The Blacksmith – Prologue – CHASING DAMIAN

Christmas draws near and stories fill the winter air. So, dear readers, please accept my humble present: The Blacksmith, EXTENDED VERSION, free read online.

This is how it all began. Against her best wishes, Aurelia falls hard for Damian, one of the most desired men on campus. Supported by her friends, she dares trust a hope and develops a strategy to get close to him. But Damian is a man with a heart of steel and a deadly purpose. Will he ever be able to requite Aurelia’s feelings?

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

Sixteen years ago I met a young man who turned me into a creepy stalker. Struck by those moss green eyes full of mystery – or maybe misery – my sanity melted away like an iceberg hit by global warming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just love your dirty mouth, Aura.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“S … Sorry,” I mumbled.

He looked down at his ruined shirt.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do that myself, thank you.”

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

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

He glanced around as if assessing who paid us attention, and then looked at me again. Dancing and drinking people – Sidonia, Raluca and Gino included – stared at us. Then a possibility hit me – maybe he’d scouted the area for his girlfriend or something. At that thought, my stomach clenched. Though I hadn’t seen him with anyone during the weeks I’d observed him from under my eyebrows, a girlfriend wasn’t completely out of the question. Maybe she wasn’t from the campus. But then again, Sidonia would’ve come upon that anyway in her subversive, shrewd investigations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Damian, by the way,” he said.

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

“I must say, you’re quite observant, Miss Preda. I’m impressed you should notice the stain remover and think about it as soon as you ruined my shirt.”

Shoot, he knows what I’m doing . . .

“What’s so impressive about it?” I looked up at him and tried for a casual smile.

“It requires some presence of mind,” he said, his eyes narrowing and his sculptured lips drawing in a smile.

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

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

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

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

“Persecutors?”

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

Again, that dashing smile on his face.

“You claim yourself a witch?”

“I claim nothing without my lawyer,” I attempted another jest.

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

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

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

He saw me?

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

“Hardly. I supply food and beverages.”

Say what?

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

He laughed – another velvety sound.

“You find me entertaining?” I asked.

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

“You think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sniffed at it a couple of times and finally took a sip that went like a flash of fire to my stomach. I grimaced, but Damian chuckled and looked at me like you would at a playing puppy. It was the strangest expression I’d ever imagined on his face, like a predator smiling clumsily at a shivering deer. I smiled back, my heart drumming. It wasn’t until my eyes fell on the open mouthed J. Lo that I realized why he must’ve switched to my side: I was the only one without a pair of arms around me. Damian was just looking after the less fortunate. My chest deflated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” Gino yelped.

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

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

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

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

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

A huge hand clasped mine, steadying me, and the instant I looked into Damian’s focused face I understood he’d left my side to break down the door. I forgave him on the spot. He turned to help the others out of the car but missed one, who bumped hard against me and sent me like a ball down the slope.

I rolled and rolled, my mind frozen as snow infiltrated to my skin from under my scarf and sleeves. A front crash with a tree trunk knocked the air from my lungs and the last thing I saw was a shower of white that filled my mouth and nostrils. I choked under the mountain of cold that buried me, desperately trying to breathe in, the barrier of snow gagging me on the inside.

My head began to cloud with lack of air and I felt my pulse give up. That moment I knew the sense of safety was a mirage, as if some tiny fairy at the back of my mind urged me to keep fighting. I saw a bright sphere, but I knew it wasn’t the moon. It was light at the end of a black tunnel, a light that sucked me toward it with the force a vacuum cleaner would a fly. I fought against the pull and stopped close to the now huge moon. The weight started to lessen from what I now identified as my chest and I began to spin backwards, as if something drew me with the same force farther and farther from the bright sphere. As it became smaller, it warped into the shape of a child-like face. A pair of bright, caramel eyes with long, heavy lashes and beautifully arched eyebrows pierced at me through the darkness. The most crystalline pitch I’d ever heard filled my head. “You need me . . .

***

To be continued…

Copyright by Ana Calin 2013

***

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Wish you a beautiful winter week end!

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