Chasing Damian – Part 7

As promised, here goes Part 7 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 8, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

When she meets heartthrob Damian Novac, shy student Alice develops a heavy crush against her best wishes. Hoping to get close to him, she joins Damian 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. Alice barely escapes with Damian and some of their friends, only to realize she’s far from safe even back home. A shady corporation that conducts experiments on humans and which had ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation, which may cost her life. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that draws her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?

A novel that will keep you reading, diving into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance.

 forbiddenlove

 

Pic source.

Part 7

The largest man that must’ve ever existed stood before me, his head much above mine. He was big to the extreme, something most people don’t get to lay their eyes on in a lifetime. A black cloak that reminded me of the garment of a priest molded on the wavy, way-too-big shoulder muscles. Cold sweat trickled down my temples.

His face was obscure behind eyes that shone like silver lights in a way that wasn’t natural. On the spot I realized he must’ve been a freak of nature, for which the Persian Empire was once so famous. Except that he was definitely here now, thousands of years off.

“Now this is unexpected,” he spoke, the words as if pounding from a loudspeaker that stood too close.

I stared into his star-like eyes. Their brightness blinded me to any details of his features, and I just petrified in the face of something so unusual and yet so familiar. It took only another second to realize he must’ve been under the influence of the gas that had turned us into monsters up in the mountains, the gas that had made my own eyes light up like torches.

“A gem, indeed.” It was a vibrant whisper.

What the hell are you?”

A grin that I didn’t see but sensed stretched across his nightly face. “The Executioner’s gem. The Executioner’s aim.”

A hand started toward me, looking like he was introducing himself. But I was too afraid to stand around and find out whether it wasn’t actually going for my throat. I stumbled a step backwards to put distance between us.

His feet moved slowly, but clearly intent to follow. My pulse took up and my rational mind shut down – quickly and skillfully, well trained from the mountains – as I turned on my heel and started running, boxing heavy rugs out of my way, lamps slivering as they brushed my hair.

Not thinking made it easy to move and my body immune to the bumps into other people as I emerged back into a crowd. But even in this state one thing was clear as day – The man had wanted to draw me to him, and the family that had drifted me along to that lonely corner of the roofed bazaar had been his instruments. Ruxandra was no safer than I was, and Officer Sorescu would be completely useless against the giant freak. It would take no more than a slap to send him flying on his back and sinking into unconscious slumber.

Just as I identified Ruxandra’s back among the strollers something hard wrapped around my waist. An arm with something rigid along it like a plank of metal, I realized as it lifted me from the ground as if I were a feather. I wanted to scream but a large hand covered the lower half of my face. Panic struck at the certainty that the giant with glowing eyes would squash me in a second. But the man spun me round and crammed me between two booths.

I looked up into pale, crystal-green eyes glinting under dark eyebrows, and recognized the finely chiseled face of Damian Novac.

CHAPTER VIII

I stared at him with an open mouth. The beauty of his face struck me as if I saw him for the first time, and I realized he was of the same league as Giant – extraordinary and just as scary.

I felt tiny as a child. My heart raced and my face burned, so close to a titan’s chest. He smelled the way freshly cut wood had in Gramps’ barn many years ago.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Damian hissed through his teeth. His eyes pierced into mine with the sharp purpose of crystal shards, but also something else that I couldn’t quite give a name to. Maybe some kind of angry relief.

“Are you back to your senses already?”

I managed to find my voice.

“What are you doing here, Damian?” Then some of my wit followed, “Or should I call you Cezare?”

His lips drew in the ghost of a grin. “Both will do. But you haven’t answered my question – What the hell was going on in your head, straying around alone?”

I jotted my chin and gave him the most capable of scowls. It didn’t seem to impress him, but I was proud of it anyway.

“If anyone owes explanations here, mister, it’s you.” Before I knew it, my index finger poked until it hurt against his stony chest clad in just a white V-neck and a thin leather jacket. “I’m looking for a way to contact my Dad, who was allegedly extracted by the R.I.S. after the little talk he had with you.” “One can’t protect from fire with fire or from hell with demons,” the memory of Dad’s words echoed in my head. “My Dad, who seemed to know you all too well.”

Damian’s jaw tightened, his face taking on the hardness of honey-glazed marble. So fast that I didn’t even perceive the move, he caught my wrist in an iron grip.

“How much of our talk did you hear, girl?”

Girl. “Is that fear I sense?” I mocked, merely trying to hide my anguish.

“It is, yet not for myself. You apparently know too much, too, Alice.” – urging tone, yet not threatening.

“Finally he remembers my name. Well, there’s not much you can do about it now, is it? But rest assured – the more I find out, the more questions I have. Too few answers.”

“And who have you talked to about these questions and answers until now?”

“Why should I tell you? Let’s get one thing straight, Damian, Cezare, or whatever your name is: I don’t trust you.”

Damian raised his chin, looking tall, imposing. His hair spilled in raven waves to his shoulders, his mouth was a dark grin and his eyes sharp crystal. A beautiful devil he was. I swallowed and sank my head, praying he hadn’t seen the way my eyes had widened at him and exposed me for a treacherous second.

“Good,” he said. My head snapped back up. I stared at him in surprise, which I tried to mask with mockery.

“I ain’t that dumb after all, am I?”

“Oh, dumb is last the thing you are. Actually, you impress me every day more, Alice.”

“That sounds like a line from a cheap movie, Fallen Angel.”

“Fallen Angel? Is that the cheap title?”

“As cheap as ‘you impress me’ and all that, but since I can’t be sure what your name is, I picked one.”

“Nice name you’ve chosen, I’m flattered. But I’m not an angel, Alice, not even a fallen one.”

“What are you then?”

His fingers wound around my arm, sinking into my flesh.

“You want answers? I’ll give you some,” he hissed.

Before I could react Damian started walking, pulling me after him. To make him loosen his grip, I clasped his forearm with my free hand and felt something hard strapped to it. Something metallic. Though I couldn’t be sure, the first thing that jumped to mind were the blades I’d read assassins used to carry under their sleeves ages ago. Shock paralyzed my tongue, making me unable to warn Ruxandra or Officer Sorescu before Damian patted the latter’s shoulder.

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 7 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 6

As promised, here goes Part 6 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 7, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

When she meets heartthrob Damian Novac, shy student Alice develops a heavy crush against her best wishes. Hoping to get close to him, she joins Damian 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. Alice barely escapes with Damian and some of their friends, only to realize she’s far from safe even back home. A shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which had ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation which leads back to Damian’s past, which may cost her life. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that will draw her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?

A novel that will keep you reading, diving into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance.

Part 6

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

“See, what did I tell you? They found Mad Conan to blame it on. As for the old man, he’s a scapegoat,” Ruxandra said as images of a wrecked old doctor with Einstein hair, cuffed hands and fragile body in a suit appeared on the screen, led to a police car by two men in black uniforms.

The connection to Dad fired in my head.

“Jesus, Rux, this is bad! This is real bad!”

She looked at me, startled by my reaction but as sharp as I knew her. In a few breaths and with no second thoughts I broke my oath and told her about the extraction, glancing at the door to make sure Mom didn’t catch me on it.

“Help me, Rux,” I pleaded. “I need to see him, make sure he’s not being held hostage and questioned like a heretic.”

“There are people outside, Alice. They’ll follow you,” she retorted, skipping the surprised part. She took the information as I gave it to her, frowning and fully present.

“So what if they do? They’re not my problem, Mom is.”

“Alice, those bulldogs outside will make sure you don’t find Dr. Preda, if you’re not supposed to.”

“I’ll just go to Varlam at the station. He’s supposedly available for us at all times, isn’t he? And I’ll find a way to get him talking. I’ll offer info in return, I don’t know.”

“And why would Jenna try to stop you?”

“She deems Dad a danger for us right now, because of his ties to BioDhrome. And she knows that, if I want to see Varlam, it’s because I want to see Dad. Better yet, if I go out now, no matter the pretext, she’s gonna know what I’m actually up to. You have to get me out of the house, please.”

“You don’t have Hector’s number?”

I shook my head. “No. Mom made sure all contact details are out of my reach, probably also yours. He’s not on the internet either. Hell, I think hardly any R.I.S. agent working undercover as a bearded rocker would post himself on the web with office hours and gun registration number. The only solution is going to the station.”

Ruxandra studied me for a while. A deep-in-thought V formed between her eyebrows as she assessed my face, and the moment Mom walked back into the living room, she began talking without warning or turning her eyes from me.

“There’s no way I can spend days here without something proper to wear.”

She sounded so convincing, I fell for it myself. “You can have anything from my wardrobe,” I babbled, blinking fast.

“You’re petite, Alice, you don’t own anything I can actually take out on the street or campus tomorrow.”

Her eyes danced on mine, maybe in expectation for me to kick the ball back at her. But, since I was too puzzled to produce a sound, she went on herself.

“I need to get some things from our place.”

I appreciated the our and instantly understood what she was doing. But Mom intervened as if burnt with a hot iron.

“You’re sure not going to that part of the city, not with darkness knocking on the door.”

Ruxandra’s clever face froze for a moment, but, as she turned to Mom, it had already regained its elasticity and added a rakish smile.

“You’re right, Jenna, I didn’t think about that. We’ll ask one of the boys outside to accompany us to Marvimex.”

“They’re here as watchmen and not escorts,” Mom admonished.

“Then please, have a word with them,” Rux said.

Mom gave me an I-know-what-you’re-up-to glance, which I blocked with an innocent smile and a shrug.

“I’d love to get out of the house for a bit,” I said. “I need a breath of freedom, Mom.”

It was the begging tone that unbalanced Mom’s resolve, no doubt. After little more insistence from our part she allowed us to get ready while she went out, looking for Officer Sorescu or one of his colleagues. I had no idea why Ruxandra hadn’t tried to lose the escort, but I decided to trust her judgment in the end. She always knew what she was doing.

I parted the curtains with two fingers and spied – much like old Mrs. Teodorescu from across the street did each time a car pulled up in front of one of the neighboring houses. Mom crossed the street with rapid steps, keeping the long winter coat gathered close around her body.

To my gaping surprise, she entered the corner bar – for the very first time in her life, I was sure – where loud drunkards burned away their time gambling cigarettes and bottles, sometimes their wives’ jewelry, sometimes their wives. With its barred windows and narrow entrance the place was perfectly designed to keep interest at bay. Yes, suited for undercover tailing operations, why not.

“What if the place hadn’t existed, I wonder.” Ruxandra’s voice startled me. I’d thought she was already getting ready, didn’t realize she was still present. “Would they have extracted Mrs. Teodorescu and had an agent disguise himself as her? Imagine a guy with a moustache in an apron.”

She forced a laugh that made her look and sound mentally deranged rather than amused. The picture of Officer Sorescu’s round face framed by a colored kerchief did reach my mind’s eye, though.

Ruxandra took my hand and pulled me to the antechamber, where challenge number two was up – getting around George. He lay on the sofa with eyes fixed on the small TV, watching no less than Bugs Bunny. Mom must’ve turned to the old tape to keep his mind off anything heavy.

Ruxandra stared at him, holding a finger up in front of her pursed lips – keeping me quiet, I imagined. He seemed not to be aware of our presence, his mouth open, drooling, and brows high in the lost expression of a retarded person. Maybe the colored motion on screen simply helped him relax and put his mind off duty. Or maybe he was high on prescription medication.

Slowly, Ruxandra opened the doors to the wardrobe. The slower she moved the louder they creaked, and George stirred.

“For fuck’s sake, Rux, he’s not Alien or something,” I mumbled, refusing to accept that George wasn’t to be treated like a normal man anytime soon.

“Shhhhh! D’you want him screaming and wriggling?” she retorted through her teeth.

I knew she was right but it felt wrong anyway, treating George like an inconvenience.

Ruxandra skimmed over the shelves with an all business frown, scanned the available items – not by far satisfactory, judging by the silent scoffs – and snatched a white wool sweater and a pair of tight jeans that reminded me too much of what Olympia had been wearing in the mountains. But as soon as Rux closed the double doors to my room behind us, I shrugged off the memory as I did the nightgown and pulled them on without protest. Time was too precious.

The jeans were a couple of years old and had gone through repeated washing along with the other pairs, but I’d only worn them once on the day of acquisition. Tony had labeled this particular pair “slutty” ‘cause it molded on my thighs “like latex leggings do on hookers’ legs”. What saved them from becoming a give-away was my “modest” wardrobe, as Rux often put it, so I’d kept them to make me feel I owned at least a little more than I needed.

A change of clothes was already folded for Ruxandra on the rocking chair by the window. I watched her sinewy shape dance into it and recognized Mom’s elegant red turtleneck sweater and her white winter puffed pants.

“How do I look?” she inquired, probably trying to shallow-talk some of the pressure away.

“When did Mom give you the threads?” If Mom had offered Rux access to her wardrobe, what was the point of shopping, especially at five in the evening?

“She didn’t. I helped myself after the shower today.” She winked. “Once a gypsy, always a gypsy. We seldom need permission.” A reasonable explanation followed after a short laugh. “Joke aside, your clothes are all too small, and I figured Jenna wouldn’t mind. She never did before. I took these threads for tomorrow. I wanna go back to campus, I won’t let this thing control my life.”

“But she’ll see you’re wearing her stuff when we go out. Marvimex won’t stand, she’ll know we’re going to see Varlam. Plus, even if we manage to persuade her we’re going shopping, we might not even make it to him with one of those watchmen on our heels,” I threw at her, sounding increasingly desperate as I realized our plot was rickety.

“Oh, we’re going to Marvimex first, all right. I can’t wear Jenna’s clothes forever, she knows that. I can only wear them for a day or two, until I get myself new ones. Once we’re there, I’ll talk the guy into accompanying us to see Hector. I’ll tell him you and I have confidential information, and that our seeing him needs cover.”

“He won’t buy it,” I shook my head. “It’s weak, it won’t work.”

“Wanna bet?” Rux retorted, a mischievous grin quirking up a corner of her mouth.

In the end Rux turned out to be right, Mom didn’t even ask how come my best friend was wearing her outfit. The explanation must’ve been obvious.

Embarrassing as it was, we had to accept Mom’s pushing cash in our hands with bent heads. All the money I’d managed to save from tutoring activities was hidden in Ruxandra’s apartment – that we weren’t allowed to set foot into for, I guess, forever –, as were Ruxandra’s savings from all that baby-sitting.

In less than half an hour we were standing under the large sign creaking askew above the entrance to Marvimex, the rain rapping on our umbrellas. The crooked plate read “Shopping Center”, yet the place wasn’t far from a ghostly bazaar. Engulfed by grey blocks of flats with walls damped by rain that testified half century of communism, it looked like a stable with dozens of barracks in the middle of a concrete fortress. They were populated with small, fat men and women wearing thick golden chains around their necks, offering contraband like circus performers did their often disturbing tricks. Still, many shoppers preferred the place to the Tomis Mall for its cheap and often unique wares.

Valuable objects such as antique adornment artifacts and clay pots weren’t unusual here. There were actually even stories of vintage jewelry that had made it to the manors of lords and ladies in England or even tycoons in the States for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But to me, these were no more than myths until proven otherwise.

Officer Sorescu sheltered Rux under the umbrella he held for both of them. She’d been quicker to charm him than I’d thought possible.

I caught glimpses of her profile now and then as we slithered through strings of people towards the roofed hall that housed an anthill of booths. These glimpses were enough to read seduction off her smile and divine the batting of her thick lashes. They produced the effect of melting poor Sorescu on his feet, and I knew she would soon be able to touch on the sensitive subject, namely ask him to accompany us to the police station for a confidential meeting with Detective Hector Varlam. Then the even more sensitive core of the subject would follow – no one was to hear of this.

But the view was lost as a young family in shopping rush suddenly squeezed me among them, and disappeared again just as suddenly in the roofed hall. Persian rugs hung around among lamps and chandeliers of different shapes, their glass icicles clinking whenever they trickled too low and touched my hair. They gave dim and pleasant light of warm and silent colors.

It was as if I’d been teleported by some tornado in another dimension, this part of the bazaar as good as empty of life except for a few passer-by shadows here and there, thin and untouchable ghosts. I spun among the hanging rugs, curtains and lamps that surrounded me the way circus gadgets would a child. Intertwined patterns engraved into the carpet fabric had a hypnotic effect. An effect that was all-surrounding.

It was unsettling, this feeling, like a presentiment of danger that came true when a powerful voice called my name. I turned on my heels and gasped sharply.

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 7 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 5

As promised, here goes Part 5 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 6, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

When she meets heartthrob Damian Novac, shy student Alice develops a heavy crush against her best wishes. Hoping to get close to him, she joins Damian 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. Alice barely escapes with Damian and some of their friends, only to realize she’s far from safe even back home. A shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which seems to have ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation which leads back to Damian’s past. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that will draw her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?

A novel that will keep you reading, diving into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance.

Part 5

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

CHAPTER VII

“I’m your daughter, you really believe I’d betray your secrets?” – stab in the chest. As I don’t betray Dad’s. “All right, may I die in chains, if a word on this leaves my mouth,” I went for one of the many gypsy oath formulations I’d learned in Ruxandra’s home.

Mom shuddered. “Not like that, please. Your word suffices. Keep this all to yourself, for your own good.”

“No need to elaborate on that. Elaborate on extracted.”

Deep breath, gathering her nerves. “Tiberius has been working with the Intelligence Service for years, Alice. He’s been analyzing blood samples they delivered him, samples that came from dangerous thugs. The results were always classified, your father never spoke of them. But when he began receiving samples from so-called BioDhrome agents, he withdrew in his shell like a turtle. Still, his baffled face spoke volumes. Even when he grew more accustomed to whatever he discovered, it took its toll on him. It almost drove him insane, which cost us many midnight fights.” Her voice trailed off, lost in painful memory.

“Tell me about it,” I whispered. All those late nights when Dad tiptoed to the master bedroom, the quiet quarrels they thought I didn’t hear, played like a movie in my head. All those empty weekends, Mom sunken in her books and I in mine, Dad only a picture on a shelf, even though he was still of this world.

“I put him under pressure for years to quit what he was doing. I imagine that’s why his heart grew cold to me, and he began seeking comfort elsewhere. Oh, dear baby, I haven’t asked – some coffee? Tea?”

With the premiere of her confession on my shoulders, I nodded, and Mom put a kettle on the stove. I let her decide on whether coffee or tea and moved a few inches in to let her sit by me and slip a loving arm around my back, as if to support me through what she’d say next.

“Your father is a BioDhrome target. He’s been one for a long time. So the R.I.S. took him in when we were still at the hospital in Brasov. He’s safe with them.”

“How can you be sure?” Worry broke through my voice, no matter how hard I tried to keep it chained.

“Because there’s nothing safer than R.I.S. protection in this country.”

“The few words I exchanged with him back at the hospital, he didn’t seem anxious about his life. He wanted to stay here, with us.”

“Without protection, two of his colleagues have been killed, Alice. People who worked with Intelligence Services in Barcelona and Bristol, also in matters related to genetic research. The R.I.S. are certain BioDhrome was the author, and that Tiberius is a target of greatest importance to them too. Therefore he’s a risk factor in this house, for us and for himself. Now that he’s out of the picture we’re safer, but still. Officer Sorescu, the man you saw in here . . .” even more careful now, “He’s around with his colleagues, just in case. Ruxandra and George will be staying with us, it narrows down the number of places that need surveillance.”

“Does this mean we’re confined to these walls?”

“No, you’ll be free to live your life almost as you did before. The police, the R.I.S. and the doctors, they all agree that the trauma will be slow to leave you, so a normal life is essential. Especially public places are benefic. Crowds are safe.”

She smiled as if this were supposed to thrill me like alcohol would a teen. And it did, to a certain extent. Crowds, places like the campus and even clubs were safe indeed in our town, the built-in curiosity of people would let no event unobserved. It worked better than CCTV, so there was strong reason to believe that BioDhrome wouldn’t risk an action in open field. They’d try to get us alone, at night in lonely places or even in our homes. So surveillance made sense.

But the feeling that Dad had been extracted against his will nagged. He’d been desperate like never before at the hospital, his tone had left no room for doubt. He’d been convinced that he could protect us, especially by being present.

“And if we want to talk to him? Is there some number we can call? Some place we can go, for example, I don’t know, a phone cabin downtown like in those detective movies or something?”

“We can contact Detective Varlam.”

“I see.” I was unable to control an acid grin. So this is how Hector was forcing cooperation. By leaving us no way around him. On a second thought, what if extraction was no more than a cover? A gross lie? What if he’d thrown Dad in a nasty cell and punched and kicked information on Damian Novac out of him? I jumped to my feet, bumping into the table edge. My ears whistled in tune with the kettle on the stove.

“Well, I’d like a word with him right now,” I spat.

Mom stood up, too, hand on my cheek to calm me down, blue eyes identical to mine wide and worried. Standing a head taller though, she made me feel like a kid again.

“Alice, honey, the whole idea behind this was to keep contact slim. Why bother organizing an extraction, if family stops by at the hideout to say hello anytime they please?”

“And you accept this so easily?” I snapped and brushed her hand off. “Are you really not worried about him, not one bit? His absence doesn’t bother you in the least?”

Now it was Mom’s turn to frown and apply a hard edge to her voice. “It’s not much difference to the last years, is it?”

“But this is different, Mom! You have no idea what we’ve been through up there, in the mountains. BioDhrome is serious shit, they’re really deep trouble!”

“Exactly! I am worried about your father, Alice, believe me, but yes, I admit, I’m more worried about you. Officer Sorescu even thinks that this attack on your group was meant at kidnapping you, in order to force Tiberius to turn himself in to them. To BioDhrome. So if his presence puts you in danger, then I don’t need or want to see him again until the afterlife.”

Her words sent a stab through my brain, but I kept protest and anger behind tightened lips. Mom’s honesty was sharp, like glass colliding with glass in her voice, leaving no trace of the vulnerability she’d put in her confession. Moreover, Dad had been cheating on her for a long time and she knew that. I happened to know even with whom. Indeed, why should she give a shit. I tried for a peace-making tone.

“But I wouldn’t be seeing him, Mom. I’ll just talk to Detective Varlam, make sure Dad’s all right. I need details.”

“I know you’re hard to assure of anything, sweetheart. You have a counterargument ready for anything, you’re able to question even the law of gravity, and I think you’re taking it too far sometimes. That’s why I’m telling you now: your father is safe and sound, take that for granted.”

Mom wasn’t the dictator Dad could often be, but when she stood for something there was no way past her will. Behind the mask of the kind, soft-spoken Madame Jenna everyone appreciated, she had ways of getting what she wanted, brains to bow to and the patience of a reptile. On days like this, I ate my heart out for not having inherited at least half of everything she was.

Still, I found the guts to try and make up a strategy around her in my head, but before it caught shape I heard the door from the antechamber to my room. Then light steps. Ruxandra’s steps. The knock on the doorframe to signal her presence was accompanied by a weak smile.

Her pretty face had lost much of its glow, her olive complexion now pale in its own way, her hair a washed-out black, rumpling down to her waist. Her jaw was locked despite the smile. The experience we’d been through had taken away what was left of her carefree self, I would say, and Ruxandra had become a twenty-two-year-old veteran of fight for survival.

Mom smiled back and hurried to pour her a cup of coffee, eager to cover the subject of our conversation. Ruxandra relished in Mom’s warm welcome like an orphan would in a Christmas night with presents, and joined me at the table, huddled in my old pink bathrobe that came too short on her arms and legs.

They were all “Rux, dear,” and “Jenna” to each other, as always. They had a special relationship. Mom had made a life purpose of plunging deep into the troubles of the gypsy minority, she had dedicated them her time even though there was no trophy to be won. Rich wives of the Western World she came from did charity, Mom had told me, but she didn’t think much of it. “Raising funds for clerks. Trust me, half of the donated money ends up on their pay-checks,” she’d say.

But Mom was determined to be of use on a very personal, palpable level and made a great ‘career’ of social work. Many of the gypsy kids in our neighborhood, Ruxandra and her sister Saveta included, had listened to her winter stories and learned to read and write from her. Both Romanian and English. It had been Mom who’d helped Ruxandra’s mother leave her husband and find a job at the textile factory many years ago. She’d fought and achieved so much in those difficult times. A rush of admiration swept over me, and a smile drew my lips. My heroine.

Ruxandra took a long sip of coffee, fingers curled around the mug, then leant her head back, savoring not only the aroma but also her surroundings. There was love in her gaze as it crossed over every detail of the room – The cluttered wooden cupboards nailed to the walls over the counter, the door to the back garden with its dusty glass pane, the pots, kettles and spoons dangling from a wooden stripe with hooks above the sink like bells waiting to be played.

“I’ve missed this place,” she said, her hand gently stroking the nylon table cover.

Mom gave her a warm smile. “It’s missed you, too.”

Despite the promising start, the conversation got stuck as soon as Mom uttered a, “Did you sleep well?”. Ruxandra lowered her head and pressed her lips, as if not wanting to remember. But, if she’d had nightmares, I hadn’t noticed. She’d been still and quiet. Only George’s low moaning and sighing had reached me once in a while through the veil of light sleep.

Mom tried to guide Ruxandra back on the conversational track, but all she got were attempted smiles from the trembling corner of her mouth. She wasn’t quite herself, that much was obvious. But then again, neither was I.

Mom’s insistences on tea, cookies, coffee, chocolate, marmalade and another dozen sweets per minute were a clear sign I was a disturbing sight too. I wasn’t even sure to perceive and answer all her questions, I had this feeling they’d passed by my ears more than once, like deja heards or something.

George woke up late in the afternoon. His sudden screams as if someone were slicing him alive made us all jump, and Mom almost threw down the door to the antechamber to attend him. His pained groans sent chills down my back. Ruxandra slapped her palms over her face, her shoulders shaking in hard sobs.

Carefully, I took her in my arms. I threw a glance at the big, lazy clock on the highest shelf of the bookcase – it showed four in the afternoon. George had at least gotten a good chunk of sleep. Unlike Ruxandra and I, who hadn’t even found the energy to lose the pink nightgowns we still wore like overgrown babies, curled on the couch, TV on.

Without Mom to promptly switch channels as soon as the news came on, always packed with tragedies and subliminal, “This is the end of the world”, Ruxandra and I were now fully exposed to them. A report about a massacre at a remote cottage in the mountains of Bulgaria made us both lift out heads, teeth clenched, eyes bulging.

The twin of our story, only that no one had been found, dead or alive. The perfectly groomed reporter’s words were like another deja-heard, her voice matter-of-fact but disturbed in its depths. Her story was accompanied by censured images that played on the half of the screen next to her face.

“Blood on pieces of clothing and torn curtains. Broken windows and dried blood on shards of glass. Stains of blood…” And this is where my ears began buzzing, muffling the sound of the TV. My blood pressure must’ve shot up to the sky.

So this one made it on the news.

“They’ll cover up in a few days max,” Ruxandra said, close enough to my ear to pierce through the buzz.

“How could they? How could a footage like this be a mistake? They fucking filmed the mess. People are not stupid, Rux.”

“No, they aren’t. But there have been so many tragedies with so many explanations lately, that illegal experimentation won’t cross their minds. They’ll accept any animal attack, serial killer, drugs and orgies that ended up badly, you name it.”

Then the reporter said, “The police arrested Dr. Lazar Dobrev, a psychiatrist. He used to treat one of the missing persons, who’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Yet Dr. Dobrev set him on the loose. The man was known to have murderous compulsions, which he shouldn’t have had trouble acting on at a height of two meters and a hundred and seventy kilograms of muscle.”

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 6 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 4

As promised, here goes Part 4 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 5, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

When she meets heartthrob Damian Novac, shy student Alice develops a heavy crush against her best wishes. Hoping to get close to him, she joins Damian 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. Alice barely escapes with Damian and some of their friends, only to realize she’s far from safe even back home. A shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which seems to have ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation which leads back to Damian’s past. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. He might save Alice’s life or he might take it. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that will draw her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?

A novel that will keep you reading, diving into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance.

 

Part 4

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

Mom drove all the four-hour way to Constanta in silence. George was in great need of it. He was sensitive to all sound, he’d cover his ears, his face would twist in a grotesque mask and he’d squeeze his lids shut at every word he heard. He’d killed a man with his own hands, the trauma was most severe for him, the doctor had explained. He remembered every detail of it vividly, which tormented him with violent headaches.

“Don’t leave him alone, for whatever reason,” the doctor had warned.

The street up to my parents’ house revealed itself on a last turn, cobbled and ghostly in our headlights. Barking from neighboring yards and the crisp sea air were the first to greet us, lonely and timeless, like the screech of our old iron gate and the warm darkness of our living room. I think that was my first real experience of synesthesia, I could almost feel the massive oak bookcase through my skin, the homely upholstered couch, Dad’s favorite armchair.

George didn’t wait for an invitation to throw himself face-down on the sofa in the small antechamber that opened into my room, which I used to call my boudoir back in high school. Ruxandra and I shared my bed.

Mom turned on the lamp outside, the thick skeleton of our old apple tree bathing in its mild light. We kept the curtains open so we could face it from the bed, my old guardian from childhood days. It felt safe, it felt home, but I still couldn’t close my eyes until the early morning hours. Something was missing, something wasn’t right. Something wasn’t home. It only hit me when my eyes snapped open at midday, my brain refreshed: Where was Dad?

I threw the blanket aside, squirmed out of bed – squashing Ruxandra in the process, provoking a grunt and a sleepy frown – and rushed to the master bedroom.

The curtains were drawn, making way for the pale winter light through the overlarge window. The just as oversized bed was made – of course, Mom must’ve been up for hours, if she’d slept at all, considering the circumstances. Having left the parental home a few years ago to live with Ruxandra and her sister in the town suburbs, most of my parents’ habits had moved to the back of my brain, only to resurface when exposed to them again. As they did now. I remembered the smell of scrambled eggs that used to draw me to the kitchen when I was a child. It hadn’t spoilt my olfactory senses in many years and it didn’t now either, but, as I said, old memories resurfaced.

I tiptoed to the kitchen to find Mom sitting at the table, her thin fingers slowly stroking a coffee mug smeared with souvenir photos of San Francisco – one of the few items that still bound her to her own home. Her stare was lost over the black liquid that didn’t give out steam, which meant she must’ve been staring blankly at it for some time now. Her hair, blond and crisscrossed by platinum strands, fell rumpled to her slim shoulders. She was clad in a fluffy, white nightgown.

The sight was disconcerting, considering her usual innate urge of always looking flawless and making an impression of aristocracy on all eyes that fell on her, including the cleaning lady’s. Now the absence of an elegant and shiny bun and the uncovered wrinkles on her meager face in the presence of a stranger were another definite sign something was wrong.

His sitting on the kitchen couch, the corner cupboard hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles, was even more disturbing. A heavy winter coat was hanging negligently off the couch edge, his chubby hands cupping a coffee mug of his own like pillows of flesh emerging from under thick pullover sleeves. His mien was grave as he set brown, warm eyes on me.

Round and young, but marked by determination, that’s the impression his face made. Common features, like mine, someone I wouldn’t have noticed in a group or anywhere else. But now he sat in my parents’ kitchen. Was he a lover? No way, my inner self snapped. She would’ve gone for someone less . . . fat. Plus, he didn’t seem to be feeling awkward, nor did he try to justify his presence.

Just a few moments of puzzling silence, then he stood up, gathered his coat and turned to the door that led directly to the back garden – something told me he’d come in through the same, but I was clueless as to the reason why he refused to use the front door. With a hand on the handle and the coat on the other arm, he turned once more to Mom.

“We’ll be close.”

She nodded. He threw me a glance that said, “I’ll let you girls talk,” before he left.

Unable to formulate questions even in my head, I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Still, the sixth sense activated again and sent me with slow steps to the table, then seated me in the man’s place.

Mom didn’t raise her head. On the contrary, she seemed to sink it even closer to the mug, a hunch forming on her slim back that was otherwise as straight as a wood plank. Hadn’t it been for the thick nightgown, I would’ve seen the skin stretch over her ribs. The truth of the man’s visit must’ve been a burden not much different from an affair. Could it be?

“So?” I managed after a while.

Her fingers still stroked the mug with slow, even moves. “We’ll be under surveillance. I don’t know for how long.”

Surveillance?

“Why’s that?”

“You and your friends. The . . .” she chewed on her lower lip, probably to keep back what looked like a nervous breakdown. Her cheek twitched. “Those people from the mountains. BioDhrome, they told me.”

Panic shot to the tips of my toes.“BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”

“Where’s Dad?”

Only now Mom looked me in the eyes, eyebrows up like a crying pet’s. She looked for the way to put it, there was no doubt.

“No, God, please no!”

Mom’s expression grew from wrecked to worried, more alert now, the way it had been at the hospital. She gripped my wrist, voice soft and soothing, though it cost her some effort.

“No, baby, no. He’s all right, safe and sound.”

Pulse still up until the information sank in. “Where is he then?”

This was the news she’d been nervous about, I could tell by the pause and fixed gaze on my eyes.

“He’s been extracted, they told me.”

Extracted? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Another nervous chew on her lip. “This BioDhrome thing.” Then reconsidering, “Alice, this must stay between us. Tell no one, not Ruxandra, not anyone.”

“Just tell me, Mom!”

“Give me your word first. For your own safety, not mine.”

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 4 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 3

As promised, here goes Part 3 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 4, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

When she meets heartthrob Damian Novac, shy student Alice develops a heavy crush against her best wishes. Hoping to get close to him, she joins Damian 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. Alice barely escapes with Damian and some of their friends, only to realize she’s far from safe even back home. A shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which seems to have ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation which leads back to Damian’s past. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. He might save Alice’s life or he might take it. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that will draw her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?

A novel that will keep you reading, diving into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance.

Part 3

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

CHAPTER VI

Unbelievable how Dad could still shove my questions under a carpet after all these years. He wanted to forget I wasn’t a child or a pet, and tried to shift focus by answering my questions with his own.

“Are you feeling dizzy?” – recovering from surprise, stroking my forehead.

“How do you know him?”

“Does your head feel heavy? The whole body? Lift your right hand,” – as if he didn’t hear me this time either.

“What did they do to him, Dad?”

“Is breathing difficult? How about talking?”

“Damn it, Dad!” – no difficulties there – “What’s the story?”

The door creaked ajar and Dad’s face sprang over mine. He whispered sternly in my ear, “Breathing is difficult, Alice. Everything hurts, no matter what.” Then he straightened up to face the visitor.

A mind-blowing surprise to see the person interested in my wellbeing this time was Hector, the bearded singer with aquiline features. It wasn’t until two men in POLICE jackets followed, that I realized he wasn’t there as brother-in-pain. His frown and suspicion-filled eyes measuring Dad from head to toes already spoke of a strict inspector or something, but as he flashed his badge my mouth still popped open.

“Your wife kindly announced us that Miss Preda is awake,” he croaked, low and controlled, as if he hadn’t been there with us, as if he’d only just read the case facts in a file that got slapped on his desk. What movie is this?

“She’s still weak, Detective, she won’t be able to deliver much.”

“I’d be much obliged, if she tried,” – adjusting his attitude to match Dad’s aristocratic demeanor, clearly mocking.

“Later, Detective, I must insist.”

“Time is precious, Dr. Preda, given the circumstances. Surely you understand.”

More of this back and forth, “I insist,” and “So do I,” until Dad was left with no choice, the two officers framing him on each side. With silent threat on their furrowed brows they grabbed Dad by his arms. Offended, he jerked from their grasp and whisked his suit, giving me a reassuring, “I’ll be back with you as soon as the hawk’s out. Don’t let him pressure you.”

With that the officers ushered him out, and Hector took the chair by my side, examining me with a stiff attitude. His lips were white and split like a crack addict’s, there was a large cut with stitches on his forehead, not to mention that one eye was already turning from blue to black, so it couldn’t be just in my head – He’d been there with us, he’d taken a gulp of dread and violence as large as I had.

“What is this?” I managed, unable to hide astonishment.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Detective Hector Varlam, at your service.”

“Jesus, Hector!” – memories of lilt guitar tunes spinning in my head – “You were there with us. You lived it all first hand, what? Why? Jesus, Hector, why are you here?”

“Now, now, take it easy babe,” – with a gentle touch on my wrist, the familiar bearded singer replaced the detective with the experienced frown – “I don’t need you to recount what I already know, of course. I only need to find out what happened after you played decoy and got almost everybody out of the cottage.”

“How do you know I played decoy?” – didn’t wait for the answer though, other questions pressing against this one like a crowd against a door – “And what d’you mean almost everybody?”

“There have been fatalities, I’m afraid. Marius Iordache and six others didn’t make it out in time. I hate being the one to deliver this news.”

“Jesus Christ!” One particular memory lighting up – the wretch, coughing out blood and grunting like a dying animal.

“Alice, please,” Hector lowered his voice and face, acting the accomplice who felt with me, “This isn’t easy on my side of the barricade either. But we have to keep a cool head and recount the facts while the whole thing is still warm. If too much time passes, the brain begins to edit broken pieces of memory.”

“How long have you been on this case, Hector? How long have you been chasing BioDhrome?”

“Quite a while. For six years, to be exact.”

“So you didn’t get them in six fucking years, and now you want me to believe my account of a fight in frosty woods will make the difference?”

“A fight? Is that what happened?” – raised eyebrows, but no genuine surprise.

“I have a feeling you know more than you let on.” Like he did that I played decoy.

“The rescue team did find the body of a villager close to where they found you. But the man was all meat stripes, and I seriously doubt you were the author.”

“I wasn’t. It was wolves.” But I had a feeling he knew that, too. A shudder traveled down my spine.

“Humor me. Tell me what happened.”

I did. Short sentences, only facts – struggling to push the gate shut in the bustling face of all emotion. Hector listened, eyes down at his hands.

“You were the only one attacked, you know,” he murmured, without lifting his head. “The rest of us ran and ran, faster and faster, whipped by such rage and bloodlust that we saw red.

“The rush started to fade as I strayed through the forest and, by the time I reached the village in the valley, I was drained of strength. My lips and fingers were frostbitten. There wasn’t a soul in the village, Alice, it looked completely abandoned. But all survivors, your friends Ruxandra Ignat and George Voinescu included, found their way there – all usable paths turned out to lead to the village like a fuckin’ maze – and we sought refuge in the church.

“Interestingly enough, Damian Novac came in last, hours later, and he wasn’t alone. He’d found the military base deep in the woods, some miles from the village, and brought help. How he made it there remains a mystery. Like so many things about him.” At this point, his eyes shot at me. “He was here with your father, wasn’t he?”

“So is this it? Is this why you’re really here and pretending to be bonding with me? To find out what they talked about?” I grinned at him, unable to hide the contempt in my voice. He and Damian had been hanging out for years, and yet here he was, this stuck-up detective who thought too much of his acting skills, squeezing information from a traumatized civilian.

“He’s dangerous, Alice, you must understand. I have reason to believe he’s a BioDhrome agent. I don’t have proof, since the guy is damned shrewd, but I’ve been around him for six years. Six. That’s enough time to feel things, if not know them.

“I’d studied Novac for a long time before this mission, monitored his every move, adjusted my personality to get under his skin. We became good friends, or so I thought. But his past, he always guarded it with inhuman wit. Still, one thing slipped – his friendship with your father. Until I saw him emerge from Dr. Preda’s private booth at the Marquette . . .” he went on carefully here, “The booth where Olympia danced for him, you understand? For your father. I’m sorry, Alice. I really didn’t want to tell you this, but I need your trust.”

Rage clouding my head, “What are you fuckin’ saying?”

“I’m saying that your father rented a booth at the club and paid for anonymity. I’m saying he’s having an affair with Olympia Slavic, and Damian Novac is the only person he trusted with this secret. And there’s much more where that came from. But I’ll have to stop here, you’re in no condition to hear this . . .”

“My condition didn’t stop you until now. Go on.”

Hector gritted his teeth.

“You know how I received this assignment? The Cezare Lupan file, archived with the R.I.S., disappeared six years ago. Disappeared, you understand? No one can make that happen unless they’re the K.G.B., F.B.I., fucking David Copperfield or a nasty monster with friends in high places, like BioDhrome. That’s how the Intelligence Service got me on the job.

“After six years of fuckin’ med school with him, I still don’t have material evidence against Novac, I don’t, but I’m positive as hell he works for powerful sharks. Still, any chance of producing evidence by myself is gone with the wind. My cover is now history, blown when we got out of that frozen hell, blown when my R.I.S. superiors came forward too directly, overconfident I’d gotten all the proof and witnesses we needed to nail Novac after this. Novac sniffed them, he now knows who I am.” – Bitter grin.

“But know this, Alice: I have no doubt that he’s been playing your father, too. Maybe he even introduced Dr. Preda to Olympia, with the purpose of loosening his tongue, do you realize? BioDhrome needs information from him. Your father may be a genius, but Novac’s Machiavelli resurrected.”

The whole room spun with me. This isn’t happening was back in the charts.

“So help me.” Hector lowered his voice even more, taking my hand in both of his. They pressed on my bandaged fingers, reminding me of how my nails had come off. The pain helped revive awareness that I was still in the real world.

“What did they talk about, your father and Novac?”

There was such emphasis on this last question, that my thoughts suddenly fit together like puzzle pieces, leaving no room four doubt. He’d come to see me as an investigator, yet he’d done as good as all the talking, telling me horror stories about a Machiavellian agent and a father I refused to recognize. All this even though I was lying on a hospital bed, with IV lines snaking around my arms. “Everything hurts, no matter what.”

The son of a bitch was trying to manipulate me into betraying my own father, and Dad had known it. Maybe everything he said was indeed true, but he was wielding the truth to get a fat bonus – he was trying to nail Dad along with Damian Novac, or Cezare Lupan, or whatever his name was. I turned my head to the narrow window, letting the gray daylight flood my eyes, as stinging as it was.

“I wouldn’t know, Detective. I wasn’t yet awake.”

“Yes, you were,” he insisted. “Your mother told me you were.”

“She was wrong.”

“As simple as that?”

“It’s the simple truth. Now if you don’t mind, I’m tired. Everything hurts.”

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 4 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

CHASING DAMIAN – Part 2

As promised, here goes Part 2 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 3, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

When she meets heartthrob Damian Novac, shy student Alice develops a heavy crush against her best wishes. Hoping to get close to him, she joins Damian 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. Alice barely escapes with Damian and some of their friends, only to realize she’s far from safe even back home. A shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which seems to have ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation which leads back to Damian’s past. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. He might save Alice’s life or he might take it. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that will draw her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?

A novel that will keep you reading, diving into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance.

Part 2

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

CHAPTER V

Whispering somewhere close. If I was dead, I wasn’t alone in it. It was true, you still existed somewhere after you died. You don’t see, but you can hear – not an ideal situation, but still something. And it’s warm and so very comfortable, all that whispering, as if somebody’s careful not to disturb you.

Then I must’ve fallen asleep and dreamt, even in death, and it was anything but nice. I was small, so small, like a bee in a jar. And I tried to get out, but the glass was slippery, there was nothing I could grab. Every time I tried to reach up, my palms would leave traces of blood down the jar. Instead of fingernails, I had pus and blood. I screamed, a sharp scream like a train whistle, then a hard push on my hands. And then my eyes were open, though painful, so very painful.

I sat up, sweat trickling down my forehead and neck. The room seemed warped, like in a dream, my skull heavy as if it contained rocks. I dropped back on pillows that smelled of disease and needles stung my arms.

A sweet, pained voice rang close to my ear. “Alice, baby, you’re awake! Thank God, you’re awake!”

English. That moment I knew Mom was leaning over me, her lips pressing on my temple and forehead again and again. I tried to open my eyes, but the lids were swollen and hurt. Everything hurt.

She held my hand, I now felt it, aware again of the life that flowed feebly through me. A slow pulse in my chest, like a lazy clock. Tick – pause – Tock. Tick-pause – Tock.

Among sobs, Mom began telling me the story of the Sleeping Beauty. It had been one of my favorites as a kid, and her voice brought back the oldest and sweetest memories of pink pajamas and Judy the Monkey. Memories as distant as how and why I’d ended up feeling as beaten and finished as I did. My mind was taken only with the prince with beautiful, sculpted face and long raven hair blowing in the wind as he rode his white stallion, the girl slumbering in a high, ivory tower and the taste of cotton candy mingling with that of blood.

The story came to a forced end when two men walked in – I could tell they were men by the low, deep voices that didn’t manage to keep their heated conversation to the mere level of whispers.

“I won’t leave her under your wing alone.” The direct, determined tone was enough to trigger the man’s identity in my head – Dad. The feeling of warmth and peace was now whole – they were here, both Mom and Dad. I was safe.

“You’re being unreasonable, Tiberius,” the other man warned in a pleasant but commanding voice. Probably as commanding as his person, since he called my dad by his first name – The fewest called the great Dr., PhD., A-pile-of-titles-in-biochemistry-I-can’t-even-read Tiberius Preda by his first name.

Suddenly, images of a rusty chain and strings of fur crossed my mind’s eye like sharp lashes. Then the fall, the knock in my head. The conclusion was rapidly reached – I was at a hospital and the man must’ve been a doctor.

“I’ll be her sole guardian.”

“That’s not a good idea,” the doctor stressed.

Among wretched sobs, Mom whispered, “She’s woken up, Tiberius. She was up on her hands, she opened her eyes.”

The shuffle of fabric told me Dad hurried to my side. Hands checked the catheter in my arm. IV lines. Hospital, doctor, catheters . . . Reality caught outline. How on earth could I have survived? A leaden sensation all through my body prevented me from moving or making a sound, but my brain activity took off like a rocket.

“She’s regaining her strength fast,” Dad said, and bent close to my ear, “Alice, do you hear me? Are you awake, sweetheart?”

Regaining my strength felt far from the truth, since I didn’t find enough to moan, let alone answer.

“She fell asleep again,” Mom lamented, as if I were more dead than alive. “She fell asleep, my poor girl.” My temple tickled – She was caressing my hair.

“You should get some fresh air, Jen. You look and sound tragic, and that’s the last thing she needs.”

Mom took offense, it was obvious in her higher-than-usual pitch.

“I’m not going anywhere. This is my baby, barely out of a cold ditch.”

“Your tone.”

“No, Tiberius, your tone. I’m not one of your sluts.”

“That’s it, Jenna, you need fresh air.” Dad was now severe – that kind of severe that used to sew my lips together years ago. Now it shut Mom up and strengthened my decision of playing asleep. I sensed her linger in the doorstep, as I did her crying eyes on my face before her steps faded down an echoing hallway.

“I’ll leave you with her,” the doctor said calmly.

“No, don’t. Close the door, we need to finish our talk.”

“Not here. Not now.”

“I won’t leave her with you, lad, and I don’t want you doing anything behind my back to force my hand.”

He can force Tiberius Preda’s hand?

“I won’t take action without your knowledge”, the doctor said, “But I won’t back off.”

“I won’t have her in your custody. That’s my final word.”

“Let’s talk about it later, some other place.”

Dad seemed not to hear him. “There’s something else that can’t wait, though. Have you seen her blood count? It’s so good it’s frightening. After hours in the cold and everything she’s been through, not even a bladder infection. She fell down a precipice and not a broken bone. This is not normal. Besides, she’s always been a fragile kid.”

There was a trace of discontent in Dad’s voice that baffled me to my stem cells. If I was doing better than ever, what was there to be so urgent about? And why was I hooked to IV and felt like shit? And why ask my own doctor if he’d seen my blood count?

Thank God my face was too stiff to express anything. The slightest sign that I could hear them, and false smiles would greet me, then the discussion would be taken somewhere else, leaving me with no clue as to my own situation and Dad’s distress.

The doctor wasn’t as surprised, though. “She won’t remain this strong. But either way, she remains in danger.”

Oh, please talk sense!

“What if she doesn’t come back to normal? Ruxandra Ignat, her blood count looks just as staggering, there’s still no change …”

Ruxandra’s alive?

BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”

He knew about BioDhrome? And Dad did, too?

I strained to pinpoint the doctor’s voice. I knew him, I surely did. Deep, composed and pleasant to my ears like thick, flowing honey. My mind searched and searched, until recognition hit – my unattainable barbarian, Damian. He was alive, thank God he was alive, thank God for learning it before I was aware enough to go nuts with the uncertainty!

I was tempted to open my eyes, but the effort equaled lifting bricks only with my eyelids, giving me the necessary seconds to reconsider. The conversation would come to an end at the first sign I was awake. I stayed still as a corpse, but inside excitement, joy and curiosity strained to pump my pulse. For whatever reason, they failed, my body wouldn’t respond. IV lines. What am I on?

“Especially if their values don’t come back to normal.” Dad’s voice broke.

“They will. Those values were only triggered by the gas. It raises the adrenaline up to that particular level that regulates all functions of the body so that it can become a fighting machine, the best version of itself, this is no secret to you. But the effects will fade eventually, and Alice will be the fragile kid you knew again. But that won’t stop BioDhrome.” There was scorn in Damian’s tone, as if he suspected Dad of wishing weakness on me. It didn’t throw Dad off his distressed track, though.

“The effects of this experience might not wear off after a while, and you know it damned well. I don’t want her . . . Forgive me, but I don’t want her ending up like you either. An Upgrade is as doomed as a target.”

Huh?

“They did much more with me than they did with Alice, you know this. She’s far from an Upgrade yet, and her values will normalize. You’ve seen George Voinescu’s results, his liver’s already a wreck again.”

Permanent experience effects, Upgrades, what the fuck?!

“What you had was inclination, Damian, talent, if you will. That played the most important part. Their procedure came second. Blood and spirit are connected, make no mistake about that, and don’t listen to small minds with a degree in science. Alice might not be talented, she may not be as strong and angry as you were, but she is on that path. She is . . . not well, lad.”

“For that you have only yourself to blame,” Damian said, calm but cold like a judge in court. “She gave up your inheritance, she ran away from everything you represent, she went desperate enough to want and marry a loser, so she could be rid of your name. Of your indifferent, frosty shadow. And things got worse and worse.”

Pause. Both in Dad’s breathing and mine.

“Put like this it strikes you, doesn’t it, Tiberius? Quod erat demonstrandum. With all due respect, you can only hurt your own daughter. And you surely won’t be able to protect her now, with BioDhrome’s eye on her.”

“How deeply did you two bond, boy, that she told you all this?” Dad sneered. He’d virtually bowed his head and gulped down all Damian’s scorn, however veiled in a detached tone, but it was easy to imagine him pointing a rifle at my handsome barbarian now.

“I asked. She talked. I listened.”

“Did all that listening get her in bed with you?”

Oh, no, no, no, Dad, please don’t!

“Have I not proven my loyalty and respect?” Damian’s voice went a frequency deeper, sounding like insulted bass. This time emotion was clear, making my stomach prickle with both butterflies and embarrassment. “I only got close to her when the situation turned ugly, returning the favor you once did me. I owe you much, Tiberius, and this is my opportunity to repay you. You’re powerless now, but I can and will protect Alice until we track down BioDhrome’s head and chop it off.”

“You’re the one who put her in danger when you embarked on this trip, knowing she’d be on it.”

“I didn’t expect a hit, there hasn’t been one in years. Not to mention that the people on board would be missed by many, unlike the wretches BioDhrome usually targets.”

Long pause.

“So can I rest assured that you haven’t taken a special liking to my daughter, Damian? That you weren’t on that trip because of her?”

Another pause, this time in Damian’s response and in my breathing again. He hesitated. Good God, he hesitated . . . Was it a good sign? Was he reluctant to admit that he liked me? Or was he unsure of how to tell Dad his baby wasn’t worthy of attention?

“Why don’t you prove your respect once more, and keep as honest as I know you,” Dad demanded. I struggled to control my breath as expectation built up – virtually, but the pulse stayed steady. The strangest sensation.

Damian’s reply lagged for seconds, but when it came, it was velvety and clear. “Alice is a gem, I must admit. Sweet in appearance, sharp in wit and loving as an angel. But she’s your daughter.”

Expectation popped like a balloon stung with a needle. The refined barbarian that was Damian Novac had found the perfect words to avoid a direct answer, but there it was, between the lines. It may have been his way of saying I was the little sister of Shitty, since “amazing”, “stunning” or at least “attractive” hadn’t as much as touched his description of me. To save a bit of face, I prayed my playing asleep had worked the first night at the cottage as it did now.

After tormenting moments Dad spoke again, low and careful, “Don’t take this the wrong way, lad. It’s just . . .” Awkward pause. “You’re dangerous, Damian. It’s not your fault, they did this to you, yet . . .”

“I get it,” Damian cut him off.

The air was so laden, that I could almost hear Dad nod. “I can’t risk them doing the same with Alice.”

“Then let me take over. Will you tolerate my wing over her?”

Long pause. Apologetic, maybe fearful answer.

“I won’t, lad. Your wings are black and thorny. One can’t protect from fire with fire or from hell with demons.”

Damian lingered in silence for moments, but his anger filled the room, heavy as his presence. I could feel it as I did my own strange anxiety lacking the frantic heartbeat.

“You leave me no choice, Tiberius.” – Urging. Low.

“Respect and loyalty, Damian, if I may remind you.” – Dignified, determined, yet pleading. “Just don’t do anything behind my back.”

“As I said. Not without your knowledge.” With that, Damian closed the door behind him.

A chair raked the floor as Dad pulled it close to the bed and sat down. He stroked my forehead with long, lab-man fingers for a long while, a while that I used to calm my rage at destiny, to quench the curses that burned the tip of my tongue, and to ensure I’d look innocent and unknowing when I’d open my eyes. Yet the first sentence that came out when Dad’s tired face appeared through the blurry shield my eyelashes made was,

“What did BioDhrome do to Damian Novac?”

To be continued.

***

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Ana

CHASING DAMIAN – Full first 50 pages

REEDITED – Publisher approved. Excerpt from final version of the book. Next episode today, 7.11.2014! Stay tuned.

When she meets heartthrob Damian Novac, shy student Alice develops a heavy crush against her best wishes. Hoping to get close to him, she joins Damian 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. Alice barely escapes with Damian and some of their friends, only to realize she’s far from safe even back home. A shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which seems to have ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation which leads back to Damian’s past. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. He might save Alice’s life or he might take it. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that will draw her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?

A novel that will keep you reading, diving into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance.

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

I was twenty-two when I met him, studying English Language and Literature at the Universitatea Ovidius in Constanta. It was my last year on the campus close to the deserted beaches of our ghostly town, and my first year ‘back on market’ after a painful break-up. The highlight of it was 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’ve 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 and a set of freckles that made people go “Aw, sweet,” rather than “Wow, hot!”. Grooming was a challenge, too. Foundation always ended up looking like unevenly distributed flour on my skin, and my hair galvanized like wire no matter what I did. Ruxandra 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, Alice, 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, med school,” Ruxandra whispered in my ear, noticing my dropped jaw. She tossed a strand of ebony hair off her shoulder with a graceful move. “They call him Bane ‘cause of the looks. Women’s Bane.” Large grin.

“I don’t remember seeing him before,” I said, eyes still fixed on the delicious sight.

“They usually have classes at the Old University, but they’re with us two semesters.” Of course – the Old University was being refurbished.

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 head.

Damian didn’t see me that day, or the day after. Being petite and almost skinny had its advantages in matters 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 Ruxandra. She laughed her sensual laugh.

“So love it when your sweet mouth picks up dirt, Alice.”

“I speak but the truth.”

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 and making plans.

Ruxandra wanted me to get over the disaster with my ex once and for all. She took her role as image consultant very seriously, while I came up with ways of manipulating destiny into “casual” bumping into Damian at a popular but jam-packed club – the Marquette, 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. Ruxandra 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 pale 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 shrieked 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 but 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 Ruxandra 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. Dancing and drinking people – Ruxandra and George included – stared at us. Then a possibility hit me – maybe he 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 campus. But then again, Ruxandra 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, my backside crushed against his thigh as sweaty bodies squeezed us together. My heart raced, 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.

“Alice.”

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

Clumsy grin, “How so?”

“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 . . .

“Impressed?”

“It requires some presence of mind.”

“I … I brought it, actually. Today. George is in constant need of such.” I knew George 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, Alice?”

I shrugged and faked lack of interest, ignoring the way he spoke my name and how it made my cheeks prickle.

“Maybe. In the cafeteria, or at the Marquette. 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, which caused a dashing smile on his face. He seemed to be growing comfortable.

“You claim yourself a witch?”

“I claim nothing without my lawyer.”

“Astute. And George? Is he one of your allies?”

“You could say that. He’s dating my best friend, Ruxandra.” As for me, I’m available and all for you, mister.

“Now I remember,” he said as if he truly just realized, “I saw you at the Marquette 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 Marquette 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 a bit, how shall I put it? Unusual.”

“You think?”

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

“I merely adjust to my interlocutor.”

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, laughed more, and soon our groups mingled in the cafeteria.

A few weeks later, George 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 a bearded, rugged-looking guy with a guitar and Olympia Slavic, a platinum blonde Beauty-Queen who I didn’t stand a chance against. She was tall and loud, her grin white and large, but she couldn’t be his girlfriend. Everyone knew she danced in a private booth at the Marquette for a rich guy – a mobster, bald and fat, some people speculated, though nobody had ever seen him. But he wasn’t here now, and the farther Constanta stayed behind us, the more all over Damian she was. I ducked in my coat and scarf up to my nose and watched frustrated how she drew closer to him.

“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.

Olympia 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 triumphant 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.

“George,” he said, lifting his arm and waking Olympia, “Where’s the Vodka I gave you?”

George’s sleepy eyelids fluttered open. He brushed sandy tendrils off his forehead and removed his own arm from around Ruxandra, who shivered at his chest, her eyes hooded, her lips white and thinner than usual, as if they’d shrunken. He reached to the overhead rack and dropped a bag on her head.

“Sorry, Rux,” George 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,” George 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 Olympia and one to George.

“Pass that around,” he told them, then 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 Olympia 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.

Suddenly, the car began to wobble like a ship on a stormy sea. The girls shrieked and boys glanced around with wide eyes. As the lights flickered and finally went out, I 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,” Olympia babbled.

“It ain’t no shovels moving this train!” The guy with the guitar croaked.

The train came to a brusque halt in its swaying, and Damian jumped to his feet, 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?” George 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 bearded friend said. “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 rust box, Hector?” 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 eyes bright like laser piercing at me through the darkness. A crystalline voice like tinkling icicles filled my head. “You need me . . .”

 

CHAPTER I

 

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

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

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

“Don’t strain yourself.”

“It hurts,” I whispered.

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

“Damian?”

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

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

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

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

“Damian … CPR?”

Ruxandra threw me a glance, her hands rubbing mine.

“Med school, remember?”

This was turning 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, too. As far as I knew, cheesy Superman days were over and I suspected Ruxandra was making fun, spraying fuel on my crush.

“Playing hero,” I whispered.

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

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

Damian held a bottle of 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. I’m not seeing this! I’m not seeing this!

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

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

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

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

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

Lay with me? 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 the color of his was. Special, weirdly so. Every morning I saw a dull, washed-out nuance of blue in the mirror, as I saw brown and every combination thereof often around, but I’d never seen that pale green as if looked at through crystal, creating an irresistible contrast to his honey skin. I imagined it flash with some kind of madness, like a demon’s eyes. Maybe it did when he was angry. And I could make him angry right now. I could jolt up and press my lips on his, taking him by surprise.

But I made it only as far as resting my head on his arm that felt like concrete under a layer of fluffy pullover, and putting a hand on his chest – very broad, well-shaped, yet not bulky.

“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. There’s no phone signal so deep in the mountains either, so we had to make do.”

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

“No earthquake?”

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 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 began stroking the side of my torso over the coat, I felt his hand close to my breast. It made the blood race through my veins.

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

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

“Oh . . . Sorry.”

“For what?”

“Spitting.”

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

“No. I did not.”

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

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

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

Guitar tones slowly filled the silence. They were just as out of tune as the hoarse male voice that accompanied them, but it made not speaking more comfortable and I thought it relaxed Damian, too. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, but his body so close to mine made it impossible. His chest rose and fell 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 Olympia after all? Or maybe into another? He could surely pick and choose with as good as the entire campus drooling over him. And what if he only wanted to be friends with me? Greedy for the shaft in his pants I’d probably lost that now too, which made my chest hurt as much as sniveling did.

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

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

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

Maneuvered into it by George, I sat with her by the stove. She returned to a conversation with her friends, and made a show of how she ignored me – meaning that every time I opened my mouth, she’d go ahead and ask one of the others about the parties at the dorms that she’d missed – probably ‘cause of her sugar daddy – or introduce some cheap gossip with, “Oh yeah, did you hear that . . .”. I tried talking to an older guy with wiry curls, but he soon switched to the other side of the human circle. After about an hour, Olympia and I were left alone for some awkward moments.

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

Looking away from me and with disdain in her voice, she said her dad was from Serbia and I instinctively mentioned my mother’s American heritage, trying to establish a bond. In the end, we were both half-breeds and getting along would take some pressure off my back. But our connection was interrupted before it was made.

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

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

“That would be an overstatement,” I muttered.

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

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

“So your mom’s the American and your dad the knight from Draculean lands?” He gave me a 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?” Olympia tried harder to splash me with mud. “How did he pass Ceausescu’s dogs?”

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

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

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

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

Shit . . .

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

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

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

Olympia glowered back at Ruxandra, 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 face in my palms, fighting to keep back tears and unable to fathom how I could be so stupid to mention my roots so easily, especially to someone who so obviously resented me. The cool air on the porch dried my eyes, but also painted a sharp picture of my situation – lame, 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.

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

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

Imagine my surprise to see him standing by my side like an assassin who’d popped out of nowhere. I refused to let it show with clueless blinking or gaping, but gave the first answer that crossed my mind.

“Heavy loads.”

“I’m sorry I startled you.”

“Do I appear startled?”

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

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

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

“Ruxandra spoke without thinking.”

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

“And that puzzles you, I gather?”

“It intrigues me.”

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

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

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

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

“You make it sound as if I’m a hero.”

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

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

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

“No. She didn’t.” I stared at him, drawn ever deeper into his scrutinizing gaze. Just yesterday I would’ve done anything for such an opportunity to spend time alone with my love interest, but now was the worst moment to be exposed to him. I must’ve looked a complete mess huddled in two dirty coats, with crazy hair, knotting my skeletal fingers like some underage witch. 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.”

“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 again, waving a finger at him. He took a step closer, his stare steady on my face.

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

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

“A question. 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?”

“It feels shrinky.”

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

“Do you have a problem with shrinking?”

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

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

“As long as it satisfies you.”

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

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

“What do you think I need?”

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

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

“Asking questions is a shrink’s job. Why take on it with me?”

He knitted his eyebrows and pressed those 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.

Olympia appeared in the frame, wrapped in a shabby quilt that didn’t succeed in reducing her beauty. Her hair flowed straight and slippery platinum down her chest, her face well tended and her golden, catlike eyes glimmering under thick lashes – gorgeous, truly a queen, despite the dark rings that betrayed how tired she was. 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 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 my stomach. I wouldn’t follow this handsome master like an insignificant, nameless slave, especially not after he’d turned his attention away. “I’ll stay here a while, enjoy the quiet.”

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

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

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

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

I was again alone on the porch. The wind blew sharply through my hair indeed, the cold penetrating to my bones. Maybe it had moments before too, but Damian’s presence had kept me from perceiving it. I looked out 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.

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. Hardly a surprise, considering my competition. Olympia danced like a sexy snake around the bearded singer and in Damian’s field of vision, probably spurred by Vodka and Scotch.

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

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

Probably too controlled to watch with a hanging tongue like the others, Damian resorted to throwing her glances once in a while, while sipping from the plastic cup. She kept looking at him, smiling and winking sexily every time she caught his eye, but he knitted his brows, as if something grew heavier on his mind with every minute. Soon, as the blizzard began 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. Good God, was he handsome!

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t help a smile, since they looked like a frog and an olive-feathered swan in love, although Ruxandra’s swan looks were treacherous in more than one way. Her graceful stature hid the strength of a panther used to hard work in a gym without heating or other such amenities, and her long-lashed, bitter chocolate eyes exuded mysterious wit. I often compared her to the fiery gypsy Carmen, enhanced with the brains of Virginia Wolf.

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

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

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

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

“Besides,” he turned to Ruxandra again, “Olympia only has eyes and hots for Novac.”

No shit?

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

I didn’t get the rules and George’s tongue-knotting explanations weren’t any help. None of us had much money, so the loser had to take off a piece of clothing each lost round. After I got stripped to my jersey, 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 – four of them – were mere bunks, probably with straw under the grey, dirty sheets. Maybe they’d served for construction workers until late autumn. But since the place had been abandoned over the winter, humidity had infested it with the smell of mold. The cinder was weak in the 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. The good old Russian novel could transport me now in another dimension even more pitiful than ours, where the hero would take another face but Novac’s. He would be battered by fate, cracked and not as handsome, but he’d do. I closed my eyes and relied on my imagination to picture him, but that only sent my head spinning like a carousel. Sleep came in spurts and then fled completely as people began trickling into the room. I counted eight from under half-closed eyelids – still better than counting sheep. Then more followed.

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

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

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

“Aw, you like it rough, then?” The man’s voice was not only too thick, but also feverish, matching his snogging on her skin and the shuffle of jackets under and over them.

“Get off me, you fuckin’ dog!”

My eyes snapped wide open, searching for the scene. All I could see were the girl’s white wool arms and long denim legs moving, 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 cusses – and, as he brought it close to the screaming girl, I gaped in smitten disbelief.

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

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

 

 

CHAPTER II

 

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 frame like a ball against a mound.

Damian. In the light of an oil lamp the bearded singer held behind him, he glared crystal daggers at Biker, blocking his way out. With his face framed by dark, wavy hair, he looked like a beast about to bite. After only a few seconds of hesitation, Biker bent from his waist and thrust himself at Damian. He moved out of the way and caught the rapist by the jacket, pulled him up straight and slammed his head into the doorframe. Hard. I heard wood or bones crack this time. The man groaned in pain and his body turned to jelly. Damian yanked him to his feet and faced him, keeping a grip on his throat.

“In a hurry?”

A streak of blood trickled from Biker’s temple down his cheek and he was clearly dizzy. Damian’s muscles snaked under the pullover as he slammed the rapist’s back into the doorframe.

“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 thing.”

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 “Olympia” 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.

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

That I didn’t like Olympia must be obvious until now, but Damian’s reaction angered me. I stepped in without another thought.

“That’s no justification! This guy is a potential rapist! I’m sure 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 eyes fell on me with a flash. They had the effect of a blow, I retreated a step.

“You’re quick to judge, Alice.”

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 Olympia was still among them. “She’s been abused, whether this asshole went the whole way or not! That leaves scars, ugly, deep scars!”

He didn’t follow the direction I pointed in, but kept staring at me as if I were some clown that compelled him.

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

I held my breath until he went on, low but determined.

“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. His tone told me he saw past my words and actions. I realized it wasn’t only Olympia’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 I 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,” he continued, “I would’ve said Hector and I would take our friend to the attic and tie him up until his mind clears. And when we get out of here, we’ll turn him in.”

Biker laughed, but there was no amusement in it. Rather madness.

“Turn me in . . . And to whom, Lupan? To the cops, or your friends at BioDhrome, along with all of these ants?”

Who? 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 him to Biker, seeking sense.

“What is this bullshit?” Damian hissed, that word coming out of his usually elegant mouth shocking to my ears.

“How long, Che-zuh-reh? How long until we start drawing blood this time?”

“That’s not my name.”

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

Before he could speak again, Damian grabbed one of Biker’s arms and Hector another. I instinctively 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, the rich beard adding to the ominous air. But his face betrayed no other emotion besides anger, there was nothing else I could read or interpret.

Biker tried to jerk from their grasp, but he didn’t stand a chance. There were muffled bumps and cusses as they took him up the creaky stairs to the attic. Though I wanted to follow, my feet wouldn’t take a step, soft and unreliable, my ears thudding with anxiety.

Talking took up pace and volume, and soon there was a fuss about everything: How Olympia was feeling – she got most of the attention again –, the two heroes’ injuries, Biker’s words. A few hours later, as dawn slowly drew a bloody horizon across the mountainous contour, a consensus was reached – the man and his companions were complete strangers to us until yesterday, 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 Olympia? As much as I loathed myself for it, hope bloomed in my chest. Hope that he didn’t care about her, 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, mind numb and lids swollen.

The voices were disturbingly cheerful. They stabbed my brain and I was tempted to skirt around the overpopulated room, but it contained the only sink where I could wash my face and teeth. Toothbrushes and all kinds of items for personal hygiene had been abandoned on the train – unlike the booze – so I rubbed my teeth with my finger, bent over the rusty, enamel-peeled sink. The water was freezing, smacking me to sharp awareness.

Chattering slowly gained meaning. People gossiped incessantly about last night and the story took thrilling turns for those who’d been too wasted to experience it live. There were versions where Olympia 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 that they’d 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.

Groggy and with throbbing temples, I looked for Ruxandra and eventually found her arranging sandwiches on a clay plate – a rarity.

“Wow, I didn’t know people still used these things.” I looked over her shoulder and reached 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?”

She glanced around, making sure no one was listening.

“I’m taking this to the attic,” she whispered, and I instantly felt like a guilty accomplice.

“You’re most certainly not! If anyone feeds that asshole, it should be someone who can tame him.”

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

Suddenly Novac? What happed to Damian? “Why should you need a chance?”

“They won’t allow anyone up to the attic. But I need to talk to him, and I don’t know how much time I have until they’re back.”

“Where are they?”

“Novac went with two others to look for the nearest village or town, if they find one within a few miles. They’ll bring back help and food. Hector’s cutting wood in the barn.”

“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, Rux? What can you possibly want with the guy?”

She looked aside through the window. It was the first time Ruxandra formulated sentences in her head before she spoke them to me, which drew serious alarm.

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

“I don’t, but Olympia surely does.”

“Okay . . .” It did come as a surprise, but stayed so for only a moment. It actually made sense. I’d heard most rapists turn out to be men from the victim’s close circle. “But what’s your business with him?”

“He has information I need. Information all of us need.”

Shaking my head, puzzled and a bit annoyed, “All right, let’s take this step by step. What do you know of the guy?”

“If I’m right, his name is Marius Iordache and he’s an investigation reporter with Adevarul.”

I tilted my head back, inspecting her. “And that is important because . . .”

“Because he wrote an article about a certain Cezare Lupan. Che-zuh-reh,” she stressed the pronunciation, looking me hard in the face.

“And why is that important?”

“You still ask? You heard him call Novac by that name yesterday.”

I snorted. “So Damian’s some undercover rock star or something?”

“Don’t mock. Cezare Lupan is the name of a file classified by the Romanian Intelligence Service, the R.I.S. Olympia dug out that article from a ten-year old archive she shouldn’t have had access to,” she spat fast.

That came like a knock in the temple. I shook my head, baffled. “What?”

She looked aside and bit her lip, didn’t answer. I opened my mouth several times before I could speak again.

“And you drop this on me as if nothing?”

“I thought it was nothing until now.”

“Elaborate,” I said, frowning to focus.

Ruxandra crossed her arms, searching for the way to put it. She spoke fast, under her breath, her eyes darting left and right to ensure privacy.

“A few weeks ago, George and I went out to the Bourbon Pub on what was supposed to be a romantic date. Imagine my surprise to see Novac and Olympia there, talking closely over drinks – she had scotch, he had water. I was worried they might be out on a date themselves so I dragged George into it. No need to say that spoled his romantic mood.

“An old-looking newspaper lay on the table, but Olympia stuffed it in her purse before I actually got too close. George felt awkward and pretended to need the men’s room, while I drew a chair and sat at their table without asking for permission. I did ask, however, if they were enjoying their night – my very presence ensuring they weren’t. With a foxy grin Olympia told me she needed Novac’s help with some research, told me the story about the article and the Cezare Lupan file. I did wonder why she’d need Novac’s help, she’s in Journalism, he’s in Med School, but I was soon sure she used it as a lame pretext to get close to him.

“Novac looked uncomfortable, but vertical. Now it occurs to me, Olympia might’ve been past the pretexts and in the blackmailing stage, since she only stopped talking about the article when Novac interrupted her, bluntly, slightly exasperated, and promised he’d meet her again the next evening. I  realize the story must’ve been buried deep, away from any public access. A secret that she’d received clues on or that had been simply delivered into her hands.”

Stuck on one idea, I ignored this last one.

“What would Olympia blackmail him for?”

She shrugged and replied plainly, “Sex.”

“Oh, come on, Rux,” I laughed, “Why would someone like her need to blackmail a guy?”

“Because she’s fuckin’ obsessed with him, Alice, that’s why. And he does not want her.”

I bit hard into my lip. “And then? What happened?”

“Then he stood up and left. No good-byes, no kisses, not even handshakes. When I asked her if they were a couple, she grinned and said not yet. Then it was all clear to me.” Here Ruxandra began stressing her words. “Clear that Novac wasn’t interested in her. The way he looked at her, his attitude, he was cold as ice. I didn’t tell you, because I thought it a cheesy story Olympia used as a pretext to spend time with Novac, a story that had nothing to do with him – how was I to know it was about him – and because I knew you’d back off, if you learned how aggressively Olympia was chasing him. And you shouldn’t back off, not because of her. But maybe because of this – a classified file with the R.I.S.”

I stared at her, not sure how to take this.

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing. My dad suspects they have a file on him, too, and he’s not a criminal or something.”

“Do you hear yourself, Alice? We’re talking about the fucking R.I.S.! Your dad is famous, powerful, and he was once an agent abroad, he’s someone worth keeping a file on. What’s Novac’s excuse, he’s just a student.”

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

“Here’s the deal,” Ruxandra said, “We need to know what that article says exactly. If I’m right, there’s no way we’ll ever hear another word on it unless we use this chance. Novac might be a great danger to us all, Alice.” Her eyes darted around once more, focused and stressed. “He’ll take a while until he walks 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 wants to come up.”

Before I could reply she rushed to the attic. I was determined to ignore her request and run after her, but I bumped into George on the corridor, who was interested in just that – Ruxandra’s whereabouts. I was tempted to tell him and get him up there too, but I knew she would never forgive me. This was on our “treason” list.

I told him she was out for some fresh air and baited him 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.

George walked to the short, exfoliated fridge and grabbed two small bags of chips. He threw me one, and only eating and turning Ruxandra’s words on all sides in my head did I realize how privileged I was with my little university life back in Constanta, sipping steaming coffee every morning and eating two meals a day, safe from shady men who posed as poor students but could be anything from Jack the Rippers to Soviet spies. The more I thought of it, the more ridiculous the possibility seemed. So ridiculous, it made me nauseous.

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

“What did he say?” I whispered.

“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, for any reason.”

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

“Why take the risk anyway? I’m certain he’s just a drunk loser with no real ammo. I mean, just take a look around us, Rux, there’s no one here worth more than a record for drunk driving.”

The door creaked open and Hector walked in, carrying firewood on a shoulder like a strong peasant, and for a moment Ruxandra’s eyes glinted. Yes, he was much rougher than George and surely didn’t have his sense of humor, but he looked strong and grounded. I guessed Ruxandra was growing up, and her taste in men followed suit. I elbowed her and gave her the Moon-this-is-Houston-do-you-copy line, hoping to turn her away from the ridiculous investigation. But it only served to wake her from a moment’s reverie and switch her law-school best student ambitions back on.

“Just keep him off my trail. If he goes out again, watch him. If he comes back in, keep him talking,” she said, and turned on her heels.

In the afternoon the others went back to drinking and playing cards. Ruxandra mingled with them, fixed on gathering info, while I got close to the lady I’d shared a bunk with last night. I even asked her questions about Biker, since she was part of his group, but the woman and her companions only knew Biker from the train.

He’d given them a short version of his life – he was an investigations journalist indeed, and he’d been divorced for a year. The woman seemed desperate to convince me that she knew nothing of his “practices” and “inner demons”, and told me that she’d assured my “brunette friend” of her full cooperation with the police when the time came, too.

She even gave me a worn book she said Biker had been clutching to his chest when he’d jumped off the derailed train. It was a brain-wrecking, battered-looking work by a Dr. Nathaniel Sinclair about what read like genetics, even though the vocab didn’t quite fit. It seemed archaic, as if written by a brilliant mind way ahead of its time.

Still, it was nothing someone like Marius Iordache had any reason to be interested in, but something he must’ve used on the train to help keep conversation at bay when he no longer wanted it. I only managed the first five pages, frustrated and dreaming of ‘Crime and Punishment’.

When evening grayed the windows, the moment came. Hector walked out the door, and Ruxandra fired a glance at me. I decided to let her have her way – I didn’t stand a chance of persuading her otherwise anyway – and 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. Our shelter was so lonely in the wilderness, so cut off from the world, that only the thought of war felt more threatening than this isolation.

There was no sign of Damian, and fear punched a void into my chest. Anything could’ve happened to him. No, something must’ve happened to him. He was gone at least eight hours. Soviet spy or not, he was still just a man.

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

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

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

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

He dropped the pile of wood in the hallway 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 Hector’s elbow. He turned and scowled at me.

“I’m worried about all 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’s tone softened as he continued, slowly. “For your peace of mind, Damian can take care of himself, and he’s good with winters. As for the other two, they couldn’t hope for more reliable company, they’re safe.”

Good with winters – so Soviet spy-like, theory might just hold, my inner self mocked, hoping it was true, given the circumstances. But Hector didn’t lose another word on the subject of Damian. I didn’t dig any deeper either, afraid that I’d expose my infatuation with him, so we moved on to discussing survival strategies based on Discovery Channel documentaries.

In order to keep informed of his actions and intentions, I helped him feed the stoves and got a number of splinters in my frail bookworm hands in the process. Then, right after we’d rekindled the fire in the ‘bunk-room’, his moving toward the stairs drew a signal of alarm. He was going to check on Biker.

“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 Barbie-girl, certain I didn’t look good doing that, but his attention left me in just a second. Sudden turbulence and screaming in the main room made his head snap in its direction.

We rushed into the dim chamber where Olympia acted “all epileptic,” according to George’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 Olympia 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 Olympia’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 gumming in twisted positions burned into my memory. It never really left me.

Ruxandra plunged in through the crowd and dropped by Olympia’s side. After a few 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!”

“She’s not in cardiac arrest, you idiotic doll!”

But I was, I realized brusquely. And shuddered. Things Dad had taught me about first aid and health care stormed to the front of my mind as Olympia began moving her head from side to side, giving out feeble sighs.

“Let’s take her to bed, I know how to take care of her,” I suggested to Hector.

Without further questions, he scooped her up and followed me to the bedroom. The others trailed like a flock of curious hens, but Ruxandra’s confident voice stopped them at the door. “This ain’t the Big Brother house, the woman needs to rest.”

Hector laid Olympia 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, which made Hector stare at me puzzled.

“Calcium and magnesium,” I offered a brief explanation, taking a seat by Olympia’s side. Hector didn’t move. I realized he had nowhere to get milk and bananas from, so I added, “Talk to Ruxandra, she’ll figure out what to do.”

“Where will she get them?” Olympia 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 Ruxandra had been labeled a genius four years ago, when she’d applied for university. People of her heritage required previous examining and testing before they went to the “higher” circles such as universities, which were reserved for those of nobler – “fairer” – descent.

“I doubt Ruxandra 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’ll get it somewhere. It’s not that rare in nature, even in some unhealthy foods.” I said and lit the leftovers of two candles.

“All I need is to get out of here,” Olympia 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 deep, 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, the others will find help. We’ll sure be out of here 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. She looked delirious.

“Try to get some rest. Fatigue and paranoia go hand in hand,” I insisted 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.

Olympia clasped my hand. “Don’t take me for a lunatic, Alice. 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, blood trickling in their wake. “The confinements of our flesh . . .”

She’s mad . . . I jolted to her, pushing her hands down in panic. “Olympia, 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 Olympia’s growing intensity, making the window chatter from its hinges and a chill course down my spine.

Her 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, sure I’d swallow my throat bones. 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.

 

 

CHAPTER III

 

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, Barbie could’ve easily disposed of me. I raised my eyes to her.

Ruxandra – probably my savior this time – restrained Olympia, 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 Ruxandra and George tied her to the bed with wound sheets and some old rope Hector brought from the attic.

I scrambled up and dragged myself to the main room, stumbling over drunkard sleepers – people too wasted to realize anything of what happened around them – and boiling in my own juice. Tripping over bottles lying on the floor, I fell by the terracotta stove, feeling miserable and breaking out in tears. My brain was blocked and refused to think until a cluster of people walked in, led by Hector, the bearded singer. With weak hands but strong pride I wiped the tears and blew my nose in a dirty glove I found groping on the floor.

“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, branded her nuts.”

“Did your cousin mention guinea pigs?” George 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,” George reacted with a scowl.

“Hey, I hear neither did Olympia,” 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 George 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, George,” Hector replied.

Great. Just what I needed to glaze over my wrecked self-esteem – Damian and Olympia as protagonists in a forbidden love story. Apparently Ruxandra was wrong, or her people reading skills were damaged – Damian was into Olympia, blackmail or not. She was a beauty, there was no arguing that, so doing her couldn’t be that unpleasant. My heart ached, but I used the moment to strengthen the decision of letting go. I’d go for someone bald and fat like Olympia’s sugar daddy next time, but broke.

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 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. Just as the party went wild again, Ruxandra dropped by my side with an exhausted groan, resting her arms on her knees. Judging by her tucked up sleeves she must’ve gone hard on Olympia. I didn’t pity the girl, honestly.

“Olympia got tired of struggling and fell asleep. No amount of calcium or magnesium could’ve stilled her, and we don’t have any anyway, so I put a bag over her head. Let her inhale her own CO2 until she turned into a vegetable. 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, George helped.” She dismissed the subject, but urgency was obvious in her face as she tried to touch on another. “Alice, we need to talk.”

I couldn’t care less right now about what she had to say, sinking in the pain Damian’s affair with Olympia caused me. I was sinking in obsession, I was aware of it, my cheeks burned with jealousy.

“You were wrong,” I said, unable to contain myself, “Damian and Olympia do have something going. Either her blackmailing strategy worked, or she’s just irresistible.”

“Alice, we have more pressing matters to discuss now,” Ruxandra insisted.

“What’s pressing is that you weren’t straight forward.”

“Now hold on.” She put up her palm. “I honestly don’t believe he’s interested in her. What I really think is that he’s being halfway nice to keep her from spreading what she knows. Or . . . At the most . . . He’s been sleeping with her to ensure she keeps her mouth shut.”

These words shot a stinging image into my head, an image of Damian’s muscled, bronze body snaking between Olympia’s long, toned legs. I couldn’t hold back a pained sigh.

“You shouldn’t have let me get my hopes high.”

“I honestly thought you had a chance there.”

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

Ruxandra pulled me to my feet, keeping a tight grip on my shoulders.

“It’s that bastard Tony you have to thank for this arsenal of complexes,” she grunted through her teeth. “I can’t wait to get back home so I can seek him out and make him suffer.”

“I’m just looking truth in the face.”

“You’re not ugly, Alice, you’re a very pretty girl!”

“That’s right, girl. Not woman.”

“Oh, stop, please.”

“Maybe that’s why Damian rejected me when I tried to turn him on in the bedroom. I must’ve made him feel like a pedophile.” My whole face caught fire as I confessed.

“Or maybe he respects you too much to do you in a filthy bunk! That’s what my gut tells me.”

“Oh, drop it, Rux, that’s just sugar coating. He simply doesn’t want me. I might as well strive to plant a flag on the moon.”

“Alice, your ruined self-esteem really has to wait,” she said, exasperated.

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 broad shoulders. Another guy limped and hung on him like a cloth on a tree, seemingly ravaged not only by the blizzard but also shock, while their other companion stared at Damian as if he were Batman for whatever reason.

Before anybody got to utter one word, the alarmingly wretched guy hanging on Damian 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!” the guy rattled, “Those shits, they fucking dragged me!” 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.

“Who? Speak!”

Damian intervened, his arm mowing Hector’s hands off the wretched boy. “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. He looked tense, terribly tense.

“They didn’t even look like people, man, but fuckin’ animals,” the wretched boy babbled. Then 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 the boy’ bent profile, every fold on his leather-patched coat, as if my senses had sharpened in a split second.

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

“We found a village in the valley, not far from here. Our knocks on doors were left unanswered, but we knew there were people there. They watched us from behind curtains.”

“They looked like the eyes of beasts, man!” the wretched boy shrieked, while Damian settled him on a rickety chair in the corner, assisted by Ruxandra.

“The police station, the church, everything looked deserted, as did the house by the mayor’s office,” Damian continued, his jaw rippling – He was angry. Maybe anger was his mechanism to keep fear at bay, or at least that’s the first thing that crossed my mind. “The door was open, screeching in the wind, so we figured the place was uninhabited. We were right. It was cold, the furniture splintered, but there was old food in the basement. Old food is better than no food, so we took the safest provisions, cheese and jarred vegetables. We started back.”

“We were almost here when something lashed around my leg, man!” the wretch intervened again, neurotic. “Hadn’t it been for Novac, they would’ve dragged me off the cliff!”

“How did you fuckin’ do that, dude?” their other companion chimed in, still looking at Damian like at a god made flesh.

“We had to leave behind everything that burdened us, so we could move faster,” Damian cut the guy off, pretending not to have heard him. “We brought back no provisions, so we’ll have to leave this place as soon as possible.”

Noticing Damian wasn’t going to lend him either attention or the opportunity to speak again, the astonished guy went on to the others like a disciple spreading a faith.

“He broke it! He fuckin’ broke it, dude!” he exclaimed, mimicking breaking bread – or necks – with his hands, looking like the King’s Fool. An instant later, his shoulder disappeared under Damian’s palm.

“Talking makes little sense now,” Damian said, “What we need to do is gather all bottles in a pile.”

Just a few more moments and comments, then he and some others, including the Fool and Hector, crouched down, and by the slivering sound I could tell they gathered scattered bottles. What that had to do with the whole thing, I didn’t know. But no one dared question the measure out loud, probably still chewing on what had been said.

“We’re fuckin’ dead.” The wretched boy 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. It was painful only to look at him. I couldn’t keep this isn’t happening from starting another solo in my head as it slowly dawned on me – someone had tried to kill them.

It took a while until everybody processed what was said 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 Olympia, and an avalanche of questions started, ranging from, “What’s this all about?” to painfully insensitive, “What’s that got to do with the booze?”

“Broken bottles can be used as weapons,” I heard Damian’s bass voice reply, his forehead now higher above all others across the room. “Like screwdrivers, cutlery and pens.”

“Why this mobilization?” George said.

“They followed us back here, man,” the wretch said, his voice low and shaky. “They wheezed and growled in the dark, always hidden but always close. Those shits, they’re lurking out there.”

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

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

I slowly walked backwards, out of everybody’s way, until something bumped in my back. By the wide, hard edge I knew it was the windowsill, which is why I didn’t turn. I pressed against it, keeping my arms across my chest and my fingers hooked in the puffer sleeves. Damian’s explanations to panicked questions flew by me. I heard the sound of his voice but not the meaning of his words.

Despite my obvious weakness for him, I had no doubt all of this was his fault. It was either his shady background, as Ruxandra called it, or his affair with a mobster’s woman that had 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 – and Olympia had known this. She’d expected it. “None of us will make it ‘till morning”.

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, emptying a whole village and populating it with his thugs only to get back at a rival? Why, when he could’ve staged anything in Constanta? This theory hung by a thread. But the other one . . .

Whatever villains the R.I.S. hunted might just have that kind of power, which they would use for the right stake.

Only one detail stayed the same in both cases – Olympia had known. “This is not the work of god or devil, but that of man alone”. “None of us will make it till morning.” Unfortunately I couldn’t get to her now to press for more info – The way out of the main room was blocked by chaotic movements and shrieking voices.

My eyes rested on the wretch, who still sat in the corner chair and in my field of vision. Ruxandra 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 backwards, 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 stabbing my arms through the puffer and wool. The physical sensation brought me back to awareness.

George’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, Alice?”

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

The wretch moaned in his corner and 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 George aside but still hung on him for support as I craned my neck to see the panes. My legs were jelly-soft 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?” George 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, Alice, you almost gave me a heart attack.” George scorned.

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

I shut out all reproaches and welcomed Ruxandra’s comforting presence by my side.

“This whole thing is getting to us all,” she said. She allowed me some time to gather myself, but the small slaps on my hands and face were a clear sign of urgency.

“What did you get out of Marius?” I asked as soon as I could master my voice. I, too, had an uncontrollable urge to find out what the hell had put us in this situation.

Ruxandra searched my eyes sharply, made sure I could stand, then slapped me once more, lightly.

“Follow me.”

Before I could blink she 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 George, 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.

Damian stood with his back at the counter, knives and other metallic, rusty objects lined on it, the sheepskin coat 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 my heart fluttered each time I laid eyes on him, no matter how shitty the situation. 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 serious trouble, no matter from what angle I’d look at him.

Sick of myself, I kept a low profile by the door, but Ruxandra went straight to the men.

“Have you seen this before?” she interrupted Damian, her tone accusatory.

“Seen what?” Damian’s deep, forbidding tone shattered Ruxandra’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.

Ruxandra 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 in case we need to protect ourselves, and not grope around,” he replied as if he were prepared for the question.

“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, “chased the three of us from the village back here. They tried to kill one of us. A lash whipped out from the darkness and wound around his ankle. They dragged him, his body hit against trees and rocks until he came to a precipice, where he almost saw his end. Yes, I think People will eventually barge in on us, and they’ll bring some hellish killing techniques with them.” His voice was steady, but frustration and anger lurked deep in it.

“You make it sound like People are pretty good at what they do. And yet here you are, Damian, all three of you. Why do you think you made it back?”

“What are you implying, Ruxandra?”

“I’m implying People want 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 the whole 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 wanted to scare you, so you wouldn’t leave this place again. You made it back because People let you. They chased you back to your cage, and now they’re waiting for the right moment to attack, which is why they haven’t stormed in after you. You didn’t bother to block the door, so I think you know this damned well. You know what to expect.”

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

“Am I right?”

“It doesn’t sound like you still have a doubt.”

“To make the question clearer still: Have you met People before, Damian?”

His features hardened even more. “I have.”

My jaw literally dropped but Ruxandra straightened up, even more accusatory. “Then why don’t you tell us what to expect now?”

“Because it won’t do you any good.” His eyes swept over us, the people cluttered in the doorstep. I thought his glare rested on me a second longer than on any other face.

He grabbed the sheepskin and started to the door. Toward me. I melted on my feet, cursing myself silently. How could I be so taken with him, even now? Stupid bimbo!

Hector followed, and George scurried after them like a pet. Those of us who clustered in their way drew aside. My heart smote me as Damian passed by, leaving a trace of cool air and fir scent behind. The others trailed after them like tide, leaving Ruxandra 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’ve been trying to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen. We’re in serious trouble, real trouble, Alice.”

I sat by her side, my brain buzzing with increasing alarm, now that Damian wasn’t close enough to keep my reason numb. Still, I refrained from pressuring Ruxandra with words 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 Marius Iordache talking wasn’t easy, you know? He was suspicious even about the food, paranoid even. It was hard work persuading him it wasn’t poisoned, I had to eat half of it myself. Now part of me wishes I hadn’t succeeded.” She shuddered hard.

“Is his story that ugly?”

“You don’t begin to imagine.”

“You know who People are, Rux?”

She inhaled deeply, trying to act calm, but she knotted her fingers nervously.

“Ten years ago, young Marius Iordache covered a hot story that should’ve made headlines – He was the first to discover and research what he hoped would make his career, what he called the Cezare Lupan case. However, the R.I.S. filed it classified, then shot down Marius’ story, stating it was all sensationalism. Marius lost all credibility.

“He archived the article at Adevarul and started his own investigation, determined to prove the story real and cleanse his name, but always ran into a dead end. The audience labeled him paranoid and obsessed with conspirators when he came out on TV, alleging the R.I.S. had switched off all sources and covered the truth. He became the fool of the year, which is why he eventually dropped the matter, but never forgot it. Luckily, being the boss’ nephew, he didn’t lose his job, not to this day.

“Now here’s the first interesting turn: A month ago, Olympia contacted him. They met in Bucharest, where she told him she knew all about the story, she’d even seen the Cezare Lupan file and she could help him prove it all real. Marius, still obsessed with the matter, agreed to give her the archived article – she insisted on the original paper – in exchange for a look at the file, which she was supposed to make a copy of. She didn’t keep her word and went off radar. He got a hold of her in Constanta, told her he’d be a thorn in her rib until she fulfilled her promise.

“The attempted rape was the first subject we began to bond on up in the attic. Marius alleges that Olympia, cornered by his presence in Constanta, led him on. She even invited him on this trip, facilitating access to Cezare Lupan himself. Marius was thrilled, and agreed to keep his identity secret ‘til the ‘right moment’ – if Cezare discovered who he was, he might’ve not come along or disappeared. Once here, Olympia subtly came on to Marius and later staged the attempted rape to make him look the villain, so nobody would trust anything he might say about her. She punched him in his weak spot – credibility.”

Makes sense. Last night she’d come with him to the room and lay by his side without objection. Objection came late, very late, but that still didn’t get the rapist off the hook. The asshole should’ve stopped at her first no.

“Get to the point, what was the story?” I urged her, feverish with impatience.

“This is how Marius summarized the article: In 1995, fifteen-year-old Cezare Lupan got on a train. His purpose: seasonal work abroad. He never came to destination, though. The train broke down in a village close to the border – somewhere around Oradea, but still the middle of nowhere – and he checked at an old inn, which 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 from that, a farmer found the place empty and messed up, there were stains of blood on the floor and on rags, and the windows were broken. It looked as if a massacre had taken place, save for the main element – bodies.

“One year later, Cezare burst into a hunting lodge in the Apuseni Mountains, surprising a ranger, who fortunately stopped to think before he reached for his rifle. Cezare’s clothes were torn, smeared with mud and blood. His hands were callous from scrambling through dirt and stone, he looked and behaved like a wild beast. The ranger, used to wild beasts I guess, managed to reason with him, contacted the authorities and gave him in.”

“Marius says all this?” My voice cracked.

“It’s what he wrote ten years ago.”

“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 others were ever found, dead or alive. But the most shocking part was actually in the headline, which I saved until now, because it only makes sense in the context: Cezare Lupan escapes the hands of organ dealers.”

 

CHAPTER IV

 

I froze. “What?”

“Yes. The article concludes the operation had been orchestrated by criminal corporation, BioDhrome. They allegedly dissolved soon after the police started on their trail, but Marius is convinced that’s bullshit. They were a corp, much too big to evaporate in thin air just like that. He’s convinced they used their power and money to . . . transform. He’s also sure there was more than organ trafficking involved, experiments on humans. It was these experiments conducted by BioDhrome that became a matter beyond police competence, a matter of national security. A matter for the R.I.S. and the Military. Marius tried to go deeper on this but, as I said, he found all ways shut. The R.I.S. blocked all his attempts, as I told you, and discredited him.”

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

“And you believe him all this?” I said, grinning like an idiot. This isn’t happening was on replay.

“And why not, Alice? His account is the only thing that makes sense since we got off that train, plus that it fits so well with what Olympia said that night at the Bourbon. Now she acts crazy, Marius almost loses his mind, people try to kill us with no obvious reason and Damian’s acting all mysterious. What else could explain all this, if not that they’re after unfinished business with Cezare Lupan, as well as our kidneys and livers?”

I stared blankly at her, while she went for a bag of snacks. Her gnawing was loud, and she looked as if she chewed on her own nerves.

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

“You’re in denial,” she sneered through her teeth.

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

“Could be. The R.I.S. might’ve put him in a witness protection program and given him a new one.”

“Witness protection program? You’ve seen too many American movies.” Or I was indeed in denial. My reason was on pause.

“The R.I.S. is the best disciple of the K.G.B. They do it much better than Hollywood.”

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, Ruxandra . . . 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 as good as all cities of 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. Ruxandra herself was the daughter of a gypsy shylock with a belly like a balloon and a threatening dark frown, who’d insisted that Ruxandra remain illiterate, and planned her marriage for the age of twelve. Luckily, her mom had run away with Rux and her sister and fought for their education. Whenever Ruxandra 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. Her sister, Saveta, on the other hand, was not at all ashamed with her heritage, but she didn’t wear it printed on a t-shirt either.

Yet organ dealers and illegal medical experimentation 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 monster, its claws drilling deep in the Romanian underground.

“If they want our kidneys and livers, they’ll get them, Ruxandra!” I squeaked, “We don’t stand a chance!”

“Pull yourself together!” She slapped my back, then jumped up and grabbed one of the metal objects from the counter. Only when she pressed it in my palm did I realize it was a short, rust-adorned screwdriver.

“What are you doing?”

“Keep it under your sleeve,” she said, tucking a knife under her own.

“But Damian said – ”

“I don’t care what he said. Right now, I don’t trust anyone in this place any more than I do People out there.”

“Rux, you’re losing it.” The words were careful to leave my mouth. She looked as manic as Olympia had just a few hours earlier, save for the dark circles around the eyes.

“Oh, you think?” she snapped, her cheeks red and her brows scrunched. “There are three people here who knew about BioDhrome – Damian, Marius and Olympia. Not to mention that Hector’s been conspicuously calm about this whole situation, too. Now you mark my words: one of them has drawn us in this trap. One of them works with those butchers hand in hand. So I’m not following a suspect’s orders. And neither are you.”

As soon as she finished her sentence she grabbed my wrist – rather roughly – and technically dragged me to the main room. It was loud and crowded, but she elbowed our way close to the center, where Damian and Hector answered questions worse than in a press conference with Mike Tyson. George tried for the anchor role, appointing the next questions, but no one minded him. He looked overwhelmed and utterly useless. Ruxandra shot a few of her own arrows in the mix, but they didn’t hit anyone’s ears, not until she managed to clasp Hector’s arm.

“This is crazy,” she yelled, “What’s the plan?”

“There is no plan,” Hector yelled back. “We just get out of here as soon as Damian and I have checked the area.”

“Out? Fucking out? Into what, chains, knives or bullets?”

Angered, Hector pushed her into a mass of bodies. I was in the front line, her shoulder squashed my face.

“Stay here, if you prefer gas.”

“What do you mean, you troll?” she shouted after him, but he was already too far. He talked to George and pointed in our direction, making the latter nod seriously. Proud to have gotten a direct assignment, he hurried over and led us to the putrid sofa by the stove.

“Gas, yeah,” George said as if he’d lived through this before himself. I couldn’t decide if his composure was admirable or just plain ridiculous. “They’ll throw in a gas that’ll blast our adrenaline levels so high, that we’ll jump at each other’s throats.”

“We’ll fucking kill each other?” Ruxandra shrieked.

“Some would end up dead, others severely wounded,” he cut her off, dropping the loaded meaning on us like a bedrock. “In any case, it would go fast. When no one, or just too few still stand, they’ll barge in. They’ll shut down the survivors and take the bodies.”

Hellish killing techniques.

“Novac told you that? Why didn’t he fucking do it from the start?”

“You use that word a lot,” George admonished.

“Oh, don’t you try to educate me, George, I’m too old for that shit!”

“Mind your fucking tone!” Before I knew it, he slapped her hard with the back of his hand. Ruxandra’s head snapped sideward. Out of instinct, I jumped up and shielded her with my palms up, bitten by George’s sudden violence that showed in his face as if his arms had never been around her and his lips never on hers.

“For Christ’s sake, what’s gotten into you, George?”

He skirted around me, grabbed Ruxandra’s shoulders and pushed her against the wall.

“You started this, bitch! You talked too much in front of too many, now look at the panic around you! They assaulted him with questions, he gave them answers, and all hell broke loose!”

“At least you know the shit you’re into, you slobbering moron!” Her knee found its quick way between his legs. George crouched in pain, with both hands on his jewel. His face was a swollen red, his eyelids wrinkled as he pressed them shut. Ruxandra clutched his nape and the same knee kicked his mouth, while I watched dumbfounded.

The next instant George was hauled into the wall. The attacker immediately flung himself into the picture, too, hands stiff like claws, hair messed up, his nostrils almost fuming – the wretch. He was no longer a zombie, but a crazed animal, holding its prey in place and looking eagerly around for something to grab, something to hurt with – Ruxandra had taken care of him when he’d come back from the horror blizzard, he must’ve felt protective of her and madly furious of George. Out of reflex, I followed his scowl. Nothing, there was nothing around us.

It hit me. There was nothing weapon-like, because Damian and Hector had gathered everything in a pile, which was nowhere within reach. The measure was never meant to provide us with easier access to weapons, but to keep us away from them. Like a logical wire leading to it, the next thought was of the gas. One glance around the room was enough to see a number of heated arguments and fights had started everywhere. So the poison was already in. It had been in, probably in smaller check-doses, all along, maybe even on the train. It had been in yesterday, when Marius had punched those boys and provoked Damian. Tonight, when Olympia had plunged into fits of hysteria and attacked me. It hadn’t been the alcohol consumption that had led to those clashes, but the gas.

But where did it come from? I spun in place, getting dizzy as I searched for the source all over the room. Windows closed. The door to the corridor open, most certainly the ones to the bedroom and kitchen, too, but the entrance door was surely shut. There was no draught. Stoves. It was the stoves.

In a fraction of a second my brain spat out thoughts that fell into place like triple aces on casino machines. Out, we had to get out, but my mouth didn’t bother to open. Not a soul would listen to me, a flimsy creature with a little voice, it didn’t take a genius to know that. I didn’t even present enough interest for anybody to attack me.

Damian was my best hope of making myself heard, but he wasn’t easily reachable. He’d placed himself between two of his square friends, whose fists were already balling by their thighs, ready to jump at each other’s throats. He’d taken the posture of a bouncer, his gaze sharp as he tried to talk sense into them. The men turned red with violent impulse against him, months or even years as adulating Betas and Omegas had accumulated bitter envy that now fought its way out. Still, even under the influence of whatever substance floated unperceivable in the air and put them into fight mode, they didn’t dare move against him. They knew better.

Before I could reach them, a mass of hysterical people poured in my way. The noise was now deafening. I lost Damian from sight and hurried to move out of the congestion before people’s eyes fell on me along with their wrath. My heart pounded with fear, my eyes wide and my mind alert. There was not a friendly face or tone left, every single person everywhere I looked had turned into an animal. By this time maybe even Damian and Hector.

As I found refuge by the wall, I realized my hand was cramped, clutching hard to a thick handle – the screwdriver. Air, I had to let air in, aware that, soon, the screaming and kicking all around would either freeze me in panic and some unseen blow would knock me down, or that I’d end up hurting someone with the screwdriver myself, maybe even causing irreparable damage in a desperate attempt to stay in one piece.

Not another thought and I was at the window, the one closest to the stove, gripping to the handles and trying to jerk the frame open when my eyes struck against the black pane. I let out a startled cry.

There they were again, those eyes, now clear and perfectly defined. Like the glare of an animal caught by camera flash, they glowed bright, only that the color was clear as laser – Blue. The pane broke instantly with a splintering sound, followed by a sharp pain in my knuckles. Without realizing, I’d punched the window. Then the fog of shock dissipated, stripping the truth.

Mine. Those were my own eyes. I squeezed my hand above the cut to numb not only the pain, but also the dizzying swirl of automatic connections in my head. Luminous eyes – was it an effect of the gas?

The next thing I knew, a furious groan cracked in my ears. In the blink of an eye George gripped a pointy shard that hung from the frame like a lonely fang, and stabbed his opponent in the throat with it. I screamed in shock as thick, dark red blood poured from under the hand the wretch took to his wound, between his fingers and down his wrist. He opened his mouth in distorted awareness that life drained out of him, his eyes blasted open, the nerves in his eyeballs seemed to explode like red lightning while he rattled. Desperate. Dying.

Maybe there was still time. I flung the puffer coat off me and jolted toward him, intent to press the material on his wound and stop the bleeding, but bumped into George’s arm that punched into my stomach like a barrier of bone. Struggling for breath, I managed to pull myself up. It was too late. The wretch lay on the floor, crouched and coughing out blood, the sound of it drilling through my brain.

Time lost meaning. I stood there, watching transfixed how this young man died. I didn’t want to see it, nor could I look away. Every second of his suffering imprinted in my head as everywhere around fists punched, windows broke, men and women growled like beasts.

Windows break. My fault. This boy’s death was on my hands. Trying to stop the mayhem, I’d only fulfilled the prophecy. This time too, some peasant would find the place torn apart, windows broken, blood smeared on walls and rags that parents would clutch to their chests as they’d fall to their knees and cry out to heaven in despair. It seemed BioDhrome had foreseen this scenario – that someone would go for the windows, trying to let in air. Maybe it had gone down the same ten years ago. Maybe they did this so often, that they had as much experience with it as any expert with their craft.

Exposure. Exposure was the only chance to get the angry beasts everybody had become out into the open, out into the cold winter air that would slap their wits back into their heads. It was a long shot. But it was the only shot. Enough planning.

I turned on my heels and sprinted to the main door, grabbing coats, jackets and arms in my way, pulling hair, bumping into brawling bodies, as many of them as I could. I don’t know by what miracle fists hit only the air behind me, by what miraculous instinct I ducked down before anybody could grab me. Maybe fear had really kicked my adrenaline level so high that my feet moved like propellers and my reflexes sharpened. I threw the main door open and cast myself into the raging, white blizzard that felt like needles against my skin. Sight instantly blurred with tears, visibility was reduced to inches, but my legs kept running as if a whole murderous army chased me.

I hoped it did. I hoped they’d gotten out of that slaughterhouse disguised as a lonely cottage, a wooden ghost in the Carpathians. I hoped I’d angered them enough to have them rush after me, screeching their teeth, thirsty to see blood drain from my body like it had from that poor boy. Thirsty to see me squirm in dying pain. But I also hoped that, by the time they caught me, they’d be themselves again. This wasn’t supposed to be a suicide mission, but a wake-up action.

The snow was quicksand to my legs, it sucked me down, but despair fueled my otherwise lazy muscles and propelled me forward. Every glance I threw behind revealed nothing, the storm was a wall both in front as well as behind me. It roared loud, swallowing all other sound. There might have been wolves just meters away, I wouldn’t have known, I wouldn’t have heard them howl or growl.

Suddenly, something thick, heavy and metallic closed around my ankle like an iron fist, and jerked my leg from my hip, causing such pain that my heart stuttered out of rhythm. I fell flat on my face. Before I could spit out the snow in my mouth, a force yanked me in a pull. I snaked backwards, dead trees, roots and stones rushing by, while I desperately tried to hook my fingers in the ground.

Snow was scraping glass to my palms and I knew when a couple of fingernails sprang off. The pain was there, but just so severely unimportant that it didn’t stop me from grabbing on to every dead branch, from hooking my fingers into the frozen ground again and again. Still, I let go fast of anything stable, or the pull would’ve ripped the leg from the rest of my body. The ride was dizzying and my screaming automatic. I didn’t hope for help, nor was I scared, I just did things out of instinct. My mind didn’t work, I was on autopilot.

It was only when I came to a brusque stop that I began to realize the burn all over my skin. Not the face, since I’d kept it up to detect any means of saving myself, but the arms and belly. I waited a few moments for the pull to start again and, when it didn’t, I rolled on my back. My flesh was stiff. I couldn’t flex my muscles to get up, I only managed to lift my head. The clothes were torn, the skin on my front and arms was red. It looked like beaten meat. I cried before I touched myself, expecting pain. But there was nothing, nothing except the burn, as if everything under skin level was completely numb.

Whimpering, I put snow on the reddest places with a stiff hand, but even that small amount of wit fled off when a pair of legs in earth-gray pants and rubber boots emerged from the white storm. The face cleared from behind the curtain of snow only when it was really close above mine. A face withered by many winters, with ashen stubble and a rotten grin. A face that might once have been peasant’s, but belonged now to a blood-thirsty animal. Not for a second did I have hope, I knew he was there to hurt me, I saw it in his glare.

He said something, but I didn’t hear it. The sound was lost in the storm roar. He pressed his fingers on my stomach, grinning with expectation, hungry for the pain. But, when nothing came, he tightened his lips in anger and threw himself over me. Crazed, with sadistic eyes, he crushed his fist into my face.

The blow felt like lightning in the most literal sense. Then it all went black for moments, until the next one came. Then the next one, until I tasted blood in my mouth. He wasn’t going to stop. He was going to beat me to death, leaving my corpse disfigured.

In a surge of despair sight resurfaced, bringing the psychopath’s face in sharp focus. That ugly face with a bad, stinking grin. The face of an evil maggot who didn’t deserve to live. Who thrust himself at a helpless woman, taking her for an easy prey, for a chunk of meat on which to unleash his killer instincts. Instantly such anger fueled my blood, pumping like frantic petrol in my veins, that I felt as strong as a machine gun. I let out a cry of rage and sank my fingers in his eye sockets, pushing hard with my thumbs against his eyeballs and wishing for the rusty screwdriver I’d lost during his sadistic pull. They felt like hard jelly. He grabbed my wrists and tried to pull away, but I didn’t let him. I wound my legs around his waist, sticking to him as a leech would.

“Oh, no, we’re going all the way, asshole!” I could only hope he heard me. I wanted him to feel the fear, to feel repentant, to become aware of what he put me through. To be in the victim’s shoes. To feel it in his flesh, in the very marrow of his bones. I could not let him live. I would not let him live.

“I’ll fucking suck the life out of you!” I screamed.

He fell to the ground with me, wriggling like a stabbed snake, but went smart enough to move his hands from my wrists and grab my shoulders. He rolled over me. Applying more strength, I felt the fingernails I had left pierce his eyelids, but just a moment later, something made of fur knocked him hard from my hands. He flew to the side, followed by more stripes of fur that leaped after him. I got up on my buttocks and squinted to peer through the blizzard. Though I didn’t see anything, I did hear his cries and faint animal growling. Wolves, those strings of fur were wolves.

For some reason, fangs felt more threatening than the rusty chain that still coiled around my ankle, more threatening than the man’s psychotic glare, than his blows. In a second I was up on my feet, slowly walking backwards, my eyes darting left and right, careful for the rest of my body not to make a sudden move. They could still have been very close. I bled, which placed me far down the food chain and would make them put up a fight for my flesh.

I dragged my leg with the heavy chain. One wrong step was enough to stumble and fall backwards, my body smashing against rocks. I fell for long moments down some endless slope, blow after blow hard in my ribs and crack after crack loud in my ears. It stopped with a knock in the back of my head, and light began to close in on a small moon. That face again. Those eyes. The brightness fizzed in them like flickering neon and I was sure this was it. My muscles relaxed, my lungs gave out one last, resigned breath. All light went out.

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!

temptation-3-red-apple

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

***

Enjoyed this? Stay tuned for a new episode on Wednesday or subscribe to this blog and get an e-mail notification each time a new episode is posted.

Wish you a beautiful winter week end!