In the Shadow of Death: Chapter Seven

In The Shadow

<<<<< BACK TO CH. 6

That familiar ache that began just behind the eyes woke Scarlett just after 3 a.m.  She called it “The Ache of Inspiration,” and it always happened at the most inopportune times.  Once she had lost a boyfriend because she’d been overcome by the muses in the middle of a moment of passion.  She still laughed, thinking of the look on his face when she’d suddenly left the room and began painting, completely naked.  But what no one understood was that it wasn’t her choice.  Once that spark of inspiration hit, she had no choice but to answer its call.  It was a demanding lover that did not wait, and it did not matter if she were sleeping, taking a bath or standing in line at the grocery store.

Scarlett rose from the bed and stumbled around, still weary from the Halcion and sleep.  As she groped around in the dark for the light switch, she kicked something that crackled like old newspaper.  The shopping bag full of clothes Raze had bought for her.  It hadn’t been there before.  She assumed it was still down in the studio space.  He must have set it down in her room earlier when she’d been pretending to sleep.  She grabbed it up and began rifling through, looking for something to wear.  She pulled on a pair of snug fitting jeans that sat low on her hips, but all of the shirts she’d purchased weren’t exactly painting attire.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a large wardrobe that sat in the corner.  She opened it up to find a large television and stereo system on the top shelf where one might have once hung clothes.  There were three deep drawers below the shelf and Scarlett opened each one, looking for anything that might be of use.  She finally got lucky, finding an old sweatshirt folded neatly in the bottom drawer.  As soon as she pulled it over her head, she could tell it belonged to Raze.  It swallowed her small frame.  She could smell him all over it and her stomach fluttered.  With a sigh of frustration, she gathered her hair into a low ponytail and tied it behind her head.

Opening the door slowly, Scarlett slipped out of the room and sneaked down the hall toward the stairs.  She peered at Raze’s room as she passed and could see a soft light coming from under the door, as if from a television set that had been left on in the dark.  She bit her lip and tiptoed past, praying that the floor wouldn’t creak.  She didn’t know how she was going to face him in the morning and it wasn’t something that she could work out right now.  Now she had work to do.

Scarlett breathed a sigh of relief as she made it down the stairs soundlessly.  She’d just stop in the kitchen and make herself a cup of coffee, but when she came around the corner, she saw that Geoffrey was standing at the counter.  The old man was in his pajamas and moved slowly around the room, making a pot of coffee.  She started to derail and go on out the door, but it was too late.  “Miss Munro,” he called.  “What are you doing up?”

“Good morning, Geoffrey… or… well, it’s not quite morning yet.”  She smiled and joined him in the kitchen.  “I might ask you the same question.”

“The old don’t sleep much, young lady,” he said, pouring water into the back of the coffeepot.  “But you’re far too young for such maladies.”  He turned, giving a knowing smile and setting a cup down in front of her.  “The coffee will be done in just a minute.  Sit.”

Scarlett obeyed and watched him for a few more minutes as he flitted around the kitchen, gathering sugar bowls and cream.  He seemed to be pretty spry for his age. He was obviously at least in his seventies, yet he moved like a man with boundless energy.  “So Geoffrey… how long have you been with Raze?”

“Quite some time, Miss.  He’s been quite good to me over the years.”  He came over to the counter and poured Scarlett a cup.  “Cream and sugar?”

“Yes, please,” she replied.  She prepared her coffee, watching the cream swirl around in the dark liquid.  “He seems like a nice man.”

“Of course.  Raze has always been the compassionate sort.”

“So you’ve known him for a long time?” she asked.

“In a manner of speaking.”  He seemed to hesitate a moment, as if he were planning each word very carefully.  Scarlett could tell that he was hiding something, though what it might be she couldn’t imagine.  Constantine was like some kind of billionaire boy scout.  At least, according to everything she’d read about him.  She smiled behind her coffee cup as she took a sip.  Perhaps there were some skeletons in his closet.

“How old is he?”

Geoffrey chuckled.  “Much older than you think.”

“Oh he can’t possibly be more than thirty-five or forty at the outside.”

The older man smirked, but did not respond.  “I’m afraid Mr. Constantine is somewhat of an enigma to us all.  I only know what I have observed of him.  As I’m sure you’ve noticed, he doesn’t confide much.”

“No kidding,” she grumbled.

“Just because a man doesn’t say a thing, doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel it.”

“I just wish I understood him a bit more.”  Scarlett sighed, resting her chin on her hands as she leaned against the counter.  “I mean, I’ve been here for a couple of days now and I still don’t know what he wants with me.  The paintings, of course, but there seems to be something more.”

“Raze has always felt a need to seek out those with no hope and help them find it.  He loves your melancholy, though he wishes to take it away.  Your art speaks to him in a way he’s never known.  He understands you, Miss Munro.  Though you may not know it just yet.”

“But why?  No one has ever understood me or even wanted to try,” she said.  “And I learned a long time ago not to open myself up.  Baring your weaknesses and fears to the world only makes them vulnerable to exploitation.”

“You think Mr. Constantine means to exploit you?”

“No, I don’t.  That’s what’s so frightening.  You see, everyone in my life, as long as I can remember, has wanted something from me.  Sex, money, adoration… but I can’t figure out what it is that he wants from me.  Whatever it is… I’m terrified I won’t be able to deliver.”

“Perhaps there is nothing.  Perhaps it is he that wants to give to you.”  Geoffrey smiled and topped off her cup of coffee.  “There you are.  Now… off you go.  I can sense the urgency of inspiration radiating off of you.”

Scarlett returned his smile.  Though she did feel her muses shouting in her head, she wished for a moment that she could stay here with Geoffrey.  He made her feel comforted like an old grandfather or favorite uncle.  “Yes, I suppose I’d better get started before I fall asleep again.”  She stood up and went toward the door.  “Thanks again for the coffee.”  Geoffrey nodded and waved goodbye, leaving her to puzzle over his words.

****

As soon as she was gone, Gabriel shed the image of the old man in seconds.  The gray hair and wrinkled skin dissipated like smoke and she stretched, glad to be rid of such a meager form.  Strangely, she could see why Azrael was so taken with this human.  She had a fire that was quite unexpected for one in her position.  Gabriel wished she could hate her.  Scarlett had cost her the only love she would ever know.  Angels weren’t supposed to fall in love with humans.  It just wasn’t done, but Azrael had fallen in love with Scarlett’s soul to such a degree that it had become an obsession.  Thousands of human years passed and he followed her through lifetime after lifetime.  Gabriel’s heart ached when she thought of it. The letting go.  The realization of the fact that he could never love her as he loved this flawed, pathetic human.

 

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In the Shadow of Death: Chapter Six

In The Shadow

“It really is a gorgeous night, tonight,” Scarlett remarked.  “Initially I’d thought you were insane to want to walk.”  The air was crisp and clear.  Overhead were a billion stars, twinkling around a misty moon.  Definitely not what she had expected from a city purported to be dreary and gray.  There was no snow, but the crunch of autumn leaves under their feet was a worthy substitute as they made their way down the sidewalk back towards RazCon Towers.  The doors of a tiny jazz club were open and they could hear the soft, lazy strains of a saxophone and piano playing.  After dinner, he’d taken her to a small clothing shop that specialized in restored vintage pieces.  She came out of the shop with three pairs of jeans, several tops and the clunky leather boots of her dreams.  Even better, when she’d gone to the register to pay, he pushed her out of the way and handed over his credit card, despite her protesting.  She nearly laughed at the absurdity of how the evening seemed to come straight out of some silly romance novel.

“I rather like the cold,” he replied.  “Everything just seems brighter.  Especially at night.”  He looked up at the sky, casting his elegant profile against the moon.  His eyes were closed and she could see the feathery eyelashes that lay against his cheek.  The moonlight bounced off of the lines and curves of his face and again she was struck by his extraordinary beauty.  Even in the cold of the evening, he sent a blast of heat straight to her center and she shuddered visibly.  He noticed and stopped.  “Are you chilled?  I didn’t think about your not having a coat.”

“I’m alright,” she replied, crossing her arms over her chest and hugging herself against the chill.  “I was silly not to bring it.”

“I agree,” he said dryly.  He took his jacket off and wrapped it around her shoulders.  It swallowed her frame and she pulled it tightly around herself.  It was warm with the body heat that lingered.  Inhaling deeply, she could smell him all over it.  A woodsy scent, clean and pure like the unspoiled snow that gathers on the uppermost branches of a cedar tree that mixed with the earthy smell of the leather.  A distinctly male scent that made Scarlett tingly all over.  “Whatever are we going to do with you, little one?” he teased.

Something inappropriate almost escaped her lips, but she caught it in time, covering with a tiny cough.  “Sorry… a tickle in my throat,” she said.  “But don’t bother trying to save me.  People have been trying for years.  I’m surprised David didn’t tell you that.”

“He did, in his own way I suppose.”  He took her hand and Scarlett inhaled sharply, almost startled by his action.  “Your hands are like ice.  We should get you inside.”  He said little as they continued down the street.  People passed them by with knowing smiles.  She even heard his name whispered and caught a few hungry stares.  It made her feel both smug and self-conscious.  All those feelings of not being attractive enough or seeming awkward rushed into her cheeks with a flush of heat.  She curled a little closer into his side and began to walk faster.  She wanted out of the street.  She didn’t want to be stared at anymore tonight.  The drugs had made her lazy and she was nearly frozen to the bone.

He didn’t speak again until they were standing at the small private elevator, waiting for it to arrive in the lobby.  “Since we’re down here, would you like to see the studio?”

Scarlett’s heart leapt and her face lit up with an excited smile.  “Yes, please!” she exclaimed eagerly.  The thought of getting back to painting was exhilarating.  Already she’d begun to feel that familiar itch in the back of her mind.  She supposed it sounded ridiculous and pretentious, but at times she felt so inspired that it became a necessity to get something down on the canvas.

He returned her smile and held the elevator door as it opened before them.  “Then by all means, let’s not keep you waiting.”  A few minutes later, the doors opened into another foyer, much like the one downstairs, except the reception desk was a bit smaller.  “I put it here on the floor with my office because there was a lot of empty space up here.  My secretary, Leilah, will be glad to help you if you need anything.”  He pointed to the large doors behind her desk.  “That’s my office there.”

“Very Bruce Wayne,” she joked.

“I can assure you I don’t own any bat costumes or drive a funny car,” he chuckled, leading her down the hallway off to the right.  “Your keycard will open the door and only yours.  I don’t even have access unless you invite me.”

Scarlett’s eyes went wide.  “You don’t have to do that. I mean, it is your building.”

“Nonsense.  Art is a very private and personal business.  I don’t want you to feel that you have to worry about my spying.  Not that I ever would.”  He held his hand out.  “So go ahead.  Try your key.”

Scarlett swiped the card on the box at the side of the doorknob, eliciting an angry beep from the machine.  “Oops… I don’t think it likes me.”

“Nonsense.  Try again.”  She obeyed, getting the same glaring red “No access” message.

“I must be doing something wrong,” she said, feeling a little embarrassed that she couldn’t swipe a card effectively.

Raze reached out and took the hand that held the card.  He was close behind her and she could feel his breath on her neck as he leaned over her shoulder.  “There’s a trick to it,” he said, guiding her hand to swipe the card in a slow and steady movement.  “You can’t do it too fast.”  Immediately the card reader gave a happy chirp and she heard the lock click open.  “See there,” he murmured.

“You make it seem so easy,” she said, trying to mask the lust in her voice.  She couldn’t help it.  She was drawn to this man.  Something about his voice, his movement, it spoke to her most primal stirrings.

“I’m just used to it.  Shall we?” he pushed the door open, stepping aside so that she could walk inside.  The room was a wide space, nearly bare.  Like the penthouse, there were shiny hardwood floors and a bank of windows down one side of the room.  Rows of shelves and cabinets ran down another wall.  Some of the shelves had been filled with supplies:  brushes, palettes, bottles of paint and cleaners and a compact stereo system.  “Is it alright?” he asked.

Scarlett wandered about the room, tracing her fingertips along the wooden shelving that had been built into the wall.  “Of course it is,” she said.  “You seemed to think of everything.”

“Well, I did have a little help from David.  He’s the one that told me to make sure you had a stereo system.  Though, I didn’t buy canvases or a lot of paint.  I thought you might need to pick those things for yourself.”

“Thanks… I’m a little particular.”  Nestled in the corner of the room, by the large windows, was a fluffy couch and a drawing table with stool.  “But it’s just… too much.  You’ve done too much.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like you know everything I want before I’ve even said it.”

“Everything you need, you mean?”  He strolled toward her, his movements almost predatory.  “As I told you before, I’ve been watching you for a very long time, Scarlett.  Be rest assured that there is very little that can be hidden from me.”  She turned as he approached, backing her against the wall.  His scent assaulted her again and her face flushed red.  “Tell me, do you like it?”

“Yes,” she stammered, looking up into his face.  “Thank you.”

He nodded.  Those steely eyes were fixed on hers and she searched them for any sign of teasing.  “Then you can start in the morning.  Yes?”

She nodded, her voice barely a whisper.  “Yes.”  She was nearly panting with him so close.  He was so intimidating and dripping with sensuality.  She knew that she would do anything he asked and that he delighted in that power he held over her.  “I mean… whenever you like.”

“As it pleases you,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers.  “Though I must warn you, I can be impatient at times.  More of that always getting what I want thing.”

“Do you?”

“Do I what, Scarlett?”  She shivered when he said her name.  Something about the way it rolled off his tongue.

“Always get what you want?” she asked nervously.

“Always.”

“An interesting concept,” she said.  “And what is it that you want from me?”

“Everything.”

Scarlett’s heart fluttered hard against her sternum, sending waves of desire all over her body.  A throb deep in her sex nearly made her moan, but she managed to stifle it just in time.  She wasn’t certain, but she was almost sure that he knew exactly how much of an effect he was having on her.  “You know…” she stammered.  “I haven’t had the chance to thank you.  You’ve gone to a great deal of trouble for me.”

“Think nothing of it.”  His lips were close to her brow.  So close that she could feel them graze lightly against her skin.  All she need do was turn her head slightly and they would touch.  “As I told you last night, I have every intention of protecting my investment.”

The air between them was heavy and thick.  Scarlett felt that they were on the verge of something, but she wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen.  Staring up at his face she examined the lines of his lips and the sharp contours of his cheekbones that stood out in the heavy shadow.  Before she knew what was happening she had stretched upward, brushing her lips across his.  When he didn’t protest, she kissed him again, this time letting her lips linger against his mouth.  His arms slid around her waist and pulled her close.  One hand slipped up her side, cupping her jaw gently as he pulled her in again.  His mouth closed over hers.  He parted her lips with the tip of his tongue, teasing it inside.  She accepted him eagerly with soft sighs, letting him nibble and bite.  He pulled back slightly, but she held fast, keeping her body melded to his as she placed kisses over his mouth and cheek.  The taste of his skin, the rhythm of his breath, took her arousal to a fever pitch and she found herself pressing her center against him.  “Scarlett…” he murmured between kisses.  He wove his fingers into her hair, pulling her head back and breaking their kiss.  “We can’t do this, Scarlett.”

“Why not?” she whimpered.  She tried to capture his mouth again, but he held her against the wall.

“I didn’t bring you here to seduce you,” he said, his expression going stoic.  “Let’s not do something we might both regret.”

“But I…” she stammered.  She wanted to say more, something that would convince him to go on, but the words died in her throat and she backed down.  “You’re right, of course.  We shouldn’t be doing this.  I seem to have a terrible way of mixing business and pleasure.”  Her eyes narrowed and she gazed at his face, searching for any signs of crumbling resistance, but he only looked away.  “It won’t happen again.”  She pushed past him and rushed to the door.   She could feel the tears stinging the corners of her eyes and she didn’t want to cry in front of him.  “I’ll see you upstairs.  I should call David.”

“Scarlett,” he began, crossing the room in two strides to catch up.  “Don’t be angry…”

She paused at the door, refusing to turn and look him in the eye. “Nonsense.  Why would I be angry?  Obviously I had too much wine at dinner and it got the better of me, that’s all.  Lucky you were here to stop me before I did something really crazy.”  She gave a fake chuckle and walked away, praying that her keycard would work this time.

Raze had the good sense not to follow her and after only two attempts at using the card, the doors to the elevator opened.  She didn’t wait for him and rode the elevator up to the penthouse, pressing the floor button several times as if it would make the machine travel faster.  When it arrived on the top floor, she rushed through the doors and up the stairs to her room.  When the door was safely closed, Scarlett collapsed on the bed and let go the tears that had been threatening to fall.  How could she have been so stupid?  Why would someone like Raze Constantine want her?  He was intelligent, successful and classy.  Of course he saw her as some kind of junkie charity case.  She was probably just another project, like that school in Africa.  Save the little junkie artist girl.  She gave a bitter laugh.  “Maybe he could have a telethon,” she said to the empty room.

Her purse fell open when she fell down on the bed and one of the pill bottles rolled out and onto the floor.  She reached down and picked it up.  She could be the junkie artist girl, if that’s what he wanted.  Two tiny pills and she might be able to sleep and forget all about Mr. Constantine and his kissing abilities.  Two Halcion and her angel might visit her dreams, making everything go away.  Popping the lid off with one hand, she shook two pills out onto the coverlet.  The little blue pills blended in to the silvery pattern on the bed, but she scooped them up with shaking fingers.  She put them on her tongue, holding them there until she could get into the bathroom to scoop water from the sink into her mouth to wash them down.

Scarlett leaned against the counter, staring at herself in the mirror.  Her makeup had begun to wear and dark circles loomed under her eyes.  Her cheekbones stood out in harsh relief and she rubbed her hands over them.  She didn’t eat much, these days.  She was too thin, almost gaunt.  It was true what Raze had said.  Her obsessions were getting harder to hide.  “Fuck it,” she growled at the mirror, turning the light off and walking into the bedroom.  She shed her clothes, leaving them strewn around the floor, until she stood naked.  She could feel the drugs creeping into her system, bathing her brain in a hazy kind of relief.  Her extremities felt heavy and her eyes were closing against her will as she lay down on the bed.  She sank into the depths of the feather mattress, pulling the comforter around her.

Downstairs, she heard the elevator doors open and Raze’s footfalls on the floor.  She wondered for a moment if he would call out for her, but he was silent.  His boots made a low thud on the stairs as he walked up.  Scarlett panicked for a moment, sure that he was going to come inside.  She pulled the covers over her head and peered out from under them.  If she pretended to be asleep, he wouldn’t stop.  The footsteps stopped outside her door and Scarlett’s body tensed.  Slowly, the door opened, a blade of light slicing the room in half.  Raze peered inside, but he said nothing.  Then, just as quickly, he was gone.

In the Shadow of Death: Chapter Five

WARNING: This part contains drug use and explicit sexual content.

In The Shadow

<<<< Chapter Four

You can tell a lot about a man by the way he drives a car.  That was one of the only bits of accurate wisdom Scarlett’s mother had ever given her.  Men that drove sloppily were doomed to be sloppy in life, bumbling in and out of jobs, relationships and problems.  Raze Constantine drove smooth and fast like the burning undulations of a tattoo machine, weaving in and out of traffic.  Never once in their ten mile journey across town in his sleek black Mercedes did he have to slam on brakes.  He even managed to point out landmarks along the way.  Strangely though, Scarlett never feared for a moment that they wouldn’t make it to their destination.

Pulling over abruptly, they stopped in front of a large, silvery high-rise.  The architecture was ultra-modern with sleek points and curves.  A stately gentleman in a suit opened her door and held it as she got out.  Scarlett blushed in spite of herself, being unaccustomed to having people wait on her and slightly embarrassed at her one little suitcase that the doorman retrieved out of the trunk.  “I’ll take that, Andrew,” he said, taking the suitcase.  Scarlett waited for him obediently on the sidewalk, waves of uncertainty rolling around in her belly.  She leaned back, looking up at the building that loomed before her and realizing that she could not see the top.  The spires disappeared into the clouds like Jack’s beanstalk.  “Welcome to RazCon,” he said in her ear, startling her with his sudden closeness.

“I guess I didn’t know what you meant about towers,” Scarlett sighed.

He chuckled and took her hand.  She stared down at it, shocked at the intimacy of this small gesture.  “You’ll get used to it.  Which reminds me…” He dropped her hand a moment and went into the breast pocket on his shirt.  “You’ll need this.” He handed her a small card with her picture and a magnetic strip.  “It’s a keycard.  It will open almost any door in the building.  Of course most of them you’ll have no need to open, but I wanted you to have full access.  It should also get you past the concierge after hours, should you be coming in alone.  Just don’t lose it.  I’d have to change all the locks.”  He grinned and winked playfully as she took it.

“I’ll keep it safe,” she promised.

“Good,” he replied, taking her arm and weaving it through his.  “Come on, I’ll show you the penthouse and then you can come down and see the studio.”

Scarlett was all eyes as they entered through the enormous revolving doors and into the vast lobby of RazCon Towers.  Men and women dressed in smart suits and shiny shoes rushed this way and that, swinging their briefcases.  A row of glass elevators framed the reception desk seeming to run up and down in an endless stream carrying people from one floor to the next.  The floors beneath their feet were polished gray marble that sparkled in the sun streaming through the windows surrounding the lobby.   She felt so… shabby, walking through this place and she instinctively curled into Raze’s side.  “It’s beautiful,” she said, allowing him to lead her past the reception desk and the bank of elevators.  For a moment she was afraid that he would take them up the stairs and she just didn’t think she could climb to the top floor of this place, but he stopped at a smaller elevator on the far end of the hall and swiped his keycard.  The doors opened and he motioned her inside.

Their long journey on the elevator ended on the 60th floor and the doors opened into the foyer of what could only be the penthouse Raze had spoken of.  To say that it was the picture of opulence would be an understatement, but it was in no way sterile.  The dark wood floors were covered with lush rugs in deep colors of rust and wine.  One entire wall was glass, looking out over London, and it curved with the dome at the top of the building.  In one corner, an enormous dark- finish grand piano stood proudly over the miraculous view.  “Do you play?” she asked, pointing at the instrument.

“A little from time to time.  I’m afraid I don’t have as much free time these days as I’d like,” he replied.  Deep leather couches and chaises were strewn about the room in a couple of casual seating areas.  Some arranged by the fireplace, others pointed toward the flat screen television that hung like a painting over a barrister styled bookcase.  A tray had been left on the ottoman in front of the large couch and, upon inspection, Scarlett could see that it held the remains of Raze’s coffee and a half-eaten omelet.  On one end of the apartment, a half-wall separated the kitchen from what served as the dining room.  She could see that beyond the kitchen was a door leading onto a balcony that she imagined would extend around the entire place.  “This is breathtaking,” she commented.  “I never thought that an apartment could be so… large.”

“It’s comfortable.  I figured that if I had to live where I work, then the living space could be as luxurious as I wanted.”  She wandered into the living room, trying to keep from gawking at this place she would be calling home for the foreseeable future.  The room was warm and a fresh fire had been started in the fireplace, giving off a scent that conjured images of autumn and home.  “Through the doorway there is the kitchen.  I have a housekeeper that comes in each day and cooks, but you’re welcome to anything that’s there.  And of course if there’s anything you’d like in the way of groceries, she goes to the market every couple of days.  Just write it down on the list by the fridge.”  The kitchen looked like something out of House Beautiful or Epicurious.  Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances gave the appearance of a restaurant quality kitchen.  “Would you like some coffee?  I made a fresh pot earlier that should still be hot.”

“No thanks.  Maybe in a little while,” she replied, peeking out the glass door and onto the balcony.  “Does the balcony go all the way around?”

“Not all the way.  Come, I’ll show you.”  He led her out of the glass door and onto a patio that looked like a secret garden, suspended a thousand feet in the air.  There was a small swimming pool there with a couple of comfy-looking chaises and umbrellas beside it.  “This place is wonderful for night swimming.  You don’t need a suit.  No one can see you at this height.”  Scarlett’s stomach flipped over again, imagining Raze swimming naked in this pool.  Though his face had gentle lines of age creasing his brow and around his eyes, he wore it well.  For a moment she wondered what his body looked like underneath those clothes.  She could tell that there were sharp angles there and elongated lines, but she wanted to feel the musculature underneath.  She could feel his strength in the hand that held hers.  Surely he was no less than an Adonis.

“I wouldn’t think it would ever be warm enough to swim on the roof in London,” she joked nervously.  The gray sky overhead certainly seemed to suggest her accuracy.

“The pool is heated, you silly girl,” he teased.  “And if you still need warmth there are propane torches.” He laughed.  “You Americans and your delicate constitution.”  He tugged her arm gently and led her back inside.  Through the kitchen and living room, Scarlett noticed that there were vaulted ceilings and a gallery overhead that must lead to the sleeping areas.  A polished oak staircase led upstairs.  Raze paused at the door and grabbed her suitcase, so she assumed that she would at least have a room of her own.  “Up here there are two suites, each with a private bath.  Yours is to the right.”  He pointed the way with his arm, gesturing for her to go first.

From the moment she stepped through, she felt at home.  Perhaps more than she ever had before.  Scarlett’s life had always been turbulent and she never felt that she had a place of refuge, but everything about the guest suite in this decadent palace invited her in.  The bed was an expanse of fluffy pillows in shades of champagne and pewter. A large window to one side looked out onto the patio she’d seen earlier.  In fact, she could see the swimming pool and she blushed at the possibility of late-night spying.  There was a small glass fireplace built into the wall that separated the bedroom from the bath.  A ceiling fan turned slowly overhead with a soft light emanating from its center.  “Is this alright?  I mean, I hadn’t had this room furnished until now.  Last week it was a storage room with an exercise machine and lots of my old clothes strewn about.  If it’s not to your liking, we can always call the decorator back.”  His voice was so eager, as if he were truly anxious that she would not feel contented here.  But how could she not.  Though the room was a bit more masculine than she would have designed for herself, it was beautiful and near-perfect.

“No.  I can’t imagine a more wonderful place.  Thank you for going to so much trouble for me.”  She tried to look up into his eyes, but found that she could not do it.  In fact, her heart pounded in her chest at the prospect.

“As you mentioned last night, you’re going to be here for quite some time.  I want you to be comfortable.  Please feel free to help yourself to anything here.  Food, appliances, books… whatever you need.  I’m afraid I’m not here very much.  There may be days when you don’t see me at all and I frequently have to travel on business.  But the housekeeper, Mrs. Krauss and of course Geoffrey, will be here to keep you company.”

“Do they both live here?”

“Geoffrey does.  His room is downstairs past the dining room.  Mrs. Krauss lives here in London with her husband.  She arrives at 6 in the morning and is usually gone by afternoon, though she will stay and prepare a special meal if I ask.”

“I don’t mind cooking,” she murmured.  “Though I wouldn’t presume to know what you’d like.”  A smile played on the corners of her mouth.

“I’m not that hard to please,” he replied with a chuckle that let her know that he’d caught her little joke.  “As long as you don’t burn the place down.”  Then there was an awkward silence.  He stood there, shifting from one foot to the other with his hands shoved down into his pockets, looking almost boyish.  “Well, I suppose I’ll leave you to get settled,” he said.  “I’ll just go do some work.  In my office.  Here in the house.  We can go down to see the studio later if you like.”

“Thank you,” she said, offering a smile.  “I’d like to see it.”  He nodded and went back downstairs, leaving her alone.  She closed the door behind him and collapsed against it.  Soon she was giggling like a schoolgirl.  It was a nervous laughter, but also one of complete exhilaration.  What on Earth had she done to deserve this?  She couldn’t help but think that the other shoe was about to drop any second.  She was so used to seemingly good things in her life suddenly blowing up in her face. Why should this be any different?  Would Raze turn out to be some kind of pervert billionaire?  Or worse, some psycho who would hold her hostage here in his tower like a Rapunzel for the 21st Century?  Although, even Rapunzel couldn’t complain about such a tower.  It was like she had fallen into a fairy tale, even if the prince was somewhat mysterious.

It took only a few minutes to unpack her suitcase and put it into the back of her closet.  Looking at the few things hanging there, she suddenly realized that she had packed for a couple of days in London, not a couple of months.  Perhaps later she could walk down to some of the surrounding shops and at least buy some underwear.  The lack of underwear made her think of David.  “Shit, he’s probably worried sick that he hasn’t heard from me.”  She fished her cellphone out of her jacket pocket and switched it on, expecting to find several missed calls.  There was nothing.  “Hmm… that’s odd,” she murmured.  David usually behaved like her nursemaid.  Constantly keeping tabs on her behavior and telling her what to do.  Sometimes she felt more like his naughty child than his client.  It could be annoying at times, but sadly, she felt that he was the only person on Earth that truly cared for her and that made him worthy of her consideration.  She scrolled through her contacts until she found his name.  She pressed the ‘send’ button, but nothing happened.  Putting the phone up to her ear, there was nothing but silence.  She tried it again, but with the same result.  “Damnit,” she sighed, punching the number on the touchscreen manually.  This time all she got was a message telling her that she would need an international calling code.  She let out a growl of frustration and tossed the phone aside.  “Put a cellphone on the shopping list as well,” she grumbled, falling backward onto the bed and letting the jetlag get a hold of her once more.

****

His cool hand slid along her thigh, the most delicate of touches.  She trembled beneath him, but she was not afraid and the cool of his skin was comforting.  Her chest heaved and she felt for a moment that she would cease to breathe, but she did not.  The air was so thick.  Sliding higher, carefully avoiding her sex, his fingertips traced the inside of her thigh and up to the crease where her leg met the torso.  “I’ve waited so long for you.”  His voice was so far away, yet it echoed around her, so smooth but with a hardened edge that could turn from sensual to frightening in the space of a word.  The nuances went straight to her sex and for a moment there was an intense heat.  A burning that was almost painful and she opened her thighs slightly to cool it.  “Alone and melancholy.”  He breathed over her sex and she could see it plume from between his lips like the smoke of a fiery dragon.  Again she tried to move, but a firm hand placed on her hip prevented it. She was welded to the spot and she whimpered at being bound so.  She strained her neck to see him, but only caught the top of his head as it dipped between her thighs once more.  This time he stayed and the moist heat of his mouth closed over her opening.  She cried out into the viscous darkness and heard the muffled sound.  The ends of his hair tickled her thighs as he nuzzled his nose against the soft curls that covered the swollen lips of her sex.  Then there was another sensation as his fingertips moved over the labia, rubbing in gentle circles that made her throb deep within.  Without the slightest touch, she could feel herself open up as if her body was reaching out to him.  She felt so empty inside and the warmth he offered would fill her up.  She’d never be sad or wanting again.  She tried to speak to him, but that oily, thick darkness swallowed up her words.

He parted the tiny nether lips, covered with slick dew, with the tips of his fingers and then kissed her sex fully as if it were a ravenous little mouth.  Pushing his tongue inside, her inner muscles pulled and squeezed, as if they wanted to pull the rest of him into her.  However, he was strong and teased her well, letting just the tip of the tiny muscular organ slide into her depths.  A gentle largo rhythm that mimicked his cock, pressing in a little deeper each time until she was reaching down to grab at the golden strands of his hair.  To pull him away or push him inside further, she wasn’t quite sure.  The pleasure he inflicted was sharp and almost painful but she craved it.  The gentle suction of his mouth with every breath he took drove her further and further toward the edge.  She tried to call out his name, but the words died once more and she whimpered with frustration, closing her eyes against the tears.

All too soon, he pulled back and began weaving a trail of kisses over her thighs and belly, then tracing around each nipple before arriving at her neck.  His breath hovered against her throat and he kissed gently.  She wanted to open her eyes to see him, but she couldn’t.  It was as if something held them closed.  Working his way higher, he kissed her mouth.  She could taste her essence on his lips and the bitter taste made her hungry for him.  Opening her mouth to him, they kissed deeply.  Every breath she took was one he had given with his own lungs.  It was both suffocating and sensual.  The thought that he was all that kept her alive.

“You’re mine, Scarlett.  Body and soul.”  The words were familiar and she opened her eyes.

Azrael raised up over her, his skeletal wings sprouting from between his shoulder blades with a grotesque ripping sound. She stared into his face as it changed from Raze to a death’s head.  She screamed as he smiled to reveal glistening fangs, dripping with blood.  “Body and soul,” he growled, tearing at her throat.

****

Scarlett sat straight up, a scream ripping from her chest so pugnaciously that she could feel it burning in the back of her throat.  When she opened her eyes, the room was near dark in the fading twilight.  For a moment she didn’t remember where she was, but the clean scent of the room seemed to orient her.  She rubbed her head, still aching from the violence of her dream.  How long had she slept?  And what had brought on such a nightmare?  Putting a hand to her throat, she rubbed it absently.  Some part of her almost believed that she would find a gaping wound there where the angel had torn at her neck.  Her angel… or was it Raze?  Like dreams sometimes do, it had already begun to fade.  Had it been Raze in her dream?  Everything had been so blurry.  The sensual way in which he’d touched her and then the savage brutality…She’d been dreaming of her angel since the night she’d almost died, but he’d never sprouted fangs and tried to kill her.  She rolled over and pulled herself to her feet, trying to get her bearings.  She could feel the dull ache deep in her belly that heralded a crash from the pills she’d had that morning.  Hopefully she could find her purse and stop the ache before it moved into her head, making her feel sick and feverish.  She was unsteady as she groped around the room, looking for the light switch.

“Are you alright?”  Raze burst into the room looking as if he’d been asleep himself.  “I heard you screaming!”

She jumped, hearing his voice so suddenly.  She turned, his body closer than she had thought.  Their eyes met momentarily and she felt the flush glowing in her cheeks.  Seeing him so close, there was no doubt that he had been her demon lover.  “Yes, I’m fine.”  She smiled sheepishly and squinted as he flipped the light on.  “I must have been dreaming.”

“Evidently,” he panted.  “You scared me half to death.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No… no need.  I was just worried for a moment.”  He pushed his hands through his hair, making it stand out in messy spikes.  “I see you’ve gotten settled.”

“Pretty much,” Scarlett replied.  “Though I was reminded of the fact that I only packed for a few days.  I don’t suppose there’s someplace around here where I might pick up a few things.  I’m afraid David packed my suitcase with every impractical thing in my closet.”

Raze chuckled.  “Of course.”  He looked down at his watch and shook his head.  “It seems your jetlag caught up to you.”

“Yeah, I didn’t intend to stay asleep so long,” she said, looking around for her purse.  “I hope you weren’t waiting for me.”

He smiled.  “Not at all.  I actually went down for a meeting and did some work in my office.  Tried to look important.”

Scarlett giggled and spied her purse strap sticking out from under the bed. “Looking important is a good thing.”  She reached down, taking hold of the strap and tugging the bag out and clutching it to her chest.  “Whew… I thought I had left this back at the hotel,” she lied.  The contract had specifically stated that she wasn’t to have any sort of drugs on her.  Somehow she’d have to get rid of him before she could quell the junkie beast within.  “I’d be lost without it.  No cell phone, you know.”

He smirked and nodded toward the nightstand.  “Your cell phone is there.  Not that it will work here anyway.  Unless it’s an international, of course.”

“I was wondering why it wouldn’t work.  I needed to call David.”

“You can use the phone downstairs, for now.  The calling code is written on the pad beside it.”

Scarlett nodded.  “Thanks.”  She nibbled on her lower lip, a nervous habit she had when she was lying.

“Look, since it’s so late, why don’t we save the studio tour ‘til the morning and we can go and have dinner together.  I’ll be glad to take you someplace to find something more casual to wear.”

“Thank you,” she said again, her heart pounding.  “Just give me a second.  You know, to freshen up.”

“Of course.  I’ll just go down and wait for you.”

As soon as he was gone, Scarlett upended her purse and poured the contents onto the bed.  Several prescription bottles fell out and she gathered them up, examining the labels.  Her hands still shook from the fear she’d felt just after the nightmare, making it difficult to focus on the tiny print.  Not to mention that her body was crying out for a fix.  She struggled to open one of the bottles, and when she finally did the pills sprayed over the comforter.  Grabbing a couple, she swallowed them dry, exhaling with slow relief.  In just a moment she’d be fine.  No avenging angel wearing the guise of Raze Constantine.  No more doubt and fear.  She would drown them all in a swirling mist of intoxication.  Slowly she sank to the bed, feeling her heartbeat slow down and her muscles quiet.  A blessed tranquility wrapped itself around her, driving her fears and imagined inadequacies away.  Just a few more moments and she could fly.

In the Shadow of Death: Chapter Four

Hey kids! Sorry this has taken so long to get up here. It’s been a crazy busy summer. I hope you enjoy… 

In The Shadow

Sleep had been an elusive friend and so finally around six, Scarlett had given up.  Watching the sun come up, she had thought about all of the things Constantine had said over their ill-fated dinner.  And though she’d tried to deny it, she knew that every word he’d spoken was right.  She wasn’t sure how he’d known, but evidently he was very perceptive.  Her life had been one disaster after another.  The bad relationships, the drugs, the drinking—all of it had conspired to make her a shell of a person.  This empty gash lay open in her chest and it seemed that everyone she knew, with the possible exception of David, had come by only to unload more poison into the wound.

Then there was Raze Constantine.  She wasn’t sure what to make of him.  He was absolutely, stunningly beautiful. His intelligence was internationally known and he was one of those guys that was so wealthy that no one was really sure how much he was worth.  Obviously he had some kind of supernatural perception that made him able to pinpoint every little glitch in her psyche.  But even knowing all that he did about her, he’d made no attempt to manipulate.  He’d been honest and forthright… perhaps a little too honest and forthright.  Raze had said all of those things that Scarlett needed to hear, no matter how much she didn’t want to.  She sighed.  It was probably for the best that she go back to Charlotte and let sleeping dogs lie.  Sticking around and agreeing to his little arrangement would only prove disastrous.  He would either tire of her instability and moodiness or turn angry and cold toward her.  No, it was better this way.

Scarlett crossed to the bed where she’d laid open her suitcase.  She began rambling through it trying to find something comfortable to wear on the plane home.  She laughed to herself.  It was so obvious that David had done most of her packing.  All of the clothes he’d chosen were bright and dressy.  Of course, he’d neglected to throw any underwear into the mess of garments.  Yet another sign that she was making the right decision by going home.  “I must remember to fire him when I get back,” she said to the empty room, tossing the clothes this way and that.  A knock at the door stopped her frenzied search.  “Who is it?” she called.

“Scarlett.  It’s Raze Constantine.  Would you open the door, please?”

She shivered and pulled her robe tighter around herself.  What on Earth could he possibly want at 7 in the morning?  “Give me a second!” she answered, looking around the room nervously.  She caught sight of herself in the mirror and cringed.  She’d just emerged from the shower and her black hair stuck to the sides of her face.  Grabbing a towel from the rack by the sink, she quickly wrapped her hair up in it, turban style.  Another check of the sash around her waist and she was on her way to the door.  She wasn’t sure why she should care so much what she looked like, but for some reason she wanted to look presentable.  She took a deep breath and then opened the door.

Raze stood there, looking at her miserably through hooded eyes.  It was obvious that he hadn’t slept the night before either and she found herself stifling a smile that she had caused him to be so flustered.  Raze Constantine was not a man to be flustered.  “Hello, Scarlett.  May I come in for a moment?” said he asked.  His hair was tousled, nearly obscuring his right eye with fallen locks. There was no expensive suit this morning, but ratted blue jeans and a crisp white dress shirt, open at the neck.  He looked almost human, save for those metallic eyes and pristine bone structure.  Scarlett said nothing, but stepped aside so that he could enter the hotel room.  He followed her to the small seating area and she gestured for him to sit down.  “I think we got off on the wrong foot last night, Scarlett.”

“Indeed,” she said, picking up the television remote and switching it off.

There was an awkward silence between them that was almost solid as he stared around the room, observing everything.  “I see you have your suitcase out.  Are you planning to leave?”

“Yes.  I called the airline this morning and had my ticket changed to the next flight.  I’ll be out of your hair by the afternoon.”

“You needn’t leave so soon,” Raze said.

“Why not?” she asked, re-folding her clothes to put back into the suitcase.  “Neither of us seems willing to compromise on your contract.  There’s no reason for me to stay.  I wouldn’t dream of imposing on your kindness.”

“You couldn’t be an imposition to me, Scarlett.”  He took a step toward her and she shied away before he could take hold of her elbow.  Instead she turned around sharply, her face looking glum.

“Why are you here this morning?” she snapped.  “You made it pretty clear last night that your contract was a one-time offer.  I didn’t accept.  So I really don’t see the point…”

“You’re right.  I don’t usually make repeat offers.  But I couldn’t let you leave London without asking why you’re so afraid.”  Reaching out, he took up the blouse she was still clutching in her shaking hands.  “I think the cost of the plane ticket and these accommodations alone should afford me some sort of explanation.”

Scarlett shoved past him, dropping the suitcase and putting as much space as possible between them.  She wanted to answer his question because he was right.  He had gone to a lot of expense to bring her here, but there was no rational explanation.  Nothing that she could say that wouldn’t sound absolutely insane.  The truth was, if she were being honest with herself, that she knew him.  He was like a voice from a dream she couldn’t place, but one thing was for certain: she knew him and he knew her.  Very well.  Too well for her comfort.  In his eyes she could see that he knew every little dark secret.  “I just can’t put my life on hold for an indeterminable amount of time, and honestly, I don’t think it’s very fair of you to ask.”

Raze nodded and began to pace, his fingertips poised beneath his lower lip.  “You’re absolutely right,” he replied after several minutes of silence.  “You have no reason to accept.  No reason to trust me at all.  Nor do I have any reason to trust you either.  Perhaps you hadn’t thought of this before, but this endeavor is a leap of faith for me too.  You see, these pieces aren’t just paintings for my collection.  The way I see it, Scarlett… I’m asking you to put my soul on the canvas.  I feel very strongly about this and if you won’t do it…”  He stopped, heaving a sigh.  “It sounds crazy, I know.  But I promise that all of your questions will be answered in time.  If you’ll just… give me a chance.”

Scarlett gave a heavy sigh and sank to the corner of the bed.  She rubbed her forehead as if she could massage away the stabbing pain behind her left eye.  She knew she was defeated.  After all, it wasn’t as if she had much of a life to go back to.  A shabby apartment, hallucinations of an angel that would swoop down and carry her away to all her wildest dreams?  What Constantine was really offering was an escape route that she feared had come too late.

His voice was quiet when he spoke again.  “What does one have to lose when she’s already thrown away everything?”

“Give me the contract before I change my mind.”  Her hand was trembling as she gripped his expensive silver pen between her fingertips.  With slow deliberation she signed her name above his in her scrawling script, feeling that she was signing her life away.

BACK to Chapter Three

In the Shadow of Death: Chapter Three

<<<<<<<<GO BACK to Chapter Two

In The Shadow

Raze Constantine was not a man in the habit of waiting. Looking down at his watch, he sighed with annoyance. 6:20. Twenty minutes late, though it felt like an hour. He sat at an empty table and contemplated the glass of wine perched between his fingertips. He supposed he shouldn’t be so irritated. He’d waited this long to meet her, what was a few more minutes, but Raze waited for no one. In both of his lives he was used to making things happen. He wasn’t above forcing his will upon others, but Scarlett was a different story. His weakness for her is what got him into this mess in the first place.

“Mr. Constantine has been waiting.” His ears perked up as he heard the maître ‘d say his name. He straightened his tie and stood as the man led a small girl toward the table. She walked purposefully, if not somewhat unsure on high heels. Her hair fell in an unkempt dark tangle around her face, which was beautiful but tired. Her sunken eyes revealed that she had gotten very little sleep in the past few days. Or weeks. Though she was a bit of a mess, she offered a wide smile when she approached.

“Mr. Constantine, I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting,” she said, offering her hand. “I’m Scarlett Munro.”

“Yes,” he replied with a terse grin. “I recognize you from your picture.” The maître ‘d pulled out her chair and she sat down with practiced grace. “I was beginning to fear that you’d become lost.”

“I admit that I was a little jet-lagged. The time must have slipped up on me.” She smiled sheepishly, pulling up to the table, obviously afraid to stare him in the face.

The waiter approached. “A drink for Mademoiselle?” he asked with an exaggerated French accent.

“Please,” she sighed. “Jack and…”

“A glass of Riesling for Miss Munro, please,” Raze answered, cutting her off. The waiter nodded and walked off to get it. Turning his gaze back to her, she looked a little stunned by his impudence. “You look far too elegant to imbibe such a crude drink.”

“Thank you… I think,” she stammered. A blush rose to her cheeks and she chewed on her lower lip nervously.

“It was indeed a compliment,” he said. His jaw was tense and all of his muscles were tight. She looked exactly the same as she had all those years ago, though some of her innocence had been lost over the difficult years of her borrowed life. She stared at him as if there were a spark of recognition, but he hoped she would ignore it. He wasn’t ready for her to know his true purpose just yet. “And don’t worry about being late. I’m just glad you’re here.”

Scarlett laughed. “So am I. Thank you for sending Geoffrey over. I’d never have made it through the airport without his help.” She sat back, allowing the waiter to pour the glass of wine in front of her. “He was very patient.” She stared from the golden liquid to Raze and back to the glass. “It’s white.”

“Yes. Riesling is white. But very light. You’ll like it.”

“I only drink red,” she chuckled.

“You should broaden your horizons,” he replied, giving a nod that implied she should drink the wine. He watched as she brought the glass to her lips and took a cautious sip. The bittersweet flavor made her wrinkle her nose but she smiled in spite of herself. “So why don’t we begin with you telling me about yourself, Miss Munro.”

“There isn’t much to tell, really. I grew up North Carolina. I started painting when I was a teenager. My agent told me this morning I was coming to London to meet with Raze Constantine. End of story.” She shrugged, “What else do you want to know?”

“Oh I’m fairly certain that there’s more to you than just that, Miss Munro.” Raze smiled and leaned forward, staring at her face intently. He could tell that she was intimidated.

“You see, I never do business with someone I don’t know very well.”

“As I said, there isn’t much to know.”

“I beg to differ. The truth is, you’re little more than a street urchin. Or were.”

“Are you always this abrasive?” She sat back in her chair, looking down at the table with interest. Again she was nibbling at her lower lip and Raze caught a glimpse of the scared little girl he’d met so long ago. His heart sank as he realized that he had spared her only to completely ruin her innocence for good.

“Most of the time. I’ve been told it’s a flaw of my ethnicity. We English are apparently very blunt and to the point. Please forgive me if I have offended.”

“Not at all. You seem to be very perceptive. Do go on telling me more about me.”

Raze smiled again, pleased that he could hear a twinge of anger at the edges of her voice. Perhaps there was some of that fiery spirit left after all. “All right. You lived with a neglecting mother and an abusive stepfather. To pass the time you engaged in a variety of recreational drugs until you had a brush with death at the ripe old age of eighteen. Am I doing well so far?” He cocked his eyebrow and looked at her, expecting her to get up and leave. He was challenging her. Testing her. And when she didn’t move, he knew that she was up to it.

She nodded but did not speak. Her mouth was set in a hard line and her jaw was tense. She was wondering just how much he knew about her. Were all of her dark secrets laid bare for him now?

“You finally ran away to live in a parking garage in Savannah, Georgia. That lasted until a forty-five year old banker named Sheehan took you in. In exchange for discreet sexual liaisons, he kept you clothed and fed. He even paid for you to take some art classes at the local university.”

“Well being a pretty face tends to have its advantages.”

“Indeed, but it didn’t work for long. After two years he tired of your mood swings and drug abuse and you found yourself on the street once again. But that’s when your art career really began. You made a bit of a name for yourself as a graffiti and tattoo artist. And that’s when David Bradford found you.” Raze sat back and crossed his arms, signaling that his well of information had run dry.

“And knowing all of this you wanted to work with me anyway? You must be very brave, Mr. Constantine.”

“Oh I’m not brave. I fully intend to protect my investment.”

Before Scarlett had the opportunity to reply, the waiter came back, their food balanced on his fingertips. He set a small plate down in front of her with vegetables artfully arranged in splatters of colorful condiment. “I didn’t order this,” she murmured to the waiter.

“I took the liberty of ordering for us both just before you arrived. You’ll like it.” Taking a bite, Raze gave a secret grin. He knew that she was thinking how she wasn’t sure she liked all of his assumptions—about food or her life. “Trust me,” he said.

She stabbed at the leafy vegetable with her fork and brought it to her mouth as delicately as possible. She chewed carefully, the uncertainty evident on her face as she tasted the earthy flavor of the salad. He expected that she had never eaten in a place like this before and from the looks of her, she hadn’t eaten real food in a very long time. Clearly someone needed to take care of Scarlett before she spiraled downward into another abysmal half-life. “It’s different,” she replied, swallowing visibly, then taking a generous sip of her wine. “Well now that you’ve told me all about myself, what about you?”

“Don’t care to make any observations about me? I know David sent you a small dossier.”

“It didn’t say much,” she replied. “I mean, nothing that hasn’t been in the papers a thousand times. Though I am wondering why the billionaire hermit philanthropist is insisting on having dinner with an artist that might be crazy and/ or using drugs?”

“Are you?”

“Which one?”

Raze chuckled. “Clever evasion.”

“I’m not crazy. Despite what David and the rest of the world think.” She toyed with her salad, pushing it around on her plate. “As for being on drugs, I’ve found more socially acceptable ways of dealing with my issues.”

“Are you on anything right now?” He caught her gaze and held it with his own, staring into the bottomless blue pools of her eyes. It was evident that something other than blood and alcohol raced through her veins. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes danced all over.

“I may have had a Xanex before I came down. Just to take the edge off.”

“The edge?” he asked, as if he didn’t understand what the phrase meant.

“In case you haven’t noticed, you’re a little intimidating, Mr. Constantine.” She blushed again, but this time there was no chemical enhancement. This type of blush was the sort that gave a glow of embarrassment—even arousal.

“Then allow me to put your mind at rest, Miss Munro.” He leaned forward, taking her free hand in his and bringing it to his lips gently. “Do call me, Raze. I’d like our relationship to be less formal.”

****

Less formal. She repeated the words over in her head and wondered for a moment what “less formal” might mean. From the way he brushed his generous mouth over the gentle curve of her knuckle, she hoped that less formal was synonymous with less clothing. As he rose to his full height again she was struck by his eyes. They weren’t quite blue, more of a steel gray color like a stormy sea. They seemed to glow against the pale tone of his skin. Something about his face was so familiar, yet she could not place him just yet. How she wished she could because it was there, niggling in the corners of her mind, like an itch she couldn’t scratch. She should know this man, yet she did not. “Alright then, Raze,” she replied, her voice even with the force of her breath. “Of course you can call me Scarlett.”

“Thank you,” he said, dropping her hand and taking up his fork again. For several moments they ate in silence. Scarlett stared down at her plate with interest, not wanting to meet his gaze again. There was something about him. For the first time in her life, she didn’t feel this sinking feeling of emptiness and fear. Utter safety emanated from his every breath. The way he had grasped her hand sent shivers of lust up and down her arms, but there was something else. She wasn’t sure, but it was a sort of comfortable submission that she’d been missing her whole life.

“Scarlett?” he asked. She jumped, not realizing that she’d been staring at him the entire time, her fork poised over her plate. “Are you alright?”

“Me? Oh… yes,” she stammered, bringing the fork to her mouth and only when she bit down on the bare metal did she realize that she hadn’t stabbed any food. She made a small noise and glanced up to find that he was chuckling behind his hand. “Well… maybe not.” In another second both were laughing heartily and Scarlett could feel the weight of the tension between them melting away. “I’m sorry… I’m just so tired. The plane got delayed and the airport was a nightmare. I’m not usually like this.”

Raze snorted. “Oh I have a feeling you’re usually much worse, Scarlett. Women like you are so irresistible to me, you know.”

“Like me? What do you mean?”

“So very intelligent. So very creative and in their own heads that they can’t find their shoes in the morning. You might say I have a penchant for being a caretaker.”

Scarlett smirked, a trace of displeasure darkening her eyes. “You think I need taking care of?”

He took a sip of wine, his eyes never leaving hers. “Oh most definitely. I think it’s been a very long time since you’ve been taken care of, if ever.”

Her breath caught with the pounding of her heart against her sternum. He was so arrogant and sure. “What makes you say that?”

“You have a sadness about you. Even though you’re successful and seem to have the sort of life that others would wish for, you carry this heavy weight with you. Like a person who’s been abandoned over and over. You stink of obsession and despair. And though it is part of the fuel that makes your art so striking, it kills you inside a little more each and every day. Searching, always searching for something or someone that can take your pain away, but it’s a hopeless endeavor because only you can really know where your pain lies. But you’ve hidden it for so long that maybe you don’t even know where it is anymore. So you just bury it under layer upon layer of alcohol, drugs and sadness. You’ve driven everyone in your life away, leaving them before they can leave you. You say that you survived your little overdose, but I think not. I think you’ve been dead all this time, you just go through the motions of breathing.”

Scarlett wasn’t aware that she’d begun to cry until she saw the dark splotches on the tablecloth where her mascara tears had stained the linen. His words sliced into her soul with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel and for a moment she hated him. Hated him for being right, for knowing her so well. “You seem to have me all figured out,” she choked. “Am I so simplistic and transparent?”

“Not at all. As I told you before, I always do my homework.” He winked as the waiter approached with plates and set them down before them. “I hope you like chateaubriand,” Raze said, looking across the table. “I thought for our first dinner together you’d enjoy something a bit substantial, especially considering your travels.” He nodded at the waiter, indicating that the man should leave. Scarlett almost giggled as the tiny waiter scampered off. Clearly Raze was used to people doing exactly as he said with no argument.

“It looks delicious,” she replied, trying to casually wipe the stray tear that had fallen from the corner of her eye.

“A bit heavy, but you’ve never been afraid of being full.” With a cocked eyebrow, he gave a wolfish grin that let her know that the double entendre was completely intentional.

Again she blushed, her already rose-colored cheeks seeming to glow in the dim candlelight. “So what exactly is it that you want with me, Raze?” she asked, cutting into the bloody meat with her fork. “We’ve been sitting here nearly an hour and you’ve yet to tell me why you’ve gone to so much trouble bringing me here.”

“I’d like you to do some paintings for me,” he answered.

“Paintings? You mean, more than one?”

“Paintings meaning several. I’ve just acquired a new building here in London and I’d like very much to have some of your work displayed. You see, I’m a collector with very specific tastes. I saw some of your work in a gallery in New York last summer and I was intrigued, but alas, all of the paintings were spoken for. And you know how New York art collectors can be. They’re like children with new Christmas toys. Completely unwilling to let go. Though I must say, I was a bit surprised that they turned down my more than generous offers.”

“So find some different ones. I have several works available online…”

“I looked. Though they were beautiful, none of them had what I was looking for. They didn’t speak to me.” Scarlett nodded, taking another sip of wine. “And I have an affinity for things that are… one of a kind. You’d, of course, have complete control. You can paint what you’d like.”

“Perhaps I could see the spaces to get an idea of the scale. Then when I get home I’ll know where to start…”

Raze snickered and took another bite. “You must complete the paintings here in London.”
Scarlett stared at him with wide eyes and mouth agape. “Here? But several paintings… that will take months! I can’t stay in London for months.” How could he expect that she stay in Europe for months at a time? The lodging bill alone would be more than her budget could stand. Not to mention the unfinished projects she had at home. She thought of the enormous portrait of her angel that she’d been working on when David found her.

“I have… other commitments.”

“Yes, I am well aware of your obsessions and addictions, Miss Munro.” His voice was terse, teetering on stern. “But these are my terms. I will pay you quite handsomely for your work and of course all of your expenses during your stay. I told you before, I insist on protecting my investments. Keeping you close will ensure that you are focused completely on my commission.”

“Are you implying that I am incapable of keeping focused? Or do you think I’d just take the money and run?”

His expression softened. “Of course not, Scarlett. I’d never offer such a proposition to someone I didn’t feel I could trust. But you and I both know that you have a tendency to become bogged down in your own self-pity. Which brings me to our contract.”

“Contract? Shouldn’t David be here for this?” she asked.

“I can assure you that Mr. Bradford and I have discussed the contract.” He reached down beside his chair and brought out a stack of papers out of his briefcase. He pushed it across the table toward her. “Feel free to look it over at your leisure.”

Scarlett kept her eyes locked on his as she picked up the contract. She tried reading it, but after the first sentence it may as well have been Sanskrit. Evidently Constantine had a very slick lawyer working for him to craft such an airtight document. Of course one thing was perfectly clear: $250,000.00. “This number can’t be right. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a couple of lousy paintings?”

Raze laughed. “Six. I want to commission you to do six paintings for me. Five for my office and one for my home.”

“Six? Do you have any idea how long that will take?”

“You seem to be very concerned with time, Scarlett. You can stay as long as it takes. And of course you’d be free to come and go as you please, should you need to return home for a while.”

Scarlett let her gaze fall from his to the six figures stamped in the middle of the contract. How could she pass this up? She’d be a fool not to accept his offer. That amount of money was unheard of for an artist at her level. But how could he expect her to walk away from her whole life for what could turn into several months, even a year or more? “I… I just don’t know what to say.”

“I would, of course, advise you to say yes. But keep reading. I have a few conditions to my offer.”

“Such as?”

“Such as there will be no drug use of any kind while you are in my employ.”

“What qualifies as drug use?” Scarlett asked, making a show of balancing the glass of wine between her fingertips and bringing it to her lips. “I mean are we talking soda? Coffee and cigarettes?”

“Xanex,” he replied simply. “Hydrocodone. All of those little pills that you use to make yourself feel better.”

Scarlett narrowed her eyes. “I can assure you that any of those so-called ‘little pills,’ have valid prescriptions.” He met her gaze, staring into her eyes with a smug grin. She looked away. Something about his stare made her uncomfortable. As if he were looking straight into her soul.

“That would be another part of the contract,” he sighed, sipping his own glass of wine, seemingly unshaken by Scarlett’s cold shoulder. “I detest liars, Scarlett. And I won’t tolerate being lied to. You and I both know that though you may have prescriptions, you have little need for them.” She did not look up or try to deny, only turned the pages of the contract.

“It says here that I am to reside at 42 Whitby Avenue. Is that a hotel or something?”

“Not at all. It is my home here in London,” he replied, cutting his meat. “A penthouse on the top floor of RazCon Towers. I’m afraid it’s a bit more cosmopolitan that I’d like, but I don’t have any stately manors lying around.”

Scarlett stared at him, her jaw hanging agape as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Mr. Constantine,” she began. “I’m sure that you can get a date easily without having to coerce young women into your house.”

“Very funny,” he replied, his face alight with amusement. “You’re very clever. But as I told you, I intend to protect my investment. And that means keeping you close at hand. You shouldn’t fear for your virtue, as I’m not often there. You’ll have your own room and Geoffrey will be there to attend to your every need. I’ve also taken the liberty of clearing some studio space for you. I ordered a few things for you, but in the morning I’ll give you a tour and you can make a list of anything else you’d like.”

Scarlett closed the contract and looked up. She was silent, but she could feel a knot of anger down in the pit of her stomach. It was the same anger she’d felt since she was a child. That anger that only went away when she was high. Or when she saw him. Her angel. He always made her guilt and shame dissipate like a morning mist frying in the sun. “Who do you think you are, Mr. Constantine?” she asked with an ice cold edge to her voice.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you find this amusing? Thinking you can order me around with your money? People have been trying to boss me around all my life. Dragging me from one stupid situation to another. As if I need you to tell me what to do and watch over me like some nursemaid! Either you want me to do your paintings or not. I shouldn’t have to sign some contract that says you get to control my life until they’re finished! I don’t need your patronage that bad.”

“Are you done?” he asked, adding a chill of his own.

“I suppose.”

“Good. You mentioned that you didn’t need a nursemaid. Well I think you do. I think you do very much. Let’s be honest, Miss Munro. The truth is that you need my patronage quite a bit. No gallery will touch you these days with your erratic behavior. Your paintings have gone from dark to deranged. Your little obsessions have gotten harder to hide and Mr. Bradford is about to drop you. Feel free to deny my contract and get on the next plane back to the US. Hell, I’ll even pay for it, but I can assure you that I never extend an offer twice. Should you decide to turn me down and walk out of here, I will not ask again. Nor will I accept that you’ve changed your mind.”

The waiter approached and took their plates away without a word. Constantine’s words, though stern and unyielding, were not angry. He pulled out a slim cigarette case and opened it. He pulled one out and toyed with it. “At any rate, the contract stands ‘as is’ and is non-negotiable.” He rose to his feet and tossed his napkin carelessly on the table. “I’m going to the bar for a cigarette. Perhaps you could use this time to think over my offer.” Before she could respond, he had turned away and was heading for the bar on the other side of the restaurant.

Scarlett watched him walk away. He was probably the most graceful creature she’d ever encountered. It was as if every movement of his hands and wrists, every turn of his head, was carefully calculated. One might think that this would make him seem effeminate, but quite the contrary. Raze’s masculinity emanated from him like the rays of the sun. She looked down at the contract in front of her and then back at Raze. He stood at the bar, a cigarette poised between his long fingers. Every fiber of her being, at least all the ones attached to her sexual organs, wanted to stay with him. But couldn’t he understand? She couldn’t uproot her life and take on such a commitment. She was afraid to. Couldn’t he see that she was afraid? Once he could see her for what and how she really was, his interest in her would dissipate. She didn’t think she could take the rejection.

And all these rules? She’d never been good with rules. She’d sworn to herself on the day she walked out of her mother’s house that she would never again be subject to someone else’s rules. She flipped through the pages of the contract, toying with the paper that had begun to curl at the corners. When she looked up again, Raze was staring at her from across the room. Their eyes met and for a moment time stopped. She could scarcely breathe and her blood pounded in her ears. She felt lightheaded and her mouth became a desert. Was he doing this to her? He raised his glass and gave a mischievous wink.
“Fuck this,” she murmured. The waiter approached the table, but Scarlett stood up and pushed past him before he could speak.

****

“Well it looks like you’re doing a bang up job, Azrael.” Gabriel’s voice was dripping with a sarcasm that made him want to punch her in her turned- up, angelic nose. She sat on the stool beside where he stood, sipping her vodka martini with a smug expression. The angel watched with amusement as Scarlett grabbed her purse and nearly ran over the waiter in her haste to get out of the restaurant. It was obvious that she wanted to be away from Azrael and his scrutinizing gaze.

“Shouldn’t you still be wearing your old man suit?” he grumbled, taking a long draw on his cigarette.

“Oh yes, I so enjoy pretending to be your valet.” Gabriel rolled her eyes and plucked the cigarette from between Raze’s lips. “Geoffrey, the ever faithful servant. The Alfred to your Bruce Wayne.” She finished his cigarette, smashing it out in the ashtray. “So what are you going to do now?”

“I didn’t expect her to accept my offer on the first try. She’s willful and angry. If it was going to be easy, I’d have asked… well… you… to do the dirty work.”

“So witty. But let’s not forget that this is all your doing in the first place. If you had just done what you were supposed to, it wouldn’t be an issue, now would it?” Raze glared at his androgynous friend, knowing she was right. Perhaps that was what was so annoying about the entire situation. From the moment he’d laid eyes on the girl, something in her soul spoke to him. That sadness that glimmered in her eyes, even now. It had made his heart go out to her and though her soul had been his to take, he couldn’t stand to extinguish a light such as hers so soon. And there was a light, glimmering deep down within her. “But it’s plain to see that love has clouded your judgment.”

His head snapped up, surprised at her words. “Is it not our place to love them as God loves them?”

Gabriel smiled. “I’m not talking about divine love, Azrael. I’m talking about a worldly love. A dangerous and selfish love. Have you spent so much time with these humans that you’ve begun to possess their flaws?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he grumbled, motioning for the bartender to refill his glass of bourbon.

“Why did you spare her life before?”

“Because she was a child that hadn’t had a chance to live,” Raze replied, staring down into the amber liquid. “And I thought this time would be different.”

Gabriel scoffed, taking another long sip of her drink but never taking her eyes off of him. “What about the countless other children whose souls you gathered? Should they not be subject to your mercy?”

“So what if I did have some sort of love for her? Is that so bad?”

“No. Not bad, but you and I both know that balance must be restored. Don’t pretend you don’t know that the girl is somewhat… talented.”

“Of course she’s talented. Look at her artwork…”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it! She has a very old soul and you’ve been protecting her for ages. But you must let her go and move on. Her time here is done! Her chances have been spent.”

Azrael whipped around, staring icily at Gabriel. His fist was clutched tightly around the glass so he wouldn’t punch the arrogant archangel. “Do not dare to tell me what my job is, Gabriel!” he snarled. “Her soul is mine to take and I won’t give up on her just yet!”

“There’s nothing to give up! She’s had lifetime after lifetime and she hasn’t learned yet. You were supposed to let her go and have her soul fall where it may!”

Raze sighed and stood up. The worst part about Gabriel’s words was that she was right. “Look, I said I’d fix this and I will.”

“I hope so, Raze,” she said with a disdainful snort. “Patience is fleeting. But don’t worry I’ll help you.”

“Doubtful. Don’t think for one minute that I don’t know what you’re doing. I know you’ve been sent here to spy!”

Gabriel threw her head back, laughing heartily at him. “Don’t be so dramatic. If I were going to spy I wouldn’t go to all the trouble of taking a human form.” She peered down at her hands as if examining the skin. “I do so hate being so… fragile.” She laid her hand over his, stroking at the small bones just under the skin. “But I do still care for you, Azrael. I’d hate to see you fall over something so… trivial.” His eyes met hers and for a moment, he could almost remember loving her. The mask of aloofness she usually wore began to fall away and the corners of her eyes sparkled with tears. “Was it so very long ago, Azrael?” she whispered.

Raze took her hand gently at first and then pushed it away with a violence that toppled his glass. “Keep your serpent’s tongue,” he spat, throwing bills on the bar and leaving the angel alone.

<<<<<Did you miss something? Go back to the beginning….>>>>>>>

Why Little Red Hen, or How I Found Unexpected Success as a Self-Published Author

hen-logo-goodIt always seems that I’m posting in my blog when the world just becomes too much.  Today isn’t really an exception but I think that I will rekindle some hope by the end of it, so here goes.

I’ve been a published author since October of 2010.  Yep, I’m coming up on my five year anniversary as a “real” writer.  If you’ll notice, I’m writing this post from the computer at my day job.  I’d like to say that I was reciting it to my assistant while I sat by a pool in some tropical locale, but alas I’m still a peon.  I have lots of irons in the fire and I’m still pretty excited about my career as a whole, but some days I just wonder why I bother.  Case in point….

I spend an awful lot of time on social media.  Most of us do, but to an author, social media becomes extremely important.  You find yourself perusing Facebook because you HAVE to, not because you want to.  I actually had to force myself on to Twitter the other morning.  Social media is a great way to get your name out there as an author.  Unfortunately it’s also a cesspool of depraved and broken idiots an awful lot of the time.  It’s really easy to fall into a black hole of thinking that you’re alone in a room full of goldfish.  People have fabricated intellect on nearly every topic.  Their misguided and uneducated opinions that ten years ago they would have kept to themselves are now all out in the open for everyone to see.  And everything feels justified because even if you say that putting babies on spikes is a great idea, there will be a thousand people to rush to your cause in the all-powerful “comment” space.  There are days when I feel as if Facebook, Twitter, Google+, tumblr, etc. are the death knell of life and civilization as we know it.  Days like today when I was perusing my feed and noticed that someone was in a group trying to sell me a book that had a cover with a picture of a woman with her nether regions almost completely exposed and a title that I won’t repeat but had the phrase “bitch ass” prominently featured.  And if memory serves, a woman wrote this book.  And was selling it as a romance.  Another had a teaser with “enticing” lines from the book that were full of grammatical and spelling errors, degrading phrases and just terrible writing.  And this was what the author wanted to FEATURE on her advertising.  On days like today, I start to wonder why I’m even bothering.  If my stuff is going to be drowned in a sea of crap, what is the point??!!

This conversation is not new.  My sister, author Lucy Blue, and myself have had this discussion ad nauseum.  In fact, our brother-in-law told us one day if we didn’t stop that we couldn’t sit at the table with him anymore.  And I’ve also talked about this quite a bit on the blog (see archive).  But today, I’m going to pick myself up by my bootstraps and tell you what Lucy and I have decided to do about this.

Now, I’m giving ALL the credit to Lucy here.  This whole thing was her idea, I just jumped on her bandwagon.  In case you didn’t know, Lucy’s been around for quite some time.  Back in the mists of time she wrote a tie-in novel for Forever Knight, a series of medieval fantasy romances for Simon & Schuster, and another series of vampire romances for Pocket Books.  In other words, she ain’t a newbie.  But several years ago people in positions of power decided that romance was either pornography or nonexistent and she took her ball and went home only to re-emerge as an indie author two years ago.  And what an eye-opener that was.  Suddenly she was dealing with social media and a really strange market.  A market where people weren’t buying good stuff.  They were buying crap because it was either really cheap or so outrageous that it was funny.  A market where people just aren’t willing to spend 8 bucks on a book anymore.  So she did some research in that most unlikely of places:  the beauty salon.

If you’ve never been to a beauty salon in the South, I highly recommend it.  In the small town where we live, we don’t need a newspaper, we’ve got Cuttin’ Loose.  Anyway, while sitting in the beauty salon she could hear some women talking about what kinds of things they were reading on the new Kindles they got for Christmas.  The things that all of them kept saying they wanted:  good stories, without “nasty” language, explicit but not “gross, romantic, things they could read fast, authors that produced a lot of material to feed their appetite, easily accessible, and cheap.  And thus, Little Red Hen Romance was born.

The Coop opened it’s doors in May of this year and since then I’ve seen more success there than I have in the five years I’ve been writing professionally.  So what’s the deal?  What is it?  Little Red Hen stories are short (except for some coming releases that I’ll tell you about later).  They only take about an hour (the space of your lunch break) to read.  They’re extremely romantic stories.  Nobody will be degraded, “hit and quit,” spat on, cursed at, etc. in an LRH story.  The hero and heroine may not be in love when the story begins, but they are by the end.  The writing is strong.  Really strong.  NYT Bestseller strong.  You don’t have to worry about plot abysses, unbelievable turns of events, bad vocabulary, poor word choice, horrendous dialogue.  It doesn’t exist.  We only accept the most talented writers we can find.  Our stories are love stories that are funny, sexy, and have excellent dialogue.  LRH releases 3-4 NEW stories each month, so your appetite is constantly fed.  Even better than that– the first weekend they’re released they’re FREE. And if you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read on Kindle Unlimited for FREE anytime.  And once they go off promotion, the shorts are never more than 99 cents.  Never.  In the coming months we’re looking to expand into novels and anthologies but those will still be sold at a rock bottom price.  Most subgenres are represented, but historicals seem to be our bread and butter lately.

So give us a try.  You can peruse our selection at the website by clicking on the picture above.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.  You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  We’re constantly having release parties, livetweets and just having a great time.

Just in case you still have any doubt… here’s a sample:

He winked and bid her to sit.  “Please.  Sit with me here.”  She was very careful as she lowered herself on the end of the queenLRHbench, arms crossed over her chest.  He was close, making her anxious.  As he sat she realized that she was actually leaning away from him.  She didn’t want him to see how her hands trembled even weighed down by the magnificent ring of diamond and sapphire.  “You can sit by me, Joanna.  I don’t bite.”

“Of course,” she said, inching closer.  “You’ll have to forgive my nature.  I’m not used to much company.”

“Well, in a convent…”

“…not that they were a silent order.”

“…but what could nuns possibly have to talk about?”

“Indeed.” 

“Our Lord Jesus, hellfire and the virgin Mary are pretty much their repertoire of conversation topics.” 

Joanna giggled, covering her mouth with her hands.  She’d been taught that a lady should never laugh out loud, but she was just so relieved to find that Will was not the wretched king from a child’s story.  “You mustn’t be blasphemous.”

“Oh I should warn you now, then.  I am the most wicked of blasphemers.” He placed his hand atop hers and squeezed affectionately.  “But I hope you’ll forgive me, my queen.”

Joanna looked down at his hand, so large and calloused against her own small and delicate fingers.  She laced hers between and admired the contrast.  “Your Grace is always forgiven.”  She moved closer to him, and he welcomed her into his side, sliding an arm around her shoulders.