-with-me outfit – black one button jacket and skirt slightly over knees, classy leather high heels. Under the jacket a white cotton top, no décolleté, long black beads hanging over it. I’d pinned my fleecy hair in a strict bun. Confidence came from the echo of my own steps across the hallway.

Loud bundles of students rushed into their classrooms, clearing the way like rebels would before a panzer. It was indeed not the same as I walked around the corner toward the secluded 12 C.

Some boys hung out on the corridor, enjoying the shrill laughs of their female colleagues. Their voices died down as I approached, aggressive gazes from under their eyebrows. I halted in front of them, back straight, eyes sweeping over them. No words. About thirty seconds. No reaction – defiant seniors. They already knew we had no power over them and they had nothing to be afraid of, except maybe a rough attitude and bad grades, which the worst of them could care less about.

I invited them inside more like a gentleman would a bunch of ladies, with a large but firm gesture of my arm. Unwillingly, they walked in. I followed.

The classroom looked like all the others but was a little smaller, shaded by gray blocks of flats that engulfed the barren schoolyard like towers of mold-infested concrete.

There were three rows of two people desks, one by the windows – three of them, big and barred like those of a prison – one in the middle and one by the wall.

I threw the register on the desk and took a stiff standing position, my back at the chalk scribbled blackboard.

“Aurelia Novac, your new English teacher.” I began in a dull tone, yet with the roughness cigarettes had endowed it with over the last twenty years – an underrated advantage if you’re a high school teacher with intimidation as your only weapon.

Stinging looks. Giggles from a girl. My eyes darted in her direction. A blond Barbie sitting in the last desk by the window. She had big blue eyes, dolly nose and – I would say – an abnormally large head. Beige top and a lot of bling bling, large, silver earrings protruding forward from silky strands of rich hair. An exquisite imitation of a Luis Vuitton hung by the backrest of her chair.

“Your name?” I inquired, fixing her sternly.

“Loredana,” she answered. Her voice shook a little, despite her mocking smile.

“Loredana who?”

“Loredana Bordei.”

I opened the register, found her name, looked at her grades. Decent ones. Really good grades in English.

I had her stand up. She was taller than me despite my high heels. Jeans were tight on long, yet thick legs.

“What are you doing this week end, Loredana?” I leaned against my desk, so that the whole class could see me.

She refused me a report, making it none of my business.

“English please,” I interrupted before her last word. “And feel free to fantasize if you don’t wish to share your plans with me.”

She babbled a little, lowered her head, searched for words. Her English was gruesome. So one of Mrs. Chivu’s protégés, well paying tutoring client.

The others looked at her and each other with wicked smiles. Some pulled out their smart phones, some whispered. Chatter increased, one guy threw a ball of paper across the room, aiming at another Barbie – curly hair, long and lithe, sitting in the first desk by the window.

“Loredana, sit down. You, get up.” I intervened, pointing with my chin to the paper sniper – a bulky boy with stylishly ruffled hair, wearing prewashed denim, a black T-shirt that wrote ‘Hardcore’ and a thick golden chain. His English was good enough to tell me that he was doing ‘something dirty’ with his ‘bitch’ that weekend, pointing to the curly-headed. With her cheeks turned all red, she sank her head and pressed her lips together in… shame.

Worthless smug. My boiling blood sent a sharp tingling in my fingers. My neck stiffened, my fists balled behind my back.

“You know what?” I interrupted, my voice as neutral as I could keep it. “Feel free to use this kind of language with whomever is willing to accept it, but I’m not one of them.” I walked slowly toward him “You’re not in your tent here, you’re in my class.”

I pierced into his eyes and he pierced back into mine, his jaw clenched, anger read all over his olive-skinned face. It was an expression that seemed to fit his features, he must get angry pretty often.

“I know you’re supposed to be an adult, but I see you’re not adult enough. Tell your mother to come see me Thursday evening. She comes or its bye bye university for you next year, ‘cause you won’t pass English.” I concluded, my tone even.

“Perhaps you’ll allow me to tell you about my weekend plans,” a soft yet manly voice caressed my ears. I turned. A very tall, slender figure rose from beside Loredana.

My eyes fell on a face clear and smooth like porcelain, with prominent but fine bone structure. His skin made such a striking contrast to his pitch black eyes that a chill went down my spine.

In the process of sinking my head in order to avoid gaping I couldn’t help my gaze brush over a definite, marble chest revealed by the loosened upper buttons of an indigo shirt. His thighs were long and strong under dark jeans.

Ivan Grabianko. It was true, he made an astonishing impression. My tongue went numb and refused to move for an instant. Oh poor, poor Mrs. Chivu . . . I tried to suppress a smile.

“May I?” I heard his luring voice again.

“Please,” I replied, shaking off the shock – it’s not every day that one gets to lay eyes on such a uniquely handsome creature. He was the most striking sight since Damian Novac, sixteen years ago.

He spoke in a beautiful, English accent that flowed naturally like a mountain spring. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I remember something about a rafting trip and friends around a big campfire. By the time he finished, I was sitting at the desk, chin in my palm, thinking of Mrs. Chivu and what she must’ve felt as she watched that boy’s lips move. She was probably looking as dumb as his colleagues – the Barbies – and me.

No one let out a mere whisper while he talked.

“What’s your name, young man?” I asked, pretending I didn’t know. I couldn’t believe the softness and musicality in my own voice, which were all but natural to me. It’s incredible what our instincts do with us sometimes.

“Ivan Grabianko,” he replied politely.

I opened the register, checked his grades. All great.

“You may sit,” I said.

I cleared my voice, scratched my forehead and had some others tell me about their Christmas plans, to get an idea of where they stood with English. I avoided looking at Ivan again.

I listened to the curly-headed too. Her name was Salma Sevim, half Turkish, half Romanian. She stood up, her arms slightly shaking, her cheeks still red with embarrassment, which she soon hid as she let dark curls fall over her face. Her voice was small. I asked her to look at me. She had the gaze of a thief tormented by guilt, thin eyebrows shaping the expression of a begging stray dog. Tears fell silently down a long face.

“Well, Salma,” I said softly as she finished, “I would like to see you in one of the breaks. Come to the teachers’ lounge when you can find the time. Today.”

The bell rang. I got up, gathered my things and glared sternly at them once more. My eyes rested on Ivan’s exquisite face for a moment longer than they should have.  He looked straight back at me, with nothing more than benevolence. Instinctively, I straightened my back and stalked out.

As soon as I set foot over the threshold they rushed up, knocking down their chairs. There was noise and a whirl of voices echoing behind me. I sensed them invade the corridors and mingle with the ‘inmates’ from other classes.

As I came down into the lounge, Raluca was already waiting in our cozy corner, her legs crossed, a victorious smile on her face that conveyed a subliminal ‘I told you so’.

“So? How was it?” she inquired a little amused.

“Why do you ask, you look as if you already know the answer.”

“You know what I mean . . . You saw him. How did he behave to you?”

“Quite well, actually. He helped one of his fellow students from a difficult situation with me. His English is great. How’s his French?”

“Beautiful and smooth. Was he bold?”

“No, actually he wasn’t. Which is more than I can say about Mini-Hulk with the ‘Hardcore’ T-shirt and the 50 Cent chain.”

I was certain she knew whom I was talking about. The T-shirt looked worn out so he must have had it on pretty often to show off his muscles and I imagined the golden chain was a trademark.

“Oh,” she smirked. “Trevor Coroiu. He’s one of Ivan’s ‘acolytes’, would do anything to impress him.”

“Trevor? What a name.”

It’d been trendy to give children foreign names for a while now, but they sounded so cheesy in combination with traditional Romanian last names that I had to laugh.

“Parents seem to have all gone crazy, especially the gypsies. He’s not the only case. I have a Matrix in 11 B,” Raluca murmured, a flicker of gossip-hunger in her eyes.

I burst into harder laughter, which soon turned into hoarse smoker cough that almost squeezed my lungs out.

“Trevor’s parents are rich gypsies. Made a fortune out of prostitution and beggary abroad,” she explained, the inconspicuous grin still on her face. “Still, he’s quite smart, you know.”

“I don’t doubt it.” I concluded the subject on Coolio, happy he received a fine education, but my thoughts and interest actually lay elsewhere. I was a little too eager to bring the discussion back to Ivan.

“He makes quite an impression, doesn’t he,” Raluca chuckled, as if she’d read my mind. “Ivan Grabianko, I mean.”

“He sure does but you know what,” I said, leaning toward her and lowering my tone. “I wonder why he didn’t strike me from the start. I only saw him when he got up to ‘save’ his friend.”

“That’s because he keeps to himself in the last desk, head down. He’s not noisy and usually doesn’t do anything to draw attention on first contact.”

“How did things develop with you?” I inquired.

“Well, at first all unproblematic. He was respectful. A couple of weeks later, he began to give me these weird looks. I didn’t know what to make of them at first. But then one day he came to me before I left class and told me I was one of the most attractive women he’d ever seen. Asked me not to deny him the pleasure of looking at me. Said he hoped this didn’t offend me.”

My heart stirred. Throat went tight again, my left cheek twitched. I reached into my bag, groped for the pack of cigarettes and lit one with cold fingers. It was then that it hit me – anxiety attacks, damn it.

Raluca continued with her account as I tried to concentrate on her pretty face and move my attention away from that darn general state of discomfort.

She had almond eyes, a small nose and full lips that could so easily lure into a kiss. Her hair fell in waves over her shoulders down to her waist. She wasn’t exactly size zero, but curvy. Probably a delight for the hands of her husband. Huge, natural boobs. She possessed an unmistakable air of mystery, it felt as if I myself didn’t ever quite know what to expect of her even after so many years that we’d known each other. She already had two kids, a girl and a boy. Fabia was eight and Valer was five. She had a happy sex life, still strongly attracted to her man even though they’d been together for almost two decades now. I believed her, since her moods were smooth and her manner direct but gentle. I’d never stopped to analyze her until now. I shook my head.

“What about the ‘dirty’ looks you said he’s been giving you?” I asked, my tone a little bitter.

“Those came later, in the last few weeks actually. He became intense, watching my every move, looking at me from head to toe with such . . . lust maybe, that it gave me the chills. But I couldn’t look away, such things make you unable to take your eyes off him.”

She took a deep breath and looked aside, out through the glass wall that showed to the now dry back garden of our high school. In the weak, graying daylight I caught the flash of secret that crossed her eyes. It wasn’t the chills that he gave you, but the hots… His presence was disturbing to her, probably the same as it was to Mrs. Chivu.

“Men, they have their ways when they want something. This kid just hasn’t learned better by now,” she continued, her eyes on me again as if she’d pulled herself out of some unpleasant state of trance.

That didn’t fool me. She had one more secret I needed her to confess.

“Are you attracted to him, Raluca?” I inquired in the most permissive tone I could, hoping to get a confession. My throat tightened and created such pressure in my head that my eyeballs risked to root out.

Her lips distorted in disgust and her gaze darkened scornfully. Definitely not the result I was aiming at.

“Aura,” she sneered, “you’re either an idiot or a pervert.”

“All right, just forget I asked,” I tried to wash away the matter pacifistically. It was too late.

“No. This time you went too far. I really want to know. So what are you?”

“Well, if you give me the choice, I’d prefer pervert.” I smiled and lowered my head to look at her from below like an innocent sheep. It worked. It made her laugh.

For a second my heart fled that place, left Raluca, and went looking for the sincere confessions of her sister, Sidonia, who shared her truest of thoughts with us, which mostly triggered Raluca’s sharp criticism.

***************************************************

To be continued

Copyright by Ana Calin, 2013

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself, leave a comment and share your feelings with other readers.The Blacksmith is a finished novel, the story unfolding sixteen years after Aurelia and Damian met. The next episode from The Blacksmith follows on Saturday, so stay tuned. On NEW YEAR’S EVE I’ll publish the entire prequel, Chasing Damian, which will be available as free read – check out the beginning here. If you wish to receive e-mail notification when new episodes and stories are posted, press the follow button (up by the header, right).

Wish you a wonderful Christmas!

The Blacksmith – Chapter 1 – LURKING WITHIN

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Pic source.

Present Day.

One October morning, as I sat in the teachers’ lounge with Raluca, who luckily taught French at the same high school, Mrs. Chivu burst in from the staircase across from us. She elbowed her way among the other colleagues who stood around, most probably conversing about the brashness and complete lack of respect of teenagers nowadays.

She burst into the principal’s office, slamming the door shut. I’d gotten to see her red cheeks and swollen eyes. She’d been crying.

Raluca stirred. As I turned toward her, worry crisped her noble face.

“What’s with her?”

“You didn’t hear? She’s decided to drop 12 C,” she replied, secret lighting up her chocolate eyes.

“She’s dropping such a gold mine?” I didn’t hide my shock. All the rich seniors were there and she could get at least half of them to come to tutoring.

“There’s this new boy, Ivan Grabianko, who’s driving her crazy.”

“Really?” I raised my brows. “Wow! I thought that after over thirty years she must’ve seen it all…”

“Don’t mock, Aura,” Raluca interrupted, a little edgy. “I know she’s a witch, but this boy’s a devil. I teach his class too and he’s given me some trouble as well.” She bent toward me and whispered with damped outrage. “And I’m talking dirty looks, bold remarks and she says in her case even touching. He’s got no shame and he’s waaaaaaay over the line with her.”

I couldn’t hold back a laugh. “He must turn her on…” I whispered amused.

“I don’t see the jest,” she scolded. “I know you’re an arrogant brat, Aura, analyzing the rest of us and stuff, but you’re really beside the point here.” She paused and glanced briefly aside. “This is harassment,” she concluded like a judge.

Now I turned edgy. “Harassment? This is like saying that the kid seduced the pedophile.”

Heads turned toward us – anger had overfueled my voice. I struggled to tame it.

“Raluca, one plus one is always two, whether you’re a teenager or an old ass. She has wet dreams with the boy and she’s trying to place the blame on him. Now that’s filthy.”

“I wonder what you would see if someone held a mirror in front of your own ugly demons” she replied in a grave, disapproving tone, then dismissed me with a wave of her hand. “Stop reading all that psycho shit.”

The bell’s ring forced us to head to class.

“You in for a latte later?” She threw over her shoulder, the friendly tone back in her voice as if by magic.

“Yeah, Damian’s working late. See you at six,” I replied as I tucked the register for 9 C under my arm.

We went down different hallways, she up to the first floor, I to the second.

The next day principal Gheorghe summoned me to his office. I found him in his cozy leather chair, deep in thought, patting his chin with his forefinger. The few strands that he usually combed back to cover his balding head looked tousled, with streaks of silver in the pale autumn light that flooded the room from a generous window behind him.  His face was pale and furrowed with age, stress and definitely too much alcohol.

“Ah, Aura,” he greeted in a practiced soft voice and stood up as I walked in. “Please, have a seat.”

He leaned against his mega-desk right in front of me and crossed his legs, eyes down. He chewed on his lower lip as he looked for the words to begin.

“I have some good news,” he started, “Mrs. Chivu won’t be able to teach 12 C anymore. I think people like her and myself have to admit to one thing: we’re too old to understand them students in the senior year, let alone connect to them or tame them…”

Tame

I let him finish his speech, but folded my arms across my chest, frowning. Whatever was coming, it was a lie. Disguising the devil into opportunity, that’s what he attempted.

It took a while until he came to the point. He tried to protect Mrs. Chivu, since they’d been friends for decades. I didn’t know what he covered for, but curiosity ate my brain.

“So I would like you to take over 12 C,” he concluded after a long introduction, expecting enthusiasm and gratitude as if he were offering me his own chair.

“I’ve never taught senior classes before,” I replied with false modesty and pressed for some more answers “But if I owe my advancement to Mrs. Chivu’s inability to deal with seniors anymore, then why does she keep 12 A and B?”

He paused, looked at me a little disconcerted. “Well, Aura, I’ll be honest with you,” he finally spoke again, legs parted, arms hanging by his lithe body, crooked under years and experience – both good and bad.

“They’re a wild pack, the 12 C. And I wouldn’t let you walk into that classroom unprepared, I meant to tell you right away,” he tried to gloss over his perfidy. “They’ve lost control Aura, especially since Ivan Grabianko came. His presence there is… problematic.”

“Then expel him,” I put in with a shrug. “He’s an adult, you’re not obliged by law to keep him enrolled.”

“I wish I could do that, but I can’t,” principal Gheorghe sighed. “First of all, he hasn’t done anything. And moreover, his family has offered a greatly generous sponsorship to our high school and could use that against us in the media,” his voice faded.

So they bribed you… I suppressed a snort. Every renovation or new equipment brought to our high school was paid for either from the generosity of our outrageously wealthy mayor or financed through European programs. Sponsorship by parents was something that happened on a smaller scale and usually went to the principal’s pocket, who didn’t parade his corruptibility but didn’t throw dirt on it like on a cat’s crap either. I didn’t know whether to admire or loathe him for it.

“And now honestly, Aura,” he continued hunkering down before me and placing a wrinkled hand on mine. “You have a way with these students. They like you, they’re more docile with you. Mrs. Chivu is really too old to face them.”

“Or maybe Mrs. Chivu just doesn’t like them.” I replied with a two-faced smile.

“She’s tired, my dear, she’s sixty-three…”

He got up and sat back at his desk. As expected, he didn’t even ask me whether I was willing to take over 12 C or not. And as usual, he’d used his sweet manner to mask his giving me orders.

***

I took Ivan Grabianko’s file home and leafed through it while Damian watched TV. Two empty cans of beer rested by his feet, while another one dangled from his hand.

Ivan was the son of Boris Grabianko, one of the most notorious characters in the city, who’d come to Constanta a couple of years ago. I remembered my dad had had a little to do with him when he’d first appeared on the radar, never personally, but soon chose to cut off all contact, referring to him as ‘bad news’ and finally a ‘crook’.

Boris owned clubs and hotels in Mamaia – a long stripe of land that can rival with the most beautiful beach resorts in summer, flowing between sea and lake, connecting our city with the neighboring town. There was no info on Ivan’s mother.

Ivan was eighteen and had come to our high school at the beginning of that academic year, in September. He’d received his previous education at home, with private teachers, but his father eventually decided he should complete his final year in high school because he needed an accredited degree to go to university. He’d chosen ours because of the boy’s inclination for foreign languages and especially classic literature.

“He must be a sensitive soul,” I commented to Damian, who threw a short, bored glance into the file.

“I’d say pussy,” he dismissed with complete lack of interest and took a gulp of beer.

I realized he didn’t refer to the boy’s alleged linguistic talents or passion for reading, but to his picture. It showed an ivory face smooth as if edited in Photoshop. Large and dark eyes matched the ebony in his hair, his lips angelic. I imagined a slender, elf-like creature. Poor Mrs. Chivu. I laughed.

“Laughing at things you imagine again?” Damian inquired with a friendly smile.

“I suppose you can say that. Mrs. Chivu dropped a class and I suspect it’s because she fell for a student . . .”

“All right,” he interrupted and took another gulp of beer. He’d cut me off each time I delved into ‘psycho shit’ and I’d learned to suppress the awkwardness. I just held my tongue and went on with the file. There wasn’t much more to draw background info from, so I read it over and over again.

“And why is that your problem?” Damian asked after a while, perhaps trying to make up for his brusqueness.

“He’s problematic and I’m supposed to replace Mrs. Chivu. He’s got an… eccentric personality, I guess.”

“And what are you trying to do, come up with some theory of why the boy’s trouble?”

“Yes,” I said, eyes still on the pages in my hands.

“Then stop squeezing your brain. He’s young and likes to make the old disdain themselves. He’s a pervert.”

“That’s it? No roots or reasons for this?”

“Yeah, that’s it. It’s who he is. Roots and reasons don’t matter.”

He stood up and went to get another beer, while I remained frustrated on the couch, sitting like a small Turk with my feet under my buttocks.

Damian came back and changed the subject to casual gossip on the latest news: the new prime minister, his fight with the president, corruption. It drove me so mad, my cheeks burned.

“What is it?” He finally asked, eyes still on the TV.

I took the opportunity to express my frustration.

“I wish you showed more understanding or at least more interest in the issues of human beings.”

“I understand enough,” he blocked harshly. Gulp of beer. Pause, eyes lost.

“I wish we’d get out of here, Aura. Just leave. Another country, new air, other people. I’m sick and tired.”

All of a sudden, the muscles in my throat started to pulse, choking me. It was a swift and even violent sensation. The eyes seemed to push out of my head with some weird pressure that came from my throat.

“Of what?” I managed to mumble, hoping my state would restrict to a passing moment.

“Of everything. The pointless work, the debts, the shackles”

Shackles… Shackles of marriage. My pulse quickened. I jumped from the couch and went to make myself some tea, proving a terrible listener for the first time in our years together.

I sneaked a peek at my own reflection in the vestibule mirror. A small, ashen skinned woman looked furtively at me, with swollen hazel eyes and thick eyebrows. Clear but fine lines on her meager face. It’s the cigarettes. Wiry hair, the color of rust, thin lips. What did he see in me in the first place?

That was a question Damian had refused to answer in the sixteen years we’d been together. Only one evening a long time ago, under the influence of his first beers, he’d told me I ‘felt right’. At his words my hands got sweaty – cold sweat. Tried to find out more but found the gates to his heart closed and sealed, like his lips. I never brought the subject again.

Late in our bed I tossed and turned, my heart was pounding frantically even though I laid down. Made myself another jasmine tea, and finally fell into half-sleep at around four in the morning.

Damian insisted that I saw the doctor the next day, who diagnosed me with hyperventilation and maybe deficit of vitamins. Prescribed calcium, magnesium and D’s. Prophesized I might continue feeling like that for a couple of days, my tanks needing time to refill. But the nights got worse, and the doctor switched me to beta blockers. Those seemed to work faster, so by the time I had my first class with the 12 C I felt a little more comfortable in my body.

*******************************************************************************

To be continued…

Copyright by Ana Calin 2013

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself, leave a comment and share your feelings with other readers. The Blacksmith is a finished novel, the story unfolding sixteen years after Aurelia and Damian met. The next episode from The Blacksmith follows on CHRISTMAS DAY, so stay tuned. On NEW YEAR’S EVE I’ll publish the entire prequel, Chasing Damian, which will be available as free read. If you wish to receive e-mail notification when new episodes and stories are posted, press the follow button (up by the header, right).

Wish you a beautiful pre-Christmas time!

The Blacksmith – Prologue Part 2 – BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

The Blacksmith, EXTENDED VERSION, free read online. My Christmas gift to you.

About:

This is how it all began. Against her best wishes, Aurelia falls hard for Damian, one of the most desired men on campus. Supported by her friends, she dares trust a hope and develops a strategy to get close to him. But Damian is a man with a heart of steel and a deadly purpose. Will he ever be able to requite Aurelia’s feelings?

ForbLove

Pic source.

Every breath hurt as if my sternum had been smashed with a rock. The blur before my eyes cleared to Sidonia’s pixie face framed by a white and stylish fur hat, her pale blue 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 dog.

“Don’t strain yourself,” Sidonia said, putting a warm hand on my face.

“It hurts,” I whispered.

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

Damian?

Sidonia smiled, probably reading the surprise in my eyes.

“He launched after you as soon as you fell. He carried you here, too.” There was a glint of ‘do you realize what this means?’ in her gaze.

My body felt stiff. I was wrapped in two coats – my own and a new slicker one, my scalp itching under what could have been a busby, yet none of it helped much. I still shivered as Sidonia tucked me under a blanket, leaving my arms out.

Muttering and shadows twirled around, only Sidonia’s face constant in the picture. I registered a friendly ‘Water by the bed’, Gino’s ‘Bug off, here’s the Vodka’, and Raluca’s ‘Call if you need me, sis’, addressing Sidonia. 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 shades 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?”

Sidonia threw me a catlike glance, her hands rubbing mine.

“Military service, Marius says. Damian served his time. He must’ve learned how to do this kind of stuff.”

This was going overboard – breaking down the train door, jumping after me, CPR, and now it turned out he’d cradled me to shelter. As far as I knew, cheesy Superman days were over and I suspected Sidonia was making fun of me, spraying fuel on my crush.

“Playing hero,” I croaked.

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

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

Damian held a bottle of water at my feet, his honey-skinned 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 must’ve been a mess. I scrunched my eyes shut as he began to knead my toes that looked like wax. 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?” Sidonia addressed him – agile on the first opportunity to give us some time alone, I figured. “I’m afraid Marius will get distracted if he misses me for too long, you know what I mean?”

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 the door closed 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?” he said softly, his eyes amused.

Lay with me? The implications gagged me. I nodded.

He stretched by my side, lifting my head with one hand and slipping a hard arm with a fluffy shell under the nape of my neck. Our eyes locked and my mind stuck on how rare his eye color was. I’d seen pale green, I’d seen blue often, brown and every combination thereof, but not that pure moss as if looked at through crystal. His eyes had the potential of shining bright like emerald, I thought. Maybe when he was mad. And I could make him mad 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 and putting a hand on his chest – very broad, well-shaped, yet not bulky.

“You should probably let me open those coats. You’ll warm up faster.”

Say what? My face burned, my fingers and toes tingled. I was suddenly hot. He unzipped the slicker, then unbuttoned the wool and slid his arms under it.

“Where are we?” My chest hurt with every word, but I had to derail his attention before my less than orthodox thoughts showed in my face.

“A tourist lodge. The train fell off track, but we were close to Predeal and within walking distance to a number of inns.”

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

“No earthquake?” I managed.

Damian shook his head.

“That was my first thought as the car began to wobble, but I was wrong. Earthquakes are not common in these parts of the Carpathians. They tried to pull the train forward through the snow and it slipped off.”

I nodded again and looked down at the shape of our legs under the blanket, not knowing what to say next to keep the conversation going. Damian’s fingers began stroking the side of my torso over the jersey, close to my breast. My brain threatened with shut down due to system failure.

“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, no worries. You spat out snow turned to water quite fast.”

“Oh … Sorry.”

“For what?”

“Spitting.”

His chest vibrated with a laugh. “You didn’t get the finest education at home.”

“No. I did not,” I muttered.

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. Sidonia would surely hunger for every single 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 warm body so close to mine made it impossible. His chest rose and fell calmly 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. 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 for it, but the feel of his muscles under the pullover made my breath intensify, which may have exposed me. His rhythm didn’t change and, 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 soundless 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 Lindy after all? Or maybe into another? What if he only wanted to be friends? Greedy for the shaft in his pants I’d probably lost that now, too, which made my chest hurt as much sniveling did.

Unable to put up with myself 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.

Power was out, so candles were the only source of light here too, making the snow clinging to the windows glitter like in fairly 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 rest of a wooden bench. With elbows on his knees, he planted me a green scowl from under knitted eyebrows.

My severely bruised ego screamed ‘Hide!’ so I mingled in, trying to find Sidonia. As I did, Marius hurried to get rid of me, so he grabbed my wrist and went on to introduce me to Lindy ‘J. Lo’ 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 Marius, I sat with her by the stove.

After long, awkward moments I tried for conversation, but I could barely bring more than ‘Lindy – that’s a rare name’ and ‘where are you from?’ about my lips, and not because of chest pain now. She said her parents were American and I instinctively mentioned my mother’s same heritage, but our connection was interrupted there.

“You’re American too?” a boy with limbs even looser than Gino’s bounced in, his voice too loud. His drunken eyes sparked at me as if I’d suddenly turned into an exotic dancer.

Heads turned, the guitar player’s fingers tangled in the cords. Blood shot in my cheeks.

“That would be an overstatement,” I muttered.

“How can you overstate origin?” Lindy sneered. She looked hazel 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. End of story.” I glared at her and then at Mr. Nosy.

“So your mom’s the American and your dad the cowboy from Draculean lands?” He gave me a stupid grin, meant and failing to be charming.

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

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

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

“It was Ceausescu’s boys 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?” A nerd with a dirty blond mane and round glasses whispered.

Shit . . .

I nodded and the nerd’s mouth popped open. I had a feeling he was the only one in our young group with enough real information to know what my dad’s name stood for in the right context. For the others it should’ve meant only heavy moneybags.

“So, you’re rich daddy’s girl,” Lindy confirmed my hunch, laughing and pointing a finger at me like in kinder garden. I wanted to slap her, but she was taller and stronger, so I feared the aftershock.

“Listen, hottie!” Sidonia placed herself before Lindy and fixed her with blue ice in her eyes. All signs of fun and liquor-conditioned euphoria were gone from her face.

“Aura didn’t make the sacrifice she did for anybody to still treat her like a social mutant!”

Raluca squared her shoulders behind her sister, trying to intimidate ‘Hottie’ with her almond-shaped, soft eyes, and missed her aim.

Driven by the pressure that built up in my head I didn’t wait for the outcome of this confrontation. I ran out the door with my face in my palms, fighting to keep back tears. The cool air on the porch dried my eyes instantly but also painted a sharp picture of my situation – lame, hopeless.

The lodge was somewhere high and close to the forest, countless fir branches warped with snow marking the wavy contour of endless hills, a full moon hanging low in the sky. A beautiful place it was. 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 Dolly the Monkey to my chest and dreaming of a prince in a fairly tale of my own. Yet my story turned out to be so much different – I was the Beast. The taste in my mouth was bitter.

I sank my hands in the slicker pockets and groped on something square and a piece of frozen plastic – a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Without much thought, I put the poison in my mouth, lit it with some difficulty and pulled in smoke, which got me coughing and the pain back in my chest. Still, the purpose was achieved – both Damian’s rejection and Lindy’s laughter were at the back of my mind. For but a second.

“So, daddy issues?” Damian’s voice made me turn briskly. He stood tall by my side, his eyes searching mine.

“Heavy loads,” I replied, more composed than I would’ve expected – an effect I ascribed to the cigarette.

“Sidonia said something about sacrifices,” he mused after a short pause.

“Sidonia 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 nodded, bitterness on the tip of my tongue. “I didn’t discover insulin or appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, so why would anybody harbor feelings for me that should be saved for special people, huh?”

“Is that a question?” The green in his eyes sparked emerald – unique, more beautiful than I’d imagined. I yet ripped myself from them and gazed in the distance, faking cold indifference to his looks.

“All right then, here it is,” I said. The cigarette 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. But a parent’s success can weigh heavy on the kid’s shoulders, you know? Everybody expects so much of you. I could live with that 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 Alex wasn’t a jackass. The only thing I kept was my last name, certain it would soon change anyway. But Alex left me a short while later, of course.” I coughed out the last words.

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

“You make it sound as if I’m a hero,” I croaked, turning to him. It was almost as if he chose to see me in the best possible light.

“I’m sure Sidonia shares my point of view,” he muttered, his tone soft.

“Sidonia 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 stared at him, drawn ever deeper into his scrutinizing gaze. It felt as if he dived into my mind, discovering things I wasn’t yet aware of myself. Things I hadn’t checked before revealing, so 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 dashing smile of his.

“Have you inquired and been left wanting?”

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

“I merely adjust to my interlocutor.” He winked as he hinted at our exchange in the bathroom.

“And a keen 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 gaze steady on my face. I swallowed hard.

“I’m not done,” he said in a low, soft voice, “This Alex guy, you must’ve loved him to sacrifice everything you did.”

“Is that a question?” I muttered, my eyes locked on his. Breathing became difficult.

The front door burst open as if thrown off by draft. Sidonia appeared in the frame, her eyes ready to pop out of their sockets, her blond hair so disheveled that it could’ve easily competed with my morning coiffure. Yet the fear imprinted on her face spoke of someone who’d just been struck by lightning or seen a ghost.

“We need you inside! Now!”

***

To be continued…

Copyright by Ana Calin, 2013

***

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Wish you a beautiful winter week!

The Blacksmith – Prologue – CHASING DAMIAN

Christmas draws near and stories fill the winter air. So, dear readers, please accept my humble present: The Blacksmith, EXTENDED VERSION, free read online.

This is how it all began. Against her best wishes, Aurelia falls hard for Damian, one of the most desired men on campus. Supported by her friends, she dares trust a hope and develops a strategy to get close to him. But Damian is a man with a heart of steel and a deadly purpose. Will he ever be able to requite Aurelia’s feelings?

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

Sixteen years ago I met a young man who turned me into a creepy stalker. Struck by those moss green eyes full of mystery – or maybe misery – my sanity melted away like an iceberg hit by global warming.

I was twenty at the time, studying English Language and Literature at the Universitatea Ovidius in Constanta. For four years I destroyed the soles of my shoes going to the same white building on an open campus, close to the deserted beaches of our ghostly town.

My last relationship had been a draining and torturing one, with my ex finally admitting – or simply alleging, as I hoped – that his interest had never been in me, but in the wealth of my father and the future that might have resulted from a union with me. Being the daughter of Tiberius Preda turned out to be a stigma rather than an advantage, and as a consequence I resorted to keeping the connection secret and my lifestyle modest.

So I proceeded carefully with my new love interest. The only problem was that I didn’t really possess any other means of standing out beside my father’s name, not among the tart up beauties with silky hair and perfect eyebrows who looked like J. Lo at her best. On my dry skin foundation always ended up looking like unevenly distributed flour and my hair galvanized like copper wire no matter what I did. Sidonia helped sometimes and spent hours on my styling, trying to cheer me up.

“You’ll learn, no worries,” she’d say.

She was wrong. I never did. And she finally gave up with a hopeless shake of her head. “God, Aura, you do have two left hands.”

I first saw him in the cafeteria, surrounded by a group of loud laughing, overconfident boys with iron pumped chests. But it was him who drew my attention like a magnet. A glance around the cafeteria was enough to realize I wasn’t the only one interested in him.

He was tall and athletic, with waves of dark hair brushing the top of his broad shoulders. Well muscled under a white knit sweater that his body molded, he made for quite a view, and as good as every wench around drank it in.

“Damian Novac,” Sidonia whispered in my ear, noticing my dropped jaw. She tossed a strand of dyed blond hair off her shoulder with a graceful move. “Civil Engineering, final year.”

She smiled in his direction. I didn’t dare do the same, but looked around like a fox watching for hunters, making up strategies before dodging out of the bushes. The last thing I needed was getting another bullet through my heart.

Damian didn’t see me that day, or the day after. I observed him from afar for weeks. He was aloof, yet his eyes always intent, as if his thoughts were fixed on something way beyond those walls and his cares way more serious than the infatuations of wannabe divas. He wasn’t oblivious to their advances, just utterly unimpressed.

His group of friends, nevertheless, always surrounded him, as if searching for his approval for everything they did. Even a manly laugh and a tap on the shoulder were always accompanied by a furtive ‘was that all right’ glance. So an alpha, I thought.

“No wonder we’re all leaving wet traces like snails when he’s around,” I once whispered to Sidonia. She laughed her wide, sensual laugh, revealing whitened teeth.

“I just love your dirty mouth, Aura.”

“I speak but the truth.” I smiled back at my best friend.

We left the university giggling. At that age we were still able to speak the naked truth, no matter how ugly or dirty it was. We could care less about ‘social acceptability’.

We sat in the confinements of Montana, a nearby wooden pub that served as a haven for furious bikers on Saturday nights when it reeked of beer and pot. But today it was nice and quiet, we had our peace drinking bad filtered coffee, smoking cigarettes and making plans.

Sidonia wanted me to get over the disaster with my ex as soon as possible. She took her role as image consultant very seriously while I came up with ways of manipulating destiny into ‘casual’ bumping into Damian at another, ‘cleaner’ pub – the Bourbon, deep in the heart of the city – or at parties organized by fellow students.

It was at one of those parties at the dorms that I finally arranged to stumble into his arms with a glass of red wine. Sidonia had forced me into a push-up bra, a red sleeveless top and tight jeans, but I still looked like a malnourished, rusty-furred poodle.

The room was hot and crowded, so I hopped over legs and bottles in my way, faking a fall against Damian’s chest. It was hard and the hands steadying me were big like shovels.

“S … Sorry,” I mumbled.

He looked down at his ruined shirt.

“It’s all right.” His voice sounded like black velvet – deep, soft, giving me the goose bumps.

I dared a direct look at his face and my heart leaped into my mouth. Up close he was so handsome with his dark green eyes, perfectly chiseled features and strong jaw that he should’ve been as illegal as heroin. My nose was at the level of his chest, breathing in the scent of freshly cut wood – maybe fir. Jeez, he’s huge.

With a slightly pissed frown but gentle hands he made sure I could stand on my own feet and turned to walk away. No, no, no!

“Let me take out the stain,” I croaked over the base and clasped his arm. “There’s some detergent in the bathroom.”

He turned to me, the frown lingering on his brow, his tone polite and detached.

“I’ll do that myself, thank you.”

For a second I panicked, thinking that he saw through my plot. I searched desperately for a way to keep contact and gave him an awkward smile. Reciting the words Sidonia had made me learn by heart seemed like the only option.

“You need to wash out the wine within the next two minutes, if you want to save your shirt. I’m a woman and I have some dexterity with that, that’s all.”

He glanced around as if assessing who paid us attention, and then looked at me again. Dancing and drinking people – Sidonia, Raluca and Gino included – stared at us. Then a possibility hit me – maybe he’d scouted the area for his girlfriend or something. At that thought, my stomach clenched. Though I hadn’t seen him with anyone during the weeks I’d observed him from under my eyebrows, a girlfriend wasn’t completely out of the question. Maybe she wasn’t from the campus. But then again, Sidonia would’ve come upon that anyway in her subversive, shrewd investigations.

“Two minutes,” I reminded him of the time ticking until the stain would be forever imprinted in his white shirt. “Let me save the situation and then you won’t see me again.”

He gave me a reserved smile and motioned me to lead the way. The gesture was infused with elegance and strength at the same time, coming from a stud like him. Oh, how I’d ride you, boy!

We waited in front of the bathroom until a drunken blonde reeled out. Luckily it didn’t take longer than two minutes, otherwise I would’ve risked him changing his mind. Girls around us fidgeted and swayed, eyeing Damian. Boys already mistook the hallway and this or that corner for toilets as they staggered and cursed.

Damian and I didn’t speak to each other but I was sharply aware of his presence behind me, of his breath above my head. He stood real close, his upper thigh brushing against my backside as sweaty bodies squeezed us together. My heart raced faster. I struggled with my burning cheeks and wild imagination as we closed the door in the gaping faces behind us. Jeez, I’m alone with him! Alone with him in a messy bathroom . . .

To my jaw dropping surprise, Damian began unbuttoning his shirt. I swallowed hard. Still, to make my indifference to him credible, I refused the sight.

“Keep it on. Unless, of course, you have a change of clothes within reach.”

“I don’t.” Again that deep voice that I couldn’t believe I was finally hearing, spoken only for my ears.

I snatched the detergent from a pile of tubes and boxes on the washer and rinsed the stain – half his shirt, that is. After spraying some water on it from the tips of my fingers, I began rubbing the wine into instead of out of the fabric with one hand, keeping it stretched and away from his body with the other. The large spot soon turned transparent, I could see a blur of his flat abdomen and his happy tail through it.

“I’m Damian, by the way,” he said.

“Aurelia,” I replied in a trembling voice. “Preda, Aurelia Preda.”

“I must say, you’re quite observant, Miss Preda. I’m impressed you should notice the stain remover and think about it as soon as you ruined my shirt.”

Shoot, he knows what I’m doing . . .

“What’s so impressive about it?” I looked up at him and tried for a casual smile.

“It requires some presence of mind,” he said, his eyes narrowing and his sculptured lips drawing in a smile.

“I … I brought it, actually. Today. Gino is in constant need of such,” I lied with a nonchalance that I had trouble believing myself. Anything to save the appearances. I knew Gino would support my allegation, he was ‘my people’ and deep in this with me. He’d organized the party and we were in his dorm.

“I understand.” Damian’s eyes glittered with some kind of cunning. “Have I seen you before, Aurelia?”

I shrugged and faked lack of interest. I dropped my eyes to the stain, though.

“Maybe. In the cafeteria, or at the Bourbon. That’s where I seek refuge from my persecutors.”

“Persecutors?”

“The Inquisition, isn’t is obvious?” I said, pointing at the shock on my head.

Again, that dashing smile on his face.

“You claim yourself a witch?”

“I claim nothing without my lawyer,” I attempted another jest.

“And Gino? Is he one of your confederates?” He sounded interested and hope sparked in my chest.

“You could say that. He’s dating a dear friend of mine, Raluca,” I hurried to block any doubts that might arise. I’m available and all for you, Mr.

“Now I remember,” he said as if he truly just realized, “I saw you at the Bourbon with him and some others. You never miss some fun.”

He saw me?

“I’m forever in search of it. As are you, I notice.”

“Hardly. I supply food and beverages.”

Say what?

“What do you mean?”

He shrugged, making it clear that he didn’t want to dwell on the matter.

“It’s just an activity that pays bills. And what brings me to the Bourbon and parties.”

“So you’re no real friend of Bacchus’?” I realized I’d never seen him with a beer in his hand, or any kind of alcohol for that matter.

He laughed – another velvety sound.

“You find me entertaining?” I asked.

“I like the way you speak. It’s very, how shall I put it? Unusual.”

“You think?”

He nodded, green eyes intent and fixed on mine. I alone had his attention now, the whole world was shut out. I stopped breathing.

“I merely adjust to my interlocutor,” I whispered.

He laughed again as I tried to sheath my crush on him with the veil of further jokes and friendship. He acted like he bought it, opened up to me, laughed more, and soon our groups began to mingle in the cafeteria.

A week later Gino came up with another of his plans that both our gang and Damian’s appreciated. It had begun to snow and he organized a trip to the mountains, so it wasn’t long until we got on a train with heavy backpacks and furred boots, but my hopes of finding a place by Damian’s side shattered as soon as I set foot in the compartment.

He was flanked by one of his friends and a J.Lo who I didn’t stand a chance against. She was tall, loud and bold, her grin white and large, but that wasn’t the first time I saw her and I knew she wasn’t his girlfriend – at least not yet. I ducked in my coat up to my nose and watched frustrated how she drew closer to him, acting like an easygoing friend.

“Come on, Novac,” she said, her pitch too high, “I won’t bite, I’m just freezing.”

He rested one arm loosely on her shoulder and turned his eyes to the window. She leeched on to him but he kept distant, which made me feel not all was lost. I wanted to slap myself for clinging to the faintest hope and for the way I ogled him, but I couldn’t help it. He looked fantastic in his brown coat, dark jeans and what seemed like army boots. His hair spilled in raven waves to his shoulders and the stubble gave his beautifully chiseled face the air of a young barbarian.

J. Lo caught me staring. She pulled her knees up and cuddled to his chest. I doubted she did it because she saw any kind of competition in me – that was out of the question – but because she felt powerful and probably enjoyed my suffering, knowing I would’ve done anything to be in her place.  She closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep with a relaxed smile on her face.

Cottages glided by as the train – barely more than old cart from communist times – moved lazily, its distant whistles lost in the night as we advanced to the middle of nowhere. A few times I thought Damian glanced at me and my heart jumped, but I dismissed it as wishful thinking until the train got stuck in what looked like Siberian snow, ice flowers spreading visibly over the pane. Everybody breathed steam and I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, shaking violently. That’s when Damian gazed long at me with a worried frown.

“Gino,” he said, lifting his arm and waking J. Lo, “Where’s the Vodka I gave you?”

Gino’s sleepy eyelids fluttered open. He brushed sandy tendrils off his forehead and removed his own arm from around Raluca, who shivered at his chest, her eyes hooded and her thick lips white. He reached to the overhead rack and dropped a bag on Sidonia’s head, who grunted and stirred from the more or less comfortable place she’d found in the arms of an iron pumped boy from Damian’s group.

“Sorry, Sid,” Gino mumbled and took down a ragged backpack. Something clank inside. He staggered on his skinny, Spiderman legs to Damian, who stood up to support him.

“Jesus, you look like you might break into ice shards,” Damian said.

“I’m afraid my brain’s already splintered. I should’ve been the first one to think of the liquor,” Gino replied with a stiff grin that meant to be friendly but rather gave the impression of a frozen fossil.

Damian opened the backpack and took out three small bottles like the ones Russians keep in the inside pocket of their sheepskin coats. He handed one to J.Lo and one to Gino.

“Pass that around,” he told them, then he took a seat by my side with the third bottle.

I blinked and barely refrained from rubbing my eyes. I couldn’t believe he was so close to me, by his own choosing this time.

“Drink this,” he said softly, holding the open bottle to my mouth. A sharp smell made me crease my nose and push his hand away.

“Vodka. It’ll help warm up,” he insisted.

I sniffed at it a couple of times and finally took a sip that went like a flash of fire to my stomach. I grimaced, but Damian chuckled and looked at me like you would at a playing puppy. It was the strangest expression I’d ever imagined on his face, like a predator smiling clumsily at a shivering deer. I smiled back, my heart drumming. It wasn’t until my eyes fell on the open mouthed J. Lo that I realized why he must’ve switched to my side: I was the only one without a pair of arms around me. Damian was just looking after the less fortunate. My chest deflated.

“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I grunted and drew away, pulling my knees up. I didn’t look at him to see his reaction, but he didn’t move from his place.

Suddenly, the car began to wobble like a ship on a stormy sea. The girls shrieked and boys glanced around with wide eyes. As for me, I didn’t realize what was happening until the lights flickered and finally went out, making me burst into a fit of screaming too. A hand wrapped around my arm and pulled me to a broad chest, my nose sinking in a warm, fluffy pullover.

“Earthquake,” Damian’s bass voice sounded above my head. At the next jerk, he dropped back in the seat with me in his lap.

“Maybe they’re just, just, just taking us out of the snow,” J.Lo babbled.

“It ain’t no shovels moving this train, Lindy!” I recognized the voice of Sidonia’s  new conquest. He sounded frantic.

The car came to a brusque halt in its swaying and Damian jumped to his feet with me in his arms, sheltering me with the sides of his open coat. I pushed my face deeper in his pullover as he slid the compartment door open with his elbow.

“What are you doing?” Gino yelped.

“We need to get out of here,” Damian replied. His tone was calm, but not devoid of stress.

“What if it starts again?” His bodybuilder friend croaked. “We’re deep in the mountains, we could get killed in an avalanche.”

“And you think we stand a better chance if an avalanche traps us in this metal box, Marius?” Damian raised his voice over his friend’s but didn’t wait for a reply.

He rushed with me down the aisle and only put me down as we reached a growing clutch of shrieking people by the exit. Fear gripped me, my heart punched hard against my ribcage as I stretched my arm to keep him close. To no avail, I lost him as he made his way through.

In the chaos of screams and bodies squashing me between them I freaked out, but I was unable to make a sound. The door snapped open and a winter gush wheezed through, lashing my face numb as people poured out of the car and drifted me forward with them. I sank to my knees in the glistening snow and waved my arms to keep from falling into the forested abyss that gaped before my eyes.

A huge hand clasped mine, steadying me, and the instant I looked into Damian’s focused face I understood he’d left my side to break down the door. I forgave him on the spot. He turned to help the others out of the car but missed one, who bumped hard against me and sent me like a ball down the slope.

I rolled and rolled, my mind frozen as snow infiltrated to my skin from under my scarf and sleeves. A front crash with a tree trunk knocked the air from my lungs and the last thing I saw was a shower of white that filled my mouth and nostrils. I choked under the mountain of cold that buried me, desperately trying to breathe in, the barrier of snow gagging me on the inside.

My head began to cloud with lack of air and I felt my pulse give up. That moment I knew the sense of safety was a mirage, as if some tiny fairy at the back of my mind urged me to keep fighting. I saw a bright sphere, but I knew it wasn’t the moon. It was light at the end of a black tunnel, a light that sucked me toward it with the force a vacuum cleaner would a fly. I fought against the pull and stopped close to the now huge moon. The weight started to lessen from what I now identified as my chest and I began to spin backwards, as if something drew me with the same force farther and farther from the bright sphere. As it became smaller, it warped into the shape of a child-like face. A pair of bright, caramel eyes with long, heavy lashes and beautifully arched eyebrows pierced at me through the darkness. The most crystalline pitch I’d ever heard filled my head. “You need me . . .

***

To be continued…

Copyright by Ana Calin 2013

***

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Wish you a beautiful winter week end!

The Queen of Hearts – Episode 3 – THE HERO AND THE VILLAIN

FREE READS for pre-Christmas time. Enjoy a break with a new episode from The Queen of Hearts.

Sequel to The Blacksmith and Cries of the Blood, The Queen of Hearts takes Aurelia deep into the mysteries of her bloodline and compelling attraction to Damian – her former husband and now the deadliest member of the demidemon Order.

canstockphoto4527990-1

***

I struggle to keep calm as Aimee returns to her work. She doesn’t speak to me again for what I fear might be yet more hours.

“Will you be needing my further assistance today?” I ask in an even tone.

She shakes her head and waves a hand.

“Just be here tomorrow morning.”

I walk slowly along the aisle toward the library doors. When I’m finally out into the swarming Vault I increase my pace and bump against the scientist demis in gray suits. I try not to look at those crawling along the walls and ceiling, but my skin creases as I sense them.

I run down the corridor leading to the small wooden door where Damian and I separated yesterday. He’s not behind it. The narrow, rocky stairwell is empty in the weak light of a fading torch that barely keeps away spiders and other small beasts.

My nostrils flare as something in my sinuses seems to open up like dilating channels that reach into my brain, their walls growing sensitive.

I sniff at the air instinctively, like a rabbit. The scents I catch sting through my nose into my forehead – the heavy oil from the torch, rock and the scent of wood and musk. Damian’s been here. Logic processes the data and sends gut feeling to tell me that he must’ve been waiting for at least an hour.

I turn to the corridor again and let his scent lead me to my own chamber. I’m anxious that he should dare look for me there. But now I notice there are no Guards at the door. So Ivan must’ve taken them off the task. I’m free to move around now.

There’s no trace of Damian inside the room except for his scent. The curtains are open, showing to a bloody sunset crowning the wild foreheads of distant mountains. I’ve been with Aimee the whole day! I realize in shock. I don’t pause to take in the view, but follow my quickening heartbeat out and down the grand stairs to the palatial ground floor. That’s where I catch his scent again.

I trail it among loose clutches of people across a rectangular hall with gilded ceiling and mirrors. They’re so bright that they cast beams of light all over the hall – pure gold, tons of it. My stomach turns at the opulence, as if I’ve just gulped down a gallon of sugar. Seing the doors at the far end guarded by Lucas Mortimer and Decebal Cazan adds to the nausea.

Mortimer fixes me with those wicked green eyes of his as I approach. When I’m just a step away from the doors he stops me and glares as if he can’t believe my guts.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he grunts.

“I’m searching for my, er, for my man. Ivan. I mean, the Executioner,” I babble the first excuse that comes to mind.

A sharp grin stretches on Mortimer’s square, white face.

“Keep it to the bedroom, Queen of Hearts, or whatever other place. The room behind these doors is off limits for you, even if Ivan were in there.”

My temper flares as I sense Mortimer’s feelings. He despises me so much that he’d do me and cut me at the same time. He imagines himself pulling my hair and sliding a knife around my breasts while my legs are twisted upward and he bangs into me, causing pain that makes me scream. That’s the only thing he sees me good for – being used like a hunk of warm, bloody meat to release the sick libido of men like him and being passed around until there’s nothing left of me but rags. Then the last monster to do me would throw me in a ditch – the fate of all Rooty women who come into these devils’ claws. Except, I’m no longer a Rooty.

I stiffen up and drill my fingers into his chest. It’s hard like iron and my hand hurts, but I won’t drop away. My chin trembles with indignation. I yet keep my tone low.

“Your feelings awake memories in me, Seraph. Memories of how a dear friend of mine died, at the hands of a killer like you. I’ve sworn to myself that every such killer I meet will pay with his heart.”

Mortimer lets out a low laugh and slaps my hand from his chest.

“I don’t kill my women, Queen of Hearts,” he says and bends to me as if snapping from a sling. His eyes look greedily into mine in search of shock and pain as he speaks, “I grant them long lives so I can bang all the shit out of them.”

“You torture them,” I spit.

He shrugs, full of himself.

“That’s how I like to fuck, but I don’t force anybody. It’s them who come to me,” he concludes, arms apart as if he just gives the world what it wants from him.

“You think yourself a stud, don’t you? If women knew what you truly are, you’d spend eternity jerking off.”

Mortimer bursts into laughter, much like Aimee did before him. For a moment there I think I got crap on my face or something.

“Oh, Queen of Hearts, you’re a female and yet know as good as nothing of the female heart. No, you see, you’re wrong. If they knew what I am, they’d first try to save me with their overdone care and patience,” he raises his eyebrows, purses his lips like an impressionable boy and looks at Cazan, who grins back at Mortimer with an expression of approval on his face. Mortimer continues.

“Girls, they put up with so much shit, you can’t imagine. And you know why? Because they love this body so much that they don’t care who I am on the inside. You surely know their usual excuses, you must’ve heard them from some of your friends too: ‘He’s suffering and that’s why he’s such a jackass. But deep down he’s a good guy, I know’. And until the jackass doesn’t hurt them dry of tears they don’t think of walking out.”

“I see. Some call that resilience. I call it love,” I counter.

“I would as well, really, if I’d seen at least one woman taking shit to save the monstrous soul of a buckled, penniless old man. ”

“You can only come up with a solid theory on that one if you study every single couple in the world, Seraph. Samples won’t do in matters of the heart.”

The expression on Mortimer’s face is still amused.

“You’re a special one indeed, Queen of Hearts. You entertain me with your unique kind of stupidity, I’ll give you that. It was nice talking to you, but you’ll have to go now. The Executioner’s not behind these doors.”

The discussion’s tired me but I don’t want to leave. I’m here for Damian and not Ivan. I used Ivan’s name only as an excuse to peek inside and see if my actual interest is in there, where his scent leads me. After I take a few slow steps away from him, thinking of ways to stick around, Mortimer’s voice stops me.

“Oh, and, Queen of Hearts.”

I turn wearily.

“I must apologize for my feelings a few moments ago. I promise I’ll tame my fantasies of you from now on.”

A curse itches the tip of my tongue but I swallow it down and draw behind a cluster of six demis across the hall. I can see the closed doors if I crane to the side from time to time. But I’m no master at finding my way in a group, and soon the six people stop speaking among each other and stare at me icy-eyed. They hold papers and ‘colored cocktails’ – as I call them – but this time the liquid is in porcelain tea cups.

They measure me from head to toe, making me sharply aware that I’m out of place and underdressed with my linen shirt, jeans and flats. Not to mention that my size must make me look like a child no older than fourteen. I sense two of them – a man and a woman who look like a couple – recognize me from the ball yesterday. The expressions on their faces twist from arrogant to disgusted.

“Have you been waiting long?” A familiar female voice reaches my ears.

I turn to see the proud silhouette of Valentina Grabianko approaching from the entrance like a floating fairy. I can’t believe the feeling of relief I get as those intelligent black eyes glow at me from her bony face. Her hair is pulled back in a chignon, her high brow and witch nose exuding even more elegance than the long, classy dress she wears.

With every step she takes closer to us the group takes one back. I sense their level of respect rise, though they know Val holds no power within the Order.

“Val!” I hurry to put my arms around her. She makes a fine stopping gesture by holding her palms up, but she smiles.

“Smart that we agreed to meet in the evening. During the day this place is as full as Westminster Hall, with too many people crowding before the great doors. We wouldn’t have found each other had the sun been any higher in the sky,” she says, motioning with her long, ivory arm to an arched window.

I understand instantly she wants to justify my hanging around to the six demis. They don’t dare utter one word, but keep their puzzled gazes on us – puzzled that Val should give me any attention. I sense in their memories that Val’s always been a sort of enigma for them – she rarely speaks and when she does, it’s only to address one of her own Nucleus. There’s something distant about her that makes others wary of approaching her.

“Let us take this to a more comfortable environment,” she says and leads me away from the group and towards the exit. I look back, worried that from wherever she’s taking me I won’t be able to see who goes in or out the golden doors. To my relief, just right from the hall there’s a large chamber bathed in a cozy atmosphere and that’s where Val ushers me in.

The same minstrels I heard the night before play quiet, relaxing Jazz on antique instruments in a corner, entertaining groups of three and four people lounging around. By the players’ faces they’re fascinated by the beauty each demi brings as they walk in, and their music takes up a different nuance in honor of each face.

The ceiling is high and the walls splashed with mural paintings, making the place look both old and elegant. Sophisticated candelabrums give off scents so flowery and so pleasant that I realize in a flash they, too, are made of fluids from demis’ bodies.

I  sniff as my olfactory fibers readjust. I feel them stretch, dilate and constrict again, resetting to keep focused on the trail of Damian’s scent so I can follow it when the time comes. I hurry to take a seat on one of the silky lounge sofas that face the entrance – this way I’ll see every person who comes out of the rectangular hall.

The armchair next to me squeaks a little as Val takes her seat. A Rooty girl wearing black and white service clothes appears with a tray and bows to offer porcelain cups like I’ve seen before. They too contain liquid made of my kind’s bodies. I shudder and pass. After Val takes one I wave the girl away in such a manner that she understands I don’t want to see her again. A Rooty looking as healthy and amiable as she does can’t be one of the demidemons’ slaves, so she must be here because she admires them. Or the big bucks they must be paying.

Val sips from her cup looking away, toward the musicians. She seems as distant to me as she did to the six demis in the hall and I’m taken aback by it. In the end, she’s the one who saved my life in the Identifier’s lair when Damian, then still my husband, wanted to pierce me with his blade. She’s the one who helped me understand my Core. And I’m the one person in the world who knows her deepest secret. Her sin. We spent little time together but she’s dear to me in a special way.

“Thanks for helping me out with those people,” I attempt a break at the ice.

Val shifts in her armchair, holding the cup in one hand and the saucer in the other. She crosses her ankles and leans her slender knees to one side like a veritable princess. The gesture looks natural but she seems to be feeling awkward.

“You’re welcome.”

“I saw you in the Regent’s loge the other night, with your father,” I try again.

“That loge is pretty much everything I get to share with my family since we came to France.”

“Aren’t you all staying here, at the Chateau?”

“No. Only members of the Order get to stay under the Regent’s roof. A great honor,” she says and takes a sip, looking at me from over the cup’s lip. Her eyes demand an explanation. I’m forced to give her a lie.

“Val, we … Nathaniel didn’t approve of us. Of Ivan and me. I had to find a way out.”

“So you betrayed your Nucleus.”

No!

“Yes.” I blink rapidly.

She nods and, as my eyes settle on hers, I see she believes me. There’s a warm, sad smile on her face and her gaze is soft. Her voice comes out small and too sweet to fit her class.

“Don’t beat yourself up for it, Aura. As a demi you experience the deepest and most consuming levels of love that will either make you a hero or a villain. Whichever you may be, I’m glad Ivan found his way into your heart and I …”

She pauses and looks at her cup, as if she’s embarrassed. “I never got to thank you, Aura. Feeling love is a blessing. My brother now gets a taste of Heaven because of you, even though his feelings didn’t come … naturally.”

Her trust and genuine gratitude makes a lump form in my throat again. I’m sick with myself. Val is one of the few people who know of Ivan’s true affection for me and this affection gives her joy. As does the fact that I allegedly feel the same about him. I’d change the subject but there’s too much I need to know.

“I’m waiting for him right now,” I say. Guilt builds up in my chest for trying to manipulate information out of her opening heart.

“He’s not in the Hall of Thrones, if that’s where you expected to find him.”

I open my eyes wide, trying to fake surprise. I don’t know what the Hall of Thrones is, but Damian’s in there, behind the golden doors, so I need to find out.

“Why would Ivan be excluded?” I ask. A question allowing for various answers.

“Why would he be included? He told you to find him there?”

“No, but … I gather he’s wherever the Blacksmith is.”

Val’s smile vanishes, sadness clouds her gaze.

“Ivan and Damian. The Executioner and the Blacksmith. Yes, they should share privilege and that in my father’s Nucleus. But Ivan left us to be with you and, sadly, we’ve lost Damian to the Order without a hope of ever bringing him back.”

“How come lost?”

“The Regent offered Damian power, Aura, so much of it that our Nucleus couldn’t compete. The Order is above all demidemon Nucleuses and the Regent the most influential man in the world. He can build space shuttles in a month and cleanse the world of cancer in a day if he chooses to – that’s to give you an idea of what we’re talking about. No one can reach any higher than that.”

“And Damian is in the Hall of Thrones now?” I ask, hoping my hunger for confirmation doesn’t show.

Val nods.

“And wha … what is he doing in there?”

“You don’t know what the Hall of Thrones is, do you?”

I look long at her. She leans in and offers a quiet explanation.

“It’s where the Regent convenes with Nucleus leaders such as my father during the day, discussing the regional affairs each Nucleus administers. But the evenings are reserved for the Regent’s innermost circle – demidemons who have control on a global scale and who answer to no one in the world except the Regent. Damian is one of them. He runs the warfare operations against the Order’s only enemy that could prove dangerous – demiangels. He’s become the Order’s High Seraph, head of the Cleric and Guard, and that in less than a month. Ivan is only one of Damian’s many subordinated pawns. That’s why he’s wherever the Blacksmith is, as you put it, or where the Blacksmith sends him, but he never follows in Hall of Thrones.”

My palms are wet. I refuse to believe what I hear.

“No, it can’t be…” I say, shaking my head. I feel like laughing, though I’m far from amused.

Val misinterprets me, but to my best interest, as it turns out.

“I know you had other hopes for Ivan. But the Order of the Snake is too big of a hydra for him to find a suitable place in it.”

I couldn’t care less about Ivan. I look away, afraid Val might read it in my eyes.

“But Damian’s just a Blacksmith Core, how can he run warfare operations? Wouldn’t the position be better suited for a Mars Core, for someone like … Lucas Mortimer?” I say his name in a low tone. I don’t want to cause Val any pain. But it’s not his name that she reacts to now.

Just a Blacksmith Core? Damian is the strongest demidemon since Darach Grabianko, my brother. He’s a Blacksmith Core with Samael and Hades Shades. That makes him the Regent’s biggest gun, Aura.”

I stiffen as a disturbing thought crosses my mind.

“Is that admiration I hear in your voice?”

Val touches my hand and smiles like a trusted friend who sees the reasons behind my words. Luckily for me, she gets a distorted image of them.

“He won’t take your beloved Ivan’s place in my heart, so don’t worry. Ivan is my brother, but Damian’s like a son to me.”

I arch an eyebrow at her, thinking of how I myself once mistook sexual pull towards a younger man with protective affection.

“You’ve grown so close?”

“We didn’t have to,” Val replies and sips from her cup.

I feel like knocking it from her hand. I refrain from physical action but spread the receptive rays from my chest to probe her feelings for Damian. I’m eager and shaking until I reach into her heart.

To my bones, I sink in a puddle of fluffy feeling. An emotion like cradling a baby. A baby that is not Val’s own, and yet a piece of her soul. I dive deeper, into her inflated chest when she looked up into Damian’s face one night in the full Council room. His steel eyes glared cold as ice into hers. Val smiled, proud of his strength and unbreakable will. Like a mother indeed, though she didn’t give birth to him. I whirl out of her feelings, relieved. My body relaxes. Whatever her reasons to care about my Damian like that, her feelings are not of an intimate nature, so I won’t intrude any further on her privacy. All of a sudden, she’s dear to me again.

***

Stay tuned for episode 4, coming up on Wednesday.

Enjoyed this? Then check out the prequels, The Blacksmith - trailer available here and, Cries of the BloodFULL FREE READ online here.

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The Queen of Hearts – Episode 2 – CARVED INTO SKIN

FREE READS.

Enjoy the second episode of The Queen of Hearts, sequel to The Blacksmith and Cries of the Blood.

In The Queen of Hearts, Aurelia and Damian are drawn deeper into the mysteries of their past. They discover that breaking the chains of mortality was just the first of a long line of secrets to the world of man and the love they share.

Parchment

Parchment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

***

I hesitate, though I know what she expects of me. It’s a sensation in my bones, a memory in my muscles. Slowly, I stretch my hand and let a finger glide down the blank parchment like I’d check for dust. I feel countless tiny, fine ridges, like the ones on my fingertips, and see them carved in the pearlescent texture. The material is beige and rosy, with patches of bronze.

Images light up in my head one after the other, images of flesh and bleeding meat cut open on a stone board. I pull my hand back and clutch it in the other. I’m sure I trigger these images myself as I think of how the parchment’s made and of what.

Aimee stands and looks me in the eyes. Her dark gaze is direct and determined and I need no words to understand she wants me to go on. I know what she feels – a fit of oversensitive whining from my part is all she needs. She’d use such as an excuse and have me dragged to the Regent. She’d plead for my uselessness and that of Sidonia, Salma and Jarred, and she’d recommend our elimination. I don’t need further incentive.

I touch the scroll again, this time with my whole palm. My entire body feels somehow eager – it’s not desire but compulsion. I need to feel the skin through my own, I need its essence to permeate through mine. My lids fall heavy, as if a sudden sleep – sleep like I knew it as a base human – courses through me from the parchment like snakes under my skin and seeps into my head from around my eyeballs.

Sight is blurred and my body goes limp. My heart slows down until I can’t feel the faintest pound against my chest. The chest itself fades like a dissipating dune of sand, and so do my arms, my hands and my legs. I’m only something, awake and tranquil. As thousands images flash around, I don’t stir. Everything matters nothing and nothing matters all.

I sense a knife slicing the skin off a man’s bicep. His fingers twitch, sweat beads mingle with trails of blood on the freckled back of his hand. The blood solidifies inch for inch like thin, gnarled tree branches growing longer every second. And they grow and grow further into colourful dots like an endless, spiralling ladder into me.

I’m the spiral, something older than I can grasp and something deeper than the space beneath the Earth. I’m not alone and I’m not one. I’m many. I’m a crusader, driving his sword through his opponent’s mail, into his body. The tip emerges through his back. I’m a man dying in a trench, blood gurgling in my mouth, choking me. The sky is lead. I’m a boy with red hair, running bare-foot and wide-grinned through a dusty village. I meet a Gypsy boy with russet eyes. Those eyes grow larger until they swallow me, their pupil a black hole. I face a man, dark-skinned and muscular like a barge. His hair is spiked and his eyes thundering grey. I face Nathaniel. For a second. Then his face multiplies and changes shapes like a racing footage. Images, too many for me to control, circle me like a tornado. They spit me out onto the dark stone floor of the library.

Aimee sits at the mahogany desk, only her braided chignon visible above the back of her massive chair. She writes on the scroll.

I scramble to my feet and walk to her, drawn to whatever the content of her work. I’m still dizzy and drained, my body feels as soft as it used to when I was yet a Rooty. But as the reality of the tower-high library and blood flowing through my veins catch full shape again, I realize what’s just happened – I sensed what was left of the essence of the red-haired man I’ve seen on a stone board in the Blacksmith’s forge, the history in his DNA. And Hector. I sensed Hector. I freeze in place, eyes wide, not blinking.

“He’s dead,” I whisper.

Aimee throws me a cold glance. She frowns and ponders. Something’s not right.

I crane my head over her shoulder and intrude on her scribbling. She hasn’t written many lines, but they’re neat around the blank shape of my hand. The ink is dark red, almost black. I know without words that it, too, is fabricated of fluids from demiangels’ bodies. The lump climbs into my throat again, but I get a grip on it.

My eyes follow the alligned symbols. They’re letters, what I identify as old French but I’m not sure. Yet I know the last three lines are Spanish. I walk backwards, stunned. I betrayed them with my own mouth. I drop to my knees by the shelves, wretched.

Time passes, but I don’t know how long. I can’t measure it, as if the sight of Aimee at the desk is an endless present that pulses. Even as she stands and moves toward me it doesn’t feel like seconds lapsing. It’s only when she grabs my arms and pulls me up that that I step into time again. It starts to flow.

“Go on,” she says and points with her chin at the scroll. Now it’s all unrolled and written on, it spills over both desk edges.

Aimee drags me to it.

“Here,” she presses, her voice tense and high-pitched, her eyes red and bulging with tension, “this patch, touch this patch!”

She presses my fingers to one of the brownish spots. I lose myself again at the sensation the parchment sends up through my fingertips. I come back to my senses as my back slaps against the shelves. Scrolls fall at my feet. My eyes snap open. I see Aimee pacing around the massive desk, agitated.

“He mixes them, why the fuckin’ hell would he mix them?” she grunts to herself, stripping off her lady polish.

I glance at the scroll again, the French and Spanish words now linked with arrows and drawings to chunks of small written text, as if Aimee wanted to use every inch of parchment. Words I must’ve spoken out. My blood begins to boil and reality is sharp again. I stalk to Aimee and grab her shoulders. I shake her.

“How much did I tell? How much of him is in there?” I cry.

Aimee blinks, as if she doesn’t know what hit her. My going aggressive is the last thing she expected.  She yet picks herself up fast.

“I know where Nathaniel’s Nucleus is based now, if that’s what’s you’re asking,” she says with a satisfied grin.

“Did I tell you?”

She laughs.

“No, you gave me broken bits ’cause the parchment isn’t homogenous. Apparently the Blacksmith now mixes skins, this scroll is made of two people – a Frenchman and the Gypsy Spaniard, Hector. That made my job more difficult than usual, but not impossible.”

I don’t need more to realize Damian killed them both and sent their skin down the parchment production chain. Anger and pain choke me.

“He’s yet a monster!” I grunt, my lips twitching. He broke his promise, he crossed me.

“He always was, Aurelia,” Aimee points out. She pushes my now limp hands down and leans over the parchment again, “What you knew of the Blacksmith when he was yet a base human, when he was yet Damian Novac, was only a veil over his demidemon Core.”

“I know him!” I cry, though I can’t believe myself for still protecting the image I have of him. But arguments bolt to the front of my mind as if triggered by some mechanism I can’t control. “He worked hard, he built things, he fixed them.” He mended Hector’s wounds with expert hands right before my eyes, I want to scream, but my lips seal in time.

“That’s right – things,” Aimee counters, “But what he was really trying to do was fix the demon inside. You have no idea how many nights he spent fantasising about slitting a client’s throat or punching the flesh off a man’s face with a spiked strip over his knuckles. You were in deep sleep and oblivious to his compulsions. It never crossed your mind that he was a cold-blooded killer, tormented by his needs.”

“Did he tell you all this?” I breathe, stricken.

Aimee laughs, throwing her head back.

“Tell … No, the Blacksmith doesn’t tell.”

“Then how do you know?” I ask. Hope sparks in my chest, hope that she’s wrong.

“I’m old, Queen of Hearts, and I’m a Thesauria Core – a keeper of knowledge. The Blacksmith might be the strongest of the Cleric, maybe the strongest of all demidemons, but he’s still too much of a freshman to fool me. I mean, how old is he, thirty-seven?”

“Thirty-nine,” I correct.

“Yes, right. Well, he’s the perfect version of himself now, his youthful looks make it hard to tell,” she giggles, as if she might even be interested in him, “You’re a lucky girl to have had him between your legs when he was still your husband. As a demidemon he’s pretty hard to get, you know, Loredana’s been trying for some time now. I wouldn’t have shied away myself, if I weren’t given to Rasko – you know a union’s a serious thing.”

She walks to me, eyes hooded and greedy. I realize she’s been fantasising about Damian. I want to choke her for it so bad that my cheeks burn.

As if she finds my face amusing, Aimee continues, “As I said, I’m old and hard to trick. I think he still has feelings for you. I think he either hates you or loves you.”

My heart jumps and my ears begin to buzz.

“I’d bet on the hatred, though,” she goes on, “since he’s so disappointed in you.”

“Di … disappointed?” I babble.

Aimee nods. “Damian Novac has loathed himself forever. As a man, he felt dirty and not worth a spit for his murderous compulsions that he fought so hard against. They’re not that demonic if you ask me, though. His wrath is directed only toward those he considers unworthy, towards the privileged. Towards drug lords and pimps who abuse the weaker. Toward those who grow rich on the backs of sick, skinny people they exploit for five dollars a day.

“And you … You were everything Damian was not and that pulled him to you. You weren’t a dashing beauty who could lure into obsession – like Damian himself was irresistible, even as a base human, as a Rooty. That made beauty and attractiveness something he hated.

“You didn’t seek priviledge or power, all you wanted was a tranquil life by your husband’s side. When the two of you met, everything in your attitude told him you wanted to start by being friends, not lovers. It made him feel that you connected on a special level – you were both flawed creatures, and he thought you saw and liked that. But when Ivan came into your life, Damian realized what you are – a sucker for handsome predators. Damian was growing old and tired, so you sought a new thrill …”

“It wasn’t like that!” I burst.

Aimee laughs.

“Would you deny it?”

“You know nothing about us!”

“I know a lot, Aurelia, trust me. I was the one assigned with observing Damian Novac’s evolution and researching his life when Boris discovered he was Darach’s descendant. I’d been watching both of you for years before the time was right and I informed Boris he could bring the entire Grabianko Nucleus and settle in Constanta.”

She’s so close to me now that we stand just a few inches apart. She looks down on me with those dark, almond eyes full of contempt. Her succulent lips curl.

My head spins as I process Aimee’s words. I don’t want to imagine her discovering the secret Damian and I share since last night. I think of him waiting for me at noon and my heart leaps into my mouth. The hour might be long past.

***

Enjoyed this? Then check out the prequels, The Blacksmith - trailer available here and, Cries of the Blood, FULL FREE READ online here.

To share your thoughts with other readers, leave a comment and make yourself heard/read.

Stay tuned for episode 3, coming up on Wednesday. Because your enjoyment is my thrill!

The Queen of Hearts – Episode 1 – OLD TIES

Two Degrees: Executioners

Two Degrees: Executioners (Photo credit: ikrichter)

Enjoy the first episode of The Queen of Hearts, sequel to The Blacksmith and Cries of the Blood.

In The Queen of Hearts, Aurelia and Damian are drawn deeper into the mysteries of their past. They discover that breaking the chains of mortality was just the first of a long line of secrets to the world of man and the love they share.

***

The bed creaks. My head snaps in its direction. Through the darkness, the Executioner is staring at me.

“You scribble so fast, the pen fumes,” he says.

He walks to the window and pushes the curtains open, letting morning light flood in. My eyes perceive the reddish-orange color spreading through the chamber, but they accept the light without strain. I realize that I’ve written tens of pages in complete obscurity.

The Executioner’s changed his clothes. Dark denim covers his long legs and now he shuffles a quality shirt over his upper body. He does it with slow moves, showing off his slender, marble sinews.

He takes a gel tube from the vanity table, squeezes some in his hand and runs it through his ebony hair. He inspects himself in the mirror. A murderer disguised as a dazzling boy. I feel my lips tighten in aversion.

“You don’t like what you see?” he inquires.

I don’t reply. I turn to my pages, now a mess all over the desk. Soon, the Executioner stands close behind me.

“What did you feel when you saw him yesterday, Aura?”

His voice is soft and his heart wounded. I sense it so sharply that I don’t even blink. I still stare at the papers as I answer.

“My feelings for him haven’t changed,” I say. They’re stronger than ever, I think, but I keep that part to myself.

“Were you happy when he filled you?”

“Ivan, I wasn’t with him …”

“Drop it.”

He sounds so vulnerable that I almost feel sorry for him. His intuition tells him the truth and my lies can only make matters worse. I know he’s tempted to rain questions on me, clinging on every reason to believe me. Still, he’s a wise devil. Emotion might be new for him, but he doesn’t fall prey to self-deception. He could have Damian crucified for this. I bite my lip, trying to swallow my fear.

He drops a bundle of clothes on my lap and I realize I wear only the bath towel. With my mind deep in the account I’ve written on all night, I haven’t thought about it. My cheeks flush with shame.

I stand and the Executioner clasps my shoulders from behind. I freeze, my eyes wide. He breathes in, there’s a slight tremble in his voice.

“This sight of you will haunt me all day.”

He sweeps a lock of hair from my neck and wets his lips. No!

“Have you come to a conclusion?” I say and turn around to face him. He looks entrained. “About Dolores and how she and I are related, I mean.” I’ve decided I don’t take him seriously anyway, but the question should serve to thwart his focus.

He pauses and gathers himself.

“There’s only one way to find out,” he says.

“Namely?”

He won’t say. He takes a few steps back and lowers his head.

“Get ready. I’ll take you to the library.”

“The library?” I blink, puzzled. Then the memory hits me. My task. I shudder, remembering the Abbot’s words.

My legs wobble as I head for the bath chamber, with no idea how I’m to go about this and dreading what’s expected of me. Light brightens the onyx, sending playful beams all over the walls and mirror – an ironic mood, given the depressive pit I find myself in.

As I put on the jeans and white linen shirt Ivan’s given me, I fantasize that I’ve just woken up by Damian’s side, looking forward to a cup of coffee, a morning kiss and a good day at work. For a second there, the weight of reality is off my shoulders.

I button the shirt up to my neck and face myself in the mirror. Fantasy shatters in front of that reflection. My once baggy, hazel eyes now shine topaz on a child-like face and my once wiry hair cascades in silky locks down a thin frame – an image growing more unnatural by the day. As I stare at it I know I’ll never sleep again, let alone be free to wake up in my husband’s arms. He’s a killer demidemon now and I’m a useless demiangel, with no means of fighting against an apparatus that’s so much larger than us and to which we’re bound for as long as Earth will spin. My shoulders slump as my head clouds with defeat.

“Aura.”

The Executioner stands in the doorframe, eying me from head to toe. There’s something salacious in his gaze despite the absence of a cleavage on me, or anything of the kind. It makes me sick. Luckily he looks away and motions for me to follow him.

We walk along the corridors that brought us here, snaking through the Regent’s chateau. They fit my state of mind –hollow, cold and dark.

The sumptuous Vault reveales itself as the Executioner pushes the heavy doors open. Today countless demis crawl along its walls in all directions, like worms eating a huge octopus from inside out. My eyes widen and my lungs clog. The image seems cut from one of those horror movies my older cousins used to force me to watch, which sent me shaking behind the door and squeezing poor Barbie in my hands until my knuckles turned white.

The demidemons retrieve bottles and tubes with colored liquid. My stomach turns at the thought of what’s inside – contents of veins and bowels, drained from my own kind. I hurry after the Executioner towards the library, protecting my head with my hands, afraid one of those spider-scientists might drop on me like a crawler from a jungle tree.

Dressed in a fancy suit with a deep cleavage and a queenly collar, Aimee ‘the Black Beauty’ sits in a tower-like alcove. For some reason I think of Professor Snape and Hogwarts.

“So the Queen of Hearts was yet found,” Aimee addresses Ivan. Her succulent lips draw in an inviting smile as she looks up from a scroll.

She smooths it with her fingers and her long, red fingernails shine under an oil lamp. Shit, lamp! I glance around, nervous. I remember there’s no clock anywhere in the castle and no windows in the library. There’s no way I can measure time, not even by the sun’s position in the sky. I think of Damian waiting for me at noon and my heart pounds harder.

“I found her in the west wing,” Ivan says, “Dolores’ portrait had caught her eye.”

“Oh, did it?” Aimee yelps, faking innocent surprise. By the way Ivan looks at her, I can tell he expects she’ll go into it. But Aimee’s interested in another matter.

“And how was your night?” she inquires and flutters her lashes at Ivan as if I’m not even there. My ego remains unbruised.

He frowns and turns to me, his deceiving pianist hand finding its way to the nape of my neck. His gaze wanders down to my lips and I know instantly he’s going to kiss me.

I stiffen, but I don’t resist him. I’m grateful he covers for me and contribute to the appearances. His mouth closes on mine, wet and soft and trembling. He tries to part my lips, but I draw back against his hold and take my hand to my mouth. A lump forms in my throat.

“It was consummated,” Ivan says. His eyes, black as the night, are fixed on mine. He’s frustrated, I can see it.

“A surprising thing,” Aimee fakes innocence again, “that you should wait so long. I understand you’ve spent this whole year in each other’s company.”

Ivan makes no answer, still searching my face for emotions he’ll never find. I fight down the lump and take the situation in my hands.

“Mine wasn’t the only offer on the table. I had to come up with a unique selling proposition.”

Ivan can’t suppress a snort and Aimee’s eyes dart from one to the other. She seems offended I’d even dare intervene in her exchange with Ivan. In my sternum, I feel my Core open up like a lid draws from a lens, stretching its sensors to the hearts around me.

It’s Ivan’s emotions I sense strongest. He’s frustrated, boiling in his own juice. Aimee replays one of their nights together in her mind, when Ivan’s long fingers drew the moisture of lust from the soft flesh between her legs and his manhood slid between her buttocks.

I withdraw swiftly. Those feelings are not for me to sense. I find it a pain that God himself should have full access to my own wet dreams of Damian.

Ivan turns to Aimee, his gaze cold and steady.

“The Abbot says you require Aura’s services.”

“That’s right,” Aimee grins.

“Then I leave her to you. When you’re done, have the Guard return her to our chamber.”

My head snaps to him. I need freedom to move for the slightest chance of making it to Damian at noon. And of gauging time, for that matter.

“You don’t need to treat me like a prisoner, Ivan,” I say in a bell, sweet voice that I barely recognize myself. “I won’t run away, will I?”

He stares at me and I smile. He knows I have him cornered. The entire Order, Aimee included, thinks I was the one who moved heaven and earth for a union with him, so keeping me monitored makes little sense.

“It’s for your own safety,” he mutters.

“Come on, who’s fool enough to harm me? I’m here under the Regent’s protection, aren’t I?”

Ivan’s out of excuses to keep watchmen on my trail. He stares at me with a look of reproach on his face for moments, then turns on his heel and stomps away without another word. It’s not until the library doors echo shut far down the aisle that Aimee speaks again.

“Congratulations on your union, Queen of Hearts. I’m sure Ivan makes a great mate.”

I face her, chin up. I sensed Ivan certain she has information on Dolores. I give his crazy theory a go and try to get it out of her. For that, I need to break into her own, intimate secrets.

“You should know.”

Aimee arches an eyebrow and a smile draws her lips. She’s surprised, yet not offended.

“He told you?”

“I sensed it in his memories, when we came to your place, close to Ambert.”

Aimee turns to the shelves behind the desk, letting her fingers brush over a row of scrolls. The parchment looks lustrous and I can tell it’s blank, so the scrolls are new. A cart bursting of them still stands on rickety wheels by Aimee’s royal-looking chair. My skin crawls at the thought of Damian peeling demiangels’ skin to make those things. I bite hard into my lower lip, casting the image to the back of my mind and trying to keep focus on the situation at hand.

“He took you there?” Aimee inquires, picking a scroll. It’s marked with carved wooden cylinders at each end.

“Upon my insistences. I’ve been having visions about the cathedral in Puy-en-Velay and,” I pause here, searching for the right words. No, not yet, “some other things. I knew Ivan’s family had lived in France for a while and I had a feeling he could help me.”

I keep my eyes fixed on Aimee. If she’s the Keeper, as Ivan referred to her, then my words should ring a bell, if not trigger alarm in her. I can’t see her face, so I probe her feelings. She’s tense, very tense. I’m surprised, I wouldn’t have guessed by her attitude.

“You know, Aurelia,” she says, her voice calm, “I may call Aurelia, right?”

I shrug.

“It’s my name.”

“Yes, but it’s custom within the Order to address members by their Cores. By their true identity. Names we use among friends,” she grins here, looking me in the face again, “You and I will be spending some time together from now on, and being friends will make our job easier.”

I suppress a snort. Friends. As if she has the faintest idea what the word means.

Aimee unrolls the parchment and paces to the desk.

“Now that we’re more comfortable with each other, would you let me in on a little secret?”

I nod, but she doesn’t look up to see it. She sets down the parchment and taps it with her red fingernails. The gesture looks like a silent threat.

“How did Ivan end up in Nathaniel’s Nucleus and stayed with it for so long?”

My lie is automatic.

“Nathaniel captured him during the fight in Constanta.”

“Aham. And how come Nathaniel didn’t kill him?”

I gulp in air, using the moment to come up with something. I haven’t thought of that. It’s true, Nathaniel never takes hostages.

“I begged him not to,” I say.

“And, all this time, Nathaniel didn’t see your reasons?”

Aimee now leans on her palms against the desk and looks into my eyes. I dive into her emotions again.

She’s suspicious of how Ivan ended up in Nathaniel’s power, but not about his feelings about me, as I expected. She remembers how he wanted to marry me for strategic reasons at the Grabianko mansion. She was sure of his indifference to me as a woman back then, and she still is so now. She’s not jealous, she’s convinced I’m a poor lover, no match against her sensual skills. That’s all I need. I use her emotions to move away from her questions and towards my own goal.

“I tried everything with Ivan,” I lie, “But no matter what I did, he remained cold as ice toward me. He only showed some interest when these visions started. Visions of the Black Madonna, of the tomb and,” my gut spurs me to say the name, “Dolores.”

And indeed, there it is – the tremor of Aimee’s heart as she binds those two words together: tomb and Dolores. I gasp as the implication of this hits me. I lick my lips and decide on a full bluff.

“Dolores, lying in a tomb, hot wax dripping on her face. I was in her skin…”

I pause and look at Aimee. She fixes me for a moment and then bursts into laughter. She laughs at me.

“You, in her skin?” She laughs harder, “That’s not an option dear.”

“Why not?”

“Well, let me see. Probably because Dolores died fifteen years ago. You were already in this world, probably already married to the Blacksmith. So if it’s reincarnation you’re implying, drop the theory. It’s downright silly.”

My lips suck lemon at Aimee’s loud, mocking tone. I feel stupid, but I know I still hold advantage. I bluff on.

“I know you’re the guardian of Dolores’ tomb, the very same one I saw in my visions.”

“I, yes …” Aimee stammers among giggles, “I used to guard her. Guard the womb.”

The lines on the sole of that statuette, the one I saw in Aimee’s room, run before my eyes. I shall return to claim my blood, once upon a nameless tomb, and pierce the devil’s steel heart, with the vengeance in my womb.

I stand before Aimee, feeling awkward as if naked, and struggle to gather my thoughts and link things together. I realize there might be something to Ivan’s theory after all. If Dolores does lie in that tomb at the cathedral, then I truly am related to her. I sensed her as if I inhabited her body. Why, I cannot say. She can’t be my ancestor, since she never had children during her long centuries, yet Aimee refers to her as ‘the womb’. And the grave parallel to hers? I voice the question too directly, without forethought. Aimee holds her palm up.

“Now, now, Aurelia, that’s enough. Dolores, her life and her history are not the reason you’re here.”

She motions me to join her by the desk. She sits in her chair and splays her long-nailed fingers on its arms.

“Do you know what this is?” she asks, looking at the open scroll she’s pinned to the desk with an ink cartridge on one end and a heavy pen on the other.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Leave a comment and share your thoughts with other readers.

Stay tuned for Episode 2, coming up on Saturday. The prequel, Cries of the Blood, is available in full here. Check out Book I, The Blacksmith, here.

Your enjoyment is my thrill!

The Queen of Hearts – Introduction

Enjoy the introduction to The Queen of Hearts, sequel to The Blacksmith and Cries of the Blood.

In The Queen of Hearts, Aurelia and Damian are drawn deeper into the mysteries of their past. They discover that breaking the chains of mortality was just the first of a long line of secrets to the world of man and the love they share.

Intro

Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts (Photo credit: several_bees)

The bed creaks. My head snaps in its direction. Through the darkness, the Executioner is staring at me.

“You scribble so fast, the pen fumes,” he says.

He walks to the window and pushes the curtains open, letting morning light flood in. My eyes perceive the reddish-orange color spreading through the chamber, but they accept the light without strain. I realize that I’ve written hundreds of pages in complete obscurity.

The Executioner has changed his clothes. Dark denim covers his long legs and now he shuffles a quality shirt over his upper body. He does it with slow moves, showing off his slender, marble sinews that I used to fantasize about.

He takes a gel tube from the vanity table, squeezes some in his hand and runs it through his ebony hair. He inspects himself in the mirror. A murderer disguised as a dazzling boy. I feel my lips tighten in aversion.

“You don’t like what you see?” he inquires.

I don’t reply. I turn to my pages, now a mess all over the desk. Soon, the Executioner stands close behind me.

“What did you feel when you saw him yesterday, Aura?”

His voice is soft and his heart wounded. I sense it so sharply that I don’t even blink. I still stare at the papers as I answer.

“My feelings for him haven’t changed,” I say. They’re stronger than ever, I think, but I keep that part to myself.

“Were you happy when he filled you?”

“Ivan, I wasn’t with him …”

“Drop it.” He sounds so vulnerable that I almost feel sorry for him. My lips seal. His intuition tells him the truth and my lies can only make matters worse. I know he’s tempted to rain questions on me, clinging on every reason to believe me. Still, he’s an old and wise devil. Emotion might be new for him, but he doesn’t fall prey to self-deception. He could have Damian crucified for this. I bite my lip, trying to swallow my fear.

He drops a bundle of clothes on my lap and I realize I wear only the bath towel. With my mind deep in the account I’ve written on all night, I haven’t thought about it. My cheeks flush with shame.

I stand and the Executioner clasps my shoulders from behind. I freeze, my eyes wide. He breathes in, there’s a slight tremble in his voice.

“This sight of you will haunt me all day.”

He sweeps a lock of hair from my neck and wets his lips. No!

“Have you come to a conclusion?” I say and turn around to face him. He looks entrained. “About Dolores and how she and I are related, I mean.” I’ve decided I don’t take him seriously anyway, but the question should serve to thwart his focus.

He pauses and gathers himself.

“There’s only one way to find out,” he says.

“Namely?”

He won’t say. He takes a few steps back and lowers his head.

“Get ready. I’ll take you to the library.”

“The library?” I blink, puzzled. Then the memory hits me. My task. I shudder, remembering the Abbot’s words.

***********

Stay tuned for episode I, coming up on Wednesday. Check out Cries of the Blood, FREE READ on this site.

The Blacksmith is available for you here.

Wish you all a wonderful weekend and thank you for reading these online books – because your enjoyment is my thrill.

Cries of the Blood – Episode 13 – GATES TO THE PAST

This is the last episode of Cries of the Blood. Stay tuned for The Queen of Hearts, first chapter coming up on Saturday.

Cries of the Blood and The Queen of Hearts are sequels to The Blacksmith, the trailer available for you at The Blacksmith.

Enjoy!

***

fire

fire (Photo credit: matthewvenn)

I stared at him, not thinking or feeling. Seconds later I burst into laughter.

“You can’t be serious.”

Ivan didn’t reply, just waited until I dropped on the bed, open-mouthed. I wasn’t sure if he’d lost his wits or if he was simply messing with my head.

“Are you even sure of your theory?” I whispered, a smile still in the corner of my mouth.

“It’s strange you didn’t see it yourself.”

Of course I hadn’t, whatever that it was. I hadn’t laid eyes on Dolores’ portrait and I had no idea what he was talking about. But now was the time to prove him otherwise. The image of Damian hanging on a cross if I failed to convince Ivan hit me again, fueling the lie with strong purpose. I had to keep it up until tomorrow, when Damian would take me to the west wing. Then I’d be able to deal with Ivan’s or anyone’s interrogatory.

“There may be some similarity between us, but you know how it is,” I dared, “one can’t really see it when directly involved. Do you notice the similarities between you and your father, for example?”

Ivan’s jaw tightened.

“More often that I’d like to,” he said and turned to the window again.

The heavy curtains didn’t seem to block his sight, he looked lost as if he were staring into an endless horizon. Searching his own knowledge and memories, I sensed, linking data and discovering meaning. A process he wouldn’t share with me.

“It doesn’t add up, Ivan,” I said, aiming to tempt more info from him.

“I have yet to figure this out,” Ivan replied, still lost in thought. “But no one who sees that portrait can doubt it, Aura. And I’m sure it hasn’t escaped the Regent’s eye, either.”

The Regent. The cries of blood will lead me to my prize, he’d said to me. I know you well. I had to see her with my own eyes.

I didn’t know if it was my state of confusion or Ivan’s sinking in his own thoughts that made the night bearable and silent. Ivan was deep in evaluation of data in his mind, I sensed. I didn’t press either, glad that he gave me room and that he didn’t ask any more questions that could’ve exposed Damian and me.

It was that night that I sat at the wooden desk and took up the pen and paper.

This night.

It feels somewhat unnatural. It’s been a long time since I’ve scribbled so many words on sheet. Probably since college, when I hurried to record everything that shot out of my bitter professors’ mouths. Ever since then, computers have been a good as common as coffee and my state-of-the-art life. It hits me how I live in a completely different world now, one that defies any sane person’s wildest imagination.

I haven’t drunk coffee in over a year – well, besides that latte at the airport. As for computers or smart phones – Demis don’t allow the use of electronic devices or anything that can be tracked through satellite, so I feel plunged in the eighteenth century. It’s probably their paranoia I have to thank for the thick stacks of paper – normal paper – enough to host this long account. I’m putting it down.

I’m reliving my memories with Damian Novac. Those all too human memories of an all too human journey. The first moment I saw him in the cafeteria, the Alpha of a tamed group of bullies and the center of all those divas’ attention. The night I pretended to stumble into his arms with a glass of wine at the party, deafened by pounding music. Our first kiss in a dark parking lot. Our first night together in his room, under an old quilt. His instinctive moves, the detachment in his eyes and his caress, lacking deeper emotion and experience. It’s now that it strikes me – Damian hadn’t given himself to many women before me. Why me? I’m still wondering. Why the ashen-skinned little woman with tangled hair that I used to be? Was I that good of a strategist?

Another memory lights up. The old priest pronouncing us man and wife and placing those kitchy golden crowns on our heads. Pushing the rings on our fingers. Only our parents and a clutch of friends present. Damian’s short kiss from the tip of his lips. Our life in a concrete block of flats, an aging, childless couple. His face melting and marring with the years, like a beautiful mask in fire. His spending his days on construction sites and I in school, watching kids become adults, the whole world at their feet while we decayed. Empty evening talks about cheesy TV shows. A slow, self-repeating path to death.

And then the ivory, angelic face of Ivan Grabianko. The first gaze from those pitch black eyes that derailed my life trajectory like a missile hitting a floating meteorite. How I choked on my desire for him in my struggle to suppress it. My filthy longing for a much younger man, merely a boy. My student. An Executioner Core, who spilled my dear Raluca’s blood. A monster. A demidemon. Using me to get to my husband. To Damian. And turn him into what he truly is. Oh, how different from what I expected of this path.

Damian. No longer an aging human when I saw him again, at the Grabianko mansion. Damian, the man who raised his blade to end me in the Identifier’s lair. The strong features of his face smooth like granite, his lips beautifully sculptured. Those waves of raven hair flowing to his athlete shoulders. Handsome beyond measure and young beyond time, like a god. The perfect version of the Damian I married. A man developed to his full potential. The story of The Blacksmith is born.

The Blacksmith, my former husband, who let me go with the Executioner and gave me a chance to live. The Blacksmith, who my heart ached for this past year, until a dagger carrying the Regent’s message and the Executioner’s betrayal brought me back to his arms. The visions of the Black Madonna in a dark and cold medieval church. The visions of Damian as if from another time. The Regent, urging me to follow the cries of the blood. The Executioner, claiming that the dead Dolores Calderon was my ancestor in some inexplicable way. I write Cries of the Blood, hoping that putting it down will help me find some answers. The more I write, the clearer it gets – I have to see her portrait. I pray her face will open the gates to the past.

***

Writing Project Enhancement

Enhancement. Making it better, the reader experience more and more thrilling. Starting this week I will be working on adding imagistic and cinematics for Cries of the Blood, but it will take its time. Stay tuned for two episodes from Cries of the Blood next Wednesday and Saturday, with new features. Here is a snapshot at the next chapter. Because your enjoyment is my thrill.

A cry for humanity- Save Troy Davis from execu...

A cry for humanity- Save Troy Davis from execution today (Photo credit: Liamfm .)

CRIES OF THE BLOOD, Episode 13 – Introduction

I stared at him, not thinking or feeling. Seconds later I burst into laughter.

“You can’t be serious.”

Ivan didn’t reply, just waited until I dropped on the bed, open-mouthed. I wasn’t sure if he’d lost his wits or if he was simply messing with my head.

“What drives you to speak such nonsense?” I whispered, a smile still in the corner of my mouth.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t see it.” He said.

Of course I hadn’t. I hadn’t laid eyes on Dolores’ portrait and I had no idea what he was talking about. But now was the time to prove him otherwise. The image of Damian hanging on a cross if I failed to convince Ivan hit me again, fueling the lie with strong purpose. I had to keep it up until tomorrow, when Damian would take me to the west wing. Then I’d be able to deal with Ivan’s or anyone’s interrogatory.

“There may be some similarity between us, but you know how it is,” I dared, “one can’t really see it when directly involved. Do you notice the similarities between you and your father, for example?”

Ivan’s jaw tightened.

“More often that I’d like to.” He said and turned to the window again. The heavy curtains didn’t seem to block his sight, he looked lost as if he were staring into an endless horizon. Searching his own knowledge and memories, I sensed, linking data and discovering meaning. I wished he’d share the process with me.

“It doesn’t make sense, Ivan,” I said, aiming to tempt more info from him. “She lived before me. This is impossible.”

“I have yet to figure out how it works,” Ivan replied, still lost in thought. “But no one who sees that portrait can doubt it, Aura. And I’m sure it hasn’t escaped the Regent’s eye, either.”

The Regent. The cries of blood will lead me to my prize, he’d said to me. I know you well. I opened my mouth at the shocking realization, I could no longer feel my legs. I had to see her with my own eyes.

I didn’t know if it was my state of shock or Ivan’s sinking in his own thoughts that made the night bearable and silent. Ivan was deep in evaluation of data in his mind, I sensed, but he wouldn’t share it with me. I didn’t press either, glad that he gave me room and that he wasn’t asking questions.

***

Copyright by Ana Calin, 2013