Saturday, September 13, 2008

Forgotten by Chelle Cordero

Title: Forgotten

Author Name: Chelle Cordero

Prologue through Chapter One


He felt his muscles clench as he stared into the woman’s face that lay beneath him. If he hadn’t already felt her trembling, he would have known she reached her own climax just by the expression of her face. With one more powerful thrust he felt everything he had spilling into her, he felt a completeness he would have never thought possible. Everything stopped and then he swore he felt their hearts start beating again as one. Pausing a moment to look into her eyes, and they were beautiful eyes he thought, he brushed a long strand of chestnut hair away from her face and kissed her. Then he rolled off of her.

“I love you.” Her voice was soft, like the touch of her lips. He couldn’t believe the tingling he felt in his loins at hearing her words.

“You’re not even human...”

“What?” She almost laughed at his choice of words.

He hadn’t even meant to say that thought out loud. “I mean... I just never felt so... consumed before. I feel like I am under some kind of spell.” As he sat up to face her, he was surprised by the life he felt in his groin. Feeling a touch embarrassed, which was a new feeling for him, he admitted, “I almost feel like I can go another round, and considering how powerful that was...”

She faced him and gave him a sultry smile; her bare breasts were firm and small. But not too small, he thought, just enough to fill his hands. He felt his groin tighten again and just stared.

“Hey, are you okay?” She suddenly sounded self-conscious.

“Uh, yeah.” He forced himself to look at her face.

She touched his arm, her fingers felt light like feathers. “Can I do anything for you?”

“Yes.” He glanced at her breasts again and then back at her face. “Tell me... who are you?”

She laughed, it was a full-bodied sound. “Just one day married and...” She saw the surprise in his eyes as he looked at his left hand and saw the ring. Pulling the bed sheet up to cover her nakedness, she looked at him puzzled. “You’re serious?”

He frowned. “Fraid so.”

Chapter One

“Was your last name really Smythe?” He looked from the marriage certificate to her and back again. He wondered if maybe she had checked into the hotel with him under an assumed name. After all, weren’t variations of the name Smith often used to hide one’s identity?

“Yes.” She sounded a bit defensive. She had pulled her hair into a loose ponytail and he thought it made her look incredibly young. Almost a little too young for his comfort.

“Hey look... Caitlyn,” he had to glance at the certificate again for her name. “All I know is the first thing I remember about you is that I woke up having really incredible sex with you this morning.” He certainly did remember the fantastic sex and how it much he enjoyed it.

“I thought we were making love.” Her lip barely trembled.

He sighed. “It was wonderful, really. Look, I don’t mean to hurt you, but I don’t remember anything else.” Brandon, that was the name on the marriage license, stood. He felt frustrated. “I don’t know who you are, or me, except for these names on this paper. I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t remember these clothes I’m wearing. You told me that I drink my coffee black, I don’t remember that.” He knelt beside her and felt bad because she looked almost ready to cry. “I’m sorry. Really I am.”

She was a pretty girl, he thought. It was easy to see how she would have caught his eye. Her dark chestnut hair framed a nearly perfect oval face. Her eyes were bright and her lips invited kisses. Her slender body and its womanly curves invited much more than just kisses. He felt that now familiar stirring in his groin as he studied her.

When she realized he really didn’t remember anything, Caitlyn had been remarkably calm. She had gotten out of bed protectively wrapping the sheet around her, got clothes from a suitcase and went into the bathroom to get dressed. She had politely asked him to please get dressed and told him that the other suitcase was his. When she came out of the bathroom, neatly dressed in black slacks and a short sleeved pink blouse, she made a call to room service and had coffee, tea and some breakfast Danish sent up. While they waited, she showed him the marriage license, her wallet with her driver’s ID and photos of the two of them. Even without his memory, he had to admit that they looked right together. She suggested that he check his own wallet as well. At least now he knew his name, birth date and where he lived.

After the bellboy wheeled the cart into the room, he gave Brandon the receipt to sign. When he hesitated, Caitlyn took it and signed. Her scrawled signature read Caitlyn Price. Motioning with her hands, she suggested that Brandon offer the bellboy a tip. He placed a few bills in the young man’s hand. She reassured him he could afford it. Closing the door behind the bellboy, Caitlyn walked back to the cart with the coffee and teapot and the Danish tray. She poured him a cup of hot coffee from the pot and put two spoons of sugar in it, then stirred. Brandon sat in an armchair next to a small round occasional table. She selected cherry Danish from the plate of baked goods and served it to him on a china plate. After pouring herself a cup of herbal tea, she sat in the opposite armchair facing him. She didn’t take any baked goods for herself. Brandon heard her tea cup rattle for just a moment. It was then that he first noticed that she was holding back tears, but he had no idea what he could do to comfort her or even if he should try.

She looked at him and sighed before putting her teacup and saucer onto the table. “We got married last night. You thought it would be romantic to do it in Vegas.” Caitlyn twisted the small diamond ring she wore next to a simple gold band. “We’ve been seeing each other for almost two years and a few months ago you asked me if I would consider marrying you. We didn’t make it official, but a few days ago, on my birthday, you showed up at my door with this ring and asked me to come with you to Vegas. I said yes.”

She held her left hand out towards him so he could see the ring. He was tempted to take her slender fingers in his hand and caress them. The ring she wore was delicate, just like its owner he thought, and the stone was cut in a pear shape. The diamond was small, he thought, and yet she seemed to wear it proudly. Couldn’t he have done better than a tiny diamond? Her gold band matched the one he was wearing.

He really tried, but he couldn’t remember anything. “What about our families? Did we call them? Didn’t your parents want to see you married?”

She looked surprised at his question and then shrugged. “My parents are dead, they have been since I was twelve. I was an only child.”

“I’m sorry.” He was sincere about that. “What about... do I have any family?”

“Your father is alive, but you’ve been angry at him and haven’t spoken to him, I don’t know why. As far as I know, you haven’t seen him since before you moved to New York. I don’t think you have any brothers or sisters, but I don’t know because you really haven’t wanted to talk to me about your family. You haven’t really talked much about yourself.”

Brandon looked at his driver’s license again. Price, Brandon Price. He was twenty-seven years old according to his license. “Where did I grow up?” Maybe he should look up his family...

“You told me it was outside of Chicago, but you never wanted to talk about it. You were always kind of quiet about your childhood.”

“Didn’t that bother you?”

“It did. It does. That’s one of the few things we’ve always argued about.” Caitlyn knew how much she wished her folks were alive, but a drunken driver destroyed that possibility years ago. She couldn’t understand how Brandon could ignore a living parent. “But it also became one of those things we agreed to disagree on. You had just made it clear that the topic was off-limits.” She shrugged as if she had given up.

He looked through the rest of his wallet and saw that he had both cash and credit cards. “I assume I have a job. I hope so, especially if I can afford this.” While he apparently hadn’t gone so far as to reserve a suite, the room was certainly well appointed. The king size bed was definitely comfortable, and memorable. He glanced at the woman sitting quietly sipping her tea. She had seen his glance at the bed and the slight flush in her cheeks told him she was remembering the passion they had shared as well. “I didn’t see any business cards in my wallet.”

“You’re an IT consultant. I think you carry some cards in your jacket pocket, your suit jacket, it’s hanging in the wardrobe closet.” He hadn’t thought to look in the armoire when he chose clothes to put on; he had taken a pair of khaki trousers and a dark blue shirt from the suitcase. “I’m sure you brought some cards because you originally planned this trip for business. You have some kind of an appointment later today.”

“With who?” He went to the closet and found a suit bag hanging there.

“You didn’t tell me.” She paused. “You don’t talk much about your business either.”

Brandon found a packet of business cards, all they had on them was his name, the words Information Technology Consultant and a New York City phone number. He looked at her suspiciously, “I’m secretive about my family and I’m secretive about my job... How well do you really know me?” He couldn’t have sounded more accusatory.

Caitlyn looked hurt. “Obviously not well enough.” She looked like she was mulling over her next words. Finally she blurted them out. “How can you not remember me?” She sounded frustrated. A lone tear finally rolled down a cheek.

“I can’t remember anything, damn it!” He slammed the wardrobe closet door shut. “Who the hell am I? And who are you?” He strode across the room to look out the window at the Vegas strip. “Right now, I can’t remember anything. I am relying on you to tell me everything and something tells me I am not the kind of man that relies on someone else very easily.” Even the circus-like lights outside the window looked foreign to him.

After a few moments of silence, he heard her soft voice. “I think maybe, then, that you are remembering something about yourself. You’ve never liked asking for help.” He never even heard her move and yet she was suddenly behind him. Her voice was quiet and reassuring. “I think you do some kind of work with government contracts, something with computers, but you don’t talk about it. Not to me anyway.”

He took a moment to calm the nervous churning in his stomach before he turned to face her. “Do you know if I work with anyone else? Maybe someone else can fill me in on some part of my life.” He was willing to grasp at anything to escape the feeling of emptiness he had. He had even had to compare the face he saw in the mirror to the face on the driver’s license she showed him to realize it was really him.

“You have a secretary.”

“I do?” He sounded anxious and slightly relieved.

“Her name is Amanda.”

He felt the hairs at the back of his neck stand up when he heard that name. “Amanda?” Although it was an overall uncomfortable feeling, the name Amanda evoked a strange reaction somewhere deep inside. “Uh, I hate to ask this but, well, is my relationship with her only professional?” Could something else be going on, something that raised the back hairs of his neck?

“It had better be.” She wasn’t joking. “Why don’t you call her? That’s your office number on the card. If she’s not there, you can leave a message and ask her to call you back.” Caitlyn motioned him to the phone. “I’m sure that you’ve shared some facts with her she probably needed for your business,” she added a little testily.

He called and left a message on his office voice mail. A woman’s voice greeted him in a recorded message. Somehow he recognized that it was Amanda’s voice. He remembered her voice, but how could that be when he couldn’t remember anything else? Caitlyn scribbled the hotel and room number for him on a paper napkin so he could leave it in the message. He finished his message and kept the phone to his ear through the rest of the recorded options. Wondering if his message sounded urgent enough, he thought about re-recording his message and then decided to let it stay as it was. He hung up the phone.

“I guess now I just wait.” He sat back down at the breakfast tray and resigned himself to the uncertainty. “How did we meet? Please, tell me everything through last night.”

“You know, I am really worried about you...” She came back to stand next to him. “Maybe you should go to the hospital? I don’t understand why you lost your memory?”

“No. I’m not going to leave this room until I figure out some things about myself.” The sights and sounds of whatever lay beyond the walls of the room nearly frightened him. There would be more people, more strangers, and more unknown routes to deal with. He felt safer staying put. He felt safe with this girl. Even though he still couldn’t remember her, he felt safe.

“But sweetheart, something is wrong...” She seemed to understand his reluctance to face more things he wasn’t familiar with. “I would go with you. I could keep telling you things I know about you, things you might even remember. I wouldn’t let you be alone.”

“I said no.” He hadn’t really yelled, but Caitlyn stopped short. “I don’t know what’s happened to me and right now, I just need to find out about myself. Please, talk to me.” He felt completely helpless. He was afraid of facing a bigger unknown world and getting permanently lost.

Caitlyn sighed and sat in the armchair facing him. He studied her as she spoke. He watched the way her lips moved, the expressions she made with her face. Nothing looked familiar. “We met at a college career day almost two years ago.” She saw his puzzled expression. “I’m an art student at a school in New York City, I was looking for a job. I had just moved to the city from upstate.”

He listened to every word and felt frustrated that he remembered none of it. “Did I hire you?” He toyed with the golden fabric covering the table. The room was decorated in golden earth tones. A watercolor of a lonely desert scene hung on the wall; it reminded him of how lost he felt. He wondered if that was the kind of art that Caitlyn studied.

She chuckled. “You weren’t looking for an artist, at least not a graphic artist.” He tried to imagine what she apparently meant by her pun on words, but gave up. “But you kind of monopolized my attention and before the day was over, you asked me to join you for dinner.”

“Did you accept?” He wondered what kind of man he was and if dinner had been his only invitation. She was a beautiful young woman and surely he must have been interested in more from her.

“I’m an art student... a starving artist. You offered a meal, I accepted.” He struggled to remember and then shrugged when he couldn’t. “You called me a few days later, just to talk, and then a few days after that you asked me out.”

He remembered that her license said she had just turned twenty-one. She looked so very young. “Last night... you said we got married?” Brandon looked again at the ring on his finger. Surprisingly, he felt very comfortable wearing it.

She looked into her lap. “We had spoken a few times about marriage, but we never set any dates or anything...”

“Why not?” Could he have been toying with her?

“I’m a student with a poorly paying job. I barely make ends meet. The first time we spoke about marriage, I told you I needed to wait, to become more self-sufficient. You made the offer to pay for my school and said I wouldn’t even have to work. You kind of reminded me that you made a comfortable wage and could afford to let me do whatever I wanted.” She grimaced. “I don’t know, it actually sounded kind of insulting. It was like you didn’t take me seriously. I accused you of trying to buy me and it’s been a touchy subject since.”

“What made you change your mind now?” He looked at her stomach. “Are you pregnant or something?” He felt a nervous pang that he might be about to become a father.

“No.” She shook her head. That would be something he’d think of, she mused.

He looked straight at her and again thought of how young she looked. “Uh, this wasn’t our first time together, was it?” Hell, what if she had been a virgin and he didn’t even remember it!

She smiled shyly. “No, far from it. We’ve been lovers for a while now, although... you were my first.” She let him absorb that information. “You were so spontaneous, you just showed up at my door with a ring and plane tickets. It... it was just romantic.”

He struggled for something to say, but just like his memory, nothing came. Knowing how sweet it had been to wake up in her arms that morning, to be making love with her, he wished he could remember the first time that they were together. He hoped he had been gentle.

“The Good Reverend Elvis Presley Cosby married us.”

He pictured the legendary rock and roll singer. He imagined the theatrical production that must have been. He laughed. “You’re kidding!” Although it was a fuzzy memory, at least he knew who Elvis Presley had been.

“No, I’m quite serious. Afterwards we went out to dinner and celebrated. You had quite a bit to drink...”

“I got drunk?”

She half nodded. “Not drunk but definitely... uh, you were definitely high.”

“After the ceremony?” He stressed the word after.

“Yes. You were fully aware of what you were doing when you said I do. You can’t use the excuse that you weren’t in your right mind when we got married. You had been very sure that you wanted it. I admit it didn’t take that much convincing, but you took the time to talk me into it when you showed up at my apartment with the ring.” She paused.

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t accusing you of tricking me into this.” How could he be sure of that without his memory? But he was sure.

It showed that she was relieved he believed her. “I had never known you to drink so much that you lost control and I was really surprised when you insisted on having a drink before dinner last night, especially since you had that business appointment today.”

“Uh, my drinking, did it affect my, you know, performance?” It was embarrassing, but he didn’t even know what kind of lover he was.

She found it ironic that he was so worried about his virility. “You were fine in that department.” She blushed. “But maybe, just maybe you should be more worried that maybe the alcohol made you lose your memory?” Her body still tingled from his “performance” through the night.

“What did I order?”

“Before dinner, you ordered a scotch on the rocks...”

“I drink scotch?” A good strong whiskey... It was the kind of drink for a strong man with strong ties, a capable person. He was trying to get an image of himself.

“That and other stuff.” Caitlyn was remembering what else he ordered. “There was wine with dinner and a martini in the casino.”

“I was mixing drinks... and it got to me?”

She picked up the china cup with the rest of her now cold tea and drank it slowly. “We were in the casino. You wanted to play at the tables. That’s when you got paged to the hotel phone. You really sobered up quickly, you looked a little worried. You handed me your chips and some money, told me to play some slots or something and went to take the call. You were gone over half an hour...”

“Who called me?” Who was so important that he would he have left his new wife on their wedding night? The call must have been very important. And why would he be worried?

Caitlyn shrugged. “You didn’t say. When you came back, you rushed me up to the room. You said you had a headache from drinking, those were your words.” She frowned. “When we got up here, I offered you aspirin for your headache and you said you didn’t need it. You said the headache wasn’t really all that bad anyway. Then you laughed. It was strange; I didn’t know what you found so funny. You said you just wanted to make love. We did and then we fell asleep. You woke me this morning and said you wanted to be with me again... well, that’s where we are now.”

“I had a headache?” He didn’t feel hung over, not that he remembered ever feeling that way before. It just didn’t feel like he was suffering the effects of a hangover.

“That’s why I think you should get checked out.”

“But I didn’t want any aspirin? So it couldn’t have been that bad.” Maybe it was just an excuse to finally take his lovely bride up to their room.

“I watched a TV show once where this guy took sick and didn’t even realize it...” Caitlyn pulled her chair to sit directly in front of him. “Look at me.” She stared at his eyes, they looked okay to her and she nodded. “Squeeze my hands...” She took hold of both of his hands and rested them on her knees. He squeezed both of her hands firmly. “You seem to be okay. I guess.”

He wondered what had happened to him. He knew that she was checking for signs of a stroke and yet he didn’t understand how he realized that. She was looking for an explanation for why he couldn’t remember anything. He really felt fine except that he had no idea who he was or how he got there. There was nothing wrong with him that a little relaxation wouldn’t take care of. Maybe a massage or even another tumble in the bed with this woman... the thought of making love with her again was tempting.

The phone rang and he practically lunged for it. “Hello?... Yes... Amanda thanks for calling me back.” Her voice definitely resonated in his memory. He listened for a few moments. “No, I... forgot. Actually Amanda, I don’t remember anything... no, nothing.” And the few random memories he had gave him no indication of who he was.

He turned his back to Caitlyn and lowered his voice. “No, I’m not alone... I’m here with Caitlyn, uh, Caitlyn Smythe.” He quickly glanced at her to see if she had heard him say her maiden name, she had. Oh well, he thought, I don’t remember any marriage anyway. He looked away. “What?” Stealing another look at Caitlyn while he listened, Brandon managed to move a little further away. He listened for a few minutes, nodding and grunting every so often. When he hung up, he stared suspiciously at Caitlyn.

“What’s the matter?” His stare discomfited her.

“Is your name really Caitlyn Smythe?” He wasn’t sure if he should believe her.

She smiled. “Actually it’s Caitlyn Price now.” He remained quiet. “Brandon? What’s wrong? What did Amanda say?”

“Why are you worried what Amanda had to say?” He was beginning to sound as paranoid as he felt. “Do you have something to worry about?” How much of what she told him was true, if any of it was? He had begun to believe her, anything and everything she had told him, and it angered him that he now had reason to question her honesty.

“She barely knows me, what would she have to say?” Caitlyn was exasperated. “Brandon, what did Amanda say to you? What do you think I’m hiding?”

He wanted to trust the woman in front of him, he really did. He could understand why he liked her even if he had no memory of her. Her gentleness and supposed naivety had lured him into a feeling of safety. He said he had felt like he was under a spell during their lovemaking, maybe she was some kind of pro and he wasn’t thinking with the right brain. That other woman, Amanda, her voice was so familiar, how could he not trust her? He knew that he remembered Amanda. He didn’t know anything about Caitlyn before waking up this morning. And if he knew and trusted Amanda... then he couldn’t trust Caitlyn no matter what.

He paced in silence for a few minutes. Amanda had given him some information and he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Whether it was because Caitlyn was good in bed, he thought crudely, or because there was something more there, he decided to warn her. “Amanda is faxing some information to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. She expects that they’ll be here shortly to take you into custody.”

“Why?” She sounded totally dumbfounded.

“You’ve got a record. You’ve got a string of aliases...” He knelt in front of her. He was sure he had done the right thing to warn her. “Caitlyn, if you leave now, you’ll get away. I wasn’t supposed to warn you but I don’t want to see you arrested.”

“I haven’t done anything...” Her protest sounded genuine and it twisted his gut to think otherwise.

“Caitlyn, she has proof.” He thought for a moment and then stood to take his wallet out of his back pocket. “I don’t know how much money I have in here, but,” he pulled a wad of bills out and handed them to her. “You should be able to get somewhere with this. Go, go now while there is still time. I don’t know how far you can get but you have to get away from here.” He put the money into her hand.

She dropped the money on the floor. “I’m not going anywhere, I haven’t done anything illegal. Why would someone want to arrest me?”

He watched several bills float down to the carpet. “Damn it Caitlyn, I’m trying to help you!” Why didn’t she just take the damn money and get the hell out of there?

Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “What did she tell you I did?”

He frowned. It was hard for him to make the accusation. “You are an artist all right... a con artist. Caitlyn, she said you stole from me, and you stole from some other people. And they want to press charges. I’m not but they are.”

“You believe this?” She sounded so hurt, so wounded, and all he wanted to do was protect her.

He was consumed by guilt that he questioned her. “Come on, let’s get out of here...” He tried to take her arm and push her towards the door. She pulled herself out of his grasp.

“No!” The tears welled in her eyes. “I thought you loved me. You married me! How could you believe I would steal from you?”

He took her by both arms and shook her. “I don’t remember you!” Brandon stared in disbelief as he saw apparent fear in her eyes. He dropped his hands from her arms suddenly. “I’m sorry.” He took a few steps back and spoke in hushed tones. “I know that it felt right to have you in my arms this morning, it felt good to be so close to you, but I don’t know you. But Amanda’s voice, I remembered that, I know her voice... and her name. I know Amanda. I have to trust her.” His explanation lacked conviction.

There was a firm knock at the door.

“Go hide, I’ll tell them you left.”

Another knock. A single man’s voice called through the closed door. “Hotel security.”

“Please Caitlyn...” He motioned for her to hide.

“No.” She stood where she was. “I haven’t done anything.” She sounded almost convincing to his ears, But he worried that she wouldn’t be as convincing to the police.

She stood there defiantly.

After a few more knocks at the door, Brandon answered it. Caitlyn stood silently. Two Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Officers entered with the hotel detective.

The hotel detective stood back while the two police officers asked Caitlyn a few inane questions to confirm who she was. One of the police officers frisked her and nodded in satisfaction when he didn’t find anything of danger.

Caitlyn looked confused and scared.

The second officer had a copy of a forged check and a New York City Police report with Caitlyn’s picture on it. He read a list of charges out loud which included theft, embezzlement, forgery and passing bad checks. Her rights were read to her. They called her Mary Jones. The name under the picture on the NYPD report was Mary Jones.

She went to reach for her purse claiming she had plenty of identification to show them. One of the officers caught her wrist and cuffed her. He twisted her arms painfully behind her and cuffed the other wrist.

“My roommate... she’s traveling in Africa right now, but I’m sure we can track her down.” Caitlyn winced as the cuff tightened from her struggling. “Keisha can vouch for who I am.”

One of the officers mocked her. “Keisha?” He looked towards his partner. “Doesn’t even sound American to me.”

“I have family in upstate New York...” Despite her protests, Caitlyn was led from the room.

Brandon couldn’t stand the tears he had seen on her cheeks. She had seemed so bewildered, not like she was hiding anything. When the door was closed behind them, he sat on the bed with its still rumpled sheets and felt even more lost and more alone than he had before. Eventually he realized that he wasn’t the type to sit and wallow and it wasn’t long before he left the room on a mission.

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Monday, September 1, 2008

Knight Stalker by Linda Ciletti

Chapter One

Rachael held the phone receiver tight between her ear and shoulder. Her neck was beginning to ache. She’d been tempted to let the phone ring and go into voicemail. Now she wished she had. Not that she didn’t look forward to talking with Phil. However, history showed, when he called out of the blue, like tonight, he usually wanted something.

“What are you saying? That Katrina can’t do the concert?” Her dark auburn hair, tied back at the nape, fell in a long cascade down her back. A stray hair tickled her nose and she tucked it behind her ear.

“Katrina had a minor accident and will be laid up awhile.” Phil hesitated. “We need you, Rachael.”

Rachael paced the kitchen. She opened the freezer and pulled out a small container of rocky road ice cream. This phone conversation called for comfort food. “Phil...” She shoved a spoonful of ice cream in her mouth, felt it melt in smooth perfection on her tongue then disappear. “...the show is only three weeks away. I’ll never be ready that soon. Can’t you find someone else? What about--”

She heard Phil sigh.

“Calm down,” Phil assured her. “And put that rocky road back in the frig.”

Rachael choked.

“See, it’s deadly.” Phil paused, then said, “You’re the most accomplished flutist I know, better than Katrina. You’ll do just fine, you always do.”

Rachael felt her breath grow shallow. She breathed deep to combat her nervousness. She’d never performed as a soloist. Never desired to. Her voice shook. “As part of the main orchestra, yes, but--”

“Rach, you’re all I have. Sorry. And you’re ready. You’re really ready.”

Rachael switched the receiver to her other ear and worked the kink from her neck.

“Listen, I hate to cut you short but I’ve gotta run.” She heard finality in Phil’s tone. “So much to do, so little time.”

“But Phil!”

“Don’t forget, solo practice starts Friday evening after regular practice.”

Rachael gasped. “That’s tomorrow!”

“Yeah, it is. Don’t be late.”

“Phil? Phil! Don’t you hang up on--”

A sudden click sounded over the line.

“Damn!” Rachael slammed the receiver into its cradle. “For two cents I’d hire a new agent,” she grumbled.

Yeah right. She ate several more spoonfuls of ice cream, then stuffed the container back into the freezer. She knew she could never fire Phil. He was too great an agent and too good a friend. If only he wasn’t so damn infuriating. But Phil had given her a means to keep Timmy warm, safe, and fed when Timmy’s louse of a father took off. Thank God she hadn’t married the loser. For Phil’s kindness and support, she would be eternally grateful.

However, filling in for Katrina meant additional evening practices at the concert hall and less time spent with Timmy. Rachael sighed. She hadn’t enough time to spend with him as it was. How was she going to explain to a five-year-old who spent half a day in kindergarten and the other half with a sitter that his mommy must go to work during the few hours of evening that belong to him.

Rachael sighed again. It wasn’t that she begrudged having Timmy or caring for him. Timmy was the light of her life, the silver lining to her cloudy existence. Never would she regret giving birth to her son. Her only regret was that she couldn’t do better by him. Timmy deserved better--much better.

“Mommy?” A small tow-headed boy peered hesitantly into the kitchen, his voice shaky and uncertain.

“Timmy, honey.” Rachael cast her concerns aside for a more important issue. She padded across the smooth tiled floor in slippered feet and knelt before him. “Are you okay?” She wrapped her arms about him and gave him an affectionate squeeze. “Why aren’t you in bed?” she asked, though she already knew the reason.

Timmy sniffled. “I had’d a bad dream, Mommy.” Safe in his mother’s company, he straightened his shoulders, his feigned bravado prompting Rachael to smile. “And then I heared you yelling.” His bottom lip extended in a pout. “Are you okay?” he asked in his mature little-boy way.

Rachael’s heart warmed at his concern. Her smile deepened. “I’m fine, honey. Thank you.” She ruffled his sleep-tousled hair, a pale cascade of soft silk that brushed just past his ears. The scent of herbal shampoo wafted about him. “But you should be in bed. You’ve got kindergarten in the morning.”

“But Maawm!” Timmy protested, his pout more pronounced.

“No ifs, buts, or protests.” Taking Timmy’s small hand in hers, Rachael led him through the living room and up the dark walnut staircase to the second floor. “Come on, I’ll tuck you in.” She accompanied him down the narrow hall. As they neared his room, his lips pressed to a firm line, his eyes grew wide and wary, and she sensed a definite hesitation in his step. “Timmy, it’s okay,” she assured him. Recognizing his need to not be alone, she said, “I’ll stay with you as long as you need me.”

Timmy’s lips curved to a tentative smile. The worry crease of his brow fell smooth.

Rachael lifted Timmy in her arms and gave him an affectionate hug. She then laid him on the single bookcase bed where he kept his favorite reads. Lifting his downy comforter out from under him, she lovingly tucked its edges between the mattresses, sealing him in its warmth.

“Will you read me a story?” Timmy asked.

“But I already read you a story earlier.”

“Please, Mommy, please.” His eyes grew wide and pleading. “Jist one.”

“But it’s nearly midnight and--”

“Please. Please, Mommy.” Timmy pouted--a beseeching pout that Rachael could not dismiss. She sighed resignedly. “Okay, but just one--a short one.” She ran a searching finger over the spines of the books that rested above Timmy’s head.

“The one wif the knight,” Timmy said. Contorting about, he pointed to a small thin book.

Pulling it free from the grouping, Rachael read the title aloud. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Children’s Version.” She stared down at Timmy’s supine form, so small and comfy beneath the thick covers. “Again?”

Timmy nodded eagerly and snuggled into his pillow.

“But isn’t it a bit...” Rachael paused. Though the story was toned down for youthful reading, it was still violent. “...frightening, for this late hour?” She considered the cover art of a large and fearsome green knight, wondered if this book wasn’t the cause of Timmy’s recent nightmares.

“Oh no, Mommy. He’s a good knight,” Timmy replied. “He jist looks mean.”

“I know, but...” Rachael looked at Timmy’s wide-eyed plea then succumbed. “Okay.” Pulling Timmy’s receding covers up about his chest, she brushed back a strand of pale hair from his face and kissed his forehead, a tinge of mother’s guilt nagging her at the extra practice sessions she would have to attend. She owed Timmy this story. “Close your eyes and think happy thoughts.” Rachael opened the book to page one, chapter one, and began reciting. “‘Silence!’ shouted Sir Gawain one New Year’s Day...”

~ * ~

“Timmy, hurry. You’ll miss your bus.” Rachael pulled her hair back into a cream-colored tie. Quickly, she sipped the last tepid remains of her morning tea.

“Coming, Mommy,” Timmy called from the upstairs landing.

Retrieving her flute case and portfolio of sheet music, Rachael set them near the front door of their two-story brownstone apartment. A long day of practice at the concert hall lay ahead, to be followed by a quick fast-food dinner and an equally long and grueling night of the same, then a crowded bus ride home. Rachael released a long, exasperated breath. Another evening that Timmy would spend with Mrs. Evans, their landlord and babysitter, rather than herself.

“Mommy,” Timmy began. He paused as he pattered down the long flight of stairs that led from the upstairs hall, dragging his cumbersome backpack alongside him like a reluctant pup.

Rachael smiled. “Need help with that?” she asked, reaching out.

“No!” Timmy swung the pack over his shoulder, teetering slightly as the weight of it knocked his small frame off balance. Quickly, he steadied himself. “See, I can do it.” He smiled broadly. He was proud, but not nearly as proud as Rachael as she watched her independent son ready himself for another day of school.

“Mommy,” he began again, slightly breathless.


“What’s a saddalite?”

Satellite. It’s a small spaceship without people that collects information and takes pictures in outer space, then sends them back to earth to be studied.”

“Are they magic?”

“No, they’re scientific.”

“What’s that?”

“It means there’s no mystery about them. We know exactly how they work and what they do.”

“You do!” Timmy eyed her with astonishment. “How?”

“Well, I personally don’t know, but scientists do.”

“But the man on the radio said a saddalite fell from the sky and disappeared like magic over England. And they didn’t find hiderhear of it.”

“God! That happened at least six months ago--or more. Are they still talking about that?”

Timmy nodded feverishly. “Uh-huh.” Then his brow furrowed in puzzlement. “What’s that mean? Hiderhear? Was there a rabbit in it?”

Rachael suppressed a giggle. “It’s hide nor hair. It means they haven’t found any part of it, not even the tiniest piece.”

“Ooohhh. So it disappeared like Whodeemi? That’s kinda magic, isn’t it? Cause he’s a magician.”

Houdini. And yes, kind of. But not really.”

“Don’t you believe in magic, Mommy?”

Rachael sighed. She hadn’t believed in magic in years. Not true magic. “I believe that you’re going to miss your bus if we don’t hurry.”

“Aw, Maawm.”

“And remember, I’m going to be late tonight. I have to practice extra long for a very special concert. But I’ll absolutely come to your room and kiss you goodnight.”

“Do you have to practice?” Timmy asked.

“I’m afraid so.” Rachael helped him slip into his jacket. “Be good for Mrs. Evans when you get home from school,” Rachael reminded Timmy.

Timmy grimaced. “I’m always good for Mrs. Evans.”

Rachael ruffled the golden silk of his hair, loving the soft feel of it as it slid through her fingers. “I know,” she said as she zipped his jacket closed.

Timmy smoothed down his hair, leveling her with a reproving glare that she dared to dishevel him, and just when the bus was due.

Rachael grinned at his growing independence and kissed his cheek. Through the picture window in her living room, her eye caught bright yellow movement down the street. “The bus is coming.” She patted his backside to set him on his way.

Suddenly, Timmy’s eyes grew wide and flustered. “Oh, wait. Wait. I forgetted somethin’.” He dropped his pack and ran up the stairs.

“Timmy!” Rachael called out. “You’re going to miss your...”

Already he was descending the steep incline at a pace too quick for his small feet.

“I getted it!” he announced. He grabbed his backpack and headed for the front door.

I got. And what did you get?”

“Nuffin’, Mommy.”

“Tim-my,” Rachael drawled. “What did you get?”

A horn blasted outside the brownstone. Timmy bounced excitedly on his sneakers. Mommy, I’m gonna be late,” he huffed anxiously.

“Okay, okay.” Rachael ushered him out the door. “I love you,” she whispered, low and for Timmy’s ears only.

Timmy paused on the walkway steps. The brisk morning breeze ruffled his hair. The brilliant morning sun illuminated it. Turning, he smiled up at Rachael as she stood on the threshold watching him, then he scampered for the bus. It was the same every morning. The pause, the smile. And it never failed to warm her heart.

Stepping back into the apartment, Rachael gathered her things, then began walking the busy street to her own bus stop, mentally preparing herself for the day. Shifting her load, she brushed at a group of unsightly wrinkles that had already begun to form in the soft cream linen of her skirt and suit jacket. When her bus pulled to a halt, she struggled through the door and up its three metal stairs. She dropped several small coins into the change box. They fell with a melodious clatter.

Slowly, she made her way to the one available seat that rested between a woman wearing enough perfume to open her own refinery and a bedraggled man who hadn’t seen a shower in the better part of a month. The combination was enough to make her swoon. Holding her breath, she eased down onto the tattered cushion, tucking her flute case and portfolio safely between her feet and the seat. She glanced over her shoulder at the bedraggled man next to her. He was ogling her legs. Instinctively, she tugged on the hem of her skirt, which had somehow hiked up to mid-thigh.

Perv! she thought.

She definitely needed a car.

~ * ~

“Good practice, wasn’t it?” Samantha patted Rachael’s shoulder as they descended the lengthy stairs that led from the concert hall.

“Could have been better,” Rachael muttered.

Samantha paused in stride. “It’ll get better,” she assured. “We still have two weeks of practice to go.”

“Two weeks,” Rachael murmured, then sighed.

Samantha turned to face her friend. “It’s not practice, is it?”

Rachael shook her head.

“Okay. Out with it,” Samantha ordered. “You’ve been acting weird all night. What’s bothering you?”

Rachael forced a smile. “It’s after ten. Timmy will be asleep by the time I get home. The only time I’ve spent with him today was an hour or so this morning. You know how I hate leaving Timmy with a sitter for so long a time, even if it is Mrs. Evans.”


“I guess I’m just anticipating the next few weeks. You know how it gets.” Rachael sighed. “I miss him already, Sam.”

“It’s only been a day,” Sam teased, then added, “But I don’t blame you. He’s the cutest thing this side of the city.” Hugging her violin case against her chest, she sighed theatrically. “If only he were twenty years older.”

Both women laughed.

“Yeah,” Rachael agreed. “They just don’t make them like that after the age of five anymore.”

“They sure don’t.” Samantha opened the back door of her car and set her instrument case on the seat. Closing the door, she turned to Rachael. “Want a ride?” She smiled that dentist-perfect smile that always made Rachael think Sam had missed her calling as a supermodel.

“No, thanks.”

“Are you sure? Even after that stinking pervert eyed you up and down on the bus this morning?”

Rachael bit her lip. “Oh yeah, I’d nearly forgotten about that.” She contemplated Sam’s offer. “But as long as the pervs only look, I’ll be fine. It’s losing time with Timmy that’s the problem.”

Sam threw her arms about her friend’s shoulders and gave her a reassuring hug. “It’ll be over before you know it.”

Rachael forced a smile. “You’re right.” She straightened her back. Think positive.

“Now about that ride home?” Sam persisted.

“No, really. Thanks. It’s out of your way and my bus will be here any minute. In fact, here it comes now.”

“Okay, be careful.” Sam gave Rachael a sisterly hug. “And watch out for those pervs,” she teased.

Rachael gave her friend a gentle push toward her car. “I will. Now get going. I’ll see you on Monday.”

“Sir! Yes, sir!” Sam saluted Rachael before sliding behind the wheel of her car. “Give that little hunk of yours a kiss from me.”

“You bet.” Rachael took several steps toward the idling bus, admiring, with just a hint of envy, Sam’s free spiritedness and her careless manner of screeching tire as the small purple sports car tore out onto the main drag. She sighed heavily. It was how she wanted to be, carefree and full of spirit and fun. And she was, to a point. But she had responsibilities now. She had Timmy.

Reaching behind her, Rachael felt for her purse. Not finding it, she gently set her instrument case, lunch bag, and portfolio on the ground. She rifled through them to see if her purse had somehow become entangled in the mess. “Damn,” she swore, not finding it.

“Getting on, lady?” the bus driver called impatiently.

Rachael looked up at him. He was new. She closed her eyes and breathed deep. Her money was in her purse in the concert hall. “I guess not,” she replied.

“It’s an hour and a half till the next run,” the driver warned as if that piece of information could magically make her purse appear.

“I know. Thank you.”

“Okay,” the bus driver replied.

The folding bus doors squeaked to a close as Rachael turned toward the hall.

Having retrieved her purse, she again made her way down the cascade of steps. Her eyes lifted to the horizon. A brilliant mauve hue lit the sky. Darkness would envelope the streets in a matter of minutes, and it was a fifteen-block trek home. She sighed sharply. Why had she spent all her cash on lunch that day? Had she had more than a little change, she could have called a cab. As it was, there were no ATMs nearby. Rachael studied the road that led to her apartment. Fifteen blocks wasn’t that far.

Securing her possessions, she began walking, recalling all the city survival techniques she had learned over the years as she made her way home. Rule number one: Avoid the streets after dark.

In a false confident stride, she kept close to the curb, avoiding dark alleyways and deep shadowy alcoves. One by one, she counted the blocks as she kept up a brisk pace.

One, two, three...

A cool breeze swept over her face, warning of an approaching autumn storm. It pulled her hair out from its tie and whipped it about her shoulders.

Four, five, six...

Humidity filled her lungs. Soon sharp pellets of rain would spear from the sky, drenching the city in a chilling wash. She only hoped that she reached home before it let loose.

Seven, eight, nine...

Rachael retrieved her house keys from her purse. She jingled them in her hand before shoving them into the side pocket of her suit jacket where they could be quickly retrieved.


So far, so good. The deserted streets seemed oddly surreal as city dwellers anticipated the approaching storm and stayed indoors.


Almost home. And thank God for that. Her inch-and-a-half heels were killing her feet. Rachael made a mental note to always, from this time forward, tote her sneakers with her.


Her load grew heavier with every step, but the prospect of a warm cup of tea in front of a roaring fire raised her adrenaline level, giving her the added strength to keep moving. Tomorrow was Saturday, and she had the entire day to spend with Timmy. How she looked forward to that, and to the four weeks of relaxation after the upcoming concert. Four weeks to make up for the absences. Four weeks with Timmy and Timmy alone.


The storm raced in faster than she’d anticipated. Never had she seen the sky so ominously dark and heavily laden. It prompted her to quicken her gait.


A crash of thunder rocked the ground. Above, thick simmering clouds roiled over and in on themselves. Rachael stilled in her tracks, awestruck by the chilling force churning above her. A shudder ran through her.

Then a second thunderous crash split the heavens, followed by a renting blaze of white and blinding flash of green. Rachael stumbled back and covered her eyes, dropping all that she carried. A mild charge hung in the air, setting the fine hairs of her arms to stand on end.

“My God!” she swore. She grappled for her belongings and hurried toward the safety of home, only a block away. Securing her cases in a better hold, she raced around a curve in the road.

A steely hand reached out from the dark-treed border of the park and clamped about her arm.

“Gimme your money, bitch,” the thug demanded.

Rachael screamed. Her body jolted from his sudden, bruising grip. A skull-and-cross bone tattoo framed his forearm. His gaze was hard and desperate. Knowing she couldn’t best him, she reached for her handbag to comply. She knew there wasn’t any money in it, but maybe he’d take the whole thing and run without checking.

The thug’s grip tightened. His lips contorted as dark hollow eyes regarded her through her clothes.

Again a flash of lightning split the sky, its sudden brilliance snapping off the cold stare of her assailant.

“My purse. I--I must have dropped it.” Having no bargaining tool, she tried twisting from his grip, but the thug’s pointed fingers bit deeply into her flesh.

“Listen, lady,” he warned. “I wasn’t born yesterday.” He ran a lurid gaze over her. “But if you ain’t got no money, we can work it out in trade. Know what I mean?” He drew a silver object from his pocket. When he pressed its side, a click sounded.

Rachael caught her breath and stilled. Slowly, she lowered her gaze to the open switchblade that rested near her chin.

“You ain’t going nowhere, lady. We’re gonna have ourselves a party.”

A second man emerged from the shadows, taller and infinitely larger. He joined his companion, a similar tattoo marking his arm.

“Don’t hurt me, please,” Rachael pleaded. “I have a kid. Take anything you want. My purse is just over there.” She pointed shakily to where she’d dropped her belongings. “H-here, take my flute. You can hock it and--”

A sharp slap silenced her, and she stumbled back, falling to the gritty asphalt road behind her. One leg struck the high cement curb of the sidewalk, A gripping pain sliced her thigh.

“We don’t want no damn flute,” the second man said.

Rachael looked up at the two men, followed their lewd appraisals to her exposed legs. Quickly, she reached for her flute case. If nothing else, it could serve as a weapon.

Her thoughts raced to Timmy as her fingers brushed the case’s rich leather. She couldn’t die. Not now. Timmy needed her. Grappling for the case’s stocky handle, she nearly had hold of it when a booted foot kicked it from her grasp.

“You won’t be needin’ that,” the man cackled. His dark eyes continued assessing her, a piercing stare that bore clean through to the soul. Her face ached where she’d been struck. Already her cheek was swollen, impairing her left-side vision. She detected the hollow stare of the larger man. His dark scraggly hair rested in a tangled heap on his shoulders, his gnarly beard unkempt over thick lips and a slightly squared jaw. He was foreboding just to look on, but it was the hardness of his eyes that frightened her most.

“Please, don’t,” she pleaded.

The man’s lips curled malevolently, accentuating scars from knife fights long past. “Shut up, bitch!” he bellowed. He grabbed hold of her hair and pulled her to her feet.

Rachael stumbled, struggling to keep afoot against the throbbing of her thigh.

“Let’s go,” the dark giant commanded. With the aid of his accomplice, he dragged her deeper into the grove of trees that edged the park.

Rachael struggled against his hold, but her strength was no match to his. Thunder crashed. Again, Rachael screamed. Then an ominous silence fell over the park. Silence so thick it was palpable. It stilled her cries just as it stilled her attackers. Their sudden release sent her sprawling to the dewy grass.

“What the hell’s that?” she heard one man exclaim. She followed the man’s wide-eyed stare.

A spectral image loomed against a backdrop of roiling dark clouds and brilliant flashes of light. It stood tall and proud and was covered in a chest plate, greaves, and helm that glowed faintly green. One meshed hand gripped the hilt of a sword. Rachael sucked in a breath. Palms to ground, she slid stealthily back on her bottom.

The smaller man stepped foolishly forward. “Hey, Halloweener, this ain’t October, you know,” he taunted. “Shove off if you know what’s good for you.”

The larger man waved his knife in a sluicing motion before him, shifting it from one hand to the other and back with practiced grace.

The knight remained poised and unaffected, his armor gleaming more vibrantly green at each jagged spear that pierced the sky.

“I said, shove off, buddy. This is our lay,” the thug repeated as the two of them circled him.

Rachael again slid back, distancing herself from a violent confrontation. Her thoughts centered on Timmy; her gaze, on the knight. Her attackers no longer paid her any mind, their attention now shifted to the encroacher.

A feral growl sounded beneath the specter’s helm and he maneuvered himself between her and her attackers. Rachael shuffled to her feet, afraid of the specter, but more afraid of the alternative. Then a blinding flash rent the sky, ending with a violent crash of thunder. Rachael screamed, prompting the image to turn and face her.

Her breath caught.

Fierce amber eyes fixed on her through the fine slits of a helm--golden wolfish eyes that held her bound, assessing her. Rachael gasped, then stumbled back as the specter broke contact to face his opponents once more. Her heart pounded as she grabbed her flute and briefcase, kicked off her heels, and raced the half block to home.

~ * ~

Michel faced his opponents. Slowly, he unsheathed his sword. From the corner of his vision, he’d caught sight of the woman as she’d escaped into the night and slammed the door of a dwelling farther down the road to hide behind the safety of its walls. His thoughts replayed her confrontation with the swine before him. They spoke a manner of English. Though French was his first language, he knew the other well.

“Come, paysans,” he called out, prompting them to battle. “Fight me!”

The larger of the two attackers looked pathetically at the switchblade clutched between his fingers, then at the huge menacing sword Michel swung before him in challenge. Seeing the disadvantage, the man’s attitude changed from challenging to compromising. “Listen, man, we don’t wanna fight you.” He stepped back, dragging his accomplice with him.

“Cowards! Attackers of women! Fight!” Slicing the air with his weapon, Michel approached the two men. “Battez un homme, paysans.” Fight a man. The smaller thug scrambled in front of his friend. “He’s bluffin’ man. He ain’t gonna use that thing. He’s just some foreign piece of shit. We kin take ’em.” Sure that his friend supported his decision, he stepped forward, accepting Michel’s challenge.

Michel lunged, slicing the man’s thigh with the tip of his sword. A minor wound, but one that would hurt like the devil.

“Shit!” The man fell back. He landed on his rear with a hard thump. “He cut me, man. He cut me.” He scampered back on his elbows.

The larger man grabbed his accomplice by the arm, dragging him to his feet while his injured friend wrapped a hanky about his wound. “Come on, let’s git outta here.”

“I’m bleedin’ man. Look at this!”

“Yeah, yeah. Come on.”

With the support of his friend, the smaller man hobbled along, his hand pressed to the wound to help staunch the flow of blood. “I’ll kill ya, man,” he screamed back over his shoulder as the two of them disappeared into the park. “You’re dead meat next time, buddy. You jist wait.”

Michel set his sword at rest as the sound of idle threats faded into the distance. Slowly, he slid his weapon back into its scabbard.

~ * ~

“Gracious Lord! Rachael! What happened?” Standing in the kitchen doorway, Mrs. Evans stared wide-eyed at Rachael’s bared feet. “And where are your shoes, girl?”

Having burst through the door, Rachael slammed the bolt lock into place and fell back against the heavy oak barrier to catch her breath. “I-I was m-mugged,” she stammered. She dropped her cases to the floor.

“Mugged? Lord Almighty, you’re shaking like a leaf. Come on.” Mrs. Evans put an arm about Rachael’s shoulders and led her to the couch. “Sit down before you fall.”

Rachael followed Mrs. Evans through the dimly lit living room, too weak to resist.

“I’m calling the police.”

“No!” Rachael protested. “They’ll never b...” Rachael worried her lip. How could she convince the police of what she saw when she didn’t believe it herself?

“They’ll never what?” Mrs. Evans asked.

“They’ll there by the time the police arrive.” She breathed deeply. “God, look at me. I can’t stop shaking.”

Mrs. Evans glanced at Rachael’s cases. She took Rachael’s hands in hers to still them. “They got your purse, didn’t they?”

Rachael looked by the door where she dropped her belongings, though she already knew the purse wasn’t there. “I guess so. I dropped it.”

“Then you need to call the police. You’re not safe. They have all your info, girl, including your address.” Mrs. Evans headed for the phone.

“Wait!” Rachael cried out. She shot a glance at the bolt lock. It was engaged. “I mean, not now. I’ll call in the morning.” She sensed Mrs. Evans’ disapproval. “I promise,” she assured the older woman. “The bolt lock will secure the place until then.” She drew a deep breath. “Right now, I just want to get myself together. ”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” Rachael sank back into the couch cushions, relieved to be home and safe.

“Okay,” Mrs. Evans replied as she headed toward the kitchen. “How about a nice hot cup of tea. That will settle those nerves.

“You don’t have to do that. It’s late and--”

“Fiddle dee.” Ignoring Rachael’s protests, Mrs. Evan disappeared into the kitchen.

Rachael touched her throbbing cheek, then the harsher throbbing of her thigh. She sighed heavily. If Mrs. Evans had suspected she’d been hurt, she would never have taken no for an answer.

Fortunately, her landlord’s brownstone apartment adjoined Rachael’s with an inside connecting door. Just the thought of unbolting the main door renewed her shakes.

“Here you go, sweetie.” Mrs. Evans reached for the lamp as she handed Rachael her tea. “Let me turn up the lights for you.”

“No!” Rachael took the proffered tea. “I mean, I prefer it dark.”


“I’ve got a headache,” Rachael said, sure that one was coming on.

Mrs. Evans eyed her warily. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked.

“I’m fine. Really. Just a bit shaken, that’s all. A nice hot bath will take care of that.”

“Well, then.” Mrs. Evans sounded doubtful. “If you’re sure.”

Rachael sipped her tea. “How’s Timmy?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Snug as a bug in a rug.” Mrs. Evans picked up her babysitter satchel of puzzles, games, and books, and slung it over her shoulder.

Rachael sighed. “Thanks, Mrs. Evans. I know it was last minute and I appreciate you agreeing to watch Timmy while I’m at night practice.”

Mrs. Evan made her way to the connecting door. Before passing through, she turned to Rachael. “Fiddle dee. You know I love staying with Timmy. He’s like a grandson to me. And as my beloved husband departed this world without leaving me a son of my own...” She smiled warmly. “Just lock up tight and, if you need anything, call.”

“I’ll do that.” Rachael got up from the sofa and gave Mrs. Evans a hug. “Thank you.”

~ * ~

Michel assessed the new world around him. The woman’s tall abode sat nestled tightly between similar buildings that stood all in a row. Before it, a thick run of shrubbery grew, flanked by a long cascade of flat stone stairs. The dwelling’s heavy stone walls reminded him of Banesford Manor, but on a much smaller scale.

His eyes strayed to the surrounding village. Small torches sans flame burned before each dwelling and the gritty black road beneath him was of a substance he had never before seen. He scraped its hard surface with the heel of a boot, then removed a gauntlet and ran his hand over its grainy crest. “Saints!” he swore. “What is this place?” Again, he scoured the area, noting how it differed from the Banesford demesne. He felt comfort only in the forestry of the park--and in the single brownstone building numbered forty and seven. The one whereto the woman had fled.

The woman.

Who was she? Why was she under attack? And why had she fled... from him? By the saints, he had been protecting her. Was there no gratitude in this place?

But she was une belle femme. A beautiful woman with dark fiery hair that hung in loose waves down her back. A heavenly creature--angelic in the creamy white garb that accentuated her womanly curves and revealed an obscenity of leg. Beautiful shapely legs.

Had he died and gone to heaven?

Mais non, c’est impossible. Two swine had attacked her from the shadows of the wood. Such evil did not exist within the boundaries of heaven, and such an angelic vision as she could never abide in the dark depths of hell. Nay, he was neither in heaven nor hell, but rather on earth--a part of earth he knew not, nor wanted to. A part of earth he could well live without, but had no choice but to live within. He shook his head. The magic of the armor had faded as surely as had the voices of his quarry. He’d felt the loss of it the moment he’d come fully to his senses, the moment the lightning had ceased. No longer did his flesh tingle beneath the smooth metal plate, no longer did the armor glow a vibrant shade of green. It felt common now. Finely crafted, but nothing more. The magic that would return him to Banesford was gone.

Pulling free his helm, Michel slumped against a nearby tree. Banesford, he reflected. A fortnight ago, he and Henry of Banesford had braved a violent storm in pursuit of a vicious killer.

“See you him?” Michel had asked his lord and liege

“Nay.” Henry replied.

“Nor I.”

A third man, however, caught sight of Ruford seated on his stallion at the highest crest of the meadow. “There.” He pointed.

Michel recalled his first impulse. “Allons-y!” He’d called out. Let’s go.

“Nay!” Henry had called him back. “Something is amiss.”

“What is it?” Michel’s steed pawed the earth, anxious to complete the mission.

“Look.” Henry pointed to Ruford’s dark silhouette, a halo of green surrounding it.

Stilling his horse, Michel studied their prey. “Mon Dieu!” he swore. “The glow intensifies.”

“Aye. And Ruford sits unmoving.”

“Then let us grab him whilst we can.” Michel readied to spur his mount forward.

Again Henry held him back. “Nay. I smell disaster.”

Suddenly a thunderous crash shook the heavens and rattled the ground.

Michel recalled the sudden burst of light and how the three of them had covered their eyes against the blinding flash. When they looked up Ruford was gone.

Spurring their horses to full gallop, they had raced to the top of the hill.

“God’s mercy!” Henry swore as they reached the peak. “Is it dead?”

Michel jumped down from his horse and checked Ruford’s steed. “Quite.”

“And Ruford.”

“Gone, my lord.”

“Gone? But how?” Henry shot a fast glance over the field then turned to face Michel. “How could he have escaped?”

Michel could still feel the heaviness of failure.

“’Tis as though he disappeared,” Henry had said.

“He lives,” Michel replied.

“But how?” Henry pointed to Ruford’s lifeless horse.

“I know not, my lord. I only know that I must find him.”

Henry looked at Michel as though he had lost his senses. “Find him? How?

“’Twas the armor which brought the lightning to him, sending him to another place.”

“Nay, Michel. Granted, the metal from which the armor was forged had unusual properties, but to cause one to vanish to another place?”

“You did see it as clearly as I,” Michel retorted.

“I did see him disappear is all. But to believe him yet alive and elsewhere?”

“See you a body?” Michel asked. He sliced the air with his hand.


“The bolt struck him as a purposeful act. Ruford lives. I am sure of it. And ’tis my duty to stop him. I did vow this.”

“Then I release you from this vow,” Henry commanded.

“You cannot. ’Twas not a vow to you,” Michel informed him. “’Twas a vow to another.”

“To whom?” Henry demanded.

“To God.”

Henry’s expression fell. A vow to God was sacred. “But how will you hunt him when you know not where to look?”

“There is but one place to look, my lord.” Michel hung his head.


Lifting his head, Michel met Henry’s gaze. “To the remaining armor.”

Michel recalled the horror on Henry’s face.

“I forbid it,” Henry had bellowed.

“There is no other way,” Michel argued. “Ruford has killed nine innocents already. He must be stopped.”

“Ruford is gone. That is all that matters,” Henry argued.

“But gone where?” Michel asked, knowing that was not all that mattered. “How many others will die, ’haps not at Banesford, but elsewhere--innocent young maids like Isabo.”

Michel would never forget the look on Henry’s face as he reflected on the heinous way his niece was murdered. Her hands bound in silver cord. Her throat slashed from ear to ear.

“But even should it work and you are able to follow him, how will you return?” Henry had asked. “Will you be able to return?”

A sullen Michel looked at Henry as though for the last time. “I know not,” he answered. “But I will have stopped a murderer. Isabo’s killer.”

Michel could still hear Henry’s resigning sigh. It was a sigh of regret. A sigh of sadness and grief. Finally, Henry had relented. “Then go, Michel.” He gave Michel’s shoulder a fatherly squeeze. “And God go with you.”

~ * ~

Michel closed his eyes and gathered his strength. Opening his eyes, he stared off into a new and strange village. He wondered where to go from here. He had a mission to uphold, a vow to keep--that was a certainty. He had taken the greatest risk a man can take. And now that he was here, he must find Ruford, if Ruford was indeed here at all.

But as dire as finding Ruford was, it would have to wait. For the moment, he faced another immediate concern. Lodging. Michel ran an assessing gaze over the village. Rows of stone dwellings stood butted against the other, their flameless torches scattering light over expertly coiffed shrubbery. The dwellings’ stately windows stood at attention, some dark, some shining intermittently with a warm yellow glow. Occasionally, a silhouette passed by, giving evidence of life within.

The surreality of this world both frightened and intrigued him, and he dwelled on this until only one truth came to mind. He had to seek out shelter.

It was on this thought that the first pelt of rain struck his face.

Dieu,” he swore. “What more can go astray?” Slipping off the chest plate, greaves and gauntlets he’d donned in what seemed another world, he made his way down the empty street to hide his armor beneath a heavy shrub outside the number forty and seven dwelling. Drawing a deep and fortifying breath, he approached its stately door and knocked.

Title: KnightStalker

Author: Linda Ciletti