Hey Everyone!! :-)
You may have noticed there have been a lot of guest posts recently. There's a couple of reasons for that. First, the people who have been gracious enough to guest post here are awesome and I love showcasing their thoughts. :-) But the second reason is that I've been a bit busy and haven't had as much time to write blog posts. What have I been busy with? I'm glad you asked!! ;-)
I've started working on the third full-length novel in the series (those of you who have read Intrigue In The Summer Court know it is a novella and is really 2.5 in the series) I started with Taken By The Huntsman. Now I'm going to try to get this book out by the end of the year, but a lot of things are going on right now so I can't promise. In the meantime, I've posted the first chapter down below so you'll have an opportunity to get to know the heroine a bit. Please keep in mind that this is unedited and subject to change. ;-)
***A note of warning: The following excerpt contains material that may upset some people. There are descriptions of domestic violence with both verbal and physical abuse. Please keep that in mind before reading. Thank you.
Rain poured from the sky making a steady drumming sound against the car. Kate listened as the patter of the raindrops harmonized with the swish-swish of the windshield wipers as they fought a valiant battle to keep the glass clear enough to see through. The white noise the combination made was a perfect accompaniment to the static that filled her mind. She wasn't sure, but she thought she might be in shock and she pondered that possibility in a desultory manner.
The air outside was hot and humid, but Kate had turned the air conditioning in the car up all the way, causing everything to feel cool and clammy. She shivered. It wasn't even the honest chill of winter, but instead a sticky, moist dankness that seemed to settle into her bones yet still left her skin and throat dry. But she was grateful that the junker of a car at least had a functioning air conditioner. Kate hated hot weather.
She had never wanted to leave the northeast to spend the winter in Florida. That was Erik's idea. Predictably, her mother had agreed with him and pressured Kate into making the trip. Agatha Graham was always in favor of anything that might move Kate and Erik closer to matrimony.
Tears filled Kate's pale gray eyes as she thought about her now ex-fiance. He was a beautiful man, who seemed to have been painted in shades of gold. Even at thirty-seven, his hair remained a lovely dark blonde. His hairline started just a few inches above his eyebrows and showed no signs of thinning. He wore his short, yellow tresses slicked back in a shiny business-appropriate style that created the illusion that he wore a golden helmet. A large man, with a powerful build, there wasn't an ounce of fat on his frame. At six feet and two inches tall, his height topped even her own impressive five feet, eleven inches. His eyes were a warm chocolate brown, but it had been quite some time since she had seen him look at her with anything but coldness in them.
For years, she had tried to make things work between them. Not because she loved him or thought he loved her, but because her mother was so determined to see them together. She could hear Agatha's voice in her head even now. "Smile, dear, and think about how comfortable your life will be with him. He's a good provider, and will give you a position in society. A woman can put up with a lot to gain that."
Fighting back both the moisture in her eyes and the echoes of her mother's words, Kate tried to figure out where she should go and what she was going to do for money. She would be okay for a while, her Nana had left her an inheritance when she died and Kate had kept that money safe in a bank account that Erik didn't know about. But it wouldn't be long before she would need to find a job, and she had no idea how to go about doing that.
Her mother had pushed Kate at Erik since just after she graduated from high school. Kate had managed to evade her mother's match-making efforts long enough to start college, but by the time she finished her Junior year the combined pressure from Erik and Agatha had convinced her to drop out of school and focus her attention on pleasing her fiancé. Not that she had ever succeeded in that endeavor. She never started her Senior year, and had failed to earn a degree.
With no degree or work experience, she was at a loss as to how to find a job that would pay enough for her to live on. Going back to school might be an option, but she had no idea how to find out if any of the classes she had already completed could be used in a new program or how long it might take to finish a degree. Kate knew her situation wasn't unique, lots of women had been abused by their husbands or boyfriends, and most didn’t have a safety net like what her Nana left to her. But she had never before realized how dependant she was on Erik and her mother.
At thirty-two years old, Kate had never lived on her own. She had never needed to find an apartment, arrange for utility service, find or hold a job, or do any of the other things most adults took for granted. Even during her brief stint in college, she had stayed close to home and lived first with her mother, and then with Erik. One of her ex-fiance's favorite things to berate her with was her utter uselessness. And, to her eternal shame, she couldn't argue with him.
Oh, she had done charity work, served on various committees for different organizations, decorated and kept the homes that Erik had provided for them, and spent her time doing all of the other things the women who belonged to rich, important men did. But, as her ex-fiance was fond of pointing out to her, none of that was worth a whole lot.
In all honesty, her biggest accomplishment in life was knowing how to shop. Even her mother, ever ready to aid her only daughter with well-directed criticism, admitted that Kate always had impeccable taste and an infallible eye for aesthetics. In spite of her impossible figure, and the frizzy, orange-red hair that defied hair color and styling products, Kate always looked well-groomed and elegant. With an uncanny nose for classic style and timeless beauty, Kate could make even flea market finds fashionable. It was that saving grace that had allowed her to decorate a man like Erik's arm for the last twelve years.
But a talent for shopping, dressing, and decorating wouldn't put money in the bank or food on her table. At least, she couldn't see how it would, and she didn't have anyone to turn to for advice. Her mother wasn't an option. Agatha had made it clear on more than one occasion that if Kate didn't make things work with Erik, she would wash her hands of her.
It had been the older woman's life-long goal to improve her position within society, and secure one for her daughter, and she had long ago decided that marrying Kate to Erik was the way to do it. After all, Erik's family connections were beyond reproach, coming as he did from old money. And the man himself was a successful, respected attorney who was a partner in a large, prestigious law firm. He was exactly what Agatha had been training Kate to attract and marry from the time the girl was a toddler.
Her mother meant well, Kate knew that, and she did what she did out of love. But sometimes her words cut deeper than any knife could reach. Kate was never pretty enough, demure enough, or feminine enough to please her mother. She had always been tall and slender for her age, and when she hit puberty things had only gotten worse. Taller than all of the girls and most of the boys in her age group, Kate had been gawky and socially awkward as a teenager. Her mother would mock her, calling her beanpole and Olive Oil when she became frustrated with her daughter's angular frame. Agatha was forever trying to get Kate to pad her clothing, and had even tried to convince her daughter to have surgery to enhance her figure. But it was Kate's height that was the final straw that caused her mother to give up changing her appearance as an impossible task.
Agatha considered Kate's looks mannish and beyond redemption, so instead she channeled her energy into molding her daughter's behavior. She insisted her only child's education focus on art, music, and deportment, and refused to allow Kate to study subjects like math or science in school, except the bare minimum required by law. As a result, Kate's skill at balancing a checkbook was far below her ability to arrange form and color to produce a final product that was pleasing to the eye.
No, her mother would not be at all sympathetic to Kate's plight, and could not be counted upon to provide assistance. As for friends, Kate had them once, but somehow they all seemed to drift away over the years. She knew why that was, and it was her own fault for allowing it. Erik had always been jealous of Kate's time. He worked long hours under stressful conditions, and expected her to always be available to cater to his needs when he wanted her. That made keeping in touch with friends almost impossible. Of course that suited him just fine; he never liked any of her friends anyway. It had always been his argument that he was devoted to her, and so should be enough to satisfy all of her needs.
To prove his commitment, he had proposed to her in lavish style a few years into their relationship; even though they had been living together for several years. She would never forget their engagement; it had warmed her many times when the realities of their life together left her cold. On her twenty-fifth birthday, he had surprised her with a date of fairy tale splendor. The evening began with him picking her up from their apartment in a horse-drawn carriage and taking her to the fanciest restaurant in town. There he ordered expensive wine and extravagant meals for both of them, and spent the entire time making her feel as if she were the only person in his universe.
They had talked for hours, and he had complimented her both on her looks and on her opinions. She had never felt as beautiful, articulate, or special as she did on that night. After dessert, he pulled a black velvet box out of his coat pocket and got down on one knee before her. Every eye in the restaurant was on them as he explained how much he loved and cherished her and that it was his greatest wish that she would allow him the privilege of doing so for the rest of their lives. Then he had opened the box and revealed a flawless, emerald-cut diamond ring. He had slipped the jewelry onto the ring finger of her left hand as she sat before him speechless, and the stone had covered her entire first knuckle.
The people in the ritzy establishment had applauded and even whistled as she forced her stunned muscles to work and nodded her head in an affirmative answer to his question. He stood, pulling her up with him, and gave her the most tender and passionate kiss she had ever experienced. They rode home together in the back of a luxurious limousine, necking and carrying on like two teenagers on their way home from the prom, and he had actually carried her through the front door of their apartment building and into the elevator.
That night he made love to her as if she were the most precious thing on earth. She actually achieved orgasm, something she had never done with him before or since, and awoke convinced she had found the Prince Charming she would spend the rest of her life with. After he had left for work that morning, she called her mother and told her all about it. Agatha, of course, had been ecstatic, and had pushed for a quick wedding date. But after seven years, one had never materialized.
After that one magical night, Erik had gone back to treating her as he always had. Except that over time his barbs got a little sharper and his demeanor a little chillier. There always seemed to be some condition she needed to meet before he would agree to set a wedding date. No matter what she did, it was never good enough. She was never good enough.
She had bowed to his pressure and followed her mother's advice for years, and things just kept getting worse and worse. With her friends long-gone, it had been easy for him to convince her to give up her charity endeavors one after another. After all, if she wanted to be his wife, she would need to keep her schedule open so that she would be available to meet his needs. Any time she left their apartment, she would first need to gain approval from him for the errand and give him a precise timetable for when she would return. This was, of course, so that he would know where to reach her if he needed her.
Then there was sex. She grimaced just thinking about it. Sex was always to be available to Erik upon demand. If she even thought about refusing or making an excuse, he would treat her coldly for days afterward and threaten to find someone else to meet his needs. It might have been bearable had she enjoyed the sex she had with him, but after the night of their proposal he had never taken any trouble to see to her pleasure. As a result, sex became a chore, something she needed to endure long enough for him to slake his lust on her body. Even that might not have been so bad if he had just wanted a convenient hole to pump himself into, but he began insisting on things that she didn't want to do.
It started with him getting rougher and rougher with her. If she cried out in pain, it just excited him and spurred him to hurt her more. She was afraid to find out what would happen if she complained or told him to stop. But when he suggested asking another woman to join them, she had put her foot down and flatly refused. The result had terrified her.
That was the first time she had told him 'no' in a long time. A look of maniacal fury had filled his eyes, and he flew across the room to grab her. The first blow had surprised her, but she saw it when he drew his fist back to punch her again. She had tried to raise her arms to protect herself, but for all her height, Erik was much stronger than her. He spent several minutes pummeling her, and when he let her go she fell at his feet like a rag doll, sobbing out her fear and horror.
He had stood there looking at her for a few minutes, and then stormed from the room and out of the apartment. After a while, she had collected herself and made her painful way home to her mother. Agatha had taken one look at the bruises that covered her daughter's face and made an immediate trip to the nearest high-end department store. She returned with half the store's inventory of foundation and cover-up cosmetics, and proceeded to instruct Kate on how to conceal the evidence of that and any future beatings her fiancé administered. Not once had her mother entertained the suggestion that Kate should leave Erik, and she had insisted her daughter return to her home with the man immediately.
Hurt and not knowing what else to do, Kate had complied and returned to the apartment she shared with Erik. She never asked her mother for help again. Erik had been waiting for her when she arrived home, and he met her with a gorgeous bouquet of roses, an expensive diamond tennis bracelet, and a sincere-sounding apology. He begged her forgiveness and vowed he would never lay a hand on her in anger again.
Kate knew that wasn't true. She had seen the after-school specials and knew that men who abused their partners didn't stop unless they participated in serious therapy, and even that was no guarantee. Not that she would dare suggest that Erik see a shrink, she could just imagine his reaction and it sent chills down her spine. But she had nowhere else to go. Not believing him, but feeling that she had no choice, Kate had forgiven him.
Of course, that was only the first of many beatings. For a while afterward, Erik had treated her better. He seemed to make an effort to restrain his temper, and had acted as though her happiness mattered to him. Things were good, for a while, and she almost convinced herself that she was wrong. For a while, she thought that maybe, just maybe, he would be the exception. That he really was sorry and would never hit her again. For a while.
But it wasn't all that long before she said something that again made him angry. Just like all the textbooks said, a cycle of him beating her and then apologizing and promising not to do it again repeated over and over. Each iteration of the cycle had a shorter cooling-off period, with the beatings coming more and more frequently. Each time he blamed stress and pressure from work, and each time she forgave him because she didn't know what else to do.
In fact, one of the reasons for their trip to Florida had been so that he would have the opportunity to relax and feel less stressed out. He had told her he needed a vacation, and that the snow and dark skies of a northeast winter made him feel anxious and depressed. Some time off and fun in the sun was all he needed, he insisted, to recharge and get a better handle on his temper.
They had been in Florida for a little over a month, and he had beaten her three times. She had achieved an almost academic detachment, and found it interesting that his apologies had changed. In the past, when he apologized he had taken the blame and promised to change. Now, he was blaming her and suggesting ways for her to change. She became pretty sure it wouldn't be long before he killed her, and had found it quite difficult to muster up any concern over the matter. Until the last beating.
The two of them were staying in a small cottage on the beach. Erik loved the sand and the surf, and the sun just gave his golden skin a little darker tone. Kate had the delicate, fair complexion that matched her fiery red hair, and her skin turned a shade to rival her hair when she spent any time in the sun.
Kate had stayed behind while Erik went out to give his new boogie board a try. Her refusal to come and cheer him on had annoyed him, and she had thought it might be a good idea to do something to mitigate his anger. It occurred to her that if she made him his favorite dinner of scallops and linguini he might be appeased enough to let her lack of enthusiasm for sun worshiping go.
Leaving him a note about where she was going, just in case it took longer than she thought it would, Kate hurried to the market. She figured a quick trip to get the supplies she would need for such a meal, and she might, with luck, be back before he realized she had left. But she hadn't accounted for southern Florida traffic.
By the time she returned, he had been waiting for her for quite some time. As she entered the kitchen to put the groceries away, she noted the stiff, still way he sat in the living room. The television was on and he appeared to be watching some kind of sports game, but his jaw was clenched tight and a tick had started at the corner of his left eye. She knew she was in trouble, but had forged ahead with making the meal. Maybe the smell of the food cooking would help him calm down.
With the garlic, scallions, and mushrooms sizzling in a skillet with butter and olive oil, she set a pot of water to boil for the pasta. The scallops themselves would cook in almost no time, and the pasta was fresh and would take only a couple of minutes. If she timed it perfectly, everything would be done at just about the same time, and would be piping hot and delicious when she served it to him.
Just as she laid the scallops in the pan, he had come up behind her. She jumped when she turned to find him there, but quickly looked away from the icy rage in his eyes. "I'm making your favorite tonight," she had mumbled. "Scallops and linguini in a cream and butter sauce. If you go sit down, it should be ready in just a few minutes and I'll bring it to you."
He had moved closer, caging her against the counter with his body, and she shrank into herself and refused to meet his eyes. He raised one hand and held it, trembling, by her face. As if he intended to cup her cheek. But she knew better.
"Where were you, Kate?" he asked, his voice shaking with suppressed fury. "You weren't here when I got back. I thought you weren't feeling well enough to go out?"
"I-I-I," she stuttered. Swallowing, she forced herself to form coherent words. "I wanted to surprise you. I thought you would like it if I made your favorite dinner."
"You know how upset it makes me when I don't know where you are, Kate. You know I worry when I don't know how to find you." The volume of his voice increased with each sentence. "You know you're supposed to ask me before you go anywhere." He was almost yelling.
Gulping, Kate pointed to where the note still sat on the counter. "I left you a note. I just wanted to do something special for you."
In two strides he went to snatch the note off of the counter and was back, forcing her to huddle against the counter. He crushed the paper in his fist. "You're so fucking stupid, Kate! I don't want a fucking note telling me where you are! I want you to have the fucking guts to tell me yourself!" he screamed into her face.
She had grimaced at the insult and the crude language. "I know, Erik, I'm sorry," she said, trying to pacify him. "I'll try to do better." A weak smile flashed across her face and she pointed at the pan that was still on the stove. "I need to turn the scallops over now, or they'll burn. You don't want your lovely dinner to burn. Why don't you go sit down and let me bring you something nice to eat?" she pleaded.
With a roar he had flung the hot pan and boiling water across the room. Kate had screamed and tried to duck around him to run, but he had grabbed her and slung her to the floor. He kicked her in the ribs. "You stupid, fucking, cunt!" he screamed as he dragged her up and threw her against a wall.
Her head had bounced off of the wall when she hit it, and she had seen stars. She watched as his fist descended, and she had thought that he was finally going to do it. That this was the time when he would finally kill her. She didn't remember much after that until she woke up.
It was unusual for him to knock her out when he beat her, he preferred when she was aware and terrified, so she was a bit disoriented when she came to. She hadn't moved at first, she had only lain there on the floor and listened. Her whole body throbbed in a symphony of pain. She had breathed though her mouth, trying not to whimper, desperate to remain still and silent.
But Erik wasn't there. As she continued to strain her ears for any hint as to his location and mood, she became aware of a rushing sound. It took her a while, but she finally figured out it was just the sound of her own blood moving through her head. It was so still and quiet, that's all there was to hear.
Kate had realized that she had an opportunity, and she needed to take it. For some reason, this beating had shaken loose the apathy that had possessed her for years. She had truly believed that she was going to die, and had realized that she didn't want to. She wasn't ready to die yet. With a new determination, she forced herself to get up off of the floor. It involved a lot of pain and suppressed cries, but eventually she made it to her feet.
She went to the bathroom and washed the blood from her face. Her features were distorted where the contusions Erik had inflicted were already swelling. She decided just to let the wounds show. She felt broken inside, it seemed appropriate for her appearance to match. Moving to the bedroom, she had dug a large suitcase out of the back of the closet.
For years Kate had kept this suitcase packed, and she took it with her whenever she and Erik traveled. She had never opened it before, and he had never asked her about it. A fact for which she was grateful. In the suitcase were all of the clothes she still had from before she moved in with Erik. Ever since she and Erik had started living together, he had paid for all of her expenses, including her clothes. But the clothes in the suitcase were hers. She supposed, on some level, she must have been planning this for a long time.
One of the things that Erik liked to threaten her with any time he thought she might leave, was that if she took any of the things he bought for her, he would have her arrested on charges of theft. With his connections in the legal community, she had little doubt he could follow through on his threat. But the contents of the suitcase hadn't been bought by him.
She had removed her torn, bloody clothing, and changed into some of the clothes that were in the suitcase. For the first time, she was glad she hadn't gained any weight since college. Her preference for classic, timeless garments also stood her in good stead. In spite of the fact that the clothing in the suitcase was over a decade old, it fit her perfectly and wouldn't stand out if she wore it in public.
Removing the engagement ring she had worn for seven years, she left it on the top of the bureau in the bedroom. Then she had gathered up a few other personal items that hadn't been purchased by Erik and called a cab. When the taxi arrived, she had the driver take her to an ATM where she withdrew $500 of the money that her Nana had left for her. It wasn't much to start a life on, but it was too late for the banks to be open and the ATM had a limit. She figured it would be enough to pay for the cab and rent a car so she could get as far away from Erik as possible.
The driver kept throwing furtive looks in rearview mirror at the bruises that decorated her face, but he didn't say anything as he drove her to the car rental agency. The only such business in town that was still open at that late hour had a limited selection of available vehicles. In fact, there was only one, and there was little doubt as to why that particular car had yet to be rented out.
The gentleman who waited on her apologized for the lack of quality, and offered to at least have their service mechanic go over the car when he arrived in the morning. Kate had informed him that she was in a hurry, and would take whatever they had. Casting a quick glance at the wounds on her face and then letting his eyes slide away, the man hadn't argued.
Which was how, she reflected, she had come to be driving in the pouring rain, on a deserted country road, at night, by herself. She had been afraid to take any of the main interstate highways. Not knowing where Erik had gone or when he might return, she didn't know how much time she had before he realized she was gone. Once he did, it seemed likely he would use his connections in law enforcement to have her detained. She didn't want to risk being found.
Before leaving town, she had stopped at an all-night convenience store to fill up the car's gas tank and buy some portable food and beverages. She had also purchased a map, and found the road she was currently on. In theory, it would take her all the way to Georgia. It seemed like a serviceable enough road. Her only real problem with it was that the storm and the lack of streetlights resulted in a stygian effect that created the surreal illusion that she was the only person in the world.
It was funny because she had felt that way for quite some time, but it took a drive through the dark to make her realize it. Oh, Kate had read all of the books. She knew the psychological theories behind domestic abuse. She knew that being able to isolate their victims was one of the key elements that abusers depended on. The texts always made it seem so cut and dried, with clean lines and clear edges, something easily defined, identified, and avoided. But the reality wasn't that simple.
The advice was always the same: leave. But it wasn't that easy to just pick up and leave one's whole life behind. To have nowhere to go, and no idea how to get started with a plan. Even now, Kate didn't have a clue where she was heading. The only thought in her head when she had left was to get away. But get away to where? At the moment, all she knew was that she was heading north. She wanted to see the snow, she was tired of hot, sticky weather.
But she knew she couldn't go home, couldn’t go to the apartment she had shared with Erik. Couldn't even risk going back to the same town. She didn't want him to find her. Seeking help from her mother was also out of the question. So she had followed the advice that all the experts gave to domestic abuse victims, she had left. But she had nowhere to go.
There were supposed to be agencies that would help women who were fleeing from abusers, but where were they? How did one go about making contact with such an agency? Who would she even ask? She couldn't go to the police. If she did, Erik would use that to track her down.
There had been many times when Kate had listened to other women sneer that they would never allow a man to hit them. That if any man ever tried, they would leave. That any woman who put up with such behavior was a fool. She might be a fool, she had certainly been told she was often enough, but Kate also knew it wasn't that simple. Being beaten for so many years had been terrible; it had been awful to always be afraid and have to tiptoe around Erik's moods. But at least it was the devil she knew. Now she was faced with the fear of the unknown.
Even with all of that, Kate knew she was lucky. She had the money Nana had left her, and she didn't have any children. She couldn't even imagine trying to make this trip with kids in tow. Women who managed to escape domestic abuse with their children were amazing, and true heroes. She had no idea how they did it. That kind of strength was beyond her.
The thoughts running around and around through her head were driving her crazy. It was like having a rat in her brain that was gnawing to get out, and she couldn't bear to be alone with them anymore. She reached a trembling hand out to turn on the radio, hoping for something soft and soothing. Feeling lost in the darkness, she needed a message of hope.
Instead, the station the radio was tuned to was playing something loud and jarring. Dangerous sounding. She couldn't take it, and looked away from the road to change the channel. As she fiddled with the radio trying to find music that would help calm her, she kept flicking her eyes up to keep track of where she was going.
All of a sudden, a cat appeared in the cone of illumination thrown out by the headlights. Kate had barely a second to register the half-drowned animal's presence before slamming on the brakes and praying that the car would stop in time. As she skidded across the wet road, one of the tires on the car blew and she lost control. The car careened off the edge of the pavement, and down an embankment into a patch of forest along the side of the road. Kate fought for control and tried steer enough to avoid the trees, but the momentum of the car and gravity carried her deeper and deeper into the woods.
An enormous tree loomed large right in front of the car, and Kate knew she would never avoid it. She threw her arms up over her face to protect her head, and braced herself for the impact and the sound of shattering glass and shearing metal. It never came. Instead, the light from the headlights seemed to be swallowed up into a well of darkness, and the car started spinning. The vehicle spiraled faster and faster, making Kate dizzy and disorienting her even more. Pressure began to build in her head, and just when she thought her eyes were going to explode out of their sockets, her world seemed to shatter and everything went dark.